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 3

Mid July, 1984. Florence, Italy.

In the Duchess' grand dining hall, Jo paced, nervously gnawing on a slice of toast and marmalade.

"Darling – please sit down," said Blair. "You're wearing a hole in that carpet – and I believe it's Persian."

"It is," Vivienne confirmed. She lowered her silvery eyebrows, looking very hard at Jo. "You are wearing a channel in my Persian rug, and you are sprinkling it with crumbs! I shan't have it, Miss Polniaczek."

"I'm sorry your grace." Jo waved her half-chewed slice of toast a little wildly, scattering more crumbs. "I don't know what's the hell's wrong with me. I feel like a total dork. My palms are sweatin and my heart is poundin. I ain't felt this nervous since the first time Blair and me – uh, never mind. Scratch that example."

"What's the big deal?" Natalie asked, trying to sound encouraging. "It's only Eddie. So what? Blair can take care of Eddie."

"Sure," said Tootie. "Remember how she busted up your elopement? Piece of cake!"

"I didn't 'bust up' Jo and Eddie's elopement," Blair objected.

Natalie lifted her eyebrows. "Really? How would you describe it?"

"I didn't 'bust it up'," Blair insisted. "I merely helped two crazy, underage kids realize the stupidity of what they were doing."

"Right," Tootie agreed. "You busted it up."

"Don't you have to go rehearse or something?" Blair asked Tootie.

"Nope." Tootie grinned. "I cleared my calendar. If you think I'm going to miss the Jo-Eddie-Blair blow-out –"

"Hey. There ain't gonna be any blow-out," Jo said. She darted an anxious glance at her fiancée. "Right? No blow-outs? You promise – right babe?"

"There certainly aren't going to be any 'blow-outs'!" said the Duchess. "This is the Palazzo Uxbridgenot Madison Square Garden!"

Blair smiled fondly at the elderly noble. "Don't tell me you never fought a few, uh –" Blair looked to Jo for assistance.

"Rounds," Jo said absently, gulping down the last bit of her toast.

"Don't tell me you never fought a few rounds for love," Blair said to the Duchess.

Vivienne sniffed delicately. She dabbed at the corners of her carefully made-up mouth with a serviette.

"It is possible," she said with dignity, "that I fought more than a few rounds for love. My loves. I expect my guests, however, to display some minimal level of decorum."

"Oh, it'll be minimal," Tootie guaranteed.

"The bare minimum," Natalie added.

"That is not what I meant," said Vivienne, glaring at the two young friends, "as I am sure you know. I do not understand your generation's infatuation with sarcasm."

"It's not our fault," Natalie said. "Ours is a complex, misunderstood generation."

"Mine was a complex, misunderstood generation," corrected Vivienne. "Yours is merely … cheeky."

"Cheeky? Hmm. I can live with that," Nat said agreeably.

"Live with what?" asked Jacqueline. The slim viscountess entered the room with her usual brisk energy, seeming, as always, to be channeling Katherine Hepburn. She took a chair at the grand table, pouring out a cup of caffé from a big-bellied silver pot, her movements quick and assured.

"Tootie and I can live with being cheeky," said Natalie.

"Yes? Well, that's to the good, because you are. Terribly cheeky. Both of you." Jacqueline helped herself to a slice of toast.

"Morning all," said Petal, lumbering into the room. The big, handsome woman looked tired; her usual minimalist makeup did nothing to mask the dark circles under her eyes. She was still robust enough to justify her nickname of Moose, but she had lost more weight in Italy, and her formerly plump, rosy cheeks were looking hollow and wan.

"Working this morning?" asked the Duchess. It was a rhetorical question, a mere politeness; both Jacqueline and Petal wore the white slacks and blouses and green blazers of AmBrit Tours, the exclusive, ridiculously expensive excursion company that had hired them as summer tour guides.

Jacqueline gave vent to her staccato laugh. "Well, your grace, we aren't wearing these charming little outfits to make a fashion statement."

"And yet again," complained Vivienne, "sarcasm."

"You're working so many hours," Tootie said to Jacqueline. "You must be making a bundle."

Petal grimaced. Nat dug her elbow gently into Tootie's ribs.

"I never realized," Petal murmured, almost to herself, as she poured herself a cup of strong caffé, "the value of money. I never thought I was materialistic because I never had to be. When you've had everything, all your life; when you've never had an inkling of what it is to be without …"

"There, Petal – chin up," Jacqueline said firmly. "No being maudlin. Your father's solicitors will prevail when all's said and done. That odious BZ Becker must have missed something – didn't dot an I, didn't cross a t. And whatever he missed, when it comes to light the Von Schuylkills will be back on top. And the Barclays and St. Clairs and so on and so forth. The gods of New York will rise again!"

"I say, that's a cracking good boot in the bum, Jack" Alec said admiringly, dropping into the chair next to Jacqueline's. He put a strong arm around her shoulder, kissed her cheek.

"It was an inspirational remark," Jacqueline said disapprovingly, "not a boot in the bum. Do try not to be vulgar, Alec, dear."

"He can't help it," said Tootie.

Alec lifted an eyebrow. "Was that a crack, Tootie? Or were you defending me?"

"Little bit of both," said Tootie, buttering a decadently iced pastry.

Alec kissed Jacqueline's cheek again. "God blind me, you're lovely in that uniform! You should have joined the toiling classes sooner."

"And what are you dressed for, Lord Nethridge?" Jacqueline asked, casting a cold eye over Alec's wrinkled white shirt, open at the collar, a pair of wrinkled grey flannel trousers and ratty tennis shoes.

"I am going boating this morning," said Alec. "While you are leading a group of obnoxious Yanks through Santa Croce, enduring their interminably cretinous questions and nasal voices –"

"Hey!" said Tootie.

"Easy on the Yank-bashing," said Natalie.

"Present company excluded, of course," said Alec. "As I was saying, while my dear Jack is leading a group of distinguished Americans through the sacred precincts of Santa Croce, I will be loafing along the waterways, doing neither myself nor anyone else the slightest bit of good, but drinking in the bright Italian sun along with a bottle of wine."

"What a terrible wastrel you are," said Jacqueline. "But at least you're honest about it." She looked around the room. "Where's Portia this morning?"

"She never came home," said Tootie.

"The little vixen," laughed Alec. "Well. Dreamy blonde still waters really do run deep."

"We don't know she stayed with Gerald," objected Jacqueline.

"But it's a reasonable conclusion," Alec said. He turned to Tootie. "My dear Mata Tootie, do you have any intelligence on the matter? Did Portia spend the night with Kissinger Junior?"

"They left the Caffé together," she answered without hesitation, "but I don't know where they went."

"Well they didn't come here," said Alec. He glanced at Tootie again. "Did they?"

Tootie shook her head.

"How can you know that?" Jacqueline asked curiously.

"Tootie sets up an entire intelligence network the moment she arrives anywhere," said Alec. He smiled affectionately at Tootie, his eyes sparkling with laughter.

"You're teasing me," Tootie said implacably, "but you're not wrong." She leaned her chin on one hand. "Maybe they eloped," she said dreamily. "Maybe they'll return as Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Winterbriar."

"We can only hope the children will favor Portia," said Alec.

"That's very shallow," said Jacqueline. "And quite unkind."

"D'you think? Because I dare say Gerald will feel the same. Fellow must own a mirror."

Jacqueline hit Alec with her serviette. "Shallow," she repeated, "and unkind."

Alec noticed, for the first time, that Jo was pacing in a far corner of the room, Blair sitting on a window ledge near the nervous brunette, talking in a low, encouraging voice.

"I say – our Jo, our Blair!" Alec called. "Come eat at table, you savages."

"Do not bellow, Alec," complained Vivienne. "I ask you to remember that you are no longer seven."

"No – he's six now," Jacqueline said wryly.

"Gimme a break," Jo called to Alec. "I'm a bundle of nerves, all right? Leave me alone!"

Alec frowned. He turned in his chair to give Jo and Blair his full attention. "I say – this Neddie –"

"Eddie," corrected Jo.

"This Eddie chap isn't going to give you any trouble, is he? Because I'll stay in this morning, if you like, lurk about in case he gets violent."

"Eddie ain't like that," said Jo. "He ain't got a rough bone in him. It's just, he's gonna be, you know, hurt and confused and stuff."

"Darling," Blair said gently, "you don't have to tell him about us. I won't be offended if you want to keep that from him. It might be best."

"Ha! Forget it, Blondie. You're my girl and I'm gonna tell him. Me and Eddie, far back as we go, he's gonna get the whole truth and nothin but the truth. No matter where the chips fall."

Alec leaned back in his chair, balancing it on two legs. "I admire your spirit," he told Jo, "but if this Teddy gets fresh –"

"Eddie! For cryin out loud, Alec – his name's Eddie. All those crazy British names you people have, and you can't remember 'Eddie'?"

"Be patient with Alec," Jacqueline told Jo. "Words of more than two syllables, you know … bit of a challenge …"

"That sort of unkindness," said Alec, "is what drives me out of doors."

Jacqueline smiled at him. She touched his rumpled shirt collar, toyed with it. "Will you be here this evening?" she asked quietly. "Or will you still be drifting on the river like Huckleberry Finn?"

"I'll be at the Caffé," he said. "Remember – you and Petal aren't the only proletariats in this ménage."

Jacqueline kissed his cheek very gently, leaving a faint scarlet imprint of her lipstick. "Look for me at the bar tonight," she said. "I'll be wearing my red dress."

"I shall, Jack."

"For cryin out loud!" complained Jo. "I'm tryin to gather my freakin thoughts to break Eddie's heart, and all I'm hearin is about Portia and Gerald shackin up and you two bein all gushy and treacly!"

Alec laughed. "Treacly? Did our Jo just say 'treacly'?"

"Eh, you're Britishin up my damn vocabulary," Jo complained.

Blair put a hand on Jo's arm. "That's not necessarily a bad thing, darling."

"Oh yeah? How'm I supposed to break Eddie's heart when I'm soundin all British and stuff?"

"Not all British," Alec assured her. "Your Bronxese remains the dominant idiom, my dear girl."

Blair shot him a look. "Wise cracks aren't helping," she said.

"It's not a wise crack," said Alec. "It's a candid observation."

"Yeah? Well you can take your candor," said Jo, "and shove it up –"

"Darling." Blair slipped her arms around Jo's shoulders. Typically she and Jo didn't do any more than hold hands when they were among their friends; everyone was growing to accept their relationship – some faster than others – but they couple preferred to save their more intense demonstrations of personal affection for the bedroom. But Jo was all but unraveling in front of Blair's eyes. Drastic measures were required.

Blair laid her shining blonde head on Jo's shoulder. She pulled Jo close. Automatically Jo slid her arms around Blair's waist, pulling the blonde hard against her. Jo dropped kisses on Blair's hair.

"I'm so freakin scared, babe," she said softly. "I don't think I've ever been so scared."

"Shh. It's OK, Joey. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."

Tootie gazed at the couple, fascinated. Alec gazed at the couple with admiration. Jacqueline cleared her throat and looked away, giving Jo and Blair their privacy. Natalie sighed.

I can't believe how vulnerable Jo looks, Nat thought wonderingly. Jo Polniaczek – admitting she's scared! Blair brings that out in her. That trust … that love … I hope I can find that someday, with someone …

"Good morning, good morning, good morning," trilled Mrs. Garrett, sailing into the room with a transcendent smile. "Isn't it a lovely day?"

"Beastly hot already," Alec complained amiably. "River's the place to be, today."

Mrs. Garrett went to Tootie and hugged her and pinched her cheeks. Mrs. Garrett reached over to Natalie and hugged her.

"Girls … Everyone … I have an announcement."

Natalie clutched her heart. "My God! Mrs. Garrett! You're pregnant! And at your age!"

Mrs. Garrett laughed merrily, too happy to be insulted.

"No, Natalie, I'm not pregnant. But I am getting married."

"We know that, Mrs. Garrett," said Tootie. "Drake proposed to you on Valentine's Day weekend. At Tavern on the Green." She sighed. "I hope someday someone proposes to me at Tavern on the Green."

"Tootie's right," said Nat. "That's old news, Mrs. Garrett. You and Drake are going to get married and Blair's going to be your maid of honor."

"Ah, but what you don't know," said Mrs. Garrett, "is that Drake and I have decided to marry here, in beautiful Italy." She looked around the room, finally registering that Blair and Jo were standing in the shadows near the window, holding each other close. "What do you think, Jo? Blair? Will you still be my maid of honor? I know it's not much notice."

"Whatever you like, Mrs. Garrett," Blair called absently.

Mrs. Garrett turned to Tootie. "What's wrong with them?" she mouthed.

"Eddie," mouthed Tootie.

"Ah." Mrs. Garrett nodded.

"Have you booked a church yet?" Natalie asked Mrs. Garrett. "Do you have a license? Do you have a minister lined up, or a priest or rabbi or yogi or something? I don't know if you've thought this through, Mrs. Garrett. You can't just pull a foreign wedding out of a hat. It's a very complicated process."

"Whatever you need," the Duchess told Mrs. Garrett, "I shall see that you have it. Ancient as I am, I have yet some influence in Florence. A church, a marriage license … these are not difficulties."

Mrs. Garrett nodded her head gratefully. "Thank you, your grace."

"Not at all," said Vivienne. "I am not unaware, Mrs. Garrett, of your many kindnesses to my ne'er-do-well nephew."

"I'm very fond of him," said Mrs. Garrett, smiling at Alec.

"Against my better judgment," said Vivienne, "so am I."

"And on that note," said Alec, pushing back his chair, "I shall go to the river. And if I don't throw myself into it, it's no thanks to you beautiful, cruel women and your incessant criticisms of me!"

He leaned down and kissed Jacqueline's forehead. "See you tonight," he said quietly.

"Tonight," she agreed. She gazed fondly at him.

"And don't be late," interjected Tootie, rather shattering their romantic mood. "We need to practice 'Night and Day' Alec. The pitch is still off."

"You always do your best, Tootie," Alec said kindly.

Tootie rolled her eyes. "Not my pitch, Alec – your pitch."

"My dear child, that's not me, it's that horrid piano."

"Well whatever it is, it's throwing me off," said Tootie. "Tune the piano or ask them to find another one or something."

"My dear child –"

"And stop calling me 'my dear child'."

"My dear Tootie, the Caffé Jazz Americano hasn't had a new piano since before the Great War, and they aren't going to purchase one on our account! We must simply make do."

By the window, Jo pulled Blair even closer. Blair smelled wonderful – she always smelled wonderful. Jo softly kissed Blair's mouth.

"What if he hates me?" Jo whispered to Blair.

"Then he's a jackass," Blair said firmly. "Jo – who could hate you?"

"I don't know. It's just … He doesn't have any, you know, frame of reference for this. It ain't like there's a bunch of Sapphic couples in the Bronx. Or, I guess there might be, but they're keepin it pretty damn quiet!"

"He might need some time," Blair said, "but he'll come around. He loved you, Jo. That doesn't just evaporate. Believe me, darling. I know."

Vivienne cleared her throat. "Not that I condone all this drama – most upsetting to the digestion! – but if you would care for a spot of advice from someone who knows whereof she speaks, be prepared to tell your young man several times – perhaps more – that you are in love with Miss Warner. Young men, as a rule, do not take Sapphic connections very seriously."

"What're you sayin, your grace?" asked Jo.

"That Eddie will think you're relationship with Blair is cute," Alec translated.

"Cute? What the hell? You took it seriously," said Jo.

"Yes, Artemis, but I've had the benefit of being half-raised by 'my last Duchess' here."

"Impertinence," sniffed Vivienne. "Demmed impertinence, young man."

"Her grace taught me to respect love between women – and to respect women in general," Alec continued, in a more respectful tone.

"I'll show Eddie 'cute'," Blair said grimly. "Maybe I'll give him a cute little punch in the nose!"

Jo held her fiancée tighter, kissed her nose. "Now let's not get violent, babe," Jo said affectionately. "Look, I'm sorry I'm gettin all frazzled about this. For all we know, Eddie's gonna take it great. Let's just keep cool and see how it plays out."

"Keep cool?"

"Yeah."

"Cool as in how your knees are knocking together, darling?"

"They are, ain't they?" Jo said ruefully.

"Yes, Jo … A little bit."

Jo sighed. "Just shoot me. Somebody just shoot me."

Boots wandered into the room, yawning and stretching, her usually pin-straight dark hair mussed. It fell in unruly waves over her shoulders, and it was pin-cushioned with bits of leaves and straw.

"Well, well, well," said Alec. "Look what the proverbial cat dragged in! And is that the same ensemble you were wearing yesterday?"

"Is there coffee?" murmured Boots. "Gravy! If I don't have a cup of coffee I'm going to fall asleep on my feet."

"Of course there's coffee," laughed Alec. "Do you think we're in the tundra? There are even eggs and ham and kidneys."

"Kidneys?" Boots pulled a face as she dropped into a chair near Petal. "How you can eat those, those gruesome things is beyond me."

"Don't be narrow-minded, dear," chided Alec. "It's very provincial of you. Kidneys are heartening – particularly when they're deviled."

"Please stop saying 'kidneys'," grumbled Boots. "My head hurts and I'm very grumpy and a little bit queasy, too."

"What happened, Boots?" Petal asked kindly.

"Isn't it obvious? She finally got lucky," said Alec, grinning.

"Alec!" The Duchess' voice was whip-sharp. "I will not have you speaking like that at table."

"What if I climbed under the table?" he deadpanned. "Or sat on it?"

"Annika dumped me," said Boots, stirring a heaping spoon of sugar into her coffee. "Literally. We had words and she stormed away. We were out in the countryside – this beautiful little barley field. And she's the one that led us out there, so after she stormed off I was all turned around. It took me all night to find my way back here."

"You walked all night?" Natalie asked incredulously.

"Isn't that what I just said?" Boots blew on her caffé to cool it.

"But … You walked all night? Boots St. Clair? Walking all night?" Natalie asked again.

"Good grief! Is there an echo in here?" Boots asked pettishly.

"She walked all night," Natalie told Tootie. "Boots. Walked. All night."

"Our little Boots is becoming a real live person," Alec said fondly.

"I'm glad my emotional and physical traumas are so amusing," Boots told Alec coolly.

"They're only teasing you," Mrs. Garrett said gently.

"Well I wish they'd stop," said Boots.

"But Boots … It means you're part of the gang," Mrs. Garrett explained.

Boots raised her eyebrows. She looked around the room. "Does it?"

"What do you think?" asked Tootie. "Of course you are!"

"Do you think we waste our material on just anyone?" Natalie demanded.

"Well, whammo!" said Boots, sitting up a little straighter in her chair and looking pleased. "I really am becoming part of the gang. That's a horse of a different color. Go ahead then. Tease me some more."

Tootie rolled her eyes. "Boots, that's not how it works. We don't tease on command."

"It has to happen in the moment," said Natalie. "There's a flow to it."

Boots pouted and sipped her caffé.

"What kind of 'words' did you have with Annika?" Petal asked Boots.

Petal had a soft spot for the somewhat ditzy debutante; the Von Schuylkills and St. Clairs, being New York royalty, had moved in the same circles; when Petal and Boots were children the big, handsome girl had cast herself in the role of the petite, odd brunette's protector and champion.

"It was evening," said Boots, "and the stars were shining and the moon was so beautiful. We were reclining in a haystack –"

"Reclining?" asked Tootie.

"A haystack?" Natalie demanded.

"Let Boots speak," said Alec. "This sounds delicious."

"It could have been," Boots sulked. "I suggested that Annika and I take the next step in our relationship. And Annika slapped me. Me! Boots St. Clair! And she pushed me out of the haystack! But that's what happens when you lose your fortune. Every mealy-mouthed ambassador's daughter thinks she can slap you!"

Jo laughed. "Boots – son of a gun! You made an indecent proposal to Annika?"

"Not 'indecent'," objected Boots. "That sounds so … indecent. I thought I was rather charming."

"Eh, I'm sure you were," said Jo. "It ain't your fault. That Annika looked all uptight."

Boots rubbed her face regretfully. "You can say that again!"

Blair smiled at Jo who was laughing, eyes bright.

I love it when she's happy and relaxed like this, thought Blair. Bless Boots' goofy little heart for taking Jo's mind off Eddie for a minute! I can't wait until this is over, until Eddie's gone again …

Boots looked hopefully to the Duchess. "Your grace, do you know of any local lesbians who are actually interested in having sex?"

Vivienne frowned magnificently at this query.

Alec choked on his caffé. "Boots, dearest – Aunt Viv is not a procurer!"

"And who said she is?" Boots demanded. "The idea! I'm merely interested in meeting a young woman who isn't a cold, stuck-up prude."

Alec darted a mischievous glance at Jacqueline. "That does sound tempting," he said.

Jacqueline hit him with her serviette. "Beast! For that I shan't hold hands with you during your break tonight."

"I'm crushed," he said, tenderly touching her face. "Desolated."

Nat rolled her eyes. "Get a room you two! Jeesh! You're getting as bad as everyone else!"

"I think that's quite enough sex and innuendo for the breakfast table," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. "It's time we were all heading out. Petal, Jacqueline – to work! Natalie and Tootie, you're going to the Uffizi Gallery today. The summer will be gone before you know it and you haven't even started on your reports!"

"Yes, Mrs. Garrett."

"Boots, go clean up. You look like you've been plowing a field. Jo, Blair – when is Eddie arriving?"

"About an hour," Jo said tensely.

"Then you'll want to freshen up. Come on, everyone. Chop-chop!"

Vivienne looked at Mrs. Garrett admiringly. "How do you do that?"

"Years of experience," Mrs. Garrett said modestly.

"She's our den mother-slash-prison matron," said Alec.

Mrs. Garrett fixed him with a significant look.

"And on that note," Alec said hastily, pushing back his chair, "I'm off to the river …"

Within a minute everyone had cleared out of the room except the Duchess, Mrs. Garrett, Jo and Blair.

Jo sat on one of the arched window sills, breathing in the perfume of the flower gardens, trying to calm her rapid heartbeat. Blair put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"Less than an hour," said Jo. "In less than an hour, I'm spillin my guts to the guy I almost married! Thank God you busted that up, babe."

Blair sighed. "For the last time, I didn't 'bust up' anything. I merely helped you and Eddie to see sense."

Jo took Blair's free hand, kissed the palm. "Babe?"

"Yes, Jo?" Blair half-closed her eyes. She loved the sensation of Jo's soft mouth on her palm.

"When you and Mrs. G busted in on me and Eddie at that crummy motel, when you saw me in that peignoir thing you gave me for a weddin gift …"

"Yes?"

"Did that … I mean, when you saw me in that peignoir, with my hair all down and everythin, did that, you know?"

Blair smiled. "Yes, darling."

"You know what I'm askin?"

"Not being dimwitted, yes, darling, I know." Blair brushed a few strands of Jo's hair out of her face. "Did you, Jo?"

"Did I what?"

"When I saved you from making a horrible, horrible mistake, and you were in that lovely peignoir, and I was so cold, and we were all embracing, did you … did you feel anything for me?"

Jo kissed Blair's palm again.

"That's not an answer," said Blair.

"I know. It's just … I was feelin relieved about not gettin married. Thanks to you and Mrs. G, and hearin Eddie talk about how he saw our lives together, I realized it woulda been a dumb idea. And I was feelin happy to have a second mom like Mrs. G and a pal like you. And I was feelin sad at havin to break Eddie's heart and say goodbye to him. So I was feelin tons of stuff, but I wasn't, you know …"

"You weren't feeling attracted to me yet," Blair said bluntly. Ow! Well, you asked for it, she told herself wryly. Good move!

"I mean, it felt good huggin on you," said Jo. "You were always so soft. And you smelled so good. And your hair felt so nice. And you were warm. Come to think of it," Jo said thoughtfully, "I didn't really wanna let go of ya. Huhn. Maybe that coulda been kinda a clue."

Blair ruffled Jo's hair. "My darling imbecile," she said fondly.

"Hey!" Jo smoothed her hair. "Hey, I don't wanna look all screwy when I see Eddie."

"You look beautiful," said Blair. "You're like a goddess." She kissed the side of Jo's mouth, so as not to smudge Jo's lip gloss.

Jo took a deep breath. She smelled the roses and jasmine in the garden, the Vidal Sassoon and Chanel No. 5 that were among Blair's signature scents.

"Girls, either go freshen up or come sit down," Mrs. Garrett called.

"I think I'm about as freshened up as I'm gonna get, Mrs. G," called Jo.

"Come on," Blair said gently. "We'll go brush your hair again."

"Sounds good, babe," Jo nodded. She liked the thought of Blair's hands on her hair, slowly pulling the silver-backed brush through Jo's dark tresses. That might calm me down some … If it don't get me too revved up, that is!

Jo being athletic as a young lion, she didn't need Blair's assistance climbing down from the window sill, but she didn't object as Blair put an arm around her waist and solicitously helped Jo alight. Jo loved being touched by her fiancée under any circumstances, but particularly when she was so nervous.

"Thanks," Jo said quietly.

"Any time," said Blair. "We're in this together, right?"

"Forever and back," Jo agreed.

"Come on, darling. We'll brush your hair and freshen your lip gloss – after I kiss it off a little bit."

"Hmm. That sounds like maybe that would really calm me down pretty good."

"I think it might," said Blair, eyes dancing.

But as it transpired, there was no time for hair brushing or a few private, encouraging kisses.

Vivienne's butler appeared in a doorway, squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath.

"Signore Eddie Brennan," he announced grandly, in a deep voice.

And then Eddie was in the room.


Christ – he's so tall! thought Jo as she and Eddie strolled silently through Vivienne's rose garden, walking close together, but not touching. Was he always this tall? Nah? He's gotten taller. Filled out, too.

Being on leave, Eddie wasn't in uniform. He wore nicely pressed jeans and a pale blue Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing tanned, muscular arms. He smelled nice – like Old Spice. Jo had forgotten Eddie always wore Old Spice, at least since they started dating.

They first met at a party when they were fifteen. He was wearing English Leather cologne, Jo remembered. Jo wasn't crazy about the fragrance, and when she found out it had been a gift from his last girlfriend she made him throw it away. The next day Jo lifted a bottle of Old Spice from Kugel's Drug Store and she gave it to him on their second date. And that was his scent thereafter …

"So," Eddie cleared his throat, "I'm sorry I stopped writin."

Jo shrugged. "Eh. I understood. It ain't like you're loafin around. You're busy on ship, right?"

"Still. I'm sorry," he said.

"Don't give it a second thought. Not like you dropped off the planet, right? You're standin here visitin me, right?"

"Yeah." He grinned a goofy grin. "I am."

Uh-oh, thought Jo. Better nip this in the bud before he embarrasses himself, poor guy!

She paused, turned to him. "Listen, Eddie, I wanna tell you somethin."

"Sure," he said, turning to face her. "Me too, Jo. See, I been doin a lot of thinkin the last couple years."

"Me too," said Jo. "But Eddie –"

"Jeez," he said. His bright blue eyes sparkled. His eyes were almost – almost – as bright and clear as Alec's. "I gotta say, Jo, I'm kinda hopin that with all our thinkin, we're thinkin the same thing."

"Huh." Jo chuckled nervously. "Don't think that's gonna be the case, Eddie."

"Hey. You never know." He slipped a hand into the back pocket of his jeans. "Jo, there's somethin I wanna –"

"No!" she blurted.

He tilted his head. "Don't be nervous," he said. He drew a tiny blue velvet box from his back pocket. He placed the jewelry box on his palm; it looked very small on his broad hand. "Jo … This is for you."

Jo took a step backward. Instead of reaching for the box, she put her hands behind her back.

Eddie laughed. "Hey, don't run away," he joked. "I know it might seem kinda sudden, but don't freak out or whatever."

"Who's freakin out? I ain't freakin out!" Jo took another step back, almost tumbling over a rose bush.

Eddie dropped to one knee. "Joanne Marie Polniaczek, my beautiful little Jo, so damn tough and so damn sweet, these couple years I been floatin around the Mediterranean, missin ya like crazy, seein your face in every wave, like some kinda mermaid, it finally hit me I just can't live without ya. When I called your Ma and she told me you were in Tuscany I knew it was a freakin sign."

Seeing him on one knee, so earnest, holding out the little blue velvet box, Jo felt so sorry for him her heart ached.

"Eddie –" she said softly.

"Nah, lemme say this," he said. "A few years ago we were two stupid kids. We didn't know our asses from our elbows. But now we're older and wiser. And I realized I was dumb to expect you not to go to college. Course you gotta go to college. You gotta do that, and I gotta serve out my term with the navy. That's how we're gonna be able to get, you know, gainful employment and all that. So our kids'll have parents that can take care of 'em and stuff. So Jo, knowin I respect your brains and want you to finish college and everythin, will you, Joanne Marie Polniaczek, take me Eddie Brennan to be your husband and marry me before I gotta ship out again?"

Jo's breath caught in her throat.

He's so sweet. He's so beautiful. What the hell does Nat say sometimes, about the guys she meets? Man child. Eddie's a big beautiful man child.

"So Jo? How about it?" he asked appealingly.

This was my path, she thought. If I hadn't met Blair; if I didn't love Blair. I woulda been Mrs. Eddie Brennan …

Jo stepped forward. She leaned down and put a gentle hand on Eddie's cheek. He had shaved carefully for the meeting, but she could feel the stubble already emerging along his jaw.

"Eddie, I've fallen in love with someone else," she said.

"Who?" he asked calmly. "Who could you love more than me? Jo – we're meant to be together. Always have been."

"Not this lifetime," Jo said quietly. She smiled – her crooked, sweet, vulnerable smile. Her blue-green eyes welled up – not for herself, but for the man who's heart she was about to break.

He took her hand. "Jo – whoever you're goin with, no way he loves you like I do."

"Love ain't like that," she said. "When you love someone – I mean, really love someone – it ain't about more or less or whatever. It's, you know, infinite. I believe you love me, Eddie. And I'll always love you. But now it's more like … like a brother."

His confidence faltered. Something in her eyes … she looked so certain of her words. And something in her manner, so much more mature and feminine than he ever remembered her being …

"Look, Jo, I ain't exactly been a monk, floatin around from port to port. I met some nice girls, walked out with 'em. I was even married a little bit."

Jo raised her eyebrows. "No shit?"

"No shit. American girl livin in Italy. Nice girl. Pretty. But she wasn't you, Jo. We busted up pretty quick. And that was when I knew it was time for me to grow up and marry the girl I really love."

Jo swallowed. "Eddie, I'm sorry that girl wasn't the one. I'm sorry your marriage cracked up and everythin, but runnin back to me ain't the answer. There's a whole world full of girls out there – girls lots prettier and nicer than me, by the way."

He squeezed her hand. "Jo, you're the one I want. I never loved anyone like I love you."

"But you never met anyone yet," she objected. "Eddie, you grew up in the Bronx, runnin around the same few blocks and now you've sailed into a few ports. Jeez! The whole world's still waitin out there! You don't know who you might meet. Love can kinda … It kinda sneaks up on you sometimes. You don't see it comin." She thought of Blair, and grinned a completely goofy grin.

Eddie released her hand. He didn't stand up but he rocked back on his heels, regarding Jo thoughtfully.

"What happened to you, Jo?"

She shrugged. "I told you – I fell in love. Forever kinda love."

"But that's what we had."

"No." She shook her head. "I loved you Eddie. I always will. But not like I wanna marry you anymore."

"I don't accept that." He shook his head.

"Well, I didn't expect ya to accept it – not right away. You come all this way, and you're real sincere, I can see that. And I know you don't give up easy. But you gotta try, Eddie. And you gotta come to terms with it. Cause that's how it is."

Eddie stood up slowly. He put the little blue velvet box into his back pocket again. "Jo … Who is it? Is it someone I know? Is it," his nose wrinkled in distaste, "that pretty-boy from Bates you were datin the last time I visited you at Eastland?"

Jo laughed. "For cryin out loud – Bob Perkins? We only went out a coupla times. He was too tame for me – not enough sand, ya know? But he was a nice guy."

"A pretty-boy," Eddie said firmly.

"Yeah? Well you ain't exactly Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy," teased Jo. "Jesse used to call you a pretty-boy."

"No kiddin?" he laughed.

"No kiddin. Did you hear she's datin my cousin Pauly now? They're both goin to BCC. She's studyin history, he's studyin engineerin. It's kind of a trip, hearin Jess talk about stuff like the Norman Conquest. But in a really cool way."

Eddie lightly grasped her shoulders. "Jo, all due respect, I could care less if Jesse's datin Pauly or Jack the Ripper. I wanna know what's happenin with you."

She looked into his open face. Eddie wasn't as handsome as Alec – Alec was in his own stratosphere – but with his large blue eyes and nicely carved features and chestnut brown hair, Eddie always resembled Robbie Benson to Jo.

"I'm … in love," Jo told Eddie, looking away. "Like I said."

"But not with me?"

"Not with you." She said.

"What's he like?"

Jo felt herself flush. "Blonde," she said. "Well … kinda blonde."

"Blue eyes?"

"No. Brown. Warm. Real warm eyes. Like doe's eyes."

"Huhn. Sounds kinda girly," said Eddie.

You have no idea! thought Jo.

"What else?" asked Eddie. "Your new love good lookin?"

"Amazin," said Jo. "Perfect. A freakin vision."

"And rich, I suppose," Eddie said bitterly.

"Hey!" Jo shook Eddie's hands off her shoulders. "You know that ain't how I am!"

"I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "I shouldn't have said that."

"You know I ain't shallow. As matter of fact, my new, uh, love, used to be freakin rollin in money, millions of freakin dollars – gave it up for me. All of it! Whaddya think of them apples?"

Eddie bit his lip. "I think that's pretty damn noble," he admitted. "Which means I think I hate him."

"Eddie … look … the part I wanna tell you … The part that's so hard to, you know, explain …"

Now it was Eddie's turn to take a step back. "Christ, Jo! Don't tell me … you already married the guy?"

"No. Not yet," said Jo. "But we're engaged."

"He proposed to you already?"

"I proposed. We been engaged since October. Gettin toward a year. There's … some complications, but once we can do it, we're gettin married."

Eddie took a deep breath. His eyes, Jo could see, were welling up. Even on the edge of tears, he's so damn manly!

"Wow. Shit. You're really serious." He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. "And you're different again. You were always a little different, every time I visited you at Eastland. And now I ain't seen you for a coupla years … I mean, you're still my Jo … But you ain't."

Jo punched his arm lightly. "Hey. Come on. I'm always gonna be your Jo. I'm always gonna kinda be that girl, part of me. Right?"

"Jesus, Jo, don't humor me, like I'm a kid or somethin."

"I ain't. It's the truth. Part of me, a piece of my heart, you know that's always gonna be yours."

He took her hands, looked at them. "So you're engaged," he said, "where's the ring?"

She gently pulled her hands from his. She reached into her collar, drew out the little silver cross Blair had bought her for Christmas.

"This is … it signifies our commitment," she said. "I'm the one gave the ring."

"You gave a ring? For cryin out loud! This whole thing sounds ass-backwards. You gave the ring? What a chump he must be!"

"Hey. Watch it now."

"I'm sorry, but I was fuckin broke and I found a way to get you a ring. Yeah, it was a dinky little ring and I was only payin five bucks a month, but it was a honest-to-God engagement ring! Jo, maybe this guy ain't as serious about you as you are about him."

"Nah. It's plenty serious, on both sides," Jo said firmly. "And speakin of the ring you got me …"

She dug into her jeans pocket, pulled out a pretty little ring on a chain – a ring with the most minute of diamond chips. The ring Eddie had given her before they decided to elope. The ring he had refused to take back even when she started dating Bob Perkins, even when she and Eddie decided to see other people …

"Here," she said. "I want you to have this back. It meant so damn much to me. But now it's time for both of us to move on. You can give it to the next girl you fall for."

"The next girl," he said bitterly. "You make it sound like I'm fallin for girls every day."

"That ain't what I meant. I mean, when you fall for a girl again, really fall for her, and you wanna make her yours forever, you'll have this to give to her. Hell, Eddie – you made payments for years. And I don't care what you say, five bucks a month is pretty big coin."

She held out the ring and chain. He gazed at them. He bit his lip.

"No," he said. "I ain't gonna take 'em. You're gonna hang onto 'em."

"But –"

"No! Maybe your Prince Charmin won't turn out to be such a prince. And then you come back to me. Don't matter when or where or why. Just find me and come back to me."

"Eddie … It ain't healthy to hang onto the past like that. We gotta look to the future."

"I thought I was," he said softly. "That's why I came here. My future's with you."

"It's not. Honest to God. Your future is with some girl out there," Jo gestured broadly. "You know how many girls would jump at the chance to be Mrs. Eddie Brennan?"

"I don't care."

"Eh, now you're just bein a baby. Come on. Buck up, Eddie."

"But I wanna know." He looked intently at her. "Who is it? There was this pretty-boy I passed in the hall, Little Lord Fauntleroy. He gave me a weird look. That the guy?"

Jo laughed. "Was he wearin crummy old pants?"

"Yeah."

"That's Alec. He's like … he's like our brother."

"Whose brother?"

"Me and Blair and Nat and Tootie. And Petal and Portia and Jack and Boots. We all live in this big house, see, near Eastland and Langley, bout halfway between. Mrs. Garrett owns it. She's a big TV star now, you know. She's got this cookin show in the morning. So she's got this big old house on the Hudson, and we all knock about in it and we get on pretty OK."

Eddie took another step back. Jo's face was radiant as she spoke about her second mother, her friends, the big house they shared.

Her life's gone on. It's really gone on, without me …

"So … this Jack character? He the guy you're engaged to?" Eddie asked bitterly. "And you're shacked up together at some house?"

"Jack is Jacqueline," explained Jo. "She's datin Alec – Little Lord Fauntleroy."

"But who are you datin, Jo? Who's stolen your heart from me?"

Jo blushed. "Eddie … It's kinda …"

"You never had any problem talkin to me before," he said. "Good or bad, you always just spit it out. That's the old neighborhood way, Jo. They got you actin all fancy and cagey now."

"Who's cagey? I ain't cagey!" she flared. "Some things are just kinda delicate is all. Kinda hard to, you know, spit out."

"It's me, Jo. You can tell me friggin anythin."

Can I? wondered Jo. Can I tell you this?

She had changed, but he still recognized most of her facial expressions. He saw the thoughts flicker over her face.

"You can tell me," he insisted. "Whatever it is, I can take it."

Jo took a deep breath. She started to speak, then closed her mouth. She took another deep breath.

"What is it?" asked Eddie. "He, like, an old guy or somethin? He some old geezer?"

Jo laughed. For Pete's sake! Some old geezer! Eddie still cracker her up sometimes. He was so earnest and in some ways so simple. It was part of what she loved about him, but now she could see how over time that would've spelled the death of their marriage if they had eloped.

"No," she said, "it ain't an old guy." She squared her shoulders. "It ain't … Eddie, it ain't a guy at all."

Eddie blinked at her. "What does that mean?" he asked.

"I ain't datin a guy, Eddie."

He squinted thoughtfully, trying to puzzle it out. "OK," he said. "Is this like one of those Sphinx riddles? What has four legs in the morning and three legs at night – that kinda thing?"

"It ain't a riddle, Eddie. I'm trying ta tell ya … I ain't datin a guy."

"He ain't a guy and he ain't a geezer," said Eddie. "So he's a boy. Jesus, that it? You're datin a high school boy, robbin the cradle?"

Jo wanted to clap her hand to her forehead like a character in a melodrama. Yes … Eddie was terribly earnest and terribly simple.

I'm just gonna hafta come right out and say it, she thought.

She squared her shoulders again. "Eddie … I'm in love with a girl."

He raised his eyebrows. "'Scuse me?"

"You heard me," she said. She felt the color crawling up her cheeks.

Eddie smiled. "You're … you're datin a girl?"

"I ain't datin a girl," she corrected, "I'm in love with a girl. I'm engaged to a girl."

His smile widened. "That's … that's so sweet," he said kindly.

"No it's not," she objected. "It's not sweet at all!"

"Of course it is." He took a step closer to her. "Jo, listen, I'm not exactly a man of the world, or whatever, but I been around a little since I been in the navy. I know sometimes girls kinda get crushes on each other or whatever. It's, you know, kinda sexy. And real sweet. But Jo," he reached for her hand, "that don't mean we won't get married once you're outta college, once I'm done with my tour."

Jo put her hands behind her back.

"Eddie, you ain't gettin the picture here."

"There's nothin to be embarrassed about, Jo. I understand."

"You really don't."

"Of course I do. And I don't mind at all. You don't hafta break it off with me cause of a little crush."

"There's nothing to break off," Jo flared. "We haven't been dating for years! And I'm engaged to this woman. I'm in love, one-million percent. It's like I'm finally awake, I'm finally alive. I never felt this way before, not ever. It's … she's my life."

Eddie's smile faltered. There was having a crush and there was going overboard. "Jo," he said, "I don't mind if you have a little romantic friendship or whatever, but you're soundin kinda hysterical."

"Hysterical?" Jo demanded, her voice cracking a little. Wow. I really kinda do. She took a deep breath. "I'm in love and I'm engaged," she said seriously. "I don't expect you to accept it all at once. And maybe you'll never understand it. But don't go puttin it down, making it sound like it's some dumb little crush."

Eddie rubbed his forehead. He was getting a headache, suddenly, a piercing pain right behind his left eye. He licked his lips. "Jo … I'm tryin real hard to keep a grip on things. Is this … Am I havin a crazy dream or somethin? Maybe I fell asleep on the train to Florence …"

"It ain't a dream," said Jo. "You're standin with me right here, in the Duchess' rose garden, and I'm tellin ya that I'm in love with Blair."

Eddie went very still. A vein in his temple pulsed.

Jo stepped back instinctively.

"Blair?" he asked quietly.

"Blair," said Jo.

"Blair, the girl who busted up our elopin?"

"She didn't exactly bust it up. Elopin was a mistake. I figured it out myself."

"Blair, the girl who convinced you to date Bob, and other guys, and give me the heave-ho?"

"That ain't how it happened. Not precisely," said Jo.

"You're engaged to Blair?"

"Yeah. Yes."

"And she …" Eddie felt a little faint. Must be the sun. He shaded his bright blue eyes with one hand. "Blair gave up all her money to be with you? Rich, spoiled, interferin Blair?"

"Yeah. All her money except her allowance. And now her parents are wiped out, and it looks like Blair's inheritance was wiped out too. Her friend Eduardo's tryin to piece it together, how much she lost. He's this really brilliant lawyer and MBA and –"

"Who gives a rat's ass?" Eddie asked quietly. "I don't need to see her fuckin financial report. I'm just askin, basically, she gave a lot of dough up to be with you?"

"Yeah. And she told her parents to go to hell. And she pretty much dropped outta society. She gave up," Jo swallowed hard. It still moved her how much Blair had given up to be with her. "She gave up everythin for me. She's loved me a long time. And I just finally got a clue last September. But I can't hardly remember a time before I loved her. It's like I tried to explain to my Ma. Blair and me, we just fit. It's like God cut us out with a jigsaw, and we're these pieces that belong together."

Eddie dropped to his haunches, not to propose, but to try to stop his head from spinning. He actually felt faint. Little purple and green dots swam in front of his eyes, and he felt light-headed.

"Jesus, Eddie, you OK?"

"I'll be fine. Just … gimme a few secs."

"Take a deep breath," said Jo. "Take a couple."

"I know how to breathe, Jo."

"Should I get Mrs. Garrett?"

"What for?"

"She's a nurse."

"I don't need a nurse. I need … just give me a sec."

In a moment Eddie's vision started to clear. He felt a little stronger.

I'm so stupid, he thought. He'd never spent that much time around Blair when he visited Jo at Eastland, but he'd spent enough to be able to picture her clearly, the mane of perfect blonde hair, the tip-tilted nose, the doe's eyes.

She had looked almost the same when he met her again this morning – a little older, even more polished, oddly thinner, as if she'd been ill.

When Jo was at Eastland she was always complaining about Blair, and the two were always at each other's throats. Half Jo's letters to Eddie always chronicled the latest annoying thing that Blair was doing. Or saying. All that bickering, all that … passion. All that chemistry …

"You love Blair," said Eddie.

"Yeah."

"And Blair loves you."

"Yeah."

"And you're engaged? Even though girls can't get married to girls, 'cept maybe on Mars or somethin."

"Yeah. And yeah."

He stood up slowly.

"Who else knows?" he asked. "You said you told your Ma?"

"Yeah. She took it real well, after freezin us out for a few months."

"So she knows you're with Blair, but when I call her and say I'm gonna propose to you, she lets me come up here like a big nerd anyway?"

"She wanted me to be the one to tell ya, Eddie."

"Plus she's never liked me."

"Eh, well … Could be part of it," Jo admitted.

"Your Pop knows about you and Blair?"

"Uh-huh."

"And all your friends, and Mrs. Garrett? Everybody?"

"They all know."

"And they're OK with it?"

"Mostly. It's not, I mean, we're not stupid. Blair and me know this ain't a typical thing. Some of the people we love are more OK with it than others. Some of 'em get it and some of 'em just kinda, I mean, they don't like it but they love us, so they're in our corner."

He shook his head. "When they hell were you gonna tell me?" he asked, sounding hurt.

"When I heard from you again. Come on, Eddie. Be fair. You're the one stopped writin to me – remember? You didn't even write me you got married. I didn't even know where the hell your ship was docked."

"Jo. Be honest. If I kept writin to you, if we were still pen pals – you woulda written me about Blair?"

Jo considered the question. "I guess not. No. I guess I wouldn't put that in a letter. I'd do what I'm doin now. I'd tell you whenever I saw you face-to-face."

He shifted from foot to foot. "Guess it's not exactly a letter thing," he agreed reluctantly. "That's kinda, I guess, why I didn't write you I got married. Some things you gotta say in person."

"Exactly."

He blew out a ragged breath. He rubbed his face. "You. And Blair."

"You're takin this better than I expected," said Jo.

"How'd you expect me to take it?"

"Not this well."

"Well, I'm a real understandin guy, in case you never noticed."

"I noticed, Eddie. I noticed."

He cupped her face with one hand. "You're really happy, Jo?"

"I've never been happier."

"But you guys must fight, like, all the time. There must be freakin dishes and pots and pans and candlesticks freakin flyin through the air every second."

"Eh, we don't fight so much these days. She's kinda, she's civilizin me a little bit. And I'm helpin her find her sand. She ain't so sensitive these days. She ain't such a princess. And we been through some crazy shit. We just feel lucky to have each other."

"Well I don't get it," he said, "not her loving you – that I get. But I don't get you lovin her. But if it makes you happy –"

"It does."

"– then I guess there ain't anythin for me to say but I wish you the best. Both of you."

"Even though part of you wants to clock her."

"Even though part of me wants to clock her," Eddie admitted.

He turned away, started strolling down the row again. Jo fell into step beside him.

"Same old Jo," he said fondly and a little sadly. "So, OK, now you're a college girl, you're more freakin beautiful than ever, you're stayin in some fancy palace, but you're still a nice girl from the Bronx. You coulda just told me to buzz off. You coulda told me to take a jump in the river."

"Nah, I couldn't."

"That's what I mean," he said. "Cause you're Jo. You're just a nice girl from the Bronx, whether you're in a palace or a freakin shack. And I guess your friends are OK too, and Blair, trustin me alone with you in the garden."

"Oh, we're not alone," Jo said.

"'Scuse me?"

"There's no way everybody ain't spyin on us right this second."

Eddie looked around hastily. He saw neatly tended rows of roses, statues, plashing fountains, ivy-covered garden walls, arched windows leading into shadowy courtyards.

"I don't see anyone," he said.

"Course you don't. The Snoop Sisters are good. Very good. They're supposed to be at the Uffizi Gallery right now, gatherin information for a school project, but the odds are they're lurkin somewhere around here and they heard every freakin word we said."

"Not every word," objected Tootie. Her voiced floated to them from the vicinity of a statue of one of the muses.

"Tootie!" complained Natalie. Her voice wafted from a nearby fountain.

"Oops," said Tootie. "Sorry, Nat."

Eddie laughed. "Christ! Talk about no privacy!"

"River Rock is like this big, nosy sorority," said Jo. "That's the house we live in, see – River Rock. Everybody's always stickin their nose in your business, especially Nat and Tootie."

"Hey!" objected Nat's voice.

"You ain't exactly provin your point," called Jo.

"Oh. True."

"So everybody's all in everybody's business back in Peekskill, and everybody's still in everybody's business out here. Who knew bein snoopy was a transcontinental activity?" Jo chuckled.

"I'm not being snoopy," called Mrs. Garrett. Her fluting voice came from somewhere in the vicinity of the trellis. "This just happens to be the perfect spot to work on my tan. I can't be peaked for my own wedding – can I?"

"Oh, yeah – Mrs. G's gettin married," Jo told Eddie. "Gonna be somethin real simple. Nice guy. Drake Dante. He produces her cookin show. Blair's gonna be her head bridesmaid."

"Maid of honor," Blair's voice corrected. "It isn't 'head bridesmaid' darling – it's 'maid of honor'."

Jo and Eddie looked around. Blair's voice seemed to be floating from a dark archway near the garden wall.

"Where are you, babe?" called Jo.

Blair stepped out into the light. She wore a pleated lavender peasant skirt and a loose white blouse. Her arms and face and bosom were bronzed from outings in the Italian summer sun, and she was finally, finally, starting to fill out again.

Jo smiled at her fiancée, face radiant. Eddie sighed.

She's got it bad, he thought. Damn. No way to compete with that kinda feelin …

"I don't want you to think I was eavesdropping," Blair began.

"Of course not," Jo said solemnly, eyes twinkling.

"Because eavesdropping is very ill-bred, and I never do it."

"Of course not," Jo repeated.

"But it so happens that I was sitting here, taking in the sun."

"In the shadows, there?" asked Jo.

"It's not, ah, quite as shadowy as it looks," Blair said with dignity. "But I couldn't help overhearing your conversation and I have to say I'm touched. I'm truly touched."

She went to Eddie and hugged him tightly. Eddie found his arms suddenly full of Blair Warner – soft, fragrant, warm Blair Warner.

Eddie sighed. I just can't be mad at this girl. She's like … a damn goddess …

He hugged her back.

When Blair stepped out of his embrace she went to Jo and hugged her, kissing her fiancée almost chastely on the cheek.

No need, Blair thought, to be too lovey-dovey in front of Eddie. That would be unkind. As long as Eddie knew Jo belonged to her now … And that Blair would happily dismember anyone who tried to take Jo away from her …

Eddie looked from Jo to Blair and then back to Jo. They were so beautiful, and they radiated such joy.

"You two, you're like, I don't know," he said. "You're like somethin out of a poem. Or a myth."

"Alec calls them Artemis and Aphrodite," Jacqueline called helpfully. Her crisp, staccato British tones emanated from the vicinity of a tall rose bush.

"I thought you had to go to work," called Jo.

"We do." It was Petal's voice, from the next rose bush over. "But we had a little time to kill."

"Who's Art Muss and Afro Dee?" asked Eddie.

"Artemis and Aphrodite," Jacqueline's voice corrected. "The goddess of the hunt and the goddess of love. I leave it to you to puzzle out which is which."

"Eh, go to work, Jack," laughed Jo.

There was a hushed whispering and a rustle among the roses.

"Jeez, I wonder if the Duchess is around here too," Jo said, looking around.

"I am pruning," the Duchess said with dignity. It sounded like she was behind the box hedge near the trellis. "I always take my morning constitutional here and I noticed that the hedge needs pruning."

"Of course it does, your grace," Jo called cheerfully. "And you just happened to have your prunin shears with you."

"I never leave the palace without them," said the Duchess.

"Course you don't." Jo looked around. "All we need is Boots and Portia poppin outta the fountain," she said.

"Wrongo," Boots called cheerfully.

Jo, Blair and Eddie looked up, startled. Boots was sitting among the branches of a fruit tree, sipping a flute of sparkling champagne.

"This is better than a performance at the Met," Boots said delightedly. "I give it four stars!"

"You don't watch out, you're gonna fall outta that tree and give yourself four broken bones," said Jo.

"Oh, pish. I've been shinnying up trees since I was a chere enfante!" Boots raised her champagne flute to the trio. "Jo, Blair, handsome old boyfriend of Jo's that I just met – salud! Or as Jo would say 'Here's mud in your eye!'" Boots took a deep drink.

"When do I say that?" demanded Jo. "I never say that."

"Boots," said Blair, really concerned, "be careful. That branch doesn't look very sturdy."

"It doesn't need to be," Boots said airily, "with my sylph-like figure. Now if you were up here –"

But Boots' crack about Blair's figure was not to be heard. At that moment the branch snapped; Boots plunged out of the tree; and Jo caught her, champagne flute and all.

Boots' laid her head against Jo's shoulder. The preppy's heart was racing.

"My hero," she murmured.

"Aw, for cryin out loud," groaned Jo. She felt a fiery pain down her shoulder and back. I musta freakin pulled a muscle … or two … or five …

Eddie stared at the strange, bony little creature that had just fallen out of the tree and into Jo's arms and was now nestling into Jo like a lover. He looked over at Blair, who was grimacing.

"Boots, dear," Blair said with acidic sweetness, "since nothing appears to be broken, why don't you get the hell out of my fiancée's arms?"

"I think I might be hurt," Boots murmured into Jo's collarbone. "I heard something pop."

"That … was … my back," Jo said through gritted teeth. She lowered Boots to the ground as gently as she could, but Boots was clinging to her and the pain in Jo's back and shoulder was flaring hotter and more painful by the second.

"Ooph!" said Boots as she was half lowered, half dropped onto the soft earth.

"Darling!" cried Blair, putting her hands on Jo's back. "Are you hurt?"

"Yeah. Little bit," said Jo, jaw clenched against the pain.

"We need to get you into a warm bath," Boots said solicitously, standing up and brushing the earth off the already wrinkled argyle-and-plaid ensemble that she'd been wearing since yesterday.

"I'll get her into a warm bath," Blair said pointedly. "Why don't you take a cold bath, Boots? Or any bath at all?" Blair wrinkled her nose.

"Well! The colossal nerve," said Boots, lifting her chin.

Eddie shook his head. In the space of a few minutes, he had lost Jo to one woman, and now she and another woman were fighting over Jo right in front of him.

I'm either in heaven, he thought, or hell.

Mrs. Garrett bustled into view, taking charge of the situation as Eddie had often seen her take charge at Eastland.

"Boots, go wash up. I told you to do that an hour ago. Blair, get Jo into a hot bath."

"My pleasure," said Blair, darting a triumphant little smirk at Boots. "Come on, darling." She put one arm around Jo's shoulder, the other around Jo's waist. "We'll go right up to our rooms."

Mrs. Garrett slipped a plump arm through one of Eddie's arms. "Eddie, follow me to the kitchen. I seem to remember you like my cooking. Let's see what we can find to feed you."

"Thanks, Mrs. G."

"Well, you're still a growing boy, aren't you?" And he is a boy, she thought. He was barely twenty, like Jo, but, in some ways, so much younger than the girl he loved.

As Eddie followed Mrs. Garrett into one door, he glanced back over his shoulder at the doorway through which Blair led Jo.

They were so beautiful together, the slender figure and the lush figure, the dark hair against the golden tresses, both young women bronzed and rosy and full of life.

Jo and Blair – never saw that comin! But it makes a weird kinda sense …

He accompanied Mrs. Garrett into the kitchen wing.


"Does that hurt?" Blair asked.

"Nah. I mean, a little bit. But I don't think anythin's broken."

Jo was sitting in a tub of steaming water, arms wrapped around her knees, while Blair massaged her damp back.

"We need to find Boots a girlfriend. A real girlfriend," said Blair.

"Well I wasn't thinkin we should find her a robot girlfriend," said Jo. "Or an imaginary girlfriend. What Boots really needs," said Jo, "is to get laid."

"That's what I meant, darling, by 'real girlfriend'. Someone who will bed Boots, not just give her a few pecks on the cheek like that frosty Annika."

"Wow, that felt good," said Jo. "Back a little. Yeah, wow, that's great."

Blair pressed Jo's back muscles, digging in hard. "You're sure that's not too much pressure, darling?"

"Nope. You're really gettin it unknotted, babe." Jo leaned forward, hugging her knees tighter. "Does Florence have any gay bars?" she asked. "Like our place in Greenwich Village?"

"Don't call it 'our place'," objected Blair. "We've only been there a few times and Skye always ogles you."

"She doesn't ogle me. She makes eye contact. She's a waitress. They do that, you know – make eye contact with the patrons."

"It's not her eye contact I'm worried about," Blair said darkly.

"Ow!"

"Sorry. My hand slipped."

"You're a dangerous woman, Blair Warner."

And don't you forget it, darling!

"But like I was sayin," Jo continued, "there's gotta be some bar in Florence where chicks who like chicks get together."

"The Duchess would know."

"Maybe. Like we said before, it ain't like she's been paintin the town red lately. The old lesbian bars are prob'ly coffee houses now. And she wouldn't know the new ones."

"So … you're saying … what?" asked Blair.

"I think we need to do a little scoutin," said Jo. "See if we can find a Sapphic bar in ye olde Florence."

Blair pursed her lips. "And how do you propose we do that? We can't go around asking people where the gay bars are. Florence is a relatively conservative city."

"We just go have a night on the town, babe. We hop from bar to bar, till we find a bar full of dames."

"Two young beauties, out on our own? With you wounded? Sounds a little dicey to me, darling."

"Eddie can go with us. And Boots."

"You're not exactly sweetening the pot, Jo. We're going to ramble around Florence, at night, searching for a lesbian bar, with your ex-fiancée and current stalker?"

"Once we find a gay bar, we wait till Boots makes a love connection and we leave her there, happy as a clam. And then you and me and Eddie head over to Il Caffé Jazz Americano and catch Alec and Tootie's last set. That gives me a chance to get to talk with Eddie, and you and Eddie a chance to get to know each other better, and we get Boots laid. Win, win, win."

"Hmm." It sounded like a logical plan, and Blair knew it would be churlish and jealous of her to reject it. But going out on the town with Eddie and Boots giving Jo puppy dog eyes every two seconds? "I don't know," Blair said, stalling until she could come up with some brilliant, unanswerable objection.

"Ow! Babe, careful there."

"Sorry."

"You get very rough, sometimes. You know that?"

"In point of fact, I do know that," said Blair. She leaned forward and bit Jo's shoulder, the soft part, where it joined her neck. She bit her lover roughly. Jo moaned.

"That … is … gonna leave … a mark," Jo said dazedly when Blair returned to massaging her back.

"Yes," said Blair, "it is. I want to be sure anyone that makes a move on you knows you're taken."

"Are you ever gonna get over this jealousy thing, babe?"

"Jealousy thing?" Blair's eyes flashed. Jo couldn't see them flash, since Blair was behind her, but Jo could feel those flashing eyes boring into her naked back.

Oops, thought Jo. Put my foot in that one!

"Jealousy thing?" Blair repeated. "With Boots drooling all over you, and literally falling into your arms, and your ex-fiancée popping up out of the blue? I think I'm being very understanding. I'm being more than a good sport."

"True, true," Jo said hastily. "Babe, you're a freakin saint. In fact, you're usually the do-gooder, right? You're always goin above and beyond forgivin people and tryin to help 'em and stuff. And usually I'm just along for the ride. But this time I'm the one settin the do-goodin in motion. And I just want ya to support me, babe. Let's find someone for Boots. And let's help Eddie feel OK about us. Yeah? Will ya do that for me, babe?"

Blair sighed. First an impeccable logical appeal, and now an impeccable emotional one.

"I suppose," Blair said grudgingly. "There can't be that many bars in Florence. And one or two of them must be gay bars."

"That's what I'm thinkin," agreed Jo. "So it shouldn't take us all night or anythin."

"But if Eddie or Boots puts a hand on you –"

"They lose the hand. Yeah. I get it, Blair. I've met you, babe."

"It isn't funny, Joanne Marie Polniaczek."

"It is a little bit funny, Blair Warner-Polniaczek." Jo smiled. "Blair … What the hell is your middle name?"

"Unimportant," Blair said firmly.

Jo turned around in the tub, splashing water over the side. Her eyes danced as she smiled at her lover.

"Really, Blair. What is it?"

"Never mind what it is. That's my business."

"Come on. After all we've been through? Close as we are? You ain't gonna tell me your middle name?"

"Maybe on our anniversary. Our tenth anniversary. Or our twentieth. Or never."

"It can't be that bad."

"Who said it was bad at all?"

"So why won't you tell me then? Is it somethin goofy like Petunia? Or Daffodil? Or Buttercup?"

Blair giggled. She chucked Jo under the chin. "Has anyone ever told you how cute you are?"

"Oh no. You ain't getting around me that way," said Jo. "I know exactly how cute I am. But what I wanna know is your middle name. Is it Monica? Did your Ma give you her name for a middle name?"

"Mother would never dilute her name by giving it to me – even as a middle name," Blair said, grimacing. "There can be only one Monica Warner, fabulous society matron. Or there was until BZ Becker gutted the family fortunes and corporations."

"Hey." Jo pressed her hand. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinkin. Didn't mean to rake up all that crud."

Blair squeezed her hand. "It's all right, darling. I'm not made of glass. Not since you started 'toughenin me up' anyway!"

"It's Buttercup – isn't it?" asked Jo. "Blair Buttercup Warner."

Blair rolled her eyes.

"Or Rumplestiltskin," teased Jo. "Blair Rumplestiltskin Warner. Kinda got a ring to it. 'Specially once we get married and add the 'Polniaczek'."

"You're being very mischievous," said Blair.

"I know. So what're ya gonna do about it?" Jo waggled her eyebrows.

"How is your back feeling?"

"Better. Lots better."

"Then I might have a few ideas …"


As midnight approached, Jo decided that there were no gay bars or clubs in Florence – not a single one.

On the whole the evening had been enjoyable. Eddie was on his most chivalrous behavior, treating Jo and Blair and Boots in a courtly manner. The navy, Jo decided, had definitely given the Bronx boy some discipline and polish.

They had darted in and out of a dozen bars, clubs and pubs, enjoying a treasure trove of old world charm. The quaint architecture, the glass lamps, the frescoes and vivid prints on the walls! And the drinks – the delicious little liqueurs that sort of snuck up on you, and the rich foreign beers and the cheap, delicious wines!

And the music – the freakin music, thought Jo. Classical and blues and jazz – every little bar, even the holes-in-the-walls, seemed to have someone playing great music.

By the time they stumbled down a picturesque little side street near Santa Croce, Boots was hanging on Eddie's arm and laughing like a lunatic and Jo and Blair, while they couldn't hold hands, were walking close enough together to brush hips.

"I think I'm a little high," said Boots.

"As a kite," laughed Eddie, steadying her arm before she fell over the curb.

"Shh. Dignity," said Blair, "dignity." She stifled a soft belch that set Jo to laughing …

They almost missed it. The door was painted dead black and it looked like an ordinary street door. But there was a vibration emanating from within, trembling the wood panels of the door. Music.

Blair squinted at a little brass plaque next to the door.

"Ombra Discoteca," she read. "That's Italian for –"

"Shadow Disco," said Jo. "Yeah. That sounds promisin."

Boots squeezed Eddie's arm excitedly, her nails digging through his jacket and shirt sleeves like talons.

"Ouch," he said.

"Sorry, Eddie, but this just so exciting, n'est-ce pas? A hidden disco! And what wonders await us inside?"

"Probably a ridiculous cover charge and some really bad old disco music," said Jo.

"Killjoy!" Boots stuck her tongue out at Jo.

Childish, thought Blair, but at least she's not flirting with Jo tonight. Or is that flirting in Boots' world – sticking her tongue out? Hmm …

Blair decided to continue keeping a close eye on the preppy …

The black door was locked. Eddie and Jo rapped smartly on it a few times. There was a creaking sound inside, as if someone had moved a metal grate and was peering at them through some hidden peephole.

"Ooh, this is so creepy," Boots whispered happily.

"Makes me think of a haunted house," Eddie agreed. "Memba that creepy old tenement on Arthur?" he asked Jo.

"I remember you almost peed your pants and couldn't get outta there fast enough!"

"Hey, I still went in. We still went in. None of the other kids could say that."

Jo laughed. "Damn straight!" They high-fived each other. We barely knew each other then but we were already the bravest kids around – most reckless anyhow! And when we got properly introduced at that party, years later …

Hmm, thought Blair, reminiscing about sneaking into creepy old abandoned tenements. High-fiving. Is it flirting? Or not? Anything, Blair knew, was possible when it came to the Bronx. Despite many happy hours at the Fever night club (until the damn knifing!) and at Madonia Brothers Bakery, the customs and mores of the Bronx remained largely mysterious to her. She decided to keep a close eye on Eddie too.

After a moment Eddie rapped again, louder. The door was suddenly flung open, almost sending the four of them toppling into the winding street.

"What the hell?" laughed Jo, grabbing Blair. Eddie steadied Boots.

"Can I help you?" asked a slender man dressed all in black. He had an Italian accent but his English was perfect. His eyes were smoky, as if he had smeared them with kohl. There was a streak of pink on the left side of his short-cropped hair and a streak of neon-green on the right. From behind him came the thrum and pulse of textured, gritty rock music.

"We want to dance," said Boots, always handy with a literal, succinct statement.

The doorman regarded her curiously, took in her thigh-grazing plaid skirt, her red Milanese boots, pink-and-green preppy sweater, blood-red lipstick and black beret.

"What are you?" he asked curiously.

"I'm a St. Clair," she said.

"And that is?"

"A St. Clair. I don't know how to be clearer."

His eyes swept her again. "Interessante," he said. "Punk con vampire con Catholic schoolgirl." His keen glance darted to Jo and Blair, who, rather drunk, were still clutching each other after almost tumbling into the street when the door swung open. The man smiled approvingly.

But when he looked back to Boots to Eddie he frowned, confused.

"Are you … with the signore?" the man asked Boots.

"Gravy, no!" she said. "Although he is very gallant, and I can see where you would make that assumption. He," she squeezed Eddie's arm, "was with her," she nodded toward Jo, "but now she's with her," she rolled her eyes at Blair. "Although I don't know why. She should really be with me. But since she isn't, they're trying to get me laid. Are there a lot of very sexy women inside?"

"Er – si," he said, somewhat taken aback as he tried to follow her rapid-fire, slightly drunk, patrician English. "Una partita di donne."

"That's affirmative," Jo told Boots, translating. "Tons of sexy chicks inside. Now put a sock in it, will ya, Boots?"

The porter gave them all a final doubtful once over, but Boots' ensemble and her incomprehensible explanation of their various relationships seemed to convince him that the two couples were avant-garde enough for Ombra Discoteca.

He pushed the door open wider and stepped aside.

"Per favore," he said, "welcome to Ombra Discoteca!"

After navigating a seemingly endless hallway – walls and ceiling and floor painted black – they emerged in a massive chamber.

A rock band occupied a tiny stage at one end of the room. They wore black jeans and black T-shirts with skulls and crossbones on them. The musicians were between sets now, checking equipment, noodling on their instruments, flirting with groupies at the base of the stage.

The walls and ceiling and floor were black in here too, painted with geometric designs in neon colors that glowed under UV lights.

"Cool," said Eddie, nodding. "Like Disneyland."

Jo shot him a funny look.

"Went with some pals when we were docked in San Diego," he explained. "This like the Alice in Wonderland ride. Special paint and black light – you know?"

Jo mulled that over. She pictured Eddie and some muscle-bound chums in their sailor suits riding a little cart through an Alice and Wonderland ride. Paradoxically, Eddie being comfortable talking about going on the Alice ride made Jo realize how much he was growing up. Back in the old neighborhood Eddie would've died before revealing something like that.

"There's the bar," said Blair, nudging her perfect, kittenish little chin toward it.

The bar was at the opposite end of the room from the stage. In between was a seething mass of people, mostly clad in black, men chatting with men and women chatting with women while they waited for the band to start the next set. The crowd was international and multi-ethnic but mostly young and they all seemed to have that indefinable air of hipness and confidence that meant they had money.

"So this is a gay bar," Eddie said, looking around. "This is where your people come to dance."

"And drink," added Boots. "And get laid."

"Whaddya mean, 'our people'?" groused Jo, turning to Eddie. "We're all people – right?"

"Don't get all bent outta shape," Eddie said. "Look, Jo, you threw me a really big curveball today, but I'm rallyin. OK? Gimme a break."

She nodded. "Sure. You're right. I'm sorry I jumped down your throat."

His eyes widened.

"Come again?"

"I said you're right."

"It's that simple?" He glanced at Blair. "So … Blair really is civilizin ya!"

"Yeah. She sure is."

The couples in the room had their arms around each other. It was so rare to be able to touch Blair openly that Jo slid an arm around her lover's waist, pulled the blonde close. Jo didn't want to freak out Eddie, but she wasn't going to miss an opportunity to be openly affectionate with Blair.

"Can I get you a drink, babe?" asked Jo.

Blair nodded. "Champagne."

"You sure? Champagne makes you a little, uh, bubbly."

"I know. I already feel bubbly. And I want to feel even more bubbly. Did you notice," Blair asked, "the subtle way I immediately drew your attention to the bar?"

"Yeah. Kinda caught that," said Jo.

Blair kissed Jo. "That," Blair murmured, "is what makes you such an amazing girlfriend. You notice everything. You anticipate my every need."

"You ain't a slouch in the anticipatin department yourself, babe," whispered Jo.

Eddie cleared his throat. He felt himself flushing. It both erotic and disturbing to see his ex-fiancée and her former rival nuzzling each other in front of a couple hundred people.

"They go on like this all the time," Boots told Eddie sympathetically. "It's extremely gauche. Not Jo's fault; but Blair should know better. Unfortunately Warnsie's always had a common streak. No offense."

"Why would I be offended?" asked Eddie.

"Because she's calling you common," explained Blair.

"Boots, stop callin people common," Jo told the preppy.

"It's not meant as an insult. It's simply –"

"Just freakin stop doin it," Jo said firmly. "Whaddya wanna drink?"

"Vodka orange," said Boots.

"Eddie?" asked Jo.

"Just, you know, beer. Somethin with a little bite if they got it."

"Sure thing." Jo punched him lightly in the shoulder.

Christ, thought Eddie. I came here to ask her to marry me. Now she's punchin me in the arm like one of my buddies. This is freakin nuts!

"She's not usually this butch," Boots told Eddie.

"Scuse me?"

"Butch. Jo. She's not usually so … masculine. I think she's trying to help you keep your distance."

"Boots – shut the hell up," Blair said sweetly.

Boots scowled. "Why don't you make me, Warner?"

"Why don't you ask me that after I've had another glass of champagne?"

"Oh, what is that – your stupid secret weapon – champagne? Look out, everybody – Blair just drank champagne!"

"Keep flapping those gums, and you'll find out what my secret weapon is," said Blair.

"See?" Boots asked Eddie. "'Flapping those gums.' I mean, really. Common. Absolutely common."

Eddie had been in the navy for several years now and between his shore leave adventures and his youth in the Bronx he had an unerring instinct for when a punch was about to be thrown.

He stepped between Blair and Boots just as Blair flung out an arm; Eddie easily blocked the blow.

"Warnsie!" exclaimed Boots. "Well. I'll be. I didn't really think you had it in you."

"How bout you don't hit Boots," Eddie told Blair mildly. "Since she looks like a good strong cough might blow her away."

"You don't know," Blair told him, "you have no idea how she goes after Jo, day after day after day."

"I know a little bit about losin Jo to someone," Eddie said. "But I ain't poppin you in the jaw – am I?"

"No," said Blair. "No, you're right. I'm a terrible person. Terrible."

"Jeez, I ain't sayin that," said Eddie. "Just – don't hit Boots. She doesn't seem to mean any harm. Aside from likin Jo. And who can blame her for that – huh?"

The bar was crowded and overheated from all the bodies clustered around it, dozens of patrons trying to get their drinks before the band started playing again. Without actually, technically shoving anyone and starting a fight, Jo managed to nudge a path closer to the bar.

"Due Guinness," Jo ordered when one of the harried baristas finally made eye contact. "Uno Champagne. Uno vodka orange. Per favore."

"OK, so, what the hell is that in English?" demanded the barista. She was a tall woman, about Jo's age, with a waterfall of ink-dark hair. She was Japanese and supermodel-lovely.

"How the hell do you work at an Italian bar and you don't know Italian?" crabbed Jo.

"It's my first night," said the barista. She spoke English with a faintly British inflection. "Big fuck-up at the temp agency. So if you want a drink, you need to order in English."

"Christ, it ain't rocket science. Due Guinness – two Guinness. Uno champagne – one champagne. Uno vodka orange –"

"Ok, I've got it. Coming up. Keep your shirt on."

"I was plannin to."

The barista bustled about, and within a moment the four drinks Jo had ordered were lined up on the bar. Totally rude, thought Jo, but she seems to know her freakin craft.

Jo thrust a handful of colorful bills at the barista.

"Shit – don't you have any dollars?" the young woman asked. "Everyone here has dollars or pounds."

"Well pardon me for usin the actual damn currency of Italy," said Jo. "What the hell – you don't know how to change lira?"

"That's right, genius. How'd you guess?"

"Mouthy cuss, ain't you?" asked Jo. "You get an 'F' for customer service."

"Well I've got an 'F' for you," the young woman said. "Can you guess what it is?"

"Look, dimwit, I gave you enough for the drinks and a little bit for a tip. Put those in the register," Jo pointed, "and put that little one in your pocket. Easy-peasy. Although you really should return the tip on account of bein a total bitch for no reason."

"So if I had a reason, that'd be all right, then?"

"Eh, get bent!"

Jo pushed the four glasses together and made her way back toward her friends and lover.

"You won't believe the freakin witch at the bar," said Jo, handing the drinks around. "She could be straight outta the Bronx – except her diction's too good."

"Blair was smoking," said Boots as she took her vodka orange.

Jo shot a startled look at Blair.

Blair rolled her eyes. "Honestly – is this fifth grade?"

"You tell me," Boots said evenly. "I'm not the one sneaking cigarettes."

Jo leaned close to Blair, kissed her. Blair's lips tasted of smoke. "What the hell, babe?"

"It's my fault," Eddie said chivalrously. "I was having a smoke and I offered Blair a drag."

"And since when do you smoke?" Jo asked Eddie.

"Since I've been in the navy. I mean, it's not like I do it every other second, just, you know, on leave and when it's really boring on ship."

"And what the hell are you doin takin a drag of a cigarette?" Jo asked Blair.

"Calm down, darling. It's not a big deal."

"It is if you wanna kiss me!"

"I took a little drag, darling. What is it you're always saying? 'No harm, no foul'."

"Blair … you ain't like a secret smoker or somethin?"

"Me? Please," scoffed Blair.

"She was inhaling like a real smoker," reported Boots. "She was exhaling through her nose like Alec does. And she was blowing smoke rings."

Blair turned on Boots with the most intense glare Jo had ever seen on her fiancée's face. Blair's hands were opening and closing like claws.

"Dammit," said Jo. "Babe – you're a secret smoker!"

"I am not! I, I haven't had a cigarette for more than ten months."

Jo made rapid calculations. "You mean … since we started dating."

"Yes, darling. Since we started dating."

"So you're a smoker."

"No! Not at all."

"Smoke rings," said Boots, nodding sagely.

"That's about enough outta you," Jo told Boots sternly.

"I just thought you should know," Boots said virtuously.

"Well thank you, Nellie Bly," drawled Blair. If looks could kill … Boots would have been lying dead at Blair's feet.

Eddie shifted from foot to foot nervously. This was all spinning horribly out of control.

"It's my fault," he repeated. "I offered Blair a drag and she took a drag and that was it. No big deal."

"Scuse me, if my girlfriend's smokin it is a big deal," said Jo.

"I am not a smoker," Blair insisted. "It just, you see, when I was thirteen I bought a pack of cigarettes. A lark. A game of 'Truth or Dare,' if you want the details. And I, well, sort of enjoyed them. So every once in a while – a great while – I enjoy a cigarette or cigar."

"Cigar?" Jo's eyebrows shot up. "Cigar? What are you now – the Penguin?"

Blair stared blankly at her lover.

"The Penguin," said Boots, sighing as if Blair must be a complete moron. "He's only one of Batman's greatest nemeses. Duh."

"I am both proud and relieved to say that I didn't grasp your Batman reference," Blair told Jo.

"This is why you're not really an optimal match for Jo," said Boots. "Jo and I appreciate the intricacies of contemporary mythology."

"Contemporary mythology?" Blair asked skeptically. "And what is that? You mean comic books? And 'Star Wars' movies?"

"You wouldn't understand," sniffed Boots.

"Blair, you are quittin, right here, right now," said Jo. "Not one more freakin puff!"

"I don't have to quit," said Blair, "because I'm not a smoker."

"You can stop any time you want to, huh?" Jo looked to Eddie. "And where have we heard that, huh? Memba those winos on the corner?"

Blair bristled. "Jo Polniaczek – Did you just compare me to a wino?"

Shit, thought Eddie. Just shoot me now.

"An addict is an addict, babe. It's like that story you were tellin me about moochy old Mrs. Hossenpfeffer."

"Don't you get melodramatic with me, darling. I took one stupid damn puff of one stupid damn cigarette!"

"Well that was your last puff!"

"And don't get autocratic, either. It's my body and it's my business how many puffs I have."

"Well it's my body too!"

"Well …" But Blair broke off. She's right. My body is partly hers now … and vice-versa …

"Excuse me," said the beautiful, rude barista who had taken Jo's order. She had materialized at Jo's elbow, seemingly out of thin air. "The manager told me to come over here and tell you people that if you don't stop yelling, you're going to be kicked out. At least I think that's what he told me to say. Either that, or you've won some kind of prize."

"This is the bartender that don't speak Italian," said Jo. "You might wanna find another country to work in, Toots."

"Bite me," said the young woman.

"Mordalo," Jo said helpfully. "In Italian, you say mordalo."

"How do you say 'fuck off'?"

"I'll have to consult my English-Italian dictionary of vulgar phrases."

"You do that." The young woman extended her hand to Boots. "You're Boots St. Clair," she said.

Boots smiled. "Guilty as charged," she said brightly. "And you are …?"

"The freakin bartender," said Jo.

"Darling – what a frightful snob you're becoming," chided Blair.

"Well she is the bartender! Did I say that was bad? For cryin out loud, my Ma works as a cocktail waitress lotsa times. I'm a snob?"

"Wow," said Eddie. He drank a big slug of Guinness. "This is not how I saw this night going."

"My name," the barista told Boots, "is Mizu Tokama."

"Tokama … Of the Tokyo Tokamas?" asked Boots. "Tokama Steel and Tokama Farms?"

Mizu grimaced. "Don't forget Tokama Light Industrial. Mr. Tokama is my father."

"My father is a huge fan of your father," Boots said excitedly. "It's 'Tokama this' and 'Tokama that'. Well. It was, until BZ Becker ruined us."

"I was terribly sorry to read about that," said Mizu. She took Boots' hand and pressed it comfortingly.

"It's been a trial," said Boots. "It's been a huge adjustment. I had to move into this sort of halfway house –"

"Excuse me?" Jo demanded. "Halfway house?"

"Is that not the right word?" asked Boots. "Isn't that where they take in transient refugees?"

"Just let it go, darling," Blair told Jo.

"But – halfway house?"

"It isn't worth it."

Mizu positioned herself between Boots and Eddie. Mizu stood very close to Boots as they spoke, and kept a firm grip on Boots' hand.

Jo looked at Blair. Blair looked at Jo.

"But why are you tending bar?" Boots asked Mizu. "Did someone ruin your family?"

"No such luck," Mizu said bitterly. "Everything father touches turns to gold. That's what makes him so insufferably pompous. My father and I are fighting – again. Nothing new there! But this time he cut off my allowance and cancelled my credit cards and I here I am in Florence without a pot to piss in."

"How dreadful," Boots commiserated.

"You have no idea! I'm almost out of hair conditioner –"

Boots gasped.

"– And the cretins at the temp agency sent me to a place where almost everyone speaks Italian!"

"People are so dense," said Boots. "Don't you find?"

"Tell me about it! This whole day has been a nightmare. The only good thing," Mizu squeezed Boots' hand, "has been meeting the Boots St. Clair. You're even lovelier in person than in your pictures in the society pages."

"Well … when you're right, you're right," smiled Boots. "In fact –"

But Boots' next words were drowned out by the band as it launched into a cacophony of wild guitars and drum beats …

Jo drank too much during the next couple of hours. Eddie put away Guinness after Guinness and she tried to match him.

"Stop tryin to be my buddy!" he yelled in her ear at one point. "You're not my buddy! You were my fiancée. That's how I'll always think of you, Jo! My beautiful Jo."

"Eh, don't get all sloppy," said Jo. "Don't start talkin a bunch of mush." But her eyes were damp. She wiped them on her sleeve …

Mizu never went back to the bar. She spent the next couple of hours dancing with Boots, talking with Boots, and holding Boots' hands.

As the night wore on, a pissed-off looking guy with a pompadour stalked over to Mizu, shouting at her in Italian. She regarded him calmly and then, when he finished, she flipped him the finger. That set off another tirade, until he spun on his heel and stormed off.

"Who was that horrible man?" asked Boots. "He must have very high blood pressure!"

"That was the manager," said Mizu. She turned to Jo. "He fired me – right?"

Jo laughed. "D'you really need a translator to figure that out?"

"I suppose not."

Having been fired, Mizu abandoned all pretense of propriety. She led Boots to a corner table and pulled Boots onto her lap and began kissing her passionately. Boots was more than responsive.

Eddie blushed scarlet to the roots of his dark hair.

"They, uh, seem to be gettin along pretty good," he said awkwardly.

Blair sniffed. "Tacky," she said. "Very tacky."

"Hey, mission accomplished," said Jo. She belched. "We brought Boots here to meet someone, right? So, she met someone."

"A juvenile delinquent! An international juvenile delinquent."

"Eh, Mizu's a rude rich kid, but she seems pretty harmless."

Blair tugged at Jo's sleeve. "Dance with me, darling."

"No," said Eddie. He tugged at Jo's other sleeve. "Me first. She's yours now, Blair, but I want one last dance with her. Just one."

"Of course," Blair said, nodding. She released Jo's sleeve. "Of course."

"C'mon," said Eddie. "For old times' sake, huh, Jo? For old times' sake?"

Jo didn't like the music. She would've liked it when she was younger. It was angry and gritty. The guitars whined and winged and the drums pounded. The vocalist sounded like he'd sandpapered his windpipe and chased the sandpaper with some nails.

Jo didn't like the music, but she liked the company. Eddie. Her Eddie. She put her arms around his neck. It was funny looking up at him, she thought. Usually she had her hands on Blair's waist, and she and Blair were looking into each other's eyes, face to face.

"So," Eddie shouted over the music as they swayed drunkenly. "Blair. Who'd of figured?"

"Not me!" shouted Jo. She laughed.

"You really love her? Like, you love her, love her?"

"I love her. I love her like, damn, not to be all sappy but I love her more than freakin life itself."

"Wow. Shit. That is sappy!"

"I know! But it's true."

"I wanna feel that way about someone," said Eddie. "Someone besides you, Jo."

"You will." She tightened her grip around his neck. "Eddie – you're like a damn jackpot. The girl that lands you – she's gonna be so lucky."

He shrugged modestly. "I mean … I'm just a guy. But I try to be a good guy."

"You are. Eddie, I want you to know, if I didn't love Blair –"

"Don't," he said, shaking his head.

"But if I didn't love Blair –"

"No. Jo … Don't. I know what you're gonna say, but I think you're wrong."

"About what?"

"About … Look, just watchin you tonight, I really get it. You and Blair … I get it. You and me could never even come close to how you guys are together."

"You think?"

"I know, Jo." He dropped a quick kiss on her hair. "I wish you nothin but the best. Both of you. Even if you're both kinda nuts. And your friends. They're kinda nuts too."

"Our friends are totally nuts," laughed Jo. "Blair and me are actually the responsible ones."

"Sounds about right from what I seen …"

Blair nursed her third glass of champagne, watching her fiancée dance with Eddie.

They would've had beautiful kids, thought Blair. They would've had beautiful kids, and I can't have any kids. She brushed her fingertips over her stomach, feeling the dark, puckered scar tissue through the thin silk of her shirt.

Am I being selfish? she wondered. But if she was, the selfish part of her didn't care. God help me, I love Jo. Wherever that leads us … I want her with me.

Blair glanced over at the dark corner where Mizu and Boots appeared to be all but fornicating in the shadows. Boots appeared to be shredding the back of Mizu's black blouse with her long nails, while making the most astonishing moaning sounds ...

When they finally left it was too late to go to Il Caffé Jazz Americano, so they stumbled home. Boots invited Mizu to accompany her back to the palace.

"But what the hell do we really know about her?" Jo whispered to Blair as the five of them staggered along a winding cobblestone lane. "For all we know she's a psychotic nutcase!"

"I thought you said she wasn't so bad."

"For Boots to make out with at the bar – not to bring back to the palace!"

"She's Mizu Tokama, darling. One of the world's most famous heiresses."

"Yeah, well, I guess I missed that edition of 'Heiress Weekly'."

"Mizu's a bit of a brat, but perfectly civilized. She attended Dalton, Northfield Mount Hermon, and now she's at Oxford. Although I gather from her present situation that she was probably sent down."

"Sent down where?"

"Kicked out, darling. Given the boot."

"So, Oxford gives her the boot, why are we welcomin her with open arms?"

"In case you hadn't noticed, Jo, we're not quite as exclusive as Oxford."

"Halfway house! Jeez Louise!" Jo laughed. "Halfway house. Gotta tell Mrs. Garrett that one!"

"River Rock is a sort of halfway house," Blair mused. "First we took in our friends, and now Mrs. Garrett takes in wounded, damaged souls."

"Hell, you make her sound like Mother Teresa. Which, I guess she kinda is."

Blair groaned. "Jo … I think I'm going to be very hung over tomorrow."

"You and me both, babe! Champagne is very sneaky. Guinness, too."

"Especially when you drink twenty of them," Blair said disapprovingly.

"Well at least I ain't the Marlboro Woman! Honest, Blair … Babe … Light of my life …"

"For the last time, Jo, I'm not a smoker."

"All right, all right. Don't get all hot under the collar. Least, not until we get back to the room." Jo waggled her eyebrows.

"Are you trying to be sexy?" Blair asked, "Or are you going to be ill?"

"Can't you tell?"

"No. My vision is a little blurry, for some reason."

"Yeah. Mine too …"

Eddie had been bringing up the rear, whistling tunelessly. He drew abreast of Jo and Blair now, dropping a fraternal hand on their shoulders.

"Ladies," he said, "it's been a pleasure."

"What does that mean?" asked Jo. "Don't tell me you're jumpin ship?"

"Yeah, I am," he said. He pointed to a sign on a wall, with an arrow pointing to the left. "I'm goin to the train station. Gonna sleep some of this drunk off there. I'm on the early train south. No point goin all the way to the palace and practically turnin around and comin right back."

Jo hugged him tightly as they walked, almost tripping them both. They laughed. Blair laughed.

"Watch your step," said Blair. For some reason that struck the three of them as hilarious. "Watch your step," she said again, and once again they laughed their asses off.

"Will you stop that?" hissed Boots, turning around. She was almost as drunk as they were.

Mizu had an arm around Boot's slender waist. Normally that would've worried Jo; but in this case, Mizu was clearly keeping a drunken companion from falling on her face. There was nothing overtly Sapphic about it, nothing inviting a beating from any random bigots they might run into in the early morning streets of relatively conservative Florence.

"OK," said Eddie when they reached the intersection. He crushed Blair in a bear hug and then he crushed Jo to his burly chest. "My Jo. My Jo." He kissed her forehead. "Be a good girl. Be nice to Blair. Don't be all bossy and crabby."

"Eh, let's not be askin for miracles," laughed Jo.

"I love you," Eddie said earnestly. "I'll always love you, Jo."

"Right back at ya," she said. "You sure you gotta go now?"

"Wanna be alone. Wanna sleep a little bit. Then I gotta get back."

"All right. All right." She gave him one final hug. Then she pulled away and went to Blair and started walking very fast toward the palace.

At the next corner Blair tugged at Jo's sleeve. "He's waving to you," said Blair. "Turn around."

"I can't," said Jo. Her voice was thick. Her eyes were wet.

"Darling," Blair said sympathetically. She put a hand on Jo's shoulder. "Turn around. You'll feel better."

"No. Some things … Blair, some things you can't finish. You can't make that final … D'you get it?"

"I think so," Blair said kindly.

Blair turned. Eddie was a slight, shadowy figure in the distance, waving. Blair waved to him. He waited for Jo to turn, but she didn't.

Eddie made a final, big sweep of his arm. And then he darted down a side street, toward the train station. And then he was gone.


Jo had never felt so sick in her life.

She lay in the big bed, feeling like her body was made of concrete, like she weighed fifty tons, except her head, which weighed a hundred tons.

"Blair," she moaned weakly. "Babe?"

There was an indistinct grunting from the bundle of covers next to her.

"Babe … Are you alive?" muttered Jo.

"No," groaned Blair.

"Me neither."

"What fell on my head? Jo? Something must have … fallen on my head last night."

"Just a coupla bottles of champagne," said Jo. "And demon smoke."

"Jo … Let it go. Please."

"I'm in love with a smoker. Me!"

Blair marshaled the energy to kick Jo in the leg with her big toe.

"Ow!"

"Let it go, darling."

"Well you don't … gotta … get violent about it."

"That was a nudge, darling." Blair pulled the covers up higher, completely covering her face and head.

Jo tried to sit up. Her head swam. She felt nauseated. She almost tossed her cookies right then and there. It was worse than when she was drugged with chloral hydrate. It felt worse, even, than her head wound had felt.

"I'm never drinkin again," she murmured. "Demon rum, get thee away."

"You were mostly drinking Guinness," muttered Blair.

"Demon Guinness, get thee away."

"Oh. Oh, darling." Under the covers Blair clutched her head. "Just shoot me. Please?"

"Only if you shoot me first."

"Deal."

Jo tried to sit up again. This time the nausea hit her even faster. She sank back against the pillows.

"Was Boots as drunk as us?" moaned Jo.

"No. She wasn't."

"Christ – Mizu! Boots took Mizu home with her."

"Mmn-hmm."

"Just think … Even as we lie here dying, Mizu has probably made a full-growed woman out of our little Boots."

"Good. We should ask Mizu to stay here. She'll keep that little vixen's hands off you."

"Nah. I mean, Mizu got her kicked off in the sex department, but Boots can do better. Way better."

"You always say that," said Blair. "You always think everyone can do better."

"Because they can," said Jo. "Except me." She fumbled under the tangled covers, found one of Blair's hands. She kissed it. "I love you, Blair."

"That's wonderful, Jo. But please let go of my hand."

"C'mon. You're not still mad about what I said about the smokin?"

"No, darling. But I'm going to be sick – right now!"

Blair bounded from the bed.

Several seconds later horrible retching sounds emanated from the bathroom.

Jo couldn't sit up, so she sort of slid out of the bed. Gingerly she crawled toward the bathroom.

"Babe? You OK?"

Another chorus of retching.

Jo weakly pushed open the door. She crawled across the cool tile toward her fiancée. She pulled back Blair's long blonde hair. She rubbed Blair's back.

"It's OK, babe. It's OK. Get it outta your system ..."


They spent the next couple of days in their suite, recuperating and, when they were strong enough, making love. Servants left trays of light pasta, mineral water, fruits and cold summer soups just outside their door.

At some point someone pushed a local newspaper under the door of their suite. One of the pages was folded back.

"Well will ya look at that!" said Jo, delighted. "Alec and Tootie are famous! Well … famous in Florence, anyhow."

A grainy black-and-white photo showed the back of Alec's white blazer and his unruly mop of dark curls as he sat at the piano, while onstage Tootie, in one of Vivienne's glamorous old sheath dresses, sang into a microphone.

"Which paper is that?" asked Blair, reaching across the covers and taking it from Jo. "Ah! The ex-patriot paper." She flipped to the front page and tapped the masthead. "Recognize the publisher? Vivienne Anviston, Lady Uxbridge."

"Eh, so she got 'em a story. What's the point of bein a famous old Duchess if you can't pull a few strings now and then?"

Blair leaned back against the pillows. "Read the article, darling." And then, after a moment of silence, "Read the article aloud, darling."

"Oh. Yeah. Sure." Jo cleared her throat and smoothed out the page. "'For the past several weeks Florentines and tourists alike have been treated to the musical stylins of Alec Anviston, Lord Nethridge of Nethridge, England and Dorothy Ramsey of Washington, D.C., USA. His lordship is a pre-medical student at prestigious Langley College in Peekskill, New York. This September Miss Ramsey will be a junior at prestigious Eastland Academy, also in Peekskill.'" Jo chuckled. "They really throw that word around, huh? 'Prestigious'?"

"Langley is the last word in prestige, darling, as far as American colleges go."

"Yeah, but I mean – Eastland? It's a good school, and when Mrs. G was there she made it feel like home, but – prestigious?"

"Eastland's very prestigious," said Blair. "You don't realize it, because it seemed so easy to you. To us, I mean."

"Really?"

"Really, darling. Now keep reading."

"Aye-aye, Princess." Jo rattled the page as she found her place again. "From cool jazz to smoldering-hot torch songs, Lord Anviston's piano and Miss Ramsey's versatile voice transport the audience to a time when the world was a more elegant place.' Wow!" Jo shook her head. "That's amazin – flippin amazin! They're writin about Alec and little Tootie! Should we tear this out for Tootie's scrapbook? Or …"

"Tootie will already have about twenty copies," laughed Blair, finishing Jo's thought. "But why don't you tear it out for our own scrapbook?"

"We have a scrapbook?" asked Jo, surprised.

"Of course."

"When did we get a scrapbook?"

"I've been keeping one."

"No kiddin?"

"No 'kiddin' darling."

"What's in it?"

"I'll show it to you when we get back to River Rock."

"Huh. Our own scrapbook."

"It's not like we're famous jazz musicians," said Blair, burrowing against Jo, "but I thought we might like to keep track of our time together."

"You thought right," said Jo, nodding approvingly. "I'm glad you thought of that. Hell, I'd never have thought of that."

"I know. Darling?"

"Yeah?"

"Keep reading, please."

Jo kept reading …


Early August, 2011. Manhattan.

Blair sat in bed, comfortably wrapped in a pale pink peignoir, a glass of Chablis on the nightstand, her laptop computer open on her stomach.

Outside her penthouse, far, far below, a siren wailed. Blair absently made the sign of the cross.

The computer screen cast a blue light over her plump, pretty face. She squinted through the lenses of her half-glasses. They weren't quite strong enough; Jo had been after her to go to the eye doctor for two months, but there was always something else to do, always something for someone else, as well as driving up to Peekskill to visit Lexi …

Blair tore through her e-mail, deleting spam, rapidly reviewing and digesting messages pertaining to diocesan matters, and now and again tapping out a response.

When she was finished with business she logged out of her official account and logged into her personal account.

"You have twenty messages," the computer told her.

"Thank you," said Blair.

If Jo had been there, she would have rolled her eyes, Blair knew. Jo was always teasing Blair about talking to her computer.

"It's a machine, babe. You don't have to say anything to it."

"I'm not speaking to it," Blair always defended herself. "Saying 'Thank you' is a reflex. It's simply good manners. You wouldn't understand, darling …"

Blair scanned her personal e-mails, deleting the spam. Filters or no filters, spam was everywhere online, she had decided. It leaked in, it squirmed through the slightest crack, the way seawater always found a way to trickle into a boat.

Blair read her personal messages, leaving Jo's for last, as always.

There was a note from Natalie, humorous but to-the-point. Nat would be up to her ears in surgeries Friday, but if Blair didn't mind waiting, did she want to drive up to Peekskill with Nat around 8 o'clock?

"Of course," typed Blair. "Looking forward to it. My car or yours? And can we take the Holy Terrors? B."

There were four notes from Tootie, all variations on Lexi's condition. At 3pm Lexi's fever had been up. At 4 pm it had miraculously plummeted. At 6pm it was up again, precipitously. By 7pm Tootie was asking Blair if she was sure, really sure, that God existed.

Blair felt tears pricking her eyes. She reached under her half-glasses and wiped her eyes. Silently she recited a prayer, and then she began to type.

"Hi, Tootie, thank you for keeping me up-to-date about Lexi's condition. Jo and I continue to pray for her daily and know that she is in excellent hands with the Peekskill medical team, and you and Alec there night and day. You know that I believe in God, Tootie, and I only wish I could explain why people are sent such trials. I can't explain because I don't know. But I do know, without question, that God loves you and Alec and Lexi very much. Please tell Lex that Aunt Nat and I will be there Friday night. Tell Lex I'm challenging her to a rematch at chess, and this time she can't cheat! Love and courage, Tootie dear. Blair."

Blair wiped her eyes again as she clicked "Send". She sipped the Chablis before she continued reading her messages.

Alec had sent her a note at 5am that morning. "Dearest Aphrodite, not to sound like a tweenager but OMG I was LMFAO and ROTFL at that cartoon you sent. It was too true, and very heartening, just the medicine I needed. Don't tell Jacqueline or Jo, but I have decided that we must, must, must run away together at the earliest opportunity. No one understands us like we do. Yours in secret, forbidden love, Alec."

Blair laughed so hard she cried.

"Dearest Apollo," she wrote when she recovered herself, "you are very naughty and are going to hell. I have confirmed it with my sources, which are, as you know, impeccable. I can't run away with you because you love Jacqueline and I love Jo, besides which they would kick our collective asses if we even tried such a ridiculous thing. Why were you up at 5am sending me messages? Make sure you're getting enough sleep. Are you eating properly? My suspicion is 'no'. Scotch and nicotine are not food groups, milord, as I keep telling you. I'll see you at the hospital Friday night. Love, Aphrodite."

There was a message from her doctor. She hesitated before opening it. She was pretty sure what it said – but not sure enough to leave it unopened.

She opened it. She read it. She hit "delete".

There was a message from Lexi. "Dear Aunt Blair, It's so fucking boring lying here feeling sick. Sorry to write 'fucking' to a bishop but you know I don't really believe a lot of that religious stuff, but I respect that u do. And I always hear Aunt Jo saying it – fuck, I mean. Can u please do something about mummy? She keeps trying 2 be strong but I think she's starting to unravel, and it's driving me mental. U know she and I are on the same wavelength and I can feel all her crazy nervous energy. Do u think maybe I'm psychic? I don't know if I believe in that psychic crap but when I am around mum and I feel all her nerves then I believe. Can u try 2 find out when my album is coming out? The mater and pater keep hedging – what the hell? I know I'm 2 sick for a full-push press junket but it's not like I'm dead. Yet, anyway. Come c me soon, I miss u, you are so sweet, Aunt Blair. Luv, Lady Lexi (fabulousness)"

Blair closed her eyes. She leaned back against the pillows for a few moments. She could feel her pulse jumping in her throat, in her temple.

"Dear Lady Lexi," she typed finally, "Well, Lady Fabulousness, you are correct; you shouldn't write 'f---ing' in a letter to a bishop – it's very vulgar, dear. And I am an archbishop, Miss Impertinence. But I don't know why I should expect any more respect now than you showed me when you were two! And you're right; Aunt Jo does say 'f---' a great deal, but you realize that doesn't make it appropriate or acceptable – right? Even though she usually says it when she is trying to help people and someone is getting in her way. Please be patient with your mother. I don't know about 'psychic' but you and Tootie are both very sensitive, emotional creatures. I will talk to her about giving you some space when I come down Friday night. (Get ready, by the way, to be crushed at chess!) I don't know what's happening with your new album, sweetie, that's beyond my pay grade, as Aunt Jo would say. Email your agent, maybe? You know it will be another big hit whenever it comes out. For now please listen to the doctors and concentrate on getting better. And please say your prayers. I can see you rolling your eyes but I am going to keep nagging you, Lex. That's what you get with a holy roller in the family. I love you, Lex. Aunt Blair."

There was a message from Meg. Blair hoped it was good news. With Meg it usually was.

"My dear sister, I hope that you are well. Your closing convocation at the conference was beautiful, as always. It was so good to see you and really have a chance to talk and catch up. We don't see each other enough but there is always so much to do, for me and certainly for you. Will you be attending the Religious Relevance seminar next month? If you are please bring Jo. It's been so long since I've seen her. How is Lexi's recovery progressing? My best to her, and all the musketeers, and, of course, to Mrs. Garrett. Your sister-in-Christ, Meg."

"Dear Meg," Blair typed, smiling, "I loved seeing you too! We don't see each other enough and we should change that. I plan to bring Jo to the seminar even if I have to hog-tie her and drag her kicking and screaming – although I don't know if that would make the best impression on my colleagues! I'll write more later, love and kisses, Blair."

The final five messages were from Jo. Blair always saved Jo's messages for last. She took another sip of Chablis and settled back into the pillows.

"A poem is true if it hangs together," Jo had written. "… A poem points to nothing but itself."

Oh … kaaaaaay, thought Blair. Lovely … But cryptic.

She could picture Jo lying in bed at the Georgetown house, the narrow old house with the narrow little, low-ceilinged rooms decorated in a sparse Colonial style that Jo found appealing. That was how Jo unwound after a day of fighting senate battles. Jo lay in bed with a big sloppy glass of Scotch on the bedside table, typing love notes to her wife.

"That's E.M. Forster," Jo wrote in her second message. "One of your favorites, I know. Mister 'Room with a View' himself. Did you know that old coot lived to be almost one hundred?"

Where are you headed with this, darling? Blair wondered. She adjusted her glasses.

"I used to think we were like that," Jo wrote in her third note. "Like a poem – pointing to nothing but each other. As if we were this perfect little unit outside of time or space."

Blair frowned. 'I used to think we were like that …' For Pete's sake – Is Jo about to leave me via email?

"And I still think we're perfect together," read Jo's fourth message, "but as I look back down the long road of our life together, I think we're a lot more than just each other. It seems like every step of our courtship, we were touched by a lot of other people, and they were touched by us."

Blair felt two warm tears roll down her cheeks. She sighed.

Leave it to Jo, she thought fondly, to scare the hell out of me and then write something so mushy …

"We are true because we hang together," read Jo's fifth message, "… and we point to all the people that we love ..."

Blair felt more tears roll down her face. She wiped her eyes on her silky pink peignoir. She fumbled for her sleek little cell phone on the nightstand, tapped the keys.

Jo picked up after only one ring. She sounded sleepy and a little buzzed.

"Hey, babe."

"Is that how you answer your phone now?" asked Blair, sniffling and laughing at the same time.

"Caller ID. Did you get my messages?"

"What made you think of Forster, Jo?"

"Not sure."

Blair could hear Jo stretching, hear the tiny pops of Jo's neck. Blair wanted suddenly, very badly, to be in Georgetown lying in bed next to her wife.

"You're such a softy," said Blair.

"True … But don't let that get around – OK? My esteemed colleague from Montana thinks I'm going to toast his, er, well, he thinks I'm going to get tough if he doesn't play ball on the Children's Rights bill."

"Darling?"

"Yes?"

"I love how you still try to shield me from your vulgar language."

"The intent is there," said Jo. "Not always the execution, of course."

"I miss you."

There. She had said it, although it was something they rarely said to each other.

I miss you. It was understood. It was implicit. They were one of those rare couples that actually loved spending every moment together, but they had chosen demanding careers in cities hundreds of miles apart. I miss you.

"I'm not running for office again," Jo said quietly.

"What? Darling – where did that come from?"

"I can't do this anymore," said Jo. "We can't do this anymore." There was a pause. Blair heard the faint clink of ice in a glass. "I'm drinking too much, babe. And my blood pressure's still through the roof. And you're sneaking cigarettes left and right –"

Blair darted a guilty look at the drawer of the bedside table, the drawer where she kept her Benson & Hedges when Jo was in D.C. "Jo – what are you talking about?" Blair asked innocently.

"Ha! Lying by omission is still a sin, Bishop Polniaczek!"

Blair sighed. "Well … Perhaps I have had a few, a very few, cigarettes this week. One. Two. Five, tops."

"You're sneaking smokes left and right, Blair. It's on your clothes, in your hair every time I see you these days. Which isn't often enough. I miss you. And being apart is killing me. So I'm not running again."

"But everything you do – all the good you do –"

"I've done a ton of good, Blair. I gave my blood, sweat and tears. I deserve at least one term off, don't you think? And I can still consult. I can work with junior senators."

"You're only forty-seven, darling. In political years you're still an infant. How can you retire now?"

"I can do a lot informally, from New York," Jo said stubbornly, "and still come home to you every night."

Jo … Coming home every night … Blair smiled radiantly. There was no argument against that.

"I wish I were there right now," murmured Jo. "Holding you. Kissing you. Stomping your stupid cigarettes into little shreds. We're going to start jogging, babe. And eating all sorts of healthy crap."

"You were really selling it," said Blair, "up until the stomping and the jogging and the health food."

"I want to live to be a hundred-and-ten with you," said Jo. "I don't want to be without you. I don't want you to be without me."

Ah! And Blair had it, just like that. August. Forster. Living a long life together.

"It still makes you sad, doesn't it darling?"

Jo sniffled at the other end of the line. Blair wished she could somehow teleport to Jo's side, like a character in one of Jo's stupid sci-fi books.

"Vivienne wasn't sorry to go," Blair said gently. "Alec told us that. It was her time. She accepted it. She was ready."

"She was alone," mumbled Jo. "That's what always kills me. She was alone. If we'd known … If Alec would've told us –"

"She didn't want him to. And she wasn't alone. Alec was with her."

"But that's like, you know, it's not like your love, the great love of your life, being with you."

"I like to think Vivienne went to meet her love," Blair said thoughtfully. "Her great love. The one she was missing so much, at the end. Or her first great love," Blair said, remembering. "The barnstormer. The one who was always moving on."

"If you go before me I'm throwing myself into the river," Jo said a little wildly.

"And here I've been worried you wouldn't handle it with dignity," Blair laughed.

"I'm not kidding, Blair. Into the river."

"Which one?"

Jo considered the question. "Potomac, I guess, if I'm still in office. Hudson if I'm retired."

"As long as you don't throw yourself in the East River," said Blair. "Very tacky."

"You're laughing at me."

"Yes, darling."

"It's your fault, getting me all maudlin. What you said last month, about that stupid letter you wrote. About what I'm supposed to wear if you pre-decease me."

"I guess I can tear up the letter," said Blair, "since you'll be swimming with the fishes instead of delivering a touching eulogy."

"Alec can give the eulogy. He knows you best next to me. And he'll get everyone laughing."

"Laughing? At my funeral?" Blair was horrified.

"You know – lighten the mood."

"At the funeral of the Archbishop of New York? Jo – you still have no sense of propriety. I'm making copies of the letter for Tootie and Nat."

Jo sighed. "I know I'm being stupid."

"Yes, darling. But in a very sweet way."

"I'm not really going to throw myself in any rivers."

"I know."

"I just can't stand the thought, you know, of being without you."

"Jo," Blair said gently, "go pour out the Scotch. You've had enough for tonight."

"OK."

"And then hang up the phone and get some sleep, darling."

"OK."

"I love you, Jo."

"Love you too, babe."

Blair pressed "End Call". She placed her cell phone on the bedside table, next to her Chablis. She looked again at her laptop screen, opened the Recycle Bin, re-read the message from Doctor Tikrit.

"I love you, Jo," she murmured.


August, 1984. Florence, Italy.

Jo hadn't expected to cry. It was just a wedding. She'd never actually been to a wedding. She'd seen them in the movies and on television and everyone cried and it was all a bunch of boloney.

But Jo cried at Mrs. Garrett's wedding. And cried. This is so damn embarrassing! And the worst part was, since Blair was Mrs. Garrett's maid of honor, Jo couldn't subtly nudge her lover and put out a hand to discretely take one of the dozens of white handkerchiefs Blair somehow always had on her person.

Blair was next to Mrs. Garrett at the front of the chapel – a lovely little chapel in Santa Croce, reserved with almost no advanced notice thanks to the Duchess' pull.

Blair was resplendent in a simple white dress. Mrs. Garrett was radiant in a daisy-yellow gown. It wasn't fancy but it was cheerful, homey, warm – like Mrs. Garrett. And Drake looked pretty damn handsome in a monkey suit rented or borrowed for the occasion.

Mrs. Garrett's two sons – Raymond, the nebbishy accountant and Alex, the dreamy carpenter-musician – had been flown in for the occasion on the Duchess' dime. They stood at Drake's side, serving as his best men.

Alec played the tiny chapel organ and Tootie sang the hymns.

Nat and Jo sat on the bride's side of the pews, next to the Duchess. In the row behind them sat Petal, Jacqueline, Portia and Gerald, and in the row behind them, Boots and Mizu, who had promised to be on their best behavior and not make love during the ceremony.

How come you let the Duchess pay for all this? Jo had asked Mrs. Garrett curiously. Mrs. Garrett was usually as financially proud and prickly and independent as Jo.

The Duchess seems to have her heart set on this wedding, Mrs. Garrett had answered thoughtfully. And I think she's ill, Jo. I think she's very ill. In a way, it's as if …

You think you're grantin her a last wish, Jo had said perceptively.

I think I might be, Mrs. Garrett had agreed.

But why does she care, I mean, all due respect, Mrs. G., but why does the Duchess give a freakin fig about your weddin?

I imagine there was someone, once, for her, Jo. Someone she wanted to marry, but couldn't, for obvious reasons. Somehow my wedding will recreate something for the Duchess … set something to rights, perhaps …

The morning sunlight flowed through the stained glass of the chapel windows and painted the wedding party in jewel colors. The flowers were restrained but lovely and their fragrance was intoxicating.

Jo cried. And cried. She nudged Natalie.

"Nat?" she hissed.

"What?"

"You got a hankie?"

"Of course." Natalie dabbed at her own damp eyes and blew her nose noisily into a little scrap of white fabric.

"Aw, for Pete's sake," groaned Jo. "Don't ya got a spare?"

"Shh!" Natalie hissed, "he's giving her the ring!"

So Jo – much to Blair's chagrin, when she happened to cast a glance over her shoulder – wiped her damp eyes on the sleeve of her pale blue dress …

There was a wedding breakfast at Vivienne's palazzo, and then Mrs. Garrett and Drake departed for a honeymoon trip to Venice and Mrs. Garrett's sons flew back to the US.

"I'll see you girls in September!" Mrs. Garrett had trilled, hugging all of the young women, with extra hugs for her girls, her surrogate daughters, Blair, Jo, Natalie and Tootie.

Mrs. Garrett waved to them as she and Drake went down the steps to the red convertible that he had rented, and she waved to them as Drake revved the engine, and she waved to them as she and Drake drove around the winding drive …

"Mrs. G. Hitched! I just can't get my head around it," Jo had said as they all picked at the crumbs of the wedding breakfast.

"It's not like she hasn't been married before," said Natalie. "I mean, hello – she was Mrs. Garrett, not Miss Garrett."

"Mrs. Dante now," said Tootie. "Huhn. I like that. Mrs. Dante. It has a kind of theatrical ring to it."

"Well she'll always be Mrs. G to me," Jo said firmly. "I don't care if she marries ten guys and gets ten new names."

"That seems highly unlikely," Portia said seriously.

Gerald kissed her cheek. "They're being facetious, dear."

"Are they?"

"Yes." Gerald cleared his throat a little self-consciously. He clinked his glass with a spoon. He flushed as everyone halted their various conversations and looked directly at him. "We, ah, that is, Portia and I have a little announcement of our own," he said shyly. "We didn't want to steal the limelight earlier, but now that the bride and groom have departed –"

"We're getting married," Portia said happily. She crushed Gerald in a fierce hug. "Finally! I'm marrying a perfect brain match!"

"Congratulations!" said Jo. "Who'd-a thunk it! When's the big day?"

"Tomorrow," said Gerald. And then, holding up his small hands as the room erupted into questions and murmurs, "It's going to be very quiet, under the circumstances. A civil ceremony in Rome. Just we two. I've made the necessary arrangements. And then Portia and I will go to medical school together this autumn. John Hopkins. As man and wife."

"What circumstances?" Natalie whispered to Blair. "Is Portia, I mean, do you think …?"

Blair shook her head. "BZ Becker ruined the Barclays. Society is still buzzing about it. So of course Portia and Gerald will want to wed privately, away from any media glare …"

Gerald and Portia left for Rome the next day. Jacqueline and Petal resumed their tour guide duties. Alec and Tootie continued to perform at Il Caffé Jazz Americano. Boots and Mizu retreated into Boots' suite and proceeded, apparently, to break the records previously set by Jo and Blair, Mrs. Garrett and Drake.

When Alec wasn't with Tootie he sat with his Aunt Vivienne. As autumn drew closer she looked more frail. She smoked her little dark cigarettes incessantly. Alec played for her on the grand piano in the salon. He read to her, from E.M. Forster, in the gardens.

Jo rented a motorcycle and drove out into the countryside several times, Blair clinging excitedly to her back. They drove for hours among the hills and vineyards and fields of barley, through medieval towns that seemed to have never known telephone wires or automobiles.

Once they drove to the sea, to a secluded cove that Blair remembered from her childhood. They got turned around, Blair's childhood memory being somewhat blurry, but they finally found it.

It was deserted, as Blair had promised, and in a little cliff cave they skinned out of their clothes and hid them behind a rock and streaked down to the blue, blue sea.

"Don't let me drown," Jo told Blair. "If you do, I'm takin ya down with me, babe."

"Duly noted."

They played in the waves and splashed water at each other and laughed and shrieked and somewhere in the midst of the play, Blair taught Jo the rudiments of swimming. They kicked themselves out to deeper water. They embraced. They kissed. They held each other close, and almost did drown, both of them, and almost didn't mind ...

It was almost September, suddenly. They'd had postcards from Mrs. Garrett. She and Drake were having a lovely honeymoon. It was even more wonderful than she'd expected, but she was looking forward to returning to her morning TV show and River Rock and her girls.

It was almost September and it felt like it.

Jo always hated this time of year when she was younger. In the Bronx, when she was a kid, it was stickball and handball and running through the water spraying from busted fire hydrants all summer, it was chaos, it was bliss, it was 'Lord of the Flies' and she was one of the little lords.

Then suddenly something about the sunlight changed, and there was the faintest nip in the air, and a leaf or two drifted down from the branches of the scraggly tree in front of old Mrs. Grummer's candy shop. And you knew it was time to go back to school …

But now, Jo was looking forward to school.

"A sophomore," she said, shaking her head. "I'm gonna be a sophomore at freakin Langley College."

The four musketeers were in the bar at the airport, waiting for their flight.

"To academia," said Natalie, raising her glass of Coca-Cola.

"Boo!" said Jo. "That sounds so freakin borin. To us!" she said. "To the four musketeers!"

Tootie lifted her glass of ginger ale and Blair and Jo lifted their champagne flutes. They all clinked glasses.

"To being a sophomore," said Jo.

"To being a senior!" said Natalie. "Imagine me – boy-crazy Natalie Green – an Eastland senior!"

"To being a junior," said Tootie, "and starring in 'The Lion in Winter'!"

They all clinked glasses again.

"Say," said Natalie, turning to Blair, "what are you going to be? You missed your whole second semester of freshman year."

"I didn't miss it," Blair objected mildly. "I took a semester off. But with our rents from the Amsterdam Avenue building, and Jo's full scholarship," Blair smiled at her lover, "I should be able to resume my studies at Langley."

"Damn straight!" said Jo.

"And I'm going to study art," said Blair. "Not pre-law. I'm an artist. That's my passion."

"I wish you could convince Alec to study music," said Tootie. "He's amazing. That's his calling."

"Eh, some people have more than one calling, Toot," said Jo ...

To no one's surprise, Boots brought Mizu back to River Rock and installed her in her suite. Also to no one's surprise, Mizu, like Boots, took every opportunity to skip out on her chores.

"Think of the Chore Wheel as sacred," Blair explained repeatedly. "We all have to do chores. It's what we contribute to River Rock. It's part of our social contract with each other."

But, "I don't wash dishes," Mizu would say point-blank. Or, "I don't vacuum," or, "I don't wash clothes."

"What do you do?" Jo asked her one morning, "besides eat everythin in the damn fridge? Do ya camp? Cause if you don't start pullin your load around here, you and Boots are gonna get your lazy asses booted into the woods!"

"Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"Mordalo," Mizu had told her, with a nasty smile.

"I'm really growin to hate that girl," Jo told Blair that evening.

"But she makes Boots so happy."

"She's a bad influence on Boots," Jo objected. "I liked it more when Boots was, you know –"

"Hanging on your every word?"

"I was gonna say 'Sweet and innocent' but yeah, that was good too. I was a good influence, at least!"

The weekend before classes started, Jo took a ladder and a hammer and an armful of boards out to the old gazebo. She started putting on a roof.

Blair sat on the gazebo steps watching Jo – Jo sawing, Jo climbing up and down the ladder, Jo nailing the boards over the massive hole in the roof.

Jo wore a sleeveless blue Langley Lions tank top. Sweat stained the space between her small breasts, the small of her back. Sweat ran down her lean, bronzed arms, making them glisten.

"I thought you were gonna help me," Jo called down as she hammered, words somewhat indistinct due to the thudding of the hammer, and to the nails she clenched between her teeth.

"I am helping," Blair called up to her. "I'm admiring your work. I'm boosting your morale with my admiring gaze."

"Yeah … well …" Jo had to admit, it did make her feel pretty motivated knowing Blair was watching her every move. Jo pulled a nail from between her teeth, lined it up on a board. She swung the hammer back, knowing her fiancée was watching every motion.

When Alec found them Blair and Jo were sitting together on the gazebo steps, Blair dabbing Jo's damp face with a handkerchief.

"Did you bring lemonade?" called Jo. "I'm freakin dehydrated."

"No," he said. "Not lemonade."

But he was carrying something in his arms … A wooden box, they saw, as he drew closer.

"How was your flight?" asked Blair.

"It didn't crash," grinned Alec. "Any flight that doesn't crash – ripping good flight, wouldn't you say?"

He sat down next to Blair. She kissed his cheek.

"You smell good," she observed.

"Always," he said. "One of many reasons you should chuck Artemis and run away with me."

"Alec, I'm holdin a hammer," Jo said. "I'm tellin ya this in the interest of full disclosure. Cause if you keep makin passes at my girl, I'm gonna hafta get physical."

"I've no objections," said Alec, waggling his eyebrows.

"I know how to use a hammer, too," said Blair.

"That must be a new record," said Alec. "I've been home three minutes and already you two lovely lasses are threatening me with bodily harm."

"We missed you," said Jo. "We wanted to get right down to it."

"I'm touched." He gently set the wooden box on the floor of the gazebo, between Blair and Jo.

"What is that?" asked Jo.

"It's from Aunt Viv. For both of you."

"It's lovely," said Blair, drawing a perfectly manicured finger along the polished wood inlaid with marquetry designs.

"And dusty," said Jo, stifling a sneeze.

"How is the Duchess?" Blair asked.

Alec shrugged. A spasm, like a tic, passed briefly over his face.

"I'm sorry," Blair said quietly. She wrapped her arms around him.

"Christ, Alec," said Jo. She punched his shoulder awkwardly. "The Duchess – she was aces."

"She was a beautiful woman," said Blair. "Inside too … Where it counts."

"Yes," Alec agreed huskily. "The mater, you know, a bit … cold … at times. But Aunt Viv … Well …"

Blair smoothed his curls. "She was like a mother to you," she said quietly. "I know."

Alec cleared his throat. He disentangled himself gently from Blair.

"As much as I enjoy being held by the one-and-only Aphrodite," he said lightly, "I have a sacred trust to fulfill. Last wishes and all that. She left some of her dresses to Tootie, the ones she lent Tootie this summer. And she left Nat one of Hemingway's hats. He left it behind, long ago, after a visit to the palace."

"Nat must be doin cartwheels over that!" said Jo.

"And her grace left us this box," said Blair.

"Yes, but, more to the point, she left you the contents of the box."

"What's inside?" Jo asked curiously.

"Not a damned idea," said Alec. "I was supposed to keep it sealed, and I did." He drew a cord from around his neck; a tiny golden key dangled from it. He handed it to Blair.

"Thank you, Alec," she said.

"Don't thank me yet! She might've left you a fortune in emeralds, or it might be all her unpaid bills, signed over to you two! Viv had an unusual sense of humor, sometimes."

Blair slid the tiny key into the lock. She turned it.

"It feels like there should be a drum roll, maybe," said Jo. Blair glared at her. "Or not," Jo amended.

Blair put the cord around her neck. Slowly she lifted the lid of the box. She gasped.

"It's the book!" she said, delighted and touched. "She left me the book."

"What book?" asked Jo.

"The one I read to you, remember? Our first week there. 'A Room with a View'." Blair held the old book against her heart. "The Duchess' first great love gave it to her. Can you imagine? What a beautiful remembrance." Blair kissed Alec's cheek.

"What the hell," crabbed Jo, "he didn't give you the book."

"Stop being difficult, darling, and see what Vivienne left for you." Blair pushed the box closer to Jo.

"How do you know the rest of the stuff is for me?" Jo asked. "The box is for both of us."

Blair held up a single thick, pale blue sheet of paper.

"For Jo," it read, in beautiful script, "who loves."

The rest of the box was filled with books – large, small, slender, thick, all beautifully bound in covers of different colors.

"Jeez." Jo ran her fingers over the covers, opened one at random. The thick pages were foxed but the writing on them, obviously written by a fountain pen, was surprisingly dark. "They're journals," said Jo. "I think … They're Vivienne's journals."

Alec whistled. "Her memoirs! Ye gods and little fishes! I'll bet there are plenty of people who'd pay a pretty penny to see those go up in flames! Vivienne was quite something in her day."

"The Duchess left me her journals," Jo said wonderingly. "But, I mean, I really liked her, and she didn't exactly seem to hate me, but – her private journals?"

"Years of them," said Blair, lifting one of the volumes. "She knew you'd understand, Jo."

"Understand what?"

"Anything that might be here to understand. She was very clear, darling. 'For Jo, who loves.'"

"Well it's clear as mud to me. But I'm touched. I'm damn touched."

Alec put a hand on her arm. "I don't think you realize how much she liked you, Jo. She wasn't exactly the gushing kind. But she thought very highly of you. I think you reminded her of someone."

"The dashing barnstormer," suggested Blair.

"No. Herself," said Alec.

Jo wriggled uncomfortably. She swatted Alec's hand away. "Eh, gimme a break, Alec. A Duchess seein herself in me?"

"Why not?" asked Blair. "Jo, you have to stop boxing yourself in. You can be anything, darling. Anything."

Jo looked at Blair, her gaze softening. "You really believe that? That I can be … anythin?"

"I do."

Jo took her hand. "Well I know you can be anythin, babe."

Earnest blue-green eyes gazed into warm milk-chocolate eyes with green-and-gold flecks.

Alec cleared his throat. "And that is my cue," he said, "to go determine how many woodland creatures invaded my room while I was on holiday. Blair, I might be requiring your chipmunk-removal services later."

"Uhn-huhn," Blair agreed.

But Alec realized Blair hadn't heard him at all.

Blair was lost in Jo's eyes …

That night as Jo lay sleeping contentedly next to her in their comfortable bed in their snug little suite, Blair reached to the bedside table and opened the Forster book.

She read the inscription again: "Only connect, Viv. Only connect."

Blair nestled against Jo and brushed a stray tendril out of her lover's eyes. She pressed her lips to Jo's. In that moment Blair didn't want anything more, ever, than to be this close to the woman she loved.

The End

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