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 2

Late June, 1984. Florence, Italy.

Vivienne's palace was midway between two of Florence's most famous palaces, the Palazzo Davanzati and the Palazzo Vecchio where the infamous Medici family had lived briefly during the 16th century.

Jo's head was spinning after a morning touring both palaces.

The monumental scope of everything; the statues and the frescoes and the fountains and the terraces, everything gilt, everything marble … She had never seen such rapturous beauty.

"Can we hold off on the Uffizi Gallery?" Jo asked Blair rather plaintively as they sat down to lunch at a little café near Palazzo Vecchio.

"Of course, darling – but why? Aren't you feeling well?"

"I'm just feelin a little overwhelmed is all. It's all startin to, you know, mash together and I don't want it to be that way. I wanna savor the art – not gulp it."

Blair nodded. "I remember my first visit to the Louvre. Nanny Foster rushed me through every room, and before long it was all just a blur."

Jo cocked her head. "Nanny Foster? How old were you?"

"I must've been about five."

"How the other half lives!" laughed Jo. "Tourin the freakin Louvre at five!"

Blair sipped her mineral water. "What were you doing when you were five?" she asked. There's still so much to learn about each other. In some ways we're still strangers.

"Me?" Jo considered the question, casting her mind back. "Near as I can remember, that's the summer me and Jesse tried to get a high-wire act goin. We tried to walk on the clothes lines between her buildin and mine."

Blair clutched her heart. "Jo – my God! How many stories up?"

"Five stories. That's about fifty feet up. Yeah." Jo felt her heart start to thud at the memory. "Yeah, that's when I found out I'm afraid of heights. Wasn't the best timin!"

"I should think not!"

The caffé lattes and tiny cookies delivered by a servant that morning had done little to feed their ravenous hunger after several bouts of lovemaking, so Blair and Jo ordered a massive, traditional Italian lunch.

They quaffed inexpensive-but-delicious local wines. They devoured prosciutto, pasta, bread, beef, cheese and fruit, followed by a wedge of rich tiramisu for Jo and cannoli for Blair. They leaned back in their chairs, feeling drowsy and content as they sipped their coffee.

"Girl could get used to this, real easy," said Jo.

Blair smiled. "So … The truth comes out."

"Whaddya mean?" Jo stifled a belch with a ladylike gesture that clearly owed much to Blair's tutelage.

"I mean the great Jo Polniaczek cannot be corrupted by gold or money or precious jewels. But feed her some good Italian food …"

"And I'll crumble like a pignoli cookie. You got that right, babe!" Jo happily patted her stomach. "Memba when you cooked those lobsters for Valentine's Day? Mmn. You got me to do all kindsa freaky things, I was so happy."

"Hmm. I seem to remember you slept a lot, being so full. But yes, I do seem to recall some 'freaky' maneuvers, now that you mention it."

Jo waggled her eyebrows. "I've got some freaky maneuvers for this afternoon, too. I saw somethin in that paintin, the Botticelli, that gave me a few ideas."

"Jo, Renaissance art is meant to uplift us – not suggest freaky bedroom behavior."

"Gimme a break! Don't try to tell me those artists weren't goin at it twenty-four-seven! But before we do anythin freaky, I'm gonna need a siesta."

"A siesta as in actual sleeping, or a siesta as in, well … you know," Blair finished vaguely.

She glanced cautiously around the café. The other diners seemed to be mainly Italian and German and French. Blair didn't hear a single word of English being spoken; but many Europeans, she knew, were fluent in English – they learned it from grade school onward, the way Americans studied Spanish and French.

I hope no one's been following our conversation about freaky bedroom behavior!

"Actual sleeping," Jo said decisively. "After all that walkin and gawkin and stuffin my gob I gotta snooze a little bit."

Blair shook her head sadly. "'Walkin … and gawkin … and stuffin your gob …' Jo, I'm putting my foot down this summer. We are going to polish your diction. And your vocabulary."

Jo groaned.

"I'm not saying we're going to have you talking like Katherine Hepburn," Blair said hastily. "But since your impressive performance at the Plaza on Valentine's Day weekend, you have really begun to backslide."

"Eh … you're a backslide," groused Jo. "C'mon – this is my vacation!"

"It won't kill you to stop dropping your g's during your vacation."

"Says you! I don't wanna –"

"Want to."

"I don't wanna have to think," Jo said stubbornly. She delicately stifled another soft belch. "Gimme a break – eh? I'm on my best deportment, ain't I, Blair? I'm usin the right forks and spoons, and I'm bein all polite, and I even curtsied to the Duchess. So what's a little cracked grammar?"

Blair sighed.

"I suppose you have a point," she said reluctantly. "You haven't hit anyone since we've been here – or even threatened to hit anyone."

"I'm practically a flippin diplomat," Jo said proudly.

"Of course, we've only been here for twenty-four hours. We have two months to go."

"Piece of cake," Jo said airily. "It's so beautiful and relaxin here; we're away from anyone that could possibly upset us, or attack us … This is gonna be a totally peaceful summer, Blair."

Blair shifted uneasily on her chair.

"Don't," she said tersely. "That's like … It's like a jinx, or something."

Jo lifted an eyebrow. "Don't tell me the rational Blair Warner is gonna start believin in a bunch of superstitious mumbo-jumbo."

"I don't know about a bunch of superstitious mumbo-jumbo, Jo, but I do believe in not angering the Fates."

"Now you sound like Natalie!"

"Well she has a point. The fastest way to lose your peace-of-mind is to take it for granted – to start expecting it as your due."

"So, OK, we're damn lucky, and we know it. We're lucky to be alive, for starters, to have Alec as a friend, to have all our friends, and we're lucky to be here in beautiful Italy for the summer. We're really lucky and I totally do not take it for granted. OK?"

"Don't ask me. I'm not one of the Fates," said Blair.

Jo spread her hands and looked up at the hot blue sky. "Didja hear me, Fates? I'm grateful! I'm completely freakin grateful!"

Blair rolled her eyes. "My imbecile," she said fondly. She ate the last bite of her cannoli.

A waitress materialized behind Blair.

"Can I … get … you … anything?" the waitress asked in her pleasant, halting English.

Blair blanched.

Damn! thought Jo.

She wanted to reach across the table and take Blair's hands, but it wasn't possible, not right out in the open like this.

Can I get you anythin? That's what Dina had asked at the Fever, right before she stabbed Blair …

When will Blair get over it? wondered Jo. Will she get over it? Or will there always be phrases, images, that are gonna send her right back there to that horrible moment?

Blair's broad, perfect cheekbones were pink. She had picked up a slight sunburn while they walked the streets of Florence that morning; but the rest of Blair's face was pale as marble. Her hands trembled.

"No, grazie," Jo told the waitress. "We just need the check, please. Il conto, per favore."

The waitress nodded and withdrew.

Blair drew a shaky breath. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "Here I am, criticizing your diction – as if it matters! And meanwhile I'm a total basket case."

"Not a total basket case," Jo deadpanned. "Partial, maybe."

That drew a faint smile from her fiancée.

"Mordalo, Jo," Blair whispered.

"Gladly," whispered Jo. "Right after our siesta …"

They walked slowly back to Vivienne's palace, strolling along winding streets of ancient statues and still more ancient buildings, their roofs tiled with red terracotta, their walls built of gold and grey stones whose colors had been muted – in some cases burnished – by the passage of centuries.

Whenever they passed a restaurant the fragrance of really good pasta and coffee and wine assailed them, luring them, like a siren song – but they pressed on.

Just before they reached the massive gates of Vivienne's palace, Jo got a funny look.

"What?" asked Blair.

"Nothin. Just … Seemed like maybe somebody was followin us. Nothin to worry about," she said hastily. "Probably my imagination. I'm so used to people spyin on us, whether it's the Snoop Sisters or, or, you know, whoever."

Or Dina, Jo thought, may she rot in hell!

Blair stepped closer to Jo. "Let's get inside," she said quietly.

"You got it, babe ..."

Jo wanted very badly to sleep; she was so logy from jet lag and miles of walking and great food and amazing sex.

But she knew she'd seen someone following them. ("And pretty damn clumsily, too," she thought.)

As soon as Blair was unconscious, nose whistling faintly, Jo crept out of their suite and into the hallway. Jo darted into an alcove across the corridor, hid herself behind a tall marble statue of Vesta, the virgin goddess of family, hearth and home.

All right, whoever-the-hell-you-are, thought Jo. Come out, come out.

If it was Tootie or Natalie, Jo was going to be extremely pissed off. She'd had a very serious and very – she thought – diplomatic conversation with them before the plane left the tarmac at JFK Airport.

You guys are like my little sisters? OK? You know I don't like a lotta mush, so let's not make a big deal out of it, but you know you're my family. I'd freakin die for either of you. But you gotta give me and Blair our privacy. You'll understand when you're older. It ain't like we don't love spendin time with you, cause we do. And we will. But we also need lotsa time to ourselves right now …

Tootie and Nat had pinky-sworn that they'd back off during the summer. Pinky-sworn! So if they were traipsing around Florence now, following Jo and Blair …

After a few moments of silence broken only by her own soft breathing and her own soft heartbeat, Jo finally heard something anomalous. The faintest scuffle … as of a boot sole moving stealthily on stone …

Jo tensed. She felt her adrenalin start to pump. She leaned forward slightly, not wanting to miss a sound. More silence for a couple of moments and then … another furtive boot step.

Jo stepped from behind the statue. Boots was standing in front of the door to Jo and Blair's suite, a sad look on her pretty face.

"Eep!" exclaimed Boots, jumping when Jo appeared seemingly out of nowhere. "Gravy, Jo! You scared me!"

Jo sighed. OK. It was a relief, anyway. Not an assassin. Not a hit man. Not a common-or-garden mugger. Not a member of the Mafia. Just Boots. Just sweet, addled Boots with her crush on Jo …

Leave it to Boots, Jo thought, taking in the girl's outfit at a glance, to keep preppie while saluting Italy!

Boots wore a pleated skirt, red-white-and-green plaid (the colors of the Italian flag), and a red sweater with green-and-white argyle diamonds, and a fetching little red beret. She wore red leather boots instead of her usual penny loafers – Tres Milan, Blair had said a little cattily when she'd seen Boots' new boots at the breakfast table that morning.

"Boots … What the hell?" Jo asked wearily.

"I was just passing by," Boots said brightly.

"No. You weren't. You were followin us near Palazzo Vecchio; you followed us home; and now you're freakin lurkin outside our room."

Boots deflated instantly. Her bright smile dimmed; her narrow shoulders slumped; she looked at the floor.

"You're angry at me," she said.

"I'm not … angry," said Jo, groping for a better word. "I'm …"

"Annoyed?" suggested Boots.

"Gettin warmer. But not even annoyed, Boots. Just … What the hell? You were there when Dina went all psycho. You know me and Blair are … sensitive right now about bein followed."

Boots lowered her head. "I didn't think of that," she said. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"Hey." Jo raised her hands, pushing aside any suggestion that the Jo Polniaczek had been scared. "I ain't sayin you frightened us. But bein followed right now … kinda creepy. Boots, at this point you oughta know that if you wanna talk about anythin with me or Blair, you can just talk to us. You're part of the crew now."

"I am?" Boots visibly brightened.

"Of course. You think just anyone gets to live at River Rock? Would Alec bring just anyone to his aunt's place?"

"I don't know. You all seem … sorry for me. But I always seem to annoy everyone."

"Yeah, well – that's true," Jo admitted. "You're totally flippin annoyin a lotta the time. You're a pretty strange duck, Boots. But we like ya."

"So … I can come to you and talk? If something's on my mind?"

"Absolutely. Long as you stop creepin around. And long as you respect me and Blair's space when we're, ah, in our room."

Boots lowered her head again. A slow flush crept from her collarbone to her forehead. "Jo?" she whispered.

"Yeah?"

("And this," Blair would tell Jo later, "is where you're an idiot, darling. You really didn't see it coming?" "No babe," Jo responded. "Honest to God, I didn't.")

"Can we take a walk?" Boots asked. "By the Arno?"

Jo hesitated. Blair had seemed exhausted, totally down for the count, but if she woke and Jo was gone …

"Yeah, sure," said Jo. "What are friends for? But I'll leave Blair a note. Back in a sec."

Jo had crept quietly into the suite, had found a gorgeous silver fountain pen in a drawer of the antique desk, and sheets of thick, pale blue paper.

"Dear Blair," she wrote hurriedly, "Boots is upset about something so we're taking a walk by the river. I'll fill you in later. Love, Jo."

Jo folded the paper in half, made a little tent of it, and placed it on the table next to the bed. She leaned down and pressed her lips to Blair's damp forehead.

"Back soon, babe," she whispered …

The Arno was placid, a sheet of deep green cutting through the heart of Florence, laced with lovely arched bridges, the most famous among them being the Ponte Vecchio.

Boots knew Florence. She led Jo to the center of the famous bridge, to the apex of its shallow arch. Boots paused and rested her slender arms on the wall. She gazed down at the river.

"Jo?" she said quietly.

"Yeah?" Jo leaned against the wall next to Boots, but did not gaze down at the water. Jo didn't like heights, and heights paired with running water, even a slow-moving current like the Arno's, made her dizzy. Jo folded her arms across her chest, trying to appear nonchalant.

"I tried to kiss you – you remember? A couple of weeks ago. When, when I interrupted you and Blair in flagrante."

Jo blushed. "Yeah, I remember. That's partly what I was talkin about, when I said, you know, you need to give me and Blair our privacy. I know you got a little crush on me, Boots, and it's flatterin. But it just ain't gonna happen."

Boots smiled. "It's flattering?" she asked hopefully.

"Of course," Jo said kindly. "You're Boots St. Clair – right? I'm genuinely honored you find me, you know, not displeasin."

"Jo," Boots turned earnest dark eyes on the other woman, "I find you intoxicating. I love you, Jo Polniaczek."

"Say, now," Jo said, unconsciously taking a step backward, away from Boots, "let's not go overboard."

"Overboard? Jo – the simple fact that I learned how to correctly pronounce your unpronounceable Polish name is a testament to how much I love you. And I want you to consider the possibility that you might be attracted to me."

"I'm not, Boots," Jo said gently. Christ! she thought. Intoxicatin? Love? Boots is more into me than I thought! Gotta nip this in the bud, but fast!

"I do something to you," Boots insisted quietly. Her eyes shone; she took a step toward Jo. "I did something to you when I was wearing that Princess Leia bikini."

"Well, uh, as far as that goes …" Jo trailed off uncomfortably. It was true … Boots had been smokin hot in the little gold bikini she wore to Petal's Halloween party. And Boots actually knew something about the "Star Wars" galaxy, one of the few areas, Jo had to admit, where Blair was clueless …

"I remember the expression on your face," Boots pressed. "You were attracted to me."

"You looked … not … un-good," Jo said lamely.

"Ah-ha! I knew it," Boots said triumphantly, eyes dancing. "You want me, Jo Polniaczek!"

"Not even! Look –" How the hell do I regain control of this conversation? Jo wondered frantically. "I don't even like girls, Boots."

"Really? Because you're doing a pretty darn good impression of liking girls when it comes to Warnsie."

"Warnsie, I mean, Blair, is an exception. The exception. As in only exception."

"But how do you know that?" Boots asked in an unnervingly reasonable tone. "You haven't dated anyone else, have you? You haven't given anyone else a chance."

"Because there ain't a chance," said Jo. She took another step back along the walkway. Boots took another step forward.

"Jo, I'm not trying to embarrass you or upset you. I think what I want to do is woo you."

"Woo me? For cryin out loud!" Jo shook her head. "Boots, in the first place, Blair's been really good to you. She's been a pal to you. So if you keep comin after me, you're bein a crummy friend. And in the second place, I don't wanna be wooed by you."

Boots narrowed her eyes shrewdly. "I don't believe that. I do something to you, Polniaczek."

"You keep sayin that, but it ain't true."

"Yes it is so true." Boots sounded like what she was – a spoiled debutante, used to getting anything she wanted. But Boots was in earnest. Her words were childish; her needs were full-grown.

Boots took a couple of steps forward, and suddenly Jo found herself backed up against the wall. Below her was empty air, and then the Arno. Jo felt her heart start to thud in her chest. Heights and water – two of her least favorite things!

"Jo," Boots said quietly, "I just want a fair chance." She took another step forward.

Son of a bitch, Jo thought wildly. She takes another step, I'm gonna get knocked over the edge …

"You look nervous," Boots said quietly. "It's cute. You don't have to be nervous with me."

"You're not makin me nervous," Jo said. Which wasn't one-hundred percent true. Boots was standing so close, Jo could smell her heady perfume, could see a vein pulsing in Boots' pale throat.

"Then why do you look terrified?" asked Boots.

"It's not you, it's – aw, for cryin out loud!" Jo was sweating; at any moment, she thought, I'm gonna pitch over the edge. Better to be closer to Boots than to drown in the damn river …

Jo pulled away from the wall; she put her hands on Boots' shoulders and forcibly moved the debutante aside. "If you tell anyone this I'll toss you in the freakin river, Boots – but I'm afraid of heights."

"Ha! A likely story."

"It's true." Jo gulped, drawing in a deep breath. A feeling of relief washed over her. She was only a couple of steps away from the wall now, but to someone with acrophobia, it was the difference between terror and calm.

"Jo Polniaczek isn't afraid of anything," Boots insisted.

"Boots, you got a really skewed view of me. I ain't Wonder Woman or somethin."

"And why are your hands on me?"

"I hadda move you. I hadda get away from the edge," Jo said defensively.

"And why are your hands still on me?"

"Oh. Uh – That's a good question." Jo lifted her hands off of Boots' shoulders but Boots' hands snaked up, gripping Jo's wrists in a surprisingly vise-like grip.

"Leggo, Boots."

"Make me," Boots teased.

"Boots … Look … This is becomin, like, harassin behavior."

"So file a complaint," teased Boots with a saucy little smile. "Report me to the police. Is there an officer around?"

"Boots, seriously, you can't be holdin me like this right out here on the street. You're gonna get us beat up or somethin – prob'ly by the police."

"You'll protect me," Boots said confidently.

How the hell do I get myself into this shit? "Boots," Jo said, "let-the-hell-go-of-me. Right now."

Boots sighed. Reluctantly she released Jo's wrists.

"I want to go on a date with you, Jo."

"No."

"Don't worry; I don't want you to lie to Warnsie. I think we should tell her. It's the mature thing to do."

"Tell her what?" Jo asked, baffled.

"That you're going to explore your feelings for me."

"I don't have any feelin for you. I mean, except friendly feelins. Platonic, friendly feelins."

Boots shook her head. "Jo … When are you going to drop the pretense? It's not a sin to be attracted to me. It's not a crime to find more than one person attractive at once."

Jo was not a touchy-feely person; but she was a protective one. Her instinct was to put a comforting hand on Boots' shoulder as she let her down easy.

"Boots, I don't know how many different ways I can say this: I am madly, passionately, irrevocably in love with Blair. Yeah, you looked like a million dollars in that bikini. Yeah, you're a beautiful girl. But I am never, ever, going to leave Blair for you. And I do not wanna date you."

Boots gazed at Jo inscrutably for a moment, not even blinking.

Good, thought Jo. She looks a little stunned, it's gonna kinda sting, but at least I finally seem to be gettin through to her …

Boots turned her head unexpectedly, kissing the hand Jo had placed on her shoulder.

"Boots! For Pete's sake!" Jo snatched her hand away.

"Well gravy, it's not as if my kisses are venomous," laughed Boots. "You're a little bit of a baby, aren't you, Jo Polniaczek. That's cute."

"I'm not cute," groused Jo. "And I'm not a baby. And I don't wanna date you."

"You're here, aren't you?" Boots smiled dreamily at Jo.

Yeah. Christ. I'm here. Brilliant, Polniaczek! You shoulda just told Boots to buzz off and gone back into the room and laid down next to Blair … You should be holdin Blair right now instead of arguin with Boots on this damn bridge …

"Boots," she said gently, "if you can't stop makin passes at me, we're gonna hafta ask you to leave."

Boots frowned. "Leave Aunt Vivienne's?"

"Yeah. And maybe leave River Rock."

Boots took a step backward.

OK. Now it's sinkin in.

"Just picture if you had a girlfriend, Boots, and every time you turned around Blair was makin passes at her. How would you feel?"

Boots considered that. "Warnsie and I would have to have a little chat."

Jo nodded. "And then picture you had a little chat, and, er, Warnsie was still makin passes at your girl."

Boots sighed.

"You get what I'm sayin – right?" asked Jo.

"Yes. I understand. But it's not the same situation. My girlfriend wouldn't be interested in Blair. Whereas, you are interested in me."

"Boots –"

"I know. I know. You've made your point. I'll back off. For now."

"Thanks, Boots. That's all we're askin."

Boots peered down at the green water, brow furrowing.

"What you need," Jo said kindly, "is a girlfriend."

"I want you," Boots mumbled.

"You say that now, but, see, if we can fix you up with some pretty girl, some smart girl, next thing you know, you'll be sayin 'Jo who?'"

"You'd do that for me?" Boots asked curiously. "You'd find me a pretty, smart girlfriend?"

"What are friends for? I got a friend, well, actually she's more my Ma's friend, but she's one of the directors at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Greenwich Village. She can find someone great for you."

Boots shrugged, interest cooling. "We won't be back in New York for two months."

"Well maybe we can find you someone here," Jo said recklessly. "A summer romance – huh? Some hot Sophia Loren-type."

Boots' eyes flicked to Jo; she smiled. "So … You think Sophia Loren is hot?"

"Anyone with eyes thinks Sophia Loren is hot," Jo countered. "But c'mon – what's your type? What type of girl do you like?"

"You can't take my order," Boots said, sounding annoyed, "as if you're a waitress at Lutece. I'm not ordering a Cobb salad, for heaven's sake."

"Sure, sure, of course," Jo said hastily. "But, I mean, ballpark. Just lookin for general guidelines. You like brunettes, right?"

"Yes, Jo. I like brunettes." She gazed at Jo meaningfully. "Highly intelligent, extremely hot, earthy brunettes."

"Well, there should be a million of 'em here. Florence – it's a really hot city, right? And Great Aunt Vivienne should have the whole lesbian scene at her fingertips."

Boots put her hands on her narrow hips. "Now let me get this straight, Jo Polniaczek – you're putting Alec's ten-thousand-year-old Great Aunt Vivienne in charge of my love life?"

"She's going to be a consultant," Jo clarified. "We'll consult with her. It's not like we're gonna let her match you up with some old decrepit broad or somethin."

"You'd better not!"

"We won't," Jo assured her. "It'll be someone great. Maybe we can all, you know, double date or somethin."

"Really?"

"Sure." Christ, Blair is gonna kill me, thought Jo. Double datin with Boots and some earthy brunette! Blair's gonna demolish me. No one will even find the pieces …

Boots put a hand to her pale forehead. "I've got to think about all of this," she said. "It's so much to take in. It's disappointing – in point of fact, it's crushing. But it's intriguing, as well."

"You want I should walk you back to the palace?" Jo asked hopefully. All she wanted in that moment was to get back to Blair, burrow against the blonde's generous bosom and sleep like a log for hours.

"No. I think I'm going to walk. I need to be alone for awhile. You understand?"

"Of course," said Jo. "You do that, Boots. Good long walk'll clear the cobwebs away. You know the city, right?"

"Yes, Jo. I know the city …"


Blair was awake by the time Jo returned to their chambers. She was awake and pacing the bedroom, Jo's note crushed in her fist.

Blair had put on a gorgeous white pleated peasant skirt, and a gauzy white blouse. She was barefoot; she looked fresh and bohemian and rapturously beautiful … And angry as hell.

Jo held up her hands. "Babe – please. I can tell you're about to go ballistic, but if you'll just lemme tell you what happened …"

Blair's eyes flashed while Jo spoke, but the blonde held her tongue until her fiancée finished speaking.

"So," Blair said in a dangerously calm voice, "is that all of it?"

"Er … yeah," said Jo.

"I see." Blair cleared her throat. "Darling?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't understand why this needs to be said, but you cannot take walks by the river – any river – with girls –any girls – who have crushes on you."

"OK." Jo nodded. "Got it. It's just, you know, I thought she was upset about somethin. I didn't figure she was gonna make another pass at me."

"And this," Blair said, "is where you're an idiot, darling. You really didn't see it coming?"

"No babe," Jo said. "Honest to God, I didn't."

Blair sat down on the edge of the bed. "Jo – other than Jesse, did you have many female friends when you were growing up?"

Jo considered the question.

She wanted to go sit next to Blair, but, although Blair looked calm, her jaw was set, and there was a muscle jumping under one eye – never good signs. Jo decided it was safer to remain standing on the other side of the room for now.

"I, well, there was Jesse," said Jo, "and then there was Gloria. My friend who jumped off the roof. But mostly I hung around with Bud and Pauly and the neighborhood guys."

Blair nodded. "You were a tomboy."

"Kinda still am," said Jo, "in case you hadn't noticed."

Blair shot her a look. Now is not the time to be a smart-ass, Jo.

"Sorry," said Jo. Blair nodded again, accepting her apology.

"This is where the bigots get it all wrong," mused Blair. "As the full-on lesbian, I should be running around in flannel shirts, cussing a blue streak, racing around on a motorcycle and getting tattoos."

"Nothin wrong with any of that," said Jo. "You wanna do that stuff, go for it."

Blair glared.

"I'm just sayin," Jo said hastily. "I love how you look in my flannel shirts, and you can cuss all you want, and you can ride my Kawasaki anytime, and if you ever want a tattoo I can get you a discount at this place on Arthur Avenue."

Blair's glare intensified.

"And I'm shuttin up now," said Jo.

"My point," Blair continued, "is that if the stereotypes were true, that's how I would be. And you, as the practically-straight girl, would be flouncing around in dresses and jewelry, trying to braid my hair."

"That's why it's stupid to pigeonhole people," said Jo. "People are too complicated for that crap. I mean, look at Boots. Who would ever freakin peg her as a lesbian?"

"Precisely what I'm saying."

"Well, I agree with your point." And it's distractin you from bein pissed at me. So, rock on, babe!

"You don't understand women," said Blair. "You say I'm the only girl you've ever been attracted to, but you're as clueless about women as if you were actually a boy."

"Yeah. True. I don't get all the, you know, the game playin, and the gossip, and the nuances and all that. Maybe cause I'm such a direct person, and everyone I grew up around is so direct; my Ma, of course. And Charlie too. Aunt Evelyn. And Jesse."

"Precisely. Jesse's hardly a paragon of femininity!"

"Now hang on there, Princess. Say whatever you want about me, but there's no need to insult Jess to make your point."

"I'm not insulting Jesse. I'm making a simple observation. And you are still in gallons of hot water, Miss Polniaczek. You don't get to be outraged during this conversation."

"Oh I don't, huh?"

"No. You don't."

"So get on with it," crabbed Jo. Her temper was starting to fray. There was being contrite, and there was being a wimp. "So I screwed up. I admitted it. Read me the riot act."

Blair sighed. "Never mind," she said magnanimously. "I just can't stay mad at you. In your own misguided way, you were trying to help Boots. It's your big heart, darling. It gets you into the most ridiculous situations."

"We gotta get her a girlfriend," Jo said. "Boots likes smart, brunette, earthy types – like yours truly. The Duchess must know the local lesbians, huh? I mean, you'd think."

"I don't know," Blair said dubiously. "Vivienne doesn't appear to get out much these days."

"But, I mean, she'd at least know where the lesbian hot-spots are."

"Or where they used to be. For all we know, they're all caffés and dress shops now."

"Well we gotta at least ask. And the sooner the better."

"I'll second that!" Blair tossed her head. "The nerve. The sheer, colossal nerve of Boots St. Clair! She's going to woo you, is she? I'd like to punch Boots right in the nose!"

Jo grinned. She edged carefully toward the bed. "You're really gorgeous when you're pissed off – you know?"

"Jo, that's one of the most sexist lines ever. I can't believe you'd use it."

"But it's true. You're gorgeous when you're pissed off …" Jo sat down gingerly on the bed, near Blair, and hesitantly took Blair's hand. "You're also gorgeous when you're happy … and when you're sad … and when you're awake … and when you're asleep …"

"I know I'm gorgeous, Jo," said Blair. "Don't think you're going to win any points with that observation!"

Jo kissed Blair's soft patrician hand, first the back of it, and then the palm, and then the fingers, one by one.

"I'm very upset with you Jo."

"I know, babe."

Jo kissed Blair's wrist, felt the pulse beating a little hectically under the pale skin.

"It's going to take me some time before I'm able to let it go."

"I know, babe."

Jo kissed her way slowly along the inside of Blair's arm to the hollow of her elbow. She tasted Chanel No. 5 there … Blair always dabbed Chanel in the hollows of her elbows, at the nape of her neck, her throat, the small of her back. Jo intended to explore all of those places and more before she slept.

Why aren't I stopping her? Blair wondered hazily. The things it did to her, when Jo merely kissed her arm! It was ridiculous. We've been dating since September. We've been engaged since October. We make love constantly. I should be building up some sort of tolerance. I should be a little bit immune by now, I should –

Blair moaned as Jo pushed her sleeve up and delicately bit her shoulder.

"That, ah … That might leave a mark," murmured Blair.

"I want it to," said Jo. "You're my woman. I want to mark you. I want you to mark me."

"Jo?"

"Mmn?" Jo bit Blair's shoulder again. Blair drew in her breath with a sharp hiss.

Jo's fingers drifted lazily to the buttons of Blair's blouse, began unfastening them in a leisurely manner.

"You can't just do this," Blair whispered. "You can't just sex your way out of these things."

"What things would those be, Blair?"

"When you, when you, ah …"

"When I screw up?"

"Yeah … That is … yes …"

Jo bit Blair's neck, where it angled up from her lovely shoulder. Blair hissed again, throwing her head back. Blair's blouse was open now; she wore one of her delicate lace bras, one that hooked at the front. Jo gracefully unfastened the hook. She brushed the lacy cups aside, freeing Blair's heavy breasts.

"Lie back," Jo said, gently pushing Blair down on the snowy sheets.

"It's not … fair," murmured Blair. "You can't just seduce me when I'm angry."

"Do you want me to stop?" Jo asked quietly, straddling her fiancée. She bracketed Blair's strong thighs with her own, braced her hands on either side of Blair's shoulders.

"No," murmured Blair. She closed her eyes. Her thick lashes lay dark against her sunburned cheeks.

Jo trailed her fingertips lightly over Blair's breasts, just grazing the dark nipples, drifting down over the debutante's taut stomach and the damned dark scar where Dina had stabbed the girl. Jo trailed her fingers lightly over Blair's hip bones. She deftly tugged at the waistband of Blair's white skirt.

"Blair?"

"Mmn?"

"I don't wanna seduce you outta anythin. You can yell at me all you want later. I just don't wanna fight right now. I'm tired and I'm horny and I wanna make love to you."

Blair whispered something. Jo leaned down so that her ear was at Blair's lips.

"What did you say, babe?"

"I said, 'Make love to me'," Blair whispered. Her warm breath tickled Jo's ear.

Jo kissed Blair's mouth. She darted her tongue between Blair's full lips. The heiress tasted like coffee and crème frâiche and grapes. Jo felt Blair's tongue flick hers, lightly and then with urgency.

Jo deepened the kiss, her hands tugging down Blair's skirt and slip, and then the lacy white panties.

The first time we made love, Blair thought hazily, tingling and wet and half-swooning, she was so nervous. I seduced her. And now, as they say, the student has become the master and –

Blair cried out in intense surprise and pleasure as Jo slipped knitted fingers inside of her without any warning. Blair lifted her hips, moving them rhythmically; Jo felt Blair's muscles contract, gripping her fingers, trapping them, moving against them.

Jo steadied herself on one elbow, deepening the kiss even more. Her tongue danced urgently with Blair's. Blair folded her arms around Jo's torso, pulling her closer. Jo's hand worked, hard, insistent, in counterpoint to Blair's enthusiastic motions …

Blair was murmuring something as she and Jo kissed. Jo turned her head to one side, breaking the kiss for just a moment, so that she could understand her lover.

"I love you, Jo," Blair was murmuring. "Faster … Please …."

Jo moved her hand faster, harder. She pressed her lips to Blair's again, drove her tongue into Blair's mouth. Blair was rocking so hard, lifting herself half off the bed, turning her head from side to side, moaning into Jo's mouth.

With her free hand, Jo covered Blair's right breast, squeezing, rolling her thumb over the nipple. It was just enough … It was the perfect gesture at the perfect moment …

With a final wild spasm, Blair screamed as she came …

Blair lay panting for a few moments.

Jo undressed, throwing her clothes on the floor anywhere, heedlessly.

She lay down next to Blair, spooning with her. She kissed the nape of Blair's neck. Tenderly she stroked her fiancée, from the soles of her feet all the way up to the perfect line of her jaw.

Blair didn't doze, as she usually did after they made love. She lay alert, electrified, in Jo's arms.

"We've never done it quite like that," Blair said.

"I know," Jo agreed.

"We've been rougher before. It wasn't that it was rough, it was just … It was …"

"New," said Jo. "There's always something new."

Blair nodded.

Jo's hands found Blair's breasts, pinching and stroking. She sucked at Blair's shoulder, hard; she left a bruise that wouldn't fade for a week. Jo let one hand rove over the heiress' body, squeezing Blair's thigh, hard, and then stroking Blair's wet, hot nether lips.

"Want to go again?" Jo muttered in Blair's ear, almost growling.

"Yes. God, yes!"

… Long hours later, they lay exhausted in each other's arms, sweating.

They looked into each other's eyes. Warm milk chocolate eyes gazed into clear blue-green eyes. Jo smiled.

"Wow."

"Wow indeed," smiled Blair.

"That was …"

"Wow," said Blair.

"Exactly."

"Where did that come from?" Blair wondered.

Jo kissed the tip of her nose. "I feel so safe with you," Jo said. "It's like … No matter how happy we are with each other, or how angry, or how whatever, it's still us. Christ. Does that make any sense?"

"I think so." Blair kissed Jo's nose. "You remember before our trip, that day you went running? You were all sweaty and gross?"

Jo laughed. "Flattery'll get you everywhere, babe."

"Well you were. All sweaty and gross. But it was like … I wanted you so badly. I wanted to, just, inhale you. Drink you."

"I know exactly what you mean." Jo kissed Blair's chin. "Babe – have you noticed anythin? This is the first time in, well, a long freakin time we've been able to make love without any interruptions."

"My God – you're right!"

"No Snoop Sisters. No Mrs. G. No Alec. No Lions. No parents. No classes. No alarm clocks. No phone calls. No servants. No gongs callin us to dinner. No homicidal freakin maniacs on our ass."

"It's too good to be true," said Blair. "Any second now, someone will be pounding on our door."

"I don't think so." Jo stroked Blair's face. "I think it's finally sunk in with them that we want our space. And I think bein in Italy, everyone's too busy with their own stuff to bust in on our privacy every five seconds."

"Privacy. That would be lovely," Blair said dreamily. "Jo," she kissed Jo's fingers, "do you think we'll ever get bored with this?"

"Not a chance," Jo said confidently.

"Mrs. Garrett said all couples eventually grow out of that honeymoon haze."

"Well in case you haven't noticed, we ain't exactly most couples."

"True. Very true."

Jo shifted slightly, pillowing her head on Blair's generous breasts.

"Memba around Christmas, babe? When we weren't gettin revved up all the time?"

Blair nodded. "Mrs. Garrett told me that was normal. We'd been dating for a while and we were starting to become more emotionally intimate, not just sexually intimate."

Jo quirked one eyebrow. "You seem to have spent a lotta time discussin our sex life with Mrs. G."

Blair shrugged. "Of course. In some ways she's more like my mother than Monica."

"Yeah. I get that. She's always been like a second mom to me, too."

"But what were you saying, darling? About how we weren't 'gettin revved up all the time'?"

"Well, I was only gonna say what Mrs. G told ya. It was a kind of phase, where we were openin up about stuff, it was about more than sex. We were gettin to know each other on a deeper level. And now …"

"And now," Blair said thoughtfully, "we can have both. We have the emotional intimacy …"

"And we've got the great sex. And one kinda reinforces the other. It's like this flippin awesome feedback loop. The sex gets more intense. The way I see it, babe, that's what we can expect for the next sixty years. The more we get to know each other, as we, you know, grow and evolve and stuff, the better that's gonna make the sex."

"Only the next sixty years?" asked Blair.

"Yeah, well, I gotta warn ya: when we're pushin eighty I'm gonna leave ya for a younger woman. A hot sixty-year old, prob'ly. Sorry. That's just how it goes, babe."

"No worries," said Blair. "I'll be taking up with a hot fifty-year old."

Jo laughed, delighted. "Always gotta be a competition, huh?"

"Damn straight." Blair kissed Jo's dark hair. "If you take up with a sixty-year old, I'll date a fifty-year old. And if you take up with a fifty-year old, then I'll –"

"I can do the math, babe. 'Anythin you can do, I can do better,' huh? "Mine are bigger than yours'?"

"In point of fact," Blair pressed Jo's face against her substantial bosom, "mine are bigger than yours."

"Well whaddya know." Jo grinned. She hungrily kissed Blair's pale breasts.

"Careful there, tiger," warned Blair. "Unless you're ready to go again."

"I am."

"Good. Because I – oh," Blair moaned as Jo drew a nipple into her mouth. "Darling … Joey … Can you go slow? … Can you go really slowly this time?"

Jo nodded. "It will be my pleasure," she said.


Jo and Blair spent the next four days in their rooms.

It was, for all intents and purposes, as if they were the only residents in the palace. Trays of food and excellent coffee and wine were silently placed outside their door several times each day. No one disturbed them.

They ate … they drank … they talked endlessly … they made love … Blair sketched Jo … they read aloud to each other from the collection of antique books on the shelves.

Vivienne, or one of her ancestors, was fond of the British Romantic poets. There were slim volumes of poetry by Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats and Shelley.

"'Be thou, Spirit fierce, my spirit," Jo, reading from Shelley, murmured to Blair. "'Be thou me, impetuous one!"

Blair found a battered, dog-eared, obviously oft-read copy of EM Forster's "A Room with a View". She leaned on one elbow, reading to Jo as the brunette drifted off to sleep one night.

"'It isn't possible to love and part," Blair read quietly. "You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you … love is eternal …'"

When Jo was softly snoring, Blair pulled the sheet up over her fiancée's shoulders.

Blair settled back against her pillow and continued to read. Someone had underlined and circled certain romantic passages with a fountain pen. The ink was old and flaking away but in some places surprisingly dark.

There was an inscription on the end page, in the same ink.

"Only connect, Viv. Only connect." There was no signature …

"It's an original edition," Blair told Jo the next morning, as they lay in bed drinking their coffee and nibbling at the little sweet cookies that were served for breakfast. "I think this must have been a gift to the Duchess from one of her first lovers. Maybe her very first lover!"

"She musta been quite a freakin beauty. The Duchess, I mean."

"She's got beautiful bones," Blair agreed. "And those eyes – I'd kill for those eyes!"

Jo kissed Blair's lashes. "Your eyes are a helluva lot more beautiful," said Jo.

"I always wanted blue eyes. Blondes should have blue eyes."

"That one of your mother's famous crackpot guidelines?"

"Come to think of it, yes." Her mother's voice came back to her. It's too bad, dear, that you have your father's eyes. Blondes should be blue-eyed …

"They make you even more beautiful," Jo said. "It's the surprise of it – right? A blonde with those drop-dead gorgeous dark doe's eyes."

"Why Jo." Blair blushed, pleased. "I think all that Keats and Byron is rubbing off on you. That was positively poetic."

Jo shrugged. "I'm just charmin that way. And it ain't just your eyes, Blair. It's your eyebrows too, being dark and all. It's unexpected. It kinda, you know, it takes people's breath away a little bit ..."

Late one night there was a party in a neighboring palazzo. The music – violins and cellos – drifted through their windows on the night breeze. Blair and Jo danced together in the dark, holding each other tightly …

"… What scares you most?" asked Blair as they lay in the great marble tub. "I mean, more than heights? More than drowning?"

Jo considered the question seriously. "Someone takin off on me," she said finally. "Someone I love, I mean. Bein abandoned."

"The way your father left you?"

Jo nodded. She stroked Blair's stomach. "It was like he was sayin, 'Screw you, kid. You ain't worth me hangin around.' So even though we made peace and all, I think my whole life, there's always gonna be part of me waitin for the people I love to walk out on me. And, I mean, not just waitin for them to walk out. Anythin that could take 'em away. Blair … if you had died that night …"

"Shh. I didn't, darling. I'm right here." Blair nestled back against Jo, blonde hair floating on the water.

"I know. But if you had … That's what scares me most these days, babe. Any thought of losin you ..."

Blair brought Jo's hands to her mouth, kissed the slender fingers.

"What scares you?" asked Jo.

"It's always the same thing with me," Blair said quietly. "Sometimes I have nightmares about it. Being invisible. Not being noticed."

"I hate your parents," Jo said bitterly.

"Darling."

"Well I do. How could anyone ignore you? You?"

It wasn't just that the Warners had ignored baby Blair, toddler Blair, child Blair and teen Blair. They were still neglecting her, still putting her last. After Blair had been stabbed in February, David and Monica Warner had stayed away, David in Tokyo, Monica in Switzerland, hiding out and regrouping after BZ Becker brought down their business empire.

Of course, thanks to Blair and Jo's warnings the Warners had had time to loot their own bank accounts, throwing together emergency funds and parachuting into a relatively comfortable exile …

"I think that's why I'm so unreasonable about Boots," said Blair.

"You? Unreasonable?"

"Be nice, darling."

Jo kissed her hair.

"There's something about Boots," Blair continued. "I'm not saying you're in love with her or anything, it's just … You see her. She gets to you on some level. She's able to distract you from me. And I don't like that. Anything that makes me invisible to you, even for a second …"

"I just don't get it," said Jo. "Boots says I'm attracted to her. You say I'm attracted to her. But I just don't get it."

"Darling, be honest."

"I am."

"You feel something when you look at her."

Jo shifted uneasily. She tightened her grip on Blair's body.

"What do you feel, when you look at her?" Blair asked curiously. "I won't be mad. Tell me."

Jo shifted again. "Babe …"

"You feel something."

"Boots … confuses me."

"Aha!"

"Now hold on there, Columbo. You can't tell me to be honest and everythin's OK and then you're all, 'Aha'!"

"Sorry. Please continue."

"Continue with what?"

"How does Boots confuse you?"

"I don't know. That's what I mean by confusion, right? She's sorta, I mean, she's this preppie. I hate preppies. You know I hate preppies. And she's kinda, eccentric and, you know …" Jo trailed off.

"So what confuses you, darling? Why don't you simply dislike her?"

"She's got a good heart," Jo said without hesitation. "And she smells good."

"Come again?"

"She smells good." Jo felt herself blushing, was glad Blair couldn't see her face. "And her eyes are pretty." Jeez – I sound like I'm two years old! 'Her eyes are pretty.'

"So you're attracted to her," Blair said bluntly.

"But I don't like girls," Jo objected.

"Jo … darling … You remind me of mother's friend Mrs. Schochenhelger."

"Mrs. Whosa-whatsis?"

"Schochenhelger. Never mind the name. Whenever she visited she asked mother for a cigarette. And mother complained – 'Greta, why don't you buy a pack of cigarettes?'"

"Well why didn't she?" asked Jo. "What – was she a cheapskate?" It still amazed Jo, now that she'd been rubbing elbows with the rich for several years, how incredibly miserly the wealthy could be. Course, that's how they got rich, prob'ly … And how they stay rich …

"Mrs. Schochenhelger always told mother the same thing: 'Why would I buy a pack of cigarettes, Monica? I don't smoke – not really.' Do you understand what I'm saying, Jo?"

"Mrs. Whatserface was a mooch?"

Blair sighed. She stroked Jo's long legs. "My beautiful, brilliant dimwit."

"Blair, just say what you're tryin to say. This Hossenpfeffer story ain't makin any sense."

"Mrs. Schochenhelger thought that if she only smoked once in awhile, whenever she bummed a cigarette, that meant she wasn't really a smoker."

"And?"

"She couldn't admit to herself that she was a smoker."

"And?"

"And it's the same thing with you and women. Jo – I'm not the only woman you find attractive. The most beautiful – yes. The most intelligent and artistic – yes. The only one worthy of you – yes."

"The least modest – yes," teased Jo. Blair rolled her eyes.

"But you see my point, darling? You like women. I'm not saying you're attracted to a lot of women, that you're a lesbian like me, but there are women other than yours truly that can, well, get your motor revved up."

"Boots smells nice," Jo said.

"Yes, darling; we've established that."

"So I like how she smells. How do we get from that to I'm lustin after tons of women?" Jo asked defensively.

"Jo, I didn't say you're 'lustin after tons of women'. But from time to time, let's just say that you might … like a cigarette."

"I don't wanna sleep with Boots. Or Skye."

"But I suppose Skye smells good too?"

"She does, as a matter of fact. Look, I know what you're tryin to do, Warner. You're tryin to get me to admit I like some female-types, so that gives you a reason to be all jealous and to say you were right. Well it ain't gonna happen this time."

"But I do have a reason to be jealous," Blair said imperturbably. "And, as usual, I am right."

"So Boots is kinda cute. So maybe I wouldn't mind kissin her. So what?"

"So what indeed," said Blair. "As long as you don't actually do it."

Blair leaned against Jo, loving the feeling of Jo's small, firm breasts against her back. "Jo, you don't understand how comforting I find it that you're attracted to at least a couple of women not named Blair Warner. That means we aren't just a fluke. It means you're not going to wake up suddenly, five years from now, and say 'What the hell am I doing with a woman?' Even a woman as amazing as me."

"Babe, you know I love you, but sometimes I think you're a little screwy. I've told you fifty bazillion times I love you. If you were some hot alien babe from Mars I'd still love ya. If you were, like, a werewolf chick or somethin I'd still love ya. If you were a guy, I'd still love ya. I just love you," she massaged the soft swell of Blair's left breast, "the person you are inside, here, in your heart."

"And I believe you. But I can't help noticing how much you seem to appreciate my endowments. My very feminine endowments."

"Well …" Jo slid her hands under both of Blair's generous breasts, cupping them, "there's plenty to appreciate. Your breasts are freakin works of art, Blair."

"Grazie."

Jo rolled her palms over Blair's breasts. Blair sighed. It was intoxicating, the sensation of Jo's beautiful hands, palms slightly callused, sliding slowly over her nipples.

"I ain't a lesbian," said Jo, kneading Blair's breasts.

"I know, darling."

"I'm not." Jo kissed the back of Blair's neck. She pinched Blair's nipples between her thumb and fingers, teasing them. Blair gasped.

"I, uh, know you're not, darling. Jo?"

"Mmn?"

"Carry me to the bed?" Blair asked urgently. "Make love to me again?"

"Of course, babe. Whatever you say."


Blair and Jo were sequestered for four days before they finally emerged.

They wandered into the great hall for breakfast, rosy-cheeked and smiling beatifically. They wore loose white blouses and white peasant skirts, and their hair flowed down their backs in fetching tendrils.

"Good God! Artemis and Aphrodite have descended from Mount Olympus!" Alec exclaimed.

He and Vivienne were the only occupants of the room; they sat at one end of the enormous table, digging into plates of ham and eggs and kippers.

The vast chamber, with its pennants and suits of armor and statuary, contrasted weirdly with the two tiny human figures at one end of the massive table – Like a scene outta "Citizen Kane," thought Jo.

Vivienne rang for servants. In a few moments Jo and Blair were digging ravenously into eggs and meat and toast with marmalade – a real English breakfast on a hot bright Florentine morning.

"So – one can't live on love alone," teased Alec, watching the young women devour their meal. He had lit a cigarette and was leaning back in his chair, perfectly at ease.

He wore a pair of ancient, ratty-looking blue trousers that he had probably knocked around in for years when he visited Vivienne, and a white shirt, open at the collar. His skin was bronzed; he had clearly spent a lot of time out of doors since arriving in Florence.

"One does need some nourishment," Blair agreed, "in addition to love." She speared a big forkful of omelet. "Although I must say, you keep a lovely kitchen," Blair told Vivienne. "The food they've been sending up – heavenly!"

"Heavenly, but not heavy," said Vivienne, a slight smile touching the corners of her mouth. She tapped her little dark cigarette against the edge of her saucer, scattering ashes. "When one is in the throes of passion, lighter fare is recommended."

"And then when one resurfaces," said Alec, eyes twinkling as he watched Jo shovel a forkful of kipper into her mouth, "one needs strong meat and wine!"

"Mordalo, Alec," said Jo around her food. Blair kicked her lover under the table.

Jo glanced at Blair. What the hell, babe?

We're at a Duchess' breakfast table, said Blair's expression. Don't say 'Bite me' – in any language. And don't talk with your mouth full!

Jo sighed.

"Where is everyone?" Blair asked curiously. "Don't tell me they're still sleeping?"

"Sleeping? They've been up for hours," said Alec. He blew a stream of smoke through his perfectly chiseled nose. "Well … with the exception of Mrs. Garrett and Drake. They've been hibernating in their rooms – like you. Only they haven't yet come up for air."

"How romantic," beamed Blair.

"Eh, that's a little more information than I needed," groused Jo. "I don't need to know Mrs. G and Drake, are, you know … shacked up like that." She looked up and down the massive table. "Where's the gang? Since when are the musketeers and the Lions early risers?"

Alec leaned further back in his chair, tilting it and balancing it easily on the two back legs.

"Jack and Petal are at work," he said nonchalantly.

Jo choked on her coffee.

"'Scuse me? What work?"

"Working?" asked Blair. "Jacqueline and Petal?"

"They found jobs," said Alec.

"But they've never worked a day in their lives," said Blair.

"Precisely. That's why they're so proud about these jobs, so be encouraging when you see them, there's a good lass."

"But … What the heck are they doin?" asked Jo, mystified. She adored her friends and teammates. They were vivacious and brilliant and good-hearted – but to the best of her knowledge, they didn't know how to do a single useful thing. Not yet, at any rate. Petal and Portia had just graduated with pre-med degrees, but they were a long way from being able to practice medicine.

"Jack and Petal have spent rather a lot of holidays here," said Alec, "so they know the city like the proverbial backs of their hands. Ergo – they make perfect tour guides. They signed on with some tour operation at the city center – reputable place, it looked, offering excursions to English-speaking tourists for obscenely high fees. But there you are – most tourists go abroad with the sole intent of throwing their money down the loo, near as I can see."

"Alec," Vivienne said crisply, "you will refrain from remarks about 'loos' at my table."

"Of course, Aunt Viv."

"But Jacqueline doesn't need money," said Blair, confused. "Her English assets are still intact."

"She's doing it for Petal," Alec said quietly. "It's a show of solidarity. Petal joins the toiling class? Jack is right at her side."

"But what's Portia doing without them?" asked Blair. "Those three are like Frick and Frack. And Frack."

"Ah! The fair Portia is being wined and dined by the gallant Gerald."

"Gerald?" demanded Jo. "Didn't he dump her?" She looked to Blair. "Wasn't that the chump Portia was always complainin about? The one that's goin to John Hopkins this fall?"

"Yes, yes, and yes," Blair confirmed. "Alec, why is Gerald here?"

"Not being his travel agent, damned if I know. But here he is in romantic Firenze – arrived the same day you two went into seclusion – and he's been wining and dining Portia like the last of the red-hot tycoons."

Blair's eyes glistened. She drew her sleeve across them.

"That's so … sweet," she said huskily.

"Eh, what's so sweet about it?" asked Jo. "Seems like Portia and Gerald have been on-again-off-again forever. With his track record, he'll be on the next flight outta Italy tomorrow!"

Blair shook her head. "I don't think so. The Barclays lost their fortune, Jo. Portia's practically destitute. But Gerald shows up here and starts wooing her– he's showing her he still loves her! It's so romantic."

"He's certainly an interesting little fellow," Alec said thoughtfully.

"Little?" asked Blair.

"You'll see," Alec said. "You know our Portia; she's never been about looks."

Jo snorted. "No kiddin! I mean, c'mon – girl has a crush on Kissinger!"

"Good looks are pleasing," said Vivienne, "but they are a very uncertain barometer when it comes to measuring character. The most beautiful woman I ever bedded was the most thorough villainess I ever met. Hanging was too good for her!"

Jo and Blair exchanged intrigued glances. Sounds like a story there!

"Boots get a job too?" Jo asked Alec.

"Maybe she opened a kissing booth on the Piazza del Duomo," said Blair.

"Babe," Jo said reproachfully.

"It's a joke, darling. I'm being witty."

Alec looked from Blair to Jo. "I feel like I'm missing something," he said.

"It's nothin," said Jo. "Boots has a little crush on me."

"She practically ravished Jo on the Ponte Vecchio."

"I say," laughed Alec, "that's in poor taste. Right out on the bloody Ponte Vecchio, for all the world to see? Why not pull our Jo into some shrubs at the Boboli Gardens? It'd be a damn site more discreet."

"Nobody ravished me anywhere," Jo said, blushing. "I mean, well, you know what I mean. Boots is sweet and she can't help havin a crush and I'm gettin sick of everyone makin fun of her. And me!"

"Jo has a little crush on Boots, too," said Blair.

"Artemis – is that true?"

"Go to hell, Alec."

"Well I'm staggered! Artemis enamored of dotty little Boots. Although I have a soft spot for Miss St. Clair myself. She's loopy, like all the St. Clairs but she has a certain … something," Alec said thoughtfully.

"She's just a, like a kinda nice, goofy girl," said Jo. "And you –" she turned on Blair, "stop kickin me under the table! I can tell Alec to go to hell if I wanna. He's my best friend. It's my prerogative."

"I decide what can or cannot be said at my table, young lady," the Duchess told Jo severely.

Jo swallowed. There weren't that many people that impressed Jo – really impressed her. Vivienne was one of them.

"Yes, your grace," she said quietly.

"And to answer your original question," the Duchess continued, "Boots did not 'get a job too' – although I don't think it would harm her any to get a little dirt under her nails. Might do her a world of good – clear out some of her mental cobwebs! But at the moment, Miss St. Clair is on a date."

"A date?" Blair and Jo asked at the same time, with the same degree of incredulity.

The Duchess stubbed out her cigarette, immediately lighting another. She blew a thin plume of smoke.

"Not being blind," Vivienne said with dignity, "nor completely in my dotage, I saw the way the wind was blowing with Miss St. Clair. And while I welcome love under this roof – love of any stripe – I do not welcome rivalries or triangles or unpleasantness."

"You anticipated us," Blair said admiringly. "We were going to ask if you knew of anyone suitable for Boots."

"She's been real lonely," said Jo. "Boots needs someone to be good to her."

"Someone who is not Jo," Blair said firmly.

"Aunt Viv found her a cracking little minx," said Alec.

"Alec," the Duchess said reproachfully, "one does not describe the Swedish ambassador's niece as 'a cracking little minx'. Even if she is."

"Is she smart?" asked Jo. "And is she brunette? Boots likes brunettes. And last I heard Sweden ain't exactly got the market cornered on brunettes."

"There are brunette Swedes," Alec assured her.

"But is this chick brunette?" Jo pressed.

"Well … no."

"So what good is that?" asked Jo. "She ain't brunette – is she at least smart?"

"For pity's sake," said Blair, "if the ambassador's niece has a higher IQ than a jar of cocktail onions, that'll be enough to impress Boots."

"Boots isn't so, you know, quite as dopey as she seems," said Jo.

Alec laughed. "Great Scot, Artemis – you do have a crush on her. I half thought Blair was putting us on."

"No such luck," said Blair.

"His Excellency's niece is a beautiful girl," Vivienne said stoutly, "and reasonably intelligent, and extremely charming. She and Miss St. Clair will have a lovely day and perhaps pave the way for a more meaningful relationship. At any rate, she will divert Miss St. Clair's attention from Miss Polniaczek, if only temporarily."

"I am eternally in your debt," Blair told the Duchess.

"I didn't do it for you," said Vivienne. "I simply can't abide rows."

"So where's Nat and Tootie?" asked Jo, liberally smearing marmalade on another slice of toast. "Don't tell me Nat's already up?"

"For hours," said Alec. "Natalie's out having breakfast with her boyfriend, and Tootie's rehearsing at the club."

"Boyfriend?" asked Blair.

"What club?" demanded Jo.

"Our Natalie has fallen for a young restaurateur. He owns a little pasta place near Santa Croce."

"Oh he does, does he?" Jo asked grimly. "And she's gallivantin all over Florence with him at eight o'clock in the freakin mornin?"

"They're quite properly chaperoned," Alec assured her. "Portia and Gerald have taken them to breakfast."

"And why the hell is Tootie at some club? What club? She's only sixteen frickin years old!"

"Yes, Jo – sixteen, not six. It's a very nice little nightclub. She's singing jazz there of an evening."

"Well ain't that grand!"

"There's nothing to worry about, Jo. I play the piano for her. I keep an eye on the fellows, you understand, make sure no one treats her improperly."

"Well, milord, with you on the case, why the hell would I worry?" Jo asked sarcastically. "For cryin out loud! Nat's got a new boyfriend, Tootie's singin in bars – Can't Blair and I take a little break without everythin fallin apart? How the hell long have we been outta commission? Is this, like, a Rip Van Winkle kinda situation? We been away for a coupla years?"

"I know it might be difficult for you to take in, our Jo, but life does go on without you and Blair. Much as we love you. We aren't little dolls that pop obediently back into our packages, under cellophane, while you two are closeted away. Speaking of which, Guinness World Records called and they want to enshrine both of you under the category of –"

"Alec," said the Duchess, fixing him with her piercing sapphire eyes, "do not embarrass our guests."

"Embarrass them? Aunt Viv, we all know what they've been doing in those rooms for four days. It's not a secret or anything."

"Nevertheless."

Jo blushed as she realized what Alec was drivin at. She and Blair probably had set a few records during the last few days.

"So let me be sure I have this right," said Blair. "Jacqueline and Petal are tour guides. Portia and Gerald are back together. Boots is dating the Swedish ambassador's daughter."

"Niece," Alec corrected.

"All right – niece. Nat is dating the owner of a pasta place. You and Tootie are a jazz act. And Mrs. Garrett and Drake are barricaded behind closed doors, breaking the records Jo and I just set."

"In a nutshell – you've got it," said Alec.

"Let's go back to our rooms," Blair told Jo. "Maybe by the time we come out again, everything will be back to normal."

Jo shook her head. "Let's face it, babe. We disappear for another few days, who knows what could happen!"

"I don't see what's so terrible about Portia and Gerald being back together," objected Alec, "and Jack and Petal are really getting into the whole working-class thing. Doing them no end of good. Nat's new fellow seems nice enough, and Tootie really is a lovely singer. Truly talented. She's almost as much of a crowd-pleaser," he blew a large smoke ring, "as I am."

Jo snorted.

"What's your repertoire?" Blair asked curiously. "I mean, aside from the odd Christmas carol, I thought you were a classical pianist."

Alec nodded. "That's what the mater wanted, and that's how I was trained. But you know I've always liked to go my own way. Learned Berlin and Gershwin and Porter on the sly."

"Well I don't like it," Jo said firmly. "I want that on the record. I don't like little Toot singin in jazz clubs."

"Is there a record now?" deadpanned Alec. He looked about vaguely. "I don't see a stenog. Have you had a Nixonian recording system installed?"

"I mean it, Alec. You better be takin good care of her. Tootie's always thinkin she's a lot more grown-up than she is."

"For heaven's sake, Jo, we're not performing in an opium den. It's a very nice little bar and ristorante, run by a very respectable old bat. It's called Il Caffé Jazz Americano. Lot of respectable Italians who dote on American jazz; lot of tourists who miss New York. There's nothing tawdry in it, I assure you."

"Paint it anyway you want, Alec – I still don't like it."

"Jo – is there by any chance a little bit of mule in your family tree?"

Blair covered one of Jo's hands with her own.

"We're just very protective of Tootie," Blair told Alec. "She's our little sister."

"Well I'm plenty protective of her too, thank you very much. You know it cuts me to the quick sometimes, how you treat me like an outsider." Alec sounded genuinely hurt.

"Don't pout," Vivienne told him. "And be careful in that chair. You'll overbalance."

Jo spread her hands. "Look … Alec … I know you care about Tootie, but you haven't known her as long as we have. You gotta keep an eye on her. That's all I'm sayin. Cause otherwise stuff can happen."

"What kind of stuff?"

"I don't know. But somethin. Some kinda stuff. Tootie gets very emotional. You remember the story about the Chugalug? When she poured the beer on that cop, tryin to defend us?"

"Oh. Yes." Alec smiled.

"What is a 'Chugalug'?" Vivienne asked curiously.

"An American roadhouse," Alec explained. "When Jo and Blair were – how old were you?"

"Fifteen," said Blair.

"Ye gods and little fishes! You were children."

"We didn't feel like children," said Blair, smiling. "We felt very grown-up."

"They went to this Chugalug place to pick up men," Alec told Vivienne.

The Duchess raised an interrogative eyebrow.

"Not really to pick up men," Blair explained. "It was more of, well …"

"A pissing contest," Alec said frankly.

"Alec!" Blair was scandalized.

"Well what else would you call it, Aphrodite? Let's be honest. You and Jo were trying to show each other how pretty you were, how many bees you could attract with your honey. Weren't you?"

"Jeez – and Blair says I need to go to finishin school," marveled Jo.

"It's all the time I've spent in America," said Alec. "I'm learning to just tell it like it is."

"Perhaps a year at Oxford would not be amiss," Vivienne said grimly.

"You tell him, your grace!" laughed Jo.

Vivienne turned her keen blue eyes on Jo. Unconsciously, Jo shrank a little in her chair, like a guilty child caught out by her nanny.

"A modicum of polish wouldn't do you any harm either, young woman. Ancient as I am, I still have a bit of pull at Trinity. I understand you are a world-class scholar-athlete. If you ever decide to study across the pond … Let me know."

"She will," promised Blair. "We both will."

"Look, all kiddin and ribbin aside, it really does freak me out, Tootie singin in some club," said Jo. "You're really lookin out for her, Alec?"

He raised his right hand. "I truly am," he said solemnly. "Nothing will go wrong."

"For goodness sake, that's a total jinx!" complained Blair. "Never say 'nothin can go wrong'."

"But nothing can," Alec insisted. "It's all just good clean fun. And excellent jazz! Mark my words, girls … Years from now, none of us will even remember this little escapade."


Early July 2011. Peekskill Memorial Hospital, Peekskill, New York.

Alexis Pauline Ramsey-Anviston, Lady Nethridge – otherwise known as Lexi – lay in state against a mountain of snowy white pillows.

Her sapphire eyes were bright – too bright; the fever had returned – and there were hectic splotches of color in her cheeks.

Tootie sat in the chair closest to her daughter's bedside. Tootie looked much older than her forty-three years this morning. She wore no makeup, nor any of her flattering wigs. She never let the paparazzi see her close-shorn hair – but this was family. Tootie wore her dark-framed glasses, too; they also were always hidden from the paparazzi. Behind the thick lenses her eyes were dull.

Natalie sat in the chair next to Tootie, a protective arm around her friend's shoulders. Syd dozed on Natalie's lap. He was chunky, like his mother had always been, but short; he looked seven rather than ten. Natalie stroked his unruly brown hair as he slept.

Blair sat in the chair on the other side of the bed, smiling at her niece. Jo sat on the arm of Blair's chair, holding her wife's hand. Jo and Blair were both dressed to the nines in black business suits and crisp white shirts – the de rigueur uniforms for their very different professions.

The television set over Lexi's bed was tuned to the world news channel but on mute.

"I'm bored," Lexi complained. Her famous voice was raspy.

"Good," said Jo. "Then you must be gettin better."

"Why are kids today always bored?" Natalie demanded, gently stroking her son's hair. "We were never bored. Not for five seconds! And we didn't have half the electronic crap kids have today!"

"Half? We didn't have any of it," said Tootie. "But that's just it. We knew how to entertain ourselves."

"Nobody had to spoon-feed us fun like we were baby birds," Jo agreed. "Oh. Just a sec." She pulled her Blackberry from her blazer pocket. It was buzzing and vibrating and its screen flashed.

"Got to check this electronic crap," Jo said apologetically.

"Way to be a hypocrite, Aunt Jo," said Lexi.

"Eh, it could be the vote on the Children's Healthcare Package." Jo's thumbs flew over the tiny buttons, as she scrolled down the message.

"What about the Gay Marriage bill?" Nat asked Jo. "How's that doing?"

Jo made a thumbs down sign as her eyes continued to flicker over her Blackberry screen. "Going to get killed again in committee, I'm sure," she said. "With most of these senators, it's like it's still 1984."

"Or 1884!" Natalie snorted.

"You said it," Jo agreed. "It's OK to be gay on TV or in the movies, but when it comes to making gay marriage legal for everybody – forget it! They just push it off on the states – like it's OK to have human rights in one state, but not the state next door!"

"But what's the problem?" asked Nat. "It's already been legal in the UK for, like, forever."

"Well, you know what you've always said, Nat."

"Don't anger the Fates?"

"No. About how the British are smarter than us."

Natalie whistled. "Wow, I wouldn't let that comment leave this room. Can you imagine that juicy tweet? 'Senator Polniaczek Slams Stars-And-Stripes, Says Brits Best Yanks On Queer Rights.'"

"Hmm … Not one of your best headlines," Jo said critically as she read her text message.

"So sue me! I don't write a lot of headlines these days. Kinda busy treating GSWs and ODs."

"Well all right, keep your wig on," said Jo. "Just a comment. Didn't mean to insult you. And – shit! The healthcare package is all hung up." She glanced at Blair. "Looks like I need to fly down this afternoon, babe. I don't suppose you can come with?"

"I'd love to," said Blair. "But I have meetings all week, confirmation coming up, that 'Good Morning America' interview, and –"

"I understand," said Jo.

"I'm sorry. I know you're disappointed."

"I'll live," said Jo, grinning wryly. "Anyhow," she tapped the tiny keys, typing a response, "it doesn't look like we'd see much of each other if you did fly down. Paramita's got me booked solid ..."

"Tell me a story, mum," Lexi rasped suddenly, sounding three rather than twenty-three.

"Um, of course," said Tootie, squeezing Lexi's hand. "What do you want to hear, honey?"

"Tell me about when you and the pater fell in love."

"Ha!" Tootie rolled her eyes. "When and if it happens, I'll tell you all about it."

"Mum."

Tootie sighed. "Lexi … You know that's a complicated question."

"Complicated? Why is it complicated?" asked Natalie. "Do you need intrepid ex-Eastland Gazette editor Natalie Green to tell the story? Because that's not a problem." She turned to her Goddaughter. "Your mother and father fell in love in the summer of '86, Lexi. Your mother had just graduated from Eastland Academy. She was eighteen years old, and full of chutzpah."

"Eh, you're full of something else," laughed Jo.

"Hey – who's telling this story?" Natalie demanded.

"Not you," said Tootie. "My love life – my story."

"Then tell it, Miss 'It's Complicated'."

"It is complicated. We started dating in '86. But there were, you know, harbingers long before that."

Natalie raised one eyebrow. "'Harbingers'?" she asked critically. "Isn't that a little overwrought?"

"Don't tell me he made a move on you in Italy," said Jo. "You were still practically a kid. If he made a move on you in Italy, I don't care that he's my best friend – I'll break his nose!"

"He didn't make a move on me in Italy," said Tootie. "He didn't see me that way at all back then. And even if he did, Senator Polniaczek can't break Ambassador Anviston's nose. All we need is more bad press!"

"True," said Jo, taking a deep breath. "Very true."

"Let's all calm down," said Blair. "We're all getting a little overwrought. It's Tootie's story. She should tell it."

"Listen to you – casting bread on troubled waters," Jo said fondly, putting an arm around Blair's waist.

"The phrase is 'pouring oil on troubled waters,'" Blair said kindly. "But you get my gist."

"Jeez, senator – crack a Bible once in a while," teased Natalie.

"And what is that supposed to mean, Dr. Green?"

"Everyone shut the hell up," Lexi rasped. She took a sip of water from the glass on her night table. "Mum is trying to tell me a story. And it's her story. So belt up."

"Shut up? Belt up? Is that how you talk to your Godmother?" Natalie demanded.

Jo laughed. "Keep it up, Lex. That's the stuff. That's how we know you're getting better."

"It was the summer of '84," said Tootie. "We were in Italy."

"Who?" asked Lexi.

"The musketeers … a lot of our friends. And everyone was in love. Everyone had someone, except me and Alec."

"But he was dating Jack," Jo objected.

Tootie shook her head. "I mean, yes, but they were already drifting apart. She got that job as a tour guide, remember? He hardly saw her. We hardly saw any of you."

Natalie shifted in her chair. Syd mumbled something in his sleep, began to snore softly.

"That must've sucked," said Natalie. "I never thought about what it must've been like to be, you know …"

"Left behind," said Tootie. "You were all wrapped up in your jobs and your adventures and your romances, but Alec and I were at loose ends. But the jazz club," her eyes lit up, "the jazz club, that was fun. That was ours. That was a place we could shine."

"The pater was handsome, wasn't he?" asked Lexi.

"Well – he certainly thought so," laughed Tootie. "But yes, of course. He was gorgeous."

"And you sang together and you fell for him."

Tootie shook her head. "It wasn't like that. I didn't realize I was falling for him – not then."

"But you were falling for him."

"I think so."

"How do you not know if you're falling for someone?" asked Jo.

"Ha!" said Blair. "Asks the woman who didn't know she was in love with me for three years!"

"Touché," said Jo, giving Blair a crooked grin.

"It wasn't so much that I was falling for him," Tootie said thoughtfully. "But it was the first time we were really thrown together, and it was the first time I realized how much I enjoyed being with him."

"And who could blame you?" asked Alec, striding into the hospital room.

"Daddy!" Lexi said, eyes shining – until she saw that he wore one of his bespoke dark suits over a white shirt and dark tie. Her eyes narrowed. "You're going back to D.C.," she accused.

"Ha! Sharper than a serpent's tooth is an ungrateful child – or something like that. I am not winging back to D.C.," he leaned down and kissed his daughter's cheek, "but I do have to pop back to the Fireside Inn for a teleconference in an hour."

"Anything dire?" asked Jo.

Alec grimaced. "More saber rattling in the Jarbaz'ni – as if we haven't had enough the last four months! The ministry needs my counsel but not my presence. God bless modern technology! I can sit in Peekskill wearing my monkey suit, and it's as if I'm on Whitehall Street."

"Give Sebastian my best," said Tootie.

"Of course," said Alec. He touched her cheek. "You need a nap, old thing."

"And what does that mean?" Tootie bristled.

Alec sighed. He turned to Lexi. "How's the temperature?"

"Elevated," she said.

"And that means – what?" Alec asked Natalie.

"It's not good," Nat said cautiously, "but it's not necessarily bad."

"Thanks awfully, doctor. That's a tremendous help."

"Don't be snarky to Aunt Nat, pater. I'm perfectly well," said Lexi.

"Thanks, Lexi," said Natalie, "but I'm not offended. I know your father's just tired."

"Am I?" asked Alec.

"Yes, milord. And before you ask, yes, that is my medical opinion."

"Based on …?"

"The bags under your eyes. Tell-tale sign of tired-as-hell-itis."

He grinned at her. "We don't see each other often enough, Natalie," he said. "Do you remember the good old days, when we weren't all running around saving the world?"

"When you were a total slacker? Yeah. Kinda unforgettable times," said Nat.

"I can't imagine you as a slacker, daddy," Lexi said thoughtfully.

Jo howled. "Imagine if we had cameras back then? Cell phone cameras, I mean? We'd have some priceless footage."

"We'd have to burn the cameras!" said Nat. "Talk about compromising!"

"Lex, your Pop was the Class-A slacker of all times," Jo told Lexi. "He had the good life down to a science – even when he was stony broke."

"I was working in Italy, any road," Alec said mildly. "Played that bloody out-of-tune piano till my fingers bled. But it was fun."

"Did you know then?" Lexi asked him.

"Know what, Cabbage?"

"Did you know you loved mum?"

"No." He shook his head. He ran a hand through his dark curls, now frosted with silver at the temples. "I saw your mother as a delightful child. So talented. Even then, we knew she was going to be somebody. She had that burning desire, you see."

"To be great?"

"To be noticed," he laughed.

Tootie laughed with him. "Well. Some things never change," she admitted …

"She's not going to make it," Blair told Jo as they sat in Jo's town car, being driven to the Fireside Inn.

Jo yawned. "Who's not going to make what, babe?"

"Tootie. If Lexi doesn't survive – "

"Hey. Hold up there. Lexi looks fine."

"She doesn't, Jo. She looks feverish."

"Well after what she's been through –"

"She looks feverish and she's asking questions about when her parents fell in love. She's asking questions … Jo, sometimes when people know they're going to die, or even sense it, they start putting things in order. It could be papers or money or photographs – or family stories."

Jo chewed on that. Blair had sat at a lot of bedsides with a lot of people who were about to shuffle off their mortal coil. "You don't think Lexi's going to make it." It was a statement, not a question.

"I'm sorry, Jo. But I don't. I've seen that look before, the look Lexi has in her eyes. It's like she's already halfway gone. And Tootie's not going to make it without her."

"Sure she will. Babe … Tootie's always been stronger than we give her credit for."

"She's going to unravel, Jo. It's starting to happen already. When's the last time you saw Tootie without a wig? Without at least a touch of lipstick?"

"Those things go out the window when someone you love is sick."

"Not with Tootie." Blair shook her head. "She's always had a healthy ego. She's always been somewhat vain, even. It's one of the reasons she always looked up to me; one of the things that made us kindred spirits. Jo, if you go before me, I'll be torn up as hell. But you know I'll look great at your funeral."

Jo laughed. She pulled Blair close, kissed her carefully, not mussing her hair or makeup. "I'd expect nothing less, babe. I want you to look like a million dollars when they drop me in the ground."

"I will," Blair said confidently. "Now, if I go before you –""

Jo shivered. "Christ – don't even say that."

"But if I do. There's an envelope in my jewelry box."

"Which one?"

"The teak box I bought in Venice that time. It's carved in the Streamline Moderne style."

"Babe – that helps me absolutely not at all."

"The box I keep on the top shelf of my closet."

"And again I ask – which one?"

"My gown closet. The big gown closet. In the Georgetown house. On the top shelf there's a box roughly the size of your toolbox."

"And what's in this box?"

"A letter. It will tell you exactly what to wear to my funeral."

"You're kidding."

"Not at all."

"You wrote me a letter telling me what to wear to your funeral?"

"Jo, I will not be buried by a grieving spouse wearing moccasins and a bathrobe and a Wookie T-shirt!"

"For crying out loud, Blair! Who do you think dresses me when I'm in D.C. and you're in New York?"

"I do."

"How? What are you saying – you have some kind of long-distance mind control?"

"In a way," Blair said. "Jo, when we're apart my years of impeccable training guide your choices. It's actually my influence when you make your outstanding wardrobe selections."

"'Years of impeccable training' – you mean all those years of nagging?"

"Exactly. But after I die, you'll be so distraught that you'll fall back on your horrible old ways. Star Wars clothing and flared jeans and who knows what! It will be a fashion Armageddon."

"Unless I read the letter."

"Unless you read the letter."

"OK." Jo held Blair very close, breathing in the perfume of her hair. "First, Lexi isn't going to die. Second, if, God forbid, Lexi doesn't make it, we're going to be there for Tootie and Tootie is not going to unravel. Third, I am going to croak way before you, and you're going to look smoking hot at my funeral and you're going to marry some little super model chippie who's going to make you happy until you finally buy the farm and you join me on Cloud Nine up in heaven."

"Hmm." Blair nuzzled Jo's shoulder. "You sound pretty sure about Cloud Nine. Do you have reservations?"

"Better. I have connections. Thanks to you reforming me and keeping me on the straight and narrow all these years, I'm pretty confident God's going to give us adjoining cloud suites."

"Oh you are, are you?"

"Yep. Pretty damn confident."

Blair kissed Jo softly. "I wish you didn't have to fly back down today."

"I know. But we're living our lives for a lot of other people." She stroked Blair's hair. "Have you heard about …"

"About what, darling?"

"Bishop Kenton is retiring. He's –"

"The Archbishop of the District of Columbia. Yes, darling. I'd heard."

"Something to think about," said Jo. "It might be nice to live in the same house again."

"If only …" Blair toyed with a loose thread on hem of Jo's blazer. "If only you could spend more time in New York. Ease out of all those committees."

"Babe, it's all about the committees. All the good I do is through the committees, as much as they frustrate the hell out of me."

"I know. And I don't want you to change, darling. I mean, sometimes I do, when I'm lying alone in our bed on East 64th. But when I really think about it, I don't want you to change at all. I have to admit that I love hard-charging, crusading, workaholic Jo Polniaczek."

"And I love hard-charging, crusading, workaholic Blair Polniaczek," said Jo. She kissed her wife. "You can't leave your flock. I get it. About Kenton stepping down … It was just a thought."

"It was a good thought, and you shouldn't dismiss it so quickly. They asked me," Blair said quietly.

"Of course." Jo nodded. "They would. It seems like a perfect fit. But … you turned them down?"

"Not yet. I wanted to think about it, and then I wanted to discuss it with you."

"I see." Jo trailed a finger along Blair's jaw. "And are you ready to discuss it with me?"

"Not yet."

"Take all the time you need, babe. It's a big step."

The town car pulled smoothly into the Fireside Inn's circular driveway. The dark pane that separated the front seat from the back made a whirring sound as it descended.

"We're here Senator Polniaczek," said the driver. "Should I wait while you pack?"

Jo glanced at Blair.

"No," Jo said, eyes twinkling as she smiled at Blair. "Why don't you go grab a late lunch, Tony? Come back and pick me up in a couple of hours."

"Of course, senator. But I understand Paramita booked you on –"

"I'm going to call Paramita, have her switch me to a later flight."

"Very good, senator."

Blair's eyes twinkled as she smiled at Jo. "Poor Paramita. You're always changing your plans on her."

"Eh, it keeps her on her toes. And all the crazy last-minute stuff I need her to pull off gives her leverage when she asks for her raises."

"With everything Paramita does for you, you should just give her raises. Constant raises."

"And how would that help her? I'm teaching her how to negotiate. Nobody gives you anything in this life, babe; you have to know how to negotiate."

"Thanks for that breaking news, darling." Blair kissed Jo's fingers. "It so happens I would like to negotiate something with you."

"Sure. Fire away."

"Not here, Jo. In the room."

Jo grinned.


Mid-July, 1984. Florence, Italy.

It was cool and dim within the Basilica di Santa Croce. The air was heavy with incense.

Jo and Blair strolled slowly from alcove to alcove, chapel to chapel, silently admiring the work of Florence's greatest Renaissance artists.

"I like Santa Croce," Blair whispered as they stood under a particularly vibrant Giotto fresco. "Everyone goes gaga over Il Duomo, and it is impressive, but there's something so … intimate here."

"Definitely more of a human scale than Il Duomo," Jo agreed. "But still impressive as hell. What's up with that statue of Florence Nightingale, though?"

"She was born here, darling. That's why her parents named her 'Florence'."

"Old Flo was born in Italy? Who knew?"

"She was from a very upper-crusty sort of family," Alec whispered, joining them. "I'm actually distantly related to her. Her people, like many wellborn Brits, were enamored of Italy. She was a very determined thing; defied her family and her class to nurse the sick, and when she got older she was big on medical care reform."

"Jeez, we could use her now in the States," Jo said. "Lotta people go into the hospital in my neighborhood, they never come out again."

"It's possible," Alec said thoughtfully, "that Miss Nightingale might have been of the Sapphic persuasion."

"You're kiddin!"

"Really?" asked Blair, intrigued.

"She never married," said Alec, "and all her relationships with men seemed to be friendships or business relationships."

"Was there any, like, a special chick in her life?" asked Jo.

"She had some very close female friends. But nothing has been proved. There's no scorching hot love letter, no smoking gun."

Jo made a little salute in the direction of the statue. "Well, whatever the deal was, good for you, Flo, not just bein another useless debutante."

"And speaking of useless debutantes," Blair muttered sotto voce

"Joey! Warnsie!" cried Boots, tapping toward them on her red Milanese boots. A slender woman with white-blonde hair followed in Boots' wake.

"Boots, dearest," said Alec, putting a fraternal hand on Boots' shoulder and bussing her cheek, "it's simply not on to bellow like a drover in the sacred precincts of Santa Croce. Softly, dear. Softly."

"I'm sorry, Alec," she said contritely. "I never seem to get anything right."

"Too true," Blair said with acidic sweetness. Boots leaned toward Blair, to buss her cheek, but Blair stood stock still and in the end Boots drew back, giving up on the kiss.

"You're still displeased with me," Boots said sadly.

"I'm not displeased, Boots. I'm pissed off."

"But I said I was sorry."

"'Sorry' doesn't fix everything, Boots. It's going to be a long time before I trust you again."

"It's not really my fault," Boots protested. "Jo is irresistible. You of all people know that."

"She knows," Jo said. She gave Boots a friendly little punch on the arm. "So … How are you and your, ah, friend enjoyin the sites?"

Boots looked to her companion. The blonde woman had an otherworldly beauty, her skin as pale as snow, her eyes an even clearer sapphire-blue than Alec or Vivienne's, her hair so fine and blonde it was almost silver.

"I think she's enjoying herself," Boots said uncertainly. "Annika's English is as appalling as my Swedish, but we sort of muddle along in bad French. We've been to the Uffizi Gallery and the gardens and we've dined a lot. A lot. I think I gained a whole pound last week."

Jo eyed Boot's bony frame skeptically. "Jeez, Boots, I dunno. You actually look skinnier to me."

"Ahem," said Blair, loudly clearing her throat.

"Not, ah, that I have any interest in your weight or how you look or whatever," Jo told Boots hastily. "But about Annika, what I'm really askin ya," she dug an elbow into Boots' side, "is whether there's any sparks. You know?"

Boots looked blank. "We saw some fireworks the other evening."

"Not those kinda sparks. I mean, you know," Jo lowered her voice, "are you and Anna –"

"Annika."

"– Are you and Annika, you know, pitchin woo? And stuff."

Boots blushed.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," grinned Jo.

"There has been some woo," Boots said. "But not much, ah, stuff."

"Give it time," Jo said encouragingly. "Give it time."

"Annika seems to be one of those 'cool Nordic blondes'," said Boots. "I'm not quite certain how to … how to …"

"Get her motor runnin?"

"Crudely but aptly put," said Boots.

"I don't know what to tell you," Jo said, shrugging apologetically. "I've never dealt with any cool Nordic blondes. My only experience is with red-blooded, hot-blooded, fasten-your-seatbelt Blair Warner."

Alec threw back his head and laughed. Several tourists and a priest glanced disapprovingly in his direction.

"And we're leaving," Blair said decisively, putting a hand under Jo's elbow. Blair was blushing to the roots of her golden-blonde hair.

"Uh, OK – See you later, guys," Jo called over her shoulder as Blair all but propelled her out into the piazza

They had a very quiet lunch at a little caffé near the basilica. They tended to choose restaurants where no one seemed to speak English. Jo and Blair's Italian was decent enough to allow them to order without mishap, and they could talk about whatever they wanted in English without anyone understanding them.

Blair glared a lot during the meal. Jo smiled her crooked, adorable smile – but to little effect. Very little was said. Whenever Jo took a stab at starting a conversation, Blair poured cold water on it.

"Look," Jo said finally, "you want Boots involved with someone other than me – right? So of course I'm gonna encourage her and, you know –"

"Give her sex tips?" Blair asked sarcastically.

"I didn't give her sex tips. And did you hear that compliment I gave you? I wanna be sure Boots knows there's no one for me but you, babe."

"Jo, this might come as a surprise to you, but young women of breeding do not appreciate being referred to as red-blooded, hot-blooded skanks!"

"Skank? What the hell, Blair! I would never say, I would never characterize you –"

"Well that's how it sounded."

Jo scowled. "I hate when you're jealous. It makes you …"

"Makes me what?" Blair challenged, jaw set.

"It makes you ugly, is what it does."

"You take that back," Blair said in a dangerous voice.

"No. I won't. Cause it's true. Whenever you see someone admirin me, you get all nutty. It's like, the stuff you see and the stuff you hear gets all warped when it passes through your brain. I mean, c'mon, babe. Do you really think I'm gonna cheat on you? Do you realize how insultin that is?"

Blair opened her mouth to retort, eyes flashing – but then she sighed.

"You're right," she said grudgingly.

Jo blinked. "Come again?"

"Don't make me say it again, Jo."

"Did you just say I'm right?"

"Jo. You heard me. You don't have to milk it. I'm big enough to admit that I have a, well, slight jealousy problem when it comes to people admiring you."

"Wow." Jo leaned back in her chair, smiling at her fiancée. "Blair – I'm impressed."

"For heaven's sake, Jo."

"No. Really. This is like, a major emotional breakthrough, you admitting I'm right."

"I don't have any problem admitting it when you're right," said Blair. "It just doesn't happen that often."

"Touché," grinned Jo.

She stretched. The sun was warm and soothing; Blair was beautiful; and Blair had just done something incredibly, uncharacteristically vulnerable. "So, it's OK – see? You didn't turn into a pillar of salt or whatever just admitting you were wrong about something."

"I didn't say I was wrong, Jo. I merely acknowledged that you were right."

"OK. Play it how you need to. I'm still impressed. And for the record, I know what Boots did, makin a pass at me, was crummy. Just, when are you gonna forgive her? It's been weeks."

"It might take months," Blair said grimly. "It might take years."

"Fair enough. But maybe you could dial down the venom a little bit when you see her."

"I promise nothing," said Blair.

"But you said, you just said, how I'm right."

"So what? Jo, this isn't about logic and justice. I'm jealous. I'm angry with her. She's lucky I don't pop her in the nose!"

"Wow – you are definitely not a cool Nordic blonde."

"Well if you want one, Annika was giving you the eye," Blair said dryly.

Jo groaned. "Babe …"

"She was! Boots is giving you the eye, and Annika's giving you the eye –"

"Well I'm givin you the eye," Jo said firmly.

"And that's wonderful, Jo, but it doesn't make me any less jealous of the women hurling themselves at your feet."

"This is on account of what you wormed outta me," said Jo. "About how maybe, every once in awhile, maybe I find a woman attractive. I knew I shouldn't have talked about that."

"We're soul mates, Jo. We have to be completely honest with each other."

"Nah. I think there's stuff even with soul mates you keep a lid on it. I mean, look at us. You're so jealous lately you can't see straight. We're havin a great time somewhere and then Boots drops by or you see someone lookin at me and next thing you know, 'Kapow!' You blow like Mount Vesuvius."

Blair dropped her napkin on her plate with exaggerated dignity.

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Turn blue."

Blair stood up, lifting her white canvas handbag.

"I presume you'll take care of the bill," Blair said coldly. "I'm going for a little stroll. Before Mount Vesuvius erupts again."

"Oh no you don't!" flared Jo, leaping to her feet so fast she almost knocked over her chair. "You don't just get to waltz outta here after you get me all pissed off."

Blair bit her lip. "Jo," she said, "I need to be alone right now. I love you and I'll see you later, but if you follow me now I'm not responsible for what I say or do."

Jo took a deep, ragged breath. She realized her hands were clenched into fists. A plump old signora at a nearby table was giving Jo a wary look.

"Fuck it," said Jo. "Go be alone! See if I care."

Jo pushed a hand into the pocket of her white slacks, fingers trembling as she fished for bills and coins. She drew out a hodgepodge of Italian money and dropped it on the little table. And then she turned on her sneaker heel and rambled away from the caffé at top speed.

"Jo!" Blair called after her. "Jo – I'll see you tonight!"

Jo didn't turn around.


Blair spent the day in the Boboli Gardens and walking along the Arno. She had learned in Paris two summers ago how much she enjoyed strolling alone through foreign cities, absorbing their moods and their textures.

Today as she walked she felt her tension and her anger and her guilt melt away, little by little, until she found herself smiling beatifically at a knot of little old men playing bocce while nearby little children kicked a ball.

She found herself back in Santa Croce as evening fell. She loved its art, but there was something else. The scent of the incense and the beeswax candles and the soft murmur of prayer all made her think of Meg. Meg had written Blair just last week. Meg had decided, once and for all, that she did want to complete her novitiate and become a full-fledged nun.

" … So the apartment house on Amsterdam Avenue is yours, Blair, free and clear. You'll have to pay property taxes, of course, but the tenant rents will more than cover the taxes. I hope this is a welcome nest egg, something that you and Jo can build on. Please give her my love, will you? And give my love to Mrs. Garrett, Natalie and Tootie, and all of your friends. They're a sweet group, Blair. You're very blessed …"

I am very blessed, thought Blair, sitting down on a pew and absently making the sign of the cross that she had learned months ago as she struggled to get a better handle on the religious aspect of Jo's life. I am incredibly blessed. So why can't I just enjoy it? Why do I have to have these stupid damn jealous feelings? Am I that shallow? Am I that immature?

"… Do you hear anything from your parents?" Meg had written. "I was very sorry to learn of the financial difficulties that befell your friends and their families. I know you don't like to talk about God, but I truly think He was preparing your way when you severed financial ties with your parents. When the blow fell it was an apocalypse for them, but you were already standing on your own two feet – or four feet, as the case may be, since I suppose I should include Jo – I know whatever happens, you both stand together! I still don't completely understand it, and I still don't fully approve, but it seems that if any two people belong together, and truly love each other, those people are you and Jo …"

Blair felt a tear trickle down her cheek. She brushed it away. Of course she and Jo belonged together. Blair had known it from the first moment she met Jo, although it took her more than three years to understand the depth of her feelings and act on them.

When Blair was with Jo she felt beautiful, inside and out. Jo encouraged the better angels of her nature, without a doubt. But when Blair felt jealous ...

"It makes you ugly, is what it does," Jo had said.

She's right. Once again … Jo is right. Is my jealousy going to plague our entire relationship? Am I going to become some bitter, horrid shrew?

Supper was a depressing ordeal.

Jacqueline and Petal were working, leading an evening excursion through the city center. Tootie and Alec were playing at the jazz caffé. Mrs. Garrett and Drake were dining out somewhere, ditto Portia and Gerald, who were doubling with Natalie and her new beau Gio, the young pasta restaurateur. Boots and Annika were out somewhere, and Jo hadn't yet returned to the palace.

That left Blair dining alone with the Duchess. The food and wine were exquisite, and the Duchess was a brilliant conversationalist; nonetheless, sitting at table with the elderly woman, whose lovers were all dead and gone, gave Blair a pain in the pit of her stomach. It was all so tragic and lorn.

"So what did you fight about?" asked the Duchess.

She caught Blair off-guard. They'd been discussing the construction of Brunelleschi's Dome, and then, apropos of nothing, the Duchess had lobbed the question at Blair like a grenade.

"We didn't … fight," said Blair. "We had words."

"And I take it those words weren't 'I love you'?"

"Not exactly," Blair said wryly.

"So … You fought."

"Yes. We had a fight. Because I'm a jealous idiot."

"Naturally. I don't understand how the Polish girl abides your little tantrums."

Blair raised her eyebrows. "Excuse me?"

"You're a very possessive little brat," said the Duchess. "You've a sound heart and a beautiful nature, but you were obviously very badly brought up. You need to own everything. But you can't own people. It would be damned convenient to be able to tell everyone what to think and feel and do – but that isn't how the cosmos is constructed, my dear, no, not even for heiresses like you and Duchesses like me!"

Blair leaned her chin on one hand.

"I love Jo so much," she said quietly. "I love her terribly. Like a heroine in some stupid old swoony romance book. There are times when we're making love that I don't know where one of us ends and the other begins. It's like we're truly one being. Does that make sense?"

"Of course it makes sense! I've felt that way a time or two, in my lifetime, Miss Warner. But you have to remember that it isn't, technically, true. When you love someone there are times, particularly in the heat of passion, that you feel like a perfect unit. But at the end of the day you're still two separate people."

"It's not that I don't trust her. Because I do! And I respect her as a separate person. I love so many things about her that are different than me. I've learned a lot from her."

"You know that you can trust her. But that, of course, is not the issue. You simply can't abide her taking her attention off you for an instant."

"It's so childish."

"Yes. It is. Possessive and childish. I know whereof I speak." Vivienne gestured with one withered claw. "I have driven away many a lover from this place, because of my jealousy."

"But you're so confident," Blair said, surprised. "What would you have to be jealous of?"

"What indeed? But I was. Time and time again. If the woman wasn't focused on me, on me only; if anyone else dared to cast a glance at my lover … There were ugly scenes. If I ever had the audacity to publish my memoirs … But, no. The good and the bad, it will all die with me." She sipped her wine.

"Your grace?"

"Yes?"

"I found a book in our suite. 'A Room with a View'."

The Duchess nodded. "Forster. Damned fine little story."

"There was an inscription in it, to you I think: 'Only connect, Viv. Only connect.'"

The Duchess smiled. "Ah. Yes. Bunny. Not her real name, of course. Her real name was Beverly. No one actually christens their child 'Bunny' – well, not in those days. In this mad age, who knows!"

"She was your lover?" Blair asked frankly.

"One of them. My first great love, when I finally decided to stop living a lie and settled here. Bunny drove an ambulance in the first war. Lot of wellborn girls did. One of the few ways we could do our bit."

"Did you?"

"No. I can't drive. Never could – hopeless. And I wasn't so bold in those days. I stayed on the estate like a good girl – although I did organize things, knitting, you know, clothes for the soldiers, and rolling bandages and that sort of thing. Something, at least. But not like driving ambulances with the shells raining down and exploding around you! Bunny was fearless!"

"How did you meet Bunny? I mean …" How do I phrase this? Blair wondered. She didn't want to be indelicate. Although with the Duchess, it didn't really seem to matter. You could just say anything straight out, and she'd either answer you or bite your head off as the mood suited her. "How did you and Bunny know that you liked each other?"

"Stupid question," said Vivienne. "One always knows, doesn't one? If one likes a person, and if they like you. It's in the eyes … the smile … The way they try to sit or stand as close to you as propriety permits. The question isn't whether someone likes you – it's whether you're going to do anything about it."

"And you did."

"We did. Bunny did. She rigged it, of course. She could tell I was too shy to do anything, so she arranged a situation. Took me up in her airplane."

"She flew?"

"She flew a treat! Anything to do with vehicles – autos, boats, planes, motorcycles. She could drive them and she could fix them."

Like my Jo, thought Blair.

"She took me up in her airplane and performed all manner of loops and rolls. This was a barnstormer, you understand. She was in the front cockpit and I was in the rear cockpit, strapped in, and when you looped, you felt sure you were going to plunge out and fall thousands of feet. So when we finally landed, I was trembling like a leaf. Bunny … comforted me."

"Pretty clever," laughed Blair. It almost sounds like something Jo would try – except Jo's terrified of heights.

"I was twenty-eight. That seems so young to me now, but of course then I felt tremendously old. It seemed that my whole life was passing me by while I hid this terrible, terrible secret. But with Bunny … She was so free and easy about it. She made it seem simple, a girl loving a girl. We didn't last long. Bunny was always moving on somewhere or other. But she changed my life. It's thanks to Bunny I found the courage to emigrate here and live as I damned well chose."

She lit one of her little cigarettes. She rang for more wine.

"What does it mean?" asked Blair. "'Only connect?'"

The Duchess shrugged. "It's not rocket science, my dear. It means people should connect. Bunny was quoting Forster."

"But connect with what?"

"With each other, of course. Other people – all people. And the natural world. And our own true natures. Rules and propriety and all that be damned!"

"Only connect," mused Blair. "Only connect."

"If you spent more time connecting with your young goddess, and less time looking around at who's looking at her, you'd be a damn site happier!"

"Probably," Blair admitted.

The Duchess waved her hands at Blair in a shooing motion. "Go on now. Get out of here. This is too damnably dreary. You're so young and fresh and I'm feeling broody and ancient tonight. Go hear my nephew play the piano. Go hear your little friend sing."

"Your grace –"

"No! I feel a distinct mood coming on. I want to be alone."

"As you wish." Reluctantly Blair left the table.

In the doorway she looked back once, briefly. The Duchess, in her glimmering gown with blue-and-green sequins in a peacock pattern, looked very small, very lost in enormous chamber, in the single pool of light cast by the oil lamps.

She must've been so beautiful, thought Blair. She still is, in her fashion. Very beautiful … But completely alone …


"Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit," cursed Jo re-reading the letter in her hand. She read it yet again, but it still said the same thing. She crumpled it and stuffed it into a pocket of her white blazer.

She sat at the bar of Il Caffé Jazz Americano, nursing a Scotch-and-soda that Alec had bought her before his set. Alec buying anyone anything was rather momentous.

"What's the occasion?" Jo had asked warily.

"You look blue," he'd said. He'd given her a chaste kiss on the cheek, and then gone in search of Tootie.

"Leave it to Alec to buy a depressed person a depressant," Nat had said, shaking her head. "That boy means well, but he doesn't always dot his mental 'i's."

"Eh, it's a nice gesture," Jo had said. "And I ain't depressed. I'm just, yeah, maybe I'm a little blue."

"What's the matter?" Natalie had asked.

Jo had glanced down the bar at the table where Nat's latest conquest sat. Gio, a handsome young restaurateur, was all of twenty-one, only slightly older than Jo and Blair. He had just come into his trust fund and had used it to open the pasta place near Santa Croce.

He didn't look particularly bright, in Jo's opinion, but he was sweetly attentive to Nat, far more than the pompous Doctor Adams had been. He also seemed comfortable with Portia and Gerald.

Portia's beau, when they had finally met him, was something of a surprise – all of five feet tall, prematurely bald, with a halo of gingery hair and dark-framed Coke-bottle glasses. Not being part of their inner circle, Gerald and Gio weren't privy to the real nature of Jo and Blair's relationship.

"Uh, Blair and I had a bit of a disagreement," Jo had said evasively.

"A fight?" Nat had asked incredulously. "They dynamic duo? A fight?"

"Sort of."

"But you don't do that anymore. I mean, not like you used to. Now it's like a squabble here, a squabble there, but then it's all sunshine and rainbows."

"Not this time."

"You're kidding!" Natalie had put a hand to her chest. "My world is spinning. A fight? A serious fight?"

"Look, gimme a break – huh, Nat? It'll be OK. Don't make a big deal."

"This Blair – he is your ragazzo – your friendboy?" Gio had asked solicitously. "He gives you triste?"

"No," Jo had said, glancing pointedly at Nat, "I'm not sad, and Blair is not my friendboy. Blair is a woman – donna. She's my best friend – mi migliore amica."

"Ah! Migliore amica. Then, all will be well presto – no?"

"Yeah, it's all gonna be fine real presto," Jo had agreed.

And it would be, she knew. She and Blair had a rock-solid foundation. They could handle fights because they loved each other. They had permission to be honest, even childish, even when it hurt. Because how else would they make it in the long run?

But the letter from Rose … The damn letter!

Wait'll Blair hears this, Jo thought, shaking her head darkly. She took another sip of Scotch-and-soda. This'll be the cherry on top of the sundae today! This'll be the icin on the freakin cake!

Natalie sat down on the barstool next to her. "Coca-Cola," Nat told the bartender. "Per favore."

Jo smiled. "Hey, pretty good, Nat."

"Gio's teaching me a little of the local lingo," Natalie said, smiling happily. She fluttered her fingers at Gio, who was still sitting at their table near the little stage.

"Yeah, well – long as that's all he's teachin ya," said Jo.

"Oh, that's all he's teaching me," Natalie grimaced. "Portia and Gerald follow us everywhere. I'm going to start calling them Mom and Dad!"

"It don't hurt you to have a couple chaperones, Nat."

"I know. And I have to say, being chaperoned by two brilliant pre-med graduates – pretty fascinating. Gerald was telling us all about a new heart transplant procedure he read about in Medical Digest."

Jo made a face. "Well in case you're wonderin, I don't need to hear about it."

"You're so squeamish, Jo."

"Yup."

"I'm not that interested in cardio studies, anyway. I'm more about the brain. Why do we think the way we think? How do we know what we know? Do we know what we know?"

"No freakin idea," laughed Jo. "But I'll tell ya what," she patted Nat's shoulder, "if anyone can find out, it'll be you."

The bartender handed Nat her soda. She sipped it appreciatively. "Good old Coca-Cola – the international language of refreshment!"

Jo made a face. "How can you drink that, you're gonna be a doctor? Soda rots your brain."

"Bite your tongue, Jo Polniaczek! There's no research to support that outrageous accusation. And what are you drinking, might I ask?"

"Still nursin that Scotch Alec gave me."

"Jo." Nat put an affectionate hand on the older girl's shoulder. "What did you and Blair fight about?"

"It was stupid."

"No doubt. But what was it?"

"We're just kinda goin through a thing about, you know, jealousy and stuff."

Natalie nodded. "That must be tough sometimes, watching guys drool over Blair."

"Nah, it's not about that. They can drool away. I got her. It's … Sometimes if a girl notices me, or Blair thinks a girl notices me … it's hard on Blair."

Natalie snorted. "Jo, I've known Blair longer than you. A lot longer. And I love her, but …"

"But what?"

"She's mellowed since you became friends. Even more since you became … more than friends. But she's still Blair. She's still the star of the show."

"She's insecure, Nat. She's real vulnerable. Everyone thinks she's self-centered – well, it's not like she ain't – but she's … she can be real fragile, too."

Jo leaned her chin on one hand.

Natalie gazed thoughtfully at Jo.

I wouldn't believe it if I weren't seeing it with my own eyes! This, Natalie realized, was the Jo whom Blair was talking about when she said she and Jo had stayed up all night talking; that she and Jo had talked the afternoon away. This was sensitive, pensive Jo Polniaczek, a creature the younger girls rarely saw.

"You look a little fragile yourself, just now," said Nat.

"I never like to feel I've hurt her. Even if I didn't mean to. And even if it's all in her head."

Natalie looked down the bar, to the table where Gerald and Portia and Gio sat. Her new boyfriend was so handsome, so fresh – so blank. Could he ever feel that way about Natalie – not wanting to hurt her, even if it were all in her head? Could Belmont have felt that way? Or Doctor Adams?

"Love isn't just about being in love – is it?" Natalie asked Jo.

"Huhn. Funny way to put it, but I think I know what you mean."

"What is it you love about Blair?" Natalie asked curiously.

"Her heart," Jo said without hesitation. "She loves everybody. She's got the best heart of anybody I know."

Natalie took a little plastic swizzle stick from a glass of swizzle sticks on the bar. Slowly she stirred her soda. "I've always wondered, Jo. I mean … not to be nosy –"

"Ha!" Jo grinned at her. "There's a first!"

"I just wonder – Would you really marry Blair if you could?"

"Course."

"You want to spend the rest of your life with her? Day in? Day out? Night after night after night?"

A goofy smile spread across Jo's face.

"Hoo boy," said Nat. "You've really got it bad! Don't you ever get bored with each other?"

"Nat, look. Someday you're gonna get it. And until you get it, I don't think you can get it. Get it?"

"Strangely – yes."

"When Blair's not around I feel like one of my legs is missin, or my arm or somethin."

"I've never met a guy that makes me feel that way," Nat said a little glumly.

"For cryin out loud – you're barely seventeen. Give yourself a chance, will ya?"

"At least Gio's not a loser."

"Why should he be?"

"Just something Mrs. Garrett and I were talking about a while ago. Gio's just my summer fling, I guess; but he's a nice guy."

"Seems like," Jo agreed. "Just enjoy it. Don't be worryin about fallin in love yet."

"I'm sorry, Jo."

"About what?"

"That you and Blair can't get married."

Jo grimaced. "Yeah, well …"

"When you can, I'll be one of your maids of honor."

"Cool." It was totally out of left field and completely touching. "Count on it, Nat."

"I suppose Jesse will be the other maid of honor. Will we have to wear matching leather jackets and tattoos?"

"Christ – can you picture that?" laughed Jo.

"You'll ride up the aisle on your Kawasaki – vroom, vroom!"

"The Bronx Barbarians'll carry Blair in, like Cleopatra, on a burnt-out chassis!"

Natalie was laughing so hard she almost spit out her Coca-Cola.

"Eh, whenever it happens, it's gonna be a five-star wingding," said Jo. "Blair will have it all coordinated. Dior and Yves St. Laurent a bunch of fancy frou-frous. And I'm gonna love every second of it."

Without warning – "That's how jazz should always be," Alec explained later, "without warning" – there was a flutter of lively piano notes.

"It's Alec," said Jo, craning to peer past Nat. Alec sat at the piano just below the little stage, resplendent in a white tuxedo.

"Bond – Alec Bond," said Natalie.

Alec's hectic notes, having gained the attention of the patrons, resolved themselves into a recognizable jazz standard, the opening bars of Gershwin's romantic classic "Love Is Here To Stay".

Tootie appeared from behind a green velvet curtain. She walked slowly across the tiny stage, a mic in her hand. She wore a silver-and-white sequined sheath gown, and, on her head, a silver-and-white sequined cloche hat in the pattern of a lilly.

"She's freakin beautiful," said Jo. "Where'd she get that get-up?"

"The Duchess lent it."

Tootie lifted the mic to her mouth.

"It's very clear, our love is here to stay, not for a year, but forever and a day ..."

Tootie sang in a strong clear voice, youthful but assured.

"She sounds better all the time," Jo said admiringly.

"Our little Tootie is growing up," Nat agreed.

Jo loved to watch Tootie sing. Tootie didn't just recite the words to a song; she performed them. She made eye contact with the patrons; she moved gracefully across the stage; she expressed the feeling and the meaning of the song in her gestures, her body language.

How does she do it? Jo wondered. Kid's never even been in love yet. How does she feel what the words mean, and make us feel it?

Alec's piano was subtle, poignant. He played variations; his fingers darted to unexpected notes, especially minor keys. He wove a rich texture under and around Tootie's words …

Jo scented the Chanel No. 5 before she saw her lover.

Blair had entered by a side door.

The blonde stood next to Jo's barstool. She wanted to put her arms around Jo's shoulders and kiss her. But that would never do in a crowded club. So instead she put a hand on Jo's arm.

"I'm sorry," Blair said quietly.

"Me too," said Jo.


They apologized more fully in private, in one of the innumerable little gardens surrounding Vivienne's palace. The night air was sweet with roses and night-blooming jasmine.

A bronze statue of the goddess Concordia poured fresh water from a cornucopia into a fountain; the gentle splash of water was like the music of a distant waterfall …

Blair sat on a marble bench, Jo balanced on her lap. They cupped each other's faces tenderly and kissed until they were breathless.

"I have some news," Blair whispered when they finally came up for air.

"Yeah? Me too." And you ain't gonna be doin cartwheels when you hear it!

"Meg gave us the house on Amsterdam Avenue."

"No kiddin?"

"No kidding."

"So …" Jo turned that over in her practical way. "That means property taxes."

"Yes, but it also means rental income."

"No kiddin? Property owners. Huh. Well, if anythin breaks, I can fix it. Least we'll save on those costs."

"I always knew it would come in handy," Blair kissed Jo's nose, "being engaged to a mechanical genius."

"Eh, just like I thought. You're only usin me for my toolbox!"

"Darling?"

"Yeah?"

Blair wrinkled her nose adorably. "Can you carry me to our bed?"

Jo felt her heart skip a beat. "I think that can be arranged, signora. But first, I, uh, gotta tell you my news."

"Of course." Blair laid her head on Jo's shoulder. "You have my complete attention."

Great. How do I say this?

Jo sighed. She broke her news the way she always did difficult things – straight up, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Sort of.

"Ma wrote me in her last letter – Eddie's still stationed in Italy."

"Eddie Brennan? How is he doing?"

"Great. He got promoted again."

"I have to admit," Blair said, kissing Jo's neck, "I didn't think much of him dropping out of high school to join the navy, but he really seems to have found himself."

"Yeah. Well, he, uh, called the Bronx a couple weeks ago to talk to me, and Ma told him I'm here, and, uh, he's comin to find me. Probably as soon as tomorrow he's gonna be ringin Vivienne's door bell."

Blair frowned. "He's coming to see us? Without calling or writing? That seems a little casual even by Bronx standards."

"He's comin to see me. It's supposed to be a surprise. But Ma wrote to warn me, on account of she knows about you and me. See, the thing is … Blair … Babe … Eddie's comin to propose to me."

Blair was silent.

"Obviously I'm gonna turn him down," Jo said hastily. "And send him packin. In a nice way. But firm. I'm gonna tell him about us."

"You don't have to," said Blair. "Or – do what you think is best. He was your fiancée."

"Hey." Jo gently turned Blair's face so that they were eye to eye in the moonlight. "Blair, we're in this together. I'm not tellin him anythin or doin anythin until we're both on the same page. I think we should tell him about us. But whadda you think?"

Blair considered it. She shrugged. "I think it's best to tell him," she said. "But how will he take it?"

"He'll be surprised – puttin it mildly," said Jo. "I don't think it woulda crossed his mind in a million years I'd be in love with a girl – let alone Blair Warner."

"Thanks, darling."

Jo laughed. "C'mon, babe – don't get all solemn." She shook Blair lightly, tickling her ribs. Blair threw her head back, throat pale in the moonlight, giggling.

"Jo – stop! Stop!" She giggled hysterically. "Jo, this a very … serious … situation!" Laughing uncontrollably she flung her head forward, blonde tresses covering Jo's face.

Jo continued to tickle her fiancée mercilessly, chuckling, but then Blair turned the tables, fingers tickling Jo's sides and the small of her back, her most vulnerable areas.

"Hey! Blair … Babe … Stop!"

Jo laughed and Blair laughed and the next thing they knew Jo had toppled onto the damp earth, pulling Blair down with her. They rolled on the ground, still laughing like lunatics.

"C'mere." Jo slipped one arm around Blair's waist, one around her shoulder. They lay side by side, nose to nose.

"I think we crushed Vivienne's geraniums," giggled Blair.

"Jasmine," Jo corrected.

"Whatever they are," Blair plucked a crushed blossom from Jo's hair, "they appear to be a-goner."

Jo brushed petals out of Blair's hair. "Babe – did you just say 'a-goner'?"

"I believe I did. I'm getting ready to talk Bronxese. You know – put Eddie at ease. Talk his language."

"Um, we don't really say 'a-goner' a lot in the Bronx. That's more a Mayberry kinda thing. Or Hooterville. Or Green Acres. In the Bronx, we say somethin's totally effin thrashed."

"Well, these geraniums –"

"Jasmine, babe."

"– are totally effin thrashed."

"Hmm. I dunno, Blair. You might wanna just stick to your own lingo. And never mind about puttin Eddie at ease. He's a big boy. He can take it."

"Jo," Blair traced Jo's mouth with one perfectly manicured fingertip, "you'll be breaking his heart. We'll be breaking his heart. We have to do this with sensitivity."

"I'm not sayin we should be insensitive," said Jo, "but, much as I loved the guy, what the hell's he thinkin, comin up here surprisin me with a proposal? Sounds kinda screwy and impulsive."

"You left the door open when you turned him down. For all he knows, you've been pining for him."

"Not even. Nobody was pinin. I was datin guys when I was at Eastland. He was datin chicks when he was on shore leave. We wrote each other about our dates. We were becomin … I thought we were becomin friends. I don't know where the hell this proposal's comin from!"

"Who wouldn't want to be married to you?" Blair said dreamily.

"Wow." Jo pushed her fingers through Blair's mussed hair. "You're takin this so well."

"How did you think I would take it? Jo … Eddie was your fiancée. You loved him. Does it make me green with jealousy to think about that? Sure. Does part of me want to claw out his gorgeous blue eyes? Of course. But he's long out of your life. And I know that. I don't see him as a threat or as a, as a villain."

"Unlike Boots?" Jo asked wryly.

"When Boots dances her little hoochie-coochie dance and tries to kiss you, yes. She's a villain."

"Hoochie-coochie dance?" laughed Jo. "What the hell is that?"

"You know what I mean. That thing she does, when she dances. That, you know, with her hips."

Jo pulled Blair closer. "Never mind Boots' hips. Let's go upstairs and concentrate on your hips."

"And your hips?"

"And my hips. Yeah. We're gonna get some real excitin hip action goin."

"Jo?"

"Mmn?" Jo scooped Blair into her arms, nuzzling the heiress' cheek.

She's gettin heavier, Jo thought approvingly, as she shifted Blair, adjusting her balance. She's gettin some meat back on her bones. Notwithstandin our dumb fights, this trip is good for her …

"Jo, I feel so real with you. I don't feel as real with anyone else as I feel with you. Even when I'm … Jo, even when I'm a bitch, it's because I feel safe to be myself with you."

"I get it," Jo said quietly. "Right back at ya, babe. When I'm, you know, a jerk, it's just cause I know it's safe to say what I'm thinkin, what I'm feelin in the moment, even if it's totally dumb."

"Nothing you say is dumb, darling."

"Sometimes," Jo said quietly.

"Never. Misguided – sure. Wrong – certainly. But not dumb."

Jo chuckled. She kissed Blair's mussed hair. "How bout we go get that hip action goin before we get into another misguided argument?"

"That sounds lovely," Blair breathed.

Jo carried her toward the palace …

Part 3

Return to The Facts of Life Fiction

Return to Main Page