Jo arrived at the brownstone on a Saturday, ready to start her job as governess to the wealthy Kirke children. It hadn't exactly been a spur of the moment decision to come, but neither had she thought about it long and hard. She'd been restless, impatient for change, and in the job offer, she'd seen an opportunity for adventure.
After the taxi dropped her off, she stood gazing at the building for a few seconds. It was three stories high, and to Jo, it seemed to have far too many angles. Seven cement steps led up to the front door. The building was surrounded by small but tidy gardens, and in front was a brown black and wrought iron fence. Sparse trees grew at regular intervals along the sidewalk.
When she reached the top of the steps, she rang the doorbell, then just stood there, tapping her foot and humming to herself, until the door swung open.
The woman who'd opened the door was stylishly dressed in white slacks and a red sweater. She had shoulder-length, curly dark brown hair and looked to be about thirty-five.
"Good evening, ma'am," said Jo. "I'm Jo March."
"Oh, yes. I was expecting you." The woman smiled and shook her hand. "I'm Charlotte Kirke. It's so nice to meet you. Come on in. I'll introduce you to the girls."
The living room was large and spacious. The walls were painted white, and a chandelier hung from the ceiling. Two large windows at one end let in light, and the walls held several large paintings and also had niches for small plants. A sofa was against one wall, and two little girls of about seven and five sat on it, watching television. They both had long, straight brown hair, a couple of shades lighter than their mother's, and they both had hazel eyes and freckles.
"Come and meet your new governess, Miss March," Charlotte called to them. They walked over and stood staring at Jo. The older girl blew a pink bubble with her gum and it popped.
"This is Ella, and this is Emma," Charlotte told Jo.
"Hello, girls," said Jo, reaching to shake each of their hands.
"Hello," both girls replied.
"What are you watching?" asked Jo.
"Spongebob Squarepants," Ella told her.
"That's a funny show, isn't it?" asked Jo. "I like it too! May I watch it with you?"
"Yes ma'am," said Ella.
"Please don't call me ma'am," said Jo. "It makes me feel so old!"
Now I have an excuse to watch a kids' show without feeling guilty, she thought to herself. She watched television with her new charges until Charlotte came in to tell them dinner was ready.
"You're welcome to join us, Miss March," she added.
"Thanks," Jo replied. "And please, just call me Jo."
The dining room was also large and looked cozy, with a fireplace against one wall. The table was white and was surrounded by four chairs.
What about Mr. Kirke? Jo wondered, but knew it would be impolite to ask.
The table was set with a sumptuous feast: a huge bowl with a salad with various greens and other vegetables, shrimp scampi, Tuscan herb garlic dipping oil, and crusts of bread for dipping. Wow, these people are really high class, thought Jo. What would the folks back home think of all this?
"My cook is the best," said Charlotte. "She cooks the most delicious meals."
"She makes good desserts too!" Ella piped up. Jo found out how right she was when she tasted the tiramisu the maid served for dessert.
"So how's your mother?" Charlotte asked as they were eating. Jo's mother had babysat Charlotte frequently when she had been a little girl.
"She's fine," said Jo. "She spends most of her time these days helping Meg with the twins."
Charlotte's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Meg has twins?"
Jo smiled. "Oh yes! A boy and a girl. They're four months old now."
"So you're an aunt! Congratulations!"
"Thanks." Although Jo didn't spend much time with Johnny and Daisy, her heart held a tender spot for her niece and nephew.
"And how is Beth?" asked Charlotte.
Jo sighed. "She's well." While that wasn't quite true, Jo didn't want to burden her mother's friend with her own worries.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Charlotte.
The rest of the meal was a quiet affair. The mention of Beth's name had put a damper on the otherwise cheerful conversation. The irony was that, although one of the reasons Jo had come to New York had been to escape from her constant worry over her younger sister's health, the obsession had followed her like a shadow, lying in wait for the chance to burst upon the scene.
She saw him for the first time Sunday afternoon. It was cold but sunny, and she'd taken the girls to the park. He was leaning against a tree, watching two little boys at play - his sons, she assumed.
He was of medium height and stout, with unruly brown hair falling into his eyes. He had a neatly trimmed goatee. He wore beige corduroy slacks and well worn brown boat shoes with his parka. He was at least thirty-five, if not a year or two older.
"Hi, Professor!" called Ella and Emma as they ran to greet him.
"Ah, my darling Ella and Emma." He had a foreign accent. He took something from his pocket and handed them to each girl. Jo saw they were butter rum Lifesavers. "A beautiful day to come to the park, is it not?"
"Uh huh," said Ella and Emma, sucking on their candy.
At last he saw Jo, and smiled.
"You must be new here. I have not seen you before."
His voice had a pleasant quality, like a melody, and his brown eyes twinkled merrily.
"I'm Jo March, Ella and Emma's new governess." She held out her hand, and he shook it, holding onto it a second or two longer than normal.
She didn't mind at all.