Seasons of Change - Book 11 - Part 2 of 3 - Audrey's Story

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Rocky, now Audrey, is lovingly forced to face her own nature, and to deal with a harsh secret from her past, while at the same time, other secrets loom that threaten her, and another of Jane's student's future happiness.

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Seasons of Change
Book 11 - Part 2 of 3
A Time to Every Season
Audrey's Story

by Tigger

Copyright © 2002,2013 Tigger
All Rights Reserved.

 


 
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This work is the copyrighted material of the respective author.

Based on the characters and situations presented in "Seasons of Change" by Joel Lawrence, Copyright 1989. ~Tigger
 


 
Part II
 
 
Chapter 1: Audrey's Mom
 
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 and 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 silver lining has its cloud, 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's place 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 on whose side of the bed she was waking up 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* might set a bad example by 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 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 sweat pants. Or, you could just drag him into a nice, well-hayed horse stall 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 really 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 are 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 color? 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?"

"Parfait! 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." "Well, we haven't decided yet. I was supposed to be Shirley Temple, but I can't sing." "Oh yes, she's going and is going to be in costume even. She's going as Mary Poppins." "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?" "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. "No, not even for that. Sorry." "How MUCH did you just say?!?" "you. . you WHAT?" "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." "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 down 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 been 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 purrrrfectly marvelous idea."

Darla could only nod.
 
 
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 a bone marrow transplant donation, 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 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 her tail. Those she gently tustled 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 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 Audrey seeing her as Jane had just described. "I'll. . . I'll. . just hang up your coats and go fix dinner," she finally managed, and then disappeared into the dining room.

*I'll probably find that coat on the hanger 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 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 to YOU?"

"I said that. . "

Gentle fingers on his lips stopped his denial in mid-sentence. "Dear? Did we not agree, oh, not 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 for 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 with 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 uncontrolled 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 to know that crying does not diminish him. And if there is a better reason to cry than over 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 that 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 an open 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 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 these 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. "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 some sadistic male first 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 my boobs right 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. Hamstring-pulls 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.

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

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 he became 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."

"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 lookin' 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 There's 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. I'll never forget The way you look tonight. I'll 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 lookin' so gorgeous as you did tonight Never seen you shine so bright. You're 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.

". . .It's where I want to be I hardly know This beauty by my side. I'll never forget The way you look tonight. I'll 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 There's nobody here just you and me It's 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."

End Part II


 
 
To Be Continued...
 



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Maggie_Finson's picture

I think this is the best.

Aunt Jane story I've read.

Audrey is a very special person and she's beginning to learn that.

I absolutely love Darla/Darryl.

Good stuff.

Maggie

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