This story has been 'in the works' for a long time - the oldest files on my oldest surviving hard-drive say '2001'. One of those naggers that sit on the hard drive and go "nyah, nyah, can't finish me, nyah". Even tried to publish it once in 2004, but thought I had a better idea and pulled it back before final posting to the web. I didn't really have a better idea, but you never know until you try. Anyway, I've updated it a bit and am going to put it out.
Permission is granted for Fictionmania, StorySite, Nifty, Big Closet, Bev's Balcony, and any other FREE site to archive and web publish this story, unchanged, so long as the site remains free and my authorship and copyright are acknowledged in the posting. I do not consider so-called adult-check systems to be free, and thus, these sites do not have permission to host this story.
Based on the characters and situations presented in "Seasons of Change" by Joel Lawrence, Copyright 1989. This story is archived in its entirety at Fictionmania (go to search by authors and select Joel Lawrence).
In previous stories, I have alluded to Aunt Jane admitting to two failures in her long tenure as the Head Mistress of the Jane Thompson Winsome Girls' School for Wayward Boys. One of those was Donald Madden (A Carol Christmas and Ken's Barbie) who seems to have been saved by the love of a good woman (and who keeps nagging me to tell his story so that he can finally settle down into happily wedded bliss. PATIENCE, Donna! The muse is working on it!) This is the story of Jane's other failure, told through the memories of the folks who were there for the grand opening of the Seasons House Academy.
Failed Season – Lora's Story
Copyright 2008 All rights reserved.
"Allo? This is the Thompson-Philips residence. How may I help you?"
Deputy Sheriff (Sheriff-elect) William Beale closed his eyes on hearing the gently-accented voice on the other end of the line. "Tante Marie? This is. . . this is Willa, I mean, Bill Beale."
"Ah," Marie's tones became warm and welcoming. "Bonjour, mon brave, and how may the ladies of Seasons House serve our soon- to-be Sheriff this lovely winter's day, eh?"
"Is Jane home, Marie?"
The ragged, almost clipped tone of Bill's question set warning bells pealing in the dark-haired French-Canadian's head. "Yes, she is. Bill, dear, what is the matter?" she asked more quietly.
"Is Art home, too?"
"Non, but Diana is here," was the carefully emphasized reply, "We have students en residence, mon cheri."
"Damn! Two students? Or just one?"
"Two. Jessica is here, too, Bill," - acting as big sister Marie didn't have to say, before her voice became stern. "Now, stop dithering and tell me what's bothering you! Tell your Tante Marie what is the matter!"
"Ask Jessica if she can watch the junior student on her own for awhile, Tante Marie, and then go find Diana - tell her . . tell her that I think Jane will need her. Maybe Darryl or Michael, too, if you can reach them. Jane is going to . . . to," Bill's voice caught and broke, and it was several seconds before he continued. "Oh, hell, Tante Marie, Aunt Jane's going to need her family around her. Word just came in to me that Lawrence Michael Patterson just turned up today in Miami."
"Lawrence?" Marie's voice was shrilly surprised. "OUR Lawrence?!?"
"Our Lora, Tante Marie," the deputy affirmed, his voice clearly ragged with his own emotions. "He's been shot - multiple times. The docs don't think he's going to make it this time."
"Mon Dieu." Marie closed her eyes and gave a silent prayer for . . . what? She wasn't quite sure. Then, she sighed. "It was only a matter of time, mon not-so-petit. I will call Michael and Darryl - gather la famille. You're coming over now, oui? You want to be the one to break the news to her?"
"He was - IS - my little sister, Tante Marie." There was an awful finality in those simple words, and Marie ached as much for him as she did for her long-time friend and partner, Jane Thompson-Philips. "I'm on my way as soon as I call Caro and tell her where I'll be."
With great care, Marie's trembling fingers replaced the ornate telephone receiver back in its scrolled-metal cradle. She'd find Diana, and then call in their boys.
Only then would she tell Jane that Willa. . . Bill was coming.
Deputy Sheriff Beale was barely halfway up the steps that led to the front door of Seasons House when a wild-eyed, auburn- tressed Valkyrie launched herself at him. "Is it Audrey?!" Jane demanded, her hands clutching at his dress uniform's lapels, "Marie said YOU told her not to tell me what this is all about - TELL ME NOW! Has something happened to Gigi? Or to the baby??!?"
Bill reached up and gently took Jane's icy hands in his own. "So far as I know, Aunt Jane, they are fine. It's Lora - Larry - he's dead, Jane. He was shot and they couldn't save him."
"I. . . I see," a suddenly still and colorless Jane replied, softly. "When?"
"They found him bleeding out in an alley last night and took him to a trauma center. I got the word that he'd died while I was on my way here."
"How did . . do you know what happened to him?"
The uniformed deputy shook his head. "Not entirely. I've contacts in the DEA - they'd been onto him, and were trying to use him as bait to catch some bigger fish. Best guess is that those fish were sharks, and they turned on him."
For several moments, Jane said nothing - only the barest quivering of lashes on tightly shut eyes giving away her inner emotion.
"Damn." she finally muttered, "After Donald Madden's recent turnaround, I had almost let myself hope that. . . oh, never mind." Jane shook her head sadly, and then took Bill's arm in hers to lead him inside.
They gathered in the sitting room of Jane's second-floor private apartment - Marie, Diana, Bill and Jane. "Let me turn on the closed circuit monitor, Bill," Jane said. "My junior student, Camille, has been doing very well of late, and has, I believe, made the turn, but I will feel better if Jessica has back-up should she for any reason need it."
They watched as one of the room's three television sets flared to life. Seasons House's combination library and music room filled the glowing screen. As the digital surveillance camera noiselessly scanned, two adolescents came into view - a platinum blonde playing Jane's grand piano, and a strawberry blonde working diligently at the small writing desk. Both were, by all outward appearances, superb examples of young, genteel American womanhood from their perfectly coiffed hair to their shiny and elegant high heeled shoes.
But appearances being deceiving, everyone watching the televised scene knew that these be-skirted figures were not girls, but rather, boys undergoing Jane Thompson's Method of rehabilitation; a demanding variation on Victorian-style petticoat discipline. The strawberry blonde - Jessica/Jesse - was here because he wanted to help the woman who had become his Mother in all ways save the matter of his actual birth, and the Nordic blonde - Camille/Cameron - because her only alternative to Aunt Jane's program was a long stretch in a juvenile detention facility.
"Well, they're quiet and apparently productively occupied," Jane thought aloud before turning back to her visitor, "So, Bill, tell me everything - from the begi. . . "
Before she could finish her question, the apartment door opened, interrupting them. Jane turned, irritated at the unexpected intrusion, only to find herself engulfed in a double-hug delivered by Michael Nash and his bubbly wife, Janice. "Oh, Mom," Michael breathed, even as he held her, "I'm so sorry."
There were tears in Jane's eyes now, "I knew something like this was probably in the cards," she answered back, her voice thickening with emotion. "I knew . . .that this was the most likely ending - it's just such a damnable waste."
The phone intercom rang. Jane glanced over at the television screen, but saw that neither student had moved. *As if anything short of World War III would move Jessica from her school books,* the School Mistress of Seasons House thought, fondly, *Or Camille from her piano. If ever music had truly soothed a savage breast. . *
"Yes?" she asked into the receiver.
"Momma-Jane? It's me, Darryl. Audrey and I are in your downstairs office. Could you folks come down here? I really don't want Audrey climbing all those stairs just now."
Jane was about to answer when she heard a very annoyed, "Don't you DARE blame this on me, Darryl Thompson-Philips. I can get up those damned stairs just FINE, thank-you-very-much! YOU'RE the one having knicker-fits!" Audrey, Jane thought with a smile, objecting to anything resembling a feminine gender-specific physical limitation.
Audrey's outburst was followed by a muffled, "Hey, babe, I'm having a 'father-of-the-due-tomorrow-baby' moment here, okay? Give me a break, won't you?"
Deciding her son would suffer - deservedly so - for that crack later when Audrey had him back at home, and not wanting him to worry more than he already was, Jane interceded. "Give us a minute to gather up Marie's tea-trays, darling, and we'll be right down."
"You didn't have to come, dear," Jane told her son, even though the tightness of the embrace they were sharing put lie to that. "And you certainly should not have hauled that pregnant child all the way out here."
"Like I could stop her? She beat me to the car, Mom. Isn't being 8.99 months pregnant supposed to slow a woman down?" he demanded, ruefully.
"It does slow me down, wise guy," Audrey twitted him as she carefully maneuvered her protruding tummy around Jane's middle for her own hug, "but I'm still faster than you! I was just taking it easy on you all those times before."
"Oh, so you finally admit that you really DID want to lose that five mile race for our wedding ceremony?" Darryl asked.
Audrey's only answer was a growl.
"Well, now we can begin," Jane started, only to again be interrupted by yet another door opening - this time, the front door of Seasons House. "What NOW?"
Kenneth and Barbara Anne Roberts came through the door and strode up to Jane. "We came as soon as we could," Skipper said, embracing Jane tightly.
"We'd have been here sooner, but Adrienne insisted she needed extra time to dress properly," Ken put in as he took his turn with his beloved Momma Jane.
That brought Jane up short. "Adri-ENNE?" she asked, pulling back and trying to look around Kenneth.
"Adrienne, Aunt Jane," a petite brunette confirmed with a shy smile. Jane goggled at her former student, decked out in a Laura Ashley frock, white opaque hosiery with matching pumps, standing with self-assured grace in the foyer of Seasons House.
"But. . .but, Adrienne? Why?"
Adrienne smiled, shyly. "When I heard, well, I mean when Ken explained, I thought you might need another helper for Camille. In case you needed a little time off, you know? I figured Jessica couldn't be on watch all the time, and - oh, shoot, Aunt Jane, I thought Adrienne could help out more than," she hesitated and blushed prettily causing Jane to smile. "Well, you know."
Tears stinging her eyes all over again, Jane swept the petite brunette into her arms. "Thank you, dear. That's just lovely of you. I very much appreciate your generous offer, as will, I'm sure, Jessica. They're in the library. Go introduce yourself."
"Well, I ASSUME, Marie, that everyone is here now?"
"Everyone I could reach," the dark-eyed housekeeper retorted, without any sign of guilt. "But I did leave messages with several others - notably Eric and Sylvia."
"I already have a psychologist on hand," Jane retorted, even as she smiled at her Diana, "Not to mention an-almost done psychiatrist."
"Research psychiatrist, Mom," Michael told her, "I'm the one who asked Tante Marie to call Erica. Partly for you, but also because I didn't know where Camille was in the program. Having you upset might upset her."
"I see," Jane murmured, and then turned back to Bill, "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted - MULTIPLE TIMES - what happened, and how did you find out so quickly?"
"So, you used your contacts in other police agencies to keep track of him," Jane said, after Bill had finished his recitation of the facts as he knew them, "even after all these years."
"That's about the size of it," Bill admitted.
"Why were you even bothering to keep tabs on him after all these years?" Diana asked.
"Because Lora was his little sister, of course," Jane answered automatically, and then started at the sudden blush she saw coloring the deputy's face. "Willa?!? Why are you blushing!? What are you trying to hide?
"I started because of our relationship - thought I might be able to help him some time - when he was more amenable to being helped. Just like you said," he finished, clearly hoping Jane would accept that reply as sufficient.
He should have known better. "Continue, please," the School Mistress sternly ordered her reluctant student.
"He came back here - twice that I know of - looking to make trouble. The first time, I just sort of ran into him in town, greeted him like a long-lost friend. We had a couple of beers, and that was it. Then I saw his car while I was out on patrol - hidden off the road near Seasons House. I waited for him and confronted him. He tried to tell me he was getting up the courage to go see you again. It didn't ring true and I told him what I'd do if he caused you any grief. I was, ah, pretty angry."
"Were you pretty or were you angry?" Jane snapped, intentionally trying to put her old student on the defensive in order to ensure she got the full story.
"Angry," Bill answered softly, his eyes staring off at a scene only he could see. "Way beyond just angry, to tell the truth, and Lor. .Larry saw that. I was a lot bigger than him at that point, and besides, I was the law. He left before anything else happened. I thought that was the end of it, but I wasn't sure, so I put out feelers on him with some guys I knew in other agencies."
"And I was ready when he came back the next time. He was sneakier that time around - didn't show up in town, but I knew he was heading this way and kind of staked out your place as much as I could. I caught him again. From what I saw in his car, I figured he was planning to break into Seasons House and steal from you. Things got . . . a little rough." A quirk of the famous Thompson brow had Bill rushing on before how little was little became an issue. "When he, ah, well, when he woke up, I let him know I had him under surveillance, and that the next time he showed his face in my town, I'd find some way to lock him up. After that incident, he never came back - at least to my knowledge. And I made sure I knew where he was, and made sure he knew that I knew."
"Oh?" Jane put in, "and just how did you do THAT, Willa?"
The sheriff-elect blushed again, flushing bright red all the way to his military-style hairline. "I - ah - well. . . "
"Willa!" Teacher ordered sternly, "Organize your thoughts and speak clearly!"
The familiar order and tone had the expected effect. Bill Beale sat up ramrod straight in his seat, took a deep breath and all but shouted. "I sent him little reminders every two or three weeks - letters, postcards, telegrams, even emails - to where ever he was living at the time."
"Just to let him know you knew his current whereabouts," Diana said, admiringly.
"And so he'd realize I'd know the instant he moved in Jane's direction again," Bill finished.
"Thank you," Art Thompson-Philips' voice breathed fervently.
"I would have liked to have seen him one more time," Jane murmured sadly. "Just to see if. . . "
"He was too far gone, Aunt Jane. This isn't Star Wars and he wasn't ever Anakin Skywalker. The Dark Force hadn't seduced him. He LIVED the Dark Force. He wasn't going to turn himself around because he liked being what he was too much." Bill's voice became quiet, almost reflective. "In some of the letters. . "
"WHAT letters?" Jane pounced.
"Damn!" Bill growled, angry at himself.
"What letters, William?" Jane repeated, saying each syllable with distinct emphasis.
"He answered some of my little love notes, okay? Let's just say that if I could have proven he had really done any of the things in those notes, he'd be a 3-time loser many times over by now. He liked being Jane Thompson's single failure, and the more glaring he could make that failure seem, the better he liked it. Thought it made him special instead of pitiful. That seemed to motivate him to get deeper and deeper into the underworld, always proving just how little your program had done to turn him around."
Jane nodded, and then reached down into her desk. She withdrew a thick notebook-style portfolio, bound in black leather. "My Rogues' Gallery," she said with a sad smile. "Or perhaps, the school yearbook for the Jane Thompson Winsome Girls' School for Wayward Boys."
"Hey," Audrey interjected, "I'm a graduate, and I am not a boy. Aren't I in that thing?"
"Wayward Boys and Tomboys," Jane retorted, her smile a little brighter from the joke. "And you are most DEFINITELY in this - filed right alongside my other particularly hard cases."
"Well, I like that!" the pregnant brunette sniffed in an unconscious mimicry of her teacher.
"Good," Darryl put in, picking up the banter, "Because the shoe definitely fits, love of my life, and quite beautifully, too."
Jane let their loving if transparent attempts at lightening the mood wash over her. This was her family, she thought, even as she thumbed through the many-paged scrapbook.
This was HER family, and they loved her. That was just so, so marvelous - particularly since she'd almost despaired of ever having one, after that damned illness had forever stolen her womb's promise from her more than a quarter of a century ago.
She glanced down at her Rogue's Gallery, and saw the memento preserved on the opened page, and grinned. "Bill?" she said, her voice suddenly sweet and coy, "I think you might remember this."
Bill rose from his seat and went over to Jane's desk, an 'aw shucks' smile on his face. "What is this? You figure to blackmail the local law enforcement officer with my debutante picture, Aunt Jane?"
"Hardly," Jane retorted, her lips curled into the smile that had struck terror in over a hundred cross-dressed males' hearts.
It still worked, too. "Oh my GOD!" Bill yelped, "Where did you get THAT!?! I could have sworn I got that safely into the trash." Incredulity warred with dismay on the deputy sheriff's face.
"Ve haff our vays," Jane mugged, before turning the book up toward the rest of the now-very-curious onlookers.
An eight by ten pencil sketch had been taped to that particular page of Jane's scrapbook. The mood of the piece was eerily surreal, in large part due its perspective and the charcoal- pencil medium. The subject was obviously a much younger Jane Thompson, or at least, her demonic twin sister. Her face filled most of the page, her flashing eyes fixed on the observers', as if she were looming over him or her from the page. The wickedly grinning visage had a vampire's sharp fangs and a devil's horns peaking out from her tightly drawn-back coiffure. In the lower left hand portion of the sketch, she held the corner of a paper between two sharp clawed fingers, a huge underscored 'D-minus' dominating the page.
"You drew that, Bill?" Michael asked wonderingly, "and LIVED?!?"
"It had been a very bad day," Bill said reflectively, his eyes fixed on the book, but clearly seeing something else entirely. "I was the only student here at the time. I'd worked hard on that paper - at least I thought I had. I was even proud of it."
"Aunt Jane DOES 'haff her vays'," Audrey filled in, "especially of the sort that help redefine what 'working hard' means for you. Just one of her great talents."
"You're right about that," Bill smiled at the tall, very pregnant brunette, "but I hadn't learned that lesson yet - all I knew was that I'd done the best I knew how and it hadn't been good enough for her."
"I was also very young - very full of myself at that stage," Jane murmured, seeing that the memory still disturbed Bill, and feeling just a little ashamed because of it. "I probably held a few unfair expectations for my students at that time. After all, you'd been with me less than a week, as I recall."
"Does that mean I should have gotten a better grade?" the peace officer asked, perking up noticeably.
"Oh, a 'D' at least," Jane assured him gravely, and was rewarded with a burst of shared laughter. "Maybe even a 'D+', but you still would have gotten petticoated!" she concluded.
"Good likeness," Ken put in. "I remember meeting that woman a time or two those first couple of days here."
"Amen," Darryl added. "So, Bill, you didn't have a big sister to help you navigate Aunt Jane's little pastel and chintz obstacle course?"
"No, I didn't."
"Willa was my very first Seasons House student, dear," Jane added. "He'd been at Eastmore, but only for the last few weeks of my last spring term as Head Mistress."
"And I was supposed to follow that time up by going immediately to Eastmore's summer school," Bill told the assembly, then grinned sheepishly. "But that didn't happen."
"The school's new board chairperson and I could not reach any accommodation on certain issues - unrelated to students like Willa I might add - so I had no choice but to leave," Jane said, her eyes fixed on images from the past only her mind could see. "Still, once I left, the critical leadership support necessary for the safe continuance of the petticoat discipline project left, too."
"Gee, Mom," Barbara Anne said, "Is that why you came here to Seasons House? So you could continue your work with boys in skirts?"
"Not quite, dear," Jane grinned up into the statuesque blonde's curious eyes. "I was, to put it mildly, a little . . . annoyed with the whole educational system at that point in my life, and with Eastmore in particular. I had no interest in doing anything that reminded me of that place, and putting unwilling young men into skirts and petticoats definitely reminded me of Eastmore, not to mention that old biddy on the school board."
"So, how did you. . . ?" Barbara Anne pursued, and then blushed. "I'm sorry. I was prying."
"Oh, it's not a dark family secret, Annie," Jane smiled at her newest daughter. *She's come so far since meeting Kenneth,* she thought, remembering her first meeting with Barbara Anne. *She's so confident in herself now – just look at her – sitting tall and at ease with herself as a woman. Even has her legs crossed proudly when before she'd have tried to hide their length. Ah, what the love of a good man can do for a woman, and my Kenneth is one of the best of that species.*
"I came here intending to live off my money, doing nothing more than loaf, garden, ride my horses. I planned to be, " Jane continued in very pompous tones, "quite the leisurely lady of the grand manor."
"You?!?" Darryl's disbelief was both comical and heartfelt. Her child, Jane mused, knew her so very well. "LOAF?!? For about ten seconds – TOPS!"
"Actually, I managed to hold out for about ten days before I was bored silly, and began to look for something to do. I discovered I liked and was good at playing high finance. That worked for a while - until I got a call from my past. . ."
Jane stood by, observing the young man watching mournfully as the lights of a car disappeared through the distant entry gates of Seasons House. The boy was perhaps two or three inches taller than he'd been the last time she'd seen him some four months earlier, but otherwise his physique was much the same. If anything, the added inches made him appear skinnier, as his growth spurt had not been accompanied by any increase in musculature.
A fact that boded well for her plans and not so well for young William Beale, she thought, a dark smile curling her lips. Then she reached out to rest her hand on his shoulder, noting the involuntary flinch at her touch. "Come along, William," she ordered briskly, "We have much to accomplish today before dinner."
His, or rather _her_ reflection in the vanity mirror was the picture of misery that even the carefully applied cosmetics couldn't hide. "Well, young Willa, at least you haven't forgotten the basic lessons you were taught at Eastmore while you were evidently ignoring the important ones. Your face is quite acceptable, although your braids require more work. They are altogether ragged, and worse, your part is off center. Please do your hair again, correctly."
"Yes, Ms. Jane," the now-feminized boy replied glumly, knowing a response was required, even as he-she reached up to undo the braids and start again.
"Now that I think on it, your face is almost too acceptable," Jane said thoughtfully. "Been practicing at home this summer, have you? Perhaps with your Mother's cosmetics? While she's at work?"
Willa's eyes went wide as her mouth dropped open before she yelped out, "NO! Never! What kind of boy do you think I AM?!?"
Pleased with her student's shocked reaction, Jane gestured at the face reflected in the mirror's silvered depths. "I certainly don't see any type of boy reflected there, do you?"
"I see me," was the almost defiant response, "and I'm a boy!"
"Are you really?" the tall redhead asked. "Then, I just suppose you'll have to prove that to me."
Three hours later, her charge was exhausted and Jane had fully reasserted her dominance. Willa had been driven to tears on no fewer than three occasions during the afternoon's fashion and deportment lessons, once when the boy-girl had been doing high- heeled walking lessons across the marble floor of the foyer. She'd lost her balance on the slippery surface and had fallen, twisting her ankle and banging her knee in the process.
Fortunately, neither injury had been serious, for the girl had been back on her feet minutes later, albeit with raccoon-ringed eyes from crying while wearing water-soluble mascara. The schoolmistress had used that as an opportunity to impose yet more stress upon her student, once she'd assured herself that the child's hurts were not serious. She did, however, also make a mental note to move early lessons in heels to rooms with carpeted floors.
"Go get ready for bed, Willa," Jane ordered. "I will be up to check on you shortly."
She watched Willa carefully make her way up the grand stairway to the second floor, and winced. Her student had come to physical harm in her keeping, and on the first day! Jane was quietly furious with herself for not anticipating such a possibility. She was here to HELP this child and not only had Willa been hurt, this injury would set back Jane's plans for the next few days while the sore ankle healed.
"Nothing to do but what can be done now," Jane muttered to herself, and headed into the kitchen to prepare ice-packs for Willa's ankle and knee.
"Man, talk about a bad day. I mean, there I was, fat, dumb and happy – smugly certain that I had dodged the big one when that summer school thing didn't come off - and then, WHAM!" Bill said at the end of Jane's reminiscences. "Petticoat hell in New England! And not ten miles from my home!"
"So, that's how Aunt Jane's Winsome Girls' School for Wayward Boys got launched," Michael observed, his tongue very much poking in his cheek. "Willa must not have been much of a challenge then, if you could handle her all by your little ol' self, Momma Jane, without Tante Marie OR a big sister to back you up."
"_I_," Bill retorted pompously, "was a sweetheart."
"Oh, really?" Jane demanded, holding up the 'demon-Jane' drawing as evidence.
The deputy blushed, and then actually giggled. "Lord, there you go, Aunt Jane, barely an hour here in your house, around you, and I'm Willa all over again."
Jane snorted at that. "At least you learned something in my keeping, young lady, although you still have a sad tendency to . . . exaggerate. Sweetheart, indeed. Harrumph. Sweet TART, more accurately."
"Compared to Lora, I WAS a sweetheart!" Bill came right back, and then instantly regretted his instinctive self defense as the lights again dimmed in Jane's eyes.
Diana reacted instantly, trying to redirect Jane's thoughts. "Is that why you got Lora? To test winsome Willa here?"
Composing herself with an almost visible effort of will, Jane nodded. "I'd had. . . success at Eastmore, pairing up returning special students as mentors for the new ones. They not only guided the youngster through the day-to-day rigors of living in skirts in a feminine world, they also helped me setup and then spring more than a few of my little traps. At the same time, they were proving to me that they were ready to move back to trousers."
"And no one was really the wiser? I mean, all those real girls and the boys in skirts? None of them ever broke the masquerade?"
"Maybe one or two of them did," Bill replied, "I certainly screwed up enough to give myself away those first few days. Then again, I never had anyone at school come up to me and ask me to drop my panties, either."
"WILLA!" Jane yelped.
The deputy only grinned mischievously before continuing. "But knowing the Head Mistress as I now do, I suspect that if any of the real girls had caught one of us boy-girls out, they would have been smart enough not to harass the boy in skirts who slipped up. Jane would have had their guts for garters and THEY knew it. Eastmore girls were, first and foremost, SMART! Mostly, we – the real girls and the Jane-girls - just went about our own business and tried to stay out of trouble."
"I recall at least two instances when one or more girls saw through the masquerade. Both times, they came to me about it, and I told them what they needed to know and how to treat the boys, that is, like girls. But the boys, particularly the new ones, weren't able to tell when a girl knew or didn't. They lived in constant terror that they would be caught out, and humiliated for life."
"Amazing you never got called on it by some debutante's outraged parent," Diana mused.
Jane shrugged. "The girls who attended Eastmore excelled at their studies, as did my girl-boys, and the boys learned manners and control. Parents do not tend to argue with success, and besides, the girls who figured it out liked being in on a very special secret."
"So, your Eastmore program really never became an issue," Audrey said, her beautiful eyes wide in awe and disbelief. Another one of her more unusual success stories, Jane mused. Even in the final hours of her less-than-graceful pregnancy term, even with her face puffy and round, Gigi had taken the time to fluff her hair, and to put on lipstick and eyeliner before coming racing to her Mother-in-law's rescue – because she knew the older woman would appreciate both the look and the effort achieving it required. Jane loved the girl for that, and thought privately that she had never seen a more beautiful mother-to-be. "However did you manage giving the boy students a transcript or report card? Wouldn't someone wonder how a boy had credits from a girls' school?
"I can guess the answer that one," Michael put in, grinning. "Even then you had contacts at St. Andrews Academy, right? That's how the Head knew about you when my Mom decided to send me here?"
"Just so," Jane replied. "All of my special girls at Eastmore had a St. Andrews transcript for the period of their attendance at my school. There was, in fact, at least one female who secretly attended St. Andrews, but received a diploma from Eastmore, but that, as they say, is another story entirely." At Michael's pensive look, Jane smilingly shook her head. "Well before you were there, dear, and to my knowledge, she was never caught out."
"Well, that makes you really special, Bill," Darryl said, looking back at Bill, "Willa was the first Seasons House big sister. How did you get your little sister? I assume it was on a court referral, based on what we've been told about Lora?"
"Actually, she wasn't," Jane replied, glancing over at Bill was again flushing bright red.
"It was my fault," he sighed. "Her being here and her being in Aunt Jane's life was all my own damned fault. . ."
"While the technical aspects of your writing have improved – spelling, grammar, word selection - you simply have not adequately supported your arguments with sufficient reference citations, Willa. You have not accumulated nor properly presented the facts necessary to demonstrate your contention in this case."
Willa stood before the massive desk behind which School Mistress Thompson sat, her student's latest paper spread out on the blotter. Grimly, the young teen fought the urge to wince and shuffle her black patent Mary-Janes on the carpet, but darnit, she'd worked so hard on this paper - rummaging through the substantial Seasons House library for any scrap of information related to her assignment. Was it her fault that there wasn't much to be had on the role of women in the development of early 19th Century American commerce?
The eagle eye of Teacher still caught that momentary flash of indignation, and smiled inwardly. The paper wasn't really all THAT bad, Jane admitted to herself privately. Willa had made significant improvement in the past months and this paper was clear evidence of that growth. However, it was the control Willa had just exerted over her temper that pleased Jane the most. A month or two earlier, the child's reaction to her teacher's pointed - and somewhat unfair, she admitted - assessment of her latest work would have been far more emotional and far less controlled. That was excellent progress, and just for the moment, Jane wished she could acknowledge that she was proud of the girl for that.
However, that would defeat the secondary purpose of the assignment. Time to set that lesson in motion. "Well?" Jane prodded, "Do you agree or disagree, Miss?"
A sigh slipped out, and dejectedly, Willa nodded her agreement. "I tried, Miss Thompson, but other than the encyclopedia and one or two of your anti. .anti. . old books, there's just not that much material here to work with. . errr. With which to work."
"The word you were looking for, Willa, is antiquarian," Jane sat back, looking over her half-lens reading glasses at the young person before her desk. "but let us return to your problem. You feel that you need a wider breadth of source material to prove your conjecture? Is that what you need to make your arguments more convincing in this matter?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am," Willa jumped at the offering without stopping to think of Lucy, Charlie Brown and proffered footballs.
Only to fall flat on her virtual backside as Jane jerked the football away at the last possible instant. "Then, we shall make an excursion to the university library. I'm sure THEY'LL have everything we need for this project. Go fix your face and straighten your hair. I will be with you momentarily. I think we shall take lunch at a little café I know near the campus. Make a day of it, shall we?"
And just like good old Charlie Brown, Willa saw stars, heard the birdies and wondered how the heck she'd fallen for that trick, AGAIN! "Go. . . go out?" she managed to choke out, and then dropped her hands to her skirts and lifted them slightly. "Like . . . like this?"
"Well, if you prefer another dress, I suppose I can wait while you pick just the perfect one for our trip. The blue one you purchased at the mail yesterday perhaps?"
'The blue one' had a hemline cut well above the knee and would have every young male in the vicinity trying to look up her skirt. Not a good idea! "Ummm. . n., .no, thank you, Miss Thompson, this one. . will be fine. I'll just be a minute. . .fixing my face and hair, that is."
Jane smiled at the rapidly retreating figure. "And don't forget to your purse, child."
That had gone very well, Jane mused. Very well, indeed.
"Boy, did I see that 'Aunt Jane gotcha' coming," Darryl said, grinning. "Just another opportunity for a trip into hell, I mean, to town, eh?"
"Actually," Jane put in, reflectively, "It wasn't. The whole idea came to me when I had first reviewed the paper earlier that morning. The trip was entirely unplanned on my part. It was impulse more than anything else."
"Impulse?" Ken asked, sitting forward on his seat. "You?"
"Are you children TRYING to make me feel old? As I said just a few minutes ago, I was much younger then, grasshopper, and had not yet learned that Murphy was a flaming optimist. That trip went a long way towards correcting that educational shortfall of mine, eh, Willa?" the Mistress of Seasons House grinned.
"Oh god," Bill groaned, "How could I EVER forget?"
"You'll only draw more attention to yourself by trying to hide," Jane observed to her almost cowering charge. "If you'll just behave normally, no one will give you a second look."
"We're too close to my home here, Miss Jane," the slender brunette hissed. "Someone is bound to recognize me."
"Only if you continue to give them cause to become sufficiently curious to take a second look. Now, settle yourself and let's go to lunch."
The trip to the library had been a success, Jane mused, and on several levels. Her charge had evinced a very satisfying enthusiasm for the learning experience and had found some excellent references that related to her topic. Petticoat discipline aside, Jane Thompson was, first and foremost, a teacher, and she'd enjoyed working on the research project with her pupil this morning. Now, if the child would just get through lunch without losing her poise, the day would be just about perfect.
"Hey, you! STOP!"
Willa's shouted order snapped Jane out of her pleasant ruminations, and she spun about in time to see her skirted boy in full flight down the street. A second glance took in a girl sitting akimbo on the sidewalk, staring after the running Willa. A third look revealed the racing boy Willa was chasing.
Jane watched in disbelief as her pupil closed the distance on her prey and then brought him down with a picture perfect ankle tackle, and then she herself was running.
*From now on, when we go out like this, SHE wears heels, TOO!* Jane groaned as she took in the torn and stained white dress when Willa got back to her feet, an unfamiliar black purse held high above her head in triumph. *She's a MESS! I have to get her out of here!*
Unfortunately, the little tableau had caught the attention of a passing patrol car. Jane came to a stop, and watched in growing horror as the Sheriff got out of the car and strode toward the scene of Willa's takedown. *Oh, god, it just can't get any worse.*
Murphy WAS an optimist. A FLAMING optomist.
"My GOD! Willie Beale! Is that really YOU?!?"
*Oh, DAMN!* two minds thought in pained unison as things got VERY worse.
"What were you THINKING, child?!?" Jane demanded as she maneuvered her car away from the scene.
Willa mumbled something in reply, earning a sharp demand to speak up from the highly irate driver. "I thought that he might have hurt her and was getting away with it," the girl-boy muttered, not much louder than before, "And the next thing I knew, I had him down."
"The girl knows you."
"Yes, ma'am," was the weary and resigned reply. "She does."
"Be careful to continue using your Willa-voice, please," Jane automatically corrected, before asking, "How well?"
The half giggle that answered the older woman was almost girlish. "Too well. She's, ah, she's one of the girls I got in trouble for picking on."
"I see. Does she have a name?"
"Carolyn," the teen replied, "Carolyn Cialini." Willa pronounced the last name 'Che-leenie'.
"So, your crimes come home to roost. She has your reputation in her hands. She is. . .rather pretty."
"She's beautiful!" Willa corrected sharply, and then looked away. "Well, she is."
*So that's the way the wind blows,* Jane thought, amused. *Willie was attracted to Carolyn, and didn't know what to do, so he acted out to get her attention. Went too far, and got in trouble for it. I suppose that seventy-five years ago, he might have dunked the girl's braids in an inkwell.* "Know anything about her family?"
"Her Mom owns a beauty parlor. I think it's the one downtown - in that fashion-court walking mall - near the university. Don't know her dad."
"And the sheriff?" Jane asked, her voice only just barely disguising her concern for her student. Taking the teen downtown, when she'd KNOWN this was William Beale's hometown had been culpably stupid on her part.
The snort of laughter Jane's question elicited from her boy-girl student was not in the least feminine. "Oh, yeah. . I mean, yes, Ma'am. The sheriff and I are, well, I wouldn't call us friends, but we are well acquainted. The last time he brought me home in his patrol car was the straw that broke the camel's back for my Mom. She'd heard about Eastmore from a friend, and the rest is history. I spent the spring term there in skirts, and ended up here when I thought I'd gotten off when you left there."
*So, two people in your hometown broke your masquerade this day, my girl,* Jane thought, disgusted with her own lack of good judgment. *Which is really sad because today's little venture had otherwise been a complete success. Willa's work at the library was exemplary, and her deportment and presentation had easily been good enough to pass - until she'd taken off like a linebacker after that damned purse-snatcher.*
"I'm in trouble, aren't I?" Willa asked, her voice suddenly small and audibly shaky.
"You did NOTHING wrong!" Jane snapped automatically without thinking, and then softened, realizing just how frightened her student really was. "I'll deal with this Carolyn, somehow." *Money does talk,* she thought. *I'll just have to make sure it speaks loudly enough to keep HER from talking.* "As for the Sheriff, if he's a fair man, he won't pose a problem, either." *I hope.* "Now, when we get home, I want you to go change into your dancing clothes and spend the next hour doing your barre exercises before dinner. It will help loosen up any muscles you might have strained making that chase and tackle."
"I was more than a little confused, let me tell you!" Bill said when Jane had finished her reminiscence. "I mean, my whole goal in life at that point in time, was to keep as low a profile as possible, and there I go and do something like THAT!"
"Aunt Jane does that to you," Michael commiserated, "You forget what you're wearing in a crisis and just react - usually the way SHE would if she was telling the truth." Everyone laughed when Jane retaliated for that barb by sticking her tongue out at her son.
"Yeah, but that wasn't the whole of it," the deputy replied. "It was how Jane reacted afterwards. She was, well, NICE about it."
"Scared the hell out you, didn't it?" Darryl grinned.
"Amen. Standing at the barre in position one, I almost convinced myself that the whole thing was just another setup – that the guy I took down was in on one of her schemes."
"William!" Jane sputtered. "I never. . ."
"Thought of it?" Diana finished.
Jane sniffed at that, and then gave a little laugh. "Most likely. Remember, I didn't have any supporting friends back then."
"Yet," Bill agreed. "But that began to change. Later that evening in fact, when Sheriff Todd drove up to Seasons House. If I'd been scared before, I was terrified when I looked out the window to see him climbing up the steps to the main door. . ."
With as much grace as she could manage, Willa opened the door and curtseyed as she greeted the tall, barrel-chested law officer. "Good evening, Sheriff, please come in. Miss Thompson is in the sitting room."
"Why, thank you. . .ummm, what do I call you, uh, right now, that is?"
Willa felt the red-heat fire in her cheeks, and only sheer force of will kept her from looking away. "I am Willa here, Sheriff," she said primly, before adding more stoutly, "Willa Beale."
"Greetings, Miss Willa," the man said, his voice devoid of any teasing. "I'd like to talk to your Miss Thompson, please."
Surprised by his respectful address and tone, Willa stood just a little taller, gave a regal nod of her head that was pure Jane Thompson, and then smiled. "Of course, sir, please follow me and I will announce you."
"That was mighty brave of you, today, taking off after that guy the way you did. You did Mrs. Cialini and her girl a big favor, too. Carolyn was going to the bank to get some money changed for her Mother. There was over two hundred dollars in that purse he snatched from her."
"Two hundred dollars?!?" Willa forgot to use 'her' voice, but was so surprised that Will's voice cracked, jumping two octaves.
"Yep. That's a chunk of cash for a small outfit like the Marisha Chalet. Carolyn's feeling pretty grateful to you herself. You, ah, do know Miss Carolyn, doncha Miss Willa?"
A cold chill swept down the spine of the femininely turned out teen as she recalled the flash of recognition in the girl's eye when the purse had been returned to her. Willa swallowed against the lump that threatened to choke her. "yes. . .I mean, Bill knows her. Umm, here we are, Sheriff." She opened the door and stepped inside. "Miss Jane? Sheriff Todd to see you, Ma'am."
"Willa wasn't the only one frightened. I was certain Bill was going to be unmasked and suffer all the humiliation I had never intended to be more than threats with which to prod him into a more civilized behavior."
"Is that why you no longer accept local kids?" Darryl asked.
"In large part, although most of my contacts ended up being from the Midwest and South."
"So the Sheriff wasn't in on your games?" Barbara Anne asked in surprise. "What if he'd gone all macho-indignation on you? Even if you had permission from Bill's Mom, a Male Chauvinist Pig with a badge could have made things really difficult on you."
"Try impossible for me," Jane agreed, "So after I sent Willa off to prepare some coffee, I asked him, straight out, how he was going to handle this situation and whether he intended to interfere with my program."
The burly sheriff made Jane's antique furniture appear even more fragile as he sat forward on the seat, his hands folded together across his knees. "Well, you have to admit that it looks a mite strange, ma'am – a boy dressed in those frilly, Sunday-go-to- meeting girl clothes, out in public."
"I have sound reasons for what I do," Jane interrupted.
"Lots of folks have had 'sound reasons' for all manner of things," the sheriff said easily, "Doesn't always mean those things are necessarily good things. Now me? I've known Billy Beale for some time now – had him as an overnight guest at the jail a time or two. The thing is, Ms. Thompson, THAT Bill? No way he would have chased after that other kid – too self-centered, if you take my meaning. That tells me something's changed, and for the good, too. So, I did some checking around before I came here – called his Mom, too, and spoke to her."
"Yes, Ma'am. She set me straight – told me if I thought there was anything, now how did she put it?" Sheriff Todd's smile became a little sheepish as the memory came back to him. "Oh, yeah, 'Anything untoward, unseemly, or unwholesome happening here,' I should think again. Got to admire a lady who can put that much heat into three syllable words."
"So, I do not need to worry about you putting barriers in my way with respect to Willa's. . .program here?"
"No, Ma'am. Besides, Marisha Cialini would have my head for a hat and my guts for garters if I gave you or that boy any grief. She could have lost her entire weekend receipts if Bill, I mean, if Willa hadn't stopped that Patterson boy from running off with Carolyn's purse."
"I need to speak with her, too, Sheriff. To keep her daughter from. . "
"Figured you might. She wants to talk to you, too, and I've already talked to Marisha about making sure that Caro got the word to keep what she knows to herself. After talking to Mrs. Beale, I figured it couldn't hurt."
"Why. . why, thank you, Sheriff. I'm. . well, rather surprised by your support. What I'm doing here is, well, rather unusual."
"Maddie Beale is good people, Miss Thompson, and while I've given it my best shot, I haven't been able to help her turn that boy around." Jane thought she could hear more than professional interest in the big man's voice. In the woman, or in the boy, she wondered. Perhaps both? "I was afraid he was going to do something really stupid before he wised up – something I couldn't help him keep under the lid. You have helped him, no matter how you've done it. Like I said, the Billy Beale I knew would have stood there watching that punk run off. Your Willa Beale didn't hesitate to 'get involved.' That says it all in my book."
"I. . I see," Jane murmured, still reeling from this man's attitude. "I must apologize, Sheriff, for unfairly prejudging you."
Now, the big man grinned broadly. "Oh, I know I look like the stereotypical TV small town sheriff – sound like one, too, I 'spect. Like most country boys, I grew up liking my beer a bit too much," he added by way of explanation. "Anyway if what you do isn't against the law, and it does some folks good? I'm all for it. All I ask is that you be a little more careful where and when you take your. . .your girl out into public. Try to keep her out of any more trouble."
A great weight seemed to lift from Jane's shoulders. "Agreed, Sheriff. It's just that part of what I'm trying to do is put my pupil under stress, and that is getting harder and harder to do here at my home where she now feels relatively safe."
"So she'll learn how to deal with that stress, as well as with the associated darker emotions without losing her temper or exhibiting whatever bad behaviors got her in trouble in the first place. That's the whole point of putting Willa into those skirts and make up. Preserving the secret of his masquerade makes a boy stop and think in those situations because NOT thinking might expose him publicly as a boy in girl's clothing."
Sheriff Todd became thoughtful. "Yeah, I see what you mean. And you say being out in public adds to that stress?" Jane nodded her agreement. "You know, it seems to me that having to be really girly at a really girly place might be really stressful - for a boy, that is."
"Girly?" Jane asked, stifling a chuckle, "I prefer to call it 'feminine', but I take your point. The problem is that another woman is much more likely to see through the masquerade than a man would be, and that is what I'm trying to prevent."
"I understand, Ma'am, but suppose the woman, or better yet, the WOMEN were already in on the game? Maybe they could zing him - I mean, HER - a few times, too. You know, about how he looked and such?"
"That would be perfect, but I don't have anyone here I dare ask for that type of support. They might take it all wrong, or worse, assume I am abusing the boy."
"Oh, I figure Marisha Cialini would be willing to do just about anything you asked, particularly for that boy. A- because he saved her money, and B-because she remembers the Bill Beale he was before. Carolyn and Bill had a few . . .run-ins before you got hold of him."
"And she runs a beauty salon?" the auburn-haired teacher breathed, almost reverently. "That divine temple of womanly delights and manly terrors?"
"That she does," Todd agreed, pleased with himself. "And she's real anxious to pay you back for Willa's help today."
Jane's eyes went wide and then dreamy as she fully savored the possibilities such an alliance offered her and her student. "A beauty salon," she said again, savoring each syllable as it wafted across her tongue. "Oh, my yes. . ."
"I never met Caro's Mom," Michael said.
"Your loss, kid," Bill assured the young doctor. "Although, I have to admit, I didn't feel that way the first time she met me as Willa."
"Why, she was delightful, dear," Jane cooed at her former student.
"I suppose, Aunt Jane, that it's all a matter of perspective," Bill allowed as he recalled that first be-skirted meeting.
"Ms. Jane - WAIT!" Willa hissed, catching at Jane's elbow to pull her back from the salon doorway.
Annoyed at being so summarily stopped, Jane's words of reprimand fell unsaid as she saw the look real worry on her student's face. "Whatever is the matter, Willa?" she demanded, her tone brisk but unthreatening.
"They've spilled something in there - some kind of chemical - can't you SMELL it? Anything that stinky might be dangerous! Should we go call for help!? Maybe get Sheriff Todd, or the Department of Health?!!?"
For several moments, words failed the tall schoolmistress. She couldn't decide whether to laugh or to reprimand the girl, but she came back to the fact that Willa's concerned expression was not feigned. She smiled and leaned down so she could whisper into her charge's ear, "Never been in a beauty salon before, dear? Don't worry - that's just the normal, everyday aroma of a working beauty parlor."
"You're kidding me!" Willa retorted, her eyes wide.
"-I- NEVER kid," Jane assured the skirted boy-girl. "Now, get a move on, child, or we'll be late and you KNOW how I feel about such a breach of manners."
Swallowing hard, Willa nodded and replied, "Yes, Ma'am," and headed into that feared chamber of all things feminine. All the same, she thought, she'd try to breathe as little as possible while she was in there. Maybe those fumes were why women thought so differently from men - the chemicals messed with their brains.
Signora Marisha Cialini was a tall, olive-skinned woman whose full mouth, high cheek bones and red hair gave her the look of a mature Sophia Loren, at least facially. Her body was hidden in the long blue smock, but as Willa well remembered, the lady tended towards the voluptuous - something her preferred manner of dress showed off quite proudly.
Bill Beale'd had a crush on this particular older woman since he'd first realized that girls were so nicely different than boys. That was one reason Carolyn had always been his preferred teasing victim. At fourteen, she was already taking after her buxom mother.
Willa frowned at that thought. Why ever had Bill thought that made sense, she wondered? *Pretty dumb, Beale, picking on someone to get their attention? How positively third-grade of you.*
"Signorina Thompson," the owner and proprietor greeted in a musically accented alto voice. "How wonderful to meet you, and who have we here, eh? Our hero. . .ine?"
"Please, call me Jane, Signora Cialini, and yes, this is Willa, my niece."
Willa was immediately enveloped in a hug and the mixed smells of the shop and Marisha's floral perfume. It took the girl-boy several seconds to react and return the embrace. Being hugged by the tall woman was a total body experience, and embarrassingly, Willa's body reacted to it. Her humiliation increased when the older woman noticed. "Not so much the girl as all that, eh?" she whispered into Willa's ear. "But that is good. Maybe you learn this time."
There was no doubt in Willa's mind what that had meant, and she was still blushing when the older woman stepped back. "I hope so, Mrs. Cialini. I think I have, anyway." Then, she felt the need to do more than answer the challenge. "I do know that I regret what I. . .what was done to Caro, Ma'am. I. . I'm sorry for that. Please accept my apologies on that score."
"It is not to me such apologies are owed," she told the now- dignified young person, "at least, not all of them. For myself, I will give these apologies. . . due consideration."
Willa was trying to decide how to respond to that when she saw a wicked glint flash in the redhead's green eyes. It was a variation of a look she'd seen in Jane Thompson's violet ones, and something the teen had learned to respect and sometimes fear.
This was, apparently, one of those times when both reactions might be appropriate.
"Well," the beautician said sweetly, "I do owe you a thank you for stopping that thief." Marisha reached out to cup Willa's chin in the palm of her hand, her thumb and fingers reaching up to pinch in on the teen's cheeks, holding her fast.
The almost stereotypically Italian gesture clearly surprised and shocked Willa, while delighting Jane. Here was another woman putting her student to the test, and one who knew the boy-girl from before her time with Jane.
Here was a threat the child HAD to take seriously, and how she responded would tell Jane a great deal about how far her student had truly progressed.
The beautician's grip firmed and twisted, turning Willa's face first to a right profile view, and then back to the left. Marisha's professional eye examined Willa in minute detail, taking in every nuance and facial feature. "You have potential, child," she finally said, her tone musing. "But you are not making the most of it - almost, but not quite. You've had good technical training, but your presentation lacks passion! Drama! Sensuality!"
"Sensuality?!?" Willa's voice cracked as she finally freed herself from Marisha's grasp and tried to step back, only to have her escape blocked by the salon chair.
"Exactly! Well, we'll just fix that for you - RIGHT now, eh?"
"I. . .I'm sure I'm just fine. . ." Willa's eyes were huge, and shifting back and forth from Marisha to Jane, appeal evident in every eye-flicker. "I'm. . .I'm a little.. . young for that. Don't you think, Aunt Jane?"
Jane crossed her fingers and hoped she'd read the other woman correctly. "Oh, I don't know. Every girl should know how to look her best, and Signora Cialini IS an expert. It's just too bad we didn't think to make an appointment. . ."
"Pah!" the beautician retorted. "My morning appointments have both canceled out and I have nothing on my calendar until after lunch. Why don't you get into this chair, and I will give you a complete treatment - the works, as we say - by way of saying grazie, eh? And your Zia Jane and I can chat while I work - get to know each other."
"Oh, but that's not necessary," Willa replied, her heart leaping into her throat.
"But I insist, cara, it is the LEAST I can do. Please, Jane, let me do this to. . .I mean, for the child."
That 'look' now flashed in Jane's eyes, and Willa knew she was doomed. "It's a lovely idea. It will make Signora Cialini happy to do something so nice for you, dear, to show her gratitude. Now, get - in - the - chair!"
"Such lovely hair you have, child," Marisha mused as she ran knowledgeable fingers over Willa's scalp, "and very nice bones, too. It's too bad you are not a blonde. You have the complexion for it. Why, with the right makeup and hair, I could make you a dead ringer for that Cheryl Tiegs - you know, the model all those silly boys are gawking at in that sports magazine."
"Blonde?!?" Willa yelped, her torso snapping up out of the recliner, trying to escape, only to be firmly pushed back into the beautician's chair by the surprisingly powerful Signora Cialini.
"Sedersi, cara! SIT! Let me make you beautiful like every girl dreams of being beautiful!"
"I thought about bleaching her hair," Jane put in, thoroughly pleased with the corner into which she and the other woman had painted her pupil. "But I was concerned about damaging her hair. You really think she could look like that model, eh?"
"HAH! She will look BETTER! Molta bella! And her hair? When I'm done, it will be like baby's breath - fine and lovely - just like your girl, Jane."
"She's a little. . .underdeveloped for that look, don't you think?" Jane asked, gleefully taking in the array of bottles, tubes, and pots her new friend was gathering to the work shelf near the chair. "She's barely out of her training bras, after all."
"Nonsenso. She just needs a little. . .help, yes? Most girls her age do, you know, and I have just the thing to fix that - you'll see."
"Wonderful. Perhaps I will purchase that magazine so I can find the perfect bathing suit for her then. And it's just what you want, isn't it, Willa?"
Hearing the steel in that last question-that-was-not-a-question, Willa somehow managed to force her lips into something remotely resembling a smile. "Exactly, Aunt Jane."
"And was it?" Audrey asked, grinning broadly. "EXACTLY what you wanted?"
"Oh, sure," Bill agreed, noting that this interlude was diverting Jane from her bad memories, if only for a little while. "Wearing a combination corset-bustier with a pair of life-like falsies was EXACTLY what I wanted at that moment."
"Life-like, you say?" Darryl chided.
"For the time, they were, but not compared to what's available these days. They lacked. . . well, jiggle."
This brought a hoot of laughter from everyone. Bill managed to look sheepish, and then pressed on. "Well, this WAS before silicon became so big, but the dam . . darned things even had NIPPLES," the deputy complained. "Big, prominent ones that poked out and showed through to my blouse! Every blasted male over five years old immediately fixated on my chest!"
"And an excellent object lesson it was, too," the Mistress of Seasons House explained before adding reflectively, "Amazing how young males, who grow up going about bare-chested when ever they wish, get so undone by a couple of bits of strategically shaped and placed foam rubber."
"You have to be there, I guess, Aunt Jane," Bill muttered.
"And this was just before you got Lora?" Michael asked?
"Hmmm," Jane thought, "Yes. Just a few days later, in fact. I remember because it began the worst week of my career."
"And you did it alone?" Audrey asked, looking to Marie not quite able to see Jane working a student with the assistance of her long-time partner.
"Well, there I got lucky," Jane said, smiling at her friend. "It was, what, a little over a week after we named Lora, wasn't it, Bill, that you took that call?"
"Yes, Aunt Jane, and I have to tell you, hearing her voice again was almost as scary as when I first saw YOU again . . ."
"Aunt Jane?" Willa said from the door of the music room. "You have a call. It is Mademoiselle Marie - you remember her - from Eastmore?"
"Ah, yes," Jane replied thoughtfully. "She left shortly after you arrived at school, didn't she?"
"Yes, Ma'am. She was the dorm mother for my wing of the dormitory."
*Where you and all the other special students were housed. I wonder what she wants?* Jane wondered tiredly. *Lord, but I wish I had someone like her with me at Seasons House now - someone I could trust with my students - especially with THIS one! I'm dead on my feet.* "Please watch Lora while I take the call in my office, Willa. Lora? I will be just down the hall. You do not want me to have to end my call prematurely to come back here and deal with your misbehavior. Trust me on this!"
Jane swept into her office and picked up the phone, while she rummaged about her desk drawer looking for an aspirin. Her morning session with Lora had not gone any better than the last week's worth of sessions had gone. In other words, nothing the least bit positive had been accomplished. Finding the aspirin, she choked down two dry tablets before speaking into the phone. "Marie? What a lovely surprise. What can I do for you?"
"Miss Thompson, hello," was the edgy, nervous reply. "Ma'am, I was hoping you would be willing to give me the reference from my time at Eastmore. I am looking for work, but the new Head Mistress - she says she does not know me and so can not help me. I need a job, Ma'am, very badly."
"Why, Marie, whatever happened? I thought you and your young man were getting married and . . "
"He died, Miss Thompson," was the flat response. "A accident while in training, or so the Army tells me. And we had not yet married because his commanding officer wouldn't grant permission until he finished basic training. I'm not even a widow, so there are no - what do they call them - survivor benefits. I have nothing and badly need to work. Can you help me? WILL you help me?"
Jane was not the sort of woman given to belief in Willa had reminded her that Marie had been in on the Eastmore program. In fact, she'd been trusted to protect the special girls outside of class when they were most vulnerable. "Marie, I might have a situation for you, if you're interested. Your duties would be similar to those you did so well at Eastmore, except for only one or two special students at a time."
"Special students?" was the surprised response, "You mean la petite gamins-filles?"
"Precisely. I am doing a similar program for such special students here in my home, but I find that the second student is almost more than I can manage, even with the help of a more senior student. Do you think you're up to helping more of my girls, Marie?"
"Certainment, Madamoiselle. You have need for l'enseignante responsable d'un dortoir de pensionnat for your new school?"
"Actually, I was thinking of having you here as my housekeeper or Major Domo more than a dormitory mistress, Marie. Having that type of live-in help for a house this size would be expected among the locals and would not raise any questions I might not care to answer."
"That sounds parfait, Ma'am. Will I be able to do some cooking, too? I missed that quite badly at Eastmore."
"You cook?" Jane breathed hopefully.
"Mais oui! I am a superb cook and I love doing it."
"Make that housekeeper, major domo and head chef. Your room and board will be part of your benefits, and I will see to all the other usual benefits, too. How does that sound?"
"Excellent! When can you start?"
"As soon as I can get there, Ma'am. There is a train station near where you live, oui? I can leave for there tomorrow."
"Bless you, Marie. Look, I've got to run. My newest student, I should warn you, has not yet been brought around and is something of a problem child just now."
"Pooh," was the quick reply. "We have done the problem children before. Bon jour, Miss Thompson. I will see you soon!"
"I knew you'd lost someone special, Marie," Darryl said, coming over to embrace the little housekeeper. "I am sorry you did, but I have to tell you that I will always be grateful that you were here in my life when I needed you."
Michael, Ken and Audrey crowded around the teary-eyed brunette for their hugs, echoing their 'Jane-sister's' sentiments.
"I miss my cher ami, but you - all of Jane's and my children - have filled in that dark space and made my life rich. If it was not what I dreamed of as a little girl, it was still wonderful and I wouldn't have missed a moment of it."
Jane stood, letting her long-time friend bask in the love of their shared family when Diana came up to put a comforting arm about her waist. "So that's how Marie came to be here, eh?" she asked her wife.
"Yes, and it was just in time, too, because Lora really had me at my wit's end. I have never, in all my life, done more than simply protect myself with a student. Never once have I raised my hand in anger to a child, but God help me, I was THIS CLOSE with Lora when Marie arrived and calmly took charge."
"I shooed her out of the house and told her to go out," Marie's eyes twinkled as she recalled that day. "Told her to go see a movie, have dinner, do SOMETHING for herself and I'd watch over her enfante terrible."
"And she did - so I did," Jane recalled, "Do something for myself, that is. . . "
"You have the very big bags under your eyes, Cara," Marisha chided her client in her lilting Italian accents. "They make you look old, like me."
Jane Thompson sighed, and looked upward at the gently concerned face of the stylist. "As if you'll ever look less than gorgeous, Signora! But as to how I look? That's why I'm here and not home hiding in my bed. I'm afraid I need your magical rejuvenation treatments while Marie is watching the students today, or I will soon be a hag."
"I would say so! I know! I have this lovely face mask that will be just the thing for you, eh?" Then she switched to Italian. ::Is it Willa that troubles you, Cara?::
::No, Signora,:: Jane answered in the same language, ::In fact, our Willa has been all that I could have hoped for. Why, she even volunteered to stay on to help with my new student after I offered to change her back into William and send her home, free and clear.::
::She has done well, then?::
::It is as a Mother I ask this, you understand,:: Marisha said with a knowing smile, her hands gently massaging the warm green paste into Jane's cheeks and forehead. ::My Caro, I think, is rather intrigued by your sweet boy in his girl's clothing.::
Jane's lips curled upward. ::I'd say the feeling is mutual, Signora, and has been on his part for quite a while. It is just that before his time in my keeping, our young swain didn't know how to plight his troth in a socially acceptable manner. It's a good thing schools no longer have open inkwells on every desk and that your Caro is out of pigtails.::
The zaftig hairdresser laughed agreeably. ::Just as well, then. Ink is so hard to clean from the hair. So, if it isn't our Willa putting such circles under your eyes than what? Tell Mama Cialini. Is it your other student? The one you've yet to bring in to me?::
Weary all over again, Jane nodded. ::He doesn't fear me enough to want to change. The only threat that seems to make any difference is to put him in public as a girl with the possibility of being unmasked. And that only lasts so long as he is out in public.::
::So take him into public,:: Marisha offered with a careless shrug of her shoulders.
::Too dangerous. Because he doesn't fear me, he hasn't put enough effort into learning to present himself as a girl. He's just too likely to make a mistake and really be caught out. That would ruin everything.::
::So bring him here.::
Jane nearly goggled at the seemingly flip reply. "HERE?!?"
::In Italiano, Cara, please. And why not here, I'd like to know? Caro and I already know about your program and we know about him, so we aren't a threat to your secrets. Besides, I would love to deal with that thieving little rat.::
Jane almost accepted out of hand, but hard learned caution intervened. ::That's very dangerous,:: she thought aloud. ::Suppose he broke character in here and one of your customers realized you had a boy in girl's clothing in your chair? Imagine the rumors and gossip - the negative reflection on you and the salon. You could not deny that you knew his true nature and that kind of talk could badly hurt your business.::
::Pooh. We will schedule him for a time when we are almost between customers, some going at the start; some coming near the end, eh? I will put him in the far back chair. He won't know who else is in the shop unless I tell him, and I won't.::
::Lord, but that sounds perfect. When could you do it?::
Marisha disappeared from the cubicle and returned moments later with a large loose-leaf binder that she set on her tool counter. ::Ah! I have the perfect time - Wednesday afternoon at 2:30 PM. It is even better than perfect!::
::Better than perfect? How so?::
::Caro and I host a young ladies club here on Wednesdays after school lets out. That is why things tend to be so quiet. A group of girls from the school come here to learn how to apply the make-up, yes? We could have your naughty girl participate.::
"Oh, no," Jane blurted, again forgetting to speak in Italian, "That's not a good idea. She'd. . "
Marisha placed a coral-nailed finger against Jane's lips to silence her. ::She won't have to be part of the group, Cara. I will keep them apart from her by using her as the display mannequin, eh? My dummy! All she will have to do is sit there, look pretty, be quiet - when I permit her that small mercy - and let me pluck her eyebrows, dab make-up on her and make her preen for the other girls. And then, we will arrange her escape before the rest of the girls can corner her. If you were to, perhaps, show up about ten minutes before the end of our little lesson and have to whisk her right away?::
Eyes wide, Jane could only stare at the older woman for several moments and then began to laugh - her first real, full-hearted laugh in the weeks since William had agreed to stay on as Willa. "Perfetto, Primadonna, Perfetto!"
::You know,:: Marisha added thoughtfully, ::I might have another possibility for you. A friend of mine owns the dress shop down the street, and she is looking to expand. If you were to purchase your girls' wardrobes from her, she might be amenable to providing you with another safe public venue for your little darlings.::
::I don't know if I dare ask her, Marisha. It is not in the normal way of dealing with such children. She might decide she needed to do something to rescue the children from me.::
::I will talk to her for you, then,:: Marisha offered, ::And if I think she is receptive, I will introduce the idea to her - purely as, how do they say? Oh yes, as a theoretical exercise.::
::It would be a wonderful addition to the program. Imagine them both, dressed only in their panties, slips and bras, trying on all those lovely clothes and having to pretend to enjoy it while real women roam about nearby.::
"So that's how those Wednesday afternoon make-up classes got started," Darryl asked.
"Just one more contribution Momma Cialini made to Jane's little program of horrors," Bill replied. "Just like she introduced you to Betty Franson, right, Aunt Jane?"
"Yes, indeed," Jane replied, smiling at that memory. "Betty was just starting up her lingerie shop, MiLady's Closet, as an extension of the Style Shoppe. Marisha approached her, using the example of a boy who had recently tried to burgle her dress shop, and got Betty thinking about how appropriate it would be if women were the ones to deal with thieves who stole from women. Betty fell right in with the idea, even after she found out it wasn't really a theoretical exercise. I got another willing helper on my team and in on the ground floor of what turned out to be a very lucrative little investment, all at the same time."
Bill gave a exaggerated shiver. "Never will forget the first time I had to strip down in there and try on all those dresses - almost made me regret offering to help Aunt Jane! Even though I knew Betty was in on the gag, I also knew that the really cute shop girl wasn't! I was terrified that she'd see," the sheriff to be looked pointedly at his own crotch and blushed, "Well, evidence of my true gender while I changed. I was one very polite and civil young customer, let me tell you!"
"Well, I," Janice pronounced, "Find it hard to believe that any mere male could stand up to you, Momma-Jane, especially with Marie at your side."
"I think," Diana replied thoughtfully, "that the reason for Jane's difficulties in that regard should be obvious now, child.
Jane was about to ask her mate what she meant by that remark when Michael, nodding his head in agreement with Diana, piped in, "How did Lora react to the public make-up and dress-up sessions?"
"I would guess," Artemis Thompson-Philips(A.K.A. Diana Thompson-Philips), Ph.D. in Psychology and Counseling put in, "Not as well as your Mother and her friends might have hoped."
"I'll tell the world," Jane breathed.
Marie entered her new employer's office, a crystal glass of water and a large bottle of aspirin carried on an antique silver salver tray. Jane looked up from her desk, saw the offering and smiled gratefully. "Bless you, Marie. How did you know I had a screaming headache?"
"The creases on your forehead gave me the first clue, mademoiselle, but it was you knuckling your temples after the boys - I mean - the girls went up to bed for the night that really gave you away."
Jane popped two of the tablets into her mouth and sipped the water. "God, what a day," she breathed, again knuckling at her temples. "Sit down, Marie and relax for a bit. You've been up and on your feet as long as I have. We need to wind down, too. Would you like something to drink?" the tall redhead asked, indicating the nearby combination sideboard and bar.
"Some wine would be nice. Would you like me to get you something?"
"Not on top of the aspirin, dear. So, are you regretting what you let yourself in for when you accepted my little job offer? You've been here, for what, almost two months now?"
"Two months tomorrow, Madame," the petite brunette answered in her lightly French accented tones. "I'm doing well, I think. It's a lovely house and the kitchen is tres merveilleux. And I am ever so grateful for the job. I needed to work."
Her employer nodded, understanding how work could help one deal with grief from her own experiences. "And are you all right with my, umm, students and their special requirements?" Marie visibly hesitated and Jane could almost see her thinking, trying to choose her words. "Out with it, Marie," she ordered gently.
"Willa is, how do you say? La demoiselle parfait, eh? The perfect young lady, yes? Much better than the best of the students at Eastmore - even the true girls. I really like her, and it is very difficult for me to be strict with her."[bookmark]
"Willa is here voluntarily, Marie, to help us with the other one, much as I used to have the more experienced special students help us with the new ones at Eastmore. I offered to release her before I took on Lora, but she asked to stay on and help. Now, what is it you're trying so hard not to say about Lora?"
Feeling her cheeks flame, Marie looked into the golden wine in her glass. "She frightens me, Miss Jane. Whenever I tell her to do something, she stares at me like some barely trained wild animal deciding whether to obey or to attack. And nothing about the dressing seems to touch her - even when you dressed her in that hideous children's costume. It just didn't matter. I don't know how else to describe it."
"An excellent observation on your part. I know just what you mean. We had an outing today - probably the seeds of this headache - a trip to the beauty salon, a trip to the dress shop, and then attendance at Signora Cialini's make-up class."
"I thought her hair was a bit, umm, overdone tonight at dinner."
Jane gave a short laugh. "God-awful is what you mean. Marisha gave her a 'big hair experience' that would have embarrassed Dolly Parton, except it didn't touch her. Just as you said. Nor did being stripped down to her foundation garments at MiLady's Closet. She just stood there and smiled through it all."
"And the make-up lesson? Isn't that with other children her age? Real girls?"
"Marisha used her as a demonstration model, same as the last couple of times. No reaction."
"Nothing at all?" Marie had worked with teenaged girls and boys for several years at the Eastmore Academy and understood adolescent egos and motivations. "But it HAD to have some effect!"
"Not even when I started taking pictures of her at the end of the session. The only time she's shown the least reaction was that first time a few weeks back, and according to Willa, all she did then was curl her lip for a moment."
"But, Madame, that is so WRONG! How can the things you are making her do leave her so completely unaffected?? How can you help her CHANGE if she doesn't feel the. . . the wrongness of any of this?"
"I don't know, Marie, and for the life of me, I don't know what to do next. He gives me the same reaction you describe. Do you know? When I took those pictures of him earlier, the little snot POSED for me? Crossed his legs and dangled his high heeled shoe off his toe while pursing his lips in a kissy motion. Like some bloody adolescent pinup girl or a 1930's movie flirt! Lord, I bet he'd react if I put him in stiletto heels, fishnet stockings and dumped him in the middle of Boston's Red-light District at midnight someday!"
"Oh, I wouldn't do it, but I can dream, can't I? And could you PLEASE simply call me Jane? I really would like us to be friends, Marie, not just employer and employee."
Uncertainly, the housekeeper looked up at Jane, and finally nodded. "Okay. . . if you're sure, Mi. ..I mean, Jane."
"Better! Oh, and try to lose the 'okay' for now. I take the children to task for it, so it will lessen your authority if you use that particular term around them."
"O - I mean, Yes, Jane." Both women laughed at that, then Marie remembered something she'd wanted to ask. "Jane? Are there any wild animals around here that I should be careful about?"
"Not that I can think of," the other woman replied. "Maybe a feral cat or dog, but nothing that should threaten a human. Why?"
"Oh, I saw a blood sign this morning when I went for a walk about the grounds - near the stables. Looked like a predator had killed something. Quite a bit of blood, actually."
"Hmmm. I better have Tom - that's our grounds keeper, in case you didn't know - have a look about. Maybe some animal has taken up residence on the estate. Oh, look at the time. I think you and I better get to bed. Five A.M. never comes late in my experience."
"Good Night, Jane."
"You, too, Marie."
"No reaction?" Darryl demanded, "none at all?"
"None, cheri," Marie said solemnly. "Oh, as Jane said - the first time for anything new, Lora stepped softly, but in hindsight, it was more caution than fear. I truly think she simply did not care what anyone else thought. They were unimportant to her so if they found out, it didn't matter."
"God, that's really scary," the most experienced big sister of all breathed. "Particularly for someone who was facing jail as an alternative."
"I don't know if Lawrence really perceived juvenile detention to be his alternative," Jane replied. "After all, he wasn't really a court-referred case. Sheriff Todd interceded with the DA and the grandmother to send him to me. The DA assured us he'd prosecute if Lawrence failed my program, but it was not as if his transfer to an institution was assured if he failed to meet my standards."
"I asked her, well, him about it," Bill reminisced, "And all he'd say was that it didn't matter."
Into the silence that followed that pronouncement, Diana finally spoke up. "I'm surprised he didn't, I mean, all the data points to it." The elegant silver-haired woman shook herself and looked Jane in the eye. "I'll just come out and ask. Did you ever catch her - that is, him, in a violent act?"
"How did you know that?" Bill demanded, eyes wide.
"Tell me what happened," the psychologist asked, still holding Jane's gaze.
"It was about three weeks, maybe a month later. Marie and I were having tea together alone in my suite while Willa kept an eye on her little sister. We'd planned on discussing the Lora problem and what options we might still have with her. . ."
"Jane, I just don't know what else you can possibly do with the child. From what I understand of your method, it is her fear of discovery that should force her into thinking twice before doing something untoward. It's been more than two months since that child has reacted to anything we've done to her."
"I can't just give up on her!" was Jane's pained reply.
"SHE'S given up on you AND herself!" Marie retorted. "It can't be all you. I don't think that boy understands or accepts the difference between right and wrong, or good and evil. All he understands is what he wants and how to get it. Right now, you are in his world and he knows he is unable to change that, but that doesn't mean he will allow you to affect him in his world."
"And if I cannot affect him in his world, I can't help him change it or himself," the tall redhead sighed, resignedly. "So, what do I do? Turn him back over to Sheriff Todd?"
Marie's reply went forever unsaid as a dirt-stained and scraped Willa rushed into the room. "Ms. Jane, Marie, come quick. I had to hit Lora and she's not moving!"
"WHAT? WHERE?!?" Jane snapped, jumping from her seat and spilling her tea on the rug.
"The stables! I lost her - she just disappeared and I had to look for her. Then I saw her going into the stables and ran after her. She had a knife and was going to use it on Garters - on her back leg, near the ankle!"
All three raced out the door and down the path to the horse stables.
The scenario was just as Willa had described it. An unconscious Lora lay upon the rough-hewn floor near the mare's stall, a large butcher's knife still gripped in her hand.
"I closed the stall door before coming for you," Willa explained. "I didn't want Garters getting out or trampling Lora."
"She was going to hamstring my horse," Jane whispered, her voice hoarse and her skin pale.
"She came to shortly after that," Bill told Jane's gathered family. "Tried to convince Jane that I'd been the one who was going after old Stars and Garters."
"As if I'd believe that!" Jane snorted. "Marie and I did a quick breakdown on her, although it wasn't up to our current standards. I am afraid Lawrence was more than a little androgynous when we finished, but we were pressed for time. The sheriff arrived shortly thereafter to cart him off. Afterwards, we found his cache of souvenirs when we cleaned out Lora's room. He'd been Marie's predator, and he'd kept parts of the animals he'd killed in a box beneath his bed."
"Ewwww," Audrey groaned, her hands and arms hugging her bulging tummy. "Sick!"
"Exactly," Diana replied. "Did he go to the juvie or to a treatment institution?"
"Treatment," Bill answered, "Not that it did him any good. He just liked being what he was - a . . "
"William!" Jane's voice rang out sharply. "None of that. It's over and in the past. Leave it there."
"Yes, Aunt Jane. Sorry."
"If he was such a sociopath," Michael asked, "How is it that he never broke the truth about your program and the people who helped you?"
Marie grinned. "That was our Willa's idea, and one that Jane kept up for the all the rest of our students."
All eyes turned to the suddenly blushing law officer. "Well, you see, it's like this. I mean, well,"
"William!" the school mistress called out.
"I blackmailed him. You know those photos Jane took? At the salon and around here? I told him I'd make sure that copies were sent to whatever reform school his butt landed in if there was ever even a HINT about what Jane does here. He didn't fear her or the stuff that went on here, but he knew enough about juvie to be afraid of what the other inmates would do to a nice femmy little sissy in their midst. Guess he thought it would be the same at the hospital where he was committed. Too bad they couldn't have just kept him once he was twenty one and supposedly cured."
"The origin of the Rogue's Gallery, Mom?" Kenneth asked.
"Just so. At first, it seemed like insurance, particularly after I had coerced certain facts out of Willa. Eventually, however, it became more a family album than anything else, and its original purpose thankfully a thing of the past."
"What happens to him, to Lawrence, now?" Jane asked her first Seasons House pupil.
The deputy shrugged. "He has no family anymore. His Grandmother passed away before he got out of the mental hospital so there's no one likely to claim his remains. I guess they'll do whatever the Dade County Police Department procedures specify for unclaimed bodies."
"He's mine," Jane said, her eyes suddenly dark and wet. "Find out what it takes to bring him home, Bill, please. We'll see to him here."
"You're sure?" Diana asked, moving over to settle one the arm of Jane's chair and put an arm about her spouse.
"I couldn't help him, Diana. Maybe now, after this lot, I might have been able to, might have known what to do for him, but back then, I did everything I knew how to do and still couldn't reach him."
"It won't make any difference to way you feel, darling, but as a psychologist? From what you and Bill have just told me, I think it is unlikely that anyone could have helped him. Maybe earlier on, but by the time he was snatching purses and killing little animals, it was just too late."
"Perhaps," Jane admitted. "I'll never know, will I?" She was silent for a short moment, letting Diana hold her close. Then she turned her tear-bright eyes back to Bill. "For all that, he's one of my boys. . .and. . . and I want him home!"
"I'll see to it, Aunt Jane," Bill promised, taking her hand gently in his.
"Oh DAMN, not NOW!"
"Audrey?!?" Darryl yelped, staring at his wife in surprise.
"Darrrrrllaaahhh???! Honey? It's time!" the pregnant brunette said in a sing-song voice, reminiscent of "I Love Lucy".
"Huh? What did you say, sweetheart?"
Diana saw the almost instantaneous shift from Darryl to Darla. *Amazing,* she mused, *He even LOOKS feminine now, just because his wife called for her best girl friend and he responded to that as Darla.*
"It's .. . time. . " Audrey gritted out again, this time with her teeth tightly clenched.
"Time? Time for wha. . . OHMIGOD - THAT time? As in. . ."
"2 minutes apart at last check, dear," Audrey assured her husband, "And my water just broke, too. Sorry, Jane."
"Mike??!" Darryl called to his brother even as he moved to his wife's side.
"I'll get my bag!" the resident doctor replied, heading for the door.
Then, Jane took charge. "Meet us around front, Michael. Ken? Get the estate wagon. Marie? Call the hospital and Audrey's OB. Tell her we're coming in. Diana? Get the Lincoln - we'll need the extra space for this crowd."
"I've got my patrol car," Bill offered, "I'll escort you with the siren."
Barbara was heading for the stairs. "I'll tell Adrienne so she can stay with Camille! But she'll want to see the baby as soon as possible."
"Bring her and Camille - and Jessica," Jane ordered. "Camille's far enough along to appreciate this event and even benefit from it."
Hovering at the door as Michael helped the pregnant mother-to-be outside, Darryl called back to Marie, "Her doctor's name is. ."
"Darryl, I KNOW who her doctor is! Who do you think recommended her to Audrey?" Jane retorted, sounding just a bit annoyed, "Go take care of your wife and my granddaughter!"
"Now why am I surprised?" the soon-to-be father muttered as he raced to catch up with his wife.
The informal Irish Wake of mere hours before had adjourned to the waiting room outside the birthing area at the local hospital. Jane stood outside with Barbara Anne and Kenneth, allowing other members to go inside the too-small natural birth room for a turn with the Mother-to-be. "Going to give me one of yours to spoil soon?"
Ken shook his head. "We've decided to wait a while first, Mom, for Adrian's sake. He's been through a lot and grown a great deal since being sent to you, but we wanted to make sure he was certain of his place in our family before we added to it."
"I think a boy whose life ambition is to help orphaned children find loving homes could handle being a big brother without jealousy."
"You're probably right, Mom. Heck, I KNOW you're right, but it won't hurt us to give him a little 'only kid with two parents' time for a while longer."
Just then, the birthing room door opened, and a sweating, red- eyed and smiling Darryl beckoned to them. "Mom? Please come back in. We'd like you to meet Jean-Marie Prudence Thompson-Philips. Your granddaughter."