DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended. Original characters belong to the author. Historical characters belong to history.
SPOILERS: References and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter[at]gmail.com

The One That I Want
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 2

Mid September, 1984. Peekskill, New York. River Rock House.

Jo groaned.

Her head hurt. Badly. It felt like it was being squeezed in a vise, a big industrial vise like the one in Uncle Sal's garage. It was like her head was being squeezed in the vise while someone clonked it with a hammer – from the inside.

Jo groaned again. She half-opened one eye. She was in the music room, she realized; in the early morning sunlight the sea foam walls glowed a beautiful pale green.

Jo stirred slightly. She was on the divan, hanging halfway off of it. Jo tried to roll back away from the edge but something – a pillow? – blocked her.

Why the hell am I in here? Oh. Yeah. Anniversary.

It came back to her in little fragments – the anniversary; the party; her plan for her and Blair to spend the night apart.

But apparently Blair hadn't been able to spend the night without her. Jo realized that she was half-hanging off the edge of the divan because Blair was lying on the divan behind her, spooning with her, arms wrapped around Jo's waist.

In the midst of her pain, Jo managed to grin.

That's my girl. Couldn't last the night without me. Well – she gave it a try, anyhow.

Jo grasped Blair's hands and lightly squeezed them. She leaned back against her lover.

It was a funny thing, Jo thought, puzzled. Blair had gained weight in Italy and Peekskill, weight she dearly needed to gain after her long convalescence last spring. But now, as Jo squeezed Blair's hands they felt so bony. And as Jo leaned back against her fiancée, Blair's body felt so slender and lean …

Jo brought one of Blair's hands up to her mouth, kissed it, then held it out in front of her in the pale morning light and really examined it.

Son of a bitch!

Jo dropped the hand as if it were a hot potato.

This ain't Blair's hand!

Jo tried to bolt. She half-climbed, half-fell off the divan, but those bony hands and the bony arms to which they were attached slithered around Jo's waist and held her fast.

"Kiss my hand again," Boots murmured in Jo's ear. "Your mouth is so soft, Jo."

"Boots! Christ! What the hell are you doin?"

Boots pulled Jo closer, nuzzled the back of her neck.

Is this a freakin nightmare? wondered Jo. Come on, Polniaczek – wake up!

But she was awake, and Boots had her in a surprisingly powerful grip. Jo wriggled ineffectually.

"Boots, dammit, lemme go!"

"Gravy – you don't have to curse at me," Boots complained mildly.

"I'm gonna say a lot worse than that if you don't leggo of me!"

"For pity's sake – you'd think I have the plague!"

Reluctantly Boots released her hold on Jo. Jo scrambled forward, away from Boots, and tumbled onto the parquet floor.

"Ouch – damn!" Jo's elbow struck the hard wood floor, right on the funny bone. Pain shot up her forearm. Jo rolled onto her back, tangled in the sleeping bag, cradling her arm.

On the divan Boots lay chuckling, clad only in a filmy white peignoir. Her long, pin-straight hair framed her narrow face. She had clearly brushed her hair before joining Jo, and applied a touch of smoky mascara to her lashes, a touch of scarlet lipstick to her mouth.

"You're funny," Boots told Jo.

"Yeah. Friggin hilarious – that's me." Jo used her good arm to try to untangle herself from the sleeping bag. "Boots, why do we keep having this conversation?"

"What conversation?" Boots asked innocently.

Hmm. Is she playin dense … or actually bein dense? Jo wondered. With Boots it was often hard to tell.

"I'm with Blair," Jo said, grunting as she wriggled out of the sleeping bag. "You're with Mizu. You ain't s'posed to be huggin on me, or kissin me, or anythin like that, and you're damn sure not s'posed to be cozyin up to me in bed."

"This isn't a bed," said Boots. "It's a divan, Jo."

Jo shook her head. I friggin give up …

"I couldn't remember where I left my boots," said Boots. "You know – the pretty red ones I bought in Italy. I thought I took them off in here before Mizu and I went upstairs. And when I came in here, I didn't see the boots, but I saw you, Jo. And you looked so peaceful, and adorable. I was just overcome with affection for you."

"Well you can't get overcome with affection," said Jo. "We're with other people. And you and Mizu never came in here last night, you went right upstairs. And you weren't even wearin your stupid red boots yesterday."

"I wasn't?"

"No, Boots; you weren't."

"Huhn. I could have sworn … Wait, you're right. I was wearing my black boots yesterday – the Guccis."

Jo finally succeeded in wriggling out of the sleeping bag. She sat on it, cross-legged, and ran her fingers through her messy hair.

"Boots, you gotta promise me you ain't gonna pull somethin like this again."

Boots sighed. "How could I? I can never get near you. You're always with Warnsie."

"Of course I am – Blair and I are engaged. Engaged! I don't know what bein engaged means where you come from, Boots, but it's a sacred freakin oath in my old neighborhood!"

"Oh, engaged – tosh," Boots said airily. "You and Warner haven't even signed a pre-nup yet."

"Jeez Louise, Boots, even if you don't give a crap about the engagement, don't you see what kinda trouble you stir up every time you make a pass at me? Everyone's already pissed off at Mizu, and you're s'posed to be Blair's friend, and my friend too, and how the hell would Mizu feel if she knew you were all cuddlin up to me? Talk about freakin betrayals!"

Boots leaned on one arm and regarded Jo with her large, beautiful doe eyes. "Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Have you always been so earnest?"

Jo groaned. "Somebody just friggin shoot me. Please."

"It's very endearing," said Boots, "how serious you are, but you are, at times, just a tad bit square."

"Me?" Jo put a hand to her chest. "I'm square? This is comin from the queen of argyle and penny loafers?"

Boots laughed. "It's not what I wear," she said. She leaned to one side; her peignoir fell open, revealing her narrow chest, and the swell of her surprisingly perky breasts. "It's how I wear it," she concluded provocatively.

Jo shook her head darkly. "That Mizu has been a very bad influence on you. What are you now – Mrs. Robinson or somethin?"

"I don't know who that is," Boots said quietly, "but I'll be whomever you like, Jo."

With astonishing speed, like a striking cobra, Boots' hands darted out. She captured Jo's bra straps with her slender fingers and pulled the startled brunette toward her.

"Well, well, well," drawled Blair.

Blair stood in the doorway, barefoot and bare-legged, rosy and beautifully mussed in her white silk robe. She carried a tray holding a silver-bellied coffee pot and two cups.

"Babe!" said Jo, mortified. "This is one-million percent not what it looks like!"

Blair's eyes flashed. "It looks as though I should have brought a third cup," she said with dangerous sweetness.

"It's all, like, a total misunderstandin," Jo insisted.

"Do tell."

Calmly, Blair set the tray on a low table.

With great deliberation she picked up a coffee cup. She hefted it in her hand.

It was a pretty little thing, bone china – one of the few nice vessels among a collection of cracked cups and novelty mugs that River Rock's residents had contributed to the communal cabinets. Blair had pinched it from her mother's penthouse the previous autumn.

Blair looked almost unnaturally placid, but there was a gleam in her eye that Jo didn't like.

"Blair … Please, babe, let me explain …" Jo scrambled to her feet.

But before she could reach the lovely blonde, Blair had cocked her arm and hurled the coffee cup against the far wall with all the strength she could muster.

The delicate cup shattered on impact. Fragments of china flew like shrapnel.

Boots shrieked. She folded her arms over her head.

"Don't hurt me!" cried Boots, shivering.

Blair glared at the trembling debutante with infinite scorn.

Jo reached Blair, caught her lover's hands and pinned them to her sides.

"Blair," Jo said in a low, intense voice. "Nothin happened. Nothin. I swear."

"Get … her … out … of … our … house," Blair hissed between gritted teeth. "Now."

"You got it," said Jo. "It's done."

Blair looked at Jo with an expression that Jo would never forget, eyes angry and wounded. Then Blair pulled away from Jo, spun on her bare heel and rushed from the room.

Jo stared at the empty doorway for a moment. She could hardly breathe. She could hear Blair's bare feet slapping at the floor in the distance as the blonde ran back to their suite.

Jo turned to Boots. The debutante was peering apprehensively at Jo, arms still folded protectively over her head.

"Well," Boots said hesitantly, testing the waters of Jo's mood, "Warnsie, ah, took that a tad bit harder than I anticipated."

Jo took a single step toward Boots. The debutante shrank back against the divan.

"Jo. I helped save Blair's life," Boots said pleadingly. "You remember – right?"

"Yeah." Jo took another step toward Boots, and then another. "I remember. That's why I ain't gonna kill ya."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

"But, ah, what are you going to do to me, Jo?"

"I'm goin to toss your ass outta here."

"Jo! You can't mean that!"

"But I do, Boots – I do."

Boots held up her hands in a placating gesture. "Listen Jo – I realize I shouldn't have, um, made a move on you. It was wrong."

"So, good. We're in agreement."

"But I care about you, Jo. I can't help caring about you."

"Maybe," said Jo. "But you can help what you do about it, Boots. You shouldn't have done this."

"I realize that now. Jo … Seeing Blair's face just now … Seeing her unfettered violence … It's all so clear now."

"Great," said Jo. "But as usual, Boots, you're a day late and a dollar short."

"You're not really going to kick me out?"

"I'm really goin to kick you out."

Jo scooped up the feather-light debutante. She hoisted Boots over her shoulder like a sack of grain.

"Jo Polniaczek! You put me down!"

"Boots … You brought this on yourself," Jo said regretfully.

Jo carried Boots through the winding, uneven corridors of River Rock. Boots beat her bony hands against Jo's back.

"Put me down! Put me down!"

When they passed the door to Alec's room he popped his head out, groggy and irritated.

"I say, our Jo, what the hell is all the commotion? People are trying to sleep off hangovers."

"Don't worry about it," Jo called over her shoulder, not slowing her step. "Go back to sleep."

"Help, Alec!" shouted Boots. "Jo's throwing me out!"

"About damned time," Alec said. "Artemis! Do you require any assistance, dear?"

"Nope."

"Very well." Alec closed his door.

Boots beat harder against Jo's back. Jo was impervious. She crossed the foyer and with one arm firmly holding Boots, and wrenched open the front door with her free hand.

"Here ya go, Boots. Last stop, Miss St. Clair."

Jo unceremoniously dumped Boots on the broad front landing.

"Ow! Jo Polniaczek, you broke my tailbone!" Boots staggered to her feet, rubbing her ass through the filmy peignoir.

"Have a nice life," said Jo.

She closed the door and shot the bolt home.

Boots pounded on the door. "Jo! Jo!!! Let me in!!! It's freezing out here!"

"It's seventy degrees, Boots," Jo called through the front door.

"But I'm very sensitive, Jo. I'm very sensitive to changes in temperature!"

Boots pounded harder on the door. Then she discovered the door bell, and rang it, over and over again, like a mad woman.

Mrs. Garrett clattered into the room in her fluffy pink mules and silk magenta robe. Her usually tidy bun of red hair was frowzy.

"Jo, what on earth is going on in here?"

"It ain't goin on in here." Jo jerked her head toward the door. "The feature presentation's on the front porch."

"Well what's going on out there?" trilled Mrs. Garrett. "And why," she took in Jo's outfit of silky bra and panties, "are you running around River Rock in your underwear?"

"Oh." Jo blushed, folding her arms across her chest. "Sorry, Mrs. G. I guess I kinda forgot in all the commotion."

"What commotion?" Mrs. Garrett looked like she was going to have apoplexy.

"Let me in!!!" shouted Boots, abandoning the door bell to bash on the door once again.

"Why is Boots battering in the front door?" Mrs. Garrett demanded.

"Cause I'm tryin to teach her a lesson, Mrs. G."

"Well whatever it is, she's learned it. Let her in, Jo."

"But Mrs. G –"

"Let her in, Jo! Now! I don't like to pull rank but technically this is my house – and I will not have all this racket at this ungodly hour! River Rock is not a lunatic asylum – not yet anyway!"

Jo sighed. She unbolted the door. She flung it open and Boots tumbled in, clutching at Jo.

"That was horrible – horrible!" Boots sobbed. "Jo … never do that to me again."

Jo pushed the girl away. "You just remember how that felt, Boots, next time you think about climbin into my sleepin bag!"

"Boots – did you climb into Jo's sleepin, er, sleeping bag?" Mrs. Garrett asked severely.

Boots shook her head. "Not … in it," she sobbed. "Next to it." She sobbed harder into her pale hands.

"Well that is inexcusable," said Mrs. Garrett. "We don't behave that way here."

"I can't help it," sobbed Boots.

"Well you'd better learn how to help it, if you're going to stay here," Mrs. Garrett said decisively. "And you –" she turned on Jo, "you can't throw people out of this house, no matter what they've done."

"I was just tryin to give her a good scare," Jo explained.

"Well, mission accomplished." Mrs. Garrett gestured to the weeping, sniffling debutante. "How does it feel?"

Jo sighed. "Pretty crummy, I guess," she said.

"We do not use violence and 'good scares' to resolve our problems in this house," trilled Mrs. Garrett. "Now Jo Polniaczek, you march right up to your room. And Boots St. Clair, you march right up to your room. And I don't want any more nonsense until I can look into this further."

"But Mrs. G –"

"Not … another … word," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. "Now shoo!"

Boots fled up the front staircase, still crying.

Jo walked slowly into the depths of the house, arms still folded over her bra. When she passed Alec's room he popped his head out again and whistled.

"Artemis, are you aware that you're walking about in the altogether?"

"Eh, I got my undies on," she said over her shoulder. "But close your eyes, anyhow, or Blair'll crack you one if she hears you were gawkin at me."

"Is Boots gone?" he called after her.

"I wasn't really tossin her out."

"I know that, but I wasn't sure if our darling Boots would know that."

"Mrs. G rescued her anyhow. And …" the rest of Jo's morose words were lost in a mumble as she disappeared around the corner …

"Chin up!" called Alec. "Whatever happened, we'll all work it out!"

Jo's mumbled words drifted from around the corner … They sounded, Alec thought, suspiciously like "Bite me!"


"Blair? Babe? My reason for breathin?" Jo knocked gently on the door to their suite. Which was locked. "Princess? Blondie?" Jo rapped a little louder.

"Go away!" Blair shouted from within the suite. Her voice was distant; she sounded, thought Jo, as if she were in the bedroom.

"Nothin happened," Jo said to the closed, locked door.

"I can't hear you, Jo! And I don't want to hear you!"

Jo sighed. She dropped to one knee, put her mouth near the keyhole.

"Blair," she called into the keyhole, "nothin happened with Boots. She didn't even get to cop a feel or nothin. Swear to God! Swear on Rose's life!"

Silence within the suite.

"Blair, babe, what do you need me to do? I'll do it. Lemme in so we can work this out."

More silence.

"Memba how you were jokin yesterday? About what if Boots snuck down and tried to ravish me in the middle of the night? Memba? Well, that's all it was. And she's real sorry. And I tried to boot her ass out anyhow, to teach her a lesson, but now Mrs. G is pissed at me. You're pissed and Mrs. G is pissed and Boots is cryin her eyes out, and babe, I just can't take this."

"Good!"

Jo sighed again. She leaned her forehead against the cold brass door knob. Christ – now I feel like cryin!

"Babe," Jo said, "how are we s'posed to get married someday if we can't even work out a dumb little argument like this?"

"Dumb?"

"OK, ah, maybe not the best word. Not dumb. But, if we can't talk out somethin like this, how are we gonna be married?"

"So now you don't want to marry me!"

"For cryin out loud! That ain't what I said!"

"Well that's what it sounded like!"

Jo felt her blood stir. She curled one hand into a fist and pounded a couple of times on the warped wood panels of the door. It was a good old Victorian door, about ten feet thick, but Jo made it jump on its hinges.

"Blair Polniaczek, you stop bein a baby and open this damn door right now!" Jo yelled into the key hole.

"Blair Warner-Polniaczek!" Blair shouted back. "Or I guess just plain old Blair Warner! And I won't open the door if you're going to behave like a Neanderthal!"

"Well I'm gonna behave like a Neanderthal until you open this effin door!"

"Don't you use the eff-word with me, you, you grungy grease monkey!"

"Well don't call me a grungy grease monkey ya spoiled, stuck-up, snotty little brat!"

"You take that back!"

"You come out here and make me!"

"In your ear, Jo Polniaczek!"

"Oh yeah! Well you can just, you can just effin turn blue!!"

Jo gave the heavy door a final bash that hurt like hell – Son of a bitch! I think I broke my freakin fingers!

Cradling her hand she slumped down, leaning against the door. She felt tears pricking her eyes.

"What in the hell is happening out here?" asked Jacqueline, striding from the direction of the back stairs. "Alec woke me with some story about Boots being turned out, and you dashing about in the nude, and then we heard you bellowing like a fishwife."

"None of your damn business," muttered Jo. Despite her best efforts a tear slipped down her cheek. She brushed it away angrily.

"For heaven's sake," sighed Jacqueline, "are you and Blair having a disagreement?"

"It ain't a disagreement," muttered Jo, "it's World War Freakin Three. And it ain't any of your business so you can just butt out."

"Don't talk to Jack that way!" Blair called through the door. She sounded closer, as if she'd moved into the sitting room. "I want to talk to her. Send her in!"

"Send her in?" Jo demanded, outraged. "Why does she get to go in?"

"Because I don't want to kill her!" Blair shot back.

Jacqueline extended a hand to Jo, and gently helped her team captain to stand up.

"Thanks," Jo mumbled ungraciously.

The patrician redhead slipped out of her hunter green bathrobe. She wore a green silk nightdress underneath.

"Here," Jacqueline said kindly.

"What?"

"Put this on," said Jacqueline.

Jo glanced down at her skimpy silk bra and skimpy silk panties. "Oh. Uh, thanks."

Jo shucked into the robe and then fastened the belt tightly.

"Where's Jacqueline?" Blair demanded through the door. "Is she still there? Is she coming in?"

"I will if you unlock the door, dear," Jacqueline said reasonably.

There was a heavy metal "click" as Blair released the bolt. Jacqueline turned the brass doorknob and disappeared into the suite. Several seconds later the door slammed shut, and the bolt shot home again.

"Go away, Jo!" Blair called through the door.

"Blair … Babe," Jo said miserably.

"Go away! I need to talk to Jack. And stay away from Boots!"

"That'd be a hell of a lot easier if you'd let me into my own freakin room!" No response. "Blair? Babe?"

But there was nothing on the other side of the door but silence. Either Blair and Jacqueline were whispering or, more likely, they had moved to the bedroom to talk.

"I ain't gonna forget this!" Jo yelled at the door. "This is a fine friggin foundation for a marriage!"

… Jo found her way down to the kitchen, which is where everyone always seemed to end up at River Rock, especially if they were upset about something.

Jo poured herself a cup of coffee and sat on a kitchen stool and drank the coffee black. She felt dazed. How the hell could so much go so wrong so fast?

All she wanted to do was take Blair in her arms, hold her tight and cover her with kisses. Jo closed her eyes. After a year of being incredibly intimate with Blair, it was easy for Jo to imagine the feeling of Blair in her arms, the solid, warm, perfumed weight of her, and the silky feel of her long blonde hair tickling Jo's face when Jo leaned in for a kiss …

"So what happened?" demanded Alec, strolling in from the back hallway down which his room –formerly the maid's quarters – was located. He had pulled on a pair of rather raggedy old jeans and a blue Langley polo shirt. His dark curls looked as though he'd dragged a fork through them.

"Christ," complained Jo, "now you're a freakin billionaire, why doncha buy a decent pair of pants and a comb!"

"So – Blair's not talking to you?" guessed Alec.

"No. She is freakin not talkin to me. She's talkin to Jack."

"Ah. Well then – that's a mercy." Alec poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table across from Jo. He blew on his coffee. "Jacqueline will smooth over everything, Artemis."

Jo snorted. "Jack ain't supposed to fix anythin. Blair's my fiancée. Me and Blair are s'posed to fix things. We're s'posed to talk stuff out."

Alec clucked his tongue disapprovingly.

"You can't take that tack, Jo. Blair isn't a lone wolf like you. She needs to talk through her feelings, and not always with you."

Jo scowled. "Are you watchin 'Donahue' again?"

"That program is a veritable fount of information. You should give it a try."

"I'd rather have a root canal! Bunch of namby-pamby, touchy-feely boloney."

"That's what I used to think. But Jack convinced me to watch an episode, and –"

"Alec – really not carin here."

Alec sipped his coffee. "What did barking Boots do?" he asked curiously. "I know she's become snotty and irritating and extremely un-Boots-like since Mizu moved in, but what has everyone in such a twist?"

"You know how I slept downstairs last night?"

Alec rubbed his head. "Since I was drunk out of my mind, and Jacqueline had to put me to bed, you could have slept in my room, for all I know."

"I was pretty blotto too," Jo said ruefully.

"So you made a pass at Boots?"

"No! Do you really think I'd – No! Me and Blair already planned to sleep apart, see. Like we did a year ago. And I was kinda out of it, and Blair tucked me in on the couch in the music room. I can just barely kinda remember that."

"So where does Boots come in?"

"When I woke up Boots was on the couch with me."

"That little vixen!"

"Alec – it ain't funny!"

"Isn't it, though? Just a tad bit? And sad, too. She really has got it bad for you, Jo."

"Well she's gotta cut it out! That's, like, totally harassin behavior. And to top it off, not only do I wake up half-naked with Boots cuddled up to me, but then Blair walks in!"

"Ye gods! Like a bad French farce. Poor Aphrodite."

"Yeah, 'poor Aphrodite' and 'poor me' too! Boots totally screwed everythin up."

Alec sipped his coffee thoughtfully. "Artemis, did Boots … I mean, while you were sleeping …"

"No! I mean … I don't think so. But I don't freakin know! How would I know? I was asleep!"

"Well don't short circuit, Jo. It's a simple question."

"It's none of your damn business, is what it is!"

"Suit yourself. But you know Blair is going to ask the same question – and a lot less politely, or I miss my guess."

Jo groaned. She leaned her chin on one hand. "What am I gonna do, Alec? I never seen her so angry. I never heard her so angry. Well, not since we been together."

Alec covered one of her hands with his own. Jo glared at his hand, and he hastily removed it.

"Jo, Blair loves you. Deeply. Madly. I've never seen a love like the one you two share. It's mythological. It's legendary. It's sublime."

"It's over," Jo murmured miserably. "Hasta la vista. End of the road."

"You can't think that way. Look at the rocky road Jack and I have had. Yet here we are – still together, against all odds. You have to keep your head, Jo, and ride through the rough patches with dignity and decorum. One perseveres."

"Oh one does, does one?" Jo asked darkly.

"Yes. Especially if one is as strong and true a lover as you are, Artemis."

"Huhn." Jo toyed with a loose thread in the sleeve of Jacqueline's hunter green bathrobe. "I am pretty damn strong and true."

"Of course you are, Jo dear. The strongest and truest."

"All right, all right, let's not get all mushy about it," Jo crabbed.

"It's OK to feel things, Jo, and be vulnerable."

"Says you! You didn't grow up with the Bronx Barbarians breathin down your freakin neck!"

"True; I didn't have the privilege," Alec laughed.

Tootie and Natalie wandered in, yawning and stretching and half-asleep.

"What was all that yelling?" Natalie demanded. "It started in one part of the house, and then it went to another part of the house, and then another part of the house."

"Like roving street theater," yawned Tootie. She lifted the coffee pot, shook it, heard about an inch of coffee sloshing around. "OK, who drank the last of the coffee and didn't brew a new pot? Or do I need to ask?" She fixed Alec with a disapproving frown.

"I've been banned from preparing coffee," Alec said a trifle smugly.

"That was last year. Hasn't Mrs. Garrett been giving you lessons?"

"I just can't seem to get the dashed hang of it, old girl."

"I see. So you can drink it all, but you can't make a fresh pot."

"That's about the size of it, Tootie dear."

Natalie took the coffee pot from Tootie. "I'll make the coffee," said Natalie, "if someone will tell me what all the shouting was about. Inquiring minds want to know. Who was doing all that yelling?"

"There was a whole friggin cast of characters," Jo said darkly. "First it was me and Boots, then me and Blair, then me and Boots again, then Mrs. Garrett, then me and Blair again –"

"What happened?" asked Tootie, riveted.

Natalie held the coffee put under the faucet. "Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo. Please tell me you and Blair aren't fighting after that beautiful party last night."

"It's not Jo's fault," said Alec.

"Let me guess," said Tootie. "I heard the name 'Boots' in there, so I'm guessing it's her fault?"

"In a nutshell," Alec agreed.

"What did she do?"

Natalie poured the water into the coffeemaker. "Let me guess – she attacked Jo in the middle of the night."

"Close," said Jo. "She attacked me this mornin. I mean, not 'attacked' exactly. But she was all curled up with me when I woke up."

"That's creepy," said Natalie at the same time Tootie said "How cute!"

"What's cute about it?" Natalie demanded, rummaging through a cupboard for a can of Folgers Coffee. "It's completely inappropriate. It's harassment."

"That's what I said!" Jo said triumphantly. "I mean, Boots can be a sweetheart and all, but she's really crossed the freakin line this time."

"So Blair went ballistic when you told her," Tootie said sympathetically.

"I didn't have to tell her. Blair freakin walked in on us."

"No!" Natalie and Tootie said together, aghast.

"Yes," said Jo. "Yes, yes, freakin yes! Blair walked in at a, you know, a very freakin inopportune moment."

"What kind of inopportune moment?" asked Tootie.

"Jo," said Natalie, a kind of horror dawning in her eyes, "you didn't by any chance respond to Boots' advances?"

"Of course not! Whaddaya think? But it just, you know, it didn't look so good, when Blair walked in. I fell on the floor, see, tryin to get away from Boots. And Boots was leanin down, toward me, and she was, she happened to be grabbin my, the, er, strap of my unmentionables."

"Oh, Jo. Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo." Natalie shook her head mournfully. "This is not good."

"This is bad," said Tootie. "This is really bad."

"Well thanks for the flippin breakin news!" snapped Jo.

"What's the harm?" Alec asked reasonably. "This whole thing's been blown out of proportion. Jacqueline's calming Blair as we speak, and in a few moments everything will be right as rain."

"Don't say things like that," objected Natalie. "Statements like that are total jinxes."

"Statements like what?"

"Like 'Everything will be right as rain'. As soon as someone says something like that, milord, everything falls apart!"

"Honestly, Natalie, how much worse could things get?"

One of the doors to the kitchen slammed open. Mizu strode angrily toward Jo.

"That answer your question?" Nat asked Alec.

"That's amazing," Alec breathed. "Simply amazing."

Jo was on her feet before Mizu reached her. Jo held up her hands in a warning gesture.

"Mizu, I'm not in the mood for whatever your shit is this morning."

"You're not in the mood for my shit?" Mizu demanded, outraged. The super-model beautiful girl's face was flushed, eyes bright with anger. Her hands clenched and unclenched. Mizu was whip-thin but taller than Jo by a couple of inches. She didn't have Jo's strength – but she was intimidating.

"Why is Boots in my room crying hysterically?" Mizu demanded in her perfect, British-inflected English.

"It ain't your room," snarled Jo. "It's her room."

"It may be her room, but I'm her girlfriend. So why is she up there sobbing her eyes out and talking incoherent gibberish?"

"Gibberish is Boots' standard method of communication," Alec deadpanned. "Are you only realizing that now?"

Mizu tossed a glance at Alec that could've melted steel.

"Fuck off, Nethridge," she growled. "This is between me and Little Orphan Annie."

"What did you call me?" Jo asked dangerously. She took a step toward Mizu.

"She called you Little Orphan Annie," Tootie said hastily. "A beloved Broadway character."

"Yeah – beloved," Natalie agreed. "No need to fly off the handle."

"Who's flyin off the handle?" asked Jo. "I ain't flyin off the handle. But I know a crack when I hear one, and that was a crack." She took another step toward Mizu.

"Of course it was a crack, you troglodyte," sneered Mizu. "Now tell me what you did to Boots?"

"I didn't do anythin to Boots. And don't be makin cracks at me, and don't be cussin at Alec."

"Oh, you're defending Lord Nethridge now, are you? Well, well. I always had a feeling about you two."

Jo lunged at Mizu; Alec, who had been lunged at a few times by Jo when they first met, saw it coming and flung an arm around Jo's waist.

"Freakin let me go, Alec!" shouted Jo. "I just wanna give Mizu a big, fat hug!" It had been a hell of a rotten morning; at this point breaking Mizu's face felt like just the therapy she needed.

Jo was strong and nimble as hell; she almost broke out of Alec's grasp several times, but he managed to hold her fast.

"Mizu," Alec said, "why don't you quit while you're not ahead and get the hell out of here?"

"Why should I leave?" Mizu demanded. "She upset Boots."

"I upset Boots? I upset Boots?" Jo demanded. "Boots' little escapade has turned my whole flippin universe upside down!!"

"Girls, what is going on now?" Mrs. Garrett trilled, hurrying into the kitchen, Drake trailing right behind her.

"Mizu's ridin me!" said Jo.

"Jo upset Boots!" said Mizu.

"That's enough!" said Mrs. Garrett. "From both of you. You need to go to opposite corners before we have the main event right here in the kitchen. Mizu, you should be with Boots. She's very distraught. And Jo, you need to be with Blair."

"Blair threw me out," Jo said miserably.

"Of course she did," snarled Mizu. "That's what you get for making a pass at my girl!"

"I didn't make a pass at Boots!" Jo lunged for Mizu again but Alec held fast.

"Let her go," said Mizu. "I want to fight her. Uppity little Pollock!"

Mizu lunged forward but Drake caught her around the waist. Drake was in his fifties but relatively trim – strong enough to hold Mizu at bay for the moment.

"That's enough of that talk," Mrs. Garrett told Mizu firmly. "We don't make fun of each other's nationality or race. Ever."

"Just like 'Sesame Street'," Mizu sneered.

"Mrs. G, lemme at her," pleaded Jo. She held up her fists. "I got the whole United Nations right here."

"Jo, violence is never the answer. I'm very disappointed in you. Both of you. River Rock is a home, not an armed camp." Mrs. Garrett turned to her husband. "Would you mind escorting Mizu to Boots' room? I think they have a lot to talk about."

"Of course, dear," said Drake.

"Let go of me," snarled Mizu, trying to twist out of Drake's grasp. But he led her firmly out of the kitchen. "This isn't over Jo!" Mizu called from the distance. "You'd better believe it isn't over!"

"And that's the freakin thanks we get for takin her in," scoffed Jo, "and tryin to turn her from a jet-settin creep into a decent human bein! You just can't civilize some people, I guess."

Mrs. Garrett stared meaningfully at Jo's clenched fists and Alec's restraining arm around her waist.

Jo blushed. "All right," she said. "All right, I guess I went a little ballistic."

"A little?"

"So OK maybe I went a lot ballistic. But I was provoked! First Boots and then Blair and now that arrogant witch! Everybody's hand is freakin against me today!"

Mrs. Garrett sat at the table. "Jo … Do you think you can try to calmly tell me what happened this morning? Without fisticuffs or the pity party?"

Alec released Jo.

Slowly, dejectedly, Jo climbed onto one of the kitchen stools near Mrs. Garrett. "I can try," Jo finally said doubtfully, "but I don't know about 'calmly'."

"I can tell you what happened," Tootie said confidently. "Boots ambushed Jo; Blair walked in; Blair got jealous; Mizu's got the wrong idea." She looked to Jo. "What do you think?"

"Well, Stretch … I think you summed it up pretty good. Except you forgot how Mizu's got a big stick shoved way up –"

"Jo!" Mrs. Garrett said severely.

Jo sighed. "Tootie summed it up fine. That's what happened. And it's all a big mess and Blair's never gonna wanna speak to me again."

"Nonsense!" Mrs. Garrett said with spirit. "Didn't we just celebrate your one-year anniversary yesterday? Haven't you and Blair prevailed against all odds? And you think some ridiculous misunderstanding is going to ruin everything?"

"Maybe you can tell Blair it's ridiculous," Jo said morosely. "And maybe you can try to tell Mizu while you're at it."

"Where is Blair?" Mrs. Garrett asked.

"She's … up in the suite," Jo said dully. Now that Mizu was out of the kitchen, all of the fight seemed to have left Jo, like air rushing out of a punctured balloon.

"Jacqueline's with Blair," Alec told Mrs. Garrett. Alec put a comforting hand on one of Jo's shoulders. Tootie put a comforting hand on her other shoulder.

"I hate to say 'I told you so'," said Natalie, "but I did. I told you so, Mrs. Garrett! That Mizu is nothing but bad news."

"Why?" Mrs. Garrett asked reasonably. "Mizu thinks Jo made a pass at Boots. Mizu's simply defending her girlfriend's honor."

"You didn't see her, Mrs. Garrett," Natalie insisted, "before you came in. She was egging Jo on. She's never liked Jo. And calling Jo a 'Pollock'? Are we going to stand for that?"

"I'm going to agree with the fair Natalie," said Alec. "Boots has her issues, but she never would have pulled a stunt like this a month ago. Mizu has had a very unwholesome influence on her character."

"I'm not a fan of Mizu or Boots," said Tootie. "They're not real musketeers or Lions. I say we give them the heave-ho."

"I'll second that motion," said Alec.

"Hear, hear!" said Natalie.

"Well. Well, well, well," said Mrs. Garrett, shaking her head. "So that's how it's going to be now? If people don't behave exactly the way we want them to, we pitch them out? I seem to remember a nosy, gossipy little girl on roller skates who was always getting into everybody's business. She made quite a bit of trouble in her day. Maybe we should have thrown her out of the dorm?"

Tootie shifted uncomfortably. "That's … different," she said lamely.

"And I remember a feisty little know-it-all," Mrs. Garrett continued. "Always ready with a flip remark, and always crusading about something – no matter what the cost. She caused some commotions back in the day. Perhaps we should have chucked her onto the street?"

Natalie squirmed. "I wasn't like that, Mrs. Garrett. Well … not exactly like that."

"The first time I ever visited Eastland I met a snotty little debutante who insulted me and sneaked cigarettes. Maybe I should have thrown Blair out of the dorm! And then there was that kid from the Bronx, who convinced you three to go the Chugalug. Who hotwired the school van. Who shoplifted my birthday gift. Maybe I should have thrown her to the wolves!"

"Mrs. Garrett, we all know the musketeers have a checkered past," said Alec, "but they were children. Mizu is at least twenty-one. She's been disowned by her father, sent down from Oxford, has a thoroughly unsavory reputation – in my opinion she's damned lucky you've kept her on this long!"

"Is that so, Lord Nethridge?"

"Yes. That's so."

"Well that's very interesting. Because I seem to recall a cynical, calculating con artist who infiltrated out little group, and he was actually on Monica Warner's payroll. His mission, you see, was to woo Blair Warner – at any cost."

Alec sighed. "Yes, yes; you fair dames gave me a chance that I didn't deserve and encouraged me to follow the better angels of my nature – and for that I shall be eternally grateful. But I'm weak, Mrs. Garrett. That's different than being a thoroughly bad lot. Mizu Tokama is a thoroughly bad lot. You can quote me on that."

"What Alec said," agreed Natalie.

"Yeah," said Tootie. "We goofed up, but we were never malicious. Not like Mizu."

"Is that how you all feel?" asked Mrs. Garrett.

"Yes," said Alec.

"Definitely," said Natalie.

"You're darn straight," said Tootie.

"Uh-huhn," murmured Jo.

"Yes," said Petal quietly.

They hadn't heard her come in; she stood in the far doorway, head rather downcast, as was her habit these days.

"Jo is the finest person I've ever met," Petal said softly. "And if someone is against Jo, I'm against that someone. And if Portia were here she'd say the same. As would Gerald."

Natalie clapped her hands together. "Perfect. It's unanimous, Mrs. Garrett – 'Ding, dong – the witch is dead'!"

"It couldn't have happened to a nicer creep," said Tootie.

"Now just a minute," said Mrs. Garrett. "Isn't anything I'm saying getting through to you children? We do not just throw people away at River Rock. I don't, anyway. Mizu isn't going anywhere. She and Boots need to work through whatever they need to work through. And Jo and Blair need to work through their issues. And you all need to give Mizu a real chance to change."

"I don't know, Mrs. Garrett," Natalie said doubtfully. "All that 'working through' things sounds like, well …"

"A lot of work," Tootie finished for her.

"Exactly," said Natalie.

"A little hard work never hurt anyone," Mrs. Garrett said stoutly. "Especially when friendship and true love are at stake."

"My dear Mrs. Garrett," said Alec, "when those rose-colored glasses fall off and shatter, you are in for a rude awakening."

"I'm not worried," said Mrs. Garrett. "They haven't shattered in more than fifty years." She looked at her surrogate daughter. "Jo," she said gently, "maybe it's time you went back up to your suite. What do you think? See if Blair's ready to talk with you?"

Jo shook her head. "She hates me," Jo muttered.

"I'm sure she doesn't, Jo. Blair loves you very much."

"Maybe give it a few more minutes," suggested Alec. "Give Jacqueline a bit more time to calm Blair."

"How long do you think it will take?" asked Tootie.

"What about five years?" suggested Natalie. "Maybe six? I'm just basing that on how loud Blair's yelling seemed to be."

"Never fear," said Alec, "Jacqueline will help Blair to see reason. Jacqueline can be very soothing. At this very moment, she probably has Blair 'baaing' like a dear little lamb …"


"All I can say is, you're a complete cretin," said Jacqueline.

Blair lay on the bed she shared with Jo, eyes and nose red from crying.

Jacqueline lounged on the other side of the bed, leaning back against the pillows. She lit a Benson and Hedges.

"Don't call me a cretin," sniffled Blair. "And don't smoke in here."

"Bollocks. You've made me listen to almost an hour of drivel. I deserve a cigarette."

"Drivel? Drivel?"

"Yes, Blair – drivel. And what's more you know that it's drivel." Jacqueline inhaled deeply. She folded one arm behind her head, and blew out a pensive pennant of smoke. "Blair – you know that Jo would never cheat on you – not in a million years."

"I know," said Blair. She hiccupped softly.

"Of course she wouldn't! Yet look at the state you've whipped yourself into. Sheer drama."

"No." Blair shook her head. "I know Jo would never cheat on me. But she … When I walked in and saw Boots lying there, and Jo half-naked, and Boots was touching, she was touching Jo's bra, and pulling Jo toward her … I just … I just …"

"You saw red," said Jacqueline in her crisp, staccato tones. "Quite right. Any woman would – in the moment. But once you had time to reflect, surely you realized what you had seen: dear old bonkers Boots, making another ridiculous play for your lover."

Blair nodded. She fumbled behind her with one hand.

"Er, Blair darling … You're not making a play for me, are you?" asked Jacqueline. "Because my flag doesn't blow in that direction."

"I'm reaching for your damn cigarette."

"I thought you quit."

"I did. Last year. Now give me the cigarette."

"Of course – since you put it in such a civilized manner."

Jacqueline handed the cigarette to Blair, who instantly put it between her lips and inhaled deeply. The viscountess tipped another smoke out of her pack and lit it with her little silver lighter.

The two smoked in companionable silence for a moment.

"What is it that really has your knickers in a twist, Blair?" Jacqueline asked curiously.

Blair sighed. She blew a succession of perfect little smoke rings.

"Jo would never cheat on me," she said.

"Fast-forward," suggested Jacqueline. "I think we've established that."

"Jo would never cheat on me," Blair repeated, "because she's so decent. But that doesn't mean, you know …" She trailed off, taking another deep drag.

"Doesn't mean … what?" Jacqueline prompted.

"That doesn't mean Jo might not … want to cheat on me," Blair whispered.

"Ah!" Jacqueline nodded sagely. "Well. They all do, don't they? I know Jo is all woman, but she can be a frightful tomboy. And they only have one thing on their mind …"

"Jo's not like that," Blair objected.

Jacqueline raised one perfectly plucked auburn eyebrow.

"Well … not completely like that," Blair amended. "She has a healthy enthusiasm for sex but she isn't obsessed or anything."

Jacqueline raised the other eyebrow. "Blair – how many times a week do you two make love?"

"I've never counted. But … a lot."

"I rest my case."

"Jack, it's me as much as Jo. We're both … we both like sex, but a lot of times I'm the instigator. If we make love three times, you can figure I was the instigator two of those times."

"Three times a week – that is healthy," Jacqueline observed. "Especially now you've been together a year."

Blair laughed, cheeks tinged pink. "Jacqueline … I mean three times a day."

The viscountess lifted a painted Chinese fan on the bedside table and fanned herself.

"Three times a day?"

"Not every day," Blair clarified.

"Well don't tell Alec that! We're averaging twice a week, but if he hears that his hero Jo has sex three times a day –"

"Not every day," Blair repeated.

"If he knows Jo gets lucky three times a day any day, then that's what he'll want." Jacqueline sighed. "Three times. Three. You're a dark horse, Warner. Cool blonde waters run deep. But my dear, if you're running Jo ragged with continual sex, why on earth would she need or want to cheat?"

"Because it isn't about sex. That's what people don't understand about Jo. You see her as this, this brain, this brilliant scholar, and as this amazing athlete, your team captain."

"Isn't she?"

"Of course. But there's so much more to her than that. She's … her heart … her soul … She has this huge capacity to love, to feel for people …"

"People such as Boots?" Jacqueline said shrewdly.

"Yes. People such as Boots."

"So to put it bluntly," Jacqueline tapped a column of ashes into a teacup on the bedside table, "you think Jo is genuinely attracted to Boots."

Blair groaned. She sucked down the last of the cigarette.

"The court will record that as a 'yes'" Jacqueline said. "Jo is attracted to Boots – or you think so, any road – so when you walked into the room glowing with love and lust, and saw your semi-nude fiancée being pulled into Boots clutches, you thought – well, you thought, 'Jo won't cheat on me – but part of Jo wishes that she could'."

Blair covered her head with her arms. "I can't help thinking … Oh, it's so awful, but I can't help thinking that Boots wouldn't try to seduce Jo if she didn't sense that Jo finds her … appealing." Blair curled up, drawing her legs to her chest so that she lay on her side in the fetal position.

Jacqueline nudged Blair's rear end with one foot.

"No use playing the infant," Jacqueline said firmly. "Running from things never helps. It's only in facing them that we overcome them."

"But what if they run over us?"

"Hahahahaha!" Jacqueline laughed her charming little Hepburn-esque laugh. "Dashed good, that, Warner. What if they run over us, indeed!"

"I'm being serious."

"And that's why it's so endearingly amusing. Blair, if Jo is attracted to Boots, then Jo is attracted to Boots. Unless you can find a way to hypnotize Jo, there's nothing you can do about that. People are entitled to their private thoughts and feelings, darling."

"Where do you think I could find one?" asked Blair.

"One what?"

"A hypnotist."

"You can't be serious."

Blair sighed. "I suppose not. Well … not too serious. What would be really efficient, Jack, would be if you could just, you know." Blair made little chopping motions with her hand. "Can't you karate chop Boots or something?" Blair asked hopefully.

Jacqueline shook her head. "When you're a black belt – any belt, really – you can only use your skills defensively. It's not on to attack defenseless poodles like Boots. Now Blair Warner, you can either be a big girl, and accept that Jo is attracted to Boots, or you can be an infant, and break up with your soul mate, never to be as fulfilled again for the rest of your life."

"But what about the third option?"

"And that would be – what?"

"Where I somehow send Boots on a ten-year excursion deep, deep into the Amazon. Is Boots by any chance interested in saving the rainforests? And are three-toed sloths carnivorous?"

Jacqueline sighed. "Blair. You're better than this."

"I'm not. I'm really not."

"Blair."

"I just love Jo so much. I can't stand the thought of her wanting anyone else."

"Darling, it seems to me you're mixing up loving someone and owning someone."

"Nothing new for me," Blair said wryly. "Oh, God." She buried her face in her hands. "How can I be so selfish? It's disgusting … repellent … How can I possibly face Jo again?"

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. Blair's mood swings were beginning to give her whiplash. "So now you're the villain?"

"One of them," Blair said, voice muffled by the coverlet. "Boots is a villain – Boots and her wriggly little hips. And Jo for wanting her. But mostly me for being such a possessive little brat."

"Listen, Blair, you're at a fork in the road here. Or, not a fork, perhaps, but a crossroads. This decision will determine the viability of your relationship with Jo, will, in fact, determine your entire future."

Blair pulled a corner of the coverlet over her head. "That's too much pressure," she complained.

Jacqueline sat up straighter, leaned forward. "Now you listen to me, my girl. You love Jo Polniaczek. I don't pretend to understand it but there it is. So unless you want to lose her, you need to find a way to accept that she's a human being who will, from time to time, find other people attractive. And there's an end to it."

Blair peeked out from under the cover. "You remind me of Nanny Foster," she said.

"I trust that's a good thing?"

"Yes. Definitely."

Jacqueline lit two more Benson and Hedges. She handed one to Blair.

"The question now," said Jacqueline, "is how to get dear Boot and that odious Mizu out of the house."

"What? But I thought –"

"Blair, you have to accept that Jo will find other people attractive; you don't have to accept someone seducing Jo under your own roof!"

"Technically it's not my roof. Mrs. Garrett took over the lease last year, after I told mother about Jo."

"And Mrs. Garrett is lovely old soul. A true paragon. But she is, perhaps, rather too inclined to see the best in people where it doesn't exist."

Blair leaned on one elbow, puffing thoughtfully. "What are you thinking, Jacqueline?"

"That you might have to take matters into your own hands ..."


The sun beat down on Jo's head and naked shoulders as she toiled in her little garden.

She loved growing things. It was a joy she'd discovered at Eastland. As a kid in the Bronx she'd never had the opportunity to grow anything.

At River Rock, Jo had cultivated a small patch of soil near the gazebo. She had planted vegetables, mostly, but a few flowers – blue asters and purple phlox and blue-black buddleia – because Blair loved flowers.

Jo was on her knees in the soil, sweat soaking the oversized blue Lions tank top and blue Lions shorts she'd borrowed from Petal.

Everyone else was inside the house. Jo didn't want to see anyone, speak with anyone – no one except Blair, that is … But Blair doesn't want to see me …

Jo pulled at a patch of weeds. They were deep, stubborn; she grabbed her trowel and plunged it into the soft earth. There was a satisfying ripping sound as Jo tore the tenacious weeds from the soil.

"Your people were farmers, vnooshka," Mona said quietly.

Jo glanced over her shoulder.

Mona was standing next to Jo's garden, unfolding a green-and-white striped lawn chair.

When Mona had determined that the lawn chair was stable, not liable to collapse or to snap shut on her, Mona sat on it and crossed her tiny legs. Mona wore a yellow sun dress and a yellow babushka and a pair of enormous sun glasses. She resembled a miniature, elderly Anne Bancroft.

"Your people were farmers," Mona said again.

Jo shrugged. "Eh, I don't know much about my ancestors." She returned to her weeding. It was rude to turn your back on an older person; both Charlie and Rose had taught her that; but much as she cared for Mona, Jo was beyond being respectful this morning.

"I can tell you about your ancestors, Jo, just by looking at you right now. You love how it feels, don't you – the land?"

Jo didn't turn around, but she nodded.

"Even how it smells, vnooshka – you love it."

Jo nodded again. She broke a sickly blossom off the buddleia, tossed it onto the weed pile.

"They were farmers," said Mona, "and then they became landowners, somewhere along the line."

"These my Italian or my Polish ancestors?" asked Jo. "Since you're channelin Edgar Cayce."

"Both," said Mona. "And don't be a wisenheimer!"

"Who's bein a wisenheimer? Mona … I just wanna be alone right now."

"And who's stopping you?"

"Uh, the sweet little old lady who's babblin about my family tree?"

"I'm not babbling, Jo. And I'm not sweet."

"Yeah you are sweet, Mona. But you're drivin me nuts just now."

"That's what grandmothers are for! But we drive people nuts because we care. Is it a crime to care? Is it a crime to love?"

"Mona … Look … I just ain't in the mood to shoot the breeze right now. Or to be polite."

Jo wrenched another weed out of the ground, this time with her bare hands.

"Natalie and Tootie filled me in on all the excitement I missed this morning," said Mona. "I don't know how I could've slept through all the commotion."

Jo continued to work silently.

"Sometimes you wonder how Blair can love you," said Mona.

"That ain't true," said Jo.

"Of course it's true. But there's no distance between you; not really. Your people were landowners, Jo, while hers were foot soldiers and park keepers."

"Mona, you know I don't care about that, that hierarchy crap. Families go up and families go down … It all evens out in the end. All anyone can do is the best they can do."

"Well said, Jo," said Mona, nodding approvingly.

"I ain't tryin to say anythin, I just … Mona, can I just weed my garden? Please?"

Mona sighed. "I wish I could wave some kind of magic wand, help you and Blair to see how none of this guff matters. Who cares who kissed who or who has a crush on who or … it's all nonsense. You and Blair, how you feel for each other – that's everything."

Jo felt tears threatening. She dragged a hand over her eyes, hissed as the sweat on her arm stung them.

"Jo – are you all right?" Mona asked, concerned.

"Yeah, fine, fine. Super peachy-keen!" Jo stood up, wiping her dirty, sweaty hands on the oversized shorts. She turned to face Mona.

"Mona, all I wanna do right now is go sweep Blair up in my arms, you know? And hold her tight. But she don't want me to. She's more … she's way more complicated than me. I feel things quick and I work through 'em quick but Blair takes time to feel her way through things. So I hope she's gonna be OK with me, but I can't rush her. I gotta give her time."

"You're a very understanding young woman, Jo Polniaczek."

"Aw, for cryin out loud, Mona. You're gonna give me a complex, all these nice things you keep sayin."

"Now I can't even say nice things? Well, that's it." Mona flung her arms in mock despair. "Put me out to pasture! I'm officially washed up as a grandma!"

Jo grinned. She couldn't be annoyed or mad with Mona for more than a few seconds.

"Look," Jo went to Mona, dropped down next to her chair, "I appreciate what you're tryin to do. Thanks for the pep talk, coach."

Mona fondly patted Jo's cheek. "Anytime, my dear. Anytime."

Jo stood up. She stretched. "Think I'm gonna go work on my bike. If anyone's looking for me, I mean, if anyone happens to ask for me, I'll be in the garage."

"I understand, Jo."

"Thanks ..."


In the kitchen Mrs. Garrett was surrounded by a cloud of flour as she mixed and stirred and rolled ingredients and prepared tray after tray of chocolate chip cookies.

There was something so comforting about chocolate chip cookies, Mrs. Garrett thought – preparing them, and giving them to the girls, and popping some of them, warm from the oven, into her own mouth.

When she was in the midst of crisis – and as far as she was concerned, this was a full-blown crisis – Mrs. Garrett could often be found whipping up more batches of chocolate chip cookies than the residents of Eastland or River Rock could ever possibly consume …

Drake had gone to the studio to nail down some details about the new kitchen set. Based on the success of "Edna's Edibles" last year, their budget had been modestly increased and they had decided to funnel the increase into better ingredients, an additional production assistant, and a nicer set.

"You handle it, dear," Mrs. Garrett had told Drake. "Your eye is as good as mine. And I have a feeling today is a day when I need to be home, in our kitchen."

"Of course, dear." Drake had kissed Mrs. Garrett – one of his "hold onto your hat" kisses that had almost, almost made Mrs. Garrett change her mind and accompany him to the studio. But he was a competent, grown man; she knew he didn't need her today the way her girls needed her.

It's so wonderful, thought Mrs. Garrett, to have finally found a man who's competent and mature and reliable. After the other ones I picked over the years, well – Drake is certainly a blessing …

Baking cookies soothed Mrs. Garrett's anxiety. And in a way it was an exorcism, driving out the ugly words and ugly scene that had taken place in the kitchen earlier that day. And sooner or later, Mrs. Garrett knew, one or more of the girls would land in the kitchen, needing soothing of their own, if only in the form of a fresh chocolate chip cookie …

Surprisingly Mizu was the first to wander in. Her eyes and nose were tinged with red, as if she'd been crying. Her beautiful face was set in a cold sneer.

Mizu wore, as usual, a chic black ensemble from head to toe: black leggings, black blouse, black Army surplus combat boots, a black pea coat and one of Boots' black berets. Mizu looked as if she were about to star in a photo shoot – Vogue's take on the military, perhaps – the fashion army.

"I want you to throw Polniaczek out of the house," Mizu barked.

Mrs. Garrett continued, imperturbably, to roll out another sheet of cookie dough.

"Jo is like a daughter to me," Mrs. Garrett said, "so that isn't an option. We don't just throw people away here, like yesterday's garbage. And in case you're wondering, that applies to new family members too."

Mizu scowled. "I'm not part of your little 'family'," she sneered.

"You're living with Boots; Boots is part of the family; therefore, like it or not, you're part of the family too."

"Ha! This is like …" Mizu searched for the proper word. "This is like some bloody cult. A cult of inanely happy, peppy goody-two-shoes. It makes me sick."

"Well," Mrs. Garrett calmly began cutting out little circles of dough, "if you haven't spent a lot of time around happy people, I imagine it will take some getting used to."

"If you're not going to evict Jo, you have to tell her to stay away from Boots," Mizu said. "I can't tell Jo myself because every time I look at her I want to kick in her teeth!"

"They'll be no kicking of teeth in this house," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. She began placing the little discs of dough onto a clean baking tray. "And Jo did not try to seduce Boots."

"Ha!"

"What did Boots tell you?"

"She still can't talk about it. She's too upset." Mizu's eyes shone with unshed tears. She turned away.

"Boots is probably trying to figure out how to tell you that she tried to seduce Jo," said Mrs. Garrett.

"That's ridiculous! Boots would never … She's such a sweet girl. Jo has a pash for her – anyone can see that!"

"Whether Jo has a, a 'pash' or not, Jo did not make a pass at Boots. Jo said she didn't and that's good enough for me."

"How bloody naïve can you be?" sneered Mizu. "Jo said it – and that's good enough, is it?"

"Yes. Jo doesn't lie. It's part of her code."

"Well is it part of her code to attack sweet, helpless girls like Boots?"

Mrs. Garrett slid the tray of cookie dough into the massive wall oven. She closed the door and turned the dials. She didn't dignify the question with a response.

"Everybody lies," Mizu insisted.

"Not Jo."

"Well. Isn't that fascinating! Fun facts to know about Jo Polniaczek."

"What is it," asked Mrs. Garrett, dusting her floury hands on her apron, "that you dislike so much about Jo?"

"What do you care?"

"This is my home," Mrs. Garrett said with spirit. "That's what I care. Now – when did this nonsense with Jo begin?"

"The moment I met her. Impatient, rude Yank, pushing her way up to the bar at the Ombra Discoteca. Speaking of which," Mizu glanced at her wristwatch, "I have to jet to work now."

"You found a job," Mrs. Garrett said approvingly.

"Yes, I found a job. It's disgusting that I should have to work, but there it is. Father still won't answer my phone calls, the old son-of-a-bitch. So if you need me, Mrs. Garrett, you'll find me behind the bar at the Fireside Inn. And you'll have the damn rent you keep dunning Boots for by the end of the week."

"Mizu, I am not 'dunning' Boots. But we all contribute around here, everyone according to their means. I hope your example will encourage Boots to find some sort of job."

"Why should she have to? She's a St. Clair. You don't seem to appreciate who we are, Mrs. Garrett."

"I know exactly who you are," said Mrs. Garrett, putting her hands on her broad hips. "You're the girls who owe me September rent! This isn't a flophouse. And a little good honest work never did anyone any harm."

"Ha. Spoken like the typical proletariat!" Mizu glanced at her watch again. "I shall be late if I don't leave now. Mrs. Garrett, tell Jo to leave Boots alone. I mean it."

"Now you listen to me, young lady –"

But Mizu was already darting out of the kitchen, a fashionably slender blur of black.

Mrs. Garrett sighed.

She looked around her kitchen. It was full of mounds of chocolate chip cookies, but, thanks to Mizu's little visit, all of the negative vibrations were back.

"Oatmeal cookies," Mrs. Garrett said nodding. "Oatmeal raisin cookies. They'll clear the air!"

She bustled over to the cupboard, and took down a big canister of Quaker Oats.

On the kitchen radio, the new Depeche Mode song started playing. Mrs. Garrett shook her head.

All that clanging and clanking and thumping … it sounded like they'd recorded their song in the middle of a busy factory! It gave Mrs. Garrett a headache. But something about the words appealed to her – as much as she could hear them amidst the clanks and clunks.

"People are people, so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?"

I'd like to sit Jo and Mizu down and make them listen to this song, thought Mrs. Garrett. Although … with all that percussion and clanking, it might just drive them into a fistfight!

She stirred the oatmeal with vigor, so vigorously, in fact, that little clumps of oatmeal flew out of the bowl. Mrs. Garrett didn't even notice. Her mind was on the song, and her home, and her girls …


"I don't know about this," Natalie said doubtfully. "I mean – it's not exactly ethical."

"Ethical?" asked Jacqueline. "Ethical? Since when do the Snoop Sisters trifle with ethics?"

"Hey – the Snoop Sisters are very ethical," Natalie said defensively.

"They really are," Blair told Jacqueline. "They're nosy but they're ethical."

It was an impromptu council of war. The three young women sat in Blair and Jo's sitting room. Natalie held a glass of Coca-Cola; Jacqueline drank tea; and Blair was nursing a large cup of sweet hot chocolate.

"Well I don't see that we're asking you to do anything un-ethical," said Jacqueline. "Mizu's clearly a wrong 'un. It's practically our duty to dig up the dirt."

"The Snoop Sisters don't have any problem digging up dirt," said Natalie. "But there are ways to go about it. The methods matter in our little organization."

Jacqueline waved a hand, consigning "methods" to the devil. Jacqueline was all about results. "My dear Natalie, by all means, use whatever methods you and Tootie consider proper. But you will do it?"

"You will – won't you?" Blair asked earnestly.

Natalie looked at Blair, at her eyelids, red from crying, and her big, brown, earnest puppy dog's eyes.

Natalie sighed. "Well, of course we'll do it. Haven't I been saying we need to get Mizu out of here? Not that anyone listens to me until it's too late – as usual! This morning proved that Mizu isn't the right fit for our little family."

"Thank you, Nat," Blair said gratefully, pressing her friend's plump hand. "I owe you."

"We'll put it on your tab," chuckled Natalie. "I think you and Jo owe the Snoop Sisters about a billion-and-a-half dollars by now."

"Make it an even two billion," laughed Blair.

There was a faint tapping at the suite door.

Blair flushed. Her heart beat a little faster. What if it's Jo? But no … She won't come back on her own, the way I sent her away … I'm going to have to go find her …

"Enter," Blair called. Her voice quavered a little. What if it is Jo?

Natalie heard the quaver in Blair's voice and shot the blonde a funny look. Blair was never nervous about anything!

The suite door opened and Tootie walked in, or, slouched in, rather, shoulders slumped forward, head downcast.

"Hey guys," she said dejectedly. She closed the door behind her. She slumped down on a hard-backed chair.

"I'm sorry," said Jacqueline, "but you seem to have the wrong address, Tootie. The Suicide Club is meeting down the hall."

"Har-har," Tootie said morosely.

"Tootie – what's wrong?" Natalie asked, concerned.

"Nothing," said Tootie. She shrugged limply. She gazed down at the coffee table, as if in a daze. "Just the end of my life, my reason for existing."

"For pity's sake," said Jacqueline, "who knew you'd take it this hard? Tootie – Blair and Jo just had a fight. A particularly ugly fight, it's true, but it happens in the best of families. They'll make up. In fact, we're hatching a scheme to make it a certainty."

"Don't say 'hatching a scheme'," objected Natalie. "It sounds so … underhanded."

"Very well – 'devising a plan' then."

"Devising a plan?" Natalie rubbed her hands together. "Devising a plan! That I can live with!"

Tootie groaned.

Natalie put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Tootie, no kidding, what's the matter? What happened?"

"The unthinkable!"

"DeBarge broke up?"

"No."

"Michael Jackson got married?"

"No. Michael's still on the market. But I'll never get to meet him now. Mr. Pierce just called and … I didn't get the part."

"What? You're kidding!"

"I wish I were. Just imagine: Me, Tootie Ramsey, not playing the lead in an Eastland production!"

"Well I for one am boycotting the play!" Natalie said, outraged.

"I'm sorry," Blair told Tootie sympathetically. "But Jo did try to warn you."

"Warn me about what?" Tootie asked dully.

"You know – about taking your success for granted. You know what they say: A big, swollen head always goeth before a fall."

Tootie turned to Blair, eyes narrowing. "Would you mind repeating that?"

"I'm not trying to be unkind, Tootie, but you have to admit Jo was right."

"Well, Jo does know all about big, swollen-headed divas – since she's dating you!"

"Tootie!" gasped Blair, "what kind of thing is that to say?"

"She's just giving it right back to you," said Nat.

"Giving what back to me?"

"The insult."

"I'm not trying to insult Tootie; I'm being a caring role model."

"Well your role needs a little work," advised Nat. "Tootie needs a shoulder to cry on – not you criticizing her." Natalie squeezed Tootie's shoulder. "Did Mr. Pierce tell you why you didn't get the lead?"

Tootie deflated again. "He said it was too much of a stretch for me."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Tootie shrugged. "Beats me."

"But you've played Noli Hawks! Ensign Nellie Forbush! Baron Von Trapp!"

"I guess none of that impressed Mr. Pierce."

"Pierce-Schmierce! Who is Mr. Pierce anyway? What happened to Mrs. Wermer? Doesn't she usually direct these things?"

"Mr. Pierce is the new drama instructor. Mrs. Wermer resigned. She finally got her big break on Broadway."

"Mrs. Wermer?" Natalie remembered the woman as an elderly, rather hatchet-faced person. "What's her big break?"

"They're reviving 'The Wizard of Oz'."

"Ah!" Natalie nodded sagely. "Well, this Pierce sounds like an idiot. Who did he cast as Eleanor?"

"Helene Pierce."

"Helene Pierce? Pierce? As in, she's some relation to him or something?"

"She's his niece. But, I mean, she is pretty good. Not as good as me, of course, but the girl can hold her own."

Natalie threw her hands up in the air. "Nepotism! Blatant, disgusting, inexcusable nepotism! And at our beloved Eastland! Well this is not going to stand! Tootie, we are going to go to my room so I can get my Hemingway hat, and then we are going to the offices of the Eastland Gazette!"

"But you're not editing the Gazette this year."

"Once an editor-in-chief, Tootie, always an editor-in-chief! This may be the last thing I write for the Gazette, but we are gonna blow the lid off this scandal!"

Tootie brightened. A faint smile touched her mouth. "Yeah?"

"You betcha, Tootie! Mr. Pierce is about to experience the full power of the fourth estate!"

Tootie threw her arms around Natalie's neck, half-choking her as she hugged her.

"Natalie, you're the best friend ever!"

"True, true. Better than some anyway." This, with a meaningful glance at Blair.

"I was only trying to be helpful," said Blair. "When all is said and done, I think this is a very good lesson for Tootie."

"Ha!" And then, "To the Gazette!" Natalie said enthusiastically.

She and Tootie all but flew out of the suite.

"Well … There go our investigators," sighed Blair.

"Tut –not to worry," Jacqueline said briskly. "One must always have a Plan B. D'you recall the Duchess said something about having connections at Trinity?"

"Yes. In fact, she offered to pull some strings if Jo ever wanted to attend Oxford."

"Precisely. Well Alec might know who those connections are. And they might be able to get us the information we need."

Jacqueline went to the wall phone in the alcove, dialed four digits. She waited … and waited …

"Dash it, I told him to wait for me in his room," murmured Jacqueline.

"Still don't have Alec properly trained?" teased Blair.

"No. I don't. He has this extraordinarily annoying independent streak."

"I've noticed," Blair chuckled.

Jacqueline replaced the receiver. "We'll find him. Come on, dear – freshen up. We're going to resolve this, once and for all."

"Thank you, Jack."

"Don't mention it."

"But I mean it. I'm truly grateful. Boots is … for all her faults, she's really a sweet girl. But she's like a … lump of clay. And the way Mizu's shaping her …"

"I understand. Don't distress yourself, Blair. We'll resolve this."

… As she washed her face over the small basin in the bathroom, Blair thought of Alec's Great-Aunt Vivienne. She remembered the elderly woman sitting alone at the head of her grand dining table, in a pool of lamplight.

If you spent more time connecting with your young goddess, Vivienne had told Blair in Florence, and less time looking around at who's looking at her, you'd be a damn site happier!

The Duchess had been such a wise woman … And she had known the same intense jealousies Blair sometimes experienced – had known them, and suffered the consequences.

Her grace was right, thought Blair. I should just go find Jo and kiss her and forget all this mess.

But then, unbidden, Blair saw that morning's scene again … Walking into the music room … She saw it all in slow motion … Jo, practically naked on the floor, looking up at Boots, while Boots playfully held Jo's bra straps and pulled Jo toward her for a kiss …

Blair shivered.

It was wrong. It was so damn wrong.

I can't let it stand …


"You need to apologize," Petal said quietly. "And the sooner the better."

Petal was folding blouses in River Rock's dank, damp laundry room. The dryer clanked and clonked as another load of blouses dried.

Since moving into River Rock after her family's misfortunes, Petal had discovered, much to her surprise, that she enjoyed laundry. The scent of the detergents; the clonking of the machines; the repetitive acts of sorting and folding; she found it all inexpressively comforting – almost Zen.

Upon her return from Italy Petal had found a job giving tours for the Peekskill Historical Society. It was a hell of a come-down for a Von Schuylkill, especially since Petal had been planning to attend medical school, but it was decent work and let her earn enough to pay Mrs. Garrett a nominal rent and have some spending money left over.

These days, her friends knew, Petal could be found either at one of Peekskill's historic sites, or in the laundry room …

"It wasn't really my fault," Boots said plaintively. She lounged on the ugly, battered, mustard-colored sofa that Jo had found at the Salvation Army. Boots shifted; a broken spring was poking her in the butt.

"Boots," Petal said with mild reproach, as she folded a blue blouse.

"Well – it wasn't."

"You climbed onto the divan with Jo while she was sleeping. You embraced her. You tried to kiss her. Please explain to me, Boots dear, how none of that is your fault?"

"I'm under a sort of spell," said Boots. "I just … Jo is so amazing."

Petal sighed. She added the folded blue blouse to a basket of finished laundry, began folding a hunter green blouse.

"No one understands me," Boots said mournfully.

"What does Mizu think of all this?" asked Petal. "As your girlfriend, she's most directly affected by your behavior."

"Oh, Mizu's angry at Jo. She's livid. Which doesn't make sense. Gravy, it isn't Jo's fault!"

"No," Petal agreed, "it isn't. Boots, your behavior is hurting four people very much. You're hurting Jo and you're hurting Blair and you're hurting Mizu."

"That's three." Boots crinkled her nose, thinking. "Who's the fourth person?"

"Yourself, of course. You can't possibly be happy, hurting so many people that care about you."

Boots pulled a face. "Blair doesn't care about me. Blair would like it if I went up in smoke!"

"Can you blame her?"

"She's not suited to Jo. Blair and Jo are too different. I'm suited to Jo."

"That's not for you to decide," Petal said, in the tone of an indulgent nanny. "I can't help feeling you haven't been completely honest with Mizu. If you had been, she couldn't possibly be angry with Jo. Boots, I want you to find Mizu and make a clean breast of everything."

"But … Mizu will hate me."

"I doubt that. She seems very fond of you. If you're honest, you and she might be able to move forward. But Boots …" Petal trailed off.

Boots sat up straighter on the sofa. Petal was being so serious, Boots thought, even more than usual.

"What?" asked Boots. She lifted her sharp little chin. "I can take it, mother. Give me the medicine."

Petal sighed. "Boots, you need to be honest with Mizu and you need to apologize to Jo. And Blair. But even after that … I don't see how you can possibly go on living here."

Boots looked stricken. She put a hand to her pearls.

"Not live here?"

"I don't think so, Boots. Not after what you've done. I know you don't always think things through, but Boots … That was a pretty damn ratty thing to do."

Boots' eyes filled with tears. She looked away from her friend, her protector and advisor since childhood. "Why is it so bad," asked Boots, "to want Jo?"

"You can't help wanting her, but it's what you did about it, Boots. If you can't understand it," said Petal, "I can't explain it to you. It's not … Boots, it isn't honorable. Since you can't seem to leave Jo alone, you and Mizu need to move on."

"But move on where? This is our home! Mrs. Garrett would never throw us out!"

"She won't want to," Petal agreed, "but once the dust has settled, I don't see that she'll have another choice. But Boots," Petal set the green blouse in the basket of clean clothes, began folding a chocolate-brown blouse, "you shouldn't make Mrs. Garrett ask you to leave. You shouldn't put her in that position. You should do the right thing on your own."

Boots folded her long, thin arms across her shallow chest. She set her jaw like an angry child. "I don't like the things you're saying, Petal."

"I know," Petal sighed. "Boots … What do you feel about Mizu?"

Boots shrugged. "She's very pretty. And she's very nice to me. And I don't want her to go away. But I don't love her like Jo."

"You have to tell Mizu that," said Petal.

"Oh, for heaven's sake – you want me to tell everyone everything!"

"In a nutshell – yes."

"But that will, that will ruin everything. You don't understand. No one understands."

"Boots, dear, you're the one that doesn't seem to understand," Petal said gently. "You're bringing a great deal of trouble on people you care about – people who care about you. Please think about what I'm saying. I know if you really try you'll understand what you need to do."

Boots stood up, arms still folded, chin up. "I understand you're not the friend I thought you were," she said coldly.

"Boots … Don't …"

"I know when I'm not wanted!" said Boots. And she flounced dramatically out of the laundry room.

Petal listened to her friend's footsteps receding down the cellar hallway.

"This," Petal thought, "cannot possibly end well."


Jo was giving the Kawasaki a thorough lube job when Blair walked into the garage.

Jo's hands were covered in oil and grease, and she had unknowingly smeared some on her cheek and chin. There were streaks of grease on the shorts and tank top she'd borrowed from Petal.

Jo had her old transistor radio tuned to the Langley College station, KPLK; it was the classical hour, and a moody piece by Chopin was playing through the static. Jo looked so sad and forlorn, especially since she was practically swimming in Petal's oversized uniform.

Blair burst into tears.

Jo whirled at the sound. She saw Blair standing there, still wearing her white silk bathrobe, hair caught in a messy ponytail, eyes red rimmed. Blair looked so sad and vulnerable …

Jo threw her wrench aside; it clanged on the concrete floor. Jo went to Blair, caught her in her arms, crushed the blonde against her.

"Babe, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," murmured Jo. She buried her face in Blair's soft hair. She breathed in Blair's scent. "Nothin happened, I swear. But I'm so sorry I yelled at ya. I never want us to fight like this again. Not ever."

"We won't," murmured Blair. She was crying … again. What's wrong with me today? One mood swing after another … It felt so good to be in Jo's strong arms. Blair put her arms around Jo's shoulders, kissed her lover's face. "Jo, I love you."

"I love you, Blair."

Blair kissed Jo's forehead, her eyes. "I can't lose you, Jo."

"You won't. Babe, you're never gonna lose me."

"I'm sorry I was so horrible."

"Shh. Don't even talk about it. Let's just forget this stupid day ever happened."

Jo crushed Blair to her so tightly … She caught Blair's mouth, kissed her so long, so deep …

Jo's held Blair's waist with one hand, slid the other comfortingly up and down the blonde's back, irrevocably ruining the white silk garment, streaking it with grease and grime. Blair didn't give a damn. She returned the kiss with passion. Her hands slid upward, tangling themselves in Jo's dark hair …

It might have been a minute … it might have been ten minutes … time lost meaning for the two young women as they kissed and held each other.

Nothing feels as right as this, thought Jo. This is where we belong, forever …

I can't lose her, thought Blair. I can't live without her …

On tinny, crackling radio KPLK, it was time for the DJ's to switch over.

"Good afternoon, Langley College, this is Nellie with the Not-So-Oldies Pop Party! First up this afternoon: a little Olivia Newton John!"

The opening notes of "Suddenly" filled the garage. Even through the static it was a beautiful song, and it was their song, Jo's and Blair's.

Jo began to sway, slowly, from left to right, and Blair caught the rhythm. They danced together to their song, leaning their heads on each other's shoulders.

"Did you call that in?" whispered Jo. "Did ya, you know, ask 'em to play it?"

"No. It's just a beautiful coincidence," whispered Blair. She tenderly stroked Jo's hair as they swayed together.

"Suddenly," sang Blair in a husky voice, "I don't need the answers, cause I'm ready to take all my chances with you …"


Alec sighed as he hung up the phone.

"I need a bath," he complained.

Jacqueline kissed his cheek. "You smell rather nice, I think."

"That's not what I mean, Jack."

They sat on Alec's futon; Jacqueline had been painting her nails a pinky-beige color while Alec was on the telephone.

"Poor old thing," said Jacqueline, kissing him again. "Digging up dirt doesn't seem to agree with your sensitive nature."

"No. It doesn't. I feel as if I've been pawing through a stranger's knicker-drawer."

"Chin up, Alec. So … What's the verdict?"

He rubbed his jaw. "It's … ugly, Jacqueline. Damned ugly."

"All the more important that we know about it, then," Jacqueline said firmly. "And we need to be sure Mrs. Garrett learns of it too. What did they tell you? Why was she sent down?"

"Assault," Alec said grimly. "Put a fellow in hospital. ICU. Broken bones, punctured lungs, concussion. He walks with a cane now."

"But that's dreadful! And that's who Mrs. Garrett took in –a common-or-garden thug!"

"Well … With all of the strays that Mrs. Garrett takes in, there was bound to be a clinker in the bunch."

"Don't mix your metaphors, darling. But, in principle, you're right." She lit two cigarettes, handed one to Alec.

"No thank you, dear," he said. He stubbed his cigarette out on a saucer.

"Still thinking of Viv?" Jacqueline asked kindly.

"Still thinking of Viv," he agreed. "'Coffin nails have done for me,' she said. Christ."

"But that was after, what, seventy years of smoking," Jacqueline said.

"The thought of it turns my stomach, that's all," said Alec. "In fact," he snatched the Benson and Hedged from her fingers, "it wouldn't harm you to cut back rather."

"Alec!"

He stubbed her cigarette against the saucer.

"Alec, you're, you're positively Neanderthal!" Jacqueline complained.

Alec laughed. "That's our Jo's influence. Can't you just picture her slinging Blair over her shoulder and carrying her to their bed?"

"No," Jacqueline said, "and I don't want you picturing things like that either. I'm right her, milord, should you feel the desire to sling someone over your shoulder."

"Why, Jack," he said, gazing at her fondly, "is that a proposition?"

"I don't think I could possibly be more clear, Alec."

Alec grinned, but a faint shadow passed over his face.

"Shouldn't we be rushing to Mrs. Garrett's side to reveal Mizu's violent past?"

"That can wait a tic," Jacqueline said firmly. "Mizu is at her job. Now, Lord Nethridge … kiss me."


Blair cried out and then fell back, hair spilling in wild golden waves over the canvas drop cloth that Jo had chivalrously draped over a pile of ten-pound bags of soil.

From where she was crouched, straddling her lover, Jo grinned up at Blair – one of her million-watt dazzlers.

"That was … that was … wow," panted Blair.

They hadn't made it out of the garage before their makeup session took an extremely passionate turn.

They had stumbled into the back corner, near Jo's tool bench, and Jo had fashioned the makeshift bed; neither one could quite recall if they had locked the door, but they were willing to take their chances.

Blair's silk robe was open. Her peignoir was torn and on every inch of her – her robe, her peignoir, her pale flesh – were grimy palm prints and finger marks from Jo's oily hands. And Blair didn't give a damn.

Jo playfully kissed Blair's inner thighs, then her damp sex. Jo flicked her tongue over the bundle of nerves above Blair's rosy nether lips.

Blair gasped in pleasure. "Jo, are you going to – again? … Already?"

"Why not?" asked Jo. "I feel like I'm makin up for a lotta lost time. Would you mind?"

Blair smiled dreamily. She closed her eyes.

"Please," she murmured, "proceed, darling."

"That's what I was hopin you'd say," grinned Jo.


Mrs. Garrett prepared a delicious supper for her family – her famous boeuf bourguignon, with crusty French bread, an autumn salad, mashed potatoes and carrots, plenty of good red wine, mineral water for the younger girls, and apple strudel for dessert.

It was her firm belief that good food and drink could smooth over almost any problem, or, at the very least, were conducive to peaceful discussions of said problem.

Mrs. Garrett placed candles in the crystal holders that her sister had sent to her and Drake as a wedding present. Smiling, Mrs. Garrett lit the candles. She stepped back from the dining room table and regarded her handiwork. Dishes of piping hot food; sparkling glasses of wine; candlelight …

If this doesn't put everyone in the mood to get along, I don't know what will! she thought.

She went to the hi-fi and snapped on a classical station. There. Now it's perfect.

She strolled to the front foyer and called up the grand front staircase. "Dinner is ready! Come and geeeeeeeet it!"

She strolled to the back staircase, the old servant staircase near Alec's room that led up to Jo and Blair's suite. "Come and geeeeeeet it!" she called up the back stairs. "Dinner!"

In the dining room Mrs. Garrett stood by her chair, waiting for her family to arrive. Some of them might be out and about, but most of them, she knew, would be in. It was the evening before classes began, after all. Langley and Eastland classes started the next morning.

Mrs. Garrett waited. And waited. And waited.

Drake appeared finally, taking her in his arms and giving her a resounding kiss.

"The new set is perfect," he reported. "You're going to love what they did with the convection oven."

"I'm sure I will," smiled Mrs. Garrett. But she was distracted, and Drake could tell.

"Anything wrong?" he asked solicitously.

"What could be wrong?"

He glanced at the beautifully set table. "This looks lovely, Edna. Boeuf bourguignon?"

"Yes, dear."

"Are we celebrating the kids starting school tomorrow?"

"Yes, dear."

"And … You're trying to pour oil on troubled waters?" His eyes twinkled.

"Guilty as charged," she agreed. "But no one seems to be here. I sounded the chow call fifteen minutes ago!"

"Maybe they didn't hear you," Drake suggested – and then laughed. "Or, well …"

"It's all right, dear," said Mrs. Garrett, patting his cheek, "I know I haven't exactly been blessed with dulcet tones! If the kids are in the house, they should have heard me."

"Well, where could they be?"

"Mizu's working," said Mrs. Garrett. "She's bartending at the Fireside Inn. But Boots should be here. Or … I suppose she could still be sulking in her room. And Jo and Blair, well … perhaps they've reconciled."

Drake laughed. "If they have, we won't see them for days!"

"But I don't understand where Alec is," mused Mrs. Garrett. "Or Jacqueline."

"Perhaps they've taken a page out of Jo and Blair's book. Edna, sometimes I think I've married into 'The Love Boat'!"

"That's not such a bad thing, is it?" she asked.

"Not bad at all." He kissed her.

"But where is Petal?" asked Mrs. Garrett when she and Drake came up for air. "And where are Tootie and Natalie? They should certainly be here. They always spend the night before classes start going over their wardrobe."

"Don't they wear uniforms?"

"Yes, but there are so many different combinations. Should they wear the blue vest with the red shirt, or the blue shirt with the red skirt – and so on. And what happened to Mona?"

"Perhaps Mona returned to the city."

"Without saying goodbye? That wouldn't be like her. That wouldn't be like Mona at all."

"Well, dear, all I can think of is that UFO program we watched the other night. Do you think a flying saucer beamed them all up?"

"If it did, it will probably send them back," smiled Mrs. Garrett. "I don't know if the aliens can handle our crew!"

Drake chuckled. "I wonder what an advanced civilization would make of Boots?"

"Have you ever read 'The Ransom of Red Chief'?"

"Mrs. Garrett, you've outdone yourself!" said Alec, sweeping into the dining room with Jacqueline on his arm. The two young Brits were both smiling in a somewhat goofy, starry-eyed manner that Mrs. Garrett remembered from the early days of Jo and Blair's courtship.

"It's nice of you to say so," said Mrs. Garrett, patting her hair. "But when I call everyone to dinner, I expect everyone to come straight to the table."

"We're very sorry," Alec said contritely. "But there was, er, something we needed to, to –"

"Take care of," said Jacqueline.

"Yes," said Alec. "Something we needed to take care of."

"Hmmn," Mrs. Garrett said dubiously. The two young people had the grace to blush.

Alec pulled out Jacqueline's chair for her, and dropped the serviette on her lap once she was seated.

"God's teeth," said Alec, dropping into the chair across from Jacqueline, "that boeuf bourguignon smells like ambrosia! What's the occasion? Or, don't tell me – this is a diplomatic, kiss-and-make-up sort of meal."

"Bright boy," said Drake.

"Thank you, sir. I am extremely perceptive, if I do say so myself."

"Being so perceptive, did you happen to see anyone else on your way here?" asked Mrs. Garrett. "Jo? Blair? Mona?"

"No, no, and no," said Alec. Jacqueline kicked him under the table. "But, er, as the four of us are alone just now, this is the perfect opportunity for us to share something with you. Something, er … well …" Jacqueline kicked him again. "Stop that!" he told her severely.

"Get down to brass tacks, Lord Nethridge," said Jacqueline. "Don't be so halting."

"Halting? Who's halting? I simply wish to frame my words properly." Alec cleared his throat. "Mrs. Garrett …" He trailed off again.

"I have a feeling this is going to be pretty good," observed Drake.

"Truth be told, it's pretty bad," said Alec. "In light of, er, the unpleasant events of this morning, it seemed to Jack and me that we should do a spot of sleuthing."

Mrs. Garrett frowned. "What kind of sleuthing?" she asked.

"Aunt Viv had some contacts at Oxford – at Trinity and Rowan, especially. And it seemed to me and to Jack as if, you know, with Mizu having been sent down –"

"You don't know that she was sent down," said Mrs. Garrett.

"We surmised it," Alec clarified. "And it so happens that she was."

Mrs. Garrett took a deep breath. "Alec … I'm trying very hard to keep my temper. Are you trying to tell me that you and Jacqueline snooped into Mizu's background?"

"With the best of intentions," he said hastily.

"Alec …" Mrs. Garrett took another deep breath. "I'm mentally counting to ten right now. You do know that Jo had a juvenile record? And Blair had some interesting brushes with authority – as did you, if memory serves. Even Tootie and Natalie were hauled into the hoosegow a few years ago! You had no right to pry into Mizu's background, and I'm not interested in whatever you found."

"Truly? You don't want to know that she crippled a chap?"

"No, Alec – I don't."

"But did you hear what I said?"

"Yes."

"That she crippled a chap? And you don't mind having her here, under this roof, with these girls?"

"I'll trust my judge of character over a load of, of hearsay any day," Mrs. Garrett said stoutly.

"Mrs. Garrett, Alec spoke with one of the Rowan governors," Jacqueline said quietly. "Not one of the scouts or chars or students. This isn't gossip. It's a matter of record."

"They're kept it very dark," said Alec, "given how powerful her father is, but she was given the boot. Fellow's mother was going to bring Mizu up on charges, but she left the country."

"That's why she was in Italy," said Jacqueline. "And that, we imagine, is why her father cut her off."

"You imagine – but you don't know."

"Well, er … true," said Alec.

"Blair was frozen out by her parents," said Mrs. Garrett. "Jo, too, for that matter. Because, like Mizu, they prefer the company of women."

"But neither Jo nor Blair ever beat a chap half to death."

"But they might, if he were attacking them."

Alec's eyes narrowed. "Mrs. Garrett – I believe you already know all this about Mizu."

"Yes, Alec, I do. Mizu and I had a long conversation when she moved in here. I know everything you just told me … But more importantly, I know what actually happened."

"Doubtless Mizu explained everything," Jacqueline said drily, "casting herself in the role of heroine! Mrs. Garrett, you're a lamb, but you're simply too trusting."

"Well I'll put my trust up against your, your suspicious minds any day of the week!" said Mrs. Garrett. "And now as far as I'm concerned, this conversation is closed. I don't want to hear another word about Mizu Tokama!"

Jacqueline frowned. Alec winced. They sat across the table from each other, feeling awkward as hell, almost speaking to Mrs. Garrett but then thinking the better of it and closing their mouths.

Mrs. Garrett lifted the lid on the serving dish overflowing with rich boeuf bourguignon. She began to ladle out portions of her masterpiece as fiercely as if she were doling out damnation. She was so upset she was actually quivering. Drake put a comforting hand on the small of her back.

"Where is everyone?" Mrs. Garrett demanded of no one in particular. "Where are Tootie and Natalie?"

Jacqueline cleared her throat. "Last I saw them they were tearing off to the Eastland Gazette – but that was hours ago."

"The Eastland Gazette? What on earth for?"

"Tootie didn't get the role she wanted – Eleanor of Aquitaine. Advisor gave it to his niece – bloody scandal, it sounds, and Natalie's going to write a scorching expose."

Mrs. Garrett harrumphed. Alec and Jacqueline – and Drake for that matter – weren't sure what to make of the harrumph, so they stayed quiet.

"What about Petal?" asked Mrs. Garrett. "Or Boots? Or Mona? Where are they?"

"Not a clue," Alec said regretfully.

"Shall I see if Mona's in Natalie's room?" offered Jacqueline.

"If she is, she must have heard my chow call." Mrs. Garrett sighed. "We'll just dig in, and the others can join us when they choose. Come on now – dig in, everyone …"

They dug in.

The food was sublime. The meal, relatively simple as it was, was so tasty that it ranked among Mrs. Garrett's best. But not withstanding the cuisine and the glinting candlelight, the echo of the day's arguments still hung in the air, and the table felt empty; it was a mostly silent and unnerving supper.

Drake made an occasional stab at conversation, describing the new "Edna's Edibles" set in detail, and asking Mrs. Garrett what particular qualities she was seeking in a production assistant.

"You tell me what you're looking for," said Drake, "and I'll round up some likely candidates. We can begin interviews as early as Wednesday."

Mrs. Garrett made another of her enigmatic harrumphing sounds. Her mind was clearly far away.

Petal came in about halfway through supper. With murmured greetings and a hangdog air, she sat next to Jacqueline. Alec poured her a glass of wine. Mrs. Garrett ladled boeuf bourguignon onto a plate, adding carrots and mashed potatoes and thin slices of bread.

"Thank you," Petal said quietly. She dropped her serviette on her lap and began to eat.

"I say," said Alec, "you haven't seen any of the others, have you?"

Petal swallowed her mouthful of food and sipped her wine before answering.

"I've been folding laundry," she said. "Boots and I had … a bit of a chat."

"Our Boots was in the laundry room?" asked Jacqueline, surprised. "I'd no idea she knew where it is!"

"Is she ready to go to Jo and Blair, cap in hand?" Alec asked lightly.

"Alec," Petal said reproachfully. "It isn't funny – not really. Boots is very … I would almost say 'besotted' with Jo. I don't see … I don't see how she can continue under this roof."

"Boots is harmless," said Alec. "She's just under a bad influence."

"Alec," Mrs. Garrett said sharply.

"Begging your pardon, mum," he said to Mrs. Garrett. He pantomimed locking his mouth and tossing away an imaginary key.

"If you're speaking of Mizu," Petal told Alec in a soft, somber tone, "I feel badly for her. Not nice for her, is it, having Boots chasing after Jo?"

"That's the first sensible thing I've heard at this table tonight," said Mrs. Garrett. She pressed more carrots on Petal; Petal politely declined.

"None of this is nice for any of us," said Alec. "Our little paradise is being rent in twain because of – Well, I can't say her name, but you all know whom I mean."

There was a moment of strained silence. Drake cleared his throat.

"Did any of you hear about Janet Jackson?"

"What about Janet Jackson?" asked Tootie, sailing into the room. "Mmmn, that smells delicious! Mrs. Garrett, you've outdone yourself again!"

"Janet eloped with one of the DeBarge singers," said Drake.

"She didn't?" gasped Tootie.

"She did," said Drake.

"Well," Tootie said philosophically, "as long as Michael's still on the market."

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Natalie, following in Tootie's wake, "may I present the new – and vastly improved – Eleanor of Aquitaine!"

Tootie bowed deeply. "Thank you, thank you! You're all too kind!" she said.

"Talk about the power of the press," laughed Alec. "Good Lord – you only wrote the article this afternoon! You can't possibly have printed an edition of the Gazette since last we spoke!"

"There was no need to run the piece," Natalie said triumphantly. "After I wrote it, Tootie and I dropped by Mr. Pierce's office and gave him a chance to review the article. You know – give him a chance to comment before it went to press."

"But he didn't want it going to press," laughed Tootie. "So he made an executive decision and offered me the part on the spot."

"It was that easy?" asked Alec.

"Easy-peasy," said Nat. She dropped into the chair next to Petal. "He crumbled like stale shortbread. See, his niece attended the last school he worked at too. And guess who always mysteriously got the leads of the school plays he directed?"

"That's so unfair," said Jacqueline. "So it was nepotism, just as you suspected."

"Damn straight!" Natalie said with a satisfied nod. "So now Tootie will play Eleanor, and Pierce's niece will be Tootie's understudy."

Tootie sat in the chair next to Alec.

"Did you get the goods on Mizu?" Tootie asked him.

"Er, ixnay on Izumay, Tootie dear," Alec said quietly.

But Mrs. Garrett had heard her. The spoon clattered against the serving dish as she prepared Tootie's plate.

"So the children are involved in this too," she said angrily. "This witch hunt against Mizu!"

"Children?" Tootie and Natalie demanded together, just as Alec and Jacqueline said "Witch hunt?"

"Since everyone seems determined to make all sorts of investigations and decisions in my own house, without consulting me, I suppose you can serve yourselves! Bon appétit!"

Mrs. Garrett pushed her chair back from the table and stormed out of the dining room in high dudgeon.

There was a moment of shocked silence. Mrs. Garrett was feisty, but she rarely lost her temper to this degree.

"Well," said Drake, "I hope you're all very happy."

"I say – that's not fair," protested Alec.

"Isn't it?" asked Petal, toying with her mashed potatoes. "Don't we deserve it? We're guests here, really, but we behave as if we run the place."

"Mrs. Garrett always says we have a voice," said Alec. "She tells us to look on this place as our home, and I for one don't want someone running around here who might violently attack one of the girls – or even Drake or myself!"

Drake pushed back his chair. He dropped his serviette on his plate.

"Lord Nethridge," he said, "I like you a lot, but right about now I'm wondering if I've ever met such a pompous little ass."

It was the first time anyone had ever heard Drake say a negative word. There was a moment of stunned silence while Drake left the room. Then Alec threw back his head and laughed.

"Well … He certainly has your number," said Jacqueline.

"I should say!"

"What's going on?" Natalie demanded.

"Why is Mrs. Garrett so angry?" asked Tootie.

"What's the dirt on Mizu?" asked Nat.

Alec held up his pale hands.

"One question at a time, children." Then "Ow!" as Tootie pegged him with a slice of bread. "Tootie, dear, that just isn't done at table."

"Well it's done at this table! Don't call us children, Alec!"

"Only Mrs. Garrett can get away with that," added Nat. "And why is she so angry? What did you do?"

"Why should I have done anything?"

"They have your number too," said Jacqueline.

Alec glared at her. "I say, there's gratitude, Jack, after you dragged me into this whole scheme!"

"Don't say 'scheme'," said Natalie. "It's plan. Plan. And what did you find out about Mizu, and why did it make Mrs. G so mad?"

Alec leaned back, balancing his chair on two legs. He steepled his fingers under his chin. "Natalie, my dear … Let me tell you the tale of Mizu the mauler …"


Blair loved brushing Jo's hair.

Jo sat on the chair in front of Blair's small vanity. Blair slowly drew her silver-backed brush through her lover's long dark tresses, sometimes twining a tendril around her fingers, sometimes pausing to kiss Jo …

"Babe, that feels so good, but anymore and I'm gonna start goin bald," Jo said ruefully. "Besides which," her stomach growled, "kinda gettin a little hungry here."

"Of course, darling." Blair set the brush on the vanity. She gathered Jo's hair in her hands, sensually smoothing it. "There. Perfect. You could meet the queen."

"Which one?" laughed Jo.

"Any of them," Blair said, eyes sparkling. She kissed Jo's nose.

"Do you think Mrs. G kept any grub on the stove for us?" asked Jo.

"I hope so. I'm fairly ravenous myself. But she called so long ago; let's not get our hopes up. We might be making peanut butter sandwiches."

"Long as you don't cook any oatmeal," teased Jo. Blair swatted her lightly with the back of her hand. "I'm just sayin," Jo deadpanned innocently. "Anyhow," Jo held Blair's face gently between her hands, "even if it means we go hungry tonight, it was worth missin supper."

"It was – wasn't it?" asked Blair, fixing Jo with a frankly wicked grin that made Jo blush.

"Jeez," said Jo, as she escorted Blair from their suite, "a year ago today we were at Eastland with Mrs. G and Nat and Tootie. Mrs. G cooked us that nice meal. And they didn't know yet, about us."

"We barely knew about us," said Blair.

"And then that night, that was the night we, you know, consummated our feelins."

"Yes, Jo. I remember," Blair said softly.

Jo slipped her arm around Blair's waist. Blair leaned her head on Jo's shoulder as they walked. They were dressed down tonight, after the glamour of last night's party – jeans, sneakers, a plain oxford shirt for Jo, a simple Ralph Lauren blouse for Blair. They wore their hair down and just a dab of Blair's "Sizzling Pink Lip Quencher" on their mouths.

Blair sniffed the air delicately as they descended the back stairs. "Mrs. Garrett's Boeuf Bourguignon! Just like last year."

Jo squeezed her lover. "Happy Anniversary, babe."

"Happy Anniversary, darling."

When they reached the bottom landing of the back stairs, a slim shadowy figure stepped forward.

Blair gasped and shrank against Jo.

She's thinkin about Dina, thought Jo. Damn that bitch to hell! It ain't ever gonna go away maybe, things that startle my girl …

"I'm sorry," said Boots. "I didn't mean to scare you."

The debutante looked gaunt. There were dark circles around her eyes and there was something so infinitely sad in her eyes. She was dressed in the look that she had adapted from Mizu – dark leggings, dark sweater, a black beret.

"I've been sitting here waiting to talk with you," Boots said quietly. "I couldn't quite get the nerve up to go to your room. Besides which," her cheeks tinged pink, "you probably wouldn't want me knocking at your door this afternoon anyway."

Blair's nostrils flared. She glared magnificently at Boots, and her pretty mouth pulled down in a frown so severe that Jo was reminded, for just an instant, of Blair's mother Monica in full disapproval mode.

Boots took a nervous step backward, almost tumbling over a small suitcase and the dark pea coat draped over it. She clutched at the wall to steady herself.

"I want you both to know that I'm sorry. Not about what I did, because I can't seem to help myself. Whenever I see Jo, I just … Well …" Boots smiled at sadly at Jo. "But I'm sorry it's so upsetting for you," Boots said to Blair. "We've never been particularly close but we've known each other a long time, Warnsie. And I'd never intentionally hurt you."

Blair snorted incredulously. She folded her arms across her magnificent bosom.

"Boots, eh, maybe we should all sit down and talk about this another time," said Jo. "We're on our way to grab some grub right now. Maybe tomorrow we can –"

"But that's just it," said Boots. "I won't be here tomorrow."

"Whaddya mean you won't be here?"

Boots lifted the pea coat, draping it over her arm, and picked up the small suitcase. Tiny as it was, it made her list slightly to one side.

"Mizu called me from the Fireside Inn. She's bartending there now, and, well, I don't suppose you care about that."

"Good guess," drawled Blair.

"Mizu called me and said she didn't want me spending one more night at River Rock. She got us a room at the Fireside Inn."

"With what freakin money?" asked Jo. "What're they payin bartenders these days, anyhow?"

"I don't know how she's paying for it," said Boots, "but I asked Petal if she'd drive me there and gravy, Petal was telling me earlier that she thinks I should move out, and I don't agree, but that's what Mizu wants and Jo, you don't seem to care about me, so, well," Boots took a deep breath, "I'm leaving."

Blair pursed her lips. She nodded toward the back door. "Don't let it hit you on the way out."

"Blair – jeez," Jo said softly.

"Well I'm certainly not going to cry about it!" said Blair. "Of course they're leaving! It's the very least they could do! They couldn't decently do anything else."

"That's what Petal said," murmured Boots. "Only she said it nicer."

"Boots, I'm being as nice as I can be in this situation," said Blair. "Goodbye – and may our paths never cross."

Boots nodded. A tear slipped down her cheek.

"Boots, just, Christ, I don't know what to say," said Jo. "You screwed up but I wish you weren't leavin. Maybe if we all sat down with Mrs. G tomorrow –"

"Forget it!" flared Blair. "Let them go."

"I don't want to go either," Boots told Jo. "But Mizu insisted. She's, gravy, she's so mad at you Jo. I'm worried she might hurt you."

"Jo?" Blair asked in a strangled voice. "Mizu is mad at Jo? For what? You're the little sex fiend who can't keep her hands off Jo!"

"Babe," said Jo. "Please don't get all het up again."

"Het up? Who's het up?" Blair demanded.

Jo groaned.

"Don't worry," said Boots. "I'm leaving."

"So you keep saying," said Blair, "and yet here you stand."

Leaning to the right, Boots carried her suitcase to the back door. She took a last glance around the back foyer. "It's been an interesting few months," Boots said sadly. "I'll miss this little halfway house."

"Boots – we'll call you or somethin," said Jo.

"No," Blair said through gritted teeth, "we won't."

Boots cast a final grateful look at Jo.

And then the spindly debutante went out into the cool night air, the door bumping shut behind her.

Jo rubbed her head in an agitated fashion. "What the frig?" she muttered. "What's happenin around here?"

"Don't, darling," said Blair. "We just brushed your hair."

"To hell with my hair. What a, what a flippin frigged up day!"

"Jo," Blair put a hand on her lover's arm, "you heard what Boots said. She's serious about you. It just won't work if she stays. She had to leave. Mizu too. It's best this way."

"I ain't sayin it ain't best, Blair, it's just, the way it's goin down. We should be, like, there should be discussions and stuff. Why ain't there any discussions?"

"I have a feeling there have been a lot of discussions while we were making up."

"You think?"

"Yes, darling." She gently tugged Jo's arm. "Let's get something to eat."

Jo shook her head. "My stomach's all in knots now, babe."

Blair sighed. She slid her arms around Jo's shoulders, nuzzled Jo's throat.

"Jo … Darling …" she whispered. "I'm sorry this is getting so ugly. But when the dust settles, it's all for the best."

"I need to talk to Mrs. G," said Jo. She dropped a kiss on Blair's head. "I can't eat a damn thing till I talk with her. I shoulda talked with her earlier. She always knows what to do."

Blair tightened her grip around Jo's shoulders. "I love Mrs. Garrett too," said Blair, "but we can't keep running to her for the rest of our lives."

"Why not? She's like a mom. Ain't that what moms are for?"

Blair stepped away from Jo.

A stoneware umbrella stand stood next to the back door. It was filled with ancient, battered, cast-off umbrellas; some had been there when Blair originally leased the house, some left behind by guests during the last year.

With a weird little cry of frustration, Blair ran up to the umbrella stand and kicked it – hard.

"Ow!" she said. "Dammit!" She hopped up and down on one foot.

"What the hell ya doin?" asked Jo. "You can't kick somethin like that when you're wearin a sneaker."

Blair hopped over to the bottom landing and sat on the steps. She cradled her foot.

"You coulda sprained it!" said Jo.

"I think I did," Blair grimaced.

"For cryin out loud, babe, what's the matter with you?"

Jo went to Blair, dropped to one knee, and carefully removed her pale blue tennis shoe. Jo examined Blair's foot, massaging it with gentle hands.

"I don't think you sprained anythin," Jo said after a moment. "How's it feel?"

"Better," murmured Blair.

Jo slowly slid Blair's foot back into her tennis shoe. She tied the laces loosely.

"You got a real dark side, Warner – you know that?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Blair said with dignity.

"Here." Jo steadied Blair's elbow. "Lean on me. Now try to stand … Put your weight on it … Good … So – whaddaya think? Can you walk on it?"

"Yes. I'll be fine, darling." Blair walked in a tight circle around the back foyer. "It doesn't hurt at all anymore."

"Good – though it'd serve you right if it was freakin sprained. Blair – what were you thinkin?"

"I wasn't thinking," Blair said irritably. "I don't think through everything, Jo."

"Clearly."

"Sometimes people just feel things, Jo. You're familiar with the concept, right? Just feeling things – not analyzing them, not managing them, not controlling them – just feeling them."

"Yeah, I'm startin to feel a little somethin right now," Jo said, nostrils flaring.

Blair closed her eyes, mentally counting to ten. "Can we just go eat, Jo? All I want to do is eat something. Wherever the food is, that's where we'll find Mrs. Garrett, and I can eat, and you can talk to her."

"Yeah, whatever. After you, Blondie …"

I can't believe her, thought Jo, following Blair through the meandering corridors. Sometimes she's like a complete freakin stranger. She's the one gets me to care about other people, gets me into all this touchy-feely we're-all-one-big-happy-family crap, and now she's bein so damn cold and selfish …

I can't believe her, thought Blair. She could feel Jo's glare right between her shoulder blades. Who is this woman? Where is my Neanderthal? She should be kicking Boots' ass, she should be kicking Mizu's ass … Instead it's all "Let's talk," and "Let's all be friends" – ugh!!!

The kitchen was deserted, but delicious fragrances hung in the air.

"Boeuf bourguignon," muttered Jo. "That's Mrs. G for ya. She remembered last year."

"What about last year?"

"Never mind," muttered Jo …

In the dining room Natalie and Tootie were picking listlessly at plates of food, while Alec and Jacqueline glumly sipped coffee and smoked after-dinner cigarettes.

"Christ – who died?" asked Jo.

Alec winced. It was still so fresh …

Jo put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, pal, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinkin. Just shootin my mouth off, like usual."

"Not to worry, Artemis," he said fondly. "I'm quite familiar with your big mouth."

"But honest to God," said Jo, "what's the matter with everybody today? This looks like the freakin funeral feast scene from Hamlet."

Tootie sighed. "'The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables'," she quoted somberly.

"In other words," said Jacqueline, voice brittle as she attempted lightness, "your anniversary feast has turned rather grim."

"Alec told us all about Mizu," said Natalie.

"All what about Mizu?" asked Jo.

"What did you find out?" Blair asked curiously, dropping into the chair next to Jacqueline. "Is it really that bad?"

"Much worse than we expected," said Jacqueline. She held out a pack of Benson and Hedges Silk Cut. "Cig, dear?"

"Ah, no – of course not," Blair said, as if Jacqueline were a little crazy for having made the offer.

Jacqueline darted a glance at Jo. "Oh, of course," she said hastily. "My mistake."

Jo glared at Blair. "So that's why our room smelled like a damn roadhouse."

"It was me," said Jacqueline. "Blair and I were having a council of war in your rooms and I was smoking like a chimney."

Jo kept her gaze on Blair, whose cheeks were turning a wonderful sunset-blush color.

"That how it went down?" Jo asked Blair.

"So Jack had a few cigarettes – so what?" asked Blair. "We opened the windows and I sprayed that freshener. You won't even smell it tomorrow."

"I grew up in the Bronx, I ain't worried about smellin a little smoke. What I'm askin, Blair, is if Jack was the only one smoking in our rooms today."

"Who cares if Blair had a cigarette?" Tootie asked dully. "She's been sneaking smokes ever since she came to Eastland."

"I have not," Blair protested.

Tootie tilted her head down and raised her eyebrows, gazing hard at Blair. It was the look Tootie used to defy anyone to contest her data. Blair looked away.

"I thought so," said Tootie.

"Guys, guys – this squabbling isn't getting us anywhere," complained Natalie. "We have a dangerous thug roaming our hallowed halls! And what are we going to do about it?"

"What 'dangerous thug'?" scowled Jo. "And what 'council of war'?" she asked Blair. "What the hell have you all been up to? Or do I need to ask! Diggin up dirt on Mizu, huh? Someone's an outsider and you just can't wait to chuck 'em out the door!"

"Jo, you can't stand Mizu," said Natalie.

"Oh, she's Mizu's big defender now," drawled Blair. "Mizu and Boots. She's their protector or something."

"I just don't like to see people gettin railroaded," said Jo. "I been railroaded some myself in my time, and it's a pretty rotten feelin."

"I wouldn't be in too big a hurry to defend Mizu," said Nat, "not based on what Alec and Jacqueline dug up."

Jo turned to Alec. "So you're in on this too?"

He shifted uneasily in his chair. "Artemis, we're only thinking of you and Aphrodite. And Boots."

"Oh, Boots too?" Jo asked sarcastically. "By all means – think of Boots! You know where all your thinkin's gotten her? She just moved out!"

Alec leaned forward in his chair. "Moved out? But where?"

"She and Mizu are gonna shack up at the Fireside Inn."

"But that's ridiculous," said Jacqueline. "They don't have tuppence between them."

"Well they found tuppence or thruppence or some kinda pence somewhere," said Jo. "Petal just drove Boots over to the Inn with her little suitcase. It's the most pitiful damn thing you ever saw."

"Oh – Boots, Boots, Boots," snapped Blair. "How else can she ruin our anniversary? Can't we all shut up about Boots for two minutes?"

"We have to go get her," Alec said quietly. He was looking at Jo. "Mizu's not stable, Jo. We can't leave Boots alone with her."

"But what the hell is Mizu s'posed to have done?" Jo demanded.

"Put a fellow in hospital," said Alec.

"What the frig – so have I," said Jo.

"The young man was beaten to a pulp, Jo. His legs were shattered, his ribs. His legs didn't mend properly."

"He still walks with a cane," said Nat.

"Well did he provoke her – or what?" Jo asked. "Maybe it was a life-or-death kinda thing."

"He's the son of a celebrated Rowan College instructor. Apparently Mizu didn't like the way he looked at her girlfriend, and she went, well –"

"Apeshit?" suggested Jo.

"In a word – yes."

"Look, I don't care if this guy's father's a freakin famous instructor or Jack the Ripper – his kid could be a total creep for all we know. What does Mizu say about it? What was her side of the story?"

Alec shrugged.

"So no one asked her? Everybody just assumed the worst? Nice. Real nice." Jo turned to Blair. "That night in Florence, when Boots brought Mizu back to the palace, I asked you if Mizu was OK. And you said she was. I mean, yeah, she's a bitch, but you said she wasn't dangerous."

"I didn't realize she was," Blair said wearily. "All I'd ever heard was that she had a problem with authority. I had no idea she was dangerous until recently. Her behavior … her attitude …"

"Yeah, Christ, she doesn't wanna wash the dishes – better get freakin Scotland Yard on the phone!"

Blair rubbed her eyes. "Jo … Boots has been changing, and we know it's because of Mizu and it just seemed, it just seemed prudent –"

"Yes, prudent," Jacqueline interjected approvingly.

" – to look into exactly why she was sent down from Oxford. So. Now we know." Blair looked to Alec. "Why weren't the police called in?"

"Oh, they were, dear – but not by Rowan College. Rowan didn't want an international stink with Mr. Tokama. But the maimed chap, his mother wanted Mizu brought up on charges. Hence Mizu's headlong flight to Italy."

"Are you sure they've moved out?" Nat asked Jo.

"We saw Boots take off," said Jo. She shook her head. "I can't freakin believe it. You're all so ready to believe Mizu's some kinda criminal."

"But the Rowan authorities said –"

"Eh, screw the authorities! Like they can't get it wrong, just cause they're the authorities?"

"Jo, dear, I know you have a chip on your shoulder roughly the size of Manhattan," said Jacqueline, "but sometimes the authorities do get it right."

"And maybe they did," said Jo, "but what's it hurt to hear Mizu's side of things?"

"Mizu's side of things is she was trying to attack you in the kitchen today," Alec said drily.

"Cause she thought I made a pass at her girl!"

"Well since the last person to try that walks with a cane now, you seem to have had a rather narrow escape," said Alec.

"Son of a bitch!" exclaimed Blair.

Everyone fell silent. Everyone looked at Blair like she'd grown an extra head.

"I can't take this anymore," said Blair, standing up so abruptly her chair tipped over behind her.

"Babe –"

"Don't you 'babe' me, Jo Polniaczek! It's our anniversary and from the moment we woke up it's been nothing but Boots this and Mizu that. To hell with them! They don't belong here! We're well rid of them."

"Precisely," nodded Jacqueline.

"You can keep out of this, Miss Messerschmitt," said Jo. "Nobody asked you to stick your royal nose into this mess!"

"Noble," Alec corrected. "Her noble nose. And don't bark at my girl, Jo. She's only trying to be of assistance – and at Blair's request."

"Well we don't need any freakin assistance. Me and Blair can work this out just fine on our own."

"Ha!" Tootie and Nat said together.

Nat jabbed a finger toward Blair's stormy face. "You call this fine?" Nat asked Jo.

Jo looked around the table. "Where's Mrs. G? Where's Mona? Where's somebody to give us a little bit of sanity on this whole thing?"

"Er … Mrs. Garrett wasn't feeling well," Natalie said evasively.

"Ha!" said Jo. "You pissed her off, didn't ya, with all your snoopin around and your jumpin to conclusions!"

Everyone at the table stirred uncomfortably. No one met Jo's eyes.

"I don't even know any of ya," said Jo. "You're like freakin strangers right now. You're all so smug. You're all in it together, aren't you? No outsiders need freakin apply."

"For heaven's sake, Jo, don't dramatize," said Jacqueline. "You're one of us, aren't you?"

"No." Jo shook her head. "Not when you go after someone bayin for their blood the way you've all gone after Boots and Mizu."

"'Baying for their blood'?" asked Nat.

"Even I know that's over-the-top," said Tootie.

"Where's Mrs. G?" Jo demanded.

"She went to her room," said Nat. "She just couldn't face the ugly truth."

"Yeah? Ugly is right! And where's Mona? I wanna talk to her too. I wanna talk to some grown-up types who ain't ready to rush to crazy conclusions."

Natalie frowned. "Where is Gramma?"

"Probably lying down in your room," Alec said absently. "But I say, much as I love the old dear, is a problem like this really in her bailiwick?"

"She's not in your room," Tootie told Natalie. "When I went up to change my shoes and drop off your Hemingway hat, your room was all dark and empty."

"Well, she must be around here somewhere," Alec said reasonably. "The old dear will turn up."

Jo felt an icy finger along her spine.

"Guys … When is the last time anyone saw her?"

"After breakfast," said Natalie.

"Yeah," said Tootie. "When we went upstairs after the breakfast fireworks."

"I haven't seen her at all today," said Alec.

"Ditto," said Jacqueline.

"She was sunnin herself," Jo said through numb lips. "Near my garden. She was talkin to me. This afternoon. Nobody's seen her since then?"

"Well, someone must have," said Jacqueline, "but none of us, apparently."

Natalie bit her lip. She glanced at Jo with an expression that said she was feeling, suddenly, that same icy finger along her spine.

"You don't' … You don't think …"

Tootie glanced at the dark windows, and the warm late-summer night beyond.

Jo was already on her feet and heading down a back corridor, toward the rear of the house. Alec fell into step behind her, and then Natalie and Jacqueline followed.

"They don't think anything's really wrong with Mona – do they?" Blair asked anxiously.

"No one's seen her for hours," said Tootie.

"But she must be somewhere," said Blair.

Tootie shrugged.

Blair put her head on her hands. She covered her eyes. "I hate today," she said. "I hate it."

"Well … as long as you're not going to have a tantrum," Tootie said drily.

"I know." Blair shook her head. "I'm being a baby. But it feels like everything's falling apart."

"Nothing's falling apart," said Tootie. "It's just a bad day. It was a bad day for me, too, but Nat and I went and met it head on and now – voila! It all worked out."

That's what Jo and I need to do, thought Blair. Meet it head on …

They sat in silence for a few moments. Tootie tore apart a piece of French bread, ripping it into little pieces without ever actually consuming it.

Blair took a clean fork and stole a few cold bites of Nat's boeuf bourguignon. It was delicious, even cold, but Blair couldn't swallow more than a couple of bites.

In the distance they heard footsteps hammering on the floor boards. The steps came closer and closer.

Blair and Tootie stood up. It was bad news. They knew it.

Jo flew into the room, panting.

"Get Mrs. G," she told Tootie. "Tell her it looks like Mona had a heart attack. She's been – she's been lying in her chair out back all day." Jo blinked, tears streaming down her face. "Go on, Tootie – now! Tell Mrs. G to come out and then call an ambulance."

Tootie fled in the direction of Mrs. Garrett's suite.

Blair felt dizzy. She leaned on the table.

"Jo – what can I do?" she asked. "Is she … She isn't …"

"No, she's not dead yet," Jo said tersely. "No thanks to me! Dammit!" She slapped the table, making dishes and cutlery jump. "I left her out there! I just fucking left her out there!"

"Jo," Blair said gently, "there was no way you could have known."

"I know. I know. But, still …"

With a sudden motion Jo swept a place setting off the table, dishes, silverware, glasses. The utensils and the dishes thudded on the carpet. The glasses shattered; the floor underneath the carpet was stone.

Blair went to Jo, put her arms around her.

"It's going to be all right, darling. Who do we know that's tougher than Gramma Green?"

Jo didn't answer. She buried her face in Blair's soft hair.

Mrs. Garrett dashed into the room a moment later, holding a black nurse's bag.

"Tootie's calling the ambulance," she said. "Where is Mona?"

"I'll take you," Jo said. "Jacqueline's trying to do some kind of resuscitation thing."

"All right." Mrs. Garrett tossed two pale slips of paper onto the table near Blair. "Blair, these came this evening – I hope they aren't bad news."

As Jo and Mrs. Garrett rushed to help Mona, Blair numbly lifted the two slips of paper.

Telegrams. One addressed to Blair Warner, one addressed to Jo Polniaczek.

Who would be sending us telegrams? wondered Blair. Unless it's mother … or father …

But both telegrams were from the Office of the Dean of Langley College.

Blair had no scruples about reading Jo's telegram. They were, as far as Blair was concerned, married – married in heart and body, if not always in mind. Jo's telegram was Blair's, and vice-versa.

The messages were identical.

Blair couldn't believe her eyes.

She read both telegrams over and over again.

She placed the telegrams on the table, side by side, and smoothed them out. She read them again, as if somehow, by reading them over and over, she could change what was written on them.

"We regret to inform you that your registration at Langley College has been terminated. Deposits are forfeit but all other registration and tuition fees will be repaid. G. Pratt, Dean of Langley College."

No 'sincerely,' thought Blair. No 'best wishes' …

"My God," thought Blair, as she sank into a chair, "Jo and I have been sent down!"

Part 3

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