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 2

"Blair!" shouted Tootie.

"Blair!" shouted Nat.

They rushed the sofa and caught Blair in wildly affectionate bear hugs that almost crushed the heiress into atoms.

"Tootie! Nat!" Blair shouted excitedly, her voice muffled by her friends' arms and shoulders. "It's so good to see you! But, mmph, I can't breathe!"

"Oh. Sorry," laughed Tootie. "Come on, Nat, let's give the girl a little room."

The two best friends released Blair, pulled back and settled themselves in adjacent chairs.

Blair looked from one friend to the other, her eyes shining. Tootie was taller and she'd changed her hair again. Nat had slimmed a bit was still jovially plump, with those sparkling, mischievous blue eyes. "Oh, what a lovely surprise. You both look wonderful! Tootie, have you grown again?"

"Only a couple of feet," said Tootie with false modesty. She fanned herself theatrically.

"I keep telling her she's going to end up taller than Brooke Shields," said Nat.

"Yeah, but I'll be foxier," Tootie grinned.

Blair felt tears pricking her eyes. She hadn't realized just how much she missed the girls. She and Jo had been planning to call them that afternoon, see if maybe they wanted to get a pizza in the next couple of days. We should've called them right away, thought Blair.

She reached out and grabbed one of Tootie's hands and one of Nat's. "The four musketeers, all together again!" Blair said happily.

"Uh, Blair, I don't mean to imply that you can't count –" Nat began.

"Jo's here too," Blair explained. "The grease monkey is in the bathroom. De-greasing."

"Fantastic!" said Tootie. "Then we don't have to go pick her up. So where are we going? What are we going to do today?"

"Easy, Tootie," said Nat. "We just sprang ourselves on them. They might have things they have to do." Nat tossed her hair. "Important, college-type things," she said mockingly.

Blair laughed.

"Nothing could be more important than you two," she said sincerely. "I'll tell you what, I'll take us all out to lunch at Ma Maison."

"Blair, that's so sweet, but you don't have to treat," said Tootie.

"Speak for yourself," Nat countered. "Treat us, Blair, treat us!"

"Natalie has to save all her money for postage," Tootie explained.

"My parents and I traveled all over Canada this summer," said Nat. "Toronto boys? Very nice. But Vancouver boys are more romantic. And don't get me started on Saskatchewan!"

"Oh I won't, I won't," Blair promised.

"Ah, Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan," Nat said with a sigh. "The breeding ground of beautiful lumberjack man-children. There was one boy who –"

Blair listened politely, affectionately as Natalie rambled on about her Canadian conquests. Tootie, who'd heard it all several times since reuniting with Nat the day before, turned her attention on Blair.

Something's different, Tootie realized almost at once.

An inveterate gossip and the "baby" of the group, Tootie had impeccable instincts when it came to sniffing out a secret.

Like most "youngest children" in the family, her power within the group had been based on her ability to obtain and trade in information.

As Tootie had matured, she'd eased back on the gossip, learning first-hand how hurtful it could be. But her antennae still quivered when she sensed anything amiss. And as a creature of deep emotions and very few boundaries, Tootie not only loved her friends but felt like they were a part of her. And since they were part of her … so, by extension, were their secrets.

Blair grinned and nodded politely at Natalie while the boy-crazy senior talked on. Blair couldn't care less about what Nat was saying, Tootie knew, but Blair was thrilled that Nat was there to say it.

While Blair was distracted, Tootie gave the debutante a careful once-over.

Dark circles under the eyes. And was that sleep-crud in the corners? No foundation on her face. Barely any mascara. Wrinkled shirt. Rumpled jeans – and are those Levi's? Dusty cowgirl boots. A ponytail. Make that a scraggly ponytail.

Tootie put a hand to her heart. Either hell had frozen over, or –

"Blair," Tootie said solemnly, interrupting Nat's spiel, "are you dying?"

Blair stared at Tootie and then burst out laughing. She laughed and laughed and even slapped her knee.

"My God, she's hysterical," said Natalie. "Blair – are you dying?"

Blair shook her head, trying to catch her breath. Dying? She'd never felt so wonderful in her life, not in a long time. Starting Langley, finding out Jo loved her, being reunited with her best friends in the world …

"I'm fine," Blair finally managed to say. "Better than fine. Life couldn't get more perfect than it is at this moment."

But at that very moment, it did get more perfect.

The bathroom door opened and Jo strolled out. Jo, with her beautiful mane of dark hair flowing loosely about her face. Jo, with a touch of sizzling pink lip quencher on her mouth. Jo, resplendent in Blair's white silk pajamas, and smelling of almonds and vanilla and Jean Naté.

"Hey, Warner," said Jo, not yet noticing Tootie and Nat. "Did ol' Jeeves send up our breakfast yet? Cause I'm starvin. And not just –"

"Jo!" Blair interrupted her with an almost manic cheerfulness before Jo said something they'd all regret. "Jo, Jo, Jo. Look who's here."

Jo's face lit up as she saw her old roommates.

"Tootie! Nat!" She spread her arms. "C'mere, ya little lugs!"

Hugs were exchanged all around.

"Well, well, well," Natalie teased, when they were all seated around the coffee table, Tootie and Nat on chairs, Jo sitting next to Blair on the sofa, "so this is how the other half lives!"

"Hey, study hard," said Jo, "then you guys can join us here in a couple years."

"I didn't know you guys were going to room together," said Tootie. She gave Jo a once-over while the brunette was chowing down on plate of eggs.

Something's different with Jo, too, Tootie thought. It wasn't just that her hair was down, or that she was wearing silk pajamas. There was a softness in Jo's eyes and an ease in her movements that Tootie had never seen before.

"We ain't roomin together," Jo said. "I got my own room. Only, it's not, it's not quite ready yet. They gotta do some finishin touches. So Blair's lettin me crash here awhile."

"About that," Blair said. "It turns out that's not allowed. I mean, we can have guests from outside the college visit for a sleepover, like Nat or Tootie, but students can't room with each other. So we have to keep you under wraps, Jo."

"This place has more cockamamie rules than a nuthouse," Jo complained. She crammed another forkful of eggs into her mouth.

"Well, you look like you're handling the hardships pretty well," Nat said drily. Her eyes danced with mischief as she looked meaningfully at the white silk pajamas. "We're going to have to start calling you Blair Junior."

Jo fixed Nat with one of her patented death glares.

"Or perhaps not," Nat said hurriedly. "Definitely not," she amended.

"I ain't had time ta unpack my duds," Jo said defensively, "so I borrowed some of Princess Di's glad rags." She scratched one armpit. "I think I'm gettin a rash."

Blair rolled her eyes. "I wouldn't be surprised," she drawled. "You're allergic to anything but denim or polyester."

Jo bit back a smile. Pretty good one, Warner, she thought. She wanted to slip her arms around the blonde and kiss her … but not wanting to give Nat or Tootie heart attacks, Jo restrained herself.

And what was that look? wondered Tootie. Jo had scowled at Blair with her mouth, but smiled with her eyes. Something's going on. It's like they have a secret. A surprise for us? What could it be?

Natalie seemed to be thinking along the same lines. She looked from Jo to Blair and back to Jo again. Nat wasn't as snoopy as Tootie, but the fledgling journalist did have a nose for news.

"All right," she said to the older girls. "Spill it!"

Blair and Jo both looked startled.

"Spill what?" Blair asked innocently.

Jo looked at the carpet. The tips of her ears were pink.

Oh, yeah, Tootie thought triumphantly. You guys are hiding something.

"Come on," said Nat. "You can't fool future Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper woman Natalie Green! There's a story here, and I'm going to get the scoop."

"Eh, what 'story'?" scowled Jo. "We're all just sittin here chowin down."

"Please." Natalie jabbed one index finger at Blair, and another one at Jo. "I mean, look at you two. Blair's all mussed up –"

"I beg your pardon," Blair bristled coldly.

"- and Jo, our Jo, is lounging around in silk pajamas like Hugh Heffner."

Jo chuckled. Hugh Heffner? She could live with that.

"So are you going to tell us what's up," asked Natalie, "or do we have to guess? Cause this thing has 'UFO' or 'Freaky Friday' written all over it!"

Jo laughed. She leaned forward and put an affectionate hand on Nat's shoulder.

"Take me ta ya leader," she deadpanned.

Nat rolled her eyes. "Well, it's not 'UFO'," she said. "No alien could fake your Bronx accent that well." She noticed Blair's chilly glare. "Or your indignation."

"I am not mussed," said Blair. "I just didn't sleep well, and I drove up here early, and I was taking care of Chestnut."

"Chestnut!" Tootie said excitedly. "How is he? You get to keep him here?"

"Well, not here in the room, Tootie, but down at the stables, yes. And he's doing very well. Thank you for asking."

"How does she know Chestnut?" Jo asked Blair.

"There was a flood the year before you came to Eastland. Tootie went to the stables to save her rabbits, and I went to save Chestnut."

"I can speak for myself, Blair. I am sitting right here. We almost drowned," Tootie told Jo. "But Mr. Bradley saved us."

"Mr. Bradley?"

"The headmaster before Mr. Harris."

"Bradley didn't save us," Blair objected. "We ended up saving ourselves."

"That's not what you said then," Tootie laughed. She clasped her hands together theatrically, and assumed a dopey, lovelorn expression. "'Oh, Mr. Bradley, I mean, Steven, has such giant, glistening muscles. He's my hero! He's so manly, and – ' ooph!'"

Tootie broke off her performance when Blair pegged her in the head with a croissant.

"Blair!"

"Oh, come on Tootie, that didn't hurt. And I did not say those ridiculous things about Mr. Bradley."

"You most certainly did!"

"Well I didn't mean them. It was temporary insanity."

"Now I've got butter in my hair," Tootie complained. She scrubbed at her hair with a linen napkin, giving Blair a wounded look.

"Blair Warner attacks ex-roommate with pastry," said Nat. She had a flair for headlines. "I'm really leaning toward the 'Freaky Friday' theory at this point."

Natalie held an imaginary microphone toward the older girls. "So tell me, ladies, how did you switch bodies? And when do you think you'll be switching back?"

"Would ya put a sock in it, Nat?" said Jo. "Nobody's changed. We're just the same as you remember."

"She's right," said Blair, voice muffled by a heaping mouthful of bacon.

"Exactly," said Jo, dabbing at her mouth with a linen napkin. She turned to Blair. "Another cup of coffee?" she asked attentively.

"Oh, nothing's changed at all!" said Nat, throwing up her hands. "What was I thinking?"

"They haven't switched bodies," Tootie said thoughtfully. "They've just rubbed off on each other. Bound to happen after so many years. Just like some of my charm has rubbed off on you," she told Natalie.

"Hey, I don't need your charm," Nat objected. "I have my own quirky je ne sais quois."

"No," said Tootie, looking back and forth from Jo to Blair, "there's something else going on here."

"Jeez, would ya drop it?" said Jo. "And stop starin at us like that. I'm startin ta feel like a lab rat."

"Blair seems oddly down-to-earth," Tootie mused. "No arrogance or airs. Barbaric, even. And Jo seems downright civilized."

"I'm about ta get a lot less civilized," Jo said darkly, "if ya don't drop it, Toot."

"'Arrogance and airs'? 'Barbaric'?" Blair demanded. "Why is everyone picking on me today?"

"Picking on you?" asked Tootie. "You're not the ones combing crumbs out of your hair."

"I ain't pickin on ya, Blondie," said Jo. Blair smiled at her. "So, ya want another cup of coffee or what?"

"I'd love one," said Blair. Jo lifted the coffee pot, refilled Blair's empty cup.

"That's it!" yelled Tootie. She bounced up and down excitedly on her chair. "I know what's wrong!"

"Share, share!" said Nat.

"They're being nice to each other!"

"We are not!" Blair and Jo said together.

"Bein nice to Princess Grace," said Jo. "Heh! That'll be the day."

"You just poured her a cup of coffee!" said Tootie.

"Only cause Blair's so impossible when she's havin caffeine withdrawal. You've seen it. It ain't pretty."

"I beg your pardon, you, you Neanderthal," sputtered Blair.

"And we're back!" said Nat, smiling. "Oh, pointless bickering, how we've missed you!"

"No," said Tootie, eyes narrowing, "they're faking it. Blair and Jo are actually getting along."

"Could peace in the Middle East be far behind?" marveled Natalie. "Flying pigs? The freezing over of hell?"

"C'mon," growled Jo. "I mean, please. The day I get along with Marie Antoinette here will be the day I, the day I–" She fumbled for a suitably ludicrous example.

"The day you comb you hair?" Blair suggested, smiling brightly.

"Turn blue," said Jo with supreme disdain.

"In your ear," said Blair, folding her arms across her chest.

"OK. I'm back to my original 'Freaky Friday' theory," said Nat.

"They're totally faking it!" said Tootie triumphantly.

"If they're faking it, they've got a lock on this year's Academy Awards."

"No, they are. You can see it in their eyes."

"Get outta my eyes, Tootie," Jo said threateningly.

"What she said," said Blair.

"Something's bonded you two," Tootie said thoughtfully. Her eyes grew wide. "Oh my God!" She pointed at them. "You've fallen in love!"

Jo blushed to the roots of her dark hair.

Blair's mouth opened and closed several times, but no sound came out.

"I knew it!" shouted Tootie. She jumped up out of her chair and did her Michael Jackson spin, and her Michael Jackson moonwalk. "In your face, Rona Barrett!" she crowed, and then remembering that she wasn't a little kid anymore, she sat down and buffed her fingernails on her crimson Eastland sweater. "Am I the goods?" she asked with dignity. "Or am I the goods."

"You're the goods," Natalie agreed.

Jo had put a hand over her face and was slumping down, as if she were trying to bore into the sofa and hide. Blair's eyes were enormous, like those of a deer caught in the headlights of a big rig on a backwoods Peekskill road.

Aw, jeez, was all Jo could think. Aw, jeez, aw, jeez, aw, jeez!

Blair couldn't think at all. Her brain had seized up with the shock and embarrassment.

"So," Natalie said excitedly, rubbing her hands together, "what are their names?"

"Where did you meet them?" asked Tootie.

"What are they like?" asked Natalie.

"Do they go to Langley?" asked Tootie.

"Do they have brothers?" asked Nat.

Sound finally tumbled from between Blair's lips. "They, ah, you, they –" She looked to Jo for help. Jo stopped shrinking into the sofa cushion and her blush receded.

"Of course," Jo said hoarsely. "You would want to know all about our new boyfriends. That we're in love with." She looked significantly at Blair.

"Oh, yes. Them," said Blair.

"I'll bet Jo's is a prince," Tootie said dreamily. "That's why she's so fancy now. It's just like 'My Fair Lady'."

"Bullfeathers," muttered Jo.

"Where would Jo meet a prince?" Natalie objected reasonably.

"Maybe his limousine broke down in the Bronx," Tootie said, "right in front of Uncle Sal's garage. And Jo came out to fix the engine, and the prince was smitten."

"Hah!" said Blair. "If by 'smitten' you mean she smote him with a monkey wrench!"

Jo glared at Blair, but inside the brunette was smiling. Monkey wrench. Blair's second tool reference in less than twenty-four hours!

"The prince was smitten," Tootie continued, "and so was Jo. He swept her off her feet."

"Off her motorcycle boots," Blair corrected.

"But theirs is a forbidden love," said Tootie. "He's going to be a king someday, and Jo's just a commoner."

"Hey!" Jo bristled.

"It's a technical term," Blair comforted her. "It doesn't mean 'common'. Even I'm a commoner – if you can believe it."

"Well, what about Blair's guy?" Natalie prompted Tootie, thoroughly unconvinced but completely entertained by her best friend's wild speculations.

"Blair's guy is a cowboy," said Tootie. "Like the Marlboro Man. The strong silent type."

"Hubba, hubba," said Nat.

"He has no patience for girly frills."

"Actually," Blair said thoughtfully, "that's pretty dead on."

Uh-uh, Warner, thought Jo. I like your girly frills. She and Blair were going to have to have a very serious talk about girly frills after Tootie and Nat left.

"I knew it!" said Tootie.

"Come on," Natalie objected. "What was a cowboy doing on the French Riviera?"

Tootie waved that concern aside as irrelevant and uninteresting. "Who cares? Maybe his horse took a wrong turn at Dodge City."

"There are cowboys in Europe, Natalie," Blair said.

"So it's true?" Natalie goggled. "You fell in love with the European Marlboro Man?"

"Not even close," laughed Blair.

"Well you fell in love with somebody," Tootie insisted. "Somebody against type. Somebody not rich. Down-to-earth. Rough-edged."

Jo choked a little on her coffee. Tootie was good. Damn good. Too good. Tootie's description was getting way too close for comfort.

"Jeez, Nancy Drew, you oughta open your own detective agency," teased Jo.

"And you," said Tootie, turning to Jo, "fell in love with somebody upper-crust. Aristocratic. Obsessed with appearances."

"Not obsessed with appearances," Blair disagreed, "or he'd never date Jo."

Jo shot her a look. On the surface it simply said, "Drop dead." Underneath, it said, "Oh, you'll pay for that one later, Miss Warner."

"Come on," Natalie pleaded with the older girls, "end the suspense. Who did you fall in love with this summer?"

Jo sighed. It looked like it was up to her to throw some dust in Tootie and Nat's eyes.

"Look, it ain't that big a deal," she said, spreading her hands. "While you were at drama camp," she looked at Tootie, "and you were breakin hearts in 'the great white north'," she looked at Nat, "I was bein romanced by Mr. Balducci's sister's son's fourth cousin."

"Wow," breathed Tootie. "You must really love him to be able to remember all that."

"I do. That is, I did. He's the only successful Balducci, see. Like, ever. He's in college, but he already owns his own sandwich shop. All summer, he, like, wooed me, with pastrami and corned beef and ham-and-cheese on rye."

"Ham-and-cheese on rye," breathed Natalie.

"But it turns out he was steppin out on me. He broke my heart."

"So you broke his face," guessed Tootie.

"Nah. I'm too grown up for that stuff now," Jo said. "But it hurt. It still kinda hurts." She put a hand over her heart. "And that's how come me and Blair seem so close right now. Cause she got her heart all smashed up this summer too. So we called a truce, you know, until we work through the pain. We're like, like –"

"Sisters in pain," said Tootie.

"Exactly, Stretch. Blair and me are sisters in pain."

"But I've never been dumped," Blair objected. Jo's eyes bored into hers. "Ah, that is, until this summer," Blair amended. "And it feels terrible. I'm in all sorts of pain. But thank goodness I've had Jo to talk to. She knows all about being dumped. She could probably even write a book about it."

"Oh, I don't know about that," said Jo. "I've never been dumped before either."

"No?"

"No."

Blair shrugged. "My mistake."

"Anyhow," Jo continued, "I think I'm feeling a lot better now."

"Me too," said Blair.

"I think it's time to call off the truce."

"I agree," said Blair.

"Good," said Natalie. "You can get back to bickering. Cause we really miss that."

"What's Eastland like without us?" Blair asked curiously.

"Quiet," Tootie and Nat said together.

"I'll bet," laughed Jo. "Are ya still in the same room over the kitchen?"

"Yes, just like we planned," Tootie said. "And I've got Michael plastered everywhere."

"Everywhere," Natalie confirmed. "He's got more space in our room than I do. Tootie, we really ought to think about charging him rent."

"I wish," Tootie sighed.

"Eh, ya still got it bad for him, huh?" said Jo. "Well who knows, kid, maybe someday you'll meet him."

"I am going to be an entertainer," Tootie agreed. "Sooner or later we'll have to bump into each other."

"That's the spirit," said Jo. "When ya gotta dream, ya gotta hang onto it. Cause, ya know, it can come true and stuff."

"That's a really optimistic attitude, Jo," Natalie complimented her. "Especially since you just had your heart horribly shattered."

"Eh, well," Jo shrugged, "I bounce back pretty good."

"The more I think about it," said Blair, "I don't think I was actually, technically, dumped. I think there was some sort of misunderstanding."

"There wasn't," Jo said firmly.

"No. No, no, no, I think there was. In fact, the more I think about it, I believe I actually dumped him."

"Ya didn't," Jo said firmly.

"How would you know, Polniaczek? You weren't even there."

"Well neither were you!"

"Girls, girls!" trilled a familiar voice. Four heads swiveled toward the door.

Mrs. Garrett and her flaming red bun of hair stood in the doorway of the suite.

"When will you girls stop your bickering?" asked Mrs. Garrett.

Blair stood up, opening her arms. "Mrs. Garrett," she said, smiling at her surrogate mother, "I think you know perfectly well that you'll be breaking up our arguments when we're all in the Peekskill Rest Home."

"Yeah, Mrs. G," Jo said shyly. "You're kinda stuck with us for life."

Mrs. Garrett crossed the room, beaming, hugging first Blair and then Jo. She gave Jo an extra squeeze. "Goodness, Jo, you're practically skin and bones!"

"Nah, I'm just going through a growin spurt."

Mrs. Garrett looked at her critically. "Well, you are another foot taller," she said. "But be sure you eat." She looked at Blair. "Make sure she eats, Blair. We don't want her disappearing just because I'm not around to cook."

"Actually, I think that means I'll be eatin more than usual," Jo deadpanned.

Mrs. Garrett shook a finger at her. "That's enough of your wisecracks, Jo."

"Yes, Mrs. G."

Mrs. Garrett's eyes were moist. Blair's too. Jo had a tear trickling down one cheek.

"Gee, it's good to see ya, Mrs. G. Where did ya come from?"

"Well I've been waiting down in my car. I'm supposed to be a surprise. But someone," she looked hard at Natalie and Tootie, "never gave me the signal to come on up."

"Oops," said Nat.

"Sorry, Mrs. Garrett," said Tootie. "But we didn't know Jo would be here already. That threw us off our stride, and then we got caught up in the soap opera of Blair and Jo's summers."

"Oh?" Mrs. Garrett lifted one eyebrow.

Tootie mock-swooned, putting a hand to her forehead. "Jo fell for a fickle sandwich shop owner. And Blair was dumped by a – What did he do, anyway, Blair?"

"He drove a garbage truck," Jo supplied helpfully.

"He did not," said Blair, outraged.

"She prefers to think of him as a 'sanitation engineer'," Jo explained.

"He was … a race car driver," Blair said decisively. "Very handsome. And the more I think about it, I really did dump him."

"Whatever gets you through the pain," Jo said sympathetically.

Blair swatted Jo with a napkin. Jo just grinned.

Mrs. Garrett sat down on the fainting couch, and none too comfortably. It really was designed for reclining, rather than sitting, and she kept almost slipping off of it.

She told Blair and Jo a little bit about her summer, which was spent trying to modernize the Eastland kitchen, a nearly impossible task, given how tightly the headmaster, Mr. Parker, was pinching pennies.

Mostly, Mrs. Garrett listened as the girls chatted and squabbled good-naturedly among themselves. She'd known she missed them, but she hadn't realized quite how much until she was sitting here, in Blair's suite, listening to her girls and seeing them with her own eyes. Because they were her girls, after all of their years and all their adventures together, almost as much as her sons were her boys.

She had already spent a full day and night with Natalie and Tootie, and she knew all about their summers and she knew the main thing that she needed to know – that they were all right.

Blair and Jo, on the other hand … Mrs. Garrett watched them closely. There was something different there. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but it was there.

Oh, Blair looked all dressed down and Jo looked all dressed up, but that was what happened between friends; they influenced each other, often without either being aware of it, and they tried on each other's roles.

No, it was more. The girls had always been close friends, long before they would admit it, but they had never been so … comfortable with each other? At ease? Mrs. Garrett shook her head. No, that was close, but that wasn't it. She was missing something here.

"Well all I have to say is, 'Langley College, here I come'," Natalie was saying. "This place is a palace!"

"It's part of the Langley philosophy," Blair explained. "Langley only accepts the best and the brightest, and they want us focused completely on our studies and activities. Every comfort is provided so that we have nothing to distract us from our goals."

"Plus, make everyone pay for their own room, you really rake in the loot," said Jo.

Mrs. Garrett waited for Blair's comeback – this was Blair's opportunity to call Jo a "barbarian" or "Neanderthal" or "cynic" – something insulting anyway – and defend the policies of elite Langley College.

Instead, Blair put her hand on Jo's shoulder.

"There's that too," Blair agreed. "But even if it's based on greed, it's a philosophy that really does benefit us."

"I suppose," Jo conceded grudgingly.

"You'll see," Blair promised.

There was … something in the exchange. It puzzled Mrs. Garrett. And it concerned her.

"Mrs. Garrett, they're doing it again," Natalie complained.

"Doing what?"

"They're getting along."

"Well," said Mrs. Garrett, sipping her coffee, "that's hardly a catastrophe."

"Maybe not, but it's creeping me out. I feel like we keep slipping into an episode of 'The Twilight Zone'."

"I think it's wonderful," said Tootie. "Two soul sisters-in-pain, helping each other work through broken hearts."

"But I miss 'The Bickersons'," sighed Nat.

"Natalie," said Mrs. Garrett, "you're just going to have to get used to the fact that people change, and the way they interact with each other changes too."

"But not Blair and Jo."

"Yes, Blair and Jo. Everybody grows and changes. Relationships that never evolve grow stale. And you wouldn't want that."

"I don't want 'stale', Mrs. Garrett, but I wouldn't mind a few musty, blast-from-the-past Blair-Jo fireworks."

Ah! That was it, Mrs. Garrett realized. The fireworks were missing. From the beginning Blair and Jo, with all of their differences, had still been drawn to each other as friends. That had created an often electric tension that resulted in frequent arguments. Blair and Jo, both intelligent and strong, both leaders, had sparked against each other. But now …

Where's the tension? Mrs. Garrett wondered. Where did it go?

She'd seen Blair and Jo scrap a little bit today, but it wasn't like old times. Their hearts weren't in the skirmishes. They were supremely at ease with each other. Something, somehow, had been resolved between them. Something deep. And that seemed like a good thing. So why am I so worried? Mrs. Garrett asked herself.

"Penny for your thoughts, Mrs. G," said Jo, smiling at her mentor.

"I'm just hoping that you're all right. All of you." And Mrs. Garrett leaned forward and patted each of their faces in turn. "You four couldn't be more dear to me if you were my own daughters."

"Aw, c'mon," complained Jo, as two tears splashed down her face. "You know what a short fuse I got when it comes ta mush."

"Well, Jo, you did ask me what I was thinking."

"Yeah, true." Jo wiped her eyes on her silk pajama sleeve. "Ya got me there, Mrs. G."

"How are your rooms, Jo?"

"Oh, my rooms?" Jo seemed startled, Mrs. Garrett noticed, but the girl rallied. "Just as good as Blair's, ya know. Maybe even better. But there was a thing, you know, they're doin the final touches, so they ain't quite ready yet. That's why I'm buggin Blair."

"Well, I look forward to visiting them," said Mrs. Garrett.

Me too! thought Jo.

Blair touched Jo's shoulder briefly, tenderly. It happened so quickly, Mrs. Garrett wasn't quite sure she'd seen it. It was an instinctive, nurturing gesture. Comforting. Something had brought the girls closer together, and now Mrs. Garrett thought she knew what.

She looked over at Blair's mountain of Gucci luggage, neatly stacked next to the bedroom door. Sure enough, nestled at the base of the mountain was a broken-down old suitcase (an Amelia Earhart, if I'm not mistaken, thought Mrs. Garrett; she had one herself) and a black duffle bag, neither of which Blair Warner would ever be caught dead using.

"I'll tell you what," said Mrs. Garrett, setting down her coffee cup and standing up, "why don't we go see your suite now."

"Now?" asked Jo, her voice rising an octave. "I, like I said, you know, it's not exactly –"

"You know what a terrible slob our Jo is," Blair said smoothly. "Her rooms are a complete wreck. We don't want to go there."

"Yeah, you know me," Jo said. "It's like a bomb went off. Stuff everywhere."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"Well that's very interesting. Because how can your stuff be all over your room," Mrs. Garrett made an expansive gesture, "when it's sitting right there?" Mrs. Garrett pointed to Jo's luggage.

Blair closed her eyes and sighed. Jo grimaced.

"Still can't pull the wool over your eyes, huh, Mrs. G?"

"No, Jo, you can't. But why would you want to?"

"There's a thing about my room, a problem. It's just a stupid mix-up," Jo said. "Blair's lettin me crash here 'till it's straightened out."

"Fine," said Mrs. Garrett. "That sounds reasonable. Any particular reason you felt the need to lie to me about it? Blair … Jo … I thought we were friends."

"Yeah," said Natalie.

"Yeah," said Tootie.

"Look, it's just, kind of embarassin, ya know? One of my Dad's checks didn't clear –"

"Oh, Jo," Mrs. Garrett said sympathetically.

"See, that's why I didn't want to tell ya," said Jo. "That look on your face right there. My Dad and Ma are fixin it and everythin is gonna be fine. So there's no need for that look."

"Well, I'm glad everything is going to be all right," said Mrs. Garrett. "And knowing your folks, I believe you when you say it will. I've never met two people who were crazier over their daughter than Rose and Charlie Polniaczek. But friends don't lie to each other. You should know by now that you can tell me anything, Jo."

"Me too," Tootie said stoutly, putting an arm around Jo.

"Ditto," said Natalie, putting her hand on Jo's shoulder.

Normally, that would have ended the incident. That's how it had always been at Eastland. Mrs. Garrett had spoken; a lesson had been learned.

But now, Blair turned on Mrs. Garrett.

"The last thing I want to be is rude, Mrs. Garrett, but Jo's financial situation is her business," Blair said firmly. "And you should know by now how sensitive she is about it. This isn't about friendship or lying. It's about Jo's right to keep private something that makes her very uncomfortable. A true friend would understand that."

Tootie and Natalie gaped.

"There's gonna be trouble," Tootie said in a sing-song voice under her breath.

Mrs. Garrett squared her shoulders and looked unflinchingly at the blonde.

Blair looked right back at Mrs. Garret, her jaw set.

"Blair," said Mrs. Garrett.

"Mrs. Garret," said Blair.

"Is that really how you feel?"

"Yes, Mrs. Garrett. That's really how I feel."

"Well." Mrs. Garrett smiled, softening her whole face. "Brava, Blair."

"Huhn?" asked Natalie.

"What?" asked Tootie.

"Blair is right," said Mrs. Garrett. "It is Jo's business, and a true friend would respect that. I was telling Natalie earlier that we all have to deal with changes in our friends. Well, I have to follow my own advice. Blair, Jo – you're really growing up. I'm impressed by how you're looking out for each other."

"You're the best, Mrs. G," Jo murmured. She hugged Mrs. Garrett. Blair stepped between them, hugging them both.

"What are we, chopped liver?" demanded Nat. She and Tootie swarmed the trio, and they all stood locked in a giant, ten-armed hug.

"Oh, girls, girls," sighed Mrs. Garrett, "you're growing up so fast. And so well."

"We've had a good teacher," said Blair.

"Aw," Tootie and Nat said together.

"Yeah, we did," Jo agreed. "But, c'mon, are we gonna sit around here talkin a bunch of mush? Let's go visit Eastland."

"That's a wonderful idea!" enthused Mrs. Garrett. "But, now, wait, I don't know if we'll all fit in my little car."

"Oh, come on, Mrs. Garrett, we'll all cram in," said Tootie.

"That won't be necessary," said Blair. "Jo and I will follow you in my truck."

"Your what?" asked Tootie.

"My truck."

Natalie fanned herself with a napkin. "I'm trying, Mrs. Garrett, but I don't think I can handle one more major change in my friends. I mean, Blair driving a truck? Has the world gone mad?"

"Maybe the rental place was out of other vehicles," Tootie suggested.

"It's not a rental," said Blair. "I bought it."

Natalie put a hand to her forehead. Mrs. Garrett patted Natalie's arm encouragingly. "Hang in there Nat. It's a 'brave new world', but you can handle it."

"I know," said Tootie, snapping her fingers, "Blair, you dated a truck driver!"

"Sure, something like that," Blair agreed. She darted a look at Jo, who'd opened up her duffle bag and was sifting through crumpled T-shirts and slacks.

"Imagine that," said Tootie, "our Blair, dating a trucker."

Natalie fanned herself faster.

"Not a trucker," Blair said honestly, as she watched Jo settle on a camouflage T-shirt and a pair of jeans. "But I can truly say I've broadened my horizons."

Jo disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door. They all heard the lock click.

"Do you think she'll ever get over that?" asked Tootie.

"There's nothing to get over," shrugged Blair. "Jo likes her privacy. That's just how she is. And there's nothing wrong with that."

Natalie put her hands on Blair's shoulders.

"Who are you," asked Nat, "and what, what have you done with Blair Warner?"


The afternoon at Eastland was a blur.

It felt so good to be back on the Eastland campus. Nothing had changed since June. The buildings, the lawns, the flocks of girls in crimson and royal-blue uniforms.

The lounge and the dining hall and the kitchen looked and even smelled exactly the same as Blair and Jo remembered. Much to Mrs. Garrett's frustration.

"You know I don't like to complain, girls, but I honestly can't keep cooking for hundreds of girls, every day, with these antiquated appliances and no help."

"Hey!" Tootie objected. Mrs. Garrett patted her hand.

"I'm sorry, Tootie. You know you and Natalie are wonderful helps, you always have been. But it's too much for us to do alone. Mr. Parker promised me two more student workers, but then he pulled the plug on them. 'Budget cuts'!" She lifted her hands to heaven. "But never mind all that, girls. This is a happy day. And I'm going to cook us some of my famous boeuf bourguignon for supper!"

The only real change, and it was a big one, was the girls' room over the kitchen. Tootie had indeed covered almost every square inch of the wall with Michael Jackson posters, as well as posters from Broadway shows and classic Hollywood films like "The Wizard of Oz".

Natalie's personality was expressed by the big vintage typewriter on the desk, a photo of Walter Cronkite, and a poster for the Hoffman-Redford film "All the President's Men".

The bunk bed was gone. Jo's bed had become Natalie's bed and Blair's had become Tootie's.

It's weird, thought Jo, seein the room without my helmet, my spare tire, my tool box. Not to mention Blondie's ten gallons of hair spray!

Jo felt uneasy the first few moments she was in the room, as if it wasn't quite real. And then it began to feel real, and with the reality check came a tinge of loss and nostalgia.

She glanced at Blair; was the other girl feeling the same? Yeah, it looked like she was. Jo wished she could take Blair's hand, put her arm around the girl's waist, but Natalie couldn't even handle Blair driving a truck, never mind Blair being pawed by Jo!

They chatted more about their summers, and then talked for a long, long time about old arguments, adventures, triumphs. They'd had such a rich three years together. When they seemed to have exhausted the past, an awkward silence fell.

Damn, is this it? Jo wondered. Is there anythin for us to talk about now that we're not livin together, day to day?

It was the thing they'd feared most on graduation day. Growing apart. Losing the special bond they all shared. They'd pledged not to let that happen. But how much control did you really have over something like that? It seemed like either you didn't grow apart … or you did.

You could try not to grow apart – hell, you should try not to grow apart, and Jo and Nat had been pretty vocal about that on their last day together ("We just gotta do it.") But maybe, no matter what you did, it was out of your hands. You either stayed close or you didn't.

These thoughts ping-ponged around Jo's head during the awkward silence.

And then Nat started talking about how she was going on a date with a Bates boy next Saturday night. They'd worked on a chemistry project last year, and she'd liked him, but she'd had no idea he liked her. And just this morning, out of the blue, he'd called her!

Blair started giving Nat advice about what to wear; Tootie started giving her advice about how to act; and Jo volunteered to go along as chaperone to make sure he didn't get out of line. It was just like old times … but new times.

Tootie talked about how Eastland was putting on a production of "The Women", and she was going after the Norma Shearer role, the lead.

Blair talked about how she planned to enter the Langley Art competition, even though a freshman had never won.

Jo was worried about getting into Advanced English; she'd qualified, but for some reason her schedule had her in Intro English, with the jocks. "Hey, don't knock it," Nat laughed, "maybe you'll meet a hunka-hunka there!"

Just like old times … but new times.

Mrs. Garrett's boeuf bourguignon was delicious. She'd clearly been practicing over the summer. The meal was lively, full of banter and teasing.

There were some dicey moments. Blair almost took Jo's hand a couple of times; Jo almost put her arm around Blair on a few occasions; but they caught themselves just in time. That was the only fly in the ointment on an otherwise perfect evening, that they couldn't completely be themselves in front of their friends.

But no one's ready for that, thought Blair, least of all Jo and I!

Against Mrs. Garrett's protests, Jo and Blair helped with the dishes, and then they all played a game of Scrabble in the lounge. Jo tried to use four-letter words that got her affectionate cuffs from Mrs. Garrett. For her part, Mrs. Garrett dithered, as usual, slowing the whole game down.

At midnight Nat and Tootie went up to bed, after having made plans to meet Blair and Jo for a movie Friday night.

Mrs. Garrett walked Jo and Blair outside, where the red Chevy truck was parked.

"Thanks for the grub, Mrs. G," said Jo, giving Mrs. Garrett a quick peck on the cheek.

"It was divine," said Blair, hugging her surrogate mother. "I wish Chef Antoine was here to taste it."

"Yeah," said Jo. "He'd take back every crummy thing he ever said about your cookin."

"Girls, as long as this is my home," said Mrs. Garrett, "it's your home too. Don't be strangers."

"We won't, Mrs. G."

Mrs. Garrett stepped up onto the porch. She stood under the porch light and watched Jo open the passenger side door for Blair, before walking around to the driver's side and slipping behind the wheel.

Mrs. Garrett watched Jo turn on the engine, then turn on the radio. Loud rock music blared forth.

Mrs. Garrett watched Blair turn the radio dial until she found a soft rock station. Mrs. Garrett recognized the love ballad; she'd heard it from time to time on the kitchen radio during the last couple of years. Pretty song by that girl from Grease, the Australian singer.

Jo and Blair were talking. Mrs. Garrett could see their silhouettes. Blair leaned closer to Jo, as if she was going to whisper a secret, but then she stopped, glanced up at the rear view mirror, slid back over to the passenger door.

Mrs. Garrett waved to them. They saw her in the rearview mirror, turned around, waved back. Then Jo stepped on the gas and drove the truck smoothly onto the drive.

As she watched them drive away, Mrs. Garrett had a sudden flashback, one of those powerful ones that descend seemingly from nowhere and will not be denied: Jo, so skinny, so vulnerable under her bluster, roaring up to Eastland that first day on her motorcycle. Running over Mrs. Garrett's marigolds. Offering to tape them back together with her electrical tape.

Her Jo, her little Jo, all grown up now, driving off to Langley College. And her Blair, her little Blair, so much of the unconscious arrogance shed, a caring, giving woman now.

Mrs. Garrett dabbed at her eyes. She watched until the truck was far down the drive.

A car passed the truck, its headlights throwing Jo and Blair's silhouettes into relief. Even at that distance Mrs. Garrett could see that Blair was sitting right next to Jo, arm wrapped comfortably around the former Young Diablo.

Mrs. Garrett shook her head. She loved them both. They were so grown up now; they wouldn't need Mrs. Garrett's guidance the way they had needed it in the past.

But she smelled trouble ahead. Truth to tell, she smelled trouble right now. And her girls, she knew, would need her friendship.


Jo had always secretly liked "Suddenly".

Yeah, it was sappy and goofy, but in a really pretty way. And right now, with Blair's arm around her shoulders, humming the song in her ear, it was maybe the best flippin song ever written.

Jo's heart skipped a beat when a car raced down the drive toward them, its high beams on.

She squinted against the bright light, which pinned her and Blair in its beams – Blair with her arm around Jo, her chin on Jo's shoulder, practically sitting in Jo's lap. It only lasted for a second – less than a second – and then the car had passed, headed toward the dining hall.

"Shit," swore Jo.

"'Language, Jo,'" teased Blair, affectionately imitating Mrs. Garrett.

"Language my ass, Princess. Whoever was in that car saw ya givin me a lap dance!"

"A what?"

"Never mind. Just, whoever it was saw us lookin really chummy."

"Exactly," said Blair. "Chummy. Lots of girls are affectionate with each other. Don't be paranoid."

"Hey, you're the one said we had to be discrete."

"Yes, Jo. Discrete. Not paranoid."

Jo drove the winding roads of Peekskill. There were no streetlights, and in a lot of places the trees grew right up to the edge of the blacktop, but after three years of riding them on her motorcycle Jo knew the roads like the back of her hand.

She drove fast, but not crazy-fast, just a little over the speed limit. She missed her bike like hell, but she liked Blair's truck. It was a different perspective, navigating Peekskill after midnight from the cab of a Chevy.

Blair kept humming in Jo's ear. The vibration of Blair's voice, her breath against Jo's next, felt so good, but more than just feeling good, it felt right.

"Suddenly" wrapped. There was a minute of juvenile, mindless DJ jabber. Then Journey's soulful ballad "Faithfully" played.

Blair sang along in a low voice. It made the hairs stand up on the back of Jo's neck, it was so damn sexy how Blair sang. And who knew that Blair knew Journey lyrics?

"Highway run, into the midnight sun. Wheels go round and round; you're on my mind. Restless hearts sleep alone tonight, sending all my love on the wire …"

Jo cut the wheel to the right. There was a dirt road there, she knew, that ran behind a corn field. She drove onto the dirt lane, just off the main road, pulled over to the side, turned off the engine, but kept the radio on.

"Jo, you're going to wear out the battery-power thing."

"Battery," Jo said breathlessly. "It's just called a battery. And I'll get you a new one."

Jo slipped her arms around Blair's waist and pulled her close for a long, long breathless kiss. Blair's hands went around Jo's neck, then tangled in Jo's long hair.

Steve Perry, Journey's lead vocalist, kept singing in his heartbreaking, husky voice.

" … being apart ain't easy on this love affair; two strangers learn to fall in love again. I get the joy of rediscovering you. Oh, girl, you stand by me; I'm forever yours – faithfully …"


They kissed and held each other for an hour, accompanied by ballad after ballad, before Blair finally pushed Jo away.

"OK," Blair said, gasping. "That's about as much as I can handle right now without ripping all your clothes off."

Jo blushed, but she put her hands on Blair's waist, tried to pull her close again. "I'll take that chance, Blair."

Blair squirmed away. "No," she said. "We're not doing this in my truck."

"But we are doing this?" Jo asked hopefully.

"I don't know, I … have you … ever?"

"What, with a girl?"

"With anyone."

"No," said Jo. "Eddie was gonna be my first, if we'd gotten married."

"You never … with David?"

"Not on your life. He was really sweet. That whole little chapter of my life was sweet. But, no flippin way."

"And never with a girl?"

"No, Blair." Jo laughed. "The only girl that's ever caught my attention that way is you. What's with the third degree, anyhow? You're the datin queen. I should be quizzin you."

"No," Blair said. "I've never even gotten close. Well, there was that one time …"

"With Mr. Bradley?" laughed Jo.

"That Tootie," fumed Blair.

"Come on, I'm just kiddin. From everythin I've heard, he was a total nerd. The flood just rattled your brains a little, that's all."

"The year before you came to Eastland," said Blair, "there was this delivery boy, Steve. Blond hair. Biceps. Tan."

"Wow, three strikes I'm out," said Jo.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm brunette, no biceps, pale."

Blair squeezed Jo's arms. "You've got biceps. You've got beautiful arms."

"But, back to Steve."

"Oh. Right. Well, Mrs. Garrett was teaching a sex-ed class, and it was supposed to encourage everyone to be sensible and careful about sex …"

"But you being you, it just got you all riled up."

"I was so restless. You have no idea! I was starting to want something, but I didn't know what. I've always dated a lot; it's fun. I love people, and going out places, and being seen on the arm of a good-looking boy. But they never made me feel like, like –"

"Like you wanted to jump their bones," Jo said bluntly.

"And neither did Steve," Blair admitted. "But he was practically the poster boy for what a young woman is supposed to want in a man. The whole dorm was drooling over him. So I figured I'd make him my first, and that being with him would, like –"

"Scratch your itch," Jo said bluntly.

"Exactly, if inelegantly, put."

"So, what happened?"

"I changed my mind. He wasn't who I thought he was and I, well, I wasn't who I was trying to be."

Jo pulled Blair closer. "So, after Steve? You never got close to it again?"

"No. That summer, I kissed Mimi Everwood at the Tex-Mex place, and she freaked out, and I ran out of the restaurant –"

"Ah! That explains the ol' dine-and-dash."

"Eduardo took care of it somehow. The restaurant and the police. And Mimi, of course. I think we bought her a yacht. Eduardo is a wonder."

"So Steve wasn't the one, and Mimi flipped out, but your life went on. What did you do with that restlessness?"

Blair buried her face against Jo's hair.

"I met you that autumn," Blair whispered. "And we started fighting …"

Jo laughed, a big, deep belly laugh that shook her whole body. She held Blair tight and peppered her blonde hair with kisses.

Blair melted against Jo, then pulled back.

"No, Jo," she said firmly. "I'm not kidding. You have no idea how het up I am right now."

"Jeez, I'm not even sure what 'het up' means."

"It means that you need to drive us home right now, and I need to stay over on this side of the seat."

"Then I don't like it. Can't you sit next to me, at least?"

Blair shook her head. "Come on, Polniaczek. Start driving."

Jo sighed. "You're very bossy," she said, turning on the engine. "Ya know that?"

"It has been brought to my attention on occasion. Most frequently, I think, by you."

Jo drove them back onto the paved road and headed for Langley. She drove faster than she had before their detour.

"Slow down a little," said Blair. "There's no rush."

"Says you!"

On the radio, Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" started playing. Jo blushed.

Blair smiled, then bit her lip and turned the radio dial. David Bowie's boisterous "Let's Dance" filled the air.

"That's not romantic," Jo objected.

"Precisely," said Blair.


"I can't do it," whispered Jo.

They were standing in the shrubs behind Goodnow House, the dark woods behind them, the bow window of Blair's suite three stories above.

"Jo, I know you'd rather not –"

"'Rather not' my ass," hissed Jo. "It's not that I don't want to – though for the record, I don't. I can't do it, Princess."

"But, can't you just, you know," Blair made little pulling motions with her hands, "climb up the ivy?"

"Blair, all kidding aside, you know I'm not really a chimp, right? Or a Neanderthal? Or one of the Flyin Freakin Walendas, for that matter. I'm gonna break my neck!"

"No, you won't. Do you think I'd ask you to do something reckless?"

Jo just raised her eyebrows and didn't dignify the question with a response.

"Well you're not sleeping in the truck again," Blair said firmly. "And I can't bring you through the front door, and the back door is locked after midnight."

"Why the hell do we have all this security? For Pete's sake. It's like being in lockdown."

"It's for our protection," said Blair. "Do you want any old psycho to be able to stroll into the dorm after dark?"

"How many psychos are roamin around Peekskill? C'mon, let's just go in the front. Just say I'm your cousin or somethin."

"My cousin? First, Jo, we look nothing alike. Second, no Warner cousin, no matter how far removed, has ever spoken anything close to your appalling Bronxese."

"So I'll keep my mouth shut."

"Since when? And third, we can't try to pass you off as my cousin tonight, because we want you to be able to visit as my girl-, as my friend, for the next four years."

Jo clenched and unclenched her fists. Her palms were damp with sweat. She stared up at the third floor window.

"Blair, there's somethin I never told ya."

"You're afraid of heights."

"How d'ja know?"

Blair rolled her eyes. "Call it an inspired guess. What else could keep you from charging up that ivy like a magnificent beast and bursting into my boudoir?"

"Good point." Jo smiled. "You might be smarter than ya look."

Blair jabbed Jo's shoulder with two fingers. "Now you listen to me, Jo Polniaczek. You get up that wall. I don't care how you do it, but do it. Now."

"Aye, aye." Jo made a funny little salute. She closed her eyes. She pictured Blair in a silky peignoir, sitting on the edge of her bed. She pictured herself, wearing Blair's white silk pajamas, lying down next to said beautiful blonde.

Jo drew a deep breath. She grabbed a handful of ivy, started to climb.

Don't look down. That's what they always say in the movies. If you don't look down, you'll be all right. Course, the stupid characters always look down. They're so dumb!

Instead of looking down, Jo looked up. Blair's window was getting surprisingly close surprisingly fast.

I am a magnificent beast! All that hard work in gym class seemed to be paying off. Jo remembered Miss McGinley blowing that damn whistle, making Jo climb the rope again. And again. "You can do better, Polniaczek." Jo had hated climbing the rope. She was so freakin scared, and her hands were slippery with sweat. But she'd done it. And she was gonna do this.

Got it! Jo grabbed the window sill, hoisted herself onto it and over it.

She was a little too enthusiastic; she pitched forward into Blair's sitting room, landing awkwardly and banging her knee on the window seat.

Small price to pay, she told herself, cradling her knee.

The sitting room was shadowy; only one of the Tiffany lamps was on, turned to the dimmest setting. There was a tray on the coffee table, holding a cup and saucer and fat-bellied silver pot.

Probably Blair's nitey-nite tea, thought Jo, dropped off by the Goodnow elves. Only, she ain't gonna need it tonight!

Jo heard a key in the lock. The doorknob turned, the door opened, and Blair hurried into the room.

"Are you all right?" Blair asked, concerned, seeing Jo cradling her knee.

Jo nodded. "Private Polniaczek, reporting for duty. Only mildly injured. Completely combat-ready."

"You are such a nerd."

Blair closed the door behind her. She was careful to double-locked the door, drawing the bolt home and fastening the security chain.

She turned and looked at Jo, her Jo. Her gorgeous, perfect Jo, who was sitting on the window seat in the dim, jeweled light with an amorous heat in her eyes.

Jo opened her arms. "C'mere," she said softly. It was an invitation, and a challenge.

Blair shook her head. "No. You come here." She held out her hands and Jo took them.

There's so much I want to say, Blair thought. But her throat closed with emotion; she couldn't say another word.

Blair let her actions speak for her. She pulled Jo to her feet.

She led the brunette to the bedroom, to the big bed with the white coverlet and the white canopy. Only the bedside lamp was on, casting a muted amber glow.

Blair pushed Jo down onto the bed.

Jo lay tamely on her back. She grinned shyly. This was so wonderful that she couldn't quite believe it. They were alone. Finally. No porters, no servants, no parents, no friends. Just Jo and this beautiful girl that she loved so much it made her heart hurt.

Blair climbed onto the bed. She straddled Jo.

She shook out her ponytail, let her long blonde hair fall around her face, all around Jo's.

Jo reached up and cupped Blair's face with one hand, stroked her shining blonde hair with the other. Tears welled up in Jo's eyes, but she wasn't trembling this time. Blair leaned down and Jo stretched up and their lips met in a deep, slow, delicious kiss.

Eventually Jo put her hands on Blair's waist, sliding them down Blair's perfect ass. This time Blair had no objections. It seemed to arouse her, if anything, to judge by the way she pressed her hips against Jo's, and bit Jo's lower lip.

They kissed for a long time, until their mouths were swollen and stinging.

Jo realized that somehow, at some point, she had moved her hands from Blair's ass to her breasts, instinctively rather than consciously. She was caressing them through Blair's shirt. And even more incredibly, Blair's hands were stroking Jo's breasts through her shirt.

Jo moaned. She had heard people talk about making love, about sex; she watched "The Love Boat"; she had even seen R-rated movies; but she had never had any idea, not even close, what it would really feel like to touch someone, and be touched by someone, that she wanted and loved so much.

"I love you Blair," she whispered. "I love you so damn much."

"I love you too, Jo." Blair's voice was husky, blurry with need.

Blair tugged at Jo's shirt. She pulled it up over Jo's head and Jo wriggled, helping Blair to remove it.

Jo was wearing a bra, a plain, white, no frills bra, one of the ones her mother got her at Sears. Blair caressed it as reverently as if it were silk and lace. She dragged her fingers lightly over Jo's chest, then over Jo sharply defined abs.

"You're so beautiful," Blair whispered. She kissed Jo's collar bone, her chest, her stomach. "Your beauty overcomes me."

"Is that Emily Dickinson?"

"No. It's Blair Warner, inspired by Jo Polniaczek. 'Your beauty overcame me; I was too transfixed to breathe …'"

Jo kissed Blair's face, her throat. Blair swooned a little.

"D, don't, Jo," she stammered.

"Isn't this OK?"

"It's more than OK. But it's … Give me a moment. I'm going to have to ease into this." Blair laughed raggedly. "I feel like some neurotic Victorian heroine. I actually feel faint."

Jo cradled Blair in her arms. She nuzzled Blair's shoulder.

"Would it help if we undressed ya?" Jo asked hopefully.

Blair slapped Jo's hands. "Scoundrel."

"No. Really," Jo said reasonably. "When people feel faint in the movies, someone always loosens their collars and stuff."

"All right," murmured Blair, "you can loosen my collar."

Jo examined Blair's shirt. "You don't, uh, seem to have a collar."

"Then you'll have to take off my shirt, Jo."

"OK. If you say so. If that's the best thing to do."

"It is."

Jo slipped her hands under the hem of Blair's shirt. She had never undressed anyone before. With surprising grace and less surprising speed she slipped the shirt up over Blair's head, hardly choking Blair at all.

Jo almost tossed the shirt onto the floor, but Blair made a little protesting sound.

"Ralph Lauren," Blair said.

"Oh. Sorry." Jo folded the shirt neatly and set it at the foot of the bed, before turning her attention to Blair. Jo's breath caught in her throat.

So beautiful … Blair had a surprisingly strong body. She was such a girly-girl in some ways, but her swimming and her equestrian sports had sculpted a beautiful figure, lean at the waist, toned along her arms and sides, and very full at the bust. Her breasts rose and fell under the lacy lilac bra.

Jo trailed her fingers along Blair's waist, over her taut stomach, along her ribs. Blair closed her eyes. "Mmmm," she moaned.

Jo placed her hands reverently on Blair's breasts, stroked them through the satin and lace. She leaned down and kissed the breasts through the bra; feeling Blair's right nipple tighten, she sucked at it through the delicate material. Blair groaned.

"Blair, can I … is it all right if I …?"

"Please," Blair whispered.

Jo pulled down the right cup of Blair's bra. Blair's breast was beautiful: large, milk-white, with a proud brown nipple presently standing to attention. Jo kissed the breast. She lavished kisses on it, and then took the nipple into her mouth, sucking at it gently.

Blair surprised Jo by catching the back of her head with a strong hand. "Harder," Blair whispered.

Jo sucked harder at the nipple. She nipped at it lightly with her teeth. Blair whimpered.

"Oh, God, Blair, did I hurt ya?"

"No, Jo. Keep going. Or, wait a second." Blair wriggled, removing her bra and hurling it into a dark corner of the room.

So much for Ralph Lauren! Jo thought, grinning.

Blair settled back against the coverlet. Jo took one naked breast in her hand, squeezing it gently while she kissed and suckled at the other breast.

Blair knotted her hand in Jo's hair. Blair was making the most amazing sounds, from deep in her throat. And then –

"Oh, God, Jo," Blair said, "oh, God!"

"Am I doin this right?" whispered Jo.

"Yes. Yes!"

"Am I –"

"No more talking," said Blair.

"But –"

"Shh."

Jo turned her full attention to Blair's beautiful torso, kissing not just her breasts but her stomach, her hips. Blair began to unbutton her own jeans, but Jo gently moved the blonde's hands out of the way. Jo unbuttoned Blair's jeans slowly, her fingers trembling.

Adrenalin, thought Jo, remembering what Blair had said yesterday.

Slowly she pulled down Blair's zipper. Blair wriggled and lifted her butt off the bed, a clear signal for Jo to pull her jeans down. Which Jo did. At a leisurely pace.

Jo almost stopped breathing, Blair was so beautiful. The blonde wore delicate lilac silk panties. Her hips were broad, her thighs strong, her legs long and slender. Through the lacy front panel of Blair's panties Jo could see the faint shadow of brown hair.

While Jo was frozen in contemplation, Blair grew restless. Her jeans were bunched around her ankles. She kicked them off, and reached up for Jo, pulling the brunette down on top of her, devouring her mouth.

"Mmnpf!" mumbled Jo, startled.

"Shh!" Blair whispered fiercely. While she kissed Jo, almost smothering the girl, her fingers nimbly found and unclasped the hooks of Jo's bra. A few dexterous tugs, and Jo's bra was off. Blair threw it into a corner of the room.

Blair scooted down, positioning her face above Jo's perfect, perky breasts, holding them, kissing them, lapping at the delicate pink nipples.

What … the … hell? Jo had never felt anything like this. She arched her back. It seemed impossible that anything could feel so good.

Blair's fingers and mouth and tongue and hungry little nips of her teeth teased Jo's breasts until the brunette was lightheaded. She collapsed onto Blair, then rolled onto her side, lying next to the passionate blonde.

Blair didn't miss a beat; she turned onto her side, continued her adoration of Jo's breasts. Jo moaned.

As good as it felt, having her breasts worshipped by Blair, Jo wanted more. Her hands slid along Blair's waist, fingers working their way under the side panels of the panties. Blair's hips tilted toward Jo, and instinctive invitation.

"Can I?" Jo whispered.

The blonde head nodded vehemently.

Slowly, Jo pulled down Blair's panties, revealing a patch of light brown hair, and below it, Blair's sex, pink and red and very wet. Tentatively, Jo drew her fingers through the light brown curls, and then across the rosy slickness of Blair's lips. She could smell Blair's excitement, a strange scent like a blend of musk and sugar.

Jo's plan – if a disjointed, lightheaded blur of wants and lusts could be called a plan – had been to stroke Blair's sex with incredible gentleness, but Blair's fragrance shot like a lightning bolt from Jo's nose straight down to her own sex.

Without thinking Jo just leaned down and kissed Blair's curling brown hair, the glistening lips, the little nub of the clitoris. Blair gasped and bucked her hips. She knotted both her hands in Jo's hair, pulling Jo hard against her sex.

Jo grabbed Blair's hips, hard, digging in her fingers, and began kissing and licking Blair's lips and clitoris. She darted her tongue between the lips, deeper, and deeper, tasting that unique flavor of Blair's most private place.

"Jo. Oh my God. Jo," Blair groaned.

Jo alternated between tonguing Blair deeply and flicking her tongue across the swollen clitoris. Blair twisted and trembled with a building excitement, until she was thrashing under Jo's ministrations. Her hips rocked with the rhythm of Jo's mouth.

"Jo. Jo!" cried Blair. Her hips lifted so high off the bed, she might have been having a fatal convulsion. Then she went limp, hair spread out around her on the pillow like a dazzling blonde halo. Her eyes were closed, an angelic smile on her lips.

Jo sat up slowly. She touched the wetness around her mouth, licked her lips. Blair tastes so damn good! Jo lay down next to Blair, stretching an arm across Blair's stomach and stroking the contented blonde's perfectly chiseled face.

"Blair?"

"Mmmm?"

"That felt good?"

"Mmm-hmm."

Jo planted gentle little kisses along Blair's jaw, then an impossibly soft kiss on Blair's mouth.

"Can ya taste yourself?" Jo whispered. "Ya taste like ambrosia, Blair."

"Of course," Blair murmured sleepily.

Jo grinned. 'Of course'. That's my girl; modest to a fault!

Having slept in the bed next to Blair for three years, Jo knew how the girl's breath slowed when she was falling asleep. Sure enough, Blair drifted off while Jo tenderly stroked her face and kissed her throat.

Jo leaned on one elbow for awhile, watching Blair sleep. She couldn't imagine anything or anyone being more precious to her. All those years she had slept in the next bed, and now she was lying next to the girl of her dreams …

In time Jo yawned, a big, cat-like yawn that made her stretch. She turned off the bedside lamp. In the darkness, Jo held Blair in her arms, and tumbled into the deepest, most peaceful sleep she'd ever know.


Blair rarely woke early. But this morning she opened her eyes at dawn. Faint rays of light slipped between the slats of the bedroom blinds, striping Blair's nude body with silver-gold. Birds sang in the woods.

Blair smiled.

If Jo had been awake to see the smile, she might've said that it was a little smug. Blair felt Jo's arms twined loosely around her body. Jo was pressed against her back, snoring.

Gingerly, Blair turned in Jo's arms, careful not to wake the sleeping girl. Jo still wore her jeans, but she was barefoot and her torso was naked.

She's so beautiful. Jo dressed like a tomboy, but her body was actually slender, lithe as a wood nymph's. Jo was strong but it was a lean, feminine musculature. Her breasts were petite, though larger than Blair had expected, perky and firm, like the breasts of a marble statue of the Greek warrior goddesses Athena or the huntress Artemis.

That's what I'll sketch, Blair thought, for the Langley Art competition. "The Huntress". With Jo as my model. And no one will guess she was my inspiration. No one could imagine this beauty, under the camouflage shirts and the jeans …

Jo stirred. Her eyelids fluttered open sleepily. Her arms tightened around Blair.

"G'mornin," she mumbled happily.

"Good morning, Jo." Blair kissed her. Jo returned the kiss drowsily, then with increasing vigor. "Easy, tiger," Blair laughed. "I still need to recover from last night."

Jo leaned back on one elbow. She ran her eyes down Blair's lush, toned figure.

"My God, you're gorgeous," she said.

Blair lifted her eyebrows. "This is a newsflash? It's not like you've never seen me naked before."

"Well, it's been a while," said Jo. "And I never had such a great view before." She chuckled. "'Memba how ya used to run all over the place naked?"

Blair rolled her eyes. "I did not 'run all over the place', Jo. You make me sound like some sort of pervert."

"Well I kinda thought maybe you were, until Mrs. Garrett set me straight! See, where I grew up, if ya run around naked, you're a pervert."

"Where I grew up, if you need to take a shower, you take a shower – and you don't do it with your clothes on!"

"I just never met anybody so comfortable with their body before."

"It's just how I was raised. I'm not ashamed of my body – or anything else about me, for that matter."

"You don't have ta be." Jo nuzzled Blair's shoulder, trailed a finger from Blair's neck down to her hip. "You're a goddess."

"Funny. That's just what I was thinking about you."

Jo blushed. "C'mon," she said. "Don't kid me."

"I'm not. Jo, you do realize you're absolutely beautiful, don't you?"

Jo's blush deepened. She rolled away from Blair, folded her arms across her breasts.

Gently, Blair coaxed Jo's arms open, pinned them to Jo's sides. Jo looked away.

"Jo? Jo. Look at me, darling."

Jo did look at her, stubbornness and merriment warring in her expression.

"Blair, did you call me darlin?"

"Do you see anyone else in the room?"

"No."

"Then yes, I did call you darling. Do you mind?"

"No."

"Good." Blair leaned down, kissed Jo's mouth, the hollow of her throat, the hollow between her breasts. She felt Jo's arms tense, as if the brunette were considering pulling out of Blair's grip and covering herself. Instead, Jo turned her head again, looking away from Blair.

"Jo? Darling?" Blair said quietly.

"What?"

"Your breasts are beautiful."

"Yeah?" Jo's tone was half dubious, half hopeful. "D'ya really like 'em?"

"Yes. They're perfect. I want to sketch them sometime. Well, not just them. All of you."

"I suppose …" Jo turned, looked directly into Blair's eyes. "That could be nice. Sometime."

Blair tugged gently at the waistband of Jo's jeans. "We should really get you out of these," she said.

"Do we have ta?"

"No. But I'd like to see you. All of you. I want to touch you everywhere, Jo. I want to kiss you everywhere. I want to make you happy, like you made me happy last night."

"Believe me, I'm happy," laughed Jo.

"You could be happier. I promise." Blair cupped Jo's breasts, stroking them tenderly. She rubbed the pink nipples between her thumbs and forefingers. Jo closed her eyes. Her body tensed for a moment, but then relaxed; she seemed to sink into the soft white coverlet.

Blair kissed first one nipple, and then the other, and then took the left nipple into her mouth. She sucked it, nipped at it, ran her tongue around it.

"Blair," breathed Jo.

"Do you want me to stop, darling?"

"No, Blair, it's … it feels good."

Blair took her time. There was nothing on their schedule today. Tomorrow was freshman orientation, but today was one-hundred percent theirs.

Blair alternated between sucking Jo's left breast and her right breast, stroking the nipple of the other breast so that neither felt neglected. Jo's head was thrown back against the pillow. Her face was flushed, and she wriggled her legs in a kind of ecstasy.

"Jo?" Blair asked at length.

"Hmm?"

"Are you getting wet?"

"What? Oh." She blushed. Yes."

Blair unbuttoned Jo's jeans, quickly, dexterously, so as not to spook the girl. She unzipped the jeans with a quick tug, and began pulling them off.

"Wait!" said Jo, reaching for her waistband.

"I'm sorry," said Blair. It's too soon. She's not ready.

But instead of pulling her jeans up, Jo pushed them down. Blair smiled. She helped Jo shuck out of the jeans. Jo kicked them onto the floor impatiently, and then lay back against the pillow, closing her eyes.

"OK, let's get back to business," mumbled Jo.

"Well, when you put it that romantically …"

"I'm sorry," mumbled Jo. "Let's get back to business, babe."

Blair rolled her eyes.

Jo was wearing plain white cotton panties, probably from Sears, like her bra. They had seen better days. The panties were more grey than white from repeated washings, and there was a rip – a rip! – near the waistband.

We are sooooo going to Bloomingdale's Lingerie department on our next trip to New York, thought Blair. Jo would doubtless complain … and complain … but she would thank Blair, eventually.

Blair slipped her fingers into both sides of Jo's panties and drew them down, a little too enthusiastically. The rip became a tear and instead of pulling Jo's panties down she tore them clean off.

"Hey!" Jo objected, sitting up. "I don't have ten million pairs, like you do."

"It was an accident," said Blair contritely. A lucky accident! she thought. "But you have to admit, Jo, these things were ready to retire." She tossed the torn panties to the floor.

"We can't all have fancy frou-frou underwear," Jo muttered.

Oh, yes you can, darling.

"It truly was an accident," said Blair. "And I'd like to make it up to you." She gazed meaningfully at Jo's crotch, and its tangle of dark, curling hair.

Jo blushed beet red.

"I, ah, I –"

"You forgot you were naked," Blair interpreted. Jo nodded. "That's good," said Blair. "See? You're already getting more comfortable with your body. Now lie back."

Jo complied, but her muscles tensed again.

"Relax," said Blair. She massaged Jo's shoulders, her arms, her thighs. Jo's legs and ass were trim, but curved and feminine. "You are a goddess, Jo."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. That's the word on the street."

"But you are." Blair lightly kissed Jo's stomach, then her hips, her thighs, her inner thighs. Jo started to clench her legs together but Blair forestalled her with a sneak attack, suddenly lowering her mouth onto Jo's sex. It was half-hidden in the tangle of Jo's hair, but Blair could taste it, salty and sweet, and her sensitive tongue easily found Jo's clitoris.

Jo made a little keening sound. She wound her fingers through Blair's mussed hair.

"Jesus, Blair, that's … ah! That's so good!"

And that was the last comprehensible thing that Jo said for the next fifteen minutes, as Blair's fingers and tongue slipped into and out of and around Jo's moist sex, her sensitive lips and her highly sensitive clitoris.

Blair had no idea what to do, so she just did what came naturally, and Jo definitely didn't seem to have any complaints. Jo trembled and moaned. She gripped the coverlet with one hand and Blair's hair with the other.

She tastes like the ocean, thought Blair. So salty. But sweet, too. Like … marshmallow. And a hint of musk …

When Jo came it was with a startlingly loud shout, almost a war-whoop.

Jo sat up, quivering, and pulled Blair up against her breasts.

There was a wild light in Jo's eyes, like she'd just seen something divine. The eyes of a prophet, or a mad woman. Blair had wanted to sleep after she came; Jo looked like she'd been energized with a bolt of lightning.

Breathing hard, Jo caught Blair's head between her hands in a crushing grip, and mashed her mouth against Blair's in a passionate kiss.

"That was amazin, amazin, amazin," Jo murmured, between rough kisses. "You are so beautiful, Blair. You are so perfect."

Her fingers dug deeply into Blair's shoulders as she pushed Blair down onto the bed, rolled on top of her. "Can I take you, Blair? Can I take you now?"

"Yes," said Blair, blood singing with excitement. She had never seen Jo so worked up. "Please. Take me, darling."

Jo took her, roughly, nothing shy about her now. Jo's fingers and teeth left marks that would last for days.

Blair responded in kind, biting, scratching, bruising.

Her head swam. It was as if she and Jo were branding each other … that was the only way she could describe it later. And while they were branding each other, somehow they were mingling souls.

At the end, Jo ground her sex against Blair's and Blair responded with a wild enthusiasm. They ground against each other, panting, arching their backs, until they both came within a few seconds of each other. Jo collapsed on top of Blair, sweaty and finally spent.

"I love you," muttered Jo. "I love you, love you, love you …"

Blair hugged Jo fiercely. Her head was swimming. Tears pricked at her eyes. She loved Jo so much she couldn't even say it. Her throat had closed up again. Tears ran down Blair's face. Jo didn't notice, they were both so wet with sweat and musk.

My God, I love her, thought Blair. I'll never love anyone like her.

For the first time, the enormity of it began to sink in. She loved Jo … but there was nothing they could do about it, except sneak around, stealing moments like this. They couldn't tell anyone. They couldn't even live together. It was an impossible situation.

What are we going to do? It was a terrifying question. Tears kept streaming down Blair's face. Jo was drifting off, but Blair turned away to make sure Jo didn't notice she was crying.

Within a few moments Jo was snoring. A few moments after that, Blair dropped off too. They fell into a deep sleep, arms and legs tangled together.


It was eight am when Blair woke again. Sunday morning church bells were tolling across Peekskill, calling the faithful to celebrate.

Blair watched her lover sleep for a few moments. Jo looked so peaceful, after their wildcat lovemaking. Blair noted the purple bruises on Jo's breasts and throat, the scratches on her sides.

Blair looked down at herself, noticing similar marks. She flew to the full-length mirror to assess the damage.

Good … nothing that'll show … As long as she wore slacks and long sleeves no one would notice a thing.

Her breasts were mottled with Jo's finger marks. Blair blushed at her reflection. It had been so intensely beautiful. My Jo. My Artemis

Blair wrapped herself in a Langley bathrobe – at some point, she was going to have to actually unpack her mountain of luggage – and went into the bathroom.

She ran a hot bath and brushed her teeth. Half an hour later she emerged in a fresh pair of "BW" monogrammed white silk pajamas, damp hair wrapped in a towel.

She lifted the receiver of the living room telephone, dialed "0-2".

"Good morning? Yes, this is Miss Warner. I would like to request a pot of coffee, a glass of orange juice, one American breakfast, and a bowl of oatmeal. No, no raisins. Yes. Thank you very much."

She hung up the phone, glanced at her delicate, diamond-edged wrist watch. As efficient as the Goodnow kitchen was, her breakfast could arrive within the next five or ten minutes.

She strode purposefully into the bedroom.

"Rise and shine, Polniaczek."

"Mmph?" Jo mumbled into the pillows. Blair sat down on the edge of the bed and shook Jo's shoulder.

"Rise and shine, darling. Breakfast is on the way, and we need you out of sight."

Jo sat up, rubbing her eyes. "Do I gotta hide in the closet? Like we're in a naughty French farce? Cause your closet is actually bigger than Ma's apartment, so I could do that if you need me to."

"Just go soak in a hot bath," said Blair. "I'm running a fresh one for you now. Relax. Enjoy yourself, just don't make any noise."

Jo stretched, cracking first her spine, then her neck, then her knuckles. She regarded her scratched torso and bruised breasts, shooting a sudden, appreciative grin at Blair. It was Blair, not Jo, who blushed.

"Bath. Now," said Blair, pointing to the bathroom.

"I'm goin, I'm goin." Jo climbed out of bed. She stood, stretched again, and then walked casually, completely nude, through the sitting room and into the bathroom. She closed the bathroom door. But Blair didn't hear the lock click.

A wave of heat passed over Blair, from the top of her head through her entire body. She wanted very badly to tear open that bathroom door and –

Hurry up, stupid kitchen, she thought petulantly.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door.

"Enter," called Blair.

It was Elfrieda, pushing a dolly loaded with silver and fine china and the food and coffee Blair had ordered. Blair glanced at her watch.

"Just under five minutes. You are a treasure, Elfrieda."

The young woman's color heightened and she dropped a curtsey. "Thank you, Miss Warner. You are too kind." She poured out a cup of black coffee. "I, ah, brought you a second coffee cup, ma'am. In case company should, ah, drop by."

"Danke schön, Elfrieda," said Blair.

"Bitte, ma'am." Elfrieda curtsied again, and slipped quickly from the room.

Blair locked the door behind the girl, turning the bolt and drawing the security chain.

She sat on the sofa, sipping her black coffee and swinging one restless leg. Now that she was all fresh and clean, she should just sit here, like a civilized woman, and enjoy her breakfast – half of it anyway – until Jo appeared and 'scarfed down' her half of the meal.

That, Blair knew, was what she should do … But her mind kept straying to an image of Jo, lying naked in the steaming tub. The bathroom was so large, much larger than any bathroom Jo could possibly be accustomed to. Jo must feel very lost, even lonely in there. It would really be unkind, Blair decided, even rude, if she didn't check on Jo, see how the girl was doing …

Blair entered the bathroom quietly, not to say stealthily.

Jo was stretched out in the tub, eyes closed, hair hanging loose and damp around her face.

"Ya didn't knock," said Jo without opening her eyes. "What if I was peein?"

"If you were peeing," said Blair, "you'd have locked the door."

"Touché."

"Besides," Blair slipped out of her pajamas, letting them fall to the cool marble tile, "after the things we did last night, I think I can handle you peeing."

Blair lowered herself into the massive tub, and sat facing Jo. The water was warm, smelling deliciously of almonds, vanilla and cinnamon. Blair tickled Jo's stomach with her toes.

Jo opened her eyes, grinning. She captured Blair's foot and kissed it.

"Want your back washed?" asked Blair, waggling her eyebrows.

"That sounds very intriguin," said Jo.

"Turn around then."

Jo turned around in the tub so that her back was to Blair, who instantly wrapped her arms around the brunette and spooned with her. Blair nuzzled Jo's neck and cupped her pert, perfect breasts.

"I don't feel any washin," Jo observed. "But, ah, that, ah, feels pretty good too."

Blair did, eventually, wash Jo's back. Much, much later.


When they were finally clean, dressed and presentable, they ate the cold breakfast for lunch and Blair began unpacking.

Jo used Blair's phone to call her mother. No answer.

"That's Ma," Jo said, half-admiring, half-frustrated, "workin on a Sunday."

"Maybe she's at church," Blair suggested, smoothing out one of her favorite silk blouses. "Rose goes to church, doesn't she?"

"Yeah, but early mass. She woulda been out hours ago. Nah, she's at the coffee shop, pullin an extra shift."

Jo dialed her father's number. No answer.

"Damn," she said softly, hanging up the receiver. "I wish I knew if they got the check ready yet."

"They'll get the money, Jo." Blair carefully hung her favorite plum-colored blazer on a padded hangar. "Honestly, I've never seen two people more crazy about their daughter. They'll do anything for you."

"Anything they can," Jo agreed. "But they ain't magic. They can't spin gold outta straw."

"Isn't there anyone in your family who got rich? Some, like, 'Godfather' type that everyone goes to when they're in a jam?"

"I wish! Nah, my parents are the successful ones in the family. And Uncle Sal."

"Oh, yes, Uncle Sal. Maybe he could take out a loan against the garage."

"He's already got a coupla mortgages on it, to pay for the improvements he made. Anyway, he's got his own kids ta think about. He can't be spendin his money on me instead of Bud and Paul and Terry."

The phone rang. Jo reached for it without thinking.

"No!" cried Blair. She dropped the Ralph Lauren sweater she had been folding so carefully. "No, no, no, no, no!" She vaulted over the sofa and threw herself between Jo and the telephone.

"OK, jeez, I get it!" said Jo.

"Get it? You almost blew it!"

"I just forgot for a second. I ain't used to all this cloak and dagger."

"Well all this 'cloak and dagger' isn't my fault. It's for your benefit!"

"I know, I get it, Blair. Just answer the freakin phone, already, will ya?"

Blair glared at her lover as she scooped up the receiver.

"Yes?" Blair inquired in her most poised and mature voice, ignoring Jo's scowl. "Oh, yes? I see. Certainly. Yes, I know them very well. Parents of my dearest chum. I'll be delighted to see them. And please add them to my list of 'Approved Guests'."

Blair hung up the phone.

"Well, now we know where your parents are. They're downstairs."

"Here?" Jo's face lit up. She leaped to her feet.

"Hold on there, Eric Heiden, don't skate off so fast. You can't run down to meet them."

"Oh. Yeah."

"Spenlow's sending them up, but you need to hide in case anyone comes with them."

"Why would someone need to come with them? And why," Jo put her hands on her hips confrontationally, "were they stopped downstairs anyway? Toot and Nat and Mrs. G got to sail right up here."

"Because Tootie and Natalie and Mrs. Garrett are on my 'Approved Guests' list," Blair said, exasperated. "Not being a fortune teller, I didn't think to put your parents on the list."

"Oh. I guess that makes sense."

"Spenlow's adding your parents so next time they'll be allowed right up."

"What do we need with these stuffy 'Approved Guest' lists anyway? This is all straight outta 'Upstairs, Downstairs.'"

"Jo, Langley College has students from all over the world, many of them royalty or the children of celebrities. Not to mention, ahem, fabulously wealthy, fabulously beautiful heiresses. Some of the procedures are tiresome, but they're meant to protect us. No one can get in unless we want them to."

There was a tentative knock on the door, followed by a vigorous pounding.

"That's Ma," said Jo, "and Dad."

"Scoot!" Blair pointed imperiously at the bathroom door.

"I'm scootin, I'm scootin. Boy, you're bossy!"

"You love it," teased Blair. She blew Jo a kiss as the brunette closed the bathroom door.

Blair released the chain and unbolted the lock. She opened the door wide.

"Mr. and Mrs. Polniaczek!" she said warmly, "it is such a pleasure to see you."

As Blair had anticipated, she saw the top of Spenlow's head through the banister; he was lurking on the landing, curious that such ordinary people would be visiting the Blair Warner.

"We're so sorry to bother you," said Rose anxiously, "but we can't find Jo, and we didn't know who else to turn to." She was a pretty, slender, wistful woman with luminous blue eyes. In Blair's opinion, Jo got her good heart and tenacity (and eyes) from Rose.

"Yeah. We're hopin she's with you," said Charlie. He was a tall, craggily handsome Bronxite with an easy manner, a lot of charm and a chip on his shoulder. Blair was very fond of Charlie, not least because Jo seemed to get her more interesting and problematic traits from him.

"Did Jo stay here last night?" Rose asked hopefully.

"She must have made other arrangements," said Blair, making certain that her voice carried to Spenlow.

"I don't think she could afford other arrangements," Rose said. She turned to her ex-husband. "Oh, Charlie, where do you think she is?"

"Let's not panic," Blair said confidently. "If we put our heads together, we'll locate her. Please, come in." She stood aside, gesturing gracefully for them to enter.

"We don't want to impose –" Rose began, "but – "

"Nonsense," Blair interposed. "Please. I'm as anxious as you are to see that Jo is properly settled."

"All right, then," said Charlie.

"We really appreciate this," said Rose.

The Polniaczeks entered the suite a little hesitantly, clearly feeling like fish out of water.

"Nice digs!" Charlie said admiringly.

"Please sit," said Blair, "be comfortable. Make yourselves at home." She closed the suite door, turned the bolt and drew the chain.

Rose perched on the edge of a chair. She was, Blair knew, an extraordinarily hard-working woman, holding down multiple jobs as a cocktail and coffee-shop waitress to keep Jo enrolled in top-tier schools. Rose had a hectic, restless energy, an inability to be still. She sat on the very edge of the chair, ready to spring up at a moment's notice.

Charlie, on the other hand, sat on the sofa, leaning back into it with an appreciative grunt. He crossed his long legs, looking completely at ease.

"Wow," he said, looking around, "they gave you the Honeymoon Suite."

"Charlie!" said Rose, embarrassed by his familiarity with the heiress. Blair was always very nice to Rose, but the woman had never grown comfortable with Blair; she seemed fixated on the astronomical difference between their stations.

"That's quite all right," Blair said, smiling at Rose and then at Charlie. It was a point of some pride with her that Charlie Polniaczek felt comfortable enough to banter with her. They had hit it off from the moment they first met, when Jo was trying to keep it under wraps that her father had done a stretch in prison for stealing typewriters.

Jo's more like him, Blair thought. He's comfortable with anyone. He doesn't let other people dictate his station. For better and for worse, he's a king in his own skin.

"Actually," Blair said casually, "Jo's suite will be the same as this."

"Oh, I don't think so," Rose said with a self-deprecating little wave. "But it's nice of you to say so."

"I mean it," said Blair. "Langley College is very democratic that way. They charge everyone too much money, but everyone gets a suite."

Charlie laughed. "I like that," he said.

"Oh, who cares what her room looks like?" Rose demanded. "With all due respect, Miss Warner –"

"Please. Call me Blair."

"With all due respect, Blair, I'm not going to be able to think straight until I find out where Jo is."

"Ah! Well," Blair stood, "I should be able to help you with that little old thing." She crossed to the bathroom door and rapped on it. "The coast is clear," she said loudly.

The door swung open and Jo emerged, grinning from ear to ear. She threw her arms wide.

"Ma! Pop!"

"Jo!!" her parents shouted together.

Jo hugged her mother fiercely; Charlie crushed them both in a bearlike embrace.

Blair smiled fondly at the three of them, then drifted back to her unpacking, trying to give the Polniaczeks some space.

Jo took a moment just to bask in her parents' presence. They could drive her crazy at times, but she had to admit, they were pretty special. Rose was wearing her best dress, a purple number with puffy sleeves, and her Dad was wearing his suit.

"Hey, jeez, ya both look like a million dollars!" said Jo, her eyes shining.

"You're wearin the watch I got ya!" Charlie noticed.

"Are ya kiddin? Of course. It matches all my stuff."

Something was puzzling Rose. "Jo? Why were you hiding in the bathroom?"

"Eh, some stupid rules," said Jo. "Students ain't supposed to share rooms, or they get in a lot of trouble. Blair really went out on a limb for me."

"Thank you, Miss Warner," said Rose.

"Blair, you really are a class act," said Charlie admiringly.

Blair blushed. "Jo would do the same for me," she said modestly, folding her Ralph Lauren sweater. "Listen, you three catch up, I'm going to put these away." She picked up an armload of folded clothing. "But whatever you do, please don't answer the phone or the door."

"Jeez, I won't," said Jo, exasperated.

"Jo!" admonished her mother. "Is that any way to talk to a friend who's doing so much to help you?"

"If her name is Blair, then, yeah," said Jo, smirking at the heiress.

Blair rolled her eyes and vanished into the bedroom.

"Mark my words," said Charlie, picking at a cold slice of toast on the coffee table, "that girl is gonna marry a prince or somethin. True class. She's got that whole Grace Kelly thing, or somethin."

"Or somethin," laughed Jo.

"How come ya gotta bust her chops, so much, Jo?"

"Cause it's funny. And she busts mine right back, Pop."

"I could see that," he said. He shook his head. "Moxie."

"We're just lucky she took you in," Rose said to Jo. "When I think of you, sleeping in a bus station, maybe, or in a ditch –"

"Ma … in a ditch? Isn't that a little bit dramatic?"

"You should've heard her on the way up here," said Charlie. "She thought ya were sleepin in a barn, maybe, in a hayloft."

"Ma … in a hayloft?"

"A mother worries!" Rose said defensively. "After we spoke the other evening, I didn't know how to reach you, the college didn't know where you were, I couldn't get ahold of Mrs. Garrett –"

"I get it Ma. But please, tell me, did ya get the money together?"

"Of course," said Charlie. He reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket, pulling out a check. "This'll take care of it – paid in full."

Rose wrung her hands. "We're so sorry this happened."

"I'm sorry," said Charlie. "This is all on me. Your mom warned me and I, well, as usual I didn't listen."

"I know the drill," said Jo.

"Gimme a break, kid," he said. "I might've messed it up, but in the end I came through."

"Ya know what, Pop?" Jo sat down next to him.

"Oh, here it comes," he said, rolling his eyes.

"You always come through," Jo said. "Granted, it's usually at the last minute. And everything gets all screwed up beforehand. But ya come through in the clutch. And that's all I could ask." She hugged him.

"Jeez." It was all he could manage to say. There were tears in his eyes.

"So," said Charlie, changing the subject back to business – he didn't do "mush" much better than his daughter – "there is one problem. The Bursar's office is closed today. It's shut up tighter than Sister Mary's –"

"Charlie!" said Rose.

"What? Tighter than Sister Mary's habit. You know, because she's fat. What's wrong with that?"

"It's disrespectful!"

"Well, anyhow, Jo, we couldn't get into the Bursar's office today. So you take this – " he pressed the check into Jo's hand, "and you pay it tomorrow mornin, and then they'll let you into your room. In the meantime, I guess Blair will have ta take you in for one more night."

"It's so embarrassing," said Rose. "We should really put you up at the Off Ramp Motel."

"I'm fine here, Ma," said Jo. "Blair doesn't mind. Really."

"She must think we're such, that we're so –"

"Mrs. Polniaczek, I think you're pretty terrific," said Blair. She stood in the bedroom doorway, wearing jeans and boots and a Langley sweatshirt, hair pulled into a pony tail. She looked so casual, so earthy … Jo felt her heart skip a beat.

"Hey, what about me?" joked Charlie.

"Oh, you're pretty terrific too," Blair agreed. "Listen, I've just had one of my brilliant ideas. I'm going to see Chestnut right now, but I'll be back in a couple of hours. Why don't I take us all to Ma Maison? I think a celebration is in order."

"What a lovely idea," said Rose, "but –"

"We'd love too," Charlie said firmly. "We'll wait for you here, Blair. And, don't worry; we won't blow Jo's cover."

"Wonderful!"

Blair walked to the suite door, but before she left she turned and fixed Jo with a thoughtful look.

"Jo, you are going to wear something appropriate for Ma Maison?" It sounded like a question, but it was, Jo knew, a command.

"Of course," she said, scowling. "After three years roomin with you, I could dress for the White House, let alone Ma Maison."

Blair nodded, satisfied, and on that note she left. She closed the door behind her and Jo quickly bolted and chained it.

Rose pursed her lips. Something about the way Blair had spoken to Jo rubbed her the wrong way. It was … possessive. And Jo had just taken it. Jo had never been dependent on anyone in her whole life, not even, really, her parents. Rose didn't like seeing her feisty daughter kowtowing to Blair Warner.

Blair Warner … Rose had always liked the girl, but she resented her too, and she wouldn't trust her as far as she could throw her. Why was one of the wealthiest young women in the world so friendly to Rose's daughter? Jo was special – all kinds of special – but how did a frivolous heiress know that? Appreciate that?

Rose suspected Blair of selfish motives. The girl was playing the role of Lady Bountiful, had been for some time. It was a power trip. But as soon as Blair grew bored, Jo would be persona non grata. And Rose couldn't begin to imagine how much Jo would hurt from that.

"Who's Chester?" asked Charlie. "Her boyfriend?"

Jo howled. "It's her horse," she said finally, wiping a tear of laughter from her eye. "And it's 'Chestnut', not 'Chester'. She drove him up from the Texas Ranch."

The Texas ranch, thought Rose. She says that so casually … The Texas ranch … Blair's already drawing Jo into her world …

"Is there a deck of cards in this place?" Charlie asked.

Jo snorted. "Knowin her majesty, she's probably got a whole casino tucked away in here. We just gotta push the right button and it'll appear. Poof."

"Jo," Rose admonished.

That was another thing that disconcerted her. Jo was so rude about Blair, and to Blair. Jo played it like a game … but when the wealthy girl finally took offense … Rose had learned many a hard lesson growing up. And what it boiled down to was that you couldn't trust the rich, and you should never, never antagonize them.

"Seriously," said Jo, "I got a deck in my duffle bag. How 'bout a few rounds of three-handed poker? Jokers and deuces are wild."

Rose sighed. "Jo, if we'd wanted another card sharp in the family, we would've sent you to school in Las Vegas. Why don't you tell us about your classes?"

"Well, they start Tuesday. Tomorrow is freshman orientation. We're meetin in Livsey Hall. Did you see that big mansion, looks like Wutherin Heights, when you first drove in? That's Livsey. …"

Jo chattered on excitedly.

Rose loved seeing the way Jo lit up when she discussed academics. That was what Rose liked to see. That was the focus that was going to take Jo as far as she wanted to go, far away from poverty and waitressing and scraping from meal to meal –on Jo's terms, nobody else's.

She's already changing, Rose thought with a pang. Jo's hair hung loose today, softly framing her face instead of being pulled into a practical ponytail. Jo wore a pair of old jeans and a T-shirt that Rose recognized, but Jo's scent was unfamiliar. Something expensive. Something lent, no doubt, by Blair.

Rose couldn't articulate it, but the exotic scent bothered her. It was as if Blair had put her stamp on Jo on some primal level.

I'm being silly, thought Rose. She pushed her worries to the corner of her mind and focused more fully on what Jo was saying. But the rest of the afternoon, there was an uneasiness in her gut. Something is wrong


Wow, thought Jo. What a total, flippin, freakin disaster.

It had seemed like a good idea. A nice little lunch at Ma Maison. Yeah, it was kinda fancy, but it wasn't the Rainbow Room. Blair liked Rose and Charlie. Rose and Charlie liked Blair. Jo loved the three of them. So what could go possibly go wrong?

Problem number one: Jo had forgotten how uncomfortable her mother got in formal settings. Rose was pretty, she was smart, she was a class act, but somehow, she just couldn't see those qualities in herself. Fancy places made her feel instantly insecure.

It didn't help that the menu was completely in French. Jo had picked up a little pidgin French last year during the Paris trip, but her primary foreign language was Spanish. So Blair translated the menu for her parents. The blonde was trying to be solicitous, but her ease only added to Rose's sense of inferiority.

Before they even ordered, a nervous Rose accidentally knocked her fork off the table, then compounded her clumsiness by reaching down to pick it up.

"Oh, no," said Blair, laying a gentle hand on Rose's arm. "Someone will take care of that." She signaled the waiter. "Another fork, please, Pierre."

"Mais oui, Mademoiselle Warner."

"I feel so foolish," Rose apologized, but Jo knew her mother's tones, and Rose sounded more than embarrassed; she sounded pissed off. That was Jo's first signal that things were not going to go well.

"Don't give it a second thought," said Blair. "It happens all the time."

"Oh, I'm sure it does," said Rose. "I'm sure people who eat here drop their forks and spoons left and right."

It was pointed sarcasm, but Blair misread it as humor.

"Their knives, too," joked Blair.

"Especially knives," said Rose, with a tight smile.

What the hell, Ma? thought Jo.

Problem number two: Jo had forgotten what a flirt Blair was. It came naturally to the blonde. It was just part of her charm, absolutely harmless, something she did on auto-pilot with any attractive man she met.

Unfortunately, that included Charlie. Blair had started flirting with him the moment she met him almost three years ago. And he was a flirt, too. So, not surprisingly, he was flirting back.

To Jo it was just sweet – two charmers enjoying each other's company and practicing their skills, sharpening their wits. But Rose had never seen the Blair-Charlie routine in action before, and it didn't look like she was going to give it a rave review!

Jo tried to salvage the meal by keeping her mother distracted, talking a mile a minute to Rose about what orientation was going to be like tomorrow, Jo's classes, Jo's campus job, what her room would be like, the weather, the history of Peekskill, the state of the union – anything and everything she could think of to divert her mother's attention from the fancy environment and Blair's charming exchanges with Charlie.

But Rose was a multitasker. It was part of what made her such a terrific waitress; she could hold many, many thoughts in her head at once, and could listen to multiple conversations simultaneously. It was a gift … a really inconvenient gift at the moment.

Rose picked at her meal.

Problem number three, which Jo hadn't picked up on, was that Blair was frankly freaking Rose out.

Rose couldn't quite put her finger on it, but there was something too possessive, too familiar in the way Blair looked at Jo, spoke to Jo, responded to Jo's questions. Rose had known for years that the two girls were friends, but her contact with Blair had been understandably limited, and most of what Jo shared consisted of complaints about the blonde.

Rose hadn't realized how close the girls had actually grown. They were like sisters now. Blair had somehow suddenly become part of the family, this beautiful girl that made Rose feel so inferior, and who now fussed over Jo like, well, like Rose usually did.

Tangled in these resentful, confused feelings, Rose barely touched the bread, the French onion soup, the steak and peas.

Like any accomplished hostess, Blair inquired whether anything was wrong with the food.

"If it's not to your taste, Mrs. Polniaczek, we can send it back."

"There's nothing wrong with it," Rose snapped. "I'm just not very hungry. And we're not sending it back. That'll just get the waiter and the cook in hot water. Not that you'd know anything about that."

Blair blushed, hurt, but she maintained her composure.

"As you like," she said politely.

"I'd like to be left alone."

Blair busied herself, cutting her steak into tinier pieces.

"Ma," Jo whispered, "what're ya doin? Blair's just tryin to be sure you're havin a good meal. And she does know about bein a waitress. She worked in Mrs. G's kitchen for three years, right alongside me and Tootie and Nat."

"Oh, three years?" said Rose. "Well, I guess she does that better than me too!"

Charlie was annoyed with his ex-wife, and less subtle about it than Jo.

"Rose, what crawled up your keister?" he demanded. "We're havin a nice meal here."

"Well how nice for you, Charlie. Me, I can't even pronounce anything on my plate. I hardly know what I'm eating."

"Ma, could ya please cool it?" Jo pleaded quietly, reasonably. She'd never seen her mother act like this in public, except when she was fighting with her father. And although Charlie was now in the line of fire, he didn't seem to be the original cause of her mother's irritation.

Of course, Charlie had a gift for making a bad situation even worse.

"I'm sorry, Blair," Charlie said to the heiress, "I think Rose is just a little tired from the bus ride."

"Don't you apologize for me, Charlie," fumed Rose. "I'm a big girl. I can speak for myself." She looked from Charlie to Jo to Blair. "I'm sorry if I'm not good company, but I came up here to spend time with my daughter. Then suddenly we're at some fancy restaurant and I feel like I've been pushed into the background." She dropped her napkin on the table. "I'm going to get some air."

"Please, Mrs. Polniaczek, if I've done anything to offend you," Blair began, but Rose turned on her with a startling intensity.

"You've been perfect," said Rose, as if that were the crime of the century. "Excuse me."

Rose pushed back her chair and bolted for the door.

Charlie started to go after her, but Jo grabbed his hand and shook her head decisively.

"Give Ma some space," she told him.

"Space for what?" he demanded, sitting down. "I mean, am I crazy, or aren't we havin a wonderful meal?"

"You're not crazy, Pop."

"So what's eatin her?"

"I'm not sure. But let's give her a few moments to cool off."

Charlie sighed. "If you say so." His brows were knit, as he processed everything that had led up to Rose's outburst.

Ma Maison was a discrete establishment; the maître d' seldom intervened in guest disputes, unless a party engaged in actual fisticuffs. But in this case, with a guest as illustrious as Miss Blair Warner, he felt it necessary to confirm that everything was all right.

"Miss Warner," he said, all but tugging at his forelock, "is the meal to everyone's satisfaction?"

Blair was sitting up very straight, a demure smile glued on her face, but her white-knuckled hands clenching her fork and knife told Jo a different story.

"Everything's lovely," she told the maître d' through her glued-on smile. "But it is lovely of you to inquire."

"You are certain?" he pursued solicitously. "Because if there is anything –"

"Everything is lovely," Blair assured him in a strained voice, with the same phony smile.

"Is there anything we can do to make your dining experience more enjoyable?"

"Sure," said Blair, tossing her napkin on the table. "Blow it out your crankcase, you obsequious fop!"

Blair stormed out of the restaurant.

Charlie, Jo and the maître d' gaped after her.

"I don't think … that I can accommodate that request," said the stunned maître d'.

Jo clapped him on the shoulder. "Aw, don't worry about it, Jacques. Miss Warner runs a tab here, I assume?"

"She has, she has an American Express card on file, yes."

"Well just charge all this to the card. And give yaself a big tip. She'd want that."

"If you say so, mademoiselle."

It was time to beat a hasty retreat, Jo decided, before the man's shock turned to anger.

Jo stood up and Charlie followed her lead. The maître d' bowed curtly to them, and then staggered back to his post, looking absolutely gob smacked.

"'Blow it out your crankcase'?" asked Charlie as he and Jo walked out to the parking lot.

"I must be rubbin off on her," shrugged Jo.

"Ya can say that again! 'Blow it out your crankcase'! I knew I liked that girl."

"Yeah, Pop, about that … Maybe if ya could try not to, like, be so attentive to Blair. I think it kinda makes Ma feel like an old shoe."

"Why? Rose is beautiful. Anyhow, she's my ex, not my wife. I can be attentive to whoever I wanna."

"Look I'm not sayin you're wrong, but do ya wanna be right, or do ya wanna be happy?"

Charlie chewed on that. "You really think your mom is jealous?"

"Not jealous like she wants ta get back with ya, Pop, but, just, jealous like women tend ta get around Blair."

"Ya ask me," said Charlie thoughtfully, "I think you got that backassward, Jo."

"Whaddaya mean?"

"I mean, I did feel a few daggers from your mother, but mainly she kept watching you. She seems ta be havin, kind of a hard time with you finally leavin the nest."

"Gimme a break! I just left a coupla days ago. And I was off at Eastland the last three years!"

"But it's not like Eastland. I mean, this is college Jo. I think she sees ya slippin away from her. And when she was watchin how Blair takes care of ya –"

"Whaddaya mean, how Blair takes care of me?" Jo demanded scornfully.

Charlie lifted his hands. "OK, sounds like I hit a nerve there."

"No. Really, Pop, whaddaya mean?"

"I mean, when you're out of a place to stay, Blair takes you in, and she houses you and feeds you and tells you what to wear, and at the restaurant she translates for you and orders for you and made you eat your peas –"

"I was gonna eat them anyway," said Jo.

"All I'm sayin is, I think Rose is feelin a little pushed out by Blair."

"But that's crazy. Blair isn't anythin like Ma. And I one-million percent don't see Blair that way."

Charlie gave her a lopsided grin. "OK, Jo. You're not wrong. But do ya wanna be right, or do ya wanna be happy?"

Touché.

They heard Rose and Blair before they saw them. The two women were arguing loudly in the last row of the parking lot, where the truck was parked.

"Christ-on-a-crutch," muttered Charlie. "When that woman gets wound up she could try the patience of a saint."

"Aw, she's not so bad once ya get used to her," said Jo.

Charlie gave her a funny look. "I meant your mother," he said.

"Oh."

Rose and Blair were standing practically nose-to-nose in front of the truck, shouting at each other and gesturing wildly.

"- and she doesn't need your patronage!" Rose was yelling. "She's not some charity case!"

"Charity case!" shouted Blair. "Charity case? Jo's done more for me than I could ever do for her! If anyone owes anyone, I owe her. Anything good about me, that's what she helped me to become!"

Jo blushed at the fulsome praise. Right back at ya, Blair, she thought.

"Jo isn't here to help you become anything," Rose ranted. "She's here for her studies. Her whole future is riding on this! But I shouldn't expect you to understand that. You, you can host your little tea parties – "

"My little tea parties?"

"- And go to your fancy restaurants with your fancy friends and talk about boys and clothes and all that fluff – "

"Fluff?"

" – And that's fine for you. But Jo has to be focused."

"Jo is focused, Mrs. Polniaczek. I thought you knew that. But now I'm starting to think you don't know anything about her at all!"

Jo and Charlie winced. That was the wrong thing to say.

"I don't know anything about my daughter? Me? Her mother? Who carried her for nine months, who gave birth to her, who held her when she cried, who brought her chicken soup when she was sick –"

"I've brought her soup," Blair flared. "I've held her when she cried. I'm her best friend, Mrs. Polniaczek. She loves you so much, but I'm important to her too. You're just going to have to make some room for me."

"Make some room? You're trying to push me out of the house!"

"What house?"

"It's a metaphor! Don't tell me the great Blair Warner doesn't recognize a metaphor when she hears one?"

"I recognize a metaphor if it makes sense. Now I know where Jo gets her lousy metaphors."

Jo looked uneasily at Charlie.

"How long do we let this go on?"

"Until it burns itself out," he said. "Like an oil fire. Or until the cops break it up."

"Jo's my daughter," Rose shouted. "She's my blood. She doesn't need your charity. I take care of her."

"And look what a fabulous job you're doing! She had to sleep in the truck the other night! The truck!"

Rose gasped.

"Do you know what it was like to find her there," Blair raged on, "to find her curled up in the, to see her …" Blair's voice broke and tears spilled down her cheeks at the memory.

"She had to sleep in your truck?" Rose asked huskily.

"It was that or sleeping in a ditch," Blair said, weeping.

"My Jo, sleeping in a truck?" Tears spilled down Rose's face.

Blair nodded mutely, too choked up to speak.

"Oh, my poor baby," sobbed Rose. "It's all my fault; it's all my fault."

Blair opened her arms and hugged Rose. Rose hugged her back, hard. They clung to each other, weeping.

"My poor baby," Rose kept mumbling. And, "My fault, it's all my fault."

"You slept in the truck?" Charlie asked Jo.

"Yeah. It wasn't a big deal. Blair was outta town the first night, it was the only place ta lay my head. Surprisinly comfortable."

"Well, ya seem ta have survived," said Charlie. "I still can't believe Blair owns a truck."

"I know, right?"

Blair was sobbing. "It's not your fault," she told Rose.

"It is; it is!"

"No. You're a wonderful mother! Jo's always saying how wonderful you are!"

"I let my baby sleep in a truck. It's all my fault!"

"Wow. It's like a really bad soap opera," Jo said to Charlie.

"And it ain't over yet," he said.

"Whaddaya mean?"

"These things have a rhythm, Jo. Stage one, they were blowin off steam. Stage two, now they're commiseratin. Stage three …"

"Yeah? Stage three?"

"They figure out how it's all our fault."

"Our fault? How would it be our fault?"

"Don't worry. They'll tell us."

Blair had pulled a pair of delicate handkerchiefs from her capacious purse. Rose was sobbing into one and Blair was blowing her nose, like a trumpet, into the other.

"It's not your fault," Blair sobbed. "Your check didn't bounce."

"Your right," sobbed Rose. "Charlie. Always Charlie!"

"And if Jo had driven to the city, instead of being so stubborn –"

"Oh, she's always been stubborn," said Rose.

" – she could've stayed with me in Manhattan. Or with you, in the Bronx."

"You're right. There was no need for her to sleep in the truck."

"Plain pride," said Blair.

"Oh, she's always been proud."

Charlie chuckled. "Told ya," he said to Jo.

"What's happenin?" asked Jo, bewildered.

"The mysterious workins of the female mind," Charlie said. "I'm so lucky you're a tomboy. Sure, ya give me drama sometimes, but it's drama I can understand. You only get upset about important things."

Jo and Charlie hung back until Blair and Rose had stopped sniffling and dried their eyes, until the handkerchiefs had been whisked away into the depths of Blair's giant purse.

"So, everybody friends again?" Charlie asked cheerfully.

Rose and Blair glared at him.

"Or, at least you two are friends again," he amended. He cracked his knuckles. "We good to go?"

"Don't crack your knuckles," Rose complained.

"Don't bust my chops," he countered. He looked at his watch. "We really got ta catch that bus, Rose. I got a shift tonight."

"Oh, right. Me too."

Rose turned to Jo. She held out her arms.

"Sweetheart, it was so good to see you."

"You too, Ma." Jo permitted herself to be hugged and squashed as if she were a little girl again.

"But don't you ever," Rose shook her, "ever keep it a secret again if you need help. Do you hear me?"

"Geez, Ma, yeah, I hear ya; you're yellin in my ear."

"Sorry. But you've got to promise."

"I promise, I promise!"

With a final hug that squeezed the breath out of Jo, Rose released her.

"Please, Mr. and Mrs. Polniaczek," Blair began, "let me call –"

"Nothin doin, Blondie," said Jo.

"But you don't –"

"I do, and ya won't."

"But it would –"

"It wouldn't," Jo said decisively.

Blair sighed. "If you say so."

"Thanks."

Rose looked bewildered. "What just happened?" she asked Charlie.

"I think Jo just talked Blair out of having her limo drive us back to the city."

"Oh." Rose put a hand on Blair's shoulder. "That's very nice of you, Blair, but Jo's right. We've already got our bus tickets, and, well, that's how I feel comfortable traveling."

"Speak for yaself Rose," laughed Charlie. "I'd never turn down a limo!"

"Pop!" said Jo. She didn't want to deal with yet another argument.

"What? What did I say?"

"How about if we walk you to the bus stop?" Blair said to Rose. "It's just down the block."

"Sure. The more the merrier," said Charlie.

"That'd be nice," Rose agreed.

Thank God! thought Jo. Something everyone could agree to: getting her parents – much as she loved them – the hell out of town!

"Ya ever notice," said Jo, as they strolled along, "how everythin in Peekskill is pretty much 'just down the block'?"

"That's the beauty of a small town," said Rose.

"Honestly, Jo, I don't know how ya deal with it," said Charlie. "All this space, all this fresh air …"

"Yeah," said Jo, "it used ta drive me buggy. But ya get used to it."

Blair had the good sense, Jo noted, to say very little during the walk, and after wishing Mr. and Mrs. Polniaczek a pleasant journey, she melted away, window shopping at a nearby confection shop, leaving Jo to say a private goodbye to her folks.

"Ma," said Jo, "I love ya ta pieces, but what happened today?"

"I don't know, Jo, I just feel like I'm losing you."

"Well, you're not. Ma, you're the best. I'm always gonna need ya."

Rose hugged her. "I know you will, honey, but for some reason … Please tell Blair again that I'm sorry. I'm so embarrassed! I always want to make such a good impression on her, show her we're as good as anyone, and instead I act like a screeching shrew."

"Eh, Blair can shrew with the best of 'em. And ya don't gotta impress her. It's just Blair."

"Here, here," said Charlie. "She's like part of the family."

"Exactly," said Jo. "And with the way her parents barely pay any attention to her, she needs all the family she can get."

"Poor thing," said Rose. "I remember how her parents fought at graduation. How embarrassing for her!"

"Yeah, well, her folks weren't the only ones makin a scene."

Rose blushed. "Jo –"

"Never mind, Ma, it's all ancient history. But I gotta ask ya ta be nice to Blair the next time ya see her. She's important to me."

"I know," said Rose. "Well, I know now. I just hadn't realized how close you'd become, and I guess it kind of scared me."

"Ma, you're always number-one." Jo hugged her.

"Eh, what am I, invisible?" kidded Charlie. Jo hugged him.

"You're both the best. Thanks for comin all the way up here with the check."

"You call us later this week," said Rose. "Let us know what your room's like. We're so proud of you. So proud!" said Rose.

"Don't start cryin again," Jo kidded her. "Blair's way over there and I don't got a hankie."

"I've got one," said Charlie, pulling one from the breast pocket of his suit, but he gave it to Jo, not Rose. It was Jo, not Rose, who was crying.

There were more hugs all around.

"Study hard," said Rose.

"I will, Ma, I will."

"And write home when you can. Will you be coming home for Thanksgiving?"

"For Pete's sake, Ma, Thanksgivin's like three months away!"

"But are you coming home for it?"

"Of course! Ya think I'm gonna miss Aunt Evelyn's Jell-O surprise?"

"The surprise is no one's ever croaked from eatin it," laughed Charlie.

"Yet," laughed Jo. "And how 'bout Mr. Balducci's sister and those crazy yams?"

They chattered on, reliving old times, the good times.

The Bronx bus rolled up twenty minutes later. The three Polniaczeks crushed each other in a massive embrace.

"'Bye, Ma! 'Bye, Pop!" Jo waved like a maniac when the bus pulled away. Rose and Charlie waved out the window at her until the bus turned a corner and disappeared from view.

Jo lowered her arm slowly. She stood still for a moment, staring at the corner where the bus had turned.

"Here," Blair said quietly, handing Jo a fresh handkerchief.

Blair had materialized, seemingly out of nowhere, at Jo's elbow. She carried a little white paper bag from the candy shop.

"Well," said Jo, dabbing at her eyes, "if it isn't Miss Dine-and-Dash Warner."

They walked slowly back to the parking lot in companionable silence.

"So," said Blair when they reached the truck, "when do you think we'll be able to eat at Ma Maison again?"

"Hmm, if I were a bettin woman – which I am – I'd put my money on ten years from now. That, or never. See, Blair, in the best circles, ya don't tell the maître d' to blow anything out of his crankcase."

"He's always been a fawning cretin," Blair said dismissively. "Jo?"

"Yeah, Princess?"

"What is a crankcase?"

Jo laughed. "If ya really want to know, I'll show you sometime."

Blair handed Jo the keys to the truck, and climbed into the passenger seat. Driving, Blair knew, helped Jo process things and clear her head, and it had been an emotional day.

Jo drove at a leisurely pace. She drove them through the woods and the farm fields and then back through downtown Peekskill, before finally pointing the truck toward the Langley campus.

"Tomorrow's orientation," she said.

"Yes," said Blair.

"And before that I gotta turn in this check."

"Yes," said Blair.

"At least ya won't have ta put up with me after tonight," said Jo.

Blair sighed, exasperated.

"Jo, I do not 'put up with you'. Well, sometimes I do. When you're being a numbskull. Like now. But when will you and your mother understand that I don't see you as some dependent, some project?"

"For Pete's sake, Blair – I was kiddin."

"I love being with you."

"And I love bein with you."

"If I could be with you twenty-four hours a day, every day … well, I'd probably go nuts. But I'd still want to do it."

"Right back at ya, Blondie."

"Does your mother really think I see you as some charity case?"

"I thought you guys were friends again?"

"We are. But … wary friends."

Jo sighed. "She doesn't think you see me as a charity case."

"But she said –"

"Never mind what she said." Jo tried to explain what she'd been piecing together from watching her mother and listening to her father's insights. "See, Ma sensed somethin. Right? But bein a good, decent Catholic from the Bronx, she doesn't understand what she sensed. So, she's tryin ta make sense of it, and it comes out in her mind like you're my patroness. Like you see me as some kind of pet. But what it is … You see where this is goin, Warner?"

"Ah," said Blair.

"Ma doesn't get it, but she feels that you're someone that might take me away from her. Permanent, like. Death-do-us-part, like."

"So she flipped out on me, like, like –"

"Like she flipped out on Eddie three years ago. Face it, Blair. You just had a 'mother-in-law' blowout."

Blair was shocked. "But mothers adore me!"

"Rich mothers. The mothers of boys who might actually have a shot at marryin ya. But my Ma … not so much. She just senses a fox circlin the hen house."

"But that's terrible! I really like your mother, Jo. I want her to like me."

"She does. She just doesn't totally trust ya."

"Well, how can I make her trust me?"

"Ya can't. People trust ya, or they don't. You've just gotta spend time with her, and show her more who ya are, and you'll, maybe, grow on her. Like a really pretty fungus."

"Gee, thanks."

"Well, that's how ya won me over. Ya got that great big heart, Blair. You're such a beautiful person. The more she sees that, the more – Hey!"

Blair had thrown her arms around Jo and was kissing her ear, her jaw, her throat.

"Are ya tryin to kill us?" Jo demanded, focusing hard on the road.

"Say it again," said Blair.

"Say what, say what? Will ya stop attackin me if I say it?"

"About my big heart."

"Ya got a big heart. Ya know you do."

"But it feels so wonderful when you say it, Jo. My Jo." Blair nuzzled contentedly against Jo's neck.

"That, ah, that feels wonderful too," said Jo. "A little too damn wonderful, unless ya want us to crash into a tree."

"Maybe you should pull over," Blair suggested innocently.

"Blair … in broad daylight?"

Blair squinted through the windshield. "It's a little overcast, don't you think?"

"But … people could still see … if we …"

"The wonderful thing about the countryside," mused Blair, "is that there are more cows than people. There are charming little back roads, dirt lanes, abandoned orchards, empty stables … Need I go on?"

"Ya needn't."

Jo turned down the next rustic-looking road. It was pitted with potholes, overgrown with weeds and brush. The limbs of the trees that flanked it grew out over the road, unchecked, some of them scraping the top of the truck as it passed.

They drove for ten minutes without seeing a cross road, a building or any other sign of civilization. Jo parked off the road, in a weedy clearing between two trees. She cut the engine.

"Blair," she began, in the deafening silence, but Blair silenced her with a passionate and very lengthy kiss.

"Blair," Jo tried again, when she could breathe, "have you ever seen 'Deliverance'?"

"No." Blair pinned Jo underneath her, kissing her eyes, her nose, her mouth.

"It's about these crazy hicks," said Jo between kisses. "They do some very unpleasant things to the city slickers stupid enough to go roamin around the woods."

"There are no crazy hicks in Peekskill," objected Blair. Kiss. "They're very boring, upstanding people here." Kiss. "And anyway," kiss, "you'll protect me, darling."

Jo shrugged. "Whatever ya say, Princess."

She gave herself over to Blair's passion, with a mounting passion of her own.

Jo remembered again what Tootie had said three years ago. Something that was truer and truer every day.

This is gonna be some kinda semester!

The End

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