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SPOILERS: May be references and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is always appreciated.
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Sweet Child of Mine
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

Mid-July 1990. Manhattan. The Palm Court, the Plaza Hotel, Central Park West.

At a table near the center of the Palm Court sat two extremely attractive young people. It was too late for breakfast and just very slightly too early for lunch. The place was deserted except for silently moving, nimbly competent wait staff placing luncheon settings on tables draped in snowy linen.

The attractive man and woman at the center table were both in their mid-twenties.

He was tall, strapping, resplendent in a dark suit. He was blessed by dark curling hair, the chiseled features of an archangel, and stunning sapphire-blue eyes.

She was slender and athletic, with dark hair that fell to her shoulders in a stylish, professional cut. Hers were keen blue-green eyes set in a lovely face. The woman wore a simple blue afternoon dress—Chanel—that had cost the earth, and only the subtlest touch of makeup on her eyes and mouth.

Anyone who didn't know them would imagine that they were a couple. And, at the moment, not a particularly happy couple.

The man was frowning. He seemed sunk in a deep depression.

The woman was compensating with an exaggerated smile. The smile didn't seem to fool the man—it didn't even seem to fool the woman, who looked like an intelligent sort.

Alec sighed. He ran a finger around his crisp white shirt collar.

"Steady on, old chap, old chum," Jo told him encouragingly, widening her smile so much it hurt.

"Steady on? Bloody hell," Alec swore softly. "Steady on? When this collar is bloody well strangling me?"

"Hey—no need for that kinda language," teased Jo, still grinning. "And you ain't stranglin. It's just, you know, nerves." She lightly punched his arm.

Alec groaned.

"You're being cheerful, Artemis. Cheerful! And sweet. Utterly unlike your normal demeanor. Which can only mean that the apocalypse truly is nigh."

Jo frowned.

She punched Alec's arm again—this time not so lightly. In fact, the punch rather hurt.

"Ow," said Alec. And then, gratefully, "Thank you, Artemis. Violent abuse. That's more like it."

"So it ain't helpin' you, huh—me actin' like 'Jo of Sunnybrook Farm'?"

"I should say not! Far from it," said Alec. "What I need, Jo, is for you to behave in your normal fashion. Typical Jo Polniaczek. Just as if this were a typical day."

"OK. I can work with that," Jo said. She punched his arm again—harder this time.

"Ow," said Alec. "Thank you."

"Permission to speak freely, old chum, old chap?"

"Of course, Artemis, dear."

"Alec—you're a freakin' idiot."

"Marvelous," he said gratefully. "That's the stuff. This is very encouraging. Pray continue."

"I mean it. You're an idiot," Jo said. "Why did you do it? Why? Why invite the 'Duke and Duchess of Pain in Your Ass' to New York?"

Alec sighed.

"It had to be done."

"But why?"

"Because," he passed an agitated hand through his hair, mussing his curls," because Tootie and I can't hold off the christening any longer. And my parents have to be there. They must."

"What is that?" scoffed Jo. "Rule Number Twenty-Three in 'Ye Olde Snobbo Handbook'? The parents of the dad have to be at the christenin', or heads'll roll?"

"It's Rule Forty-Six," Alec said. He smiled at her—a smile that was both warm and terrifically sad. "It's just … It's tradition, old chum."

"Eff tradition," Jo said decisively.

"And if I could, I would. Oh, how I would that I could! But I have responsibilities, Artemis. Just as you do. Think of Rose. She might drive you to distraction at times, and you don't always see eye-to-eye—but she's your mother. You love her. And she loves you. You couldn't cut her out of the most important moments of your life—you couldn't. Not ever."

"Well … Yeah, true," Jo admitted.

"Even when she all but disowned you, when she refused to accept your love for Blair that dare not speaketh its name—even then you loved your mother, and reached out to her, and hoped that she would learn to accept you as you are."

"Yeah, yeah … All true," Jo conceded. "Except, you make it sound a lot more flowery than it was. By a mile. And, I mean, I think we're talkin' apples and oranges here. You can't compare my mother to your mother."

"Motherhood is a universal state of being, Jo. Every mother wants to protect her child. And every child loves its mother. And wants to be loved by its mother. A universal dictate, Artemis. No way around it."

"So, OK," said Jo, "OK, I'll let that one go. So you hadda invite your Mater. Pip-pip, cheerio, full steam ahead. But why'd you invite your father, too? Ain't your mother gonna be enough of a royal pain in the ass?"

"Noble pain in the ass, Artemis. Noble. You always," he smiled again, "you always elevate us."

"Royal, noble—same thing."

"Bite your tongue," he laughed.

"The point's the same. Alec—why are you puttin' yourself through this?"

Alec drew himself up a bit taller in his chair.

"I'm thinking of little Lexi," he said soberly, "and all that she's entitled to. Just because I'm, well, a bit of a ne'er-do-well, that's no reason to tarnish my daughter's future."

"Well whether she takes after you or Tootie, Lexi ain't gonna give a hang about all the royal or noble snobbo stuff."

"It's not all bad," said Alec. "There's even a beauty to that life, if you embrace it properly."

Jo snorted. "Sure. That's why you been hangin' out in the good old US of A for all these years, keepin' as far away from your family as possible. Cause you find all that aristocratic boloney so beautiful."

"Yes, well … I find that where my family is concerned, absence most definitely makes the heart grow fonder," Alec conceded. "But the aristocratic life has its compensations. If only things had … If only Jacqueline had seen her way clear to, well …" His eyes grew unfocused and far away for a moment, then he shook himself. "I married Tootie," he said firmly. "And I do love her."

"I know you love Tootie," Jo said, voice dropping into an uncharacteristic softness. "And I know you only went back to Jack 'cause Tootie sent you packin'. But you love Jack, too. And—"

"I don't want to speak about Jacqueline," Alec said sharply.

"Well you brought her up, sore-head," scowled Jo.

"Well I'm un-bringing her up."

"Un-bringin'? That ain't even a word. Even I know that ain't a word."

"Neither is 'ain't'," Alec said. "'Ain't' ain't a word. So touché, Artemis."

"For cryin' out—"

Alec held up one large, pale hand. "Not another word about Viscountess Messerschmitt," he said. "She is married to her dullard dolt of a husband, and I am married to the very lovely, very talented Tootie. I have no cause of complaint."

"No cause of complaint? Are you kiddin'? Tootie told you she was gonna annul the marriage, she throws you outta the country and tells you to go woo Jack, then Tootie doesn't annul the marriage, then she has your baby without tellin' ya—"

"You make it sound like a ridiculously complicated screwball comedy, Jo."

"You think? But minus the comedy. I had to deliver your baby, for Pete's sake! Believe me—there wasn't anythin' funny about it."

"I have no cause of complaint," Alec said imperturbably. "None. When Tootie sent me packing, as you so crudely put it, Tootie believed she was doing what was best for me. It was, in fact, very noble of her, keeping her, er, pregnancy secret so that I could woo Jacqueline."

"I'm not sayin' it wasn't noble and self-sacrificin' and all that. Tootie's got a good heart. But still. All of a sudden you find out you still got a wife, and, hey, surprise! You got a kid, too! And, I mean … I know it was almost a year ago, but you still must be all kinda messed up about it."

Alec drummed his long fingers on the snowy white table cloth.

"I don't know," he said slowly, "that any fellow ever recovers from matrimony. But it is a dead certain fact that no man ever recovers from fatherhood. If you and your fair inamorata ever have a child … Then you'll know."

"Know what?"

"What it is to be a parent. It's … shattering. In the most beautiful way. There's nothing you won't do for the little creature. Nothing."

"Including invitin' the Mater and Pater to New York?"

"Including inviting the Mater and Pater to New York," Alec agreed. He sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I've been pulling long faces and moaning 'Woe is me'. I am nervous—terrified, in fact. But for Lexi—it's worth it. D'you know," he placed a brotherly hand on Jo's shoulder, "this last week I've really felt for you and Blair. I mean, you've always had my sympathies and best wishes, but until this week I didn't really, not really, understand what it felt like to have the full force of intense parental disapproval thrust upon one. What hell it must have been for you, Artemis. And what hell it must be, still, for the fair Aphrodite, living in the shadow of her hag-mother's disapproval."

Jo glanced at the hand on her shoulder.

Alec hastily removed it.

"Sorry," he said.

"Look," said Jo, "I'm here. OK? Whatever you need. But to quote the great Han Solo, I've got a bad feelin' about this. A very bad feelin'. Like, 'Alderaan's about to be blown to smithereens like a fiery piñata' bad. If this thing goes south, you say the word and I'll get you outta here. I've got your back."

"You'll never know," said Alec, "how comforting that is ..."

They sat in silence for a moment.

A waiter brought Alec a glass of Macallan and clear water, and a glass of white wine for Jo.

They clinked glasses.

"Na zdrowie," Jo toasted in Polish.

"Mud in yer eye, ducks," said Alec.

They drank, long and deep.

Alec made a twirling motion with one hand, indicating to the waiter that they wanted another round. The waiter nodded and slipped away.

"I love the Plaza," murmured Alec.

"Amen," said Jo. "Lotta good memories here. Crazy memories, too, but … Mostly good."

Alec regarded her thoughtfully. "This is where I tumbled to your and Blair's secret. You were behind the potted palms, and she had just bit your lip. You were bleeding, and you both looked magnificently fierce. The most fearsome goddesses."

"Eh, you always exaggerate," complained Jo.

"That's how I remember it."

"What I remember, mostly," said Jo, "is this is where I proposed to Blair. I mean, not here, exactly. Not in the Palm Court. Up in the suite." She sipped the wine, thoughtfully. "Jeez, pal, you're so lucky you can be married. You're so effin lucky …"

"Steady on," Alec said quietly. "Your day will come, yours and Blair's. I'll be propping you up at the altar someday, keeping you from fainting as the glorious Blair Warner glides down the aisle."

"Yeah? I hope so." Jo drained the wine glass. "'Cept, I ain't gonna need to be propped up."

Alec lifted an eyebrow.

"I won't," said Jo. "I'll be too happy to be nervous. What? Why are you makin' that face?"

"What face?"

"The, you're makin', you know, a face. Cut it out."

"I am, perhaps, a tad skeptical," Alec said.

"What, you really think I'm gonna be nervous, marryin' Blair?"

"Matrimony," Alec said wisely, "is a terrifying and knock-kneed proposition."

"Well, not for me, bub. I'm gonna be cool as a cucumber. I'm gonna be grinnin' ear-to-ear and ready to go full speed ahead."

"If you say so, Artemis, dear."

"Well I say so."

"Lovely."

"It is lovely."

"I don't suppose," Alec's clear blue eyes twinkled, "I don't suppose you'd care to lay a small wager on the matter? Nothing outrageous. A nominal sum. For the, well, sport of it, you understand."

"Are you serious?"

"Naturally. I never jest about my wagers."

Jo laughed.

"OK, sure. I'll bite."

"Shall we say … a thousand dollars?"

"Hey, whoa. A thousand dollars? We ain't all billionaires, buddy."

"You are, however, a newly minted Doctor of Law, with every prospect of earning a comfortable living. And your fiancée is, in point of fact, very near to being a billionaire. Standing on the mat, as it were. Knocking at the door."

"Yeah, well …" Jo bit at a fingernail. Alec was right, of course, she realized. Jo was likely to earn quite a comfortable living with her Harvard law degree. In time, anyway. And since Blair had recovered her inheritance, she was once again one of the richest young women in New York. Hell—in the world. Not that Jo would ever use Warner money to pay off a wager. No. This was strictly between her and her best friend …

Alec brushed a minute speck of dust from his cuff.

"You aren't … scared, by any chance?" he asked demurely.

Jo laughed. "Oh, no, milord—You ain't gonna provoke me that easy."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Sure you don't. Ha! Well, look, I know I ain't gonna be faintin' at the altar. So you just put me down for that thousand dollars. Anyway, by the time me and Blair can get married, I mean, I'll prob'ly be usin' thousand dollar bills to blow my nose in."

Alec whisked a tiny black notebook from his breast pocket.

He wrote in it with a little gold pencil.

"What's that?" Jo asked.

"My wager book," he said. "So … Joanne Marie Polniaczek wagers 1,000 pounds—"

"Dollars, Mr. Slick. 1,000 dollars."

"Very well, 1,000 dollars that she will not feel faint at the altar when she weds her, er, intended. And I wager 1,000 dollars that she will. There. "

A final stroke of the pencil.

Alec returned the wager book and pencil to his breast pocket.

"Done and done," he said cheerfully.

The waiter returned with their new drinks, and removed their empty glasses.

Alec and Jo touched glasses again.

"Salute," Jo toasted in Italian.

"Bless yer buttons," said Alec.

They drank.

Alec made the twirling motion again, and the waiter retreated to bring them thirds.

"We shouldn't, you know, get drunk," Jo said. "That won't make the greatest impression on your folks."

"Nothing can make a worse impression upon them," said Alec, "than marring an American commoner and having a secret child."

"Er … Yeah. True," Jo conceded. "Still …"

"Yes," said Alec. "Still …"

They sipped their drinks in companionable silence.

"So you're puttin' 'em up here," Jo said finally. "At the Plaza."

"Yes."

"They're stony—aren't they?"

"Yes. Aside from the money I've given them, the Mater and Pater are as stony as I was, until Aunt Viv unaccountably left me her fortune."

"Not unaccountably," Jo said quietly. "She loved you, pal."

Alec nodded. He cleared his throat. Talking about his late Aunt Vivienne always made him rather maudlin.

"Well, for that matter," he said, "Aunt Viv had a great fondness for you. She told me once … She said you and I would've made a fine couple."

Jo laughed. "Me? And you? She must've been goofin' with you!"

"I don't know that it's quite that hilarious a thought," Alec said a little coldly. "But Aunt Viv knew your heart was fixed upon on Blair. And that was an end of it. I told her my heart was set on Jacqueline, but Aunt Viv said … Well … She didn't think Jacqueline was the one."

"Your Aunt Vivienne was a smart old broad," said Jo. "She knew what was what. So if she said Jack's not for you, Jack's not for you."

"I thought I said I didn't want to talk about Jacqueline," muttered Alec.

"Well, you keep bringin' her up, old buddy, old pal." Jo slugged down the rest of her wine. "Phew! I think this is a pretty damn powerful vintage."

Alec drained his Macallan. He turned the glass between his hands.

"I do love Tootie. I wish … I wish she loved me as much as I do love her."

"She's still pretty much a kid," Jo said reasonably. "Give her time. I mean, you've always got along so well. You're both so effin' talented. And you both like the same stuff, music and singin' and the theater, and all that. And now you're raisin' the kid together. You're just, you're bound to get closer and closer."

Alec nodded, not at Jo, but at his glass.

Jo glanced at her wristwatch. The rather plain watch with the brown leather strap that her father Charlie Polniaczek had given her seven years ago, when she began her college studies at Langley College.

Seven years ago, thought Jo. So much water under the bridge. So damn much …

"You're parents are late," Jo noted.

"It's not like them," said Alec. "They're never late. It's one of the things about being stony. You're always eating someone else's crust of bread, drinking someone else's saucer of milk. So you pay with courtesy. You're punctual. Though the heavens fall."

"Well, since the crust of bread and saucer of milk are from their own son, maybe they don't think they gotta bother with bein' on time."

"No. No, I suspect … I suspect they're as nervous as I am. Because they deeply disapprove of my marriage, and my life. But I hold the purse strings now. They can't approve, but they can't, well …"

"They can't tell you to go to hell."

"No. They can't. That is, they can, but … It's very … fraught." He glanced around the Palm Court. "Where the hell is that waiter? Did he sail to Scotland for the Macallan?"

"Alec, you just freakin' finished a drink. Take a couple breaths. It ain't gonna kill ya."

"I hope the flight wasn't too difficult on Mummy," he mused, turning the glass faster. "She doesn't care for flying."

Jo laughed. "Mummy? Do you really call her that?"

"Do you really call Rose 'Ma'?" challenged Alec.

"Sure. 'Ma'. That's a nice, plain, grown-up thing to call a mom. Whereas Mummy makes you sound like Little Lord Freakin' Fauntleroy."

"Well, I am Little Lord Freaking Fauntleroy. Little Lord Freaking Nethridge, any road," Alec said reasonably. He passed a hand through his curls again. "I hope Lexi's all right."

"Why wouldn't she be? She's with Tootie—ain't she?"

"Ye-es," Alec said doubtfully. "But Tootie's been tired lately, working such hellish hours at the repertory. And Lexi can be rather trying at times. She has little fits of temperament. Adorable fits of temperament—but fits of temperament, nonetheless."

"So, basically, the kid takes after you and Tootie."

"Yes. True. Especially Tootie. Though you needn't quote me on that in front of my wife. But whereas I find Lexi's squalls rather sweet, Tootie tends to find them exhausting."

"I suppose there's only room for one diva in the family," said Jo. "And bein' the baby of the group, that's what Tootie's used to bein'. The one-and-only diva."

"And now she has to share top billing," Alec agreed. "I don't mind so much being pushed out of the limelight. I'm a fine accompanist, if you will. But Tootie is … adjusting."

"I don't know why she's gotta go be in some crummy play right now anyway," said Jo. "She oughta be home with the kid."

Alec twinkled. "Jo—You sounded exactly like Ralph Kramden. Or Archie Bunker. I'm not sure which."

"Well she oughta. Loaded as you are, Tootie never needs to work a day in her life. If she stayed home with Lexi she'd get a good sleep and she'd have time to bond with the kid."

Alec shook his head. "Artemis, you ought to know by now that Tootie is only ever really happy in front of an audience. She needs that energy, that rush, that adulation. She comes alive when she performs."

"Well she can perform for the baby," Jo said. "She can get a, a rush or whatever from the baby bein' her audience."

"She does enjoy singing to Lexi," Alec mused. "And Lexi sings back."

"The kid already sings?"

Alec nodded. He beamed. "She sings a treat. Very melodic. That is, Lexi isn't quite singing the lyrics, yet, you understand, but she, well, she sort of sounds them out, and she carries the tune quite beautifully. Sometimes if Tootie isn't in a mood when she gets home, and she isn't too tired, she and the baby sing for me."

"Sounds real domestic."

"That part is. Yes."

"So while Tootie's off rehearsin' for this play, what're you doin' all day? Playin' 'Mr. Mom'?"

"And enjoying it thoroughly," smiled Alec.

"I thought you lords and ladies always handed your kids off to the staff until they were ready to be shipped off to school."

"That is the prescribed tradition. However, I will not be relinquishing Lexi's care to a sequence of grim-faced nurses, nannies, and governesses. Had my fill of that as a boy. I'm perfectly happy caring for Lexi. Even with her little tantrums she's a dear."

Jo leaned back slightly in her chair. "Never would've figured you for the dad type, old buddy, old chum."

"Neither would I have done, Artemis. But taking care of Lexi, it feels like, like the most important thing I've ever done—or ever am likely to do. It may be, quite simply, that I've finally found a princess who will let me thoroughly spoil her."

"Sure," said Jo. "Yeah, I get it. You finally found someone who adores you back."

"That sounds dreadfully shallow," Alec complained.

"But, nah, that's not how I mean it," said Jo. "I just mean, not to get all sappy and stuff, which I hate, but I mean, you're like Blair in some ways. You guys have a lot of love to give. Always have. But since you were kids, you never really had too many people to give that love to. And you never had much of anyone to give the love, like, back to you."

Alec squinted one eye. "Do you know, Jo—I think you might be on to something there."

"Of course I am. You got a lot of love to give, and now you got a daughter to freakin' lavish with love. And she loves you right back. I guess it's pretty cool."

"It is, Jo. It's more than a ne'er-do-well cad like me deserves."

"Shut up."

"Well it is."

"It's not. Do you know how many guys would've taken a powder, they find out their ex ain't really their ex and that there's a baby on board? You're OK, Anviston."

Alec put a hand on her shoulder. "Thank you."

"Hey—Let's not go nuts with the mush," Jo said darkly.

Alec withdrew the hand.

"Sorry," he said. "I forget sometimes that you're more or less a rather fetching version of Clint Eastwood."

"Well, don't forget it."

"Duly noted."

"It better be noted."

"It is." He glanced at his Tourbillon wristwatch. "Lexi should really be going down for her nap about now. I hope Tootie remembers."

"For cryin' out loud, the kid's with her mother—not Jack the Ripper."

"Obviously you've never seen Tootie after a rehearsal goes particularly badly."

"I haven't seen Tootie after a bad rehearsal? I hadda room with her when she was rehearsin' 'South Pacific' at Eastland. And trust me when I say, that production was not all tropical balmy skies. Far from it, pal. Far from it."

"Then you know what I mean."

"Oh. Well … Yeah."

Alec glanced at his watch again.

"For cryin' out loud, Alec, if you're gonna be so worried about it, just go call Tootie and remind her about the kid's nap."

"With my luck—and your luck—the Mater and Pater will toddle in just as I leave the room. You'll be stuck greeting them, like the proverbial deer in the proverbial headlights, while I'm in the lobby."

"You don't gotta go to the lobby," said Jo. "They'll bring a phone right to the table here."

"Will they?"

"Honest to Pete! You don't know that? Who's the noble here—me or you?"

"Well I haven't been out on the town in a while, Jo, dear. Been rather preoccupied at home."

"You're slippin', milord. You're definitely slippin'."

Jo raised one strong but delicate hand, catching the attention of one of the wait staff.

"Miss Polniaczek?" he asked respectfully.

"Hey, Karl—Can we get a phone with an outgoin' line? It's a local call. Manhattan."

"Certainly." Karl made a little bow and retreated.

Their third round of drinks arrived with the telephone.

"Shall I dial for you, sir?" Karl asked Alec.

"That won't be necessary," Alec said.

"Very good, sir. Simply dial '0' and tell the hotel operator that you would like a Manhattan number. She can dial it for you."

"Thank you."

"Happy to be of service, sir."

Karl hovered uncertainly between Alec and Jo, until she deftly slipped the waiter two crisp dollar bills. He made another little bow to her, and melted away.

"Ah, cor blimey—I should've tipped him," said Alec, as understanding dawned.

"Yeah. Of course you shoulda tipped him," said Jo. "Jeez, Alec. You really are slippin'. Things are in a pretty effed-up state when I'm the one keepin' on top of the etiquette."

"No argument here," he chuckled.

"And you owe me two bucks."

"Jo Polniaczek—how cheap can you be?"

"You owe me two bucks. And I'll take them now, if you please."

"And I'd gladly surrender them to you, if I were carrying any currency. Which I am not."

"You know, when you were broke you had an excuse. But now that you're a kabillionaire—"

"The rich and the poor never carry money," Alec told her, as if schooling a pupil. "The poor because, well, they don't have any money. And the rich because it's not on."

"What do you mean, 'it's not on'? What the hell does that mean?"

"It's not done. One doesn't carry cash. It's … gauche. Wallets make an unsightly bulge. And coins pull ones pockets all out of shape. The lines of one's garments don't fall properly. One carries a charge card, perhaps a club card, perhaps a check book. But not cash."

"Oh one doesn't, does one?"

"No. One doesn't."

"So how does one tip?"

"One's secretary or valet or some other dependent tips for one."

Jo's eyes narrowed.

"Not that you are, of course, in any way my dependent," Alec said hastily.

"Damn straight," said Jo. "You owe me two bucks."

"And I'll see that you get it."

"See that you do."

He lifted the telephone receiver, gave the hotel operator the phone number of the palatial Manhattan apartment in which he had established himself, his wife, and his infant after Lexi was born the previous August.

A pause.

Then, "It's ringing," Alec told Jo.

"Yeah," said Jo. "Phones do that."

He pulled a funny face. Jo laughed.

"Oh, er, hullo," Alec said as someone answered the phone at the other end of the line. "Mrs. Sprig? Might I have a word with my wife, Mrs. Sprig?"

Jo's eyes danced with laughter. "Mrs. Prig?" she mouthed to Alec.

Alec shook his head. "Mrs. Sprig," he mouthed. "Sprig."

"Oh," mouthed Jo.

"I see," Alec said into the receiver. "Well … I see … Very good, Mrs. Prig, er Mrs. Sprig. Yes. Yes. Very good."

He rang off.

He dropped the receiver onto its cradle.

"Well thank you very much," he told Jo. "Now I've offended the housekeeper. I think. She sounded grim. Grimmer than usual."

"Hey, don't look at me," laughed Jo.

"Don't look at you? Thanks to you I called Mrs. Sprig 'Mrs. Prig'. And I think she heard me."

"Eh, I'm sure she'll live."

"Honestly, Artemis, I would have thought earning a Juris Doctor degree—and at Harvard, no less—would have matured you somewhat. Instead of which you seem to be growing more immature by the minute."

"Oh yeah? Well you're turnin' into a nervous, flappy old hen. That's what you're doin', old chap, old chum. You're about as fun as a bag full of doorknobs these days."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah. It sure is so."

"Well pardon me for maturing, Jo. It happens. To most people. In the normal course of things, any road."

"And what does that mean? The normal course of things?" Jo flushed.

Alec held up his hands. "Let me rephrase that."

'I think you'd freakin' better rephrase that. And you know, there might be a reason I'm clownin' around a little bit. You ever think of that? You ever think maybe, I don't know, I might be a little nervous about meetin' the freakin' Duke and Duchess Fauntleroy? That maybe, you know, you bein' my best friend, maybe I want 'em to like me?"

Alec's mouth dropped open.

"The devil you say."

"Forget it," growled Jo.

"No, I shan't. Jo, dear, I had no idea. But I should have. Of course you're nervous. Of course. I'm an utterly insensitive blockhead."

"Yeah, well, there's one thing we can agree on," snorted Jo.

"You mustn't worry, Artemis. Yes, my parents are likely to be rude and snobbish, but that's how they treat everyone. Except, Mummy is lovely to me. But to everyone else, they're horrid. So there won't be any personal spite in it. Well, the Mater is horrid, the Pater is all right, I think, but he won't contradict the Mater so he always seems to be paddling the same horrid canoe. So, no, they won't like you, Jo, not a bit. Or if the Pater, does, he won't say so. But you aren't to take their loathing to heart."

Jo bit her lip. "Well that all makes me feel much better."

"Good."

"I'm bein' sarcastic, Lord Blockhead."

"I know. But I don't know what else to say. So I'm pretending you're being literal."

He raised his fresh glass of Macallan, and touched it lightly against Jo's fresh glass of wine.

"Down 'e hatch an' look out bellows," he toasted, grinning at his best friend.

"Bite me," said Jo.

They drank.

"So—What did Mrs. Sprig have to say?" Jo asked after a moment.

"She said that Lady Nethridge took Lady Alexis for a walk in the park. Which is a lovely idea, I think. It's good for mother and daughter not to be cooped up together at home."

"Oh, yeah, cooped up in that little chicken coop," chuckled Jo. "Alec, you make it sound like they're squashed into a Five Points tenement or somethin', instead of a place where you could freakin' land a coupla jumbo jets in the livin' room."

"The apartment does have its charms," Alec agreed.

"Lady Nethridge—Jeez," said Jo. "I can't quite get my head around Tootie bein' a lady. 'Lady Nethridge'. 'Lady Dorothy'. Is she enjoyin' it?"

Alec nodded. "Like a beautiful peacock. Or do I mean 'peahen'?"

"I guess some people are kinda born to that life," Jo said, sipping her wine. "Tootie's always liked to be pampered, to be the center of attention, to have people worshipin' at her feet."

"Lady Dorothy is transitioning nicely as far as becoming a ladyship," Alec agreed.

"It's the kid part that's givin' her the hassle—huh?" Jo asked shrewdly. "The 'mom' part. Where you gotta be self-sacrificin' and put the little brat's needs ahead of your own."

"If you would be so good as to not call Lady Alexis 'the little brat'—thanks ever so."

"I was talkin' generally."

"Tootie is … Tootie," Alec said. "And ever shall be. As I said before, it isn't easy for her to have second billing. But she's trooping on, as are we all. Tootie is very excited about the dresses she's picked out for the christening. The dress for herself, and the little dress for Lexi."

"So who are the Godparents gonna be?"

Alec grimaced. "We're going the traditional route. Naturally."

"Naturally." Jo lifted her half-empty wine glass to him, sipped some more.

"My idea. Not Tootie's. She would've been happy to have you three girls as Lexi's fairy godmothers."

Jo looked alarmed. She choked slightly on her wine.

"Never fear," Alec told her, "You're to be spared Godmother duties."

"Thank freakin' God," Jo breathed. "I can just picture me—Godmother to a countess!"

"And eventually a marchioness, and then a duchess," said Alec. "I knew you wouldn't thank me for saddling you with those duties."

"Blair would be OK, though," said Jo. "She'd be a great Godmother for a noble kid. Especially since Blair's a woman of the cloth now. And Nat, she'd love to be Godmother. Is she gonna be one of the ones?"

Alec looked down at the table. He drank more Macallan.

"Lady Dorothy and I are still discussing that very issue."

"So, Nat will be a Godmother," Jo said confidently.

"I just told you, Artemis, my wife and I are discussing—"

But Jo interrupted, shaking her head. "That's the kinda argument the husband never wins."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah. That's so. And no, I don't care to wager on it. But I know I'm right. So. Nat's in. Who else?"

"You have to understand, Jo, dear," said Alec, turning his glass between his large hands, "that I would, if it were simply me to consider, if it were simply my future, I would be ecstatic to have you and Blair and the fair Natalie and any of Tootie's friends serve as the Godparents for Lady Alexis. The more the merrier and pedigree be damned. But given the fact that my daughter is a member of the aristocracy—"

"I take it back," said Jo. "You ain't becomin' a nervous, flappy old hen. You're becomin' an insufferable stuffed shirt, bub."

Alec shrugged. "Perhaps. But while I plan, in some ways, to raise Lexi in the modern fashion, raising her myself, for example, rather than pushing her off to nurses and nannies, in some ways I am going to follow tradition to the letter. I am going to ensure that not only will she feel loved, she will also be prepared to assume her rights and responsibilities when she achieves majority. And there won't be any misstep, any blemish in her history that can haunt her when she's of age."

"Stuffed … freakin' … shirt," Jo repeated. "Wouldn't believe it if I weren't freakin' hearin' it. That what they're teachin' you in those International Relations classes?"

"If you mean diplomacy, and maturity, and careful contemplation, then, yes," Alec said coolly.

"So, enough careful contemplation. Who are the Godparents gonna be?"

Alec grimaced. "My parents," Alec said. "And Tootie's parents. You know—the parents of the husband and the wife. Following plain, solid, boring old tradition. And none of them are Catholics, thank God."

Jo leaned back in her chair. She seemed to be debating whether to pour her wine over his head.

"I don't mind Catholicism," Alec said hastily. "Artemis—you know me. I don't give a penny, really, for any faith. But it would've been a stumbling block for my Mater and Pater, you see, if Tootie's parents were Catholic. And I've no doubt Tootie's mother and father would have been less than thrilled if my parents were Catholic, truth be told. But happily, everyone is a lapsed Protestant of some stripe or other. Tootie's people are Baptist, mine Anglican. Hurrah, hurrah—they all lived happily ever after."

"What I wanna see," said Jo, deciding to let the Catholic crack go for now, "is I wanna see you askin' Harrison 'Rifle' Ramsey and Justice Pauline Ramsey to be the Godparents of your little bundle of joy. That's what I wanna see."

"Well, you shall."

"Ha! You better hope 'Rifle' Ramsey doesn't separate your head from your neck."

Alec waved a hand. "American footballers," he said dismissively. "Not even on with rugby."

"Don't be too quick to put down American football players," said Jo, eyes mischievous. "I've met the Rifle, and he could bench press you, milord, no problem. He could drop kick you into the next burrough."

"He can try," Alec said nonchalantly. But Jo thought he looked a little wary, under the nonchalance.

"What I really wanna see," said Jo, "is Pauline's reaction. The Justice has never liked you. And now you go and secretly marry her daughter, and knock up said daughter—I can't wait to hear what Pauline's got to say about that."

"You can be very cruel, Artemis. Quite slaying." Alec ran his finger around his crisp white collar. "This collar is too small. Quite choking. New tailor. And he's off by half an inch. Half an inch, at least."

"The only thing chokin' is you," said Jo. "You're chokin' thinkin' about what Pauline's gonna say to you."

"I say, Jo—what happened to all the moral support?"

"You kinda killed the moral support mood when you made that crack about Catholics."

"It wasn't a crack. It was just the ugly truth of the world."

"Which you're perpetuatin'."

"It isn't my doing. I'm sorry," he put a hand to his ear, as if listening intently, "did I miss something? Did I miss the proclamation designating me as the head of the Anglican church? And the high ruler of all things aristocratic? Do you think I made the rules? I hate the bloody rules! Why do you think I moved across the pond, and have had as little to do with my aristocratic roots as possible? But the rules are the bloody rules. And tradition is bloody tradition. And if you think anyone in my family or Tootie's would approve of a Godparent who was Catholic or … Well … It wouldn't be tolerated."

Jo's eyes narrowed.

"You were gonna say 'Jewish'."

"I was not," Alec muttered.

"You were. You were gonna say 'a Godparent who was Catholic or Jewish." She punched his shoulder, twice, very hard.

"Bloody hell," he swore.

"Bloody hell yourself. That's why you don't want Nat to be a Godmother."

"It's not about what I want. It's, it flies in the face of tradition. How can a fair dame of the Hebraic persuasion be a Godmother to a Christian child?"

"I don't know how. But you better figure out how, Blitheridge," Jo said intently. "Because Nat is Tootie's soul sister. And Nat is gonna be the kid's Godmother. Period."

"But—"

"Period. There's gotta be some kinda, some kinda secular Godparent role or somethin'." She pointed two fingers at Alec, shook them in his face. "You're gonna figure this out. You got that? Or your head is definitely gonna roll."

"Rifle Ramsey certainly has a tough act to follow," Alec observed.

Jo swore in Polish.

"I hate this," she said. "I freakin' hate this. Why do we gotta grow up? Back at River Rock, sometimes even in school, we could make our own rules. We could be who we are. Who we freakin' want to be. But out in the effin' real world, me and Blair gotta hide how we're together, and they call me a Pollock at work, and you're afraid to let Nat be a freakin' Godmother."

Alec sighed.

"If Mrs. Garrett were here," he said, "she'd say something practical yet encouraging. Like 'Life isn't a hay ride. But I know you'll manage.'"

Jo snorted. She felt tears pricking her eyes. It was the wine, it was Alec's blockheadedness, it was the world, it was the fact that they were all growing up. Not in some dim, comfortably remote future, but now, and here. They were all growing up, and they were really in the world now. And it could be so damn ugly …

Jo pushed the tears back. She snorted again.

"You're an idiot," she told Alec. "Mrs. Garrett would say somethin' way better than that tripe."

"Such as what?"

"Such as I don't know, but better than that."

"Well I never claimed to be a Mrs. Garrett. There's only the one."

Jo wished suddenly, very hard, that Mrs. Garrett was there. Damn Los Angeles, thought Jo. And damn Mrs. Garrett's stupid cooking show.

Even as Jo thought it she knew it was childish. Jo was nothing but proud of her former housemother, her feisty red-headed mentor. Mrs. Garrett worked hard every summer, flying out to LA with her husband, producer Drake Dante, and filming the new season of Edna's Edibles. She filmed all summer so she could be back in New York for the rest of the year. The morning cooking show—every episode containing a smidge of Mrs. Garrett's patented advice—had been syndicated across the country. Though nowhere near Blair or Alec in terms of finances, after a lifetime of hard work Mrs. Garrett was finally comfortably off.

And I'm so happy for her, thought Jo. But times like this, I just miss her so damn much …

"I know I'm a worm," said Alec, breaking in on Jo's thoughts.

"Yeah. You are," said Jo.

"Let me ask you this. Would your mother want me—a non-Catholic—to be Godfather to your child? Be honest, Jo. And ask yourself something else. Would Rose want Natalie to be Godmother?"

Jo chewed her lip.

"There," said Alec.

"There nothin'," said Jo. "Ma ain't the same person today as she used to be. She's grown a lot. She's down at St. Algon's all the time nursing the guys with AIDS. AIDS, Alec. And that ain't a Catholic hospice. Ma's grown a lot. People grow, if you push 'em enough, and if you give 'em a chance. But if you just kinda, if you roll over and go, 'Oh well, that's how it is, I ain't gonna challenge it,' then no, Alec Lord Blockhead, nothin' changes. Nothin' freakin' ventured, nothin' freakin' gained—and the crummy rules stay the way the crummy rules have always been."

Jo paused. She took a deep draught of her wine.

Alec sighed.

"You're right. Of course. As usual," he said.

"Damn right I'm right. Damn right as usual."

He touched his nearly empty Scotch glass to her nearly empty wine glass.

"Jo … Friends?"

"Whatever," she muttered.

"Jo. Please. Friends?" he asked again.

He tilted his head and looked so repentant that she relented.

"I mean, of course," she said. "Always, you dipwit. Just … Try not to be such a total ass. Will ya?"

"I'll try," he said meekly.

"Good."

They finished their drinks.

Alec caught a waiter's eye, made a twirling motion indicating that they wanted a fourth round.

"So lemme ask you this," Jo said. "What're your folks gonna think of me? I mean, what're they really, really gonna think of a nobody like me bein' your best friend?"

Alec raised his empty glass to her. "You, my dear Artemis, are a princess."

She snorted.

"You are," he said. "You're one of the most lovely, original, spirited, aristocratic—"

"Enough with the butter, Alec. What're your folks really gonna think of me?"

"I told you before … They'll be cool and unpleasant, but it won't be personal. Besides which … Well, it will all come right."

Jo's eyes narrowed.

"'Besides which' what?"

"Hmm?"

"Don't 'hmm' me, milord. 'Besides which' what? Whenever you break off like that, like you just did, you're afraid to tell me something."

"I? Afraid of you?" Alec pantomimed amazement.

"Yeah, you're a laugh-a-minute, old chum. C'mon. Spill. What'd you do?"

"I don't know why you should assume that I did anything."

"'Cause I've met ya. I know ya. What did you do?"

Alec sighed. "It's possible that during the course of conversation I might have let it slip that you are, well—"

"That I am, well, what?"

Alec ran a finger around his collar.

"That you're, ah, related to a certain Italian family of note."

"What Italian family of note?"

"You know, Jo, dear, you do look uncannily like her."

"Like who?"

"Like Emmie Savoy."

"The Italian princess?"

"Yes."

Jo's eyes narrowed to slits.

"Alec … You told your parents I'm related to an Italian princess?"

"Not to her, directly, but to the royal family. The Savoys. Now don't be difficult, Jo. It's a very flattering fib, if you look at it in the right light."

"What light would that be? The light where I ain't good enough unless I'm related to royalty?"

"See, Artemis, I knew you'd be difficult. That's why I never, er, got around to mentioning my little fabrication."

"Little fabrication? It's like callin' a donkey 'Seabiscuit'."

"Now that's where you're wrong," said Alec, shaking a finger at her. "You always talk yourself down, Jo dear. I don't know that you aren't related to the Savoys, through your Italian ancestors, perhaps. The resemblance is quite unmistakable, and you do have a certain fierce majesty. If there aren't some kings and queens knocking about your family tree somewhere, I'll eat my hat."

"You ain't wearin' a hat," Jo growled.

"Figure of speech, old chap. Figure of speech."

"Alec, you dipwit … I ain't sayin' I'm chopped liver. But I sure ain't no royal. And I really freakin' resent you puttin' me in a position with your folks where, jeez, I'm already freakin' nervous, and now I'm s'posed to live up to some, to some, royal standard or somethin'?"

"Just be yourself," Alec said. "Er, your more polished self. Even believing you're a Savoy my Mater will still be ice-cold to you—no fear."

Their drinks arrived.

Alec tried to touch his glass to Jo's, but she turned aside.

"Well I call that childish," Alec complained.

"Childish," said Jo, "would be if I dumped my wine on your head. Which, I'm usin' every ladylike bone in my body not to do. So count yourself lucky."

"I don't think wine agrees with you," said Alec. He sipped his Macallan. "In fact I'm quite sure it doesn't."

"What don't agree with me," said Jo, "is a bunch of phony-baloney lies."

"I'll sort it. All right? I will. I promise. But I'll sort it later. Can we just get through this bloody first meeting without dramatic revelations about your heritage?"

Jo glared into her glass of wine.

"Can we?" Alec pleaded.

"You got any other surprises up your sleeve?" asked Jo. "You didn't tell 'em I'm Tootie, or anythin'—did ya? I'm not s'posed to pretend to be your wife or anythin' wacky like that?"

"Good grief, no! I've already sent them newspaper clippings of Tootie's father, back in his pro football glory days, and of her mother's Supreme Court appointment. Establishing dear Tootie's pedigree. Showing the Mater and Pater she's hardly a common or garden commoner."

"Yeah, Tootie comes from a pretty impressive background," Jo agreed. "Though, of course, she ain't royalty like I am."

Alec grinned.

"You are a sport, Artemis. I'm so lucky to know you."

"You sure are."

"I toast you, Jo Polniaczek." He raised his glass in her direction. "I toast your beautifully—if inconveniently—honest nature."

"Get bent."

"Your plainspoken, straight-arrow, honest nature."

"Bite me."

Across the Palm Court, a man cleared his throat.

Jo and Alec glanced toward the sound.

Alec shot to his feet as if goosed.

Jo watched two people make their way at a leisurely, graceful pace toward their table. A tall, broad-shouldered man in white summer flannels, sixty if he was a day. He had a carelessly arranged mane of white hair, a magnificent white mustache, and the same piercing, sapphire-blue eyes that Alec, and Alec's Great Aunt Vivienne, and Alec's daughter Lexi all had. Aside from the piercing eyes and fine white hair, the Duke was rather homely looking, in a dull, comfortable way.

Holding the man's arm was a woman of rare beauty—curling dark hair and strikingly chiseled features—in an elegant black dress. The woman was no more than fifty, and whether by art of nature she had no silver in her hair. She carried a tiny, fluffy, nervously trembling dog in her other arm.

Jeez Louise, though Jo. Without thinking about it, she followed Alec's lead and stood up while the man and woman approached the table. Jo's mouth felt suddenly very dry. Alec's folks. A real life Duke and Duchess …

The man and woman had presence. You felt, Jo thought, that they were somebody. Their faces were slightly stern but otherwise expressionless. The Duke, Jo thought shrewdly, was probably a pretty OK guy. She suspected Alec got his friendliness and kindness from that quarter. The Duchess was where Alec got his stunning looks …

When the Duke and Duchess reached the table, Alec made a slight bow first to his father, then his mother.

"Pater," he said warmly. "Mater. Welcome to New York."

The Duke mumbled some indeterminate phrase. Jo thought it might've been, "Good of you, son."

The Duchess extended one lovely, perfectly manicured hand. Alec held it briefly and kissed it.

"My boy," the Duchess said softly, in the most well-bred tones that had ever struck Jo's ears. "My poor, poor boy." The Duchess rounded her rich tones just like a queen in an old black-and-white movie, thought Jo. But the Duchess, she was the real deal.

"Miss Polniaczek, allow me to present my parents, the Duke and Duchess of Anviston," said Alec. "Mater, Pater, allow me to present," Alec gestured toward Jo, "my great chum, the barrister—well, soon-to-be barrister—Miss Joanne Marie Polniaczek, Esquire."

Jo inclined her head and curtseyed—not the deep curtsey that Blair had taught her before they went to Italy so many summers ago, but a less formal curtsey that Blair had told her would do for greeting nobles in rather casual social situations.

Blair, I freakin' owe you big-time, thought Jo …

The Duke nodded vaguely in Jo's direction and mumbled something like "Charmed."

The Duchess nodded ever so slightly without looking at Jo.

The Duchess' eyes were all for her son. The Duchess had dark eyes, full of cool fire, and she looked at her son with such pity that Jo almost thought Alec might be dying.

The Duke pulled out a chair and seated his wife. Then the Duke sat next to her.

Only then did Alec pull out Jo's chair, and gesture for her to sit down. Jo lifted her eyebrows but she sat. Then Alec resumed his seat next to her.

A beat of silence.

"Well," said Alec.

"Mmmn," mumbled the Duke.

"I trust your, er, flight was comfortable," Alec said, looking from his mother to his father and back to his mother again. "The weather was fine, I trust?"

"Quite, quite," muttered the Duke.

"The turbulence was shocking," said the Duchess, in her impossibly well-bred voice. "But … I do not complain."

Jo lifted her eyebrows slightly again. It seemed a little cockamamie to her, to complain and then say you didn't complain … But as she had learned from her time in Blair and Alec's worlds, if you wanted to see eccentric and contradictory behavior that didn't make a freakin' bit of sense, all you had to do was drop in on the richies. As far as Jo saw it, a lot of the well-to-do were more freakin' nuts than the characters you ran into on the subway …

"Your suite was ready for you, I trust?" asked Alec.

The Duke nodded.

"Your suite is comfortable, I trust?" asked Alec.

The Duchess sniffed. "It's certainly adequate," she told her son. "We shall manage, certainly, in the time we're here. I know you always do your best for us, Alec, dear."

For cryin' out loud! thought Jo. She sounds like he's got 'em stayin' in a dungeon, instead of payin' for them to stay in one of the best suites at the Plaza Hotel!

Some of her thoughts must have passed across her face, because under the table Alec lightly kicked her shin.

Jo breathed deeply. She composed her features. She remembered her Harvard Law trial training. Composure. Always composure. Never let anyone in the court see what you're really thinking, only what you want them to see to win the case …

Another beat of silence … Not companionable, not comfortable.

The Duchess' little dog made a whining and then a yipping sound.

A waiter appeared with the silent grace typical of the superior service at the Palm Court.

The Duke mumbled something unintelligible.

The waiter tilted his head, politely telegraphing ignorance.

"My husband says will you bring him a glass of Macallan, please, with a little clear water," the Duchess said coolly. "I will have a glass of lime and tonic. And will you be so good as to bring a saucer of milk for my corgi?"

"Of course, your grace," said the waiter.

More silence after the waiter left.

Alec ran a finger around his collar.

The Duchess made a "tisking" sound. "Don't fidget, Alec, dear, there's a good boy," she said.

"Of course, Mummy," said Alec.

The Duke murmured something like "Leave the boy alone, won't you, dammit?" which the Duchess utterly ignored.

She stretched a hand across the table. She wore only one ring, a wedding ring, an enormous diamond set among a galaxy of smaller diamonds. Alec took his mother's hand.

"My dear boy," said the Duchess, "Mummy is here. We will fix this, Alec. We shall."

Alec grimaced.

"Now don't have a temper," his mother chided.

Alec released her hand, and sat back in his chair.

"I shan't. But you mustn't kick up a row, Mummy. I have invited you here to be Godmother to your granddaughter—not to, well … Not to cause difficulties."

The Duchess frowned.

It was, Jo suspected, the word "granddaughter". The Duchess didn't look like someone who was ready to be a grandmother.

"I'm sure, Alec, dear, that I don't intend to cause any 'difficulties'. On the contrary. You, my dear boy, have caused the difficulties. If you'll forgive my saying so. But Mummy is in your corner, dear. I am here to help you sort the difficulties. To smooth them over. To make things right again."

"Everything is right as rain," said Alec. "I have a lovely and talented wife from a very fine family—"

"An American family," said the Duchess.

"Where would Britain's first families be if there weren't, occasionally, marriages to American heiresses?" Alec said sagely.

"But your … Dorothy …" the Duchess seemed to find the name of Alec's wife vinegar in her mouth, "she does not bring the dowry of an American heiress. Does she?"

"Of course not. But I've done something rather radical mother. I've married for love."

The Duchess made that "tisking" sound again.

"It does happen mother—in even the finest families," said Alec. "There are love matches. It isn't as though I found Dorothy shivering in rags selling matchsticks in the Bowery."

"I know, but … Oh, my dear, dear boy." The Duchess shook her head sadly. She sighed.

"Did you not receive the newspaper clippings I sent you?" Alec asked. "About Dorothy's father? And her mother?"

The Duchess fluttered her fingers vaguely.

"We don't say that the, er, Rumsey—"

"Ramsey," Alec corrected, his voice rather tight.

"Yes, of course. We don't say that the Ramseys aren't people of note. We merely say … Well … Alec, dear. They are neither titled nor wealthy."

"Harrison Ramsey is a prominent barrister, and Pauline Ramsey is a Supreme Court Justice. They are quite comfortably set, I assure you."

"I dare say they're wealthy," the Duchess said rather impatiently. "But they aren't wealthy. They are not, as I have already pointed out, Alec, dear, in the sphere of the classic American heiresses who admittedly saved many of Britain's finest families during the Victorian and Edwardian ages. The Rumseys—"

"Ramseys, mother. Ramseys."

"The Ramseys are not comparable, for example, to the Jeromes," the Duchess swept on, "and your Dorothy is certainly no Jennie Jerome. The exchange, the equation, is title for fortune, my dear boy. Title for fortune. I do apologize for speaking so crassly, so vulgarly—but I thought I had tutored you better than this." She sounded disappointed, but she touched his hand, lightly, as if to mollify the sting.

Alec was looking less nervous and more grim by the moment.

"What need have I, have we, of a fortune," he asked his mother, "since Aunt Viv was so good to me? Thanks to Aunt Viv's generosity, the Anvistons are secure once again. I can have a love match if I like—and I do like."

"Now, there's no need to look such a thundercloud," the Duchess said smoothly, as if Alec were a small boy in his nursery.

"I shall look a thundercloud if I like," Alec said firmly. "What you don't seem to appreciate," he spread his hands, the beautifully shaped, aristocratic hands that he had inherited from his mother, "is that Lady Dorothy has provided something far better than any fortune. She has provided an Anviston heir."

The Duchess, Jo thought, winced a little at the words "Lady Dorothy".

Good for you, Alec, thought Jo. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Duchess!

"Alec, my boy, since you insist on being dense, I'll have to put the case more plainly. What you have done is what many a young man before you has done—what your father, to be candid, might have done, if I had not saved him from himself. You have become infatuated with no more nor less than a chorus girl. An actress. A showgirl."

"Really, mother," said Alec, frowning magnificently.

"I am disappointed," said the Duchess in a tone of long-suffering, "but not shocked. No. Not shocked. Even Charles had his Nell Gwyn, back in the day. But what one doesn't do, my boy, is to marry the girl. It's not on. And any issue of such an ill-starred match—"

"It isn't an 'ill-starred match'," Alec interrupted grimly. "And how dare you call Lady Lexi 'issue'."

The Duke's eyebrows rose. His eyes, unless Jo imagined it, seemed to twinkle under their heavy white eyebrows. It looked to Jo like the Duke was thinking "Atta boy!"

The Duchess sighed.

"I can see you're going to be childish, Alec. Very well. We shall be in New York for some time. And I warn you now that I intend to bring you around to the proper viewpoint."

"And I warn you now, Mater, that I love my wife, and my daughter, and while you might not like the marriage, nor approve of it, everything was legal and above-board. Lady Dorothy and Lady Lexi are my wife and daughter and shall remain so."

The Duchess shrugged.

"Everything might have been legal," she said, "but I would hardly say it was above-board—since you never told a soul about the marriage until well after the marriage. Well after, even, the child was born."

"He didn't know," Jo put in, unable to keep silent.

The Duchess turned to Jo with something approaching wonder, as if to a dog or cat that had suddenly spoken.

"Pardon me," the Duchess said icily, "but this is a family matter, and—"

"Jo is family," Alec said firmly. But he lightly kicked Jo's shin, indicating he didn't want her to say any more.

"Well really," the Duchess said. "My dear boy … I nearly despair of your manners."

"And I of yours, Mummy," he said.

Alec stood.

In a show of solidarity, Jo hastily stood as well.

"Please enjoy an early luncheon, and a lovely afternoon," Alec told his parents coldly. "I shall see you here for at dinner at eight."

"But you're not leaving," complained the Duchess. "We've only just arrived."

"I must leave," said Alec. "My place is with my wife and daughter. Just now they're strolling in the park, and I intend to join them." He bowed, the briefest of bows, first to his mother, then his father.

Jo dropped a hurried curtsey—not, she was sure, one of her best.

Alec turned on his heel and stormed—gracefully—out of the Palm Court, Jo at his side.

Outside the Palm Court doors Alec paused and blew out a big breath.

"Catch me, Artemis. I'm going to faint."

Jo laughed.

"No. You ain't. Christ, Alec, that was terrific."

"Was it?"

"Yeah. You really stuck to your guns."

He pushed both hands through his hair.

"My God, how I love Mummy, but what an insufferable and conniving and—"

"Hey, now," Jo interrupted. "That's your Ma."

"But she's a dragon! A veritable dragon!"

"I ain't gonna disagree. But you stood up to her. You can do this, pal. You're gonna wear her down."

"Can I? Will I?"

"Yeah. And yeah. And I'll tell you somethin' else."

"What?"

"Your mother loves you. Anyone can see that. She really loves you."

Alec shrugged. "Well, yes. She always has."

"Well that already puts you one up on Blair. When someone loves you, Alec, you can always find a way to work things out. Even if it takes time, and patience, and lotsa, whaddya call 'em in jolly olde England? Lotsa rows."

Alec chewed the corner of his handsome mouth.

"So you think … You truly think I could bring her around? Like you brought Rose around?"

"I do. Except I didn't bring Rose around. She hadda come around on her own. And you're gonna have to give your mother some breathin' room on this. Don't, you know, roar at her. Just be sure she spends plenty of time with little Lexi. That'll do the trick. And don't call your Mum 'grandma' or anythin'. I get the feelin' she's not gonna like that too much."

Alec threw back his head and laughed.

"God's teeth, Jo—I think you're right there. Of course! The Mater must hate the idea of being a grandmamma."

"But once the Duchess gets a gander at cute little Lexi, you know, it'll be easier for her," Jo said encouragingly.

Alec bowed deeply to his friend.

"Joanne Marie Polniaczek, Esquire, once again you give me sound advice and a reason to go on living."

"What a goof," Jo complained.

"That's 'Lord Goof' to you, commoner."

Jo punched his shoulder. Hard.


Jo felt rather giddy as she took the elevator up to her and Blair's suite. Their usual suite. The one where Jo had first proposed to Blair. The three glasses of wine had made her a little giddy, and seeing Alec stand up to his mother had made her a little giddy, and, she had to admit to herself, meeting a real live Duke and Duchess, Alec's parents, after hearing so much about them over the years, had made her a little giddy.

But mostly what made her giddy was knowing she was about to see Blair.

It had been Blair's idea to stay at the Plaza.

"We deserve a little relaxation after graduation," she'd told Jo. "We deserve to pamper ourselves. And since Alec's parents are staying at the Plaza, and Alec and Tootie will be there all the time to see them, well, it just makes more sense for us to be on the spot than coming over from Morningside Heights all the time."

"Babe, you had me at Plaza Hotel," Jo had told her fiancée warmly. "You and me, shacked up in our favorite suite for a week or two with room service and champagne—what's not to love?"

Blair had smiled and lifted one eyebrow.

"I do believe you're becoming rather decadent, my little grease monkey."

"Oh, I am," Jo had laughed. "Especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom."

"Is that so?" Blair had said it in a rather pleased, rather challenging manner. Put your money where your mouth is, Polniaczek, said the dancing light in Blair's eyes.

"You left one of your stupid 'Cosmo' magazines lyin' around the other day," said Jo. "And I gotta admit, Babe, it had a very interestin' article in it. A very interestin' article."

"Do tell," Blair had said softly, advancing on her lover. "What did this article say?"

Blair had laced her fingers behind Jo's neck. Jo had placed her hands on Blair's hips.

"It said a lot of things," Jo had said, voice growing husky. She had pressed her lips lightly against Blair's pulse point. "It said a lot of things," Jo had murmured against the soft flesh of Blair's throat, "about a very interestin' technique for pleasin' a woman."

"I thought we already knew all the techniques," Blair had murmured in a blurry voice. She bared more of her neck, inviting Jo to kiss it again. Which Jo did. At length.

"This is somethin' new," Jo had murmured against her lover's neck. "And I think we're gonna like it …"

True to Jo's prediction, they had liked it. They had liked it so much they'd stayed up all night long, making love …

Jo grinned at certain intimate recollections.

The elevator door slid open.

She moved at a hurry down the hall toward her and Blair's suite.

Blair was supposed to have arrived by eleven a.m., while Jo and Alec were down in the Palm Court. Jo, arriving earlier in the morning, had already checked them in and unpacked her own travel bag in the suite.

Please be here, babe, thought Jo. Please be here. I need you …

Jo's hands fumbled as she opened her blue clutch bag and searched for the room key.

Christ … I feel like a teenager … Nervous … Excited …

She found the key. She pushed it into the lock, turned it, all but wrenched the door open …

In the foyer, Jo heard music—soft, romantic music—drifting from the suite's living room. The stereo was on. A romantic record or a romantic radio station. Instrumental. Mancini, maybe.

Yeah. Blair's here.

Jo hurriedly locked and chained the door behind her.

She tossed her clutch bag and room key on the little marble table by the door.

She slipped out of her low blue heels, kicked them aside, moved at a quick pace to the living room.

Through the large windows, noon light, hot and bright, gilded Manhattan and the park.

The stereo was on. Yes, Mancini. Something warm, and a little bit sensual, and …

Jo's breath caught in her throat.

Blair Warner stood in front of the windows, gazing out at the city she loved.

Blair was nude except for a silver chain around her neck.

She held a glass of red wine in one hand, the other hand toying with the silver necklace chain.

She didn't hear me come in, thought Jo. On account of the Mancini.

Blair was backlit by the noon light. Glints of sunlight caught blonde highlights in her hair but Blair was mostly silhouette. The proud way she carried her head, her impeccable posture, the full bosom, nipping in to a lean waist, and then flaring out again in a generous derriere. The strong thighs and the lean calves and the delicate turn of ankle.

Blair's beauty never failed to dazzle Jo, even after all these years.

Nearly seven years as lovers, Jo thought. And she gets more gorgeous, more, more damn womanly, every year …

What thoughts were chasing through Blair's mind, Jo wondered, as Blair held the glass of wine and toyed with the necklace chain and gazed out over the city?

Sometime I can read her like a book, thought Jo. But other times … Jo was beginning to think that Blair would always be a woman of secrets to her.

The music faded, and then stopped.

There was a hiss and pop as the needle shifted to the next groove.

In a moment the lush strains of Mancini's "Moon River" filled the room.

Jo went quietly to her lover.

She placed one hand on Blair's shoulder, slid the other arm around Blair's waist. Kissed Blair's hair.

Blair turned her head and smiled.

"Hello, darling."

"Hey, babe. This is a nice welcome."

They kissed lightly. Blair's mouth tasted of cabernet.

"To be honest," said Blair, "I didn't plan it. I thought you'd be hours and hours at luncheon. I finished my shower and I just, well, I came down here to think."

"Deep thoughts?"

"Not particularly. Lazy thoughts. We're on vacation—aren't we? 'Hail to Jo and Blair!' 'Hail to the graduates!'"

Jo pulled Blair tight against her, felt Blair's shoulder blades press against her own breasts.

"You looked pretty deep in thought," Jo said. "Everythin' OK?"

"Always, darling." Blair leaned her head back against the crook of Jo's shoulder. She took a sip of her cabernet. "Isn't New York the most beautiful place?"

"Center of the universe," Jo agreed. She dropped another kiss on her lover's hair, which smelt fragrant with shampoo.

"Luncheon was short," Blair observed. "I assume things didn't go particularly well with Alec's parents."

"Not exactly."

"I was afraid of that."

"Alec tried to be reasonable. But his mother was pushin' him to annul his marriage to Tootie and basically abandon the kid. I mean, she didn't come out and say it so crudely, but that was the gist."

"I'm not surprised. How did Alec take it?"

"He read 'em the riot act. It was pretty impressive. Then he stormed out, and I stormed out with him, like a good wingman."

"Good for him. And you, darling," said Blair.

"You've met 'em before. The Duke and Duchess."

"On several occasions. Mostly when I was a child."

"What do you think of 'em?" Jo asked curiously.

Blair shrugged.

"He's all right. Not particularly dynamic. But I think … I think he has a good heart."

"I think so too," agreed Jo.

"The Duchess is the brains of the operation. The brains and the drive. She's had to be. They've been broke for, well, since before Alec was born. And it's difficult to broke and be noble. People expect a certain lifestyle, you have certain obligations to fulfill, but you can't, really, not the way you're supposed to. Debts run up and bills aren't paid, and, well … It was very difficult for Alec. Very difficult."

"I know. He's shared some stuff over the years."

"I don't know if the Duchess was always so calculating, or if it was just something she had to become. She certainly raised Alec to be an opportunist—just as mother trained me. Though I think … I think his mother really loves him …"

"Well I'm happy to see you and Alec both overcame your unfortunate upbringin's," Jo said heartily, trying to keep the mood from turning too contemplative. It always made Blair sad—sad or angry—to think about her own harridan of a mother.

"I had a little help—a lot of help—from you," Blair said softly. "And Eduardo. And I think it helped Alec, living with us girls and Mrs. Garrett at River Rock. It showed him you could live for something besides money and security. That there were things worth more than material goods."

"Though, material goods ain't nothin' to sneeze at," said Jo. "Like this suite for example. Where," she trailed playful fingers across Blair's belly, "where shall we start the festivities?"

Blair smiled.

"What about right here?"

She turned her head. Jo caught Blair's lips, kissed her gently, and then with more intensity. Jo pressed her tongue into Blair's mouth. Their tongues danced together, the flavor of white wine and red wine mingling …

They kissed for a long while. Blair leaned back against Jo, seemed to melt against her, soft pale flesh against the soft fabric of Jo's blue Chanel dress.

Jo ran her fingers over and across Blair's belly in slow, lazy movements. She moved her other hand from Blair's shoulder down to cup one of Blair's heavy breasts.

"I love you," Blair murmured, eyes closing.

"I love you too, Blair," said Jo. She surprised herself, how intently she said it. She had meant to initiate a playful, rollicking session of lovemaking, but that wasn't the mood. Blair was melancholy. Yes. Something was making Blair melancholy, and Jo had caught the mood too.

And that was all right.

They both needed this, whatever the mood, thought Jo. They'd worked so damn hard to finish their doctorates at the same time that they'd hardly seen each other their last semester. But now Jo was back in New York—For good, Jo thought with satisfaction. She would pass the bar and start her first real job as a lawyer. Blair would be ordained as a deacon and take up her churchly duties. They would be busy—but they would be together again. No more separations. And with Nat and Tootie and Alec all living in Manhattan now …

Everythin's the way it should be, thought Jo. If we could just get Mrs. Garrett to move down here …

Jo pushed all thoughts of friends away.

She gave her lovely fiancée her undivided attention. She cupped Blair's full breast, lightly at first, and then gently squeezed it, and rolled a thumb over the erect nipple—a gesture which sent little shivers through Blair. Blair trembled delightedly against her lover.

Jo stroked and pinched and teased the nipple, drawing more delighted shivers from the debutante. Jo ducked her head and found Blair's earlobe, kissing it, and then lightly teasing it with her teeth. Blair groaned. Jo bit little love-nips down Blair's neck, then kissed the nape of her neck, and bit at it, all the while teasing the nipple.

"Inside," Blair murmured. "Please."

Jo's other hand dropped from Blair's belly to thatch of fine brown ("light blonde" Blair would always insist) hair covering her sex. Jo's palm pressed against the mound, gently, and then with more pressure, and she slid her fingers down to tease Blair's clitoris and nether lips. Blair's clitoris was swollen and she was already slick between her legs, slick and—Jo could tell by the way Blair moaned, and began to move against Jo's fingers—aching.

"Please, Jo," whispered Blair.

Ordinarily Jo would have teased her lover, drawn out the moment, but Blair sounded so intense. She was already at the edge of orgasm. There would be time, plenty of time, to draw things out later.

Jo pushed her fingers inside of her lover, felt Blair's muscles grasp her fingers, heard Blair hiss with excitement. Jo moved her hand, slowly at first but rapidly increasing the pace as Blair's muscles gripped and released, gripped and released, faster and faster, and Blair wriggled against her, mumbling "Joey, Joey, Joey …"

Jo felt the orgasm as Blair cried out. Blair's inner core was rocked with tremors, spasms; the debutante slumped against her lover, an enigmatic smile on her lips …

When the tremors stopped Jo withdrew her hand, which was wet as rain from Blair's orgasm.

"That was … mmm," Blair said quietly, eyes still closed, still smiling enigmatically.

Jo kissed the nape of her fiancée's neck, her shoulders, her shoulder blades, slowly. Sensuously.

"That," Jo said, "was just the appertif, Blondie. There's a lot more where that came from. A lot more."

"Good," said Blair.

She turned in her lover's arms, finally facing Jo full on. She pressed her heavy breasts against Jo's small, firm breasts, was pleased to feel, through the fabric of Jo's dress that Jo's nipples were standing at attention.

Warm chocolate eyes gazed into blue-green eyes.

Blair smiled.

Jo smiled.

Jo glanced down at the small silver ring suspended from the silver chain around Blair's neck. The ring Jo had given her lover almost seven years ago in this very suite. The ring Jo's grandfather had given her grandmother decades ago and a continent away. Blair couldn't wear the ring openly, on her finger—that would raise unanswerable questions—so she usually wore it on a chain around her neck.

"You still wanna marry me?" asked Jo, eyes dancing.

Blair nodded. "More every day," she said solemnly. "Even when you're being obstinate, or short-tempered, or insensitive—"

"OK, OK," laughed Jo. "I get the picture. And I still wanna marry you, Blondie. Even when you're bein' vain, or petty, or—"

"Let's call it even," smiled Blair.

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

"OK. That's sound fair enough." Jo kissed Blair's forehead. "So. You wanna tell me what you were thinkin' about, starin' out the window there? 'Cause it really, it really did look kinda serious."

"Later," said Blair.

"Nothin's wrong, is it? Nothin' serious?"

"Nothing serious," Blair said.

Jo nudged her chin toward the glass of cabernet in Blair's hand.

"How'd you do that?"

"What?"

"How'd you come so hard, but not even spill a drop of wine?" Jo asked, impressed.

"Spill my wine?" Blair asked, in mock-horror. "Do you take me for a barbarian?"

Jo grinned. "I'm the barbarian," she said.

Blair turned in Jo's arms again, faced the city and leaned back against the brunette.

"Take me again," said Blair. "Like this. It's sexy, with you behind me, feeling you, smelling your scent, but not seeing you, darling."

"Hmm. Is that a crack about my appearance?"

"Absolutely not. You're stunning in that Chanel."

"True. I am pretty damn stunnin'." Jo cupped Blair's breast again, dropped the other hand to Blair's thigh. "I'm takin' it slower this time," Jo warned. "A lot slower."

"Good."

Jo bit her lover's soft shoulder. She trailed her fingertips up and down Blair's thigh, with a maddeningly light touch, with a maddening leisure.

"This time," said Jo, "this time you're gonna spill that wine, babe …"


At 7 p.m. Jo was awaked from a very pleasant dream. She was dreaming about herself and Blair ravishing each other on a secluded Italian beach. It was part memory, from that Italian trip six years ago, and part fantasy as her subconscious improved and embellished the details.

Jo opened her eyes. Blair was shaking her. They were lying in their bed in the suite's second-floor loft.

"Darling, we have to get up now," Blair said. "We'll just have time to shower and put our faces on."

Jo sat up groggily. Reluctantly she pulled herself out of her dream. It wasn't the summer of '84. It was the summer of '90. And they were having dinner with Alec and his parents and the rest of the gang at 8 o'clock.

She cradled Blair's face with her hands, kissed the heiress.

"Maybe we can be a little late," Jo said, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

Blair's eyebrows rose. "Darling—aren't you exhausted?"

"Never."

"Well I am," said Blair. "And we can't be late. One doesn't make the aristocracy wait."

"Doesn't one?"

"No."

"They were late," said Jo. "The Duke and Duchess were late meeting me and Alec this morning."

"That's different."

"For cryin' out loud. Manners are manners. They're visitin' our country. This is a freakin' democracy—not 'Upstairs, Downstairs'."

Blair ruffled Jo's tangled hair, kissed Jo on the cheek.

"Do you mind if I shower first, darling?"

"We should shower together," said Jo. She waggled her eyebrows again, flashed her dazzling smile.

"It's a tempting thought, Jo, but both know where that will lead."

"I certainly hope so."

Blair pushed Jo back—gently but firmly—against the pillows and turned toward the master bathroom. "I'll jump in first," Blair said over her shoulder. "You lay out our dresses. Versace, I think. For both of us."

"What am I, a lady's maid?" laughed Jo.

She leaned forward and caught one of Blair's arms, pulled the heiress onto the bed.

"Ooph," said Blair.

Jo wrapped strong arms around the heiress' waist. She dropped kisses on the back of Blair's blonde head.

"We can be a little late," murmured Jo. "Can't we?"

"Well …" Blair said, drawing out the word with equal parts longing and reluctance.

"Sure we can," Jo coaxed. She tightened her grip around Blair's waist. Gently she drew back long strands of Blair's hair, with her teeth, and she kissed and nipped playfully at Blair's jaw line.

Blair swooned a bit in Jo's arms, managing only by a great exertion of will power not to close her eyes and fully surrender to her Jo.

How does she still do that to me? Blair wondered. I should be jaded by now. Immune. Instead of which I'm melting like so much ice cream.

Blair cleared her throat.

"Darling?"

"Mmmn?" Jo nibbled at Blair's earlobe, nuzzled the nape of her neck. She pulled Blair closer against her; Blair felt the warmth and moisture between Jo's legs, pressed against Blair's lower back …

"We really can't be late," Blair said regretfully, after a moment.

Jo sighed.

She knew that tone. It was Blair's polite-and-regretful-but-no-way-in-hell-can-you-change-my-opinion tone.

It wasn't that Blair didn't want Jo to take her, Jo knew. Blair was bowing—and forcing Jo to bow—to inevitability. Apparently they really, really couldn't be late to this dinner. And by mutual agreement long ago, Blair was the partner who called the shots on social engagements.

But it still sucks. Christ, it sucks …

Jo relaxed her hold on Blair, and Blair stood, hurrying toward the bathroom.

"Here's your hat, what's your hurry," Jo chuckled.

"If I don't get away from you now," Blair called over her shoulder, "I'm going to give in to my primal instincts."

"Well it's nice to know I ain't totally resistible."

"Believe me, darling—anything but."

Blair closed the door to the master bathroom. After a moment, Jo heard the bolt slide shut.

Jo leaned back against the pillows, lacing her fingers behind her head.

Blair shootin' the lock—that's for me? Or for her? Jo wondered. For both of us, I s'pose. And she's smart to do it!

After having spent little time together during the last year, they were having a bit of a honeymoon period. They couldn't seem to get enough of each other. And not just sexually. There were long hours lying in each other's arms, talking deep into the night, or just enjoying the sensation of being together.

Blair was keeping something back. Jo sensed it more and more the longer she was with her lover.

Blair Warner, Jo thought dreamily, what surprises do you have up your designer sleeves this time?

Jo wasn't aware of dozing off again until a gentle shaking woke her.

Jo opened her eyes.

It was like a scene out of a movie. A Grace Kelly movie.

Blair stood over her in a glorious lavender evening gown with simple but elegant folds and a deeply cut décolletage. A triple strand of pearls around Blair's neck and pearls at her ears were her only embellishments. She was kissed by some delicate scent—floral but woodsy. She had already perfectly applied her face, which, since this was a formal dinner, meant lipstick and eye shadow, mascara, and a touch of rouge.

Jo goggled.

"Cat got your tongue?" Blair asked archly.

Jo nodded.

"Can I take it from your mute and idiotic expression that you approve?" asked Blair, twirling once for effect.

Jo nodded again.

"Good." Blair smiled at her lover, a smile that was suddenly shy, and she blushed with pleasure.

"Blair, babe," Jo's voice cracked a little, "you're such a goddess. You know that—right?"

Blair's flush deepened but she only gave Jo a little smack on the thigh and said "Come on, it's your turn. Hurry up or we'll be late."

"Whatever you command, my liege," Jo said, still goggling rather stupidly as she untangled herself from the sheets and padded into the bathroom.

Jo had always been able to get ready in a heartbeat—hence her motto back at Eastland, "I just brush my teeth and go".

Even as her life grew more complicated, when she became a grad student and law intern and hobnobbed with some of the rich and famous, when her outfits became more elaborate than jeans and her hair styles more elaborate than a simple ponytail, she was still able to shower and wash up in record time.

So a few minutes after she stumbled into the bathroom, she darted out of it smelling fragrant with soap and shampoo and mouthwash, her hair neatly towel-dried and already moussed.

She was naked, all the better to slide immediately into whatever garments Blair had laid out for her. These turned out to be silky panties, strapless bra, and hose, and a sky blue dress as beautifully cut—and almost as deeply plunging in front—as Blair's.

After she had shucked into the garments and Blair had fussed over her for a moment, Jo regarded herself in the bedroom's full-length mirror.

"Uh, babe."

"Yes?" Blair was at the vanity, already uncapping the lipstick that would match Jo's gown.

"This is really glam, and all, but, you know …"

"I know what? Darling, come here so I can do your mouth."

Jo moved obediently to the chair in front of the vanity. Blair put a hand on Jo's shoulder, gazed critically at Jo's face, and began applying the lipstick.

Jo sat patiently immobile. Years ago it had driven her nuts when Blair dabbed "face goop" on her. Now Jo knew the drill.

After a moment Blair stepped back and smiled. She capped the lipstick and placed it on the vanity tray. She handed Jo a couple of tissues for blotting, tossed them in the little gold waste can after Jo had complied.

"Now," said Blair, "a touch of mascara."

This was duly applied in a mere moment.

Blair extended a hand and helped Jo to her feet. It wasn't as if Jo needed any help, but it was a gesture Jo appreciated. It actually made her, at times, a little swoony. But just at the moment she was too preoccupied with another matter.

"Um, babe?"

"What, darling? Oh, just a second." Blair took up a bottle of Chanel No. 5 and lightly spritzed the air around her lover. "Walk through it darling—quickly," she coached.

Jo walked quickly back and forth through the little cloud of Chanel No. 5.

Blair put a hand on one hip, tilted her head slightly to one side, and then nodded. She smiled again.

"Jo, you're a vision. An absolute vision."

Jo chuckled nervously. "Yeah, babe, but, uh," she stole a glance at the vanity mirror, "a vision of what?"

"Don't you like it?"

"I mean, yeah, I look like a knockout, not as good as you, but pretty good. But, I mean," Jo gestured vaguely toward her chest, "ain't this, like, a little bit over-the-top?"

Blair glanced at the plunging neckline of Jo's sky blue evening gown, the way the cut accentuated Jo's firm breasts.

"It's perfect," said Blair.

"Yeah?"

"Absolutely."

Jo squirmed slightly.

Blair gasped.

"Jo—are you … embarrassed?"

"What? Get bent," Jo muttered.

"You are. You're embarrassed. But why? You have a lovely figure."

"Look, I ain't sayin' I don't got a lovely figure, 'cause, sure, I do. But I don't usually, I mean, I never, you know, I don't usually walk around with half my lovely figure fallin' out."

"Nothing's falling out," Blair assured her.

"Yeah? 'Cause it feels like stuff's gonna fall out. Any second."

"Well, nothing will." Blair pressed light fingers to one of Jo's shoulders. "Do you think I'd let you dine with the Duke and Duchess if anything were going to fall out?"

"So, I guess not."

"I wouldn't," Blair said encouragingly. "Jo—you look absolutely noble. You're going to do your friend proud. And that's what tonight is about, isn't it? Doing Alec proud. Standing with him, shoulder-to-shoulder as he confronts his parents."

"I'm great with the 'shoulder-to-shoulder' part," agreed Jo. "But I'm more worried about the boob-to-boob part, where I fall outta this dress."

Blair leaned forward and kissed Jo's mouth, very, very lightly, a kiss with no more pressure than the wind from a butterfly's wing, to avoid mussing either of their perfectly drawn mouths.

"Jo Polniaczek?"

"Yeah?"

"Everything will be all right. I promise."

"OK," Jo said grudgingly. "You're the, you know, fashion genius and all that."

"I am," Blair agreed. "And I guarantee you will look nothing but elegant and proper tonight. Now," she reached for the modest silver cross hanging on a silver chain around Jo's neck, the Christmas gift she'd given Jo back in '83, their first Christmas as a couple.

"Whoa," said Jo, taking a step back. "The cross stays."

Blair grimaced.

"Darling, I know you love it, and I love it, because I gave it to you, but it doesn't exactly go with the ensemble. For a dramatic neckline you need a more dramatic piece of jewelry."

Jo's eyes narrowed.

"So, far be it from me to go up against you debatin' fashion, Blair—but that ain't it. Is it?"

Blair bit her lower lip.

"A-HA!" said Jo.

"Darling—"

"Darlin' my ass. You're tryin' to, to de-Catholicize me for Alec's freakin' bigoty parents," she accused.

Blair shook her head woefully.

"in the first place," she said, "'de-Catholicize' is not a word. At least, I don't think it is." She made a mental note to run that past her mentor the Bishop. "In the second place—yes. You're right, Jo. I do think the evening will go more smoothly if your Catholic cross isn't winking and blinking and reflecting the light into Duchess Nethridge's eyes all night."

Jo threw her arms into the air.

"I mean, is this freakin' America, or what the hell?"

"This comes under the heading of 'what the hell'," Blair said, unruffled.

Jo wrenched the necklace off, tossed it carelessly onto the vanity.

She glared at her lover.

"There. Happy?"

Blair took a deep breath. Her nostrils flared slightly. Now she did look a bit ruffled, thought Jo.

"I would appreciate it if you didn't take out your temper on the necklace I gave you," Blair said, the faintest hint of ice in her words.

"Hey, accordin' to you and the Duchess, it's some kinda mumbo-jumbo evil amulet," Jo said sulkily. Even as she heard the words she knew she was being childish, but in the moment, she didn't care.

Blair took another deep breath. Now her nostrils looked pinched, and her eyes narrowed—also, Jo knew, not good signs.

"It's for the best," Blair said tightly. "And if you haven't damaged it, you can put in on again as soon as we return to the suite tonight."

Jo snorted.

Blair turned toward the stairs that led down the main floor of their suite.

"Let's go," she said over her shoulder.

"Damn right, let's go," muttered Jo.


They found Alec sitting alone at quite a large table in the Palm Court. A harpsichordist played soothing music, appropriate for aiding one's gentle digestion. Most of the tables were full, as "dinner at eight" was still a tradition of New Yorkers and the well-to-do visiting from all corners of the globe. Succulent scents drifted from the surrounding tables. Silverware and glass clinked softly. Civilized conversations blended into one soft, sea-like murmur.

"Oh what can ail thee, knight at arms?" Jo hailed her best friend.

He stood when he saw them, and pulled out adjacent chairs for them. He was politesse itself but he neither answered Jo's salutation nor lost his glum expression.

"Alec, pal," said Jo, "if you look like you're goin' to the executioner, it ain't gonna help your case. The Duchess is gonna see she's got you where she wants you."

"What she said," Blair agreed. "Only, in English."

Jo shot her lover a dirty look.

Blair lifted her chin and glanced around the Palm Court, pretending not to notice.

Alec regarded the young women morosely.

"A lover's spat," he said. "Most enchanting. That puts the foam on my Guinness, for certain and for sure. As soon as the Mater sees how you're glaring daggers at each other, that jig will be up."

"Well at least Henry the Eighth here got my evil cross off me," Jo said darkly. "The Mater might figure out me and Blair are an item, but at least she ain't gonna know I'm Catholic."

Alec lifted his eyebrows.

"Aphrodite?"

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," said Blair. "I didn't want your mother going up in smoke over something so, so inconsequential. You'll have an uphill battle as it is."

"Ta, dear," Alec said. "Kindly meant, I'm sure."

"Well it's religious persecution," complained Jo. "And my Catholic faith ain't inconsequential, thank you very much."

"Oh, put a sock in it," said Blair—in hushed tones, and through a toothy smile so that no one at the nearby tables would imagine she was saying anything so déclassé to her dinner companion.

"Well it ain't," Jo insisted.

"Then take me to court, counselor," said Blair. "For religious persecution."

"You know, I should. I really should."

"Just remember I never touched you," said Blair. "You're the one who, who practically threw the thing across the room."

"Oh, now who's dramatizing?" Jo demanded.

Alec leaned his head on one hand.

"Yes," he said. "The evening is complete."

"Never mind our squabbling, Apollo," Blair told him. "We'll be on our best behavior for your parents."

"Of course we will," said Jo, sounding slightly outraged. "Why wouldn't we be? What are we—a couple of crum-bums?"

Ignoring Jo, Blair glanced about the table, noting the empty seats.

"Where is everyone?" she asked Alec.

"Yeah, buddy," said Jo. "Where is everyone? I was led to understand that if anyone was late, they were gonna be drawn and quartered."

"I never said that," Blair said sweetly to the empty seat next to her, still ignoring her lover.

"Au contraire, ma chre—you sure did say that," insisted Jo.

"But where is everyone?" Blair asked Alec again.

He shrugged. "Can't come."

"Who can't come?"

"Anyone. Everyone," he muttered.

"I don't understand."

"It's just life, dear Aphrodite. Life happens, you know. Natalie was sandbagged with an extra shift, and she couldn't beg off. And Snake wouldn't come without 'his old lady,' as he so endearingly put it. He said dinner at the Palm Court with nobility wasn't 'his scene' without 'his old lady' to 'run interference'. Which, baldly put, translates to him being scared, I think. But he wouldn't put it that way."

"Nah, he wouldn't," Jo agreed.

"But where are the Ramseys?" Blair asked. "Was their flight delayed?"

"No. They landed bang on time. But they're back at the apartment, babysitting Lexi."

"What—you couldn't afford a sitter?" Jo asked.

Alec gazed balefully at her.

"I'm tryin' to picture this," Jo continued. "Justice Iron-Face Ramsey, babysittin' little Lexi. What's Pauline doin'—readin' the kid a legal brief to put her to sleep?"

"Doubtless," said Alec.

"What about Tootie's dad? He still lookin' like he wants to crack your spine?"

"No. Not at all. Meeting Lexi seems to have mollified Harrison a great deal. He's doing something new, now, where he's very hearty. He grins at me, and slaps me on the back, which is very painful. Pauline can't stand it—which, for all I know, is why he's switched tack. But I really think it's meeting Lexi. She seems to have a very lovely effect on people."

"Except Justice Ramsey," put in Jo.

"Yes. Except her," Alec agreed.

"I don't understand," said Blair. "The Ramseys are supposed to meet your family. This is, well, this is it—isn't it?"

"It isn't," said Alec. "Hence my dour face. You noted my dour face, did you not, reflective of my dour mood? You remarked upon it, indirectly, when you arrived."

"Are they coming later?" asked Blair.

"No. They are watching Lady Lexi, and I am to reschedule the meeting with my parents."

"But don't the Ramseys realize, don't they, how, well …" Blair let the thought hang.

"They don't intend to be rude," Alec explained, "but they didn't see the point in meeting my parents without their daughter."

"Without their daughter?" asked Blair, glancing about the Palm Court again. Understanding dawned. "You don't mean—Alec, you don't mean …" Again she let a terrible thought hang.

"Oh, but I do mean," Alec said darkly.

"What is it?" asked Jo, looking around the restaurant. "What—did Tootie run to the john? I'll bet she's feelin' queasy as hell," she added sympathetically, "knowin' she's gotta meet ye olde disapprovin' Duchess."

Alec shook his head.

"My wife is not, as you so eloquently put it, Jo, in the john, or the loo, or the bog. She simply isn't here."

"Isn't where?" asked Jo, confused.

"Lady Dorothy," he said distinctly, "is several miles away from here. At a cast party."

"She's at a what?" demanded Blair.

"At a cast party. At the dear old Comet. That's the Off-Off-Broadway theatre where her rep is putting on a perfectly ghastly revival of 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. Not that she's ghastly, mind you. But the company is, and the play is, and how the hell am I going to explain this to my Mater and Pater?"

Blair leaned across the table and touched his hand.

"Alec—it's all right."

"How is it bloody all right?" His gloom finally melted away, erupting into full-fledge irritation. "I invited my parents thousands of miles to meet their daughter-in-law and their grandchild and their distinguished American in-laws, and their daughter-in-law is snubbing them, and their in-laws are home with the baby playing Happy Families. It's the worst possible impression. It's exactly what Mummy would expect from Yank commoners."

"Welcome to America," Jo said, nodding her head with satisfaction.

"Jo," Blair said in a low voice. "Not helpful."

"Well I'm on Tootie's side," Jo said. "And you should be too, Alec. She's your wife, for cryin' out loud. So yeah, she got cold feet. It happens. Who can blame her, the way your mother's so judgmental and so snobby and so—"

"So coming across the restaurant directly toward us," Blair interrupted warningly.

Jo bit back a few choice words. She managed a tepid smile.

Alec fixed his face in a strained grimace.

Only Blair was able to present an impeccably dazzling, not to mention quite genuine-looking, grin.

The Duchess looked glamorous in a black evening gown that conservatively covered most of her flesh while still somehow emphasizing her attractive figure.

When the Duchess reached the table Alec stood and Blair stood and—after Blair kicked her under the table—Jo rose to her feet.

Alec bowed slightly to his mother. Blair executed a lovely informal curtsey, which Jo half-heartedly echoed.

"Your grace," Blair enthused, "so lovely to see you again."

The Duchess nodded vaguely in Blair's direction. She made a vague, impatient gesture indicating that the women should sit. Which they did.

"Alec," the Duchess said as he pulled out her chair, "I'm very disappointed in you. I've been mulling things over," she sat, and he pushed in her chair, resuming his own, "mulling things over all the afternoon, and I am very disappointed in you. Haven't I raised you better than this? Haven't I? Now I know it isn't good manners to air our family … disagreements, I suppose, in front of others, but since this young esquire is such a bosom companion of yours," she nudged her chin toward Jo, "and since the Warner girl is, well, a Warner, I shan't hold my tongue. I shan't. You must be made to see sense." She rapped smartly on the tabletop with her knuckles.

"Where's the Pater?" asked Alec.

"He won't be joining us. This is a matter I'm quite capable of settling. Your father would only put an oar in wrong, get in our way."

Alec sighed.

Jo opened her mouth, but under the table Blair jabbed an elbow in her lover's side. With what Jo would later describe as "unnecessary roughness". Jo closed her mouth, but under the table she pinched Blair's arm.

"Mater," said Alec, sounding weary, "I wanted so very much for this to be a pleasant visit."

"And so it shall be," said his mother, nodding in an encouraging if cool manner. "If you see sense."

"I wanted it to be a pleasant and civilized visit," he continued, "but it can't be, if I'm the only one committed to being pleasant and civilized."

"I'm sure you aren't referring to me," said the Duchess, voice growing quite cool. "I am quite pleasant and civilized, always. Aren't I, dear boy?"

Alec bit his lip.

"Well—aren't I?" she pressed. "I didn't even mention that rather silly little scene earlier, when you most childishly stormed away from table. You're still young, I know. Emotional. You don't quite, yet, know your own mind. Well, Mummy forgives you."

She spoke as indulgently as if her were a boy of nine or ten.

Alec flushed. He sat up straighter.

Jo had seen that look before.

Atta boy, Alec! she thought. Give it to her. Both barrels!

"Mummy, that is, Mater, my marriage to Lady Dorothy is non-negotiable. We are married, we are parents, and you and the Pater are welcome to stand up as Godparents at the christening. It's your decision whether you want to do so—but that is the only decision, mark, the only decision you have in this matter."

Jo grinned at her friend.

Blair couldn't suppress a delicate little smile.

But the only effect of Alec's speech upon the Duchess was that she shook her head.

"What one needs do," she continued, as if Alec hadn't spoken, "and by 'one' I mean, naturally, you, is that one needs a quick and quiet divorce—like the one the Messerschmitt girl just arranged. There is a match for you, Alec. Lady Jacqueline. And don't tell me you don't have feelings for her. You set your cap for her when you were just a tiny lad. I remember. And I approve. Lady Jacqueline is one of us. She understands. She's a landowner, Alec."

"And I suppose I pitch my daughter aside," Alec said bitterly. "Just give the heave-ho to the most important person in my life now, to a little child who looks to me, who depends on me, who—"

The Duchess waved a bejeweled hand.

"Don't be tiresome, Alec. The child is legitimate, and your heir, and there isn't any reason you and Lady Jacqueline shouldn't raise her. We'll fix up a quiet divorce for you and the actress, then you and Lady Jack shall be wed in a quiet ceremony in the Nethridge chapel, with a local fete to follow, I should think, to bring the locals to heel, and then you and Jacqueline will raise Lady Alexis in Nethridge. Where she belongs. Where her ancestors have lived before her, and where she will someday be responsible for the property, and the people, and the land."

The woman spoke so reasonably, so soothingly, Jo thought—as if everything was already a done deal.

Jo could see that Alec was drawn in by the idea—at least a little bit. He chewed his lower lip. He loved Jack. He'd loved Jack even longer than he'd loved Tootie. And Jo knew from the way Alec had spoken earlier that there wasn't anything he wouldn't do for his daughter. Not anything.

"You know I'm right," the Duchess said shrewdly. "There's a good fellow, Alec. Be reasonable."

"You seem to forget," Alec said slowly, "that I love Dorothy. And that in marrying her I made a commitment which I am honor-bound to fulfill."

"Oh, as to that—I've no doubt she'd jump at the chance of a divorce."

"Really, Mater," Alec said coldly. "How you dare."

"Oh, but I do dare. A mother will dare anything for her only boy, and his happiness," the Duchess said calmly. "If the actress agreed to a divorce, I daresay that would satisfy your sense of honor. Would it not?"

"She won't," said Alec.

"Oh, won't she, though?" The Duchess peered about the large table, empty except for herself, her son, and his two best friends. "Where is your precious Dorothy? Where is your daughter? Where are these distinguished in-laws of which I hear such glowing reports? Hmm?"

Alec flushed faintly.

"They were unavoidably detained," he said with dignity.

"Were they?" the Duchess asked skeptically. "Or, to use the coarse patois of the common folk, have they perhaps done a bunk?"

"They have not done a bunk," Alec said. "Dorothy had an unavoidable engagement, that's all, and her parents are minding Lady Alexis."

"I see."

"I don't think you do," said Alec. "I don't think you see at all, Mater."

"I see right through you, my beautiful boy. Always have done. The actress is—where? On the stage? No. At a party, I'll warrant."

Alec's color deepened.

"Ah," said the Duchess. "That shot told."

"Turn blue," Alec growled under his breath.

"I'll pretend," the Duchess said, "that I didn't hear that ill-mannered remark. Now, my boy—you leave the arrangements to me. I'll come to some agreement with the actress and her family. It's all a matter of uncovering how many zeroes they want on the cheque. Then you can marry Jacqueline, as you've always wanted. Or if you've gone off Jacqueline, you can marry someone else suitable. Even the Warner girl," she tilted her head vaguely toward Blair, "although her fortune is only a fraction now of what it would have been. She is, at least, of a fine pedigree."

"Even the Warner girl?" Blair asked indignantly.

"You know what I mean," the Duchess said absently. "Don't you be tiresome as well."

Under the table, Jo squeezed Blair's hand.

"Steady on, Warner," Jo cautioned in a low voice.

"Well really," muttered Blair.

"You'll marry," the Duchess continued, "and take your rightful place in the House of Lords, Alec, once your Pater steps down. Or falls down. Yes. And you'll need, of course, a suitable wife for a Member of Parliament. Jacqueline would do very nicely. Even the Warner girl would be quite adequate. And there's always Lady Alcinda," the Duchess said thoughtfully. "You were mad for her once. Even madder for her, for a time, than you were for Lady Jacqueline."

"A youthful infatuation," Alec said dismissively. "What you don't seem to realize, Mater, is that I'm a married man now. You don't need to teach me my responsibilities. I'm fully alive to them. I shall return to Nethridge and I shall sit in the House of Lords, and preside over local fetes, and pull my hair out over the tenant rents and all of those fine and wholesome English things. But I shall do all of that with my wife at my side."

"Of course, dear boy. That's what I've been saying. That's why we need to find you a suitable spouse."

"I mean my present wife," he said firmly. "I mean Lady Dorothy."

The Duchess pursed her lips as if she had suddenly sucked down a shot of particularly tart cranberry juice.

"Alec. My dear boy. Do you think that's the life that, er, Lady Dorothy wants?"

"Of course it is. That is, not immediately," he amended. "She has her dreams of the stage, and I refuse to crush them. And I have my own plans, mother. I haven't yet completed my degree. But once Dorothy and I have realized our plans, we'll settle in Nethridge."

The Duchess shook her head.

"Little Leccy—are you really so simple as that?"

"I don't know what's simple," he drew himself up, "about anything I've said. And you'll have to like it or lump it, mother."

"For now, then, I suppose I shall lump it. But I'm not too terribly concerned." She glanced around the table again. "Your Dorothy's absence says louder than words that she isn't cut out for the life you want her to lead."

The Duchess nodded, and then stood.

"You're leaving?" Alec asked incredulously.

"None of the interested parties are here," she said reasonably. "Why would I stay?"

"But we haven't, deuce it, Mummy, we haven't even ordered yet."

"I have ordered. A tray is being sent to my suite this moment. I knew, you see, that your Lady Dorothy wouldn't show."

The Duchess nodded again to her son, and made vague gestures, meant to signal goodbye, toward Blair and Jo. She turned and made her way out of the Palm Court.

"Well I'm gobsmacked," Alec said to no one in particular after a moment. "Absolutely and thoroughly gobsmacked."

"You did really great," Jo told him, "standin' up to the old battleaxe. Really great, pal."

"I did," he agreed. "But …"

"But what?" asked Jo. "Just keep singin' the same song and she'll have to give up. Though I gotta admit, she's a pretty formidable broad."

"Formidable isn't the word," Alec said grimly.

"I don't agree with her in, well, let's see, any way," Jo continued, "but I do kinda admire her style. That thing where she lets someone else talk, and then she kinda freezes them with her eyes, and then she starts talkin' again, like no one said anythin'—that's priceless. I gotta try that in court."

"Bon chance, counselor," said Alec.

Blair reached across the table and took his hand. Alec squeezed the heiress' impeccably manicured hand gratefully.

"Hey," said Jo. "What gives? Who died? Alec did great. Didn't he?"

"He did," said Blair. "But it's rather a moot point. Isn't it Alec?" she asked him gently.

Alec nodded. He was biting his lip again.

"I'm afraid," he said quietly, "that the Mater's right."

"Hey." Jo held up her hands. "Hey, whoa, wait. Wait right there. Your mother can't be right."

"But I'm afraid she is, Artemis. In this instance, any road."

"But she can't be," Jo insisted. "She's, like—she's the villain in this scenario. Right?"

"This isn't 'Star Wars' Jo," Alec said regretfully. "She isn't Darth Vader, and I'm not Luke Skywalker."

"That's how it is where I'm sittin'," Jo said staunchly.

Alec smiled at her—the first real smile she'd seen on his face all day.

"You are a true-blue friend, Joanne Marie Polniaczek."

""Course I am," she said. "And way better than you deserve. But the point stands. Alec good, Mater bad. Alec right, Mater wrong."

"Except, I don't think she is wrong—not about the main thing," said Alec.

"What're you talkin' about?"

"He means," said Blair, "that Tootie probably doesn't want to be Lady Nethridge."

"Are you kiddin'?" Jo asked incredulously. "Tootie not want people to bow and curtsey and treat her like a Duchess? You gotta be kiddin'. Alec, you were just sayin' today that Tootie was takin' to that part of bein' a lady pretty good."

"That part—yes," Alec agreed. "But when the Mater was talking about Nethridge, and the tenants, and the fetes—"

"What the hell is a 'fete' anyway?" asked Jo.

"I'll explain it later," said Blair.

"When I really try to picture it," Alec continued, "I can't see Tootie enjoying life in the English countryside. Not really. It's very … Tootie is someone who needs attention, and stimulation. Buried in the country, or a London townhouse, isn't going to be enough for her. And the people in that world—they won't stimulate her. I just don't see …"

"Look, you're overreactin'," Jo said firmly. "You know who's the only one who knows if Tootie's gonna wanna be Lady of the Manor? Tootie. That's who. Tootie's the only one who can make that call."

"True," said Alec. "But I'm terribly afraid, Artemis," he swept a hand around the nearly empty table, "I'm terribly afraid, that she's made that call. And her answer is 'no'."


After Alec returned to his apartment, Jo and Blair went up to their suite, traded their evening gowns for jeans and blouses, and went out on the town.

They had no particular plan or destination, other than to clear their heads. There was nothing to be done, at the moment, for Alec or Tootie, which frustrated both Jo and Blair.

"I gotta get the hell outta here," Jo told her lover. "If I stay in the suite I'll be pacin' like a lion in a cage."

"I know what you mean, darling."

They made their way to Greenwich Village. Realizing they were both ravenous, they ate—and ate, and ate—dish after dish in a Chinese restaurant.

Next they dropped into the little Italian gay bar where Jo had taken Blair on a date years before. Jo ordered a beer, Blair a white wine spritzer. The place was largely unchanged in some ways—the red-and-white checked décor, the jukebox, the young gay and lesbian couples dancing on the tiny dance floor—but in other ways it was vastly different. For one thing …

"Everyone looks so damn young," Jo told Blair, raising her voice to be heard above the blaring jukebox.

"Like we did," Blair said, smiling indulgently at the young couples, "six years ago."

"Well we ain't exactly in our graves," Jo objected.

She took Blair's hand, pulled the heiress out onto the little dance floor. It was a fast number with pounding percussion. They danced together, Blair very well, Jo hit-or-miss and rather wooden in style, as usual. Then a slow song came on, and Jo put her hands on Blair's hips, pulled the heiress toward her, and they danced sweet and slow. Jo could slow dance. It was the only kind of dancing she ever got the hang of, and that was absolutely fine with Blair …

Walking through the night streets of the Village they stopped at a movie theater and saw a late showing of "Ghost".

"Well," said Jo when they exited, "it wasn't 'Total Recall'."

"Thank God for that," Blair said fervently.

"And it wasn't 'Die Hard 2'," Jo continued.

"And thank God for that," Blair said.

"But, it was pretty good," Jo admitted. "For a mushy, romantic kinda picture, it had some good stuff."

"I wish," Blair said, with a frankly naughty glance at Jo, "that we had a pottery wheel back in the suite."

Jo grinned.

"Blair, babe—we don't need no stinkin' pottery wheel," she said.

"We don't?"

"We don't. Promise."

As they strolled away from the movie theater, they didn't join hands. This wasn't a part of the Village where you could do that—not without maybe getting jumped.

The young women contented themselves with exchanging glances more scorching than any handholding.

"I'll tell you one thing," Jo told her fiancée. "If I ever get shot, and my number's up—"

"Jo—don't."

"Well if I did," said Jo, "I would find a way to come back to you. I would. Across, you know, time, or space, or life or death … I wouldn't ever leave you, babe."

Blair glanced away. She wanted so badly to slip an arm through Jo's. She could remember, only too well, all the waiting after Jo was shot at the St. Angelo and lay in a coma at Manhattan Memorial. The waiting. The wondering if Jo would ever be OK, would ever wake up, would ever come back to her.

And miracle of miracles, Jo had. With a little help from a John Lennon record …

Jo could see that her profession of undying love—even from beyond the grave—had upset Blair.

Put my foot in it again, Jo thought ruefully.

She loved Blair so much. So damn much. And she knew Blair loved her the same. To hell and back. No matter the differences. No matter the dumb—and often, admittedly, highly entertaining—little quarrels. To hell and back.

Despite her recent crack about "mushy, romantic" stuff, Jo suddenly felt pretty mushy and romantic herself.

She pulled Blair into an alley between a video store and a record store.

"Jo—What are you doing?"

"Shhh."

Jo guided her lover behind a stack of cardboard boxes.

It was dark in the mouth of the alley, and Jo stepped in something squelchy, like an old banana peel or rotten tomato.

"Jo, this is dangerous," Blair whispered.

"Kinda," Jo agreed. "But I gotta hold you."

She put her hands on Blair's waist, pulled the heiress close. They kissed, soft and dreamy.

When they broke the kiss, "This is dangerous," Blair whispered against her lover's mouth, but less insistently this time.

"Not really," murmured Jo. "The street's right over there. And I can protect ya, Blair. I'll never let anythin' happen to ya …"

Blair laced her fingers behind Jo's neck, leaned in for another kiss, slower, softer, dreamier.

They pressed their tongues gently into each other's mouths, tenderly exploring. They pressed their hips against each other, and their breasts. Their bodies strained against each other through the fabric of their jeans and blouses. Jo felt soft and wet between her legs, like applesauce, on the edge of coming just from holding and kissing her lover. She knew Blair was the same.

If only there were somewhere in the alley to take her lover. But, no. Just the squelchy pavement, and leaning towers of cardboard boxes, and a big industrial dumpster down the alley. No. Not a place to take their passion to its conclusion.

Blair seemed to be following Jo's train of thought.

"Taxi," she muttered against Jo's mouth. "Now. Please."

They hailed a taxi within the next block, both Jo and Blair waving their arms frantically as if they were old-time reporters, Lois Lanes and Rosalind Russells who had to get to the next big story before the competition did.

They slid into the back seat of the taxi. Jo slammed the car door so fast and so hard she almost severed her own foot.

"Where you go?" the cab driver called cheerfully through the little slot in the bullet-proof glass partition that separated him from the back seat. It was hard to tell in the dimness but through the glass he looked to Jo like a heavy-set old guy with white hair. His accent was Slavic, she thought. Unlike many taxis, his cab smelled OK.

"The Plaza, please," Blair said in her perfect diction.

"The Plaza, yeah, sure," said the cab driver. "I take you the best route."

"Eh, we know the best route," Jo said cynically. "Don't be takin' us on some wild goose chase to run up the meter."

"Me? You cut me to the quick," laughed the driver. "You really do, young miss. No wild goose chase—OK? Just the best route."

"We're in your hands," Blair told him pleasantly.

He stepped on the gas pedal, and the taxi lurched away from the curb at top speed, tossing Jo against Blair.

They knocked their heads together lightly and laughed.

"You OK, young misses?" the cab driver called through the window slot.

"We're, we're fine," said Blair, trying to control her giggles.

"You don't mind I go a little fast?"

"We don't mind," said Jo. "Fast is good." They couldn't get to the suite soon enough to suit her. She wanted Blair, wanted her so badly …

The driver pressed the gas pedal down further, the engine roared VROOM!, and the taxi took the next corner on what felt like two wheels.

Jo and Blair were both thrown against the back seat, knocking their heads lightly again, giggling and lacing their fingers together in the dark.

"I think I'm gettin' a concussion," Jo laughed quietly.

"How can you tell?" Blair giggled.

"That an insult, Miss Harvest Queen?"

"And what if it is, Miss Grease Monkey?" Blair teased.

The erratic movement of the taxi had tossed them so that they were slumped down against the back seat. The driver took another wild turn. Jo glanced through the smeary, dusty glass partition; as far as she could see, the taxi driver had his gaze fixed firmly on the road.

Jo chanced it. She captured Blair's lips with her own, kissed her hard, until they were both breathless.

She had thought Blair might resist, might say "Jo, we shouldn't."

Blair merely returned the kiss, deepening it, nipping playfully at Jo's bottom lip.

Another wild turn.

The momentum sent Jo and Blair sliding further across the back seat, their legs tangled together. Jo lay half across the heiress, their breasts mashed together through their shirts and bras. Jo could feel her own nipples perking up, felt Blair's nipples standing to attention.

Between her legs Jo felt that familiar electric tingling.

She crushed her mouth to Blair's again, kissed her a long, hard moment, then "I don't wanna wait," Jo panted in Blair's ear.

"Don't," whispered Blair. "Don't wait, Jo …"

It was a quick fumbling in the back seat, as Jo unbuttoned Blair's jeans, shucked them down over the generous derriere, and pressed her face to the panties. Blair smelled sweet and musky and her panties were damp between her long legs.

Jo nosed aside the damp panel of the panties, grazed Blair's clit with her nose and then drew her tongue up and down the wet leaves of Blair's sex. Blair whimpered, a soft sound lost in the VROOMING of the taxi engine and the squeal and thrum of the tires.

Rapidly Jo dragged her tongue up and down Blair's wet center, licking, pressing, tickling, and then driving her tongue deep inside. Jo stroked the clit with the tip of her nose while her tongue twisted deeper into the heiress. Jo winced slightly as Blair threaded fingers through Jo's hair, gripping the strands tightly. But it was a minor pain, a momentary distraction. Jo concentrated on the softness of Blair, the velvety warmth of her interior, the musky-sweet scent …

"I take you through the park," the driver called over his shoulder. "You like the park."

"We … Love … Love … the … Park," Blair gasped.

"Good," said the driver. "Then, young misses, you shall have the park!"

Jo never saw a damn glimpse of the park.

As the taxi tore along, taking wild corners and wild curves, she ate Blair passionately and thoroughly. She felt Blair come once, spasming and quaking, but Jo was relentless. She continued to tongue and lick her lover's most intimate places, until Blair was excited again, was grasping Jo's hair again, and bucking her hips, and turning her head from side to side in nearly silent ecstasy …

The second time Blair came, Jo came too. Bringing Blair to climax had always been enough to bring Jo to her own orgasm. Jo felt faint for a moment, lay her head between Blair's sticky thighs, panting. Blair had released her death grip on Jo's hair, was tenderly stroking Jo's face ...

Blair tensed, suddenly.

Jo lifted her head.

"What?" she asked dazedly.

"The Plaza," Blair said.

Jo pushed up Blair's panties, roughly, then the jeans, buttoning the fly any old way, pulling down the hem of Blair's blouse to conceal the fact that her jeans were fastened all wrong.

Jo wiped her face on the hem of her own shirt, sat up straight—as straight as she could while the taxi was still taking wild corners.

A few seconds later the cab pulled up to the front of the Plaza.

"Here we are, young misses!" the taxi driver called back cheerfully.

"How, uh, how much?" asked Jo. She still felt a little faint. She shoved a hand in her jeans pocket, fumbling for bills.

"For you girls, you young misses, only twenty dollars," said the driver.

"Twenty dollars?" Jo was outraged. "Christ—here I was thinkin' you were an OK guy, and you want twenty dollars?"

"Long way," the driver said cheerfully, "from the Village to the Plaza."

"It ain't that far," griped Jo. "It's cause you made us go through the park—huh? Well lemme tell you somethin', my fine-feathered friend, if you think—"

Blair had fished a twenty-dollar bill and a five-dollar bill out of her clutch and pushed the bills through the slot in the bullet-proof glass.

"Thank you," she told the driver, "for a wonderful ride. Here's the twenty, and a little something extra for a most delightful ride."

"Of course," said the man. "Of course, young misses. I want my passengers should be happy. Always happy."

"Well I ain't happy," growled Jo. But she followed Blair out of the taxi, slamming the cab door behind her. The taxi cab roared off into the night.

A door man—not Mr. Johnson, whom Jo and Blair both knew well—resplendent in gold braid, opened the doors for them. They bolted into the lobby with as much decorum as their heated states would allow, and darted into the first open elevator.

"Why'd you give him twenty-five dollars?" Jo asked her lover.

"You aren't serious, darling."

"'Course I'm serious. That was too much."

"Jo," Blair took a deep breath, an angelic smile touching her mouth, "Jo, that was the most wonderful taxi ride I've ever taken. Ever. Ever. If it cost twenty-five dollars, or a hundred dollars, it was well worth it."

Jo sighed.

"Well if you wanna give someone twenty-five dollars," she groused, "you oughta give it to me. I was the one made it such a wonderful ride."

"Yes," Blair said huskily. "You were. And I'm going to thank you, Jo, at great length, as soon as we're in the suite."

"Yeah?"

"Yes."

Jo grinned stupidly.

Aw, hell, she thought. Maybe the driver had earned his stupid, highway-robbery fee after all …

Part 2

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