Laurie's infatuation with his tutor was not merely a matter of proximity. He had gone from Vevay, where he'd been one of the crème de la crème – seen to be handsome, reputed to be talented, known to be good with his fists – to this near-solitude in his grandfather's house, closeted for hours at a time with young Mr. Brooke. All of his energies now were spent in pleasing Mr. Brooke, at first to secure his good report, then to make those brown eyes smile approvingly.
The first time he slipped and called him John, Mr. Brooke did nothing so emphatic as start or protest; the brown eyes had merely flicked up from their book – a German grammar, and so John had become Johann – and returned to the page. No remark was made later, while they discoursed in French, though Laurie's cheeks burned as he let Jean fall from his lips.
At the close of the day's lessons, Laurie stood, as always, and for the first time stuck out his hand. It seemed tremendously important that he face John Brooke as a man and equal, though Mr. Brooke was looking particularly young that day; the brown hair, when uncovered by a hat, retained its youthful softness, and the brown eyes fairly glowed above a still-rosy mouth. At the gesture, Mr. Brooke faltered, as he had not throughout the day's uncommon intimacies. Still, he clasped Laurie's hand kindly, and Laurie thrilled to the feel of his smooth palm, his ink-dotted fingers, and smiled to have his action reciprocated by this bookish, boyish man.
The Marches swept in like their namesake month's winds, disrupting the idyll, the private Eden. It had started with Jo, who had seemed so familiar, so very like the school chums he'd left behind, that to befriend her was the work of a moment. The others were slower to declare themselves, but Jo – she of the dear, funny name – talked about her sisters so much that it soon came to seem that they were his sisters as well, that they should very naturally take an interest in him and pet him and think him the finest boy that could ever be.
Agreeable as it was to be petted, Laurie still strove to please Mr. Brooke, and that anxiety tied him up in knots. He made a hash of his mathematics, and butchered his Latin translation so thoroughly that he'd have been whipped at school. Mr. Brooke frowned, concerned lines gathering on his handsome brow, and excused himself. Laurie groaned and pressed his head to the pages of Catullus that had betrayed him, the sheet covered in the ink of his feeble translation – the one boy saved for me – fluttering down to his feet. He waited, his breaths growing less harsh as the time stretched on, for the discipline John would bestow, but John did not return.
That was the night that his grandfather said, "You've been spending too much time at your books. Our good neighbor says you need color in your cheeks, not more facts in your head. So you're to have a vacation, my boy." Laurie absorbed the blow in silence, wetting his lips with water and nodding down at his untouched dinner.
It was relaxing to be with Jo, who fell into step with him and gave him a new name; as Teddy, he could romp and frolic to his heart's content. The restrictions he had placed on himself – not to look, not to touch, not to sigh – fell from him like loosened shackles, and suddenly he felt himself a boy again. He rowed Jo along the stream, and lay, indolent and idle, when she rowed them back home. He recited poetry for her by the hour, never quite slaking her voracious hunger for words. He came to his own meals with a hearty appetite and to his bed with a most pleasing weariness; no longer did he wrestle with dreams that left him unsatisfied and wanting.
His lessons were flourishing finely, and Mr. Brooke had only praise for his pupil. Laurie examined his mind closely, to determine why sharing a desk with John, hearing his patient voice illuminating some point so finely as to produce a persistent light where before there had been only ignorance, was no longer a test of his mettle. It had become instead an unalloyed pleasure to learn what John was teaching, and Laurie puzzled over his heart during the brief hours he was allowed to play and compose at the piano.
His infatuation had died – no, cooled, rather, into something fraternal – and to have his idolatry turn so rapidly and completely into camaraderie astonished him quite. How had he, the only child of a pair of famous lovers, betrayed his breeding with such fickleness? His playing became quite tempestuous, but that was all the passion that remained to him, and though he found himself wanting, he could not deny that his love had been doomed.
He wondered if he would ever love again.
It was like a spark to tinder, seeing Jo without the crowning glory of her hair, and Laurie knew that boyish girl was going to be his, in a way John never had been. John had lost his heart to Meg, and though once he would have reveled in being his tutor's confidant, treasuring their enforced closeness, now Laurie watched him to learn how best to win the March of his choosing. John worked diligently to deserve his ladylove, and Laurie did the same, buckling down to be a credit to his former teacher and so advance both of their causes in a single swoop.
Laurie sat and wound yarn for Jo as she knitted socks that soldiers would be thankful for, watching her inky fingers manipulate the needles briskly, with none of the delicacy of Meg's fine needlework. Her touch would be rougher than her sister's; John might content himself with dreaming of Meg's shy caresses, but he wanted the full force of passion.
"Jo," said Mrs. March, resting a maternal hand on Laurie's shoulder, "could you run over to the Kings' with the bundles? Mrs. King told me she could arrange to have all of the goods shipped to Washington by the early train tomorrow."
"I'll drive you, Jo," he said, seizing his opportunity, and she nodded, finished her sock, and pulled on her cloak – the roughest of the five hanging by the door.
The sacks of goods faithfully delivered as promised, Laurie turned the horse in the direction of the river, which had gone grey and half-solid in the unrelenting cold.
"Where are we going?" Jo asked, sitting up alertly, her side pressed along his. "Have we another errand to run?"
"No deed to be done, but a word that must be spoken," Laurie said, trying desperately to get his confounded voice to stay steady while he drew the horse up to a standstill.
"Teddy, you mustn't!" Jo cried, alarm animating every line of her boyish figure. "I'll never –"
"Never what?" he asked crossly, heart sinking at so decisive an answer to the question he had not even been allowed to ask.
"Forgive you if you go off to war and leave me," Jo said.
"Leave you!" he repeated blankly. "Never, my heart!"
There was a queer catch in Jo's voice, but her face was turned away. "Then what was it that you needed to say?"
"To tell you I love you," Laurie said, catching her chin and turning her back to face him; her grey eyes, lambent with unshed tears, smote him like a blow. "To ask to have the chance to win –"
Her hand, gloved for once, stopped his mouth. "Do not speak of winning, as if we were in a romance. Say instead that you have chosen me, and I have chosen you, and we shall be happy."
"Truly, Jo?" he asked, unable to conceive of a courtship on such easy footing, that winning a wife might be as natural as swearing blood-brotherhood with the best of his childhood chums.
"Truly, Teddy," she said, and kissed him firmly. His blood charged anew, and he felt his body warming though he shook like he was ague-struck. Jo's mouth was half-open and entirely sweet, and he could not resist pulling her from her seat beside him to place her on his lap. Her cloak and skirts bunched between them but Jo simply wound her arms around him and crushed the material between their bodies. Her bonnet would have been the next victim – he was close to yanking it off and running his fingers through her cropped hair – had the horse not stirred restively, eager to be out of the cold.
"Come, my love," he said against the soft skin of her cheek as she laughed with joy. "We are done with our errands for the day."
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.
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