Despite Jo sacrificing her petticoat, Amy takes cold, and is really truly miserable. I spend the day trotting up and down the stairs until my legs ache with fatigue, and Marmee tells me to rest. It's hard to rest when I know my little sister is in such pain. Even before I sit, however, Jo is hovering in the doorway, a perfect picture of distress.
"Why, Jo, what's the matter?" I move toward her eye she reaches for her coat.
"Laurie is ill. I'd run right over there, but I have to go to Aunt March's." Her eyes snapped. "I just can't stand the thought of reading to a finicky old lady, while Laurie is suffering because he went in after Amy yesterday."
"Is he very ill?" I ask, trying to picture Laurie sick at all.
"I saw the doctor leave, and he said Laurie shouldn't be up and about for a few days. It's going to be hard for him to be all cooped up like that. Hannah made him some soup. Do you think you could take it over?"
My heart pounds as the room spins, but it's only Laurie. "I – I suppose I could."
Jo's smile is big and bright as she hugs me. "You're a brick. I'll come over as soon as I can. Do chat with him and try to cheer him up before you leave."
I forget that people have servants. When the maid answers the door, I stutter out that I brought something for Laurie. She calls me "Miss" and leads me into the parlor, telling me to please wait and make myself at home. If I were home I wouldn't be having such trouble breathing. I set the soup on the table, biting my lip as I'm drawn to the beautiful piano in the corner of the room. The keys are ivory, the wood lustrous. I've heard the sound of it through our window when Laurie plays. I stroke a key, feeling it cool and smooth, then glanced toward the door. I shouldn't be touching it. But Laurie did say I was welcome to play anytime I wanted.
I caressed the keys, creating a soft melody that only I can hear. I've often played it on our piano at home, but I've never heard it on a piano that was tuned. It's beautiful, and it makes me cry. I settle myself onto the bench, moving into a harder piece, wondering how many I can actually play before Laurie comes down.
I jolt as Laurie leans against the doorframe behind me. His stance is a bit casual for a sick person, but his throat is raw as he speaks. "That's very good. Jo always said you were good. Please keep playing."
He shuffled the couch to sit down, and my mouth goes dry. I don't want to play, but he is ill, and he asked me to. I chew my lip until it nearly draws blood, feeling my finger shake on the keys. It's the same song I played earlier, but I make a terrible mess of it, and at the end I turned to him, hoping to divert his attention.
"The soup is from Jo," I say. "She sent it over, and she wanted to come herself, but she had to go to Aunt March's house."
As soon as I speak, I see I don't need to, for Laurie has already helped himself to the dish. At the mention of Jo's name, he looks up quickly. "Did Jo make it?"
"No." I laugh. "Jo doesn't cook. Hannah made it."
"Oh, good." He looks relieved.
It's awfully wicked of me, but I can't help laughing. I want to defend Jo's cooking, of course, but — well, honestly, it's rather hard to defend. None of us have very much talent in the kitchen. I help Hannah with the meals sometimes, but mostly she likes us out of the way.
Before I can come up with any possible way to come to her defense, Laurie's shoulders shake with heavy laughter, that almost covers Jo's laughter coming from behind. She stands in the doorway with sparkling eyes. "My sweet Bethy. Not even God himself could've defended me on that one."
Laurie falls back onto the couch, nearly choking on his laughter, and suddenly he doesn't seem ill at all.
"Jo, I thought you were at Aunt March's."
Jo grinned. "No. I lied. Actually, Laurie and I plotted everything out. He's not really sick. We just couldn't think of a better way to get you over here, and we knew that once you were left alone with piano you decide to try it."
They had been listening the entire time? I've rarely felt so horrified in my entire life. But I could never be angry with Jo, and Laurie has such an adorable look on his face, I can't be upset with him either. Still, my mouth hangs until Laurie plops down beside me on the bench.
"Come along, Beth. You're not upset because we like to hear you play are you? We just didn't want to make you nervous. And I can't keep this piano in tune all by myself, and Jo's playing makes her cooking look splendid."
It is a nice house. And a beautiful piano. And Laurie is sitting awfully close to me.
But something snatches its attention away, and he moves toward the window. "Well, my, my, my."
"What?" Jo asks.
"It's my tutor."
"He's by the garden gate."
"Have you done your school lessons?"
"Doesn't matter today. He's far more interested in Meg."
Jo rushes to the window. "What?"
Laurie grins. "What is this I sense?" He rubbed his fingers together in glee. "A bit of – romance — in the air?"
My eyebrows shoot up as quickly as Jo's go down.
"Meg?" I ask.
"And – Mr. Brooke?"
"Aye." I didn't think that Laurie's eyes to shine anymore, but they do. "Ideal, isn't it? The March and Lawrence households joining nations."
"No!" Jo snaps, startling both of us. "Meg is too young to think anything of the sort!"
"John is nice." I offer, joining her to look at the pair by the fence. "They are only talking. You're talking to Laurie. They might just be talking about the weather."
"Might be," Laurie agrees.
Jo fumes, then wags her finger under Laurie's nose. They hinted teasing her voice doesn't cover her real mood. "You tell your tutor to stay away from my sister."
Laurie and I exchange a surprised look, as Jo's strides out the door, plows through the space between the pair to take Meg's hand and drags her into our house. John's sways on his feet, shoving his hands into his pockets, before he turns and comes into the house.
"Well," Laurie says. "That didn't go well."
"She will be all right." I step back. "Thank you for letting me play your piano. And I'm glad you're not really sick."
"I trust you'll play again," Laurie answers. "Don't worry your pretty little head about Jo. Between my games, and your mothering, she'll be fine in no time."
But things are not fine at home. Jo scolds. Meg denies any guilt. Marmee pacifies. Amy laments that she missed all the fun at Laurie's. I try to explain that we didn't intend to go for a visit, but the poor child is running fever, so I end up playing paper dolls with her.
Laurie comes by with a making-up bribe, and whisks Jo and Meg away to the theater. I feel a little jealous that he succeeded where even I have failed, as Jo brightens and runs for coat. He winks at me on the way out, saying that he'll bring her back right as rain.
Rain doesn't seem to be an altogether good thing, and I turn to find Amy sitting with her arms folded, looking like a thunder cloud. "Now they're going to the theater without me."
"Perhaps we can go with Hannah when you're feeling better."
"I don't want to go with Hannah," her voice cracks. "I want to go with Laurie!"
She cries, and I do my best to soothe her, though I'm nearly ready to cry myself. It's been a long day, and it's always distressing when people are out of sorts. Amy falls asleep, and I slip quietly out the door, only to run into Marmee in the hall.
She kisses my head. "I'm going back to the Hummel family. I'm worried about the two little girls, and I'd like to check and make sure they have enough food and coal. Would you like to come along?"
My heart leaps, though I'm not sure if it's excitement or anxiety. We put on our shawls and as we walk toward the house, I ask mother about Meg and John. She says just to wait and see what happens.
The silver tray is missing from the window, replaced with a few rags. Ahren isn't at home, and I feel a bit disappointed, but as mother is chatting with Ms. Hummel, I pick up baby Gretchen. She has blue eyes, and fine golden curls like a little angel – a fretting little angel - and Lotchen says she's not been feeling well. I wonder if she's hungry or cold, and wrap my shawl tightly around her. It seems have found a permanent home here.
Mary is showing me what good care she's taken of her dolly, who was hardly recognizable anymore, when Ahren kicks open the door, loaded under sticks from who knows how far away. He settles the next to the fireplace, turning to catch Mary who jumps into his arms, and sending a fleeting but warm smile in my direction. I bury my face into the baby's hair so no one will see my cheeks have heated.
Oh, what's the matter with me? Why am I feeling this way? I don't even know what this could be called. Laurie would probably say it's infatuation. Jo would call it foolishness. Marmee might say friendship. All I know is that I care about him — and I worry when he is cold, or hungry, or frightened. If the Hummels had another boy, I would probably worry about him as well.
Gretchen must sense my distress, for she begins to wail again.
"Ahren." Mrs. Hummel speaks in German, motioning toward us.
"She's crying?" Ahren speaks in English, and I think perhaps it's really meant for me to hear. He takes the squirming bundle from me. "And why would she be doing that?" He swings the child lightly in the air, turning a circle and making a funny noise until Gretchen begins to laugh. "Silly girl."
"Silly boy!" Mary calls, running to cling to his shirt, pulling against him.
Ahren's eyes sparkle as he hands Gretchen back to me, then turns to scoop up Mary. "Don't rip my shirt! I'll twirl you until you're sick!"
Mary is far from sick, and she screams "faster!" as Ahren spins her, until they both tumble onto the floor. Before he can get up, four or five other children pile on top of them. They move so quickly that I can't tell them apart, or even how many there actually are in that little heap of arms and legs.
For moment even Marmee and Ms. Hummel laugh. I wonder if Marmee likes Ahren.
I do - especially when he's rolling on the floor covered with children.
And then I know I can't deny it any more. Whether or not I should - I like Ahren Hummel.