DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended.
SPOILERS: There are multiple references to and some spoilers for FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Peekskill Roads
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

1983. A warm early September Friday in Peekskill, New York, forty-one miles north of the Big Apple.

A handsome young brunette in jeans, sneakers and a grey "Langley College" sweatshirt stood in front of the train station at 300 Railroad Avenue. She carried a large black duffle bag and a scuffed, fourth-hand Amelia Earhart suitcase that once belonged to Mr. Balducci's mother.

Balducci was the super in her mom's apartment building. Pretty much a bozo, but a bozo with his heart in the right place. He appreciated Jo's help during the summer. She fixed doorknobs, hot water heaters, AC units and leaky faucets in her mom's building; unlike Balducci, she fixed them right the first time. She saved him a bundle and made the tenants happy.

Balducci paid Jo a few dollars each time she helped out, money she put directly into the "Langley savings" coffee can on her mom's kitchen counter. On the last day of Jo's summer break, Balducci surprised her with his mother's old suitcase, dredged out of a forgotten corner of the basement and smelling strongly of mothballs, but a sturdy, free suitcase nonetheless.

Jo's mother and father had seen her off at Grand Central Station, with lots of teary-eyed hugs. Rose and Charlie were divorced and tended to scrap after more than a minute or two together, but they were one-hundred percent united in their love of their daughter.

It wasn't just that Jo was smart; she was such a darn good kid, underneath her Bronx bluster, and a hard worker too. No one in her family, heck, in her neighborhood, had ever gone to college, let alone a prestigious place like Langley. It was a big deal.

And expensive as hell. Thousands of dollars a year. What with the cost of tuition and room and board, even with Jo's scholarship it had been a scramble for her and her folks to meet the financial deadline. And Jo had just enough left in her "Langley" coffee can for the train ticket to Peekskill, and to buy textbooks once she got to campus …

Jo shaded her eyes against the sun, looking up and down Railroad Avenue again. She set her suitcase on the sidewalk and shifted her duffle bag to her other shoulder. The bags were heavy. She didn't own many clothes – she didn't own much of anything, but what she had was crammed into the two pieces of luggage.

Peekskill was such a sleepy, pretty little place, she thought. It was the kind of quaint New York backwater where they tended to build ivy-league schools. The place had driven Jo crazy when she first moved out here to attend the Eastland School for Girls – the quiet, the crickets, the open spaces, everybody being so damn nice.

In fact, her very first night in Peekskill Jo had felt so wound up she'd blown off steam in a competition with the richest, prettiest girl she'd ever met.

It had been so dumb, in retrospect, but it had distracted Jo from how alien everything was – the landscape, the people, the way they talked, the way they did everything. She had never felt so much like a fish out of water and had never been so scared in her life.

Stealing the school van? Faking IDs? Going to a roadhouse? Competing with the rich girl to see who could attract the most guys? All were wildly reckless, incredibly stupid ways to begin her time at Eastland, but they had taken the edge off – until they got arrested!

But strangely enough, getting caught had been the luckiest thing that had ever happened to her. That cop hauled them to the Peekskill jail, a little place right out of Mayberry, and Mrs. Garrett bailed them out.

Mrs. G … Even now, three years later, Jo had never met anyone as wise as Mrs. G, or anyone with as big a heart. Mrs. G had vouched for Jo, and the rich blonde (bottle blonde, Jo corrected herself) and the wise-cracking girl and the gossipy kid.

Despite their incredible idiocy, Mrs. G had seen something in the four of them, something worth going out on a limb for. Mrs. G already knew the blonde and the wise-cracker and the gossip, they'd been students at Eastland forever, but Jo she'd just met.

No one had ever trusted Jo on sight. No one had ever had her back like that. Mrs. G's trust had touched Jo, and also scared the hell out of her. It made her feel warm and smothered at the same time.

Jo hated to be beholden to anyone, and she could never quite trust affection. People let you down. They ran out on you. Anyone who expected otherwise was a fool.

So her first few days at Eastland, on probation, stuck in a room with her fellow Eastland delinquents, Jo was on pins and needles the whole time. She was waiting for the bottom to drop out, half-hoping it wouldn't, but half-hoping it would just to end the suspense.

It didn't take her long to realize that she liked them. Mrs. G, of course – who wouldn't like her? But the wise-cracker too. That was Natalie – razor-sharp wit and an insatiable appetite for news and Oreo cookies. And the little gossipy kid too. That was Tootie, wise beyond her years but in a funny way, a sweet way, still really naïve. And of course … of course …

Blair. The rich one. The bottle blonde. The prettiest girl, the most poised, the best-dressed, best-smelling girl Jo had ever met. Jo had liked her instantly. It was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Jo had never admired anyone so much on first sight, and what could be more dangerous for a scrappy, wary street kid? What could make her more vulnerable? So her walls had gone up right away, and her barrage of insults began.

Of course, Blair could take an insult, and she could give it right back. Blair had made extraordinary efforts over the last three years to be Jo's friend, but she had no problem teasing Jo about their differences, and no problem stinging Jo with witty responses to one the brunette's mocking criticisms.

Their bickering became legendary at Eastland. Jo and Blair were always locked in verbal – and on rare occasions, physical – combat, and always together. They preferred each other's company to anyone else's. After three years they could admit it, though infrequently, and exceedingly grudgingly, of course: the debutant and the Bronx street kid had somehow become the very best of friends.

They all became close friends, Jo, Blair, Nat and Tootie, ready to do anything for each other, but Jo and Blair had the deepest, if most inexplicable, bond. Their friendship made no sense on the surface. Jo was by far the poorest and least advantaged of the students. Blair's family, the fabulously wealthy Blairs and Warners, had endowed half the Eastland campus.

But it was more than financial differences that separated the two young women. Blair was polished and obsessed with appearances. Jo was down-to-earth and direct to a fault. Blair was trusting and affectionate, touching and hugging everyone, even Jo. Jo was guarded and avoided physical contact with most everyone but little Tootie or motherly Mrs. G.

Jo called Blair an airbrain. Blair called Jo a Neanderthal. And so it went for three years, but they were three years during which the two girls spent little time apart, and a lot of time standing up for each other and gaining more and more mutual respect.

They were both brilliant, the brightest in their class, and leaders who did the right thing. They had a decency and moral courage that transcended the norm. In the end, their differences were only cosmetic. Their sameness ran deep in their bones and blood.


I'm nervous, thought Jo. Really nervous.

She smiled wryly, not just at her nervousness but her willingness to admit it to herself. Three years ago she would've played it off, acting icy cool or angry instead.

Langley College. The most prestigious liberal arts institution in the country, heck, on the planet, after Harvard. And she, Joanne Marie Polniaczek, had been accepted! It was still hard to take in. It still made her head spin a little bit.

She was proud, and eager to begin her studies. She was a voracious learner – she'd found that out at Eastland, and it had propelled her to the top of her class.

But now, it was like being a little kid again. It was like starting kindergarten. New campus, new classes, new peers; except for Blair, Jo wouldn't know anyone at Langley. And it wouldn't be like at Eastland, where Jo and Blair were roommates. Airbrain would be running around with a pack of airbrained sorority sisters, probably. Jo wasn't gonna count on seeing Blair much at all.

And there was a voice, the voice of the cynical, pre-Eastland Jo, ringing down deep in Jo's consciousness, telling her she couldn't trust this, that somehow the rug was gonna get pulled out from under this achievement.

Good stuff just didn't happen to kids from her neighborhood. You didn't get on a train at Grand Central and step off in Peekskill and sashay into Langley. Maybe you stood outside the college and pressed your nose against the gate. Maybe you threw some stones at it to show you didn't want to go to that stuck-up, sissy school anyhow. You didn't actually get to attend it.

Jo shivered. She felt suddenly cold. Someone walkin over my grave, she thought. That's what Aunt Evelyn always said after shivering for no reason. What the weird expression meant, Jo didn't know (How can ya have a grave when you're still breathin?), but it sure wasn't positive. Jo shivered again.

Where the hell is Blair? she wondered. She glanced at her wristwatch. It was a Timex, second-hand, her dad's gift to her. He'd found it at a pawn shop, and it practically looked brand new. The watch had a delicate silver face and a brown leather strap.

It was a surprisingly feminine gift for a feisty young woman who liked denim jackets, jeans, camouflage shirts and men's pajamas, but Charlie'd wanted to give Jo something classy. Langley was a classy place; Jo and her parents couldn't afford a new college wardrobe for Jo – they could barely afford the tuition – but the watch was one thing that would help her fit in instead of standing out.

Jo's hands were strong but slender, her wrists fine-boned. The watch drew attention to these genteel features.

Two-thirty-five, thought Jo, glancing at the watch again. Blondie's late as usual!

Jo shifted her duffle bag back to her other shoulder and sighed quietly. Just like Blair to leave me standin here, coolin my heels. So inconsiderate! She probably stopped off at that snooty French restaurant, probably chowin down on snails or something while I'm standin here. Probably met up with some airbrained Langley boy and she's flippin her hair in that really annoyin way, with that phony laugh, and glued-on smile, and –"

"Jo!! JO!!" shouted a voice.

Jo looked around, trying to locate Blair. Because it was Blair's voice – her best friend's voice – shouting her name.

The shouts seemed to be coming from a dust-and-mud encrusted red Chevy truck rolling down Railroad Avenue, towing a white trailer.

A woman with long blonde hair was leaning out of the driver's-side window, shouting, "Jo!! Jo!!"

The driver honked the truck's horn ecstatically. She had the face of an angel in a Renaissance painting: perfect, broad cheekbones, radiant skin, dimpled cheeks, warm milk chocolate eyes. Her smile was dazzling.

She looked like Blair but she couldn't be Blair, because Blair rode in limousines or drove BMWs and Mercedes. Blair didn't drive dust-and-mud encrusted red Chevy trucks. And Blair had decorum. She didn't lean out of car windows, honking the horn and shouting the names of lowly scholarship students.

"Jo! Joey!!"

Blair parked the truck across the street from Jo, cut the engine and banged open the door. She flew across the street and into Jo's arms.

Jo almost toppled backward under the force of the affectionate assault. She didn't fall, but she dropped her duffle bag. "Hey, hey," gasped Jo, "tryin to breathe, here, Blondie!"

Blair was oblivious to Jo's words. Her arms were wrapped tightly around Jo's shoulders and Blair's perfect hair, her masses of shining, if not completely natural blonde hair, were pressed against Jo's face. Jo could smell Blair's trademark perfume, Aviance.

"It's sooooo good to see you!" said Blair. She gave Jo another bear hug, causing Jo to say "ooph!" as all of the air was squeezed out of her lungs. "I missed you sooooo much!"

Blair gave Jo a quick peck on the cheek and then pulled back, but only slightly, keeping her arms firmly wrapped around the brunette's shoulders. Blair looked Jo over critically, and then raised one eyebrow. "Well?"

"Well, what?" Jo asked gruffly, pleased by the reception but a little overwhelmed.

"Don't I get a welcome?" pouted Blair.

"Hey, Blondie," said Jo. She smiled a crooked little smile. Physical affection, emotional affection, any affection always made her wary and shy. She didn't do "mush".

"That's a welcome?" Blair demanded.

"Well, that's the best I can do after ya squished all the air outta my lungs," said Jo.

"Do I even get a hug?"

Jo put her arms around Blair's waist for a quick hug, letting go almost instantly. Blair had lost weight, Jo noticed, or redistributed it, or something. The blonde still had a solid, healthy, milkmaid-type figure, but her waist and thighs and posterior were trimmer than when Jo had last hugged her at their Eastland graduation in June.

Holding Blair had always felt too good to Jo. So it was something she did as infrequently as possible. She didn't let herself think about it (much), and would never, never discuss it with Blair.

Jo took a step backward, shrugging gently out of Blair's arms.

"Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do" Blair pouted. "I haul my worldly goods from daddy's Texas ranch all the way up to Peekskill, arrive perfectly on time, and all I get for my troubles are a pitiful little hug. And a scowl."

"I'm not scowling," scowled Jo. "And whaddaya mean, all your worldly goods? Your worldly goods couldn't fit in the Louvre! And whaddaya mean, perfectly on time? You're five minutes late! And whaddaya mean you came up from Texas?"

"Just what I said." Blair sighed. "Try to keep up, Jo."

Jo gaped. "Hang on just a minute. You drove that truck from Texas to Peekskill?"

"By George, I think she's got it," Blair said to the universe at large.

"You drove that truck from Texas to Peekskill?"

"Or, perhaps she doesn't." Blair sighed again – one of the loud, annoying sighs that had been driving Jo nuts for three years – her "slow leak" sigh.

Blair put a hand to her well-endowed chest. "Blair," she said slowly, drawing out the name, "drove truck," she made steering motions, "from Texas," she put her index fingers next to each temple, imitating a longhorn steer, "to Jo." She draped a hand over Jo's shoulder, and left it there. "Got it?"

Jo shook Blair's hand away. "Yeah, yeah, you drove an old truck a few thousand miles. Ya want a medal?"

"Old truck? Old truck? I'll have you know –"

"Aw, geez," said Jo, "You'll have me know? We've only seen each other again for two minutes and already you're 'havin me know' somethin?"

"I'll have you know this is a brand new truck. Although it is a trifle dusty-"

"Dusty? Jeez, it looks like you drove it through the Gobi Desert."

"- but it's a 1983 Chevy K25 pick-up truck. Eduardo, Daddy's foreman picked it out and he says it's got all the, you know, thingamabobs that a classic American truck should have."

Jo peered across the street at the truck and gave it a once-over. Blondie was right; under the grime, it was a really beautiful, practically brand new piece of machinery.

"Since when do you drive a truck?" asked Jo.

"I can drive a truck," Blair said defensively. "Eduardo taught me when I was twelve. Everyone drives a truck down in Texas."

Jo suddenly focused on the white trailer that was attached to the back of the truck. Her eyes danced and she slapped one knee. "Heh-heh! OK, now I get it! Ya had to drive a truck so ya could pull all your luggage!"

Jo laughed so hard she had to wipe a tear out of her eye. "Jeez, Blair, I know you're the queen of garment bags, but ya must have literally a ton of luggage in there. College only last four years, ya know!"

Blair fixed her with a stony glare.

"You know, Jo, we all know how to shoot down in Texas, too."

"Ah, jeez." Jo got a hold of herself, still chuckling. She gave Blair an affectionate little push. "Thanks, Blair, I needed a laugh. I guess I'm just, kinda, you know, wound up."

"Are you quite finished?"

"Yeah, I think so."

Blair glanced coldly at Jo's duffle bag and her scuffed Amelia Earhart suitcase.

"I assume these are your bags?" she asked.

"Yep."

"It figures. Looks like you're either on the lam from the law or on shore leave."

Jo's face fell.

Blair gasped softly and touched Jo's shoulder.

"I'm sorry," said Blair. "That was beyond rude. It's just –"

"Nah, nah, don't you dare take it back," said Jo, rallying. She smiled. "I insulted you, so you insulted me. It's what we do, right? I started the ball rolling on that one. I asked for it. You just caught me a little off-guard, Blondie, but I can take whatever you dish out."

"I shouldn't make fun of your things," Blair said quietly.

"Why not?" Jo slung the duffle bag over one shoulder and picked up the battered suitcase. "So I'm poor, right? It's not like it's a big secret. I make fun of you for being rich all the time."

"That's different," said Blair.

"Come on," said Jo, "I want to see this amazin truck." She strode across Railroad Avenue, carrying the big duffle bag and suitcase as easily as if they were full of feathers.

Blair followed Jo. The brunette had grown taller, Blair noted, and even more slender, but she still had that wiry strength. Jo tossed her luggage easily into the bed of the truck.

"Huhn," said Jo, "all kiddin aside, Blair, how much stuff do ya need? I mean, ya got that whole thing," she nodded at the white trailer, "and then all this too?" She dipped her chin at the avalanche of Gucci luggage that was carefully strapped and secured to the truck bed, makeup cases, suitcases and garment bags, not to mention two giant Victorian trunks.

Blair squinted at her friend. "You really think I'm a complete airbrain, don't you?" she asked. There was something sad in her voice.

Jo wriggled uncomfortably. Her scraps with Blair had become more and more recreational over the years. It was rare that she relished actually hurting the blonde girl, and that's what she was hearing in Blair's voice, genuine hurt.

"Look," said Jo, smiling, "it isn't any of my business if ya land a jumbo jet full of luggage in the Langley quad. Maybe I'm just a little jealous is all."

"No," said Blair. "You're never jealous. You're not a jealous person. You don't care about things."

Jo was silent. It was true. She was sometimes insecure about being poor, but she didn't get jealous about things. Ideas … people … mattered more to her than a bunch of stupid stuff.

"You sound … disdainful," said Blair. "That's what it is. After all this time, after all that we …" She broke off, shaking her head. "Come on," she said. "I'll drive you to your dorm."

Blair climbed into the driver's seat. She rolled up her window and fastened her seatbelt.

Jo remained standing rather stupidly next to Blair's door. She tapped on the window and made a rolling motion with her hand. Blair shook her head curtly. Jo tapped again, made the twirling motion again. Reluctantly, Blair rolled down the window.

"What?" asked Blair, looking straight ahead through the windshield, not at the penitent brunette to her left.

"I'm sorry," said Jo.

"Sorry for what?"

"Uh, I'm not entirely sure. But I know I just hurt your feelins, and I feel like total crud."

"Well, you should."

"And I do. I truly do."

Blair rolled up the window.

Jo walked over to the passenger side, climbed in and buckled her seatbelt.

Blair started to turn the key in the ignition but Jo covered her hand with her own, stopping her.

"Blair," she said.

"Jo," said Blair, lowering her voice to mimic the brunette's solemn tone.

"I gotta … you need to understand that the way I see it, I'm as good as you."

"Who said you weren't?" Blair flared. She tried to pull her hand away but Jo clasped it.

"No, no, I didn't … See, what I'm sayin is, I'm as good as you, and you're as good as me. I don't think I'm any better than you. So when ya say I'm disdainful, there's no way. I don't look down on you and I don't want you to think I do. Ever. I just like to bust your chops."

Blair took a deep breath. For Jo, her "Eh, you're born, you live, you die" Jo, that had been a real speech. That had been tantamount to Jo suddenly reciting the opening chapter of "War and Peace".

Blair turned slowly in her seat so that she was facing her friend. Jo wasn't crying, but her green eyes were shining with unshed tears. Blair had never met anyone who teared up as quickly as the former Young Diablo. It was one of the many, many things that Blair loved, that is, that she liked about her friend.

Blair squeezed Jo's hand and then gently released it.

"Thanks," said Blair.

"You get what I'm sayin?" Jo asked, concerned.

"Yes."

"You're sure?"

Blair nodded. She turned the key in the ignition. The engine rumbled to life.


Jo had seen Blair drive plenty of times before, but she'd never seen the blonde drive a truck.

A truck. A trailer-haulin, mud-flap-sportin, all-American truck.

Blair did most things confidently, and driving was no exception. She looked completely at home behind the wheel of the Chevy.

They made small talk while Blair drove through Peekskill. Wasn't the downtown pretty, and wouldn't it be even prettier when the leaves turned, and was that a new ice cream shop next to the hardware store? And even though Peekskill was still pretty, was it possible that it had gotten even more dull since June? And so on, and so on, blah blah blah.

Next they shifted to their summer vacations. Jo talked generally about working at her Uncle Sal's garage and helping "Bozo" Balducci. Blair spoke vaguely about spending June in Paris, July in Nice on the Côte d'Azur, and August on her father's ranch in Texas.

Yeah, thought Jo, so much in common. No wonder we're best friends!

While they talked, Jo watched Blair out of the corners of her eyes. For the first time since Blair had met her at the train station, Jo registered what her friend was wearing. She'd noticed, the essentials, of course, that Blair was dressed casually, that she wore a delicate bracelet and necklace, that she had only a touch of makeup on her eyes and lips. Now Jo took stock of the entire outfit.

Jeans. But not Jordaches. Not Calvins. Not designer jeans at all. Blair was wearing real jeans, a pair of gosh-darned Levis. Sure, they looked brand new, perfectly clean and ironed (and how the hell do you get that look, Jo wondered, and those knife-edge creases, on a 1600-mile, two-day road trip?). But they were still simple Levis.

Blair was wearing red leather cowgirl boots, not bright red, but oxblood, a rich red-brown. Three years ago if Jo had heard the word "oxblood" she would've thought it was some creepy new dish at the BBQ place on Jerome Avenue, but by now some of Blair's fashion ramblings had seeped into Jo's mind.

The oxblood boots looked hand-tooled and expensive, but like real cowgirl boots, something you probably could wear around a working ranch. They were polished, but (what the hell?) were those bits of straw and mud clinging to the soles?

Blair wore her lilac-colored cowgirl blouse, the one with the delicate fringe on the front yoke. The delicate fringe that rose and fell subtly as Blair breathed, up and down, up and down … Jo shifted her focus, reluctantly, from the pretty blouse.

There was a lilac cowgirl hat sitting upside down on the seat between them – again, expensive, and pretty, but the real deal. There was a blue-and-white checked bandana folded inside it, and the sweatband lining the hat had dark patches, as if stained by actual sweat.

Jo almost jumped out of her skin when Blair's eyes darted to her, sparkling and knowing.

"Jesus, Blair, keep your eyes on the road!" yelped Jo.

"Of course," said Blair, laughter in her voice. "Peekskill is such a thriving metropolis. Can't be too careful. We might hit a cow."

"Gimme a break, huh? I know it's not Manhattan, but you still gotta watch where you're driving."

"Well I'm not the only one in this truck with wandering eyes," Blair said smugly.

Jo felt beads of sweat break out on her forehead. She'd never known before that it was actually possible to break into a cold sweat.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" she scowled.

"You think I don't notice how you keep looking over here? Please. I know exactly what you're thinking."

Suddenly it felt like the collar of Jo's Langley sweatshirt had contracted around her throat. She was choking; she couldn't breathe. Jo looked away from Blair, rolling down the passenger-side window.

Whenever she felt cornered, Jo's best defense – besides a killer right hook – was always a good offense: attack, attack, attack.

"Jeez, could it be more stuffy in here?" Jo demanded. She leaned her head out of the window and let the breeze blow some oxygen back into her lungs.

"Don't play innocent with me," said Blair. "You think I don't know you after three years? I know exactly what you're dying to do."

Blair flicked the right turn signal. She eased off the gas pedal and pulled over to the curb. She parked the car, turned off the engine, and pulled the key out of the ignition.

"All right," she said, turning to Jo, "have at it."

Jo's heart beat erratically, now slow and sludgy, then hammering a mambo beat. She could feel a vein throbbing in one temple. Could Blair possibly feel some of the same things that Jo had felt over the years, things that Jo was feeling more and more as they got older, and closer? Was Blair going to make some kind of declaration?

But they were parked in front of the Peekskill Library. Blair wouldn't make a romantic declaration in front of the Peekskill Library in the middle of the afternoon. That would be so hickish, so déclassé.

Then again, who knew that Blair could – or would – drive a truck? And maybe the drive across blazing hot Texas had scrambled, or at least softened, her blonde brain?

This ain't what it seems like, Jo told herself. This is like one of those "I Love Lucy," "Three's Company" mix-up things. Keep yer trap shut, Polniaczek.

Blair was smiling at Jo, dark eyes impossibly big and sparkling with mischief and affection.

"Come on," said Blair. She took one of Jo's hands. It suddenly registered that Jo had a weird, dopey look on her face. "Why do you look so scared? Don't tell me the great Jo Polniaczek is afraid? The whole ride you kept looking over here, and I knew you couldn't wait to get those grease-monkey hands all over –"

"Hey, look, what do you think you are, a mind reader or somethin?" Jo demanded. Her blood was pounding in her ears. I have to get out of this truck!

"I don't have to be a mind reader to know you want to drive this baby!" Blair pried open Jo's hand, which had clenched into a fist, and gently dropped the keys onto her palm. "Come on, Jo. Switch seats."

"Switch … seats?" Jo felt her blood-pressure plunge from the sudden shock and disappointment.

"Yes. Don't look so flabbergasted. I know you'll be careful with her."

"Yes. Careful. Very careful."

"Here, I'll scoot this way, and you scoot that way …"

Blair scrambled over Jo, her posterior grazing Jo's thigh, her right elbow almost jabbing Jo's nose. Jo barely felt a thing, pleasant or painful.

Blair pushed her friend playfully toward the driver's seat. "Well, come on Jo. You can't drive from over here, and I think I'm a little too old to be sitting in your lap."

Jo slid across the bench seat. She gripped the big steering wheel and stared straight through the windshield. "Very careful," she murmured to herself.

Blair shook her head affectionately. "Honestly, Jo, if I weren't afraid of sparking another one of our legendary spats, I'd say that you're acting positively simple today."

"Simple. Heh-heh." Jo laughed weakly. She pushed the key into the ignition.

"Jo, your hand's trembling," said Blair. "Are you feeling all right?"

"Sure. It's, this is just a thrill, you know?" Jo shook the cobwebs out of her head. She turned to smile at Blair. "I mean, I gotta admit, this is a pretty awesome truck. Brand new Chevy, huh?"

"I knew you'd love it!" Blair said. "Now, come on, let's burn some rubber."

Jo tilted her head, delivering one of her patented glares.

"No biker slang?" asked Blair. The glare intensified. "Right. No biker slang."

Jo turned the key. The engine rumbled to life.

"Dj'ya name her?" Jo asked.

Blair blushed faintly.

"So you did name her?" Jo pressed.

"Yes, I did. Is that … what people do?"

"Yeah. Congratulations, Blair, you did something normal. Lots of people name their cars."

"Do you?"

"Yes, Blair, I name my many, many cars."

"Well, your bike then."

"Of course I named my bike. It's like my baby."

"What did you name it? Her?"

"None o' yer business."

Blair tilted her head, considering the response. "Not the warmest name," she deadpanned.

Jo checked the mirrors, waited for a produce truck to roll past, and then pulled out onto Nelson Avenue. "Wow," said Jo, flashing one of her megawatt grins.

"I know," said Blair. "Handles great, doesn't she? I had so much fun driving up here."

"You really drove this all the way from Texas?" asked Jo.

"For the last time, yes."

"You really learned to drive when you were twelve?"

"Yes. I wanted to drive Eduardo's truck, but he said I was too young. So one day when he was busy in the stables I took his keys and started driving around the ranch."

"Like fun you did! Little Blair, a car thief! Who knew?" Jo laughed.

"Car borrower," Blair corrected primly. "I was going to return it, of course. But I wanted to drive it, and, well, when I want something …"

Jo rolled her eyes. "Yeah, Princess, I know the drill. So you were like, a natural driver."

"Oh, no! I drove the truck into the duck pond. I almost drowned." Blair shivered. "It was sheer luck Eduardo had come outside to check on one of the pigs, and he heard all the commotion. I would've … died if he hadn't pulled me out of the truck before it sank."

"Sank? How the hell deep is your duck pond?" Jo made light of it, but she suppressed a shiver of her own. Drowning had always seemed to her a particularly ugly way to go. And the thought of Blair drowning … too terrible to contemplate. Thank God for that Eduardo guy. Although I could do without Blair mentioning him every other sentence.

"Well, it's really more of a lake," Blair said. "But that's not the point. Eduardo saved me, and he knew that he couldn't tell me not to drive again, because when I want something – well, at any rate, he decided the simplest thing was to teach me how to drive properly. So that whole summer, it was driving lessons every other day."

"Every other day?"

"The other days I had riding lessons."

"Of course. Any lasso lessons? Bronco-bustin? What else do they do on ranches? Butter churnin? Pitch forkin? Pig sloppin?"

Blair swatted Jo lightly with her cowgirl hat.

"Hey!" yelped Jo.

"Oh, please. That didn't hurt."

"Well it could distract me. I'm drivin here."

"And where are we going, by the way?"

Jo had driven them out of the town center, into the countryside. They slipped along a winding road, passing through deep green woods and fields dotted with red barns and quaint white farm houses.

"You in a rush to be anywhere?" Jo asked.

"No. Well, yes. Kind of."

"Yeah, no, maybe – Don't know why I ever called ya airbrain," chuckled Jo.

Blair swatted her again.

"I have to be at the Langley stables in the next hour or so," explained Blair. "But as long as you can get us there by then, take your time."

"Good." Jo stepped a little harder on the gas pedal. "Let's drive out near Cooper's Rock."

"Oh, yes, the perfect thing!" said Blair. "It's so pretty out there."

"'Memba the campin trip a coupla years ago?"

"When Tootie almost didn't go? Poor thing."

"I almost didn't go," said Jo. "I'm not exactly the biggest fan of the great outdoors. But it turned out great. Will we be doin stuff like that at Langley, camp-outs and things?"

Blair shifted in her seat, drew almost imperceptibly away from Jo. She looked out of her window. "There'll be all kinds of things at Langley," she said. "But it won't be like Eastland, you know, where it was 'all for one and one for all'. The Young Republicans will have their outings, and the Drama Club will have their gatherings, and the sororities –"

"Yeah, I get it," Jo cut her off gruffly. "No need to go through every club at Langley." Jo didn't want to hear about sororities. It was childish, she knew, but she wasn't in the mood to think about how much she and Blair were about to grow apart.

Of course college was different than high school. That wasn't exactly a news flash. College was a big pond (lake, she thought) with so many different groups in it. Everyone going their own way.

Jo would be busy with courses and her student job, and Blair would get preoccupied with other people, young men and women from her own background. Especially young men.

And why the hell shouldn't she? Jo told herself harshly. People grow apart; life stinks; you're born, you live, you die. Deal with it.

Blair furrowed her brow, looking at Jo appraisingly.

"You are really moody today. I mean, even more than usual."

"Yeah, well, heh-heh, you know," Jo shrugged and smiled, "pre-college jitters."

"Is there anything I can do?"

Sure, Blair. Help me understand why I feel like the love of my life is about to slip away.

"Nah," Jo said aloud. "It'll work itself out." She checked the mirrors, cut the wheel sharply and made a tight U-turn. Blair grabbed the dashboard and made a little "eep" sound as the truck swung around.

"Let's forget about Cooper Rock," said Jo. "Let's head back now." Why prolong the inevitable? Like a Band-Aid – rip it off quick, get the hurt over fast.

Blair seemed disappointed. "It's such a pretty day," she said.

"Well, you know, Peekskill hasn't changed much in the last three hundred years. I think the scenery'll be pretty much the same if we go drivin another day."

"All right," said Blair, "it's a date. I'll hold you to that."

"Gimme a break. If I say we'll go drivin, we'll go drivin."

Jo felt a lump forming in her throat.

Jo kept her expression neutral, but she could feel those stupid tears gathering in her eyes and she couldn't speak. And she didn't even know why.

Was it because Blair wanted to go driving with her again? Or because Jo knew it would never actually happen? Blair was going to start hanging out with other trust-fund kids, and Jo would maybe get a phone call every couple of months. If she was lucky.

"Are you all right Jo?" What the hell is wrong with her today? Blair wondered. It's almost as if – no, I'm imagining things.

"I'm fine," Jo growled. She cut the wheel and turned onto a dirt lane, pressing hard on the gas pedal. They rocketed along the lane, the tires kicking up pebbles and clouds of dust.

"What the hell, Jo?" Blair grabbed Jo's right arm in a death grip. "I feel like we're Darth Skywalker –"

"Luke Skywalker," Jo growled.

"Whoever. I feel like we're going through that canyon on the Death Moon."

"Death Star," Jo growled.

"Really? It looked like a moon."

"We're fine," Jo said, stepping on the gas.

"Jo!" Blair closed her eyes and held on for dear life. She could feel the truck racing faster and faster as it bounced along the rough road.

And then it slowed and she could feel smooth blacktop under the wheels again. She cautiously peeled open one eyelid.

They were on Langley Drive, freshly paved and lined with charming hedges and fieldstone walls. The green lawns and the stone towers and turrets of Langley College were visible in the distance.

Blair glared at Jo, but there was something in Jo's tense shoulders, the way she hunched over the wheel, and something in her solemn eyes … Blair took a deep breath.

"Jo, what is wrong? And don't tell me you're fine or that you just have 'pre-college jitters'. You are acting very strangely today."

"It's a big day, that's all. Who are you to judge how I should act?"

"I'm not judging anything, Jo, but I know you and I know something's off." She relaxed her grip on Jo's arm, but she didn't let go. She put her chin on Jo's shoulder. "Tell me what I can do to help you, Jo."

Damn Blair, always so touchy-huggy. I can't handle this right now.

Jo squirmed away from Blair, trying not to drive into one of the hedges in the process.

"What's the matter?" asked Blair. She sounded confused and hurt.

Jo was silent. How could she possibly explain it?

Blair started to pull away, to scoot further over onto the passenger side, but then she shook her head. "No," she said, as if answering herself in some inner argument. "Dammit, Jo, I'm your friend. Your best friend, in point of fact."

"Sure, for how long?" Jo muttered.

"Pardon me?"

OK, why not just get it over with now? If that's what little miss debutante wants, let's have it out.

"I said," Jo said, enunciating carefully, "for … how … long?"

They drove through the Langley College gates. They passed the massive gymnasium, the playing fields and tracks. They passed the Langley Library and the beautiful quad and rows of massive, elegant dormitories.

The campus was almost deserted. A couple of students were crossing the quad and an absent-minded-professor type was dithering on the steps of the library, looking like she couldn't figure out whether or not to go inside. Blair and Jo had arrived a few days early to get acclimated at Langley and have time to visit Mrs. G and Nat and Tootie before classes started.

And what a flippin brilliant idea that was! Jo thought, mentally kicking herself.

Blair was silent. Jo glanced over at her, and was startled to see the most stricken look she'd ever seen on Blair's face. Blair looked even more shocked than when she'd found out Grampa Blair was a card-carrying member of the KKK.

"Blair?"

"How DARE you!" Blair hissed.

"How dare I what?"

"You coward," Blair said disdainfully.

Jo felt like Blair had plunged a knife in her heart. A really sharp knife, like a Ginsu. The tears that had been threatening and pricking at the backs of Jo's eyes spilled forth, running down her face in cataracts.

"You think I'm not scared?" Blair demanded. "You think I'm not worried about how college is going to test our friendship?" Tears were streaming down her face now.

"There's nothing to 'worry' about," Jo said hoarsely, her voice breaking on the words. "It's not like it's some mystery. You're gonna race one of those sororities –"

"Rush," Blair corrected. She dabbed her eyes with the blue-and-white bandana.

"OK, rush one of those sororities," said Jo, "and they're gonna want you, I mean, probably all of them will want you, on account of why wouldn't they?"

"I am a prime candidate," Blair agreed through her tears.

"And the sororities are all gonna be like, 'Blair Warner, will you be one of us?' And you're gonna choose one of them, you know you are. Cause that's what you should do, Blair. Those are your crowd. And then you're gonna get to know them, and have a great time with them, and do stuff with them. And, you know, you're not gonna have so much time for me. Which, I'm not mad, I'm really not, cause, who can blame you, it's –"

"Enough!" shouted Blair. "Enough, enough of this complete and utter nonsense. Who are you to tell me who my 'crowd' is? Is Nat my crowd? Is Tootie? Would you have ever pegged them for my best friends?"

Jo turned onto a dirt lane marked "Langley Stables". This was too hard. She felt like her heart was being squeezed into a little ball. The stables, that's where Blair had asked to be dropped off. Jo was going to park the truck there and then head out on foot to find her dorm.

"Well?" Blair demanded. "Don't you have anything to say?"

Jo shook her head. She drew a ragged breath.

"Do I have to give you a big speech about friendship, my friendship, every damn year?" Blair raged through her tears.

Jo shook her head again. Blair's eyes were flashing, her color was high – she was so beautiful when she was angry. That was partly why Jo loved to get her goat. But it was no fun right now. This was deadly serious.

The stables loomed over the next green rise. They were enormous stone buildings. They looked like millionaires' mansions. They could've housed half of Jo's neighborhood and had enough room left over for Shea Stadium. All for some horses.

"You're my friend," Blair said fiercely. "You're my best friend, in point of fact. You mean more to me than anyone else I know."

There was a row of parking spaces behind one of the stables. The spaces were almost all empty, except for a dusty blue Chevy truck, not a new one, like Blair's, but a tough old brute of a Chevy from the 1950's.

Jo pulled into one of the open spaces, spraying up gravel, and then cut the engine. She pulled the keys out of the ignition and handed them to Blair without looking at her.

Blair ignored the keys.

"Well? What do you have to say, Jo?"

Jo lowered her head. Her tears were falling thicker now. Her throat was too tight to speak.

"You don't believe me, do you?" Blair asked. "You said earlier that you consider us as equals, but that's just a lot of talk. You still think I'm going to ditch you, and for who? Some brainless debutantes? You think that's how little you mean to me. Well it's bull, Jo. The problem isn't me thinking so little of you, Jo. It's you, thinking so little of us, our friendship, everything we've been through together."

"I know," Jo croaked.

"It's ridiculously insecure."

"I know," Jo croaked again. "But … there's … more to it. I just …" Her throat closed up completely. Her head sank so low her forehead pressed against the steering wheel. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed in silence.

Blair put a hand on her back. "Jo?" she whispered, impossibly softly. "Jo, tell me what the matter is. Please." She slipped her arms around Jo's waist, holding her from behind. She put her chin on Jo's shoulder, and the sobs racking Jo vibrated through her own body. "Shh. It's all right. We have nothing to worry about, Jo."

Jo couldn't speak. If you knew, Blair, if you knew … Jo was blind with tears, mute with tears. Her hands fumbled for Blair's, held them tightly.

"Shh. I'm here, Jo."

Jo had never lost it this badly with anyone. Not Mrs. G. Not even her own mother. Jo hated to be vulnerable, weak, and here she was bawling like a baby in front of Blair, the woman she cared about more than anyone else, the woman she wanted to impress more than anyone else. Blair was holding her, rocking her. Blair felt warm and soft pressed against her back.

"I love you, Blair," she managed in a strangled whisper.

"I love you too, Jo," breathed Blair. Blair dropped a kiss on the top of Jo's head. "You are the most amazing person I've ever met. I couldn't care more about anyone. Ever. You have to stop being so frightened."

Jo leaned back into Blair, felt the other girl tighten her embrace.

"Blair, you … when I think, if you knew …"

"We're not just friends, Jo," Blair said gently. "We're family. Do you understand? You can't get rid of me. It's you and me. And Nat and Tootie for that matter. We're forever. Other friends will come and go, and boyfriends and someday husbands. And those people in our lives that always let us down, my mother, my father –"

"My father," mumbled Jo.

"Yes, your father. Those people that let us down again and again, they'll probably keep letting us down. But we won't let each other down. We won't be like them. I just, I get so scared Jo. You're so rock-solid, but then when you get scared you suddenly want to run. And you can't run, Jo. You can't run away from me." She kissed Jo's cheek, pulled the shivering girl closer. Jo's face was salty with tears.

"I can't be without you, Jo. I cannot see my life without you in it. When I try to think of that, it gets all dark and, and formless." She kissed Jo's cheek again. "Dickinson wrote that we grow accustomed to the dark. 'We grow accustomed to the dark / When light is put away …' But I won't be able to do it, Jo. You can't leave me. I could never grow accustomed to your absence. You can't leave me, not ever."

Jo brought Blair's hands up to her face. Jo couldn't talk, but she wanted to say something. She wanted to show she understood. She kissed Blair's hands, her fingers.

"I don't like being so open," Blair said quietly. "Not this open." Jo nodded. I know. I know, believe me. "I like to be in control, just like you. We both have our images to maintain. I want everyone to see only my beauty. You want everyone to see only your strength. And that's fine, for other people. But we need to be able to be completely honest with each other, Jo …"

Jo nodded vehemently. She turned in Blair's arms, kissed the perfect line of the blonde woman's jaw.

Blair inhaled sharply. She leaned down, kissed Jo lightly on the mouth. Jo's heart fluttered. Her head swam, and she almost disgraced herself forever, in her own eyes, at least, by fainting dead away.

Blair kissed Jo again, another butterfly-light kiss. "My Jo," she murmured. Then she pulled away, gently disentangling their arms. Jo murmured a protest, but Blair was firm.

"I can't think straight right now," Blair said. "I need air."

Blair opened the passenger door, half fell out of the truck, leaned against it and took a long, deep breath. She smelled the stable scents, smells she'd known since she was a little girl, fresh-cut hay and sawdust and manure. The scents comforted her a little.

I kissed Jo, she thought. I kissed my Jo.

She heard Jo sliding across the bench seat, climbing out of the truck. She felt Jo's strong arm around her waist.

"Are you all right?"

Blair nodded. She kept her eyes on the ground. She couldn't look at Jo, not yet. "I'm a little lightheaded, is all."

"Nothin new there," teased Jo.

"Jo, I've wanted to do that for so long."

"Me too," the brunette said shyly.

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"I didn't attack you?"

"Nuh-uh. But, if you want to, you can. Anytime."

Blair laughed. She looked up at her friend. Jo's cheeks were still wet with tears but her eyes were dancing and she was smiling that million-watt smile.

Blair slipped her arms around Jo's shoulders. She leaned forward, very slowly, and kissed Jo, who returned the kiss, a little nervously, then with more confidence. Jo put her hands on Blair's hips, tentatively, and gently pulled her closer.

Easy does it, thought Blair. Don't spook her.

Don't faint, thought Jo. Don't you dare faint, Polniaczek.


On the rare occasions that Jo had allowed herself to think about kissing Blair, Jo had always pictured herself as the aggressor. She would be super-suave; she would be cool and collected; she would sweep Blair into her arms with a fiery passion that would startle and enchant the blonde beauty.

And now, in the moment, Jo was anything but suave, anything but collected. She was happy – very, very happy – but nervous as hell. Blair was poised, beautiful – she was like a young Grace Kelly. But Jo? Her shoulders shook, her hands shook, even her mouth shook.

Blair finally broke off the kiss. "I think it's adrenalin," she told Jo quietly.

"You think what's adrenalin?"

"That's what's making you tremble."

"Who's tremblin? I ain't tremblin."

"My mistake."

"Eh, who are you kiddin? I'm shakin like a leaf!"

"You're beautiful," said Blair.

"Ah, I look like a sap."

"You look beautiful." Blair stepped out of Jo's embrace, taking the girl's hand. "Come on. I want you to meet someone."

"Now?"

"I need to clear my head a little bit. It wouldn't hurt you, either."

"I don't want to clear my head." Jo beamed at her friend. "I wish my head could always feel this mushy and messed up."

"How poetic."

"Don't kid me. I might not know how to say it right, but –"

"Don't worry." Blair tugged her hand gently. "I know exactly what you mean."

Blair led her into one of the monolithic stables. It was as beautiful inside as out, beautifully crafted of elegant marble and natural materials like field stone and timber. The scent of fresh hay, leather and manure drifted to them.

The stables were cool, bathed in blue shadows. Shafts of late afternoon light fell through the transom windows, capturing motes of dust and straw, painting them gold.

"I never been in a stable," Jo whispered as Blair led her slowly down the center row of stalls. Most of the stalls were empty; they'd fill up when the majority of the students arrived in a couple of days.

"Do you like it?" Blair asked.

Jo nodded. "It's … sorta mysterious. And it's fancier than St. Adalbert's."

Blair raised her eyebrows interrogatively.

"Our church," Jo clarified. "In the Bronx. On 149th." She looked around at the beautiful architecture and gave a low whistle. "The priests need to get a few horses into the congregation. Looks like horses really know how to fill a collection plate!"

Blair shrugged. "You know those rich folk. Gaga over their horses."

"When did you start riding? Wait, don't tell me, lemme guess. Were you still holding a rattle?"

"I was still wearing diapers!" Blair laughed. "They put me up on a horse on my first birthday."

"Your first birthday? Ya gotta be kiddin!"

"My mother was riding," Blair clarified, "and holding me. She says I laughed, and grabbed the horse's mane."

"That sounds about right."

"I didn't start riding alone until I was three."

"What took so long?" Jo deadpanned. "Slow learner, eh, Warner?"

Blair dug a gentle elbow into Jo's ribs.

"I loved riding. I practically lived in stables when I was a kid, especially when we were at Daddy's ranch. When I was nine, and Daddy realized I was really serious about horses, he gave me Chestnut. It was my first birthday after my parents' divorce, so they were having this contest about who could give me the best gift. Daddy thought a horse would put him in the winner's circle."

"So, yer Dad won?"

Blair shook her head. Her eyes got a lost, faraway look. "I was so mad at my parents after the divorce. They could've bought me twenty horses and they would still have been losers in my book! But I did love Chestnut. He became my best friend, my confidant."

"You musta missed him when you were at school."

"Not at all. I took him with me. Every school I went to – and I was in and out of a lot of schools before I came to Eastland – Chestnut was always waiting for me in the stable. He was the one thing during those years that I could count on."

Blair lowered her head. Jo chucked her under the chin.

"I think I kinda know what you mean," said Jo. "I feel the same way about my bike."

"How old were you when you started riding?"

"Jeez, I was ten." Jo laughed at the memory. "My cousin dared me to ride one of the Harleys at Uncle Sal's garage. He said I didn't have the guts to hotwire it and drive it up and down the alley. Bet me a grape soda. Hah! I just jumped on that thing, I twisted the wires like I'd seen him do, and I went bombin up and down that alley, vroom! – until I wiped out and broke my arm. Heh! My cousin never questioned my guts after that. My brains, sure, but never my guts."

Blair shook her head. "Jo, I think you were born wearing little motorcycle boots, with a teensy socket wrench in your hand."

"Socket wrench, huh? A tool reference. I'm rubbin off on ya a little bit, Warner."

"That's not a completely awful thing," said Blair. She took both of Jo's hands, leaned in and kissed her softly. Jo trembled.

"Is this … I can't quite get my head around this, that it's real," Jo whispered.

Blair kissed her again, slower and deeper this time.

"Mm, OK. It's feelin realer," Jo said.

"Ahem." Someone cleared their throat nearby. Jo jumped like she'd been goosed.

A short man appeared behind Blair. He was carrying a pitch fork.

Jo instinctively stepped in front of Blair. Who is this nut? she wondered.

She raked her eyes up and down the intruder, assessing his threat level. Which, she immediately realized, was zero. He was just a normal old guy, a stable worker, it looked like, dressed in a straw hat, worn jeans and a comfortable flannel shirt with a kerchief at the collar.

He looked like he was about sixty years old, with a handsome shock of silver hair and a craggy, seamed face that reminded Jo of the old guys in her neighborhood.

A face like that, someone's worked hard their whole life, someone's seen a lot, good and bad, Jo thought.

"Excuse me, Miss Warner," the man said with exquisite courtesy. "I did not mean to interrupt." He had a faint accent; it reminded Jo of Mr. Roarke on "Fantasy Island".

"That's quite all right, Eduardo. Is he comfortable?"

"Yes. We had a very nice ride this afternoon, and he has been brushed and fed. Con permiso, I will depart now. I will, of course, detach the trailer from your truck, attach it to mine, and be on my way."

"Of course, Eduardo." Blair flashed her million-watt smile and her eyes sparkled, not in a flirting way, but in the way that a little girl shines when she's talking to her daddy. She stepped past Jo and gave the small man a hug. "Thank you for all your help."

"De nada, Miss Warner. It is my pleasure, as well as my responsibility, to keep you from injuring or killing yourself with your reckless escapades."

He looked meaningfully at Jo. From under his silvery eyebrows he gave Jo the same searching examination she'd just given him. Then he smiled a very slight smile, and gave Jo the faintest of bows.

"Pish," said Blair, "what trouble do I get into?"

Jo and Eduardo both drew deep breaths.

"My truck," said Eduardo, "in the lake."

"The Chugalug," said Jo.

"The cow-tipping incident," said Eduardo.

"Countess Calvet's face goop," said Jo.

"The Assembly Ball," said Eduardo.

"Pouilly-Fuissé," said Jo.

"The Ambassador Ball," said Eduardo.

"Mrs. G's car," said Jo.

"The Steeplechase Ball," said Eduardo.

"Nat's diary," said Jo.

"Mia's Tex-Mex dine-and-dash," said Eduardo.

"Chad," said Jo.

"All right." Blair held up one perfectly manicured hand. "Very good. I think you've both made your point."

"Blair pulled a dine-and-dash?" Jo asked Eduardo.

He shook his head somberly, as if it were too terrible to discuss.

"High spirits," Blair said deprecatingly. "It was youthful joie de vivre."

"It coulda been 90 days in the slammer," said Jo. "Jeez, Blair, if anyone can afford to pay for their dinner, it's you."

Blair took Eduardo's arm and steered him toward the stable doors.

"As much as I enjoy having two of my favorite people discuss my more colorful adventures, don't you think it's time you headed out, Eduardo? Daylight's burning, and it's almost two days to Fort Worth."

"Si," he said, nodding. He stopped in the doorway, and touched Blair's face as gently and sweetly as if he were her dad. "I think," he glanced at Jo, "that I am leaving you in good hands, Miss Warner."

"You are," Jo said firmly.

"Bueno."

Blair caught Eduardo in a big, affectionate bear hug. He hugged her fiercely in return. Then he tipped his straw hat to Jo, turned, and walked out of the stables.

Blair stood in the doorway, watching as Eduardo unhooked the trailer from her truck. Jo joined her and took her hand.

Eduardo skillfully backed the dusty blue vehicle up to the trailer. He climbed out and hitched the trailer to the back of his truck.

"He drove all the way up here with you," Jo said.

"Yes."

"Talk about dedication."

Eduardo climbed into his truck, closed the door and honked the horn, once. He waved his hat in Blair and Jo's direction.

"Goodbye!" Blair called affectionately. "Goodbye!"

The blue truck rolled away.

Blair dabbed at her eyes with her blue-and-white checked bandana. "I don't know what I'd do without him. I'm responsible enough to drive Chestnut up here, but if anything happened to Chestnut en route, well, I'm not a veterinarian."

"Eduardo's a vet?"

"Of course. And a lawyer. And an MBA. You need a lot of different skills to run a ranch as big as Daddy's."

"How big?" Jo wondered.

Blair just smiled. She took Jo's hand. "Come meet Chestnut."

"Sure, but answer my question."

"You don't care about things like that," Blair teased as she led Jo past empty horse stalls. "What? Are you getting all crass and material now that I've kissed you?" Her eyes twinkled.

"I'm just curious," said Jo. "You'd think after three years I'd know so much about you, I'd be bored out of my skull. But somehow, there're always ten million new things to find out about you."

"I do have a lot of layers," Blair mused.

"Modesty not being one of 'em."

Blair stopped in front of a stall at the center of the stable. Inside was a majestic stallion the color of burnt caramel. He seemed to recognize her, dipping his regal head and submitting to her caresses and her soft cooing.

"Hi, boy, hi, Chestnut, mommy's here, yes she is …"

She fished a couple of sugar cubes out of her pocket, held them out on a flat palm. Chestnut gulped them down.

"Thatta boy," said Blair. She stroked Chestnut's long face. "Chestnut, I want you to meet someone very important to me. Chestnut, this is Jo. Jo, this is Chestnut."

"Pleased ta meet ya," Jo said awkwardly. She'd never been introduced to a horse before. He was a beautiful animal and he was important to Blair, but Jo couldn't help feeling it was all a little goofy.

Blair knew Jo well enough to read something of these thoughts in her expression.

"Hey," said Blair, "you treat your bike like it's practically human. That's how I feel about Chestnut."

"Yeah, of course, I didn't say anythin, did I?"

"You didn't say anything, but you're thinking it."

"Jeez, now I'm gonna get in trouble for things you think I'm thinkin?"

"Yes."

Jo considered that irrational position, then shrugged. "Thanks for the warnin, Blondie."

Blair took Jo's hand and brought it toward Chestnut's face. Jo tried to pull her hand away, but Blair held it in a surprisingly strong grip.

"Ow!" said Jo.

"Oh, good grief, like I could possibly hurt one of the Young Diablos."

"You couldn't hurt me, but you're dentin me a little. And it's on account of you I've kinda gone a little soft over the years."

Blair beamed. "Why Jo … that's one of the nicest things you've ever said to me."

Jo blushed. "Yeah, well – don't get used to it or anythin."

Jo flinched a bit when her hand made contact with Chestnut's face. She wasn't a big fan of animals to begin with, and growing up in the mean streets of the Bronx, where stray dogs and rats comprised the local fauna, she found a thoroughbred horse almost as exotic as a panther.

Chestnut didn't seem any more thrilled by the contact than Jo was. He lifted his head and snorted.

"He ain't gonna bite, is he?" Jo demanded nervously.

"Don't be silly. Isn't he silky?" asked Blair.

"Yeah, I guess." Chestnut's face was silky and smooth. "Sorta like your hair," laughed Jo. "He use the same shampoo?"

Chestnut relaxed, marginally, and let Jo stroke his face, but he snorted again, several times, to be sure she knew he was permitting her attention under duress.

"He likes you," said Blair.

Jo made a noncommittal grunt. The way Chestnut was eyeing her, she would've said he looked more wary than friendly, but she respected that. Who the hell was she anyway? Chestnut was smart to be guarded.

Jo gave Chestnut a final, light pat and stepped away from him.

"OK, I think we got acquainted enough for now."

Blair drew a couple more sugar cubes from her jeans pockets and fed them to Chestnut. He gobbled them greedily. Blair kissed his nose.

"G'night, boy. Happy dreams."

Chestnut licked her face.

Ew! thought Jo. Blair's gonna have to wash up before there's any more kissin with me!


Blair drove the truck during the short trip to her dorm. With the trailer gone she drove a little faster than before. She's so relaxed behind the wheel, thought Jo. There's so much I don't know about this girl. And so much I wanna learn.

They were silent, each lost in her own thoughts, and each feeling a little bit shy. Jo almost reached for Blair's hand, but changed her mind. Part of her still thought she must've been hallucinating when Blair kissed her.

"Blair," Jo said thoughtfully, breaking the silence.

"Mnn?"

"How come Eduardo didn't look shocked? When he caught us kissin?"

"Eduardo's sweet that way. He's always been good to me. All the time I spent at the ranch, with Daddy always disappearing on business trips, or with his girlfriend-of-the-week. Eduardo was always there for me. Heck, he raised me more than my mother or my father."

"So he knows … that you like me?"

"He does now!" Blair chuckled. "And he knows that I, well, some of those 'escapades' that he mentioned? Like the dine-and-dash? Let's just say that there was a girl involved."

Jo felt a stab of jealousy. She knew it was irrational, but whoever the girl was, Jo wanted to run her over with her motorcycle. Several times. Maybe a dozen times, to be safe.

"Easy, tiger," Blair said, reading Jo's expression to a nicety. "She's ancient history."

"Good," said Jo. "Then I don't have to sic the Young Diablos on her."

Blair raised one eyebrow. "You don't still run with the Young Bozos, do you?"

"Diablos. Diablos. And of course not. But they'd do me a favor for old time's sake."

Blair pulled up in front of Goodnow Hall, the most palatial dorm on campus. It looked like a slightly smaller version of Buckingham Palace, with towers and spires, stained glass and crenellated walls.

Jo whistled. "What, no moat?"

Blair smiled. She pulled into the circular driveway and parked right in front of the main entrance.

"Hey, Blair, I think this is just a drop-off zone."

"I know. You're dropping me off. I need a favor, Polniaczek."

Jo grinned. "If it involves me drivin this truck some more, count me in!"

"I haven't seen my parents since Cannes, so I'm going into the city tonight. Dinner with Daddy – unless he has to jet off early – and then I'm spending the night at my mother's penthouse."

"You want me to drive you into the city?" Jo asked excitedly.

"No, that won't be necessary. James will be here in an hour."

"James?"

"Mother's chauffeur."

"You got a chauffeur who's actually named James?"

"I know, it's cliché, but he's an excellent driver. He'll bring me to the city tonight and bring me back early tomorrow so I can take care of Chestnut. But in the meantime, would you be a dear and take care of … my truck?"

"Done, and done, Blondie."

"Wonderful!" Blair flashed one of her toothiest smiles. "I knew you'd be a pal." She opened the driver's side door, stepped gracefully onto the elegant brick drive.

"Wait a minute," said Jo, climbing out of the truck, "what's the catch?"

"Catch?"

"Hang on a second – you're gonna ask me to lug all your Gucci crap up to the top floor or somethin, aren't ya?"

Blair hugged Jo fiercely. "Gucci! You recognized Gucci! I knew you were trainable."

"What am I, a chimp? Of course I recognize Gucci, three years of livin with you. And I got news for you, Blair, I ain't carryin all those bags up twenty flights of stairs all on my lonesome. You gotta help."

"Silly, neither of us has to lift a finger." Blair pointed. Striding down the claret-colored stone steps of Goodnow Hall was a tall, middle-aged man in a navy blue uniform. His outfit was iced with elaborate white braid and piping. His blazer bore the Langley College crest.

"Miss Warner, I presume?" he said in a plummy British accent.

"Spenlow? How lovely to finally meet you in person."

He bowed crisply. "The pleasure is mine. We appreciate your letting us know in advance to expect you three days early. Your rooms are ready, and Jordan will carry up your luggage immediately."

A slender, pimply young man, Jordan, presumably, materialized behind Spenlow. He wore a navy blue Langley uniform similar to Spenlow's, but without the piping and braid. He reached into the bed of Blair's truck and grabbed an armload of bags, turned and hurried up the steps.

"Would you care to see your rooms now?" inquired Spenlow.

"In a few moments, thank you," said Blair. "My friend and I will take a stroll while the truck is being unloaded."

"We will?" Jo asked.

"We will," said Blair decisively.

"As you like," said Spenlow, with another crisp bow. He bounded up the steps and disappeared through the massive wooden doors.

"Jeez, Blair, you really are a princess," said Jo, shaking her head in wonderment. "You got Eduardo drivin up from Texas, you got James drivin ya back and forth from the city, you got this jack-in-the-box and his little stooge takin care of yer bags –"

"Spenlow is Goodnow's head porter," Blair said, a little coolly, "and Jordan is his assistant, not a 'stooge'. Insult me, if you want, but show them some respect. You'll have a porter, too."

"You're kiddin!"

"Didn't you read the 'Amenities' section of the Langley catalog?"

"Nah, I've been too busy obsessin about my classes and my campus job. What does a porter do, anyhow? Is he like a butler?"

"Walk with me, and I'll explain." Blair extended one perfect, soft hand.

Jo looked around to be sure that they were alone. No one was in sight. Unless Spenlow was lurking behind one of the mullioned windows, spying on them – and Jo wouldn't quite put it past him – they were quite alone. Shyly, Jo took Blair's hand.

Blair led her onto a path of slate stepping stones. It wound around the massive dorm, deep into the woods that surrounded it. Jo inhaled deeply. She loved the scent of evergreens.

Blair sat down on a marble bench overlooking a pretty little forest pond. She startled Jo by pulling Jo into her lap.

Wow, the surprises just keep on comin, Jo thought. And that's OK with me!

It felt bizarrely normal to be sitting on Blair Warner's lap, with Blair Warner's arms slipping around her shoulders. Jo instinctively put her hands on Blair's hips.

Blair kissed Jo. "A head porter," said Blair – another kiss – "is the dormitory's major domo. He or she," another kiss, "ensures that the dorm runs smoothly, scheduling and training staff," another kiss, "and overseeing guest management, mail, deliveries, security," another kiss, "and emergency services."

Jo closed her eyes, almost swooning from Blair's kisses. She pulled Blair to her tightly, nestled her face against Blair's neck. Tears were pricking her eyes again. She trembled.

"I'm sorry," Jo murmured into Blair's hair. "I don't know why I'm getting so emotional. I'm like a flippin wreck today, I'm just …" She trailed off, tears sliding down her face. She kissed Blair's hair.

Blair hugged her fiercely. "It's all right," she whispered. "I know how you feel. It's been so long we've been wanting to do this, and now …"

"And now," Jo agreed fervently. "Now is good." She reached up tentatively and touched Blair's perfect jaw line, tilted Blair's mouth toward hers and kissed her, shyly, at first, then deepening the kiss with a growing passion. Blair moaned.

The moan vibrated deliciously in Jo's mouth. Time stood still; Jo was aware only of the soft texture of Blair's mouth, the sound and sensation of her moan, the scent of Aviance, Blair's signature fragrance …

A moment, or a million years later – Jo couldn't be sure which, she was so muddled – Blair reluctantly broke off the kiss. She smiled up at Jo and mussed the brunette's bangs.

"I've got to go freshen up," she said, "and you've got to check into your dorm."

"I don't got to do anything but this," said Jo dreamily. "Ever." She tried to snuggle closer against Blair, who unceremoniously stood up, dumping Jo onto the grass.

"Hey!"

"What can I say?" shrugged Blair. "Love is pain."

Jo glowered up at her, then registered exactly what Blair had said.

"Me too," she said softly.

Blair helped the brunette to her feet. Fingers interlaced, they strolled back to Goodnow's main entrance, where they separated.

"Jo," Blair said carefully, "you understand that we need to keep this … discreet?"

"Hah! You're worried about me? You're grabbin me and kissin me and actin like you're all in heat and you're tellin me to be discreet?"

Blair mussed Jo's bangs again. "First, I am passionate, Jo – not 'in heat'. Second, this is a new world for you. A beautiful, but in some ways dangerous new world. It's going to take you some time to pick up on the rules and the rhythms. So until then, will you please trust me to take the lead?"

Jo considered. "Will there be more kissin?"

"Of course."

"Then you can take the lead."

Spenlow appeared at Blair's elbow as if he'd materialized out of thin air.

"Miss Warner? Your luggage has been unloaded and your rooms are ready. Shall I have the kitchen send up a pot of tea? You prefer Earl Grey, I believe?"

"I do, Spenlow, and that would be lovely."

"Very good, ma'am." He bowed and bounded up the steps.

"It's like landin on freakin 'Fantasy Island'" said Jo, shaking her head. "'Smiles, everybody, smiles!'"

"You'll get used to it," Blair said. "What are you going to order when you check into your dorm? Wait, don't tell me – a pot of oil for your crankcase!" She wrinkled her nose. "I still can't believe I survived that year you had all those motorcycle parts strewn all over our room. The mufflers and the tires and the fenders and the grease."

"Eh, you survived OK, Blondie," said Jo, grinning at the memory. It was a wistful grin, Blair noticed.

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Where is your bike? Why did you take the train today instead of riding your bike up?"

Jo shrugged. "Ihaddasellher," she mumbled.

"Pardon?"

"Ihaddaseller."

"One more time, for those of us that do not speak early Neanderthal?"

"For Pete's sake," Jo flared, "I had to sell her! OK? We were short a few hundred on the room and board, so I had my Uncle Sal put her in his shop and he got the word out and someone bought her."

"Jo!" Blair forgot her own admonition about discretion and took one of Jo's hands. "Your bike! You love your bike!"

"Don't make a federal case out of it. It was just a stupid bike."

"Jo, it's me. I know how much it meant to you."

"Nah, ya don't," said Jo, her voice breaking a bit. "That bike got me out of a lot of jams – and into a few, too. Like runnin over Mrs. G's marigolds. You know."

"That was certainly the most original entrance ever seen at Eastland!"

"My bike, she was like, like –"

"Like your baby," said Blair empathetically.

"Yeah. Like Chestnut is to you, ya know? So much of my past is tied up in her. But I gotta think about my future now. Dad sold his car to make the tuition deposit; the least I could do was sell my bike to pitch in on the room and board."

Blair shook her head. It made her feel sick to think how hard Jo had to work, how much she and her parents had to sacrifice, so that she could attend Langley.

It wasn't fair. Jo was brilliant. When people first met her, all they saw was the Bronx bluster and all they heard was the Bronx accent, still heavy even after three years of Eastland polish.

But you only had to spend a few moments with Jo to realize that she had extraordinary brains, and heart, and talent. She was like the geode Mrs. Garrett had given Jo for graduation – tough on the outside, a sparkling and beautiful creature within.

"I wish you'd let me –"

"Drop it!" Jo said succinctly. Blair threw up her hands in surrender.

"All right, all right," said the blonde. "Message received."

It was an old argument. Blair always wanted to help; Jo always hated to be beholden. Jo wanted to do everything herself or not at all. "I pay my way," as she had said more than once. Jo had a fiercer, deeper pride than any of the old New York "400" families of Blair's acquaintance.

"You have no idea," said Blair, her voice breaking now, "how much I admire you, Jo. I've never met anyone as determined as you, as independent. Everything you have, you know you've earned."

"Ah, jeez." Jo blushed. "Don't you have to go sip some tea or somethin?"

"I mean it," said Blair. "You are amazing, Joanne Marie Polniaczek." She lifted Jo's hands to her mouth, kissed them gently.

"Look, uh, that guy Spencer could come back any second," Jo said huskily.

"Spenlow," Blair corrected. She smiled at Jo and released her hands. "How about breakfast tomorrow? Early. After I muck out Chestnut's stall?"

"I'm not sure exactly what the muck that means, but as long as you wash your hands and face before ya meet me, sure, why not?"

"Your dining hall, then. I hear Parker House has the best cook. Say, seven-thirty?"

"Sure, Blondie."

"It's a date, then." Blair took Jo's face in her hands for a moment, and seemed perilously close to kissing the startled brunette. But she settled for mussing Jo's bangs yet again. (We gotta have a talk about that, Jo mused. Or I gotta cut the bangs.)

"Until tomorrow," Blair breathed. She turned suddenly on the heel of one of her oxblood cowgirl boots and strode up the steps of Goodnow Hall. Jo watched her go.

"Until tomorrow," Jo said under her breath.

This is gonna be some kinda semester! Jo thought. It was what Tootie had declared the day Jo first arrived at Eastland. And as far as Jo was concerned, it was more true now than then!


Parker House was every bit as grand as Goodnow Hall, if slightly smaller in scale. It had turrets and bow windows and balconies and gables and expanses of thatched roofs (thatched freakin roofs!)

Jo shook her head. It was like a fairy tale. First, the beautiful princess declares her affection for the gallant peasant. And now, here's the peasant moving into a royal castle. It was a dream – too damn good to be true. It ran deep in Jo's bones to distrust fairy tales.

Jo followed the winding drive to a parking lot behind the dorm. There were only three other vehicles in the lot, a BMW, a Mercedes and a Porsche. Jo whistled admiringly as she drove past the Porsche. Look at the lines on that one, she thought. Damn, that's fine! Ah, the rich … "they just ain't like you and me".

She parked the truck, cut the engine and pocketed the keys. It was a matter of seconds to lock the door, grab her Amelia Earhart suitcase and duffle bag, and head back up to the main entrance.

Walking up to the front door (a massive portal that looked positively medieval, all wooden timbers surrounded by stone gargoyles; yeah, just like doors back in the Bronx!) Jo felt like Alice in Wonderland trying to get her bearings in a world that had stopped making sense.

It's like I drank that bottle that says "Drink Me". Or I ate that cake that says "Eat Me". Or, I drank the bottle and I ate the cake.

Her mind babbled nervously. Her hands shook a little, but she kept a firm grip on the handles of her luggage.

A little door next to the imposing main entrance of Parker House swung open.

A petite woman with an iron-gray bun stepped out and waited on the landing. She wore the navy blue Langley College staff uniform that was already becoming familiar to Jo. It had even more white piping and braid than Spenlow's had. This was obviously Parker House's head porter – or would she be called a portress?

As Jo climbed the stone steps, she could feel the woman's steely little eyes boring into her, and finding her wanting.

Aw, you're bein paranoid, Polniaczek.

Jo remembered what Blair had told her once: no matter how they really felt, in social situations the elite always exuded confidence and good humor. ("And why shouldn't they?" Jo had sniped. "Whadda they got ta be worried or mean about?")

Jo glued a smile on her face. She was going for "pleasant and confident", but she was afraid she was achieving "nervous and sickly" – at best.

This is gonna be a great semester, she told herself. Blair called me amazin. The most amazin girl I ever met – she called me amazin! No one's gonna shove me around. I earned my place here. I belong here. This is my new home for the next four years. Nothin's gonna stop me.

As Jo reached the penultimate step, just below the portress, the woman held up one imperious hand, palm flat, the universal sign for "Halt!"

Jo halted.

"Hi, there," said Jo, flashing her most radiant smile. She set down the duffle bag and extended one hand. "Jo Polniaczek, class of '87. Pleased ta meet ya."

The woman ignored Jo's hand. "I know who you are," she said shortly.

"I, ah, know I'm a few days early, but I called ahead," said Jo. She flashed her radiant smile again. No dice. The portress pursed her lips in utter disdain.

"I called your home this morning," the woman said, "but no one answered. One of the checks for your room and board bounced."

Jo felt a surge of heat in her chest and face. It was shame … and anger.

"That, ah, that isn't possible," she said, keeping a tenuous grip on her famous temper.

"Nevertheless." The woman consulted a paper secured to her clipboard. "The check you submitted cleared, and the check that was submitted by one Rose Polniaczek. But the check that was submitted by Charles Polniaczek –"

"My father's check didn't clear?"

"Correct."

Jo set her Amelia Earhart suitcase down on the step. She put a hand to her forehead. She felt dizzy, and embarrassed, and pissed, and her grip on her temper was slipping.

"I'm sure it was a mistake," she said tightly. "I'll call my father and we'll get it sorted out."

"If you are able to submit a valid check to the Bursar's Office," the woman sniffed, indicating her skepticism that such would be the case, "they will contact me. In the meantime, please be advised that we cannot hold your rooms vacant for more than three days."

The woman turned on her heel.

"Wait. What?" Jo shouted after her. "What does that mean? Are ya sayin I can't, I'm not –"

"Good day," the woman said coolly. She closed the little door. Jo heard a key turn in the lock.

Jo stood frozen on the step, pissed and hurt but not particularly surprised.

With Charlie, it was always one step forward and two steps back. He meant well, Christ, she knew he meant well. He jumped into his fatherly duties with a lot of enthusiasm these days … but he still had trouble sticking the landing.

Just once, thought Jo, just freakin once I'd love my "life totally sucks" philosophy to be proved wrong.

First things first. She had to convince old Iron Britches to let her up to her room. Because what else was she gonna do, sleep in a tree? Like a raccoon?

Jo considered what approach to take. She had matured a lot in three years. Back in the day, she would've already given the snooty porter woman a knuckle sandwich, and the cops – or at least a team of social workers – would already be swarming the steps of Parker House to take Jo into custody.

But now Jo had more tools in her tool kit, more ways of dealing with problems than just decking someone. She'd learned how to be entertaining from Tootie, how to be witty from Nat, how to be feisty in a (mostly) non-violent way from Mrs. G, and how to be charming from Blair.

Problem was, this woman seemed unlikely to be swayed by entertainment, or wit, or feist, or charm. It was going to have to be one of two things to win her over: cash, or good old-fashioned intimidation.

"You can't intimidate the rich, or their hangers-on." It was Blair's voice, popping into Jo's head the way Obi Wan Kenobi's voice kept popping into Luke's mind when he was attacking the Death Star.

What the hell? Shut up, Blair! Jo told the voice. She stepped onto the landing and starting banging on the portress' door with a closed fist. Bam. Bam. Bam!

A small, grilled window at Jo's eye level swung open in the little door. All Jo could see of the woman on the other side was the top of her iron-gray bun.

"Ma'am, I am going to call my father right away," Jo said tightly. "The Bursar's gonna have the check tomorrow. But you can't make me sleep on the street tonight."

"If you do not leave these premises immediately, I will call the Peekskill Police," the woman said coldly.

"There's no need for that. If you'll just listen to me, see –"

"If you require accommodations, Peekskill offers the Fireside Inn, or, more in line with your budget as a scholarship student, the Off Ramp Motel."

"Lady, until my campus job starts I only got enough for text books. I can't even afford the Roach Motel!"

"That is your misfortune. Good day."

The little window thudded shut.

"Dammit!" Jo hauled back her fist, ready to really let the door have it, but – surprise, surprise – Blair's voice intruded again.

"Joey, do you really want this to be your first impression at Langley? Bashing at the door of Parker House like a déclassé barbarian?"

"In your ear," Jo muttered to the phantom voice, but it was right. Langley was a whole new chapter for Jo. Of course, it was now painfully obvious that nothing, absolutely nothing in her life could be easy. Somehow it had to get all crudded up. And no, that wasn't fair. But she finally had the good sense not to make it even worse.


Driving had always cleared Jo's head. So she drove. She drove Blair's dusty red truck through the farms and woods of rural Peekskill, and then when she'd really cooled off she pulled into the Mobil station down the road from the Langley campus.

There was a payphone there and she called her Dad collect. No answer. She tried again. No answer. She tried her mom.

Rose answered on the first ring.

"Jo! My brilliant daughter! How are you settling in? How is the food? What does your room look like?"

I wish I knew, Ma! thought Jo.

"I'm settling in great," she said. "Everything's great, Ma."

"Jo, what's wrong?"

"Who said anything's wrong?"

"Joanne Marie, a mother knows. Tell me what happened."

"It's not a big deal. Well, not a huge deal."

"It's your father's check, isn't it?"

Jo was surprised. "How'd ya know?"

"Dammit! I told him not to write it until he was sure he had the funds to cover it. But no, mister big shot, he had to –"

"Ma. Not helpful."

"Listen, Jo, he's working the night shift at a new job tonight. I'll meet him after work and we'll get this all straightened out, I promise."

"I know you will, Ma. Look, I hope you know I really appreciate everything you and Dad are doin. I know it's tough. I don't even know you came up with the money you did. So don't jump down his throat, OK? Just, as soon as you can, send a check to the care of the Bursar here. Everything'll be fine."

"Which check bounced? For the tuition or the room and board?"

"The room and board."

"All right. We'll fix this, Jo. We are so proud of you."

"Yeah. Back at ya, Ma."

After she finished talking to Rose, Jo dug around the seats in Blair's red Chevy. Jo figured that after two days on the road, there had to be spare change floating around in there. Sure enough she found some quarters and dimes, enough to get herself a candy bar and soda at the Mobil. She sat in the truck and ate her sugary supper.

"Here's to me," she toasted herself wryly.

She drove around some more until it grew dark. The Langley campus was beautiful. She was in love with it by the time the sun sank completely behind the hills and the stars came out.

Jo drove back to Parker House and coasted quietly down the drive to the parking lot behind the dorm. There were only a few lights on in the dorm. Almost no one would arrive for three days.

"This ain't the end of the world," Jo told herself stoutly. "No one's even gotta know this happened. It ain't gonna mean a thing."

She lay in the truck's flatbed for awhile, fingers laced behind her head, looking up at the night sky. You could see a million stars in Peekskill, it was so dark and so clear. Not like back home, where the pollution and the billion lights of New York hid the stars behind a luminous pall. Here you could get a breath of fresh air, you could pick any star you wanted and wish on it …

Jo dropped off for awhile, and woke up shivering. Her watch told her it was midnight. She dug through her duffle bag, found her navy pea coat, wrapped it around her. She climbed into the cab of the truck. She made a pillow out of her duffle bag, punched it into a comfortable shape, and dropped off again.

She woke off and on throughout the night. At three am she was very cold and the air in the cab was getting stale. She'd been having a nightmare – one of those dreams you couldn't remember the moment you woke, but the bad feeling stayed with you.

All her doubts from earlier in the day flooded over her. What the hell was she doing? Who was she to try to go to Langley College? Langley College, the bastion of higher learning. "Snobbo city," she would've called it once. Jo Polniaczek going there? What a joke!

She felt inexpressibly lonely. A solitary night bird was trilling somewhere in the distance. It sounded as inexpressibly lonely as she felt.

Jo wanted to drive home to New York, to her mother. Or drive over to Eastland, which was tantalizingly close, a ten-minute drive if she didn't worry too much about posted speed limits. She wanted her mom or Mrs. G to hug her and tell her everything was going to be OK. She wanted Nat to crack wise and Tootie to make some disarmingly astute observation.

But Jo didn't want to worry any of them. And truth be told, she was ashamed to let them know she had nowhere to go. So she stayed put, and eventually she drifted off again …


I can't wait to see her, thought Blair.

It was pretty much all she'd been thinking for the last twelve hours. During the drive to New York, during dinner at Lutce with her father, during her visit with her mother, before she fell asleep, as soon as she woke up, during the early morning drive back to Peekskill, while she was feeding Chestnut and mucking out his stall …

I can't wait to see her

It was the one time Blair could remember that she'd been more distracted than her father. Yes, the Lutce maître d' kept bringing a phone over to their table, business call after business call for David Warner, but her father was still more attentive to her than she was to him.

"All right," he sighed, over the crème brûlée and café au lait. "What is his name?"

"Whose name, Daddy?" Blair asked absently.

"Whichever beau you've been mooning over all evening."

Blair blushed. "I'm not 'mooning' over anyone."

"Well, you could have fooled me, Princess." He smiled indulgently at his only child. "You have that look that you always seem to get when you've made a new conquest."

"I do not have a 'look'," she objected. "Daddy, I just arrived on campus today. Whose heart could I have conquered?"

David chucked her under the chin. "Anyone with sense just needs one look at you to fall head over heels, honey."

"True," Blair agreed seriously. "But, honestly, I haven't had time to meet a soul."

He sipped his coffee. "My mistake."

"I mean it, Daddy. And since when have you taken such an interest in my beaux? Except to tease me."

"I'll be taking a lot more interest, now that you've started college. When you were a girl it didn't matter who you mooned over –"

"Daddy, I do not 'moon'."

"Be that as it may, now that you're a college woman, I have a vested interest in making sure you're conquering the right type of fellow. You know you're going to be a very wealthy young woman soon."

"We've always been wealthy, Daddy."

"Your mother and I have always been wealthy," he corrected.

"And I'm your daughter, so it amounts to the same thing."

"Blair, in two years you'll come into your inheritance from Grandmother Warner and your inheritance from Grandfather Wilkes. We've never discussed the details of that, but rest assured that you are going to be an incredibly wealthy woman in your own right, completely apart from your mother and me."

Blair lifted one perfect eyebrow. "Interesting," she said. She liked having money. She liked it enormously, not for the money itself but the comfort and opportunities it provided. Especially since befriending Jo, Blair appreciated what money – or the lack of it – could mean.

"How much money?" she asked.

David Warner pursed his lips as he made some mental calculations. "Interest fluctuates, of course, and there will be taxes to consider, and the lawyers will have to pick over the bones of the legal documents, but I should estimate you'll inherit in the neighborhood of 500 million dollars, as well as Nana's old apartment on Central Park West, Papa Wilkes' Bronx brownstone, the Nevada silver rights, the Tuscan property, and a fifteen-percent share in Warner Textiles."

"Five, five, five-hundred million?" Blair stammered.

"In the neighborhood, anyway. That's why it's so important that when you settle down, it's with a young man from a suitable background, someone who understands our world and who won't be dazzled by, or resentful of, your fortune."

Blair nodded dumbly. Five-hundred million. She would be completely self-sufficient. She would be able to do anything she wanted – within reason. She could buy an artist's garret in Paris. She could have a new gymnasium built for the Eastland students, and a state-of-the-art kitchen for Mrs. Garrett. She could buy Natalie a newspaper to run. She could back a Broadway show for Tootie. She could give Jo, and Jo's parents, anything they could ever possibly need.

Jo. Somehow it always came back to Jo.

"There's that look again," her father observed drily.

Blair shook her head to clear it.

"Wow. It's just a little staggering, Daddy. 500 million."

"And if it's staggering to you, think how it will affect the men you date, particularly if they're the wrong type."

Blair pictured Jo in her last-year's jeans and her worn denim jacket. Now it was Blair's turn to purse her lips thoughtfully.

"What is the 'wrong type', Daddy?"

"Fortune hunters, obviously. And anyone from an impoverished background. It's not about being a snob. It's just the way it is; you have to be born into our world to ever be comfortable in it."

Blair opened her mouth to object, but she didn't say anything. Did her father have a point? Could a former Young Diablo ever be at ease at a Park Avenue gala? And what did it matter, anyway? It wasn't like she wanted to marry Jo, or anything. All they could ever be was friends. Eventually Blair would go her way and Jo would go her own way … but Blair always wanted Jo to be comfortable dropping into her world.

"Good," said her father.

"What?" asked Blair.

"I can see that you understand me. You have always been a very sensible girl."

The rest of the meal was a blur to Blair. She picked at her crème brulée while her father took calls from London and Zurich. James dropped Blair at her mother's building before running David Warner to LaGuardia Airport.

Her mother was, if possible, more attentive to Blair than her father had been. It was very annoying. After practically ignoring Blair for more than eighteen years, they were suddenly in a parenting frenzy, precisely when Blair wanted to be alone with her thoughts.

"Blair, you look absolutely divine!" enthused Monica, air-kissing the young heiress.

They were on the balcony, with a spread of fruits and vegetables that would've fed an army. Ever since her battle with breast cancer two years before, Monica had become almost obsessed with healthy eating.

Manhattan at night gleamed below them in a tapestry of glimmering jewels.

"Have a slice of pineapple, dear," said Monica. "Or a mango. Or a kiwi."

Blair noshed absently on a pineapple slice.

It was crazy, she knew, but she couldn't stop thinking about Jo. She wanted Jo to be sitting here with her, seeing this view. She wanted to wrap New York City in a big, Tiffany-Blue bow and give it to her Jo on a silver platter.

"Oh, I know that look," Monica said happily, with a conspiratorial wink.

"What look, mother?"

"The look that says you've captured another boy's heart – or that he's captured yours. Now tell me all about him. Is it Harrison Andrews? His mother said he'd be attending Langley."

"Harrison Andrews? That scoundrel? He knows I'll deck him on sight."

"Blair!"

"You remember what he did when he enrolled in Bates a couple of years ago. He insulted Jo. Heck, insulted? He outright attacked her!"

"Oh, that's right, that's right," mused Monica. "I remember now. You told me. And even worse, he didn't invite you to the cotillion, that scapegrace."

Blair sighed. "Yes, mother. That's the headline. He didn't invite me to a dance."

"Well, it isn't very ladylike, but if you do see him on campus, you have my permission to, how did you put it, 'deck' him. And I'm going to un-invite his mother from the Guggenheim Tea next week. Harriet Andrews is a horrid bore anyway. But tell me, dear," she took Blair's hands and looked narrowly at her daughter, "who is it that's caught your fancy? Because I know that look when you get it, and you've got it."

"Honestly, mother, I don't know what you're talking about," Blair lied.

Her mother squeezed her hands. "And now you're fibbing, Blair Warner. No, don't compound it with another fib. I know your expressions. If you don't want to tell me who it is, it must be someone you think I'll consider inappropriate."

"For heaven's sake!" Blair dropped her mother's hands. "First Daddy and now you. It's like the Spanish Inquisition. Why is my love life suddenly so fascinating?"

"It's a groom, isn't it? Or a gardener?"

"Mother!"

"Oh, don't be so stuffy, Blair. Don't you think I dated a few gardeners in my day?" She winked.

"Mother, please. I am not dating, nor do I intend to date, a Langley gardener. I don't plan to date anyone this semester. I need to settle in. I need to focus on my studies."

"Not the porter?" guessed Monica. She shook a cautionary finger. "That can be dangerous, Blair. I would recommend against it."

"Spenlow? Good grief! Mother, you're not listening to me."

They spent the rest of the night trading gossip and sharing anecdotes about their summers – Monica was in Australia while Blair was in Texas. The only serious topic they discussed was Monica's health, which was, Blair was glad to learn, still excellent.

Every once in a while Monica would pounce, trying to startle Blair into revealing what inappropriate beau she was seeing. "Delivery boy!" she'd shout. And "Farmer!" And so forth.

By the time Monica shouted "Mechanic!" Blair had had enough. Blair pictured Jo in her rattiest old jeans, a wrench in her hand, grease streaks on her face and fingers.

"Yes, mother," sighed Blair. "I'm seeing a mechanic."

"Ah-ha! I knew it!" Monica crowed, as if "mechanic" had been her first rather than twentieth guess. "I dated a mechanic once. Well, he was a chauffeur, but he was very mechanical. He had such lovely hands. They do, you know. From tinkering with things."

"Really?" asked Blair. Interesting. She remembered Jo's hands on her hips when they sat on the bench behind Goodnow Hall. Jo's hands were strong, but so gentle at the same time. The way they'd slid around her waist –

"Blair? Blair?"

Monica's voice interrupted Blair reverie. Her mother was beaming triumphantly.

"You have got it bad," she laughed. "Well, that's all right. You're still very young. As long as you're careful there's no reason you shouldn't enjoy yourself with your mechanic until the real Prince Charming comes along."

And that, thought Blair later as she tossed and turned in her massive bed, was the crux of the problem.

The more she thought about Jo, about kissing Jo, about holding Jo, about how it felt to be with Jo, the less interested she was in a Prince Charming. Unless Jo could be said prince. Which of course she couldn't. That was plain crazy.

Blair couldn't sleep, never mind that she was wrapped in silk sheets that smelled of Aviance and lying under a canopy of delicate lilac gossamer. There was a bell-rope within easy reach and if she pulled it, a servant would appear and get her whatever she requested. But no one could bring her what she really wanted, which was to be with Jo forever.

Blair finally dropped off for a couple of hours but she woke with a start at three am. She'd had a nightmare, she couldn't remember what, but she was trembling. She held her pillow close to her and cried a little into it.

I'm being such a baby, she thought. Am I starting college or kindergarten?

She drifted back to sleep, an uneasy slumber that was broken at dawn by a servant gently shaking her shoulder. She didn't bother to shower, just pulled her hair into a ponytail, scrubbed her face and pulled on the first pair of Calvins and the first shirt she found when she reached into her closet.

Cook – known formally as Mrs. Pip – had breakfast waiting for her in the kitchen. Blair wasn't hungry but she didn't want to be rude, besides which Cook had known Blair since she was two, and would have no hesitation in giving the heiress an earful if some semblance of a healthy breakfast wasn't consumed.

Blair choked down a slice of wheat toast, some mouthfuls of scrambled eggs and oatmeal, a section of grapefruit. She did guzzle the cup of black coffee that Cook considered a vital adjunct to the start of any day.

"Delicious, Mrs. Pip," said Blair, pushing away her plate.

"You're not well," said Cook.

"I'm feeling fine," said Blair, with one of her radiant smiles and hair flips.

Cook shook her head darkly. "It wasn't a question. You're not well, Miss Blair."

"Worrywart." Blair kissed Mrs. Pip on the cheek. "See you next weekend. Or in a fortnight."

All during the drive back to Peekskill, Blair couldn't stop thinking about Jo. It wasn't even thinking, precisely. It was more a reliving of the sensations Jo had stirred in her. Fragments of memory, feelings, Jo's firm grip on her hips, Jo's surprisingly soft, delicate mouth. I miss her. I want her.

It was a good thing, Blair thought, that James was driving her, because if she'd been driving herself, she'd probably have run her car into a ditch by now. Her head was humming, her body was tingling. After three years of confusion and wondering and idle daydreams she had actually kissed her Jo.

But instead of scratching an itch or sating a hunger, the kisses had uncorked a wild thirst. It was a mental craving, a physical hunger, a spiritual longing – all of those and more. Blair couldn't describe it. It was like she wanted to meld into Jo, to become one half of a perfect, complete new being.

My God, I'm a lunatic, she thought. If I tried to say all this to Jo, she'd laugh her fanny off! "Eh, Warner, why'd ya always gotta make such a big production outta everythin? We like each other. Whatever."

But no, that wasn't true. That might've been Jo's reaction if Blair had kissed her three years ago, when they'd just met, before they'd been through so much together, before they'd grown so close. Now … It had hit Jo pretty hard too. The way she kept shivering, like a frightened animal …

She feels it like I do. She feels it to the bone. And what the hell can we do about it?

Visiting Chestnut calmed Blair a little. Feeding him, mucking out the stall, brushing him down. Blair had once told Mrs. Garrett that she was unfamiliar with "menial work", but that hadn't been completely accurate. Blair had been cleaning and cleaning up after horses since she was very small, and there was always something satisfying, even comforting about it, especially when she was caring for Chestnut.

"What do you think, boy?" Blair asked her stallion. He snorted enigmatically.

I can't wait to see her, Blair thought for the thousandth time, but she did wait long enough to stop by her rooms at Goodnow Hall, to wash her hands and face and change into clean boots. She sprayed her throat and wrists and the space between her breasts with Aviance. She brushed her long blonde hair until it crackled with electricity.

Makeup? Just a touch, she decided. A soupçon of mascara, just enough to set off her warm milk chocolate eyes with their green-and-gold flecks. A dab of sizzling pink lip quencher; would Jo notice it? Probably not. Lip gloss was lip gloss to Jo. But it made Blair smile, remembering their first real conversation all those years ago.

Blair blotted the lip gloss, took a final look in the mirror, flipped her hair and gave herself a brilliant smile. Even under intense pressure, butterflies in her stomach, turmoil in her mind, she looked absolutely divine, if she did say so herself.


I can't wait to see her!

Blair glanced at her watch. It was five minutes before seven-thirty am. She, Blair Warner, was actually a few minutes early. She was so excited she almost flew up the steps of Parker House.

At the top landing, only good manners prevented her from yanking the bell-rope impatiently. Instead she gave it one delicate, ladylike tug.

The melodic sound of a bell pealed within Parker House, drifting out to Blair with the bacon-egg-and-coffee scents of the dorm's kitchen.

A small window opened in the porter's door. Blair could see only the top of an iron-grey bun of hair.

"Good morning," Blair said charmingly to the bun. "My name is Blair Warner."

"Yes, Miss Warner?" It was a crisp voice, cold, even.

"I'm a freshman."

"Clearly."

Well that was rude. And completely uncalled for. But Blair had been raised from the cradle to ignore the bad manners of others (with the important exception of Jo).

"I'm here to breakfast with a chum," said Blair, still pouring on the charm.

"Name?"

"Blair Warner."

"The chum's name."

"Joanne Marie Polniaczek." As Blair said the name, she heard its poetry for the first time. Joanne Marie Polniaczek. It had a kind of … flow.

"Miss Polniaczek is not here," the voice said dismissively.

Not here? Where would she be?

"When will she return?" asked Blair.

"In my opinion? Never," the voice said with some satisfaction. "Miss Polniaczek failed to submit complete payment for her room and board. In the vernacular, her father's check 'bounced'. If she does not submit the outstanding amount within the next several days, we will give her rooms to a student on the waiting list."

Blair gasped.

"You can't do that," she objected.

"I am not doing anything," said the iron-grey bun, "except enforcing the policies of Langley College. Students must pay their bills."

"But where is she?" Blair demanded.

"I'm sure I couldn't say. Obviously I couldn't admit her yesterday. Her final words were something about a 'roach motel', if that helps. Good day."

The window slammed shut in Blair's face.

Blair stood in a daze for a moment. She couldn't begin to imagine how angry and ashamed Jo must have felt. Barred from entering her dormitory. Being told by that, that creature that her father's check had bounced.

Oh my God. I hope no other students were around when she heard that! Jo would be so embarrassed. So hurt.

Where would Jo go? What would she do? The old Jo would've punched out Bunny McBun and gone straight to jail. Or she would've leaped onto her bike like Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider" and roared back to the Bronx.

The new Jo, Blair knew, had a somewhat cooler head. She'd probably called her father from somewhere right away. Or her mother. And then Jo would've sought shelter.

Roach Motel. Roach Motel?

Did Jo mean the Off Ramp Inn, where Rose stayed last June for Jo's Eastland graduation?

Or Peekskill's inaptly named "Ritz" motel – that horrible dump where Jo and Eddie stayed the night before they eloped? (Almost eloped, Blair reminded herself.)

But did Jo even have enough money for the Ritz? She'd said something yesterday about saving up, finally having just enough for her books …

Would Jo have gone to Eastland, asked Mrs. Garrett to put her up for the night? No. Blair shook her head decisively. Jo's temper had grown more manageable over the years, but her damned pride was still as big as Montana.

What would you do if you didn't have anywhere to stay? The thought boggled Blair's mind. Her family owned a dozen homes around the world, and they had relatives or friends in every major city. And failing that, there were always grand hotels.

But what would you do if you were a hurt, pissed-off, proud young woman without any money or anywhere to go?

"The truck!" Blair shouted. She spun on her heel and dashed down the steps of Parker House. She followed the drive that wound behind the dorm, and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the red Chevy.

She ran to the driver's side of the truck. Inside was a big black lump of cloth, Jo's duffle bag, and crumpled against it a slender lump of navy blue cloth – Jo wrapped up in her pea coat. Jo was twisted at what appeared to be an uncomfortable angle, but sleeping deeply and snoring so loudly Blair was surprised the truck windows weren't rattling.

Blair smiled tenderly at the sleeping girl. She rapped gently on the glass. No response. Blair rapped louder on the window. No response. Blair banged on the window with one fist.

"Jo, wake the hell up!"

"Whah??" Jo sat up mid-snore, comically startled. She looked around, and then locked eyes with Blair through the window.

Jo's face lit up for a moment. Then it all came back to her in a nauseating whirl: Iron Britches, the bounced check, her Dad letting her down again, driving around Peekskill, the candy bar supper, sleeping in the truck. Jo's face fell. She looked away from Blair, embarrassed.

Blair's heart broke a little for her friend. Jo looked so … vulnerable. To think of her sleeping in the truck all night, all alone …

Damn the school's stupid rules!

Blair tried to open the door but it was locked. She rapped on the window again.

"Joanne Marie Polniaczek, you open this door," she said imperiously. She was pissed at the school, not Jo, but old habits died hard.

Jo complied, with ill grace. "What are you, my mother?" She scooted over to the passenger side, stretching and yawning.

Blair climbed in and slammed the door shut. The keys were in the ignition and she turned them, firing up the engine. Jo squinted at her.

"What are you so flipped out about? You look like you're gonna pop a vein."

"I just might." Blair stepped on the gas pedal and cut the wheel hard to the left, making a tight U turn that tossed Jo against the passenger door.

"Christ, Blair!" Jo clutched at the dashboard as they rocketed up the driveway. "Where's the fire?"

Hedges and low stone walls and perfectly manicured lawns flashed past at hyper-speed.

"Damn woman, damn policy, damn school," Blair was muttering.

"Blair, what's gotten into ya?"

"I know, Jo. I know what happened. That … woman told me everything. But don't worry." Blair made a wild left turn into the Goodnow Hall driveway. "We're going to get you to a toothbrush, and then we're going to figure out how to fix this."

"A toothbrush?"

Blair swerved into the Goodnow parking lot, rear tires spraying gravel. She slammed on the brakes. Jo managed not to fly through the windshield.

"Yes," said Blair. "A toothbrush. Because I really, really need to kiss you, Jo."

Jo blushed. She ducked her head. "I was almost thinkin … it almost seemed like it was just a great dream," she said shyly.

"Well it wasn't." Blair took Jo's hand. "I haven't been able to think about anything but you since I left you yesterday."

"Ya haven't?"

"No."

"Me too. Since ya left, it's like I missed ya somethin awful. All I could think about was you. And, well, about how I'm probably gonna be kicked outta here."

Blair took her other hand. "Jo, we won't let that happen."

"It was so humiliatin," Jo said softly, ducking her head. "That lady –"

"Lady?" Blair snorted. "She's no lady! Don't judge Langley by that witch."

"I tried ta call my Dad, but I couldn't get him. Turns out he's got this extra night job, now." Jo's voice thickened. "He's doin that for me. So he can keep helpin out. That's how great he is."

"I know."

"He didn't mean for the check ta bounce." Jo brushed a tear away. "He thought there was more money in the account. Ma tried ta warn him, but, ya know, he doesn't listen to her so good."

Blair smiled. "I know. I've seen them in action. Remember graduation?"

"So, I got ahold of Ma, and she's gonna talk ta him and they'll get it all fixed. But I'm worried it might take them a few days. And my room –"

"Your rooms," corrected Blair.

"Jeez, I only need one," said Jo.

"Every Langley student gets a suite. You really didn't read the 'Amenities' section of the catalog, did you?"

"Gimme a break, I hadda pick out my classes. There was so much to read, all the different choices."

"Who knew I'd ever fall for a nerd?" Blair teased. She suddenly captured Jo in a crushing bear hug.

"Who ya callin a nerd?" Jo demanded, voice muffled against Blair's shoulder.

"You, Jo. You, you beautiful nerd." Toothbrush be damned! Blair tilted her head, found Jo's mouth with her own and kissed her, long and deep.

It was Jo who finally broke the kiss to take a deep gulp of air.

"Wow," she said. "Wow." She slumped back against the seat.

"They're not going to give away your rooms," said Blair in a businesslike way, straightening her collar and checking her lip gloss in the rear view mirror.

"What?" Jo was still dazed from the kiss. It took her a moment to catch up with Blair's sudden changes of topic.

"Your rooms," said Blair. "You won't lose them. Your parents are going to come through. But if there is some unforeseen delay, I'll sign a check and your parents can pay me back."

"No!" flared Jo. "No way!"

"Joanne Marie –"

"And stop doin that! You ain't my mother!"

"Why is it so damn hard for you to take help from me? When are you going to get past your stupid, stupid pride?"

"My pride isn't stupid. Someone like me, sometimes my pride is all I got."

"Oh, blow it out your crankcase, Polniaczek! Why won't you let me help you? I'm your friend. I love you."

"Well I love you too, Warner!"

"Then we're agreed."

"Not even close! I ain't touchin your money, not a penny of it, and I never will!"

"You'd rather be tossed out of Langley than accept a stupid little loan from me?"

"My tuition cleared. I can still go ta classes. It's just the room and board that's fouled up. I'll figure somethin out if I have to."

"Oh, you'll figure something out? Like sleeping in my truck?"

The minute she said it, Blair knew she'd made a mistake. Jo was going to take it all wrong.

Sure enough, Jo's face froze. She fixed Blair with one her patented Polniaczek death glares. "That's right," she said in a tight voice, "it is your truck. What do I owe ya for the accommodations?" She started digging in her jeans pockets. "Twenty bucks be OK? Ya won't charge me as much as ya would for a hotel room, will ya?"

"Jo, for Pete's sake, you were doing me a favor, remember? You were watching my truck. I should pay you."

"Oh, no. I ain't gonna take even a chance you can ever throw this back in my face." She tried to press a crumpled twenty into Blair's hands.

Blair shoved Jo away, and raised her hands to the heavens in a "God, give me strength" type of gesture.

"That's your text book money, Jo. I won't touch your book money."

"But I'm supposed ta take your money, right?"

"That's different."

"No it ain't, Blair. Maybe I don't got a million dollars but I got principles. I can be independent too. And I never want anyone ta think –" She broke off, turned away. "Never mind."

"No," said Blair. "I want to hear this. I really do. What don't you want people to think? That you're human? That you might actually need a little help from time to time? Grow up, Jo. Everyone needs help sometimes. You've always been there for me. Why can't you ever let me be there for you?"

"You are, Blair, you are! You're always there when I need ya. It ain't about givin me money, it's about, just, all the stuff you say, the stuff you do. Even when ya bust my chops or act like a total idiot –"

"When I act like an idiot? When I act like an idiot?"

"I know your heart's always in the right place. Especially the last couple days."

Jo slowly reached forward and put one arm around Blair's waist. She waited to see if Blair would punch her. Blair glared, but there was no physical violence. Jo slowly put her other arm around the other side of Blair's waist.

"See Blair," she said calmly, "I've liked you for a real long time. Maybe since the first day I met ya. I didn't understand what my feelins meant back then. I was still wrapped up in Eddie and all. It took me a long time ta get just how much ya mean to me. But once I got it … once I really got it … I mean, I was never thrilled about the idea of owin ya anythin, but then it really got impossible."

"But why?" asked Blair. "When you love someone, what's theirs is yours and what's yours is theirs."

"Not in my world. Where I come from, ya got somethin, ya hang onto it like a dog with a soup bone. Cause even if ya think someone loves ya, you're really only a backstab away from losin everythin."

"Yes, well," Blair thought about her parents' divorce when she was eight. They had fought tooth and nail over every stick of furniture, every painting, every bank account. "Sometimes that happens in my world too," she admitted.

"When someone as poor as me loves someone as rich as you, Blair, it's easy for people to get the wrong idea."

Blair heard her father's voice in her head: Fortune hunters.

"Whether we're friends or girlfriends or whatever the hell we are," Jo continued, "it's real important to me that I never touch a penny of your money. I wanna, I wanna be sure to … keep it pure. Does any of this make any sense to you?"

"I don't care what anyone thinks," Blair said recklessly.

"Blair, come on; have you met you?" Jo's eyes twinkled. "Ya care, Blair. It's how you're wired. Anyhow, I don't care what anyone thinks – I really don't care. And it's not like we can even tell anyone, anyhow! But it ain't about that for me; it's about how I'd feel about myself if I took any of your money."

"'Me', 'I', 'myself' – listen to how selfish you are!" flared Blair. "Part of loving you is wanting to share things with you. And you won't let me!"

"You can share lots of stuff besides money," said Jo. "There's your friendship." She kissed Blair softly. "Your support." Kiss. "Your encouragement." Kiss. "Your faith in me." Kiss. "You know what got me through last night? Knowin you think I'm amazin." Kiss. "That's worth more than a million bags of gold."

Blair sighed. Jo's kisses were making her head spin. Blair was losing the thread of their argument. Jo must be wrong – she always was – but in Blair's swoony state she couldn't think of a suitable remark.

They kissed for another few minutes. Blair slipped her arms around Jo's shoulders. Jo tightened her grip on Blair's waist. Blair had lost a little weight since graduation, or maybe not lost the weight but shifted it into nicely toned muscle in her thighs, her lats, her abs, her –

"Hey!" Blair broke off the kiss and swatted Jo on the head.

"Ow!"

"Don't touch my butt!"

"I wasn't."

"You weren't?"

"OK, I was. But it was like, an involuntary reflex. I apologize," Jo said contritely. She leaned in to continue the kissing, but Blair was getting the oxygen back into her brain. She pulled away from Jo and opened the driver's side door.

"What happened?" asked Jo.

"We need to get inside before someone sees us and we get arrested for lewd behavior."

"'Lewd behavior?' Gimme a break."

Blair slid out of the truck, closed the door. "Two girls kissing in a pickup truck in Peekskill?"

"Oh." Jo considered that. "I see what you mean."

She grabbed her duffle bag and her Amelia Earhart suitcase, slid out of the truck, closed the door with a nudge of her knee.

"You said ya wanna help, right? Here, Warner." She handed the suitcase to Blair, who took it and instantly listed to one side.

"Ooph! What do you have in here?"

"A dead body," said Jo. "Maybe two."

"Anyone I know?"

"Nah. I think you move in different circles." Jo flashed her radiant grin. It was the first time that morning Blair had seen it. She felt a lump in her throat.

"Jo," she began huskily, but Jo waved her hand impatiently.

"Look, you said I could bunk with you a couple days, right? That kinda help I don't mind takin. Let's get me a toothbrush and get me into a hot shower. Cause maybe ya didn't notice, but I kinda stink this mornin."

"No more than usual," Blair deadpanned.

"Har-de-har-har."

Jo hefted the duffle bag, Blair got a good grip on the suitcase, and together they walked up the back steps of Goodnow Hall.


The rooms were beautiful.

Jo had expected something along the lines of "Masterpiece Theater", a suffocating, over-crowded, over-stuffed Victorian style, but the rooms were nothing like that. They were airy and bright. The furniture was swanky, but minimalist, light woods and pale fabrics with subtle patterns.

The sitting room had a large bow window, complete with window seat; a fireplace with a white marble mantle; a coffee table; sofa; fainting couch; easy chairs; end tables; black-and-white Navajo throw rugs; and several Tiffany lamps. A slender glass vase on the mantle was filled with yellow daffodils. They cast a sweet, subtle scent.

Blair's bags and trunks were neatly piled against the wall near the bedroom door.

"Make yourself at home," said Blair, collapsing on the sofa. "I'm going to take a little catnap, I think."

Jo shrugged. She dropped her duffle bag and Amelia Earhart suitcase next to Blair's luggage, went into the bathroom, closed the door, and locked it behind her.

Blair, lying on the sofa with her eyes closed, smiled. That was Jo, locking the bathroom door. She'd done it for three years at Eastland. Oh, she'd brush her teeth and wash her face with the other girls, but Jo always changed and showered behind a locked door.

Part of it, Blair had always figured, was temperament; Jo was private and modest by nature. Part of it was having been an only child, not used to sharing a bathroom. And part of it was environment, a blue-collar prudishness that was alien to Blair.

For Blair, nudity was a natural state, and nothing to be ashamed of. She knew she had an attractive figure, and was proud of it. She had been raised in elite world where no one thought much of nudity. There were topless beaches, and millionaires and their guests routinely skinny-dipped off their yachts. From the time Blair was six she'd been packed off to girls' camps and girls' schools where everyone was at close quarters, making nudity pervasive, unavoidable, casual and meaningless.

Blair chuckled to herself, remembering Jo's horror when Blair first disrobed in front of her. She and Jo and Nat and Tootie had been rooming together for about a week in the converted store room above the Eastland kitchen.

It was early on a Saturday morning. Jo was brushing her teeth when Blair shuffled into the bathroom, late for a breakfast date with one of her beaux … she couldn't remember which, now, and it hardly mattered.

Jo had moved to one side – ungraciously of course – to make room for Blair at the sink, but Blair had just shaken her head.

"I'll brush my teeth after," she'd mumbled sleepily.

"After what?" Jo had asked.

"After my shower."

And Blair had slipped out of her robe, half asleep and completely naked. She'd hung the robe on a peg by the tub, stretched, and turned on the hot and cold water taps. It always took a moment for the water to mix to just the right temperature. Blair hummed a little tune while she waited.

It suddenly dawned on her that Jo was gaping, frozen like a statue, toothpaste dribbling down her chin.

"I'm sorry," mumbled Blair, yawning. "Were you going to take a shower? Didn't mean to cut the line."

"Blair, you're … you're …"

"Well?" Blair yawned again. "Spit it out, Polniaczek."

But Jo couldn't spit anything out, not even her toothpaste. She blushed beet red and fled the bathroom, banging the door shut behind her.

Jo had run to Mrs. Garrett, outraged that Blair had "put on a strip-tease" and "what kind of way was that to behave, anyhow?" Mrs. Garrett had explained to Jo that Blair came from a different background, and that in the same way Blair was tolerating spark plugs and motorcycle tires in the dorm room, Jo was going to have to tolerate Blair disrobing in the bathroom.

At first, Jo handled it by fleeing the bathroom whenever Blair appeared.

Blair had been amused. "For pity's sake! You'd think I was some horrifying monster!" Jo's bashfulness had been funny at first, and over time it became part of the background noise of their lives, one of the brunette's endearing eccentricities.

By junior year Jo had stopped fleeing the bathroom. She just looked steadily away whenever Blair undressed.

By senior year, Jo had stopped looking away. She didn't stare at Blair, but she could carry on conversations with the blonde while Blair was waiting for the water to reach just the right temperature.

And on at least a couple of occasions, Blair had sensed Jo watching her out of the corners of her eyes. Not in a weird way, but appreciatively. Blair had never been sure … but she hadn't minded. She'd actually hoped that maybe the brunette was starting to feel some of the wonderful but confusing things that Blair was feeling …

A sharp "rat-tat-tat" on the door of her suite broke Blair's reverie. She sat up. She could hear water running in the bathroom, behind the locked door.

"Enter," Blair called. The door of the suite opened, and a young woman in a smart navy blue blazer and skirt entered the room, pushing a silver dolly draped with a linen cloth.

"Your breakfast, Miss Warner," said the young woman. She had a faint accent – German, Blair decided. Bavaria, not Berlin. A nice, wholesome country girl.

"Bitte schön," Blair thanked her.

The woman smiled. She lifted one domed silver lid, revealing a plate of crisp bacon and a mound of scrambled eggs. She lifted a smaller lid, revealing a bowl of oatmeal, and yet another lid that concealed a sugar-sprinkled, impeccably sectioned grapefruit, and yet another lid covering a plate of croissants, jellies, jams and marmalade.

"Wunderbar," Blair approved.

"Shall I pour your coffee?" the young woman asked.

"Ja, two coffees," said Blair. "One white, one black."

"You are expecting a guest?" the woman asked, pouring out the two coffees.

"I have a guest," said Blair. "She's freshening up."

"Ah, how nice. A friend from home, miss?" She stirred a healthy dollop of steamed milk into one of the coffees.

"A friend from Langley," Blair said. "There's been a bit of a kerfuffle about her room."

"I'm sorry, a … ker … ker …"

"A bit of a mix-up," explained Blair. "Some confusion about her room in Parker House. So my friend will be staying with me for the next couple of days."

The young woman furrowed her brow. "Miss Warner, I must forget you told me that. It is very much against the residential rules."

Blair raised her eyebrows. "How so?"

"Every student must have their own rooms. It is verboten, that is, forbidden, for students to share suites."

"But why on earth – never mind." Blair sighed. Money. Of course. Most things came down to money. Langley made so much per student for each suite. Students sharing rooms would dilute the profits.

"Wie heißen Sei?" What is your name? Blair asked in fluent German.

"Elfrieda," the woman responded with a curtsey.

"If you would forget what I said, Elfrieda, I would appreciate it."

"Of course, Miss Warner. It is forgotten. Only," she lowered her voice, "please to be sure that I do not see the friend. Because if I do, I must, I will have to –"

"Naturally. Do not concern yourself, Elfrieda."

"Danke schön, Miss Warner. Do you require anything else at this time?"

"No, Elfrieda. Thank you – for everything. You're a treasure."

Elfrieda blushed. She curtsied again, and then left, closing the door behind her.

Blair took the cup of black coffee and settled back against the sofa. She took a deep drink of the powerful brew.

Her rooms were on the third floor, backing on the fairy tale forest behind Goodnow Hall, the woods where she and Jo had sat the day before, kissing by the little pond. Blair could smell evergreens and hear the faint trilling of birds through the open bow windows.

It's so beautiful here, she thought. So comfortable, and lush. And yet in some ways it's as restrictive as high school. So many damn rules.

Jo was going to have to keep a low profile for the next few days, a very low profile. Blair didn't want to get Elfrieda – not to mention Jo and herself – into hot water with what was sounding more and more like a rigid and autocratic Dean's office.

Maybe we should hole up here for the next 48 hours, Blair thought dreamily. She ran one delicate finger around the rim of her coffee cup. I could plead a headache. No, a cold. The kitchen will send up trays. Jo and I can share the food and drink. We can just be blissfully alone until her room gets straightened out, until our classes start …

Blair closed her eyes. She dozed. She dreamed.


Now this is the life! thought Jo.

She was soaking in a hot bath. She had always hated baths. But she'd never seen a tub like this, a big marble monster with claw legs and gallons and gallons of wonderfully hot water. She had filled it with some bath crystals she found on a shelf near the sink. They smelled like almonds and vanilla and cinnamon.

Jo closed her eyes. She was as pink as coral, from her face to the tips of her toes, and beads of sweat stood out on her forehead. She had scrubbed herself clean and marinated in the delicious-smelling water for half an hour.

The bathroom seemed as big as Notre Dame Cathedral and was decorated like something out of the Edwardian age. It wasn't just the beautiful vintage tub. There was an old-fashioned sink, a gilt mirror, a gorgeous toilet. The narrow windows were stained glass, painting the light in jeweled tones. The only modern-looking accoutrement was a glassed-in shower tucked discreetly in the far corner.

The lamps were electric but designed like old-fashioned gas lamps with glass chimneys. There were tea light candles in wooden holders along the edge of the sink, along the edge of the shelves. There were piles and piles of pristine white towels.

After Jo had filled the tub with steaming water and the delicious bath crystals she'd lit a couple of the candles. She noticed a panel of tiny switches on the side of the sink. She twisted one of the switches. From hidden speakers poured the lulling tones of a Chopin concerto.

Oh, yeah, the life, murmured Jo. She put a steaming hot wash cloth over her face. Would her own bathroom be this nice? Assuming, of course, that she ever got to see it. Probably not, she decided. Warner money talked. But if Jo's bathroom was only half as amazing as this, she might never leave it!

Maybe we're payin an arm and a leg, but at least it looks like we're getting something for our dough.

When Jo felt as limp as a boneless chicken and completely at peace with the world – even evil old Iron Britches – she pulled the stopper out of the drain. Water whooshed away down the pipe as Jo stood and stretched luxuriously. She wrapped herself in a soft white robe with the Langley crest on the lapel.

Blair never did anything by halves, and she had stocked the drawers and cabinets of the sink with dozens of soaps, shampoos, bottles of hairspray and, of course, extra toothbrushes. Jo snagged one and brushed her teeth for a long, long time.

She wanted to smell good for Blair. She wanted to have amazing breath for Blair. Spotting a bottle of Lavoris, she poured some into one of the heavy glasses on the vanity, swished the mouthwash around her mouth. Aaaah! Now that was fresh!

There was a heavy comb of ivory and gold on the vanity. Jo hefted it and combed out her hair. Instead of pulling it into a ponytail, she let her hair hang loose and free.

She looked through the bazillion beauty products on the vanity. Leave it to Blair to have unpacked practically none of her possessions yet, but all of her beauty goop was present and accounted for. Jo chuckled as she found a tube of "sizzling pink lip quencher".

The night we went to the Chugalug! It was the first day they'd met. Blair had had trouble deciding which photo to give Jo so the streetwise brunette could make her a fake ID. Blair had found it a difficult decision because she looked amazing in all the photos. She finally chose the one where she had a perfect, coconut-oil tan, although the one where she was wearing sizzling pink lip quencher was a close second.

Jo uncapped the lip gloss. Let's see if Blair notices! Jo dabbed some sizzling pink lip quencher on her mouth. It tasted like strawberries. It tasted, in fact, like Blair's lips had tasted earlier. She's wearin it today! Jeez, guess I ain't the only one strollin down memory lane.

Jo noticed the bottles of Aviance, Blair's signature scent. Don't wanna wear that. Ah! Jo opened a bottle of Jean Naté and splashed some on.

She slipped out of the robe to get dressed, then realized the problem – she hadn't thought to bring in any of her clothes. Brilliant, Polniaczek! She didn't want to put on the same clothes she'd worn yesterday, the ones she'd slept in all night.

Jo opened the door of a marquetry-inlaid wardrobe near the sink. Maybe Blair had unpacked something and hung it up? She had: white silk pajamas with "BW" monogrammed in silver thread on the left breast pocket.

She won't mind, thought Jo. In fact, Jo smiled, she might kinda like it.

Jo pulled on the pajamas. They were a little loose on her wiry frame, but felt cool and luxurious against her skin.

She twirled in front of the mirror, her hair, loose and free, floating out around her handsome face. She felt like a princess at a ball, not unlike the way she'd felt at the beginning of the night Harrison Andrews – that jerk! – took her to – or, rather, through – the Peekskill country club cotillion.

All right, she thought, I'm ready. Ready for some coffee, some breakfast, some R & R, and some serious making out with Miss Blair Warner.


Blair woke herself with a startled snort. She'd been dreaming, and, she realized, scrubbing at her chin, drooling a little. Eck.

She sat up and stretched. The coffee in her cup was lukewarm. The bathroom door was still closed.

What the hell is Jo doing in there? Did she get sucked down the drain?

She poured herself a fresh cup of black coffee, hot from the insulated silver pot. She took a deep drink, then leaned back against the sofa and took inventory of her appearance.

Her hair, in its simple ponytail, felt scraggly and mussed. There was sleep crud in the corners of her eyes. She was wearing the same, now-rumpled jeans and shirt she'd pulled out of her closet in New York early that morning. Her boots were scuffed and muddy from her visit to the stables. Her mascara still seemed to be intact, but her lip gloss had been kissed away during her encounters with her Neanderthal.

All in all, she probably looked pretty dreadful. But somehow it didn't matter. She sighed contentedly, lacing her fingers behind her head.

Jo had already seen Blair in every possible light, and in every possible state, including one of the most miserable colds to ever afflict a Warner. Jo had seen Blair with makeup, without makeup, at her best and at her worst. And Jo seemed to care about her, really care about her, no matter what she looked like.

Of course, even at my very worst, Blair mused, I'm still pretty damn dazzling.

She sighed contentedly again. Whenever the hell Jo finally finished her ablutions, Blair was going to show the brunette just how dazzling she could be …

Blair had just drifted off again when there was a pounding of multiple fists on her suite door, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam!

Her eyes flew open and she sat up. She recognized that wildly enthusiastic knocking.

"Enter!" she called.

The suite door swung open and Tootie and Natalie raced into the room, arms already spread wide.

Part 2

Return to The Facts of Life Fiction

Return to Main Page