Seasons of Change - Book 13 - Part 2 of 2 - Jessica's Story

Seasons of Change - Book 13
Tales of the Season - Jessica's Story
Part 2 of 2

by Brandy DeWinter
with infinite help from Tigger

Copyright © 2002,2013 Brandy DeWinter
All Rights Reserved.

A story of Aunt Jane Thompson's Girls School for Boys - from the inside.
This is a first person account by Jesse Shepherd, one of Jane's bad boys who needs special discipline,

of the petticoat variety!

 


 
Image Credits: Jessica's Story logo created by Brandy DeWinter, Divider from photobucket.com. ~Sephrena.

Author's Note: This story was written with a lot of advice, insight, and assistance from Tigger. It is his creation as much as it is mine. ~Brandy.

Legalities: Archiving and reposting of this story *unchanged* is permitted provided that: 1) You must have contacted the author(s), Brandy DeWinter or Tigger, and have asked permission first and received said permission to host this particular work. 2) No fee be charged, either directly or indirectly (this includes so-called "adult checks") or any form of barter or monetary transfers in order to access viewing this work *and* (3) PROVIDED that this disclaimer, all author notes, legalities and attribution to the original author are contained unchanged within the work. 4) The author(s) of this work, Brandy DeWinter & Tigger, must be provided free account access at all times the work is hosted in order to modify or remove this work at either's sole discretion.

This work is the copyrighted material of the respective authors.

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


 
 

Jessica's Story Part 2

 

I quit when I got it down to 4,508 words. My punishment for being late leaving the mall was an essay, assessed at 1,000 words per minute. I had been tasked to write about clocks and timekeeping, the history of clocks, types of clocks, and why knowing the time was so important to civilization. Subtle, she ain't. Since I was 4.5 minutes late - by her watch of course - I had to write 4,500 words.

I had spent almost half the time making it *shorter*, not longer, but I was not going to give her the satisfaction of doing more than I had to. I know that's a contradiction, but it was the principle of the thing. And it's hard to squeeze things down while maintaining perfect grammar and adequate development of each point. Those aspects were non-negotiable though, as I had learned the hard way when earlier assignments had been rejected. Several times over, when I had first arrived. No excuses, no arguments, just do it over until it was acceptable. I think her plan was to make learning skills like applying eyeliner seem easy by comparison, sort of like hitting your thumb with a hammer so you wouldn't notice a toothache. Worked about that well, too.

"It seems I should have tasked you to buy a few more things, Jessica," Miss Jane's voice intruded on my musing.

"Excuse me, Miss Jane?" I looked up to see her standing in the doorway to the computer room.

She smiled - an honestly amused smile, not her patented rapier-with-a-twist - and said, "Perhaps it was my fault. I could have chosen a different entrance to the mall."

"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I don't understand."

"Ah, Jessica," she said, still smiling, "you have indeed come a long way."

Where the hel . . . where in the world had that come from? I didn't know what she was complaining about, and I for sure didn't know why she'd complimented me.

She patted me on the shoulder and sat in a nearby chair. She sat correctly, of course, perfect posture, legs gracefully crossed, skirt smooth, but there was still a surprisingly casual feel, as though being in the computer room instead of in her office were relaxing for her, too. Then she granted me the favor of a simple explanation, for once. "You did very well in the mall yesterday, Jessica. I could have hoped you would . . . enjoy the outing more, shopping just for the pleasure of seeing pretty things. We'll have to work on that. But you did accomplish the specific task I assigned. That truly is a good scent for you, and I'll expect you to use it regularly from now on."

"Yes, ma'am," I sighed. No surprise there.

"It would seem you even managed to avoid what could have been an unpleasant confrontation, and I was pleasantly surprised that you were able to find such a . . . gentleman to assist you."

"You had someone watching me," I accused.

She nodded blandly, not the least apologetic. "Of course. I've just received the report."

"You didn't trust me."

"Actually, I did," she claimed. "I knew you could present yourself properly as Jessica, and I truly expected you could control your . . . impulsiveness. But I was concerned for your safety - and with some justification it appears."

"I can take care of myself."

"Can you?" she asked, gently. "Jessica, your courage and . . . determination have never been in doubt. Your judgment, however, was questionable, don't you agree?"

Well, for starters, I'd ended up in a situation that had me wearing a skirt, makeup, and perfume. Hard to claim perfect judgment in that condition.

But I knew what she meant, and I knew she was right. So I just nodded.

She reached out gently and touched my elbow. "More than that, the challenge you faced was one few young people could handle with such . . . dignity. I am proud of you, and have confidence in you, but the risk was real and you deserved protection."

"So Johnny, Johnny Sand, was a plant?" I asked, feeling an unwanted pang of disappointment.

"No. Young Mr. Sand was genuinely noble in coming to your aid. And genuinely interested in you. Though that was, in fact, one of the risks that needed to be considered."

I was thinking back over the day, and realized the cop had to be Miss Jane's spy . . . though I realized in another second that there was no reason to believe there was only one. Oh, God, I hope the green-eyed goddess, Cheryl, wasn't another one. Then the rest of what Miss Jane had said sunk in.

"Johnny was a risk?"

Miss Jane did her always-irritating segue into a seemingly unrelated topic. "Do you remember your reaction when I asked if you wanted to attend a regular high school as Jessica?"

I nodded.

"There is a lot more to interacting as a pretty young woman than I have taught you. A very large part of that is interacting with young men. I did not receive the impression that was . . . interesting to you."

"No way!"

"Just so," she said, smiling and patting my hand. "Yet when a young woman as pretty as you goes out into society, she will inevitably be faced with that interaction. A girl with a more . . . conventional background would have learned, ah, techniques for dealing with suitors."

"I am *not* interested in that!"

"My dear, the techniques can be used to discourage as well as to encourage. Yet one can be polite, friendly, and demure as well." She leaned back in her chair, spreading her arms to the rests in a body language message of openness. "Tell me, Jessica, did you enjoy meeting Mr. Sand?"

"I suppose so," I said, remembering. "I mean, he was polite, and we had an interesting discussion."

"Would you like to see him again?"

"I guess so," I answered.

"Would you like to go on a date with him?"

"No! That's . . . disgusting."

"Leaving aside the morality judgment, I will accept that your interest does not lie in that area. Despite the skills and discipline I require of you, it has never been my intention to push any such choice on you. However, let me ask the inverse question. Do you suppose Mr. Sand would like to go on a date with you?"

Well, there it was, out in the open. Miss Jane was not one to let a problem fester. This is what I had been carefully *not* thinking about while I immersed myself in unnecessary tweaking of my essay. I knew the answer, and it was not comforting.

She didn't need my reply, at least, not more than showed in my expression. "Jessica, child, even if you had, as I said, 'a more conventional background', you would be too young to date. But I do think we are going to have to work on your diplomatic skills, since it is clear you *will* be approached."

She smiled again and stood up, glancing at my essay on the screen. "You will probably find those skills - diplomacy and tact - to be at least as useful in your later life as grammar and spelling."

"Yes, ma'am," I said softly. Ohmigod, what was I in for now?

"Oh, that reminds me," she said, stopping on her way out the door. "You earned one brownie point for not grunting when you didn't understand what I was talking about at the start of this conversation. You were, in fact, quite polite in accepting that the fault might be yours. As a result, you may tell Marie I said dessert tonight will be your choice."

I should have realized there'd be a hook in that. Later when I approached Marie with my choice for dessert - I had always liked apple pie, especially a la mode, so the choice was simple - I was, ah, privileged with the opportunity to bake the stupid thing myself. Did a good job, too, if I do say so, but next time I was going to choose Jell-O.

Despite my misgivings about the next set of lessons Miss Jane might choose to inflict on me, I knew I had passed a major milestone in my solo flight through the mall. I could pass as a girl, even a pretty one. It wasn't a skill I was particularly proud of, but it did mean that I could go out without worrying about the mobs with torches. That was, of course, a sword of the two-edged variety. Since going out in public was no longer a serious risk, I could no doubt expect to be doing a lot of it. Nonetheless, the only immediate change in my situation was that there were fewer practice sessions with cosmetics and clothes. From that point, I was expected to be able to dress myself presentably, from lingerie to makeup and accessories, for whatever setting was indicated. As a result, I actually had a little more free time to myself.

Idleness would never be one of Miss Jane's virtues - some would call that a vice, but not me. So after only a few days of my somewhat easier pace, I started my 'diplomacy and tact' lessons. Not that I recognized it at the time.

My first lesson started one pleasant afternoon while I was sitting in the garden, writing in my journal. I had snuck one of Miss Jane's art print books out of the library and had it propped open on a bench. In it was Renoir's portrait of the young Irene, and I just had to capture my feelings about the sense of quivering transition - both in the girl's innocently sad expression and in the style itself. The light focus was as effective as Rembrandt, though more subtle, and it showed both the crisp precision of the Renaissance in her lonely, no-longer-little-girl eyes and the first stirrings of Impressionist simplification in the casual flood of her hair.

"Hi, cutie, come here often?" Penny asked. I looked up to see her standing over me. Miss Jane must have decided to modify her training program as well, because for the first time since we'd met, she was wearing a dark Versace pantsuit instead of a dress or a skirt. It made her long legs look like they went on forever, but it really wasn't all that flattering to her shape.

I dropped my pen, slapping my journal closed. 'Oh, Penny, you startled me."

"Not hard to do, when you're that intense on something," she said, laughing. Then she slid onto the seat near me, leaning close to look at the book. "What's so interesting?"

"Oh, nothing really," I claimed. "Just looking at some paintings."

"Cute girl," Penny said, looking at the portrait herself. Her shoulder pressed against mine, and I could feel her breath on my neck. I closed the book and slid a little further down the bench.

"Hey, I wasn't finished looking at it," complained Penny.

"Oh, sorry. Here, you can have it," I said, offering her the book. "Put it back in the library when you're done, okay?"

"Oh, that's okay," she replied. Then she smiled and put her hand over mine were I held the book, saying, "Your eyes are prettier anyway. I can never tell if they're blue or gray, and the effect is fascinating."

"What? Oh, um, thanks."

Penny waited for a moment, then shook her head gently, though her smile stayed in place. "Jessica, girl, you *do* have a few things to learn."

Standing, she offered me her hand. I took it more from reflex than any felt need, and stood beside her. "I don't understand. What have I done wrong?"

"Wrong? Why, pretty lady, you are what makes the world *right*. I just wanted to . . . show my appreciation, if you know what I mean."

"I, uh, well, no, I don't know. Penny, you do remember that I'm not . . . really . . . you know."

"Yes, sis, *I* do, but that's the point. It's time you forgot, at least a little."

"I, um . . . forgot what?"

Penny laughed and slid her arm around my waist. "Why, forgot to be offended when someone shows they . . . appreciate you."

"Let me go!"

"See what I mean?" Penny asked with a smile. "You need to be able to wrap a guy around your little finger so *he* won't think he can get away with that sort of thing."

"Try it again, and you won't think you got away with a da . . . thing!"

She kept her grin, but elevated a finely-arched brow into a comment even Miss Jane would consider elegantly eloquent. She did, however, back off a little. "I'm sure you could. Let's see, after Aunt Jane's heavenly haven, where do you suppose you'd end up - assuming you, oh, broke my arm or something?"

"That's different. What I did before was . . . well, it was different."

"Indeed it was, in some ways," she agreed. Then she bowed in a very courtly manner and said, "Miss Jessica, may I carry your books for you?"

"I've got them," I snapped.

Penny just grinned. She swept her arms in another courtly gesture, inviting me to precede her into the house. Miss Jane was there. She was not grinning.

Well, I'm not so dumb I hadn't figured out what was going on, but this was not fair. I didn't need to let guys paw me, so I didn't need to learn to react to that. Not that Miss Jane accepted that excuse.

"Thank you, Penny," she said. Then she turned to me. "Let's try that again . . ."

She had a plan, of course. I was going to learn how to discourage a suitor, *and* how to encourage one - not to the point of actually doing anything, but so that I would know what might be considered encouragement even when that's not what I intended.

Penny played the role of that suitor. That was strange. She was tall and slender enough even with what curves she had that when she wore a pantsuit, with her hair pulled back, she . . . bothered me. The illusion of being a guy was just good enough to sneak up on me. We would be practicing some mundane thing, like ballroom dancing, and Penny would put her hand on my waist and take the other one in her hand, then all of the sudden I'd feel like I was holding hands with a boy. I was probably just imagining it, but I had the feeling she'd hold my hand just a bit too long, or give it a squeeze, and it would be . . . wrong. I mean, it would be, like, right, if she were a guy and I were really a girl. It was polite, but . . . intimate, somehow. Something that we shared just between us, that no one else knew about.

Then I found out that it wasn't that private at all. The first time it happened, I snatched my hand back like it had been burned. Penny grinned. Miss Jane sighed, and I knew I'd failed another test. It was so complicated. Penny had it all down, both the natural reflexes and the deliberate variations. Lordy, if she really *were* a guy, she could have had any *girl* she wanted wrapped around her little finger. She could send a frea . . . a shiver down my spine with a smile - but it wasn't a girl's demure come-on smile, and it for damn sure shouldn't make me feel all soft and squishy, but it did. In my head, I knew this was really a girl and knew she knew I was really a guy so it was okay to be . . . responsive, but she seemed more and more like a guy every day - at least when we were acting out our little dramas. In my gut, I felt like I was responding to a guy, and that was bad enough. But when I'd blush, or smile, or, well, get all freakin' fluttery inside, I felt entirely too much like a girl.

Penny would play up to that. Every time she saw she was pushing some of my buttons, she'd follow up, getting into my space, flattering me, making me feel like I was the center of the universe. I had to make her back off without getting rude, without even 'officially' recognizing what she was doing so that there was no insult. Yet if I had done something to insult her, even unintentionally, I had to recognize *that*, too, and then it was up to me to rebuild the closeness. That was done with honest-to-God, accept-no-substitutes flirting, which in this case meant making *him*, I mean Penny, feel like she was the center of *my* universe. The standard for success was a sense of close, personal friendship without sexual intimacy. Like I said, complicated.

That wasn't all we did, even aside from our formal academic lessons. Once it was established that no one would question my appearance — and that I knew it — we moved on to other social lessons as well. We 'dined' in all styles of restaurants. Miss Jane took seriously her comment that I needed to learn to appreciate shopping and arranged plenty of, ahem, 'opportunities.' And every time a charity event needed volunteers, I, ahem, 'volunteered.' So it was with an understandable degree of concern that I saw the Deputy Sheriff from the mall in Miss Jane's office when I was called into it one day.

"Jessica," she said, rising along with the sheriff, "I'm sure you remember Deputy Beale."

Well, I hadn't remembered his name, but I remembered his face and his uniform. "Yes, sir. Nice to see you again."

"Nice to see you, too, Jessica," he said, then jumped right into the business that was apparently at hand. "Has Miss Jane told you about our fair?"

"No, I don't believe so," I answered, trying to keep from glaring at Miss Jane. I was sure it was not an accidental oversight.

"We're doing a street fair to benefit the pediatric oncology hospital, and I wondered if we might enlist your aid. Penny has already agreed to help."

"Oncology?" I repeated, trying the unfamiliar word on in my mind.

"Cancer," Miss Jane supplied gently, real pain in her voice. I had become sensitive to the tones in that voice, and realized I'd heard that one a lot lately. Or perhaps I'd just learned to recognize it lately.

"Children's cancer?" I said, putting the parts together. "That's . . . awful."

"It's sad," Deputy Beale said, "but it wouldn't be right not to do what we can."

"Oh, no! I didn't mean that at all. It's not their fault if they get sick, and they should get the best possible care."

"Then you'll help?" he asked.

"Of course," I agreed quickly.

He smiled and nodded. Then a pensive look came onto his features and he looked at me quite . . . directly, from head to toe. He glanced at Miss Jane, and at her shrug, he pointed to a chair near where he had been sitting. "Would you sit down, Jessica? I'd like to ask you a special favor."

Uh, oh. If I needed to sit down, then I *knew* I was going to hate what came next.

"There are a couple of jobs that are . . . that need special qualifications," he began uneasily. "You would be extremely . . . helpful in either of them, but it might be too much to ask."

"Deputy Beale, I grew up in an orphanage. I would do anything to help sick children," I declared firmly. Then I realized I'd better pull that back a little or I'd get some serious lectures. "Anything Miss Jane would agree to, of course."

She smiled at me, a genuine smile of pride! I almost hiccupped in shock. But the deputy started up again. "The, um, special qualifications are, well, maybe I should just explain the jobs. The first one would be to, um, it would be in a . . . kissing booth."

A kissing booth?! Like hell! I felt a flush rise to my cheeks, and it took all the self-control drilled into me in half a year with Miss Jane to keep from jumping up and . . . responding dramatically. Instead, after a moment to take a deep breath, I asked, "I don't believe I am, ah, qualified for that."

"We usually ask the prettiest volunteers to work there, because, well, because it earns the most money. You would be a, um, very effective draw," he claimed.

I took another deep breath, and looked very carefully out the window. After a minute, I looked back at Miss Jane to see a very carefully neutral expression on her face. Turning to the deputy, I asked, "Would you mind telling me what the other choice is?"

His first response was to blush, and that almost *did* get me to run from the room. If the second choice was worse than a kissing booth, then God help me! But in this case, his embarrassment was for a different reason.

"The second option is to be my assistant," he said.

"A deputy sheriff?" I asked incredulously. Why in the world would he offer that sort of job to me?

"No," he said, laughing self-consciously. "I'm a bit of an amateur magician, you see. And my assistant helps me in my act."

A magician? The slender, polite cop? I didn't see him as a showman. I also didn't see why he wanted me. "What sort of special qualifications do I have for that?"

"Well, for some of the tricks, I really need the audience to be looking, ah, elsewhere. So my assistant has to be, um, distracting."

"What, like jumping up and down or something?"

"No," he said, shaking his head. "It's got to be subtle. The audience can't know that they're being distracted."

"I'm sorry," I said, frustration creeping into my voice. "I don't understand."

Miss Jane sat up straighter in her chair and resolved my confusion — at least on what the job required. "They need a girl pretty enough to draw attention away from Deputy Beale, and the show costume is intended to emphasize that."

"Costume?" I squeaked, finally realizing what he, what *they* had in mind.

"Nothing lewd, of course," the deputy promised. "Just a standard sort of magician's assistant costume."

"Why am I not particularly . . . comforted by that statement?" I asked sharply.

"Well, it's fairly flashy," he admitted. "Lots of sequins and things."

"'Things?'" I repeated.

Miss Jane stepped in again. "High heels, fishnet tights, and a red leotard — with sequins, of course."

"A few other things as well, but that's the basic image," the deputy said, nodding.

I looked directly at Miss Jane. She met my eyes just as directly, recognizing the challenge. This was above and beyond 'normal' things even for a teen age girl, above and beyond what she had established at the beginning of my time in her home. If she chose to call in my promise, then I would abide by it, but I wanted her to acknowledge it was unfair to demand this of me. If this were another test, then I wanted her to admit that I had passed.

She did, but took it a step further by making it not a test of my honor at all. "Jessica, I won't require that you do this, though I will permit it if you agree. Your word to obey me is not in question here. But we make a lot of money for the hospital with this fair, and Deputy Beale is quite skilled. His act is a good draw, but his prior assistant, a former student of mine in fact, has recently gotten married and is no longer available. I would appreciate it if you would help him, as a favor to both of us."

"Jessica," Deputy Beale took up the task of convincing me, "you are very pretty, and I know you'd do a good job. In addition, Miss Jane can provide you more flexibility in scheduling classes than the girls in the regular high school will have, so we can practice more around my own irregular schedule. You really would be the best choice, at least for me."

"What is Penny doing?" I asked, suddenly remembering a question I'd had earlier.

Miss Jane sighed, and her eyes glanced at the door as though to make sure it was closed. "Penny is a dear soul, but she's not sufficiently . . . distracting for this role. She will be working as an administrative assistant, primarily cataloguing art sales."

"Art sales?" I asked in surprise. I'd *love* to get involved with art, especially if the artists were any good.

Even as I heard the explanation though, I knew it wouldn't work for me, not now. If I claimed a surpassing interest in art, it would sound like I was using that as an excuse to get out of . . . flaunting myself. Then I decided it wouldn't be much preferable as a job as Miss Jane explained that most of the art was donated by local artists for a sale to benefit the children's hospital. Donated art, by local artists, was not likely to be . . . interesting. Actually taking money for it would be, well, it would seem worse than merely unethical.

"Does this really help the children?" I asked plaintively, wanting to believe the path I was clearly on would at least be beneficial.

"We took in over $2 million last year," Miss Jane declared.

Well, there went the last valid objection. There was no likelihood I would *ever* earn $2 million on my own. On that scale, there wasn't much I could substitute for doing what they asked, not if I were going to help the children like I said I would.

I sighed, and nodded.

"Thank you, Jessica," Deputy Beale said, rising and beaming happily. "I'm sure you'll be terrific. I'll let Miss Jane fill you in on the details, arrange a costume and so on. I'm afraid I have to get to work."

I rose when he did, of course, so we shook hands. He did the same with Miss Jane, and then jauntily promised to find his own way out. Surprisingly, Miss Jane allowed this breach in her normally perfect propriety and motioned me to say in the room with her.

When the deputy had left, she moved over to touch my elbow lightly, establishing a bridge between us. "Jessica," she said, "I really appreciate this. I know it will not be easy for you, but you are truly the best choice. And the hospital is . . . special."

"Oh, well," I said, trying a brave smile, "I'm sure with Marie's help, we can come up with a costume that is sufficiently, ah, distracting."

"I'm sure we can," she said lightly, but her eyes showed true thanks, and real pride. At least, that's what I think they showed. All of the sudden, mine weren't focusing very well.

The Great Bildini's voice carried a lot more than necessary for what seemed to be a private warning. "Don't move, Jessica. Don't even blink, and you *should* be okay."

Easy for you to say, buster. It's not *your* gizzard that's about to grow a three-foot sword.

The list of things in the category 'could never possibly apply to me, not ever in a million years - but did' was *way* too long to count. Being grateful that I was wearing a too-tight, too-stiff corset was certainly on it though, and near the top. However, that outrageous situation did indeed apply to me, at least right then.

I was contained in a box that showed only my head and my flashy, red-taloned hands. Inside the box, mercifully hidden from sight for at least a little while, I was wearing my show costume - what there was of it. Actually that's more than a little ironic, because most of my skin was covered. Not concealed, really, but covered. Part of the costume, about the only part that was even partially concealing, was the expected bright-red leotard confection with huge white frills around the top and not much around the bottom. In between was an integral corset into which Marie had squeezed me in preparation for my 'performance' as the Great Bildini's assistant. That corset guaranteed that I would not sag, or even wiggle, into any of the blades that were being rammed through the box around me. Hopefully *around* me and not *through* me.

"Let's see if we can get another one through here," Bildini - actually Deputy Bill Beale, of course - said. He took a wickedly curved scimitar with a huge blade and started pushing it straight into my navel.

On cue, I giggled, "Ooh, that tickles!"

"Really?" he asked in apparent surprise. He wiggled the sword ostentatiously back and forth, each swing provoking another blushing titter from me.

"Really, sir. I'm not that kind of girl!" I protested theatrically. The more adult members in our audience picked up on the implication, and now it was their time to snicker. Of course, for Miss Jane and I there was another level of hidden meaning, and I had to fight to keep my own expression properly demure.

Bildini pulled the sword back out of the box, then sighted along the blade before pushing it once again into one of the pre-cut slots. This time is went between my legs - barely - before protruding from the rear of the box. The curve in the blade allowed it to move under me, yet the eye tended to connect the tip and the handle, making it look like it went right through me. That provoked a very satisfying gasp from the audience as Bildini whirled the box around on it's hidden rollers, revealing all sides of my predicament.

"Let's have a hand for our brave Miss Jessica," Bildini suggested, and the audience responded quite enthusiastically. Bildini looked at the box, then at me, then lifted his shoulders in a theatrically large sigh. "I use up more assistants that way."

He negligently gave the box a shove toward the side of the stage, prompting another gasp from the audience, this time accompanied by a shout from near the front.

"Aren't you going to let her go?" a young girl called. The ball cap she wore couldn't conceal the fact she had no hair.

"Why should I do that?" Bildini asked. He walked over to where my box had stopped rolling, not surprisingly still well within the range of the stage. Looking at me, he asked, "Does it hurt?"

"Only when I laugh," I claimed, stifling a groan at the corny line. Of course, that was part of the shtick, and it received the expected groan/giggle response.

Bildini looked out over the audience and made a request. "Perhaps some of you would like to help Jessica out of her predicament. Any volunteers?"

This was actually the hardest part of our show for me. I had to smile while children in desperate need walked by my box, all the while making it seem unremarkable that a beautiful little girl had no hair, or a young boy weighed half what he should. Some were in wheelchairs, some had timers dripping poison into thin, burned-out veins. That was what a lot of their chemotherapy entailed: Poison that attacked the runaway cancer cells just a bit faster than it attacked the rest of their emaciated little bodies.

It was a good thing Deputy Beale had things pretty well scripted. It would have been impossible to come up with witty, light-hearted quips when you're looking into the eyes of an eight-year-old girl - who looked eighty.

"Could you do me a favor?" I asked - loudly enough for the crowd to hear - after she had pulled her sword from the box.

"Sure," she replied, too faintly to carry to the audience, but her old, old eyes widened in pleased surprise. Not many people needed the sort of help she could provide. It was all too often the other way around.

"Could you scratch my nose?" I asked, wrinkling it up into any weird contortion I could manage.

She giggled and reached out a tentative hand to touch the tip of my nose.

"A little to the left . . . no, *my* left . . . higher . . ahhh!!! Thank you *so* much."

She giggled again, rubbing so vigorously I knew I'd have to redo my makeup as soon as I left the stage. It was a small enough price to pay, though. The audience laughed, unable to hear her titter but catching on quickly to my staged need. I wiggled my hand at her from the side of the box and she reached out to shake it.

"Thanks," I repeated. She nodded and rewarded me with a smile that even all of Miss Jane's money couldn't have bought. I watched her place her sword on the table, then I turned back to the next of my rescuers.

That's when I almost lost it. I think if I hadn't been confined in that box, I'd have run from the stage. What I saw when I looked at the next one who was offering to help me was . . . me. Not the person I had become, Jessica, but the person I had been, Jesse. The next person, hardly a child any more, was a short, frail young man with stubbly hair, gray-blue eyes . . . . and one leg. He moved with horrifying ease on his crutches. No kid should be that skilled on crutches. No kid that agile should be . . . should have one leg missing. And for damn sure, no kid with those sorts of problems should be so cheerful.

"Which one would you like me to take out?" he asked politely.

"Oh, um, take your, uh, pick," I stammered.

He grinned, slipped both crutches under his left arm and balanced himself, then grasped the big scimitar that apparently skewered me. That was a standard part of the act, and I tried to get into the normal sort of routine. It was held pretty firmly by the slots so whoever tried to draw would always take it slowly. That gave me time enough for cartoonish winces and loudly-whispered 'Carefuls' to make it seem like I was really feeling it retract.

When it was finally all the way out of the box, I sighed dramatically and said, "Thank you, my Hero, but if you do that again, we'll have to get married."

"Deal," he said quickly, starting to put the sword back in the slot. Bildini intercepted him and everyone laughed. So much for stupid ad libs.

In another few minutes, the last blades were removed and Bildini opened the box with a flourish. I stepped out in all my 'distracting' glory, tight red leotard, black fishnet stockings, and white (very) high heels. Twirling gracefully - it had taken enough practice to get that move down that I for sure was going to use it - I demonstrated that I was unharmed.

That was really the finale to our act, and after a few pirouettes and arm waves as we drew applause from the crowd for each other, the curtain came down. There would be another show in a couple of hours, not really enough time to change clothes, so I wrapped a little white skirt around my hips, fixed my makeup (managing not to poke myself in the eye with my showy new nails, for once) and went out to enjoy the street fair. There were plenty of vendors for treats of one sort or another, and as an obvious performer I had a sort of line of credit or something. In any event, I never had any difficulty getting something to eat.

This time, there was a small crowd at the exit from the stage area. The girl with the ball cap was there, along with a few friends or family members. "Miss Jessica," she asked as I stepped through the door. "Could I have your autograph?"

"My autograph?" I repeated stupidly. "Goodness, I'm nobody special. The Great Bildini will be out in just a second. He's the star of the show."

"Please, Miss Jessica," she repeated.

Well. How can you argue with that? I took the offered pen and scrawled a quick 'Jessica Shepherd' on the event program. The guy standing beside her - father, probably - smiled his thanks, then frowned. "Is something wrong? You look flushed."

"No, I'm fine," I claimed, feeling my blush deepen. "It's just that nobody ever asked for my autograph before."

"Our Jessica has quite a collection," he claimed proudly.

"Your name is Jessica, too?" I asked in surprise.

The girl nodded shyly. "When I grow up, I want to be just like you."

Oh, God, that was *way* more than I could handle. And then it got infinitely worse when the sad look in her parents' eyes made it instantly clear what the odds were that this Jessica would make it even to my age.

I'm not going to say that I grew up in that moment, because I'm not sure I can claim to have grown up even now, but at that moment I became so disgusted with the Jesse that had been that I almost threw up. I guess the corset helped me again, because it stifled the gasp that my body wanted to make and stifled the sob that the gasp would have supported. Instead, I just stood there for a long, long moment, then looked back at the other Jessica.

"You will be much, much more beautiful than I will ever be," I promised her. She reached up to touch her bald scalp below her hat, and winced.

I was too short to do the 'kneel down to put myself at her level' thing, so I just leaned over to whisper in her ear. "Don't tell anyone, but I'm wearing a wig myself. See, there's a solution to anything."

"A wig?" she gasped out.

I giggled and whispered again, this time loudly enough for her whole family to hear. "I asked you not to tell anyone."

Her hand flew to her mouth and she looked stricken, but I laughed again and said, "I don't mind, really. I just wanted longer hair, and didn't want to take the time for it to grow out."

"Oh," she said, then the sadness returned to her eyes.

I don't know whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that I hadn't noticed until then the poorness of their clothes. I mean, at one level it meant I wasn't snob enough to care, but on another level it meant I wasn't paying attention as well as I should, either. In any event, it was suddenly obvious to me that the younger Jessica was not likely to be getting a nice-looking wig any time soon. At least, not if her parents had to pay for it. That probably fell in the 'cosmetic' category as far as whatever insurance they had was concerned. If they even had insurance.

That was too damn much. My mood flipped from sad to angry in a heartbeat, and I decided I was by God going to do at least one good thing in my whole useless life. "Are you folks going to be around for a while?" I asked.

"Yes," the man nodded. "Jessica has treatments all week."

"Do you mind telling me your name?"

He shrugged and said, "Jackson. I'm Jake Jackson, and this is my wife June, and you know Jessica."

"Doing the 'LBJ' thing, are we?" I asked with a smile. "Or, I guess just the 'J' thing."

He smiled and nodded. "When I started going with June, well, the rest seemed to follow."

"Indeed it does, Mr. Jackson," I said. "I'll see you around, but if you don't mind, I have an errand to run."

I shook hands politely with the father, gave little Jessica a quick hug and went on my mission.

I couldn't find Miss Jane right away, but I thought I had a pretty good idea where Penny would be, and sure enough I found her behind the auction stage, officiously cataloguing things in her neat little pinstripe business suit. I was surprised she hadn't added some window-glass spectacles to complete the image.

"What do you think we should expect for this?" she asked as I came walking up. 'This' was a blurry watercolor of . . . . something.

"Well, at least the frame is worth a couple of dollars," I observed.

"Darn it, Jessica, I need some help here. You're the one who's into all this art stuff."

"Art, yes. This . . . stuff doesn't deserve that label."

"It's the same as that abstract stuff you like," she claimed.

"That's like saying Miss Jane is the same as your typical public school teacher," I countered.

"Ooh, that's cold," she said, giggling.

"Speaking of Miss Jane, do you know where she is?"

"I think she might be over near the main entrance to the clinic," Penny said. "She's been conducting tours for the high-rollers, showing them what's needed for the expansion."

"Thanks," I replied, moving off. "Sorry I can't stay and help, but if I see one more painted goose, I'm gonna wring the thing's neck."

Penny just sighed and waved me away. Her advice was good, though, and in a few minutes I found Miss Jane in an office just inside the building. She was talking with a guy wearing fancy Italian loafers and Armani slacks. Or talking *to* him, since the force of the conversation was all one way - not like that was any surprise, of course, with Miss Jane.

"There is no *way* that the county deserves 20% of what *we* raise for their own hospital system," she declared. "They have a valid need, but let them raise their own money. They have the power to tax. We don't."

"That's what it is, Jane," the man declared, "a tax. It's just on charity fund-raising instead of on sales or on property."

"There's got to be a way around it. It's not fair to suck off that much money. Get someone to work on it."

"I'll see what I can do," the man claimed. "I'm sure I can convince the partners to put this on our pro bono list."

"I'm not talking about some half-hearted, spare time effort," snapped Miss Jane. "I'll pay your fees. I want someone who will rip the guts out of anyone who tries to take this money away from the children."

"Well, that does put things in a different light," he replied. "Would it be, ah, acceptable to have at least a little pro bono effort thrown in? Mine, for instance?"

Miss Jane anger deflated as quickly as it had arisen. "I'm sorry, Richard. I know you'll do your best, but . . . "

"But when children are involved, 'Don't mess with the Mama', right?"

"Something like that," she agreed, smiling.

"I'll take care of it," he promised. The man turned away to leave, and saw me standing there.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop."

"That's all right," the man said, smiling. "I find it much too difficult to be angry with pretty young women. I gave it up when my daughters were about your age."

I blushed and ducked my head. He smiled and nodded once again to Miss Jane, then moved off.

"Miss Jane," I said, trying to justify my hovering. "I need to ask a favor of you."

She could, as I had learned the hard way, convey more information with an eyebrow than most people could manage with paragraphs of words. Her message was open-minded acceptance without any promises. Good enough.

"I've been with you for quite a while, now," I began. That must have been a bad beginning, because she started to frown. So I hurried on, "And my hair, my real hair, has grown out quite a bit."

"Yes?" she said, suspicious, but also confused.

"Well, I was wondering if I could, like, do without my wig?"

"Perhaps," she agreed tentatively. "Certainly by now you have enough hair to support other methods, extensions or a weave."

"Okay," I said. "And, well, would you need the wig afterwards?"

"You want the *wig*?" she asked in surprise. "Whatever for?"

"There's this girl, and she, um, well her hair is . . . "

"I'm aware of the problem," she said gently. "It's not uncommon here."

"Yes, ma'am. Well, I was wondering. If I don't need it any more, and since it's sort of, like, old now. Would it be possible to, like donate it or something? To someone specific?"

"Who did you have in mind?"

I grinned at the irony, and said, "Would you believe her name is Jessica, too?"

"Jessica Jackson?" she asked.

"Yes! You know her?"

"I know her situation," Miss Jane said, then she nodded and smiled. "I'll make you a deal. We'll get that old wig off you. You're ready for something better, and I know it can be hot at times. And itch."

"I'll say," I blurted out.

"Just so," she said, still smiling despite my interruption. "And we will arrange for something suitable for young Miss Jackson as well. She was originally brunette, and though we'll let her be a blonde if she really wants to, I think something more suitable for her coloring might be found."

If she had expected this promise to make me happy, well, she was wrong. Though I'd had a *lot* of practice making my face show exactly what I wanted it to show, it wasn't enough and I had to turn away quickly.

"What's wrong, dear," Miss Jane asked softly.

"Nothing," I claimed, hearing the tightness in my voice and hating it. God, how selfish could I get?

"Jessica," Miss Jane said. "Please, tell me what's bothering you."

I felt the tears start, but I couldn't stop them. When Miss Jane's arms slid around my shoulders, I lost it entirely, turning to bury my face in her neck.

"I'm sorry, Miss Jane," I blubbered out. "I just wanted . . . "

"Wanted what, dear?"

I managed to get myself under control enough that I could whisper my selfishness into the anonymity of her shoulder. "I'm sorry. It's just that . . . I wanted to do something for her . . . myself. I mean, I don't have anything of my own, except my Mom's Bible and the scout knife my Dad gave me. I just thought, maybe that, well, my clothes, I mean, your clothes, the clothes you let me wear won't fit her, but my wig . . . I'm sorry. It isn't really mine anyway. None of it is mine. I'm so sorry."

"No, my dear, sweet Jessica," Miss Jane whispered back. "There is nothing sorry about you. Nothing at all. You are pure, precious gold."

Her arms urged me gently back until she could look directly at me. "We will arrange for *your* wig to be styled in whatever manner Jessica Jackson desires. I am sorry I have been so blind to the need in your life, in everyone's life, for at least a little that they can call their own. I think we're going to find you a job, something suitable to your many talents. But in the meantime, we'll work something out where you can help Miss Jackson, and some of the other children, with the gift of your time. Would that be acceptable to you?"

"Yes, of course," I said, wiping my hands ineffectually at my destroyed makeup.

"Through here, dear," she said, standing and pointing at a washroom off the office she was using. "You clean up your face and I'll get Marie in here to help you repair the damages."

"Miss Jane?" I said, looking at her.

"Yes? What else?"

"You might want to, um, check the mirror in there yourself before you go."

"What? Oh, dear!" she said, her tone so plaintive that I had to smile.

"Thank you, Jessica," she said, smiling. "That's one I owe you."

"Good," I said, now worked up to an actual grin. "I'll remind you of that."

"I'm sure you will, you scamp," she said.

"Ssshhhugar!" I said into the sudden silence. Just what I needed on this frea . . . this wonderful, marvelous, oh-so-pleasant day. In honor of the successful fund-raising fair - the best year ever now that the proceeds and pledges were finally all counted - Miss Jane was taking us to the *opera* that night. Strike one. And so we had to spend the day in the beauty salon. Oh, joy. More time with Sandy. Be still my trembling heart. Big, bleepin' strike two. And now my bleepin' hair dryer had quit. If I didn't get my hair styled correctly, we'd be late for our styling appointment. Yeah, I know. But one simply did *not* leave Miss Jane's house - shoot, one didn't even leave one's bedroom - looking 'unkempt', y'know? Without a hair dryer, I'd never get my hair to look right, not unless I took the time to put it up on rollers and then let it air dry that way, which I did *not* have time to do.

I was sure Penny had a hair dryer. She probably didn't need it, though. She always looked so bleepin' perfect that I figured she must sleep on rollers every night and just brush it out in the mornings. So I poked my head out into the hall, checking to make sure Miss Jane wasn't around to see me in my straggly condition, and ducked across to Penny's room.

"Hey, Penny," I said as I knocked and slipped quickly inside before anyone caught me in the hallway. "Can I borrow . . . . ? Oh my God!!"

"Jessica?" The voice paused then started over again in a lower register. "Jessica, you should wait to be invited before entering."

"You . . . you're . . . "

"Yes, I am," *he* said. The figure before me had a towel slung just above his hips, revealing a chest no more curvaceous than my own. It was not an indication of arrested development, though. At least, not if the shaving cream spread over the face and neck of the person I knew as Penny were any indication.

I slowly backed out of the room, unable to tear my eyes away from the suddenly-strange person I had encountered. Penny, uh, whoever that really was, started to move toward me. "Jessica, let me explain."

That motion tripped me over the line into wild action. I turned and ran back to my room, yelling, "Stay away from me, you . . . you freak!"

Once back in my own room I slammed the door and then stood with my back to it. A moment later I heard a knock.

"Jessica, please, let me explain."

"Go away!"

"Jessica, please let me in. I think you owe me that much."

"I don't owe you shit! You're . . .sick. You're disgusting!"

The voice that had been talking through my door wasn't Penny's. It was similar, but it was deeper, and flatter, and didn't belong to Penny. The next words though, were clearly Penny's voice, even to the calm, serene tones she always used.

"Jessica," she said quietly, just loudly enough to hear through the wooden barrier, "what makes you think I had any more choice than you did?"

What? How dare she, *he* compare herself- damnit, himself - to me! I never lied to anyone about . . . oh, shit. I had lied to hundreds of people about who I was. But I had never done it to a friend. Other than Johnny Sand, and, well, Deputy Beale, and they didn't count. Those were special circumstances. I didn't choose to lie to any of my friends.

"Have you ever been under a suicide watch, Jessica?" Penny's voice asked, still just barely loud enough to hear through the door.

"What?"

"A suicide watch. There's someone with you, 24/7. The room is stripped of everything sharp and all chemicals that might be poisonous. Even the sheets are sewn to the bed so you can't take them off and make a rope or something."

"So what?"

"I've been there, Jess. And my way back was through Penny. Won't you at least let me talk with you about it?"

Shit. I was *not* the one who was wrong here, and I would not let *him* make it seem like I was. I moved away from the door and stood watching it from across the room. "These doors don't lock," I said.

"I won't come in unless you invite me," Penny's voice said.

"Come on in then, but . . . don't even try to come close to me."

"Fair enough," Penny said, but it was someone else who stepped through the door. The . . . person had stripped the shaving cream off his face, but it was still a guy's face with no makeup. The body was still a guy's body, too, despite the frilly, pale green robe.

"Who are you really?" I challenged as soon as he was inside.

"Good question," Penny replied wryly. "I'm not sure I even know any more. But I was born as a real snot - no, that's not fair, it wasn't my parents' fault - anyway, I used to be a real snot named Benjamin."

"Not much improvement," I said, pouring acid in the words.

"Perhaps not," Penny's voice said. It didn't fit that face and that body any more than the stupid robe did.

"Don't . . . talk like that. You're not Penny."

He shrugged, then resumed in his guy voice, "No, I suppose I'm not, though I'm a lot closer to Penny than I am to that old Benny."

"Not from where I sit," I snapped.

"Indeed? I would have figured you would understand . . . Jessica."

"Don't you *dare*!"

"Dare what? Jessica. What gives you the right to judge me? What makes you think you're the only one who ever needed Aunt Jane's special kind of help?"

"I never lied to you," I said, repeating the argument I already knew was flawed.

"No, I don't suppose you did," he admitted. "Even when you were at your most . . . unpleasant, you were honest. At least with me."

God, that was a wicked twist of the knife. At least with her, um, him? Not with anyone else, though. I got that message. Unfortunately, it was a valid shot.

"Why?" I asked softly, carefully looking out the window so that I wouldn't see who I was talking to.

"I told you," he said. "I needed to go through a particular kind of hell to . . . . pay for what I'd done."

"No, why did you lie to *me*? You were done with your . . . whatever. Why did you go along with what was done to me?"

"I could say that I owe Aunt Jane, and that would be God's own truth," he said. "But that's not enough. I believe in Aunt Jane and what she does. I think she helps people. I know she helped me and I think she helped you, though you're the only one who can say for sure. Still, I was *trying* to help you."

"Some help! You humiliated me. You laughed at me!"

"When?"

I looked back at him and started to shout out all the times this . . . person had taken cruel enjoyment from my situation. I started, but I ran out of words with my mouth hanging open before I made a single sound.

He, this 'Benny' person, smiled sadly and said, "One of the reasons Jane uses a 'big sister' in her program is because that is the one person who will never laugh at the other student. We may tease you and make you look inadequate, but we . . .I would never laugh at you. I've been on that side of things, and it still hurts."

Benny stood a little straighter, and looked me right in the eye. "But so does what I did before. It will always hurt. God help me if I ever quit hurting about what I did. Both hurts are real, but I'm a better person now than I was then. It's a price I had to pay. It's a price I think you had to pay as well. Would you rather still be the angry, destructive Jesse who first came here?"

"There are other ways to. . . I could have been helped in other ways. This . . . lie wasn't necessary."

"Something was, though. Right?"

Oh, hell, I wasn't that much of an idiot. I knew I had been screwed up before. I just shrugged, but Benny knew it was really a sign of agreement.

"Look, uh, Jesse, I don't know about any other approaches. I won't deny that there might be some that work. But I *do* know Aunt Jane's approach works. You're not the first one who's been helped. Hell, you're barely in the first hundred."

"She's done this to a *hundred* guys?"

"More or less," he confirmed, nodding. "And that knowledge gives you the power to hurt her deeply."

"I wouldn't do that!" I snapped reflexively.

"I didn't think you would. Not now. But it's part of the reason you couldn't be told immediately that you're not unique. Don't you see that?"

"I don't know. I . . . guess so."

"Good morning, Penny, Jessica," we heard through the open door. Miss Jane stood there.

"Since we're in the mode of revealing secrets," Miss Jane began, "I suppose it is appropriate to acknowledge that your rooms are monitored."

"Monitored?" I repeated.

"Penny is not the first suicidal student we've had in our home," Miss Jane declared. "But I admit that I had arranged to be able to hear what's going on inside the students' rooms even before the first young man tried to kill himself."

That was a lot to absorb, too. I was trying to remember everything I'd done in my room when I thought I was alone. Not much that I'd particularly wanted to hide, that I could remember at least. Comes from not having much privacy in my life, so I didn't ever really . . . relax. While I was thinking back, it was Penny who drew the obvious conclusion.

"So you know what happened this morning."

Miss Jane nodded, then looked at me. "Jessica, are you willing to continue with the . . . program that we have laid out of for you?"

I shrugged. "How far does it go?"

She smiled, then nodded again. "A good question. In fact, Marie and I were just discussing when we should reveal this to you. You are essentially finished."

"Yeah, right," I snapped, but I knew that was harsh even as I said it. The look on Miss Jane's face at the thought I didn't trust her was . . . bad. I wanted to tell her I didn't mean it, but . . . well, I *did* mean it. What could I trust anymore?

Then the *rest* of what she'd said finally sunk in. "Finished?" I repeated.

"What do *you* think?" Miss Jane asked. "If we arranged to cut those new extensions from your hair, and use the solvent on your nails, and, oh, the rest of the things that would return you to a masculine appearance, would you go back to beating up on people who jostle you in crowds?"

"No!"

"Of course not," she agreed. "Just as Penny would no longer try to kill herself, nor wallow in drugs, you are no longer unable to control your violent reactions. So, what else do you need?"

"What do I *need*? I don't understand."

"It was never my intention to address only the superficial problem," Miss Jane declared. "My goal is for you to have a happy, rewarding life. I can still help you with that."

I looked sharply at her. "Help Jessica, or help Jesse?"

"To me, child, they are the same," she said gently. "The clothes and makeup are just window dressing on the real person within. I can help *you*, and I would like to."

"Why?"

"Why did you help young Jessica at the hospital fund-raiser?"

"I . . . she needed help more than I do."

Miss Jane nodded. "Just so. And I am more proud of you than I can say because that is true. Once upon a time, it might not have been."

I shrugged again. Apples and oranges, in a lot of ways, but I couldn't deny that I had needed help.

"Jessica, my students have become fine, honorable, caring young men. Some have risen to become pillars in their various communities. Yet when they came to me, all were hurting. I take pride in having made a difference in at least a small corner of the world. Is that so hard to understand?"

"No, of course not," I said quickly. "I really appreciate what you've done for me. It's just . . . I'm not sure where I go from here. This is so much . . . bigger than I had thought."

She nodded and said, "Then let me suggest this. Let's continue with what we had in mind for the next, ah, three days. You will continue to be bound by your agreement to do as I direct. That will include treating Penny as the person she appears to be, just as we will treat you as Jessica. At the end of that time, we'll decide together what will be best for you. Is that agreeable?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said automatically. Usually, when Miss Jane asked that sort of question, it was pro forma. My promise to do as I was told meant that, like in the military, a request from her was essentially the same as an order. This time I knew it was different, but even as I was absorbing the fact I could legitimately have disagreed with her, I was realizing that I didn't want to. Right then, I was more comfortable being Jessica than launching into some unknown and ill-defined path. Three more days wouldn't really matter.

It wasn't until we were cleaning up the breakfast dishes that I remembered I could have gotten out of going to the bleepin' opera!

"There you go, girl, and if I do say so myself, you're gorgeous!" Sandy crowed as she pulled the cape away from me.

In the mirror was indeed a gorgeous young woman. Whether it was me or not was a bit harder to decide. This was to be the first time we would be going out for a formal evening in Providence, and Sandy had done . . . . something special. I looked older, for one thing, 22 maybe, just old enough to be all grown up without in any sense seeming to have aged. She must have used half a dozen different shades of eyeshadow, starting mysteriously dark but blending so thoroughly you couldn't tell where artifice left off and my natural colors took over. The same was true on my vibrant, perpetually excited cheeks. On the other hand, my lips were very crisply defined - full and puffy, but well defined. The effect was dramatic, yet refined.

My hair was piled up in a confection of spun gold so that I looked, and somehow felt . . . fragile. Like I were made of porcelain and captured sunlight, frozen in some sort of stasis that might collapse at any instant. I felt like I should glide rather than walk, and hold myself very . . . delicately.

"Wow," I whispered.

"Why, thank you sweetie," Sandy said softly, her normally acerbic tones hidden beneath genuine pleasure. "That may be the nicest thing one of Jane's students has ever said to me."

"I, um, thank you, Sandy," I said, meaning it for the first time.

Penny was already finished. Her look was always more formal than mine - or at least more formal than mine had been - so it wasn't quite as dramatic a change for her. Or, um, for him. That was not a productive line of thought. In the first place, now that, um, she was back to her normal appearance, it was just not . . . reasonable to think of Penny as a guy. It was jarring and made me question my memories rather than the direct evidence before me. And in the second place, I had agreed to treat her like . . . well, *her*. Nothing different. It would be a lot harder to do that if I fought my perceptions rather than going along with them.

And the worst part of all that is it made me question myself, too, in all sorts of ways. I was quite a bit prettier than Penny, and if that were the case, and she was so . . . undeniably feminine, then what did that make me? Was it something I should be ashamed of or proud of? Before, when I thought Penny was a girl and I was the only one in the world who knew what it was like to be trapped in Miss Jane's satin prison, I could sort of . . . hide from what it meant. There was no standard that proved whether I was just . . . coping, grudgingly surviving the inevitable, or whether I was going above and beyond the minimum required. Now . . . well, now it was not productive to think of all that. So I decided to just be Jessica for the evening, for the next three days in fact. Maybe something would make sense after I'd had time to think about it.

For that night, specifically, I would be a very elegant Jessica. Marie had my clothes laid out for me when we got back to the manor. I didn't do it deliberately, but the first word out of my mouth was an unintentional echo.

"Wow," I said, provoking a small giggle from Marie.

"Ma cherie, ce soir you will be . . . magnifique," she claimed, and who was I to argue?

"Vite, vite," she chided me. I stripped out of my casual clothes (Okay, Laura Ashley is hardly casual, but on that day it felt that way) and Marie pointed to the bedpost. "Take hold, m'enfant, tonight you will be tres elegante, tres . . . "

"Tres broken in half, if you keep that up," I grunted. She didn't quite put her knee in my back to haul on my laces, but I think it was only because she felt the busk rubbing on my backbone - from the front side.

"Oh hush," she said, giggling. "You will look so slender and elegant and yet shapely, just right for the delicate flower you are."

"This delicate flower is *still* going to break in half if you don't ease up a little."

Marie laughed, but she tied off my laces then reached for the stockings. Lord knows I couldn't have done them up myself. I couldn't even twist around enough to see if the seams were straight, let alone reach to straighten them.

"Please, Marie, this is too tight."

"Non, non, cherie, it will be fine in a few minutes. Just be calm. It is the size required for your dress."

I suppose I'd have had a better chance of convincing her if I hadn't said much the same thing every time she laced me up. Unfortunately, she knew I could handle it, and she knew I knew it, too. I'd have sighed if I could have. At least I had learned to handle the stiffness, so that was just inconvenient.

"Lift your foot, m'enfant," she ordered, and like a horse being shoed I let her move my leg as required.

"Doggone it, Marie, those are *way* too high. I'll fall on my . . . "

"Ah, ah, ah," she interrupted, waving her finger in my face. "You will do fine. Besides, it is right . . . "

"For the dress," I interrupted. "What I want to know, *Miss* Marie, is who picked the dress?"

"Tsk, tsk," she said, interrupting her stern expression with another giggle. "Do not be concerned with needless details."

She swept the dress from the bed and draped it before herself. Then her voice took on a dreamy tone and I could see genuine pleasure in her eyes. "Oh, child, you will be *so* beautiful. Truly a princess from a storybook tale."

That was not good news, except . . . I just couldn't take that pleasure away from her. In that moment, I knew that I was the daughter that Marie had never had, and it didn't matter what was inside my dress any more. What mattered was her pride in me, in her vicarious sense of young beauty that she could never again feel except through others.

I reached out and hugged her. "Marie, I've never told you how much I appreciated your help. The others, Miss Jane and Penny, they had a job to do, but I never thought it was that way for you."

"Non, cherie, it has always been more than a job, but for Miss Jane and Miss Penny, too."

"Oh, I know that, but still . . . you're special, and I should have let you know that more often."

She hugged me for a long, slow moment, then she drew back abruptly. "Now, now, don't get me started. We don't have time to fix up your makeup, and I know that if I get to blubbering, you soon will be also."

"I expect you're right," I said, but my opinion was hardly a critical addition to the facts of the shine in her eyes, matched by one I know showed in mine.

"Here, lift your arms," she ordered, and then the fabric was drifting down about me like a wisp of smoke. Marie had picked basic black for my formal social evening. But there was nothing basic about that magical dress. It was asymmetric, flowing from my left shoulder to caress cunningly around my nipped-in waist without seeming tight (well, not scandalously so, anyway), then slithering sensually to the floor, the acres of fabric nestling so delicately that it seemed to be snug to the ankles. Turning me around she slowly tugged the hidden zipper up, then stepped back.

"Now, m'enfant, your gloves," she said, then held the first snowy white tube to my hand.

"But, I've just had my nails done again," I protested. "I didn't think I'd be wearing gloves."

"Of course a lady wears gloves," she said adamantly. "But it is also good that your nails are done. They will make your fingers look so long and lovely."

"And I won't be able to pick up anything, or, well, do anything," I protested again as she slid the first one up almost to my shoulder.

"But of course not!" she declared, giggling again. "That is for your escort to do."

"Escort?" I squeaked. "As in . . . a guy?"

"But of course," she declared, deliberately mimicking her own tone. "Did Miss Jane not tell you?"

"She did *not*!"

"I'm sure it was just an oversight," she said negligently. "Nothing to worry about."

"Nothing to worry about?!" I repeated stupidly. "I'll be, I mean, there will be some . . . man hanging around me all night and it's nothing to worry about?"

"Why, child, you are not intending to do anything improper for a lady in public are you?"

"I should say not!"

"Then what is the problem? He will be a gentleman. You will be a lady. All will be proper, n'est-ce pas?"

I was about to protest further when it hit me just what I was protesting about. I was going to spend the night in a formal social setting, dressed like a zillion bucks - as a girl. Like, what made that part okay, while the proximity of some stuffed shirt society dude in a monkey suit made it not okay? Like, would I be any more likely to be turned into a greasy spot on the carpet if *this* dude figured out what was going on than say, that sleazy guy from the mall?

Yeah, right, cling to that rationalization. Like it was gonna help or something.

"Come, come, child, we have more to do."

The more to do turned out to be primarily jewelry. I was draped in another zillion dollars worth of baubles, all real as far as I could tell. The theme was apparently rubies, at my throat and wrist and ears. Set off by the requisite diamonds, of course. All in impeccably good taste, of course, just small enough to avoid being gaudy.

"Oh, dear," Marie said, a hitch in her voice as she stood back.

"What's wrong?" I asked in a reflexive panic.

"Nothing," she whispered. "Not a single thing, ma cherie. You are . . . beautiful."

"I . . this is . . . not me," I whispered, barely able to breathe myself as she showed me the image in the mirror. "It's all . . . your dress and Sandy's makeup, and . . . things."

"Hush, child," she ordered. "Just once in each person's life, he or she should feel truly, magnificently beautiful. Not many people manage it, and to be frank, you would never reach that pinnacle as a man, not as slight as you will always be. But as Jessica, you are truly . . . magical."

I wanted to disagree with her, but the image in the mirror *was* something magical, something special that few could attain. Right then, it didn't matter why I looked like I did, or whether someone might think I should, it was enough that I did.

"Thank you, Marie," I said softly, pulling her beside me so that I could meet her eyes in the mirror without looking away myself.

"Dear, sweet, Lord," I heard from the open doorway. Penny stood there, magnificently tall and dressed like a Grecian goddess in a tumble of white much too elegant to be called a toga, even aside from the wicked slit that showed a *lot* of leg. It fulfilled her serene elegance with patrician majesty, and she looked like the rest of the money in the mint.

"You're gorgeous," we both said simultaneously, then all three of us dissolved into helpless giggles.

"Well, you are," I finally managed to insist.

"Thank you, Jessica, but nobody is even going to know if I'm there tonight," she declared.

"Ha!" I argued. "When they shunt me off to play with the little kids, you're going to be holding court with the leaders of industry."

"Wanna bet?" she said archly.

"Uh, oh, what do you know that I don't know?"

"More than I can tell you in one night," she laughed. Then she sobered for a moment and said, "Truly, Jessica, you are beautiful."

"Truly, Penny, *you* are beautiful. I'm still a self-centered, mixed up mess," I said, then I giggled and did a little pirouette. "But I won't argue if you *insist* that I'm prettier than you, at least for tonight."

"Deal," she said, laughing herself. Curtsying like the most formal of ladies-in-waiting, she gestured gracefully for me to precede her out of the room.

Marie interrupted my grand exit, though. "Ooh, wait a moment, cherie. You need your purse." Quickly gathering up an apparently random sampling of mascara, lipstick, and blush, she tucked a few tissues into a very slim purse and held it out to me. Then she raced from the room with no further explanation.

Penny figured it out, though, before we reached the head of the stairs. "Wanna bet she's got her camera out."

"Oh, God," I groaned. "Is there a back stairway?"

"Yes, but even I wouldn't try it in heels like these," she sighed. At least whatever foundation garments Marie had picked for her left her enough air to sigh. On the other hand, it confirmed that she had tall heels that night as well, which was at least a little good news. Misery loves company and all that.

At the bottom of the stairs, Miss Jane waited in a simple gray gown that probably cost as much as most new cars. She had simple gray gloves and a matching small purse. The only discordant note was a slight frown that one would have imagined showed impatience if such a flaw could apply in the presence of that much elegance. That frown vanished as though it had never existed when she saw us, though.

"One at a time, one at a time," Marie demanded from behind her camera viewfinder.

Penny shrugged, then grinned and held out her own white-gloved hand, clenched in a fist. "On three."

She started to pump it up and down, counting each time. Along about two I caught on an joined her. "Paper," I called.

"Scissors," she crowed. "You go first."

Yeah, right. Well, the stairs were thickly carpeted, and I figured if I bounced, at least I'd be out of the rest of the night's festivities. Despite the distraction of Marie's annoying flashes, I managed to make it to the bottom of the staircase intact.

"Good luck," I called up to Penny.

"Thanks," she said, looking down the long flight from above.

"Don't frown, dear," Marie said. I could see that Penny's initial reaction to that was - and needed to be - stifled. But she put a game smile on her face and made her own stately way down.

"Well, at least the worst is over," I said.

"You wish," Penny replied, and after taking a look at Miss Jane's face, I decides she was a lot closer to the truth than I was.

Lesson Number 8 Zillion and Twelve: A lady does not drive herself to the ball. Or whatever other high-society bash she's attending. Miss Jane had a Lincoln that was a city block long and the cool, high-performance Audi, but neither were even close to satisfactory. That was apparent as we stepped out the door that evening to see about *three* city block's worth of limousine idling on the driveway.

We were, of course, not cold as we left the house. It was late fall and we could have been, except for all the fur draped around us. Yeah, real fur, ranch-raised fuzzy weasel, and it's no worse than wearing leather shoes, so don't start. Mink is warm, and it feels a whole hell of a, um, heck of a lot better than itchy wool on bare skin. Besides, all I had was a stole.

The chauffeur (complete with little cap, no less) opened the door as we approached. "Good evening, Miss," he said to Penny, tipping that cap politely. See, I told you so, when I first saw her I knew she was the kind that rated that sort of gesture from the peasantry. Then the guy did it to *me*, too! Lordy, who'd a ever in a million years thunk it?! I mean, I know it was the job and he'd would probably have tipped his cap to a the cat if it were slipping into his limo, but dam . . doggone that was cool.

There must have been a nuclear power plant under the hood of that land yacht, because we pulled away from the door with smooth acceleration and absolutely no noise. Miss Jane settled into the deep seats and smiled at us. "Well, ladies, I must say, you look very nice this evening."

"I don't feel nice," Penny said, but her giggle took away any real complaint. "I feel like I'm the princess of some medium-size kingdom, with absolute power over high and low justice. 'Off with their heads!'"

"I guess that makes me Cinderella," I said.

"Who are you calling a wicked step-sister?" Penny challenged, laughing again.

"Well, if the shoe fits - and Lord knows nobody else could wear *your* shoes . . . "

"Girls, a little decorum here, please," Miss Jane ordered.

"Very little," I promised, smiling demurely. Well, anyway I tried to look demure.

"That's what I'm afraid of, young lady, and for that crack about me being a wicked step-mother, you're going to go back into your pinafore and pigtails tomorrow."

"But I didn't say . . . . "

Penny's laugh interrupted my denial, but I didn't mind because Miss Jane said, "I'm glad you feel so sisterly toward Jessica, dear. I'm sure you will enjoy joining her in pettis and pigtails tomorrow."

"But . . ," Penny began, then caught herself. "But of course, Aunt Jane. We'll have a tea party. You'll come won't you?"

"Oh yes, please, Miss Jane?" I simpered sweetly. "I'll let you hold my favorite dolly."

She arched one of those power eyebrows at me, but it bounced off my armor of innocence without a dent. Of course, it had lost a lot of its impact because of the twinkle that was sparkling in her eyes.

"Bingo," I crowed in triumph. "We'll tell Marie, tea and petticoats for four tomorrow."

"I did *not* agree to wear petticoats," she declared regally.

Penny lifted her own patrician features into a disdainful glare. "One simply does *not* hold a dolly at a tea party when one is not properly attired, and you yourself have defined what is proper. Are you saying that you will not abide by your own rules?"

I expected Miss Jane to work her way out of the corner we'd created for her. Lord knows she could, I mean, I'd had my words turned around on me so many times that I was really just playing along to see how she made things come out her way. As a result, she threw me totally off balance when she nodded her head. "Very well, tea and pettis for four tomorrow."

Penny recovered first. "And pigtails!'

I joined in, "And freckles!"

"We'll tell Marie . . . "

" . . . that you agreed, and it will be . . . "

" . . . two against one if you claim otherwise!"

It still wasn't fair, of course. I mean, a mature, powerful woman like Miss Jane should have been at least embarrassed at the idea. But she wrapped herself in serene dignity that even Penny couldn't touch and made it clear our little 'trap' didn't concern her a bit. In fact, we spent the rest of the trip into the city planning the event as carefully as an amphibious invasion - who would bake what crumpets, which tea service would be used, all the important details.

When we got to the performance hall, our limo was only one of many. As the doorman helped us out though - and believe me, I needed the help with those stilt heels - we did trigger a little wave of oohs and ahhs through the crowd. Heads were turning our way from around the entrance and that seemed to be the signal for three in particular to focus on us. Three men.

"Ohmigod, here it comes," I gasped to Penny.

"No problem, sis," she hissed back. "If Aunt Jane set it up, they're gonna be nice guys."

"Tell it to my stomach," I whispered back. "Where the butterflies are stomping."

The masculine assault force approached in a chevron formation, the leading man somehow familiar. He was older, at least Miss Jane's age, and had that look of casual dignity that said wearing a tux was not remarkable for him. I thought I knew him from somewhere, but I couldn't remember exactly. Flanking him were two younger men, both very fit, both good looking in that chunked from granite way I had always envied, both with wavy dark hair. They were a little older than Penny or me but close enough to our age to be obviously intended for us. Oh, ssshhhugar.

"Jane, you look fantastic," the older man said as he walked up. "You remember my son, Matt, and this is his friend Daniel. Boys, this is Ms. Jane Thompson, and these are . . . ?"

Miss Jane easily filled the gap with hardly a break in the train of words, "These are my nieces, Penny McQueen, and Jessica Shepherd. Girls, this is Mr. Richard Ellis, his son Matthew, and Daniel . . . ?" (Nieces?)

"Daniel Carter," the young man said. "Though plain ol' Dan is just fine."

In a reflex old before time began, the young men sorted themselves out by size. Plain ol' Dan was taller than Penny even in her heels, and that left Matthew Ellis for me, an opportunity he wasted no time exploiting.

"And I'm just Matt, unless I'm in trouble," he said to me, grinning.

"Pleased to meet you," I said, formally offering him a snowy glove. I swear, he almost bowed over it and kissed my hand. And what was *really weird is that it sent a shiver up my spine when I thought he might. But all he really did was shake it politely, lightly grasping the tips of my fingers.

Then Matt offered me his arm so naturally that the only natural thing to do was to take it. I had practiced enough in heels that I didn't really need the stability, now that I was out of the limo, but I had no clue where we were going. Well, I mean it was obvious we were going inside the building but after that I would have been lost.

It didn't matter, though. Matt guided me to one side, then asked, "May I take your wrap?"

"Thank you," I said quietly. He took care of the minor business and I again found my white glove sparkling against the inky darkness of his tuxedo.

"I hope you won't mind if I'm a bit forward," Matt said, "but I must say, you are incredibly beautiful."

"Thank you," I repeated softly. That was rapidly becoming . . inadequate, so I tried a little more. "So, um, 'just Matt', how did you get roped into this?"

"Why, I'm a famous fan of the opera," he declared grandly, then chuckled. "And if you believe that . . . you're not half as smart as you look."

"E = mc squared," I said loftily. "Or is it cubed? I never can remember."

He smiled unselfconsciously and said, "Don't ask me. I'm having enough trouble with Marbury vs. Madison."

Thank you, Miss Jane. A year ago, I'd never heard of that - and probably never would have heard of it. But Miss Jane was very big on the Constitution. "So, you're a, um, an attorney?"

"Not yet," replied Matt, nodding at my recognition of the reference, "but I'm working on it. In the meantime, I'm working as an intern in Dad's firm."

Bingo! Now I remembered where I'd see the older man before. He was the guy who promised to help Miss Jane with some sort of tax thing for the hospital. That started a little tickle in the back of my mind, but when I tried to grasp at it, it slithered away. I'd have to let it grow a little before I could get a handle on it.

Our seats were the best, of course, a box practically hanging over the stage. That meant we had to go up a wide staircase, and for that I truly appreciated Matt's stabilizing hand. About half way up I nearly got the giggles when I realized I'd been practically holding hands with this guy for, well, ten or fifteen minutes at that point, but he had never touched me. He had touched my gloves, just as I had touched his sleeve with my glove, but it was as though we were protected by force fields or something. That actually helped me relax, at least a little. I needed the relief because I felt excruciatingly fragile as I climbed the stairs. Matt held my (gloved) elbow and I held the skirt to my dress in both hands as I tried to keep it out of the way of my feet. I won't say I would have fallen, but I felt the support of his hand more than once. With it, we made it to the top of the stairs as though it were no big deal, and I challenge anyone who thinks it wasn't a big deal to try it - don't forget the spindly heels.

Our escorts helped us to our seats, Penny and I next to each other in front with the guys right behind. It turned out that Miss, ah, 'Aunt' Jane and *her* escort had the next box down - no crowding allowed in the high-rent district. I'm glad it worked out that way, because it saved me from a major gaffe.

"So, Penny, what's with our 'Aunt' Jane and the handsome lawyer?" I whispered.

"Chill, girl, you are *definitely* barking up the wrong tree there. Aunt Jane is married to a professor of psychology, and Mr. Ellis's wife died of cancer a few years ago."

"Oh, sugar. I'm glad I didn't ask that right out."

Penny smiled serenely at me, one hand pointing at her own face from her lap where our escorts couldn't see. "Rule number one of being a young lady in public: Let a smile do as much of your talking as possible."

"Good advice," I sighed. "Still, where is, um, Aunt Jane's husband?"

"I understand he's conducting some sort of field study on war trauma, in Bosnia. Not a job I'd want to have."

"Me, neither," I agreed. Then the lights went down and the curtain went up.

The less said about the silly opera the better. "The Marriage of Figaro" is not what I'd call music you could dance to. I'd give it about a minus 10. If it had gone on another day or two (the performance took three full weeks as I recall), I swore I'd frig his bleepin' roll for real. But I swore it silently, a lady not being permitted such language, don't you know. I was never so glad to have a show end in my life.

And then I thought of a second reason to be happy. The end of the opera meant we would have no further need of our official social escorts for the evening. Not that 'just Matt' had been much of a burden. I don't think I'd said a dozen words to him all night. Still, it was weird to be so close to a guy, y'know?

My second cause for joy vanished as quickly as I had imagined it. It seemed we were all headed out for dinner.

"Girls, if you'd like to freshen up, we have a few minutes before the car arrives," Aunt Jane announced.

Yeah, right, like I was going into the inner sanctum of womanhood. Then it turned out I was indeed going in, pulled by Penny in a grip much more demanding than Matt's had been.

"Fix your face," she hissed as we entered, then proceeded to do the same. I had bitten off most of my lipstick, at least the glossy top layer, so I set about making the needed repairs. When I was about to close my purse, Penny giggled. "Not yet, girly. Think of where we are."

"I *have* been thinking of that," I hissed at her.

"No, dummy," she whispered back. "What's this place called?"

"'Jail time,' if we're caught."

Penny sighed, rolled her eyes, and then took pity on me. "It's called a 'powder room', airhead, so powder."

She pulled out her own compact and took the shine off her nose and forehead. Yeah, well, I was distracted, so I forgot, okay? Anyway, I took care of that, too, and we glided off to find our, um, to find Miss Jane.

Matt had retrieved my mink and was waiting to drape it over my shoulders. Plain ol' Dan had Penny's jacket, too, and we moved out to stand in the line awaiting vehicles.

"So, what did you think of it?" Matt asked conversationally.

"I think I'm not buying the bit about you being a 'famous fan of the opera,'" I said. "I heard you snoring back there."

"I didn't . . . "

"Give it up, Matt," Dan interrupted. "You had the curtains moving clear across the auditorium."

Penny grinned at her tall, dark, and . . . um, don't go there. "From where I sat, it sounded stereophonic."

"I do *not* snore," Dan announced grandly. "I have stayed awake to find out."

That earned him quadraphonic groans. Even he joined in. After stifling incipient giggles brought on by the unplanned harmony, I tried to return to the topic at hand. "Since we have established, counselor," I said, looking at Matt, "that you were not there on the night in question to enjoy the opera, just why were you at the scene of the, ahem, crime?"

"Not for the reason I thought I'd have," he replied cryptically, but further explanation was interrupted by the arrival of the limo. Lord knows it was big enough for all of us, so we arranged ourselves among the seats and glided silently away from the crowd.

"So, Jessica," Mr. Ellis said, "Jane tells me you just might be the best student she's ever had."

Aunt Jane laughed - in a genteel way, of course - and punched him lightly in the arm. "Richard, you know better than to tell her that."

I was too busy blushing to say anything immediately, but nobody bailed me out, either. After the fire in my cheeks died down to stellar core temperatures, I lifted my head a little and tried to escape. "If that is so, Mr. Ellis, it must be because I had the most to learn."

Penny gave me a quick thumbs up from her side of the limo, while Matt whispered, "Wow. Smooth." Then he turned to Aunt Jane and said, "Gee, Ms. Thompson, if you can teach that kind of cool, maybe I need to come to your school."

Okay, that was too much. I lost it. Penny lost it. Even Aunt Jane couldn't completely stifle a more-than-polite laugh. I couldn't have spoken coherently to save my life, so I rooted around in my purse and found my student ID, the one that said I attended a 'private school for girls.'

Even aside from the fact I didn't think Matt went around beating up on people, he clearly already had a very large dose of manners. But he also demonstrated all the poise that Aunt Jane might desire when his own easy laughter spilled out and he passed the ID to Daniel.

"Whoa, bud, that would be a fairly serious, ah, change for you," Dan said.

"You never know," Matt replied. "It might be worth it." I wish he hadn't been looking at me when he said that.

Mr. Ellis had laughed along with the rest of us. He apparently knew about Aunt Jane's school - and I hoped like hel . . hoped desperately that all he knew was the surface layer. He smiled as the general level of mirth fell to conversational levels, then turned their attention back at me. "What are your favorite subjects? What sort of career field interests you?"

Like a lightbulb over a cartoon character, the little tickle at the back of my mind suddenly clicked in. "Actually, sir, I was thinking that I'd like to study law."

Aunt Jane sat up straighter, looking sharply at me. Mr. Ellis, on the other hand, smiled indulgently. "I appreciate the flattery, young lady, but you don't need to say that just to please me. I'm genuinely interested."

"Thank you, Mr. Ellis, but I'm not just saying that. I don't know if you remember, but we met before . . . "

"At the hospital fundraiser," he said, nodding. "I'm not likely to forget a girl as pretty as you - even if you are younger than my daughters."

"Thank you," I said, hating the blush that fired my cheeks again. "But the important thing is that M, um, Aunt Jane needed some legal help to fix a tax problem." I paused for a moment, not really wanting to spill my life story to all these people I'd just met, but it was key to my explanation. "I don't know if Aunt Jane told you, but I'm an orphan. I have to think there are a lot of children's homes, and hospitals, and people like the Jacksons who could use legal help, especially with taxes."

"The Jacksons?" Mr. Ellis asked.

"Their daughter is being treated at the cancer clinic," 'Aunt' Jane supplied. "I'm not sure they pay much in taxes, but I'm sure any help they could get would be appreciated."

"Pardon me, Aunt Jane, but I expect they *do* pay a lot of taxes. There are sales taxes and gasoline taxes, and you know," I said, warming up to my subject, "all taxes are really paid by the consumer. I mean, the gas taxes a trucker pays are passed along to, say, the grocery store, which passes them along to the consumer. That all seem so unfair, those buried taxes."

"Goodness," Mr. Ellis said, turning to Aunt Jane, "we seem to have hit a nerve here." Then he turned back to me, "And you seem to know your subject. How would you like a job?"

"A job?" I repeated.

"Yes, as an intern in my firm. We don't pay a lot to interns, but if Jane is picking up the tab for your clothes and things, you'd find yourself with a little spending money."

"Hey, that would mean we'd be working together," Matt said brightly.

Uh, oh. I looked desperately as Miss Jane, whose own face showed a frown. After a moment, she said, "Thank you for that generous offer, Richard. I think Jessica and I will need to talk it over before we make any sort of commitment."

Was this another occasion when I was glad to wear a corset? Possibly, because the stiffness of it kept me from sagging with some weird combination of relief and disappointment. The da . . . darn thing didn't help my whirling mind, though. *That* problem was helped by our arrival at our restaurant. Matt and Dan were back into normal escort mode, helping us from the limo and once again checking our wraps for us.

We had a reserved table and the service was impeccable. As far as I could tell, our orders had been pre-arranged. Certainly I never saw a menu. Not that it mattered. I had no clue what most of the dishes were, beyond being the most fabulous Italian I'd ever had, and I knew I couldn't have made better choices if I *had* seen them listed - in Italian, no doubt. My only regret is that I could only manage a few tastes of each course in that infernal corset. Well, that's not true. I wished Marie had been there, too. She could have picked up some terrific recipes, and I had no doubt she could have added them to her incredible repertoire.

Mr. Ellis sat back expansively after some final sweet course, and nodded to his son. "Matt, Jane and I need to talk for a little while. Why don't you two take the girls and dance or something?"

"Yes, sir," Matt replied quickly. It would seem he didn't find that particular chore too burdensome. Lucky me. Lucky Penny, too, because Dan was just as eager.

I caught Aunt Jane's eyes for just an instant, but it was enough to get her signal to go along. Well, it was for this that I had dodged Penny's toes in all our practice. Allowing Matt to handle my chair, I rose as gracefully as I could and let him lead me to the dance floor. There was probably more money in that room than in the vaults of most countries, and that sort of wealth was not really compatible with . . . undisciplined dancing. So I was not surprised to hear the strains of a waltz coming from a no-kidding live string orchestra. My practice paid off as my hands went naturally to hold my skirt and to meet Matt's, and we were soon moving to the easy music.

He was, as he had been all evening, impeccably polite. There was the requisite handspan between us at all times, and his right hand stayed at my armored waist. He was also a nice guy in that he picked up on my inner turmoil and let me have a few moments of silence.

Finally I shook off the unproductive spiral my mind wanted to get trapped in, and looked up at him. "You're pretty slick, you know."

"Huh? Um, I mean, uh, what do you mean?"

"I've asked you twice tonight why you were here, and both times you've dodged my question."

Matt chuckled and said, "I did, didn't I? Well, it wasn't really deliberate. Or, um, at least, not the second time."

"You're still not getting to the point," I noted.

He laughed again and bowed his head in ostentatious shame. Then he perked up and grinned at me. "It's your fault."

"My fault?"

"Sure," he said, then his expressive eyes darkened in a moment of pain. "After my mom died, Dad, well, he didn't take it very well. He had . . he *has* a lot of friends though, and they wouldn't let him just withdraw from the world. He's always been active in charity things, and they started pushing him to get involved again. There are a lot of rich widows in this part of the country and the society matrons used him to fill in when they needed to balance the numbers at some social event."

I was still trying to decide how any of that was my fault, when Matt smiled again and said, "Anyway, he sort of became the on-call socially-proper escort. About that time I got 'roped in', as you say, to the same sort of thing. Dad just told me to find a friend, and that we would be escorting two young ladies to the opera and dinner. So, here I am."

"So why did you dodge my questions earlier?"

His face flushed at that, a silly sight on such a masculine visage, and it was a minute before he replied. "Well, you see, some of the young, ah, ladies that I have been asked to escort were, um, well, lets just say I needed another reason to be there, y'know? So I sort of developed this knee-jerk answer to that sort of question. I'm a famous fan of the opera, and of the ballet, and of 'th' theatah' and, well, you know."

"So, it was a polite cover for mercy dates," I said, snickering. That actually made me feel better. I could handle being a mercy date. At least, I could handle it better than the alternative.

"I didn't say that," he disagreed gallantly.

"That's okay," I said lightly. "I can take it."

"Oh, no!" he said quickly. "Not you! You're . . . fantastic. You're smart and you're, like, the way you move is so graceful and you're so gorgeous that I . . . "

"Whoa, there, big fella," I said. "Take a breath. I mean, that's really sweet of you, but don't overdo it."

He blushed again, carefully looking over my shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said after a moment. "I didn't mean to come on so strong."

"That's okay," I said softly. And found myself surprised to realize that I meant it.

"Look, Jessica," he said, looking back into my eyes - from a distressingly short distance. "I meant what I said about you. You're no mercy date, not by the furthest stretch of the imagination. Let me prove it to you."

"I don't need any proof," I said, smiling.

"Fine," he said, a grin showing again. "Let me prove it to you anyway. Why don't we go to, like, a movie or something? I promise, no opera."

Uh, oh. Red alert! Earth to Jessica: Hellooo, stupid! Didn't you see that coming?

Where were all those lessons in how to handle guys, now that I needed them? I guess some of them took because I managed to keep dancing instead of, like, fainting or something. Or maybe it was just all that practice with the corsets that kept me from needing to breathe for a long, long time.

Finally I managed to recage my tumbled gyros and start looking for some way out of the mess I was in. "Um, I'm flattered, Matt, but my, ah, Aunt Jane says I'm too young to date."

"Bullsh . . . um, look Jessica," he said, frowning, "I appreciate that you're trying to let me down easy, but that's pretty bogus. Hell, even if you considered *me* a mercy date I think I deserve better than that."

"No, really," I protested. "She is really strict about that."

"So tell her to bug off. Sh . . shoot, that's positively medieval. The age of consent is 18, y'know, not 25 any more."

I had to giggle, and maybe the real humor in it helped to convince him I was serious when I said, "I'm not, um, 18 yet, but thanks for thinking so."

"Well, I'll be," he said, flushing again. "Now I *am* impressed. I mean, I've been impressed all evening, but I figured, well, I won't argue that you look a little younger than I thought, but you're so . . sophisticated that I figured you just looked, well, better than other girls your age. Oh, hell, that didn't come out right. Anyway, when I first saw you, I put you at about 18, maybe a little less, but I would have believed 20 easy, from the way you, well, move and your poise and . . . "

"Oh, stop," I begged, snickering. "Penny already thinks my head is over-inflated. If she heard you going on like that, I'd never hear the end of it."

He chuckled and started leading us with more purpose. "I'll show you," he threatened, "we'll go right over there and I'll repeat every word."

"Don't you dare," I gasped, but I had to giggle, too. God, if he really did that, Penny would have a cow. I know Aunt Jane would hear about it and I'd be in little girl frocks for the rest of my natural life.

He took pity on me after we got close enough to make his threat real. With Dan and Penny dancing only a few feet away, he leaned down to whisper in my ear, "Last chance. Tell me how old you really are, and I won't tell them what I said."

I should have, right then. Why not? I mean, it wasn't like I cared what he thought of me, right? Well, that was the answer of course. I *did* care, not because I wanted to date the doofus, of course, but having someone, someone who obviously had his own sh . . sugar together pretty well think I was sophisticated and poised enough to be several years older than I really was . . . well, that was flattering. I didn't want to pop that bubble, at least not, like, quickly. So I dodged his question.

"A girl has to keep *some* secrets," I whispered back. "Otherwise men lose interest so quickly, y'know?"

"You're still claiming to be less than 18?" he pushed.

Well, I'd already said that, so I nodded.

"Seventeen?" he asked.

I just smiled and regarded his chest, refusing to meet his eyes. Something must have given me away, though. He gasped and hissed, "You are *not* going to tell me that you're only sixteen!"

"Okay, I won't," I replied lightly.

"No way," he said, loud enough for Dan and Penny to look our way.

"Be quiet," I hissed at him.

"No," he said. Actually, he was lying because he did drop his voice again, but his tone said it as on its way back up if I didn't answer his question. "No kidding, how old are you?"

"I'll be sixteen in a few more weeks," I sighed.

"I don't believe it," he said, then as he saw color start to bloom in my cheeks, he said, "I'm sorry. That was wrong. I *do* believe you, but I swear if you hadn't told me yourself, I'd want proof."

"Sorry, take it or leave it," I snipped, still a bit irritated.

"No, I'm sorry," he said. "Really, I am just so impressed with you that I didn't want it to be true, I guess."

Well, that was a pretty nice apology. I let him have a small smile in return.

Maybe it was the adrenaline rush, or actually the flush afterwards, but all the sudden my feet really started to hurt. "Would you mind if we went back?" I asked.

His face fell, but he nodded and led me from the floor. I tried to straighten things out. "No, Matt, it's nothing you did. Truly, I'm not angry. It's just that my shoes are killing me."

"That's okay," he said sadly, clearly not convinced.

I refused to accept his disbelief. "Hey, buster, you try dancing in heels. And until you do, trust a girl when she says her feet are hurting." Yeah, buster, come to Aunt Jane's for a while and you'll see what it's like! Let's see . . . Matt . . . Matilda? Oh, that would be just *too* perfect.

I laughed, and stopped as we walked. It was as much to get my laughter under control as anything, but for an excuse I lifted the front of my skirt to show one slender ankle and the not-so-glass slipper that adorned it.

"So, if I rub your feet, will you follow me home?" he asked, leering theatrically. Well, at least it meant he was over his hurt.

"Oh, Lordy, Matt, but that sounds good," I moaned. "But, there is that problem of my age - and my Aunt. Believe me, you do *not* want to get on the wrong side of Aunt Jane."

"I expect you're right," he grimaced. The he sighed and copied my words, "Oh, Lordy, Jessica, but I may just have to wait until you *are* 18."

You'll wait for longer than that, mister. But you don't need to know that. Sh . . . shoot, if you *did* know the real story, you wouldn't wait for a heartbeat - to kill me. Thankfully we had arrived back at Aunt Jane's table.

Unfortunately, with the change of pace I had relaxed a bit as we walked, and that had . . . opened my perceptions to another problem. I tried to ignore it, but as always Aunt Jane missed nothing.

"Jessica, why are you fidgeting?"

"Oh, sorry, um, Aunt Jane."

"That's not an answer to my question," she said, but her corrective action was lost in the arrival of Penny and Dan.

Penny was snickering at something Dan had said, and she rode that energy to sweep by our table practically without pause, one long arm gathering up her purse. "C'mon Jess," she ordered. "Time to powder our noses again."

Well, I might be able to fight it from the inside, but when I was getting it from all sides I figured I might as well surrender. Gathering up my own small bag I followed her to the powder room. This time it just wasn't optional and I slipped into one of the stalls. It took *forever* to get my stupid gloves off, and to get all that dress out of the way, and all the while my need was building, sort of like a horse that smells water - oh, bad analogy, don't think about water.

I nearly groaned out loud when I finally managed to take care of my problem. Hel . . Goodness, maybe I did, because I heard Penny giggle from the next stall down. Well, too late to worry about it then. I went through the reverse contortions, not including my gloves, and went out to wash up. Even with my nails, it was easier to get my lipstick on without my gloves, and I took an extra moment to add a little mascara as well.

"Lookin' good, girl," Penny said from beside me as she took care of her own needs. "What were you and Hunk, Jr. talking about out there?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," I said.

"So, when are you goin' out with him?"

"I'm not! How did you . . . ?"

"Geez, girl, get a clue. The most beautiful girl in three states is dancing with a rich, unattached, *available* guy who has fallen so far into her eyes that not even his toenails are showing. What's not to understand? You're gorgeous, you're polite - that shy demure look works so much better on a petite girl like you than on a big old horse like me - and you're obviously no airhead with the topics you were discussing on the ride over here. Good catch, sis. From what Dan tells me, he's probably got more money - in his own name - than Aunt Jane."

"I didn't 'catch' him," I said sharply. "Nor do I want to. He's, um," I interrupted myself to check and see if we were truly alone. "He's not, um, my type." Leaning over, I hissed in her ear, "I don't want to date guys."

"So don't," Penny said, smiling. "Just because he asked doesn't mean you have to say yes, and you didn't. The important issue is that he *did* ask, and he asked because you succeeded in fitting into very high-class circles."

"But I look like a girl!" I said, forgetting my caution. "I don't want men to be attracted to me."

"No," she replied, "you want men to respect you. Manners are gender-neutral. Oh, the specific roles men and women play are different, but what counts is knowing what those roles are, and being able to play them naturally and consistently. Once you learn them from either side, you'll be able to play them from the guy's side.

"Maybe that's true, but then why do I look like that?" I asked, pointing in the mirror. "Why bother coming at this from the wrong side? None of this is really me."

"*All* of this is really you," argued Penny. "*You* are not the clothes. You are what's inside the dress."

"Yeah, that's the problem," I said.

"That's the *solution*, you dummy," she said. "The manners and the poise and the sophistication are part of *you*, not that silly rag you're wearing. Why do you think Jane brought us here tonight?"

"Like I could figure out why she does *anything*."

Penny claimed, "Everything she does has a purpose, and a perfectly logical, efficient one."

"Look, Penny, I'm not denying that Aunt Jane's method worked. I mean, I believe you that you were pretty screwed up when you came here, and I know I was, or am, or whatever. But that doesn't justify all this," I said, sweeping my hand down my sleek curves. "Her methods may be effective, but they're hardly efficient."

Penny snorted with most unladylike disdain. "Hellooo! As a girl, you are allowed to be quiet, to let the men take the lead and take care of things. You never have to make the first move, so you don't have to know what move that is. You can learn as you go. Actually, Jane is making it easy on you by letting you take the woman's role in social interactions.

"Yeah, right, so all this is the best, most efficient way for me not only to fix my screwed up behavior, but to prepare myself for the life I will lead as an adult."

"That about sums it up," claimed Penny. "I knew you'd catch on, sis."

"Get, real," I said.

Penny stopped what she was doing and grabbed me by the shoulders. "This *is* real, Jessica. As real as it gets. You're a well-mannered person with an education way beyond your peers. You can build on that to be *anyone* you want to be. *That* is what this is all about."

She let go of me and leaned against the vanity. "I love Aunt Jane more than anyone else in the world. She saved my life - literally - and then gave me an even better one. What part of that don't you think is real?"

I started to answer her . . . and ran out of words before I started. My eyes started burning and I sagged against the counter. Penny had me in her arms in an instant and cradled my head against her chest. "I love you, too, sis. Jesse. I love the total person you have become. You're a good person, and you'll do great things in life. Trust me on this."

She gently lifted me from her shoulder and looked me straight in the eye, "Any less would be, would hurt Aunt Jane, and I don't think you want to do that."

"No, I don't," I whispered, unconsciously straightening my shoulders.

Penny nodded, and smiled. "Now, let's get ourselves fixed up before they send the search parties after us."

It wasn't that easy, of course. I had a *lot* to think about, and in my distraction just getting my stupid gloves back on was a battle. But Penny helped, part of which was giving me the time to think without interruption. When we finally got back to our table, I was at least mobile and back in the same time zone with the rest of them.

Aunt Jane had apparently been talking with Mr. Ellis, and they quizzed me on my expressed interest in the law while we sat. I hadn't really realized it before that night, but that really was what I decided I wanted to do with my life. Mr. Ellis described the opportunity to be an intern in his office, and I tried to get a reading from Aunt Jane on whether that would really be possible.

She was neutral, though, and the conversation drifted onto other topics. Matt and I danced again. Dan did his duty with me as well. Even Mr. Ellis took his turn, telling me the whole time about how he used to dance with his daughters, who were now a doctor and a financier. Apparently Matt had some mighty big footsteps to follow, even if some of them had a pointy heel. By the time Matt claimed me for one last dance, my feet were killing me and I was about to fall asleep in his arms.

"I think we should be going," he said. "Though I wish this night would never end."

"Thank you, Matt, that's very sweet," I said languidly.

He smiled, though there was an undercurrent of sadness in his eyes. "Oh, Jessie, if only . . . "

That startled me from my drowsiness. I could hear in his voice that he was just softening my name into a friendly, more personal form, but that wasn't the only way to hear that name. It forced me to face things that I had been ignoring - again. Not that facing them provided any answers, but it kept me from slipping into any greater problems.

"Yes, Matt, I think we should be going," I agreed, carefully ignoring the rest of what he said.

The ride in the limo back to where Mr. Ellis had parked their car was strangely silent. Matt slipped his arm around me in the car, but it was more companionable than romantic. When they got out, he gave me a hug and I found myself reflexively kissing his cheek. On the scale of that evening, that was way too minor to worry about.

I fell asleep during the ride home, unconscious habits keeping my dress neat and my knees together. I don't know if Aunt Jane wanted to say anything, but it wouldn't have done any good. Marie helped me out of my beautiful clothes and I fell into my bed, hiding in my dreams from a reality even more confusing.

"Bonjour, cherie, bonjour. Levez! C'est le matin," an impossibly perky voice chirped at me.

I guess it would be unfair to say it had been a short night. I had just spent it on other things than sleep. Most of it, anyway. I would have regretted that decision, if I could work up enough energy for such complex emotions as regret. Okay, focus. Start with the basics. In. Out. Breathe. Slow breathing is good. Sooo relaxing . . . .

The covers leaped off the bed and a nuclear blast of light melted my eyeballs, even through my eyelids.

"Vite, vite, cherie. Today is *not* the day to keep Miss Jane waiting."

"Yeah, like, what makes today any different about that?" I grumped from below the pillow I'd grabbed to protect my still-shut eyes from the brightness.

"You will see, Miss Jessica," the voice promised.

Accepting the inevitable - besides, it was cold without the covers - I cautiously poked my head out from under the pillow. And cracked up. I laughed so hard I *really* had to hurry to the bathroom.

"Marie, you look just . . . darling!" I called from the safety of the little alcove.

"As will you," she threatened.

Oh ssshhhuugaar! That's right. Today was pettis and pigtails, for all of us. Ohmigod, for *all* of us.

Some things just can't be hurried, but as soon as I could I dashed back into the bedroom to find Marie - in the frothy little frock held out by an explosion of petticoats, with pigtails and freckles, that I had seen her wearing before - arranging a similar outfit for me on the bed. Her dress was a delicate pastel yellow. Mine, as I saw immediately, was robin's egg blue. Other than that, they were pretty similar all the way to white tights and mary jane shoes.

"Aunt Jane, too?" I asked in wonder.

"Today would not be a good day to keep her waiting," Marie repeated, not quite answering.

"Not for a million dollars," I agreed. "*This* I gotta see."

Not that my agreement made things go any faster. It was even harder to make my face up like a little girl than a more, well, ordinary look. The flaws had to be hidden so subtly that it didn't look like I was wearing any makeup at all, yet I needed fully, pouty, cupid's bow lips and wide, alert eyes. Everything had to be nearly invisible, except for the freckles and overly-rosy cheeks. Of course, on those Marie went *way* overboard.

She left me to put my own hair up into pigtails and to finish getting dressed. Hey, no corset! I guess little girls don't have to have as much shape. I figured this was going to be a pretty good day after all. No corset. Low-heeled shoes. And Aunt Jane in petticoats! I rushed through the rest of getting dressed, only my still-long nails a contrast to relatively (relatively!) comfortable clothes, and went across the hall to knock on Penny's door.

"Come in," I heard from inside.

Penny was just finishing her own pigtails. Stiff petticoats held the little skirt of her cotton-candy pink dress out like a ballerina's tutu, and showed about nine feet of sleek leg down to her own patent leather shoes. Some girls do not look like children, regardless of their clothes, darn it.

"Are you ready?" Marie asked me.

"Yes, ma'am," I replied pertly, dipping in a dainty curtsy.

"Then let us be off," she said, giggling. We trooped together down the stairs, then marched into the breakfast room.

"Ohmigod," I gasped. Penny whacked my unarmored sides with her elbow, but her own giggle spilled out despite her best efforts.

Little Missy Jane was there, in all her budding glory. A sea green dress with bows and lace and ruffles danced around her erect torso, calling out the highlights in her auburn pigtails. An array of freckles at least as extensive as those on my faced wiggled under her eyes as she turned to look at us. I was sure she had petticoats at least as full as ours, but I wanted to sneak a peek under the table just to see.

"Come in, girls, and sit down. We have dawdled enough," Aunt Jane's voice said. It seemed strange coming from that figure, because it wasn't strange at all and the figure certainly was.

"Yeth, Mith Jane," Marie lisped, curtsying. I wasn't about to try the lisp thing, mostly because I knew I'd lose it if I tried. I was close enough to a giggle attack as it was, but I dipped into my own curtsy, and took my place. From somewhere, Marie had found plastic bowls with cartoon characters on them, and plastic spoons. That's all we needed, because our breakfast meal was one children could manage; cereal, milk, and orange juice.

"Jessica, I was quite impressed with your understanding of hidden taxes last night," Aunt Jane said as we sorted out the milk and fruits.

"Thank you, Aun . . . I mean, Miss . . . ," I stammered to a stop, then decided I needed to start over. "Could I . . would you mind if I, um, called you 'Aunt' Jane? I mean, you introduced me, um, us as your nieces last night, and I just started, I mean, it was . . . nice."

She looked quickly out the window and I was afraid I'd made her angry. In a moment she looked back though, and the shine in her eyes was bright enough I didn't think anger was fueling it. "Yes, dear," she said. "I would be very pleased if you chose to consider me your aunt. Very proud."

Proud. How many times in my life had I ever made someone else feel proud? Ever? I'd like to think there had been a few times - too few - when I'd been justified in a little pride myself, but making someone *else* feel proud? Dear Lord, that was . . . different. That was . . . nice. I ducked my head because I knew there was a shine in my eyes, too, but I didn't really mind a bit.

Aunt Jane let us chatter through breakfast after that, distracted perhaps from whatever conversation she had intended. She smiled indulgently as we made fun of the grandiose pretensions of the opera singers from the night before and added an occasional reinforcing tidbit to the report we gave Marie on the fabulous Italian meal. She didn't even intervene when Penny and I got into a pretend fight over our 'favorite' cereal, each demanding to have the box so we could read it. Through it all, Aunt Jane was her normal, serene self, no different than if she had been dressed in her usual designer clothes. The contrast was just devastating, and I had to stop and look out the window every few minutes to regain whatever composure I had. Looking at her in her pigtails, with formal New England diction spilling from those cutely drawn lips, was just tooooo much! I couldn't decide whether to be disappointed or relieved that the simple meal was quickly over. We formed a virtual conveyor belt to the kitchen, carrying boxes, pitchers, and dirty dishes for the shared cleanup.

"Very well, this is what we'll do next," Aunt Jane said as we finished, not quite able to relax from her deeply ingrained need to be in control at all times. "Jessica, I believe we had agreed that you would work on the crumpets, with Marie. Penny, I believe the silver tea service is appropriate, but I think it could use some polishing."

"Miss Jane!" Marie gasped in surprise.

"I think it could use some polishing," Aunt Jane repeated, but her smile showed she knew the task to be unnecessary. As if anything in Marie's household would be less than spotless.

I decided two could play at that game. Curtsying as daintily as I could, I said, "May I be excused for just a moment Aunt Jane?"

She thought she knew what I wanted - maybe the fidgeting that was so obviously bothering me was a clue. But I didn't really lie, see, because I just asked to be excused, and fidgeted, with my legs crossed, and rocking back and forth a little.

Aunt Jane smiled and nodded, and I ran from the room. I figured if I were dressed as a little girl, it would be in character to run instead of walking, especially if I had needed to be excused so badly. But I used the opportunity to dash to the top of the stairs and retrieve what had to be the ugliest doll I'd ever seen. I didn't remember what Cabbage Patch dolls looked like (in truth, I didn't care) but I had this vague image of a lumpy head like a potato on a chubby little body. That description fit this . . . thing in my room, anyway. Whether it was a Cabbage Patch doll or not was irrelevant, though. It was ugly, and it was durable, and it was fairly big - no little Barbie doll that could be stuffed in a drawer.

I grabbed it off the dresser where it had loomed over me for months, and raced back down the stairs. Sliding to a stop in front of the other three in their precious pettis, I held out my prize to Aunt Jane. "Aunt Jane, last night I promised you that you could hold my favorite dolly today. Her name is, um, Polly. Take good care of her."

I thought Marie was going to choke, and Penny didn't even try to contain her hoots. Doggone that woman though, but Aunt Jane took it in stride like I had just handed her the crown jewels. Cradling the thing in her arm, she nodded and went on with her directions about which tablecloth to use with hardly a pause.

Our orders clear, we went to work. As had been the case so many times, Marie could have fixed the crumpets in a fraction of the time it took me, but she was as patient as always. She was a great teacher, though, and despite the time it took, they came out pretty well. I took a tray of hot crumpets in to Aunt Jane about mid-morning, with some tea, and she nodded her thanks since she was on the phone at the time. Lordy, there is something about a grown up woman in a little girl dress, with an ugly doll next to her on her chair, reaming some bozo over the phone, that just goes beyond description. I know I'll never forget that image.

Lunch was peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. What else? But I was surprised at Miss Jane's next order. "Girls," she said, "I think it is time for your naps. We'll have our tea after you get up."

Naps? I hadn't taken an afternoon nap in, like, years. And Aunt Jane was *not* tolerant of laziness. Then I saw through her deviousness - as usual, after the fact. She had known our previous night would run very long before we left the bleepin' house! And so, she had intended us to be in little girl clothes so that we could legitimately take an afternoon nap. If not our silliness about Cinderella and the wicked stepmother, then some other pretext would have gotten Penny and I into our pettis. That tricky, sly old . . . fox, or vixen, or whatever.

Not that I was complaining, of course. I was tired and whatever excuse allowed me to catch up on a little sleep was fine with me. Besides, we could take those silly petticoats off while we slept. Marie bustled in to wake us up after an hour or so, and then we sat down to a perfect little tea, ostentatiously crooking our little fingers and saying, "Would you like another crumpet, deah?" Through the whole thing, Polly never left Aunt Jane's side, though she wasn't a very good little girl. She never did finish the tea and crumpets set before her.

It was all so . . .surreal. It was just unheard of for Aunt Jane to be so . . . undignified, except, that's not really what it was. She had dignity regardless of how she was dressed. Still, the whole day I was expecting some sort of . . . reaction to the silliness, and she treated it with the most incredible nonchalance all day.

At least, until our tea was over. "Very well, ladies, I think it's time we all grew up a little. Marie, if you would clear the table, I'd like the girls to go get dressed in something more . . . suitable for a discussion we need to have."

"Yes, ma'am," we said.

I wouldn't have been surprised to see clothes laid out on the bed when I got to my room. I'd have bet money that Marie had the ability to be in two places at once (as opposed to Aunt Jane, who had the ability to be wherever you didn't expect her) and so I figured she'd have slipped out and done her normal maid thing. But this time we were left to our own devices. I stripped out of the petticoats and brushed out the pigtails, and tried to decide what to wear. Somehow I had the feeling the other shoe was about to drop. Whatever had caused Aunt Jane to indulge in the childish clothes all day was about to be offset by a correspondingly serious evening.

In the end, I chose the outfit I had worn on my first mall outing. It was unbearably preppy, but that was better than the ostentatious stylishness of Laura Ashley. Besides, I'd had enough of white stockings for the day. I even slipped across to Penny's room to get her to do up my laces so I had my budding-young-woman curves. Penny chose Laura Ashley, but that was right for her. As a result, she looked five years older and five times richer than I did when we went back down stairs, but I could live with that.

It was no surprise at all to see Aunt Jane in an elegantly simple green dress, not a hair out of place when we reached her study. Instead of motioning us to chairs though, she stood when we entered. "Let's go someplace a little less formal," she said. Leading us down the hallway, we entered the conservatory, still warmly lit by the rays of the setting sun.

Aunt Jane looked at each of us in turn, a long, discerning glance where the critical appraisal I had come to know so uncomfortably well was absent. In its place was something complex, but sadness was a big part of it. Finally she turned to look directly at Penny.

"You have been one of my most challenging students ever," Aunt Jane said to her.

Penny's head and shoulders fell like she had been struck. "I'm sorry, Aunt Jane."

"Don't be, child, because that also makes you one of my greatest successes," Aunt Jane replied. "I am so very proud of you."

"Proud of . . . *me*?" Penny asked, looking over at me. "I've never, um, done very well at, this."

"You have done wonderfully well," Aunt Jane disagreed. "We both know you faced . . . challenges in the role I laid out for you. I daresay few could have done as well even with greater advantages."

She rose to look out the windows into the garden, and somehow the gravity of her mood was serious without being threatening. "But this environment, those clothes were never an end in themselves. They were a way to allow you - to force you, in fact - to face your personal demons." Turning back to Penny, Aunt Jane said, "I believe you've done that now."

"I . . may have," Penny said. "I, um, we talked last night, Jessica and I, and I realized as I was talking to her that all of what I said applied to me, too. I can never bring Janey back, but I can make a difference from now on."

Now Penny changed her focus to me and said, "And thanks to you I think I can even find that fulfilling. I can be . . . happy."

"Thanks to me?" I asked in surprise. "All I've done is given you, both of you, grief!"

"You have indeed done that," Aunt Jane replied, smiling gently, "but that is hardly all you have done."

Aunt Jane's body firmed up somehow, as though she were straightening an already perfect posture even further, and she looked at Penny. "Penny, dear, I think it is time for you to leave."

"Leave?"

"I think it's time for Penny to leave, and for Benny . . . Benjamin to return. You need to move out of my world into the wider world before you become trapped in a form that doesn't suit you."

"Like Victoria?" Penny asked.

"In some ways," Aunt Jane said, nodding. "Your parents love you, and they deserve the chance to show that to you. They deserve to feel the pride in you that I feel. That is where your home lies, and your future."

There was regret in Penny's expression, and a bit of fear as well, but also resolve and confidence. You could see the change in her attitude even as she sat there. For the first time since I had met her, she looked down at the way she was dressed with a sense of awkwardness. "So, what do I, um, do?"

Aunt Jane's smile showed in the corners of her eyes, a lie that was demonstrated by their shine. "Today, one last day, you have been my precious, shiny Penny." Then she sighed. "Tomorrow, Sandy and Carolyn will come here to 'deconstruct' you; to take you back to a masculine appearance. We will spend a few days helping you learn to move and talk like a man again, then . . . . well, then your parents will get a chance to see how fine a young man you are."

"Oh, Aunt Jane, I . . . ," Penny cried, rising and reaching out to hug her tormentor, and mentor, and molder.

I felt like an intruder, a voyeur watching something private and precious, of which I was not truly a part. If I had been standing near the doorway, I'd have tried to sneak from the room, but I was afraid it would be too noticeable if I stood at that point, so I tried to disappear into the upholstery instead. It didn't work, of course. Nothing escaped Aunt Jane's notice. After a moment she leaned away from Penny, so gently there was no sense of rejection at all, then looked at me.

"Jessica, you are indeed one of the best students I've ever had," she said, clearly moving on to a new topic.

"Thank you, Aunt Jane. I meant what I said last night, though. If that's true, it's because I started out worst."

"Hardly," she disagreed. "But I wasn't talking about your skills in dress and deportment only. I meant your academic excellence. You are a very quick study. It is to your credit that you can apply your lessons of course, hence your success as Jessica. But even in purely academic areas you shine. You write well, you are very good at research, and you have creative insights."

"Um, thank you," I replied, shocked.

"Would you really like to be an intern in a law firm?"

"Sure, I mean, yes, ma'am."

"As Jessica?" she asked, fixing me with her looking-inside-my-mind stare.

I didn't answer immediately. There were a lot of implications to that. Like, if I said, 'no', what would happen to me? I decided that was a fair question, and one I couldn't reason out by myself.

"What are my, um, choices?"

She smiled, nodding appreciation at whatever I'd done that was good. "Let me assure you of one thing. You've fully met my standards as a student, and I believe you've done your best. That was our deal, was it not?"

"Yesss," I said slowly.

"So regardless of what happens from here, I will stand by the rest of our deal. I will see that you get the college education of your choice."

"I, um, thank you, but that is so much money. I need to, I don't know how, but I need to do something to pay my own way."

She nodded, and while I had no clue how to make good on that commitment, I also got the clear impression she would make that happen, too. "With that as a given, what would you like to do now?"

"You mean, like, I could go back to being Jesse?"

"If you'd like."

"And, um, go back to the home?"

"Only if you want to," she said. "I was hoping you would consider staying on with me. If not, I can arrange for you to stay at an appropriate preparatory school. As Jesse."

I took that statement apart and realized the, 'as Jesse' was tagged to the prep school, not to the 'stay with her' part. Penny shifted in her seat, and a grinned at me, "Each one teach one, sis. You can go be a preppy if you want, but if you stay here, you could do a lot of good."

"You would not have to be Jessica all the time," Aunt Jane explained. "But it is important to my program that the troubled young men feel there is no solace available from other male figures in the household, at least in the beginning. Beyond just not having a male in residence though, I could really use your help. A 'big sister' is an important part of the program."

She looked back out the windows again, gazing on the gray, near-winter day. "I need the special insight only a big-sister confidante can provide. The risks are greater, significantly greater, without it. Sometimes too great to be acceptable. There have been . . . problems that I would not chance again. And that might mean that some young man loses his chance to become all he can be. I really do believe we have helped sometimes."

Turning back from the window and the memories the gray day held, she looked at me. "That is not meant to force your decision. I have other options, other ex-students who could fill that role. It is an opportunity, not a duty. However, you could be very helpful, if you are willing."

Then she walked over to sit beside me on the low couch. Her manner was deliberately upbeat, brisk and confident. "In any event, I can arrange for a legal internship for you. You can understand, I am sure, that you could not go alternately as Jesse and as Jessica to the same place, so you would need to choose one or the other for fairly extended periods - the time a new student is in residence as Jessica, or a full semester at boarding school as Jesse. However, internships of an equivalent duration are available, so that is a free choice either way."

"Wow," I said softly. "That is a lot to think about."

"Just so," she said gently. "And that is why I asked you to give me three days. Think about it, and give me your answer tomorrow."

I nodded, mind whirling with options and combinations that seemed to spiral out of control.

Standing up again, Aunt Jane urged me to my feet and then reached another hand to Penny. "Tonight is our last night together as ladies. I'm sure Marie has something interesting in mind for dinner. You should not have challenged her French cuisine by praising last night's Italian so enthusiastically. Shall we see what she has created?"

"Don't forget to pack this sweater, mon chou," Marie said. "It matches your eyes so beautifully."

"Mais oui, Tante Marie. Bien sur," I said, reaching out one arm to pull her close enough as she passed that I could kiss her cheek.

She blushed at the attention. After all this time, I could still get a rise out of her whenever I wanted, and she knew it. Of course, she didn't mind. Also of course, she didn't let me pack the silly sweater myself. Refolding it three times until it was the perfect shape to fit the niche she had picked out in my already bulging suitcase, she patted it into position and stood back, surreptitiously wiping away a tear.

"Jesse, mon cheri, it seems like you just arrived to share your life with us."

"To become alive, you mean, Tante Marie," I said. "If not for you and Mama Jane, I'd have no life at all."

"You are a tough one, Jesse, and I don't mean that you are a swaggering bully, regardless of how you seemed when you came here. You'd have survived. But not, I think, flourishing as you have with us."

"I'd have picked on somebody one time too many and ended up broken into little pieces," I disagreed gently. "And we both know it."

Old whatsisname, the tall dude I had met in the mall that day, had been right. If you don't go looking for trouble, you don't find it very easily. I had found much more pleasant things instead. I was going away to Yale law school, riding on the credentials of a maxed-out LSAT despite being two years younger than my soon-to-be peers. Of course, I had been drinking through an academic firehose for the last few years. Mama Jane saw to that, even when it took hellaciously competent tutors after I had passed her own abilities to teach me. That, plus some courses as an undergrad at Yale had gained me a BA degree already, and I was officially qualified for Law School.

The soft sweater Marie had packed provided a cushion for some additional treasures I needed to take along - photos of my continually expanding family. The first item I nestled securely away was a triptych of my three little sisters. 'Little' used loosely, of course. Two of them had been taller than I would ever be, unfortunately, and one of those was older as well. But I had managed to mother them just the same. Of course, I had great teachers in that sort of thing as well.

Which were represented in the second photo, this one of a very magical group: Mama Jane, Tante Marie, Penny, and this admittedly cute little blonde with a slightly shocked expression. Of course, I had always been at least slightly shocked back then. Marie bustled by and looked over my shoulder as I held the photo before packing it away.

"Jessica always was a heartbreaker," Tante Marie said. "It is just as well you're comfortable as Jesse, because if you had been like our Caitlyn, Miss Jane would have had to hire a squad of Marines to keep the suitors away."

"Don't remind me," I grimaced, then laughed. "Lordy, if I had a nickel for each time I had to use the, ah, diplomacy skills Mama Jane taught me - to discourage some bozo - I wouldn't need to work for a living."

Tante Marie's expressive eyes drooped into a sad wistfulness. "Do you ever regret, cheri, not going off to boarding school as Jesse more often? You could have found a nice girl if you weren't so busy *being* a pretty girl for your sisters."

I took her into my arms for a real hug, one we both needed actually. "Not for one, single heartbeat," I declared, softly but adamantly. Then I leaned back and grinned. "Besides, the good-lookin' high school girls wouldn't be interested in a scrawny little geek like me."

She pretended to slap me, but there was just enough bite in her words to show she was serious. "Do not put yourself down, child. You are a wonderful person, and some day some girl will realize that."

"Of course," I agreed easily. "But they won't *see* it, since so many of them look over the top of my head." Before she could protest further, I continued. "That's okay, though, because in a little while when I make my first or second zillion dollars, I'll let the smell of all that money catch their attention. After that, I'll sweep 'em off their feet - even if I have to use jiu jitsu to do it."

Now she did slap my arm, but she giggled even as she shook her head. I let her bustle off and tried to remember what else I'd forgotten to pack. My glance fell on the nightstand beside my canopied bed, and I almost said some naughty words. "Can't forget that," I murmured as I walked over. In the drawer were my once-upon-a-time only possessions in the world. The annotated copy of Machiavelli was long gone, though not forgotten. I still thought ol' Mac had some good points. My mother's scorched Bible was still there, though. I was going to have to find the time to read it again one day. And the scout knife my dad gave me. Those went into my briefcase too, since I'd be on my way in my own car - courtesy of Mama Jane and a very nice going away present it was indeed - so I wouldn't have to pass through some useless security checkpoint somewhere.

The last item in the drawer was a dusty little spiral notebook, my 'journal' as I'd once so proudly considered it. There hadn't been much time for fine art in the last couple of years. No big loss. Not much leverage in helping children's homes through understanding of old paintings. Better off without it, in fact. That was a blurry emotional drain when I needed to be crystal clear and focused. Like Mama Jane.

"Dear, you should pack a tie and a nice shirt," Mama Jane said as she walked through the open door. In her hands she held one of each, nicely coordinated of course.

"Yes, Mama Jane," I whined like every nagged-to-death teenager in history. It pulled her up short. I laughed and slithered over to sneak a peck on her own cheek. "I'll put it with the six other ones you already made me pack."

"I did not," she denied defensively, then blushed at being tweaked so successfully.

She saw what I had in my hands and her eyes widened in surprise. "I haven't seen that for a long time."

"Just as well," I said, dropping it in the wastebasket. "Childish anyway."

She looked at me for a moment, then shrugged. "As you wish." She walked over to the tattered old Bible and gently picked it up. "I remember the first day you arrived."

"Lordy, so do I," I replied, grimacing for real this time. "I was such a - sorry Mama Jane, but nothing else will do - such a prick when I got here."

"But a cute one," she said, laughter shining in her eyes. And more than laughter, too.

I moved over to embrace her just as I had Marie, but it was not really the same. Marie was special, but . . . "I love you, Mama Jane."

"And I love you, child," she said, squeezing me just a little too tightly, which was just right. She stepped back and wiped ineffectually at her cheeks. It was an opportunity to tweak her again, but I was not hypocritical enough to take advantage of it. After all, if I'd have been wearing mascara, my eyes would have looked just as bad. That I knew from hard, but valuable, experience.

It could have been awkward. I didn't know what to say, and neither did she. No words filled the silence between us, but after a moment I realized none were needed. There was a bond between us that was forged of much more than mere words.

And I realized nothing else needed to be packed, either. At least, nothing so desperate it couldn't wait. I was only going to be a couple of hours away by car - less if I could dodge the speed traps in my new bimmer. So I smiled and closed my briefcase. Taking the unneeded necktie and shirt from her, I crushed them into the suitcase and zipped it shut as well.

I think the two bags weighed as much as I did, but one had rollers and I balanced the other on top. Mama Jane picked up my briefcase herself, and we walked together down the hall. She grimaced at little as I let the suitcase wheels down each step of the wide staircase, but despite her sense of propriety, she was always eminently practical as well so she bowed to the necessity.

"It's only two hours," I said, repeating my earlier thoughts. "I was further away those semesters I was at prep school."

"It's not the physical distance, Jesse," she said quietly. "You're all grown up now, going out on your own adult life. That's not easy for a mother to accept. No matter how proud she is of her child."

Oh, God, that did it. I managed to get the bags in the car, but only because I could find it by feel. My eyes wouldn't focus and I was sniffling in a way that put the lie to her claim of my maturity. Now it was awkward, not because we needed to say anything, but because I had run out of excuses to delay, yet I didn't want to leave.

Tante Marie rescued me - again - by bustling out of the house with a little paper bag in her hand. "Attendez, mon chou, you need these."

Inside the sack were fresh baked cookies. "Thank you, Tante Marie, but I'm not likely to starve in the next couple of hours."

"Skinny as you are, one never knows," she sniffed. "You have never eaten nearly enough."

"It is not because I didn't love your cooking," I declared. "It's because whenever I'm home, you strap me into one of those corsets."

"And you look just lovely when she does," Mama Jane said, but Marie's magic had worked and we were again able to handle the moment. I gave them each a quick hug and then opened the car door, sliding behind the wheel and inserting the key. The warning beep that sounded when the key was in the ignition with the door open demanded that it be closed, and there wasn't much more to do.

"I will expect a call at least once a week," Mama Jane said sternly.

"You mean, in addition to the ones you'll get from all your spies?" I teased.

"Of course," she agreed blandly, showing not a shred of guilt.

"Just so," I said, grinning. She reached out to put her hand on my cheek, and I leaned into it for just a second. Marie was less formal and returned the kiss to my cheek that I had stolen earlier. Then they both stood back. I wasn't about to say good-bye, so I started the car and drove off, looking at them in the mirror as they in turn watched me all the way down the drive.

Excerpt from the Personal Diary of Jane Thompson

Jesse left Seasons House today. He starts law school at Yale next week, two years early due to his very hard work and very great talent.

He's accomplished so much in his years with me and come so far from the insecure, vulgar, nearly-violent boy placed in my charge by Judge Ruth. His academic record speaks for itself, and I have never had a more committed, more accomplished 'big sister' in all my years of working with petticoated boys. He could carry off all the roles from prissy, overly feminine debutante to scheming co-conspirator. I cannot find fault in any aspect of his performance in his time with me.

No, the fault is with me.

It would be laughable if it were not so damned depressing. Here is Jesse, by all accounts and measures, the definitive statement of my method of rehabilitation. My masterpiece. He is polite, well spoken, educated, even brilliant, and genteel in all the ways that such things are judged. Lord, just the other day Betty Franson told me she had never seen a student who so epitomized what I taught and who so completely emulated me in their behavior and outlook.

What was the name of that character in that stupid movie? The small person who was a miniature copy of the villain? Oh yes, Mini-Me. That is Jesse - my mirror image

My image in slacks.

My masterpiece.

My greatest failure.

God above, but I have failed that child, and now all I can do is keep my word and try to . . . to. . . what? Help him in this notion of his to become a millionaire lawyer? Is that any fate for someone with the soul of an artist? He should be going to the National Museum of Art to study painting, not to some Ivy League school to study Blackstone!

And I never knew until the very day he left, when he casually tossed in the trash a journal filled with passion and insight and a deep love of art that thrived even when he was alone and unloved in all the world.

What have I done?

What could I have done that I didn't do? I wish I knew. In all honesty, I think the course was set in stone during those first early days. He fell into the program so easily after those first few weeks, though like all the good ones he took longer than that to accept the value of my program. None of the really good ones were easy, and Lord knows Jesse was not. I, well, it isn't an excuse, but Penny, that is, Benjamin still concerned me, too. In my distraction, I missed the clues that should have told me to become the mother Jesse so badly needed instead of the stern teacher/governess that I knew how to be; that he knew only too well from the state-run institutions that awaited him if I declared him a failure. I missed the need to nurture his gentler emotions instead of ruthlessly suppressing them along with the darker ones.

In 20/20 hindsight, I should have seen it from the way he relaxed when I forced him to do 'artsy things'. Dance, music, drawing lessons - heavens, he even enjoyed embroidery, although he denies it to this day. I just never saw it as anything but a boy finding pleasure in 'girlish' pursuits and resisting that aspect of himself as unmanly.

Now I know that he was resisting for a far different reason - he resisted because he saw the artist in him as uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and as the barrier he had to overcome to achieve the security he craved more than anything else. In reading his journal I saw insight beyond my own, and before he even came to me — so far beyond my own that I mistook his impatience with my shallow knowledge for lack of interest, while nothing could have been further from the truth. And in my lack of support, he saw a lack of value.

So it has come to this, and no one but me will ever know what a terrible failure I've perpetrated on this young man. Because he will be a 'success'. He's brilliant, hardworking to the point of obsession and will have every advantage my money can give him.

He'll be a 'good man'. Charitable, honest, a leader in the community. He'll help the needy, take on all kinds of pro bono clients. He'll be respected, and he'll be financially secure through his own efforts.

And every day, his artist's soul will wither just a bit more.

Who will 'force' him to do the 'artsy' things now?

Hmm, let me follow that thought. Whom do I know that is active in the art scene down in New Haven? Oh, yes, Judith Cranston. She has one of those tony galleries that cater to the high-dollar crowd. As I recall, she has a daughter who helps out in that gallery. Tabitha? No, Tamara, and she's a redhead, too. Jesse has always been just silly about redheads. I'm sure that between Judith and I, we can arrange for those two to meet, and if that doesn't get him back into the fine arts, well, I'll just think of something else! I will settle for nothing less than his happiness.

Goodness, for once I'm glad I don't have a new student coming in right away. I can focus on this full time. No child of mine is going to fail to develop his - or her - full potential.

I will *not* let that boy — that fine young man - be harmed by something I have done.
 
 


 
 
End of Tales of the Season - Jessica's Story © 2002,2013 Brandy DeWinter
 



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