Balancing on the toes of her feet, she reached up as high as she could, but the book remained stubbornly just out of reach. A voice at her shoulder startled her and she came down hard upon her heels. "Here, let me…" She looked towards the owner of the voice, a young man with sandy brown hair who was reaching past her to easily pluck the book she had been trying for off the high shelf upon which it sat. "I believe this is the one you wanted?" he asked, holding it out to her.
She took it from him, and as their eyes met, she realized the deep resonance of his voice wasn't the only remarkable thing about him. His eyes were the clearest ice blue she had ever seen, and they shone with a rare intelligence even as they danced with suppressed mirth. Tearing her eyes from his, she glanced down at the book grasped in her hand. "Thank you, Sir."
"My pleasure," he answered, his voice now so low as to be nearly a purr. And then, after a slight bow, he stepped away. She looked up in time to see him disappear around the corner of the library stack by which she stood.
The library was becoming quite busy, yet no one had taken any of empty seats at the table at which she sat. Not that that was surprising. As far as she could ascertain, she was the only woman currently auditing courses at college, which hardly made her a socially desirable connection.
She was used to sitting alone.
"Is this seat taken?"
She recognized his voice immediately and looked up to find the young man who'd helped her several days earlier standing expectantly before her. "Oh... No, Sir. Please, feel free."
He smiled down at her. "Thank you…. Miss…?"
She returned the smile. "Helen. Helen Magnus."
He set his books down on the table before him and took a seat. Then, almost as an afterthought, he held out his hand to her as if she'd been any one of the men on campus. "Mr. John Druitt, at your service, Miss Magnus." She took the offered hand. His grip was sure yet he clasped her fingers gently as he said, "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
She nodded her head. "Likewise."
And then, after a slight nod, he opened one of the books in front of him and, bending his head over it and ignoring her completely, began to read.
"Natural science?" he asked.
She looked up quickly from her book. After sharing a table in near silence several times over the last week, his sudden speech was almost startling. "Excuse me?"
He gestured at the book she was reading. "Are you interested in the natural sciences?" he clarified.
"Oh…" she glanced down at the biology book in her hands. "Uhm… No…. Not exactly…" For some reason, she suddenly found herself strangely hesitant to explain herself to Mr. Druitt. Almost as though afraid of his reaction. Which was absurd, so she forced herself to continue, "Actually, I'm studying to become a physician."
His reaction was not what she'd expected… not that she'd been sure exactly what to expect. It wasn't the sort of information she would generally have shared even if she'd had numerous acquaintances with which to share it. "That must be very difficult. I've heard few hospitals are willing to train women."
"Yes, it will be. But a few is more than none," she pointed out.
He nodded and smiled at her. "That it is."
Unsure why she was asking, but feeling a need to all the same, she asked, "And what are you studying, Mr. Druitt?"
"History…" he admitted. "My father taught at a school in London prior to his death and his former colleagues can secure me a position upon graduation. But I am interested in the Natural Sciences… it's purely personal non-professional curiosity, I'm afraid."
She couldn't help smiling at his self-defacing manner. "There's nothing wrong with curiosity," she observed. "In truth, I think many would do well with a good bit more."
He smiled back at her, "Maybe…"
"I'm certain of it," she replied emphatically. Then, realizing in her enthusiasm she'd been looking him straight in the eyes, she quickly dropped her gaze back to her book. Even in her haste, though, she couldn't miss the smile tugging at the corner of his lips and hoped he wouldn't notice her answering blush.
Two days later, as he stood to leave their customary library table for his Ancient Roman History lecture, Mr. Druitt handed her a folded up pamphlet.
"What's this?" she asked, taking it.
Druitt explained even as she read it over herself, "Doctor Hayes is conducting a special presentation of the flora and fauna of the Italian peninsula this Saturday afternoon. I was planning on attending and was wondering if you might be interested…?" His voice trailed off and he stood looking at her expectantly. And nervously.
She smiled up at him. "Yes. I'd love to."
He returned her smile. "Then I'll see you there?"
"Absolutely," she nodded.
"Good." And turning quickly, he hurried off.
"Druitt! Magnus!" Nikola Tesla called out to them as she and Druitt were crossing the quad after yet another of the Saturday lectures they had been frequently attending.
She thought she could hear John grit his teeth next to her as they both turned to face him. "Yes?" she asked.
It had been several weeks since they had made the man's acquaintance, and while she had grown to at least tolerate Tesla - and respect him for his scientific insight - Druitt seemed to simply find him increasingly more annoying.
"I've been looking all over for you two. Got plans?"
"What do you want, Tesla?" John asked. She had been correct about the gritted teeth.
"Griffin and I were going to get together and go over the new Lancet. I… We were wondering if you would be interested in joining us?"
She could feel her companion tense next to her, but Helen really wanted to accept the invitation. Journal reviews fascinated her. She turned to John. "Mr. Druitt…?" she began.
He took merely a second to search her face before turning back to Tesla. "Absolutely," he replied to the other man. "Thank you for inviting us."
Helen and John's single call upon Tesla and Griffin had quickly become regular gatherings and soon included James Watson as well. The five students would discuss the latest scientific or medical journals, their own research and discoveries, or anything else which struck them as new and exciting. They all shared a fascination with the natural sciences, and most especially with any thing strange and unusual found therein, having, with the exception of Druitt himself, met through the medical courses during which their common interest had been discovered.
Despite the others willingness to do so, Druitt had remained Helen's sole escort to and from these gatherings and, though she couldn't have explained why to anyone, Helen often found herself anticipating those walks with Druitt more than the meetings themselves. It wasn't because they shared many common interests beyond those already being discussed between the five of them, or that the paths through which they walked were terribly interesting. And while Druitt was one of the more intelligent persons she had ever met, that hardly stood out as extraordinary at Oxford. He wasn't particularly humorous either, though he did have a talent for making her laugh. His voice she could listen to for hours, but she would as often talk herself during their walks or pass in silence as hear him speak.
Still, whatever the cause of her pleasure in his companionship, she would find her feet slowing as if of their own accord as they walked and often John would choose the longest and most circuitous return route to her boarding house. And as the weeks rolled into months, those moments spent alone in his company became the most precious of the entire week. Until the weekend prior to the end of term, when they knew it must be weeks before they could come together again.
Their trip had been unusually long that evening, neither wanting their journey to end. Instead, they had walked along the streets of Oxford for far longer than could possibly have been necessary until Helen knew they were in danger of eliciting unwelcome suspicion if she should arrive back much later. John certainly knew it too, and his steps turned inevitably in the direction of her rooms.
They had been walking for several minutes in silence, her hand on his arm, so close their shoulders brushed together. At the corner of the court on which she lived, though, John's steps slowed nearly to a stop.
"John?" she asked.
"We're nearly there." His voice was so low as to be nearly a whisper.
"I know." She looked towards him, but they were tucked into a darkened corner between two streetlights and his face was bathed in shadows.
"I don't want this walk to end."
"There will be other walks."
"I know, dearest. It's just…" It was the first he'd ever used that endearment, and the fact he did so unconsciously made her heart skip in her chest. "It's such a long time."
She turned to face him. "It's just a few weeks."
"See?" He chuckled humorously. "A long time."
"We'll return before you know it."
He shook his head. "No…" Then, reaching up, he stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. "I'm going to miss you, Helen."
"Me too--" she started to say, but John was moving even before she had time to comprehend his intent, his hand shifting from her cheek to neck, pulling her towards him as his mouth descended on hers, cutting off her words. Their lips met, soft and tentatively at first, and Helen had never understood why a kiss should bring pleasure until that very moment. How the pressure of his mouth against hers stirred something inside her… Awakened something inside her… and she suddenly craved more. Needed more.
And then he was moving away…. letting her go. She complained, moaning softly at the sudden loss of contact. Her eyes opened - she hadn't even been aware they'd closed - and she found herself staring into his eyes. Eyes grown dark with a passion she was sure he saw reflected in her own.
The corner of his lip curved upwards in a wry smile as he said, "A long few weeks, eh, Helen?"
Still breathless herself, she simply nodded in agreement.
John's smile grew wider and he stared down at her for a long moment more. She could practically feel him memorizing her features. Then, releasing his hold on her waist, he offered his arm once more. She slipped her arm though his, and they stepped back into the light and walked the final few steps to her door.