'You know, mother, I am so looking forward to having Beth meet the Professor. He's such a capital fellow, and I can't help thinking she would be good for him.'

Mrs March looked grave. 'Jo, I hope I don't need to remind you that real life isn't one of your stories, and such matters shouldn't be meddled with. Beth is still very young, and the Professor is a full twenty years older.'

'But Meg was married at nineteen.'

'Beth isn't Meg, and your Professor isn't John.'

'I don't see why you should have all the fun of matchmaking and I shouldn't have a bit of it.' Jo pouted, throwing another pile of clothes into the trunk with rather less care and rather more force than necessary. 'Why, you got to know John before Meg did, and found out that he would make her an excellent husband. Well, Meg is happy and settled now, and Amy well on the way to being so, so now it's Beth's turn, and I intend to do my best for her. She's such a maternal little being, she would be the best thing that could happen to those motherless boys, and I'd like to see the Professor put her on the pedestal where she belongs. Don't scold, Marmee, you know I'm only half-serious, and I'd never do anything to compromise Beth or make her uncomfortable... I only think it would be nice if things did turn out like one of my stories, just once.'

The smile that played about Jo's mouth as she contemplated her castle in the air was such a welcome sight to her mother that she did not have the heart to press the matter. Nobody had realised, before, quite how much Beth's illness had lowered Jo's spirits, nor how much she had blamed herself, but the doctor's casual remark that the weakness in Beth's heart might not have been wholly caused by the fever seemed to have given Jo a new lease of life. She had returned to New York shortly after refusing Laurie's proposal of marriage, once more thinking it wise to put some distance between them, and thrown herself into attending lectures and plays, brushing up her languages, and writing, the better to get over her heartbreak. Some people might have said that breaking the heart of one's oldest and dearest friend could not possibly be as painful as enduring the breakage oneself, but Jo took it hard, and her letters home for some months were terse and infrequent.

However, young hearts are elastic, and the bright lights and buzz of the city began to make a home there. A fellow boarder, upon finding out that Miss March 'scribbled a little', begged for some contributions to a magazine he and some political friends were setting up; Jo obliged with some comic sketches, and, although the work was not highly paid, there was something much more satisfying about the honest praise she received as the articles were passed around the dinner table than there had ever been in the money she once earned writing sensational trash.

So Jo was beginning her career in earnest, with a review here and a sketch there, short stories and poems; whatever would pay, while still being suitable to send home for the family to read. She was adaptable, hardworking, and reliable, traits every bit as much in demand in the magazine industry as literary ability, and was getting on famously. No surprise, then, that she was eager to share her good fortune with those she loved best, and insisted on whisking Beth off to the city as soon as the winter snows were safely melted.

But Beth never would be a city girl. She found it hard to understand what people were saying, sometimes; they spoke so quickly, hardly getting one word out before starting on the next. The one time they went to the theatre, she grew so pale and panicky among the crowds filing out at the end that Jo thought it safer not to repeat the experiment. Beth was a lark by temperament, and evening amusements were of no interest to her; she preferred to wake at dawn and creep downstairs, taking her daily constitutional among the delivery boys and milkmen going about their duties, for Beth would always feel more comfortable around working men and women than she did around ladies and gentleman, and rather liked the invisibility that walking around the city in her most battered bonnet afforded her.

The rest of the time, when Jo was working, she befriended the children of the neighbourhood, who quickly learned that 'Miss Betty' was an expert comforter of bruised knees and mender of broken dolls. Little Tina, in particular, became infatuated, and trailed around after her like Mary's faithful lamb, the Professor quite forgotten in favour of this new love. The Professor took his supplantation manfully, and indeed with some amusement. At first, Beth was a little frightened of him - his voice was so very loud and German, and his beard so very bushy - but, seeing this, the Professor took care to be gentle around Jo's timid little sister, and they were soon fast friends. Jo was too busy to delight much in how they got on; but delight she did, and her air castles continued undiminished.

Beth herself had no such notions. It was clear as day to her that the Professor was every bit as much in love with Jo as Laurie had always been, and that Jo was being willfully obtuse about it, exactly as she had been with Laurie, so that she would not be put in the dreadful position of having to refuse him. Before coming to New York, Beth had not understood at all why Jo wouldn't marry Laurie. He was such a dear boy, and he and Jo were so fond of each other, that she had always quietly assumed that one day they would settle down together. But now, having seen her sister in her element, earning her own money, working on her novel, racing to meet deadlines, she was beginning to see that not everyone was meant to be married. It would be very difficult - Beth did not like to say 'impossible' - to work so hard and take care of a husband at the same time, and if Jo could not devote herself heart and soul to an enterprise she would rather not do it at all.

She was sure that the Professor realised this too. There was a look in his eyes sometimes when he spoke of Jo which was very like the look he had when he spoke of Minna. It was a sadness, yes; but there was also a glow which was not sad at all, because he had obviously loved his sister and was glad and grateful to have known her. What was that line Laurie had quoted in one of his melodramatic fits? Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Beth was not especially fond of Tennyson - he could be so gloomy! - but she approved of that sentiment.

Beth was so innocent that one might have thought her ill-equipped to negotiate such matters, yet somehow the younger Miss March learned more of the various heartbreaks and intrigues among her fellow boarders and their circles than did the elder. Perhaps it was simply that Jo's acquaintances feared ending up in one of her stories some day; but it is more likely that there was something in Beth's gentle manner which invited confidences, and assured people that their secrets would be safe with the quiet girl who sat in the corner and sewed as they talked, content in her own little world. She shrank from telling the Professor exactly what had transpired between Jo and Laurie, knowing that it was not her story to tell; nor, when Jo rambled on about the Professor and what a shame it was the poor man had no wife to help him raise his nephews, did it ever occur to her to enlighten her about the true state of his heart. Some things were better left unsaid. If Laurie had ever had the opportunity to see Jo the way she was now, he would never have sought to take her freedom away.

It was terribly sad, that one could love someone and never be loved in return; or, even if loved, not exactly in the way one wished. But Beth was neither a child nor a simpleton, and she knew all too well that, in real life, many stories do not have happy endings. When she was fourteen years old, she had watched a baby die in her arms. Sometimes, life was unjust. Occasionally, she could not help but suspect that she understood this better than her sisters.