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Part 1 -

Even after her friends had left, Bess still wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She became moody, and even her parents were beginning to worry about her. They tried to talk to her about it, but she would change the subject or say she needed to think about it.

Bess was out at Plumfield one day, and Jo cornered her in the parlor.

"Lets talk for a minute."

Bess smiled. "That's why I came."

Jo got right to the point. "What are you planning on doing?"

Bess sighed and shook her head. "Did my parents ask you to ask me that?"

"We're worried about you, Bess."

"I know." Bess put her head in her hands then looked up. "I just don't want to make the wrong choice. This is my future we're talking about. I don't want to live to regret it."

Jo nodded, "But if you miss your opportunity now, you might regret that."

Bess looked gloomily at the floor. "I didn't think it would be so hard to decide."

"Growing up is hard to do."

Bess looked up at Jo, her blue eyes shining bright with hope that she would advise her. "What do you think I should do, Aunt Jo?"

"You've decided you want to be an artist, right?"

Bess nodded. "I think so."

"Then all you need to do is pick a school."

Bess sighed. "How?"

"You told me about that private school in New York. At one time you were very excited about it."

"Then they told me that they didn't have any more room."

"Your mother told me that they wrote you the other day, and had an unexpected opening. It's in a city that you love, with the best name around. It was your first choice before, what's wrong with it now?" Jo asked, then sat back and watched her.

Bess thought about it for a couple minutes, then said slowly, "You're right. You're absolutely right! I love New York, and it is a good school. Why shouldn't I go?"

Bess laughed, then ran over and gave her a hug. "Thanks, Aunt Jo."

Jo smiled. "So you're going to New York?"

Bess nodded happily.

"When?"

"As soon as I can. I want to get started as quickly as possible. I'm already behind." She hugged Jo again, then ran out the door to the waiting carriage.

*****

"You're sure you want to do this?" Amy asked her daughter at the train station.

"Of course she's sure, Amy." Laurie said quickly.

"I'm sure." Bess smiled and gave them each a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "I love you, both."

"We love you, too, honey." Amy pulled out a handkerchief and tried to brush away her tears.

Bess turned to Jo. "Thank you for everything."

Jo gave her a hug. "I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you, too. I'll write when I get settled."

"Okay." Jo gave a small smile.

The train whistle blew and Bess boarded. She found a window seat and watched as the late people arrived and go on board. Then they were off. Bess waved until she could no longer see them, then turned her eyes forwards.

Laurie and Nick looked over at their crying wives, then led them to the carriage.

"I can't believe she's gone!" Amy sobbed.

"I know." Jo replied. "She was the last of the four."

"Well, I think it's great that she finally decided. The school will be good for her, as well as give her some independence." Laurie told the driver to start the team, and they headed home as the sniffling continued.

*****

"May I help you?"

Bess set her bags on the floor and shook the woman's hand. "Bess Laurence."

The lady gave a fake smile and dropped her hand as soon as possible. "I'll tell Madame Collins that you have arrived. Wait here, please."

Bess didn't notice her tone and looked around the room excitedly. A painting on the wall caught her eye. It was a beautiful mansion on a grassy hill covered with wildflower's of every color."I am Madame Collins, you may call me Madame Collins."

"Hi." Bess smiled and held out her hand to be shook.

Madame Collins looked down at the hand and pointedly ignored it, not looking very happy. "While you are at my school, there are certain rules that you must follow."

Bess dropped her hand, and nervously brushed her hair back, nodding uncertainly.

Madame Collins turned and started walking away. After a second, Bess realized that she was expected to follow, and hurried after her.

"You are expected to act like a respectable young woman, and only associate with those in your class."

‘Class?' Bess wondered. It had been a long time since she had heard that.

Madame Collins opened a door, and Bess entered, realizing that it was a bedroom.

Madame Collins entered after her, and peered skeptically at her. "Are all your clothes like that?"

Bess looked at her simple traveling dress and said slowly, "Yes, I - I guess."

"Then tomorrow we will go out and get you some proper clothes. Miss. Daney will come in tomorrow to show you the proper way of styling your hair, and make-up." Madame Collins took a deep breath before continuing quickly. "You will do your studies in the morning, and attend parties in the afternoon with some of the other young ladies unless there are none to attend, and then you will continue your studies in the afternoon. You will always be here after eight p.m. as it is not respectable to be out that late unless you are attending the opera in which case you must be escorted. You will stay in Manhattan, and the other young women will teach you what parts of the city to avoid."

Bess's head began to ache with all the rules.

"You will be demure, only speak when spoken to it and speak softly. You will sit up straight in your chair, only sit when asked, and never laugh out loud in public. You will be a fine example of this school, and never speak ill of it to anyone."

Bess tried to remember everything she had said, and wished she had a way of taking notes.

Madame Collins appeared to be leaving. "You will only go by Miss Laurence, and you will now rest here until supper."

After she left, Bess breathed a sigh of relief. She was beginning to regret her choice of schools, and couldn't believe how stuffy ‘Madame Collins' was. It was like all of a sudden Bess couldn't do anything on her own.

Walking over to her bed, she opened her trunks and began sorting through her clothes. At Plumfield they were both stylish and pretty, but here they were treated with disgust. She thought about when she had first met Nan. She hadn't been this bad, had she?

A knock on the door startled her, and it opened quickly. The same woman who had been at the front was now carrying in a tray of food. Bess gave her a small smile, but was ignored.

"Madame Collins requested for you to eat in your room, and for you not to come out until morning. When you are finished with your meal, place the tray by your door in the hall to be picked up."

She left before Bess had a chance to say thank you. Bess took the lid off the tray and was surprised at the small portions of food. They were going to starve her as well?

She ate quickly, then unpacked, hiding most of her clothes in the bottom of her closet. Exhausted, she fell into bed, only to dream of the wonderful days of Plumfield.

*****

Bess woke the next morning when a young maid entered her room and introduced herself as Miss Daney. "I have been asked to dress you for shopping, and teach you how to style your hair."

Bess yawned and got up reluctantly. "What time is it?"

"Time to get up." Miss Daney said bluntly, then helped her out of her nightgown. "Where is your corset?"

"My what?" Bess looked at her strangely. "I have never worn a corset. My parents and aunt told me that I was skinny so I didn't need it."

Miss Daney sighed, and went out of the room for a couple minutes before returning with a bag of things. She pulled a corset out and slid it around Bess.

Bess gasped as she tightened the strings. "I can hardly breathe!"

"You'll get used to it." Miss Daney murmured, pulling them as tight as she could.

They put on the layers of petticoats, then Miss Daney went through Bess's clothes. "You actually wore these?"

Bess stiffened.

Shrugging, Miss Daney pulled out a dress, and slid it on. Then she sat Bess down in front of the mirror, and proceeded to show her the different styles. Some of them Bess really liked, but some were pretty bizarre. She settled for one of the ‘softer' styles, and Madame Collins appeared only moments later.

"You look acceptable, Miss Laurence. Let us be off."

Bess blinked in surprise, but followed after her teacher. Their first stop was at a dress shop where they bought six dresses and ordered a ‘formal.' Then they bought shoes, underclothes including a corset, and accessories which consisted of hats, gloves, purses, handkerchiefs, and more jewelry than even Bess's mother owned!

Madame Collins told them to send the bills to Bess's father, and Bess only hoped that they wouldn't have a heart attack when they saw how much had been spent.

So now Bess was walking down the street with her hair pinned up except for those few strands that they had curled around her face, a new dress that was definitely "stylish", and jewelry that she wouldn't have worn back in Concord even at one of her mother's Enchanted Ball's.

Madame Collins met some friends on the street, and Bess was introduced. Sensing the pointed look she was receiving, Bess did her best to act demure. Finally they headed back for the school after being invited to tea the next day.

Madame Collins began to walk so briskly, that Bess struggled to keep up. Her stomach ached from lack of food, and from the corset that was both digging into her sides, and cutting off all air supply.

They made it back to the school, and Bess was told to eat lunch in her room again. About an hour later, Madame Collins led her to the classroom where she was joined by the other girls. They smiled politely when introduced, but when they started painting, silence engulfed the room.

"Here are some supplies," Madame Collins spoke softly, as Bess was handed paintbrushes, pin, and paper. She smiled gratefully, but Madame Collins never changed her expression, so it faded quickly. "I'd like you to start by doing a simple painting of this statue, so that I can see how well you do."

Bess nodded, and she was soon left alone, so she got to work. Bess loved to paint, and the time passed quickly. The other girls were being called one by one out of the room, until Bess was alone. Then Madame Collins returned to inspect her work.

"What is that?"

"It's the statue." Bess replied.

"It's smiling " Madame Collins said it like it was evil.

"Uh, yes. I thought that the statue looked a little too, . . unhappy. So I changed it a little."

"You changed it?" Madame Collins asked skeptically. "You can't just change a statue. You just to paint it exactly as you see it. You are an artist, not a sculptor."

"I'm sorry." Bess murmured.

Madame Collins ripped up the painting. "Go to your room. Supper will be sent to you, and tomorrow you can start again."

Bess hurried out of the room. Even though they had been alone, she felt so humiliated. She passed by the other room, and discovered that everyone ate alone in their bedrooms. She also realized that no one ate everything on their plates.

She ate her dinner quickly, then changed for bed early, if only to remove the stress on her stomach. Then she got out some paper, and wrote her first letter.


Dear Nan,

You won't believe everything that's happened to me since I came to school. I have so many rules that it's hard to keep track of them! I'm not allowed to laugh in public, and nobody in the school eats together. We all hide out in our rooms most of the time. I'm supposed to be a "fine example" and I'm to act like a demure young woman. If you though I was proper before, you should see me now! I even have to wear a corset!

I'm feeling homesick right now, and I wish you were here to talk to. How is medical school? Are you having fun?

Oh, and we bought new clothes and jewelry. Some of the dresses are really pretty, and all of them have a ton of lace My favorite is a long white dress, that has lacy sleeves, and supposedly accents my "features." It has a matching hat and gloves. I have a new way of styling my hair, though some look kind of scary!

Madame Collins is really strict. I feel like she doesn't like me, and I have to wonder why. I don't think I've offended her. I'm not supposed to speak ill of the school, so don't tell anyone what I've written.

        Write Back Soon,
         Bess


Part 2 -

Bess worked on her painting the next morning, but she didn't get much completed before Madame Collins told everyone to get ready for tea. Miss Daney came in to help her dress, and she picked a light, airy afternoon dress, that was a light lavender color, and had slightly puffy sleeves. They styled her hair in one of Bess's less favorite styles, but it was considered more stylish, so she went along with it.

They gathered together in the entry way. Madame Collins inspected them all and nodded her approval, and they set off. As they approached the house, Madame Collins stopped them. "I want you all to remember that Mrs. Webster is the rich wife of Senator Webster. We want to impress them, so you must be on your best behavior at all times!"

With that said, she hurried up the stairs and rang the bell while the rest followed. Mrs. Webster welcomed them, and they followed silently. They were introduced to her son Ryan, who hesitated when he met Bess. He motioned towards a seat, and Bess did her best to sit down demurely.

A couple of gasps were heard, and the hostess invited them to sit. Bess knew that she should have waited, but nothing could change it now. A glare from Madame Collins, and Bess knew she was in trouble.

As Bess was handed the tea, Ryan Webster sat down across from her. "I'm curious, Miss Laurence, where are you from?"

"Concord." Bess smiled politely.

"I've been there once. It's a nice area."

"Yes, it is. When did you visit?"

"About a year ago, in the fall."

"You must go visit in the spring. It's the most beautiful time of the year."

He laughed softly. "May I presume then, that Spring is your favorite time of the year?"

"Yes," She laughed. Bess happened to look over at her teacher who was scowling at her. Her smile faded as she realized that she had broken another rule. She could almost hear Madame Collins saying ‘Never laugh aloud in public.' Sighing, she almost slouched down in her chair, but caught herself just in time.

Ryan watched the exchange, and smiled comfortingly. "Don't worry about it. Everyone messes up on the rules once in a while."

Bess raised an eyebrow.

"My cousin was in the school for a while." He answered the unasked question. "She got fed up by the end of the first week and quit."

"I'm not a quitter," Bess murmured.

Ryan smiled. "I never said you were."

"Just so we're clear." Bess smiled, then took her first sip of tea and almost choked.

"Not like home?" He laughed.

Bess shook her head and coughed. "No."

He leaned over and whispered, "I don't like it either. I just sit here and pretend to enjoy myself. This is the first time I've had someone to talk to."

Bess smiled and set her cup and saucer on the table.

"Well," Madame Collins said loudly and stood acting as a signal for the other girls to stand. "We must be off. Thank you for a lovely tea, Mrs. Webster."

"You are welcome, Madame Collins," was the reply.

As they were walking out the door, Ryan grabbed Bess's arm to stop her. "Madame Collins," he called and she turned around quickly. "May I be so forward to invite everyone back for dinner in two days?"

"We shall return." Madame Collins bowed her head slightly. "Though I cannot promise that we will all be here." She looked pointedly at Bess.

"Well I must request that Miss Laurence be here."

Bess looked at him in surprise.

"She is a fine example of your school," he continued, "and is wonderful company."

"I'll make sure she's here then, Mr. Webster." Madame Collins said reluctantly.

She hurried off, and the others followed. Bess gave Ryan a grateful smile, then followed. "Good day, Mr. Webster."

"Miss Laurence." He nodded, then watched as she walked away.

"Isn't he handsome?" One of the girl's whispered. "You're so lucky!"

"No talking, Miss Cooney." Madame Collins said abruptly.

Bess thought about what she said, and tried to conjure up an image of Mr. Webster. He was taller than Dan, so much so that Bess barely reached his shoulder, and he was skinny like Nat. He had a gentle face, with caring eyes, and a charming smile. His blue eyes would twinkle whenever he smiled. When he had stepped outside, the sunlight had hit his light brown hair which showed the strands of red.

He was a nice looking guy, Bess decided. But he was also polite, kind, caring, and funny. It was nice to have a friend in the city!

All too soon they arrived back at the school, and each were sent to their rooms. All night, Bess was expecting Madame Collins to show up, but she never did.

The next day passed without incident, but on the fifth day since she had arrived, Madame Collins made Bess start over since the painting she was working on made the statue look too ‘tall'. Some of the girls snickered, and Bess flushed in embarrassment.

After Madame Collins had left the room, the girl who had talked to her before, leaned over to where Bess was sitting.

"It took me six months before Madame Collins liked my painting of the statue." She whispered.

Bess's eyes widened. "That long?"

The girl nodded and looked around the room to make sure nobody was paying attention to them. "We have to be quiet, because if Madame Collins hears us we'll be in big trouble. I'm Miss Cooney, but I'd like it better if you'd call me Kristi."

"Bess Laurence." Bess smiled, and they shook hands.

Madame Collins returned, so the whispers ceased, but they smiled, and for the first time, Bess felt comfortable at the school.

"It is time to get ready for dinner at the Websters." She announced.

Bess put away her things, and was leaving the room when Madame Collins grabbed her arm to stop her. She waited until everyone had left the room, and Kristi gave Bess a sympathetic look as she passed.

"Miss Laurence," Madame Collins said abruptly. "The only reason I am allowing you to go tonight is because you were requested. I want you to remember your manners at dinner. Don't embarrass me again!"

Bess nodded then hurried from the room. By the time she made it to her bedroom, Bess was furious and wanted to slam the door, but thought better, and instead dressed and paced around the room until it was time to go.

Mr. Webster smiled warmly when they arrived. Bess tried to relax, but dinner was so formal, that if you were to talk at all, it had to be so low that it could be mistaken for a whisper. Senator Webster was there, and was so gruff, that between him and Madame Collins, the girls were so afraid of doing something wrong that they hardly even picked up their forks.

Bess was grateful when it was over and she could return to her room to relax in silence without worrying about the corset that wouldn't allow her to breathe, and all the manners and rules.

A few days later, Bess received a letter from Nan which she tore open excitedly.


Dear Bess,

I'm loving school right now. At first it seemed like nobody wanted me, butt they seem to be getting used to the idea of a female becoming a doctor. I'm boarding with a kind old lady named Widow Parker, and am loving every minute of it.

Don't let them get to you! You weren't as bad as what you've written to me, but you still had to learn a lot when you first arrived at Plumfield. I worry that they'll change you back into what you were. Remember what Mrs. Jo taught you. I can imagine what Dan would think if you came home all proper again. He wouldn't know what to think, and neither would I!

I can believe that your mother would be proud of your choice. Not allowed to laugh in public? I wouldn't like to see "Madame Collins" at the Plumfield dinner table! Hang in there.

      Love,
      Nan

It gave her comfort, and the stress that Bess had been feeling was gone. But the peace didn't last long. Madame Collins inspected her painting again and said that it must be done over.

"Why?" Bess asked, frustrated.

"Look at it! The head is too big, the body too small. Her arms are to long, her legs too short. Her face is too narrow, and again she looks too happy. It must be done over!"

"I don't think it's that bad." Bess muttered.

Madame Collins's eye narrowed. "Do it over, Miss Laurence."

Bess was ready to scream. "May I be excused, Madame Collins?" She asked through clenched teeth. "I have some shopping to do in town."

"Fine." Madame Collins dismissed her with a wave of her hand. "You can start again tomorrow."

Bess practically ran out of the room. She was four blocks away before she realized that she had her drawing pad and pencils with her. She debated taking them back to the school, but decided that she would rather carry them than go back so soon.

She had made up the shopping trip as an excuse to get out by herself. Madame Collins did nothing but criticize and worry about the next party. The only reason the school had such a good name for itself was because nobody was allowed to speak ill of the school.

Bess walked for blocks trying to relieve the anger she felt, and before she knew it, she had walked into a part of town that she had been told never to go to.

The people were poor, with rundown homes and dirty faces. Bess continued to walk, and was surprised by what she saw. Many cried to her for food, others were so weak that they were lying by the road unable to move.

As Bess continued to walk and watch, she saw one little boy take the small portion of bread his mother had given him and walk over his friends and divide it into even smaller sections to be shared. Amazed by the kindness, Bess impulsively sat on the curb, and began to draw what she had seen using a mental photograph and watching them occasionally so as to not miss a feature.

As they ate, Bess drew everything, including the dirt smudged cheeks, and the tattered clothes. She had never drawn anything like it before, and was so involved with it that she didn't notice when one of the mother's walked up to her until she spoke.

"What are you doing?"

Startled, Bess looked up. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I just had to draw it. If you want it, it's yours."

The woman looked at the drawing. "It's beautiful. You did a good job. Why did you do it?"

"I was impressed with that boy's generosity and had to draw. This is the real New York. Other people should see this too."

The woman smiled. "You can keep it. I was just surprised that you would want to draw us. That boy in the drawing is my son."

"You must be proud of him." Bess smiled.

"I am."

Bess only stayed a couple more minutes, then started walking down the road towards the school.

A couple blocks later, a carriage pulled up alongside of her. "Miss Laurence!" Ryan called.

Bess looked up. "Mr. Webster. How are you?"

"Fine. Would you like a ride back?"

She shrugged and smiled. The carriage stopped and she got in, aided by Ryan. As they set off, Bess put the papers next to her on the seat.

"What is that?" Ryan asked.

Bess handed him the drawing and waited for his reaction.

"This is wonderful. Did it actually happen?" He asked softly, staring at it in awe.

"This afternoon." Bess replied.

He handed it back. "You did a very good job."

"Thank you, Mr. Webster." She replied.

"Call me Ryan."

"Ryan." She repeated. "Then you must call me, Bess."

"Bess. I like it. It suits you." They both smiled.

They arrived at the school and Bess reluctantly got out. "Thank you for the ride, Ryan."

He nodded, and the carriage pulled away. Bess walked into the school and before putting the drawing in a drawer, she hastily wrote, "The Best Of Friends" across the top.


Part 3 -

The next month passed, and Bess became close to Kristi. They would talk often, and Kristi started sneaking out of her room late at night just so they could talk. They both knew the risks, but Bess was grateful for her visits.

Whenever she would feel frustrated, which was happening more and more frequently, Bess would return to that poor part of town. On many occasions she found herself drawing what she had seen. A mother holding her crying baby, kids playing in the street, and a father returning home from work at the factory being greeted by his children with excited hugs.

Ryan always demanded to see the pictures, declaring each of them wonderful and creative. He would accompany her sometimes, and always gave them whatever money he had. At times, Bess would catch him staring at her, but he would always make us some excuse or another. Whatever the reason, Bess was glad to have him for a friend.

Madame Collins still wouldn't let her go on to other paintings, and even though she had to admit that she was learning from it, Bess was getting tired of doing the same statue over and over again. But, Madame Collins would always find something wrong with it, and Bess would start over.

One day, six months later, Bess stalked out of the school and down to the park. There was a beautiful fountain, and it wasn't long before she was sketching it. A couple hours later, she was pleased with her work and returned to the school.

Entering her room, Bess began unpinning her hat.

"What are these?" Madame Collins startled her.

Bess turned to see Madame Collins holding all of her drawings. She fought the urge to tear them away from her teacher, and instead, said calmly, "I drew them."

Madame Collins threw them on the floor in a disgusted heap. "Get rid of them immediately."

"I won't." Bess refused, thinking of all the work she had put into them and the praise she had received.

Madame Collins stepped forward, and angry gleam in her eyes. "You will get rid of them, or you will remove yourself from my school."

It didn't take long for Bess to decide. "I'll leave tomorrow."

Madame Collins watched her for a minute. "You'll regret this."

"I doubt it." Bess murmured.

With that, Madame Collins marched out of the room. Bess took a deep breath and slowly released it. It was an impulsive decision, but she wasn't sorry she had made it.

She pulled out her trunks, and began to fill them. A couple minutes later, Kristi crept into the room and stared at her in surprise.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm leaving tomorrow."

"What? Why?"

"Madame Collins found my drawings and told me I had to get rid of them, and I refused. She told me to get rid of them or leave, so I'm leaving." Bess placed her drawings in a folder on the bottom of the trunk so they wouldn't get bent.

"But, . . what am I going to do without you?"

"You don't have to stay, Kristi."

"I don't have a choice."

Bess grabbed her by the shoulders, and shook her gently. "Just pack your things and go home. There's no reason to stay."

"But I am home, Bess."

Bess's forehead creased in wonder. "What?"

"Madame Collins is my mother."

Bess watched her in silent amazement, and slowly shook her head trying to digest the information.

Kristi sighed and flung herself on the bed. "Mother made up the last name Cooney, so that no one would know we are related. I don't know what she thinks could happen, but I'm not about to disagree with her."

Bess sighed and sat next to her. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Fear, I guess. Mother would be so angry if she knew I told you."

"Well," Bess sat in stunned surprise. "I have to go, Kristi."

She nodded slowly. "I know."

Bess gave a small smile, then continued packing. "I hope you'll come visit me."

"I will." Kristi stayed silent for a minute before continuing. "What about Ryan?"

Bess looked at her in surprise.

"You were going to talk to him, . . right?"

"I," Bess hesitated. "I hadn't even thought about it."

"You can't just leave without telling him."

"I don't have a lot of time-"

"That's just an excuse. At least write him a note."

Bess shrugged. "If I have time."

Kristi shook her head, then smiled. They were both startled when Madame Collins walked in.

"Kristi!"

"Moth - . . Madame Collins." Kristi let out a surprised gasp.

Bess stopped in the middle of the room with her arms full of clothes, and stood speechless, trying to think of something to say.

Madame Collins stood staring at them for a minute, before walking towards Bess. "Your refund."

"Keep it for the school." Bess murmured, not taking the extended envelope.

"Even though you were not satisfied with your schooling, I do hope you won't discourage others, Miss Laurence."

Bess tilted her head slightly to the left. "Perhaps others would be more, . . content, here. I will allow them to make their own decisions."

"Thank you. Have you contacted your parents?"

"I'll send them a telegram at the train depot tomorrow."

Madame Collins nodded. "Then we will allow you to continue." She headed out the door. "Come, Miss Cooney."

Kristi gave Bess a small smiled, then silently followed her mother. Bess shut the door behind them, then sank down onto the bed. She suddenly felt so, . . tired.

*****

The next day arrived, and Bess was up with the sun. She finished packing, then dressed. Out of habit, she pulled out the corset and started to slide it on, but stopped when she realized what she was doing.

Bess threw the garment on the floor in disgust. Never again would she wear the offending piece of clothing. So put on her favorite of the new dresses that had been purchased in New York, the long white one. She loved the style of it, and it made her realize that while some things about her had changed since she went to Plumfield, this trademark had not.

She piled her hair in an easy style, and pinned on a matching white hat. A few minutes after she had finished, Madmae Collins entered the room, followed by Kristi.

"Kristi has requested to take you to the train depot, so I will bid you farewell here. I am sorry you chose to leave, you showed such talent."

Bess bit back an annoyed comment. "Thank you for what you have taught me. I'm sorry I didn't live up to your expectations."

"Not many do." Madame Collins said truthfully. "You need to go, or you'll be late."

Kristi gave her a small smile, and headed for the door. Bess grabbed her bags and followed her out of the boarding house. Pausing to take one last look at the place, she entered the carriage and they hurried off to the train station.

Bess wrote a note on her way, and put it in her handbag. They arrived, and Bess bought a ticket and sent a telegram to her parents. All too soon it was time to board, and Bess turned to Kristi.

"I'll miss you." Kristi murmured.

"I'll miss you, too." Pulling out the note, Bess handed it to Kristi. "Will you make sure that Ryan, . . Mr. Webster, gets this?"

Kristi nodded and took the note.

Bess gave her a quick hug, whispered ‘goodbye' and got on the train.

As it was pulling out of the station, Bess thought back over the last six months. It had been hard, but there were happy times at the school as well as the sad.

If she had to choose all over again, Bess was surprised to discover that she would probably make the same choice. Then she arrived, and stepped off the train in Concord. Bess was grateful that her parents were there to welcome her, but there was just one question, . . now what?


Part 4 -

Amy and Laurie had been surprised when they got the telegram from their daughter saying that she would be home in only a few hours, but they respected her decision.

Bess wouldn't tell anyone her reasons for leaving out of consideration to Madame Collins. All she would say was that it wasn't working out. The only person who knew the truth was Nan, and she promised not to say a word.

Bess kept drawing and painting, and after comparing one of her new paintings to her older ones, she had to confess that she had learned a lot at the school, even if it wasn't the most pleasant place.

Kristi kept in contact, and with all her free time, Bess had lots of time to reply.

Jo gave her a job at the school, teaching the new students the basics of art, and homemaking for the four girls attending. It gave her something to do, and the time passed quickly. A year had passed when she stepped into Mr. Gerson's store.

"Miss Laurence?"

Bess looked up. "Yes, Mr. Gerson?"

"Your mail." He handed her a small stack of envelopes.

"Thank you." Bess didn't even look at the letters, there was never anything for her anyway. She hurried home, and set the papers as well as the other things she had gotten on the table in front of her parents.

"Oh, good. You got the mail." Laurie began looking through it.

"Do I ever forget?" Bess asked, unpinning her hat.

He gave her a small smile, an she left the room.

"Bess?"

"Yes?" She looked in from the doorway.

He held up a letter. "It's for you."

Her forehead creased in wonder and she stepped forward to take it. "Who is it from?"

Laurie shrugged. "It doesn't have a return address."

"Hmm . ." Bess looked at it thoughtfully for a minute, then quickly shook her head and took the letter. "Thanks."

Laurie gave Amy a quizzical look as his daughter left the room, but Amy just shrugged."

*****

Bess tossed the letter on her bed, and hung up her hat. She had to get her lesson plan ready for the next day, but found that she couldn't concentrate on it, her gaze kept returning to the envelope.

Finally giving up on her project, she grabbed the note from her bed and quickly tore it open.

As Bess read the contents, she sank to the bed in surprise.


Dear Bess,

I'm sure that this letter come as a surprise to you, but I'm coming to Concord in two weeks, and I hope you'll allow me to see you, as I have urgent business to discuss with you.

My train will arrive on February the 24th, and I do hope you'll meet me as it will only be the second time that I visit Concord.

    Sincerely,
     Ryan Webster

Bess read it a second, then a third time. Ryan was coming, and he had "business" to discuss? She glanced up at the calendar on her wall. Today was the sixteenth, which meant he was coming in a week and a day!

It would be good to see him again . . .

*****

February the 24th rolled around, and Bess was waiting at the station when the train pulled in. Ryan was the second person who got off the train, and he smiled when he saw Bess.

"Hello, Bess."

Bess smiled back, and gave him an unexpected hug. "Hi."

She looked at the bag he was carrying. "Is that all you brought?"

Ryan nodded. "Yep. Can you point out the way to a hotel?"

She shook her head. "Mother and Father insisted that you come stay with us. They can't wait to meet you."

"I can't wait to meet them." Ryan fell into step behind Bess as she began walking towards town. "Are we walking the whole way?"

"Do you mind?" Bess asked. "It's such a nice day, and I thought it would give me a little more time to show you Concord."

"In that case, we'll walk." Ryan offered his arm, and she took it.

*****

After introductions, Amy had dinner served, and conversation was easy. Ryan told of how he and Bess had met, and of how much talent he had seen from the drawings she had done.

Dinner was pleasant, and they gathered in the parlor afterwards to talk.

"You never did tell me why you came, Ryan."

He grinned. "No, I didn't. Actually I cam because of your drawings."

"My drawings?"

He nodded. "My father is having a contest in New York, and wants people from all around the country to be in it."

"What does that have to do with my drawings?"

"It's an art contest." Ryan stated.

"Oh." Bess looked at her parents who smiled and shrugged.

Ryan leaned forward on his seat. "I told him that I knew an artist, and he asked me to extend you a personal invitation."

"You want me to go back to New York and display my drawings?" Bess looked skeptical.

"Just one, actually. It would be up to you as to which one you would display, and you wouldn't have to stay in New York for long, probably just a couple of weeks."

Bess watched him for a minute as she thought about what he had said. "I would have to go back to New York for a couple weeks, . . to display a drawing."

Ryan watched her silently as she digested the information.

Bess looked up at him, then over at her parents. "What do you think?"

Amy looked excited, and started to state her opinion, but Laurie nudged her with his elbow and she fell silent.

"It's up to you, Bess. We'll support you either way." Laurie said softly.

Bess nodded slowly, and fell silent again. A couple minutes later she looked up and smiled. "Where am I going to stay?"

Ryan smiled. "We'll work it out."

Bess shrugged. "Then I guess I'm going to New York."

*****

It wasn't long before they were on the train for New York. Bess had decided that rather then drawing a new picture, she would use her first completed drawing from New York, the one she had done when she left the school the first time to draw.

Her parents approved of her choice, including the title, "The Best Of Friends," but Bess felt like there was something missing. It took the whole train ride to figured out what it was, but when they reached the city, she knew what needed to be changed.

Ryan watched as she wrote the word, "The Real New York City" under the title.

Bess looked up for his approval, and he smiled to give it. Standing, they grabbed their things, and got off the train. A carriage was waiting for them, and it took them to his house.

"You never told me where I am staying."

Ryan grinned. "It just so happens, that my family has tons of extra guestrooms that we never use."

"Ryan!" Bess gasped. "I don't want to impose on your family."

"Don't worry about it." Ryan insisted. "Half the time they won't even remember you're around."

"I don't know -"

"Honestly, Bess. I wouldn't lie to you."

She slowly nodded. "All right. Thank you."

He smiled. "Good."

They arrived, and Ryan helped her out of the carriage. He was about to open the front door when it opened from the inside.

Madame Collins walked out and gasped. "Miss Laurence!"

Bess looked up at her and gave a small smile. "Madame Collins."

Kristi peered out from behind her mother. "Bess!"

She ignored her mother's look of disapproval and ran down the front steps to give her a hug.

"Hi, Kristi! I missed you!" Bess eagerly returned the hug.

"When did you get here? How long are you staying? Why-"

"Kristi!" Madame Collins snapped.

Kristi fell silent, and Bess gave an uncomfortable smile.

Ryan stepped in with a pasted smile. "We invited her to participate in the contest that my father is putting together."

"Miss Laurence?" For once, Madame Collins laughed in public.

Bess cringed. "It's not so strange."

"You can't draw! You never could! Why do you think I sent you home?"

"What?" Bess almost choked.

"I think you've over stayed your welcome, Madame Collins." Ryan growled through clenched teeth.

She glared at him for a minute, then hurried off toward's the school. As Kristi passed, she mouthed the word ‘sorry', and Bess gave her a sad sort of smile.

After they had left, Ryan put a hand of Bess's back and led her up to the house.

"You okay?"

Bess nodded and answered quietly, "I'm okay."

He nodded, and led her to her room. He left, and she began to unpack. As Bess was hanging up the clothes, Madame Collins's words came back to her, and she sank wearily into a chair and tried to stop herself from crying. Minutes later, she had her feelings under control, and she dressed for dinner.

Ryan knocked on her door, and she took a dep breath, then opened it. He looked at her simple yet elegant hair style that framed her face. He saw the pale lavender dress, that accented in all the right places, and his breath caught.

"You look wonderful."

She smiled shyly. "Thank you."

"Dinner is ready." He held out his arm, and she took it.

"Wonderful, I'm starved!"

He grinned. "Me too."


Part 5 -

The next month passed with displays of the submitted drawings and pieces began to be eliminated. No one knew for sure who the judges were, Senator Webster made sure of that. He didn't want bribes or dishonest conduct of any kind to be a part of the competition.

Bess discovered that once you really got to know Senator Webster, he relaxed, and was friendly and very amusing. The family would often gather and participate in lively discussions on many topics.

Bess felt comfortable in the Webster's home, though every week she would hold her breath in anticipation of the next judging.

Her drawing was the topic of many dinner conversations. The rich thought that it was a disgrace and should have been disqualified from the beginning. They didn't want to know the truth, and the poor weren't listened to. But the drawing still remained in the competition.

Finally the long month was over, and it was down to two drawings. Bess's, and another of a French Marketplace. The judges were revealed for the last elimination, and the artist's were requested to stand next to their drawings that night.

Bess watched as they went back to the other drawing for the tenth time. If they did this much longer, she was going to scream.

She caught Ryan's eye, and he gave a comforting smile, though he too was growing tired of their pacing. Finally they stood up to the podium.

"We have concluded, that the winner of this year's competition is . ." the judge paused to the dismay of the waiting crowd. He smiled, "Peter Mitchells."

Bess couldn't help but feel disappointed. She hadn't thought that she would make it this far, but there had still been the hope of winning.

Kristi pushed through the crowd to give her a hug. "I really thought you'd win."

"Thanks." Bess gave a small smile.

"You did great."

"I know." Bess said truthfully, then laughed. "I didn't think I'd get this far."

"Yeah, well, you have me to thank for that." Ryan approached them, a teasing grin on his face.

"Why?" Bess looked skeptical.

"Well, with all the bribe money-"

The two girls burst out laughing.

"What? You laugh?" Ryan pretended to be mad.

"Oh admit it." Bess kept laughing. "You didn't know who the judges were any more than I did."

"Well," he shrugged and grinned.

"Look at it this way," Kristi voiced. "If the newspapers ever heard that my mother told you to leave, she would be so humiliated. She wouldn't even come tonight, she was so worried."

"I don't want to cause trouble for the school, Kristi." Bess murmured.

"Nothing will happen to the school, Bess. But, I think my mother deserves it."

Bess tried to hide her smile, but couldn't and the three started laughing again. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't-"

"Don't worry about it." Kristi grinned.

They talked for a couple minutes, then Bess went up and received her award. Shortly after, Kristi had to leave, and Ryan and Bess began walking home.

"I'm proud of you." Ryan murmured.

"Really?" Bess smiled. "Thank you."

They walked in silence for a few minutes, when Ryan suddenly stopped.

Bess took a couple more steps, then turned back. "Are you okay?"

He had an intense look on his face. "Bess-"

"Yes?"

"I - I," he sighed. "I have to tell you something."

"Okay." Her forehead creased in wonder.

"I'm in love with you."

Bess froze in surprise, then whispered, "What?"

"I'm in love with you. Will you marry me?"

She stood in silence and tried to concentrate on his words. Love, . . marry . . in love.

"Ryan-"

"Bess, please." He stepped forward and grabbed her hands, gripping them tightly. "I fell in love with you the first time I saw you. You are the most beautiful, wonderful, exciting girl I've ever met, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

Then, before she could utter a word, he leaned down ad kissed her, embracing her tightly. When he broke the kiss, she stepped back trying to clear her head.

"Ryan," she whispered. She looked in his eyes and regretted what she knew she had to say. "I can't."

He closed his eyes so she couldn't see the pain.

"I don't love you, not like that. You make me smile, and you're a good friend, but it could never be anything more than that." Bess could see the pain on his face. "I'm sorry."

He bit his bottom lip for a minute, then nodded. The rest of the walk home was done in silence.

*****

Ryan was gone the next day, so Bess tried to stay busy at the house. She knew that she had hurt him, and so allowed him his space.

The day after, she got a ticket and packed her bags for home. Ryan still hadn't appeared, so his parents took her to the train station.

Kristi met her and said goodbye again. "You'll write?"

"As always." Bess smiled, and gave her a hug. She looked around, hoping to see Ryan, but he was nowhere to be found. She gave her bags to the conductor and started to board when she heard her name being called.

"Bess, wait!" Ryan ran up to her, completely out of breath.

She stepped back down to the platform as the whistle blew.

"You need to board, Miss." The conductor cautioned.

Ryan glanced at the train, then back at Bess. "You won't change your mind?"

Bess shook her head.

"Can't blame a guy for trying." He gave a sad grin then pulled her into a hug.

"See you around sometime?" He asked.

"Yes." She hugged him tightly, then stepped back. "Bye."

"Bye."

He was still standing on the platform when the train disappeared from sight. "Goodbye, Bess."

*****

Bess stepped down off the train and took a good look around before turning to the people waiting for her.

"I'm home, and I'm home to stay."


"Probably the hardest part of the last 2 years was realizing that I was different, and that I didn't want to be a part of the ‘high society' group anymore. I had changed since my first arrival at Plumfield. Changed for the better."

The End!


Author's Notes:

* This hasn't been mentioned before, though I'm sure a lot of you know that there is no train station in Concord. It exists only in my imagination. The nearest train station is probably in Boston.

* These stories roughly follow the ideas of Louisa May Alcott that she never wrote about, but that she hinted about. I have always wondered what happened at the end of Jo's Boys, so I decided to write it. If you read the book, you know that there was no Madame Collins, no Kristi, no Ryan, no art school in New York, and no drawing competition. But, it does say, that Bess won honors in her artistic career!

I hope you enjoyed the story,
Rachel


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