I'm Watching You...
~Tales Of The Seasons~
A Time For Every Season

by Tigger

Based on characters and concepts originated in
"Seasons of Change" by Joel Lawrence and "A Losing Season" by Tigger



A Note From Tigger:

Dear Friends.

According to the properties box on my word processor, almost two years ago, I started working on a story. In that time, a great many things have happened -some good, some bad, some happy, some sad.

As often happens with a story, A wall got in my way of finishing it.

Early this year, while writing Season of Terror, I had reason to go back and reread parts of this hanger-queen because my characterization had to be consistent.

This story, called "A Time for Every Season" is another story in the Saga of Aunt Jane. Those among you who have read Joel Lawrence's original tale know that Aunt Jane was originally a teacher at a girl's boarding school called "Eastmore". In my corner of the Seasons Universe, I explained that she had begun her career as a petticoat disciplinarian at Eastmore when, as Head Mistress, she learned that her predessesor had accepted selected boy students and forced them to live as girls with the concurrance of the boys' guardians.

A Time to Every Season is another of those stories that grew out of a question - a couple of questions actually. How do you force-feminize a real girl, for one thing. The other question was about what kind of girl would be worthy of one of my favorite characters - Darryl/Darla.

This is a VERRRRRRYYYYYYY long story, folks, and will be posted over a fairly long period of time. It has been read through for proofing at least four times, and since the story iteslf is 1.2 MB and 400 pages, there will be the occassional (ahem) glitch or two. All noted , um, unfortunate liberties with the disciplines of spelling, grammar and logic will be accepted with gratitude and the final files fixed before submission to Anne-Mal and Crystal for archiving at FM and StorySite.

One last note - A long time ago, I invited several folks to a 'story wedding'. The response was marvelous, and this is the story that was to have the wedding. Unfortunately, my skills were not up to doing justice to the task of having those folks appear in my story. The scenes were wooden, stilted and unfair to the folks themselves. I've stripped out the entire scene, but kept it on my hard drive for tinkering over time. Until I get it right.

I hope you enjoy the story and don't mind the long serialization that will see it ultimately published to the list.

warm furry hugs!

Tigger

Archiving permitted at Fictionmania and StorySite - all others please ask.






Introduction I ~ Jane's Family at Home


Jane took a deep breath of the soft, morning air, the uniquely
New England-autumn scents that always made her think 'home'. A
rogue breeze rustled her shirt and made Jane smile at the image
she displayed. Few if any of her students would have recognized
this Jane Thompson-Philips - unless they were close enough to see
the startlingly vivid eyes and even then, her attire would have
elicited at least one double take.

Jane's height-of-fashion ensemble was designed around the sheer
inelegance of a Winnie the Pooh and Piglet t-shirt beneath an
unbuttoned plaid woolen work-shirt. Jeans, heavy work boots, a
Boston Red Sox ball cap and a pair of heavy work gloves completed
her regalia. Of course, Jane had a purpose (she refused to call
it an excuse) for this stark departure from her normal strictly
proper, but thoroughly feminine, uniforms. The man who normally
ran her stables and cared for her mounts was away on vacation.
Jane had been mucking out the stalls of her horses and seeing to
their other needs this morning, and the outfit suited the needs.
She smiled mischievously at the thought of what one of her boys
would think of her in this outfit. *Maybe I will have Art take a
picture of me and include copies in our holiday cards this year.
Well, at least the jeans are new,* she thought, *As is the hat.*

The cap was a gift from her adopted son, Darryl. In fact, the
jeans were also a gift, but FOR her husband. Art Philips had
shown a rather marked and lascivious interest in Jane's bottom
and long legs encased in tight (VERY tight) denim. *Any damned
tighter and I am going to have to hang from the corsetting
trapeze just to get them zipped,* she thought before sighing
dreamily. *Which won't bother you a bit, Jane Thompson, so long
as Art has no trouble getting you out of them quickly when the
occasion calls for it.*

Her happily-aimless wanderings soon found Jane in her morning
garden, enjoying summer's last blooms. The trees would be
putting on their fall colors soon. Autumn had always been one of
her favorite seasons, as much for the weather and color as
anything. New England really was at her best in the fall. It
was also the one time of year when history indicated that Jane
was most likely to have a few weeks to herself.

One of Jane's goals for her students that she usually managed to
achieve was getting the little darlings through her program in
time to start school on time in September. And she usually
didn't pick up anyone new until sometime in October. It usually
took that long for teachers to throw up their hands at the antics
of the type of wayward boy who would benefit from Jane's
petticoated prison.

Ah, but this September was different. This September she would
have more than Marie and the horses to occupy her. This year she
had a husband, and soon, she would also have her son home as
well. Art had finished his contractual obligation to teach
summer school at the university and had arrived home a few days
ago. Originally, Darryl was to have accompanied Art home from
the university, but there had been a last minute glitch with his
registration for the fall semester.

Darryl's agile and voracious young mind had become thoroughly
spoiled by the challenge and excitement of Jane's home schooling
program, and thus had found his undergraduate studies a grave
disappointment by comparison. He wanted out of that stifling and
dogmatic Ivy League School program as quickly as was humanly
possible. With his typical determination, Darryl had set out to
complete his degree early so that he could follow Michael to
medical school in the spring term.

His solution had been to take nearly twice as many credits as the
school recommended and to use the university's new 'distance
learning' program to get them. The university was giving him
some grief about residency requirements and course overloads,
clearly trying to get him to return in the spring for another
semester. He had stayed behind in Providence to resolve the
problems with his advisor and the university registrar. Jane
hoped that all went well on that front. She was looking forward
to having her son AND her husband both home for the next few
months.

The question was what was she going to do with this embarrassment
of familial riches?

From her perch, she saw a tall slim figure jogging around the
stables and turning toward the house. Silver tresses escaping
from a ponytail flashed in the cool morning sunlight as the man
began a kicking sprint. *Art,* Jane thought her heart swelling,
*back from his morning run.*

Darryl and Art both loved badgering her into joining them when
they ran, which was one reason Jane had not minded when her horse
groom had left on his holiday. Given the choice between running
and even the most unpleasant of horse chores, running lost hands
down every time in Jane's book.

She watched as her husband slowed to a walk after his end of run
sprint, and recognized the behavior from watching Art run with
Darryl. Every one of their jogs turned into some silly proof of
manhood race when they should have been tired and cooling out.
Those races matched Darryl's youth versus Art's much longer
stride. Darryl usually won, but never by much and never by
enough to feel that confident of winning the next race when Art's
stride might easily prove decisive.

Sadly, her adopted son's physical size had never grown to match
his heart. By whatever metric human intangibles might be
measured, Darryl's heart and spirt set new standards in Jane's
view. Whether gently tending to a tearful little sister after
one of Jane's exercises or courageously facing down a past
fraught with torments and monsters few could survive, Darryl was
matchless. He was, in all the best senses of the term, a man - a
very gentle man to be sure, but a man through and through.

Jane simply wished he could have been a *larger* gentle man - for
all his diminutive size had allowed him to help her time and
again with her program. *If only he had been a late bloomer like
Kenneth,* she thought. Life in America was so much easier for
young men who attained what society viewed as manly height and
weight, but the devoutly wished-for growth spurt had never come.
Darryl had topped out at a bare five feet five inches tall
(slightly on tip-toe, but Jane would never call him on that) and
a scant one hundred twenty pounds.

Oddly enough, Darla, the femme alter ego Darryl had assumed as
both her student and as resident 'big sister' with several of
Jane's most difficult students, was as imposing as she was
lovely. Michael/Michelle might have been the most adept student
Jane had ever taught and Tyrone/Tyra might have had the cutest
face, but Darla was the most striking and the most powerful
personality of any of her students.

*Art says that is because Darryl has, over time, modeled Darla
after me. 'Like Mother, like daughter' I suppose,* Jane mused,
finding herself rather pleased with that observation.

Jane stood and headed for the house. She needed a shower and a
clean change of clothes, then she'd check with Marie to see if
any help was needed with breakfast preparations. Maybe that
tight tube shirt she'd purchased in Boston - the one that showed
her bosom to such advantage, and of course, another pair of the
painted-on jeans. One very pleasant aspect of having only family
in residence at Seasons House was that maintaining her "Jane
Thompson-the-Model-of-Unachievable-Feminine-Perfection" was not
required every minute of every day. She could even go down to
breakfast without makeup and wearing blue jeans.

A sensual glint lit Jane's dark eyes. She'd dispense with the
boots, though. Leg man that he was, Art would appreciate the
sight of her strutting to the breakfast table wearing these tight
jeans and a pair of spike heeled sling backs. Her grin took a
decidedly wicked turn. Just because Jane Thompson was the
epitome of all things ladylike did not mean she did not know how
to be a proper tease when the occasion or her mood called for it.
Some of the best teases in history were grand ladies and Jane
always subscribed to being the best she could be at anything she
decided was worth doing.

And if her darling hubby played his cards right, she'd let him
express his approval in the time honored way of appreciative
lovers - after breakfast, of course. Working in the stables
always left Jane famished and she planned on needing the energy a
good meal provided.



Introduction II ~ Art and Jane Together


Without alerting Jane to his presence, Art watched his wife of
less than a year smile softly as she scanned the large scrap book
on her desk. He immediately recognized the tome as her 'rogues
gallery' of boys who had passed through her program. Everyone of
them had been on their way to trouble when someone had cared
enough to send them to Jane Thompson and her not-so-gentle brand
of tough love. Art had seen, first hand, the love those young
men still held for their 'Aunt Jane' last Christmas when the
cards had arrived - most of them accompanied by recent family
photos and little notes about how this god child was doing or
what mischief that honorary niece had gotten herself into. All
but two of the young men who had been sent to her had graduated
from Jane's program, and all those who had graduated had gone on
to become very good men. So what if they'd needed to be turned
into very proper, very demure little girls first?

Jane sighed and began to close the book. Art moved into the room
and said "If this was a western, I might say 'It's awful quiet
around these-here parts, pilgrim. Almost TOO quiet.'" The
drawling attempt at a John Wayne impersonation was terrible and
earned the desired smile.

"Our son once informed me that the Duke, assuming that is who you
were trying so unsuccessfully to imitate, never used the term
'pilgrim' in any of his movies," she retorted, "But, letting that
little error in trivia slide, I will reluctantly agree. It is
indeed very quiet."

"You miss having the students, don't you?" Art asked as he
slipped behind her and began massaging her shoulders. "As much
as you enjoy having some quiet time, that restless energy of
yours needs an outlet."

Jane nearly purred and hugged her chin against his hand with a
smile. "I suppose I do, but I don't have any boys here right now
nor any possibilities looming on the horizon." She sighed
somewhat sadly. "Perhaps that is just as well."

"What do you mean, love?" Art asked as he found and began working
on one of the 'muck-shoveling' muscle knots that Jane's walk had
not eased.

"Just that I need time to think about the whole program. I've
been working with boys, using my method for a very long time.
Maybe it is time to do something else. The last few have been so
unusual, Art," she said, spinning her desk chair about so she
could look up at him.

"So?" Art asked, trying to draw her out.

"You're playing Socratic psychologist with me, dear," Jane
cautioned, but then smiled to ease the rebuke. "And you KNOW how
little I like dealing with your so-very-gently-pointed questions-
with-no-right-answers. To answer that LAST question, however, I
don't really know. Perhaps something fundamental has changed -
with the boys or with me. . .maybe both - and the things that I
do are no longer as effective. More importantly, my lessons and
activities no longer seem to be as SAFE as they once were. I
mean, look at. . . "

"I *know* what you mean, but Mina was a unique episode which will
NOT be repeated."

"I know," Jane sighed. "But there is also the issue that I am
not as young as I once was," she offered.

"Not even fifty yet, and how was it your doctor put it? In
better shape than most of her thirty five year old patients? No,
Jane, I am not letting you use that tired and worn-out excuse.
If you decide to close the Seasons House School, then let it be
for real and meaningful reasons. You've had a rough patch the
past five years or so. Kenneth's Mother, Darryl's brother,
Caitlyn, but in each of those cases, good has come of their
experiences with you. You STILL helped those boys, and in
Kenneth's, Darryl's and Caitlyn's cases, I truly believe that
your intervention saved their lives. Consider your alternatives
and while you are at it, consider their alternatives, but when
you make your decision, make it for the right reasons."

Jane gazed up into her lover's face, an enigmatic half smile
forming on her lips. "How do I know what the right reasons are?"

Art crouched down to eye level and planted a little kiss on
Jane's nose. "You will know, my dear, you'll know," then he
stood and offered her his hand. "C'mon now. You look *really*
uncomfortable in those jeans. Let's go up to our room and see if
we can find you something more. . . .comfortable to slip into and
I will finish this massage without such. . . lovely impediments."

A mischievous grin lit Jane's face as she let her husband pull
her to her feet. Once there, she leaned over and returned the
nose kiss. "What the heck took you so long to ask, Philips?"

~---------------~

Much later, Art cuddled his drowsing wife close. "Any word from
Darryl?"

"He's taking the afternoon train here on the day after tomorrow.
I offered to go pick him up in the Lincoln, but he seems to think
I should have . . .other things to occupy my time now that you're
home."

Art grinned as he shifted Jane in his arms and rolled her on top
of him. "I *do* like the way that boy thinks." he said planting
a teasing kiss on Jane's pursed lips.

"I suppose, but I wish he had more in his life than studies just
now. It really is too bad he broke up with his young lady before
he came home."

"No it isn't," Art said firmly. "She was good for his ego but
she wasn't the type for long term commitment. She made him feel
like a real stud in the physical sense, but she always bored him
silly outside of the bedroom. That one went back for seconds in
the boob 'n' butt line when she should have been in the queue
where they handed out brains. Your Darryl is going to need a
woman whose mind challenges him at least as much as her body
turns him on."

"ART!" Jane spluttered, trying to stifle a giggle. "A man does
not discuss a lady's son with her in those terms! It simply
isn't done!"

"Oh really?"

"Really," Jane said, this time with the giggle getting out. "It
is too bad. I keep hoping he'll find someone like Michael's
Janice or Eric's Sylvia."

"Someone he can share both sides of his personality with, like I
share Diana with you?"

Jane nodded. "But girls like that aren't just lying about to be
scooped up, are they?" At Art's negative shake, Jane sighed.
"By the way," she added suddenly, "Speaking of Diana? She has
been missing from my bed too long, buster. I want silk and
perfume, romance and glamour tonight!" she growled, beginning to
playfully tussle with her mate. "And seduction."

"Fair's fair, woman," Art growled right back. "Silk for silk,
glamour for glamour, and I will take care of the romance and
seduction. Deal?"

"Deal!" Jane almost squealed as she leaned over top of Art and
began to kiss him senseless.



Introduction III ~ Judge Ruth Calls


The sun was moving lower in the western skies when the pair had
finally risen from Jane's bed. Seated at her vanity, Jane gazed
dreamily into her mirror, raptly watching as her spouse went
about his. . .her transformation into the very attractive Diana.
Then she sighed - half in appreciation, half in resignation as
Diana began doing up the front fastenings of the black satin
corset she used on special occasions.

The appreciation was easily understood. The corset made Diana's
figure mouth watering. Jane's resignation was equally heartfelt.
. . or was that 'waist-felt'?. She knew that Diana only wore
that corset because Jane found it sexy and Jane had agreed to
'silk for silk, glamour for glamour'. That meant that JANE also
had to wear one of those sexy Iron Matrons tonight, too. Jane
was not the only member of this marriage-partnership who liked
seeing his or her partner tightly laced into gleaming feminine
perfection. *Of course, she will lace me as tightly as I lace her
and since I don't want to faint from lack of oxygen in the middle
of our lovemaking, I will have to be sadly restrained in my . .
.assistance.*

Art, almost Diana, grinned mischievously as he sat down on an
overstuffed ottoman and began to carefully and slowly slide full-
fashion stockings up over each fully extended leg. Standing, he
slipped his feet into a pair of dark blue heels and began
fastening the garters. *She's still watching,* he thought. "Umm,
Jane, darling," he called out, his voice now Diana's soft, husky
alto rather than Art's light baritone, "I'm almost ready for the
vanity and you haven't even begun putting on your makeup. Not
that I mind putting on a reverse strip tease for your
entertainment, but unlike that pushover Art, *I* am not going to
give you any relief until after you have treated me to a night of
dancing, wining and dining on the town. So get dressed, wench!"
as she disappeared into the walk-in closet.

Jane jumped as if she'd been shocked and hurriedly reached for
her foundation. She'd just gotten the top off the pot when the
phone's rude electronic signal whined loudly. Grumbling, Jane
reached over to pick up the modern appliance, regretting yet
again the relegation of her beloved antique continental-style
phone to the downstairs foyer. "Hello?" she asked and then
brightened. "Ruth! How are you? What is up?"

Diana reemerged from the closet, gave up on waiting for Jane to
finish and began gathering tubes and pots to one side of the
vanity. Jane's breath caught at the sight of her lover's chosen
outfit - the jewel-bright blue satin, knee-length evening dress
that matched the silver haired vision's eyes. "Oh yes, Art's
here, only," and here Jane glanced up at her lover's eyes in the
mirrors and made an air kiss, "Only it's more Diana than Art
right now." Jane listened some more. "All right . . .let me
see, how do I turn on this bloody speaker phone Darryl and
Kenneth insisted I should have. . ." She was about to guess when
Diana's slender finger reached down and pressed a button. She
suppressed a sigh when it worked because it wasn't the one she
would have pressed.

With a mock snarl, Jane turned to face Diana who was calmly
smoothing on her foundation. "I would have gotten it right," she
mouthed not quite honestly before turning back to the phone.
"Can you hear me, Ruth?"

"Sure can." came the somewhat tinny voice from the small speaker.
"How are you, Art/Diana?"

"Just fine, Ruth," Diana replied. "What can we do for you since
I suspect that unless you are calling to tell us our marriage
license is invalid, you have other reasons for wanting us both in
on this conversation."

"Oh, there's no problem with your somewhat hasty civil wedding
ceremony except that *he's* still upset that you forgot to invite
him and his friends. I suspect you are going to have to do
something special there, but that is not why I am calling. Jane?
Art? I need some help. Janie? Do you remember Pru Taylor?
From our sorority?"

Jane thought for a minute and then nodded. "She was an athlete,
wasn't she? Ran track and field, if I recall correctly? Attended
school on an athletic scholarship? Is that who you mean?"

"Yes, that is her, only her name is Rockwell now. She's a widow
now - lost her husband in one of those screw-ups in Somalia - he
was a military advisor there and got caught in an ambush."

"So, what is up, Ruth?" Jane asked, wondering why Ruth wasn't
getting to the point.

"She's got a child. . .well, a teenager actually, who is headed
for trouble. Temper bordering on terminal rage, very anti-social
- the whole works. Pru's really worried, Jane."

"Are you referring the case to me formally, Your Honor?" Jane
asked.

"No, not quite, but only because it hasn't gotten that far yet.
So far, things have been kept out of the courts which is part of
the problem, Jane. At age seventeen, there is every possibility
when things do finally go that far, she will be tried as an adult
instead of coming to me in juvie. I told her Mother about you
and what you do, and she asked me to talk to you about taking on
the child."

"I don't have a big sister in residence right now, Ruth," Jane
temporized, "Not only that, but I have been sort of reevaluating
of late. The last few have been, well, almost all exceptions to
the old rules. I am not sure my methods have the same
applicability as they once had."

"Now don't go losing confidence on me now, Jane Thompson," Ruth
snapped across the miles. "You are the best chance those kids
had and the best thing that happened to all of them."

"And seventeen is a little old for what I do," Jane temporized
further, the memories of Shelley/Trip and Carl/Carol, each of
whom had only just barely made the 'big step' before reaching
their legal majorities - which would have taken them out of her
control -flashing across her mind. "Are you sure my program is
the way to go? Why not one of those 'Outward Bound' programs
with lots of exercise, fresh air and positive male role models?"

"Bear with me here, Jane, and let me explain this special
situation."



Introduction IV ~ Darryl's Train Trip Home


Darryl boarded the train with a considerable sense of deja vu.
How many years had it been? Almost five since a frightened and
abused, fourteen year old boy had boarded this very train?

So much had changed for the better in those intervening years.
Back then, his name had been Darryl Smith. Now it was Darryl
Thompson-Philips . . . usually. . . .well, at least lately it had
been. . . except when it was Darla Thompson-Philips.

Memories of that second christening elicited a smile across his
smooth young features. He'd been given the name 'Darla' by his
own big sister, Stephanie, towards the end of those first hellish
two days under Jane Thompson's regimen. Initially, Darryl had
reacted as he'd later learned that most boys reacted - complete
confusion, then anger, then terror and embarrassment - before
ultimately falling in line with Jane's plans with only the most
minor of complaints. He'd gone through the make-up sessions, the
multiple dressings and modeling exercises, the shopping and
beauty parlor trips, the soirees - had been the target of every
arrow in Jane's male-ego-killing quiver - and had reacted
predictably to them all.

Until, that is, the afternoon after his first trip to the Marisha
Chalet when he'd taken a really close look at 'Darla' in the
mirror and realized that she might be means to his escape from
hell. While many of Jane's other students would have defined
that as escape from Jane Thompson's feminine prison, not so young
Darryl Smith. No, Darryl's own private and fiery hell had worn
the face of his own brother - a brutal, sadistic bastard who had
considered Darryl to be his personal slave and who had abused and
raped the young boy repeatedly.

And who would never have stopped searching for Darryl so that he
could do all those vile things over and over again. At least,
not until Darryl had either died or killed himself.

Darryl had, in that moment of mirrored epiphany, developed a plan
to become Darla and to use that new identity to escape his
brother once and for all. Even if that meant living the rest of
his life as a woman. However, he realized that if his plan was
to have any hope of success, his disguise had to be flawless. He
began studying Jane's lessons 'how to be a girl' with a will and
a commitment to perfection that Jane had never seen before. Only
his brother's very timely death had prevented Darryl from
following through on that plan.

So much had changed, Darryl thought again as he took his seat.
Now he had a family and a future.

His reminiscences were distracted by the shoving and bustling of
other passengers boarding the car. Across the way, a guy in a
loose jacket and bulky bib-style overalls was struggling to get
an evidently very heavy bag into the overhead. It was unwieldy
enough to be awkward, even aside from weight, so Darryl figured
he'd lend a hand. "Hey, man, let me help you with that," he
offered, smiling.

The other passenger spun on heel and faced him, furious. "Get
away from me," the passenger snarled before adding "I can handle
this just fine on my own." and then proved that by slamming the
obviously heavy bag up into the rack.

*Adrenalin,* Darryl mused. "Okay, fine. Just trying to help."

"Next time," the fellow hissed, "Don't bother!"

Shrugging philosophically, Darryl slipped back into his own seat.
*Well, I tried. Wonder what put that burr under his saddle?*

Strangely, he then elected to take the backward facing seat, a
decision that allowed Darryl to continue to observe him. On
closer inspection, the guy was not really out of the ordinary.
His nearly black hair was closely cropped, but not into some sort
of punk cut. It was more like an old-fashioned crew cut, Darryl
mused to himself. The unstylish haircut and sloppy clothes
defined a persona, almost a stereotype, and Darryl was almost
ready to categorize this guy in his mind.

And yet, there was something wrong - something about him that
just didn't fit. Darryl was still pondering that when the guy
looked up, feeling Darryl's eyes on him perhaps, and frowned.

*Damn, what I wouldn't give for eyes that blue,* Darryl sighed.
*Too bad about the broken nose,* he thought, continuing his
inventory of his unwitting subject's features. *Nice eyebrows,
too . Darla still gets hers uneven every now and then.
Man-oh-man, except for that nose, imagine what Jane and Marie
could do with that face. The 'she' those two would make of that
fellow would be a heartbreaker and based on his response to a
friendly offer of help, he could definitely benefit from a little
Thompsonly tutelage in polite manners.*

Darryl sat there, thinking back to the days of those first makeup
lessons, and catalogued the features of the rude young man
against what techniques would be necessary to change this rude
'him' into one of Aunt Jane's sweetly submissive 'her's. *Let's
see, the nose is hopeless, that would need surgery. Those
eyebrows need to be plucked, of course, but the brow ridge is not
prominent at all - quite delicate in fact, and it leaves his eyes
looking nicely large. And the line of the jaw seems almost
fragile, as though . . . oh, my God! All those things I have to
compensate for with Marie's cosmetic tricks are already . . .
right. Good grief, he's a. . .I mean. . that's a girl! I . . .
think.*

Trying for subtlety, Darryl gave the suddenly female-appearing
creature a more thorough examination. Fine boned fingers
fidgeted nervously with a thin golden chain or fob that had come
from one of the bib-overalls' many pockets. She (he?) was long-
legged, and appeared quite fit although that was difficult to
tell, dressed as he or she was in those baggy, unflattering
garments.

Then, the girl became aware of Darryl's intense interest. Her
skin flushed again and her hands went very still. Fixing her
eyes on his, she raised her chin in a movement that while
challenging, was also undeniably female.

She really was a girl, albeit not a very feminine one.

*Small wonder I did not realize she was a girl. Between that
haircut and those clothes. Big girl, too,* he thought. *Taller
than me by a few inches for sure, and bloody strong, too, based
on how she slung that case into the overhead rack. Wonder how
she broke her nose? Except for that, she's got really nice bones
which makes her attitude and taste in clothes even sadder.
Wonder how Momma-Jane would react to her?* A mischievous grin
lit Darryl's face. *Oh lord, I have GOT to see Jane's face when
she sees this one. Now, how do I arrange to get her off the
train in Kingston?*
--




Part I




Chapter 1 ~ Another Train, Another Student


As she watched the train roll to a stop, Jane squeezed Diana's
gloved hand for what must have been the tenth time since they had
arrived at the train station. Timing was always critical on
these first contacts, but this one exceeded all bounds. When
Ruth had called with the new student's travel arrangements, Jane
had immediately tried to reach Darryl and ask him to take a
different train. She'd missed him by mere minutes.

Now, they were stuck with a less than desirable 'Plan B'. Diana
had to intercept Darryl before he greeted Jane in boy-garb while
Jane corralled the new student. If all went well, there would be
time for a family conference after the new student was sleeping
off Jane's sleeping potion-laced after dinner wine. Otherwise,
having Darla play the big sister, at least for the first few
critical days, might well cease to be an option.

Jane started when Diana suddenly released her grip on her
spouse's hand and strode off toward one of the train cars.
There, at the door, was a widely smiling Darryl, waving happily
to his family. Jane winced as her son jumped to the platform
before the train had completely stopped. He would have made a
beeline towards his beloved "Momma-Jane" had not Diana caught him
by the arm and all but frog-marched him into the terminal.

*Phase One complete,* Jane thought relieved. She still did not
know precisely how she was going to handle this one, but at least
all her conceivable options remained viable. *How in heavens name
did I get myself INTO this mess?*

~------------~

As she hustled their son away from Jane, Diana looked back over
her shoulder at her beloved wife. Though it would have been
invisible to anyone else, Diana could see signs of the anxiety
she remembered in Jane the night before, right after Ruth's call.

It had been nearly forty minutes after a still-disbelieving Jane
had told Ruth that she needed more time to consider her long-time
friend's request. Comfortably situated in one of the plush
overstuffed chairs Jane kept only in her private suite, Diana had
watched as her wife furiously paced the room. She'd already
tried to calm the Mistress of Seasons House down twice and had
failed miserably both times. This was apparently one of those
times when all a caring husband could do was let her wife work
through things on her own.

*Well, almost on her own,* the cross-dressed psychologist had
laughed quietly to himself. Diana had pretty much already
decided what Jane would do - would NEED to do. After that had
been decided in Diana's mind, it had simply been a matter of
carefully (VERY carefully) letting her agitated spouse reach that
very same conclusion with as little prodding as possible. After
all, Jane had not gotten very far with her dressing and that
peignoir she was almost not-wearing was calling to her. *Best
laid plans of mice and men and whatevers, Philips,* she'd told
herself. *You have to get her to take you out on your date before
you can have any of that, and by your own words, too, DUMMY!*

"How can you just SIT there," Jane had suddenly spun about,
raging at her spouse.

"If I stood you'd run me over," Diana had replied equably, which
only served to further fuel the emotions that were driving Jane
Thompson.

Diana had only barely caught the pillow Jane had then hurled at
her before it connected with her face. "You know what I mean,"
the teacher had growled as she looked about for more ammunition.
At that point, Diana had decided to come out of the chair,
catching her hand as she reached for a piece of sculpture.

"Ah, ah, ah," she'd said as she had disengaged her lover's
fingers and then carried Jane bodily to the couch. "Sit!" Jane
had sat, just barely catching herself crossing her arms over her
breasts in a pout. Diana had merely grinned and then tipped the
angry redhead's chin up so the two lovers could lock eyes. "You
know what you are going to have to do, love. You would not be
you if you did not at least try."

"But this is all wrong!" Jane had nearly wailed.

"No, it is not wrong, but it is very different than your usual
situation. Are you afraid?"

THAT had done it! Fury had sparkled in her dark eyes, but only
for a moment, and then her shoulders had again slumped. "Of
course I am afraid," she sighed, the emotion bleeding out of her.
"As we discussed just this morning, I have begun to doubt certain
parts of my program. Still, as soon as I heard Ruth's voice, I
was like a fire horse hearing the bell ring, but DiANNNAA, what
she wants me to do is. . .is. . "

"Very different," Diana had agreed. "But I think you can still
help. You care, and you have the time, the resources and the
will to do what needs be done." Jane only grimaced and Diana
chuckled. *What a WOMAN,* Diana's mind had crowed, *and she's
MINE!* "Not only that," she'd continued, "but you have me.
And/or Art, that is."

Jane had simply sat there silently for a several moments. "You
think I should do this." It had not been a question.

Diana had shaken her head at that, sending silver wisps of hair
dancing about her face. "Jane, my life's true love, it doesn't
matter what I think. YOU'VE already decided to do it, dear, in
your heart, at least. You are just trying to convince that more
rational part of you to quit bitching about the decision."

"I know," Jane said in a very small voice. "I know."

"So, when Marie and Darryl get back we have a council of war?"

Sighing, Jane had then risen and walked into Diana's open arms.
"I think we're going to need one, don't you? After all, wasn't
it you who told me that the reason I wasn't reaching Caitlyn was
it is damned difficult to convey a credible threat of terrifying
humiliation to a girl, if all you can do is expose her publicly
as a girl? Oh lord, Art, whatever am I going to do with a REAL
girl?!"

"I don't know, love," Diana had replied with a chuckle, "Not YET,
but I think the first thing you need to do?"

"What?" Jane had asked, almost meekly, her face still buried in
Diana's Obsession-scented shoulder.

"Get dressed. That peignoir is gorgeous but you promised to take
me out to kick up our heels on the town tonight. We aren't
likely to get another chance for a while - not with a student in
the house - so go get dressed." With that, the smiling
psychologist had planted a sharp swat to Jane's shapely backside.
At her outraged glare, Diana had smiled. "And don't forget to
call me to do up your lacings."

~--------------~

The train was nearly empty and passengers were beginning to board
and still Jane had not seen her new student. Fear clutched at
her as she contemplated the possibility of a runner with icy
dread. Then, a tall figure, garbed in thoroughly disreputable
clothing, pushed through the boarding crowd lugging an obviously
heavy duffel bag. Jane felt the beginnings of a migraine begin
to burn behind her eyelids.

With a deep breath to calm her nerves, Jane stepped forward.
"Miss Chastity Rockwell?" Jane saw the girl start at hearing her
name and knew that this. . .this. . .child had to be her new
student. She held out an elegantly gloved hand in greeting. "I
am Jane Thompson, Chastity, your Mother's friend." Jane winced
as the girl wiped her hand on jeans before taking Jane's and
vigorously shaking it.

"Rocky, I only answer to Rocky," the girl replied with unexpected
heat in her voice, "If you're my mother's friend, Jane Thompson,
we need to get that understood right now. I make it a point of
personal pride NEVER to answer to Chastity."

"But . . .but that is your name," Jane replied, too surprised by
a student taking HER to task to scold the girl for her lack of
manners.

"Only on my birth certificate and it is only there until I am
eighteen. It is a traditional family name, but I hate it. I
already have the necessary paperwork filled out to change it when
I turn eighteen. Kind of a birthday present, you know?"

"And what will you change your name to?" Jane asked, trying to
regain her equilibrium.

"I just told you," the girl scoffed. "The name I answer to is
Rocky. That is the name that will be on the papers, too."




Chapter 2 ~ Darryl Joins the Plan


Darryl kept his questions to himself until they were in Marie's
estate wagon and on the road to Seasons House. "Okay, Daddy-
Diana, what's up? Why are we here and Momma-Jane still at the
train station?" Then a thought occurred to him. "Oh, I get it.
There was a new student on the train." he said with certainty.

"You got it. Ruth called day before yesterday. Jane and the Mom
are sorority sisters. . ."

"Not like Ken's mother?" Darryl demanded, suddenly worried.

"Not hardly," Diana chuckled. "Janey remembers this one as being
as sweet as Sheila turned out to be poisonous."

"So, I am being kept out of sight so that I can jump into the
nearest phone booth, don my costume and become Super-Sister?"

"Well, that is one option, son," Diana said with Art's voice.
"This one is going to be different, particularly for your Mother
who is not real comfortable with the scenario. I think you, that
is, Darla, could be a real asset at some point in this student's
program."

"At some point? Jane's changed the plan? She's not going to put
the screws to this guy in the first two days and have big sister
around to feel him out and help set him up? What is this guy? A
really bad troublemaker? If Jane's that worried about him, why
did YOU let her take him on?!?"

"Well, it isn't so much that the new student is a bad actor or
that the program being different as the fact that this student is
very different from any Jane has ever taken on."

"THAT different?" Darryl asked, his tone dubious.

Diana turned amused, twinkling eyes on her adopted son. "Yup.
Janey has never taken on a real girl before."

It was very satisfying, Diana thought, to see the boy's jaw drop
that far. She didn't often get the better of her all-too-bright
adopted son. Then her own chin dropped in a graceless expression
Jane would never tolerate when that son said, "Oh, no, it can't
be. Not HER!!"

~--------------------~

Almost disgusted with himself, Darryl fell to wandering aimlessly
about his temporary hideaway. Diana had dropped him off at
Jane's horse barn where Marie had prepared the old stable
manager's apartment for him. Long vacant - but well maintained,
as was everything that belonged to Jane Thompson - the rooms were
located in the back of the barn, on the side away from the main
house on the second floor. Part of the apartment had been, in
recent times, converted into a small private gym/workout space
for Art who needed regular rigorous exercise to maintain Diana's
fine womanly figure - particularly now that Marie was feeding him
on a daily basis.

The plan Diana had laid out for him during the drive home from
the train station was that Darryl would stay out of sight while
she and Jane dined with the girl. Darryl had told Diana that
Jane might need another way of putting her new student to sleep
because he wasn't at all sure this one would drink Jane's gently
doctored wine. He thought he'd finally figured out what was in
that heavy duffel and what that said about the girl with the
broken nose. She was an athlete, and from what little he'd
observed, she was probably a good one. She might refuse the wine
because it broke her training. Well, Jane's experience with Ken,
when he had refused the wine should have forced her to come up
with a contingency plan or two.

In any case, Diana had left a cellular phone with him and
promised to call him when the girl was asleep and the coast was
clear.

It couldn't be too soon for him because he really missed that
wonderful old Victorian monstrosity of a house, especially the
views from the windows of his room. Heavens above, he even
missed all the pastel frou-frou that was part and parcel of his
Darla personna, hard-put-upon senior student in Jane Thompson's
Girl's School for Wayward Boys. When he was away from home, he
was even haunted by the remembered scents of the perfumes,
powders and other cosmetics that flavored every facet of Seasons
House. Heck, truth to tell, it would be nice to be able to get
back into silks and satins again for a while. The soft, smooth
fabrics really were more comfortable, at least when Momma-Jane
wasn't forcing corsets and stiff petticoats on him. And heels
made him taller, which was always desirable.

Other young males would likely cringe at that bit of self
recognition, but those young men had not had the good fortune to
be raised to manhood by Momma-Jane. Darryl no longer concerned
himself about how his time as Darla might have affected his
masculinity because nothing of what he did or wore in Seasons
House changed anything that really counted in his life. Darla
was simply an integral part of who he was, just as his diminutive
size and height were integral parts of Darryl Thompson-Philips.
There was no doubt in his mind that he was a man in every sense
of the word. He was ALSO a man who could and regularly did
flawlessly impersonate a beautiful girl. Moreover, he was a man
who thoroughly enjoyed his ability to carry off that
impersonation and who enjoyed the society of other women during
those impersonations.

*And even when I am Darryl,* he caught himself with a half snort,
half laugh, *I think of 'society of other women' when I think
about Darla, as if she truly is a woman.*

Well, Darryl-the-man liked the 'society of women' as well,
although he had other reasons to enjoy their company that was
beyond Darla's own. In point of actual fact, Darla had been a
great help in that regard. To a woman, each of his lovers had
been remarked upon Darryl's attentiveness and unusual sensitivity
and insight about women. He'd even managed to remain friends
with each of them after their time as lovers had run its course.

Now, Jane had taken on a real girl as a student. That had to be
a first - at least since she'd left her position as Headmistress
of Eastmore Girl's School. Where would he fit into that
situation? *Heavens,* he thought, *Where would Darla fit into
that situation?* Darryl wasn't sure.

In the past, the big sister's job was part spirit-guide, part
role-model and part instigator/snitch. His own observations,
close up and personal, proved that girl needed the role-model
most of all, but that role was also the one fraught with the most
danger. Oh, Darla would still be able to keep an eye on her
little sister, help her over the rough spots, and perhaps even
tease away some of the tears and the tensions. Unlike
Michael/Michelle, Darryl had no compunction about helping Jane
set up the new student for the traps that were critical to the
program, or keeping the teacher abreast of where the student's
head really was, but what would happen if - when the girl found
out that her feminine role model was male?

And what would Jane's controlling threat be with this one?
Expose her to the world as a girl dressed in girl's clothes?
That did not sound like much of a threat to Darryl. So what
would be the tool or tools that gave the girl pause when she
started to react in a negative or unacceptable manner? Somehow,
Darryl did not think calling her a 'sissy' would do much more
than really piss her off, and after seeing her display of
strength and temper on the train today, that did not seem like
such a good idea.

He thought a while longer about the situation and what his role
in the coming drama might be, then laughed. "Might as well admit
that you are intrigued by this, Darryl," he finally said to
himself. "A real girl in Jane's boy's school. Won't it be
interesting to see what she looks like in some nice clothes?"

Just then, the electronic signal of the cell phone sounded.
Darryl picked it up, opened the connection and listened. "Okay,
Daddy-Di. . . I will be there in a few minutes."




Chapter 3 ~ First Council Strategies


"Wait, dear," Jane said quietly when Darryl made noises about
going up to his room to clean up, "We need to talk with you and
Marie now. Since you missed our luncheon, I asked Marie to put
together a light tea for you. You can eat while we all meet in
my office."

Darryl looked at the Mother of his heart and saw emotion Jane
Thompson rarely permitted to show. There was uncertainty in
those dark green eyes, and something else - perhaps even fear. *I
guess that isn't too surprising. This is not just another
student for her to tear down and rebuild the same old way, now is
it? After all the last few students have put her through, now
she is stepping into completely new territory where the
experiences of a lifetime have little application.* "Okay, Momma-
Jane," he said softly and then moved gracefully down the hall
toward the downstairs office.

"Was it my imagination?" Diana asked after Darryl had
disappeared from view, "Or was that Darla who just answered you?"

~--------------~

There was something innately, intrinsically feminine about the
young person who skillfully poured the tea and served the light
snacks to the other three women, Diana reflected as she fell into
the familiar dual roles of both participant and observer. It
certainly wasn't their child's state of dress that accounted for
that perception of femininity, for the combination of running
shoes, jeans and pullover was at best androgynous. And yet, a
casual or inexperienced observer would never have thought this
young person was a male.

*It isn't just the small stature and size, either,* Diana thought
as she concentrated on watching her son as she. . .he proffered
the plate of dainty pastries to Jane and Marie. *It is also
manners and mannerisms; presentation and presence. Every non-
verbal cue just screams 'female', and yet, when Darryl is Darryl,
he is just the opposite - all man in spite of the supposed
limitations of his physical size. When I think of how hard I
have to work and what I have to do to carry off the masquerade he
seems to pull off without apparent effort? I just want to
scream.*

"Very nicely done, dear," Jane complimented as she settled her
teacup in the delicately painted saucer. "You have surmised,
Darryl, that I would like you to help me with this new student?
At least for the first crucial couple of weeks?"

"Darla, Momma-Jane," she was instantly corrected by the familiar
and soft tones of her 'daughter', "although what good I can be to
you when you are dealing with a real girl, I don't know," Darla
shrugged that off and continued, "But you know I am willing to
try. And for longer than just a couple of weeks if that will
help you. I was able to resolve most of the university's concerns
about my distance learning classes. I will be able to do most of
the work here at home and only go into the city perhaps one day a
week, at most three every two weeks.

"Excellent, dear. As to what you will do, well, Diana and I have
been discussing that ever since we first agreed to try to help
this child."

"Somehow, Momma-Jane, I don't think your usual threat of telling
the student to play by your rules or leave as they are dressed is
going to work with this one. Being a real girl, she might decide
to take you up on the offer." Darla said pertly, trying to
relieve the somber tone of the discussions.

"I believe, my dear, as old and set-in-my-ways as you no doubt
think I am, that I have reached the conclusion all by myself."

"So what do we do?"

Jane sighed, wishing she felt more confident. "Diana and I have
come up with a strategy we think will work. The girl has a main
goal in her life. I can, given that she must live under my
authority until she graduates or reaches her eighteenth birthday,
be of significant assistance to her towards achieving that goal.
On the other hand, I can also do a great deal to make it
impossible for her to pursue that goal while she is living here,
and while that time frame is limited by her majority to a maximum
of eight months, the end result will set her back by more than a
year."

"So, she plays by your rules and is a good little girl, or you
will take away her dream? You sure you want to take the chance
that she won't force you to follow through on that threat?"
Darla asked, concerned. While Aunt Jane often enjoyed her little
games and tricks, Darla knew that imposing real penalties that
had far-reaching potential deeply distressed the truly caring
inner-woman.

"Diana and I believe we have worked out a scheme that will
preclude me having to impose that forfeit on her. We will know
better tomorrow morning when I give her what Kenneth called the
Scylla or Charybdis choice. Diana believes she will take the
path of least resistance to her own over-arching goal, which will
be to follow my orders and hope to curry the favor of my
assistance.

"So, assuming it goes as you and Diana have planned, Momma-Jane,
what happens next?"

"The usual first day exercises except at a slightly slower pace.
I think we will have to take things slowly with this one,
carefully considering each step as we go along. It may take
longer for her to see the benefits, but I would rather do that
than make an irreparable error early in the program. For right
now, I think we will still try the makeup lessons and fashion
shows. Marie has already acquired and inventoried her personal
belongings," Jane shook her head sadly. "I was hoping there was
something in there we could use."

Marie snorted. "You would not believe this, Darla, but those
abominable things she was wearing are the most presentable
clothes she brought with her. And she does not own so much as a
tube of lipstick or pot of moisturizer. The closest thing she
has to cosmetics is Mennen after-shower powder, deodorant and
athlete's foot spray. We will not even discuss what she brought
in lieu of lingerie, for it does not even deserve to be called
underwear."

*I should have expected that,* Darla thought. *Jane as much as
confirmed my theory that she is a jock. Wonder how Aunt Jane is
going to deal with that?*

"Just so, Marie," Jane interjected, reasserting her control of
the small meeting. "In any event, those deficiencies ensure that
she will benefit by the same lessons we always set for the boys
that first day. Cosmetology, hair care, dictionary walking,
fashion changes - the whole make over routine. Whatever she is
anticipating on her arrival here, I don't think she expects to be
turned into a Victorian dress-up doll, so that will have the
desired effect of putting her off balance."

Darla began nodding and then suddenly remembered her role in
those activities. "But, Momma-Jane, won't that put me into
situations where. . .well, I mean, the big sister helps the
little sister dress. . ," a bright red blush colored Darla's
cheeks. "And she's a minor, assuming Aunt Ruth is the referring
court official. I. . that is, we could get into real trouble
with this. . "

"Well, that is one of the key problems Diana and I still must
resolve, dear. We're not precisely sure that a long term 'big
sister' is what this one needs. Certainly, a good, solid feminine
role model should be a help, but that is one of the areas where
we will be playing this by ear. And just so you know, Ruth did
not officially refer the girl here, Darla. Miss Rockwell is here
at her Mother's instigation based on Ruth's recommendation. Both
the Mother and Ruth have said that they trust me not to put the
girl in danger of her virtue, but. . ." Jane turned suddenly
pleading eyes to Diana.

With a laugh, Diana moved over to put a comforting hand on Jane's
shoulder. "They both understand that you might be involved and
what the ramifications of your participation are. What Jane is
trying to say, Darla, is seeing your new little sister en
dishabille from time to time, is not really going to be all that
big an issue unless you are going to lose your manly control and
try to have your wicked way with her." Diana's tone was suddenly
lightly playful and teasing.

"Not bloody likely with that one," their child replied in tones
that were clearly more Darryl than Darla. "She might hurt me."

"Just so," Diana continued, hiding a half smile behind her hand.
"What Jane is really concerned about is how that . . . hmmmmm. .
shared sisterly intimacy might affect the Rocky's willingness to
continue learning if she ever finds out you are not also a GG."

"A what? And who is Rocky?" Darla asked, suddenly confused.

"In the common parlance among some transgendered folks," the
onetime practicing psychologist/counselor explained, "GG is a
generally understood term for a person who is physically, that is
genetically, female. Stands for 'Genetic Girl' and Rocky is how
our new student prefers to be addressed. It is short for her
last name of Rockwell."

"Jane?" Marie asked. "Just what has she done and why is she being
sent to us?"

"That part is at least business as usual for us, Marie," Jane
said after taking a sip of her tea. "She has a history of
stubborn intractability, and temper losses to the point of rage
and violence. So far, she has only attacked males, and from what
Ruth tells me, only males who were bigger than her."

"So that is the reason that I am still Diana," Diana interjected.
"We think, based on everything we've been able to find out about
her incidents, that she has no history of behaving violently
towards other females."

"Based on her initial reactions to me," Jane added, "I think she
is somewhat intimidated by strong female authority figures."

"Don't count on that too much," and this time it was definitely
husband-Art speaking to wife-Jane, "Because we don't have any
evidence and she might decide that authority is authority and
react unpredictably. Be very careful when and precisely how hard
you press her. And make damn certain that either Darla or I are
there when you do decide to play 'mean old Aunt Jane' with her."

"Very well. As I was saying, Point 1 is to keep the household as
feminine as ever. Hopefully, once we have a handle on her, we
can carefully introduce males to her in controlled situations to
get her past that violent reaction."

"Point 2 goes hand in hand with that. I do not want her coming
into contact with anyone who might push her buttons in an
uncontrolled manner until we have her more in hand."

"That means no Sandy," Darla commented. "No matter how you ask
her to behave, she just cannot help herself. She is your biggest
gun with the boys, but that is because the boys don't dare
retaliate against her trash-talk for fear she will keep her
promise to expose them."

"Excellent observation," Jane agreed. "I wasn't planning on her
leaving the estate for at least a week, and certainly not before
we have her agreement to the program and have something to hang
over her head, but I agree with you, Dear. When we go to the
salon the first time, Caro does the full treatment on this one."

"Point 3, Darla-dear, is that you must find ways to convince this
student that being a girl is not only rewarding, but fun. Think
teenaged girl, and when you come up with any ideas, run them past
me. As I said, we are playing this one more reactively than I
would with a boy, but that is as it must be. We need to find
things she likes as well as things she does not. We cannot rely
only upon negative reinforcement. We need both the carrot AND
the stick."

"Teenage girl? That means boys, doesn't it?"

Jane's eyes went closed, her normally smooth brow wrinkling. "Oh
god. Boys. I had not thought of that, but you are right. Oh
well, at least with her I don't have to worry about those
outsiders finding there's another boy beneath the petticoats."

"Point 4," Diane added, picking up the conversation, "is that we
will have to decide whether to keep Darla around based on how
Rocky. .,"

"PLEASE," Jane cut in, wincing, "Do NOT call her that."

"Very well," Diana said, her eyes twinkling, "Depending on how
GiGi reacts to Darla. As we've noted, our new student does not
have a great deal of feminine artifice and she may react in any
number of ways to our oh-so-very-sweet-and-lovely Darla.
Hopefully, she will come to see Darla as a role model to be
emulated, but she might just as easily conclude that she is a
threat or that she represents an unattainably high standard of
feminine perfection. In either case, she may do everything she
can to distance herself from Darla."

"I suppose," Jane muttered in frustration, "that we will have to
do the naming ceremony with Old Tom, too. I had planned on
foregoing that little ritual and simply employing the girl's real
name, but she has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that name
and *I* refuse to call her 'Miss Rockwell' or 'Gigi'. We'll
pick a day when his son is not with him. I don't think she will
feel aggressive against Old Tom."

"What is her real first name?" Darla wanted to know, and then
burst out laughing with a sour-faced Jane told her. "Well, I can
see how that name would be a trial for a girl in today's world.
Okay, let me know when you think she will be willing to play
along and I will christen her for you."

"Does that about cover it?" Jane asked, looking once more to her
mate.

"I think so. As you said, we will have to play this one close
and step softly. Make sure she doesn't feel so threatened that
she breaks pattern and lashes out at one of us."

"That how she broke her nose? Someone gave better than he got?"
Darla asked.

"No, Darla. She is a competitive modern pentathlete - a very
good one according to her mother. In one of her early
competitions, she drew a horse who was having a bad day and it
refused a jump, unseating Miss Rockwell face first into the
jump."

"Why hasn't she had surgery?"

"Her mother told me that she refused surgery because there was a
slight chance that removing the damaged cartilage might degrade
her breathing when she exercises. However, that nose is
something else we will need to address with this child. Marie?
See what you can do with stage makeup tomorrow during one of the
dress up exercises. As to the original question of someone
getting the better of her? That apparently has yet to happen.
When this girl decides to fight, then she fights viciously and
has, to this point, incapacitated each of her opponents before
they could retaliate effectively against her."

"Momma Jane? You know I saw her on the train as Darryl, right?
I know it is only a first impression based on very little data,
but I am not sure that the threat of humiliation will work with
this one. I can't really put in words why I feel that way, but I
do."

Jane nodded. "As Diana has told me, it is difficult to use the
potential humiliation of being exposed as a girl to threaten a
girl. Oh, I hope we can jab at her ego when she does not perform
to standard, maybe awaken and pinch her feminine pride, but that
is all. For this student, I intend to be the stern but fair
Victorian governess. Someone who not only disciplines, but
rewards as well. The goal here is to help her get in touch with
and begin to enjoy the gentler aspects of her femininity. That
being the case, then we can't have expressing those feminine
behaviors used as or perceived as a punishment with her as it
often must be with my boys. That is how I hope to use Darla,
dear, as a tool to show her that being feminine is a pleasant
thing."

"I see. Well, when do we start the lessons?"

"Tomorrow is soon enough, dear. You can go up to your room and
reacquaint yourself with your buttons and bows, then we'll have a
nice quiet family evening." Jane started to stand and then
thought of something. "Darla, if she saw you on the train,
perhaps you should make yourself more of a brunette for this
session. The fussy little blond debutante look is not going to
have the impact on her that it does the boys. Besides, if your
coloring seemed closer to hers, it might make you more effective
as a role model."

"Jane?" Diana interjected. "I think that is a good idea, but it
might also be smart, at least initially, to have Darla play down
her looks. That way, she might avoid appearing 'too perfect'.
Then, at an opportune moment, have Darla shine. That might make
Gigi think that there is something to this cosmetic witchery of
Marie's."

"Tante Marie? Do you still have that selection of wigs brushed
out? And appropriately tinted cosmetics? I will need some help
picking one out and setting my look." When Marie nodded, Darla
pouted extravagantly. "All this effort to make myself beautiful
and NOW she wants me to hide my light under a silo."

"That's bushel, Darla," Diana said with a cheeky grin. "You hide
your light under a 'bushel'."

"Won't work," Darla retorted, tongue firmly in cheek. "It would
be like trying to hide Pamela Anderson in a training bra. Hiding
looks like mine would require MUCH more than a mere bushel."

Darla was pleased to see Jane begin to really laugh for the first
time since Darryl had stepped off the train. Perhaps things
would go well after all.
--



Chapter 4 ~ A New Day for a New Student


The alarm that rang in Jane and Art's bedroom was all the more
effective for its unfamiliar tones. Still, Art growled when
repeated poundings of the bedside clock did not still the
electronic bleating.

Groaning, Jane rolled out of bed and went to her vanity. "I
armed the alarmed motion-sensors in Chastity's room before we
went to bed last night," she explained as she removed the
sleeping turban she'd used to keep her hair relatively neat
through the night. She fumbled blindly about her vanity, found
her brush and then continued. "I didn't know when she would
awaken and I needed to get to her first thing."

Art peered blearily at the clock. "Early yes, but bright? I
don't think so. Getting up before six a.m. is barbaric.

"It's the regimen her mother told us to expect, darling," Jane
said shrugging into her robe. She came back to bed and planted a
kiss on her husband's mouth. "Don't show yourself until after I
have finished with her."

Art rolled back over and pulled the covers back up to his chin.
"Won't," he mumbled. "'sides, unlike you, Diana needs time to
become beautiful."

"Flatterer," Jane said with a smile, and then strode from the
room. She had to catch the girl before she was involved in her
morning program.

~-----------~

Jane stood outside the door to her new student's room, her hand
resting on the doorknob. She took one last deep, cleansing
breath and then opened the door.

The scene that greeted her was almost familiar. Her student was
looking through the array of clothing that filled the huge,
carved antique armoire. Even the look of mixed dismay, disgust
and anger reminded Jane of the almost sixty other students who
had come to Seasons House over the past twenty or so years. The
only difference was that this student was already a girl.

Rocky heard the door open and close, but ignored it. She needed
something to wear so she could get on with her morning workout.
From what her mother and that judge had told her, she'd have
little enough time to see to her body's needs once the day's
'classes' began in earnest.

Unused to being so completely ignored, Jane's ire rose a notch.
"Chastity!" she said sharply. Jane could tell the girl heard her
because she momentarily went still, but with a shrug then
continued her search. Jane tried again and got even less
response. That was when she remembered their first encounter at
the train station. "MISS ROCKWELL!"

Sighing, Rocky stopped what she was doing and turned to face her
mother's supposed friend. "Yes, ma'am?" she replied with hardly
any inflection or interest.

"What are you doing?" Jane asked.

"Looking for something I can wear while I do my morning
exercises. My stuff seems to have disappeared. You wouldn't
happen to know anything about that, would you?"

The challenge was clear, but delivered quietly and in a
controlled manner. Jane accepted that response as she would have
accepted accusations and anger. "I have had your things put into
storage. They will be returned to you only when I say so and
only when I think you have earned them. Until then, those
garments in that armoire have been provided for your use."

Rocky considered that, then shrugged. She'd exercised without
proper clothes before. A decently fitting brassiere was all she
really needed. The rest was purely for modesty's sake and that
was an emotion that had meant very little to her. She began to
turn back to the armoire only to be stopped by a snapped out
order from the older woman.

"You and I need to talk. Immediately. I want you to shower,
dress - that lovely robe hanging from the door of the armoire
will do nicely - and then come to my study. Take a right when
leaving your room and it is the second door on your left. I will
expect you in no more than ten minutes." *Since you no doubt have
a very masculine attitude towards lingering in a bath.*

"I will see you when I have had my workout, Ms. Thompson," the
girl replied softly.

Jane turned back to face her new student. "Miss Rockwell, you
have been sent to me because someone who loves you is very afraid
that you may come to a bad end, causing harm to others and to
yourself. You agreed to come here and agreed to participate in
my program. So far, you have refused to answer a polite and
civil greeting because you do not like your given name, ignored
me when I attempted conversation with you and now you ignore my
directions. I cannot help you if you do not do as I ask, Miss
Rockwell. I will expect you in my study, showered and dressed in
ten minutes or I will wash my hands of you and put you on the
next train home. It is your choice, Miss."

Rocky watched the door slam behind the tall, striking woman.
*Damn! Why did she have to be an early riser?* Looking down at
the bra she'd pulled from one of the drawers of the armoire,
Rocky gave a few moments thought to simply giving up and going
home. Except that her mother had sworn not to support Rocky's
training until she had graduated from this woman's school. It
was not an insignificant threat. Pentathlon, with its equestrian
and fencing competitions, was an expensive sport. Proper
training was not cheap and although Rocky was good - very good
for a junior - she was not good enough to gain outside
sponsorship that would support her while she trained.

Sighing, she snatched down the robe and grimaced. It was satin -
as feminine as the rest of this room and just as unwelcome. A
glance at the clock told her she'd already wasted a minute of the
ten that woman had allotted to her. Good thing she wasn't one to
waste time on such things.

~-----------~

Jane sat in her chair, one eye on the clock, one eye on monitor
connected to the surveillance camera in Chastity's room. *How
could I have been so stupid? I haven't even presented the choice
and already I have given her an ultimatum that could have her
leaving before we've even begun. At least she went into the
bathroom, so there's a chance, but what do I do if she doesn't
come out? If I give in, every threat or promise I make for the
rest of her stay will be open to question. Oh, god, please let
her give in this time. . *

Jane's clock had ticked away all but the last sixty critical
seconds when the bathroom door in Chastity's room slammed open
and a determined-looking girl strode out, heading for the door.
Fifteen seconds later a firm knock sounded on Jane's door. The
Mistress of Seasons House gave herself five more seconds to
regain her composure, and then called out in her firm school
teacher's voice. "Enter."

~--------------~

This chair cannot have been built properly,* Rocky thought as she
exerted her will to keep from squirming on its seat, *Unless its
designer was a sadist.*

Jane allowed her student to stew as she forced her relief into a
dark, hidden corner of her mind. She would savor it later,
perhaps with Art, but now she had to be the school mistress. She
flipped through the dossier she'd developed as she waited, noting
a violent episode here and a refusal to comply with a school
policy there.

"Well, young woman, you have certainly led an interesting life
these past few years. Tell me, Miss Rockwell, is arrest and
prison time something you aspire to in life? If they are, then
let me congratulate you on your planning. I would say you are,
but for the good graces of your mother and a few other people who
see a positive potential in you, well on your way to achieving
that apparent desire."

*Another do-gooder,* Rocky thought sullenly, *determined to save
me from myself.* "I have no wish to do either of those things,
Ms. Thompson." she replied quietly, her voice monotone.

"Well, everything in this record says precisely the opposite,
young lady!" Jane held up a piece of paper. "A disciplinary
action for fighting on school grounds and putting the boy you
were fighting into the hospital for three days with a concussion.
Only the fact that no one could prove that you instigated the
fight kept you from receiving more than an in-school suspension."
Jane found another form. "Here is a letter to your mother
indicating that you had refused to follow a school regulation and
therefore would not be permitted to participate in the formal
graduation. My discussions with your mother indicate that she
was particularly hurt by that since your grades were excellent
and you might have been valedictorian. What have you to say to
that?"

"What I told her. I am not sorry that slug was in the hospital
because he deserved what he got. I am sorry about the
graduation, but there was nothing I could do about that, either."

"Oh?" Jane challenged. "It says here that the reason you were
denied the privilege of graduating with your class is that you
refused to comply with the dress code for the pre-graduation
honors assembly, even after you had been specifically informed by
the school's headmistress of both the requirement and the penalty
for willful noncompliance."

"It is a free country," Rocky replied, more heat in her voice.
"I do not have to wear a dress if I do not wish to wear one. The
pants suit that I wore was elegant and tasteful. It is not like
I showed up in rip-kneed jeans and a WWF t-shirt."

"It is indeed a free country, but that was a private school and
the registration agreement your mother signed stated that you
would comply with their rules and regulations as long as you were
enrolled. Were you aware of that?"

Rocky hesitated, then nodded. "The Head showed me the document
when she called me into her office to tell me I had to wear a
dress. I told her that was unfair. She said that I was entitled
to my opinion, but that if I wished to attend graduation, I would
follow their stupid, sexist rules. I didn't think the ceremony
was all that big a deal and did what I felt was right." At that
point, her voice cracked and a single tear ran down her cheek.
"I did not realize it was that big a deal to my Mom. If I had
known how she felt, I would have worn the damn dress."

"Don't curse in my home, please," Jane rebuked, but the tear and
evident emotion pleased her nonetheless. It boded well for it
meant the girl did care about her mother in spite of her action
to send Rocky to Jane. "Life is like that, Miss Rockwell, full
of choices; full of consequences. Right now, you have another
choice to make, but we will get to that in a moment. First, let
me ask you another question. Why are you here?"

That brought a look of surprise to girl's face. "Because my
mother sent me here." she finally replied. "It isn't like she
gave me any alternative."

"So, you are here solely because your mother asked you to come?"

"More or less."

"I see," the stern-faced schoolmistress replied quietly. "Do you
know what will be expected of you here, should I decide to let
you stay on at my home?"

A look of unadulterated distaste bordering on disgust flashed in
the girl's dark eyes. "From the way my mother described this you
are the Emily Post from Hell on female steroids. You are
supposedly going to make me into a lady, whatever that means,
whatever the cost."

"I asked you earlier not to curse in my home. I will not ask
again. If you curse again before we have come to an
understanding, we will terminate this interview and I will decide
whether I should simply send you home or not. You are a
nationally ranked athlete. Don't tell me you do not have the
discipline to control your tongue because I know otherwise. Is
that clear?"

The woman had not raised her voice, but Rocky had never felt so
well chewed out in her life. Swallowing hard to clear the sudden
lump in her throat, she nodded and said, "Yes, Ma'am."

"Very well. As to your description of me, aside from your
flippancy, it is essentially correct. Basically, Miss Rockwell,
what I run here in my home is a school in manners, deportment and
feminine skills. As with any school, there are subjects to study
and master, and there are tests to demonstrate that mastery. Let
me tell you right now that you will be wearing dresses as well as
feminine lingerie, shoes and cosmetics in my home - almost
exclusively in fact. If you cannot accept that requirement THIS
time, then we have nothing more to discuss."

Now Rocky did squirm. Lord, but she hated this, but she had
given her word. "I knew that when I agreed to come here, Ms.
Thompson. I will do as you ask and as you direct."

"Why are you here, Miss Rockwell?"

"You just asked me that, and I told you. My mother told me to
come."

"Let's be frank with each other, shall we? Woman to woman?
There is more to it than that. You are nearly eighteen. You
could have waited her out. Actually, you can wait me out. In a
mere eight months, your mother, and therefore I as her proxy,
lose all authority over you. Why are you here?"

Rocky studied the tall regal woman for several moments and then
realized, "You know, don't you? She PROMISED! She told me she
wouldn't tell you . . . "

Jane held up her hand to stem the building eruption and was
surprised when the girl responded. "She only told me that she
was withholding something you wanted very badly until you came to
me and passed my course. Having read your file, however, I have
reached some conclusions on my own. They might be wrong, and if
they are, my acting upon them could do both of us harm. Tell me
the whole story, Miss Rockwell. Be honest with me. Begin as you
mean to go in this joint endeavor of ours."

*I don't want to do this,* Rocky thought grimly. *Never give an
opponent knowledge of your weaknesses. Oh hell, what does it
matter anyway.* "I want to be the first woman to compete against
the men in the World Pentathlon Championships a year and a half
from now. Pentathlon is expensive, Ms. Thompson, and I cannot
train without financial support. My mother has stopped
supporting my training until I pass your course."

"So, assuming you complete my program, she will again shoulder
the burden of paying for your training? I would say that you
have a great deal to accomplish in the next eight months then."

"I know that I am not the most feminine person on this earth, Ms.
Thompson, but I said I would come and I said I would try. I had
hoped, however, that I could finish in less than the eight months
because I don't want to be out of training that long."

"I see. Well, as to that, you will graduate when I feel you have
accomplished what I want you to accomplish. That could take
eight months, it could take four months and it could take a year
or more. Typically, students graduate in nine to fifteen
months."

"I can't be out of training that long!" Rocky exclaimed in
dismay. "I will lose what edge I have and I will never be able
to prepare for the trials."

"I will make you an offer, Miss Rockwell. Today is the only time
you will hear it and today is the only time you can accept the
terms. There are facilities on this estate - a stable of several
mounts, all jumper trained, a small jump arena, miles of trails
and a small exercise and weight room. Work with me instead of
against me, Miss Rockwell. Give me your very best efforts to
learn the lessons I am determined to teach you and in return, I
will make arrangements for you to continue your training while
you are here. Learn to wear cosmetics properly, and I will give
you tuition in riding. Attain skill in preparing and serving a
proper tea and I will arrange for a fencing master to give you
regular lessons in my home. You have already given your mother
your word, Miss Rockwell, and that is the stick. I offer you a
carrot."

"Can I work-out in the morning each day? To keep my
cardiovascular fitness?"

"It is "may I" not "Can I" and that is as much subject to your
behavior and application to lessons as are everything else we are
discussing today. Give me an honest effort each day, and the
next morning you will be permitted to use the facilities.
Consider it being like school, Miss Rockwell. You must maintain
your academic standing to be permitted extracurricular
activities."

Rocky thought about it, tried to find where the hook was, and
then decided it did not matter. This was her only real chance at
her goal. She was good at the pentathlon, very good in fact, but
for a girl, a junior. Eight months of no exercise more
challenging than lifting a china tea cup with her pinkie crooked
just so would put paid to her ever achieving the level of
performance necessary to compete with the men on equal terms.
She had no other choice. "All right, Ms. Thompson, I agree. I
guess I will just have to trust you to be fair in your tests and
evaluations, and agree to your bargain."

"Then I have your word of honor that you will unhesitatingly obey
every command I give you, no matter how unpleasant or
disagreeable you may find that activity to be?" The girl's eyes
went wide for a moment as the full import of those words struck
her, but then she shrugged and stated her agreement. "Then I
give you my word that I will be fair and also that, assuming you
perform to my expectations, I will pay for your training while
you are here under my tuition. However, let me warn you that if
at any time I sense that you are reneging on our agreement, or
find that you have been dishonest with me in any way, I will wash
my hands of you completely and advise your Mother accordingly.
Is that understood?"

"Yes, Ms. Thompson. I understand."

"Then we have a bargain. We will start your program of studies
this morning with some lessons in clothing and cosmetology. Your
hair is too short for any training in hair care, so we will be
forced to make do with wigs until we can get you to town where a
woven hair replacement can be set upon your scalp."

Rocky grimaced. Long hair on an athlete was a nuisance, but she
wasn't going to fight over it. She'd find a way to deal with it.
Other female athletes managed didn't they? Well, so could Rocky
Rockwell.

Jane saw the reaction, but was pleased that the girl did not take
issue. It showed she was ready to make an honest attempt at
Jane's program which was all the older woman had wanted from this
interview. "Chasti. . " Jane began and then stopped at the fury
she saw suddenly rise in the girl's eyes. "I mean, Miss
Rockwell. You really do despise that name, don't you? It is not
an affectation."

"I hate it." was the flat reply.

"Well, I need a name to call you by other than Miss Rockwell and
I refuse to use your preferred nickname. Do you have a name you
would prefer to be called? A feminine name?"

"None that I can think of off hand, Ma'am."

"Do think on it, my dear, or I shall have to find one for you.
In polite company, it is sometimes necessary to give others the
privilege of one's Christian name. Since you will from time to
time find yourself in polite company, you will need a name."

"I . . ." *Blast, if I don't come up with one, she'll choose one
for me and that might be as bad.* "I will think about it, Ma'am."

Jane smiled slightly and rose. Recognizing the interview was
over, Rocky also stood. "Miss Rockwell? One last thing before we
conclude our talk. Please don't fight me in this endeavor. You
have much to gain by working with me, and a great deal more to
lose by resisting me. Please remember that your mother loves you
and at the same time, she trusts me. Think about both of those
facts as we start with the first exercises. Now, come along. It
is time for breakfast and I want you to meet my niece, Darla."

~----------------~

In truth, Jane was pleasantly surprised at Miss Rockwell's table
manners and behavior. The table setting was intentionally
elaborate and included several unnecessary utensils for courses
that would not be served. In each case, the girl elected to
watch Diana and then emulated the psychologist's selection. She
handled her napkin deftly and ate with a mannerly if focused
skill. At no time was she more than three polite chews from
swallowing so that she could reply to one of Jane's many
questions or comments. *At least this is one area where we will
not require much effort. So much the better all around,
particularly for the digestion,* Jane mused as she finished her
melon course.

Marie then came bustling out of the kitchen with the hot course -
bacon, scrambled eggs, fresh home-fried potatoes and toast. As
the 'guest', the new student was served first. She politely took
surprisingly small servings of eggs and potatoes, passing on the
bacon and the already buttered toast.

Jane took that in and began to wonder if the child was feeling
ill. A certain degree of anxiety was normal, particularly after
the first interview, but the child was an athlete and Jane
expected her to have an athlete's appetite. Her worry increased
when Chastity took only the barest bites of the food and then
began pushing the fool about the plate, but not eating.

"Are you feeling unwell, Miss Rockwell, or is the food not to
your liking?" Jane asked, her voice neither challenging nor (she
hoped) overly concerned.

"I am fine, Ms. Thompson, and the food tastes very good. It is
just that my training diet does not allow for so much fat."

"I see," Jane replied, and in truth, she did see. *Well, perhaps
I can be the first one to compromise this time, and will be able
to use that as a lever later today when I need one, as I am sure
I will with this one. She almost reminds me of Kenneth in some
ways. I know she enjoyed the taste of those potatoes and eggs,
because her eyes became momentarily dreamy as she savored that
one mouthful she permitted herself. Yet, she is sufficiently
self-disciplined to limit herself to just that taste. A bit of a
paradox, that. Oh well.* "Perhaps, while you are with Marie this
morning, you could give her a quick description of your dietary
needs, and then a more detailed written one when you have the
time?"

The surprise in the girl's eyes pleased Jane. *One for my side,*
she thought and then sternly reminded herself that was also
Chastity's side. "Is there anything you would like right now
that is not too difficult to prepare?" Jane asked solicitously.

"If I may, Ms. Thompson, I would like some more of the fresh
fruit and perhaps two slices of dry wheat toast?" Rocky asked
hopefully.

Jane pressed the call button on her side of the table and passed
the request on to Marie. "Right away," she said cheerfully.
"Next time, cherie, you will tell me if you need special food,
eh?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Rocky said, again surprised at the pleasant
response to her request.

"You are here to learn, dear," Jane said firmly, "Not to degrade
your health. What you have to learn here will be demanding
enough with you at your full strength. If you truly need
something, you have but to tell me and if it is possible, we
shall see to your needs."

Marie came out of the kitchen at that moment with a huge bowl of
the fresh fruit, the slices of toast and a crystal container
filled with red preserves. "Homemade, dear," she said as she
lifted the cut-glass lid, "No preservatives or processed sugars.
Made it myself with only fruit and honey." And then she was gone
before the stunned girl could thank her.

"You rate, girl," Darla piped in for the first time as Rocky put
a miserly dab of the red fruit spread on one of the toast points.
"Marie doesn't break out her special preserves for just anyone.
She must figure you'll really appreciate them."

Rocky bit into the toast and flavor exploded in her mouth. "Oh,
but that is wonderful," she sighed, before applying herself to
the fruit bowl.

Jane allowed the two teens to talk quietly for the remainder of
the meal, content to allow the seeds of a relationship to be
planted. If the current plan was to work, Darla had to become
Chastity's friend in ways that had never been necessary with her
other students. Darla would have to walk a very fine line
between being the feminine role model against which the new
student would be judged and initially found wanting, and being
the girl's friend and mentor behind the scenes.

Rocky finished the fruit and toast, allowing herself another
spoon-tip of the wonderful preserves on the last toast point.
She rationalized that indulgence by telling herself that she
would probably need the energy before the day was out. She
dabbed her mouth with her napkin and then folded it and set it
aside as she had seen the silver-blond lady, Ms. Philips, do with
her napkin.

Jane smiled regally. "Well, if you are finished with your meal,
we have a great deal to accomplish this morning. First, you will
take a bath using the scented oils provided for you in your
bathroom. I expect that you will linger for at least thirty
minutes and no longer than forty-five minutes. During that time
you will shave your legs and underarms and shampoo and condition
your hair. When you are finished, Marie will be there to assist
you in the first of four complete dressings and make up sessions.
You will observe and listen to Marie so that you can learn these
techniques yourself. The last session you will do your own
makeup and dress yourself. If you meet my expectations, I will
permit you to exercise tomorrow morning before breakfast. I
assume you have a schedule you follow?" At the girl's nod, Jane
continued. "Then when you write up your dietary requirements for
Marie, you will do the same for me with respect to your program
of training. If you meet my minimum standards at the end of each
day, you will be permitted to exercise the next. As per our
agreement."

"Yes, Ma'am," Rocky said, a bit of a quaver in her voice.

Jane picked up on the reaction and pounced. "Is there some
problem, Miss Rockwell? Have I in some way misrepresented how
you understand our agreement?"

"No . . no. . .but. . ." Rocky steeled herself. "A HALF hour?
in a bathtub?"

It was all Jane could do not to laugh at the girl's dismay. "Why
yes," and then intentionally misunderstanding, "Ah, I see. You
are concerned about being able to do a proper job on your
shavings. Very well, at least forty five minutes, but you must
absolutely be out of the tub, ready to begin in one hour. We
will do the final dressing after lunch."

Rocky wanted to scream. Almost an hour WASTED in a bathtub?
Even if she shaved her legs twice and shampooed her hair four
times she could easily be ready in twenty minutes tops. However,
she suspected that any further conversation with this woman would
have her stuck in that tub until it was cold. "Yes, Ma'am.
Thank you." *For nothing!* her mind snarled. "May I please be
excused?"

"Yes, dear. I will see you after Marie has finished your first
dressing. Run along now. That's a good girl."

The three co-conspirators watched as Rocky's spine went ramrod
straight and her eyes flashed at Jane's last comment, but once
again, the discipline won out and she simply rose, and marched
from the room.

Jane reached over and flipped another hidden switch. Moments
later, they heard an angrily muttering Rocky storm into her
bedroom. Jane breathed a sigh of relief. She had been
momentarily afraid she might have pressed too hard with that last
bit.

"Why the longer times, Aunt Jane?" Darla asked. "What happened
to the bath from hell and the impossible thirty minute
change/make-overs?"

Jane refilled her coffee cup from the silver carafe Marie had
left. "I have revised the program a bit, dear," she replied
carefully. "As you well know, my early purpose with you boys has
always been to confound you, keep you off balance and get you
into a pure reaction frame of mind. That way, the student is
still somewhat numb when he goes out to Old Tom for his naming.
Once he's been "named", the thought of having another man, more
importantly an ADULT man know that the student has been dressing
like a girl locks him into the program.

"And your purpose with Rocky, I mean, Miss Rockwell, is
different?"

"Yes, especially after watching her behavior at table today and
yesterday. She is already sufficiently unfeminine, heavens,
ANTI-feminine, in her chosen mode of dress. I don't want her to
develop a disgust of the feminine condition or worse, reinforce
what she already evidently feels. I think, and Diana agrees,
that if she can begin to enjoy her fripperies, we may be more
than halfway there with her."

"So, no church bell petticoats or Alice in Wonderland outfits?"

"Nor will we force a change of hair color on her, although she
might eventually wish to experiment on her own later - something
which we will, of course, encourage. No, I want her to learn to
wear the clothing, learn to apply the cosmetics, not to hate
them. Unlike my boys, who can and do leave such feminine things
behind when they finally leave me, Miss Rockwell is a female. If
she chooses to turn her back on that fundamental aspect of
herself it will not be as a result of something we forced upon
her while she was under my care."

"Well," Darla pronounced with great feminine disgust, "I cannot
say I think much of MY fripperies right now. Is it really
necessary for me to be such a. . . such a dowd?"

The two older women burst into laughter and Darla's devastating
imitation of the current teen female sitcom queen. "Yes, dear,"
Diana managed finally to reply. "Because while you must be
completely feminine, we don't want our new student to take one
look at you and give up in despair. Janey? Can we have someone
do something about her nose? It cannot be that difficult a
surgery."

"The surgery would be purely cosmetic, Diana, so I cannot really
order her to have it done. Although she is a minor, she is old
enough to express an informed opinion on the subject and any
reputable surgeon would want her agreement first. It is too bad,
though, because she might actually be rather attractive with out
that unfortunate injury."

Nodding, Darla pulled a piece of computer paper from the pocket
of her robe. "Last night I played with that computer you folks
bought for me. I scanned in one of the pictures of Rocky. .
.sorry, Aunt Jane, Miss Rockwell, and tried copying noses from.
.. ummm. . .some pictures from the Internet," she finished with a
bit of a blush that had Jane wondering how well clothed the
owners of the noses might have been. "Anyway, this was the best
of the lot."

Jane took the picture and placed it between herself and Diana.
*Too bad she isn't smiling in the picture,* Jane thought as she
examined the composite photo. *Once you no longer have that bent
and broken nose to fixate upon, she is really quite striking.
Full lips, huge eyes, high cheekbones. Even that ridiculous
haircut gives her a gamine, elfin look. Quite pretty in fact,*
she finally concluded and began racking her brain for a strategy
to get that picture and the girl willingly to a reputable
cosmetic surgeon.

"Odd, but that picture looks familiar somehow," Diana murmured,
half to herself.

"I thought so, too, Daddy-Di, but I can't place the memory."

Jane shrugged, realizing that time was getting away from them.
"She looks like Miss Rockwell. Darla, I will call you in during
the third change. She will be in heels then. I think we can
expect that she will be, at best, inept in them. I will want you
to demonstrate for her that my exercises are not impossible. The
plan is that she will fail on her own and thus be in danger of
losing her workout unless she does much better for the final
session after the midday meal. Then, assuming all goes well
during the final session, you will take her out to meet Old Tom
and give her a properly feminine name we can use here and when we
are in society."

"She's not going to kill me when I do that, is she? The guys are
usually too surprised and afraid of exposure to consider any
retaliation. She won't be afraid."

"No, she will not threaten you," Jane said with quiet confidence.
"She has, by the way, agreed to anything that is not one of her
family's traditional names."

"I know that Chastity is one of the names on the 'don't go there'
list," Darla asked, a mischievous glint in her blue eyes, "What
are the others? Just so I won't make that mistake."

"You aren't likely to do so," Jane said with heavy irony, "As
they are not names that would be popular in the modern world.
However, they are - in addition to Chastity, of course -
Prudence, Virginia, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy."

"You're kidding," Darla retorted.

Jane rose to her feet. "Darling, you know that I *never* kid."

--


Chapter 5 ~ First Lessons Are the Toughest


Two-and-one-half hours later, Jane sat at her study desk, her
fingers massaging throbbing temples. Her headache was in part
due to the stress of resisting the sniping, caustic comments that
were by now second nature to her during this particular exercise.
To this point, at least, she had managed to be demanding but fair
in her evaluations of her student's efforts and presentations.

Using an instant camera, she had photographed Chastity during the
first presentation. She had been beautifully made up using
subtle colors that made those incredible violet eyes even more
dramatic while the softly tailored skirt and matching sweater in
soft earth tones had shown off her strong young figure.

The second presentation, for which Marie had been more a
consultant and helper had not gone nearly so well. Clearly, the
girl had little experience with any kind of a makeup brush and
her color preferences tended to the dull grays that did nothing
for her looks at all. And then she had strode about the room
like a man late for dinner. While Jane did not intend to impose
the exaggerated mincing gait that she taught her boys on the
girl, there were still LIMITS! *Just as well the next session
requires her to move in heels,* Jane thought as she dug a knuckle
into one particularly painful knot.

She was on the point of searching her desk for an aspirin when
her study door opened to admit Marie. Jane looked up, instantly
wary. "What is it?"

Jane barely resisted the urge to wince when she saw her longtime
friend and confidante actually bit her lip and wring her hands.
Sighing, Marie caught herself and started "I am sorry to say
this, Jane, but what is going on in there right now isn't
working. I understand where you are going with this child - how
and why this program is different from what we usually do, but
her reactions are still, at best, little more than what we get
from the more compliant boys. Oh, she does what I ask when I
ask, and she really works at it, too, but she has yet to show the
slightest sign of enjoying any of it! Not ANY of it, and that's
such a shame, considering the pretty clothes and lovely faces you
have specified for her. All this one is doing is putting on a
disguise - like some Halloween mask she will take off as soon as
she is given permission to undo it all."

Cursing under her breath, Jane nodded. She should have seen it
herself had she not been so preoccupied with not verbally lashing
the girl. "So, what should I do?"

"It's like you told Darla, cherie. We've got to find some way to
make this fun for her, instead of work," Marie said quietly. "The
boys are motivated by fear. I think she is also motivated by
fear, and right now, only fear."

"Fear of WHAT?!?" Jane demanded, her headache back in full force.
"She's already a girl!"

"Fear that you will withhold her exercise privileges," Marie said
quietly. "As important as you said those privileges are to her,
I think we have still underestimated the potency of that threat.
If we don't want her to hate the dressing up, and the makeup, and
all the other wonderful feminine things both of us really love
and that we want to share with her, you are going to have to
tread very lightly. If she decides that her inability to meet
your expectations costs her those privileges, she will never
learn to enjoy being a girl."

"What you're saying is that you don't believe the original plan,
as we laid it out last night, will have those desired outcomes?"

Marie shook her head solemnly. "I believe that if you use Darla
to show this girl up just now? In the mood she is in?" Marie
sighed unhappily. "She will take the criticism and then she'll do
her best, but she will never enjoy it. She'll just press on
harder and work at whatever you tell her to correct, and I do
mean "work" in the worst sense of the word."

"I see. . . ." Jane thought, her eyes becoming vague as she
contemplated Marie's observations. "And if I do withhold
privileges, just as an attention getter?"

"I can't say for sure, Jane, but I think she will decide that if
she works so hard and still fails, that there will be no point in
working."

*Lord, but I wish Diana was here and not out taking care of the
shopping. Still, I don't doubt that Marie is correct in her
assessment. How in heaven's name do I teach a girl to have fun
being a girl? Whatever could have happened to that poor child
that she can't even enjoy the most basic feminine pleasures?
Maybe. . .* "Lord, but I hate improvising like this. . .and yet.
. . Marie? Have Darla come see me, please. Keep . . .oh hell,
keep *Rocky* busy for another fifteen minutes. Show her how to
fix a mistake with her mascara or how to blend her blusher."

Moments later, Jane opened her door to a knock. "You wanted to
see me, Momma-Jane?" asked the primly dressed teenager. Darla
had done exactly what Jane had asked for. She would have easily
won the role of Marian the Librarian in the musical "The Music
Man". Her wig was set in a neat bun that matched the real one
Jane normally wore when she went off on a business trip. Black
framed glasses gave her a bookish air that made Jane want to
shake her head. She was dressed in dark, conservative colors
that did nothing for her, fashion-wise and did, in fact, make the
girl look sallow. *Oh, but this is the very last thing I want
that girl next door emulating. What have I done?*

"Thank you for coming so quickly, dear," Jane said as she lead
her child to the settee. "Things have changed since this
morning. On the bright side, I think I better understand what is
missing in our program and we need to change the plan for you
before we make what I am sure would be a very serious error. I
still need you to perform the functions of role model and
helpmate, but from a different characterization, I think. It
will be difficult for you, but I honestly believe that it is as
important to teach your new sister to enjoy her femininity as it
is to teach her to be feminine."

"Okay, Momma-Jane," Darla replied, her curiosity aroused. "You
know I will do anything I can to help. What's the new plan?"

"So, this is what I want you to do. . . ."

~-----------------~

"'Play down your looks, Darla,'" Darla fumed in a sing-song voice
as she dug through years of collected clothing in the normally
locked Seasons House attic. "'Don't appear too threatening to her
fragile feminine ego, Darla' and so I go and dress like this for
her? Cripes, but a crow has more color than this outfit. And
then what happens? And only forty minutes before show-time, no
less?" She held up yet another overly-frilly frock in one hand
and an umbrella-like multi-layered petticoat in the other. "Like
where am I going to find clothes like that in THIS house?!?!
Blast!"

~----------------~

*She's walking like she's holding that book clinched between the
muscled cheeks of her derriere instead of balanced precariously
on her head,* Jane thought as Webster made a third trip from
Chastity's head to the floor. In truth, if one of her boys had
done as well at this point in her program, he would have been
quite above average. Rocky was wearing taller heels than Jane
usually sprung on a first day student and that was ONLY the third
drop of the dictionary. Even Darla had dropped it twice that
number in the same time frame. *But she's already a girl!* Jane's
mind complained yet again. "Again, please," she ordered her
student.

Assuming the girl had never worn makeup before today, her efforts
in this session had been. . . adequate. Assuming she had never
attempted to walk in three inch heels before today, then her
movements had been . . . satisfactory. Her clothing was
tastefully selected and suited her own natural coloring well
enough, but then, wearing navy blue and white did not press the
envelope very much.

*But she is a girl! And she's seventeen years old. What girl
does not experiment with cosmetics as soon as she can get her
mother's permission, or play in mother's high heels until she can
talk her mother into buying her own spiked shoes?* Jane winced as
the book went down a fourth time. "Miss Rockwell, if you please.
You must learn to do this in a fluid, graceful manner. You can
no more walk like a lady when you're as stiff as a board than you
could fence competently with that same rigidity. These exercises
will make you better at your own goals, if you allow them."

"Yes, ma'am," the tall girl replied dutifully, but she was
obviously no more convinced of that possible benefit than of any
other potentially positive outcome of the feminine skills she was
required to learn.

"Oh, bother," Jane said with perhaps just a bit too much theater
in her accompanying sigh. "Wait here."

~---------------~

Rocky stood quietly holding the dictionary, watching the Thompson
woman warily. *Now, what?* she thought with a mixture of
resignation and curiosity.

A knock sounded at the door.

It was a tossup who was more surprised when the door opened -
Jane or Rocky.

Darla almost pranced over to Jane, a huge smile on her face.
"You wanted to see me, Aunt Jane?" she asked sweetly after
pressing smacking kiss to Jane's suddenly frozen cheek. "Like my
outfit?" she cooed as she moved back to pirouette for her aunt.

It had taken real effort and imagination to put together her
current outfit, and Darla was rather proud of it considering how
little warning Jane had given her. She'd started by combining
white spiked heels with one of the knee-length snow-white, dirt-
magnet dresses Jane kept on hand for her students. For accent,
she'd found a supply of brightly patterned satin scarves that
she'd used to accessorize the dress. A predominantly burnt
orange scarf adorned her slender waist, twisted into a rope-like
belt. Unfortunately, her other choices, a bright canary yellow
scarf held at her throat by a cameo pin and a pair of electric
pink ones that held and blended with her two side ponytails, made
the entire ensemble rather. . . visually dissident. With a much
more vivid application of cosmetics than she would normally use
in Jane's presence, Darla was certainly eye-catching.

"That. . .that is quite a display, young lady," Jane said, her
voice heavy with censure. "Another of your fashion experiments?"

Darla twirled again, causing the loose ends of the scarves at her
neck and in her hair to flutter. "Yes. What do you think?"

"I think that you might want to attempt to find hues and shades
that suit your own coloration better," Jane replied before adding
with heavy emphasis, "That you could have remembered we have a
student in residence and picked a better time to indulge yourself
this way."

"Oh, ease up a bit, Aunt Jane," the girl pouted prettily. "I
just wanted to have some fun and was already dressed up when you
called. I rather like the concept," she said looking at herself
in a nearby mirror, "but you may be right about the colors.
Maybe something in greens and reds." Before Jane could respond,
Darla spun on her heels and turned a happy smile to Rocky. "What
do YOU think," she said, directing her question to Jane's
student. "Don't you think this looks like a fun outfit?"

Rocky could only gape. *Fun? Dressing up like that to call that
kind of attention to yourself? Maybe for someone like her . . *
"I . .I. . I" she stuttered before taking a calming breath. "You
look very. . . ummm. . .striking and . .. and. . ." Words failed
her as she just kept staring at the young vision in white.

"Perfect!" Darla said with a huge grin. "Just the effect I
wanted." She turned her back to Rocky so that only Jane saw the
minx wink at her. "So, Aunt Jane, why did you call me away from
my fashion design session?"

Jane managed a believable harrumph and said low in her throat.
"I want you to demonstrate walking in heels to Miss Rockwell.
She has not yet been able to manage two complete circuits of the
study without dropping the dictionary from her head."

"Of course, Aunt Jane. Sounds like fun. Here, Miss Rockwell,
give me that book. The main thing," Darla said in a
conspiratorial semi-whisper as she carefully positioned the
dictionary on her head, "is to develop a lower body movement that
rolls you along while keeping the upper body, and therefore your
head, steady. Like this."

It was all Jane could do not to giggle and all Rocky could do not
to gape as, hands on hips, Darla dance-stepped up and down the
carpeted room.

And the damn book never fell once!

~------------------~

The mid-day meal that followed Darla's singular demonstration was
equally unique in Jane Thompson-Philips' long experience with her
special students. After that first morning's dress-up session,
Jane would make several pointed 'compliments' to a boy student on
his lovely dress, tease him about his pretty face, or call
attention to his head full of by-now very curly hair. She did
none of that with this student.

There were, she thought later in the privacy of her study, at
least three reasons for that omission on her part. The first was
the most important if the plan Jane and Diana had developed had
any possibility of success. She did not want to do anything to
make the girl more ambivalent about the femininity Jane hoped to
help her experience more fully.

The second reason was more troubling and something Jane realized
she had to address if she was to achieve her goals with Chastity
Rockwell. Simply put, Jane hadn't been able to bring herself to
comment positively upon anything about the girl. In point of
actual fact, Chastity looked much nicer than any of her boys ever
had at this point, even with the nose, so why hadn't Jane found
anything encouraging to say to Chastity? *Because she is a girl,
Jane Thompson, and you are subconsciously, instinctively,
UNFAIRLY holding her to a higher standard than you do your boys!*

That was an ego-lowering thought, and one Jane would have to
discuss at length with Diana, perhaps tonight after the girls
were safely tucked into their beds. Sometimes, particularly with
one of her very troublesome boys, Jane had to do something
'unfair' to get that boy's attention, like long-lasting cosmetics
followed by an public outing in effeminate clothing, or like the
trick she had played on one student who had been initially cast
in a boy role in the children's theater production of Alice in
Wonderland, only to later force him to volunteer for the girl
lead when Jane's senior student had 'graduated'.

However, those acts, "unfair" as they truly had been, had always
been done intentionally as part of a carefully developed and
considered plan of action, and most importantly, with a full
understanding that she WAS being unfair. *But always in a good
cause,* she told herself encouragingly. This time was different,
and Jane did not like finding this prejudice in herself.

So, it was probably for the best that there was a third reason
she had not had much to say during lunch. That reason had a name
- Darla. *Lord-oh-lord, but where in heavens name did she come up
with that . . . that costume? When I told her to try to find
something youthful, playful and flashy, I never envisioned
anything like. . . like THAT!*

During lunch, Darla had thoroughly dominated the conversation, or
had it been more like a monologue? - with her almost constant
chatter. *Where in heaven's name did my child learn the lyrics to
the latest N'sync single? I don't know if Miss Rockwell was
amused or appalled, but she was definitely enthralled.*

*And that 'Vaudevillian walking exposition' of hers - the only
thing she did not do was a set of Rockette-style high kicks. I
hope she did not overdo it, but she definitely got her little
sister's attention which was the goal.* Jane stopped to reflect
on that for a moment when a revelation began to take form.
*Darla isn't the big sister in this dynamic, is she? Particularly
after that show she just put on in my study. She's much more
suited to being the prototypical little sister full of bubbly
emotion, laughter and mischief with this student. I hope that
will work because I am positive that Chastity won't be able to
accept her in my program's more customary 'big sister' role again
after this.* Jane sighed. Yet another thing to add to her "Talk
with my husband-the-shrink" list.

A knock on her door pulled Jane from her reveries. When she bid
the person to enter, she smiled to see her child walk through the
door. Darla had dispensed with the clashing pink and yellow
scarves before dinner, replacing them with a tasteful amber
pendant that nicely complimented the orange belt, while using a
set of antique combs, also carved from amber, to hold her wig's
hair back from her face. She still looked very young, but
certainly more sophisticated as one would expect of a girl
tutored by Jane Thompson.

"Hi, Aunt Jane," Darla said, staying in role, "Roc. . I mean,
Chastity just went up to her room after helping Marie with the
clean up."

Jane nodded and flipped on the monitoring equipment. Darla moved
around the desk to look on as the hidden camera revealed a very
dejected looking young woman sitting on the edge of the bed.
"Maybe I overdid things when I demonstrated with the dictionary,
Momma-Jane?"

Thinking about the possibilities, Jane wondered, too. "Maybe,
maybe not. I see potential in this situation, so let's try to
take advantage of that. I won't send Marie up to her to
supervise her dressing for another forty five minutes. This is
what I want you to do. . ."

Darla listened to Jane's directions, nodded once or twice, asked
a few very incisive and pointed questions, and finally agreed.
"You're still going to let her work out, aren't you, Momma Jane?"
Darla asked as she rose. "I mean, she's been trying very hard -
even I can see that - and I would hate it. . .REALLY hate it if
something this spur-of-the-moment messed up her Olympic dreams."

"I promise that I will find enough effort and progress in
whatever she does, so long as she continues to put forth the
effort she did this morning, to reward her efforts, dear. That
was always my intention." *And one I shall keep foremost in my
mind for the remainder of the day,* she told herself sternly.
*There is a difference between saying something positive and not
saying anything too negative.* "Now, go see what you can
accomplish."

Jane watched as the calm, mature features metamorphosed back into
the creature that had so recently honored her table at luncheon.
With a spritely peck on her Aunt's cheek, Darla chirped out a
"Laters, Auntie J," and strutted toward the door of her study
where she stopped before opening the door. "Oh, Aunt Jane? If
this idea of yours works out and becomes the plan? Well, you
know, we're going to have to do some serious shopping. I mean,
the stuff you have here is just so. . . so. . " she stumbled
trying to find the right epithet and then grinned broadly, "so
late Twentieth Century - at best. Ya know?"

And then she was gone. *And here I have always thought I was
trying for late Nineteenth Century. Victorian Petticoat
Domination isn't what it used to be. Auntie J!?!?* Jane thought
with a grin, and then settled herself to observe the coming
tableau on her security monitor.

~-------------~


Alone with her thoughts, Rocky seriously considered the
likelihood she would ever be allowed to continue her training.
If this morning was any indication, the Thompson woman's
standards might very well make it impossible for Rocky to earn
her workouts. Truthfully, she'd never for a moment considered
that she wouldn't make the grade in the older woman's estimation.
After all, it was only silly girl stuff, after all. At least, she
had thought that it wouldn't be difficult until Darla had come in
and shown Rocky just how high that bar was set. She could feel
the first muscle quivers of stress begin to circle about her
stomach. *Oh, I need to work out!* her overly stressed mind
cried.





Chapter 6 ~ New Friends and Little Successes


A knock sounded at her door shook Rocky from her mental
ruminations. When she opened it, she was surprised to see Darla
standing out there looking hopeful. "Hi!" she said. "May I come
in?"

*What for?* Rocky wanted to ask, but didn't. *No sense in
aggravating anyone else in the house.* "Sure. What can I do for
you?"

The girl nearly skipped into the room! "Well, actually, I was
hoping you'd let me help you," Darla said, somewhat shyly all of
a sudden. "I mean, you did a really great job for your first try
with Aunt Jane, but I thought I might be able to give you a
couple of quick pointers so that this afternoon's session will go
off all right. I mean, if you don't mind, that is."

"Somehow, I don't think that you can teach me to move like you
did in . . " Rocky checked the clock, "the half an hour before
Miss Marie comes to dress me for my final presentation to Ms.
Thompson."

"Oh, that," Darla said dismissively and then gave a little
giggle. "I just did that to jerk Aunt Jane's chain a little. I
mean, I really love her and all that, but she can get really
stuffy sometimes. So, can we try a couple of tricks?"

"Why would you want to do that? Wouldn't that get you into
trouble with your aunt?"

"Why wouldn't I want to help you?" Darla managed to sound
completely surprised by the question. "I figure you could use a
friend just now, and I can always use another girlfriend.
Girlfriends help each other, right? And as for Aunt Jane, you
just let me worry about her, okay, girlfriend?"

Rocky thought about the session she still had to get through and
shrugged. *Girlfriends? How would I know what girlfriends do when
I haven't had one since elementary school? Still, what have I
got to lose?* "Sure. I would appreciate any help I can get."

"Great! Okay, what I want you to do is just walk across the room
- the way you usually do. Try not to think about what you are
doing, okay?"

"All right," Rocky replied, reaching down to pick up her
discarded shoes.

"No!" Darla protested. "Not with those things. Just your bare
feet - do what is natural." Surprised, but willing to play
along, Rocky did what she was told. "Okay. Now, put your hands
on your hips like I did - hold them right in the same place and
don't let them move - and do the same thing again."

When Chastity stopped, she had to roll her shoulders to get the
tension out of them. "What did you feel?" Darla asked.

"My shoulders really got tight. And my balance felt funny."

"Exactly!" Darla cheered. "That's the point. Watch me walk."
She ordered as she stepped out her own heels. "See what I am
doing with my shoulders? See how they're swinging?" At Rocky's
affirmative, Darla continued. "That's how you walk naturally.
Watch my head - see how it bobs? So does yours. It's no wonder
the book won't stay. Now watch me move. Pay particular
attention to my arms." Darla did a classic model-on-the-runway
walk, her arms and shoulders steady, but her hips swinging
rhythmically.

"You should have back-trouble from walking like that," Rocky
said, "But your head was steady as a rock."

"That's the point! And that's why I put my hands on my hips
earlier, so I would remember not to move my shoulders and keep my
head steady. Now, you try it with this book on your head."

It took a few minutes and several tries, but soon, barefoot at
least, Rocky could make three full circuits of the room without
dropping the book. Actually, the posture did remind her
something of fencing - at least the defensive stances. "But this
isn't in heels," she said to Darla as she dropped the book on to
the nearby bed.

"True enough. Tell me - who picked your heels? You or Marie?"

"I did. I thought they went with the outfit."

"And so they did, but they are also just about the most
challenging shoes in your closet if I know my Aunt Jane. Let's
see what we can find that might be a little easier to wear and
then see if we can find you an outfit to match them."

"Not like what you wore!" Rocky retorted, almost afraid.

"No, of course not. You are still a student and I DO know how to
dress to please Aunt Jane - I just don't sometimes."

"Why?" Rocky asked as she watched the other girl rummage in the
big armoire.

"Because it is fun sometimes to tease her." Rocky's estimation
of this girl's personal courage went up another notch. "Here we
go. These will do just fine. Now, let's see if there is a
pretty dress in here that will suit your coloring and work with
these shoes. Then, I will teach you a couple of makeup tricks.
Knowing Marie, she gave you the full beauty parlor, major make
over, glamour treatment. That's great and it can be really neat
to look like that, but being able to do that all by yourself is,
as Aunt Jane would say, an acquired skill. You have great eyes
and a nice shapely mouth. We can make you look almost that good
with just a bit of eye magic, some lipstick and a just a hint of
color on those pale cheeks of yours."

Rocky felt like she was being carried off by a flash-flood.
*Well, Hurricane Darla has definitely made landfall,* she thought
with a bit of a smile. *So I guess that is an apt analogy.*
"Sounds good to me," she managed to say. "What do we do first?"

~-----------~

Watching from her study, Jane had notified Marie to give Darla a
few extra minutes to finish her tutoring of Chastity. From what
she could see and hear, it was going very well. Darla even had
the somewhat taciturn older girl almost giggling by the end of
the lessons. Jane let them 'hide' the selected dress and shoes
back in the armoire and cream off Chastity's second successful
practice of Darla's 'tricks' before buzzing Marie to come up and
get started.

Diana entered the room just then, back from her shopping trip.
"How is it going?" she asked, immediately after nearly short-
circuiting Jane's gray cells with one of her marvelous kisses.

Coughing first to clear her suddenly tight throat, Jane managed
"Better, now, I think. I had to change the plan on the fly, but
I think this new idea might be working."

"Does that change how you want to play this session?" Diana
asked.

"No. I still need to be the stern, demanding teacher with
extremely high standards so that she will stay on her toes and do
what I ask."

"Got it. So what are the changes?"

"One of them is Darla, so don't act surprised when you see her.
I will explain everything later, all right?"

"All right," Diana replied just as a knock signaled Chastity's
arrival at the door."

~---------------~

Jane kept her face expressionless as she watched her student
complete her sixth successful stroll about the study. So far,
the dictionary had only fallen once, and that had been within the
first five steps the girl had taken. *Probably wasn't settled
quite squarely on her head,* Jane mused.

Chastity was actually holding her arms a bit too rigidly to be
truly attractive, somewhat like a runway model with casts on both
arms, but learning what movements she could make and which ones
she could not would come over time. All in all, however, Jane
was well pleased with this afternoon's work. Chastity had tried
hard and done well. *Darla did well with her, too, and in more
ways than just her walking.*

As was her habit, Jane had thoroughly inspected her student
before the walking exercise had begun. The total picture was
good - better than good, actually. The lighter hand with the
cosmetics and the use of more subtle tones that Darla had taught
Chastity worked well with the girl's darker coloring. In all
honesty, Jane's new student did not need much in the way of
artificial highlighting. *If only that nose was not quite so
crooked,* Jane mourned yet again. *She would be quite attractive,
if one was given to liking women with the strong, well muscled
look.* The wig was in a charming pony tail with just a fringe of
bangs across her smooth forehead. The light, flower-patterned
sundress Darla had selected showed off Chastity's tall, young
body to perfection.

"She does have lovely shoulders,* Jane thought as Chastity swung
into yet another cycle about the room, the off the shoulder
design of the dress hugging her torso lovingly. *And such
wonderful skin. Not much in the way of a bosom, a bit more than
a B-cup I should think, but then endurance athletes tend to burn
what fat they allow themselves to consume during their training.
Still, her musculature is of the long and sleek type and not the
unfemininely bulky type. She'll do nicely. Very nicely indeed.*

Of course, Jane had not been quite so complimentary when she
spoke to her student as that was not part of the plan. She had
pointed out minor imperfections in the application of the
cosmetics - a bit too little lipstick here, a clump of eyelash
with too much mascara there and a not-quite-properly shaded bit
of rouge on one cheek. She saved her strongest criticism for the
shoes. "Those sandals are hardly the best shoes you might have
chosen," she complained about the strappy-white sandals with the
wide, two-inch-tall heels, but then she softened the comment with
"But I suppose they do suit the rest of your ensemble well
enough. You will need to work up to . . . more feminine shoes as
we continue the program, however."

Rocky had only swallowed and politely replied that she understood
that. Jane had then handed her the dictionary and begun the rest
of the exercise. The session had gone very well and it was time
to call a halt so that there would still be time for the final
act of today's little drama. Jane covertly pressed a small
button beneath her desktop and then rose. She walked over to
meet her student and deftly removed the book from her head.

"Brava!" Diana cheered, also rising to come over to the girl.
"Very nicely done! I thought you got better and better at it as
you went, too!"

"Thank you, Ms. Philips," Rocky said quietly. "I managed to
relax a bit as the exercise continued and it did seem to help."

Jane shot her partner a visibly annoyed look that she made sure
Rocky saw, and then shrugged. "I suppose you did . . . well
enough. . . .for now, that is. However, I will concede that you
have earned your right to exercise in the morning. Since I
haven't yet received the report I asked you for, what is it you
plan for tomorrow?"

Just then, the door opened to admit Darla. "Sorry I am late,
Aunt Jane, . . OH, You're done! How did it go, girlfriend?"

"Well enough," Jane answered sternly, "And how many times have I
told you to knock?"

Darla looked instantly contrite. "I am sorry, Aunt Jane, but I
had promised Roc. . I mean, Miss Rockwell that I would be here
for her session. Will she be able to do her thing in the
morning?"

"I have just told her that I will permit some form of exercise
tomorrow," Jane replied.

Darla squealed in delight and instantly was hugging the shocked
student. "Way-to-go!" she cheered as she took Chastity's hands
and began to dance her about the room.

"DARLA!" Jane snapped, secretly amused to see the wide-eyed look
of disbelief on Chastity's face. "You are interrupting. If you
cannot be a lady, I will be forced to discipline you. A weekend
as Shirley might do you a world of good!"

As suddenly as she had pounced, Darla backed off and became
instantly demure. "My apologies, Aunt Jane. I was just so happy
for my new friend."

"As that may be, young miss, watch yourself. You are on borrowed
time." Then Jane turned back to her student. "You were going to
tell me what you wished to do tomorrow?"

"I would like to go for a distance run, Ms. Thompson. I feel the
need to work out some kinks and running helps."

Jane considered this and frowned. "I had hoped that you had
something else in mind. While there are many lovely trails
around here that you might follow, I would not want you getting
lost or hurt out there alone. Perhaps. . "

"Aunt Jane?" Darla piped up. "There is that fellow who lives
down the road? The one that I went to school with? Darryl Smith?
He runs long distance races and trains most mornings. I am SURE
that he would be willing to help Miss Rockwell. I could call and
ask him."

"A boy?" Rocky asked, suddenly on guard.

Diana saw the wariness and stepped in. "Nice young man, my dear.
A little on the short side, but very polite and courteous."

"Short?"

"Actually," Darla put in as she stretched a bit in her three inch
heels, "he's a bit shorter, maybe by as much as an inch or two,
than me. And he is a nice guy."

"Got your eye on him, Miss?" Jane challenged.

"Good heavens NO, Aunt Jane!" Darla retorted, her voice ringing
with alarm. "Forgetting for the moment that he's shorter than I
am, he's much too physical for me. Why, the boy simply LOVES to
sweat!" The final word was said with such trenchant condemnation
that Jane could not hold back the chuckle.

"That would put YOU off, wouldn't it, Miss Priss," Jane teased,
"But I do not think our Miss Rockwell would find that particular
characteristic all that daunting."

Rocky felt her spine go rigid at the implied challenge and simply
could not stop herself from replying. "No, that would be fine."

"Excellent. I will call this fellow myself and ask him to oblige
you. Please have your schedule to me by tomorrow breakfast, and,
by the way, don't plan any equestrian activities for the next two
weeks. My stable manager is on vacation so most of my stock is
being boarded elsewhere. Only my two favorite horses are still
here, and while they are fine for gentle riding, they are well
past the age of being jumpers. Once my other mounts are back, I
will personally undertake coaching you in the jumping ring."

Surprised yet again, Rocky was barely able to manage a polite
thank you. Jane waved it away. "It is my part of the bargain we
made, girl. Keep your end of it and I will keep mine. Now, why
don't you and Darla take a walk around the grounds before
dressing for dinner? You can see the stables and look over some
of the trails."

"Great!" Darla enthused. "C'mon, Roc. . I mean, Miss Rockwell.
Let's go use the bathroom first and then get some fresh air and
sunshine."

Darla waited until the girl had left for her own room before
turning to Jane. "That went well," Jane said with a pleased
smile. "Both of you played your parts to perfection so that I can
be seen as fair but picky. Darla? I think I will have to punish
you, though, and soon. You are doing what needs be done, I
think, at least based on our student's responses, but you are
going to have to walk a tight edge. You can make the best of it,
but I think you will be in your Shirley Temple rompers by
Saturday."

"No problem, Momma-Jane. Truth to tell, I can't wait to see
Rocky's face when I do come down in that outfit with that
ridiculous wig on."

"PLEASE - do NOT call her Rocky!"

Diana chuckled. "Well, hopefully, we will have an alternative to
that once Darla introduces Chastity to Old Tom," she said before
turning to Darla. "So. Got any ideas of what to name our little
GG?"

Darla was about to shrug her shoulders when something clicked in
her mind. *So THAT'S who I was remembering. I wonder. . . * A
wide grin split Darla's face. "You know? I think I do!" She
walked over and kissed her two adoptive parents. "See you in an
hour or so. I plan to get to Tom last."

"But what are you. . ." Jane called, only to have the door shut
between her and the departing boy-girl. "Well!" she said
frustrated.

Diana only laughed. "You know, darling . . ."

"What?" Jane shot back, still fuming at not knowing Darla's
plan.

"We have about an hour with no responsibilities," Diana said in a
darkly sultry voice as she closed on her wife. "And I know just
how to make the best possible use of it."

A tingle of desire curled in Jane's middle, but it warred with
her sense of responsibility. "But I should watch them from the
win-mrrmmphh. . ." her words were cut off by one of Diana's
devastating lipstick-flavored kisses. "On the other hand," she
gulped out when her lips were reluctantly freed, "Darla knows the
program about as well as I do . . . ."
--



Chapter 7 ~ The Naming


The late afternoon sun was pleasantly warm as the two young women
strolled down the flagstone path that led to Jane's stable. Darla
was half-tempted to keep up a stream of chatter in order to try
to put a smile on the taller girl's face, but decided to let the
silence stand. *For a while longer, anyway,* she thought to
herself. *Time enough to draw her out once we get to the stables.
I have yet to see the heart that Jane's Garters and Teddi can't
soften.*

As for Rocky, she was trying to sort her way through the deluge
of strange new experiences Jane Thompson had unleashed upon her.
So many strange feelings and if she were honest with herself, not
all of them were unpleasant. Uncomfortable, perhaps, because she
had all but convinced herself that feminine fripperies like silky
undies were not for Rocky Rockwell, future Olympic Open
Pentathlon Champion, but not unpleasant.

And then there was this Darla who said she wanted the two of them
to be girlfriends. *What the hell am I going to do about that?*
Rocky asked herself, but could find no answer. Not yet, anyway.

"Has your aunt really disciplined you before?" Rocky asked, her
curiosity on that score finally getting the better of her.

Hiding a smile at the question, Darla shrugged. "She's a tough
lady, and she believes in a certain code of behavior. So, she
tries to make any failures to comply with that code. . .
memorable. I try not to slip up too badly or too often."

Something in Darla's tone caught Rocky's attention. "She doesn't
hurt you or anything, does she?"

Darla laughed. "Oh, nothing so crude. She simply makes you do
something you do not like to do, all the while knowing that you
wouldn't be doing it if you had followed the rules."

"Aren't you old enough to tell her to forget it?"

"I wish," Darla said ruefully, "But she has me by the same hook
that she sank into you."

"Oh? What is that?"

"My word of honor," Darla said simply. "When I first came here,
I said I would comply with her program and her rules. Besides, I
love her and I know she loves me."

"I'm sorry, but I am finding her rather unlovable right now."

Darla shrugged. "That's okay. She's an acquired taste. She's
tough and she demands your best," and then her voice became very
serious, "but she also saved my life, and I mean that quite
literally. Maybe one day I will tell you that story, but not
now."

"I see. If you knew that you might be punished for not knocking
at her door, why did you just come in like you did? Knocking
first seems a simple enough thing to do to avoid something you
don't want."

A mischievous grin crossed Darla's face. "I had promised to be
there for you, but she had already started testing you and might
very well have told me to come back later. I couldn't take the
chance and keep my promise to you."

"You don't like her punishments?"

An honest shudder ran down Darla's spine. "She has the most
amazing ability to hit you with precisely what will make you
shrivel up and want to hide from yourself."

"And you still came?" Rocky asked again, disbelief in every
syllable.

"I promised," Darla said again. "Besides, I have been a
particularly good little girl lately, so I figured she would cut
me a little slack. I will have to be careful for the next week
or so, though. Aunt Jane has a pretty long memory."

"I can believe that. Anyway. . Thanks - for the help and for
trying to be there during the test."

"No problem. Like I said, that is what friends do for each
other."

Rocky was silent again, and then shrugged. "Guess you'd know
more about that than I would, but I am grateful, nonetheless."

"Glad to do it," Darla said and then began twirling about,
letting her skirts dance in the breeze. "Isn't it just a
wonderful afternoon? Smell the fall leaves?"

"Is that what that scent is?"

"Well, since that building ahead is the stable, it might have
more than a bit of horse manure added to the aroma. C'mon, I
will introduce you to Garters and Teddi - Aunt Jane's favorite
horses."

~-------------~

*Amazing,* Darla thought for the third time in as many minutes,
*I never would have expect this!* She just stood there, staring
as Rocky stroked the face of Jane's favorite mare while making
cooing baby-talk to the big saddle-bred. *She loves them, and
this is the first time I have seen her let go like that since I
laid eyes on her on the train.*

"What's this big love's name, Darla?" Rocky asked, her eyes
still fixed on the horse's own.

"Ummm. . . .Garters," Darla managed. "Her name is really Jane's
Stars and Garters, but we just call her Garters."

"What a strange name," Rocky replied, pressing her face to the
horse's silky neck.

*If only you knew,* Darla thought. "Well, if you look at her
legs, she has socks like many horses do, but there are two
stripes moving up from them, that sort of look like. . .well,
garters."

Rocky hunkered down to take a look and came up with a huge grin.
"You're right! How neat. Where's the other horse?"

"Over here," Darla told her as she led the way down the aisle.
She stopped in front of a big chestnut thoroughbred who
imperiously butted Darla in the chest with her nose. Darla
chuckled with evident pleasure and reached up to stroke the
strong neck. "This is Teddi. She is technically my horse, but
as you can no doubt see, she believes that our relationship is
reversed and I am, in fact, HER human."

"Oh, aren't you GORgeous," Rocky purred in a voice that almost
gave Darla whiplash from the double-take. "Of course she knows
she's the boss. Just LOOK at her! Queen of all she surveys."

"That's Teddi, all right," Darla managed to agree.

"Why do I suspect that 'Teddi' is not short for Theodora?"

"'Cause you are smart. Well, we better get going. I want to
show you the gardens before we head in to get cleaned up for
dinner. The gardens are really lovely this time of year and a
good place to go to . . .well. . . to get away for a few moments
of solitude when Aunt Jane gets to be a bit more than you can
handle."

"She will get that way, will she?"

"Guaranteed, but you have to understand that beneath it all, she
does it because she cares so much. It's just that. . . well, . .
sometimes, it can be a real bitch to remember that 'tough love'
is still really love."

"I hear that, Darla," Rocky agreed and then began rummaging in
the purse Jane had given her to carry. "Almost forgot. . ."

~-------------~

Later, Darla and Rocky were walking back toward the main house.
Darla could report to Jane that Rocky was good with horses and
more, that the girl loved the animals. *Imagine, Rocky slipping
those apples to the horses before we left. She must have taken
them from Marie's fruit bowl after she heard Jane mention the
stable.*

"So, do you think your Aunt is serious about helping me train?"
Rocky asked, as off-handedly as she could manage which wasn't
much. The answer was just too important for such games.

"She said she would if you give her your best. Jane's word is
gold and she expects the same from us. If you don't feel the
same, you'd better tell her now. She only gives you one chance
when it comes to giving her your word."

"I keep my word," Rocky said with quiet forcefulness.

"Fair enough, but I would have negotiated something a lot more
fun than beating myself to bits exercising."

Rocky gave the petite girl a dark look. "Well, all I can say is
one of three things ~ you have been blessed with a totally unfair
genetic advantage, or you are suffering some sort of eating
disorder or you are a closet exerciser. Since I don't want to
believe in the first, and I have seen enough of your Aunt to know
the second wouldn't get past her, I think your aversion to
sweating is just one of those "See, I really am a girly-girl"
affectations."

"Oh, I didn't say I wouldn't sweat, I just said I don't LIKE to
do it. Just like I don't like to submit to Aunt Jane's little
punishments."

"So, what do you do for exercise?"

"Aerobic dance mostly, with a day or two of weight-work each
week."

"Aerobic DANCE? Hopping about in tights to bad music? Oh come
on now, can't you find a more efficient and effective exercise
than that?"

The utter distaste in Rocky's voice made Darla want to laugh out
loud. "Oh, I can see right now that I am going to have to get
Aunt Jane to send you to my health club. We'll have your tongue
hanging out and your butt dragging before we get ten minutes past
the warmup."

"Bull!"

"We'll see, girlfriend, we'll see," Darla said, a teasing threat
in her voice.

Rocky stopped short and fixed Darla with a hard look. "Why are
you so determined to call me 'girlfriend' when we aren't?" she
asked, her voice suddenly cold and suspicious. "Because your
Aunt told you to make friends with me? Maybe you are supposed to
report to her on when I do my lessons and when I slip up."

"Goodness no! I promise you, that I am NOT trying to get on your
good side to betray you and get you into trouble with Aunt Jane."
Darla gave a sour smile. "Trust me, just like me, you will make
enough errors around her for her to know when you are trying and
when you are dogging it."

"So why the girlfriend thing? Why not just call me by name.
Even your aunt calls me 'Miss Rockwell'."

Darla sighed. "It's just that YOU don't like Chastity and SHE
doesn't like Rocky, and *I* don't like calling people I DO want
to be friends with by their last names. It sounds so. . .well,
unfriendly, you know?"

"Really?"

"Really. And just to prove it to you, I promise that until you
agree with me that we ARE friends, I'll try to find something
else to call you that won't offend anyone's sensibilities," then
Darla gave that little giggle of hers, "least of all Jane's
because I really DON'T care for her little disciplinary
reminders."

"Wimp," Rocky said without too much heat.

"ooooOOOOO. . Feeling fiesty, are you? Well, you can call me a
wimp after YOU'VE gone through one of Aunt Jane's punishments."

"Count on it, wimp." Rocky growled, feeling suddenly carefree
and not a little mischievous, which was an odd experience for her
with another girl.

"Oh, watch your step, or I might just go back on my better nature
and see if I CAN trip you up and get us both into her dark
lists," Darla teased, "JUST to give you the opportunity to see
if you still feel like calling ME a wimp - after you've been
through one of Aunt Jane's learning experiences."

"Just remember that payback is a bitch, babe," Rocky retorted,
still grinning.

"Just like me, girl, just like me," Darla laughed. Then she
became alert. "Oh look! There is Old Tom over in the rose
garden. C'mon! You'll like Tom. He is a great old guy."

~----------------~

Jane watched from her window as the two girls headed back to the
house from their short conversation with Tom. Chastity was
striding out again, although not quite so much as before. The
heels she still wore and the grass were enough to restrict her
stride to some extent, but it was clear that she was upset.
*Guess the naming did not go as well as Darla had hoped.*

~---------------~

"I'm sorry, okay? I forgot we hadn't resolved the name thing we
talked about and didn't have anyway to ask what name to use once
we were with Tom." Jane heard Darla cajole as she came down from
her room to the foyer to meet the two girls.

"I guess," the older student fumed, "but why did you pick THAT
name?"

"Well, gee, I guess it is because you remind me of someone by
that name."

*Chastity does not sound too upset. More baffled, I think.
Darla's rationalization has defused much of the anger I saw as
they approached the house.* "What is the problem, Darla?" Jane
said sternly. "If you have been teasing Miss Rockwell, you will
find yourself regretting it in very short order!"

Rocky spun to look up the stairs at the descending Jane. "Oh no,
Ms Thompson, she just caught me by surprise. We met your
groundskeeper and Darla introduced me as Audrey. I have never
thought of myself as an 'Audrey' before this."

*AUDREY?!? I would have expected a Roxanne or a Raquel -
something that would have permitted the girl to react to a name
that sounds like one she is used to applying to herself. Where
does Darla come up with these names?* "I see. Well, that does
pose a bit of a problem since Tom is around here a great deal.
If we were to start calling you by a different name, it might
call unwanted attention to you. Since you refuse to answer to
your given name, and since you DID agree to allow me to use a
feminine name for you socially, would you mind very much if we
continued to use Audrey?"

Rocky thought about that for a few moments. Actually, Audrey
wasn't all that bad. She couldn't think of any reason not to
accept it. Well, she could live with it - until she left here,
anyway. "All right. That would be all right, ma'am."

"Very well, Audrey. Welcome to my home."

"Thank you, Ms. Thompson."

"And I managed to reach Mr. Smith while you were out. He will
meet you down by the stable at six a.m. tomorrow."

"SIX A.M.?!?" Darla squeaked, thinking that she would have to be
up before five a.m. to change to Darryl and be at the meeting
place before Roc. . . . errr. . . .Audrey left the house. She
swallowed hard. "Well, girlfriend, better you than me." she
managed weakly. *And Jane is up there on the steps, grinning down
at me like a Cheshire Cat. Well, that puts her one up on me, but
I will get mine back, just you wait, Momma-Jane!*

"Of course. I need . . AUDREY back here, showered and properly
dressed and made up for our normal 8:30 breakfast.

Audrey felt an urge to hug her teacher, but repressed it. "Thank
you," she said, and then added, "May I go lay down before dinner,
please? I am afraid I did not sleep very well last night."

"Of course, Audrey. I will have Marie call you half an hour
before dinnertime."

~-------------------~

"So, where did 'Audrey' come from?" Art asked as he creamed away
the last remnants of 'Diana' from his face.

"Apparently, our son has decided that the composite picture of
Chast. . I mean, Audrey looks like Audrey Hepburn in the movie
"Gigi". When you asked Darla if she had come up with a name for
our GG, by which you meant, 'genetic girl', the image of the film
character flashed into her mind."

Art thought about that for a moment and then nodded. "Huge eyes,
short, shiny black hair and a lovely smile when she forgets and
accidently uses it. Yeah, I can see that."

"Well, I couldn't," Jane huffed as she sat down at the foot of
their bed. "At least, not until Darla showed me that composite
picture again."

"Well, at least Audrey seems to like the name," Art offered.

"True enough. All in all, after a rough start, it was a rather
productive day. Her response to the horses was unexpected, but
something we can definitely use to help her, I think."

"That girl wants for love, Jane. . .and she seems almost afraid
to give or accept it right now." At Jane's stern look, Art
raised his hands in surrender. "That is just a snap judgement, I
know, and based on less than one day of observation. Still. . "

"Well, you are too professional to let that 'snap judgement' to
color your other observations," Jane yawned and stretched.
"Lord, but I am tired. Stress, I think."

"Perhaps, and perhaps not, my love." Art rose and went over to
stand in front of his seated wife. "You have been naughty again,
haven't you, Jane? You confessed that you were thoughtlessly
unfair to your student today. Do you still think so?" Art
asked, his voice level but stern.

Jane had to look up to see into Art's eyes, but she nodded. "She
is no better prepared to behave and dress like a young woman than
my boys were, which I should have known from my conversations
with her Mother. However, I still had unreasonably high
expectations and dealt with her accordingly by which I mean, too
harshly."

"Have you forgiven yourself by now?" Art asked, his tones
gentler.

"Not really, but I will get over it."

Art brought his hands up in front of Jane's face and flexed them
slowly. *Now why does he still have Diana's long nails on?*

"Then I will have to punish you!" Like a striking snake, Art had
Jane on her back and his long nails questing for those secret
places where his love's single great weakness lay hidden.

Jane Thompson-Philips was terribly (hideously) ticklish.

"ART," she squealed as those agile fingers with their sharp,
delicate tips unerringly found those treacherous nerve endings,
"NOOOOOOOooooo. . ." only to lose control of her voice as a
bubble of giggling laughter burst through her mouth.

"I think, my love, that you should be able to forgive yourself
for your human frailty after, oh. . . let's see, fifteen minutes
of enforced loss of self control. Don't you?"

Jane was too out of control to answer just then and Art was too
busy holding her down and avoiding her flailing knees to ask
again, but then again, she wasn't thinking clearly enough to
retaliate effectively. Satisfied with that, Art applied tongue
and lips to the task of supporting the work his fingers were
doing in driving his wife insane.

~-----------------~

"Bastard," Jane said lovingly much, much later. "I never should
have told you about that damned sorority initiation."

"Well, it does come in handy when my Type Super A, control freak
wife is beating herself up needlessly. NO, don't start again,"
Art ordered when he felt her stiffen, "or I will be forced to
assume that you have not yet forgiven yourself. You made a
mistake, saw it yourself, fixed it yourself and now you won't
make it again. That's enough."

Jane thought about that for a few moments and then realized Art
was right. With a wicked glint in her dark green eyes, said,
"Yes, dear." in so absurdly submissive a tone it might as well
have been "Yes, Master."

"Yeah, right. Pull the other one, Jane." and both of them
dissolved into more laughter.

It was a very nice way to fall asleep.





Chapter 8 ~ When Darryl Met Audrey


Darryl groaned when his alarm went off at 4:45, but he managed to
drag himself out of bed an into the shower. Ten minutes later he
was sitting in front of Darla's vanity applying the false
eyebrows that Jane had acquired for him using an adhesive
guaranteed not to loosen until the solvent was applied.

With the wig off, the brows on and his face scrubbed ruthlessly
clean of Darla's cosmetic artistry, Darryl again looked like a
relatively short and slender young man, but a young man none the
less.

He began pulling on his running outfit. He'd selected these
'garments' with an eye towards looking just a bit grungy. Darryl
thought that looking sloppy and unkempt would further assist his
disguise. Noone who did not know Darryl AND Darla very well
would ever connect the scruffy-haired boy with the cutoff shorts,
ripped muscle shirt and ragged running shoes with the prissy,
fashion-conscious Darla.

As he laced up the running shoes, he thought again about his
biggest worry - his, or rather, Darla's nails. Knowing he might
be called on to play both roles, Darla was wearing her nails much
shorter and more blunt than she had for other students. If asked
why so fashion-crazy a girl as Darla did not wear her nails
longer or have sculptured tips, Darla would use the excuse of
needing them short for the piano. *Have to remember to practice a
few times over the next couple of days when Roc. . I mean, Audrey
is around.*

He took one last quick look in his mirror and cursed. His hands
shot to his ears to remove Darla's sparkling earrings and then
covered the hole with a dab of makeup that he blended into his
lobes. "Guys may wear earrings, but not the dangling, sparkling
kind," he growled to his reflection. "Okay, one last check -
anything else?"

Nothing that he could see, and then he slipped out his door and
down the stairs. As he went to the back door, he thought it
might be smart to move a few things to the apartment next to
Diana's workout room above the stable where he had hidden the
first day Audrey had arrived. Then, he could slip in and out of
the house as Darla. Having Audrey see Darryl in the house would
have serious repercussions.

~--------------~

At precisely 5:45, Audrey came power-walking down the trail. *She
WOULD be early,* Darryl thought. *Just as well that I forced
myself to get an early start.*

He was able to watch her for some distance before stepping out of
the shadows to greet her. She was wearing tight, cottons stretch
gray shorts that fit her powerfully built thighs down to just
above her knees. She had white, terrycloth sweat bands about her
forehead and wrists, but it was the t-shirt that almost had him
howling with laughter.

It was a beige colored shirt, with a series of pictures relating
to each of the events of the modern pentathlon. The shirt's
caption declared that "Pentathletes do it Five Ways!"

*Jane will have a cow if she sees that. Just hope I am around to
see her reaction!* Then he stepped forward. "Hi, I am Darryl.
Are you Ms. Thompson's new student, Chastity?"

The hated name brought Rocky up short, and she was about to lay
into the fellow when she remembered that Ms. Thompson hadn't
known her 'new' name when she'd called this guy. *So, do I ask
him to call me Rocky or give him my new name?* She thought for a
moment, and then decided she did not want to find out the hard
way that the Thompson woman might feel that continuing to use
Rocky outside of her home was a violation of their agreement. She
held out her hand to the boy. "I prefer to be called Audrey, if
you don't mind."

"No, not at all," Darryl chirped. "In fact, you look more like
an Audrey than a Chastity, anyway. Hey, haven't we met?" Darryl
had thought hard and long about asking that. For one thing, his
hair was much shorter now because he'd been forced to cut it when
the decision that Darla would be brunette was made. All that
hair under a wig was a pain, but it also made Darryl look less
like Darla, so that was to their advantage.

Nonplused by what most girls would consider to be a poor pickup
line, Audrey stared at the boy for a moment. "I'm not sure," she
finally said. "You almost look familiar, but. . "

"I know! You were on the train to Kingston. I asked if you
needed help with your bag!"

Audrey blushed as she too remembered that encounter. "I'm sorry
about that, but strangers who just approach me make me edgy. And
I am sorry I didn't recognize you."

"Oh, no problem. I understand that women have to be careful in
this day and age, particularly ones like you. As for me, well, I
was in my college student grunge-mode then. Had to get a haircut
and clean up my act again once I got home and my mom got an
eyeful of me," he gave her his best 'male browbeaten by alpha
female' war-weary grin and then continued. "So, you want to go
for a run? How far, how fast? The terrain's not all that
challenging around here - a little too flat for real cross-
country work, but we have enough trails that we won't get bored
running laps."

Audrey thought about it for a moment. She had promised to be
back and dressed in time for breakfast at 8:30. That meant she
needed to be back at the house no later than eight which meant
her cool-down had to be finished by 7:45. "Can we try for 12
miles in ninety minutes?"

"That's a pretty fast pace," Darryl demurred, thinking that he
hadn't been on that long a run in couple of weeks. That's sub-8-
minute miles. Let's start out a bit slower and if after a half
an hour or so, we're both okay, we can pick up the pace."

"That's reasonable," Audrey replied. "Are you warmed up?" At
Darryl's nod, she smiled broadly. "Then let's DO it! I am dying
to burn off some of this adrenalin."

~---------------~

Running with Audrey, Darryl decided, was a lot like running with
Diana. Both had longer legs than he did and both tended to want
to burn the first mile or so and then settle into a loping stride
that just ate up milage. *I have to take five strides for every
four of hers,* he fumed to himself. It had been a real effort to
keep up with her and he had been forced to come from behind
twice. *Of course, that isn't all bad. The lady has a really
great pair of legs and a super butt!*

~--------------~

Running with Darryl, Audrey decided, was a bit of surprise. She
had thought, particularly when she had first seen him, that there
was NO WAY that short fellow would keep up with her. She had
decided to try to discourage him quickly when he'd suggested a
slower run than she had, especially when she had already given
him a break by suggesting a whole ninety minutes for the run. He
had needed to struggle those first couple of miles to match the
pace she'd set, but then he'd settled in and kept up, right at
her shoulder. *Just as well, Roc. . .no, have to think of myself
as Audrey here. . .Anyway, how would you have known where to run
if you'd left him figuratively and literally in your dust?* A
touch on her shoulder broke through her endorphin-hazed thoughts
and she saw Darryl pointing to the right trail at an upcoming
fork. She nodded, wondering why his smile made her feel like
smiling.

~---------------~

At 8:15 A.M., Jane buzzed Darla's room and was told her
son/daughter was decent. She slipped in just in time to see
Darryl/Darla (both were actually present somehow in this
transitional moment) muttering dark imprecations to himself as he
slowly peeled one of the false eyebrows from his face. "Damned
solvent is only about half as good as the stickum," she heard and
had to laugh.

"It is NOT funny!" He growled, spinning on Darla's makeup stool
to face his mother.

"Oh god, but it is, sweetheart. Heavens, but if you did not pull
off that second brow, and only made up half your face you could
easily get work in a circus as the half man/half woman." She
managed to stifle her laughter when she saw the frown on Darryl's
face deepen.

"What do you WANT, Momma-Jane," he asked in a soft, controlled
voice that told her just how close he was to losing his temper.

"Did things go badly on the run?" she asked, all solicitude now
as she moved over to sit on the edge of Darla's bed.

"Besides the fact that she nearly ran me into the ground? It was
all I could do not to beg for mercy. And worst of all? I think
she took it easy on me the last two miles!"

His indignance was trenchant and Jane choked back another
chuckle. "She is a nationally ranked athlete, dear."

"I know, but I did finish in the top ten in the Ivy League Cross
Country Championships that one year, and I *thought* I was still
in pretty good shape. Guess I will have to work to keep up with
her."

"Well, are you in too bad a mood to help me today? If you are, I
need to know right now so I can delay the exercise I have planned
until later. I cannot take the chance that you might lose your
temper in the middle of this little drama. That could set us
back weeks."

Darryl turned back to the vanity and began brushing the solvent
onto the remaining brow. "Tell me what you want to do and I will
tell you how I feel." Then he stopped and flexed his aching
muscles. "I am afraid, however, that whatever it is you have
planned, it better not be too active."

"Oh, trust me, what I have planned for you will definitely not be
active."
--



Chapter 9 ~ Audrey Meets Shirley Temple


Audrey stood behind her chair, her eyes glancing back and forth
between her teacher and the mantle clock behind Ms. Thompson.
The grandfather clock in the foyer Westminster chime sounded
8:45. *Where is Darla?* she wondered as her nose twitched at the
lovely smells escaping from Marie's kitchen.

"Audrey, I do not wish to wait any longer. Would you please go
up and see what is keeping Darla?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Audrey replied and quickly left the room.

*If she were one of my boys, I would have stopped her and ordered
to her to curtsy,* Jane thought as she waited for the next act in
this little drama to be played out. *But she isn't. In many
ways, I am trying to teach her much as I tried to teach Michelle
after Michael's attempted suicide. I want her to leave my
keeping a real lady, and I want her to be happy about being a
real lady. Nothing like giving yourself a challenge, Jane,* she
thought with a sigh.

A few minutes later, a frazzled looking Darla rushed into the
dining room ahead of a bemused Audrey. "Sorry, Aunt Jane, but my
alarm did not go off or something. . ."

"Or something. If I went upstairs right now, miss, I wonder if I
would even find your clock set for the correct time?"

"Aunt Jane. . "

"Never mind. . for now. I am quite famished." Jane pressed the
call button and smiled when Marie opened the door to the kitchen.
"Please serve, Marie."

Breakfast was fresh fruit, egg-white omelets and fresh bran
muffins. Shortly after they had all been served, Marie slipped
back into the dining room and handed something to Jane. She
nodded and then smiled at her newest charge. "You will find,
Audrey, that there are several things I expect of my students.
First, I expect you to be conversant in the news of the day -
national, world and fashion - so it will behoove you to get into
the habit of reading the newspapers and periodicals I have
delivered here for that purpose. Second, you will always present
yourself in the public rooms of my home wearing cosmetics
suitable to the occasion. For example, the light color you are
currently wearing is completely acceptable for the breakfast
table, although you might wish to find a nice complimentary
lipstick to go with it. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Ms. Thompson."

"Excellent. Perhaps you will be a more diligent and satisfying
student than THIS scamp!" Jane said piercing stare at Darla.
"How many times must I tell you, Darla, that such . . . vivid
colors are not suited to a breakfast en famille?"

Darla managed to swallow her bite of muffin. "Sorry, Aunt Jane."

"So you shall be, Miss." Jane held up a key for Darla's
inspection. Audrey was surprised to see the other girl's face
crumple.

"Please, Aunt Jane, I will do better. You don't have to. ."

Jane held up a silencing hand. "Your armoire is already locked
and your outfit for the day laid out upon your bed. Marie will
complete your makeup and your hair. Since you cannot seem to
find it in yourself to behave as the young lady I have endeavored
to make of you, I shall allow you to dress and act as the silly
child you seem to prefer. Do I make myself clear, Miss?"

"But Aunt Jane. ."

"Do I make myself clear? Or would you prefer to increase your
disciplinary time?"

"You have made yourself clear, Aunt Jane. Ummm. . How long?"

Jane set down her fork and dabbed at her mouth with her napkin.
"I really don't know, Darla. Until you show me you are ready to
grow up and behave like a lady. Audrey, I shall ask you to watch
over this scamp's activities." She rose from her chair. "We
shall all meet in the downstairs sitting room in thirty minutes.
I shall explain more fully at that time."

Audrey started to ask Darla what was going on, but watched in
stunned silence as the other girl rushed from the room, obviously
upset. She looked at Diana who simply smiled. "Darla knows the
rules and she knows better than to flaunt them when there is
another student in the house. Don't worry too much. Jane is
simply getting her attention again. Finish your breakfast. I
suspect you will have a long day and need the fuel."

~---------------~

*Precisely* thirty minutes later, the five members of the
household, including the housekeeper Audrey noted, had gathered
in Ms. Thompson's downstairs office. Audrey was sure that the
room was the height of interior design, and could without doubt
be a showplace in one of those house interior design magazines,
but it was also without doubt the most bloody uncomfortable room
she had ever laid eyes or buttocks upon. Audrey had, in fact,
tried each apparently available seating surface in the room only
to find each more unforgiving than the previous one. Before Jane
herself had arrived, of course. Ultimately, she had not been
offered any choice in the matter because she was immediately
directed to one of the two particularly un-sit-able chairs
stationed across from the huge antique desk that dominated the
room.

The woman called Diana and the housekeeper Marie had followed
Jane into the room. Each had also immediately seated themselves
- Diana and Marie upon the settee that Audrey recalled was the
best of a bad lot - and Ms. Thompson in the huge leather throne
behind her desk. She thoughtfully fingered the desk accessories
for a moment and then called out, "You may enter, Darla-Anne."

Audrey nearly fell out of her seat when she first beheld the
vision that skipped - literally SKIPPED - just like in the old
Shirley Temple movies she remembered from her very young
childhood - into the room.

Darla knew she made quite the picture, and had a very difficult
time not giggling at Audrey's stunned gawking. *Just a walking,
talking Raggedy Annie doll,* she thought with some amusement.
*But Aunt Jane did want to bring out the big guns early with this
one. I think Momma-Jane thoroughly understood the concepts of
strategic deterrence during the bad old days of the Cold War.*

For herself, Darla was not at all bothered by her outfit. She
had become quite enured to its supposedly humiliating effects
early on - well before her graduation from Jane's program, in
fact. It was simply another disguise that served a purpose.

Oh, but what a disguise. The dress was an overly ornate white-
lace-on-white dress that would have gone about to mid-calf length
were it not for the many-layered petticoat that lifted the skirt
up like a huge parody of a ballerina's tutu. *May have overdone
this just a bit, Momma-Jane,* Darla thought as she approached her
seat. *I sort of had to scrunch the skirt to get through the
bloody door!*

The hem and the many flounces were trimmed in bright pink piping
as were the high collar and the cuffs at Darla's wrists. She
wore a white tights and bright pink mary-jane flats that matched
the piping. Her hair had been done up in what Darla privately
thought of as "Wednesday Addams" braided pigtails with HUGE pink
satin bows at the tips of each tail. Marie had applied a heavy
rouge to her cheeks ("To give you color suited to being
embarrassed, you silly hussy.") and then had used an eyebrow
pencil to splash pseudo-freckles all over her cheeks and nose.
The final touch had been to use a lipstick brush to paint on the
silly angel-bowed lips often seen on china dolls.

*My God,* Audrey thought, *She looks awful, and so embarrassed.
She can't even lift her head! THIS is what this woman does for
PUNISHMENT?*

"You may be seated, Darla-Anne," Jane said after the girl had
stood in front of the desk for several moments.

Audrey watched as Darla carefully gathered the many petticoats
and sat very gingerly on the very edge-tip of the seat. *Doesn't
want to wrinkle the monstrous dress, I suppose,* Audrey mused as
Darla carefully folded her hands in her lap.

"You have been walking a fine line towards this for a while now,
Darla-Anne. Tell us why you are being punished," Jane demanded.

"I wath impolite and immature, Auntie Jane," Darla said in a
sing-song, lisping voice that had Audrey's head snapping about in
surprise. "I forgot to knock on your door, overthlept and missed
breakfast and did not thet a good ladylike example for your new
thtudent."

"And while that is enough to warrant discipline, that is only in
the past two days, is it not?" Jane asked sternly.

"Yeth, Auntie Jane," was the barely audible reply.

Jane now turned to Audrey. "My niece knows that she has a
responsibility to help you, as my new student, acclimate to this
new environment. Since she has demonstrated that she cannot or
perhaps will not carry out these responsibilities, I have reduced
her to a situation where she has no such onerous duties. If she
wishes to behave like a stereotypical spoiled brat, then we show
her precisely what that is like. While this punishment is
invoked, she will behave, speak and interact like a preschooler.
In the interests of modesty, she is allowed to use the facilities
on her own, but she must ask first. Any adult behaviors will be
cause to extend her punishment so she must be observed
constantly, except in the bathroom, by someone seeing that she
behaves. I have decided that you are to be her babysitter until
she has completed her punishment."

"Me??!"

"There are several reasons for that, not the least of which is
that I have other business that I must attend to today. However,
there are other benefits to assigning you this task."

Jane stopped and waited for the question she knew was burning in
Audrey's mind, but the girl again showed remarkable discipline
and waited for Jane to continue. "The benefits to you, Audrey,
are at least three fold. First, this responsibility integrates
you into the family. You are now responsible for your little
sister, an experience you likely never had since you were, I
believe, an only child. Is that not correct?"

The woman's tone of voice clearly told Audrey that there was no
doubt in Jane Thompson's mind, but that she still expected an
answer. "Yes, Ma'am."

"Excellent. The second benefit is that you will see first-hand
the means by which I mete out corrections in my household. I
hope you will come to see that you need never fear any type of
abuse, but equally as important, that I will make the punishment
fit the crime. Do you understand how this discipline is
appropriate to her misbehavior?" *Please say yes,* Jane thought.
*If you fight me on this point we are in for a great deal of
difficulty in the coming days.*

Audrey looked at the girl sitting rigidly next to her. Her head
was down and her eyes were shut tightly. Audrey thought she
could see just a touch of moisture at those absurdly long lashes
as if Darla was barely controlling her tears. *I don't think she
will do whatever set Ms. Thompson off again, and while she is
obviously embarrassed given the way she is blushing, her
punishment is only in the family and not really hurtful.*

"Do you or do you not agree?" Jane asked again, her tone
becoming impatient.

"If she stays within the house and only with people who know her
and like her," Audrey said carefully, "I can see where the
punishment is not abusive."

*Interesting caveats,* Jane thought. "Why the qualifications,
Miss Rockwell?" Jane demanded sternly. "And why did you leave
out 'inappropriate'?"

"Darla has told me she loves you, and that she knows you love
her, Ms. Thompson," Audrey said quietly. "Other people who do
not love her, or for whom she does not hold that same degree of
confidence and trust might use knowledge of this punishment to
tease her or really humiliate her. In that case, the punishment
would continue for much longer than was appropriate, and in my
view, might constitute abuse."

Jane glanced at Diana and saw that her mate had become suddenly
very alert. Nodding her understanding, Jane turned back to
Audrey. "Just so. That is why she is grounded for the duration
of her punishment and will not be permitted any guests or
visitors. Which will be over the weekend. If she is a good
little girl, she may grow up again Monday morning. AFTER
breakfast. In the meantime, I think it is sufficient that WE see
her reduced to this state and that she knows WE are disappointed
that she made this necessary."

"Thank you, Auntie Jane," Darla said in her little girl's voice
and lisp.

"You are welcome, Darla Anne. Now, Audrey, as to whether or not
you think the punishment is appropriate to the crime?"

"I don't know about that, Ms. Thompson. It is outside of my
experience, and I don't think I would find it. . . helpful."

"I see," Jane said quietly disappointed. *I suppose it was too
much to hope that she'd see the punishment as just. And yet, the
time will come when I will have to enforce similar fates upon
her.* "Then you must endeavor not to need such correction,
because if I decide it is warranted, I will impose such
disciplines on you."

Audrey thought about that, and something occurred to her. Jane
saw the smooth forehead suddenly wrinkle. "Yes, Audrey? What is
bothering you?"

"You said, Ms. Thompson, that you saw three benefits to having me
be the babysitter. I only recall you telling me two of them."

"Ah, just so. Well, ordinarily, Darla-Anne would be restricted
to her preschooler behaviors until I determined that she had
served her full penance. However, I will permit her to speak
with you in an adult fashion for up to half an hour today to
discuss this facet of my program so that any questions you have
might be addressed. I feel that is necessary since, by giving me
your word yesterday, you made yourself subject to such
disciplines and punishments. The time and place for this
discussion will be at your discretion, Audrey. Merely tell our
little girl "Time out, Darla" and she will be permitted to speak
as an adult, although none of the other restrictions on adult
behaviors or dress will be vacated. Is that understood?
Audrey?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Darla-Anne?"

"Yeth, Auntie Jane."

"Very well. Audrey, you may have our baby address you as you
wish. Simply tell her by what title you wish to be called. Now,
I think Darla-Anne will take you to the nursery. If she is a
particularly good girl, you may read her a bedtime story before
her afternoon nap. A suitable selection of books are in the
nursery." Then Jane rose from her desk. "Now, you must excuse
me as I have an overseas conference call with some executives
from Siemens International in an hour and must prepare for it."

Audrey and Darla both rose. Audrey turned to the door, but
stopped when her hand was grabbed. Spinning she turned to see
Darla looking up at her with mischievous pseudo-innocense in her
light blue eyes. "You're th'POTHED to hold my hand, Mith
Audwey." She said with childlike reprimand.

The older girl glanced back at Jane who merely nodded.
Shrugging, the somewhat off-balance teen allowed her 'charge' to
lead her from the room and up the main stairs. Three adults
smiled behind the departing pair.





Chapter 10 - Interlude - Jane and Diana


An hour later, her business concerns finally dealt with, Jane
stuck her head into the kitchen and smiled at Marie. "Anything
much going on up there?" she asked, nodding to the monitor
speaker Marie was listening to.

"Not much. I don't think Audrey is at all sure what she is
supposed to be doing with our little girl, and is therefore doing
as little as absolutely necessary. Most of what has happened up
there so far has been at Darla's instigation."

"Diana thought that it might go that way," Jane said with a sigh.
"I really want to know how she feels and reacts to this sort of
game before I order her to do anything even remotely similar.
With the boys, their stunned disbelief that anyone would DARE do
such a thing to them, combined with the intentionally sharp stabs
to their overblown masculine egos was usually enough to keep even
the worst of them from reacting too violently. Besides, I have
enough experience with boys that I could see an emotional
eruption coming in time to squelch such outbursts before anyone
could be hurt. With this one. . . I just don't know. . ."

Marie listened as Darla kept up a steady monologue of almost
nonsensical chatter, obviously playing with one of the many dolls
that lived in Jane's special nursery. "On the positive side,
Darla has managed to inveigle Audrey into having a tea party for
lunch. I'll be taking a tray up to the nursery so don't expect
the children at table."

"Good. But other than that concession, Audrey hasn't gotten into
the spirit of this thing at all? No baby-talking to dollies or
teasing Darla?" Jane asked.

"No, not really. Like I said, she's being very careful. Darla
even asked her if she wanted to "be my Auntie Audwey," and here
Marie fell into a deadly imitation of Darla's baby-talk voice,
"but all Audrey did was tell her that wasn't necessary and to
just keep calling her Audrey. Darla acted very distressed, but
Audrey held firm and even our hard-headed child finally had to
give in. As for your other question, well, I don't think that
this one is much for teasing. Why I feel that way I don't
precisely know, but even when Darla gave her unwilling babysitter
several obvious openings for some of that nonsense, Audrey did
not react at all. It is like she has no idea how to play."

"That's one possibility," Jane noted. "But I have seen students
who could not bear to tease one another because they'd had very
bad experiences as the butt of others teasing them. Well, if
they will not be at table, bring me a tray in my upstairs study.
I will monitor them from there and you can have a few hours off."

"Lunch is soup and sandwiches with fruit for dessert," Marie
added, her eyes laughing, "Said sandwiches to be cut into finger-
sized quarters WITH the crust cut off, thankyouverymuch, as
ordered by little Miss Darla-Anne."

"Suitable for a tea-party, eh? Sounds like our daughter is
having fun, anyway."

~---------------~

Jane and Diana took their lunch in Jane's upstairs study where
they could both watch the goings-on in the nursery over the
closed-circuit television. Darla had created as nearly perfect a
Norman Rockwell-type children's tea party as Jane had ever seen
outside the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. The small table
was set to perfection with numerous dolls, from full fashion
mini-mannequins to diapered wetting dolls to multicolored stuffed
animals, crowding about. There was barely room for the two human
guests to seat themselves in the undersized chairs.

"Well, there's another of those benefits to your little exercise,
dearheart," Diana said as Darla poured tea for her guests.
"Audrey is learning how to serve tea and behave at one of your
brutally-correct society high teas. That is the second time
Darla has gently corrected some aspect of her manners."

Jane sighed. "I saw that, too, but I am not sure it is going to
be entirely beneficial. I hope Audrey doesn't come to the
conclusion such social niceties are punishment or merely the
silly play of children."

"Well, simply have a high tea some time after Darla is restored
to full maturity and serve the tea yourself. That one misses
nothing and if you do exactly as our child is doing now, Audrey
will see the connection and assume, rightly, that Darla was
trying to help her with that game," Diana turned back to the
screen. "You say she hasn't yet done that 'time out' you told
her she could have?"

"No, she hasn't, and that both surprises and worries me. What if
she doesn't care enough to want to know the answers? She has to
care, Diana. We cannot help her unless we get her interest.
This is why I hate taking on students who know that I am under a
hard deadline. If she can convince herself that nothing I do
really matters in the long run because she will leave it all
behind her, then nothing I do WILL really matter."

Diana nodded. "I don't think that will be a problem, dear. She
cares about her training, and that gives you a wedge."

"One I don't want to use in a negative sense. Denying her
training is not the punishment I want to use with her, for a
variety of reasons."

"Wait and see, my love. Wait and see."




Chapter 11 ~ Babysitting


Audrey watched as Darla served the final course - fresh
strawberries with a light cream topping. Each doll and stuffed
toy was given a small portion of the treat although the bulk of
it was carefully reserved and then shared by the two girls. *I
just don't get this. Is she really into this silliness? I mean,
I have already all but told her directly that I am not going to
press the issue. What do I have to do? Tell her I am not going
to go telling on her to Ms. Thompson?*

"Darla? Time out."

"Yeth, Mith Audwey."

"Could you please cut that out? At least for the next half hour?
Your Aunt said you could talk like a real person and that stupid
Elmer Fudd imitation of yours is really getting on my nerves."

"Well, don't blow your cool over it," Darla said seriously. "Or
you might join me in pantaloons, petticoats and pinafores talking
baby-talk. If it really begins to bother you, go talk to Aunt
Jane."

"Like that will help," Audrey said sarcastically.

"Oh, but it would," Darla said, spooning up a particularly
luscious-looking berry. She savored the bite, looking like a
woman in ecstasy before turning back to Audrey. "She wants you
to learn to deal civilly with issues that upset you, so
discussing things that bother you that much and seeking a
solution ahead of time will impress her."

"Why are you telling me that?" Audrey demanded, suspicion
dripping from every word.

Darla shrugged. "Because I like you, and because you gave fair
warning that something was beginning to get to you. That's
unusual in one of Aunt Jane's students. They usually have to do
something wrong along those lines and be punished for it before
they figure out there might be another, better way to deal with
such things. Like talking them out first."

Audrey thought that she would have to mull that insight over for
a while. "Why are you putting up with this crap? You're old
enough, big enough that you could tell her to go pack sand
instead of acting the fool like this just because she tells you
to do it."

"You yourself said it. . how did you put it? Oh yes, wasn't
inappropriate and wasn't abusive," Darla pointed out.

"I said it MIGHT not be abusive and I wasn't sure about
inappropriate, but I may be changing my mind," Audrey muttered.
"Your inane chatter is starting to make ME feel abused. And I'm
the only one here. Why are you putting on a show for me when I
don't care?"

A grin lit Darla's doll-like features. "Partly because you're
SUPPOSED to care, but mostly because I never know when Jane is
going to stick her head in here. When she does, I had better be
doing something appropriate to my designated age or she will
assume I have not kept my promise and extend my punishment
accordingly. Though there are a few other reasons, as well."

"And they are?" Audrey asked.

"Because, like I told you before, I said I would. Aunt Jane took
me in and cared for me, taught me a lot of important things.
Like you, I told her I would accept her directions."

"I still don't get it."

"Would you go back on your word?" Darla challenged sharply.

"NO!" Audrey reacted before she could catch herself.

"Neither would I. Neither will I, in fact." Darla replied, more
gently this time.

"You said there were other reasons."

"Yep," the gamine grin was back. "'Cause it annoyed the heck out
of you and it was fun watching you try to keep from snarling."

"Bitch," Audrey replied without heat before a matching grin
formed on her own lips.

"Aren't we all?" Darla asked rhetorically. "And I guess the
final reason is that it gives me an excuse to play with the dolls
and the stuffies again," she said, giving a nearby pink and
purple teddy bear a fond caress. "When I am Darla, Lady-
Daughter-of-the-House, I am supposed to be too mature for such
play, but as Darla-Anne, such behavior is acceptable, even
required. I have an excuse to do something I might feel really
embarrassed about if I were caught doing it as Princess Darla."

"And you aren't embarrassed now?"

"Not really," was Darla's unexpected answer. At Audrey's look of
disbelief, she simply smiled. "Oh, the clothes are a pain to get
into and out of, but as you pointed out earlier to Jane, the only
people who see me are those who love me. Jane will send a few
verbal barbs my way over the weekend and a couple will likely
strike home because she is good at finding the chinks in your
armor and she knows me very well, but really, Audrey, what do I
truly have to be embarrassed about?"

"Yeah," Audrey said thoughtfully, "I can see that, but you acted
so. . .I don't know, humiliated and repentant in Ms. Thompson's
office earlier."

~-------------~

In Jane's office, Diana turned up the volume on the speaker and
both women crowded a bit closer to the tiny monitor screen.

The increase in volume was in time to catch clearly the giggle
that bubbled up from Darla's throat. "Hey, I keep my word, babe,
but I'm not stupid, either! If my dear aunt didn't think there
were certain negative aspects to this experience for me, she'd
soon find another way to punish me and that would, in all
likelihood, be something I really wouldn't like doing. Like
mucking out Teddi's stalls in boy's work clothes. Yuck."

"Tell you what. If she ever does that, I will take your
punishment if you will take any of mine that end up here,"
Audrey's voice sounded over the speaker.

Jane looked at Diana. "I think I should make an appearance now,"
she said quietly, and rose to leave the room.

~--------------~

"Oh, don't think we'd get that choice," Darla said. "She's too
clever by half, that sneaky, devious aunt of mine. She'd know
you prefer the physical effort of clearing the stalls. Besides,
now that you know what this is all about, wouldn't you like a few
hours of playing with these lovely dollies? Just to remember the
'good old times'?"

"What good old times? I never played with dolls," Audrey said
flatly. "Never had any to play with."

The door opened just as Darla's shocked voice sputtered out "No
Dolls? None? Didn't you like dolls?" Jane hung outside the
cracked open door.

"Never had any, least ways, any I can remember. Might have had
some early on, but none that I recall."

"Not even a stuffed animal? A teddy bear or calico bunny rabbit?
Even a velvety boa constrictor like Max here?" Darla held up a
long green snake with a ridiculous face and a forked tongue made
of felt. "Something to cuddle when the dark got scary?" Jane
knew by her child's tone that Darla was truly upset.

Audrey shrugged, trying to appear unconcerned. "I just had to
grow up faster than most kids, I guess." Then she saw the real
distress in her almost-friend's eyes and added very softly. "You
don't miss what you never had, Darla. Don't worry about it."

Jane's entry broke the eye-contact between the two teens. "I
assume this is the time out I authorized, Audrey? Since Miss
Darla-Anne was just speaking in adult language?"

"Yes, Ms. Thompson," Audrey replied after a visible attempt to
collect herself. "We have a few minutes left, but we are mostly
done."

"Your questions have been addressed to your satisfaction?" Jane
asked, her eyes watching the girl's face very closely.

"Yes, ma'am."

*I wish you had answered my question more fully or that I had
asked it more carefully. Well, nothing to it but to be direct.*
"And if, Miss Rockwell, I determined that your behavior would
improve should I place you into this or some similar situation,
would you comply with my program?"

Audrey thought about Darla's justifications for accepting this
woman's direction and how she felt or might feel. *At worst, I
feel silly for a few days, but then, I often feel that way when I
am not among other athletes.* She gave a barely perceptible lift
of her shoulders. "I promised you that I would comply with your
directions, Ms. Thompson. For that reason alone, I will keep my
word to you," and then thought of something else. Particularly
if you keep your word to me."

*Diana had warned me not to expect more from her so early in the
program.* "All right. Then there is no reason for the time out
to continue?" At Audrey's headshake, "Then, Darla-Anne will
resume her full punishment."

"Ms. Thompson," Audrey cut in. "Could we please dispense with
the Looney Toons voice-overs? If I have to spend the day
translating f's back to th's and th's back to s's, I will be
Looney Toons by the end of the day and Miss Darla Anne may be
gagged with one of my sweat socks by the end of the weekend."

"You consider that threat an appropriate way to deal with this?"
Jane demanded, suddenly rounding on the girl.

"No, but it's really starting to irritate me and if it keeps up,
at some point I'll probably do something that we will both
regret," Jane's brows rose sharply and Audrey evidently realized
what her last statement must have sounded like to the older woman
because she rushed to continue. "I don't mean that as a threat
at all, but that's part of why I'm here, right? I mean. . .
because I do that sometimes - lose my cool? Maybe this game of
yours shouldn't bother me that much, but it does, and I don't
think it's fair to set me up for something that, well, that I
guess I'm just not ready to deal with yet. Can't we work
something else out? Maybe go in shifts with you, the others, and
me each taking turns - or maybe just say that Elvira Fudd here
can talk like a real person, but act like a child."

*Now there's a reaction that would never have occurred to one of
the boys, but she's right. If it really is bothering her - and
her snapping at Darla when my daughter forgot to slip out of role
at the beginning of the time out indicates that it is - then
asking me for help in dealing with her irritation is the adult
thing to do on her part. But blast it all, I was planning on
using precisely the outburst she has just forced me to help
deflect as justification for her first disciplinary punishment.
Oh, well.*

"Very well," Jane said heavily. "Darla? Speak adult when Miss
Rockwell is with you, but don't let me catch you slipping up
anywhere else or I will keep you in the nursery for an extra day
for each offense!"

"Yes, Aunt Jane," Darla said with exaggerated meekness, her eyes
twinkling in amusement.

"I will see you both at dinner," Jane said. "I have had Marie
get out the high chair for our toddler here. In the meantime, it
is time for her nap. You may read her a story, Audrey and then
clear away the remnants of this small party."

"Yes, Ms. Thompson," Audrey replied.





Chapter 12 ~ "Once upon a time. . ."


A thoughtful Jane Thompson sat back into her study, her eyes
fixated on the room monitor. "She is doing an absolutely
horrible job of reading that story," Jane said with some disgust.

"Nooooo . . . that's not the problem," the psychologist replied,
her tones thoughtful. "What she is doing is not reading it like
a children's story. Listen more carefully, Jane."

Jane did listen, her brow furrowing in concentration. "Yes, I
think I understand what you mean. You can hear the formal
punctuation, the rising tone on questions, the pauses for every
comma, but she's not infusing any emotion into the story - none
at all. It's as though . . . hmmm . . . the best example I can
give is when someone reads from the Bible in church. They want
to convey to the congregation the written words as correctly as
possible, with nothing of themselves in the reading."

"Exactly!" Diana approved. "She's not giving voice to the
characters so they all sound like her. We need to find a way to
make her put her own heart into the story."

"Either she is simply doing as she was told," Jane said, "and
only what she was told, or . . . "

"Or she really doesn't know how to read to a child?"

"Just as she claims she doesn't know how to play with toys and
dolls?"

"Then that would say some pretty harsh things about that sorority
sister of yours, sweetheart," Diana told her. "No dolls in her
memory? Not knowing how to tell a story would imply none were
ever read to her as a child."

Jane thought she saw Darla start to say something to Audrey
during the story, but nothing came out. *Maybe she is afraid to
find out that Audrey isn't playing and knows I am likely
listening in. What a strange child this one is. And yet, Darla
said she fell in love with the horses.*

Once Darla was 'asleep', Audrey saw to the chore of cleaning up.
Once the dishes were collected and back on the tray, she began to
put up the many dolls and stuffed toys Darla had invited to her
party.

Sighing, Jane stood up and stretched. Then she stopped short,
her eyes fixed on the monitor. "Damn this small screen!" she
cursed. *Did I see that, or was it wishful thinking?* "Did you
see that?" She asked Diana.

"See what?" asked Jane's startled mate.

Audrey had already moved out of the field of view of the camera,
evidently intent on bringing the tray down to Marie in the
kitchen. "Never mind," Jane sighed. "Probably just wishful
thinking."

~-------------~

A bare silvery thread of moonlight sneaking through the heavily
draped curtains was all that lit the way from door to bed. Long
experience with the vagaries of the old Victorian mansion's
floors had the shadowy figure carefully setting each foot,
avoiding creaking floorboards in favor of the more solidly
affixed ones. The young woman in the bed never so much as moved
throughout the entire episode, not even when the uninvited guest
completed her mission.

The sleeping girl looked so peaceful, laying there at rest. If
only she could be helped to find that same peace during the
daytime hours.

With that thought, the intruder slipped back out the way she'd
come, silently closing the heavy oak door behind her.

~-----------------~

Darla crawled out from under the heavy silk comforter and eyed
the shrieking alarm clock balefully. *It simply can NOT be 4:45
already.* Unfortunately, it not only could be, but was. Growling
to herself, Darla stomped off to her bathroom for a wake-up
shower before she began transforming herself into Darryl for
another dawn appointment down by the stable.

*We'll have to finish earlier, today,* she thought. *My Shirley
Temple makeover will require the extra time if I am not to be
late for breakfast and give Jane a reason to extend Darla's
punishment.*

~-----------------~

Still feeling very 'rocky', Audrey brought her hand down hard
upon the snooze button of her clock radio. She was still tired,
and sleep weighed heavy on her eyelids, but discipline and a
long-held goal won out.

Forcing her eyes open, she started to move when the sight of
something strange caught her eye. She blinked several times to
focus, and then she shook her head to clear it.

"Where did you come from?" she asked even as she reached out a
tentative finger.

The gaudily colored purple and pink teddy bear simply stared back
at her from its perch on her night stand, its eyes huge, its nose
round and black, and its sewn-on grin a vivid red that clashed
violently with both principal colors.

The snooze-button-delayed alarm sounded again, interrupting her
sleep-fogged mind's attempt to answer to her question. If Audrey
didn't hurry, she'd be late which meant she would not be able to
complete her workout. If Darla's experience had taught her
anything, being late for breakfast was currently very high on
Audrey's list of things to avoid.

~-----------------~

"Wind sprints?" Darryl asked Audrey. "You want to do wind
sprints this morning?"

"Well, it is the day for my speed and cardio-work," Audrey said.
"Normally, I will do half an hour or so on a stair climber, too,
but since that isn't available, I need to do something like
sprints and intervals."

*Diana's gym is a possibility. I will bring it up with Jane and
see what she says.* "Well, if you want to climb stairs . . "

"Not real stairs, Dare," Audrey said, tolerant amusement in her
voice. "Going down stairs is rough on the knees, particularly
when I need to go as fast as I can."

"Oh, I think I can arrange that, too. Here," and he tossed her a
pair of heavy gloves. "Put those on and follow me." he directed
as he slipped an identical pair onto his own hands.

He lead her into the stable to a stone stair that lead up to the
high loft. "Wait here." he ordered and then ran up the stairs.

Audrey was about to follow him anyway when a heavy ::thud::
behind her had her spinning about. A thick manilla rope now hung
down from the loft into one of the open stalls, a couple of coils
haphazardly into a tall pile of straw. Moments later, Darryl
climbed down the rope, jumping the last few feet and letting the
straw absorb some of the shock of his fall. "Up the stairs and
down the rope," he said with a challenging air. "Forty minutes
and then ten sprints up and down the driveway. How's that?"

Audrey's only answer was a huge smile, just before she tore off
up the stairs. Darryl waited for her to complete the first rope
climb, wanting to assure himself that she could safely handle
that, before following her on the second 'lap.'

"By the way," he called from the loft as she again landed on the
ground floor. "Where did you get the neon-pink shoelaces and the
fuzzy pom-poms on your sneaks?"

"WHAT?!?"





Chapter 13


"You did WHAT?!?" Jane squealed as she helped Darla arrange her
wig at 8:15 that morning.

"We ran steps in the stable and used a rope to get down - to
protect our knees, you know." Darla said as she brushed on the
brightly colored blusher.

"What about protecting your bloody necks?!?!"

"I made sure she was okay with it, Momma-Jane. I was going to
just take her up to Diana's gym, and let her use the equipment up
there, but I couldn't think of a good reason why a mere boy
acquaintance would know about that, let alone have a key to the
place."

"I could give her the key," Jane mused, "but how to have the
subject come up without it seeming too. . .convenient. We don't
want her thinking that Darryl is TOO familiar with this place."

"Maybe you could have Diana mention she needs a workout during
breakfast?" Darla asked.

Jane shook her head. "Too obvious, I think. How about if you
ask her about her workout at breakfast? Maybe tease her a little
about Darryl - you know. . .second date, getting serious? And
then ask her what they did?"

"Suppose she doesn't tell you, or doesn't tell you the truth? It
is not like you could call her on it because there is no reason
you should know what we did," Darla pointed out as she checked
her 'freckles' closely in the mirror.

"I rather suspect she'll simply tell us what happened. Thus far,
she has been very cautious and I don't think she would want to
get caught in anything I might conclude was a lie and therefore,
deserving of discipline."

"True enough," Darla giggled. "I don't think getting her into
little girl clothes is going to be an easy task. She was rather
appalled by me yesterday."

"Yes, I saw that. I also think we can take it as given that if
we ask her why she did it, she'll probably say because she didn't
have a stair climber. She's very matter of fact that way. Then
I can act worried about her safety, which in fact I am, and tell
her I will let her have the key to the gym in the future."

"Hah!" Darla snorted. "Not like you need to be all that
worried. She's strong, fast, agile and highly coordinated. And
I *DID* make sure there was plenty of loose hay in the stalls."

Darla thought for a few moments and then looked up at her mother.
"You could still use the rope thing as an opportunity to punish
her," she pointed out. "Might be better to get that first one
out of the way early on with her like you do with the boys.
While she is still trying to figure you out."

"I could," Jane mused as Darla stood up and went to get her
'Alice in Wonderland' little girl's robe. "But I don't think I
want to do that, just yet."

"Why not?" Darla asked, curiosity in her voice.

"Because, at the moment, she really is trying, and since I am
still groping in the dark as to how to deal with a real girl, I
have to ensure that anything I do is scrupulously fair. My gut
reaction is that this is one of those times when a quietly worded
reprimand, heavy on concern for her safety might be more useful."

Darla thought about it. "I suppose you're right. She is
attentive. Very different from any boy I have ever seen here.
Maybe if you indicate that you might discipline her and then
decide not to do that THIS time?"

After considering that for a few seconds, Jane shook her head.
"No, I think the reprimand will be enough. When I do discipline
her, I want the reason to be some unfeminine behavior or action
when she knows better. After all, I did say she could exercise,
didn't I?"

"Yes, Momma-Jane," Darla said, going up on tip-toe to kiss the
taller woman's cheek. "Lord, but I do miss my heels when I am
forced to play little girl. I feel so . . .little - particularly
around her since you have HER in heels."

"You are only little where it really doesn't count, my love,"
Jane said with a warm smile and a hug for her child. "Now, let's
go down stairs and play our part in this little scheme. It ought
to work nicely, and after breakfast I will have Diana walk her
down and show her the facilities. I have been trying to figure
out a way to give Diana some time alone with Audrey away from the
strictures of the house, anyway. That should work."

Jane tugged teasingly at the huge bows on the end of Darla's
ponytails and smiled. "And now you, young miss, had better hurry
down to breakfast, unless you want to stay in Shirley-mode for a
few more days."

The alacrity with which Darla scampered out of the room made Jane
smile and nearly laugh. *Doesn't get to her anymore, indeed,* she
told herself. *SUUURRRE it doesn't, Darla. Sure it doesn't.*

~-------------~

Audrey let herself into the nursery immediately following her
post-midday meal walk with Diana. Darla looked up from the doll
display she had set up in preparation for Audrey's return. *Good
thing Jane buzzed me when Audrey and Diana got back. It would
not have done for Audrey to find me reading that biochemistry
textbook!*

"So, what did you think of Diana's little gym?" Darla asked.

Jane and Diana were again seated at the desk in her study, eyes
glued to the small security monitor. They could see Darla
sitting in the nursery rocking chair, bottle feeding a diaper-
wetting baby-doll, but could not see Audrey.

"She must be sitting directly beneath the camera," Diana said,
"otherwise that wide-angle lens would pick her up. "Wonder if
she's spotted the surveillance camera?"

"That's all we need," Jane said disgustedly.

"It is very nice," Audrey replied, stepping out into the room and
taking a seat on the small settee next to the rocker. "Top-
drawer equipment. I don't think I have ever seen that model of
Nautilus rig outside of a commercial gym. And Diana says that
Darryl has all the same equipment at his school, so he knows how
to operate all of it and will be able to spot me when I use it."

Darla grinned and shifted the doll to her shoulder and began to
burp it. "Good. That should keep you on schedule."

Audrey frowned. "Why are you doing that?"

"What?" Darla asked, her forehead wrinkling into a frown. "Oh,
playing with the doll? Because Jane told me to, and that's a
bone I have to pick with you, babe!"

"With me? What for?"

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to remember to act like a
four year old when you are using adult language? I live in fear
that Aunt Jane will slip in here unannounced and condemn me to
another day or two of this pinafore-prison."

"That's JUST what I mean!" Audrey cut in. "Based on what you
told me the other day, I figure you have to be at least eighteen,
for all you look two or three years younger. . "

*Oops,* Jane thought, *I missed that connection when they talked
about Darla's history, but Audrey evidently remembered and did
the addition. Now what?*

Darla considered trying to misdirect her way out of this but
concluded that would only put Audrey hotter on her trail. *Better
a little truth now than the whole truth too soon,* she thought.
"True enough. I look younger than I am and Aunt Jane felt that
you'd be more comfortable with me if you thought I was younger."

"So this punishment is a game?"

"Oh, it's quite real. I live here and so I am subject to Aunt
Jane's rules, even as you are."

"But you are eighteen. You could leave and dispense with this
crap!"

"And go where?" Darla asked as she rose to put her 'baby' to
bed. "This is home. This is my family. I love them and they
love me."

"But couldn't you use that to pressure her to dispense with this.
. this foolishness?"

Darla frowned thoughtfully, and was secretly glad she'd
anticipated this question. It was not one she'd ever had to
answer with one of Aunt Jane's terrorized boys.

"It's not really foolishness, you know. Oh, it's silly all
right," Darla said quickly as Audrey prepared to argue, "but it's
not foolish. The whole point is that I was not behaving as a
young woman should, so I am being 'indulged' in my own refusal to
grow up. That. . . I mean, growing up. . . takes more than
clothes. After a while everyone just sort of forgets what
they're wearing, unless it gets in the way or something hurts.
It isn't punishment if it doesn't have certain penalties that
constantly remind me of the downside of refusing to act
appropriately for my age."

"And this works? For you, I mean?" Audrey's tone was dubious.

Darla sighed and said, "And it works. For me and for any number
of other stuck up, immature brats Aunt Jane has taken in over the
years. Truth to tell, Audrey, I'm really tired of all this, but
I know the lesson will stick with me a lot more effectively than
a nagging lecture, or, well, whatever other parents do."

Then a very impish grin lit up the childishly made up face.
"Besides, it's a small price to pay for keeping her . . AND me. .
.on our toes. Heck, girl, without me, Aunt Jane would go all
prim and proper - Lord, she might even become an old maid!"

"OLD MAID?!?!" Jane spluttered before leveling a fulminating
glance on her spouse as Diana tried manfully to keep from
guffawing in a MOST unladylike manner. "Just wait until I get
that little minx alone!"

"That little minx knows you're listening and if you react, dear-
heart, she'll have won. Besides, she's trying to distract
Audrey, and it seems to be working."

"She is just so sly," Jane grumbled. "Lucky for her I love her."

"Lucky for us that she loves us, too." Diana replied.

"Well, it's almost time for my nap," Darla said.

"Oops," Diana said with a grin as she rose and headed for the
door. "That's my cue! Later, darling."





Chapter 14 ~ SETUP!!


Diana entered the room as Audrey supervised Darla's pre-nap
toilette. "I have been asked to read the story," she said by way
of explanation, when Audrey gave her a quizzical look. "Seems
you don't do it very well and little Miss Priss here has decided
you need to learn."

"This one, Auntie Diana," Darla ordered, carrying over a large,
brightly colored book with a very strange creature holding an
even stranger platter of food.

Audrey started to slip out of the room only to be stopped by
Darla's call from the oversized trundle bed. "NO! You have to
STAY so you can learn how to read stories, too!"

"Jane's orders, dear," Diana said as she tucked Darla in.

Audrey shrugged and returned to her seat on the settee as Diana
settled herself into the antique rocker. She opened the book,
and in a very oddly pitched and squeaky voice read, "Sam I am!"

~---------------~

"I am NOT going to make up silly voices and make funny sounds
when I read you a story!" Audrey growled at the stony-faced girl
seated across from her at the second stuffed toy and doll tea
party she had ever attended.

"Oh yes you are!" Darla growled right back. "You have to read
stories to me and you are going to read them right!"

"Or else what?" Audrey said, standing over the table and putting
her face nose to nose with Darla's.

Darla couldn't help herself. Her eyes were drawn to the sharp
kink in Audrey's nose, now so close before her, and she just knew
they crossed as she looked at it. It embarrassed Audrey - and
unfortunately since that problem couldn't be fixed with ladylike
manners - it was not supposed to be part of the program. The
last thing Audrey needed was to be reminded of things that
couldn't be 'fixed' by Jane's program.

The pretend-child was trying to think of some way to apologize,
without making Audrey's broken nose even more of an issue, when
the taller girl blew past her embarrassment and returned to the
issue at hand. "Or else what?" Audrey demanded again, but
moving back a few centimeters from the other girl's space.
"You'll tell your Aunty Jane?" she asked with sneer in her voice.

"Oh, lighten up!" Darla said, feeling relief she couldn't express
as she sat heavily back into her chair. "Of course I won't tell
Aunt Jane, but then, I won't have to tell her because she'll find
out on her own. But I will staht tahking babytahk again, Auntie
Audwey, until you tell da stowies wight or I dwive you cwazy!"

Audrey's mouth fell open in disbelief. *the moment of truth,*
Jane told herself, her fisted hands digging her nails into
tightly clenched palms.

*Lord,* Darla thought, *but she reminds me of Kenneth when he
first got here. All that control and discipline, but where he
never really lost his cool nor hurt anyone, this one has. I have
got to get her to unwind!*

"I am NOT a child!" Audrey reiterated. "And blast it, neither
are you!"

"So pretend one of the dollies is your own daughter and read to
her." Darla saw the still mutinous look on the other girl's face
and felt her own control begin to slip. "Okay! Fine!" she spat
out, throwing her arms into the air. "Read the damned story as
if you were giving a dedication speech to the Daughters of the
American Revolution. Read War and bloody Peace for all I care.
Jane will find out and be it on your own stupid head when she
decides to discipline you. YOU'RE the one who made an agreement
with her!"

"Nothing in my agreement," Audrey snarled back through clenched
teeth, "says anything about this. . . this. . .stupid, senseless
indignity!"

"So," a new voice said sternly from the doorway, "This lacks
dignity, does it? It is beneath your station?" Jane entered the
room, lightning flashing in her dark eyes. "So, you refuse to
sacrifice your precious self-image just a small amount in order
to help a little girl?"

"She's NOT a little girl!" Audrey shot back, whirling to face
Jane, fury etched on every feature.

"In this case, she is," Jane retorted, her face inches from
Audrey's. Worried, Darla moved to put herself in grabbing range
of the older student in case she lost control of her temper.
"Part of her punishment was to have you treat her as such while
part of YOUR training - to which you HAVE agreed - was to learn
some nurturing skills. Against my better judgement, I relaxed
her punishment so that she was allowed to converse in adult
language and usages at YOUR request. And yet, you balk at your
end of the bargain at every turn! What have you to say for
yourself, Miss Rockwell?"

The tension between the two grew, and Darla grew more anxious
until, just before she would have physically separated the pair,
Audrey retreated. "Well?" Jane demanded again, her tone belying
the relief she herself was feeling.

"It is stupid and needlessly humiliating," she said, her eyes
down.

"Very well, if your precious self image and dignity are so
important to you," Jane hissed, her voice becoming soft and dark,
"then I shall see that you get a belly-full of it, girl. You
will remain here with Darla until Marie or I summon you to your
room." With that, Jane spun on her heel and swept out of the
room."

"Oh, Audrey, I'm so sorry."

"What for?"

"If I'd have known Jane was going to go into her 'quiet' voice, I
wouldn't have pushed so hard on reading the book correctly, at
least not right away."

"'Quiet voice'?"

"Yeah. When she gets like that, she is really, truly pissed.
Look, you can do what you think is best, but I'm telling you this
for your own good. You're treading on really thin ice right now.
Whatever punishment she has in mind, I suggest you just nod and
accept it. It will be 'fair' in terms of whatever point she's
trying to make, and if you argue any further, you'll probably end
up on the next train out of here. I don't know exactly why
you've been sent here, but for most of Jane's students, the
alternative is a lot worse than any of her punishments."

Darla sighed and plucked at the hem of her own petticoat, "Even
if it doesn't always seem like that at the time."

"It's the principle of the thing," Audrey replied, wishing she
felt as certain of that as she might have ten minutes earlier.

"Right," Darla said with a smirk before becoming serious again.
"Just consider your alternatives carefully is all I'm
suggesting."

Audrey considered that for a few moments before sighing gustily.
If Jane Thompson gave up on her, that meant that she could write
off her still minimal chance of competing in the men's open
pentathlon. "Oh, all right."





Chapter 15 ~ SNAP Goes the Trap


"You look. . . look. . .ummm. . very nice," Darla managed to get
out, two hours later, when a rather chastened Audrey carefully
made her way back into the nursery.

She moved like an automaton - her body incredibly stiff and each
step short and carefully placed before any weight was applied to
that foot. *Lord, but where in the world did Aunt Jane come up
with THAT relic from an Edith White soiree-from-hell?*

Just then, Audrey missed her step and would have fallen had it
not been for Darla's reflexes. "Here," she offered to the taller
girl, "let me help you to the settee."

"No!" Was the almost panicked reply. "Ms. Thompson says that I
must not wrinkle the outfit before tea or that will be a demerit.
Ten demerits and my sentence increases by a WHOLE day!"

Darla heard the familiar 'fear-of-Jane' in her 'big-little
sister's' voice, and knew that a hurdle had been crossed. For
whatever reason, Audrey now accepted, at least in part, Jane's
authority over her. "Well, then stand still and let me get a
look at you!"

The outfit was stunning and actually looked good on her, Darla
mused. *So few modern women looked good in period-Victorian
dress, but then, very few modern women have Jane's resources in
dresses, wigs and, if I am not very mistaken, corsets and
bustles.*

From the perky little yellow box hat, complete with feather and
flirty veil, to the tips of her high heeled, shoe-hook-booted
toes, Audrey was the image of the Victorian debutante going out
for tea. The sunshine-yellow gown was high-necked and long
sleeved, with white lace accenting the throat, wrists and hem.
It fit well, but not perfectly as it was a bit loose about the
waist, and a bit tight about the bosom. Two rows of at least
thirty buttons each, curled around the outside of the bodice from
the neckline to the waist seam. White shoes and white gloves
completed the ensemble. Her hair, or rather, her wig, had been
done in black ringlets and sausage curls while her face had been
done up in the pastels typically used by debutantes of that
period.

The look really suited her, Darla thought, and then made the
mistake of saying so.

"If I could move or breathe, I would kill you for that," Audrey
rasped out. "But this damned corset is asphyxiating me and I
don't dare move in these killer heels."

"Well, don't expect sympathy from me. I tried to warn you."

"No one likes being told 'I told you so!'"

Darla giggled. "But I did tell you so. So, how long are you in
for, cell mate?"

"Three days, except it won't be that long. I am going break my
neck first, I am sure."

"Oh pooh. Quit whining. When I was put in that rig, *I* had to
carry a reticule AND a parasol."

"In my HANDS?!? I WILL break my fool neck. I can barely keep my
balance in this monstrosity of a dress with my hands free." The
injudicious exclamation had the unfortunate effect of expelling
too much of her precious oxygen supply and Audrey began to feel
faint. Again, Darla caught her and this time did help her to sit
down, albeit protecting the long skirts from wrinkling.

"Here, stand back up - SLOWLY - and I will loosen those stays for
you. I don't think Aunt Jane meant for you to be that short of
breath. I can't do much, because the dress is so tightly fitted,
but there is some room around your middle which will ease the
stress on your diaphragm."

"So, what's next?" Darla asked as she saw to her task.

"We are invited to tea in the main parlor in . . " and Audrey
looked up at the large children's clock on the wall, "fifteen
minutes. The remainder of my sentence will be pronounced there."

"Well, stand still. If I mess this up we'll be late and then
there will really be hell to pay."

~---------------~

"So," Jane pronounced as she accepted a cup of tea from Darla,
"for the next three days, you will live the life of the very
dignified Victorian woman. That means you will present yourself
at breakfast in a morning gown, change into a receiving gown for
the morning, change into a traveling gown suitable for afternoon
calls after lunch and into an evening gown for dinner."

"Four changes?" Audrey actually squeaked and blushed hotly
because of it. "Every day? And how will I get my work out in if
I have to dress so formally for breakfast?"

"I am afraid," Jane said sternly, "that Victorian ladies do not
take part in such . . .undignified undertakings as physical
exercise, nor would they be allowed to be unchaperoned with a
young man. No, I am afraid that, for the duration of your
punishment, that your early morning workouts are forfeit. The
price of dignity, I am afraid. I do, however, intend that you
get some appropriate exercise."

"Oh?" Hope shown in Audrey's eyes.

"Yes. I have decided that you will participate in the Harvest
Parade with a riding group with which I am affiliated. They ride
in Victorian costume, and the women ride side-saddle."

"But. . but. . I don't know how to ride side saddle."

"Oh, but you will, my dear," Jane said, her smile broadening. "I
myself shall undertake your instruction each afternoon after tea
and before the evening meal. It will mean another gown change,
but that cannot be helped."

"Another gown change?" Audrey was beginning to feel like a
parrot, but could not seem to keep herself from repeating Jane's
little jabs.

"Of course. You cannot ride in formal dress - you must have a
riding habit so that your lovely limbs don't show as you wrap
your right leg about the pommel - that would be undignified. And
you must have riding boots, since those lovely heels are unsuited
for riding. Why, you might break an ankle dismounting."

"When. . . when do we start?" Asked a thoroughly rattled Audrey.

"Oh, tomorrow will be soon enough," Jane said airily. "Oh, and
do observe Darla closely as she serves the tea. You'll be
expected to act as hostess tomorrow, Miss. Oh, dear, look at
your lovely gloves - you spilled tea on one of the fingers."
Jane clucked sadly. "Two demerits already, and you are not even
the one serving the tea."

~-------------~

"I nearly messed up badly earlier," Darla told the two women
seated in Jane's study. Marie was acting as Lady's Maid for
Audrey and helping the penitent change for the evening meal. "I
obviously stared at her nose and she caught me at it."

"How did she react?" Diana asked. "I was working out down at the
gym and missed it."

"She didn't, at least not overtly, but I could see the
embarrassment in her eyes, and there was a momentary though
audible break in her tirade. Then she backed off before
continuing her rant."

"I caught the break, but couldn't see any reason for it," Jane
put in."

"It was the nose," Darla reiterated. "Definitely."

"It does seem to shape her self image," Diana mused. "Marie says
she adamantly refuses to let her try any of her stage makeup
tricks on it. Almost as if it hurts for anyone to touch it."

"I think it does," Darla said. "She almost never looks you in
the face, eye-to-eye, unless you practically force her or unless
she has lost her temper. You're sure we can't pressure her into
getting a cosmetic surgeon to have a go at fixing it for her,
Momma-Jane?"

"Something that life changing and permanent has to be her choice,
darling, just like choosing to accept what I am trying to help
her learn here."

"Don't give her any choice!" Darla rebutted. "She obeys your
edicts or else - just like any of your other students!"

"No, this is different, dear. I don't normally give her or any
student much choice so long as the student is here, under my
roof, and at least semi-willingly, under my control. However,
you know as well as I do that the final choice is always theirs
once they leave me - accept or reject what they've learned here
and live their lives as they choose. I will not impose a
permanent, nonconsensual change upon a student no matter how much
I think it will help her."

"She needs it," Darla said again.

"Then we will need to find a way to help her decide that, dear."






Chapter 16 ~ A Victorian Lady in Lady Jane's Court


Audrey looked at her still half-full plate of eggs, potatoes,
fruit and toast and barely restrained a sigh of disgust. *Thanks
to this corset, I can't eat another bloody bite and I even took
small portions knowing it was there!"

Darla, who was dressed in more normal clothing (at least, what
passed for normal in Jane Thompson's School) caught the unhappy
look and shot a quick glance at Aunt Jane. *She saw it, too,*
Darla thought. *Well, at least Audrey has kept her mouth shut and
done as she was told. Guess that Olympic dream of hers is as
important to her as staying out of prison was to me.*

Jane daintily dabbed at her mouth and turned her stare directly
upon wayward student. "That is a bit too much to leave for Miss
Manners, Audrey," she said.

Confused, the young woman looked up to meet her tormenter's eyes.
"I. . .I beg your pardon, ma'am?" she asked.

"In Victorian times, it was considered good manners for one to
leave a bit on the plate after each course of a meal, it being
thought to be crude to clean one's plate," Jane said in her best
schoolmistress voice. "Children were taught from an early age to
'leave a bite for Miss Manners'. However, I believe your eyes
were too big for your belly this morning."

An emotion - probably anger, Jane thought - flashed in the girl's
dark eyes, but only for a moment. "My belly is somewhat smaller
today than I am used to, ma'am," Audrey replied carefully. "I
did try to account for that in serving myself, but evidently not
enough."

"A lesson for you, then," Jane said, inwardly pleased at both the
show of emotion and at the quick control of it. "Very well. I
think, Darla, that you should take Miss Rockwell on a bracing
walk about the grounds. Then, about ten, Marie shall serve
Morning Consomme in the garden before it is time for Audrey to
change for her appointment with Mr. Webster and me in the
library."

"Consomme?" Audrey asked, confused. She'd never heard of that
custom before.

"Yes," Jane said. "It is like afternoon tea, but it is served in
the morning. Like the young women of Victorian times, you are
unable to consume sufficient bulk to get the calories and other
nutrients you need to be healthy from only three meals a day.
Corsettry does that to a woman. In their case, they often became
weak and unhealthy. You will not. That is not part of our
bargain. I will see that you are served several extra meals a
day so that you can take in the nutrition your athletic body
requires. Besides the three regular meals, you will have
consomme, tea and a bed time snack."

"I see," was the surprised response.

"You will find, I hope, Audrey, that I keep my bargains,
particularly with those who also show the good faith to keep up
their ends, too. Now, run along. Marie has a pelisse and a
parasol for you. Stay to the pathways on your walk. Grass
strains on the hem would ruin that lovely pink morning gown."

~-------------~

Darla hung back as Audrey made her cautious way out of the room.
"It is going to be a very slow walk," she observed.

"All the more reason for her next lesson with our good friend
Webster," Jane said equably as she stirred her second cup of
coffee.

"Should I go do the Scarlet O'Hara thing, too, Aunt Jane? So
that I can show her how to handle herself?"

Jane's shake of her head was emphatic. "No. In fact, I want you
to do just the opposite. Dress in attractive, modern clothing.
Things that a girl your age would find comfortable and even fun.
I want her to WANT to emulate your mode of dress, to begin to see
it as desirable."

"Ooooooo, sneaky, Momma-Jane. And I suppose that I will be
disciplined at the end of this for being too outre again?"

"No. That isn't the point, so don't go so far that she will
wonder why you aren't being punished."

"Got you," Darla started to leave the dining room and then
stopped. "That corset may become a problem. If it is too tight,
her abdominal muscles will weaken, and then you will be in
default on your part of the deal."

"Diana thought of that. We've only taken a bare three inches off
her waist this morning. Yesterday was to get her attention, but
the night corset was loose enough that she didn't notice the
difference in how tightly we laced her today. Besides, while I
suspect I will be able to keep her *close* to the critical ten
demerits, provided she plays fairly, I won't give her that last
demerit. She'll only be in the corset two more days."

"Looks good on her," Darryl's voice observed. "Looks VERY good!"

"Rogue!" Jane laughed. "Now, hurry up and go make yourself
pretty for your walk in the gardens!"

~--------------~

"You look very nice today," Darla observed as the pair made their
way over the hill towards the stable.

"Hah! YOU look nice. I look like an uncoordinated idiot,"
Audrey replied. "These boots are almost as bad as the corset. I
can't flex my ankle in them so I can't stride."

"You're not doing very well with the parasol either. Here, let
me show you how to do it," Darla offered as she snatched the
very long handled, frilled and flounced confection from her
walking partner. "You rest it on your shoulder so that you can
hold your hands up like this," she demonstrated with a coy
placement of her hands near her chin, "and then you stroll.
Ladies do not stride. Like this."

Darla had nearly had the lead role in a local production of Mary
Poppins once. Nearly, that is, until a 'very unfortunate ankle
injury' had forced her understudy, and one of Jane's skirted
boys, to take the role. In any case, she had learned to flirt
with a parasol rather well, if she did say so herself.

The reaction she got from her audience, however, was not at all
what she expected. Audrey was laughing as loud as her corsetted
diaphragm would permit. "Oh lord, but you look so funny. Now,
show me what I am REALLY supposed to do with that thing."

*NOW what the hell do I do???* was all Darla could think.

~---------------~

Jane watched in silent amusement as the two girls made their way
toward the rose garden gate. They were laughing together,
actually laughing and sharing whatever joke it was that had set
them off. "What on earth. . . ?"

Then, Darla stopped, corrected something about the way Audrey was
holding the parasol and where she had her hands, and then stepped
back. With a flourish, the taller girl began slowly pin-wheeling
the parasol behind her head and stepped out into a bit of
relatively complex, if slightly unbalanced footwork. Darla
instantly moved to steady Audrey and instantly, they broke out
into another gale of laughter.

It took a moment, but then Jane realized what Audrey had been
doing. "Why, that little minx has been teaching her the
choreography from the sidewalk painting scene of that Mary
Poppins production the children's theater put on two years ago."

"What did you say?" Diana asked as she walked into the study.

"Look at that," Jane ordered indicating the scene below them.

Diana watched silently for several moments and then smiled.
"Well, that bit of bonding won't hurt our plans. Companionship,
according to the research, is much more important to girls than
to guys. And honest laughter cures many an ill. I think this
will work to our advantage."

~------------~

Two hours later, a foot-sore and weary Audrey was looking out the
window of her bedroom at Jane's small swimming pool. She had
just finished her latest one hour session with "Mr. Webster."
The tall girl decided she'd have to find some suitable way to
repay Darla for not warning her about that before she'd teased
her into trying those dance steps in the garden. Walking around
Jane Thompson's parlor with that damned dictionary on her head
was NOT on the Victoria-ized teen's list of fun things to do.

At that particular minute, Audrey's ankles, calves, knees, and
most particularly her neck and shoulders, regretted their
acquaintance with that thrice accursed book. She'd lost count of
the number of laps she had been ordered to make up and down Ms.
Thompson's library, but she knew precisely how many times the
thing had fallen off her head. Eighteen times at one demerit for
every three falls. With her little faux pas of using the wrong
spoon for her grapefruit at breakfast, that left her with only
two to play with before she was looking at another day in this
hellish costumed time-warp!

She watched, envious, as Darla pulled herself up out of the pool
after a fairly vigorous fifty or so laps of the small pool. She
was wearing a "USA"-emblazoned women's Speedo swimming suit that
fit her slender frame like a second skin. *The color suits her,
too,* Audrey thought, *and where the heck did THAT thought come
from?* She shook her head at that, but then looked again.
*Except for that silly bathing cap which looks like a relic from
those black and white shows on Nickelodeon, it does look
attractive. And she probably needs the cap with that long hair
of hers. Wonder if Jane would let me go swimming?* She thought
about that for another moment and then sighed. *Best not to ask
until I have served my sentence. She might decide to let me
swim, but only in a Victorian bathing costume. Those things
covered a girl from head to toe and included more skirts than a
dress shop. Probably get weighed down and sink to the bottom of
the pool like a stone. No, safer to wait, I think, although I do
wonder. . . . maybe Darla has one of those suits that would fit
me?*

~--------------~

Later that night, Darla and Audrey were in the nursery, nibbling
on the promised bedtime snack. "You were really great on Garters
today," Darla enthused. "And you say you never rode side saddle
before this?"

Audrey snorted, grateful that she was able to breathe more easily
in the lightly stayed sleeping corset. "Are you sure I rode all
that well? I only fell off five times."

"But only once in the last half hour," Darla reminded her. "And
Aunt Jane said we could go out on a trail ride tomorrow if you do
as well, and TRUST me on this. Aunt Jane would NEVER trust her
beloved Garters to someone she did not believe would take proper
care of the old girl. Not without her there to watch, anyway."

A flush of pleasure at the implied compliment warmed the taller
girl. "She really is a very patient horse."

"She has to be, what with all the ham-fisted students Jane drills
in the basic elements of dressage," Darla shrugged. "Wait till
you see the trails around here from horseback. We're really
close to a small lake, well, they call it a pond around here -
Port Judith Pond, and not all that far from Narragansett Bay,
too. Some of the views are just breathtaking."

"It would be nice to get away from. . .I mean, out of here for a
while. . . "

"Away from Aunt Jane?" Darla asked, her smile growing wider. "I
understand completely. So does she, actually. That is why she
made the offer, provided you don't have too many demerits."

Audrey made an exaggerated swipe of her brow and sighed lustily.
"Don't remind me. I was sweating bullets the whole afternoon
after that ninth demerit for not remembering how she takes her
tea."

"But you won't ever forget a dollop of honey and the juice from
one sixth of a lemon again, will you?"

"Not in this lifetime, Darla," Audrey said, but she, too, was
smiling.

"Bedtime, ladies," Jane called from the door. "We have a great
deal to accomplish tomorrow, and Audrey will need her rest if she
is to be sufficiently alert tomorrow afternoon to ride Garters on
your little adventure."

The two girls bid Jane good night, and slipped off to their
respective rooms. Surprisingly, to Audrey at least, both were
asleep mere moments after their heads hit the pillows.
--



Chapter 17 ~ Falling for Darla


It was a glorious fall afternoon as the two young women guided
their mounts down the sun dappled path. Trees, just starting to
show a hint of autumn color stood on both sides of the trail,
throwing interesting shadows and playing games with the light of
the lowering sun.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Darla gushed astride the big thoroughbred.
"I do miss this whenever I have to be away for any reason."

Audrey, riding Garters side saddle, was also enjoying the day,
but the fancy forest green velvet Victorian riding habit Jane had
chosen for her to wear on this outing was heavy . . .too heavy
for the mid-afternoon heat of an Indian Summer day. *At least
the corset isn't cutting me in two,* she thought, and then let
herself smile at Darla's enthusiasms. "It is very pretty," she
agreed. "It's too bad we have to cut our ride short in time me to
change for the next installment of those art lessons your Aunt
has set up for us."

"I know what you mean," Darla grimaced in heartfelt agreement.
"I swear, if I have to draw one more bloody apple, I am going to
steal it, feed it to Teddi and do a still life of what comes out
the other end so realistic it will draw flies!"

Audrey could only stare at the smaller girl, and then threw her
head back and howled with laughter. "How. . how . .however would
you explain THAT to your aunt?"

Darla grinned. "Oh, I don't know. Think she'd believe me if I
told her it was abstract art?"

"No way! And I am sure I DON'T want to know what she'd come up
with as correction for THAT prank." Audrey was still chuckling
over the images that danced in her head as they rounded a bend.
"Oh my goodness," she breathed as the panoramic vista of the
large lake came into view.

"Great, isn't it?" Darla asked, as she trotted Teddi up beside
Audrey. She had purposely let her friend take the lead so that
she would be surprised by the view.

Audrey could only nod as they cantered down to the water's edge.
"It is lovely."

Just then, Teddi knickered and tossed her head. "She wants to
run," Darla said. "I always give her a gallop when we come down
here, but Jane told you to keep yourself to a canter."

Audrey heard the regret in her companion's voice and saw the
excitement in her mount's attitude. "She told me to take it easy
because I don't know how to gallop in a side saddle. I assume
you know how to gallop astride?" she asked with a touch of
challenge her voice.

"Well, yes, but. . "

"Go ahead. Enjoy your run. Garters and I will take advantage of
this lovely open patch of beach and practice my lead changes.
This old dear is much more forgiving than your aunt," Audrey
added, still smarting from the two demerits she'd earned, her
sixth and seventh of the day, for sloppy reining during her
riding lesson with Jane Thompson.

"You're sure?" Darla was torn between wanting the gallop as
badly as Teddi wanted it, and not rubbing in the fact that Audrey
couldn't enjoy the adventure.

"Shoo! Scoot! Gidyap!" Audrey said, a smile on her face. "I
will enjoy watching the two of you!"

"OKAY!" Darla squealed happily.

And it was almost the truth, Audrey thought as she watched horse
and rider arrow down the beach. *She is as good as her aunt
indicated,* she thought as Darla brought Teddi around and began
thundering back up the beach.

Then, it happened - so quickly, Audrey was never really certain
of the cause, only of the effect. One instant, the pair were in
smooth unison, moving effortlessly over the rocky beach, and the
next the horse was skidding to a stop, and Darla was flying
through the air.

Audrey was already moving toward them when Darla hit the ground,
her helmeted head seeming to bounce as the rest of her landed
flat on the hard surface. Audrey was off her horse and running
toward her friend, nearly tripping on the absurdly long skirts
designed not for moving afoot, but for gracefully draping over a
horse.

Darla was unconscious on her back when Audrey fell to her knees
beside the fallen girl. A quick check with her cheek near her
friend's lips told her that Darla was breathing. What to do next
was the question. Audrey knew it wasn't safe to move her friend.
There might have been a back injury. A quick check for immediate
help on the scene was fruitless. She'd have to go for help.

Audrey's first thought was to use Teddi since the thoroughbred
was fitted out with standard English tack and not that damned
side saddle, but the horse was limping. *Probably why she balked
and threw Darla,* Audrey thought. *I hope it is only a sprain.*
Unfortunately, she did not have time to worry about that now. The
horse did not seem to be in agony, so she tethered her to a
nearby bush and went over to Garters.

It was a very good thing the saddlebred was so forgiving, Audrey
thought as she urged the horse back up the trail. Any other
mount would have shied and probably thrown her as she had
awkwardly scrambled back into the side saddle. Fear for her
friend had Audrey pushing the big horse first into a trot and
finally into a full gallop. She gripped the huge saddle pommel
with her leg, doing her best to move with the horse's gait so
that she was not unbalanced.

Garters stride ate up the distance quickly and soon Audrey had
the big mansion in view. She cut across the surrounding meadows,
trying to reach help as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, she
found the gate at the end of the meadow shut and locked. She
thought about it for all of about five seconds. She couldn't
climb the fence. . .not in this outfit, and stripping out of the
skirt would take time - all those cursed buttons and that assumed
she could reach enough of them to get the job done. She had only
one choice. The fence was not all that tall - four feet or so,
and she jumped taller ones in practice, didn't she? Grimly, she
wheeled Garters and moved back far enough to give the mare a
running start. With a whisper of a prayer, Audrey dug her heels
into Garters' ribs and headed for the fence.

~--------------~

From her bedroom, a flash of movement in the meadow caught Jane's
eye. She watched in shock and then horror as Audrey urged
Garters to jump the meadow fence.

It would have worked, Jane thought as she flew down the stairs
yelling for her husband (did she call for Diana or did she call
for Art?) and Marie. If Garters had been used to jumping or if
Audrey had been astride, the pair would have easily cleared the
fence. But side-saddled, Audrey lacked the control of the animal
she would have had astride and Garters had always hated jumping.

Jane had only been able to watch as Garters had refused at the
last instant and launched her velvet-garbed rider into the hard
wooden fence post.

Jane had reached the reeling girl just seconds before Diana.
Audrey had evidently fallen over the fence and into the yard for
she'd been struggling on toward the house when Jane had raced up
to her. Blood was streaming from both nostrils and her broken
nose seemed squashed. "What the hell are you DOING?!?" Jane had
screamed when her breath had allowed.

The yell broke through Audrey's barely conscious mind. "Jane. .
" she breathed as she felt the other woman support her. "Darla.
. . fell. . .hurt. . .won't wake up. . . help."

"Where!?!" Jane begged, fear clutching at her heart. "Where is
she, Audrey?"

"Lake. . . by beach." And that was all she could get out before
the darkness finally claimed her.

~--------------~

Diana pulled out the cell phone she'd grabbed before heading out
the door. "I'll call the EMT's and go get the four-wheeler,
Jane," She said as she started moving back toward the house.

Just then Marie arrived. She saw in a glance the two loyalties
tearing at her friend. "How is she?" Marie asked, kneeling
beside Audrey.

"Breathing but out cold. I think we need to keep her upright so
she can breathe through her mouth. Diana's going to see to
Darla." At Marie's look, Jane explained about Darla.

Marie nodded. "Look, she seems okay and there is nothing you can
do here that I cannot. Diana called the ambulances. If you run,
you can catch Diana at the main gate. Go! You need to be with
Darla. Vite! Vite! I will take care of this one."

~------------~

The EMT's arrived at the lake a few minutes after Jane and Diana.
They found the girl on her knees, tending her horse.

"Oh, my head." she complained as the paramedic checked her
vitals. "What happened?"

Jane explained what little she knew as the EMTs' finished up
their on-scene evaluation.

"I think you should see your family physician, ma'am, but the way
she's been moving," the older of the two paramedics said to Jane.
"There doesn't seem to be anything more than a bump on her head
and a mild concussion. That riding helmet may have saved her
life."

"Ma'am?" the younger paramedic cut in. "We just got word that
our other unit just picked up your other girl. They're en route
to the Emergency Room. She's still unconscious and bleeding from
the nose. My friend's not a doctor, but he's pretty good and he
thinks she needs surgery. If you want, we can give you a ride to
the hospital with us."

"Go with them, Jane," Diana ordered. "Darla and I will get Teddi
to the stable, call the vet and then join you at the hospital."

Her hands shaking, Jane hugged her spouse fiercely, unmindful of
the strange looks the younger paramedic was giving them, and then
scrambled into back of the ambulance.

~------------~

They found Jane sitting in the waiting room outside of general
surgery. It had taken longer than Diana had liked to get the
veterinarian to come and check out Teddi and Garters. Both
horses were all right, although riding activities would have to
be curtailed for a couple of weeks. Teddi had a large insect
sting on her right foreleg which was the likely cause of her
sudden stop while Garters had bruised herself when she'd run into
the fence trying to refuse the jump. The vet had called in a
college student to stay with the horses so that Darla and Diana
could join Jane at the hospital with Audrey.

*At least I will have good news for her on that account. Hope
she has good news for me.*

Jane saw them as they rounded the corner into the small,
antiseptic-perfumed waiting room, and shot out of her 1950's
styled plastic armchair to meet them. "Oh, Art," she sobbed.
"It's all my fault!"

"Diana, sweetheart," her spouse corrected softly as she pulling
Jane into a tight embrace before continuing is sterner tones.
"That's crap and you are a smart enough woman to know that
without me having to say it!"

"But I'm the one who made her use that damned side saddle. She
would have made the jump, even mounted on Garters, if I hadn't
been trying to play mind games with her that way."

"Bullshit!" The unusually and unexpectedly crude word broke
through Jane's misery and Diana smiled as her spouse's back went
ramrod straight.

"I beg your pardon?" The icy tones were pure Victorian Governess
at her most offended. Jane did NOT like being spoken to in such
a fashion.

"That's better. The girl is hurt because she took a calculated
risk. She was trying to get help for Darla. You don't know if
she would have made it over that fence or not. All right, you
had already determined she was a good enough rider, but because
she was not yet completely comfortable with the side-saddle, you
warned her not to gallop. It is the situation that is at fault,
if anything can be said to be, but it is most definitely NOT your
fault. Got that?"

The fury drained out of Jane almost as quickly as it had flashed
and she dropped her forehead into the crook of Diana's neck. "My
head knows," she finally answered softly. "My heart and my
conscience will take a bit of convincing yet."

Diana chuckled and after hugging her wife one last time, stepped
aside to let Darla get at her mother. "How is she?" the young
woman asked when at last they broke their embrace.

"Her nose is broken again. . . rather badly this time. They've
got one surgeon in there working on clearing her breathing
passages and stopping the bleeding and another one who is looking
at reconstruction possibilities," and then Jane seemed to break
again, "Oh, god, Diana, the EMTs said she bled the whole way to
the hospital."

"What did the doctor say?" Diana asked firmly.

"That she'll be all right. . . at least physically. He wasn't
sure about her looks, though."

Just then, a young woman in surgical greens approached them.
"Mrs. Thompson-Philips?" She asked in a firm, yet oddly husky
voice. Jane nodded. "I am Doctor Bannerman. I am a
reconstructive surgeon and was called in on Miss Rockwell's
case."

"How is she?" Jane asked.

"The bleeding is stopped and the trauma to her breathing passages
has been repaired. There shouldn't be any lasting problems from
that front. However, her nose has been . . .well, rather badly
damaged from a cosmetic point of view. I am afraid if we do not
take steps right now, she may well be facially scarred for the
rest of her life. We need to shape the remaining tissue now. .
provide it some structure to replace the cartilage that has been
all but lost so that she can have a normal looking face. I think
if we don't go in and do something now, her skin will pull back
and any future repairs will involve stretching and/or grafts that
will leave deep facial lines as a minimum, and perhaps even
scars."

"What can you do now, Doctor," Diana said stepping forward to
support Jane, "That you cannot do later?"

"Her own facial skin is still there and still pliable.
Fortunately, cartilage is particularly easy to replace with
plastics, much more so than bone or tendons and ligaments. We
build and shape a replacement for what the nose and throat
specialist had to remove and then will graft it on to her nasal
opening and reattach her skin to the new structure."

"Are there any dangers with the procedure," Diana asked.

"Not really - it is a fairly common reconstructive technique,
particularly for injuries such as Miss Rockwell has sustained.
Oh, it is possible that it might not work in her specific case
for some unanticipated reason, but I think that is unlikely. Ms
Thompson-Philips, I am very good at what I do. I think we have
an excellent chance of minimal or no visible scarring if we go
now."

"What do you need from us," Diana asked, still supporting Jane
both physically and emotionally.

"Miss Rockwell is still a minor and Ms. Thompson-Philips is
listed as her guardian of record.

Jane pushed away from Diana, standing on her own. *Lord, but I
wish I understood Audrey's antipathy towards such a repair.
Darla thought it might be a fear that such repairs might
accidentally impair her breathing in favor of appearance and thus
hurt her chances as a pentathlete. Well, if that is the problem,
it is no longer an issue. Some type of repair must be done.*

"Ms. Thompson-Philips," the doctor said in a firmer tone of
voice, trying to get Jane's attention. "You are the child's
legal guardian. You have to give the official consent before I
can start."

"I know that!" Jane snapped and then immediately regretted
letting her nerves and anxiety get the better of her. "Pardon
me. I apologize for that outburst. Yes," Jane said, her eyes
closed against the sharp pain at the center of her forehead. "I
will authorize the surgery."

"All right, I need a picture of her before the accident so that I
can shape her nose as close to the original as possible."

"She. . .I mean . . Her nose was already broken when she came to
us. I don't have any picture of what she looked like with an
unbroken nose."

"Wonderful. Well, I guess that explains the extent of the trauma
the nose and throat specialist found. The nose was already in
bad shape when she smashed it this time." the surgeon mused. "So
I guess I will have to wing it a bit. Okay, Ma'am, with no
previous shape to recreate, do you want me to use my best
judgment, or do you have some specific shape you think she'd
prefer? I need to get started right now so we won't be able to
wait until she is conscious and ask her."

Darla suddenly remembered something and reached into her purse.
*Odd that I kept this, and odder still that I have it in my
purse. Oh well.* "Momma-Jane? How about this? Can you work
with something like this, Dr. Bannerman?"

Jane looked and was surprised to see the morphed picture of
Chastity Rockwell with Audrey Hepburn's nose. The other three
women crowded around the picture. "That would work nicely," Dr.
Bannerman said. "I thought you said her nose was already
broken?" Darla quickly explained what she'd done in hopes of
convincing the girl to eventually get her nose fixed. The doctor
turned to Jane. "That seems like a good option to me, but it is
your call, Ms. Thompson-Philips."

Once again Jane wished she knew what was Audrey's reason for
avoiding having her nose fixed, but it no longer really mattered,
did it? At least Darla's solution was attractive. Hopefully,
Dr. Bannerman was as good as she thought she was. *I will just
have to deal with Audrey's reaction later.* "Proceed, doctor."

"Excellent. The nurse at the main desk will have the papers you
have to sign." She took the picture from Darla. "I have to go
make some preparations. You may want to go home and get cleaned
up," she added in a kinder voice. "This is going to take several
hours to do correctly."

~--------------~

"But I don't WANT to go home," Jane fumed for what Diana was
certain was the hundredth time since they'd left the hospital.
"I should BE there for her!"


"And so you will be," Diana gritted out. "AFTER you've cleaned
up so you won't scare the hell out of the poor kid and AFTER
you've gotten some hot food in your belly so you don't become any
crabbier than you already are and AFTER you've gotten an hour or
two of downtime."

"I won't sleep," Jane promised, crossing her arms beneath her
bosom and pouting worse than the most outraged student she'd ever
instructed. Diana did not think Jane would appreciate the
observation and with the wisdom of most loving husbands, kept the
thought to herself. Some things never changed - not even for a
husband who also wore the skirts in the family.

~--------------~

"How could you DO that to me?" Jane demanded of Diana as the big
four-wheeler turned onto the main road almost four hours later.
"It is bad enough you put me to sleep with that sneaky. . ."
Jane coughed and ignored the heat that flared in her cheeks.

"Massage?" Diana interrupted, a wicked smile on her face. "Well
*I* don't feel the least bit guilty for that! I thoroughly
enjoyed relaxing you that way."

"That is not the point," Jane replied primly. "You took
advantage of my baser nature and the fact that I always doze
after. . .ummm"

"Darlin', you did more than doze. And both our little afternoon
delight and that nap did you a world of good, so quit whining."

"I should have BEEN there, Diana!"

"Why? So you could fidget and worry? First, Darla was there
with orders to call me if anything came up or if they took Audrey
to recovery. ."

"Darla knew what you planned to do?!?"

"Specifically that I had wicked designs on seducing you and
having my wicked way with your gorgeous self? Of course I didn't
tell her, but I am sure she figured it out."

"Great. Just wonderful." Exasperated, Jane blew a wayward lock
out of her eyes and sat back in the car seat. "Now my child
knows that I am a slave to my physical appetites."

"Like she didn't know already and isn't jealous as hell of my
great good luck?" It took all Jane's considerable willpower not
to smile at that, but somehow she managed. She'd had a great
deal of practice in her years of dealing with recalcitrant
adolescents.

"So, if I might continue?" Diana asked rhetorically. "Second,
you are, as I said, much better for the release of tension and
the rest, so you will not frighten Audrey when she comes out of
the anaesthesia as you well might have done had I not taken such
callous advantage of your sensual nature. Now, you can REALLY be
there for her when she'll REALLY need you."

"Need me?" That question caused Jane's feelings of guilt over
Audrey's injuries to flare anew. "She tolerates me, Diana. I
don't think she sees any real need for me beyond complying with
her Mother's ultimatum."

"She's going to need a lot of encouragement. That nose was
something she was using as a shield for some reason, and now,
that shield is gone. Or it will be gone soon assuming that
little blond doctor's skills are as good as her confidence would
tend to indicate. Audrey's going to need to be motivated to face
the world without that crutch and motivation comes in many forms.
From you, she'll need that stern, no-nonsense, just-do-it kind of
push that you are so good at."

"After this mess, who's to say she will accept that from me?"

"She's an athlete, Janie - a jock. She is used to having a coach
tell her what she is to do, tell her what she is doing right and
tell her what she isn't. More importantly, she is used to that
coach telling her how to fix what she is doing wrong. You are
ideally suited to fill that role because she was sent here to
learn from you."

"Where's my whistle and striped shirt?" Jane said with just a bit
of a catch in her voice as she tried to make a joke.

"Wrong outfit, dear. Refereeing is still my job, I think. You
have to be the one who won't accept less than her best effort -
the one person who won't let her give up until she realizes *she*
doesn't want to let herself give up."

"Well, Prudence is coming to see her, and it is just possible
that all of this may come to nothing anyway. Pru may decide to
give up on the project all together and take the girl home with
her.

"Not much chance of that, I think," Diana replied. "Rough and
tumble girl like Audrey? This won't be the first time she's come
a cropper physically, but I am glad that your friend is coming.
Odd about that, though. . ."

"What do you mean?"

"Doesn't sound like a mother who would deny her little girl dolls
and stuffed toys, does it? To just drop everything and catch the
next plane?"

"Not really, but we've only Audrey's word for that. If it were
Darla, I would want to see her securely wrapped in cotton-wool
and where I could see for myself that she was getting proper
care. And even though I still don't know precisely what to do
with her, I would like to keep Audrey with us so that I can see
to her, too."

"Another baby chick, Mother Hen?" Diana asked with a gentle and
loving smile. "You've taken her into that big soft heart you try
so hard to keep hidden just like you always do with your boys.
Audrey was already one of yours before Old Tom heard her new name
for the first time."

Jane ignored that aspersion on her 'tough-lady' reputation,
especially because it was true. "In any case, she will need
something to focus on - something to distract her from whatever
it is she feared enough to put up those shields. So far, that
has been working out and exercising."

Diana Philips was too good a psychologist and knew her wife too
well not to notice the deliberate change of subject and recognize
it for what it was - pure 'I'll worry about it tomorrow' evasion
- but she only smiled more broadly and let it pass. For the
moment, in any case. "As to her resumption of training, we will
need to talk to the docs about a schedule for that," Diana said,
"Not only has she suffered a moderately severe concussion, but we
don't know how delicate those repairs inside her nasal passages
are. Still, I can't see why she wouldn't be able to practice her
fencing. The mask fencers wear would protect her from both the
epee and from any inadvertent bumps. And we treat the pool's
water pretty religiously so once the post-surgical swelling in
her airways goes down, I am fairly certain that the doctors will
let her go swimming."

"That leaves running, shooting and horseback riding," Jane
observed.

"Gentle jogging is more like it," Diana said thoughtfully, "but I
don't think she's going to be jumping anything very soon - either
on her own legs or on a horse. Too jarring."

"True, but she does need to get back up as soon as possible, even
if only for a gentle walk. But I do think we will dispense with
the side saddle from now on. Perhaps astride, she won't have to
deal with any post-fall fears."

"We'll see, but right now I think you need to get her back up on
that side saddle, as much for you as for her," Diana said firmly.
"First, you don't know that she WILL be afraid. Knowing the
hardheaded Rocky as I have come to know her, I think that
extremely unlikely. She might be a bit anxious, but fear would
offend her to the point she'll probably insist on climbing back
aboard herself. Besides, that fall was nothing more than bad
judgement in a time of crisis. Again, remember that she's a
jock. Coach Jane told her she'd be riding that horse side-saddle
for a show. If she is capable of riding, she will expect her
coach to tell her to perform."

As she so often had to do, Jane found herself forced to concede
that Diana was, once again, probably in the right of it. But
that did not mean she had to admit to it just yet.





Chapter 18


Dr. Bannerman greeted Jane and Diana when they arrived. She was
still in her greens, and there was smile on her face. "Just in
time. Glad to see some folks have the sense to do what their
doctor tells them."

"How is Audrey?" Jane asked.

"Audrey? I thought her name was Chastity?"

"She prefers Audrey," Darla put in.

"Oh. Well, I can see why. Anyway, she's fine. Everything seems
connected up right and tight. She'll sound funny for a while -
like she has a bad headcold - at least until the swelling in her
nasal passages goes down. And she'll look like a refugee from a
barfight until the bruising around her eyes goes away. Figure
that will take a couple of weeks, but I anticipate no real
problems. I think she's going to be lovely with that nose, too."
The doctor turned to Darla. "That nose will look just perfect on
her once her face finishes healing."

"What are the restrictions on her in the meantime? She's a
nationally ranked athlete and she'll be champing at the bit to
restart her training."

"I'll work something up for you on that. What kind of sport? I
could tell she was in superb physical condition."

"Pentathlon," Jane answered.

"Oh, running and jumping and throwing things? That type of
stuff?"

"Not quite, Doctor," Diana said with a smile. "I will tell you
about the sport after we've had a chance to see our girl. When
CAN we see her?"

"Oh, she'll be out of it for another hour or so, and groggy after
that. You can look in on her now, but she should be up to
visitors by this evening's visiting hours."

"Diana?" Darla interjected. "Can I have the keys to the truck?
It is almost time to go pick up Audrey's mom at the airport."

"May I have the keys," Jane corrected without thinking, earning
an exaggerated sigh of long suffering from her child. It made
them all laugh which was, after all, the best medicine for what
still ailed them.

~--------------~

"What a deee-VINE nightgown," Darla said with a cheeky grin as
she walked into Audrey's room. "Wonder where you got it in this
joint?"

"Where do you think?" was Audrey's disgusted reply. Where her
voice had been low and oddly husky before, it sounded as if she
had a major stuffed up head now. The swelling in her nasal
passages had practically shut off those air ways and the result
were sounds that were almost cartoonish in nature. Audrey's
"Your Aunt Jane has struck again." sounded more like "Ur an ja ha
druck agin."

"Well it looks MAHVelous on you, dahlink," Darla said, her eyes
wide with false admiration, "Simply MAHVelous!"

The night gown would have been the height of bridal-night chic in
the middle Victorian Period. It was made of a heavily
embroidered white muslin broadcloth, and it covered the girl from
the base of her chin to her wrists to below her toes. The bodice
was empire cut, tight beneath the lower swell of her bosom. Every
hem was finished with fine lace in a variety of pale pastels and
topped off by a tall, stiff imperial collar that forced Audrey to
hold her head at a very regal angle. All in all, Darla decided,
it was perfectly designed to make a man work very hard for his
marital rights - very hard indeed - and maybe even give up the
attempt altogether.

In a word, it looked positively dreadful on Audrey.

"Hah!" Audrey replied. "Only good thing about it is the nurses
HATE it. Makes getting at me with a thermometer or other such
device darned difficult. The darned gown is STARCHED, Darla,"
the short haired girl complained. "And it has bunches of those
skirt-things - what did you call them? Flounces? Yeah, it's got
flounces all the way down to my toes! Every time I move, one of
those starched flounces stabs me, usually in the butt!"

"Really? I would have thought that there would be a six inch or
so thick wad of period undies between you and the starch. Aunt
Jane must be getting mellow in her old age."

"Don't you believe it!" Audrey retorted. "The nurses finally
gave in on this blasted gown, put they put their foot down hard
on the undies. Seems that especially this time of the month they
cannot be bothered with. . .how did you put it? Oh yeah. . .six
inches of padding that I DO wish I had down there."

"I hear that. Guess Aunt Jane figured your punishment wasn't
over, eh?"

"So she said. You should have seen the look on my Mother's face
when she saw me in this thing. She almost dropped the doll she
brought me."

"Doll?" Darla asked, scanning the room.

Audrey pointed to the top of her headboard. "Him." She said.
Straddling the headboard, looking for all the world like a show
jumper who hadn't made it over the fence, was a stuffed horse,
wearing an equestrian's helmet, and as shocked an expression as
Darla had ever seen.

"Hope he wasn't a stallion," she murmured, "before the accident,
that is."

Audrey stared at Darla in disbelief for a second and then started
to laugh only to stop again abruptly. "Can't laugh," she rasped.
"Well, I can, but it hurts those bruised muscles in my cheeks and
around the bottoms of my eyes."

"Awww. . poor baby. . " Darla replied, strolling over to take a
closer look at the doll. "Your Mom brought this?"

"Yes. Surprised the hell. . I mean, heck out of me." Audrey's
eyes went wide and then she glared at Darla. "YOU didn't tell
her to buy it, did you?"

"Nope," Darla shrugged. "Not me. She wouldn't listen to me
anyway. Too busy asking me if you were really all right and
begging me to go just a little faster. I am surprised she didn't
faint when she saw you, though. Hope you feel better than you
look, girlfriend. You look like you went ten rounds with Lennox
Lewis."

Bandages covered Audrey's face, making her look like the lead
actor in a 1950's 'return of the mummies' horror film. Something
that looked like it had once been part of a catcher's mask
protected her nose from inadvertent contact and held the still
fragile bits all in place while the adhesives set up. Covered
with a screen like material, it would also prevent Audrey from
accidently trying to itch it. What skin showed about the heavy
gauze bandaging was all bruised - a combination of purples,
blues, reds and blacks that only a mad scientist (or a Parisian
dress designer) could love. *She took a real whack trying to get
over that fence,* Darla told herself, and felt somewhat humbled
by that realization.

"I'm not sure I feel much better than I would after ten rounds,
although the pain pills do help. They just wear off too soon and
I have to wait until I can safely have some more. It really
isn't fair, you know. You take a flying header that should have
broken your fool neck and I'm the one in the hospital."

*Good thing it isn't me,* Darla thought. *I couldn't count on
having Nurse Nora protect me in the emergency room. Jane's whole
program and my reputation would have gone up in smoke if I had
needed more than a couple of aspirin.* "Well, don't expect me to
feel so sorry for you that I wish it was me instead of you. I am
grateful, not stupid. So, what else did Aunt Jane say when she
gave you that . . . .stunning confection?"

"I'm to get back up on Garters as soon as the doctor says I can
ride again - side saddle."

"You'd do that anyway." Darla said with thoughtless conviction.

"And just WHY do you think that?" Audrey asked, surprised.

"Cause if you don't, I will just have to think you are afraid and
that you are a wimp." she shrugged artlessly.

Darla was well pleased to see anger flash in the other girl's
eyes at the carefully aimed taunt. "Afraid? ME? Why you. . you.
. . " but then realization came and Audrey's fury cooled as
quickly as it had blazed to life. "You sneaky, conniving little
bitch. You're as bad as that aunt of yours. Now I can't NOT get
back up on that bloody animal in that bloody damned side saddle.
You twerp!"

Darla only grinned, but it was a very smug grin indeed. Pleased
to have won that round, she decided it was time to be a bit more
generous. "By the way, Marie's making beef stroganoff tonight
since your Mom's staying with us. How's the food in here?"

"Twerp isn't bad enough for you! How do you THINK it is, you
nasty, shameless little tease!?! It is hospital food!" the short-
haired girl replied testily. "Healthy as all get out and even
more tasteless."

Her grin broadening, Darla dipped into the shopping bag she'd
brought in and pulled out a long thin plastic bag. "Turkey or
Tuna Sub?" she asked holding up two paper wrapped tubular
parcels, "And you get to choose if you want the Diet Pepsi or the
Doctor Pepper."

"I take back all the otherwise well-deserved nasty things I have
been thinking about you, Darla! Gimme!" Audrey crowed reaching
out with both hands. "Either. Both!"







Part II




Chapter 1


Prudence Rockwell was, as Darla had discovered on the trip from the airport to the hospital, a formidable woman in her own right although not quite in Momma-Jane's class. Where Jane Thompson dominated by some internal force of will, this woman commanded attention and to some extent deference by her physical stature. She stood over six feet tall in flats, and carried one hundred and sixty-five very shapely pounds on her well toned and muscled frame. She had bequeathed her dark hair and eyes to her daughter. Her facial features were a bit too sharp and strong to be pretty, but she was a striking woman whose wide mouth was quick to smile. Darla decided she was going to like Audrey's mother, which was a surprise since she'd been half-way to disliking her after the doll tea party.

"I still can't get over seeing Rocky in such a femininely frou- frou nightgown, Jane. You must be the miracle worker Ruthie said you were," Prudence Rockwell said as she enjoyed her after dinner drink in the formal sitting room. "Lord knows that since she got too old for her governess, she has absolutely refused to consider anything remotely girlie in the way of apparel."

"She doesn't have much choice," Jane said with a twinkle. "And please, we call her Audrey now."

"I know," the taller woman said with a grin. "She told me and asked me to use that name while she is here."

"Good," Jane said, pleased. "In any case, I have assured her cooperation two ways now. One, she's promised to do as I say and I think her sense of honor is very well developed. You've done well there, Pru. Second, she wants to continue training very badly and so long as you stick to your guns about not supporting her at home, the only way she gets to train is to stay here and follow my rules."

"Well, that seems to work. I was pleased that she cared enough about Darla. . err. . .Darryl. . umm. . .what DO I call you when you're not on duty?" Pru asked the youngest female-looking person in the room. Audrey's mother knew about Darla's dual-identity because she had been taken into Jane's confidence before Audrey was accepted at Seasons House.

Darla giggled girlishly, just for effect. "Darla when I am Darla; Darryl when I am Darryl." she said finishing up in Darryl's deeper tones. "Darla will be fine for now. You don't want to accidently slip up while Audrey is around."

"Anyway, I am pleased she cared enough to take that kind of risk. She never had any real friends back home." Prudence then fixed her gaze on Darla. "Are you REALLY a boy? Maybe it is living with my daughter who is more like a son, but you really seem too much the fine lady to be a boy."

"Just my Momma-Jane's excellent training, Ma'am, and a set of genes that left me way down on the low side of the manly-size power curve."

"Jane? You're pulling my leg, right? I cannot believe this is a boy."

"Oh, just a minute and I will prove it to you," Darla said, standing. "Just give me a minute to take off my . ."

"WAIT!!!!" Prudence screeched, shock on her face.

"What?" Darla said, turning back to her stepmother's guest. She started to say something else, but then saw the knowing look on Jane's face. *Guess the jig is up.* She began to giggle. "I was going to take off my WIG, Ms. Rockwell, and then show you my driver's license. NOTHING else! As if Momma-Jane would stand still for such goings on in her home." Darla gave a very insulted sniff - the impact of which was destroyed by her gamine grin and incipient giggle. "What kind of girl do you think I am, anyway?"

Jane permitted the laughter to die down before she answered. "Cheeky, dear. Very cheeky."

~----------------~

Darla lay in her bed thinking about the night's conversation. She had been right about one thing. She liked Audrey's mother. Evidently, it had not been easy for the former athlete when her husband had died, leaving her to raise a young daughter while competing internationally as one of the top half dozen or so female middle distance runners in the United States.

Fortunately, she'd had a sponsor and had been able to hire a nanny/governess to watch over her little girl while she trained or competed. Pru had been good enough to compete as part of the national team in her events, but never quite good enough to make the final leap to the Olympic team.

Finally, she'd turned her knowledge of the international sports world and her business degree to sports business. She'd started as a figure model for their advertising shoots, but had worked her way up the ladder from there and was now a senior vice president for one of the many athletic shoe companies. Now, she had the security she'd always wanted for her child.

Except that her daughter was a teenager and more than just something of stranger to her. Most of the parenting had been done by the now-deceased governess she'd hired right after her husband's death.

*Near as I can tell, Pru was as surprised about the reception of that silly horse as Audrey had been to get it. She intimated that as a child, Audrey didn't like dolls and such. In fact, she told Jane that her daughter refused to play with them at all. And yet, as Audrey tells it, no one ever bought or offered her any. Strange.*

Sighing, Darla pulled the comforter up to her chin, rolled over and fell fast asleep. It had been a very stressful twenty-four hours.





Chapter 2 ~ Boys Will Be Girls


Darla was finishing up a paper on her laptop when she heard a rather soft knock on her door. "Come," she called out as she completed the email that would send her paper to the professor in charge of her distance learning class.

She spun in her seat and was rather surprised to see Jane standing in the doorway. The knock had not been at all like Jane Thompson's signature "open the door now or else" knock, and she usually came in and got right to the point. Darla could not remember many times when she had seen her Mother uncertain or tentative, but she most definitely was both of those at that very moment. "Please come in, Momma-Jane, and have a seat," she said indicating the one comfortable chair in the room. Then she closed her laptop and walked over to her bed where she seated herself and assumed a lotus position. "What's bothering you, Mom?"

Instead of taking the offered seat, Jane walked over to look out the window at the gardens. Now Darla was certain that something was bothering Jane. Coming to the room before her plan of action was firm in her own mind was not at all typical of Jane. Darla was about to say something else, just to break the silence if for no other reason, when Jane started talking quietly.

"We didn't really think through all the implications of taking on a girl student, especially not those issues that are directly impacted by *you* playing the big sister role."

"Uh, oh," Darla said. "What did we forget?"

"Diana and I were over visiting with Audrey," Jane told her, "and then the nurse came in. She shooed us all out because she needed some privacy."

The rest of her explanation was interrupted by a bustling Marie, carrying in a plastic handled shopping bag bearing the logo of a nearby drug store.

"So, is our young lady ready to play her part?" she asked, making her way to Darla's bathroom.

"I, ah, haven't finished telling her about it yet," Jane admitted.

"Why, Jane, it's not like you to stall," Marie chided her.

"About what?" Darla asked, becoming more concerned.

~----------------~

Diana was coming up the stairs to find Jane and Marie, so she could help them in breaking the bad news to their be-skirted son.

"I HAVE TO WHAAAATTTT??!?!" The undeniably masculine bellow of outrage that assaulted her eardrums as she topped the stairs left little doubt that breaking the news was no longer an issue.

*Guess Janie jumped the gun. Now, why is it that I get the distinct impression that Darryl is not all that enthused with this particular idea?*

~----------------~

"You see," Marie was explaining, "when Jane and I were at Eastmore, I would always notice when one of the real girls was . . . uncomfortable, and we could help her. The special students . ."

"You mean the boys in skirts," Darla interrupted sourly.

"You do that so well, darling," Marie chided, "Just remember to use just that tone of voice regularly when you have your bouts of PMS. Now, if I might continue?" Darla scowled and gave a barely perceptible movement of her head that Marie chose to interpret as consent. "The special students were typically put with the, shall we say, less physically advanced regular students whenever possible."

"That not only denied them their masculinity," Jane put in, "but also the supposed benefits of their age. They had to act like immature pre-adolescents or draw attention to themselves which was precisely the last thing they wanted."

"And almost all of our boys graduated back into trousers before their feminine personas would have had to mature in order to preserve the masquerade," Marie resumed, "So, for the most part, they, and therefore we, did not have to deal with the monthly expression of femininity at Eastmore. With the students we've had here at Seasons House, the issue never came up. The younger boys would never think to question why their big sisters were never, um . . . moody, and of course there was no real need to fake it as part of their own training. The little darlings were already moody enough just dealing with Jane's day-to-day program."

"I still don't see why I have to go to such lengths, wearing whatever it is Marie has in that bag and so forth. Can't I just, oh, complain about cramps and go to bed early or something?" Darla glared at the trio ranged across the coffee table from her in Jane's comfortable sitting room. They had retreated here after Darla had balked when Marie had attempted to show her how to use the various appliances and pads procured for this new masquerade.

"Of course you see why, Darla," Diana put in soothingly, "You just don't like what that portends for you, but if I HAVE to state the obvious, it is because Audrey might reasonably be expected to notice any inconsistencies and ask questions we cannot yet answer. Heavens, we may never be able to answer them."

Jane took up the argument. "Look, Darla, Audrey is in the middle of what has apparently been a very uncomfortable menses right now, made all the worse because she is not allowed to see to her own feminine hygiene. She's got a nurse coming in at regular intervals to do that for her, and is acutely embarrassed at having to be handled that way. She is VERY aware of that aspect of being a woman just now."

"Momma-Jane," Darla pleaded, "Can't we just ignore the whole thing? I mean, IF she asks me about it, I can tell her that it is no big deal for me."

"Only a male would dare think such blasphemy let alone say it aloud, petite," Marie put in with just a touch of disgust in her tone. "Trust me, cherie, it is a big deal. Even when it is not difficult, it is messy and annoying."

"So, I am one of those women who is really hit hard by the thing?" Darla retorted, unable to bring herself even to say the word aloud.

"No, dear, you're not going to be 'hit hard' as you say at all. Those stereotypically harsh menstrual periods are, for the most part, distinctly atypical experiences for modern women. You're going to have a relatively easy time of it," Jane replied, her face taking on the stern mask that had cowed many a young male ego, but that had, unfortunately for her current goals, lost much of its power over her own child.

"You mean all this acting irritable and wearing bulky pads and groaning with cramps Marie threatened me with is an *easy* time?" Darla fired back, still looking for a way out that did not include trying to act quite THAT female.

"Of course, dear. Be thankful we don't need you to fake a really bad menses, but that might call as much unwelcome attention to you as would showing no real indication of having a period."

"I will get some makeup with a green cast to it and lay in bed groaning and complaining for two or three days," Darla offered, only partially in jest.

"Hah! As if Jane would tolerate such behavior on a regular basis," Diana snorted. "Remember, she may well be here for six months. That is six, maybe seven periods if the schedule works out."

"I don't see as there is any other choice," Jane put in forcefully. "Either you agree to become an 'Initiate of the Lunar Feminine Mysteries' or we will have to find some pretext to send you away for the remainder of Audrey's stay with me. The latter is not the best course for several reasons, not the least of which is that Audrey is starting to trust and like you. You may well be the key in all of this for her, but we cannot have her finding out that her role model for young feminine womanhood is not really a girl. That would most likely put paid to any hope we have of helping her."

"The only other alternative, Darla," Diana put in, "is for Jane to send her home now before she can notice anything out of the ordinary about you. It would be far worse if she were to realize now that you are a male and more feminine than she is. I think it would let her rationalize giving up and just waiting out her remaining months to her majority."

"I can't do that," Jane corrected. "I made a bargain with her and she has, thus far, done her part. I know this is your home, darling - I made Seasons House yours when I made you mine, but surely you can see that sending her home without just cause would be grossly unfair of me . . . of US. The only two acceptable courses of action are that Darla must simulate periods or she must go back to school."

Darla thought about that. She had come to realize that she liked Audrey, too. More than she had expected to like her, in fact. There was something fragile, scared and a little bit sweet inside the big, physically powerful and imposing girl that called to Darla - something that made her want to protect Audrey in ways that were both masculine and maternal.

*There's that 'best of both worlds' thing again,* she thought.

The femininely rigged out young man almost asked Jane if she was simply saying those things to get Darla's compliance with her plans, but knew that was not fair. While Jane was not above a goodly bit of deceit and manipulation, and more than a few half-truths to prod her students in whatever direction she felt they needed to go, she had foresworn such things with her child after the death of Darla's brother. If Jane said something to Darla, particularly about another student, then she meant every word. Which meant, that Jane DID believe that this was important.

"Hell," she grumbled, conceding the point. "Maybe if I look pathetic enough and you tell me to quit moping and take it like a man. . I mean, like a woman, she'll feel more of a kinship to me."

"Thank you, dear," Jane beamed at her child.

"Okay, so what do I REALLY have to do?" Darla asked. "Marie showed me what she bought at the drug store and sort of explained their . . umm, application, but that's not enough for me to pull off this acting gambit of yours, Momma-Jane. As my drama friends at school would say, I need to get into my character's head. . . or in this case, into her body."

Diana stood. "This does NOT need to concern me. I am old enough to post-menopausal. So if you will excuse me. . "

"Sit down, Daddy-Di!" Darla ordered. "If I do it, YOU do it. Fair is fair."

"Now, I don't think. . ."

"Sit down, Artemis," Jane ordered. "Or I WILL make you do it. You still owe me a forfeit for that last bet. I was going to save it for our six month anniversary, something we might both enjoy, but if you insist. . ."

Diana sat, looking very aggrieved. "I told you my name is not Artemis anymore," but the others ignored her as they concentrated on Darla.

"I repeat," Darla said, "What do I have to do to be really convincing as a girl having a period."

"What do you mean, dear?" Jane asked, relief washing over her now that Darla had agreed to this stratagem. "Marie was already going through that when you. . . well, when you resisted the idea rather vocally. That is all we ever did for the girls at Eastmore - show them how to use those products properly."

"Not quite, Momma-Jane. What you did at Eastmore, and what Marie attempted to do for me in my room was demonstrating the mechanics of doing the 'girl during her period' thing, but that is not the same as reacting and behaving like a girl who is having a period. So, let's have you two experts take me through a period day-by- day, since as I understand it, each day is different."

"Take you through it?" Jane asked, her demeanor suddenly cautious and wary.

"In detail," her daughter said firmly, and looking well pleased at having passed along a bit of her own discomfiture to her self- possessed mother. "Day-by-day, step-by-step. Diana can take notes and Marie can pitch in with anything you forget. After all, she's been with you long enough to know how you behave when your time of the month comes. Like Mother, like daughter, right?"

"In detail," Jane repeated and then cast a glance at Marie, who was not looking nearly as gleeful as she had moments earlier. "That is rather. . . well, intimate, dear. You aren't, after all, REALLY a girl. Surely, we can do this without quite so much. . .nitty-gritty."

"If I were really your daughter, Momma-Jane, you wouldn't have to go through it all with me because I would be really feeling whatever it is women feel, right? Only, I don't HAVE those feelings to guide or direct my responses. And it is not like Daddy-Di can do much for me. This isn't like when he bought me my first box of condoms," Darla stopped to enjoy Jane's sharp glare at her spouse before continuing. "You're the one who said this little drama has to be done and done correctly, right? Suppose I have the wrong pad or whatever the heck they are called? Or react like it is day one on day three? Wouldn't Audrey notice that?"

"Audrey evidently uses tampons," Jane said without thinking.

"Well, Darla can't," her child said with a giggle. "So, c'mon you two. Start talking."

A while later, Darla realized that this was the first time she had ever seen Aunt Jane tentative and uncertain TWICE in one day.

~----------------~

As she undressed for bed, Jane wasn't sure how she felt about the day's activities. Being honest with herself, she had underestimated Darla's reluctance in this case. *What is it about a woman's period that causes such a reaction in the male?* she wondered. Even her open-minded mate had tried to dodge the issue today.

Of course, Darla had gotten a measure of retaliation by demanding that the two older women describe the experience in detail for her. For all her forthrightness and, yes, intrusiveness when dealing with a student, Jane was still a very private person. It had been very . . .well, uncomfortable wasn't strong enough a word, but it was all she could come up with, talking about such things with Darryl. And for Jane, it HAD been Darryl and not Darla at that point. It would have been a good deal less difficult if it HAD been Darla. *Except, as he said, if Darryl had been Darla, she would not have needed to be told about things she'd already experienced.*

"I thought that went as well as it could have gone," Diana said as she came out of the bath, a towel turbaned about her hair and another covering her torso. "At least Darla felt good enough about it to joke a bit at the end, although I must admit, that falsetto soprano of hers is atrocious!"

Jane winced at the memory. She had always liked watching old Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald movies on the classic movie channel, but hearing her child fracture "Oh, sweet mystery of life at last you've found me. Oh, I understand so much I didn't want to know," had probably ruined that little pleasure of Jane's forever. "I wanted to throttle her," Jane growled, turning bared teeth at her mate.

"Just think what Audrey would have done to her in the same circumstance," Diana said laughing.

"It is NOT funny!" Jane retorted.

"Certainly wasn't funny to Darla, at least at first. At least now, she's in a better frame of mind for the challenge."

"It should not have been that big production," Jane said, inwardly cringing at the contradictory position she was taking. "She is, after all, only faking it."

"I believe thespians call that 'verisimilitude' - knowing the entire person of their character and not just the words of their part. Face it, dear, boys don't know much about menstruation, except to be very cautious around their girl friends a few days every lunar cycle. Just think how you'd react if you were having a difficult time of the month and I came up to you and said, 'Oh, you poor dear. I know exactly how you feel, and of course I'll help you.'" Diana barked a laugh at Jane's darkening glare. "You'd kosh me one over the head with the nearest blunt object to hand. Like I said. Boys just don't know much about that aspect of women's lives. Ready for bed, dear?" Diana asked, yawning broadly.

Jane settled herself into bed, still thinking about what had happened that day and what Diana had said. *It's just too bad there isn't a pill that would give males the symptoms of a period,* she mused. *Mood swings, nausea, bloating, fatigue and hypersensitivity. Maybe even make them leak something.* The vision of some of her more recalcitrant charges caught in the throes of such a finely feminine condition brought that famous Thompson smile to her lips.

*Ought to be required by law for every post-pubescent male in the world as part of their schooling,* she told herself as her fertile imagination warmed to the idea, *Each one individually supervised during THEIR period by some responsible female, of course. And then twice a year until their wife or significant other is post-menopausal.* Then Jane remembered Diana's remark about "knowing just how you feel," and decided that *While we're at it, any male making a condescending or stupid remark would instantly get a double dose from his responsible female. Lord, talk about sensitivity training in action.*

And with that happy thought, Jane drifted off to sleep.
--



Chapter 3 ~ Darla and the Wrath of the Moon Goddess


Audrey sat quietly, considering the various offerings on the plate before her.
All soft foods, requiring little in the way of chewing because chewing was
difficult and still a bit painful. The device she wore on her face while her
tissues bonded with the artificial nose cartilage left her little flexibility
in her upper face. It was intended to prevent her facial muscles from putting
undue strain on the fleshy areas around her nose. As a result, she had to chew
very deliberately which usually jarred the bruised areas near her eyes. No
more Subway sandwiches until the device came off. She and Darla had caught
hell for that, too.

But it had been worth it!

The device braced along her upper lip, so she really couldn't move her lips to
make a seal on anything. As a result, she couldn't use a spoon very well or a
straw at all. Basically, all she could do was open her mouth, pop in whatever
it was she was going to eat and chew it very carefully. Liquids had to be no
more than luke warm because she had to sort of pour whatever it was down her
throat. No sipping hot coffee or tea or soup. *Heck, I can't even blow on the
stuff to cool it. Good thing Miss Marie is such a great cook, or this would be
a lot worse. At least even Ms. Jane has to accept fact. No way could I meet
her standards for table manners eating like this. Still, I really am getting
tired of drinking from a cream pitcher.*

Audrey had been 'home' at Seasons House for the better part of a week now. Ms.
Thompson had insisted she finish out her 'sentence' once she'd returned home,
but had cut back on the heels and the corsets. It was clear that the device
also cut down on Audrey's peripheral vision and Diana had voiced the concern
that "she might not be able to see well enough to move safely in unfamiliar
shoes, Jane."

Audrey had blessed Diana in her prayers every night since for that bit of
unthinking kindness. Fortunately, she'd only been in the period dress for
another day or so while her Mom had been there. That had been rather fun,
truth to tell. Audrey's mother had never seen her daughter rigged out quite so
femininely and had made quite a big deal of how Audrey had looked. Oddly
enough, Pru's compliments had seemed genuine and they'd made Audrey feel. . .
well. . kind of nice. She'd almost wished that she could have worn some color
other than black, blue, purple and yellow on her face, just to see how her
mother would have reacted to that.

With a mental shrug at what hadn't been, Audrey turned her attention once more
to breakfast.

~----------------~

Jane watched as Audrey did her level best to eat the scrambled eggs at least
somewhat decorously, but it still looked like a baby playing "airplane and
hanger" with her food. Darla was studiously avoiding make eye-contact with her
mother and Jane knew why. *She's trying not to see my signal to start her act -
trying to put it off to the last possible moment. Still, it has to be done and
it has to be a slow buildup over the day, soooooo. . . "

Her face completely composed, and her upper body language giving nothing away,
Jane reached out with her foot and gave Darla a sharp kick in the shins. The
girl's face flew up in surprise and Jane could tell that her daughter had
managed to stifle an exclamation at the last moment. *Gotcha!* Jane thought,
her wicked smile slowly blooming as she regarded her daughter. Casually, Jane
raised a single brow, the challenge in that look and that smile something Darla
could not deny.

*Crazy as it sounds, it feels like she is asking me if I am man enough to be on
the rag,* Darla thought ruefully. *Oh, well, I DID promise.*

"Darla," Jane said firmly, beginning the agreed upon gambit.

Darla spun on Jane and snapped out "What?!" at her.

"Darla, dear," Jane continued as she buttered a hot croissant, "I expect a more
pleasant expression on your face at breakfast. It is the beginning of a new
day, and should be greeted accordingly."

"Yeah, right."

"Darla!" Jane bit out the name sharply. "That is hardly an improvement.
Perhaps helping Marie with the dishes will improve your appreciation of the
importance of this meal."

"That's not fair!"

"Darla Anne, Go to your room," Jane ordered, her voice suddenly soft yet fierce.

"But. . ."

"NOT . . . ONE. . . MORE . . .WORD, Darla ANNE!" Jane said, putting heavy
emphasis on the child-name.

Darla dropped her napkin into the middle of her unfinished food and said,
"Fine!" Only the glisten Audrey could see in her eyes as she stiffly walked
from the room betrayed the hurt she was trying to hide within her anger.'

~------------~

Luncheon, impossible though it had seemed to Audrey, had been even worse.
Darla's behavior had not improved after breakfast. She seemed irritable and
snapped at the least provocation. Her favorite word seemed to be "WHAT?!"
delivered like a knife thrust at anyone who dared so much as look at her.
Audrey had even heard her being disrespectful to Miss Marie in the kitchen,
which was amazing because Audrey knew how much Darla adored the French Canadian
lady. But this time, however, she had done it up, but good.

"For the last time, fetch some ice to cool Audrey's tea, Darla," Jane said very
coldly.

"WHY?" Darla complained bitterly. "She can WALK - I've SEEN her!!"

"DARLA!" Jane nearly yelled and Audrey jumped for it was the first time she
had ever heard the self possessed and disciplined woman raise her voice like
that..

Darla jumped to her feet, her chair nearly falling over behind her. "Oh, all
right!" she bitched and turned toward the kitchen.

Moments later, she returned with Jane's best silver ice bucket clutched in her
hands. As she tried to set it on the table, the accompanying tongs bumped a
nearly filled glass, knocking it over and causing Darla to dump the ice across
the snowy table cloth as she twitched in a fruitless attempt to avert the
disaster.

With an audible and emotional "Damn it!" Darla stabbed the offending tongs
into the ice left in the bucket and reached for the spilled glass. Audrey,
however, picked it up just before Darla touched the delicate crystal, which was
likely the only thing that saved it from a fast visit to the gardens - very
fast, at least, for any pieces that might make it through the glass of the
doors.

"Darla," Jane said quietly, "I think you should spend the rest of the day in
your room, starting now. I do not wish to see your face until tomorrow or
until you can behave civilly, which ever takes longer."

Darla stared at the older woman for what felt life a very long time, and for a
moment, Audrey thought she was going to make things even worse, but at the last
minute, Darla's control crumpled and she ran from the room. Audrey was certain
she heard a sob as the dining room door went shut, but she wasn't quite
certain.

She turned back to Ms. Thompson to find the older woman regarding her closely.
"I apologize for that display," she finally said. "Darla is ordinarily a
wonderful young woman and a pleasure to be around, but one day a month. . "
Jane shook her head. "She can be an absolute bi. . . I mean, pill."

*You meant bitch, and I rather agree. Nice to know Little Miss 'Just have fun
with all this' isn't quite so perfect as she seems on first glance. I can
trust a girl who snarls at the moon now and then.* "That's okay, Ms. Thompson.
I understand how it is."

"Well, it usually only lasts no more than a day. She should be over this by
tomorrow morning." Jane sighed. "I really must do something about that
outburst, but I know the poor dear didn't really mean anything by it."

For her part, Audrey was momentarily taken aback by this revelation about the
stern Ms. Thompson. *So, she does see that there are extenuating circumstances.
Was she really asking me for an input? Maybe. I wonder?* "Can't you, well,
sort of overlook this, this one time?"

Intrigued, Jane regarded Audrey. *None of my boys would ever have stepped into
that breech. How far is she willing to go?* "Is that what you think I should
do?"

Discomfited by Jane's suddenly focused scrutiny, Audrey resisted the urge to
squirm. "Well, um, I don't know. What's the, uh, harm? It's not like she
really meant any of that."

"Don't stammer, dear," Jane said, not unkindly. "Think what you want to say
and then say it clearly. And answer your own question, would you please?

"Oh. Ah . . sorry," *What does she expect me to say? Darla was out of line,
but it's not like she behaves that way every day. Oh, maybe that is the
problem. . .* "The harm would be that . . . there is a . . . slippery slope to
lack of discipline. If this justifies it now, what else will justify . . .
impolite manners next time her . . . time of the month is difficult?"

"Very good, dear. A lady must be a lady regardless of the time of the month,"
Jane beamed, "Now, what do you propose that we do?"

"Me?" Audrey almost squeaked in surprise. "Why are you asking me?"

"The best way to learn is by teaching, my dear," Jane said gently. "Are you not
learning to behave as a lady should? That will someday involve rearing your own
children. How will you discipline them . . . especially when you don't want to
because you know there is at least a partial justification but know that some
response is still necessary?"

*Children of my OWN? ME??!? Is she KIDDING?!? Not bloody likely!* Then she
saw Jane's brow rise in query, and realized the older woman still wanted an
answer. She took a deep breath and tried to organize her thoughts. *Nothing
too hard on Darla, because dammit, she CAN'T help feeling that way! Oh, I
know!* "Oh, um . . oops. Sorry again. Well, staying in her room would be more
comfort than punishment right now, but you could declare it to be punishment
anyway, sort of 'for the record'. And perhaps, since she used a naughty word .
. . a vow of silence for tomorrow?

Jane clapped her hands in approval. "Excellent! That's the very thing.
Frankly, on her second day she is usually very quiet anyway. We'll just make
that official. But now I need to help Marie with the dishes myself, since Darla
is . . 'indisposed'. Will you be all right by yourself for a while?"

Still thinking about what she'd just done, Audrey felt the need for a bit of
solitude. "Yes, fine, thank you. I think I will get a wrap and go sit in the
garden for a while, if you don't mind."

~----------------~

Breakfast the following morning was a silent affair all round. Audrey had
never quite realized how much of the pleasant chatter around the table had
originated from the normally cheerful and bubbly girl. Now, she was sitting at
her seat, more playing with the two pieces of dry toast she'd taken than really
trying to eat them. Somehow, the sun shining in through the pretty curtains
did not seem quite so bright as it had a day or two before.

Marie bustled in with a steaming cup that she set before Darla. "Here you go,
cherie," she said, "A cup of my special herbal tea will put you to rights."
Darla turned a wan smile on the hovering maid and then reached up to kiss her
on the cheek.

*Nicely done,* Jane thought as she watched the little tableau play out. *Darla
and Marie played that well, and Darla's makeup is perfect. It looks like she
tried to use too heavy a hand to cover up that washed out look, except the
washed out look is as much an illusion as the 'failed' attempt to cover it up.*

Audrey thought about her first few monthlies, and remembered the vile soda
crackers that her governess would make her chew until they were a sickly sweet
mush in her mouth that made her nausea even worse. *Glad I grew out of that.
God, but I hate soda crackers.*

~----------------~

Darla had not arrived in the dining room when Jane and Diana stepped through
the door. They immediately took their seats and Jane gestured for Audrey to do
the same.

Surprised and a bit concerned, Audrey looked to Jane. "Aren't we waiting for
Darla?"

"She sent me a note, dear," Jane replied as she picked up her napkin. "She is.
. . well, she won't be joining us for luncheon, I am afraid. Don't worry.
She'll be better shortly."

*Especially after she devours the huge picnic I saw Marie packing for her. . *
Diana thought as she tried to hide her grin behind her own napkin

"This isn't unexpected," Jane continued. "Darla usually handles this by
napping the afternoon away. When she awakens, she will find that the worst is
over. At least, we all hope she will."






Chapter 4 ~ Audrey's Secrets


Things gradually improved after that. Darla was still quieter than she had
been those first few days, and she seemed to tire more quickly than before, but
it wasn't long before the sweet nature, quick smile and sneaky streak of
mischief were back. In fact, the girl seemed determine to make up for her
nasty behavior by showering Audrey with attention and care, until the bigger
girl was ready to choke the little brunette.

So, the news that Audrey's mask could come off was greeted with relief for more
than just one reason two days after Darla's monthly visitor departed.

Audrey was ready to give thanks in church that she could now wash her own
dishes - anything - just so long as Darla would stop trying to MOTHER her!
However, every cloud has its silver lining, and this cloud came in the form of
the restrictions the reconstructive surgeon placed on Audrey's physical
activities. "Nothing high impact for at least another month, and NO grimacing
either. Keep your face smooth so that you don't put any undue stress on the
prosthesis.

As it turned out, Diana's little gym had a stair climber as well as one of the
elliptical motion running/skiing machines, and that would have been great.
Better than great.

Except that Jane had sent Darla down to watch Audrey work out to make sure she
did not grimace. *I can't even open my mouth sideways but she's calling me on
it,* Darla complained as she started another mountain series on the stair
climber.

"Audrey! Don't Grimace!"

Audrey pasted a smile on her lips and panted out, "I . . AM . . NOT. . .Grim. .
.acing."

"I say you were, and I'm the one Aunt Jane put in charge!"

"Bitch," Audrey snapped out.

"You bet, and smile when you say that, girl friend."

~----------------~

Marie slipped into Audrey's room while the family was at breakfast. It was
shopping day, and Marie wanted to get a head start on her morning chores. She
had visions of a nice lunch in town and a bit of gossip with a friend, which
meant she needed to shave an hour or so off her morning routine. *Good thing it
is Darla's morning to serve breakfast,* she thought as she moved around the
room, doing what little needed to be done. Audrey was such a neat young lady.
"She has so much going for her,* Marie thought, *And if I am any judge, that
new nose of hers is going to make her into quite the heartbreaker.*

Because it wasn't QUITE perfect, Marie smoothed the satiny coverlet atop
Audrey's bed and then plumped the pillows. *Don't have to check for semen
stains with this one,* she thought with a mischievous grin. She made a quick
tour of the room, checking the windows to see if the glass needed to be cleaned
on the outside again before winter when she saw a strange shadow on the drapery
of the east facing window. Moving behind the curtain, she looked up and saw
something pinned to the window side of the drape.

She pulled it down and was amazed to see that it was a pair of very silky white
thong panties, decorated with pink rosebuds along the waistband and outlining
the edges. It was still damp from having evidently been hand-washed. A purely
feminine sigh of sensual pleasure escaped from Marie as she examined the pretty
bit of feminine lingerie.

*Wonder why she has it up there? More to the point, why is she washing it
herself? She knows that I see to the care of this household's delicate
washables and fripperies. Why, she's been sending me the ones that Jane has
purchased for her.* At that moment, she thought of something and frowned for a
moment. Then she checked the back of the waistband. Brenda Franson had a
trademark stitched into every piece of lingerie she sold in her "Milady's
Closet" and this piece did not. That meant that these had been purchased
elsewhere and Jane simply did not do that.

*That means that these are Audrey's own, and yet, I saw the . . foundation
garments the girl brought with her from home. And she wasn't wearing these
when she arrived, so she must have somehow slipped them in here. That begs the
question why she thought she had to sneak them in. hmmmmmmm.*

~-----------~

Jane watched as Diana packed her bags. "I wish you didn't have to go back to
Providence," she repeated.

Diana closed the large bag and looked up. "I wish I didn't have to go either,
love, but the fellow who was covering for me was in an auto accident and it is
my course. The students deserve to have someone who knows what the heck he's
talking about teach them."

"I know," Jane sighed. "It is just that you're needed here, too. I need you .
. "

"Glad you know it!" Diana shot back in Art's voice, a thoroughly and
incongruously masculine leer beaming through the feminine cosmetic artistry.

"Oh you! You know very well what I meant. I do need you that way, but I also
need your help with Audrey. Not only that, but Darla needs you, too, perhaps
even more than I do. That period scenario really threw her for a loop."

"Well, I will call her regularly, too."

"She does tend to talk things out with you that she hesitates to bring to me,"
Jane said, a bit of jealousy insinuating into her voice.

"Well," Diana said throatily, tossing her hair flirtatiously. "I AM her
father!"

Both women giggled at that, but then Diana became more serious. "She also
knows that I understand much of what she deals with from experiences you don't
share, dear."

~----------------~

With Diana gone, it fell to Marie to join Jane for a late night brandy in the
upstairs office. Marie knew that Jane needed to unwind, but her discipline
would keep her from drinking alone. It was a role Marie had filled in the
past, but had relinquished to Art since Jane's marriage.

"Jane?" Marie started, "How did Audrey react when you took her to Brenda for
new lingerie?"

"NEW lingerie? Marie, dear, that stuff she brought with her isn't lingerie.
Why, I hesitate to use the epithet 'underwear' when describing those
abominations." Jane gave an exaggerated shudder of distaste before grinning at
her longtime friend and confidante. "About the same as the boys, dear. With a
good deal of embarrassment and a bit of fear. Later, she became rather
disdainful. Sort of a 'Waste your money if you want.' reaction. She only
seems to wear what I bought when I tell her to do so, which is a shame."

"You think so?" Marie asked, hiding a grin as best she could.

"Well, I had hoped for a different response. You know yourself that even
before we went to the lingerie boutique we had decided that the standard
approach we used on the boys wasn't right for Audrey."

"I know," Marie did grin now, remembering the many horrified boys who had faced
that uniquely feminine bastion at Jane's command. "It was fun to totally
immerse the poor darlings in flounces, frills and lace - fragile delicacies
that would never allow them to relax or take their clothes for granted - but
we're not trying to torment Audrey into submission."

Jane closed her eyes and pinched at the bridge of her nose trying to ward off
an incipient headache. "Just so. For Audrey, we required sleek sensuality.
Secret sexiness that made HER always aware that she was a woman. But . . . "

"But she always wore the plain white armor she brought with her unless we
forced her into the sensual scanties." *At least, we thought so, until I
found that so-carefully hidden thong this morning. Now, what should I do next?
Tell Jane?* Marie reflected on that for a moment before coming up with a
plan. "How strange when she really does have the figure to look very nice in
the pretty ones."

Jane chuckled. "Isn't that the truth. You know, Brenda Franson was fully
prepared to do her regular first student visit routine with her. When Audrey
was being fitted for new brassieres, Brenda came roaring out of the back, with
the strangest look on her face. She hurried up to me and whispered, 'Jane!
This one has real bosoms!' Like she was afraid I didn't already know that."

Laughter burbled up out of Marie. "Well, what did she expect for a seventeen
year old girl?"

"I. . .ah. . .well, I may have forgotten to tell Brenda that," Jane replied
demurely, her dark eyes dancing over the rim of her snifter.

"Oh, you sneak," Marie chided. "By the way, did you know that all her new
brassieres are two inches and a whole cup size larger than the ones she brought
with her? She's gone from a 34B to a 36C and I don't think she's grown."

"I hadn't noticed," Jane said, suddenly thoughtful. "Another ploy to look
unfeminine or something related to her athletics?"

"A properly fitted sports bra would do her more good than trying to crush
herself like that."

"True enough. The question is, what do we do with this information? It may be
nothing more than a girl who has never bothered to be properly measured and
fitted for a bra. Or perhaps more likely, one who doesn't pay attention to such
things."

"I can't believe that," Marie snorted. "She doesn't even have a larger sized
one for her time of the month. Look, Jane, since I do the laundry, maybe I can
raise the issue with her without making a big deal of it. Hint that maybe she
might want to get some white practical stuff in the right size."

"I'd tell her to throw the things away, but we've been making such progress by
taking a less confrontational tack with this one."

"I'll deal with it, dear," Marie replied, well pleased with her plan.





Chapter 5 ~ Audrey's Darker Secrets


Audrey looked into her mirror and tried to imagine what she would look like
when the bruising finally went away. The worst of the swelling was gone down,
leaving her with a technicolor face like a human mandrill. It felt strange,
looking at that pert little bit where her nose had been. She turned sideways
and tried to look at her profile with her peripheral vision. She wasn't sure,
but Audrey thought she might actually be kind of cute when all was said and
done.

She was trying to figure out just how she felt about 'being cute' when a knock
sounded at her door. It was too soft to be Darla and lacked the imperious
demand affected my Ms. Thompson. "Come in," she called and then silently
congratulated herself on her deduction when a smiling Marie entered the room.

"Just gathering up the laundry, dear," she said as she bustled into the
bathroom, her arms filled with clean towels. She came back out carrying the
contents of Audrey's clothes hamper. "You know, dear," Marie said as she
started sorting the clothing into one of several net bags she had also carried
in. "I've noticed that your new bras are bigger than the ones you brought with
you. Wouldn't you like to replace them with ones that fit?"

Marie had to stifle a giggle as she saw Audrey tamp back an exclamation of
pleasure at the thought of more, new and pretty undies, and tried to affect a
disinterested air. "Oh, they're not so bad, and they have a good deal of wear
left in them."

"I, um, noticed that the lingerie you brought with you was," and Marie held one
of the offending articles up, "well, durable at best. That's the ONLY
redeeming aspect of these things."

Audrey turned her face away, hiding what emotion, Marie wondered. "Uh, yes,
that's what I, um, well, what I was told to wear.

"Really?" Marie pounced on that. "But for heavens sake, girl, by whom? Surely
it wasn't part of Jane's instructions to your mother. Jane believes a woman
should feel and BE feminine all the time, and delicate scanties are a big part
of that. Or," Marie held up one of the barely-there teddies purchased at
Milady's Closet and giggled girlishly. "a very small part, as the case may be!

"I noticed," Audrey replied, struggling to appear mature and aloof on this
subject. "Those things she made me get at the boutique were . . . I guess
delicate would be as good a word as any."

"But they feel so nice, and naughty at the same time, don't they?" Marie
asked, grinning. "I just LOVE them."

"You wear them, too?" Audrey was dumbfounded.

"Of course I do," Marie sniffed, "I'm a woman and I like feeling feminine and
mysterious - like I have a special secret no one else can know. Pretty
lingerie makes me feel like that."

Barely able to swallow, her throat had gone so dry, Audrey could barely
whisper. "You really do wear them?"

Smiling devilishly, Marie winked. "Sure do, and you know what else?" and here
the pretty French Canadian dropped her voice to a teasing whisper of her own,
"So does Jane."

"MS THOMPSON??"

Marie made an broad 'X' across her ample bosom. "Cross my heart. Remember, I
do everyone's laundry. You have NO secrets from your laundress."

Audrey thought of the pieces she so carefully hand washed herself, both to keep
them a secret, but more importantly, to keep them pretty. She decided to check
this out more deeply. "Don't you, um, feel sort of . . . indecent sometimes?"

"Of course, dear," Marie said with a wicked smile, "But that's what makes them
so enjoyable. Every woman likes to think that she's a bit more sensual than
proper manners allow. Why, there are even times we might wear something that
isn't even comfortable, even when no one else will ever know, just because it's
so deliciously, femininely sexy and, what did you say? Indecent. Yes, that's
it precisely."

"I know what you mean. Those underwire bras can be . . . distracting."

"Quit bragging, girl," Marie laughed. "Though you're right, the boys at the
mall were certainly distracted when you wore one last time we went to the
salon."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it. I meant that they can be
uncomfortable."

"Oh, they're not so bad. No worse than, oh, than I imagine some of those thong
panties that are all the rage might be.

Audrey felt a chill run through her veins. Whatever made Marie bring that up?
"Thong panties?"

Marie set down the clothes she was sorting and came over to sit beside Audrey
on the bed. Taking a suddenly cold hand in her own, Marie looked Audrey in the
eye. "Dear, I have a confession to make. I started this conversation so that
I could let you know I found your little secret," Marie pulled something from
the pocket of her apron and laid it on Audrey's leg. It was the pretty white
thong Audrey thought was still hidden in the white draperies. She started, her
eyes wide with something like fear, but the older woman put a gentle hand to
the younger girl's cheek. "It's okay, cherie. Believe me, I don't mind. I'm
very pleased, actually."

"Pleased?!" the word ended on a near-squeak, Audrey was so surprised.

"Yes, child. It broke my heart to see you so unhappy with your femininity when
you arrived here. To find out that, deep down inside, you were embracing it .
. . oh, Audrey, I do think you'd be so much happier if you just accepted how
pretty you really are.

For a long time, Audrey could only stare at Marie. It was all so much to take
in and now, Marie said she was PRETTY?!? "I . . ." she stuttered, and then
braced herself to go on and say what had to be said. "That's not really true.
I'm not pretty at all.

"What ever gave you that idea?" Marie snorted in disbelief. "You're
beautiful, in a very elegant way that I admire greatly."

"That's not what I was told." Audrey said, turning her face away to hide the
tears that were beginning to burn at the backs of her eyes.

"By whom?" Marie asked, while very gently pulling the suddenly sobbing girl
into her arms.

"By. . by. . by my governess . . . "

~---------~

Art was sitting at the table, not-watching the television and waiting for the
microwave to chime. Memories of Marie's gourmet and family meals made the
upcoming food experience less than pleasant to contemplate so he again tried to
pay attention to Oprah's discussion of her current book of the month.

A bell sounded and Art started for the microwave before he realized it was his
phone.

"Hello?" he said, expecting it to be some meal-time-profaning telemarketer and
ALMOST looking forward to it. *You need to go home, son,* he told himself.

"Art?" a familiar and well loved voice came across the line.

"Jane! I didn't expect you to call tonight. How are you? Is anything wrong?"

"Not wrong precisely, and I am fine. The reason I called is that we've had
something of a breakthrough with Audrey and I need to talk to you about it."

"Great! What happened?"

"Well, it all started when Marie discovered that Audrey had some special
lingerie secreted away in her room that we didn't know anything about. Things
that were markedly different from the stuff she usually wears."

"Okay. . "

"Let me tell you what Marie told Darla and me this afternoon."

~--------------~

Jane looked at her friend and her child. Darla was just as surprised by
Marie's revelation as she was. Audrey had something as feminine as silk
thongs? Jane still found it hard to credit - the girl had evidenced little
interest or pleasure at all when she'd taken her shopping at Brenda's place.
Jane thought about this woman, this Phoebe Elizabeth Talmage, Audrey's "Miss
Phoebe Elizabeth," and wondered what could induce a woman, a child's care
giver, to inflict such drivel on an unformed mind.

"So, as you see," Marie continued, raw anger twisting her mouth into a grimace,
"This Phoebe Elizabeth creature was apparently a man-hater, or else, the next
thing to one. So far as I can figure from what I got out of Audrey this
morning, the woman filled Audrey with all these stories about how bad men were.
She even told that sweet girl that it was a good thing that she was so gawky
and boyish, because then MEN would leave her alone!"

Marie couldn't sit any longer and bolted from her seat to begin pacing about
the room. "OH! And get THIS! If she ever betrayed her given name, Chastity?
Well, then she'd find that sex was not ONLY terribly painful, but was also a
terribly humiliating experience that benefitted no one but the man. And then,
after the fact? The men would never be interested in her again since men, foul
creatures that they are, only wanted virgins who had no basis for comparison
between lovers."

"But she kept these delicate panties hidden from everyone," Jane cut in,
wanting to stop Marie before she really got started. Marie did not lose her
temper often, but when she did it could be spectacular. There simply wasn't
time to deal with a rampaging Marie and a mentally abused student. And she
would need Marie.

"She thought you were the same as her old governess who always told 'Chastity'
that a woman should never weaken herself with effeminate things; no nice
lingerie, no dolls, no makeup. Men could see the results of wallowing in
femininity, so the old bitch said, and used those signs to select their
victims," Marie replied.

"Does she still think of me that way? That I am like her governess?" Jane
asked, feeling slightly queasy that Audrey might think her similar to that
abusive governess.

"Goodness no!" Marie assured her with an amused laugh. "Oh, she's not entirely
sure just WHAT you are all about, but after you took her to Brenda Franson's
Style Shoppe, and then to Milady's Closet? No, her problem with you is that
you are so much the OPPOSITE of that Talmage woman. You are pressing her to be
as pretty and as feminine as she can manage. Why, she's more worried that you
were going to turn her into a, well, . . ."

Marie saw the warning look flash in Jane's eyes and reconsidered her words
"She is certainly aware that you are not out to make her to appear masculine.
In any event, I'm sure she no longer thinks of you as another incarnation of
her tormentor." Marie walked back to her seat and took a sip of her tea.
"There's a fight going on inside that child, Jane. I just know, in my heart,
that she wants to learn to be a strong, feminine woman, to find romance and
accept and enjoy her appearance, but after all the lies that woman told her
she's afraid . . . "

"Afraid? Audrey?" Darla scoffed. "Audrey isn't afraid of anything!

"Hush, dear," Jane remonstrated, a gentle touch taking the sting out of her
command. "That sort of fear is much deeper than merely a sense of physical
danger."

~---------~

"Well, that is interesting," Art said. "We knew she was repressing her
feminine side and we knew she reacted very aggressively toward large males.
This could explain a great deal."

"Do unto others before they do unto you?" Jane misquoted. "It also explains
why she's apparently been comfortable around Darryl. He isn't big enough to
pose an immediate threat. . "

"And he came recommended by you," Art put in. "What are you going to do about
what you've discovered?"

"Go carefully, and that's why I wanted to talk to you. First, I want to step
up the girly-girl things for her. Have her get the extensions at Caro's so she
has a coiffure instead of that crewcut, buy her more undies and have her ditch
the cotton armor plate."

"Okay," Art said, but Jane heard something like doubt in his voice. She called
him on it. "Well, I wouldn't make her throw away the old stuff, and I wouldn't
make her wear the frillies everyday. Buy her some new stuff, though, so she
has enough to replace her own if SHE decides to do so. Then, if she starts
wearing it when you don't tell her to, you'll know you've made progress."

"I see what you mean," Jane said quietly. "But you don't see any problems with
the longer hair?"

"Not so long as you don't go hard over on some big hair monstrosity or force
her to wear it styled all the time."

"Harrumph. I'd be happy with a nice ponytail if it was her choice and looked
pretty on her."

"That's a plan. Nudge her, but let her have the opportunity to make her own
decisions, too. Anything else?"

"Yes," Jane replied. "I want her to be in situations with boys. Controlled
ones, but I want her to have a chance to see them as something other than the
two-headed monster Miss Phoebe Elizabeth Talmage told her about."

"What ever happened to that woman? Is she about to feel the Wrath of Thompson?"

"No," and Art could hear a wealth of regret in that otherwise simple word.
"She is dead. After talking with Marie, I called Audrey's Mother and discussed
this whole situation with her. I found out that the governess passed away when
Audrey was 14 and according to her Mother, just starting to fill out and go
through her last growth spurt."

"A vulnerable time for any young woman, but most especially for one who already
doesn't fit in with her school mates."

"Yes, and the way she died doesn't help. Breast Cancer. A uniquely female
death that the old biddy evidently blamed, quite loudly in Audrey's hearing by
the way, on being too well endowed. Marie tried to tell Audrey that was
garbage, but we'll have to see if she accepts that."

"What about the undies she snuck into your dark, feminine prison?"

"I will pretend, Artemis," Jane said in grand hauteur, "That I did not hear
that scurrilous remark. As to the secret lingerie cache, for the moment, I will
not give her any indication that I know about them. She's confided in Marie
once. I think it best that she think I don't know about it. Perhaps that will
encourage Audrey to confide further or seek Marie out when she needs someone to
talk to."

"Good plan," Art replied and then dropped his voice into a low, husky whisper.
"I miss you, sexy woman. I miss you a LOT! There is this Jane Thompson-sized
hole in my bed that I keep falling into every night."

"You're the one who said he had to leave," Jane retorted smartly, not willing
to admit just whose side of the bed she was waking up on of late. "Maybe we
can plan an outing to Providence or Boston with the girls and find an excuse to
be together."

"Sounds like a plan. How about tomorrow?"

"Oh, you." Jane said fondly. "I have to go, dear. Call you tomorrow as
planned."

"Love you, Jane Thompson-Philips.

"You too, Art. You, too."
--




Chapter 6 ~ More Questions Than Answers


Darla glanced over at the glowing numerals on her bedside clock and scowled
wearily. It had not moved all that much since the last time she looked at it.
She was tired - exhausted really - but sleep would not come to the feminized
teen.

For a few moments, she listened to the sound of night in Seasons House. The
wind had picked up during the day and it was blowing strongly now. The
century-old Victorian manor house creaked and groaned as the gusts whistled in
and out of the many twists and corners of the external structure. Normally,
such sounds meant home to Darla, and were as good as a mother's lullaby, but
not tonight. Tonight, for all her fatigue, every sense seemed to be on red
alert denying her mind rest.

Resignedly, she tossed aside her bedcovers and rolled out of bed. Flicking on
the light, she moved to her desk to find the book she was reading for one of
her online courses. *One of the distinct disadvantages to being Darla right now
is that my desk is always filled with more pots, bottles and tubes than the
Avon Lady's sample case. Makes it bloody difficult to use as a desk.* As she
rummaged in the desk/vanity's drawers, she happened to catch a glance of
herself in the mirror.

"I wonder what Momma-Jane would say," Darla asked her reflection, "If she knew
that I think of these cute, silky, shortie- nightgowns as oversized t-shirts?
Wonder if that is how Audrey sees them?"

Darla made her way back to the bed, her mind analyzing that last thought.
*Guess that isn't so odd,* she mused, *After nearly five years of living with
Darla, it only makes sense that the clothes don't seem to matter all that much
anymore. Darla wears dresses and Darryl wears trousers and neither seems all
that big a deal anymore. About all they do is remind me how to act and which
name to answer to. Wonder if I could be Darryl in skirts?* The thought made
Darla laugh, a tired giggle that sounded strange even to her ears. *Lord, am I
really starting to think of myself as two different people? I must be more
blitzed than I thought.*

Shaking her head in a vain attempt to clear away the doldrums, Darla set her
book aside and reached for her robe as she stepped into her slippers. "Much as
I hate the stuff, I think this is a warm milk kind of night."

~-------------~

Darla was surprised to see a halo of light on the floor beneath the kitchen
door as she padded through the dining room. Carefully, she cracked open the
door to see who was in there, hoping to avoid Audrey if the other girl had
decided to raid the pantry, too. *I am just not up to keeping the mask in place
right now.*

It wasn't Audrey, she soon discovered. Rather it was Marie, sitting at her
kitchen table. She was reading a book, Darla noted, and had evidently been
there a while if the empty tea carafe and cookie plate were any indication.
For a moment, she considered leaving Marie to her book, but curiosity got the
better of her. With an loud sneeze to announce her presence, Darla opened the
door and stepped into the brightly lit kitchen.

The noise made Marie jump in surprise, her eyes wide as they flew to Darla's.
"Darla!" she exclaimed, hurriedly closing her book. "What are you doing here?"

"Couldn't sleep, Tante Marie," the petite blonde in the brunette wig said as
she bent down to kiss Marie's cheek. She frowned only a little bit when she
saw that Marie was obscuring the cover of the book with her folded arms.
"Thought I would try the warm milk trick."

"You MUST be in a bad way, dear, to be willing to force down that hated potion
of your youth." It had been a long standing joke between the two. Darla hated
warmed milk while Marie firmly believed in the beverage's benefits. Darla
almost always gave in, however, unable to resist her beloved Aunt Marie's
entreaties that it was for her own good.

"I wouldn't object to it having a bit of cocoa in it, just for flavoring,"
Darla said hopefully.

"Now, you know cocoa has caffeine," Marie admonished as she stood up to fix the
milk. Only a few minutes later, the milk was heated and ready for pouring.
"Maybe this will help," Marie said with a mischievous glint in her eye. From
behind her back, she pulled a small glass bottle and added a dollop of its
amber contents to the frothy white liquid.

Darla sipped carefully at the brandy-laced milk and sighed happily. "Why
didn't you ever do that for me before?" She complained.

"Because you weren't a grownup then, darling. Now, why don't you tell Tante
Marie what is bothering you while you drink that down?"

*In the same sentence, she calls me an adult and then treats me like her child.
Guess being an adult doesn't change some things,* Darla thought with a smile,
*Thank God!*

~----------------~

The phone on his desk rang loudly, breaking Art's concentration on an abysmally
written midterm exam and eliciting a curse that would have had his beloved wife
reaching for the soap bar. Not that she'd really wash his mouth out with soap
- it was just a reminder of the standards to which she held her students. At
least Art THOUGHT she wouldn't try to wash his mouth out with soap.

Grumbling, Art snatched up the phone to silence its fire alarm- bell peel. The
phone, like the furniture in this makeshift office he'd been shunted to on his
return were antiques - Early American Office Surplus if he did not miss his
mark. At least the desk didn't rock too badly. "Hello?" he growled into the
phone.

"Oops," a cheerful light alto voice chuckled on the other end of the line.
"Why do I think I have called at a bad time?"

"Darla!" Art cheered, his mood instantly improving. "Great to hear from you!
What's up at home or can't you talk now?"

"Sure can! Momma Jane has Audrey downstairs for a formal tea. *I* was not
invited because *I* am a bad example trying to lighten up the conversation. I
think Edith White may be coming for a visit and Jane is trying to prep Audrey
for that experience."

"How's her face?"

"Healing nicely, I think, at least visually. The yellow bruising is fading
around her nose and cheeks. Still a little dark under her eyes, but that
almost looks attractive - kind of exotic."

"And her "Noses-by-Darla" designed schnazola?"

"Very cute," Darla said with something that sounded like a sigh. "Dad? She
really DOES look like Gigi now. Momma Jane rigged her out in one of those
fifties 'Cinderella' movie princess outfits the other night? Supposedly as a
punishment?"

"Yes?" Art prompted when the voice at the other end of the line was silent
longer than the professor could stand.

"She was flat out gorgeous."

"Was she, now?" Art chuckled. "Was that why you called?"

Darla started to respond to that question, and stopped. She tried to find the
words to ask her adoptive father about, well, wooing a woman, and it just
didn't seem . . . right somehow. It wasn't usually that hard to talk to Art,
after all, he was a professional psychologist, but talking about a girl . . .

*That's it!* Darla thought to herself. Consciously flipping a switch in her
mind, she changed mode to the person who COULD talk with Art about boy-girl
things. "Sort of, Dad."

The tenor that sounded over the phone let Art know it was now his son on the
line, and all by itself that told him what the call was really about. "THAT
gorgeous, Darryl?" Art asked in his gentlest tone.

"She is to me, Dad," was the very simple reply.

"And you find yourself caught in a very sticky web that pulls from several
directions. Your part in Jane's program, both as a mentor, and as Jane's
primary informant, and then there's the fact that we already know that Audrey
is, if not actually afraid of men and male/female physical relations, is very,
very wary of them. And now, you must also deal with a very strong attraction
to her."

"I think I am falling for her, Dad."

"A very sticky web, indeed. Have you spoken with Jane about this?"

"No," was the suddenly weary answer. "I am afraid she will decide that either
Audrey or I will have to leave, and that is the last thing I want."

"What are you doing, then?" And this was Art the psychologist-
concerned-for-the-welfare-of-his-patient speaking.

"Mostly nothing - At least nothing out of the ordinary. What Jane tells me to
do when I am Darla, and I'm being awfully damned cautious when I am around her
as Darryl."

"Perhaps that is the best thing you could be doing?" Art asked. "I do think
Jane is helping her and by being very circumspect as Darryl, you are helping to
desensitize her. As she comes to trust you as a male, that will help you in
the long run if you are intent on making an attempt at a relationship with her."

"It is just so SLOW, Dad!"

"That impatience is the male in you talking, son, and in this case, I think you
need to listen to your other side. I think Audrey is going to need things done
slowly."

"She's not a skittish horse!" Darryl said with some disgust.

"No, but she is skittish. So far, Darryl is the only male she's had contact
with, except for the physicians and even their her primary care doctor and
surgeon were females, since she came to us. Has she loosened up around you at
all?"

"She likes kicking my butt at whatever we do together - running, stair climbing
- heck, about the only thing I can do better than her is the bench press and
lord only knows how long I will keep that advantage once the doctor gives her
leave to really start working out again. She's started to rag on me about it,
too."

"Excellent. It means she trusts you and likes you. If she didn't, she'd be
just as formal and distant as she was at the beginning."

"Never thought I would be told to be grateful for getting my butt run into the
ground. And you are wrong, by the way. Jane brought in Bill, Caro's husband?
The Sheriff's deputy? Anyway, to help her with her pistol shooting. It's only
an air pistol, but she's pretty good with it and Bill has helped her get even
better." Darryl's voice trailed off as he added, "And he gets to put his arms
around her."

"To improve her stance and gun position?"

"Yes."

"Good. It means the desensitizing is working - I mean, Bill has grown to be a
good sized fellow and she lets him put his arms around her and you KNOW that
Bill is besotted with Caro, right?" Not waiting for an answer to that
question, Art pressed on. "So what ARE you going to do?

"What?!? Why do I think I called YOU?!?"

"Hey, look how long it took me to land mine, youngster. Sure you want me
giving you advice to lovelorn?"

"You're the only one I trust enough TO ask about these things, Dad, and
besides, you better than most understand my special issues."

"You mean Darryl and Darla?"

"Yes, I mean, suppose she thinks I am a wimp for letting Jane talk me into
this?"

Art thought privately that the issue Darryl would have to deal with would be
much different but kept his counsel on that score. Art would have to help him
deal with that problem when the time came for it. "I think that is unlikely.
If anything, it may make you more attractive in her eyes. A male who would do
such things to help other people, who would follow such a unique and
intellectual course is not likely to become violent or hurtful."

"Okay," and there was a world of relief in that single word. "But what do I
do?"

"You say she had begun teasing Darryl? When you would work out together?"

"Yes. And she was very sharp about it, too. Sometimes, it took me several
minutes to figure out I've been had again."

"So, tease her back. Gently, of course. Chide her about dogging it on a run,
or tell her to suck it up when she lags on the stair climber."

"I do that with other guys, Dad!" Darryl protested. "SHE'S not a guy!"

"You do that with friends, son. You are going to need to be her friend. From
what you've told me, I think you are already there, but you need to be sure,
okay?"

There was silence on the other end until Art first heard a deep sigh and then,
"Okay, Dad."

"At least you know what you want and are trying to figure out how to get it.
Took me far too many years to realize where my happiness lay. So, what else is
going on at the home front? Jane trying anything new these days?"

A hoot of laughter answered that and Art settled comfortably back into his
chair. This held promise.

"Well, ever since Marie told Jane about Audrey's governess, she's been looking
for ways to get her into the company of men in what Jane thought were 'safe
situations'."

"She talked to me about that," Art replied. "Like I said - desensitization
therapy."

"Well, she hit upon a real lulu this time. I think Jane's original plan was
that we would be absent for this phase, but she's changed her mind. It's
tonight, in fact."

Darryl outlined the plan for his adopted father for the next several minutes.
At the end, Art nodded. "Sounds like a good idea. You two going to have a
front row seat?"

His son snorted. "Jane's offered to foot most of the costs for the instructor.
We'll be offered any seat we want."

"Money talks, son," Art replied, looking up at the old wall clock and frowning.
"Look, soon, I've enjoyed talking with you, but could you ask Darla to come to
the phone? I need to sign off."

"Oh, um, sure, just a second." Confused, Darryl stared at the receiver for a
moment, and then shrugged. Lifting the appliance back to his ear, he mentally
shifted back to his feminine alter ego. "What's up, Daddy-Art?" Darla's voice
chirped over the lines.

"Nothing, dear. Just wanted to get you back into role before I hung up," Art
replied before slipping into Diana's husky contralto. "It's hard enough to
pull these little masquerades of Jane's off without the added confusion of
which voice to use."

"Oh!" Darla giggled. "Gotcha, Daddy-Di! Well, have a good day. Thanks for the
help and for the reminder."

"Talk to you soon, Darla. Let me know how tonight's excursion works out." Art
replied fondly as he heard the line click off. *Well, well, well. If that
don't beat all. Wonder how Jane will deal with THAT development?* Then, a
smile on his face and in a much better mood, Art returned his attention to
grading the midterm exams.

~--------------~

A knock on her study door broke into Jane's concentration. With only a hint of
a grumble, she closed down her internet connection and shutdown the laptop Art
and Darryl had given her for her last birthday. She was determined to become
proficient with the damned thing, if only to show her son that she could, but
just now, any interruption was welcome. So far, the laptop had refused to
provide her with the data she wanted the way she wanted it. And that failure
had consumed two hours!

"Yes?" She called out once the infernal device was safely hidden away. Jane
saw Darla enter, dressed in a very unusual style for a student of Season's
House - a pink sleeveless t-shirt and blue jeans. *The jeans still look too
new,* she sighed, *even after as many washes as Marie could get in once we
decided this was the way to go.* "You look very nice, dear," Jane offered as
Darla came over and took a seat opposite her.

Her imp of a daughter grinned at the grimace of distaste that flitted across
her mother's face when she made that insincere compliment. "Well, after
getting paint on my slacks, you have to agree that jeans are more reasonable."

"Did you have to get paint on the Dior?" Jane asked, still inwardly fuming at
the sacrilege.

"The teacher said to wear slacks - I wore what you provided, Momma- Jane. It's
not my fault you don't shop at K-Mart."

"Puh-lease," Jane groaned theatrically, before breaking into a short giggle.
"Well, I must admit that your current outfit suits the goal of this activity.
How's Audrey coming?"

"At least SHE had jeans that fit her."

"Those don't fit you? They look like they do?"

Darla mumbled something Jane couldn't quite make out. "What was that, dear?"

"I had to wear the bloody gaff," Darla growled low in her throat. "My slacks
were loose enough that I could get by without that thrice cursed appliance, but
these jeans, ah, fit too well for me to go without assistance in that area. Do
I REALLY have to go to this session? LIKE this? I mean, I am REALLY not
interested in this at ALL!"

"And have you get paint over another pair of designer slacks? Yes, you need to
go like that, and yes, I do think you must attend this session. Audrey may
need you."

"Don't you think this is pushing things a little hard? I mean, we've never
done this with any other student."

"None of the boys would have benefitted from this little outing."

"And you think Audrey will?" Darla asked with frank disbelief.

"It is a controlled environment where she will share the experience with other
girls her own age whom she has come to know and like - at least a little.
Hopefully, they will buffer her at the critical moment of surprise, but if they
don't, I want you there to help her."

Darla glared at her Mother for several seconds, and for just a moment, Jane
worried that she might refuse to go which in turn would force Jane to
reconsider her plans. Then, Darla sighed and rose from her seat. "Don't you
at least think we ought to warn her?"

"No, dear. She needs to know she can deal with this. I think she can and Art
thinks she can. She has to know it and she might not be sure afterwards if she
is forewarned."

Darla had learned many effective strategies for one on one confrontations in
her years with Jane. In this case, she let the silence stand between them, her
eyes meeting Jane's as she came to her own decision. Breaking the eye contact,
she walked over to kiss her Mother's cheek. "I have to go then. Marie was
getting the wagon when I came up here."

Jane accepted her child's kiss and returned it lovingly. Darla turned to
leave, but then stopped, a gamine grin that Jane had learned to be wary of
lighting her face. "Oh, and you don't need to hide your computer when I come to
call, Momma-Jane. I'd be happy to help you figure out how to use it more
effectively. Just ask next time, okay?" And then she was gone.

*Now how did that minx know?* Jane thought wonderingly.




Chapter 7 ~ Sheer Artistry


Audrey looked around the small college classroom as amazed by the noise,
confusion and color as she had been that first night so many weeks ago. As was
the norm for this class, the room was filled with about twenty other girls,
including Darla. The instructor, an older woman in a stained smock stood at
the center of the room near the small raised dias she used to display and light
the subject she had selected for the evening's program. What was different was
that they'd all been there for almost fifteen minutes and as yet, nothing had
started and their instructor was looking more upset by the minute.

"What is wrong?" Audrey asked Darla.

"Don't know," was the quick reply. "I might guess that it has something to do
with that empty stage, though."

"I still can't believe Ms. Thompson let us come here in jeans!" Darla grinned
as her big little sister practically gushed in pleasure. "I mean, it's just so
outside of anything I've learned to expect from her."

"Me, too," Darla replied, squirming slightly so that the part of Darryl hidden
by the gaff was not QUITE so forcibly driven into the unyielding seat.

Darla's ruminations were broken by the instructor who came up to them. "Excuse
me, Miss Rockwell," she said addressing Audrey, "Please forgive me for asking,
but didn't Ms. Thompson tell me you were an athlete as well as an artist? That
you did that track and field thing that has all of the events?"

Audrey repressed a chuckle. "No, you are confusing my sport with the women's
heptathlon. I compete in the modern pentathlon which aside for a three
thousand meter run, is not a track event at all."

"Oh," and there was real disappointment in the woman's voice. "I was hoping. .
.well, you see, we have something of a dilemma. Our model for this evening
just cancelled out on us - seems he is ill. We were going to try doing a
sketch in the style of the Ancient Greeks tonight and he was supposed to pose
with a discus."

*And not much else,* Darla grumbled mentally, still having a difficult time
dealing with the fact that Momma-Jane would do this to her. *Athletes in
Ancient Greece competed in the nude. Bare Naked GUYS? Whatever was Mom
thinking?!?!*

"You know the archetypes of the art form, don't you? Pure realism with
musculature and grace, but we don't have a model."

Uncomfortable with the direction this was taking, Audrey interrupted. "Yes?"
she asked pointedly.

The instructor blushed beneath her large, gold-wire rimmed glasses. Making an
obvious effort to gather herself, she blurted out, "Would you pose for us? I
know this is an imposition, and you did come to draw, but we don't have anyone
else. If you can't, we will have to cancel the class for everyone, and I'm not
sure we'll be able to make up the schedule. All these classes are building
blocks you know, and we can't go on without doing figures." "

"Me?" Audrey spluttered. "Up there? WAIT A MINUTE! Aren't Greek statues and
such naked?"

"Well, yes, if one is interested in the pure classical form.. "

*I don't think so." Audrey almost yelled and started to get up out of her seat.

"Oh, you wouldn't have to pose completely nude," the woman hurriedly put in,
grasping at straws. "Just enough uncovered so that the students can get some
muscle definition, which I can see that you have, that's all. None of the other
girls are very . . well, I understand the modern term is 'buff.' Why, you'd
wear less at the beach," she tried to reassure the girl.

"You've got a girl's costume for this?" Audrey asked cautiously.

*Oh lord, what ever is Jane going to make of this!?!,* Darla thought, trying
not to grin. *Is there anyway I can get us OUT of this?*

"Oh. . .well, no," Ms. Bantam admitted. "But, I thought that. . well, since we
ARE all girls here, well, I could lock the door and you could pose in your
underwear."

Audrey was taken aback. Her inclination was to tell the woman "not only NO,
but HELL NO!" and have done with it. Then she saw the faces of a couple of
students seated near her who had evidently overheard the Ms. Bantam's
explanation and who were now looking at her with pleas in their anxious eyes.
*DAMN!*

Darla saw the acquiescence in Audrey's eyes before she said a word. Unable to
hold it in, a wry smile finally crossed Darla's lips. Explaining this to Jane
was NOT going to be fun. On the other hand, Art would probably see the humor
in this little best laid plan.

~--------------~

For the first time since Jane had come up with this activity, Darla's interest
was completely focused on the task at hand. Well, almost completely, because
she was also dealing with some significant discomfort associated with Darryl's
gaff at that moment.

But it was worth it.

Audrey had, as Darla had surmised she would, agreed to stand in for the missing
male model. At Muriel's direction, Audrey had slipped out of her clothing,
including shoes, and then done a quick warm up to stimulate her muscles. Then,
she'd stepped up on the dias and, using a dinner plate in lieu of the discus
that was also home with the male model, began to assume positions. Fortunately
or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, Audrey had played around
with a real discus during her formative years as a high school jock. Muriel
had spritzed her with water from a spray bottle so that harsh lights that
illuminated the rotating dias would highlight Audrey's muscularity for the
artists.

*God, she is beautiful,* Darla thought as she tried to sketch what she saw
before her. She truly regretted her lack of freehand drawing talent, because
while she wanted to remember Audrey like this for the rest of her life, she
also wanted to be able to share this beauty with others. *Odd that she is
wearing that lingerie, though,* Darla mused. *I would have thought that, since
Jane okayed the jeans, she'd have gone back to her plain old cotton underwear
instead of THAT!*

THAT was a curve-hugging black silk bra-and-panty-thong set that bared Audrey's
powerful curves lovingly, and while they left little to the imagination,
thoroughly teased Darla's already overactive imagination to try and fill in
those blanks. Audrey's still short hair was slick with perspiration under the
heat of the bright lights and from the strain of holding the 'just before
release' position Ms. Bantam had requested.

Darla leaned forward in her seat, trying to get a closer look and had to stifle
a groan. Erections, gaffs and girl-cut jeans did NOT mix. It was going to be
a long evening.

~---------------~

Audrey silently berated herself for having agreed to pose for the class.
Having all these girls, particularly the lovely, dainty Darla, gawking at her -
well, it was all she could do not to leap from the dias and run for cover.
Only the fact that, before they began gawking at her, all these girls had been
nice to her (a unique occurrence in Audrey's experience) kept her from doing
just that. They wanted to have the class continue and Audrey didn't want to be
the reason that the class had to be cancelled.

*Well, that and the fact that I don't know where Ms. Bantam put my clothes.*

"Break." Ms. Bantam called, allowing a grateful Audrey to relax her body for a
few minutes. She set down the makeshift discus and shook out her hands, arms,
legs and feet. "Ms. Rockwell?" the instructor called as she came up behind
Audrey, a worried look on her face. "That really isn't quite what we need, I
think. Would you mind if we tried another pose, please?"

Audrey listened to what Ms. Bantam wanted next and sighed. "Sure, if that's
what you want."

She was doing a few trunk twists when she suddenly caught sight of Darla,
staring at her with a very strange look on her face. Audrey stopped moving and
stared back. "Darla?" she finally asked.

The other girl started as if she'd been stuck by a pin in the butt - in fact,
she literally winced before looking up at Audrey's eyes. "Sorry," she said with
no little embarrassment evident on her cheeks. "My mind was wandering."

Audrey wondered where, but was soon called back to work by instructor.

~--------------~

"She WHAT?!?!" Jane came as close to yelling as she ever did.

"She posed for the figure drawing tonight," Darla repeated and felt the
telltale pressure of the gaff as the memory of that sight returned in full.
"The male model couldn't make it and the instructor asked Audrey since she has
muscle definition that kind of figure drawing requires."

"For the love of God, Darla, if I wanted her taking the male part in these
exercises, I would have sent her to dance class where Madame would undoubtably
have been begging for her to dance the male lead in the Nutcracker this winter
or to the children's theater where she'd no doubt be cast as some other damned
male character." Darla was always surprised when Jane gave into the urge to
use curse words. It gave the younger woman a very good idea just how upset
this news had made her Mother. "I sent her there so she could SEE and STUDY
male parts, not play them. I wanted her to be in with a group of other young
women, studying a man, and perhaps during a break, giggling about his
endowments. I wanted to reinforce her femininity, not undermine it."

"There was NOTHING masculine about her," Darla replied tightly.

"The discus is hardly a feminine apparatus," Jane countered.

"There are women who throw the discus," Darla argued.

"None that I want Audrey emulating!" Jane snapped back, her dark eyes flashing.

"Then you'll be happy that Ms. Bantam agreed with you and changed her pose to
one with the javelin."

"Wonderful! Now THAT's feminine with a capital F." Jane growled.

"Well, it was! Ever seen Jackie Joyner-Kersey, Momma-Jane? She's beautiful
when she throws that thing and Audrey was better!" Darla reached into her
folio and pulled out the sketch she'd labored over so strenuously. "She was
lovely - even beautiful." She passed over the sketchpad. "I only wish I had
the talent to show HOW beautiful she was."

Jane studied the mediocre drawing, but heard the conviction in her child's
words. For Darla to have tried this hard told Jane a great deal because Darla
did not like doing something for which she had little or no talent. Darla had
never had any skill at drawing, but she had tried with this one. Still, Jane
worried. "Did she feel beautiful?"

"How could she not?" Darla asked.

*All too easily, my child. all too easily.* Jane thought. "What's this she's
wearing?" Jane wanted to know. "One of those track bit's of nothing we saw on
the Olympics?"

"Actually, Momma-Jane," Darla hedged. "They didn't have anything like that.
She, ah . . well, that is. . "

"Darla?!"

"She stripped down to her undies for it, so that the class could get her
musculature and anatomy down right."

"Her undies?!? Lord, Darla, did you draw her wearing a thong?"

"That's what she had on," Darla said, her lips curling into a smile at the
memory. "She was wearing that slinky black bra and thong set you bought her at
Ms. Franson's lingerie store last week - the one YOU wouldn't let her model for
me," Darla sniffed. "I was a bit surprised to see she had it on." *Pleased,
but surprised.* "Did you tell her to wear them so she'd feel feminine under
her jeans?"

"No," Jane said absently, her eyes locked on Darla's drawing. "She must have
worn them on her own. That is encouraging since I would have expected her to
wear those plain white cotton things she brought with her, but that set does
suit her, though."

"I'll say it does," Darla sighed, recalling the image of Audrey quite vividly.

"DARLA, you are positively drooling. You've seen students in their lingerie
before!"

"They were like me, Momma-Jane, not like Audrey. I need to go to bed. Four
thirty comes early. Darla is spotting Audrey on the stair climber again
tomorrow. 'night, Mom." Darla said with a kiss on Jane's cheek.

"Good night, dear." Jane said absently, already mulling over in her mind the
two surprises of this evening - Audrey's voluntary choice of lingerie and
Darla's apparent interest in the girl.

"Oh, and Mom?" Darla's voice intruded on Jane's thoughts. "It wasn't Darla
who was drooling - it was Darryl. DEF-initely Darryl."

~-----------------~

A very uncomfortable Darla rolled over in her bed and considered taking another
shower. *Maybe the last one wasn't cold enough?* Ever since she'd climbed in
between the sheets, her theater of the mind had been constantly replaying the
evening's spectacle.

A vividly real mental picture formed of Audrey on the dias as it slowly turned
in front of the class. Darla had been seated about ten feet away, her eyes
level with the standing-Audrey's waist. When her big-little sister had taken
that plate and coiled herself into the throwing position, Darla had been awed.
The girl's arms and legs, though powerfully muscled, had still been smooth and
sensuous. Then the dias had turned so that she got a look at Audrey from behind.

Darla curled into the fetal position as her groin tightened at that memory.
God, had Darryl EVER seen a more beautiful butt?!? Sleek, rounded and
glistening in the light, just a bit of black where the thong slipped through
before disappearing into the half-mooned buttocks.

It had been all Darla could do not to follow that lovely derriere as it turned
away from her . . . well, at least until she got her first glimpse of what the
front side had on offer. Darla wasn't sure if the magic was in the bra or in
the woman, and was even less sure she cared. Crouched over as she was, her body
coiled for that first hard-spinning step, Audrey's bosom had been presented to
him like a burlesque dancer bending over getting ready to shake. The lacy
black brassiere had been deeply cut, intended to lift and show a great deal of
cleavage - something it did VERY well. Darryl hadn't noticed all that creamy
rounded breast on Audrey before that moment, and now cursed himself for a fool
for that failure.

In the end, that had been Ms. Bantam's reason for abandoning the discus in
favor of the javelin. In the discus position, Audrey's breasts had obscured
her six-packed tummy, evidently a very important part of the exercise in Ms.
Bantam's opinion. She'd been gorgeous in the javelin throw position, too,
although not as overtly sexy as she'd been in the discus position. Her body
stretched out to full length, the broom handle held as far back as she could,
her free hand pressing forward for balance. That had been the picture Darla
had shared with her Mother.

Darla had NOT shown Momma Jane that OTHER picture. Even with her poor skill at
sketching, Jane would have had conniptions if she'd seen Darla's loving
rendition of Audrey hunched over that discus. . .err. . plate.

Another memory flitted through Darla's mind - of a single, light catching drop
of perspiration as it made an agonizingly slow trek from Audrey's neck down her
throat to her chest to finally disappear into the dark line of Audrey's
glorious cleavage.

The instant it disappeared, Darla groaned and her body went tight, her
abdominal muscles clenching and releasing, clenching and releasing.

Moments later, a red-faced Darla rose from her bed and headed for the bathroom
to rinse her panties. *Now she's got me having wet dreams when I'm wide awake!*
she thought, disgustedly. *I think I have got it bad,* Darla thought as she
flipped on the light.

~--------------~

Audrey rolled over and pounded a frustrated fist into her pillow. *How could
you have been so stupid?!?* she railed at herself. She NEVER put herself on
display like that. *Well, there is competition, but that's different. And
heavens, when Ms. Thompson gets wind of it? Hoooo boy.*

That thought played over and over in her mind until some imp niggled at her. *I
wonder what will upset her more? That I did it at all? Or that I did it,
standing in for a boy? Or that I did it my undies?*

She sat up and thought some more about the evening. At least she'd had her
special underwear on - that had helped somehow. She'd always liked the way the
satin and silk felt on her skin, the way it slid along her legs when she put
them on. Even before Ms. Thompson had given her approval to wear the lovely
feeling lingerie, back when it was something she had to sneak about to wear and
hide carefully when she wasn't. She'd always be grateful to Darla's aunt for
the gift of permission, not that she'd ever let the woman know that.

*Why shouldn't I tell her that? Maybe she'd consider it a positive sign and
buy some more of them? Can't say I'd like wearing dresses all the time -
nuisances that slow you down when you want to move fast or that flip up at
exactly the worst possible moment. I wonder what Darryl would do if I were
wearing my special undies under a dress and a rogue breath of wind flipped up
my skirts so he could get an eyeful of my black scanties?*

She smiled into the darkness; a smile that would have greatly pleased Jane
Thompson-Philips while thoroughly unnerving one Darryl (aka Darla) Smith.

*Unfortunately for that little fantasy, Audrey m'girl, you don't wear skirts
when you work out. You'd have to be less subtle, like breaking a drawstring on
a pair of really baggy sweatpants. Or, you could just drag him into a nice,
well-hayed horsestall and . . . *

Audrey sighed. What was it about that little fellow that appealed to her? She couldn't, or perhaps wouldn't find the answer. At least, the doctor had said she could start running again day after tomorrow, once the last stitches were out. That meant Darryl would be around more often. With a happy sigh, Audrey rolled over and went to sleep.

--


Chapter 8 ~ Another Day at the Chalet


Jane was trying to be interested in the prospectus in front of her, but to little avail. Her active mind kept slipping off to some little coffee shop on Newberry Street in Boston, or perhaps to a grassy picnic spot in Roger Williams Park in Providence. That a certain professor of psychology was a very active participant in both of these scenes no longer surprised Jane Thompson. Nor did she in any way regret her little 'rendezvous of the mind'. In fact, she'd just have to make sure one or both of those daydreams came true.

Smiling, she dropped her gaze back to the brightly printed document on her desk, determined to make a decision on this fund today before she drove Audrey to the doctor, only to be again distracted by a knock on her study door.

*Guess I am just not meant to do this today,* she thought and felt her heart lighten. "Come in." she called out.

Darla entered. After greeting Jane with a kiss, she accepted a seat in the conversation grouping in front of the study's fireplace. *Wonder what has brought that frown to her face?* "Trying to grow wrinkles, dear?" Jane asked.

"Hmmm? Oh! Sorry, Momma-Jane," she said as she carefully relaxed her forehead and composed her features. "I've been thinking. . ."

"I could tell," Jane said with a chuckle.

Darla grinned sheepishly. "It's about Audrey. You said the Doctor is going to okay her running again, starting tomorrow?" Jane nodded, but otherwise said nothing. "And you said you've been talking to Dad about helping her, what was the word you used? Oh, yes, desensitize around guys, right?"

"That's true, dear, although we don't seem to have much in the way of a plan just yet."

"Well, part of that is getting used to being touched, right? So, here's an idea I came up with last night. Let me lay it all out for you and see what you think. We could call Dad if you aren't sure, okay?"

"So, what's your idea, dear?"

~--------------~

The five mile run had felt like fifty, Audrey thought as she grimly forced herself to keep moving as her body cooled down. AND she'd LOST to Darryl this morning. The readout on that cursed stair machine had misled her into believing that her endurance had improved since the accident, but only outright grit and pure cussedness had kept her going that last mile and a half - that and the sight of Darryl's butt in front of her.

They passed a window in the side of the barn and Audrey caught a look at her reflection. *So much for playing the tease with Darryl - I look horrible. I better hope Jane doesn't see me before I can slip up to my room.*

"Don't. . .think. . .this. . .is . . . going . . . to . . become. . .a habit." she panted out.

"I've been practicing while you were getting well. Sorry I couldn't come visit more often. Chores, and stuff like that." Darryl replied while thinking of his recent midnight runs, taken in hopes of tiring himself enough to finally fall asleep.

Audrey gave a little shudder at the thought of receiving Darryl at Jane's house, dressed in white lace with a technicolor face. "Oh, I understood," she hastened to add. "I'm just glad to be able to get out and run again."

"You know it! I was really happy when Darla called to see if we could start this up again. Oh, and she told me you started your modeling career the other night at your art class."

*Darla, you are dead meat!* "Oh, I was just filling in for the model who was ill. I guess the teacher just picked me 'cause I look the most like a guy," Audrey said, trying to be flip, but feeling something deep inside begin to hurt.

"WHOA!" Darryl snapped, reaching out to grab Audrey by the hand and pull her around to face him. "You look NOTHING like a guy, sweetcheeks!" he said with in an intense, yet very quiet voice.

"What did you call me?" Audrey squeaked, so surprised by the name that she didn't for a moment react to having a male holding her hand.

Darryl ignored the question. "YOU are an athlete - you have a beautifully-fit woman's body. If anyone knows that, it's ME because I have followed your backside enough to know. And believe me, Audrey - you are NOTHING like a guy."

She wanted to believe him, wanted to trust his words, but a tall sharp faced image formed in her mind, along with a voice telling her how gawky she was. "You're just saying that," she replied, trying to pull her hand free.

Instead of pulling back, Darryl followed her pull. Before Audrey quite realized what was happening, the young man had stepped right up close to her, and the reached up to plant a quick kiss on her right cheek. "I never just say anything," he said, releasing her hand and stepping back just out of her longer reach "And if I say it, you can take it to the bank."

Darryl watched as a flood of emotions crossed her face. Then, realizing he wasn't going to get killed for daring to kiss her cheek, Darryl's naturally impish nature came back to the fore. With no warning, he reached out and gently took her hand again. Bowing over it, he kissed it gently and murmured, "You can trust me on this, milady."

*Trust him on WHAT?* Audrey's mind screamed as every sense in her entire body seemed suddenly concentrated on her right cheek. Wide eyed, she brought her hand up to touch the places Darryl's lips had so fleetingly caressed. *What's changed,* she wondered as she looked about to find Darryl watching her, an oddly familiar crooked little smile on his face that made her feel kind of warm and soft inside. She opened her mouth to say something, but couldn't find any words. She tried again, and failed again. Then, she managed to choke out "I . . .I have to go," and turned and bolted toward the house.

Darryl watched her run, his hand coming up to his still-tingling lips. "I know what you mean," he whispered after her. "I think I feel the same way, too."

Then he began walking up the same trail.

~--------------~

Jane sat in her 'usual' chair in the waiting area of the Marisha Chalet salon. Seated there, she could observe her student's reactions to the salon experience and be available should her stern and steady hand be required. How often she'd watched a previously obstreperous boy go pale under the baleful glare and threatening words of Sandra, seen determined resistance turn squeamish when given their first look at a new hair-do? At least the first two visits for every student, certainly, and more than that with all but a very few. Actually, unless Jane was at the salon with a student, there would not ordinarily be a seat in that precise location because the clear field of view it afforded Jane would be intrusive to a regular Chalet client.

Now, Jane was watching as Sandy prepared to give Audrey the "hair club for women" treatment, adding both length and bulk to the girl's still-too-short locks. The technique Sandy would use was expensive, both in terms of the actual procedure itself and in terms of the equipment needed to perform the addition. Jane had paid for the equipment and for Sandy's training after Michael had nearly scalped himself in his blessedly unsuccessful attempt at killing himself. Since then, several short-haired students had left Sandy's chair with long and flowing locks a budding Rapunzel would have cherished, along with all the problems and demands caring for such a mass of hair entailed. Still, she'd never expected to use the technique on a real girl.

Jane chuckled when she recalled Sandy's reaction to Jane's call the day before. She, Darla and Marie had all had a great laugh over it when Jane had shared it with them after dinner.

~-----------~

"Ummm, Jane?" Sandy had said, her voice uncertain. "You said this one is a real girl? And she's your student??"

"Why yes, Sandy. I don't know why you sound so surprised. I did teach in an all girl school for several years before establishing myself here. SOME of those pupils were really girls, dear - honest."

"But, Jane," and Sandy's tone took on a whining note that reminded the teacher of some of her most difficult students. "A real girl? I don't know if I can do that."

Suddenly understanding where this was going, some mischievous imp made Jane play along. "You mean you don't have real girls as clients, Sandra? All of your clients are like my boys? Why, Sandy, I am shocked."

"Of course we do," was the disgusted reply. "And well you know it, too. I just meant that I don't think I can be. . well, nasty enough to a real sister, you know? I mean, I rag on the boys hard, and that's cool - that's fun, but it seems, well, disloyal to treat a real girl like that."

Jane's voice became cool. "Sandra? I don't believe I asked you to treat her as anything other than one of your regular clients. In fact, nasty is the last behavior I want you to exhibit with Audrey. What I do want you to do is make her want to be your very best customer. I want her to think that a trip to your salon is one of life's special gifts to womankind - something she will desire to repeat many, many times. In short, I want her to enjoy herself immensely while under your care."

"She's not. . .I mean, she's not like your regular student?"

Jane chuckled at that. "How can she be, dear? You just said it - she's a real girl. Oh, and that reminds me. She's NOT to know that she is unique in that regard. Just act as if this is how it is for any of my students I bring to you."

"Well, if she's your student, and she's not walking out blond and big-haired, one of the other stylists may wonder about that. None of them are in on the game, Jane, and you are pretty predictable that way."

"I will leave it to you and Caro to deal with that, Sandy. We should be there by ten. Is that acceptable?"

~-----------~

It had been. In truth, she'd expected more of a reaction from Audrey when she'd announced the day's plans at the breakfast table. The girl had been positively vague, forcing Jane to call her to attention twice during the meal. Even after being told about the salon trip, she'd only asked when she had to be ready. Once there, Audrey had meekly allowed herself to be led to the cubicle where Sandy worked her magic.

In the next cubicle over, Caro was just finishing up a perfunctory treatment on Darla, mainly because the brunette wig precluded any real hair work. The wig had also precluded one of the other stylists handling Darla. On the positive side, the hair piece did not really need much work so Caro was ready and waiting when it came time to dress Audrey's new hair.

Darla came over to sit by Jane just as Sandy began the manicure.

~----------~

Audrey sat quietly in the chair, letting the fussy, bossy female have her way without much argument. She had so very much on her mind just then, and the mindlessness of sitting in a chair while someone fluttered around her allowed Audrey the opportunity to fully reflect on recent happenings.

Like this salon visit, for instance. So far it had not been all that bad. Certainly not as unpleasant as one of Miss Phoebe Elizabeth's 'groomings'. A part of Audrey admitted that those distinctly uncomfortable experiences, with her governess' constant and acidic commentary instead of music in the background, had been the primary reason that Audrey had opted for short, closely cropped hair. This Sandy person had only actually hurt her once, when she'd pulled a bit too hard, and she'd immediately apologized for that.

*Of course,* she thought with just a hint of a smug smile, *After that talking she got from Ms. Thompson when we arrived this morning, which oh-by-the-way, I THINK I was NOT supposed to hear, this Sandy may well be on her best behavior.*

But now, as she sat in this pastel-colored barber's chair recalling that talk, Audrey realized she had only been given yet another conundrum to worry over, and hopefully, to solve.

~-----------~

"JANE!" Sandy hissed as she came out of the cubicle after settling Audrey in the salon chair. "HOW am I supposed to make THAT . . .that amazon enjoy being here?"

"I'm sure I don't have to tell you, Sandra. Make her feel like a princess. Make her feel feminine and pretty. Make her feel like you consider it a privilege to work on such a beautiful girl."

"That coltish giant? A princess?" Sandy was no longer being quite so careful with her voice. "More like professional wrestling queen - like that bodybuilding female who was just in Playboy," Sandy said with sneer in her voice.

"The last time I checked, that magazine was not noted for photographing unattractive women, Sandra," And at that point, Jane's voice was so cold that Audrey nearly shivered herself. "But that is not the point, is it? That girl is a lady, and you are going to make her feel like one. Do I make myself clear?"

"I'll try, but it isn't going to easy," Sandy replied darkly.

"Don't be so certain. Why, on our way in here, I saw two boys nearly walk into a kiosk because they were staring at her. If you are objective, and half the artist I think you are, you will see how lovely that girl really is."

"Do you believe that, or are you just trying to jab at me, Jane?"

"Have I ever lied to you, Sandra?"

~-----------~

*And that,* thought Audrey as she finished replaying that scene in her mind, *Had been that! First Darryl telling her she wasn't masculine-looking, and even hinting that he let her win their little races because he liked watching her butt.* Audrey snorted at that. *Male ego, more likely, and yet, hadn't he won fair and square this morning? And then kissed me? What am I supposed to think or do about THAT?? Now, on top of that, I've got Jane Thompson saying that I am lovely. . .LOVELY! Had two boys walked into a post staring at me? I didn't see it, and yet, Ms. Thompson doesn't lie. I think. Oh lord, I am so bloody confused!*

"MS. ROCKWELL!" The sharply spoken words broke through the swirling maelstrom of Audrey's thoughts and she looked up to see a rather impatient looking Sandra staring down at her.

"Yes, ma'am?" Audrey replied, figuring out that Sandy had evidently been trying to get her attention before the last call had broken through.

"Dear," the woman said with a smile that Audrey found uncomfortably disconcerting, "You really should consider nails. With hands as elegant as yours, they'd be just spectacular.

Audrey lifted one of her hands and gave it a careful examination. Like her hair, she'd always kept her nails short because she didn't want to have to fuss with them. "Nails?"

"Sure," Sandy replied, warming to one of her favorite themes. We can do some extensions while you're here -like these," she said, holding up her own set of perfectly manicured claws. "Why, you could easily handle them, and polished a deep, rich red, they'd be just perfect with your hair. The boys just love them." Audrey saw a strange, mischievous look cross Sandy's face. "On girls, that is," she finished, laughing at some joke Audrey couldn't quite get.

Audrey compared her hand to Sandra's and tried to picture her nails as Sandy had described them. "They do?" she asked, while ruthlessly putting away the picture that came to her mind.

"Oh, absolutely," Sandy said with blithe assurance. "With long, elegant nails, you'll have your boyfriend literally eating right out of your hand, and grateful for the privilege."

"Oh, I don't have a boyfriend. Not really," Audrey denied, but nothing she could do would block the image of a certain boy thankfully nibbling at a shiny, dew-moistened grape held tantalizingly between two ruby-red talons.

HER talons!

"Well, you will have," Sandy replied.

"Audrey, dear," Jane Thompson's voice said from behind Audrey's chair.

*When had she walked up?* Audrey asked herself in some surprise before looking up at Jane's reflection in the large mirror.

"I think nails would look lovely on you, but they're probably not suited with your other activities." Jane held up her own hand, her nails nicely shaped and colored a deep maroon that went well with her hair, but they were short, barely extending beyond the tips of her elegantly long and slender fingers. "I have had to choose between lovely nails and riding my horses. You will have to make a similar choice, I am afraid."

"Oh. Right," but while that settled the issue, there was something inside Audrey that wanted, yearned for the reality of the boy and the long nailed hand. She sighed, and then smiled up at the salon owner. "I guess I'll have to pass on the full treatment, but , umm, could I have nails that look like Ms. Thompson's?"

Sandra looked back and forth between Jane and her pupil for a moment, and then shrugged. "Sure. It's no problem at all. Just takes a little effort with an emory board, the right polish and patience. You want me to give her the treatment and some initial instruction, Jane?"

~-------------~

Pleased with Audrey's request, Jane had, of course, given Sandy the go-ahead. That said, Audrey went back into her unusually quiet, contemplative mode again.

Jane would have given a great deal to know what the girl was thinking about.

*Oh, well,* she thought, *At least she seems to be relaxing here. I am fairly certain that as little as a few weeks ago, she'd have reacted to this place much as any of my boys did on his initial visit to the Chalet. In one way, it is too bad I've already picked out Audrey's hair style. It might have been interesting to see what she herself would have picked because she certainly surprised me about her nails which were not on my agenda at all. Maybe next time I will give her some input in that area as well.*

~-------------~

Jane could hardly repress the gleeful cheer when Audrey rose from Caro's chair, her new shoulder-length black hair falling in smooth midnight waves about her face and shoulders. And her face! *I too often forget just what an artist Carolyn is when her brushes and pads. I am good and Marie is excellent, but Caro takes cosmetics to another plane entirely.*

Audrey was amazed as well, only, she wasn't quite sure what was different. Certainly this woman had been working with her for almost forty five minutes, but it all looked. . . so, well natural, . . or was it, supernatural? *That's it! The woman is a witch and she's cast a spell to make me look like this.*

"Wonderful, Carolyn, just wonderful," Jane said. "Well, Audrey, what do you think?"

Audrey was still looking int the full length mirror. She turned to the two older women. "I. . .I don't know this person," she finally managed. "And I know you put make up on me, but I can't see it. Where is the red? Where's the green and blue stuff around the eyes?"

Caro laughed easily. "Oh, Jane, you need to send this one to my Wednesday classes. She is thinking like a 1950's movie sex kitten." Then Caro walked over to Audrey. "Stand straight, girl," she ordered. "You have a lovely figure, so don't hunch over like that. Be proud of yourself."

"But I am so tall!"

"So is Cindy Crawford and Elle MacPherson. Now do as I say," she ordered again, pulling Audrey's shoulders back. "Now, look at your face. Look at your eyes - see that lovely golden brown? Why would I embellish that with greens and blues that would call attention away from those gorgeous eyes by using clashing colors? Look closely and see what I did do. Look at the barely visible pearlescent sheen on the earth colors that seem to blend with your own lovely skin tones. Where do your eyes go when you try to look at that?"

"To. . to my eyes?" Audrey breathed.

"Very good!" Caro applauded her attentive student. "Now look at your mouth and lips. If you had thin, pinched lips like some of my clients, I might have used a brighter shade to add fullness, but my goodness, Audrey, you don't need tricks like that. You just need a hint of color so that it looks natural, but just a bit more so."

"Supernatural," Audrey murmured to herself again.

"Exactly! You should dress this one up as a cute sexy witch for Halloween, Jane. I know of several parties where she'd be mobbed young men all eager to be put under her spell."

Jane saw the look of horror that crossed Audrey's face at that idea and moved in to do some damage control. "Not quite yet, Caro. I think this one has a good deal more to learn before we let her stomp her spiked heel on some poor man's proffered heart. Maybe the Christmas Ball at the country club. Now, Audrey, I want you to go back and thank Sandra, too, and then we will be off." Audrey nodded and started to hunch over until Caro cleared her throat loudly. Color flared on Audrey's cheeks, but she kept her head up and her shoulders back as she'd been told.

Following her student to the back, Jane smiled widely at the open-mouthed shock on Sandra's face when Audrey turned to leave. "Meet me in the car, Audrey," she ordered as she sauntered over to Sandra. "Gawky, wrestling queen, eh? Maybe you should get glasses, Sandy."




Chapter 9 ~ Dancing and Flirting and Other Girl Lessons


Jane stifled a exclamation of pain as yet another of her toes got caught beneath one of Audrey's not insubstantial dance pumps. Determinedly, she kept up the time, and led her pupil into another wide waltzing turn - only to have one of her few remaining uninjured toes come to grief. If Audrey had been any other student, Jane would have hired a dancing master to train her instead of trying to fulfill the male role herself. Still, she did not want the girl to lose sight of the fact that dancing, particularly waltzing, meant being in close, hopefully amicable, proximity to a male. Jane had even gone so far as to dress in slacks, flat shoes and a white shirt for the task. *I should have worn steel-toed work boots,* she thought as yet another toe got crunched. *She is certainly a BIG girl, and that is more than enough for today.*

Jane stopped, bringing Audrey to a complete halt before gingerly stepping away. "All right, Miss," Jane started in her best schoolmarm to inattentive student voice, "What's wrong here? This is not your first dance lesson and this is the first time you've decided to dance on my feet instead of your own. What's the matter? Aren't you feeling well?"

Audrey seemed to look through the older woman for a moment before her eyes seemed to refocus. "I'm sorry, Ms. Thompson. I just. . . well, I can't seem to concentrate today."

"Any idea why, dear?" Jane asked more gently.

Shaking her head reminded Audrey forcibly of her new hair. "Maybe it's this?" she said, holding up one of the shiny raven locks. "Perhaps it is throwing off my balance?"

Even Jane Thompson could not hold back the smile Audrey's joke elicited. "You're not having THAT much of a bad hair day, young lady. I think maybe we will call it a day, then. I will go soak my poor feet, and you can spend the afternoon figuring out what is distracting you. We will continue this tomorrow, Audrey," and Jane's look hardened, "I expect that you will give it your every attention." Jane waited until her student acknowledged that directive, then smiled at her and the other two women in the room. "If you will all excuse me, then?"

Darla stood and walked over to Audrey. "You okay?" she asked solicitously.

"Yes, I'm fine. Just a bit. . . off, I guess."

"Want to take a walk in the woods before dinner?"

"An excellent notion," Marie chimed in from the piano. "In your current state, Audrey, I don't think I could trust you with a knife so you can help with clean up tonight instead of the cooking."

"All right," Audrey said, smiling at Marie before turning to Darla. "Let me get something other than these Jane-killing spikes on my feet and I will meet you at the front door."

~--------------~

As they walked along, coming to the path where Darryl had stolen a kiss that morning, Darla looked at her pretty companion then let out a sigh carefully calculated to be heard without seeming ostentatious.

"What's the matter?" asked Audrey.

"Oh, nothing," Darla said, sighing again.

"Don't try that dodge with me. Something is on your mind. Now give!"

"It's nothing, really," Darla said again, but continued. "It's just that, well, it was at this time of the year, with the leaves so pretty, when I, um, when I kissed someone special."

"Someone special? As in boy-girl special?"

"Of course, silly," Darla said, blushing.

"And you kissed him? Not the other way around"

"Oh, Audrey, you are so out of it. Don't you know that boys, are way too shy to make the first move? At least, most of them are."

"Not all of them," Audrey declared quietly. After a long moment of walking in silence, she said, "Darla, do you know Darryl?"

"Sure I do. I told you about him, remember? And arranged with Jane for him to help you work out?"

"Oh, yeah," Audrey said thoughtfully. That seemed so very long ago all of a sudden. So much had happened since those first days here at Seasons House. " Have you ever, well, seen him go out regularly with a girl?"

"You mean, like, going steady?" At Audrey's nod, Darla pretended to think about it? "Well, not really steady." *I never had the chance until I went to college,* she reminded herself, trying to stick as close to the truth as possible. "I think there was someone when he first went away to school, but gossip has it that they broke up before he came back home to finish his schooling locally. She was a competitive swimmer from what I've heard. I read about her in the papers. She was a national finalist in the butterfly stroke."

A momentary spark of hope flashed through Audrey. She knew a few swimmers and knew what strength it took to be nationally competitive at the butterfly stroke. "Well, um, do you think he could ever really like a girl that was taller than him?"

"Um, I, ah, suppose so. I'm pretty sure she was taller than Darryl, in any case. Why?

Audrey felt her face go hot and for a moment, she considered dropping the whole subject. *Dammit,* she railed, *How else am I going to figure this out? Who else can I ask?!? Didn't she offer to be my friend??* Taking a deep breath, Audrey still could only whisper out. "Oh, um, well, he, uh, hekissedmeyesterday." she managed to blurt out.

Only an extreme effort of will kept Darla from cheering. Controlling herself, she managed a confiding little smile instead of the face-cracking grin of triumph she was feeling "Oh, he did, did he? Sweet!" and the emotion Darla invested in that observation made Audrey's blush feel even hotter to the taller girl. ."So, Darryl kissed you, eh? Did you kiss him back?"

"Heavens, Darla. No boy has ever kissed me before. And he
seemed like he meant it. I was, well, I'm so confused about the
way I feel."

"Wow. Not only kissed, but FIRST-kissed. Well, that IS something. Did you like it? Was he any good? You gonna do it again? And, you never answered my first question," Darla accused, "Did you kiss him back?"

Audrey could only stare at her friend, who was now standing directly in front of her, the smaller girl's hands fisted aggressively on her hips. "However do you manage to get so much out without stopping to breathe?" Audrey asked wonderingly.

"No hedging. Answer the question," Darla ordered, "Make that 'questions'."

Audrey bridled for a moment, but then remembered she had started this. *but that doesn't mean I have be a wuss about this!* "In order," she said, ticking off on her dark red-nailed fingers, "I don't know. How could I know. I'm not sure. and No."

"Huh?" Darla spluttered? "What was that?"

"Your answers," Audrey replied, moving around Darla to continue the walk, feeling oddly better for that bit of foolishness with her friend. "In the order you asked them."

"Wait a minute," Darla yelled, and hurried to catch up with Audrey. "Give them to me again, slower this time, if you please."

"Oh all right, but pay attention this time," she chided in a very creditable imitation of Jane Thompson in her 'strict schoolmarm' mode. "I don't know if I liked it, because I was too shocked to feel anything else," she said, even as she recalled the funny warm feeling deep in her belly. "How could I tell if he was any good when it was my first time? I don't know if I am going to do it again," *but I would probably let HIM do it again,* she added silently, "And I didn't kiss him back."

"Well, why not?" Darla sounded outraged.

"Because he kissed my cheek and then my hand." *And because you all but ran away before either of you could do anything else,* she chided herself. *Maybe you really are a wuss, Rockwell.*

Darla sniffed. "Cheek kisses don't count," she said with the assurance of an expert. "Aunt JANE kisses me on the cheek."

"Seemed pretty important to me," Audrey muttered.

"Then, maybe you should try it again," Darla encouraged. "On the mouth, this time, so you will know if you like it."

"I can't. . .I mean, I don't. . but. . "

Darla caught her friend by the arm and brought the taller girl to a stop. The twinkle in her eyes belied the stern tone of her voice as she used her greater experience to show Audrey how Jane would REALLY sound in full-lecture mode. "Calm down. Think about it, and say what you mean."

"I really like Darryl," the taller girl began, and then hurriedly added, "as a friend, that is. And even though I think I could really get to like him. . . other ways. . .well, I haven't had many friends - boy or girl - my own age. Even the sport I follow is an individual thing. I don't want to lose that by . . . "she faltered and then forced herself to continue, "Forcing unwanted attentions on him."

Darla's mouth dropped and she barely managed to suppress the giggle. "Do you know," she asked slowly and carefully, "how much like one of Aunt Jane's Victorian heroines you sounded like?"

"Its NOT funny," Audrey fumed.

Darla's eyes gentled. "I know. One thing about boys, Audrey? They're pretty basic. They don't kiss girls, particularly as carefully as Darryl kissed you, unless they like the girl, okay?"

"I want him to keep on liking me," Audrey snapped back.

"I don't think kissing him is going to make him not like you," Darla replied drily.

"But how can I know? If he stopped being my friend over this, I would really feel bad."

"Then get him to kiss you. Let him know that and let him decide."

*That was a thought,* Audrey mused, *but* "How do I do that without asking him?"

"No problem," Darla blithely assured her friend. "You just need some flirting practice, and I know just the person to teach you."

"You?" Audrey asked, skeptically.

"Nope, someone much better."

"Oh, no!" Audrey almost yelled. "I know you think the world of her, but the LAST person I am asking about boys is that Aunt of yours. With her enthusiasm for the Victorian era, she'd have me in a damned chastity belt so fast it would make my head spin."

"No, not Aunt Jane," Darla scoffed. "You want to know about the finer points of love, of what the greatest lovers in the world, the French, call l'amour. We just happen to have our own Gallic expert here. Tante Marie will know what to do and what to teach you."

"Marie?!?!?"

~-----------~

"You told her WHAT?!?!" Marie screeched.

"You heard me, Tante Marie," Darla said with a wicked grin.

"You told her that I would teach her how to flirt, so that she could tease Darryl - you - into kissing her again? For god's sake, Darla, why didn't you just teach her yourself since you, in your other role, will be the ultimate beneficiary. Break the girl in right from the start!"

Darla winced at the sarcasm in her beloved Marie's voice. "Well, in all honesty, Marie," she said much more contritely, "I didn't think of it that way. I just felt it would be more fair to Audrey if you helped her with this part of her training. If I told her what would work on me, that is, on Darryl, it just . . . wouldn't be right. Besides, she needs to know how to flirt with, well, anyone. Just in case . . ."

Marie thought about that, decided she liked the way Darla had put that, and indicated the youngster should continue. "Well, the other big reason is that I don't know much about flirting - as a girl or as a boy. Oh, I know all that silliness with a fan, like some romance novel heroine, but that isn't really flirting, and as for Darryl, well, my only real girlfriend was rather, well, shall we say she was more direct than that."

"A major deficiency in your upbringing, cherie," Marie said with a wicked grin. "All right. I will teach her - actually, I will teach BOTH of you!"

"Both of US!?!? Why me? I don't need to be able to flirt like a girl!" Darryl's outrage showed through Darla's still feminine tones.

"But oh-yes-you-do, petit," Marie came back, very pleased with herself. "How do you plan to get the shy Audrey to come to me if you are not there to prod her, eh? And what motivation do you give her? A boy she is not sure she wants? No, you must come so that she will have someone to compete with."

"Compete with? What is this, a duel? Fans and eye-winks at twenty paces and may the best woman win?"

"Just so. You wish her to learn, I tell you how to make her want to learn at first." Marie gave a little shrug. "And if she finds she likes doing it, particularly with Darryl, then she will come back for more, eh?"

Darla sighed and thought of how hard Audrey was working with the free weights because Darryl could still out-lift her. *Marie's right about her competitive nature. That's my Audrey to a 'T'.* "All right, Tante Marie. I will get her here somehow, and then stay on to learn myself."

"Excellent, Darla, but one last thing, eh? I will teach her as she is. You will not get a sexy siren or another very direct woman because la belle Audrey, for all her seemingly aggressive ways, is really very shy about her inner self. You must be prepared for things to proceed slowly, my love."
"So you and Dad keep telling me, Tante Marie. You will tell me if she says I am going too fast for her? Or if you see that she is really bothered by Darryl?" Darla asked, recalling her earlier walk and talk with Audrey. "She's not the only one who doesn't want to lose a friend over this."

Marie saw the uncertainty in the eye of the child she shared with Jane Thompson and felt her heart fill with love. "Oui, mon petit chou," she said hugging the femininely outfitted boy tightly to her. "I will," she promised as she added, *and I will play the most excellent matchmaker for the pair of you, if that is what you both truly want.*






Chapter 10 ~ Fall at Seasons House


Sunrise was still a good ninety minutes away when Darryl arrived at the stable and turned on the outside lights to wait for Audrey. *One distinct problem of early morning workouts during a New England autumn,* he grumbled. The later dawn meant sticking to lighted roads for their runs instead of the unilluminated woodland trails he preferred. *Well, maybe the moon will be bright enough once it gets a little more full that we can at least run down to the beach.*

Idly, he thought back over the past couple of days at Seasons House. Jane was up to something, he was sure. She wasn't being quite so open with Darla on the subject of upcoming plans for Audrey's program as she should have been. That meant she was going to pull something and did not want Darla to know about it ahead of time so that her reaction would be completely natural.

Which meant, whatever the 'something' was, that Darla was not expected to like it. In the old days, with other big sisters or even with Darla in the early days, Jane could get away with such tricks, but you could learn a great deal about how a person thinks in five, almost six years. *Wonder what it is? Halloween will be on us in short order, and Jane hasn't mentioned that, either. She told Audrey that we wouldn't be going to any parties, but there are a lot of other things _it_ could be and still be Halloween. Oh well, guess I will find out when Jane wants me to find out.*

Darryl's thoughts then skipped back, as they so often did these days, to Audrey. The flirting practices had started and he had to admit that Marie was right. Getting Audrey's competitive juices flowing had worked wonders. *Wonder if they'd gone as well after Jane called for me yesterday and I had to leave the two of them alone?"

"Darryl? You there?" Audrey's voice called from beyond the halo of the stable's outside lights.

Darryl turned toward the sound and was about to answer when he saw her, and lost all sense of what he was going to say. One of the focused-beam lights spotted her perfectly. This was an Audrey he hadn't seen before.

Her newly lengthened hair was up in a ponytail off the top of her head, the wavy mass bouncing gently as she moved toward him. Instead of her gray man-styled sweats, she was in skintight running pants and a fitted t-shirt under a satiny warmup jacket - all in a deep burgundy color with gold highlights. *My god, and she's got make up on,* Darryl realized as he saw how distinct and finely shaped her eyes and lips were.

"Well, what do you think?" she asked, holding her arms out and pirouetting slowly. When she finished the turn, she held her extended arm positions and gave him a slow, half smile, her long lashed eyes have open. *he hasn't said anything,* Audrey thought, *But Mom would call that look on his face 'gobsmacked.* "Well?" she said again, louder.

"Wow," was all Darryl could get out.

Audrey's smile widened into a grin. "I take it you like the outfit? Ms. Thompson thought it was time I started wearing more feminine things during my workouts."

"Oh, I agree," Darryl said, his voice sounding somewhat breathless, "I agree wholeheartedly."

For some reason, Audrey's body felt warm where ever his eyes fell, but she decided it was a nice warm. "Well, let's get started," she finally said. "I have to be back in the house in time to take care of these," she finished holding up her nails for his inspection.

Darla had seen the new nails while "Darryl" had not. And in truth, with Audrey looking so. . . so fetching, it was almost as if he really hadn't seen them. Shaking himself, Darryl managed a weak smile. "So, what do you want to do today."

"Run," she replied grinning. "You beat me yesterday and I want revenge."

"Oh?" Darryl replied, beginning to get his feet under him again.

"You bet. I want you back where you said you liked being so much, buster, following my butt!" And with that, she took off at a run for the trail.

Caught unawares, Darryl laughed and followed her. "Gotta tell you, sweetcheeks," he called, "If that's the way you're going to dress from now on, I am even happier to be back here!"

~--------------~

An hour and over six miles later, the pair burst onto the main driveway to Seasons House from the state road. Audrey and Darryl were neck and neck as they thundered up the drive and turned onto the main trail to the stables. No quarter was asked, offered nor given as both competitors dug down deep in this sprint to the finish. In the end, Audrey's longer stride won out as she edged Darryl by no more than two yards.

They slowed to a jog and then to a walk as they circled the stable for their cooldown. "All. . .is. . .right. . .with the . . World," Audrey said around deep, cleansing breaths. "I'm first. . you lose."

"Naw. . .," an equally winded Darryl retorted, "you. . cheated. You won by two yards. . after giving yourself. . .a ten yard. . head start. I. . . figure.. that makes me. . the winner."

"You just keep dreaming. .. those happy dreams, fella."

"You came in . . .next to last. I was second," Darryl teased.

Both of them enjoyed a laugh at the silliness as the approached the stable entrance. The dawn was lighting the sky now and Audrey reached inside to flip off the outside lights.

"BLAST." she snapped. "I just broke a nail!"

Darryl looked at it and saw that it was a minor break, easily fixed. "Can you fix it?" He asked.

"I don't know. I've never had manicured nails before. Maybe Darla will know how so I won't have to ask Ms. Thompson. Well, that means I have to hurry then, so I will have time to ask her and get cleaned up."

"Okay, see you tomorrow."

Audrey drew in a deep breath, bent down and kissed Darryl. . .somewhere in the vicinity of the mouth, although in her blind thrust, she missed by just a little bit. "Tomorrow," she echoed and then sprinted away without another word.

Darryl felt like he'd been rooted to the ground somehow as he watched her disappear around the bend in the trail. "She kissed me. . . well, maybe she kissed at me, but it's a start." He gave a joyful shout before he thought. *Shoot! She's going to come looking for Darla to help her fix that damn nail. Crap! I have to hurry or she'll catch me in mid-transformation!* whereupon he also sprinted up the trail to the mansion.

~--------------~

Seated astride Teddi, Jane watched as Audrey guided Garters through a complicated dressage course riding sidesaddle. "Pay attention to the change of lead," she called out to her pupil. "You have to make sure he knows where you want him to go because you cannot correct with knee pressure as you can astride." Jane made herself sound testy, because she intended to push the girl hard, but Audrey was doing well enough. *I will have to start having her ride in a Victorian riding habit so that both she and Garters get used to the feel of all that heavy fabric.*

"All right, that is enough for today," Jane ordered as she trotted up to Audrey. Garters shied as Teddi approached, but Audrey controlled her mount easily and competently. "Well done," Jane complimented. "I think that tomorrow we can begin working on jumping exercises as you have fulfilled your part of our bargain by working at sidesaddle. We've some more work to do, but we can do that and jump, too."

Audrey glowed at Jane's praise, and shyly smiled at the older woman. "Thank you. I'd like that."

Jane dismounted Teddi and indicated that Audrey should also get down from her mount. "Let's give these two darlings a good brushing and then I would like to speak with you about something I have planned for you. . .actually, for all of us."

*She didn't sound threatening,* Audrey reminded herself as she groomed Garters. *And she did say I did well today, so this isn't one of her bloody disciplines, is it?* She had not answer, but she could not get the feeling out of her mind that Jane was up to what Darla called 'one of her little schemes' and that made Audrey very nervous. Very nervous, indeed.

~--------~

Jane led Audrey to a trail the circled around the grounds of Season's House. She could practically see the girl's curiosity shimmering about her, but was pleased that she found the patience to let the teacher begin the discussion. *She might not have done so, two months ago when she arrived here,* "the reason I wanted to speak with you, Audrey and speak with you alone, is to give you fair warning of something I have planned for you."

Audrey felt a chill scrabble up and down her spine, but she managed to keep her expression only mildly curious. "Yes, Ms. Thompson?"

"Actually, Mrs. Beale, that's Caro, reminded me of it yesterday when she mentioned Halloween parties."

"You said I wouldn't be going to one," Audrey put in.

"No, I didn't, " Jane corrected firmly. "Or at least, that is not what I meant. I meant that you would not have to worry about stepping over and around the bodies young males prostrating themselves at your feet. You will be going to a party, and you will be in costume, but it won't be THAT type of party."

"Oh," was all Audrey could manage, but Jane heard the excessive relief in her voice.

She reached out and put a gentle hand on the tall girl's shoulder, stopping her. "We will have to discuss your issues associated with young males someday, dear, and I will insist that you interact with them socially at some point in your stay with me." Instantly, Jane could almost see the shields go up around the girl and felt her body tighten. "But not this time, Audrey," Jane continued in a much gentler tone. "Not this time."

Audrey felt the sincerity in both Jane's words and in her touch, and willed herself to relax. "All right," she finally replied.

"Very well, then," Jane said in a brisker tone of voice. "By the way, you don't happen to sing, do you?"

Whatever Jane expected as a response to that question, it was not self deprecating laughter, so she was a bit off guard when Audrey regained sufficient control to answer the question. "No, I don't. At least, not when there are any unfortunates around who I don't wish to torture. Miss Phoebe Elizabeth, that was my governess, felt that all young girls should sing in a choir and was quite insistent about it. In the end, the choral director gave up on trying to change Miss Phoebe Elizabeth's mind, and instead paid me a small bribe to lip sync with the other girls."

"That bad, eh?" Jane asked suspiciously.

"I can give you the name of the director. She's a sweet old lady and one of my favorite people. She. . ." Audrey's voice stumbled as she realized what she was about to say.

Seeing the stricken look on her student's face, Jane prompted her to continue. "Get it out, whatever it was. It is bothering you and I promise not to discipline you over it."

"Miss Bond used to say that we all had gifts, but not all gifts and that I had been elsewhere when musical talent and such were handed out. But she never once made me feel bad about it. She used to say that it made the chorus look as pretty as it sounded when I was standing up with the other girls."

"I can see how she'd have been right, dear." Jane said so matter-of-factly that Audrey's mouth fell open. "Well, you are that pretty when you aren't trying to hide your light under a bushel. Unfortunately, your lack of a singing voice does change my plans somewhat."

"Plans?"

"Yes, dear. My family and I have a tradition of going to a small children's party held at the children's hospital. There is a small show put on by the volunteers for the children and other party stuff."

"Like bobbing for apples," Audrey said, enchanted with the idea of the party.

*Uh oh,* Jane thought. "Audrey, you need to understand something. These children are. . " Jane's voice caught and she coughed, "Well, they're special. . . while there will be bobbing for apples, not all of them can do it for themselves." Jane became very quiet and then continued. "Some of them, perhaps even most of them will not ever have another Halloween."

"WHAAT!?!"

"The party is at the pediatric oncology ward, Audrey," Jane said softly. "All of these children have cancer of one form or another."

"Oh." Audrey replied, her own voice suddenly very far away.

"Because of that, I am not going to insist that you participate. If you don't think you can handle . . .knowing what those children are facing, or if you simply think you'd rather not go, I will not order you to attend the party. These children are very sensitive and they will know if someone doesn't really want to be there or acts. . .well. . strange around them."

Audrey became silent at that, and simply continued walking beside Jane. Her mind was in a tumult; confused thoughts spinning crazily about inside her head. *Could I do it? It sounds like a perfectly wonderful thing to do, but me?* "I've never done anything like that before," she finally said aloud before admitting, "And it is scary - the thought that you could mess up some kid's last holiday. I want to help, Ms. Thompson, really I do, but. . . "

"But you are uncertain how you will react?

Swallowing hard, Audrey nodded. "You said it, Ms. Thompson - those kids are special. They're dealing with shi . . stuff that no kid should have to deal with. The last thing I want to do is something that would make them feel worse, especially during a party."

"Fair enough," Jane said with a very gentle and approving smile. "Suppose you go in costume prepared to help, but if what you find there is too much for you, then you can go into the serving area and help there."

"I'd like that, Ms. Thompson," Audrey replied, relieved at the compromise. "So, what costume did you have planned for me," she asked, a Marie-taught teasing smile curling her lips as she regarded her companion under half-opened, lash-hidden eyes.

"That's the problem. You can't sing, or at least, you SAY you can't sing. Darla almost can, so I guess SHE will have to be Shirley Temple. The children do so love singing "Good Ship Lollipop" along with someone."

*ACCK!* thought a suddenly very relieved Audrey. *Better her than me, poor girl.* "So, what do I wear, then?"

"I suppose we will have to put our heads together, won't we?"

"What do you wear, or don't you dress up?"

"I," Jane intoned royally, her hand pressed dramatically to her breast, "am ALWAYS Mary Poppins."

"How appropriate," Audrey said with a giggle. "Practically perfect in every way."

"So glad you've finally noticed that, child," Jane said, very pleased with the girl. "Actually, I do a little magic show for the children. You know, pulling various things out of my carpet bag and such. Little gifts for the children. Once I brought a couple of kittens, but some of the children were allergic and their resistance was down due to the chemo." Audrey heard the wistful tone and began to think.

~--------------~

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN, I'M GOING TO BE SHIRLEY TEMPLE?!?" Darla yelped in as unladylike a response as Audrey had yet heard from the petite brunette.

"I can't sing," Audrey repeated for her friend before taking a sip of the cold milk Marie had put in front of her when she'd brought out the cookies.

"You're just saying that." Darla accused. "EVERYone can sing - at least a little."

"No, I really can't. Ms. Thompson is going to call my choir leader just to check, though."

"Harrumph. So, what are you going to go as?"

"I don't know. Something Ms. Jane said that caught my attention, though. . ."

"Oh?" Darla prompted as she quickly checked the doors before dunking her chocolate chip cookie in her milk.

"Do you think we could find something furry to wear? Something we could make into a hypo-allergenic kitten costume?"

Darla's eyes lit up at that. "Oh, that would be cool and the kids would LOVE it!" She jumped from her seat and rushed to the kitchen door. "Marie? Can you come in here a minute?"

Moments later, after Darla had explained the situation to Marie, the older woman nodded. "I think we can come up with something that will work. Good thing my own costume is already done."

"You're going, Tante Marie?" Audrey asked. "In a costume?"

"Certainly. I go as the fierce French buccaneer, Jean LaFitte," Marie said, exaggerating her accent before breaking into a grin. "The children get a real kick out of me dancing a hornpipe and singing 'yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum'."

Audrey was about to ask a question when Jane stuck her head in the dining room. "Audrey, your mother would like a word with you, please? On the phone in my downstairs office?"

"Yes, Ms. Thompson," Audrey replied before turning back to Marie and Darla. "Excuse me, please."

Darla watched as the tall girl disappeared into the hallway outside the dining room and sighed lustily. Marie, on the other hand, watched Darla and grinned happily. Then she saw the look on her girl's face. "Now why is it, petite, that I think your idea of a kitten costume and la belle Audrey's are not quite the same?"

"You don't think we could get her into a Catwoman costume like Michelle Pfeiffer wore?" Darla said, wistful hunger in her eyes.

"Non, I do not. Jane would not stand for it either."

"But kids LOVE Batman stuff," Darla wheedled.

"Not to worry, petite," the bright-eyed older woman said. "I have something in mind that might be almost as good from Audrey's perspective and almost naughty enough from yours."

~--------------~

Jane only half listened to the half of the call she could hear. Mostly, she was listening for emotion so that she could intervene if something bothered her student. *Not that it should in this case,* she thought. *With boys in skirts it was a different thing altogether. Particularly when the Moms didn't know their boys were in skirts."

"Yeah," Audrey said. "I think it is a nice thing, too." <pause> "Well, we haven't decided yet. I was supposed to be Shirley Temple, but I can't sing." <pause> "Oh yes, she's going and is going to be in costume even. She's going as Mary Poppins." <pause> "No, Mom, I didn't know she could sing. We haven't done any of that since I came here, lucky for Ms. Jane, Marie and Darla, eh?" <pause> "What? You want to talk to Ms. Jane? Okay, wait a minute. She's right here."

Audrey put her hand to the mouthpiece of the phone and looked at Jane. "Mom wants to ask you something."

Audrey now found herself in Jane's position, listening to half of a conversation.

"I don't think so, Pru," Jane said, her eyes half laughing, half disbelieving. <pause> "No, not even for that. Sorry." <pause> "How MUCH did you just say?!?" <pause> "you. . you WHAT?" <pause> "I heard you the first time, Pru! I just can't believe you would stoop so low as to play on my weaknesses like that." <pause> "No, I am not yet so old I can ignore a dare," Jane growled into the phone.

At that moment, Jane remembered she was not alone in her office. Looking up, she put her own hand to the phone and smiled at Audrey. "Dear, I think that is all we will need you for today. Why don't you and Darla go work on your costumes and I will see you at supper."

~--------------~

"Well, the good thing is that I don't have to be fitted for my costume," Darla said as she and Marie took very careful measurements of the nearly nude Audrey. "Since I am going to be wearing my usual rompers and petticoats. And I'm not even being punished!" she finished disgustedly.

"I don't see why I have to be measured in my undies," Audrey complained yet again. "I mean, I figured it would be like those sport team mascots, right? Surely something like that won't fit that snugly, will it?"

"They keep the hospital, particularly that ward, rather warm, dear," Marie said placatingly. "You don't want any more layers than you absolutely need.

"Oh," Audrey replied. "I guess that's okay. When can I see my costume, anyway?"

"Oh, a while yet, dear. A while yet."
--



Chapter 11 ~ Playing Fair or Not Playing At All?


From her seat on the Nautilus press bench, Audrey eyed the positioning of the weight pin with some trepidation. Not because of the weight alone, nor because it represented twenty-five percent over her own body weight. Neither of those really mattered and she knew that she could successfully press the weight above that pin. No, she had other, less well understood reasons for her uncertainty.

"C'mon, Rockwell, get in position," another voice ordered. "You have five more reps to do before we can call this little workout complete and you're burning daylight. I'd offer to reduce the weight, but you're up for it and it's time you took a shot at it."

"Yes, Darryl," Audrey said in as saccharine sweet a voice as she could manage. It wasn't up to Darla's standards, but it wasn't bad, she thought.

Audrey laid done on the bench, setting her back firmly on its strong, supportive surface, and then reached up for her grip on the long steel lift bars.

"Ready?" Darryl asked?" She nodded, so he ordered "Go!"

With a deep breath, Audrey put her shoulders and arms into the lift, and the weight moved up smoothly. Releasing the breath slowly, she lowered the weight back down in a slow, controlled manner whereupon she repeated the process. The second was almost as easy as the first, and the third was almost as easy as the second, but as the bar came down that third time, Audrey could feel the burn of lactic acid building in her biceps and triceps. She pushed through the burn for the fourth lift, but this time the weights clanked as she lowered them in not quite so controlled a manner. With more grit now than strength, she began the fifth lift. She felt the odd little twitches in her arms that signaled she was nearing her limits, but she continued the lift to her full arm extension. The weights clanked even louder on falling this time, and she was about to let go of the apparatus when Darryl stopped her.

"Go for it, Audrey," Darryl hissed into her ear. "Just one more for the record, okay? C'mon, you can Do it, you CAN DO IT! Breathe and go for it, Rocky. DO IT!"

Audrey wanted to tell him where he could stick his record, but years of listening to the unreasonable demands of coaches stifled her comments. Closing her eyes, Audrey took the ordered breath and pushed again. *God, it hurts!* her mind screamed as the burn became fierce and unrelenting. "WAY TO GO!" Darryl cheered. "Just a few more inches - you can DO it!"

Those few inches seemed like miles to Audrey, but she listened to Darryl and kept pushing. *Just a little bit more,* she told herself, *just a little bit more. . .almost. . .*

"THERE!" Darryl's scream was triumphant, "THERE! You've DONE it!!"

Suddenly, the weight on her arms eased as Darryl helped her lower the weight. Her head was spinning madly from the strain and from shock of success when she found herself jerked off the bench and led into a mad jig. Her already dizzy head became worse and she tried to stop. When she did, she found herself being hugged, tightly. *What?!?* her confused mind wondered.

"You did it, Audrey! That's was GREAT! I've never able to do five reps let alone six at that weight. God, but that was WONDERFUL! YOU were wonderful!"

*He sounds as happy as I should be, and yet, I just beat him at the only exercise we've ever done that he's been consistently better at than I have been. I don't understand,* she thought and then repeated that statement aloud.

The hug broke and a towel was wrapped around her sweat-soaked head. "Understand what, Audrey?" Darryl asked. "What's TO understand? You just benched 150 lbs six times. That's GREAT!"

Audrey dropped back down onto the bench and stared up at the wide-grinned visage of Darryl. "But. . but you're a boy. . ."

"You just noticed?" he snapped back cockily. "I am crushed."

"Oh you. You know what I meant. I just out-lifted you. You said so yourself, and yet, you seem more pleased about that than I am."

"Well, of course I am pleased. I haven't been busting my butt for the past couple of months to see you to get worse instead of better. Why wouldn't I be pleased?"

"Because I BEAT you, dammit! You're a guy and I just beat you at a guy thing!"

Darryl looked at her for a few moments. "Well, I hadn't thought of it THAT way," he said, somewhat sardonically.

"Guys are supposed to get mad when women do things like that," Audrey snapped, getting upset with him for not understanding the world as she did.

"Well, I am pretty sure I am a guy, although I am too much of a gentleman to make sure just now."

"DARRYL!" Audrey growled.

"Oh give it over, Audrey," he said in a gentler tone. "I've been expecting you to out-lift me since we first started working out together and I am not angry about it. Heck, you've been running my butt into the ground since that first day and I haven't complained. That you would be capable of better performances than me is to be expected. And I am glad for you."

"Glad for me," Audrey repeated.

Darryl chuckled and sat down on the bench beside the tall girl. The small surface brought forced them close together. So close, in fact, that their bare thighs touched from hip to knee.

"Look, you're genetically gifted in ways that I am not. You have height on me, as well as certain advantages that allow your muscles to strengthen more than mine ever will. That's just a fact. On the other hand, with your height and body mass, you are not likely to be world class in women's gymnastics, are you?"

"Well, no, but . .I . . that is, why aren't you. . .I mean. ."

"Why am I not acting like an outraged male shown up by a mere woman?" Darryl said the words with such bluster that even Audrey smiled. "Because while I am a very good athlete for my size, you are an outSTANDING athlete, irrespective of your gender. I mean, aren't you the one who plans on competing in the men's pentathlon next Olympics?" Audrey nodded slowly. "Is that an unreasonable expectation of yourself or are you that damned good?"

A small smile broke through Audrey's frown. "Oh, I'm that damned good, all right!"

"Well, I'm not. I am just about as good as I can possibly ever be, given my size and musculature, but I will never be good enough to compete at that level. Simple as that. But you are! Athletically, you're one in a hundred million, and what is even more amazing is that you've managed to attain that level without giving up on any of your beauty," Darryl stopped and grinned as Audrey blushed furiously at the unexpected compliment. "What you need to understand is that *I* know you're that damned good because you are, and that I am in no way diminished by that simple fact. The things you can do make YOU special, but they don't make me less of a man or less of a person because there are things I can do well that make me special in MY own right."

Audrey looked at Darryl in silence for what seemed to the young man to be a very long time. It took all his will and all of Jane Thompson's years of training not to flinch under her steady gaze. Finally, she shrugged. "You are a very unusual person, Darryl."

He managed a slight grin. "I just told you I was special," he said, "but then, I also said you are, too. Now, c'mon. It would really tick me off if Ms. Thompson wouldn't let you come tomorrow because you were late for breakfast."

The pair said their farewells and Audrey jogged easily up the trail to the mansion. It was only when she was showering, and replaying the incident in her mind, that she realized in disbelief that she had allowed Darryl to pull her body tight against his own and hug her!

And more, that she had hugged him back without feeling at all queasy or endangered by the hard, unrelenting contact with a male body against her own.




Chapter 12 ~ Vignettes - Advise and Guidance


Darla was off somewhere with Jane later that day when Audrey went looking for Marie. She found Jane's major doma hard at work in her little sewing room on the third floor of the mansion.

"Ah, Audrey," she said with a smile, "How are you, petite?"

"Fine, Tante Marie," Audrey replied, remembering to use the familial greeting since the two of them were alone. "Just wanted to see how the costume was coming."

"Well!" Marie beamed, "Very well. I am working on a surprise for Darla right now, but I had some very good luck at the fabric store this morning." Marie rose and went over to a small bag and removed a pair of parcels which she set before Audrey. When the girl made no move toward them, Marie nudged them closer. "Open them, silly."

Audrey opened the larger one, first. and found about a two yard long piece of something black and furry. Unable to resist, Audrey stroked her hand through the furry mass and sighed in pleasure. "That's lovely," she breathed appreciatively.

"Yes, and it is not real fur, but very good man-made fake. No lint, no dander, nothing to make the little ones sneeze, eh? Plan on being petted to death, cherie, for they will love doing it to this stuff. And. . . ." Marie took the fur and set it by Audrey's face, draping one of the girl's locks over the fabric. "A fair match for your own fur. Good, that will do!" she finished all the while staring significantly at the other parcel.

Taking the hint that she was to get on with the unwrapping, Audrey happily shredded the other package and found "A pair of ears!" she exclaimed, putting the tiara-like piece to her head and looking for a mirror. Entranced by what she saw, Audrey ran a tentative finger down one of the ears. "They're soft, too!"

"Just so," Marie said with a good deal of satisfaction. "And quite rugged, too, so the little ones will be able to stroke your ears, too, although that might well pull a bit on your hair."

"I don't care!" Audrey exclaimed. "They're wonderful."

Marie returned to her seat and picked up her sewing. "So, why don't you tell me what you really came here to talk about?"

Audrey's mouth dropped open rather nicely, Marie thought, and inwardly grinned at her little deduction. "How did you know?" the girl demanded.

"Perhaps it is the fact that you stood outside my door for two whole minutes before it occurred to you what to say upon entering? Or perhaps it is just that you are not the first young one to come to me with such a look on your face? Now, what is it?"

"It's just that I am confused, Tante Marie."

"Really? I don't see it, petite. You are doing so well in your lessons with Jane now."

"Oh, not with her," Audrey replied. "It is Darryl that has me all mixed up."

"That is not surprising, Audrey. Men and women have been mixing each other up since Le Bon Dieu stole Adam's Rib and made Eve. You are a woman, he is a man. Part of the fun in that is confusing each other."

"But he doesn't react like a real boy!" Audrey burst out.

Shocked, Marie dropped her sewing and stared. Finally she managed, "In what ways?"

Audrey burst out of her seat and began, as best she could in the tiny, cluttered room, to pace. "Just this morning, Tante Marie, I beat him in weightlifting for the first time. It's the only thing I haven't thoroughly trounced him in and yet. . ."

Marie simply watched the agitated girl for several moments before finally giving in to her own rabid curiosity and prompting, "And yet what, dear?"

"He cheered me!" Audrey snapped in indignantly. "He told me what a great athlete I was and how happy he was for me!"

"I see," Marie replied, striving not to laugh, "And what should he have done?"

"Snarled! Yelled. Swore! I don't know," Audrey spun on Marie. "Anything but what he did do. Boys HATE being shown up by girls, particularly in athletics."

"Ah. And you think, perhaps, Darryl's words were not what he really felt? That deep down, he was angry and upset and, how did you put it? Ah, yes, hating it?"

Audrey seemed to deflate at that, and came back to collapse in the chair. "No, that's not what I believe," she said very quietly. "Darryl says only what he means which makes it all the more confusing to me. How can he stand to have a girl be better than him in every athletic area?"

"I have known Darryl for a very long time, my dear. Perhaps it is time you should know this, but Darryl was once one of Jane's students." Audrey's brows went high into her forehead at this and Marie nodded. "Not for very long because he only needed a little help."

"Is THAT the reason he's helping me workout. . ." and then another less pleasant question occurred to the girl and her face went fierce. "Is that the reason he's been playing these boy/girl games with me? Because Ms. Thompson asked him to do them?"

A gentle hand was laid across Audrey's suddenly tense one. "Cherie, if Jane knew the direction Darryl's interests with you have taken, she'd be aghast. Yes, she did ask him to work with you because she knew he was trustworthy and would not. . ." and here Marie paused as if seeking the right words. "do anything to frighten or upset you. Do you understand why, given your history, she had to be absolutely sure of the boy?"

Audrey stared hard at Marie, for seconds stretching into minutes before she finally nodded. "Very good," Marie continued, "but to answer your second question, no, she did not ask him to pay court to you. That will be even more of a surprise to Jane than it was to you."

"But it just isn't natural for a guy not to be upset when a girl is better than he is, Tante Marie."

"And who says you are better than my Monsieur Darryl? You are a better runner, swimmer, whatever than he, but is that all you are? Non, you are much more than just an athlete. So too is it with Darryl. That is why you like him back, eh?"

The knowing look in Marie's dark eyes brought heat to Audrey's cheeks. She thought about prevaricating, but finally sighed. "I have never felt like this before, Tante Marie, and I don't know what to do about it. I feel so. . . off balance."

The older woman gave a short laugh. "Well, my sweet, then perhaps we women should come up with something to tilt the scales back in your direction and put the so-clever and sweet Darryl off-balance."

~--------------~

Art swore as his phone rang. A glance at his bedside clock had him even more unhappy with whoever was responsible for that foul cacophony. "Yes," he growled into the phone. "Who IS this?" he asked in a tone that had shriveled many an undergraduate.

"Dad?" a hesitant tenor voice replied.

"Dar? DarRYL?" Art asked, emphasizing the second syllable.

"Yes, Dad, it's me. Calling from your gym. Can you talk? I really need to talk!"

Art pulled himself up and leaned against the wall at the head of his bed. "Sure, son, what's the problem."

"Audrey!" Was the quick reply. "Dad? I. . I'm pretty sure I am in love with her and I am damned if I know what to do about it."

"It is my experience that there is little one can do about love except decide to enjoy it or suffer with it, my boy, at least when it is real."

"Well I don't WANT to suffer with it, Dad, but I don't know what to do. She's going to be really pissed off when she finds out that I am Darla. And that's bound to happen eventually."

"If you stay with her, either as Darryl or Darla, I suspect that is true. May I ask what crisis resulted in this particular call?"

"She showed up for our run this morning in a new outfit, dad. It was a running suit, made of this gold colored fabric that fit her like a glove." The last was said in a breathy whisper that left no doubt in Art's mind that his son was reliving that particular memory. "All that sleek female, shining in the early morning light and shadow."

"That good, huh?" Art asked with grin.

"Let's just say that a five mile run can be really painful when the cup of your athletic supporter suddenly becomes and stays too damned small!"

Art winced at that particular description before asking. "Are you sure this isn't just a bad case of unrequited lust?"

There was silence on the other side of the line for several minutes with only the occasional sigh to tell Art his son was still connected. "It would be a helluva lot easier if it was, Dad. What am I going to do when she finds out?!?"

*Run like hell, son, except, she's faster than you are, isn't she?* "Son? Perhaps I should speak to your mother. Perhaps it is time for you to leave as Darla."

"I almost wish that I could do that, but she still needs Darla, Dad."

"You're convinced of that?"

"She's opening up to me as Darla now, in ways that she didn't a few weeks ago. Darla is the one who got her together with Marie and the one Audrey asks when there is a female issue she doesn't quite understand."

"Then you have to make a choice, don't you?" Art said, not unkindly.

There was an almost explosive sigh on the other end of the line. "There really isn't a choice, Dad," Darryl finally said. "Is there? Thanks," he said, meaning it. "I have to run. Darla is already late for breakfast."

"Enjoy your dishpan hands, son," Art said teasingly, remembering Jane's favorite 'reminder' to be on time for meals. "And call me whenever you need to talk man-to-man."

"Thanks, Dad." Darryl said, hanging up the phone. Reflexively, he took a quick look in the mirror to check his hair and makeup, and then, with a concerted effort, re-donned the Darla identity and headed down to breakfast.

~--------------~

"He practically tripped over his tongue!" Audrey giggled as she helped Marie with the final breakfast preparations. "The outfit worked perfectly, as did the waterproof mascara you gave me."

"Nothing like a little feminine war paint to get a male's attention. So, give over, girl," Marie chided as she arranged the fruit platter, "What did he do?"

"Well, for one thing, he was practically stuttering," Audrey grinned. "At the end of our workout he was so mixed up he told me to 'hurry up or you'll be late for your run' and that he'd 'see me tomorrow for our next shower'."

"Oh my, you had him coming and going. That's VERY good! I hope you didn't point that little verbal juxtaposition out to him," Marie asked, her eyes twinkling.

"Oh, I thought about it, but decided I'd save it for tomorrow when he'll try to deny he said it. Nope, I just patted his butt and headed for the showers."

"I'd have given ANYTHING to see his face," Marie giggled.

"Me, too," Audrey admitted. "But I figured I'd pressed my advantage far enough for one day."




Chapter 13 ~ The Great Cat


"Aunt JANE!?!?" Darla's voice bellowed from the hallway outside Audrey's bedroom. Marie, who was in the process of helping with Audrey's costume shrugged and walked to the bedroom door.

"Quiet, you undignified girl!" she snapped, hiding her secret amusement well. "Why are you screaming like a fishwife?"

"My costume, Tante Marie," Audrey heard Darla complain. "I can't find it."

"Of course you can. I put it on your dress-stand myself while you were washing."

"But that's not. . "

"What it is, child, is what you will wear. Jane's orders!"

"You're sure? Where is Aunt Jane, anyway?"

"Already left to help finish the party preparations. Now scoot and dress yourself, young lady!"

"Yes Ma'am!" and Audrey thought she heard considerable enthusiasm in those words.

"Well, that's that," Marie said, clapping her hands together dramatically. "Now for you, ma petite belle chat."

Audrey looked at herself in the mirror and was still not quite sure she believed what she saw. The costume Marie had given her (and now Audrey understood why Marie had not let her see it beforehand) was nothing like what she had envisioned. She was not some feline equivalent of the San Diego Chicken or the Philly Phanatic. She was in no way, shape or form some walking cartoon character of the type that might be found roaming the grounds of Disney World.

The costume consisted of a solid black unitard that covered the tall girl from wrist to neck to toes to which Marie had stitched the lovely fake fur like some fuzzy speedo swimsuit. A tail of the same furry material, just dragged the floor behind her. Soft shoes and gloves, also black, gave her 'paws and claws'. With her ears on, and silver-shot black leggings she looked like something out of the musical Cats. All that was missing was the "Makeup," Marie said, breaking in on Audrey's thoughts. "Come over here and sit, so I can get done and get my own costume on."

Half in a daze, Audrey did as she was told, and then watched in utter fascination as Marie's skilled hands turned her face into a black mask of pure feline femininity - her eyes impossibly slanted and long, her nose a shiny button standing out from the rest of her face, her lips oddly shaped and . . well, catlike.

The finishing touch was a bit of black sticky-tape that added three dimensional whiskers beneath her nose to match with the ones Marie had drawn onto her cheeks.

Just then the door opened and Darla came into the room. She was dressed in a red riding coat, jodhpurs, knee-high black boots and a ruffled white shirt. She was carrying a silk top hat, white gloves and what looked like a whip in her hands. "Are you sure this is what I am supposed. . ." Audrey knew the precise moment Darla saw her because she stopped dead in her tracks and her "to wear?" came out as a bare whisper.

"Wow," Darla breathed, coming up to help Audrey stand so she could get a good look at the taller girl. "You look GREAT!"

Audrey started to mumble something, but caught herself. She tried and managed a fairly respectable rumbling sound as a purr. "Raoowfff. Thank you. And just because you are dressed like a lion tamer," she said in a low husky voice, "don't get any cute ideas. Black Leopards. . particularly female leopards are a whole lot more. .. roarrrrrr. . .dangerous."

Darla could only swallow because the part of her that was always Darryl was standing up and taking notice. *God, she is so.. . .so sexy!* "Well," she finally managed. "I guess I understand my costume. You know we are expected to do little skits for the children, right?"

Marie decided she'd been ignored long enough. "I have to go change. You two figure out your skit and I will meet you in the foyer in half an hour."

"A skit, eh?" Audrey purred low in her throat. "I have a positively marvelous idea."
--



Chapter 14 ~ The Greatest Lollipop Ship-Show on Earth


Audrey and Darla waited - almost patiently - behind the makeshift curtain, for their chance to go on. So far, their costumes, particularly Audrey's, had been a big hit with the little ones. As predicted, they loved petting her, remembering their own cats or dogs that they had not seen since this trip to the hospital had begun. That had been. . . humbling for the inordinately healthy Audrey - and exalting.

The nurse who was acting as Mistress of Ceremonies, was about to go out to announce them when she stopped. Audrey saw a little bald-headed girl in wheelchair slip into the room. Her chair was being pushed by a man who looked old beyond his years. "Oh, thank god," the nurse breathed. "I was hoping he'd get her back down here."

"What is it?" Audrey asked.

"That little girl has leukemia and she had an episode of nausea just before the last act started. Her Mother's dead and her father isn't a good enough match for bone marrow transplant so they've been using some experimental but harsh chemo to keep her going until we can find a match. The latest one looked pretty good and we'll know in a day or so for sure. Lord knows they could use some good news. She hasn't smiled in weeks." The nurse watched as the father maneuvered his daughter into a place where she could see the screen.

"If the match is good, what are her chances?" Audrey couldn't stop herself from asking.

"Better than some in here, not as good as others. I'm just glad she made it back for the rest of the party. Well, are you two circus performers ready?"

At their nod, the nurse slipped out onto the 'stage'. "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. . .ahem. . and you parents, too. WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT, LIVE FROM DINGALING BROTHERS CIRCUS, . . the GREAT LION TAMER, DARLA and her fierce BLACK LEOPARD, ROCKY!!!"

Darla took her cue to prance out onto the stage, hamming up a comic-opera strut that was simultaneously stiff and silly. When she reached the center of the equipment that had been set out (a hula hoop, hassock, and stacking chair from the lunchroom) she cracked her whip three or four times - tried four times, got some noise three - and called out to her partner.

"Rocky! Here, girl! Take your place!"

Rocky glided onto the stage...
Rocky glided onto the stage in a slow, sensuous slink that had all her muscles rippling fluidly beneath the furry costume. That she was on all fours seemed only natural, as natural as the animal grace that made hurry something inflicted on lesser beings. She strutted, too, but her movements displayed the consummate power of a proud hunting cat, not the pompous rigidity of Darla's lion-tamer self-importance.

The sleek cat gave a disdainful look at her nominal controller and mounted the hassock with regal dignity, recognizing it as the most comfortable place to sit anyway.

"Up, Rocky. Sit up!" Darla commanded, cracking the whip overhead again. Rocky growled, a deep rumble that escalated into a rippling snarl, snatching her paw at the waving whip. Darla picked up the plastic chair and advanced on her recalcitrant charge, demanding again, "UP, Rocky!"

After a pause that was just long enough to show her rapt audience that she was considering taking the whip from her 'tamer' and finding a better use for it, Rocky sniffed and uncoiled from her crouch to rise up on her haunches, still snarling at the approaching Darla. A lightning-quick paw batted at the chair, but at another crack from Darla's whip (spoiled only slightly because it took her two tries to make the sound), Rocky lifted her front paws into an upright pose and roared.

From that point, she was better behaved, flowing from one position to another with a good pace. Darla made her roll over, walk forward and backward, and then remount her hassock-stand.

"Okay, Rocky, now . . . Jump through the hoop!" Darla ordered pompously, holding up the hula hoop in front of Rocky.

The response to Darla's order was another disdainful glance and an almost laughing snarl. Then, with a casual turn away from both Darla and the hula-hoop, Rocky began to mime licking her paw and washing her face.

Disgusted, Lion Tamer Darla started her lead in to the next part of the act. "Now, sometimes, you just can't get these cats to do what you want them to do," Darla told the children as she stood between Audrey and them. "And that's okay, there's always tomorrow. But do you know what you must NEVER, EVER do around a fierce leopard??"

One by one, the kids raised their hands and gave some very imaginative answers. Darla smiled at them and acknowledged each one, but finally said, "Those are all really great answers, kids, but that isn't what I had in mind."

"I know," hissed a fierce voice from behind Darla, just before her top hat and whip were plucked away from her. Darla jumped back to reveal Audrey now wearing the top hat and flicking the whip. "Never, EVER turn your back on a big cat," she purred wickedly. "Particularly not on a smart lady leopard like ME!"

With that, Audrey hopped off the hassock and cracked the whip. She picked up the hoop that Darla had so unsuccessfully tried to get the cat-dressed girl to jump through. "Now, it's YOUR turn, human, to jump through a few hoops!" Rocky purred, snapping the whip in emphasis.

Darla steadfastly refused. "I am a person, not a cat. I don't jump through hoops."

Audrey looked at the kids and gave them a big smile. "Oh, is that so?" she asked. "Well, let me put it this way," she purred. "If you don't jump through this hoop, person? You will be LUNCH!"

Darla gave an exaggerated look of shock at Audrey who simply licked her lips. The children cheered as Darla ran and jumped through the hoop and then kept going as fast as she could, right off the stage, with the sinuous black leopard hot on her heels.

~------------~

In the 'dressing room', a joyous Audrey lassoed Darla with the hula hoop and pulled her friend to her and into a hug. "That was GREAT!" she crowed happily. "Did you see the looks on the faces of those kids? Did you?"

Darla basked in the feeling of Audrey's furry, hard body against her own, just for a second or two, before forcing herself to pull back. Grinning, she nodded. "You were GREAT, Rocky!" she said.

At the sound of that name, Audrey went momentarily still. "You know, I almost missed my cue when that nurse called me 'Rocky'. It has been a long time," she said almost to herself.

"Well, I couldn't very well call a fierce, Darla-eating wild animal Audrey, could I? I mean, Auuuudrrrey," and here Darla gave an exaggeratedly British intonation, "Hardly sounds fearsome, does it? Why, I think of Audrey Hepburn, myself, in that movie Gigi."

"Gigi?" Audrey replied. "Is that where you came up with the name for me that day with Old Tom?"

Darla swallowed back a bit of anxiety, and finally nodded. "I'd seen the movie recently before you arrived and with your dark, short hair, and huge eyes, well, you reminded me of her."

"And then the nose. . ." Audrey said, this time definitely to herself. "You had the drawing already done." Suddenly piercing eyes pinned Darla. "Will I see myself in this movie, Darla - the self as I am now?"

"Hardly," Darla replied airily, but stepping out of range before adding. "I don't think Audrey Hepburn ever starred in Cats!"

Audrey's eyes went wide and her mouth fell open, but then she started to giggle. "We'll talk about this more later, girl," she growled, trying to sound threatening.

Seeing that the humor had helped the immediate crisis pass, Darla hugged Audrey again. "Well, it's not as if you have much to complain about," she sniffed. "Now, c'mon. Let's go sit with the kids and watch the rest of the show."

"Would you mind if we sat with the little one.. .the one who had to leave and came back just before our act?"

"No problem," Darla replied. "Besides, she looks like she could do with a little cheering up. Let's try this. . . "

~-------------~

The pair slipped back into the makeshift theater and took up positions next to the little girl in the wheelchair, Audrey right next to the girl, and Darla beside Audrey. The current act was a very competent clown whose act included sleight of hand, slapstick and balloon animals for each child. To the amusement of everyone, even Darla received one of the clever balloon creations which the clown told her was "a lion even YOU might be able to tame."

Audrey, still enjoying herself hugely, gave a definitive little 'roar' in agreement and had every child in the room giggling, even the little one they were sitting with.

When the clown went off to play to the other side of the room, Darla caught the little girl's attention and winked at her before taking Audrey's tail and giving it a yank. Audrey jumped and spun, giving the conspicuously innocent-looking lion-tamer a dark glare. Apparently finding nothing, she turned around three times before settling herself back to the floor.

Darla gave the children around her a few moments to figure out what was going on, and then with another wink, pulled Audrey's tail again. Audrey snapped around in a flash, this time going nose to nose with the still innocent-looking Darla, her 'forepaws' resting on the lion tamer's shoulders. "You didn't happen to see this one," she purred at the wide eyed girl, "Pull my tail, did you, kitten?"

A tentative shake of her small head had a very suspicious Audrey slinking back, growling under her breath, to her seat. Darla and the little girl grinned at each other over the furry back. With another wink, Darla reached across and picked up the little hand nearest her and gently pulled it over to stroke Audrey. A loud purr and an arching back greeted this effort and soon had all the nearby children crowding in to help.

"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! OUR NEXT ACT! MISS SHIRLEY TEMPLE!"

All sound in the small room ended as the opening chords to "good ship lollipop" began to play from the sound system, whereupon the curtains parted to admit the singing act.

"On the good ship, Lollipop, it's a sweet trip to a candy shop,"

And every eye in the room went huge. This was a very tall Shirley Temple, albeit in the tight golden curls, the frilly blouse and suspendered skirt along with the tasseled knee socks and black patent leather mary-janes on her feet.

"Oh. . .my. . . god!" Darla breathed. "It's Aunt Jane!" as the woman in child's clothing skipped merrily about the stage, getting the children to sing along with her on the chorus.

Suddenly, the little girl next to Audrey burst into tears and hid her face in her father's shoulder. Instantly, Jane was beside the girl. "What's the matter, sweetheart," she asked in a gentle voice Audrey had never heard come from this formidable woman. "Didn't you like my singing?"

Sniffling, the child shook her head. "No, you sing pretty, . . it. . it. . .it's your hair," she managed to get out before another burst of tears had her once again burying her face in her distraught father's coat.

Jane settled on her knees in front of the girl. "My hair?"

Not moving her face, she nodded. "My hair used to look like yours, before it fell out."

"Oh, is that so?" Jane said. "Well, I can certainly fix THAT!" With a sweeping move of her hand, Jane pulled the wig from her head and then settled it upon the bald little head with great care. "Hmmm. . . not bad," she said fussily, her quick fingers here and there, "And what's this?" she exclaimed, pulling something shiny from behind the little girl's ear.

"It's a mirror," another child answered.

"Why, so it is," Jane grinned. "Odd place to keep your hand mirror, dearie," she teased the now-bewigged child. "I keep mine on my bureau. Going to help me sing? Now that you have my hair, that is?"

There was a shy little nod and the beginnings of a smile. "Great!" Jane enthused. "Maestro, my music, if you please!" And soon, everyone in the room was singing about places where bon-bons play on the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay, or having happy landings on a chocolate bar.

After that, the party devolved into the happy chaos of children having fun. Audrey found herself to be quite the attraction, either by children wanting to stroke her and remember a beloved pet, or by the mischievous ones who wanted to play with tail. Those she gently tusselled with, giving them a tickle or two with her whiskers and a gentle hug before letting them go. She even managed to get a giggle out of the one wearing Jane's Shirley Temple wig.

It was, she decided, quite the best holiday she'd ever had.

~------------~

Marie had promised to stay to help clean up so the two girls rode back to Seasons House with Jane. "Going to tell us about the costume change, Mary Poppins," Darla teased after they had ridden for several miles in companionable silence.

"I have to," Jane said with a wicked grin. "Audrey has to tell her Mother all about it."

"I what?" Audrey came up out of a near doze at the sound of her name.

"Your mother bet me I wouldn't put on full Shirley Temple regalia and do the Good Ship Lollipop. She now owes my favorite charity a rather large check. You will tell her, won't you, Audrey?"

"What's in it for me?" Audrey grinned back. "I mean, you didn't wear the whole outfit the entire time, now did she, Darla?"

"Well, now that you mention it. . . " Darla drawled suggestively.

Inwardly pleased with the girl's performance and with her pure-teenager response to Jane's question, the older woman did not give an inch. "Oh, a mere two days in pigtails, pettis and pinafores instead of four. How's that?"

Unrepentant and recognizing the playful nature of Jane's tones, Audrey retaliated in kind, ably aided and abetted by the laughing Darla. The remainder of the trip filled with a good natured haggling well suited to a Middle Eastern market place.

~-----------~

It was dark when the trio made their way up the walk to the front door of Seasons House. "We shall have to make do with our own cooking, ladies," Jane said as she slid the key into the deadbolt lock. "And I think, that since Audrey and I have so much costume to take off, Darla will be entrusted with the evening meal preparations. What shall it be, Darla? And NO, you may not call out for pizza!" Jane said in stern tones.

"As if I would," Darla sniffed as she followed Jane and Audrey into the foyer. "After all that junk food at the party? I should think a salad, some fresh bread and one of Marie's frozen soups would be all any of us want."

"That sounds lovely," Jane replied as she saw Audrey beginning to unbutton the furry body suit she'd worn as part of her costume. That seemed like an excellent idea so she doffed her coat and turned to hand it to Darla, and stopped. She'd never seen a look quite like that on the face of her child before. *My goodness, she is actually open-mouthed in amazement,* she realized.

Darla was staring, and Jane turned back to look again at Audrey. She immediately recognized what had so caught Darla's undivided attention. Audrey had shed the soft, fuzzy vest that had mimicked fur on her body and was now dressed only in the unitard, shoes, gloves and her cat ears. While such an outfit would normally be no more alluring than a competition swimming suit or a dancer's costume, Audrey had been perspiring rather heavily beneath her furry over garment. As a result, the body suit clung to her like a shiny second skin, lovingly highlighting every curvy nuance of Audrey's trim yet womanly figure.

The suit was particularly kind to the subtle swell of the young athlete's firm, proud bosom.

The neckline had crept down so that the suit showed more than a hint of lovely cleavage, and if one stared very hard *Which Darla definitely is,* Jane thought, one might make out . . more feminine detail on those shining breasts. Not only that, but the look of relief on Audrey's face as she set the fur aside was almost erotically sensual. Almost purring, she stretched her body, arching her back so that every curve was further emphasized and then slowly ran her fingers through her hair, disarraying the midnight mass about her head and face into a wild tangle of ebony highlights.

Jane was sure she heard Darla groan in response and that set her into action. Quickly, she forcibly shoved her coat into Darla's hands and hissed. "Snap out of it!" She used her coat-hidden hands to give the still-unresponsive Darla a quick, hard shake. Confused eyes gradually came up to meet Jane's own. "Get a hold of yourself," Jane half growled, half whispered. "Don't let her see you gawking at her like a testosterone-poisoned male."

It took a few moments for what Jane had said to sink into Darla's consciousness, but once it did, she all but jumped away to try to avoid being by Audrey seen as Jane had just described her. "I'll. . . I'll. . just hang up your coat and go fix dinner, Aunt Jane," she finally managed, and then disappeared into the dining room, still carrying Jane's coat.

*I'll probably find it on the coat tree in the kitchen,* she mused. "Well, I'm for a shower, I think," she said aloud. "All these layers have become rather sweaty."

Still smiling, Audrey looked over at Jane. "Not 'glowy'? I thought ladies didn't sweat."

"Well, I did today, smarty-britches," Jane retorted. "As did you! I KNOW that I am a lady, and after today, I am willing to grant YOU the benefit of the doubt." Then Jane became serious. "You did well today, Audrey. The kitten costume was inspired. The children so enjoyed having something furry and alive to pet."

"I. . .I enjoyed doing it, Ms. Thompson." She hesitated, and then had to ask. "The little one. . .the one you gave the wig to. . is she. . I mean. . will she. . " Audrey tried, but couldn't get out the words.

Jane did not pretend to misunderstand. "They are hopeful about the latest treatment. The donor match is apparently excellent. The only problem is that she doesn't have much time if this one doesn't work."

Audrey hesitated, her foot on the first step of the stairs, her hand resting on the bannister. "You made her smile. . . with the wig. . .and with your song."

Jane came over and softly stroked the girl's "Hair-Club-for-Girls" coiffure. "And your playfulness made her giggle." Jane reached over and put a motherly kiss on Audrey's cheek. "As I said, you did wonderfully well, today. Now, go get out of that soggy suit, shower and get into something comfortable for dinner. I think we shall be sybaritic and dine en famille on TV trays in the music room."

Audrey stared at Jane for several moments, and only by force of will managed not to raise her hand to the spot Jane had kissed. Then, feeling greatly daring, Audrey bent over and returned the kiss to Jane's cheek, before literally turning tail and running up the stairs.

Jane watched her disappear into her room and grinned. "Well, how about that?" she asked before the other, more difficult question hit her. "And what in heavens name am I going to do about Audrey and Darla. .. Darryl?"

She didn't know. "Lord, but I wish Diana was here." she complained, before ascending the stairs herself, at a much more dignified rate, of course.
--



Chapter 15 ~ Sometimes Love Don't Feel Like It Should


Art set the phone down and tried to think. Darryl was clearly deeply infatuated with the Rockwell girl, and while he was doing everything he could to control that infatuation, it was still a volatile situation. Something might well blow and what if that happened while Darryl was Darla?

Without seeing things for himself, he really couldn't say if his son's feelings were more than lustful infatuation, but his instincts about Darryl told him that it was more than that - a good deal more, in fact.

Darryl thought he was in love with the girl. Darryl was one of the brightest, clearest thinking young men Art had ever met. Ergo, logic indicated that Darryl WAS in love with Audrey.

Except, logic and love rarely went well together.

Art's ruminations were interrupted by the shrill call of his phone. He picked it up. "Art?" a husky, alto voice demanded. "Is that you?"

"Hi, Janey," he replied, suppressing a small sigh. "How are you, dear?"

"I'm fine," she said firmly, "but our son is head over heels in love with one of my students and I don't have the faintest idea what to do about it."

*And you think I do??!?* Art barely managed to avoid saying aloud. *Well, I guess that settles that. Jane's perceptions, about others at least and in particular about anyone she loves, are at least as acute as my own. Now what do we do?* "Well, I knew he was taken with her. . ." he began carefully.

~--------------~

"Two AM," Darryl fumed disgustedly, after having turned over once again to glare at the glowing numerals of his clock. "Lying here awake in the dark is NOT going to help when the time comes to run in the morning. On the other hand, cold showers - two of them - didn't help either."

He had shed Darla's silken panties after the first few minutes in bed. When he had turned out the lights, the darkness had reminded him of the play of midnight glimmers across Audrey's costume - like he was in any danger of forgetting - and that took him perilously close to the edge. Just thinking about the slick smoothness of Darla's clothes was WAY too dangerous for his present condition.

But even the gentle caress of cool sheets had also been too much - despite that second frigid shower. Even reviewing multiplication tables had not distracted him from images that were burning in his mind, and in his blood.

"This is absurd," he decided, heading once more for the bathroom where he collected some hand cream and a handful of bathroom tissues. "I'm not going to let this get to be a habit, but I for sure am going to have to do SOMEthing if I'm going to get any sleep. As sure as the sun will come up in the morning, Audrey is going to be at the stables before that event expecting Darryl to be there, ready to workout."

Sighing, he filled one palm with the cream while he positioned the tissue with the other, and then set to work. A scant few minutes brought the relief his body demanded, and though his mind still refused to let go of the image of Audrey, his thoughts were a little less lustful and a bit more, ah, analytically appreciative of her trim form as he snuggled back into the covers. In moments, he was asleep, the smile on his face revealing an impish amusement that was characteristic of both Darryl and Darla, a bridge between the two natures of Aunt Jane's most willing student.

~--------------~

Darryl did not know the person who had greeted him in the small circle of light at the stable entrance and then run WITH him instead of AGAINST him. This tall person LOOKED like Audrey and her voice SOUNDED like Audrey's, but she certainly did not ACT like Audrey.

This tall, female person was . . .well, bubbly . . .and talkative. She had spent the entire five mile run regaling Darryl with her memories of the previous day's party. How much fun she'd had putting on the show and playing with the children. How much she wished she could find someway to make them well again and how funny-warm it had made her feel inside when the littlest one who had been so awfully sick had smiled and even giggled because of something Audrey had done.

Their run had taken longer than usual, an occurrence that Darryl chalked up to Audrey using her air supply for talking more than for running, and they would both be late for breakfast unless they really hurried through their morning rituals. Still, Audrey was hesitant to leave.

"You really loved it there yesterday, didn't you?" Darryl asked.

Somehow, Audrey's face became even brighter, somehow happier. "Oh, Darryl," she breathed. "It was so wonderful."

Just how it happened, Darryl wasn't sure, but the next thing he knew, Audrey had swept him up into her arms and was spinning him about in a tight hug. "The only thing that would have made it better would have been if you'd been there, too."

Her kiss was better aimed this time, if still too short and quick for Darryl to reply in kind, and so he simply stood there watching as she ran up the trail, her ponytail bouncing flirtatiously on her head.

A wave of intense confusion liberally spiced with masculine need swept through Darryl and he groaned. *I am NOT repeating last night's solution again so soon,* his told himself sternly. He took several deep, cleansing breaths of the cool autumn air before setting off for the house at a brisk jog. He was, he decided, very grateful at that moment to whatever genius had invented the jockstrap. All the same, Darla was going to need some stylishly loose-fitting fashions today.

~--------------~

It was nearly 8:20 when Jane slipped from her own rooms and into the upstairs corridor. She needed to catch Darla before the morning meal. She had spent several wakeful hours the previous night, thinking about what had transpired in her foyer after the party, and she was, as was becoming all too common with this particular student, unsure as to what path she should take. After a great deal of thought, Jane knew that her child was at the cusp of this particular problem, and while she could not let that be the only or even the primary consideration, Darryl's needs had to count for something in her decision making process.

She hesitated momentarily at Darla's door, reminding herself she needed to appear to treat her child with the same sort of disregard for privacy that she exhibited with her real students and then opening the door. Jane sailed into the room, her mouth opening to greet the girl inside and then came up short.

Darla was dressed in a perfectly acceptable morning frock and was seated at her vanity, a brush held loosely in one hand. Her eyes had a distant, faraway look as they stared into the silvered depths of the antique mirror, seeing things therein that Jane could only wonder at. Her face was perfectly done up, as Jane would have expected, subtle, yet attractive and appropriate for the time of day.

Jane cleared her voice and Darla jumped in surprise. Then she saw Jane standing in front of the door and smiled. "Hi, Momma Jane. Come to walk me to breakfast?" she asked rising to her feet, her hands extended in greeting.

"Well, I was," Jane replied drily, "but not like that, I think."

"Huh?" Darla said, confused, turning to look at herself in the mirror. "Is something wrong?" she asked, running a hand down her dress and turning about to view her reflection.

"Why nothing at all, dear, except you forgot the wig," Jane said pointedly, "Or are you already having a blonde day?"

Darla's eyes slewed to her vanity is surprise. Darla's brunette locks rested there amid the bottles, tubes and pots, ready to don. "Oh my," she breathed before turning to glare at her adopted mother. "If I had made that blonde joke, you'd have come down on me with high-heeled golf shoes. I can't believe you said that!"

Jane grinned. "I can't believe I said it either. Your father's bad influence, I am afraid. However, I do think we need to talk, dear, now more than ever. This is what I would like you to do."

~--------------~

Jane watched as Audrey nearly skipped into the dining room. She tried to examine the girl critically, but it was difficult. There was a glow about Audrey that, Jane finally decided, made her intensely feminine and very attractive.. *Ah, the wonders of simply being happy and confident for a woman.* "Good morning, Audrey." Jane greeted her student as she took her seat.

Audrey took in the missing place setting as she seated herself. "Good morning, Ms. Thompson. Won't Darla be joining us?"

"No, I am afraid not. She is . . .well. . not feeling well. Evidently she was up most of the night and. . . well, you understand."

For a moment, Audrey was surprised, and then she realized what Jane was not saying, "Oh!"

"Indeed," the older woman replied. "I think we would both be happier to let her sleep off the worst of this bout and be spared her last month's histrionics."

"Yes, Ma'am," her student replied so fervently that Jane was forced to hide a smile behind her hand.

"So, what shall we do with you today, Miss?" Jane asked rhetorically as she began to serve herself from the dishes already on the table.

"We were going to do some jumping practice," Audrey reminded her hopefully.

"Ah, yes, so we were." Jane stopped to consider that for a moment. "I think we shall do that after lunch and after your side-saddle dressage. This morning, I want you to work with Marie for the first hour on basic household management and accounts and then you will prepare luncheon under her supervision." *and that should keep you well occupied,* Jane thought pleased, *while I check on my sick child. . .lovesick, that is.*

~--------------~

With Audrey busy with Marie in the kitchen, Jane was able to knock before entering her daughter's room. She found the girl sitting on the window seat, sipping the remainder of her orange juice as she looked out over the estate.

Jane watched her for several moments until she grew tired of being ignored. *Enough is enough,* she thought darkly and moved over to sit down beside him. "Doing a lot of staring off into space lately, dear?" she asked with only a touch of asperity.

It took a few moments for her question to register. Nodding affirmatively, Darla took another sip of her drink.. Shaking her head, Jane asked, "Is it helping?" The feminine figure before her didn't answer her immediately so she repeated her question - louder, more distinctly and more firmly.

"I don't know," Darla replied with a sigh.

"Do you think you are any closer to finding a way of dealing with the problem of Audrey?"

"Audrey's NOT a problem," Darryl's voice practically shouted. "She's doing just FINE!"

"Let me rephrase my question, then. Has your reflection come up with any means that might help you deal with the problem that Audrey presents YOU?"

"I said that. . "

Gentle fingers on his lips stopped his denial in mid-sentence. "Dear? Did we not agree, oh so many years ago, when I caught you trying to sneak out in the dark of the night in an effort to protect me from your brother, that we would never lie to one another again?"

A mass of emotions ran across the sweaty face before he looked away, momentarily ashamed. Finally, he whispered, "It's not her fault. If there is a problem, it is mine and I will deal with it."

"You care for her a great deal."

"I love her," was the still quiet response.

"So your father tells me," Jane replied. "That could be. . .difficult. . . . later on. . "

"When she finds out that Darla is Darryl?"

"If she does, yes."

"I know," Darryl said, sitting up and putting down the glass. "But I don't know what to do. Leaving isn't an option because I think she needs Darla right now. God, Mom, that girl has been so terribly lonely. She trusts Darla and therefore, there are things that Darla can do for her that no one else can do. . .at least, not as easily."

"I would say she trusts Darryl, too," Jane said.

"Yes, and that, given what that bitch of a governess put her through, is pretty miraculous. She, ah. . .well, she hugged and kissed me this morning. Hard and on the mouth."

"Well, that is a breakthrough."

"Except what happens to that trust when she finds out about. . "

"I think I asked that question earlier, dear. Your father said you've already considered having Darla leave and rejected it - something for which I am profoundly grateful because you are right. Audrey does need Darla, but I think she also needs Darryl."

"You do?" there was wishful hope in her son's eyes that made Jane hurt for him.

Jane looked at her beloved child, deeply afraid that what she had to say would hurt him. The shine in his eyes showed happiness, and a pride that had at one time seemed impossible. And why shouldn't he be proud? It looked like he had gone a long ways toward capturing the heart of a statuesque beauty, a woman of great strength who would make a tremendous companion during their life together.

But, just as Darla appeared so gently feminine despite Darryl's deeper masculinity, was Audrey's acceptance, even sharing, of his affections only ephemeral? Was she infatuated with the first non-threatening boy she had met since she had begun to accept her own beauty? How could Jane even ask, without . . . ?

Never one to hide from an unpleasant truth, Jane sighed and took her child's hand. "Darla, or actually, Darryl, I think we need to think about this very carefully."

"Oh, Mama Jane, I know that. I mean, this whole relationship is based on a lie and if we don't work it out right, it could all collapse. But the way I felt when she kissed me . . . that was real!"

"I'm sure it was. But that's not the issue that is troubling me." She paused for an uncharacteristically long moment, then continued, "You know that I am tremendously proud of you . . . "

"But . . ?" Darla prodded.

"No qualifier about that pride, dear, none at all. But I do have a concern about Audrey's, ah, judgment at this time."

"What do you mean?"

Jane leaned closer to Darla and gave the slender child a hug before sitting up straight with her usual perfect posture. "There is no way to say this gently, so I will be blunt. Though I think you would make a wonderful husband and lover - some day - I am not sure that Audrey is ready for a permanent commitment. Darryl is the first non-threatening boy she has met since, well, since she has begun to recognize she can be feminine without being weak or being victimized. Can you be sure she will not someday wonder if perhaps she should have, ah, sampled a few more men before she settled down to one?"

"Meaning I'm not good enough for her?" Darryl snapped.

"No, dear, not at all. But I have the experience of knowing many men, and so can easily recognize your quality. She, if she has only ever really known you, might wonder."

As much as he wanted to deny it, once again Darryl had to agree to the wisdom shown by his adoptive mother. "So, what do we do?"

"What do *you* think we should do, dear?"

Darryl, actually with a subtle change of posture and voice now Darla, said, "You're leading me down the path by the hand again, Mama Jane. Why don't you just tell me what you want me to see?"

Jane noticed that change, of course, she noticed everything. But more importantly she recognized the message in that change. It showed a true acceptance of the point she had raised, demonstrating once again the strength of character that she knew her child possessed. It filled her with pride even as it allowed her to address the issue head on. "Very well. We need to set up an opportunity for Audrey to meet some more young men, in an appropriately controlled setting."

Darryl scowled at Jane for several moments. "Mom? What is going on inside the lovely, devious head of yours?" Then, the full import of her words struck him. "You AREN'T thinking of one of Edith White's atrocities, are you?"

"What?" Jane murmured, her mental images abruptly interrupted by Darryl's demanding question. "Oh, nothing of the sort, dear. I cannot control one of Edith's silly little balls that closely. Too many young men who . . " Jane sought the correct words

"Have not learned to fear your power?" Darryl offered grinning.

"Just so," Jane said grinning back. "I think a nice evening on the town would do it. Let me look into the possibilities."

"I take it I won't be her date?" Her son asked, somewhat plaintively.

"No, I think she needs exposure to other young men and when that happens, she might need you as Darla there beside her. At least at first."

"Ken and Mike, perhaps?" Darryl offered. "That last growth spurt of Ken's has given him a rather formidable height."

"I need to discuss this with your father, I think. Now, as to you, scamp. You need to keep to your room today and look gray tomorrow. Darla is having her period again."

"Oh, great," Darryl moaned. "Well, I guess that works as well as anything. When can I sneak downstairs to get my school books, though?"

"I'll call you when Audrey goes to the kitchen to cook."

"Thanks, Mom," Darryl said, standing up to hug his taller parent. "I do love you, ya know."

"I know, dear. Love you, too."

~--------------~

"So, that's what Darryl and I decided, Art, pending your approval. What do you think?" Jane asked as she curled her feet beneath her in the shabby overstuffed easy chair that was her husband's favorite seat. She loved the almost dissident combination of Obsession perfume and Old Spice aftershave that was uniquely her spouse.

"I think it has a good deal of merit, dear. A show perhaps in a very fashionable theater followed by a late dinner at a nice restaurant or nightclub. Dancing?"

"We'll see. I won't press her, although I might hint, rather strongly, that she is a wimp if she refuses. As I said, we will see how it plays out."

"Aren't you afraid she'll turn tail and run?" Art teased. "The minute the music starts and her escort stands to ask?"

"The way I'll have her rigged out? It will be the slowest mad dash in history, darling."

"Be careful with that, dear," Art replied, his voice suddenly very serious. "Remember that we want her to enjoy feeling feminine. The last thing we want is for her to feel cornered, or worse, endangered."

"Oh, I know that. In fact, I am actually going to have her pick out her own outfit. With a little help from her friends, of course."

"So, who are you going to ask to be the escorts?"

"Darla thought of Ken for Audrey and Michael for her. They're both sensitive enough to know when to back off a bit and when to press a bit to help keep her involved in the group." Then, feeling impish, she added. "I thought I would ask Joel to see if he'd be available to escort me. Or maybe even. . ."

The snort that answered her was very satisfying. "Don't even think it, sweet. The only man whose arm you will decorate and the only man you dance with that night will be one Art Philips, Doctor of Psychology. Besides, I think I should be there if you are going to try this little push on the girl. Back you up."

"I know, dear. And thank you."

"You're welcome. Besides, your current biographer is still just a wee bit ticked about our elopement. He was still complaining when I saw him at the faculty club last week when he was here on business. Said Joel wasn't quite ready to forgive and forget, either."

"Still? Lord above, what did they expect? That I would walk down the aisle at the National Cathedral in a floor length white gown and train with numerous attendants? For goodness sakes, Art, I'm in my forties, not my teens or twenties. I'm not some virginal ingenue."

"And I was infinitely more interested in getting that ring on your lewdly naked finger than in pomp, circumstance and ceremony. Anyway, I was simply letting you know, love, so you would think twice about asking either of those two. Now, I have this great idea for the big evening. What do you think of this . . . ?"



Chapter 16 ~ Tragedy and Tears


Darryl felt marvelously alive as he paced Audrey in the cool, frost-crisp predawn air. Audrey was again content to run with him instead of racing against him. Actually, she'd been downright insistent about it.

They'd started out on what had become one of their favorite routes, along a roadside path that circled the large Seasons House estate, and as usual, he'd fallen into his usual rear guard position almost immediately. Again, as usual, the lovely view of all that taut, sexy feminine muscle clenching and relaxing beneath the skin-tight running pants had warmed him far quicker than any exercise could have, but then Audrey had called to him, "Oh, Darryl, why don't you just run with me today, instead of trailing behind all the time?"

Remembering the disconcerted look on his face as he'd pulled up beside her, Audrey permitted herself a happy grin as she glanced over at Darryl beneath her lashes. *I wonder why he looked so. . .well, almost embarrassed,* she wondered as she replayed that little scene again in her head.

"Um, sure," he'd agreed, but there had been this note of wistfulness in his voice that stuck in her mind. Again she wondered why, and then her cheeks flushed with a good deal more color than the morning chill would justify.

*Why, the stinker had been counting on watching my fanny again while we ran!* she realized with sudden stark clarity. *Why that. . that. . * her mind groped for both the words and the outrage that she felt SHOULD have been there, but found neither. That got her thinking again. It took several hundred yards to figure out the answer, and it was one with which she wasn't completely sure she was either pleased or comfortable.

She realized that she was flattered, hell, almost smug that Darryl had been, what? Ogling her? Giving her the eye? Undressing her in his mind? Boys did that, didn't they? Miss Phoebe Elizabeth had always implied they would happily do far worse to a girl if given any encouragement. She should have been angry, but somehow, Audrey just could not find any other reaction than pleasure at the thought of Darryl intentionally running behind her to enjoy watching her. *Well, hadn't you dressed in this second skin of a romper to give him something worth looking at?*

So, Audrey decided that she WAS pleased with Darryl's secret attentions. Despite all the propaganda about how women were supposed to want to be respected for their intellect, not just lusted after for their bodies, she found that she was proud to be good looking - more proud than she could have imagined before she came to Jane Thompson's home. Maybe, just maybe, she'd really give him something to look at next time. *If the weather gets just a little bit warmer, I'll wear my thong leotard and those shiny flesh-colored tights that Marie said make my legs look better than bare. Then I'll see if he can keep up with me on a real run - or even wants to.*

Still, Darryl had moved up beside her, wisps of frosty breath puffing out with easy regularity. The athlete in her felt challenged by that, somehow, so she stepped up her own pace a bit. She could run him into the ground, of course. She was sure of it. Pretty sure, anyway. But that wasn't her goal - not really. It was more an affirmation of mutual respect. He was a worthy adversary, even if not quite in her class.

They couldn't run as fast as they might have liked in any case as a storm had blown up the coast the night before. The mini-nor'easter's heavy winds had denuded the trees of most of their remaining foliage leaving the trails strewn with slick leaves.

As they rounded a particularly wide bend in the trail, Darryl saw a large tree had been blown across the path, blocking their route. He was about to suggest they simply double back to finish their run when a piercing shriek coming from under the tree stopped him.

"What's that?" Audrey asked as Darryl broke into a sprint to the tree.

He pulled out the small flashlight he carried with him and shined its beam near the base of the broken tree. "Oh, god, there is a rabbit caught underneath the tree," he said. "The trunk is on top of his back end."

Audrey watched as her friend scrambled beneath the tree, almost getting splattered as dirt, leaves and heaven only knew what else started spraying from beneath the fallen tree's canopy. That stopped as suddenly as it started followed by Darryl's reemergence. "I can't dig him free," he said quickly. "The path is too hard. We'll have to get the tree off him. Look, you're stronger than I am. Can you try bracing yourself beneath the main trunk and see if you can get it up enough that I can pull him free? If you can't, I will help and see if we can get it off him, but I think we have a better chance the first way. You'd only have to lift it a little bit for a very short time."

"Let me see," Audrey replied, slipping beneath the canopy. She quickly found a main fork in the tree, where the tree started to branch out. She tested it and found she could put her head between the fork so that the large branches rested on her shoulders. "Give me your sweatshirt," she ordered. Without questioning her, Darryl stripped off the heavy grey shirt and handed it to her. She used it to make a pad for her shoulders and then, knees bent and back erect, positioned herself for the lift. "Ready when you are."

Darryl got down on his knees beside the stricken animal and reached out for it. "OUUCH!" he yelped.

"What?" Audrey demanded. "What happened? Are you all right?"

"Just scratched. I forget these fellows have claws a cat would envy and he's scared enough, cornered enough to use them. You ready?" At Audrey's affirmative, he then ordered, "LIFT!"

Audrey braced herself and then drove with all the power of her legs. For a moment, the tree seemed immovable, but she pressed harder, again to no avail. She was about to tell Darryl that they'd need to try another tactic when the tree shifted, and then rose. Unfortunately, before she could get her legs straightened, something hung up and the tree became as rigid as the world on Atlas' shoulders. She had to hold it, legs bent and muscles knotting, while the sound of Darryl's scurrying went on and on. It was probably only seconds, but she was about to add her own shriek to the sounds coming from the rabbit when she heard Darryl's triumphant shout.

"Got him!" Darryl called out and Audrey collapsed.

"How is he?" She asked as she freed herself from the tree.

"Bad shape. Look, you run back to the house. Get Aun. . Ms. Thompson to come with the car. We need to get this fellow to a vet, quickly."

Audrey looked down at the quivering rabbit and saw, for the first time, the deep cuts on both of Darryl's forearms. "What about you?" She asked, worried.

"Just GO!" he shouted. "I don't want to run carrying him. Whatever is wrong inside will just get worse. And if I just leave him, he'll drag himself into the bushes and die. His only chance is the vet, and you can get help a lot faster if you go alone."

"Okay, if. . if you're sure."

"GO!"

Audrey went, at a near sprint. It was, she thought afterwards, likely the fastest two miles she'd ever run. So fast, in fact, that it had taken her several moments to get enough air into her lungs to tell Ms. Thompson what she needed and why.

~--------------~

It felt like an hour, but it was closer to twenty minutes when the estate wagon, Marie at the wheel, drew to a stop on the access road that paralleled the jogging path. Audrey was out the passenger side door immediately at a dead run. "Darryl? Darryl? We're here." she called, only to come to lose her voice at the scene that greeted her.

Darryl was sitting on the damp ground, his back against the tree, his head bowed. The dawn light wasn't much, but it was sufficient for Audrey to see her friend's shoulders shuddering. It was only then that she saw the small, furry bundle laying so very still upon the ground.

"Is he. . .I mean. . .did he . . ." Audrey stumbled over the words, trying to find a way to ask the question to which she already knew the answer.

"He's dead," Darryl got out, swallowing a sob and struggling for control. She saw him take a deep breath and continue. "He was just too badly hurt. Struggling against me only made the end quicker."

Marie caught up and took in the scene, including the state of Darryl's arms. Gently, she knelt down beside her boy and put an arm about his shoulders. "You did your best, dear," she said aloud before whispering into his hair, "But now we need to protect your secret with Audrey."

Darryl's head came up sharply and he saw the sympathy mirrored in Marie's eyes. He gave her a slight nod of understanding.

"Darryl, you need to run home and get those arms looked at by your Mother. Audrey and I will see to the little one there."

"Thanks, Miss Marie," Darryl got out. "He was a pretty one, wasn't he?"

"Run along, boy," Marie ordered firmly, but kindly.

He obeyed, and the two women watched as he broke into a near sprint and disappeared around the nearby bend in the path.

"Well, let's go find a place where we can bury this one," Marie said. "Darryl would expect it and I did promise."

Audrey did not immediately respond. "He was crying." she murmured. "Over a wild rabbit."

"Does that bother you?" Marie asked.

"No. . .I just never thought that a man would. . I mean, well. ."

"Real men care, dear," Marie put in, "and some care enough to cry. I've known that boy, that MAN, for a long time. He's strong enough not to think crying diminishes him. And if there is a better reason to cry than the loss of a helpless innocent, I don't know what it would be. Now, go get that sheet I put in the car and let's finish this up."

~--------------~

"Ouuuch, DA.. .doggone it, Mom, that stuff HURTS! Don't you have any of that modern 'ouchless' stuff?" Darryl complained as Jane cleansed his wounds with her favored alcohol and peroxide.

"Sorry, dear. I know that this stuff works, for infection prevention, at least. You're absolutely sure that you weren't bitten? That these are only claw marks?"

"Yes, Mom. I'm sure," her son replied, tears beginning to flow again, more from the memory than from the burning antiseptic.

"Well, at least they aren't deep enough to need stitches. It's just as well you, or rather Darla, is having her period. You can wear long-sleeve sweaters and look wan without it being too remarkable."

Darryl nodded and then went silent for several moments as Jane efficiently bandaged the scratches. Finally, he sighed. "She saw me crying."

"Who? Audrey?" Jane asked. "Does that bother you for some reason?"

Darryl smiled sadly. "Unlike your other students, you have been careful not to reduce her to tears in this program. This is the first time she's seen someone crying since she arrived here, and instead of it being one of the women in this all-female household, it was the only male she's been in contact with."

Jane considered that. "An interesting point. We will let her think about it for a bit and see if she raises the question herself." Jane then frowned. "Do you think we should have given her cause to cry?"

"As part of your 'let's make Audrey happy to be feminine' campaign? Is this one of those Jane Thompson trick questions?"

"Oh, you," Jane retorted affectionately.

"To answer your question, no, I don't think that is something you should have actively done. She would have seen that as a weak reaction, and if you'd associated it with being feminine, you'd have worked against your own goals because the last thing Audrey would have embraced is anything she perceived as weakness."

Jane thought about that, and shook her head. "Oh, I could have found ways to make her feel bad enough to cry - and made those bad feelings be tied, not to the acceptance of her femininity, but rather to her rejection of it. When she first arrived here, her, ah, 'style' offered many opportunities for, ahem, challenging her. But I didn't think that was necessary. In the end, I may find that not acquainting her with the emotional release offered by tears might have been a mistake because she does need to understand that tears are not a sign of weakness, but thanks to you we now have a way out of that."

"I just hope she won't feel Darryl is not worth her time anymore because of his showing that weakness."



Chapter 17 ~ Strength or Weakness?


The house was, Marie decided, just too quiet. *You'd think that only Jane and I were home instead of having two energetic young people around to liven things up.* Marie knew that Darla was keeping to her room, in part because of the pretense of another difficult menses, but mostly so that they could let her scratches air a bit before it became necessary to keep them covered around Audrey. *Well, then maybe I will go and see if I can't goose Audrey, just a bit. Peace and quiet be damned!*

Marie found the girl seated on the sofa in the front parlor, not-reading a book. There were two clues that immediately told the experienced observer of human-behavior that Audrey wasn't actually reading the book she held on her lap. First, the girl's eyes were completely still. Instead of moving with the text on the page, they were blank and staring through the pages. Second, and more telling, was the book was upside down.

Grinning, Marie cleared her throat loudly, and receiving no immediate response, moved closer and did it again. That got a reaction as Audrey jumped in surprise. "Oh!" she exclaimed, and then tried to compose herself. "Hi, Tante Marie. Were you looking for me?"

"Yes. But I don't want to take you away from your reading. Good book?" she asked innocently.

Guiltily, Audrey looked away. "Oh, yes, very interesting."

"Well, I will be sure to let Jane know how you are exercising your mind. It must be very difficult to read such a book UPSIDE DOWN AND BACKWARDS!"

Audrey's eyes flew to Marie and then to the book in her hands, and felt her cheeks go hot. "Busted," she sighed ruefully.

Smiling gently, Marie picked up the book and read the title aloud, "'International Trade Law ~ Keeping Your Company's Assets in an Increasingly Litigious World Market'. Heavens, girl, why would you ever pick that book up to begin with?"

With a self-deprecating grin, Audrey replied, "I didn't even look. I just grabbed the first book I saw and came in here with it."

"What were you thinking about so hard?" Marie asked, "That you did not hear me come in or realize what you were looking at?"

Audrey hesitated, and Marie thought she could almost see the girl looking for the right words. She decided it was time to be a bit more direct than was her usual habit with one of Jane's students. "Are you still worrying at having seen Darryl weeping over that rabbit this morning?"

The girl's eyes went wide in surprise at Marie's perception, and then nodded. "Why does that bother you so much, cherie?" Marie asked very gently as she sat down on the sofa beside the younger woman.

"I've never seen a boy. . a man cry like that. I always thought breaking down like that was something out of movies or novels."

Marie heard more than the girl said, and challenged her. "There is more to it than that, Audrey. What you just described would have been at most a mere curiosity, something out of your experiences, but it is clearly more than that. Seeing Darryl cry has disturbed you. Why?"

"I thought he was strong!" Audrey flared and then caught herself. "I was starting to care for him, to RESPECT him, and now I find out I am wrong about him."

*oHO,* Marie thought. *Here there be dragons.* "So, you are now questioning everything about Darryl because you believe his bout of sorrow for a small, innocent animal makes him less than you thought him to be?"

"Well, I didn't mean to. . .but. . "

"No buts, Missie," Marie ordered. "You believe his tears to be a sign of weakness? Yes or no."

"Well, yes. . . I mean, aren't they?"

"What if I told you that you are wrong. That only the strong can cry when it really matters."

Audrey looked at Marie suspiciously. "Off hand, I'd say you might believe that, but that I don't."

"What about Jane? Do you believe she is weak?"

"Jane? You mean Ms. Thompson?"

"Yes, I do, and I think you should call her Jane in this discussion, so that you can discuss her objectively."

Audrey thought about that, and nodded. Gathering herself, she replied, "Well, I can't see Jane crying, let along understanding tears in a man. She is a very strong, very controlled and contained woman. I don't see her giving anyone that kind of advantage over her, seeing her reduced to tears like that."

"Oh, my dear girl," Marie said softly, "You simply must learn to be more sensitive to people. Haven't you realized yet that Jane is not nearly as hard as she puts on? It's a front, a tool she uses to get her students' attention, but do you really think that a woman as hard as that would dedicate herself to helping children and young people such as yourself? Why, she is the softest-hearted, most loving person I know. If anyone understands the need to cry, she does."

"Jane?!" Audrey's voice cracked in her surprise.

"Certainly," Marie said with quiet, unshakable assurance. "Look, go talk to her. About men crying. I'm telling you, she *understands*.

~--------------~

Audrey raised her hand to the wood-paneled door for what must have been the fifth time. *She's going to think you're crazy, Rockwell, even to be thinking about a boy while we're in her feminine sanctuary.* one part of her mind sneered. *But Marie wouldn't ask you to do something that would get you laughed at,* the other part of her mind reassured her. She steeled herself, closed her eyes, and smartly rapped her knuckles on the door.

"Enter."

Audrey found Jane, seated at her desk, a pair of half-rim reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose. It was an oddly comforting scene, she thought, almost as if the imperfection of needing glasses made this awesome woman somehow more approachable.

"Hello, Audrey," Jane greeted her cordially, "Is there something you need?"

"I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes, if you have the time. Marie said that I should," she added quickly, "But I don't want to interrupt. . "

Jane lifted her hand. "If Marie said you should speak with me, then of course I have the time. Her instincts in such matters, I have found over our years together, are nearly infallible." She rose from her seat and gestured her student in the direction of the conversation furniture grouping near the hearth. "Would you like me to call for tea?"

"No, thank you, Ms. Thompson," Audrey replied as she took the seat Jane indicated and watched the older woman take her own.

"So, what is it you wanted to talk about," Jane asked.

"Well, it is kinda. .," Audrey caught herself, saw Jane smile and then pressed on "That is, I mean, it is somewhat difficult to explain. . "

Jane could see that, and decided to help Audrey deal with that difficultly. "Start at the beginning, girl, and tell it like a story to one of the children at the hospital - step by step, scene by scene."

Nodding, Audrey began to speak, starting with the early morning rescue of the ill-fated rabbit.

As a teacher, Jane understood the power of 'wait-time' in dealing with questions or other issues. Rather than respond immediately, she took a few moments to let everything Audrey had related to her sink in, and to permit them both to organize their thinking. *So, Darryl was right to be concerned about her reaction to his tears. Would this have been less difficult if I had forced her to experience her own?*

"And so," Jane concluded, "You are worried that crying somehow makes your companion unsuitable or untrustworthy?" Audrey nodded, and Jane could see that the conclusion bothered her greatly. *You are coming to care for Darryl a great deal, aren't you, Miss Chastity Rocky Audrey Rockwell? And the fear that he is less than you originally thought is greatly distressing you.*

Deciding she had to take a chance, Jane reached out and took Audrey's hand in hers. The hand was damp with sweat, and felt cold in Jane's own. "You know, don't you, Audrey, that I have taught young men as well as young women?"

Audrey wondered at the seeming change of subject, still had the presence of mind to reply. "Tante. . I mean, Miss Marie has told me that, Ma'am."

"If Marie has given you permission to call her by that familial term, you may certainly use it in my presence, dear," Jane reassured her, "In any case, the young people with the worst behavior problems, at least of the kind that are suitable for correction through learning self-discipline, are often boys."

The thought of rough and tumble bad boys in the very feminine surroundings of Ms. Jane Thompson's Seasons House tickled Audrey's sense of the ridiculous. "Boys? I can just see you putting boys through those makeup and clothes variations you ran by me," she said with a pleasingly husky chuckle

Smiling, Jane waved that aside. "Ah, well, be that as it may, the point is that I have found that the very best men, those who have resilient strength rather than brittle and superficial hardness, have all learned that crying is not a sign of weakness. They do not cry because of selfish desires not met, but they are truly and deeply touched by injustice, especially when it is not within their power to correct. One of the things I strive for, when I take on a boy with a history of violence, is to put him in situations where he feels he cannot react violently under stress. Getting them to release their strong emotions through non-violent tears instead of through violent anger is most often the first step . . . It shows them that there are alternatives to violence, and that they can be effective in dealing with intense emotions without harm to themselves or to others."

Audrey was stunned by this revelation, and her first reaction was to ask her teacher if she was exaggerating or somehow pulling her leg, but something in Jane's eyes stopped her. "And that works?"

"Most times. I will admit having lost two boys back to the legal system that sent them to me. My other students have all gone on to become solid citizens and family persons. Many are doctors, teachers and social workers trying to help others."

"You sound like the proud matriarch of the family in one of those schmaltzy black and white movies on the late show."

"I am proud of them," Jane assured the girl, and there was a soft smile on the older woman's face when she said that, the likes of which Audrey had never seen cross those lips before. "And from what you said, it would seem that the situation young Mr. Smith found himself in was of the nature I described earlier. I, quite frankly, find nothing weak about a man such as that."

"I see," Audrey said carefully. "Ms. Thompson?"

"Yes, Audrey?"

"Marie told me that Darryl. . .Mr. Smith was one of your students. Are you sure that you aren't letting that color your opinion of him? Particularly if you tried to make him cry?"

"Marie sometimes talks too much," Jane said in a muttering, mock growl before relenting. "But to answer your question, no, I don't. Darryl was indeed my student, at least for a short time, and I think the world of him, but if I did not think he was the kind of strong, caring, compassionate young man you just described in your story, he would not have been asked to be your exercise partner."

"OH?" Audrey felt her hackles rise.

"Oh, calm down, child," Jane ordered. "You know how you felt about men when you arrived here. The person who worked with you had to be strong enough, gentle enough and sure enough of himself to deal with that part of you. Don't you agree?" Jane demanded, one finely shaped brow arching in challenge.

It was very hard, Audrey found, to look at yourself so objectively and honestly, to confront those aspects of your personality that might not be of the highest order. Somehow she managed and discovered to her chagrin, that much of what Jane had just said was true. Finally, she exhaled loudly. "Oh, all right. I agree with both your assessments of me and of Darryl. I do find it odd, though," she continued, her voice becoming pensive, "that Darryl ever needed the kind of therapy you described - the forced crying stuff - or that he was ever violent. I mean. . he's . . well, really special."

Unexpectedly, a warm, loving smile made the older woman's face glow with happiness. "Yes, he is, that boy of. . " and Jane caught herself just before she gave away the game by calling Darryl 'that boy of mine'. "many talents," she managed to finish.

"But he was sent here? Why? Surely not for violence."

Jane shook her head. "That is what the record said, but it was lacking some important facts that came to light during his stay with me. Actually, he did not need my program. What he needed was an escape from a very bad and dangerous family situation before he was scarred, physically, emotionally and mentally, forever. Being sent to me gave him that escape, and a chance he would never have had otherwise."

"What a loss," Audrey murmured, "if such a nice person had been lost that way."

Jane heard that, and smiled. "I quite agree, and his rescue is one of the truly great accomplishments of my life. Now, what say we go see what Marie is planning for lunch. You missed breakfast and I do SO hate to eat alone, so I only picked at mine. I find I am quite famished."

"Me, too," Audrey said, with the first real smile Jane had seen from her that morning. "Ms. Thompson?" Jane looked at the girl expectantly. "Thank you."

"It was my pleasure, dear," Jane said gently. "Truly, my pleasure."

~--------------~

"Interesting," Art mused on the phone late that night. "But tell me again - Darryl IS all right? The cuts weren't really bad? You're sure he didn't need to go to hospital?"

"Yes, Daddy-Di," Jane said in loving exasperation, "for the tenth and last time, he's FINE! Darla will be able to make her return appearances tomorrow, albeit in opaque, long sleeve outfits to hide the scratches. Marie is good with coverup cosmetics, but not that good."

"Okay," Art said hesitantly, "I will say one thing, though. If Audrey was that put off by Darryl's crying now, after several months of your brand of sensitivity training, I think it is clear you were right not to encourage HER to cry earlier in her stay with you. She wasn't open enough at that point to see such emotion as anything but a loss of dignity and thus self esteem."

"True," Jane agreed, "She didn't have any of that to spare at that point, either."

"So now what do you do?"

"We'll let things simmer for a bit and see how Audrey reacts to Darryl the next time they're together. Personally, I think that once she's convinced herself that my view of the world is correct, or at least, not entirely IN-correct, her feelings will open up still further, particularly with regard to Darryl."

"No shotgun weddings, now," Art teased.

"Not bloody likely!" Jane snorted. "Darryl knows I'd skin him."

"Oh, I'm sure he's terrified."

"Well, if not of me, then of Audrey. Or at least, how Audrey will react when she learns of his double life."

"You think that is going to happen? The original plan was for her never to find out that Darla is Darryl."

"Do you really think that a woman, even a woman who has so few of the classic feminine wiles and skills as our Audrey did when she arrived, is not going to solve that puzzle eventually? The REAL question is, what do we do when she does?"

Art thought about it and sighed. "I just don't know, dear. I've been trying to figure that out for myself. I think the only viable solution is to wait and then play it by ear when it happens."

"I don't like that solution!" Jane snapped back.

"I know, but that's because you are a control freak, my love."

The sound that answered him sounded like what the camel said to the djinn and Art laughed happily. It was a rare and wonderful thing to get the last word with his beloved Jane Thompson-Philips.
--



Chapter 18 ~ Crisis Aftermath


Darryl blew on his chilled fingers, trying to find some warmth in the cold darkness, and then found himself yawning. Sleep had again been hard to come by the previous night. At four a.m., he'd finally given up trying and gone to work on a final project for one of his courses, but he'd been unable to focus. That was why Darryl now found himself down by the stables almost an hour before Audrey could reasonably expected to arrive.

"You're dithering, Thompson," he told himself in an unconscious mimicry of his adoptive mother. However, that recognition did nothing to stop the dithering. *If you were honest with yourself, Darryl, m'lad, you'd admit that you're afraid. Afraid that she won't want to be with you any more. Hell, afraid that she won't even come here to work out with you this morning.*

It would be a very long time, if ever, before Darryl forgot the look of surprise and distaste on her lovely face when she had seen him sitting in the dirt, a dead rabbit in front of him.

He began to wander about the stable grounds using a small flashlight to guide him. Perhaps it was because the incident of the falling tree was so recent, but he was amazed to find a sturdy young maple tree with most of its leaves still in place. *Must have been in the lee of the stable when the storm hit,* Darryl mused. *Well, might as well head back and find out if she's going to show up.*

To Darryl's surprise and relief, Audrey was waiting for him when he arrived back at their usual rendevous spot. She was leaning against the railing of the small corral-type outdoor arena with her back was to him as he quietly approached.

At the last moment, she heard him, and half turned toward him so that her face was softly illuminated by a distant yard light. *God, she's beautiful,* Darryl thought. "Hi."

She turned fully to face him, leaning back on to the fence. "Hi yourself," she replied quietly. "You okay?"

"Okay?" he asked, confused.

"Your arms," she qualified. "You said they got scratched up yesterday."

"Oh," Darryl mumbled, feeling like a bumbling fool and then pulled up his sleeves and displaying his arms discolored by the red-staining antiseptic Marie favored over Jane's colorless preference. "They'll be fine. . are fine."

"Good," she replied, her gaze dropping to her feet. Her running shoes must have been fascinating in the dim light, because for a long moment both teenagers stared at them.

The silence echoed in the darkness, louder every second, until Darryl could stand it and not knowing any longer. "You seemed really bothered yesterday," he began.

"Bothered? Well, I guess. The rabbit died, after all, and then you were hurt, and. . "

"That wasn't it."

Her eyes came up to meet his again. For a moment, she simply faced him like that, and then she nodded. "It was seeing you crying."

"I was afraid of that," Darryl said turning away lest she see his eyes begin to water again.

Audrey moved quickly and put her hand on his shoulder to keep him from leaving. "WAIT!" Darryl stopped trying to leave, but could not bring himself to turn and face her. In a softer voice, she continued "Yesterday, when I saw you, I was reacting to, well, some of . . . well, some stuff in my youth I am beginning to understand was a lot of bullshit."

Years of dealing with Aunt Jane and her students had Darryl's brows rising. "Bull. . . . shit?" he managed.

"Oh, don't give me that Jane Thompson look. Marie told me you were one of her students and that look is pure Thompson," Audrey muttered. "Just as what I was taught was pure bullshit."

"I don't know what you mean," Darryl replied, happy she was still speaking to him, but unsure where she was headed.

"I was taught, by my governess, that crying is a weakness and that any weakness is intolerable and beneath contempt."

"And you think those teachings are wrong, now?" he asked, finally turning about to face her again.

"Unfortunately, it takes a lot longer to unlearn wrong things than to learn them - especially when the mistakes are forged into a set of attitudes that are being formed in a child. The idea that strong men can accept and express such emotions; that those emotions can actually add to the strength of a man, is a marked change from that early learning. I found it a hard concept to accept."

"Yeah. I can see that," Darryl said, sighing and waiting for the rest of the bad news.

"But whenever I tried to think of you in those terms, as weak, I simply couldn't - it just felt too wrong, you know?" She exhaled heavily. "I even went to Ms. Thompson to talk about . . . things. . and what she said made a lot of sense."

"She usually does," Darryl sighed even as he wondered where this was all going, "although sometimes her damned infallibility can get bloody tiring."

"Well, I'm glad she did because what she said got me to thinking about the sort of man that I would want as a friend," Audrey continued. "And I can't imagine truly enjoying the companionship of a man who couldn't show honest emotions, even sorrow. How would I know that his happiness was real, if he were that much in control?"

"I don't understand . . ," Darryl said, afraid that the hope her words were beginning to create in his heart would be unfounded.

"I asked myself," she said, remembering Marie's words of the day before, "if I could imagine a better justification for sorrow than the loss of an innocent life. I couldn't."

"But, . ." A flash of moonlight illuminated Audrey's soft smile and Darryl's mind went blank.

"But nothing. You tried to save that animal, even after he scratched you and even though you knew it could get worse if you continued to try. You went under that tree even though you knew if I fumbled that heavy trunk could well have fallen on you. Nope, definitely not lacking in courage or personal conviction. More like a hero, I think."

"Hero?" Darryl forced his mind to work. "But I didn't save him."

"You still tried," Audrey affirmed, "And that's all anyone can do. Besides, I bet you petted and stroked him right up until the end, didn't you?" Audrey challenged, and then continued. "I thought so. So, the little guy went out being comforted instead of in terror."

A wave of relief washed over Darryl, and he grinned crookedly. *She thinks I a hero?* That thought was perilously close to triggering another display of early-morning dew - of the shining eyes variety - so Darryl quickly asked, "Uh, does that mean you still want to go running with me?"

Audrey grinned back. "Running PAST you, more like, mister," she retorted, and then bent over and planted a firm kiss on his cheek. "Now, let's get going. I feel like making you eat my dust today!"

With that, she reached down and ripped the long exercise warmup pants she wore off her legs. After a shocked heartbeat at this apparent destructiveness, Darryl realized her warmups were the breakaway style held together with velcro. After another shocked heartbeat, he realized what she was wearing underneath them. Or maybe, what she was NOT wearing.

*Oh my God. She'll freeze!* he thought. *But dear Lord, does she ever look HOT!* "Hey, wait for me!" Darryl yelled and took off after her at a sprint.

~--------------~

Marie and Audrey arrived in the Seasons House dining room almost simultaneously; Audrey from her shower and morning toilette, and Marie from the kitchen with a cart filled with china, stem-ware and silver for setting the breakfast table.

"Well," Marie said, pleased, "Don't you look much happier this morning than you did just yesterday. Have a good run, did you?" she added with a slightly suggestive smile.

Audrey blushed prettily and then smiled broadly. "It was great! Darryl and I talked about what happened and how I behaved. I think he was as worried about how I reacted to his crying as I was about how he'd reacted to the bunny."

"So, girl, help me set the table while you tell me all the nitty gritty. . . "

"Well, he wasn't anywhere to be seen when I got there, and that scared me like nothing else I can remember in my life. I just stood there, staring into the moon, trying to figure out what I would do if he didn't show up."

"But he did," Marie prompted when Audrey's brow furrowed into a frown."

"Yes he did, and nearly scared me out of a year's growth, too. One second I was alone and the next, he was there behind me. Anyway, to begin with, I was a nervous tongue-tied wreck. Marie, I couldn't say anything that made a lick of sense. I finally asked him some lame question about how his arms were and then just stood there."

"I am sure Darryl did not take your concern as lame, dear."

"No, I guess he didn't, and thankfully, he was able to get us over what was bothering us both. Anyway from there, it went better."

Audrey proceeded to relate the rest of the morning's little drama to Marie who for the most part, kept quiet and let the girl talk. That is, until she saw a very feminine, very mischievous grin light Audrey's face when she concluded with them going for a run.

"All right, Miss, no holding back. What was that smile for? And don't even THINK of trying to hold out on me," Marie ordered while slapping a large serving spoon against her palm.

"Oh, I , ummm. . well, I told him he was a hero and then kissed him - just on the cheek!" she hurried to add.

*Bet that brought my lad up short,* Marie thought happily. *I suppose I could move things along by telling her to plant a good on right on the lips next time, but I think I will let them find their own way. It will be better for both of them that way.*

"That's not all of it, I think, you cheeky thing. What are you holding out on me? Oh, I know, I bet you wore that thong leotard and golden tights set I told you to buy." Audrey's suddenly heightened color was all the answer Marie needed. "So, how did they work?"

"I, ah," Audrey cleared her throat, "only noticed he wasn't, um, running as easily as usual. He was, well, kind of stiff, if you know what I mean."

"Too busy tripping over his tongue?" the older woman teased, well satisfied with both Darryl's reported response as well as Audrey's apparent pleasure in the telling of it.

"Oh, Tante Marie," Audrey laughed as she went over to hug her mentor, but she didn't deny the claim, though it wasn't really Darryl's tongue that she had been considering.

"Move along, girl," Marie ordered, her voice suddenly husky, "or we'll both be in petti's and pinafores when Jane comes down and finds breakfast not on the table.

~--------------~

Audrey and Jane were waiting by their chairs when Darla had arrived in the dining room. The other girl's back was to Darla when she slipped into the room, a view that reminded the young person of the vision of Audrey's lovely backside in those skintight, gold-colored running pants highlighted by the black thong topshorts. It had been a very, very long run that morning, but Darryl had thoroughly enjoyed every step. Almost as much as he'd enjoyed his second 'hero's kiss' before they'd parted.

*Maybe, just maybe, I can figure out how to get us past the 'just a peck' stage to the real loverly kissing stage.*

"You are late, Darla," Jane remarked as the girl took her place at the table.

Darla hid a smile. Jane Thompson's bark was always sharpest when she was hungry. "Sorry, Aunt Jane," she said, striving for fatigued languor consistent with 'the second day'. "I had to check my hair before venturing out." Twinkling dark eyes told Darla that Jane had gotten the teasing reference to her nearly forgetting the wig two days earlier.

"I see, well perhaps you need more practice which I will be *happy* to arrange for you if this becomes an unfortunate habit. You KNOW better, young lady," Jane scolded. "And you know that I do not consider. . .feminine issues to excuse tardiness."

"Yes, Ma'am." Darla replied, her head bowed.

"Very well, then," Jane said as she reached for the serving bowl filled with fresh fruit. "By the way, Darla, is it not your turn to help Marie in the kitchen this morning after breakfast?" Darla answered that it was, and Jane nodded pleased. "Excellent. Audrey, I wish to speak with you in my study after breakfast, say ten o'clock? There are some plans we need to discuss."

"Yes, Ms. Thompson," Audrey said, as she helped herself to the steaming scrambled eggs. Jane was not, Darla saw, the only member of the household who was famished.

*Come to think of it,* she thought, *I'm rather hungry myself. All that fresh air, adrenalin and LOVELY scenery this morning, I guess.*

~--------------~

"So, mon chou, things worked out well for you and la belle Audrey this morning?" Marie asked as she rinsed then dried the serving platter Darla had just handed her from the soapy water.

It was a long standing argument, but even with the finest dishwashing equipment money could buy, Marie took it as an article of faith that only a woman's hands, or in this case, the hands of one of Jane's properly trained young men, should be trusted with cleaning the china. Marie happily used the restaurant-grade dishwasher on her pots, pans and stainless steel flatware, but china and silver got the 'hands-on' approach.

"It did," Darla said softly. "Thank you for talking to her." she added solemnly. "I'm not sure how long, if ever, it would have taken her to see things in that light on her own."

"Don't underestimate that one, love," Marie chided. "She would have figured it out for her self. She has a big heart and a good brain."

"I know, I just am really glad I don't have to sweat it out, however long it would have taken her to work through all that out on her own."

"Patience, mon cher."

"You keep telling me that," and it was Darryl's voice that said the words, "and Dad keeps telling me that, and *I* keep telling me that, but I have to tell you that there is a very big part of me that is getting very, very tired of listening."

Marie put down her towel and went over to hug her boy-in-skirts. "Hey, watch it, Tante Marie!" Darla cautioned, her rubber-gloved hands stretched out behind Marie's back. "I'll get you soaked."

The older woman kissed the child of her heart on the cheek. "As if I'd care. I know it is hard, dear, but I think you are doing very well with your odd little courtship."

Darla turned back to the sink and pulled out the next dish. "How can you tell that?"

"Because," Marie said forcefully as she retrieved her dishtowel, "la fille jolie has not turned and run like a scared rabbit, nor has she turned on you like a cornered badger."

"You're sure?"

"Mais, oui!" Marie answered firmly. "Look, Audrey told me she kissed you this morning, just a peck on the cheek, but a kiss, right?"

"So?"

"Why did you not press the advantage and try for more?"

"'cause she started our run by sprinting away right after she did it and I spent the rest of the morning chasing her."

"Darla," Marie said in a 'don't try to fool your aunt' tone of voice that had the young person blushing furiously. "Don't tell me you didn't have the opportunity at some point before, during or after your run. You chose not to press. Again, I ask, why not?"

Darla, sighed, her breath blowing upwards to flutter the bangs of the dark colored wig. "Because it didn't feel right, like she wasn't, I don't know, ready for more than she did."

Marie snaked her free arm around Darla's shoulder and gave her a quick squeeze. "And I think you are exactly right, dear. I think Audrey will let you know when she is ready for more."

"And if I miss the clues?" Darla asked, worriedly.

"Do you really think that our Audrey is not going to tell you, quite forcefully in fact, when the time comes."

Darla thought about that for a moment before replying. "You really think it will? The time coming, I mean?"

"I do," Marie said with complete assurance. "All the signs point to it."

"Signs?"

"Of course. Tell me, ma cherie, what did Darryl think of Audrey's running clothes today? I understand he had an excellent vantage point most of the morning."

"TANTE MARIE!" Darla squeaked, and then the full impact of what Marie's words meant hit her. "She. . .she. . Audrey told you? About.. . . THAT?!?"

"Oui." was all Marie said as she busied herself drying the serving bowl Darla had just rinsed.

"Oh my."



Chapter 19 ~ Planning a Debutante's Come-out


Jane guided Audrey into the comfortable conversation seating area when the girl arrived, promptly at ten o'clock.

"How are you feeling, Audrey," Jane asked. "Any lingering problems from your fall or your surgery?"

"None, Ms. Thompson. The new nose works fine and the last of the bruises have just about faded."

"Excellent. I needed to know that before I decided if we were going to move forward with a slight change of plans."

"Oh?"

"Yes," Jane paused, intending to ensure she had the girl's full attention. "Audrey, we've spoken several times in recent days about the misconceptions your governess gave you about men. You do understand that those were the prejudiced beliefs of a hurt and bitter woman and not really a fair assessment of most men?"

"Yes," Audrey said quietly. "They were lies and she was a liar."

"In all likelihood, child, she probably believed them to be true, which makes her more ignorant than untruthful. However, that is not the point of this discussion. You are, I think, by now aware that you have had little contact with males since arriving here."

"Except Darryl Smith," Audrey interrupted.

"Except Darryl, and he is, as you now know, a very special case."

"He was your student, too."

"True. In any event, your growing friendship with him leads me to believe that it is now time for you to begin interacting with other men, and on a more social footing. To that end, next week, we will be going to see another of my students perform at the ballet in Boston. Your Mother tells me you missed out on your prom, so after the performance, we will go dancing."

"We, Ms. Thompson? Who do you mean by 'we'?"

"You, Darla and I, along with our escorts, of course."

"Escorts?"

"Men, Audrey," Jane replied matter-of-factly, "Nice ones, I promise you, but ones you have not met so that you can practice, in a controlled environment, your new and improved social skills."

"Couldn't I ask Darryl?" Audrey asked.

*Well, at least she hasn't rejected the idea completely,* Jane thought with some relief. *If she had, it could have been sticky, particularly for the boys.* "I'm afraid not, dear," Jane said. *Especially since you might need the Darla's calming presence at some point in the evening.* "I think it best that you interact with some other young men - men you do not know as well as you know him."

"I really like Darryl," Audrey persisted, wondering why she hadn't used a stronger term for her feelings, and then wishing she had done.

"All the more reason for him not to be your escort, Audrey. Think of this as an exam. Audrey putting on the pretty and doing her party manners with socially acceptable but unfamiliar men."

Jane could almost feel Audrey close up on herself. "I don't see why that is necessary," the younger girl replied softly.

At first, Jane did not respond, consciously taking the time to choose her words. Finally, she nodded, and began pensively. "I could say that I do consider this exercise necessary for your growth and learning, which since you have given your word to abide by my program would put you on your honor to comply, would it not?" Jane raised one challenging brow at her student until Audrey reluctantly nodded. "I won't do that. That is not the mind set with which I want you to approach this little adventure. Alternatively, I could ask you just how important Darryl is to you, but I won't do that either because that is your business. Let me ask you another question instead. Do you *really* want your first formal outing to be with someone you, ah, 'really like', or might it not be better to, shall we say, practice on someone who you can forget about if something awkward happens?"

Surprised by Jane's response, Audrey reacted without equal thought and gave an unladylike snort. "Awkward? That's me all right. Big, clumsy cow in a tutu."

"Audrey, dear, don't be silly," Jane said firmly. "You move with an athlete's grace. And the tutu will be on my former student. I'm talking about encountering a socially awkward situation. Do you think your reflexes are sufficiently . . . feminine that you won't find yourself reaching to open a door and getting in your escort's way? Or perhaps pulling out your own chair?"

"So what if I do? It's not like I'm some wimpy hothouse flower that really needs the help."

Consciously stifling a sigh, Jane only shook her head. "No, dear, you are not a 'wimp'. However, men like to feel . . . useful, and the little courtesies are a way for them to balance out the things a woman does to look her best. You wear the heels, he gets the doors. You wear a tight skirt, he hands you in and out of the car. Both parties give and gain something valuable," Then Jane grinned. "Besides, you might actually need the help. One hand for your purse - because you'll only have a clutch bag with no strap, and one hand for your skirts leaves you needing the attention of a willing swain."

"Oh, God, skirts!" Audrey groaned. "As in long flowing, flowery sparkles and . . . stuff. I assume you will have a dress for me?

"A gown, my dear, a magically-lovely, fairy-godmotherly perfect dream of a gown."

"A gown," Audrey parroted, her lack of enthusiasm evident. "I see. Well, when do I see it?"

"Why, when you have chosen it, dear," Jane said airily. "We're going to Miss Franson's shop tomorrow for you to pick out your gown from her stock. A girl should have a big say in her first ball gown, don't you think?"

*Ball GOWN?!?!?* "You mean, one of those long floor length things with sparkles, frills and flounces?" The sheer terror in the girl's voice forced Jane to stifle a chuckle.

*She's thinking of the Victorian things I made her wear as punishment,* Jane realized. "No, not necessarily, although it is likely to be floor length. I rather think that elegant simplicity is all a woman of your beauty, presence and stature needs, but as I said, you get to pick what you wear."

Audrey looked at Jane for a long time, obviously looking, Jane thought, for the catch. Finally, she shrugged. "When do I meet my escort? Are you hiring him at one of those escort places?"

"Audrey!" Jane retorted, truly shocked at the very idea. "I said 'acceptable', young miss. *I* know the young men I will ask to escort you and Darla. The very idea!"

"Sorry, but when DO I meet him? Suppose I can't stand him?"

"You will meet him the day of the ballet, and if you cannot stand him, so long as he is polite, well mannered and a gentleman, you will respond in kind and do your best to enjoy the evening. You are going out with him, not marrying him."

Audrey thought about that, and realized that with Jane and Darla there, she would not be alone. So if Mr. Perfect got cute, Darla at least would take her side and help her avoid a nasty incident. "All right, Ms. Thompson, is that all?"

"Almost. Since we will be doing this over the Thanksgiving holidays, I have decided you won't be riding in the parade. I'm not sure Garters would be up to that long a ride on hard pavement in the cold anyway."

"No more side saddle?" Audrey breathed, hope alive in her tones.

"Not unless I think you need the discipline," Jane said, almost teasingly. "Now, why don't you go find Darla and have a nice outing before luncheon. A walk will do her good today and it will enable me to clear up some work so that we can work on your show jumping this afternoon.

Grinning, Audrey stood. "Wonderful, Ms. Thompson. See you at lunch."

Jane sat in her chair until she was certain Audrey was well down the stairs, and then went to her phone where she dialed a number from memory.

"Milady's Closet and the Style Shoppe," a rich feminine voice answered. "This is Brenda. How may I help you?"

"Brenda? Hello, this is Jane. Look, I am bringing Darla and Audrey in tomorrow."

"Oh, what's up?"

"I want Audrey to select her own gown for a night at the Ballet followed by dancing at the club."

"Sounds basic enough, Jane, and I have a lovely selection in right now. The high fashion things I ordered for my Christmas Ball stock just arrived, although I haven't gotten them out into the store just yet."

"Oh, that's perfect. Let me tell you what I want you to do for me."

~--------------~

Jane strode through the doors of The Style Shoppe with Darla and Audrey following her, each one step behind and one step out to the tall stately woman's right or left. Any army regimental commander would have immediately recognized and been impressed with the formation's precision as they marched to meet the foe.

And at least one of the women - the tall, dark-haired one - truly considered the elegant proprietor of this establishment to be 'the foe'. In that, if in few other ways, she shared a common feeling with her predecessors within Jane's tender care.

Before they'd left the house that morning, Darla had related to Jane the gist of a conversation she'd had with Audrey following Jane telling her student of the new plan of action.

~--------------~

"You're awfully quiet, Audrey, and you don't look all that happy. You want to talk about it?" Darla asked after they'd walked in silence for over twenty minutes.

Audrey shrugged, and tossed her head, both gestures remarkably reminiscent of a certain former school mistress cum businesswoman of Darla's experience. *Wonder what she'd say if I told her how much like Jane she looks when she does that? Probably ignore me for days.*

"Oh, it is just this bloody date your damned aunt has dumped on us. Doesn't it piss. . I mean, upset you that she's procuring dates for us without so much as a by-your-leave?"

"You can say 'piss you off' around me, Audrey, and I won't have a fit of the vapors, but Jane might if you slipped up around her," Darla said teasingly before becoming serious. "It's not like she is making you walk down the aisle with the guy, or selling you into white slavery, Audrey. You're just going out with him, and Jane's going to be there to boot. Me too, if it comes to that."

"But she said dancing! Suppose the guy gets fresh on the dance floor and I want to make a soprano out of him? What then?"

*Then I will cheerfully hold him down while you do it, Rocky,* Darla thought darkly, *but since it is likely to be Kenneth, we shouldn't have to worry.* "Knowing Tante Marie and Aunt Jane, you'll be wearing heels, sweetie. Threaten to break his little toe for him by having an accidently-on-purpose misstep. Let him know you mean business, and then do it if he isn't bright enough to take the hint. Ladies have been doing that with fresh men since the first man invented high heeled spikes and foisted them on women."

"Yeahhhhhh," Audrey mused, her face alight with a dark mischief that boded ill for Ken's feet if he did forget himself, then she became glum again.

"Now what," Darla demanded.

"I just wish I was getting all dolled up for. . . well, for someone else, that's all."

"Got someone in mind, do you?" Darla teased.

Audrey considered that and finally nodded. "Jane said this was going to be like a prom. You're supposed to go to proms with guys you want to go with, not guys you meet a few hours beforehand."

Darla's heart jumped into her throat. "Maybe if you asked Jane?"

Audrey's shoulders drooped and she shook her head. "I did. She thinks I need this to prove to her and to myself that I can deal with other guys in a social situation."

"Um, are you telling me you're completely comfortable in social situations with men? Completely ready to act like a lady? Just a second ago you were asking how to handle a man who gets fresh. It sounds to me like Jane is right." *As usual, dammit. Here I am telling her she needs to go out with someone ELSE! But Jane did manage to get me to agree that Audrey does need that experience. Dammit again!*

Audrey's steady pace faltered for a moment as her smaller almost-sister threw her own words back at her. The frown that marred her smooth features was proof enough that she recognized the truth in Darla's statement - for that matter in Jane's perception. Before she had to explain anything though, Darla offered her a face-saving way out.

"Well, you'll still have the dress and all the other stuff. You can pretend this is sort of like a dress rehearsal for a play, and then wear the dress for real, kind of like for opening night, for the guy you really want to have holding your arm.

That DID make Audrey smile. "I like that idea. So tell me, sister," and Audrey's voice dropped into a confidential, 'just between us girls' tone, "Just what kind of dresses does your friend Darryl like seeing on a girl?"

*If she ever finds out just who is giving her advice about Darryl, she's going to kill me,* the shorter girl thought. *But on the other hand, unlike most guys, I actually have a pretty good idea what looks good on a girl.* "Well, I've only seen him out with a couple of girls, including that swimmer I told you about, but. . . "



Chapter 20 ~ A Gown for Audrey


Jane watched as Brenda led a still-reluctant Audrey into the dressing and modeling area at the back of the store. She was going to do her level best to make this a very positive and wonderful experience for her student. *How odd that thought seems,* Jane mused, *When all my other students have come here to learn the meaning of stark terror.*

"Mom?" Darla whispered beside her.

"Yes, dear?"

"We'll need to do something for me, too, but it can't be today. Not with Audrey here."

"What do you mean?"

"All of Darla's gowns bare the arms. I need something with long sleeves or else Audrey will see the scratches and welts that are still on my arm from the rabbit."

"And if you participate in the fitting today, she still might see them, however inadvertently. Excellent point, dear. I will have a word with Brenda. She ought to be able to do something for you with a minimum of fuss and bother. It isn't like she doesn't have your measurements."

Just then, Brenda Franson walked out into the waiting area. "Darla, Audrey wants to see you in the changing room.

Jane looked up at Brenda, who gave a little shake of her head. "She hasn't changed yet," Brenda reassured Jane. "I haven't forgotten who THIS one really is, Janie. Run along, honey," she said to Darla. "She's seen the gowns I have laid out for her in there and is having knicker-fits over them.

"Okay, Brenda," Darla grinned up at her. *Am I relieved or disappointed that she isn't as Tante Marie would say, en dishabille? Probably both.*

Jane waited patiently until Darla had disappeared into the changing room before addressing her friend. "Might I infer that she was, shall we say, a bit put off by your selections?"

"I don't think the girl has ever seen anything as sexy as some of those gowns, at least never thinking that she might actually wear one of them."

"You don't think that they're a bit too much for her? She's still unsure of herself and of her power as a female."

"No," Brenda waved that away. "You were right on the money with what you asked me to show her, Jane. That girl is going to cause traffic accidents when she strolls down Beacon Street in one of those gowns. She won't be nearly so clueless about her feminine power after that."

"BUT, DARLA!!! LOOK AT THE NECKLINES!!" a plaintive yelp was heard from the changing room.

Jane smiled ruefully at her longtime partner in crime. "If we can get her into one of them, that is."

"Oh, we will," Brenda reassured her.

"Well, if she really resists, you will 'find' something else for her, got it?" Jane ordered sternly. "The very LAST thing I want is her regressing because some part of this experience made her uncomfortable or worse. She is to feel pretty, pleased and pampered when we are done here."

"Oh, since when have you turned into a mother hen, Jane? Come on," Brenda beckoned. "We'll let Darla help Audrey for a bit while I treat you to a cup of tea." Then she saw one of her shop girls. "Katherine? Would you get a selection of the strapless brassieres for the lady in the dressing room? About a 36-B on the plus side, I think. She's going to need them. You know what colors because you helped me with the gowns earlier."

~---------------~

The timely arrival of the shop girl with the substantial, yet elegantly feminine brassieres helped divert Audrey, as did Darla's heartfelt reassurance that Darryl would melt at her feet upon seeing her decked-out in any of the gowns arrayed before her.

"Well, you did say you say you were interested in getting Darryl's undivided attention with whatever gown you buy," Darla said as they checked out the gowns hanging before them."

"Yes, but . . .Darla, I have never considered wearing anything like these. I mean, I was thinking something more like the dress the birds and mice made for Cinderella in the Disney movie." Audrey took one of the gowns, a dark shimmery red that made her ivory skin glow and her hair seem deeper than the night sky, then held it to her body. "Walt Disney would NEVER have let Cindy wear THIS!"

Darryl's mind all but stopped and his vision tunneled as every neuron in his brain focused on Audrey. "God, but that would be gorgeous on you," he whispered.

"You . . . really think so?" Audrey asked in a very small voice, turning to look at her reflection in a nearby mirror.

Audrey's question hit the femininely turned out young man like a pail of ice water on a hot day. Darla was stunned to realize how close she'd come to breaking character, and struggled to regain her composure. *but she is just so darn gorgeous and she doesn't even have that dress on yet,* her mind whined.

*And she wants to wear it for Darryl, and who has a better idea than me what Darryl does and doesn't like? Oh, hell, if she isn't comfortable wearing it, on top of dealing with an unknown guy, she'll be miserable the whole night.* "I think you'd look like princess in it. . .a very sensual princess, but a princess nonetheless."

"I just don't know," Audrey said distractedly, still staring at herself in the mirror. "I mean, I just have never thought of myself as the scarlet woman type, you know?"

Darla saw the uncertainty in her friends eye and mentally shrugged. She plucked the dress from Audrey's hands and gave her another one - a classic sheath in a pale blue satin that, while it still would show a good bit of creamy bosom and dark mysterious cleavage, was not nearly so . . .uninhibited as the first one. "Try this one. Take the bra in the same color as they seem to have been chosen to match. We'll try them all before you make a decision."

"Them all?!?" Audrey goggled. There had to be fifteen gowns on that rack. "But what about Ms. Thompson? Won't she want to see?"

"She told you to pick your own. You choose the one you like best and are most comfortable wearing and then make her keep her word."

"But, what if I am not comfort. . .I mean, if I don't like any of these?"

"Then you. . ." and then Darla saw the anxiety in her friend's eyes and amended her statement, "Then WE will go out there and tell Aunt Jane we need to look elsewhere."

"You're sure that will be all right?"

Darla then saw just how truly unnerved Audrey by all of this. *Jane said that she was to have fun. Brenda's choices may be too far out for her to do that. As much as I'd give a year of my life to see her in that red gown, I won't let anyone put her through something she truly isn't ready for.*

"Sweetie, a girl is supposed to enjoy herself, enjoy her basic femininity when she is having a 'big do' like this coming-out party Jane has set up for you, okay? Anything that makes you feel happy and feminine is good; anything that makes you unhappy or uncomfortable just isn't going to happen, okay?"

The surety in Darla's words brought the taller girl up short. Audrey looked at her friend closely and saw the determination there, and felt the tight ball of emotion in her gut begin to relax. "Okay," she said softly. "Maybe trying them on will be fun - kind of like an adventure or maybe a fairytale."

Grinning, Darla put a finger to her nose and made it wiggle back and forth. "Just call me your Fairy Godsister."

Audrey giggled, a sound that absolutely enthralled Darla. "That was a 'Samantha of Bewitched' nose wiggle, silly. Even I know she was a witch."

"Well then, my pretty," Darla cackled evilly. "Go get dressed before I get you and your little dog, too."

Audrey giggled again, picked up the matching bra from the confetti-colored pile of silk and satin, and slipped into the changing room.

~--------------~

It had taken a great deal of willpower, but Jane had managed to stay out of the dressing room while Audrey made her selection. *Just as well,* she thought, *I'd probably fall into old habits and start teasing her. And it is not as if my presence in there is required to protect this one's 'secret identity'. An inadvertent slip of the panties is not going to become the biggest 'on-dit' of Kingston society with Audrey as it would have been with any of my other students.* She took another sip of tea and sighed. *Still, it is hard to just sit here. I wonder if that is why men tend to hate shopping so much? This is incredibly boring!*

"Oh, don't worry, Jane. She'll be fine," Brenda said, completely misinterpreting her friend's last sigh. "And you haven't heard a single peep out either of them since that first little outburst, now have you?"

"No," Jane had to admit. "And Darla has been flitting about picking up accessories to try with the dresses so she'd have had the opportunity to let me know if there was a problem."

"Well, that is a problem for me," Brenda grumbled. "Putting away all those fripperies when she finally does make a choice is going to be a colossal pain. Oops, maybe we spoke too soon. Here comes Darla now."

~---------------~

"I don't know, Darla. I just don't like any of the ones I have tried on."

"Well, what about this one?" Darla replied, holding up the scarlet dress Audrey had earlier set aside. "You haven't tried it yet."

Audrey looked at it dubiously. "I don't know. The others at least seemed substantial. I mean, there's really nothing to that one, you know?"

"I think Darryl would love it," Darla said in a fit of inspiration.

"You really think so?" Audrey asked, her voice wistful.

*Are you kidding?* "Are you kidding? He's male, isn't he? Heavens, girl, you would look positively dangerous in that gown!"

Audrey hesitated and then sighed. "Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt to try it on."

"Great. And I know what would be just PERFECT with it. Be right back!"

~---------------~

"Brenda," Darla asked as she moved near the tea table, "Do you have anything leafy that we could use for hair setting? Not too overdone, but with a lot of color to it? Sort of like a laurel crown, or maybe holly with red berries?"

Instantly, the shopkeeper's face took on a smugly satisfied grin. "Why yes, Darla, I have JUST the thing. Let me show you."

Moments later, Brenda returned to Jane. "What was that all about?" Jane asked.

"Just that I believe she has decided to try the gown I thought would look best on her. I had that hair accessory set aside so I'd know if she did. I thought her feminine curiosity would get her into that gown."

"What is it like?" Jane demanded.

Brenda only smiled. "Wait and see."

~---------------~

Darla hurried into the presentation room only to find it empty. She had expected to find Audrey there, wearing the gown. *Maybe she needed the necessary. Or maybe she's hiding. Dammit, I want to see her in that dress!* "Audrey?" she called.

"In here," a voice called from behind the curtain. "Come on. I need some help with this thing."

*Another zipper,* Darla thought grinning. Thus far, the only gowns Audrey had been able to get on by herself had been those that did not have a back zip. She'd never learned the various contortions most young women need with such a garment because Audrey had never worn all that many dresses to begin with, and certainly none that had rear-closing zips. "Coming." Darla replied.

Just as she got there, the curtain was flung open and a white piece of filmy materia flew from inside the dressing room at Darla. Instinct took over and she caught the soft missile before her mind actually registered what was standing in front her very eyes. It was Audrey in a state of high dudgeon.

It was also Audrey in a state of glorious femininity. REVEALED femininity. The panties she wore accented more than they hid - not that they hid much - and for the rest, well, all the rest was pure, beautiful girl.

Naked pure, beautiful girl.

"That damned bra was designed by Torquemada!" she flared. "Every time I try the fasten the thing I feel like it is trying to pinch them off my chest!"

Darla had seen Audrey in her fine lingerie before, at the art class, and Darryl had seen her in some very form-fitting athletic gear, but this. . . .

"Wha. . what.. ?" was all her frazzled brain could manage to get out of her suddenly cottony mouth.

"Would you quit gawking, and help me with that damned thing," Audrey fumed. "It isn't like you don't see tits in your own mirror every damned morning."

"S. . sure. . I mean, okay. How do you want me to handle them. . I mean it?""

"Don't be a smartass, Darla," Audrey said darkly, "Just get behind me and let me adjust my breasts in those cups before you fasten the bra. Go slowly so that I can make sure nothing is getting pinched this time."

It was necessary for Darla to put her arms around Audrey to feed the bra around her. This was something she did very carefully - not because she didn't want to accidently touch Audrey's gloriously full and rounded bosom, because she did - almost more than she wanted her next breath - but because she knew she shouldn't and wasn't all that sure she could stop with just a quick feel.

Once that was done, Audrey took control. "Okay, now just hold it there while I slip these puppies in there. . . yeah, that's it. Okay, start tightening it. . .WAIT, Stop. The underwire is catching me on the underside of my left breast."

Darla just closed her eyes and tried NOT to visualize what was happening on the other side of the taller girl's beautiful back. However, for all her feminine ways, Darla was still Darryl and Darryl was still all male where it counted - particularly between his ears where his imagination painted vivid pictures to go with Audrey's descriptive monologue. *I read somewhere that a male thinks of something sexy every fifteen seconds on average. I am way the hell above average,* he thought, and barely stifled a groan of pure lustful frustration when Audrey said, "Damn, I can barely keep my nipples inside this thing. Oh well, go ahead and clasp it."

Darla did and then Audrey spun about. She was unable to contain the worshipful "Oh wow," that whispered out as Darla took in Audrey. "That is some bra," she finished, trying to recover from the earlier slip. *and what's in it is top of the line, too!*

"It makes me look like I have had two boob jobs," Audrey retorted. "Well, maybe it will make me too big to wear that last dress. Help me with it, will you?"

"I got something to put in your hair that will be perfect with it," Darla told her as Audrey pulled the silken confection over her head."

"I'm still not sure about this, Darla." Audrey said from inside the mass of night-red fabric.

"Well, I have to agree that it would take a woman with balls AND a great body to get away with wearing it," Darla agreed. "You do have the body for it."

Audrey's head popped through. "Are you implying I lack the courage to wear this dress?" she demanded, eyes wide.

*Actually, I am the only person with balls in here, but I sure couldn't pull that dress off, no matter how long Sandy and Caro worked on my. .. breastworks.* "Well, that remains to be seen, doesn't it?"

"Get the shoes," Audrey barked, "And whatever it is you found for my hair. We'll just see who has the .. the. . .the tubes for this dress, bitch!"

"Yes, Ma'am!" Darla replied, just before she stuck her tongue out at Audrey, making them both break into giggles.

Then Audrey noticed the way Darla was moving. "Hey? Are you okay? You're moving a little strangely."

She was surprised when Darla blushed. "Oh, it's nothing. I, ah, mis-stepped coming into the room and pulled something in my upper legs."

"Oh. . . too bad. Hamstrings hurt." Audrey commiserated as she started to weave the silk laurel leaves into her hair.

*Not as much as unrequited lust, Rocky,* Darla thought with a grimace.

The dress was a dark, sensuous scarlet, except for the shoulder strap which flowed pristine white down over Audrey's bosom before curling lovingly behind her back....

Jane resisted the urge to pinch herself as she watched Audrey move about the room in her chosen gown. *I know I asked Brenda to set out some gowns that would emphasize and display her figure and beauty, but, my lord, I never expected ANYTHING like this. Now what do I do?!?*

The split-skirt, silken gown was floor-length, Grecian in design, asymmetrically hanging from one shoulder. Unlike the strapless designs that Jane had envisioned, this one did not need any internal stiffness to stay in place. Only that one tapering shoulder strap kept Audrey's charms from being completely revealed, charms over which the soft fabric flowed with a lover's intimacy. The dress was a dark, sensuous scarlet, except for the shoulder strap which flowed pristine white down over Audrey's bosom before curling lovingly behind her back. The dress should have been one size larger, perhaps. Not that Jane would expect any man with a pulse to complain about that fact.

"How could you put that out for her, Brenda," Jane hissed in the shopkeeper's ear. "She's not ready for something that. . .that. .blatant! Heavens, when she twirls, I can practically see up to her panties! I wanted her to feel feminine, not incite a riot!"

"Nonsense. You're exaggerating and you know it," Brenda said, smirking. "With that tall girl, and her incredible grace, you never had a chance. That dress was MEANT for someone like her."

"I'm going to need to take a whip with us to keep the animals off her."

"Well, you did get your wish. She is definitely looking feminine." Brenda replied. "Wish most of my customers looked half as good as she does once they've picked one of my dresses."

*She does look lovely. I just hope that after our night in Boston, I don't wish that SHE looked half as good as she does right now.
--



Chapter 21 ~ The Final Touches


"I want to see!" Audrey demanded.

"Sit STILL!" Caro demanded. "If you move again I will let you go home as you are. That last move smeared the lipstick so badly you look like Bozo the Clown.

"You've used so many brushes and things that I will never be able to fix my own face later anyway."

"Then don't mess it up," Carolyn Beale snapped.

"I WANT to SEE!" Audrey demanded again, and then shut up when she realized it came out like a whine.

"Well, I'm done," the older woman said as she spun Audrey's chair so the girl could see herself in the salon mirror.

"Oh . . . my . . . goodness," Audrey breathed. "That. .. that can't be me."

"And who else would it be?" Carolyn teased.

"But, I'm not that pretty."

"No, you're not pretty," Caro replied. "Your features are too strong for pretty. Your chin is a bit too stubbornly forward, your nose is too long, and your mouth is a bit too wide. You've got great eyes, though."

"Thanks a lot," Audrey retorted, feeling suddenly down.

"You didn't let me finish girl. Taken singly, those are all faults. Taken together, they, and combined with those incredible eyes of yours and my cosmetic witchcraft, make you eye-stopping, dramatic, and memorable. Pretty is insipid and for little girls. You are powerfully feminine and a woman-grown."

"That good, huh?" Audrey asked, now intrigued. "And here I always thought I was supposed to want to be pretty."

"Harrumph. Men have dark fantasies about women who look like you."

"I just wish I could make myself look like this," Audrey said, gazing at herself in the mirror.

"Just a minute, dear. I have an idea," Caro said as she slipped out of the cubicle only to return moments later with a digital camera. "Give me your sexiest smile and say 'cheese'," she ordered.

"Sexy? ME?" Audrey choked out as the flash dazzled her.

"Becka?" Caro called. A girl in a Chalet smock entered in response. "Here, take the camera to my PC and make an 8x10 of the picture I just took of Audrey, please."

"What was that for?" Audrey demanded, still trying to clear her eyes.

"Darla says you are quite the artist, that you've been doing really well at those art classes Jane has you taking," the stylist replied, before adding with a wicked grin, "When you aren't posing, that is."

"I am going to kill Darla if she doesn't forget about that night," Audrey groaned.

"Anyway, what my thought is, if you have a picture of what you should look like, and then treat your face like a canvas, you should be able to do with only a little practice. I mean, cosmetics are called face paint, right? And brushes are brushes, right?"

"You'll show me which pots and things to use where?" Audrey asked, "And which brushes to use for that stuff?" Then her voice became very quiet. "I really want to know how to do this to myself."

"To yourself, sweetheart?" Caro asked very gently, "or for yourself?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

~---------------~

"How's that?" Audrey asked, her eyes looking up to meet Darla's in the reflection in her mirror.

"I think you've got it, girlfriend. In fact, I think that bit of darker color around your eyes makes you look even better than Caro's design and will be fabulous with that knockout dress of yours."

"Don't remind me of that!" Audrey ordered ruefully. "I get massive butterflies every time I think about being out in public dressed in that thing."

"You surprised the hell out of Aunt Jane when you walked out of Miss Franson's changing room wearing that gown."

Audrey giggled, a sound that did very strange things to Darla's insides, "I surprised the hell out of me. I still can't believe I put it on, let alone walked out there in front of your aunt and that Franson woman. And I am not convinced I can put it on again, especially when I am going to escorted by a guy I have never met before."

"Ken's okay," Darla replied, still distracted by the picture of Audrey reflected in the mirror.

"Ken?" Audrey spun on her vanity stool to look directly at her friend. "You know this person your Aunt has picked for me?"

*Oops,* Darla groaned mentally. *Did Jane not want me to talk about Ken? Blast! When in doubt, the truth is less slippery and less likely to bite you in the butt at a later date.*

"I know Ken," Darla said in a very small voice. "He's, well, kinda like my brother."

"Your BROTHER?!?"

"QUIET!" Darla hissed. "You want Jane in here? I don't know if I was supposed to let you know about that, okay?"

"Well, you can't just stop there!" Audrey grabbed Darla's hand. "Tell me what you know and don't worry about being too detailed!"

"Okay, but you have to keep mum, all right? Jane might feel she has to change things if she knows. Ken really is okay. In fact, he's a lot like Darryl."

"Nobody is like Darryl, at least in my experience," Audrey countered.

A warm feeling welled up inside Darla and she wondered how she could keep from grinning at Audrey's defense of her masculine alter ego. "Well, he is like Darryl at least in that he is also one of Jane's boys."

"One of Jane's boys? You mean like you and I are two of 'Jane's girls'?"

*Not quite, sweetie, because you're the first of Jane's girls who really is a girl, at least since she left the Eastmore School for Girls.* "He was one of her students, and like Darryl, sent to Jane for help learning to deal with apparently violent tendencies." *Even though those charges were really lies his Mother told to get him sent here so Jane would feminize him because that bitch hadn't been able to get the job done.*

"So what's he like now if he was sent here for that?" There was real worry in her voice.

"He is one of the sweetest, most gentle human beings I know," Darla reassured her friend. "The alleged violence turned out to be a setup - somebody was trying to get him into trouble and succeeded. Jane figured that out, but not before they fell for one another. She became his surrogate aunt and my big brother."

"If he gets cute. . ." Audrey growled.

"He won't, sweetie." *Especially when I tell him I want you.* "He won't."

~--------------~

Darla peeked around the open door into Jane's study and saw the older woman at her desk. "Momma Jane?"

"Yes, dear?"

"Can we talk? I think I may have messed up."

"Come in, then, and tell me what has happened."

Sighing, Darla closed the door behind her and entered the room.

Jane watched with interest as her child voluntarily took the infamous 'uncomfortable chair' Jane had long used to seat misbehaving and cowed students. *You must be upset, my girl. What have you done?*

~--------------~

"Hello?"

"Art? It's Jane."

"Hi dear. I love you. Miss you, too. What's up?"

"Audrey knows about Kenneth."

"WHAT?!? She knows that you petticoated him?" Art was aghast. "Does that mean she knows about Darla as Darryl, too?"

"No, no. . not that. That he was one of my students."

"Oh," Art replied. "Hmmm. . . well, that's not a problem, is it?"

"She knows I handpicked him and so she won't be as on edge as I wanted."

"Dear, if she is at all intelligent, and she is more than that, and if she has watched you at all, and again, I am sure she has, I believe she would already have concluded that you would not have put her in a situation with an unknown quantity as an escort."

"But Darla told her that Kenneth was the gentlest man she knew."

"With the possible exception Darryl himself, Ken is the gentlest man we know, dear."

"So, what does this do to our plan?"

"Nothing, I think. As I said, Audrey would have eventually figured out that her date had been thoroughly vetted by you. She is still going be very much on edge about the whole thing. This is the part of a young girl's maturation she was denied by that governess.

"But she'll go into the evening knowing she doesn't have anything to fear from him."

"Darling, at this point in your training of her, do you really think Audrey's greatest fear is of men, or of herself? If confronted in a physical way, we both know she could handle it. She knows she could handle it too, pretty dress or no. That is her 'strength' in more than merely the physical realm.

"But I don't want her to react physically, ESPECIALLY with my Kenneth!" Jane replied, her tone upset at the very notion.

"But darling, don't you see? Now that someone she respects and likes has told her that Kenneth is a truly superior example of the male gender, and oh-by-the-way, a truly gentle gentleman, she is going to be inclined to think first and then react. If anything, she will conclude she will have to cope in non-physical ways with whatever happens, and there she is much more vulnerable. This may be even better, for your purposes."

"But that's just with Ken, Art. What if she decides that only boys I've taught can be trusted, because she also knows that Darryl was one of my students?"

"There'll be other males there, Janey, and she's just too eye-catching to be left alone all night. Oh, I'd be surprised if she wasn't still very anxious and assuming all goes well, that will give you an opportunity to discuss it with her after the fact and bring home the lessons you want her to learn as a result of the experience."

"Yesssss," Jane thought out loud, "And that dress she chose is really going to help with that anxiety, too."

"What dress?" Diana's voice demanded.

"I'll just let you be surprised, sweetheart. You'll turn green with envy when you see it and when you see what it looks like on her."

"And I'll be stuck in a stiff-necked, ugly old tuxedo."

"But I LIKE the way you look in your tux, dear," Jane said in a low, throaty whisper that made Art's hair stand on end. "To use the vernacular, I find it sexy as hell."

"Well, that's okay, then. But maybe you could borrow Audrey's dress later and model it for me. . . privately so I can appreciate it. . . and you. . .properly."

"I wish I could wear that dress," Jane said with a sigh at the thought of how easily Art would be able to get her out of that shimmering red confection, "but, alas, I'm not that well built. It will, however, make her VERY aware every minute of the evening that she is a female."

"You're well built, my dear," Art reassured her, somehow managing to put a very masculine leer into his voice, "and I DEFINITELY miss having your very stacked self in my bed."

"I miss you in mine, too, you sexy thing - both the stud and the hussy. Well, I have to run. Love you, Art."

"Love you, too, babe."



Chapter 22 ~ Advanced Girl Lessons On Handling Boys


"Aunt Jane? Could I borrow your key to the attic? I need to get those old steel toed hiking shoes of mine." Darla asked after Audrey had left the breakfast table to get ready for her riding lessons.

The request was unusual enough to bring Jane's head up in surprise. "Whatever for, Darla?"

"I'm going to give Audrey some dancing lessons and I will need them."

Frowning in confusion, Jane regarded her child carefully. "Audrey dances very well. Her athletic grace, I think, but you don't need to worry, either about her dancing or your toes."

Sighing, Darla shook her head. "I intend to teach her how to step on a guy's toes, Mom, when it's appropriate, of course."

"Why ever would you do that?"

"Because it's fair that she should know how, given what you have planned for her."

"Darla, thanks to you, Audrey already knows Ken is a gentle man, so the tension I wanted is lost."

"Come on, Momma-Jane, this is Darla you are talking to, okay? Tension is one thing. Feeling vulnerable and defenseless is another. Look, I have watched you operate, with a good deal of admiration, for going on to six years. The tension will be there, particularly at the club where she will be exposed to guys other than Ken."

"You've been talking to your father, haven't you?" Jane stated resignedly. "Look, dear, if you know me at all, you know that I wouldn't put her in a situation that I am the least bit unsure that she can handle. I have done this type of thing before, haven't I?"

"That's the point, Mom, this isn't the same type of thing at all. You know the bo. . other students and their motivations very well. The problem here, as I see it, is that you are assuming that Audrey has other options to fall back on when you put her in a situation where she knows she can't, or should not, rely on her strength, her confidence is in the physical."

"As your father pointed out, dear, that is what we want, isn't it? For her to think twice in such encounters? We know that she's already shown she is more than willing to engage in battle with men, even to initiate it.

"But what have you left her? She never learned the tools other girls learn for warning a guy to back off. Heck, she might feel even more vulnerable. Lord above, if some clown at the dance gets cute or if Ken plays his part the way I am *certain* you have in mind, and she doesn't know how to back him off more or less politely?" Darla shook her head at the thought. "In either of those situations, then this entire expedition could really become a major fiasco."

"How so? And what do you mean by 'tools' and that crack about Ken playing his part the way I have in mind?"

"Momma-Jane, don't be obtuse. Any of your graduates have received an expert-level course in teasing just by having to deal with you at you best. . . or worst, depending on your point of view. Kenneth could overwhelm an unsuspecting, inexperienced woman with a smile, or with a few seemingly innocent words, and reduce her to tears."

"He wouldn't do that!" *Except I was going to ask him to do just that. DAMN!* "Again, what about tools?"

"Not on his own, of course, but he certainly has the ability. And how did you learn to back a guy off on the dance floor, all the while smiling sweetly?"

*From my girlfriends and Mother, of course. Darla's right.* "Admitting nothing, of course, what should we do instead? I mean, right off the top of my head, what you propose to teach her is just another way of doing injury to someone. What she needs are lessons in the subtler ways of telling an overly aggressive male to take a hike."

"Well, now that you put it that way, that might still be a good idea," Darla said thoughtfully, "If we do it correctly."

"Good idea? To make her feel terrible when she should be learning to feel like a lady?"

Darla shrugged delicately. "If we help her find other ways to react to men who are bothering her, and then let her see that she can indeed still succeed while keeping the conflict non-violent. I have an idea how we might make that work. Mike and I could put on a show for her - you know, give her a good example of how such things work. Then Ken could gently increase the pressure on her, until she reacts. I will be close enough for support, but I will let her try first."

"And these so-called 'dancing lessons'?"

"Long overdue," Darla smirked. "Momma-Jane, your whole purpose in this is to show her that her proper response should be to show matchless grace and femininity, to the point that he is reduced to a mere slave at her feet."

"Perhaps, my dear, but I think I will see to these particular lessons," *along with a few less dangerous techniques,* "Since I have never found it necessary to impart those bits of feminine wisdom on you, and as you pointed out, *I* have had those lessons myself."

~--------------~

Audrey knocked on the door to Jane's study. During lunch, the older woman had ordered her student to report there, wearing her three inch dancing heels and devoutly wishing otherwise. "Come." was the response so Audrey slipped into the room. Once again, what she saw in there, surprised her.

"Ms. . Ms. . Thompson?" she asked the person standing next to the hearth.

"Just so," was the amused response. Audrey could not help staring at her teacher. Jane had arrayed herself in one of Art's tuxedos, complete with ruffled shirt, bow-tie and cummerbund. "Audrey, it has come to my attention that . . . that, well, certain areas of your education as a young woman were overlooked by your governess."

"Education, Ms. Thompson? I did well in all of the standardized tests that the state said I had to take."

"Social education, dear. And we shall start with aspects of dancing that we need to address before we go to the club. Now, what do you do if a man grows hands while you are in the middle of a crowded dance floor?" Jane saw Audrey's hands tighten into fists and caught them in her own hands. "Besides that," she said pointedly.

"I. . .I really don't know," said Audrey, surprised at the strength of the older woman's grip.

"Well," Jane said smiling as she relaxed her hands, "the first line of defense is to firmly grip the man's hands and move them to a more appropriate spot, like this," Jane said as she gently, but firmly placed Audrey's hand above hip level. "Now, we will dance and you try it."

It took Audrey a couple of tries before her iron grip eased sufficiently that Jane did not wince, but she was, as always, a quick learner. She was also not convinced that this stratagem was the final answer to a maiden's prayer when dealing with the male animal. "But what if that doesn't work? What if he is actually strong enough to stop me from moving his hand? Grab his pinky finger and offer to dislocate it?

"Audrey!" Jane scolded.

"Well," the girl replied mutinously. "What do you do if some gorilla has you all wrapped up in his arms?"

"Well, you've got good lungs," Jane offered. "How loud do you think you could scream?"

"Scream?"

"Surely. Or such lesser cues as might be necessary. For example, a loud 'Keep your filthy hands off of me, you creep!'"

Audrey just stared at Jane for a moment before managing. "You're kidding, right? Lord, but that sounds like something out of a silent movie."

"No, I'm not kidding, Audrey. The idea is to give a warning that doesn't actually involve violence. 'You're going to have a hard time using that hand after I break it for you.' is a bit direct and you may limit your options by making a threat like that. There are lots of things that don't require physical assault. Make a joke, 'Didn't your mother teach you any manners?' Distract him with an implied offer you don't intend to keep, 'Keep crushing me like that and I'll swoon right here - and that would really interfere with . . . later.'"

"I do NOT swoon!"

"I never said you would. I said you threaten to swoon to get him to ease up on his strength without resorting to a wrestling match - which I'm sure you could win. That's not the issue. The issue is dissuading an overly amorous suitor without ending up on the police blotter."

"So, some guy starts feeling me up, and all I do is politely ask him to back off?"

"Obviously that depends on just how intrusive his groping gets, but if his hands start to wander a little, then a little correction is appropriate, not nuclear war."

"And if that doesn't work, then I yell at him?"

"That depends, too," Jane answered unhelpfully. "If he takes the hint for a while, then starts to get fresh again later, you might just get control of his hands again, or tease him out of it. Your goal is to discourage the unwanted attention without closing off relations altogether."

"Why bother with subtlety when I don't really care if I ever see the guy again, anyway?"

"Well, aside from the biological elements - after all courtship IS one of the steps in continuing the species unless you advocate rape - it can be fun. He's showing you that he finds you attractive. You're showing him that you find his company pleasant overall, but YOU will control the limits on it. It's as formal as a minuet, with the added piquancy of a contest to see who will control your relationship."

"I'll be damned if I let some guy paw at me!"

"Exactly. Which is why YOU will indeed be the one controlling it, even if you never exert any significant fraction of your very appreciable physical strength."

"So I just 'talk' him out of it, no matter he does or how offensive I find his actions?"

Jane sighed. "You're over-reacting again. No, you do not just 'talk' to him 'whatever' he does, but neither do you just deck him the first time he indicates an interest in more than tea and crumpets with you. If he persists unreasonably, or gets really abusive such that shouting for help won't solve the problem, then you can always escalate to whatever level of physical strength is truly required. But a . . . suggestion, offered with a . . . caress is not automatically a bad thing."

The look of distaste on Audrey's face told Jane the girl was not at all convinced. "No, but you've put me between a rock and a hard place," she accused. "No matter what I do, you get to second guess me after the fact and decide whether my response was suitably feminine and appropriate."

"Look, Audrey, you're assuming something will happen, and that just isn't likely," Jane said coaxingly. "And besides, a man's interest in you as a woman is usually a GOOD thing. It shows he appreciates you for your beauty. Ultimately, it shows that he considers you favorably as a partner for his genes. But . . ." she said quickly, raising her hand to forestall Audrey's irritated response. "But you have to remember that when presented with an attractive woman, men's minds, such as they are, often shut down. If WE as women want the species to continue, we as women need to be tolerant. If we killed all the men who think only with their glands when a pretty woman is around, we'd be sort of lonely, don't you think? If not in this generation, then when there is no next generation?"

"Now you sound like I'm a brood mare and you're fixing me up with a some stud."

"Audrey, I do not permit that sort of crudeness, and you know it. Despite your wish to simplify them to suit yourself, human interactions are complex. That's part of what makes them so stimulating. And man-woman interactions are the most complex and most stimulating of all."

"I don't have any desire to be stimulated like that! My life was just fine the way it was before you and my mother decided I needed to play nice with boys! Well, I don't want to play with boys, and certainly not by THEIR rules!"

For several moments, Jane let that hang in the air between them, as much to gauge how strongly the girl really felt as anything else. *Strongly enough,* she decided when Audrey did not make any move to retract or downplay her stand. "All right, I can accept that - even respect that as your personal position on such issues, but part of this program is for you to learn those rules so that, like any intelligent woman, you can bend them, break them or ignore them - however best suits you."

"I already know how to ignore them," Audrey retorted, her chin jutting pugnaciously.

"You know how to ignore men, dear, not the social rules. You tend to trample those which is all right if you intend to be alone all your life. After you leave me, that will, of course, be your own choice, but your Mother AND I want a better life for you than that."

"And going out into this high society meat market is going to help me get that so-called better life?"

"Hopefully, you will have a better attitude about it, but yes, there are lessons to be learned in such places. This is training no less than learning to walk in heels."

In a nearly perfect mimicry of Darla, Audrey gave a disbelieving sniff.

"Look, Audrey," Jane charged on. "You've already told me that you have feelings for Darryl. Suppose, just suppose that someday, when he or someone else DOES gain YOUR approval as a potential partner for YOUR genes."

"It shouldn't have to be so bloody hard!" Audrey fumed. "Why can't we simply agree to . . .well. . why can't we just agree?

Jane pursed her lips in the effort to suppress a grin. "Those genes again, Audrey, and evolution. About the only way to make it easier to go back to the days of hunting a mate with a club."

"Now let's have none of that, you minx," Jane said as a wicked look came into her student's bright eyes. "Much as you'd like, it hasn't worked that way in thousands of years."

"Too bad."

"Perhaps, but look at the advantages you have here and now. You are a lovely young woman and, thanks to your time here with Marie, Darla and me, you now know how to show yourself to best advantage. As I have already pointed out, your potential gene sharer will, no doubt, cease to think when he sees you at your prettiest. That's your club, darling. You just need to be sure you encourage or discourage him gently. Which is what this entire exercise is really all about. Encouraging and discouraging gently in a polite and social situation."

A very clear mental picture of Darryl flashed in Audrey's mind's eye. "I see," Audrey replied quietly.

"And if you go to jail for beating up men on the dance floor, you might scare off that ideal mate before he gets a chance to get his thinking dulled by your good looks."

Sighing, Audrey admitted defeat. "Okay, let's try it again, Aunt Jane. I think this is going to take some practice."

~-------------~

"OUCH, dam. . darnit, Sandy. . that HURTS!!" Audrey protested

"Oh, keep still, or this Grecian Knot is going to end up being a Gordian Knot and it will take a troop of Boy Scouts to untangle your hair," the brassy-voiced blonde ordered. "Come on, girl, and trust me. This is going to look spectacular on you if you just stop wiggling long enough for me finish."

"Just what I need. Something else to draw attention to me," Audrey replied sourly as she settled herself into the salon chair.

"Hey, what's this?" Sandy asked, coming around in front of her customer. "Jane tells me you've picked out this really killer dress."

"I'm not sure if I picked it or Darla did."

"Don't you like it?"

"It's okay, I guess."

"Then what's bothering you?" Sandy asked, returning to her task. "You are getting the full treatment - new dress, full set of accessories, new hairstyle and one of Carolyn's super make-overs. The boys are gonna positively howl at the moon over you, Audrey."

"Like I said - just what I need. Boys falling all over themselves and me not able to . . ."

Even the normally self-possessed Sandy heard the anxiety in Audrey's voice. "Not able to . . what, Audrey," she asked in so gentle a voice that the girl was momentarily unable to respond. "Not able to do what?" Sandy repeated, only a little insistently.

Sighing, Audrey shrugged. "Won't be able to defend myself. I promised Ms. Thompson that I would resist taking down anybody who got fresh with me when we go out dancing after the theater."

Sandy gave an inelegant snort. "Why should you have to, I'd like to know. They're only males, after all."

"Only males? OWW!" Audrey's hair pulled sharply as she tried to spin to confront Sandy. "What do you mean. . OW . . by that 'only males' crack."

"I warned you to sit still," Sandy chided. "And what I meant is what I said. Lord above, Audrey, why should a lovely girl like you need anything more than a sharp word or a dismissive glance to take down a mere male, particularly in one of Jane's fancy-shamncy clubs? Those guys only think they're tough, but they've had all the roughness bred and trained out of 'em. Now, if you went to the kind of club I hit when I go to the city, well, now there you might need a few tricks to remind the stray male that he isn't a neanderthal. Of course, the more dangerous the prey, the more highly prized the trophy, I always say."

Audrey couldn't help herself - she giggled. "Prey? Trophy?"

"Sure," Sandy replied grinning. "Me, I've been tracking the human male animal for a while now and hanging their heads on the wall of my bedroom - the little heads, by the way - so I go after the wily ones. The ones who would go to one of those clubs of Jane's?" Sandy made a derisive sound. "Easy meat, girl, easy meat. Wusses, the lot of them, or they'd be out tracking gals like me instead of sipping overpriced fizzy wine with their pinkies extended just so."

"Wusses? Well, maybe with what Aunt Jane taught me about dealing with them non-violently it won't be so bad if they try and get cute with me on the dance floor."

Sandy set down her tools and spun Audrey's chair to face her. "Jane taught you how to deal with fresh guys? Our Jane? Miss High Tea Manners? That Jane?"

Audrey grinned at the devastating accuracy of the description and nodded.

"Girl, you and I need to talk. I love Jane to death, but even the tame version of the male you're going to run into at that club of hers is out of her experience. So, exactly what did Jane tell you? And DON'T leave out anything, okay? I need to know just how wrong she was before I give you lesson one in Male Handling."



Chapter 23 ~ Being Seen at the Theater


Naturally, the seats Jane had arranged were excellent - a private luxury balcony box with a clear, uninterrupted view of the stage. Darla found herself seated between Jane and Michael, with Kenneth and Audrey on the other side of Michael. Although ballet was not Darla's favorite form of theater, this particular presentation was different. First, because it was The Nutcracker, and during the years she'd lived in Seasons House, it had come to mean 'Christmas' to Jane's adopted child.

The other reason this performance was special was because tonight her 'sister', Caitlyn Jeffries, was dancing the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Darla was so excited that Jane had needed to pull her back into her seat several times already. However, even after several gentle reminders, Darla was moving to the edge of her seat as the troupe cleared the main stage for Caitlyn's entrance.

*Look at her,* Darla thought, her eyes glistening happily, *Just LOOK at her - that girl must weigh less than a feather. I'm not sure her feet are really touching the stage, she glides so lightly over it. And she's so happy she glows and it isn't because of the glitter in that fairy-costume.* Turning to Jane, Darla saw that she was also feeling the joyous emotion her former student was radiating. "I didn't know she'd decided to keep her hair blond, Momma," Darla whispered up to Jane.

"It suited her coloring," Jane whispered back. "Oh, Darla, isn't she WONDERFUL!"

Caught up in the shared feelings, Darla could only nod before leaning over to kiss her Mother's cheek.

~--------------~

Caitlyn ran over to greet her visitors, still in her stage makeup. "Oh, I'm so glad you could make it," she gushed as she hugged each in turn. "Wasn't it great? Tell me it was great! Please, tell me it was great!"

"It was great," Kenneth said deadpan.

Rounding on the taller young man, Caitlyn frowned fiercely. "You're just saying that," she accused.

Ken grinned a thoroughly pleased, 'gotcha', big-brotherish sort of grin. "C'mon, sprite," he laughed, "I would think that six curtain-calls would give you all the answer you need."

The petite dancer blushed prettily. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Unlike this plebeian," Jane said reaching out to take Caitlyn's hand in hers, "I am a connoisseur of fine dance, dear. Trust me. It was great."

Suddenly, Caitlyn launched herself at Jane, hugging her fiercely. "Oh, thank you for coming. I did so want you to see me dance, because. . .because. . "

Jane gathered her most unique student up in arms and held her close. "I know, dear. I know."

~------------~

Darla had a few moments alone with Caitlyn while waiting for Jane's car to pick them all up for the trip to the club and the remainder of their evening. "Sure you don't want to come?"

"No. I have a matinee and an evening performance tomorrow. I need my beauty sleep. Say, I was wondering. Why the dark hair? On you and the tall one? Aunt Jane decide she doesn't want to perpetuate the dumb blond image anymore?"

"Audrey's a real girl, sis." Darla whispered.

"She's WHAT?" Caitlyn squeaked. "A real mmmphhh?" her final word muffled by Darla's gloved hand.

"You heard me. She had a lousy image of what it is to be feminine, and reacted by taking down guys who got too handy. Sort of a 'do unto others as they might do unto you only do it first.' philosophy of life"

"She looks like she could do it really well, too," Caitlyn mused. "Guess that makes two real girls for Aunt Jane, eh?"

"Counting you, runt," Darla teased.

"Who are you calling runt, short-stuff?" Caitlyn retaliated pertly.

"You, runt - the only student of Jane's that I know has to look up to me."

"Only when I am in ballet shoes and you're in stilts, sis."

Darla grinned, but then became serious. "It's really okay with you, Caitie? I know it's been two years now, but I have always worried that . . well . . "

Caitlyn put a gentle hand on her 'big sister's' own. "That I'd come to regret having the final surgery? You can stop worrying, Darryl. I'm Caitlyn, and I am a woman. That fulfills me in ways I could not even imagine before being sent to Aunt Jane's Winsome Girls' School for Wayward Boys. Back then, all I knew was that I loved dance, and I wasn't big enough to dance any but the female roles. Now, thanks to Aunt Jane, Uncle Art, my Mom and Dad, and to you, I learned that what I needed was more than to dance as a woman. No, I don't regret that operation, dear. In truth, I give thanks every day for that, almost as often as I give thanks for Judge Ruth sending me to Aunt Jane and to you."

"And you never. . .well, think about. . . umm, kids and being a dad. . .I mean, a parent?"

"Oh, I'm going to be a mother, Darla. What with my own mom and Aunt Jane as role models, I am going to be a great mother. I'm just not going to have the experience of carrying the child inside me for nine months. Did you know that Aunt Jane insisted that I leave several samples of sperm before I started on the hormone therapy?" At Darla's negative shake, Caitlyn carried on. "In case I wanted a child of my own genes. I might, too, but there are a lot of kids out there who need Moms. I figure to gather in a few of those, too. They'll be just as much mine."

"And they'll be damned. . . I mean, darned lucky kids, too. Ummm. . . I'm so glad you're happy," Darla rasped out as she hugged the tiny blonde. "I . . I love you, you know."

"Of course I know, silly. I love you, too, big brother, even when you look more girlish than I do. You know? I STILL envy your eyes."

"I always was better at make-up then you," Darla teased, trying to control an urge to ruin the makeup about those coveted eyes with tears.

"Darla?" Jane's voice called from the door to Caitlyn's dressing room. "The car is here."

"Coming, Aunt Jane," Darla replied, slipping back into her role as Jane's niece. "Come home to visit soon, okay?" she ordered more than asked as she again hugged her little sister.

"You bet."

~--------------~

Jane took care to ensure that she and Art brought up the rear as their little group entered the country club while Darla and Michael led the way. The ballet had gone perfectly with Audrey behaving every inch the lady. Now, the stage was now set for the next act in Jane's little play, and like any good director, she wanted to be in position to see all the actors, and to take action if necessary.

~--------------~

*So far, so good,* Audrey thought as she followed Darla into the foyer of the grand clubhouse. *He's held my hand and I've held his arm and everything is still cool.*

She was so fixed on her little mental mantra, that she almost missed it. Only a flashing glint of light caught her attention in time for her to see what happened. Darla's escort had slipped his hand down from the small of her back toward hip and butt. The glint was a reflected flash as Darla smoothly reached down to catch the wandering hand and pull it down between them. *Just as if she simply wanted to hold hands,* Audrey thought to herself. *Slick, Darla. Very slick. Your aunt would be proud.*



Chapter 24 ~ Dancing in the Dark


*At least I've finally learned to dance,* Audrey mused as the band struck up a bouncy tune. She'd always loved music, and in the past, had always resisted letting her body go where the rhythm wanted to take her for fear of looking foolish, or worse, attracting the attention of the male of the species. *Now, thanks to Ms. Thompson's lessons I no longer look foolish - at least if Darla is to be believed - and I already have the full attention of a male, again thanks to my teacher.*

"Would you like to dance?" Kenneth asked.

*Oh, yes,* her mind replied. "Thank you," her voice said, "That would be nice."

Aware that Jane was watching her like a hawk, Audrey accepted Kenneth's hand and stood before allowing herself to be led toward the other dancers crowding the floor. *Fortunately, this is a fast dance so I can be far enough away from him that his feet just might come out of this unscathed.*

Then she felt it!

*He's got his hand on my BUTT!*

Instincts hard learned flared, firing within her an almost-undeniable need to react forcefully against this intrusion, but at the last moment, she remembered who was with her, and why they were both here. In that short instant in time, a feeling of control unlike anything she had ever experienced washed over her.
Just as she had seen Darla do, Audrey reached down and gently but firmly took Kenneth's hand in hers, and then began to dance still gripping his hand. It was satisfying, she thought, to see that momentary look of dumbfounded surprise on his face before he awkwardly began to follow her lead.

~--------------~

Jane let out a breath she had not even been aware of holding as the two young people began to dance. She'd seen the instant's rigidity in Audrey's spine, had seen the girl's powerful muscles bunch in preparation for a physical retaliation and had been one second from rushing over to save Kenneth.

And then, just as suddenly, Audrey had relaxed and used that clever little ploy of taking his hand for dancing to regain control of the encounter. *Well, that was one I didn't teach her, but it was well done of her.*

Jane continued to watch as the pair danced through the entire set, finishing up with a slow dance of the type Art liked to call 'Belly-rubbin' music'. *Now, Kenneth, before you lose the opportunity,* her mind ordered.

~--------------~

*God, but she's buff,* Kenneth thought as he led Audrey stiffly about the dance floor. He'd never felt such a whipcord-strong muscularity on a woman before. *This is probably not the smartest move I've ever made, but I did promise Momma-Jane.*

As carefully as he could manage, he slipped his hand again down toward that beautifully shaped bottom, cautious to keep only the lightest contact with her body.

His questing fingers never reached their goal as a powerful grip caught his wrist and pulled his hand back up to Audrey's back. "Didn't your Mother, or for that matter, Ms. Thompson, teach you better manners than that, sir?" a smirking Audrey asked forthrightly.

The voice, Kenneth noted, was the girl he'd been dancing with but the intonation was pure Jane Thompson. "Ummm. . .sure. . of course. . . sorry."

"You should be," she replied, her smile suddenly so sticky-sweet Kenneth felt the need for insulin. Then her face became quietly serious. "Look, Kenneth, you've done it twice as I am sure your Aunt asked you. Fine. I haven't broken your hand or damaged some other vital part of your anatomy, so when you are asked, as I am sure you will be, you can go tell teacher that I was a good little girl. Now, can we just dispense with these little games for now? Otherwise, I won't enjoy the dancing and that *will* make me very unhappy."

Ken fought an urge to swallow, and managed a reasonable semblance of a smile. "Sure. Ummm. . would you like a soft drink? It's a little. . umm. close in here, isn't it?"

Audrey smiled again, but this one was definitely more sincere. "Kenneth, I'm not going to do anything that will upset your aunt tonight, up to and including punching you out even if you deserve it. Now, can we agree to simply make the best of the evening? I for one would like to dance and you're not half bad as a partner. One of the benefits of your Aunt's training?"

Relieved, Kenneth nodded. "Yes. She's very big on dance lessons." *Except she usually teaches her students to follow rather than to lead.*

~--------------~

Darla had caught Kenneth's second attempt at playing the wandering hand game along with a clear view of the aftermath while dancing with Michael. Unfortunately, whatever had been said between the pair had been lost in the background noise of the loud ball room. *It seemed to go well, but dammit, I am getting really tired of this. Ken, my darling once-upon-a-time sister, you and I are going to have a little talk just as soon as I can haul your lanky butt onto the dance floor. Whatever else Momma-Jane has planned for Audrey tonight just got canceled. Or else.*

~-------------~

Jane watched as two pairs of young people walked off the dance floor in the direction of their table. *Whatever possessed Darla to all but coerce Kenneth to dance with her?* she wondered. *Keeping in character?* "Enjoy your dance?" Jane asked as Darla took her seat.

"Kenneth is a wonderful dancer," Darla said with what Jane thought was an almost self-satisfied air.

*I have obviously taught this one entirely too much about being female,* Jane decided. *No male should be THAT good at dissembling. What HAS she been up to out there?!?* "Ladies? Shall we take a quick trip to the powder rooms?" Jane said picking up her evening purse. "Darla's nose is beginning to shine."

"It is NOT!" Darla sassed back, bringing a smile to every face except Jane Thompson's.

"I say it is, dear," Jane retorted firmly. "If you gentlemen will excuse us?"

~--------------~

As they approached the Ladies Room, Jane put a hand on Darla's shoulder and held back as Audrey slipped inside.

"Yes, Aunt Jane?" Darla asked, almost casually, as she looked back to face her Mother. *You knew this was coming, Darla,* she told herself. *Well, you're a big. .. .ummm, adult now, so try and stand up under a Jane Thompson interrogation without stuttering TOO badly.*

"You want to explain what you were up to a few moments ago out there on the dance floor with Kenneth?"

"I had to talk to him," Darla said softly refusing to lie, "Without Audrey hearing what we had to say."

"Why?" Jane demanded intensely.

"Because I care for her, and because I think I know her better than you do," Darla said with quiet confidence. "I don't know what you have planned for tonight. Partly because I didn't want to know, and partly because you didn't see fit to take me into your confidence about tonight's program, but I wanted to ask Ken directly how she was doing without alerting Audrey that we were talking about her. So I danced with him."

"Was that all?"

Darla simply stared at her Mother. "No," she finally answered. "But it is all I am going to tell you just now." Then she turned and walked into the restroom, leaving Jane open-mouthed in surprise.

~------------~

"You two get lost?" Audrey was peering at her reflection in one of the lounge's luxurious vanity mirrors when Darla and Jane walked in.

For a moment, Jane only watched as her student put the final touches on her face, then she nodded in approval. "I thought I saw someone Darla and I know and went over to say hello. As it turned out, however, I was mistaken. Your makeup looks lovely, dear. You want to wait while Darla and I take care of ours?"

"I'll wait outside, if you don't mind. The Muzac in here is awful."

"All right, dear. We'll just be a moment."

~---------------~

*I have lived with the woman for almost six years, and I have seen her pull this act on a student dozens of times, so I ought to be immune to it myself. Only I'm not. Heck, it is all I can do to keep myself from just giving in and spilling everything she wants to know,* Darla thought as she expertly repaired the nonexistent imperfections to her face. *I bloody well KNOW she's giving me the silent treatment with that in mind. Dammit, Thompson, you're not her student anymore - you're an adult, Only that doesn't mean it's not still an effort to resist her. God, what a woman, and whether either of them realize it, she and Audrey are two of a kind in so many ways it's almost scary. What AM I getting myself into here?!?*

Using the mirror to ensure she got it just right, Darla smiled dazzlingly before turning to face Jane. "Ready yet? The gentlemen will be getting restless."

Only the tiniest movement of her mother's brow told Darla that her question had not been what Jane had been expecting. "Yes, I think so," she said finally as she closed her own clutch-purse. "Shall we?"
--



Chapter 25 ~ Pop Quiz for Audrey


The scene that greeted the two women as the exited the powder room brought them both up short.

Audrey was locked in a stare-down with a tall, broad-shouldered, and obviously inebriated young man. Jane felt her breath catch in her throat as Audrey lifted her right hand upwards, and closed her eyes in anticipation of her worst possible scenario for this outing coming to fruition.

Only the sharp smacking-sound of flesh impacting other flesh at high speed never came. Instead what she heard was Audrey's voice, low, sultry and sweet. "Run along, little boy, and go play with little girls as childish as yourself. Don't bother me again until you've grown up . . ."

She glanced down and a carefully-crafted sneer lifted one corner of her mouth without softening in the slightest the Arctic chill in her eyes, " . . . and grown. You're too puny to be worth my time."

For her part, Darla could only watch in stunned silence as Audrey spun on her heels, and with her head held high and her back ramrod straight, strutted back towards the ladies room. Before either Jane or Darla could speak, Audrey said, "Darla? Would you please come back into the powder room with me? I suddenly feel the need to wash and I might need a little expert help with my makeup."

"Su. . sure, Audrey. Whatever you say," Darla replied as she followed her friend through the door. Laughter and even some applause followed them before being finally silenced by the closing door.

~----------------~

Jane was still staring at the powder room door when a touch on her shoulder nearly made her jump out of her skin.

"Easy, luv," Art's soft voice ordered as his strong arms steadied her. "Quite a show, wasn't it?"

Jane's eyes flew to Art's own. "What do you mean by that?"

"Audrey's little set-to with that drunken fool. Very impressive."

"You saw it? As it happened? How?"

Art shrugged. "You were gone longer than I expected. I thought something might have happened between you and Audrey or between you and Darla, so I came to see if I could help. When I got here, the drunk had come up behind Audrey and grabbed her around her waist, pulling her into him."

"Really?" Jane said thoughtfully. "Well, it looks like you were right on both counts. Something definitely happened with both Darla and with Audrey. Let's go back to our table and you can tell me what you saw. We'll have to discuss Darla later, I'm afraid."

~--------------~

"So, there I was, just standing next to that potted tree-thing,"

"It's a Ficus," Darla put in.

"Whatever. You want to hear about this or do one of Ms. Thompson's gardening lessons?"

"The floor is yours," Darla said with a grin.

"Anyway, I was just STANDING there when all of a sudden, this clown is grabbing me from behind. Let me tell you, between the bear-hug and the whiskey fumes, I could hardly breathe."

"How'd you get loose? The old spiked heel to the little toe?"

Audrey looked smug. "Don't think I didn't consider it, but your Aunt was really specific about dealing with these situations as non-violently as possible."

"So . . .what. . . did . . .you. . .do?!?" Darla growled as she laid out Audrey's cosmetics. "Tell me soon or I might just mistake your eyeshadow for lipstick!"

"I simply told him he either let me go or the next sound he'd hear would be me screaming for that very large, very mean looking bouncer at the top of my lungs. Damned fool tried to stop me by tightening the bear-hug."

"I didn't hear you scream. . ." Darla said thoughtfully.

"Nope. I'm strong enough that I could fill my lungs even with his arms around me. He felt it and let me down."

"But I guess he didn't give up. What happened next?"

~--------------~

"So, somehow, she got him to put her down," Art said as he refilled Jane's wine glass.

"Without her resorting to something physical," Jane said pleased. "I'm not sure I would have been able to resist raising his voice for him."

"Well, he wasn't so intimidated that he was ready to leave her alone at that point. Then he tries to get her to go into the ball room with him. She slipped his grip twice."

"Didn't anyone try to help her," Jane hissed indignantly as she took a hasty sip of her wine. "It must have been obvious by then that she wanted no part of him and that he was drunk."

"They were drawing quite a crowd, all right, but Audrey didn't appear to need much in the way of help just then, so for the most part the crowd settled in to watch the show. By pushing, shoving and generally ticking a lot of the audience off, I managed to get close enough to intercede if that became necessary. Once I got there, though, I noted that the security fellow was also pushing his way through the crowd to get closer to the action."

"And then the two of you just STOOD there?" Jane accused.

Art's gently reproachful smile was enough to make even Jane Thompson blush and stammer out an apology which Art accepted with a gallant nod of his head. "I could have stopped it at most any point," he finally explained, "but I figured this was only a bit more challenging a test than the ones you'd already planned for her, so I let it go."

"Harrumph," Jane snorted. "You can be sure that I will bring this ill-mannered lout to the attention of the Club's Board of Directors. So, what happened next?"

"At this point, our young would-be Romeo decided he'd try to sweet-talk her a bit."

~-----------------~

"So then, this jerk starts going on about how a 'fine, sexy bitch like me' should only have the best things life had to offer."

"Oh really? Like him, I suppose?"

"I swear, Darla, he held his arms out wide like he expected me to immediately walk into them singing hallelujahs and giving thanks to Providence for this incredible and undeserved gift."

"No. You're making that up."

Audrey actually giggled. "Do you think I have the imagination to make something like that up?"

~--------------~

"What an idiot!" Jane said wonderingly.

"Oh, it gets better. . . or worse. Audrey gave him this little sniff, very much like a certain sexy redhead I know does so well," which caused the redhead in question to sniff which made Art laugh. "Then, she tells him if she ever decides that *he's* the best life had to offer, she's going to take a vow of chastity and become a hermit in the Himalayas."

"That sounds a bit too deep for someone deep in his cups."

"True enough, but even though he didn't understand her meaning, the tone of her voice made Audrey's point really clear to him. So, the damned fool grabs her hand again, and tries to pull her into his arms."

"Wait a minute!" Jane yelped as her eyes snapped open. "She said _Chastity_? Not celibacy?"

Art grinned broadly as his wife's disbelief. "Wondered if you'd pick up on that, m'love. She did indeed."

"Oh my."

~---------------~

"And THEN he gives me that stupid line about my lips saying no-no, but my body saying yes-yes."

"Oh god. Tell me he really didn't say that," Darla giggled, suddenly having to hold her stomach against the laugh-spasms.

"Trust me. He said it. To make a short story shorter, he was so out of it, his grip was easy enough to break, even after I'd already shown him I could do it before. At this point, I guess, he needed to SHOW me what I would be missing, so he started pumping his hips like he was . . . well, it was pretty rude."

"Get outta here!"

"Hey!" Audrey yelped. "Watch it with that mascara brush!"

"Oops, sorry. So, what did you do?"

"I laughed at him, while pointing at his fly."

"Oooooo. . .good one," Darla enthused.

"I'll have to thank Sandy for that one. He started to bluster and at that point, I called him a little boy and told him to go find some little girls to play with because they were more his speed."

"Another good shot. Then what happened?"

"It was just about over then," Audrey said with a slight shake of her shoulders.

~---------------~

"And after she told him not to bother again her until after he'd grown up, she gave him this absolutely chilling look, smirked at his crotch and told him he was too puny for her anyway."

"I arrived in time for that," Jane said. "I'm surprised he didn't try something more physical with her over that. I am glad she didn't get rough with him, but she was taking an awful chance being so derisive to a drunk."

"Oh, he would have gone for her, but the bouncer decided enough was enough. While you were staring at that door, our erstwhile suitor was being bustled outside to the nearest taxi."

"It was certainly about time," Jane growled indignantly. "God, wherever did she learn to act like that? I never taught her anything like that. I'm not sure I care for that."

Art smiled. "It worked and it didn't involve her clobbering him, dear."

~-------------~

"Well, I'm impressed," Darla told Audrey as she put away the last of cosmetics. "Not even a single drop of blood spilled, either. How does it feel, champ?"

Audrey started to answer, but stopped herself, her face becoming serious. "You know, Darla? That was okay, and I'm sure your Aunt will be happy I did it that way, but to tell you the truth? It wasn't nearly as much fun as putting my fist through his face would have been. It was satisfying, but not nearly as much fun."

"I won't tell Jane you said that," Darla grinned at her friend's reflection.

"Good. Come on. Let's go find the guys. I feel like dancing."



Chapter 26 ~ The Lady in Red


It was fascinating, Kenneth decided, watching the effort and concentration Audrey put into the simple act of dancing. *It's like she is worried that any misstep might lead to the end of civilization as we know it.*

He was about to say something when the music abruptly stopped, only to have the drummer begin to beat out a new but slower rhythm. "Blast!" Audrey cursed under her breath.

"Eh?" Kenneth asked, raising one brow in query.

"How can anyone dance if they keep changing the bloody music?" Audrey fumed while carefully watching her high-heeled feet shift into the waltz-like steps of the new dance.

"Gee," Kenneth replied, his tongue firmly in his cheek. "I wonder why no one ever thought of that - an entire dance with the same music all the way through. Might start a real fad."

Dark, flashing eyes snapped up to lock onto his as the singer began to sing. .

". .Never seen you lookiní so
lovely as you did tonight
Never seen you shine so bright
Never saw so many men
Ask you if you wanted to dance. . "

"Right," Audrey growled. "Like I was really asked." *Even though you're having a ball doing it, you contrary female.*

"Keep that up and you'll hurt my feelings," Kenneth teased, but then stopped when he saw a strange look in Audrey's eyes. "What did I say? What's the matter?"

"I was just wondering if this is where it starts again."

"What starts? You're talking in tongues. I have no idea what you are talking about."

"What starts? Why, when you start what ever Jane told you to do to try to get my goat out here so that she can see if I am being femininely non-violent. You've been rather. . . well, easy to get along with so far, but I can't believe she told you to stop with a pat or two on my fanny. So, is this when the other shoe drops?"

Lady In Red
Is dancing with me
Cheek to cheek
Thereís nobody here
Just you and me

Kenneth chuckled. "No, I'm not going to do anything but keep dancing with you. . .cheek to cheek or otherwise."

"Why? I thought. . "

"I know what you thought, but Darla told you that I was a student of Jane's, right?" Audrey nodded. "And that Darryl was, too?"

"Yes, I know that. So what?"

Humor-filled, dark blue eyes twinkled into Audrey's own. *He's very good looking,* she realized, *Especially when he smiles. Wonder why that only appeals to me in an esthetic sense? Like enjoying a pretty work of art in a museum, but not really wanting to own it?* "So, Darryl told me that if I did anything to upset you he'd be mightily peeved with me."

"Right. You've got more than half a foot and fifty pounds on him. I'm sure you are terrified."

"He's my brother in everything but blood," Kenneth said simply. "I love him and would never do anything to truly upset him or bother him. Even for Aunt Jane. Besides, you've already passed any test she had planned when you dealt with that half drunken fool outside the restroom area. Nice cut-down, by the way."

"Sandy gave me some graduate-level classes in the care, feeding and demolition of the male ego last time I was at the salon."

"She's the expert," Kenneth replied, remembering his only experience in Sandy's chair at the Marisha Chalet and barely stifled a shudder. Then he saw a frown line the formerly smooth brow. "Now what's bothering you?" he sighed.

"That boy. . . the one I. . .dealt with. He isn't another of her students, is he? Like you and Darryl? Another of her little tests?"

Only the raw indignation that radiated from her like heat from a fire kept him from laughing. After all, Aunt Jane and Aunt Ruth had not raised any fools with death wishes. "Him? Never!" Kenneth replied emphatically. "Do you honestly believe that any student of Aunt Jane's would present himself to a woman like THAT or in THAT condition? Why, she'd have his guts for garters." *and then she'd make him wear them,* he added silently.

He watched her mull that over, and breathed a little easier when she started to move more naturally to the music again. "Yes, she would, wouldn't she? He was sloppy and out of control; characteristics your Aunt Jane doesn't tolerate. Okay, I believe you."

"Glad to hear it," Kenneth replied very seriously. "So, why don't you just relax and enjoy the rest of the evening. You have my word that I am not going to do anything you won't like."

"I hardly know
This beauty by my side.
Iíll never forget
The way you look tonight.
Iíll never forget
The way you look tonight . . . ."

"And," he added as the soloist's voice trailed away on the last note of the song, "Maybe you can learn to like dancing to more than one song in an evening. I think this one is about over."

"What are you offering?" Audrey asked, suddenly grinning, even as the drummer's rhythm shifted to a syncopated Latin beat.

"Nothing but a dance, ma'am," Ken replied with a matching grin. "Darryl's small, but he's tough. Hope you can handle the tango, lady."

~--------------~

Michael sighed mentally, and quickly spun his partner to a location exactly on the far side of the dance floor from the object of her attention. "You might try to pretend that you are enjoying this dance. I'm worried that Audrey is beginning to think that I am upsetting you somehow and I frankly find that rather frightening."

"Huh?" the petite brunette in the long-sleeved white satin gown looked up into his eyes in confusion.

"Hi," he said with a patently false smile. "My name is Michael Nash and I am your escort. Nice to meet you. Do you dance here often?"

A vivid blush colored his partner's cheeks. "I was doing it again, wasn't I." Her words were not a question. "Sorry. It's just so hard being here when. . when. . "

"When you want to be where Ken is, right, sis?"

Her plaintive "Yes." was half sigh, half sob.

Michael was trying to decide what he could do or say to help when the band played out introductory notes of the next tune. The familiar words of one of Michael's favorite ballads floated softly through the ballroom and he began to relax a bit. *Music hath charms,* he thought hopefully.

So into the music's thrall had Michael fallen, that he was surprised when Darla when rigid in his arms. "Shit!" she blurted as her head began to scan the crowd almost wildly.

"Darla, what's the matter?"

"Never saw you lookin'
so good as you did tonight'

The sigh from Darla told Michael all he needed to know. "She truly does look lovely tonight. And I'll bet she never has looked so good before."

"I know," was the soft reply. "And she really did enjoy all the pampering and primping. So. . .so. . I'm. . . I'm glad for her."

". . . Never saw so many men
Ask you if you wanted to dance . .
Lady In Red
Is dancing with me
Cheek to cheek . . . "

"NO, SHE'S NOT," Darla hissed out in a hoarse, pained whisper as she buried her face into Michael's chest to hide the tears she could no longer hold back.

"Darla," Michael said intensely. "Calm down. What's the matter?"

"That damned song is what's the matter," Darla's voice caught as she replied. "And that it isn't the truth!"

". . .Never seen you lookiní
so gorgeous as you did tonight
Never seen you shine so bright.
Youíre amazing
Never seen so many people
Wanting to be there by your side. . ."

"Oh, god," Darla buried her face into Michael's chest to keep from seeing all those people - MALE people who wanted to be by his Audrey. "I don't think I can handle this. . . Michael, I can't . . ."

"Come on," Michael ordered, slipping his arm behind Darla's back in both a supportive hug and in an effort to guide the now-quietly crying boy/girl off the dance floor.

". . .Itís where I want to be
I hardly know
This beauty by my side.
Iíll never forget
The way you look tonight.
Iíll never forget
The way you look tonight. . ."

"Do you think we could step outside? Into the terrace courtyard for a minute?" Darla asked, her voice ragged and plaintive. "I need. . I need. ."

"To be out of here for a while," Michael finished for his dear friend and sibling-of-the-heart. "Right this way," he ordered as he gently led her toward the door that opened onto the country club's garden.

~--------------~

"Took my breath away, I have never had such a feeling," Art sang into Jane's ear as they danced to the love ballad, "Such a feeling of complete and utter love as I do tonight," before dropping a kiss on her elegantly bared neck. "As I do every night," he added.

"Flatterer. Don't start anything you can't finish, fellow," Jane husked back.

"Ah, but you know I can finish it, My Lady in Red."

"And I am not in red, smartie," she retorted, looking down at the dark green gown she wore.

"With that hair, my darling, you'll always be in red."

"Perhaps," Jane sniffed. "At least the evening has come off well."

Art went momentarily still as she saw Michael and Darla's precipitous departure. "Uh oh," he said. "I hope I'm wrong, but I am suddenly not so certain that this was not one of our better ideas."

Jane's head snapped up. "What do you mean? Audrey is doing very well. Even when that young fool tried to corner her coming out of the ladies'. Even though the cut she gave him was rather. . . well, a bit crude, it worked and I suppose it is no more than most young women might do these days." *Still, telling him that he was inadequate to her personal needs and to go play with the little girls was just a bit over the top. I certainly never taught her that one.*

"Audrey's fine, even if she is working too hard at your lessons to really enjoy herself as much as she might otherwise. No, it's Darla I'm worried about, or more correctly, Darryl. Mike just hastily ushered her/him into the garden and I don't think they went out there to steal a kiss or two in the moonlight."

Her eyes wide, Jane swore under her breath. "Damn! You don't think . . "

"I think the strain of dealing with his own feelings for Audrey have gotten to him. Darryl is at the end of his brick and asked Mike to get him out of here until he could regain control of himself."

"BLAST! He knows this is just an exercise, like any other I've put a student through," Jane defended.

"It doesn't feel the same to him, dear. And he wasn't there for her when that oaf you mentioned made his move. Once he got there, I'm sure it took every ounce of will power on Darryl's part to stay in character and not defend his lady-love. Since then, he's been forced to stand by and watch as five different males poached on Audrey."

"Nonsense! All they did was dance with her. Heavens, Art. One of those males was YOU, and two of the other four were Michael and Kenneth. They're family!"

A knowing grin crossed Art's mouth. "You're thinking like a woman, my dear, and Darla is reacting like a man in love. I think we should give Michael about five minutes to calm those emotional waters and then go see if he needs help."

For the first time, real worry showed in Jane's eyes. "You think he actually might?"

Brows furrowed, Art shrugged even as he spun Jane into a flowing turn. "I don't know, but I think we should err on the side of caution. I also think it is about time to call it an evening. This excursion has already served your purposes. Let's quit while we are ahead."

"All. .. all right. If you think so," Jane said uncertainly, her eyes now drawn to the night-dark terrace. "What do we do until then?"

". . . Lady In Red
Is dancing with me
Cheek to cheek
Thereís nobody here just you and me
Itís where I want to be . . "

"Well, that says it all for me," Art replied as he pulled his wife closer. "Definitely where I want to be."



Chapter 27 ~ Evening's Aftermath


"Look," Michael repeated for what he was sure must have been the tenth time, "You already know she's effectively blown Ken off. You're, or rather, Darryl is the one she wanted for her escort. So everything's cool."

"Oh yeah? How would YOU feel if it was Janice Jane was trotting out for every predatory male in this high toned meat market to take a crack at stalking."

"That's different," Michael retorted.

"The hell it is! That is the woman I am in love with out there, brother, and . . .and . . and dammit, Ken bought her flowers!" at Michael's incredulous look, Darla narrowed her eyes. "Don't you DARE laugh, damn you. I am serious."

Swallowing hard against the laugh that was nigh to overwhelming him, Michael coughed. "Well, what should he have given her? Jeweled wrist-weights?"

"Mi-CHAEL!"

"Darla, ease off, okay? Of course Ken brought her flowers. He's our beloved Momma-Jane's son - same as you and me - and you know what she'd have to say if he came to pick up a date empty handed. Lord above, she wouldn't just chew him out, she'd chew all around it and let it fall out - in that awful toneless killer voice of hers."

"Oh, you don't understand," Darla said, her voice hitching just a bit.

"So make me understand," Michael put in trying to stave off the tears he saw building in the dark blue eyes. *Damn, but it's like there's this seamless transition in her . . lord, *his* spirit so that there's no point at which Darryl ends and Darla begins. When I was Michelle, I could *act* as a woman, easily and convincingly. But I never really *felt* the natural emotions a woman feels. I never had a woman's soul.* "Explain why the flowers are such a big deal."

"Because they were the first flowers a man ever gave her, and I want all the firsts with her," Darryl's voice replied.

"What you want, little brother/sister, is Audrey," Michael said gently. "That's how I feel about Janice, and how I now see you feel for that Amazon Princess in there."

"But I can't court her like this!" Darla complained.

"No, but you have two hours every day to make your points. Start making them."

"I can't very well give her two dozen long stem roses right before we go running, Mike,"

"D? You have always been the most imaginative person I know. How else could you handle all these years of being Aunt Jane's big-sister-in-residence and not have gone nuts? Start using that imagination, kid, and she'll fall into your waiting hands like a ripe plum."

"I've never caught a plum, ripe or otherwise," Darla complained. "You really think that could work, Mike?"

"Trust me, bro. The way I heard it from Momma Jane, the girl already feels much the same as you do, only where you are hampered by your skirts, she's hampered by her past. Go for it!"

The "Okay," Michael got in response rang with uncertainty and a sort of fearful hope.

~---------------~

"Damn!" Jane snarled under her breath. "I knew he was falling for her, but I didn't know it had gotten that serious."

"I thought it might be, but this rather confirms it, love," Art said.

"Why didn't he just tell me??" she asked sadly, turning her face into her husband's shoulder. "I never meant this to be so hard on him. I wouldn't hurt him this way. Why didn't I SEE it myself."

"Same answer to both questions, Janey. 'Cause you're a woman and his Mother on top of that. Guys don't usually take 'problems of the heart' to their Moms. He called me a couple of times, dear, but it was never to ask me to talk you out of this. I suspect that our son simply decided that you were right, that Audrey needed this experience and was determined that he would not be the one to stand in her way."

"But I didn't have to bring him along. Darla could have been ill, or needed somewhere else."

"Odd as it sounds, my love, I suspect our Darryl was being the knight in shining silk tonight, taking up his quest by simply here for his lady-love in the role he thought would be the most help for her."

"That's so sweet. He's so special, Art. He deserves someone just as special in his life."

"Well, he wants Audrey. How the hell he's going to get her given all the complications we've introduced by having him be here for her as both Darla and Darryl, I don't know."

"He could get badly hurt by all this, Art. If Audrey finds out about Darla's connection to Darryl and reacts badly, it would hurt him, and it would be all my fault."

Art hugged her to him. "Don't go buying trouble. We'll be here for him and for her. Now, let's go collect our children and go home. I think we've all had enough for one night."

"Art? Stay with me, tonight? Please? I. . .I need to be held. And loved."

"Lover, I already told you I would. Now, c'mon. Audrey and the boys need us."

~--------------~

Art sighed at seeing the arc of light haloing the floor beneath Darla's bedroom door. He'd hoped to be wrong when he'd stepped out of Jane's apartment to check on their son, but obviously the boy was finding sleep elusive. And Art figured that he knew why.

Knocking softly, he cracked open the door enough to stick his head inside. "Got a minute, D?" he asked.

Darryl, still wearing Darla's evening gown, sat at the vanity creaming away the cosmetics that perfected the feminine illusion. "Sure, Dad," the girl-boy smiled at his father. "I thought you and Mom would be sleeping the sleep of the just. . . or something. . "

"Now, none of that," Art grinned as he closed the door. "You know your Mother likes to pretend you don't know she has a sex life." Darryl chuckled which pleased his adoptive father.

"So, why aren't you sleeping or something-ing?" Darryl asked as he pitched the last color-stained cotton ball into the wastebasket.

"I guess because I wanted to ask you the same question," Art said blandly. "It's what? 2:20 AM? And I seem to recall Audrey saying she expects to meet her running buddy at six. "We've been home over an a hour, son. Why aren't you already in bed?"

Darryl gave his father a thoughtful look and then walked over to where Art sat. "Unzip me, will you, Dad?" Shrugging, Art did as asked, but said nothing. Darryl let the expensive gown fall to the floor before stepping out of it and sitting down heavily on the bed beside Art.

He gave a loud sigh. "I just knew I wouldn't sleep. Too much eating at me."

"Tonight was hard for you - seeing Ken with Audrey."

"I knew it would be, but it was a lot worse than I had imagined."

"It went well for her. She passed every test with flying colors, even the one your Mother didn't plan."

"Actually, that's the one of the two things that bothers me the most, Dad. We weren't there for her. . . I wasn't there for her when that asshole went after her. God, listening to her talk about it afterwards, and being the admiring girlfriend instead of the infuriated would-be lover was the hardest thing I've ever done in all my years as Mom's big-sister-in-residence."

"But you did it. And I would contend, son, that you WERE there for her. You were there in that you and Jane had taught her the confidence in her own powers that let her handle that situation the way she did."

"Actually, it was Sandy who taught her that. Neither Jane nor I would have thought to tell her to insult the guy's manhood."

"That's secondary, and you should know it. She was violent before because she didn't know any other way to deal with that type of encounter. You and Jane were the ones who showed her that women have weapons of their own that are at least as effective as a fist in the face or a knee in the groin."

"I should have been there!" Darryl growled.

"I was, and I wasn't needed. What you were doing was more important. Darla gave Audrey the confidence she needed to step out in that incredible dress. Without you there, I don't think it would have gone half so well, and as it was, this was a breakthrough night for her."

"You really mean that?" Darryl asked, the entreaty in his eyes obvious to the psychologist and the father.

"Of course I do, and I am damned proud of you for how you handled things tonight. I really do think it is downhill for Audrey from here on out. You should be proud of yourself, too. Now, why don't you tell me the second thing that is really bothering you?"

"Is that my Dad asking, or that nice Dr. Art the psychologist?"

"You're too smart to think there's any kind of a sharp dividing line between one and the other. Parenting, even with an exemplary kid like you, is hard enough without foolishly ignoring hard-learned skills and instincts in the process."

"Touche, Dad," Darryl sighed as he stretched his legs out from the bed, arching and un-arching his feet. "Damned heels. God, but I hate them."

"Except when they're on Audrey?"

"Got me there," Darryl chuckled. "Lord, but she was magnificent tonight."

"The Lady in Red, in all her glory," Art agreed. "And you're head over heels in love with her, aren't you?"

"Yup - that's what really hit me tonight - right before I dragged Mike out onto the veranda."

"Well, speaking from experience, I can tell you that being in love is wonderful. So, what do you say we have a go at figuring out why you're in here moping instead of dancing for joy or figuring out how to win your lady-fair?"

"Darla," Darryl said quietly.

"Jane has never found Diana to be a barrier to our relationship," Art offered, a bit too quickly.

"But Mom had a hand in the creation of Diana, and she is a woman with a very unique perspective on men, masculinity and such."

"True enough. You think Audrey will think you less than a man if she finds out about Darla and her real connection to Darryl?"

"I don't know, Dad, but that's not the worst of it."

"Well, I can't help if I don't have it all, son."

"Darla, and to some extent Darryl, have been key elements in Jane's program. We've been manipulating Audrey almost from the start. Like tonight with Kenneth playing 'pat-the-fanny' just to see if we can get a rise out of her, or me, getting rigged out like Raggedy Anne so that Audrey would see the penalties associated with not living up to Jane's standards. I mean, I saw right away how much she disliked that game so I pushed her even harder with the baby-talk and the holding her hand."

"So you are worried that she won't be able to put your role in Jane's program behind you? That she will hold your manipulation of her against you and not give you another thought when she finally leaves here?"

"It's not like she won't ever find out, Dad. I mean, it's like your parent-psychologist thing. It's not real clear where Darla stops and Darryl begins. Sometimes I will wake up in briefs and a T-shirt and slip on a pair of mules, or reach for my Obsession perfume instead of my aftershave."

"Ouch!" Art commiserated. "Been there, done that, have felt the burn. So, you're afraid that she won't accept your duality, or, that she will figure out who Darla really is, and will hold what you did as Jane's agent provocateur against you?"

"That about sums it up," Darryl agreed. "And I can't use Darla to feel her out about those things. It would only hasten her figuring out the secret because it would invite her to look too closely at Darla. Besides, it would be unfair. I've already decided not to use Darla to Darryl's advantage in this romantic farce anymore than I already have, however inadvertently."

"I see. Well, let me ask you some questions. You don't have to answer them right now, but perhaps they will be helpful in the long-term."

"Okay . . ."

"Do you think Audrey is happier now than when she first came to us?"

"No need to think about that one. The answer is yes. Especially since Mom is going to continue to support her Olympic dream along with everything else around here."

"All right, and I agree with that assessment. The harder question is ~ Do you think that AUDREY will agree with us?"

"Of course she. . . ," Darryl started, then stopped himself. "I hope she would, but I'm not sure."

"Then that's what we need to find out first. My view of Audrey is that she is a very intelligent young woman - far too intelligent to lie to herself easily. I will talk with Jane tomorrow and we will see if we can help her find answers to those two critical questions."

"And if she still refuses to have anything to do with me, even if she finds those answers and agrees with us that she is happier for having been here?"

Art reached over and gave his adopted son a hearty thump on the back. "Ease up on yourself, kid! I think you are underestimating Audrey AND yourself. If she were all that hung up on 'traditional' sex roles, it would bother her that she's taller than you. She IS happier, she IS smart enough to know that, and she is NOT hung up on traditional roles. We can build on that. Hey, we've built on less, haven't we?"

Darryl allowed himself to feel hopeful and smiled ruefully. "It just never mattered quite so much before."

"You're in love," Art said simply. "Nothing else in the human experience matters nearly that much. Okay, now try to get some sleep. Tomorrow is today, and morning is upon us."

"I hope you're right, Dad," Darryl replied. Then he got up and went to Darla's armoire for a nightgown. With practiced ease, he slipped the gown over his head before reaching around to unhook the bra which he then pulled out through the sleeve of the gown.

*He does that so effortlessly, with the same unthinking ease that I've seen from his mother, and it's not because she taught him that. It's because, as he said, Darla is so integral a part of the man Darryl has become. A very good part of that man, too.*

"I think I maybe I can sleep now. Thanks for coming to check on me."

Art rose and hugged his adopted child. "That's what Dads do, kid. Want me tuck you in?" he added in an exaggeratedly wistful voice. "I've missed out on that parenting pleasure. Hey, I'd even tell you a story. Goldilocks and the Three Pigs?"

"No," Darryl chuckled, obviously more at ease with himself than he had been mere minutes earlier, "I think I'll tuck myself in, if you don't mind. Besides, you still have Mom waiting for that 'or something' we mentioned earlier."


Art nodded, pleased that the aura of tension about the lad had dissolved. "Sleep well, son," he said as he turned for the door.

"You, too, Dad," Darryl replied. "And thanks." Then his voice shifted back to Darla's lighter tones. "From both of us."
--







Part III




Chapter 1 ~ The Morning After


The only evidence of the late fall-dawn was the barest of brightening in the otherwise gray-clouded eastern skies. Audrey sat watching the sunrise beneath the now-leafless rose arbor in Jane's English garden. Odd how that had, over the time she'd been at Seasons House, become the place that drew her when she needed to think or needed to be alone. At first, it had been the scent of the roses that had drawn her - their perfume lingering even after those first hard frosts of autumn had burned away their petals and their blooms. Now, there was an austere beauty to the tangle of thorny vines that wound about the wooden frame of the arbor - something that said "peace" to the disturbed young woman.

Audrey had come to this special, private spot immediately after her morning workout with Darryl - not that it had been all that much of a workout. She was still tired from last night's outing, and in all honesty, was more than just a little bit sore - particularly in her ankles and the backs of her calves. My Fair Lady could sing all she wanted to about how she 'could have danced all night and still come back for more', but Audrey suspected that she hadn't been trotting about in tight shoes with three-plus inch toothpicks for heels. *Lord, but my legs haven't been this sore since the day I discovered, and overdid, my first StairMaster.*

Fortunately for her ego, Darryl had not been at the top of his game this morning either - at least athletically. In other areas, however, he'd been top of the mark which was a good deal of the reason she'd sought some solitude before going in for breakfast. In truth, she'd already planned to come here in order to sort through the morass last night's trip to Boston had made of her emotions. Then, Darryl had compounded everything and somehow made everything MORE mixed up. How could he DO something like that to her? She TRUSTED him, LIKED him - okay, she LIKED him a LOT - and he did THAT to her?

He'd kissed her. Well, it had actually been more than that because he'd been kissing her for awhile now, but those were little pecks or gently sweet caresses. Not this time, though - this time Darryl had KISSED her - like those male actors kissed the heroines in those movies that Marie had been taking Audrey to see in Kingston - chick flicks, she called them.

She'd never seen it coming, either. Just as she was about to head up the path back to Seasons House, that little sneak had spun her around to face him and then all but swept her off her feet with a knee-weakening kiss that had turned her mind to mush for goodness only knew how long.

Still, it was only a kiss.

*Yeah, Audrey, and a diamond is only a rock. As if I did not have enough on my mind, trying to deal with why, lovely as everything was last night, it somehow felt incomplete, like something very important was missing.*

And then, he'd given her a present while he still held her boneless body next to his. Audrey looked down at the brightly colored bouquet of maple leaves she still held in her hands. They outshone, in every possible way, the gorgeous corsage that Kenneth had given her last night. *And you know why they do, Audrey. These leaves are the first 'flowers' that a boy who matters ever gave you. The boy who you were really missing last night. Might as well face facts, girl. Last night would have been perfect if it had been Darryl escorting you and not Kenneth.*

Audrey carefully set her leaves down and rose from the bench seat to walk about the garden. The chilly wind reminded her that she had not changed out of her sweats and breakfast was not all that long off. She ought to go to her room, but she still needed to think. Audrey hadn't like the feelings that had coursed through her when Darryl's mouth and tongue had taken possession of hers like that. Had she? *Be honest, young miss,* her mind chided in an unconscious emulation of Jane Thompson's admonitory tones. *What you aren't sure you LIKE is how much you DID like what he did.*

That little revelation did nothing to improve her mood. Unfortunately, she really did have to go clean up and dress for the morning meal. Dealing with one of Jane's inventive disciplines would only serve to further muddy the already murky issues. Trying to remember to talk baby-talk when she was otherwise trying to figure out how she really felt about Darryl's sudden escalation of this boy-girl stuff was more than enough for one person to deal with at one time.

*Before last night, if someone had asked me what I would do if some boy just up and kissed me without permission, I'd have answered 'Kill him, of course, and very, very slowly. Even after last night, I would have said I'd back his pushy butt off somehow. But THAT wasn't just any boy, and THAT kiss, well, that was not at all what I expected being kissed that way to be like. And dammit, I DID like it and I think. . . know, that I would like it again, too.*

Somehow, confronting that bit of self honesty squarely seemed to put things somewhat back into perspective. Her emotions calmed a little and the world seemed to slow back down to a more normal speed. It wasn't much, but it was enough for the moment. *At least until after I have survived breakfast,* she mused, turning toward the garden door. *If I skimp on the shower, I will have time to dress and put on enough make up to dodge the pinafores and corset bullet.*

Just before she reached the corner, the door slammed open and a laughing, auburn-haired flash raced out the door, with a tall, slender white-haired man in hot pursuit. Hidden by the corner, Audrey watched in dumbfounded fascination as the man who had escorted Jane to the ballet chased the ordinarily stern and controlled teacher about the garden. *And she's still in her nightgown and slippers!* Audrey thought amazed. *and no robe, either.*

"ARTEMIS," Jane yelled, a hysterical giggle almost bubbling through, "Stop this INSTANT. I don't have time for this. The girls will be down for breakfast and I haven't dressed."

"Then stop trying to run away, wench, and give me my kiss!"

"You'll want more than a kiss, you rogue, and I don't have time for this!" Jane reiterated, dodging behind one of the stone benches.

She almost made it, Audrey thought giving credit where credit was due, and probably would have except that she stubbed her toe - Audrey made a mental note never to try to play keep-away with a man when she was wearing open-toed high-heeled mules for slippers - on the cold stone of the bench as she dodged again.

That momentary stumble was all this 'Artemis' fellow needed. He closed the gap and swept Jane up in an embrace that reminded Audrey eerily of how she must have looked when Darryl had caught her. Jane's protests lasted one, maybe two seconds at most before she was returning the kiss with fervor, enthusiasm and what Audrey recognized as a good deal of practical experience.

*Have to remember that fingers-through-the-hair grip thing next time Darryl jumps my bones,* she thought dreamily before realizing what that image of herself and Darryl actually implied.

*Yes,* Audrey thought with a sigh, *there WILL be a next time and that I AM looking forward to it.* Only then did the young woman snap out of her surprise-induced fugue enough to realize she was intruding. Quietly, she retraced her steps and headed for the kitchen door, leaving the two older folks to their privacy.

~-------------~

Art came up for air and looked down into the passion darkened eyes of his wife. "Gotcha," he gloated softly.

"Oh, just shut up and kiss me," Jane ordered, her voice husky.

"Your wish, my dear," Art replied as he caught a glimpse of Audrey's retreating form. *Oops,* he thought, and just for a moment considered telling Jane. *Nah,* he concluded as he once again surrendered to the power of his lover's kiss. *Nothing she can do about it now, anyway. After breakfast will be soon enough. 'sides, looks like Audrey can use a few extra minutes to get ready for breakfast.*





Chapter 2


Jane lifted her hand to knock on the antique paneled door and then, for probably the third or fourth time, let her hand fall back to her side. It wasn't that she was hesitant - not really - it was more like she wasn't sure how best to approach this situation. As with most situations that she had been forced to deal with since taking on this particular student, this one was unique in Jane's experience. Never before had a student seen her, the cultured living embodiment of Miss Manners, cavorting about in her night shift with a man. Now, Jane was intent on some type of damage control. The problem was she had absolutely no idea what type of damage she had to control.

The only thing about which she was sure was that the longer she delayed this face-to-face with Audrey, the longer any anger or upset the girl might have suffered would fester.

*Damn Art, anyway,* she fumed silently. *He should have done something out there instead of sticking me with this little drama. What I should do is go back to my room, stuff him into a Lewis Carrol-authentic 'Alice-in-Wonderland' outfit, maybe a nice big pacifier to keep his sneaky and tasty mouth busy and then drag him up here to Audrey's room by his ear! Maybe that would reassert my position as the Alpha Female in this house.*

A smile that was at once both familiar and terrifying to almost one hundred boys crossed Jane's lips only to disappear just as quickly. "Remember Sheila, Jane Thompson," she reminded herself aloud, as she had uncountable times since her confrontation with Kenneth's vile and perverse mother. "It's all right to have fun with this, so long as no one is ever truly hurt."

Sighing at the still-pleasantly seductive mental imagery, Jane then steeled herself and managed to give the door a reasonable facsimile of her usual authoritative knock.

"Come in," came the response.

Jane entered Audrey's room and came up short at the sight that greeted her. Audrey, resplendent in a soft cream and rose colored Laura Ashley skirt and sweater set, was sitting in front of her vanity mirror. From where she stood, Jane could see that her charge had been applying makeup - quite well, too, Jane was pleased to note - and had done something more intricate than was her normal preference with her coiffure. Opaque stockings hugged the girl's muscular yet shapely legs. Force of long habit had Jane's eyes dipping down to check the entire ensemble whereupon she repressed a small sigh. While the lovely rose-suede pumps matched perfectly with the rest of the girl's outfit, they were still low-heeled. Even with almost thirty pairs of new shoes to her name since her arrival at Seasons House, all Italian no less, getting Audrey into anything with more than a two inch heel took a direct order.

Jane wondered if it had anything to do with her student's self image - whether Audrey felt she was too tall even without heels. *She looked so regal last night when she wore those strappy red spikes, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous with all that leggy beauty in the slit-skirt gown, that it would be a shame if she couldn't accept her own statuesque beauty. I think a bit of 'hinting' from Darla may be in order,* Jane thought, *but there are more important issues to deal with at this precise moment.*

"You look very nice," Jane said quietly as she moved toward the girl. Then she saw the colorful mass of autumn leaves on Audrey's bed. "What have we here?"

Audrey started to say something, reconsidered and attempted a diffident shrug. "Leaves. We don't get color like this back home. They're so pretty, but I really don't know what to do with them."

*More to this than that,* Jane thought. *The girl has no skill at dissembling, but I won't press her on it.* "Marie might be able to help you do something with them. She is very much into crafts using natural materials and such things. I suspect she'd know a way of preserving them if they're something you'd like to keep for a while. . .as mementoes."

"Perhaps I will see Marie. Thank you, Ms. Jane. You wanted something from me?"

*Her poise has definitely improved. That little barb was well and subtly delivered. Translation ~ What do you want THIS time, Thompson?* "I felt we needed to talk, Audrey, given what Art told me you saw this morning."

"What I saw?" Audrey only barely managed to keep her voice from cracking in surprise.

"Yes, dear. Art saw you in the English Garden, and he knows you saw us."

"It is not my business," Audrey replied sharply, turning her head to hide the blush she knew was firing her cheeks.

"That is true and yet, it is also not true, dear," Jane said gently as she moved to take a seat beside her student. "I am an adult woman and my relationships are ordinarily no one's concern but my own. However, I have been demanding a very high standard of behavior from you over the past few months and you have every right to expect that I, as your mentor and role model, should adhere to the same codes of conduct that I insist upon for you."

"I'm not going to use what happened this morning as an excuse to go out and find myself a lover, Ms. Thompson," Audrey said even as she realized she wouldn't have to find one, because the one she wanted was already found. She just haven't figured out how to reel him in yet. Or what to do with him once she'd landed him. "I have too many goals riding on your good opinion of me and my behavior."

"Oh, that was a very nicely worded set-down, Audrey," Jane said with a hint of a smile. "Brava. Would you look at this, please?"

Audrey turned from her mirror and was surprised to see Jane holding out her left hand to her student, palm down. For a moment, Audrey could not see the point and then her eyes locked on the left ring finger - the previously BARE left ring finger - now decorated by a large diamond solitaire and a wide wedding band, both ornately decorated with antiqued glyph-work and other markings.

"Art is my husband, Audrey. He has been for the better part of a year."

"But, . .but. . he hasn't been here. . .you didn't wear those. . .I don't understand. . "

Jane caught Audrey's hand in hers and drew her up from the vanity and over to sit beside Jane on the bed. Not releasing the hand, Jane began to speak. "When you came here, we did not know what to expect, except that you had a history of dealing, well, rather physically with men who upset you. Moreover, we really were not sure what men did that upset you to the point of violence. Since you had no similar history against females, we decided to give you a break-in period in a female-only household. Art had to leave to fulfill a contract obligation with a university in the city so he couldn't be here full time anyway. When I needed an escort, he was the obvious choice," Jane shrugged and turned dark eyes on Audrey. "Besides, I missed him terribly. I hadn't planned on him being here last night, but he followed me home. . "

"So you decided to keep him?" Audrey blurted.

Both women stared at each other for several moments, neither quite believing what the younger woman had just said, then they burst out laughing.

"Just so," Jane said when she'd finally managed to regain a modicum of control. "Although the dear man was very persuasive," she added wistfully. "And as I said, I have missed him terribly."

"You must have," Audrey said, "Letting him ravish you that way in the garden." The girl hesitated and Jane saw that she wanted to say something more and so let the comment go unanswered. The silence drew out between them until Jane was not sure she could stand it when Audrey asked, her voice almost a whisper, "Doesn't that make you feel vulnerable? Knowing he's that important to you? Doesn't that give him power over you? I mean, he could really hurt you."

Jane mulled that one over for a few moments, recalling Darla's revelations about that bitch of a governess and all the garbage she'd fed a young and lonely girl. *Give her the honest truth she knows first, Jane, and then the rest.* "Yes, he could hurt me, Audrey, and he has. Just as I can hurt him and have. But I will tell you that I felt more alive, more feminine, more loved during that silly little chase around the garden than I have in all the days he's been gone.

Jane paused to let her student mull that over before continuing to press home her point. "There's always a risk when something is really important, Audrey. That's part of what makes that something valuable - and thrilling. Knowing that you are vulnerable gets your adrenaline flowing, and knowing that you are willing to do it - that you have found a prize that valuable - is a wonderful part of the reward. Winning a race where there is no competition is not as satisfying as winning when you aren't sure you can, until you have."

*That got your attention, didn't it, you competitive little wench?* Jane thought fondly. "And laying your heart on the line is the greatest risk of all, for the greatest reward you can imagine. As you said, he could hurt me, but the final reward - the ultimate prize - is his love, and he loves me too much to ever hurt me except by accident."

Audrey thought about that for a moment. Was that what was missing with Darryl? Had she been holding back? Playing defense and not taking the chances necessary to get the touches needed for victory? It definitely gave her something to think about. "And you love him just as much." It wasn't a question.

Jane's face lit up with a smile that made her normally austerely handsome face breathtakingly lovely. "With all my heart. So much it sometimes frightens me, but it is a good kind of fright."

"A good kind of fright?" Audrey was intrigued. She had come to understand the frightened part quite well in the past few hours. The idea of 'good fright' was something she had not considered.

"It makes me try harder to show him how much I love him back. To show him how important he is to me. Life is short, dear, more so for me than for you, I think. I am closer to fifty than to thirty and have more of my life behind me than in front of me. The fear I spoke of pushes me to take every bit of love I can get and savor it to its fullest so that none of it goes unappreciated or unreturned."

"That's lovely," Audrey breathed in a surprisingly girlish sigh. Then she turned serious eyes to her teacher. "Don't worry about this morning as far as I am concerned, Ms. Thompson. It's . . .well, nice to see that kind of love, for real, I mean, and up close."

*She's made so much progress,* Jane suddenly realized, *And not just in the superficial aspects of being a woman. I don't know what is the catalyst, but I think she's just about ready.*

"Ms. Thompson?" Audrey broke in on Jane's thoughts. "When I first came here, you said that some of your students called you 'Jane' or 'Aunt Jane'?"

Jane nodded, but otherwise said nothing. It was difficult to speak when you were holding your breath in hopeful anticipation.

"Would you mind. . I mean," Audrey hesitated for a moment, seemed to shake herself and then pressed on in a rush. "Would it be all right with you if I called you Aunt Jane?"

Touched and a more than a little surprised, Jane leaned over to hug the younger woman. "I'd be honored if you would, dear," she said before standing and helping Audrey to rise also. Then she saw the leaves and smiled at her student. "Why don't you take those down to Marie right now. I am sure she will know how to preserve them."

An smile of unexpected pleasure lit Audrey's face. "I think I will, Aunt Jane. I really would like to keep at least of few of them if I could."
--




Chapter 3 ~ Kisses and Bouquets - A Seasons Courtship


Audrey tried to watch what Marie was doing, but almost scorched her own fingers when the hot flatiron slid across the waxed paper a little more easily than she'd anticipated. She returned her attention to the ironing board and nearly sighed. There, between two sheets of waxed paper was the largest, most perfectly shaped, most vividly hued of all the leaves from her bouquet. Autumn Maple Leaf Red was rapidly becoming her favorite color and she wondered idly if Carolyn Beale sold a lipstick or nail enamel in that shade.

"Is this right, Tante Marie?" she asked, holding up the now-fused sheet for the older woman's inspection.

Marie stopped what she was doing and examined Audrey's prize. Finally, she nodded. "See, cherie? I told you that the wax would become transparent once you had everything properly ironed?"

"Yes," the girl said with a happy smile. "And you're sure that this will preserve it?"

Marie gave a sly grin. "Of course. Why I have such mementoes of my own, preserved just this way, pressed between the pages of my teenage diaries. And I am. . . well, we won't discuss my age, so let's just say that they were given to me many, many years ago."

"By your Willie, Tante Marie?" Audrey asked, only to realize too late how painful that question might be for her friend. "Oh, Marie, I am so sorry. . . I did not mean to. .

Marie smiled and waved away the apology. "Non, ma petite, do not worry yourself so. Yes, many are from my Willie, and all the more precious to me because of that, but there are also memories of other beaus in those tightly wrapped pages." *but that question certainly does tell me why these pretty colored leaves are so very important to you, dear.*

The older woman returned to her own project and carefully selected another leaf that she then dipped carefully into a thick, viscous white liquid. When she withdrew the now heavily coated leaf, she delicately brushed away the excess. Audrey watched as the liquid dried quickly, becoming clear as it did so. Marie waited until there was only a slight liquid sheen on the leaf before she began to shape it with agile, knowing fingers. Moments later, the red-orange leaf was added the other leaves, glued to a cloth covering an eight by ten inch board.

"It is almost like you are doing flower arrangements except you're using that board and not a pot, and those aren't flowers," Audrey said, awe in her voice.

"That's because I am, Audrey," Marie answered as she made a final, almost imperceptible adjustment to the last leaf. "There, I think that is just about right," she said as she stepped back from the brilliantly colored explosion of bright reds, vivid oranges and brilliant yellows.

Marie picked up a small flower pot and began cutting it with a saw - making a vertical cut from the rim of the pot straight down to the bottom. When she'd finished, she examined the heavy orange clay thoroughly. "This will be perfect. I will just glue this to the frame so that it looks like the bouquet is in the pot, and then, tomorrow after all the glues and glazes have cured, I will spray it with some clear polyurethane."

"It is so lovely," Audrey actually gushed.

"Well, a girl's first bouquet of flowers from her boyfriend should be lovely." *I am glad Darryl did so well.*

"Boyfriend? Who said anything about a boyfriend?"

"No one, petite, but those are from Darryl, aren't they?"

Caught off guard by the older woman, Audrey sighed and sat down into one of the kitchen chairs. "Yes," she finally admitted, wanting to say more, but not precisely sure how to raise the issue.

"And?" she prompted gently.

"And. . .and. . .well, he kissed me!" Audrey finally blurted.

Marie turned to make some tea, in part because she was sure they would need some, but mostly to hide the happy grin that now curled her pert lips. "Well, you've told me he has done so before. You were quite taken aback as I recall. Had he stopped before this?" *If he did, I will personally tear a strip off his stupid male hide!*

"Oh, no, that isn't it. I mean, he's managed to give me a little peck on the cheek or steal a hug every day we've worked out together. Today was different. Today he KISSED me. Bent me over backwards and everything."

*ATTA BOY!* Marie's mind cheered. "Well, since you are keeping his gift, I can assume that you were not enraged by his taking of liberties?"

Audrey burst out laughing at that. "You've been around Aunt Jane and her Victorian ways too long, Tante Marie. Taking liberties?" She laughed again before answering. "I think I liked it. No, that's not being honest - I KNOW I liked it. I just don't know what to do about it."

"How so, petite?"

"You know? You're the only one who has ever called me 'little one' and meant it nicely? I like that, too."

"Glad to hear it, petite," Marie responded pertly but plainly refusing to acknowledge the girl's attempt at changing the subject. "Now answer my question. What don't you know about dealing with Darryl's kissing?"

Audrey colored attractively, and tried to find the words to answer the question - and not only for Marie's benefit. "Well, it's the feelings, Tante Marie. They're just so scary and yet, at the same time, so wonderful. . .I just feel so. . .so off balance," and then, feeling very brave, blurted out, "And I want him to do it again! Soon!"

"Oh ho, so you are content to wait for him to take the lead again? Bah! I thought you were a modern young woman" She saw the confusion on Audrey's face and smiled a very secret, very female smile at her young prodigy in the ways of l'amour. "Jane's views aside, petite, this is the dawn of a new millennium. There is simply no reason you can't take the initiative if that would make you feel better - more in control. Heavens, girl - start as you mean to go! IF you want him and you want him on fair and equal terms, try doing your own fair share of the courting."

"Courting? Me?" The idea was terrifying. It was also incredibly exciting.

"You!" Marie replied forcefully.

"But I don't know how to do that," Audrey almost wailed.

"It will be easy. He is, after all, only a mere man and you are a truly superior and beautiful young woman. Le Bon Dieu created women to tempt men and, fortunately, also made men easy to tempt. It is what we women do, darling. Start with something easy. He wants to kiss you. You want him to kiss you again. Next time you see him, bend HIM over backwards and ravage HIS mouth." Then Marie's eyes twinkled and her smile somehow became even more mischievous. "Slip him some tongue, girl."

Marie watched as the girl let the idea roll around her head and could tell the precise moment when her apprentice's mind imagined how that kiss would feel. It was all Marie could do not to clap in glee at the look of excited anticipation that flashed across Audrey's lovely face.

The girl rose, half in a daze and began to leave. "Take your waxed leaf, dear," Marie told her. "I will finish the other and then frame it for you once the preservative is completely dry."

"Thanks again, Tante Marie," Audrey said distantly as she turned for the door. The last thing Marie heard before the door shut behind the departing girl was, "Courting?"

As impossible as it seemed, Marie's grin grew even broader. "And cherie? Mark him with some lipstick - BRIGHT lipstick - when you do it!" she called out, hoping the girl heard her.

~---------------~

For the remainder of the day, Darla noticed that Audrey was quieter than was her norm. Especially since she had healed from her surgeries, the girl's effervescent energy usually kept her constantly on the go, always doing something. This day, however, she was more sedate, her manner more introspective.

Darla did not know whether to be happy or upset - whether to hope that it had been Darryl's attempt at a Rudolf Valentino-style kiss that had resulted in this quieter version of his love, or just fatigue. On one hand, she seemed to have been affected strongly by the experience. On the other, unfortunately, she did not seem to be reacting at all like young women in love were rumored to act.

*Well, I guess that's to be expected. She had a late night and an early morning. I'm kind of dragging, too. I just wish she'd bring up Darryl's little farewell this morning so I can find out how she feels about it now that she's had time to think about it. Hmmm. . . what day of the month is it?*

Darla took a quick look at the calendar she carried in her purse and sighed. *Almost that time of the month for Darla again. Well, at least I can be Darryl with her, but it sure does get boring pretending to be irritable and nauseous. The things I do for Momma-Jane.*

Darla went to find Tante Yenta-Marie for some more pointers. This was getting more and more complicated and made Darla. . or more correctly, DARRYL wish for an older simpler time. *Well, not too much older,* he thought with an irrepressibly male grin. *If Caveman Dar ever went after Cavewoman Rock with a club, it would, in all likelihood, be Dar who ended up with a lump on the skull and counting stars. Which, if she then dragged Dar off to her cave by the hair, wouldn't be all that bad a fate. It's just that I wish I knew if she would want to drag me off to her lair or leave my carcus for the buzzard-o-sauruses.*

~-----~

Marie heard the door open and hurriedly hid her leaf and pot project in the pantry before turning to see Darla. *Ah, good thing I hid it. Wouldn't do for the scamp to realize just how deeply his little gift affected Audrey. He might get a little too cocky and stop trying quite so hard.*

"Hi Tante Marie," Darla greeted her adopted aunt with a smile, a hug and a kiss. "Is that polyurethane I smell? What are you up to this time?"

"Oh, just some craft stuff for the holidays. Decorations in the main,* she answered, trying to stay as close to the truth as she could before changing the subject. "So what brings YOU to my kitchen, miss?"

Darla seemed to wilt and then plopped indecorously into a nearby chair. "What, or rather, WHO do you think?"

"Ah, la tres jolie Mademoiselle Audrey," Marie said with great satisfaction. This was all going perfectly! "She did not like your plan for this morning?"

"She seemed to like it - at least some - when I did it!" in her annoyance, Darla's voice dropped into Darryl's register for just a moment. "I caught her by surprise, but she didn't fight at all, and in only a moment or two, she really started to put her mind to. . ."

Darla caught herself becoming perhaps a bit too graphic and consciously composed herself. Marie watched in amusement as the girl's sprawl shifted into a position more in keeping with her character of demure young womanhood.

Darla coughed to clear her throat and then continued. "I was not the only one actively kissing," she finished primly. "And she did keep the silly bouquet of leaves I gathered for her. . . but I didn't see her bring them in the house and she hasn't seemed to show them to anyone."

*So you not sure how she feels. Good, that will keep you trying. Still, a little encouragement wouldn't hurt.* "Well, I did help her preserve a leaf today. We ironed it into waxed paper so she could put it in her journal."

"She did," Darla breathed, hope brightening her eyes.

*I did say a LITTLE encouragement, you rogue.* "Yes, of course," Marie replied with careful nonchalance. "Jane has told her to record her thoughts about her time here, and she said it would be a good example of the pretty fall colors."

"Oh," Darla sighed, the anxiety and uncertainty came back. She shrugged it off and turned back to Marie. "So now what do I do?"

"What do YOU think you should do, cherie?" Marie asked, very gently.

Darla considered the question for several moments. "Maybe something a little less overt than this morning's kiss? Something friendly and affectionate, but not quite so. . ." She stumbled again, not wanting to say 'sexual' in front of Tante Marie.

"Passionate?" Marie asked, a twinkle in her clear blue eyes.

"That's it. What do you think?" Darla asked, hoping for reassurance from a competent, female-thinking authority.

"Oh, I think that is not too bad a plan. If she was surprised by the . . . passionate kiss, or a bit uncertain, a little friendly affection might put her off-balance."

"Okay, Tante Marie, and thanks."

Marie watched the incredibly feminine figure glide from her kitchen. "But somehow, mon petit brave, somehow, I don't think it is the so-very-regal Audrey who will be put off-balance tomorrow." With that happy thought, Marie turned back to her meal preparations, humming a song that sounded suspiciously like a particular Brahms March.

~---------------~

"Marie?" Jane called as she strode into the kitchen after the evening meal.

"Yes, Jane?" Marie had just finished filling the dishwasher and was busily wiping non-existent stains from her immaculate counters.

"Do you know what is the matter with the children? Both of them have been very quiet all day."

Marie looked at her long-time friend. She'd promised both young people to keep their discussions confidential. Should she tell Jane? She always had in the past when she knew something that her friend and employer needed or wanted to know, and yet, this was Darla. . .no, actually it was Darryl. *What would Jane do if she knew her son had fallen in love with her student and was trying to court the girl who had been raised to fear males? Darryl has been talking with Art - he told me that much, but has he, in turn, also spoken to Jane?*

"Marie?"

"Sorry, Jane, just wool gathering," Marie said as she reached a decision. "Besides them being tired from their big evening out last night? I have an idea about Audrey. I think she is struggling to decide how she feels about Darryl."

"I thought as much. Did something happen - recently, I mean?" Jane's asked quietly.

"I believe she got quite thoroughly kissed this morning and isn't precisely sure how to react to the fact that she enjoyed it. You know she has very little experience with men of any age, dear, but even less with boys her own age."

"Art thought Darryl would do something after last night. He was, well, rather more upset about not able to be her escort than I had anticipated."

"I like the match, myself," Marie said saucily. "In fact, I think they'll be perfect together."

"She towers over him!"

"I don't think our Darryl feels the least bit threatened by her size," Marie tossed back with a grin.

"What about Audrey? I gather she doesn't mind towering over him?" Marie snorted out a laugh and Jane found herself feeling foolish. "Of course she doesn't. If anything, she'll be all the more comfortable with a male version of the classic Regency 'pocket venus' as her consort. Lord, but this will be a complicated courtship. Oh, wait, did Darryl give her those leaves she was mooning about this morning?"

"Yes. I believe he did. Audrey asked me for some help preserving them."

"You think Darryl is good for her, then?"

"Are you asking as Audrey's guardian or Darryl's Mother?"

"Either. Both."

"I think they're good for each other, Maman."

"Part of the reason she is here is to learn to deal with other people without that violence that marred her recent years. She certainly handled herself well last night. I guess we sit back and watch," she said before adding, "But if she hurts my boy."

"Go cuddle your husband, Jane," Marie ordered her friend, amused exasperation in her voice. "You need some rest yourself. You were up late last night, too."

"Oh, you," Jane breathed in affectionate exasperation. Then she bent down to kiss her friend's cheek and left the kitchen. *Maybe I will go jump Art,* she thought with a smile. *Retribution for this morning's garden chase.*





Chapter 4 ~ Resolution and Crisis


The next morning found Audrey sitting alone in the Music Room, quietly fuming. *Face it, Rockwell, you flat wimped out. You had him in your sights and you just didn't take the shot.*

Audrey had been out of bed earlier than usual this morning, so that she could pay particular attention to her face and hair, and she was sure that Darryl had noticed. She'd decided to run him hard that morning, so he wouldn't be quite so quick on his feet when she made her move just before they parted for breakfast.

In her mind's eye is was all so REAL - she could feel the corded power of Darryl's tight, sinewy body as she dipped him backwards over her arms, could savor the vision of his eyes looking up - maybe just a little bit afraid - into hers, could almost smell the musky aromas of his sweat and arousal, and could almost taste his lips - parted in surprise - ready for her to ravage them.

*God, just thinking about it makes me feel all shivery and edgy,* she fumed. It had ALL been there for her - just two short steps and he'd have been HERS! All she'd had to do was advance on her target, but at that critical moment when her victory was at hand, she'd retreated instead. She could just kick herself.

*Okay, Rockwell, why did you back off? It's not like you haven't been that close to him and had his lips on yours. Except you were caught by surprise that time. THIS time, you knew going in you were going to be that close to a man, that you were going to be that open and that vulnerable. Cripes, you really are a wimp!*

She jumped to her feet and paced about until she came to a stop in front of a window. *It's not as if you don't like and trust Darryl. Good grief, you wouldn't be even considering this if you didn't. So why couldn't you go through with it?*

The question went unanswered as she resumed her pacing. *I mean, he's just a guy, right? Why can't you kiss a guy you really like? You ride horses, you shoot guns, you fence with swords,* and then she came to a stop. "Maybe that's IT!" she said aloud.

*You've done all those things, but not the first time you tried,* she told herself firmly. *And you were definitely trying to run before you've walked. . .heavens, before you ever crawled.*

She went back to the sofa and again sat down. *So, where do I learn how to handle a courtship as a girl? I suppose that is another of those things I missed out on thanks to Miss Phoebe Elizabeth. Lord, yet more girl-stuff you never got to learn, Rocky m'girl. Hmmm. . . girl-stuff, eh? Well, isn't it handy that I have my own personal teacher's assistant in Girl-stuff 101 who has nothing better to do than help initiate me into the dark, feminine mysteries of the hunt? Particularly since she knows this fellow so well already. Oh my, yes. Very handy indeed.*

Smiling widely, Audrey jumped to her feet, and enthusiastically went off in search of Darla.

~--------------~

At the same time Audrey was berating herself in the Music Room, Darla was also more than a little preoccupied with what had gone on earlier that morning. Ever since breakfast, the young woman-with-something-extra had been distractedly staring out the window of the front parlor, her mind a confused morass of memories, feelings, fear and hope.

*She was up to something this morning,* Darla told herself, *and then she changed her mind for some reason. Lord, but she'd looked fine - especially with that French braid trailing down her neck. That's the first time she's ever done anything more complicated than a ponytail with her hair.*

*And there was that look she gave me, too. She couldn't have been more than three feet away from me - turned my brain to mush - froze me in my tracks. That must be what a deer feels like when the headlights hit it in the eyes.*

*So WHY DIDN'T SHE DO ANYTHING!?!? Was it something I did? One second she is stalking me with this incredibly hungry look on her face, and the next she's trotting up the path to the house. Should I have given her some signal? Let her know that whatever she had in mind was fine with me? And just how the hell would you do that, Thompson-Smith? Fall on my back, spread-eagled, and yell 'take me, I'm yours?' Yeah, right. If she didn't die laughing, she'd stomp me into the mud.*

*I have no freaking idea what she was thinking and therefore, no freaking idea what the hell I should do next, if anything. Guess that just goes to show that no matter how deeply I immerse myself in the feminine world, some part of me doesn't make the connection. Man, if Jane ever heard me cop out with 'I just don't understand women'. . . particularly the woman I want to make my own, she'd have my head on a platter. Maybe I should just go throw myself on Marie's mercy again. Hopefully, I can look sufficiently pathetic and inept so she'll give me a real hint this time.*

"DARLA?" It was Audrey.

"In here, Audrey." Darla called back.

Audrey burst in, her skin flushed and eyes wide. The very air seemed to vibrate in time to her excitement. "I'm SO glad I found you," she bubbled as she rushed into the parlor. "I really need your help on something!"

"Okay," Darla said cautiously. "This isn't going to get me on Aunt Jane's bad side, is it?"

Audrey just shrugged, still grinning. "Nah. .. Well, probably not. . . as long as she doesn't know about it."

"You're kidding, right?" Darla asked, frowning. "Jane always finds out about everything, and contrary to what you may think, I really DON'T like dressing like the caricature of a six-year-old playing tea party. Those starched petticoats are scratchy where I don't really like being scratched."

"Never more serious," was the airy response. "And we'll be careful so she doesn't find out. . . too much."

"Great. Ummmm. . .maybe you should tell me just what you want so I can decide if it's worth spending the next six months in those damned petti's, along with a tasteful assortment of equally uncomfortable pinafores and maryjanes."

"Okay. I wouldn't ask, but I just don't know how to do this, and you are the person Ms. Thom . . . I mean, Aunt Jane told me to talk to when I had questions about girl-things."

*Girl things? Audrey wants to know about GIRL things?* Thoroughly confused, Darla could only ask, "Girl things, Audrey? What kind of girl things?"

~-----------------~

"Can we go somewhere. . . a little more private first?" Audrey asked carefully. "I'm not real comfortable with this yet and I'd just as soon not have Aunt Jane or her husband walk in on us."

"Her husband?" Darla goggled. *How in heaven's name did she find out about Art?*

"Oh, come off it, Darla," Audrey sniffed. "I caught Jane and Art playing kissy-tag in the rose garden yesterday and she told me about Art and her reasons for not introducing him to me from the start. "I'm cool with that. I just don't think I want an audience while I talk to you about my secrets."

"Okay. . . " Darla said slowly, while thinking very fast. *I've already told Jane I'm not playing snitch anymore, but if this really is a secret for Audrey, any of the public rooms are out. And Audrey's bedroom is one that Jane had rigged with surveillance cameras and microphones after Mike's suicide attempt. That leaves my room, which isn't a good idea, or somewhere outside.* "How about we go for a walk - perhaps down to the stable?"

"Great idea! I'll go see if I can sweet talk Marie out of a thermos of cocoa and something to snack on."

"Don't forget something for Garters and Teddi!" Darla yelled after the suddenly gone Audrey. "What the hell am I getting into now?"

~----------------~

"Good grief," Darla exclaimed as Audrey began laying out the contents of the wicker basket, starting with a picnic blanket, "you said a snack, not a six course meal."

"You know Marie as well as I do, hell, you know her better. What did you expect? She said it would let Art have a 'a civilized luncheon with his belle wife' if you and I picnicked out here." Then Audrey laughed. "Lord, will you look at this? Fine china and crystal glasses for an afternoon picnic in a horse barn." Then she shook her head in disbelief, or maybe admiration. "Only at this place."

*I'm not at all sure that what Art has in mind is particularly civilized, but all I can say is, 'go for it, Dad!'.* "Well, at least it is warm here in the stable, or I would have very uncivilly crashed their little tete-a-tete. OH WOW! Marie's special chicken salad!! She rarely makes that when a student is in the house, and it's my favorite!"

Audrey looked up from her work, a quizzical look on her face. "Why not? I know it's bad for the figure, but once in a while it's not a problem."

"Jane," Darla said with a giggle. "She loves it, too, but even she hasn't been able to find a dignified and neat way to eat one of Marie's overstuffed chicken salad sandwiches."

"Well, she sent us plenty of napkins so I guess I won't worry about being dignified and just enjoy my sandwich."

"Good plan," Darla approved. "HEY, I get the bigger one. She packed them for me!"

"Watch it, shorty," Audrey said with a mock growl, before handing over the biggest of the three sandwiches. "That just means I don't have to share the other two."

Soon, the two young people were seated on the blanket in front of Garters' stall with their legs drawn demurely beneath their skirts, happily consuming their feast.

"So, Audrey," Darla offered as she munched contentedly on an apple, "now that we're both stuffed, what was it you wanted to talk about?"

"Boys," the other girl said softly. "Or maybe more correctly, men."

*Uh oh,* was Darla's first thought before she realized that this might be the chance she'd wanted to see if or how Darryl had messed up this morning. "You said you were starting to like, um, Darryl quite a bit. Is that still going okay for you?" she managed with an air of nonchalance she was far from actually feeling.

"Yes. . no. . I guess. . ."

"Well, that's definitive," Darla quipped.

"Oh, you," the taller girl said with an embarrassed smile. "Look, you know about my past, right? I just don't know how to deal with . . .this!"

"Define 'this' for me, okay? Take your time."

"I've never been, well, attracted to a guy before. I just don't know what to do."

"Is he attracted to you?" Darla asked, as much because she figured the question was appropriate as because DARRYL wanted to know if Audrey knew he was.

"If he isn't, he shouldn't be kissing me the way he did yesterday," Audrey snapped, and then blushed. "He, ah, caught me by surprise."

Audrey twitched as she realized she'd just revealed more than she intended, at least about the depth of her feelings about Darryl. She wasn't sure she wanted to tell anyone about that yet. For that matter, she wasn't sure she even understood it herself. So she shrugged and said, "It's, um, it's just that, ah, he's the first guy who has ever really kissed me. He . . . really did a number on me."

"Did you like it?" Darla prodded deeper

"After a good deal of thought," Audrey's eyes suddenly became alive with excitement. "I had to admit to myself that I LOVED it," she confided.

"Pretty good one, was it?" Darla asked, grinning conspiratorially.

"Like one of those movie closeup kisses - from an old black and white film. My toes actually curled, Darla."

*Mine did, too!* "Sounds like you like him and he likes you," the smaller girl observed with a nonchalant shrug. "You're both mature for your age, and nearly at the age of full consent. So what's the problem?"

"I'm not holding up my end of things, Darla and I really don't know how. That's where YOU come in."

A niggle of uncertainty tickled at the back of Darla's mind. "Where I come in? I'm not sure I understand."

"I don't know what to do. I grew up feeling like I wasn't male or female, neither fish nor fowl, if you can understand that. Almost sexless, really. I don't know how to deal with these feelings, these situations."

*Oh NO!* "And you think I do?"

"Sure you do. You're a real girl's girl, so I'm pretty sure you know how these guy-girl things work from the girl's side of the equation. Lord knows I don't. I mean, look, let me give you an example of what I mean. This morning? I was going to really turn the tables on Darryl for that Valentino scene he hit me with yesterday. I was really going to lay it on him - just to find out what it is like to be, well, the aggressor in this type of thing. I wanted to bend HIM over backwards - you know, draping him over in my arms, and then kiss him senseless like he did to me. I'm big enough, strong enough to do it, so I figured I'd sauce that gander good."

Stalling for time, Darla asked. "So what happened?"

"I wimped," Audrey said with a disgusted sigh. I got worried that he wouldn't like it, or worse, that he'd think I was doing it to show him what it was like to be overpowered. And. . . and. . . "

"And what, Audrey?"

"Well, when you think about it, what I was planning to do would pretty much prove that I'm stronger than him. The guys I know from the gym tend to be really sensitive about girls showing them up like that. It's part of the reason I want to compete against them."

"You're afraid that he might dump you for showing him up like that?"

Audrey nodded. "I don't know much about men, but what I do know is that they don't have a sense of humor where their supposed manhood is concerned."

"Knowing Darryl," Darla said carefully, "I don't think he would have gotten angry or anything. He might have laughed."

"THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN WORSE!" Audrey yelped, bringing Garters to the door of his stall to see what the noise was all about.

*She's fragile,* Darla realized, *particularly where her sexuality is concerned. She assumes that anything that happens less than perfectly is her fault. "I don't think he'd have meant it in a bad way. Darryl is just one of those guys who laughs when he's happy. If he likes you, I guarantee he'd be happy to have you, what did you say? Oh yes, ummm, kiss him senseless."

"But I don't know that - didn't know that!" Audrey almost wailed.

"Well, short of going out with the two of you," *Which flat out isn't going to happen,* "And interpreting his responses for you, I don't know what good I can do, Audrey." *Particularly, since there is a real problem of conflict of interests here. . .or is it? She wants me and I want her. . . No, you can't EVEN think like that, you idiot. There lies nothing but disaster.*

"I need a plan," Audrey said firmly. "I need to get over my, um, hesitancy around boys. Just like the plan I made when I decided I was going to compete in the Olympics against men, only this is a different sort of relationship."

Darla nodded, trying to portray an air of calmly analytical consideration of Audrey's idea. "Just what did you have in mind?"

"I need a Get Laid plan. That should cover any remaining, ah, uncertainties."

"You want a WHAT?!"

"You heard what I said," Audrey replied, smirking.

"A plan," Darla repeated, not quite sure she believed where this was going. "For you to follow, so that you can . . . 'get laid'. Get laid by . . . whom?"

"Darryl, of course. I don't know the 'what's and how's' of all this romance stuff so that's where you come in. I figure we can start out small - you know - little things, so that I don't panic or get worried that he won't like it, and so that you can tell me what the likely reactions are and how to interpret them."

A ball of anxiety seemed to be growing exponentially inside Darla's gut as she forced herself to stay focused. "Interpret them? I don't understand."

"Sure you do," her friend enthused. "Like the laughing. Suppose he laughed? You said right away that it meant he was happy and liked what was going on, right? Well, I probably would have belted him one, or run off to lick my wounds. So, I figure we start building this plan - a little bit at a time - to make sure we account for anything new we've learned along the way, and work our way up to the big time."

The ball of tension that had been growing almost exploded. For several long moments, Darla could not speak, could only barely think. *Oh God, she wants me to tell her how to seduce Darryl, but Darryl is me, I mean, I'm Darryl and. . . Oh GOD!* "You want. . me. . .to . .to . ."

"Teach me what I need to know to seduce Darryl," Audrey finished, a huge relieved smile on her face. "Whew. Thank goodness I finally managed to get THAT out. I mean, he's really okay for a guy, and I . . .well, I like him. On top of all that, after that kiss, I don't think he'd run screaming into the night if I jumped his bones. So, I guess I don't mind if I make one or more of his days VERY lucky," she offered with a very salacious smile "So, Teach, what do we do next?"

Whatever reaction Audrey had anticipated to her request, the look of shock and near-horror on Darla's face was not it. "I can't handle this," the boy-girl gritted out in a voice that was neither Darla nor Darryl, but an agonized mix of both. "I just can't do this. I . . I," without finishing, Darla jumped to her feet and began to leave.

Surprised and suddenly worried at her friends unexpected distress, Audrey reached out and caught Darla by her arm. "Hey, wait a minute. What's the matter? What . . ?"

Furiously, and with surprising strength, Darla shook Audrey's hand from her arm. "No, please, I need to be alone for a. . a ohhh god, I. . have to leave."

Audrey looked on in open-mouthed disbelief as Darla practically raced out of the barn, her skirts forgotten and flapping immodestly about her flashing legs.

"Goodness, what's happened to her?" she asked herself as she watched her friend disappear up the trail. *I should follow her. . .,* Audrey mused. *Well, she did say she needed to be alone. . . Okay, so I'll just pick up the picnic leftovers and take the basket back to Marie before I go check on Darla. Besides, she'd probably have a fit if I left her precious china and crystal laying about on the floor of the stable.*

--



Chapter 5 ~ Programmatic Breakdown


"Ma-REEE-EEE?" Audrey called as she walked through the kitchen door, the neatly repacked picnic basket hanging from her arm.

"Here, now," Marie scolded as she bustled back to where the frowning girl stopped. "There's no need to shout like that. My hearing is quite good, thank-you-very-much" Then she got a better look at the very distracted young woman's face. "What's wrong, Audrey?" Marie asked in a much gentler voice.

"Marie. . .have you seen Darla?" Audrey asked, looking around as if to see if her friend might be at hand. "In the last few minutes, I mean?"

"Well, no, but why? Here, let me take that basket." The older woman took the picnic basket and set it beside her sink. "Now, what is all this about?" she asked again.

"Darla and I were talking about. . . well, things, and suddenly, she was really upset," she said, before adding reflectively. "I have never seen her react that way before."

*Why do I think 'things' is more correctly spelled 'boys', perhaps even one specific boy?* "What happened?" Marie asked again, this time more firmly.

"She turned and ran," Audrey shrugged, her confusion plain on her face, "after telling me she needed to be alone. I . . I let her go, but the longer I've thought about it, the more I'm worried that letting her go off alone in that kind of mood might not have been the right decision."

*That doesn't sound like Darla. Whatever could have made her react like that?* "Any idea what set her off?"

"I'm not really sure, but. . .Marie? I was going to clean up the stuff in the basket, but now, would you mind taking care of these things? I really feel like I should go find Darla."

Marie watched as the girl slipped away into the public rooms of the main house. "Lord, I hope this is nothing serious," she murmured to herself. "Audrey seemed more pensive than really worried."

At the same time her mind could not think of anything that was 'nothing serious' that would set off her rock-solid nephew/niece. "On the other hand, maybe I had better go find Jane."

~--------------~

Audrey concluded that the most likely place to find Darla would be with Jane Thompson. Besides, if she wasn't there, Jane should be told that her niece was so upset. Audrey had no experience with someone that apparently upset, and felt that the erring on the side of caution was the smarter course of action.

As it turned out, she could hear the sound of voices as she approached Jane's downstairs office. That was odd, for as Audrey had learned over the course of her months in Season's House, Jane's office was as close to soundproofed as made no real difference. The cause also became obvious as she came up to the office door - it wasn't closed, although she couldn't see in through the bare crack.

Audrey hesitated at opening the door and concluded that, whatever was wrong, Jane Thompson was better able to handle it than Audrey herself. She was about to leave, when some imp had her stay to listen.

"You're sure I can't talk you out of this?" Jane's voice asked in that calm, rational and almost toneless voice Audrey had come to know and respect. Ms. Thompson was trying to make one of those uncomfortable points of hers.

"No," was the adamant response from a still-upset Darla.

*Her voice is really husky-sounding. I wish I knew what I did to upset her so. Maybe if I listen just a bit, I will get a clue so that I don't do it again.*

"This whole thing has gone too far, and. . . and I just can't help her any more, not now! I can't do what you ask and I can't do what she asks. It's time, Mom."

*MOM?!?!?* Audrey's mind reeled at that revelation. Now, NOTHING would move her from her station.

"I'm not sure I agree, dear. You're very upset right now. That doesn't make this a good time for such a major decision - especially when it affects more than just you."

"This time you don't have to agree and you don't get a say," Darla's voice was a barely audible hiss. "I have to do what I have to do, or lose everything - including my self respect."

"Need I remind you that she's MY student?"

"No, but that's why I am telling you."

"Are you doing this because it's right for her, or because it's right for you?"

A long silence followed Jane's question. Finally, a gusty sigh broke the seeming impasse and Darla spoke again. "I don't know, Mom, and that is the whole truth. Both of us, maybe. Or maybe neither of us. But going on as we are is not right either. Not for either of us. I *am* sure of that. Audrey deserves better than this."

At that, Audrey straightened and strode into the office. "I quite agree, and since I seem to be the topic of discussion," she said firmly, "I think I have the right to know precisely what you two are talking about."

~---------------~

Darla closed her eyes against what was to come, but nodded. For her part, Jane looked to be readying an argument, but that died aborning as her child held up one finely manicured hand. "Could we be alone, Aunt Jane? Please?"

Jane's face took on a mutinous glare that almost made Darla smile, having seen its like often in the mirror. "Please. It really is time. She deserves that."

Still uncertain, Jane glanced back and forth between the two beautifully dressed young people. Finally she shrugged. Turning to Darla, she bent down and kissed her child on the cheek. "I will be in my study if you need me." Darla gave her a shaky smile and nodded, whereupon Jane turned a sterner eye on her pupil. "You will do everyone a very great favor, yourself included, Audrey, if you listen to what Darla has to say with a fair and open mind. I'll remind you that you came here under some duress, forced by the very serious issues you were facing. It was my judgment at the time that equally serious methods were required to address those issues. Darla consented to assist me, at my request and despite significant misgivings on her part. None of this was her idea - it was mine. She merely deferred to my greater experience in such matters."

Then Jane slipped from the room, carefully closing the door behind her - only then wishing she'd remembered to activate the microphone hidden in her desk-set.

"Okay, Darla," Audrey said coming directly to the point. "Just what the hell is going on here!?!"

~---------------~

Darla turned away from Audrey, and went to stand in front of the windows that overlooked Jane's beloved English garden. Try as she might, the words she needed eluded her. "You know, in all my time here at Seasons House, and in all the talks I have had with Jane's students, nothing like this has ever happened. I don't know what to say to you, Audrey."

"I'd say the place to start is with Jane's parting shot," Audrey replied. "Since that seems to be pretty close to the beginning. What did she mean by that crack about 'Serious methods'?"

Darla nodded, and began to nervously rub her crossed forearms with her hands. "Do you remember what you were like when you first arrived? What Rocky was like?" she asked in a soft, oddly husky voice.

Frowning, Audrey sat down in one of the conversation setting chairs. "Yeah. So? I wasn't much of a lady, then, okay? I know that, and if this is all about whether I intend to stay, ah, feminine, or whether I like being a woman now, the answer is yes. Does that solve this great revelation Jane was trying to talk you out of giving me."

"That's part of it, but only a small part of it. If you'll recall, it wasn't just that Rocky wasn't very feminine - didn't WANT to be feminine. It's more about the way Rocky thought about men."

"That person, Rocky, didn't think much of men, I mean, about men very much."

Despite the tension coiling in her guts, Darla smiled. "You were right the first time. That Rocky was more likely to attack a man than get to know him."

"I was not THAT bad. I only retaliated when. ." Darla turned and fixed a challenging look on the tall girl, stopping her in mid-sentence. "All right, already. I agree, and that I SOMEtimes would act decisively rather than wait and have to react. So, maybe I wasn't very nice then. What's all that got to do with you and now?"

"Well, Jane decided that you would be able to, um, settle in better if there were no men in the household."

Rolling her eyes, Audrey grimaced. "Right, and so Art left, leaving poor Aunt Jane all alone. Oh, except for you and Marie of course."

Darla gripped her crossed arms tightly, trying to force them to stop shaking. The moment she had been dreading was upon them both. "Um, it's not quite that simple."

A bark of laughter answered Darla. "For damn sure it's not simple if you won't spit it out. Damn it, Darla, I thought you were going to come clean with me."

"Ah, yes, well, it was also, um, decided that you needed a companion while you were working through your issues."

"And that's where you come in."

"Yes. But, you see, there was more to that 'solution' than you were told."

Throwing her arms up in frustration, Audrey stood and moved to face Darla. "God, I hate pulling teeth. Get to the damn point!"

"The only young person in the household who could be your companion was not, um, compatible with your first need."

"So, what? You're a visitor? An older student of Jane's? But I heard you call Jane, 'Mom'."

"Yeah, well, that part is right. I'm her adopted . . . child."

"And? What's the rest of it? I don't have any problem with adopted children so that's no reason to get all strange on me."

"Audrey . . God this is hard . . . I'm not her adopted daughter." Darryl replied, consciously changed his voice, and letting his posture sag a bit, thus losing the prim perfection Darla always displayed. The combination, along with the stress Audrey realized was all too real for any continuing distraction, finally got through to the athletic girl. She knew what Darla was about to say before the words even came. "I'm her adopted son." he concluded quietly.

For several heartbeats, Audrey was bereft of speech. all she could do was remember the times she had been with this. . this person, confided in her. . HIM, trusted her friend, only to discover that she had not friend. Not here. "Son?" she spat out when her voice returned, lashing out with all the fury, confusion and hurt she was now feeling. "Oh, God, you . . . we . . . in the dressing room, and . . . in my bedroom . . . spying on me, laughing at me. You . . . you. . . . BASTARD! You. . SON of a BITCH!"

Darryl felt the tears burn, but had no strength to staunch their flow. "Dear Audrey, that's not the worst of it."

"Don't you DARE call me dear!" she raged at her betrayer.

Nodding, Darryl turned his face away so he did not have to face her accusations. "The worst of it is . . . who I really am."

"Who, Jack the Ripper? What could possibly be worse than being a damn Peeping Tom pervert, lying to me every single minute I've been in this house?"

"Lying to you even when you weren't in the house," Darryl explained at the same time rolling up the long sleeves of Darla's blouse and then displaying the nearly faded scratch marks from the rabbit. "Audrey, I'm Darryl."

Audrey felt her hand stiffen, felt her arm muscles tighten, ready to launch her palm into the head-snapping face-slap every cell of her body longed to deliver, the slap she would have delivered instinctually but a few short months ago, but something stopped her. Consciously and with great effort, she relaxed her arm and hand, letting her fingers curl loosely against her side. "Stay away from me, Darryl," she ordered in a cold, almost whispered hiss. "And that goes for your family, too. I hate you all," she growled as she strode to the door only to stop at its threshold. "You most of all! Keep the hell away from me, Darryl. If you even come near me, I will hurt you!"

Jane found Darryl minutes later. Still in her office, still weeping. It took both her and Art to finally wring the full story from the grieving young man.

~---------------~

He was almost too late, was Art's first thought as he shot out the door of the apartment he shared with his beloved wife. *God help me make that 'almost',* he prayed. *For all our sakes.*

Anger stalked the halls of the Seasons mansion; cold, silent rage, invisible yet implacable. The form it wore flowed with predatory grace toward the entity that had hurt her child. The smooth glide might have owed more to long-ago ballet training than pentathlon, but the source was less important than the fierce intensity that was evidenced only by an absence of the slightest softening of razor-sharp determination. Only one thing mattered to her, and that was on the other side of the next door.

She reached out to twist open the doorknob, only to find her wrist captured and pulled away. Enraged at this interruption of her mission, Jane spun to face the interloper, her lips curled in a snarl.

"Easy, Jane," Art said softly, the sadness in his eyes a counterpoint to the darker emotions coloring Jane's own. "You are in no condition to deal with this situation. You have to calm down first."

"Calm down?" Jane hissed, "Calm DOWN?!? Like hell, Art. She threatened MY child and I am NOT going to stand for it! I am not going to let her think she can get away with it!"

"That's just the point, sweetheart. Don't you see? Audrey only threatened Darryl. She did not physically do ANYthing and we both know that she is fully capable of hurting him and that three, heck, even two months ago, she would have hurt him."

"Did you see the condition our son was in, Art? Weren't you in there when he cried his heart out over what she said to him? How can you defend her like this??!"

Gently, Art drew Jane away from Audrey's door and back towards their own private apartment. "Because it was his heart, Janie. She couldn't have hurt him so badly if not for the fact that his heart is involved. He loves her."

"So? She still hurt him that badly, and just yesterday, Marie was telling me that Audrey cared for him."

"Likely she did, Janie, and probably still does. But now she feels betrayed and that feeling is worse because of whatever emotion she had for Darla and Darryl before she found out the truth," Art said as they entered Jane's study.

"You're working your therapy tricks on me," Jane accused, her eyes narrowing.

"Naw," Art demurred as he shut the door behind him, putting his body between Jane and it. "I'm just giving you a time out you didn't really want so that your stellar qualities of fairness and love for your students could reassert themselves and overcome your rage."

For a moment, Art withstood Jane's best steely-eyed glare, but then she seemed to slump in on herself. The next moment, she found herself wrapped in her husband's loving and healing embrace. "I wanted to tear her heart out," Jane murmured against Art's shoulder.

"That would have shown her how a real woman deals with her darker emotions," Art teased before becoming more serious. "Perfect way to give her an excuse to ignore everything else you've tried to teach her."

Jane sighed deeply. "I know, but when I think about Darryl, there in his room, getting ready to . . ready to. . And. .and it's all MY fault!"

"I know, Janey," Art replied, surprising her with his no-excuses acceptance of her sense of responsibility. "Except, that it's all MY fault as well. I advocated the same plan. And we've ALL gone along with it despite the growing attraction we could see between them. But the fact remains that Darryl's right, so far as it goes. And you do have a commitment to Audrey."

"What about my commitment to Darryl?"

"He's a man in love who wants the best for the woman he loves."

"But at what cost to himself?" Jane demanded.

"Exactly," Art sighed before finishing, "It's your call, sweetheart, but I think we ought to try, at least, to salvage something from this debacle."

Jane became silent, content for just a few moments to simply bask in the warmth of Art's embrace and love. Finally, she nodded against his shoulder. "All right. I'll try, but I am going to need help. Starting with how do I handle this next interview with her. What do I demand of her and what do I offer in return?"

"How about we think about that together? Starting with what your original goals for her were in the program, and where she is now."

Suddenly feeling weary beyond belief, Jane went over to her desk. "Let me get the files."







Chapter 6 ~ Reconsideration if not Reconciliation


The anger that had but a scant two hours earlier stalked the halls of the old Victorian Mansion was still there, but the beast was once again suborned to the iron will of the Mistress of Seasons House.

Jane's second approach to Audrey's room was far more circumspect, but no less purposeful. After they had finished their strategy discussion, Art had insisted that she take a short, calming stroll in her garden to soothe her soul, followed by a nap to restore her equilibrium before confronting Audrey.

*And he'd been right, as usual,* Jane admitted as she stood in front of Audrey's door. At least she didn't feel quite so brittle as she had at the end of the planning session. She took a deep breath, knocked on Audrey's door, and then as she had so many times before with so many other students, entered the room without waiting for a response.

~------------~

Audrey was lounging on the window seat, staring out over the late afternoon expanse of the estate. Her only acknowledgment of Jane's presence had been a short glance, a frown of disgust, and a pointed turn of her head back to the window.

"That was well done," Jane said as she walked over and seated herself on the bed. "Edith White would have been impressed."

Audrey wondered who the hell Edith White was, but forced herself not to ask.

Recognizing that her opening gambit had failed, Jane proceeded with the next step she and Art had agreed upon. "We need to talk, Audrey," Jane said firmly, "And since you are still under my supervision by your parent's decree, and more to the point, by your own word, we will have that talk."

She could ignore the bit about her mother, Audrey mused. She was rather unhappy with Prudence Rockwell at that particular moment, too, but Jane had struck home with the jab at her pride and her honor. With ill-grace, she turned just enough that she could see Jane without having to look directly at her. "For what good it will do, go ahead and talk," she said shortly.

The chained beast inside Jane snarled again, showing its teeth and unsheathing its claws, but she managed to hold it at bay. She did wish she had Art, or perhaps better still, Diana here to act as a mediator, but Art had pointed out that Diana would have instead been a barrier, and that was the last thing that either Jane or Audrey needed if this confrontation was to be in any way productive.

"You're angry," Jane observed, "and feeling betrayed. I won't trivialize either emotion by trying to tell you they are not warranted."

"Smart move, *MS* Thompson," Audrey snapped.

"But NEITHER will I tolerate you behaving like a childish brat when we both know that you are well able to conduct yourself like the mature woman I know you are."

"You're angry, too," Audrey noted, "Although you're trying to hide it."

"You threatened my son with violence," Jane said coldly. "When he was here, at my request, solely to help you. Of course I am angry, but that emotion does not lend itself to solutions, and since solutions are what you AND I both need just now, I refuse to let my anger control me."

"To help me? To HELP me?" Audrey's derisive laugh hid the sob she was really feeling. "Do you think that is REALLY what he was doing? I don't, not by a long shot, Ms. School Teacher. Your SON lied to me and then told YOU my secrets in the bargain."

*Here it is,* Jane thought wearily, *The hurt and betrayal that Art assured me was at the root of this debacle - the feelings that none of my other boys felt because their situations were so different than this. And because they never fell in love with their big sister.*

"That was his job, Audrey. In part, I asked him to do those things because I was so unsure of how to proceed with you. I don't know how girls react to my treatments as well as I understand boys, so I needed an insider. Quite badly, in fact."

"Well, why didn't you just use another bloody girl!"

*You knew it would come to this,* Jane told herself. *I can only hope Art is correct in his estimation of how she will react to the truth.*

"Because there was no other girl. You are the first I've ever taught here."

"WHAT?!?!"

"This is the first of the hard truths you must hear, child. It might be easier if I told you the history of Seasons House, and what Marie and I, and for the last few years, my son Darryl do here. It started more than twenty-five years ago, at a very exclusive school for girls called Eastmore. . . "

~------------~

"I don't know if I can believe that," Audrey breathed after Jane finished her tale. She was intrigued in spite of herself. "A school where male juvenile delinquents learn manners and the social niceties in skirts?"

"In all but one or two cases, they learn a good deal more than that," Jane said proudly. "I'm proud of all my boys."

"Still, it's hard to believe that hunk Ken ever wore skirts."

"He had a late growth spurt. However, before that, he was one of the most passable students I have ever had."

"Okay, I guess, but I don't understand why they put up with it. I mean, it makes them freaks - some might even say perverts."

"If they come to me, they usually have no choice. Well, they do, but those choices are always even less desirable than the one you faced. Two thirds of my boys are court referrals, having the choice of trying my rehabilitation program or facing years in a juvenile prison or detention hall. The rest are here because their parents have given them an ultimatum. There are, for example, several boarding schools in this country that are run like 365 day-a-year boot camps they wish to avoid. They come to me, and usually, by the end of the first week, are so cowed that they no longer think of escaping me, only avoiding discovery as boys in skirts."

"And the role Darla played? The oh-so-friendly snitch? Bet that was your ace in the hole. 'Hey, Ms. Jane? Thomasina is planning a prison break tonight'."

"That was never necessary. Unlike you, none of them had access to any clothing suited to their self image. They'd have had to attempt any escapes wearing girl clothing, and while many of them could have eventually done so successfully, they lacked the necessary confidence in their masquerade until much later in their tenure here."

"So how do you justify your little spies?"

"I do not need to justify anything, Audrey, because for almost all the boys, the program has worked. If I did need justification, I have it in Michael."

"The boy who escorted Darla, I mean, Darryl to the club? He was a student here, too?"

"Yes. And he attempted suicide because I pushed too hard. Had it not been for his big sister, he would be dead. So, to answer your question, that is why I want to know what is going on in my students' heads, and why I will ask their companion to betray trusts to find that out."

Audrey felt her stomach twist at that, for there was no question in her mind that Jane was telling her the absolute truth. Michael had been, well, nice to her that evening. *But that's not the point,* she told herself sternly. "Well, I was never so endangered, was I? So what was your excuse with Darryl? What was HIS?"

"He doesn't need an excuse. His only failing in this was falling in love with you. And once he did, he became far less willing, despite what you believe, to betray you to me."

"Oh, right," Audrey snorted. "How about that dress DARLA convinced me to pick so that DARRYL could pant at me, or the time she HELPED me fit a bra. And let's not forget about how you found out about Miss Phoebe Elisabeth, eh?"

"In the first two cases, Audrey, what else could he do under the circumstances that I forced upon the pair of you? In the case of your late, unlamented bitch of a governess, I NEEDED that information to understand why you reacted as you did. However, once he realized where his feelings lay with you, he asked me to send Darla away because playing his role in my program with you was tearing him up. That's the first time he's ever done that, and Darla has helped many young people."

"So why didn't he go away?" Audrey challenged.

"That is also my fault, I am afraid. I used the one argument he couldn't resist."

"Oh? You'd cut him off and make him work for a living?"

"Audrey, that is unworthy of you. Stop and think, please. You are letting your anger cloud your thinking even though you know him better than that. No, the argument he could not refute was that you needed Darla. You had come to trust her judgement, to share little parts of yourself that you needed to talk to someone about."

"And you needed him to keep passing along each little secret, every small confidence didn't you?"

"I did," Jane agreed, "But more importantly, Darryl agreed you needed Darla."

"And how did you come to THAT momentous conclusion?"

"We were truly afraid for you, Audrey, and as I just pointed out, this is how my program has always worked. I have a senior student, not just as my agent-provocateur, but also as an informant so that I know what is really happening inside the head of a student on whom I am putting a great deal of psychological stress. If your mother had sent you somewhere else, then other methods might have been used."

"Then why did you have to use HIM?!? Because he's a little perv and he likes playing dress-up so you indulge him?""

"My son is in no way a freak, nor is he in any way perverse," Jane said resolutely. "Darla, or rather, Darryl, is the best student I have ever taught. He's been involved with my work now for almost six years and has an almost uncanny insight into how students are reacting to me and my teachings."

"So he's been doing this, living like a girl, for years?!?"

"I told you what I did," Audrey was reminded.

The girl recovered quickly, Jane noted with some admiration. "But he still came telling tales to you, didn't he? Just like I thought."

"In the early days, yes, But more recently he has refused. After he told us about your governess, he declined to tell me anymore specifics. You will note, if you think back on recent weeks, just how often Darla instead encouraged you to tell me your own secrets and feelings."

It was true, Audrey thought, but that didn't begin to soften her outrage. "Why should I believe you?"

"Perhaps because I've never been untruthful in my relationship with you," Jane said simply. "However, only you can choose to believe that."

"I'll have to think about that and decide for myself, Ms. Thompson. We may have entirely different definitions of untruthfulness. In fact, I am nearly sure that we do. So, what happens now? Whether I choose to accept your explanation or not, you still hold my personal dreams in your hands."

Jane shrugged, her years suddenly weighing heavily on her. "There's really nothing more I can teach you, Audrey. You've mastered all the extrinsic skills - the cosmetics, the dressing - all the externals of being able to present yourself as an attractive and feminine woman in society. And you've learned other ways to deal with both your temper and your fears of men . . .."

"FEARS?!? I'm not afraid of men!"

"Perhaps not now," Jane replied softly, "but you were. Your 'do unto them before they have a chance to do unto me' attitude is what brought you here in the first place. You were finding threats in situations where others would see only lack of manners. What would you call that?"

"Well, why should I tolerate their 'lack of manners' as you call it?"

"You tell me," Jane ordered, "And you still haven't answered my question."

"Okay, maybe I was, um, 'overly concerned' with what men might do, or might want to do. That still doesn't excuse their behavior."

"No, it does not, but neither does it excuse your responses. Manners provide the lubrication that keeps the wheels of society turning. If not for that friction, there would be no need for oil."

Audrey nodded slowly. Her anger at Darryl, which she now realized was directed also at Jane, was still there. But she could see a difference between that anger and the out of control rage that had almost ruined her life. That earlier rage, had it covered for and been reinforced by fear? Audrey wondered if that might have been the case, but she couldn't seem to focus on that deep a concept just then. She was too upset to do more than nod to Jane, but she had to accept that there was at least the possibility that her mentor might be right.

"That still doesn't justify what Darryl did," she added in a warning tone. "That wasn't fair!" *Particularly when he was courting me. Did I tell him anything girl-to-girl that Darryl then used to advantage? Oh, I don't know.*

"Perhaps not," Jane answered, unaware of Audrey's private thoughts and worries. "Setting aside for the moment the fact Darryl did only as I directed him to do so if you are angry with anyone it should be at me, I think you are fair enough to admit that you have learned to control whatever it is that motivates your anger, both the other night in Boston, and again today."

"What do you mean by today?"

"When Darryl confessed his role in all this and tried to beg your forgiveness."

"I didn't forgive him," Audrey retorted. "Haven't forgiven him!"

"But neither did you attack him. No, the things that my colleagues and I can teach you have been well and truly learned. The rest, I am afraid, cannot be taught and must be learned by yourself."

"What is that? And more importantly, am I stuck here until you decide I've learned this 'the rest'?"

Jane sighed. "I am giving you some latitude here because of your emotional distress, Audrey, but please recall one last time that nothing happened here that you did not agree to accept, whether you knew the specifics or not. To answer your second question first, you are welcome here as long as you wish to stay. If you stay and continue to behave appropriately, I will keep my word on overseeing and funding your continued athletic training. Should you elect to leave, I will be forced to tell your mother that, in my opinion, you have met the minimum standards for a viable place in society, but that I was disappointed that you had not embraced those aspects of femininity that would have offered you more of a chance to be happy as well."

"Happy by whose definition? Yours, of course. I could ask you how you can be so sure that what makes you happy would do anything other than make me miserable, but there's no point in that discussion. Okay, so knowing my mother and her opinion on this . . . school of yours, and knowing that she will NOT fund my training program until you are . . .completely satisfied, that means I stay. That is, however, your call to make, isn't it, Ms. Thompson?"

Jane barely controlled the wince of hurt that she felt at Audrey's reverting to the more formal address.

The girl pressed on determinedly. "Now it is YOU who has not answered the first question, Ms. Thompson," Audrey reminded her teacher. What must I learn to satisfy you and earn my real freedom?"

"What's more important, Audrey? Satisfying me, or satisfying yourself? Are you satisfied with only meeting the minimum standards? Or are you willing to try to be the best you can be? As I said, I can't 'teach' you what you need to know, but I might be able to help you find it on your own. In any event, I'm willing to try if you are."

"Now you are sounding like a recruiting commercial. What do you mean by 'the best I can be'?" Audrey asked, and then Jane saw real anger flare in her dark eyes. "This is just a way to get me to forgive Darryl, isn't it? You're going to keep me here until I make nice with your kid, or is there something else you want me to make with him?"

"AUDREY! That was uncalled for. Your relationship with MY son, such as it is or was, is not to the point. Finding within yourself the compassion, the caring, and ultimately the fairness to face the world like a WOMAN IS the point. You can do that without ever seeing Darryl again if you truly believe that his behavior was both unfair and offensive. I don't, but I am woman enough to know that I am not always right, so if that is what it takes, he is already packing to leave my house - his HOME - tonight."

"Tell him not to bother. It just doesn't matter any more, at least, not to me!" Audrey snapped telling Jane how much Darryl's offer truly did, in fact, matter to the outraged young woman. "As to what I have to, quote, learn, end quote," she went on, "Compassion, caring and fairness all sounds like a lot of double talk to me."

"Perhaps they do, in abstract, or perhaps such concepts are among those rare things that must be understood from inside and that can never be truly explained. If you already understand, you don't need the explanation. If you don't understand, no amount of explanation will ever suffice." Jane looked at her student and was not surprised to see angry confusion in her eyes. "As I said, you are free to choose. If you stay, I will continue to support your Olympic training. If you decide to leave, then you must deal with Prudence along those lines for yourself. Now, you must excuse me, Audrey, my family needs me. Perhaps you would help Marie with the dinner preparations?"

"Um. . . sure."





Chapter 7 ~ A New Deal for Audrey


Marie winced as she watched Audrey attack the breakfast dishes, soaking in the sink after the morning meal. *She's going to rub the glazing off the plate if it doesn't shatter in her hands first.*

It was all Marie could do not to squeal in dismay when the girl rather forcefully set the plate into the drying rack. Moving quickly, she intercepted the hand reaching for a crystal juice glass. "I'll handle that," she said as she moved the tall girl back from sink towards one of the stools near the serving island in the center of the large kitchen.

"It's my assigned chore," Audrey reposited pugnaciously. "By Ms. Thompson herself!" she added with an air of exaggerated deference.

"Well, I don't care to replace any of those settings," Marie growled back. "That's some of my favorite china, not plastic or melamine, and you can just sit there on that stool until you have yourself under control."

"I AM under control!" Audrey all but bellowed back, and then had the grace to blush. "Well, I thought I was," she averred as she slid onto the high-seated stool.

Pleased with the exchange, Marie hid a smile as she turned her attention to the sink filled with dishes. "So, what set you off, cherie, if I might be so bold to ask?"

"ohhhh. . . " Audrey groaned disgustedly.

"Well, that tells me a lot," Marie teased.

"If you must know, I saw Darryl today for the first time since I found out about his nasty little trick. I mean, here I've had to sit through more than a WEEK of these interminable meals with Ms. Jane constantly casting this mournful looks over at Darla's, I mean, Darryl's empty chair. And then, during the one time of the day I am truly free from this place, during my morning run, I practically trip over him."

"He hasn't left, Audrey, although I understand he did offer to leave if that was what you wanted or what Jane thought best for you. In fact, he's using the apartment down at the stables."

"Well, today he chose to go running on the same trail I chose."

"Oh my GOODNESS," Marie breathed, holding one damp palm over her heart, "and so you had to share an entire path? Now why didn't the world as we know it go up in a huge fireball?"

"It's not funny," Audrey replied stiffly. "And we didn't share it. As soon as he saw me, he stopped and disappeared into the woods. Once I passed where he had hidden, he came back out and took off the other way."

*And I wonder just what annoyed you the most, Cherie? That he was there in the first place, or that he went out of his way to avoid you?*

"I'm sure that was difficult for you," Marie said as she turned back to her sink.

"Hmmmm. . ." Audrey replied. "I really don't understand why Ms. Jane wants to keep me here. It's not like she's working with me all that much, and it's pretty obvious to me that everyone is miserable with me around."

"I rather like having you around, sweetheart," Marie said offhandedly. "I would, of course, like it better if you and Darryl were both here. Besides, didn't I see Deputy Beale with you the other day, helping you with your shooting? And I know that Jane has been working with you at the stable with your jumping. So, how can you say she's not working with you?"

"That's different," the girl asserted. "I mean, she hasn't done any of the girlie-stuff with me since the night we went to Boston. What's the point of being here, then? I would get better coaching at the National Training Center, which is where I would be if your friend would just tell my Mom she's done with me. Minimum standards, indeed."

"That's between you and Jane. I guess I do have a question, though, if you wouldn't mind answering it."

Audrey shrugged. "Ask away. I don't have to answer."

"I know that Darryl told you he was Darla. What I don't know, because neither he nor Jane will tell me, is why he unmasked himself to you?"

Audrey threw her arms up dramatic and exaggerated chagrin confusion. "How in heaven's name would I know what was going on in that oddball kid's head?" she asked, scowling.

*Pull the other one, Cherie,* Marie thought. "So, why don't you tell me what led up to him making such an out-of-character decision."

The scowl momentarily deepened, but there was something about Marie that made Audrey feel safe, cared for, even though she knew the housekeeper loved Darryl, too. Forcing herself to relax, she organized her thoughts and began to speak. "You remember the day Darryl . . . kissed me, right? because we, that is you and I, talked about it?" Marie nodded. "And you told me that I ought to give him one back, right? Well, I was all ready to do it - dressed really nice, even did a bit of work on my hair and face before going out for the run. Heck, I even used perfume, though lord knows it would have been washed away by sweat at the end of our run."

The girl paused - went silent for several moments. Marie tried to hold out, but couldn't. This was the cusp, she realized. "Well? What happened?"

Audrey's eyes fell, and she found herself studying the toes of her shoes. "I wimped out," she self-accused. "I had him cornered, Marie, in arms reach. I couldn't do it. I guess I wasn't ready."

"That must have been hard for you, cherie," Marie said gently. "Then what happened?"

"I had this really brilliant idea - I'd make a plan - start slower than ravishing his mouth like that. . .work my way up through stages, until . . well, until," she finished with a rush.

"Sounds sensible," Marie offered coyly.

"I thought so! Only problem was that I didn't. . .don't know anything about how to go about sedu . . I mean, going about that kind of plan, so I needed help and. . and. . "

*OH MY,* Marie thought with sudden clarity. "And you asked Darla how to go about. . . planning for Darryl." It wasn't a question. Audrey nodded, her movements suddenly jerky.

"Now I understand," Marie breathed. "That does indeed explain a great deal, including why he, as you put it, hid in the woods today."

Audrey snorted. "Does he really think I'd hurt him?"

Marie smiled gently at Audrey. "No, cherie. In fact, I'd take any bet you want to name that he is afraid that he will hurt you." *More than he thinks he already has,* she added to herself.

"Yeah, right," Audrey snorted as she jumped off the stool and began to pace the room. "I could pound him into the dirt anytime I decided I wanted to do it."

"Of course you could, dear, though if he had a mind to protect himself, he would surprise you. He's a lot tougher than you are giving him credit for. But of course he would never fight you. That's not the sort of hurt I had in mind anyway, and you know it."

"He DID hurt me! Isn't that enough? He SHOULD hide from me!"

"Yes, petite, he did hurt you, and that is tearing him apart."

"Now why should it?" Audrey snapped sarcastically. "Everyone says that it wasn't his fault. He was just 'following orders' like a good little girl. . boy scout."

"Do you think those assertions matter to him, or somehow lets him forgive himself? You are hurt. He was part of it. My boy would find that very hard to forgive."

For the first time since that sad afternoon, a crack appeared in the hard shield Audrey had put up around her emotions. "Oh, Marie, I never wanted him to be hurt, at least, not after I,. . . I don't know, after I absorbed what was going on."

Marie put down her cloth and came over to pull Audrey into a strong embrace. "Have you told him that?" she asked softly.

"No," Audrey managed to get out through a suddenly tight throat. "I . . . I'm not ready . . I can't do that. Not yet."

Sighing, Marie nodded. "And so you run on one path while he hides from the hurt he's caused you."

"Oh, God, Marie," Audrey sobbed as she buried her face into the older woman's shoulder, "this is so . . . screwed up. It isn't supposed to hurt like this!"

Marie had no answer to that, so she just held the weeping girl. For long minutes, the only sounds in the kitchen were Marie's encouraging murmurs, and Audrey's weeping.

Finally, the tears began to ebb. With a loving smile, Marie reached over to pull a tissue from a box. "Here. Jane always says that no job is finished until all the paperwork is done."

That earned her a watery chuckle. "Thanks."

"Better now?"

"A little, I guess. It's just so hard, Tante Marie, to lo. . feel like I felt for him, and have him deceive me like that - betray me like that." Suddenly, a fresh spurt of tears began to follow the tracks already etched over her cheeks. "Dammit! I still feel for him! What's the matter with me?!?"

"Maybe, sweet, your heart understands some things your head is fighting," Marie answered carefully.

"Explain that!" Audrey ordered with an imperiously Jane-ish lift of her chin that almost made Marie laugh.

"I'll try, but it may not be something you're ready to hear." Audrey crossed her arms and pinned Marie with a dark scowl.

"All right, Darryl deceived you by being Darla. Jane told me she's explained how the program works with boys?" Marie asked as much as stated. Audrey nodded. Tres bien. Initially, having Darla there was something Jane felt SHE needed, and something Darryl was used to doing for her. She used Darryl to work out with you because she didn't want to go outside the family, if you will, for help, and because she felt Darryl could take care of himself physically."

Audrey snorted at that.

"Believe what you will. Kenneth took him down once during a disagreement. Since then, Darryl has learned and practiced under several self-defense instructors. Like I said, if he decided to protect himself, I think you'd be surprised. Anyway, the Darla-thing worked fine until Darryl started falling for you. Now he was caught between his Mother, whose program had saved his life, and his growing feelings for you. What set him off? What made him break faith with his Mother and unmask?" Audrey shrugged, refusing to meet Marie's eyes. "You just told me, young lady!" Marie said firmly.

"When I asked Darla to help me make a plan to seduce Darryl," she answered in a very small voice.

"Precisely. And that says a great deal about how much he really cares for you - heavens, about how much he loves you!"

"What? I mean, maybe he's got ethics or something, but love?"

"Audrey," Marie drawled chidingly. "I know you don't have a great deal of practical experience with the male of the species, but tell me any other reason that a hot blooded young buck turns down the offer of a good hard roll in the hay with a sexy female, eh? Bon Dieu, Audrey, all he had to do was give you that sure-fire 'jump Darryl's bones' plan you asked for. The only way any plan he gave you wouldn't have succeeded is if you had chickened out."

"So? I still don't see how that means he loves. . .LOVED me."

Shaking her head, Marie reached out and took Audrey's chin in her hand, forcing the girl to meet her eyes. "Sweetheart, you already know the answer to that, I think. All I'm going to say is that when a man thinks more of a woman than as JUST a sexy bed-mate, then a SMART woman had better think about what that means and how she feels about it."

For several moments, Marie could see the girl mulling that, trying to reconcile her mentor's words with the way she felt. "Think about that, cherie. Take whatever time you need, but think about that," she said softly.

The emotionally drained girl nodded again, hugged Marie tightly, and then slipped out of the house through the kitchen door.

"Well, we'll just have to wait and see what happens next, won't we?" Marie sighed. "Now that you've got something besides being hurt and angry to think about, that is. I just hope I didn't make things worse for those two kids."

~---------------~

"Marie?" Jane asked after Audrey had left the breakfast table. "Do you have any idea what's changed with Audrey? After she found out about Darryl, she spent more than a week of giving me the best example of 'malicious compliance' I've seen since Michael's early days."

"Oh? Is that why you've stopped the, now how did Audrey put it? Oh yes, the 'girlie-stuff' and have just concentrated on keeping your end of your bargain about her equestrian training?"

Jane shrugged. "As both Art and Darryl have pointed out to me, I really don't have much in the way of the 'girlie-stuff' to teach her," Jane said with a scowl, "at least, not much in the way of outwardly feminine skills and behaviors. The lessons I want her to learn from here on out have little to do with how well her lipstick is applied, or whether her shoes coordinate with her frock. She's been so, I don't know, introspective the past few days? One reason I assigned her scullery duties in the kitchen was the hope that she'd open up to you. Anything you can tell me?"

Marie nodded, her eyes turning furtively toward the sound of the front door opening and closing. "A very great deal. Starting with what's about to happen."

~---------------~

Audrey sat heavily upon the stone bench, the seat cold after a chilly New England winter night. She hoped the weather was not an omen for the sky was gray and the air held the tang of impending snow. She wasn't really sure what was going to come of this, but she couldn't help. . .hoping.

"Marie said you wanted to see me." Audrey felt her heart give a little skip at the familiar voice.

She spun around to see Darryl standing in the door from Jane's downstairs office. Schooling her features, Audrey nodded. "Yes. I think it's time we tried to . . . . to . . . to. . " *to what, Rockwell?* her mind complained.

"To try to find closure on what happened between us?" Darryl offered.

"I guess," Audrey sighed, going back to her seat.

"You asked Marie to set this up," Darryl reminded her. "You must have had something in mind."

Audrey heard the tightly controlled frustration coloring Darryl's normally easygoing tones. For some perverse reason, that knowledge that he was also on edge relaxed her. "I thought we needed to talk, to clear the air."

"So? Talk," Darryl ordered, making sure to keep outside her personal space.

"You don't have to stay on your feet, ready to bolt," she scowled as he took a step backward. "I know I said I'd hurt you, but that was anger talking. . .anger and hurt, and I'm not angry now."

"Just hurt? I am sorry about that, Audrey. That was never my intent. In fact, that is the LAST thing I ever wanted you to feel because of me."

"Then why did you LIE to me?"

"I never lied to you as Darryl, except to protect my disguise as Darla," he sighed. "As Darla, the only untruths I told you were for Jane's purposes."

"So, all those 'girlfriend talks' were the real deal, huh? You never stretched the truth to give Darryl a bit of an advantage, or perhaps to get a bit of a thrill at my expense? You don't think you used your Darla disguise to get every little edge you could?" Audrey's voice rose, and broke in her emotion.

"NO, dammit, I didn't!" Darryl snapped back. "Hell, I broke my word to my Mother, to Jane, because I WOULDN'T take advantage of you that way! That's how I got into this damnable mess, because I told you about me and Darla rather than participate as both in your plan to seduce me as Darryl."

"Oh yeah? What about watching me strip to my undies at that art class with you in the front row, eh?"

"I wasn't the only guy there, Audrey, and you KNEW it when you agreed to pose."

"Oh yeah?" she repeated snappishly. "Think again, pal. The only reason I did it was because that teacher reminded me that it was 'just us girls here', remember, or are you just changing the facts to suit yourself?"

Darryl flushed bright red. "Oh, god, you're right. I guess that I didn't want to remember that. DAMN!"

"And that wasn't the only time, either," Audrey continued, definitely on a roll now, "What about helping me with my bra at the dress shop before the trip to Boston? Great chance to cop a feel, wasn't it?"

"It was, but I didn't!" he replied furiously. "If you'll recall, I closed my eyes as soon as I knew you were topless. You even ragged on me about it." Darryl gave a bark of self deprecating laughter. "I even kept my eyes closed when all I could have seen was your bared back."

"A likely story!" Audrey retorted. "Of course there were only about 27 mirrors all around that damned room!"

She was almost amused when color flooded his face. "Well, that was part of the reason I kept my eyes closed."

"And what about that dress Darla talked me into almost wearing, eh? 'Darryl will love it, Audrey.'" Audrey demanded in a wicked mimicry of Darla's tones.

"I WON'T apologize for that!" Darryl retorted, stuffing his hands into his pockets and turning away from her. "You were so damned beautiful in that dress," he said in a wistful voice that told Audrey just how vividly that memory was burned into his memory. "That you turned my brain to mush and second, because it was nothing but the truth. I, Darryl, DID love it because, DAMN you, you contrary woman, that dress could have been MADE to enhance your beauty!"

"You don't regret deceiving me, do you?" Audrey asked finally.

"I regret that it was necessary to deceive you, but I do believe it was necessary. Whether in the final analysis they were right or wrong is for the future to determine. Jane and Art, two people I both love and respect, said that masquerade was necessary to ensure you got the best possible chance at defeating the demons that bitch of governess set upon you." Then Darryl turned back and locked eyes with Audrey. "And I REALLY regret that I hurt you. Since that day, I have gone over what we did over and over again in my head, looking for ways I might have done something else, for ways things might have come out differently."

"If only we had met under other circumstances," Audrey murmured.

"We did, Audrey," Darryl replied, a small smile on his face. "On the train. Only you were Rocky, and you wouldn't give me the time of day."

"Was I really that bad?" Darryl wisely remained silent, one still-finely shaped brow raised in challenge. Audrey finally shrugged in acquiescence.

When she didn't seem inclined to say anything more, Darryl decided to take a chance. "Audrey, are you happy? I mean, happier overall than you were when you came here?

"I don't know," Audrey finally answered. "I do like, that is, I have come to appreciate my femininity more now. And I, um, I guess I feel more confident. I guess part of the reason I was getting into fights was that I always needed to prove to myself I was, oh, able to take care of myself. Now I know that constant need to prove myself physically was a sign of doubt, not strength. I don't need to prove my strength any more. Not to myself and certainly not to anyone else."

"But are you happy?"

The tall young woman hesitated, then sighed. "Not right now. I thought we . . . I thought I might have found something more than just . . . confidence. And I . . . and that was based on a lie."

Darryl couldn't bring himself to look Audrey straight in the eye. "I just wish I . . . I wish we could have helped you more."

There was no question of the sincerity of that wish. A small smile lighted Audrey's features. "Not satisfied with minimum standards, either, huh?"

A familiar smile answered hers. "I get that from my mother."

"So, tell me. What did Jane say to you? About what happens next?"

"Don't you know?

"I, ah, well, I haven't talked with Jane for a few days," he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. "I've seen you down at the stable. And wasn't that Deputy Beale showing you how to shoot?"

"I'm staying a while longer," Audrey replied. "I'm not sure how long, but your Mother is keeping her word about my training. I'd do better at the National Olympic Training Center, but for now, this is okay. Darryl? Why didn't you just quit when you. . . well, when things started getting complicated? You could have. I understand you said you felt you couldn't go back on your word to your Mother and tell me what was going on, but why did you keep on deceiving me like that?"

"A lot of reasons. A big one, in the back of my mind, was that I was afraid you might push Jane into a situation where she felt she needed to take action that might endanger your Olympic dream. You're both the same kind of hard headed, contrary female - each determined to have your own way. That's only one of the many ways that you two are alike."

"Me?" Audrey practically squeaked in disbelief. "Like Jane?"

Darryl laughed sadly. "If you could only see yourself in the mirror right now. Lips pursed, eyes wide, chin stubbornly out and your right eyebrow cocked. I can't tell you how often I've seen that same look of outraged disbelief on my Mother's face.

Stubbornly quelling an urge to feel amusement or even a bit of pride, Audrey sniffed. "There's no need to be insulting," she mumbled before adding. "If I am like your mother, who are you, Darryl? Really? And are YOU happy with what you do?"

"You mean being both Darryl and Darla?"

"It's rather daunting to have spent hours and hours with someone, thinking you know him, or her, and then find out that it was all a disguise, a role."

Darryl sighed, and then sat down beside Audrey, careful to keep from brushing against her in the process. "With the exception of recent events, the answer to your question is yes, I am happy as I am. What I do as Darla IS important. I, we, that is Jane, Marie and I, have helped a dozen or so boys who were on their ways to bad ends find a better way to live. As to you not knowing me, well, you really do. Darla IS me. . .I AM Darla. . .just as I am Darryl. Just like you are both Audrey and Rocky."

"That's just one more thing, Darryl, that has become kind of hard for me to deal with, to believe in right now, if you know what I mean."

Darryl grinned mirthlessly and said, "You think it's hard for you? You should have seen it from my side, especially early on when I was just coming to grips with it myself."

Audrey's expression showed a willingness to listen, at least Darryl hoped that's what he saw. He tried that out with a question.

"Jane told you about my . . . circumstance before coming here, right?"

At Audrey's nod, not accompanied by a frown or some other expression of disgust, Darryl continued. "I guess I honestly can't say if that . . . affected me somehow. But it was a long time before I could respect who I am as Darryl. I'm small, but I'm not weak."

Audrey's smile this time had honest agreement, a hint of remembered challenges over grueling runs granting Darryl's point.

"Well," he said, "for a long time in there, the only 'me' that seemed . . . worthy of respect was Darla. As Darla, I am . . . desirable. Cute, witty, graceful, attractive. Even more importantly, it was Darla who was able to help a bunch of guys by working with Jane as the big sister. By the time I came to accept who Darryl is, I had also come to appreciate those, well, admittedly feminine parts of me. I didn't want to - don't think I should have to - give up Darla just because I now respect Darryl."

"I . . . see," Audrey said quietly, but the conviction Darryl hoped for was not in her eyes.

"Perhaps," he said, disagreeing by too-gentle agreement. "At least, you might someday. It's not easy to understand. Believe me, I know," Darryl said gently as he leaned over to softly kiss Audrey's forehead. Then he stood and stepped away from her. "I know. Be well, Audrey. If you need me, or just want to talk some more, tell Marie. I'll be around."

With that, Darryl slipped out of the garden. As it was to turn out, that was the last Audrey would see of him before she left Seasons House.

~----------------~

"Mom?" Darryl called as he stuck his head into Jane's upstairs study. "Do you have a moment, please? We need to talk, I think, about Audrey."

~----------------~

Prudence Rockwell picked up her pealing office phone with a sigh. She had been hoping to slip out for an early and extended lunch hour. *Well, maybe I can deal with this quickly.* "Pru Rockwell speaking."

"Pru," a richly toned feminine voice replied. "Jane Thompson here. How are you?"

"Fine, Jane. How are you? What's up? Some problem with Rocky?"

"I'm well, Pru, and we do need to talk about your daughter. It's not really a problem, but I want to discuss a plan with you for your approval since she is still a minor."

"And you said she was doing so much better," Prudence said sadly. "All right, Jane, what do you want to do to her?"

"Not to her, Pru, because she is doing so much better. It's just, well, it's just that this she might be ready for more than I can do for her here. Let me tell you what's happened and what I propose to do with her, all right? Ask questions as I go."

"Okay, but let me lock my office door and tell my secretary to hold my calls," Prudence said, kicking off her stiletto-heeled shoes. "I think this calls for my full and undivided attention."

~-------------~

"Ms. Thompson?" Audrey asked from the parlor door. "Marie said you wanted to see me?"

"Yes, dear. Come in, please, and take a seat. I have a proposal for you."

"I have decided, Audrey," Jane began, "to offer you an alternative to staying here with me for another few months."

"Yes, Ma'am?" Audrey replied cautiously.

"I have made inquiries with friends of mine who are associated with the USOC. Provided your fees are paid, there is room for you at their national training site. If we, you and I, can come to an accord, I am willing to underwrite your training costs."

*Where did this come from?* Audrey asked herself in disbelief. "That sounds, well, that sounds almost too good to be true, Ms. Thompson. What's the catch? You said I had things to learn on my own and you would tell my Mother that if I asked to leave."

Eyes steady, Jane replied, "There is no catch, Audrey. And yes, I believe there are certain things I would like you to ultimately learn, but I have concluded that perhaps my home is not the place you will have the best opportunity to learn them. For your part of our agreement, you will simply agree to behave and present yourself as the lovely and personable young woman you are."

"That's it? Just promise to be little Miss Mary Sunshine and not beat up the boys and you'll pay for my training?"

"You're being intentionally crude, Audrey, and I'm not going to react so you might as well stop trying to push my buttons. You agree to continue to behave in the same exemplary manner as you have these past weeks, and yes, I will pay your expenses."

Amazed, Audrey could only stare in wonder. "How will you know if I do? Are you going to have me watched? Some type of undercover surveillance type?"

That made Jane chuckle. "Heavens, no. You'll simply give me your word. That has always been beyond question, even before you came to me, and so, it will be good enough for me now."

So many things ran through Audrey's overloaded mind, but the only thing she could get out was "Why?"

Jane smiled gently. "Because Darryl asked me to do it," she said simply. "He came to me and said it was wrong of us to force you to stay when there was such a better opportunity for you elsewhere. He also asked me to pay for it."

Stunned by that, Audrey said the first thing that came to her "Wants me out of here, eh?" and instantly regretted it.

Jane's blue eyes went ice cold. "Audrey, are you trying to anger me, because I know you are not that stupid? You and I both know perfectly well why my son chose to intercede with me on your behalf. Now, if you give me your word to uphold your part of our new bargain, I will send Marie up to your room to help you pack. Your plane leaves tomorrow morning."
--



Chapter 8 ~ Interludes


Seasons House - Master Apartment W-Hour Minus 4

Jane looked at her reflection in the mirror and was pleased. *You'll do for an old almost-spinster-school-teacher lady,* she assured herself as she made one last, probably-unnecessary touch-up to her lip gloss.

"You look marvelous," Art said from behind her. "Absolutely marvelous."

"Well, I have to put my best foot forward today and I don't want my face melting in this summer's heat," she grinned up into his so-well-loved eyes, "There's a covey of my old students here today and I can't have them thinking I'm losing my edge."

"Now we both know that's not true. Once you got shanghaied into this little ceremony, you've been planning this to the least detail. You WANT to shine out there."

"And will I?" she challenged.

"Like the sun, my love, like the sun."

Jane smiled at her husband, a smile few who knew her would recognize for it was one only Art could bring to her lips. "It's hard to believe we've gotten to this point. Do you remember when Darryl came in with the results from the Olympic Qualification Match? Lord, but that was as cold a February winter's day as this August day will be hot."

~---------------~

Seasons House ~ W-Day Minus 170

"Mom!" The shouted call brought Jane up from her reading with a jerk.

"DAR-RYL!" she snapped back. "My hearing is excellent, and there is NO reason to shout like that!"

"Sorry," he grinned as he walked into the downstairs office. "I got carried away."

"Indeed?" *Well, I can hardly fault whatever has put that grin on your face. I can count on my fingers the number of times I have seen you so. . .happy since Audrey left.* "And what is it, pray tell, that fills you with such good humor?"

Darryl held up a sheaf of papers. "This! It's the results of the Pentathlon Olympic Qualification Match."

"Isn't February a bit early for a Summer Olympic qualifier?"

"Not really. They do it as part of regularly scheduled competitions instead of as a special Olympics-only event. This one was in Mexico."

"I see. How did she do, dear?"

Neither of them had to ask who 'she' was. "Fourth place over all - second alternate."

"In the men's competition?" Jane asked.

Handing Jane the printed pages, Darryl shook his head. "Nope. For whatever reason, she competed against the women. That tenth place in the fencing really hurt her, and she could have done better with the gun, but her swimming, running and horse-jumping were all top five finishes and individual bests for her, at least in competition."

"I will have to call Pru and find out why she didn't press the issue of competing in the open division," Jane murmured.

"I cross-checked her performances against the men's division. She wouldn't have made the top ten there. Her horse jumping was up to snuff, and her run was okay, but she just wasn't competitive with the foil or the air pistol in that field," Darryl said, his demeanor beginning to darken. "I figure she'll blame being here for that."

"She needed what we did here, dear," Jane said gently as she came over to embrace her son. "You know that."

"Yeah, I know that. It's just so hard sometimes. I never really thought about what would happen when it all ended, Mom. I mean, I thought about it, but I guess I never let myself think about how life might be without her. With the boys, they were always at the point where they knew they could pull it off, and usually, were beginning to enjoy the masquerade. Their feelings were always positive at the end."

"Just another way that she was unique in my program, dear."

Darryl sighed, nodded, and then stepped out of his Mother's arms. "By the way, you said at breakfast you needed to talk to me about something. What's up?"

"Well, you did mention that you are at loose ends since Brown changed their Medical School program so that new students can only start in September?" At Darryl's nod, Jane continued, "I was hoping that. . . "

"Hoping what?"

"Well, your Aunt Ruth and I were wondering if you'd mind being Darla again. . .for just a little while?"

"Like I wasn't Darla just last week for that 'Girls Night Out' with you, Diana, Caro, Sandy and Michelle. What's up, Mom?"

"Well, Ruth has young man on her docket in the next two weeks, and she thinks that he is perfect for our program here."

"You did say 'young man', didn't you?" Darryl asked evenly.

"Yes, dear, I did. A young fellow named Melvin Morris."

Darryl's eyes flashed devilishly. "Lord above, Mom, one thing's for sure."

"What's that?"

"Whatever name we give him as a her is bound to be an improvement. When does he arrive?"

"Next week or two, assuming you agree to play big sister. Ruth has to set up the deal with is lawyer first and that will take a few days to set up and get down on paper."

"Let's do it, Mom," Darryl said, his voice suddenly hoarse. "I don't want my last memory of Darla-the-big-sister to be that look of hurt and pain on Audrey's face."

~--------------~

Kingston Train Station ~ W-Day Minus 160

*I should have set up something like this as soon as we got back home from putting Audrey on the plane to Colorado,* Jane mused. March's winds were swirling as she stood on the Kingston train platform, awaiting the arrival of yet another student. Hopefully, immersing themselves in the familiar roles, rituals and activities of Jane's program would at last dispel the remaining specters of Audrey's final days at Seasons House.

Even now things were coming back to what passed for normality in Jane's world. Darla, was again a blonde and was turned out in full debutante style in her knee length white dress and coordinating hat. Old fashioned petticoats made the dress stand out prominently from her opaque-white stockinged legs. Modestly heeled patent pumps, white gloves and a matching shoulder purse completed her costume.

Jane herself was dressed in her most austere black business suit, with her hair swept back ruthlessly into a tight chignon and her cosmetics subtly harsh. She'd have her new guest on the defensive within hours or know the reason why.

"Ready, Pancho?" she asked as the train appeared, rolling into the station.

"Ah, Cisco," Darla grinned back. "I was born ready."

"Well," Jane breathed as the doors of the train cars opened, "It's show time, kid. . . oh my god. . "

"Huh?" Darla replied, slewing her eyes in the direction Jane's own wide eyes were now locked and saw a young woman carefully stepping down from the train.

March's blustery winds sent dark waves of hair fluttering across the tall girl's face, obscuring for a moment her identity. Her jeans, sweater, and corduroy jacket provided no particular clues, nor did the unremarkable duffel and garment bags she carried. Still, to Darla, there was something about her that was instantly familiar.

And recognized.

"Audrey?" Darla said, her voice barely a whisper.

"For heaven's sake, Darla, go distract her while I try to capture Melvin. I can't imagine what she'd be doing here if not to come see us."

"You did tell her she was welcome anytime," Darla reminded her.

"And so she is, but for now we need to keep her and Melvin separated until we can tell her what's going down."

"I'll get her and we'll take a cab home. I'll put her in the stable's apartment until we figure out what to do next."

"What is she doing here?" Jane wondered.

"I am almost afraid to find out," Darla replied as she moved out to intercept Audrey, but Jane could hear the faint, fearful tendril of hope in her child's voice, and prayed that it would not go unanswered this time.

~--------------~

Seasons House Stable ~ W-Day Minus 160

They'd both been rather reserved during the taxi ride to Seasons House. Audrey had not said anything when Darla had directed the cabbie to take them to the stable and not the main house, and she'd simply stood by as Darla paid the man his fee and tip.

"Come on," Darla ordered as she reached for one of Audrey's bags. "I'll show you the apartment."

"Don't bother with the bag, I'll get it. I'm not wearing heels."

"Too bad," Darla snipped. "You look great in them. Well, are you coming or not?"

The rooms were clean and nicely appointed. That was only to be expected in Ms. Jane Thompson's domain. What did surprise Audrey was that the furniture actually looked comfortable. She set her bags and the floor and turned to face an obviously nervous Darla. "Well, whatever I expected for my return here, seeing you, that is, Darla wasn't included. Nice hair, by the way."

Darla blushed to her blond bangs. "It's my real hair color this time. Jane and Art felt that having someone with similar coloring as a role model would help and also that you were more likely to disregard me as a blonde ditz."

"So, why are you in. . .what did you say? Ditz mode now? Heck, why are you Darla now?"

"You saw the kid Jane collared at the station? The one she hustled off before you could say hi to her?"

"I wondered why she ignored me when I called to her."

"New student. He's probably getting raked over the coals by Jane right now for his many failings. Lunch will be an extremely formal, multi-course meal that will give Jane ample ammunition to hammer his table manners before he is sent up to take a nap. During the nap, all his boy clothes will disappear - locked up into the attic - and by this evening, he will be wearing his first girl clothes."

"And Darla is involved with all that? As opposed to Darryl?"

"Just like with you, only more so," Darla said diffidently. "I help him make the transition sometimes, keep an eye on him for Jane other times and still other times I help set him up for one of Jane's lessons."

"You spy on him, and tell HER what was told to you in private." The trenchant disapproval in Audrey's tone made Darla want to flinch, but years of training under Jane Thompson supported her.

"Jane has had one student attempt suicide," Darla replied, head held high and chin held out, "and another who might very well have had I not been keeping her informed of his thinking and actions. You can't appreciate that because she was so careful with you, having had different goals for you, but what she does with the boys is intentionally devastating. She needs someone like me on the inside until the boy makes the turn."

"Ah, yes. Well, if you say so," Audrey replied, turning to look out the window over the empty paddock. She obviously didn't want to talk about it any more, at least right then, so Darla offered an alternate subject.

"So, why are you here?"

"Unfinished business - with your alter ego, your aunt, and I guess now that I've seen you, with you. Will I get the chance since you have a student here now?"

"The schedule is pretty flexible after the first week or two," Darla replied, refusing to allow herself to hope. "Jane will always make time for one of her kids, and I will always make time for you, Audrey."

"One of her KIDS? I don't think so!"

Darla only shrugged. "I guess that's for you and Jane to work out. I will tell you that, insofar as she is concerned, it is only the truth. If you aren't one of her kids, it is and will be only by your own choice. In any event, that won't change the way she feels."

"Hmmmph. So, when can we get together? I'm kind of tired right now. The plane was much quicker and less tiring than the train."

"Tomorrow? This afternoon and tomorrow morning are pretty critical and I have big parts to play. After breakfast it becomes mostly Jane and Marie's show until after the noon meal. Can I call you, say about nine o'clock?"

"Works for me," Audrey replied.

"I've got to run, okay? I have to play hostess at that lunch-from-hell today. Oh, and if you get hungry, just use the phone to call the kitchen and tell Marie. The number is on the card underneath the phone." Darla started to leave and then stopped herself. Almost shyly, she turned back to face the tall girl she loved. "For whatever reason, I'm glad you're back," she said softly. "Very glad," she added, and then turned and almost ran down the stairs, slowing only in deference to the two inch heels on her shoes."



Chapter 9 ~ Memories in Crisis


Seasons House, Master Apartment ~ W-Hour Minus 3:45

Art squinted through the glare of the summer morning sunrise as he tried to get his neck-ware properly tied. "If someone wasn't hogging the mirror I wouldn't have to use this window and might get this right for once," he called out in not-quite-mock disgust. Sighing, Art considered the mess his reflection was making out of the bowtie, knowing that it meant he was doing just as badly with the real one.

"Damned things," he muttered, "Why did it have to be the real thing, Janey? Why couldn't the bloody thing be one of those fake ties that snap on? I'd rather wear a corset!"

Grinning, Jane glided over to pull her husband to his feet whereupon she took the tie ends in her own hands. Moments later, she was smugly patting the perfectly tied boy into place. "No problem, see?"

"How do you DO that?" he asked, turning to examine himself in the mirror.

"Practice, my love," Jane teased. "Years and years of practice making lovely big bows in the hair of my sweet young lady-laddies. No real difference when you stop to think about it, is there?"

"I suppose," he said thoughtfully. "You know, even after Audrey came back last winter after the Olympic tryouts, I wasn't certain those two would be able to work things out."

"Well, he is, after all, my son," Jane said proudly. "There was no way he was going to let the opportunity slip away. Why, remember the very next day when Darryl decided to beard the lioness on her turf?"

"It wasn't turf, it was asphalt. And as I recall, you were a bit unhappy with him."

"Only because I went into Darla's room for a consultation on the morning's plan and found her gone. I was worried FOR him, not upset WITH him," she scoffed.

"Yeah, right."

~---------------~

Somewhere Near Seasons House ~ W-Day Minus 159

The early morning March air had just a bite of frost in it as Audrey finished her warmup exercises. The sun would only be a hint and a promise when she finished her run more than an hour later, but for now, darkness reigned.

That suited Audrey just fine. The darkness made it easier to think because there would be little besides running and breathing to distract her. With one last arch of her back, she began first to walk, then to trot and finally, to stride out into an easy, loping jog. She ran the first half-mile at a quick pace, letting it burn the stored energy from her muscles so that her body had to begin pumping more energy along with oxygen to the suddenly deprived tissue. At that point, her body dropped into the familiar rhythm of movement and breathing that could carry her miles without apparent stress.

*She is so damned beautiful when she moves like that,* Darla thought as she stepped onto the darkened trail after Audrey had passed. *Hell, she is just damned beautiful - Period!*

At some point, Audrey's concentration broke as she became aware of someone pacing beside her. Annoyed at being caught unawares, she shot what she intended to a dirty look over at her uninvited jogging partner and almost tripped over her own feet as she goggled.

It was Darryl . . .Darla, running beside her, moving without strain even though she required five strides to match four of Audrey's own, but it was a Darla Audrey had never seen before.

She was wearing a skin-tight unitard - it was light-colored but in the darkness, that was all Audrey could make out - that covered her from ankle to throat and from hand to hand. A coordinating thong of some equally unrecognizable dark color highlighted and accentuated Darla's hips and buttocks. A small but rounded bosom gave her figure a pleasing shape while a sassy ponytail bounced at the top of her head.

*What the hell is she. . HE doing here?* Audrey thought before asking, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Running," Darla replied simply, glad that she'd gotten her own second wind before Audrey had broken the silence between them.

"Obviously," Audrey retorted. "I mean, why are you out here? What did you track me down. Spying on me again for your Mother?"

"No spying," Darla said. "No need to. You're not a student anymore. Graduated with honors, in fact," she finished, her words broken by the rhythm of her breathing.

"Answer the question, Darla!"

"That's, as you said, obvious. I wanted to talk to you. We didn't get much chance yesterday between Melvin's luncheon and your exhaustion. This seemed like a good way to do it."

"I thought Darla didn't run."

"THIS Darla does. YOUR Darla didn't run because Jane wanted me to be the epitome of super-sweet girlish femininity. Besides, I could get the exercise I needed as Darryl when you were here."

"Why couldn't you just come out as Darryl?"

"The main reason is that I can't, not right now anyway, is because Melvin might be an early riser or something and see me sneaking in the house as a boy. Yet I still need a workout, so . . ."

After a pause to catch up a bit on breath squandered on speech, Darla continued, "But I might have done it anyway, even if I knew there were no risk. There are times I just like being Darla. She's a big part of who I am, and I don't apologize for enjoying her."

Audrey's pensive attempt to absorb that provided an opportunity for Darla to catch her breath and manage one more statement, "And I won't hide that part of me from you, not any more. Not the fact of being Darla, nor my enjoyment of it. So here I am."

They ran in silence for the next thirty minutes, their sleek, powerful legs eating up the distance at a sub-six minute mile pace. Darla's implied 'take it or leave it' hung in the air between them, but it remained something that couldn't be spoken aloud, not yet, not by either of them. It wasn't time for that kind of decision yet. But it was a factor in a decision that would someday have to be made.

False dawn began to gray the darkness as they made the final looping turn back towards Seasons House. "For someone who wanted to talk, you haven't said much and we only have a few miles left," Audrey complained.

"I was hoping you'd expand on that 'unfinished business' comment from yesterday, but figured you'd get to that in your own good time. For now, it's nice to just run with you again."

"You've gotten better," Audrey commented. "You aren't following me anymore."

"You're wearing a set of men's sweats that are three sizes too large for you," Darla snorted. "Whatever reason would I have to follow you in THAT?"

"Smartass," Audrey grinned. "That unfinished business you were talking about?"

"Yes?"

"It just got bigger," Audrey said.

"Oh, and why is that?"

"Well, despite meeting a lot of hunky guys - tall, strong, athletes - and despite enjoying their attention for the first time in my life and feeling comfortable with them, they just didn't . . . seem interesting enough for me. I guess I want more."

"Like what?"

"Like some of what I saw in Darryl," Audrey admitted bluntly.

"Some?"

"Not all of it. Not yet."

"Is it because of Darla?"

"You know, I thought so, at least in part. But now I'm not so sure. . . "

Darla was silent for several moments before nodding. "That's fair, I guess. Fairer than he, or maybe, I deserve, perhaps. But you said the unfinished business got bigger. How?"

"Well, it's the damnedest thing, Darla. While we were out here running together, I just realized how much I've missed you - missed you as my girlfriend. I have to figure that one out, too, I guess."

Again, Darla let some time go by before she said anything. "I've missed you, too, Audrey. Maybe, while you're figuring that out, we could try being friends again?"

"Will you have time for that?"

"Like I said before. I'll make time."

Dawn rose bright and clear, turning the sky a deep azure as the pair began their cool-down walk about the paddock. For the first time, Audrey could get a good look at Darla's running suit. "My lord, is that the one I wore the day I was going to kis. . . mean, that last time Darryl and I ran together?"

"No," Darla snorted in disgust. "Yours wouldn't fit me. Too big, especially up here," she added, holding her hands beneath her breasts.

"Oh," Audrey said, her look a little dazed as her eyes fixated on the small tight mounds. "umm, you haven't gone and done anything drastic, have you? I mean, those aren't, I mean, that isn't really you? The boob, I mean."

Darla began to giggle. "No, silly. Just inserts and a really tight running bra. GOD, but I hate running in the thing, too. Feels like I am gonna be cut in two, but it's the only way for me to have a figure, and like I said earlier, I have to have one in case Melvin isn't sleeping the sleep of the blissfully ignorant."

"It's going to be tough for him today?"

"Yeah. Remember the day Jane had you change outfits a bunch of times?" Audrey nodded, her eyes suddenly wide. "Well, almost the same thing except the clothes will be a LOT frillier and sillier, and Jane's going to be a whole lot more critical. This is the day she really traps him and then I name him."

"Name him? Oh, you mean like you did with me?"

"Yep. Oh, that reminds me. If you ever see him? Pretend not to recognize him and ALWAYS refer to him as a girl. His new name will be Melanie."

"Melanie, huh?" A sly grin lit Audrey's face. "Heck, that might rehabilitate him all by itself."

"Huh?"

"It's a whole lot better than Melvin, don't you think?"

"Oh you! Look, I have got to go. Would it be all right if I come out and run with you some other times, too?"

"Sure. Like I said, I missed my girlfriend, too. And besides," Audrey smirked.

"And besides, what?"

"She keeps up a whole lot better than that poky old Darryl ever did!" she called as she ran up the stairs to her apartment.

Darla giggled as she turned toward onto the path up to the big house. "Well, wear something more attractive than those saggy-baggy sweats next time. It might keep me from concentrating on . . . my running."

~----------------~

Seasons House, Master Apartment ~ W-Hour Minus 3:30

"It's not like I wasn't pleased to see her again," Jane said. "I mean, she was. . . IS one of mine, it was just. . ."

Art rose from the window seat where he'd been basking the feeling of the morning August sun, delaying for just a few moments longer the donning of his formal wear. "It was just that my control-freak wife wasn't expecting her at that moment in time, and you were thrown into a tizzy."

"I was not," Jane sniffed as she turned back to her mirror and picked up her brush. "Things were delicate at that point, is all."

Grinning, Art snatched the brush from her hands and began to loving stroke it through his wife's auburn locks. "Same thing, but I will grant that, given how things stood when Audrey had left, you might have had some justification in being a bit anxious."

"AHA! So you admit it, at last, you irritating man!" She'd have turned on him had Art not chosen that moment to take her hair in his hands to part it.

"SOME justification, my love," he teased. Setting down the brush, Art used skillful fingers to begin the intricate French Braid he thought looked best on his wife. *When it's not all loose and flowing about her face, that is.* "Still, I would have loved to see the look on that girl's face when she. . ."

~----------------~

Seasons House Stable Apartment ~ W-Day Minus 158

Audrey prowled the apartment's sitting room like a caged lioness, edgy frustration evident in her every move. The morning's run had not gone as she had hoped. . expected, and she didn't know why. The old fashioned chime of the door bell broke through her fuming and had her all-but-leaping toward the door.

Triumphantly, she flung it open. "So, you wimped out on me this. . . morn. . ummmm, hello, Aun. . I mean, Ms. Thompson," she finished lamely, her eyes fixed on the woman on the other side of the threshold.

"Good morning, Audrey," Jane said gently. "May I come in, please?"

"Oh, umm, sure, it's your place after all."

Jane stepped inside and waited for the younger woman to close the door. "Not so long as you are here. Please, consider it yours for as long as you care to visit. We will, of course, respect your privacy if that is what you wish."

"Oh, well, thanks, A. . umm, Ms. Thompson."

"Audrey, please, if cannot bring yourself to call me Aunt Jane any longer, I would prefer you call me Jane. However you consider me, I consider you family and I don't like my family calling me 'Ms. Thompson.'"

"All right, .. . Jane. Thank you."

"Which brings up another point we should clear up. What do I call you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

An almost sad smile crossed Jane's face. "How are you called these days? I strongly suspect that you do not go by Chastity." At the girl's near-shudder, Jane nodded. "I thought not. So, are you again, . . . Rocky?"

"Sometimes," she admitted. "Not often though. My coach still uses that nickname, but that's about it. Mostly, I ask people to call me Audrey. In fact, I am thinking of having it made my legal name."

"So something good did come of your time here, then. At least you found a name you are happy with."

Suddenly remembering her manners, Audrey hastily swept an arm toward the living room furniture. "Won't you sit down, please? Would you like something? Some coffee or tea? I'm not as good as Marie, but I've learned to make a fair cup of either beverage."

"Nothing to drink, thank you, Audrey," Jane said as she sat on the overstuffed leather couch and waited for Audrey to take a seat opposite her. "I gather from your greeting at the door you were expecting someone else."

Audrey nodded, and felt herself blush. "Darla. . I mean, Darryl, I mean. . .oh heck. You know who I mean. He. . she went running with me yesterday and I sort of thought we'd agreed to do it again."

"I thought as much," Jane said. "We ran into a bit of difficulty with my new student yesterday. I asked Marie and Darla to take turns keeping and eye on her while we give her a bit of recovery time."

"Difficulty? I thought it was supposed to be difficult?"

"It is, especially the first few days, but Melanie had what Art diagnosed as a severe anxiety attack yesterday following one of my rather threatening critiques of her performance. I've had reactions like that before, but nothing quite so serious."

"You already are using feminine pronouns with him. He's only been here a couple of days," Audrey noted, fascinated.

"Practice, my dear, and a necessary part of the program. The sooner my new student is thoroughly immersed in a purely feminine environment and experience, the sooner the really important work can begin," Jane hesitated just perceptibly, and then pressed on. "Which is why I came to see you this morning."

Audrey immediately sat up straighter, regarding Jane cautiously. "Oh, you've remembered something else you need to teach me?"

"No." was the soft, but firm reply. "I've already told your Mother I consider you a success. You truly did come to understand and then to tame the beast your former governess bred in you. Nothing proved that more clearly than your reaction to the unfortunate way in which you learned Darla's secrets. For all the hurt you felt you suffered here, you behaved, in the end, with dignity and some compassion. You could have hurt Darryl terribly without much effort when you left and you chose not to go in that direction. No, I am confident that those things I hope you will yet learn you can and will learn without any specific intervention from me."

"Then what do you want from me?"

"Not so very much - at least I hope that you will see it that in that light. The issue I needed to discuss with you concerns Melanie. You know a great many of the truths about my program from your discussions with me and with Darryl - truths I don't want revealed to Melanie until I decide to reveal them."

"Such as?" Audrey asked, her brow cocked in manner Jane recognized from her own mirror.

The school-mistress in Jane Thompson stifled the smile that pride wanted to display at Audrey's imitative expression. A smile right then would NOT support the seriousness of the problem facing Melanie. "As you know, my methods require a young man to find an inner strength that is not dependent on macho posturing, but is founded on self-discipline and courage in the face of emotional challenges. I create emotional challenges by immersing the student in an intensely and exclusively feminine environment where even the slightest traces of masculinity are neither permitted nor considered to have value. It would do my program and this student's progress great harm to let him think he was showing some inherent and unshakeable masculinity despite the evidence in the mirror. So I can't have you reveal that you know he is a boy. Nor that there are others in the household who are male and might be appealed to for support."

"And yet," Jane continued, "I cannot truly expose the student as a petticoated boy, not publicly. My methods are, at their core, a bluff. I, we, all of us in my household, need to make Melanie think she is always at risk of being unmasked as a boy in girl's clothing while at the same time rendering that risk truly insignificant. Much of what I hope to accomplish with this student will become impossible if he learns those facts.

Jane watched as Audrey became very still, her face expressionless. Finally she sighed. "I didn't come here, Jane, to hurt you or anyone else for that matter. I came here to find answers to questions left over from my time with you. I don't understand what you do here, but I trust you enough to agree to what you ask with respect to your new student.

Jane closed her eyes in palpable relief. "Thank you, Audrey," she said as she rose. "Now, I must hurry back. Art and I have some things we want to try with Melanie this morning to see if we can figure out what set her off yesterday."

Audrey rose and walked Jane to the door where, completely without warning, the older woman turned and pressed a gentle, maternal kiss to Audrey's cheek. "You are more than welcome up at the house, dear. Just check with Marie, Art, Darla or me first in case something special is planned for Melanie."

Nodding, Audrey put tentative fingers to the kissed cheek as she watched Jane move down the stairs. Then, she thought of something. "Ummm, Jane?" she called.

"Yes, Audrey?" Jane replied, looking back up the stairs from the ground floor door.

"I thought you said exclusively feminine environment. What about your husband? What about Art?"

Unexpectedly, Jane gave a girlish giggle. "Oh, that's right. You don't know about Diana yet, do you? Be sure to ask Darla and tell her I said it was okay to tell you." Then she disappeared out the door without waiting for a reply.

"Diana? What the heck has Diana got to do with anything?" Audrey muttered, still holding the opened door. "Nooooo. . . . .," she breathed. "It couldn't be. Could it? He wouldn't. Would he?"

~----------------~

Somewhere near Seasons House ~ W-Day Minus 157

Darla stifled a sigh as she caught up with the sweat-suited Audrey. *Maybe she wore something nice yesterday, and then I couldn't make it,* she thought, and then shook her head. *Just keep trying to convince yourself of that, Dar.* With a last push, she came up along side the taller girl and then settled into the pace Audrey was setting.

~-----------~

Audrey had been aware of Darla's presence from the moment the faint patter of the other runner's steps had caught her ears. *And of course, YOU were listening for her,* she mocked herself. *Well, at least I didn't get all dolled up for her like I did yesterday.* That thought made her frown, because until that very moment, she had not admitted, even to herself, the reason she'd taken such care with her dressing for yesterday's run. "Sucking wind, already?" she asked snidely. "We've barely started."

"Had to catch up," Darla opened. "You started without me again."

"Yeah, right," Audrey retorted. "Missed you yesterday."

"Had a problem at the house."

"Jane came to see me and told me about it," Audrey remarked, and was pleased as the surprised double-take response that nearly had Darla stumbling. "How's the new kid?"

Darla shrugged as best she was able while still keeping her balance. "Okay now, I guess. She's over the anxiety attack and at least functioning again, but I think that is mostly because Jane has eased off on her usual tactics. Whether that is good or bad, well, only time will tell."

"If the kid isn't having knicker-fits and is functional, how can that be a bad thing?"

"Well, the first few days have always been the shock treatment. Isolate the student from what he thinks is his source of personal power which is often, and specifically in this case, a dangerous and violent temper. In a lot of cases, that is what made the kid feared in his old environment which the macho types confuse with respect."

"So? What's the problem?"

"It's kind of hard to explain. Look, consider the potential harm if Melanie is out in public and loses control as Melanie. If the explosion is sufficiently violent, she blows her cover and exposes herself as a pretty boy in skirts, okay? What happens?"

Audrey snorted. "A whole bunch of macho garbage and taunting gets dumped on her. . him."

"Exactly. So the intent of the cross-dressing and stuff is to act as a damper to that kind of reaction. They know how they're dressed and how strangers will react if they are unmasked. It's usually pretty daunting for them, which is precisely what Jane wants."

"So what's the problem with Melanie? Sounds like she's pretty daunted."

"It feels wrong, Audrey. She shouldn't have broken down like that - not at that point."

Audrey could hear the uncertainty in her friend's voice, but didn't know what she could do to help. The remainder of the run passed in uncomfortable silence.

~------------~

Somewhere near Seasons House ~ W-Day Minus 152

They were barely twenty minutes into their run, and already Audrey was feeling the burn in her calves, thighs and lungs. Finally, she reached out and put an hand on Darla's shoulder to rein her in. "You're really pushing today. I don't mind a hard run, but we won't get ten miles in at this pace."

"Oh, sorry," Darla winced and slowed her pace. "I guess I've just got some things to work out, and the running lets me, I don't know, let off steam."

"Melanie that bad?" Audrey asked. She had pretty well discouraged any more discussion about what Jane and Darla were doing up in the big house the past few mornings. Darla had taken Audrey's pointed changes of subject mostly in good grace, but this was different. Audrey could feel it, and it bothered her that her friend was so upset.

"I'm afraid so. She had another panic attack last night. That makes four since she arrived, and at the same time, she isn't giving Jane the expected responses to her program. It's getting pretty scary."

"Scary? How?"

"What Jane normally does during a student's first days is hack away at that tough-guy self image we talked about with some really, well, pretty nasty setups and her scathing comments about his appearance and things. Students react in a lot of different ways when she pours on that kind of pressure. Sometimes they try to take a swing at her."

"They WHAT!?!?"

"You heard me. Jane - and Marie too - have had some . . . training. They don't let the kid get away with it, nor hurt her of course. It's just that they have to push the student to that level of stress to see if she's learned how to handle it. Not only that, but getting taken down by a middle aged woman is pretty devastating to an overblown male ego. The few guys I've seen try her that way were usually very cowed immediately afterwards. Something about looking straight up into the eyes of a furious Amazon who just put you on your butt, I suspect."

"You said she wants to see how they handle the pressure?" Audrey was wide-eyed. "How do you 'handle' something that is deliberately made that stressful? Especially if you can't . . . fight or exercise or something? I mean, I can't see Jane 'losing' any sort of battle of words. What does she really want the kid to do?"

"Cry."

"Cry?" Audrey's voice climbed two octaves in her disbelief. "You're kidding!"

Darla's ponytail bounced as she shook her head in time to her running pace. "No, not at all. It's a non-violent way to release those emotions, which is a fundamental stage they have to reach. It's part of the reason for all the girly things, to make crying more acceptable. More acceptable than violence, for sure."

Darla paused and considered her next words. "Which potentially makes Melanie a significant problem."

"Huh? HOW?" Audrey frowned. "You just said you've already reduced her to tears. Four times, in fact."

"Yeah, we did. There is no way she was faking that scene, but it was the wrong kind of cry. She wasn't venting emotions, releasing them through tears. Whatever caused her to cry like that, it wasn't Jane's setups or her critical comments. It was, well, it was different - and not healthy. It's like . . . instead of releasing the pressure, it's just a sign of how high the pressure is. I don't suppose that makes much sense. You know what really scares me?"

"What, Darla?"

"If Melanie doesn't cry for the right reasons, if she isn't letting out all that pressure, how can we know she'll just stay down when Jane flips her for throwing a punch? Suppose instead of a panic attack, she goes berserk? Someone - Jane, Marie, Melanie - maybe all of them could get badly hurt."

"So? Have Jane back off."

"She won't," Darla said sadly. "She's too damned committed to what she does for her own damned good."

"Ummm, no. Sorry, but I don't understand."

Darla let out a deep breath. "That's okay. Just now? Neither do we."

~--------------~

Somewhere near Seasons House ~ W-Day Minus 147

Audrey was in the zone. The morning was unusually warm for mid-March in New England and she felt wonderful. A good deal of that was the presence of Darla running easily beside her. Their morning runs had become quiet reflective times for both of them. Audrey knew that Darla was growing steadily more frustrated with Melanie and her abnormal behavior under Jane's program. That much was pretty clear from the growing stress she could see on her friendís face each morning. Just now, she was feeling a bit guilty for not having tried to help, even if just by acting as a sounding board, for the girl. . . person who had been and was again her best friend.

"Still no progress?" Audrey finally asked as they made the turn to return home.

"Don't know if you could call it progress, but Diana thinks she's figured out what sets Melanie off."

"Oh? Can you talk about it to an outsider?"

"You aren't an outsider. You're family," Darla corrected. "She goes ballistic whenever anyone even hints that she might go out in public dressed as a girl."

"I thought that was the whole point of the thing? Send her out in public, put her under pressure, and rely on her being good to keep from revealing herself as a petticoated boy."

"That's the idea, but instead of being afraid, she breaks down. We've already postponed her first public outing twice."

"So what happens next?"

"We continue to work her on the masquerade, not that it is really necessary. She's already as passable as she will ever need to be. And we'll keep pressing her as hard as we can without tripping her off again. Art is hopeful, though, now that we have an idea what is setting her off, maybe we can find a way around that."

"ART! That reminds me! Jane said there are no guys in the house right now, but what about Art?"

"Oh, he's around," Darla grinned.

"Is he. . ? I mean, is Art. . ., Oh hell, does Art dress?"

"Sure he does," Darla teased. "You saw him the night at the ballet. He wasn't naked, was he?"

"Smartass. Does Art dress like you do? When you become Darla?"

"What do you think?"

"Damn you and your Mother! You both answer questions with questions," Audrey snarled, her own emotions breaking through her reticence. "Is Art Diana?"

"Took you long enough to figure that out. He's a psychologist, and was Jane's first conquest back when she was in college," Darla revealed as they approached a 'Y' in the trail. "Look, I've got to run home, so I won't finish with you today. See you tomorrow, I hope!" She then turned on the branch toward the Victorian mansion, waving as she went.
--



Chapter 10 ~ Guess Who is Coming to Dinner


Seasons House, Master Apartment - 3:15

Jane sat in front of the window, half-watching as the workmen hired for the occasion bustled about their about the huge lawn under Old Tom's watchful eye. Several had already dispensed with their shirts in the already warm August sun. Jane eyed her gown with mixed feelings. On one hand, it was gorgeous and she looked forward to wearing it for Art, and to having Art take it off her later on. The downside was that, light though the material was, there was just so much of it. "I'm going to roast." she declared finally.

Art looked up from his own last minute preparations. "At least you have some decollete in YOUR outfit. YOU won't be out there with a tie threatening to choke you at the same time you are steam-cooking in a black waistcoat and tails."

"Oh, stop your whining. We've been through this. Diana can't come out until later, when only the special friends and guests are still here."

"But it will be cooler then!"

"Oh come on," Jane teased. "Be a man!"

"Darling," Diana's cattiest voice replied, "You are treading a very fine line right now. I might just decide you need another shower."

"You wouldn't. . ." Jane started and then stopped herself. *Of course he'd dare - it's one of the reasons I love the sometimes infuriating man!* "So," she went on, changing the subject, "Were you as pleased as I was with Mel's decision as I was?"

"Rather surprised, but pleased. I'm glad things turned out as well as they did, too."

"Well, until that dinner, I wouldn't have given much for success with her. Remember, any time I even hinted that we would be going out in public, she'd have another attack."

~------------~

Outside the Seasons House Stable ~ W-Day Minus 142

Audrey and Darla raced for the unofficial finish line of their morning run with as much speed as either could muster. "GOTCHA!" Audrey cheered as she edged out her shorter companion.

"I'll . . . get . . . you . . . yet. One of . . . these days!" Darla panted as she began to move into a cooldown pace.

"Just. . . keep. . .on . . tel. . .ling . . yourself. .. that, blondie!" Audrey jibed back.

For all the apparent cattiness between the two, they both knew that they had grown closer since Audrey's return. In the back of her mind, Audrey knew that this girlfriend of hers was not REALLY a girl, but somehow that knowledge did not seem to bother her, or make Darla any less her friend. It was strange, and yet, it also felt very right to the tall, dark-haired young woman. *If only she hadn't lied to me before, if only DARRYL hadn't lied to me before,* she thought for what seemed like the millionth time.

"Umm, Audrey?" Darla's uncertain tones broke through the taller girl's thoughts.

"What?"

"I would like to ask you for a favor. We've managed to avoid discussing anything to do with Jane's program or Melanie the last few days, but well . . .,"

"Well, what," Audrey asked cautiously.

"Would you mind coming to dinner tonight? Up at the house?"

"Huh? What's with that? The kid get sent away or something?" Audrey had visited the house on several occasions, but each time had been carefully chosen so that Melanie had been elsewhere at the time - usually in the upstairs study working with either Jane or Diana.

"No, that's sort of the point. Maybe adding you to her world, a single person who wasn't part of her initial transformation - a girl of course - would be . . . less stressful for her than going out in public - as a girl, that is. Yet it would be, I hope, progress."

Audrey could hear the worry in her friend's voice and it called to something deep inside her. "What's that all about?"

Darla sighed and plopped down on the ground to stretch, watching as Audrey followed suit. *God, but I'm glad she lost those sweatsuits.* she thought as Audrey's lycra-clad form began to elongate sensuously. *And soon it will be warm enough for her to wear a nice little crop top, or maybe just her sports bra. God, she has great abs, and from what that tight outfit suggests, they've only gotten better at the Olympic training camp.*

"Her anxiety attacks," Darla continued, pulling her attention away from Audrey's lovely form. "She's more than a week overdue for her first trip to town - the first visit to the Chalet and to Ms. Franson's dress shop - almost two weeks, in fact - but despite Diana's best attempts at finding out what is at the root of her problem, she still goes off - big time - at the slightest hint that a public outing might be in the offing."

"So what does having me join you at dinner accomplish?"

"Although you arenít really one, to Melanie you're an 'outsider'," Darla told her, "And we - that's Jane, Marie, Diana and I - are not. She knows we know she's really a boy, and she's figured out the Jane wants her to go to town, although not why. When we tell her she's indistinguishable from a real girl, she doesn't trust our assessments because she doesn't trust our motives."

"Why doesn't Jane just drag her, I mean HIM into town? She has the authority, right?"

"Because if Melanie goes off in town like she has the last two times it came up here, someone will call 911 and we're liable to end up in the hospital with her - which would blow the whole deal. Not just for her and Jane, but for a lot of the other guys Jane has helped here."

"And she can't help the kid just keeping him here?"

"It won't be enough," Darla replied emphatically. "The pressure, that is. SHE has to deal with all this under public scrutiny and public pressure. No matter what's really behind her behavior, eventually she'll get too comfortable here - with us, with the routine, with the relative safety of the isolation here at Seasons House. She has to go to the next step if we're ever to help her control that temper that got her sent to us."

"DAMMIT, Darla, you want me to join in Jane's blasted games and I did not come here to play games!"

"Then, please, come to dinner," Darla nearly begged, her eyes huge and pleading. "This is as far from being a game as anything I can think of. That girl needs some help to get over this barrier to her rehabilitation and you might be able to give it to her."

"You're just like Jane, you know that? You just think of HIM as female - even talk about him as a female."

"Because that is how it has to be if we are to help HIM, Audrey," Darla said softly.

"And you believe that? I mean, REALLY believe that?"

"With all my heart," Darla said with quiet conviction.

Audrey stared at Darla for several more seconds before finally reaching a decision. She nodded. "Okay, I'll come. What time?"

"Great! Pick you up at six p.m."

"It's just a quarter mile walk." Audrey protested.

"Yes, but we don't want Melanie knowing you live around here, so I will come get you in the estate wagon and drive you to the front door so she can greet you like a proper young lady receiving honored guests."

"You're kidding me."

"Auds? I almost never kid. . . at least about Jane's program and her students. Ooops. . .gotta run. See you at six! And THANKS!"

~--------------~

Seasons House Stable Apartment ~ W-Day Minus 142

The clock read 5:15 when the doorbell chimed. Audrey walked to the door brushing out her hair as she went. She opened the door to see Darla loaded down with a garment bag, a cosmetics bag and a twine-handled paper shopping bag.

"Hi," Audrey said as Darla swept into the room, finally depositing her load on the sofa.

"Hi yourself," Darla grinned. "I can see that I was right."

"Right about what?" Audrey demanded.

"That you'd need these," the shorter blonde said mischievously, pointing at the parcels on the sofa. "You're way underdressed."

"And what's wrong with the way I'm dressed?" Audrey's challenge practically dripped ice off each word as she brushed a hand down the elegantly fitted black business power pants-suit. "I'll have you know I wore this outfit to the Olympic reception at the White House."

"Perhaps that would be appropriate for a mere *reception*," Darla said with an artfully-applied sneer. It was too condescending even for Jane, but Audrey had never met Edith White on whom that delicate lip curl was actually modeled. "But this is a formal dinner, and despite your apparent fascination with . . . *politicians*," Darla continued, the sneer on that epithet not concealed at all, "neither is the White House the equivalent of Seasons House."

Then the blonde girl destroyed the arrogance of her attitude by dissolving into giggles. She did not, however, relent on her basic demand that Audrey step up the elegance of her presentation.

"I've eaten at Seasons House," Audrey insisted as she dodged Darla's attempt to get her out of the suit's jacket.

"Remember, you never got the full treatment. Let me put it this way. Would you attend a formal dinner party hosted by the Queen of England in that outfit?"

"Well, no, but. . "

"No buts. Jane is worse than the Queen of England. The Queen would probably be kind about a dress faux pas. Because of Melanie, Jane can't cut you any slack."

"Oh, all right. What did you bring me?"

"Oh, just some stuff you left behind when you went off to the Olympic Training Camp," Darla grinned impishly.

"Since I left almost all of it, that doesn't tell me much. If you think you're going to turn me into some frilly debutante, you might want to reconsider that gross error in judgment."

"No, this is elegant and very feminine, but the goal is for you to be a real lady insofar as Melanie is concerned."

Audrey sighed. "Okay, so what's first?"

Darla grinned happily and handed her friend the shopping bag. At the taller girl's questioning look, she giggled. "Undies, silk stockings and heels. The whole deal, you know. Jane never does things by halves, you know."

"Oh, I know," the brunette agreed as she reluctantly took the bag. "How come you keep trying to dress me?"

The question seemed to bring Darla up short, and Audrey would later swear that in that instant, despite the perfectly coiffed hair, lovely dress and artistic makeup, she had no doubt of the innate masculinity of the person opposite her. "Probably," Darryl's voice answered her softly, "because it's . . . safer than the converse."

*Converse? What the hell would that be?* Audrey asked herself, then answered her own unspoken question. The converse of dressing her would be . . . undressing her. Open-mouthed, Audrey tried to find an answer to that, but her brain refused to engage. "Ummm, be right back," she muttered as she turned and scurried to her bedroom.

"I'll help you with your makeup when you're done so put on a robe," Darla's laughing voice called after her.



Chapter 11 ~ Insight and Breakthrough


Seasons House, Master Apartment ~ W-Hour Minus 2:50

Art sighed as he snapped on his cummerbund in front of his waist and then spun it around his torso.

"You do that so well. Must be all that practice with brassieres," Jane teased as she came up and turned her back to him. "Zip me?"

"One of my favorite things," he assured her as he put one hand on the zipper tab and the other around her small waist. Jane shivered as he pressed his lips to the especially sensitive spot between her shoulder-blades just before covering it with the nylon closure. "Remember how Audrey looked that night she came to dinner? That black silk dress with the red-trimmed bolero jacket that showed off her waist so well?"

"It wasn't her waist that was showed off by that dress," Jane snapped, then smiled with unaccustomed sheepishness as she got control of remembered irritation.

"Well, Darryl does like those colors on her," Art teased.

"And Darryl DOES like those incredible legs that short skirt showed off so . . . incredibly," Jane sighed with just a twinge of remembered jealousy as well.

"It wasn't that short," Art said. "After all, you bought it for her."

"Yes, I did," admitted Jane, then she smirked and said, "At Darla's, that is, Darryl's urging. I didn't realize how short it would look with her . . . height until we already had it home."

"Our child is a bit manipulative at times," Art said with ponderous gravity - totally undermined by the twinkle in his eyes as he mused, "I wonder where he gets it from."

"I wouldn't know," Jane declared grandly, right before she lost control of a very undignified giggle. "At least she hadn't forgotten her manners, though she did use the wrong fork once or twice."

"Darling, when you put out those forty piece place settings, *I* mess up which utensil to use when sometimes, and Melanie was too out of it to notice anyway. She was too busy trying to slide under the table whenever Audrey so much as looked at her, let alone talk to her."

Jane shook her head at the memory. "Even when she tried to compliment the poor dear. You know, I nearly changed my mind during the desert course."

"Changed your mind?" Art asked as he reached for his waist coat.

"About the plan Darla came up with. I almost didn't go through with it. It was a long shot, you know."

"What changed your mind?"

Jane smiled weakly. "I couldn't think of anything that had any better chance of working. So, when we'd all finished our desert, I just went ahead with it . . . "

~----------------~

Seasons House, Formal Dining Room ~ W-Day Minus 142

"I must check on something in my office, ladies," Jane said as she delicately folded her napkin. "Melanie? Since it is Darla's turn to help Marie in the kitchen, I would like you to entertain our guest in the music room until I can rejoin you."

"Yes, Ma'am," the beskirted boy said quietly before turning silver-gray eyes toward Audrey. "Would you please follow me, Miss Rockwell?"

Giving Jane a 'be-it-on-your-head' look after Melanie had turned her head, Audrey rose from her own seat. "Sounds lovely, Melanie, but could you please call me Audrey? 'Miss Rockwell' makes me sound as old as Ms. Thompson."

The pair walked down the front hall and into the darkly lit room. Melanie palmed a switch and the crystal chandelier flared to life.

"My, that's better," Audrey said, wondering just what the hell she was supposed to do with Jane's cross-dressed student. *Well, Darryl said I was supposed to compliment her, so. . . ,* "I really do like that color on you, Melanie. Blondes are lucky that way. I could never wear that color as well as you do."

Something strange flashed in the girl-boy's eyes, something dark and cold. "Look, she's not here, so you can quit with the oh-so-nice comments, okay? You arrived on the same train as I did."

*Uh oh,* Audrey thought. "Umm, I beg your pardon. I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."

"Bull! You know I'm a boy under all this junk, just like the Thompson woman, Darla and Marie know. I SAW you leave with Darla at the train station and I don't forget seeing drop-dead gorgeous women, okay? Especially when they move like a panther on the prowl. I don't know what this is all about - Ms. Thompson not picking on me during dinner, and you and Darla saying such nice stuff. . ," Melanie paused, her brow lining in a frown. "That's it, isn't it? This is the latest attempt to convince me I can make it on the outside, isn't it." she asserted with no question implied.

"Well, I can't pretend to know what this is all about," Audrey temporized, trying to think of something to say. "But if by making it you mean looking like a real girl, I honestly don't see what your problem is."

"Right," Melanie snorted.

"Oh for goodness sake!" Audrey reached out and grabbed Melanie's arm right above the elbow and frog-walked her over to the large mirror behind the piano. "Look at us!" she ordered. "Tell me what you see there!"

"You and me," she replied. "I see you and me."

"You're waffling. I see two girls - one kinda big and tall, but the other one is ALSO over-the-top cute. Look at those full, soft lips. Look at that cute face. Look at that slender, graceful figure. You make a prettier girl than Darla and until tonight, I would have said that was just plain impossible. What I DON'T see is anybody any observer would think is a boy!"

Audrey interrupted her recitation of Melanie's attractiveness when, instead of reassuring the boy-girl, her words had the opposite effect. Melanie's eyes were widening in panic, her pupils wildly-dilated, her breath panting way too quickly.

"She wants me to go out with her. .in public. . like THIS. .and I can't! Do you hear me? I just CAN'T!"

"Hey, Melanie, calm down," Audrey ordered as she put her hand on the student's shoulder. "It's okay. Look, what's the worst that could happen? Go out with her and do what she says. If someone figures out you're a boy, the jig is up. No big deal. No one knows you in this town anyway, and she won't be able to do it to you ever again."

Melanie started shaking visibly, eyes darting frantically about. "Oh, God . . . no . . . he's out there . . . he'll find me . . . I can't . . . lips like that . . . cute, you said . . . he'll say I did it . . . deliberately . . that I WANT . . wanted . .him to. . .again. . oh God, ohGod, ohGodohGodohGod . . ."

Audrey was beside her in an instant. "Hey, easy. Calm down." Thinking quickly, she reached over to the phone and hit the intercom button for the kitchen. "Marie, the music room. I need you!"

"Don't tell Ms. Thompson," Melanie rasped, rationality coming back into the raccoon-like eyes. "Don't tell her, please."

Audrey saw that the girl-boy would go back over the edge unless she promised. "Okay. Just calm down."

"You won't tell, right? You won't? She'll send me away if she decides I can't make it here," her breathing became rasping gasps and the hands she clutched at Audrey's arms were like claws, pincering into the taller girl's flesh on each halting inhalation and exhalation. . . "I'll go to prison if I can't stay here. I've read about it. . It'll be worse there,. . . all of the others there. . .like HIM . . .oh GOD, you CAN'T TELL ANYONE!"

"I won't," Audrey reaffirmed just as Marie, followed closely by Darla and Jane burst into the room. "She had an anxiety attack, Ms. Marie," she said, still rubbing Melanie's back.

"I'll see to her," Marie assured Audrey as she reached down to help Melanie to her feet. "Come along, Melanie. Let's get you into bed."

Jane watched as her friend helped her newest student out of the room, but she didn't say a word until she heard the faint sound of a second floor door opening and then closing. "What happened?" she asked tightly.

"She, I mean, he knew I wasn't an outsider. He saw me leave with Darla from the train station," she told Jane as her mind raced to find a way to deal with this situation. *I told Melanie I wouldn't tell. I'm not even really sure I know what happened. I just think I do. Damn!* "Why is she. . . I mean, he here?"

"I asked you what happened, Audrey."

"I asked you a question, too, Ms. Jane, and I won't answer yours until I am satisfied with your answer to mine."

Jane's immediate angry retort was swallowed before it escaped. For the first time, Audrey saw real pain in the auburn-haired woman's eyes as her shoulders slumped. "I suppose I deserved that, after betraying your own trust."

She straightened though, and said, "But we never revealed your own secrets to anyone not part of the team trying to help you. I must insist, for Melanie's sake, that you tell me what happened - regardless of why Melanie came to us - unless you are willing to fully commit to helping her as part of the team."

"Commit?" asked Audrey.

"Commit to, among other things, doing whatever is necessary to help the student, even if there is a risk - or the certainty - of pain to yourself. That will, as a minimum, include a promise never to reveal Melanie's secrets, not the one that brought her here any more than the nature of her . . . experiences here."

"That's a pretty blank check."

"Yes. It is," Jane declared relentlessly.

Audrey glanced at Darla. There was no hint of demand or duty in Darla's eyes, at least not any demand on Audrey, but there was clear agreement with Jane in her determined expression. After a quick, probably unconscious glance up to where Melanie had disappeared, Audrey looked at Jane and nodded.

"Very well. Melvin has recently become unpredictably violent. He was convicted as a juvenile for assault and battery using a baseball bat with no justification except that his target 'asked for it.' It represented such a radical change that the court felt there was hope that his behavior might be turned around using my program. I am attempting to teach him other ways of dealing with the emotions that fuel the violence."

"And what you do, are doing, really works?" Audrey was dubious.

"It really works, Rocky," Darla said firmly, using Audrey's old nickname to remind her of her own early experiences with Jane. "I've worked with almost a dozen guys over my years with Momma-Jane, and while it's been a close thing once or twice, the program has worked for all of them."

Audrey regarded Darla with cool eyes for a moment, before turning back to face Jane. "I promised her. . him that I would not tell."

Jane nodded, her own eyes shifting momentarily to her child. "Then you have to make a decision, don't you? I cannot help Melvin if I don't know what is behind his anxiety attacks. If I cannot help him, the court-authorized suspension of his sentence to juvenile prison will be vacated."

*That's what he meant about going to prison if Jane can't help him, and if I am right about what he said next, that is exactly the worst place they could send him. DAMMIT!*

"You trusted me once, Audrey. Help me help this child," Jane entreated softly.

Some primordial stress reflex triggered Audrey's abdomen to cramp and stomach to burn as she considered the impossible choice she faced. *Why,* she thought angrily, *why did I ever agree to keep Melanie's secret? If I tell Jane, now, it will be a betrayal, not only of Melanie, but of my own code. I've NEVER broken a promise like that. Never! You can't be a little bit of a liar, a little bit dishonorable. Even when Miss Phoebe Elizabeth was ranting about how despicable I would be if I didn't live up to the name Chastity, even when I was holding everyone away by being the tough-as-nails Rocky, I was always true to what *I* thought was right.*

Audrey stole a glance at Darla, saw the support there - all she had to do was ask, but she couldn't. This was something SHE had to do and so she looked away again. *But you can't just stand by and let Melanie suffer either, Rockwell,* she chided herself. *Just so you can tell yourself you've never told a lie. Or worse, have her sent to prison where they will REALLY destroy her.* The memory of the pretty girl, all but collapsing in panic at her feet, pounded in Audrey's heart and stirred the growing fire in her belly, for all that she looked so cooly elegant to the waiting Jane and Darla. *Right is right, and honor demands . . ,* she tried to convince herself.

And finally failed. *That's garbage and you know it, Rockwell, because Melanie's reasoning is . . . flawed. Her judgment on what is right is . . . wrong. Her demand for secrecy is harming her more - WILL harm her more than the threat that she feared so desperately.*

Though it made her feel like something pure was being shattered within her soul - the sharp-edged shards cutting deeply into things she had considered sacred - Audrey finally looked back to Jane. "I think," she began, her voice sounding very unsteady to her own ears, "that you had better get him in to see a psychological therapist who specializes in dealing with serious adolescent emotional trauma. That kid has been badly molested by a man, and maybe even raped."

Her stomach twisted again, forcing Audrey to take a deep, calming breath before she could haltingly begin to detail the entire encounter. Her continuing internal struggles distracted Audrey, and so she never knew how thankful she should be that the building inferno in Ms. Jane Thompson's eyes had never, ever been directed at her.









Chapter 12 ~ Monsters in the Darkness


Seasons House, The Guest Room ~ W-Hour Minus 2:30

"Darnit, Marie!" Audrey complained for what had to be the tenth time that morning. "I don't see why I have to be cooped up in here for HOURS before the ceremony! I mean, I know there's the special undies and all that stuff, but still, it's just clothes."

"Just clothes, she says," Marie complained, her eyes raised to heaven. "Just clothes. We are discussing a designer gown hand-fitted to your own lovely body. . .,"

"Don't remind me!" Audrey glared. "Some of the pin-holes in my butt still haven't healed completely."

"A veil made of imported hand-tatted lace," Marie continued as if she had not been so rudely interrupted, "Lingerie that is so light and delicate as to make a woman sigh with pleasure and a man weak with longing and you have the temerity to refer to this every young girl's dream ensemble as 'just clothes'?"

"Okay, so they're really nice 'just clothes'," the tall, dark-haired beauty smiled. "But it shouldn't take more than a half hour, three quarters of an hour tops to get rigged out in all that stuff."

"Mon Dieu, the girl is hopeless. Getting yourself transformed on a day such as this, petite, is not 'getting dressed', it is an experience, a deeply meaningful and joyous once-in-a-lifetime indulgence - if you are very, very lucky. Do not shortchange yourself."

"Well, if you put it that way," Audrey gave in with only a touch of ill grace. "So, when do we get started?"

"When your Maman returns with the video camera."

That wasn't quite enough to satisfy the girl. Over the past week, she had come to know her Mother in ways that she never had before. Prudence had been afraid her daughter would never be able to forgive her for inflicting Phoebe Elizabeth on the young, impressionable Rocky. However, that fear had evaporated far more easily than anyone had dared to hope for the simple reason that Audrey would never have been sent to Seasons House otherwise.

Audrey knew that she and her Mother were well on the way to becoming friends, and that was wonderful.

Maybe it should have been enough, but the waiting was just too frustrating. Bomber-sized butterflies were starting to strafe her stomach but she was determined NOT going to let that be a problem. Still, an ounce, or several, of prevention would be a very good idea.

"Marie, do you have any ginger ale? I think I could use some."

Marie smiled and conjured a glass of amber liquid, smiling with gentle pride at having anticipated such a need.

"This is a lot different than that time after my nearly disastrous dinner with Melanie, eh, Tante Marie?"

~----------------~

Seasons House Stable Apartment ~ W-Day Minus 141

*It's almost one in the morning,* Marie thought as she stifled an urge to wring her hands as she stood outside the apartment door, *surely she's been in her bed for hours by now.* But Darla had said that Audrey might be brooding after telling Jane about Melanie's anxiety attack - and her thoughts about what had caused it. *And who wouldn't be upset by such evil, I would like to know,* Marie thought, her own emotions still roiling.

Softly, she knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She considered ringing the doorbell, but refrained in case Audrey was asleep. Hesitantly, she reached out to check the door knob and was surprised to find the door unlocked. *Well, I'll just take a quick look to check on her,* she thought, *and come back to talk to her tomorrow if she's asleep.*

Peaking around the now partially opened door, Marie saw a halo of light thrown by a single lamp in the back of the apartment's living room. She crept in and saw Audrey, sprawled on the sofa, a half-empty glass of amber liquid in one hand. Audrey's head came up and shadow-darkened eyes opened, watching Marie. "You're not who I was expecting," the younger woman said flatly.

"And you were expecting?" Marie responded, moving in to where she could get a better look at the girl. She'd shed the pretty bolero jacket, Marie noted, and the heels, but she still wore the black and red dress, although it might never be same again, rumpled as it was. Marie knew just how difficult it could be to get bad wrinkles and sharp creases out of silk.

"Jane or Darla. . .Darryl," Audrey murmured, then motioned to the chair with the glass she held in her hand. "Have a seat."

Marie did as she was bid, and then turned her full attention to Audrey. There were dark-tinted tracks down her cheeks leading to large smudged areas where a careless hand had tried to rub away tears. "Should you be drinking?" she finally asked, if only for something to say.

Audrey looked at the glass she held in her hand quizzically, and then understood the question. "It's ginger ale," she replied. "Flat ginger ale, actually, to soothe my stomach. I'm still in training and besides, I wouldn't know how to work up a good drunk if I wanted one."

That effectively ended any further conversation between the two women for several minutes until Audrey finally asked, "Why are you here?"

"For you," Marie said simply. "We were worried about how you might be feeling. Darla asked me to come down."

"Why not come himself?"

"She's needed for Melanie right now," Marie said. "Diana is very good at what she does with troubled children who've been subjected to real abuse, but Darla understands such things better than anyone else in the house. Jane wanted her nearby in case Melanie. . . well, in case Melanie needed someone who understood."

"In case *Melanie* needed someone," Audrey repeated bitterly. "Darryl is avoiding me again."

Marie bristled momentarily, but then saw the hurt in Audrey's eyes. *Why, she was hoping he'd come to her,* Marie realized. *But why? For him to comfort her or so that she could berate him for putting her in that situation?* "He's not avoiding you, cherie," Marie said staunchly.

"Well, that is what it looks like from my perspective, Marie."

"I think you know better than that, cherie. Darla felt that Melanie might need her and so she stayed, even though she was concerned about you."

"Why should he be concerned about me?" Audrey asked flippantly.

"Why are you sitting here, brooding in the dark?"

"Touche, Marie. So why is he staying up there?"

"Because he feels a commitment to her. Because she trusts her big sister more than anyone else in the house. After the revelations tonight, that trust is something Jane and Diana will need if they are to help her."

"Trust? How can she . . HE trust anyone around here after . . after what I did tonight?"

"Did you break faith with Melanie to help yourself in some way? Or was it truly to help Melanie, to prevent harm to her?" Marie asked gently.

Audrey regarded the French Canadian woman for several moments. Of all the people at Seasons House, she had been the most caring, even in the early days when Audrey had been, she admitted, a real pain in the butt. "You make is sound so simple, Marie. It's not, though. You know something? I've never broken my word in my entire life before tonight."

"As Jane said earlier, you had to make a choice tonight, a difficult one to be sure. Personally, I am positive you made the right one."

"But I told him . . I PROMISED him that I would keep his bloody secret!"

"To what point, cherie?" Marie asked quietly. "Which do you think was the correct decision for Melanie?"

"I spilled it all to Jane, didn't I?" Audrey snapped, eyes glinting in the dim light.

Marie stood and walked over to sit beside the tall young woman. "I believe that is what is called an ethical dilemma, petite. Do you keep your word to a child, or do you take action that, while it breaks your word, might save that child's life?"

"THAT'S NOT FAIR!" Audrey felt the fire of renewed tears building behind her eyelids.

Marie reached out to stroke the younger woman's sable-deep hair. "No one said life was fair, petite."

That simple touch of sympathy opened Audrey's floodgates. "Oh, Marie, I messed up with Melanie so badly! I should have seen her . . . his distress. I was so insensitive to what my words were doing to her that I let that girl collapse in terror right in front of me, with me pouring fuel on the fire the whole time. No one should have to go through that and I DID it to her!"

*So, here is what has driven you to brood in the dark, cherie. Not so much that you broke your word, but that you broke through Melanie's secret. You saw the agony that was there and thought it was your fault. Well, we will have none of that!* "But why do you care? She's not your child, not your responsibility."

"Because I . . because no one . . . because everyone deserves more love and attention than that, more sensitivity on the part of those around them," the words and self-recrimination poured out of Audrey.

Marie rose and moved over to the sofa, pulling the distraught girl into her arms. "I know, dear. That's the hardest part of Jane's program because you know that they need love, need positive attention, but when they arrive here they aren't ready to accept those gifts. In some cases, the boys need to be tenderized a bit first, and believe me, Jane is very good at that with most boys. This one, however, seems to have different problems and different needs. He requires something more than Jane's usual program, and now, thanks to you, we will see that he gets it."

"I felt like such a beast when I realized just how terrified he was, how frightened I'd made him," Audrey sobbed into Marie's bosom.

"The terror and the fear were already there, dear, put there by someone else. What you did was break inside so that it could come out and stop festering, like lancing a boil. You did well, Audrey, very well."

"You're sure?"

"Without that breakthrough, nothing good could have come of any of this. Now, we can help the boy and find the animal who hurt him."

*Someone did that to Darryl,* Audrey's mind snarled, remembering those dark and frightening revelations of only a few months before. *THAT's why he wanted to be Darla more than he wanted to be Darryl. If that low-life who did that to him was still alive I'd. . I'd. . .* and then words failed her. With an effort, she calmed herself only to have another revelation. "That's why Darla tells Jane other students' confidences, isn't it?

Marie nodded. "In part, anyway, although there is much more to the role of big sister than that. Bad things have to have happened to make children violent or malicious or evil. Sometimes those things can, as they obviously have with Melanie, slip to the surface or fester in the background. Much of the big sister's job is make sure Jane knows such things so that we do not make things worse."

"Darryl told me he had to watch out for . . . suicide, that it was why he had to . . be Darla. I thought it was just, sort of, an excuse."

Marie shook her head. "It's not an excuse, but a real need. Especially tonight, evidently."

"Oh, Marie, I have really messed things up," Audrey cried.

"Nonsense," Marie chided. "I just told you that you did well!"

"Not with Melanie, with Darryl. I . . . I didn't understand. Didn't want to understand. I . . . I owe him a huge apology. I dumped on him for doing exactly the same thing that I did tonight to Melanie."

"Do you regret what you did tonight?"

Audrey batted at the tears with the back of her hand. "I regret that there wasn't any other way to do what had to be done, Tante Marie, which is basically what Darryl said to me when we talked after I found out about Darla. Oh, God, Marie, what if he won't forgive me?"

*Right, like that will happen.* "Oh, I don't think you have anything to worry about there."

"I don't?" Audrey sniffled, looking up with hope and tears shining in her dark eyes.

"Not if I know my boy at all, m'enfant. Just don't make it TOO huge an apology. It will do him good to have to keep working at it."

"Working at what?" Audrey sniffed, still looking up into Marie's suddenly laughing eyes.

"As if you don't know, Miss. As I said, it will do him good to work for it, and it will do you a great deal of good to let him, eh?"

"All right," Audrey replied, not at all certain what she was agreeing to, but feeling too exhausted to worry about it anymore that night. "Melanie is going to be all right?" she asked again.

"Thanks to you, petite. I'm glad you've finally decided to truly become one of us. Now, come along and I will tuck you into bed." Marie ordered as she helped her girl to her feet. "And none of that running tomorrow. . err. . today. You will sleep yourself out and then present yourself, properly dressed mind you, in my kitchen for breakfast. Got that?"

Audrey let herself be pulled to her feet and then kissed Marie's cheek. "Got it, Tante Marie."
--



Chapter 13 ~ Penance and Forgiveness


W-Hour Minus 2:15

Art stuck his head into the room where his son and his guests were dressing. "How's it going, fellas?"

The three young men looked up and grinned at Art. Michael and Kenneth had been lounging in their robes, their own tuxedos still hanging and encased in plastic, while Darryl was already dressed except for his tuxedo jacket. "Hi, Dad," Darryl called.

"Aren't you guys supposed to be getting dressed?"

"Doesn't take so long when you don't have to put on makeup and curl your hair," Michael chuckled. "We have plenty of time."

Art pulled up a hassock and sat down on it. "So what are we talking about?"

"We've been pumping Dar here," Kenneth waggled his brows lasciviously, "Trying to find out how long it took him and hard he had to work to finally be restored to the lovely Audrey's good graces."

"Yeah, son," Art chimed in. "You never shared that with me, either. Come on, at least give us the good parts. It will soothe the bruises your mother regularly puts on my male ego while giving these two pause for reflection on the dangers of wedded bliss."

"Too late for me, I'm afraid," Michael sad with great solemnity. "Janice popped the question last night and I accepted."

Kenneth thumped his smaller friend on the back soundly. "Way to go, bro!" he exulted. "But it sure took you two long enough to make it all neat and legal."

"You think I haven't learned anything about contrary women in my short life?" Mike snorted. "Between my Mother and Jane, I knew I had to be very cautious about this, especially with someone like Janice."

"It's not like you could just tell her you were getting married and get away with it," Darryl teased. "Not with that one!"

"And you could with yours? Right - pull the other one, little brother," Michael refuted. "Anyway, I had a hell of a time getting her to think this was all her idea!"

"Well, congratulations, Michael," Art said before pinning Darryl with a steely glare, "but I still haven't heard any of the juicy details from Darryl yet."

"Lord," Darryl laughed, "But you do love gossip, Dad."

"Well, what do you expect?" Diana's cattiest purr answered him.

"Okay, okay. Things came to a head a couple of days after the night Audrey had that breakthrough with Melanie. . . "

~---------------~

W-Day Minus 138 - Running Trail in the Vicinity of Seasons House

Audrey heard the familiar light quick steps of Darla hurrying to catch up with her and felt a surge of relief wash over her. Moments later, the pair were running easily together.

They ran in their now-usual companionable silence for a couple of miles, Darla letting Audrey pick their route. "I.. .uhmm, missed you the last couple of mornings," Audrey finally said.

"I missed being here with you," Darla replied. "But Melanie needed pretty much round the clock observation once she realized we knew at least generally what had happened to Melvin. Things got a little tense there for a while."

Actually, they'd had the student on a suicide watch while Art, still as Diana, had worked feverishly to stabilize the boy enough that they could begin to work with him to begin healing the mental and emotional damage. Jane had been particularly upset, seeing the potential for another Michael.

"They're better now? I mean, you're here, so things must be better, right?"

"We've made a big step," Darla admitted. "He cried for real last night and told Diana the whole story while Jane held him. It's.. .well, it's pretty awful, but Art says that facing it, talking about it is the first step towards beating it. That and the fact that we now know who did what to him. Judge Ruth is already going after that bastard. Anyway, he's resting now and Diana thinks the worst is over. It'll still be a little hairy by times, but the worst is over."

"I guess he'll be back to Melvin then," Audrey observed.

"Maybe, maybe not. Diana thinks that being Melanie might help, at least for a while - might make him able to look at Melvin in the third person for a while, get some objectivity about what happened. And the discipline of the masquerade will distract him a little. We'll play it by ear. If it doesn't work, Jane will have him in pants in a heartbeat."

"Does he. . .," Audrey started to ask, faltered, and then forced herself to face the question. "Does he hate me? For. . for breaking my promise?"

Darla glanced at the taller girl and saw the anguish on that lovely face. "No," she said firmly. "You were a scapegoat for a while, to be sure, someone to blame for us knowing the secret he never wanted revealed because it made him ashamed."

Audrey glanced quickly at Darla, then said quietly, "There's no reason to be ashamed, not when someone bigger assaults you. The bastard that DID it should be ashamed, not the victim."

Darla's gentle smile said more about her own peace of mind than her words. "I know that, Audrey, but it will take a while before Mel's heart truly absorbs it. It's even worse for guys, you know. Less 'excusable' to be that weak. But sometimes it . . . happens."

Before Audrey could reply, Darla shrugged and said, "Anyway, part of last night's breakthrough was that he said he was so thankful you cared enough to break your promise and tell Jane."

Audrey gave a quiet prayer of thanks and smiled weakly. "I'm glad," she said, her voice barely audible over the sounds of the feet on the trail.

False dawn was beginning to compete with the moon as they broke out of the woods and onto the rocky beach fronting the lake where months earlier Darla had been thrown from her horse.

To Darla's surprise, Audrey zeroed in on the exact spot where the accident had occurred and came to a stop. Running in place to keep warm, Darla eyed her companion, but said nothing.

"Do you mind if we stop here for a few minutes? I. . . I need to talk to you."

Even if the boy-girl not been predisposed to giving Audrey whatever she wanted, the entreaty in her voice would still have won the day. "Okay," Darla replied, "Melanie won't need me this morning anyway, but could we keep walking? I haven't run the past couple of days and I'll stiffen up."

Audrey shrugged and moved to fall in step with Darla as she began walking down the rocky beach. "Ummmm. . .," she started to say something and then bit her lip, looking at her companion with a worried look.

Darla caught the look, and the gentle sensitivity that made Darla so effective and Darryl so unique came to the fore. "It's okay, Audrey. Whatever it is you can just say it. It won't change how much I . . how I feel about you."

"Well, I know this will sound kind of strange, and at least part of it is because I don't understand, . . still, how you. . I mean. . ."

Beautifully manicured fingers touched the taller girl's lips, stemming the flow of words. "You're dithering, Auds," Darla said. "Just spit it out."

"Can-I-talk-to-both-Darryl-and-Darla-when-you're-Darla?" she shot out the syllables in a rush of air.

Darla grinned, only Audrey immediately recognized it as one she'd seen so often on Darryl's face - *Like right before the time he ravished my mouth with that damned kiss that still wakes me up at night.* "Regardless of what persona is obvious to the casual observer, Audrey, you always talk to both of us when you talk to one of us. Like I tried to tell you once, even I'm not sure where Darla ends and Darryl begins, and vice versa."

Audrey nodded, but didn't say anything more for several minutes. Darla let the silence go unbroken except for the soft sounds of the lake waters against the shore. She could practically feel the tension in her friend grow as the other girl struggled with the words she wanted to say, but knew that this was something Audrey needed to do without prompting and without help.

"I'm sorry," Audrey finally sighed out.

Hope bubbled up inside Darla, but she ruthlessly tamped it back down. This was no time to jump to conclusions and find a bottomless canyon yawning beneath her. "Oh? For what?"

Audrey shrugged. "Everything, I guess."

"That's pretty far-reaching," Darla teased, unable to resist trying to help this woman she/he loved by lightening the mood at least a little.

With a half smile of gratitude, Audrey continued. "Well, mostly, for the way I accused you and Darryl of betraying me when I found out about the masquerade. I'm sorry, Darryl. I. . .I understand now. . more than I did before. I. . . I know you had to do what you did, and more, that it was right that you do what you did."

"Why the change of heart, Audrey?" Darla asked, once again very serious. "Because the other night you decided you had to do the same thing you accused me of and therefore it must be okay?"

"THAT'S NOT IT!!" she cried back, feeling the sudden and unexpected burn of tears at the top of her eyes. Furiously, she blinked, trying to will them away as she stopped and faced Darla - a Darla who, despite the stylishly feminine workout clothes, suddenly seemed extremely masculine to her. *How does he DO that?!?*

Darryl simply continued to watch the dark-haired beauty until she blushed. Then she straightened her shoulders and nodded. "Touche, Darryl, you're right. Until I faced that situation myself I didn't think it was . . valid. I thought you could, that you should *always* be able to find a way to . . keep your promises. Only, um, dishonest people wouldn't. Or that is was a sign of stupidity to make a promise you couldn't keep. And I wasn't either of those. I thought. "

"No, you're not," the Darla-with-Darryl's-voice replied.

Audrey smiled shyly at her running mate, still trying to find a way to express things that were hard for her to admit. "I couldn't understand why or how breaking a promise could ever be the right thing to do, until, well, until the other night." She took a deep breath. "I am sorry for the way I acted the days before I left. Even though I don't think I was like Melanie," she added a bit defensively.

"No student is ever really like any other student," Darla said, now back in character. "It is one of the few absolutes I've learned working with Jane. In your case, we just didn't know, at least in the beginning."

"I can understand that."

"So, does that mean I'm forgiven?" Darla wheedled, batting her long lashes coquettishly at Audrey.

Audrey laughed. "Of course you are," she said, and then remembered Marie's admonition. "For that, anyway."

"What does THAT mean?" Darla demanded, relief washing over her at the playfulness in her beloved's manner.

"Well, you have a lot of OTHER things to be forgiven for," she teased as she turned and began to walk back towards the trail.

"Like what!?!?" Darla squealed as she moved in front of Audrey, her hands challengingly on her hips.

"Oh, like looking at the art class, or copping that feel at the dress shop. I can think of a LOT more," Audrey laughed down at her more diminutive friend.

"I did NOT cop a feel!!"

"Hey, I was there, remember? And *I* certainly remember the feel of your hands on my . . .," at this Audrey interrupted herself to run her hands sensually down her sleek curves, throwing a final little hip wiggle at her dumbfounded friend before quickly dodging around her and then dashing down the trail.



Chapter 14 ~ Women Rule with Women's Rules


W-Hour Minus 1:55 - Darryl's Room at Seasons House

"Win a few, lose a few, brother," Michael teased Darryl as he helped him arrange his tie and collar.

"Oh, but I had won the big one," the smaller young man replied, "and I knew it."

"So how did you earn forgiveness for those other transgressions?" Kenneth asked.

"How else have men earned forgiveness when their women are feeling somewhat put-upon?" Art put in as the voice of experience. "He groveled."

"Well, not quite," Darryl grinned back at his father. "But it did seem to take quite a bit of courting to work my way through the list. Flowers, candy, dates."

"Which is exactly what you wanted to do anyway," Art added.

"Sure was, although slipping out to change into Darryl so that we could go out for those dates was a colossal pain in the butt.

"I don't get it," Kenneth put in. "Why keep Darla around if Mel wasn't really suited for the normal Thompson shock treatment?"

"Mom didn't want Melanie to know about Darryl for most of that time."

"Ahhh. So, how did you finally get your lady's unfortunately nude ring finger tagged with your brand?" Michael asked.

"God, don't ever call it that in Audrey's hearing, or Momma Jane for that matter," Darryl breathed and then laid his right hand across his heart before continuing. "It is a symbol of my undying love, commitment and devotion."

"And it just happens to let any other predatory male know that this one is already claimed?" Michael teased.

"Just between us guys, yeah, but if you're planning on giving one to Janice, I'd recommend keeping that particular purpose to yourself."

"Do I look crazy to you, bro?" Michael retorted indignantly.

"Does Mom still have this room rigged for surveillance, Dad?" Darryl asked for effect and was pleased when Michael blanched. "No? Oh, okay. Anyway, I did the deed on Easter Sunday. Darla and Melanie had to ride one of the floats in the parade. We were all at the Chalet for the pre-parade 'do's and facelifts. . . "

~-------------~

W-Day Minus 120 - Marisha Chalet

"Your usual magnificent job, Caro, Sandy," Darla said as she preened in the mirror holding the exaggeratedly floppy hat above her head. "I look great, even with this hat that could double as a spinnaker for an Americas Cup contender."

"You're so good at this you're no challenge at all anymore," Sandy needled. "Lord, you know more tricks than Caro and I do."

Darla only grinned, long past any reaction to Sandy's caustic tongue. "Why, Sandy, that's because I AM better than you two," she said coyly, before continuing, "At least at the tricks I need for this. Heck, you two do this, what? Once or twice a week at most? Forty weeks out of the year when Jane has a student? During that same time, I do it daily when there's a student about."

Caro grinned. "True enough, dear, but you are the best, and after Michael, that is saying a good deal. It's like you really were meant to be both Darryl and Darla."

"I think so, Caro," Darla agreed, putting down the hat.

"What I can't figure out is why you two are doing the parade thing. From what I've gotten from Jane, Melanie has made the turn and she's only keeping Mel in skirts because it helps with the other . . . therapy." Caro said.

"God," Sandy added darkly, "But I am SO glad they got their hands on that bastard who ra. . .ummm, hurt her and that Mel didn't have to go testify. Hell, how could he get away with that shit?"

Darla shrugged. "Local politician in a town with a serious 'good old boy's network' to protect him. Art says that losing his regular victim when the court sent Mel here made him careless," Darla added. "He went after another kid and that kid's dad caught him and called in the cops. They chased him in his car and think he ran his car off that cliff intentionally."

"Politicians," Sandy snorted with disgust and would have gone on except for the knock at the door to the back room.

A dark-haired head poked around the door. "Done yet?" Audrey asked.

Sandy and Caro shared a mischievous grin that Darla, whose attention was completely focused on Audrey, missed. "Sure," Carolyn smiled as she took Sandy's arm and hustled her slightly resistant partner to the door. "We've done all we can for this one, and we do need to, uuhh. . go pin Melanie's hat to her head. C'mon, Sandy, you can make sure I get it on straight."

Audrey slipped into the room, a pillar of darkness in the bright room so redolent with the odors of ultimate femininity. She was dressed from head to toe in black - snug turtleneck, black denim jacket and jeans, even the pennies in her black loafers were corroded. It was an outfit Rocky might have favored, but no way would THIS woman have been recognized as that troubled, femininity-denying teen who had first come to Jane. She looked gorgeous, but then, she always did to the shorter-statured girl-boy.

"You look great," Audrey said with a smile, perfectly at ease now with this facet of her courtier/suitor. "Blue silk and lace suit you."

"I still think you should have been on the float, too," Darla grumbled.

"Ah, but I am neither Jane's assistant nor her student," Audrey repeated her successful argument from when Darla had tried to trap the tall brunette into participating in the parade. "In fact, I don't see why Jane is having you two do it now. It's not like Melanie is under the gun, or even following Jane's normal program as you've explained it to me."

"Jane just likes her men in skirts," Darla smirked.

"Surely that's not all, is it?" Audrey was surprised.

"No, but that is probably part of it. She signed us up for this before we really knew what we were dealing with in Mel. Now, she's concerned that they might not be so accommodating in the future if she pulled us out at the last minute. And because, in the back of her mind, this is something of a mid-term exam for Mel to see if she's getting over her fears."

"Any dangers there?"

Darla shook her head. "She's cool, now. If this were a normal program, Jane would be casting about for a new student so that Mel could be Big Sister. Diana and Art think that isn't necessary for Mel, and are instead planning on reintroducing her to her masculine self. Kenneth is going to help with that part - take him to guy things as a guy - like the gym, ball games - that sort of stuff."

"Not Darryl?"

"No, Mel's not ready to know about Darla and Darryl, yet. Maybe a few weeks. In the meantime, I am going to go live in Janice's old house. As Darryl."

"Good, because I have some uses for Darryl, and some plans."

"Oh really?"

"Yup. You've just about worked your way through the list, by the way."

"I have?" Darla fought to keep the elation out of her voice and stay in character.

"Mmmhmmm. . .Almost," Audrey said with heavy emphasis.

"Well, you've never let me see the list," the blonde complained.

"Just the rules, pal. The male shall never know the rules and if the female thinks the male is beginning to know the rules, she should immediately change the rules."

"You've been talking to Marie too much," Darla complained. "So, what's the new rule am I not to know about?"

"Oh, you can know about this one," Audrey smiled, her as she began gliding toward Darla, her movements slow, deliberate, feline. "You see, I've decided that this rule. . ."

Darla felt the deer-in-the-headlights chill wash over her as Audrey continued to close the distance between them until they could feel the whisper of each other's breath on their cheeks. "Yes?"

"Is one that you need to know and follow," she said, a wicked smile on her lovely mouth. "The rule is: You are going to marry me."

Darla felt her mouth fall open, but couldn't seem to pull it closed for several heartbeats. "Marry. . .you?"

"Yep. That's it, Darla. You will marry me." There was a world of confidence and satisfaction in her voice.

"What is this? Some kind of a proposal?"

"Nope." If possible, the grin grew wider. "A proposal is a question. Did you hear any question? I didn't. Besides, Darryl has to ask ME to marry him. Aunt Jane would be horrified if *I* were to do the proposing. It would offend her Victorian sense of rightness."

"Sure it would," Darla muttered. "So I, that is, Darryl, still has to propose, even though you told me I have to marry you?"

"You're not getting out of that," Audrey assured her soon-to-be affianced. "I want it all."

"So why are you telling me now? Why not just tell me the next time we're out as Darryl and Audrey?"

"Because you are Darla now," Audrey replied, all at once very serious. "Because I'm going to marry both of you."

A look of wonder came across Darla's dramatically made up face. "Oh," was all the young person could manage.

"Just wanted you to know," Audrey said. She started to turn to leave and stopped. "And I almost forgot. There is one other thing."

Before the shorter girl could ask or say anything more, Audrey had moved with catlike quickness, sweeping Darla into her arms and bending her over backwards. "Gotcha," Audrey grinned down before proceeding to thoroughly ravish Darla's mouth with her own.

How long the kiss went on, neither participant would ever be sure. Only an overly loud throat-clearing cough brought them back to some semblance of awareness of anything beyond themselves. "So sorry to interrupt, ladies," Sandy said, obviously not in any way sorry. "But Jane is looking for Darla."

Audrey looked over her shoulder at the smirking Sandy and then down at the dazed Darla, still laying over backwards in the taller girl's arms. "Damn, but I have wanted to do that for SO long!" she whispered before helping her fiance to her feet.

"DAMMIT, Darla," Sandy squawked, now truly unhappy. "You've ruined your makeup!!"

"Hmm? Oh. Sor . . . no, dammit, I'm not sorry. Not a bit."

"Oh, never mind," the blond hairdresser said as she let Audrey slip out the door. "Kiss like that ought to muss things up. Get your cute butt over here so I can fix you up again or you'll miss your float. Jane would have my ass."

~----------------~



Chapter 15


"Wheeee," Michael breathed, fanning himself with his hand. "That's quite a story. Guess I know why you were already rigged out in your duds when I got here this morning. Man ought to be in a hurry when he has a woman like that waiting to walk the aisle for him."

"Brother," Darryl said with a secret smile as he looked into the mirror, "You can say that again."

~---------------~

W-Hour Minus 1:00 - Audrey's Room, Seasons House

Comfortably ensconced on the sofa, a well-pleased Jane smiled as she considered the small drama being played out by the other women with her in Audrey's room. Audrey herself was *finally* dressed and peering at her reflection in the full length mirrors that had shown so many of Jane's students' in its silvered depths. The white satin gown was sleekly simple, designed to show off a well-toned body rather than hide it behind bows, tassels, or other frou-frou of the dressmaker's art. The handmade lace veil was old-fashioned, from its seed pearl coronet perched delicately atop Audrey's midnight locks, to the near-floor length hem. When closed, the veil curtained the young woman's face, lending touches of both mystery and shy sensuality to the total picture.

*Something old, something new, something borrowed, something new,* Jane recited as she made visual inventory of her student's ensemble. A gorgeous pair of pearl chandelier earrings, a gift from Prudence, was the 'something new'. Jane had taken one look at those creamy, delicate confections and had run for her own jewelry box to offer the five-stranded pearl choker that even now graced the girl's long, slender throat. *Well, it will be her 'something borrowed' until I give it to her at the reception. I'll have to ask her about the 'old' and 'blue' later on.*

Audrey pirouetted in front of the mirror, making the veil and the gown billow about her like silken clouds. While Jane was very pleased at how well her student navigated in her white heels -for that had been a skill well-learned in Audrey's time at Seasons House - it was that smile of purely feminine delight and anticipation that pleased the teacher the most. That, and the answering smile decorating Pru's visage, not diminished at all by the proud mother's accompanying tears. Mother and daughter were together in this, as they had rarely been in times previous.

"Do that spin again, sweetie," Pru asked as she snatched up her camcorder. "Please?"

"Sure, Mom," Audrey giggled as she complied. "Whatever you say now that I'm no longer bare naked!"

"Naked?!?" Jane sputtered as Marie giggled.

Blushing prettily, Pru gave Jane a sheepish smile. "I, ah, may have gotten a bit carried away before you arrived, Janey," she said, her eyes fixed on the viewfinder.

"Only a little," Marie agreed, tongue firmly in her cheek. "That tape would have been a reverse strip-tease if Audrey hadn't put her foot down. I'm surprised she let the girl bathe without barging in with that camcorder."

"Well, I missed out on having a prom night with her, thanks to that bitch, Phoebe," the Mother of the Bride snarled.

"Ah-ah-ah," Jane chided. "No unhappy thoughts allowed. You have today and that's all the matters now, right?"

"Right," Both Audrey and Prudence chorused before sharing a hug.

"Doesn't she look marvelous, Jane?" Marie asked delightedly. "It's so lovely that we are having this here, at Seasons House, and about time, too," she added, fixing the mistress of Seasons House with an accusatory look.

"Let's not go into that, again, if you please," Jane ordered at her most haughty before relenting. Then her own eyes became mischievous. "However, that reminds me, since I was counting on you to help me in this, Audrey. However did Darryl convince you to submit to . . . to all THIS?"

Audrey tossed her head in apparent mild annoyance that was immediately belied by the happy smile that bid-fair to split her face. "He cheated, that's how!"

"He what?!?!" the three other women spluttered in unison.

"He cheated," Audrey reaffirmed.

"Spill it, girl," Marie ordered imperiously, drawing a giggle from Pru and a startled glance from Jane.

"Oh, all right. Let me see. It was maybe a week after I had let him off the hook so he could finally pop the question. We'd been discussing the wedding plans off and on since I'd said yes . . "

~---------------~

W-Day Minus 93 - Stable courtyard at Seasons House

Seated on the ground, Audrey gracefully folded her torso over her outstretched legs. As she straightened back into an upright sitting position, she cast a dark look at Darla who was stretching out her hamstrings against the wall. "I don't understand why you're being so difficult about this. I thought it was the bride who was supposed to want the works and the groom wanted only to slip away into the night."

"Look, Stretch, if you think I'm going to pass up on a chance to see you in a wedding gown, all lace and satin and . . . oh my," The pretty blonde's face went all dream and unfocused, causing Audrey to swallow very hard. "That will be entirely too spectacular to pass up."

"Spectacle is right," Audrey sniffed. "I'll look like a . . an iceberg or something, sailing down the aisle. I'm not going to give in on this, buster," Audrey warned as she rose to her feet.

"Neither am I, darlin'," Darryl retorted, "And I already let you run the courtship. I get the wedding. Besides, your Mom will love it."

"Right," Audrey said beneath her breath. "Like that has a chance in a hot place of happening."

"You'll just be surprised then," Darla assured her airily.

"I'm not going to do it!"

"Okay, tell you what. Let's make it fair."

"What do you mean, fair?" Audrey asked cautiously. "You've lived with Aunt Jane for too long. I know you've learned something about being sneaky."

"Fair as can be. This morning's run will decide. Winner gets to choose. I'll even let you pick the route."

"You can't beat me. You'll lose for sure."

Darla only shrugged which made Audrey all the more suspicious. "This isn't some type of trick to make me feel guilty so I'll give in eventually, is it? 'Cause I won't," she warned darkly.

"Nope. One race and the issue is decided. If you win, you get to choose. Heck, I even promise not to LET you change your mind after you win."

"Okay," Audrey finally answered. "Here's where we'll go."



Chapter 16 ~ Here Comes the Bride


W-Hour Minus 0:20 - Audrey's Room at Seasons House

Jane couldn't help herself. Laughter bubbled up as she pictured the scene Audrey's words described.

"You knew!" the beautifully dressed young bride-to-be accused her mentor, "You bloody well knew!"

"Of course I did, dear, and so did you. I seem to recall Darla telling you that Darryl ran distances and trained every morning when she recommended him as your training partner."

"But he'd never come close to beating me before that morning," the tall brunette sputtered, still fuming at the defeat.

"He had no reason to finish ahead of you in your little races, dear, at least not until you fell into his little trap that morning," Jane told her. "I fear you are guilty of underestimating your intended, which is a mistake I quit making some time ago."

Marie laughed and said, "Hah, cherie, you fool yourself even yet!"

Jane's eyes flashed for just an instant, then she chuckled and said, "Perhaps you are right."

"Like I said, he cheated," Audrey growled.

"Well, I for one," Prudence put in as she again lifted her camera for yet another photo, "am VERY happy Darryl won. This is simply wonderful!"

Audrey smiled at her Mother, and then went over for a hug. "Yeah, it is," she agreed. "But it will be a cold day in the devil's house before I ever admit that to HIM!"

"I just knew you were going to be a superb student," Jane put in. "As much as I love that young man, he's still a male. I'm glad to see you aren't going to let him get away with such nonsense."

"Well," Audrey averred as she squeezed her Mother's hand affectionately, "Not too often, anyway."

Just then, the door opened and Caitlyn popped in, followed by Janice. "Wow, Audrey, you look great. Hi, Jane, Ms. Rockwell, Marie. You should see the lawn!" Janice, the effervescent love of Michael's life gushed. "Wall-to-wall people and still coming, but the FM crowd is here and seated. This is just so lovely, and I am really glad you asked me to be one of your attendants."

Audrey had come to like this small young woman with the motor stuck in overdrive. It was a strange feeling for her - having real girlfriends who truly liked HER. "Well, I'm glad you were willing."

"Tom and his boy have done wonders with the decorations, Aunt Jane," Caitlyn added. "It's going to be the prettiest wedding I've ever seen. You got real lucky with the weather, too."

Jane sniffed. "*My current biographer told me that was taken care of," was all she'd say as the other women stifled smiles behind gloved hands. "Well, should you not be off finding your seat, Caitlyn?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Right, Aunt Jane," the tiny dancer twinkled and left the room.

Caitlyn had no sooner slipped through the door directly to the garden when there was a knock at the interior door. A curvy brunette with way too much hair poked her head in, then entered with a voluptuous blonde in tow.

"Hey, all a' y'all better be gettin' a move on. The guys are fixin' to swell up and pop like a buncha over-heated horny toads . . . and I DO mean horny. That'd be a terrible waste, don't ya think?"

"Thank you dear," Jane said with a sigh. Texans had . . . distinct ideas on manners - too casual by far for her New England sensibilities, but hearts as big as their sun-baked prairies. "I'm glad you and Kelly could make it."

"Jus' you try and keep us away, Aunt Jane," the leggy - flagrantly so in that tiny skirt - woman said as she moved over for a quick hug. "I guess Kelly 'n I better go find some ice water to throw on them studs until y'all get there, since y'all are way too gorgeous to be hurried. Okay?"

Jane sighed again, but she couldn't keep a grin from twitching the corners of her mouth at that image. "Yes, dear, that would be, ah, helpful."

Jane could only shake her head and smile as the pair sauntered out of the room. "Well, I suppose that means we should take our places, eh? Pru, as Mother of the bride, you need to hustle, as do you," she looked at Marie, "Ms. Organist. C'mon. Let's get this over with!"

Epilogue

W-Hour Plus 5:23 - Hallway Outside the West Terrace Suite, The Greenbrier Resort, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

"Be careful, lover," the order was issued with a low, sensual chuckle that made the bellman's toes want to curl inside his mirror-shined shoes. "I don't want you suffering some kind of. . . debilitating injury. Not after you talked me into waiting for this."

"Not quite your lover yet," her partner murmured softly, "you legitimately white-wearing-hussy-bride, you - but I soon will be."

The woman in the expensive white linen travel suit blushed vividly, which only made her more exotically beautiful. She was tall - in her heels she easily towered over her tuxedoed male companion by a good half foot, but for all that, he didn't have any trouble holding his bride in his arms in the classic 'over-the-threshold' position.

"If you'd be so good as to open the door for us?" the young man asked politely, his eyes never leaving his gorgeous Amazon of a bride.

"Yessir!" the bellman responded and moved quickly to open the two mahogany doors before stepping clear. He entered behind them and watched as the pair took in the elegant furnishings.

"Oh, wow. . . " the young man breathed, turning about slowly, "Momma-Jane certainly went all out, didn't she?"

The woman chuckled again. "But why two bedrooms?" she asked grinning. "Unless you plan to have one to use while the staff cleans the other?"

"Audrey. . ." her husband tried to caution her.

She only giggled, "Ya know? I always loved that movie Top Gun, and there was this line in the movie? How did that go?"

"Aud-REY!"

"Oh yeah, I remember - you big sttttudddd, take me to be. . ."

"AUDREY!!" the man yelled to shut her off. Then, blushing furiously, he suddenly seemed to recall that they were not yet alone. "Ummm, your tip. . ." he stammered to the grinning bellman, "I'll . . ummmm, that is. . ."

"Already taken care of, sir. Along with anything you want. Just ring room service on the phone - 24 hours a day. The luggage that was sent ahead is already unpacked, and we'll take care of your other things when you come down for breakfast. . .unless there is something you particularly need right now?"

"No. . .nothing I don't have already," he replied and then groaned as the dark-haired beauty buried her lips under his chin.

"Good evening then, and congratulations from our management and staff here at the Greenbrier." the bellman said as he let himself out. *And I'm sure your evening, night and the rest of your stay is going to be just grand! Have to remember to tell the floor steward to be ready to move their remaining luggage into the suite the moment they come up for air. I don't think they're going to be out of bed much this week. If the look on her face is any indication, they just might need both bedrooms.*

~----------~

Audrey stretched languidly once Darryl finally set her back onto her feet. "Now," was all she said before sweeping her husband into her arms and kissing him thoroughly.

They were both breathing heavily when she finally broke the kiss. "Which bedroom, man-o-mine? I have waited long enough. It is WAY past time for me to claim my marital rights."

Darryl swallowed hard, trying to moisten his mouth sufficiently to speak. "But, aren't you going to slip into something more comfortable? You know, a negligee or something like that," he finally managed.

"Oh, but I'm comfortable right now," Audrey assured him, her dark eyes dancing merrily, "And I'll be even more comfortable once you help me out of these clothes." One scarlet-tipped hand slithered its way up his torso to rest on her husband's still-knotted bowtie. "You help me, I'll help you, husband," she wheedled.

When he made no move to obey, she undid the knotted tie and then used the loose ends to lead him toward the closer of the two bedrooms, her enticing hips rolling with each slinky step. Darryl wondered why his tongue wasn't lolling on the floor at that particular moment. Barely rational, he managed to choke out, "But. . but. . don't you want to make a grand bridal entrance? You know - like your namesake in a movie. . ."

She didn't stop until they were inside the larger of the two bedrooms. Aroused almost beyond control, Darryl stared as his bride actually licked her lips when she turned around to face him again. *God, is this what the mouse feels like when the cat wants to play?* he wondered, dazed.

"You keep confusing me with her, darlin'," she chided, "Or maybe it's Darla, that sneaky, sexy little Barbie-doll type you confuse me with - *I* am a bit more direct and whole lot less interested in . . . showing off like either of those two." Then she proved just that by literally pouncing him, bending him over her arm for another mind-melting kiss. "I really like being able to do this," she whispered huskily when the demands of oxygen-starved lungs forced them to breathe again.

"I, ah, don't mind it much myself," Darryl gasped.

"And I *LOVE* that you feel that way - that you don't mind that I can do it. Now, what say we go try out that LOVELY bed. . .?"

"But, what about your lingerie, I mean. . . you're sure you don't want to change?"

For a moment, Audrey looked down at her life-mate, and then became serious. "Darryl, does this virginal reticence of yours have anything to do with the garter belt I can feel under your trousers?"

He went instantly pale, answering her question without need for words. "Damn. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Marie gave them to me and she said. . .well, I thought, that if you were ready to take Darla on too, that it would not be that bad an idea. . but now, well, this is between us and I didn't want to get things off on the wrong foot between us."

Audrey bent down to plant a teasing kiss on his nose. "You're so cute when you dither," she said grinning. "So, let me guess what's really behind this 'get Audrey into the bathroom strategy' of yours. You figured you'd have time ditch the lingerie while I was getting all slinky in the bathroom, eh? Be all ready for me in one of those fusty old dressing gowns the resort has over there on those hooks?" she said pointing out the his-and-hers white terricloth robes hanging next to the bathroom door.

"Well, that's not quite all of it," Darryl grumbled. "There is the fantasy I've been nurturing ever since you finally had mercy on me and said 'yes'. The thought of what you'd look like in whatever negligee you got at your wedding shower has been haunting me day and night."

"And just HOW do you know about that negligee? Have you or Darla been peaking?"

"Do you think I'm crazy? It was Sandy who told me about it - in just enough detail to make me want to howl at the moon. She's been teasing me about it for weeks."

"Uh huh, well, I think we'll just start here and undress each other." and then her voice went very low and husky, 'Cause I don't want to wait any longer. You can see the negligee later," and then she growled as she kissed him again. "A LOT later, buster!"

"Oh hell," he muttered against her demanding mouth on his, "I don't want to wait any longer, either, but before we leave this place, I get the whole show - heels, the finest of matching silks, full makeup - all for me. Deal?"

"God, yes," she growled, "but NOT NOW!"

Four hands worked feverishly at buttons, zippers and clasps, often getting in each other's way in a mad dance that had them both giggling at their own antics. Moments later, however, the pair were staring at each other in identical basques, hip-tie white satin thongs garter belts and white nylons. "Couldn't wear a bra with that gown," Audrey giggled before arching her back to thrust her bosom out toward her adoring husband.

"God, you're so damned beautiful," he whispered reverently, desire burning in his eyes.

Now, it was her turn to blush. Shyly, she smiled at this man who loved her so much, "I never wanted to be thought of as beautiful - never wanted to BE beautiful - until you came along. I'm glad you think I am and I'm glad you are beautiful, too."

"I'm handsome," he huffed. "Darla's cute - YOU are beautiful."

"You say so," she grinned, and then the imp was back. "Wanna cop another feel?" she cooed.

"I did NOT cop a FEEL. .," Darryl yelped before adding, "That time. But since you offer. . . and I'd like another of your mind-blowing kisses, please."

Many moments later. . ., Darryl looked up into Audrey's eyes, uncertainty still reflected in his own. "You. . .you really don't mind? The lingerie, I mean, on me, that is."

"Are you kidding?" Audrey grinned and ran a single nail up the inside of one silk-shod thigh. "It makes you so slick and slippery. . . And this," her hand reached the apex of his thighs and grabbed gently, an action that made Darryl's eyes cross. "is just SO cute like that."

"I'm, ah, oh my, . . glad you think so."

"Oh, I do, but do you think you could let me out of this corset? Marie laced me up and wouldn't ease the laces when I changed into my travel dress. Said something about presents should stay wrapped."

"Nope. Not yet," Darryl said grinning lasciviously.

Frustrated, Audrey reached around behind her, but even her flexibility was frustrated by the combination of the stiff stays and Marie's knots. "No fair," she pouted beneath full dark lashes, "YOUR stays are not nearly as tight as mine," she turned and wagged her tush at him while pointing at the knots with both hands.

"Ah, yes," her husband purred, "I am indeed observing your, um, stays. But you're in that outfit until I say so."

"Until YOU say so?" the tall raven-tressed valkyrie squealed, "Who made you king?"

"You did, wench. Didn't I hear you promise to love, honor, and obey?"

"Well, I sorta figured two outta three wouldn't be too bad. Want me to show you the love part now?" she asked, her eyes alight with love and her lips curved in feminine promise.

Swallowing hard and praying for control, he smiled up at her. "Oh, yeah. . umm. . .why don't we adjourn bed and try the foreplay thing?"

"An excellent notion," she replied and then scooped her husband up into HER arms. With due solemnity, she then carried him to the threshold of their bridal-bed. "My turn," she told him just before laying him down on the thick, satin comforter. "Oh, and don't plan on doing much of anything touristy while we're here."

"Why not?" he asked, already knowing and loving the answer.

"I'm an Olympic-class athlete, remember?" she reminded him just before the satin thong was whisked away from his loins. "If you want to be really, really good at something, you have to practice-practice-practice."

"And?"

"What do you think, best-boyfriend-girlfriend-husband-wife?" she smiled as she bent over him to nibble at his chin, "I want us to be VERY good at loving each other for the rest of our lives."

Whatever answer Darryl might have made to that went unheard. After all, one of Momma-Jane's first lessons to any student is that one should never speak with one's mouth full.
--

...Finis

 



~A Time For Every Season~ © 2002 by Tigger
Illustrations © 2002 by Brandy DeWinter
All Rights Reserved. These documents (including, without limitation, all articles, text, images, logos, compilation design) may printed for personal use only. No portion of these documents may be stored electronically, distributed electronically, or otherwise made available without express written consent of the copyright holder.



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