From far away they must make quite the picture, Fred Vaughn and the dainty American floating down the river in a gondola. It’s a bit kitschy, Amy muses, for her to be in Paris and this man to drag her onto an Italian style boat, but she knows not to say anything. Fred is posed at the top of the boat, legs sprawling everywhere as he ardently ignores the sweet man steering. He draws on about something he learned at his fancy boarding school, never one to miss an opportunity to embellish his wealth, and she nods and smiles, exercising the best of her pandering talent. It’s a shame the man Aunt March had picked was such a bore, but the woman could smell fiscal endowment from a mile away. Amy was to trust her aunt.
Fred broke his words for just a moment, finally seeming to notice his companion’s thoughts were abroad. “Tell me Amy,” he said, an obvious effect on his voice, “would you do me the honor of putting this moment to paper? I have brought materials for you.”
She glanced up from beneath the brim of the new sunhat he had gifted her, brushing the tail of its bow off her neck. “A new drawing book?” she exclaimed, doing her best to act like she hadn’t been eyeing it since they pushed off the dock. She took it when he passed it over, fingering the graphite and flipping open a page. Then she shot him the sultry look she had been practicing in the mirror, narrowing her eyes dangerously. “Careful Fred, someone might think you’re getting attached.”
He laughed shortly, leaning back so as to give her a better model. Acquiescing to his silence, she began to sketch. His figure easily appeared upon the paper but as she moved to draw his face, she hardly found herself checking its likeness at all. By the time she had made her way to the illustration of her creation’s cheekbones she was completely gone to the moment. Fred noticed but said nothing, assuming her lost in his features.
An hour or so later he roused himself, the dock in sight. “Mrs. March,” he began, startling her from her paper, “our day has come to its close. Might I trouble you for a sight of the work that has so engrossed you?”
Amy looked up, blinking a bit in the sunlight her jilted brim unveiled her too. She bit her lip and looked down at the man on her paper. “P-perhaps I may show it to you tomorrow?” she asked, turning her coquettish eyes to his pinking face. “I couldn’t bear to show you a project unfinished, it would do dishonor to my feelings.”
Appeased by her words, Fred helped her from the boat, the pink shawl she wore to accompany her yellow summer dress gathered up in his arms. All the ride home she was unusually quiet, and he felt lost to converse with her if she would not contribute her usual silver tongue. Their farewells were subdues, with just a gentle kiss to her cheek as she crawled awkwardly from the carriage. (Descending from carriages gracefully had never been something Amy was particularly good at. She told herself not to fret, but frankly it was starting to wear on her pride.)
She watched until the horses were out of sight, the sketchbook clutched between her fingertips. When there was no more Fred in sight she flipped it open to the drawing, tears pricking her eyes. The man on the paper was no more the man she intended to marry than a gondola is a boat made in Paris. His name scratched at the back of her throat but she bit it down, turning heel into the house. There would be no more room for silliness like this, she scolded herself. She had a mission, a man to wed, and now a new sketch to make. There would be no more time for silliness like this.
The first few weeks had found Amy March incredibly lonely. There were only so many teas a girl could have with the endearing hag that was Aunt March before she found herself going crazy. If not for the occasional company of Fred Vaughn and his awful boarding schoolmates, Amy was sure she’d have burned all of her paintings and gone back to America, to hell with it all. Still, when she spotted Laurie from high on her aunt’s carriage, a welcome change from her humdrum vacation, all she could feel was fear. She was that little girl again, the girl who’d received lashings and found solace in a boy locked in a birdcage mansion. She was 13 making a mold of her feet for a boy who barely knew her name. She was 13 and stupid again.
It didn’t stop her from pleading Aunt March to stop, tumbling out of the carriage (someday she would get that right), and into Laurie’s familiar cologne. He held on tighter than she every could have expected, and she pulled away to speak before she could make something of it.
“Well! Of all the people to see wandering the lovelorn streets of Paris! Laurie, do tell, what brings you to my vacation?”
“Of course to see you My Lady, what else could bring me so far to the desperate corners of the earth?”
It was good to be back in their usual repartee, parrying with words and saying nothing of meaning at all again. It was good to have him near her again. It was good to force that same carefree smile on her face. It was good, good, good to be close enough to touch Theodore Laurence.
“Have you been up to much trouble lately Mr. Laurence? Terrorized enough Parisian girls with that smile?”
Oh what would she give for him to just deny her jokes.
“You’ve caught me oh taskmistress from across the Pacific. These Parisian girls have brought me many a good time, but none so good as seeing your face.”
“You must come see it again then, for a better time.”
“Oh but certainly My Lady, name a time and place and I will play fool to the queen’s court for as long as she wishes. Or as long as the drink lasts.”
“A ball, tonight, at the Vaughn’s estate. I’m sure I can get Fred to let a last minute guest slide on my account. You must come, I command it.”
The dear boy’s eye twitches but he covers it with a wicked grin and an exaggerated bow. “Come I will, your highness. I will be most excited to see what her ladyship wears to a Vaughn party. They’re said to be the primmest of all.”
And before she can respond, Aunt March is calling her name, and their time together is stolen. She hops back up on the carriage (this mount much more graceful) and is only appeased when she manages to shout out three or so more invitations. He doesn’t respond, only watches her leave with that same lovely smile on his face.
Oh Laurie, she muses, breath catching on a tight knot in her throat. Paris hasn’t been the balm to your wounds your grandfather hoped it would be.
Amy readies herself for the ball far more vigorously than usual. She emerges from a rose water bath pink and flushed, and takes great pains choosing her dress. The final product is a glowing red tulle masterpiece, with a train that takes her strides to move. There are no straps on her shoulders, and she fingers the tulle puffs at the top as a maid heats her hair into loose ringlets. The woman runs her fingers down Amy’s scalp to break up the curls as Amy pinches her cheeks in the mirror. She tweaks her nose out of habit and practices her smiles in the mirror as the woman pins half her hair up. She looks like an otherworldly seductress. She looks good, she knows she looks good, and she finds herself musing as to whether it will be enough to distract Laurie from the more willing girls that are sure to latch onto him. When she catches her own thoughts her fingers bunch the dress into knots, and the maid’s spend an extra 20 minutes shaking out the fussy tulle.
“You look beautiful miss!” the Parisian handlady exclaimed, her wrinkled cheeks glowing with girlish excitement. She placed a hand on Amy’s shoulder, squeezing. “You look like a queen.”
Tears sprung to her eyes, an old woman’s kindness rendering her speechless. She raised a gloved hand to the woman’s, squeezing gently back. “I know.”
When she arrives, Laurie is nowhere to be seen, dashing her hopes of him catching her entrance. Still, it’s not entirely wasted, as Fred practically trips over himself to take her coat and reveal her bare shoulders to his eyes. His greeting kiss to the cheek is a bit more prolonged than usual, and his arm finds her waist as a pretty blush dots her cheeks.
She spends the next hour or so floating from notable person to notable person, playing the role of Fred Vaughn’s witty female companion. It’s only when he leaves her to grab them champagne that she sees the man she’d been looking for.
He looks so beautiful, sprawled out on the fainting couch in an obviously rumpled dress shirt, that it takes her a moment to absorb the women hanging off him. How completely humiliating! How dare he come as her guest, only to drink and indulge in women’s affections. Didn’t he realize how a single slip up on a woman’s part could ruin her standing forever? Sure it was all well and good for him, he was a man. He was allowed such silly mishaps. But she was a March. She was poor, a social climber using her aunt’s status to find her way into high society so she may secure prosperity and a future for her own family. She couldn’t afford to even associate with folly.
“Well, little Amy’s all grown up!” Laurie called, his voice ringing out too loud over the soft violin music. More than a few jewel ladened heads turned their way. She stormed over to him, doing her best to look as if she was doing anything but storming. He was still talking.
“My goodness Amy, you certainly clean up nice. Come to join us? I was just telling these girls about my adventures with your tenacious sisters.” He turned to the girls beside him, eyes struggling to focus as he stared down their bodices. They tittered and Amy saw red.
“How dare you?!” she screamed, the whole party stopping around them. Fred, a few paces away, froze in his tracks. “How dare you use the love my family has shown you as a party trick?”
Laurie’s face hardened, and he began to rise as she continued on.
“Do you think their kindness is a fun party trick? A good story to tell women so they might join you in bed later? Oh, isn’t it funny, these poor women thought they were doing me so much good, I allowed them that comfort as a favor? Telling these stupid girls all sorts of things so they might believe you a philanthropist?”
“And how are you different?” Laurie asked, a cold sneer in his slurred words. “Are you not using your poor background to set yourself apart in Fred Vaughn’s eyes?”
Amy reeled back in shock, barely noticing that Laurie had stormed off. She whirled around to meet Fred’s eyes, the five feet between them feeling an ocean. Before he could even speak she had dropped into her lowest curtsy, murmured an apology, and taken off running through the ballroom.
When Laurie wakes the morning after, it’s too a pounding headache and the black pit that fills ones stomach when something has gone terribly wrong. He foregoes breakfast in favor of riding a horse directly to the residence the Marches are staying in. Amy refuses to see him, sending the maid from last night down to tell him she isn’t in.
The next day, Laurie catches sight of Amy in an outdoor painting class. She stands at an easel surrounded by Fred and his friends, wearing only a green skirt and white button down shirt. He begins to head over, hoping that he might better apologize if she has nowhere to run but stops when Fred leans in close to Amy’s face. He watches as she lets the young man get close enough for her to surprise him with a splatter of white paint to the face. Their laughter carries across the road and he only notices as he turns heel that his fingernails have left indents in his palms.
He goes a week without seeing hide nor hair of Amy March. His dreams are filled with red tulle, crying girls at the window of his mansion, and blonde hair sweaty on pillows. He doesn’t venture near a bar for fear of spotting her among the women he treats so poorly.
Amy is finally caught alone on one of her few days off. Her painting classes have consumed every waking moment since the ball, she has ensured herself of it, and she is proud to report that her thoughts have not strayed from Fred Vaughn more than is acceptable. If she didn’t know better (and she knows far, far better) she’d say she’s finally falling for him.
It’s with a light heart that she takes a day to herself, bringing only a sketchbook and a small picnic with her to the high gardens. She foregoes a carriage, taking the bicycle Fred recently leant her. It is with great satisfaction that she hitches her skirt up over the seat and takes off.
Among the grass and flowers there is peace. She sketches nothing in particular, shapes she sees in the clouds, hands of women passing by tucked into the crook of men’s arms, flowers that strike her fancy. It isn’t until he clears his throat that she realizes Laurie is laying beside her.
How could he have missed it? It’s so clear. It’s clear in the way his palms are still scarred from his nails, it’s clear in the way he took out the casing of her feet to look at the other night, it’s clear in the way he yearns to take her sketchbook from her and kiss her charcoaled fingers. It’s so clear.
Her heart goes still for once, at the sight of him. She’s never felt so lost and so in control at the same time.
She isn’t speaking. He supposes that’s fair. It’s his turn to explain himself after all.
Laurie rolls onto his side, propping his chin up on his hand and staring at her. She stares back. She’s clearly not going to be cowed this time, or allow her good upbringing to force her into conversation, so he skips greetings.
“I’m sorry.” It isn’t enough. She grimaces.
“Amy, draw me. Make me as ugly as you possibly can. Draw me with a beer belly and devil’s horns. Anything as long as you listen.” She doesn’t respond, but she does pick up her pen and begins to draw an outline of a man, so he takes that as a white flag.
“Look, I’ve been hurting since Jo. I decided I wouldn’t take it on, that I would run away from the March family and America. It’s easier to speak of you all as a quaint childhood memory than to be honest.”
Amy pauses in her sketching for a moment, turning sharp blue eyes on him. His throat closes and he coughs for a moment, startled by the lack of emotion in her face.
“When I left America, I vowed I would never let anyone see how much all of you meant to me. I would become what everyone in my grandfather’s circles expected me to be, an ill mannered half breed mutt. I thought I could get away with it because I assumed if Jo didn’t want me around anymore, you all would take her side,” when she cast another sharp look his way he tripped over himself to recover, “not that I would blame you!”
Amy sighed, setting the pencil down. “So instead of healing yourself from the loss of a woman who never loved you back, you treat other women the way you perceive her to have treated you.”
Who was this creature, so knowledgeable and sharp of tongue? This was not his Amy of past.
“Don’t marry Vaughn.”
He could not be serious. Amy’s spine stiffened at his words and after a good long pause she whirled on him, tears in her eyes. “You vagrant!”
Without thought for appearances she tucked the pen into her bun, flipped the drawing book close, and began to smack him with it, hard. “Coward! Liar! Enemy of women!”
“Ow ow ow! Amy!”
When she was quite through she picked her basket up and stood, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Don’t do this Laurie. Don’t ask me to play placeholder. I would think you’d be a little kinder to the little girl who’s loved you since you tended to her lashings.”
And with that she stormed off, leaving him with the image of her tear tracked face burned into the place between his collar bones.
Laurie came to see her one last time, to beg for her forgiveness. He’s met with Aunt March who tells him Amy is with Vaughn. The woman seems giddy and he reads between the lines. He’s on the next train to London. Amy March returns to the vacation home, a disappointment to her aunt, and full of anger.
Her Ladyship, Ms. Amy March,
I suppose by this point I should be addressing this to Mrs. Vaughn, but you’ll forgive me that the thought makes me violently ill.
I’m writing to you on the off chance I don’t catch you before I leave to London. I wanted you to know some things before you get married. I wish I could tell you this isn’t a last ditch effort to keep you from marrying a man who isn’t me, but I always have been a bit of a pitiful creature. You’ve certainly seen that for yourself in the past month or two.
Amy, I never thought to be in love with you. I was always around Jo, I craved her attention and her crazy games, her messy curls and her chaotic spirit. It’s not much of a surprise I didn’t see the rest of you. I was so certain in my love of Jo, I never questioned what that love was.
I do love your sister. I always will. She is the Romeo to my Mercutio, the Tiberon to my Puck, the Henry 8th to my six wives. She is my greatest comrade and the romantic center of my childhood.
But I am a man now. I am a man and I now know what it is to want a woman the way a man does. And I have never wanted your sister that way.
When I wake up from sleep, cheeks flushed and utterly bothered in the sweetest of tortures, it was not your sister I was dreaming of. The eyes in my hell dreams are blue, not brown. The hair on my dream pillows is blonde, not brown, and stick straight. And when I wake up, pardon my crudeness, hard and aching for touch, it is not your sister whom I am thinking of when I finally get satisfaction.
I can’t believe I’m writing to a March girl about this.
Amy, even now, writing this letter, I ache for you. And not only the you in my dreams from the devil himself. I never did get to tell you, but I wanted so badly to be sober enough to dance with you at that ball. Fred Vaughn has no idea how lucky he was to walk around with such a vision on his arm. That dress made you nothing less than Helen, and I would send all of my ships to be sunk for the chance to redo that night so we might dance. To say nothing for the day I saw you flirting with that lucky ass (you’ll really have to forgive the vulgarity of this whole letter), and wished so hard that it was my face you were playfully flicking paint on. That’s how pathetic I’ve become at your mercy Lady March. I would envy Fred Vaughn for the paint on his face. I’m a mess. You’ve made me a mess.
Amy, you are only second to yourself, only third to yourself, only last to yourself. I only want to see you in white, wearing my ring. I have no desire left for another. Please don’t be the second March to break my heart. Please don’t be the first to reject my only real proposal.
I love you Amy March. I love you, for all of my shortcomings.
London was droll. It rained often and now that Laurie had sworn off women and drink, there was only endless walking to be done. He walked through art galleries, through parks, through thoroughfares and nothing ever seemed to catch his fancy. He had taken up making lists of all the boring things he had seen, and little notebooks had begun to pile up in the room he was boarding. Piles next to the piles of letters from his grandfather, inquiring after his return. It seemed Beth had died. Laurie had cried for three hours before passing out when he heard the news, though he had not been close to her. Still, another way the March family was leaving him behind.
He had also taken up cooking classes, finding that the act of preparing his own meals made his day. He had made good friends with the head chef at the boarding house, and bothered her with his nonsense questions till she shooed him out of the kitchen in irritation. She let him use the stove after dark, and it was one of those times he was attempting to make a crepe batter that the night attendant announced he had a visitor.
The poor servant couldn’t hardly get through his announcement when the visitor stormed in through the door, dressed in a coal coat over a black silk dress. No hoop to this skirt he noticed, before the shock of Amy March in his kitchen hit him and he stumbled back into the hot stove.
They sat in the drawing room, Amy having been sent to wait there while Laurie got his hand bandaged up. She was standing next to the fireplace, coat gone, and Laurie’s eyes seemed to be stuck on the chest her dress showed. He had sad eyes, she noticed. Since when had her Laurie had sad eyes?
“I came to find you,” she started awkwardly. His eyes flicked up to search hers, nodding stiffly.
“I know. I suppose congratulations are in order,” he responded, tone equally as stiff.
“How are the women of London treating you?”
“There have been no women since Paris.” Since you.
Amy held still for a moment, not daring to breathe, before she crashed into Laurie, knocking him down to the couch. Without giving him a moment’s worth of pause her lips were on his, fire and desperation like whisky on her tongue.
“I wanted this,” she murmured, speaking between kisses, “for so long.”
“Amy …” Laurie breathed, hands coming up to gently hold her wait. “Amy, Amy, Amy.”
It was several moments before they broke apart, chests rising in a heated attempt to catch their breath. Laurie kept searching for the woman’s eyes but she kept hers locked on the part of his neck her fingers were locked around.
“I got your note. I came right away,” she mumbled, cheeks a bright red entirely different from the flush Fred Vaughn had given her at the ball.
“I … what does this mean Amy? You are not an adulterer. Don’t let me taint you like this. Please.”
Amy chuckled, her eyes finally dragging up to lock onto his. “You think you have the power to tarnish me, my Lord?” she teased, running her thumb over his bottom lip in a move that had him releasing a long sigh. “I said no to Fred Vaughn. I said no to that man before I ever laid eyes on your letter.” She sat back, seemingly totally comfortable in her place astride his lap. “Now, you may have changed your mind about me, but I have not changed mine about you. Theodore Laurence, will you be my fiance?”
A few tense moments passed. Then Laurie started to laugh.
Only then did Amy seem to realize how compromising their position was. She whined and moved to climb off him but he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back down. Their lips met again and all of the stress of the past months washed away between sweet kisses.
“I know I have no right to ask-” Laurie kissed her, “Laurie this is serious,” another kiss, “Laurie enough! Answer me!”
The boy finally pulled off her, the non bandaged hand coming up to pull her hair free from it’s coil. He twisted a piece around his finger, then tucked it behind her ear. “Let’s be married my Lady. Let’s be married.”