Chapter 18

Arthur Nathaniel Richardson III almost laughed out loud at his good fortune. The good fortune that had brought Anne Shirley into his bank office this morning. He'd had his eye on the attractive woman since his arrival in Avonlea but all his attempts to ingratiate himself with her had so far failed. She'd refused his invitation to the local clambake and her overt disinterest in him had only intensified his own interest in her. Arthur Richardson was used to getting what he wanted and right now what he wanted was Anne Shirley. That her business with the bank this morning was of a strange nature only worked to his benefit.

"So Miss Shirley, let me see if I understand this correctly. You're not here to discuss a mortgage on Green Gables, you're enquiring about a neighbour's property...the Blythe farm? Is that correct?" Arthur asked, fixing the young woman with a carefully manufactured perplexed look.

Anne Shirley squirmed uncomfortably in the chair in the bank manager's office, suddenly feeling very foolish, her face pinkening at the bank manager's question. "Yes, that's correct," she mustered her courage to verify.

"Miss Shirley, I have to tell you this is highly irregular. It is not the bank's custom to give out financial information about it's clientele to those not directly involved," Arthur explained.

"I know that Mr. Richardson. I'm not here," Anne faltered. Just WHY she was here wasn't exactly clear in her own mind. Perhaps it was silly of her to have come here at all. She'd only thought to help, only she wasn't sure just what form that 'help' would take.

Arthur Richardson eyed the young woman across his desk, mulling certain possibilities in his own mind. "Perhaps...," he began. "Perhaps you're here to offer a character reference for the Blythes, is that it?"

Anne Shirley blinked, her eyes lighting up at the suggestion. "Yes! Yes, I can do that!" she replied enthusiastically. She would do anything if it would help Gilbert's father secure his loan and allow Gilbert to go back to school. "I've known the Blythes for as long as I've lived in Avonlea. I went to school with their son and there's not a finer family you'll find around these parts. I can guarantee you that," Anne made the positive endorsement.

"Miss Shirley, your high opinion notwithstanding, I hope you can understand my position. The Blythes have not named you as a character reference. For me to be discussing this with you formally like this violates bank protocol," Arthur said in a tone of practised regret.

"Oh," Anne said dejectedly, looking down at her hands clasped in her lap.

"But...," Arthur trailed off enticingly, tilting his head in a thoughtful manner.

"Yes, but?" Anne looked up hopefully.

Arthur leaned forward in his chair. "But there's nothing to prevent your giving me a recommendation OUTSIDE of the bank," he suggested smoothly, "say in a social setting." At Anne's confused look he continued, "The bank considers all sources of information when it makes its decisions and anything I might hear within the community itself about potential clients could be relayed to head office. I would certainly be willing to do that."

"Mr. Richardson, I would be eternally grateful if you would," Anne expelled her breath in relief, pleased that maybe some good would come of her visit after all.

"Good. Shall we make it the White Sands Ball?" Arthur asked.

"I beg your pardon?" Anne blinked in confusion.

Arthur Richardson smiled indulgently. "The social setting. For you to tell me about the Blythes," he prompted. "The White Sands Ball is on Friday night. That would seem to be the ideal occasion. Shall I pick you up around seven?"

"Oh, y-yes, yes, that would be fine," Anne stammered acceptance of the invitation. It had happened all so fast she'd hardly had time to even consider it. But it was just one ball, Anne told herself. Certainly it would not inconvenience her to attend one ball with Mr. Richardson if some good were to come of it.

"Fine, until then," Arthur Richardson rose and extended his hand.

Anne rose as well and shook the entended hand.

"Goodday, Miss Shirley," Arthur said with smooth solicitiousness.

"Goodday, Mr. Richardson," Anne replied, nodding her head before turning from the room.

Arthur Richardson watched Anne Shirley through the glass windows of his office walls as she made her way out of the bank. It was not until she was out of sight that he allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction.

"Hey Anne, wait up!" Gilbert Blythe called to Anne Shirley as he spotted her walking briskly along Avonlea's wooden plank sidewalks. But Anne didn't slow, perhaps she hadn't heard him, Gilbert thought, and he had to run to catch up with her. He pulled on her elbow when he reached her.

Anne flinched at the touch. The familiar touch that always seemed to jolt her senses. Briefly she turned to him. "Gilbert, I'm in a hurry," she said, resuming her pace, Gilbert now alongside her, his long strides easily keeping pace with her shorter, faster ones. But Anne didn't want to talk to him just now. Not after she'd just accepted an invitation from another man to the White Sands Ball. Not that Gilbert was to have been her official escort, but she knew that he expected her to attend and that they would go as a group-Gilbert, Fred, Diana and herself. Why she should feel so guilty for accepting another invitation was beyond her. But guilt she felt, and she was uncomfortable now in Gilbert's presence.

"Yes, I can see you're in a hurry," Gilbert laughed, teasing Anne over her brisk pace. "I won't keep you long. I just wanted to remind you about Friday night and the White Sands Ball."

Oh drat! Anne almost grimaced. The one thing she DIDN'T want to talk about!

"Fred and I will pick up Diana first and then we'll come by Green Gables for you. Sound okay?" Gilbert asked.

Anne felt a blush creep up and stain her cheeks. "Well actually Gil, I don't need a ride to the ball after all," she began evasively.

"Oh? Aren't you going?" Gilbert asked in surprise. He knew that both Anne and Diana had been busy making new dresses and for Anne to decide not to go at this point would be unusual.

"Yes, I'm going. But I don't need a ride," Anne rushed out the words breathlessly, turning her head towards the building on her right. "Oh, here's the post office. I promised Marilla I'd pick up the mail. Good-bye Gil!" she said, rushing away from his side and ducking through the post office doors.

Left out on the sidewalk alone, Gilbert Blythe came to a standstill, his eyes on the now-closed doors of the post office, his brow furrowed in puzzlement and disappointment.

It was equally uncomfortable when Anne revealed the change in plans to Diana Barry when they met up later that day. Diana fixed Anne with a confused look over her cup of tea.

"If you don't need a ride to the ball, then how are you getting there?" Diana asked, setting the cup into her saucer. "You're not going by yourself are you? You know Marilla doesn't like you out driving the carriage by yourself at night!" Diana was scandalized at the very idea.

"No, I have another ride," Anne replied evasively.

"Another ride?" Diana asked, narrowing her gaze. "Anne Shirley, are you going to tell me what's up or am I going to have to pry it out of you?" Diana demanded, setting her cup and saucer on the table before them before turning to glare at her friend.

Anne sighed, feigning resignation. "I have another ride. I'm going with...with Arthur Richardson."

"Arthur Richardson!" Diana exclaimed. "But what about..." Diana stopped herself. She'd almost said 'what about Gilbert?' before remembering the precarious status of that relationship. Anne had never said officially that she and Gilbert were a couple, Diana had made her own observations and assumptions about that. Could it be she was wrong?

"Yes, Arthur Richardson. He asked me and I accepted," Anne gave a cryptic summary.

Diana mulled this piece of information. "Well I suppose Arthur Richardson does match your ideal," she said doubtfully.

"What?" Anne raised her brow with the question.

"Arthur Richardson. He does match the romantic ideal you've always talked about. Like in your stories, you know." At Anne's blank look, Diana elaborated, "Averil's Atonement. The story you're writing. Arthur Richardson is a bit like your Percival, isn't he?"

Her story? Anne wondered at the connection. Why she hadn't touched that story in months. For some reason it no longer appealed to her, the plot and characters seeming like so much contrived silliness. She'd still been writing but she'd been working on another story, one very much different from the first. Anne shrugged. "I don't know," she said, not inclined to reveal her true motives for accepting Arthur Richardson's invitation. If Diana assumed it was because of some romantic interest, well, maybe that was just easier than explaining it all. Because if she explained it all, she'd have to say why, and if she said why she'd have to tell Diana the truth. And the truth wasn't something she was ready to admit yet, not to Diana and not to herself.

"Anne, are you sure about this?" Diana asked, eyeing her friend worriedly.

"Diana, don't worry! I know what I'm doing," Anne said reassuringly and smiled. "Now show me your new dress," she said, smoothly changing the topic of conversation.

If Gilbert Blythe was ever to list the most painful moments of his life, surely the one when Anne Shirley entered the ballroom of the White Sands hotel on the arm of Arthur Richardson could be counted high on the list. Gilbert stood on the opposite side of the room with his suitcoat open and his hands in his pockets, leaning a shoulder against a pillar. His eyes had narrowed on the couple when they entered the room but he showed no other visible signs of any reaction to their appearance. On the outside, that is. On the inside, Gilbert's mind and emotions were in a turmoil.

Oh, she was beautiful tonight, he thought. Standing there in her organdy dress, her hair swept up elegantly onto her head, exposing the creamy smooth skin of her neck and shoulders, the dress cinched tightly at her trim waist and then flairing in frothy swirls to the floor. She was cool and elegant and utterly charming. No woman had a right to look so lovely, Gilbert thought, his expression giving way to a decided scowl as he fought the jealous emotions that burned like fire in his belly at the sight of Anne with another man. He'd known she was coming with someone else-he'd heard about it in the days following that day at the post office when she'd told him she didn't need a ride. The town gossips were more than willing to fill him in on the potential new pairing of Anne Shirley and the town's bank manager. He didn't know why he'd even come to the ball anyway. To torture himself? Because if that was it, then he'd certainly accomplished his goal.

Across the room, Anne Shirley, her hand wedged in the crook of Arthur Richardson's elbow, scanned the room upon their entrance. It was an elegant affair, the White Sands ball, with handsomely attired guests, a six-piece orchestra in the corner and a long white-clothed table loaded with refreshments. Suddenly Anne's eyes met those of Gilbert Blythe's across the room. He acknowledged her with a curt nod, a sardonic expression on his face, but Anne blushed and looked quickly away. Oh how she wished this evening were over already. She felt decidedly uncomfortable, like she wasn't herself, and she couldn't wait for tomorrow when everything would be back as it should be. But until then, there was still tonight to get through.

"Miss Shirley, may I have this dance?" the question came from Arthur Richardson at her side. He smiled solicitiously down at her.

Anne nodded her head and allowed herself to be swept into his arms for the waltz. Arthur Richardson proved to be as smooth a dancer as he was at everything else he did, although Anne found he held her just a bit too close, with a bit too much familiarity, for comfort. Her overall impressions of him had not changed from those she'd generated upon first meeting him. He was overly smooth and overly pretentious. Oh how she longed for the easy comraderie with Diana and her other friends, Gilbert among them. She'd be laughing and joking by now instead of enduring the stuffy attentions of the humourless and pendantic Mr. Richardson. He hadn't even let her talk about the Blythes yet, so she could give them a glowing recommendation, which after all had been her main objective of the evening. He kept putting her off, saying there was plenty of time for that yet and to enjoy the evening first. Anne sighed, then plastered on an expression of polite enjoyment for the rest of the dance.

Across the room Diana Barry approached Gilbert Blythe's side and followed his gaze across to the room as he watched Anne and Arthur Richardson dancing. "Gilbert?" she said when she was at his side, then watched him jolt from his attentions and turn to her.

"Diana! How lovely you look tonight!" Gilbert smiled the compliment, forcing his thoughts away from Anne.

But Diana only stared back at him with a mournful expression on her face, like one finely attuned to the emotions and hurts of someone else. "Gil, I don't know what she's doing," Diana said in a low voice.

Gilbert raised a brow. So Diana had noticed his preoccupation with Anne and her escort. Feigning incomprehension Gilbert replied, "I don't know what you mean."

"Anne," Diana clarified the unnecessary. "I don't know what she's doing here with him. I know she cares about you Gil. I know it," Diana told him, for once revealing what she had gleaned from her own observations about Anne and especially from that day in the merchantile when Anne hadn't denied any of Diana's references to Gilbert as her beau.

"Oh, I know she cares about me, Diana. She told me that herself," Gilbert's tone was hollow and bitter. Yes, Anne had told him he 'meant a lot to her'-he still remembered it clearly that day on the Green Gables verandah when she'd tended his hand-only now he knew what she meant. She cared about him as a friend, and nothing more. He'd been a fool. A fool with his foolish notions of waiting for Anne, until she was ready for him. Only in all his plans and dreams he hadn't counted on one thing. He hadn't counted on Anne not waiting for him.

"If you'll excuse me Diana, I think I'll leave now. I've seen enough for tonight," Gilbert said, his eyes once again drawn to the couple on the dance floor before he forced his eyes back to Diana. "Say hello to Fred for me, will you?" Gilbert said, forcing a smile as he squeezed Diana's hand then turned away and strode from the room.

"Gilbert..." Diana trailed his name off forlornly to his retreating back, feeling helpless and torn as she watched one friend leave in pain, another friend the cause.

"It's too noisy to talk in here. Let's go out onto the verandah, shall we?" Arthur Richardson suggested to Anne Shirley a short time later.

"Alright," Anne nodded her agreement and turned in step beside him as they made their way out of the ballroom. After dancing several times with Arthur Richardson, she'd finally managed to turn the conversation around to the Blythes and Anne wasn't about to argue the location of the discussion.

Stepping outside, the pair strolled around the wide verandah that circled the perimeter of the White Sands Hotel. It was dark outside but light shone out the windows from the party inside, casting a luminescent glow onto the verandah. They passed several other couples, also out for a stroll, until they came to a secluded spot suitable for a private conversation.

Anne turned to Arthur. "Now about the Blythes...," she began.

"Oh come, come, Miss Shirley," Arthur interrupted her. "We needn't waste our time discussing them."

"What?" Anne asked in surprise. Whatever did he mean? That's why they'd come out here. That's why she'd come to the ball with him in the first place!

"Look, you want me to put in a good word for the Blythes about their loan. I understand that. I'll help you out, and you can help me," Arthur explained the heretofore-unknown deal.

"Whatever are you talking about?" Anne gaped at him.

Arthur chuckled. These country girls were all so naive. He reached for Anne's hand, clasping it in his grasp. Anne tried to pull it back but found she could not.

"Mr. Richardson...," she began.

"Arthur," he cut in with the correction, bringing his other hand to the side of her waist. The touch was no different from what he'd done inside when they were dancing but Anne grew alarmed at the unwanted familiarity and tried to pull away.

"No need to play coy with me, Anne," Arthur remonstrated, drawing her into his arms. Anne began to struggle in earnest. This is NOT what she had intended to happen in the course of this evening.

"Let me go!" she demanded, twisting and turning against the unwanted touch in equal parts anger and fear.

"Now one little kiss won't hurt anything, will it?" Arthur asked, tightening his arms around Anne's back and drawing her closer. He lowered his head but Anne turned her head from side-to-side, evading him as she brought her palms up against his shoulders and braced her arms, trying to push him away.

"LET ME GO!" she fairly screamed at him, mustering all her outrage as she fought him off.

Suddenly Anne found herself free of her captor, Arthur Richardson unceremoniously pulled off of her. Anne caught a brief glimpse of a second man, and an uninhibited "Gil!" was torn for her lips before there was a flurry of motion and Arthur Richardson went sailing several yards across the verandah, his back hitting a post before he fell to the ground. Anne crossed her hands over her mouth both in shock at the scene and to keep from crying out. With wide eyes in horror her gaze travelled from Gilbert, standing not far from her, his body rigid with tension and his hands fisted at his sides, across the way to Arthur Richardson. The two men were eyeing each other warily. Slowly Arthur rose to his feet, brushing his hand across the corner of his mouth where a small trickle of blood was pooling. He looked from Gilbert to Anne and back again, sizing up the situation, a sneer of enlightenment coming to his face.

"Oh it all makes sense now," he said sarcastically. "You didn't tell me one of the Blythes was your boyfriend, Miss Shirley. I think it's obvious that our business here has concluded," he announced, brushing a hand down each arm and straightening his tie before delivering a haughty glance Gilbert's way and turning from the scene, leaving Anne and Gilbert by themselves. Arthur Richardson may be a cad, but he was no fool. And he'd be a fool to fight a man both taller than himself and physically stronger. No, one punch had been enough to gauge his opponent's strength. No doubt it was all that farm work the local men did that built up their strength, Arthur rolled his eyes as he made his way inside.

Alone by themselves, Gilbert turned to Anne. "Anne, are you alright?" he asked, concern in his voice. He'd been on his way home earlier when he'd decided to take a walk instead and clear his head. After a few turns around the property he'd come up to the quiet verandah corner only to find Anne fighting off the advances of her overzealous escort. After that his protective instincts had taken over.

"Oh Gilbert, what have you done?" Anne wailed instead.

Gilbert's eyes narrowed on Anne. What had HE done? What was SHE doing out in the moonlight with a man she'd known less that two weeks? And what about her escort's parting comments, what was that all about? "What did he mean your business is concluded?" Gilbert demanded to know.

Anne drew a deep breath and ground out the answer. "He're not getting the loan."

"What!" What in tarnation did that mean? It made absolutely no sense in the context of the situation.

"The loan. The mortgage. Your father isn't getting it," Anne ground out between clenched teeth. There was no chance now, not after Gilbert had punched the bank manager and ruined it all. No, she corrected herself, not after SHE had ruined it all by even trying to help. This was all her fault.

Gilbert Blythe was silent for a moment, taking in Anne's comments, slowly piecing the bits of information together. "And just what do you know about my father's mortgage?" he asked suspiciously.

Anne raised her chin defiantly and glared at him. "What everyone knows, Gil. That your father needs to mortgage the farm and if he doesn't get the loan you're going to give him your medical school money and that would mean you can't go back to school. Isn't that right?" Anne asked challengingly, confrontationally.

Gilbert's eyes narrowed on her. "That's only partly right," he corrected her. "I've already given my father my money so he won't be applying for another loan."

"Oh." Anne blinked, deflated. She hadn't known that. That meant...that meant all her efforts had been futile anyway.

"And I'll be going back to school," Gilbert continued. "Maybe not this semester but after Christmas. I've already put in for a scholarship, but even if I don't get it I'll find some way to go. Do you even doubt my determination to get what I want?" he asked, equally challengingly.

Anne swallowed hard. So he would only miss one semester? She hadn't known that either. For some reason she'd assumed Gilbert's whole medical career was on the line.

"So what were you trying to do anyway?" Gilbert asked, his suspicions aroused. "Get on his good side so he'd give my family a loan?" he surmised, waiving his hand in the direction Arthur Richardson had left them.

"I was just trying to help you!" Anne replied defensively.

"Help me?" Gilbert ran an agitated hand through his hair. "Trust me, that wasn't helping me!" Did she even have any clue to how much agony it had been for him to see her with someone else?

Suddenly Anne's anger boiled over. "Well, this would never have happened if you'd just told me yourself what was going on instead of making me find out about it elsewhere! I thought I was your friend, Gilbert Blythe. All summer long we've been together. You've listened to all my troubles and helped me time and time again. Why didn't you tell me when you needed help?" Anne asked, her anger partially replaced by the hurtful tone in her voice. Yes, maybe that was it more than anything else. She was hurt that Gilbert hadn't confided in her.

Gilbert was shaking his head. "I couldn't tell you about this...,"

"Why not? Friends help each other out, don't they?" Anne asked.

"This is different." Gilbert's eyes had darkened, something registering deeply in their depths.

"How?" Anne wanted to know.

Gilbert didn't reply. How could he? How could he have explained it to the woman he loved? He was working to become a doctor, yes, but also to earn a profession that would support his wife and children. It was something he had to do on his own, without help. And certainly without help from the woman he hoped would be that wife, and would bear his children. It was the unwritten code, part of the arsenal of a man's pride, and Gilbert was too honourable to breech its terms.

At Gilbert's silence, Anne snorted disdainfully. "I see. Well let's just forget about it, shall we?" she said, glaring angrily at him before moving to brush past him.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To ask Diana and Fred to take me home," Anne ground out her intent.

"Anne, wait." Gilbert pulled on her arm, but Anne flinched at the touch and pulled herself forcefully away.

"Don't touch me!" she met his eyes to command angrily. How could she think straight when he touched her? His every touch jolted her senses in that peculiar way that they always did, and right now she needed to keep herself together.

Gilbert swallowed hard, masking his hurt. So she couldn't even bear him to touch her anymore? Was that it?

"Good night, Gilbert," Anne swept angrily past him, briskly turning a nearby corner.

With Anne now out of sight, Gilbert turned to the nearby wall, bringing his fist up against the bricks, striking a forceful blow of pain and frustration.