DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Beauty Crowds Me: Chapter 13 of 16 Chapters. Quotes in italics are direct quotes from the Facts of Life Series, Season 2, Episode 13, Bought and Sold and Season 1, Episode 8, The Facts of Love.
MEDIA LINK: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=192C5D50428674AB
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
THANKS: To Stacey for the Beta.

Beauty Crowds Me
13: Crushes and Clues

By Slave2Free


Miss Gallagher was pleased to see Jo so happy.

"You were right about the initials. I thought they would be sappy, but I think that's what she liked most about it!"

"I'm glad Blair liked her present, Jo."

"Liked it, she loved it!"

Jo's enthusiasm was infectious and Gail couldn't help but laugh.

"Did she enjoy the ride? It's difficult to picture Blair Warner riding around town on the back of a motorcycle."

"She loved that, too. Once we got started, she wasn't the least bit afraid."

"I'm glad to hear that, Jo. You and Blair seem to be getting your friendship back on track."

Jo blushed and stammered a little as she worked past her awkwardness in talking about personal matters.

"She, uh, let me kiss her goodnight."

Gail smiled fondly at Jo.

"So, she's forgiven you for running away with Eddie?"

"Yeah, and I think she really means it."

"I'm happy for you, Jo. I'm happy for Blair as well. You're something of a catch."

Jo was stunned.

"What? I'm lucky she even talks to me after what I did."

"One mistake doesn't discount your better qualities, Jo. Any girl would be lucky to have you, even Blair Warner."

Jo shuffled her feet bashfully.

"She must be in love. She's always telling me how beautiful I am, as if she believes it."

Gail's brow furrowed.

"Jo, you are beautiful. Don't you see that?"

"Give me a break, you're as bad as Blair."

"Maybe you're the one who needs to give us a break. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know when I point out Blair's tendency to pay a great deal of attention to appearances. If she thinks you're beautiful, I suggest you take her word for it."

Jo didn't know how to respond, so she remained silent for several minutes while she continued to work on the small clock sitting on Miss Gallagher's desk.

"Miss Gallagher?"


"Thank you for helping me with Blair's gift."

"You're the one who thought of giving her the helmet, Jo."

"Yeah, but you're the one who gave me the courage to go through with giving it to her, not to mention the idea about painting her initials on the back."

"You're welcome, Jo."

As she left Miss Gallagher's classroom on her way to the student center, Jo spotted a group of younger classmates. Jo started to ignore them, but she didn't like the expression on Tootie's face. Jo had developed a grudging respect for Molly because of her devotion to Blair, but Jo was well aware of Molly's mean streak.

Tootie's lower lip trembled when the other girls started shushing one another upon her arrival.

"Hey, what are you girls talking about?"

The small group of girls smiled condescendingly at Tootie. Molly sighed and rolled her eyes before answering.

"If you must know, we are discussing Debbie's slumber party."

"Oh, Debbie is having a slumber party?"

"Yes, the invitations were delivered yesterday."

In spite of the fact that Tootie had been irritating Jo more than usual lately, Jo was unable to quash her protective instincts toward her younger friend. After the incident with Maggie, Jo had greatly reduced the amount of attention she gave to younger classmates, but her aloof behavior had only enhanced her reputation among underclassmen. Therefore, when Molly saw Jo strolling toward her group of friends, she puffed with pride. Ever since Molly had, in a moment of insanity, confronted Jo about her behavior toward Blair, the gruff brunette seemed to be making more of an effort to get along with the unpredictable redhead. Tootie, on the other hand, inwardly groaned. Both Jo and Blair had been particularly standoffish since Blair's birthday, preferring to spend most of their time alone together.

Upon joining the group, Jo threw her arm around Tootie's shoulder and smiled down at her tiny friend.

"Hey, little buddy, you look kind of down. Is there anything I can do to help?"

When Tootie only gaped at Jo, the intimidating brunette looked accusingly toward Molly.

"We were just talking about Debbie's slumber party. I guess Tootie wasn't invited."

"That party's over two weeks away, maybe Debbie hasn't gotten around to delivering all of the invitations yet."

"No, I just wasn't invited." Tootie muttered softly.

Molly shifted nervously. Everyone knew what Jo had done to Neil Richards after he offended Jo's young friend, Natalie. Molly understood that the way Jo kept her arm draped around Tootie's shoulder was a warning.

Jo smiled affectionately at Tootie, who seemed even smaller than usual. She was loath to do it, but felt that the situation warranted invoking the 'Warner Card'. Jo would never do so for her own benefit, but there was little she wouldn't do for the little girl whose feelings had so obviously been hurt.

"Aw, I don't think that party is going to be such a big deal. Blair asked me just this morning if I'd mind skipping it."

"She did?"

Tootie's surprised response was reflected in all the girls' faces.

"Well, Blair was under the impression that only upperclassmen had been invited. You know how she feels about mixing with little kids. Debbie must not have been discriminating enough in preparing her guest list. Blair gets so many party invitations that she can't possibly attend all of them."

Molly was beginning to fret. If Blair didn't attend Debbie's party, then Molly didn't want to go either.

"But I go to lots of the upperclassmen parties, Blair never minded before." Molly whined.

Jo withdrew her arm from Tootie and stood closer to Molly, towering over the younger girl as she looked down into her eyes.

"Maybe you were nicer before."

Molly nodded, knowing that irritating Jo meant irritating Blair. Molly had insulted Jo once and lived to tell about it, although she'd never breathe a word about it to anyone for fear of Jo's retribution. She wasn't going to do anything to upset the abrasive girl again.

"I'll remember that, Jo."

Confident that Molly understood the warning, Jo returned her smile to Tootie.

"So, you wanna go back to the cafeteria and play a game of electronic football? I'm not in the mood to go to the student center today."

Molly silently groaned. Blair was rarely in a good mood when Jo skipped out on their daily gab session in the student center.

As Jo and Tootie walked across the campus toward the cafeteria, Tootie was still trying to figure Jo out. Jo was constantly calling Tootie 'Kid' and getting upset when Tootie interrupted Blair and Jo in their room. Tootie didn't see why she wasn't welcome when all Jo and Blair ever did was argue or study.

"Blair didn't really say anything about skipping Debbie's party, did she, Jo?"


"Why did you do that, Jo?"

"Do what?"

"Why were you so nice to me and why did you scare Molly by telling her that Blair might not go to the party because Molly was going to be there? I thought you were still mad at me."

Jo continued looking straight ahead, but frowned before she replied.

"When I was your age, I used to love to hang out with my older cousin, Bud. He and his friends were always doing the most interesting things, but Bud was always pushing me around and telling me to get lost."

Jo shifted her eyes toward Tootie just long enough to make sure that her younger friend was still listening.

"Then one day when we were playing basketball on the outdoor courts at the recreation center, Mike Lokosko pushed me down from behind. After Cousin Bud wiped the court with Mike, I asked him why he stood up for me that way."

Tootie was hanging on every word.

"Do you want to know what Bud told me?"

Tootie nodded.

"He said that anyone who messed with his family had messed with him."

Tootie thought about Jo's story for a while before replying.

"My cousins, Sara and Silvia, fight with one another constantly. But everyone knows that they had better not say anything bad about Sara whenever Silvia is around."

Jo smiled, having made her point.



"You wouldn't have really thrown me in the lake, would you?"

Jo beamed down at Tootie and poked her side with her elbow.

"Oh, yes. If Mrs. G. hadn't stopped me, I would definitely have thrown you into the lake."

"Turning seventeen agrees with you, Blair."

Blair raised her eyebrows at Nancy, uncertain as to whether Nancy was making fun of her or being sincere. In their circle of friends, it was often difficult to distinguish between an insult and a compliment.

"I mean you seem happy."

Blair smiled. 'I am happy', she thought, looking toward the door once more to see if Jo had decided to come to the student center.

"You look happy, too, Nancy."

Molly added, happy herself that everyone was in such a good mood and attempting to keep Blair's mind off of Jo. Nancy smiled at Molly, albeit a little condescendingly.

"So, are we all going to Debbie's slumber party?"

Molly looked down at her snack, certain that her good mood was about to end.

"Sure." Blair replied cheerfully.

"I think some of the boys from Bates are going to try to raid the dorm that night!"

Molly was shocked to hear Blair talking so excitedly about Debbie's party. She opened her mouth to tell Blair what Jo had said earlier, but then closed it quickly. She had tried to enlighten Blair as to the unsuitability of Jo Polniaczek before and Molly made it a habit to never make the same mistake twice.

"I may not go."

Cindy's voice was almost a whisper.

"Why not?"

Sue Ann answered for Cindy.

"She's upset about what Margo said the other day on the way to Shakey's. She doesn't think she should go to any more slumber parties because she thinks no one will want to sleep next to her."

Blair's frown was all the response Cindy needed.

"I know you tried to help, Blair. Sue Ann told me what you said to everyone and I appreciate it, but people like Margo aren't going to be afraid of you."

"People like Margo shouldn't prevent you from having fun, Cindy. Anyone who listens to her isn't really your friend."

Cindy squirmed, uncomfortable with the conversation. Seeing it, Blair felt even worse about the prior year.

"I haven't always acted like your friend either, Cindy. I'm sorry about the things I said to you last year. I know I apologized then, but I should have done more to show you how sorry I was."

"You did, Blair. You treated me like a princess that night!"

Cindy looked around the table and then nervously back at Blair.

"I shouldn't have said that."

Blair smiled.

"Why not? I did treat you like a princess that night, but only because you looked like one. So, what do you say, Cindy?"

When Cindy didn't respond, Nancy felt she needed a little more encouragement. "Jo will be there."

Nancy's comment didn't sit well with Blair. She was quick to question the relevance of Jo's presence.

"What does that have to do with anything?"

Although her friends were still convinced that Cindy had a crush on Jo, they weren't about to say that to Blair. For Cindy's sake, Sue Ann tried to save the conversation.

"Nancy just means that Cindy won't be the only tomboy at the party. Let's be honest, Cindy isn't the one wearing men's pajamas."

"Yeah, what's that about?"

Nancy couldn't help herself, she had always wondered about Jo's blatantly masculine wardrobe.

Blair was feeling the strain of the conversation. All she really wanted to do was tell her friends that she knew Jo wasn't with Cindy because she was with Blair. Even if she believed that her friends would understand about her relationship with Jo, telling them should be a joint decision. When Blair finally spoke, her voice was very soft.

"Men's clothing is less expensive. If any of you knew anything about fashion, you would know that. Our uniforms, for example. The shirts we wear are exactly like the ones the boys at Bates wear, same manufacturer and everything, but we pay twice as much for ours. The same is true for our blazers and since many of us", she looked pointedly at Molly, "don't require any type of adjustment related to our figure, there is no reason we should pay more."

Blair looked at Sue Ann and tugged on her tie, "We pay triple for these and they don't even bother using different material. Let's face it, girls, the fashion industry has always taken advantage of our desire to look nice. Jo buys men's clothes because they cost less."

"Why didn't she just tell us that?"

"Because it's none of our business. Come on, Sue Ann, you're here on a scholarship. Do you like having to explain that you can't do or have certain things because you don't have enough money?"

Sue Ann felt miserable.

"My Aunt Gert always wore men's pajamas and when I asked her why she told me that money didn't grow on trees. I never understood what she meant by that."

Blair sighed, she didn't like talking about Jo and she knew that Jo wouldn't appreciate Blair pointing out her lack of funds, but it was the truth and Blair's only other option was to leave the question unanswered.

Cindy didn't like seeing her best friend, Sue Ann, so upset, so she tried to smooth things over.

"Hey, it wasn't a dumb question and I think that we sometimes forget how much more we have than most girls. Blair's right, how much money Jo has or doesn't have is none of our business but it doesn't hurt to be reminded that not everyone can afford all the things we can afford."

Sue Ann smiled at Cindy.

"So will you come to the party? You can put your sleeping bag next to mine if that's bothering you. Heck, you can share mine for all I care."

That drew laughter from everyone at the table. In an uncharacteristically bold move, Nancy reached out and touched Cindy's hand to make her point.

"And I'll sleep on the other side of you, Cindy. We're not going to let Margo or anyone else make you feel weird about being our friend."

Molly, getting into the spirit of the moment, placed her hand on top of Nancy's. Sue Ann followed with her hand and Blair felt as if her heart might explode when she topped off their tower with her hand.

"So, we're all going to Debbie's slumber party?"

Cindy looked around the table at her friends. They were the most condescending snobs in all of Peekskill, but they were her friends and she loved them. She started to tell them so, but refrained. She chose instead to allow her expression to communicate her gratitude.

The conversation at the student center reminded Blair of Jo's financial state, prompting her to schedule her visit to Harrison's Department Store.

"Don't forget, Jo, I'll be at Harrison's Saturday to buy clothes for my trip to Paris."

"Oh joy." Jo deadpanned.

"Hey, you'll turn that frown upside down when you get a big fat commission."

Blair reached over to Jo's face and pushed Jo's lips into a smile.

"I'm tired of having to cut our bike rides short on Saturdays so that you can go to work."

"You've been talking all spring about all the shopping you're going to do in Paris, why don't you just wait and buy all your summer clothes once you get there?"

"Don't be ridiculous. I'll be buying my fall clothes in Paris."

"Of course." Jo rolled her eyes.

"If I can get Mrs. Garrett to drop me off at Harrison's, can I ride home with you?"

"Are you sure you'll be able to hold on to me and all your packages?"

Blair laughed again.

"No, silly. I'm having those shipped directly to our home in Paris."

Jo sighed.

"Of course you are."

The next day, Jo busied herself most of the morning in the stockroom as usual. She could have made enough extra money in commissions by now without Blair's help if 'Junior' would ever let her work out front with the customers. Old man Harrison had turned out to be a pretty nice fellow in Jo's opinion, but his son Stanley was as much a prima donna as any girl Jo had ever met.

Blair had dressed for her shopping spree at Harrison's with as much care as if she were dining with royalty. Blair understood the retail business better than most. In order to get the best service, one had to dress in such a way that demanded respect. Merchants and sales clerks, especially those who earned a commission, respected customers who wore expensive clothes.

Blair was not under the illusion that she would get even a modicum of assistance from Jo as she shopped, but that didn't mean that she should tarnish her image with the other sales clerks. After all, if things went according to plan, this would be the last day Jo had to work at Harrison's Department Store.

Stanley Harrison was at Blair's side before she even had a chance to bat her big brown eyes at him. Blair loved teasing Stanley. He was almost twice her age, but Blair could have the man tongue-tied in seconds when she wanted to spice up her shopping with a dash of flirtatious fun.

"Miss Warner, I've been expecting you."

"Hello, Stanley. How is business?"

"Better now that you are here."

Stanley giggled with Blair as she ran her fingers along the clothes racks and looked around the store for Jo. Noticing her glances, Stanley got straight to business.

"I see you're ready for a sales girl to assist you, I'll have Sarah come over in just a jiffy."

"No, I'd prefer Jo."


"Yes. Jo Polniaczek. She does work here, doesn't she?"

"Uh, yes, but I think you'll really like Sarah, she has an eye for fashion."

Blair teased Jo constantly about her lack of fashion sense, but she didn't like Stanley Harrison's snobbish attitude toward Jo.

"I assure you, Stanley, that I do not require any fashion assistance, I'm very aware of the latest trends."

"Oh, I didn't mean to imply otherwise, Miss Warner. I only meant to suggest that Sarah has more experience assisting customers. Jo usually works in the stockroom."

"Jo may not have as much experience with other customers, but she knows my style preferences better than anyone. Of course, if she is unavailable, I can go elsewhere."

"Now don't you be hasty; I'll send for Miss Polniaczek right away."

"Thank you, Stanley, you take such good care of me. I don't know what I'll do in Paris all summer without that good ole American customer service."

Stanley beamed as he hurried off to get Jo.

"You gotta be kidding me. You can't possibly plan to try on all of those blouses."

"I can and I will."

"Blair, are you planning to wear a different outfit every day this summer?"

"One has to be prepared. I'll need things for cool weather and for warm weather. I'll need things for all the party invitations Mother has already accepted, but I don't want to have to turn down an impromptu invitation because I have nothing appropriate to wear."

"Okay. I'll take these into the dressing room for you. I can see that I'm going to earn every penny of that commission."

"I'll be looking through the skirts while you take care of those, um, could you sort them by color, light to dark? It'll make it easier to match them with the skirts and accessories I select."

Jo frowned at Blair and leaned in close.

"Don't push it, Princess. I ain't one of your servants."

Blair shrugged her shoulders and continued gathering her new summer wardrobe. Three hours later, Jo had to go back into the storeroom to pull out another clothing rack to hold all the items Blair had selected to purchase.

"You know it's almost closing time, Blair?"

Jo was getting tired. It was somewhat fun to watch Blair try on various outfits at first, but after the first hour, all the clothes looked the same to Jo.

"I'm almost finished. All I need now are some swimsuits."


"Yes. I may wind up on a nude beach, Jo, but I don't plan on going native."

Jo blushed, "Yeah, right."

Blair held up a tiny two piece.

"What do you think, Jo, is this sophisticated enough for Paris?"

"Uh, what little there is of it."

Blair giggled and handed the suit to Jo.

"Can you see if you have this in black? I don't look very good in yellow."

"You look great in yellow, Blair. Especially after you've gotten some sun. I think you should try this one."

Blair ran her fingers along Jo's forearm as she retrieved the swimsuit.

"Well then, I'll go try this one on and you can tell me how it looks. You can pick out a few more similar suits while I'm squeezing into this one."

"Uh, sure."

Jo was dumbfounded. She couldn't believe she was going to get paid to stare at Blair while she modeled swimsuits. Jo couldn't help the smile that spread across her face as she gathered up a variety of swimsuits and headed for the dressing area. It had been several minutes since Blair had entered the dressing room, so Jo had no reason to think that Blair might not have had an opportunity to change into the first swimsuit. Jo didn't knock before swinging open the door to the dressing room. An instant later, Jo realized her mistake.

If her brain had been able to communicate with her body, Jo would have turned around before Blair was forced to grab the nearest garment and throw it over her exposed breasts.

Jo was both mortified and exhilarated at the same time. She felt as guilty about enjoying the view as she did for having invaded Blair's privacy.

"Blair, I didn't see anything. I mean, I did see something, but I didn't mean to see anything."

Blair sat down in the nearest chair, her head bowed low so as not to look Jo in the eyes.

"I know you wouldn't walk in on me of purpose, Jo. It was my fault. I've been standing around daydreaming about Paris and I lost track of time."

Jo knelt down on one knee in front of Blair and forced her to meet her eyes.

"If I tell you something, will you promise not to get mad?"

Blair rolled her eyes and laughed.

"I'm really not in a position to argue with you at the moment, Jo. Would you mind waiting outside for a minute while I finish putting on my top?"

"I'll go, but I don't want you to feel embarrassed. I wasn't looking at you."

"I know, Jo. Thanks. Would you go now?"

Jo made no effort to leave, oblivious that her efforts to reduce Blair's embarrassment were only adding to her discomfort.

"If I had been looking at you, I would have liked what I saw. I would have thought you were the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen."

Blair looked deeply into Jo's eyes. Jo wasn't teasing Blair or making fun of the situation. Blair felt a tremendous rush of warmth pulse through her as she gazed into Jo's face. Blair reached out and touched Jo's cheek, in awe of the sincerity of her expression. She started to lean forward and kiss Jo, but then remembered her lack of clothing and quickly pulled her hand away and nodded toward the door instead.

Jo waited until she was certain that Blair was okay before leaving the dressing area. Once outside, Jo closed her eyes and tried unsuccessfully to keep herself from trembling. Jo tried to be courteous and look away from Blair when she changed clothes in their bedroom. Living with four roommates, it was impossible not to occasionally catch a glimpse of one another in various stages of undress, but Jo had never before seen Blair totally naked from the waist up and the feelings the sight had evoked were unsettling.

Jo always felt a tingly sensation whenever Blair touched her or whenever the flirtatious blonde was close to her, but she had only felt such a strong surge of longing on those few occasions when she and Blair had allowed themselves to get carried away after several minutes of passionate kissing and touching. It concerned Jo that just the sight of Blair could elicit such a strong response. If she could be so moved by seeing Blair, how might she feel if she ever had the opportunity to—.

Jo shook her head vigorously. 'I am not going to think about it.' Jo kept saying the words over and over in her head, but they couldn't drown out the memory of what she'd seen, nor could they prevent her from wanting more.

By the time Jo rang up all of Blair's purchases, her body was so ramped up that Jo considered suggesting that Blair call Mrs. G. and ask for a ride home instead of riding with Jo on her bike.

Blair had indeed purchased enough clothing to provide Jo with enough of a commission to finish paying off the money she owed on Mrs. Garrett's birthday present, plus a little extra spending money for Jo.

Jo made an extra effort to be polite to Blair when she noticed that Blair was still unable to look her in the eye and would often blush for no apparent reason any time Jo looked in her direction.

Blair seemed more vulnerable than usual and Jo felt an overwhelming desire to protect and reassure her self-conscious friend.

Blair was full of contradictions. Jo struggled at times to reconcile the conceited, condescending, self-centered Blair with the concerned, loving, sweet Blair. Jo had seen all sides of Blair, but when Blair wanted to be sweet, Jo believed that there wasn't anyone on earth who could resist her.

While shopping at Harrison's, Blair had been a little pushy, but after the incident in the dressing room, Blair's insecurities were pronounced.

As the two girls prepared to mount Jo's motorcycle, Jo solicitously took Blair's hand.

"I'm sorry about what happened, Blair. I'll understand if you'd rather ask Mrs. G. for a ride home."

"There's nothing to apologize for, Jo. It's a wonder something like this hasn't happened sooner. We get dressed within a few feet of each other every day and it's not as if you've never seen a girl before."

"It's not the same as seeing you, Blair. I don't want to make you any more uncomfortable, but you know it's different. I meant what I said earlier, you're beautiful."

Blair stared at her feet for a few seconds before offering Jo a trembling smile.

"I like riding on your bike, Jo. There's no reason to act like a baby over this."

Jo tossed Blair's helmet in her direction and intentionally avoided looking at Blair while she settled onto her bike. It was difficult for Jo to keep her mind from wandering back to the dressing room, however, when she felt Blair's curvaceous body press against her when Blair wrapped her arms around Jo for the trip home.

Blair usually liked to lean forward on Jo's bike and talk to Jo while they were riding, but she remained silent during their trip home, holding tightly to Jo and resting her chin on Jo's shoulder.

When they arrived at the cafeteria, Blair didn't make an effort to get off of the bike.

"Can we ride around a little while longer, Jo?"

"Sure. Where would you like to go?"

"It doesn't matter. I just want to hold you little longer, if that's okay."

"Yeah, it's always okay."

Jo tried to occupy her mind with images of the scenery around them as she drove Blair along one winding road after another. Jo held a tight rein on her thoughts while trying to ignore the soft body cuddled against her back.

It was almost dark when Jo pulled her bike over to the side of the road and turned off the engine.

"Would you like to take a walk down to the stream, Blair? We have time before the sun sets."

Blair answered by swinging her leg over the bike and standing beside Jo while Jo lowered the bike's kickstand. Before Jo had a chance to get off of the bike, Blair reached over and began working with the chinstrap of Jo's helmet. When Blair first started riding with Jo, Jo often helped adjust and release Blair's chinstrap, but she marveled at how Blair could turn such a simple act into something so seductive.

Blair allowed her fingers to gently brush across the sensitive skin beneath Jo's chin as she released the latch. As the chinstrap dangled to the sides, Blair's thumbs caressed Jo's neck as she pushed Jo's helmet up using her fingers. Holding the helmet in one hand, she used her fingers to lightly brush through Jo's hair as it fell loose from the helmet. Seeing Jo's reaction, Blair wondered if Jo was beginning to realize why it took Blair so long to learn how to release the chinstrap on her own helmet without Jo's assistance.

Blair always made a big production of removing her own helmet and Jo sat contentedly on her bike, waiting for the show. Jo was surprised, however, to see Blair remove her helmet with very little fanfare. Jo began to stand, only to find Blair bracing her hand on Jo's thigh as she knelt down and reached beneath the seat to latch the two helmets in place.

By the time Blair finished, Jo was having trouble getting her legs to cooperate. Blair stood patiently beside the motorcycle, looking as though she didn't understand what was taking Jo so long.

When Jo made no effort to get off of the bike, Blair reached her hand out and began caressing Jo's cheek, as she had done in the dressing room.

"I almost kissed you in the dressing room. You were being so sweet and I kept thinking about how nice it used to be when we would spend hours on Cooper's Rock."

"I think about that, too. I don't want to push you, Blair, but I really enjoyed kissing you on your birthday."

Blair tugged at her lip.

"I thought you may have gotten tired of waiting for me to figure out how I feel about you."

Jo reached for Blair's waist and pulled her toward the motorcycle.

"You're worth the wait, Blair."

Jo tugged at Blair's arm, drawing her closer for a feather soft kiss. When Blair responded to the kiss, Jo leaned too far into the kiss and lost her balance, accidentally dislodging the kickstand on the motorcycle.

Jo was able to grab hold of the bike and steady it moments before winding up on the ground, but she had to release Blair in the process. By the time Jo had the bike properly secured, Blair was laughing at the situation.

"I'm sorry, Jo. I warned you that one day I might cause you to fall."

Jo grinned, relieved that Blair's sense of humor had returned.

"I think it would be worth it."

Blair smiled appreciatively before looking up into the darkening sky.

"Jo, it's getting late. Can we come back to the stream another time?"

"Any time you like, Blair. The stream isn't going anywhere . . . and neither am I."

Late that night, with Blair sleeping only a few feet away, Jo found it impossible to fall asleep. Blair had bought more clothes in a few hours at Harrison's than Jo had purchased in her entire life. If any of Jo's old friends or family were asked to describe Jo's 'type', the term 'wealthy heiress' would certainly never appear. Yet, Jo's heart literally ached for Blair. Blair gave Jo something that she had never before experienced: fierce, unwavering, unconditional love. The fact that Blair was also drop dead gorgeous was just icing on the cake for Jo. It was a mystery to Jo as to how someone with Blair's background could love so well, but that was just one of many mysteries surrounding Blair Warner.

With only the moonlight to guide them, green eyes roamed freely over the scantily clad body sleeping in the nearby bed as Jo appreciated the single purchase Blair had brought home with her that day. Jo watched the rise and fall of Blair's chest beneath the pink silk nightie as Blair slept peacefully. Jo knew it would be best if she had never walked in on Blair in the dressing room, but she couldn't bring herself to regret it.

The following weekend, the girls and Mrs. Garrett waited excitedly for Mrs. Garrett's former employer's son to visit. Mrs. Garrett had first visited Eastland Academy when Mr. Drummond's daughter attended the school. Although Kimberly Drummond left Eastland the following year, the headmaster had been so impressed with Mrs. Garrett that he offered her a job as dorm mother. As much as Mrs. Garrett loved Eastland, she missed the Drummonds and often invited members of the Drummond family to visit her at Eastland.

As she exited the kitchen where she had been preparing a special meal for her visitor, Mrs. Garrett came upon an exuberant Jo.

"What's up, Doc?"

Mrs. Garrett was confused by the comment until remembering the carrot in her hand. Jo had been especially happy that week and Mrs. Garrett was pleased that Jo and Blair had apparently smoothed over whatever lingering resentments they held toward one another. She smiled more at the idea of Jo watching Bugs Bunny than at the joke.

A short time later, Willis Drummond arrived, carrying so many boxes that they were stacked too high for him to see around them. Jo met him at the door and yanked the top box from the stack.

"I'm helping Blair," Willis explained.

"She said to me 'Oh Willis, could WE go to the post office and pick up a few packages?'."

Willis was doing a dead-on impression of Blair, including her signature hair flip, and both Jo and Tootie were laughing hysterically.

"Well it looks like that WE is ME."

Jo was enjoying seeing someone else running Blair's errands for a change. She was certain that if Willis hadn't been around, she would have been carting packages back and forth from the post office on her motorcycle all day.

Blair's latest project was to become one of the working rich, as opposed to being one of the idle rich. Jo recognized Blair's newfound career selling Countess Calvert beauty products as an effort to conform to what she imagined Jo expected of her. Since Jo and Blair spent so much time together, people were always comparing the two girls. It made Jo feel a little uneasy when people spoke admiringly of her work ethic and shrugged off Blair's accomplishments as frivolous.

After carrying Blair's cosmetics packages up to the girls' bedroom, Willis's first mistake was picking Blair's new pink nightie out of the laundry basket and holding it up, obviously enchanted.

"What is this?"

Blair grimaced at Willis and jerked her nightie from his hands

"I'll take that!"

Jo's glare didn't disappear with Blair's nightie. That particular purchase had been for her benefit and no one else's. Not having learned his lesson, Willis continued to examine the contents of the basket.

The next item to catch Willis's attention was a pair of blue pajamas with feet.

"What's this, Tootie? Still wearing feetie pajamas?"

Tootie's embarrassed expression was the last straw for Jo. She claimed Tootie's pajamas as her own. She didn't know if Willis would buy it because Jo doubted that she had ever worn those even as a baby, but she wasn't going to allow Tootie to be humiliated in front of Willis.

"They're mine. You wanna make something of it?"

Jo's demeanor was threatening and Willis backed off. Noticing Jo's basketball, he decided he'd be much better off playing ball than looking though the girls' laundry. Jo was happy to accept Willis's invitation to play; she was always in the mood to shoot baskets and rarely got a chance to play against someone as skilled as Willis.

As Jo left the room, spinning her basketball on her index finger, she winked at Tootie, who was smiling her gratitude.

When Jo and Willis returned to the lounge after playing basketball, Tootie filled Jo in on Blair's plan to use Natalie as a walking advertisement for her cosmetics.

"Where are they?"

"Natalie is in the bathroom preparing her face, whatever that means, and Blair is in our room."

Jo frowned and headed for her bedroom. She found Blair sitting at their desk with what looked like a chemistry set.

"I can't believe you talked Natalie into letting you put that goop all over her face and parade her around campus like a walking advertisement."

Blair stuck out her lower lip and presented Jo with her 'pouty face'.

"I thought you would be proud of me, Jo. You're always complaining that I don't value money and that I don't understand how hard other people have to work in order to earn the things I take for granted. I'm trying to be industrious. I thought you would be proud of me."

Jo grinned at Blair. Everything Blair said was true, Jo knew that she had no right to complain about the type of job Blair had selected, she should be more supportive of the effort the pampered girl was making. The thoughts Blair's extended lower lip evoked didn't hurt Jo's attitude toward the blonde either.

"You keep poking that lip out like that and somebody is liable to take hold of it."

Because of the incident in the dressing room at Harrison's, Jo was cautious about teasing Blair too much, but she couldn't resist pointing out how tempted she was by Blair's protruding lip.

"My goodness, Jo, you're acting positively civilized. The old Jo would have just thrown me on the bed and swallowed it. It's so nice to see that you've learned to use words to express more than your disapproval. Even your tie is on straight for a change."

Jo laughed.

"So I guess you're still tabulating all the improvements in me that you think can be attributed to the time you've spent 'mentoring' me?"

Blair walked over to Jo and began loosening her neatly knotted tie. She smiled seductively at Jo while she rearranged it into the haphazard style Jo usually sported. Blair finished by adjusting Jo's collar, sliding her thumbs along the side of Jo's neck as she did.

"And what makes you think I'd consider that an improvement?"

Jo was totally surprised by Blair's blatant flirting, but Blair was equally surprised by her behavior and quickly exited the room before Jo's mind had a chance to communicate to her body that it had been given the green light to take action.

"Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn."

Jo was still cursing when Tootie entered the room.

"What's Blair done now?"

"Oh, nothing. We were arguing about her using Nat's face as a billboard."

"I'm glad I'm not the only one who has a problem with that."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but I think Natalie might be reading more into all the attention she's getting from Blair than she should. I said one little thing about Blair and Natalie jumped all over me, like she was more Blair's friend than I was."

"Aw, she'll get over it. She's just enjoying all the attention she's getting, I'm sure she knows it's all temporary."

"I hope so."

"Uh, Tootie, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, Jo."

"Listen close, okay?"


"If a person does the right thing instead of doing the wrong thing and then the person they did the right thing for tells them that they wouldn't have minded if they'd have done the wrong thing, they might even have preferred the wrong thing, does that make the wrong thing right?"

Tootie stared blankly at Jo. Sometimes Tootie couldn't tell if sharing a room with older girls instead of living in the dorms with her classmates was a blessing or a curse. Next to Natalie, there was no one Tootie would rather hang out with than Jo, unless Blair was around. If Blair was in the room with Jo and Tootie, Tootie may as well be in the room all by herself for all the attention she would get. On the other hand, sometimes being alone with Jo meant that Tootie had to be the one to listen to Jo's mental gymnastics. While Blair seemed to enjoy hearing Jo bend reality as if it were a trick fork, Tootie always wound up too confused to add anything to the conversation.

"Uh, could you repeat the question?"

"Oh, just forget about it."

"You know, Jo, I don't think you should think about stuff like that so much. It's not good for you."

Jo smiled back at Tootie.

"Well, the things that aren't good for you are sometimes the sweetest things in life."

"You're doing it again, Jo."

"You're right, Kid, it's best not to think so much."

Jo laughed and started packing her bag for the slumber party she and Blair were attending that night.

"I hate being in this room alone at night, it's scary."

"Won't Natalie be with you?"

"Didn't you know? Natalie is going to Debbie's slumber party with Blair."

"Huh? I think you got your wires crossed there, Tootie."

"There's nothing wrong with my wires. Blair invited Natalie to the party to show off her cosmetics line."

Jo frowned at this new development. She knew Blair meant well, but including Natalie in Blair's social activities could mislead Natalie and Jo didn't want to see her younger friend hurt.

After finding out that Blair had invited Natalie to Debbie's slumber party, Jo went looking for Blair, but she and Natalie had disappeared.

Later that afternoon, Blair and Natalie showed up late for dinner preparation. That's when Mrs. Garrett, Jo, and Tootie got their first look at the new and questionably improved Natalie Greene. Natalie was almost unrecognizable, her face totally redesigned by Countess Calvert cosmetics. Mrs. Garrett attempted to hide her shock and her disapproval, but not very well. Tootie thought Natalie looked like a movie star and Jo wondered how anyone could breathe under so much makeup.

When Natalie started telling the other girls about all the various beauty products she had purchased, Jo and Tootie began questioning her as to how she intended to pay for her new beauty regime. They soon found out when they overhead Natalie's phone conversation with her mother.

"I'll bet you're thinking that I shouldn't have told that little untruth to my mother just now."

Both Jo and Tootie were scowling their disapproval. The amount of money Natalie had spent on cosmetics was outrageous enough, but the other two girls had just heard Natalie lie to her mother about why she needed additional money to buy the products.

"It wasn't an untruth. It was a big fat ugly lie and it stinks out loud."

Jo smiled her approval of Tootie's comment, the younger girl did have a way with words when she was upset.

"I hear a note of disapproval in your voice."

"Listen harder, it's disgust."

Jo was holding back, allowing Tootie to confront their addled roommate.

"I'm just helping Blair to be a successful saleswoman. After all, she is my best friend."

Jo and Tootie were both stunned by Natalie's declaration. Tootie sounded hurt and pitiful as she turned puppy eyes toward Natalie.

"I thought I was your best friend."

"You're my best younger friend."

Natalie punctuated her condescending remark with a pat on Tootie's head.

"Blair's my best older friend."

Natalie had gone too far and Jo couldn't resist confronting her. Jo snickered at Natalie, trying to mimic Blair's behavior when she was about to belittle someone.

"What makes you think Blair is your best friend?"

"Where have you been? We're inseparable. She takes me everywhere."

Jo couldn't help but notice that Natalie was also mimicking Blair, which made it even weirder that she found herself fighting over Blair with Natalie.

"Sure she does, you're wearing everything she sells."

"Yeah, you're a lot easier to lug around than a sample case."

Natalie may have been trying to act like Blair, but she was no match for Jo. Jo was shocked when Natalie lost her temper and screamed at her two roommates.

"I happen to know that Blair is very sincere. She and I are best friends and we're gonna stay that way, okay?"

Tootie was hurt and confused so Jo tried to comfort her.

"She didn't mean that, Tootie. All the attention has gone to her head."

"Earlier you said she'd get over it."

"I was wrong. I'll put a stop to this and Nat will start acting normal again."

Tootie looked like she might cry and Jo felt bad for not paying more attention to Tootie's concerns before.

"What are you going to do, Jo?"

"Don't worry. I'll talk to Blair and make her stop using Natalie to sell her goop."

"How are you going to convince Blair to do that, she's selling a lot of cosmetics?"

"You let me worry about that. All you have to do is be there for Natalie when her popularity bubble bursts."

"I hear you're bringing a date to the slumber party tonight."


"You heard me. What's up with you and Natalie?"

Blair was incredulous.

"Jo, you can't possibly be jealous of Natalie."

"Why not? You've been hanging all over her all day. You're always telling her how beautiful she is and how luscious her lips are. One more comment about her baby blues and I'm gonna throw up."

"Are you playing games with me, because it's not funny?"

"You don't see me laughing, do ya?"

"Jo, the only reason I'm spending time with Natalie is to boost my cosmetic sales. Natalie's not coming to the party as my friend, she's coming as a sales associate."

Jo arched her eyebrows, having trapped Blair into admitting what she would have denied if Jo had been straightforward in accusing her of using Natalie.

"Does Natalie know that?"

"Of course she does."

"You'd better be very sure, Blair. People don't like being used and Natalie has been a good friend to you. I'd hate to see you lose a good friend over a few sales."

"Come on, Jo, Natalie gets to go to a party she really wants to go to and I get to unload some of these cosmetics. What could possibly be wrong with that arrangement?"

"Natalie told Tootie today that you were her best friend. Tootie was crushed."

"Jo, she didn't really say that, she could never hurt Tootie that way."

"You can ask Tootie. Natalie totally brushed her off like she was yesterday's news and wasn't gentle with me when she pronounced that you two were best friends either, meaning I must be yesterday's news as well."

Blair frowned. She had been overly nice toward Natalie since giving her a makeover, but she never dreamed Natalie would think more of it than it was. Natalie was usually so perceptive. Of course, Natalie had been a little insecure after the incident with Neil Richards and perhaps that insecurity was clouding her thoughts.

"What should I do?"

"Tell Natalie the truth."

"What truth? I never told Natalie that I considered her my best friend and I certainly didn't try to hide the reason why I invited her to Debbie's party. I can't just put my arm around her and tell her point blank that I'm using her."

"Blair, you don't have a choice. You can't keep doing this, not knowing how she feels."

"You're right. I'll talk to her right after our visit from the Countess tomorrow."

"What about tonight?"

"It's just one night. Everyone is expecting Natalie to be there. I promised to do makeovers for everyone who purchased cosmetics."

Jo cautiously approached Blair and placed her hands on the other girl's hips.

"Do you think you'll be able to tear yourself away from Countess Calvert and Natalie long enough to spend a little private time with me soon? Maybe we could ride my bike up to the lake near Cooper's Rock."

Blair hedged.

"I hope I didn't give you the wrong impression earlier because of what I said."

Blair began chewing her lower lip nervously when she saw the vein in Jo's neck begin to twitch.

"Don't play games with me, Blair. I was doing everything you asked me to do. You're the one who started this."

Jo started to storm off, but Blair grabbed her by the sleeve. Despite Jo's scowl, Blair held to her arm.

"Jo, stop."

"Why, so you can jerk me around some more? This isn't fun for me, Blair. You can't flirt with me and kiss me and then act like I'm nothing to you."

"Jo, I'm scared."

"Of what, me?"

"Of us. Of this thing between us. Maybe it's not the same for you, but sometimes I look at you and I can't stop myself from reaching out and touching you. Don't you get it? I couldn't stop if I wanted to. That scares me."

Jo squinted her eyes skeptically.

"Don't give me that. You're always the one to stop. You don't hear me asking you to stop, now do ya?"

"Don't you ever worry about what would happen if we let ourselves get too excited and lost control?"

Jo was angry. Blair's behavior didn't make any sense. Jo knew that Blair was attracted to her, but every time they started kissing, Blair would get uncomfortable and push Jo away. Jo was beginning to wonder if Blair would ever again allow herself to act on her attraction to Jo.

"Don't you trust me to stop when you ask me to? Haven't I always?"

"What if I didn't ask you to stop, what would happen then?"

"I don't think we need to worry about that happening." Jo scoffed.

Blair pulled away from Jo, the tears pooling in her eyes.

"It's not fair to put all of that on my shoulders, Jo."

Jo was still a little angry, but Blair's tears overruled everything else. Jo tried to reassure Blair, although she still didn't understand the problem.

"Come on, Blair, you've never lost your head in the heat of the moment before."

"Yes I have."

Tears began to flow down Blair's face, totally unnerving Jo. Jo wanted to hold Blair and make her feel better, but was afraid to touch her while she was so upset.

"The night before you eloped with Eddie. If Natalie and Tootie hadn't lost interest in the movie they were watching, I wouldn't have said no. I might not have listened if you had said no."

Jo took a deep breath and swallowed hard. She and Blair still avoided the subject of Eddie as much as possible. Jo remembered the look in Blair's eyes when Jo had warned her that someone was at the door. Blair had been totally disoriented, she hadn't even heard Natalie knocking on the door and yelling.

"You're right, Blair, I shouldn't put the responsibility all on you. Look, just because I feel ready to be with you in that way doesn't mean that I shouldn't think about what you need."

It was Blair's turn to swallow hard.

"You mean you wouldn't be upset if we, um, if we didn't stop?"

"Upset? Blair, I dream about being with you."

"You can't."

"Oh, I think I can. Don't you think I get scared, too? I don't know what to do with these feelings either. Even when I'm angry with you, I want to feel you next to me. It's wonderful and terrible all at the same time, but I'm not gonna run away from it. Are you?"

Jo took Blair's hand and rubbed it soothingly. It was getting late and they should have already left for Debbie's party.

"Blair, we can stay here and talk if you want. We don't have to go to Debbie's party."

"Natalie would be so disappointed. She's worked as hard as I have."

Jo sighed. She had hoped that Blair would tell her what was going on in that tangled brain of hers, but it wasn't going to happen tonight.

"Okay, let's go sell some cosmetics."

Blair smiled and tossed her hair.

"Are you really going to help me sell my Countess Calvert cosmetics?"

"Sure I am. I'm great at selling. I hold the Harrison's Department Store record for the largest commission earned in a single day."

Jo laughed, breaking some of the tension.

"Well, I'll need your help and Natalie's because no one would want to buy any type of cosmetics from me when I look like this. I picked a fine time to cry. Are my eyes all red and puffy?"

"Your eyes are chestnut brown with gold and green flecks that seem to dance around inside of them. They are always beautiful."

Blair wrapped Jo in her arms and squeezed.

"Okay, let's go make those sales."

"Hey, maybe I'll buy some of that goop with all the commission money I earned at Harrison's."

Blair placed both hands on either side of Jo's face.

"You'll do no such thing. Your face is perfect just the way it is and you have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen. They sparkle."

Once again, Jo was taken off guard, uncertain how to respond. Blair's hands were always touching Jo's face lately and she was often complimenting Jo, but Jo realized that Blair most often behaved that way when the two of them were running late for something or when there was the likelihood that someone would interrupt them.

"Come on, Nat's waiting downstairs."

Jo was on her best behavior at Debbie's slumber party and it was a good thing. Otherwise, she might have had to knock Natalie in the head a few times. Jo reprimanded herself for believing that Natalie would be impervious to Blair's flirtation. Blair didn't mean to flirt with people, it just came naturally. Flipping her hair and smiling seductively at someone when she was making a request was like ending a question with a question mark for Blair. Blair did it unconsciously, but Jo had long ago noticed that boys weren't the only ones susceptible to Blair's charms.

It wasn't all the attention Natalie was getting that bothered Jo, it was how possessively Natalie was acting toward Blair that had Jo in knots. Jo had been half joking with Blair when she warned her that she could wind up losing Natalie's friendship over her cosmetics enterprise, but now her concern was real. Jo was certain that Natalie didn't even realize what was happening. She'd seen dozens of straight girls looking confused after being on the receiving end of Blair's attention.

Once the girls at the party started writing checks and Blair started giving makeovers to everyone in the room, Jo calmed down. Natalie already had her makeover, she'd have no excuse for hanging so close to Blair once the Countess Calvert makeovers got in full swing.

"Hey, Jo, this is a great party, isn't it?"

It was the first time Natalie had spoken to Jo since the three girls had arrived at the party.

"It's okay, if you like this sort of thing."

"Don't you like these parties?"

"Nah, not too much."

"Why do you come?"

Perhaps it was the emotional conversation she'd shared with Blair earlier or the need to mark her territory so that Natalie wouldn't take Blair's attentiveness too seriously, but Jo was uncharacteristically open about her friendship with Blair.

"I come because Blair likes them."

On any other day, Natalie would have raised her eyebrows at that statement. However, Natalie was drunk from all the attention she had been receiving from all the girls at the party and didn't read anything at all into Jo's comment.

"I like them, too. Blair and I have a lot in common, we both like slumber parties."

Jo turned her head sideways and looked at Natalie. Jo was always joking that the chemicals in Blair's makeup and hairspray were frying her brain. She was beginning to believe that those things really could cause brain damage because Natalie's brain was definitely impaired at the moment.

"Blair and I are going to another party tomorrow night after we spend the day visiting with our friends in the dorms."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, don't worry, Jo, you can come with us."

"I can? How nice of the two of you to include me."

"Don't mention it."

Jo rolled her eyes and sought out someone else to spend time with, noticing Molly on the other side of the room, Jo made a beeline to the abrasive red head. Molly might have a crush on Blair, but at least she knew her place in the scheme of things.

Blair, noticing Jo's destination, also made her way over to Molly.

"Jo, look at all the orders I got! All of these in one night, I'm going to be a cosmetics tycoon."

"Easy there, Warner, you don't want to limit yourself to one product."

"Oh, you're right. I could branch out into fragrances and then fashion. I was only kidding about being like Gloria Vanderbilt, but I could do it."

"Of course you could do it!"

Jo wasn't happy to hear Natalie's voice jumping into the conversation. She hadn't had any time with Blair since they'd left their room earlier and Natalie was getting in the way.

"Hey, Nat, why don't you go get your sleeping bag and I'll help you to find a place to put it. The rest of us all kind of have a routine."

"Oh, that's okay, I'll just put mine beside Blair's."

Molly choked on her soft drink. Everyone knew that Blair was the only one brave enough to sleep next to Jo. The other girls thought Jo might have a bad dream and hit them in the middle of the night. It didn't help Jo's image that Blair had intentionally promoted the misconception that Jo could sometimes be physically violent even though she was still asleep. It helped Blair ensure that their other friends stayed well away from Jo when it came time to go to sleep.

Jo was happy to let Molly, who slept on the other side of Blair during slumber parties, enlighten Natalie.

"That won't work, Natalie, I sleep beside Blair."

"I don't mind if you sleep on the other side of Blair."

Blair sent Jo a pleading look, she was beginning to understand the reasons for Jo's earlier concerns, but she didn't know how to let Natalie down without hurting her feelings. Jo figured it wouldn't kill her to sleep a little further from Blair and helping Blair out of an awkward social situation might earn her some valuable brownie points.

"It'll be fine, Molly. Natalie can put her sleeping bag down between mine and Blair's. I'm sure we can make room for her."

Blair gave Jo a dazzling smile of appreciation. She hadn't wanted to hurt Natalie's feelings, but if she'd had to choose between hurting one or the other, Jo would win Blair's consideration every time.

Blair's sense of relief was swiftly washed away when Cindy joined the conversation.

"There's plenty of room in the corner where Sue Ann and I have placed our sleeping bags. Why don't you come over there, Jo? There's not enough room for both you and Natalie by the closet."

Cindy was right, but Blair didn't like the suggestion.

"I'm not so sure that's a good idea, Cindy. Jo is a restless sleeper, but Natalie and I are both used to her."

"Oh, I understand. You're worried about what Margo said about us."

Blair shifted nervously; she hadn't told Jo about the confrontation with Margo on the way to Shakey's.

"What did Margo say?" Jo asked.

When Natalie interrupted, the conversation was redirected and Jo decided she would have to find out more about Margo later.

"I'll help Jo move her sleeping bag."

Before Jo knew what was happening, Natalie was gathering Jo's things and following Cindy to the other side of the dorm room. When Blair glared her disapproval at Jo, Jo placed the blame for the sudden turn of events squarely on Blair's shoulders.

"Hey, she's your creation, Dr. Frankenstein."

Later that night, Jo had trouble sleeping. She had grown accustomed to looking across the room at Blair any time she grew restless, and it was unnerving to see Cindy looking back at her instead. While Blair's glances caused pleasurable tingles, Cindy's glances made Jo feel awkward and exposed.

Jo didn't bother trying to sleep. She was particularly sensitive when Tootie teased her about snoring and she normally counted on Blair to nudge her if she started breathing too loudly in her sleep. Jo intentionally avoided making eye contact with Cindy and was grateful when her friend finally fell asleep. She often glanced over to Blair's side of the room and immediately noticed when someone left the room. She didn't need a light to recognize the silhouette of the girl framed in the doorway, she'd know Blair's outline anywhere. She glanced briefly at Cindy and Sue Ann before quietly crawling out of her sleeping bag. Before Jo could stand, however, she saw Natalie get up and follow Blair.

'Enough is enough', thought Jo. She loved Natalie and knew that Blair felt the same, but there was no way Jo was going to sit by and do nothing while Natalie was traipsing after Blair in the middle of the night.

As soon as Jo left the dorm room, she heard voices coming from the community bathroom. Blair and Natalie were whispering to one another, so Jo had to strain to hear. She almost walked into the bathroom to confront Natalie, but stopped when she heard Blair soothing Natalie's feelings.

"It's not like that, Natalie. You know that you are one of my dearest friends, but Tootie has always been your best friend and I respect that."

"That's just your way of saying that I'm not your best friend. The only reason you've been spending time with me is so that you can make money off of my gorgeous face."

"That's not the only reason. Think about it, Natalie. Do you really enjoy spending time with me more than being with Tootie? No one gets your sense of humor like Tootie. I can't even tell when you're joking half the time."

"It does take a unique person to fully appreciate my humor. Sometimes, though, I like to be around girls who are more grown up. Tootie's still a kid in a lot of ways and your friends are so sophisticated."

"Do you know what it means to be sophisticated, Natalie? It means to be stripped of innocence. Is that what you want?"

Jo smiled. Blair was doing a good job of letting their friend down easy and Jo was glad that it seemed like the friendship between Natalie and Blair wasn't going to suffer because of their selling partnership. Never one to listen in on someone else's conversation, Jo started to leave, but hearing her name caught her attention.

"At least your friends know what I'm talking about when I talk about boys. Even Jo has plenty of experience, thanks to Eddie. Tootie's never even kissed a boy. She can't understand what I'm feeling."

"Oh, is that what this is about? You know I'm always happy to talk with you about those things. We don't have to be best friends for that, Natalie."

"Yes we do. Best friends tell one another everything. If your best friend is Jo then you'll have to tell her everything I tell you."

"What? That's ridiculous. Best friends don't have to tell one another everything. In fact, Jo keeps a lot of things to herself. She's a very private person. She wouldn't expect me to tell her things that you talked to me about in confidence. In fact, she'd get mad at me if I did."

"Does Jo tell you things in confidence about Eddie? Do you think Jo is in love with Eddie?"

Jo felt her heart sink. She listened for Blair's reply, but none came.

"She does talk to you about him, right? She talks to Tootie all the time about him so I know you must have heard everything."

"Jo doesn't kiss and tell. She isn't going to tell me or anyone else about Eddie."

"Huh. She talks to Tootie about Eddie."

"I suspect that Tootie is doing most of the talking about Eddie."

"Yeah, you're probably right. Tootie is half in love with him herself."

"Good for Tootie. You should ask her if you want to know more about Eddie."

Jo didn't like listening in on other people's conversations, but if Natalie was going to question Blair about Jo and Eddie, Jo felt she had a right to listen.

"She's already told me everything she knows about Jo and Eddie. Tootie and I tell one another everything."

"That's great, for you and Tootie. Jo and I keep some things to ourselves. Maybe that's part of being a little older. Anyway, what could you possibly want to talk to me about that you wouldn't want me telling Jo?"

"You won't tell?"

"Not if you ask me not to."

Jo knew at that point that she couldn't justify listening to more of the conversation. Natalie had specifically said that she didn't want Blair to tell Jo about their conversation, but Jo couldn't help herself. Jo believed that Natalie's recent behavior was simply the result of an innocent crush, but she wasn't taking a chance that anyone, even a friend, might be trying to steal her girl.

"Well, it's about, um, the birds and the bees."

Jo, who had intended to leave once she was certain that Natalie wasn't making a pass at Blair, sat back down. If Natalie had ideas of doing anything other than TALK about the birds and the bees, Jo was going to be close enough to take immediate action.

"I can tell you everything you want to know about boys, Nat. I am Blair Warner."

Natalie quirked her face as if it pained her to continue.

"You know that I never did those things Neil Richards said that I did, right?"

"Of course. Neil Richards is a twerp. I'm glad Jo beat him up for you."

Jo's grin broadened. 'Yeah. I knew she wasn't as mad about that as she pretended', thought Jo.

"What I need to know is, um, how far is too far?"

"Uh, what do you mean, exactly?"

"I mean, exactly how far can a girl go without getting a bad reputation?"

"Didn't you ask Mrs. Garrett that same question last year when she taught the sex education class?"

Jo's mind was racing. 'Wow, Mrs. G. taught sex ed last year? How embarrassing. I'm glad I didn't have to sit through that.'

"Yes, but she never answered it. All she talked about was self-respect and learning about how our bodies work."

"She talked about more than that, Natalie."

"Maybe I didn't pay enough attention."

"Why are you so interested now?"

"Well, I did go out with a lot of boys when they thought I would do things with them. Even though I didn't do anything, I might have thought about doing things. Let's face it, Blair, Peekskill isn't the most exciting town on the planet. As much as I enjoy playing board games and going to the movies with Tootie, there are certain kinds of fun that I can only have with guys."


"'? What happened to 'I am Blair Warner, ask me anything'?"

"This isn't really something I should be talking with you about, Nat. You should talk to Mrs. Garrett. That's who I go to when I have this sort of question."

Jo was impressed with how Blair was handling things and it looked as though Natalie was only interested in boys, so Jo stood up again, preparing to leave.

"Come on, Blair. You've done more with guys than anyone else I know. Just tell me where you draw the line, so I'll know."

Jo didn't like hearing Natalie talk like that. Jo knew Blair well enough to know that Natalie was mistaken, but she was interested to know where Blair would draw the line. Jo didn't want to press Blair beyond her comfort zone, so it would be helpful to know when to back off without Blair having to push her away.

"First of all, I haven't done nearly as much as people think. You should know better than anyone that you can't always believe that kind of gossip."

"I'm just going by the things you said last year, Blair."

"Well, let's just say that Neil Richards wasn't the first person to make the mistake of thinking that exaggerating his level of experience would enhance his reputation. Mrs. Garrett helped me to see what a big mistake I was making when I acted like I knew a lot more than I did. It's taken me a long time to correct that mistake and a lot of the guys I date still expect a lot more than they're ever going to get from me."

"I know you're not easy, Blair, but I also know that you are, uh, interested. I'm more interested in it than I used to be, too, and I want to experiment a little, but I don't want to go too far."

"Like I did with Steve?"

Suddenly Jo's knees felt weak and she found herself sitting outside the community bathroom once again.

"Uh, I know that you didn't do anything with Steve. He was too much of a gentleman."

"Natalie, I know that you had a crush on Steve, but no guy is that much of a gentleman. You can't depend on that."

Jo could feel her face growing hot. 'Who the hell is Steve? Blair's never mentioned a guy named Steve.'

"Well, when you wanted to experiment with Steve, he turned you down. Right?"

"Natalie, we drove up to Make Out Mountain in his brother's van. What exactly do you think gentleman Steve had on his mind? Don't you remember that the police had to bring me home that night? Does that sound like a fun date to you?"

As Jo's temper grew, so did her energy level. She had been slumped against the doorway, but she had to stand up and pace as she continued to listen. 'Why would the police have to bring Blair home from her date? Why hasn't anyone told me about this?'

Natalie and Blair continued to talk about the night Blair came home with a police escort.


Blair entered the dorm lobby looking remorseful.

"Blair, are you okay?"

Mrs. Garrett went to the young girl immediately.


The word was spoken with very little assurance. Mr. Bradley was still pacing back and forth in front of Blair's friends. He was furious with Mrs. Garrett for allowing Blair to go out on a date with an eighteen-year-old boy with a van and he was blaming the evening's events on Mrs. Garrett's sex education class.

"I want to know everything that went on tonight."

When Mrs. Garrett glared at him, letting Mr. Bradley know that Blair would certainly not be confiding what happened to him, he elaborated.

"I am talking about the police involvement."

"Steve drove me up to Sky View Ridge Road."

Blair's words were delivered in a matter of fact tone. She didn't display any emotion.

"Make Out Mountain?"

In response to another one of Mrs. Garrett's glares and snickers from the other girls, Mr. Bradley again tried to explain.

"Well that's what the kids call it who go up there."

"Not just the kids."

Mrs. Garrett smirked, but Mr. Bradley continued his interrogation.

"How did the police become involved?"

"Steve got a speeding ticket because he tore out of the parking lot when it was all over."

Despite Blair's emotionless delivery, Mrs. Garrett became alarmed.

"What was all over?"

Blair placed a reassuring arm on Mrs. Garrett, but wasn't able to produce the smile she was trying to effect.

"Nothing. Our talk."

Mrs. Garrett accepted the short explanation and was relieved.

"Well you see. Just have a little faith."

"The police are outside. They want you to vouch for my identity."

Mr. Bradley started out the door shaking his head in annoyance.

"Well, it could have been worse. Our first flashing red light at Eastland."

Once Mr. Bradley was out of the room, Blair turned to Mrs. Garrett.

"Mrs. Garrett, you were so right."

"Good. About what?"

"About what you said about self-esteem and pride and not rushing things. They were all true."

"I'm so proud of you."

Blair's expression turned sad.

"Don't be. It was Steve who wanted to take things slow. He asked me to go steady."

Mrs. Garrett liked the handsome delivery boy and was so relieved with Blair's explanation that she didn't give her a chance to continue before deciding to use the event as a teaching lesson for the other girls.

"Are you listening, girls? You see, there are some boys who don't have to rush things."

"Not all of them."

Nancy whined. She had to deal with Roger's constant begging and it was getting old. Blair almost smiled when the other girls laughed at Nancy's comment, but she felt she needed to explain to Mrs. Garrett that Steve wasn't the angel she had mistaken him for.

"Steve wanted to do the right thing, but then when I didn't want to, he tried to do the wrong thing. He got mad and raced off."

Natalie thought about that evening from a different perspective. Blair had been very quiet and sort of shy when she got home. She'd been very formal when relaying the details to Mr. Bradley. Natalie hadn't realized it the year before, but after rooming with Blair for most of the year, she knew that Blair tended to fall back on her formal manners when she was upset or afraid.

"What did you mean when you said that Steve tried to do the wrong thing and then got mad?"

"I know how much you liked Steve. That's why I didn't tell you that I was dating him. I couldn't tell you everything back then. Mrs. Garrett figured it all out and had a nice talk with me in private later that night. That's why I know she'd be the best one for you to talk with now."

"Did Steve try to do more than you wanted?"

Jo was holding her breath as she waited for Blair to answer Natalie's question.

"Well, it's not like he didn't have good reason to believe that I'd be willing. I did go to Make Out Mountain with him. I did follow him into the back of the van. I had been very forward with him that night."

"Hey, that's no excuse. Mrs. Garrett taught us that 'no' means 'no'."

"It's not as simple as that when you're in the back of a van with a guy you've been teasing all night. That's what I'm trying to tell you, Natalie. You can't experiment with guys like that. Some of them are going to get mad if you change your mind."

"Uh, so you mean that you had planned to go all the way with Steve, but then you changed your mind?"


"Why did you change your mind?"

"I thought I'd like it. My mother told me that I would. My friends all said that I would. Allie had sex with David and she liked it."

"I thought you changed your mind because you didn't think you should have sex. Are you saying that you thought you SHOULD have sex, but decided not to because you weren't, uh, you know."

"That's exactly what I mean. The problem is that I waited too late to say 'no'. The more Steve touched me, the more uncomfortable I was with it. I definitely didn't want to be with Steve, but when I told him to stop he got really mad and it was very scary for a while. I got out of the van when he was. . . uh, well, I got out and started walking home. He got mad and tore out after me. That's when the police stopped him for speeding."

Jo let out the breath she had been holding, but her fists were still clenched by her side.

"What do you think would have happened if the police hadn't stopped Steve?"

"Nothing. I'm sure he would have calmed down and come to his senses by the time he caught up with me."

"You're not really sure, are you?"

"It doesn't matter, Natalie. All I'm saying is that Mrs. Garrett was right. We shouldn't rush things. You may not realize that you're not comfortable with something until the other person is kind of carried away. If you aren't ready to go all the way, then say 'no' early so that the other person doesn't get mad or hurt."

"Hurt? Don't tell me that you felt sorry for Steve?"

"No. Steve shouldn't have gotten physical with me when he was mad at me. I'm talking about when you're with someone you love. You can hurt them if you let things go too far before you're ready. Natalie, you have to be emotionally ready. You have to trust the other person a lot before you can be like that with them. Even though I didn't go all the way with Steve, I went further than I should have. I regret that now. I should have waited until I was in love to do certain things. I can't get that back now."

"Are you in love?"

"I thought we were talking about your love life."

"What love life?"

"Oh, it'll happen. I didn't even know what love was when I was your age. Don't get in too big a hurry, Nat."

"You sound like Mrs. Garrett."

"Thanks. I still think I'm a poor substitute, but she'd probably tell you that you are not ready to go all the way. You are much too young for that."

"I'm not much younger than Allison was last year when she and David went all the way."

Jo's ears perked up again at the mention of Allison's name. She was beginning to wish that she had never followed Natalie down the hallway. She felt terrible about listening to Blair's private conversation, but she couldn't 'unhear' words already spoken and now her protective instincts wouldn't let her stop listening.

"You should learn from Allie's mistakes."

"I don't think Allison considers her baby a mistake."

"Allison had sex with David one time. One time! She is lucky that David took his share of responsibility. A lot of boys don't."

"But Allison and David love one another."

Blair laughed.

"What makes you think that?"

"Because they made love."

"Do you think those boys who asked you out after Neil spread the rumor that you were easy were in love with you?"

"No, but how do you know when you're in love?"

"I can't explain it. I can tell you that being with that person isn't an experiment. You aren't thinking about which base you're on or what's proper, you just want to be together. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world to hold the person you love, but you have to be careful. When you love someone, just holding that person's hand is enough to make you want to go all the way."

"Are you going to tell me who has Blair Warner gushing?"


"Come on, Blair. You can't keep something like that a secret. Even Jo couldn't help talking about being in love with Eddie."

"That was a long time ago, Natalie. A lot can happen between two people in that amount of time, especially if they are separated."

"Do you think Jo is still in love with Eddie?"

"I don't—. No, I don't think that Jo is in love with Eddie."

"You don't like him, do you?"

"No. I don't."

"Why not?"

"How many reasons do you need?"

"Just one. He seems kind of perfect to me."

"Eddie is a nice enough guy, I just don't think he's right for Jo."

"But why?"

"Mainly because he's too serious. Jo's too young to be tied down to one person."

"Isn't that what love's all about, staying with your one true soul mate?"

"I don't think that Eddie is Jo's one true soul mate."

"Why not?"

Blair's temper flared.

"He's not good enough for her, okay?"

"Because he doesn't have money?"

"No! That has nothing to do with it. I think Jo can do better, that's all. Jo can have her pick of suitors."

"Do you think that Jo and Eddie have ever, you know?"

"That's none of our business! No, Jo hasn't been with Eddie that way."

"Do you and Jo talk about stuff like this?"

"Not as much as we should."

Natalie quirked her head again. Blair looked thoughtful.

"Why, do you think Jo needs to open up to you more?"

Blair laughed.

"No. I think I need to open up more to her."

"Uh, like you did with me?"

"Yeah. I need someone to talk to sometimes just like you do, Natalie. Sometimes it's easier to talk to a friend your own age than to an adult like Mrs. Garrett."

Natalie grinned.

"I can't imagine Jo talking about sex. When I ask her about Eddie, she looks at me like she wants to punch my lights out. I think she's embarrassed to talk about mushy stuff, like love and sex. That's why I didn't want you to tell her about my questions. I wouldn't want to feel awkward around Jo because she thought I was thinking about sex all the time. I don't understand how you could feel comfortable talking with her about that stuff either. Honestly, Blair, I don't really understand why you and Jo are best friends. She's not like anyone you've ever hung around with before."

"Can I tell you something about Jo? You have to promise not to tell, not even Tootie."

Jo was panicking on the other side of the door. 'No way Natalie is going to be able to keep her mouth shut about us, Blair! I'm going to have to fight half the school.'

"Ohhhh, tell."

"I don't think you'd even want me to be your friend, much less your best friend, if I hadn't met Jo."


"Face it, Nat. You didn't like me very much last year. I don't think I knew how to be friends with anyone until I met Jo. Most of those girls in the room next door don't really know me very well. It's my own fault, but they can't really be my friends when they don't know me. You, Tootie, and Jo are my real friends."

"I thought Jo drove you crazy."

"She does. She makes me so mad sometimes that I can't see straight, but I could travel the world over and never find a better friend. Jo is the most loyal person I've ever met. You know how you said that Tootie gets your sense of humor, well Jo gets me. She makes me mad because she calls me on my crap, but she knows me. Not everyone gets to have a friend who knows all their faults as well as their attributes and then still wants to be their friend anyway."

"Jo seems to know all of your faults, that's for sure."

Blair and Natalie both laughed.

"Yeah, but that's why I can be myself when I'm around her. I don't have to put on an act with Jo."

It occurred to Natalie that Blair seemed to need to talk about Jo as much as Jo had seemed to want to talk about Blair when Natalie interviewed Jo for the suicide article she wrote about Cynthia. She wondered if either of them was aware of how important she was to the other.

"It's been fun talking with you, Blair, we should do this more often."

"Anytime, Nat. I know Jo and I get preoccupied sometimes with our classes and our older friends, but I like doing things with you and Tootie, too. Look, if you decide to do something with a boy, I'd like for you to talk with me or Mrs. Garrett first. I won't try to change your mind, I promise. I just want to make sure you don't do anything you'll regret later."

"I'd like that, Blair. Ha, we'd better get back before Jo comes looking for us. She's been shooting daggers at my back all night."

Blair laughed.

"She has not. She's just worried about you."

"Yeah, right. I like talking with you, Blair; you're not nearly so air-brained as you usually act."

"I'm glad, I guess."

"Do you want to come back to the room with me?"

"No, I came in here so I could think about some things. It's nice talking with you, Nat, but I want a little time to myself now."

"Sure, see you in the morning."

When Natalie left, Jo slipped behind the vending machines as she passed on her way back to the dorm room. Once Natalie was out of sight, Jo entered the bathroom to find Blair.


"Hey. How long were you listening?"

"Pretty much the entire time. Are you mad?"

"No. I'm relieved. Now I don't have to break my word to Natalie in order to talk to you about her."

"Do you think she's going to get herself into trouble?"

"I wish she would talk to Mrs. Garrett. I don't think I'm the best person to be giving her advice."

"I thought you did pretty good."



"Blair, will you tell me about it, when you were in love? Was it with Allison?"


"You told Nat that you were in love. Was it with Allison? I know you kissed her."

"Oh, that. No. I wasn't in love with Allie. I liked her. I liked her a lot and it broke my heart when she got pregnant, but I wasn't in love with her."

"Was it a guy?"

Blair rolled her eyes and looked at Jo as if she'd asked if Blair had fallen in love with an alien.

"Are you going to tell me how you know what it's like to be in love?"

"You were listening, right?"


Blair stood up and walked over to Jo. When she was standing only inches from the brunette, she reached out and took hold of Jo's hand. As she held Jo's hand, Blair closed her eyes and tried unsuccessfully to steady her breathing.

"Blair, you're trembling."

"I know."

"Are you going to answer my question?"

Blair opened her eyes and smiled at Jo.

"I already have."

Post Series Flash Forward: Tootie Returns to Peekskill

"It's exactly the same as when Jo used to make it for us when we were in school. The only things missing are Jo's little thumbprints on the crust."

Blair raised her brows teasingly at Jo as she made fun of their college friend, Hacksaw's, adoration of both Jo and her homemade pizza.

"Give it a rest, Blair. It was funny the first one thousand times you said it, but it's getting old."

Blair tossed her hair and continued to smile at her scowling mate while Natalie snickered at the interaction between her two closest friends.

"See, Dorothy, some things haven't changed. Jo's wonderful sense of humor is still intact."

Dorothy scoffed.

"You're lucky my sense of humor is still intact. I cringe every time I think of how much money I could be making if I hadn't let Jo buy out my part of Mama Rose's Original Bronx Pizza, Inc."

Jo chuckled. Jo's mother's homemade pizza was so popular when she attended Langley that Jo, with financial support from Dorothy and Natalie, started selling homemade pizza to other students. Although she stopped selling the pizza after only a few months, she opened a pizza shop under the same name when she and Blair moved back to Peekskill. Since then, the business had grown into a multi-million dollar enterprise.

"We did a pretty good business here in Peekskill with Eastland and Langley so close, but I mostly kept it open for the sentiment. The real money started coming in after Blair suggested franchising. All the stores are required to adhere strictly to the original recipe. I recall how tempting it can be to cut corners and I didn't want that happening to my mom's pizza. I often pick up one of our pizzas when I'm traveling out of town, but for some reason it's never quite as good as what we sell at the shop here in Peekskill."

Jo smiled affectionately at Mrs. G., who nodded approvingly as she took another bite of pizza. Blair laughed at Jo's enthusiasm. Once she realized how much pleasure Jo derived from the challenges of starting a new business, Blair had stopped trying to convince her mate to slow down her frenetic working schedule.

"I don't think Jo could handle it if she didn't get to pop in on the kitchen staff a couple of times a week just to make sure they are using all three cheeses in every single pizza. I don't want to know what would happen to the poor cook if she forgot to cut the artichoke hearts exactly the way Jo likes. Please, don't get her started talking about the pizza business."

"Hey, she can talk about pizza all night long for all I care. When people at work ask me about my retirement plan, I just hand them a Mama Rose's Pizza menu."

Natalie giggled, but Dorothy frowned.

"Do you still own part of Jo's business?"

Natalie squirmed. Although she and Dorothy talked often, their conversations centered around Dorothy's family and Natalie's traveling adventures. Natalie had failed to mention to Dorothy that Jo allowed Natalie to retain her portion of the business.

"Well, yeah. It was my money that allowed Jo to start her business in the first place."

"Your money?! It was our money that funded Jo's first orders."

Natalie shrugged. It wasn't as if her friend Dorothy needed additional money. Her acting career was well-established and earned Dorothy more money per performance than Natalie could make in a year.

"It's not my fault you let Jo buy out your share of the business. I only wish I'd had the money back then to buy you out myself. Then I'd have forty percent of the company instead of only twenty."

"I thought the business was originally incorporated into thirds."

It was Jo's turn to shrug.

"You don't think Blair prepared all those incorporation papers for free, do you?"

Dorothy turned a shocked expression toward Blair.

"You were always a part owner in Rose's Pizza?"

Blair's eyes twinkled as she crinkled her nose and nodded.

"My daddy taught me to recognize a good investment when I saw one."

"But you never helped us. You wouldn't even come into the kitchen while we were working. It's bad enough that Natalie gets twenty percent of Jo's business with only a twenty eight dollar investment. You got the same for nothing."

Dorothy knew she was whining, but it wasn't fair that Blair continued to always come out of every situation on top. Money seemed to stick to Blair like flies to a no-pest strip.

"Hold off, Tootie. Back in those days, I wouldn't accept money from Blair if my life depended on it. Blair earned her share of the business. She not only drew up all the original articles of incorporation, she came up with the name and convinced all the fraternities and sororities on campus to place those large orders we had so much trouble filling in the early stages. Her idea of making Rose's Pizza the 'Official Pizza' of all the academic teams by offering them discounts to publicize it was genius. She also designed the logo, and she's the one who set up all the legal mumbo jumbo required for franchising. Ultimately, no one has contributed more to the business's success than Blair. I have learned over the years that some of Blair's brilliant ideas really are brilliant."

Natalie was sympathetic toward her younger friend as she watched Dorothy continue to struggle with the changes in their older friends. In many ways, Dorothy still viewed Jo though the idealistic eyes of a twelve-year-old. In phone conversations, Dorothy had often expressed her confusion as to why Jo had fallen in love with Blair. She was only beginning to gain a more realistic perspective of the two women as a couple.

After spending almost a week with her old friends, Dorothy had been impressed to find her once ditsy friend had evolved into a woman as bright as she was sensitive. Dorothy was now beginning to wonder if Blair had ever been as scatterbrained as the image Dorothy remembered.

"You're the one who should have been an actress, Blair. You had everyone fooled with your dumb blonde routine."

Blair twirled her hair with her finger and smiled sweetly at Jo.

"Almost everyone, and I own thirty percent. Jo split her original sixty percent equally with me."

Jo grinned before chomping down on another huge slice of pizza, leaving a small smudge of sauce on the edge of her mouth. Blair leaned over with a napkin and gently patted the sauce, locking eyes with Jo in the process.

"That was very sweet of you, Jo."

Jo twisted shyly and Blair chuckled in response. Natalie had warned Dorothy before her visit to prepare herself for a disgusting display of adoration between their two friends, but Dorothy was still surprised each time she witnessed such tender moments.

"How can you stand being around them? They are worse now than when we were teenagers!"

Natalie nodded her agreement.

"They were constantly at one another's throats when we were teenagers, uh, in one way or another. I know it's kind of sickeningly sweet, but you'll get used to it after a while."

Blair giggled while Jo pretended to glare at Natalie. Dorothy, despite her earlier comment, was thrilled to see two of her oldest and dearest friends so happy.

"How do you do it, Jo?"

"Blair's always giving me a hard time about working so many different jobs, but I don't know any other way."

Blair leaned over to Dorothy and pretended to whisper, but spoke clearly enough for the three other women to hear.

"Jo enjoys buying companies more than I enjoy buying shoes. She's not supposed to be involved in the daily activities, but she's at the pizza shop at least once a week."

Edna Gains beamed with pride. Since the first day they met, she had always thought of Blair as the daughter she never had. Her relationship with Jo, however, had evolved over time. The turning point for the two women was when Edna opened the original Edna's Edibles and invited Jo to live with her and work in the store. Although the other girls also worked in the store, it was Jo who relieved Edna of the burden of most of the managerial and financial aspects of running a business.

"Entrepreneurship is in Jo's blood. She was still a teenager when she kept the books for Edna's Edibles. I like to think that I had a little something to do with teaching her some business savvy."

"Well, you always used to say that life was the best teacher and nothing could have been better than living with and working for you, Mrs. G. Blair thinks I check in on my businesses too much, but I'm not half as bad as Mrs. G. She can't keep herself away from Edna's Edibles."

Dorothy was pleased to hear Jo mention Edna's Edibles. She had squealed with excitement when Natalie called her several years earlier to tell her that Edna's Edibles was back in business. Blair joined Jo in praising their mentor's success.

"We didn't expect Edna to do anything but donate her recipes, but she visits the store almost every day."

Dorothy smiled at Mrs. G. She knew how hurt the older woman had been when the original store burned down. Dorothy remembered how afraid she had been that the demise of the store would result in the disbanding of her friends. While her three friends had seemed content to move out on their own, Dorothy had convinced them to stay together. It seemed odd that the other four women had remained so close while she was the one who had traveled so far and had barely stayed in touch with anyone other than Natalie.

"I'd love a tour of the new store once Beverly arrives, Mrs. G. I've told her so many wonderful stories about working there. I'm so glad you decided to re-open the place."

"Jo and Blair did all the work, but I enjoy visiting with the staff and sampling the strudel. I never realized how sentimental my girls were. It was a wonderful surprise when Jo and Blair rebuilt. The new store is an exact replica of the original. It brings back so many memories."

Edna's eyes were misty when she gazed lovingly at Blair and Jo. Her sons were always welcome in her home, but it was her two girls who lavished attention on the elderly woman. They always found ways to make her feel like she was contributing without giving her the burden of any real responsibility.

Dorothy knew that Jo and Blair were responsible for rebuilding Edna's Edibles, but she was shocked to realize that Jo was actively managing the business.

"You run the pizza business and Edna's Edibles? How did you find time to write a novel?"

Blair interrupted.

"Don't forget the motorcycle shop and she practically runs Eastland as well."

"Blair exaggerates." Jo grumbled.

"Ha, she teaches the advanced literature class at Eastland and is faculty advisor for the Eastlander and she's an assistant coach. Most importantly, she makes sure that I never put more money back into the school than we manage to earn each year."

Jo cocked her head and made a face at her mate.

"I love teaching. If I could only have one job, I'd teach, but fortunately I don't have to limit myself. E.J. and Garrett play on the two teams I coach. Being with them is never work. E.J. is on the newspaper staff, so acting as faculty advisor gives me more time with her. As for the other jobs, someone has to make a living around here."

Blair nodded her head agreeably.

"It's true, my gift is spending money, not accumulating it. Luckily for me, I fell in love with a frugal workaholic."

Edna balked at Blair's misplaced modesty.

"Blair, isn't it time you stopped pretending to be so frivolous?"

As Edna stood to make her exit, Blair solicitously stood and extended her arm for the feisty redhead who couldn't get around as well as she used to, but it was sternly rejected.

"Don't bother with me, Blair, enjoy your visit. Let me know when Jo's ready to drive me over to the club."

Once their former guardian and mentor left the poolside, Natalie grinned. She loved nothing more than teasing her grumpy friend, Jo, but Mrs. G. wouldn't stand for much foolery in her presence. Few things seemed to irritate Jo more than the mention of Blair and Natalie's adventures in selling Countess Calvert Cosmetics, so that's where Natalie began.

"You could always go back to selling cosmetics, Blair. I'd offer my services again."

Jo threw a napkin at Natalie.

"Hey, I've warned you for the last time. If I hear one more comment about your luscious lips, you're gonna get a fat lip."

"Don't blame me if your girl thinks my baby blue eyes are irresistible."

Jo mockingly growled at Natalie.

"I ain't worried about your baby blues, Nat. Can't you see that beautiful glow on Blair's face? She didn't get that glow from Countess Calvert beauty cream – that's the look of a totally satisfied woman."

After tossing her hair and giggling, Blair got up from her chair and moved to Jo's lap.

"You say the sweetest things, Joey."

Natalie, who had been playing with one of E.J.'s water balls, threw it at Blair and Jo, spraying water over both of them.

"Cool down."

Blair got up from Jo's lap to shake away the water from her blouse and returned to her chair while Natalie leaned confidentially toward Dorothy.

"Oh, it's not the jobs that take up so much of Jo's time, it's the volunteer work. You know how those socialites love their charity work."

Jo threw the water ball back at Natalie, insulted by the socialite reference, but Blair nodded affirmatively.

"That's true. If I had only known how many hours of Jo's life would wind up devoted to the Hudson Valley Community Center, I would never have left her there alone after we fixed your car, even though I was covered in grease."

Dorothy and Natalie laughed.

"I'd have given anything to see that. Jo should have taken pictures."

Dorothy was referring to Blair's appearance after attempting to help Jo repair Natalie's car. Jo and Blair had graduated from Langley a few months before and Jo had been on her way to a job interview in a nearby town. Natalie loaned Jo her car so that she wouldn't have to drive her motorcycle to the interview. However, the car broke down in front of the Hudson Valley Community Center.

When Jo phoned her roommates for assistance, Blair offered to meet Jo in front of the center. Unfortunately for Blair, while helping Jo with the car, the oil line broke and poured motor oil all over Blair. When the girls went into the community center so that Blair could wash up, the social worker who managed the center offered Jo a job. Although Jo's degree wasn't in social work, she needed a steady income while she looked for another job. Jo worked at the community center until a year later, when she and Blair moved to New York.

"Be quiet, Nat. I still blame you for lending Jo that junk heap of a car you used to drive. If she hadn't broken down in front of the center that day and later been offered a job, I wouldn't be sharing her with the local hoodlums."

Jo cleared her throat and gave Blair a nudge.

"Those kids are not hoodlums and you know it. You love working with them as much as I do, so stop trying to give Tootie the wrong impression. Blair's the one who still keeps the center running. She spends as much time raising money for the place as I spend mentoring a few kids. I only started spending so much time at the center once Garrett and E.J. were old enough to go there with me. It's good for them to spend time with kids who aren't as privileged."

Natalie hooted. Jo was making it unusually easy for Natalie to take pot shots at her.

"Hey, Dot. Did you ever think you'd hear Jo Polniaczek talking about exposing her over-privileged children to the working class?"

Jo was genuinely offended. She felt that she and Blair had gone to great lengths not to spoil their children.

"I work! The best way to teach your kids is by example and Blair and I work hard. I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I had any free time on my hands. I guess that's why I'm always writing when I get a few minutes to myself."

Blair sighed dramatically and stood behind Jo's chair, making a show of massaging Jo's shoulders.

"One of these days you are going to have to slow down, you can't keep working four or five jobs at a time. We're not teenagers any longer, Jo."

"Speak for yourself, Princess, I'm in the best shape of my life."

Blair leaned forward and whispered something into Jo's ear while lightly caressing her bicep, causing Natalie to roll her eyes and throw another sopping wet ball in Blair's direction.

"Can you keep your hands off of Jo for one afternoon? It took me over fifteen years to get Dorothy to visit and you promised to be on your best behavior."

Blair glanced at Dorothy, who seemed a little uneasy, causing Blair to lower her head apologetically, but Jo continued to grin mischievously. Jo was usually the more reserved of the two, but she was still thinking about the words Blair had seductively whispered only moments earlier.

It was one thing for Dorothy to see Blair touching Jo so often, Blair had always been more openly affectionate, but seeing Jo react so strongly to Blair was shattering Dorothy's illusion that the relationship was primarily one-sided. Dorothy had always assumed that Blair had pursued Jo and eventually talked the reluctant brunette into a romantic relationship; Jo's behavior was making it crystal clear that any pursuit had been mutual. Dorothy turned her attention from her two friends to the empty plate in front of her.

"Lunch was delicious. I don't think I've had a pizza that good since I left Peekskill."

Blair took the hint and began clearing the table.

"I'm glad you liked it, Dorothy. Jo, would you help me clean up this mess?"

"Aw, can't it wait until later? I want to visit with Nat and Tootie."

After making a face at Jo, Natalie stood and began helping Blair.

"That's okay, Blair. Let the children run along and play. I'll help you clean up."

Natalie was having so much fun tormenting Jo that Blair felt obligated to assist. She smiled at Natalie and kissed her chastely on the cheek.

"Thank you, Sweetie."

"Give me a break. C'mon, Tootie. Let the lovebirds have some privacy. We can sit by the pool and chat."

Jo and Dorothy walked over to the side of the pool, dipping their feet into the cool water.

"Jo, I've been wanting to ask you about something. When I asked how you did it, um, I wasn't asking about your work schedule. I wanted to know how you and Blair have managed to keep your relationship so . . . solid."

Jo shifted uncomfortably, looking toward the table where Blair and Natalie were working.

"Uh, what exactly do you mean?"

"I guess I'm asking how you keep the passion alive."

Jo continued to periodically glance toward Blair, trying to make eye contact.

"Oh. Blair's a lot better at talking about that sort of thing than I am, Tootie. She does most of the talking when we discuss stuff with our kids. Maybe we should wait until she finishes clearing the table."

As soon as Jo caught Blair's eye, Blair wiped her hands on a cloth and began making her way over to the pool.

Dorothy interrupted their silent communication.

"That's what I mean. You're having a conversation with her right now and you haven't spoken a word. How do you do that?"

Blair arrived in time to hear the last of Dorothy's question.

"Do what?"

"Tootie thinks we're telepathic."

Blair smiled knowingly at her younger friend.

"Jo and I have been together a very long time, Dorothy."

"It's more than that. How have you managed to keep one another interested after all these years?"

Jo was still unwilling to acknowledge the topic.

"Interested in what?"

Blair nudged Jo slightly.

"She's talking about sex, silly."


Blair sighed.

"See, Dorothy. Sometimes we can't even communicate when we're using words."

Blair sat down on the other side of Dorothy and leaned forward to speak directly to Jo.

"Dorothy wants to know how you've been able to keep me interested in having sex with you after being together for so long. Right, Dorothy?"

Dorothy flushed, embarrassed by Blair's directness while Jo squinted her eyes and smirked at Blair.

"Maybe she wants to know how you've been able to hold my interest. Right, Tootie?"

Dorothy looked back and forth between her friends, sitting on either side of her.

"Uh, among other things."

Blair wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and Jo blanched.

"What other things? I'm not into any kinky stuff, Tootie. If you want to know about that sort of thing, go talk to Natalie."

Blair rolled her eyes.

"Ignore her, Dorothy. Jo's very open-minded."

"I am not open-minded!"

Blair laughed at Jo as she looped her arm through Dorothy's, offering her youngest friend a small smile of encouragement.

"What's going on with you, Sweetie? Is something wrong at home?"

Dorothy took a deep breath and stared into the swimming pool.

"I don't know. I'm on tour most of the year and when I go home, it's as if I'm living with a stranger. Jeff and I hardly talk to one another anymore, much less—."

Dorothy stopped without completing her sentence and Blair and Jo looked at one another for several seconds, dispelling any notion that they weren't able to communicate silently. Jo nodded slightly and Blair tried to comfort their friend, using Natalie's new nickname.

"I'm sorry, Dot. Would you like to talk about it?"

Dorothy sniffled as Natalie quietly joined them. Dorothy had confided her situation to Natalie the night before.

"We've discussed getting a divorce. We don't argue with one another often, but we don't seem to have anything in common anymore. When we do argue, it's usually about Beverly. We're both worried about how Beverly will react. She's already going through a difficult stage. I love my career, but I've been on tour so much that I've had very little time for her. I can't blame Jeff for her current behavior, he can't control her any better than I can. I'll feel so much better if she enrolls at Eastland."

Blair continued to speak in a soothing voice.

"What do you need, Sweetie? We'll help in any way that we can, even if it's just to listen."

"For Beverly, I want her to attend Eastland if your earlier offer was sincere. You're going to have your hands full with her, but I can see how well the students are supervised and I know that this would be the best place for her."

Natalie leaned forward and patted Dorothy on the leg.

"Blair and Jo were able to rein in Bailey, so they can surely handle anything Beverly throws at them. I'll be around, too. I travel a lot, but I practically live here when I'm not on assignment and I'll spend as much time with her as I can. It's hard on a teenager when their parents break up, but you can't base your decision about your marriage on how Beverly will react."

Dorothy looked at Blair.

"Bailey is lucky to have you, Blair. I was shocked when Monica sent her to live with you."

Jo scoffed. She and Blair's mother had not only resolved their differences, they had grown very fond of one another before Monica's death. However, Jo still resented the neglect Blair suffered as a child and had initially been outraged when Monica placed the responsibility of raising her youngest daughter onto Blair's shoulders.

"Ha, Monica dropped Bailey off for a short visit one weekend and Blair got a postcard from Italy two weeks later saying that Monica wasn't cut out to raise a child. The kid was barely four years old and Monica was crazy enough to think she could just ship her off to a boarding school. Not that I'm complaining, having Bailey come to live with us is one of the best things to ever happen to Blair and me."

Blair's eyes misted at the adoration in Jo's voice when she spoke of Bailey.

"Mother tried, but as Bailey grew older, it became too much for her. Jo's right, however, I can't imagine our life if Bailey hadn't come to live with us. She had Jo wrapped around her little finger in no time. She learned very early that all she had to do was bat those big brown eyes and Jo was putty in her hands."

Natalie howled, remembering how easily the child had manipulated the gruff brunette.

"You should have been here to see it, Dot. You remember how Jo used to complain about living with a spoiled over-privileged brat. Well, how do you think she survived living with two of them? Bailey and Blair have more than their looks in common. They act so much alike that sometimes when I'm with Bailey I think I'm back in time, talking to Blair."

"Stop talking about me like I'm not even here. Blair and I both spoiled Bailey at first, but we learned from our mistakes and the kid doesn't seem to have suffered from our early indulgence. She'll be here this weekend and you can see for yourself."

"It must be nice having her so close."

Blair nodded. Like Jo, she was very proud of Bailey. When Blair had nervously approached Jo with Monica's postcard, relief flooded her heart when Jo enthusiastically agreed that they should raise Bailey themselves. Blair had always wanted children, but Jo had reservations about the prejudice their children might face. Seeing Bailey thrive under their parentage gave Jo the confidence to have their own children.

Blair splashed a little water toward Jo as she joked.

"You should have seen Jo's face when Bailey told her that she was going to join Gamma Gamma and move into the sorority house."

Natalie gleefully added.

"That wasn't nearly as much fun as seeing Boots's face when she found out that Jo's daughter was a Gamma Gamma. When the Langley newspaper came out with the names of the new sorority members, I hand-delivered a copy to Boots at her home just so I could see her reaction."

Dorothy smiled, thinking of Boots's reaction. The image was interrupted however by the realization of Natalie's reference to Bailey as Jo's daughter.

"Jo's daughter?"

Blair explained.

"Mother made arrangements for Jo to adopt Bailey when she died. I'm already related to Bailey, so Mother wanted Jo to be the one to adopt. She pretended she selected Jo for legal reasons, but I know that she did it as a way of expressing her love for Jo."

"Wow, I didn't think that your mother and Jo got along."

"They didn't, but Mother was very ill when she came to live with us. Mother wasn't comfortable with me seeing her in so much pain, so the burden of caring for her fell primarily on Jo. In the end, she came to love Jo as much as she loved Bailey and me."

When Blair gazed into Jo's eyes, it was as if they were the only two people sitting by the pool.

"I'd love for Beverly to attend Langley one day. I understand now why my mother wanted me to attend her alma mater."

Jo agreed with Dorothy.

"Yeah, it's funny how much your perspective can change once you have children."

Natalie gained everyone's attention. She wasn't going to allow the conversation to degenerate into a long discourse on the joys of parenthood.

"Ahem. Children have nothing to do with it, everyone's perspective changes as they get older. Let's get back to Dot's real problem. I can give you a few things to help spice up your love life, Dot."

Jo shuddered and glared at Natalie.

"You better not bring any of those toys into my house, Natalie Greene. I won't have E.J. or Garrett stumbling across one of them and asking me what it is."

Natalie smirked.

"I'm sure Bailey could explain it to them if you can't, Jo."

Knowing that Natalie had taken her teasing a step too far, Blair quickly intervened.

"Don't provoke Jo with your ridiculous assumptions about Bailey. The last thing Dorothy needs right now if for you to mask your concern with your lame attempt at humor."

Blair's admonition alerted Natalie to the fact that she had come precariously close to crossing the line with Jo. Jo's temper had mellowed significantly over the years, but it wasn't wise to joke about any of Jo's children.

Blair spoke softly to Dorothy.

"Do you still love him? That's the most important question."

"I don't know. I still love the man I married, but we've both changed so much since then."

The three other women nodded, well aware of the changes in themselves over the years. Jo stood up and walked over to sit on the far side of Blair, leaving room for Natalie to sit beside Dorothy.

"Talking to a friend can help a lot, Tootie. When things get to me, I talk to Natalie."

Jo glanced over at Natalie, acknowledging the depth of their friendship despite Natalie's recent teasing.

"Nat's a hell of a good friend to have around when things get shaky. She's knocked sense into my head more than once when I was acting like an ass."

Blair looked over at her dear friend as well.

"Thank you again, Natalie, for knocking sense into Jo every time she acts like an ass."

Natalie laughed and the other three women followed suit, breaking the tension. Dorothy smiled at her friends, enjoying the humor.

"Maybe I should get Natalie to knock some sense into Jeff?"

Jo enthusiastically agreed.

"Now you're talking!"

Once the laughter faded, Dorothy's voice softened.

"I wish it was that simple."

Jo began, somewhat awkwardly.

"Look, Tootie. Everyone goes through a rocky patch. Things haven't always gone so smoothly for Blair and me, either. Every marriage has some ups and downs. If it's really over, then we'll support your decision to divorce Jeff. But if you think you still love him and he still loves you, you should at least consider trying to work things out."

Dorothy was shocked at Jo's response. She'd expected Jo to lash out at Jeff in anger.

"Do you really think that we can work things out as long as we love one another?"

"Yeah. Relationships are hard work. It's not easy for anyone, no matter how much they love one another."

Jo shook her head and Dorothy noticed that Jo was holding Blair's hand while she talked. Jo spoke very softly when she continued, looking at Blair more often than at Dorothy.

"I tried to leave Blair once. I couldn't walk at the time and she hid my wheelchair so that I couldn't get away. She's a damn stubborn woman sometimes, but I'm grateful for it. It's hard enough to keep a relationship strong when both people are working at it, but Blair had to fight for both of us for a while. I thought that Blair, Bailey, and Garrett would be better off without the burden of caring for a cripple and I put them all through hell because of it. All I can say is that I thank God every day that Blair didn't give up on me."

"I think that was a different situation, Jo. You were dealing with a physical handicap."

Jo grinned and bobbed her head.

"Yeah, it's different, but if Blair hadn't kept pushing me to tell her what was going on in my messed up head, we might not have gotten through it. Working through the bad times, whatever causes them, makes relationships stronger. Now that I understand that twenty percent of pure Jo Polniaczek is better for Blair than one hundred percent of anybody else she could con into living with her, we're doing great."

All four women laughed again, making it easier for Dorothy to confide in her friends.

"I think I was hoping that you'd tell me that Jeff wasn't worth the effort. It's a lot easier to give up than to stick with it."

Jo stood and extended her hand to Blair. After pulling Blair to her feet, Jo winked at Natalie.

"I'm just lucky that someone advised Blair to make the extra effort when I was being so hard-headed. Whether or not I was worth the effort is up to her."

Blair wrapped her arms around Jo's neck and gazed lovingly into sparkling green eyes. She looked away only long enough to grasp Jo's other hand and then returned her gaze to her lover's face. Natalie noticed the slight tremor as Blair intertwined her fingers with Jo's. She leaned over and whispered into Dorothy's ear.

"Any doubt as to whether Blair thinks it was worth it?"

Dorothy shook her head, wondering if telepathy was rubbing off on her.

14: Courting Jo

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