Seasons of Change - Book 14 - Part 3 of 4 - Ken's Barbie

Aunt Jane's latest student breaks loose long enough to phone home and accuse Jane of abusive behavior. When circumstantial evidence supports that accusation, his sister threatens Jane with legal action which will, at the very least, expose Jane's program and thus, end Jane Thompson's Winsome Girls' School for Wayward Boys. Jane calls in one of her own to defend her, and to try to find a way to save the program.

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Seasons of Change
Book 14 - Part 3 of 4
Tales of the Season
Ken's Barbie

by Tigger

Copyright © 2002,2013 Tigger
All Rights Reserved.

 


 
Image Credit: Ornate Antique Divider purchased and licensed for use - 20073018. ~Sephrena.

Acknowledgments: My sincere thanks to Brandy Dewinter for the gifts of her creativity, her vision, her eye for 'just the right word' (and wrong one of mine) and her, ummm, persistence. Special thanks to the 'Blue Pen of Sonora', Denise Em, for the many hours she put into proofing this. At some point, it becomes impossible for me to read what I wrote, because I 'see' what I thought I wrote. Any remaining errors are mine, probably because I wrongly thought my way was better than Deni's. ~Tigger

Legalities: Archiving and reposting of this story *unchanged* is permitted provided that: 1) You must have contacted the author, 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 of this work, Tigger, must be provided free account access at all times the work is hosted in order to modify or remove this work at his sole discretion.

This work is the copyrighted material of the respective author.

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


 

Part III

 

 
Chapter 25: Impressions of the Past
 
Still in her robe, Ruth slid a steaming omelet onto a plate, added large helpings of fat in the form of bacon and sausage, plus a heaping side of buttery home-fried potatoes - and prepared to enjoy watching her child eat. She set the plate in front of a grinning Barbie and almost managed a disgusted frown. "You'll pay for that when you're my age," she huffed as she spooned up oatmeal for her own breakfast. "What's your cholesterol level?"

"One forty-five," Barbie answered as she savored the first bite of cheese-dripping egg. "Not even Marie cooks like you do, Momma-Ruth. Where's Skipper?"

"On the phone. Her office called just as she came down. Ah, and here she comes now." Ruth watched Barbie and Skipper watching each other and trying not to show it. *Guess Jane was right. They're already intensely aware of each other, and that's not too far from being in lust, at the very least. I sure hope Jane knows what she's doing here. If Miss Braithwaite feels she has to take Seasons House down, it could really hurt Kenneth. He loves Jane and he's halfway in love with this girl.* "What can I get you for breakfast? There's oatmeal, and I might still have an egg or two after cooking for that one."

"Oh, the oatmeal sounds fine, if you don't mind."

"Who was on the phone?" Barbie asked.

An unhappy look clouded Anne's face. "My boss, Mr. Madden."

"Donald?" Ruth asked. "What did he want? Are you needed back at work?"

Anne shook her head. "No, nothing like that. Adrian called him yesterday, looking for me. Per my instructions, he was told I wouldn't accept his call."

"I'd say that means Jane has given Adrienne your letter."

"The letter she dictated!" Anne flashed back and then just as quickly subsided. "Sorry."

"Are you regretting doing that?" Barbie asked softly, putting out a hand to rub Skipper's arm soothingly.

"Yes. . .no. . oh blast, maybe. Look, I know you trust Ms. Thompson, and you believe in what she does, but. . ."

"But Adrian is your brother," Ruth said quietly. "What did you write?" Quickly, Anne summarized the letter she'd written at Jane's behest, and explained about the voicemail message she'd recorded at the same time. "Well, I can see how you'd be uncertain about that, given my error in not fully disclosing what you were agreeing to when you signed those papers. You do understand what Jane is trying to do with that letter, don't you?"

"She's making him feel alone, isolated, without anyone to help him," Anne said with some heat.

Ruth put a bowl of steaming oatmeal in front of Skipper, then sat down. "No one to help him but himself," she corrected the girl. "At least, that's how she wants him to see things. What she's really doing, Anne, is trying to restore the dynamics to the time before Adrian called you. She needs him to feel that way, needs him to see how that isolation would exacerbate any failure on his part to play the role Jane has assigned to him. As long as he thought he had an ally, he had no motivation to work at her lessons, and without work, he cannot learn."

"It. . .it seems so cold."

"Sometimes it has to be that way. Military boot camps isolate their recruits from the outside world, from their previous experiences, even from their personal vision of themselves as people. Jane does the same thing."

"I've heard that argument before," Anne muttered, casting a dire look at Barbie.

"Then, I won't repeat those arguments. Instead, I shall merely content myself by pointing out that, based on your agreement with Jane, your brother need only suffer those conditions for three more weeks following your return to Kingston. Assuming, of course, that he is suffering, and that you still insist that he leave Jane's keeping at the end of those weeks."

"What makes you think I won't?"

"My faith in Jane," Ruth said equably, "And my assessment of you, as an intelligent young woman who will recognize the value of what my friend does with boys such as your brother. Now, eat, before your oatmeal gets cold. You two will need your fuel for you have a difficult day before you."

"Oh?" Barbie asked, brows raised.

"I spoke with a colleague of mine - the judge who will sign the probate papers on your mother's estate. He's agreed to let you go through her place and see what's there while he expedites the process. I can handle most of the legalities for you, but you need to see if there's anything you really want, or if all of it can be sold."

"Okay," Barbie replied, but in a tone that told Ruth it was anything but okay for the tall blonde. "Are you going to be there, too?" she asked, hopefully.

"Sorry, dear. Full docket, especially since I had to juggle cases to be off the past couple of days. I might manage a couple of hours, but you will need more time than that anyway."

"Damn."

Brenda ('Betty-to-my-Friends') Franson walked into her office, a slight frown on her face as she walked over to sit down and face the woman seated on the sofa. "Problems?" Jane asked before Brenda could say anything. "Is Adrienne acting up again?"

"No," Betty replied thoughtfully, "But I'm not comfortable about this, nonetheless. She's, well, she's trying TOO hard, Janey. Everything - her responses, her giggles, even her smiles for goodness sake - they're all just so exaggerated. It's almost like watching one of those 1930's comedic movie shorts, except it's in living color. My best shop-girl, you remember Sally, don't you? She's starting to give Adrienne funny looks."

"Blast! Do you think it's intentional? A sort of malicious compliance? 'You told me to be happy, and look how happy I can be' type of thing?"

Betty shook her head firmly. "No way. I took a real close look at that child, Jane. When Sally isn't looking, she practically hyperventilates to calm herself. When I gave her a friendly pat, she literally flinched. She knows I'm in on the game, but I've told her often enough that I'd unmask her in a heartbeat if she didn't do exactly as I ordered."

"So she's keeping her word, but. . ."

"No buts, Jane. She's doing the best she knows how, but just now? That's not good enough for soloing."

"Then I'll have to pull her out of there. Give me a minute to think of an excuse that will do the job, but won't ruin my image as the school-mistress-from-hell."

"There might be another way, Jane. . . "

"Oh? What?"

"Well, you did say she was to act like she was having fun? Well, suppose she didn't have to act?"

"What a strange setup," Skipper murmured as she drove Barbie's car into the alleyway behind Sheila's townhouse. "She actually owned two houses? On exactly opposite sides of this alley?"

"Momma-Ruth said that she used the one on the residential street as her living space and the other, the one with the storefront, as her. . .umm, place of business."

Skipper giggled at seeing her tall friend blush. "You mean her dungeon, don't you? I'm actually rather excited. Nice girls from Indiana don't usually get to see dungeons, you know."

"Right. Glad to help broaden your experiences. Come on, let's get going. The sooner we start, the sooner we get done."

The first surprise was that the storefront was just that, a front. They raised the grill and opened the door and found a small reception area. The only other door in the room led to a dark, narrow stairway to yet another door, this one opening onto a second-story covered walkway connecting the two townhouses.

"How odd," Skipper observed as she looked out a window onto the alley below. "Didn't she like walking outdoors?"

"Odder than that," Barbie said thoughtfully. "Did you notice that there isn't any way into the rest of the storefront house? If you go in the front door, you can only go back out that door, or end up here."

"Maybe there's a back door in the alley?"

"Only door I saw when we drove through there was ten feet off the ground without any stairs. Like one of those track houses designed with a deck-option that the buyer decided not to install. Come on, let's see what's on the other side of this."

There, they found their second surprise, in the form of a second 'reception area' nothing like the first one. Flickering wall sconce lights, designed to look like gaslights, did little to dispel the darkness of the small antechamber. Opposite where they'd entered, heavy, velvet-like curtains hung from floor to the cathedral ceiling, their weight almost swallowing what little light might dare escape from whatever lay beyond them. The floor was uncarpeted, a fact that escaped the pair until the sound of their high heeled shoes clicking off the hard surface alerted them.

Without thought, two hands reached out and found one another, both seeking and offering comfort and mutual support. Then, they pushed aside the curtain and entered the room beyond.

"Oh my god," Skipper breathed when she saw what awaited them.

All the pair could do was gape. The room was perfectly octagonal in shape. More of the flickering wall sconces, one on each side of the octagon, cast their disconcerting light on walls textured to look as if they had been hewn from raw granite. Dark wood doors occupied the center of each wall, except for the one through which they'd entered. Other than that, the room was devoid of furniture or furnishing. Only dancing shadows thrown by the barely adequate lights decorated the empty space. "It's like something out of a Saturday late night horror picture," Barbie breathed.

"Isn't it GREAT?!" Skipper enthused, and then blushed at her friend's shocked look. "Well, I always did love those old movies. It's like the House of Horrors at the fair. Wonder what's on the other side of those doors?"

"You're starting to scare me, Braithwaite," the taller blonde teased. "Let's go find out."

"Sally?" Betty called to her assistant fashion consultant as she entered The Style Shoppe's dressing area.

"Yes, Ms. Franson?"

"You're overdue for your break, dear. I'll help Adrienne for a bit. You've been on your feet since we opened. Go get some tea and relax for a bit."

"It's no trouble to finish up here first, Ma'am," the pretty young woman demurred, although Betty could tell that the thought of a bit of rest greatly appealed.

"Scoot!" the shop owner ordered with a teasing smile, "Before I find something for you to do!"

The girl did not need to be told twice and was out the door before Adrienne quite knew what was happening. Then, she realized she was alone with 'one of them'. A frisson of near panic slid down her spine, but she fought it back, and somehow managed to force her lips back up into a visage that was, unfortunately, more grimace than grin. A promise was a promise, and Adrienne had decided that Adrian's word was about the only thing she had left of him. "Isn't this dress marvelous, Ms. Franson," she offered with a twirl, as she tried to sound cheery. Unfortunately, her voice cracked on the final syllable.

If she had been distinctly uncomfortable being around the very pretty Sally, and distressed to find herself suddenly alone with Ms. Franson, Adrienne nearly lost control of herself when the older woman put a gently firm hand on her upper arm and moved her into a chair. "Sit down, child," Betty ordered softly. "Take a deep breath - that's right, now another. Close your eyes for just a moment."

Betty watched as a more normal color suffused Adrienne's chalk-white cheeks. "Better, now?" she asked.

"Ye.. Yes, Ma'am. Umm, thank you."

"Good. Now, I know what you promised Jane, because she told me."

The fear came back into the lingerie-clad teen's eyes, and Betty hastened to reassure her. "You've done fine. Don't worry about it."

"I.. . I have? That girl, Sally? She was, well, looking at me awfully closely there at the end."

"Well, perhaps you were trying a little too hard. Smiling when the seamstress fitting you accidently sticks you in the fanny with a pin is a bit much, but I give you full points for trying to keep your word. Now, why don't you relax, and let's have a little fun for a change."

"Fun?" Adrienne repeated, a wealth of suspicion dripping from the word.

"Let's just try. All right, so there's no getting around the fact that you do have to have a new dress to satisfy Jane, but the search doesn't have to be quite so much of a trial. I know, let's pretend you're looking for a costume. No one else will come in here, and I already know your secret, so you're safe for the time being. It'll have to be a girlish costume because - oh, I don't know - it's for the Sadie Hawkins Day Ball and girls have to be boys and boys have to be girls. How's that for a concept?"

"But. . .but, I'm not a girl," Adrienne whispered, "not really."

"And none of the other people wearing skirts to the Sadie Hawkins Day Ball will be really girls, either," Betty said, a teasing smile on her lips. "You wouldn't want to let any of those other guys win the prize for prettiest outfit, would you?"

In spite of herself, Adrienne smiled back. "Depends on the prize, I guess."

"How about a fifty dollar gift certificate at Milady's Closet?"

"That's your lingerie store," Adrienne snorted in obvious disappointment.

"Oh, and a date with the cutest girl at your school, so you can give her the certificate," Betty offered.

"You can't promise that."

"Ah, but we can pretend, can't we? And who knows, you might just have the chance to go to that Sadie Hawkins Ball on your own later, or date the cutest girl at school. Provided you continue to do your best for Jane, that is." A sad look crossed the girlish face which she tried to cover with a smile. "What's the matter now?" she prodded the teen.

"Oh, nothing," Adrienne said, trying to sound cheerful, only to stop at the sight of an imperiously demanding cocked-feminine brow. "Oh, all right. It's just that, well, I've never had much luck with girls before this. . . this . . . this place, you know? And now, Ms. Thompson's making more me girly than THEY are - so how am I going to appeal to a girl? IF I ever get out of here without going to jail, that is."

The boy-girl was so sincere and so distressed that humor and sympathy warred momentarily in Betty's breast, but somehow she managed to keep the incipient laugh in check. "Tell me something. If _you_ were trying to be friends with someone, who would you rather hang with? Someone who didn't know or appreciate what you had to deal with every day, or someone who understood you better than the other guys around you?"

"Ummm. . . someone who understood?" Adrienne asked, wondering where the trap was hidden.

"Right! So, assuming you learn how to behave like a girl, appreciate what it is to live like a girl, don't you think you'll maybe understand that really cute girl better than the big macho guy? Maybe appreciate what she does to BE that cute just a little better, too?" At the teen's quick nod, Betty smiled. "Exactly, and you think that girl - that 'really nice-to-be-around' kind of girl - isn't going to notice those things and like hanging with you better than your less sensitive brethren?"

"Maybe. . ."

"Only one way to find out, cutie. So, what catches your eye? Looks like Sally emptied a couple of racks from all the stuff in here."

"My eye? You mean on me?"

This time Betty did laugh, but not unpleasantly. "Okay, Adrienne, let's try it this way. Know any girls who look like Adrienne? A really cute blonde whom Adrian would really like to impress?" She watched the wheels turn inside that fluffy, blond head, and knew the instant just such a girl came to mind. *Gotcha,* she thought happily. "I can see that you do. So, suppose you were looking for a present - a really nice dress - for this girl with your coloring and, ah, attributes. Out of all this, which would you pick out for her?"

For a moment, Adrienne still hesitated, afraid this was another game, another trick at her expense, but then decided if it was, she might as well, indeed, try to find some real fun in it. After all, didn't the saying go something about laughing and letting the world laugh with you? "I, well, I thought that red skirt with the short black suit jacket was kinda. . .well, sort of pretty."

"Ah yes, the red peasant skirt with the black bolero jacket. An excellent first choice, I think, and it can be worn with or without the jacket depending on how dressy you want, I mean, your very cute girlfriend-who-looks-like-Adrienne wants to be. All right, then, let's see if we can find some accessories to go with that ensemble, shall we?"

Giggling nervously, Anne and Barbie approached the next to the last door. Neither of them had ever seen, in real life, anything like the equipment installed in the five previous thematically designed rooms. There'd been a doctor's office, a nursery, and an elegant lady's sitting room, although in each case the furniture had seemed to include an unusual and disproportionate number of very heavy leather pieces. Then there'd been the space that could only have been a stable; an assessment that had been difficult for Skipper to accept, given that the complete complement of tack and stalls were clearly sized with human-sized horses in mind. The fifth door had revealed a dungeon that would have suited Torquemada's Inquisition in all respects.

So, it was with a certain degree of caution mixed with excited anticipation that they opened the sixth door.

"Well, I guess it's pretty obvious what she did here," Anne said, striding into the richly appointed executive office. "Here's where she kept track of her business. Funny, wonder why she kept that chair?" she added reflectively.

Barbie looked at the chair, and saw that the minimal seat cushion had a two-to-three inch diameter hole in its center. She put her hands on the chair's back while she watched Anne slip around behind the desk. She wasn't surprised when she couldn't move the chair an inch.

"Nice desk," Anne said running a finger along with deeply polished wood before sitting down in the leather executive chair, "Nicer seat."

"Comfie, is it?" Barbie asked, a strange smile curving her lips.

"Oh yeah. A little short-seated, though. Hey, you know what? I bet you she kept her files here - you know, like her inventory and insurance records." Skipper was already reaching for the desk's file drawer. "Those would really save us a lot of time if we could find them."

"Wait!" Barbie called out, but it was too late. Skipper's eyes were wide again, her mouth hanging comically open. Slowly, she reached down and brought out a long, cylindrical object about two inches in diameter and nearly a foot long, at which point, the taller blonde lost it and fell apart laughing. "Oh, god, Anne, the look on your FACE!"

The sex toy barely missed Barbie's head as Anne pinned her nearly hysterical companion with a steely glare. She reached down again and brought out a leather-tipped riding crop which she slashed loudly against the cherry-toned desktop. "I don't think it's THAT funny," she retorted.

"Oh, but it is! As if MY Mother would ever bother with anything so mundane as an office, or keeping re. . re . .records." At Skipper's threatening growl, Barbie put her hands up in surrender, but couldn't restrain the laughter. "I DID try to warn you."

"I see," she responded, not quite seeing. "Then just what is this place for? And THAT thing?" She pointed to the realistically molded silicone dildo on the floor.

"What does it look like?" Barbie asked rhetorically. "And I'd say the base of 'THAT thing' is designed to fit the hole in this chair perfectly. Guess one of Sheila's customers had fantasies about being teased and tormented by an evil lady boss."

"She had women customers, too?" Skipper voice cracked, too astounded by that notion not to pry further.

"Sweetie," the tall blonde said in a very soft and gentle voice, "I suspect the customers who came into this playroom were mostly male."

"But, that thing on the floor? And that chair? MEN??!?"

"Anne, think about it for a minute," Barbie ordered.

She did, and Barbie knew the exact moment when her friend realized precisely how such a chair and accessories would be used with a male. Skipper blushed clear to the roots of her blond hair. "Oh."

And then she stormed out of the room, her face flaming in a combination of embarrassment and fury.

"Well, she came out of it with a great dress, Aunt Jane. I'm almost jealous." Jessica sat with perfect Victorian posture, her hands clasped in her lap, on one of Jane's almost painfully uncomfortable period chairs.

"It is a lovely outfit, isn't it? Not the normal thing for one of my students, but I think I rather like her as a blond Flamenco dancer."

"I'm still having a hard time seeing Ms. Franson as a guardian angel instead of a tormentress, Aunt Jane. I can't say it is something that occurs to me when I think of that very formidable lady."

"Well, she did it quite well - saved the day, actually, because Adrienne evidently came as close to blowing the masquerade as any student I've ever had."

"Because she was trying too hard to keep her promise. She was working so hard at being happy-looking it was clear she was miserable. Wow, talk about a backlash. Close call."

"Just so. I think either Darla, you or I will have to accompany her from now on, or at least until she gets a better handle on the subtleties of the game. Fortunately, no one can try THAT hard for long."

"Darla did, as I understand it," Jessica teased.

"I don't think this one is a Darla, dear. Thank heavens."

"Well, I hope she gets out of this mode soon. I have to tell you, Aunt Jane, that I think you're as close to cruel and unusual punishment as anything I've seen or heard about here with this one."

"Whaaat??!" Jane yelped.

"I mean, REEAAALLY," Jessica cooed in perfect mimicry of Edith White at her absolute worst, "Smiling when she was told to clear the table and do the dishes? Feigning to ENJOY such plebeian tasks? Mean, Aunt Jane, very, very mean."

The Mistress of Seasons House permitted herself a small, tight smile. "Just so, darling. Just so."
 
 
Chapter 26 - The Fight of the Valkyries
 
"I said I'm sorry, Anne," Barbie wheedled.

"You laughed at me," the still furious blonde accused for the fourth or fifth time, fire shooting from her narrowed eyes. She stood in the center of the octagonal room, her arms crossed beneath her breasts, her posture rigid. "I absolutely HATE it when people laugh at me. I have had more than enough of that in my life, thanks to my brother's adolescent sense of humor, thank-you-very-much. I had thought better of you."

The hurt in that last sentence stopped Barbie in mid-justification. Sighing, she stepped back, giving the angry young woman some space. "You're right, I shouldn't have done it. I was about to use that old saw about not laughing at you as much as laughing with you, but you weren't laughing, were you? I am sorry, and this time I not only mean it, but I understand better why I'm apologizing."

Something in the taller girl's tone reached Anne, and she softened a bit. "I guess you did try to warn me," she said, offering up an olive branch. Then her brows furrowed, as the significance of that warning came to her. "You KNEW," she accused again. "How did you know?!?"

"I didn't know, not really, but it was a fair assumption, based on the data to hand."

"Huh? How so? What data?"

Repressing a smile, Barbie began ticking off points on her fingers. "One, we know what Sheila did for a living, and two, it's pretty clear she did it here in this building - on this floor. Three, all the other rooms on this floor are, well, shall we call them designed for very specific and kinky types of games? Four, that chair and it's hole in the seat, combined with the fact that it is bolted to the floor. Apparently Sheila didn't want her 'victim' able to move it around or perhaps fall over while restrained in it. Finally, there wasn't a phone or any other electronic office equipment in the place. If Sheila did have a business office, I figure it will be somewhere else in one of these two buildings."

"But you warned me about the drawers?" Anne persisted.

"That was a guess, too. Unlike the other rooms, this one had no other obvious storage spaces. Don't know much about how a person contracts a lady for those games, but I suspect Sheila got paid by the hour. I really doubt that her customers would have liked it much if she kept walking in and out of the room to get her paraphernalia. She'd need her equipment close to hand regardless of which room she was using at the time."

"Oh, I see," she said more softly now.

"Forgive me?" Barbie wheedled, earning a small smile.

"For the moment, but understand that payback is owed, Blondie. Trust me on this one, okay?" The smile grew, larger and more mischievous. "I will get mine back for this, and you won't see it coming, either."

"Okay," Barbie agreed readily. "I'll live in fear till that moment, but let's say we finish our reconnoitering, eh? We still have door number seven, right?"

"Right. And this time? You go first."

"Just follow me."

They were almost disappointed when the final door opened onto a corridor that led to two sets of stairs - one up and one down. The down-stairway ended on the first floor which was laid out as a social area, complete with kitchen, dining room, sitting room, television room and an entry foyer for the townhouse's main entrance. "I don't think she really used this space, except as a blind," Barbie mused. "It's too perfect - cleaning service perfect, and the fridge was empty."

"Maybe she used it as a place to meet and interview clients prior to taking them. . . upstairs? Or maybe when she had to have, umm, non-paying guests come to call?"

They agreed that those were possibilities, and headed back up the stairs, this time climbing to the third floor. The top floor mirrored the second floor's layout except for the dramatic lighting and wall treatments were missing. And unlike the first floor, this space had a lived in, almost used look to it. Not quite untidy, but not neat either.

The octagonal room was furnished as a lounge, with comfortable furniture, a sophisticated entertainment center and a wet-bar. The rooms off the main space were also somewhat different. The first really was an office, complete with a multi-line telephone, a fax machine and a basic-yet-functional computer. "There's where your files would be, Anne," Barbie had teased, eliciting another furious blush from the shorter girl.

One the same side of the building as the office, they found a store room filled with cleaning equipment and various tools, all jumbled in disarray indicating the haphazard nature of their use. The final room was filled with racks of electronic equipment, a fact that surprised Barbie. After some exploration, she realized that "It's surveillance system."

"Whatever for?" Anne asked, perking up. "Was she worried about break-ins? This is a pretty high class neighborhood. The police patrol around here regularly."

"I think," Barbie replied, "that if we played with that TV out there, we'd find that we could tune into each of the rooms on the second floor. My guess is that Sheila might have left them alone down there, from time-to-time, to play with their heads. She liked doing that kind of crap," and there was suddenly a world of bitterness in the tall blonde's tone, "but she had to make sure they weren't panicking or worse, suffocating. Bad for business. Tends to lose customers and involve cops. So, she'd slip up here, pour herself a glass of the bubbly from her wet bar, and watch her client squirm on the wide-screen TV."

"Oh. I can see it, in my mind's eye when you describe it that way, but somehow, it would never occur to me that's how it would be used. I mean, like having two separate houses."

"Security again. Gives her more control over what people knew and didn't know. Gave her a place to hide if things went sour, too. C'mon, let's check out the rooms on the other side of this place."

"Oh . . . my. . . goodness," Skipper breathed, her eyes fixed on the contents of the first room they opened. It was a large walk-in closet, and it was filled with glossy leather garments in a variety of bright colors.

"What have you got?" the taller blonde asked. Coming up behind her and seeing, she coughed out. "Oh." The scent was almost overwhelming - leather oddly mingled with leather polish, preservative and metallic pong of human sweat. "Guess she stored her working clothes up here and dressed up here - the room next door is a combination dressing room and bathroom. Guess even bitch-goddesses have to pee at inconvenient times. Anyway, I wondered about how she handled the costume-part of all this, because I didn't remember her having much of a clothing fetish when I lived with her. I suspect these were for business only."

Eyes wide, Anne reached in and pulled out a leather corset in black with red highlights including laces. "Wow."

"That would look good on you," Barbie said without thinking.

"Dream on," she said, holding the garment up against her waist and moving to a mirror. "No way that would fit me, anyway."

"Sure it would. I'll help you if you want to try it."

"I'm NOT undressing in front of you, Blondie, no matter how feminine you look or behave, okay?"

Barbie shrugged. "So, put it on over your dress. Madonna used to do that all the time. At least you'd see what it looks like, and you'd get an appreciation of what it feels like for the next time Adrienne calls to complain about Jane's treatment."

The look in Anne's reflected eyes were a mixture of curiosity and wariness. Curiosity won out. "Okay, but if I do one, you do one, too. And just to make sure you don't get any cute ideas? I'll lace you up AFTER you lace me."

"But I'm already wearing a corset, and a damned stiff one at that. It won't do anything for my shape."

"Oh really?" Feeling brave - and perhaps just a bit wicked - Skipper made a show of looking through the closet, but she already knew what she wanted. With a flourish, she reached up and pulled down another heavily-weighted hanger which she offered to Barbie. "Okay, then, wear this," she challenged.

"Don't be silly. No dress that fit my mother would fit me."

A mischievous smile brightened the shorter girl's face. "Sure it would, see," she said, turning the dress around so that Barbie could see the garment's back, "It laces like a corset, all the way from the hem to the back of the neck. One size fits all - even your size, Barbie."

"It won't fit over the dress I'm wearing." Barbie retorted weakly. "And it won't cover my bottom because you won't be able to close the laces far enough."

*Gotcha!* Skipper mentally gloated. "Then take your dress off. We're all girls here, right? Besides, remember I saw those darling little white-lace panties you're wearing when you got in the car. Not very graceful, dear. Anyway, they'll, ahem, protect your modesty. Sort of."

"I . . . don't know."

Skipper shrugged that off and started to put both hangers back onto the closet bar. "Have it your way, then. Like I said, Stretch, I will if you will, but I won't if you won't."

"HEY, take it ::grunt:: EASY, Skipper! That's tight E-nough!"

"Oh, quit whining. I needed to get a little more lacing to work with. You ARE just a bit broader through the shoulders than your mother was."

"Next time, cutie, I lace YOU ::ooomph:: last. And I still don't know why I had to skin out of MY dress, when you put yours on over your blouse and skirt!"

"Oh, come on, if you'd taken off the corset you were already wearing, this wouldn't have been a problem at all. And don't give me that modesty nonsense again. It's not like you don't wear far less than that to the beach."

"Ken wears less. Barbie is more. . . ladylike. And this thing is, well, drafty!"

"Wimp," Anne giggled. "Although next time you wear a dress that leaves your fanny only half-covered, you should wear coordinating panties. I can see the white through the lower laces. Now, stand up and let me have a look at you - and me, since you wouldn't let me use the mirror until you were outfitted."

"That's amazing," Anne murmured as she gazed at her own reflection. The three-sided floor-to-ceiling mirrors in Sheila's dressing room allowed her to see herself from any angle, and she wasn't sure what she saw was really Barbara Anne Braithwaite. Her eyes still fixed on the picture before her, she reached out hesitant fingers to touch the woman looking back at her from the silvered glass.

After several lace-tightenings, the corset fit her like a shimmering black-and-red second skin. The red edging around the top of the bodice, above her hips, and up the center where front catches were seemed to emphasize both her bosom and her bottom to an unreal extent. She looked, well, positively wasp-waisted, yet centerfold-voluptuous. "Was your mother vain enough to have trick mirrors?"

"What? Trick mirrors?" Barbie looked up from her attempt to tug downward a critical few more millimeters of the drum-tight dress' disconcertingly short skirt.

"Like in a circus fun house. . .so that she'd look, well, more hour-glassed in it."

The taller girl would have laughed if her double-corsetting would have permitted, but on second consideration, she decided it was probably just as well that she couldn't get that deep a breath. "Skip? That's YOU in that mirror - what YOU look like. All five-foot-ten of gorgeous, sexy-shaped woman. That's really what you look like . . .from my unbiased perspective, at least."

"Gorgeous?" she muttered, looking down in evident embarrassment. Part of her wanted to believe her friend, wanted desperately to believe her. She knew she was attractive, in a long, lanky sort of way, but sexy? It was not how she thought of herself. "Help me out of this thing, will you?"

"Maybe I shouldn't," Barbie teased, trying to coax away the sadness that had just come into Anne's eyes. When the other girl simply stared at her, she huffed. "Oh, all right, if you insist. But then you help me out of mine. Two corsets are at least one too many!"

Skipper returned the leather corset to the closet. She came out to help Barbie out of her outfit, only to find her in the other storage space. Curious, she walked to the door and saw what appeared to be relatively ordinary if brightly colored clothing. She was about to call Barbie to order, when something flashed at her from the corner of her eye. Turning toward it, she looked at the source for several moments before reaching up to take down the hanger from which a narrow tube of electric blue latex suspended. "What IS this?"

"Off hand," Barbie said as she reached behind her to try to pull the rear hem of the leather skirt down further, "I'd say it's a dress. Latex, I think. Very expensive."

"A dress? Good grief, Barbie, how big was your mother? I mean, you did manage, if only barely, to get into that killer leather dress you're wearing now."

Barbie considered her reflection and the question for a moment. "Hmmm, not as tall as you, but, well, a little bigger around in the hips, bust and waist. Not unattractive, just voluptuous for her height."

"Then she must have had a height-challenged anorexic assistant. No way could someone built like you say your mother was could have worn this little number."

"Wanna bet? Trust me, my mom would never allow someone ELSE'S clothes to be in HER space."

"You just want to see me try and get into that," Skipper retorted. "I'd split out the seams on it and end up naked in front of you."

"The stuff is rugged, and it WILL fit you. No guts, Braithwaite." The taller girl returned to the closet and returned with a shorter garment. "Tell you what - if I can get this tube-top on over this dress, you try on THAT dress."

"There is no way you could get your left pinkie into that thing so there's no point in the bet."

"Chicken!"

"I am not! Okay, smartie, what do I get when you CAN'T squeeze into that rubber sausage casing?"

"Whatever you want," Barbie offered magnanimously, "So long as it is just between you and me - I can't make any promises for Aunt Jane and Adrienne."

"You don't mean that," the shorter girl snapped.

"As long as it's legal, I do mean it," was the solemn reply. "And my word is good - you should know that by now."

A surprised look came across Anne's face. It was, she realized, the first time she'd thought of her brother's fate at the hands of Barbie's Aunt in a very long time. And she'd had to reminded of it at that. "Anne?" Barbie called gently, her face now concerned.

"You really want to see me wearing that dress, don't you?" Skipper said in soft wonder. Barbie's face turned a fiery red, but she gave her shorter companion a single curt nod before looking away embarrassed. Somehow, that little slip by her friend helped. Skipper felt her inner imp come out of it's hiding place and take charge. "You're on, Blondie. You're gonna look SO cute walking to the car in that dress, too."

"Car? THIS dress?!? NOW? In DAYlight? That's two blocks from the doorway!" Barbie's voice cracked on each question, as she stared at her friend in stunned disbelief. "But, Anne, My butt is hanging out back there! I WILL be arrested!"

"Not if you walk quickly enough, and besides, your panties have you covered up well enough not to be really indecent. You did say anything that's legal, didn't you?"

"You sure you're not related to Aunt Jane? Hand me that talcum powder over there in the closet, will you? I read somewhere that getting into this stuff requires some dry lubricant - otherwise perspiration makes it stick like glue."

"There!" Barbie declared, her voice triumphant if a little strained.

"I don't believe it! Let me look and make sure you didn't split a seam somewhere!" Skipper ordered as she strode back from the electronic surveillance room where she'd been inspecting the various components.

"Oh. . my . . goodness," she stuttered when she laid eyes on the taller girl, before dissolving into giggles for Barbie was indeed a sight.

The pink short-sleeved, low cut crop-top was so tightly stretched that it was transparent. The extremely well-filled black leather bodice of the corset dress clearly visible beneath the latex. Twin shell-pink cannonballs threatened to explode at any second. Additionally, there was talcum powder everywhere - on Barbie's face, in her hair, on her arms and all over the black dress.

"Goodness, Barbie. . .you look like you tried to bake bread and fell in the flour bin," Skipper giggled.

With dignified self-possession, Barbie drew herself up to her full, imposing height and looked haughtily down her nose at the laughing girl. "I look forward to being similarly amused," she huffed and then slapped a latex-covered hanger into Skipper's hands. "I believe we had a bet, cutie. Oh, and don't forget the talc! I'm going to check out that last door while you're getting into THAT!"

With that, Barbie swept from the room leaving a goggle-eyed Anne, the latex dress clutched in her hands.
 
 
Chapter 27: Saucing the Goose - Steaming the Gander
 
"Damned. . . miserable ::OUCH!:: . . . zipper - BLAST IT - bit me aGAIN!" Skipper fumed, as she tried to work the side-seamed zipper up her torso with as little of her skin caught in their shiny teeth as possible. Only the problem was that a good deal of her hide was falling into the realm of 'possible'.

How had Barbie ever gotten into that pink-toned sausage casing? Getting into this dress had nearly strangled Anne on no fewer than three occasions. The first time she hadn't noticed the zipper and had tried to pull it down over her head without unzipping it. Only a great effort had kept her from having to call to Barbie to save her. The second time was when she'd tried getting the thing on over her sturdy, serviceable brassiere. The latex had caught on the cups turning them inside out and twisted them into a very painful knot that bid fair to pinch off her now-very-tender bosoms while the bodice had again become nearly choked her. At that point, she'd given serious consideration to reneging on her bet, but in the end, her sense of fairness had won out and her eighteen hour bra had ended up draped over the hanger that had held this garment from hell. The third incidence of near asphyxiation by dress came when she'd tried to pop her head thorough the neck. Not only did Barbie's mother have abominable taste in clothing, she compounded that failing by possessing a pencil-thin neck.

The small dressing room's atmosphere was foggy with the talcum powder Anne had used to finally get the thing over her body. She didn't even want to think about what that stuff was doing to her lungs and nasal passages, but all that paled in comparison to the torment caused by that inhumanly evil device - the zipper.

Okay, so it wasn't just the zipper - stretching the latex and compressing certain womanly parts of her body in order to have any chance at all of closing the zipper had a great deal to do with her problems. What she really needed another set of hands - one set to hold the blasted sides together and another pull up on the zipper-tab. But she'd be thrice damned before she'd call in Barbie and ask HER help in this. She'd already helped more than enough, thank-you-very-much. "Who would've thought she could get into that damned halter."

With one last gargantuan effort, Skipper pulled the last three inches of zipper closed, held the ends tightly in her near hand and pulled up - hard - on the zipper.

It only bit a little, but it DID finally close. "Thank goodness," she breathed.

She rested for a few moments and wondered what to do next. She had to show Barbie - that had been part of the deal. The only thing was she wasn't all that sure just how much of what she showed the tall girl would be dress and how much would be Anne. She thought she just might end up showing way more of Anne than she'd like. "'course, if I'd won, she'd be parading down the street with her panties hanging out, but that's logic and I don't feel real logically inclined just now! Well, guess I'll go out and take a look in the mirror before she gets back from her explorations - find out just how bad it is."

With a quick jerk to try to pull the hem down a little further over her rear, Anne headed for the floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

The damned skirt snapped back up to catch her square on the bum.

"BLAST!"

It was even worse than she'd feared. The blue turned nearly as transparent as the pink shirt had, except Barbie had kept that dress underneath. There wasn't anything except Anne underneath the bodice of this dress. The conservative neckline didn't mean a thing when the rest of the dress looked like it have been painted on instead of put on. "And you thought Barbie stuck out. Okay, no way am I going through with this - uh uh - no way, no how."

She turned to hurry back to the safety of the dressing room.

Just in time to face the returning Barbie face on.

"Hey, Skipper, you won't believe what I found - my mother's bedroom and talk about plush. . . oh . . .my . . . god!"

The stunned look on the taller girl's face would have been comical had Anne not wanted nothing more than to melt into the floorboards and disappear. She started to say something, but no words came to mind - she could only stand there, rooted to the spot, watching a myriad of emotions flash across her companion's normally controlled face.

Barbie broke first, spinning on her heel and bending over, her hands fisted against her abdomen. "Oh, God!" she said again, almost a moan.

"Barbie?" Anne asked, suddenly concerned. She moved over to the girl who had become her friend, "Are you all right? What's the matter?"

"That. . that dress," a harsh voice answered, "YOU. . . in that dress."

"Huh? I don't understand."

She watched Barbie's shoulders rise and fall as the taller girl took several deep breaths. "S'okay," she finally answered, although the words still seemed labored. "I think we could say that . . . it's a guy thing."

"Oh," Anne replied, not really understanding. "Well, since you're here, aren't you going to take a closer look?"

"Oh, I think I got a close enough look already!"

Biting her lip and feeling oddly just a little disappointed that Barbie wouldn't look at her, Anne caught herself pulling down on the skirt's hem again and forced herself to let go of it gently. "Ummm, you're sure?"

"Annie, if you don't get away from me and out of that dress, this *guy* is gonna explain to you what guys and girls do, because there ain't no doubt you are 110% prime girl." With that, Barbie Barbie stormed back out of the room the way she had come in.

"Well!" Anne said, staring at the vibrating door. And then she smiled - a small, uncertain little smile to be sure - but nonetheless a very feminine smile indeed.

Barbie was sitting on the edge of the large canopied bed, staring out the window when Anne peaked around the corner of the walkway door. The taller girl had her back to the door and didn't hear Anne's arrival. "Barbie?" she asked, and cringed at the quavery tone of her voice.

Her friend's back went stiff, but she made no effort to turn around. "Yes?"

"I, ah, well that is, I need some help. The zipper is stuck.

Barbie spun about and nearly fell off the slippery, satin-comforter-covered bed. "You're kidding!"

"Not kidding," was the sad reply. "And I can't see it well enough to see what's caught in it. I'm sorry, and I'm not teasing, but could you take a look?"

"It's not stuck."

"Of course it is. Otherwise I'd be out of this latex iron maiden."

"It's not stuck," Barbie repeated. "It's locked. There's a difference. One's an accident, the other's intentional."

"Locked?!? Tell me you're kidding, please!"

"Not kidding. My mother used this type of zipper on me several times. They lock at the top with an itty-bitty deadbolt sort of thing. With me she used them so I couldn't get out of her little dress up games until she was ready to let me. Tight as this thing is, I figure she must have used one on this dress to keep the zipper from working loose during a session with one of her clients."

"Fine. Great. Tell me you know how to unlock it."

"With my mother? I made it my business to learn how these things worked - and how to get them open. Releasing that little deadbolt thing takes a special tool - a key, really, even though it looks like a pair of twisted needlenose pliers. I may be able to find something similar."

"Barbie?" Anne's voice was dangerously soft, and her eyes glinted ominously.

"Yes, Skipper?"

"GET ME OUT OF THIS THING!!"

"Okay, okay. . calm down. Let me see if I can find some tools. That latex will be tough to cut and the metal even tougher."

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN'T FIND ANY OF THE BLASTED TOOLS!?!"

"You don't have to scream - and just what I said - no tools. There's not even a decent knife in the kitchen - although as tight as that dress is on you - I'd be afraid of cutting you, if I tried to use a knife on the latex itself. No, I think the solution is going to be taking you back to Aunt Ruth's. I'm sure I have something in my old toolkit that will jimmy open that little deadbolt."

"And how, pray tell, do you expect me to get to the car? It's, as you pointed out, two blocks from here no matter which house we leave from. With a no-parking zone in front of the houses, to boot. I WILL be arrested in this outfit and none of your mother's things will fit me well enough to wear over it."

"I guess I shouldn't ask what happened to your bra?"

"Right, you shouldn't ask that - not if you want to father children."

"Right - got it - no questions about bras."

"Good plan - and furthermore, a better one that deals with my . . .OUR current situation would be appreciated, Blondie."

"Uhmm, sure. Say, you didn't think to bring your raincoat, did you?"

"It's in the car, why? OH, I get it. Go get it for me!"

"As soon as you say please and undo the laces on this dress, so I can go outside. There ought to be SOME benefit to winning the bet."

"Turn around so I can get started. I have this sudden urge to get out of this place!" When all Barbie did was stand and tilt up her chin in challenge, Anne felt her face flame. "Umm, please."

"Guess now we know what part of the houses she actually lived in, eh?" Barbie said, nonchalantly looking around to take in the sumptuous bedroom-suite. Then, she turned around, grabbed hold of the ornately carved bedpost with both hands and braced herself for the unlacing.

"Don't dawdle, Adrienne," the tiny blonde commanded. Though this 'Ms. Darla Smith' did not possess Ms. Thompson's commanding presence, she made up for it with twice the ascerbic sharpness. Adrienne hurried as quickly as she could to her seat in the huge Lincoln Towncar, wondering if Ms. Smith would magically produce the booster seat she would need to see over the steering wheel.

Of course, the powered seats in the fine motorcar adjusted enough - barely enough - for the height-challenged woman to be street-legal as a driver. By the time Adrienne had her own seat belt adjusted, the small woman had the car in motion.

*I wonder if she has to work to make her lips pucker quite that way all the time?* Adrienne mused as she idly watched the New England scenery flash by. *Or maybe she uses lemon juice as a mouthwash?*

Ms. Smith had arrived earlier that morning and nothing had gone right for or been right about the younger person since. Her petti's were bunching; she'd creased the back of her skirts; her hose were crooked; her cosmetics were unevenly applied and worse, inappropriate for a girl her age; she ALMOST dribbled tea when ordered to pour by Ms. Thompson.

It was like that first hellish two or three days all over again, only this harpy wasn't one Adrienne could look up to - at least not physically. And yet, the woman was nearly as perfect in her own dress and deportment as Ms. Thompson. *How many perfect women can there be in the world. I swear, if someone comes floating down on an umbrella, wearing a weird hat and carrying a carpet bag, I am really out of here. Supercalifragilisticexpealladocious.*

"Pay attention, girl!" the fingernails-on-blackboard voice of Ms. Smith snapped. "I asked you a question."

Swallowing, and knowing she'd been caught daydreaming, Adrienne put as positive a look on her face as she could manage under the circumstances. "I'm sorry, Ms. Smith. I was just thinking about this class Ms. Thompson has arranged for me."

"THAT's what I was attempting to discuss with you, Miss. Whatever has come over Jane? Sending a young lady to such a class? Clowning, for goodness sake."

"It's mime, actually, ma'am."

"Same thing. And look at you! Those ... those unsuitably tight pants and suspenders and those ridiculous striped socks. Why, the trouser legs barely reach past your knees! And we won't even discuss that. . .that bowler on your head. No self respecting young woman could possibly want to wear such. . . such unfeminine clothing."

For her part, all Adrienne could think was that she wished her underwear matched her outerwear's lack of femininity. However, once again, she knew better than to voice that particular observation.

"Harrumph. Tell me something, Miss Braithwaite. Can you act?" Ms. Smith asked.

"Act? You mean, like in a play?" and then added hastily, "Ma'am?"

"Precisely."

Carefully, Adrienne considered her answer. In the end, she thought she could tell the truth without inadvertently volunteering for something. That had been a hard-learned lesson for the boy-girl since arriving at Seasons House. "I truly don't know, Ma'am. I've never tried. Maybe I could."

"How about singing? Ever danced?"

"I sing. .. a little. . . but I never danced until I was sent here - to Ms. Thompson's school."

"You likely would do well enough," Ms Smith said, reflectively although Adrienne thought she heard a touch of doubt in her tones, "Presuming, of course, that Jane has followed her usual program. I happen to know that the children's theater is holding auditions today. The Wizard of Oz. A lovely girl such as yourself should be a shoe-in for the part of Dorothy."

*Only if you try out for the Wicked Witch, and while we're at it, could we please arrange to drop a house on Ms. Thompson, too? And I'd rather be Toto!* "I don't think that's what Ms. Thompson had in mind, ma'am."

"Never know unless you try. I know, we'll go over and you can audition. If you get the part, Jane will be pleased. She is a patroness of that theater in case you were not aware of that fact."

"Dorothy is a hard part," Adrienne averred, using whatever acting skill she DID possess to hide any sign of the near-panic she felt at that moment. "I really don't sing all that well, ma'am." *And if my voice cracks, I am really in the soup. Even at audition.*

"Then you can be that lovely fairy. . ."

"Fairy?!?!" Adrienne squawked.

"or is it good witch? I forget. The one who gives Dorothy the ruby slippers. Yes, I think that is an excellent notion. Much more suitable than something so physical as clowning."

Adrienne bit back the full-blown panic that now assailed her system. She couldn't face that. Going to this mime class, having to pretend to be a girl there was bad enough, but acting? That meant costume changes, didn't it? With real girls around who would realize Adrienne didn't really know much about being a girl. "No, ma'am, please. Ms. Thompson was most emphatic about this mime experience."

"She'll change her mind once you get the part."

"I promised to do what she told me and she told me to go to the mime class, ma'am," Adrienne said as firmly as she dared.

The short blonde cast a disgusted look at her passenger. "Don't know what's wrong with Jane these days."

"Nothing, ma'am," Adrienne retorted sharply, surprising herself more than she did her tormentor with her sudden defense of her teacher. *At least Ms. Thompson listens,* she realized. *She may ignore what you say, but she listens. This one only hears herself!*

Darla squelched the urge to smile at her little victory and managed an even more sour pursing of her lips. "Oh, very well, we'll go to your silly class, but I must say that you disappoint me, girl. You do indeed disappoint me."
 
 
Chapter 28: Ruth-ful Interludes
 
Barbie's Turn.

Ruth had watched the pair of them dancing around each other with half-amused concern ever since Barbie had brought the very sweaty Anne home the previous afternoon. The judge's first reaction had been that her child must have taken that young woman 'parking', as they'd called it in Judge Ruth's day, and that both of them had a very good time doing it. Her second reaction had been surprise that *Barbie* would do anything so risky (and risque) as that, given that it had still been daylight when they'd returned.

Then Barbie had helped the other girl out of that heavy raincoat.

*That dress,* she thought, still amazed, *That incredible dress.* Thankfully, she had managed not to laugh when the problem had been explained. Although precisely how Barbie had gotten Anne into that dress, and Ruth had absolutely no doubt that her Jane-Thompson-trained child had been instrumental in bringing that about, had _not_ been explained. *A locking zipper. Amazing. Sheila, you were truly devious.*

Once Barbie had located her old toolkit, releasing the tiny dead bolt had been easy enough. On the other hand, since then, those two young idiots had barely said more than four words to each other. Not only that, except for the special en famille evening meal Ruth had arranged, they had managed to steadfastly avoid being in each other's company.

*Well, one advantage of being the proverbial interfering mater familias is that I am allowed to interfere! It is my duty, after all.* Ruth thought as she marched down the stairs toward Kenneth's basement workout room.

"Does sweating like that help any better now than when you were a teenager, dear?" she asked sweetly, mostly to announce her presence.

With the focus that had always been basic to the soul of Kenneth Roberts, Barbie completed the last set of curls before looking up to meet Ruth's eyes. "Not really," was the honest answer. "The problem is still there when I quit, but it does help burn the adrenalin out of my system so I can at least think more clearly about . .. things."

"Things like tall, pretty blondes in ::ahem:: very interesting and unusual dresses?"

The vivid flush of exertion changed shade, becoming darker as Barbie looked away momentarily. "I'm sorry she had to come back here and face you dressed like that. It wasn't my intention."

"You didn't want her to put on the dress?"

"Hell yes, I wanted her in that dress!" was the immediate retort. "Excuse me," she said softly.

"I've heard and used the word before, dear."

"Suppose you have, at that." Barbie set her hand-weights aside and began to set up her flexing resistance machine. "She was outrageously gorgeous in that outfit, wasn't she?"

"Outrageous works for me," Ruth quipped, and then regretted her flippancy when she saw the anxiety in her child's eyes. "Well, it certainly proved that those curves of hers are definitely all her. She was very attractive. I take it she's upset with you for winning your little wager?"

Barbie began a rowing machine motion on the resistance machine. "I guess. She hasn't spoken to me since I sprung her from that dress."

"I noticed. And I've noted that her silence bothers you, doesn't it, son?" Ruth asked in that very special voice mothers reserve for their sons.

The rowing motion stopped in mid-stroke, and Barbie momentarily let her forehead rest on her knees. Then she released the hand-grips and turned suspiciously moist eyes to Ruth. "I hate it, Mom," was the soft reply. Silence grew between them, and quickly became oppressive. Several times, Ruth almost said something - anything, just to fill in that vacuum between them, but she managed to restrain herself. She managed because she knew her child; because she knew what she or he needed at that moment.

"I love her, Mom." The simple words were softly spoken, and there just a touch of surprise coloring their tone.

"Took you long enough to figure that out," Ruth said with motherly exasperation. "Or at least, to admit it out loud. Thought I taught you to be more honest with yourself."

"You did, but I was . . . Well, I guess I was a little scared."

"A lot scared, you mean, and that's good in a way - if it makes you think about her wants and needs at the same time as you worry about your own. Are you?"

"I think so - now anyway. I wasn't when I manipulated her into that dress. God, but I wanted to see her in that dress more than I wanted to breathe."

"Do you regret getting her into it?"

"Only if it messes things up between us beyond fixing. Otherwise, I'm gonna carry that memory of her squeezed into all that shiny rubber to my grave. Maybe I'm as kinky as Sheila was in some things, but lordie, Mom, Anne was, well, ummm," Barbie's voice broke and the bright red color suffused her face once again.

Ruth grinned wickedly. "She was what, dear?"

"Beautiful," and the word was whispered with all the reverence of a prayer. "Incredibly sexy and. . . "

"Finish it, dear," Ruth ordered.

"The woman I want to marry, Mom."

"Thought that might be the case."

"Problem is, am I the man she will want to marry? I mean, she hasn't had a whole lot of time with Kenneth, and most of that wasn't a very positive experience for her."

"Oh, but I think she has, dear. You're not like Darryl, son. When Darryl puts on Darla, he becomes she and that she IS Darla. It's not a split personality, but the yin and the yang, if you will, of that Darryl/Darla are more clearly defined, more. . . I don't know, distinct, I suppose . . . than anyone I've ever encountered. You, on the other hand, whether in skirts or trousers, are still basically the same person. Oh, you would let go a little more in skirts, could have fun a little more easily as Kendra, or now, as Barbie, but I think that has more to do with the company you kept than with your apparent gender."

"I don't understand."

"Don't be dense! It doesn't work with your Mother. Of course you understand. Darryl wouldn't let you get away with being old nose-to-the-grindstone Kenneth Roberts, regardless of how either of you are rigged out. Did you ever go out for a night on the town as males together?"

"Well, sure. . ."

"And did you have fun? The kind of fun Kendra and Darla had together?"

"Well, we didn't go shopping for new shoes or lingerie. That's for sure!"

"Ken-NETH!" Ruth snapped out in her traditional two-syllable reprimand for smart-mouthing.

"Yeah we did. Ball games, a movie now and then, some girl-watching. Heck, he even dragged me into a strip club once."

"Have a good time?" Ruth asked, her wicked grin back in full force. "Stick a few dollars in the ladies' garters? Buy a lap dance?"

"MOM!!"

"Well, did you?"

Wondering how she still managed to reach him like that, even now that he was a full adult, the man in the dress looked away in bashful resignation. "Yes, Mother," he mumbled, barely managing not to shuffle his feet.

"Good."

"GOOD?!?!" Shocked eyes snapped back up.

"Of course good, you lunkhead. If you did it every night, that's one thing, but you don't. You did, however, enjoy yourself. So, good. So, what's the plan for the grand courtship? I'm sure you have one. Let's hear what you're thinking and I will give you the, ah, feminine take on your plans. I think I rather fancy that young woman as a daughter in law."

"Even if it means Adrian as a sort of son in law?"

"Jane will have him in hand soon enough. Now, quit stalling and tell me what you've got in mind."

A relieved smile suffused the still-beautifully made-up face, as for the first time since Anne's adventures in latex, hope flared in Kenneth/Barbie's heart. Mother was here, and she would help make it all right. "First, I need to get her speaking to me again. . . "

Adrienne sat on the floor with the throng of other kids signed up for this class. There were ten other girls and five guys. *Watch your thinking, Braithwaite,* she chided herself. *OTHER girls? Oh man, I am in trouble.*

She was trying to deal with the ramifications of that thought when the man who had directed her to sit down here walked up to the group. "Well, we're all here, so we'll get started. My name is Ted Fredricks and I'll be your coach for this class. None of you are scheduled to be in a class with me this coming year at the high school, so you can call me Ted. Now, we've got several things to do today. First, how many of you know what mime's look like? How they dress and make themselves up?"

All of the kids raised their hands. "Good. Now, I have some books and magazines with me that we'll use as references, so you can study in a bit more detail the types of costumes. You'll be on your own creating your own outfit. You should have stuff at home that will do, so don't go spending your school clothing allowance on this stuff. As if you would, anyway," he added slyly and was rewarded by male guffaws and feminine giggles.

Adrienne started to laugh herself but noticed one student who didn't laugh. The boy inside the girlish makeup and hairdo found this girl worth a second look. She of Asian decent with dark hair, dark eyes and a golden complexion. She was also petite in the extreme, shorter than Adrienne if she was any judge of the matter. Intrigued, the boy-girl found her attention straying back to the unsmiling girl over and over again.

"A word of advice," Ted continued, "Make those costumes tight but flexible - you don't want any flapping sounds, but mime is about telling stories with body motion, and you'll need freedom of movement. Everybody got that?" Everyone, including the little Asian girl, nodded their understanding. Ted Fredricks smiled and pressed on. "Next week, come dressed in your outfit. Now, today, we're going to break up in partners. Your partner will watch you work, help you with your makeup, critique your movements. So, you need to be friends, and to be friends, you need to know about each other, right?" This was answered by a rumble of affirmative sounds. "Good, so here's the plan. There's, what, sixteen of us? Okay, we'll count off by eights, and then, go meet our partners. You have three assignments. Uh, do you need to write this down, or can you all remember three things?"

Adrienne could not help but laugh at the seriously concerned look that clouded Ted Fredricks' face. The other kids did as well. Even the little Asian girl managed an almost-smile. Somehow, that did something for Adrienne and she felt herself relax. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.

"Okay, after you team up, I want you to design your faces and then try putting it on each other. When you have your face the way you want it, come up to me and I'll take a digital picture of you. I'll give you a copy of the picture so you can take it home and practice. While you're doing that, I expect you to pump each other for all the information about the other you can so that you can introduce your partner to the class next time, got it? Good. The third thing is, after you have your faces on, I want you and your partner to design a skit. I want you to open the refrigerator door, take out and pour a glass of milk which you will then give to your partner who will drink it. Be as messy as you want, be as creative as you want, but sell whatever it is you decide to do. Make me SEE the door, the glass, the drool coming out of your mouths. You'll put your skits on next time, and at the end? A friend of mine and I will do OUR skit. Got all that?" A group 'yes' followed by a smattering's of 'sirs' answered him. "Okay, when I point to you, I will count - remember your number. One. . two. . .three. . ."

Moments later, Adrienne found herself paired off with the solemn girl who had barely smiled at any of their teacher's quips. "My name is Xhinea," she told Adrienne, her voice soft and delicately accented.

Years of experience in similar situations was the only thing that enabled Jane to hide her smile as she strode into the dining room for the evening meal. Things had, by all of Darla's accounts, gone well today and her latest stratagem for her troublesome student showed promise. It hadn't flowered - it had not even sprouted, but it had germinated. Now, as it had been with her other boys, Jane had to tend that tiny seed of hope and help Adrienne grow and bloom.

Jane seated herself and indicated that her two students should as well. She smiled at both as she unfurled her napkin. Jessica returned the smile, while Adrienne blushed and dropped her eyes to her lap. *Perfect,* she thought.

For the first part of the meal, Jane followed her usual pattern, quizzing each girl on current events. Jessica had missed the latest development in the ongoing investigation of large multinational's accounting practices and was assigned a twenty-five hundred word paper summarizing and then analyzing the issues involved. "Due immediately following the evening meal tomorrow, Jessica. Be prepared to discuss and defend your positions, please."

"Yes, Aunt Jane," the pretty strawberry blonde replied, with what Adrienne thought to be admirable self possession.

"And do try to make your arguments logical instead of emotional, please. Emotion only makes circumstances such as these worse," Jane ordered and then turned her gimlet eye on her other student. "Miss Smith tells me you made a friend today, Adrienne."

Startled at the sudden switch from Jane's usual oral examination mode, Adrienne nearly stuttered out a 'huh', but managed a "Yes, Ma'am," followed by a deep breath and "Her name is Xhinea. . . Xhinea Hearst."

"Xhinea?" Jane said as if tasting the word. "How odd. Are you quite certain that's her name?"

Adrienne's brows momentarily knit together in concentration. "That's how she introduced herself, Ms. Jane. She said her mother named her Iphigenea, because it was like her Chinese name, but she's called Xhinea."

"Chinese name?" Jane already knew all of this, but wanted to see how much her student had found out.

"Yes, ma'am. She's adopted. Her mom, I think she's a doctor at the hospital? She went to Mainland China - to the orphanage where Xhinea lived until she was ten years old - and adopted her. She's been in this country for almost four years now."

"A mainland Chinese orphanage, you say? I wonder if she really was an orphan, then."

"Ma'am?" Adrienne asked, confused.

Jane waved the question away. "I understand that you have some assignments for your next meeting, Adrienne."

"Two, Ms. Jane. I have to introduce Xhinea to the class, and we have to do a skit. I was going to ask if we could maybe get together, she and I, to practice. This weekend?"

Jane hadn't considered that. She'd have to think about it - find out what she could about the girl's adoptive mother. "We'll see. In the meantime, I have an assignment for you - Jessica? You'll help her. I want you to research the Chinese laws concerning population control. I want you to write a report summarizing the laws and the social issues surrounding them. Take a personal position and be prepared to defend your position. The report is also due tomorrow after dinner. Jessica? You will supervise her use of the computer and the Internet, and help her with the searches. Then, Adrienne, after we have discussed your paper, you will prepare your introduction of your friend. Jessica will role play her part while Marie and I will act as the other members of your class. We will do that following dinner day after tomorrow. Understood?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Adrienne said, in unison with Jessica's "Yes, Aunt Jane."

"Excellent," the Mistress of Seasons House replied even as she rung for desert.

Skipper's Turn with Ruth

A soft knock on the guest room door stopped Anne in mid-pace, rousing her from her latest round of frustrated self-examinations. "Just as well," she muttered in vexation. "I haven't made any more progress this time."

"Come in," she called, and saw Judge Ruth poke her gray-haired head around the partially opened door.

"Hello, Anne," she said in a surprisingly warm voice. "May I come in? I wanted to talk to you for a few moments, while Barbie. . . I mean, Kenneth is otherwise occupied."

"It's hard not to think of, um, him as Barbie, isn't it?" Skipper said wryly. "She is so tall, so, um, shapely, and so beautiful that she could have been used as the model for the doll."

"She's not the only one," Ruth said gently.

Skipper blushed fiercely and ducked her head, triggering waves of her own blonde mane to flow over her shoulders. "I always hated that name, you know? And that image. I'm not some plastic doll."

"Do you think my Barbie - my Kenneth - is?"

"No, of course not," Skipper replied sharply. Then she sagged a little and said, "But I heard that so often from Adrian that, well, there are some negative associations."

"Is that why you were so embarrassed about being seen in that killer dress?"

"Oh, God, that dress was . . . I mean, even if I'd never heard of Barbie dolls, that was . . . "

"Gorgeous," Ruth completed for her, with a sigh. "Never in all my life, even when I was your age, would I have looked as terrific as you did. As you do."

"It was the dress," Skipper protested.

Ruth laughed. "Don't lie to yourself, dear, and don't even try with me. I see through liars for a living. That dress is hanging in your closet right now. But I'll bet the images in Kenneth's mind as he beats that exercise equipment into submission are not of what's in your closet."

"Yeah, well, you weren't there. You didn't see the way she, I mean, he looked at me when . . ."

"When . . . ?" Ruth prodded.

Instead of answering, Skipper resumed her interrupted pacing about the room. After a moment, she turned to Ruth and said, "I think it *is* the clothes - not just that rubber dress, but . . "

Ruth didn't interrupt with words. Instead she settled into her chair and wrapped herself in patience as though it were her judicial robes. It encouraged without demanding, and promised honest, open-minded attention.

"First," Skipper began, warming to her topic, "He teases me into playing dress-up - I will if you will, Skipper. The sneak. So we end up putting on these killer corsets - hers was a dress, actually, that laced all the way down the back from neck to hemline - couldn't quite get it closed over her bottom either."

"Sounds drafty," Ruth offered, "but sexy, too."

"Oh, yeah," Skipper sighed, eyes unfocusing for a moment as she remembered. Ruth carefully noticed, and just as carefully didn't show that she noticed, that Skipper's body was betraying what she had really thought about how Barbie looked in that dress. "And I got into this merry widow thing - lifted my boobs practically up to my chin and took four inches off my waist."

"Your. . your boobs?"

"Oh, I put it on over my blouse," Anne said off-handedly. "That was that Barbie's idea, too. Then, THEN we find the latex closet, and she oh-so-sneakily manipulates me into trying on that dress you saw. Made it into a bet - a dare, actually," and then added, "I have a problem with dares - I can't seem to resist them."

"A definite disadvantage when a man knows that about you, dear, but do go on. I'm fascinated."

"Okay, okay! So, I put this thing on, right? Practically drew blood trying to get that blasted zipper closed, but when I come out of the dressing room, Barbie's not around, so I go over to look at myself in the mirror. I nearly fainted."

"You were, I believe the vernacular is, one hot babe in that dress, Anne."

"I didn't know I could look like that. It frightened me and I started back to the dressing room. I was going to concede the bet - pretend I couldn't get it on, but Barbie came in at just that moment . . . "

After the torrent of sound from Anne's story, the sudden silence was almost shocking. Ruth couldn't stand it. "And?!?" she demanded.

"He looked at me," she said softly. "And I don't care how he was dressed, how much like a sleek and sensuous female he might have appeared, that look was all male. First, it was like, well, stunned, and then, it was pure heat, and something else . . . I felt. . I felt wanted, I guess."

"Darling child, every woman should have a man look at her that way, at least once in her life. The lucky ones get it more often than that. Did you like it?"

"I wouldn't have thought that I would - before this - but with her. . .him, I did." A shy grin came over her face. "I offered to let him have a good look. AND THEN, the no-good stinker turned and ran! Told me to change before he showed me what guys and girls do together. As if I didn't already know," she snorted angrily.

"Oh, my. Horrors!" Ruth allowed a bit of exaggerated drama into her voice, "The FIEND, he must be stopped before he goes too far! The sensitive male protecting delicate female sensibilities. It's utterly despicable!"

"I didn't need protecting!" Anne flared back. "And then, when we couldn't get the dress off? He made excuses why he couldn't just cut it off me - like he couldn't bear to see me nude, and went and got that damned raincoat to cover me up for the trip home."

"Could he have cut it off you? Without hurting you?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe."

"Maybe isn't good enough for a man trying to avoid hurting a woman he cares for, child."

"But. ."

"But nothing. Tell me, Anne. What's really upsetting you? That Kenneth wanted to see your tall, leggy self in that killer dress? Or that Barbie, or perhaps more correctly, Kendra, recognized and empathized with your embarrassment enough to squelch Kenneth's desires in favor of helping you? Good Lord, girl! Just how did you WANT him to react?!?"

"I . . . don't know," the young woman finally replied in confusion.

"Is that part of this tension between the two of you? Feeling bad about yourself for how you acted towards her?"

Ruth settled herself on the bed and smiled at her guest. "I'm sure you've noticed that such things don't bother her. Believe me when I tell you that no one could have survived growing up with Sheila Roberts without developing a somewhat thick skin when it comes to taunting. The bitch. . excuse me, the woman was a past master of the art. So, if it isn't that, what is it? You've hardly said ten words in a row since coming back from Sheila's place."

Skipper started to pace again, then stopped herself. Taking a deep breath, she turned to face Ruth directly. "This whole . . . situation is bothering me. I started this to try and keep my brother from being abused. Now . . . now I'm spending my time with a guy who looks like the most gorgeous woman I've even seen, and I like it. I've let myself be tricked into wearing an outfit I'd never have imagined myself in . . and I liked the way I looked in it. And the guy I'm, um, with saw me in it - and reacted - and I liked that, too. I'm so far from taking care of Adrian's problem that I can't even remember how I got here. What sort of guardian does that make me?"

"Nonsense. Don't even think about that. You're more than suitable."

Rising off the bed, she went over to embrace Anne in a motherly hug. "Now, let me apologize for not telling you the full truth about Jane and her program. You should have known the truth before agreeing to my offer-sheet. If Jane cannot find a way to help Adrian, I will not send him to the juvenile reform institution. We'll find another way to help him."

"Thank you."

"However, I have to tell you that I don't regret anything that's happened because of that error."

"Huh?"

"Oh, you'll do, girl. You will definitely do. Now, I need to tell you that my son has asked me to see to the disposition of Sheila's belongings and houses. I know some. . .special women who might find her toys professionally useful."

"You?!? But you're a judge."

"So I am, and properly done, such. . . professional services do not fall outside the law. In any case, tomorrow, he wants to start back to Kingston."

"Oh. Ummm, all right. I'll, uh, pack."

"You do that, dear. And think about my question about why you really were upset. By the way,"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Are there any outfits over at Sheila's you'd like me to hold back? Just let me know." And then Judge Ruth slipped out of the guest room before Anne could recover sufficiently to respond.

And smiled broadly all the way down to her study. This one would lead her boy a merry chase. It would be fun to watch, even at a distance.
 
 
Chapter 29: On the Road Again
 
Barbie _had_ a plan - after all, if Kenneth Roberts had learned nothing else in those scary years of dealing with his mother, it was the importance of being prepared. Being prepared meant having a goal and an idea of how to get there. Kenneth Roberts - Barbie - had both.

Only problem was, so far, over an hour into their trip home, Anne had yet to give him an opening. Then, he saw a billboard, and smiled.

"Ever been to Nickerson Farms?" Barbie asked, with studied nonchalance.

That earned Barbie a snort of laughter. "I'm a Hoosier-Girl, tall-stuff. Of course I've been there. Matter of fact, there's one just up the way here, isn't there?"

"Sure is. Up for lunch?"

"Sounds good."

They were barely ten feet from their car when the explosion of a camera-flash had them both momentarily seeing stars. A grinning young boy - a teenager, actually, no older than Adrian, stood before them holding a high-tech digital camera in his hands.

"Man, I'm glad I got that shot. None of the guys back home would ever believe that I saw two blondes as beautiful as you without proof." Then he dashed away, as if afraid they might confiscate his camera.

"Beautiful? Two?" Anne looked up at Barbie.

"The young one speaks truth, grasshopper," the taller blonde intoned. Then she giggled and said, "It must be the new earrings. I thought that bun might be a little severe for a day trip, but the way it focuses attention on your ears and those little shimmery waterfalls - shows off your face very nicely, indeed."

Barbie walked on towards the restaurant leaving Anne staring at the taller girl's back, her mouth open in surprise.

Anne wasn't quite sure how Barbie had managed to get them what passed for privacy in the rustic roadside eatery, but she had managed. They were seated off in a corner, with the only traffic being the servers rushing into and out of the kitchen. As the restaurant was dealing with the noon-meal rush, none of these were likely to be long within earshot, and no casual customer was likely to linger nearby for fear of being run over by a knockwurst-and-sauerkraut-carrying waitress with her head down.

Well, it was almost private. Midway through their main course, a woman passing by in search of the restroom spied them and came hurrying over. "Oh, I'm so glad I saw you!" she gushed, even as she dug through her huge purse. She extracted a thick, leather bound book, opened it to a page about halfway through and offered it to Anne. "I watch you EVERY day on 'Modern Life/Modern Love'. It's just my FAVORITE daytime drama. Could you please autograph my book for me? The girls back home will be positively GREEN with envy."

Stunned, Anne managed a "I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, you make the most perfect bitch on the show - much better than Susan Lucci if you ask me. Why, you're MUCH prettier than she is. Oh, do tell me that Margery will be going to have an affair with that dreamy Darren? The two of you in bed, even if it's only pretend with the sheets over you just makes my heart go pity-pat."

Baffled, Anne looked to Barbie, who grinned mischievously and then took pity on her. "Well, ma'am, you know that actresses on popular soaps have clauses in their contracts that preclude them from discussing plans for new story lines. I'm sure you'll understand. Now, darling," she cooed at Anne, "Sign your fan's book and remember to use 'Margery' as it is in your contract."

"Oh. . of . . of course," Anne mumbled and then quickly slashed out an unfamiliar - and she hoped, illegible - signature on the heavy paper.

"Please keep this to yourself, ma'am," Barbie smiled to the avid fan as she handed back the autograph book. "Otherwise we'll have to leave without our lunch."

"What, share this with ANYone? You've got to be kidding! And thanks ever so, Margery." The woman snatched up her book and nearly tripped getting away.

"She thought I was an actress," Anne murmured, almost to herself.

"A house-wrecking man-stealer, by the sound of it," Barbie teased. "Type-casting, you think?"

Anne only shot her companion a dark look under mascara-thickened lashes.

If Barbie had hoped that interlude would loosen the shorter blonde up, she was doomed to disappointment. For the remainder of the main course, the silence that had become all too frequent reasserted itself. Other than to talk to that autograph hound, Anne ordered her meal, said three yes-es and three thank-yous to the server, and very little else. When desert arrived, Barbie decided that she'd had enough. It was time to take her plan and go for it! "So, I've been meaning to ask. Would you mind a bit of a detour on the way home, I mean, back to Kingston?"

Startled, Anne looked up from her hot fudge cake, her eyes curious. "What for?"

"A little break, I guess," Barbie sighed. "It's been a tough few days, and when we get back, you'll have to deal with the situation surrounding your brother. I'll be involved, too, and, well, I'd just like to decompress a bit first. Take a few days to get my equilibrium back."

"I thought Ruth said you were anxious to get back."

"I was anxious to get away from. . . well, from what was left of Sheila. I'm not anxious to run back into whatever is going on in Kingston. I'm too tense. I might make a mistake and mess something up for Jane and your brother, for you."

Barbie wasn't the only one who was on edge, Anne admitted to herself. It might do her a world of good to unwind first, as well. After all, whatever happened three weeks after they returned would be on her head. She'd need to have a clear head to make the correct decision. "What do you have in mind?"

"Nothing much. Maybe cut north and go home by way of Niagra Falls. Take the ferry across Lake Champlain, and I want to stop at a shop I know in New Haven - Tante Marie's birthday's coming up soon, and I need to buy her a gift. How does that sound?"

It sounded marvelous, if she were to be honest about it. It was also rather . . . scary, in a feminine sort of way. She looked at her companion carefully. "That makeup stuff is starting to wear off," she observed.

Barbie shrugged that off. "You can help me keep that from becoming a problem. Besides, it is just as well if it were gone by the time we got back to Kingston. I may be needed as Kenneth again."

"Still, the sooner I get back, the sooner this is all over and done."

"A couple more days won't make a difference, Skip. Haven't you decided by now that Jane isn't out to emasculate your brother? Do you really believe she isn't doing everything she can to help him? REALLY help him turn himself around?"

"I think she is trying to do what she knows how to do, and what has had success in the past," Anne replied carefully.

"Do you think she would or could do anything to hurt him?" Kenneth's voice, intense but too low to be heard beyond their table, suddenly demanded. "Because if you still do, after meeting me, meeting my brothers, really meeting Ruth, then we need to call Jane right now and tell her to stop and pull the plug."

"What, and my brother goes to jail?"

"Ruth already told you that won't happen - she told me that, too. Besides, _I_ will tell Jane to end it. Adrian will be de-girled and in trousers by the time we arrive in Kingston sometime tomorrow morning."

The heat and emotion she felt coming from her companion took Anne by surprise. She'd never seen the tall blonde like this, except when Ruth had told them the facts of Sheila Robert's death, and the fallout from that death. "I have a deal with your Aunt," she temporized. "Three weeks, remember? I keep my deals."

"Do you believe that a few days, more or less, could harm your brother?" Barbie demanded again. "This has to be what's best for him AND for you. If you don't believe that Jane can help him - WILL help him - and things go sour later on, you're going to blame yourself for making the deal. I won't let that happen."

"I made a deal," she said again, her voice uneven as she strove for control.

"Not the right answer," Barbie retorted and reached into her purse to pull out a cell-phone. She punched in a preprogrammed number and waited. "Hello," she said, "Momma-Jane? Ken. . .dra here. Say, Mom? There's been a change of plan. . . .yes. I've been talking with Anne, and. ."

Anne reached up to snatch the small phone from Barbie's hand. "Ms. Jane? Anne here, yes. We're going to be a few more days getting back, if that's all right with you. Kendra needs some down time, away from stress.. . . . yes, it was a bit difficult for her there, at least some of the time. . . . that's right. With Adrian's disposition in the balance, we both felt it would be better to come back a little more refreshed. . . . . what are we going to do? Oh, sight-see a bit. Niagara Falls, Lake Champlain, do a little shopping. . . . what's that? Oh. Yes, she's still going to be, umm, shall we say in high color a few more days. It should be near normal by the time we return, in the event you need your attorney. . . .I will. Thanks. See you soon." And with that, Anne broke the connection, refolded the phone and handed it to a hard-eyed Barbie.

"You're right," she said finally. "I just hope my brother isn't one of the two she couldn't find a way to turn around.

With that, Barbie seemed to relax, and reached over to take both the phone and Anne's hand in her own. "She will find a way. We all will help. You'll see. Ready to leave?"

"Okay. Umm, how far is it to Niagara Falls?"

"Don't know, but I've got a GPS rig in my car. Let's try to make it today if we can, and play tourist tomorrow."

"I want to go on the boat that goes under the falls," Anne wheedled.

"And you think Jane is scary! You're on, girlfriend. Let's get this show on the road."

"Margery?" Anne asked as she accelerated onto the interstate highway. "I've never even watched a soap opera, let alone acted in one. I probably committed a crime by signing that book for her!"

"Only if she tries to sell it, and I don't think she will. Besides, how would she find you?"

"I still can't believe she thought I was an actress."

"Must be that new nail color you're sporting, kiddo," Barbie teased. "Nice claws, by the way. Dangerous."

Anne glanced down at her hands on the steering wheel. After Ruth had left last night, she'd started packing and had run across some of the cosmetics that Jane had given her for the trip. For some reason, she'd paused long enough to read the label of one bottle of particularly vivid nail polish - 'Hot Tropical Sunset' - and had been literally unable to put it down.

Her nails looked particularly striking against the steering wheel's creamy leather. Impishly, she raked those blood-red claws at Barbie and growled out, "Marrrrooowwrrrrrrrr."

The taller girl cowered nicely and then grinned. "I thought she said 'bitch', not 'cat'."

Skipper grinned back, for some reason well pleased. "When you're a femme fatale, you get called both - and both are just as dangerous."

The low purr that followed that statement made something deep in Barbie's gut clench.

"So, Jessica, if I were to ask you summarize your opinion on this subject, having presented the facts and analysis?" Jane asked her student.

A slightly self-satisfied smile lit the perfectly made-up young face. With a definite flourish, she reached into her book bag and extracted a book. Jane immediately recognized the ragged volume, for it was one of three items Jessica - as Jesse - had cared about when the teen had first arrived at Seasons House.

Jane watched as her student's fingers found slip of paper acting as bookmark, and opened the tome. After glancing up to her teacher for permission, Jessica began to read. ". . . the prince must consider . . . how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible; and as often as he shall have succeeded he will have fulfilled his part, and he need not fear any danger in other reproaches."

Jessica then paged to another marked passage and continued, "It makes him hated above all things . . . to be greedy, and to be a violator of the property . . . of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain."

When her student closed the book, Jane couldn't help the smile the gentled her features. "All of which means?"

"It goes back to an earlier discussion of ours, Aunt Jane," the strawberry blond student answered. "Ends justify the means, as Machiavelli believed, but in this case, the end itself was not justifiable. While I am not certain that there could be a specific case in which such liberties with investors' life-savings could be legitimate, in this case it's very clear that these manipulations were not legitimate. Simply stated, the individual officials became greedy and violated their investors. As a result, they have come to be despised, and have lost their kingdoms."

Jane sat back, her eyes steady on this young person who was quickly becoming as much her child as Darryl, Michael or Kenneth. Perhaps, to some extent, even more so for she'd never had a student who seemed so much her image, albeit in a more petite form. "Well argued," she finally said, "For once. Logically and rationally presented, with just a touch of emotion, but not too much. An 'A' on this one, my dear, and well earned."

"Thank you, Aunt Jane," Jessica beamed.

"How did the work with Adrienne go today?"

"We were successful in finding the information I think you wanted her to find. Personally, I found the process of forced single child families frightening, particularly the way they enforce it with mandatory, if undocumented abortions."

"How did Adrienne react to those discoveries?"

"They made her curious to find out more, and I think that surprised her. I don't think school has been all that interesting for her back home. Then she saw the comparative survival statistics on male/female children, and read about what several expert observers think happens to many girl children there. Those findings upset her. That surprised her, too."

"Did she say why?

"Not in so many words, but it's clear she's made the connection to that girl at the mime class. I think she realized how lucky that one is only to have been abandoned."

"So, the results of her research bothered her," Jane mused reflectively. "A good sign, that. Well, I will be very interested to read her report. The introduction she writes for her new friend should also tell us a good deal about her current mindset. Jessica? I think we may just have started on the breakthrough with this one. Step one is that the student has to care. It sounds like Adrienne is starting to care. Now, at least."
 
 
Chapter 30: Interchanges and Interludes
 
"Hello? Children's Hospital? Yes, this is Jane Thompson calling. I'd like to speak to Head Nurse Nora Bedford, please."

The receptionist put Jane on hold and she suffered through nearly 72.4 seconds of awful elevator music before the line clicked and "Nora Bedford speaking," saved her sanity.

"Nora, Jane Thompson here."

"Jane! There's no problem, is there? Did one of the students get hurt?!?"

It was a sad commentary on their recent relationship, Jane mused, especially since they were friends, that Nora's first reaction to being called by Jane Thompson was that her professional services might be required. Well, actually, they were, but fortunately not in the way Nora supposed. "No, everyone's fine. Actually, I needed some information and hoped you might know something."

"What do you need, Jane?"

"Do you happen to know a woman doctor by the name of Hearst? One who has adopted a child of Chinese extraction?"

"Oh, sure," Nora said warmly. "Dr. Celia Hearst. Wonderful doc - ophthalmic specialist. Good surgeon - the real kind, not the LASIK stuff."

"What can you tell me about her, Nora? Let me explain. Her daughter has become involved with my latest student. I need to know more about the mother before I decide how far I should attempt to go with this stratagem."

"Well, I like her - personally as well as professionally. She's something of a feminist - tends to go her own way. She's never married and evidently had to really go to the limit to get that child because of that. She cares, Janey. I've seen her with families. A lot of surgeons have the bedside manner of a half-full bedpan, but she's different. Patients, and the families of patients trust her. She could make a lot more money in Boston or another of the bigger cities, too. I've heard that she's always receiving offers, but she likes it here - especially for her daughter."

"Sounds like good people, Nora. Now the tough question. How do you think she'd react if Adrienne messed up and blew the masquerade around her or her daughter?"

"You're right - that is a tough one." The phone line went silent for just a moment. "I guess it would depend on how she interpreted your intentions. If she decides you're abusing the kid, she'll go for your throat. Kids are special to her. She does a lot of charity work with them. I've heard she sometimes even covers the cost of the operating room out of her own pocket when parents can't afford it, if that's what it takes to save a child's vision. If, however, she decides you're for real and what you do helps? My take is she's quirky enough, and feminist enough, to go along with it."

"I can't tell her up front what we do here, Nora. Not until I have had a chance to take her measure for myself. Too many others are involved."

"Then I suggest you be around whenever Adrienne has a chance of running into her, Jane. I like her, but she reminds me a bit of you when it comes to kids. I wouldn't want you OR her thinking _I_ was endangering a child. It would not be good for my long-term health."

Jane thought about that, and nodded to herself. "Got it. Thanks, Nora. Say, are you free next Saturday? If you don't mind Seasons House formal, I'd very much enjoy having you to dinner."

"Marie's Chicken Cordon Bleu?" Nora asked reverently.

"Just for you, dear."

"My waistline hates you, but is overruled. I'll be there."

"Six o'clock, dear. And thanks. I've got to make a few more calls. You wouldn't have a phone number for Dr. Hearst would you?"

"Sure, let me get it for you."

"That spray is COOOLLLLLDDD!" Anne squealed as the excursion boat bobbed and swayed in the turbulence of the collection pool. Anne's voice could barely be heard above the roar of the tons of water crashing down.

If the water was cold, Barbie certainly was not - not with the view Anne presented.

Barbie had never seen the girl like this. Her hair was held in a flirty little ponytail that danced about her head as she laughed with the sheer pleasure of the experience. She'd dressed for the summer heat in a simple sun dress of white cotton highlighted by red and yellow flowers - a dress that clung to her every curve. *Guess I understand why British debutantes used to wear watered muslin gowns to show off their figures,* Barbie thought.

In the fine mist, her cheeks and lips were pink and moist, shining vibrantly in the sun. She was gorgeous, and her beauty, her joy, made the man inside Barbie ache for her.

Suddenly, Anne enveloped Barbie in a tight embrace, "Oh, isn't it MARVELOUS?" she yelled. "Thank you for bringing me here. It's just so LOVELY." and then she went up on tiptoe and planted a kiss on her friend's lips.

Anne broke the embrace and rushed back to the railing so she didn't see the stunned look on Barbie's face, or the hand that came up to caress the place Anne's lips had touched.

"I thought Adrienne did rather well tonight, didn't you, Jane?" Marie asked as she sipped her nightcap in Jane's private rooms.

"Yes, I must say that the depth of her analysis and the completeness of her research surprised me. Her grades as Adrian did not indicate that she possessed such talent. If Jessica had not assured me that this was all Adrienne's own work, I might have suspected my big sister of going a little soft on me."

Marie snorted. "As if that one would ever subvert one of your plans that way. I think it's more likely that Adrienne, like some others I could name, isn't suited to the classic classroom environment. The individual attention you give them in their studies has helped more than one find their way academically. Michael for one. Still, I find the fact that she does possess a good brain encouraging."

"Why is that, dear?" Jane smiled, too sweetly.

"Because it's the dumb ones who give us the most trouble - and don't you grin at me like that, Jane Thompson! You know it as well as I do!"

"Of course I do, Marie. I was just teasing. The smart ones figure out the masquerade faster, so we can proceed more quickly with them. They also are quicker to see the alternatives their feminized state forces upon them, and to see how those changes in behavior might actually be to their ultimate benefit. It takes a flexible mind to accept many of those lessons, and usually, a flexible mind is an intelligent mind, a creative mind. We already knew that Adrian-the-boy was creatively inclined. Now we have very good indication that there is a good intelligence there, too. One we will prod a bit in the coming weeks."

"You could see how disturbing she found those Chinese population control policies and practices," Marie murmured.

"Mostly that was an emotional response, albeit a very good one for our purposes. I was more pleased that she tried to examine the genetic and diversity issues as well. That shows a willingness to explore difficult concepts and to learn new things. Which also bodes well for our student's future."

"So, what's next?"

"I've spoken with Dr. Hearst. She's more than happy to have Adrienne and I come to visit so that the girls can work on their skit. That will give me a chance to meet Dr. Hearst, and it will give Adrienne a chance to solidify her friendship with Xhinea.

"What happens when Adrian comes back? If they truly become friends?"

Jane sighed. "I don't know," she admitted. "At one time, I would have avoided this type of complication, but I'm running out of time, Marie. If Xhinea can help Adrienne, then I have to try and hope I don't hurt either of them in the attempt."

"Well, I'm sure it will work out. You've incredible instincts in these things."
 
 
Chapter 31: Breakthroughs
 
"Ms. Thompson, how good to meet you. I've heard wonderful things about you from my colleagues in Pediatric Oncology." Jane took the proffered hand and decided she liked the look of this woman. Celia Hearst was a woman of in-between height and average build. Her light brown hair was cut short, a factor which Jane attributed to having to wear surgical scrubs because the 'style' did little to enhance her looks. Her face was strongly featured, but not pretty. She had a too-wide mouth, a Roman nose and a stubborn chin. Her eyes were her best feature, Jane mused - large, a bit widely spaced, but a deep, rich brown shot with sparks of gold. However, her face also bore the unmistakable lines of a woman who smiled and laughed easily. She was smiling now.

"Jane, please, Dr. Hearst," Jane smiled back.

"Then I'm Celia. And this must be Adrienne. I must tell you both that I have looked forward to this meeting, both because of your reputation with my peers, Jane, but also because Xhinea has done little else but talk about Adrienne since she attended class." She offered her hand to blonde teen who blushed but accepted the offering gracefully, Jane was pleased to note. Since giving her word, Adrienne had been truly giving her best efforts.

"Thank you for having us, Dr. Hearst," Adrienne said shyly. "I've been looking forward to seeing your daughter again."

"She's upstairs in her room, getting ready for your practice. I see you're already dressed and ready to go," Celia Hearst said as she gave Adrienne's classic mime's costume a once-over. "You'll be practicing out back. We have a little gazebo that should suit your needs. Will we get a preview tonight, I hope?"

Adrienne shot a quick glance to Jane who gave an almost imperceptible nod. "Yes, Dr. Hearst, at least, a preview of whatever we manage to get done."

"Wonderful. Ah, here's Xhinea, now."

Following Celia's quick introduction of her daughter and Jane, the two young people hurried off to their practices, leaving the two adults smiling after them. "Well," Celia said after a few moments, "May I offer you something to drink, Jane? Iced tea? Or perhaps some wine?"

"Iced tea would be lovely, Celia," Jane replied, and then followed her hostess into the kitchen.

Silence was once again the order of the day, as Anne drove the powerful car across New York State's Northern Tier towards the resort area of Lake Champlain.

Things had seemed to grow increasingly awkward between them ever since Anne's impulsive kiss. And it was beginning to grate on Barbie's nerves.

"I liked it, you know," she finally growled.

Startled out of her own thoughts, Skipper flicked a glance over at her frowning companion. "Hmmm? What was that?"

"I _LIKED_ being kissed by you," Barbie answered, heat coloring each word. "I LIKED it a LOT!"

Skipper's eyes went wide before they spun back to the road and away from the intensely glaring blonde. A pink tongue slipped out to moisten lips suddenly dry. "Oh."

"OH? That's all you have to say?!? OH?!?"

"Don't you yell at me, Blondie! I don't know why you're suddenly angry," she flared back, her own emotions on a hair trigger. "What do you WANT me to say?"

"I'm NOT yelling and I'm NOT angry," Barbie yelled back and then caught herself. With an effort, she quieted her voice. "I'm frustrated," she admitted softly. "And, well, I'd like to hear you say that you. . well, liked it, too."

The gentle entreaty cooled Anne's own heated emotions, and she sighed. With conscious effort, she focused her eyes on the road ahead, and flexed her fingers on the steering wheel. Neither said another word for several heartbeats. Then, she sighed again and glanced over at Barbie. "I liked it, too," she admitted in a husky whisper. "But I don't know what to do about it."

Something relaxed inside Barbie, and she managed a smile. "Guess we'll have to find out together, because I've never been down this path before, either."

"Come on, Xhinea, this is not just MY skit - we're both supposed to be working on it," Adrienne complained. "What do you think so far?"

"It's all right," she said in her softly inflected and accented voice.

Reminding herself of her promise to at least seem to enjoy everything, Adrienne forced a smile to her lips. "Surely there's something we could be doing better."

Xhinea's eyes became very round, and Adrienne thought she saw something there, saw her almost say something but then Xhinea closed her eyes and shook her head. "Now, I don't believe that. You had an idea and then decided not to say it. Why won't you tell me?"

Adrienne watched her new friend struggle with something inside. At least watching her wasn't at all difficult, the blonde student decided. Xhinea was cute in that mime outfit of tight red coveralls, barber-pole striped socks and a bright yellow turtleneck. She had her fine, midnight-black hair in a braid that ran practically all the way down her back. Adrienne decided that long dark hair braided like that was really, really pretty, but it was the petite Chinese girl's eyes drew a second, third and fourth look. Almost black, and incredibly expressive. "I...I want us to be friends," she finally stammered out. "I don't wish to offend you."

So that was the problem, Adrienne thought. "Hey, we're supposed to tell each other how to be better, right? That's not being offensive - not unless you're nasty about it - and you don't know how to be nasty. And we ARE friends. So, friend, tell me what you think we should do."

For several more moments, Xhinea simply looked at Adrienne's face, as if seeking truth there. Only Jane Thompson's recent training helped the blond student avoid squirming under that concentrated stare. "Okay," she said finally. "Umm, I think you move too quickly. It's hard to tell what you're doing because it is too soon done and you're doing something else."

Adrienne considered that and smiled for real. "You mean that the audience wouldn't have enough time to figure out what a movement was meant to be doing?" At the hesitant nod, Adrienne grinned. "Good catch. Let's see if we can do it better this time. Now, remember, the door is stuck, and it takes both of us to pull it open. Ready?"

A hopeful smile came to the dark-haired girl's face, and she reached up to put her hands beneath Adrienne's hands. "Ready."

Skipper waited in the car while Barbie went into the motel. It was the fifth they'd stopped at, and the first one not to have the "no" light in front of 'Vacancy' illuminated. They hadn't considered the availability, or rather, the non-availability of motel rooms during high tourist season when they'd embarked on this little journey of discovery. And they'd already found out that they'd missed the day's last ferry trip across the lake. They either got a motel room here, slept in the car or headed south toward Albany. The car was not built for sleeping and they were both too tired to drive much further.

A frowning Barbie walked out of the motel lobby and slipped into the passenger seat. "Well, they had one room left. Two full size beds. I got it for you. We can make calls to other motels and see if we can find another room for me."

"No luck?" Anne asked as Barbie put the phone down yet again.

"None. We were lucky someone canceled out of this one at the last minute."

"Look, Barbie, there's two beds. You can sleep here tonight. I'll change in the bathroom. I don't want you trying to sleep in that car."

"You're sure? I mean, you know I'm not really one of the girls. . ."

Anne snorted. "Look, Roberts. One thing I'm sure of, okay? I am in no danger of you doing anything against my will. So, stay here tonight, and we'll catch the first ferry in the morning so we'll still be able to make New Haven by noon."

The tall blonde gave Anne a telling look, but then shrugged. "I really didn't want to spend the night in my car. Thanks, Skip."

Jane waited until they were on the road before saying anything to her oddly quiet student. "You made progress today," she said. "I think your skit will be well received tomorrow at your class."

Pleasantly tired, Adrienne smiled. "Yes. I think we'll do well. Xhinea has a real eye for this type of thing. Once I convinced her I wouldn't hate her for telling me what wasn't working, things really improved, I think."

"It's hard for someone who never had anyone encourage them, care for them, to take chances with friendships," Jane observed.

The blond head quirked up, and curious eyes considered Jane for a moment. "She's okay."

Jane decided it was time to take a small gamble. "Her mother is concerned about her, that she's so isolated because she has had a difficult time fitting in, making friends. Things like her speech and looks."

"But she's so pretty," Adrienne protested, "And I think her accent is cool."

"She was evidently shy when she arrived here from Mainland China, and her mother worries that she isn't growing out of that."

"She wasn't all that shy with me," Adrienne protested, remembering how stubbornly Xhinea had pressed one point. Then she remembered, "At least, toward the end of our session, anyway."

Jane rewarded her pupil with a smile - a real one, not one of her famous 'gotcha' smiles. "Then you've done particularly well, today, and not just on your class assignment."

Embarrassed and surprised by the praise, Adrienne lapsed into thought for most of the ride home. As they pulled in through the main gate of Seasons House, she reached a decision. "Ms. Jane?"

"Yes, Adrienne?"

"I may change my introduction of Xhinea. I need to think it through, but if I do decide I want do it differently, do you want me to practice it again? In front of you?"

A time to sow and a time to reap, Jane mused. Perhaps it was time to see if the fruit was becoming ripe. "Oh, I think I can trust your judgement in this, Adrienne." *Now,* she added mentally.

"Thank you. Oh, and do you think it would be all right to invite Xhinea here? Say, on Sunday afternoon?"

"I think that could be arranged. I'll call Dr. Hearst when we get home. Perhaps a picnic by the pool?"

"That would be very nice, ma'am."

"Then," and the patented Thompson smile was back, "We'll need to take you to town tomorrow. You'll need a swimsuit, and Milady's Closet has an excellent selection."

Swallowing hard, Adrienne managed to smile herself. "Thank you," she said again before adding, "I've missed swimming."

By unspoken agreement, Barbie had taken first use of the bathroom. She's showered quickly, washed her hair and then brushed her teeth. A careful inspection showed that the resilient cosmetics were starting to fade quickly, and she made a mental note to start using some of the normal make-up tomorrow. She also saw that dark roots were beginning to creep into where she parted her hair - not seriously, but enough that she'd have to make a decision when they returned to Seasons House. Just then, she thought it was time to go back to being a brunette so that she could be Kenneth again if, or rather when necessary.

She slipped into a long cotton nightgown and then exited the bathroom. "Your turn," she told Skipper as she slipped between the covers of the bed nearest the door and furthest from the bathroom. "Okay if I turn off the bedside light and try to get to sleep while you're in there?"

"Sure. The nightlight is enough for me to find my way to bed. Pleasant dreams, Barbie."

"Thanks. You, too."

But sleep did not come to the femininely-turned out young man. Hormones he'd thought himself long in control of raged as images of Skipper, wet from the shower and soapy-slick in living color , played over and over again before his very restless mind's eye. He stifled a moan of near-pain as the gaff he still wore stifled something else.

He rolled to his side, curling into a fetal position when the bathroom door opened, flooding light into the back of the small motel room. Unable to resist, he cracked open one eye as Anne stepped out into that pool of light.

She might as well not bothered with the shortie nightgown as the bathroom's glow backlit her, making her every curve clearly visible through the almost transparent silk. Slamming shut his eye, Kenneth/Kendra/Barbie Roberts began a long night of fruitless sheep-counting as Anne extinguished the bathroom light and slipped into her own bed.
 
 
Chapter 32: First Steps
 
Adrienne suppressed the urge to sigh as the Audi pulled away from the curb. She'd just finished her second session at the class on mime and things had gone well there at least. She and Xhinea had done at least as good a job on their skit as any other pairing - not as well as Mr. Fredricks and his partner had, but they were experienced at this kind of acting. Now, she had another assignment for the next class - another skit, in fact - one where she and her partner would have a tea party. Well, she sure knew more about tea parties now than she ever had in her life, thanks to Ms. Jane and Miss Marie. She'd been a little surprised that Mr. Fredricks hadn't changed the teams for this one. That was okay with Adrienne - she liked Xhinea and Xhinea seemed to like her, too. And besides, they could double up on Sunday and spend some time working on their act, when Xhinea and her Mom came over to Seasons House for the pool party.

Which reminded Adrienne why she was here, standing on the curb, watching the receding Audi disappear around a corner. The heck of it was, she couldn't even decide whether she was feeling relief or resignation. On the plus side, she was now free from Ms. Darla Smith's super-critical commentary for the next hour or two. Unfortunately, that freedom wasn't really free, and in this case, the cost was having to face the torments of Milady's Closet alone and unaided.

"It's only a bathing suit," she muttered to herself. "How hard can that be?"

With a more than wistful glance at a taxicab's receding tail lights, she squared her shoulders, put her 'I'm happy to be here just like I promised' smile on her face, and opened the door to the shop. Whereupon she was met by the gorgeous salesgirl, Sally. "Oh, hi there!" she bubbled. "Welcome back. Ms. Franson is waiting for you in the back."

Pleased that she wasn't going to have to hide her special secret from the girl who made the secret hard and thus hard to hide, Adrienne thanked Sally and headed back toward the modeling room.

"Adrienne," Betty said pleasantly. "Jane tells me you're having a pool party and need outfitting."

"Yes, Ma'am," the teen replied cautiously. "I need a bathing suit - just in case."

"You need that, all right, Missy, but I said you need 'outfitting'. A young lady at the pool requires more in the way of attire than merely a bathing suit. After all, she can't just pull on a ratty old t-shirt like boys do, can she?" Adrienne paled at that, and looked rapidly around her. "There's no one else to hear us, sweetie," Betty said more gently. Obviously, this one was going to be easier now, and Betty decided that she would continue her earlier role of friendly fellow-adventurer. "Now, come on, this will be fun. You do swim, don't you?"

"I love to swim," Adrienne said wistfully, "or at least I did before I came here."

"Then we'll find you a suit and accessories so you can enjoy swimming again. Jane has a LOVELY pool. Tell you what, you pick out some suits that catch your eye and we'll have a private fashion show. Once you've made your selection, I will help you with the accessories."

"M. . me? Pick it out?"

"Oh, it will be easy," Betty laughed and then put her mouth to the teen's ear. "Remember that pretty girl who looks like Adrienne, dear," she whispered. "The one you want to take to the beach."

Later, Betty had cause to wonder if that might not have been the best image to put in the mind of someone who was, all visual evidence aside, a horny young teenaged male. *Well, at least she had the sense, or the modesty, to leave the thongs on the rack. Jane would have killed me. How best to handle this without losing too much ground? Maybe . . . *

"Well, what do you think, Adrienne?" she asked noncommittally.

A totally unexpected giggle bubbled up from inside the young blonde. Then she hastily looked around Betty to see if anyone was nearby before looking up at the older woman. "I think," she said in earnest if hushed tones, "that I don't look anything like that girl we were talking about earlier, Ms. Franson. She wouldn't be caught dead in any of these."

This time it was Betty Franson who almost giggled, but she instead managed a Vulcanic brow-lift. "Oh, and why ever not."

Adrienne could not contain her mirth as she pirouetted in front of the three sided mirror. "Because she's got boo. . .I mean, she has a real figure." The girl-boy ran her hand down her bikini-clad body with all the drama of a car-show model. "Without my. . umm, under-things, I don't. Have a figure, that is."

Betty couldn't help it this time, she laughed. "No, dear, you don't have boobs, but then, neither do many of our customers your age. Why don't we try another style and see if we can't help you as we do them, eh?"

Jane would be pleased, Betty thought thirty minutes later as she watched her young customer examine herself in the mirror. The single piece suit was actually a racing suit but with some special, added design features - such as two small, but visible, silicon inserts in the suit's bodice. "Well?"

"I look good," Adrienne said softly, holding up the mass of honey-blond hair in a gesture so unconsciously feminine, that Betty smiled. "You said something about accessories."

"Yes. A cover-up, maybe a sun-hat, a beach bag and some flip-flop sandals - I have some lovely ones with thick soles that the girls love because it adds an inch or two to their height."

"Damn," Adrienne groaned, wilting for the first time since she'd arrived.

Concerned, Betty moved over to put a comforting hand on the girl's shoulder. "What's the matter, child?"

The face that looked up to her was, despite the cosmetic artistry, somehow not quite so feminine as it had been but moments ago. "Even as a girl, I'm not tall enough. Do you know, I used to get mad at my mother for giving me the short genes and my sister the tall genes? Mad at my sister for being taller than me."

"That's not the only measure of a person, you know," Betty said gently. "In this day and age, it's not even really a very important one."

The snort that answered her was not at all feminine nor mannerly. "How many short guys get the cutest girls, Ms. Franson? They all want guys that will still be taller than they are when they wear their heels. You know how many girls are shorter than I am when they wear FLATS? Over the age of nine years old, that is?"

There was a world of pain there, and Betty felt momentarily helpless in the face of it. Jane would know, she thought frantically, but Jane wasn't here. "Well, off hand, I can think of two young men, both. . ummm, not gifted height-wise, who have done very well for themselves," images of Michael Nash and Darryl Smith floated through Betty's mind. "One's married and the other is affianced, both to young lovely women who are several inches taller than they are."

"The exception that proves the rule," Adrienne said sadly.

"The case that proves there is always hope, if one is willing to work for opportunities and do what is necessary to earn them."

"You mean, like being nice and knowing what girls like? Stuff like that?"

"It's a start. Being a good provider and a caring person helps, too."

"Annie got the 'nice genes', too."

"Oh, I don't know about that. I've had rather a good time this morning. You're fun to be with, when you aren't working at being a little snot."

"That was just me keeping my promise to Ms. Jane. You know, acting like I enjoy being a girl and all that."

"Well, if it's an act, it makes you very nice to be around, but let me ask you to think about this. How much of it was really acting? Oh, I know the clothes and the girlishness are, but were you really only pretending to have fun? Don't answer - not yet. Think about it and then decide. Now, c'mon. Let's get you rigged out and checked out. Darla will be here soon and we still have a great deal to do."

"More?" Adrienne whined, more for form than anything else. "I have to try on more stuff?"

"Of course. The accessories have to go with the outfit and with your coloring, but look on the bright side."

"There is one?"

"Sure is," Betty Franson said with a wicked and mischievous grin. "Just think of Jane Thompson's face when she gets the bill for this little expedition." *That will teach her to leave me alone with a child who's about to go through his crisis point. And I won't even give her the usual volume discount!*

The late afternoon sun was warm on Anne's back as she and Barbie stood on the top deck of the ferry they'd boarded in Port Kent, New York. Leaning onto the safety rail, she felt the wind rushing through her hair and felt marvelous. "Isn't it great?!" she asked, turning to look at her taller friend.

"Great," Barbie agreed without anything resembling enthusiasm. "Just wonderful."

"Oh, you," Anne grinned. "You've been grumpy all day, ever since you got of bed on the wron . . "

"If you say wrong side of the bed, you going to have to swim to Burlington," Barbie growled.

"What IS the matter with you? The sun's shining, the lake is positively BeeeYOUtiful and all you can do is snarl." She tossed her hair and sniffed at such behavior.

"We've driven 800 miles in two days, sight seen, and in between, I've slept maybe two hours, okay? So, I'm just a little bit testy."

"I don't know why you didn't sleep. I slept great!" Barbie mumbled something that Anne thought sounded like "You wouldn't understand." "What was that?" she demanded.

Something seemed to snap inside the tall blonde and Anne suddenly found herself nose-to-nose with fire-eyed Amazon. "I SHOULD have said," Barbie hissed out in slow, measured tones, "that the problem I had, YOU aren't equipped to experience." The memory of Anne's innocent light show of the previous night, of her sleek, curvy body outlined in a halo of incandescent silk, brought back in full force the physiological proof of Barbie's true nature. She groaned in discomfort before locking eyes with Anne once again. "You might as well have been naked last night when you came out of the bathroom - that nightie hid nothing and enhanced, god, EVERYthing. I wanted nothing more than to pull you down into my bed and . . .and. . "

A vivid blush colored Anne's cheeks, but she didn't look away. Barbie saw the hurt look in her eyes before an artificial sneer appeared on lips barely a breath away from Barbie's own. "You'd have what, Blondie? Had your way with me?" she asked bitterly.

All the color fled from Barbie's face and she spun away, heading for the stern of the ship as fast as her heels would permit. Fortunately, Anne was not so hampered, having worn deck shoes in anticipation of the ferry ride. She caught Barbie before she'd reached the crowd and all but pushed her bodily into an athwartships passageway. "Hold it right there, Barbie!" she ordered.

Furious still, the tall blonde turned to face the shorter girl. "I never thought that you'd be such a. . . such a damned tease!" she hissed out.

"I'm NOT a tease!" Anne snapped back, her own temper flaring.

"No? Well, what do YOU call that . . . that little display you put on last night?"

"You idiot! It's only teasing if I didn't mean to follow through!"

"Follow through?"

Anne sighed, her anger melting away. "I had to screw my courage up for ten solid minutes in the bathroom before I could come out in that little bit of froth. I didn't know if you'd laugh, or, well, Hell, I don't even know what I WANTED you to do. Except the one thing you did! You ignored me! Do you think I throw myself at all the guys I meet, parading around like some cheap hooker? I was ready to offer you . . . whatever you wanted, and you didn't want . . . me!"

Anne burst into tears and started to turn away, to be caught by Barbie before she could make a single step. She heard what could only be Kenneth Roberts' voice sigh, "Aw shit!"

And then she was wrapped in a full body embrace while her mouth was being ravaged by an incredibly tender lipstick-flavored kiss.

For Barbie, it was a race to see which aspect of her nature would win out in this battle of confused sensibilities - her primitive need to lay physical claim to THE WOMAN right then and there, or her rational mind that said this was neither the time nor the place. At least, it wasn't while she was Barbie and Anne was Skipper, and in public, no less.

With one last shuddering effort of will, Barbie broke the embrace. Even then, however, she wasn't quite able to completely let go, holding Anne's hands in her own. "At some point, Margery, there'll come a time and a place where we'll alone when this happens," she said with a wicked smile, "And when that FINALLY comes to pass? then, WATCH OUT!"

The soft, sultry heat in Anne's eyes almost had Barbie deciding not to wait, but then she smiled back at the taller woman. "We'll have to wait and see, won't we?"

Hand-in-hand, the pair returned to their car as the boat approached the Burlington, Vermont dock. With a sigh, Barbie opened the door and slid into the passenger's seat before exploding, "DAMN!"

Surprised, Anne hurried around the car. "What? What's wrong?"

"I don't believe it," Barbie sighed. "I just don't believe it."

"What IS it?" Anne demanded.

Shaking her head, and then beginning to laugh, Barbie pulled one of Anne's hands to her right bosom. "One of my boobs just came loose," she hissed, and watched as Anne's face first went blank, and then dissolved into gut-deep laughter.

"Goodness, she's part fish," Jane murmured as she and Marie enjoyed a glass of iced mint tea. "She makes me tired just watching her."

"Trying to outrace the devils, you think?"

"Perhaps. Betty made a point of speaking with me on the phone today, after Darla picked Adrienne up at the shop. Seems our girl has a inferiority complex due to lack of stature."

The little brunette housekeeper snorted. "And that's a surprise? Jane, most of our girls have that to some extent or other. One of the things that makes them well suited to your program is that they are usually, shall we say, on the petite side? You could hardly take in one who is completely unsuited to la grande masquerade."

"True enough," Jane smiled. "Come to think of it, Audrey was the tallest student I've taught here and she was really a girl. Isn't that a strange one? However, back to Adrienne. I think the important part of this revelation is that SHE'S the one who reached that conclusion about herself. She even admitted that part of her resentment of Anne is because she's so much taller than Adrian."

"And how do we use this insight, eh?"

"I really don't know - not yet. I think I'm going to let it simmer in her brain for a while. She's certainly been quiet since she returned - more thoughtful, somehow." Jane watched her student execute a picture-perfect flip turn and sighed. "Adrienne!" she called out in her school-mistress voice. "I won't accept muscle stiffness as an excuse for poor performance in your lessons and deportment tomorrow. I think you've had enough for now."

The rapidly swimming figure slowed, and treading water with one hand, used the other to push wet, clingy strands of blond hair from her face. "Yes, Ms. Thompson. May I do a couple more slower laps as a cooldown, please?"

Jane waved her student on and sat back down. "She hasn't exercised like that since she arrived her months ago. Silly widgeon will hurt herself."

"And then Aunt Jane would feel guilty," Marie teased. "Being a bitch with a heart of gold is so difficult."

"Quiet, Marie!" Jane ordered, unable to refrain from grinning.

"Then YOU can be the one to help her get that mop properly cleaned and set tonight. God, look at her hair!"

"Hmmmm, yes. We wouldn't happen to have any old style bathing caps in storage? Something. . .wicked, you know, pure 1950's Donna Reed with a big yellow rubber daisy on the side?"

"And just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water," Marie murmured with a grin. "If we don't, I'll see what I can do about making one up."
 
 
Chapter 33: Night Dreams
 
Rooms had been easier to come by in Rutland, Vermont, than they had the night before in Lake Champlain. Barbie had managed to obtain two rooms at the Holiday Inn with interior interconnecting doors. She had unlocked hers, but that is as far as she'd go without encouragement. She'd unwittingly hurt Anne the other night, and she didn't want to do it again. They'd made a new start with their little confrontation - had hardly been able to stand not being in contact with each other the whole drive from Burlington to the hotel - and she really did not want to blow that by moving too fast.

But they hadn't talked - nary a word passing between them the entire drove south from Burlington, and not much more than that during their shared dinner at the hotel restaurant. One lesson well learned at the feet of both Jane Thompson and Judge Ruth is that talking, especially about problems, helped. It was something Barbie definitely wanted to do, too, because she had questions that she desperately wanted answered; questions only Barbara Anne Braithwaite could answer. At least three times since dinner, she'd walked up to that infernal door and raised her hand to knock, only to pull it back at the last second. It wasn't fair, she realized. Given Anne's revelations earlier on the ferry, she'd already been the one to make an overture - one that Barbie had, in ignorance, rebuffed. Still, some instinct told the tall blonde that the next move had to be Anne's, too. She just hoped the girl would move sooner rather than later.

She'd just finished her evening ablutions, and pulled on her robe when a soft, almost tentative knock sounded on the door to Anne's room. "It's not locked," Barbie called out, her heart suddenly pounding.

Slowly, the door opened and a blank-faced Anne, her tall frame swathed from neck to toe in a shapeless cotton grannie-gown, stepped in. "Hi," she said as the door closed behind her.

"Hi, yourself," Barbie replied, trying to smile, a smile that went unanswered as Anne simply stared at her companion. "What's the matter, Anne?" Barbie asked.

Sighing, the girl took a seat on the other side of the room. "I guess that's what I wanted to know. After this afternoon, with that. . .that kiss, and then the hand-holding, and then the rooms with a connecting door, I sort of thought, I mean, I figured you would expect. . oh, hell. . "

"I can guess what you thought. I was certainly thinking in that direction, too, when I got the rooms, that is. Trouble is, though, that I got worried you might think I was rushing you too fast, particularly after. . .after this afternoon. So I sort of decided to back off - to give you a little space."

"I see. I was getting mixed messages, you know? Like a street light that is turning its lights on and off at random in all directions. I don't know whether to stop or go just now."

Barbie winced. "I guess I've spent too much time with women. I'm trying too hard to second guess myself - to second guess what you're feeling. Look, just let me say this once and for all. I wanted. . WANT to be with you tonight. I just don't want it to be for any other reason than that's what YOU want just as much."

"Oh, but I do," she blurted, before visibly hesitating, ". . . want that. . to be with you, I mean, . . . "

"I hear a 'but' there, Skipper," Barbie said as gently as she could manage under the circumstances.

"It's not really a 'but' so much as. . . as. .," her voice trailed off and a fiery blush colored her face.

Tongue firmly and obviously planted in one cheek, Barbie strove to look innocent. "Maidenly anxiety? Virginal reflection? Cold feet?"

Anne's eyes went wide and for a moment her mouth went open and closed, as she tried to form a cogent response. Finally, she choked on a half laugh. "Bitch." and then began to giggle.

Barbie let the laughter cleanse the tension from her friend before answering. "Yeah, you're right. Good training from both my adoptive moms, I guess." Then her face softened. "Better now?"

Anne nodded, her face still bright with the relieved mirth of the moment.

"Good. . .then, can I ask a question? You don't have to answer, but I'd really like to know." The other girl nodded slowly. "Why were you so bloody cheerful this morning, if you felt, um, rejected over last night?"

Skipper blushed, and looked away. She curled her feet beneath her in the chair and for just a moment she looked like a little girl caught with her hand in a cookie jar. Her voice was light and soft, not quite whispering when she finally said, "I guess it's because I realized that I wasn't as, um, ready for, well, whatever would have happened last night as I thought."

Her head came up and she looked Barbie directly in the eyes. "I'd have, um, followed through, if you'd have . . . pushed - or pulled. I'm NOT a cruel tease. But part of me was grateful that we, um, didn't - do anything, that is. I guess I felt like I'd been given a reprieve."

Then Skipper blushed again, even brighter than before. She looked away, her eyes seeing memories instead of the scene before them, and this time her voice did drop to a faint whisper. "Though, after that kiss I'm not sure the, um, 'reprieve' was the better deal."

Barbie sat back and thoughtfully regarded the nervous blonde, then she grinned. "C'mere, cutie," she ordered, beckoning with one finely manicured nail.

For a moment, Anne looked uncertain. Barbie only smiled and beckoned again. Then, the granny-gowned girl seemed to square her shoulders before rising to her feet to stride across the motel bedroom to stand before Barbie. She yelped in surprise when she was suddenly swept off her feet into the taller girl's lap. . . and held - simply held. Barbie was gently cuddling her - almost as she might a child, except Anne wasn't a child.

Still, it felt good, and it felt right. With a sigh of contentment, Anne let herself relax in Barbie's arms.

And fell asleep.

For time unmeasured, Barbie simply sat there, savoring the feeling of holding Anne, breathing in the scent of her herbal shampoo on her still damp hair. So she was surprised when a glance at the bedside clock told her how late it was getting.

Her heart rebelled at waking Anne and losing the delicious peace of having her so close, and yet, if she tried to carry her to the bed, she might awaken anyway.

Carefully, barely moving so as not to jostle her precious burden, Barbie lifted her legs to prop them on the nearby bed, and then slouched down into the almost comfortable chair.

She carefully settled Anne against her body, trying to make them both as comfortable as possible. The lightly snoring woman didn't even murmur, and moments later, Barbie joined her in sleep.

Something was tickling her nose. Unwilling to wake up, she scrunched her eyes more tightly shut and batted at the irritant with her hand. The tickling stopped, but only momentarily, and then it was back. Determined not to lose the wonderful fuzzy warmth of near-sleep, she batted again.

And struck something hard.

Anne's eyes shot open, but took a moment or two to focus and adjust to the morning-lit room. When they did, she found herself practically eye-to-eye with a grinning Barbie - a grinning Barbie who had a lock of Anne's own hair wrapped around her index finger. Hair, that she had been using so. . . annoyingly on Anne's nose.

"I don't know about you, gorgeous, but as lovely as this feels, I really need to go the bathroom."

Full consciousness hit Anne, and with it, the realization that her bottom half was practically bare for the oh-so-modest granny-gown had hiked itself up all the way to her hips while she'd slept.

While she'd slept using Barbie as a warm-bodied mattress!

With a squeal, she jumped off the taller girl. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to, that is, I mean. . Oh blast! I am sorry."

"I'm sure as hell not," Barbie grinned, as she carefully untangled herself from the odd position in which she'd passed the night. "Except for a bit of a twinge in my back from that chair, I can't remember a night I enjoyed more."

"En-JOYED? But we didn't do anything but SLEEP!"

Barbie brushed a tender kiss on Anne's still wide-open mouth and headed toward the bathroom, "And just sleeping with you is the most intimate experience I've ever shared with a woman. Boggles the mind what it will be like when we finally make love, doesn't it?"

The bathroom door was already shut before Anne's befuddled mind cleared sufficiently to make heads or tails of what Barbie had said. Then it hit her. "WHEN we make love? WHEN?!?!" she demanded of the blank portal.

The door swung open, "When, darlin' - we're way past if," Barbie promised. "Better go get dressed. I'm hungry, aren't you?" and then reclosed the door.

Jane watched the three bathing-suited figures frolic in her pool - one blonde, one strawberry blonde, and one with the pure black hair of Asia. Jessica had been reluctant to participate, she thought with an indulgent grin. Apparently, even someone with Jesse's unusual knowledge and experience with the masquerade got a bit apprehensive about appearing only in a swimsuit.

Marie was supervising at the pool, and catering the teens' party at the same time. They were evidently having a very good time, despite Jessica and Adrienne having to keep their secret, and despite Xhinea's shyness.

"I want to thank you for what you and your students, especially Adrienne have done for my daughter, Jane."

Surprised, because in her reveries, Jane had all but forgotten the presence of the other woman. "Pardon me?"

Celia smiled at her new friend. "Xhinea has been terribly lonely since she came here - first because of her lack of English, and then because she's, well, not the most outgoing child. Adrienne has been very good for her. I'm glad she's finally made a friend."

Warning bells went off in Jane's head as she considered the full impact of the doctor's words. "I'm . . . glad, too," she finally managed to get out with some semblance of good feeling. *DAMN!*

As the BMW sped down the interstate toward New Haven, the two statuesque blondes retreated into their prior silence. It was more Skipper's choice than Barbie's. The taller blonde's lighthearted comments on casual topics had led nowhere, polite responses from her companion almost worse than no response at all. Finally, Barbie decided to take the issue head on, pushing to find out what was bothering Skipper.

"Penny for your thoughts," she offered hopefully.

"Hmmm? What?" Skipper replied, her attention wrenched back from a distance not measured by the car's odometer.

"Why the silent treatment?" Barbie asked. "I didn't offend you, did I?"

The shy look came into Skipper's eyes again, and she looked away to stare down the highway. Then she took a deep breath. "I guess it's because I don't know what to say. What I'm feeling - it's so big and so different from anything I've ever felt before. . . I just don't know what to say or do, and I don't want to mess it up!"

"Damn."

"DAMN?!?" Anne squeaked. "Why 'damn'?"

Barbie let out a pent up breath of frustration. "'Damn' because for the first time, I wish this damned car had bench front seats so I could slide across and cuddle up to you."

"Oh," Anne said weakly, and then added more strongly, "Oh." A shaky giggle escaped and she turned to glance at Barbie with a look that was at once shy and mischievous. "Well, I don't think that would be a good idea, Blondie. With that gear shift console there, you might just hurt something. . ummm, vital."

Instinctively, Barbie clamped her thighs together protectively, and then blushed furiously. "Uh, right. Oh look, only another fifty miles to New Haven. You'll like Tia Judith."

"Tia_ Judith?"

"Would you believe that her maiden name was Duarte?"

"And you call her 'Tia'? Isn't that Spanish for 'Aunt'?"

"Yep. Another one of Momma Ruth and Momma Jane's Sorority Sisters."

"Oh my."

Adrienne felt more than a bit of anxiety as she waited to be admitted to Jane Thompson's study. Her presence had been commanded during dinner, following cleanup. Some of her worst experiences had been in that room, usually following some failure on her part to follow the rules. She could only wonder what she'd done THIS time.

"Enter," was the firm, but not stern command.

With one final deep, cleansing breath, Adrienne Braithwaite opened the door and stepped inside to face whatever had to be faced, and in keeping with her promise, as cheerfully as possible.
 
 
Chapter 34: New Acquaintances, New Friends
 
Whatever images Anne had conceived of Barbie's 'Tia Judith', none of them came close to the reality of the woman.

Judith Duarte Cranston was a perfect pixie of a woman with the odd combination of auburn hair and olive skin that is unique to women of Hispanic heritage. Her shocking blue eyes smiled even when her lips didn't, which was in and of itself rare. And she wore the persona of madcap art dealer/entrepreneur with a panache Anne could not help but envy. How many women, she wondered, could wear a bright red gypsy headcloth combined with a floor-length gown of tie-dyed green, yellow and blue silk while wearing a pair of red ice-pick heels, and still look chic?

Barbie's Tia Judith was the first in Anne's experience.

The little college-town art shop was empty when they arrived, so Judith had come up to them with a smile of greeting. "Hello," she'd said in a smoky alto that had Anne thinking of 1940 film noire femme-fatales. "May I help you?"

"Sure can, Tia Judith," Kenneth's voice replied. "Tante Marie's birthday's coming up, and I need a special gift?"

The look on the older woman's face was priceless, Anne thought, absolutely priceless. *At least I'm not the only one Barbie/Kenneth/Kendra does that to,* she mused, oddly pleased with the thought.

"Oh, God, KENDRA!" the gypsy squealed and then threw herself into the tall blonde's arms. "It's so GOOD to see YOU again! I know how Kenneth has missed you, even if he didn't admit it."

Then it hit Anne. "You know!" she said in wonder. "You know about. . . Kendra."

Releasing her death-grip, but not letting go completely. "Of course. In fact, my nephew is one of Jane's graduates."

"How is Guillermo?" Barbie asked, her voice now back in 'girl' mode.

"Fine. He's still at seminary. He should complete his studies next spring. Then he'll have to decide whether he's going to actually take holy orders and be ordained."

"A PRIEST?!?" Anne demanded. "A Jane Thompson graduate is entering the priesthood?"

"That's the current plan," Judith replied. "We're all very proud of Georgie. Wait here." Judith went to the front door and locked it, putting up a 'Back Soon' sign in the window. "Come on back and have some tea. I can't wait to find out what's going on here. Oh, Tamara is going to be so upset she missed you, dear. She's at camp in New Hampshire this week. You'll stay the night?"

Dazed by the seemingly disconnected jumps in Judith's monologue, Anne could only follow, wondering what this incredible woman would say or do next.

Adrienne Braithwaite sat quietly in front of the satin-decorated vanity, brushing her hair almost mindlessly as her eyes stared at pictures beyond her mirror. The memories of the day's events played across the theater of her mind with stark clarity.

She'd had fun today - for the first time since she'd arrived in Jane Thompson's frilly prison. Only that wasn't quite true - today was the first time she'd had fun - real fun - in longer than she cared to remember. The so-called good times in recent years had all too often been at the expense of someone else. It wasn't having fun, she realized, so much as making fun - of someone who couldn't, or in the case of Anne, wouldn't defend themselves.

That wasn't fun - that was cruelty.

And that was why she was here, wasn't it? Adrian had run with a pack, safe within its numbers and had hurt people whose only crime was to be unable to defend themselves. It was a wonder that the Judge had given Adrian anything other than a one-way ticket to juvie.

Which made her current situation even more difficult. Just when she'd recognized how cruel Adrian had been, THIS had to happen.

"Oh, god, what am I going to do?" she asked the tear-stained face staring back at her from the mirror's silvery depths. "What AM I going to DO?!?!"

"How long have you known about Ms. Thompson's program, Ms. Cranston?" Anne asked as she waited for Barbie to bring in their bags.

"Please, call me Tia Judith, dear. Oh, I've known just about forever, I think. Jane and I were roommates as freshmen. When she found out what was going on at Eastmore, she had to tell someone, and since I lived close by, she called me."

"And you had no problem with your nephew. . . going to her? Knowing as you did what she does to those boys?"

"Dear, I know Jane and so of course I had no worries sending him there. In fact, I was the one who contacted Jane when Guillermo was in all that trouble - to see if she thought she could help. Poor Georgie," Judith reminisced, a fond smile on her attractive face, "I am afraid the poor dear did not make a very attractive girl - at least in the beginning because he was a bit, well, chubby, so the program was doubly tough on him. A side benefit of Jane's program is that he learned good eating habits and lost about fifty pounds in the bargain during the six months he spent with Jane and Marie."

"But you weren't worried that it might, well, change him?"

"That was the whole idea!"

"But he's decided to be a priest - giving up. .. " Anne blushed as she realized what she almost said.

Judith laughed merrily. "You mean sex, dear? Put him off women? Make the vow of chastity all the easier for him to escape our evil clutches?"

There was a wicked twinkle in those startling blue eyes that made Anne relax somehow. "Well, yes, wouldn't he? Didn't he?"

"Oh, lord no! In all honesty, dear, I don't think he'll take final vows because he likes women too much. In fact, with what he learned at Jane's, he became quite, um, popular with the ladies. I mean, wouldn't you like a guy who *really* knew what a woman liked and disliked, how much time it took to get ready to go somewhere, who could choose presents for you that were stylish instead of sluttish?"

That wicked grin flashed again, and Anne felt herself blushing again. What WAS it about these Jane Thompson friends that made her color up like an over-ripe tomato at the drop of a comment?

"Oops, silly me," Judith laughed gaily. "Of course you do, don't you? Anyway, back to Georgie - it's just possible he was considering becoming a priest because he felt he needed a little . . . extra incentive to keep his zipper up, if you know what I mean. I don't think that's a good enough reason to be a priest, of course, and if he decides that's really his motivation, he won't either. But in the end, that doesn't matter. We'll love him anyway. And he'll find another way to help people. That's just too important to him. If he does, it will be because he has a tremendous need to . . . to help and because, well, he wants to be a model of what is good in the priesthood."

"You're so proud of him, and that's wonderful."

"Thanks in large part to Jane, Anne. This is really about your brother, isn't it? You're afraid his sexuality will be adversely affected by the discipline she enforces on her students. Well, you can put that out of your mind right now. Jane would cut her own throat before she did anything to harm a child. ANY child."

"You sound so certain of that," Anne said.

Just then, Barbie walked through the doors, cases in hand. "Usual room, Tia?"

"Yes, dear," the tiny redhead beamed. "And put Anne's things in Tamara's room, please." Judith then paused, obviously waiting for the tall blonde disappear up the stairs. "There's your answer, child," she continued. "As the French might say, 'Cherchez la feminized' or something like that. Jane knew something was wrong with Kenneth's case in the first two days, and she stopped what she was doing, even though every piece of documented evidence indicated he was a hard case bad kid. Rather than make a mistake, she stopped. If she's still working with your brother, then trust me, she's helping him."

When the blonde did not reply, only stared off reflectively, the petite Latina kissed her on the cheek. "Everything will work out, dear. Now, c'mon. You can help with dinner. I'm fixing paella for Barbie. She needs a break from Marie's French cuisine."

Jessica watched her little sister carefully, her brow furrowing in concentration. Something didn't quite fit. There was something . . . odd about the way Adrienne had been behaving ever since breakfast. Oh, she'd done her exercises without complaint, cleaned up both breakfast and lunch dishes with a smile on her face, for goodness sake - she'd even thanked Aunt Jane for the critique of her outfit and make-up.

Yes, indeed, something was wrong here. She'd spoken with Tante Marie about it after breakfast, and the little housekeeper had assured her that students going through 'the crisis' sometimes behaved a little strangely until they worked things out. They just bore a little extra watching is all.

Which Jessica had done, and she was more convinced something was wrong. Problem was, if Jane and Marie didn't see it, why didn't they see it? Maybe she should try to sound Adrienne out a bit. Maybe she'd talk to her 'big sister' about something she wouldn't talk to the two older women.
 
 
Chapter 35: Night Moods
 
She was SO tired, and yet sleep would not come. The glowing alarm digital clock had malevolently shown 2:45 A.M. when Adrienne had finally given up and turned on the feminine Tiffany lamp on her night table. Her desk, and the paper that rested there had drawn her in spite of her best efforts to resist.

She reread the twenty five hundred word essay, even though the text was familiar. With a sigh, she went back to her bed and for the first time since she'd been transformed, cuddled up to the large stuffed bear Marie insisted belonged there as much as Adrienne did. In the little halo of colored light thrown by the small lamp, her mind drifted back to what she thought of as the 'good old days', when Adrian's parents were still alive. Adrian had never, not even for a moment, needed to worry about whether his parents had wanted him - about whether he was loved and valued. Then, in a moment of rare self-honesty, she admitted that Barbara Anne had never given her cause to doubt her care and love either. Maybe that was why Adrian had felt safe in lashing out at her - he knew she'd never leave him, never give up on him.

Which made Adrian pretty much a louse, didn't it?

When she thought of what Adrian had, and not valued, and compared that to what Xhinea, and so many other girls like her in her homeland, DIDN'T have, it made her feel very ashamed. That girl had overcome so much - a new country, a new language, but at the same time, it was clear that she was lonely here. She'd seemed surprised when Adrienne had preferred spending time with her over Jessica.

God, but she was cute in that golden swimsuit at the swim party the day before. Definitely 'ask-to-go-out' cute, and yet, Xhinea was a friend, too. Somehow, in a way that Adrian had never considered about a pretty girl, that was more important.

Talking to Jessica hadn't helped. Maybe because Adrienne hadn't been willing to open up to her. After all, Jessica called Ms. Jane 'AUNT Jane' and Adrienne had never been too sure of that one's protestations of friendship. After all, hadn't she been the one who stuck Adrian with the name Adrienne?

God, but she wished she knew where to turn - who to trust. Class was tomorrow. . no, today - this afternoon, in fact, and she still had no idea what to do.

She rolled her head over to look at the alarm clock. 3:22 AM. No wonder she was exhausted, and Ms. Jane would expect her at the breakfast table precisely at 7:45 AM - bright eyed and appropriately made up.

Thinking of Ms. Jane reminded the boy-girl yet again of their little discussion after the pool-party. Grimly fighting against the loneliness those thoughts evoked, she ruthlessly pounded her pillow and flicked off the light.

And closed her eyes tightly against the tears that burned their way down her cheeks.

The Westminster chime of the Grandfather clock in the main hall rang four bells. Giving up on sleeping, the tall blonde turned on the bedside light and got to her feet. With fatigue weighing heavily upon her, she strolled over to the vanity where she sat down, her eyes fixed on the reflection of herself.

She'd been hoping that Anne would find her way to this room after Tia Judith had retired for the night, but evidently she'd decided to stay in her own room. Probably didn't want to impose on Tia's hospitality that way knowing the very polite Anne.

Lord, but she hoped that was the reason. In one night, Barbie had become rather addicted to having that long, shapely body cuddled up to her own as they slept.

She, no, check that, HE wanted to sleep that way for the rest of their lives. "You're in love with her, Roberts," the femininely attired young man admitted aloud to the mirror's reflection. "Now, what the hell are you going to do about it?"

Well, that was certainly a no-brainer. He wanted to marry her! Tomorrow wouldn't be too soon, would it? The laugh that answered that question was both self-deprecating and sardonic. The answer Momma Jane would give that question didn't bear thinking about. He didn't think she could still order him into Raggedy Annie outfits, but he didn't want to test that theory, either.

No, their wedding WHEN, not if, it happened would take even the very formidable Jane Thompson and Tante Marie several weeks to plan - at the very least. Probably several months, Ken/Barbie thought glumly.

"Aren't we putting the horse before the marriage-carriage here, young Jedi?" he asked the mirror. A woman like Anne deserved a wedding like that - something she could remember with joy her entire life - the only one she'd have her entire life because Kenneth Roberts intended to be the ONLY man she'd ever call 'husband'. Well, that meant an Aunt Jane extravaganza - once she agreed to marry him, that was.

And shouldn't the proposal be just as memorable? Kenneth's brothers, although both had finally won the women of their dreams, had not done the proposal thing as well as they might have wished. Michael had gotten Janice to do the proposing, which knowing Janice had probably been the best thing to do. And Audrey had basically ordered Darryl to propose. Well, that wasn't going to happen this time - THIS one of Jane's boys was going to do the proposal thing right.

"I need a plan!" he said, racing for Barbie's luggage where the current volume of the daily journal Kenneth Roberts had kept since childhood was packed.

"Let's see. Romance, gotta be romantic," he said aloud as he returned to the vanity and began to write. "Dinner - very swanky. Have Jane take her shopping - Marie, too. Dream dress, lingerie, everything - for HER, not ME! Ken Roberts does his proposing in a tux with all the trimmings! Hmmmm. Have to ask Caro and Sandy to do a makeover for her. Flowers and candy -can't have a romance without flowers and candy. Petunias and orchids, I think. Midwest cute with exotic sexiness. Dancing. . . there has to be dancing. Wonder what her favorite love song is? Note to self - find out and have the band play it so I can go down on bended knee on the dance floor to offer her the ring. OMIGOD, I've got to get a RING? DAMN! What kind of stone?!? A diamond? Too cold for her. She needs something with heat to match what she tries to hide. I think maybe a colored stone. . . . an emerald, maybe. Note to self - ask Tante Marie - she's the romantic expert in the family."

The tall blonde filled whole pages of the journal making notes and plans until well after the sun had crept above the eastern horizon, but by the time Kenneth Roberts crawled back into bed, he was sure he now had the perfect plan for Operation Marry Skipper.
 
 
Chapter 36: The Best Laid Schemes
 
"You're still upset." Jessica said to Adrienne, as she helped the junior student set the table for breakfast. "You're sure you won't talk to me about whatever it is?"

"I told you it's nothing!" Adrienne snapped, and then closed her eyes at least partly in shame. "Sorry - I didn't sleep well. I shouldn't have snapped at you."

"If it's costing you sleep, it's more than nothing," the strawberry-curled teen offered gently. "It might help to talk about it."

Fatigue-fired anger started to flicker inside Adrienne's breast, but this time she tamped it back. "I don't think so, but thank you, Jessica," she said with stiff formality.

"You're afraid I'll go to Jane with it before you've worked out whatever it is that's bothering you." It wasn't a question.

"You are part of this, Jessica," the junior student said flatly. "How much, I don't know, but it's become clear to me that you've been involved on several of the setups Ms. Jane has pulled on me."

She could have refuted that charge, Jessica thought, but that would have simply supported Adrienne's unstated assumption that she could not trust the older girl with her secrets. What to do, she wondered. If she went to Jane and simply said 'Adrienne is having real problems' and Jane reacted, wouldn't the girl decide that, too, justified her opinion? "You need to talk to someone."

"Who?" Adrienne asked. "I won't go to anyone in this house or in town, and who else could I talk to who would understand . . . understand. . "

"That you're really Adrian under that nightgown, peignoir and makeup?" Jessica finished.

"Right. Someone who wouldn't think less of me, for having let her do this to me, and might still help me. . . figure this out."

Jessica thought for a moment, trying to figure out who the child could ask. "How about your sister?"

"She won't talk to me."

"She will if Aunt Jane tells her it's okay."

Hope sparked in the weary eyes, but only for a second. "Ms. Jane will listen in, and until I know in my heart what the right answer is, I don't want her involved."

"Are you planning on escaping, or trying to hurt anyone here?"

"OF COURSE NOT!" the answer was firm, the tone utterly outraged.

Perfect, Jessica thought. "I'll talk to Aunt Jane for you. If you like, I'll take you to the convenience store down the road and you can call from there. That way Jane can't listen in. Your sister might still talk to her about it, though," she added in bit of honesty.

"I'll only do it if Annie promises not to talk to Ms. Thompson before I give her the go ahead. Tell your Aunt that, so she'll know before she agrees. I'm not trying to play unfair here, Jessica, but this is something I need to work out without Ms. Jane telling me what to do."

"Fair enough. Look, you finish setting the table and I'll go find Aunt Jane, okay?"

"Okay, and Jessica? Thanks."

"Anne?" Judith called, even as she gently shook the tall girl's shoulder to help her wake up.

"Mmmm hmmm?"

"Wake up, Anne," Judith ordered.

"Wha. . .Tia Judith? What is it?"

"You have a phone call - Jane needs to speak with you.

Jessica watched her little sister approach the outdoor phone cubicle, Jane's phone card clutched in her hand - almost like a weapon. *Well,* she thought, *if I am wrong about this, then it might very well have much the same effect for Jane's program. I almost can't believe Aunt Jane bought into this wild hair of mine.*

In fact, it had taken some heavy duty . . . debate to get Jane to agree to this, but in the end, it was her own conviction that Adrienne was about to turn the corner that convinced her to go along with Jessica's plan.

Now, all Jessica could do was hope she wasn't badly wrong about this plan.

Adrienne stifled the urge to yawn as she picked out the phone number Jane had given her and then entered the phone card data.

"Hello?" a cautious feminine voice answered.

"Annie?" Adrienne asked. "It's me. . Adrienne. . I mean, Adrian, oh, hell, I don't even know myself anymore."

"Jane told me you would call, and that you would be using a public phone," Anne said, her voice warming just a bit. "Why don't you use Adrienne, so that you don't draw attention to yourself."

"O. . .okay. Anne? I need some advice. I have a problem, and I don't know what to do, okay?"

Actually, that wasn't quite true, either. As she'd concluded during her long sleepless night, there were solutions available to her that would effectively solve her problem - at least two of them, in fact. The real problem with which she was struggling was that either solution had the potential to hurt someone. She just didn't know who would get hurt worse, or whether that mattered in the long run. She wondered if this was what Ms. Jane would call an ethical dilemma.

"Annie? May. .. May I ask you a question? . .. .Please? It's sort of personal."

"Sure," Anne said before adding quickly, "but if it's too personal, the answer might be just that."

"It's not that kind of question!" the boy-girl spluttered in surprise.

Anne couldn't help it and laughed gently at her sibling's outrage. "That's okay, then. What's the question?"

"Umm, it's kind of hard, but have you ever had to make a decision, where if you make it one way, you're sure of what will happen - at least you think you are. It will be, well, pretty uncomfortable for you. On the other hand, if you go the other way, it won't hurt you at all, but might bother someone else - how badly, you don't know."

The voice at the other end of the phone connection didn't answer immediately, and Adrienne found herself sincerely wishing she could see her sister, could see if that normally smooth brow furrowed for just a moment, or if her lips curled into a bit of a grimace. "That's a very broad question, um, Adrienne, and as you said, quite personal."

Anne thought about the decision she'd made when her parents died to take on her brother at the cost of finishing her own college education, or the ones she'd recently been confronted with - to leave her brother in the hands of Ms. Thompson, or the one she'd made to accompany Kenneth, as Barbie, to his Mother's funeral. Both had hidden costs and potential hurts involved, to herself and to others. Oh yes, she thought, she knew about Catch 22 situations, but they weren't the type of situation she wanted to discuss with the brother who was still rigged out as a girl because of those decisions.

"Yes," Anne sighed into the phone. "I did, but I won't discuss them with you just now."

"Oh, that's not what I meant. What I was hoping you might tell me is, well, what things you considered when you made the decision you made. You probably would have thought of things. . .well, types of things I haven't."

"I don't suppose you'll tell me the problem," Anne asked cautiously.

"It's something Ms. Jane has given me to . . .to think about, and . . and. . Look, Annie, you know why I was sent to Ms. Thompson, right?"

"Of course I do," she replied. "What has that to do with this conversation?"

Adrienne wondered at the touch of sharp asperity in her sister's voice - it was a tone she hadn't heard very often from the soft-hearted Barbara Anne. She wondered what had caused that? "Look, Sis, we both know that I don't have a whole lot of experience thinking about someone other than myself. Left on my own, I'll probably miss something important."

*Damn!* Anne thought. *I WISH I knew more about what was going on behind the scenes at Seasons House just now, and yet, would that make a difference to me? Would my answers to her change?* The tall blonde thought about that for all of maybe two seconds and shook her head. *Whatever else, my brother deserves my best shot and complete honesty. When in doubt, Braithwaite, tell the truth. It may not help, but it will be better than the alternative.*

"I can only tell you that, besides the obvious, there were two things I had to consider that ultimately made the decision for me," her older sister finally said.

"Yes, Sis?" Adrienne asked eagerly.

"First, I asked myself if what would happen to me was really as bad as I thought it was. In other words, was I making the potential risk to myself seem larger in my mind that it would be in fact."

Adrienne frowned as she considered that and tried to put it in the context of her current situation. Her fatigue-dulled brain rebelled so she filed it for future consideration and returned her full attention to the phone. Perhaps her second point would be easier to apply, and would make struggling with the first point unnecessary. "And the other thing, Anne?"

"I asked myself how bad it would be FOR me if the potentially bad thing happened to the other person." The phone line went momentarily silent and Anne wondered if the connection had been lost. "I cared . . . cared a great deal for that person, Adri . . ah, Adrienne. Had yo . . had that person been hurt, it would have hurt me just as badly, if not more so."

Adrienne had never thought of such a thing, and it frightened her to think that, regardless of what she did, she could be hurt.

They both lapsed into silence for several moments, both siblings lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Adrienne had to ask. "Annie? Please, how did you decide?"

For another space of time, nothing passed between them across the distance. Finally, a long, drawn-out sigh signaled her sister's decision to answer. "I elected to take the heat myself," she said in what Adrienne thought was a very odd turn of phrase from Annie. "Hurting that other person carried too high a price. In trying to protect myself, I'd have only hurt both of us more in the long run."

"Oh."

Anne stared at the buzzing phone set for several moments before slowing returning it to the cradle. She was suddenly terrified she might have done the wrong thing. How would her . . . sister-brother react to that discussion? She should have insisted on knowing the problem, but she didn't, and now, she didn't know what to do. Who could she talk to?

And then, the answer was there. Thought became deed as she strode swiftly from the room and practically ran up the stairs to the guest room.

She didn't even bother to knock. She simply opened the door and entered. "Barbie?" she called to the blanket covered lump curled in the center of the large bed. "I need to talk to Kenneth - NOW!"

Fortunately, Barbie/Kenneth Roberts was, as she already knew, one of those disgusting people who woke up instantly, fully alert. She could almost hate him for that - almost, but not now.

Jane's antennae were quivering - every instinct developed over thirty years of working with over one hundred troubled boys told her this one was teetering on the edge of the transition. Because of that knowledge, she'd almost refused permission for Adrienne to speak with her sister. In the end, it had seemed she was damned if she did and damned if she didn't. She really wished she knew what was going on inside the bleached blond head, but this was the moment at which she could least anticipate what her student was thinking or what she might do. *Which is precisely why it's a crisis,* she reminded herself. She'd decided to allow the contact because, at some point, she had to trust her instincts and they all told her this child was ready to make her, or rather his own good decisions.

That did not, however, mean that the ultimate control freak of Seasons House could completely let go. Jane now wished that she had called Darla and told her that she'd accompany Adrienne to mime class that afternoon. *Those instincts, again,* she thought, laughing wryly at herself. *I should be there this time. Just wish I knew why.*

Just then, her private line rang. Picking it up, she was surprised when the voice on the other end was Kenneth's tenor. "Hi, Momma Jane. Anne needs to talk to you."

"So, that's what happened. What do we do now?"

Kenneth sat on the bed, outwardly still Barbie, but acting and speaking like himself now because Anne had requested that. "Have you spoken with Jane since you talked with your sister . . I mean, your brother?"

Anne choked back a half laugh, half sob. "I could hardly keep it straight either. He called himself by his male name, but the voice and intonation were feminine throughout. To answer your question, though, no. I guess I should have."

Kenneth reached for the bedside phone and slipped the receiver beneath Barbie's blond curls while he punched in a number from memory. Anne watched him listen for a few moments and then heard his voice say, "Hi, Momma Jane. Anne needs to talk to you."

He handed the receiver to her. "Tell her what you told me. I'll tell Tia Judith we need a quick breakfast before we head out. Tell Jane we can be in Kingston by about two pm this afternoon."

"Ms. Thompson? I. . . I wanted to tell you about the call from Adrian. . I mean, Adrienne."
 
 

End Part III


 
 
To Be Continued...
 



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