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

Separate Ways
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 2

June, 1986. Manhattan. The Palm Court, the Plaza Hotel.

Nobody said anything for a few moments.

The goggle-eyed maitre d' seated Blair's mother.

"Please, er, enjoy your dining experience," he managed to say in a strangled voice – and then he got the hell out of there.

I wish I could follow him! thought Jo.

Because what the hell could you say in a situation like this: Monica Warner, easily in her mid-forties – more likely in her early fifties, notwithstanding the recent plastic surgery – missing-in-action for more than two years, and suddenly returning, without warning, hugely pregnant!

Blair was quiet. She drained her glass of wine, with dignity but haste, and inclined her head toward a waiter, clearly indicating that she wanted another glass.

Monica took Jo's untouched water glass, sipped at it in a ladylike fashion. She sighed. She closed her eyes for a moment, as if tremendously weary.

Jo shook her head slowly, baffled, horrified, and amused all at once.

"Well, if no one's gonna say it, I'll say it," Jo finally said, breaking the silence. "Looks like you gone and got yourself knocked up, Monica."

Monica shuddered delicately. "Please tell your little playmate," she said to Blair, "to address me as Mrs. Warner. Or, better idea, not to address me at all."

"You have some nerve, mother," Blair said quietly. "Insulting Jo."

"I find it very sad, very sad, Blair, dear, that you should still be yoked to this delinquent. If you absolutely must live a Sapphic life, couldn't you find a more appropriate companion? And couldn't you be a trifle more discrete?"

"Never mind insulting me or my fiancée," Blair said firmly. "Mother – where have you been?"

Monica shrugged. "Switzerland, mostly. The south of France for a time. A brief sojourn in Tuscany. When one has been ruined, one is dependent upon the charity of one's old school chums, one's distant relatives. Beggars cannot be choosers."

Jo's nostrils flared. Switzerland … the south of France … Tuscany … Jo pictured Monica, draped in furs, sporting elegant hats, sitting on sunny patios with elegant Cote d'Azur casinos behind her, magnificent vistas … Then she pictured Blair in her pink polyester Coffee Spot uniform, walking along the gritty, icy Bronx sidewalk, headed to the subway …

"Yeah, sounds like it's been a rough ride," Jo told Monica bitterly. "Don't know how you survived!" She snapped a breadstick in half, glaring over it at the woman that was, for all intents and purposes, her mother-in-law.

Monica flushed. She had the grace to look down at the water glass.

"I'm sure it hasn't been easy for Blair –" Monica began.

Jo laughed, a harsh, barking sound. "Easy? Ain't been easy? Do you know what you've put her through, disappearin like that?"

"I knew her friends wouldn't let her starve," Monica said reasonably. "I knew that with Mrs. Garrett and Natalie and Tootie around, Blair would survive."

"What kinda person are you, anyway?" Jo demanded. She kept her voice low – Blair had taught her that much in their years together – but her anger was clear. "How could you just take a powder like that? Yeah, of course Blair's friends wouldn't let her starve. But when somethin crazy happens, like Blair gettin stabbed, like what BZ Becker did to all your families, a girl needs her parents around. A girl needs her mother. And where were you? Off livin it up overseas! And ya never called. Ya never called."

Jo glared at the older woman, eyes hard but bright with unshed tears.

"Jo … darling," Blair said quietly. Under the table she gently ran her foot along Jo's leg, a calming gesture. "I love how you always defend me. But I've never needed help letting my mother know how I feel."

"That's certain," Monica said, with a little laugh. "There's always something wrong, isn't there, dear? We never paid enough attention to you; we never did this; we never did that. Blair – BZ Becker ruined all of us. It was everyone for himself, and I make no apologies. I don't have a Mrs. Garrett or a Tootie – or even a Jo Polniaczek, for that matter. As soon as your father warned me that Becker was about to drop the axe, I took all the cash and jewelry I could lay my hands upon and dashed to the airport. It's been hell, dear – sheer, unadulterated hell. A nomadic existence, almost completely dependent on others …" She shivered. She drained the water glass.

Jo took a deep breath. She leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers under her chin. She took another deep breath. I will not leap across the table and strangle Monica Warner. I will not leap across the table and strangle Monica Warner …

"What's done is done, mother," said Blair, sounding tired. "I didn't agree to see you to rake you over the coals. I wanted to be certain that you're all right. Are you all right? I mean," she glanced pointedly at her mother's stomach, "all things considered?"

Monica laughed. She put a hand on her enormous belly which strained the fabric of her expensive black dress to an almost cartoonish degree.

"Oh, I'm blooming, dear. Blooming."

"So then you're … you're happy about being a mother again?"

"Of course! I've always loved being a mother."

Jo snorted. Yeah – Monica Warner – mother-of-the-year!

"Sure," Jo said sarcastically. "There's nothin like it – that warm glow you get when you first hand your kid over to the nanny!

Monica scowled.

"Would I be prying if I inquired who the father might be?" asked Blair.

Monica smiled. "Hammond," she said. "Bailey Jackson Jones Arthur Hammond IV – or, as he prefers to be called, JJ."

Blair bit her lower lip. "But mother, isn't he … you said the fourth?"

"Yes, dear – the fourth."

"But doesn't he have a son? Isn't there a Bailey Jackson Jones Arthur Hammond the fifth?"

"No, dear – well, not yet." Monica patted her belly.

"But isn't Hammond the fourth a tad bit, well –" Blair paused delicately.

"Yes, Blair – he's an older gentleman. JJ is eighty-four if he's a day."

Jo's eyebrows shot up. "Eighty-four? You gotta be kiddin! You're shacked up with a guy old enough to be Blair's great-grandpa?"

Monica pursed her lips disdainfully. Under the table Blair gently nudged Jo's leg.

"Crassly put, as always," Monica told Jo, "Yes, JJ is of rather advanced years. What of it?"

"Rather advanced?" Jo demanded.

Blair nudged Jo's leg again.

"At least I'm bedding a man," Monica told Jo. "Which is more than you can say. Either of you."

Jo's eyes narrowed. Blair kicked her under the table. Jo knew what the little kick meant: Darling – please don't lose your temper.

Jo kept her temper, but couldn't resist being a little nasty. "So, Monica – you actually love this geezer, or is he just a sugar daddy or somethin?"

Blair kicked Jo under the table again.

Jo turned to her. "Sorry, babe, but no, I ain't gonna lose my temper but I ain't gonna be polite. Witch runs out on you for freakin years, comes back with some decrepit old guy in her pocket –"

"It's not for us to judge," Blair interrupted calmly. "We want mother to accept our somewhat unusual romance. If mother has fallen in love with Bailey Jackson Jones Arthur Hammond IV –"

"Oh, I don't love him," said Monica, waving one perfectly manicured hand. "I have to admit that he is what, in Miss Polniaczek's world would doubtless be called a 'meal ticket'. But he's fond of me. We're fond of each other. I like wearing nice clothes. He likes buying them for me. And now that little Bailey the fifth is on the way, JJ's saddled with me. Even if he leaves me, he'll have to provide for us. For life."

Jo dropped her half-gnawed breadstick on her plate, appetite vanishing.

She heard Alec's voice in her head. Monica was what he would call "a common or garden gold-digger" – or worse.

Monica read the thoughts flitting across Jo's face.

"Oh, you're so holier-than-thou," Monica said, sniffing. "You can't begin to imagine what it's like, to have everything and then to have nothing."

"I know a little bit about it," Jo said evenly. "And there's a way to handle it, with dignity. And class." She looked over at her lover. Blair blushed prettily.

"Of course," said Monica. "Blair's a saint, I'm a demon, etcetera, etcetera. I don't expect to ever win you over, Miss Polniaczek. Nor do I care to." Monica glanced at her diamond-encrusted wrist-watch.

"Got a pressin appointment, there?" Jo asked sarcastically. "Hope we ain't keepin you from anythin important!"

"I do have an appointment, as a matter of fact," said Monica.

"Nice of you to give us a few minutes," said Jo. "Real honor."

"Darling," Blair said reproachfully.

"Well, I mean, c'mon. She just freakin got here, dropped these bombshells, and now she's takin off?"

"I'm back in Manhattan for good," said Monica. "You'll see me all the time now. Well, you will," she told Blair. "You," she glanced at Jo, "I don't care to see."

"We're a package deal," Blair told her mother. "Two for the price of one."

Monica shook her head. "Blair, it breaks my heart to hear you speaking the coarse patois of the bourgeoisie consumer. 'Package deal'? 'Two for the price of one'? Devastating. Simply devastating."

"Never mind my vocabulary, mother. I'm dead serious. If you can't accept Jo, you won't see me."

Monica opened her mouth to give a glib retort; Monica was nothing if not glib. But something in her daughter's eyes stopped her. She had never seen Blair so calm, so definite, so self-assured.

"Well," said Monica, mouth twisting, "it appears things have become very serious since I've been away. It appears I've returned in the nick of time."

"Whether you accept it or not, Jo is my soul mate," Blair said quietly. "Someday we're going to be married."

Monica laughed. "Do you know how that sounds, dear? Good God. Please, let's change the subject. I really must –" she glanced at her wrist watch again, "I really must dash in a moment. What I wanted to ask you, Blair, dear, is whether you've heard from your father yet?"

There was a beat of silence.

Christ, thought Jo, good ol' Monica. It's just bombshell after bombshell with her!

Blair cleared her throat. "Why would I hear from Daddy?" she asked. Her voice trembled slightly as she spoke. It still hurt, so badly, her father's abandonment … Hurt far more than her mother's disappearance …

Monica sighed. "Completely unreliable – as usual! He was supposed to telephone you by now."

"Daddy is … Is he … Is Daddy back in the country?" Blair asked. She sounded as if she were holding her breath, as if she hardly dared to believe what her mother seemed to be saying.

"Been back," Monica said. "Been back for months now. Deep in hiding, of course. He doesn't want to tip his hand. He thinks he's finally found a way to recover some of our assets."

Under the table, Blair's hand found Jo's, squeezed tightly. Jo squeezed back, an encouraging gesture.

"Well, hell, that's good news, anyhow," Jo said to Blair. "Your pop might be a bastard, but if he can kick a little bit of BZ Becker's ass, I say more power to him!"

"How long has he been back?" Blair asked her mother.

"I don't know. It's not as if we're gushing pen pals. We don't track each other's movements, dear."

"How long, mother?"

"Five or six months, I suppose."

Five or six months, Blair thought dully. Daddy's been back five or sixth months, and not one word to me …

Jo squeezed her hand again. I'm sorry babe, Jo's eyes told Blair. I'm sorry he keeps findin ways to hurt you …

"Never mind about how long he's been back," Monica said impatiently. "The point is, he thinks he's done it. He thinks he's found a way to recover most of your inheritance, dear."

"I see." Blair turned that over.

"Well, isn't that exciting?" Monica asked. "You'll have your money dear – maybe all of it! And the properties, and your twenty-percent interest in the Plaza." She made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the Palm Court.

Jo's eyes narrowed. "So … That explains it," she said to Monica. "Why you're suddenly here, tryin to be Mommy dearest. Blair's gonna be rich again – huh? And you wanna be sure you get your cut."

Monica put a hand to her bosom. "Blair, dear, are you going to let this, this person talk to me in that manner?"

"Why not?" Blair asked. "She's right."

"Blair!"

"Well, she is. Isn't she?"

"I'm very happy for you," said Monica. "Naturally. I'm very happy that David is going to restore your inheritance. And, of course, I know that you won't let Daddy or me starve –"

"No," said Blair, "of course I won't. In fact, I might just give it all to you, mother." Under the table she squeezed Jo's hand again. "Money's an awful lot of trouble. Sometimes it's actually easier when you don't have much of it."

Monica gasped. "Blair – Don't say things like that or I really will begin to worry about you."

"Little bit late to start worryin," said Jo, beaming at her fiancée. "Blair doesn't need anyone to worry about her – except maybe yours truly. She's got her head screwed on right."

"Why thank you," said Blair, touched. She smiled at Jo, and then turned to Monica. "Mother, this is all a great deal to take in at once. I don't know what I think. We don't even know if Daddy can get my inheritance back. But if he can, half of it is yours. That I promise."

Monica tried, but largely failed, to hide the gleam that kindled in her eyes. Half … half of 500 million dollars …

Monica cleared her throat. "That, er, that's very generous, Blair, but of course, I couldn't, I could never –"

"You could never dream of refusin," Jo said knowingly. "Come on, now, Monica – you don't wanna be rude. Princess here just offered you a big sack of dough. Money don't grow on trees, you know."

"Well, ah … I'll need to think about it."

"I think we should give her the properties," Jo told Blair. "Properties suck. It sounds neat, owning property in Manhattan, but it's like that place Meg gave you, on Amsterdam Avenue. With all the taxes and repairs and all that they're freakin money pits."

Monica looked sharply at Blair. "The Amsterdam Avenue house? Meg's family home?"

"Yeah, that's the one," said Jo. "It's bleedin us dry. If it's not one thing it's another with that place. Knowin how much Meg loves Blair, I'm kinda surprised she saddled us with that place."

Monica smiled at her daughter. "Well, well. I guess the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree – does it?" She winked conspiratorially.

Jo looked from Monica to Blair, who was blushing mightily.

And what the hell was that exchange about? Jo wondered.

"Even if you only keep half of your inheritance, think of all the lovely things you'll be able to do," Monica told Blair. "For a start, you'll be able to instantly improve the caliber of your companions." She looked meaningfully at Jo. "One thing I learned abroad, dear, is that your, well, your condition isn't quite as unusual as I'd always thought. In some places people are quite open about it. If you must be the way, er, the way you are, couldn't you be that way with someone of your own ilk? And you should move to Europe. Things are so much more relaxed over there, dear. And discrete."

"Oh, of course," snorted Jo. "And you and David could watch over her money here, right? While Blair's shacked up incognito in some little Tuscan love nest."

Monica shrugged. She stood up, slowly, hands on her belly.

"And on that note – crass to the last, Miss Polniaczek – I really do need to jet. Appointment with the baby doctor. Must keep little Bailey the fifth in good health."

The maitre d' rushed to the table with Monica's fox fur, and bundled her into it with great solicitation and great haste.

Doesn't want her walkin through the sacred halls of the Plaza lookin ready to pop! thought Jo.

Monica blew a kiss to Blair. "Darling, it really is lovely to see you. And it will be even lovelier once you're able to afford proper hair care products again. My poor dear!"

Blair absently touched a strand of her long blonde hair.

"Eat anything you like, dear," Monica told her. "Order anything on the menu. My treat. Well – JJ's treat. You are looking a little plump, so you might want to skip dessert."

"Up yours, Monica," said Jo.

Monica smiled icily at the brunette. "Jo – let's never meet again. Shall we?"

Blair's mother turned in a blur of silver fox fur … and she was gone.

The two young women sat in silence for a moment. Jo was still holding Blair's hand under the table.

A waiter approached them.

Prob'ly was hangin back, thought Jo. Prob'ly didn't wanna get in the middle of our to-do. Seems like we always got some to-do goin when we chow down at the Plaza!

"Young ladies," he said politely, "are you prepared to order?"

"Steak and lobster," Jo told him. "Medium on the steak. And some of those pommes frittes, if you got 'em."

"Of course." He turned to Blair. "Mademoiselle Warner?"

"Cobb salad," she said.

"And a steak," Jo chimed in firmly. "She'll have a steak. And she'll have pommes frittes, too."

Blair smiled gratefully at her.

"Will that be all?" the waiter asked politely.

"No," said Jo. "That will not be all. After the entrée we're gonna want crème brulé. Lots of crème brulé. And a coupla fancy chocolate coffees. You got that?"

"Certainment," he said, smiling. He turned smartly on his heel and headed toward the kitchen …

They ate like queens.

Blair was beyond proud to see how Jo used all the right silverware, in the correct order, and didn't even get butter on her chin when she ate the lobster …

As they sat sipping their coffee and eating their crème brulé, Jo leaned back in her chair. She sighed a contented sigh.

"That was a good meal."

"It was," Blair agreed.

"So now maybe you can tell me what's the deal with the Amsterdam Avenue property," Jo suggested.

Blair blushed. "With … I'm sorry, darling … What did you ask?"

Jo shook her head. "Come on, now. Come clean. I don't know what's up, but I saw that look Monica gave you, and I heard what she said, and somethin is up."

"Mother's just … very dramatic," said Blair.

"Hmm. Flagrant evasion," noted Jo. "So, whatever it is, it must be pretty big."

Blair made little tearing motions with the serviette in her hands. If it had been a paper napkin, like they usually used at River Rock, she could have torn it into nervous little pieces, but since it was fine linen, it remained intact.

"Quit with the stallin," Jo said, smiling, "and just make a clean breast of it. Whatever it is. I know at this point that you got more secrets than the Kremlin, babe. But once in awhile, one of 'em's gonna come out. Be a man about it. Well – be a woman about it, I mean."

Under the table, Jo playfully trailed one foot along Blair's calf.

"I won't be mad. Well, not too mad," Jo promised, grinning.

Blair sighed. She dropped her serviette on her plate.

"Jo … Darling … It's big. It's really big."

"What? Did you sell that old place? Cause if you did, I say 'Good riddance'. We can bank whatever you made for our graduate school. Or – did you lose money on it? Is that it? Look, no worries, babe. You can't win every deal. It ain't like I expect ya to be Donald Trump or somethin."

Blair fumbled in her purse, withdrew a crumpled pack of Benson and Hedges, and a slim silver lighter.

Jo frowned.

"Babe."

"I know. I know. I quit. I did. 'Lips that touch nicotine will never touch yours' – I understand. But I need to calm my nerves to tell you this. And anyway, you're not going to want to kiss me after you hear it."

Blair lit the cigarette, took a deep drag, blew smoke through her nose.

Jo lifted one eyebrow.

"Christ – exactly how big is this secret?"

"Damn mother," Blair said, irritated. "You weren't supposed to find out for years."

"Find out what? Blair – you aren't, I mean, we're not slum landlords or somethin awful like that, are we?"

"Slum landlords, Jo? In Morningside Heights? Near Columbia University?"

Jo shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just tryin to figure out what the hell the big deal could be. Jeez, you ain't been rentin the place out to the Mob or somethin, have ya? Cause they don't mess around."

"No, Jo. We are not Mafia landlords."

"Then what the heck is it?"

Blair took another deep drag. "Jo … I've been, well … fibbing a little bit about how profitable the Amsterdam Avenue property is."

"You mean we're losin even more money than you told me?"

"Not exactly."

"Well, then, what, exactly?"

"We're actually," Blair took another deep drag of her Silk Cut cigarette, "we're actually not losing any money."

"Come again?"

"We're not losing any money."

"But you always say –"

"I know. I know what I always say, darling. I am, after all, the one who says it."

"So, that means – what?" Jo turned it over in her mind. "We're actually makin some money off the place."

"Yes, darling. Quite a lot of money. Even without renting it out to the Mob."

"So how come you didn't tell me about it? What's the big deal?"

"It's supposed to be a surprise. I've been banking the money. For your law school."

Jo shook her head, feeling slightly dazed. "You've been … there's money that you coulda spent on Chestnut … or yourself … and you've been bankin it for me?"

"For us," Blair corrected. "For our future. Which depends on you going to law school. A really good law school. Peekskill College is OK for undergrad – in fact, because it's so average, you shine even brighter there. But when it comes time for law school, I want you to be able to go anywhere you want. Anywhere you choose. Jo, you're so brilliant. You should be with people as brilliant as you are, debating, arguing, honing your mind."

Blair was leaning forward slightly, eyes shining earnestly.

Jo smiled.

"You're really proud of me – ain't you?"

"Of course I am."

"You really believe in me – don't you?"

"Always, Jo. Darling, I'm sorry I misled you, but I was afraid you'd object, that you'd tell me to spend the money on myself, or Chestnut, or –"

"Hey. Hey, I ain't mad, Blair. It's not like this is the first time you pulled the wool over my eyes. And I'm thinkin it prob'ly won't be the last, if I know you. Which, by the way, I do. But you always got your heart in the right place, when you pull these things."

"Really?"

"Really. Really, really," Jo said. Her eyes welled with tears. "All this time I knew you were sacrificin stuff to be with me, but I didn't even know how much you were sacrificin."

"I'm not sacrificing anything," Blair said firmly. She looked directly into Jo's eyes; warm brown eyes looked into bright blue-green eyes. "Something happened to me, Jo, when I stood up to my mother that Thanksgiving. When I told her to cut me off from the family money. Something happened to me then, and it's just … it's been growing. I realized …" She trailed off, not sure how to explain herself.

"You realized," Jo prompted.

"I realized … It's hard to put into words, darling. But, while I'll never say no to money, and I know all of the good that it can do, I know I can live without it. And I know it's possible to be so unhappy even if you have millions; and I know it's possible to be so happy when you hardly have a dime." She smiled at Jo. "Money doesn't have – it doesn't have any power over me. Not like it does over poor mother."

Under the table Jo took Blair's hand. She caressed it tenderly.

"You amaze me," said Jo. "You always have, babe, and I got a feelin you always will."

"Well … I am amazing," Blair conceded. "It's just part of the package deal you get with wonderful me."

Jo grinned. "Is that one of those 'bourgeoisie' package deals I been hearin tell about?"

"The very same," grinned Blair. She stubbed her cigarette out on the edge of her dessert plate. Suddenly, her nerves felt just fine.

"You really don't care, do you?" Jo asked curiously. "Whether you get the money back or not?"

Blair shrugged. "It would be nice," she said, "but, no, I don't care much one way or the other. We've been making our own way. And we'll keep doing it, whatever life throws at us."

"I wonder if he can do it?" asked Jo. "Get your loot back. Your pop, I mean."

"Who knows?" asked Blair. "Daddy's one of the most brilliant businessmen in the world. If anyone can do it, it's Daddy. I only wish he would have thought to, to call me," her voice caught a little bit.

"Well he sure ain't one of the most brilliant fathers in the world," said Jo.

"No. But he's," Blair sighed, "he is who he is."

"Maybe he'll ask us to the Plaza when he calls," Jo said lightly, trying to turn the subject. "Imagine that – two Plaza pig-outs in the same week. That'd be somethin!"

Blair laughed. "You're such a goof, darling."

"Yup."

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Can we get out of here now? Because," Blair lowered her voice, "I feel a very strong need to ravish you, Jo Polniaczek."

"So, then, let's get outta here," said Jo. "Cause I got a very strong need to let you ravish me."

Blair slipped her cigarettes back into her purse.

They all but ran out of the Plaza Hotel.


Under the star-spangled dome of Grand Central Terminal's Main Concourse, a lovely brunette and a beautiful blonde stood almost – but not quite – touching pinkies.

People flowed around them as if the two young women were rocks in a confluence of mighty rivers. Businesspeople streamed past them, and students, and elderly people with canes, and young mothers pushing strollers, and harried-but-awed-looking tourists smelling of Coppertone suntan lotion, with heavy cameras hanging around their perspiring necks.

Grand Central Terminal was one of the city's hearts, and the endless flow of people was its lifeblood.

Blair leaned close enough to Jo to whisper in her ear.

"I can't ravish you here," she complained. "Not in the Main Concourse."

"Don't worry," Jo said confidently. "Got it all covered. Just waitin for a break in the crowd, and then –"

She grasped one of Blair's sleeves, pulled the blonde along in her wake as they darted through the moving crowd. Jo lead them to a forgotten-looking doorway in a distant, dark corner.

Blair frowned.

"Jo Polniaczek, if you think I'm going to make love in a train station broom closet –"

"Of course not," Jo reassured her. "This is just the entrance."

"The entrance to what?" Blair asked suspiciously.

"You'll see, Blondie. You'll see." Jo chuckled to herself. She grasped the door's old brass knob, which was dappled dark from years of people grasping and turning it. Although, judging by the layer of dust on the threshold, no one had grasped and turned this door knob for a long while.

The hinges squealed faintly in protest, but the door swung inward. A fine cloud of dust drifted toward them from a dark room.

"Achoo!" sneezed Blair.

"Gesundheit," Jo said cheerfully.

Blair sneezed again, stifling it in a ladylike manner. She glared at her lover.

"Jo, where are you taking me?"

"For Pete's sake, babe, are you ever gonna get the concept of 'surprise'?"

Blair peered into the dim, dusty room. "I'm afraid," she said, "that what I'm going to get is some type of horrible germ. Jo – what is this place?"

"You and your dumb old germ phobia," Jo complained good-naturedly. She darted a look over her shoulder. "C'mon, babe, before one of the station cops notices what we're doin."

"What are we doing?"

"We're lookin for Shangri-La."

Jo stepped into the dim room, pulling Blair with her. Blair sneezed again. A faint light filtered in from the concourse, but she could see nothing definite, just dim shapes, as of old shelves and a roll-top desk mouldering under a thick coat of dust.

Jo shut the door behind them. She rubbed her hands together excitedly.

Blair looked at the dusty old roll-top desk – Or whatever the hell it is, she thought.

Blair looked at Jo.

"No," said Blair. "Not here. We're going to get typhoid or mange or, I don't know, something."

"I told you, babe, this is just the entrance. This ain't Shangri-La."

"Well is Shangri-La close? Because I – achoo! – I don't know how much longer I can take this creepy atmosphere. This is not the place to show a girl a good time."

"No worries, Princess. I know what I'm doin."

Blair looked significantly around the dark room. "Yes, darling. So I see."

Jo tugged Blair's hand gently. "C'mon. Over here."

Blair reluctantly – very reluctantly – allowed herself to be led to the far corner of the room, where there was a narrow door, so narrow that it looked like the entrance to a child's play house.

"What's this?" asked Blair.

"Follow me and see," teased Jo. She pushed at the door. It shrieked loudly as it opened. Another cloud of dust rose in a fine haze around the girls. Blair sneezed again.

Beyond the door was a narrow staircase, dimly lit by a distant blue bulb, just the faintest smudge of cobalt light far below them.

Jo descended the stairs, holding Blair's hand as the blonde reluctantly – ever more reluctantly – followed.

The stairs were wooden; they creaked and groaned precariously with every step.

"Jo – where are you taking me?"

"Patience, babe. All will be revealed."

"You haven't by any chance gone, I don't know, completely insane, have you? You aren't planning to wall me up á la 'The Cask of Amontillado'?"

Jo chuckled.

"That's not the most reassuring response, darling," Blair complained, as they descended ever deeper into the blue gloom.

"Since I love you like hell, and I don't got any vendetta against you, no, Blair, I ain't gonna wall you up. You are horrible about surprises. Very impatient. I ever tell you that?"

"Impatient? I'm being impatient? Jo, I am being more than a good sport about this, this journey to the center of the earth."

They finally reached the bottom of the steps, and found themselves in a broad corridor lit only by blue lights high up near the ceiling.

The corridor stretched on, seemingly forever, stippled with increasingly tiny blue lights.

Beneath their feet was scarred, cracked tile thick with dust.

"What is this place?" Blair demanded.

"C'mon," said Jo, tugging at Blair's hand. Blair hesitated, but followed her lover down the spooky corridor.

"So, here's the story," said Jo as they walked, bits of dust and tile crunching under their shoes. "When me and Jesse were here for a school field trip – years ago, right? – we snuck away from the group."

"Imagine that," Blair said drily.

"The tour guide was really boring," Jo continued. "Listenin to her voice was like downin twenty sleepin pills. So me and Jesse noticed this door, and we found that old room, and then we found that little midget door, and the stairs, and, you know, we just kinda kept goin. We wanted to see where it would take us. Who knew there were a bunch of secret passageways under Grand Central – right?"

"Not I," said Blair. "And I could be perfectly happy not knowing it."

"But isn't this cool?" asked Jo. "Babe – it's like this whole secret world under here. There's all these forgotten rooms, and some really cool old equipment, and we even found an old abandoned station."

"Thrilling," said Blair, stifling another sneeze.

They passed a dark room where some massive piece of long-abandoned equipment hulked, like a foreboding ancient idol.

"Darling," said Blair, "I like to believe I'm as game as the next girl, but I have to put my foot down. If this is what you consider Shangri-La –"

"Nah, nah – Shangri-La's still up ahead," Jo assured her.

"How far up ahead?"

"Just a little further," Jo said encouragingly. "Young Diablo's honor."

Blair sighed …

They walked for another few moments, Jo veering down cross corridors and more steep staircases. Blair had a wonderful sense of direction in the great outdoors, but down in this abandoned labyrinth she felt completely turned around.

She drew closer to Jo.

"Were you and Jesse expelled?" she asked. She spoke quietly but her voice sounded unnaturally loud in the dark corridor they were navigating. "For sneaking away from your school group?"

"Detention," said Jo. "We were too little to get expelled."

"Well, darling, if we don't reach Shangri-La in another minute, I'm putting you on detention. No sex for a week."

Jo laughed.

"I'm not kidding," Blair warned.

"Babe – c'mon. Even if you could keep your hands off me – which, by the way, you can't – you'd take pity on me in less than twenty-four hours."

"Don't count on it," Blair said grimly, ducking to avoid a thick spider web.

"Jeez, what a grouch. I mean, this is kind of an adventure, isn't it? Just like 'Scooby Doo'."

"Nat and Tootie are the 'Scooby Doo' fans, Jo. I'm more of a fan of things like electric lights. And floors that were swept more recently than 1849."

"Just hang in there, Blair, that's all I'm askin. Cause it's right – yeah. Here it is."

Jo paused in front of a large wooden door. It had once been painted a pretty shade of forest green, but the paint was peeling off in long strips.

"Um … this is Shangri-La?" asked Blair.

"Yup. Not out here; in there." Jo pressed the heavy door. It swung inward with surprising silence.

Someone, thought Blair, must oil the hinges.

Jo stepped into the dark room, fumbled for a light switch. Blair paused on the threshold, gripping one of Jo's hands tightly, not able to bring herself to step fully into the pitch black room.

Jo's fingers found the light switch. The room was suddenly ablaze with bright light.

Blair squinted, blinded for a few seconds … and then she gasped.

"Jo … It's … It's …"

"Yeah," said Jo, grinning. "It sure is."

It was a lady's powder room – a glamorous Victorian powder room, with plush, wine-colored divans, and delicate gilt-legged tables with vanity mirrors, and tinkling crystal luster's hanging from the light fixtures, and beautiful rose and green tiles on the ceiling and walls.

"But it's … it's clean," Blair said wonderingly. "It's beautiful."

"They give tours down here," Jo explained, clearly pleased that Blair was impressed with the room. "Once every coupla weeks. The Manhattan Historical Society. This is one of the stops. They been doin it for years. No one comes down here much, except for the tours, but they keep it lookin nice. Kinda, you know, a peek into glamorous old New York."

Blair walked hesitantly into the center of the room, and looked around. Everything was well-kept but very old, and high quality. From what her grandparents would have called New York's hey-days, the gilded days, the era Edith Wharton captured so well.

"It's amazing," Blair said. "Who would ever know this is down here?"

"There's other fancy rooms, too," said Jo. "And an old train platform, and there's secret elevators up to some of the fancy hotels. It's this whole crazy underground world. I'm tellin ya, Jess and I learned more about the city's history sneakin away from the group than we ever would've listenin to that stupid borin guide."

"Well, I have to hand it to you," Blair said, "this is a sort of Shangri-La."

"So, you like it?"

"I do. I just wish we didn't have to stumble through all that dust to get here."

"But it was worth it? You really like it?"

"Yes, Jo." Blair turned from the elegant marble-topped vanity she was admiring. She opened her arms invitingly. "Why don't you come here," Blair suggested, "and I will demonstrate exactly how much I like it."

Jo smiled. "Yeah?"

"Yes."

Jo went to her lover. They folded their arms around each other.

She feels so good, Jo thought, running her hands up and down Blair's lush figure, the trim waist and firm butt and those generous hips, that generous bosom …

She feels so good, Blair thought, running her hands up and down Jo's lean, athletic body, the trim muscles and the surprisingly feminine curves, the pert breasts …

They kissed, long and leisurely, hands caressing gently and then, as time passed, more urgently. At some point during the kissing Blair sat down on one of the wine-colored divans, pulling Jo onto her lap. Such was their agility after years of making love, that they were able to execute this move without breaking the kiss.

Jo pressed her fiancée down onto the plush fabric, tongue driving deep into Blair's mouth. Their tongues danced. Blair moaned as Jo's hands bracketed her breasts, and then dropped lower, pushing up under her blouse to –

"Wait. Wait." Blair sat up, breathless, glancing toward the door.

"What is it?" panted Jo. "Am I goin too fast?"

"You're going just fine," said Blair, hair wild and tousled around her flushed face. "But I just want to be sure we're not going to get caught down here."

"Whaddya mean, beautiful?" Jo nuzzled Blair's collar bone. "Who the hell d'you think's runnin around down here – the Phantom of the Opera?"

"But you said … oh …" Blair moaned as Jo nipped playfully at her throat. "You said they give tours."

"Oh. Yeah. Like, every coupla weeks." Jo trailed kissed down Blair's chest. Now she nipped playfully at the upper swell of the blonde's right breast.

"Jo, I'm trying to be serious."

"Me, too. Your beautiful breasts need some serious attention, babe. And they're gonna get it."

"But what if a tour group comes through? I mean, right now?"

"They won't," Jo said confidently. She pushed her hands up under Blair's blouse again. This time Blair didn't object; in fact, she sighed and lay back against the divan.

"But … What's the tour schedule?" Blair asked.

"Not a friggin clue."

"Then, a tour group could come barging through that door any second now?"

"Theoretically? Yeah. But what are the odds, babe? What are the odds? And, besides," Jo squeezed Blair's breasts gently, making her lover moan and writhe on the antique divan, "don't it feel kinda hot? I mean, just thinkin we could get caught?"

Blair considered that. Yes, she decided. There was something rather delicious about it, the thought that at any moment, the door could swing open, revealing a gaggle of gaping tourists, and –

"Oh!" cried Blair, as Jo's deft tongue and fingertips found the sensitive tips of her nipples. "Oh, Joey. Joey …" Blair closed her eyes, head lolling back. It turned her to water, the dexterous way Jo tended to her body. They had been making love for almost three years now, and it was just as exciting, every time, as the very first time they lay together …

"Whaddya want me to do?" Jo asked, when she had kissed and suckled at Blair's nipples until they were tingling and Blair was half out of her mind.

"Go … down …" Blair managed. "Go down on me, Jo."

Jo had Blair undressed in, literally, several seconds. She smiled appreciatively at the downy hairs between Blair's legs, at her pink sex, already slick and smelling headily of that sweet, musky scent that always drove Jo crazy.

Jo pressed her lips to Blair's stomach, kissing it gently and thoroughly, even the ugly dark scar where Dina Becker had stabbed Blair. Jo took her time, drawing out the tension, finally moving down and dropping her kisses on the fine, dark blonde hairs that covered Blair's sex.

Blair made a little whimper of pleasure. Jo reached upward, tenderly touching Blair's face, while with her other hand she tenderly touched Blair's slick lips, teasing them, flicking over the little bud of Blair's clitoris. Blair hissed.

"You're beautiful," Jo told Blair. "You're the most beautiful woman in the world."

"I … know …" Blair managed, writhing as Jo's fingers gingerly parted her wet lips.

Jo smiled.

That's my girl!

Jo slid her ring finger slowly, gently into her lover, felt Blair's muscles grab it. Jo knit her index and middle fingers and slid them in too. Blair caught them all, tensing and releasing, tensing and releasing. Her hips rocked, slowly at first, and then faster ...

Blair smiled. Jo loved the angelic little smile that Blair always wore when Jo was pleasuring her. Blair's eyes were closed, long dark lashes against her broad cheekbones, mouth slightly parted, breath coming fast, chest rising and falling …

Jo bent her head. The scent of Blair made her feel a little drunk, a little giddy, sent an electric jolt to her own sex. Jo lapped at the damp nether lips, then took the little nub into her mouth, sucking at it softly while her fingers pressed still deeper into her lover …

After Blair came, she dozed. She always dozed. Jo stretched out next to her on the divan, spooning with her, trailing her fingers up and down Blair's thighs.

Ha, thought Jo. Bet this old powder room never saw nothin like this before! Welcome to the 20th century!

Although, she thought, there must have been chicks who liked each other in the old days. And how did they handle it? Jo wondered. Christ! That musta been nuts. And we think we got problems … How could you even get close to each other, Jo pondered, with all those damn hoop skirts and petticoats and everything?

"Penny for your thoughts," Blair said huskily. She had awakened refreshed, and was propped on one elbow, smiling fondly, naughtily, at her Jo.

"Babe, if I had petticoats, how would you, you know, get at me? To make love to me?"

"I'd do whatever I had to do. I'd tear them off with my teeth, if I had to."

Jo laughed. "Now that, I would like to see," she said.

Blair leaned forward, pushed a hand through Jo's thick, dark mane of hair.

"I'd like to get at you right now," Blair said.

"Be my guest, babe." Jo reached down to unfasten her slacks, but Blair's hands were a blur, beating her to the fasteners.

"I'll do that," said Blair.

"Like I said," murmured Jo, loving the feeling of Blair's fingers loosening her slacks, pulling them down, "be my guest …"

Jo shouted when she came. Her shout echoed off the antique tiles.

Blair laughed, delighted.

"I certainly hope there aren't any tours down here!" Blair said.

Jo was lying back against the divan, hair wild, legs splayed, wet and hot between her legs, still trembling.

"God, I'd love to paint you like this," Blair said impulsively.

"Better … not …" Jo murmured. "It's not like 'Artemis'. That was from the back. No one knew …"

"You're just so lovely, Jo. Sometimes I wish …"

"Wish what?" asked Jo. Her eyes were closed as she basked in the afterglow.

"I wish we'd said something when we were seniors at Eastland. I wish we'd started fooling around sooner."

Jo shook her head, eyes still closed. A mischievous smile touched her lips. "Christ, babe – can you imagine if we'd started havin sex back then? We'd never have done any homework. We'd have been freakin booted out for gettin straight F's!"

"You would have studied," said Blair. "At least a little bit. My beautiful nerd."

Jo reached out blindly, found one of Blair's hands, squeezed it. "I'm glad we waited," she said. "The way it finally happened, when we started Langley … That was so beautiful, Blair. It was worth the wait. The way it happened, that night … It was perfect."

Blair's throat closed, she was so moved. She lay down on top of Jo, pressing her face to Jo's breast.

"I hope we can get married someday," Blair whispered.

"Prob'ly we shouldn't hold our breath," murmured Jo. "But if we can – God, yeah, I hope we can. Blair," she kissed the blonde's hair, "whatever happens, I already feel like we're married. You know? You're my wife, babe. Ain't nothin can change that."

"And you're my wife too," Blair said softly, almost shyly. She looked down at the silver ring she always wore on a chain around her neck. It was the ring Jo had given to her when she proposed at the Plaza almost three years ago. "Jo?"

"Hmn?"

"If we get married … When we get married … Would you mind if I took your name?"

"My name?"

"Yes. Your name."

"You mean, Polniaczek?"

"Yes, darling. Unless you have some other, secret surname of which I am unaware."

"You wanna become a Polniaczek? You, Miss Harvest Queen-Mayflower-DAR, wanna take on a completely unpronounceable Polish name that everyone's gonna frig up?"

"Yes, darling."

"Babe – I'm touched. I am deeply effin touched. But I don't think you realize what you'd be gettin yourself into."

"Jo, one thing I realized while we were talking with my mother today is that I'm through with being a Warner. I'm through with everything they stand for."

"Jeez, babe – don't say that," Jo said gently. "For better and for worse, that's your family. I ain't sayin some of the Warners aren't first-class lulus – just take your pop as a for-instance! But, I mean – it's part of who you are. Changin a name ain't gonna change that."

"I know. Part of me will always be a Warner, Jo. Like you said – for better and for worse." She nestled against her lover. "But I'm looking toward the future now. And my future is with you. I want a name that I can be proud of, a name that means something. A name that means bravery, and substance."

"Technically, babe, I think Polniaczek means 'a Polish person from Czechoslovakia'."

"You know what I mean. Jo, you're the bravest, best person I know. I want your name, darling."

"Well," Jo's voice was suddenly thick with emotion. "Well, if it comes to that, I could say the same to you, babe. Hell – no one's as brave as you are! When I think of – dammit. I can't believe what you did, savin all that money from the Amsterdam Avenue place. You're so goddamn unselfish, and lovin, and just, just perfect, Blair Warner."

"All true," said Blair.

"And still not modest," teased Jo. She took one of Blair's hands, laced her fingers with her lover's. "All right. If you really think that's what you want, you can be Blair Polniaczek."

"Blair Polniaczek," Blair said dreamily. "It has a poetic flow."

Jo chuckled. "That sure ain't what you said about my name first time you heard it. Jeez – you couldn't even pronounce it."

"I still think Mrs. Garrett had a feeling about us," Blair mused. "Subconsciously, I mean. Who would ever have thought to make us roommates?"

"She's always been a pretty wise old bird," Jo murmured.

"Well she certainly had an instinct about us, darling." Blair kissed Jo's collarbone. "I like your Shangri-La, Jo."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." She kissed the hollow of Jo's throat. "Darling?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"I want you."

"Again?"

"Again."

"Already?"

"Yes." Blair lowered her beautiful face, lazily nuzzled one of Jo's breasts.

Jo grinned, eyes still closed.

"This non-stop sex gonna continue when we get married, babe?"

"Yes." Blair slid her hands along Jo's lean sides, down to her perfect thighs. "Our marriage will be a blur of non-stop sex."

"Can we put that in the vows?"

"If you'd like – although I don't see a vow like that making your mother very happy. Or the reverend who officiates."

"Priest, babe. We're gettin married at St. Adalbert's."

"Or – just thinking aloud darling," Blair nibbled Jo's breast, "what about St. Patrick's?"

"Cathedral?"

"Why not? If we're ever able to marry, why not go big?"

"Ain't nothin bigger than St. Patrick's," Jo agreed. "Christ- Ma would love that. Her little Jo gettin hitched at St. Pat's."

"We could ask the Archbishop to officiate. He's such an old dear."

"Seems like. But, you know, I don't think he would approve of, ah, what you're doin to me right now, babe."

"And what is that?" Blair murmured naughtily, kissing the swell of Jo's breast, hand drifting between Jo's legs.

"You know very damn well what you're doin," laughed Jo.

"Yes," Blair agreed. "I do."

Jo inhaled sharply at Blair's sudden touch. There was no more talking for some time …


When they finally surfaced, Jo and Blair went to a deli for sandwiches and egg creams, and then they window-shopped at Saks. It was all they could do – window shop. Blair donned a pair of sunglasses and kept her head down, in case anyone who knew her from her Society days happened by.

"Those earrings would look freakin beautiful on you," said Jo.

"Yes," Blair agreed. "And that bracelet would look lovely on you. You have such beautiful wrists, Jo."

"Do I?"

"You do." Blair tilted her head thoughtfully. "Maybe for my next painting, I'll paint your hands."

"Just my hands? Sounds kinda borin."

"Your hands are anything but boring, darling …"

They took in a cheap double-feature, two black-and-white romantic comedies, sharing a container of popcorn and laughing heartily.

When they left the movie theater, Jo noticed a man in a dark suit leaning against a lamppost.

Huhn.

The man glanced at his watch. He appeared to be waiting for someone. He paid no attention at all to Jo or Blair. But –

Looks like the same guy was standin outside Saks before. Nah. I'm gettin paranoid …

"You know what?" asked Jo as she and Blair sat drowsily on a night train back to Peekskill. "I freakin don't care if your Dad gets any of your loot back. I mean, yeah, I'd like to see Becker get his. Especially," her voice caught a little, "after what happened to Petal. But we don't need money, babe. We don't need a damn thing."

"Agreed," Blair nodded.

The train car was nearly empty, but there was an elderly couple a few seats ahead of them, and a mother and her little girl at the other end of the car. Blair and Jo couldn't put their arms around each other, but they held hands under Blair's folded blazer.

They had left Blair's red truck parked at the Peekskill train station on Railroad Avenue.

Blair yawned hugely as she drove into River Rock's long driveway.

"Eyes on the road, there, babe," cautioned Jo.

"Sorry. It's been a long day. And it's going to be a long day tomorrow." She yawned again. "I have a double-shift after classes."

"Me too," said Jo. "I mean, after classes I'm rebuildin a BMW engine for some snot-nose punk from Greek row."

"Who? Or, no – don't tell me darling. I don't even want to think about Greek row or anyone who lives there."

"I can't remember his name anyhow, but it was somethin super rich. Like, Abercrombie Egbert Englebert Fancypants."

Blair drove into the garage and cut the engine.

"They're a proud old family, the Fancypants clan," Blair said drily.

"Well, yeah – they would be," Jo deadpanned. "Lot to be proud of, there …"

It was after midnight. The night smelled fragrant with blossoms. Jo and Blair held hands as they walked from the garage to the main house.

"Damn, babe – Just think – you're gonna have a little brother. Or little sister. A little somethin."

"And soon," Blair said, "from the look of mother's belly."

"Ain't life weird?"

"Noticeably," Blair agreed. "And frequently."

"Kinda cool though – huh? Even though Monica's bein a gold digger, it's kinda great you get another brother or sister out of it."

Blair smiled. "I suppose … yes. It is 'kinda cool', darling."

"Do you think your Ma will really name it 'Bailey'?"

"Of course! Whether it's a boy or girl. That cements the tie with its father."

"How freakin sentimental," Jo said drily. "Well, Bailey's a pretty cool name, I guess. It's kinda –"

Jo broke off suddenly. She'd heard a loud cracking sound, as of branches breaking, from around the side of the house.

Blair heard it too. Her eyes, wide and startled, darted toward Jo.

"What was that?" Blair whispered.

"Dunno," said Jo. "I'll find out."

Jo ghosted around the corner of the massive timber-and-fieldstone home, as fast and light on her feet as she'd always been when she ran up and down the hockey fields of Langley College. Blair was right behind her.

Burglar, Jo thought tensely as she ran. Burglar, prowler, peepin-freakin-Tom? Or maybe that guy … that guy in the dark suit, in the city. One of Becker's goons, maybe? Does Becker know David Warner's back in the country and lookin for scalps?

There was someone shinning down one of the tall trees outside Natalie's room.

Not the guy from the city, thought Jo. This guy's too freakin big. Freakin gorilla, freakin Bigfoot, freakin –

"Snake!" Jo said, recognizing the massive silhouette as the young man dropped to the ground from a low branch.

Hearing his name, Snake, clearly startled, turned toward Jo. But she had the drop on him – the drop on him, and years of Bronx training.

She slipped up behind him before he could fully turn, throwing an arm around his neck.

"Gah!" he managed to gurgle.

With her free hand she grabbed his right forearm, pulling his arm behind his back.

Snake was a lot taller than Jo, and a lot stronger, but she had him in a sleeper hold. He could barely breathe, and every time he made the slightest movement she increased her grip, and he saw stars. His right arm hurt, where she had it twisted behind his back. Snake sank to his knees.

"So, playin peepin Tom, huh?" Jo demanded, sounding disgusted. "Well not on my watch, buster!"

"Don't hurt him, Jo," cautioned Blair.

"Jo Polniaczek, you let him go!" Natalie shouted, sounding livid.

Jo and Blair glanced upward. Natalie's tousled head was peering down from the bow window of her room. "Jo, you let him go or I'll call the Peekskill PD! I'm not kidding! I'll do it!"

"Go ahead," said Jo. "Ain't like he'd ever press charges against me. Snake wouldn't ever tell the cops a girl got the jump on him."

"She's … right …" croaked Snake.

"Well I'll press charges!" shouted Nat. "That's my boyfriend. He's my property – property of Natalie Green! He's my most valuable possession – well, next to my Hemingway hat."

"Thanks … Nat …" Snake managed, sounding moved.

"Nat, be careful," Blair called. "Don't get so het up. You're going to fall out of the window."

"I'm nineteen!" Natalie railed at Jo, shaking a fist. "Nineteen! When you and Blair were my age you were having sex twenty bazillion times a day. Jo …" Natalie covered her face with her hands and looked suddenly tired. "Jo, when are you going to let me grow up?"

Natalie moved away from the window, disappearing into her room.

Blair put a hand on Jo's shoulder.

"Let him go, Jo," Blair said softly.

It was like a hypnotic command. Blair's soft, decisive voice … Jo released Snake immediately.

He stayed on his knees, rubbing his throat and neck, shaking the hand that had lost most of its feeling for a moment and was now tingling with little pinpricks ...

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you're a dangerous woman," Snake rasped admiringly. "Almost split my windpipe!"

"And there's more where that came from," Jo said darkly, "if I ever catch you tryin to sneak into Nat's room again!"

"Why'd you try to kill me?" he rasped. "Other day we were fist bumpin, you were sayin how you're OK with me now."

"Yesterday you weren't sneakin into Nat's room in the friggin dead of night! Snake Robinson, I'm tellin ya, if I catch you tryin to sneak in again, I'll freakin kill ya!"

"No – You won't," said Nat. She was out of breath, having run down the stairs and through the corridors of River Rock. She wore a light summer bathrobe; her hair was frowzy and wild around her plump face.

Nat dropped down next to her boyfriend, examining the ugly red mark on his throat. "You won't, Jo, because he wasn't sneaking in – he was sneaking out. And he isn't going to be sneaking in or out any more. Snake is going to stay over whenever he wants. Well, whenever he wants and whenever I let him. Just like you and Blair stayed together. Just like Jack stayed with Alec, and Drake stayed with Mrs. Garrett when they were courting."

"Now just a freakin minute," Jo began, but –

"Let it go, darling," Blair said in her soft voice.

Jo's mouth clamped shut as if by magic. A muscle worked in her jaw … but she didn't say any more.

"Snake and I haven't done anything," Nat continued, affectionately ruffling his long brown hair. "We just lie there and hold each other. And it's wonderful."

Jo snorted skeptically, but didn't say anything.

"It's true," Natalie insisted, speaking to Jo, but gazing lovingly at Snake. "We just hold each other and gaze into each other's eyes. It was you that gave me the idea, Jo."

"Me?" Jo asked, flabbergasted.

"Sure. When you told me about how special it is, just to have someone you love in your arms, looking at them, really looking at them; that kind of intimacy; it's more beautiful than anything in the world."

"I never said any of that mush," Jo objected. "That doesn't sound like me at all."

"Sadly, it doesn't," Blair agreed.

"It was something you told me a couple of winters ago," said Natalie. "We were in Battery Park, kibitzing. I was asking you about, well, about getting close to someone if you loved them."

"And I said that mushy stuff?" Jo asked incredulously.

"You did. And it's true – all of it." Natalie kissed Snake's cheek. "I could hold him forever."

"Right back at ya, Nat," Snake rasped, with a crooked grin.

"Eh, gimme a break," crabbed Jo. "Sure, he says he wants to hold ya forever, but he's really after one thing, and one freakin thing only."

"And he'll have it," said Natalie. "When I'm ready." She kissed his cheek again. "And it's going to be our business," she glanced meaningfully at Jo, "me and Snake's business – nobody else's! Do you hear me, you Neanderthal? Do you?"

"Course I hear you, Nat – you're shouting at the top of your freakin lungs. They prob'ly hear you over at Langley, for cryin out loud! So much for it not bein anybody's business!"

A ground-floor window rumbled as it was pushed upward. Alec leaned out, dark curls unruly.

"God's teeth – is this what you Yanks call a 'rumble'?"

"Not much of a one," said Jo, glancing darkly at Snake. "Shamrock Lords never could fight worth a damn."

"For the last freakin time," grumbled Snake, standing up slowly, Natalie holding his arm, "I'm not a Shamrock Lord, Jo. Never was. Never will be. Hate those sons-o-bitches." He looked down at Nat. "Sorry, doll. Shoulda said sons-o-guns."

Natalie patted his cheek. "That's quite all right, Snake. Jo brings out the beast in everyone."

"Hey!" objected Jo. "That's what I get, tryin to protect you?"

"I don't need to be protected! And Snake is not a Shamrock lord. He's told you a million times."

"I know those tats," Jo said, nodding toward the Celtic designs that were visible, even in the moonlight, on Snake's brawny arms. "I know what I know, Manhattan."

"And what does that mean?" Nat demanded. "'Manhattan'? Are you implying I'm some sheltered, white-bread city girl?"

"Nat – you are a sheltered, white-bread city girl," said Jo. "And you don't know what you're gettin yourself into. You don't know anythin about Snake's family, jeez, you ain't even been back in that neighborhood since your car broke down there!"

"Technically, it was my car that broke down there," interposed Alec.

"Eh, whatever," groused Jo. "Alls I'm sayin is those are Shamrock Lord tattoos." She glared pointedly at Snake's arms. "I like you, Snake. But I don't like you creepin in or outta Nat's room. And I don't like that you still ain't come clean about the Shamrock Lords."

"It's his business," said Nat. "His business and my business. Jo, you are hereby completely fired as my protector. If you get into our business again, I cannot be held responsible for my actions."

Jo's face fell. Blair squeezed her hand.

"Darling, we all know you mean well –" Blair began.

"Whatever," scowled Jo, quickly regaining her prickly composure. "Jeez, try to help some people, try to look out for 'em, they're down on you like a ton of bricks. A ton of ungrateful bricks."

"Is that a crack about my weight?" Natalie demanded, outraged.

"What? Of course not," said Jo, sounding stung. "What kinda crum-bum do you think I am?"

"I don't know. What kind of crum-bum are you?"

"I say, this is better than telly," said Alec, grinning at them from his window. "'As River Rock Turns' – or something like that, any road."

"Get bent," Jo called to him.

Alec laughed.

Snake took Natalie's face between his massive hands, gazing at her lovingly. Moonlight sparkled in their eyes.

"Nat, I gotta hit the road now," he rumbled softly. "Got a long haul tomorrow. Gonna miss you, Nat."

"Gonna miss you too, Snake," she said, gazing at him dreamily.

"Aw, for Pete's sake," muttered Jo. "Whadda buncha mush!"

But Snake and Nat were lost in each other's eyes, lost in their own "Tony and Maria" moment.

Blair smiled at them indulgently. She took Jo's hand and held it tightly.

"Let's go inside," Blair told Jo. "I want to hold you. I want to look at you the way Snake's looking at Nat."

"Buncha cornball mush," Jo complained. But she was squeezing Blair's hand, and she began walking toward the front of the house, gently pulling Blair with her …

"You know, it's funny," Jo yawned, as the lay spooning in their great, white-sheeted bed. Little Blue was curled up at the foot of the bed, snoring softly.

"What's funny?" murmured Blair.

"How come Tootie missed all the excitement?"

Blair murmured something indistinct. She was falling asleep.

"Tootie's like the freakin CIA," said Jo, talking more to herself than to her exhausted lover. "The freakin FBI, CIA and KGB all rolled into one. How come she didn't come runnin outta the house or hang outta her window or somethin?"

"Probably … asleep …" murmured Blair.

"Ha! That kid sleeps light as a baby. With all that commotion – how come she didn't hear it?"

"Maybe she … just wasn't … curious."

"Tootie? Not curious? With all our yellin? You gotta be kiddin!"

Blair's nose began whistling softly.

Jo pulled Blair closer, loving Blair's softness and warmth and substance. She kissed Blair's cheek.

"Whole cockamamie house is changin," Jo murmured. "Nat's growin up and Tootie's growin up and Mrs. G's off in freakin smoggy Los Angeles for six months. But you're my rock, babe. You're my rock."

Blair stirred slightly in her sleep. Jo kissed the blonde's face again.


Natalie was distinctly cool toward Jo at breakfast.

The soon-to-be-sophomore bustled about the homey kitchen preparing her own version of Egg McMuffins – English muffins with melty cheddar cheese, scrambled eggs and bacon – and pouring coffee, but she ignored Jo's coffee mug and gave everyone except Jo a breakfast sandwich.

"Nat – for cryin out loud. I ain't gonna apologize again," said Jo.

"Again? Again? You never apologized in the first place!" Natalie slammed the heavy coffee pot down on one burner of the massive stove.

"So, OK, you're growin up," said Jo. "I get it. Now is your time to make mistakes and do stupid stuff. That's how you're gonna learn things."

"That's your apology?" Natalie put her hands on her hips, glaring.

"This," said Blair, her mouth full of eggs and cheese and bacon, "is divine!"

"Thank you, Blair," said Natalie. "That's very kind of you to say. Some friends know how to treat their friends."

"Eh, gimme a break," said Jo. She held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. "You wanna do goofy stuff, dangerous stuff even, go for it. You gotta learn the hard way, I guess."

"So … That's your apology?" Nat asked grimly. "Because that's even worse than the first one."

"You just go along, Nat, in your fool's paradise," said Jo. "You get whatever you need to get outta your system outta your system – 'k? You don't got me watchin your back any more. You want me outta your hair – you got it, kid."

"What Jo means," said Blair, mouth full of eggs and bacon, "is that she loves you, and she worries about you, but she trusts you to start living your own life."

"That is not what I mean," objected Jo. "Well … not exactly."

"She has to let me start living my own life," Natalie told Blair.

"She will," said Blair, helping herself to another breakfast sandwich.

"And she has to stop calling me 'Manhattan'," said Nat.

"She will," Blair promised.

"Hey – I'm sittin right here," complained Jo. "And I only called you 'Manhattan' one stupid time," Jo told Natalie. "And you are a sheltered city girl – you know you are. And don't you think it's a little funny Snake ain't never taken you to meet his folks?"

"Because he lives in a dangerous neighborhood," said Natalie. "It makes your mother's neighborhood look like Park Avenue!"

"So, what, he can't invite his parents up to River Rock? Christ – he drives a freakin truck. If he wanted to, he could fit his whole freakin family in it, drive 'em all up here for a weekend."

"Well maybe he's ashamed of them," said Natalie. "Not that he has to be – but maybe he is. Or maybe they're shy. It's none of your business, Jo. Butt out."

"Yes, darling – butt out," Blair agreed mildly.

"I am buttin out. That's what I said. You're makin your bed, Nat – and you're the one's gonna have to lie in it."

"And I intend to."

"Good."

"Good."

Blair rolled her eyes. "Children, children – have you finally reached a truce?"

"If you wanna call it that," Jo snorted. "Now can I have some damn breakfast before I freakin faint, here?"

Natalie ungraciously plopped a sandwich on Jo's plate. It was a rather misshapen sandwich, and the scrambled eggs spilled out from between the muffin halves.

Jo lifted an eyebrow. "Christ – this one looks like Sasquatch stepped on it."

"You don't have to eat it," Natalie said coolly.

"I'll eat it," offered Blair.

Jo lifted the sandwich, glancing at her lover. "Jeez, babe, would you really take the breakfast right outta my mouth?"

"I'll make you another one, Blair," Natalie told the blonde. "You can have as many sandwiches as you want."

Tootie wandered into the kitchen in a light robe, yawning and stretching.

"Good morning," she said around a huge yawn. "What's all the squabbling?"

She sat down at the big butcher block table, leaning sleepily on her elbows.

Jo shook her head. "What's all the squabblin? Holy cow, Stretch – since when are you the one that's outta the loop?"

Tootie shrugged.

Natalie set piping hot sandwiches in front of Tootie and Blair.

"Coffee?" Nat asked her best friend.

Tootie nodded. She looked at Jo. "What did I miss?" asked Tootie. "I feel like I missed something."

"Ha!" said Jo. "What did you miss? A whole big blow-out brouhaha, that's what. Snake, and me, and Nat, and there was yellin, and it was a whole big thing."

Tootie looked at Blair. "Can you please translate that for me?"

"Of course," said Blair. "I am now fluent in Bronxese. Well … reasonably fluent."

Jo bit savagely into her lopsided breakfast. "Great," she said. "Everybody gang up on Jo. Well I'm outta here in a few minutes – feel free to keep bashin me when I'm gone."

"Oh, we will," said Natalie.

"Can't," said Blair. "Classes and work. I'm out of here in a few minutes too."

Tootie looked from Natalie to Jo to Blair.

"What did I miss?" asked Tootie. "Why are Nat and Jo so grumpy? Or, well, why is Nat grumpy?"

"And what does that mean?" demanded Jo.

"Well, you have to admit, Jo, you're always pretty grumpy in the morning," said Tootie.

"Since when?"

"Uh, since we met you?"

"You're not at your sweetest in the mornings, darling," Blair told Jo.

"Oh, no? You seemed to think I was pretty sweet this morning," Jo said.

Blair blushed. Jo had awakened her in an extremely creative and affectionate manner that particular morning …

Natalie rolled her eyes. "Sodom and Gomorrah," she said. "Sodom and Gomorrah! And you," she glared at Jo, "have the audacity to beat up my boyfriend for just holding me!"

"Nat, I thought he was peekin in your window! OK? I thought he was bein a freakin perv. I was tryin to protect you!"

"Well I don't need protecting!"

"Is this what I missed?" Tootie asked Blair.

Blair nodded. "The same show keeps playing on this channel."

Alec strode into the room, a beatific smile on his face. "What is that lovely breakfast that I smell? The tantalizing aroma woke me and drew me down the corridor like a siren's song." He regarded the fresh batch of breakfast sandwiches Natalie was piling onto a platter. "Dearest Natalie, is this your witchcraft?"

"All I did was make some stupid Egg McMuffins," Natalie grumbled.

"What a horrid grump you sound," complained Alec, deftly taking a sandwich from the platter and settling onto the empty kitchen stool next to Jo. He bit into the sandwich, grin broadening. "Ah – the food of the gods!"

"You're in a dorky mood this mornin," Jo observed.

"Who knew our little Natalie would grow up to become such a chef?" marveled Alec.

"I've always been a good cook," said Natalie.

Jo snorted.

"Better than some, anyway," said Nat.

"Hey, I never said I was a great cook," Jo said defensively. "I know I suck. Why do you think I let Blondie cook for me?"

"Pardonnez-moi," Blair said coldly. "You let me cook for you?"

"Eh, you know what I mean, babe. You're actually not such a bad cook any more. You're actually pretty good."

"I see. Which is why you let me cook for you."

Jo groaned.

Alec's grin broadened even more. "This really is better than telly. And no irritating commercial interruptions." He took another big bite of his breakfast.

"You know what's really irritating?" asked Nat. "People who are so sunny and chipper when everyone else is in a crummy mood. Don't be too cheerful, Alec. You might anger the Fates."

Jo gasped and clutched her hands to her chest. "Oh no – Alec might anger the Fates? Look out, Alec!"

Natalie gave Jo a look.

"You wanna not anger the Fates, Nat," said Jo, "you might wanna be a little more careful who you're shackin up with."

Natalie threw her dish towel down on the counter.

"That's it!" she said. "That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more! Yes. Yes, Jo – you've got me quoting Popeye! Thank you. Thank you very much!"

"Uh – you're welcome," said Jo.

Natalie spun on one heel, storming out of the room.

There was a beat of silence, and then Alec clucked his tongue.

"Jo," he said. "Jo, Jo, Jo. There is a charming little finishing school in Switzerland where –"

"Eh, stuff your finishin school," interrupted Jo. "Who needs finishin school?"

"Clearly not you, darling," drawled Blair.

"I'm tellin ya," said Jo, "that Snake ran with the Lords. So, when he and Nat were just datin, OK, and when they were kinda startin to think about gettin hitched someday, OK, but now it's gettin serious. Real freakin serious. So if they love each other, OK, peachy-keen, but now's the time for him to come clean with her, and he ain't doin it."

Blair tilted her head. She took one of Jo's hands. "Darling – you're genuinely worried about Natalie."

"Christ – whaddya think I've been sayin?"

"I thought you were just being over-protective and crabby. But you're truly concerned."

"Deeply freakin concerned. The Shamrock Lords are like, son of a bitch, you ever heard of the Irish mafia?"

Blair, Tootie and Alec all shook their heads.

Jo sighed. "I always forget who I'm dealin with," she said. "OK, the Irish mob, they ain't nothin to tangle with. But then, the really crazy Irish mobsters, who get booted out for bein too vicious and nutso – they get recruited by the Shamrock Lords."

"Wow," said Tootie. "That would make a great movie."

"But it ain't a movie, kid. It's real life in the big city. The underbelly of the city. And Nat's maybe datin one of the Lords."

"But be reasonable, darling," said Blair. "In all the time we've known Snake, he's never been anything but a gentleman. Certainly he's a tad bit rough around the edges, but no more than you were."

"So he talks nice and he acts nice, and, yeah, OK, he seems nice," said Jo. "But if he ever ran with the Lords, that's still trouble. They never really let you go. All these truckin runs he makes – he could be runnin freakin guns or hot TV sets or somethin."

"It's his grandfather's trucking business," said Blair. "Robinson Trucking. I looked into it when Nat first started dating him. The business is perfectly legitimate."

"Of course it's legit," said Jo. "They always use legit businesses to launder their money."

"Not just a movie," Tootie said thoughtfully. "This could be a whole mini-series."

"Get your head outta the clouds, Stretch," said Jo. "This ain't a movie or mini-series, it's your best friend's life."

Alec shook his head. "Jo, I've seen the way Snake looks at Natalie. Whatever his past may be – and none of us have precisely squeaky clean pasts; well, Natalie and Tootie excepted – he would never put Natalie in danger. I'd swear to that."

"Oh, of course you'd 'swear to that'," said Jo. "You big lugs all stick together, you freakin con artists."

Alec looked rather hurt.

Ouch! thought Tootie. Jo hasn't called Alec a 'con artist' in forever …

Jo realized instantly that she'd gone too far. She turned to Alec, put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, pal, look, it's just – I'm kinda hot-under-the-collar about this. I'm real worried and no one seems to be takin it serious."

"Perhaps if you put your case in a more civilized manner," Alec said a little frostily.

Jo laughed. "Yeah, yeah, I know – I don't got your polish and your diplomacy and what-not. I just gotta call it like I see it."

"And speaking of my polish and my diplomacy and what-not," said Alec, glancing at his wristwatch, "I have Foreign Relations in twenty minutes. I shall just, just make it on time." He slid off of his kitchen stool.

"I'm glad the Duchess finally saw sense," said Blair. "You'd have made a terrible doctor. But a diplomat – that I can see."

Alec bowed to her. "Thank you, my dear Aphrodite."

"I still think you should study Music," said Tootie.

Alec shook his head. "The Duchess would never stand for that, Tootie, dear. She insists upon a course of study that guarantees a steady paycheck of some sort. Aphrodite's praise notwithstanding, I doubt that I shall be an ambassador; I'm more likely to end up a lowly little cog in the machinery of the Foreign Service. But it will mean gainful employment." He grimaced.

Jo chuckled. "'Gainful employment' – phrase kinda sticks in your throat, don't it?"

"And how," he agreed.

"But you're a kazillionaire now," said Tootie. "I mean, your inheritance from your Aunt Vivienne. Your mother can't boss you around anymore."

Alec grimaced again. "The Duchess believes that I will run through the inheritance in record time. Hence, her insistence upon a practical profession."

"But you're twenty-two," said Tootie. "She can't tell you what you can and can't do."

"Well, you see, my fair Tootie … she's my mother," said Alec.

"But she's so mean to you."

"Yes. But she's my mother."

Tootie shook her head. She knew what it was like to have a formidable mother. And it made her very happy that Justice Ramsey had grown to believe in her daughter's theatrical aspirations. But if Justice Ramsey had every forbidden Tootie to pursue the stage, Tootie would have gone her own way …

"I know what you're thinking," Alec told her. "But I'm not you, Tootie, dear. I'm no independent Yank. I'm a product of the aristocracy, bred from the cradle to follow protocol and do as I'm told."

"Protocol?" asked Jo. "Do as you're told? You? You gotta be kiddin me!"

"I know I'm a wastrel," Alec said lightly, "but it's just in the small things, you understand. I've always amused myself because I know there will be a day when I shan't be able to do as I please. Someday even being a lowly cog in the Foreign Office will seem like a lark."

Of course, thought Jo. He's gonna be a Duke someday. I always forget that …

"And I suppose the Duchess has a wife picked out for you," said Tootie.

"Several," agreed Alec. "That is, not several wives, but several eligible candidates. Present company having dropped off of the list," he glanced mischievously at Blair.

"Don't count me out completely," teased Blair. "If Jo ever gives me the heave-ho, I'll drown my sorrows as your Duchess. I always thought I'd look lovely wearing a title."

"You'd look lovely wearing burlap," Alec told her admiringly.

"The only title you need is Mrs. Polniaczek," Jo told Blair, smiling at her a little goofily. "Mrs. Polniaczek," she repeated softly.

"Good God, I hope someone looks at me like that someday," laughed Alec. "And on that note, my fair dames, I bid you a fond farewell."

Jo and Blair gazed at each other. They were so lost in each other's eyes that they didn't notice how Tootie had looked as she watched Alec leave the room …


"So, call me dense," Alec told Tootie that evening as they sat in his room, drinking Yoo-hoo and watching a re-run of "Too Close For Comfort," "and I mean that quite literally, Tootie, dear – many others have called me dense – but why did you insist we go through that charade this morning?"

"What charade?" asked Tootie.

"The charade of pretending you knew nothing of last night's donnybrook."

"Oh. That charade."

"Yes, Tootie. That charade."

Tootie shrugged. "You heard how Jo was ripping into Snake and Natalie last night. I just didn't want her to know I was in your room."

"But you've been in my room before. Many times before."

"Still."

"Still what?"

Tootie sighed. She drained her bottle of Yoo-hoo and reached for another. "Sometimes, Alec, you truly are dense."

"Exactly. So spell it out, my dear Miss Ramsey."

"It's like this: Jo is very protective, and she still sees me and Nat as little kids. Any time Jo sees a guy getting close to Nat, she pounds her chest and acts like Tarzan, or an ape, or, well, this isn't the best simile, but you get the picture."

"I saw her in action last night," Alec agreed. "There was a Tarzan-like quality to it."

"So now that I'm eighteen, and I've graduated, Jo is going to start paying more attention to who I'm spending time with," Tootie said reasonably. "And I didn't think she needed to know that I was in your room after midnight."

"Because you don't want her to thrash me the way she thrashed Snake. I see. Well, that's very good of you, Tootie," said Alec.

"Yes," Tootie agreed, "it is. But, more than that, I just don't want her giving me a hard time. I don't want her to start lecturing me about how you're a noble, and you're going to be a Duke, and you're way out of my league, and blah-blah-blah."

"But why should she?" asked Alec. "It's not as if, that is, it's not as if you see me as a romantic prospect."

"That's irrelevant," said Tootie. "If Jo even thought I might be getting a crush on you, right or wrong, she'd start butting in. She'd start watching us, and lecturing us, and it would be incredibly tiresome. I like just being able to hang out with you, Alec. I don't want someone watching it and putting labels on it."

"But it's not as if we're doing anything wrong," said Alec. "We just spend time together. We're pals."

Tootie winced. "Alec … Even if you're not dating a girl, she still doesn't like being called a 'pal'."

"Oh. Sorry."

"That's all right." Tootie patted his face. "You can't help being dense."

He laughed.

"I must say, Tootie, your acting is getting quite accomplished. You were so natural in the kitchen this morning – as if you hadn't heard the entire Jo-Snake-Natalie drama unwind outside my window."

Tootie buffed her fingernails on the front of her comfortably ratty old sweater.

"Mine is a vast talent," she said modestly.

"Do you still need me at your audition tomorrow?" he asked.

"Yes. Be at the theater by nine-thirty, Alec. Nine-thirty. Or, as you would say, half-nine. Not ten. Not half-ten. Half-nine."

"Aye-aye, mon capitan. Any particular sheet music I should bring?"

Tootie considered the question. "Something Gilbert and Sullivan-ish," she said finally. "It's a light operetta. A comic operetta. Bring a number from 'Pinafore' maybe – though that might be a little on-the-nose."

"How incredibly crafty and professional you are about it all," Alec said admiringly. "If I were auditioning for something I'd just wing it. I'd just belt something out and be shown the door directly."

"Not if you played the piano," said Tootie. "You're an incredible pianist. You should study music, Alec. Never mind your mother."

"Never mind the mater? Ye gods! Clearly you've never met her."

"Well, she can't run your life forever," said Tootie. "It's your choice what you study, and what profession you choose, and who you marry."

"Whom, dear," said Alec. "Whom I marry."

"Never mind your British-isms," said Tootie, waving one hand. "The point remains the same."

"Not a British-ism, actually. 'Whom' is standard English – whether of the British or American variety."

"Still. Either way. It's up to you whom you marry."

Alec sighed. "I only want to marry Jack," he said. "And, as luck would have it, she's on the mater's short list. But it's difficult to woo a woman who insists upon staying thousands of miles away from one."

"Alec," Tootie began, but then she paused.

"Yes?" asked Alec, opening another bottle of Yoo-hoo for himself.

"Alec, why haven't you moved back to England?"

"Ha! Want to get rid of me, do you? Do Artemis and Aphrodite feel the same?" His eyes danced.

"Of course we don't want to get rid of you," said Tootie. "Well – most of the time, anyway. But if you love Jacqueline so much, why aren't you back in jolly old England with her?"

Alec sipped his drink thoughtfully. "She doesn't want me there," he said. "She doesn't want anyone or anything around her that reminds her of Petal."

"She told you that?" asked Tootie.

"Near as," he said.

"So – she didn't tell you that," said Tootie.

"Not in so many words. But it's clear. Jack has buried herself in the remote wilds of Angledun, in the affairs of the village, in her family's properties, in the local festivals. She's become … she's become …"

"She's like the Petal of Angledun," said Tootie. "She's the jolly squire of the place. Well … the depressed jolly squire."

"Spot on, Tootie. Full marks. Except she's Lady Bountiful, not a squire." He folded one arm behind his head. "Tootie, there's … I haven't even told Jo this."

"Told her what?" Tootie asked curiously.

"Jacqueline doesn't write much, but I had a letter from her last month. There's a fellow, well …"

"Someone is courting Jack," Tootie guessed shrewdly.

Alec nodded. "He's Jack's age, a little bit older than I am. Knew him at Eton. Nice enough chap, bit dull, from a fine old family, but impoverished – not unlike the Anvistons."

"And does Jack love him?"

"No. She does not love him. She loves me."

"She wrote that?"

"She wrote that. She loves me. But she's considering … She's going to marry him. Her parents want it. And he's, well, he's there. He's local. He knows the land and the people and the customs and it will all be very safe and cozy and, and –"

"And boring," Tootie said with feeling. "What is she – crazy? She could have you, but she's going to marry little Lord Fauntleroy – a dull little Lord Fauntleroy – instead?"

Alec grinned. "I remember when Jo used to call me 'little Lord Fauntleroy' – and not as an endearment."

"Well I don't mean it as an endearment either. Who is this guy Jack might marry? Who is he to butt into our circle?"

"To be fair, Tootie, he's never met our circle. And I gather Jack has kept the last few years rather dark. Too painful for her to discuss."

"Painful? How about your pain, missing her? Why doesn't Jacqueline come back here, if she really loves you? We all miss her. She should be here."

Alec put a brotherly hand on her shoulder. "Calm down, Tootie dear. It's lovely of you to be so concerned on my behalf, but I'm slowly coming round to her absence. Do you realize I've known Jack Messerschmitt most of my life, but we've spent more time apart, and saying 'goodbye' and breaking up than we've ever spent together? She seems to need this, being in Angledun now. And she seems to need this steady, dull chap. And I need … well …"

"What do you need?" Tootie asked curiously. Her heart pounded a little in her chest. She hoped Alec wouldn't notice her pulse jumping in her throat …

Alec shrugged. He fixed his gaze on the battered little black-and-white television set.

"You girls are my family," he said. "You and Mrs. Garrett and Drake, and all the extended family. My whole life, I've never felt any place was a home, until River Rock. Until you fair dames."

"But if you love Jacqueline –"

"I do love her. But she doesn't need me just now. She doesn't want me just now, and I don't know that she ever shall. So I'm not going to give up River Rock, and all of you, and the only real home I've ever known – not to go to Angledun and get sent away with my tail between my legs for my troubles."

Tootie sighed. "Poor Alec."

"Say – that's not what a fellow likes to hear," Alec objected. "'Brilliant Alec' … 'Manly Alec' … 'Dashed clever Alec' – all of those are acceptable."

Tootie shook her head. "Poor Alec," she said again.

Alec took another slug of Yoo-hoo. "Never mind that," he said. "Back to your audition. It so happens I do have sheet music for 'HMS Pinafore', and I shall bring it tomorrow. What about another piece – an alternate in case some other lass has the same idea?"

"Well … What about a piece from 'La Boheme'?"

"Hmm. Not precisely a comic operetta."

"No – but it would showcase my range."

"Very well. I'll rummage around the music room and see if I can find something."

"Thank you, Alec. You're a pal."

"Now, now," teased Alec, "a fellow doesn't like to be called a 'pal' even if you're not dating him."

Tootie hit him with a pillow.


Blair drove Tootie to the Langley campus the next morning well in advance of her audition.

"Break a leg," Blair told her. "They'd be crazy not to cast you, Tootie."

"I know," Tootie said absently. Blair smiled.

Blair had pulled up in front of Langley's theater, a hulking granite monstrosity.

The red Chevy truck was idling; Blair didn't want to park it, didn't want to turn off the engine; just being on campus gave her a sick feeling, brought back so many conflicting memories, that she wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as Tootie alighted.

Tootie pushed open the passenger-side door, then closed it and sat staring through the windshield.

"Uh – Tootie," prompted Blair. "They aren't holding the auditions in my truck."

"I know. Sorry. I'm just … I have a lot on my mind these days," said Tootie.

Inwardly Blair sighed. Please don't let any of those snobs from my old life drift by, she thought. But Tootie was like her little sister; if Tootie suddenly needed to talk, Blair would talk.

"Blair?"

"Yes, Tootie?"

"Are you really going to marry Jo some day?"

Blair smiled – a real dazzler.

"Yes," she said with absolute conviction.

"Even though your mother doesn't want you to marry her?"

"Ha!" Blair pictured her mother's platinum bob, her recently lifted face, her silver fox fur. "I would never, never let my mother come between me and Jo," said Blair.

"Because Jo is the love of your life." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes," said Blair. "Jo is the love of my life."

"And when someone is the love of your life, no one should stand in the way," Tootie said.

"Correct," said Blair. Something dawned on her … Tootie's bright eyes … her distracted air … the tenor of her questions.

"Tootie … Are you … Is there a boy that you like?" Blair asked gently.

Tootie lifted her eyebrows. "Me?" she asked. "Please; I'm married to the theater."

"OK," said Blair. "But if there is a boy, if you ever want to talk about anything –"

"Believe me, Blair, if I want any romantic advice, you know that I'll go to you. You are, after all, the one-and-only Aphrodite."

Blair smiled. "Or so Alec says," said Blair.

"Well, he's right," Tootie said. "When it comes to love, you've got it all taped. Remember all those boys falling for you when you were at Eastland? And now you're involved in the most mythic, beautiful relationship. Blair – you're amazing. You know just about everything about love."

"Well – not everything," said Blair. "But if you ever want to talk –"

"Believe me, I'll let you know," Tootie said decisively. But I'm not ready to talk to you yet, Blair. Not just yet …

When Blair left, she drove through the center of campus, and ran directly into a snarl of construction. It was summer, Langley was nearly deserted – the perfect time to clean and repair the massive lion statue and fountain at the heart of campus.

Orange sawhorses blocked some of the routes radiating from the fountain. Blair cut the wheel, following the lane that curved around the fountain, until she found the only clear route – Greek row.

You've got to be kidding, thought Blair. Well … it should be deserted. Everyone will be up in Bar Harbor or at the Vineyard or in Europe already ...

Without actually, technically speeding, Blair pushed her truck up to the legal limit and raced along Greek row. The handsome fraternities and sororities and their perfectly manicured lawns and flower beds flashed past her windows. There was no one on the broad sidewalks – not one person.

I'm going to make it, thought Blair. I'm going to get the hell out of here without running into anyone I used to know –

But it was too good to be true. A slender young woman in riding clothes emerged from one of the sororities. Her coppery hair was piled into a loose bun under her riding helmet. She carried a riding crop in one hand, and as she saw Blair's truck rolling along the street, she lifted the whip and gestured smartly.

"Blair!" she called in a confident, penetrating voice.

Blair sighed. Although no longer wealthy, and having been cast out of Langley, Blair as a Warner was still, technically speaking, a member of Society. She could not on any account snub Harriett Coopersill – she could not snub anyone who had not outright insulted her or her loved ones. It went completely against her grain.

Blair didn't pull over to the curb, but she stopped the truck and let it idle.

Harriet tripped gracefully across the lawn of Upsilon Upsilon and paused next to the driver's side of Blair's truck. She took in Blair's loosely flowing blonde tresses, minimal makeup, jeans and simple lavender blouse.

"My poor dear," Harriet said in a commiserating fashion. "I begged you to leave River Rock years ago. If only you'd pledged Upsilon Upsilon!"

Blair smiled a brittle little smile. "Well … It's rater a moot point now. Since I was expelled from Langley."

"That was dreadful," said Harriet, shuddering. "And I understand you're at Peekskill College now – well, at least you'll shine there, dear. You can return to Langley for your graduate studies, and then you'll pledge Upsilon Upsilon. No. I shan't take no for an answer, Blair. I shan't."

"Langley College and I have parted ways permanently," said Blair.

"Oh, I'm certain they will take you back. After all, it isn't your fault that you were expelled – was it? You've always been so abysmally loyal to the wrong people, Blair, dear. But my father is on the Langley board now, and he can, well, I don't think 'pressure' is the correct word, but he can influence Dean Pratt's decision in these matters."

"That's kind of you," said Blair. And, she knew, in Harriet's own way, Harriet meant to be kind. "But it's no use."

"But you're not listening to me, Blair. I'm assuring you that Langley will take you back."

"Perhaps," said Blair. "But I will not take Langley back."

Harriet giggled. "What a strange sense of humor you have," she said appreciatively.

Blair wasn't quite sure what was so funny, so she said nothing.

"Well," said Harriet, "I understand that it won't be much longer before your father delivers his coup de grace."

Blair lifted her eyebrows. "Really?"

"Well, you must know all about it," Harriet said conspiratorially, dropping a delicate wink. "There won't be many tears shed when BZ Becker receives his come-uppance, that I can promise you!"

Blair nodded thoughtfully. So … It was spreading through Society, news of her father's plan to strike back at BZ Becker. Word was even trickling through minor families like the Coopersills.

"Has anyone – have they figured out where Daddy's hiding?" Blair asked, dropping her own conspiratorial wink. She didn't want Harriet to know that she, Blair Warner, David Warner's daughter, didn't have a damn idea where her father was staying.

Harriet smiled mysteriously. "I think only my father has figured it out," she said, with a touch of pride. "Imagine – David Warner staying in a flophouse like the St. Angelo! Gabby's younger brother used to go there to buy hashish! No one will ever think to look for your father there!"

"No," Blair said. "No, they certainly won't." But now Jo and I know where to look …

Harriet's smile became tinged with sadness. "Blair … Dear, dear Blair. Generous to a fault. Stalwart and true."

"You make me sound like a St. Bernard," Blair said drily.

"Ha! Clever girl! St. Bernard – I like that. But Blair, in all seriousness, there's loyalty and then there's going beyond the pale. When are you going to abandon ship at that peculiar house? Jacqueline Messerschmitt got out and Petal – well, that poor Petal Von Schuylkill. Least said the better."

Blair felt a lump forming in her throat. It still hurt so much, to think about Petal …

"Why do you hang on there, with that terrible tough girl? And why didn't you try to quell the rumors when you were expelled? Why didn't you simply explain that you and the tough girl weren't really, well … you know. Just because a few jealous girls and creeps like Devon Abercrombie put a bee in the dean's bonnet …"

Blair pushed aside thoughts of Petal. She thought of Jo – of her Jo – "that terrible tough girl". Blair smiled.

Blair should, she knew, say something loyal regarding Jo, while at the same time agreeing with Harriet that she and Jo were not lovers. Blair knew she should maintain the ruse. She should keep up the façade.

But suddenly Blair was sick of it – the pretending, the misdirection. After Jo and Blair had been expelled, Alec and Jacqueline had put a lot of effort into defending them, claiming that Jo and Blair were just "very good friends".

Lies, thought Blair. All lies …

She looked up and down the street, at the handsome buildings and the perfect lawns. She looked at Harriet's little riding cap and riding crop and perfect riding ensemble, at her coppery bun of hair, at her perfect teeth and perfectly plucked eyebrows.

Society was what Blair had known most of her life. And now, if her father was successful in his scheme, she might have an entrée into the heart of Society again. But pretty and comfortable as it could be, none of it was worth lying about who she was. None of it ...

Blair took a deep breath. Goodbye, Society, she thought.

"Harriet," said Blair, looking calmly and directly into the other girl's eyes, "Dean Pratt was correct."

Harriet blinked. "Come again?" she said.

"Boots St. Clair told Dean Pratt that Jo and I are lovers. And we are."

Harriet blinked again. The corners of her mouth drew down as if she had just eaten something rancid.

"Jo and I had just celebrated our one-year anniversary. We had a party; Boots snapped some photos, Jo and I with our arms around each other. Boots gave them to the dean. All anyone had to do was look at those photos, and it was all there. You could see how much Jo and I love each other."

Harriet swallowed. Her face looked pained, as if she had just swallowed a fish bone.

"I suppose you're disgusted," said Blair. "Well – c'est la vie. I'm done with hiding it. I'm done, Harriet." Blair took a deep breath, grinned. It felt like she'd just thrown off a two-hundred pound weight that had been pressing her down.

"Blair," Harriet said carefully, "I understand that you've been under tremendous pressure these past years. With your parents overseas, and poor, poor Petal, and that tough girl seems to have some sort of … Svengali-like hold over you. I can see that I've neglected you. All of us, your true friends. We should have looked in on you. We should have taken you away from that terrible place."

Blair laughed. "Oh, Harriet. You really are sweet, in your way. Thank you for your concern. But I've never been happier. Never in my life."

"But that can't possibly be true. Blair – you have nothing. And you seem to be under the mistaken impression that you, ah, that you –"

"I'm a lesbian," said Blair. "A lesbian." She laughed. "Wow. This feels so good. I am a lesbian!" she shouted out of the driver's side window.

Harriet shrank back. "Blair, I'm very concerned. Very concerned indeed. When you, ah, compose yourself, I want you to call me. We'll have lunch. Not in Peekskill, of course – I do have my reputation to consider. But we'll get this sorted. I won't desert you, Warner."

"That's very good of you," said Blair. "And very brave – to risk being seen in public with someone like me."

"But you're not really like that," said Harriet. "You're confused, that's all. And now," she looked hastily at her slim golden wristwatch, "I must be off."

Harriet Coopersill all but ran down Greek row in the direction of Langley's stables …

Blair cranked up the radio while she drove to River Rock. It so happened that KPKL was playing Billy Joel's "Honesty"; Blair turned the volume up high and sang along.

"Honesty, is such a lonely word, everyone is so untruuuue … Honesty, is hardly ever heard, and mostly what I need from yoooou …"

Honesty! It had felt so damn good, shouting "I am a lesbian!" in the sacred precincts of Greek row. It had felt so damn good, in fact, that Blair shouted it now as she raced through the farm fields of rural Peekskill.

"I am a lesbian! I am a lesbian!" she yelled.

There wasn't anyone to hear her – just a farmer on his tractor, far in the distance, and a herd of black-and-white cows. There wasn't anyone to hear her, but it still felt good.

"I am a lesbian!" she shouted again …

When she strolled into River Rock and climbed to the suite that she and Jo shared, she felt giddy as a schoolgirl.

Jo was sprawled on the love seat in their sitting room, poring over a Latin book.

"I am a lesbian!" Blair said cheerfully, pushing the suite door shut behind her.

"Good for you, babe," Jo said absently. "Or, as the ancient Romans woulda said, tibi gratulationes facio!"

Blair sat on the arm of the love seat, beaming. "I'm a lesbian, Jo."

"Yup." Jo turned to the next page. "Kinda noticed that when you let me make love to you this morning – on account of how enthusiastic you were."

"But I'm a lesbian, Jo. And I'm proud of it. It's who I am, and I'm proud."

It dawned on Jo that Blair was not acting quite like her normal self. The brunette closed her Latin book and placed it on the coffee table. She pulled Blair off of the arm of the love seat, wrapped her arms around the beautiful blonde.

"I'm glad you're proud," Jo said softly. She kissed Blair's hair. "You should be proud. Like I'm proud to be Polish. And Nat's proud to be Jewish. Everyone should be freakin proud of whoever and whatever they happen to be. But, you know, this ain't exactly breakin news. What's got you all het up?"

"I told Harriet," said Blair. "Right out on Greek row. I told Harriet I'm a lesbian."

Jo quirked one dark eyebrow. "So … OK. Who's this Harriet character? I got any reason to be worried? She tryin to steal you away from me?"

Blair laughed. "She's trying to get me away from you, yes, but not in the way you mean. And you have nothing to worry about – because I am never, never going to leave you, Jo. I love you, Jo. I love you and I'm tired of hiding our love."

"So … that means … what?" Jo asked warily. "Cause I'm all for honesty, but I don't want us gettin jumped every other block."

"Don't be silly," said Blair, taking one of Jo's hands, kissing the slender fingers. "I'm not saying we're going to tattoo each other's names on our foreheads. I'm just saying … If it comes up … When it comes up … I'm not going to deny it anymore."

Jo smiled one of her megawatt smiles. "So this Harriet chick on Greek row – she's a Society girl?"

"That's affirmative."

"And you told her you're a lesbian?"

Blair nodded. "And that I love you. And that you love me."

"Ha! Did you hafta call an ambulance for her?"

"She maintained. But it was touch and go there for a moment."

"So you just, you came right out and said it?"

"Yes."

Jo squeezed Blair so hard the debutante gasped. "That's my girl," said Jo. "That's my amazin girl!"

"I did good?"

"Babe – you got more sand than the Sahara Desert!"

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," said Blair.

"Good – cause it is. A big 'yes'." Jo squeezed Blair again. "Wow. You told a Society girl. And she won't be discrete like Jack or Portia. She'll go blabbin it around – huh?"

"Most definitely," said Blair.

"So our love that don't dareth speak its name is gonna get blabbed all over Society?"

"Yup."

"Your parents are gonna love that!"

Blair's eyebrows rose. Her face fell. She deflated in Jo's arms like a tired balloon.

"OK … So you didn't think that far ahead," said Jo.

"Oops," said Blair.

"Eh, they can go soak their heads," Jo said easily. "Way they treated you – to hell with 'em."

"They'll be humiliated," said Blair.

"Couldn't happen to two more deservin crum-bums," said Jo. She stroked Blair's hair. "Hey – don't beat yourself up about this. You did good, babe. You did the right thing. Your parents are adults – in theory, anyway. You are who you are. They've just gotta deal with it."

Blair pressed her face against Jo's. "I found out where Daddy's staying," she said. "Well – where he might be staying."

"And where is that, babe?"

"The St. Angelo."

Jo whistled.

"He's laying low," Blair explained.

"Well, he picked a good place for it. The St. Angelo's about the lowest place in the city."

"You don't think Daddy's in any danger staying there?" asked Blair, concerned.

"I think even Snake might be in danger stayin there," said Jo. "From what I heard, that's like the last-chance saloon. You end up at the St. Angelo, it's probably the last rung on your ladder, one way or another."

Blair put one finger to her lovely mouth, gnawed nervously at one nail.

Jo sighed. "Now this is gonna be a thing, huh? You're gonna worry about him."

"Yes. I think so."

"Hey, he got himself into this mess. And he picked the St. Angelo – if he's even there."

"True," Blair conceded. "Still …"

Jo shifted, pulled Blair closer. She touched her forehead to Blair's.

"OK. I'm on it," said Jo.

"On what?"

"I'll make sure your father's all right."

"And how do you plan to do that?"

"That ain't your concern, babe. You just sit tight, and I'll –""

"Now just one minute," said Blair, eyes flashing. She leaned back and poked Jo in the chest with one finger. "You're not going anywhere without me."

"Babe, be reasonable."

"Are you saying I'm being unreasonable?" Blair asked in her dangerously quiet voice. Jo knew that voice.

"Uh … Nope. I am definitely not sayin that," Jo said carefully. "What I'm sayin is I love you, and I've kinda gotten attached to you, and stuff, and I don't want you gettin roughed up or killed at a dive like the St. Angelo."

"Well I don't want you getting roughed up or killed either," said Blair. "I'm sort of attached to you, too."

"I ain't gettin roughed up or killed," Jo said reassuringly. "I'm gonna bring some muscle."

Blair tilted her head inquiringly. "The muscle being …?"

Jo cracked her knuckles. "Alec, for a start. And I'll call Snake. And Pauly. Who the hell's gonna mess with the four of us?"

"The five of us," Blair said firmly.

Jo groaned.

"The five of us," Blair repeated. She slid off of Jo's lap. "I'll go talk to Alec. And I'll ask Natalie to call Snake. You call Pauly."

"Listen, Sheriff Dillon, this sounds all good, assemblin a posse, but once we get there, to the St. Angelo, a pretty babe like you, it's like danglin a steak in front of a pack of starvin freakin wolves. I can blend, right? You, not so much."

Blair put her hands on her hips. "Jo Polniaczek, get on that phone and call your cousin. Never mind about whether or not I can blend. I lived in the Bronx with you and Rose. I can blend. I can blend."

"Babe, you blended in the Bronx, but you didn't try to blend at the St. Angelo's. It's a whole different –"

"Call Pauly," Blair said firmly.

She turned on her heel and left the suite …

"So, let me get this straight," Natalie said slowly. "You want my boyfriend, whom I love more than life itself – more than life itself – to accompany you and Jo into a dangerous flop house to be sure your neglectful, white-collar-criminal father is safe?"

"That's a fair assessment," said Blair, nodding.

"No. I forbid it," said Natalie. "You're not putting Snake in danger for David Warner. I don't wish your father any ill, Blair, but Snake isn't risking his life for the man. No, nix, no way, out of the question."

"OK. If that's how you feel," said Blair. "We'll still have Alec and Pauly with us."

"You'll have me where?" asked Alec, striding into the kitchen. He wore neatly pressed jeans and a grey Langley sweatshirt and smelled of very expensive cologne.

"Sorry, Alec, but you'll have to cancel your date," said Natalie. "Jo and Blair need you for body guard duty."

"I don't have a date," said Alec. "I was just taking Tootie to the cinema. But even if I did have a date, I'd cancel it in a trice to protect Artemis and Aphrodite."

Blair nodded approvingly. "A very correct sentiment," she said.

"And from what am I protecting you?" asked Alec. "Or, should I say, from whom?"

"From trouble," Blair said grimly.

"Her father's holed up at the St. Angelo plotting something against BZ Becker," explained Natalie.

"I just want to be sure Daddy's safe there," said Blair. "Jo says it's an unsavory place."

"Consider your bodies guarded," said Alec, waggling his eyebrows lasciviously.

Blair rolled her eyes. "Go change," she told him. "Put on something a thug would wear."

"Hmm. Clearly you are unacquainted with my wardrobe, Miss Warner. I do not possess thuggish clothing."

"Get Tootie to help you," suggested Natalie. "It's like a costume. Just, if you put jeans with the right shirt and boots, I don't know, it'll give you the right look. Tootie will know. She could maybe even give you a fake beard or something."

Alec rubbed his chin dubiously. "Will it itch, do you think?" he asked. "A fake beard? I'm very sensitive to chafing."

Natalie shook her head. "This is your body guard?" she asked Blair.

"As long as he looks menacing, that will be enough," said Blair.

"Sure – and as long as he doesn't complain about chafing and sensitive skin!"

"I say, that's not fair," complained Alec. "I saved Blair's life at Petal's party – remember? I'm no milquetoast."

"Jo helped," said Natalie. "And you weren't chafing under a fake beard at the time."

"Har-de-har," said Alec. "You're a card, Natalie. A card."

"It won't just be Alec," Blair told Natalie. "Pauly will be there too."

"I know – but Pauly's sort of sensitive too – isn't he?" asked Natalie. "Kind of the 'gentle giant' type."

"True," said Blair, "but they'll have to do."

"We'll have to do?" asked Alec. "Well – that's a most emasculating remark."

"No offense," Blair said hastily, "but you and Pauly are dears."

"We may be dears, but we're not choir boys," said Alec.

"Don't sulk, Apollo," said Blair, fondly ruffling his dark curls. "No one's saying you and Pauly are wimps. It's just … well, you're both very sweet."

"Sweet? I say, Blair – you take that back!"

"I think we're insulting his manhood," Natalie told Blair.

"Too right!" said Alec.

Natalie sighed. "OK. OK. Against my better judgment, and my better instincts, I'll ask Snake to go with you."

Blair pressed Natalie's hand. "Thank you," she said gratefully.

"I just don't want you all horribly mangled," said Natalie. "Let's face it – you and Jo are prep school girls, Alec and Pauly look tough but they're really sweethearts – you might want to have someone with you who can actually kick some ass."

"I kick ass," said Alec. He sniffed. "You two have no appreciation of my pugilistic accomplishments."

Jo swept into the kitchen, wearing her scruffiest jeans, a hooded sweatshirt with holes in it, and big black motorcycle boots. She wore no makeup, and her hair was pulled into a severe ponytail.

"Pauly's in," said Jo. "He'll meet us near the hotel. Chop-chop, people. Wheels up in twenty minutes."

"What are you supposed to be?" asked Natalie.

Jo gave the plump girl a diamond-hard glare. Natalie drew back a step.

"Wow. OK. Maybe you don't need Snake."

"We need Snake," said Jo. "What – you ain't called him yet? Get on the horn, Green."

"By which Jo means 'Thank you, Natalie – We appreciate your help,'" said Blair.

Natalie went to the phone on the wall beside the sink, lifted the receiver, dialed a number.

Jo opened the door of the refrigerator, pulled out a slab of cold ham. She sliced herself a big wedge and started gnawing at it.

Blue trotted in, and started jumping up and down around Jo's legs, begging. Jo tore off little pieces of ham and dropped them into Blue's mouth.

"And to think only yesterday she was using the right knives and forks at the Palm Court," Blair said wistfully.

"Hey – we could be in a fight or somethin," said Jo. "I'm loadin up on protein, like before a big match."

"Carve me a piece," said Alec.

"Carve your own," said Jo, handing him the knife. "What am I – a freakin waitress?"

Alec sliced a wedge of ham and put it on a plate. He took a fork and knife from the drawer and began to eat in a civilized manner. Jo watched him. She shook her head darkly.

"Yeah," she said, "we need Snake."

Natalie finished her phone conversation with a soft, "Love you too". She hung up the receiver.

"All right," she said. "Snake is in. He'll meet you near the St. Angelo."

Jo nodded, mouth full of ham.

Tootie entered the kitchen, wearing a pretty white dress and light summer coat.

"Alec, we're going to be late."

Jo took in Tootie's pretty dress and coat.

"What are you all gussied up for?" asked Jo.

Tootie took in Jo's ratty jeans and hooded sweatshirt, and the slab of ham in her hand.

"That's what I was gonna ask you," said Tootie.

Jo laughed. "OK. I get it. There's some boy you wanna make jealous, so you're draggin Alec to the movies."

"I'm not 'dragging' Alec," said Tootie. "He wants to go."

"In point of fact, I do," Alec agreed.

"But, in point of fact, Alec's plans have changed," said Jo. "He's goin with us on recon."

"Recon?" Tootie lifted one eyebrow. "Have you all been drafted, or something?"

"Sort of," Natalie told her. "Jo's conscripting the men-folk into her little army. It's all very intimidating."

"What little army?" asked Tootie.

"Who's intimidatin?" demanded Jo, glowering at Natalie over her slice of ham.

Blair put a gentle hand on Jo's shoulder. "Jo, I know you're doing all this for Daddy, but could you try to be a little less Rambo and a little more Duke of Wellington?"

"Look, we ain't goin dancin through the daisies, here. You ain't ever seen anythin like this place. Honestly, I don't think you should come."

"Duly noted," said Blair.

"But you're still goin, huh?"

"Yes, darling. I'm still going."

Alec smiled at Tootie. "You look lovely, Tootie, dear, but I'm afraid 'Ferris Bueller' will have to wait. Your closest brush with cinema this evening will be disguising me as a tough."

Tootie rubbed her hands together. "Really? I get to help you dress up like a thug?"

"If you're willing to help."

"Of course I am! Wow. Making you look like a tough – what a challenge!"

Alec winced. He followed Tootie down the hall toward his room …

"Who the hell is 'Ferris Bueller'?" wondered Jo.

"It's a new movie," Natalie said. "Supposed to be gut-bustingly hilarious."

"'Ferris Bueller … Weird name," said Jo. "Sounds like a dog. They're better off missin it."

Natalie looked thoughtfully at Jo's ensemble. "Now, I wonder what I should wear?" mused Natalie.

"Whatever you want," said Jo. "You ain't comin with us."

"Yes I am," said Natalie. "Snake's going – I'm going."

"Nat, look, you ain't goin. We're gonna be on a mission. This ain't like date night or somethin."

"Blair's going."

"Yeah, well, that's on account of it's her father," Jo said. And also, thought Jo, because when my babe wants something, ain't nobody can tell her no!

"Well if Blair's going, I'm going," Natalie said firmly. "I'm tougher than Blair any day."

"Excuse me?" asked Blair. "Where did that come from?"

"It's just the truth," said Nat. "Remember after I got attacked, that Halloween? And I took all those self-defense classes?"

"That's true," said Jo. "You did. Whereas you," Jo turned to Blair, "dropped out after two classes, if I'm rememberin it right."

"I can hold my own," Blair said confidently. Seeing Harriet that afternoon had given her an idea for a weapon to defend herself. "I'm going to change, now." Blair embraced Jo, kissed her tenderly on one cheek.

"If you sneak out of here without me, darling, you'll be very, very sorry," Blair whispered in Jo's ear.

Blair broke the embrace, smiling angelically, and drifted toward the stairs.

"Blair's too much of a marshmallow for a mission like this," said Natalie. "You can't bring her. She'll be in danger."

"Eh, Blair's not as much of a marshmallow as people think," said Jo. "And if you are comin along, which I take it you are, you better go change now. Come on. Chop-freakin-chop. No designer jeans. Cheap, ratty, shapeless clothes. Tuck your hair up under a baseball cap or somethin. A Yankees cap – no out-of-town teams or we'll get jumped first thing. No Red Sox cap."

Natalie shuddered. "A Red Sox cap? What do you take me for?"

It was almost an hour before everyone returned in their various thuggish costumes. Jo regarded them all critically.

"Blair, how many thugs wear Ralph Lauren shirts?"

"But it's worn," said Blair. "There's a tear on the collar."

"Christ, Blair – someone would need a microscope to see that. And you –" Jo turned to Natalie, "well, all right – you look pretty good." Natalie was wearing a pair of ancient jeans, a baggy old sweatshirt, a denim jacket and a Yankees cap pulled low on her forehead. "You look like you just came off a bender and a donut binge. Good work."

"Thanks – I guess," Nat said dubiously.

Jo looked Alec up and down. He was wearing his horrible old flannels from Italy, more torn and worn than ever, and a raggedy corduroy coat. A dark watch cap was pulled over his dark curls. Tootie had given him dark hollows around his eyes and a heavy five-o-clock shadow on his jaw.

"Nice work," Jo said approvingly. "Very nice work, Toot."

"Thank you." Tootie took a bow.

"He looks like a junkie merchant marine," said Jo.

"That was the idea," Tootie confirmed.

Jo turned her critical gaze on Tootie, who had pulled one of Alec's dark pea coats over a pair of old jeans and T-shirt. Tootie had a porkpie hat squashed low over her face.

"Huhn – what are you supposed to be?" Jo asked.

"Runaway," said Tootie.

"Where'd you get the hat?"

"One of my props. I have lots of hats. It's one of my things."

"Huhn – well, OK, I think you'll do."

There was a ten-minute delay while Blair changed into one of Jo's old flannel shirts, and then they hit the road in Blair's truck.

Blair, Jo and Natalie squashed into the cab. Alec and Tootie rode in the flat bed.

"Don't lose your hats," warned Jo. "Especially you, Tootie. The hat makes the outfit."

"Jo Polniaczek – theater critic," laughed Tootie.

"Look, I know tough," said Jo. "I know tough and I know crazy. That hat with that coat, it gives you the crazy."

"Is that a compliment?" Tootie asked Alec.

"From Jo? Close enough," he told her …

They were halfway to the city when Blair suddenly slowed the truck.

Jo glanced at her. "What's the matter, babe?"

"This is ridiculous," said Blair. "I mean – look at us!"

"Well, we've looked better," Jo agreed. "But it's in a good cause."

"I'm going to turn back," said Blair. "I'm not putting any of us in danger. Daddy's made his bed and now he has to lie in it."

Jo shook her head. "It's gonna bug you if we don't check on him. We're gonna turn around and head back and then you're just gonna turn us around again. Keep drivin babe. Let's just get it over with …"

In the flatbed Tootie shivered. It was a relatively warm June evening, but with the night breeze sweeping over them, she felt unseasonably cold, even in the pea coat.

"Here," said Alec. He divested himself of his corduroy coat, handed it to her. "Put this on."

"Thank you, Alec," said Tootie. She slipped into Alec's coat; it was awkward, pulling it on over the pea coat, and in the end Alec helped her to shrug into it.

Tootie liked the feeling of Alec's strong arm around her shoulders, his strong hands helping her to pull the coat on …

Get a grip, Ramsey! she told herself. It's just Alec.

"There? Comfortable?" Alec asked companionably, raising his voice above the rush of the breeze.

Tootie nodded. "Great," she said. "Thanks."

"Of course, Tootie. Mustn't let my dresser freeze!"

He laughed. His perfect white teeth flashed in the moonlight.

It's just Alec, Tootie told herself again. Why do I keep feeling … Why do I feel so differently about him lately? I wonder if this is what Jo and Blair started feeling at Eastland? It's so … odd … when your friend starts making your heart skip a beat …

Poor kid, thought Alec. She'd much rather be watching "Ferris Bueller" than sitting in a pickup truck with me. But she'll do anything for her chums. And she can't be left out. If they decided to fly to the moon, Tootie would find a way to tag along …

"Did they call you?" asked Alec, lifting his voice above the breeze. "About the audition?"

Tootie nodded. "Yes. I was going to tell you tonight, at the movies – I got the part!"

"Of course you did! Congratulations, Tootie."

She shrugged. It was hard to shrug, wearing the two heavy coats, but she managed it. "You get part of the credit," she said. "You played so well."

"This is true," Alec said, grinning. "I made a slight contribution – but you're the star, Miss Ramsey. Just think – you're first college production – and your freshman year has yet to begin!"

"It is pretty impressive," Tootie agreed. "But it was your playing that put me over the top. Knowing you were there, it made me feel more confident," said Tootie, "more, I don't know, more accomplished." Good God – I'm gushing! I sound like a stupid, gushing school girl!

"I was pleased to help, Tootie. Consider me your accompanist-slash-knight protector; call on me at any time …"

"This is crazy," Blair said, cutting the wheel and driving smoothly up the on ramp. They were almost in the city.

"No argument here," said Natalie.

"Look, this ain't gonna work if you're gettin cold feet," said Jo. "I told you guys not to come. Me and Alec and Pauly and Snake got this. Easy peasy. You guys should stay in the truck."

"Stay in the truck? Stay in the truck?" demanded Nat.

"We got quite an echo in here," Jo observed.

"Listen, Polniaczek, we're not going to be sidelined like a bunch of fainting flowers," Natalie said with spirit. "Just because we're not tomboys or Bronx Baboons –"

"Barbarians," corrected Jo.

"Whatever. We're not sending you and the men-folk into that dive alone."

Jo shrugged. "Your funeral," she said. "Just keep that cap pulled down ..."

Even the swankest areas of Manhattan have odd little pockets, blocks of old stone edifices, once handsome, now faded, pitted, stained and decayed, spared the wrecking ball, but neglected and unloved. In one f these blocks the St. Angelo hotel was pressed between a YMCA and a soup kitchen.

Like all dives, the St. Angelo was adorned with a red neon sign; it blinked "St. Angelo … St. Angelo … St. Angelo …" all through the night and looked more like a warning than an enticement.

"Don't park right in front of the hotel," Jo said. "Pull up here. Yeah."

Blair parked down the block from the St. Angelo, near an overflowing garbage bin. When they alighted from the cab, the saw Alec already on the sidewalk, helping Tootie to climb down from the flatbed.

Jo looked at her friends in their various disguises. She shook her head. "What a crazy bunch of guys we look like!"

There was a low whistle. They all turned. Pauly walked toward them, head down, bundled into a navy surplus coat and watch cap that were far too warm for the evening.

He embraced Jo and Blair briefly.

"How's by you?" he asked his cousin.

"You know," said Jo. "Usual."

"Yeah." He grinned. "Up to your necks in trouble."

"Not us," objected Jo. "Blair's pop."

"Same diff," said Pauly. "Still family."

"Yeah."

"We know his room number?"

"Nah. Ain't even a hundred percent sure he's here. He's layin low so maybe not even usin his own name, you know?"

There was another low whistle, followed by a rumbly "Yo".

Snake appeared, walking toward them from the direction of the hotel.

He wore a denim vest, his fearsome Celtic and military tattoos plainly visible in the dim light, ancient jeans, and steel-toed boots. His hair was long and wild rather than pulled into its usual ponytail.

"Snake!" Natalie exclaimed, as if she hadn't seen him for months, instead of twenty-four hours.

He caught her in a bear hug, kissed her soundly.

"There's my girl," he rumbled affectionately.

It must be nice, thought Tootie, to be greeted like that

Arm draped comfortably over Natalie's shoulder, Snake gave the group a once-over.

"Son of a gun," he said. "What the hell are you guys supposed to be?"

"We're toughs," Tootie said with dignity. "We're on the lam. We just broke out of some place."

"Sure," said Snake. "You look like you just broke out of a production of 'West Side Story'."

"Be nice," Natalie told him.

"Just don't want anyone endin up in the hospital, Nat."

"Is the St. Angelo really that bad?" Natalie asked. "I mean, how bad could it be?"

"Last rung on the ladder," Jo reminded her. "People are usually in a pretty desperate freakin situation when they wash up here."

Blair looked up the street, toward the hotel. Its windows were mainly dark. Its stained face had a grim air. "St. Angelo," blinked the red neon sign. "St. Angelo … St. Angelo …"

"Daddy must be standing out like a sore thumb," she said anxiously.

Jo's first instinct was to slip an arm around Blair's waist, to pull her close and comfort her. If it was broad daylight on the streets of Manhattan she would never have done it, but it was dark and she was surrounded by friends. Jo pulled Blair close and kissed her.

"If he's in trouble, we'll get him the hell outta there," said Jo. "We'll bring him to River Rock."

Blair thought of how terrible David had always been to Jo. He had struck her; he had broken her nose – twice. He had said cold, bitter things.

'We'll bring him to River Rock' … God, there's no one like her, thought Blair.

"I love you," Blair whispered, kissing Jo.

Jo laughed. "Jeez – I hope so."

Pauly looked from Blair to Nat to Tootie. He shook his head.

"I shoulda brought Jess," he told Jo. "She's gonna kill me, missin out on this, when the other girls came along."

"Hey, you were smart not to bring her," said Jo. "I wish these three woulda stayed in Peekskill."

"You say that now," said Natalie, "but wait until my incredible defense skills save your behind!"

"Yeah. And wait until I use my acting skills to talk us out of a dangerous situation," said Tootie.

Jo looked at Blair. Blair shrugged. "I can hog-tie," she said, "but I didn't bring a rope."

"Never mind," said Jo. "Anything nutso goes down, you get behind me, Blair. Anyone grabs for ya, crack 'em on the head with somethin, whatever you can grab."

"Just don't crack any of us on the head, Aphrodite," Alec said.

"I'll try not to."

"What is all this worry about us poor girls, anyway?" Natalie demanded. "Talk about chauvinistic! Is this 1986 or 1886?"

"It ain't about women's lib," said Snake. "You girls are kinda, you know …"

"Kinda, you know what?" asked Natalie.

"Well," Snake bussed her cheek, "kinda sheltered."

"Sheltered? Sheltered?"

"Maybe I coulda picked a better word," said Snake.

"I'll have you know that we have been through all kinds of mayhem," Natalie told her boyfriend. "Mayhem, Snake."

"Hey, you're here – right? I'm not objectin, am I? Way I figure it, a girl's got as much right as a guy to do somethin stupid and reckless."

"Well … All right," Natalie said grudgingly. It wasn't exactly what she wanted to hear from her beau, but it was close enough.

"So let's get organized," said Jo. "We can't all go in, and we can't go in at the same time."

"I think Blair should stay in the truck," Pauly said quietly. "She looks the least like she belongs here."

"Hey!" said Blair.

"Sorry," said Pauly. "But it's true. I'll stay in the truck with you. We can keep the engine runnin in case, you know, we all need to make a quick getaway."

"I like the idea of keeping the truck runnin," said Jo, "but it's Blair's Dad we're here for, so she's gotta come in."

Blair squeezed Jo's arm. "Thank you, darling."

"Don't be too grateful, babe. I'd rather you did stay with the truck, like Pauly said."

"Pauly and me and Jo are goin in," rumbled Snake, "cause we're the only ones can actually pull off lookin like we belong here. And Blair's goin cause it's her Dad. Nat and Tootie, you should stay in the truck with the motor runnin. Nat, you're a pretty good driver now; you should be at the wheel."

Natalie was conflicted, torn between her desire to be part of the action and Snake's flattering observation about her driving. But given her naturally cautious nature, it was ultimately no contest.

"All right," said Natalie. "I'll keep the truck running. Tootie will ride shotgun."

"Hey! I want to go inside," objected Tootie.

"You've got to have my back, soul sister," said Natalie.

"Well if I'm staying, Alec's staying," Tootie said stoutly. "I'll have your back and he'll have our back."

"Do you mind?" Jo asked her best friend.

"I'll guard them with my life," Alec assured her. "These fair dames will be in the best of care."

"Don't call me a 'dame,' Alec," said Nat. "I've asked you a million times."

"And for the millionth time," Alec said, with a little bow, "I apologize."

Jo pulled away from Blair. They couldn't stroll into the St. Angelo arm-in-arm – that would be begging for trouble.

"So let's go," Jo said tersely. "Let's go see what's what."

Snake crushed Natalie in another bear hug, kissed her like he was shipping out to war …

When they reached the doorway of the St. Angelo, with its peeling paint and its aroma of tobacco and urine, Blair cast a look over her shoulder. She could discern under the street light and moonlight that Nat had slid behind the wheel of the red Chevy. Tootie sat next to her. Alec leaned against the truck, lighting a cigarette.

"So what's the plan?" Pauly asked quietly.

"You two," Jo nodded at Pauly and Snake, "are lookin to collect somethin from David Warner."

"And who are you and Blair s'posed to be?"

Jo grinned. "We're your babes."

"Blair's with me, then," said Pauly.

"Course she's with you," said Jo. "I couldn't be with you, even kiddin around. You're my freakin cousin. Christ."

Blair slipped her arm through Pauly's. He reached into one of the pockets in his denim jacket, pulled out a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. He offered a stick of gum to Blair. She politely accepted it.

"That's a good idea," Jo told Pauly approvingly.

"Gum?" asked Blair. She took one of the silver-foil-wrapped slices. "It's nice –but since when is a stick of gum a good idea?"

"Chew it and see," laughed Jo.

"I don't usually chew gum," said Blair.

"Exactly, Princess. Start chewin that gum, you'll already look two-hundred percent more like a real live member of the masses."

Blair stuck out her tongue at Jo – but she put the gum in her mouth and started chewing it.

"Gimme a piece," Jo told Pauly.

"You don't need it," he said. "You already look like a real live member of the masses. You got 'masses' written all over ya."

"Just make with the gum," crabbed Jo.

He gave her a piece.

"All right. OK, now we're organized," said Jo. "Blair's with Pauly and I'm with Snake and you guys are tryin to collect a big gamblin debt from David." She slipped her arm through Snake's.

"Just think," rumbled Snake. "Only last night you were twistin my arm outta the socket, and now we're practically engaged."

"Yeah, you're a freakin comedian, all right," said Jo. "Don't quit your truckin job yet, Chuckles."

Blair popped her gum. "I feel like a cow," she complained.

"Well you look like Betty Palooka from the East Bronx," said Jo. "Sound like her, too. Keep poppin that gum, babe."

"If you say so."

Jo nodded at Snake. He grasped the worn, tarnished door handle and pulled it open.

A wall of stale cigarette smoke and the scent of urine and bleach drifted from the St. Angelo. Blair coughed.

"We ready?" Jo asked her friends.

"R-r-ready," coughed Blair.

They went inside.


June, 2012. Manhattan. Central Park West. Archbishop and Senator Polniaczek's Penthouse.

Jo was asleep – deeply asleep. Between her senate duties and a month taking care of her new daughter she was more or less exhausted all of the time.

A wailing sound woke her … Police siren, she thought groggily. Then, No – it's Charlotte.

Charlotte was crying.

Jo sat up in bed. Next to her, Blair was sleeping, a warm, plump form under the Egyptian cotton sheets.

Jo leaned over and kissed Blair's shoulder.

"Nah, that's OK," Jo told her sleeping wife. "I got it this time, babe."

Jo slipped into her soft moccasins and padded out of the master bedroom, into the hall that was lit all night by tiny lamps installed high in the ceiling. Jo had installed the lights when Blair became pregnant, to light her wife's way during sleepy dashes to the bathroom. Now, the lighting came in handy for sleepy dashes to the nursery.

Jo found Charlotte red-faced, wailing loudly, tiny hands curled into tiny fists.

"There she is," cooed Jo. "There's my girl. Mommy's here, Charlie. Mommy Jo is here."

Charlotte needed a new diaper. Jo changed her with a virtuosity that astounded no one more than herself. When it came to her nieces and nephews, Jo had usually managed to be elsewhere when it was time to change them when they were babies. And Blair had usually been Jo's partner in crime in handing the baby off to someone else. But with Charlotte, Jo didn't mind a bit, and neither did Blair.

"There you go," Jo cooed. "All nice and clean. That feels a lot better, huh? Nice new diaper."

Charlotte had stopped crying, but she had been crying so hard before that now she had hiccups. Hiccup … hiccup …

Jo smiled at her daughter. Holding Charlotte carefully in the crook of her arms, Jo sat in the rocking chair. Jo had never been able to sing worth a damn, but Charlotte seemed to like her brunette mother's soft, rather tuneless warbling.

Jo sang "Row Your Boat" and "Twinkle Little Star". Charlotte gazed up at her with wide dark eyes. After a few moments, the minute eyelids began to drop, and then Charlotte was asleep. Her tiny nose whistled faintly …

When Blair woke the next morning she found two sleeping figures beside her, her wife and her baby daughter. Charlotte was dozing in Jo's protective arms.

Blair kissed Charlotte, and then Jo.

Jo's eyelids fluttered open. She grinned.

"Morning, beautiful," said Jo.

"Morning, yourself," smiled Blair. "Darling, as lovely as it is to see both of you when I wake, is it really safe to have Charlotte in here with us? What if one of us squashes her?"

"No one's going to squash her," said Jo. She yawned, then leaned down and kissed her sleeping daughter on her perfect little tip-tilted nose. "Babe, she's so much like you."

"And you," said Blair, ruffling Charlotte's cap of fluffy dark hair.

"Let's move her bassinet in her," said Jo.

"In here?"

"In here. Listen, I know that in ye old snobbo city, kids are quartered a thousand miles away from the parents, but where I grew up, I mean, you're right on top of each other. The kids are right in with the parents."

"Well …" Blair nestled next to Jo, took one of Charlotte's little hands. "That might not be the most terrible idea I've ever heard. It might even be a good idea."

"Yes?"

"Yes," said Blair. "Let's move her bassinet in here."

Jo's laptop on the vanity began making a chirping sound.

"Sounds like duty calls," Blair told her wife.

"Nah," said Jo. "It's probably Tootie. She said she'd Skype us this morning."

"Well it's high time," said Blair.

Jo scooted along the bed, took the laptop from the dresser and flipped it open. She tapped a couple of keys, and suddenly Tootie's face filled the screen.

Tootie looked even more tired than Jo, dark circles under her eyes. She was wearing what Jo called her conservative "Condoleezza" wig.

"For crying out loud," said Jo, "why are you so close to the camera? I can count your pores."

"And good morning to you, too," said Tootie. "And never tell a woman over forty you can see her pores, Jo. Hell – don't say it to a woman over twenty. And where's my niece? Put her on! I'm the only one who hasn't seen her yet."

"Well you could see her if you'd come back to New York," said Jo.

"Can't. Not yet. So many cultural duties to fulfill."

"Like what?"

"Like this evening. I'll be singing at, ah, the Albert Hall."

"Well where are you right now?" asked Jo. "They put you up at a nice place? Do they let you stay at the embassy?"

"Oh, I'm here and there," Tootie said vaguely. "I don't have much time, Jo. Where is my niece?"

"She's right here," said Blair, sitting down next to Jo and holding a sleeping Charlotte up to the screen.

Tootie squealed. "Oh … my … God! She's perfect!"

"Of course," said Blair. "Did you expect any less from a Jo-Blair joint production?"

"She looks like both of you!"

"That's what we were just saying."

"Oh, she's beautiful, guys. She's beautiful."

Behind Tootie, a siren wailed. Tootie was so close to the camera that nothing was discernible behind her, except a patch of bright sky indicating that she was out of doors.

"Tootie – are you in Germany?" asked Blair.

Tootie laughed. "Germany? That's crazy talk. I'm in London."

"But that's not how police cars sound in London," said Blair. "That's a German police siren."

"It's, ah, this new program," said Tootie. "An exchange program. The London bobbies are using German police vehicles. Isn't that wild?"

"Yes," said Blair. "Wild." And patently untrue …

"Well – gotta go!" said Tootie.

"What? You just called us," groused Jo. "Here's little Charlotte, still asleep, didn't even get a chance to see her Aunt Tootie –""

"She'll see me," Tootie said hurriedly. She glanced at something over her shoulder. "I'll call again."

"When?"

"Soon. Bye, now."

The screen went dark.

"Well, that was rude," said Jo. "Even I know that isn't proper Skype etiquette."

"She's in Germany," said Blair, cradling Charlotte. "There's no mistaking those sirens."

"So Alec was right – she's on some kind of mission," mused Jo. "And at her age."

"Younger than we are," said Blair.

"But we're not running around on covert ops. Unless you're real deep undercover, babe."

"If I were," Blair said imperturbably, "you'd never know."

"Ha! You can't keep anything from me, babe."

"Jo, darling, I've always been able to keep things from you."

"Name one thing."

"My feelings for you, when we were at Eastland."

"Oh. True."

"When I leased River Rock."

"OK – sure, I guess that would count."

"The rents on the Amsterdam Avenue property."

"True. But that's all old stuff, babe."

"You want something more recent?"

"There isn't anything recent."

"Isn't there?" Blair glanced meaningfully at their little bundle of joy.

Jo laughed. "Touché! Touché, babe! So, OK. Maybe you could be running black ops and I wouldn't know it. Frankly, if you are, I'd rather not know it."

"The only mission I'm on right now," said Blair, "is looking after both of you." She embraced her wife and daughter.

"That mean you're going to cook me some of your famous oatmeal?" Jo waggled her eyebrows adorably.

"Well … I suppose I could be prevailed upon to make the oatmeal. But Rory makes the eggs and bacon. No one makes eggs and bacon like that girl."

"Agreed," said Jo.

Charlotte stirred sleepily. She made a funny little crowing sound.

"See – Charlotte agrees too," said Jo.

Charlotte opened her dark eyes. Her face crinkled, and her mouth made tiny, hungry motions.

"Hmm – I think that oatmeal's going to have to wait a few moments," said Blair, opening her pajama top.

"Our kid sure eats a lot," Jo observed.

"That means she's going to be strong and healthy, like us." Blair settled back against the pillows, holding Charlotte gingerly while the baby nursed.

Jo lay next to her wife, leaning on one elbow. The early morning light painted Blair's hair silvery-gold. The warm light on Blair and Charlotte's skin made them look like a mother and child in a painting by one of the old masters.

"What are you thinking?" Blair asked Jo after a time.

Jo smiled. "Just … not really thinking. Just feeling."

"And what are you feeling?"

"Content."

"Me too."

"Sure." Jo smoothed an errant feather of Blair's silvery hair. "You always feel content. Kind of an unusual feeling for me, though."

"It's good for you to take a breath, now and again," said Blair.

"I could rest like this forever," said Jo. "Just watching you two …"

"I still can't take in how tiny she is," Blair said wonderingly.

"I know." Jo touched one of Charlotte's miniscule toes. "She's like a little princess, in one of those old fairy tales. She's our little fairy princess."

"Yes … She is."

Jo took Blair's hand and kissed it.

"I love you, babe. I'm not always … I'm not always able to find the words I want to say. I'm not poetic or anything. But when I look at you, and now, you and Charlotte, my heart gets so full …"

"I know, darling. I know," said Blair, voice husky.

"Every year it gets better," Jo continued. "There's always more, like … You've got levels, babe. You've got levels. And now we've got a whole new adventure with our daughter."

"You've got levels, too, darling. And I'm sure Charlotte," Blair stroked the fluffy little head, "will have levels, as well."

"She's going to be a pistol," laughed Jo, "if she takes after us. I suppose we should enjoy it while she's still this little and we can hold her, before she can walk – and then run."

"We're going to enjoy every minute," said Blair. "Darling – I never … I knew we would be happy, but I never expected to be this happy. Not in a million years."

"I know. I know exactly what you mean," said Jo, squeezing Blair's hand. "I almost … It's almost like …"

"Like we're going to anger the Fates?" laughed Blair. "That's what good old Nat would say. You know, looking back I remember we were always worried about going our separate ways. But we've always found ways to stay in each other's lives."

"Sure – even mysterious Skype calls from Berlin," said Jo. "And speaking of 'good old Nat', she's coming to brunch. And she's bringing the Holy Terrors."

"Good. Charlotte needs to bond with her cousins. And when is Lexi's tour finished – do you know?"

"Not for another couple of months," said Jo. "Speaking of which, did you see Lexi's bombshell on the news last night?"

"What bombshell?"

"Lexi's got a girlfriend!"

"No!" Blair feigned shock.

Jo's eyes narrowed.

"You knew," Jo accused.

"Knew what?" Blair asked, all innocence.

"You knew Lexi had a girlfriend. You knew she and her lead guitarist are in love."

"Well … I might have had an inkling," Blair conceded. "But I didn't know they were going to call a press conference to announce their love to the world. Did they look happy?"

"It wasn't a press conference," said Jo. "It was an interview. Diane Sawyer grilled them. And yes, they looked happy. Radiant, even. They looked – I don't know, I guess we probably looked that happy when we were their age."

"And how do we look now, darling?"

"Even happier," grinned Jo. Her eyes shone. She kissed her daughter and then her wife. "Even happier."

The End

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