The lamp is low, and the fire has burned away to glowing coals. Shadows play and flicker in the long, deep corners of the room and over the mismatched furniture.
Jo is sitting on the floor, her stockinged toes stretched towards the warmth of the hearth. Friedrich's chair is at her back, her shoulder pressed against his knee. The letter lies open on her lap.
Professor, it reads, is there nothing we can do to have you reconsider your decision?
Jo leans her cheek against his thigh. "They're very persistent."
"Yes," Friedrich agrees. "A quality I often admire."
"No," Jo says absently, turning the letter over. "I'm more stubborn than persistent."
Friedrich laughs and runs his fingers over the top of her dark hair.
My best to Mrs Bhaer and your young nephews. Perhaps, if there is nothing a position here can offer you, there is something it may offer them?
"That's a dirty play," Jo says angrily, gesturing at the offending line. She hates that they've dragged her and the boys into it, because she knows it's hit Friedrich in his heart, and it's sent a pang of doubt and longing through her as well.
Longing for the things Plumfield once had but has no more — rooms full of furniture, shelves of books, plush warm carpets, and helping hands. Aunt March left her the walls and the roof over her head, but everything else was cleared out and sent away to others. The task of filling the house again fills Jo with apprehension. Love is free, and tenderness is free, but growing up poor has left its mark on her, and her writing has given her a small taste of how easy things can become when you have a few dollars in your pocket. She has never had much patience for being poor.
"Of course there are things it would offer us," she says, trying her best not to storm into the familiar fit against Professor George Bentley and his dogged persistence. "But it would take you away from us."
Friedrich's fingers stir through her hair again.
They've been over Bentley's offer numerous times. His requests have expanded and shrunk and expanded again — efforts at bargaining Friedrich's time and commitment. My congratulations to you on the event of your marriage! his first letter had said. Naturally, we are disappointed that it has cost us a wonderful professor. Please do keep us in mind should you change your mind about remaining in Massachusetts.
It has been nine months since she took Friedrich's hand beneath that umbrella on a wet spring day, six months since they were married, and the schools in the west have not forgiven the fact that they were promised a German professor before Josephine March was.
"You're not tempted to go?" Jo asks, her heart in her throat.
"Oh, there are plenty of reasons to go," he says. "But none so important as my reasons to stay."
Jo kisses his knee and leans against him, stretching her toes towards the fire.
"You are not tempted," he says after a while, "to send me far away? There are no regrets creeping in, no desires to have —"
Jo laughs and tips her head back to meet his eyes. "Perhaps when you snore."
He laughs, and she turns and lifts herself into his chair, squeezing alongside him. He links his arms around her and squeezes.
"Will you write back and tell him you won't go?" she asks, almost shy, almost afraid that by wanting him to stay it will drive him to a change of mind.
"Of course." He kisses the top of her head. "Once again, I will say to him, my place is here."
I am sure, Bentley's next letter says, that you are quite sick of letters bearing my handwriting. I have promised one last effort on behalf of my research partner, Professor Schmidt — not to have you as a dedicated professor for a semester, for we understand your hesitation to be far from home for so long. Our invitation extends to you for a short stay of six weeks, to assist with our planning for our new university; to assist with the foundation and calibration of our classes; to have your name as one of the true founders of education at our great school.
All of Jo's sleepiness has fled. She tips the page towards the lamp, gazing at Bentley's slanted handwriting with worry. When she reads his words again — she almost has them memorized — she feels a sense of excitement and duty. She wonders if perhaps her selfish desire to keep Friedrich at Plumfield is costing him experiences he had always longed for before meeting her.
"Do you want to go?" she asks him.
His head is on his pillow, his lashes lowered with the near weight of sleep.
"I do not want to leave you at all," Friedrich says. He reaches for her, his hand curling into her nightgown, and Jo lets him draw her nearer. The letter crumples in her hand.
"He's offered more money," she says. "We're always going to have short supply of money."
"Money is not everything." His hand slides over her waist, a comforting weight.
"No, but most things are easier with money." She chews her lip.
Friedrich is quiet, but his thumb strokes back and forth over her ribs.
Jo closes her eyes and think about what the money could buy, and the good it could bring to Plumfield, and the good Plumfield will one day bring to the children she hopes to have there. She thinks about how the only true cost to herself is six weeks of separation from Friedrich.
"I'm still so selfish," she whispers.
"No, dear heart."
She tucks her head beneath Friedrich's chin. "There's so much more this would give us," she says. "All it will cost is six weeks apart."
He holds her close to him and kisses the top of her head. "We do not have to decide anything tonight," he says.
The snow is blowing past the window and settling across the lawns in a smooth blanket outside, but he is warm and close, and their bed is deep and wide and comfortable. When he kisses her she rolls and pulls him above her, sighing with contentment as his large hands slide beneath her nightgown. He drags kisses down her neck and nuzzles against the hollow of her throat, and Jo closes her attention around him, wholly on him, the letter crinkling and tearing as she shoves it away beneath her pillow, her arms over her head as Friedrich trails his mouth over her skin.
Wonderful news! Bentley writes. We could almost jump for joy. You will of course be made very comfortable, but if you require anything at all, any speciality or any comfort to make you more at home here, you have only to ask.
"Perhaps you could come along in my pocket," Friedrich says to Jo.
She laughs and dips her hand into his coat pocket. "I wouldn't fit," she says, feeling the smooth edge of an acorn, broken pieces of chalk, playing cards, ribbon, and a handful of other unidentifiable items.
"I would make room for you." He kisses her smartly and smiles.
"And me?" Emil asks swinging around the stair banister, keeping his distance from Jo's apparent worry.
"All three of you!" Friedrich says.
"When do you leave?" Franz asks, frowning up at Friedrich with concern.
"Two weeks," Jo says, and she clings to Friedrich's hand a little tighter, like he might suddenly disappear if she isn't touching him.
"And how long will you be away?"
"Six weeks," Friedrich says. "But fear not, the time will pass quickly. And you must stop growing until I get back, you are getting much too big much too quickly."
"I'll try," Franz says, looking down at himself. "I just eat too much."
Friedrich laughs, and the boys both race upstairs, footsteps thundering on the floorboards.
"Think of the noise of a dozen boys storming up and down those stairs," Friedrich says, reminding Jo of what will follow their sacrifice.
She smiles up at him. "I can't wait."
He kisses her palm. "The time will pass quickly," he says. "And then we will have all the time in the world."
On their final night together, before their six weeks of separation, Friedrich's warm hands trace Jo's body with careful deliberation, as though his touch will commit the very shape of her to memory. She bows and arches beneath his touch, gasps his name into the quiet darkness of the room, holds him close to kiss him and feel his breathing and the heat of his body.
"Six weeks," she whispers, already heartsick at the loss of him, and he kisses her face and murmurs loving words into her skin, his lips tracing fire where they brush over her — her neck, her shoulders, her breasts. He leaves no marks and yet she can feel the weight of him wherever he has touched her, fingerprints and kisses all over her body.
She tries to stay awake — tries to commit herself wholly to the memory of being in his arms, so that she can tell it to herself again and again when he is gone. He falls asleep first, quietly, his breathing deep and steady against her shoulder, and it lulls her so, and is so comforting, she betrays herself and falls asleep with him.
"You must write me every day," Jo says, her voice halfway between a threat and a sob.
"Says the writer to her husband!" Friedrich smiles at her and kisses her again. "You will soon be sick of my heartache, Jo — allow me time to gather good stories for you, and I promise as soon as I have enough for two pages I will write to you with all my affection."
"Tell me everything," she requests. "I want to know everything about this adventure."
"We'll tell you everything too," Franz says, speaking up, anxious and wary of Jo's brimming tears and Friedrich's solemness.
"What relief," Friedrich says with a smile, running a hand over Franz's hair. "And you each must take good care of Aunt Jo."
"We will!" Emil declares, wrapping his arms around Jo's hips.
"Then it is settled, and I am comforted," Friedrich says to Jo with a smile.
The whistle blows — the conductor waves at Friedrich, and he signals back, and bends to kiss Franz and Emil and hug them both tightly. "Be good," he reminds them. "Write to me often! Learn your spelling and read your books."
They both promise, and there are little parting treasures drawn from Friedrich's pockets, pencils and colored chalk, and two smooth river stones to skip across the water.
Friedrich kisses Jo gently. "It is only six weeks," he says.
"I know…" She smiles bravely.
He touches her cheek and smiles at her, holding her gaze for a long moment, and when Jo is sure that one of them is about to break, and declare that he must not go after all, he is bending down to kiss his nephews again, and then he is on the train and it is pulling away, and he is waving to them and they to him, until the train curves around the treeline and all they can see is the steam blowing white in the air as it takes him further and further away.
Jo can feel the first layer of coming sorrows wrap itself around her, as thin and as dark as a shadow.
Franz looks anxious again, and Emil looks close to tears.
"Goodness," Jo laughs, wiping her eyes. "Aren't goodbyes so difficult."
"Are you very sad?" Emil asks, his voice wavering.
"Only that Uncle Fritz will miss us so much, and we him," Jo says. "But he is having an adventure, and the three of us will have adventures too!" She blinks the last of her tears away. "In fact," she says, "I think it is time to start exploring the barn, and seeing how we can best clear away that clutter."
She can see the sudden excitement humming in them. Franz jumps excitedly. "Today?" he asks.
Jo gives a quick glance to the sky, the sun still high behind the clouds. "A little today, yes," she says, "and then this evening we will write our first letters to Uncle Fritz, and tell him all about it."
Jo's muscles are aching, and she thinks longingly of washing in hot water and sliding into a warm, clean bed. The rain is coming down outside, huge waves of it, melting the last of the snow, lashing cold and heavy against the windows. The fire occasionally spits with the drops finding their way down the chimney.
The barn had introduced itself as an overwhelming task, cluttered with broken and unwanted furniture, the rotting leather of horse tackle, piles of dusty straw and bundles of papers. Franz and Emil had thrown themselves into the task with abandon, squealing with delight whenever they'd unearthed a mouse or a rat lurking in its long-undisturbed hiding place. Jo had made note of their laughter and the way the weak afternoon sun had shone through the dusty windows, drafting letters to Friedrich even as she worked.
"I'm going to draw the barn," Emil says sleepily, the pencil stubs he had lifted from his uncle's pockets that afternoon all lined up on the rug in front of him.
Jo turns back to her own letter, but her thoughts are wandering, and Plumfield feels even bigger and emptier than it usually does. Still, she knows that writing of the echoes in the rooms and the gloomy heaviness of the weather will not reassure Friedrich that his decision (their decision) was the right one.
We are all wearing matching socks, some of them lumpier than others I am afraid, and toasting bread by the fire. I am, as always, either too impatient or too distracted to toast it well, but Franz is doing wonderfully and keeping the three of us well fed. We have Marmee's plum jam for sweetness, and I regret that my earlier promise to save you some of it was done in vain. Franz's appetite truly is something to behold.
We are all well, if not tired and a little worn and bruised from our barn adventures. Truly, our only unhappiness this evening is that we are without you.
Friedrich's first letters are met at Plumfield with shouts of excitement and smiles. A letter personally-addressed to each of them, and the boys' have clever little drawings of the train running along the bottom edge of each envelope, which they compare against one another in delight.
Jo tears her letter open, hungry for the sight of her husband's handwriting, and a page which felt the weight of his hand.
Dearest Jo, he writes, and there is a lump in Jo's throat as she reads greedily.
I am arrived quite safely, and George has gone to extraordinary trouble to ensure my weeks here will be agreeable to me. My room is filled with books! You must imagine it, the shelves are taller than I can reach and they spill onto chairs and tables, for there is not enough room around the walls for them. Had you come with me, I would have lost you to this room for the entire six weeks. It makes me miss you desperately.
I promise there will be fatter envelopes to come, once I am settled and we have begun our work, but for now I leave you with this short note and the assurances that these six weeks will pass us quickly, and we will be together again the moment I can soonest arrange it. Forever yours, Friedrich.
She folds the letter against her heart, which beats like a drum in her chest.
"We should write back," Franz says dutifully.
"Of course!" Jo agrees at once. "This evening, Franz, once we have another day of stories to write down."
The boys turn back to their breakfast with renewed vigor, a long day of letter-worthy adventures to be planned and tackled.
Jo stretches a hand across the bed. All the years she fell asleep alone in her narrow little bed, without trouble, Beth's soft breathing across the room. And now here, alone in bed, the wind sighing around the house gently, she is wide awake for the lack of a warm body beside her.
The first nights beside her husband, she could not sleep. He burned like a furnace, and she kept throwing the quilt back, and they would kick one another or find one another in their states of near-sleep, each of them springing awake and gasping or laughing.
And now she misses being able to turn towards that heat; she misses the brush of his hand in the darkness, and the dip of the mattress beside her as he moves.
She gets out of bed and wraps her robe around her tightly, drags on the awful lumpy knitted socks which are truly stretched beyond saving, but which Friedrich laughed so helplessly at, and she heads for Franz and Emil's shared room.
Emil is sleepy and tousle-headed, but he smiles at her when she crawls in beside him, and he tucks his head under her chin and sighs, automatically accepting the comfort she is both offering and seeking.
In the morning, when she wakes, it is because Franz is crawling under the same quilt, the three of them laughing at the tight fit, arms wrapped around one another.
Spring is shooting from the dark earth and from the bare branches. Plumfield's enormous grounds are growing furiously and wildly, and Jo and the boys cannot possibly keep up. Jo finds she isn't worried, though Meg has reservations about how far matters should get before help is brought in.
"John and I would love to help," she says, bouncing Daisy on her hip.
"You're busy enough," Jo says.
She feels inadequate in Meg's company, though she recognizes that it isn't necessarily fair to Meg to feel that way. Regarding Friedrich, Meg is wonderfully sympathetic.
"I could not bear it," she says, shaking her head. "I am so relieved John has not had to go away since we married. I think now how much Marmee must have missed Father when he was away with the soldiers."
Jo's heart pangs with immediate guilt. "That was much worse," she says. "Friedrich is safe, and he can write so often. This is only six weeks. When Father was away, it was much worse."
"Of course you miss your husband," Meg says, dutifully allowing Jo her grief without guilt. "Especially so soon in your marriage."
Jo can't imagine anyone missing John as much as she misses Friedrich. She knows Meg loves John, and that John is a good man, and a wonderful father, but she simply cannot imagine that crackling heat and excitement which burns beneath her skin whenever Friedrich is near. She cannot imagine that Meg and John have the same wicked attraction to one another as Jo does to Friedrich.
She sips at her tea, and watches Daisy and Demi crawling about on the rug, Franz and Emil trying to gently coax them into standing and walking. She thinks about the distance stretching between herself and Friedrich, and how they had hoped to have their own family started now.
She understands their lives won't be on hold for long — six weeks is barely the blink of an eye when you fit it into a lifetime — yet with Plumfield's enormous demands looming above her, and Meg so content with her babies and her husband at home, it's difficult to remind herself that Friedrich's absence is for a greater good.
"Books," Jo whispers into her pillow. "Ink. Chalk. Big, fluffy pillows. Oh, we should have pillow fights." She smiles tiredly at the thought. "A giant table with a dozen chairs. Carpets on the floors. We'll have evenings with music lessons and story tellings, and toast by the fire..."
Eventually, the empty bed is no match for her exhaustion, and she finally talks herself into a slumber, Friedrich's pillow pulled into her arms, a poor replacement for his solid warmth.
Sometimes, as she's on the very edge of sleeping or waking, she thinks she can feel his hands on her skin and his body pressed against her back.
The sensation never follows into her dreams. She wakes as lonely as she was when she fell asleep.
Two weeks have passed us by already, dear heart! Friedrich writes. At least, by the time this letter reaches you, it will be two weeks. It is true time flies.
(You will see through this untruth at once, of course, and understand that the sand in my hourglass is at a stop, or so slow I cannot perceive its movement. And yet, I feel I must tell the lie, for if I don't, matters will be much worse. So we pretend the time passes quickly, yes?)
There is a strange heaviness in Jo's heart, and it weighs her down like the old imagined shadows, layer by lonely layer, and she finds herself standing by their empty bed, anxious and grieving at the thought of him so far away, her body roaring and demanding the touch of his hands and his mouth, her mind and her heart sick with his absence.
Only two weeks has passed. There are still four to go.
She paces the room with Friedrich's latest letter in her hand, fitful and brimming with energy she doesn't know how to rid herself of. Her emotions have always been so close to the surface, and being able to control her anger more easily these days only causes her despair to bubble over via other means.
"I can't bear it!" she cries, and to her dismay she is upon the bed, sobbing into the clean pillows, great racking breaths tearing at her until she is in proper distress and thoroughly ashamed of herself for weeping so heavily and readily.
Eventually, when her breathing has quietened and her tears have wicked away into the pillows, the world gently intrudes upon her again. The breeze stirs through the window, sweeping the curtains into the room and then sucking them back again. She can smell the warm grass, and rich overturned soil from the freshly-weeded beds. She rolls over, Friedrich's pillow clutched in her arms, and thinks of what it will be like to have Plumfield filled to bursting with children, running up and down the halls and across the lawns, with him at her side, helping her to fill all those heads with knowledge and hearts with love.
She gets up and sits back at her desk, taking a fresh sheet of paper. I have never known such a peculiar grief, she writes. I know you are safe, and I know you are cared for and admired by those with you. I understand that the advantages of this work will further the advantages for Plumfield and the children we will be lucky enough to host within these walls.
Yet I cannot stand you being so far away from me. I have often felt selfish, and foolish, and impatient, and I feel those things more than ever now. I often dare to convince myself that to have you here for an hour beside me would far outweigh all the other good this absence could possibly do.
It feels strange to be so lost and miserable when each day shines finer than the one before. I know I told you I preferred the gardens wild, but there is such satisfaction in revealing the old symmetries and borders. The boys are such hard workers, and always so happy to help me. I love them, Friedrich, and I wish you could see them exploring, and their delight at each new discovery. I am sure they have made it their task to be the guides for anyone new who comes through the gate — I have told them that when we have new boys here, they must be the ones to show them the rooms and the gardens, and all of the most wonderful things about Plumfield. It is a task they have taken to heart and they are learning all of Plumfield's secrets very quickly.
Even with all of these wonderful things, and all of this excitement and satisfaction, it feels lesser without you here to share your pride in it. If I asked you to come home at once, I know in my heart you would. I understand the choice, for we made it together, and I know that this is a good and honorable matter to apply yourself to, and I am happy and proud that you are so wanted by so many.
So I do not ask that you come home sooner than planned, but I admit to thinking so often of asking it, it consumes my entire day and drives me to endless distraction.
I have never been much good at anything other than dreaming and inventing wild situations to play out in my mind. Is it too conceited of me to believe dreaming is what I am best at? I can often conjure up any matter of things quite vividly.
Lately all of my dreams, sleeping or waking, are of you, and I cannot make them vivid enough to please me.
I wish I had your patience, Friedrich. Time has never been so unbearably slow. I miss you with all of my heart.
It rains for several days, the sky low and dark, the wind cold. Early blossoms which have dared to burst open on the trees are torn free, and the daffodils and jonquils bow their heads with the sad weight of water.
Though Plumfield offers plenty of chores to do inside its walls, Jo, Franz and Emil are quickly overcome by a case of cabin fever. At the first break in the clouds, at the first promise of blue skies, the three of them run for the door.
"We must not go too far!" Jo cries, trying to be sensible even as she is running to catch up with them. Her boots and skirts are already splashed with mud, and the boys laugh to see her running after them. "It will rain again later, I am sure of it. Just to the end of the lane and back again!"
The river is swollen, and the sun glints weakly on its surface. The boys skip rocks across the deeper pools and chase one another with sticks, fighting gallant sword fights. Franz picks a handful of daffodils from the clumps between the trees, and passes them to Jo.
She tries to make note of everything to write down and send away to Friedrich.
She has been aching with guilt over sending her last letter, which was so full of gloom and sorrow. She knows it will have upset him, and she regrets being so impulsive in all of her actions — why not wait a day and send something less fraught? She should have told him more about the gardens, and the barn, and Emil's plans to hang a rope from the rafters there so that they may swing like monkeys.
The sun disappears again all too quickly, low clouds building until it seems they are just above the trees, and Jo could touch them if she dared to climb the nearest oak.
They run home again, the rain falling heavily just as they clear Plumfield's gate, and further down the road, Jo can see the shadow of the mail wagon disappearing into the silvery sheets of water. Her heart lifts with hope and, sure enough, the hall table holds three thick letters and a parcel wrapped in brown paper.
Friedrich has sent books, and Jo knows it is because her last letter panged his heart. She feels guilt again, but it is soon overcome by the boys, tugging at her hands to bring her close to the fireplace, all three of them dripping and laughing at the excitement of letters from Friedrich.
"Wait, wait," Jo says, reluctant to introduce order into everyone's excitement. "We must dry ourselves before we do anything more. Upstairs, and into dry clothes at once!"
Emil makes to argue, but Franz darts ahead of him and he is immediately distracted by the idea of a race. They thunder upstairs, and Jo follows them slowly. She realizes she is almost dreading reading the letter; she knows she has upset Friedrich with her words and made him feel uncomfortable with his choice to go, and that isn't what she wanted.
Why are you so impulsive, Jo? she asks herself furiously. A letter can be drafted and discarded, drafted and made perfect, and you sent him the first copy like a fool, full of your sorrows and silly fits.
Franz and Emil sprawl on the floor in front of the fire and page carefully and reverently through their new gifts, and Jo curls up in Friedrich's chair, feeling just as reverent with her few pages of handwritten ink. She runs her thumb around the corners of the envelope, and traces the dark curls of her name. Mrs Josephine Bhaer.
"We should write back to Uncle and thank him," Franz says, interrupting her thoughts.
"Yes, of course we will," Jo agrees, but Franz and Emil, perhaps still wound with excitement from their brief foray outdoors, are bouncing from one task to the next with fervor. They gather their new books in their arms and race upstairs again, and Jo makes another absent note in the back of her mind to tell Friedrich of their joy.
She sits for a moment in the silence, listening to the fire pop in the grate, and the rain gently ticking against the windows, before she turns the envelope over and carefully slits it open.
I fear my separation from you is costing me this foretold patience, Friedrich writes. Or perhaps the influence is you; perhaps this new restlessness within me comes from my marriage to a woman with her own short tolerance for such gentle pace, dear Jo?
She almost throws the letter down with delight, her grin threatening to bubble into laughter. How dare you! she thinks, already trying to plot her lines of argument back to him.
Your frustration with the slowness of these weeks is mirrored in myself, and it seems that each day lasts twice as long as the days which I spent beside you. However, my desire for your company, and the company of my nephews, is my only sorrow, and you can rest your heart knowing I am indeed looked after and well-kept here. George passes on his dear regards to you and has made me promise to write of his utmost gratitude to you, for allowing him to 'thieve' me from you for so long. He has seen some of this same grief in me, I am sure, and he is very good to me when I am too away in my thoughts of you to be much use to him at all.
I fear I am proving myself an old fool here, for I can keep nothing in my mind but yourself, and I am forever begging pardons.
I think to myself sometimes, Perhaps they all think I am quite deaf.
I often regret my choice, heart's dearest. There is more richness in your company than in any amount of money earned. I am thrilled and sometimes ashamed by my constant thoughts of you, and by my plans of how exactly our time shall be passed upon my return.
Jo runs her thumb along the edge of the paper again, her heart hammering hard in her chest. She skims over the letter once more, eyes catching and holding on his final lines, and she looks into the glowing coals of the fire and shifts her weight and presses her thighs together, a strange ache settling deep within her.
All thoughts of previous, carefully planned and plotted drafts fly far from her mind. The barn, the rain, the river, the books — this hot fever of curiosity and impatience has overwritten all of it. She takes her paper and ink and writes, How cruel of you to tease me, when you know my patience is worn so thin and that surprises torture me so!
Tell me of your thoughts and plans.
Friedrich's next letter arrives when the apple trees are in full blossom, the breeze shaking the petals gently loose and scattering them across the lawns like delicate snowflakes, and the sun has a warmth in it which speaks of longer days and yellow afternoons.
The boys are distracted outdoors, enjoying the fine weather, so Jo takes her letter upstairs, feeling the promising weight of it in her hands.
Two lines! he has written, the ink almost darker with indignation. Two lines my writer wife sends me! The envelope so thin I feared you had forgotten to place the letter inside! Perhaps forgotten to write at all? Something an absent-minded professor might do, but not Jo — not my Jo with the ink stains upon her fingers; not my Jo who wakes in the night to write pages by moonlight.
Two lines, and such demands! It is true your impatience is without compare, and yet did I not warn you that I too have so little of it in reserve?
I think of little else but our reunion. It is like a fever upon me, my skin grows hot and I am dull and slow in all matters but imagination.
And yet once the relief has been met, and the cure is enough so that I may think clearly again, I know there will be time enough to waste. Indeed, there is a lifetime to spend with you, many happy and tender years ahead of us. And I promise you that such ample time will provide opportunity for revenge.
To write your poor lonely husband two impatient lines, demanding the richness of his dreams. You deserve long hours throughout which you are lovingly tortured with slowness.
Slowness, perhaps, of unbuttoning a dress; of revealing you so carefully that within minutes you will be tearing seams to hurry matters along.
I will touch my lips to you and kiss you, those secretive places I have had the opportunity to discover upon you, those which make you shiver and whisper to me in our privacy, and there will be nothing hurried about it, Jo. I will take my time; I will spend hours doing nothing but softly kissing you and taking my happiness from the quick impatience of your heart.
Jo sits the letter on the top of her desk. Her fingers are suddenly trembling. She glances over her shoulder at the closed door, her heart racing at the idea of being caught; heart racing at the idea of Friedrich sitting at a desk of his own, penning such thoughts in neatly-written lines.
Often I have thought of your ink-stained fingers, and how sweet they are to kiss, and I have thought with much serious intent about staining you even further. Consider, dearest, the infinite patience and delicacy it would take to write love poetry upon the expanse of your lovely back, line by careful line. And how still you must remain, even beneath that tickling touch of the nib, so that the ink may dry.
You would find it unbearable, being so still, and I confess there is something within me which finds the idea of such torture most pleasing.
I think of what I would write across your shoulders and down the lovely arch of you, though I am unsure a poem or declaration has yet been written which could be deemed appropriate to mark you with.
"Oh…" Jo is brimming with curses and exaltations. She tosses the letter down on the desk, jittery and prickling with the heat caused by his words. She stands by the open window and lets the breeze sway over her, stirring the hair falling loose from its pins. She tugs her sleeves up and fans herself, her blood roaring beneath her skin.
You deserve long hours throughout which you are lovingly tortured with slowness.
"Not if I get to you first," she swears aloud, the empty room drawing her words into its woodwork and wallpaper and holding them there. "Just wait, just you wait…"
She considers how to overcome him, how to press his polite consideration to her best advantage, any brief moment of surprise or delight she can twist against him, for strength and size will offer her no fair chance.
She paces back and forth between her writing desk and the bed, the thoughts in her head humming like bees fretting against a windowpane. Friedrich's words have lit a fire inside her.
She takes paper and ink, and her hand shakes and blots her words, I will not be bested without a fight, she declares. Prepare yourself for a war most intimate, Mr. Bhaer, and one which I am determined to win.
Perhaps, she writes, her breath catching and her heart hammering with raw daring, you shall find yourself bound to the bed with a sash of cloth — and once I have you at my mercy you will understand that Josephine March has no mercy left to give, least of all to a man like yourself!
She tosses the pen down, thoughts racing too fast, thinking of all that she knows of him — has he forgotten that she knows exactly what makes his blue eyes darken with desire, or is he counting on it?
We know that strength alone will gain me nothing against you, she writes. You have never underestimated my mind, Friedrich, and so I must believe that you are engaging in this war willingly, giving me such ample time to to plot against you! You provide such startling evidence of your devilish intentions, knowing it is against my nature to surrender.
You must prepare for war, and you must prepare for me to fight to the end.
I acknowledge there was a risk to revealing my plans, Friedrich writes, for you have confirmed that you are plotting your own revenge. However, I am confident in my abilities, Jo; you must remember that love and kindness are not weaknesses, but strengths, and I will use them to my best advantage against you.
There are but two short weeks left between us, and the days seem to stretch ever-longer! Yet with such plans to attend to, and such promises made between us, the time will indeed pass. My anticipation is at the greatest heights, you are the sole subject of my thoughts and desires.
And, I confess, in all of my thoughts and dreams, it is I who emerge victorious in this war between us.
I assure you, there will be advantages to your surrender, should you choose to change your mind, and raise a white flag.
I will surrender to no one.
My intentions are to hold you fast — by force, if necessary, or perhaps with the simplicity of an oath, for once you give your word you do not break it.
Words have long been my favorite weapon of choice.
"Damn!" Jo curses, scrubbing at the ink stain she has failed to remove from one of her skirts.
"Jo?" Meg calls across the kitchen garden. She is looking pretty and neat in a new cotton dress.
Jo heaves the prop to the clothesline and lifts the line higher, laundry swinging in the light spring breeze. "What a surprise!" she greets Meg. "Where are the babies?"
Meg inclines her head back to the house with a smile. "Franz and Emil are quite willing baby-watchers," she says. Her brows dip slightly. "I heard you swearing."
"Oh," Jo laughs, and she gestures helplessly at her dress, swinging above her on the line. "I spilled ink and it hasn't come out. It's an old thing; it doesn't matter." She loops her arm through Meg's and turns her attention away from the laundry.
"You don't swear in front of the boys, do you?"
Jo feels indignation swell inside her. "No!" she denies hotly. "I don't swear, Meg, you just caught me at a poor moment." But she feels the familiar push-pull of impatience, and she stops, tugging at Meg's arm and pulling her to a halt before they reach the house. "Friedrich is back in three days and I'm so fretful," she admits. "I'm such unpleasant company, Meg, I wish you hadn't come and asked for hospitality today."
"Oh, Jo," Meg laughs, and she pulls her closer with a warm hug across her shoulders. "I'm sorry to drop in unexpectedly. I thought perhaps you might want some help with preparing things for Professor Bhaer's return home."
Jo swallows the lump in her throat. "That's very kind of you." She sniffs, and laughs, looking away and out over the garden. "I don't know why I'm crying so often. I hate it."
Meg looks worried but, blessedly, she says nothing. She simply hands Jo a clean pressed handkerchief and waits for Jo to pull herself together.
"It's only that I miss him so," Jo says, feeling a little defensive of her silly tears, "and now that his return is so close I can't think of what to do with myself. I'm so ill-tempered these days, and forever offering apologies for Franz and Emil. They're so good and I'm so impatient with them."
"Perhaps," Meg says thoughtfully, "given they are so enamored with Daisy and Demi, I could borrow them for a night or two? I could have some extra hands at home, and you could have a little quiet, Jo, dear?"
She laughs, and wipes her eyes again. "Who would have thought," she says, "that I would ever accept the offer of a few silent hours?"
Jo paces the empty rooms and halls with restlessness. It is too late to write to Friedrich, any letters now will not reach him before he begins his journey home, and so she does not know how to occupy her mind.
Abandoned distractions litter the house — books, knitting, scraps of manuscripts and poetry.
She almost regrets sending Franz and Emil to Meg's, though they had been excited at the thought of another adventure to recite to Friedrich, and had farewelled Jo quite cheerfully, promising to help Aunt Meg just as much as they help her.
Jo sits in her husband's armchair and reads his letters to her, all of them bound together with a blue ribbon and kept locked in the top drawer of her desk whenever she is not looking at them.
The nearer Friedrich's arrival gets, the slower time crawls by, and Jo can hardly bear it. She finds herself peering through the front windows for the signs of any visitors, praying his arrival will somehow arrange itself a day earlier than planned.
She does this so frequently that when she looks out the window and sees a dark coat, and the familiar silhouette of her husband's broad shoulders and untidy hair, she thinks for a moment she has imagined him into being.
And then the moment passes, and she understands he is there, truly, almost at the door, his bag in his hand and a paper-wrapped bouquet of spring flowers tucked under his arm, and she almost flies down the staircase, only avoiding tripping on her skirts with the utmost luck. She reaches the bottom stair just as the door is swinging closed behind him, and she flings herself forward into his arms, causing him to drop his parcels to the floor.
He staggers back and laughs into her shoulder, swinging her around in delight, and she is crying and laughing at the same time, clutching him as hard as she possibly can.
"Never go away again," she croaks, tears wetting the collar of his shirt. "Never again, never again."
"No fear, Mrs Bhaer," he promises. "My place is here with you."
She kisses him then, rains kisses all over his face, upon his mouth and his cheeks and the lids of his eyes, his dark brows and his forehead. He holds her against him tightly, her feet still swinging well above the floor, his arms snug and secure around her waist.
"Oh, I've missed you," she sighs.
"And I you," he says, kissing her. He takes a step to the stairs, and hesitates. "Where are my nephews?" he asks.
Jo flushes hot. "Oh, Fritz, I was driven to such distraction waiting for you that Meg offered to take them for a day — they're with her and John, of course we'll go and get them —"
He laughs and kisses her again. "In time," he says.
They trip and scramble up the stairs together, hands upon one another, breathing rapid and ragged with impatience, buttons falling loose and Jo's hair spiralling from its pins.
They fall to the bed and Jo arches towards him, opening her mouth beneath his, moaning wantonly at the hot feeling of his skin against hers, at finally having his weight above her and his hands upon her.
"Quickly," she whispers, dragging her skirts up, lifting her hips against his.
"Ah, you see?" he says, smiling with such wickedness it flips Jo's stomach. "Such impatience."
She laughs, and clutches his shirt to pull him to her, so that she may kiss him again. She slides her legs around him daringly, holding him close, intending with all her might not to let him go again. Her hands tangle in his hair and roam down over his shoulders, lifting his shirt, sliding over his back.
He kisses her cheek and looks down at her, his eyes dark, his skin flushed with gentle heat. "Surrender?" he asks quietly.
She shakes her head and smiles. "Never."
He groans and nuzzles kisses against her neck. "There is time," he says. "There is plenty of time."