Seasons of Change - Book 14 - Part 4 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 4 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 IV

 

 
 
Chapter 37: Breakthrough
 
After the mime tea-party skits, Adrienne foolishly let herself get trapped by 'I'm gonna be head cheerleader someday' Lori Hathaway and her clique of curvy chicklets.

"Hey, Adrienne, what was all that bit about using two hands on everything? Were you trying to say the teapot was heavy or something?"

"It was a formal oriental tea-ceremony, Lori," explained Adrienne. "Cradling the teacup in both hands, and offering it gracefully with your whole attention, is supposed to imply you are offering yourself as well - as a gesture of commitment and friendship."

Lori's partner, Naomi Rand, said, "Yeah, that's what it looked like all right. If 'Skinny Shinny' had held your hand for about two more seconds when you offered her 'yourself', I was gonna call the cops on you perv's."

Her giggle triggered the clique into smoochy air kisses with each other, but at least it provided a distraction from Adrienne's more-than-reasonable embarrassment at the taunt. She was also saved from having to defend herself by the arrival of her own partner, Xhinea, carrying cups of punch for herself and Adrienne.

Seeing Xhinea offer a cup to Adrienne triggered another round of giggles, stifled by Lori as she slowly and carefully, as though speaking to a small child, said "So, um, Shin . ., uh, Zinnia, um, how do you, like, um, like America?"

"I've been here for five years," Xhinea replied evenly, "And I like it very well, thank you. And my name is Xhinea, not Zinnia. Zinnias are flowers. Excuse me for interrupting."

Horrified and furious, Adrienne watched her friend stride away, her back very straight and very stiff. "That was really dumb, Lori," she fumed and then ran after Xhinea.

She caught up with her just as the dark-haired girl was slipping into the ladies restroom. Before Xhinea could close and lock the door, Adrienne was in there with her. "Leave me alone!" the little Asian ordered, her voice now choked with tears.

"I can't do that," Adrienne said, feeling her own tears start. "You're my friend, and you're hurting." With that declaration, Xhinea found herself being hugged. Surprised, she resisted, but only for a moment, and then returned the embrace.

"I'm sorry that happened," Adrienne said, when they finally relaxed their mutual deathgrip on each other.

With a deep breath, Xhinea forced a smile. "I should be used to that by now. Either they ignore me, or they go out of their way to be 'nice' to the ignorant little foreigner. Usually, I don't let it bother me, but after having someone treat me like . . a friend, it was just too much."

"Better now?"

"Yes. You reminded me that you truly are my friend - when you wouldn't let me hide away and cry alone. You have no idea what that means to me. You're really sweet, Adrienne. Special."

Adrienne felt a freezing chill slide down her spine, and then her own tears returned. "You wouldn't feel that way if you knew the real story. I'm. . .I'm not a very nice person, Xhinea."

To Adrienne's utter shock, the girl laughed.

"No," she reiterated, "it's true. In fact, the only reason I'm here right now? It's because the alternative was jail."

"Why," Xhinea asked, her eyes widening in surprise.

Adrienne paused, then took a deep breath and said, "I just got in a lot of trouble. Little things, maybe, but a whole lot of them. Shoplifting, some vandalism, bullying other kids - generally running around with a bad crowd and doing what they did to be accepted. One of the guys in my group had some marijuana with him, the last time we got picked up, and . . . I ended up here."

Xhinea's eyes momentarily went wide and then narrowed speculatively. "So what?" she retorted. "You're not that way anymore, are you?" Before the blonde could even shake her head, the dark-haired girl asked, "Will you go back to being what you WERE before? What you were that led to you being here? I think not."

"But. . ."

"But, but, but, but, but. . .Adrienne, you sound like a cartoon motor boat. All I know is that since I've come here, I've been too different for any of the other girls to bother with. Do you know, I've NEVER had a girlfriend before in my life? I'm not about to get rid of the only one I've got."

"A girlfriend?" the petite blonde nearly gawked, then all of the sudden she remembered she had her arms around a beautiful girl with dramatically accented lips, so close, so full . . .

That focus was shattered when the Asian girl slumped back. "Well, unless you don't want to be my friend?" Xhinea's voice faltered and nearly broke again.

"Oh, yeah, sure," Adrienne hastened to reassure, "but I guess I hadn't really ever thought of you as, um, 'a girlfriend.', umm, before you just said it, that is."

Xhinea grinned, mischief dancing her dark eyes. "Hellooo, what else am I going to be? Your boyfriend? Do I look like a boy to you after Miss Wave-Them-Around and her friends in there?"

"No way," she squeaked. "*You* don't look like a boy. My goodness, Xhinea, don't you know you're beautiful?!?! But . . ."

"But what?"

"God, I don't know how to deal with this."

"Something's bothering you. You helped me, let me help you."

"What's bothering me is how unfair this all is - especially to you!" Adrienne snapped out. Here it was, she realized. The problem Jane had discussed with her, warned her about - the one she had done nothing about. So now, she was going to hurt or be hurt.

"I don't think so," was the soft reply. A gentle hand reached out to stroke a wayward lock from Adrienne's eyes. "You're my friend, Adrienne. We'll work it out."

"But that's JUST IT!" Adrienne cried, her own voice too loud now. "Look, I told you that I'm here on a sort of . . . probation or alternative to being in jail. Well, one of these days I'm going to be released and I'll go back to . . . where I was before."

Suddenly still, Xhinea stared at her friend. "Does that mean you cannot ever come back? Call me? Write to me? Explain this to me! Just because you are free of this school, you will just disappear from my life? Just like that?"

The hurt was back in Xhinea's eyes and voice, and Adrienne just couldn't stand it. In that moment, she understood what Annie had meant when she'd said that the pain from hurting someone important was the worst of all. In that moment, she, like her sister, elected to take the heat herself. "I have been, am now, and will keep on being your friend, Xhinea, if you want me for one," she choked out, struggling to control the tears that again threatened. "But . . . I can't be your . . . GIRL-friend."

For the first time in her life, Xhinea understood the linguistic necessity for that odd three-letter word so many of the students in her school used so very often. "Huh?"

With another deep breath, Adrienne regained some measure of composure and forced herself to smile. "Ummm, it might be easier if I try to tell it like it was about somebody else? You know, kind of like telling you a story, okay?"

More confused than ever, Xhinea returned to the commode and sat down, but her eyes never left Adrienne's. "Okay."

"Once upon a time, there was a boy whose name was, umm, Adrian. For the first thirteen years of his life, he was a pretty happy kid - oh, he was kind of short and a lot scrawny for a boy, but all in all, his life was pretty good because he was loved and knew it. Then came the day a drunk driver crashed into his parents' car. . . "

"YOU'RE a BOYYYY?!?!?" Xhinea squealed.

"QUIET!" Adrienne hissed, looking nervously at the bathroom door and hoping the outer hall was empty.

"NO WAY!"

"And so, when you. . .I guess, graduate? You put away your dresses and curls, and leave forever?

Now it was Adrienne who sat shaken and spent on the commode seat. "No, I wouldn't - COULDN'T do that to you. Or to me. You're my friend, and trust me on this, I don't have any more friends than you do. In all honesty, though, going away is what Ms. Thompson wanted - what she expects of me. Something about the more people who know a secret the less likely it is to stay one, and this one needs to stay secret."

"America, like China, puts great importance on being and acting male," Xhinea observed, "So I understand the need for secrecy. I will keep yours. Friends do that for each other."

Adrienne laughed weakly. "Thanks."

"What is the name of my girlfriend, when she isn't being a girl? Is it really Adrian?"

The blonde nodded sheepishly.

"Well, then I am doubly fortunate in having you for my friend," she said, the hint of mischief back in her eyes.

"Oh? How so?"

"I told you I've never had a girl friend, right? Well I've never had a boy friend, either. Now I have both."

The blond teen's smile grew broader. "I'd like that, too. It might take some doing, though. First, there's my sister. I have some work ahead of me to get to where she trusts me, and she'd have to trust me if I'm going to come back here from time to time to be with you."

"You will win her over," Xhinea said. "As I said, you are a very nice person. You said your sister was first. Does that imply a second?"

"Your Mom."

"Momma likes you," Xhinea answered quickly and then stopped, her eyes going wide. "Oh, my."

"As Ms. Thompson would say, 'just so'. Your Mom likes Adrienne. She doesn't know I'm a boy and she also doesn't know the trouble I was in to get sent here. She might not care for you to associate with me, even if my . . . unusual clothes don't bother her. I'm not really good boyfriend material from a Mother's viewpoint."

"I think my Mother will be fine," Xhinea defended. "Eventually. Maybe if your Ms. Jane spoke to her?"

Adrienne considered that. "Maybe, but I think I need to be a man about this and tell her the truth first. After that, well, we'll have to see, won't we?"

"But we're still friends, right? And no matter what, we stay that way?"

"You bet. Come on, let's get out of here. Ms. Smith will be looking for me and I don't want her any more annoyed with me than she already is."

But it wasn't Darla who awaited them in the main entrance. It was "Ms. Jane? What are you doing here?"
 
 
Chapter 38: Gang Aft Agley
 
Silence, Anne decided as they passed through Bridgeport on their way to Kingston, was all well and good, but it made it too easy to brood. Since there wasn't anything she could do until they arrived at Jane Thompson's house, the brooding didn't help. Unfortunately, her companion wasn't doing much in the way of talking, either. Well, she wanted distraction and entertainment just then, and decided that her would-be lover was nominated. *Start as you mean to go,* she told herself.

"You're awfully quiet," she observed and nearly winced at the inanity of the comment.

Startled, Barbie jolted at the sudden intrusion of sound eliciting a giggle from Anne. Smiling also, the tall blonde asked "And just who are you laughing at, my good woman?"

"Gotcha. Now, answer my question - why are you so quiet?"

Knowing better than to admit to being immersed in a lovely little fantasy in which Anne, Kenneth, an expensive bottle of champagne and a large sapphire engagement ring played prominent roles, Barbie tried a little Thompsonian strategy. "You were quiet," she answered without answering and then shifted subjects, "Worried about Adrian?"

Sighing, Anne nodded. "I'd feel better if your Ms. Thompson had prepared me better for that phone call. After talking to her again, I'm worried I said the wrong things."

"Did you tell the truth?"

"Well, yes, but what if that wasn't the right thing to do?"

Barbie considered that and shrugged.

"Jane didn't tell you what to expect or what to say when she called the first time, right?" Barbie already knew the answer, but allowed Anne to nod before continuing. "Okay, here's a hard truth about my beloved Momma-Jane. She never lies, or asks others to lie - at least by her definition."

"By HER definition? What does that mean?"

Anne heard her friend laugh. "My Momma-Jane has a very lawyerly attitude and outlook on the subject of the truth. In other words, it's only a lie if it is complete falsehood. She does, however, use the time honored strategies of misleading by how she tells the truth, when she tells the truth or by how much of the truth she tells. Winston Spencer Churchill could have taken lessons from Jane Thompson on the creative use of truth in deception."

"So?"

"So, if she didn't tell you what to say to Adrian, or suggest how you might talk to him, then she wanted you to answer his questions as honestly as you could."

"You're sure about that?"

"Mom is never subtle about giving direction where, in her view, direction is needed."

"I see," Anne said, her mind churning to make sense of all that Barbie had just told her, and what Jane Thompson had and had not said in their two phone conversations. Which was why she caught on that "Do you realize you just referred to my brother in the masculine tense again?"

Barbie nodded. "Yeah, guess I did. Probably because if Jane is allowing, even encouraging you to talk to him, without her telling you more than she did, it's because she thinks he's turned the corner."

"So quickly?"

"According to Darryl, when it happens? It's sudden."

"Oh, I hope so. Now, answer my question."

"Pardon me?"

"Don't think I missed that slick-attorney maneuver of changing the subject to one I'd be likely to talk about. What were YOU brooding about before?"

"I wasn't brooding."

"Oh, yes you were, tall-stuff. Trust me, I know brooding when I see it. You WERE brooding. What about?"

Damn, Barbie/Kenneth thought as she/he stared at the lovely blonde in the BMW's driver's seat, but she was so beautiful when she grinned like that. Almost like a little girl caught playing a mischievous trick on the boy next door. Kenneth would give anything to have her grin at him like that again - at least once a day for the rest of their lives.

"Ummm, us," he answered. "I was thinking about us."
 
 
Anne felt her breath catch in her throat, but managed what she hoped was a flirtatious smile. "That sounds interesting," she replied, and cursed silently when her voice cracked. "Care to share a little more detail?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched a vivid red hue suffuse the femininely made up face that had nothing to do with cosmetics. *More interesting by the second,* she thought.

*No, I don't!* Kenneth's mind yelled, but he knew that wasn't going to cut it. "Um, I was thinking about a. . a. . well, a date."

"A date?" Anne asked, her voice suddenly cautious.

"Yeah, a date. You know, dinner, dancing, you and me. That kind of thing."

That mischievous glint flashed in Anne's eyes again. "Oh, are there alternative nightspots near Kingston? I don't think two six-foot tall-plus, blonde Barbie-wannabes on a date would sit too well with the nice people there. Besides, your 'Momma-Jane' might not like having you draw attention to yourself like that."

Anne could literally hear his teeth grinding. "I meant," Kenneth said very slowly, "You and Kenneth - on the date - not you and Barbie."

"Oh," she replied, struggling to control her mirth, and failing. She hooted with laughter, glanced over at the stony glare she was getting from the no-longer-so-feminine-looking blonde seated next to her, and laughed even harder. "Oh, god," she giggled, "the LOOK on your FACE!!"

Kenneth literally felt his blood pressure rise. He didn't get angry. He didn't LET himself become angry. A person ceased to be in control of situations, and he NEEDED to be in control. Striving to squelch the emotional firestorm building in his gut, Kenneth glowered at Anne with stony dignity. "I fail to see what is so funny."

Which only made Anne laugh harder. So much harder, in fact, that she pulled off the road and came to a stop. "You FAIL to see what is SO funny?!" she parroted, stoking the fires yet again. "You call THAT asking for a DATE?!? I wish I had a recorder so I could listen to this routine again when I need a pick-me-up!"

However that last comment had been intended, it was the camel-that-broke-the-straw. It snapped, and so did Kenneth's temper. "Funny, is it?" he roared. "You think asking you to go out with me on a DATE is FUNNY?!? Well, then you'll probably die LAUGHING when I ask you to MARRY me!"
 
 
Anne's laughter stopped like someone had thrown a switch. Suddenly, there was no air in her lungs and no way to get any into them. "Marry?" she squeaked, her eyes wide. "You want to marry me?"

"Hell, woman!" the now-very-masculine Barbie growled. "If you could manage to stop laughing long enough to take a hard look, you'd see I'm head over heels in LOVE with you! Of COURSE I want to marry you!"

Kenneth felt himself go icy-cold as what he'd just done sank in. No woman wanted to have intentions of marriage bellowed at them. It wasn't romantic or sensitive. Jane was going to KILL him.

"When did you decide that?" Anne asked, now very solemn.

Kenneth slumped back in the bucket seats leather cushions and closed his eyes. "Probably since the moment you walked into that hotel-room office the first time we met. Fully decided? I started planning the "Grand Proposal" last night." He laughed wryly. "Want to see the thirty pages of notes on how to do it? Legal sized pages, by the way, and I write pretty small."

"Sounds. . . detailed," Anne said softly.

"Oh, it is," Kenneth's voice agreed. "I picked the restaurant, the flowers, the wine, the dressmaker - for you, not me -my suit. I made plans to find out your favorite love song so I could have the band playing it when I popped the question."

"I see," she replied. "Silly Love Songs."

"Huh? You don't like love songs?"

"No, silly, that's my favorite. 'Silly Love Songs' by Paul McCartney."

"Oh."

"And the answer is 'yes'."

Kenneth's eyes snapped open and his head spun to face Anne's radiantly smiling face. "Huh?"

Instead of answering, Anne reached out to cup Kenneth's chin in her right hand, and leaned over to thoroughly kiss him.

No one had EVER kissed him like that. Soft yet demanding, sensuous yet friendly, and thoroughly arousing. Kenneth found himself leaning into the kiss, even as she drew back. Only her hand, still on his chin, held him back. She stopped when there was barely enough distance between them that they could each see the other's entire face.

"Yes, Kenneth," she said softly. "I will marry you."

"Take care, Xhinea," Adrienne called as her friend entered Celia Hurst's car. "I'll be in touch soon."

Jane stood watching from the Lincoln's driver-side door, her stern demeanor not betraying her inner concern and anxiety. *Not if I have anything to say about it, child,* she thought.

Once she had the car out of the parking lot and on the way back to Seasons House, Jane finally gave in to the emotions swirling inside her. "I thought we had discussed the inadvisability of getting too close to one of the students," she began. "And now I find that you are in the ladies room with a girl - and apparently there was an emotional scene. Both of you had obviously been crying.

"I'm sorry, Miss Jane," her student responded, but Jane wasn't certain she heard much in the way of remorse in Adrienne's voice. "Xhinea needed me. Some of the other girls were really . . . harsh to her - she was really, really upset and, well, I just couldn't leave her all alone."

*Damn,* Jane thought, *Doesn't that put me between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Either way I play this, I'm wearing the black hat. Still, she needs to be more cautious and there's no other way for her - not if she's going to come out of her time here with Adrian's reputation intact.* "Well, your compassion for another is commendable, but what if she finds out your, ah, true nature? That's a risk you really shouldn't take."

Out of the corner of her eye, Jane saw a very odd look flit across the petite blonde's face. "Ah, well, ummm, Ms. Jane? I'm afraid it's too late to worry about that just now."

A cold chill ran down Jane's spine as her eyes snapped from the road to her student. "What?!?"

"I, um, told her," Adrienne said, her voice very low. "About. . about Adrian."

*Close your mouth and drive, Jane Thompson!* she ordered herself and then promptly disobeyed. "My god, child! Why would you do such a thing?!"

Adrienne didn't immediately answer. "Well," she began, her voice quietly introspective, "It was like this, Ms. Jane. She sort of asked me to, um, be her girlfriend, and, well, I mean, I couldn't do that, right? But she IS my friend - already - and I couldn't, like, turn her down, either, so . . . "

*Double-damn!* Jane thought resigned. "So you had to explain," she finished with a breathy sigh. "Well, this certainly complicates things."

"That's not all of it," Adrienne put in. "I have to explain to her mother, too."

*Oh no you don't! Not in THIS lifetime!* "Leave that to me," Jane ordered. *Once I figure out just how I'm going to do that with a woman I don't know, don't trust and have met, thus far, only twice.*

"No, Miss Jane," Adrienne retorted firmly. "I'm sorry, but it's something that I have to do myself. For Xhinea's sake. I can't let her mother think Xhinea is . . . well, that she's not as sweet and, um, good as she really is. This is all my fault, and I have to set it right."

*Break-through,* Jane recognized, but with none of the elation she normally felt when a student completed their critical transition. *But now, how do I help you safely become Adrian again when you're determined to expose yourself as Adrienne to an outsider?*
 
 
Chapter 39: Repercussions
 
"Dam. . DARNit, Aunt Jane, I'm so sorry," Jessica said, tears glittering on her lashes. "I never should have told her to call her sister. I never should have asked YOU to let her. I really, really messed this up."

Jane moved quickly to sit beside this child who was rapidly becoming so precious to her, and pulled her into her arms. "No fault, Jessica, certainly not for you. I could have said 'no', but I thought you were correct. For this student, in fact, you were correct. I think Adrienne is over the hump, darling."

"You think so?"

"I'm positive of it. Her reasons for what she did are so at odds with the behaviors that led her here, there's no doubt in my mind that she's made the big step in turning herself around."

"But what do we do now, Jane?" Marie asked. "Heavens, none of our boys have ever done this before."

Jane shrugged and then leaned her chin on Jessica's strawberry blond head. "I don't know, Marie. A great deal will depend on Anne's reaction, I think. Adrienne's already told us what she intends to do, and while I applaud her motives, I could wish she was more like my other students in that regard."

"You're going to let her do it, then?"

"I don't see how I can stop her, short of sending Adrian to the Juvenile Detention, and I can't do that. He's ready to be a big sister now. Actually, I don't think he even needs that part of the program thanks to Xhinea."

"As Adrian or Adrienne?" Marie asked.

"That's up to Adrian and his sister," Jane replied. "I've already called Sandy and asked her to be ready."

"What happens next?" Jessica asked, unconsciously cuddling closer into Jane's embrace.

"We wait for our two wanderers to return. I have Darla down at the stable apartment waiting for them. She'll send them up here and we'll see what develops."

It was already obvious that she had lost this battle, Anne told herself as she drove through the gates of Seasons House, but sometimes you've got to fight when you're a woman. Besides, she wasn't ready to give up yet. "I really don't think a wedding of that magnitude is necessary," Anne reiterated, trying to sound more forceful this time than she had on the previous dozen or so occasions she'd broached this particular subject.

"Sorry," her fiancé assured her, visions of Anne - glorious in the kind of wedding gown Jane would insist upon - dancing before half lidded eyes, "But it is. There's no way you're getting out of it, either."

Anne groaned - literally groaned - but didn't particularly care at that moment. The simple fact of the matter was that the mere thought of a society wedding like the one Ken had described after she'd accepted his badly botched almost-proposal had her scared spitless. It was one thing to dream, as a little girl, of being Cinderella whisked off to the ball. It was another thing, entirely, to find out it wasn't going to be a fairy tale anymore, by way of having some guy jam your foot into a hard, unrelenting glass slipper. Lord above, she could really mess this up! Like maybe trip on the hem of her gown as she tried to glide down the aisle. Or something equally unforgivable. No, a nice, quiet and very PRIVATE wedding was called for. "I mean, it's not like either of us have parents or large families to placate."

And realized how dumb that statement was, even before Barbie's hoot of laughter. "Have you forgotten Momma Ruth, who has, by the way, just about claimed you? Not to mention my beloved and iron-willed Momma Jane? That's more family that most people are ever going to have. I love you, woman, and there isn't much I wouldn't do for you, but high on that very, very short list is pissing off either of those two women."

"We could sneak off to Vegas, and come back with it already done," Anne counter-offered. "Tell them afterwards?" she added hopefully.

"Wouldn't work," the taller blonde assured her with a smile. "In fact, Jane might take that as a challenge and really go to town with the planning. Just to show us, for future reference, of course, how these things SHOULD be done. It'll be easier on all of us if you just buck up, Annie, and take this like a woman. Or like one of Aunt Jane's boys."

"But something that big will draw attention, and didn't you say Jane knows important people in Boston and Providence? We could end up being in the papers! I don't want to be a damned virgin centerfold on the Boston Herald's society pages! I'm too tall . . .too . . . too. . "

"Gorgeous," Barbie interrupted. "I agree, but I'm man enough to handle being envied by 95% of the men and at least two thirds of the women in the greater New England area." Anne opened her mouth to protest again, "Shhh, it'll be okay. Look, you can talk to Audrey. She even enjoyed it and she was even less pleased with the idea than you are."

"She couldn't have been."

"Well, talk to her. She might have some advice on getting around some of Jane's ideas. Hey. . .there's D standing at the door to the stable apartment. Hmmm, wonder why he's still Darla?"

Exasperated at having had the subject changed before she'd won her point, Anne slapped the steering wheel with both palms. "Do you have any idea how WEIRD that sounded? 'Why HE'S still DARLA?!?'"

With a grin, Barbie depressed the button to open the passenger side window. "Welcome to Family Thompson, love, where men are often women and the women are glad of it. Hey, D? What's up, Sis?"

Darla hurried up to the car. "Here, let me help you get your bags inside, then we need to head up to the main house. You, too, Sk . . um, Anne."

Surprised by Darla's unusually brusque tones, Barbie asked, "Why, what's wrong?"

"Nothing critically bad, but we do have a situation. Look, I got sent down here to wait for you and only have the basic outline - which is confusing enough, without my being wrong on some essential point. Let's wait and have Mom give us all the straight story."

"My brother did WHAT?!?!" Anne demanded, her eyes hard on Jane, Darla, Jessica and Marie.

"Easy, Annie," Kendra ordered gently, moving closer to lend physical support to her fiancee.

"As I just said, Miss Braithwaite, your brother revealed his true nature to someone outside my cadre - to a young girl who is not in on the secret of the masquerade or of my program. If you will let me finish, please, I will give you the facts as I now know them."

Quickly, Jane told the story as Adrienne had given it to her. "And now, she, or rather he, fully intends to tell Xhinea's mother."

"For goodness sake, why?"

"Because Xhinea has become Adrian's friend - he cares about her a great deal, and he doesn't want to lose that friendship when I let him out of skirts."

"The girl's friendship is important to my brother?" Anne asked, skeptically.

"It is now," Jane replied firmly.

"So why doesn't he just wait until you do let him out of skirts, and then introduce himself as Adrian when he's in boy clothes again?"

"He's concerned that, unless Dr. Hurst knows the entire story, she will not let him continue to associate with her adopted daughter.

"I don't understand," Anne said, beginning to pace. "I thought you told me that this couldn't happen, that you would ensure she. . I mean, he wasn't in a position for this TO happen."

Kendra lightly gripped Anne upper arms. "Anne." The tone was soft, but firm and broke through the emotional whirlpool that was starting to envelope the tall blonde. "What happened, Mom?"

"I am, as you have pointed out, fully responsible," Jane said with quiet dignity. "I allowed myself to assume Adrian was similar to other students I have had. In fact, he is unique and I should never have forgotten that, Miss Braithwaite."

"Oh, call me Anne, please. I'm just surprised, is all. After all . . . Ken has had to say about you, I had you built up in my mind as being some unstoppable and all-knowing force of nature."

"I'm not omniscient, . . Anne. And I must say that I was taken completely by surprise by Adrian's actions. I've never had a boy break cover this before - at least not to someone of his own age group - and I thought that had arranged this . . this learning experience such that a revelation of this type was completely out of the question for him."

"How so, Ms. Thompson?"

Jane's forehead wrinkled as she concentrated. "First, this was a group activity involving other teenagers. My experience is that one of my cross-dressed boys forced to attend such a group isolates himself as much as possible in order to protect his true identity. At the staged public scenes my partners and I orchestrate for my students, such as trips to the beauty salon, we don't permit that isolation because the entire point is for the boy to be afraid of discovery. However, Caro, Sandy and Brenda know the signs of danger in those situations as well as I do and quickly intervene when necessary to protect my student. In this specific case, I anticipated that Adrian would simply keep to himself - hide as well as he could in his feminine personna and not interact with the other students.

"But it was an acting class," Anne objected. "Doesn't that mean they had to get close to one another?"

"Actually, it was mime which is highly stylized. That made those interactions inherently artificial due to the white face makeup and the nature of art form. I didn't see that it should have posed a problem for your brother protecting the secret of his true nature."

"In other words," Jessica put in, "All the kids there were already acting sort of strange, so Adrienne shouldn't have appeared all that unusual in their company."

"Just so," Jane continued, but patted her newest big sister's shoulder in approval. "Secondly, this class was only a short-term program - just three weeks and six meetings. Insufficient time for Adrienne to relax and be comfortable that she could pass - again, factors that should have tended to isolate her from the group. I expected those factors would have Adrienne very wary, and constantly on edge to protect the secret of her true gender."

"That's how it's always been with every one of the students I've worked with here," Darla put in. "What happened this time that it was different?"

"The unexpected, dear. Two unexpecteds, in fact," Jane sighed and began to tick her points off with her fingers. "One? Xhinea was a particularly needy child. She needed - wanted friendship, and for some reason, sought it from Anne's brother who, and this is the second surprise, turned out to be unexpectedly sensitive and responsive to that need. If you'd asked me before the class how she'd have responded in that situation, I'd have said with 100% assurance that she'd have run the other way, but to her credit, I think, she didn't run. Instead, they became close - very close - in spite of their short acquaintance." Jane shook her head. "One moment, Adrienne is my usual student - mouse-quiet and afraid to say boo, lest someone hear a boy's voice from those girlish lips. The next? Adrian is telling me that Xhinea needs him, that he cannot abandon his friend and that meant he'd had to tell her the truth about him."

"He voluntarily told on himself," Darla said, wonder in her voice. "From what you'd told me in passing, I'd thought he'd blown the masquerade."

"Well, hasn't HE?" Anne demanded.

Jane nodded. "Yes, he has - for laudable reasons - but his fate and reputation are no longer only in my hands. What I can do, I will do, Anne. Adrian has great faith in Xhinea keeping the secret, but . . "

"But, indeed," Anne replied.

"We'll take care of it, Anne," Kendra said behind her. "Together."

"Together?" Jane demanded, hearing the gentle support in her child's words and voice.

"Together, Mom," Kendra said, standing to face Jane with a protective arm about Anne's shoulders and grinning mischievously. "Anne has agreed to make an honest woman of me. We're getting married."

"She WHAT?!?" Jane, Marie, Darla and Jessica squealed in perfect unison.
 
 
Chapter 40: The Sister and Child Reunion
 
Adrienne was sitting on the cushioned window seat, looking out at the gardens of Seasons House, when a soft knock brought her mind back to the present. "Yes? Come in, please."

The door opened to admit Anne. She took a tentative step inside the girlishly feminine room and shut the door behind her before she spoke. "Hello, uh, . . "

Her sibling smiled and rose to greet her visitor. "Adrian will do, sis. Regardless of my appearance, one thing I've learned here is who and what I am."

There was a quiet assurance there that pleased Anne, so different from the cock-sure braggadocio that had been her brother's earlier mein. "Have you?" she asked.

"Better than I did before here."

"I'm glad," Anne said before adding, "You don't seem surprised to see me."

"Ms. Thompson told me you were coming today. She also told me that you'd gone after her - threatened her, after I called you."

Anne nodded. "You're my brother," she answered simply. "I thought you were being abused. I had to protect you."

Adrian returned to the window seat and sat down, unconsciously smoothing the skirts of the dressy Laura Ashley outfit in the process. "Thank you," he replied quietly. "I wasn't - being abused, that is. I just thought I had a way to mess with the system and did it. I'm sorry about that. I didn't consider the trouble you could get into because of that. I was being forced to do things I didn't like and that's all I thought about."

"Well, in the end, some good came of it," Anne said. "I understand you made a friend, and your school work has improved, too. Ms. Thompson showed me that paper you wrote about population control in the People's Republic of China."

"Xhinea's great. That's what finally did it for me, you know," Adrian added conversationally.

"It?"

"Made me see how wrong I'd been - how much growing up I had to do. Being friends with her made me understand what *real* friendship is all about. None of the guys I ran with . . . before here, were my friends. They were guys I pretended to like, and be like, because it felt, well, powerful. That's not friendship." There was certainty in those words. "I didn't have friends back then."

The young voice faded away for a moment, and then, "That's not true, either. I did have one friend."

"Oh?" Anne replied, uncertain in her hope.

"I learned that from Xhinea, too - and Ms. Jane. When Xhinea's parents abandoned her, she really didn't have any friends - just a big agency that made sure she was clothed, fed and educated, but not loved." Suddenly water-bright eyes, the same color as Anne's own, turned to face the tall blonde. "You were always there, always my friend - especially since. . .since Mom and Dad were killed. You could have let the state take me on - you were barely of age yourself, but you didn't."

"Damn straight I didn't," Anne snorted. "You were my BROTHER! ARE my brother."

"And you're my sister, but you are also my friend. At least you were. I hope I haven't messed that up, too."

"Never!" Anne sobbed, and then the two met each other half way in a fierce hug.

The two stood there for several moments, the tall blond woman and the short, bleach-blond, cross-dressed boy, sharing a reaffirmation of family, friendship and love.

When they broke apart, both needed to fix their faces, as happy tears had demolished their make-up. "Well," Anne said as she watched Adrian skillfully use various pots, tubes and brushes to repair the damage done by their emotions, "You won't need to do that much longer. Jane tells me you're about done here."

"Oh?" Adrian said, looking up from under his mascara brush at his sister's reflected face.

"Yes. She said she'd arrange for that female from the beauty shop to come here tomorrow for what she calls a 'tear-down'.

Adrian went very still for several moments, and then spoke. "Umm, that's okay, sis, but there's something I need to do first."

"You're sure you want to do this?" Anne asked for what she was certain had to be the thousandth time.

"I have to do it, sis. Part of it is that I made a promise - to Xhinea. More important is that I don't want anything coming between our friendship - like her having to keep secrets from her Mom."

Again Anne was struck by the change in her brother's demeanor. There was definitely something, well, manly about Adrian now. *And yet, is that more to do with how he's dressed now than anything else?* she asked herself. *Is it just that I've gotten so used to being around Barbie in her ultra-femme mode that anything less that total girly-girl seems masculine to me?*

Certainly some of that was probably the contrast between her brother's current outfit and the very frou-frou feminine garb he'd been wearing when she'd observed him in those days 'Before Barbie'. And yet, the look was not really all that UN-feminine.

For this errand, and with Jane Thompson's approval and assistance, Adrian had donned loose jeans, an oversized t-shirt and tennis shoes. After careful consideration, the teen had put those blond locks up high on the head, in a bouncy ponytail, much like one might see on any young woman out for a casual day. Without any cosmetic enhancement except for the finely shaped and arched brows, the total picture was rather androgynous - until Adrian began to move.

And Anne was still flabbergasted at how . . .gracefully Adrian moved now. There was none of the foot-dragging, slouch-backed diffident male in this new sibling of hers. When they'd left Seasons House earlier, Adrian had walked with fluid grace to the car, head held high. Perhaps the hips DID swing just a bit, Anne mused, and the hands were carried above the waist rather than swinging freely down, but those were subtle things. Things Anne saw only because she was looking closely at this marvelous stranger who was her brother. On the other hand, if a casual observer expected to see a girl, that person would likely perceive Adrian to be a girl, whereas someone expecting a young male would see one - albeit a slight and perhaps undersized one.

Anne drew back from her reflections and saw her brother gather himself. "I'll go with you, if you like," she offered. "I might be able to help."

For just a moment, Anne thought he'd say yes, but then he shook his head sharply making the pony tail dance about his shoulders. "Just wait for me, okay?"

"Okay," she answered, and then bent over to kiss his cheek. "Good luck, brother."

"Thanks, sis," he replied after kissing her back. Then, he opened the passenger side door and headed up the walk leading to the front door.

"Adrienne!" Dr. Celia Hurst exclaimed in evident pleasure. "What a nice surprise. Xhinea didn't mention that you were coming to visit."

"It was a. . . spur of the moment thing," Adrian replied, Dr. Hurst's greeting having reminded him which voice to use.

"Well, I have her running an errand to the store for me, but she should be back in a few minutes. Would you like to come in and wait for her?"

"Well, I was sort of hoping to talk to you a bit, too. . . that is, if you don't mind?"

The Doctor smiled and stepped aside to let Adrian enter. "Of course. I've wanted to talk to you, too. Would you like something? I have Pepsi."

"That would be nice, thank you."

Celia led the way to her kitchen and began to get out glasses and ice. "Have a seat," she ordered, indicating the kitchen table and chairs.

The older woman came to the table with two glasses, offering one to Adrian. "You wanted to talk, but I think I will go first. I wanted to thank you for being so welcoming to Xhinea. The past few years haven't been as easy for her as I'd wished. Part of that is my fault - my job kept me busier than planned, but the result is that she hasn't made many friends and has been too much alone."

"It has been mutual, Dr. Hurst. I haven't had many friends either - none recently, and being with Xhinea has shown me what friendship really means. I like her. . . a lot."

"I'm glad," Celia responded and then seemed to look closely her guest. "You know? Except for your mime costume, I've never seen you so casually dressed. Dress-down Saturday at Ms. Thompson's school?"

The blond teen smiled. "I have a make-over scheduled for later today, so Ms. Jane permitted me to dress this way so nothing nicer got messed up."

"You know," Celia said with a laugh, "I was a bit worried about the standard you set, though. You were always so nicely dressed that I was worried Xhinea might feel . . . inadequate. She's, um, she's a bit concerned about her figure and sometimes doesn't feel very feminine."

"WHAT?!?" Adrian yelped, surprise making his voice crack.

"It's true. But I think seeing you dressed so casually will actually a good thing. It's clear you don't look down on her appearance, that you're not, oh, obsessed with looking pretty or anything."

With a laugh of his own, Adrian reached up and pulled the ponytail free of the rubber band before gathering the hair up and restoring it, only lower on the back of his head. "Ms. Jane is the one obsessed, Dr. Hurst," he replied grinning. "She has this thing about grooming, dress and deportment. And she has ways of enforcing that outlook that works really well!"

"Tough, is she?"

"The toughest," Adrian agreed, beginning to relax. "And I needed that toughness, that discipline. Ma'am?"

"Please, anything but Ma'am, okay? Ma'am is this dragon of a head nurse at the hospital where I did my internship. I'm not that old and crusty yet. If you can't call me Celia, call me Dr. C. It's what my kid-patients call me."

"Thanks, Ma'am, I mean, Dr. C. This is going to be hard for me, and if it wasn't for the way I feel about Xhinea, I wouldn't do it."

"Sounds serous," Celia replied, suddenly alert and focused on her guest.

"It is," Adrian agreed, staring at the glass held caged by both his finely manicured hands. "Dr. C? Kids get sent to Ms. Thompson because they've messed up their lives, and need some discipline in their lives to help them turn things around."

"That's not the reputation her school has," Celia replied gently. "Most people think of it as an old fashioned finishing school for young ladies."

"That's what she wants people to think, and getting the kids to that point probably helps them with the turnaround. It did in my case, anyway."

"Why were you sent here, Adrienne?"

"That's the part I would rather not tell you, Ma'am, but I have to because if you found out on your own it would . . might. . ." the teen closed his eyes as teeth worried at his lower lip. Celia watched the blonde take a deep breath and open both eyes to meet hers directly. "A judge gave me the choice of completing Ms. Jane's course to her satisfaction, or spending the rest of my teenaged years in a juvenile detention facility."

Now it was Celia's turn to squawk out, "WHAT??!?"

"After my Mom and Dad were killed, I developed an attitude, got involved with a rough crowd. Got into trouble by following the pack. It was stupid, but before I figured that out for myself, we broke into the school, vandalized some teacher's rooms and got caught."

Celia was now listening hard, and despite the oddly husky tone the emotion-ridden teen used, the Doctor heard more than was said. "And?" she asked, wanting to offer closure.

"I took Jane," was the simple answer. "Or, rather, she took me. I figured I'd gut it out and be out in a few months. Boy, did I give her a hard time, but she didn't give up on me - kept pushing me - until. . ."

"Until?"

"Until I broke through that false armor of invincibility I pretended I had - and. . . and stopped seeing things the way I thought I wanted them to be and started seeing reality. You said you were grateful for me being nice to Xhinea? You're not half as grateful as I am for what she gave me. I don't know that I'd have made it without her, and she's told me that she needs me as her friend. Which is why I'm going to tell you my biggest secret so that you won't. . .won't be. . oh hell." The teen colored and looked up with horror-stricken eyes. "Pardon me, ma'am. That slipped out."

"I've heard it before and it doesn't annoy me nearly as much as ma'am!"

"Oh, sorry, ma. . .Dr. C. The thing is. . .well, I'm not. . that is. . "

"Adrienne?" DOCTOR Hurst's voice commanded, "Spit it out!"

"I'm-really-a-boy!" it came out as a single sound. When Dr. Hurst didn't say anything, Adrian slumped into a defeated slouch and forced himself to reaffirm what he'd just said, using his real, 'Adrian' voice. "I'm not a girl. I'm a boy."

Celia Hurst stared for several heart-beat-thudding moments, her eyes wide. When she spoke, her words stunned Adrian. "How did I EVER think you were a girl?!?" Then her eyes narrowed. "But WHY?"

"So you were small and thin, but overly aggressive?" Celia asked. "That's why she elected to use this rather unusual method with you?"

A disgusted look crossed Adrian's face. "She had to bulk me up - ummm, above and below, to make me look older than ten years old as a girl, so I was well suited to it." Then the almost-feminine face grinned. "And it worked just like she said it would. I had to think before I reacted or the whole world would know I was a sissy in girly clothes."

"Sounds effective. And I've seen nothing of that aggression. Too bad the same trick wouldn't work with most delinquents."

"I don't think even Ms. Jane could make some six foot bruiser look feminine enough to pass muster. I guess that's why she mostly works with girls. Like my big sister. Jessica told me she had rage issues before coming to Seasons House and Ms. Jane helped her the same way as she helped me."

"Well, I won't tell anyone," Celia assured him.

"And it's okay if I keep seeing Xhinea?"

"I don't mind. I think having a boy friend will be good for her," she added, and grinned when the boy blushed furiously. "Just don't fib to me anymore like you did earlier."

"Fib? I didn't! Ms. Jane would have my guts for garters!"

"Oh? What about that make-over, young man?"

Relief flooded Adrian. "Oh, but I am getting one. I'm getting turned back into a boy. A haircut to start, and then my normal hair color restored. A more masculine manicure - heck, according to Ms. Jane, they even have a way of filling out my eyebrows until my own grow back."

"Sounds like a plan." A door opening and shutting announced the arrival of Xhinea. "Well, I will leave you two alone to sort out things between you."

"Dr. C? Xhinea didn't know about me being a boy until yesterday. I asked her to let me tell you. She wasn't hiding it from you."

"I sort of figured that out, Adrian." Then the doctor bent down and kissed him on the cheek before greeting her daughter. "Xhinea? About time you got back, girl. Being a little late is one thing, but leaving your boy friend at the mercy of your mother THAT long is almost cruel. And speaking of cruel, I'll go invite Adrian's sister in for a drink. The very idea - leaving the poor girl out there stuck in the car. . ."

With that accusation, Celia left the room, but could still hear Xhinea's surprised "BOY friend?!?!"
 
 
Chapter 41: Decisions, Decisions
 
"Does he know the truth about your program?" the restored Kenneth asked Jane as they watched Sandy and Adrian on her office closed circuit television monitor. The 'tear down' was nearly complete, and Sandy was now instructing her victim on how to apply the temporary eyebrows until his own grew back. Ken put a careful finger to his own brow to smooth out the gummed-on appliance. It felt good to be himself again. It felt GREAT to be able to breathe again.

Fascinated, as always, with the process that turned one of her 'girls' back into a young man, Jane did not look away from the monitor. "That he's not the only boy-student who has passed his time with me in skirts?" she asked. "No. Usually that's something the junior student learns when the big sister graduates."

"And Adrian isn't going to be a big sister." It wasn't a question.

"No, he isn't," Jane agreed. "First, because I have Jesse, and second, because of my deal with Barbara Anne."

"I think she agree, if you asked. Now, anyway."

"Perhaps," Jane replied. "In truth, because of Xhinea, I don't think Adrian needs the experience of being a big sister. Whether Adrian realizes it or not, he's already proven everything he needs to prove - to himself - this morning with Celia and Xhinea."

"And because he believes he's unique, he was able to convince the good Dr. Hurst that he was, eh?"

"Yes, although. . . " Jane's eyes were speculative. "I think Celia has. . . potential. I'm going to cultivate a relationship with her with an eye towards recruiting her. Nora is very good, but she's not a doctor."

"Well, since I'm going to be Adrian's big brother, and Xhinea's going to be his girlfriend, I'd say you have an 'in' with her already. However, that wasn't my point in this conversation."

"You have a point, counselor?" Jane cocked an eyebrow.

"Adrian needs to know the whole story, Mom. For his own self image."

Jane's eyes went hard. "Explain that, please."

"Mom, it's about being a guy. One of the things that a big sister's revelation does is show the little sister that she, umm, he isn't really at that wimpy a character. Others have fallen in with your nefarious little games - not just his big sister, but the big sister's big sister, and that one's big sister before him, ad infinitum."

"You're saying that recognizing the shared experience of being feminized helps him feel more masculine?" It was something that Jane had never really thought about consciously before. In her mind, the revelation had always been a way to help her junior student 'mark' the transition to senior status, and to reveal her new role in the household. Now that she thought about it in those terms, she acknowledged that the concept had some validity.

"Well, I'm not sure that knowing he can look like a pretty girl makes anyone 'feel more masculine', Mom, but that's not the real issue. Man or woman, strength of character is important. Someone who is weak enough to be . . . molded like a lump of clay can feel he is . . . lacking in ways that have nothing to do with clothes. Knowing that he's not any weaker than others - lots of others - helps with that. I guess that, in the end, the fact that the student's time at Seasons House - the education a student receives here - it's sort of a shared experience - one that eases the hit on his self perception."

"A shared experience?" Jane savored the idea, and found that she liked it.

"Yep. I guess you could say that Graduates of Jane Thompson's Winsome Girls' School for Wayward Boys are kind of like members of a fraternity if not a sorority. There's strength in knowing you're not uniquely flawed in some way, that you're not the only one who went through your petticoated boot camp. More importantly, he deserves to know that the ones who made it through your program have, almost to a man, had happy and successful lives."

"How would you know, young man?" Jane demanded archly. "You were in my program barely two days."

"But because of my part in the plan to neutralize Sheila, I spent several weeks dressed and under your tutelage, not to mention my visits while a student was in residence. So, I'm an honorary member, Mom. You know it's true. Your boys rely on each other, support each other. How many times has one of your students called his departed big sister for advice or help? How many have taken on younger graduates and mentored them - often at your behest? Adrian needs to know that he can do that, too, and to do that, he needs to know he'll be talking to Jesse, not Jessica."

"I know, dear. And just as importantly, he's going to be close family now, and will need to know what goes on around here in some detail so that he doesn't give away the game inadvertently."

"Hah!" Kenneth snorted. "Frankly, I think he's to the point where that happening would be very unlikely. He's one of yours, now, Mom. I think the real issue is how to let him in on the secret."

"Granted, and if you're correct about the self image issue, you might not be the best one to tell him about it."

"Why not me?"

"I said, 'might not', dear. What I meant is that while it's possible he might have a Kendrian growth spurt - his family has the genes for it, obviously - right now, he is, as you say, not very imposing physically as a male. You will, of course, eventually introduce him to Kendra, but I think someone else should tell him the truth about the program first."

"What do you mean? Introduce him to Kendra?"

"Well, part of Adrian's problem is that he's so small - short and slender. Kendra isn't, but she is as feminine as you are masculine. I don't think Adrian will miss that dichotomy because he notices stature in others. Physically, Adrian is more like Jessica as Jesse, or Darla as Darryl. Very much like Darryl when you come down to it . . .," Jane's voice trailed away speculatively. "I have an idea, dear, but we should discuss it with Darryl, first."

"Ummm. .. Okay, . . .I guess. When does. . .should he, um, meet Kendra?" asked Kenneth cautiously.

"When you think the time is right, dear. After all, I don't think Kendra will be gone so long this time, will she?"

"No," was the quietly assured answer. "Anne enjoyed her time with me in that role - more than she believed she could. She'd miss my feminine alter ego."

"And you, dear?"

"So would I. Actually, one thing I learned during this adventure is just how much I've missed her - Kendra, that is - and the fun of being her."

Jane went very still at that. Then, she turned piercingly blue eyes on her son. "Kenneth? The first reasons? Those are acceptable, but if you're seeing Kendra as a crutch? The identity you don so you can have some fun in your life? I'll want you to have a talk with Art."

"Mom. . ."

"I'm serious, love," Jane moved over stand before the seated Kenneth. Her face serious, she took his face in her hands and looked into his eyes. "The masquerade ISN'T meant to be an alternative to real life. It isn't an escape. It's a means to an end, first and foremost. Sometimes, it can be fun, but don't ever compartmentalize yourself. Kenneth is allowed to have fun, too, dear."

"I think I figured that out, Mom - I said I missed the fun. I let myself work too hard in the past few years. I think it would have been a grind had I been Ken or Kendra, but the past few days with Anne? That was fun, and maybe the Barbie thing opened me up to it, but it was Anne that was really the center of it all."

"I'm going to talk to her," Jane warned him. "It's a Mother's right to counsel her daughter-in-law."

"Ganging up on me already?"

"Only in your best interests, dear," Jane said with a perfectly straight face.

"Wouldn't have it any other way, Mom. So, how and when are we going to tell Adrian the facts of life at Seasons House?"

"Trying to change the subject, are we?" Jane smiled sardonically at her son's unsuccessful ploy, but then softened. "Oh, very well - I'll permit you to get away with it THIS time, anyway. Let's see if we can find your brother and get his take on my idea. As you said, Darla truly does understand the feelings of the boys better than anyone else."

"Oh, this is going to be such great fun," Marie gushed as she pressed an armful of fashion and wedding magazines into a wide-eyed Anne's arms. "I simply love planning weddings, and you're going to be the most gorgeous bride."

When Sandy had taken Adrian off to Adrienne's room for the tear down, the motherly little brunette had hauled Anne off to her third floor apartment with a promise of a 'lovely surprise'. Now that her intent was clear, Anne most definitely was surprised.

"Fun? You've got to be kidding? Kenneth told me we're going to have a big, formal wedding."

"Well, of course," Marie responded, "Of course you will."

"I asked him to fly us to Vegas," Anne muttered.

"Hah! We brought that boy up better than that. A girl's wedding should be special, memorable - especially when she knows it's the only one she's going to get."

"The only one?"

Marie snorted. "Can you imagine that boy, with his focus, doing anything to make you want another?"

"He'll smother me with love first," Anne grumbled.

"Oui. L'amour, l'amour. C'est merveilleux, eh?"

Anne gave the little French Canadian housekeeper a thoroughly disgusted look, before giggling. "Okay, it is, and I would make his life hell if he didn't."

"Bien sur! Good for you. Jane's boys tend to grow up somewhat strong willed, so they need similarly strong women to keep them in line. My Kenneth particularly so."

"Will . . .will Adrian be like that - strong willed, I mean - you think?"

Marie heard the uncertainty in the girl's voice and took back the magazines. "Asseyez-vous, ma fille." When Anne did not immediately respond, Marie gave her a gentle push and ordered, "Sit down, girl."

She sat down across the anxious young woman and took her hands in hers. "I would say, Anne, that Adrian has already well proved himself that way just this morning. I have been with Jane nigh on to twenty years, and have participated in the rehabilitation of nearly one hundred boys. Not one of them did what your young brother did this day. And why did he do this thing? Why did he put himself so at risk? Because he'd made a promise and because it was important to someone else. That shows determination, and a good heart. You should be proud of him, cherie."

"I am, but . . . well, I still worry about him, about his future, about his . . . social life. He's really special, but he's still pretty . . . . small - not what society would call 'very manly'."

"Many of Jane's boys are on the small side, dear. Don't worry so."

"You're sure?"

"You spent time in New Haven with Judith, did you not? Surely she bragged to you about her nephew, and his, ah, reputation with the ladies?"

"Well, yes, she did, but Adrian. . "

Marie interrupted her with a laugh, and leaned just a bit closer to Anne as though sharing a secret. "I don't suppose Judith told you Georgia's . . . oh, I suppose I *should* call him by his boy name. Anyway, Judith didn't happen to mention to you what 'Guillermo's' nickname was in high school, did she?"

Anne shook her head and Marie continued, her dark eyes twinkling merrily. "The other teens - this may have been part of Georgia's problem - were very cruel since sh . . um, he was . . . not in very good shape - physically, that is. They called him 'Snowball' since he was round, small, and had a snowball's chance in, um, well, you know - of ever getting a date. Believe me, Adrian's 'manliness' is more than adequate for his future, ah, social activities."

Anne sighed, wanting to be convinced, but her sisterly worry still showed through.

"Anne, think!" the dark-haired Frenchwoman ordered sharply, causing Anne's head to snap up in surprise. Marie grinned at the success of her ploy. "Does not our Adrian already have la jolie juene fille from class as his girl friend?" Anne nodded slowly, and Marie's grin broadened. "Then, I think he will be fine. Does he know about you and Kenneth?"

"That we're getting married? Yes, I told him on the way home from Dr. Hurst's house. Kenneth is going to speak with him after his, what does Jane call it? His breakdown?"

"Tear down, cherie."

"Okay. Anyway, they're going for a walk and talk after Adrian looks like a boy again. I hope it goes well."

"Trust our Kenneth, dear. That boy has a gift for convincing argument."
 
 
Chapter 42: Revelations
 
Adrian Braithwaite was, much to his own amusement, rather uncomfortable at that particular moment. The cotton jockey shorts he'd all but lusted for, over the course of the past few months, were chafing skin more used to the slick feel of satin. Legs that had gotten used to being bare, save for nylon and silk, felt positively weighted down by the blue jeans Marie had given him. Not to mention the odd hitch wearing flat-heeled sneakers put in his gait.

And his hair was missing! His head felt so. .so light! Taken as a whole, he felt nearly as strange now as he had those first hellish days here at Seasons House.

It had been quite a day, so far, with many surprises - Dr. Hurst's response to his - that is, Adrienne's - secret, the tear down by a much more pleasant-to-know Sandy, and Ms. Thompson all but ordering him to call her 'Aunt Jane'. Wasn't THAT a shock? And she'd actually SMILED when she said it - not one of her 'I've got you right where I want you' smiles, either. One that actually looked, well, nice.

Of course, the biggest surprise was Barbie. . .Anne announcing she was getting married, and meeting that Ken-guy. Again, Actually, Adrian admitted to himself - it wasn't really the first time he'd met the guy - the first time had been when he was Adrienne. With any luck, the new Adrian would be so different from the nasty little witch that Kenneth had met before that his sister's intended would not make the connection between them. Lord above, the guy might decide Anne wasn't such a bargain, after all, not with a snot like that coming as part of the deal. And Annie had assured him she still loved him.

Just one more surprise, the boy thought as he made his way down toward the stables. He certainly had gone out of his way to make himself as unlovable as possible. He was really glad he'd failed at that, at least.

Adrian was just walking out of the stable, having fed apples to Teddi and Garters - he'd miss those two when he and Annie went back to Indianapolis, or rather, to Providence to live with her new husband - when a some guy came running up the lane towards the stable.

Besides Kenneth, this was the first non-female he'd seen at Seasons House. For a while, Adrian had wondered if there was some kind of curse on the place - any male coming through the gates was turned into a girl.

He was, well. . . the only word for it was short - with blond hair somewhat on the long side slicked back from his face and held by a sweatband. For a moment, Adrian thought he was just a kid - a teen about his own age, but discarded that notion as the runner came closer. There was just something about him that said 'mature'. Adrian continued to observe the newcomer, and noted that he ran with a fluid grace that Adrian envied, for running had never been something at which he'd excelled. He ran in through the fence gate and slowed to a walk, moving about the mounting area, breathing deeply. "Hi there," the young man called as he finished his cool-out. "Want to toss me that towel behind you?"

Adrian looked behind him and sure enough, found a white towel hanging from the doorlatch. He picked it up and handed it over. "I'm Adrian Braithwaite."

"Darryl," the runner answered, still breathing deeply.

"You run far?"

"Only five miles, but don't noise that about. My wife can't run right now, and she'd be mightily annoyed if she thought I was slacking off just because she's not allowed to train for the next few months."

"Train? Is she some sort of athlete? And if it's not prying, why can't she train now?"

The blond fellow preened a bit, and grinned. "She's a world-class athlete. She may be the first woman to compete head-to-head with men in the pentathlon. But right now, she's quite thoroughly pregnant."

"Congratulations."

"Thank you."

Adrian found himself having to think about not staring at this Darryl person. There was something familiar about him. Something about the way he carried his head, or the way he moved - definitely familiar and yet, Adrian was equally sure that he'd never met this guy before.

"You know," Darryl said, a funny, higher tone in his voice, "if one is going to move about the horse stalls, one should REALLY learn to watch where one steps. That . . . matter on your shoe is simply disgusting." The sniff that accompanied that statement had little to do with absorbing the . . . aroma that filled the air. It was a gesture of disdain that Adrian had seen before, from . . . .

Adrian felt his mouth drop open in recognition. It COULDN'T be!

Could it?

A familiar smirking smile twisted the mouth of the suddenly almost-feminine face, and Adrian knew. "Ms. SMITH?!?!" he yelped.

"Took you long enough to figure it out, kid," Ms. Darla Smith's caustic tones said, just before Darryl's laugh broke through. "Welcome to the family, Adrian."

"I . . I don't understand. You? I mean, you too?"

Darryl smiled and put a companionable if somewhat sweaty arm about Adrian's shoulder. "C'mon upstairs with me, and I'll tell you the whole story while I get cleaned up."

"O. . . okay. . "

"But remember to wipe your filthy shoes!" Ms. Smith snapped.

"Yes, Ma'am!" Adrienne's voice answered instantly.

"It went well, mon brave?" Marie asked as she poured the herbal tea she'd substituted for Jane's preferred Darjeelung. After all, La Belle Audrey was en ciente, and caffeine was not good for l'enfante.

"Mostly - although I wish I'd had a camera the moment he figured out who I am. . . was, that is."

Jane looked up from suspiciously eying the flowery-scented tea. "Mostly? Are there still issues?"

Darryl sighed and cuddled closer to Audrey, happy that this conversation was taking place in Jane's worn but comfortably furnished private apartment. His pregnant lady didn't need to be seated on those torture devices masquerading as chairs in the main rooms of Seasons House. Not that she was REALLY so delicate. Heck, she'd clout him one for even hinting that she might be. Still, he WAS an expectant father and pampering the Mother of his child was his right and privilege. Besides, what Audrey didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

"Even with me as an example, and showing him the picture of this beauty here, he's not convinced that there's any hope for him. Size and sexual identity are still too tightly tied together in his mind."

"But that cute little Xhinea is his girl friend. . ." Marie argued.

"Adrian's not so sure of that yet. She's told him she is - her MOM's told him she is, but he's still holding back."

"He's been disappointed before," Jane murmured. "We put such a burden on young people, telling them they have to be perfect and beautiful to be happy. Now what do we do?"

"Well, I did have a thought on that, but it would take, shall we say, more talent for strategic and tactical misdirection than I possess," Darryl said with exaggerated self-deprecation.

"And just was does that mean, smartie?" Jane demanded while fighting a smile.

"What my little hubbie is trying to intimate, and what he will pay for later when I get him home, is that he doesn't have your ability to turn people and events to your will," Audrey put in, after digging an elbow into Darryl's ribs.

"Ah, my favorite role, eh? So, who do I maneuver this time, Darryl?"

"Well, it's kind of complicated," he warned.

"So what else is new? I haven't had an uncomplicated student since before Michael."

"Okay, here's the basic idea. . "
 
 
Chapter 43: Queen's Gambit - The Thompson Variation
 
Standing patiently in the music room, Jane held the dial-tone-buzzing phone to her ear, ready for the next act of Darryl's little play. She didn't have long to wait for at that moment, Adrian and Barbara Anne arrived in response to her summons. *Showtime, m'girl,* she thought. "Well, I'm sorry for that, dear, but it sounds like there's nothing else you can do." she paused, and gave every indication of attentive listening before replying. "I know - we'll be sad you couldn't come, too. Yes, yes, love you, too, dear. Call when you can, or if there's anything we can do for you here."

With a sad little sigh, Jane placed the phone back in its cradle before looking up to acknowledge her visitors. "Ah, Anne and Adrian - thank you for coming."

"What's wrong, Miss Thompson?"

Jane winced slightly at that, her first real reaction of the past few moments. "Anne, dear, if you're going to be part of the family, I think we'll have to do better than that."

"Call her 'Aunt Jane', sis," Adrian ordered with just a touch of bossy little brother in his tone, "Or no one will know who you're talking to."

"'To whom you're speaking', Adrian," the school mistress automatically corrected, then added, "You know better than that."

Anne, focused on what Adrian had just said, looked at Jane. "Would that be, um, okay with you, um, 'Aunt Jane'?"

"Yes, dear. I would like that very much."

"Thank you. So would I."

"So, what were you unhappy about, Aunt Jane?" Adrian repeated Anne's question.

*So like a man,* Jane thought amused. *No beating around the bush when there's a question to be answered. All that time in skirts and he still lacks subtlety. "Oh, nothing that really concerns you. It's just that one of the hostesses at Michelle's wedding isn't going to be able to make it."

"Michelle's wedding?" the tall blonde girl repeated in confusion.

"One of my former students is getting married. H . . um, she has a rather . . . restricted circle of friends, and one of them has had to cancel out. Family issues."

"I'll be glad to help, if I can."

Somehow, Jane managed to look just a little embarrassed as she demurred. "Thank you, Anne, but the, ah, conditions for the wedding are a little unusual."

Anne had to gawk at that "'Unusual'?" she repeated. "Around this place? The mind boggles."

"Well, not *that* unusual," the older woman laughed. "It's just . . . . well, Michelle has already married _his_ wife - as Michael. This ceremony will be an affirmation that his Janice truly loves *all* of Michael. At her request, everyone else in attendance will be, ah, affirming that as well.

Anne looked more confused, but then the teenager burst into laughter. "Meaning everyone will be dressed as girls, right?"

"Not *every* one, pardner," Jane replied in her best 'John Wayne' imitation.

"Oh my!"

"Just so."

Brow furrowed, Adrian looked up at the two taller women. "So, what does a, um, 'hostess' do at one of these things?"

"Angela was going to serve at the groom's table, though in this case, of course, that would be Janice's . . . wait. Were you volunteering to take her place?"

"Why not? It could be fun. I can't wait to see you in, um, guy-drag."

"Young man," Jane intoned loftily, "I'll have you know that I make a quite presentable 'father of the bride'."

"Yes, ma'am. I'm sure you do. But . . . I still can't wait to see you do it."

A familiar smile crossed Jane's face, and Adrian barely managed not to swallow hard. "Hmmm," she mused, "just how much do you . . . desire to participate? We still need a flower girl, too. You look just darling in Shirley Temple curls."

Barbara Anne snickered and said, "Now *that* is something I'd pay to see!"

Adrian managed a demure response, the perfect tones of a little girl politely telling her parent, 'no.' "Thank you, no, ma'am. My Shirley Temple curls and Raggedy Anne look left with Sandy."

"Oh, bother - and you'd have been so cute, too."

"True, all too true," was the smug reply, "but not in the cards, I'm afraid. Hostess or nothing, take your pick, Aunt Jane."

"I can't believe you'd want to do that, Adrian," Anne put in.

"I don't think it will, um, corrupt me, sis. I mean . . "

"No, that's not what I meant. It's just that after all you've been through here, and now you're offering to go back?"

Jane was pleased to see Adrian consider his response to that. Anne was obviously still somewhat concerned about how her brother's time at Seasons House would affect his future outlook.

"Look, sis. The clothes I wear don't define me. Thanks to Aunt Jane, I know who I am now, and I'm comfortable with that. Can't you be, too?"

"Of course," she said softly. There was a pause as Anne simply looked at her brother, a warmth in her eyes that greatly pleased Jane Thompson. "Oh, Adrian, I wish I could tell you how proud I am of you."

Adrian laughed, but there was pride in his smile as well. "Because I'll wear girl clothes and serve cake at a, um, 'affirmation' ceremony?"

"You know what I mean, you . . . brat."

"Children, please. Very well, ah, Adrienne. I accept your offer, and thank you." Then, Jane turned to face Anne. "I'm afraid, Anne, that will leave you . . . at liberty for a rather long while. I'm sorry."

"Is, um, Kendra going to be there?" Anne asked carefully.

"She wasn't going to be, but thanks to her time with you at Ruth's, she's regained her confidence. Yes, she'll be there, too.".

"Who's Kendra?" Adrian put in, catching the undercurrent between the two women.

Jane became serious as she recalled that Adrian and Kendra had not yet been introduced - properly or otherwise. Deciding that the question had to be answered, she replied, "You have met Darryl, Adrian, and thus know about Darla?" At the boy's nod, Jane continued. "Kenneth came to me under what I thought to be similar circumstances requiring similar treatment. Kendra is Kenneth's girl-name from his time in my program."

Adrian's eyes went wide. "Oh, my - Xena Warrior Princess Material," he breathed in obvious awe.

"Not quite, but more on that later," Jane told the boy. "So, Anne, I hope you don't mind Adrian participating? We'll save you some cake and such."

A mischievous grin lit up the lovely young woman's face. "Oh, I have no problem with Adrienne going to the wedding, but I don't think I want to stay at home. No, I think you need to call your experts in so that we can all meet, um, Bartholomew Andre. Perhaps your party needs, what is it men do at weddings?"

Hugely pleased by the idea, Jane grinned. "Hide, usually."

"No. . no. . .oh, I know, they usher. Need another usher, Aunt Jane?"

"Oh, I think we can find use for one, but are you sure?"

"Oh, absolutely," Anne's voice rang with determination. "But you have to make me a promise. Both of you?"

"Yes?" the other two said, almost in unison.

"Don't breathe a *word* of this to Kenneth."

Jane's eyes danced in merriment as she anticipated Kenneth's reaction to the unexpected appearance of 'Kendra's boyfriend' at Michelle and Janice's wedding. "Oh my!" Jane breathed. "No, indeed, we shall NOT!"

"You've gotten awfully quiet, little brother," Anne observed after Jane had left them alone in the music room.

The smile that answered her was bemused. "You know? You'd think I'd have learned to see that coming, wouldn't you?"

Now it was Anne's turn to look confused. "I don't understand."

"Of course you don't - you've only had a passing acquaintance with Aunt Jane. Me? I've been here for months now, and I should have at least made it harder for her. I mean, I'm mere hours out of skirts and pettis, and bang - here I go again." The teen laughed gently and shook his head. "She *always* does that - makes it seem like you're choosing freely to do the only reasonable thing, yet it turns out to be just exactly what she wanted you to do all along. I wish I knew how she did that."

Anne spoke very carefully, trying to offer an opening rather than an accusation. "Maybe, um, it wasn't that . . . difficult?"

Adrian laughed. "Look, sis, you don't need to dance around the fact I've learned some, um, unusual skills while I've been here, and learned them well. But you also don't need to worry. I haven't been turned into some kinky freak. At least," and here Adrian looked his tall sister up and down with grinning appraisal, "at least no more so than, say, my dear old brother Bart!"

"Oh my God," Anne gasped, then joined her brother's laugh. "She did it to me, too, didn't she?"

"Yep," Adrian said. "I'm not the one who's gonna get stuffed into a monkey suit and play usher. Goodness, I may have gotten the better deal. I hate wearing neckties - and those tuxes will probably require starched collars."

"Oh my."

"As our dear Aunt Jane Thompson would say, Anne - Just so."
 
 
Chapter 44: 'They're Gettin' Married in the Mornin'. . Ding Dong'
 
"Tante Marieeeee," the last syllable was a squeak, "It's too tight!"

"Non, non, non, it is perfect! Tres parfait! Now, stop this whining, while I tie off the last lace - There! Tres bien! Now, la piece de resistance," she smiled as she reached for the dress bag she'd earlier hung from the hook in the armoire. "Close your eyes, cherie."

Adrian, or rather, almost-Adrienne, pouted mutinously, even as she tried to remember the trick of breathing after one of Marie's infamous corsetings. However, Marie refused to so much as touch the garment bag zipper until her subject closed her eyes, which Adrienne finally did, if with a very put-upon sigh to indicate her disfavor.

"Raise your arms above your head, cherie," Marie ordered.

"Tante Marieeeee," the last syllable was a squeak, "It's too tight!"

"Non, non, non, it is perfect! Tres parfait! Now, stop this whining, while I adjust the bow - There! Tres bien!"

"I . . . can't. . . breathe. . " Anne gasped as she tried to work a finger in between the heavily starched old-style shirt-collar and her throat.

"Oh, pooh, and call me 'Marcel', Bartholomew. At least while I am dressed like this." The pair both wore black slacks, socks and shoes, white ruffled shirts that fastened, insofar as Anne was concerned, up the wrong side with metal studs instead of buttons, red silk cummerbunds and suspenders which Marie. . .MarCEL had called braces.

"It is SO too tight! Why can't we just use the clip-on kind and pretend we didn't."

The little housekeeper actually looked horrified. "In THIS house? Mais NON! Never! Why, that would be like permitting the students to wear pantihose. Now, be quiet. I swear, you complain more than la jolie Adrienne when I laced her into her corset," Marcel added, just a bit mendaciously. "Now, the jacket, eh?"

Anne, and then she corrected herself - better start thinking of herself as Bartholomew - was standing just off the foyer awaiting the first guests to arrive. Ushering, she thought, sounded easy enough in the abstract, but wondered what could go wrong. She turned toward the stairs when the sound of heels on the ceramic tiles caught her attention.

A brunette vision in a very tight red silk dress approached her, a wide smile on lips dyed to match her gown. Her first reaction was that the gold-embroidered sheath, which covered the girl from just under her chin to just above her sandaled toes would be an absolute bitch to wear. How did the girl breathe without splitting a seam?

Then, something about the finely shaped eyes clicked in her mind. "My god! Adri. .. enne?"

Adrienne bobbed a quick curtsy, as deeply as the deadly heels and her inflexible waist would permit, and replied "An. . . dy?"

"Bart," the tall tuxedo-clad blonde corrected before giving her. . his sibling a thorough 'once-over'. "Wow, Adrienne, that is some outfit, and I love the hair."

Grinning mischievously, the teen ran her fingers slowly through the silken waterfall of straight black hair before adding a dramatically exaggerated pirouette to give her sibling the full benefit of Marie's artistry.

"What is that?" Bart asked indicating the autumn maple-hued silk dress. "How do you MOVE in something that. . .well, that tight?"

A shapely calf, swathed in what could only have been a for-real silk stocking, teasingly peaked out through a knee-high split on the side of the dress. "It's a cheongsam," Adrienne said, "And these side splits help - a little, anyway."

"Well, You look like the heroine from one of those English-dubbed Kung Fu movies you're always watching. I almost expect you to do a backflip screaming 'hi-yah' or something."

"Not in these heels!" was the disgusted retort. "My feet are already KILLING me."

Bartholomew was prevented from complaining about the necktie when a mustachioed figure, also in a tuxedo, hurried up to them.

"Adrienne, let me look at you!" Jane Thompson's voice ordered. "Yes, you'll do. Look, I have a mission for you - for both of you, actually."

"Yes, Aunt Jane?" the red-garbed teen asked.

"Uncle Ian, just this moment, dear. The problem is that the blasted caterer tried to foist inferior champagne off on us. We rejected it, of course."

"Oh, of course," Adrienne agreed, grinning at her sibling.

"Just so," 'Ian' retorted, scowling at her former pupil. "They were supposed to be here two hours ago with the proper vintage, but they had trouble acquiring sufficient quantities. They're on their way now. The problem is that . . .everyone is ready for the wedding. Normally, Marie would handle this, but she's Marcel now, and well. . . "

"Marcel doesn't look anymore like a guy than this tall, skinny string-bean, right?"

Bartholomew yelped, but subsided at 'Ian's' nod. "She'd have to change back which means she'd miss the ceremony. I have other former students here who are still passable enough en femme to pull off meeting the caterers at the back door, but they're supposed to be in the wedding ceremony."

"You want me to meet the caterers and take delivery of the wine, Aun. . Uncle Ian?"

A look of relief and then gratitude flashed in 'Ian's' dark eyes. "And then . . Bart, here, could help you get the wine to the reception area set up in the rose garden. The buckets are already there since those fools had the other champagne set up before I caught them at their little game of switch."

"No problem," the two Braithwaites assured their host.

"Just make sure Bart stays out of sight while they're here," Ian ordered. "As Adrienne pointed out, dear, you do not look in the least masculine."

"And you do?" Bartholomew asked archly.

"Point taken. True femininity will always show through, eh, Adrienne?"

"Aunt JANE!" the teen squawked, indignantly stamping a spike-heeled foot.

To the tall blonde's amazement, things actually went fairly smoothly with the caterers. Bart had spent the waiting time imagining all sorts of disasters that could befall the cross-dressed pair in the presence of . . .what? Normals? No, that wasn't the right description - she'd already concluded that there was nothing abnormal about the goings on at Seasons House. Non-believers? Closer, she decided.

What surprised the older Braithwaite the most was how easily and effectively her. . his. . brother/sister dealt with the erring tradesman. "It's like watching a miniature version of Jane Thompson," she murmured, looking on from her hidey-hole, "Even in those killer spikes, that caterer has five inches and fifty pounds on Adrienne, and yet, he's almost cowering. Heavens, she didn't even raise her voice."

Part of that had to be reaction to a very pretty girl being confidently authoritative - something else to thank Jane Thompson for. If anything, Adrienne was better looking now, than when she'd been fully inculcated in the Seasons House program. Maybe it was the coiffure - it was much nearer her natural color than that bleached platinum blond color, although it was certainly longer and straighter than Adrian had ever worn his hair.

Then again, that cheongsam was something else, too. A point that Bart mentioned later, when they were hurriedly stuffing green glass bottles into ice-filled silver wine buckets. "That is really some dress, sis," Bart said, envy patently evident in every syllable.

"Wanna share clothes, Bart?" Adrienne asked impishly.

Bart gave a sigh of regret. "Not much point, Twiggy. It takes slim hips to wear that style, and mine, well . . ."

Adrienne snickered. "Well gee, *Bart* why would you *want* to wear a dress? Big, tall, manly fellow that you are." And then just barely avoided the handful of crushed ice lobbed in her general direction.

"No! STOP!" Bart ordered, even as Adrienne reached into a nearby ice bucket for retaliatory ammunition. "Aunt Jane would have kittens if we messed up her party. I yield!"

"Wimp," the brunette sniffed, and then began giggling. "But you're right, and I have no desire to spend the next six months as Raggedy Annie or Little Lady Fauntleroy. But tell me, sis, where did YOU learn to react like that??!?"

"From Ken. . .dra," Bart replied, casting a longing look in the direction of the wedding ceremony.

Adrienne followed her sibling's direction and saw the object of her attention. "That tall, stacked brunette who can't seem to pay attention to the ceremony for wanting to look at you?"

"Yes."

"I like him. . .her," Adrienne said carefully.

"I'm glad."

They worked together in companionable silence, quickly finishing their assigned task. So they had time on their hands before the ravening hordes descended on them. "Have you thought about what happens next?" Bart asked Adrienne. "I mean, after you leave Aunt Jane's?

"Well, you're still my guardian - for which I am very grateful - what do you think I should do?"

"Finish school, obviously. Precisely where you do that is something we need to think about, but you're pretty well grown up, now, br.., um, sibling of mine. I expect whatever you decide will show a lot of wisdom. I just hope we can help.

A proud smile flashed across the little brunette's face at her brother/sister's praise. Then she realized that 'we' didn't mean quite what it had always meant in the past. "We? As in, you and Ken?

Blushing, Bart nodded. "You know you'll always be my *favorite* brother. I love Ken . . dra, but that doesn't mean I don't love you, too. He does live in this area, though. Whither he goest, I will go, and all that, you know? That's what I meant about 'where'. If you want to go back to Indianapolis to finish school, we will find a way, but it might take some doing."

"I know, sis," and it was somehow Adrian who said that. "And I'm happy for you. Frankly, it wouldn't bother me a bit to spend more time around the part of the country anyway."

"Oh, you've suddenly decided you like wearing those ankle-tangling heels?

"Not hardly!" was the nearly guffawed response. "But, well, there's this girl . . . "

"Ahh, um, Just so. Uh, oh, here comes the herd, rice at the ready. Be careful where you stand, kid. Getting those hard little grains down your dress is a bitch!"
 
 
Chapter 45: Reflections on a Wedding
 
A pair of revelers strolled hand-in-hand amidst the moonlight-soft shadows of Jane's garden. "So," the tall brunette asked the tuxedoed blonde at her side. "What did you think of the affirmation?"

"I don't think we'll need one," 'Bartholomew' replied, leaning her head against her love's shoulder. "It was nice, and fun, but one full blown wedding will be more than enough for me, thank you very much."

"Marie will be devastated. She loves parties."

"Sorry. I also decided that I never want to wear one of these, well, Adrian calls them 'monkey suits', again. And I really, really *hate* this bloody tie!"

"Oh, sorry," Kendra turned and reached for the thick velvet bow. "Let me undo it for you."

To Kendra's surprise, Anne caught the hand. "Not yet," she said firmly. "I have something to do, and I should be, umm, properly improperly attired for that."

"Huh?" Kendra questioned, as Anne, taking Kendra's left hand in hers, went down on one knee before her beloved.

"Well, Jane," Marie said as she loosened the black velvet bow tie about her throat, "That was great fun, and everything went off without a hitch."

"Yes, thanks to Adrienne and, ah, Bart. But I don't think we'll be using those caterers again.

"Oh, I know," Marie's face fell, just a little, at the reminder. "I'm so sorry about that."

"Don't be," Jane ordered as she carefully peeled away the false mustache from her upper lip. "Ouch! Anyway. No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. The sign of real genius is the ability to overcome those little . . obstacles, and once again we managed. Your plan was a good one - just as I knew it would be."

That made Marie blush. "Well, Michelle and Janos are off for their honeymoon."

"Do you think that was the REAL purpose of this whole ceremony, Marie? So that pair could have a second honeymoon?"

Marie giggled at that. "I wouldn't put it past that scamp, or his sneaky little helpmate, but if you are serious, then no, I don't think so. That pair? They will still be on their honeymoon on their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary. Janice won't tolerate anything less."

"True, very true," Jane sighed, very pleased with the observation.

"It was lovely seeing our girls again," Marie sighed happily, "As girls again, that is."

"Yes, Beth made a beautiful Maid of Honor, didn't she?"

"All of them were tres jolie, Jane, and the girls were very handsome, eh?" Another giggle bubbled up. "Lord, did you catch Adrienne's face when she first caught sight of our Kendra?"

"Indeed I did. I think we have reason to hope that stratagem will work, but I suspect, dear, that wasn't the biggest surprise of the evening."

The little housekeeper grinned at her long time friend, resplendent in her own tuxedo. "Kendra?"

"Yes, indeed. I rather think 'Bart' put my little gift to excellent use after the reception."

As soon as the bedroom door closed behind her, the pleasantly fatigued teen took as deep a breath as her stiff, unyielding foundation garments would allow. Holding that precious bit of air in tightly compressed lungs, the silk-clad figure strained to bend over against the resistance of her corset. With one last surge, her manicured nails were able to flick open the catches that held the ice-pick heels on her silk-shod and sore feet.

That task done, the soft caress of the rich deep pile carpet on near cramped toes elicited a groan of pleasure as the youngster moved to the vanity. The bed looked SO inviting, but lessons hard learned over the past months came first. Sighing, she reached out for the first of many cotton balls - and found nothing.

Adrienne's eyes snapped wide open and immediately realized the problem - things weren't where they belonged because Adrian had not had time to rearrange everything, when Tante Marie had bustled in earlier. Nor had Adrienne had time to see to things because by the time the 'temporary' transformation had been completed, it had been time to go down to the wedding.

It was then that she looked in the mirror and caught her breath in surprise. "Not used to seeing a brunette stare back at me from that mirror," she mused. Then she realized that she looked, well, sort of familiar, but it wasn't like a brunette Adrienne - not quite. "Something. . .something about the eyes," she told herself, "And the mouth. . . ."

Then it hit her - "MY GOD, I look like Xhinea!" Marie had done something. . .some THINGS to her to make her brows finer, and to make her eyes nearly Oriental in shape. The lipliner bowed her mouth, making it seem both smaller and somehow fuller. Even the foundation was part of it, imparting an almost golden tone to her skin.

Slowly, the teen stood and went over to the three-sided floor-to-ceiling mirrors that had been so much a part of her life at Seasons House and gave herself a good look, finally pirouetting to take in the full effect of the classic Chinese silk brocade garment. "Well, that explains the cheongsam," she said, now amused. "Lord, but what would Xhi look like in this thing?" she asked, and then answered. "Dumb question, Braithwaite. I think it's fair to say that Aunt Jane and Tante Marie have already answered that one for you. The question is why."

A yawn reminded the teen just how tired she was at that moment, and she returned to the vanity where she pulled off the below shoulder-length wig, setting it on the stand, and removed the clip-on earrings - an act that brought blood rushing back to starved tissue and nearly made her eyes cross. Another yawn had her reaching for the cotton and cold cream.

The last touches of color had barely been transferred from face to cotton when a knock sounded on the door. "Yes?" she called, only afterwards realizing it had been Adrienne's lighter tones that had answered. The door opened to admit Kendra. .. or rather, Kenneth. The tall man was dressed in a plush calf-length robe of white terrycloth.

"Hi kid," he called. "Thought you might need some help."

"Huh?" Adrienne asked, her sleepy mind confused.

"The dress has a rear zip, right?"

"But I can handle. . "

"Yeah, I know. Any Jane student can handle those, but not easily, I suspect, in the kind of corset Tante Marie loves to lace up as tight as she can?"

A quick reach behind proved the truth of Kenneth's assessment. "Guess I could use some help at that. Maybe with the corset, too?"

"Trade you, pal - I undo you, you undo me. Ummm, Tante Marie AND Aunt Jane ganged up on me." Ken reached for the zipper at the very top of the Chinese-style high collar.

"How hard do you think it would be to alter this thing, Ken? Just a bit? Thanks to my schooling here, I'm a pretty dab hand with a needle now."

"Why? Looked like it fit just fine to me."

"Not for me," trenchant disgust rang in every word, until Ken grinned. "Score one for you, big brother. You know who I want it for."

"Momma Jane and Tante Marie must have felt rushed on this one, because it isn't at all subtle. You want to fit it for Xhinea, right?"

"Yeah." It was Adrian who answered.

"Let's talk to Tante Marie, kid. She got you into this, she can help you get Xhinea into it."

"Good plan. How do we do it?"

"We fall back upon a time honored male strategy when dealing with women, m'boy."

"Oh yeah? What's that?"

"We beg."

"It went well?" Jane asked, when her tall son let himself back into her apartment.

"You didn't watch?" he asked teasingly, indicating the dark closed circuit television monitor.

"Of course not!" Jane snorted. "He's no longer my student, and therefore entitled to his privacy."

"Right, and that's why you turned Adrienne into a clone of Xhinea, right?"

Jane sniffed. "He's also family, and it is the duty of the, um, family Matriarch to see to the well being and happiness of each member of the family. Manipulation does have its place in a well ordered household."

"Still, as manipulation goes, that one was rather obvious. Even Adrian caught it."

"I have found, in my years of dealing with the adolescent male, that even the most. . .open-minded of your species often requires, shall we say, substantial direction?" Then the Mistress of Seasons House chuckled. "I didn't want him to miss _that_ point."

"There was another?"

"Of course," Jane retorted. "I had hoped he'd see Kendra and realize that size has nothing to do with either how feminine or masculine a person is or carries oneself. He didn't raise that issue with you at all?"

"Nope. Too interested in how much work it would be to fit that dress you selected for Xhinea. Oh, and one other thing. . "

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Actually, we messed up - just a little."

Jane waited with what she felt was admirable patience for Kenneth to continue, but when he only grinned fatuously at her, she growled out, "Well, tell me, you devious. . . *lawyer*!"

"We forgot to introduce him to Jesse."

"What?"

"Until the Affirmation Ceremony, where Adrienne once again met Jessica . . " Kenneth let his voice trail off.

"Adrian still didn't know that Jessica is actually another cross-dressed male?!?"

"Not until Jessica got into the procession as one of the bride's attendants."

"Oh, my. And what did Adrian say about that revelation?"

"Only that he never would have guessed. Oh, and that Jessica was even smaller than Adrienne."

"I had better warn Jessica, so she won't be surprised if Adrian approaches her."

"New student coming soon?"

"Next week," Jane affirmed. "Jesse decided it would be easier to stay in role. Says that all that changing about disrupts his study schedule."

"You're kidding."

"No indeed. That young man understands the importance of discipline in achieving great things - like someone *else* I could mention just now. Kenneth?"

"Well, we won't discuss that."

"Oh, then how about we discuss that ring you're sporting," Jane ordered snatching at her son's left hand. "Nice rock."

"Don't think I don't know where Bart got it, Mom."

"It was my Grandfather's, and thus your Great-Grandfather's" Jane said simply, "And would have been yours eventually."

"My. . . my Great-Grandfather?" Kenneth asked, his voice suddenly hoarse.

Jane nodded, her smile as loving as he'd ever seen it. "Of course he is, silly. Because of Sheila, I wasn't allowed to legally adopt you as I did Darryl, and as I am doing with Jesse, but that makes you no less my son - so that ring was your Great-Grandfather's, and it is now yours. This was is much better than as a bequest."

Happy tears traced down two sets of cheeks. "Tante Marie DID manage to get some pictures of that little scene, didn't she?"

"No," Jane replied, "but I did."

Adrian found Jessica precisely where he expected that he would - in the back corner of Jane Thompson's library, nose-down in some thick, musty, leather-bound book. She didn't look up as Adrian approached, even though the boy made special effort to noisily announce his arrival in her presence.

In the end, he had to call her name three times before her concentration finally broke. "Oh, hi." the pretty teen said, smiling.

"I'd like to talk to you, if you have time, that is."

Carefully, Jessica marked her place and set the book aside. "For my little sister? Always."

"You're. . . you're really a boy, aren't you?"

Jessica nodded, sending strawberry blond curls bouncing. "Yes, I am. Aunt Jane told me that you hadn't tumbled to that until last night. I'm sorry about that. I just figured that after your talk with Darryl, that my. . .secret identity would have already come out."

"That's okay, it's just that, well, I have a question. You can tell me to take a long walk off of a short pier, but I'd really like to know the answer."

"Ask away."

"Do you, umm, like being a girl?"

Angelic lips turned up into a knowing smile. "Oh, not particularly, but then again, it's no big deal either." Then the smile turned devilish and Jessica's voice dropped very low. "Anymore that is - although, when I first got here I used to dream up the most *inventive* tortures I'd someday inflict on Jane - but now it's just clothes and a role. Neckties are worse for guys. Heels, if you have to spend a long time in them, are worse for girls - even though I like being just a bit taller. I just do whatever works for the situation I'm in."

"You're not wearing heels now."

The laugh that answered that observation was hardly feminine. "No, indeed! I got plenty of that yesterday in my bridesmaid ensemble."

"So, why ARE you still Jessica? Doesn't Jane let you have knocking around clothes?"

"She does, and I wear them when I can, but Jane has a new student coming next week, and it's not worth the trouble to glue on false eyebrows and whatever in the interim. Why the questions?"

"I was just wondering, is all. I mean, you don't have to be a girl anymore - not for my sake, anyway. Why not go back to being a guy - unless you don't like being a guy - you being so small and everything."

"Oh, so that's what's behind this oh-so-careful interrogation," Jessica giggled again before becoming serious, and somehow, Adrian thought, very much like a smaller version of Aunt Jane.

"Better to be a petite girl than a runty guy? Is that what you're asking?" At Adrian's affirmative answer, Jessica nodded somberly. "I'm a man, Adrian. I wear these clothes so that I can help other guys learn what I've learned here with Aunt Jane - what YOU'VE learned with Aunt Jane, okay? I can take these clothes or leave them, as the situation calls for. In a week, when the new student arrives, I'll need to be Jessica for him, so I thought it would be easier all around to stay Jessica."

"But when you. . .leave here, get out on your own?"

"I will be Jesse, little sister," was the gentle, yet sure, reply. "I want to marry a girl, not be the girl."

"But your size?"

"Has nothing to do with it. Big girls can be feminine, small guys can be masculine."

"Kendra was sure pretty last night," Adrian mused aloud.

"And Kenneth is a very masculine guy. I suspect your Xhinea thinks you're quite the guy, too. In the end, that's probably what really matters, right? How the people who are important to us think? How WE think?"

When Adrian didn't respond, Jessica was content to let the silence stand between them, a trick she had learned from Jane Thompson. She knew that her companion would speak when he was ready.

It took almost five minutes, but she was right. "What you said - that's not how the rest of the world sees things. Little guys are always the first ones picked on, and. . ." Adrian hesitated, but realized that he'd crossed the line and only complete honesty was acceptable. "And big girls get made the brunt of jokes."

"So, 'the rest of the world' is always right? Small guys are weak and big girls are ugly?" When Adrian didn't answer immediately, the devil's glint returned to Jessica's dark eyes. "Oh my! Call CNN! Jackie Chan is a wimp because he's not tall. Hold a press conference! Elle McPherson is not feminine because she IS tall. We have GOT to straighten the world out on these critical issues!"

"Jes-si-ca!" Adrian groaned, emphasizing each syllable.

"A-dri-an!" the petite strawberry blonde mimicked. "C'mon, sis, use that brain Jane is so proud of and just look at the FACTS, okay? Does your Xhinea think you're . . . unmanly because you're short?"

"No! At least," and the boy's voice trailed off for a moment, "I don't think so.

"From what I hear, you're right," Jessica affirmed staunchly, "and I'm proud of you, bro. That is one fine foxy lady you've got there. If I were you, I'd concentrate on keepin' the one you got rather than worryin' about the opinion of those you don't got. Or don't want?"

"Xhinea's special."

A smug grin lit the feminine face. "So she is, but then, my friend, so are you. Jane said you were ready to graduate. That means you're already better in difficult situations than 90% of the world. A little work, a little education, a little training, and a lot of determination puts you in the top one percent. You can BE anything you want to be - DO anything YOU want to do."

"Once you've been one of Jane's girls, everything else is easy?"

Jessica smiled. "Just about. So, Adrian, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

The question had been intended to tease, but from the suddenly blank look on the boy's face, Jessica could tell it hadn't been taken that way. "You won't laugh?" Adrian finally asked.

"I'd never laugh at anyone's dream, sis," was the soft reply.

"You know about Xhinea? In China? What. . . what might have happened to her over there?"

"I did help you research that paper for Jane, Adrian," Jessica replied quietly, but there was a cold anger in her eyes, that children could be so easily and callously discarded on such a scale.

"Okay, then. What I want. . .what I'd like to do. . is find ways to help girls like Xhinea - find them homes where they'll be loved all their lives instead of growing up in one of those state-run kid farms in China - or worse. Dumb, huh?"

Jessica felt a lump growing in her throat as she looked into wary yet earnest eyes. "No," she rasped out, fully understanding the goal from her own experiences, "Not dumb at all. In fact, I think it's a grand dream - one well worth working for, and Jane will help, you know. She's got all sorts of contacts in really strange places."

"I'll bet."

"Really. You'll see if you tell her about your dream. Trust her, Adrian, she'll help you like she's helping me with my dream."

"All those dry books on history and political science?"

A wistful look crossed Jessica's face, but only for a moment before she nodded vigorously. "I'm going to go to Yale Law and be one of the top men in my field before I turn thirty. Aunt Jane is making sure I have all the knowledge and education needed to achieve that goal. Think about it, okay?"

"Okay, and Jess? Thanks. I'm gonna go see if I can get Tante Marie to help me with a little project."

"Later, sis."

"I don't care about that, Ken, I'm the one getting married and I want to do it the way I want to do it!"

"But, Skipper. . ."

"Don't Skipper me, mister," the tall blonde retorted. "Look, I saw that three ring circus your family organized last night, and that is NOT what I want."

"You don't have to have anything that. . . ummm. . . adventurous. I mean, you could even be the one to wear the gown."

"Wear the dress, pal, and mine is going to be a lot less dramatic as that thing Michelle wore, okay? I'm just a simple Mid-Western girl with simple Mid-Western tastes, and I'll have the wedding that I've always dreamed about."

Ken was about to argue, was about to press for the big, fancy affair he knew Jane and Marie would want, but something caught at him. "What have you planned?" It might have been a question, but there was no doubt in his mind that she had planned something.

"A small affair, Labor Day Weekend Saturday, in that little church in downtown Kingston. I've already talked to the minister and he's penciled us in."

"That place won't hold more than a hundred or so folks," Ken warned.

"Then it will easily hold the thirty or so I want there," Anne replied firmly. "It's my wedding."

"Can we at least let Momma Jane and Tante Marie plan the reception? Here at Seasons House?"

Momentarily, Anne's shoulders drooped and then she cast a suspicious eye on her fiancé. "It will be huge, won't it?"

"Over the top," he agreed easily. "Might even get to meet the President's mom and dad if you're lucky."

"WHAT?!?!" she yelped, and then gave him a hard look. "You're teasing me, right? Tell me you're teasing me."

"You never know when Jane Thompson is involved."

She thought about it, and sighed. "Okay, but we escape as soon as we possibly can."

"I'll make plane reservations that will ensure we have to leave after no more than a couple of hours."

"An hour and a half!"

"Don't push your luck, dear. And remember, some of that time will include changing out of your wedding finery."

"Oh, well, umm, okay."
 
 
Chapter 46: Gifts Given and Received
 
"And so, mon brave, you are ready?"

Adrian closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Ready as I'm likely to be, Tante Marie. I just wish. . ."

Marie let that unstated wish stand as long as her soft heart would permit -which wasn't very long. "Wish what, Adrian?"

"I wish I was as certain as I was when I came up with this idea. Suppose she doesn't like it? Suppose it . . . it reminds her of, well, stuff?"

"Pooh," Marie scoffed. "She is female, isn't she? La petite jolie femme? What woman in her right mind wouldn't treasure such a gift? From a man who treasures her? Besides, that style is not something one sees in the People's Republic of China, so it should not have any unfortunate associations for her."

"You're sure? I mean, it's sort of a hand-me-down."

"Adrian," Marie said, her patience slipping. "I, Marie, would NOT have helped you, had I not been sure. Eh bien?" She saw the relief in his eyes and relented, just a bit. "So, are you going in or not? I DO have shopping to do today."

Smiling now, the teen leaned over to plant a kiss on the French Canadian's cheek. "Thanks, I mean, merci, Tante Marie."

"You're welcome, my lad. Now, I'll be back for you in about two hours. Out you go."

It was funny, Adrian mused as he waited for the door to open in answer to his knock, how many memories could flood through your mind in so short a time.

So much had happened since the last time he'd been at this doorstop. Both his sister and her guy were sporting engagement rings for a wedding that would take place just before school started. He'd be living with Darryl and Audrey while the lovebirds went on their honeymoon.

Of course, Aunt Jane had offered to let him stay with her - as Adrienne, actually, since there was now a newly petticoated student in residence at Seasons House.

As much as he'd learned to respect, and yes, love Aunt Jane, that solution was distinctly unappealing. First of all, Ms Thompson the School Mistress was daunting to say the least. She wouldn't let him slack off on ANYthing, and a guy needed to goof off a little bit now and then. Of course, there was NO way he could use that argument, because it was a tossup who'd have him back in Seasons House and skirts faster - Jane or Barbara Anne. So he'd based his case on his other primary objection to being home-schooled - not being able to attend the same school as Xhinea.

And that had carried the day, since it had gotten Marie on his side.

The metal-on-metal clicking of the door lock snapped the teen out of his reveries. Without realizing it, he went ramrod straight and clutched the silver-wrapped packages closer to his chest.

"Hi, Dr. C," he rasped when the woman of the house smiled at him from the doorway. "Umm. . I, uh, brought a gift for Xhinea. May I come in? Please?"

"Did you see the look on his face, when you offered to let Adrienne stay with you while Ken and I are honeymooning in Paris?" Anne giggled.

Jane's answering smile was devilish. "Actually, my dear, what really terrified the poor dear was when I pointed out that would entail home-schooling with me as teacher."

"Are you really such a demanding task-mistress, then?"

"Just so. However, since I have excellent contacts with the local school, I've taken steps to ensure that Adrian's teachers will . . . see that his developing intellect is suitably challenged."

"Well, truth to tell, Jane, I would prefer that he learn to deal with the outside world beyond Seasons House, anyway."

"My goal also, dear, which is precisely why I allowed him to believe he'd won that round. We can always use my little school as incentive to excel at his preferred educational venue, eh?"

"Straight A's or A-line skirts?" Anne giggled.

"Well, one or two B's MIGHT be allowed," Jane intoned, and then grinned. "As long as he does his best, Anne, which I'm sure he will. He's really is a special young man," she added, recalling the boy who'd valued a friend more than he did his secret identity as one of Jane's 'girls'. "Do you know he volunteered to stand in as big sister, if Jesse ever needs to be elsewhere when I have a junior student in residence?"

"He did?!?" Anne was flabbergasted.

Celia Hurst watched as her daughter carefully unwrapped the larger of the two boxes Adrian had brought with him, much to her impatient young swain's distress. He was even more excited than her daughter.

Or perhaps, Celia thought, the correct word was anxious.

"Oh, my. . ." Xhinea breathed reverently as she reached into the opened box. Standing up, Xhinea pulled out a long, shiny red dress that she held to herself. "It's gorgeous!"

"You like it?"

"I love it! I want to try it on right now!" she enthused, gathering up the dress to leave.

"Wait!" Adrian ordered, laughing. "Open the other box, first. They, ah, go together."

This time, Celia noted, her daughter tore into the wrapping with all the enthusiasm a suitor might wish, and withdrew a pair of delicate high heeled sandals, their red straps matching the color of the dress. She was surprised, however, when the teenaged girl suddenly became less certain.

Adrian saw it, too. "What's the matter? Don't you like the shoes? You don't have to wear them. . ."

Xhinea looked up at the young man, her eyes cautious. "No, they're lovely, and. . .and I've wanted shoes like them. It's just that, well, I'll be taller than you."

"Yeah," Adrian growled low in his throat.

"That's okay? With you?"

"I knew it when I chose the shoes for you, Xhi. It's WAY more than okay with me."

The pleasure came back in Xhinea's face. "Okay. . . I'll be right back. Don't go away." she ordered as she dashed from the room.

Pleasure at her daughter's obvious delight suffused Celia, and she smiled at Adrian. "Well, young man, if any other boy gave my daughter such a dress and heels, I'd be concerned. You, however, have a well-trained eye for fashion. She'll look exotic, but very attractive."

"She won't be able to blend into the woodwork in that ensemble," Adrian added in evident satisfaction.

"I find I almost envy her."

"Huh. . I mean, pardon me, Ma'am?"

"It must be nice to have a young man who so well understands what looks good on a woman, and what a woman goes through to look good. You will never take her for granted that way, will you?"

Adrian heard what Dr. C didn't say. Someone had obviously taken her efforts in that line for granted, and it had hurt the gentle doctor.

"No, Dr. C. At least, I promise you I'll try very hard not to do that." Then he added, "I think anyone who has, um, experienced Aunt Jane would never again take a woman for granted. Maybe you should ask her if she, um, knows anyone who could, um, help you with that?"

"I'M READY!" Xhinea's excited voice called from the next room before Celia could find out what Adrian had meant. "HERE I COME!"

Anything else she might have thought flew out of Celia Hurst's head, as a vision in gold-embroidered red silk brocade glided into the room. "Oh my goodness - my little girl is growing up, and I haven't had her near long enough yet!"

"Wow, Xhi, you look great!" Adrian gushed, his eyes wide.

Celia went to the kitchen to give the young people a bit of privacy. "Thank you, Adrian. This is just SO lovely."

"I knew it would look great on you - the moment I realized. . ."

His sudden silence surprised Xhinea and she looked at him closely. "When you realized - what?" she asked.

The boy colored vividly, and Xhinea put that reaction together with what she knew about Adrienne. "You wore this?"

"Adrienne did Aunt Jane a favor, and wore that dress."

"It fit you?"

"Sort of. Tante Marie and I modified it a bit for you - even without a corset, you're more slender in the waist than Adrienne." Adrian stood up and walked over to Xhinea. "See these buttons here and here?" He pointed to two spots in the back of the dress, just above her hips. "Those take about three inches out of the waist. We also raised the hem an inch and a half.

"But you, I mean, Adrienne could still wear it?"

"Well, yeah. . ."

"Good. I like her, too," she said simply. "I would miss her friendship and the little things we'd shared together.

For a moment, Adrian couldn't speak. He hadn't, before that moment, realized that he'd wanted to continue sharing those little things, too. "If it's okay with your Mom."

"Oh, she's cool with it. We've talked about you. . .and Adrienne."

"It doesn't bother you? That I've worn that dress?"

With the shy stiffness of first times, Xhinea moved over and embraced Adrian. "Silly man," she said, kissing his cheek. "That just makes it all the more special to me."

Slowly, Adrian put his own arms around his girl's silk-swathed waist. "Then, you will wear it, won't you? At my sister's wedding? I really want you to come. Your Mom, too."

"I'd love to come, and I think my Mom will want to attend, too."

"She's invited, too. Anne said I could ask you both."

"I bet you're really handsome in a tuxedo," Xhinea said wistfully.

Adrian wasn't sure, but if Xhinea wanted to see him in a monkey suit . . . well, it might not be the most challenging thing she'd ever have him wear.
 
 
Chapter 47: Conclusions and other Beginnings.
 
In the warm darkness of her private apartment, Jane offered a flute of bubbling champagne to Art, a happy smile lighting her face. "I'm so glad you're home."

"For Ken's wedding? Nothing could have kept me away, darling. I must say, however, that I'm surprised you allowed that mere snip of a girl to have her way in the matter of YOUR son's wedding."

"Oh, don't kid yourself, darling," Jane said smugly. "There's still going to be a big wedding."

"Oh? When?"

Jane grinned into her wineglass. "Oh, a year from now, on their first anniversary. She wouldn't have enjoyed that big an event just now, and I firmly believe that a bride should be happy on her wedding night. So I didn't argue."

"But all that will change in a year?"

"Of course. For all she's accepted what I did for Adrian, she is still uncertain about me and my little school. She'll have a year to get used to . . .things, and perhaps, to learn to trust me just a little more."

"And then, - POW -, big wedding - Jane style - right in the kisser, eh?"

"Oh, I wouldn't put it like that," Jane replied, obviously well pleased, "but in any case, Barbara Anne should know by now that I will host the ceremony I think worthy of my son and new daughter's union. Who knows? By then, she might actually look forward to the party."

"Still, I'm very impressed that she was willing to stand up to you to get what she wanted."

"As am I, Art, as am I," Jane said in apparent agreement.

Art grinned at her and said, "Don't give me that sadly-resigned-to-my-fate-look, wife. You know as well as I do that Anne's wedding was charming in a way your big bash could never have matched."

Jane matched his grin and said, "So it was, not that I will ever admit that to Anne. At least, not until after I get my party for her. I suppose I should have realized a girl who has. . .issues with her height as Anne has would want something, shall we say, more delicate than the, ah, 'big bash' I would have arranged. At least for now. Once our Kenneth has had a little time to convince her she has nothing to be shy about, she'll come around."

The serene Mistress of Seasons Manor raised her glass in a toast. "To true love, my love. Another of my boys well matched."

Art touched his glass to hers. "Not the last, I'd say. Did you happen to notice that ring Donald Madden's young lady was sporting?"

"I saw it, but even so, I couldn't help but notice her being joined to him at the hip the entire afternoon, either. I think we can expect a wedding invitation to show up in our mailbox very soon."

The main living area of the honeymoon suite was quiet when Kenneth, belting his dressing robe, stepped out of the groom's dressing room. He'd needed the shower for it had been a long day, and not to put too fine a point on the matter, he'd long since overwhelmed his twenty-four hour deodorant.

"You only get one chance to make a first impression," he reminded himself only a little facetiously as he walked over to the door to the luxurious bedroom that was the suite's centerpiece. He was about to knock when he saw it - a note taped to the doorknob with is name written on the envelope.

With suddenly shaky hands, he tore it open and removed the single sheet of perfumed stationery.
 
 



My Darling Ken,
Your Barbie awaits inside. Be careful with her. She's fragile, but for the right guy, she can be a living doll.

Barbara Anne


 
 
Ken slowly opened the door and found the room lighted and scented by the flame of a dozen candles - and there she was, seated in front of the mirrored vanity - her body covered from neck to toe in pure white silk that hinted teasingly at each lovely curve. Her honey-blond hair cascaded down her back, much as her wedding veil had but mere hours earlier.

She rose, and moved to meet him halfway, the shy smile that curled her lips holding all the welcome and promise a man could ever want.

With a laugh of pure unadulterated joy, Ken scooped her up in his arms and carried off HIS Barbie into their future.

 
 
End of Tales of the Season - Ken's Barbie © 2002,2013 Tigger



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