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

Jane, Marie, Darla and Audrey must now resolve Melanie's problems so that all of them can move on together.

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Seasons of Change
Book 11 - Part 3 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 III
 
 
Chapter 1: The Morning After
 
The only evidence of the late fall-dawn was the barest of brightening in the otherwise gray-clouded eastern skies. Audrey sat watching the sunrise beneath the now-leafless rose arbor in Jane's English garden. Odd how that had, over the time she'd been at Seasons House, become the place that drew her when she needed to think or needed to be alone. At first, it had been the scent of the roses that had drawn her - their perfume lingering even after those first hard frosts of autumn had burned away their petals and their blooms. Now, there was an austere beauty to the tangle of thorny vines that wound about the wooden frame of the arbor - something that said "peace" to the disturbed young woman.

Audrey had come to this special, private spot immediately after her morning workout with Darryl - not that it had been all that much of a workout. She was still tired from last night's outing, and in all honesty, was more than just a little bit sore - particularly in her ankles and the backs of her calves. My Fair Lady could sing all she wanted to about how she 'could have danced all night and still come back for more', but Audrey suspected that she hadn't been trotting about in tight shoes with three-plus inch toothpicks for heels. *Lord, but my legs haven't been this sore since the day I discovered, and overdid, my first StairMaster.*

Fortunately for her ego, Darryl had not been at the top of his game this morning either - at least athletically. In other areas, however, he'd been top of the mark which was a good deal of the reason she'd sought some solitude before going in for breakfast. In truth, she'd already planned to come here in order to sort through the morass last night's trip to Boston had made of her emotions. Then, Darryl had compounded everything and somehow made everything MORE mixed up. How could he DO something like that to her? She TRUSTED him, LIKED him - okay, she LIKED him a LOT - and he did THAT to her?

He'd kissed her. Well, it had actually been more than that because he'd been kissing her for awhile now, but those were little pecks - gently sweet caresses. Not this time - this time Darryl had KISSED her - like those male actors kissed the heroines in those movies that Marie had been taking Audrey to see in Kingston - chick flicks, she called them.

She'd never seen it coming, either. Just as she was about to head up the path back to Seasons House, that little sneak had spun her around to face him and then all but swept her off her feet with a knee-weakening kiss that had turned her mind to mush for goodness only knew how long.

Still, it was only a kiss.

*Yeah, Audrey, and a diamond is only a rock. As if I did not have enough on my mind, trying to deal with why, lovely as everything was last night, it somehow felt incomplete, like something very important was missing.*

And then, he'd given her a present while he still held her boneless body next to his. Audrey looked down at the brightly colored bouquet of maple leaves she still held in her hands. They outshone, in every possible way, the gorgeous corsage that Kenneth had given her last night. *And you know why they do, Audrey. These leaves are the first 'flowers' that a boy who matters ever gave you. The boy who you were really missing last night. Might as well face facts, girl. Last night would have been perfect if it had been Darryl escorting you and not Kenneth.*

Audrey carefully set her leaves down and rose from the bench seat to walk about the garden. The chilly wind reminded her that she had not changed out of her sweats and breakfast was not all that long off. She ought to go to her room, but she still needed to think. Audrey hadn't liked the feelings that had coursed through her when Darryl's mouth and tongue had taken possession of hers like that. Had she? *Be honest, young miss,* her mind chided in an unconscious emulation of Jane Thompson's admonitory tones. *What you aren't sure you LIKE is how much you DID like what he did.*

That little revelation did nothing to improve her mood. Unfortunately, she really did have to go clean up and dress for the morning meal. Dealing with one of Jane's inventive disciplines would only serve to further muddy the already murky issues. Trying to remember to talk baby-talk when she was otherwise trying to figure out how she really felt about Darryl's sudden escalation of this boy-girl stuff was more than enough for one person to deal with at one time.

*Before last night, if someone had asked me what I would do if some boy just up and kissed me without permission, I'd have answered 'Kill him, of course, and very, very slowly. Even after last night, I would have said I'd back his pushy butt off somehow. But THAT wasn't just any boy, and THAT kiss, well, that was not at all what I expected being kissed that way would be like. And dammit, I DID like it and I think. . . know, that I would like it again, too.*

Somehow, confronting that bit of self honesty seemed to put things somewhat back into perspective. Her emotions calmed a little and the world seemed to slow back down to a more normal speed. It wasn't much, but it was enough for the moment. *At least until after I have survived breakfast,* she mused, turning toward the garden door. *If I skimp on the shower, I will have time to dress and put on enough make up to dodge the pinafores and corset bullet.*

Just before she reached the corner, the door slammed open, and a laughing, auburn-haired flash raced out the door, with a tall, slender white-haired man in hot pursuit. Hidden by the corner, Audrey watched in dumbfounded fascination as the man who had escorted Jane to the ballet chased the ordinarily stern and controlled teacher about the garden. *And she's still in her nightgown and slippers!* Audrey thought amazed. *and no robe, either.*

"ARTEMIS," Jane yelled, a hysterical giggle almost bubbling through, "Stop this INSTANT. I don't have time for this. The girls will be down for breakfast and I haven't dressed."

"Then stop trying to run away, wench, and give me my kiss!"

"You'll want more than a kiss, you rogue, and I don't have time for this!" Jane reiterated, dodging behind one of the stone benches.

She almost made it, Audrey thought, giving credit where credit was due, and probably would have except that she stubbed her toe on the cold stone of the bench as she dodged again. Audrey made a mental note never to try to play keep-away with a man when she was wearing open-toed high-heeled mules for slippers.

That momentary stumble was all this 'Artemis' fellow needed. He closed the gap and swept Jane up in an embrace that reminded Audrey eerily of how she must have looked when Darryl had caught her. Jane's protests lasted one, maybe two seconds at most before she was returning the kiss with fervor, enthusiasm and what Audrey recognized as a good deal of practical experience.

*Have to remember that fingers-through-the-hair grip thing next time Darryl jumps my bones,* she thought dreamily before realizing what that image of herself and Darryl actually implied.

*Yes,* Audrey thought with a sigh, *there WILL be a next time and that I AM looking forward to it.* Only then did the young woman snap out of her surprise-induced fugue enough to realize she was intruding. Quietly, she retraced her steps and headed for the kitchen door, leaving the two older folks to their privacy.

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

Art came up for air and looked down into the passion-darkened eyes of his wife. "Gotcha," he gloated softly.

"Oh, just shut up and kiss me some more," Jane ordered, her voice husky.

"Your wish, my dear," Art replied as he caught a glimpse of Audrey's retreating form. *Oops,* he thought, and just for a moment considered telling Jane. *Nah,* he concluded as he once again surrendered to the power of his lover's kiss. *Nothing she can do about it now, anyway. After breakfast will be soon enough. 'sides, looks like Audrey can use a few extra minutes to get ready for breakfast.*
 
 
Chapter 2: Love - Vulnerability and Strength
 
Jane lifted her hand to knock on the antique paneled door and then, for probably the third or fourth time, let her hand fall back to her side. It wasn't that she was hesitant - not really - it was more like she wasn't sure how best to approach this situation. As with most situations that she had been forced to deal with since taking on this particular student, this one was unique in Jane's experience. Never before had a student seen her, the cultured living embodiment of Miss Manners, cavorting about in her night shift with a man. Now, Jane was intent on some type of damage control. The problem was she had absolutely no idea what type of damage she had to control.

The only thing about which she was sure was that the longer she delayed this face-to-face with Audrey, the longer any anger or upset the girl might have suffered would fester.

*Damn Art, anyway,* she fumed silently. *He should have done something out there instead of sticking me with this little drama. What I should do is go back to my room, stuff him into a Lewis Carrol-authentic 'Alice-in-Wonderland' outfit, maybe a nice big pacifier to keep his sneaky and tasty mouth busy, and then drag him up here to Audrey's room by his ear! Maybe that would reassert my position as the Alpha Female in this house.*

A smile that was at once both familiar and terrifying to almost one hundred boys crossed Jane's lips only to disappear just as quickly. "Remember Sheila, Jane Thompson," she reminded herself aloud, as she had uncountable times since her confrontation with Kenneth's vile and perverse mother. "It's all right to have fun with this, so long as no one is ever truly hurt."

Sighing at the still-pleasantly seductive mental imagery, Jane then steeled herself and managed to give the door a reasonable facsimile of her usual authoritative knock.

"Come in," came the response.

Jane entered Audrey's room and came up short at the sight that greeted her. Audrey, resplendent in a soft cream and rose colored Laura Ashley skirt and sweater set, was sitting in front of her vanity mirror. From where she stood, Jane could see that her charge had been applying makeup - quite well, too, Jane was pleased to note - and had done something more intricate than was her normal preference with her coiffure. Opaque stockings hugged the girl's muscular yet shapely legs. Force of long habit had Jane's eyes dipping down to check the entire ensemble whereupon she repressed a small sigh. While the lovely rose-suede pumps matched perfectly with the rest of the girl's outfit, they were still low-heeled. Even with almost thirty pairs of new shoes to her name since her arrival at Seasons House, all Italian no less, getting Audrey into anything with more than a two inch heel took a direct order.

Jane wondered if it had anything to do with her student's self image - whether Audrey felt she was too tall even without heels. *She looked so regal last night when she wore those strappy red spikes, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous with all that leggy beauty in the slit-skirt gown, that it would be a shame if she couldn't accept her own statuesque beauty. I think a bit of 'hinting' from Darla may be in order,* Jane thought, *but there are more important issues to deal with at this precise moment.*

"You look very nice," Jane said quietly as she moved toward the girl. Then she saw the colorful mass of autumn leaves on Audrey's bed. "What have we here?"

Audrey started to say something, reconsidered and attempted a diffident shrug. "Leaves. We don't get color like this back home. They're so pretty, but I really don't know what to do with them."

*More to this than that,* Jane thought. *The girl has no skill at dissembling, but I won't press her on it.* "Marie might be able to help you do something with them. She is very much into crafts using natural materials and such things. I suspect she'd know a way of preserving them if they're something you'd like to keep for a while. . .as mementoes."

"Perhaps I will see Marie. Thank you, Ms. Jane. You wanted something from me?"

*Her poise has definitely improved. That little barb was well and subtly delivered. Translation: What do you want THIS time, Thompson?* "I felt we needed to talk, Audrey, given what Art told me you saw this morning."

"What I saw?" Audrey only barely managed to keep her voice from cracking in surprise.

"Yes, dear. Art saw you in the English Garden, and he knows you saw us."

"It is not my business," Audrey replied sharply, turning her head to hide the blush she knew was firing her cheeks.

"That is true and yet, it is also not true, dear," Jane said gently as she moved to take a seat beside her student. "I am an adult woman and as such, my relationships are ordinarily no one's concern but my own. However, I have been demanding a very high standard of behavior from you over the past few months and you have every right to expect that I, as your mentor and role model, should adhere to the same codes of conduct that I insist upon for you."

"I'm not going to use what happened this morning as an excuse to go out and find myself a lover, Ms. Thompson," Audrey said, even as she realized she wouldn't have to find one, because the one she wanted was already found. She just hadn't figured out how to reel him in yet. Or what to do with him once she'd landed him. "I have too many goals riding on your good opinion of me and my behavior."

"Oh, that was a very nicely worded set-down, Audrey," Jane said with a hint of a smile. "Brava. Would you look at this, please?"

Audrey turned from her mirror and was surprised to see Jane holding out her left hand to her student, palm down. For a moment, Audrey could not see the point and then her eyes locked on the left ring finger - the previously BARE left ring finger - now decorated by a large diamond solitaire and a wide wedding band, both ornately decorated with antiqued glyph-work and other markings.

"Art is my husband, Audrey. He has been for the better part of a year."

"But, . .but. . he hasn't been here. . .you didn't wear those. . .I don't understand. . "

Jane caught Audrey's hand in hers and drew her up from the vanity and over to sit beside Jane on the bed. Not releasing the hand, Jane began to speak. "When you came here, we did not know what to expect, except that you had a history of dealing, well, rather physically with men who upset you. Moreover, we really were not sure what men did that upset you to the point of violence. Since you had no similar history against females, we decided to give you a break-in period in a female-only household. Art had to leave to fulfill a contract obligation with a university in the city so he couldn't be here full time anyway. When I needed an escort, he was the obvious choice," Jane shrugged and turned dark eyes on Audrey. "Besides, I missed him terribly. I hadn't planned on him being here last night, but he followed me home. . . "

"So you decided to keep him?" Audrey blurted.

Both women stared at each other for several moments, neither quite believing what the younger woman had just said, then they burst out laughing.

"Just so," Jane said when she'd finally managed to regain a modicum of control. "Although the dear man was very persuasive," she added, wistfully. "And as I said, I have missed him terribly."

"You must have," Audrey said, "Letting him ravish you that way in the garden." The girl hesitated and Jane saw that she wanted to say something more and so let the comment go unanswered. The silence drew out between them until Jane was not sure she could stand it when Audrey asked, her voice almost a whisper, "Doesn't that make you feel vulnerable? Knowing he's that important to you? Doesn't that give him power over you? I mean, he could really hurt you."

Jane mulled that one over for a few moments, recalling Darla's revelations about that bitch of a governess and all the garbage she'd fed a young and lonely girl. *Give her the honest truth she knows first, Jane, and then the rest.* "Yes, he could hurt me, Audrey, and he has. Just as I can hurt him and have. But I will tell you that I felt more alive, more feminine, more loved during that silly little chase around the garden than I have in all the days he's been gone.

Jane paused to let her student mull that over before continuing to press home her point. "There's always a risk when something is really important, Audrey. That's part of what makes that something valuable - and thrilling. Knowing that you are vulnerable gets your adrenaline flowing, and knowing that you are willing to do it - that you have found a prize that valuable - is a wonderful part of the reward. Winning a race where there is no competition is not as satisfying as winning when you aren't sure you can, until you have."

*That got your attention, didn't it, you competitive little wench?* Jane thought fondly. "And laying your heart on the line is the greatest risk of all, for the greatest reward you can imagine. As you said, he could hurt me, but the final reward - the ultimate prize - is his love, and he loves me too much to ever hurt me except by accident."

Audrey thought about that for a moment. Was that what was missing with Darryl? Had she been holding back? Playing defense and not taking the chances necessary to get the touches needed for victory? It definitely gave her something to think about. "And you love him just as much." It wasn't a question.

Jane's face lit up with a smile that made her normally austerely handsome face breathtakingly lovely. "With all my heart. So much it sometimes frightens me, but it is a good kind of fright."

"A good kind of fright?" Audrey was intrigued. She had come to understand the frightened part quite well in the past few hours. The idea of 'good fright' was something she had not considered.

"It makes me try harder to show him how much I love him back. To show him how important he is to me. Life is short, dear, more so for me than for you, I think. I am closer to fifty than to thirty and have more of my life behind me than in front of me. The fear I spoke of pushes me to take every bit of love I can get and savor it to its fullest so that none of it goes unappreciated or unreturned."

"That's lovely," Audrey breathed in a surprisingly girlish sigh. Then she turned serious eyes to her teacher. "Don't worry about this morning as far as I am concerned, Ms. Thompson. It's . . .well, nice to see that kind of man-woman love, for real, I mean, and up close."

*She's made so much progress,* Jane suddenly realized, *And not just in the superficial aspects of being a woman. I don't know what is the catalyst, but I think she's just about ready.*

"Ms. Thompson?" Audrey broke in on Jane's thoughts. "When I first came here, you said that some of your students called you 'Jane' or 'Aunt Jane'?"

Jane nodded, but otherwise said nothing. It was difficult to speak when you were holding your breath in hopeful anticipation.

"Would you mind. . I mean," Audrey hesitated for a moment, seemed to shake herself and then pressed on in a rush. "Would it be all right with you if I called you Aunt Jane?"

Touched and a more than a little surprised, Jane leaned over to hug the younger woman. "I'd be honored if you would, dear," she said before standing and helping Audrey to rise also. Then she saw the leaves and smiled at her student. "Why don't you take those down to Marie right now. I am sure she will know how to preserve them."

An smile of unexpected pleasure lit Audrey's face. "I think I will, Aunt Jane. I really would like to keep at least of few of them if I could."
 
 
Chapter 3: Kisses and Bouquets - A Seasons Courtship
 
Audrey tried to watch what Marie was doing, but almost scorched her own fingers when the hot flatiron slid across the waxed paper a little more easily than she'd anticipated. She returned her attention to the ironing board and nearly sighed. There, between two sheets of waxed paper was the largest, most perfectly shaped, most vividly hued of all the leaves from her bouquet. Autumn Maple Leaf Red was rapidly becoming her favorite color and she wondered idly if Carolyn Beale sold a lipstick or nail enamel in that shade.

"Is this right, Tante Marie?" she asked, holding up the now-fused sheet for the older woman's inspection.

Marie stopped what she was doing and examined Audrey's prize. Finally, she nodded. "See, cherie? I told you that the wax would become transparent once you had everything properly ironed?"

"Yes," the girl said with a happy smile. "And you're sure that this will preserve it?"

Marie gave a sly grin. "Of course. Why I have such mementoes of my own, preserved just this way, pressed between the pages of my teenage diaries. And I am. . . well, we won't discuss my age, so let's just say that they were given to me many, many years ago."

"By your Willie, Tante Marie?" Audrey asked, only to realize too late how painful that question might be for her friend. "Oh, Marie, I am so sorry. . . I did not mean to. .

Marie smiled and waved away the apology. "Non, ma petite, do not worry yourself so. Yes, many are from my Willie, and all the more precious to me because of that, but there are also memories of other beaus in those tightly wrapped pages." *but that question certainly does tell me why these pretty colored leaves are so very important to you, dear.*

The older woman returned to her own project and carefully selected another leaf that she then dipped carefully into a thick, viscous white liquid. When she withdrew the now heavily coated leaf, she delicately brushed away the excess. Audrey watched as the liquid dried quickly, becoming clear as it did so. Marie waited until there was only a slight liquid sheen on the leaf before she began to shape it with agile, knowing fingers. Moments later, the red-orange leaf was added the other leaves, glued to a cloth covering an eight by ten inch board.

"It is almost like you are doing flower arrangements except you're using that board and not a pot, and those aren't flowers," Audrey said, awe in her voice.

"That's because I am, Audrey," Marie answered as she made a final, almost imperceptible adjustment to the last leaf. "There, I think that is just about right," she said as she stepped back from the brilliantly colored explosion of bright reds, vivid oranges and brilliant yellows.

Marie picked up a small flower pot and began cutting it with a saw - making a vertical cut from the rim of the pot straight down to the bottom. When she'd finished, she examined the heavy orange clay thoroughly. "This will be perfect. I will just glue this to the frame so that it looks like the bouquet is in the pot, and then, tomorrow after all the glues and glazes have cured, I will spray it with some clear polyurethane."

"It is so lovely," Audrey actually gushed.

"Well, a girl's first bouquet of flowers from her boyfriend should be lovely." *I am glad Darryl did so well.*

"Boyfriend? Who said anything about a boyfriend?"

"No one, petite, but those are from Darryl, aren't they?"

Caught off guard by the older woman, Audrey sighed and sat down into one of the kitchen chairs. "Yes," she finally admitted, wanting to say more, but not precisely sure how to raise the issue.

"And?" she prompted gently.

"And. . .and. . .well, he kissed me!" Audrey finally blurted.

Marie turned to make some tea, in part because she was sure they would need some, but mostly to hide the happy grin that now curled her pert lips. "Well, you've told me he has done so before. You were quite taken aback as I recall. Had he stopped before this?" *If he did, I will personally tear a strip off his stupid male hide!*

"Oh, no, that isn't it. I mean, he's managed to give me a little peck on the cheek or steal a hug every day we've worked out together. Today was different. Today he KISSED me. Bent me over backwards and everything."

*ATTA BOY!* Marie's mind cheered. "Well, since you are keeping his gift, I can assume that you were not enraged by his taking of liberties?"

Audrey burst out laughing at that. "You've been around Aunt Jane and her Victorian ways too long, Tante Marie. Taking liberties?" She laughed again before answering. "I think I liked it. No, that's not being honest - I KNOW I liked it. I just don't know what to do about it."

"How so, petite?"

"You know? You're the only one who has ever called me 'little one' and meant it nicely? I like that, too."

"Glad to hear it, petite," Marie responded pertly but plainly refusing to acknowledge the girl's attempt at changing the subject. "Now answer my question. What don't you know about dealing with Darryl's kissing?"

Audrey colored attractively, and tried to find the words to answer the question - and not only for Marie's benefit. "Well, it's the feelings, Tante Marie. They're just so scary and yet, at the same time, so wonderful. . .I just feel so. . .so off balance," and then, feeling very brave, blurted out, "And I want him to do it again! Soon!"

"Oh ho, so you are content to wait for him to take the lead again? Bah! I thought you were a modern young woman" She saw the confusion on Audrey's face and smiled a very secret, very female smile at her young prodigy in the ways of l'amour. "Jane's views aside, petite, this is the dawn of a new millennium. There is simply no reason you can't take the initiative if that would make you feel better - more in control. Heavens, girl - start as you mean to go! IF you want him and you want him on fair and equal terms, try doing your own fair share of the courting."

"Courting? Me?" The idea was terrifying. It was also incredibly exciting.

"You!" Marie replied forcefully.

"But I don't know how to do that," Audrey almost wailed.

"It will be easy. He is, after all, only a mere man and you are a truly superior and beautiful young woman. Le Bon Dieu created women to tempt men and, fortunately, also made men easy to tempt. It is what we women do, darling. Start with something easy. He wants to kiss you. You want him to kiss you again. Next time you see him, bend HIM over backwards and ravage HIS mouth." Then Marie's eyes twinkled and her smile somehow became even more mischievous. "Slip him some tongue, girl."

Marie watched as the girl let the idea roll around her head and could tell the precise moment when her apprentice's mind imagined how that kiss would feel. It was all Marie could do not to clap in glee at the look of excited anticipation that flashed across Audrey's lovely face.

The girl rose, half in a daze and began to leave. "Take your waxed leaf, dear," Marie told her. "I will finish the other and then frame it for you once the preservative is completely dry."

"Thanks again, Tante Marie," Audrey said distantly as she turned for the door. The last thing Marie heard before the door shut behind the departing girl was, "Courting?"

As impossible as it seemed, Marie's grin grew even broader. "And cherie? Mark him with some lipstick - BRIGHT lipstick - when you do it!" she called out, hoping the girl heard her.

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

For the remainder of the day, Darla noticed that Audrey was quieter than was her norm. Especially since she had healed from her surgeries, the girl's effervescent energy usually kept her constantly on the go, always doing something. This day, however, she was more sedate, her manner more introspective.

Darla did not know whether to be happy or upset - whether to hope that it had been Darryl's attempt at a Rudolf Valentino-style kiss that had resulted in this quieter version of his love, or just fatigue. On one hand, she seemed to have been affected strongly by the experience. On the other, unfortunately, she did not seem to be reacting at all like young women in love were rumored to act.

*Well, I guess that's to be expected. She had a late night and an early morning. I'm kind of dragging, too. I just wish she'd bring up Darryl's little farewell this morning so I can find out how she feels about it now that she's had time to think about it. Hmmm. . . what day of the month is it?*

Darla took a quick look at the calendar she carried in her purse and sighed. *Almost that time of the month for Darla again. Well, at least I can be Darryl with her, but it sure does get boring pretending to be irritable and nauseous. The things I do for Momma-Jane.*

Darla went to find Tante Yenta-Marie for some more pointers. This was getting more and more complicated and made Darla. . or more correctly, DARRYL wish for an older simpler time. *Well, not too much older,* he thought with an irrepressibly male grin. *If Caveman Dar ever went after Cavewoman Rock with a club, it would, in all likelihood, be Dar who ended up with a lump on the skull and counting stars. Which, if she then dragged Dar off to her cave by the hair, wouldn't be all that bad a fate. It's just that I wish I knew if she would want to drag me off to her lair or leave my carcus for the buzzard-o-sauruses.*

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

Marie heard the door open and hurriedly hid her leaf and pot project in the pantry before turning to see Darla. *Ah, good thing I hid it. Wouldn't do for the scamp to realize just how deeply his little gift affected Audrey. He might get a little too cocky and stop trying quite so hard.*

"Hi Tante Marie," Darla greeted her adopted aunt with a smile, a hug and a kiss. "Is that polyurethane I smell? What are you up to this time?"

"Oh, just some craft stuff for the holidays. Decorations in the main,* she answered, trying to stay as close to the truth as she could before changing the subject. "So what brings YOU to my kitchen, miss?"

Darla seemed to wilt and then plopped indecorously into a nearby chair. "What, or rather, WHO do you think?"

"Ah, la tres jolie Mademoiselle Audrey," Marie said with great satisfaction. This was all going perfectly! "She did not like your plan for this morning?"

"She seemed to like it - at least some - when I did it!" in her annoyance, Darla's voice dropped into Darryl's register for just a moment. "I caught her by surprise, but she didn't fight at all, and in only a moment or two, she really started to put her mind to. . ."

Darla caught herself becoming perhaps a bit too graphic and consciously composed herself. Marie watched in amusement as the girl's sprawl shifted into a position more in keeping with her character of demure young womanhood.

Darla coughed to clear her throat and then continued. "I was not the only one actively kissing," she finished primly. "And she did keep the silly bouquet of leaves I gathered for her. . . but I didn't see her bring them in the house and she hasn't seemed to show them to anyone."

*So you not sure how she feels. Good, that will keep you trying. Still, a little encouragement wouldn't hurt.* "Well, I did help her preserve a leaf today. We ironed it into waxed paper so she could put it in her journal."

"She did," Darla breathed, hope brightening her eyes.

*I did say a LITTLE encouragement, you rogue.* "Yes, of course," Marie replied with careful nonchalance. "Jane has told her to record her thoughts about her time here, and she said it would be a good example of the pretty fall colors."

"Oh," Darla sighed, the anxiety and uncertainty came back. She shrugged it off and turned back to Marie. "So now what do I do?"

"What do YOU think you should do, cherie?" Marie asked, very gently.

Darla considered the question for several moments. "Maybe something a little less overt than this morning's kiss? Something friendly and affectionate, but not quite so. . ." She stumbled again, not wanting to say 'sexual' in front of Tante Marie.

"Passionate?" Marie asked, a twinkle in her clear blue eyes.

"That's it. What do you think?" Darla asked, hoping for reassurance from a competent, female-thinking authority.

"Oh, I think that is not too bad a plan. If she was surprised by the . . . passionate kiss, or a bit uncertain, a little friendly affection might put her off-balance."

"Okay, Tante Marie, and thanks."

Marie watched the incredibly feminine figure glide from her kitchen. "But somehow, mon petit brave, somehow, I don't think it is the so-very-regal Audrey who will be put off-balance tomorrow." With that happy thought, Marie turned back to her meal preparations, humming a song that sounded suspiciously like a particular Brahms March.

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

"Marie?" Jane called as she strode into the kitchen after the evening meal.

"Yes, Jane?" Marie had just finished filling the dishwasher and was busily wiping non-existent stains from her immaculate counters.

"Do you know what is the matter with the children? Both of them have been very quiet all day."

Marie looked at her long-time friend. She'd promised both young people to keep their discussions confidential. Should she tell Jane? She always had in the past when she knew something that her friend and employer needed or wanted to know, and yet, this was Darla. . .no, actually it was Darryl. *What would Jane do if she knew her son had fallen in love with her student and was trying to court the girl who had been raised to fear males? Darryl has been talking with Art - he told me that much, but has he, in turn, also spoken to Jane?*

"Marie?"

"Sorry, Jane, just wool gathering," Marie said as she reached a decision. "Besides them being tired from their big evening out last night? I have an idea about Audrey. I think she is struggling to decide how she feels about Darryl."

"I thought as much. Did something happen - recently, I mean?" Jane's asked quietly.

"I believe she got quite thoroughly kissed this morning and isn't precisely sure how to react to the fact that she enjoyed it. You know she has very little experience with men of any age, dear, but even less with boys her own age."

"Art thought Darryl would do something after last night. He was, well, rather more upset about not able to be her escort than I had anticipated."

"I like the match, myself," Marie said saucily. "In fact, I think they'll be perfect together."

"She towers over him!"

"I don't think our Darryl feels the least bit threatened by her size," Marie tossed back with a grin.

"What about Audrey? I gather she doesn't mind towering over him?" Marie snorted out a laugh and Jane found herself feeling foolish. "Of course she doesn't. If anything, she'll be all the more comfortable with a male version of the classic Regency 'pocket venus' as her consort. Lord, but this will be a complicated courtship. Oh, wait, did Darryl give her those leaves she was mooning about this morning?"

"Yes. I believe he did. Audrey asked me for some help preserving them."

"You think Darryl is good for her, then?"

"Are you asking as Audrey's guardian or Darryl's Mother?"

"Either. Both."

"I think they're good for each other, Maman."

"Part of the reason she is here is to learn to deal with other people without that violence that marred her recent years. She certainly handled herself well last night. I guess we sit back and watch," she said before adding, "But, if she hurts my boy."

"Go cuddle your husband, Jane," Marie ordered her friend, amused exasperation in her voice. "You need some rest yourself. You were up late last night, too."

"Oh, you," Jane breathed in affectionate exasperation. Then she bent down to kiss her friend's cheek and left the kitchen. *Maybe I will go jump Art,* she thought with a smile. *Retribution for this morning's garden chase.*
 
 
Chapter 4: Resolution and Crisis
 
The next morning found Audrey sitting alone in the Music Room, quietly fuming. *Face it, Rockwell, you flat wimped out. You had him in your sights and you just didn't take the shot.*

Audrey had been out of bed earlier than usual this morning, so that she could pay particular attention to her face and hair, and she was sure that Darryl had noticed. She'd decided to run him hard that morning, so he wouldn't be quite so quick on his feet when she made her move just before they parted for breakfast.

In her mind's eye is was all so REAL - she could feel the corded power of Darryl's tight, sinewy body as she dipped him backwards over her arms, could savor the vision of his eyes looking up - maybe just a little bit afraid - into hers, could almost smell the musky aromas of his sweat and arousal, and could almost taste his lips - parted in surprise - ready for her to ravage them.

*God, just thinking about it makes me feel all shivery and edgy,* she fumed. It had ALL been there for her - just two short steps and he'd have been HERS! All she'd had to do was advance on her target, but at that critical moment when her victory was at hand, she'd retreated instead. She could just kick herself.

*Okay, Rockwell, why did you back off? It's not like you haven't been that close to him and had his lips on yours. Except you were caught by surprise that time. THIS time, you knew going in you were going to be that close to a man, that you were going to be that open and that vulnerable. Cripes, you really are a wimp!*

She jumped to her feet and paced about until she came to a stop in front of a window. *It's not as if you don't like and trust Darryl. Good grief, you wouldn't be even considering this if you didn't. So why couldn't you go through with it?*

The question went unanswered as she resumed her pacing. *I mean, he's just a guy, right? Why can't you kiss a guy you really like? You ride horses, you shoot guns, you fence with swords,* and then she came to a stop. "Maybe that's IT!" she said aloud.

*You've done all those things, but not the first time you tried,* she told herself firmly. *And you were definitely trying to run before you've walked. . .heavens, before you ever crawled.*

She went back to the sofa and again sat down. *So, where do I learn how to handle a courtship as a girl? I suppose that is another of those things I missed out on thanks to Miss Phoebe Elizabeth. Lord, yet more girl-stuff you never got to learn, Rocky m'girl. Hmmm. . . girl-stuff, eh? Well, isn't it handy that I have my own personal teacher's assistant in Girl-stuff 101 who has nothing better to do than help initiate me into the dark, feminine mysteries of the hunt? Particularly since she knows this fellow so well already. Oh my, yes. Very handy indeed.*

Smiling widely, Audrey jumped to her feet, and enthusiastically went off in search of Darla.

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

At the same time Audrey was berating herself in the Music Room, Darla was also more than a little preoccupied with what had gone on earlier that morning. Ever since breakfast, the young woman- with-something-extra had been distractedly staring out the window of the front parlor, her mind a confused morass of memories, feelings, fear and hope.

*She was up to something this morning,* Darla told herself, *and then she changed her mind for some reason. Lord, but she'd looked fine - especially with that French braid trailing down her neck. That's the first time she's ever done anything more complicated than a ponytail with her hair.*

*And there was that look she gave me, too. She couldn't have been more than three feet away from me - turned my brain to mush - froze me in my tracks. That must be what a deer feels like when the headlights hit it in the eyes.*

*So WHY DIDN'T SHE DO ANYTHING!?!? Was it something I did? One second she is stalking me with this incredibly hungry look on her face, and the next she's trotting up the path to the house. Should I have given her some signal? Let her know that whatever she had in mind was fine with me? And just how the hell would you do that, Thompson-Smith? Fall on my back, spread-eagled, and yell 'take me, I'm yours?' Yeah, right. If she didn't die laughing, she'd stomp me into the mud.*

*I have no freaking idea what she was thinking and therefore, no freaking idea what the hell I should do next, if anything. Guess that just goes to show that no matter how deeply I immerse myself in the feminine world, some part of me doesn't make the connection. Man, if Jane ever heard me cop out with 'I just don't understand women'. . . particularly the woman I want to make my own, she'd have my head on a platter. Maybe I should just go throw myself on Marie's mercy again. Hopefully, I can look sufficiently pathetic and inept so she'll give me a real hint this time.*

"DARLA?" It was Audrey.

"In here, Audrey." Darla called back.

Audrey burst in, her skin flushed and eyes wide. The very air seemed to vibrate in time to her excitement. "I'm SO glad I found you," she bubbled as she rushed into the parlor. "I really need your help on something!"

"Okay," Darla said cautiously. "This isn't going to get me on Aunt Jane's bad side, is it?"

Audrey just shrugged, still grinning. "Nah. .. Well, probably not. . . as long as she doesn't know about it."

"You're kidding, right?" Darla asked, frowning. "Jane always finds out about everything, and contrary to what you may think, I really DON'T like dressing like the caricature of a six-year-old playing tea party. Those starched petticoats are scratchy where I don't really like being scratched."

"Never more serious," was the airy response. "And we'll be careful so she doesn't find out. . . too much."

"Great. Ummmm. . .maybe you should tell me just what you want so I can decide if it's worth spending the next six months in those damned petti's, along with a tasteful assortment of equally uncomfortable pinafores and maryjanes."

"Okay. I wouldn't ask, but I just don't know how to do this, and you are the person Ms. Thom . . . I mean, Aunt Jane told me to talk to when I had questions about girl-things."

*Girl things? Audrey wants to know about GIRL things?* Thoroughly confused, Darla could only ask, "Girl things, Audrey? What kind of girl things?"

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

"Can we go somewhere. . . a little more private first?" Audrey asked carefully. "I'm not real comfortable with this yet and I'd just as soon not have Aunt Jane or her husband walk in on us."

"Her husband?" Darla goggled. *How in heaven's name did she find out about Art?*

"Oh, come off it, Darla," Audrey sniffed. "I caught Jane and Art playing kissy-face-tag in the rose garden yesterday and she told me about Art and her reasons for not introducing him to me from the start. "I'm cool with that. I just don't think I want an audience while I talk to you about my secrets."

"Okay. . . " Darla said slowly, while thinking very fast. *I've already told Jane I'm not playing snitch anymore, but if this really is a secret for Audrey, any of the public rooms are out. And Audrey's bedroom is one that Jane had rigged with surveillance cameras and microphones after Mike's suicide attempt. That leaves my room, which isn't a good idea, or somewhere outside.* "How about we go for a walk - perhaps down to the stable?"

"Great idea! I'll go see if I can sweet talk Marie out of a thermos of cocoa and something to snack on."

"Don't forget something for Garters and Teddi!" Darla yelled after the suddenly gone Audrey. "What the hell am I getting into now?"

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

"Good grief," Darla exclaimed as Audrey began laying out the contents of the wicker basket, starting with a picnic blanket, "you said a snack, not a six course meal."

"You know Marie as well as I do - hell, you know her better. What did you expect? She said it would let Art have 'a civilized luncheon with his belle wife' if you and I picnicked out here." Then Audrey laughed. "Lord, will you look at this? Fine china and crystal glasses for an afternoon picnic in a horse barn." Then she shook her head in disbelief, or maybe admiration. "Only at this place."

*I'm not at all sure that what Art has in mind is particularly civilized, but all I can say is, 'go for it, Dad!'.* "Well, at least it is warm here in the stable, or I would have very uncivilly crashed their little tete-a-tete. OH WOW! Marie's special chicken salad!! She rarely makes that when a student is in the house, and it's my favorite!"

Audrey looked up from her work, a quizzical look on her face. "Why not? I know it's bad for the figure, but once in a while it's not a problem."

"Aunt Jane," Darla said with a giggle. "She loves it, too, but even she hasn't been able to find a dignified and neat way to eat one of Marie's overstuffed chicken salad sandwiches."

"Well, she sent us plenty of napkins so I guess I won't worry about being dignified and just enjoy my sandwich."

"Good plan," Darla approved. "HEY, I get the bigger one. She packed them for me!"

"Watch it, shorty," Audrey said with a mock growl, before handing over the biggest of the three sandwiches. "That just means I don't have to share the other two."

Soon, the two young people were seated on the blanket in front of Garters' stall with their legs drawn demurely beneath their skirts, happily consuming their feast.

"So, Audrey," Darla offered as she munched contentedly on an apple, "now that we're both stuffed, what was it you wanted to talk about?"

"Boys," the other girl said softly. "Or maybe more correctly, men."

*Uh oh,* was Darla's first thought, before she realized that this might be the chance she'd wanted to see if or how Darryl had messed up this morning. "You said you were starting to like, um, Darryl quite a bit. Is that still going okay for you?" she managed with an air of nonchalance she was far from actually feeling.

"Yes. . no. . I guess. . ."

"Well, that's definitive," Darla quipped.

"Oh, you," the taller girl said with an embarrassed smile. "Look, you know about my past, right? I just don't know how to deal with . . .this!"

"Define 'this' for me, okay? Take your time."

"I've never been, well, attracted to a guy before. I just don't know what to do."

"Is he attracted to you?" Darla asked, as much because she figured the question was appropriate as because DARRYL wanted to know if Audrey knew he was.

"If he isn't, he shouldn't be kissing me the way he did yesterday," Audrey snapped, and then blushed. "He, ah, caught me by surprise."

Audrey twitched as she realized she'd just revealed more than she intended, at least about the depth of her feelings about Darryl. She wasn't sure she wanted to tell anyone about that yet. For that matter, she wasn't sure she even understood it herself. So she shrugged and said, "It's, um, it's just that, ah, he's the first guy who has ever really kissed me. He . . . really did a number on me."

"Did you like it?" Darla prodded deeper

"After a good deal of thought," Audrey's eyes suddenly became alive with excitement. "I had to admit to myself that I LOVED it," she confided.

"Pretty good one, was it?" Darla asked, grinning conspiratorially.

"Like one of those movie closeup kisses - from an old black and white film. My toes actually curled, Darla."

*Mine did, too!* "Sounds like you like him and he likes you," the smaller girl observed with a nonchalant shrug. "You're both mature for your age, and nearly at the age of full consent. So what's the problem?"

"I'm not holding up my end of things, Darla, and I really don't know how. That's where YOU come in."

A niggle of uncertainty tickled at the back of Darla's mind. "Where I come in? I'm not sure I understand."

"I don't know what to do. I grew up feeling like I wasn't male or female, neither fish nor fowl, if you can understand that. Almost sexless, really. I don't know how to deal with these feelings, these situations."

*Oh NO!* "And you think I do?"

"Sure you do. You're a real girl's girl, so I'm pretty sure you know how these guy-girl things work from the girl's side of the equation. Lord knows I don't. I mean, look, let me give you an example of what I mean. This morning? I was going to really turn the tables on Darryl for that Valentino scene he hit me with yesterday. I was really going to lay it on him - just to find out what it is like to be, well, the aggressor in this type of thing. I wanted to bend HIM over backwards - you know, draping him over in my arms, and then kiss him senseless like he did to me. I'm big enough, strong enough to do it, so I figured I'd sauce that gander good."

Stalling for time, Darla asked. "So what happened?"

"I wimped out," Audrey said with a disgusted sigh. "I got worried that he wouldn't like it, or worse, that he'd think I was doing it to show him what it was like to be overpowered. And. . . and. . . "

"And what, Audrey?"

"Well, when you think about it, what I was planning to do would pretty much prove that I'm stronger than him. The guys I know from the gym tend to be really sensitive about girls showing them up like that. It's part of the reason I want to compete against them."

"You're afraid that he might dump you for showing him up like that?"

Audrey nodded. "I don't know much about men, but what I do know is that they don't have a sense of humor where their supposed manhood is concerned."

"Knowing Darryl," Darla said carefully, "I don't think he would have gotten angry or anything. He might have laughed."

"THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN WORSE!" Audrey yelped, bringing Garters to the door of his stall to see what the noise was all about.

*She's fragile,* Darla realized, *particularly where her sexuality is concerned. She assumes that anything that happens less than perfectly is her fault. "I don't think he'd have meant it in a bad way. Darryl is just one of those guys who laughs when he's happy. If he likes you, I guarantee he'd be happy to have you, what did you say? Oh yes, ummm, kiss him senseless."

"But I don't know that - didn't know that!" Audrey almost wailed.

"Well, short of going out with the two of you," *Which flat out isn't going to happen,* "And interpreting his responses for you, I don't know what good I can do, Audrey." *Particularly, since there is a real problem of conflict of interests here. . .or is it? She wants me and I want her. . . No, you can't EVEN think like that, you idiot. There lies nothing but disaster.*

"I need a plan," Audrey said firmly. "I need to get over my, um, hesitancy around boys. Just like the plan I made when I decided I was going to compete in the Olympics against men, only this is a different sort of relationship."

Darla nodded, trying to portray an air of calmly analytical consideration of Audrey's idea. "Just what did you have in mind?"

"I need a Get Laid plan. That should cover any remaining, ah, uncertainties."

"You want a WHAT?!"

"You heard what I said," Audrey replied, smirking.

"A plan," Darla repeated, not quite sure she believed where this was going. "For you to follow, so that you can . . . 'get laid'. Get laid by . . . whom?"

"Darryl, of course. I don't know the 'what's and how's' of all this romance stuff, so that's where you come in. I figure we can start out small - you know - little things, so that I don't panic or get worried that he won't like it, and so that you can tell me what the likely reactions are and how to interpret them."

A ball of anxiety seemed to be growing exponentially inside Darla's gut as she forced herself to stay focused. "Interpret them? I don't understand."

"Sure you do," her friend enthused. "Like the laughing. Suppose he laughed? You said right away that it meant he was happy and liked what was going on, right? Well, I probably would have belted him one, or run off to lick my wounds. So, I figure we start building this plan - a little bit at a time - to make sure we account for anything new we've learned along the way, and work our way up to the big time."

The ball of tension that had been growing almost exploded. For several long moments, Darla could not speak, could only barely think. *Oh God, she wants me to tell her how to seduce Darryl, but Darryl is me, I mean, I'm Darryl and. . . Oh GOD!* "You want. . me. . .to . .to . ."

"Teach me what I need to know to seduce Darryl," Audrey finished, a huge relieved smile on her face. "Whew. Thank goodness I finally managed to get THAT out. I mean, he's really okay for a guy, and I . . .well, I like him. On top of all that, after that kiss, I don't think he'd run screaming into the night if I jumped his bones. So, I guess I don't mind if I make one or more of his days VERY lucky," she offered with a very salacious smile "So, Teach, what do we do next?"

Whatever reaction Audrey had anticipated to her request, the look of shock and near-horror on Darla's face was not it. "I can't handle this," the boy-girl gritted out in a voice that was neither Darla nor Darryl, but an agonized mix of both. "I just can't do this. I . . I," without finishing, Darla jumped to her feet and began to leave.

Surprised and suddenly worried at her friends unexpected distress, Audrey reached out and caught Darla by her arm. "Hey, wait a minute. What's the matter? What . . ?"

Furiously, and with surprising strength, Darla shook Audrey's hand from her arm. "No, please, I need to be alone for a. . a ohhh god, I. . have to leave."

Audrey looked on in open-mouthed disbelief as Darla practically raced out of the barn, her skirts forgotten and flapping immodestly about her flashing legs.

"Goodness, what's happened to her?" she asked herself as she watched her friend disappear up the trail. *I should follow her. . .,* Audrey mused. *Well, she did say she needed to be alone. . . Okay, so I'll just pick up the picnic leftovers and take the basket back to Marie before I go check on Darla. Besides, she'd probably have a fit if I left her precious china and crystal laying about on the floor of the stable.*
 
 
Chapter 5: Programmatic Breakdown
 
"Ma-REEE-EEE?" Audrey called as she walked through the kitchen door, the neatly repacked picnic basket hanging from her arm.

"Here, now," Marie scolded as she bustled back to where the frowning girl stopped. "There's no need to shout like that. My hearing is quite good, thank-you-very-much" Then she got a better look at the very distracted young woman's face. "What's wrong, Audrey?" Marie asked in a much gentler voice.

"Marie. . .have you seen Darla?" Audrey asked, looking around as if to see if her friend might be at hand. "In the last few minutes, I mean?"

"Well, no, but why? Here, let me take that basket." The older woman took the picnic basket and set it beside her sink. "Now, what is all this about?" she asked again.

"Darla and I were talking about. . . well, things, and suddenly, she was really upset," she said, before adding reflectively. "I have never seen her react that way before."

*Why do I think 'things' is more correctly spelled 'boys', perhaps even one specific boy?* "What happened?" Marie asked again, this time more firmly.

"She turned and ran," Audrey shrugged, her confusion plain on her face, "after telling me she needed to be alone. I . . I let her go, but the longer I've thought about it, the more I'm worried that letting her go off alone in that kind of mood might not have been the right decision."

*That doesn't sound like Darla. Whatever could have made her react like that?* "Any idea what set her off?"

"I'm not really sure, but. . .Marie? I was going to clean up the stuff in the basket, but now, would you mind taking care of these things? I really feel like I should go find Darla."

Marie watched as the girl slipped away into the public rooms of the main house. "Lord, I hope this is nothing serious," she murmured to herself. "Audrey seemed more pensive than really worried."

At the same time her mind could not think of anything that was 'nothing serious' that would set off her rock-solid nephew/niece. "On the other hand, maybe I had better go find Jane."

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

Audrey concluded that the most likely place to find Darla would be with Jane Thompson. Besides, if she wasn't there, Jane should be told that her niece was so upset. Audrey had no experience with someone that apparently upset, and felt that the erring on the side of caution was the smarter course of action.

As it turned out, she could hear the sound of voices as she approached Jane's downstairs office. That was odd, for as Audrey had learned over the course of her months in Season's House, Jane's office was as close to soundproofed as made no real difference. The cause also became obvious as she came up to the office door - it wasn't closed, although she couldn't see in through the bare crack.

Audrey hesitated at opening the door and concluded that, whatever was wrong, Jane Thompson was better able to handle it than Audrey herself. She was about to leave, when some imp had her stay to listen.

"You're sure I can't talk you out of this?" Jane's voice asked in that calm, rational and almost toneless voice Audrey had come to know and respect. Ms. Thompson was trying to make one of those uncomfortable points of hers.

"No," was the adamant response from a still-upset Darla.

*Her voice is really husky-sounding. I wish I knew what I did to upset her so. Maybe if I listen just a bit, I will get a clue so that I don't do it again.*

"This whole thing has gone too far, and. . . and I just can't help her any more, not now! I can't do what you ask and I can't do what she asks. It's time, Mom."

*MOM?!?!?* Audrey's mind reeled at that revelation. Now, NOTHING would move her from her station.

"I'm not sure I agree, dear. You're very upset right now. That doesn't make this a good time for such a major decision - especially when it affects more than just you."

"This time you don't have to agree and you don't get a say," Darla's voice was a barely audible hiss. "I have to do what I have to do, or lose everything - including my self respect."

"Need I remind you that she's MY student?"

"No, but that's why I am telling you."

"Are you doing this because it's right for her, or because it's right for you?"

A long silence followed Jane's question. Finally, a gusty sigh broke the seeming impasse and Darla spoke again. "I don't know, Mom, and that is the whole truth. Both of us, maybe. Or maybe neither of us. But going on as we are is not right either. Not for either of us. I *am* sure of that. Audrey deserves better than this."

At that, Audrey straightened and strode into the office. "I quite agree, and since I seem to be the topic of discussion," she said firmly, "I think I have the right to know precisely what you two are talking about."

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

Darla closed her eyes against what was to come, but nodded. For her part, Jane looked to be readying an argument, but that died aborning as her child held up one finely manicured hand. "Could we be alone, Aunt Jane? Please?"

Jane's face took on a mutinous glare that almost made Darla smile, having seen its like often in the mirror. "Please. It really is time. She deserves that."

Still uncertain, Jane glanced back and forth between the two beautifully dressed young people. Finally she shrugged. Turning to Darla, she bent down and kissed her child on the cheek. "I will be in my study if you need me." Darla gave her a shaky smile and nodded, whereupon Jane turned a sterner eye on her pupil. "You will do everyone a very great favor - yourself included, Audrey - if you listen to what Darla has to say with a fair and open mind. I'll remind you that you came here under some duress, forced by the very serious issues you were facing. It was my judgment at the time that equally serious methods were required to address those issues. Darla consented to assist me, at my request and despite significant misgivings on her part. None of this was her idea - it was mine. She merely deferred to my greater experience in such matters."

Then Jane slipped from the room, carefully closing the door behind her - only then wishing she'd remembered to activate the microphone hidden in her desk-set.

"Okay, Darla," Audrey said coming directly to the point. "Just what the hell is going on here!?!"

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

Darla turned away from Audrey, and went to stand in front of the windows that overlooked Jane's beloved English garden. Try as she might, the words she needed eluded her. "You know, in all my time here at Seasons House, and in all the talks I have had with Jane's students, nothing like this has ever happened. I don't know what to say to you, Audrey."

"I'd say the place to start is with Jane's parting shot," Audrey replied. "Since that seems to be pretty close to the beginning. What did she mean by that crack about 'Serious methods'?"

Darla nodded, and began to nervously rub her crossed forearms with her hands. "Do you remember what you were like when you first arrived? What Rocky was like?" she asked in a soft, oddly husky voice.

Frowning, Audrey sat down in one of the conversation setting chairs. "Yeah. So? I wasn't much of a lady, then, okay? I know that, and if this is all about whether I intend to stay, ah, feminine, or whether I like being a woman now, the answer is yes. Does that solve this great revelation Jane was trying to talk you out of giving me."

"That's part of it, but only a small part of it. If you'll recall, it wasn't just that Rocky wasn't very feminine - didn't WANT to be feminine. It's more about the way Rocky thought about men."

"That person, Rocky, didn't think much of men, I mean, about men very much."

Despite the tension coiling in her guts, Darla smiled. "You were right the first time. That Rocky was more likely to attack a man than get to know him."

"I was not THAT bad. I only retaliated when. ." Darla turned and fixed a challenging look on the tall girl, stopping her in mid- sentence. "All right, already. I agree, and that I SOMEtimes would act decisively rather than wait and have to react. So, maybe I wasn't very nice then. What's all that got to do with you and now?"

"Well, Jane decided that you would be able to, um, settle in better if there were no men in the household."

Rolling her eyes, Audrey grimaced. "Right, and so Art left, leaving poor Aunt Jane all alone. Oh, except for you and Marie of course."

Darla gripped her crossed arms tightly, trying to force them to stop shaking. The moment she had been dreading was upon them both. "Um, it's not quite that simple."

A bark of laughter answered Darla. "For damn sure it's not simple if you won't spit it out. Damn it, Darla, I thought you were going to come clean with me."

"Ah, yes, well, it was also, um, decided that you needed a companion while you were working through your issues."

"And that's where you come in."

"Yes. But, you see, there was more to that 'solution' than you were told."

Throwing her arms up in frustration, Audrey stood and moved to face Darla. "God, I hate pulling teeth. Get to the damn point!"

"The only young person in the household who could be your companion was not, um, compatible with your first need."

"So, what? You're a visitor? An older student of Jane's? But I heard you call Jane, 'Mom'."

"Yeah, well, that part is right. I'm her adopted . . . child."

"And? What's the rest of it? I don't have any problem with adopted children so that's no reason to get all strange on me."

"Audrey . . God this is hard . . . I'm not her adopted daughter." Darryl replied, consciously changed his voice, and letting his posture sag a bit, thus losing the prim perfection Darla always displayed. The combination, along with the stress Audrey realized was all too real for any continuing distraction, finally got through to the athletic girl. She knew what Darla was about to say before the words even came. "I'm her adopted son." he concluded quietly.

For several heartbeats, Audrey was bereft of speech. all she could do was remember the times she had been with this. . this person, confided in her. . HIM, trusted her friend, only to discover that she had not friend. Not here. "Son?" she spat out when her voice returned, lashing out with all the fury, confusion and hurt she was now feeling. "Oh, God, you . . . we . . . in the dressing room, and . . . in my bedroom . . . spying on me, laughing at me. You . . . you. . . . BASTARD! You. . SON of a BITCH!"

Darryl felt the tears burn, but had no strength to staunch their flow. "Dear Audrey, that's not the worst of it."

"Don't you DARE call me dear!" she raged at her betrayer.

Nodding, Darryl turned his face away so he did not have to face her accusations. "The worst of it is . . . who I really am."

"Who, Jack the Ripper? What could possibly be worse than being a damn Peeping Tom pervert, lying to me every single minute I've been in this house?"

"Lying to you even when you weren't in the house," Darryl explained at the same time rolling up the long sleeves of Darla's blouse and then displaying the nearly faded scratch marks from the rabbit. "Audrey, I'm Darryl."

Audrey felt her hand stiffen, felt her arm muscles tighten, ready to launch her palm into the head-snapping face-slap every cell of her body longed to deliver, the slap she would have delivered instinctually but a few short months ago, but something stopped her. Consciously and with great effort, she relaxed her arm and hand, letting her fingers curl loosely against her side. "Stay away from me, Darryl," she ordered in a cold, almost whispered hiss. "And that goes for your family, too. I hate you all," she growled as she strode to the door only to stop at its threshold. "You most of all! Keep the hell away from me, Darryl. If you even come near me, I will hurt you!"

Jane found Darryl minutes later. Still in her office, still weeping. It took both her and Art to finally wring the full story from the grieving young man.

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

He was almost too late, was Art's first thought as he shot out the door of the apartment he shared with his beloved wife. *God help me make that 'almost',* he prayed. *For all our sakes.*

Anger stalked the halls of the Seasons mansion; cold, silent rage, invisible yet implacable. The form it wore flowed with predatory grace toward the entity that had hurt her child. The smooth glide might have owed more to long-ago ballet training than pentathlon, but the source was less important than the fierce intensity that was evidenced only by an absence of the slightest softening of razor-sharp determination. Only one thing mattered to her, and that was on the other side of the next door.

She reached out to twist open the doorknob, only to find her wrist captured and pulled away. Enraged at this interruption of her mission, Jane spun to face the interloper, her lips curled in a snarl.

"Easy, Jane," Art said softly, the sadness in his eyes a counterpoint to the darker emotions coloring Jane's own. "You are in no condition to deal with this situation. You have to calm down first."

"Calm down?" Jane hissed, "Calm DOWN?!? Like hell, Art. She threatened MY child and I am NOT going to stand for it! I am not going to let her think she can get away with it!"

"That's just the point, sweetheart. Don't you see? Audrey only threatened Darryl. She did not physically do ANYthing and we both know that she is fully capable of hurting him and that three, heck, even two months ago, she would have hurt him."

"Did you see the condition our son was in, Art? Weren't you in there when he cried his heart out over what she said to him? How can you defend her like this??!"

Gently, Art drew Jane away from Audrey's door and back towards their own private apartment. "Because it was his heart, Janie. She couldn't have hurt him so badly if not for the fact that his heart is involved. He loves her."

"So? She still hurt him that badly, and just yesterday, Marie was telling me that Audrey cared for him."

"Likely she did, Janie, and probably still does. But now she feels betrayed and that feeling is worse because of whatever emotion she had for Darla and Darryl before she found out the truth," Art said as they entered Jane's study.

"You're working your therapy tricks on me," Jane accused, her eyes narrowing.

"Naw," Art demurred as he shut the door behind him, putting his body between Jane and it. "I'm just giving you a time out you didn't really want so that your stellar qualities of fairness and love for your students could reassert themselves and overcome your rage."

For a moment, Art withstood Jane's best steely-eyed glare, but then she seemed to slump in on herself. The next moment, she found herself wrapped in her husband's loving and healing embrace. "I wanted to tear her heart out," Jane murmured against Art's shoulder.

"That would have shown her how a real woman deals with her darker emotions," Art teased before becoming more serious. "Perfect way to give her an excuse to ignore everything else you've tried to teach her."

Jane sighed deeply. "I know, but when I think about Darryl, there in his room, getting ready to . . ready to. . And. .and it's all MY fault!"

"I know, Janey," Art replied, surprising her with his no-excuses acceptance of her sense of responsibility. "Except, that it's all MY fault as well. I advocated the same plan. And we've ALL gone along with it despite the growing attraction we could see between them. But the fact remains that Darryl's right, so far as it goes. And you do have a commitment to Audrey."

"What about my commitment to Darryl?"

"He's a man in love who wants the best for the woman he loves."

"But at what cost to himself?" Jane demanded.

"Exactly," Art sighed before finishing, "It's your call, sweetheart, but I think we ought to try, at least, to salvage something from this debacle."

Jane became silent, content for just a few moments to simply bask in the warmth of Art's embrace and love. Finally, she nodded against his shoulder. "All right. I'll try, but I am going to need help. Starting with how do I handle this next interview with her. What do I demand of her and what do I offer in return?"

"How about we think about that together? Starting with what your original goals for her were in the program, and where she is now."

Suddenly feeling weary beyond belief, Jane went over to her desk. "Let me get the files."
 
 
Chapter 6: Reconsideration if not Reconciliation
 
The anger that had but a scant two hours earlier stalked the halls of the old Victorian Mansion was still there, but the beast was once again suborned to the iron will of the Mistress of Seasons House.

Jane's second approach to Audrey's room was far more circumspect, but no less purposeful. After they had finished their strategy discussion, Art had insisted that she take a short, calming stroll in her garden to soothe her soul, followed by a nap to restore her equilibrium before confronting Audrey.

*And he'd been right, as usual,* Jane admitted as she stood in front of Audrey's door. At least she didn't feel quite so brittle as she had at the end of the planning session. She took a deep breath, knocked on Audrey's door, and then as she had so many times before with so many other students, entered the room without waiting for a response.

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

Audrey was lounging on the window seat, staring out over the late afternoon expanse of the estate. Her only acknowledgment of Jane's presence had been a short glance, a frown of disgust, and a pointed turn of her head back to the window.

"That was well done," Jane said as she walked over and seated herself on the bed. "Edith White would have been impressed."

Audrey wondered who the hell Edith White was, but forced herself not to ask.

Recognizing that her opening gambit had failed, Jane proceeded with the next step she and Art had agreed upon. "We need to talk, Audrey," Jane said firmly, "And since you are still under my supervision by your parent's decree, and more to the point, by your own word, we will have that talk."

She could ignore the bit about her mother, Audrey mused. She was rather unhappy with Prudence Rockwell at that particular moment, too, but Jane had struck home with the jab at her pride and her honor. With ill-grace, she turned just enough that she could see Jane without having to look directly at her. "For what good it will do, go ahead and talk," she said shortly.

The chained beast inside Jane snarled again, showing its teeth and unsheathing its claws, but she managed to hold it at bay. She did wish she had Art, or perhaps better still, Diana here to act as a mediator, but Art had pointed out that Diana would have instead been a barrier, and that was the last thing that either Jane or Audrey needed if this confrontation was to be in any way productive.

"You're angry," Jane observed, "and feeling betrayed. I won't trivialize either emotion by trying to tell you they are not warranted."

"Smart move, *MS* Thompson," Audrey snapped.

"But NEITHER will I tolerate you behaving like a childish brat when we both know that you are well able to conduct yourself like the mature woman I know you are."

"You're angry, too," Audrey noted, "Although you're trying to hide it."

"You threatened my son with violence," Jane said coldly. "When he was here, at my request, solely to help you. Of course I am angry, but that emotion does not lend itself to solutions, and since solutions are what you AND I both need just now, I refuse to let my anger control me."

"To help me? To HELP me?" Audrey's derisive laugh hid the sob she was really feeling. "Do you think that is REALLY what he was doing? I don't, not by a long shot, Ms. School Teacher. Your SON lied to me and then told YOU my secrets in the bargain."

*Here it is,* Jane thought wearily, *The hurt and betrayal that Art assured me was at the root of this debacle - the feelings that none of my other boys felt because their situations were so different than this. And because they never fell in love with their big sister.*

"That was his job, Audrey. In part, I asked him to do those things because I was so unsure of how to proceed with you. I don't know how girls react to my treatments as well as I understand boys, so I needed an insider. Quite badly, in fact."

"Well, why didn't you just use another bloody girl!"

*You knew it would come to this,* Jane told herself. *I can only hope Art is correct in his estimation of how she will react to the truth.*

"Because there was no other girl. You are the first I've ever taught here."

"WHAT?!?!"

"This is the first of the hard truths you must hear, child. It might be easier if I told you the history of Seasons House, and what Marie and I, and for the last few years, my son Darryl do here. It started more than twenty-five years ago, at a very exclusive school for girls called Eastmore. . . "

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

"I don't know if I can believe that," Audrey breathed after Jane finished her tale. She was intrigued in spite of herself. "A school where male juvenile delinquents learn manners and the social niceties in skirts?"

"In all but one or two cases, they learn a good deal more than that," Jane said proudly. "I'm proud of all my boys."

"Still, it's hard to believe that hunk Ken ever wore skirts."

"He had a late growth spurt. However, before that, he was one of the most passable students I have ever had."

"Okay, I guess, but I don't understand why they put up with it. I mean, it makes them freaks - some might even say perverts."

"If they come to me, they usually have no choice. Well, they do, but those choices are always even less desirable than the one you faced. Two thirds of my boys are court referrals, having the choice of trying my rehabilitation program or facing years in a juvenile prison or detention hall. The rest are here because their parents have given them an ultimatum. There are, for example, several boarding schools in this country that are run like 365 day-a-year boot camps they wish to avoid. They come to me, and usually, by the end of the first week, are so cowed that they no longer think of escaping me, only avoiding discovery as boys in skirts."

"And the role Darla played? The oh-so-friendly snitch? Bet that was your ace in the hole. 'Hey, Ms. Jane? Thomasina is planning a prison break tonight'."

"That was never necessary. Unlike you, none of them had access to any clothing suited to their self image. They'd have had to attempt any escapes wearing girl clothing, and while many of them could have eventually done so successfully, they lacked the necessary confidence in their masquerade until much later in their tenure here."

"So how do you justify your little spies?"

"I do not need to justify anything, Audrey, because for almost all the boys, the program has worked. If I did need justification, I have it in Michael."

"The boy who escorted Darla, I mean, Darryl to the club? He was a student here, too?"

"Yes. And he attempted suicide because I pushed too hard. Had it not been for his big sister, he would be dead. So, to answer your question, that is why I want to know what is going on in my students' heads, and why I will ask their companion to betray trusts to find that out."

Audrey felt her stomach twist at that, for there was no question in her mind that Jane was telling her the absolute truth. Michael had been, well, nice to her that evening. *But that's not the point,* she told herself sternly. "Well, I was never so endangered, was I? So what was your excuse with Darryl? What was HIS?"

"He doesn't need an excuse. His only failing in this was falling in love with you. And once he did, he became far less willing, despite what you believe, to betray you to me."

"Oh, right," Audrey snorted. "How about that dress DARLA convinced me to pick so that DARRYL could pant at me, or the time she HELPED me fit a bra. And let's not forget about how you found out about Miss Phoebe Elisabeth, eh?"

"In the first two cases, Audrey, what else could he do under the circumstances that I forced upon the pair of you? In the case of your late, unlamented bitch of a governess, I NEEDED that information to understand why you reacted as you did. However, once he realized where his feelings lay with you, he asked me to send Darla away because playing his role in my program with you was tearing him up. That's the first time he's ever done that, and Darla has helped many young people."

"So why didn't he go away?" Audrey challenged.

"That is also my fault, I am afraid. I used the one argument he couldn't resist."

"Oh? You'd cut him off and make him work for a living?"

"Audrey, that is unworthy of you. Stop and think, please. You are letting your anger cloud your thinking even though you know him better than that. No, the argument he could not refute was that you needed Darla. You had come to trust her judgement, to share little parts of yourself that you needed to talk to someone about."

"And you needed him to keep passing along each little secret, every small confidence didn't you?"

"I did," Jane agreed, "But more importantly, Darryl agreed you needed Darla."

"And how did you come to THAT momentous conclusion?"

"We were truly afraid for you, Audrey, and as I just pointed out, this is how my program has always worked. I have a senior student, not just as my agent-provocateur, but also as an informant so that I know what is really happening inside the head of a student on whom I am putting a great deal of psychological stress. If your mother had sent you somewhere else, then other methods might have been used."

"Then why did you have to use HIM?!? Because he's a little perv and he likes playing dress-up so you indulge him?""

"My son is in no way a freak, nor is he in any way perverse," Jane said resolutely. "Darla, or rather, Darryl, is the best student I have ever taught. He's been involved with my work now for almost six years and has an almost uncanny insight into how students are reacting to me and my teachings."

"So he's been doing this, living like a girl, for years?!?"

"I told you what I did," Audrey was reminded.

The girl recovered quickly, Jane noted with some admiration. "But he still came telling tales to you, didn't he? Just like I thought."

"In the early days, yes, But more recently he has refused. After he told us about your governess, he declined to tell me anymore specifics. You will note, if you think back on recent weeks, just how often Darla instead encouraged you to tell me your own secrets and feelings."

It was true, Audrey thought, but that didn't begin to soften her outrage. "Why should I believe you?"

"Perhaps because I've never been untruthful in my relationship with you," Jane said simply. "However, only you can choose to believe that."

"I'll have to think about that and decide for myself, Ms. Thompson. We may have entirely different definitions of untruthfulness. In fact, I am nearly sure that we do. So, what happens now? Whether I choose to accept your explanation or not, you still hold my personal dreams in your hands."

Jane shrugged, her years suddenly weighing heavily on her. "There's really nothing more I can teach you, Audrey. You've mastered all the extrinsic skills - the cosmetics, the dressing - all the externals of being able to present yourself as an attractive and feminine woman in society. And you've learned other ways to deal with both your temper and your fears of men . . .."

"FEARS?!? I'm not afraid of men!"

"Perhaps not now," Jane replied softly, "but you were. Your 'do unto them before they have a chance to do unto me' attitude is what brought you here in the first place. You were finding threats in situations where others would see only lack of manners. What would you call that?"

"Well, why should I tolerate their 'lack of manners' as you call it?"

"You tell me," Jane ordered, "And you still haven't answered my question."

"Okay, maybe I was, um, 'overly concerned' with what men might do, or might want to do. That still doesn't excuse their behavior."

"No, it does not, but neither does it excuse your responses. Manners provide the lubrication that keeps the wheels of society turning. If not for that friction, there would be no need for oil."

Audrey nodded slowly. Her anger at Darryl, which she now realized was directed also at Jane, was still there. But she could see a difference between that anger and the out of control rage that had almost ruined her life. That earlier rage, had it covered for and been reinforced by fear? Audrey wondered if that might have been the case, but she couldn't seem to focus on that deep a concept just then. She was too upset to do more than nod to Jane, but she had to accept that there was at least the possibility that her mentor might be right.

"That still doesn't justify what Darryl did," she added in a warning tone. "That wasn't fair!" *Particularly when he was courting me. Did I tell him anything girl-to-girl that Darryl then used to advantage? Oh, I don't know.*

"Perhaps not," Jane answered, unaware of Audrey's private thoughts and worries. "Setting aside for the moment the fact Darryl only did as I directed him to do, so if you are angry with anyone it should be at me, I think you are fair enough to admit that you have learned to control whatever it is that motivates your anger, both the other night in Boston, and again today."

"What do you mean by today?"

"When Darryl confessed his role in all this and tried to beg your forgiveness."

"I didn't forgive him," Audrey retorted. "Haven't forgiven him!"

"But neither did you attack him. No, the things that my colleagues and I can teach you have been well and truly learned. The rest, I am afraid, cannot be taught and must be learned by yourself."

"What is that? And more importantly, am I stuck here until you decide I've learned this 'the rest'?"

Jane sighed. "I am giving you some latitude here because of your emotional distress, Audrey, but please recall one last time that nothing happened here that you did not agree to accept, whether you knew the specifics or not. To answer your second question first, you are welcome here as long as you wish to stay. If you stay and continue to behave appropriately, I will keep my word on overseeing and funding your continued athletic training. Should you elect to leave, I will be forced to tell your mother that, in my opinion, you have met the minimum standards for a viable place in society, but that I was disappointed that you had not embraced those aspects of femininity that would have offered you more of a chance to be happy as well."

"Happy by whose definition? Yours, of course. I could ask you how you can be so sure that what makes you happy would do anything other than make me miserable, but there's no point in that discussion. Okay, so knowing my mother and her opinion on this . . . school of yours, and knowing that she will NOT fund my training program until you are . . .completely satisfied, that means I stay. That is, however, your call to make, isn't it, Ms. Thompson?"

Jane barely controlled the wince of hurt that she felt at Audrey's reverting to the more formal address.

The girl pressed on determinedly. "Now it is YOU who has not answered the first question, Ms. Thompson," Audrey reminded her teacher. What must I learn to satisfy you and earn my real freedom?"

"What's more important, Audrey? Satisfying me, or satisfying yourself? Are you satisfied with only meeting the minimum standards? Or are you willing to try to be the best you can be? As I said, I can't 'teach' you what you need to know, but I might be able to help you find it on your own. In any event, I'm willing to try if you are."

"Now you are sounding like a recruiting commercial. What do you mean by 'the best I can be'?" Audrey asked, and then Jane saw real anger flare in her dark eyes. "This is just a way to get me to forgive Darryl, isn't it? You're going to keep me here until I make nice with your kid, or is there something else you want me to make with him?"

"AUDREY! That was uncalled for. Your relationship with MY son, such as it is or was, is not to the point. Finding within yourself the compassion, the caring, and ultimately the fairness to face the world like a WOMAN IS the point. You can do that without ever seeing Darryl again if you truly believe that his behavior was both unfair and offensive. I don't, but I am woman enough to know that I am not always right, so if that is what it takes, he is already packing to leave my house - his HOME - tonight."

"Tell him not to bother. It just doesn't matter any more, at least, not to me!" Audrey snapped, telling Jane how much Darryl's offer truly did, in fact, matter to the outraged young woman. "As to what I have to, quote, learn, end quote," she went on, "'Compassion, caring and fairness' - that all sounds like a lot of double talk to me."

"Perhaps it does, in abstract, or perhaps such concepts are among those rare things that must be understood from inside and that can never be truly explained. If you already understand, you don't need the explanation. If you don't understand, no amount of explanation will ever suffice." Jane looked at her student and was not surprised to see angry confusion in her eyes. "As I said, you are free to choose. If you stay, I will continue to support your Olympic training. If you decide to leave, then you must deal with Prudence along those lines for yourself. Now, you must excuse me, Audrey, my family needs me. Perhaps you would help Marie with the dinner preparations?"

"Um. . . sure."
 
 
Chapter 7: A New Deal for Audrey
 
Marie winced as she watched Audrey attack the breakfast dishes, soaking in the sink after the morning meal. *She's going to rub the glazing off the plate if it doesn't shatter in her hands first.*

It was all Marie could do not to squeal in dismay when the girl rather forcefully set the plate into the drying rack. Moving quickly, she intercepted the hand reaching for a crystal juice glass. "I'll handle that," she said as she moved the tall girl back from sink towards one of the stools near the serving island in the center of the large kitchen.

"It's my assigned chore," Audrey reposited pugnaciously. "By Ms. Thompson herself!" she added with an air of exaggerated deference.

"Well, I don't care to replace any of those settings," Marie growled back. "That's some of my favorite china, not plastic or melamine, and you can just sit there on that stool until you have yourself under control."

"I AM under control!" Audrey all but bellowed back, and then had the grace to blush. "Well, I thought I was," she averred, as she slid onto the high-seated stool.

Pleased with the exchange, Marie hid a smile as she turned her attention to the sink filled with dishes. "So, what set you off, cherie, if I might be so bold to ask?"

"ohhhh. . . " Audrey groaned disgustedly.

"Well, that tells me a lot," Marie teased.

"If you must know, I saw Darryl today for the first time since I found out about his nasty little trick. I mean, here I've had to sit through more than a WEEK of these interminable meals with Ms. Jane constantly casting this mournful looks over at Darla's, I mean, Darryl's empty chair. And then, during the one time of the day I am truly free from this place, during my morning run, I practically trip over him."

"He hasn't left, Audrey, although I understand he did offer to leave, if that was what you wanted or what Jane thought best for you. In fact, he's using the apartment down at the stables."

"Well, today he chose to go running on the same trail I chose."

"Oh my GOODNESS," Marie breathed, holding one damp palm over her heart, "and so you had to share an entire path? Now why didn't the world as we know it go up in a huge fireball?"

"It's not funny," Audrey replied stiffly. "And we didn't share it. As soon as he saw me, he stopped and disappeared into the woods. Once I passed where he had hidden, he came back out and took off the other way."

*And I wonder just what annoyed you the most, Cherie? That he was there in the first place, or that he went out of his way to avoid you?*

"I'm sure that was difficult for you," Marie said as she turned back to her sink.

"Hmmmm. . ." Audrey replied. "I really don't understand why Ms. Jane wants to keep me here. It's not like she's working with me all that much, and it's pretty obvious to me that everyone is miserable with me around."

"I rather like having you around, sweetheart," Marie said offhandedly. "I would, of course, like it better if you and Darryl were both here. Besides, didn't I see Deputy Beale with you the other day, helping you with your shooting? And I know that Jane has been working with you at the stable with your jumping. So, how can you say she's not working with you?"

"That's different," the girl asserted. "I mean, she hasn't done any of the girlie-stuff with me since the night we went to Boston. What's the point of being here, then? I would get better coaching at the National Training Center, which is where I would be if your friend would just tell my Mom she's done with me. Minimum standards, indeed."

"That's between you and Jane. I guess I do have a question, though, if you wouldn't mind answering it."

Audrey shrugged. "Ask away. I don't have to answer."

"I know that Darryl told you he was Darla. What I don't know, because neither he nor Jane will tell me, is why he unmasked himself to you?"

Audrey threw her arms up dramatic and exaggerated chagrin confusion. "How in heaven's name would I know what was going on in that oddball kid's head?" she asked, scowling.

*Pull the other one, Cherie,* Marie thought. "So, why don't you tell me what led up to him making such an out-of-character decision."

The scowl momentarily deepened, but there was something about Marie that made Audrey feel safe, cared for, even though she knew the housekeeper loved Darryl, too. Forcing herself to relax, she organized her thoughts and began to speak. "You remember the day Darryl . . . kissed me, right? Because we, that is, you and I, talked about it?" Marie nodded. "And you told me that I ought to give him one back, right? Well, I was all ready to do it - dressed really nice, even did a bit of work on my hair and face before going out for the run. Heck, I even used perfume, though lord knows it would have been washed away by sweat at the end of our run."

The girl paused - went silent for several moments. Marie tried to hold out, but couldn't. This was the cusp, she realized. "Well? What happened?"

Audrey's eyes fell, and she found herself studying the toes of her shoes. "I wimped out," she self-accused. "I had him cornered, Marie, in arms reach. I couldn't do it. I guess I wasn't ready."

"That must have been hard for you, cherie," Marie said gently. "Then what happened?"

"I had this really brilliant idea - I'd make a plan - start slower than ravishing his mouth like that. . .work my way up through stages, until . . well, until," she finished with a rush.

"Sounds sensible," Marie offered coyly.

"I thought so! Only problem was that I didn't. . .don't know anything about how to go about sedu . . I mean, going about that kind of plan, so I needed help and. . and. . "

*OH MY,* Marie thought with sudden clarity. "And you asked Darla how to go about. . . planning for Darryl." It wasn't a question. Audrey nodded, her movements suddenly jerky.

"Now I understand," Marie breathed. "That does indeed explain a great deal, including why he, as you put it, hid in the woods today."

Audrey snorted. "Does he really think I'd hurt him?"

Marie smiled gently at Audrey. "No, cherie. In fact, I'd take any bet you want to name that he is afraid that he will hurt you." *More than he thinks he already has,* she added to herself.

"Yeah, right," Audrey snorted as she jumped off the stool and began to pace the room. "I could pound him into the dirt anytime I decided I wanted to do it."

"Of course you could, dear, though if he had a mind to protect himself, he would surprise you. He's a lot tougher than you are giving him credit for. But of course he would never fight you. That's not the sort of hurt I had in mind anyway, and you know it."

"He DID hurt me! Isn't that enough? He SHOULD hide from me!"

"Yes, petite, he did hurt you, and that is tearing him apart."

"Now why should it?" Audrey snapped sarcastically. "Everyone says that it wasn't his fault. He was just 'following orders' like a good little girl. . boy scout."

"Do you think those assertions matter to him, or somehow lets him forgive himself? You are hurt. He was part of it. My boy would find that very hard to forgive."

For the first time since that sad afternoon, a crack appeared in the hard shield Audrey had put up around her emotions. "Oh, Marie, I never wanted him to be hurt, at least, not after I,. . . I don't know, after I absorbed what was going on."

Marie put down her cloth and came over to pull Audrey into a strong embrace. "Have you told him that?" she asked softly.

"No," Audrey managed to get out through a suddenly tight throat. "I . . . I'm not ready . . I can't do that. Not yet."

Sighing, Marie nodded. "And so you run on one path while he hides from the hurt he's caused you."

"Oh, God, Marie," Audrey sobbed as she buried her face into the older woman's shoulder, "this is just so . . . so screwed up. It isn't supposed to hurt like this!"

Marie had no answer to that, so she just held the weeping girl. For long minutes, the only sounds in the kitchen were Marie's encouraging murmurs, and Audrey's weeping.

Finally, the tears began to ebb. With a loving smile, Marie reached over to pull a tissue from a box. "Here. Jane always says that no job is finished until all the paperwork is done."

That earned her a watery chuckle. "Thanks."

"Better now?"

"A little, I guess. It's just so hard, Tante Marie, to lo. . feel like I felt for him, and have him deceive me like that - betray me like that." Suddenly, a fresh spurt of tears began to follow the tracks already etched over her cheeks. "Dammit! I still feel for him! What's the matter with me?!?"

"Maybe, sweet, your heart understands some things your head is fighting," Marie answered, carefully.

"Explain that!" Audrey ordered with an imperiously Jane-ish lift of her chin that almost made Marie laugh.

"I'll try, but it may not be something you're ready to hear." Audrey crossed her arms and pinned Marie with a dark scowl.

"All right, Darryl deceived you by being Darla. Jane told me she's explained how the program works with boys?" Marie asked as much as stated. Audrey nodded. "Tres bien. Initially, having Darla there was something Jane felt SHE needed, and something Darryl was used to doing for her. She used Darryl to work out with you because she didn't want to go outside the family, if you will, for help, and because she felt Darryl could take care of himself physically."

Audrey snorted at that.

"Believe what you will. Kenneth took him down once during a disagreement. Since then, Darryl has learned and practiced under several self-defense instructors. Like I said, if he decided to protect himself, I think you'd be surprised. Anyway, the Darla- thing worked fine until Darryl started falling for you. Now he was caught between his Mother, whose program had saved his life, and his growing feelings for you. What set him off? What made him break faith with his Mother and unmask?" Audrey shrugged, refusing to meet Marie's eyes. "You just told me, young lady!" Marie said firmly.

"When I asked Darla to help me make a plan to seduce Darryl," she answered in a very small voice.

"Precisely. And that says a great deal about how much he really cares for you - heavens, about how much he loves you!"

"What? I mean, maybe he's got ethics or something, but love?"

"Audrey," Marie drawled chidingly. "I know you don't have a great deal of practical experience with the male of the species, but tell me any other reason that a hot blooded young buck turns down the offer of a good hard roll in the hay with a sexy female, eh? Bon Dieu, Audrey, all he had to do was give you that sure- fire 'jump Darryl's bones' plan you asked for. The only way any plan he gave you wouldn't have succeeded is if you had chickened out."

"So? I still don't see how that means he loves. . .LOVED me."

Shaking her head, Marie reached out and took Audrey's chin in her hand, forcing the girl to meet her eyes. "Sweetheart, you already know the answer to that, I think. All I'm going to say is that when a man thinks more of a woman than as JUST a sexy bed-mate, then a SMART woman had better think about what that means and how she feels about it."

For several moments, Marie could see the girl mulling that, trying to reconcile her mentor's words with the way she felt. "Think about that, cherie. Take whatever time you need, but think about that," she said softly.

The emotionally drained girl nodded again, hugged Marie tightly, and then slipped out of the house through the kitchen door.

"Well, we'll just have to wait and see what happens next, won't we?" Marie sighed. "Now that you've got something besides being hurt and angry to think about, that is. I just hope I didn't make things worse for those two kids."

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

"Marie?" Jane asked after Audrey had left the breakfast table. "Do you have any idea what's changed with Audrey? After she found out about Darryl, she spent more than a week of giving me the best example of 'malicious compliance' I've seen since Michael's early days."

"Oh? Is that why you've stopped the, now how did Audrey put it? Oh yes, the 'girlie-stuff' and have just concentrated on keeping your end of your bargain about her equestrian training?"

Jane shrugged. "As both Art and Darryl have pointed out to me, I really don't have much in the way of the 'girlie-stuff' to teach her," Jane said with a scowl, "at least, not much in the way of outwardly feminine skills and behaviors. The lessons I want her to learn from here on out have little to do with how well her lipstick is applied, or whether her shoes coordinate with her frock. She's been so, I don't know, introspective the past few days? One reason I assigned her scullery duties in the kitchen was the hope that she'd open up to you. Anything you can tell me?"

Marie nodded, her eyes turning furtively toward the sound of the front door opening and closing. "A very great deal. Starting with what's about to happen."

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

Audrey sat heavily upon the stone bench, the seat cold after a chilly New England winter night. She hoped the weather was not an omen for the sky was gray and the air held the tang of impending snow. She wasn't really sure what was going to come of this, but she couldn't help. . .hoping.

"Marie said you wanted to see me." Audrey felt her heart give a little skip at the familiar voice.

She spun around to see Darryl standing in the door from Jane's downstairs office. Schooling her features, Audrey nodded. "Yes. I think it's time we tried to . . . . to . . . to. . " *to what, Rockwell?* her mind complained.

"To try to find closure on what happened between us?" Darryl offered.

"I guess," Audrey sighed, going back to her seat.

"You asked Marie to set this up," Darryl reminded her. "You must have had something in mind."

Audrey heard the tightly controlled frustration coloring Darryl's normally easygoing tones. For some perverse reason, that knowledge that he was also on edge relaxed her. "I thought we needed to talk, to clear the air."

"So? Talk," Darryl ordered, making sure to keep outside her personal space.

"You don't have to stay on your feet, ready to bolt," she scowled as he took a step backward. "I know I said I'd hurt you, but that was anger talking. . .anger and hurt, and I'm not angry now."

"Just hurt? I am sorry about that, Audrey. That was never my intent. In fact, that is the LAST thing I ever wanted you to feel because of me."

"Then why did you LIE to me?"

"I never lied to you as Darryl, except to protect my disguise as Darla," he sighed. "As Darla, the only untruths I told you were for Jane's purposes."

"So, all those 'girlfriend talks' were the real deal, huh? You never stretched the truth to give Darryl a bit of an advantage, or perhaps to get a bit of a thrill at my expense? You don't think you used your Darla disguise to get every little edge you could?" Audrey's voice rose, and broke in her emotion.

"NO, dammit, I didn't!" Darryl snapped back. "Hell, I broke my word to my Mother, to Jane, because I WOULDN'T take advantage of you that way! That's how I got into this damnable mess, because I told you about me and Darla rather than participate as both in your plan to seduce me as Darryl."

"Oh yeah? What about watching me strip to my undies at that art class with you in the front row, eh?"

"I wasn't the only guy there, Audrey, and you KNEW it when you agreed to pose."

"Oh yeah?" she repeated snappishly. "Think again, pal. The only reason I did it was because that teacher reminded me that it was 'just us girls here', remember, or are you just changing the facts to suit yourself?"

Darryl flushed bright red. "Oh, god, you're right. I guess that I didn't want to remember that. DAMN!"

"And that wasn't the only time, either," Audrey continued, definitely on a roll now, "What about helping me with my bra at the dress shop before the trip to Boston? Great chance to cop a feel, wasn't it?"

"It was, but I didn't!" he replied furiously. "If you'll recall, I closed my eyes as soon as I knew you were topless. You even ragged on me about it." Darryl gave a bark of self deprecating laughter. "I even kept my eyes closed when all I could have seen was your bared back."

"A likely story!" Audrey retorted. "Of course there were only about 27 mirrors all around that damned room!"

She was almost amused when color flooded his face. "Well, that was part of the reason I kept my eyes closed."

"And what about that dress Darla talked me into almost wearing, eh? 'Darryl will love it, Audrey.'" Audrey demanded in a wicked mimicry of Darla's tones.

"I WON'T apologize for that!" Darryl retorted, stuffing his hands into his pockets and turning away from her. "You were so damned beautiful in that dress," he said in a wistful voice that told Audrey just how vividly that memory was burned into his memory. "that you turned my brain to mush and second, because it was nothing but the truth. I, Darryl, DID love it because, DAMN you, you contrary woman, that dress could have been MADE to enhance your beauty!"

"You don't regret deceiving me, do you?" Audrey asked finally.

"I regret that it was necessary to deceive you, but I do believe it was necessary. Whether in the final analysis they were right or wrong is for the future to determine. Jane and Art, two people I both love and respect, said that masquerade was necessary to ensure you got the best possible chance at defeating the demons that bitch of governess set upon you." Then Darryl turned back and locked eyes with Audrey. "And I REALLY regret that I hurt you. Since that day, I have gone over what we did over and over again in my head, looking for ways I might have done something else, for ways things might have come out differently."

"If only we had met under other circumstances," Audrey murmured.

"We did, Audrey," Darryl replied, a small smile on his face. "On the train. Only you were Rocky, and you wouldn't give me the time of day."

"Was I really that bad?" Darryl wisely remained silent, one still-finely shaped brow raised in challenge. Audrey finally shrugged in acquiescence.

When she didn't seem inclined to say anything more, Darryl decided to take a chance. "Audrey, are you happy? I mean, happier overall than you were when you came here?

"I don't know," Audrey finally answered. "I do like, that is, I have come to appreciate my femininity more now. And I, um, I guess I feel more confident. I guess part of the reason I was getting into fights was that I always needed to prove to myself I was, oh, able to take care of myself. Now I know that constant need to prove myself physically was a sign of self-doubt, not strength. I don't need to prove my strength any more. Not to myself and certainly not to anyone else."

"But are you happy?"

The tall young woman hesitated, then sighed. "Not right now. I thought we . . . I thought I might have found something more than just . . . confidence. And I . . . and that was based on a lie."

Darryl couldn't bring himself to look Audrey straight in the eye. "I just wish I . . . I wish we could have helped you more."

There was no question of the sincerity of that wish. A small smile lighted Audrey's features. "Not satisfied with minimum standards, either, huh?"

A familiar smile answered hers. "I get that from my mother."

"So, tell me. What did Jane say to you? About what happens next?"

"Don't you know?

"I, ah, well, I haven't talked with Jane for a few days," he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. "I've seen you down at the stable. And wasn't that Deputy Beale showing you how to shoot?"

"I'm staying a while longer," Audrey replied. "I'm not sure how long, but your Mother is keeping her word about my training. I'd do better at the National Olympic Training Center, but for now, this is okay. Darryl? Why didn't you just quit when you. . . well, when things started getting complicated? You could have. I understand you said you felt you couldn't go back on your word to your Mother and tell me what was going on, but why did you keep on deceiving me like that?"

"A lot of reasons. A big one, in the back of my mind, was that I was afraid you might push Jane into a situation where she felt she needed to take action that might endanger your Olympic dream. You're both the same kind of hard-headed, contrary female - each determined to have your own way. That's only one of the many ways that you two are alike."

"Me?" Audrey practically squeaked in disbelief. "Like Jane?"

Darryl laughed sadly. "If you could only see yourself in the mirror right now. Lips pursed, eyes wide, chin stubbornly out and your right eyebrow cocked. I can't tell you how often I've seen that same look of outraged disbelief on my Mother's face.

Stubbornly quelling an urge to feel amusement or even a bit of pride, Audrey sniffed. "There's no need to be insulting," she mumbled, before adding. "If I am like your mother, who are you, Darryl? Really? And are YOU happy with what you do?"

"You mean being both Darryl and Darla?"

"It's rather daunting to have spent hours and hours with someone, thinking you know him, or her, and then find out that it was all a disguise, a role."

Darryl sighed, and then sat down beside Audrey, careful to keep from brushing against her in the process. "With the exception of recent events, the answer to your question is yes, I am happy as I am. What I do as Darla IS important. I, we, that is Jane, Marie and I, have helped a dozen or so boys, who were on their ways to bad ends, find a better way to live. As to you not knowing me, well, you really do. Darla IS me. . .I AM Darla. . .just as I am Darryl. Just like you are both Audrey and Rocky."

"That's just one more thing, Darryl, that has become kind of hard for me to deal with, to believe in right now, if you know what I mean."

Darryl grinned mirthlessly and said, "You think it's hard for you? You should have seen it from my side, especially early on when I was just coming to grips with it myself."

Audrey's expression showed a willingness to listen, at least Darryl hoped that's what he saw. He tried that out with a question.

"Jane told you about my . . . circumstance before coming here, right?"

At Audrey's nod, not accompanied by a frown or some other expression of disgust, Darryl continued. "I guess I honestly can't say if that . . . affected me somehow. But it was a long time before I could respect who I was as Darryl. I'm small, but I'm not weak."

Audrey's smile this time had honest agreement, a hint of remembered challenges over grueling runs granting Darryl's point.

"Well," he said, "for a long time in there, the only 'me' that seemed . . . worthy of respect was Darla. As Darla, I am . . . desirable. Cute, witty, graceful, attractive. Even more importantly, it was Darla who was able to help a bunch of guys by working with Jane as the big sister. By the time I came to accept who Darryl is, I had also come to appreciate those, well, admittedly feminine parts of me. I didn't want to - don't think I should have to - give up Darla just because I now respect Darryl."

"I . . . see," Audrey said quietly, but the conviction Darryl hoped for was not in her eyes.

"Perhaps," he said, disagreeing by too-gentle agreement. "At least, you might someday. It's not easy to understand. Believe me, I know," Darryl said gently as he leaned over to softly kiss Audrey's forehead. Then he stood and stepped away from her. "I know. Be well, Audrey. If you need me, or just want to talk some more, tell Marie. I'll be around."

With that, Darryl slipped out of the garden. As it was to turn out, that was the last Audrey would see of him before she left Seasons House.

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

"Mom?" Darryl called as he stuck his head into Jane's upstairs study. "Do you have a moment, please? We need to talk, I think, about Audrey."

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

Prudence Rockwell picked up her pealing office phone with a sigh. She had been hoping to slip out for an early and extended lunch hour. *Well, maybe I can deal with this quickly.* "Pru Rockwell speaking."

"Pru," a richly toned feminine voice replied. "Jane Thompson here. How are you?"

"Fine, Jane. How are you? What's up? Some problem with Rocky?"

"I'm well, Pru, and we do need to talk about your daughter. It's not really a problem, but I want to discuss a plan with you for your approval since she is still a minor."

"And you said she was doing so much better," Prudence said sadly. "All right, Jane, what do you want to do to her?"

"Not to her, Pru, because she is doing so much better. It's just, well, it's just that this she might be ready for more than I can do for her here. Let me tell you what's happened and what I propose to do with her, all right? Ask questions as I go."

"Okay, but let me lock my office door and tell my secretary to hold my calls," Prudence said, kicking off her stiletto-heeled shoes. "I think this calls for my full and undivided attention."

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

"Ms. Thompson?" Audrey asked from the parlor door. "Marie said you wanted to see me?"

"Yes, dear. Come in, please, and take a seat. I have a proposal for you."

"I have decided, Audrey," Jane began, "to offer you an alternative to staying here with me for another few months."

"Yes, Ma'am?" Audrey replied cautiously.

"I have made inquiries with friends of mine who are associated with the USOC. Provided your fees are paid, there is room for you at their national training site. If you and I can come to an accord, I am willing to underwrite your training costs."

*Where did this come from?* Audrey asked herself in disbelief. "That sounds, well, that sounds almost too good to be true, Ms. Thompson. What's the catch? You said I had things to learn on my own, and you would tell my Mother that if I asked to leave."

Eyes steady, Jane replied, "There is no catch, Audrey. And yes, I believe there are certain things I would ultimately like you to learn, but I have concluded that perhaps my home is not the place you will have the best opportunity to learn them. For your part of our agreement, you will simply agree to behave and present yourself as the lovely and personable young woman you are."

"That's it? Just promise to be little Miss Mary Sunshine and not beat up the boys and you'll pay for my training?"

"You're being intentionally crude, Audrey, and I'm not going to react so you might as well stop trying to push my buttons. You agree to continue to behave in the same exemplary manner as you have these past weeks, and yes, I will pay your expenses."

Amazed, Audrey could only stare in wonder. "How will you know if I do? Are you going to have me watched? Some type of undercover surveillance type?"

That made Jane chuckle. "Heavens, no. You'll simply give me your word. That has always been beyond question, even before you came to me, and so, it will be good enough for me now."

So many things ran through Audrey's overloaded mind, but the only thing she could get out was "Why?"

Jane smiled gently. "Because Darryl asked me to do it," she said simply. "He came to me and said it was wrong of us to force you to stay when there was such a better opportunity for you elsewhere. He also asked me to pay for it."

Stunned by that, Audrey said the first thing that came to her "Wants me out of here, eh?" and instantly regretted it.

Jane's blue eyes went ice cold. "Audrey, are you trying to anger me, because I know you are not that stupid? You and I both know perfectly well why my son chose to intercede with me on your behalf. Now, if you give me your word to uphold your part of our new bargain, I will send Marie up to your room to help you pack. Your plane leaves tomorrow morning."
 
 
Chapter 8: Interludes
 
 
Seasons House - Master Apartment W-Hour Minus 4

Jane looked at her reflection in the mirror and was pleased. *You'll do for an old almost-spinster-school-teacher lady,* she assured herself as she made one last, probably-unnecessary touch- up to her lip gloss.

"You look marvelous," Art said from behind her. "Absolutely marvelous."

"Well, I have to put my best foot forward today and I don't want my face melting in this summer's heat," she grinned up into his so-well-loved eyes, "There's a covey of my old students here today and I can't have them thinking I'm losing my edge."

"Now we both know that's not true. Once you got shanghaied into this little ceremony, you've been planning this to the least detail. You WANT to shine out there."

"And will I?" she challenged.

"Like the sun, my love, like the sun."

Jane smiled at her husband, a smile few who knew her would recognize, for it was one only Art could bring to her lips. "It's hard to believe we've gotten to this point. Do you remember when Darryl came in with the results from the Olympic Qualification Match? Lord, but that was as cold a February winter's day as this August day will be hot."

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

Seasons House: W-Day Minus 170

"Mom!" The shouted call brought Jane up from her reading with a jerk.

"DAR-RYL!" she snapped back. "My hearing is excellent, and there is NO reason to shout like that!"

"Sorry," he grinned as he walked into the downstairs office. "I got carried away."

"Indeed?" *Well, I can hardly fault whatever has put that grin on your face. I can count on my fingers the number of times I have seen you so. . .happy since Audrey left.* "And what is it, pray tell, that fills you with such good humor?"

Darryl held up a sheaf of papers. "This! It's the results of the Pentathlon Olympic Qualification Match."

"Isn't February a bit early for a Summer Olympic qualifier?"

"Not really. They do it as part of regularly scheduled competitions instead of as a special Olympics-only event. This one was in Mexico."

"I see. How did she do, dear?"

Neither of them had to ask who 'she' was. "Fourth place over all - second alternate."

"In the men's competition?" Jane asked.

Handing Jane the printed pages, Darryl shook his head. "Nope. For whatever reason, she competed against the women. That tenth place in the fencing really hurt her, and she could have done better with the gun, but her swimming, running and horse-jumping were all top five finishes and individual bests for her, at least in competition."

"I will have to call Pru and find out why she didn't press the issue of competing in the open division," Jane murmured.

"I cross-checked her performances against the men's division. She wouldn't have made the top ten there. Her horse jumping was up to snuff, and her run was okay, but she just wasn't competitive with the foil or the air pistol in that field," Darryl said, his demeanor beginning to darken. "I figure she'll blame being here for that."

"She needed what we did here, dear," Jane said gently as she came over to embrace her son. "You know that."

"Yeah, I know that. It's just so hard sometimes. I never really thought about what would happen when it all ended, Mom. I mean, I thought about it, but I guess I never let myself think about how life might be without her. With the boys, they were always at the point where they knew they could pull it off, and usually, were beginning to enjoy the masquerade. Their feelings were always positive at the end."

"Just another way that she was unique in my program, dear."

Darryl sighed, nodded, and then stepped out of his Mother's arms. "By the way, you said at breakfast you needed to talk to me about something. What's up?"

"Well, you did mention that you are at loose ends since Brown changed their Medical School program so that new students can only start in September?" At Darryl's nod, Jane continued, "I was hoping that. . . "

"Hoping what?"

"Well, your Aunt Ruth and I were wondering if you'd mind being Darla again. . .for just a little while?"

"Like I wasn't Darla just last week for that 'Girls Night Out' with you, Diana, Caro, Sandy and Michelle. What's up, Mom?"

"Well, Ruth has a young man on her docket in the next two weeks, and she thinks that he is perfect for our program here."

"You did say 'young man', didn't you?" Darryl asked evenly.

"Yes, dear, I did. A young fellow named Melvin Morris."

Darryl's eyes flashed devilishly. "Lord above, Mom, one thing's for sure."

"What's that?"

"Whatever name we give him as a her is bound to be an improvement. When does he arrive?"

"Next week or two, assuming you agree to play big sister. Ruth has to set up the deal with his lawyer first, and that will take a few days to set up and get down on paper."

"Let's do it, Mom," Darryl said, his voice suddenly hoarse. "I don't want my last memory of Darla-the-big-sister to be that look of hurt and pain on Audrey's face."

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

Kingston Train Station: W-Day Minus 160

*I should have set up something like this as soon as we got back home from putting Audrey on the plane to Colorado,* Jane mused. March's winds were swirling as she stood on the Kingston train platform, awaiting the arrival of yet another student. Hopefully, immersing themselves in the familiar roles, rituals and activities of Jane's program would at last dispel the remaining specters of Audrey's final days at Seasons House.

Even now things were coming back to what passed for normality in Jane's world. Darla, once again a blonde, was turned out in full debutante style in her knee length white dress and coordinating hat. Old fashioned petticoats made the dress stand out prominently from her opaque-white stockinged legs. Modestly heeled patent pumps, white gloves and a matching shoulder purse completed her costume.

Jane herself was dressed in her most austere black business suit, with her hair swept back ruthlessly into a tight chignon and her cosmetics subtly harsh. She'd have her new guest on the defensive within hours or know the reason why.

"Ready, Pancho?" she asked as the train appeared, rolling into the station.

"Ah, Cisco," Darla grinned back. "I was born ready."

"Well," Jane breathed as the doors of the train cars opened, "It's show time, kid. . . oh my god. . "

"Huh?" Darla replied, slewing her eyes in the direction Jane's own wide eyes were now locked and saw a young woman carefully stepping down from the train.

March's blustery winds sent dark waves of hair fluttering across the tall girl's face, obscuring for a moment her identity. Her jeans, sweater, and corduroy jacket provided no particular clues, nor did the unremarkable duffel and garment bags she carried. Still, to Darla, there was something about her that was instantly familiar.

And recognized. "Audrey?" Darla said, her voice barely a whisper.

"For heaven's sake, Darla, go distract her while I try to capture Melvin. I can't imagine what she'd be doing here if not to come see us."

"You did tell her she was welcome anytime," Darla reminded her.

"And so she is, but for now we need to keep her and Melvin separated until we can tell her what's going down."

"I'll get her and we'll take a cab home. I'll put her in the stable's apartment until we figure out what to do next."

"What is she doing here?" Jane wondered.

"I am almost afraid to find out," Darla replied as she moved out to intercept Audrey, but Jane could hear the faint, fearful tendril of hope in her child's voice, and prayed that it would not go unanswered this time.

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

Seasons House Stable: W-Day Minus 160

They'd both been rather reserved during the taxi ride to Seasons House. Audrey had not said anything when Darla had directed the cabbie to take them to the stable and not the main house, and she'd simply stood by as Darla paid the man his fee and tip.

"Come on," Darla ordered as she reached for one of Audrey's bags. "I'll show you the apartment."

"Don't bother with the bag, I'll get it. I'm not wearing heels."

"Too bad," Darla snipped. "You look great in them. Well, are you coming or not?"

The rooms were clean and nicely appointed. That was only to be expected in Ms. Jane Thompson's domain. What did surprise Audrey was that the furniture actually looked comfortable. She set her bags and the floor and turned to face an obviously nervous Darla. "Well, whatever I expected for my return here, seeing you, that is, Darla wasn't included. Nice hair, by the way."

Darla blushed to her blond bangs. "It's my real hair color this time. Jane and Art felt that having someone with similar coloring as a role model would help and also that you were more likely to disregard me as a blonde ditz."

"So, why are you in. . .what did you say? Ditz mode now? Heck, why are you Darla now?"

"You saw the kid Jane collared at the station? The one she hustled off before you could say hi to her?"

"I wondered why she ignored me when I called to her."

"New student. He's probably getting raked over the coals by Jane right now for his many failings. Lunch will be an extremely formal, multi-course meal that will give Jane ample ammunition to hammer his table manners before he is sent up to take a nap. During the nap, all his boy clothes will disappear - locked up into the attic - and by this evening, he will be wearing his first girl clothes."

"And Darla is involved with all that? As opposed to Darryl?"

"Just like with you, only more so," Darla said diffidently. "I help him make the transition sometimes, keep an eye on him for Jane other times and still other times I help set him up for one of Jane's lessons."

"You spy on him, and tell HER what was told to you in private." The trenchant disapproval in Audrey's tone made Darla want to flinch, but years of training under Jane Thompson supported her.

"Jane has had one student attempt suicide," Darla replied, head held high and chin held out, "and another who might very well have, had I not been keeping her informed of his thinking and actions. You can't appreciate that because she was so careful with you, having had different goals for you, but what she does with the boys is intentionally devastating. She needs someone like me on the inside until the boy makes the turn."

"Ah, yes. Well, if you say so," Audrey replied, turning to look out the window over the empty paddock. She obviously didn't want to talk about it any more, at least right then, so Darla offered an alternate subject.

"So, why are you here?"

"Unfinished business - with your alter ego, your aunt, and I guess now that I've seen you, with you. Will I get the chance since you have a student here now?"

"The schedule is pretty flexible after the first week or two," Darla replied, refusing to allow herself to hope. "Jane will always make time for one of her kids, and I will always make time for you, Audrey."

"One of her KIDS? I don't think so!"

Darla only shrugged. "I guess that's for you and Jane to work out. I will tell you that, insofar as she is concerned, it is only the truth. If you aren't one of her kids, it is and will be only by your own choice. In any event, that won't change the way she feels."

"Hmmmph. So, when can we get together? I'm kind of tired right now. The plane was much quicker and less tiring than the train."

"Tomorrow? This afternoon and tomorrow morning are pretty critical and I have big parts to play. After breakfast it becomes mostly Jane and Marie's show until after the noon meal. Can I call you, say about nine o'clock?"

"Works for me," Audrey replied.

"I've got to run, okay? I have to play hostess at that lunch- from-hell today. Oh, and if you get hungry, just use the phone to call the kitchen and tell Marie. The number is on the card underneath the phone." Darla started to leave and then stopped herself. Almost shyly, she turned back to face the tall girl she loved. "For whatever reason, I'm glad you're back," she said softly. "Very glad," she added, and then turned and almost ran down the stairs, slowing only in deference to the two inch heels on her shoes."
 
 
Chapter 9: Memories in Crisis
 
 
Seasons House, Master Apartment: W-Hour Minus 3:45

Art squinted through the glare of the summer morning sunrise as he tried to get his neck-ware properly tied. "If someone wasn't hogging the mirror I wouldn't have to use this window and might get this right for once," he called out in not-quite-mock disgust. Sighing, Art considered the mess his reflection was making out of the bowtie, knowing that it meant he was doing just as badly with the real one.

"Damned things," he muttered, "Why did it have to be the real thing, Janey? Why couldn't the bloody thing be one of those fake ties that snap on? I'd rather wear a corset!"

Grinning, Jane glided over to pull her husband to his feet whereupon she took the tie ends in her own hands. Moments later, she was smugly patting the perfectly tied bow into place. "No problem, see?"

"How do you DO that?" he asked, turning to examine himself in the mirror.

"Practice, my love," Jane teased. "Years and years of practice making lovely big bows in the hair of my sweet young lady- laddies. No real difference when you stop to think about it, is there?"

"I suppose," he said thoughtfully. "You know, even after Audrey came back last winter after the Olympic tryouts, I wasn't certain those two would be able to work things out."

"Well, he is, after all, my son," Jane said proudly. "There was no way he was going to let the opportunity slip away. Why, remember the very next day when Darryl decided to beard the lioness on her turf?"

"It wasn't turf, it was asphalt. And as I recall, you were a bit unhappy with him."

"Only because I went into Darla's room for a consultation on the morning's plan and found her gone. I was worried FOR him, not upset WITH him," she scoffed.

"Yeah, right."

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

Somewhere Near Seasons House: W-Day Minus 159

The early morning March air had just a bite of frost in it as Audrey finished her warmup exercises. The sun would only be a hint and a promise when she finished her run more than an hour later, but for now, darkness reigned.

That suited Audrey just fine. The darkness made it easier to think because there would be little besides running and breathing to distract her. With one last arch of her back, she began first to walk, then to trot and finally, to stride out into an easy, loping jog. She ran the first half-mile at a quick pace, letting it burn the stored energy from her muscles so that her body had to begin pumping more energy along with oxygen to the suddenly deprived tissue. At that point, her body dropped into the familiar rhythm of movement and breathing that could carry her miles without apparent stress.

*She is so damned beautiful when she moves like that,* Darla thought as she stepped onto the darkened trail after Audrey had passed. *Hell, she is just damned beautiful - Period!*

At some point, Audrey's concentration broke as she became aware of someone pacing beside her. Annoyed at being caught unawares, she shot what she intended to a dirty look over at her uninvited jogging partner and almost tripped over her own feet as she goggled.

It was Darryl . . .Darla, running beside her, moving without strain even though she required five strides to match four of Audrey's own, but it was a Darla Audrey had never seen before.

She was wearing a skin-tight unitard - it was light-colored but in the darkness, that was all Audrey could make out - that covered her from ankle to throat and from hand to hand. A coordinating thong of some equally unrecognizable dark color highlighted and accentuated Darla's hips and buttocks. A small but rounded bosom gave her figure a pleasing shape while a sassy ponytail bounced at the top of her head.

*What the hell is she. . HE doing here?* Audrey thought before asking, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Running," Darla replied simply, glad that she'd gotten her own second wind before Audrey had broken the silence between them.

"Obviously," Audrey retorted. "I mean, why are you out here? What did you track me down. Spying on me again for your Mother?"

"No spying," Darla said. "No need to. You're not a student anymore. Graduated with honors, in fact," she finished, her words broken by the rhythm of her breathing.

"Answer the question, Darla!"

"That's, as you said, obvious. I wanted to talk to you. We didn't get much chance yesterday between Melvin's luncheon and your exhaustion. This seemed like a good way to do it."

"I thought Darla didn't run."

"THIS Darla does. YOUR Darla didn't run because Jane wanted me to be the epitome of super-sweet girlish femininity. Besides, I could get the exercise I needed as Darryl when you were here."

"Why couldn't you just come out as Darryl?"

"The main reason is that I can't, not right now anyway, is because Melvin might be an early riser or something and see me sneaking in the house as a boy. Yet I still need a workout, so . . ."

After a pause to catch up a bit on breath squandered on speech, Darla continued, "But I might have done it anyway, even if I knew there were no risk. There are times I just like being Darla. She's a big part of who I am, and I don't apologize for enjoying her."

Audrey's pensive attempt to absorb that provided an opportunity for Darla to catch her breath and manage one more statement, "And I won't hide that part of me from you, not any more. Not the fact of being Darla, nor my enjoyment of it. So here I am."

They ran in silence for the next thirty minutes, their sleek, powerful legs eating up the distance at a sub-six minute mile pace. Darla's implied 'take it or leave it' hung in the air between them, but it remained something that couldn't be spoken aloud, not yet, not by either of them. It wasn't time for that kind of decision yet. But it was a factor in a decision that would someday have to be made.

False dawn began to gray the darkness as they made the final looping turn back towards Seasons House. "For someone who wanted to talk, you haven't said much and we only have a few miles left," Audrey complained.

"I was hoping you'd expand on that 'unfinished business' comment from yesterday, but figured you'd get to that in your own good time. For now, it's nice to just run with you again."

"You've gotten better," Audrey commented. "You aren't following me anymore."

"You're wearing a set of men's sweats that are three sizes too large for you," Darla snorted. "Whatever reason would I have to follow you in THAT?"

"Smartass," Audrey grinned. "That unfinished business you were talking about?"

"Yes?"

"It just got bigger," Audrey said.

"Oh, and why is that?"

"Well, despite meeting a lot of hunky guys - tall, strong, athletes - and despite enjoying their attention for the first time in my life and feeling comfortable with them, they just didn't . . . seem interesting enough for me. I guess I want more."

"Like what?"

"Like some of what I saw in Darryl," Audrey admitted bluntly.

"Some?"

"Not all of it. Not yet."

"Is it because of Darla?"

"You know, I thought so, at least in part. But now I'm not so sure. . . "

Darla was silent for several moments before nodding. "That's fair, I guess. Fairer than he, or maybe, I deserve, perhaps. But you said the unfinished business got bigger. How?"

"Well, it's the damnedest thing, Darla. While we were out here running together, I just realized how much I've missed you - missed you as my girlfriend. I have to figure that one out, too, I guess."

Again, Darla let some time go by before she said anything. "I've missed you, too, Audrey. Maybe, while you're figuring that out, we could try being friends again?"

"Will you have time for that?"

"Like I said before. I'll make time."

Dawn rose bright and clear, turning the sky a deep azure as the pair began their cool-down walk about the paddock. For the first time, Audrey could get a good look at Darla's running suit. "My lord, is that the one I wore the day I was going to kis. . . mean, that last time Darryl and I ran together?"

"No," Darla snorted in disgust. "Yours wouldn't fit me. Too big, especially up here," she added, holding her hands beneath her breasts.

"Oh," Audrey said, her look a little dazed as her eyes fixated on the small tight mounds. "umm, you haven't gone and done anything drastic, have you? I mean, those aren't, I mean, that isn't really you? The boob, I mean."

Darla began to giggle. "No, silly. Just inserts and a really tight running bra. GOD, but I hate running in the thing, too. Feels like I am gonna be cut in two, but it's the only way for me to have a figure, and like I said earlier, I have to have one in case Melvin isn't sleeping the sleep of the blissfully ignorant."

"It's going to be tough for him today?"

"Yeah. Remember the day Jane had you change outfits a bunch of times?" Audrey nodded, her eyes suddenly wide. "Well, almost the same thing except the clothes will be a LOT frillier and sillier, and Jane's going to be a whole lot more critical. This is the day she really traps him and then I name him."

"Name him? Oh, you mean like you did with me?"

"Yep. Oh, that reminds me. If you ever see him? Pretend not to recognize him and ALWAYS refer to him as a girl. His new name will be Melanie."

"Melanie, huh?" A sly grin lit Audrey's face. "Heck, that might rehabilitate him all by itself."

"Huh?"

"It's a whole lot better than Melvin, don't you think?"

"Oh you! Look, I have got to go. Would it be all right if I come out and run with you some other times, too?"

"Sure. Like I said, I missed my girlfriend, too. And besides," Audrey smirked.

"And besides, what?"

"She keeps up a whole lot better than that poky old Darryl ever did!" she called, as she ran up the stairs to her apartment.

Darla giggled as she turned toward onto the path up to the big house. "Well, wear something more attractive than those saggy- baggy sweats next time. It might keep me from concentrating on . . . my running."

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

Seasons House, Master Apartment: W-Hour Minus 3:30

"It's not like I wasn't pleased to see her again," Jane said. "I mean, she was. . . IS one of mine, it was just. . ."

Art rose from the window seat where he'd been basking the feeling of the morning August sun, delaying for just a few moments longer the donning of his formal wear. "It was just that my control- freak wife wasn't expecting her at that moment in time, and you were thrown into a tizzy."

"I was not," Jane sniffed as she turned back to her mirror and picked up her brush. "Things were delicate at that point, is all."

Grinning, Art snatched the brush from her hands and began to loving stroke it through his wife's auburn locks. "Same thing, but I will grant that, given how things stood when Audrey had left, you might have had some justification in being a bit anxious."

"AHA! So you admit it, at last, you irritating man!" She'd have turned on him had Art not chosen that moment to take her hair in his hands to part it.

"SOME justification, my love," he teased. Setting down the brush, Art used skillful fingers to begin the intricate French Braid he thought looked best on his wife. *When it's not all loose and flowing about her face, that is.* "Still, I would have loved to see the look on that girl's face when she. . ."

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

Seasons House Stable Apartment: W-Day Minus 158

Audrey prowled the apartment's sitting room like a caged lioness, edgy frustration evident in her every move. The morning's run had not gone as she had hoped. . expected, and she didn't know why. The old fashioned chime of the door bell broke through her fuming and had her all-but-leaping toward the door.

Triumphantly, she flung it open. "So, you wimped out on me this. . . morn. . ummmm, hello, Aun. . I mean, Ms. Thompson," she finished lamely, her eyes fixed on the woman on the other side of the threshold.

"Good morning, Audrey," Jane said gently. "May I come in, please?"

"Oh, umm, sure, it's your place after all."

Jane stepped inside and waited for the younger woman to close the door. "Not so long as you are here. Please, consider it yours for as long as you care to visit. We will, of course, respect your privacy if that is what you wish."

"Oh, well, thanks, A. . umm, Ms. Thompson."

"Audrey, please, if cannot bring yourself to call me Aunt Jane any longer, I would prefer you call me Jane. However you consider me, I consider you family and I don't like my family calling me 'Ms. Thompson.'"

"All right, .. . Jane. Thank you."

"Which brings up another point we should clear up. What do I call you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

An almost sad smile crossed Jane's face. "How are you called these days? I strongly suspect that you do not go by Chastity." At the girl's near-shudder, Jane nodded. "I thought not. So, are you again, . . . Rocky?"

"Sometimes," she admitted. "Not often though. My coach still uses that nickname, but that's about it. Mostly, I ask people to call me Audrey. In fact, I am thinking of having it made my legal name."

"So something good did come of your time here, then. At least you found a name you are happy with."

Suddenly remembering her manners, Audrey hastily swept an arm toward the living room furniture. "Won't you sit down, please? Would you like something? Some coffee or tea? I'm not as good as Marie, but I've learned to make a fair cup of either beverage."

"Nothing to drink, thank you, Audrey," Jane said as she sat on the overstuffed leather couch and waited for Audrey to take a seat opposite her. "I gather from your greeting at the door you were expecting someone else."

Audrey nodded, and felt herself blush. "Darla. . I mean, Darryl, I mean. . .oh heck. You know who I mean. He. . she went running with me yesterday and I sort of thought we'd agreed to do it again."

"I thought as much," Jane said. "We ran into a bit of difficulty with my new student yesterday. I asked Marie and Darla to take turns keeping and eye on her while we give her a bit of recovery time."

"Difficulty? I thought it was supposed to be difficult?"

"It is, especially the first few days, but Melanie had what Art diagnosed as a severe anxiety attack yesterday following one of my rather threatening critiques of her performance. I've had reactions like that before, but nothing quite so serious."

"You already are using feminine pronouns with him. He's only been here a couple of days," Audrey noted, fascinated.

"Practice, my dear, and a necessary part of the program. The sooner my new student is thoroughly immersed in a purely feminine environment and experience, the sooner the really important work can begin," Jane hesitated just perceptibly, and then pressed on. "Which is why I came to see you this morning."

Audrey immediately sat up straighter, regarding Jane cautiously. "Oh, you've remembered something else you need to teach me?"

"No." was the soft, but firm reply. "I've already told your Mother I consider you a success. You truly did come to understand and then to tame the beast your former governess bred in you. Nothing proved that more clearly than your reaction to the unfortunate way in which you learned Darla's secrets. For all the hurt you felt you suffered here, you behaved, in the end, with dignity and some compassion. You could have hurt Darryl terribly without much effort when you left and you chose not to go in that direction. No, I am confident that those things I hope you will yet learn you can and will learn without any specific intervention from me."

"Then what do you want from me?"

"Not so very much - at least I hope that you will see it that in that light. The issue I needed to discuss with you concerns Melanie. You know a great many of the truths about my program from your discussions with me and with Darryl - truths I don't want revealed to Melanie until I decide to reveal them."

"Such as?" Audrey asked, her brow cocked in a manner Jane recognized from her own mirror.

The school-mistress in Jane Thompson stifled the smile that pride wanted to display at Audrey's imitative expression. A smile right then would NOT support the seriousness of the problem facing Melanie. "As you know, my methods require a young man to find an inner strength that is not dependent on macho posturing, but is founded on self-discipline and courage in the face of emotional challenges. I create emotional challenges by immersing the student in an intensely and exclusively feminine environment where even the slightest traces of masculinity are neither permitted nor considered to have value. It would do my program and this student's progress great harm to let him think he was showing some inherent and unshakeable masculinity despite the evidence in the mirror. So I can't have you reveal that you know he is a boy. Nor that there are others in the household who are male and might be appealed to for support."

"And yet," Jane continued, "I cannot truly expose the student as a petticoated boy, not publicly. My methods are, at their core, a bluff. I, we, all of us in my household, need to make Melanie think she is always at risk of being unmasked as a boy in girl's clothing while at the same time rendering that risk truly insignificant. Much of what I hope to accomplish with this student will become impossible if he learns those facts.

Jane watched as Audrey became very still, her face expressionless. Finally she sighed. "I didn't come here, Jane, to hurt you or anyone else for that matter. I came here to find answers to questions left over from my time with you. I don't understand what you do here, but I trust you enough to agree to what you ask with respect to your new student.

Jane closed her eyes in palpable relief. "Thank you, Audrey," she said as she rose. "Now, I must hurry back. Art and I have some things we want to try with Melanie this morning to see if we can figure out what set her off yesterday."

Audrey rose and walked Jane to the door where, completely without warning, the older woman turned and pressed a gentle, maternal kiss to Audrey's cheek. "You are more than welcome up at the house, dear. Just check with Marie, Art, Darla or me first in case something special is planned for Melanie."

Nodding, Audrey put tentative fingers to the kissed cheek as she watched Jane move down the stairs. Then, she thought of something. "Ummm, Jane?" she called.

"Yes, Audrey?" Jane replied, looking back up the stairs from the ground floor door.

"I thought you said exclusively feminine environment. What about your husband? What about Art?"

Unexpectedly, Jane gave a girlish giggle. "Oh, that's right. You don't know about Diana yet, do you? Be sure to ask Darla and tell her I said it was okay to tell you." Then she disappeared out the door without waiting for a reply.

"Diana? What the heck has Diana got to do with anything?" Audrey muttered, still holding the opened door. "Nooooo. . . . .," she breathed. "It couldn't be. Could it? He wouldn't. Would he?"

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

Somewhere near Seasons House: W-Day Minus 157

Darla stifled a sigh as she caught up with the sweat-suited Audrey. *Maybe she wore something nice yesterday, and then I couldn't make it,* she thought, and then shook her head. *Just keep trying to convince yourself of that, Dar.* With a last push, she came up along side the taller girl and then settled into the pace Audrey was setting.

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

Audrey had been aware of Darla's presence from the moment the faint patter of the other runner's steps had caught her ears. *And of course, YOU were listening for her,* she mocked herself. *Well, at least I didn't get all dolled up for her like I did yesterday.* That thought made her frown, because until that very moment, she had not admitted, even to herself, the reason she'd taken such care with her dressing for yesterday's run. "Sucking wind, already?" she asked snidely. "We've barely started."

"Had to catch up," Darla opened. "You started without me again."

"Yeah, right," Audrey retorted. "Missed you yesterday."

"Had a problem at the house."

"Jane came to see me and told me about it," Audrey remarked, and was pleased as the surprised double-take response that nearly had Darla stumbling. "How's the new kid?"

Darla shrugged as best she was able while still keeping her balance. "Okay now, I guess. She's over the anxiety attack and at least functioning again, but I think that is mostly because Jane has eased off on her usual tactics. Whether that is good or bad, well, only time will tell."

"If the kid isn't having knicker-fits and is functional, how can that be a bad thing?"

"Well, the first few days have always been the shock treatment. Isolate the student from what he thinks is his source of personal power which is often, and specifically in this case, a dangerous and violent temper. In a lot of cases, that is what made the kid feared in his old environment which the macho types confuse with respect."

"So? What's the problem?"

"It's kind of hard to explain. Look, consider the potential harm if Melanie is out in public and loses control as Melanie. If the explosion is sufficiently violent, she blows her cover and exposes herself as a pretty boy in skirts, okay? What happens?"

Audrey snorted. "A whole bunch of macho garbage and taunting gets dumped on her. . him."

"Exactly. So the intent of the cross-dressing and stuff is to act as a damper to that kind of reaction. They know how they're dressed and how strangers will react if they are unmasked. It's usually pretty daunting for them, which is precisely what Jane wants."

"So what's the problem with Melanie? Sounds like she's pretty daunted."

"It feels wrong, Audrey. She shouldn't have broken down like that - not at that point."

Audrey could hear the uncertainty in her friend's voice, but didn't know what she could do to help. The remainder of the run passed in uncomfortable silence.

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

Somewhere near Seasons House: W-Day Minus 152

They were barely twenty minutes into their run, and already Audrey was feeling the burn in her calves, thighs and lungs. Finally, she reached out and put an hand on Darla's shoulder to rein her in. "You're really pushing today. I don't mind a hard run, but we won't get ten miles in at this pace."

"Oh, sorry," Darla winced and slowed her pace. "I guess I've just got some things to work out, and the running lets me, I don't know, let off steam."

"Melanie that bad?" Audrey asked. She had pretty well discouraged any more discussion about what Jane and Darla were doing up in the big house the past few mornings. Darla had taken Audrey's pointed changes of subject mostly in good grace, but this was different. Audrey could feel it, and it bothered her that her friend was so upset.

"I'm afraid so. She had another panic attack last night. That makes four since she arrived, and at the same time, she isn't giving Jane the expected responses to her program. It's getting pretty scary."

"Scary? How?"

"What Jane normally does during a student's first days is hack away at that tough-guy self image we talked about with some really, well, pretty nasty setups and her scathing comments about his appearance and things. Students react in a lot of different ways when she pours on that kind of pressure. Sometimes they try to take a swing at her."

"They WHAT!?!?"

"You heard me. Jane - and Marie too - have had some . . . training. They don't let the kid get away with it, nor hurt her of course. It's just that they have to push the student to that level of stress to see if she's learned how to handle it. Not only that, but getting taken down by a middle aged woman is pretty devastating to an overblown male ego. The few guys I've seen try her that way were usually very cowed immediately afterwards. Something about looking straight up into the eyes of a furious Amazon who just put you on your butt, I suspect."

"You said she wants to see how they handle the pressure?" Audrey was wide-eyed. "How do you 'handle' something that is deliberately made that stressful? Especially if you can't . . . fight or exercise or something? I mean, I can't see Jane 'losing' any sort of battle of words. What does she really want the kid to do?"

"Cry."

"Cry?" Audrey's voice climbed two octaves in her disbelief. "You're kidding!"

Darla's ponytail bounced as she shook her head in time to her running pace. "No, not at all. It's a non-violent way to release those emotions, which is a fundamental stage they have to reach. It's part of the reason for all the girly things, to make crying more acceptable. More acceptable than violence, for sure."

Darla paused and considered her next words. "Which potentially makes Melanie a significant problem."

"Huh? HOW?" Audrey frowned. "You just said you've already reduced her to tears. Four times, in fact."

"Yeah, we did. There is no way she was faking that scene, but it was the wrong kind of cry. She wasn't venting emotions, releasing them through tears. Whatever caused her to cry like that, it wasn't Jane's setups or her critical comments. It was, well, it was different - and not healthy. It's like . . . instead of releasing the pressure, it's just a sign of how high the pressure is. I don't suppose that makes much sense. You know what really scares me?"

"What, Darla?"

"If Melanie doesn't cry for the right reasons, if she isn't letting out all that pressure, how can we know she'll just stay down when Jane flips her for throwing a punch? Suppose instead of a panic attack, she goes berserk? Someone - Jane, Marie, Melanie - maybe all of them could get badly hurt."

"So? Have Jane back off."

"She won't," Darla said sadly. "She's too damned committed to what she does for her own damned good."

"Ummm, no. Sorry, but I don't understand."

Darla let out a deep breath. "That's okay. Just now? Neither do we."

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

Somewhere near Seasons House: W-Day Minus 147

Audrey was in the zone. The morning was unusually warm for mid- March in New England and she felt wonderful. A good deal of that was the presence of Darla running easily beside her. Their morning runs had become quiet reflective times for both of them. Audrey knew that Darla was growing steadily more frustrated with Melanie and her abnormal behavior under Jane's program. That much was pretty clear from the growing stress she could see on her friend's face each morning. Just now, she was feeling a bit guilty for not having tried to help, even if just by acting as a sounding board, for the girl. . . person who had been and was again her best friend.

"Still no progress?" Audrey finally asked as they made the turn to return home.

"Don't know if you could call it progress, but Diana thinks she's figured out what sets Melanie off."

"Oh? Can you talk about it to an outsider?"

"You aren't an outsider. You're family," Darla corrected. "She goes ballistic whenever anyone even hints that she might go out in public dressed as a girl."

"I thought that was the whole point of the thing? Send her out in public, put her under pressure, and rely on her being good to keep from revealing herself as a petticoated boy."

"That's the idea, but instead of being afraid, she breaks down. We've already postponed her first public outing twice."

"So what happens next?"

"We continue to work her on the masquerade, not that it is really necessary. She's already as passable as she will ever need to be. And we'll keep pressing her as hard as we can without tripping her off again. Art is hopeful, though, now that we have an idea what is setting her off, maybe we can find a way around that."

"ART! That reminds me! Jane said there are no guys in the house right now, but what about Art?"

"Oh, he's around," Darla grinned.

"Is he. . ? I mean, is Art. . ., Oh hell, does Art dress?"

"Sure he does," Darla teased. "You saw him the night at the ballet. He wasn't naked, was he?"

"Smartass. Does Art dress like you do? When you become Darla?"

"What do you think?"

"Damn you and your Mother! You both answer questions with questions," Audrey snarled, her own emotions breaking through her reticence. "Is Art Diana?"

"Took you long enough to figure that out. He's a psychologist, and was Jane's first conquest back when she was in college," Darla revealed as they approached a 'Y' in the trail. "Look, I've got to run home, so I won't finish with you today. See you tomorrow, I hope!" She then turned on the branch toward the Victorian mansion, waving as she went.
 
 
Chapter 10: Guess Who is Coming to Dinner
 
 
Seasons House, Master Apartment - 3:15

Jane sat in front of the window, half-watching as the workmen hired for the occasion bustled about their about the huge lawn under Old Tom's watchful eye. Several had already dispensed with their shirts in the already warm August sun. Jane eyed her gown with mixed feelings. On one hand, it was gorgeous and she looked forward to wearing it for Art, and to having Art take it off her later on. The downside was that, light though the material was, there was just so much of it. "I'm going to roast." she declared finally.

Art looked up from his own last minute preparations. "At least you have some decollete in YOUR outfit. YOU won't be out there with a tie threatening to choke you at the same time you are steam-cooking in a black waistcoat and tails."

"Oh, stop your whining. We've been through this. Diana can't come out until later, when only the special friends and guests are still here."

"But it will be cooler then!"

"Oh come on," Jane teased. "Be a man!"

"Darling," Diana's cattiest voice replied, "You are treading a very fine line right now. I might just decide you need another shower."

"You wouldn't. . ." Jane started and then stopped herself. *Of course he'd dare - it's one of the reasons I love the sometimes infuriating man!* "So," she went on, changing the subject, "Were you as pleased as I was with Mel's decision as I was?"

"Rather surprised, but pleased. I'm glad things turned out as well as they did, too."

"Well, until that dinner, I wouldn't have given much for success with her. Remember, any time I even hinted that we would be going out in public, she'd have another attack."

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

Outside the Seasons House Stable: W-Day Minus 142

Audrey and Darla raced for the unofficial finish line of their morning run with as much speed as either could muster. "GOTCHA!" Audrey cheered as she edged out her shorter companion.

"I'll . . . get . . . you . . . yet. One of . . . these days!" Darla panted as she began to move into a cooldown pace.

"Just. . . keep. . .on . . tel. . .ling . . yourself. .. that, blondie!" Audrey jibed back.

For all the apparent cattiness between the two, they both knew that they had grown closer since Audrey's return. In the back of her mind, Audrey knew that this girlfriend of hers was not REALLY a girl, but somehow that knowledge did not seem to bother her, or make Darla any less her friend. It was strange, and yet, it also felt very right to the tall, dark-haired young woman. *If only she hadn't lied to me before, if only DARRYL hadn't lied to me before,* she thought for what seemed like the millionth time.

"Umm, Audrey?" Darla's uncertain tones broke through the taller girl's thoughts.

"What?"

"I would like to ask you for a favor. We've managed to avoid discussing anything to do with Jane's program or Melanie the last few days, but well . . .,"

"Well, what," Audrey asked cautiously.

"Would you mind coming to dinner tonight? Up at the house?"

"Huh? What's with that? The kid get sent away or something?" Audrey had visited the house on several occasions, but each time had been carefully chosen so that Melanie had been elsewhere at the time - usually in the upstairs study working with either Jane or Diana.

"No, that's sort of the point. Maybe adding you to her world, a single person who wasn't part of her initial transformation - a girl of course - would be . . . less stressful for her than going out in public - as a girl, that is. Yet it would be, I hope, progress."

Audrey could hear the worry in her friend's voice and it called to something deep inside her. "What's that all about?"

Darla sighed and plopped down on the ground to stretch, watching as Audrey followed suit. *God, but I'm glad she lost those sweatsuits.* she thought as Audrey's lycra-clad form began to elongate sensuously. *And soon it will be warm enough for her to wear a nice little crop top, or maybe just her sports bra. God, she has great abs, and from what that tight outfit suggests, they've only gotten better at the Olympic training camp.*

"Her anxiety attacks," Darla continued, pulling her attention away from Audrey's lovely form. "She's more than a week overdue for her first trip to town - the first visit to the Chalet and to Ms. Franson's dress shop - almost two weeks, in fact - but despite Diana's best attempts at finding out what is at the root of her problem, she still goes off - big time - at the slightest hint that a public outing might be in the offing."

"So what does having me join you at dinner accomplish?"

"Although you aren't really one, to Melanie you're an 'outsider'," Darla told her, "And we - that's Jane, Marie, Diana and I - are not. She knows we know she's really a boy, and she's figured out the Jane wants her to go to town, although not why. When we tell her she's indistinguishable from a real girl, she doesn't trust our assessments because she doesn't trust our motives."

"Why doesn't Jane just drag her, I mean HIM into town? She has the authority, right?"

"Because if Melanie goes off in town like she has the last two times it came up here, someone will call 911 and we're liable to end up in the hospital with her - which would blow the whole deal. Not just for her and Jane, but for a lot of the other guys Jane has helped here."

"And she can't help the kid just keeping him here?"

"It won't be enough," Darla replied emphatically. "The pressure, that is. SHE has to deal with all this under public scrutiny and public pressure. No matter what's really behind her behavior, eventually she'll get too comfortable here - with us, with the routine, with the relative safety of the isolation here at Seasons House. She has to go to the next step if we're ever to help her control that temper that got her sent to us."

"DAMMIT, Darla, you want me to join in Jane's blasted games and I did not come here to play games!"

"Then, please, come to dinner," Darla nearly begged, her eyes huge and pleading. "This is as far from being a game as anything I can think of. That girl needs some help to get over this barrier to her rehabilitation and you might be able to give it to her."

"You're just like Jane, you know that? You just think of HIM as female - even talk about him as a female."

"Because that is how it has to be if we are to help HIM, Audrey," Darla said softly.

"And you believe that? I mean, REALLY believe that?"

"With all my heart," Darla said with quiet conviction.

Audrey stared at Darla for several more seconds before finally reaching a decision. She nodded. "Okay, I'll come. What time?"

"Great! Pick you up at six p.m."

"It's just a quarter mile walk." Audrey protested.

"Yes, but we don't want Melanie knowing you live around here, so I will come get you in the estate wagon and drive you to the front door so she can greet you like a proper young lady receiving honored guests."

"You're kidding me."

"Auds? I almost never kid. . . at least about Jane's program and her students. Ooops. . .gotta run. See you at six! And THANKS!"

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

Seasons House Stable Apartment: W-Day Minus 142

The clock read 5:15 when the doorbell chimed. Audrey walked to the door brushing out her hair as she went. She opened the door to see Darla loaded down with a garment bag, a cosmetics bag and a twine-handled paper shopping bag.

"Hi," Audrey said as Darla swept into the room, finally depositing her load on the sofa.

"Hi yourself," Darla grinned. "I can see that I was right."

"Right about what?" Audrey demanded.

"That you'd need these," the shorter blonde said mischievously, pointing at the parcels on the sofa. "You're way underdressed."

"And what's wrong with the way I'm dressed?" Audrey's challenge practically dripped ice off each word as she brushed a hand down the elegantly fitted black business power pants-suit. "I'll have you know I wore this outfit to the Olympic reception at the White House."

"Perhaps that would be appropriate for a mere *reception*," Darla said with an artfully-applied sneer. It was too condescending even for Jane, but Audrey had never met Edith White on whom that delicate lip curl was actually modeled. "But this is a formal dinner, and despite your apparent fascination with . . . *politicians*," Darla continued, the sneer on that epithet not concealed at all, "neither is the White House the equivalent of Seasons House."

Then the blonde girl destroyed the arrogance of her attitude by dissolving into giggles. She did not, however, relent on her basic demand that Audrey step up the elegance of her presentation.

"I've eaten at Seasons House," Audrey insisted as she dodged Darla's attempt to get her out of the suit's jacket.

"Remember, you never got the full treatment. Let me put it this way. Would you attend a formal dinner party hosted by the Queen of England in that outfit?"

"Well, no, but. . "

"No buts. Jane is worse than the Queen of England. The Queen would probably be kind about a dress faux pas. Because of Melanie, Jane can't cut you any slack."

"Oh, all right. What did you bring me?"

"Oh, just some stuff you left behind when you went off to the Olympic Training Camp," Darla grinned impishly.

"Since I left almost all of it, that doesn't tell me much. If you think you're going to turn me into some frilly debutante, you might want to reconsider that gross error in judgment."

"No, this is elegant and very feminine, but the goal is for you to be a real lady insofar as Melanie is concerned."

Audrey sighed. "Okay, so what's first?"

Darla grinned happily and handed her friend the shopping bag. At the taller girl's questioning look, she giggled. "Undies, silk stockings and heels. The whole deal, you know. Jane never does things by halves, you know."

"Oh, I know," the brunette agreed as she reluctantly took the bag. "How come you keep trying to dress me?"

The question seemed to bring Darla up short, and Audrey would later swear that in that instant, despite the perfectly coiffed hair, lovely dress and artistic makeup, she had no doubt of the innate masculinity of the person opposite her. "Probably," Darryl's voice answered her softly, "because it's . . . safer than the converse."

*Converse? What the hell would that be?* Audrey asked herself, then answered her own unspoken question. The converse of dressing her would be . . . undressing her. Open-mouthed, Audrey tried to find an answer to that, but her brain refused to engage. "Ummm, be right back," she muttered as she turned and scurried to her bedroom.

"I'll help you with your makeup when you're done so put on a robe," Darla's laughing voice called after her.
 
 
Chapter 11: Insight and Breakthrough
 
 
Seasons House, Master Apartment: W-Hour Minus 2:50

Art sighed as he snapped on his cummerbund in front of his waist and then spun it around his torso.

"You do that so well. Must be all that practice with brassieres," Jane teased as she came up and turned her back to him. "Zip me?"

"One of my favorite things," he assured her as he put one hand on the zipper tab and the other around her small waist. Jane shivered as he pressed his lips to the especially sensitive spot between her shoulder-blades just before covering it with the nylon closure. "Remember how Audrey looked that night she came to dinner? That black silk dress with the red-trimmed bolero jacket that showed off her waist so well?"

"It wasn't her waist that was showed off by that dress," Jane snapped, then smiled with unaccustomed sheepishness as she got control of remembered irritation.

"Well, Darryl does like those colors on her," Art teased.

"And Darryl DOES like those incredible legs that short skirt showed off so . . . incredibly," Jane sighed with just a twinge of remembered jealousy as well.

"It wasn't that short," Art said. "After all, you bought it for her."

"Yes, I did," admitted Jane, then she smirked and said, "At Darla's, that is, Darryl's urging. I didn't realize how short it would look with her . . . height until we already had it home."

"Our child is a bit manipulative at times," Art said with ponderous gravity - totally undermined by the twinkle in his eyes as he mused, "I wonder where he gets it from."

"I wouldn't know," Jane declared grandly, right before she lost control of a very undignified giggle. "At least she hadn't forgotten her manners, though she did use the wrong fork once or twice."

"Darling, when you put out those forty piece place settings, *I* mess up which utensil to use when sometimes, and Melanie was too out of it to notice anyway. She was too busy trying to slide under the table whenever Audrey so much as looked at her, let alone talk to her."

Jane shook her head at the memory. "Even when she tried to compliment the poor dear. You know, I nearly changed my mind during the desert course."

"Changed your mind?" Art asked as he reached for his waist coat.

"About the plan Darla came up with. I almost didn't go through with it. It was a long shot, you know."

"What changed your mind?"

Jane smiled weakly. "I couldn't think of anything that had any better chance of working. So, when we'd all finished our desert, I just went ahead with it . . . "

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

Seasons House, Formal Dining Room: W-Day Minus 142

"I must check on something in my office, ladies," Jane said as she delicately folded her napkin. "Melanie? Since it is Darla's turn to help Marie in the kitchen, I would like you to entertain our guest in the music room until I can rejoin you."

"Yes, Ma'am," the beskirted boy said quietly before turning silver-gray eyes toward Audrey. "Would you please follow me, Miss Rockwell?"

Giving Jane a 'be-it-on-your-head' look after Melanie had turned her head, Audrey rose from her own seat. "Sounds lovely, Melanie, but could you please call me Audrey? 'Miss Rockwell' makes me sound as old as Ms. Thompson."

The pair walked down the front hall and into the darkly lit room. Melanie palmed a switch and the crystal chandelier flared to life.

"My, that's better," Audrey said, wondering just what the hell she was supposed to do with Jane's cross-dressed student. *Well, Darryl said I was supposed to compliment her, so. . . ,* "I really do like that color on you, Melanie. Blondes are lucky that way. I could never wear that color as well as you do."

Something strange flashed in the girl-boy's eyes, something dark and cold. "Look, she's not here, so you can quit with the oh-so- nice comments, okay? You arrived on the same train as I did."

*Uh oh,* Audrey thought. "Umm, I beg your pardon. I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."

"Bull! You know I'm a boy under all this junk, just like the Thompson woman, Darla and Marie know. I SAW you leave with Darla at the train station and I don't forget seeing drop-dead gorgeous women, okay? Especially when they move like a panther on the prowl. I don't know what this is all about - Ms. Thompson not picking on me during dinner, and you and Darla saying such nice stuff. . ," Melanie paused, her brow lining in a frown. "That's it, isn't it? This is the latest attempt to convince me I can make it on the outside, isn't it." she asserted with no question implied.

"Well, I can't pretend to know what this is all about," Audrey temporized, trying to think of something to say. "But if by making it you mean looking like a real girl, I honestly don't see what your problem is."

"Right," Melanie snorted.

"Oh for goodness sake!" Audrey reached out and grabbed Melanie's arm right above the elbow and frog-walked her over to the large mirror behind the piano. "Look at us!" she ordered. "Tell me what you see there!"

"You and me," she replied. "I see you and me."

"You're waffling. I see two girls - one kinda big and tall, but the other one is ALSO over-the-top cute. Look at those full, soft lips. Look at that cute face. Look at that slender, graceful figure. You make a prettier girl than Darla and until tonight, I would have said that was just plain impossible. What I DON'T see is anybody any observer would think is a boy!"

Audrey interrupted her recitation of Melanie's attractiveness when, instead of reassuring the boy-girl, her words had the opposite effect. Melanie's eyes were widening in panic, her pupils wildly-dilated, her breath panting way too quickly.

"She wants me to go out with her. .in public. . like THIS. .and I can't! Do you hear me? I just CAN'T!"

"Hey, Melanie, calm down," Audrey ordered as she put her hand on the student's shoulder. "It's okay. Look, what's the worst that could happen? Go out with her and do what she says. If someone figures out you're a boy, the jig is up. No big deal. No one knows you in this town anyway, and she won't be able to do it to you ever again."

Melanie started shaking visibly, eyes darting frantically about. "Oh, God . . . no . . . he's out there . . . he'll find me . . . I can't . . . lips like that . . . cute, you said . . . he'll say I did it . . . deliberately . . that I WANT . . wanted . .him to. . .again. . oh God, ohGod, ohGodohGodohGod . . ."

Audrey was beside her in an instant. "Hey, easy. Calm down." Thinking quickly, she reached over to the phone and hit the intercom button for the kitchen. "Marie, the music room. I need you!"

"Don't tell Ms. Thompson," Melanie rasped, rationality coming back into the raccoon-like eyes. "Don't tell her, please."

Audrey saw that the girl-boy would go back over the edge unless she promised. "Okay. Just calm down."

"You won't tell, right? You won't? She'll send me away if she decides I can't make it here," her breathing became rasping gasps and the hands she clutched at Audrey's arms were like claws, pincering into the taller girl's flesh on each halting inhalation and exhalation. . . "I'll go to prison if I can't stay here. I've read about it. . It'll be worse there,. . . all of the others there. . .like HIM . . .oh GOD, you CAN'T TELL ANYONE!"

"I won't," Audrey reaffirmed just as Marie, followed closely by Darla and Jane burst into the room. "She had an anxiety attack, Ms. Marie," she said, still rubbing Melanie's back.

"I'll see to her," Marie assured Audrey as she reached down to help Melanie to her feet. "Come along, Melanie. Let's get you into bed."

Jane watched as her friend helped her newest student out of the room, but she didn't say a word until she heard the faint sound of a second floor door opening and then closing. "What happened?" she asked tightly.

"She, I mean, he knew I wasn't an outsider. He saw me leave with Darla from the train station," she told Jane as her mind raced to find a way to deal with this situation. *I told Melanie I wouldn't tell. I'm not even really sure I know what happened. I just think I do. Damn!* "Why is she. . . I mean, he here?"

"I asked you what happened, Audrey."

"I asked you a question, too, Ms. Jane, and I won't answer yours until I am satisfied with your answer to mine."

Jane's immediate angry retort was swallowed before it escaped. For the first time, Audrey saw real pain in the auburn-haired woman's eyes as her shoulders slumped. "I suppose I deserved that, after betraying your own trust."

She straightened though, and said, "But we never revealed your own secrets to anyone not part of the team trying to help you. I must insist, for Melanie's sake, that you tell me what happened - regardless of why Melanie came to us - unless you are willing to fully commit to helping her as part of the team."

"Commit?" asked Audrey.

"Commit to, among other things, doing whatever is necessary to help the student, even if there is a risk - or the certainty - of pain to yourself. That will, as a minimum, include a promise never to reveal Melanie's secrets, not the one that brought her here any more than the nature of her . . . experiences here."

"That's a pretty blank check."

"Yes. It is," Jane declared relentlessly.

Audrey glanced at Darla. There was no hint of demand or duty in Darla's eyes, at least not any demand on Audrey, but there was clear agreement with Jane in her determined expression. After a quick, probably unconscious glance up to where Melanie had disappeared, Audrey looked at Jane and nodded.

"Very well. Melvin has recently become unpredictably violent. He was convicted as a juvenile for assault and battery using a baseball bat with no justification except that his target 'asked for it.' It represented such a radical change that the court felt there was hope that his behavior might be turned around using my program. I am attempting to teach him other ways of dealing with the emotions that fuel the violence."

"And what you do, are doing, really works?" Audrey was dubious.

"It really works, Rocky," Darla said firmly, using Audrey's old nickname to remind her of her own early experiences with Jane. "I've worked with almost a dozen guys over my years with Momma- Jane, and while it's been a close thing once or twice, the program has worked for all of them."

Audrey regarded Darla with cool eyes for a moment, before turning back to face Jane. "I promised her. . him that I would not tell."

Jane nodded, her own eyes shifting momentarily to her child. "Then you have to make a decision, don't you? I cannot help Melvin if I don't know what is behind his anxiety attacks. If I cannot help him, the court-authorized suspension of his sentence to juvenile prison will be vacated."

*That's what he meant about going to prison if Jane can't help him, and if I am right about what he said next, that is exactly the worst place they could send him. DAMMIT!*

"You trusted me once, Audrey. Help me help this child," Jane entreated softly.

Some primordial stress reflex triggered Audrey's abdomen to cramp and stomach to burn as she considered the impossible choice she faced. *Why,* she thought angrily, *why did I ever agree to keep Melanie's secret? If I tell Jane, now, it will be a betrayal, not only of Melanie, but of my own code. I've NEVER broken a promise like that. Never! You can't be a little bit of a liar, a little bit dishonorable. Even when Miss Phoebe Elizabeth was ranting about how despicable I would be if I didn't live up to the name Chastity, even when I was holding everyone away by being the tough-as-nails Rocky, I was always true to what *I* thought was right.*

Audrey stole a glance at Darla, saw the support there - all she had to do was ask, but she couldn't. This was something SHE had to do and so she looked away again. *But you can't just stand by and let Melanie suffer either, Rockwell,* she chided herself. *Just so you can tell yourself you've never told a lie. Or worse, have her sent to prison where they will REALLY destroy her.* The memory of the pretty girl, all but collapsing in panic at her feet, pounded in Audrey's heart and stirred the growing fire in her belly, for all that she looked so cooly elegant to the waiting Jane and Darla. *Right is right, and honor demands . . ,* she tried to convince herself.

And finally failed. *That's garbage and you know it, Rockwell, because Melanie's reasoning is . . . flawed. Her judgment on what is right is . . . wrong. Her demand for secrecy is harming her more - WILL harm her more than the threat that she feared so desperately.*

Though it made her feel like something pure was being shattered within her soul - the sharp-edged shards cutting deeply into things she had considered sacred - Audrey finally looked back to Jane. "I think," she began, her voice sounding very unsteady to her own ears, "that you had better get him in to see a psychological therapist who specializes in dealing with serious adolescent emotional trauma. That kid has been badly molested by a man, and maybe even raped."

Her stomach twisted again, forcing Audrey to take a deep, calming breath before she could haltingly begin to detail the entire encounter. Her continuing internal struggles distracted Audrey, and so she never knew how thankful she should be that the building inferno in Ms. Jane Thompson's eyes had never, ever been directed at her.
 
 
Chapter 12: Monsters in the Darkness
 
 
Seasons House, The Guest Room: W-Hour Minus 2:30

"Darnit, Marie!" Audrey complained for what had to be the tenth time that morning. "I don't see why I have to be cooped up in here for HOURS before the ceremony! I mean, I know there's the special undies and all that stuff, but still, it's just clothes."

"Just clothes, she says," Marie complained, her eyes raised to heaven. "Just clothes. We are discussing a designer gown hand- fitted to your own lovely body. . .,"

"Don't remind me!" Audrey glared. "Some of the pin-holes in my butt still haven't healed completely."

"A veil made of imported hand-tatted lace," Marie continued as if she had not been so rudely interrupted, "Lingerie that is so light and delicate as to make a woman sigh with pleasure and a man weak with longing and you have the temerity to refer to this every young girl's dream ensemble as 'just clothes'?"

"Okay, so they're really nice 'just clothes'," the tall, dark- haired beauty smiled. "But it shouldn't take more than a half hour, three quarters of an hour tops to get rigged out in all that stuff."

"Mon Dieu, the girl is hopeless. Getting yourself transformed on a day such as this, petite, is not 'getting dressed', it is an experience, a deeply meaningful and joyous once-in-a-lifetime indulgence - if you are very, very lucky. Do not shortchange yourself."

"Well, if you put it that way," Audrey gave in with only a touch of ill grace. "So, when do we get started?"

"When your Maman returns with the video camera."

That wasn't quite enough to satisfy the girl. Over the past week, she had come to know her Mother in ways that she never had before. Prudence had been afraid her daughter would never be able to forgive her for inflicting Phoebe Elizabeth on the young, impressionable Rocky. However, that fear had evaporated far more easily than anyone had dared to hope for the simple reason that Audrey would never have been sent to Seasons House otherwise.

Audrey knew that she and her Mother were well on the way to becoming friends, and that was wonderful.

Maybe it should have been enough, but the waiting was just too frustrating. Bomber-sized butterflies were starting to strafe her stomach but she was determined NOT going to let that be a problem. Still, an ounce, or several, of prevention would be a very good idea.

"Marie, do you have any ginger ale? I think I could use some."

Marie smiled and conjured a glass of amber liquid, smiling with gentle pride at having anticipated such a need.

"This is a lot different than that time after my nearly disastrous dinner with Melanie, eh, Tante Marie?"

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

Seasons House Stable Apartment: W-Day Minus 141

*It's almost one in the morning,* Marie thought as she stifled an urge to wring her hands as she stood outside the apartment door, *surely she's been in her bed for hours by now.* But Darla had said that Audrey might be brooding after telling Jane about Melanie's anxiety attack - and her thoughts about what had caused it. *And who wouldn't be upset by such evil, I would like to know,* Marie thought, her own emotions still roiling.

Softly, she knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She considered ringing the doorbell, but refrained in case Audrey was asleep. Hesitantly, she reached out to check the door knob and was surprised to find the door unlocked. *Well, I'll just take a quick look to check on her,* she thought, *and come back to talk to her tomorrow if she's asleep.*

Peaking around the now partially opened door, Marie saw a halo of light thrown by a single lamp in the back of the apartment's living room. She crept in and saw Audrey, sprawled on the sofa, a half-empty glass of amber liquid in one hand. Audrey's head came up and shadow-darkened eyes opened, watching Marie. "You're not who I was expecting," the younger woman said flatly.

"And you were expecting?" Marie responded, moving in to where she could get a better look at the girl. She'd shed the pretty bolero jacket, Marie noted, and the heels, but she still wore the black and red dress, although it might never be same again, rumpled as it was. Marie knew just how difficult it could be to get bad wrinkles and sharp creases out of silk.

"Jane or Darla. . .Darryl," Audrey murmured, then motioned to the chair with the glass she held in her hand. "Have a seat."

Marie did as she was bid, and then turned her full attention to Audrey. There were dark-tinted tracks down her cheeks leading to large smudged areas where a careless hand had tried to rub away tears. "Should you be drinking?" she finally asked, if only for something to say.

Audrey looked at the glass she held in her hand quizzically, and then understood the question. "It's ginger ale," she replied. "Flat ginger ale, actually, to soothe my stomach. I'm still in training and besides, I wouldn't know how to work up a good drunk if I wanted one."

That effectively ended any further conversation between the two women for several minutes until Audrey finally asked, "Why are you here?"

"For you," Marie said simply. "We were worried about how you might be feeling. Darla asked me to come down."

"Why not come himself?"

"She's needed for Melanie right now," Marie said. "Diana is very good at what she does with troubled children who've been subjected to real abuse, but Darla understands such things better than anyone else in the house. Jane wanted her nearby in case Melanie. . . well, in case Melanie needed someone who understood."

"In case *Melanie* needed someone," Audrey repeated bitterly. "Darryl is avoiding me again."

Marie bristled momentarily, but then saw the hurt in Audrey's eyes. *Why, she was hoping he'd come to her,* Marie realized. *But why? For him to comfort her or so that she could berate him for putting her in that situation?* "He's not avoiding you, cherie," Marie said staunchly.

"Well, that is what it looks like from my perspective, Marie."

"I think you know better than that, cherie. Darla felt that Melanie might need her and so she stayed, even though she was concerned about you."

"Why should he be concerned about me?" Audrey asked flippantly.

"Why are you sitting here, brooding in the dark?"

"Touche, Marie. So why is he staying up there?"

"Because he feels a commitment to her. Because she trusts her big sister more than anyone else in the house. After the revelations tonight, that trust is something Jane and Diana will need if they are to help her."

"Trust? How can she . . HE trust anyone around here after . . after what I did tonight?"

"Did you break faith with Melanie to help yourself in some way? Or was it truly to help Melanie, to prevent harm to her?" Marie asked gently.

Audrey regarded the French Canadian woman for several moments. Of all the people at Seasons House, she had been the most caring, even in the early days when Audrey had been, she admitted, a real pain in the butt. "You make is sound so simple, Marie. It's not, though. You know something? I've never broken my word in my entire life before tonight."

"As Jane said earlier, you had to make a choice tonight, a difficult one to be sure. Personally, I am positive you made the right one."

"But I told him . . I PROMISED him that I would keep his bloody secret!"

"To what point, cherie?" Marie asked quietly. "Which do you think was the correct decision for Melanie?"

"I spilled it all to Jane, didn't I?" Audrey snapped, eyes glinting in the dim light.

Marie stood and walked over to sit beside the tall young woman. "I believe that is what is called an ethical dilemma, petite. Do you keep your word to a child, or do you take action that, while it breaks your word, might save that child's life?"

"THAT'S NOT FAIR!" Audrey felt the fire of renewed tears building behind her eyelids.

Marie reached out to stroke the younger woman's sable-deep hair. "No one said life was fair, petite."

That simple touch of sympathy opened Audrey's floodgates. "Oh, Marie, I messed up with Melanie so badly! I should have seen her . . . his distress. I was so insensitive to what my words were doing to her that I let that girl collapse in terror right in front of me, with me pouring fuel on the fire the whole time. No one should have to go through that and I DID it to her!"

*So, here is what has driven you to brood in the dark, cherie. Not so much that you broke your word, but that you broke through Melanie's secret. You saw the agony that was there and thought it was your fault. Well, we will have none of that!* "But why do you care? She's not your child, not your responsibility."

"Because I . . because no one . . . because everyone deserves more love and attention than that, more sensitivity on the part of those around them," the words and self-recrimination poured out of Audrey.

Marie rose and moved over to the sofa, pulling the distraught girl into her arms. "I know, dear. That's the hardest part of Jane's program because you know that they need love, need positive attention, but when they arrive here they aren't ready to accept those gifts. In some cases, the boys need to be tenderized a bit first, and believe me, Jane is very good at that with most boys. This one, however, seems to have different problems and different needs. He requires something more than Jane's usual program, and now, thanks to you, we will see that he gets it."

"I felt like such a beast when I realized just how terrified he was, how frightened I'd made him," Audrey sobbed into Marie's bosom.

"The terror and the fear were already there, dear, put there by someone else. What you did was break inside so that it could come out and stop festering, like lancing a boil. You did well, Audrey, very well."

"You're sure?"

"Without that breakthrough, nothing good could have come of any of this. Now, we can help the boy and find the animal who hurt him."

*Someone did that to Darryl,* Audrey's mind snarled, remembering those dark and frightening revelations of only a few months before. *THAT's why he wanted to be Darla more than he wanted to be Darryl. If that low-life who did that to him was still alive I'd. . I'd. . .* and then words failed her. With an effort, she calmed herself only to have another revelation. "That's why Darla tells Jane other students' confidences, isn't it?

Marie nodded. "In part, anyway, although there is much more to the role of big sister than that. Bad things have to have happened to make children violent or malicious or evil. Sometimes those things can, as they obviously have with Melanie, slip to the surface or fester in the background. Much of the big sister's job is make sure Jane knows such things so that we do not make things worse."

"Darryl told me he had to watch out for . . . suicide, that it was why he had to . . be Darla. I thought it was just, sort of, an excuse."

Marie shook her head. "It's not an excuse, but a real need. Especially tonight, evidently."

"Oh, Marie, I have really messed things up," Audrey cried.

"Nonsense," Marie chided. "I just told you that you did well!"

"Not with Melanie, with Darryl. I . . . I didn't understand. Didn't want to understand. I . . . I owe him a huge apology. I dumped on him for doing exactly the same thing that I did tonight to Melanie."

"Do you regret what you did tonight?"

Audrey batted at the tears with the back of her hand. "I regret that there wasn't any other way to do what had to be done, Tante Marie, which is basically what Darryl said to me when we talked after I found out about Darla. Oh, God, Marie, what if he won't forgive me?"

*Right, like that will happen.* "Oh, I don't think you have anything to worry about there."

"I don't?" Audrey sniffled, looking up with hope and tears shining in her dark eyes.

"Not if I know my boy at all, m'enfant. Just don't make it TOO huge an apology. It will do him good to have to keep working at it."

"Working at what?" Audrey sniffed, still looking up into Marie's suddenly laughing eyes.

"As if you don't know, Miss. As I said, it will do him good to work for it, and it will do you a great deal of good to let him, eh?"

"All right," Audrey replied, not at all certain what she was agreeing to, but feeling too exhausted to worry about it anymore that night. "Melanie is going to be all right?" she asked again.

"Thanks to you, petite. I'm glad you've finally decided to truly become one of us. Now, come along and I will tuck you into bed." Marie ordered as she helped her girl to her feet. "And none of that running tomorrow. . err. . today. You will sleep yourself out and then present yourself, properly dressed mind you, in my kitchen for breakfast. Got that?"

Audrey let herself be pulled to her feet and then kissed Marie's cheek. "Got it, Tante Marie."
 
 
Chapter 13: Penance and Forgiveness
 
 
W-Hour Minus 2:15

Art stuck his head into the room where his son and his guests were dressing. "How's it going, fellas?"

The three young men looked up and grinned at Art. Michael and Kenneth had been lounging in their robes, their own tuxedos still hanging and encased in plastic, while Darryl was already dressed except for his tuxedo jacket. "Hi, Dad," Darryl called.

"Aren't you guys supposed to be getting dressed?"

"Doesn't take so long when you don't have to put on makeup and curl your hair," Michael chuckled. "We have plenty of time."

Art pulled up a hassock and sat down on it. "So what are we talking about?"

"We've been pumping Dar here," Kenneth waggled his brows lasciviously, "Trying to find out how long it took him and hard he had to work to finally be restored to the lovely Audrey's good graces."

"Yeah, son," Art chimed in. "You never shared that with me, either. Come on, at least give us the good parts. It will soothe the bruises your mother regularly puts on my male ego while giving these two pause for reflection on the dangers of wedded bliss."

"Too late for me, I'm afraid," Michael sad with great solemnity. "Janice popped the question last night and I accepted."

Kenneth thumped his smaller friend on the back soundly. "Way to go, bro!" he exulted. "But it sure took you two long enough to make it all neat and legal."

"You think I haven't learned anything about contrary women in my short life?" Mike snorted. "Between my Mother and Jane, I knew I had to be very cautious about this, especially with someone like Janice."

"It's not like you could just tell her you were getting married and get away with it," Darryl teased. "Not with that one!"

"And you could with yours? Right - pull the other one, little brother," Michael refuted. "Anyway, I had a hell of a time getting her to think this was all her idea!"

"Well, congratulations, Michael," Art said before pinning Darryl with a steely glare, "but I still haven't heard any of the juicy details from Darryl yet."

"Lord," Darryl laughed, "But you do love gossip, Dad."

"Well, what do you expect?" Diana's cattiest purr answered him.

"Okay, okay. Things came to a head a couple of days after the night Audrey had that breakthrough with Melanie. . . "

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

W-Day Minus 138 - Running Trail in the Vicinity of Seasons House

Audrey heard the familiar light quick steps of Darla hurrying to catch up with her and felt a surge of relief wash over her. Moments later, the pair were running easily together.

They ran in their now-usual companionable silence for a couple of miles, Darla letting Audrey pick their route. "I.. .uhmm, missed you the last couple of mornings," Audrey finally said.

"I missed being here with you," Darla replied. "But Melanie needed pretty much round the clock observation once she realized we knew at least generally what had happened to Melvin. Things got a little tense there for a while."

Actually, they'd had the student on a suicide watch while Art, still as Diana, had worked feverishly to stabilize the boy enough that they could begin to work with him to begin healing the mental and emotional damage. Jane had been particularly upset, seeing the potential for another Michael.

"They're better now? I mean, you're here, so things must be better, right?"

"We've made a big step," Darla admitted. "He cried for real last night and told Diana the whole story while Jane held him. It's.. .well, it's pretty awful, but Art says that facing it, talking about it is the first step towards beating it. That and the fact that we now know who did what to him. Judge Ruth is already going after that bastard. Anyway, he's resting now and Diana thinks the worst is over. It'll still be a little hairy by times, but the worst is over."

"I guess he'll be back to Melvin then," Audrey observed.

"Maybe, maybe not. Diana thinks that being Melanie might help, at least for a while - might make him able to look at Melvin in the third person for a while, get some objectivity about what happened. And the discipline of the masquerade will distract him a little. We'll play it by ear. If it doesn't work, Jane will have him in pants in a heartbeat."

"Does he. . .," Audrey started to ask, faltered, and then forced herself to face the question. "Does he hate me? For. . for breaking my promise?"

Darla glanced at the taller girl and saw the anguish on that lovely face. "No," she said firmly. "You were a scapegoat for a while, to be sure, someone to blame for us knowing the secret he never wanted revealed because it made him ashamed."

Audrey glanced quickly at Darla, then said quietly, "There's no reason to be ashamed, not when someone bigger assaults you. The bastard that DID it should be ashamed, not the victim."

Darla's gentle smile said more about her own peace of mind than her words. "I know that, Audrey, but it will take a while before Mel's heart truly absorbs it. It's even worse for guys, you know. Less 'excusable' to be that weak. But sometimes it . . . happens."

Before Audrey could reply, Darla shrugged and said, "Anyway, part of last night's breakthrough was that he said he was so thankful you cared enough to break your promise and tell Jane."

Audrey gave a quiet prayer of thanks and smiled weakly. "I'm glad," she said, her voice barely audible over the sounds of the feet on the trail.

False dawn was beginning to compete with the moon as they broke out of the woods and onto the rocky beach fronting the lake where months earlier Darla had been thrown from her horse.

To Darla's surprise, Audrey zeroed in on the exact spot where the accident had occurred and came to a stop. Running in place to keep warm, Darla eyed her companion, but said nothing.

"Do you mind if we stop here for a few minutes? I. . . I need to talk to you."

Even if the boy-girl not been predisposed to giving Audrey whatever she wanted, the entreaty in her voice would still have won the day. "Okay," Darla replied, "Melanie won't need me this morning anyway, but could we keep walking? I haven't run the past couple of days and I'll stiffen up."

Audrey shrugged and moved to fall in step with Darla as she began walking down the rocky beach. "Ummmm. . .," she started to say something and then bit her lip, looking at her companion with a worried look.

Darla caught the look, and the gentle sensitivity that made Darla so effective and Darryl so unique came to the fore. "It's okay, Audrey. Whatever it is you can just say it. It won't change how much I . . how I feel about you."

"Well, I know this will sound kind of strange, and at least part of it is because I don't understand, . . still, how you. . I mean. . ."

Beautifully manicured fingers touched the taller girl's lips, stemming the flow of words. "You're dithering, Auds," Darla said. "Just spit it out."

"Can-I-talk-to-both-Darryl-and-Darla-when-you're-Darla?" she shot out the syllables in a rush of air.

Darla grinned, only Audrey immediately recognized it as one she'd seen so often on Darryl's face - *Like right before the time he ravished my mouth with that damned kiss that still wakes me up at night.* "Regardless of what persona is obvious to the casual observer, Audrey, you always talk to both of us when you talk to one of us. Like I tried to tell you once, even I'm not sure where Darla ends and Darryl begins, and vice versa."

Audrey nodded, but didn't say anything more for several minutes. Darla let the silence go unbroken except for the soft sounds of the lake waters against the shore. She could practically feel the tension in her friend grow as the other girl struggled with the words she wanted to say, but knew that this was something Audrey needed to do without prompting and without help.

"I'm sorry," Audrey finally sighed out.

Hope bubbled up inside Darla, but she ruthlessly tamped it back down. This was no time to jump to conclusions and find a bottomless canyon yawning beneath her. "Oh? For what?"

Audrey shrugged. "Everything, I guess."

"That's pretty far-reaching," Darla teased, unable to resist trying to help this woman she/he loved by lightening the mood at least a little.

With a half smile of gratitude, Audrey continued. "Well, mostly, for the way I accused you and Darryl of betraying me when I found out about the masquerade. I'm sorry, Darryl. I. . .I understand now. . more than I did before. I. . . I know you had to do what you did, and more, that it was right that you do what you did."

"Why the change of heart, Audrey?" Darla asked, once again very serious. "Because the other night you decided you had to do the same thing you accused me of and therefore it must be okay?"

"THAT'S NOT IT!!" she cried back, feeling the sudden and unexpected burn of tears at the top of her eyes. Furiously, she blinked, trying to will them away as she stopped and faced Darla - a Darla who, despite the stylishly feminine workout clothes, suddenly seemed extremely masculine to her. *How does he DO that?!?*

Darryl simply continued to watch the dark-haired beauty until she blushed. Then she straightened her shoulders and nodded. "Touche, Darryl, you're right. Until I faced that situation myself I didn't think it was . . valid. I thought you could, that you should *always* be able to find a way to . . keep your promises. Only, um, dishonest people wouldn't. Or that is was a sign of stupidity to make a promise you couldn't keep. And I wasn't either of those. I thought. "

"No, you're not," the Darla-with-Darryl's-voice replied.

Audrey smiled shyly at her running mate, still trying to find a way to express things that were hard for her to admit. "I couldn't understand why or how breaking a promise could ever be the right thing to do, until, well, until the other night." She took a deep breath. "I am sorry for the way I acted the days before I left. Even though I don't think I was like Melanie," she added a bit defensively.

"No student is ever really like any other student," Darla said, now back in character. "It is one of the few absolutes I've learned working with Jane. In your case, we just didn't know, at least in the beginning."

"I can understand that."

"So, does that mean I'm forgiven?" Darla wheedled, batting her long lashes coquettishly at Audrey.

Audrey laughed. "Of course you are," she said, and then remembered Marie's admonition. "For that, anyway."

"What does THAT mean?" Darla demanded, relief washing over her at the playfulness in her beloved's manner.

"Well, you have a lot of OTHER things to be forgiven for," she teased as she turned and began to walk back towards the trail.

"Like what!?!?" Darla squealed as she moved in front of Audrey, her hands challengingly on her hips.

"Oh, like looking at the art class, or copping that feel at the dress shop. I can think of a LOT more," Audrey laughed down at her more diminutive friend.

"I did NOT cop a feel!!"

"Hey, I was there, remember? And *I* certainly remember the feel of your hands on my . . .," at this Audrey interrupted herself to run her hands sensually down her sleek curves, throwing a final little hip wiggle at her dumbfounded friend before quickly dodging around her and then dashing down the trail.
 
 
Chapter 14: Women Rule with Women's Rules
 
 
W-Hour Minus 1:55 - Darryl's Room at Seasons House

"Win a few, lose a few, brother," Michael teased Darryl as he helped him arrange his tie and collar.

"Oh, but I had won the big one," the smaller young man replied, "and I knew it."

"So how did you earn forgiveness for those other transgressions?" Kenneth asked.

"How else have men earned forgiveness when their women are feeling somewhat put-upon?" Art put in as the voice of experience. "He groveled."

"Well, not quite," Darryl grinned back at his father. "But it did seem to take quite a bit of courting to work my way through the list. Flowers, candy, dates."

"Which is exactly what you wanted to do anyway," Art added.

"Sure was, although slipping out to change into Darryl so that we could go out for those dates was a colossal pain in the butt.

"I don't get it," Kenneth put in. "Why keep Darla around if Mel wasn't really suited for the normal Thompson shock treatment?"

"Mom didn't want Melanie to know about Darryl for most of that time."

"Ahhh. So, how did you finally get your lady's unfortunately nude ring finger tagged with your brand?" Michael asked.

"God, don't ever call it that in Audrey's hearing, or Momma Jane for that matter," Darryl breathed and then laid his right hand across his heart before continuing. "It is a symbol of my undying love, commitment and devotion."

"And it just happens to let any other predatory male know that this one is already claimed?" Michael teased.

"Just between us guys, yeah, but if you're planning on giving one to Janice, I'd recommend keeping that particular purpose to yourself."

"Do I look crazy to you, bro?" Michael retorted indignantly.

"Does Mom still have this room rigged for surveillance, Dad?" Darryl asked for effect and was pleased when Michael blanched. "No? Oh, okay. Anyway, I did the deed on Easter Sunday. Darla and Melanie had to ride one of the floats in the parade. We were all at the Chalet for the pre-parade 'do's and facelifts. . . "

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

W-Day Minus 120 - Marisha Chalet

"Your usual magnificent job, Caro, Sandy," Darla said as she preened in the mirror holding the exaggeratedly floppy hat above her head. "I look great, even with this hat that could double as a spinnaker for an Americas Cup contender."

"You're so good at this you're no challenge at all anymore," Sandy needled. "Lord, you know more tricks than Caro and I do."

Darla only grinned, long past any reaction to Sandy's caustic tongue. "Why, Sandy, that's because I AM better than you two," she said coyly, before continuing, "At least at the tricks I need for this. Heck, you two do this, what? Once or twice a week at most? Forty weeks out of the year when Jane has a student? During that same time, I do it daily when there's a student about."

Caro grinned. "True enough, dear, but you are the best, and after Michael, that is saying a good deal. It's like you really were meant to be both Darryl and Darla."

"I think so, Caro," Darla agreed, putting down the hat.

"What I can't figure out is why you two are doing the parade thing. From what I've gotten from Jane, Melanie has made the turn and she's only keeping Mel in skirts because it helps with the other . . . therapy." Caro said.

"God," Sandy added darkly, "But I am SO glad they got their hands on that bastard who ra. . .ummm, hurt her and that Mel didn't have to go testify. Hell, how could he get away with that shit?"

Darla shrugged. "Local politician in a town with a serious 'good old boy's network' to protect him. Art says that losing his regular victim when the court sent Mel here made him careless," Darla added. "He went after another kid and that kid's dad caught him and called in the cops. They chased him in his car and think he ran his car off that cliff intentionally."

"Politicians," Sandy snorted with disgust and would have gone on except for the knock at the door to the back room.

A dark-haired head poked around the door. "Done yet?" Audrey asked.

Sandy and Caro shared a mischievous grin that Darla, whose attention was completely focused on Audrey, missed. "Sure," Carolyn smiled as she took Sandy's arm and hustled her slightly resistant partner to the door. "We've done all we can for this one, and we do need to, uuhh. . go pin Melanie's hat to her head. C'mon, Sandy, you can make sure I get it on straight."

Audrey slipped into the room, a pillar of darkness in the bright room so redolent with the odors of ultimate femininity. She was dressed from head to toe in black - snug turtleneck, black denim jacket and jeans, even the pennies in her black loafers were corroded. It was an outfit Rocky might have favored, but no way would THIS woman have been recognized as that troubled, femininity-denying teen who had first come to Jane. She looked gorgeous, but then, she always did to the shorter-statured girl-boy.

"You look great," Audrey said with a smile, perfectly at ease now with this facet of her courtier/suitor. "Blue silk and lace suit you."

"I still think you should have been on the float, too," Darla grumbled.

"Ah, but I am neither Jane's assistant nor her student," Audrey repeated her successful argument from when Darla had tried to trap the tall brunette into participating in the parade. "In fact, I don't see why Jane is having you two do it now. It's not like Melanie is under the gun, or even following Jane's normal program as you've explained it to me."

"Jane just likes her men in skirts," Darla smirked.

"Surely that's not all, is it?" Audrey was surprised.

"No, but that is probably part of it. She signed us up for this before we really knew what we were dealing with in Mel. Now, she's concerned that they might not be so accommodating in the future if she pulled us out at the last minute. And because, in the back of her mind, this is something of a mid-term exam for Mel to see if she's getting over her fears."

"Any dangers there?"

Darla shook her head. "She's cool, now. If this were a normal program, Jane would be casting about for a new student so that Mel could be Big Sister. Diana and Art think that isn't necessary for Mel, and are instead planning on reintroducing her to her masculine self. Kenneth is going to help with that part - take him to guy things as a guy - like the gym, ball games - that sort of stuff."

"Not Darryl?"

"No, Mel's not ready to know about Darla and Darryl, yet. Maybe a few weeks. In the meantime, I am going to go live in Janice's old house. As Darryl."

"Good, because I have some uses for Darryl, and some plans."

"Oh really?"

"Yup. You've just about worked your way through the list, by the way."

"I have?" Darla fought to keep the elation out of her voice and stay in character.

"Mmmhmmm. . .Almost," Audrey said with heavy emphasis.

"Well, you've never let me see the list," the blonde complained.

"Just the rules, pal. The male shall never know the rules and if the female thinks the male is beginning to know the rules, she should immediately change the rules."

"You've been talking to Marie too much," Darla complained. "So, what's the new rule am I not to know about?"

"Oh, you can know about this one," Audrey smiled, her as she began gliding toward Darla, her movements slow, deliberate, feline. "You see, I've decided that this rule. . ."

Darla felt the deer-in-the-headlights chill wash over her as Audrey continued to close the distance between them until they could feel the whisper of each other's breath on their cheeks. "Yes?"

"Is one that you need to know and follow," she said, a wicked smile on her lovely mouth. "The rule is: You are going to marry me."

Darla felt her mouth fall open, but couldn't seem to pull it closed for several heartbeats. "Marry. . .you?"

"Yep. That's it, Darla. You will marry me." There was a world of confidence and satisfaction in her voice.

"What is this? Some kind of a proposal?"

"Nope." If possible, the grin grew wider. "A proposal is a question. Did you hear any question? I didn't. Besides, Darryl has to ask ME to marry him. Aunt Jane would be horrified if *I* were to do the proposing. It would offend her Victorian sense of rightness."

"Sure it would," Darla muttered. "So I, that is, Darryl, still has to propose, even though you told me I have to marry you?"

"You're not getting out of that," Audrey assured her soon-to-be affianced. "I want it all."

"So why are you telling me now? Why not just tell me the next time we're out as Darryl and Audrey?"

"Because you are Darla now," Audrey replied, all at once very serious. "Because I'm going to marry both of you."

A look of wonder came across Darla's dramatically made up face. "Oh," was all the young person could manage.

"Just wanted you to know," Audrey said. She started to turn to leave and stopped. "And I almost forgot. There is one other thing."

Before the shorter girl could ask or say anything more, Audrey had moved with catlike quickness, sweeping Darla into her arms and bending her over backwards. "Gotcha," Audrey grinned down before proceeding to thoroughly ravish Darla's mouth with her own.

How long the kiss went on, neither participant would ever be sure. Only an overly loud throat-clearing cough brought them back to some semblance of awareness of anything beyond themselves. "So sorry to interrupt, ladies," Sandy said, obviously not in any way sorry. "But Jane is looking for Darla."

Audrey looked over her shoulder at the smirking Sandy and then down at the dazed Darla, still laying over backwards in the taller girl's arms. "Damn, but I have wanted to do that for SO long!" she whispered before helping her fiance to her feet.

"DAMMIT, Darla," Sandy squawked, now truly unhappy. "You've ruined your makeup!!"

"Hmm? Oh. Sor . . . no, dammit, I'm not sorry. Not a bit."

"Oh, never mind," the blond hairdresser said as she let Audrey slip out the door. "Kiss like that ought to muss things up. Get your cute butt over here so I can fix you up again or you'll miss your float. Jane would have my ass."
 
 
Chapter 15: Two Hearts become One
 
"Wheeee," Michael breathed, fanning himself with his hand. "That's quite a story. Guess I know why you were already rigged out in your duds when I got here this morning. Man ought to be in a hurry when he has a woman like that waiting to walk the aisle for him."

"Brother," Darryl said with a secret smile as he looked into the mirror, "You can say that again."

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

W-Hour Minus 1:00 - Audrey's Room, Seasons House

Comfortably ensconced on the sofa, a well-pleased Jane smiled as she considered the small drama being played out by the other women with her in Audrey's room. Audrey herself was *finally* dressed and peering at her reflection in the full length mirrors that had shown so many of Jane's students' in its silvered depths. The white satin gown was sleekly simple, designed to show off a well-toned body rather than hide it behind bows, tassels, or other frou-frou of the dressmaker's art. The handmade lace veil was old-fashioned, from its seed pearl coronet perched delicately atop Audrey's midnight locks, to the near-floor length hem. When closed, the veil curtained the young woman's face, lending touches of both mystery and shy sensuality to the total picture.

*Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,* Jane recited as she made visual inventory of her student's ensemble. A gorgeous pair of pearl chandelier earrings, a gift from Prudence, was the 'something new'. Jane had taken one look at those creamy, delicate confections and had run for her own jewelry box to offer the five-stranded pearl choker that even now graced the girl's long, slender throat. *Well, it will be her 'something borrowed' until I give it to her at the reception. I'll have to ask her about the 'old' and 'blue' later on.*

Audrey pirouetted in front of the mirror, making the veil and the gown billow about her like silken clouds. While Jane was very pleased at how well her student navigated in her white heels -for that had been a skill well-learned in Audrey's time at Seasons House - it was that smile of purely feminine delight and anticipation that pleased the teacher the most. That, and the answering smile decorating Pru's visage, not diminished at all by the proud mother's accompanying tears. Mother and daughter were together in this, as they had rarely been in times previous.

"Do that spin again, sweetie," Pru asked as she snatched up her camcorder. "Please?"

"Sure, Mom," Audrey giggled as she complied. "Whatever you say now that I'm no longer bare naked!"

"Naked?!?" Jane sputtered as Marie giggled.

Blushing prettily, Pru gave Jane a sheepish smile. "I, ah, may have gotten a bit carried away before you arrived, Janey," she said, her eyes fixed on the viewfinder.

"Only a little," Marie agreed, tongue firmly in her cheek. "That tape would have been a reverse strip-tease if Audrey hadn't put her foot down. I'm surprised she let the girl bathe without barging in with that camcorder."

"Well, I missed out on having a prom night with her, thanks to that bitch, Phoebe," the Mother of the Bride snarled.

"Ah-ah-ah," Jane chided. "No unhappy thoughts allowed. You have today and that's all the matters now, right?"

"Right," Both Audrey and Prudence chorused before sharing a hug.

"Doesn't she look marvelous, Jane?" Marie asked delightedly. "It's so lovely that we are having this here, at Seasons House, and about time, too," she added, fixing the mistress of Seasons House with an accusatory look.

"Let's not go into that, again, if you please," Jane ordered at her most haughty before relenting. Then her own eyes became mischievous. "However, that reminds me, since I was counting on you to help me in this, Audrey. However did Darryl convince you to submit to . . . to all THIS?"

Audrey tossed her head in apparent mild annoyance that was immediately belied by the happy smile that bid-fair to split her face. "He cheated, that's how!"

"He what?!?!" the three other women spluttered in unison.

"He cheated," Audrey reaffirmed.

"Spill it, girl," Marie ordered imperiously, drawing a giggle from Pru and a startled glance from Jane.

"Oh, all right. Let me see. It was maybe a week after I had let him off the hook so he could finally pop the question. We'd been discussing the wedding plans off and on since I'd said yes . . "

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

W-Day Minus 93 - Stable courtyard at Seasons House

Seated on the ground, Audrey gracefully folded her torso over her outstretched legs. As she straightened back into an upright sitting position, she cast a dark look at Darla who was stretching out her hamstrings against the wall. "I don't understand why you're being so difficult about this. I thought it was the bride who was supposed to want the works and the groom wanted only to slip away into the night."

"Look, Stretch, if you think I'm going to pass up on a chance to see you in a wedding gown, all lace and satin and . . . oh my," The pretty blonde's face went all dream and unfocused, causing Audrey to swallow very hard. "That will be entirely too spectacular to pass up."

"Spectacle is right," Audrey sniffed. "I'll look like a . . an iceberg or something, sailing down the aisle. I'm not going to give in on this, buster," Audrey warned as she rose to her feet.

"Neither am I, darlin'," Darryl retorted, "And I already let you run the courtship. I get the wedding. Besides, your Mom will love it."

"Right," Audrey said beneath her breath. "Like that has a chance in a hot place of happening."

"You'll just be surprised then," Darla assured her airily.

"I'm not going to do it!"

"Okay, tell you what. Let's make it fair."

"What do you mean, fair?" Audrey asked cautiously. "You've lived with Aunt Jane for too long. I know you've learned something about being sneaky."

"Fair as can be. This morning's run will decide. Winner gets to choose. I'll even let you pick the route."

"You can't beat me. You'll lose for sure."

Darla only shrugged which made Audrey all the more suspicious. "This isn't some type of trick to make me feel guilty so I'll give in eventually, is it? 'Cause I won't," she warned darkly.

"Nope. One race and the issue is decided. If you win, you get to choose. Heck, I even promise not to LET you change your mind after you win."

"Okay," Audrey finally answered. "Here's where we'll go."
 
 
Chapter 16: Here Comes the Bride
 
 
W-Hour Minus 0:20 - Audrey's Room at Seasons House

Jane couldn't help herself. Laughter bubbled up as she pictured the scene Audrey's words described.

"You knew!" the beautifully dressed young bride-to-be accused her mentor, "You bloody well knew!"

"Of course I did, dear, and so did you. I seem to recall Darla telling you that Darryl ran distances and trained every morning when she recommended him as your training partner."

"But he'd never come close to beating me before that morning," the tall brunette sputtered, still fuming at the defeat.

"He had no reason to finish ahead of you in your little races, dear, at least not until you fell into his little trap that morning," Jane told her. "I fear you are guilty of underestimating your intended, which is a mistake I quit making some time ago."

Marie laughed and said, "Hah, cherie, you fool yourself even yet!"

Jane's eyes flashed for just an instant, then she chuckled and said, "Perhaps you are right."

"Like I said, he cheated," Audrey growled.

"Well, I for one," Prudence put in as she again lifted her camera for yet another photo, "am VERY happy Darryl won. This is simply wonderful!"

Audrey smiled at her Mother, and then went over for a hug. "Yeah, it is," she agreed. "But it will be a cold day in the devil's house before I ever admit that to HIM!"

"I just knew you were going to be a superb student," Jane put in. "As much as I love that young man, he's still a male. I'm glad to see you aren't going to let him get away with such nonsense."

"Well," Audrey averred as she squeezed her Mother's hand affectionately, "Not too often, anyway."

Just then, the door opened and Caitlyn popped in, followed by Janice. "Wow, Audrey, you look great. Hi, Jane, Ms. Rockwell, Marie. You should see the lawn!" Janice, the effervescent love of Michael's life gushed. "Wall-to-wall people and still coming, but the FM crowd is here and seated. This is just so lovely, and I am really glad you asked me to be one of your attendants."

Audrey had come to like this small young woman with the motor stuck in overdrive. It was a strange feeling for her - having real girlfriends who truly liked HER. "Well, I'm glad you were willing."

"Tom and his boy have done wonders with the decorations, Aunt Jane," Caitlyn added. "It's going to be the prettiest wedding I've ever seen. You got real lucky with the weather, too."

Jane sniffed. "*My current biographer told me that was taken care of," was all she'd say as the other women stifled smiles behind gloved hands. "Well, should you not be off finding your seat, Caitlyn?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Right, Aunt Jane," the tiny dancer twinkled and left the room.

Caitlyn had no sooner slipped through the door directly to the garden when there was a knock at the interior door. A curvy brunette with way too much hair poked her head in, then entered with a voluptuous blonde in tow.

"Hey, all a' y'all better be gettin' a move on. The guys are fixin' to swell up and pop like a buncha over-heated horny toads . . . and I DO mean horny. That'd be a terrible waste, don't ya think?"

"Thank you dear," Jane said with a sigh. Texans had . . . distinct ideas on manners - too casual by far for her New England sensibilities, but hearts as big as their sun-baked prairies. "I'm glad you and Kelly could make it."

"Jus' you try and keep us away, Aunt Jane," the leggy - flagrantly so in that tiny skirt - woman said as she moved over for a quick hug. "I guess Kelly 'n I better go find some ice water to throw on them studs until y'all get there, since y'all are way too gorgeous to be hurried. Okay?"

Jane sighed again, but she couldn't keep a grin from twitching the corners of her mouth at that image. "Yes, dear, that would be, ah, helpful."

Jane could only shake her head and smile as the pair sauntered out of the room. "Well, I suppose that means we should take our places, eh? Pru, as Mother of the bride, you need to hustle, as do you," she looked at Marie, "Ms. Organist. C'mon. Let's get this over with!"
 
 
Epilogue
 
 
W-Hour Plus 5:23 - Hallway Outside the West Terrace Suite, The Greenbrier Resort, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

"Be careful, lover," the order was issued with a low, sensual chuckle that made the bellman's toes want to curl inside his mirror-shined shoes. "I don't want you suffering some kind of. . . debilitating injury. Not after you talked me into waiting for this."

"Not quite your lover yet," her partner murmured softly, "you legitimately white-wearing-hussy-bride, you - but I soon will be."

The woman in the expensive white linen travel suit blushed vividly, which only made her more exotically beautiful. She was tall - in her heels she easily towered over her tuxedoed male companion by a good half foot, but for all that, he didn't have any trouble holding his bride in his arms in the classic 'over- the-threshold' position.

"If you'd be so good as to open the door for us?" the young man asked politely, his eyes never leaving his gorgeous Amazon of a bride.

"Yessir!" the bellman responded and moved quickly to open the two mahogany doors before stepping clear. He entered behind them and watched as the pair took in the elegant furnishings.

"Oh, wow. . . " the young man breathed, turning about slowly, "Momma-Jane certainly went all out, didn't she?"

The woman chuckled again. "But why two bedrooms?" she asked grinning. "Unless you plan to have one to use while the staff cleans the other?"

"Audrey. . ." her husband tried to caution her.

She only giggled, "Ya know? I always loved that movie Top Gun, and there was this line in the movie? How did that go?"

"Aud-REY!"

"Oh yeah, I remember - you big sttttudddd, take me to be. . ."

"AUDREY!!" the man yelled to shut her off. Then, blushing furiously, he suddenly seemed to recall that they were not yet alone. "Ummm, your tip. . ." he stammered to the grinning bellman, "I'll . . ummmm, that is. . ."

"Already taken care of, sir. Along with anything you want. Just ring room service on the phone - 24 hours a day. The luggage that was sent ahead is already unpacked, and we'll take care of your other things when you come down for breakfast. . .unless there is something you particularly need right now?"

"No. . .nothing I don't have already," he replied and then groaned as the dark-haired beauty buried her lips under his chin.

"Good evening then, and congratulations from our management and staff here at the Greenbrier." the bellman said as he let himself out. *And I'm sure your evening, night and the rest of your stay is going to be just grand! Have to remember to tell the floor steward to be ready to move their remaining luggage into the suite the moment they come up for air. I don't think they're going to be out of bed much this week. If the look on her face is any indication, they just might need both bedrooms.*

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

Audrey stretched languidly once Darryl finally set her back onto her feet. "Now," was all she said before sweeping her husband into her arms and kissing him thoroughly.

They were both breathing heavily when she finally broke the kiss. "Which bedroom, man-o-mine? I have waited long enough. It is WAY past time for me to claim my marital rights."

Darryl swallowed hard, trying to moisten his mouth sufficiently to speak. "But, aren't you going to slip into something more comfortable? You know, a negligee or something like that," he finally managed.

"Oh, but I'm comfortable right now," Audrey assured him, her dark eyes dancing merrily, "And I'll be even more comfortable once you help me out of these clothes." One scarlet-tipped hand slithered its way up his torso to rest on her husband's still-knotted bow- tie. "You help me, I'll help you, husband," she wheedled.

When he made no move to obey, she undid the knotted tie and then used the loose ends to lead him toward the closer of the two bedrooms, her enticing hips rolling with each slinky step. Darryl wondered why his tongue wasn't lolling on the floor at that particular moment. Barely rational, he managed to choke out, "But. . but. . don't you want to make a grand bridal entrance? You know - like your namesake in a movie. . ."

She didn't stop until they were inside the larger of the two bedrooms. Aroused almost beyond control, Darryl stared as his bride actually licked her lips when she turned around to face him again. *God, is this what the mouse feels like when the cat wants to play?* he wondered, dazed.

"You keep confusing me with her, darlin'," she chided, "Or maybe it's Darla, that sneaky, sexy little girlie-girl type you confuse me with - *I* am a bit more direct and whole lot less interested in . . . showing off than either of those two." Then she proved just that by literally pouncing him, bending him over her arm for another mind-melting kiss. "I really like being able to do this," she whispered huskily when the demands of oxygen-starved lungs forced them to breathe again.

"I, ah, don't mind it much myself," Darryl gasped.

"And I *LOVE* that you feel that way - that you don't mind that I can do it. Now, what say we go try out that LOVELY bed. . .?"

"But, what about your lingerie, I mean. . . you're sure you don't want to change?"

For a moment, Audrey looked down at her life-mate, and then became serious. "Darryl, does this virginal reticence of yours have anything to do with the garter belt I can feel under your trousers?"

He went instantly pale, answering her question without need for words. "Damn. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Marie gave them to me and she said. . .well, I thought, that if you were ready to take Darla on too, that it would not be that bad an idea. . but now, well, this is between us and I didn't want to get things off on the wrong foot between us."

Audrey bent down to plant a teasing kiss on his nose. "You're so cute when you dither," she said grinning. "So, let me guess what's really behind this 'get Audrey into the bathroom strategy' of yours. You figured you'd have time ditch the lingerie while I was getting all slinky in the bathroom, eh? Be all ready for me in one of those fusty old dressing gowns the resort has over there on those hooks?" she said pointing out the his-and-hers white terricloth robes hanging next to the bathroom door.

"Well, that's not quite all of it," Darryl grumbled. "There is the fantasy I've been nurturing ever since you finally had mercy on me and said 'yes'. The thought of what you'd look like in whatever negligee you got at your wedding shower has been haunting me day and night."

"And just HOW do you know about that negligee? Have you or Darla been peaking?"

"Do you think I'm crazy? It was Sandy who told me about it - in just enough detail to make me want to howl at the moon. She's been teasing me about it for weeks."

"Uh huh, well, I think we'll just start here and undress each other." and then her voice went very low and husky, 'Cause I don't want to wait any longer. You can see the negligee later," and then she growled as she kissed him again. "A LOT later, buster!"

"Oh hell," he muttered against her demanding mouth on his, "I don't want to wait any longer, either, but before we leave this place, I get the whole show - heels, the finest of matching silks, full makeup - all for me. Deal?"

"God, yes," she growled, "but NOT NOW!"

Four hands worked feverishly at buttons, zippers and clasps, often getting in each other's way in a mad dance that had them both giggling at their own antics. Moments later, however, the pair were staring at each other in identical basques, hip-tied white satin thongs garter belts and white nylons. "Couldn't wear a bra with that gown," Audrey giggled before arching her back to thrust her bosom out toward her adoring husband.

"God, you're so damned beautiful," he whispered reverently, desire burning in his eyes.

Now, it was her turn to blush. Shyly, she smiled at this man who loved her so much, "I never wanted to be thought of as beautiful - never wanted to BE beautiful - until you came along. I'm glad you think I am and I'm glad you are beautiful, too."

"I'm handsome," he huffed. "Darla's cute - YOU are beautiful."

"You say so," she grinned, and then the imp was back. "Wanna cop another feel?" she cooed.

"I did NOT cop a FEEL. .," Darryl yelped before adding, "That time. But since you offer. . . and I'd like another of your mind-blowing kisses, please."

Many moments later. . ., Darryl looked up into Audrey's eyes, uncertainty still reflected in his own. "You. . .you really don't mind? The lingerie, I mean, on me, that is."

"Are you kidding?" Audrey grinned and ran a single nail up the inside of one silk-shod thigh. "It makes you so slick and slippery. . . And this," her hand reached the apex of his thighs and grabbed gently, an action that made Darryl's eyes cross. "is just SO cute like that."

"I'm, ah, oh my, . . glad you think so."

"Oh, I do, but do you think you could let me out of this corset? Marie laced me up and wouldn't ease the laces when I changed into my travel dress. Said something about presents should stay wrapped."

"Nope. Not yet," Darryl said grinning lasciviously.

Frustrated, Audrey reached around behind her, but even her flexibility was frustrated by the combination of the stiff stays and Marie's knots. "No fair," she pouted beneath full dark lashes, "YOUR stays are not nearly as tight as mine," she turned and wagged her tush at him while pointing at the knots with both hands.

"Ah, yes," her husband purred, "I am indeed observing your, um, stays. But you're in that outfit until I say so."

"Until YOU say so?" the tall raven-tressed Valkyrie squealed, "Who made you king?"

"You did, wench. Didn't I hear you promise to love, honor, and obey?"

"Well, I sorta figured two outta three wouldn't be too bad. Want me to show you the love part now?" she asked, her eyes alight with love and her lips curved in feminine promise.

Swallowing hard and praying for control, he smiled up at her. "Oh, yeah. . umm. . .why don't we adjourn to the bedroom and try the foreplay thing?"

"An excellent notion," she replied and then scooped her husband up into HER arms. With due solemnity, she then carried him to the threshold of their bridal-bed. "My turn," she told him just before laying him down on the thick, satin comforter. "Oh, and don't plan on doing much of anything touristy while we're here."

"Why not?" he asked, already knowing and loving the answer.

"I'm an Olympic-class athlete, remember?" she reminded him just before the satin thong was whisked away from his loins. "If you want to be really, really good at something, you have to practice-practice-practice."

"And?"

"What do you think, best-boyfriend-girlfriend-husband-wife?" she smiled as she bent over him to nibble at his chin, "I want us to be VERY good at loving each other for the rest of our lives."

Whatever answer Darryl might have given to that went unheard. After all, one of Momma-Jane's very first lessons to any student is that one should never speak with one's mouth full.


 
 
End of A Time to Every Season - Audrey's Story



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