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

That Long Hot Summer
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

Late June 1984. River Rock House, Peekskill, New York.

It was almost midnight.

River Rock had an old, long-neglected gazebo at the edge of the woods near the back of the property. The foundation was solid, but the roof had rotted and fallen away long ago, leaving a jagged circle that framed the stars for Jo and Blair as they lay in each other's arms on a plaid blanket on the gazebo floor.

It was a warm, cloudless night, brilliant with stars. The faintest of breezes ghosted up from the Hudson, carrying the scent of wild roses and dame's rocket and timothy grass.

A shooting star streaked across the dark sky.

"Make a wish," said Blair.

"I don't have to," said Jo. She took Blair's hand and kissed it.

Blair brushed a tendril of dark hair out of Jo's eyes. She could see the outline of Jo's lean body, the glint of moonlight in her eyes. In the far distance some of River Rock's windows were bright with warm yellow lamplight, beacons in the darkness.

"I'm so proud of you," said Blair.

Jo shrugged. Blair felt, rather than saw, her lover's modest gesture.

"It's an amazing achievement," Blair insisted.

"It's a convenient achievement, anyhow," Jo said, voice full of wry laughter. "Me gettin a full ride next year means a lot less strain on our finances, that's for damn sure. Now we can get you back into classes."

"Perhaps," Blair said evasively. Jo knew that tone.

"Blair," Jo said warningly, but Blair just smiled.

"You're the nerd in this relationship," she said. "My Jo – Langley College Scholar-Athlete of the Year! My brilliant," Blair kissed Jo's forehead, "athletic," Blair kissed Jo's cheek, "dreamboat," Blair kissed Jo's mouth.

"Mmm," said Jo. She folded one arm under her head, gazing dreamily at the stars. "I gotta say … Langley College just took a big bite outta my cynicism. I mean, I worked my ass off on the team, and I worked my ass off in class, and the college actually noticed. They're actually puttin their money where their Ivy League mouth is."

"Sometimes life is fair, darling," said Blair. "And Langley is wise to make an investment in you. You're a good bet. You are in fact," she kissed Jo's throat, "a sure thing."

Jo laughed. "A sure thing, hmm? Well if you mean that the way I think you mean that, don't count your chickens before they hatch, babe."

Blair kissed Jo's collarbone. She deftly unfastened two buttons of Jo's pale blue Langley polo shirt. The small silver cross Blair had given Jo last Christmas winked in the moonlight.

"Listen to you, Jo – making quaint references to chickens. Country living agrees with you."

Blair unfastened another button. She kissed the soft swell of Jo's left breast where it peeked out of her silk bra.

"Easy, there, tiger." Jo gently grasped Blair's wrists, pinning them together over Jo's heart.

"Let me ravish you," said Blair.

"What – here?"

"We have a blanket below us, a blanket of stars above us, it's a perfect summer night." Blair kissed the hollow between Jo's breasts.

"That's all very poetic," said Jo, "but we're kinda out in the open here. Anyone can walk by."

"Anyone, Jo? At midnight, on our own property, hundreds of yards from the house?"

"First, it ain't our property, it's Mrs. G's."

"You know what I mean. If you insist on being technical, use of the grounds is part of our rental agreement."

"'Use of the grounds,' sure – but does that include gettin freaky on the grounds?"

Blair laughed. "I was actually going to ravish you in a very prim, middle-class way. But now that you mention getting freaky, I'm intrigued. Tell me more about this 'gettin freaky' of which you speak."

"Second," said Jo, "even though we're hundreds of yards from the house, the Snoop Sisters live in that house, and I wouldn't put it past 'em to pop out of a tree or a stump or a clump of weeds. You never know where the hell they're gonna pop up – or when!"

"Jo – Tootie and Natalie are nosy but they're not peeping Toms."

"I don't mean they'd be out here spyin on us. But they could be lookin for, cripes, I don't know, it could be anythin. They could be lookin for ghosts in the woods, lookin for buried treasure, makin sure there aren't any Soviet subs in the Hudson – take your pick!"

"Natalie is entertaining Doctor Adams," Blair reminded her. "And Alec took Tootie to see 'Footloose' because we wouldn't."

Jo shuddered. "Doctor Adams. Doctor Adams. There's somethin about that guy I don't like."

"Well, I think we all agree he's too old for Nat. But Mrs. Garrett is playing chaperone."

Jo snorted. "Mrs. G can't watch those two twenty-four-seven, can she? And what does a doctor wanna date a high school girl for anyway?"

"Nat's going to be a senior in September. And she's always been precocious."

"That's partly what I'm freakin worried about! Nat's always thought she's older than she is. Last thing that kid needs is a twenty-six-year-old boyfriend. Besides, you're the one he kept drooling over that night at the Fever."

"Jo … you don't think …" Blair trailed off thoughtfully.

"That's exactly what I think," said Jo. "I think the good doctor is leadin Nat on, hangin around her to get at you, babe."

"But he knows I'm with you," said Blair, puzzled. "Why would he think I'd leave you for him?"

"Because that's how guys think, Princess. Jeez, sometimes you're real naïve. He's this handsome doctor, right? So he thinks if he lurks around long enough, you'll get tired of playing Sappho with your roughneck girlfriend and fall into his arms."

"Not likely," laughed Blair.

"It doesn't help that he saved your life," said Jo. "Doctors already have giant freakin egos and God complexes and then he goes and keeps you from bleedin out while the ambulance was on its way."

"Would you rather he let me croak?" Blair asked pointedly.

"Of course not! I'm just sayin, he was already practically tryin to hump you on the dance floor, then he saves your life. It's all feedin some fantasy in his big ego."

"Or," Blair gently freed her hands from Jo's grasp, trailed her fingers up and down Jo's arms, "or he might really like Nat. What's not to like? She's brilliant, she's lovely, she's funny, she wants to be a doctor, she hangs on his every word –"

"He's twenty-six, Blair. Twenty-six. And he's a guy. Guys are only after one thing."

"I don't know about guys," said Blair, "but I'm only after one thing right now, and if you can stop worrying and kvetching for two minutes, it will make things a lot easier."

"Put out or get out, eh?" laughed Jo.

"That's right, Jo Polniaczek. I invited you out here with the least noble of intentions and I've dutifully listened to your neurotic ramblings and now it's time to get our freak on."

"If you say so, babe!"

Jo rolled over on top of Blair, pinning the blonde's arms at her side and grinning down at her fiancée.

Blair hissed in pain.

"Oh, damn!" said Jo, rolling off of her lover, "I forgot."

She lifted the hem of Blair's shirt, squinting in the faint moonlight at the dark scar just above Blair's navel. "How does it feel? Are you OK, babe? Jesus, I'm so sorry – I keep forgetting."

"I'm fine," said Blair. "And don't apologize for forgetting. I love that you forget. Dammit! When is the stupid thing going to stop hurting? I just want to forget that night. I just want to be able to make love with you like it never happened."

"Yeah," Jo said quietly, "I wish it never happened too, but it did, babe. It is what it is." Jo leaned down and gently kissed the dark scar tissue, then the pale flesh below Blair's belly button. "It is what it is," Jo repeated.

Blair looked down at her scar. She sighed. "It's so ugly. I can't believe you even want to touch me now."

Jo shook her head. She kissed the scar again. "I think it's hot."

"Hot?" Blair asked skeptically. "Don't patronize me, Jo."

"I'm not patronizin you, babe. I like scars. And tattoos. Must be the Bronx in me. I mean, I'm sorry that bitch stabbed you – may she rot in hell forever – but you don't ever gotta worry about the scar buggin me. It actually gets my motor runnin a little, now that you're OK."

"It does?"

"It does." Jo bracketed Blair's hips with her hands, gently kissed her navel again, then the soft swell below her navel. Jo dexterously unbuttoned Blair's slacks. Blair hissed again – this time in excitement.

"Jo, are you, are you going to –"

"Shh. What was that about no more worryin and kvetchin? Take your own advice, Warner."

Jo gently tugged Blair's slacks down around the blonde's hips, Blair helpfully lifting her behind and wriggling. Jo pressed her lips against the warm, damp panel of silk between Blair's legs. The musky, slightly sweet scent of Blair's sex never failed to arouse Jo. The scent blended with the fragrance of the wildflowers wafting from the woods and the river.

Jo kissed the silk, and then, very softly, hummed; the faint vibrations of her voice reverberated through the panties, making the damp leaves of Blair's sex and the dark channel beyond tremble with delight …

Blair sighed, all but swooning. Jo was her first lover and, Blair sincerely hoped, her last, so Blair had no basis for comparison, but she couldn't imagine that there were better lovers than Jo Polniaczek. By turns surprisingly fierce and surprisingly gentle, always intense, ever inventive, Jo never failed to arouse Blair from her first touch to her last …

Blair moaned as Jo slipped two fingers into her panties, baring the blonde's sex to the warm night air. Jo's tongue darted, a gentle stroke followed by a confident thrust. Blair groaned, lifting her hips.

"Make love to me, Jo … Make love to me, darling …"

"Oh … for cryin out loud!" muttered Jo. She sat up, quickly readjusting Blair's panties and pulling Blair's slacks up.

Blair sat up, lightheaded, disappointed, not a little annoyed.

"What's wrong?"

"The Snoop Sisters, that's what!" Jo gestured to the high-powered flashlight beams bobbing across the vast expanse of lawn at an alarmingly fast pace. "C'mon, c'mon, we gotta get your respectable, babe."

Blair rarely cursed but "Son of a bitch," she muttered as she pulled up her slacks and fastened them. "What are they doing? I told them I was going to take you out here for a romantic date."

Jo sighed. "In all fairness, they're still pretty much kids. They probably think we're holdin hands."

"They're not that young," Blair complained. She was wet and aching between her legs, so aroused, so longing for Jo's fingers and tongue that it hurt. "Whatever it is, let's get rid of them – fast."

"No argument here," said Jo. She could taste Blair's sweet musk on her tongue; she wanted to get back to pleasuring Blair as soon as humanly possible.

The flashlights were almost upon them.

"Hey!" called Tootie, waving her light. "Is that you guys?"

"Well it ain't Sasquatch," called Jo, none too happily.

"We're sorry to bug you," shouted Natalie, "but we've got amazing news!"

"Amazing!" yelled Tootie. "You're not going to believe it!"

"Try us!" shouted Jo.

"Be succinct," called Blair. "Very succinct. Trust me – you can't be too succinct!"

"Alec got a call from his aunt tonight," shouted Natalie. "Right after he and Tootie got back from the Majestic."

"Which, by the way, you guys have to see 'Footloose'," yelled Tootie. "The dancing sucks but it's a really beautiful love story."

"We were havin a really beautiful love story out here till you guys came bargin in," shouted Jo.

"We're sorry to interrupt your necking," called Tootie, "but you've got to hear this! It's Alec's great-aunt, what is her name, Adrienne? No, Vivienne. Calling long distance. From Europe. It's already morning there."

"Succinct, Tootie," called Blair. "Succinct."

"You want succinct?" Tootie cried excitedly. "I'll give you succinct." She and Natalie were almost at the gazebo, now, their bright flashlights nearly blinding Jo and Blair, who threw their hands up over their faces. "How's this for succinct? Fasten your seatbelts, guys – the musketeers are going to Italy!"


Late June, 2011. Peekskill Memorial Hospital, Peekskill, New York.

It was strange how things happened, Jo reflected later.

If life were a novel or a Hollywood film, when Lexi finally woke from her coma her mother and father would be present. Theirs would be the first faces Lexi saw, and a touching reunion would ensue.

And given how much time Lexi's parents were spending in her room, at her bedside, the odds were excellent that the young woman's reawakening would play out exactly that way.

But it was strange how things happened. Jo, and Jo alone, was in the hospital room when Lexi finally woke.

Blair was speaking at a seminar in Manhattan. Natalie was at her clinic in the Bronx. Alec had been spending most of his time in Peekskill, but on this particular day he was in Washington, D.C. handling a delicate matter that could not be trusted to a subordinate or managed via phone or video-conference.

Tootie, who had cancelled all film and theater appearances so that she could spend night and day, for the last six months, near her comatose daughter, was being interviewed by Hollywood Heat when Lexi finally woke.

Hollywood Heat was a cheeky entertainment program that ran "Sizzle" segments about legendary or up-and-coming celebrities and "Fizzle" segments about entertainers who were past-their-prime or running afoul of the law.

After more than two decades in the public eye, Tootie knew how valuable a "Sizzle" piece on Hollywood Heat could be, especially for an entertainer who was now on the other side of forty. But Tootie had refused to leave Peekskill for the interview – "Find a way to make it happen here," she told producers, "or I'm going to have to decline."

So the show runners sent an interviewer and a producer and a camera crew to Peekskill to follow the one-and-only Dorothy Ramsey – mother of the one-and-only Lady Lexi – around the small town where a young Dorothy had attended private school and later college, and where she had achieved her earliest theatrical triumphs.

The crew filmed Tootie strolling around the still quaint but increasingly arty downtown district. "This is ridiculous," Tootie told the producer. "I never wander around the downtown. I'm either at the hospital or in my room at the Fireside Inn."

"B-roll atmosphere," the producer explained succinctly.

Tootie rolled her eyes, but she understood. Every story needed an angle. In this case, the hook was Dorothy Ramsey, big star, EGOT-winner, canceling all entertainment projects so that she could poignantly wander the rustic lanes of her youth while her daughter, the almost equally famous Lady Lexi, slumbered in a coma at the local hospital.

It was total crap, Tootie knew, her strolling the Peekskill downtown, if you took it literally – Tootie never strolled anywhere if a cab or limo was available – but it conveyed the true poetic spirit of the situation. Tootie was in the town of her youth, and the situation – Dorothy's famous daughter crashing her motorcycle in Peekskill, falling into a coma, lying in the local hospital – was pretty damn poignant.

The interview segments were filmed in the conference room at the Fireside Inn where Tootie had been living since Lexi's motorcycle accident the previous December.

None of the questions were surprises – Tootie had been interviewed too many times over too many years to be surprised anymore – and she had appropriate answers ready, responses expansive enough to satisfy her concerned fans while still protecting Lexi's privacy, and Alec's, and her own.

Tootie and Alec all but lived in the hospital, and Blair and Natalie were able to travel the short distance from New York City to Peekskill at least once a week – they kept Jo up-to-date on Lexi's condition. Jo was the rare visitor. She was caught up in committee meetings and bitter battles about budgets and children's health care, with responsibilities that she couldn't put off or delegate or fulfill from a distance.

And since Lexi's condition hadn't changed since February – neither improving nor deteriorating –Jo had no qualms about being away so much, fighting for money and health care for the young and the poor.

Besides which Jo hated hospitals – always had. She grasped at any excuse which allowed her to legitimately avoid a hospital visit. Part of it, she realized, was her blue-collar upbringing. When she was a kid, a lot of the people in her neighborhood who went to the understaffed and underfunded hospitals came home worse off than before then when they went in – or never came home at all.

But it was more than a childhood prejudice. Jo simply felt creeped out by hospitals. She hated the way they looked – the clinical white and green palette. She hated the way they sounded – the hushed tones, the squeak of the nurses' soft-soled shoes, the muted call bells and intercom pages. She hated the way they smelled – bad food, the astringent scent of the medicines, the stink of sickness and death and, perhaps worse, the stink of the disinfectants and cleansers meant to mask the sickness.

Jo remembered in feverish fragments the days she'd spent at Manhattan Memorial back in 1984 after Blair was stabbed by Dina Becker. Jo had been so consumed with worry for Blair that she hadn't been focused on her surroundings. That was the one and only time that Jo had gladly, voluntarily, spent days on end in a hospital room …

So now, in 2011, although Jo was exceedingly fond of her niece, and wanted nothing more than for Lexi to recover, Jo found reasons as frequently as possible to avoid visiting her at Peekskill Memorial. And it was therefore ironic that Jo was the musketeer on hand when Lexi returned to the conscious world …

Jo had never cared for soap operas or sappy movies or novels, but she had caught enough of them over the years – largely because of Rose and Blair's voracious consumption of said material – to know how these coma things were supposed to resolve themselves.

Whoever was at Lexi's bedside was supposed to be grasping her hand and saying fervent things like "You've got to hang on, Lex. You've got to come back to us. We can't live without you!"

And then, at long last, Lexi's eyelids would flutter, and then open. She would look a bit dazed and then smile beatifically. Whoever was at her bedside would gasp in incredulous joy. "Mom?" Lexi would say softly. (Or "Dad?" or "Aunt Blair?")

"Thank God – it's a miracle!" someone would say. And general joy and tears would ensue …

But Jo being Jo, and Lexi being Lexi – coma or no – that's not how it went down that day in June 2011.

Jo rarely spoke to Lexi when she visited. Being a woman of few words by nature, Jo saw no point in talking to Lexi. The young woman had been in a coma since Christmastime, and hadn't visibly responded to anyone's voice during that entire time.

Jo would sit in one of the uncomfortable hospital chairs, praying silently if it was late at night, texting on her Blackberry. If Blair was there, Jo held her hand while Blair, always a woman of many words, talked softly, endlessly to the comatose girl.

On this occasion, Jo was on her cell phone with her Chief of Staff, Paramita, talking in hushed but heated tones – hushed, because even though Lexi was in a coma, Jo didn't want to shout around her and heated, because Jo was telling Paramita exactly what she thought about a colleague's budget stance.

"… And you tell that esteemed lackwit that if he thinks we're going to carve two million out of the Children's Vaccination bill, he needs to get his head out of his ass! He needs to go back to the drawing board and trim more fat. It shouldn't be tough for him to find the fat, since most of it has mysteriously been allocated to his state!"

Fuming, Jo ended the call, shoving the cell phone into her blazer pocket. So many of her colleagues made her so damn mad! Blair and Alec and a lot of years had given Jo a certain amount of polish, but when her temper got the better of her, she was still Bronx to her fingertips.

One of the primary reasons Jo had hired Paramita as her Chief of Staff was that the unflappable young woman had a gift for translating Jo's very direct, often anatomically impossible tirades into no-less-powerful but far more civilized talking points.

"I need to give that kid a raise," thought Jo, drawing a deep breath, trying to calm down.

Portia and Blair were on her ass almost twenty-four-seven now about her blood pressure. Jo's esteemed colleague was a jackass, she knew, but she wasn't going to give herself a stroke over the bastard!

And that was when Jo happened to look over at the hospital bed, and that was when she noticed that Lexi was sitting up against her pillows, eyes wide open, looking annoyed.

"Aunt Jo, how the hell is anyone supposed to sleep when you're yelling like that?" complained Lexi.

"What do you mean, yelling?" demanded Jo. It was a reflex; she and Lexi were always scrapping before the accident; why should a little thing like a six-month coma interrupt their flow? "I was talking in hushed tones," Jo said indignantly. "And you're supposed to be in a coma, anyhow."

Lexi frowned, enormous sapphire-blue eyes narrowing.

"Give me a break," she said. "A coma? Sounds like something out of mummy's last movie-of-the-week." Lexi yawned enormously and stretched. "I've just been napping."

Jo snorted. "Well, you've got a hell of a dramatic idea of a nap," she said. "You've been napping since Christmas."

"Shut up!" exclaimed Lexi.

Jo took that for what it was – the slang of the day, an expression of incredulity rather than an insulting remark.

"No kidding," said Jo, "you went Rip Van Winkle at Christmas, and now it's June."

Lexi chewed on that for a moment. "It's 2011?"

"It's 2011, Lex. And your mother's last movie-of-the-week wasn't about a coma; she was the principal of a failing urban high school – remember?"

"Oh, yeah. Right."

"So you do remember that? Your Ma's last movie?"

"Of course I do!" Lexi sounded insulted.

"Well pardon me," said Jo, "for checking your memory! It's just you've been in this little coma for half a damn year, after you drove Hellraiser into a tree – nice riding, by the way. What were you thinking?"

"Don't yell at me!" bristled Lexi. "I'm a patient. You're not supposed to yell at patients."

"I'm not yelling!" yelled Jo. "Or," she lowered her voice, "I'm sorry. I guess I am. It's just we've been waiting for you to wake up for so long, and the neuro team hasn't been giving your great odds. Even if you did wake up you're supposed to be practically vegetative. So I'm sort of – I almost feel like maybe this is a dream."

"Well it's not a dream. I'm awake and you just have to deal with it."

Jo grinned suddenly, her megawatt grin. Her blue-green eyes twinkled. "Christ. Lex. You're awake! You're really awake! And as difficult and irritating as ever!"

Lexi rolled her beautiful sapphire-blue eyes.

"Some welcome! Why is it just you here? Where is Mum? Where's the pater? Where's Aunt Natalie?"

Jo was too relieved, now that it was sinking in that Lexi was OK, to be annoyed or hurt by Lexi's words. It was so damn wonderful to hear the kid talking again – and her memory seemed intact. Lexi sounded perfectly normal, insulting Jo in her interesting hybrid of American and British accents, the byproduct of an American mother and a British father and private schools on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Tootie is going to have ten fits and take to her bed like Camille when she finds out you woke up when she wasn't here. Kid – your Ma has been living here. No lie. She turned down the 'Show Boat' revival and the Clooney picture to be here."

"That script sucked," Lexi said dismissively. "Just as well she turned it down."

Now it was Jo's turn to roll her eyes. "Kid – you're missing the big picture. Dorothy Ramsey – workaholic, jet-setting Dorothy Ramsey – turned down work to be at your bedside."

"It's not that I don't appreciate it," said Lexi, "but it really is for the best Mum didn't make that film. Women over forty have to be very careful what roles they choose. There are so few to begin with, and if you pick the wrong one, it can destroy your career."

"Locking lips with Clooney, that's a bad career move?"

"It is when you're playing the woman who steals Clooney from Jennifer Lopez!"

Jo shook her head, grinning again. "Lexi. Little Lexi! With your memory back, and your cold-hearted show biz logic, and everything. It's like … it's like nothing bad happened!"

And it was almost as though nothing bad had happened, at least on the surface. Lexi had been lying in the coma so long that the terrible bruises and abrasions on her face had healed, leaving only single faint scar down her left cheek.

Lexi looked tired, and too thin, but as beautiful as ever, with her mother's large, luminous eyes, the intense sapphire-blue of her father's, a wealth of close-cropped dark curls, and an uncannily lovely blend of her parents' features – Tootie's mouth and cheekbones, Alec's aristocratic nose and dimpled chin.

It was almost as though nothing bad had happened – but it had. They had almost lost Lexi, and who knew if this sudden Lazarus return was permanent?

Jo pressed the call button for a nurse. The nurses who had been caring for Lexi for half a year were suddenly star-struck, seeing the young celebrity face-to-face, awake. The nurses fussed over Lexi, taking all sorts of readings.

Then the nursing team paged Lexi's physician and her nutritionist and her neuro team and the head of the mental health division "and everybody, basically, except Dr. Welby!" as Jo later described the scene to Blair.

Jo, a mere life-long family friend and U.S. Senator, was hustled out of the room and into the midst of her security team as if she were an annoying child who was very much in the way.

The agents glared at the nurses who had so unceremoniously hustled the Honorable Joanne Marie Polniaczek into the ugly, antiseptic-smelling lime-green hallway. Hands drifted instinctively toward the handles of SIG-Sauer P229s.

"Come on, don't shoot the nice nurses," Jo said. "They're only doing their jobs."

Jo had her driver bring her to the Fireside Inn, bending if not breaking the speed limit in downtown Peekskill. Jo tried Tootie's cell phone, but it was either off or on vibrate during her Hollywood Heat interview.

Flanked by her security team, Jo entered the Fireside Inn. She'd visited Tootie here several times over the last six months, but today there was a new manager running the reception desk.

"I'm sorry," the manager told Jo in a snotty manner that was far from apologetic, "but Miss Ramsey is in the middle of an interview. We can't let just anyone back there. She's not signing autographs."

Jo gave the receptionist a tight smile – the smile her colleagues saw right before Jo went for the oratorical jugular and verbally cut their throats.

"Do I look like I want an autograph?" Jo asked with dangerous reasonableness. "I need to speak to Miss Ramsey immediately." Or else wasn't said – it didn't due for senators to threaten constituents – but it was implied by the tight smile.

The manager finally emerged from her haze of self-satisfaction at playing guard dog for the Dorothy Ramsey, and peered at Jo, really taking in Jo's appearance – mid-forties, good-looking as hell; a crisp white shirt, a perfectly pressed dark suit, an impeccable mane of hair, understated makeup and elegant, restrained jewelry.

Then the manager peered past Jo at the dark-suited security detail.

Uh-oh; this lady is somebody too; maybe an even bigger somebody than Miss Ramsey!

The manager lifted the phone. "Who, er, who shall I say would like to see Miss Ramsey?" the young woman asked.

"No worries," said Jo, "we'll show ourselves in. The conference room – right?"

"Conference Room A," the manager said with dignity.

Exactly, thought Jo, Conference Room A – the Fireside's only conference room. Jo had used it herself when she needed to hold staff meetings during visits to Peekskill.

Jo had enough experience with the press to maintain a poker face when she and her detail entered the conference room.

Tootie looked tired and vulnerable under the hot lights. She was beautifully dressed and coiffed, of course, but her makeup had been rather indifferently applied and didn't conceal the dark circles under her eyes, her hollow cheeks, the lines of care around her mouth. Tootie was only 43, but at the moment she looked like she might be pushing the half-century mark.

Jo glanced at the position of the camera and the lights. She frowned. Jo had appeared in many televised events – debates, speeches, press conferences – and both her own experiences and her media-savvy wife's tutelage had taught her a thing or two about lighting.

That's a terrible angle … The light's not right … They should've retouched her makeup … They have her looking haggard …

When Tootie saw Jo, her hands tightened on the arms of her chair.

Only one thing would prompt Jo to stroll into the middle of an interview taping – Lexi had either awakened – or she was dead.

Jo grinned at Tootie and nodded in a cheerful fashion.

Tootie closed her eyes. Tears of relief slipped from between her lids, and she shaded her face with one hand. Her shoulders trembled; she felt like she'd been holding her breath for six months, and now she could breathe …

The producer and interviewer turned in their chairs and looked at Jo with some curiosity. The producer knew every entertainment celebrity, living and dead, by sight. If Marlene Dietrich or Tallulah Bankhead or Joan Crawford or Anne Baxter had returned from the dead and walked through the door, the producer would have recognized them as immediately as he would have recognized Sandra Bullock, Queen Latifah or his own mother.

He didn't recognize Jo. Jo was clearly somebody – somebody political, he hazarded, based on the cut of her suit and her bodyguards – but she fell into the bucket of somebody not making her living in entertainment – which, in the producer's world, made her nobody.

All the same, he never alienated anyone with any type of power. Today's nobody was tomorrow's superstar – or scandal – or both. He grinned engagingly at Jo.

"I don't mean to be rude, but we're in the middle of a very sensitive interview. Miss Ramsey will be available in an hour."

Tootie wiped her eyes on her sleeve and stood up shakily.

"Miss Ramsey is available now," Tootie said decisively. She took a few uneven steps. She was clearly in shock – a happy shock, after six months wondering when – if – her daughter would regain consciousness – but in shock, nonetheless.

Jo was at Tootie's side in a few long strides, putting an arm around her friend's shoulders, a hand under her elbow.

"Have you called Alec?" asked Tootie.

"No," said Jo. "I figured you'd want to give him the good news. Come on. You can call him on the way to the hospital."

"What about Nat?"

"Nope. Figured you'd want to be the one to tell her too. Although someone on the neuro team's probably already phoned Nat at the clinic. Nat might actually be on her way this minute."

The producer and the interviewer leaned forward intently. They smelled a story. Alec? That was probably Alec Anviston, Dorothy Ramsey's ex. Good news? Had Lady Lexi recovered consciousness?

"Congratulations," blurted the interviewer, trying to surprise a reaction out of Tootie.

Tootie opened her mouth but Jo turned a cool blue-green glare on the interviewer and producer.

"Miss Ramsey has no comment at this time," Jo said firmly, "on any subject. And she'll want to see the interview before you air it. Seems like the lighting is a little off. You might need a reshoot."

The producer did something he hadn't done in ten years. He blushed.

"You noticed it too, I'm sure," said Jo. "You were probably already planning to reshoot it. After all – it's not like you're doing a hack job on Dorothy Ramsey. This is a 'Sizzle' piece – right?"

"Er, of course …"

As Jo's driver flirted with breaking the speed limit on the trip back to the hospital, Tootie tried several times to reach Alec on Jo's cell phone. No answer. Tootie finally hurled the phone onto the floor of the town car in frustration.

"Hey! Don't break the phone," complained Jo. "It's government property, and it so happens I get some pretty important calls on that from time to time."

"Sorry," said Tootie. "It's just – Alec's going to want to know. He's going to want to fly right up here."

"So call Molly." Jo retrieved her phone from the floor, handed it to Tootie. "Tell her to book him on the next flight."

Tootie nodded. Her next call went through.

"Hi, Molly, this is – yes. It's about Lexi. Tell Alec she's awake. Yes. Yes. And tell him right away, please. But if the press contact you – right. Yes. Yes." Tootie pressed the "End Call" button.

"What a cold fish," complained Tootie.

"Not really," objected Jo. "Molly's pretty sweet."

"To you, maybe."

"Yeah, well, I am milord's best friend. You're just the ex-wife."

"I think Molly has a crush on him," mused Tootie. "I don't think she can understand how anyone could divorce Alec."

"Never mind psychoanalyzing Alec's assistant," said Jo. "Call Nat. For crying out loud, she needs to know Lexi's OK. Nat's been almost as much of wreck as you have."

"I have not been a wreck! And boy, are you ever bossy, Jo Polniaczek!"

Jo laughed. "When did that finally dawn on you?"

"Sometime in 1980 – like the first minute I met you. But I've been too polite to say anything!"

Jo laughed again.

Sometimes she thought nothing had really changed since they were all kids. Tootie was always dramatic and sometimes petulant when she was in the grip of strong emotions. And finding out your kid had just snapped out of a six-month coma – that could give you some strong emotions.

"Stop trying to insult me and call Nat," Jo said.

"Bossy, bossy, bossy," complained Tootie. But she called her best friend.

Nat's cell phone rang and rang and then switched over to her answering service. Tootie terminated the call and phoned the administrative offices of Nat's clinic.

"Hello, is Dr. Green available? I see. Well when she's out of surgery, please tell her that Lexi's awake. Yes. She'll know."

Tootie thumbed the "End Call" button and tossed the phone to Jo, who caught it neatly and tucked it into her blazer.

"Imagine," complained Tootie, "Nat's staff doesn't know who Lexi is!"

"They probably know who Lexi is," objected Jo, "I mean, if they own a TV … or a radio … or surf the 'Net … or in any way reside on planet earth. They just don't know Nat's connected to her."

"Well they should! Natalie should've told them. Her staff should be on red alert. Someone should pull Nat out of surgery right now!"

Jo shot her friend a sideways look. Tootie didn't sound like she was in the mood for logic … but she did sound like she was in a mood to blow off some steam … a little fight would do her good maybe.

"Tootie," said Jo, "if Nat's operating on someone, she can't just drop the scalpel and say 'Sorry, pal, I'm out of here'."

"Of course not! Did I say that's what I wanted her to do? Is that what I said?"

"Well, that's what it sounded like."

"I didn't mean right this dead second, Jo. I meant as soon as Natalie finishes. Her staff should know about Lexi. They should have, they should have had something standing by for Nat, some kind of transportation so she could rush up here at a moment's notice whenever Lexi woke up!"

Jo rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Something standing by … like … a helicopter? An X-wing? The Batmobile?"

Tootie flung up her arms in a dramatic expression of disgust.

"That's right, Jo, be sarcastic, be a smart-ass at a time like this! You're hilarious! How do you think Lexi felt waking up without me there? Or Alec? Or Blair? And now Alec's in D.C. in some damn meeting, Nat's in surgery, Blair's giving a speech, and I'm stuck with you!"

The minute the final words were out, Tootie's mouth dropped open in horror.

"Jo, I, oh my God, Jo! I didn't mean that! Honestly!"

But Jo was laughing. She was laughing so hard she had to brush a couple of tears out of her eyes.

"So," Jo said finally, "feel better?"

Tootie took a deep breath and considered the question. "Yes. I guess I do."

"Good. Because Lexi's going to want to see you looking your best, Stretch. Chin up. Positive attitude. As little drama as, well, as is possible with the Ramsey-Anviston clan."

"And what does that mean?" Tootie demanded.

"And you're off again," laughed Jo.

"I just don't understand how the Ramsey-Anviston clan suddenly has the market cornered on drama. The Warner-Polniaczek clan certainly holds its own in that department!"

Jo lifted her hands palms up, the universal sign of surrender.

"Hey, no argument from me, Tootie. Although, at the risk of throwing my beloved wife under the bus, I have to point out that Blair is responsible for the bulk of the Warner-Polniaczek drama."

"Ha! I can't believe you can say that with a straight face. You have no shame, Jo – no shame." Tootie wrung her hands nervously. She looked suddenly terrified, anxious eyes as big as saucers, like the eyes of the dog in the fairy tale. "Jo … How did she seem?"

"Blair? She seemed OK when we talked last night."

"Not Blair – Lexi. How did Lexi … seem?"

Jo shrugged. "I mean, it's like a damn miracle, Tootie. She seemed like Lexi. Already taking the sand out of me. She was disappointed I was the only one there."

Tootie nodded absently. "So, she seemed OK? She knew who you were? She seemed … OK?"

Jo was never going to be a touchy-feely person, but Tootie had always been somewhat of an exception to the Polniaczek personal-space rules. Jo covered Tootie's hand with her own.

"Look, I'm no doctor, Tootie, but Lexi sounded great. She seemed great. I don't think you have anything to worry about."

Tootie squeezed Jo's hand hard.

"I know it's stupid Jo, but I'm scared to see her."

"It's not stupid."

"This is all I've been wanting for months, but now … What do I say to her?"

"How about 'Hi'?"

"Jo, be serious."

"I'm totally serious. 'Hi' is always a good way to get the ball rolling. Clear. To-the-point. Friendly."

"And after the 'Hi'?"

"I don't know. 'I missed you, kid'? 'I love you'? It's Lexi, Tootie. It's not like you're going to need a script, for Pete's sake."

The driver guided the town car into the hospital's long, curving drive.

Tootie squeezed Jo's hand hard again. The actress' eyes darted to her friend.

"I guess this is it," said Tootie.

"Guess so," said Jo. Christ – Tootie's acting like she's about to be executed, not reunited with her daughter! "Wait until you see her, Tootie. Everything is going to fall right into place."

Something about what Jo said was weirdly familiar to Tootie. It was like déjà vu.

Where have I heard that before? … "Wait 'til you see her, Tootie. Everything's gonna fall right into place."

And then it hit her.

Tootie laughed. She hugged Jo impulsively as the car pulled up to the visitor's entrance.

"What the hell?" asked Jo.

"It was you then too," said Tootie, laughing.

"It was me when where?" demanded Jo, mystified.

"When Lexi was born! Remember? You saw her first then too."

"Oh. Yeah." Jo grinned at the recollection. "And you were freaking out then too, just like you are now."

"Jo … I am not freaking out."

"Of course not." The driver opened the passenger door. "Now go on, Stretch. Your daughter is waiting for you."

Tootie climbed slowly out of the town car, and then all but ran into the hospital.

Lexi being born, mused Jo. Little Lexi …

Jo had wanted to be anywhere but there, anywhere but in the presence of the blood and screaming and pain that birth seemed to require. The summer of 1989. Tootie, only twenty-one, the baby of the group but the first musketeer to have a child.

As much as Tootie loved Jo, the surly brunette wasn't Tootie's first choice to be there either. Tootie would have preferred Nat, Blair, Mrs. Garrett, even Alec. But there was only Jo. Jo had to do.

The summer of 1989. One of the worst summers of Jo's life – and, she imagined, Blair's. The endless strain of working and finishing law school, while Blair was working and finishing her own grad school program. Never enough time to spend together. Never enough sleep. Tempers fraying. Ugly arguments that seemed so ridiculous in retrospect, but were so intense in the moment.

Finally, heartbreakingly, Blair saying those six terrible words; the words Jo never wanted to hear, ever again, under any circumstances: "We need to take a break."

Not "I think we need to take a break." No hesitation, no reservation, no room for negotiation.

And Jo hated to admit it, but Blair was right. They were at their wit's end. They couldn't stand anything about each other anymore. If Blair drummed her fingers on the table, if Jo breathed a certain way, it would send them into a tempestuous argument that could last for hours, even days.

"We need to take a break."

And they had …

Senator Jo Polniaczek sighed. She climbed out of the town car. She didn't want to think about the summer of 1989, not now, not on such a happy day, with Lexi restored to them.

She preferred to think back to a far happier time … that long, hot summer of 1984 ...


Late June, 1984. River Rock House, Peekskill, New York.

In the bedroom of the suite that she and Jo shared, on the enormous Victorian steamer trunk that Blair always packed for trips to Europe, Blair Warner and Jo Polniaczek sat locked in a passionate embrace.

There has to be something, thought Blair, to the theory of chemical attraction.

Because Jo attracted her in some instinctive, biological, animal way; it was like Blair's atoms craved Jo's, as if on macro and micro levels they needed to merge.

Jo had just finished jogging two miles; she was gleaming with perspiration; her hair was wet with sweat; her T-shirt was damp and dark at the armpits, between her small breasts, and down her spine; and Jo was, not too put too fine a point on it, smelling a little funky. But Blair was ravenous for her.

Blair was naked, having been just about to step into the shower when Jo returned from her jog. Jo sat on Blair's lap in her sweaty dark T-shirt and shorts. Their hands wandered urgently over each other's bodies; they kissed until their mouths stung and they were panting and light-headed.

"Jo, I love you so much," moaned Blair as Jo's hands cupped her generous breasts, thumbs stroking the dark, erect nipples. Jo bent and took one breast in her mouth; Blair made a little cry of pleasure. Blair's hands were under Jo's shirt, tugging at Jo's sports bra, fumbling toward Jo's pert breasts.

"I need you Jo. God … oh!" Blair groaned as Jo took her other nipple in her mouth. Fingers trembling, Blair finally freed Jo's breasts from the sports bra, stroked the –

BAM-BAM-BAM!

Someone pounding insistently on their suite door.

"What … the … fuck!" panted Jo, really angry. "I told 'em I was gonna take a shower. I told 'em we'd be down for lunch. I – oh!" She moaned as Blair suckled at one pale pink nipple. "Blair … babe, we've got company." Jo tried to pull down her sports bra, but Blair held her ground.

BAM-BAM-BAM!

"Let them knock," Blair mumbled around Jo's breast. "They're always interrupting us." She flicked a tongue over Jo's nipple and then drew it into her mouth again.

"We'll have lots of … privacy in … Italy," murmured Jo, feeling faint from the pleasure of Blair's tongue.

"I can't wait for Italy," breathed Blair. "I need you now, Jo. I need you …"

From their very first sexual encounter, when Jo was so nervous and Blair was so sure, Blair had never had any problem taking the lead when the mood struck her, and the mood was very definitely upon her now. She pulled Jo tight against her body with one arm, while her other hand slipped into Jo's running shorts, gliding under the silk underwear damp with sweat and musk.

Blair kissed Jo roughly, urgently. Her fingers found Jo's wet center, stroking and teasing.

Jo gasped. She closed her eyes. One hand she tangled in Blair's thick hair. The other found Blair's right breast – her most sensitive breast – grasping it firmly …

"Harder," Jo panted in Blair's ear. "Harder … yeah …"

BAM-BAM-BAM! BAM-BAM-BAM!

"Son of a bitch!" Jo pulled out of Blair's arms, threw herself to her feet and stormed out of the bedroom. Somehow in the midst of her anger, Jo had the presence of mind to slam the bedroom door closed behind her, concealing her completely naked, very flushed, very pissed off fiancée.

"Come back here, Jo Polniaczek!" Blair shouted through the bedroom door.

But Jo was already at the door of the suite, wrenching it open.

Boots St. Clair stood on the threshold, looking, as usual, like the poster girl for preppies – penny loafers, green-and-blue plaid pleated skirt, green-and-blue argyle sweater, pearls around her thin neck, dark hair brushed perfectly straight under a navy blue beret.

Jo didn't say anything. She was too angry to speak. Boots had been in the kitchen with everyone else when Jo said she didn't want to be disturbed. This was harassment – pure and simple! Jo gritted her teeth and made a sort of growling sound low in her throat.

Boots took a step back, one thin, claw-like hand grasping her pearls and toying nervously with them.

Jo looked angry – very angry. Boots had never seen Jo glare like this. The green-blue eyes were like laser beams. Jo was all sweaty and rosy and tousled; her muscles were tense; she had a pleasing, heady scent that Boots had never noticed before – salty, spicy, sweet.

"I'm sorry to disturb you," Boots began sweetly –

"Can the bullshit, Boots," Jo said bluntly. "I said I didn't wanna be disturbed, so unless River Rock's burnin to the fuckin ground –"

"Language, Jo, language," Boots chided, clutching at her pearls. No, she had never seen Jo like this, or heard her like this. She had noticed Jo – really noticed Jo – at Petal's Halloween dance, and had been nursing a crush on her ever since.

But now … Jo's disheveled appearance, her angry eyes, her salty-sweet-sexy fragrance … Boots felt her knees tremble and her vision swam a little as the blood coursed from her head to the tingling spot between her legs.

Boots swayed a little bit and her eyes half-closed. Jo put a hand on her shoulder to steady her. Pure reflex – Jo was naturally protective that way – and Boots knew it. But on a deeper level, Jo's warm touch flipped a switch and the tingling between Boots' legs became a fire.

"Jo," whispered Boots, closing her eyes and leaning in for a kiss.

"Hey. Whoa." Jo tightened her grip on Boots' shoulder, holding the debutante at arms' length.

"Kiss me, Jo," whispered Boots.

Jo sighed, the anger flowing out of her.

Boots could be annoying as hell, but Jo had a soft spot for her, partly because Boots was so damned vulnerable and, underneath the clueless arrogance, pretty damn sweet; partly because of her little crush on Jo, which was both cute and tragic; and partly – mostly – because Boots had been instrumental in saving Blair's life last February.

"Boots," Jo said gently, "you and me … It ain't ever gonna happen. You know I'm with Blair."

Boots drew a ragged breath, opened her eyes. She felt embarrassed now; rebuffed. She looked away.

"I just wanted to tell you that luncheon is ready," Boots mumbled.

"Great. That's great. But next time remember – when I say I don't wanna be disturbed, I don't wanna be disturbed. We respect each other's privacy here at River Rock. Mostly. I know you only been here a few months, but I woulda thought that woulda sunk in by now."

"Well … I'm not so bright," Boots said softly. She cleared her throat. "Gravy!" she said, glancing at her wristwatch, "you might not care about being late for lunch, but I am always à la minute."

"Boots –"

"No, no, I mustn't tarry. À bientôt."

Boots spun on one well-shod heel and hurried down the long corridor, soles of her penny loafers slapping the uneven old hardwood floorboards …

When Jo returned to the bedroom, Blair was reclining on the bed, still nude and flushed but with a sheet draped casually, as if by accident, over her stomach.

"Is there a kitchen fire?" asked Blair. "Has World War Three broken out? Are the killer bees attacking?"

Jo shook her head. "Just Boots buggin us," she muttered.

Blair rolled her eyes. "I might have guessed."

"Blair … be nice." Jo settled on the bed next to her lover.

"Why should I be nice? She doesn't make puppy dog eyes or goo-goo eyes at me."

"I thought you were gonna find her a girlfriend. Find her somebody and she'll forget about me."

"That was my plan," said Blair, "until I realized that I don't know any lesbians except Boots. You're the one with the Greenwich Village connection. You should ask Peggy to find someone for Boots. Send Boots to a Gay and Lesbian Center mixer."

"We can't send Boots to one of those alone," objected Jo. "You know how, uh, eccentric Boots is. She'll be mugged and swindled and murdered before she even gets to the Center. And even if she makes it there in one piece, no one's gonna get her. She'll be one of those wallflowers. A rejected wallflower."

"I don't want to talk about Boots. I want us to get back to where we were a minute ago. I need you, Polniaczek." Blair stretched provocatively. Her milk-chocolate eyes, warm with desire, regarded Jo under half-closed lids.

Jo grasped the sheet that covered Blair's stomach, twitched it, cast it aside almost brutally.

"Stop coverin it," Jo said. She leaned down and kissed the dark, puckered scar tissue on Blair's abdomen. "It happened. It's over. You're still beautiful. You're more beautiful, because you're still alive. When I thought," Jo kissed the scar again, "when I thought I was gonna lose you …"

Jo laid her head on Blair's stomach. She slid her arms around the blonde's waist.

"Blair, I love you so much."

Blair stroked Jo's dark hair. "I love you too, darling. But you're sounding all serious now. And I just want us to fornicate like savage beasts." She sighed. "Boots killed the mood. Boots and my scar."

"I told you to stop worryin about the scar."

"The scar reminds you that we almost lost each other."

"The scar reminds me that we didn't lose each other," Jo corrected. "The scar is a damn symbol of hope, Blair."

"Then why are you so maudlin?"

"I just … All right, it is Boots. But it's not her fault."

"Oh, of course not. Nothing is ever Boots' fault."

"Well it's not. It's me, it's how I react to her wanting me."

"Wanting you?" Blair frowned. "I know she likes you but … now she wants you?"

"Her feelins seem to be gettin … stronger."

"Well no wonder, when you answer the door like that! You smell like sex, Jo. Hot, sweaty sex."

"Whatever's causin it, it's somethin I need to deal with. You don't gotta worry about it, babe."

Blair sighed. "We're a 'we' darling. Whatever you deal with I deal with and vice-versa."

"Well, the way I bit Boots' head off, I don't think she'll be bashin our door in again, whether I smell like sweaty hot sex or not."

"So you yelled at her? Tell me – did your eyes flash magnificently? Did your nostrils flare? Did your bosom heave? Because when a girl has a crush, that's all grist to her mill."

Jo shifted uncomfortably. She stroked Blair's thigh. "Boots did look kinda … kinda like …"

"Like you got her motor all revved up?"

"Never mind Boots' motor," Jo said decisively. She dragged her fingers from Blair's thigh to the fine brown ("dark blonde," Blair always insisted) curls between Blair's legs. Jo teased the curls, gently touched the firm bud of Blair's clitoris. "How about if I get your motor all revved up again."

Blair lifted one eyebrow. "Promises, promises. Will you finish the job this time, Polniaczek?"

"Even if everyone in the house starts poundin on our door," Jo vowed. She lifted herself on her elbows, one on each side of Blair's hips, ducked her head, kissed the firm little bud. "Blair?"

"Hmm?" Blair was already relaxing against the pillows, eyes closed.

"Will we really have more privacy in Italy?"

"Well …" Blair gasped as Jo pressed her mouth against her sex. "Uh … we couldn't have less, uh, privacy than we do here."

"True." Jo tilted her head, found a better angle. Her tongue flickered over Blair's most sensitive places. Blair sighed, spreading her legs wider. "You're so wet, babe," whispered Jo.

"I know."

"You taste so great, Blair. You always taste so great. I'm gonna go down on your every day in Italy, babe. We're gonna make love in the Coliseum. We're gonna make love in a gondola."

"We'll be … arrested …" murmured Blair, head falling back against the pillows, hips rocking.

"Then we'll make love in jail …"

Jo took her time. Blair had had to wait; it seemed like they were always being interrupted by someone. So now Jo was leisurely, pacing their love-making carefully, bringing Blair to the edge, then gently pulling her back, then bringing her to the edge again …

Eventually Blair's hips were rocking wildly, her arms and legs thrashing, her head turning from side to side on the pillow while she stifled a shriek. And then she shrieked. Loudly. At length …


"It's indecent," Portia said gloomily. The dreamy – yet fiercely intellectual – little blonde sat at the butcher-block table in the River Rock kitchen, picking at a bowl of salad. "Do they ever stop having sex?"

"They stopped for awhile when Blair was recovering from the knife wound," said Petal. "Or, if they didn't stop, Blair was a lot quieter."

"They seem to be, ah, making up for lost time now," Jacqueline said, with a glance at Alec.

He darted a glance at her. "Does that give you any ideas?" he asked, waggling his eyebrows.

She threw her paper napkin at him. "Beast!" she said.

Their on-again, off-again romance was still on-again – at least for the moment. But Jacqueline had insisted on a chaste, glacially paced courtship this time.

"What happened to Boots?" asked Alec, looking around the kitchen. "I say … You don't think they took pity on her and invited her to join the fun?"

"Double beast!" said Jacqueline, throwing another napkin at him. "You're positively indecent, Lord Nethridge."

"Thank you for noticing," he grinned.

"Enough with the sex talk," complained Natalie. "For those of us too young to have sex it's annoying and inappropriate and frustrating and –"

"Very educational," said Tootie. "C'mon Nat," she teased, "don't be such a prude."

"You can't be a prude if you want to be a doctor," Portia said flatly. "The human body is a machine, Natalie. A beautifully engineered machine. It's all tissues and nerves and bones and chemicals, and how they all work together – or don't."

"Who's a prude?" demanded Natalie. "I'm not a prude. I'm right there with you, sister, all the tissues and nerves and whatnots. I'm just sick of hearing about sex!"

Petal darted a shrewd glance at her young friend.

"Natalie," Petal said gently, "Doctor Adams isn't pressuring you, is he?"

"Of course not," said Nat. But she blushed red from her chin to her hairline.

Tootie slammed down her glass of cola. "That dirty so-and-so!" she said. "Nat – has he been bothering you?"

Natalie leaned her face on her hands. "It's no big deal. I mean, he's almost ten years older than me. Of course he doesn't get why I want to go slow."

"Nat, you're seventeen," said Tootie, outraged. "You're basically still a kid. He's an adult! What the hell is he thinking, pressuring you?"

"Look," Natalie sighed, "before this turns into an 'Afterschool Special,' it's not like he's pressuring me. It's just, when he kisses me, it's very … it's not like with the other guys I've dated. It's never been this intense before. See, to me it's great, just kissing him. It's an entrée. Hell, it's the entrée and the whole damn dessert! But for him, it's like – I can tell kissing is just the appetizer. Lately when he says goodnight he seems annoyed."

Tootie threw her napkin on the table and slid off her kitchen stool.

"Well to hell with him!"

"Tootie – it's no big deal," Natalie insisted. "He's not pressuring me."

"Oh, he's not? Being annoyed? Giving you the message you're not satisfying him? Making you feel bad about yourself? That's not pressure?" Tootie demanded.

"Well … When you put it like that," Nat mused.

"That's it," Tootie said decisively. She headed toward the door to the back hall.

"Where are you going?" Natalie called. "Tootie? Tootie, for crying out – what, are you going to go punch him in the nose?"

"No," Tootie called back to Natalie, her voice rapidly receding, "but Jo will!"


Blair dozed in Jo's arms. Jo held her protectively, gently stroking her lover's torso. Blair had lost a lot of weight when she was recovering from the knife wound, too much, in Jo's opinion. Blair was starting to gain some of it back, but she still looked strangely fragile.

Jo never mentioned it. Blair would be self-conscious; it would be one more thing for her to worry about. And heavy or thin, sick or well, Blair was beautiful to her lover. But Jo worried about her fiancée's health. A thin Blair, with her ribs and hip bones so clearly outlined, just didn't look healthy to Jo …

There was a spirited pounding on the suite door.

Jo sighed.

Not Boots. Boots wouldn't have returned so soon after Jo essentially reamed her.

It could be anybody, really, Jo mused, especially now that their house was bursting at the seams with impoverished musketeers and Lions. Mrs. Garrett had opened her arms and her house and her fount of motherly wisdom to Petal, to Portia, to Boots and to Jacqueline after their families were ruined.

Jacqueline's family, of course, hadn't been ruined completely; their US assets were wiped clean from the face of the earth, but they still had their fabulous titles and land and money and interests in the UK. Jack hadn't needed a place to live, but she wanted to be close to her friends …

Since February River Rock had become, in effect, a massive dormitory, which had its good points and bad points. Bad point – definite bad point – was that Jo and Blair had less privacy than ever.

And as much as Jo loved her friends and teammates, their arrival had brought a shadow of despair to the normally cheerful home.

Portia and Petal had never been poor. Their families had been rich since before Queen Elizabeth I sat on her throne and before Shakespeare was penning his plays. Portia and Petal had never been poor and now, months after BZ Becker and his cronies had destroyed their families' unimaginable wealth, Portia and Petal were still reeling.

Portia had lost a lot of that dreamy romanticism that had softened her intellectual edge. Petal, tall, robust, handsome Petal seemed to be shrinking in on herself. Her rosy, chubby cheeks were growing hollow. Her shoulders slouched. Both women had been headed to medical school but there was no money now. There was nothing but the sympathy of friends …

The pounding on the door came again, louder and more insistent now.

Jo kissed Blair's cheek and slipped off of the bed.

Boots had been devastated too. It still hadn't sunk in for the bony, ditzy preppie. Gamma Gamma had dethroned Boots as their sorority president as soon as they learned that the St. Clairs – a family dating back before the Crusades, a family that, like Alec's, had ties to ancient royalty – had been utterly picked clean by the Beckers – New York's new Medici family, the Times wrote – and their jackals.

Thank God for Alec's Great Aunt Vivienne, thought Jo as she padded to the door in bare feet. What a sport the old lady must be, inviting all of Alec's friends to Italy for the summer – and footing the bill!

Italy … Jo didn't know much about Italy except that it was supposed to be bright and hot with excellent wines and a lot of beaches and beautiful old palaces and museums. It would be a completely new world. It would be a place for all of them to try to forget the trauma and drama of the past six months, a place to try to really start healing – Blair included.

Blair's parents' wealth had been wiped out by BZ Becker too – all except the money and jewels David and Monica Warner had looted before fleeing the country, David to Tokyo, Monica to Switzerland, leaving Blair behind in the lean times as they had always left her behind when the money was flowing like wine.

Damn them to hell, thought Jo. Blair warned them Becker was after them; they took the warning and then ran without Blair while she was lying in a fucking hospital bed. Assholes! That was how Jo thought of David and Monica Warner when they crossed her mind these days: assholes.

It was funny, thought Jo, as she reached for the door knob, how so many people took Blair for a rich snob, an airhead, a spoiled princess, and it wasn't like none of that was true – it was all true, a little bit, when Blair was young – but Blair was the least touched of all her friends by losing the money.

Blair had already given up the money to be with Jo. She had already given up the family millions and was living on an allowance drawn on a trust set up by her grandfathers. So when the Warner empire was wiped clean … for Blair it was almost a non-event. But the stabbing … the damn stabbing …

Jo opened the door.

Tootie stood in the doorway, mouth tight, eyes flashing.

Jo had never seen Tootie look so pissed off. Jo laughed in surprise.

"Christ, Stretch – what'd I do? Whatever it was, I'm totally freakin sorry." She made an indelicate gesture. "Young Diablo's honor – whatever I did, I'm sorry, Toot."

"You didn't do anything," Tootie said grimly. "At least, not yet. I want you to punch Paul Adams in the nose!"

Jo laughed again. "And what'd he do? He stand up Nat or somethin?"

"It's not funny, Jo. He's pressuring her to have sex!"

Jo's eyes narrowed. One of her hands clenched involuntarily into a fist. "He's what?"

"You heard me!"

Jo bit her lip, blue-green eyes narrowing even more.

"He on duty right now?"

"I don't know. I guess so."

Jo nodded. "All right. Leave Blair alone. She's, ah, sleepin. But if she comes downstairs just tell her I'll be back soon. And don't tell her where I went."

Tootie stepped back. Now that her mission had been fulfilled, now that Jo had answered Tootie's call to arms, for the first time Tootie really focused on the older girl and took in Jo's appearance – hair sweaty and wild, face perspiring, dark shirt and shorts soaked through with sweat, and, not to be unkind, but –

"Jo – you stink," complained Tootie, waving a hand in front of her face.

"Eh, you're welcome," crabbed Jo. "Jeez, try to do a good deed, it's all freakin insults around here. Alec's right – it is a bloody hen party!"

"I'm not trying to insult you, Jo; I just don't know if that's how you want to confront Doctor Adams."

"I ain't gettin all gussied up to read that cradle-robbin pervert the riot act," Jo said firmly. "Now step aside, Toot. I got some ass to kick."

… Maybe, thought Jo after the tenth funny look that she got, it might have been a good idea to at least wash her face or drag a brush though her hair before rocketing off to the Langley College infirmary on her Kawasaki.

People outside the infirmary gave Jo a funny look and the nurses she passed inside gave her funny looks and the students sitting in hard plastic chairs outside the Emergency Ward gave her funny looks …

Jo caught a glimpse of herself in a glass-fronted cabinet of medicines.

Christ, I look like a freakin fugitive from Bellevue!

She patted her hair down a little bit. But it wasn't just how she looked. She smelled like sweat and sex.

"May I help you?" a young nurse in a crisp white uniform asked doubtfully.

"Yeah," said Jo. "I need to see Doctor Adams."

"Are you … injured?" the nurse asked doubtfully, as if she really wanted to ask "Are you having a psychotic break from reality?"

"It's urgent," Jo said firmly. She glanced at the door of the tiny little office where Paul Adams examined patients, where he had examined her nose last December after David Warner broke it. "The doc seein a patient? Cause if he ain't –"

"The doctor is engaged," the nurse said evasively.

Jo snorted. "Engaged to whom?" she asked scornfully.

"What I mean is –"

"I know what you mean," said Jo. "Look, I don't wanna be rude to you, but I got a beef with him and I need to see him right now."

"He's reviewing his charts," said the nurse. "If you want to make an appointment – "

"Sorry, lady – this ain't somethin you schedule."

Jo took the bull by the horns as she always did, for better and for worse, striding to the door and wrenching it open. Behind her the nurse was making nervous protestations, but Jo blocked her out.

"Excuse me," Paul said, annoyed, looking up from a chart. He was sitting in one of the infirmary's ridiculously uncomfortable hard plastic chairs, clipboard in one hand, and pen in the other. He was a handsome man with a fade haircut and serious, intelligent dark eyes.

Paul had treated Jo's broken nose, and he had saved Blair's life at the Fever, keeping her from bleeding out while the ambulance was en route. Ambulances had a way of taking their sweet time in the South Bronx. Blair could have died … It was largely due to this man that she hadn't. So Jo wouldn't kill him. But nobody messed with Natalie. Something had to be said.

Paul's annoyed expression melted away as he took in Jo's disheveled appearance. He tossed his clipboard onto the little table at his elbow. If there was one thing he had learned – and learned quickly – about the musketeers and Lions, it was that they seemed to be constantly in physical danger.

"Natalie – is she all right?" he asked a little breathlessly.

Jo closed the door behind her. She took a couple of deep breaths, reminding herself that this handsome, earnest, smooth-talking guy had saved Blair's life.

"You tell me," Jo said with dangerous quiet.

Paul looked confused.

"What do you mean? Isn't Natalie home? She isn't here, if that's what you think."

Jo sighed. What a pinhead! "Of course she ain't here," said Jo, voice tight. "I can freakin see that for myself." The tiny room was sterile and white, the furniture all plastic and metal and functional. You couldn't hide a damn ladybug in here, thought Jo, let alone a whole person.

Paul looked annoyed again. "Jo – what do you want? I'm a tad bit busy here."

Jo took a single step forward. Unconsciously Paul leaned back in his chair. He was much taller and stronger than Jo, but Jo had presence. And right now, the vibe she was giving off was very pissed-off presence.

"Nat's only seventeen," Jo said.

"I'm aware of that," Paul said warily.

"She's not ready to have sex – not by a long shot."

"Unlike you," Paul said, lifting one corner of his mouth contemptuously, "since you reek of sex right now."

"Unlike me," Jo agreed evenly. "I'm almost twenty. I can fuck twenty-four-seven if I want."

She took another step forward. Paul scooted his chair back about half a foot.

"Look, Jo, I like you," he said hastily. "I don't approve of how you've, ah, confused Blair, but I like you. Hell – you just finished your freshman year and you're already a Langley legend."

"Never mind Blair and never mind my legendary status," said Jo. "We're talkin about Nat."

She took another step forward. Paul pushed his chair back again, almost banging into the wall.

"What's the matter, doctor?" asked Jo. "You scared of me or somethin? Cause I ain't touchin ya, am I? And I ain't made any threats or anythin."

"Jo, I don't mind saying that you're a very intimidating young woman. I think you know you are. And I'd appreciate it if you'd just stop right there. Just stand where you are."

"But I ain't doin anythin," said Jo. "I don't know what you're talkin about."

"OK." Paul smiled wryly. "OK, I think I see the point you're making. Message received."

Jo's eyes narrowed. "You sure?"

"Yes. I get it."

"Cause when someone's got a presence, they can intimidate other people, right? Without actually touchin them or sayin anythin straight out, they can influence someone's behavior – right?"

"Yes, Jo. It's crystal clear."

"Well let me make it diamond clear. Nat is my little sister. You make her feel uncomfortable, you make her feel bad about herself, I got no problem rearrangin your pretty face. Got it?"

He tilted his head. "You really are a fine example of what's wrong with the Bronx."

"You don't got anythin to say about the Bronx," Jo said simply. "I'm Bronx. You're not."

"My grandfather and my father –"

"I don't give a damn about your grandfather or your father. Maybe they're Bronx, maybe they're not. You're not Bronx. You're from, where? Some place posh." It was in his voice and his fancy shoes and the way he kept backing up his chair.

Paul blushed.

"You go slummin at the Fever like any other rich guy," said Jo. "So don't tell me about the Bronx. You don't got that privilege."

Paul cleared his throat. He started to speak, and then fell silent, and then he did speak.

"I wonder," he said, and his voice was tight, a little higher than it normally was, "I wonder what the Langley administration would think if they knew their golden girl was a dyke?"

Jo lifted her eyebrows. Her heart started pounding in her chest but she kept her face neutral.

"Why don't ya tell 'em and see?" she said calmly. "But then, the really interestin question is gonna be where the hell are you gonna hide? Cause if you do anythin to hurt Blair and me or any of the people we love –"

"Yes, yes – you're going to rearrange my pretty face," said Paul. "Duly noted." He cleared his throat again. "Jo, look, we've gotten off on the wrong foot here. I like Natalie. What's more, I respect Natalie. I'm not going to do anything to hurt her. And I like, well, I like all of you."

Jo nodded. "That's great, all this respect and likin everybody. But just put sex outta your head, where Nat's concerned. For freakin years. If you can wait, good for you. If you can't, your ass is gonna meet my foot."

"I thought you were going to rearrange my face?"

"I'm very multi-faceted," said Jo. "People don't appreciate that. I ain't a doctor, but I guarantee you I can rearrange any part of your anatomy in all kinds of interestin ways."

Paul swallowed.

"Have fun with your charts," said Jo.

She turned on her heel and left, leaving the door open behind her.

Paul sat for a few moments. The nurse peeked in. "Are you all right doctor?"

He nodded. "Close the door, please," he said.

The tiny office smelled of Jo's powerful, heady scent. Her threats rang in his ears. She wasn't kidding around, he knew. He wasn't Bronx, nor was his father, not really, but his grandfather was.

What do I feel about Natalie? He steepled his fingers under his chin and pondered the question. Natalie was pretty and smart; she was an impressive kid with the makings of an amazing woman, and an amazing doctor, if his instincts were right. But was she worth all the drama that seemed to surround her? And was she worth waiting for?

After a few moments, Paul reached for the ugly green phone on the wall. He dialed a number.


When Jo returned to her suite, all she wanted to do was climb into a hot shower.

Blair wasn't in the room. Jo stripped, throwing her sweaty clothes into their white wicker hamper, and stood under a stream of hot steamy water for a solid fifteen minutes.

She shampooed her thick dark hair twice. She scrubbed herself clean and fresh with Irish Spring soap.

When she stepped out of the narrow shower, Blair was there, leaning against the big tub with the mahogany surround, arms folded across her chest.

"Well I hope you're happy," drawled Blair.

"I'd be even happier," grinned Jo, "if a certain beautiful blonde would dry my back."

Blair held out a pale blue towel. Jo wrapped herself in it. She leaned forward to kiss Blair, but the blonde turned her head.

"Hey … I brushed my teeth," laughed Jo. "Where's the love, babe?"

Blair grimly shook her head.

"Natalie's in her room crying her eyes out," said Blair.

"Well she can dry her eyes." Jo rubbed her damp locks with the towel. "Everythin's gonna be fine with the good doctor. I took care of it."

"Oh, you took care of it, darling. He called Natalie. He broke up with her."

Jo scowled. "Well, good riddance to bad rubbish, as Aunt Evelyn always says."

Blair bit her lip. "Is that your single Aunt Evelyn that you're quoting? You're quoting your single aunt's hackneyed clichés to justify your destruction of Natalie's relationship?"

"I ain't tryin to justify anythin. I'm just sayin – Nat can do way better."

"I can't even take a nap," Blair said, maintaining a tenuous grip on her temper, "without you going all Incredible Hulk! Jo … Threatening a doctor? The doctor that saved my life?"

"Oh. So you, ah, heard about that."

"Yes, I, ah, did!"

"Well that news sure traveled fast."

"Jo – Doctor Adams told Nat that he's scared to date her. Because of you. Scared to date her!"

"Bullshit," Jo snorted. "He's just being a baby. He doesn't like that someone's onto him."

Jo wrapped the towel around her torso. She tried to take Blair's hands, but Blair kept her arms firmly folded across her chest.

"Blair … babe," Jo said softly, "you gotta trust me on this. Whatever the doctor's good points are, he ain't right for Nat."

"That's for Nat to decide," said Blair. "How many people think we're not right for each other? This is between Nat and Paul! I know," she sighed, "I know that you and Tootie have your hearts in the right place, but you need to butt out."

Jo shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "Nat's really upset?"

"She's devastated!"

"Maybe, ah, maybe I should go, like, say something?"

Blair lifted her dark eyebrows. "Darling … What part of 'butt out' is confusing you?"

"But if she's all upset –"

"She is all upset, and you charging in isn't going to help the situation."

"Jeez, Blair, I was just tryin, you know, it sounded like he was givin her a hard time, and I was just …"

Blair relented. Jo looked so chagrined and bewildered. Blair opened her arms, pulled Jo to her.

"Jo, you have such a big heart, but sometimes …"

"Such a thick skull?"

"Not precisely how I was going to put it, but, yes, darling."

Jo kissed Blair's cheek. "What should I do?" she asked, honestly confused. "If someone is hurting Nat? Or anybody I love? Am I supposed to just stand back?"

"Not at all, but you might want to take a minute to think before you go all Rambo. Paul isn't a Bronx Barbarian, Jo."

"You're tellin me!"

"I think you really scared him."

"Come on."

"Jo, you can be very intimidating."

Jo kissed Blair's cheek again. "Little old me?" she teased.

"When you're angry – yes," Blair said seriously. She ran a finger over Jo's mouth, loving the soft feeling of Jo's lips. Loving the feeling so much, in fact, that she kissed Jo. They kissed for a long moment.

Blair slipped her arms around Jo's neck, pulling Jo closer, deepening the kiss. Jo settled her hands on Blair's hips. As they kissed, Jo's towel slipped to the floor.

Blair lowered her head, nuzzling Jo's throat, her collarbone, the soft swell of her small breasts.

"Easy, tiger," laughed Jo. "I just got all cleaned up."

"Mmn, I think you missed a few spots," Blair said critically. She kissed Jo's breasts. "I think you need another shower. And since I never took my shower …"

"We could maybe, like, shower together," murmured Jo. "Conserve water."

"It's our civic duty," Blair said solemnly.


When Mrs. Garrett arrived home after a rather grueling day of filming "Edna's Edibles" all she wanted to do was pour herself a glass of Chablis and slip into a cool bath.

But the moment she saw the downcast faces gathered around the kitchen's butcher block table, she knew her relaxation would be put on hold.

The fastest way to get to the bottom of anything in the house, she knew, was to ask the Rona Barrett of Eastland – also known as Tootie Ramsey.

"It was all my fault," Tootie said glumly, when she finished her tale.

"It was," Portia agreed.

"You pointed Jo at the good doctor like someone dangling a steak in front of a Rottweiler," said Petal.

"Not that the rogue didn't deserve it," added Jacqueline.

"Oh, undoubtedly," Petal agreed.

"If you wanted to put the doctor in his place, why didn't you come to me?" Alec asked Tootie.

Tootie rolled her eyes. "Alec – please."

"And what does that mean?" he demanded.

"It means you're not frightening," said Jacqueline, putting a soothing hand on his arm. "Not as frightening as Jo, any road."

"I can be frightening," Alec objected. "When some plonker hurts one of my girls –"

Petal laughed. "Alec, we're not your harem."

"Let him dream," Jacqueline said, affectionately patting Alec's arm.

"I'm your bloody brother is what I am," Alec said stoutly, "except, I'm not your brother," he kissed Jacqueline on the cheek, "and I can protect you all every bit as well as Jo can."

"I'm not saying you can't protect us," Tootie explained, "just that you're not as, well, not as menacing as Jo can be."

Mrs. Garrett had followed the entire exchange with a grim frown on her face.

"Tootie," she said "Jo is not your Rottweiler. We're trying to civilize Jo, and she seemed to be coming along rather nicely. Now Natalie's all upset, and we'll be lucky if Doctor Adams doesn't file a complaint against Jo! What were you thinking, Tootie? Jo could lose her scholarships!"

Tootie sighed. "I guess I wasn't thinking. I was just so mad, hearing how the doctor was pressuring Nat."

"Yes, well," Mrs. Garrett's nostrils flared, "that's a separate issue. I'm not saying I don't understand why you were mad at Doctor Adams. But you can't handle these things by tossing Jo at them." She headed toward the door to the back hallway. "I'll go see how Natalie is doing."

"Tell her I'm sorry," called Tootie.

Mrs. Garrett didn't respond …

Natalie was lying on her bed, still weeping stormily. Mrs. Garrett settled on the edge of the bed, putting a comforting hand on the chunky girl's trembling shoulder.

"Mrs. Garrett, I don't want to be comforted right now," Natalie mumbled into her pillow.

"I know, Natalie, I know." Mrs. Garrett patted Natalie's back soothingly, as if the seventeen-year-old were still the little girl that she had been when Mrs. Garrett met her years before.

"I'm not mad at Tootie," mumbled Nat, "and I'm not mad at Jo, and I'm not mad at Paul. It's me, Mrs. Garrett! Somehow I always pick the weak ones, don't I? Somehow I always manage to pick the loser of the bunch!" She sobbed harder.

"Don't be so hard on yourself, Natalie."

"But Mrs. Garrett – it's like I'm, like I'm a loser magnet! Worse – it's not even like they're drawn to me – I go after them! Why do I do it? Why do I go after the losers, again and again?"

"Natalie, let me tell you a story."

Nat groaned. "Mrs. Garrett, with all due respect, I can't handle a story about the Appleton county fair right now, or the Appleton pie bake-off, or the day your pet pig got lost."

Mrs. Garrett laughed.

"It so happens, Natalie, that my pet pig never got lost. And my story has nothing to do with Appleton."

"I'm just not in the mood for any stories," mumbled Natalie.

"Believe me, Natalie, I know. When you have a hurt, a really big hurt, it feels like no one else can ever have felt the same way."

"Well … they haven't," Nat said into the pillow.

"You remember when you met my husband Robert? When he visited me at Eastland a few years ago?"

Natalie nodded without looking up.

"Sometimes, even now, I wonder how I could have picked him. An incorrigible gambler. And, like most addicts, an incorrigible liar. He never failed to let me down – me and the boys. But he was charming, Natalie. He didn't seem like a loser. That's the thing about some losers. They seem like they're anything but."

"So you made one mistake," Natalie muttered, voice muffled. "You learned your lesson."

"Ha! Natalie, you girls sometimes forget that I had a life – a rather long life – before I ever came to Eastland. After Robert I had a number of boyfriends over the years. All very charming. And all losers."

Natalie shifted, turning her head so that she faced Mrs. Garrett. Natalie's blue eyes were red from crying, her cheeks damp.

"All losers?"

"All losers," said Mrs. Garrett. "It seemed like I had some secret, amazing talent. No matter how wonderful a man seemed, once I'd dated him for awhile it never failed – it turned out that he was a total ne'er-do-well!"

"Just like the guys I pick!" said Nat.

"Exactly. So you see, dear, I do understand, at least a little bit, how you feel."

"Gil seemed so great," Natalie said, shaking her head. "And Norman. And Belmont Keane, I mean, come on – Belmont Keane! An actor. Totally hot! And Paul, I mean, a doctor! A handsome, successful young doctor! But at the end of the day …"

"All losers," said Mrs. Garrett nodding.

"But why?" asked Natalie. "If this is how I pick 'em, does that mean I'm doomed to always pick losers?"

"Not at all," Mrs. Garrett said with spirit. "Look at Drake. He's no loser."

"No, he's not, but, with all due respect, Mrs. Garrett, I don't want to wait until I'm in my, er, late forties to find true love."

"Fifties," said Mrs. Garrett. "It's OK, you can say it. Drake is helping me to loosen up about my age."

"That's terrific, Mrs. Garrett, but I don't want to be in my fifties when I find the one."

"You won't," Mrs. Garrett said encouragingly, putting a motherly arm around the girl's shoulders, "because you've already figured out that there's a problem. I didn't figure it out until I was much, much older than you."

"So what's my problem? What am I doing wrong?"

"It's not anything you're doing," said Mrs. Garrett. "It's more … What I realized, and what I think might be happening with you, Natalie, is that we seem to be drawn to human weakness. We have a sort of sixth sense for it. Robert was a gambler, and several of my boyfriends drank too much. Gary was an embezzler."

"Wow. You really did have a life before us," Nat said wonderingly.

Mrs. Garrett squeezed Natalie's shoulders. "You seem to have that sixth sense," she said. "A boy seems like a winner on the surface, but underneath there's something weak in him."

"Gil was kind of a pervert," mused Natalie. "Norman was afraid of, well, everything. Belmont couldn't make up his mind about anything. And Paul … Paul is a child." Her eyes widened. "Paul's a little boy. He wants what he wants, and if he doesn't get it, he's a baby. He sulks, Mrs. Garrett."

Mrs. Garrett nodded. "Gary sulked. It's not a very attractive quality."

"Paul's not too old for me," Natalie said wonderingly, "I'm too old for him!"

"I wouldn't be a bit surprised," said Mrs. Garrett. "Honestly, Natalie, although I don't condone Tootie and Jo's methods, I think you're well rid of Doctor Adams. At least until he grows up a little bit!"

"But what do I do?" groaned Natalie. "If I'm drawn to these losers, and they don't even seem like losers, how am I going to find Mr. Right?"

"You've just got to learn to ask the right questions," said Mrs. Garrett. "Don't be taken in by a handsome face or a flashy surface. Really get to know the men you date. Before you know it, you'll be spotting the losers up front, and you won't let them waste your time."

Natalie threw her arms around the feisty redhead, hugging her fiercely.

"Mrs. Garrett, what would we ever, ever do without you?"

"Well, Natalie, you'll never have to know."


Late June, 2011. The South Bronx, New York.

Traffic on Arthur Avenue was bumper-to-bumper.

Behind the wheel of her Lexus, Dr. Natalie Green leaned on the horn.

"Move your butt!" she shouted at the rust-bucket in front of her. "This isn't the Rose Parade!"

The driver of the rust-bucket shot his hand out of the window, flipping Natalie an indelicate sign.

Natalie leaned on her horn again. The cars behind her leaned on their horns. She was playing a "Stray Cats" CD but the chorus of horns drowned it out for a minute.

Her cell phone burred. She answered it. Natalie never talked on her cell phone or texted while she was on the road – she'd operated on too many head injuries caused by distracted driving – but this two-foot-per-minute crawl didn't count as driving in her opinion.

"Dr. Green," she said tersely, "shoot."

"Mom, where are you?" Syd demanded.

"Stuck on Arthur Avenue – where else, kid? Did you get my message?"

"No."

"I left you a message on your cell."

"I lost it, Mom."

"What do you mean, you lost it? You lost the message or you lost the phone?"

"The phone. I think I left it at school. But that's OK, cause I want the new iPhone."

"Syd, cell phones don't grow on trees!"

"They have the iPhone 4 at Wal-Mart, Mom. It's only two-hundred."

"Oh, is that all?"

"Why do you sound so crabby? I mean, more than usual? Did you have a bad day, Mom?"

Natalie sighed. Her son had no sense of money, and he seemed to lose everything not pinned or glued to him … but he was a sweetheart.

"Yes," she said, "it was a crummy day, but it ended with great news. I'm coming to pick you up right now."

"Where are we going?"

"Your cousin's awake!"

"Lexi's awake? She's finally awake? Yes!"

Natalie could picture her ten-year-old jumping up and down for joy. For a moment the bumper-to-bumper traffic and the honking horns melted away. She smiled.

"Yes, kiddo, Lexi's awake. We're going to drive up and see her tonight. Is your sister there?"

"Nope."

"Well I left a message on her cell, but she probably lost her phone too. So if you hear from your sister, tell her to get her behind home pronto."

"Want me to get some snacks together?"

That was Syd's job when they took family trips; he got the chips and cookies and junk food together. Natalie smiled again.

"Sure, kiddo, you take care of the snacks."

"Okay. Love you, Mom."

"Love you, kid."

As she snapped her phone shut, traffic finally started moving forward.


Late June, 2011. White Plains, New York. Westchester County International Airport.

"Honk the horn," Jo told her driver.

"Lord Nethridge seems to see us, Senator."

"Just honk the horn. Please."

The driver honked the horn.

Alec, striding toward Jo's jet black, comfortably appointed government car, grinned. He waved. He couldn't see Jo through the tinted security glass, but he knew she was inside looking at him …

When Alec was settled on the leather bench seat next to Jo, a glass of Scotch in his hand, he hugged her, carefully, of course, so as not to spill their drinks.

"Lexi's awake," he said quietly, eyes shining.

"Lexi's awake," Jo agreed. "And she looks great, pal. She sounds great."

"Thank God!" He looked down at the glass of Scotch, swirled it around a little bit. "MacAllan?" he inquired.

"Of course," laughed Jo. "With a little clear water. What – you think I'd pour us the cheap stuff on a day like today?"

She clinked her glass against his. They drank.

"Tootie's with her?" he asked.

"Hasn't left Lexi's side."

"Natalie's coming?"

"She's on the road. She's bringing the kids with her."

"Wonderful. Wonderful." His eyes were bright with unshed tears. Jo put a hand on his shoulder.

Alec cleared his throat. "Aphrodite coming?"

Jo nodded. "Blair's driving up tonight. She had to give the closing remarks. No way around it."

"Of course." He shaded his eyes with one hand. "Lexi's awake, Artemis."

"Yep."

"She's going to be all right. The doctors – they do think she's going to be all right?"

"I mean, you know doctors, they probably have to run a billion tests and triple-check everything, but she really seems to be all right."

A tear slipped down his cheek. His shoulders trembled.

Jo put her arms around him. "It's OK," she said quietly. "Let it out."

"I'm fine."

"Let it out, Alec. Better now than when you see her."

He lowered his head. All of the grief and all of the stress that he'd been keeping coiled inside for six month poured out as he cried.

Jo held her best friend until he sobbed himself out.


Late June, 2011. Peekskill, New York. The Fireside Inn.

Jo was dreaming. Something about Blair … young Blair, nineteen or twenty, naked as a jaybird and swimming in a clear blue sea. Jo was young too. She dove in after the blonde, swam toward her …

In the dream Jo and Blair held each other while they treaded water – not an easy feat – trying to kiss in the rolling blue waves without drowning. Blair's lips were so soft, so incredibly lovely, tasting of salt …

"Mmn …" murmured Jo. She pulled Blair closer. Was confused as her arms were filled not with damp bare skin, but the fabric of a business suit that smelled faintly of coffee and cigarette smoke and Chanel No. 5.

Jo blinked owlishly, opening her eyes.

She was in the large bed in her suite at the Fireside Inn. And Blair, fully clothed, was lying next to her.

Jo yawned, pulled Blair closer.

"Did you just get in?" asked Jo.

"Yes." Blair kissed Jo's forehead. "That is, I just arrived here. I've been at the hospital for a couple of hours. Lexi looks amazing."

"I know." Jo nodded sleepily, happily. "It's like a damn miracle. Tell your boss we say thanks."

Blair laughed. "Come to services tomorrow and say it yourself."

"Could be. I'm pretty damn wiped."

"You're such a heathen," said Blair, shaking her head.

"Aren't I, though! The thorn in your side, babe. I know."

Blair brushed a tendril of dark hair out of Jo's eyes. She slid her fingers gently through the mane of dark hair shot through with strands of silver. There was no lamp on in the master bedroom, but a wash of pale light came from the bathroom.

"How did the conference end?" asked Jo.

"Very well, thank you." Blair kicked her shoes off as she nestled closer to Jo; the shoes tumbled to the carpeted floor. "We've all agreed to disagree about a million-and-one things. Internecine war averted once again."

"That's my girl – making peace left and right. Must have been stressful, though."

"No more than usual."

"Babe … I can smell the Benson & Hedges."

"Oh. That." Blair yawned. "I might or might not have smoked a couple of cigarettes during a break in the heat of the battle. But it was worth it. Jo – We're going to build the Children's Center!"

Jo sat up on one elbow. "Really?" she asked excitedly. "You got the votes?"

Blair quirked a dark eyebrow. "Was there ever any doubt?"

"I'm sorry, babe. Sometimes I forget I'm talking to the three-time Harvest Queen of Eastland Academy. So are you going to buy the Brooklyn site or the one in the Bronx?"

"Neither. There's a site in Manhattan – it's more central for all the boroughs."

"Manhattan!" Jo shook her head. "How the hell are you going to finance that? Or are you going to use that patented Blair charm and convince the city fathers to give you the property for a few shiny beads?"

Blair yawned. She began unbuttoning her dark blazer. "We have to raise a few more millions."

"Oh. Just a few more millions?"

"Piece of cake," Blair said confidently. She slipped out of her blazer, let it fall to the floor.

"Here, babe," said Jo, "you've had a long day. Let me help you."

Jo unbuttoned Blair's white shirt.

"That's very sweet of you, darling," said Blair. "It's been a few days since anybody's fussed over me this way."

"I certainly hope so!" laughed Jo. She helped Blair to pull off the shirt, letting it drop to the floor on top of the blazer. Jo ran a palm over the cup of Blair's silky bra, felt the nipple instantly stand to attention.

"Hmm," said Blair. "Call me cynical, but I suspect your assistance is based on impure motives."

"Very impure," Jo agreed.

"I thought you were tired."

"Never too tired to make love to my beautiful wife," said Jo. "I've missed you, babe. I'm never going to get used to sharing you with so many people."

Blair laughed. "Sharing me? Do you know what it's like to be married to a Senator?"

"No," said Jo, running her hands over Blair's voluptuous torso, "but it's probably great. I hear senators are pretty hot in bed."

"I've heard that too," said Blair. "I wonder if it's true?"

"Ouch," said Jo, grinning. "Well, serves me right, fishing for a compliment."

"Yes, it does – but you are pretty hot, darling."

"Right back at you, babe."

As Jo ran her hands gently over Blair's bra, feeling the nipples tightening through the silky fabric, she kissed Blair's stomach, kissing little circles around the belly button, and pressing her lips to the dark, puckered scar above it.

Blair reached down and tangled her lovely hands in Jo's hair, urging Jo up toward her breasts.

"It still bothers you, doesn't it?" murmured Jo.

"What?"

"The stupid scar."

"No. Well. Maybe," Blair said honestly. "I think … It's seeing Lexi. And Nat brought the Holy Terrors with her. Sometimes when I see children, when I see parents with their kids …"

Jo held Blair tightly, planted a chaste kiss on her cheek.

"Blair, I'm still young enough. Just barely. Say the word. I'll have a kid. Our kid."

Blair nudged Jo with her big toe. "Of course," she said, smiling wryly. "That will go over big during your re-election campaign!"

"Why wouldn't it?" asked Jo. "Come on, I can totally see it. I'm waddling onto the stages, like a big beautiful blimp. My slogan can be 'A Vote For Polniaczek Is A Vote For The Future – Literally'!"

"Hmm. I'd get Nat to help you with your slogan," Blair advised. "And honestly, darling, do you want to be campaigning with morning sickness?"

"Some of those reporters are just asking to be puked on, babe."

"Ew. And … ew."

"If I had the kid soon enough, I wouldn't be pregnant during the next campaign."

"Oh, no. You could be nursing, instead. You could be campaigning with a crying infant clinging to you!"

"Why would it be crying? Our kid isn't going to cry."

"They all cry, Jo."

"Not our kid! Our kid is going to be tough."

"You cried all the time when you were a baby."

"I did not!" Jo was outraged.

"You did. You had colic. Rose told me."

Jo rolled her eyes. "Ma exaggerates sometimes."

"If our baby takes after you, it will have colic and cry all the time."

"I suppose you never had colic?"

"I don't know. We could write to Nanny Foster and ask."

"Look, this is ridiculous. Who cares if it has colic or cries or what? It'll grow out of that and be totally amazing, like us. Come on, babe. Just say the word. Or we can adopt. There are so many kids out there that need loving parents."

Blair stirred uneasily in Jo's arms. "Jo … Can we not talk about this? Not right now?"

"Of course." Jo sounded disappointed, but she gave Blair another chaste kiss. "I'm sorry, babe. It's just, you know how excited I get about things."

"I love how excited you get about things, Jo." Blair pulled her wife closer. "Now, enough of these boring pecks on the cheek. It seemed like you were about to ravish me a little bit."

"Well, actually, I was planning to ravish you a lot."

"What a lovely idea!"

"See, I was having this dream before you came in. You remember that summer, in Italy?"

A warm grin spread slowly across Blair's face. Even in the dim light Jo could see that Blair was blushing.

"What made you think of that summer?" asked Blair. "That was a million years ago."

"Twenty-seven years." Jo cupped Blair's generous derriere. "Not so long. Couple of pounds. Couple of grey hairs."

"A couple of pounds? Jo – have you been drinking?"

"I might or might not have had a sip of MacAllan with Alec when he arrived, but my faculties are in no way impaired."

"A couple of pounds." Blair hugged Jo tightly. "I love you, Jo Polniaczek."

"And I love you, Blair Polniaczek."

"Jo?"

"Yes, babe?"

"When exactly does this ravishing begin?"

"How about right now? Would that be good?"

"That would be perfect."

Jo leaned in for a kiss …


Late June, 1984. Florence, Italy.

"… And that's the Arno," said Blair, pointing, "and that's the Duomo, just beyond that spire."

The sun beat warm and bright on Jo's face. She closed her eyes, tilting her face up toward the blue sky.

Blair smiled at her lover. They stood on their balcony at Great Aunt Vivienne's palace, looking out at the plazas and palaces and gardens and towers of Florence, at the domes and spires, at the slender bridges arching over the Arno. The river was placid and bright under a pale blue sky.

"France can kiss my ass," Jo murmured dreamily.

Blair laughed.

"Honest to God," said Jo. "I mean, OK, let me qualify that … France was pretty cool, and it was fun spendin the summer there – well, the last coupla days when we broke out on our own. But this …"

"It's heavenly," Blair agreed. "I've always had a soft spot for Italy. Though I must admit I prefer Germany and Switzerland."

"That's your cool Anglo blood," murmured Jo.

Blair nuzzled Jo's throat. "Are you calling me cold, darling?"

"Never! It's just …"

"I don't have your hot Italian blood," suggested Blair, nuzzling Jo's collar bone.

"Eh, your blood's plenty hot," laughed Jo, pulling her fiancée closer. "Come on, hot stuff – we better move this inside." She slipped a finger through Blair's belt, tugged gently, leading the blonde toward the balcony doors …

After they made love, while Blair was dozing, Jo laced her fingers behind her head and stared up at the frescoed ceiling. Alec's Great Aunt Vivienne had given them an astounding suite; it was like rooming in a museum. The walls were a warm, blush-colored stone, the floors tiled in astonishing, vibrant colors, the walls hung with paintings and tapestries that would've looked at home in the Louvre or the Prado.

The enormous bed had a carved wooden headboard and posts and an imperial purple canopy with gold trim. Fit for an empress, Jo thought, gazing fondly at her sleeping lover. Maybe ol Catherine de Medici slept here! The suite – the whole palazzo – was all very bright and antique and elegant and over-the-top – very Italian, thought Jo.

The fresco that sprawled across the ceiling looked like it had been painted by an old Italian master. It was a scene from Dante – Paradise, not the Inferno, Jo was glad to see – beautiful, scantily clad but somehow staunchly pure people in an idyllic garden …

Jo leaned on one elbow and looked down at her lover. Blair was rosy in the late afternoon light; already her flesh looked plumper; she looked healthier than Jo had seen her look in months. The weather was hot; Blair was perspiring – "glowing" she would say. Jo kissed Blair's damp cheek.

"I love you," she whispered. "My beautiful, beautiful goddess."

"Mmn," mumbled Blair. She smiled in her sleep, cheeks dimpling prettily.

Jo gently brushed back a strand of blonde hair. She kissed Blair's temple.

"Sleep, babe," she whispered. "I'm gonna go do a little explorin."

"Mmn."

"I'll take that as 'have a great time,'" Jo chuckled.


Great Aunt Vivienne's palace made Petal Von Schuylkill's manor on Lake Peekskill look like a doll house.

Not that it was the Von Schuylkill manor any longer. Not since BZ Becker's coup. The Von Schuylkills had been pitched out, lock, stock and barrel.

Becker had named the Lake Peekskill estate "Becker House" – a name that, in Jo's opinion, revealed a lot about the literality of his thought processes and the poverty of his imagination …

Jo pushed away thoughts of BZ Becker and the Von Schuylkill misfortunes. The musketeers were in Florence to heal, not to dwell on the trauma and drama of the last five months ...

Jo wandered the broad corridors of the palace, finding something new to marvel at around every corner. The carpets, the paintings, the vases, the furniture … The colors were so rich, and everything was old and beautiful.

That little table, for instance, mused Jo; the little table holding a potted plant was inlaid with intricate marquetry. It looked like something the Medicis might've used to hold their chess boards – if people played chess back then; Jo was a little hazy on that.

You could probably sell that little table, thought Jo, and buy Ma's whole building. Hell – you could probably buy her whole Bronx neighborhood!

Jo shook her head, rather dazed. Jo was perfectly aware that she didn't have Blair's artistic soul, or the heiress' keen eye, but Jo knew quality when she saw it. Great Aunt Vivienne's palace was stuffed with more treasures than a museum. It was intoxicating and not a little overwhelming.

The corridors were wide; where they flanked an outer wall there were arched windows that admitted the hot sunlight of Florence and the fragrant aromas of its gardens. Jo breathed deeply. It was like inhaling a bright wine. She felt a little swoony.

It was in this state of mind that she stumbled into a small cloistered garden, a mere patch of wild flowers and marble statues of nymphs and goddesses overgrown with moss.

On a bench at the edge of the garden sat a very old woman, slender and tall, with a handsome cropped mane of silvery hair. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be taking the bright sun in through her tanned skin.

She was quite wrinkled but she had lovely bones, perfectly chiseled features, and she sat with the perfect posture of an aristocrat whom time had thus far been unable to bend. Both of her withered, claw-like hands rested on the silver head of a silver-ferruled cane.

The hands were ruined now – arthritis, maybe; her hands looked like Mrs. Balducci's arthritic hands. But they had once been slender, Jo could tell; they had once been fine; and they still sparkled with diamond-encrusted rings.

Jo suspected this was Great Aunt Vivienne – or one of her elderly inamorata, as Alec would have said – and she turned quietly to beat a hasty retreat.

"Come forward," said the old lady, without opening her eyes.

Jo froze.

"Come forward," the old lady repeated a little waspishly. "I heard your footsteps. If you do not come forward I will assume you are a sneak-thief and raise an alarm."

Her voice was even plummier and richer than Alec's. And when she turned abruptly, and opened her eyes, they were the same piercing, sapphire-blue of Alec's eyes.

Jo took a hesitant step toward the bench. She dropped a nervous, awkward curtsy. In the days leading up to their flight to Italy, Blair had tutored Jo in the rudiments of the basic curtsy, since they would be encountering at least a few nobles in Alec's crowd.

Jo had actually mastered the basics quite well; but now, caught by surprise and shy, Jo's curtsy was abominable, and she was glad Blair wasn't there to see it.

The old woman sniffed disapprovingly. "American," she said decisively. But as she raked Jo with her piercing eyes, her eyebrows lifted with a grudging approval. She nodded. "You," she said, "are the Jo about whom Alec writes endlessly."

Jo shifted nervously from foot to foot. "Ah, I guess so," she mumbled.

The old woman lifted her cane with both hands and brought the ferrule down smartly on a flagstone. It made a sharp retort, like the crack of gunfire.

"Do not mumble," she said crisply. "Mumbling is ill-bred."

Jo flushed, stung. "Look, your, ah, grace, I don't know what Alec's told ya about me, but I ain't, that is, I'm not exactly one of the Vanderbilts!"

"Clearly. That is, in large part, what my nephew admires about you." The old lady inclined her head gracefully. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. "As you have ascertained, I am her grace Vivienne Anviston, Duchess of Uxbridge, sister of Duke Nethridge – otherwise known as Alec's pater. And you …"

Jo dropped another curtsy, this one a bit smoother than the first. She inclined her head, blushing prettily. "I am Joanne Marie Polniaczek, of the Bronx, New York. I'm Alec, that is, Lord Nethridge's best friend."

"Sit."

It wasn't a request. Jo swallowed nervously. She sat next to the old lady.

Jo was silent, not knowing what the hell to say to this formidable relic. Great Aunt Vivienne appeared to be about 200 years old, but there was something about her – the impeccable diction, confident voice, flashing eyes, ramrod-straight back – that made Jo think the old bag could probably knock the hell out of even the Bronx Barbarians.

Jo didn't know what to say, and the Duchess didn't seem to be in the mood to speak. The old woman closed her eyes again and tilted her face up toward the sun.

Tiny birds chirped and darted among the statues and the shrubs and the ivy that bearded the garden walls. The scent of roses was heady. Church bells began ringing across the city of Florence.

"You're a Catholic," Vivienne said unexpectedly.

"Yeah," Jo agreed.

"You are of Polish and Italian extraction."

"Yeah, that is, yes," said Jo.

"Italian-Americans either love Italy, or they loathe it. There is no middle ground."

"I think …" Jo cleared her throat, "I think I'm already falling in love with it."

Vivienne nodded without opening her eyes. "Excellent." She smoothed a slight wrinkle of her white silk dress. "You are the lesbian."

"Uh … yes." Jo felt herself blushing mightily. What a frank old bat!

"Alec will have told you that I am a lesbian. That is why I live abroad – why I have lived abroad for more than fifty years. Florence is a somewhat conservative city; I have always had to be discrete. But I have been able to live a life here that I could not have lived in England, had I remained in Society."

"Yes. Alec told me." Jo shifted on the marble bench. "I'm … It's not exactly that I'm a lesbian, your grace."

Vivienne lifted her eyebrows, her eyes still closed. "No?"

"No. I was engaged to a boy when I was fifteen. I loved him a lot. But then I met Blair."

Vivienne smiled. "The Warner girl. I have met only once, but I have, of course, heard many lovely things about the Warner girl."

"Alec has a soft spot for her," Jo smiled.

"Yes. But I have heard lovely things about her from many quarters, not merely from my nephew. So." Vivienne pursed her lips. "You are not a lesbian. You are merely head-over-heels in love with the Warner girl."

"There's something about her," said Jo. "I never knew a woman could be so … I never expected I'd feel so … She's just …"

Vivienne shook her head. "Clearly you are in love, or you could not possibly be so incoherent."

"I am in love. Very in love. Blair is my soul mate."

"She is your soul mate … But you are not a lesbian."

Jo sighed. "No. I ain't – I'm not."

Vivienne shook her head again. "There are women who love men," she said, "and women who love women, and women who," she hesitated.

"Love both," said Jo.

"No," Vivienne said firmly. "There are women who cannot make up their minds."

Jo frowned, annoyed. "Now listen, your grace –"

But Vivienne held up one imperious little claw. "Please. I never bicker with my guests, nor do I permit them to bicker with me. We agree that you love the Warner girl. We shall leave it at that."

Jo ground her teeth. Who does this old bag think she is, tryin to tell me what I feel or don't feel? But Jo had been raised to respect her elders, whether they were old bozos like Balducci or intimidating old broads like the Duchess of Uxbridge. She held her tongue and her temper.

"If you say you have never felt your heart quicken at the sight of another woman," continued the Duchess, "then you have never felt your heart quicken at the sight of another woman."

"Well I haven't," said Jo. So there, you old know-it-all!

But an image flashed, unbidden, across Jo's thoughts … The generous bosom of Skye, the waitress at the Greenwich Village gay bar where she and Blair sometimes went for drinks and dancing. Skye was extremely well put together. Not that Jo cared about that. But it was difficult not to notice Skye … Skye and her generous endowments.

Another image flashed unbidden through Jo's mind's eye … Boots … Bony little Boots, and her big dark eyes, standing all vulnerable and swoony on the threshold of Jo and Blair's suite … And a less recent image … Boots in the little metallic Princess Leia bikini at Petal's place at Halloween …

For cryin out loud, Jo berated herself, it's not like I got a crush on Boots! Boots – of all people! I just feel bad for her …

When Jo glanced at the Duchess again she saw that Vivienne had opened her sapphire-blue eyes and was gazing, in an amused fashion, at the young brunette.

"I ain't a lesbian," Jo blurted defensively.

"If you say so." The Duchess made an infinitesimal shrug.

"I hate it when rich people say that," complained Jo. "'If you say so.' Ha! Where I come from that's like sayin 'You're full of it'!"

The Duchess smiled inscrutably. "If you say so, Miss Polniaczek."

Jo took a deep breath and counted to ten.

"You have a very bad temper," Vivienne observed. "I like that very much. It is difficult to navigate the indignities and injustices of life unless one has a very bad temper."

"Well, then, navigatin life should be a breeze for me," Jo said though gritted teeth.

"Yes. I think it will." The old lady extended one hand to Jo. "Help me to my feet."

Ever gallant, Jo assisted the elderly noble as, very slowly, she stood up and found her balance.

How the hell old is she, anyway? wondered Jo. Been here more than fifty years … Say she was at least twenty when she settled in … So she's at least seventy now … Maybe eighty, even …

Vivienne was much taller than Jo, fully as tall as Alec. She leaned on Jo for just an instant, just long enough to be sure of her footing.

Independent old thing! Jo thought with something approaching admiration.

Vivienne looked down her long, perfectly chiseled nose, fixing Jo with her imperious blue eyes.

"Florence is a city of beauty, my dear, and a city of truth. You remember your Keats?"

"Sure," said Jo. "'"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.'"

Vivienne looked rather startled. Jo bit back a smile. Sometimes it stung a bit, when people underestimated her, but sometimes, like now, it was funny.

"Er, yes," agreed Vivienne. And then, rallying, "This is the birthplace of the Renaissance, my dear. This is the city of blood and gold, of beauty and passion. Florence is the city of da Vinci and Dante, of Boccaccio and Machiavelli, of Michelangelo and – well. Never mind the history lesson. Suffice it to say that this is a place where beautiful and strange things bloom – not least of them the truth."

She nodded firmly, as if throwing out a challenge.

"Uh … Sounds wonderful," Jo said, bewildered.

"Ha! Tell me that in a week!"

And the elderly woman was off, leaning minimally on her cane, which made a light tapping sound against the flagstone path of the little garden.

Before Jo could say anything – if she could have thought of anything to say – Vivienne had disappeared into the palace.


Supper was served at eight-thirty pm. Although it was served in a grand dining hall that made the vast dining hall at Petal's look like a broom closet, the meal was leisurely and relaxed.

Jo had been nervous about eating foreign food; in France she had subsisted largely on fruit and bread, although she had unwittingly tried some cheese made from goat's milk.

"Trust me," Blair had told her, "you'll love Italian cuisine."

And she did. Cold cut appetizers had been followed by delicious soups and pastas, then chicken and potatoes, then fruits and cheeses for the dessert – the dolce – and finally, coffee. Wine and mineral waters flowed freely throughout the meal. Arched windows opened directly onto one of the palazzo's many gardens, and the fragrance of flowers wafted in on warm night breezes …

Vivienne sat at the head of the massive table, conversing with great animation – but great dignity – with her guests. Alec sat on her left side, trading affectionate insults with her, in English and Italian, throughout the meal. Jo followed most of the Italian conversation, thanks to all the colorful Italian phrases she'd picked up over the years from her Uncle Sal Largo and her cousins Bud and Pauly.

Blair and Jo were seated more or less at Vivienne's right hand, and she darted curious glances at them throughout the evening. The Duchess was attentive to all her guests – Tootie, Natalie, Mrs. Garrett and Drake, Jacqueline, Petal, Portia and Boots, as well as a handful of people that the musketeers had never met, nobles and artists and musicians.

But Vivienne's attention always returned, sooner rather than later, to the lovely young blonde and lovely young brunette at her right hand. The Duchess said very little to them, but her gaze fell on them frequently.

Tootie and Natalie were uncharacteristically quiet. They had never dined with nobility before; Alec, who was like a big brother, didn't count in their book. The best friends kept their elbows off the table and looked frequently to Jacqueline, Petal, Portia and Boots, who had been raised in high society.

"Well," said Vivienne over her coffee, when the last of the dolce dishes had been cleared away, "that was the most boring damned meal I've suffered through in a long time!"

She put a little brown cigarette between her lips; a servant materialized at her elbow and lit the cigarette for her. She inhaled deeply; the scent of a spicy, exotic smoke drifted down the table.

Blair and Jo exchanged glances; Tootie and Natalie exchanged glances; Mrs. Garrett and Drake exchanged glances; Alec laughed.

"Dear old Aunt Viv," he said affectionately. "Never thoroughly happy unless you're making everyone else damned uncomfortable!"

"Well," she inhaled deeply, then blew out a series of little smoke rings, "I ask you, dear boy – how else am I to feel? You promised me a coterie of exciting, outspoken Americans, but you delivered a passel of insufferably dull, mealy-mouthed bores."

"Now just a freakin minute!" exclaimed Jo, leaning forward in her chair.

Blair put a warning hand on Jo's arm, but Jo shook the hand away.

"I don't know how they do things in Italy, your grace," said Jo, "but that's about the rudest damn thing I ever heard on either side of the Atlantic. We're just tryin to be polite. You might wanna give it a go sometime!"

"Jo!" chided Mrs. Garrett. "The Duchess is our hostess. It's only through her generosity that we're all here this summer."

Vivienne beamed at Jo. "That is precisely what I mean. That is the Yankee spirit I was hoping to experience."

"Jo's a real breath of fresh air," agreed Natalie.

"Ah." Vivienne fixed Natalie with her keen glance. "And you are one half of the Snoop Sisters. So … You do have a voice."

"Does she ever!" Tootie chimed in.

"As do you," said Vivienne, her gaze shifting to Tootie. "Snoop Sister number two."

Tootie blushed.

"Aunt Viv, don't make them uncomfortable," complained Alec. "I've finally found some ripping friends, and you're going to frighten them off."

"Eh, who's frightened?" crabbed Jo. "Insulted, maybe. Frightened? No way."

Alec beamed at her.

"Nothing frightens Artemis," he said approvingly.

"So I gather," the Duchess said. "Miss Polniaczek appears possessed of the courage of the gallant knights of old."

Jo blushed. "Aw, for cryin out loud," she murmured under her breath.

"No mumbling," said Vivienne, voice whip-sharp. "Enunciate, dear."

"And sit up straight, darling," Blair whispered to Jo.

"Hey, who's freakin side are you on?" Jo asked her fiancée.

"Yours, darling. Always." Blair pressed Jo's hand under the table.

"We assure, you, your grace," Jacqueline told Vivienne, "that the musketeers are the most scintillating, exciting people imaginable. Their good behavior is sure to wear off soon, so enjoy the peace and quiet while you can."

"I can personally attest," said Petal, "that this crowd has never attended a gathering that didn't end with raised voices, vulgar language, sex, violence and marriage proposals."

"And dancing," Portia mused thoughtfully. "For some reason, there's always dancing."

"'Footloose' has nothing on us," Tootie laughed.

"And we're much better dancers," added Natalie.

"Jo's a wonderful dancer," Boots said dreamily. "Absolutely top-drawer."

Blair shot Boots a venomous look.

"Well, my dears," said Vivienne, "I want you all to promise me that this will be your last night of polite dinner conversation. For the summer, my palazzo is your palazzo. Florence, the city of beauty and truth, is your city. I want you to live this summer – to truly live!"

"Wow," said Tootie, eyes shining. "To truly live! Did you hear that, Nat?"

"I sure did," said Natalie, eyes bright. "Think of it, Tootie – the Snoop Sisters' Italian adventure!"

Mrs. Garrett cleared her throat. "Yes, well, that sounds wonderful. Very, er, continental. But since Natalie is seventeen and Tootie is sixteen, their level of living will have to be a little less al dente than the other girls'."

Natalie sighed. "Mrs. Garrett, do you always have to rain on our parade?"

"Yes, Natalie. Until you're eighteen, I do."

Vivienne was regarding Blair intently. "Do you remember me, Miss Warner?"

"Yes, your grace. The Rainiers' cotillion."

"You were very young. You couldn't have been more than four years old."

"That was the first time," Blair smiled across the table at Alec, "that I danced with milord."

"Did we?" asked Alec.

"Don't you remember? I'm hurt, Alec." Blair pretended to pout.

Alec laughed. "Fancy that! Not remembering my first dance with the fair Aphrodite. Was it a waltz?"

"Naturally."

"And was I very gallant?"

"Of course. Until I stepped on your foot. And then you cried."

"So even then you were cruel to me."

"Old habits die hard," said Blair.

"You cried?" Jo asked Alec. "Because she stepped on your foot?"

"Apparently," he agreed easily. "I don't remember, but I'll take Blair's word for it."

"Ha. What a wimp!" teased Jo.

"Don't be unkind," Blair told her lover. "Alec didn't have your advantages. He took piano lessons – not 'Gang Warfare for Toddlers'."

"Ah. The piano," said Vivienne. "Alec, dear, do you still play?"

"Does he still play? He's amazing," said Tootie.

"I play Rach 3 a treat now," Alec told his great-aunt. "Shall I play it for you when we withdraw?"

But the Duchess waved aside Rachmaninoff. "I want to hear something lively," she said. "Something to stir the blood. I'm feeling very sluggish today."

"Boogie-woogie," suggested Alec. "Mrs. Garrett can dance for us."

"Oh, I couldn't possibly," Mrs. Garrett objected, smoothing her red bun of hair. She was clearly flattered.

"Imagine if we could get one of the Fever DJs here," Nat whispered to Tootie.

Tootie giggled. "I'm picturing Alec's aunt," she whispered, "break-dancing to 'Flashlight' …"

They withdrew to a room of arches and columns and a domed ceiling seventy feet high. A fresco somewhat muted by centuries of candle smoke graced the dome; in the fresco, nymphs and satyrs romped in a state of semi-nudity.

Jo looked around and suppressed the instinct to whistle. Christ! You could fit a coupla city blocks in this one room – just this one room!

The Duchess reclined on the most comfortable of the antique divans, everyone else settling on the chairs and divans near her. Servants brought more coffee and more glasses of water and wine. The Duchess smoked more of her exotic little brown cigarettes with the spicy scent.

Alec settled himself at the grand piano, fingers flashing up and down the key board as he ran scales. He frowned. "Aunt Viv, it sounds dreadful! When did you have it tuned?"

"Cole Porter tuned it last," said Vivienne.

"I know you're joking, my dear old bat, but as bad as the tone is, I almost believe you."

"If you want an honest, sober answer," said Vivienne, "Elton John tuned it when he visited several years ago. So yes, dear – it has been awhile."

"Elton John!" exclaimed Tootie. "He was here? He played that piano?"

"For my birthday," said Vivienne.

"I get sweaters for my birthday," sighed Natalie.

"Cause you ain't a duchess," said Jo. She chuckled. "Heh! Tell you what, Nat – you land a count or a baron or somethin this summer, next thing you know, Elton John'll be playin for you!"

"Hey, you never know," said Natalie. "Anything can happen!"

"That's the spirit," Mrs. Garrett told her approvingly. "When you're open to love, anything can happen." She squeezed Drake's hand; he dropped a kiss on her forehead.

"All right then," said Alec, "Everyone belt the hell up. I'm taking requests. I could probably wring better music out of an old hurdy-gurdy than I can out of this out-of-tune monstrosity, but I shall do my manful best. Aunt Viv? You're our gracious hostess, so you get 'first dibs' as they say."

Vivienne dragged thoughtfully on her cigarette.

"Allow me to suggest 'Little Brown Jug,'" Alec said facetiously. "Or 'Camptown Races'. Or 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame' – in honor of our American friends."

"Mordalo, Alec," Jo said sweetly.

He and Vivienne laughed.

Blair frowned disapprovingly.

"What'd she say?" asked Natalie, looking to Blair.

"Never mind, Nat."

"Come on," said Tootie. "Tell us, Blair."

Alec laughed again. "Jo said 'Bite me,'" he translated. "But I'm afraid," his fingers flashed up and down the keys, running more scales, "I am unfamiliar with that tune!"

Vivienne's posture remained ramrod-straight, but she settled comfortably against the cushions of her divan. "I know," she said, "'Barbara Allen'."

"Ah! Just the thing," said Alec.

"Who's Barbara Allen?" asked Jo, looking around, as if Barbara Allen might be a guest who was joining them.

"It's a folk song," Blair told her quietly.

"Do you know the lyrics, Aphrodite?" asked Alec.

"Yes."

"Then accompany me."

"Alec –"

"I shan't take 'no' for an answer. It's the least you can do after you stepped on my foot at the Rainiers' cotillion!"

The scales he was playing resolved themselves into notes, a lovely, haunting folk tune.

Blair took a deep breath, and then sang in her husky mezzo-soprano …

"In Scarlet town, where I was born, there was a fair maid dwelling. And every youth cried well away, for her name was Barbara Allen."

Blair looked to Jo, smiled.

"Twas in the merry month of May; the green buds were a swelling. Sir William on his deathbed lay, for love of Barbara Allen ..."

It was a beautiful, simple song; and it was tragic. Jo hated mush, but she felt tears prick her eyes as Alec played and Blair sang and old Sir William and Barbara Allen met their fates …

"… And there they twined in a true-love's knot, red rose around green briar …"

As Blair's voice and Alec's last note faded, there was a moment of silence and then hearty applause from everyone except a scowling Boots.

Jo whistled.

"Encore!" she shouted. "Encore!"

Vivienne dabbed discretely at her damp eyes with a lacy handkerchief.

"Next request," called Alec.

"'Rock the Casbah'!" laughed Natalie.

"Little Red Corvette'!" called Tootie.

Boots smiled across the room at Jo. "What does Jo want to hear?" she asked.

Jo blushed. Blair slipped her arm through Jo's, pulling the brunette closer in a proprietary fashion. Boots scowled at the blonde.

"Darling," Blair whispered in Jo's ear, "we have to find Boots a girlfriend in Florence. Or a boyfriend. Somebody to take her mind off of you."

"Amen, sister! Course, it won't be that easy. I am a pretty damn tough act to follow." Jo grinned at her lover. Blair smiled back.

"Ahem," said Vivienne. "What about it? What is Miss Polniaczek's request?"

Suddenly all eyes were on Jo. Even though almost everyone in the group was a friend, in some cases a close friend, Jo felt uncomfortable, as usual, suddenly being the center of attention.

"Uh, well …" She squirmed a bit, like a small child in a barber's chair. "I guess …"

"Artemis, dear, pick a song, any song," Alec said encouragingly.

"Do you know 'Faithfully'?" she asked hopefully. "I mean, I know it ain't Beethoven or whatever, but –"

"'Faithfully' it is," he said cheerfully.

After a couple of false starts, Alec began to play the Journey song, the song that was one of Jo and Blair's "They're playing our song," songs.

Blair pulled Jo even closer.

"I love you," she whispered in Jo's ear.

"Love you forever and back," whispered Jo.


The next morning dawned with birds trilling and the scent of flowers wafting in from the balcony and the music of church bells chiming across the city.

Jo smiled dreamily. She and Blair were tangled together, nude, under a soft sheet of Egyptian cotton. The perfumed air was already hot, and the lovers were sheened with sweat.

Jo kissed the spray of freckles on Blair's shoulders. Fragmented images of the night before returned to her, like slow-motion frames of a film.

I think maybe there is somethin to this Italy guff, she mused. She and Blair were always ravenous for each other – always had been, since they first realized, last year, that they were both having feelings for each other. But last night … last night …

Jo had entered the room first, as usual. It was something she always did no matter where they were; Jo felt responsible for Blair, especially after Dina's attack in February. Jo went into a room first, so if anything bad was going to go down, she could try to stop it, or could at least give Blair precious seconds to run away to safety …

Jo gave the room a quick once over; she heard Blair locking the door behind them. Not surprisingly, no dangers were lurking in their gorgeous suite.

"All clear," Jo said quietly. "So now we can –"

But before she could turn around, let alone finish her sentence, she felt one of Blair's arms snake around her waist from behind, and Blair's other arm snake around her chest.

"Babe, what –"

"Shh."

Roughly, Blair kissed the back of Jo's neck, right at the nape. She slid one hand under Jo's shirt, reaching for her small breasts. The other hand plunged into Jo's silk trousers, moving sure and fast toward her sex. Fingers slid into Jo's panties, through her dark curls, toward her instantly wet nether lips.

Jo gasped.

"Babe … wow!"

"Shh," Blair said again, biting Jo's earlobe. Her other hand found Jo's left breast, kneading roughly. "I want you, darling. I need you right now …"

In the dawn light, Jo grinned and blushed with pleasure at the recollection.

Blair had wanted her … and Blair had taken her. Blair was never shy when it came to sex, but she'd never been as forceful, as determined, as she'd been last night …

Blair looked so peaceful and angelic now, as she slept. Those shining blonde tresses. That tip-tilted nose. The perfect, kittenish chin. The long dark lashes under dark brows. The fetching dimples. She was like one of Botticelli's angels. But last night …

Jo closed her eyes, remembering Blair's hands, rough and hot, on her breasts and between her legs, pressing, squeezing, moving insistently until they both cried out, collapsing spent on the cool tile floor …

The thought of it sent a jolt of electricity to Jo's sex. She stirred restlessly.

"Blair," she whispered, kissing Blair's shoulders again. "Babe? You awake?"

Blair slept on. She didn't even make her usual incoherent mumblings. She was full and truly out.

Jo ached between her legs. She nudged Blair with her toe.

"Babe. C'mon," she whispered. "I want you, babe."

But Blair slept on.

Jo drew her hands up and down Blair's soft arms. She leaned down and kissed Blair's neck, her shoulders. Jo drew gentle fingers over Blair's hips, her stomach, trailing down toward Blair's fine curls. Blair might've been asleep, but she was wet and hot between her legs.

"Babe … C'mon," Jo whispered again. She touched Blair's clitoris; Blair stirred slightly, moaning in her sleep. Jo stroked the little bud, gently, lovingly. A smile touched Blair's mouth. "Are you awake? Babe?" But Blair slept on.

Jo groaned. She opened her legs, wrapped them around Blair's hips. Slowly she began to rock …


Late June, 2011. Peekskill, New York. The Fireside Inn.

"Ow!" said Jo, jolted out of sleep by a sudden sharp pain in her back.

"Oops," said Blair. "Sorry, darling."

Pale dawn sunlight spilled through the curtains of their hotel room. Jo squinted.

"What just happened?" Jo muttered. Her back stung, as if from an insect bite. "Blair … Did you just bite me?"

"I got a little carried away," Blair said soothingly.

"Are you …" Jo turned around, so that she was facing her wife; she slipped her arms around Blair's waist. "Are you biting me while I'm sleeping, Blair?"

Blair's eyes sparkled; her color was high. Jo could see it in the beautiful face she knew so well after all these years; Blair's embarrassment warred with her sense of mischief.

"It was an accident," Blair said contritely.

"An accident? How do you accidentally bite someone?" Jo asked skeptically.

"I bit you on purpose," Blair clarified, "but I didn't mean to bite so hard."

"What the hell happens while I'm sleeping?" Jo wondered. "Is this something new?"

"I was awake," said Blair, "and you were asleep. It's such a treat these days to wake up and find you with me. And you looked so beautiful lying there, that I became rather aroused."

"So you just, you decided to …"

"Start without you," said Blair.

Jo laughed. Will Blair ever stop surprising me? "Why didn't you just wake me up?"

"You looked so … peaceful."

Jo held Blair's face between her hands, kissed her long and deep.

"So, OK," said Jo. "I'm awake now. And it is a treat for us to wake up together these days. Mind if I join in the fun?"

"Not at all, darling," Blair said huskily.

Jo's hands found Blair's heavy breasts, stroked them. Blair's hands moved to Jo's hips; she kissed her way from Jo's earlobe to her collarbone, biting and nipping.

"Blair?"

"Mmn?"

"How often does this happen?"

"What?"

"You starting without me."

"Oh." She nipped at Jo's throat. "From time to time, darling."

"And I don't wake up?"

"Your duties take a lot out of you, darling. Besides," Blair nipped at Jo's left breast, "you've done it yourself. That one time."

"When?"

"You remember. Our first summer together. That first morning in Florence."

"Oh." Jo felt a pleasant blush spread from her chest to her face. She chuckled. "That was fun."

"I know."

"How would you know?" asked Jo. "You were asleep."

"Or so you thought," corrected Blair.

"Hey – are you kidding me? You were awake?"

"I can neither confirm nor deny that accusation. It was so long ago, Jo. But either I was awake … or it was a very beautiful dream."

Blair flicked her tongue across one of Jo's pale pink nipples. Jo gasped. "And why is there all this talking?" Blair complained. "All this cross-examination? I feel like I'm on the witness stand." She drew the nipple into her mouth.

Jo moaned. "This … conversation … isn't over," she murmured.

"If you say so, darling …"


"I'm dying," said Vivienne.

Alec and his great-aunt sat on the terraced balcony just off the withdrawing room, eating breakfast – the rich caffé lattes and sweet little cookies and pastries that Italians favored over meat or eggs in the morning.

Vivienne's mane of silvery hair was beautifully coiffed but she was still in her lounging outfit, white mules and a voluminous white kimono with a dragon pattern picked out in emerald silk. She ate little but sipped her caffé latte and smoked one of her innumerable little cigarettes.

Alec smiled affectionately at his aunt. "You'll outlive us all, you decadent old bat."

Vivienne shook her head. "I don't mean I'm dying someday. We're all dying someday, incorrigible. I mean, quite literally, that I am dying. Soon." She lifted her cigarette, waved it about. "Coffin nails have finally done for me."

Alec went very still. There was a ringing in his ears, suddenly. His lips felt numb.

"Steady on," said Vivienne. "I've certainly no cause to complain. Eighty-four is a respectable age to peg out. I've certainly had my share of, well, everything. I've drunk it to the dregs, dear boy."

Alec shaded his eyes with one large pale hand.

"Steady on, steady on," said Vivienne. "One mustn't be greedy." She sipped her caffé latte.

"I don't … I don't mean to be greedy," Alec said quietly. He felt dazed. "But I will miss you. I can't quite absorb this. I'm so awfully fond of you, you see. I'm so awfully fond of you, Aunt Viv."

"As well you should be," she said, nodding approvingly. "If I had thruppence for every time I've pulled your fat out of the fire, dear boy … You do know you're my favorite nephew? We need to stick together, you see."

"The black sheep of the family?" he asked. He wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his snowy white shirt. He tried for a smile, but it was ghastly.

"Black sheep!" Great Aunt Vivienne snorted. "Nothing 'black sheep' about us. That's what they say. That's how they push us out to the margins! When I say we need to stick together, I mean because we're the only two Anvistons worth a damn. My brother was completely ineffectual, and his son followed suit. I'm sorry to say that about your father, but the truth is the truth."

"The pater's no ball of fire," Alec agreed glumly.

"But you," Vivienne continued, "my dear grand-nephew, you have the makings of a somebody. And the crowd you're running with confirms it. Lot of spirit. Lot of bold, spirited women you're running with."

"Jacqueline might make something of me," Alec said. "If she ever consents to marry me, that is."

"Nonsense!" Vivienne's eyes flashed. "You'll make something of yourself, with or without Viscountess Angledun. Never put your fate in anyone else's hands, Alec. You can share your fate … But never hand it over."

Alec leaned back in his chair, regarding his great-aunt curiously. "Are they certain?"

"If by 'they' you mean the doctors, then yes. A good many have been to see me. They use different words and offer slightly different time tables but in the end it all comes down to one thing – I won't see another Christmas. This is my last Italian summer, dear boy. I had to see you – and your friends. I wanted to be sure you'll be able to stand on your feet without your old Aunt Viv."

"And the verdict?"

She inhaled slowly, looking him right in the eye. "You'll do very well, Alec. And you'll have my fortune to help you."

"Aunt Viv!"

She held up one withered hand. "I don't want to hear a word about it. You are my favorite nephew and the only Anviston who ever stood by me and truly cared about me. The fortune is yours, every pound, every pence. Won't it be lovely, dear boy, not to be stony?"

He looked away. He brushed at his eyes again.

"You should see an American doctor," he said. "No disrespect to your continental physicians, but Americans are always doing new things, trial tests, experimental drugs."

Vivienne shook her head. Her cigarette had burned down to the filter. She stubbed it out and lit another one immediately with a gleaming silver lighter.

"I've reached eighty-four years old with all of my limbs and most of my common sense intact. I will not be anyone's guinea pig."

"Viv – dammit," Alec began, but once again Vivienne lifted an imperious hand and he fell silent.

"Now I've told you," she said, "because it could happen at any time. I have, probably, until the autumn, but there is an outside chance that I shall pop off at any moment, and I don't want you to be shocked. You will be sad, I know, but if it's not unexpected, you will be able to regroup the sooner. But I don't want everyone to know. "

Alec nodded. "As you wish. May I, may I tell Jacqueline?"

Vivienne shrugged indifferently. "If you like."

"Jack is very … I think I love her, Aunt Viv."

Vivienne shook her head. "I know you do, dear boy. But she is not for you."

"I intend to marry her," he insisted.

"Yes. But I still say – she is not for you. The rather tragic thing," she smoothed one sleeve of her kimono, "tragic for you, I mean, is that you would be perfect with Miss Polniaczek. Yes. She would be a match for you. But she loves the Warner girl. And that is an end of it."

Alec shook his head. He wasn't going to argue with Great Aunt Vivienne – not while she was standing at the edge of the great abyss to which everyone, sooner or later, came. But she was wrong, he knew. Jacqueline was his soul mate. Jacqueline was his soul mate in the same way that Jo and Blair belonged together …

"Is there anyone you'll want me to look after?" Alec asked delicately. "An old love? An old flame?"

Vivienne shook her head. "Anyone I have loved has either been provided for, or has already pegged out."

"There's not anyone presently?" asked Alec.

The elderly woman shook her head again. "My last great love … She died last year. Nothing has been … quite the same without her. I still take great pleasure in my life, of course. Always have done. Great sin, in my book – ingratitude. Must be grateful, always, for whatever we have. But I do miss her. She was the one … that no one could replace. Now I have my caffé latte, and my Florentine sun. And this last summer I have you, dear boy – and your lively friends."

Part 2

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