DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended. Original characters belong to the author. Historical characters belong to history.
SPOILERS: May be references and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 – 5. Reader feedback is always appreciated.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter[at]gmail.com
Sweet Child of Mine
Mid-July 1990. Manhattan. The Palm Court, the Plaza Hotel, Central Park West.
The next morning, in Jo and Blair's suite, a rather rambunctious breakfast was in progress. The two young women lounged on the divan, breakfast traysthe dishes mostly untouchedsitting on the coffee table.
Blair, mussed and rosy in her lavender peignoir, had dipped a strawberry in champagne and trailed it over Jo's nude body. The heiress was now licking the bubbly juices from Jo's bodyfrom Jo's calf, her outer thigh, her inner thigh, her belly, up to the small pert breasts and the very erect pink nipples, where Blair paused to be extremely thorough.
"Oh, babe," she murmured. "Oh, Blair. Yeah. Yeah. Oh oh, babe "
Continuing to suckle Jo's breast, Blair playfully dragged the champagne-soaked strawberry over Jo's mouth. Jo caught the strawberry between her teeth, sucked at it greedily.
Jo's hands moved purposefully toward Blair's peignoir. A ripping sound, a flash of lavender cloth, and in an instant Blair was as nude as her lover. Blair laughed delightedly against Jo's breast. Jo threw the shredded peignoir into a far corner of the room.
Their hands groped toward each other's sexes, stroking and tickling and teasing feverishly with their fingertips.
"What do you want me to do?" Blair murmured against Jo's nipple. "What do you want, darling?"
"Touch me," Jo said intently, her own hand stroking Blair's sex. "Inside, babe. Touch me inside "
They murmured and stroked and groaned and in the midst of their passion, they rolled from the divan onto the thickly carpeted living room floor. Sunlight flooded bright and clean through the gaps in the curtains.
"Deeper," pleaded Blair. "Deeper, darling Yes "
"I love you, Blair. I love you. I harder Yeah I love you so much, babe I oh, God!"
Jo came first, her hand continuing to work instinctively between her lover's legs until Blair came too.
They wrapped their arms around each other and rolled against the legs of the coffee table, panting and sweating, and so lightheaded as to be, really, only half-conscious.
Blair pressed tiny kissed against Jo's chest. Jo trailed loving fingers up and down Blair's naked back.
"That was That was Wow," breathed Jo.
"Mmm," Blair agreed sleepily. She drifted into a brief sleep, her nose whistling
When Blair woke, she was disoriented at first. Why was she so wet between her legs, down the inside of her thighs? And why was she lying on the floor? Not on the floor, exactly, but on something lean and warm, hard in all the right places, soft in all the right places
Of course. Blair smiled. She was lying on Jo
"Nice little nap?" Jo asked solicitously. She continued to drag her fingers lightly up and down Blair's back.
Blair kissed Jo's collarbone, the hollow of her throat.
"Mmn," Blair agreed.
"I'm really likin' this vacation," said Jo.
"Me too," said Blair. She sighed. "Jo?"
"You do know that, well "
"Well what, babe?" Jo prompted dreamily, mind still dwelling on the recent sensation of Blair's gently teasing fingers between her thighs.
"With our money, you know, we could make this vacation a forever kind of thing."
That brought Jo out of her reverie.
She opened her eyes.
She leaned down, kissed Blair's forehead.
"Not at all," Blair said. "We have enough money for the rest of our lives. Money for ourselves and our friends and family, and for charitable endowments. We could spend every day just making love, anywhere we choose."
Jo shifted restlessly. She propped herself on one arm, gazed quizzically at her fiancée.
"Blairtell me you ain't serious. You don't really wanna, I don't know, bum around our whole livesdo ya?"
"No," said Blair. "I don't. And I don't suppose you do."
"Damn straight I don't," Jo said with feeling.
"But the money, the possibility, is there," Blair said. "I wanted you to know that."
"Well, duly noted," said Jo. "But after bustin' my hump at dear old 'Hahvahd', you better believe I'm champin' at the bit to get into some real law."
"That's what I thought. My brilliant," Blair kissed Jo's throat, "beautiful," she kissed Jo's neck, "nerd," she kissed Jo's jaw.
Jo stroked Blair's blonde hair, which, just now, was mussed and tangled.
She gazed thoughtfully at the heiress.
"How are you feelin' about the church, babe?"
Blair shrugged slightly.
"Nervous, I suppose. I mean, I know this is what I want to do. But I'm not sure how it's going to unfold. The unknown I'm not used to the unknown. I can usually hedge my bets. When one is rich, and talented, and beautiful"
"And modest," Jo teased fondly.
"Let's just say I've generally been able to stack the deck in my favor. There are very few things I haven't been able to orchestrate. But now It's like a leap in the dark. And I suppose that's what faith is. The ultimate leap into the dark."
"You know, I've tried not to be too nosy about this, babe, but, I mean Is this just somethin' you're doin' so you can be a professional do-gooder? Or are you really Is it like what happened to your sister Meg? Do you feel a real, like, a callin'?"
Blair pillowed her head on Jo's breasts.
"It's been a sort of meandering journey," she said slowly. "I suppose it all started with my conflict about Meg joining the convent. And, well, from watching your mother."
"Seeing how faithful Rose is. And visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral. And seeing the cathedrals and churches in Italy again, that summer, with you. Seeing them through your eyes. The eyes of a believer. And being wounded by Dina But recovering, somehow. And your recovery after you were shot It's just It's been a journey," she finished a little lamely. She seemed to realize that she hadn't really answered Jo's question.
Jo lifted one of Blair's hands, kissed each fingertip.
"I don't wanna push," said Jo. "And I know it's a private kinda thing. I just get the feelin' lately Like you really believe. Like it ain't just a profession you're takin' up. Like Like it means more than that."
"It does," Blair said quietly. "I just don't know how much more. If you're asking if I believe in God, I think I always did. I was just so angry after my parents' divorced. Angry the way only a wounded child can be angry. Deeply. And irrationally. But I'm not a child anymore. I haven't been for a long time. So you could say You could say I'm on speaking terms with God again."
"Well, I'm sure your mentor the Bishop'll be glad to hear that," Jo smiled.
"He's more sure of my calling than I am," Blair said. "They all are. I was thinking of, of taking some time off before my ordination as Deacon. Do some soul-searching."
"The literal kinda soul-searchin'."
"Yes. But the Bishop thinks it's just cold feet on my part. He's encouraging me to move forward as soon as possible. He thinks I should be ordained as Deacon next month, then be ordained as a Priest six months after."
"That sounds kinda fast," Jo observed.
"It is. That's as fast as you can move up. They seem to have such, such faith in me. More than I have. But part of me, the cynical old Blair Warner part of me, wonders if, well The churches are already fighting over me. Some of them really want me, I think, my perspective, my style of service, my heart, but some of them "
"You're thinkin' it's the money," Jo said bluntly, but quietly, to soften the ugliness of the thought.
Blair nodded against Jo's breasts.
"It's given me pause my whole life," said Blair. "Except when I was disinherited. Most of my life I've been rich and I've had to consider whether people like me, want me, for myself or for my money."
"Well you know where I stand," said Jo. "And Nat and Tootie and Alec too. And Mrs. Garrett."
"But other than that," Blair said wryly, "the jury, as they say in your profession, is still out."
"Look," said Jo, kissing Blair's nose, "just pick the church you want. Sounds like world's your oyster on this. Go with your gut. Which churches do you really want, and which of them seem to really want youyou, Doctor of Divinity Blair Warner, warts and all, and not your big piles of money."
Blair closed her eyes. She held Jo tightly.
"I do believe God healed us when we were hurt," she said softly. "And I believe God brought us together, Jo. Something for which I can never, ever be grateful enough. Sometimes I feel It's hard to describe. It's a presence."
"A presence?" Jo asked doubtfully.
"So, I've believed my whole life," said Jo. "And I'm real grateful to God for all the stuff like you said. But I've never felt a presence."
"Uhn-uhn. I think," Jo stroked Blair's hair almost reverently, "I think you're crossin' into an area where you're beyond me now, Blair. You really are becomin' a woman of the cloth. You really are, you know, on the Big Guy's team."
"I hope I am," said Blair.
"Pretty sure of it," Jo said. "But you know what, babe?"
"I'm still pissed you grabbed my cross right off me yesterday."
"I didn't grab it, darling. You wrenched it off and threw it across the room. Remember?"
"I still think you gotta say some prayers over that. I mean, I only got pissed and did that cause you were the one wanted me to take it off."
"Do you forgive me?" asked Blair.
"Give me a couple days, Blondie."
"Forgiveness is divine, Jo."
"Yeah, wellI never claimed to be divine."
"You were divine last night. And this morning."
"Blair, that's, like, that's sacrilege or somethin'."
"Well ain't it?"
"I don't think so."
Blair opened her eyes. She gave Jo a frankly wicked smile.
"Do you feel rested?"
"Will you be divine, then, and make love to me?"
"I guess. If you don't say 'divine' again. Makes me kind of nervous. Like maybe a lightnin' bolt's gonna get us."
Blair squinted at the bright sunlight streaming through the gap between the living room curtains.
"I don't think we need to worry about thunderstorms," she said.
"Blairyou know what I mean. It's like Nat's always sayin'. Don't tempt the Fates. And don't angereth the Lord."
"There's nothing wrong with sex, Jo. It's one of the greatest gifts God gave us. One of the most intimate and sacred experiences two people can share."
"Two married people," said Jo.
"We are married," said Blair. "In our hearts. Aren't we?"
Jo gathered Blair in her arms, pulled the heiress hard against her. She kissed Blair's hair.
"Babe If you knew how I felt How much I love you Even when you drive me nuts."
"Yes, moi. I mean, yes, you. No matter what cockamamie thing is goin' on, or how you're gettin' on my last nerve"
"Can we fast-forward through the insults?" Blair complained.
"No matter what," said Jo, "I just love you beyond, hell, beyond anythin'. I love you Blair. I love you. You're my wife. You're my soul mate. If anythin' ever happened to you, well, I just wouldn't even have a reason to live."
Blair shifted uneasily.
"Joit's bad luck to say something like that."
"Bad luck? Do priests believe in bad luck?"
"I don't know, but I'm not a priest yet. I'm not even a deacon. And I do believe in, what was it you were just talking about? Like Natalie saysDon't tempt the Fates."
"OK," said Jo. "I won't tempt 'em. Forget the part about anythin' happenin' to us. Just I love you Blair," Jo said simply. "I love you more than I can put in words."
And then, something that hadn't happened in quite a whileJo's eyes suddenly welled up with tears, unbidden, big, salty tears that rolled down her face.
"Jo," Blair said, moved. "Jo, I love you too."
"Don't know why I'm bein' such a baby," she said, trying to sound casual.
"It's not a crime to feel something deeply," Blair told her kindly. She turned her head, kissed Jo's tears away. "There," she said. "Better?"
"Yeah," said Jo. She pulled Blair even tighter against her. "I love you. I really do. I'm never gonna let go of you, babe."
"Do you love me enough to make love to me again?"
"Whatever you want, babe. Anythin' you want."
July 1990. Manhattan. Manhattan Memorial Hospital.
"So, let me get this straight," said Natalie.
Jo and Blair had run her down the only place anyone seemed to be able to run down Natalie these daysat the Manhattan Memorial cafeteria. Natalie wore green scrubs and an incredulous expression on her plump, pretty face.
"If I'm hearing your right," said Natalie, "Tootie bailed on the meetingthe big meetingbetween her parents and Alec's parents."
"Affirmative," said Jo.
Natalie shook her head.
"You said it," Jo agreed.
"Our thought," said Blair, sipping a carton of the cafeteria's overly sweet chocolate milk, "is that you ought to talk with Tootie. Since you're her best friend, her soul sister"
"Etcetera, etcetera," Jo added.
"The Duchess is pushing strongly for a quiet divorce," said Blair. "And if Tootie isn't there to put the Duchess in her place"
"To put the kibosh on that crazy scheme," Jo added.
"Then Tootie could find herself out of a husband, a title, and a child," Blair finished.
Natalie spread her hands.
"See, I'm out of the Tootie loop," she said. "Since Alec came back from England last year and scooped up Tootie and the baby and ensconced them in that palatial apartment"
"'Ensconced'?" interrupted Jo.
"It's my vocabulary word of the day," explained Nat. "I have this calendar, see, and every day"
"Never mind that," Jo said impatiently. "How're you gonna help get through to Toot?"
"She's been dodging my phone calls for weeks now," said Natalie. "She never seems to be in when I drop by. Tootie seems to want space. Maybe the best thing we can do is give it to her."
"Which is great, OK," said Jo, "if there wasn't a bloodthirsty Duchess in town, screamin' for Tootie to get the old heave-ho. One of us has gotta get through to her. And me and Blair nominate you."
"Far be it from me to rain on any plan that involves prying, interfering, and overstepping boundaries. But, honestly, me and Tootie, we've always been like sisters. If she's giving me the push right now, she must really need some time to herself. And I have to respect that."
Jo made a rude noise, generally referred to as a "Bronx cheer".
"Oh, charming," Blair said drily. "Be sure to use that in court."
"I will," said Jo. She glared at Natalie. "Listen up, Nat. And listen good. If Tootie decides she don't wanna be Lady Nethridge, and decides to give Alec the brush-off, then good for her. But it's gotta be her decision, and his decisionnot the old hag's."
"Is Alec's mother an old hag?" Natalie asked curiously.
"She's actually quite lovely," said Blair. "She's one of the great beauties of Britain, even now."
"What color is her hair?"
"A really deep black," said Blair. "Kind of raven, I guess. And"
"Hey, people," Jo rapped on the table, "let's focus. Focus!"
"What a crab," complained Natalie. She glanced at Blair. "I don't know how you put up with it."
"I'm a saint," Blair said matter-of-factly.
"Oh, hardee-har-har," said Jo. "You two are a coupla comedians. You oughta start your own sitcom. While, in the meantime, in the real world, one of our best friends, no, two of our best friends are about to have their lives ruined."
"Tootie and Alec are adults," said Natalie. "They have to decide what's best."
Jo clenched her fists. "Nat, that's, like, so annoyingly freakin' mature. Why aren't you tryin' to interfere? What happened to nosy, neurotic Natalie Green? That's who we need right now."
"Hey, I'm still neurotic," Natalie objected. "Why? Who said I'm not neurotic? What did you hear?"
"What I think Jo's trying to say," Blair said calmly, "is that under normal circumstances, letting Alec and Tootie work things out would be for the best. But the Duchess is a woman of formidable influence. So if Tootie stays out of the picture, completelyshe might find herself missing a husband and daughter before she's sure that's what she really wants."
Natalie had already downed her soda, so she crunched a mouthful of ice.
"Hmm," she said thoughtfully. "Well. I wouldn't want that to happen."
"Of course you don't," said Jo. "Which is why you gotta saddle up and go talk to your best friend."
"I don't exactly make my own schedule," Natalie told Jo. "I've got another five hours to go before I'm out of here."
"But, you're out in five hours?" Jo pressed.
"Then once you're outta here, put on a nice dress and meet us Tootie and Alec at their place. OK? No excuses. Just do it. That way if she gets cold feet about comin' to the Plaza, which is where we're all s'posed to meet later, you can convince her to go."
"I thought you said you wanted me to find Tootie."
"We want you to talk to her. But if you can find her earlier, great. I'm just tryin' to keep this organized."
"Well I'm broke until my next paycheck," said Nat. "So if you're dragging me to the Plaza, you're buying dinner."
"Of course," said Blair.
"What a cheapskate," groused Jo.
"Hey. We're not all engaged to wealthy heiresses," Natalie said pointedly.
"Don't try to out-poor me, Green," said Jo. "You're gonna lose that one."
"We're not talking about childhood," said Natalie. "We're talking about now. Since my father cut off my allowance, after he learned I was cohabiting with Snake, my financial situation is a bit dicey. Mom slips me a ten from time-to-time after Temple, but that doesn't exactly pay the rent."
"Snake's gotta be makin' some coin, making all those long hauls," Jo said skeptically.
"Snake is starting a business," said Natalie. "And that costs money. He won't be out of the red 'till next year. Hopefully. Until thenwe're getting by."
"We'll cover your meals at the Plaza, of course," Blair told Natalie, kicking Jo under the table. "Any and all expenses. We just want us all to have an enjoyable time, and make sure Alec and Tootie are able to make decisions without undue influence from Alec's mother."
Jo kicked Blair under the table. Blair kicked Jo again.
"Bottom line," said Jo, "Tootie needs us. So be at the Palm Court, in a nice dress, in five hours. Or else." Jo dragged a finger across her throat in a threatening manner.
Natalie looked at Blair.
"Do you ever feel like you've been kidnapped by a pirate?"
"Sometimes," said Blair. "But there are perks."
"Ew," said Natalie, making a face.
"I'm just being honest," said Blair. She squeezed Natalie's shoulder. "We'll see you this evening."
"Only if there are no more cracks about 'perks'. And no sex codes."
"For cryin' out loud, Nat," said Jo, "are you ever gonna stop bein' such a prude?"
"No. I'm happy to say that no, I will never stop being such a prude. So ixnay on the exsayOK?"
"Whatever," said Jo.
"Of course," said Blair, eyes twinkling.
With hours to kill before dinner, Jo and Blair went back to bed.
Jo leaned back against the pillows, face buried in the box scores.
Blair lay on her stomach, doing the Times crossword. As Jo read the sports page, she absently stroked Blair's long legs.
After a time of companionable silence, "What's a five-letter word for a sure thing?" asked Blair.
"Hmm?" Jo said absently.
"A sure thing. Five letters. 'On the links, a sure thing'."
"B-L-A-I-R," she spelled, tweaking Blair's calf.
Blair glanced back over her shoulder, eyebrow lifted.
"If you're jokes are getting that bad," she said, "don't count on me to be such a sure thing. Dull-wittedness is a turn-off."
"C'mon," laughed Jo. "You gotta admitthat was pretty good."
Blair returned her gaze to the crossword puzzle.
"The links," she said. "That's golf. 'A sure thing' in golf."
"Hole-in-one," suggested Jo.
"That's a good thing," said Blair, "but not a sure thing. And it isn't five letters."
"Well, I can't help you, Blondie. We didn't exactly do a lotta golfin' in the Bronx. Plus, you'd never get me into those crazy shorts they wear."
"Golf knickers can be very stylish," Blair demurred.
"To a drunken Leprechaun, maybe," laughed Jo.
"Don't be so provincial, darling." Blair tapped the tip of the pencil against her chin. "A sure thing on the links. A sure thing "
"If you got me out on some links, I'd be a sure thing."
"Jo, you have sex on the brain today."
"Not just today. And look who's talkin'!" Jo turned to the tennis scores.
"A sure thing on the links. A sure thing. That'sa gimme!" Blair said triumphantly. She neatly printed "G-I-M-M-E" in the puzzle boxes.
"Are you almost done with that thing?" asked Jo.
"'Cause I'm almost done with the sports pages. And when I am, I thought maybe we'd fool around a little. Or a lot. Your call."
Blair pushed aside the crossword puzzle and her pencil. She turned over on her back. She pillowed her head on one arm, and lifted an eyebrow.
"You're insatiable," she said.
"Any complaints?" Jo asked evenly.
Jo tossed the sports pages into the corner, and lunged for her lover with an animal growl.
As they entered the Palm Court that evening, dressed and coiffed in the most ladylike manner, Jo whispered, "Babe Why do you think we're so hot for each other lately?"
Blair smiled and nodded at an old acquaintance from her Dalton school days.
"I suppose," Blair whispered through her toothy socialite smile, "it's because we're moving toward our sexual peak."
"Yeah? We ain't even hit our peak yet?"
"Not yet," Blair said. She gave a fluttery little wave to an elderly banker who had once been a business partner of her father David Warner.
"Wow," breathed Jo. "So It's only gonna get even better?"
"According to 'Cosmo'."
"But then What happens after our peak?"
"Then? Well, I suppose," Blair graced one of her mother's old bridge cronies with an icy smile as they passed, "I suppose then I'll actually finish the crossword, and you'll actually finish the sports pages."
"Well let's hope that day," said Jo, "is a long, long, long way off "
"According to 'Cosmo' we have at least ten more ." Blair trailed off, smile frozen, eyes gazing at a table just ahead of them.
Jo followed Blair's gaze.
Blair's father, David Warner, held court at the table which had caught Blair's attention.
"Daddy," Blair said softly. "What the hell is he doing here?"
"Up to no good, you can count on it," Jo said darkly.
David had noticed the two women.
He stood up immediately, smiled, gestured for them to approach the table. When he stood, the two young men in suits flanking him stood alsoclearly, Jo suspected, David's bodyguards.
"Ignore him," Jo told her lover.
"Darling I can't."
"Are you kiddin'? After what he's done to you? Not to mention actually shootin' yours truly. He shouldn't even be walkin' around free! Your father's a perfect damn example of what doesn't work in the criminal justice system."
"All true," Blair said in a low voice. "But I can't cut him in front of God and Society, Jo. Our family issues are just thatfamily issues. Private matters."
"Is shootin' me a 'family issue'?" Jo demanded.
"Since you're my wife in all but lawyes," Blair said gently. "Jo You don't have to come with me. Go join the others."
"Are you nuts? You think I'm lettin' you get within, within two effin' feet of that psycho without me watchin' your back?"
"Then take a deep breath, darling. Pretend you're in court "
Jo managed to hold her temper as they approached David's table.
David greeted his daughter with a warm smile that seemed, Jo had to admit to herself, sincere. David looked even leaner and fitter than when she'd last seen him. He was still sporting his long, neatly secured ponytail.
Most of the time Jo had known her lover's father, he had favored expensive dark business suits and cufflinks. But his exile in Japan had changed himhad changed his look, at least. He wore jeansCalvin Kleins, Jo knew from Blair's fashion tutelageand a light blazer and a Yankees T-shirt under the blazer. Despite the casual dress and the ponytail, David was clean-shaven and his nails, Jo noted, were still perfectly manicured.
His bodyguards were young men with topknotsJapanese or of Japanese descent, thought Jo. They wore jeans and blazers and she could tell from the way they moved that they were in perfect shape. Yeah, bodyguards. If anyone even looked at David funny these two would have the offender flat on his or her back in a chokehold within a couple seconds. Jo could tell from the discreet bulges near their right hips that they were packing some kind of heat. Not gunsthe silhouette was wrong. Some kind of martial arts weapons, she guessed.
David's dinner companions as well as his bodyguards were Japanese. Jo pegged a distinguished-looking man about David's age as the head honcho. The man had dark hair, conservatively cut and streaked with gray, and wore a dark business suit. His gray silk tie had two initials, an "M" and a "T" intertwined on it, and several intertwined Japanese characters.
The other men were youngerthe older man's assistants, protégés, maybe even his sons, though Jo. They too had conservative haircuts and wore dark suits. None of them appeared to be armed, but there was something about them, a certain coiled grace, a certain alertness in their eyes, that told Jo they could have anyone who messed with the older man flat on their back pretty damn quick, just as quick, maybe, as David's bodyguards could.
Jo took all this in quickly while she forced her face into a neutral mask. She wasn't gonna give old David a big happy grin, but scowling at him wasn't going to help matters any.
David bowed slightly to his daughter, and nodded vaguely in Jo's direction. His bodyguards followed suit, bowing to Blair and nodding at Jo. The older businessman bowed to Blair and nodded at Jo. His underlings echoed his movements.
What the helldo we bow? Jo wondered. She had barely mastered American etiquette and a smattering of British rules of conduct. Japanese business etiquette was as impenetrable as Greek to her.
Blair either didn't know or didn't care about the etiquette. She simply gazed evenly at her father, not even the ghost of a smile touching her mouth.
"Father," she said neutrally. "This is an unexpected encounter."
"Allow me to present," David said to the older man, "my daughter, Blair."
The older man bowed to Blair again. "Ah," he said, "so this is your heir. The young woman who will someday administer your business empire." He spoke perfect English with a British inflection. "Let us hope," he said politely, "that she will prove to be as wise as she is beautiful."
Blair nodded in acknowledgement of the compliment, like a queen accepting her mere due.
"Thank you," she said. "I'm wise enough, certainly, not to touch any of Daddy's present business interests with a ten-foot pole."
The older man laughed, a single, delighted bark of laughter. David laughed too.
"She does have spirit," the man said to David.
"She'll be the most formidable businesswoman in Manhattan," David said proudly.
The older man's face fell slightly. "My daughter," he said, "has proven, quite unfortunately, to be defective. And disloyal. To be disappointed in one's offspring is a great unhappiness in life."
"Well I couldn't be more proud of Blair," said David. "Blair, this is Mr. Tokama, of the Tokyo Tokamas. Tokama Industries, Tokama Steel, Tokama Farms"
"Ah," said Blair, eyebrows lifting. "So you're Mizu's father."
The man shook his head. "Please, Miss Warner. I prefer that her name not be spoken in my presence. Undoubtedly you met her at school, and if you are her friend, that is your business. But as for meI have no daughter."
"We met in Florence, actually," Blair said. "Summer of '84. She was bartending."
"Such a grave disappointment," Tokama said, shaking his head again.
"Well, having been disowned, she didn't have many career choices," said Blair. "She's had to fend for herself the best she can."
"It is said," said Tokama, "that the servant who disrespects the master must learn to master their pride."
"That some kinda ancient Japanese sayin'?" Jo asked curiously.
"No." The faintest of smiles touched Tokama's mouth. "I read it in a fortune cookie once, in your lovely Chinatown."
His entourage smiled. David Warner chuckled.
"Mr. Tokama's quite a card," David told his daughter.
"Oh, no doubt," Blair said politely.
"If you don't mind my saying so," Tokama said to David, "your daughter has perfectly mastered the art of the polite insult. A deadly politesse, as it were. Her tone is so pleasant, but underneath she is saying 'Go to hell'. She would have been unstoppable in the ancient royal court of Japan."
"Thank you," Blair said, with her sweetest "go to hell" smile.
Tokama bowed again to the heiress. His eyes swept her, cold and appraising, approving and menacing at the same time.
Jo stepped infinitesimally closer to her lover.
"You should join us, sweetheart," David told Blair. "We're discussing the possibility of a hostile takeover. A coffee company in the Northwest. It has a lot of growth potential."
"And if you do take it over," said Blair, "what will it manufacture? Aside from coffee?"
Again that barking laugh from Tokama.
"As wise as she is beautiful," said the businessman. "And who," he flicked his gaze without warning to Jo, "who is this very lovely and very dangerous young woman? She stands at your side like a bodyguard."
"She is my bodyguard, as a matter of fact," Blair said without blinking. "I only recovered a portion of my inheritance in the last few years, but it is a substantial amount. You can't be too careful. There are all sorts of thieving scum around."
Tokama's eyes glinted coldly. "I wish," he said, "that there were bodyguards so lovely in my organization." He favored Jo with a steely sort of leer.
With great difficulty Jo kept her poker-face, and didn't leap across the table and punch Tokama in the head.
"Well, now we're all friends," David said heartily. He gestured to an empty chair between his bodyguards and Tokama's.
"Please," he said to his daughter. "Sit."
Blair smiled coolly.
"My apologies, father, but I have a prior engagement with the Duke and Duchess of Nethridge. Gentlemen." She nodded coolly to the assorted body guards and businessmen. "Mr. Tokama." She favored him with a particularly frosty little bow.
"Miss Warner," he said, bowing. "And her bodyguard." He bowed to Jo. "I am sure we shall all meet again, under more fortuitous circumstances."
Blair and Jo turned away from the table and headed deeper into the Palm Court. Jo could feel Tokama's eyes boring into her back.
"Holy hell," Jo said quietly as they walked. "No wonder Mizu's such a witch."
"With a father like that," said Blair, "it's amazing she's not worse than she is."
"Babe, I want you to promise me you're gonna stay away from your father. Please. Mixin' with guys like that, he's really made the jump from tricky-but-legitimate business guy to a total freakin' criminal."
"I know," Blair said darkly.
"Why'd they hafta meet here, of all places?"
"I think Daddy's holding out another olive branch," Blair said. "Inviting me to join him."
"It really impressed him, how you set him up, huh?"
"So you think he picked the Palm Court on purpose?"
"Well, it seems a little too opportune to be coincidental," Blair said. "Don't you think? Daddy knows I own a third of the Plaza now, and undoubtedly he read that the Duke and Duchess were coming to New York, and would be staying here."
"You think he's still keepin' up on Society news now that he's a master criminal?" Jo asked skeptically.
"Old habits die hard," said Blair. "And it probably suits his, his schemes to stay abreast of what's happening in Society. I think he read about the Duke and Duchess coming here, and he assumed I'd be dining here, and that's why he set a business meeting in the Palm Court."
Jo shook her head.
"I don't like it. I wish he could go back to ignorin' you and disownin' you."
"He saw my ruthless side," said Blair. "And he approves."
"Doesn't he know you're gonna be a priest?"
"He would have read my graduation notice. But people who are corrupt," Blair chewed her lip, "people like that," she continued, "think everyone else is like them, really, underneath. He probably thinks I'm joining the church because of some, some angle."
"What an effin'"
"Jo," Blair interrupted reproachfully. "He's still, well, he's still my father."
"Are you kiddin'? Blair, I'll tell yayou're a saint. You are."
"Well he is my father," Blair repeated. "And nothing will ever change that. You forgave your father for his crimes."
"Blair, my Pop did a stretch for stolen typewriters. Typewriters! Whereas your father's an international criminal. Who, I remind you again, was responsible for my bein' shot and almost shufflin' off the old mortal coil!"
"I know," Blair said softly, intently. "Jo I'm sorry. For everything he's ever done to you. Ever done to us. And I'm not going to associate with him. But he's still my father. Can you respect that?"
Jo grumbled something under her breath.
"I didn't quite catch that, darling. But it sounded like 'You're right'."
"Oh it did, did it?"
"Yes. It did."
"Well I'll give him one thing," Jo said grudgingly. "This is one of the very few damn times I've met your father that he hasn't attacked me."
"There you are," said Blair. "In a normal family, that would be the equivalent of him welcoming you to the family."
"Hmm," Jo said, scowling.
"It would," said Blair.
After Blair smiled and nodded at assorted other acquaintances that they passed, and stopped to air-kiss an extremely elderly, extremely terrifying-looking old woman dripping with diamonds and furs, Blair and Jo made their way to Alec's table.
"I hope we aren't late," Blair said pleasantly.
Alec glanced at his Tourbillon wristwatch.
"You are not late," he said. "You are, in fact, a couple of tics early. Bless your beautiful hearts."
Jo regarded her best friend's forced smile, the hollows under his eyes, the strain evident in his taut jaw line.
Christ, she thought. He's just barely hangin' on.
As haggard as his expression was, Alec was resplendent as always in a bespoke suit. He kissed their hands and pulled out their chairs.
"So where the hell's everyone else?" Jo asked him. "Don't tell me everyone's lettin' you down again. Cause we told Nat to talk some sense into Toot, and"
"Everyone will be here," Alec assured her. "And thank you for the intervention today. Natalie called me late this afternoon and informed me that she ran my wife to ground at the theatre, and convinced Tootie that it is her sacred duty to meet the in-lawshowever unpleasant they may beand stand stoically at my sideand so on and so forth."
"Good," said Blair. "I knew Natalie could get through to her."
"Nat really went above and beyond, cornerin' her at the theater," said Jo.
"Theirs is indeed a venerable friendship," Alec said.
"Sowhat's the plan?" Jo asked. "How's this gonna go down? There better be food tonight. You know, this is the third time I've sat down in the joint in the last couple days, and I still haven't had a damn thing to eat."
"Priorities, darling," chided Blair.
"The plan," said Alec, "is that Natalie will bring Tootie, and Snake, and the Ramseys to dinner," he glanced at his watch again, "any moment now. Then Mater and Pater will make their appearancelate again, no doubt, as a sign of their unwavering disapprovaland then, well," he gave his friends a ghastly smile, "then the combined Anviston-Ramsey parental firing squad will begin."
Jo punched his shoulder.
"AlecOK, say maybe your folks and Tootie's folks will take some potshots. But sometimes a little hell's gotta break loose to clear the air. This is gonna get hammered out. It is. Young Diablo's honor." She made an indelicate sign with her fingers.
"Jo," said Blair. "Do you have to make obscene gestures at the most prominent table in the Palm Court?"
"Oh. Sorry," said Jo, demurely folding her hands on the table. "So you ready, Alec? You ready to do this? Huh? 'Cause you can do this. You got this wrapped up, pal." She tried to sound hearty and encouraging, but the grim visage of Tootie's mother and the formidable face of Alec's Mater kept floating across her mind's eye.
Alec sighed. Jo had a feeling he was seeing the same intimidating faces in his mind's eye. "I'm ready as I'll ever be, Artemis. The deuce of it is I believe my father will like Tootie," he mused, nervously running a hand through his dark curls. "But unfortunately, the Pater doesn't run the show. If only he were a little more, a little more dynamic. D'you know? Not quite such a wet firecracker."
"Eh, you should be glad your Pater's kinda sweet and dull," said Jo. "Thank God for small favors. We just ran into Blair's father."
"The hell you did," said Alec, glancing around the restaurant.
"You can't see his table from here," Jo told him, "so you can stop lookin' around. But yeah, we saw him. He's still tryin' to get Blair to go over to the dark side of the Force."
"The sole of my well-shod foot itches to give him a kick square in the bum," Alec said, pressing Blair's hand in a brotherly fashion.
"Thank you Apollo," said Blair. "But I can handle my father."
"And did she ever," Jo said, a note of pride in her voice.
"I evince no surprise," said Alec. "But if you ever do need me to forcibly eject him from the Palm Court, or any other premises, for that matter, consider me completely at your disposal, Aphrodite."
Blair pressed his hand gratefully.
"Why can't one's parents simply leave one alone?" Alec complained to the world at large. "Why can't your father, Blair, accept that you're not going to join his criminal enterprise, or cast aside your devotion to your inamorata? And why can't Tootie's parents accept that she loves me, and why can't my parents accept that I love her, and that she's the most wonderful, ripping wife a young Marquess could ever hope to find? Why can't one's parents be happy for one?"
"Maybe there's something in the parent handbook," Jo joked lamely. "You know: Rule 7: You gotta interfere in your kid's life and be totally annoyin'."
"At least your Ma came around about Blair," said Alec.
"Yeah, but it sure took a lot to get there. So just, like, be patient with your folks, Alec. I know that's easy to say and I know your Mater's kind of a, well, a piece of work. But just, you and Tootie can wear 'em down, if that's really what you want."
"Thank you, Jo." He sounded grateful, but he continued to run his hand nervously through his curly locks. Alec appreciated Jo's pep talk, but she suspected it wasn't doing a damn bit of good.
"Hail, hail, the gang's all here!" Natalie called cheerfully.
She dropped into a chair opposite Alec. Natalie wore a pretty dark green dress and a cheerful smile.
As Natalie sat she pulled Snake into the chair on her right. The towering young man looked ill at ease in a dark suit that was a smidge too small. He had apparently been working out since he bought the suit, and his muscles strained at the dark fabric. Snake's long brown hair was secured neatly in a ponytail, and even his chin scruff had the appearance of having been neatly trimmed. Snake looked perfectly civilizedand perfectly miserable.
"Jeez, I hate these monkey suits," he rumbled, dragging a finger around the inside of his shirt collar.
"Snakeixnay on the cave-man act," Natalie told him. "You're a successful businessman. You're gonna have to wear a suit sometimes."
"I'm not successful yet," he rumbled darkly.
"Pardon my boyfriend," Natalie told the table. "He was just reading his quarterly reports."
"How's the truckin' game?" Jo asked him.
Snake grimaced and made a "thumbs-down" sign.
"I keep telling him all businesses take time to get off the ground," said Natalie, slipping her arm through Snake's. "At least he's running a legitimate businessunlike his crooked father."
"Ah," Alec said with feeling. "Another crooked father. I must say, with all of his faults, the Pater's always walked the chalk mark. Well, except for fathering the Georges. But he didn't become an international criminal or anything. That's something, I suppose."
Blair leaned across the table toward Snake. "If you're ever looking for investors," she said delicately.
"Oh, jeez, no," Snake said, shaking his head. "I'm gonna make it on my own. I'm gonna stand on my own two feet."
"But thank you for the thought," Natalie told Blair. Natalie shook her head at her towering boyfriend. "You did mean to say 'Thank you'right, you big palooka?"
"What? Oh, yeah," Snake said absently. "Thanks, Blair. You're true-blue OK people." He glanced around the restaurant. "They serve beer here?" he asked Jo.
"Yeah," she told him. "Mostly imported stuff. The German lager's good."
"They pour the Guinness Stout a treat," suggested Alec. He signaled a waiter.
"So where the hell's Tootie?" asked Jo, looking around. "Someone oughta have her under lock-and-key."
"She's here," said Natalie. "Lexi need to be changed so Tootie and her mother are changing her in the Ladies, while Mr. Ramsey paces up and down the lobby."
"You're sure they won't bolt?" Alec asked.
"Justice Ramsey won't let Tootie bolt," Nat said confidently. "That woman's better than Marshall Dillon."
"Let's hope so," said Alec. He bit at a fingernail.
The waiter appearing at Alec's elbow, everyone ordered a round of drinks, Guinness Stout for Snake, a cranberry-tonic for Natalie, Macallan for Alec and for Jo, and a glass of white wine for Blair.
"Should we order for the Ramsey clan?" asked Alec. "I know Tootie likes G&Ts, but I've not a blasted clue what her parents drink."
"I think Rifle Ramsey's a beer guy," said Natalie. "Justice RamseyI have no idea."
"She prob'ly drinks milk," said Jo. "There's somethin' kinda Puritan about that lady."
"Thank you," said a cool voice.
Jo jumped a little in her chair.
Justice Ramsey sat in the chair next to Natalie. Her husband sat on her left, and then Tootie sat in the chair between her father and Alec.
Newly minted Supreme Court Justice Pauline Ramsey was as handsome and grim as ever. Justice Ramsey wore a dark dress that, while elegant, was reminiscent of judicial robes. The simple strand of pearls at her throat was more like a clerical collar than a feminine, softening accent. Pauline Ramsey wore her hair in a short, practical bob, streaked with distinguished gray.
"A glass of milk," the Justice told the waiter, while gazing hard at Jo, "sounds like just the thing."
"One glass of milk," said the waiter. "And for you sir?" he asked Harrison "Rifle" Ramsey.
"Me? A Coors'll do me OK," said Tootie's father. He wore a navy blue suitprobably one of the bazillion suits he wore to court, Jo thoughtwith a light blue tie and silver cufflinks. In spite of his many years as a highly successful lawyer, Harrison still wore his hair the way he had in the late sixties and early seventies, when he was a pro football star, a tight, closely cropped Afro and an enormous "Disco"-looking mustache. The Afro and mustache were peppered with plenty of gray now, but he still had that air of charm and vitality that superstar playersand superstar lawyersnever shed.
Harrison turned to Snake and grinned. "You know, I used to be a spokesman for Coors, about a million years ago."
"That so?" Snake asked respectfully. "Cool."
"Used to get cases of the stuff as part of my contract," said Harrison.
"Those are days," Pauline said sternly, "that are best left in the past."
"You didn't always drink milk, beautiful," Harrison told Pauline playfully.
Pauline glowered at him in a most quenching fashion.
Harrison cleared his throat and turned to his daughter.
Tootie, looking particularly lovely in a rose-pink evening dress, held little Lexi in her arms. Lexi wore a pink dress that matched her mother's. Tootie cooed softly to the child and ignored everyone else at the table. Tootie didn't look at Alec nor did Alec look at Tootie. Tootie cooed softly to Lexi and Alec chucked his daughter gently under the chin and spoke quietly to her. "There's my bonnie little lass. Yes. There's my little Lexi "
Lexi, almost a year old, was a big, blooming child with an angelically beautiful face that combined the best features of both her attractive parents. Dark curling hair, perfectly chiseled features, a minute dimple in her chin, large eyes the shape of Tootie's but the sapphire-blue of the Anviston clan. She had a tremendous scowl on her face at the moment. A tiny fist shot out and caught Alec in the nose.
"There. She's a real little Battling Bess," he said proudly. "And her vocabulary. She must know thirty words now. Perhaps forty."
"I never heard her talk," said Jo.
"She doesn't talk for everyone and anyone, Artemis. You have to spend more time around her."
"Well pardon me for goin' off and gettin' a law degree," said Jo, slightly stung.
"No offense meant, Artemis," said Alec. "I only mean you'll have to drop by more often, now you're back in the city."
"Congratulations, by the way, on earning your JD," Harrison told Jo. "From everything Tootie tells me I'm sure you'll make a fine lawyer. A very fine lawyer."
He extended a massive hand across the table. Jo shook it.
"Uh, thank you, sir," said Jo, feeling awkward, as usual, at receiving an unexpected compliment.
"Know where you're gonna practice yet?" asked Harrison.
"I'll be starting at Creves, Creves & Sloan in September," she said. "Not as, you know, a full-fledged lawyer. I have to pass the bar."
"Ah, the bar exam," Harrison said nostalgically. "I failed mine twice before I got it right."
"Three times," corrected Pauline.
"Oh, right. Three times for the DC bar. It was the New York bar I failed twice. All that Coors, I guess," he laughed.
Pauline frowned magnificently.
"We had some times, we did, Pauline. Yes. We did," Harrison said cheerfully. "But you," he nodded at Jo, "you are gonna pass the bar your first time out. Wait and see if you don't."
"I hope so, sir," Jo said.
The waiter appeared and handed around their drinks.
Pauline sipped her milk with what appeared to be genuine relish.
"I want to hold my niece," said Natalie. "And I'm one of the only ones not drinking, so I get to be a designated baby-holder."
"All right, dear?" Alec asked Tootie.
She handed the baby to her father, who handed it to Pauline.
Pauline gave the child a very slight, very brief kiss on its little nose, never losing her grim expression, then handed the child to Natalie.
"Hello there, my little friend," Natalie said cheerfully. "Hello, baby Lexi. And aren't you looking cute as a bug's ear tonight. Yes you are. Yes you are."
"Lady Lexi always looks smashing," beamed Alec, every bit the proud parent. "She takes after her mother." He put a gentle hand on Tootie's shoulder. Tootie smiled at him, a quick, dutiful sort of smile, and then gazed down at her G&T.
Jo kicked Blair under the table.
Blair kicked Jo.
This is not gonna go well, Jo telegraphed to her lover.
I know, darling, telegraphed Blair.
Leaning back in his chair Harrison took a deep draught of his Coors.
"My," he said, shaking his head. "Seems like just yesterday I was visiting Tootie at Eastland. You ladies were just little girls then. Just little things no taller than" he held his hand about three feet above the floor.
"We weren't munchkins, Mr. R," laughed Jo. "Jeez. You make it look like we were representin' the Lollipop Guild."
"Well, you were little girls," Harrison said good-naturedly. "You were kids. And now look at you. All beautiful and grown-up, and my Dorothy's a wife and mother."
"What you mean," Pauline told Jo, "is the Lullaby League."
"'Scuse me?" asked Jo, confused.
"In 'The Wizard of Oz'. The munchkin men were members of the Lollipop Guild. The munchkin women were members of the Lullaby League."
"Oh. Uh, OK," said Jo.
Christ. I always forget the Justice is a nut about "The Wizard of Oz". That's why she named her daughter 'Dorothy'
"Precision," Pauline said grandly, "is a cornerstone of the law. I hope you'll display more precision in your legal endeavors."
"Sure," said Jo. "I will." Though I don't know that I'm gonna be gettin' a lot of cases that have to do with the Lollipop Guild, or the Lullaby League!
"Well I certainly hope you will. And if you ever need a reference," Pauline sipped her milk, "I will be pleased to provide one. Notwithstanding a certain tendency to smartassery, I believe you will make a fine attorney."
Jo smiled, surprised and touched.
"Well, ah Thanks, Justice Ramsey," she said.
"Who's a little countess?" Natalie cooed to Lexi. "Hmm? Who is she? Who's a little countess?"
Lexi crowed happily, waving her hands a bit wildly in the air.
"Kid's got a lotta spirit," Jo observed to Alec.
"Of course she does," said the young lord. "She's an Anvistonisn't she? And a Ramsey."
"Damn straight," said Rifle Ramsey, lifting his Coors toward his son-in-law. "Ramseys have spirit, yes we do," he chanted, "Ramseys have spirit, how 'bout you?"
"I think one beer is plenty for you, tonight," Pauline told her husband.
"Well it's a celebration, isn't it? We've got a lot to celebrate tonight. A new lawyer," he toasted Jo, "and a new preacher," he toasted Blair, "and a new doctor in the familywell, almost," he toasted Natalie, "and my beautiful, talented daughter," he toasted Tootie, "and her beautiful daughter," he toasted the baby.
"Hear, hear," said Jo, lifting her Macallan toward Tootie and then the baby.
"I think one Scotch will be enough for you, tonight," Blair told her lover in a low voice.
Pauline, who seemed, in Jo's opinion, to have Bionic hearing, glanced sharply in their direction. The Justice gave Blair an approving nod.
Jo blushed faintly. She still wasn't sure exactly how much Pauline grasped about Jo and Blair's relationship. But the woman seemed to grasp a great deal.
"And," Harrison lifted his glass of beer to Alec, "to my son-in-law, who's soon gonna bewhat is it you're studying for again, son?"
Pauline's lips pursed at the term "son".
"International Relations, sir," Alec told his father-in-law.
"Right, right. Suppose you'll join the State Department or something."
"Or something," Alec said noncommittally.
"And that'll bring you three down to DC," Harrison said happily. "I'll get to see my little grandbaby every day."
"Daddy," said Tootie, looking up from her G&T, "you know I have to say in New York. That's where the work is. My work."
"All right, all right," Rifle Ramsey said soothingly, as if Tootie were still twelve years old. "Whatever you say, Tootie. So Alec'll work in the State Department's New York office. And you'll take Broadway by storm. My grandbaby'll still only be a few hours away by train. Yes. I'm proud of you all." He beamed genially at the entire table.
Alec cleared his throat. "Ermthank you, sir." He looked deeply uncomfortable.
"Is anything the matter, Lord Nethridge?" Pauline asked her son-in-law sharply.
"Of course not, Mater-in-Law." He gave Pauline a most charming smile.
"Certainly not, er, Pauline."
"My husband seems convinced that you and Tootie will be remaining state-side."
"And we will," said Alec. "I know how important Tootie's career is to her, and I believe completely in her talent and abilities. And her work-ethic. She shall have New York bowing at her feet. If she can make it there, er, here, then she can make it anywhere," he said enthusiastically.
"Hear, hear!" said Harrison.
"To my wife," Alec said fondly, tipping his glass in Tootie's direction.
Tootie smiled uncomfortably.
Pauline's eyes narrowed.
"So you're determined," Pauline pressed Alec, "to settle in New York City? On a permanent basis?"
Alec wriggled a bit. He sipped his Scotch.
"Is anything ever, really, permanent?" he asked philosophically.
"Yes," the Justice said. "Some things are."
"Well, take, for the sake of argument, film. The movies might discover our Tootie," said Alec. "In fact, I think it's quite likely they shall. Or television. Tootie would do very well in television. So she might need to be in Los Angeles for a time. And of course I would arrange a posting so that Lexi and I would be with her. Yes. Los Angeles. It isn't at all out of the realm of possibility."
"But you are," Pauline pursued, "committed to making a home in the United Statesyes? Even if you need to spend time in Los Angeles."
Alec took another sip of Scotch.
"For the near futureyes. Certainly," he said.
"The near future," mused Pauline. "That's a very vague description."
"Well, bless yer buttons, Mater-in-Law," Alec said playfully, "I'm not thirty yet and Tootie's still almost a child. You can't expect us to have our whole lives chiseled in stone yetcan you? A bit much to demand, don't you think?"
Pauline leaned forward intently.
"But your life has been chiseled in stonehasn't it, Lord Nethridge? When your father diesand I suppose the Duke is a mortal, like the rest of usyou will assume the Duchy in Nethridge, Englandwill you not?"
"That is an event that I hope is many, many years away," said Alec.
"But the day will come. And what then?"
"Damn, Pauline," said her husband, "do we have to talk about this now? About the poor kid's father dying?"
"This 'poor kid' has responsibilities that are centuries old," Pauline said, not taking her eyes off Alec. "And for all of his flippancy and his jibes, I believe Lord Nethridge is the type of man who, when hereditary duty calls, will answer."
"Your tone makes it sound an accusation," Alec said lightly, "but I shall take it as a compliment."
"It is an accusation," said Pauline, "and a compliment. I admire that you're a young man who will do his dutywhether he would like to, or not. But I want to know what that means for my daughter's future. My daughter's future, and my granddaughter's."
"Well if you think I'll carry her off over my shoulder, in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks, and hide her away in a castle tower, you can rest assured that I have no such intentions."
"But when your father passesyou will return to Nethridge?"
"I don't know what I'll do," Alec said, playful manner dropping away. "That is a family matter that Lady Dorothy and I will discuss when it arises. And I find it in poor taste that you continue to, if you'll excuse the word, harp on the matter at what is meant to be a convivial celebration."
"I have a right to know what the future holds for my daughter and granddaughter," Pauline said evenly. "As you yourself just mentioned, my daughter is a lady nowby marriage though not by birth. That sounds nice, but a title burdens her with certain responsibilities. And your daughter, by birth, is a countess who will someday be a duchess. I find it difficult to believe that you'll be satisfied to raise her in Los Angeles."
Pauline said "Los Angeles" as if she were naming one of Dante's circles of hell.
He turned to Tootie.
"Dearest, will you tell your mother that we're all well, full speed ahead, and will cross all those bridges when we come to them?"
Tootie twisted the linen serviette in one hand.
"Old thing," prompted Alec, "will you"
"I don't know," Tootie said quietly. "I don't know what to say, Alec. Because I don't know what to thinkwhat I think myself."
Alec lightly squeezed her shoulder. "Tootie, dear, I know there are a lot of questions to answer, a lot of things to work out. But that's for us to do. You and I, old thing. When the time is right."
"Alec " Tootie took a deep drink of her G&T. "You know how you don't like to face up to things."
"I?" Alec pretended astonishment. "I, not like to face unpleasantness?"
"It isn't funny, Alec. This is very serious."
"For heaven's sakeyou all have my father in his grave twenty years ahead of time. It's positively ghoulish."
"It's practical," said Tootie. "It's It's honest, Alec."
He cupped her face.
"Tootie. Dearest. Look at me. Mejust me. We've always been a perfect team. The amazing and talented team of Tootie Ramsey and Alec Anviston. Yes? We were always a hit. Remember Italy? Well this is, this is practically the same thing. It's teamwork. Why shouldn't we go on being a great teama great team plus one? Why does it matter where we're together, so long as we are together?"
Tootie gazed earnestly into her husband's eyes.
"Because, Alec, we're not just, we're not just playing in clubs anymore. We're not kids anymore. I know what I want my life to be. And it will be clubs and theatres and singing and performing. For the rest of my life. But you You have another destiny."
"Hang my destiny," Alec said softly.
"But you can't. And you won't. Alec Why do you think I sent you away to England? To go see Jack?"
"Cold feet, old thing. Cold feet."
"No. Because at the end of the day, that's where you belong. You're going to have to succeed your father someday. You're going to have to live in England, and you'll need a wife who, who belongs at your side."
Alec closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Alec," said Tootie. "I really am."
"It's for the best," Pauline put in.
Alec opened his eyes. They flashed magnificently as he glared at his mother-in-law.
"I'll thank you," he told Pauline, "to keep your judicial nose out of my family's private matters. You certainly have been busy, haven't youtwisting Tootie's mind in a knot!"
"Don't blame my mother," Tootie said. "AlecI'm grateful you came back after Lexi was born. And I'm grateful you've tried so hard to make this work. But as much as I love you"
"And I love you," Alec said earnestly.
"As much as I love you, and you love me," Tootie continued, "we aren't going to be living in the same worlds. I was supposed to annul our marriage a couple years ago. Well I think we ought to," her voice broke a little, "I think we ought to get a divorce now. An amicable divorce."
Alec's jaw set.
"I see. I see."
"It's the best way, Alec. It really is. And we can, we can see each other all the time."
"Oh we cancan we? Does that include my daughter? Will you pencil me in to visit Lady Alexis once a year, or so?"
"Alecdon't be a baby," Tootie coaxed.
"Don't be a baby? You're talking about taking my, my child away from me!"
"Tootie," Natalie said, "have you really thought this through? I mean, look, you're my soul sister, and you know I'll support you whatever you decide, but this is a big, big issue. It's lots of big issues, all connecting up into a really big issue. So, don't you think you and Alec need to have some long discussions about this? Without all of us around?"
"Exactly!" said Alec. "Well said, Natalie. Well said."
"Nat, I have thought this through," said Tootie. "It's all I've done, lately."
"When did you think it through?" challenged Alec. "When you were on stage? In rehearsal? At one your interminable cast parties?"
"I know you're hurt," Tootie said kindly. "Alecit's not always enough to love someone. That doesn't mean you can make a happy life with them."
"What play is that from?" snorted the young lord.
"Alec," Tootie said reproachfully.
"Hey, old chum," Jo put in gently. "Don't start sayin' stuff it'll be tough to take back."
"I take nothing back," said Alec. "Now you listen to me, Lady Dorothy. If you think I'm going to let you run off on the theatre circuit dragging little Lexi along in a suitcase, if you think I'm going to let you hand her off her to cigar-chomping stage hands to raise her while you have your moments in the limelight"
"I would never do that," said Tootie. "If you'd let me finish, Alec, you'd know that I'm going to give Lexi to you."
Alec's jaw dropped.
Every jaw dropped around the table, except for Tootie's and Lexi's.
A long beat of silence.
"You're You're giving Lexi to me?" Alec asked.
"Dorothy, we never discussed this," Pauline said sharply, when she recovered herself. "You," she addressed Alec, "that statement isn't legally binding."
"Turn blue," Alec muttered to his mother-in-law. "Dorothy. Tootie. You can't mean any of this. You don't want a divorce, and you don't want to give up Lexi."
"I don't want to," Tootie said, tears gathering in her large eyes, "but it's the best thing. For everyone."
"The deuce it is. Yes, I have responsibilities. Yes, Lexi will someday as well. But we shall work it out. We have no end of money. We can live in England and the States. We can travel as we like. We can"
"I don't want Lexi to have a life like that," said Tootie. "Shuttling here and there and everywhere. If it's Tuesday, it must be LA. If it's Thursday, it must be London."
"People make it work. We'll make it work."
"No." Tootie shook her head. She straightened her shoulders. "I want a divorce, Alec. As soon as possible. And I'll sign over custody of Lexi to you."
"Very impressive," said a melodious voice.
Everyone turned in their seats.
Duchess Nethridge had arrived noiselessly, dressed in funereal black, as usual, and stood behind Pauline's chair. The Duchess gazed across the table at her daughter-in-law with frank admiration.
Pauline twisted in her chair, peering up at the Duchess with a grimace of distaste.
The Duchess ignored the Justice.
"I applaud you," the Duchess told Tootie. "You have much more common sense than I gave you credit for."
"I only want to do what's best for Alec and Lexi," said Tootie. "And myself."
"Oh, yourself above all, I'm sure," said the Duchess. "Nothing quenches a theatrical career like a husband and child bumping along behind one. Particularly the child. Most inconvenient."
"I beg your pardon, your grace," Pauline said coldly, standing, turning, and squaring off with the Duchess.
For a wild second, Jo wondered what would happen if Pauline bum-rushed the Duchess and started a fist-fight. It would've been a battle on par, Jo suspected, with a Godzilla-versus-Mothra or even Godzilla-versus-Gamera matchup from the old monster movies. Palm Court tables would've rolled and a lot of plates and glasses would've smashed.
But the Duchess and the Justice merely glared at each other, toe-to-toe, taking each other's measure. Judging by their expressions, their assessment seemed to be a mixture of distaste and grudging respect.
"Mummy, do keep out of this," Alec said.
"Oh, I shall," said the Duchess, answering her son while continuing to glare at Pauline. "It seems my good offices are not needed. Lady Dorothy has come to the proper conclusions on her own."
"They aren't the proper conclusions," Alec said fervently. "Tootieif you'd just"
"It's all decided," said Tootie. "And it wasn't any easy decision and I don't, I don't want to discuss it any more. What we need to discuss tonight is Lexi's christening. When it will be, and who the Godparents will be, and, and like that."
"To hell with Godparents and christenings," Alec said recklessly.
"He doesn't mean that," Tootie told the table.
"The hell I don't!"
"Let's all keep our heads," Natalie said reasonably.
"And you can go to hell, too," Alec told her.
"Hey! What did I do?" Natalie demanded. "I'm the voice of reason."
"And it's no end annoying," said Alec.
"Well that's not very nice."
Lexi began to wriggle restlessly in Natalie's arms.
"Hell!" Lexi crowed happily. "Hell! Hell! Hell!"
"Is that one of the vocabulary words that fills your heart with pride?" Pauline asked Alec grimly.
"She doesn't just say 'hell'," said Alec. "She says lots ofoh, bugger it."
"Hell!" Lexi crowed. "Bloody!"
The Duchess shook her head.
"The moment we reach London we shall enroll Lady Alexis in an approved nursery," the Duchess said. "Lady Derrington's, I should think, near St. James Park. Yes. Lady Derrington's will do very well."
"I'm not putting Lexi in that glorified finishing school," Alec said. "Lexi needs her mother. Her mother, and her father."
"Her mother, at any rate," said Pauline. "After the divorce, Tootie will retain custody."
"Mom" said Tootie, but Pauline silenced her daughter with an imperious hand.
"Dorothy will have custody," Pauline repeated. "And when she's on a theatrical tour, or in Los Angeles, I will take care of Alexis."
"You?" goggled Alec. "I'd a damn sight rather enroll her at Lady Derrington's!"
"Damn!" crowed Lexi. "Damn, hell, damn!"
"Pauline, baby," said Harrison, "don't you think we're getting a little long-in-the-tooth to raise a kid? And we've finally got the last one out of the nest. This is our time."
"We will care for Alexis when Dorothy is engaged in a theatrical project. Alexis will spend the summers in England, with her father, so that he can prepare her for the day when, as an adult, she will assume ownership of Nethridge."
"Summers. Hmm. How generous of you," the Duchess said coldly. "However, one does not learn to be a lady, nor does one learn all of the nuances of one's heritage and responsibilities, during summer vacations."
"Fine," Pauline said tartly. "She'll visit Alec at Christmas, too."
Alec lifted his arms in a dramatic, almost Lear-like gesture.
"Blow winds, and crack your cheeks," he declaimed, quoting the mad king. "Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanesspout!"
"As if any other proof were needed," she said, "that he is not a suitable guardian."
"My son," said the Duchess, "is a far more suitable guardian than your vagabond daughter."
"Is that so?"
A waiter, arriving to take the table's order, hung back delicately at the sight of the two formidable older women glaring daggers at each other, Tootie near tears, Alec raising his fists to the heavens, and a little baby crying "Damn! Hell! Damn!"
"Er Should I come back, Miss Warner?" the waiter asked Blair hesitantly.
"I think that might be best," Blair told him. Like a magic trick, she slipped him a ten-dollar bill as she gratefully pressed his hand.
"Very good, Miss Warner," he said, melting into the background of the restaurant.
Jo pounded her fist on the tablejust once, but loudly and firmly enough to silence everyone.
All eyes turned to Jo.
"So listen up," Jo said, giving everyone, including little Lexi, one of her patented Jo Polniaczek glares, "this is supposed to be nice dinner. So everyone shut the hell up, and sit your asses down, and figure out what you're gonna eat. Got it?"
The Duchess bristled.
"I don't believe I care to be addressed in that barbaric manner."
"Then take a hike, sister," Jo said bluntly. "And don't let the door of the Palm Court hit ya where the good Lord split ya."
Harrison threw back his head and laughed.
The Duchess sank slowly onto a chair next to her son. She seemed too shocked to say anything, though her angry eyes indicated that there were some choice words that she would say if she could.
"Now this ain't somethin's gonna get worked out in one night," said Jo. "But it's Tootie and Alec's business and everyone else needs to shut the hell up. Now let's eat, and figure out where the christenin's gonna be. 'Cause this kid's almost one and her christenin's way overdue. And I'll tell you who's gonna be the Godparents. The grandparents are gonna be the Godparents. All the grandparents. And Nat's gonna be a Godmother somehowthat's still gotta be figured out, on account of it'll have to be an interfaith kinda thing. Got it? Everyone got it?"
The silence around the table indicated that everyone seemed to have got it. Even Lexi fell silent, tugging cheerfully at strands of her Aunt Natalie's hair.
"Good," said Jo. "Now let's get the waiter back over here. I'm starvin'."
"By Jove, you're a goddess," Alec told his friend admiringly.
"You are, darling," Blair whispered to Jo as she signaled the waiter.
"Hmph," Pauline said disapprovingly.
"Well!" said the Duchess.
At the end of a rather quiet and muted dinnerduring the course of which Jo ravenously devoured a steak, potatoes, and a mountain of green peasa suitably old and traditional Anglican church was decided upon for the christening, and both sets of grandparents agreed to serve as Godparents.
The Duchess agreed on her husband's behalf, as the Duke never made an appearance.
"Is the Pater quite all right?" Alec asked his mother as the after-dinner coffee was poured.
"Quite well," said the Duchess. "A touch of gout. With gout, one feels better when one is off one's feet."
As soon as courtesy permitted after the coffee, the Duchess excused herself and returned to her suite.
Shortly thereafter Alec, Tootie, Lexi and the Ramseys departed.
Jo and Blair invited Natalie and Snake up to their suite for a drink.
"Phew!" said Natalie, blowing out a big breath as she sank onto the divan in Jo and Blair's living room. "Am I glad that's over! What a mess!"
Snake sank onto the divan next to her, putting a burly arm around her shoulders.
"I'm playing bartender," said Jo, going to the wet bar. "Who wants what? Speak up."
"I'll take a beer," said Snake.
"Any kind. Somethin' kinda lighter, I guess. That Guinness was pretty heavy on the gut."
"What a lightweight," Jo chuckled.
Snake looked around the elegantly appointed suite living room.
Blair drew back the drapes, and the lights of Manhattan sparkled through the window, thousands upon thousands of lights.
Snake whistled. "Quite a set-up," he said. He kissed Natalie's forehead. "Hell, Nat, I sure wish I could give you a set-up like this."
"I don't need a set-up like this," said Natalie. "Not that I don't mind the occasional glamorous outing among the rich-and-famous."
"We ain't famous," objected Jo, pouring out a glass of beer for Snake.
"But you are rich," said Natalie. "And no one deserves it more. When I remember how you had to struggle after BZ Becker ruined"
"The Becker name is forbidden in this household," Jo said sternly. "That crum-bum!"
"But is your father ever going to go after him?" Natalie asked Blair curiously. "Is your dad ever going after 'you-know-who' because he ruined everyone?"
Blair shrugged. "I don't know. My father is capable of anything at this point. If Daddy does go after Becker, I don't think there will be many pieces left. After Jo was shot, I toyed with the idea of going after Becker myself. But life's too short for vengeance. One act of vengeance only breeds another."
"Hear, hear! To hell with the past," said Jo, coming out from behind the bar and handing Snake a brimming glass of beer with a thick head of foam. "Natwhaddya want? Somethin' sweet? Somethin' lemony? I'm gettin' to be a pretty good hand behind the bar."
"If I lose my fortune again," said Blair, "Jo can support us in style as a bartender in the Village."
"You say that as a joke," said Jo. "But I could. Sowhat'll it be, Nat?"
"Another cranberry-tonic, I guess."
"What're you, turnin' into a teetotaler?"
"I'm on call at the hospital. I have to stay sober."
Snake pulled Natalie close.
"Damn, that sounds so sexy," he said. "'On call at the hospital'. My hot, medical girlfriend."
"That's me," smiled Natalie.
"I'm the luckiest guy," Snake rumbled. "I just wish I just wish I could take care of you better, Nat."
"For cryin' out loud," said Jo, mixing cranberry juice with a healthy dollop of seltzer water, "you'd think you had her shacked up in some rat-infested tenement. You guys got a nice place."
"For the last time," complained Natalie, "Snake and I are not shacked-up. We're cohabiting."
"Yeah, whatever you need to tell yourself," said Jo. "Here." She handed Natalie her drink, then turned to Blair. "Babe? What can I pour for you?"
"A little dry sherry, darling. If you don't mind."
"Do we have dry sherry?"
"Every good hotel bar has dry sherry," Blair said confidently.
"Well if we don't," said Jo, "you can send a memo to the staff." She rummaged around the bar. "Huhn. What color is dry sherry?"
Blair joined her. A moment later Blair held up a cut-crystal vessel containing a straw colored liquid.
"Very nice," said Blair. She poured out a generous dollop into a small crystal sherry glass.
"I don't know how you can drink that stuff," said Jo, shaking her head. She poured herself a glass of beer with a head even foamier than the one she'd poured for Snake.
"It's called being civilized, darling," said Blair. She sipped her drink, made an approving little nod. "Ooh, very dry. Excellent. I think I will send a memo to the staff that stocks the bar."
Jo sank onto the chair across from the divan, kicked off her shoes.
"Well, with all due respect to civilization, I'm glad that damn dinner's over and we can let our hair down. I think nobility gives me a headache."
"I'll second that," rumbled Snake.
Natalie shook her head. "Tonight reminded me how lucky I am to have my parents. I mean, no, Dad's not happy that Snake and I are cohabiting, and, yes, he did cut off my allowance as a sign of protest. But they have us over for Shabbat every other week. And my father invited me to watch a heart surgery next week."
"So, that's a good sign," Jo said encouragingly.
"It is," Natalie agreed.
"I can't really blame your old man," laughed Snake. "I'm not exactly the kinda guy white-bread girls should be bringin' home to the parents."
"You're exactly the kind of guy girls should bring home to their parents," objected Natalie. "You're handsome and smart and hard-working and a gentleman. And who are you calling 'white-bread'?"
"It's the tattoos," Jo told Snake. "And the fact that you're kinda built like King Kong. And the bein' Irish."
"See, to my mind, those are all selling points," said Natalie.
"But not to a parent," said Blair.
"Parents," sighed Natalie. "Those totally annoying, yet totally lovable creatures."
"Amen," said Blair.
"I wouldn't describe your pop as lovable," Jo told Blair.
"That's because you're not his daughter. When I was littleoh, never mind." Blair tossed back her sherry. She handed her glass to Jo. "Can I have another, darling?"
"For cryin' out loudI just got nice and comfortable here."
Grumbling, Jo went to the bar and poured out more dry sherry.
"That's how it is after you've been together for a long time," Blair told Natalie. "Things that your lover used to fall all over to do are suddenly enormous inconveniences."
"Hilarious," said Jo, handing Blair the fresh glass of sherry.
"Thank you, darling."
Jo grunted. She sank onto her chair again, and took a deep drink of foamy beer.
"Would you ever complain about getting me a drink?" Natalie asked Snake.
"Never," he said valiantly. "Your wish is my command, hot doctor lady."
Natalie sighed contentedly.
"Give it another couple of years," Blair said wisely.
"You know, I'm sittin' right here," said Jo.
"I know you are, darling."
"I do all kinds of stuff for you."
"So what's the problem?"
"There isn't a problem. It's only that you aren't always as enthusiastic about 'doin all kinds of stuff' for me these days."
"Well what about when I asked you to cook me a little oatmeal last week?" groused Jo. "You'd a thought I asked you to cook me a freakin' ten-course meal."
Blair considered. "Well true," she admitted.
"Let's face it," said Natalie, "after awhile, everyone starts to take each other for granted a little bit. Nothing wrong with that. It's just the cycle of life."
"Well I do not take Blair for granted," said Jo.
"You do, darling," said Blair. "A little bit. And I take you for granted a bit too. I can admit it."
"Well that's very big of you, Blondie."
"I've taken a freakin' bullet for you, babe."
"You have," Blair agreed, unperturbed. "But not just lately."
"Well how about we hit the Bronx tomorrow night? Maybe I'll get gunned down like that 'Ghost' guy."
"Oh, my gosh, did you see 'Ghost'?" asked Natalie. "Wasn't that the most romantic movie ever?"
"It was lovely," said Blair.
"It didn't suck," said Jo.
"That part," said Snake, "where he figured out how to move stuffthat was cool."
"Yeah," said Jo. "I liked that part."
"The end," said Nat, putting a hand to her heart. "Oh my gosh, the end. When he said, 'It's more beautiful than you can imagine'. Oh, my gosh. I almost swooned."
"Lucky I was there to catch you," rumbled Snake.
"Oh, I'm the lucky one," smiled Nat.
She and Snake gazed at each other, lost in a moment.
Jo made a face.
"What the hell? Do we look like that?" she asked Blair.
"I suppose we do," said Blair, smiling indulgently at their friends.
"Well no more public displays of affection, then," Jo said firmly. "I don't know how the hell anyone can stand us!"
"All right." Blair leaned close to Jo. "The private displays of affection will do," she said demurely, too quietly for Natalie and Snake to hear.
And there it was. Jo felt electric all over, goosefleshy, the fine hairs on the back of her neck standing up.
That's her effect on me, thought Jo. Electric. Like flippin' a million-volt switch. Just like that, I want her now. I want her now, and so, so bad
Mind racing nearly as fast as her heart had started to beat, Jo tried to think of a casual but plausible way to wrap up the evening and kick Nat and Snake the hell out of the suite. Jo had just settled on faking stomach cramps when the suite doorbell pealed.
Jo and Blair glanced at each other.
"We expectin' anyone?" Jo asked her lover.
"Not that I'm aware of," said Blair. "I hope," she clenched and unclenched one hand, a nervous flexion, "I hope Daddy isn't here to plead his case."
"Well if he is, he ain't gonna get the reception he expected," Jo said grimly. She glanced at Snake, who was already rising to his feet. "You got my back if it's David Warner?"
"Damn straight," Snake growled. "Bring him on."
"So, OK," said Natalie, holding up two hands, "before everyone goes all 'Dirty Harry' on this situation, can I just interject a few rational thoughts?"
"No," said Jo, and Blair, and Snake, at the same time.
"I'm sorry, Natalie," Blair added, "but when it comes to Daddy we can't be too careful. He hasn't earned any benefit of the doubt."
"And if it is him, he mighta brought his goons with him," Jo said.
Snake tilted his head to the left and then the right, with an audible cracking sound. He then cracked his knuckles.
"I'm good to go," he told Jo.
Jo nodded. "Good. You hang back where the foyer hits the living room, and if you see or hear any trouble at the door"
Blair and Natalie rose to their feet, and went to stand immediately behind Snake, who took up a post where the living room flowed into the foyer.
Jo went to the door.
A pause. Jo looked through the peephole. "Son of a bitch," muttered Jo.
"Who is it?" called Blair.
"Well it ain't dear old Daddy," said Jo.
Snake's massive shoulders relaxed slightly. It was like, thought Blair, watching a mountain settle. Blair and Natalie relaxed slightly as well, although Jo's exclamation of "Son of a bitch" didn't bode well even it wasn't David Warner at the door.
They heard Jo draw back the chain and slide back the security bolt.
"I think maybe you got the wrong room," Jo told someone at the door.
"Certainly not." The plummy tones of the Duchess of Nethridge.
A second later the Duchess in a cloud of expensive black material and expensive perfume had brushed past Jowhich Blair knew was no mean featand then past Snake, Blair, and Natalie, and swept into the suite's living room.
Without being asked, the Duchess settled onto the room's most comfortable and elegant chair.
"Well, do come in," Jo said mockingly, following the Duchess and her friends into the living room.
"Thank you," said the Duchess. "I have."
Snake and Natalie settled on the divan again.
Jo and Blair each selected a chair flanking the chair in which the Duchess had sat.
"I'm here," the Duchess said, looking from Jo to Blair and back again, "to throw myself on your mercy."
Jo considered that statement. The Duchess looked as coldly regal as she had earlier, but there was something new A kind of faint pleading expression on her beautiful features.
Jo had already figured that Alec got most of his con-artisty qualities from dear old Mummy. Jo wasn't prepared to trust the Duchess any further than she could throw the woman.
"You're here to throw yourself on our mercy?" Jo asked skeptically.
"Yes," said the Duchess.
"Right," said Jo.
"You must believe me," said the Duchess.
"We don't must anythin', lady," said Jo. "Tootie and Alec are our friends, and we've become real damn attached to little Lexi, and at the end of the day, it's only their happiness that matters."
"But that's why I'm here," said the Duchess. "For the sake of their happiness."
Jo rubbed her chin thoughtfully. If it was a ploy, it was pretty damn brazen. But then, the Duchess struck her as a woman that wouldn't shy away from a brazen ploy.
"Let me explain," said the Duchess.
"I think that'd help," said Jo.
"I haven't been able to get through to Alec. And while his wife and I seem to agree, she won't speak to me either. So I'm coming to you. I couldn't help noticing at dinner that you and Miss Warner," the Duchess glanced briefly at Blair, "seem to be the leaders of the ragtag coterie of Alec's friends."
Natalie looked to Snake.
"Did she just call us a 'ragtag coterie'?"
"I think she did," Snake rumbled. He gazed calmly and thoughtfully at the Duchess, as if considering whether to throw her out of one of the windows.
"No offense intended, of course," the Duchess swept on haughtily. "But you," to Jo, "and you, Miss Warner," to Blair, "you and your assorted friends and hangers-on seem to have acquired a quite powerful if not desirable hold over my dear little Leccy. In every letter and note he's sent me for the last five years or so, it's always 'Jo this' and 'Blair that' and, well, I'd be a fool not to realize that the way to reach him might be some sort of meeting of the minds with you and your circle, unpalatable thought that may be."
Jo chewed on that.
"Blair," she said finally.
"Is her grace even more alienatin' and rude than I am?"
"Well, it's a close race," said Blair. "But I think she might be."
"It's a dead heat," said Natalie. "You're neck-and-neck in the 'rude' department, and I think the Duchess wins when it comes to 'alienating'."
"If I give offense, you must forgive me," said the Duchess. "I have so little contact with commoners."
"And, OK, there we goshe just passed you in the 'rude' department," said Natalie.
"She sure did," agreed Jo.
The Duchess smoothed the pleats of her dark dress.
"Let me begin again," she said. "I'm a simple woman. I have simple tastes. For myself, I want nothing."
"That ain't how I hear it," said Jo, remembering various anecdotes from Alec about how his clever Mummy would spend entire seasons on the French Riviera, running up hotel and clothing and jewelry bills that she never could and never intended to pay.
The Duchess' eyebrows rose. She saw something in Jo's eyes that she decided not to challenge.
"Let me begin, then, yet again," she said. "And perhaps you won't be impolite enough to interrupt me this time. Thirty years ago, I married Leccy's Pater. I saved him, in the nick of time, from the clutches of a most unscrupulous actress. A Brighton actress, if you please. Summer stocknot even," she shuddered, "West End. My marriage to the Duke was a most promising marriage. His lordship's title, and my fortune."
"I thought you were stony," said Jo.
"Not when I married the Duke. No. Oh, no. It was quite a tidy little fortune that I brought to the match, as well as my own title, which, while nothing in comparison to 'Duchess of Nethridge', was quite respectable. Quite respectable. Immediately upon our marriage, I signed my fortune over to the Duke. He was to invest it in such a way as to increase it, so that his Duchy would once again rise to its former glory, and be maintained in the manner of his ancestors. Nethridge would become, once again, a crown jewel of the kingdom, and in due time we would pass it to our offspring."
Snake nodded. "This is a pretty good yarn," he said approvingly. "Needs popcorn, though."
The Duchess rolled her eyes.
"As you have no doubt surmised," she continued, as if Snake hadn't spoken, "the Duke did not invest wisely. I realized, far too soon, yet far too late, that a head for business is not among the Duke's accomplishments. He lost everythingevery pennywithin the first few years of our marriage. His estates fell into even worse repair than they had been when we wed, and we settled into our nightmare of genteel poverty. Alec was born into that genteel poverty. He never knew Nethridge as it was in its finer days. All he knew was, well"
"All he knew was bein' stony," said Jo. "And scrapin' by. And schemin', and lyin', and playin' long cons."
"We did," sniffed the Duchess, "what we had to do. To add insult to injury, when my husband took a diplomatic post in Indiafor a mere pittance, mind youhe became infatuated with a heartless fortune hunter. She tricked him into an infidelity, resulting in two bastards. Of course, once she realized the Duke had no money, she dropped him. You see? I hide nothing from you."
"Pretty smart move," said Jo, "since you must know Alec already told us about the Georges."
"How are the Georges?" Natalie asked curiously. "What a couple of pistols those kids are!"
"I do not know how they are, nor where they are," the Duchess said coldly. "Last I heard, Alec had settled them at some universitysomething after the pattern of reformatory, no doubtsomewhere in England, at his own expense, and I don't care to know any more. I wish I didn't know even that much."
"Look," said Jo, "why doncha stop insultin' the kids, and cut to the chase? What do you want from us?"
"I'm trying to impress upon you," said the Duchess, "why it's so important for Alec to return to Nethridge and take up his duties as the ducal heir. Alec never saw Nethridge as it could be. Yes, since he inherited Lady Vivienne's fortune, he has been very generous to his father and to me. We've been able to make repairs to the castles and to the tenant cottages and we've been able to invest in the land and the mining operations as no Anviston has invested in the last fifty years. But there's still so much more to be done. If Alec returned to Nethridge with his daughter, his heir, and married a suitable woman of title, if Alec applied more of his fortune to the development of Nethridge"
"And, ding-ding-ding, we got a winner," said Jo. "Money. Sure as the freakin' sun rises, it always comes to money. You've run through the money Alec's been good enough to give you already. Now you want Alec to move his big fat bank accounts to ye olde family estate. Permanently."
"And why shouldn't he?" flared the Duchess. "He may never have seen it in it full flush of beauty, but Nethridge is his home. It's the land. His land. It's in his blood. It's in his very marrow. And so what if he has to make compromises to safeguard it? If he has to lie a biteven to cheat, or steal?"
Natalie tapped her chin. "Wasn't that one of the big speech in 'Gone with the Wind'?"
"Pretty close," agreed Blair.
"Duchess," said Jo, "you make a great Scarlett. And if I had a potato, I'd hand ya one to help you with your big scene here. But as far as helpin' you bamboozle Alec into headin' back to the old country, you get the big thumbs down, plus a Bronx cheer, from me. If he wants to move back, good for him. If Tootie and the kid go along, that's their business."
The Duchess shook her head.
"Such coarseness. However," she lifted her shoulders, a genteel gesture of despair, "what can one expect from Yanks?"
"Yeah, you guys never could handle us," said Jo. "The Revolution was for the best."
"If you don't care about Alec's happiness," said the Duchess, abruptly changing tack, "what about your friend Dorothy's happiness? You heard her tonight. You heard her. She doesn't want to be saddled with an English estate, with all of the responsibilities that it would entail. She doesn't even want to be saddled with Alec's child."
"Hey, whoa," said Natalie, lifting her hands. "Tootie loves that kid. Loves her to pieces. When Tootie talks about signing her over to Alec, it's only because she thinks that's what's best for Lexi."
"And she's right," said the Duchess. "She's absolutely correct. Blood tells. Do you think Lady Alexis could ever be happy here? In this, this backwater colony?"
Jo gestured toward the sea of lights, Manhattan's thousands upon thousands of lights, gleaming beyond the living room windows.
"We ain't exactly in the tundra here," Jo said drily.
"I'm not talking about, about sheer population," said the Duchess. "About numbers of people, or numbers of buildings. That isn't what makes a place civilized. It's the quality of the people. It's, it's manners and etiquette and culture and the soft heavy weight of history pulling at one, giving one roots."
"And we're back to Tara," said Natalie.
"Yup," said Jo.
The Duchess threw up her hands in disgust.
"I despair. I simply despair. You're hooligans. Barbarians. Even you, Miss Warner," she turned on Blair. "And I would have expected so much more from Monica Warner's daughter."
"Well," Blair drawled slowly, her diction diamond-perfect, "my mother did try to raise me to plot and scheme and use people. But I'm afraid I had to let her down."
"You sure did," Jo said proudly.
"You've only pressed your nose against the window of Alec's world," the Duchess said to Blair. "But you have glimpsed itthe beauty of the aristocracy, and the old estates, when there are resources to sustain them."
"It can be beautiful," Blair agreed, "but not at any cost. You should be grateful for what Alec has done for you and your estate. And if Alec wants to return to Nethridge, and if he and Tootie decide it's the best place for Lady Lexi, then all well and good. But it's their decision. Theirs. With all due respect, the best thing you can do, your grace, is to butt out."
The Duchess shook her beautiful head, as mournfully as if now she had heard everything, and there was nothing left to do in the world but to drink hemlock and so leave the world.
"I despair," she said again. "I thoroughly despair."
"Well, you know, there, your grace," Jo stood, "how 'bout you go despair in the comfort of your own suite. Which your son is payin' for."
The Duchess stood.
Her eyes flashed.
"Uncouth to the last," she said to Jo.
"That's what I hear," Jo said agreeably.
The Duchess lifted her chin, turned on one heel, and swept out of the living room as swiftly and grandly as she had swept into it a few moments before.
"Phew!" said Natalie, after a moment of silence.
"You said it!" Jo concurred. "Give me a sec "
Jo went to the foyer, to ascertain that the Duchess had really, truly, left, and was not standing there preparatory to eavesdropping on the friends or making another dramatic entrance.
"Is she gone?" called Natalie.
"She's gone," called Jo.
They heard Jo shoot the bolt and fasten the chain.
"Poor Alec," said Natalie. "I feel bad now for all the times I gave him a hard time."
"Eh, he's fine," said Jo, returning to the living room.
"But how? How is he fine with a mother like that?"
"That which don't kill us, makes us stronger," said Jo. "Believe me. He loves the old dame, but he's his own man. He's OK. The Duchess has got a big surprise in store if she thinks her bull is gonna fly with Alec. Not anymore. Not since we all gave him a little Yankee spine when he was livin' at River Rock."
"Is that what we did?" Natalie asked doubtfully.
"More or less," said Jo. "Member how we made him live in that crummy little room? And Blair made him go shoppin' and stuff? We de-assified him. We helped him turn into a real, live, regular guy."
"There's no question you've been a good influence on him," Blair said. "You've shown Alec how to stand up to people. How to fight for something you believe in, instead of just giving in and taking the easy way out."
"Well, you showed him that too," said Jo. "We all did, I guess, in our own way."
"The four musketeers strike again," Natalie said, buffing her fingernails on her dress
After another half hour of conversation, Natalie and Snake took their leave. The two couples agreed to meet for lunch the next day, to compare notes if any of them had heard of any developments re: the Anviston-Ramsey ménage.
Jo secured the door after they left. When she returned to the living room she found Blair already nude, lying invitingly on the divan, swinging one long leg in a most fetching, most insouciant way.
"Babe!" said Jo, delighted and slightly scandalized at the same time. "What if Nat was with me? Or, for Pete's sake, what if it was Snake? What if they forgot something?"
"But they didn't," Blair said sensibly. She leaned against the divan cushions, arching her back in a most tempting manner. "Jo, darling?"
"Why aren't you leaping on top of me?"
"Done and done," Jo said breathlessly.
Jo woke in the middle of the morning. She consulted the luminous dial of her watch on the nightstand: 3:27 am.
Jo laced her fingers under her head and closed her eyes. Images of Alec and Tootie and little Lexi drifted across her mind's eye. What the hell were they gonna do? She wanted to help them, but it was such a big, and such a personal issue. Jo shook her head. She felt miserably helpless.
Beside her Blair slumbered peacefully, nose whistling ever-so slightly. Jo was conscious of and comforted by the nearness of Blair, her softness and scent and warmth.
Jo turned on one side. She regarded her lover in the dimness. Jo tenderly brushed a strand of hair out of Blair's face, stroked the long blonde hair almost reverently. Blair always looked so angelic as she slept
I love you so much, babe, thought Jo. Thank God we finally got everythin' straightened out with our parents. Well My parents, anyway
Jo and Blair had worn each other out around midnight. Jo couldn't even remember falling asleep. The last thing she remembered was a rolling tsunami of an orgasm. Thendarkness. A slight twinge in Jo's right side told her she had strained a muscle.
The gilt French telephone on the nightstand trilled.
What the hell?
Jo scooped up the receiver before the phone could ring again and awaken Blair.
"What's wrong?" Jo asked in a voice both tense and hushed. Anyone calls at three-thirty in the mornin', she thought, they ain't exactly bringin' ya good tidins of cheer.
"Jo?" It was Alec's voice, also tense, also hushed.
"What's wrong?" Jo repeated.
"I was hoping you were still awake, old chum."
"Yeah, well, all the drama goin' on, I can't sleep so good."
"Me neither, Artemis."
"The Duchess paid us a little visit tonight."
"The hell she did."
"Yup. She did. And it was hellish. Your mother ever get nominated for an Oscar, by any chance?"
"We don't have Oscars in Britain," said Alec. "But she ought to have won a BAFTA or two. I hope she didn't cause you too much consternation."
"Nah, we didn't take it serious. I'm afraid, uh, I kinda put her in her place."
Alec laughed softly. "The way you put us all in our places at dinner? Well. I don't suppose it will do her any permanent damage. Mummy is a rather cast-iron article."
"You're tellin' me!"
"It's been said of menquite unkindly and inaccurately, might I notethat you can't insult them because our ego is too large. Well. Apply that statement to the Duchess rather than to men, and there you are."
"Alec, old chap, old chum, all kiddin' aside, I don't think your Mater's gonna back down on this thing where she wants you to ditch Tootie and lam it with the kid back across the pond."
"Hmm. Well. The Duchess has an ally in that plannamely my wife."
"So Tootie's still sayin' she wants you to leave her and take Lexi?"
"How's Toot doin', anyhow?"
"Oh, heavens." Alec sighed. "It was all tears tonight. She's sorry she's ruining my life, and she's sorry she can't be a good mother to Lexi, and she wishes she was twelve years old again. She retired in tears to the guest bedroom with her mother and the baby and the bassinette. Harrison and I have been barred from entry. The male animal is persona non grata just now."
"Damn, indeed. I've set up camp on the sofa in the lounge, while Harrison is snoring like a grizzly bear on the drawing room divan."
"Harrison's sleepin' on that measly little delicate thing? How the hell does he fit?"
"He doesn't fit, bless your heart. He's contorted in the most tortuous, uncomfortable-looking manner, a cross between a Bavarian pretzel and a yogi fakir. Which, one supposes, is why he's snoring like a grizzly bear."
"Poor Mr. Ramsey."
"Poor Mr. Ramsey my eye! He, at least, is blissfully adrift in the depths of the river Lethe for the moment. Whereas I can't close my eyes."
"Yes. Precisely. Poor Alec."
Jo glanced at her slumbering fiancée.
"You wanna take a walk, pal?" asked Jo.
"At this time of the morning?"
"Sure. Nothin' like a walk to clear your head. I can be there," Jo glanced at her luminous watch dial, "I can be down in front of your buildin' in half an hour."
"By taxi, dolt."
"Can you find a taxi at this hour?"
"Alec, this is the city that never freakin' sleeps. And I'm at the Plaza. Which my girlfriend partly owns. I think they can hail me a damn taxi."
"Ah. Of course. Well I suppose a walk would do me good."
"It sure couldn't hurt. See ya in thirty minutes."
Jo returned the receiver to its cradle, and padded to the shower.
When Jo's taxi pulled up to the curb, Alec was standing in front of the luxury building in which he and Tootie and Lexi resided in palatial splendor.
Jo tossed a couple of bills to the driver and leaped out. The taxi shot away into the Manhattan night.
Alec had made the minimal effort to be presentable. His hair corkscrewed rather wildly, as if he'd just dragged a hand through it, and he hadn't shaved. He wore a light summer overcoat over his striped pajamas.
"Christ, you look like hell," Jo observed.
"You weren't serious about walkingwere you?"
"A little walk wouldn't hurt your lazy ass," Jo said severely. "And it's just the thing for clearin' out the brain cells when they get all short-circuited."
"I suppose this is the Jo Polniaczek version of 'tough love'," mused Alec.
"Damn right," said Jo. "Now march, milord."
He looked up and down the avenue.
"March where? To what end?"
They walked in a general southwesterly direction for some time. Alec pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his overcoat pocket and lit a smoke.
He blew a stream of smoke from his nose and sighed.
"That's bloody nirvana," he said. "D'you know I haven't had a smoke in three months?"
"Well you know what I think of smokin'," said Jo, "but all things considered maybe you oughta take it up again a little. For your nerves. Like, when little Lexi ain't right there, o' course."
"I think I shall," Alec said. He took a deep, deep drag, and then held the cigarette toward Jo.
"Are you kiddin'?" Jo demanded. "You know I hate that crap. I just said how I hate that crap."
"Has Blair quit yet? I mean, thoroughly quit?"
Jo shook her head. "She tells me she has, but, you know, she's sneakin' a few on the sly."
"How do you know?"
"A lover knows," said Jo.
A few more moments of companionable silence. Although NYC is the city that never sleeps, their route took them past luxury residential buildings and restaurants and storefronts that, while attractively lit, were as hushed and motionless as tombs. New York's wealthy and its tourists did, apparently, sleep.
"My legs are getting tired," Alec said.
"What a candy-ass," Jo snorted.
"I sayeven for 'tough love' that's rather unkind."
"Step up the pace, Fauntleroy. If you wanna walk off your troubles, you gotta move faster than this."
"I don't want to 'walk off my troubles', Jo, dearthis was your scathingly brilliant idea."
"Mush, milord. Chop-chop."
"I really do think you should consider becoming a military general," Alec said.
Eventually they reached the intersection of 5th and 58th, at the southeastern tip of Central Park. The General Motors building loomed high above them, its bottom levels dominated by one of the most famous toy stores in the world.
Alec stopped and pointed. "Good Lord," he said. "We've come all the way to FAO Schwarz."
"And we got further to go," said Jo. "Stop goldbrickin'."
"Did you ever," Alec fished another twisted cigarette from the crumpled pack in his pocket, "did you ever see that movie, the Tom Hanks movie, where he dances on the piano?"
"I musta missed that one," said Jo.
"Tootie and I saw it together. In Peekskill. When you were all scattered to the winds." He lit the cigarette. "'Big'. Yes. That was the title. A little boy wishes he were grown-up, and a mystical carnival machine makes his wish come true. But being an adult isn't what he expected. Comic mishaps ensue."
"Sounds pretty crummy," Jo said skeptically.
"No. It was very charming. Whimsical." Alec waved his cigarette. "Like the piano scene. He's in FAO Schwarz, and he dances on the giant piano keys."
"Was he drunk?"
"No, no. He was only twelve years old. Inside, that is. He was just, he was being a kid."
Jo shook her head. "If I went dancin' around FAO Schwarz when I was twelve, the Young Diablos woulda beat the hell outta me for bein' a wimp. HellI woulda beat the hell outta myself!"
Alec sighed. "You have to see the movie, Jo, to understand, well, like I said. It's the whimsy of it."
"Pass," said Jo.
"But I think you'd enjoy it, old chum. I really do, if you gave it a chance."
"'Die Hard 2'now that was a movie," said Jo.
"I supposed you dragged poor Blair to that pyrotechnic shoot-em-up."
"Eh, she loved it. She pretends she doesn't like action flicks, but she really does."
"I think Blair is a very devoted inamorata," Alec said. He flicked ashes on the pavement, continued to gaze wistfully at the storefront of FAO Schwarz.
"Alec, why do you gotta be so, so"
"Cultured?" he suggested. "Suave? Debonair?"
"I gotta go with candy-ass again," she said.
"Touché," said the young lord. "Ouchbut touché."
Jo grabbed one of Alec's overcoat sleeves, tugged him toward the storefront.
"I say, Artemiswither go we? And at such an alarming pace?"
"You want FAO Schwarz," she said, "we're gonna go to FAO Schwarz."
"But the store is closed. It shan't open for hours."
"For us, it's open now," said Jo, hauling him into a narrow service alley at one side of the entrance.
The alley was dark and lined with boxes and rubbish bins.
"Odds bodkins," Alec complained in a hushed voice. "Where are you dragging me?"
"Shut up," hissed Jo. "There might be a guard."
"I certainly hope so. This looks like a place where the lowest criminals in New York might be gathered."
"Shutteth-uppeth, milord. And if you see someone, flatten."
"Against the wall."
Alec gazed in dismay at the damp, dark walls past which Jo was dragging him.
"I will not," he said. "Not if it means my life."
"Well, it might. Your lifeor a night in lock-up if a guard nabs us."
"Then why are we doing this?"
"Shut up and you'll see," Jo hissed
The narrow service alley was lined with doors. Jo ignored them all. The alley dead-ended at a sheer wall with a broad freight door.
Jo dropped to one knee and reached for the door handle.
"Surely that's locked," objected Alec.
"Of course it's locked."
"Shh. I gotta concentrate. And I gotta listen."
She removed two slender pieces of metal from a pocket. She fitted one tool into the keyhole, paused thoughtfully, and then inserted the other.
"I say, our Joare those lock picks?" Alec asked.
"Of course not."
"Well they certainly look like lock picks."
"Lock picks are illegal. These," Jo manipulated first one sliver of metal, and then the other, with delicate motions, "these are just um just some tools I machined. For emergencies."
"So they're lock picks," said Alec.
"More or less. Be quiet, will ya? I think I almost almost "
There was an audible CLICK.
Jo nodded in satisfaction.
She returned the tools to her pocket and stood up, wiping her hands on her jeans.
"Now we just hope there's no alarm," she said, reaching for the handle.
"And if there is?"
"Then we run like hell. You go north, I go west, and we meet at the Plaza for lunch. Unless you get caught and me and Blair hafta bail you out."
"Or unless you get caught."
"Right. Like that would happen."
Jo twisted the handle and shoved the heavy sliding door to the right.
No alarm bell rang out.
"Ooph," she said. "It's heavy. Give me a hand here, Alec."
"Always pleased to oblige a lady."
Together they pushed the freight door open wide enough for them to squeeze inside the building.
"Now we gotta close it," whispered Jo. "So if a guard comes by they won't see somethin's off."
Still panting from helping to open the door, Alec assisted Jo in closing it.
"Phew!" He leaned forward, holding his knees for a moment. "Do you know, Artemis, I'm quite dizzy."
"You need to exercise more often," she said.
When Alec caught his breath he straightened and glanced about. He and Jo were in a loading dock area dimly lit by bare electric bulbs strung on wires. Towering columns of boxes filled most of the space; the boxes bore the brand names of toy manufacturers.
"God's teeth," Alec said wonderingly. "All those boxes are filled with Barbie dolls. Can you imagine? And all those," he gestured, "are full of Cabbage Patch dolls, and look at all those boxes of Easy Bake Ovens."
Jo shook her head.
"I do have a one-year old daughter," Alec said with dignity.
"Yeah, I know. You just seem so damn excited."
"I wish Lexi could see this."
"Eh, it's better she's not here. I don't think Tootie'd like it if Lexi ended up in lock-up."
"I say, Jo, you are teasing about thataren't you? We aren't really in danger of incarceration."
"Keep talkin' loud like that and find out."
Jo moved in cat-like silence toward a door against the far wall.
"Where does that lead?" whispered Alec.
"C'mon and find out," called Jo.
He followed her, relatively quietly, as Alec had his own cat-like grace, but with a rustling of cloth caused by his overcoat.
"Why'd ya hafta wear that thing?" Jo grumbled as he joined her at the door.
"It seemed better than strolling about in my jim-jams," Alec said reasonably.
Jo slowly turned the handle of the door. When no alarms rang, they both breathed a sigh of relief.
They found themselves in a broad back corridor lined with more boxes.
"IQ Computers," Alec whispered excitedly. "And My Pal Robots!"
Jo led the way down the hall.
She stiffened suddenlya splash of light at the end of the corridor caught her attention.
"Flatten!" she hissed at Alec.
They both flattened themselves against the walls behind a column of My Pal Robot boxes.
The squeak of shoes against waxed linoleum tiles. A flashlight beam played against the wall.
"Hello?" called an elderly voice. "Someone there?"
Jo and Alec held their collective breath, hearts pounding in their chests.
The guard muttered something to himself. To Jo's acute ears it sounded like "Must be hearin' stuff now."
The flashlight beam veered away. The squeak of shoes receded down the adjoining hallway
After a few moments, Jo tugged Alec's sleeve, pulling him toward the intersecting corridors just ahead.
"What about the guard?" whispered Alec.
"We go opposite of where he went," Jo said.
"Oh. Well " Alec hesitated.
"C'mon. We're all in, now, pal. In for a freakin' penny, in for a freakin' pound."
They crept through a maze of utility corridors, some broad, some narrow, always moving in a different direction from where the guard had headed.
Let's just hope, thought Jo, that we're outta here before he circles back around
They finally made their way up a staircase and pushed their way through a swinging door.
"Shh," muttered Jo.
"But, Joit's enchanting."
They had emerged in a showroom filled with children's furniture, from petite tea tables to canopied beds to bunk beds, to miniature art studios and play kitchens, to swing sets and slides.
Alec roamed quietly through the show room.
"Alexis needs all of this," he said.
"Well, lucky for her," said Jo, "she's got a pop can afford to buy it all."
During the next half hour Jo and Alec wandered from department to department at FAO Schwarz, ever watchful for the guard's flashlight. They padded softly up and down the escalators which had been powered down overnight.
"It's a wonderland," said Alec. "I feel like a character in 'The Nutcracker Suite'."
"You musta got beat up a lot when you were little," observed Jo.
"Mummy had me tutored at home for a time."
"Yeah. Well. She's a smart cookie."
They wandered through showrooms that were like images out of dreams, rooms of games, and toy planes, and model ships, and little red wagons, of sports equipment, of wooden rocking horses, of miniature cars (gas and electric powered), of puppets, and storybooks, and enormous stuffed animals.
The décor was colorful and bright and fanciful, awe-inspiring even in the dimness, with oversized toys at every turn to make even adults feel like children again.
When they reached the landing dominated by the giant piano keys, they paused.
"So," said Jo. "This what you were babblin' about?"
"Although," he said, "the piano looked bigger in the movie." He paced up and down in front of the keys. "Do you think it's on?" he asked.
Jo tilted her head. "Well, you know I don't think we should try ta find out. One note outta that thing, and"
"Yes, yes," Alec said regretfully. "We'd bring every guard in here on the run."
He continued to pace in front of the oversized piano keyboard.
Then he danced a fairly expert soft-shoe in front of, although not on, the black and white keys.
He took a little bow.
Jo gave him a thumbs-down.
"All right, pal," said Jo. "Time to hit the road."
"Certainly, Jo." He gave a last, longing look at the keyboard
They retraced their steps. In the stuffed animal room, Alec put a giant black bear in a headlock, carrying it under his arm.
With his free hand he pulled a little pencil and memoranda book from his overcoat pocket.
Balancing the bear under one arm, he scribbled a note, tore out the sheet of paper and secured it under the front paws of a stuffed koala bear.
"Do you have any cash on you, Jo?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Could be. Why?"
"Don't be a miser, dear. I want to bring this home to Lexi."
"And, as usual, you don't got a dime on ya," Jo said disgustedly.
"As I've explained, Artemis"
"Yeah, yeah. I know the drill." She dug into her pockets. "Lucky for you I carry plenty of ready cash in case I ever see somethin' I wanna buy Blondie."
"What a thoughtful fiancée you are."
"I know I am. You don't gotta tell me. So never mind with the butter."
"I'm being thoroughly honest, Jo."
"Right." In the dimness she squinted at the handful of crumpled fives, tens, and twenties and her fist. "How much do ya need?"
Alec consulted the tag on the bear's paw. "Thirty, no, it's fifty dollars."
"Fifty dollars? For a freakin' stuffed bear?"
"It's not any bear," Alec said. "It's nearly as tall as I am. This is a noble beara bear to end all bears. Lexi shall love it."
Jo grudgingly gave him two twenties and a ten.
"Ta, Jo. And I should think, well, another tenner will do it."
"Whaddya mean, another tenner?"
"Sales tax, of course. And a little something extra, since I'm conducting the transaction outside of normal business hours."
Muttering, Jo handed him two more five-dollar bills.
"Thanks ever-so, Artemis."
"Ever the enchantress," Alec said lightly, securing the money with the note under the koala bear's front paws.
"What'd ya write, anyway?" asked Jo. "You didn't sign your freakin' name, did ya?"
"Of course not."
"You didn't mention me?"
"Perish the thought. I merely remarked upon the extraordinary beauty and wonder of their store, and advised them to deduct one large black bear from their inventory."
Jo shook her head.
She led the way back through the toy store's show rooms, Alec at her heels, dragging the bear behind him.
"It's rather wonderful, isn't it, to be a child?" he mused. "My nursery was a very happy place. I had the most beautiful sequence of nannies, and they doted on me nearly as much as Mummy did. When one is small one doesn't understand moneyor the lack thereof."
"If you were so stony, how come you had all those nannies?"
"They would only stay for a month or soonly until they realized Mummy never intended to pay them. Then they would quit, and she'd hire someone new."
"She did write them lovely references. Mummy always thought the girls were ungratefulthat they should have been thankful for the experience, and for a ducal character reference."
"Imagine them actually wantin' ta get paid," Jo said drily. "The lousy ingrates. And speakin' of gettin' paid, you now owe me sixty-two bucks."
"Never fear," he said nonchalantly. "I pay my debts, Jo."
"Yeah, wellI ain't holdin' my breath."
Alec glanced about as they passed through an area filled with model airplanes and space ships of all sizes and descriptions.
"Do you know, though, Artemis, you've done something for me this evening that I can't repay. Something for which I shall always be indebted."
"Like this." He gestured with his empty hand. "You've reminded me of my early childhoodthe only happy time of my life until I met you fair dames at Langley. And it wasn't money that made me happy. It was a feeling of being, of being absolutely and completely and unreservedly loved."
"By the nannies?"
"And by the Mater and Pater. He's always been a rather awkward and reserved chap, but one could feel that he loved one. Just as much as the Mater loved one." Alec gestured again to the model planes. "I know what I need to do, Jo. I need to put aside childish things. I need to stand firm in the face of both my wife and my mother. Lexi needs her mother every bit as much as she needs me. So I'm not going to leave Tootie, no matter what she and my mother say, and I'm not carrying Lexi away across the pond. Lexi needs me and Tootie. So whether we're living in grand style in the ducal castle, or playing Poughkeepsie in a summer stock company, or even enduring the sun-kissed hell of Los Angeles, the three of us will be together. That's what Lexi deserves."
Jo punched him in the shoulder.
"Well, that sounds like some pretty good common sense," Jo said approvingly. "And you got me in your corner. You know you do. Blair, too. And Nat."
"I know. I was inordinately lucky that day I stopped to watch your field hockey match, Jo, and met you amazing commoners."
"For cryin' out loudwhy do you gotta ruin a good moment?"
"By calling us 'commoners'."
"But you are commoners. And there's nothing wrong with that."
"Head of wood," Jo said, shaking her own head. "Freakin' head of wood."
She led them safely back through the maze of service corridors and cross-corridors. A couple of times they saw the splash of the old guard's flashlight down distant halls, but they quietly dodged him, taking alternate, if slightly longer, routes through the back rooms of FAO Schwarz.
In one unnerving chamber they were confronted by shelves of porcelain dolls in the process of being ticketed. Hundreds of shiny dolls' eyes gazed coldly at them.
"Holy shit," breathed Jo. "C'mon!"
She tugged Alec's hand, dragged him through a door in the opposite wall
Back on the streets, walking north toward Alec's building, Jo kept them moving at a fast clip, Alec lagging behind with the giant bear in his arms.
"The city really is different at night," Alec observed. "There's something almost magical about it."
"Yeah. Well. There's lotsa New Yorks," said Jo. "It all depends on your viewpoint "
By the time they reached Alec's building, a faint pink light was staining the eastern sky.
The doorman, resplendent in a red uniform and red military cap with gold braid, was an impeccably trained doorman, or he would not work at such a luxury residential complex. Therefore, he managed not to stare as the young lord returned home in pajamas and an overcoat, lugging an enormous black bear under his arm.
"Oh, I say, Jeeves," Alec addressed the doorman, "can I have your hat?"
The doorman hesitated, and then removed his peaked military cap, thereby revealing a shining bald head, and handed the cap to Alec.
Alec placed the cap on the bear's head at a rakish angle.
"Oh, lovely," said Alec. "Alexis will be beside herself when she sees this."
"I'm pretty beside myself right now," Jo said wryly.
"How much do you want for the cap?" Alec asked the doorman.
"Er They charge us twenty dollars to replace them."
"Very good. Jo, pay the man, there's a dear. Twenty for the cap and five for his trouble."
Jo glared at Alec, and then at the bear. She pulled her last few crumpled bills out of her pocket, giving the doorman her last twenty and her last five but one.
"You're gonna hafta have someone drive me back to the Plaza," Jo told Alec. "I ain't got enough for cab fare, now."
"Why don't you come upstairs with me for a tic," said Alec. "Break your fast with the Ramsey-Anviston clan."
"Oh, no." Jo held up her hands. "I'd walk into a den of lions for you, milord, but I can't face Justice Ramsey before coffee. I mean, well, unless you absolutely, completely need me to watch your back."
"No," he said. "No, our little sojourn has quite refreshed me, quite heartened me. Sir Galahad and I" so he addressed the bear in his arms, "the fair knight and I shall meet any and all unpleasantness head on this morning. No retreat, and no quarter."
"Good," said Jo. "I'm proud of you, buddy."
"Jeeves, old fellow," Alec said to the doorman, "is there any way you can arrange a taxicab for my sister? I don't have tuppence on my person, but you can charge it to my monthly fees and whatnot."
"Of course, Lord Nethridge," said the doorman. He retreated to a call box next to the door, and dialed a number to summon one of the taxicabs that lurked near every major apartment block and hotel in New York City.
"Lunch, Jo?" asked Alec.
"Sure. Nat and Snake are comin' back to the Plaza for lunch. We'll be at the usual table, I guess."
"We'll see you there."
"Good luck upstairs."
"Thank you, Jo. Thank you, for, well," his eyes softened, "for everything."
Jo rolled her eyes.
"Look, brother dear, don't go gettin' all mushy on me."
"Oh, perish the thought."
"And you owe me eighty-seven dollars now. Eighty-seven."
"I'll bring it to lunch," he promised.
A taxicab shot around the corner, and pulled up in front of the curb.
"There you are, miss," said the doorman. "I'll pay the driver when he returns."
Jo nodded her thanks and leaped into the cab.
Alec waved to her as the cab pulled away.
She didn't wavethat was dorkybut she smiled.
It's so freakin' great, she thought, to see him lookin' happy, after all the mopin' he's been doin'
Within ten minutes the taxicab had deposited her in front of the Plaza.
She hurried up to her and Blair's suite.
"Darlingis that you?" called Blair as Jo entered the suite.
"Yepnobody but," Jo called happily.
As she turned to chain and bolt the door, she smelled the fragrance of fresh dark coffee drifting from the living room. "Babeyou're the best," she called. "It's barely dawn and you already ordered us coffee."
"Well I woke, and you weren't there."
"Did you see my note?"
"I did, darling. Thank you."
"I didn't want you to be worried."
"That was thoughtful of you."
In the living room, Blair sat on the edge of one of the room's less-comfortable, straight-backed chairs. She wore a pale peach nightie and wrapone of her few sets of nightclothes that Jo had not yet shredded during the course of their lovemaking.
A silver tray bearing a tall silver coffee pot and a fat-bellied silver tea pot, a pitcher of cream and a bowl of sugar, sat on the coffee table.
Blair had a cup of black coffee ready, and handed it to Jo.
"Oh, freakin' beautiful," said Jo. She sank onto the divan next to Blair, and leaned her head against Blair's shoulder. Jo drank deeply from the coffee.
"You'll never believe where me and Alec went this mornin'. See, he was feelin' all messed up, and I figured a walk would clear out his cobwebs, and then we got to the GM Building, and"
"Jo," Blair interrupted quietly. "I have to tell you something."
Jo's heart dropped in her chest.
Blair took one of Jo's handsthe hand not clutching the coffee cup.
"What, uh, what is it?" asked Jo. Her lips felt numb. "Is it Did Is it Ma?"
"Your mother's all right," Blair assured her. "I had a telephone call just before you got here."
"A call from who?"
Jo felt her heart thudding weakly in her chest.
What the hell? What now? Just when things were lookin' up
"Alec called," Blair said slowly. "He was beside himself."
"Beside himself? I just left him ten freakin' minutes ago, and I ain't seen him look happier in, in weeks!"
Blair squeezed Jo's hand.
"Tootie's gone, Jo."
"No one knows. She slipped out, apparently, when Alec was with you and when her parents were asleep."
"For cryin' out loud, I mean, maybe she's takin' a walk or somethin'. Like Alec did. Let's not go nuts. Let's not all get hysterical."
Blair shook her head.
"She took a bag with her, Jo, and money, and her passport. It looks like she's planning on a long trip."
"The hell she freakin' did. Tootie ran out on Alec? I don't believe it."
"She left a note," Blair said gently. "Alec was rather incoherent but he read it to me, and it sounds as though, well "
"What did she say?"
"She thinks it's best for all concerned if she exits stage left."
"That's what she wrote?"
"She thinks it's best if she exits stage left. She loves Lexi and Alec, and it's because she loves them that she's leaving them to take care of each other."
Jo hurled her coffee cup against the wall.
Coffee rolled in fat dark droplets down the delicate wallpaper.
Jo took a deep breath.
"She really did that to him? She ran?"
"I'm sorry, Jo," said Blair.
"Well, I mean," Jo leaped to her feet, began pacing up and down the room, "we gotta call the cops. Or a private investigator, or someone. We gotta get a posse together. I mean, d'you think she might still be at, I don't know, the airport? Or the train station? Look, you and me, we'll split up, I'll go to Grand Central, you get Snake to drive you and Nat out to JFK"
"That's all been taken care of," Blair said. "While Alec was on the line with me, Pauline was on another line rallying local law enforcement. If Tootie's still in the area, she'll be found."
Jo tugged at her hair.
"How can Tootie do this?"
"I suppose Jo, she must feel this is the only thing she can do right now."
"Alec must be wrecked. Blair, if you coulda seen him," she sank onto the divan next to Blair, "if you coulda seen him with, he got this bear for Lexi, this big bear, and he was sayin' how much he loved Tootie and he wasn't gonna give up on her, and how Lexi needs two parents"
Tears sprang into Jo's eyes.
"I know, darling. I know," Blair said soothingly. She cupped Jo's face, gently kissed the tears away.
After a moment, Jo cleared her throat. She had regained her composure.
"I guess I oughta get back there," said Jo. "I'll just, I'll get some more dough, I lent it all to Alec for that stupid bear, and I'll brush my teeth"
"Jo," Blair put her arms around Jo's neck, "you can't go over there just now."
"Whaddya mean? Alec needs me."
"I know. But he doesn't He doesn't want to see you just now."
"What's that mean?" she asked.
"It means he's very distraught and he's feeling a lot of emotions right now. He's feeling sorrow and fear and anger. And the anger part He's directing it at you, Jo. Just for the moment," Blair said hastily. "I know he'll come around."
"He's he's pissed at me?"
"It isn't logical," said Blair. "But he's not in a rational mood just now. He said that if you hadn't taken him all over Manhattan this morning "
Jo nodded dully.
"Oh. Yeah. OK. I got it. If I hadn't, if I hadn't told him we should take a walk, he woulda, yeah, he woulda been home. Wide awake. He woulda been able to stop Tootie from goin'."
Blair tilted her forehead against Jo's, gazed into her lover's eyes.
"It is not your fault, Jo."
"It isn't. We'll give him a few hours, and then I'll call. Test the waters."
"Nah." Jo shook her head. The tears sprang to her eyes again. "Nah, I don't He don't need someone buggin' him at a time like this. When he wants ta talk to me again, well, he'll call."
"He will call," said Blair. "You're his best friend. He needs you."
"I mean, yeah, I know Blair, but hell. If I hadn't made him go for a walk. Jesus, Blair, he woulda been home. He woulda."
"No one can see the future, Jo. We're all just, just," she shrugged, "making it up as we go along."
"Well I guess I didn't make it up so good this time."
"Damn. Damn." Jo leaned her head against Blair's shoulder. "Tootie could be anywhere now. You know how she is when she wants to get lost. Member how she pulled the wool over everyone's eyes when she was pregnant. I meanhell. She's an actress. And she's got tons of money, since she married Alec. She could be in disguise. She coulda hired a private plane. She, she"
"Tootie will turn up," Blair said confidently, holding Jo close. "If there's one thing we know, it's that Tootie loves the limelight. She can't stay incognito forever. Besides which, she loves Alec. And her daughter. And all of us."
"Alec was talkin' tonight," said Jo, "about bein' a kid. Got me thinkin' about when I was a kid, and then about when we were all kids, at Eastland. Member when Tootie was little, on those stupid roller skates? Zippin' around on those stupid things, bein' all nosy and annoyin'?"
"I remember," said Blair.
"Why couldn't it stay that way, her bein' twelve and zippin' around on those stupid skates? I mean, all those time she was in our hair, we just wanted her to bug off, and now, you know, now"
"Now we'd give anything to have her around," Blair said.
"Yeah." Jo held Blair tightly.
"Everyone has to grow up, Jo. We grew up, and so did Natalie, and it had to be Tootie's turn some time."
"Well, though," said Jo, suddenly switching tacks, "how grown up is it to run away, when you really think about it? If you think about it that way, Tootie's actually bein' pretty damn immature."
"Tootie doesn't seem to see it as running away, though," said Blair. "She seems to see it as a necessary sacrifice. There have been times," she kissed Jo's forehead, "there have been times in the past where I thought it might be kinder of me, better of me, to let you go. When you love someone, and you think they might be better off without you, these thoughts cross your mind. Even temporarily. Like our separation last year"
"I never want to talk about our stupid separation again," Jo said vehemently. "And if you ever get thoughts of splittin' on me, you better tell those thoughts to keep crossin' your mind. Cause I would never be better without you than with you. We're in it for the long run now. The long run. You got that, Blair?"
"I don't think about us separating anymore," Blair assured her lover. "You're stuck with me nowfor better and for worse."
"Good. Good." Jo pulled Blair tight against her. "'Cause I ain't ever lettin' go."
Mid-August 1990. Morningside Heights, New York City.
About a month later, in their cottage near Columbia, Blair read aloud to Jo, over breakfast, the following item from the New York Times' society column:
Last weekend in a private family ceremony at St. Bartholomew's, the Hon. Alexis Pauline Amelia Hortense Joanne Marie Ramsey-Anviston, Countess, was christened. The christening party was comprised by the countess' father, Alec Arthur Alexander Anviston, Marquess, and the paternal and maternal grandparents, his grace Arthur Thomas Alexander Anviston, Duke Nethridge, her grace Amelia Hortense Anviston, Duchess Nethridge, Harrison Ramsey, Esquire, a partner of Ramsey, Oakes & Ramsey in Washington, D.C., and Supreme Court Justice the Hon. Pauline Ramsey.
After a private luncheon to celebrate the festive occasion, the Ramseys returned to Washington, D.C. and the Anviston family returned to their ancestral home in Nethridge, UK. Duchess Nethridge reports that her daughter-in-law, the Hon. Lady Dorothy, who has been suffering from ill-health, and had to cancel her appearance in 'The Importance of Being Earnest' at the Comet last month, is traveling in Germany at this time, "taking the waters" at various mineral spas. When Lady Dorothy recovers from her unnamed illness, Duchess Nethridge hopes to welcome her daughter-in-law at Nethridge Hall.
Blair set the paper aside.
"Well," said Blair, "what do you think about that, darling?"
Jo snorted. "Not much," she said.
"I think it's sweet," said Blair, "that Alec named Lady Lexi after you. Alexis Pauline Amelia Hortense Joanne Marie Ramsey-Anviston. It's quite an impressive olive branch, darling."
"He can get bent," Jo snarled.
"I know he hasn't been returning your calls"
"Who's been callin' him? I gave up a couple weeks ago. I'll turn blue before I call that royal rat-fink again!"
"Jo. He named his daughter after you," Blair said rather reproachfully.
"After me and about a million other people! D'you hear all those names? What'd they do, go through the phone book?"
"Alexis is named after Tootie's mother, and Alec's mother," said Blair. "And you. You made a very rarified list. Believe me, Joit's quite an honor."
"Oh, it's quite an honor, it's quite an olive branchbig deal! I don't need the kid to be named after me. All I needed was how about he picked up a phone and called us? Or, I don't know, even invited us to the freakin' ceremony!"
"Well, am I right, or am I right?" Jo demanded.
"I think they're all still in shock," said Blair, "that Tootie ran away. I don't know that any of them are behaving rationally. I think they're just doing the best they can."
"Well their best sucks." Jo returned to her perusal of the political news, holding the paper in front of her face.
Blair stirred more milk and sugar into her coffee. She took a sip, added another cube of sugar.
After a moment, Jo lowered her section of the newspaper.
"Do you really think Tootie's in Germany?" Jo asked her lover. "I mean, I know that thing about 'taking the waters' is a crock, but do you think they know where Toot is, at least?"
Blair shrugged. "It's hard to say. I hope they know where she is. I hope she's all right. More likely it's just a blind planted by the Duchess. She's on friendly terms with the Times' owners and editors. They take her at her word, even when they don't take her at her wordif you know what I mean."
"Take her at her word? Her word is mud! Don't you love that crock about ye old ice queen Duchess wantin' ta welcome Tootie the family estate with open arms! What a load of bullshit!"
"Or, maybe not," Blair demurred. "That is, I know her grace wouldn't welcome Tootie willingly, but maybe Alec laid down the law to his mother."
"Well I'm done with the whole crackpot lot of 'em," said Jo. "Alec can't pick up a phone? Tootie can't pick up a phone? Even to call Nat? I say good riddance." Jo rattled the political pages. "We got real stuff goin' on in the world to worry about! The freakin' entire Soviet Union's collapsin', Iraq's puttin' troops in Kuwaitthe whole damn planet's in turmoil, and people can't even pick up their phones to call their friends!"
Jo retreated behind the newspaper again.
Blair sipped her coffee.
"Your mother called when you were in the shower," Blair said after a few moments.
"Yeah?" Jo said from behind the paper.
"Yes. We're meeting Rose for lunch in the Village."
"That Chinese place?"
"No. The Italian place."
"Too bad. I could kinda go for some chop suey."
"You'll have to settle for spaghetti."
"You're really in a foul mood today, darling."
"Eh, I didn't sleep good. I was up late studyin' for the bar."
"I don't even remember you coming to bed."
"I barely remember goin' to bed."
"What do you think," Blair said casually, "about apartment-hunting after lunch?"
Jo lowered the paper again. She looked around the kitchen.
"Umdon't we already got a place? Or am I hallucinatin'?"
"Yes, we have this place," said Blair, taking another delicate sip of coffee, "and we've made it work. They say that if a couple can make it through their first year of cohabiting without killing each other or breaking up, they've made it. And since we're both still alive, and sitting in our little kitchen, I think we have something to be proud of."
"OK. Agreein' with everythin' so far, Blondie. Where does the apartment-huntin' come in?"
"We've made it work," said Blair. "Just us, not sharing our space with the girls and Mrs. Garrett and assorted other roommates. But this place," she gestured to the kitchen, "has never really felt like home. And if it hasn't felt like home after a year"
"It ain't ever gonna feel like home," Jo finished. She nodded. "Yeah. Well. Nat said it at the housewarmin'. Remember? She said this place wasn't really either of our styles."
"And it isn't. And it never will be."
"So," Jo leaned back in her chair, "what kinda place do you got in mind?"
"Something in Manhattanmore in the heart of Manhattan," said Blair. "I've decided on St. Bart's for my first church. And I want to be close to work. And you'll want to be close to Creves, Creves & Sloan."
"St. Bart's, huh? You mean where they just baptized little Lexi?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. St. Bartholomew's is a lovely old church with a great deal of history."
"And it's near some pretty great stores," said Jo, eyes twinkling.
"I took all factors into consideration," Blair said with dignity.
"You can save some souls and then run over and buy some new shoes," said Jo. "Total convenience. So," Jo tipped her chair back on two legs, balancing it precariously, "so, you think we should live in some place kinda in the heart of the city. Near the park, prob'ly."
"Yes. A park view would be nice," Blair agreed.
"Right." Jo grinned. "Sohow many rooms does it have, babe?"
"Only twelve," said Blair. "It's really very modest. And the view" She halted. Her eyes narrowed. "Jo, how did you know I already picked out an apartment?"
Jo laughed. "How'd I know? 'Cause I know you! Is that what you been so thoughtful about latelywhat you've been holdin' back?"
"Well I wanted to be sure to find something worthy," Blair said, "something we'd both like, before I brought it up."
"D'ya put a deposit on it yet?"
"Without consulting you?"
"Yes, babewithout consultin' me. Don't sound so scandalized. You've done it before."
"I'm sure I don't know what you"
"River Rock," said Jo. "Ring a bell?"
"Oh. River Rock. True."
"So what was the plan?" asked Jo, eyes dancing. "You drag me around to some hell holes, then you bring me to the place you already picked out, I fall instantly in love with it, and you say, 'OK, darling, if you really like it, I suppose we should snap it up'."
Blair bit her lip. "Wellyes. More or less."
"You really play me like a violindon't you, babe?"
"Apparently not," said Blair. "At least not in this case. But you do know, don't you, darling, that it's only When I resort to these little subterfuges I only want you to feel like you're part of things."
"Oh, wellthanks very much," laughed Jo. She shook her head. She reached across the table and took one of Blair's hands. "Look, you know me. I really don't care if we live in a freakin' igloo. So if you picked out a great place near the park, near our jobs, then good for you babe."
"You're not mad?"
"I gave up bein' mad at your schemes a long time ago, Princess. Tell you the truth, thinkin' about movin' into a new place, it kinda lifts my mood a little bit. You say it's got twelve rooms?"
Blair nodded. "There's a lounge, of course, and a dining roomoh, they'll be beautiful for entertaining. And there's a drawing roomwe can use that when it's just, say, Nat and Snake, or your parents, dropping in. And there's a large kitchen with cook's quarters, if we ever need a cook, and a laundry room, and a study-slash-office we can share."
"And what about the really important rooms?" asked Jo.
"The importantoh." Blair smiled. "There's a beautiful master bedroom with a master bath. We'll be very comfortable darling."
"A beautiful master bedroom? That's all I need to hear."
"There's a guest bedroom, too," Blair continued, "so we can put up friends if we like, and there's a nice powder room off the lounge, and there's, hmm, there should be another room or two. I can't remember."
"Those are the two spare rooms," teased Jo, "that you're gonna use to store your bazillion shoes."
Blair tossed her head in mock pique.
"Is that how you treat me, Jo Polniaczek, after I find us a beautiful new home?"
"Confess, babe," said Jo. "You did put a deposit on itdidn't you?"
"Well, I didn't want us to lose it," Blair said reasonably. "You wouldn't have wanted us to lose it, would you?"
"No, babe," said Jo, kissing her fiancée's hand. "I wouldn't."
Return to The Facts of Life Fiction
Return to Main Page