Chapter 17

"Check!" Anne Shirley gloated gleefully, raising her head from the chess board and flashing a self-serving grin of accomplishment Gilbert Blythe's way.

"Not so fast, Miss Anne-girl," Gilbert replied, not looking up from the board between them as he studied his options. Anne Shirley played chess like she did everything else-with an eye to winning, but since she'd already won the last game Gilbert was not about to let her repeat the performance. Sitting on the front verandah of Green Gables on this fine Sunday afternoon, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully then moved his knight, thwarting Anne's attempts to conquer his king. "I think that should remedy matters," he remarked, grinning as he raised his head and wiggled his brows playfully at her, moving his hand back to his thigh without conscious thought. Flinching at the contact between his palm and the material of his trousers, he instead closed his hand into the small loose fist he'd been careful to use all afternoon but had forgotten momentarily.

"Gil, what's the matter?" Anne hadn't missed the flinch or the brief telling expression of discomfort on Gilbert's face.

"Nothing," Gilbert replied dismissively.

"It is too something!" Anne disputed, as she regarded him. Did he think she was oblivious to his expressions? He'd flinched there for just a second, she'd seen it. "Is there something wrong with your hand?" she asked, pointing to his fist, noting how the flinch and his hand movement had coincided. Gilbert shook his head in the negative but Anne persisted. "Let me see your hand," she commanded, determined to discover the truth.

"Anne, it's nothing," Gilbert repeated and meaning it too. It was just a trifling injury, a few blisters, nothing of consequence to bother with. But Gilbert's evasiveness only made Anne more determined to discover what he was hiding.

"Well, if it's nothing, let me see it," she countered.

"Can't we get back to the game? It's your move," Gilbert tried to redirect Anne's attention.

At Gilbert's uncooperativeness, Anne hesitated for just the merest of seconds before reaching across the playing table for his hand, surprising Gilbert with the unexpected move. His surprise forestalling any resistance, she pulled his hand towards her, ignoring the small jolt that coursed through her the moment their hands had touched, and gently pried the fist open for inspection. "Gilbert! What have you done to your hand!" she cried, alarmed at the sight before her. Gilbert's palm was a mass of blisters, red and raw and very painful-looking.

Gilbert shrugged dismissively and tried to retrieve his hand, but Anne griped his wrist, her eyes boring into his, demanding a reply. Didn't she know how her touch affected him, he wondered, how that innocent touch drove him to distraction? No, he didn't suppose she did. Gilbert sighed. He might as well answer her question and end the sweet torture her touch inflicted upon him. "I guess I overdid it in the fields yesterday," he explained his work-injured hand sheepishly. "But it's nothing," he repeated, dismissing the injury.

Anne eyed him with an exasperated expression. She knew Gilbert had been doing a lot of farm work this summer, and also putting in a lot of overtime to make up the time he'd spent in Charlottetown tracking down the relatives of Lizzy and Henry Miller, but she didn't like that he was hurting himself in the process. And Gilbert of all people! A doctor-in-training! He should know better, shouldn't he? "Stay here," Anne commanded, releasing his hand and rising. Gilbert made to stand as well, the normal polite mannerism of a gentleman reacting to a lady's departure, but Anne would have none of it. "I said stay there!" she commanded in an authoritative tone, her finger pointing downwards to his chair.

As the screen door slammed following Anne's entrance into the house, Gilbert sank back into his chair with somewhat of a bemused expression on his face. Oh, she was a bossy bit of business, that one. She was bossy and tempermental and spirited...and...and lovely. Sobering a little, Gilbert shook his head at the direction of his thoughts. Yes, Anne was lovely but he didin't need to be thinking about that just now. With great effort he forcibly turned his mind to more mundane ruminations.

A scant moment or two later the screen door squeaked open with the push of a shoulder and Anne emerged, a small basin of water in one hand, a cloth and a vial of ointment in the other. She set the items down on the table next to the chess board and drew her chair over close to Gilbert's side.

"Let me see your hand," she commanded for the second time, sitting down in her chair and opening the vial of ointment.

Gilbert knew there'd be no arguing with her. Anne obviously meant to tend his sore hand and her determination was evident in her tone. Gilbert sighed and reluctantly relinquished his hand to her ministrations, turning it palm up as he held it out to her. Anne cupped his hand in one of hers, then reached for the cloth, dipping it in the water and squeezing out the excess, before dabbing his palm with the gentlest of touches. Gilbert watched Anne as she tended him, her head bent over the task, her concentration fierce. She clucked and tsked over his carelessness in acquiring the blisters, fussing over him and Gilbert was surprised to find he didn't mind the fussing at all. They sat very close together, so close that their knees grazed each other's and he could smell Anne's hair, the faint unmistakable scent of lilacs permeating the air. No, he didn't mind this at all, he thought. Having Anne here beside him so close like this, tending him with her gentle ministrations, was worth the price of a few blisters, even if it was tantamount to sweet torture.

"I'm not hurting you, am I?" Anne asked, not looking up from her task.

"No," Gilbert replied, swallowing hard, having long ago forgotten about his hand, his mind now disturbingly occupied with other thoughts.

"Good," Anne remarked, discarding the cloth and dipping two fingers into the ointment. Carefully she smoothed the cream onto Gilbert's palm, her touch featherlight as she applied the ointment with small circular strokes until the process was complete and she was satisfied with her workmanship.

"There, all done. But you must promise to be more careful, Gil," Anne rebuked gently, raising her head and meeting Gilbert's eyes with her concern.

"Why? Are you worried about me Anne?" Gilbert asked teasingly with a smile, hoping to inject some levity that would distract his thoughts away from where they'd been.

Anne's expression grew thoughtful as she regarded him solemnly for a moment and pondered the question in all seriousness. "I don't want to see you hurt, Gilbert," she admitted quietly. "You mean a lot to me." How easily the truth had tumbled freely from her lips, Anne thought. And it WAS true. Gilbert DID mean a lot to her. The only surprise was that it had been so easy to say it aloud.

Gilbert sat frozen, momentarily stunned by Anne's answer and the caring and concern he read in her eyes. Had Anne Shirley just said he meant a lot to her? Gilbert held Anne's gaze, trying to read her, try to ascertain the meaning behind the simple sentence. Anne held Gilbert's gaze without flinching, nor did she look away. All grew quiet and still between them. Neither one moved, nor made an attempt to move, they merely stared at each other, time standing still as they sat close together, Anne's hand still cupping one of Gilbert's.

Suddenly Anne jolted when she heard her name being called. "That's Diana," she said aloud, pulling her hand away, the mesmeric spell from seconds ago now broken. Gilbert reached his other hand out to Anne's arm, halting her as she made to rise. Anne turned to look back at him.

"Thank you, Anne," he said quietly, relaying his appreciation for her ministrations, and maybe for something else as well, he didn't know. Anne nodded, then turned away and rose to her feet.

"I'm telling you it's true," Diana repeated an hour or so later after Gilbert had left and it was just her and Anne settled cozily on the front verandah. "Fred had it straight from Moody who got it from Gilbert himself," Diana co-oberated her story.

Anne shook her head in disbelief. Was it possible? But why hadn't Gilbert told HER? They'd chummed around all summer long together but he'd never said a word to her about it. She'd even asked him just last week about it but he hadn't said anything then.

"Fred said that if Gilbert's father doesn't get the mortgage Gilbert's going to give him his medical school money," Diana continued.

Anne tried to take it all in. The fact that Gilbert's father's farm was in financial jeopardy, that it was possible Gilbert wouldn't be able to return to school.

"The bank's turned them down twice already," Diana said. "So it looks like Gilbert will go through with his plan. But Anne, it would be hard to give up so much, don't you think?"

Anne grew thoughtful. Gilbert giving up his medical school money for someone else? Diana didn't know Gil as well as she did. It wasn't UNLIKE him to do such a thing, in fact it was quite LIKE him, Anne thought. He was always helping other people out, his own family would be no exception.

"But Diana, this is just horrible!" Anne decried. "Gilbert HAS to go back to school!" she wailed, thinking back to their summertime picnic conversations. Gilbert had said then that he wouldn't be happy with life as a farmer, that he had higher ambitions, and that medical school was the one selfish thing he was doing for himself. As the summer progressed and it had grown closer to the time Gilbert was to leave for school Anne had found herself growing more and more miserable at the prospect. Much as she hadn't wanted to admit it, even to herself, the thought of Gilbert leaving was a misery. But this sudden news was worse. Anne found herself even MORE miserable at the idea that Gilbert would not return to school! Anne shook her head at the confusing paradox. First she'd been miserable that Gilbert was leaving, and now she was miserable that he wasn't! It made no sense at all.

"But Diana, there must be SOMETHING that can be done!" Anne exclaimed.

Diana shrugged. "I guess the only thing is if the bank changed its mind and they got the loan. I don't see any other way out of it."

Anne tilted her head thoughtfully. The bank. There was that new manager now. Arthur Richardson. Anne had met him on a few occasions already, and although she couldn't say she DISLIKED him, she couldn't really say she liked him either. Although Anne had sensed some interest on his part towards her, she had found him to be on the pretentious side and so had declined his invitation to escort her to Moody's clambake. She'd gone with a group of her friends instead, Gilbert among them. Anne wondered if Gilbert's father had tried to obtain a mortgage through the new manager. It was worth a try, wasn't it? But she could hardly ask Gilbert about his father's financial moves, after all Gilbert hadn't even told her about the problem in the first place. Anne chewed her lip thoughtfully.

No, she'd have to investigate on her own.