DISCLAIMER: Yes, I'm borrowing characters from the old TV
show, "The Facts of Life". In my version, Blair marries an old family
friend, Scott McNair, prompting her to keep her maiden name or be
evermore known as Blair McNair. Jo still majors in business, but marries
and later divorces John Eagle, a fellow accountant. Dorothy (Tootie)
marries fellow actor Thornton Stiles while Natalie Green has followed
her journalistic dream while living with a series of boyfriends.
Copyright © 2004-2005 by JS Stephens. All Rights Reserved, blah, blah.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By JS Stephens
Blair listened with half an ear as her daughter, Madison, chattered happily about the tennis team at Eastland School. "Mother, we advanced to the semifinals before we were knocked out. Isn't that great?"
"Yes, dear, it is," Blair answered, reluctantly dragging her attention from the funding proposal in front of her. She flashed her brilliant smile at her daughter, which was echoed by a similarly brilliant smile. "How is your tennis equipment holding up this year?"
"Well, now that you ask," Madison answered, "my shoes are getting worn out and a pinch small. Can we go shopping, Mother? I mean, it's Saturday, and I don't have to be back at Eastland until Sunday evening, and Dad and Scott are out golfing now. Please?"
Blair looked fondly at her twelve year old daughter, who had been lucky enough to inherit her blonde hair and brown eyes and her father's slender build and height. Madison was already two inches taller than Blair, but thankfully had not shown signs of becoming curvy at this young age. "Let me call your father first, then I'll take you shopping," Blair promised as she reached for the phone. Madison squealed happily, hugging her mother briefly before running off to change clothes before Blair could call Scott. She shook her head fondly as she dialed her husband's cell phone number, waiting for it to ring as she started straightening up the files on her desk and closing files on her computer.
"Mr. McNair's phone," the caddy answered softly.
So very serious about his golf, Blair thought with some irritation, but asked smoothly, "Would you please tell Mr. McNair that his wife is taking their daughter shopping today? We should be back in time for a late supper. I'll have my phone with me."
"Very good, Ms. Warner, I shall tell him after this hole. Mr. McNair may be in poor spirits, but young Mr. Scott is shooting under par today," Nathan reported with quiet pride.
"Excellent. Nathan, keep my men out of trouble."
"I shall do my utmost. Good hunting, Ms. Warner," the caddy replied before disconnecting.
At supper, Madison rattled on about the new tennis shoes, clothes, and racquet they had bought while Scott, Jr., described a rare hole in one he'd shot that afternoon. Scott senior listened quietly, steadily refilling his wineglass during the recitations. Blair noticed that their almost sixteen year old son's hair was starting to darken, now a light brown rather than the golden blonde of his parents'. His blue eyes were vivid, his body sturdier and broader than his father's. Blair wondered idly if her son, like her husband, would keep his thick hair. She then studied her husband, wondering why he seemed to be drinking so much and eating so little these days. His family's business was doing well, so that couldn't be it. She was still pondering this and half listening to the children when the butler approached her silently, murmuring, "A phone call, ma'am, from a woman identifying herself as Jo Eagle. Would you like to take it in your office, or would you like for me to take a message?"
"I'll take it in my office, Charles, thank you." Blair stood, excusing herself, following the butler into her office, waiting until he released the line. She picked up her headset and tapped the blinking button. "Good evening, this is Blair Warner speaking."
"Hey, Blondie, whatcha doing?" Jo's familiar Bronx flavored voice cannon-balled down the line. "Did I interrupt anything important?"
"Just finishing supper," Blair allowed, wondering why Jo was calling. Curiosity aroused, she schooled herself to be patient, asking, "How's your husband, John?"
A brief silence, followed by Jo's quiet, "Blair, we divorced last year. Long story, difference in opinions about starting families and careers. Anyway, I'm in town on business and thought I'd give you a buzz, see what you were up to. How's the family?"
Blair relaxed in her chair as she started filling Jo in on the past few years since they had last talked. She bragged about the children's athletic and academic accomplishments, ending with, "I was bored playing society wife, so I dusted off my financial skills and started a venture capital funding company. Just a few of us rich trust babies pooling some funds, helping small startup businesses. But I really shouldn't rattle on, where are you staying, and for how long?"
"Until Thursday, I'm working on something, staying in a hotel not too far from your little mansion."
Blair smiled at Jo's teasing. "It's not a mansion, just a cozy five bedroom house," she responded in the same teasing tone. Score one for Warner, she thought, that hot button doesn't work any longer. "Say, why don't you come over for a bit, if you're not busy now, have dessert here? I'd love to catch up with you, what you're doing."
"Are you serious, Blondie?"
"Yes, Jo, I'd love to see you."
Silence on the other end of the phone as Blair mentally scored another point. Warner, 2, Polniaczek, 0. Make that Eagle, 0. "Okay, I'll be over in a few minutes. Tell Jeeves not to be too horrified when I come over in a car rather than my cycle."
Blair laughed, remembering the first time Charles saw Jo rumbling up to the front of the house on a Harley. The look on the butler's face was priceless, the only time that Blair could remember him being startled. "I'll tell Charles. See you soon."
Minutes later, the doorbell rang and Charles was escorting Jo into Blair's office, announcing unnecessarily, "Ms. Jo Eagle to see you, Miss Blair." Blair waited until he left the room before crossing the room to tentatively hug Jo, who returned the hug warmly before breaking away. "Have a seat, Jo," Blair said, indicating a pair of comfortable wing chairs near the fireplace. "This is quite a surprise to see you. You're looking quite good."
"Same to you, Blair," Jo answered, eyes twinkling. "Sounds like life is pretty grand for you, but ya know, I never could picture you as a stay at home mom type. What do you do while you're counting money, farm them out?"
Blair had to laugh, Jo's honesty and curiosity had definitely not mellowed over the years since Eastland. "Scotty and Madison are going to boarding school during the year, and Scott and I schedule a long family vacation with them during the summer. This year we plan to go west, with stops in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, California, maybe Washington."
"Let's see, that means art galleries in Taos, Neiman Marcus in Dallas, other arts in Colorado, and of course, Rodeo Drive, right, Blondie?" Jo teased.
"My, how perceptive you are, Joey. Scotty wants to see the Ft. Worth Stockyards and Madison wants to see Old Town in Albuquerque, Scott has clients in Denver, and I have potential clients in Dallas. Both of the men will want to check out all golf courses while Madison will ask me to play tennis with her. How about you?"
Jo sat back in her chair, smile fading. "I'm reluctant to admit this, but I'm worried about my company, I keep hearing rumors of takeovers. If so, I'd like to be prepared to jump ship, maybe start my own business."
"What else? A motorcycle shop! Not just any shop, but a custom shop, one where I can build bikes for rich folks like you, custom designs."
Blair nodded, asking, "So, have you done any research? Seen if there is a market for custom bikes?"
"Some. Blair," Jo said earnestly, leaning forward, "I have some savings, but John got almost all of the property and screwed me out of thousands in savings during the divorce. I do have some commercial property in Fort Worth, zoned for manufacturing, and I was thinking of setting up shop there. To be honest, I already knew that you were funding startups, so I'm asking as a friend, what hoops do you put people through in order for them to successfully apply for funding? Would you even consider this, seeing that we have a previous relationship? Writing out a business plan and a budget is no problem, I've been a CPA, a tax accountant, and a finance planner for my company for the past fifteen years."
Blair started to give a flip answer, but stopped when she realized that Jo was revealing her dreams, taking a huge emotional risk just by asking for her help. Not the independent, stubborn Jo she'd know as a teenager and young adult. "Listen, Jo, come by my office on Monday and I'll give you the standard application package. Let me ask this, although I'm sure I know the answer, is this your dream?"
"Yes. I've lived as a corporate drone for too long. Oh, I saw Natalie last week." As Jo launched into her tale of Nat's latest journalistic triumph, Blair accepted the change of subject, just enjoying sitting back and listening to Jo, watching Jo's animated face as she described their mutual friend's latest adventures. She noticed that Jo had grown thinner since she last saw her, back when they gathered for Mrs. Garret's funeral a few years ago. It shocked her when she noticed silver threads creeping into Jo's dark hair, which now barely brushed her collar, not enough for her trademark ponytail of yore.
Finally, Jo came to an abrupt halt, asking, "So, Blair, where's that promised dessert?" Blair smiled, standing up to announce, "We'll just have to raid the kitchen for some, like old times. Come on, Jo," she said, holding out her hand. Jo took it, allowing Blair to lever her out of the chair, following her to the kitchen for the promised culinary delights.
Six weeks later, Blair was walking through an abandoned warehouse in Fort Worth, grateful that she had taken Jo's suggestion to wear shorts and a sleeveless cotton blouse rather than her usual suit and hose. Even so, the sweat was rolling down her face and sides in a most unladylike manner, but she didn't complain. Jo was enthusiastically waving her arms around, pointing out how this warehouse could be easily converted to her custom bike shop. "The structure is sound, it already has good ventilation, and I can buy it outright, I sold the other property and got a good deal. I decided it would be easier to modify an existing structure rather than build from scratch. So, whatta ya think, Warner?"
Blair resisted laughing at Jo's infectious enthusiasm, opting instead to say seriously, "It might be workable." Seeing Jo's face start to fall, she relented. "I'll start moving on your application for funding. I must admit, the company rarely receives such detailed planning documents as your application. I think you made a wise choice, Ms. Eagle."
"I had the time," Jo admitted, "and the severance package helped pay for the information. So, you gonna order a bike from me?"
"What, me, a Warner, ride a motorcycle? Heaven forbid!" Blair responded in her snootiest voice. "No, I'll just look forward to your bottom line grow fat, enhancing my portfolio when you take the shop out for an IPO." She discretely wiped her face with a tissue as Jo turned around, surveying the warehouse again, wincing at the amount of makeup melting off her face.
"Hey, you're not so bad," Jo admitted, "and much smarter than you acted at Eastland."
"Thank you, I think," Blair riposted. "Let's get out of this hot warehouse and on to the Japanese Gardens. Madison has suddenly decided that she may want to go into landscaping instead of being a tennis star. Or, go into landscaping after a fabulous career in tennis."
As the women slipped on their sunglasses before walking back into the merciless Texas sun, Jo commented wistfully, "You and Scott have some pretty good kids. If I had kids, I'd wanted them to be as good as yours. Not as stuck up, of course," she added mischievously. Blair retorted by sticking her tongue out before sliding into the furnace, also known as Jo's truck. She continued to grill Jo about the shop as Jo deftly steered the truck away from the warehouse and towards the gardens. At least the truck was air conditioned, Blair thought as the temperature started dropping. "Do you have all of your suppliers lined up, letters of credit arranged?"
"Yep, just waiting for the final go ahead from Warner & Co. before signing all of the contracts," Jo answered, swinging the truck into the parking lot. "Okay, I declare that we're done with business, princess, let's find your family." She bounced out of the truck, with Blair slowly following, reluctant to leave the cool climes of the truck cab.
The grand vacation was over, and Blair plunged back into work. "Honey, aren't you ready for bed yet?" Scott asked Blair as she browsed through Jo's latest report.
"Just about," Blair replied absently, jotting a note on her legal pad. "Jo's reported that the bulk of the work is completed on refitting the warehouse and she's starting to hire a few workers. I'll need to ask if she's found a payroll company yet. Scott, do you have any contacts in Texas in that line?"
Scott flopped down in the chair next to her desk, running his fingers through his thick blonde hair, mumbling, "It's always Jo this and Jo that. No, I do not know anyone in the payroll business in Texas."
"What? Honey, are you grumbling?"
"Yes, I am," he snapped, "you don't spend this much time with the other startups your business is funding, you just throw them in there and let them sink or swim. In fact, you spend more time talking on the phone with her than you do with me in person."
Blair stared at her husband, shocked at his accusations, but she quickly recovered her wits, closing the file and the notepad. "Scott, Jo is an old friend, the others are strangers. I recall that you spent a lot of time last year finding a position for your old high school golf buddy, David."
Scott snorted. "I didn't spend hours on the phone with him. Besides, who can make money on motorcycles, anyway? They're so crude."
"Let's see, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Suzuki, Kawisaki, BMW, and independents like Orange County Choppers, West Coast Choppers. Honey, you should really read the demographics report, lots of professionals are spending tens of thousands of dollars on high end or custom bikes. Ask some of your golfing buddies who owns a motorcycle, you might be surprised."
"Sure, right," Scott muttered, but he reached over, stroking Blair's cheek. "I'm sorry, babe, but sometimes you work such long hours that I feel like you've deserted me. Come on, the kids are asleep, let's go go bed, spend some quality time together."
"The kids are asleep already?" Blair looked up at her wall clock, noting that it was pretty late. She yawned and stretched, then remarked, "I should have been asleep already, I have a 7:30 meeting in the city tomorrow." She stood, allowing her husband to lead them to their bedroom upstairs. Scott closed the door behind them and reached for Blair, but she was already stripping off her clothes, reaching for her nightgown. Scott waited until she was about to pull the nightgown before growling, "I don't think so," and snatched it out of her reach. He dangled it over her head while he untied his robe, allowing it to part and expose his still nicely muscled torso.
"Funny, Scott, I'm just too tired tonight and I have to be fresh for this meeting. Maybe tomorrow afternoon, when Scotty and Madison are visiting your parents."
Scott's face hardened as he wadded up her gown and threw it at her. "So, when am I allowed to touch you, Blair? My God, woman, guys still envy me for having such a beautiful, brainy, sexy wife, yet I can count on one hand how many times we've made love since Christmas, and it's July! I guess I'll have to start taking matters into my own hands."
"Scott, you just made a very bad pun," Blair tossed back, approaching her husband and wrapping her arms around him, "I'm very sorry I've been distracted this year. But I promise, tomorrow."
"I guess I did make a bad pun," Scott agreed, chuckling unwillingly, settling her in his arms. They stood like that for a moment, just enjoying the warmth of each other's bodies, gradually drifting off to sleep.
The next morning, Blair was still stinging from Scott's complaints about their lack of a sex life, worried that something was wrong, with her, with their marriage. If she was really honest with herself, their marriage had never been great, just good, usually having the same goals and wanting their children to turn out as good human beings. But the way her friends talked, the way Tootie, no, Dorothy, and Natalie talked, sex was the pinnacle of human experience, which Blair didn't quite understand. Sure, it was fun, but even the best nights with Scott were not quite the mind-blowing experiences that her friends and the media insisted they should be.
"Ms. Warner, your son is here, do you have time to see him?"
Blair jumped, scattering papers and CDs around as she fumbled for the phone, jabbing the intercom button. "Yes," she told her assistant, "but see if he wants coffee or soda first. I need to clear a few things off my desk. Oh, and would you mind bringing me a fresh coffee, Laura? Thanks." Blair disconnected before her assistant could harp on the amount of coffee she was consuming these days. She stood up, quickly reshelving and refiling papers and CDs until her desk was cleared.
"Hi, Mom," Scott said as he poked his head around her door, "ready to see me now?"
"Yes, come in. Oh, you have my coffee, let's sit at the conference table."
"Sure," Scott answered, walking over to the table, carefully setting down the drinks before turning to kiss his mother's cheek before seating himself. "Mother," he asked as he sat down, "may I ask a favor of you?"
"Sure, Scotty, what do you need?" Blair answered, thinking of introductory letters for an internship to friends' businesses.
Her handsome son took a sip of his cola before answering, "Is it okay if I play golf just for fun? Dad keeps talking about me being the next Tiger Woods, but I'm not sure I want to turn pro."
Blair fully focused her attention on her son now, wondering what caused this change. Scotty had been planning to be a professional golfer since he could swing a club. "What do you want to do? How can I help?"
"I'm not really sure," Scott replied slowly, "but I don't want to do some sort of make work internship, then sit on a bunch of boards like Dad. I really don't have a head for high finance like you do, or I'd ask to intern here."
Blair sipped her coffee before asking, "Okay, I know you, you are leading up to something. Spill it, son, what do you want to do that you need me to run interference with your father? Be a rock musician? Work for a nonprofit? Be a bum?"
Scott sipped his cola again, then set it on the table, took a deep breath, and announced quietly, "I'd like to go to work for your friend Jo next summer."
Scott rushed on, face lighting up as he spoke. "Now, Mom, before you have a cow, I've already asked her and she's cool with it. We chatted a few minutes the other night when she called and I grabbed the phone while you were pulling into the driveway. I've always been fascinated by engines and how they work. She said that by next summer, she could afford to pay me some above minimum wage."
Blair held up her hands, signaling him to stop for a moment. "You realize, of course, that you can't afford to live on that type of wage. Where will you live? Will you be disciplined enough to remember to pay your bills and buy groceries rather then spending it all on clothes and entertainment, like you do with your allowance now?"
Scott leaned over, touching his mother's arm for emphasis. "Mom, Jo's already warned me about how hard it will be, how I'll start at rock bottom, sweeping the floors and scrubbing the toilets. She said that if you can help with my basic bills, that she will take care of 'working my butt off,' as she put it."
Blair sat back, sipping her coffee while looking at her son's eager expression. Scott Senior would be horrified that his son wanted to work at a motorcycle shop, starting at the bottom, but she had worked in Mrs. Garret's kitchen for years in school, so it wasn't completely unheard of for a Warner or a McNair to do menial labor. Getting Scott to go along would be difficult, but she also figured that Jo would keep a very close eye on her son, making sure that he didn't get into too much trouble. "Have you asked your father yet?"
"No," he admitted, "I was hoping that you could talk him into it for me, or at least soften him up. Could you at least call Jo, verify what I've told you? Please?"
Blair had to smile as Scott suddenly started batting his eyelashes, something he'd probably seen her do a thousand times. "No promises," she warned, "but I'll investigate and talk to Jo this afternoon. Now, my handsome young man, it is almost lunch time, are your father and sister near?"
"Yeah, I mean, yes, I'm supposed to meet them at Dad's club. Dad took Madison shopping for more clothes or something. I said I was coming over to visit with one of my school buddies."
"Tricky, just like your mother," Blair commented approvingly as she stood up. "All right, buster, let me get my purse and jacket, then I'll be ready to go."
"Thanks!" Scott beamed, "Hey, you're the best mom ever!"
"I hope you still say that when Jo is in charge," Blair laughed as she crossed her office for her belongings, "because she's really gonna work your butt off!"
Later that afternoon, Blair found herself looking at her phone for a long time before picking it up and dialing Jo's number to ask about the proposed internship. Scotty had not mentioned it during lunch, but instead had asked Madison about her shopping expedition, effectively cutting off any other conversation. Blair started wondering if she really sounded so shallow when she was that age. She could always ask Jo, Jo was ruthless about telling the truth about their teenage years, she thought with an involuntary smile.
Blair finally picked up the phone, dialing, then tapping her pen on the desk impatiently while waiting for the call to go through. An eternity later, Jo picked up the phone and Blair announced, "Jo, this is Blair, and I found out that my son has been talking to you."
"Yeah, what a kid, Blondie. Grabs the phone and bold as brass announces that he'd like to work for me next summer, if I'm hiring interns by then. He's got your charm, I must say."
"Ha, ha. Very funny. Listen, Jo, what exactly are you proposing that Scotty do at your company? He mentioned starting at the bottom, would he work up to building bikes? Taking orders? Sweeping the shop floor all summer?"
Jo chuckled, sounding quite relaxed. "Warner, you're hilarious. I haven't actually worked out the details yet, but I'd probably have him do a bit of everything, after a few weeks of sweeping and scrubbing, then starting on paperwork, maybe getting up to confirming orders, stuff like that. If he shows a talent, I'd have him doing some basic assembly on the lower end bikes, but nothing dangerous unless my foreman approves. Two days off a week, Sunday and a week day, one weekend free to go home. Sound good?"
Blair was rapidly sketching out notes while Jo talked. When Jo finished, Blair said slowly, "It sounds like you've given this some serious thought. I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll talk to Scott and see if he agrees that we should pay for Scotty's rent, maybe have him pay the utilities and groceries. Maybe buy him a good used car, nothing fancy."
"You're a laugh a minute, Warner," Jo answered, "sounding all sensible and such. Listen, I hate to cut this short, but I have some meetings with potential subcontractors in a bit." A pause, then quietly, "It's good working with you, Blair. Um, I'll call you later in the week with updated budget figures."
Blair answered back, "I look forward to hearing from you." She hesitated, then cleared her throat and announced, "You'd just better be prepared to turn a profit by this time next year."
"Yeah, whatever you say, Blondie. See ya."
Blair replaced the handset, finished her notes on the conversation while thinking that if anyone could make a profit at something as wild as custom cycles, it would be Jo Eagle.
The next year flew by. Jo reported steadily growing sales after a bumpy start, compounded by a broken air conditioning system the day she opened for business. Scott, Jr. was really buckling down at school, opting to add more math and business courses in place of the usual senior fluff courses, even as he placed second in the state high school golf tournament. Madison had an excellent year in tennis, and even paid more attention to school than tennis, clothes, and boys. Scott, Sr. was spending a lot of time lining up new avenues of revenue for a nonprofit organization whose board he sat on, one of the few times he did more than attend meetings.
Blair's venture capital company was starting to bring in more money from investing in startups than in funds from the backers. She was very proud of her family, children doing well, husband finally involved in more than golf and board meetings. Blair even saw more of her friends from Eastland; Natalie had moved in with a man who lived a few blocks over, Dorothy and Thornton had bought an old movie theater in the next town, and Jo flew to several bike shows in the area and usually managed to see Blair for a few minutes. Blair sometimes worried about Natalie never marrying, but the gentleman she had moved in with was an old frat brother of Scott's, and had lost his wife to cancer several years ago. Natalie had interviewed him for a series of stories titled, "Those Left Behind," interviewing the widows and widowers of cancer victims. Dorothy and Thornton were planning to renovate the old movie theater and turn it into a community theater venue, whose board of directors included both Scott and Blair.
The only drawback was that with the additional work generated by their professional lives, Blair and Scott saw less of each other than usual. The children came home less often than before, opting to stay at school on the weekends more often, Scott to study and Madison to go on group dates with friends. Scott was also dating a senior from a local high school, a girl he had met at the local bookstore. Her name, he had reported in a long chatty e-mail, was Frieda Robbins, and she was planning to accept a scholarship to a university in Fort Worth next year, and planned to start working and living there next summer. Wouldn't that be grand? Blair just hoped that Scotty wasn't planning to room with her any time soon. Madison seemed to have a different boyfriend every time they talked, which Natalie reminded her was pretty common at that age. "I mean, just think of the number of hearts you broke at that age, Blair," Nat recounted gleefully during a neighborhood party. "Madison is just taking after her dear old mother."
Blair had flown to Texas on business in late April when life turned completely upside down. It started off quietly enough, with a board meeting of one of the companies that Warner Capital had invested in, with a reception following the meeting so that Blair could meet the newest company officers. The meeting was followed by what was supposed to be a brief lunch with Jo, who was in Dallas on business, personally taking an order from a senior partner at one of the larger law firms.
"Blair, it's so good to see you," Jo said as she shook hands warmly, "I have a table reserved for us at Dakota's, across from Lincoln Plaza, you'll love it. All underground, wonderful steak, you're buying. I'll go easy on you and split the key lime pie with you."
"Thank you so much, Jo, your thoughtfulness knows no bounds. So, tell me about this motorcycle that the lawyer wanted. Are you going to make piles of lovely money on the order? Will he get his fellow attorneys to order from you?"
"Yeah, I'll make money on it, and SHE will probably have the rest of her buddies ordering after the first ride."
"She? I guess you're not the only woman wanting a bike," Blair teased as they entered the elevator to descend to the underground level. "I'll buy this time, but you get the bill next time."
"Fine," Jo smirked, "I need the extra tax deductions. It's over there, the heavy doors," Jo added as they stepped off the elevator. "Since it's not blazing yet, I reserved a table outside, near the waterfall. It's really cool, I think you'll enjoy it, no chance for anyone to overhear and steal our ideas."
"You do think of everything," Blair replied, "I do admire that in a colleague." She waited until they were seated and their drinks ordered to add, "This place is nice looking, I had no idea that such a place existed east of New York."
"Snob," Jo shot back. "I recommend the steak, it's pretty good. Or the steak and salmon, we could share that and then share the key lime pie and save your money."
"Gracious, worried about my money? Jo, how you've changed!" Before she could add any more snide remarks, the waiter came by to take their order.
It was a rare day in Dallas, sunny, but not too warm and not too cool, a whisper of a breeze, but not enough to splash the waterfall over them. Blair thought she heard her phone, but decided that it was either someone else's or her imagination. The only drawback to sitting next to a two story waterfall was that it was rather noisy, even though she could hear Jo easily enough. Then again, Jo's Bronx accent cut through the rest of the crowd easily, although Blair was always surprised that people in Dallas didn't sound like she expected, not near as twangy as on television or in the movies. "I believe I'm stuffed," Blair admitted after the last shared bite of key lime pie.
"Me too," Jo admitted, absently scraping the last crumbs with her fork. "Just tangy enough to cut the sweet." She paused as the waiter brought over the bill and Blair handed over her card before continuing, "it's fun working with you, Blondie, as much as I'm loathe to admit it. You do have a respectable brain after all, not just money."
"You'd be wise to remember that, missy," Blair retorted. The check came back and she added the tip, then signed the slip with a flourish. Stuffing the receipt and card in her wallet, she snapped her purse closed decidedly, then groaned, "I supposed we have to move now."
"We could go to Neiman Marcus, it's only a few blocks south."
"A miracle!" Jo followed Blair out of the restaurant, pushing the button for the elevator up. "It's been fun, but I really need to head back to Fort Worth before the traffic in the mid-cities starts stacking up too much." The elevator opened and they got on for the short ride, arriving at street level. "You're at the Fairmont? It's over that direction, I'll walk with you, my truck is in a nearby lot."
"Thank you, Jo," Blair said absently as her phone shrilled insistently. "Blair Warner," she answered as they started walking, but she stopped abruptly, clutching blindly for Jo's arm to steady herself. "What? Scott, you're breaking up-" Her face paled, her grip tightening on Jo's arm. "I'll get back home as soon as possible. How's Scotty?" She listened intently, then added softly, "Honey, I came in the corporate jet, I'll see if Jo can drive me to the airport. I'll call ahead and have them file the flight plan. I'll see you soon." She closed up her phone, letting go of Jo's arm while she dropped the phone back into her purse.
"What's wrong, Blair?" Jo asked quietly, "something happen to Scotty?"
Blair didn't answer for a few seconds, blinking rapidly to keep the tears at bay, motioning for them to start walking. She stayed silent until they had gone all the way back to the hotel and were safely in her room before answering hoarsely, "It's Madison. She collapsed on the tennis courts this morning and they rushed her to the emergency room. Scott's been trying to call, but I guess I didn't hear my phone."
"God, Blair, did they say why she collapsed?" Jo asked worriedly, guiding Blair to sit on the bed.
"They think an aneurysm burst in her head and they don't know if she's going to make it or not."
"Shit!" Jo jumped up and started to pace, unsure how to handle this. She looked at Blair, who was unusually pale, wondering what to do for her. Blair was just staring, not appearing to see anything. She finally opted to gingerly sit back down beside Blair and nervously pat her leg. "What can I do for you, Blair?"
Blair took a shaky breath, pulling out her phone and punching the speed dial for the jet crew. She spoke briefly, then turned to Jo, asking, "Do you mind running me to the airport before you go back? The pilot will take care of the flight plan and I didn't bring much and can pack in a few minutes. If you bring your truck around, I'll meet you in the circle in front."
"Sure will, Blair, anything else I can do?" Jo asked anxiously.
"No, I suppose not," Blair whispered. Jo stood, still uncertain, as Blair looked up, tears welling silently. She stepped closer, allowing Blair to lean against her for a moment. They lightly wrapped their arms around each other for a moment, then Blair broke away. "Go, or I'll really fall apart."
"Okay," Jo answered quietly, settling for patting Blair's shoulder before walking to the door. Blair's pale face haunted her as she went back out into the sunny day to retrieve her truck, but at least she had a mission. A concrete mission was much easier to deal with than the awkward world of emotions.
Blair arrived at the hospital only to find that Madison had died shortly before she arrived. Her son was the one to greet her, taking her in his arms and reporting in a strained voice, "Mom, Madison died almost an hour ago. We couldn't reach you since you were in the air, so Dad said to wait until you came to the hospital. God, I'm so sorry, Mom, it just doesn't seem possible."
"I got here as fast as I could," Blair answered mechanically, mind already racing ahead to the pending arrangements. "Scotty, do you know how to access her computer? Find out the names and numbers of her friends? And where's your father?"
"He's in the chapel with the minister. He absolutely freaked, Mom, after he called you, the doctors gave him a sedative. There's still lots of paperwork to fill out, I've been doing my best to fill out what I knew."
"Thanks, son. How are you holding up?" Blair inquired anxiously.
"I've been better, but I'm more worried about Dad right now than me. Oh, here comes Dr. Kent." Scott released his mother as the family doctor walked up.
"Ms. Warner, I'm so sorry," Dr. Kent said as he took Blair's cold hands in his warm ones, "we had her in surgery trying to patch the aneurysm when she died. Your son has been trying his best to hold everyone together."
"Could this have been prevented?" Blair asked anxiously.
"Probably not, we rarely get warning about this condition. She might have lived a long life or died in childhood." Dr. Kent dropped her hands, then added, "Please don't think that you or your husband could have prevented this, I understand you were out of state on business and that Mr. McNair was at the hospital before the ambulance arrived. I know that you have a lot to think about now, but please, consider grief counseling for your family."
"I will, after the funeral," Blair replied tiredly. She was starting to feel the initial burst of nervous energy draining away and wondered if coffee would fuel her through the rest of this difficult day. "I need to find my husband now." Dr. Kent nodded and started walking down the corridor to the elevators, giving her directions to the room that Scott had been taken to after his collapse in the chapel. Blair thanked him, then belatedly looked for her son. "Scott, let's go to your father," she said softly as she linked her arm through her son's.
The rest of the day went by in a blur. Blair filled out the reams of paperwork, talked to their minister, made funeral arrangements, called relatives and family friends, and finally met her son in Madison's room at home, watching him scroll through his sister's contact list. Her husband was sleeping off his second sedative in their bedroom, having started sobbing uncontrollably when the initial sedative wore off to the point that Dr. Kent was afraid that Scott would be sick. Blair had just talked to Jo, Nat and Tootie, filling them in on the funeral arrangements. All three promised to come and all three asked if Blair needed them to come early, but she said no. Now she watched text scrolling down the screen, not really taking in any of it, glad that her son was taking that responsibility. "Mom, do you mind if I send a blanket email to her friends? I can't find phone numbers or addresses for half of these folks."
Blair ran her hands through her hair, making it stick up in a most undignified fashion. "Times change, so must etiquette. Do you know any of her friends?"
"Not many, Mom, she is, was, so much younger. Four years is quite a difference at our ages."
"Yes. Do you want to compose the email, or do you want me to?"
Scott struggled against a sudden rush of tears, balling his fists and taking a deep shaky breath before he could answer. "I'd like to," he answered unsteadily. Blair cupped his face, leaned over to kiss his forehead, then sat back, struggling with her own sudden wave of grief. Scott quirked a sad smile at his mother, then turned back to the computer, lightly drumming his fingers on the keyboard before composing the message to his sister's known and unknown friends. He typed in a quick burst, then turned the screen for Blair to see. "Look okay?" he asked tentatively.
Blair leaned forward, reading the message.
Today I have the sad duty of informing you that Madison Jo McNair died at 2:35 PM EST. Madison collapsed on her beloved tennis courts at Eastfield, where she attended school, and was rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment. Madison died from a burst aneurysm, despite the heroic efforts of Dr. Richard Kent, trauma surgeon.
Maddy was only twelve, almost thirteen, and a royal pain in my rear, but at the same time, a loyal and loving younger sister. She had a natural grace on and off the courts, and was starting to blossom into a beautiful young woman. By the time she was eight, she could whip me in tennis, by the time she was eleven, she could run circles around me in school. Sometimes she seemed wiser than her years, sometimes she was just my little sister. I will miss her, as I know you will, no one will ever take her place.
The services will be held at our home church in two days. Please contact myself or my mother for additional details through our email or Mother's office at:
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-866-555-3600.
Scott Thomas McNair, Jr.
"Don't change a word," was all Blair said before she abruptly left the room. Scott watched his mother leave, then turned back to the computer, clicking on the SEND button, praying that his sister had kept her email address book up to date. He reluctantly disconnected and shut down his sister's computer, knowing he would come back multiple times over the next few days in case her friends simply clicked REPLY instead of emailing his mother or himself. Scott stood up and wandered around his sister's room, his vision swimming with tears when he saw the teddy bear he had given her six years ago on a bookshelf, wedged between her beloved Little House on the Prairie books and her scrapbooks. He touched the golden bear, remembering going shopping with his mother, insisting on buying his sister the largest bear he could afford for her birthday. He couldn't remember why he insisted on the fifteen inch bear, but he remembered Maddy's squeals of delight when she unwrapped it, immediately dubbing the bear Trey, short for Scott the Third. He took the bear off the shelf, tucking it in the crook of his arm before going back to his own room. It was sappy and sentimental, but he wanted Trey where he could see him, a reminder of his sister.
Jo sat anxiously between Natalie and Dorothy, gripping the hymnal with all of her strength, heart breaking at the stiffness of Blair's back at the front of the church. That damned husband of hers wasn't paying a bit of attention to her pain, too busy making a spectacle of himself, continuously wiping his eyes with that monogrammed handkerchief of his. She wanted to be by Blair, offering... what? At least Scotty was solicitous of his mother, his entire body conveying his deep personal grief and his worry for his mother. Jo was dimly aware that the minister had concluded the sermon or whatever it was called and was asking for the mourners to turn to hymnal for some standard funeral hymn. Jo mechanically opened the book to the correct page, standing with her former classmates, unable to join in the singing. She felt Dorothy's arm slip around her waist, supporting her. God bless Tootie, Jo thought, realizing that she had been swaying a little from fatigue, sorrow and worry. Her thoughts drifted back to yesterday afternoon, when many of Blair's friends had gathered at the house to privately offer Blair their condolences. Scott Sr. had burst in, yelling that Madison wouldn't have died if Blair had stayed home where she belonged, that certainly the aneurysm would have been caught earlier. Blair had turned white, then escorted her husband out of the room. Jo didn't know what happened after that, but Blair had looked years older when she returned.
The initial torture was finally over. Blair stood under the tent at the cemetery, calmly accepting the hugs and kisses of friends and family, murmuring correct responses, aware that her husband was sobbing openly and her son was trying to stem his tears. The faces blurred together until Tootie's husband Thornton led her dearest high school friends through the line. "Thornton, Dorothy, Natalie, Jo, thank you for coming," Blair said quietly, accepting their hugs in turn until Jo stood nervously before her.
"I'm really sorry about Madison," Jo offered, voice hoarse with restrained emotion, "she was the daughter I never had. What can I do for you?" Blair was touched by her tough friend's offer of support, unable to answer for the lump of pain forming in her chest, simply reached for Jo, trying to muffle her sobs against Jo's shoulder, shaking with the intensity of submerged emotion, clinging hard to Jo.
Jo wrapped Blair in her arms, instinctively reaching up to stroke the golden hair, trying to absorb Blair's pain, trying to offer any comfort she could. She was dimly aware that Dorothy and Natalie had joined in, all surrounding Blair with their love and friendship. Finally, Blair lifted her head and stepped back. "Thank you all for coming," she said brokenly, "my dearest friends, I appreciate all of you. I really wish the circumstances were happier, like a graduation or wedding. Will you all be coming back to the house tonight? We have more food than I know what to do with, I'd really like for it to be just the four of us. Will you? About eight?"
"Sure," Natalie answered for them, "the four musketeers."
"Thank you. Now I have to find Scott and Scotty and that damned limo." Blair hugged each woman individually, then squared her shoulders and marched off in search of her son and husband.
The friends all gathered as bidden and soon were eating, drinking, talking, and laughing about their shared past. "God, I remember seeing you in the hospital with Scotty," Jo cackled, waving a breadstick for emphasis, "and the nurse handed him to you and you looked absolutely terrified. But when you were in the hospital with Madison, you acted like an old pro."
"Sure, bring up the fact that I'm less than perfect," Blair countered, "I had Scotty so soon after I married Scott that I hadn't adjusted to being a wife, much less think about being a mother. But, Lord, Maddy was so different than her brother, I'd swear that someone had brought me Jo's baby at first. Maddy wasn't interested in clothes until she was in school, then she became my daughter. But from the start, she was a daddy's girl, just adored tagging after her father." She smiled wistfully, then raised her glass. "To Madison, may she live long in our hearts." The others raised their glasses, clinking them together, sipping their drinks.
"How is your husband?" Dorothy asked.
Blair set her glass on the coffee table, frowning. "I don't understand, Scott won't talk to me at all now, this after two days of screaming that it's all my fault that Madison died."
"Your fault?" Jo huffed.
"Yes, my fault," Blair interrupted before Jo could work up a head of steam. "He's got it in his head that if I hadn't gone to work, set up my venture capital company, that somehow that would have saved Madison. Our son, on the other hand, has been a jewel, alternately see what he could do for me and soothing his father." Blair twisted her hands together, debating whether or not to confide in her friends. One look at their dear faces decided her. "Scott has me worried," she said slowly, groping for the right words. "Of course, as her father, he has the right to grieve, but he refused to come to bed last night, instead, he slept in her bed. It's like something snapped, and I'm at a loss as to what to do. I asked our minister to come over in the morning to talk to Scott privately, but I'm not sure what else I can do for him." She stopped, taking a sip of water, then continued. "Jo, it gets worse, he blames you for me being across the country when this all happened."
"Why that son-of-a-bitch!" Jo exploded, shooting out of her chair, intent on finding Scott and pounding him into a satisfying pulp.
"No, Jo," Blair said, jumping up to physically restrain her friend, "I just thought you should know. I don't need you to do anything to him." Good thing I didn't add that he called you a dyke, she thought as she tugged on Jo's arm, trying to get her to sit back down.
Natalie cast a worried glance at Dorothy, who shrugged. "Blair, Jo, could you please sit back down?" Natalie asked. Jo glared at the door, then shook off Blair's grip, throwing herself back in the armchair while Blair sank back into her rocker. "Thanks, you two were making me nervous," Natalie continued. "Now, this may be overreaching the bounds of friendship, Blair, but I did a series on depression for the paper recently and interviewed a lot of mental health professionals for the articles. I know there's a very good grief counselor in the area who specializes in families who have lost a child, would you like for me to give you his name and number?" Blair considered, then accepted the offer. It probably wouldn't hurt to try to get her husband into counseling, she reflected, not considering that it might help her as well.
Several hours later, Natalie and Dorothy left. Jo started to leave, but hesitated, hand on the door. "Blair, are you going to be okay?"
"Yes, I'll be fine," Blair answered, "I appreciate your being here today. This may sound strange from me, but having you, Nat, and Tootie helped considerably. I don't know what I'd do without you three tonight."
Jo nodded, shoving her hands in her pockets. "Hey, just give me a call if you need anything, ya hear? And this may be a bad time to ask, but Scott Jr. is still coming to intern with me next year, right?"
"As far as I know, Jo." Blair rubbed her face tiredly, then reached over to tuck a stray lock of hair behind Jo's ear. "Jo, it really meant a lot for you to come. I know you're really busy building the business and are swamped."
Jo just grinned tiredly. "It's what friends do, Blair. You helped me start the business. Well, I should say goodnight now. God bless, okay?"
"Okay," Blair whispered. The women just stared for a moment until Blair giggled. "This is ridiculous, Jo, I don't want you to leave."
"I'm not sure I want to leave you and Scotty alone with your husband. He sounds like he's going around the bend."
Blair sighed heavily as she reached for her friend. "We'll manage," she muttered into Jo's shoulder. Blair closed her eyes for just a moment, relaxing as she felt Jo wrap her arms around her, content to just be held, to feel the warmth of Jo's cheek against hers.
"Early flight, gotta go," Jo finally said, pulling away. "Take care and I'll call you in a few days, see how you're faring." Jo fidgeted, then suddenly placed a quick kiss on Blair's cheek and was gone.
"Hey, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Scott yelled, grabbing a box away from Blair, "that's Maddy's things!"
"Scott, we need to do something, it's been nearly six weeks and all you've let me do is have the room dusted and vacuumed. We need to move forward, honey, maybe donate her things, or let her friends take something."
"You didn't love her the way I did, you only loved Scotty."
"What?" Blair stared, uncomprehending. "What do you mean by that?"
Scott set the box down, then sat down in Madison's desk chair. "I mean, you didn't understand her, you were so wrapped up in the first child that you didn't care about her."
"That's not right and you know it, Scott, Madison was a daddy's girl from the time she could walk. I could barely get her to go shopping with me, and that was only when you weren't available. As for our son, he plays golf with you more than he ever did anything with me. Honey, what is really behind these attacks?"
Scott crossed his arms and legs, staring at his wife defiantly. "You should have stayed home with them."
Blair threw her hands up in the air in a gesture of despair. "Stayed home? What do you think I did until Madison was eight? I stayed home with them while you went around playing Mr. Big Shot Board Member, trading on your father's name!"
"A name you refused to take, thank you very much!"
"I didn't see you volunteering to become Scott Warner! Blair McNair, just not the best combination! We gave the children your name, and I didn't exactly refuse, I asked you if it was okay and you agreed."
"I had no idea that you would desert your children."
"Just what do you mean by that?"
Scott waved his arms around, answering sarcastically, "What do I mean? I mean, my mother stayed home and took care of us until we were in college. But no, despite the fact that I'm providing for this family, you have to go start a business so you can desert the children, that's what the hell I mean, Ms. Warner."
Blair stood up and walked over to where her husband and sat in the chair next to the desk, reaching for his hands, answering quietly, "Scott, I was at home with them until they were in boarding schools. We both went to the same schools that Madison and Scott attend and I thought we did fine. Even with my business, just like you, I made the time to attend as many tennis games, as many golf tournaments as possible. We both attended school plays, middle school graduations, church choir concerts, but now I'm a bad mother? Scott, what's really going on?"
"None of your business," he growled, jerking up from the chair.
Blair grabbed his arm, tugging him back down in the chair. "Scott, it's not fair to Scott Jr. to see us at each other's throats all the time. It's not fair to our marriage, either. Will you go to grief counseling with me? He is an old frat brother of yours, maybe you can confide in Greg."
Scott shook off her hand as he stood back up, snarling, "I don't need to go to any headshrinker, especially an old fraternity brother. It's just too early to be getting rid of Madison's things. I mean, my God, it's like you're trying to completely get rid of her memory or something! Blair, I don't know you any more, I swear I don't. I need a drink, I'll be down in the study. My study, that is." Blair jumped up and managed to block the door before Scott got to it. "Now what?" he snapped.
"If you won't go to a grief counselor, will you at least go to the pastor with me? Scott, we both need help coming to terms with Madison's death. Scotty is going to see the youth minister to deal with his grief, won't you go to see Dr. Flynn with me?"
"No." Scott brushed past her. Blair watched his retreating back, then turned back to the sad task of sorting and boxing Madison's things. Silent tears trickled down her cheeks unheeded as she referred to her master list, little knickknacks, CD's, books, stuffed animals that Madison's friends had requested. Bless young Scott for personally following up on all of the replies from Maddy's friends, and for asking what they would like of Madison's to remember her by. Scotty had been a godsend, as had her old friends from Eastland. Natalie and Dorothy called or came by several times a week, and Jo had called or emailed every night since Madison's death. Now Scott had to be back at school full time and couldn't run interference between his parents, a loss that Blair felt keenly.
She didn't know what happened to her husband. He had consistently blamed her for their daughter's death, conveniently forgetting that neither one of them were in town when she collapsed, and that she was at school, practicing with the tennis team. Blair had gone back and talked with Dr. Kent, who assured her that even if they had found the aneurysm prior to her death, that there was little chance they could have repaired it, and that if she had shown symptoms, they could have been mistaken for something else.
Blair worked steadily as she pondered the whole messy situation, and thought again about Scott's outburst about Jo. "You care for that godforsaken dyke more than you care for your daughter!" he had yelled after they came home from the service. Blair was still mystified about that particular accusation, she had always thought of Jo as tough, blunt, outspoken, intelligent, and no-nonsense in business, but a dyke? Jo had been married to John Eagle for, what nearly ten years? If she was, well, that way, could she have married him? And what about that boy she briefly married when she ran away from school? No, Scott must be jealous of the attention she had given Jo recently. She rubbed her eyes, suddenly angry that she was still finding herself crying at the oddest times. Maybe Scott was jealous because Jo cared enough to check on them and none of his friends had called him after the funeral. She referred to her list one more time, then decided to stop for the evening. All of the things Madison's friends had asked for were boxed and labeled now, all she had left to do was to finish sorting the rest of her belongings and decide what to do with them. Maybe, just maybe, her husband would come to his senses and help, this wasn't an easy task. Maybe she should see if Scott wanted to go out to eat with some of his friends tonight.
The situation continued to deteriorate. Sometimes Scott Sr. disappeared for days at a time, coming home only to check his messages, mail, and to pack more clothes. Blair tried to reach him, to find out where he had been, but he refused to answer, once threatening with violence if she continued to ask questions. Blair finally gave up and went to the counselor, knowing she needed to take care of her own grief for young Scott's sake, if for no one else's.
The only bright side of the whole sordid mess was that Scott Jr. was doing better than ever in school, and was still dating that very nice young woman, Frieda Robbins, who was now in her freshman year of college in Fort Worth. She had already told him that her semester would end before the prom, for him not to worry about her not attending it, and she would be at his graduation. Blair didn't have the heart to point out that the events were still many months away, that anything could happen before then. If the truth were to be told, another unintentional bright side was that she was getting to know Jo better, this time as an adult, not just as a school rival and angry adolescent. Blair smiled, thinking of some of the terrible battles she had with Jo, her admittedly insensitive treatment of the girl, not understanding the reason Jo was so angry. The quiet pride that grudgingly accepted the scholarship to Eastland, the frustration with the rich girls who spent their oversized allowances without a care. Blair glanced at her office clock, grimacing when she realized that she was now late to meet Natalie for lunch.
"Sorry I'm late," Blair said as she shrugged out of her overcoat, "but I'm still playing catch up from not being in the office for several weeks. How are you and Greg?"
Natalie smiled at the uncharacteristically flustered Blair. "We're fine, Blair. Okay, I'm nosey and Greg won't say, are you and Scott going to see him professionally?"
Blair picked up her menu and glanced through it before answering, "Scott refused to go, but I started going two weeks ago. Natalie, thank you for telling me about Greg, I think he's already helping me. Talking to him, and the calls from you, Dorothy, and Jo, all help."
"I can't imagine going through the death of a child, but I remember how you all helped me when my father died so unexpectedly. So, it's my turn to help you." Natalie broke off as the waiter approached the table, then continued after they had given their orders. "How is Scott holding up? How is Scotty?"
"Scott Jr. is doing fine, he's still dating Frieda long distance, and I think she has helped him by giving him someone outside the family to talk to. He called me last night and said he was also talking to the chaplain two days a week, so he's doing as well as can be expected. He's still looking forward to moving to Ft. Worth next summer and interning with Jo at her shop."
"Speaking of that devil, how is our Jo doing? I called her once after she went back to Texas, but she was busy getting ready for a bike show at the time."
Blair smiled. "Jo's fine, she's a real lifesaver. She calls or emails nearly every day just to check on me, she's been a great help. I never thought of Jo as the sensitive type, but she seems to know when I need to ramble on and when I need to be distracted. Her business is starting to mushroom so fast that she is adding subcontractors ahead of schedule, and I think she has a contract to build a custom bike for a former Texas governor."
"Ann Richards, of course. Jo met her at some sort of political function recently and started talking bikes with her. As she put it, 'Next thing I knew, I was pulling out my order pad and writing up a contract.' I swear I never knew that Jo would be such a natural salesperson." Blair paused as their lunches were laid down, then continued, telling Natalie some of the funny observations that Jo had about life in Texas. Natalie listened, watching Blair's face light up as she talked about their friend, how proud she sounded of Jo's early success in her new venture. She smiled and remembered Dorothy's comment after the four of them were sentenced to live together in one big room above the kitchen, "Blair and Jo will either love or hate each other, but whatever they feel toward each other, it will be legendary." Natalie couldn't agree more.
After arguing over the bill, Natalie reluctantly let Blair pay for her lunch, then followed her into the overcast New York afternoon. "Thanks again for lunch, but you didn't have to pay for it," Natalie said as she buttoned her overcoat.
"It was my pleasure," Blair responded, "thank you for listening, and thank you again for recommending Greg. I just wish that Scott would go with me, he worries me. Which way are you headed?" Natalie pointed, and Blair tucked a hand through Natalie's arm and started to walk with her. "To be honest," she said slowly, "we were having some problems before Maddy died. I think the fire went out a long time ago, but I was useful as his trophy wife, and he was useful as my trophy husband. Before Madison died, we used to be good friends too, he was my best friend for many years. Now I find that when Scott Jr. is home, I'm talking to him more as a friend than I do my husband. Sometimes I think you were wise to wait and not get married, Natalie, to get the wanderlust out of your system before settling with a partner."
"I've wondered over the past few years," Natalie admitted as they drew even with her building. "Well, this is my stop. I'll be in town off and on for a few more weeks before going off for my next fact gathering mission. Do you want to try lunch again?"
"Yes, this was good. Thank you again," Blair said as she hugged Natalie tightly.
"That's what friends are for," Natalie replied, "to have lunch together."
"Oh, it's all about the lunch, I see," Blair laughed. "Thanks again. Love you."
"Love you too, dear friend." They exchanged quick kisses, then parted ways, each lost in her own thoughts.
As the rest of the year dragged on, the only time that Scott and Blair were civil to each other was when they attended school functions for Scotty. Golf tournaments, a school play, an honors ceremony, graduation. Scott Sr. moved to their apartment in the city after New Year's, telling Blair quietly that he wanted a divorce, that he couldn't bear to live this way any longer. She tried again to get him to go to counseling of any kind, but he steadfastly refused, saying that he would start talking to his attorney and accountant soon. As much as it hurt, Blair decided she'd better be ready and sought her own legal and financial professionals. The calls and emails from Jo had gone to once a week call, usually on Sunday evening.
The phone rang on the Sunday after Scotty's graduation and Blair glanced at the caller ID before answering, relieved that it was Jo, calling exactly on time. "Hello, Jo," she trilled, "are you ready for my Scotty?"
"Yeah, sure am," the answer came, "I've been going over his list with my shop supervisor, Scott will never know what hit him. He'll be running ragged, but I'll make sure he has time to see Frieda. Did y'all find him an apartment and car?"
Blair kicked off her shoes and curled up on the sofa in her office, smiling. "I can't believe it, you said 'y'all!'" she crowed.
"Yeah, whatever, these guys are rubbing off on me, so sue me or something. Hey, you gonna come down and help settle your boy in?"
"I thought about it, to be honest. He's pretty level headed, but even the bravest, most level headed kids need a parent around, and it isn't his father. Yes, Frieda's mother helped find him an apartment, and her father located a good car for him. I've already made the arrangements, and I'll pay his rent and insurance, but he needs to pay utilities and groceries from what he earns working for you. Oh, and other little things like clothes, gas, entertainment too."
"Wow, Blair Warner making her kid earn his clothes and such! Never thought I'd see the day."
Blair laughed, picturing Jo rolling her eyes, then turned quieter. "Jo?"
Blair toyed with a pillow for a moment, then hugged it tight, wishing fleetingly that it was Jo. "Scott and I are divorcing. Our lawyers and accountants are talking right now, and it will be a long, messy process. He's been living in our apartment in the city since the first of the year and still refuses to seek help. Just thought you'd like to know."
"That bastard! I should-"
"Jo, it's for the best," Blair explained wearily, "I've realized through my grief counseling that my marriage has been dying for years, but Madison's death just hastened the end. I'm pretty sure that Scott has a lover, but he's managed to keep her under wraps pretty well. Dorothy and Thornton saw Scott hustling a woman through a theater lobby in the city one night, but when he saw them, he managed to lose them. They couldn't see her face, so we don't know if it's someone we know or not."
A long sigh from Jo. "Damn, Blair, I'm so sorry, why didn't you tell me earlier? I mean, I knew that things were pretty rough between you two, but I thought you might patch things up in time. Hey, when you and Scotty get here, I'll just have to make sure to take your mind off things, how's that?"
Blair found herself blinking rapidly, willing the sudden tears to evaporate. She managed to pull herself together in time to answer, "That would be wonderful, Jo, I'm sure Scott would appreciate it."
"Aw, hell, Princess, we'll take the boy out once, but I'm thinking of you. You're the one who is hurting the most here, I know, I've been there."
"Why did you and John divorce?"
The silence stretched out so long that Blair thought that they had been cut off. She heard a tiny sigh, then Jo answered softly, "It wasn't working. We had worked for the same company for years, but often had to spend weeks or months apart. I guess we just drifted apart, so when the company went through a merger, I took the buyout and he didn't. He got transferred to Houston, I opted to move to Ft. Worth, to take a big promotion. He was furious that I'd dare move away, even though I'm pretty sure he was carrying on an affair, so he tried his best to screw me in the divorce. I hurt his pride, so I hurt it more by refusing to take my maiden name back."
"I'm so sorry, Jo."
"It's for the best, Blair," Jo answered calmly, "I got to work with motorcycles again and John is now a proud papa of a six month old baby girl. Despite our bitterness, we have managed to tolerate each other, and he and his wife invited me for the christening. Kinda weird, but she's a much better match for him than I was, and John is much happier. But hey, I have my shop, I have friends like you, so life is good."
"And I'm grateful for you as my friend," Blair added. She cleared her throat, then asked brightly, "So, where to you plan to take me for fun?"
"I don't know, somewhere rough and rowdy like Billy Bob's, unless you just can't stand the smoke. Or more refined, see who's playing in the Bass Performance Hall, it's a really cool venue, beautiful. I saw Diana Krall there a few years back."
"You? Listening to jazz?"
"Shush, Blondie, don't give away my secret. Yes, I listen to jazz, big band music, a little country, not much rock these days. Can't stand most of the modern music except for maybe k. d. lang or The Corrs, a little Melissa Etheridge. Say, what kind of music do you listen to now?"
Blair stretched out, laying her head against the back of the couch before answering, "A little jazz, some classical, no opera though. I must confess that I bought the latest Melissa Etheridge CD, much happier than her earlier music."
"Cool! Say, I must go soon, I need to finish my laundry before it gets too late. So, when are you and Scotty coming?"
"We'll be arriving at his new apartment Tuesday afternoon, and the furniture should arrive Wednesday morning. I'll stay to get him set up, then, well, we'll just see how things go." Blair studied her fingernails, idly noting the chips in the polish that needed to be attended to soon. "When do you need him to report to work?"
"We can wait until a week from tomorrow, give him time to settle in and visit with his girlfriend. So, call me when you get here."
"Will do. Jo?"
"Thank you for your support this past year," Blair said softly, "I'm not sure how I could have made it without you."
"Just glad to help, Blair," Jo answered gruffly. "Now, get your butt to Texas so we can have some fun! Bye."
"Good-bye." Blair clicked off, then held the phone to her chest, trying to imagine what Jo would have her son doing. She also tried to imagine going out as a nearly single woman, but couldn't make the picture come. Oh well, plenty of time for that, probably plenty of men who would still want her. But would they want her for her money, or herself? "Get a grip, Warner," she scolded herself, "at least Jo just wants you for you." She decisively placed the phone back in its charger, then forced herself to get up and start working again.
Blair had to admit that Jo was doing a terrific job with the business and with easing her son into the working world. She had just spent two weeks settling Scott into his new apartment and going over business with Jo. It was also nice to just take a break for a while, leaving the day to day business behind in New York, her first real vacation in years. Oh, she had taken a week at a time for the family vacations they had each summer, but if she were honest, Blair had to admit that she and Scott had not really relaxed and enjoyed themselves, just basically attended to their children. Now that they only had Scott, Jr., the marriage had fallen apart rapidly, or had it fallen apart earlier and they just refused to acknowledge it? No sense in thinking about it now, she decided. It was Saturday night, and Jo was going to pick her up in a short while, saying that Blair really needed to have some fun for once.
When Jo arrived at the hotel room, she was surprised to see Blair in dark jeans, a sleeveless cowgirl shirt, and sensible cowboy boots. Small silver earrings, thin watch, and a thin silver rope bracelet completed the look. "Blair, is that the bracelet I gave you for Christmas years ago?" Jo asked, stunned that Blair would still have it.
"Yes," Blair replied simply, "it just seemed right to take it out. I'm ready when you are."
Jo smiled. "I thought we'd go to Billy Bob's, that okay with you?"
"Sure, Jo, you get to call the shots tonight," Blair said, glancing at Jo's faded jeans, purple polo with the "Eagle Custom Bikes" logo, and polished black ropers. Plain and simple, the essence of Jo, Blair mused as she followed her friend out of the hotel. She'd always heard of Billy Bob's, but of course, had never been there. Imagine, a Warner in a <shudder> country bar! Blair smiled at her own thoughts, mocking herself silently, thinking of the days when she and Jo fought constantly, both snobs, but in different ways.
The act that night was Terri Clark, whom Blair was not familiar with, but liked instantly. Jo had surprised her by buying tickets that were front and center, so close to the stage that Blair had to sometimes tilt her head backwards to see the tall Canadian when she stood at the very edge of the stage. Blair had never really listened to much country music, but she liked Terri Clark, finding that her songs spoke to her heart. She decided that her favorite of the night was "Now That I Found You", with the haunting first stanza:
How can I believe
That my heart would find someone like you
You see me, the real me
No in bewteens, I had nowhere to hide
You took away the walls around me
Made me feel safe to share my truth
"Jo," the thought whispered through her mind, "that's Jo." Blair applauded with the rest of the crowd as Terri took her last bow, then turned to Jo and found herself lost in Jo's eyes. They were a deeper blue than usual, a little vulnerable. Blair reached up, touching Jo's cheek lightly, swallowing as unexpected tears threatened to overwhelm her. A smile skittered across Jo's face as she closed her hand over Blair's, holding it to her cheek for a few seconds before clearing her throat and gruffly announcing, "It's getting pretty late, Blair, do you want to go back now, or hang around for a bit longer?"
Blair blinked away the tears, answering, "I'm not really up for dancing any more, and you'll probably be sore from riding that mechanical bull. Nothing in the gift shop interested me except the shirt I bought for Scotty, and I'm not in the mood to get drunk."
Jo stood up, reaching out a hand to help Blair from her chair. "Back it is, Ms. Warner." She dropped Blair's hand as soon as she was standing, then started leading the way back through the maze of the honky tonk to the front door. "Did you like the beer you tried? I've developed a taste for Shiner Boch myself over the last year. Brewed in Texas with an attitude, or so the ad copy says."
"It was fine, although I'm more of a wine or cocktail woman myself." Blair found herself having to scramble to catch up with Jo's long stride, finally settling for hooking a finger through the back belt loop of Jo's jeans. She held on until they cleared the door, then started to tuck a hand through Jo's arm when Jo hissed, "Don't." Chagrined, Blair dropped her arm, wondering why Jo reacted so harshly. An uncomfortable silence stretched between the women as they found the truck, climbed in, and drove away. When Jo pulled into the hotel parking lot, she turned to Blair and said, "Hey, sorry I overreacted back there, but here in Texas, you have to be careful."
"Careful how? I just wanted to keep up with you and my feet were starting to hurt. These are new boots, you know."
"Yeah, I know, but it's just that Texas is in the middle of the Bible Belt, and I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea about us."
"Wrong idea? Jo, what in heaven's name are you talking about?"
Jo dropped her eyes, staring at the steering wheel as she replied, "I don't want anyone to think we're dykes, we could get beaten up for that. I get enough of that anyway, since I'm not married and don't wear makeup very often. It's hard to explain, Blair, but I want to take care of you, I know you're in a very vulnerable place now, going through the divorce, still dealing with Madison's death." She lifted her head, turning to look at Blair, anguish painted in her eyes. "I just wanted to make you happy for one night, Blair, but we did get some weird stares. I enjoyed the one dance with you, but that's just not done around here."
"I'm sorry," Blair said, "I had no idea, Jo. You think people really thought we were a couple, not just friends out having a fun time?"
Blair blew out an impatient breath. "Let'em think what they want, Jo. You're my friend, I love you, you've done more for me than anyone else has this past year. Let's try to salvage this evening, would you like to come up for a minute?"
Jo visibly agonized over her answer, finally turning off the engine and opening the door. "Lead on, Princess," she said softly. She followed Blair into the hotel, catching herself holding doors open for her just like a guy. What was it she was just telling Blair about being careful, not acting like dykes? Despite her nerves, she did have fun tonight, even the one dance that Blair insisted they share. "Don't go there," she warned herself sternly as Blair opened the door to her room, flipping on lights, motioning for Jo to follow her.
"Home, sweet home, at least for the moment," Blair commented drolly as she dropped on the bed, leaning over to take off her boots.
Jo heard herself offering, "Here, let me get those off for you."
"Please," Blair replied, gracing Jo with a genuine smile. Jo knelt before her, like a prince in reverse, Blair thought, watching her friend take hold of one boot to carefully tug it off her foot. She dropped it on the floor, then repeated with the other boot. "You might as well sit for a moment," Blair said as she flopped back on the bed, patting the space beside her. "I don't bite."
"Well, for just a few minutes, then I have to leave," Jo acquiesced as she gingerly sat by Blair.
Blair reached out a lazy hand, stroking Jo's arm. "Thank you for a wonderful night, Jo, I had a terrific time. Like the song said, you make me feel safe, and I swear, you do see right through me, you always have."
Jo started to blow it off, but saw the vulnerable light in Blair's soft brown eyes, and couldn't help but smile and reply, "Hey, you're in a difficult spot, and we are friends. Friends help each other."
Blair rolled on her side, laying her hand on Jo's thigh. "I'm lucky to have such a good friend."
Jo felt the warmth of Blair's hand through her jeans leg, a not unwelcome feeling. God, Blair was so beautiful when she was like this, the usual mask dropped away. Without thinking Jo reached out, touching Blair's cheek lightly. Blair closed her eyes, still smiling. Encouraged, Jo stroked her face more firmly, marveling at the softness of the skin, the shape of the generous lips, the cheekbones. As if in a dream, she leaned over, brushing her lips across Blair's forehead, then pulled back reluctantly. "I'd better go before I fall asleep here," Jo said quietly, reluctantly breaking the spell. She forced herself to stand up, pulling Blair up with her.
"If you must," Blair whispered, moving into the circle of Jo's arms, leaning her cheek on Jo's bony shoulder, resting her arms around Jo's waist. She fleetingly wished that Jo could spend the night, hold her to keep the nightmares at bay, to make her feel safe and loved. But she must let Jo leave now, she scolded herself, pulling back enough to see Jo's face. It surprised her to see how blue Jo's eyes were, to see some fleeting emotion she couldn't quite name dancing across her face. "Goodnight, Joanna," she said, kissing Jo's cheek, then squeezing her one last time.
"Goodnight, fair princess, call if you need me," Jo said gruffly as she pulled away from her friend. Then, like a puff of smoke, she was gone, leaving only sweet memories. Blair shut the door, mechanically locking up before stripping off her clothes to get ready for bed. "Fair princess," she repeated as she pulled on her nightgown and slid into bed. "I like that."
Jo was very pleased with Scotty's progress over the next two months. He came in early, stayed late, asked intelligent questions, and worked his butt off. He reminded her so much of Blair, who had flown back to New York after taking care of her business in the Metroplex, with his dark blonde hair and his easy charm. Her shop supervisor recommended that Jo let Scotty start taking orders from customers, and, after watching him smoothly clinch several sales, agreed. Scotty still wanted hands on experience with the bikes, but said he'd stay with sales for the summer if Jo thought it was best.
"He's a natural, Blair," Jo was saying during their weekly conversation, "that boy of yours can sell higher end bikes so smoothly that the customers think they are adding on the extras. I think I'll wait to have him start working on the bikes themselves until next summer. By the way, where is Scott going to college? I assumed he'd be going to some Ivy League school, but he hasn't mentioned anything yet."
"Even though it breaks his father's heart, Scott is planning to stay in Ft. Worth and go to Texas Christian University instead of an Ivy League or Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It all costs an arm and a leg, but not as much as Harvard or Yale or Princeton. I think Frieda's going to TCU has firmed up his decision. Did I tell you that Scott managed to graduate with a high enough GPA to get some scholarships? His father and I can certainly afford to send him to college, but he insists on doing his part to pay his way."
"That's cool, Blair. As long as it doesn't interfere with his classes, I'll keep him working part time. Be good experience for him." Jo looked at the notepad she had been doodling on, smiling when she realized that she'd sketched a portrait of Blair's face. "So," she continued smoothly, "when can I expect a return visit from your highness?"
"Jo, you are so bad," Blair laughed, looking fondly at a picture that Scotty took of Jo at the formal opening of Eagle Custom Bikes. Damn it, she missed her son, missed her friend. "My soon to be ex is pushing hard to clear up all barriers for the divorce, I'm pretty sure his girlfriend wants a autumn wedding, maybe even a Christmas wedding. Natalie has seen her with Scott, says she's the traditional younger trophy wife."
"Hey, Scott doesn't know what he's throwing away," Jo blurted out. "I mean, you were the original, um, oh crap, I'm not sure what I meant."
"I know, I was a trophy wife, but I did the unforgivable sin of developing interests other than his," Blair finished lightly, but with a bitter tinge in her voice. She looked at the picture, then sighed heavily. "Jo, New York doesn't hold much for me any longer," she said slowly, easing into the question she had wanted to ask for the past few months. "What do you think of my getting a place in Texas?"
"Here?" Jo squeaked. She cleared her throat and flipped the page of her notebook over. "To be near your son?"
"To get away from old memories," Blair countered softly, "to make new ones. I'll miss Natalie and Dorothy, but I sure won't miss my other so-called friends. Most of the couples that Scott and I knew have been slowly melting away as they try to decide whether it is better to stay friends with me or with Scott. I suspect my dear almost ex-husband will win, no one wants to socialize with a middle-aged divorcĂ©e."
"Idiots," Jo spat, "they don't know what they're missing. Hell, the folks I hang around don't give a rat's ass about your marital status, they just care about their bikes and mixing fun with work, ya know? I mean, lots of them are professionals, like lawyers and bankers and professors and stuff, but they don't care if you're single, married, or divorced. They don't care if-" She stopped herself abruptly, not wanting to go there, especially after that woman in the shop today, with her throaty voice and hypnotic gaze. God, at least Blair wouldn't come on to her like that, or at least she'd have better manners.
Blair surveyed her office, looking at the spaces on the wall that used to have family portraits, not really hearing much of Jo's last outburst. Scott had managed to make off with most of the good pictures with Madison in them, she thought sadly. "I'm sorry, I started thinking about Maddy," she confessed. "Sweetheart, are you serious about me coming back to Texas?"
Jo swallowed hard, then managed to say naturally, "Sure, Princess, no problem, maybe I'll put you to work in my shop. Can you imagine that, you and Scott Jr. both selling bikes? I'd have a two year backlog just like that!" She firmly ignored the excited fluttering in her middle as she blithely extended the offer, hoping and scared that Blair would come out to Texas to live.
"I'll check flights and hotels in the morning," Blair said with a barely disguised yawn, "but Jo, it's nearly midnight here and I'm getting tired. Do you mind if we say goodnight and continue this in the morning?"
"God, I'm sorry, I didn't realize we'd been talking so long," Jo spluttered.
"I'm not sorry," Blair replied lightly, a big smile in her voice. "Goodnight, sweetheart, I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Goodnight, Princess, sweet dreams." Jo reluctantly clicked off her phone, an uncontrollably silly grin flitting across her features. "Sweetheart," she repeated, "she called me sweetheart. Oh, God, I'm a goner."
"You want to what?" Scott thundered, staring at his almost ex-wife, clutching the arms of his desk chair tightly. "You want to sell the house? I assumed you would continue living there, I mean, don't you want Scott Jr. to have it when he gets over this Texas phase?"
Blair simply repeated, "I've had it appraised by three different real estate agents, and talked to both of my parents. My parents have no problem with me selling the house, they each have other houses. The real estate agents all say we should have no trouble selling the house fairly quickly. You've already taken the furnishings that you want, so why should you care? Aren't you planning to buy a new house with your new lover? I didn't think you would want to start a new marriage in the house with the ghosts of our marriage, Scott. I thought that offering you half of the profit was more than generous, considering that I am financing all of the repairs and redecorating."
"But Blair, think of Scotty. He'll need a house when he comes home, which reminds me, one of my golf partners has a daughter his age I'd like for Scotty to meet. When is he coming home?"
"He's not," Blair answered flatly. "Scott, I've told you and Scotty has told you, he's not coming back to New York any time soon. He's in his first semester at TCU and is working part-time at Jo's shop. He's planning to spend Thanksgiving with Frieda and her family, but hasn't decided about Christmas yet."
"So, where will you move? Your apartment in the city?"
"No, Scott, I'm also moving to Texas, I'm already looking at houses, but I may just rent a townhouse for a while."
Scott slumped back in his chair, unable to take it all in. His daughter dead, his son in college, now his wife moving away. His almost ex-wife, that is, but in the back of his mind, he expected Blair to stick around and convince young Scott to come back home, back to the society where he belonged. But sell their house? He had loved that house, even enjoyed the many shopping trips over the years to decorate and redecorate it according to Blair's whims. He felt like his life was spinning out of control again with no anchor to hold on to, no Blair to quietly support him. Phoebe was sweet, beautiful, socially adept, well-connected, and eager to get married. But did he really love her? Was it a mistake to let go of Blair? What was she saying?
"By the way, my lawyer has looked over the last proposals that your lawyer sent over and I'll be signing the papers this afternoon. I expect that they will be back in your lawyer's office by morning so you can sign them. Have you and Phoebe set a date yet?" Scott lifted a shaky hand to his face, rubbing his right cheek, a sure sign of nervousness. "Scott? Did you ever make an appointment with anyone? Our pastor? A counselor? You really don't look good, should I get you to your doctor?"
He brought his hands together, tightly lacing his fingers. "No, it's okay, really, I just wasn't, I mean, I didn't know that Bruce had sent the papers over already. Phoebe and I have not set a date yet, we were waiting for the final divorce decree before we did."
"In that case, I should leave, I'm planning to meet Natalie for lunch, then go to my lawyer's office to sign the papers. I'll have Gordon send over information about selling the house for you and Bruce to look over."
"But-" Scott paused, mind still swirling with confusion. "Maybe I'm not ready."
Blair stood up, walking around to his side of the desk, laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, forcing him to look up at her. "Scott," she said gently, "we have been more friends than lovers for many years. It is time to let go. Madison's death finished tearing us apart, and neither of us, nor Scotty, should have to live in a house with her memories haunting us. Let me urge you, once more, to seek counseling, if not for your sake, then for the sake of your new wife. I'm ready to let go, you should be too."
"Okay," he whispered hoarsely, standing up. "Fuck it," he mumbled, reaching for Blair, wrapping her tightly in his arms one last time, feeling her arms go around him. He breathed in her subtle perfume, felt the softness of her hair on his cheek, regretted this final step. He stepped back, still holding her arms. "I'm sorry for what I've put you through lately," he said slowly, brokenly, "I guess I just lashed out."
"Will you get some help?"
Those worried brown eyes, he thought as he absently reached up to cup the side of her face. Clearing his throat, he said, "I'll think about it."
"Good." She leaned up, kissing his cheek lightly, then added, "We both need a new start, Scott, and I need to get completely away from New York in order to do it." She pulled away, reaching for her briefcase and purse. "Good-bye, Scott. Let me know when the wedding is and where you are registered so I can buy something for you and Phoebe."
"Good-bye, Blair," Scott answered, "I'll call you when the plans are finalized. Oh, don't forget to give me your new address and phone when you have it."
"Same with you," Blair replied, shutting the door behind her. Scott sat down heavily, then pulled a drawer open, reaching in for the family picture that used to sit on his desk. Happier times, when Maddy was still alive, his family was still complete, when he and Blair were still happy. She was still breathtakingly beautiful, even as the mother of a grown man. He leaned back, thinking. Maybe Blair was right, maybe he did need to talk to someone, she had talked to Greg, and Jo had been there for her. Sometimes, he thought, he really envied how women could be so close, so open with each other.
Taking a deep breath, he reached for the phone, dialing his old frat brother's number, nearly dropping the receiver when Greg himself answered. "Greg? Hi, it's Scott," he said nervously, "and I think I need to see you. Are you available for lunch?" He listened for a moment, then replied, "Okay, see you at the club in an hour. Thanks." He hung up, then filed the photo away in his drawer again. Maybe Blair was right, it was time to let go.
Blair dropped her bombshell about selling the house and moving to her best friends; Natalie, Dorothy, and Jo, over the next few days between long meetings at work. She was trying to decide what to do about the business part of her life, whether to stay on as an active partner, or to find someone to promote up to her level. Natalie and Dorothy were both very surprised by both the decision to sell and to move, and Jo just seemed relieved and anxious all at the same time. Then Blair came up with one of her "brilliant ideas", a last slumber party before the house was officially on the market. She quietly organized everything, including Jo's plane tickets, then asked Natalie to pick Jo up from the airport.
Natalie waited by the baggage claim area, looking for Jo's familiar figure to appear through the security gates, wondering what Jo knew about Blair's plans. All Blair had said to her or to Dorothy was that she was selling and moving, but not mentioning where she was moving. After what seemed like an eternity, she saw Jo heading in her direction. "Jo! Over here!" she called, waving her arms. Jo smiled and changed direction, pulling Natalie into a brief hug when she drew close. "How was your flight?" Natalie asked.
"Uneventful, the best kind," Jo answered, "how's the newspaper business, Nat?"
"Fine, fine, Jo. You could have knocked me over with a feather when Blair announced that she was pulling up stakes and moving, but she still hasn't said where. Do you know?"
Jo suddenly busied herself with looking for her luggage as bags started lumbering down the conveyor belt. "Um, nothing concrete, but I think she's thinking of Texas, closer to Scott Jr. Don't say you heard from me, you know how she is, likes her little surprises and such. How's Greg doing? Y'all still together?"
Natalie stared at her friend in amazement. "'Y'all'? My God, living in Texas has finally rubbed off on you, girlfriend! Next thing we know, you'll have a big poufy hairdo!"
Jo relaxed and grinned as she snagged her luggage. "No chance of big hair, Natalie, besides, that's more Dallas than Ft. Worth. If I started saying 'faction' to', then I'd really be going native. But I refuse to say it, so I'm still the girl from the Bronx." She slung the strap over her shoulder. "Lead on, Green."
"Okay." Natalie led Jo to the car, asking lots of questions about the custom motorcycle business, then answering questions about her own life. No, she and Greg were not married and didn't have any plans immediately, yes, Dorothy and Thornton were making a success of their theatre, and yes, Dorothy still ragged her about marrying Greg. She ate with Blair about once a month to six weeks and had noticed lately that Blair was calmer, but didn't expect the decision to move. "She said that Scott Sr. was pretty upset about her selling the house, but he really didn't have a say in it since it's been a Warner property for generations. Blair's parents didn't want it, and Scott Jr. is years away from making a decision about where to live. The divorce becomes final next week, which is amazingly fast, considering how long they dragged out negotiations, mostly from Scott's side. He hasn't set the date yet to marry his girlfriend, but Blair has the feeling that Phoebe wants a wedding quickly and is hoping that Scott didn't get her pregnant."
"Huh," was Jo's sole comment during the ride as she listened to Natalie's monologue. As they approached the grounds, Jo looked around and asked quietly, "Remember the first time the four of us came here? Christmas during Blair's and my senior year, my parents were working, and Blair invited me home for the holidays. We all had that slumber party between Christmas and New Year's and didn't sleep at all until seven the next morning."
"Yeah, I remember it," Natalie responded as she stopped the car. "Need help?"
"Naw, I got it, just pop the trunk for me," Jo answered. Natalie watched as Jo deftly lifted out the bags, thinking about the party so many years ago. It had been a wild party, or so they thought at the time, with a bottle of champagne, multiple videos, many sugary snacks, and card games. She guessed the wild part was the alcohol, but she didn't recall any of them getting really drunk, just buzzed. "You think Blair will have something better than sleeping bags for us this time?" Jo asked as Natalie rang the doorbell.
"I sure hope so, I'm too old to sleep on the floor," Natalie laughed as the door opened. "Hey, Blair, you're answering the door yourself!"
"I gave the staff the night off, Natalie. Come on in, ladies," Blair said with a gracious smile. "Follow me, I have guest rooms all ready." Jo and Natalie picked up their bags and followed Blair into the house, stopping briefly to drop their bags in the guest rooms. A short time later, the four friends were gathered in the den, laughing, talking, and fixing plates of food. Natalie found herself watching Jo and Blair surreptitiously, noticing Blair's relaxed warmth toward Jo and Jo's unexpected gentleness toward Blair. Sure, they still needled and jabbed as always, but there was something else, some sort of expectancy. She turned it over in her head, wishing she could get Dorothy away for a few minutes to discuss it, to see if she was right or not. Come to think of it, Dorothy was different tonight as well, not touching the wine, yet glowing. Could it be, after all these years of trying?
Natalie got her chance while the four women were taking supper dishes and food back into the kitchen. She pulled Dorothy into the pantry as Blair and Jo left for another load, asking, "What's up? No wine, you are positively glowing, more beautiful than ever."
Dorothy's face split into a wide smile as she took her friend's hands in hers, whispering, "I'm finally pregnant, Natalie, I was planning to announce it tonight. I'm nearly two months along, and before you chastise me, Thornton and I wanted to make sure this time before we told anyone."
"Oh, Tootie," Natalie gushed, "that's wonderful! But you didn't even tell me?"
"Like I said, we wanted to make sure. I was just about to burst to tell you, though, until the doctor said things looked good, and that was just this morning. Hey, you haven't called me Tootie in years."
"Sorry, Dorothy, it's being with everyone, having a slumber party, it takes me back to our school days." She grinned, squeezing Dorothy's hands. "I'm so happy for you and Thornton, just think, I'll be an aunt!" She leaned over, pecking her friend on the cheek, then took her in her arms, hugging her carefully.
"I'm not going to break," Dorothy laughed, squeezing Natalie, "but we should probably rejoin the others before they start wondering about us. Hey, did you bring any movies?"
"Sure," she said as they walked back into the kitchen, "despite your crown as the theatre queen, I'm still the movie queen, Greg and I probably have close to a thousand DVD's and videos' between us." She grinned wickedly. "I thought we'd start out by harking back to our youth with 'Footloose' and go from there."
"You are so bad, girlfriend," Dorothy said, batting her on the shoulder. "Go get the movies and I'll help finish cleaning up."
"Telling secrets again?" Jo asked as she looked up from loading the dishwasher.
"Just wait, Jo, just wait until we have all the dishes loaded and the movies stacked. I have an announcement to make," Dorothy said.
"Yeah," Natalie chortled, "we're secretly lovers."
"Oh, darling, you spilled the beans!" Dorothy swept an arm across her brow dramatically, then chuckled. "Go on, Nat, get the movies." She kept smiling, but wondered why Jo looked so startled for a second before grinning and rolling her eyes, mumbling something about actors and dramatic scenes.
"What's going on?" Blair asked as Jo reentered the den a few moments later, "I heard a lot of giggling in the kitchen while I slaved away cleaning up in here. Did Natalie remember to bring the movies?"
"Yeah, she's gone to get them now. I don't know, Blair, they were in the pantry, telling some sort of secrets and Dorothy said that she had an announcement to make. Then Nat, ever the joker, claimed they were lovers. After all these years, I don't understand those two."
"Lovers? What a joker," Blair giggled, trying to imagine Natalie and Dorothy as lovers. Best friends, yes, lovers? That was ridiculous, she thought, as she touched the silver bracelet on her wrist. She surveyed the room, then asked Jo to round up the other girls.
After Natalie loaded the DVD player, she sat on the smaller sofa next to Dorothy, asking, "Is it time?" She noticed that Blair and Jo took the larger sofa, leaving a whole section between them.
Dorothy turned to her friends and said quietly, "In seven months, Thornton and I will have a child. I just told Natalie a few minutes ago, and now I'm telling you. We haven't even told our families yet, I wanted you all to be the first to know." A few seconds of silence greeted the announcement, followed by whoops of joy from Blair and a shy grin from Jo. Blair bounced off the couch, pulling Dorothy up to give her a long hug. "Congratulations," Blair murmured as she finally let go of her friend, "I'm so happy for you and Thornton."
Jo was standing silently, waiting her turn to offer congratulations, hugging Dorothy lightly after Blair released her. "Hey, that's good news, you'll have to keep us posted," she said, stepping back. "I'm happy for you."
"Thanks, guys," Dorothy gushed as they all returned to their seats, "I'll fill you in on every detail."
"That's what I was afraid of," Jo snickered.
"On that note, I should start the movie," Natalie said quickly, reaching for the remote again.
By the end of the last movie, Natalie and Dorothy were leaning against each other, fast asleep. Blair watched them, thinking how cute they looked, wondering if Jo would ever unbend enough to let her curl up by her. She turned her gaze to Jo, who had gotten up to turn off the entertainment system and was trying to gently wrestle the remote out of Natalie's hands. Jo's face was barely visible in the darkness, brows drawn together in concentration as she managed to get the remote without waking the women. She wondered if Jo knew how beautiful she was with the bare trickle of moonlight throwing her figure into a study of shadows and sharp angles, almost like a black and white photo.
Jo finished shutting everything down, then turned to find Blair watching her intently, twisting that bracelet that she'd given Blair all those years ago. She knew that she should be trying to wake the girls up long enough to get them to their rooms, but she stood, feeling caught in the intensity of Blair's gaze, wondering for the thousandth time what the other woman saw in her. She felt her heart contract painfully in her chest as Blair's face lit in a soft smile, wishing it were acceptable to simply take Blair in her arms for no other reason than to feel her warm, soft body against hers. She laid the remote down, then shoved her hands in her sweatpants pockets before going over to the couch and sitting near Blair, whispering, "Should we wake them?"
Blair leaned forward, whispering, "I guess so." She straightened up and called out, "Natalie? Dorothy? Time for bed." The younger women stirred, then sat up sleepily, yawning and stretching as the stood up. Goodnights were exchanged as all filed toward their own rooms, Blair trailing behind to make sure that everyone had what they needed for the night.
Jo shucked her sweats quickly as Blair puttered around, reluctant to go to her own empty room. Jo slid under the covers, watching Blair moving around restlessly, then finally asked, "Blair, what's bothering you?"
Blair came over to the bed, sitting on the edge, wiping a tear from her face. "I was just thinking about Madison and her friends, having slumber parties here. God, I miss my daughter so much!" She sagged, wiping another tear away. "It's so quiet here, so many ghosts, Jo." She took a deep breath, reaching for calm.
Jo watched her friend try to remain calm, but could see the raw pain on her face. Disregarding her usual reserve, she flipped the covers back, inviting Blair to lay down. Blair gave her a timid smile, then took off her robe and slid between the covers, awkwardly snuggling up to Jo. Jo pulled Blair closer, tentatively stroking her back with one hand as Blair sobbed, feeling the silky sleepshirt under her rough hand, praying she would not snag the material. She was sure that she would not fall asleep, at least not for a while.
Blair woke up reluctantly, not wanting to leave the warmth of the bed or of the body beside her. It was wonderful to lay curled up like spoons, her arm smugly around the waist, hand splayed possessively on the warm skin under the sleep shirt, soft with a hint of strong muscle underneath. If it weren't for the rather urgent call of nature, she could easily drift back to sleep. She carefully pulled away, trying not to disturb Jo. Blair froze for a moment, then remembered going around, tucking everyone in bed, Jo's silent offer. Blair decided to sort everything out in a moment, after her screaming bladder was emptied.
Jo stretched luxuriously, reveling in the feeling of the soft, warm bed. She flipped back the covers, reaching for her sweats as she made her way to the hall bathroom. Time enough for a shower after breakfast, but she needed to attend to certain things first. After flushing and washing her hands, she decided to at least brush her teeth, wondering if Blair had stayed all night or had gone back to her own bed once she calmed down. She was surprised at how quickly she had fallen asleep, considering that she rarely slept well with anyone in her bed, even John. John had a bad habit of hogging the covers, which usually wasn't a big deal in Houston, but it was the principal of the thing. She glanced at the clock, deciding that maybe she did have time for a quick shower first. She left her toiletry bag on the counter and went back to the room to grab fresh clothes.
Blair stood in front of the mirror in the master bathroom as she brushed her wet hair, wondering if anyone would mind if she simply pulled it back into a ponytail and dispensed with makeup. A small smile quirked her lips as she pondered the unthinkable idea of showing a bare face to the world, even if the world simply consisted of her friends. Her friends. Blair laid her brush down on the vanity, pondering the night before. She remembered checking on Jo, then feeling like her world was about to crash, when Jo simply invited her into the bed and held her as she sobbed with fresh grief over the loss of her child. She remembered drifting off to sleep, feeling loved and protected for the first time in ages, waking up to feel her hand on Jo's warm stomach. God, what if she had moved her hand up or down any? Despite the horror of the notion, she pondered it a moment longer. Even though Jo had always had boyfriends, there had always been rumors around Eastland that she was a dyke. Sure, she was quite the tomboy and was more outspoken than the rest of the girls, but did that make her a dyke? Before she could follow that line of thought further, she heard impatient banging at her door, with the voices of Natalie and Dorothy pleading with her to get a move on, that breakfast was ready. Blair chuckled. Some things, it seemed, never changed.
The four women sat around the kitchen table, picking at the leftovers from breakfast. Dorothy finally asked, "Blair, what's the big announcement you said you would make?"
Blair felt three pair of eyes swivel to her face, waiting expectantly. She folded her napkin and laid it on the table, smoothing it as she nervously began, "I'm selling the house and moving to Texas. I've been handing over more responsibility of the business to my current vice-president, and will either sell my interest or become a less active partner. This house holds too many memories of Maddy, and I'm tired of playing social games." She found herself focusing on Jo, drawn in by the intense blue eyes, seeing a flutter of hope in Jo's face. "I'll miss everyone here, and I promise to be back in time for the baby, but I need to break away. I need to be near my son." And Jo, a little voice piped up.
Natalie nudged Dorothy under the table, her quick glance saying, "See? Told you so." She glanced over at Jo, seeing happiness, hope, and fear mingling on Jo's face. "I'll miss our lunches, Blair," Natalie said, "but I suppose I could see about flying to Texas to visit every once in a while. Have you told Scotty yet?"
"Yes, I discussed it with him the other night, promising that I wasn't moving down to be an interfering mother," Blair said, smiling broadly now. "Jo, I'll try not to interfere with your business either," she promised, reaching over to take Jo's hand.
Jo cleared her throat, squeezing Blair's hand, then pulling away. "No problem," she mumbled, crossing her arms defensively. Blair looked hurt, but quickly stood up and started picking up plates, clearing off the table. The rest of the women followed suit, with Dorothy leading them back into the past with memories of working the kitchen at Eastfield, under the sharp eyes of Mrs. Garrett. By the end of the morning, all four were laughing and crying as they remembered their beloved house mother and friend, whose presence was sorely missed. Finally, Dorothy and Natalie said they needed to go, leaving Jo and Blair alone with each other.
Jo reacted by silently returning to her room and starting to pack, even though she was supposed to stay for another few days. Blair watched from the doorway, finally stalking over and asking, "Are you leaving me?"
"Leaving you?" Jo echoed, "Naw, just straightening up a bit, I can't stand my clothes strewn around like this."
"You could put them in the closet or the dresser," Blair offered nervously, "they'd be less wrinkled that way."
Jo stared at Blair, then started taking her clothes to the dresser, neatly stacking them in the drawers until everything was put away. "Now what?" she asked.
Blair glanced out the window, seeing the bright winter sunshine and the bare trees, wondering what the weather was like in Texas. Suddenly, she turned back to Jo, asking, "Do you want to take a walk? It's a beautiful day outside, and I rarely get a chance to take advantage of it. You used to love to walk in the woods around here, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember," Jo said reluctantly, "I guess a walk would be a good thing."
Several minutes later, the two women were out walking among the trees in the back of the house, wandering down one of the paths, kicking at leaves. Blair searched for something to say, but kept failing, wanting only to be close to Jo. Jo had been such a tremendous friend over the past year and a half, offering her quiet support after the death of Maddy, after the rapid disintegration of her marriage, helping Scott Jr. learn about business from the bottom up. She felt closer to Jo than any other friend, yet felt awkward with her, as if she couldn't figure out what to do with her hands. Blair frowned, thinking of the easy way that her mother had always hugged and kissed her friends, the way that she had always exchanged social greetings and light kisses with friends, but how it was so different even thinking about touching Jo.
"Hey, why are you frowning?" Jo asked, breaking into Blair's musings.
Blair stopped, turning to face Jo. "Do you really want to know?"
"Yeah, I asked, didn't I?" Jo answered defensively, shoving her hands in her jacket pocket.
"Why do I feel so close to you, yet so shut out? You've been my dearest friend lately, yet...never mind," Blair finished harshly, flushing as she remembered how she had been holding Jo in bed.
"Yes, we're good friends, sorry if I'm a little jumpy," Jo snarled, "but you confuse me, you always have, I feel like you've been flirting with me and I don't know how you want me to respond!" As the words left her mouth, Jo went pale, not having intended to say what had been on her mind for months.
"Flirting?" Blair started to reach out, then realized what she was doing. "Oh, God, Jo, I'm so sorry, I never intended to flirt with you. That's why you were so bothered at Billy Bob's." Blair stared at her friend, the truth starting to sink in. Hell, yes, she was flirting. So why did she have this strong urge to grab Jo and kiss her soundly? Had she ever felt that way toward anyone else? Any other woman?
"Yeah, flirting," Jo repeated, "all the times you touched me, all the times you told me you loved me, I don't know what you want. Hell, I don't even know what I want!" she exploded.
"I've been fascinated by you for years," Blair said, her voice turning softer, dreamier. "You're not like any other woman I've ever known. You blow past all the carefully constructed barriers, you say and do what you damn well please, and you're as sexy as hell. My God, Jo, you bring out the real me, you've always pierced my soul with your unwavering stare, made me reevaluate everything. I found myself snuggled up to you this morning, wishing I could just stay there. No man ever made me feel safe, not like you do, never made me feel like he was really listening like you do. I had my hand on your bare skin, and I'm amazed to find that I liked it, that I really wanted more. I've always loved you, Jo, but the real question is, how do I love you?"
Jo felt like she was reeling from the blast of emotion, like she was slipping on what was supposed to be a firm path. All those times that she had put physical distance between them, yet allowed Blair close emotionally, all the times that other women had flirted and made passes, she had turned them down indignantly, yet melted when Blair hugged her. "Do you feel it, Blair?" she asked quietly, "do you feel electricity when our hands meet? Do you get a jolt in your belly when you think about me?"
"Yes," Blair whispered, stepping closer, "I confess that I do. God, is this really happening?"
"Why are you moving to Texas?"
"To be near you. I can't bear to lose you again," Blair answered simply, all pretense stripped away. "I want you." She stepped closer yet, close enough for Jo to see how dilated her pupils were, close enough to kiss if they moved just a little bit. Blair was shaking, shivering, reaching, pulling Jo to her, just wanting to feel Jo's body against her. Oh, God, the butterflies in her stomach, the electricity flowing through her body, the feeling of Jo's soft lips under hers, pulling Jo tighter against her, the swirling in her brain, unable to form coherent thoughts. God, she couldn't get close enough, her mouth hungrily devouring Jo's, hands slipping under Jo's jacket, seeking skin, but thwarted by her clothing. She was unexpectedly dizzy with desire, kissing and seeking, tempted to shove Jo to the ground now, to feed the increasing fever, to satisfy the urge to be skin to skin. She forced herself to pull back, to look deep into Jo's eyes, to see if Jo was feeling the same thing she was feeling right now.
Jo was on overload, senses overwhelmed by the transition from friendly hug to molten kisses, scorching a path of pure heat and raw desire through her, emptying her of rational thought. She responded to Blair's sudden, insistent kisses with equal fervor, giving in to years of frustration, destroying the years of careful distance. Her skin felt super sensitive, feeling Blair's hands against her back through the layers of clothing, the heat pouring off Blair's body, her body responding without permission. God, how she wanted this woman, not just sexually, but in all ways. They had fought for years, but always drawn to each other, never able to leave each other alone. Even their worst arguments had been better than John's most romantic overtures, the most fleeting touch always burning, making her want more. Even after her divorce, she had turned down countless invitations, claiming to be not interested, but in reality, waiting for the unobtainable. She held Blair tighter, wanting to melt into her arms, suddenly cold and bereft when Blair pulled back. She could see the mixture of love and desire in Blair's dark eyes, the unrestrained passion in her face. "God, I love you," she admitted hoarsely.
Blair kissed Jo lightly, then pulled back further, but kept Jo's hand in hers. "I love you too," she acknowledged, "but it's warmer inside."
"Oh." Jo followed Blair down the path, back into the house, brain fogged by passion. Now she took the lead, pulling Blair up the stairs, into the master bedroom, shedding clothes as fast as she could while Blair mirrored her actions. They dove under the covers, mutual passion singing through their veins, burning hotter and higher as they let the moment take them away to the explosion, the mighty shattering of tension, the shudder of the aftereffects. They laid together, panting, content to drift into a deep, exhausted sleep, just living the moment, not thinking about tomorrow.
Jo woke first, the afternoon of passion flooding her brain, the twin emotions of burning desire and tender love nearly overwhelming her. She tentatively kissed Blair's forehead, not wanting to disturb her, but wanting to connect with her friend. Friend? Lover? Both? This would take some getting used to, she thought wryly. So would being naked with Blair, an impish voice piped up. God, if the other girls knew what had just happened, would they care? Would they laugh? Would they run screaming? No, she would be like Scarlett O'Hara today, and not think about the consequences of their actions until tomorrow, or, hell, for that matter, a few days from now, when she was supposed to get on the plane back to D/FW. Still, it was a strange situation, one she had fought for years, always being repelled by but secretly attracted to Blair. Would Blair treat her like she had so many boys? For that matter, like her ex-husband? Use her until she was tired of her, then move on to someone else? Jo sat up, pulling the covers with her, covering her breasts. Blair looked so peaceful now, the sorrows and pains of the past few years evaporated from her face.
Okay, Eagle, Jo scolded herself, admit it, you've never given in to your desires for other women because you were waiting for the impossible dream, waiting for Blair. Waiting to see if the high and mighty princess would deign to look your way with the same fierce emotion you felt. Waiting to see if this was true, waiting to see if the underlying tension between them for more than twenty years really was sexual. She smiled, thinking back to some of their legendary battles in high school and college, how they constantly butted heads, how their pride prevented them from acknowledging that something was between them, whether deep friendship or this. But what did Blair think? Did she really think that Jo saw what was behind the carefully constructed walls? Her visage grew somber as she recalled the awful stillness on Blair's face when she got that phone call about Madison.
"Jo?" Blair croaked, sitting up. She cleared her throat and blinked, forcing her brain to work. "Honey?" Jo melted, letting her covers slide down as she leaned over, kissing Blair possessively.
"Oh, baby," Blair crooned after they broke for air, "God, you are real. I mean, it really did happen." Her face lit up in a genuine smile, eyes bright, radiating happiness. She stared into Jo's blue eyes for a few seconds, then blushed as her stomach chose that moment to growl loudly. "I guess I'm hungry," she laughed, snagging another quick kiss. "Are you hungry? For food, I mean?"
"Sure," Jo said, watching as Blair bounded out of bed, reaching for her robe. She walked over to her closet, then came out a moment later, tossing a robe to Jo, who caught it as she slid out of bed. "I could use some grub about now."
The next few days were joyous, taking on a timeless quality. The women explored each other's bodies and feelings, avoiding discussions about the future, just content to take on the present. All too soon, though, it was time for Jo to return to Texas and for Blair to start the painful process of packing up the memories of her lifetime. She forced herself to go through everything quickly, calling her parents and her son from time to time, offering furnishings, almost relieved when she was told to just sell most of it and put it into a trust fund for Scott. Jr. She also had an agent looking for a small townhouse in Fort Worth, something large enough for her to live and work in, but not large enough to be "rich." Something that would force her to buy all new furniture, something cozy and compact. Somewhere that Jo and Scotty would feel comfortable.
Natalie dropped by while Blair was giving instructions to the auction house representative. She waited patiently for Blair to finish, noticing that Blair looked different. It took several minutes for her to figure out that Blair was not wearing any jewelry except a watch and the silver bracelet, no makeup, and jeans and sweats, yet looked more beautiful than she had seen her in years. "Thank you for waiting, Natalie," Blair said after enveloping Natalie in a warm hug, "I'm so glad you dropped by. Now all I have to do is finish shipping my clothes to Fort Worth and sign papers for my new place there. So, what brings you here?"
"You, my friend, just wanted to make sure you're doing okay. Greg is so tight-lipped about his patients that I wouldn't have know that Scott, Sr. was going to see him if I hadn't seen him leaving Greg's office yesterday."
"Really? Let's go into the den, would you like anything to eat or drink?"
"No, I'm fine, just finished lunch." Natalie followed Blair into the den, smiling as she remembered Dorothy's revelation of her pregnancy. "I saw Dorothy this morning, she's doing quite well, starting to take on that maternal glow. How's your son? Have you heard from Jo?"
Blair sat down, tucking a foot under her. "Scott is fine, still dating Frieda, even spent Christmas with her family. I think the challenge will be for him to refrain from proposing until they both get out of school and are employed. Jo is Jo, still working hard, trying to keep from expanding her business too rapidly so she won't fail."
"You know, that was the perfect thing for Jo, to get involved in building custom motorcycles. So when is she going to build you one?" Nat teased.
Blair replied seriously, "When I have the time to pick out a good design. My son is now the sales manager for the shop, not that he has anyone under him, but he's doing quite well. He and Jo said they have several designs for me to consider when I move out there."
"Whoa, wait a minute, you, Blair Warner, riding a motorcycle? Of your own free will?"
"Yes, what's so strange about that?"
Natalie shook her head, declaring, "It's like one of those laws of the universe, Blair does not get herself dirty or ride motorcycles. What's gotten into you? Who took our Blair and replaced her with a pod person?"
"You'll never believe it, but I asked Jo to build me a bike."
"No!" Natalie exclaimed, shocked. "You? A Warner? On a bike?"
"Yes," she laughed, "me, a Warner, on a bike. It's really Jo's fault, she conjoled me into riding with her a few times and I was hooked."
"You've got to be joking. Are you running a fever?" Natalie reached over, playfully touching Blair's cheeks and forehead. "No, you don't seem to be feverish. Really, why a bike? Aren't they dangerous?"
"Like Jo?" Blair mused. "They can be, if you're not careful, but Jo will be right behind me while I learn to ride, holding me and the bike steady."
Natalie laughed, but wheels started turning in her head. Little things were starting to add up in a way she didn't expect, leading her to an unexpected conclusion. "Blair," she asked tentatively, "are you in love with Jo Polniaczek?"
Natalie felt her world reel for a moment, causing her to clutch the arm of the couch as if gravity would fail and she would go sailing into the cosmos. She blinked, swallowed hard, then asked, "How?"
"How did it happen? I don't know, Jo burst back into my life when she applied for the venture capital funds and I realized that she was a beautiful woman, not just a rival for attention. When she stood so helplessly when I got the call about Madison, wanting to do something, but not knowing quite what to do. When she took me to Billy Bob's for a fun evening, even indulging my innocent request for a dance, despite her own fears of how it would be perceived. I'm not sure, I think she just snuck into my heart and I'm not about to kick her out."
"But when did it happen?"
"Remember our last slumber party?"
"Yes - wait, then?"
Blair nodded. "I had made sure that you and Dorothy were tucked in, then I went to check on Jo. I just stood in the bedroom, thinking about Madison's slumber parties and how she would never have the opportunity to grow up with her friends, like I had. I didn't realize that I was crying until Jo motioned for me to slide in bed with her and held me until I fell asleep. I think I realized that I was in love with her then, no one has ever been that tender or thoughtful with me."
"Oh my God-"
Blair smiled impishly. "No, we didn't do that until you had left. I'll be honest, I've always been attracted to Jo in some way for nearly twenty-five years, I just didn't recognize how I was attracted. I just figured it was an fascination for a tomboy who could care less about society. Now she's wanting to be careful and I want to shout that I love her from the proverbial rooftops. It's just weird, but it feels right. I never felt this way about my husband or any other man, never felt like I could share my very self and be vulnerable. With men, I just shared my body, but with Jo, it's different, it's like a bad clichĂ©, like we're really connecting. I don't have to hide behind being Blair Warner, Society Woman. Instead, I can be Blair, who loves Jo."
"Wow." Natalie was nearly speechless, overwhelmed at Blair's quiet admission of love for Jo. It was so different from her gushing over various men, more like what she felt for Greg, like he was the other part of her. "So Jo feels the same way?"
"Yes." Blair's smiled deepened, obviously thinking about something Jo had done or said. "Yes, she does. She finally forced me to face my true longings, in an argument, of course, but Natalie, I think we always had this simmering beneath the surface."
"I'd say," Natalie blurted without thinking, then clapped her hand over her mouth. "Sorry," she mumbled, then dropped her hand. "No, I'm not sorry. Dorothy and I always felt this strong current of emotion between you two, and we always said that you two would either love or hate each other with passion, but I don't think we dreamed that it would be that type of passion."
"Me neither." Blair smiled, then turned pensive. "You won't think differently of me, will you?"
"What? No, Blair, I'm delighted that you and Jo finally found love. It will take a bit of getting used to, I admit, but don't worry, I'll still love you the same."
"Thank you," Blair said simply, standing up. Natalie stood and moved to Blair, opening her arms to her old friend. As Blair let herself be gathered in Natalie's arms, she repeated, "Thank you, Natalie. I suspect I'll need all the friends I can get from now on." Natalie didn't say anything, just tightened her grip.
Life went by in a whirlwind during the next few months. Blair moved into a simple three bedroom townhouse a few miles from Jo's two bedroom cottage. Jo tried to divide her time between her business and her girlfriend, worrying that she was paying too much attention to one or the other. Blair simply enjoyed being away from New York and whatever time she could snatch with Jo, or with her son and his girlfriend. They had an unvoiced pact to not say anything to Blair's son or former husband, even though now both Natalie and Dorothy knew the truth about their budding love. Natalie had been warmly supportive, but Dorothy had been initially cool, despite years of being surrounded by queers in her theatre work, but was warming back up now.
Blair was also enjoying exploring the rich diversity of the whole Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex area, taking entire days to do nothing more than walk through gardens, zoos, museums, parks, all without the pressure of being recognized or expected to look and act a certain way. The simple joys of shopping for groceries and cooking for her son and his girlfriend, or for Jo, or just for herself. The quiet confidence that she gained from learning to ride a motorcycle under Jo's watchful eyes. The pride she felt when she managed to unclog her sink without calling anyone for help. The beauty of sharing lazy Sunday mornings in bed with Jo, delighting in the feeling of Jo's body melding with hers, pleasantly surprised by the tenderness and passion between them. The sheer freedom of not being tied to a schedule for the first time in her life, of giving control of her business to her various partners, of being able to sleep as late as she wanted. Even the responsibility of housework was not a bad thing, making her send thanks to Mrs. Garrett in heaven for forcing her to learn to cook and clean.
Jo also blossomed in the glow of their love. Although she worried about her work/life balance, she treasured her time with Blair, always surprised by Blair's observations. No more vapid society matron, but an intelligent woman with a gift to see what others missed. Jo was proud of how quickly Blair learned how to ride a motorcycle, how much Blair shared in her passion for the throb of raw power in the metal beneath her seat, her brilliant smile of joy as they explored county roads outside the city limits. Jo learned to appreciate art during trips with Blair to area museums, and, in turn, taught Blair the beauty of a well-tuned engine, of building a work of art with your hands. She felt like she had a constant, silly smile on her face now. She still worried about being outed, but figured the risk was worth the time she spent with Blair. God, how she loved watching Blair wake up in the mornings, the sensual stretching, the slow opening of those lovely brown eyes, the curl of her lip as she reached out for Jo. It wasn't just the sex, which was fantastic, it was the whole package, the feeling that she could actually lay her heart bare to this woman without fear. It felt like an impossible dream, to find love in the most unexpected person, to be filled with love and delight, to be really happy for the first time in her life.
One issue dogged them as the women adjusted to their new relationship: what to tell Scott, Jr. "It's just too risky, Blair, you know how homophobic people are here," Jo grumbled when Blair brought the issue up again one Sunday morning. "I mean, let's think about it rationally."
"Honey, I am thinking rationally, Scott is not stupid, you know that, you work with him on a daily basis. Would you have put him in charge of sales if he were stupid?" Blare fumed.
Jo sighed, turning to face Blair. "I guess I'm just scared, that's all."
Blair lightly ran a hand down Jo's arm, watching the goosebumps that followed, frowning as she tried to pull her thoughts together. "This is new for me, too," she finally said, "and I'm a bit scared too, but I know my son, and he's not going to stop loving me, or you, for that matter, just because we're in love. You talk of homophobia, Jo, do you think that maybe, just maybe, you have a touch of homophobia as well?"
Jo closed her eyes, torn between continuing the discussion or giving in to the delicious sensation of Blair's skin against hers. God, who would have known just how passionate or how tender Blair could be as a lover? "Maybe I do internalize homophobia," she answered cautiously, "but I was always taught that God didn't like gays, that we were not supposed to be sexual with anyone other than our spouse. Gays were unnatural, an affront to God and the sanctity of marriage."
"But here we are, most definitely in a gay relationship, Jo. I've played social games all of my life, but I never saw you as a game player."
"I'm not trying to play games, Blair, I'm just trying to work through it. I do love you, very deeply, and I love sharing that with you. I'm just having trouble figuring out how to love you and not get the shit beat out of me. I do get a few pretty rough characters in my shop, you know."
Before Blair could respond, they both heard the door open downstairs and Scott yell, "Hey, Mom, are you home?"
They stared at each other, frozen in shock as they heard Scott's footsteps on the stairs. The bedroom door was wide open and they were both very naked, with clothes thrown haphazardly around the room. Blair recovered quickly enough to grab their robes and toss Jo hers before Scott poked his head around the door frame."Mom, wasn't I supposed to come to...lunch?" Scott stared at the women for a moment, then mumbled, "I'll just go to the kitchen now," before he sprinted down the stairs.
"Well, I guess that resolves that question," Blair noted dryly. "Let's grab a quick shower before we go downstairs to confront poor, innocent Scotty." Jo just nodded dumbly, grabbing her duffle bag and shuffling into the master bath as Blair called down the stairs, "We're going to shower and will be down in just a few minutes."
A short time later, Blair and Jo descended the stairs, greeted by the smell of lunch being heated. Scott gestured to the table, saying, "Why don't you have a seat, I'm almost finished heating up the barbecue and toasting the bread. The tea pitcher is on the table and I've already put the ice in the glasses." He turned back to the stove as his mother and employer quietly sat down at the kitchen table, pouring their tea in the awkward silence.
The silence extended painfully as Scott put the food on the table, gesturing for them to fill their plates. Jo nervously stirred the sweetener in her tea as Blair started serving the food. Scott sat back, pushing the food around on his plate before finally dropping his fork and asking, "Are you lovers?"
"Yes," Blair answered with a touch of defiance, "we are."
"I see." He continued to push his food around, then asked, "How long?"
Jo piped up. "Not as long as you might think, Scott, not until the divorce was final."
"I see," he repeated, then asked, "But you both were married before, why decide to be gay now?"
Blair and Jo looked at each other, then Blair looked steadily at Scott, waiting until he met her eyes before answering, "Scott, I can't speak for Jo, but I can speak for myself. In my upbringing, my friends were always affectionate, so I never thought twice about hugging them, taking their arm as we walked through the mall, or wanting to help them pick out just the perfect outfit for a date. I did what I was supposed to do, dated a lot of boys, then married your father and had children. Since I was a virgin when we married, I had no idea that sex with a man just didn't feel quite right, didn't fulfill me. It wasn't until Jo that I felt all of the passion, the spiritual connection, the love that I assumed I would find with your father."
Jo cleared her throat before speaking, trying to marshall her thoughts. Blair was so self-assured, how could she follow that? She gazed at Scott, who looked confused, but like he was trying to understand. Finally, she spoke. "Scott, I've had the tomboy label hung around my neck all of my life. I've always been aggressive and have been called a dyke and a lesbian more times than I care to admit simply because I was aggressive and stood up for myself and for my friends. I was always uneasy when other women were affectionate with me, afraid that they were hitting on me. Scott, I do love Blair with my whole heart and soul and body, but no matter how right it feels, no matter how much I feel like I'm home with her, I'm still conflicted. I'm still scared that we'll get the shit beat out of us for loving each other."
Scott frowned, then picked up his tea, sipping while his thoughts spun around in crazy patterns. "So, you just ignored your feelings and married men anyway?" he asked.
"Son, let me put it this way. Your father is pretty unhappy with you dating Frieda, right? Why is that?"
"Because she's not from a really rich old blueblood family," he answered promptly.
Scott pondered a few minutes, then suddenly spluttered angrily, "Is it because she's not a rich WASP? Is that it? Her family has done fairly well, and I don't care that she's Catholic and from a Polish family. My God, Jo is Polish, and you love her!"
"Yes, I do."
Scott started to say something else, then shook his head. He stood up abruptly, taking his dishes over to the sink and dumping his uneaten food. "I thought I was open minded, but this just is too much. I'm sorry, I have to get away and think." He grabbed his jacket and slammed the door behind him.
"That went well," Blair said sarcastically. "My son has to get away and think, and my lover is still conflicted. Jo, what do we do now? No, that was a rhetorical question." Blair ran a hand through her hair distractedly, staring into the distance, then turned back to look at Jo. "Jo, are you happy with me?"
"What? Blair, you know I'm happy with you, why are you asking this?"
"Then why are you still conflicted?"
Jo got up, taking their plates to the sink to formulate her answer, wary that a trap was being laid. She turned around, staring at Blair, taking in her heart-stopping beauty. God, she has lost her heart to this woman, but had she told her so? Why was she still so tentative? Breathing deeply, she simply answered, "Honey, I'm forty years old, and for most of those forty years, I was convinced it was a sin to love another woman. I don't think my love for you is sinful, instead, it's the opposite, it's everything good and beautiful. But you saw how Scott reacted, you remember how Dorothy initially reacted, how do you think my employees and our investors would react if they knew we were lesbians?"
"I don't fucking care," Blair said simply. "I love you. I think I've always loved you, but if you can't be comfortable with loving me, and acknowledging me as someone important in your life, then maybe we should reconsider our relationship."
"What?" Jo slammed her open hand on the counter, the sound vibrating through the room in an ugly wave. "Do you want me to leave?"
"Can you be open about me?"
"Well, somewhat, under the right circumstances."
Blair stood up, smoothing her hair.. "I need to know if you love me enough to acknowledge me. No, I'm not saying kiss me in the middle of the Stockyards, but I'd at least like to be able to introduce you as my girlfriend to friends and family."
Jo stood at the counter, gripping it behind her, heart racing with fear that no matter what she said or did right now, it would be the wrong thing. She swallowed hard, finally asking quietly, "And if I can't?"
Blair looked at her bleakly. "I don't know. Maybe we should spend a little time apart, figure out where we're going in this relationship."
"Oh, you want to get rid of me now?" Jo snarled. Without waiting for an answer, she tore up the stairs, tossing her clothes and toiletries into her duffle bag, shoved her wallet and keys in her pocket, then raced back down the stairs. "I'm out of here!" she bellowed, slamming the door behind her, then savagely tied her duffle on her bike before shoving her helmet on her head and spinning the bike in a circle before charging out into the street.
Anger, despair, fear, and sorrow warred in Jo's heart as she deftly steered the cycle through the city streets, barely keeping to legal speeds as she wound up on I-35W, headed north. She wanted nothing more than to open the throttle as wide as it would go, to race through the traffic as if the other vehicles were merely standing still, but she figured that the highway patrol would be out. After being passed multiple times, she threw caution to the winds and raced, trusting her finely tuned sense of balance to let her weave through the sedans and pickups, hurtling faster through the day, not caring if she were caught or killed. Damn Scott, damn Blair! She took his side, taking a chance that he would be an asset to her business, did her damnedest to take care of Blair through those first awful months after Madison died, tried so hard not to fall in love with Blair, not to admit that she had been denying her heart for so many years. "Mother of God, make me stop loving her," Jo prayed, "please, take these feelings away." Maybe they shouldn't be in love after all, maybe they should just ignore the subtle, constant tug, but, oh, God, how Blair made her feel! Damn, she couldn't wipe the tears with the visor in the way!
Jo turned off at the next exit, pulling into a truck stop. She rolled to a stop, the pulled off her helmet, wiping savagely at her eyes. She pulled her sunglasses out of her jacket pocket and settled them on her face before tucking the helmet under her arm and entering the store. Jo took several deep, measured breaths, willing her emotions to settle down while she plucked a bottle of water and a pecan log from the shelves to justify her presence in the store. She stuffed the candy in her pocket and unscrewed the top of the water bottle, greedily sucking it down her parched throat. She stretched, then slipped her sunglasses back in the jacket and pulled her helmet back on, flipping down the mirrored visor before straddling the saddle and bringing her bike back to life. Running away wasn't the answer, she thought as she sedately putted back across the overpass to head back south. It was just tempting, that's all.
Scott paced back and forth in his living room as he recounted what he saw to Frieda. "My mother and Jo, asleep together, naked! I thought Mom would remember inviting me to lunch, but she was obviously too busy to remember. Oh, God, Frieda, my mother and my boss are lesbians, what am I going to do? I mean, isn't it against nature for two women to do that? Couldn't they just ignore those feelings, just continue being friends?" He plopped down on the couch beside her, saying, "Mom had the audacity to claim that what she felt for Jo was a spiritual connection? She admitted that she never felt that for Dad. Oh, God, what am I going to do?"
Frieda took Scott's hands in hers and asked, "What do you want to do, Scott?"
"Pretend I never saw them together. It was hard enough with Dad rejecting us after Madison died, but why did Mom have to go and fall in love with Jo?"
"Honey, I can't tell you what to do, but I think you have to accept their relationship, or at least tolerate it nicely. You do have to work with Jo, after all."
Scott stared at her, the blood draining from his face. "God, I didn't think about that. But isn't it unnatural?"
Instead of answering, Frieda asked, "Does your father approve of our love?"
"No, but that doesn't matter, he's a snob when it comes to class differences."
"But you love me regardless. Does your mother approve?"
Scott pulled his hands away, scowling. "I see where you're going with this, just like Mom pointing out that you and Jo are both Polish Catholics, and that people look down on you and me because you're not a WASP. But that's different, you see, at least I'm not dating a man. You can't tell me that you weren't taught that homosexuality is a sin."
"I cannot deny that it is what I was taught, sweetheart, and I was also taught that sexual love is the greatest gift that God gave us. Maybe God gave them the gift of expressing their love sexually."
"But can't they just not do it? I mean, look at us, we've taken a vow to be celibate until we get married."
Frieda bit her lip as she tried to sort out what to say, and what she felt. Blair had been so open-hearted, so accepting of her, she didn't want to get on her potential mother-in-law's bad side, even though she wasn't personally sure what she thought of homosexuality. Maybe it was wrong, but it wasn't her place to judge, that was God's decision. Something nagged at her, this trying to deny these women their right to love. She tried again, "Honey, the difference is that we can get married. Suppose we fell in love but were never allowed to get married? Wouldn't it be tempting to give in and make love anyway? Are you as tempted to break that vow as I am? I love you with my whole heart, and it's a struggle to not give in to the temptation to love you with my whole body. Imagine being told that you would have to be celibate for a lifetime."
"Your priests do."
"But that's different, your mother has not given herself solely to God, and neither has Jo."
Scott sat, hands loosely clasped between his legs, head down as thoughts went furiously through his brain. He loved his mother, he had always adored Jo, but could he get past their relationship? Had his mother and father had that bad of a marriage? He glanced at his watch and said reluctantly, "I need to go, Frieda, I have to study for my history test. I love you, you know that, don't you?"
"Yes, I love you too, Scott," Frieda answered, leaning over to kiss him. He kissed back, deeply, hungrily, before tearing himself away and letting himself out of the apartment. Frieda continued to sit, turning over the conversation in her head, trying to decide what she really thought. "Mary, Mother of God," she whispered, "tell me what to think."
Scott went through his classes like a zombie, worrying what Jo would say to him that afternoon at work. Would she demand his resignation? Would she ignore him? Worst of all, would she be excruciatingly polite like his mother when she was really furious? He worried through his classes, twice having to ask professors what they had just asked him. It was embarrassing, to say the least. You just can't say, "I'm worried about how my mother's girlfriend will treat me."
"Honey, you're just picking at your lunch," Frieda commented as she tucked into her taco salad, "are you still worried about how Jo will treat you when you get to work? Or are you worried about how your mother will treat you?"
"A little of both, I guess, but I'll be seeing Jo first. Babe, suppose she wants me to start calling her Ms. Eagle, start being formal?"
Frieda patted his arm and said confidently, "Scott, I'm sure she's just as worried about how you will react as you are about how she will react. Just take it one step at a time. Things will probably be awkward at first, but I'm sure you will work things out. Wasn't Jo the one who backed your plan to work for her in the first place? She had to convince Blair it was a good idea, and unless I read her wrong, Jo doesn't back down once she's made a promise. She promised you an internship, and promised to make sure that you learned every aspect of the business."
"I guess you're right, Frieda, but I'm still worried. Next thing you'll tell me is to stop borrowing trouble."
"You guessed, sweetheart! Just what my dear grandmother would say, stop borrowing trouble, for it will find you soon enough."
"Oh, that makes me feel real good."
Frieda smiled, then glanced at her watch. "I'd better scoot, I have one more class. Call me tonight, let me know how things went." She stood up, kissed his cheek, then left. Scott sat for several more minute before taking his tray and dumping his uneaten meal. Time to face Jo.
Scott heaved a quick sigh of relief when he did not see Jo as he went to his cubicle and logged into his computer. The only emails were from customers with questions about the status of their bikes or potential customers asking questions about the types of custom packages they offered. He soon found himself buried in his work, troubleshooting little problems, making notes for the shop supervisor or Jo about larger problems, and creating potential bike plans for the possible customers. He had just completed his backlog when Sam, the shop supervisor, walked up and asked, "Hey, McNair, can I ask you a few questions?"
"Sure, Sam, have a seat," Scott replied, reaching for his notepad and a pen. "What may I help you with?"
Sam settled in one of the chairs on the other side of the desk, casually crossed his legs, and asked, "You interested in starting to actually build bikes?"
"Yes, what are you, deaf?" Sam chuckled. "Now, I haven't cleared this with the boss yet, but since the original plan was for you to have your hands dirty by now, I reckon we should start that fairly soon. You are a natural salesman, and the best organized one I've ever seen, but actually building the bikes would give you a whole new level of appreciation for the custom job we do here. Didn't you tell me that you've been fascinated by engines since you were a kid?"
"Yes, I do remember that conversation."
"Then, young sir, you should indulge that fascination. Hell, I broke into this business when the oil market busted in 1985, I was a petroleum engineer before that, but I lost my job and decided what the hell, I'd take that severance package and go to school to learn to repair bikes. Never regretted it either."
"Oh." Scott leaned back in his chair, asking, "You really left engineering to build bikes?"
"Yes. Look, Scott, you should always be prepared for the unusual, or for opportunities disguised as setbacks. Hey, when Jo came to pick up her bike a few years back and told me she was thinking of opening a custom shop and asked if I'd be interested in joining her, I jumped at the chance. Didn't you take a chance when you signed up for this gig, battling your parents or something?"
"Just my father, my mother was pretty supportive," Scott admitted slowly. "Dad thought it was beneath me, but Mom said that Jo would work my butt off." He leaned forward, looking at Sam intently. "You think I can really learn to build bikes?"
"Yep. I'll talk to Jo when she gets in." Sam paused, a frown furrowing his brow. "I don't suppose you've heard from the boss, have you? She didn't call in this morning, and I have some papers she needs to sign, dollar amounts over my limit. This is the first time she's ever been AWOL."
"Um, no, I haven't heard from her," Scott answered, a feeling of guilt trickling through the back of his mind. "Want me to call her?"
"Naw, it can wait until morning. Maybe she just didn't feel good this morning. Hell, it's her business, I reckon she can skip a day if she'd like to. Oh, you can call your mother and ask her if she'd like to come over and approve the final design that I made for her bike. By the way, you had some nice input on the colors, I'm guessing you know your mom pretty well."
"Thanks. I'll call her, just let me log in a few more things."
Sam stood up, then mused, "Maybe I can get you to help build your mom's bike. Now, wouldn't that be a great start?" Sam nodded, watching Sam walk down the hallway toward the shop and wondering now where Jo was. It was unlike her to be gone so long without telling anyone. He hoped that his outburst the day before didn't have anything to do with it.
Jo stared at the rippling sea of bluebonnets surrounding the rest stop, noticing how beautiful they were with the slanting rays of the late evening sun bathing them with its radiance. She had a fifth of Jack in her saddlebag, but could not bring herself to open it. During that last year of her disintegrating marriage, she had taken to drinking heavily every night, lashing out at John with just and unjust accusations, but had managed to stay sober on the nights that she called Blair to discuss business. The death of Madison had hit Jo just as hard as it had hit Blair, and forced her to reevaluate her life and her drinking. Blair had needed her, so she stopped drinking, it was that simple, or so it had seemed at the time. She thought about the funeral, how Blair's husband and son had treated her so differently, how Scott Sr. had ignored Blair and Scotty's pain, concentrating on his own pain, how angry she had been over the way he had treated her. She remembered how protective she felt, how she ached to be next to Blair, displacing her husband. Had she been reacting as a friend of long standing, or was she in love with Blair even then?
God, Scott Jr. had looked so hurt, confused, and angry yesterday when he burst into their bedroom. Okay, Blair's bedroom, really, but damn it, she spent so much time at Blair's townhouse that she thought of it as home, rather than the little two bedroom house she rented. Her place was just somewhere to park her stuff, not a home. Home was Blair, but now she felt like she could not go home again. She wiped the tears from her face again, angry with herself for continuing to cry over the argument. What had gone wrong? She heard Blair's voice in her head again, when she had told Scott, "It wasn't until Jo that I felt all of the passion, the spiritual connection, the love that I assumed I would find with your father." Blair had just laid it out, bared her heart, damn the consequences. Far different than the Blair she had first known so many years ago at Eastfield, the shallow, vapid, society girl, who showed few glimpses of the beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful woman who was to emerge from that cocoon. Blair had already turned her back on her upbringing, had thrown her lot with Jo, had shown a tremendous amount of courage in coming to terms with her sexuality, so why couldn't Jo do the same? Ironic, Jo thought, that she had always been the one who was the rebel, the one who blazed her own path no matter what, who was scared shitless over being outed. She lowered her head in her hands, praying, "Mother of God, tell me what to do. I want this woman, love her with my whole heart, feel more of a connection with her than anyone else in the world. Is it so wrong to feel this way?"
Blair was still furious at Jo for walking out on her and at Scott for not instantly understanding how deep their love for each other ran, but now that time had passed, she had to admit that she was a little unrealistic in her expectations. She sighed at looked at the documents in front of her for what seemed like the thousandth time today, dithering about signing them. The firm would still be known as Warner Capital, but she would no longer be the executive director and would sell half of her shares to the other partners. A more radical option also sat in front of her, an option to sell all of her shares to the other partners and let them choose a new name for the firm. She would come out of either deal considerably richer than when she had started the firm so many years ago, but she would still be able to draw on the pool of talent for any deals she might wish to strike on her own. Trouble was, the only deal she cared about was the health and wealth of Eagle Custom Bikes.
Was it fair to expect Jo to be so comfortable coming out of the closet? Was it fair to expect her son to understand? Scott had been such a tower of strength when his sister died, so unexpectedly mature and thoughtful. No matter what she did with her business, despite the fact that she was now divorced, she had to admit to herself that she still had a huge cushion of assets and status to fall back on, no matter what the fallout might be from being openly gay. Jo didn't have that, she had sunk almost every cent she had into her business, and, even though it was turning a profit, was still vulnerable financially and socially. Scott had acted almost relieved when his parents divorced, but it was still far different for her to date a woman than a man in his eyes, she guessed.
Should she call Jo and apologize, or wait for Jo to make the first move?
"Frieda, I'm starting to worry, Jo didn't show up at work again yesterday," Scott said as he passed Frieda the salad bowl. They were eating a late supper in her apartment on Wednesday night after classes. "She still hasn't called in, or left any sort of message. Even Sam is starting to worry and I just don't know what to do. Should I call her, or call Mom, see if she knows where Jo is?"
Frieda drizzled her salad with lemon juice as she patiently listened to Scott's worries. "Honey, maybe she just wanted to spend some time by herself. Give it another day, then worry about her. She is an adult, after all, and you are not her keeper." She took a bite, then asked, "Have you talked to your mother since Sunday?"
Bashfully, he mumbled, "No, I haven't, I've been avoiding it. Think I should call her? It's getting awfully late."
"Scott, it's only 9:30, I'm sure she's still up."
He brightened. "Maybe you should call her." He ate a few bites, then frowned. "I guess that would be cowardly, for me to have you call her. I'd be pretty torn up if something happened to Jo. She was so supportive of Mom when Maddy died. Do you realize that my sister has been dead for two years now?"
"Yes, love. I also realize that you haven't eaten a complete meal since you and your mother argued on Sunday, you're starting to look thinner, Scott, and that isn't good. Sweetheart, why don't you finish your supper before deciding whether or not to call anyone?"
"Okay, Frieda. God, I love you so much." Scott squeezed her hand before reapplying himself to his meal. He fell silent, thinking as he ate, trying to figure out the best approach. Should he call? Should he just stop worrying so much? What if his actions caused his mother and Jo to break up? He had to admit that both women had seemed happier in the past few months than he'd seen them since Madison's death, but was it really okay for them to be gay? What did he feel about gays in general? He had heard fag jokes in the locker room all his life, even turned a blind eye once as a younger boy was beaten after soccer practice because he acted queer. What was his name? Conrad? He couldn't remember what had happened later, if Conrad had dropped out or if he had continued. Had he been as guilty as the rest by refusing to act? "Maybe I'll just wait until morning, see if Jo comes in to work. I'm supposed to be there from 7:00 until 10:30, then leave for class. If she's not back by then, I'll call Mom when I get in from classes."
"Good thinking. Dear, I'm not trying to rush you, but let's get the dishes cleaned up so you can go home and I can go to bed." Scott nodded, starting to stack the dirty dishes as Frieda watched him for a moment before following with additional dishes. She loved him so much, it was getting increasingly hard to throw caution to the winds and make that deeper connection. In some ways, she envied Blair and Jo, they could make love without having to worry about pregnancy or if the guy was saying "I love you" just to get in their pants. Sometimes she couldn't believe Scott was for real, he was such a straight arrow. How did he manage to keep his hormones in check? He was so confused, though, and as smart and sensitive as he was, it surprised her when he'd told her the other night about Blair and Jo. She had figured it out some time ago, just remembering her favorite aunt and her girlfriend. Despite the strict Catholic upbringing, Aunt Kay and Beverly were known simply as The Aunties, and everyone treated them as a couple. Frieda tore her thoughts away from the past long enough to kiss Scott good night, praying he would do and say the right thing.
John Eagle was very surprised to see his ex-wife at the door. Jo rarely contacted him, he usually initiated all of the post-divorce contact. Nonetheless, he opened the door wider and invited her in, calling to his current wife that they had company. Jo followed him into the townhouse, looking around at the sparse, yet elegantly decorated walls. She wondered if it was Julie's taste or his. She couldn't remember what John liked for art work, probably because they just had some pictures of their wedding, various friends and relatives, and a few early vacation pictures on their walls.
"Have a seat, Jo, can I get you anything?" John asked, indicating the dining room table.
It was on the tip of her tongue to say "Jack and Coke", but she decided that alcohol would not help. Besides, she had done enough drinking in the past few days to hold her for a lifetime. "Just water, or tea, if you have it. Please."
John nodded and left, coming back with a couple of glasses filled with iced tea and a small plate of cookies "Julie decided we needed to sample her oatmeal cookies," he explained, reaching for one.
"Thanks." Jo sipped her tea, then took a cookie but did not bite into it immediately. Julie wandered in, looking at Jo as if wanting to ask whether she should go or stay. "Julie, it's okay, you can sit with us if you like. By the way, where's Seth?"
"He's at the neighbor's for a while," Julie explained, "we take turns giving each other a break from the children. Jo, we're delighted to see you, but may I be so bold as to ask why you showed up in Houston during the week?"
"Oh, yeah. Hey, John, it's the middle of the afternoon..." She trailed off, aware that she was about to be very rude.
"I'm working from home a few days a week now. Working for a small accounting firm here, and you're not disturbing me, I was about to take a break anyway. I am a bit concerned about you, what brings you all the way to Houston?"
"Um." She looked around, taking in the beautiful watercolors, all depicting scenes of Native American women. "Nice watercolors, good feeling and light," she commented.
"Thank you, Jo," Julie said, "they are mine. Despite my blonde hair, I do have the blood, and John encouraged me to pick up my painting again, so I quit work and have been selling prints at various arts fairs and over the web."
"Oh." Jo took a long drink, then stared at the cookie in her hand, still not eating. "I should really be back in Fort Worth, at work, but I've run into a snag and need some advice. John, I know we screwed up our marriage, but how much was due to my stubbornness, and how much was due to our incompatibility?"
John sat back, unprepared for this question. He glanced over at Julie, who merely shrugged. "Well," he said finally, "I think we both had too much stubbornness and too much pride. And to be perfectly honest, I never really felt like I was the center of your world, I felt like you cared more about work than you did me. Julie and Seth are the center of my universe now, and work is simply a means toward supporting them. So, is this about work, or about a relationship?"
"Both," Jo said, finally biting into the cookie. She swallowed and commented, "Good cookie." She frowned, concentrating on her next question, then finally asked, "Was I emotionally absent in our marriage?"
John and Julie looked at each other, then John answered, "It's hard to say since I was as well. I guess so, but we were both so tied up in work that I think our marriage died of neglect, which is a mistake I'm trying to avoid this time. What's wrong, Jo? You're beating around the bush, and that's not like you at all."
"I guess I'm worried about two things: work and life. Work because I find I'm spending more time running the business rather than actually working with the bikes, and life, well, because I've finally fallen in love and didn't expect to, especially not with the one I fell for." She sat back, turning her glass around on the coaster, scared to take the next step, but needing to take it, needing to get it in the open. "You remember Blair Warner?"
"Sure," John answered promptly, "you went to school with her and she came to our wedding. Isn't she one of your investors?"
"Yeah, she is."
"Is she pushing you to expand or to pay back money too quickly?" John asked.
"No, she's not," Jo answered slowly. She leaned forward and looked at John, then Julie and said flatly, "I've fallen in love with Blair, and she with me. Her son is working for me in my shop." She sat back, arms crossed defensively, waiting for the fallout.
Julie glanced at her watch and announced that she needed to get Seth from the neighbors, leaving John and Jo alone. John looked a little stunned at first, then understanding dawned on his face. "You're gay? Okay, I can believe that, but it's a bit hard to see Blair as gay, but my God, you of all people have fallen in love? So what do you need from me, my blessing, or something else?"
"I don't know, John, I guess I thought I'd talk to someone who knew me, who had been in a relationship with me. I'm confused, I've prayed for these feelings to go away, but I'm more in love with her all the time. We had a fight a few days ago, though, and to be honest, it had been brewing for a while, but I was ignoring it."
"I can believe that," John chuckled. "Sorry, go ahead."
Jo ran her hand through her dark hair distractedly, looking around the place, then turning back to John and saying miserably, "We fought about my not wanting to be out, and about her wanting to tell Scott, her son, the one who works for me. Well, I had spend Saturday night with her, and we were still in bed when Scott appeared. We managed to get robes on before he got to the top of the stairs, I think Blair had forgotten that he was coming for lunch that day or something. Anyway, he found out we were gay and was freaking. I freaked, argued with Blair, then ran out and haven't been back since. I just took off on my bike and started driving around. I've spend the past few nights in different hotels, bought some clothes at the outlet mall near Austin, bummed around, and decided to come see you."
"You mean you haven't told anyone where you are or what you are doing? Good Lord, Joanna, you must really be hurting to run away like that. Okay, you've obviously come for advice, so let me give you some. You need to decide what you really feel for Blair. I confess that suspecting and being confronted with your true sexual orientation is very different, and makes me wonder why you married me in the first place. Anyway, if you really love Blair with your whole heart, then you need to pursue her. You need to do whatever it takes to build a strong relationship, one that will last. There has to be give and take on both sides, and there has to be common ground. I learned this the hard way, Julie nearly left me before we got married before I figured this out."
"So you're not down on me for being gay?"
"Well, I'm not sure what I think about the issue, but I will say that if two people truly love each other, who am I to stand in the way of their happiness?"
Jo finished her tea. "You think I need to get over myself and go back to Blair."
John reached over and took her hand, a gentle, loving gesture. "Jo, I still care about you, but we were never meant to be marriage partners. You are so brilliant, but you are also so hard on yourself. Consider telling Blair where you are, but taking time to figure out what it means to you to be gay. It's a shock to realize that you have been ignoring a part of yourself for years, and you have to examine that. I never told you that I wanted children, I figured it would never come to pass. But I was able to fulfill that part of me with Julie and Seth. I guess what I'm trying to say so clumsily is that you finally followed your dream of owning a custom bike shop. Now you owe it to yourself to follow your heart as well, no matter how dangerous it seems at first."
She thought it over for several minutes, then finally stood up and said, "Thanks for the snacks and the talk, John. Good-bye."
He stood as well, following her to the door, saying, "Don't be a stranger, okay? If you and Blair are in Houston, give us a ring, please."
"Yeah, I'll do that John," Jo promised as she let herself out. John moved to the window, watching her adjusting her helmet before roaring out of the parking lot. He could never figure out Jo and he suspected that he never would. His heart ached for her, hoping that she wasn't throwing away happiness and that she wouldn't decide to break up with Blair just because it was easier than actually working through the issues. "Good luck," he whispered to the rapidly departing figure.
Blair flipped open her cell phone as it rang "Eye of the Tiger". "Jo? Where are you, baby, I've been worried sick about you!" She listened for a moment, then promised to meet Jo at the botanical gardens, one of their favorite warm weather hangouts.
"Jo?" Blair questioned as she walked down the rose garden ramp.
"Yeah, it's me," Jo said dully, mirrored shades in place, "sorry I ran off. I called in to work and talked with Sam for a bit, he said that Scott was doing well, starting to work on an actual bike now. Sam also chewed my hide a bit, said I needed to come sign some paperwork, and that I needed to apologize to you and to Scott. I guess you're pretty pissed at me now."
Blair stood, arms folded, worry and anger flitting across her face as she listened, finally answering, "I am angry with you, but I'm also angry with Scott, and I'm angry with myself. But I'm disappointed that you ran without talking to me. Honey, you never ran when we were friends, so why run now?"
Jo looked around, then started walking toward the gazebo, gesturing for Blair to follow her. Once they sat down, she took off her sunglasses and stared miserably at her hands, not trusting herself to look at Blair without breaking into tears. "I'm sorry, Blair," she said quietly, "I got scared, so I ran. I pride myself on being able to handle anything that comes my way, but this just took me off guard. I wasted a couple of days in Austin, drinking, before going to Houston to ask John what happened to our marriage. He said that neither of us made each other the center of our worlds, and that if I really love you, I need to follow my heart, to build a strong relationship with you, no matter how scared I am." She looked up, eyes haunted with fear. "He also suggested that I figure out what it means to me to be gay, that I've ignored and repressed that part for years. I love you so much it terrifies me, Blair, but it seems that you just slid into this without any problems. It's turned my world upside down, made me face up to my true nature, something I'd suspected for years but denied. It's hard to go from denying my sexuality to embracing it."
"So where does that leave us?"
Jo took Blair's hand in hers, lacing their fingers loosely. "I'm not sure, but I am sure that I love you with every fiber of my being. Maybe it would be a good idea to spend a little time apart, maybe I should even, um, seek counseling or something."
"Not see each other at all?" Blair asked, cold fingers of fear twisting her gut.
"No, not that, just for a little bit. A week or two. Or see each other a few times a week, you know, like real dates."
Blair sighed. "No, I want all or nothing, Jo, but I'll give you a month to figure out what you want. I love you, but maybe we shouldn't see each other at all until you figure out where you stand. My stance is that I want you in my life, my heart, my arms, but if you can't give me all of you, then I guess I'd be better off without you." She withdrew her hand, kissed Jo lightly on the cheek, then turned to leave before Jo could see the pain in her eyes.
Jo stared at Blair's retreating figure until she was out of sight, then started swearing under her breath. How had she blown it so badly? She got up, walking around the rose gardens, restraining the impulse to go find a bar, to pick a fight, to hop back on her bike and drive until she reached the end of the world. Instead, she pulled out her phone and called her foreman. "Sam, do me a favor, could you find me a good counselor?"
Scott groaned as he lowered himself on the couch, stretching out so he could lay in Frieda's lap. "God, honey, I thought that last accounting final was going to kill me today! Between school and using muscles I didn't know existed to build bikes, I'm wiped. Exhausted. Can't move."
"Poor baby," Frieda smirked as she stroked his dark blonde hair, "I feel so sorry for you."
"I bet you do," Scott grumbled, closing his eyes for a moment. "Hey, what's for supper?"
"It's your turn to cook, remember?" Another groan. She smiled wider, then turned serious. "Scott, how's your mother and Jo doing?"
He sat up slowly, rubbing his neck. "I don't know, Frieda. Jo alternates between deep depression to barely restraining her temper. I'm wondering if she'd going to counseling, though, she seems to be gone every other day for a couple of hours, then comes back quiet and thoughtful. She refuses to talk about our big blowup, however. I want to apologize in the worst way, and I feel pretty guilty about driving them apart. Honey, suppose they don't reconcile?"
"First you're angry at them daring to fall in love, then you're worried that they'll fall out of love. Make up your mind, McNair."
"No, I'm serious. I did some thinking the other day, Frieda, and decided that even if it seems weird for Mom and Jo to be gay, I guess it's actually natural for them. It still creeps me out to think of them in bed, but God, I love them both. Jo stood by Mom when Madison died and when Dad totally lost it. By the way, he did remarry recently, and his new wife is expecting already. You'd think he could have kept his pants zipped until they got married."
Frieda looked at him and asked, "Are you for real? I mean, come on, don't you get so tempted that you want to give in? I know I'm tempted by you constantly."
"Really?" Scott looked at his girlfriend, still shocked at how nonchalantly she admitted to lustful urges. In the back of his mind, he had to admit sometimes that waiting was difficult, but damn it, he was a good Christian, still went to church, truly believed that true love waited for marriage. "But you're Catholic, don't you believe in waiting?"
"Yes, but that doesn't make it any easier, so don't judge your father like that. Do you like your stepmother?"
"I don't know, I haven't met her. You know I didn't go to the wedding."
"You should have."
Scott pushed himself off the couch and headed toward his tiny kitchen, asking, "Lemon grilled chicken, salad, and corn okay? I don't have much else on hand."
Frieda accepted the change of subject as she got up to help him with supper. "Sure, sounds great." Poor Scott, she thought, just doesn't know what he wants from his parents. Had he really come to terms with their divorce, or just their choice of second partners?
Jo prowled around the room as usual, finding it difficult to sit down and face her counselor as she talked. "Let's face it, I grew up Catholic, poor, and Polish/Italian. None of these factors were exactly conducive to my accepting being different, although I've always been different. How many girls swoon over cars and motorcycles and would rather hang out with the guys, tuning engines, than to play dolls? Blair used to irritate me so much by being so very shallow, vapid, but so damned smart under that veneer. We were always at each other's throats, it seemed, always fighting about something, yet it was exciting to constantly challenge her world." Jo finally dropped in one of the armchairs, head still down. "But I couldn't leave her alone, I had to always pick on her, and she on me. If anyone had dared to threaten her in any way, I'd have smashed their face in, I swear. It was like this push/pull thing, constantly, pushing each other away, yet also pulling together when we needed to be. God, it nearly broke my heart when she got that call saying her daughter was dying, how she was so calm, yet I knew she was so frightened. I just wanted to hold her until the pain subsided, but I felt so awkward. Then, after the funeral, Blair held up so well until she saw me, then she totally lost it, sobbing in my arms."
"You felt protective."
"You're damn right I felt protective!"
The woman appeared to let the anger wash over her without a trace. "Let's look at something else, Jo. Did you suspect that you were attracted to women? How did that make you feel?"
Jo visibly forced herself to calm down, taking a deep breath before answering, "I guess I was always fascinated by women, but felt like I couldn't really relate to them. I mean, I'd watch my mother putting on her makeup before she went to work, and at school, I'd find myself watching the other girls primping, wondering why they did it. I dated some boys, but none of them really made me feel that special. I can remember Blair talking me into shopping with her when were were in college, finally getting me to dress up. It still felt alien, but the look in her eyes the first time I came out in that suit with pumps and hose was absolutely priceless." A ghost of a smile flitted across her face.
"But did you ever acknowledge that you were attracted to women before you started dating Blair?"
Jo sat back, crossing one leg over the other. "I'd say no, but I was aware that other women were attracted to me. Even when I was married to John, if I met him for dinner, I'd get these looks sometimes until he showed up, then they'd turn into confusion. I tried to tell myself that it was the bike, or it was my hard-charging nature, but after the divorce, I found myself going to lesbian bars, then turning women down. I tried to convince myself that I wanted a safe place to drink, where no men would be hitting on me. I'd go back to New York about once or twice a year, usually around Madison's or Scotty's birthdays, celebrate with the family, see our other friends from school."
"So you never did date any other women?"
"Nope, not a one."
"How did it make you feel when you and Blair acknowledged your attraction for each other?"
Jo leaned back further in the chair, steepling her fingers together, staring at the ceiling. "Scared. Relieved. Filled with desire and tenderness. Terrified of what everyone else would say, terrified that Blair would decide that I wasn't good enough for her, or that it was just a phase. But relieved that I could finally touch her without censoring myself, could express tender emotions, could let myself love her and know that she loved me too."
The other woman glanced up at the clock. "I'm sorry, Jo, but our time is about up now. For next time, I want you to think about this: even if you and Blair do not survive as a couple, will you be able to continue to accept yourself as a lesbian, as a woman who is sexually and emotionally attracted to other women?"
"Okay, doc." Jo stood up. "See ya Thursday."
A little while later, Jo walked into the shop, and stopped to watch Scott and Sam working on a bike. Scott was running electrical wires, concentrating hard on listening to Sam's directions. She watched the two men for several minutes, then turned to her office with a big smile. As she suspected, the boy was a natural, and Sam had said he was learning faster than almost anyone he'd seen. Too bad that Scott's being on the floor kept him out of the office, she was having to do more paperwork now. She'd have to remember to tell Sam not to let Scott spend all of his time on the floor, she needed his touch in sales as well.
She was so immersed in the minutia of the business that she didn't hear the knock on her door frame at first. It finally penetrated her concentration and she looked up to see Scott standing there. "May I come in for a moment?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah, sure, what's up?"
Scott closed the door behind him, then sat in one of the visitors' chairs. "Jo, I owe you and Mom a big apology," he said, "I shouldn't have freaked out so badly. I feel really bad, like I wedged myself between you two, and let my prejudices overcome my feelings for you both. No, wait, I'm not finished. You were there for her when Maddy died, helped her when Dad decided that he didn't want to be married to her any more, and supported my dream of following Frieda out here and of working in your shop. I guess I just don't have enough experience to understand what you two feel for each other, but I'll try."
"I appreciate it, Scott. But we have a trial separation until I can get my head together, and I'm not going to talk to her until then."
He stared at Jo, unbelieving. "Now, wait, do you really love Mom?"
"More than you'll ever understand."
"Then be yourself, Jo, and go tell her. Better yet, show her, don't take no for an answer. I think one of the things she likes best about you is that you refuse to let anyone dictate anything to you, even Mom. If you really love her, just tell her. Don't think, just act."
Jo's eyebrows climbed in amazement. "Scott, she specifically told me--hang on, let me get this. Eagle Custom Bikes, may I help you?" Long silence. "God, Natalie, which hospital?" Jo grabbed a pen and started scribbling on the tablet next to the phone. "Yeah, I'll tell her. We'll be there as soon as possible. Sure. Love you too." Jo scrubbed her face, then turned to Scott. "Okay, boy, listen up. Dorothy's in premature labor and is having a really hard time. Docs aren't sure if she or the baby will make it. I'm going to find Blair, you and Sam will be running the shop until we get home. Are you up to it?"
"Good. Thanks." Jo started shutting down her computer and packing her briefcase. "I'll have my phone with me if you need anything, but they may not let me turn it on at the hospital. Make sure you spend part of your time with sales, you are the sales manager, after all. Sam can handle the floor. I'm counting on you, Scott, don't let me down."
"I won't," he said softly. "Hey."
"What?" She turned, hand on the doorknob.
Scott cleared his throat, then said, "Thanks, Jo."
She reached over, patted his shoulder, and was gone.
Blair ignored her cell phone when she saw it was Jo, but was curious. She hadn't heard from Jo in nearly three weeks, since she gave the ultimatum. She tried to concentrate on the report that her replacement had sent, but found that her curiosity over why Jo had tried to call her cell phone and her home phone ten times in the past few minutes won out. She grabbed the cell phone as it blared "Eye of the Tiger" again and asked, "To what do I owe this call, Jo?"
"Natalie called, Tootie is in the hospital. Are you home?"
"No time to explain, Blair, start packing a suitcase. I've already called your hanger and they'll have the plane ready for departure by the time we get to the airport. I've already packed and am on my way to your house." Click. Blair stared at the phone for a moment, the words swirling in her head. This must be serious, Jo never called Dorothy Tootie unless she was teasing or upset, so something had to be wrong. Blair closed her phone, then went into her bedroom and opened the closet, trying to decide what to wear. It didn't really matter, if she didn't like what she packed, she could always go shopping. Somehow, though, this thought failed to excite her.
The flight had been tense. Blair and Jo sat on opposite sides of the plane, each lost in her thoughts after Jo had briefly explained why they were rushing back home. Blair unhappily recalled her last words to Jo, wondering, for the thousandth time that month, why she had been so harsh with Jo. It was obvious that Jo had problems with her sexuality, but not with her feelings for Blair. Jo had admitted that she should not have run, so why had she felt compelled to hold it over Jo's head?
The last time Jo had seen Blair this shaken was when her own child had died, just nearly two years to the day now. Could it have been that long? Jo sneaked a peek at Blair, then looked back out the window. Blair looked awful right now, like her whole world had just crashed in on her. Could she be feeling regret for her presumption of calling all the shots in their relationship? No matter what Blair did, or didn't do, Jo knew she still loved the blonde woman she had so derisively called "princess" for years. No matter how much it hurt, she knew that her heart and soul belonged to the other woman, but despite her actions just hours ago, she was still at a loss as to how to cross the distance. Could Blair really be hurting so much that is showed in her eyes?
"Ms. Warner, Ms. Eagle, please prepare for landing," the captain's voice came over the intercom. Both women sat up, making sure everything was properly stowed and belts were properly fastened as the plane started its descent. After the plane taxied to its final position, the steward came to help them gather their belongings, then escorted them to the waiting limo, giving the driver directions to the hospital.
"Blair, Jo, you made it!" Natalie called softly as the women walked into the waiting room, still carrying their luggage. "Thornton is with Dorothy at the moment, and Greg should be here soon. The last I heard, the doctors are going to go ahead with surgery and take the babies."
"Babies, as in plural?" Jo asked. "No one said anything about plurals."
"They were sneaky, I guess, we didn't find out until last month. And it's twins, not plurals, Jo." Natalie swatted Jo on the shoulder, then hugged her before turning to Blair and hugging her as well. "Oh, I forgot to tell you guys, there's a big festival going on in town, so Greg and I will put you up in our guest room. It's either that, or go all the way into the city for a hotel."
"No, your guest room is fine," Blair quickly answered, not daring to look at Jo. "What's the prognosis?"
"They're not sure yet. Oh, wait, there's Thornton. Thornton, over here, Blair and Jo arrived!"
The tall, dignified theatre director strode over, hugging each woman in turn before sitting down with them. "The doctors said it's touch and go right now, but we'll know more in another hour or so after they've taken the babies. Dorothy's blood pressure suddenly spiked, then plummeted, and she passed out. I called 911, and we've been here since then. When she came to, she insisted that I call Natalie, which I already had," he smiled at Nat for a second, "then Natalie insisted on calling you two. I didn't expect you to drop everything and rush up here, but I do appreciate it very much. I know it will mean so much to my wife to have her best friends here."
"It's the least we could do," Jo answered for them both. "She and Nat drove us crazy sometimes, but they're like little sisters to us."
"As I said, I appreciate it. The doctors kicked me out, saying I shouldn't be there for the surgery, but as soon as it's over and she's awake, I'll tell her that you all came."
The hours dragged slowly. Greg arrived shortly after Jo and Blair and asked how they were doing. He noticed the tension, but declined to comment on it, but wondering how their relationship was holding up. After a bit, Blair took Greg aside to ask about her ex-husband, how he was faring. Greg could honestly answer that Scott was doing better, that he had completed his therapy and they were now back to being golf buddies. "I don't know how long we'll get to play golf, his new wife wants him to be a very hands on daddy. Oh, by the way, Scott is now working with Thornton full time at the theatre, and has given up his many board positions."
"Really. I don't know how much is the new trend toward directors who are not cozy buddies of CEO's and the new Sarbanes-Oxley laws and regulations, or how much is that he's gotten tired of not really contributing, but he's raising more money for the community arts groups and is actively working as general manager for the physical plant. I think his new wife has something to do with it."
"Good for her."
Before Blair had a chance to answer, the surgeon came out, looking exhausted but upbeat. "Mr. Stiles? Your wife and twins came through the surgery just fine. It was touch and go for a while, but we have all three stabilized. If you'd like to go home for a while, I'll have my nurse call you when Mrs. Stiles wakes up."
"No, thanks, I'll stay here."
Greg piped up, "I'll stay with him. Natalie, why don't you take Blair and Jo back to the house? I'll call when Dorothy is ready for visitors."
Natalie kissed Greg, then went over and hugged Thornton. "Okay, guys, you'd better call when Dorothy is awake or you'll be facing our collective wrath. Come on girls, I'll take you home, I'm sure you're tired and would like a chance to unpack and rest. Sorry the room isn't huge, but it does have a bed, a dresser, a closet, and is connected to a bathroom." Natalie held out her hands to help the other women up, then picked up their bags. "I do have to go into the City tomorrow for a conference with an editor. Did I tell you that I'm free lancing now?" Blair and Jo followed their friend silent as Natalie kept up enough chatter for all three of them.
When they arrived at the house, Natalie showed them to their room, then left to give them time to rest. After her footsteps faded away, Blair and Jo started silently unpacking their few clothes and toiletries, then circled the room warily, not looking at each other. Blair finally broke the silence. "Jo, I'm sorry I was so harsh on you a few weeks back, but I was worried about you. You took off without a word, and you looked so angry and hurt when you left. I should have asked earlier, but how are you doing?"
Jo finally sat in one of the two chairs in the room, taking a couple of breaths to figure out what she wanted to say. Finally, she started out with, "Blair, I've been going to counseling. One of the things my counselor asked was could I really accept that I am emotionally and sexually attracted to women, not just to you. We ran out of time before we could pursue that any further, but I gotta tell you, being without you is harder than I thought."
"I'm sorry, honey," Blair said gently, "I didn't mean to hurt you. What else has your counselor said?"
Jo admitted, "I told her I used to go to lesbian bars to drink after John and I split. I had this misguided notion that I would be safer there, since men wouldn't be hitting on me, but women did. Gee, you'd think I get a clue," she concluded, voice tinged with irony.
"You, in lesbian bars?"
"Yes, Blondie, me. How about you? You ever do anything wild?"
Blair thought back over the years, and shook her head. "No, but since I'd always been in private girls' schools, having little crushes on older girls or on classmates wasn't too odd. We all practiced dancing together, things like that. But does it matter that I prove that I've always been a lesbian, or does it matter what I feel for you, Joanna?"
Jo started to answer, but Natalie tapped on the door and called out, "Hope you're dressed, we need to go back to the hospital. Tootie is slipping."
The drive back to the hospital was filled with silent tension. The three women filed silently into the intensive care waiting room, where Greg, and Diane Ramsey, Dorothy's mother, were all waiting. Natalie went up and hugged Mrs. Ramsey tightly, the pulled back and asked, "When did you get here?"
"About ten minutes ago, Natalie." She looked over Nat's head and saw Blair and Jo, and motioned for them to come over, including them in the hug before she pulled away and they all sat down. "I'm so glad you girls could all be here, it's been too long since I've seen you all." She took a deep breath, then said, "Thornton is with my baby right now. The doctors said the twins would be fine, but Dorothy was bleeding pretty badly, and is in serious condition. As soon as Thornton comes back, you girls should go see her." She looked directly at Blair and Jo, saying, "Greg tells me that you two flew in from Texas to see my baby. Thank you."
Blair answered for them, "You're welcome, Mrs. Ramsey, we've always loved Dorothy and Natalie like little sisters. Is there anything we can do?"
"Not at the moment, Blair, but I appreciate your asking. How is your son?"
Blair started telling her friend's mother about Scott and what he had been doing lately. Jo finally started chiming in with what Scott was doing at work, winding up with, "He's got those killer sales instincts, just like his mother. He's also got her soft brown eyes, and you can just see our potential customers melt when he turns on that charm. I've been letting him actually work on building a bike lately, and he's got quite a bit of natural mechanical and artistic talent as well. Just like Blair." Jo couldn't resist sneaking a glance at Blair, who smiled at her, almost reaching for Jo's hand before remembering where they were.
Just then, Thornton came out and announced wearily, "They've given Dorothy another transfusion, but Natalie, you, Blair, and Jo can go in for a few minutes now. Diane, glad you could make it," he said.
Natalie jumped up, reaching out to Jo and Blair to help them up. As the trio walked down the hall, Natalie nervously walked between them, grabbing their hands for support. "I know this sounds selfish," she said as they slowly covered the distance, "but I don't know what I'd do if Dorothy didn't make it. I love her so much it hurts sometimes, she's been my best friend nearly as long as I can remember. Okay, we're here." She let go of their hands and walked into the cramped ICU room, calling out softly, "Hey, Tootie, it's me, and I have Blair and Jo with me."
Dorothy barely opened her eyes, then closed them again. "I hurt," she whimpered. Natalie leaned over the bed, tenderly kissing her forehead, then taking her hand, cradling it between hers. Dorothy opened her eyes again, looking into Nat's eyes. "Hey, Nat, I finally have my babies."
"I know. Thornton says they're fine," Natalie answered, "and I think you'll be fine, too."
"You'll be a great aunt," Dorothy said, a little dreamily, "I know you will."
Blair walked up to the other side, leaning down to kiss Dorothy's cheek. "Hey, honey, we're here," she said quietly, "is there anything we can do for you?"
Dorothy shifted her focus to Blair's face. "Look after Thornton and Natalie, huh? My best friends, my husband and Natalie." She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again and asked, "When I get out of the hospital, I want you all to plan a double wedding."
"What?" the other chorused.
"Yeah, Nat and Greg, Blair and Jo. Should be a dozy. Nat and Greg have lived together long enough, and it would be so romantic. Promise me." The trio looked at each other uneasily, all nervous for different reasons. "Come on, promise me."
Jo suddenly spoke for the first time since arriving at the hospital. "You pull through this, and we'll do it. Just don't make me wear a dress."
"No, you'd look fine in a tuxedo, Jo. I'm pretty tired." She yawned, then started drifting off as the trio took turns hugging her gently, then left the room.
It was touch and go for a while, but a week later, Dorothy was released from the hospital. Blair sent Jo back to Texas after a few days to run her business, then spent most of her time at the hospital so that Thornton could go back to work. Diane Ramsey and Blair took turns staying with Dorothy, who seemed to have forgotten her matrimonial wishes for her friends, to Blair's relief and disappointment. She and Jo didn't talk about the request before Jo left, but Blair turned it over in her mind repeatedly. She knew she loved Jo completely, and missed the brunette's presence intensely.
The day Dorothy and the twins were released from the hospital, Blair and Diane decided to go to a nearby coffee shop until Thornton called to say that the paperwork was completed and they were on the way home. After taking their drinks and sandwiches to a table, Diane said, "I'd like to thank you for staying. Dorothy has always loved you girls." She took a sip of coffee, then asked, "why was my daughter babbling about upcoming weddings?"
Blair felt trapped for a moment, then decided just to brazen it out. She answered, "Dorothy asked if Greg and Natalie and Jo and I could have a double wedding when she got well."
"Oh. I know she's been a little put out that Natalie refused to marry Greg, even though he's proposed several times. She did mention that you and Jo were a couple, but I just assumed that you had already had some sort of commitment ceremony."
"Yes, any reason I shouldn't have assumed it? I'm sorry, did I get it wrong? You and Jo are a couple, right?"
Blair tamped down the urge to fidget as she took a bite of sandwich to buy a few seconds to think. She swallowed, then answered slowly, "You're right, we've just been through a rough patch right now." Blair thought some more, then added, "But if Jo will have me, I'd gladly marry her in a second. I was wrong, we had a fight and I sent her away until she could come to my terms. I forget sometimes that you really have to compromise in a relationship, something that my ex-husband and I never really faced. We were too busy being the perfect couple, with the perfect family. When our daughter died, Scott fell apart, but Jo was there to help me pick up the pieces."
"Well, honey, I think you should tell her. Love is a precious gift, and needs to be nurtured daily. My Dorothy is very blessed with a loving husband and a loving best friend." Before she could say any more, her phone rang. "Excuse me." She listened, then replied, then told Blair, "That was Thornton. Dorothy and the twins are ready to go home."
"You think Mom will really like this bike?" Scott asked Jo nervously as she inspected the bike he and Sam had been working on so diligently the past few days. "You mentioned that she liked your bike because it is so fast and leans forward. See? We built a seat for two, so you can snuggle up behind her."
Jo finally smiled after giving the bike a thorough inspection. "Looks good, Scott." She reached up to pat his shoulder. "I love the paint job."
Scott relaxed as he watched Jo trace the Eastland and Langley school crests lightly. "I thought you might. So, when are you going to give this to her?"
"She called last night, said Dorothy and the twins were home, and she was coming back in a few days. Hey, if she comes in two days from now, it will be her birthday, that would be perfect. Do me a favor, Scott, and help me surprise her. Here's what I want you to do." Jo started sketching out the plans as Scott started grinning from ear to ear.
"You really love Mom, don't you?"
"Yeah, with all my heart. It's been hell this past week without her."
Scott took a deep breath, then said, "Hey, I was really wrong to jump all over you guys like I did. I know I've apologized already, but I really want you two to work things out. I can see that you have more love for Mom than Dad ever thought about. I shouldn't say this, but I want you as my stepmother."
Jo stared at him, stunned. "You mean, you really want me to propose to her or something?"
Scott nodded firmly. "Y"all belong together. I know it can't be official, unless you marry in Massachusetts or Canada or something, but I think you two need to make a commitment. Hey, you have to be a good example for me and Frieda, after all."
"I'll think about it," Jo promised, thinking about Dorothy's request. Geez, it seemed like from pushing them apart, everyone was suddenly pushing them together. "In the meanwhile, you need to get back to that stack of paperwork on your desk."
"Yes, sir!" He shouted, scuttling off. Jo just rolled her eyes.
Jo nervously fiddled with the placement of the food around her small dining table, then lit the candles. Perfect. She stood back to admire her handiwork, smiling at the soft glow that the candles lent to the room. Very romantic. She smoothed her silk blouse one more time, then went to the door just as the doorbell was ringing. "Happy Birthday, Blair," she said as she ushered the woman into her small house, kissing her lightly on the cheek. "Perfect timing, I'd just taken the bread out."
"This is beautiful," Blair breathed, taking in the dinner, the candles, and Jo herself. "Thank you."
"Have a seat, please," Jo said, holding out a chair for her. She helped Blair scoot in, then sat across from her, smiling mysteriously, reaching for her hands. "Blessing?"
Jo bowed her head and said simply, "Mother Mary, thank you for our many blessings, for Dorothy and Thornton's new babies, for Dorothy's continued recovery, and most of all, for Blair. Amen. Let's eat."
Blair was almost speechless for the first few minutes. Jo had managed to cook up a delicious meal, many of Blair's favorites, including lemon pepper grilled chicken. They talked about the new twins, about Scott's progress at the shop, about the upcoming season for Shakespeare in the Park. Blair found herself relaxing, just enjoying Jo's company, laughing at her funny stories of customer requests. "And this guy wanted his bike to be A&M maroon, with gold trim and the A&M mascot on the gas tank and logo on the tail fender. He just about died when Scott told him how much it would cost to pay the licensing fees for the use of the university mascot and logo, but he just sucked it up and asked, 'When will it be ready?'"
"People are nuts about their schools sometimes. After all, look at Scott wearing all those TCU shirts."
"So, would you turn down something with your school crests or something on them?"
"No, Jo, because I think of you when I think of Eastfield and Langley," Blair answered, taking Jo's hand in hers and squeezing. "Why do you ask?"
"Follow me," Jo said simply, tugging on Blair's hand. She led the other woman into the garage, flipping on the overhead light. "Happy Birthday, Blair."
Blair just stood for a moment, staring at the beautiful motorcycle, blinking rapidly as tears suddenly sprang up. She turned to Jo and gave her a heartfelt kiss, then pulled away and approached the bike, just circling it for a couple of circuits before carefully sitting on it. "It's perfect, Joanna," she said reverently, then smiling as she saw the twin crests of their high school and college.
Jo chuckled as she slid in behind Blair, wrapping her arms around the other woman. "Scott designed it so we could ride it together or you could ride it solo."
"Oh, baby, this is perfect. Let's go for a ride, right now."
"Okay, go in the bedroom, I have some proper cycling clothes for you. I'll change as soon as I put the dishes in the dishwasher."
Soon, the women straddled the powerful, sleek, bike in their new jeans, low cut t-shirts, leathers, and helmets. Blair turned the bike carefully out of the drive, feeling the power between her legs, feeling Jo snuggled behind her. It was a perfect fit, she decided as she drove around aimlessly, just enjoying the sensations. She smiled to herself, thinking of the surprise she had waiting for Jo.
An hour later, they pulled back into Jo's garage, both grinning uncontrollably. "That is the smoothest ride I've ever felt," Blair enthused as she opened the kitchen door back into the house. "You, Scott, and Sam are geniuses."
"Glad you like it," Jo replied happily.
"Now for your surprise," Blair announced as they sat back on the couch in the living room. She slowly pulled on a gold chain that was nestled between her breasts, making sure she had Jo's complete attention before revealing the two rings on the end of the chain. She carefully undid the clasp, sliding the chain out and laying it on the end table before getting on her knees before Jo, holding out the rings. "Jo, I've been thinking, and even though we're not perfect, we're perfect for each other. I was wrong to doubt you, wrong to hope you would show the world that you love me, because just having you love me is enough. I had these rings made in hopes that you would consent to marry me."
"Oh, God, Blair," Jo answered thickly, voice threatening to crack with the sudden onslaught of emotion as she examined the rings. They were simple bands, with yellow and white gold stripes alternating. "They're beautiful." She wiped her eyes, then asked, "Can I think about it?"
"As long as you need."
Jo stared into Blair's deep brown eyes, seeing them shining in the lamp light, glowing with emotion. She found herself smiling and saying, "I've thought about it. Let's live up to our promise to Tootie. All we have to do now is to get Natalie and Greg to agree." She carefully set the rings on the table next to the chain, and pulled Blair up onto the couch. "I will marry you, Blair, God, I love you."
"And I love you," Blair replied before burying her face in Jo's neck, hugging her tightly. She took a moment, then pulled back, seeing green eyes shining at her, then kissed Jo with all the passion she had. "Let me show you how much," she whispered huskily, between kisses, busily working on untying the vest laces. She shifted them until Jo was underneath her, dazed at the sudden passion, but desire creeping across her own face as Blair busily divested them both of their clothing.
"Wanna move to the bedroom?" Jo choked out as Blair started kissing her way down Jo's body.
"Can't wait that long," Blair moaned, taking a nipple in her mouth, tonguing it lavishly. Jo groaned with pleasure as Blair continued her oral assault, feeling flushed as her desire continued to climb.
Blair shoved a leg between Jo's legs, making sure she had contact with one of Jo's thighs. She couldn't slow down, not this time, as she started grinding into Jo, feeling their wetness coating each other's legs as she switched to the other breast. Jo was moaning softly as she started jerking against Blair, squeezing hard with her legs, then pulling Blair up and kissing her deeply, trying hard to contain the rapidly approaching orgasm, trying to make it last longer. She managed to wrap her legs around Blair's waist, seeking more contact as they furiously ground against each other, rushing toward the inevitable explosion.
"Jo!" Blair suddenly cried out, picking up the pace as she started shuddering with her climax. Jo picked up her own pace as she sought more friction, then felt the orgasm starting to bloom through her lower body, squeezing her legs harder around Blair, furiously slamming their bodies together as the sensation just rolled on and on until they collapsed into a sweaty heap. They laid there, panting, slowly relaxing as their climaxes ebbed away. Jo wearily kissed Blair's forehead, then dropped her head back, unable to move, drifting into a light doze with Blair's weight happily anchoring her in a sea of love. "Happy birthday, honey," she whispered as she drifted off.
"But can I really go through with this?" Natalie asked Dorothy anxiously as Dorothy helped her with the wedding gown. "I mean, I've been single for so long, never have wanted to tie myself down completely."
"Listen, do you love Greg with your heart and soul?" Dorothy countered as she finished with the zipper.
"Yes. I've never known anyone like him, but I'm scared."
Dorothy patted her friend on the shoulder, then kissed her cheek lightly. "Nat, I was scared senseless when I married Thornton, but we've managed. Besides, with Jo and Blair here, most of the spotlight will be on them."
"True," Natalie replied. She hugged Dorothy tightly, then pulled back, keeping her best friend's hands in hers for a moment. "And don't think I'm replacing you as best friend, just because I'm getting married."
"I never doubted it for a moment. Let's go, girlfriend."
Natalie sighed as she picked up her small bouquet and followed Dorothy out of the dressing room. Since no church would marry them, Thornton decided to let them use the theatre, and to get a priest, a rabbi, and a minister to do the actual ceremony. Natalie stood at the back of the auditorium, watching as the attendants made their way down the aisle. Dorothy stood for Natalie, Scott Sr. for Greg, John for Jo, and Scott Jr. for Blair. Unusual mix of attendants, she mused as she smiled at Blair, but it felt right. As the wedding march started, she reached out and gripped Blair's hand, who squeezed back. Impulsively, Natalie kissed Blair's cheek before they started down the aisle, not caring that everyone was looking. If Blair and Jo hadn't decided to make the plunge, she doubted that she'd have the courage to do so with Greg, no matter how many times he proposed.
Greg smiled as he watched his wife to be coming down the aisle. It was a dream come true; he just wished he could squeeze Scott's hand. His friend had come so far in the past few months, finally starting to accept his daughter's death, the breakup of his marriage, and his new role as father for the third time. He had been nervous about Blair breaking the news to Scott of her marriage to Jo, but to everyone's surprise, Scott had not only congratulated the pair, but had sent them the quilt that his grandmother had made for his and Blair's wedding.
Jo was so excited that she could hardly contain herself. She thought her face would break she was grinning so hard. Frieda caught her eye from a few rows back, winking, and she impulsively winked back. She felt Sam's steady presence beside her. God, Blair was so beautiful today. Well, Nat was too, but Blair was about to be hers always.
The brides finally made their way up the stairs as the priest started off, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the joining of these two couples..."
The impossible dream was finally being realized.
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