At first, Harold was too stunned to speak. He wasn't sure what to make of Marian's arrival to the emporium; she had never responded to one of his communiqués in such a forthright manner. And for her to come here alone, after what had happened before, was unthinkable. The silence stretched, and Harold knew he should say something, but he couldn't bring himself to talk. He hadn't had so much as a glimpse of Marian for a solid week; he couldn't help allowing himself the luxury of simply looking at her. Though he noted with relief that the mark on her neck had disappeared, he was dismayed but not surprised to see that, when their eyes met, Marian's expression was as aloof as her bearing.
"Good afternoon, Professor Hill," she said coolly, as though they were little more than casual acquaintances.
Harold stepped out of his office and closed the door behind him. "Marian, I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am. My behavior was inexcusable – the act of a coward and a scoundrel. Although I can promise you that it will never happen again, I know there's no making up for what I did. But I hope that, someday, you'll be able to forgive me."
She dropped her gaze to her hands, which were folded in front of her. "I do forgive you, Professor Hill… and I wanted to apologize to you, as well."
Count on Marian to derail his train of thought; Harold completely lost track of what he was going to say. "You wanted to apologize to me?" he asked, flabbergasted. "What on earth do you have to apologize for?"
Her hands unfolded briefly to smooth out a wrinkle in the fabric of her skirt. "I've been doing a lot of thinking… and it occurs to me that I've been selfish."
"Never," he avowed. "I've never met anyone more unselfish – sometimes I've even thought you're a little too generous for your own good."
Marian still wouldn't look at him. "Professor Hill… I don't think we should march in any more parades together."
Her words knocked the wind out of him better than any physical blow could have; Harold had to put a hand on the door jamb to steady himself. "What? What are you saying?"
The librarian met his gaze again, and he saw a pained look in her eyes. "I'm saying that perhaps it might be best if we kept things strictly cordial between us."
Her hands were beginning to tremble; instinctively, Harold reached out for them, but caught himself just in time. "Marian, I love you," he entreated.
She looked stricken. "Harold, please don't make this any harder than it already is."
Even as Harold gazed at her with pleading eyes, frantically trying to think of something – anything! – he could say to get her to change her mind, he marveled at her selflessness. After everything that had happened between them, Marian made no demands of him. Though her reputation and happiness would be destroyed, she was letting him go. And since he could not in good faith make her any promises, Harold figured he should have the decency to show her the same courtesy.
"If you feel this is the best course of action, then I will respect your wishes," he said despondently. "But before you go, I wanted you to know that I didn't contact you simply to apologize. I wanted to tell you something – something I should have told you when you asked me about my parents."
That spark of curiosity lit up Marian's eyes again, but she swiftly quelled it. "Oh, please don't feel you have to tell me anything," she demurred. "I shouldn't have interrogated you like that. You're right – your past history is no one's business but your own, and I had no right to try to badger it out of you. Impatience got the better of me, and I regret it."
Harold shook his head – he hadn't wrestled with himself over the past several nights to abandon his resolve now. "You freely and gladly gave your heart to me. And because I cemented that compact by giving you my own, you deserve to know the truth." He took a deep breath. "With my silver tongue, I sent my own father to his death."
Marian gasped. "What?"
"My father, reprobate though he was, was a charming man," Harold said grimly. "My mother was a daughter of Newport, Rhode Island's blue blood – but she gladly abandoned her life of parties and wealth to marry my father. Not that he was poor – he made a good living as the proprietor of an inn, and my early childhood was actually quite comfortable. But my mother's relatives were horrified she married a man who worked for a living, and so they ostracized her.
"My mother certainly loved my father and, to his credit, he seemed to love her. But he could never stay for long. He'd drink, he'd philander – and then, when he'd spent all the money we had, he'd leave. When he returned, the two of them would have a few nice months together before he started his habits all over again, and abandoned us. Each time this happened, we'd be a little worse off than before. We wouldn't see him again for a year or two – just long enough to start rebuilding what he had destroyed. Then one day, out of the blue, he would come home again, promising he was a changed man. 'The prodigal husband has returned!' he'd cry. And my mother let him in. Every damn time, she let him in. No matter how much he'd broken her heart, no matter how much his exploits had ruined our reputation, she'd let him in."
Harold stopped and gazed at Marian, who looked scandalized by such behavior. "Now, you mustn't judge my mother too harshly, Miss Marian. There was never a kinder, gentler woman than her. She was one of those trusting, naïve souls that makes your heart ache for them; the world isn't kind to people like her. And my father could be extremely persuasive.
"When he left for the fifth time, we were in so much debt that we lost our home. My mother was too embarrassed to return to her relatives in Rhode Island, so we went to the Adirondacks to stay with an eccentric uncle of hers, who had also rejected a life of idle luxury in favor of marrying whom he pleased. When we moved, I was around Winthrop's age. There wasn't a lot up there for a boy to do except cause trouble; I'm sad to say I added to my mother's burdens during those years. But she always forgave me, no matter what; and I loved her fiercely. And the new surroundings were a fresh start for my mother. The neighbors knew nothing of our past history, so we didn't have to endure any rumors. My mother might not have been a happy woman – God knows my father took that from her – but for the first time since I had known her, she was content."
Harold paused. "Then one evening in early March, when I was about fourteen or so, there was a knock on the door. Uncle Jim and Aunt Mary were shopping in town and my mother had gone to bed early, so I got up to answer. It was my father. The son of a gun had found us. And he looked no different than any of the hobos that occasionally shambled through the area; you could smell the whiskey on him for miles.
"But I smiled like I was happy to see him, and gave him a big hug. When he asked for my mother, I told him she was out shopping. I also told my father he'd better not wait for her here, because Uncle Jim swore he'd shoot him if he ever stepped foot on his land – that part of the story was true. Then I told my father to go to the freight depot, and I'd be along with Mother as soon as we could get away."
Marian smiled slightly. "You were never planning to meet him, were you?"
Harold vehemently shook his head. "After several years of peace, there was no way I was going to let my father waltz back into our lives and wreck everything. My original plan was to wait until my uncle got home, tell him what happened and where my father had gone. I figured Uncle Jim would go down to the freight depot with his gun and give my father such a scare that he'd never come back – and my mother would never have been the wiser.
"But as it turned out, I never got to talk to Uncle Jim. Shortly after my father left, it started to snow. The weather soon got worse, until it was blizzard conditions – you couldn't see five feet in front of you. Uncle Jim and Aunt Mary were lucky they hadn't set out for home yet; they took refuge in town for the night. But my father… " He faltered.
"Yes?" Marian gently prompted.
Harold swallowed. "The next morning, they found him frozen to death, right outside the station building. He was a huddled mass – like he just couldn't take the cold anymore and hunkered down, to try to outlast the storm." He chuckled listlessly. "They figured he had just come in on the train, got disoriented in the storm and lost his way. Only I knew what direction he was really coming from; if he'd managed to make it about twenty more feet, he would have found shelter."
Marian put her hand to her mouth.
"Mother was heartbroken," he said sadly. "When Uncle Jim told her it was for the best, she said she never wanted to see him again – which was probably the harshest thing she ever said to anyone in her whole entire life. As soon as the snow thawed enough for the trains to get through, we packed and headed for California."
To Harold's surprise, Marian looked relieved, as if she had been expecting to hear worse. "Harold – what happened to your father was an accident. How could you have known he would get caught in a blizzard?"
He gave her a frank, direct look. "That may be true, but you know something? Even if I had known about the approaching blizzard, I wouldn't have done a single thing differently." Despite the unpleasant twinge in his gut, Harold meant to say these next words with conviction – she deserved to know how truly depraved he was – but as he spoke, his voice started to shake. "The way I figure, my father got exactly what he deserved."
Marian gazed wordlessly at him, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears.
"I've never told anyone this – not even Marcellus," Harold said, desperate to fill the awkward silence. "So… now you know what kind of man I truly am, Miss Marian."
She nodded. "Yes – a man who loved his mother so much, he was willing to do anything to protect her."
Harold was amazed that even now, Marian still saw something good in him. "I did make sure my mother never knew the true nature of my work, even when I was sending part of my ill-gotten gains home to her," he admitted. "When I later met and teamed up with Marcellus, he was tickled I did that; he said I had to be the only conman he ever heard of to share his earnings with his mother. I never felt guilty about sending her stolen money, either – I figured I was just giving her back what the world had taken from her."
The librarian blinked, and a few tears rolled down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry you had to go through all that."
Harold gave a bitter, barking laugh. "Well, I don't need anybody's pity, nor do I deserve it. After all, it's not like I turned out much better than my old man, did I? Any woman who trusts me does so at her own peril."
"Oh, Harold," Marian breathed. She came over to him and gently cupped his face in her hands. "I do trust you."
He gazed sadly at her. "Marian – as much as I love you, I can't guarantee I won't break your heart."
"I know," she acknowledged. After shyly hesitating for just a moment, Marian leaned in and kissed him.
The librarian was as sweet and chaste on this occasion as she was at any other time, but Harold was thunderstruck. Not only did Marian still seem to love him just as dearly, she had initiated their embrace – something she had never done before. His hands sought her waist and he pulled her close, needing to feel her against him. But he did not intensify things any further than that; he let her have complete control of their kiss. When Marian's lips parted from his a few moments later, Harold respectfully moved away – but then she wrapped her arms around him and drew him back to her. With a sigh, he rested his head on her shoulder, and they stood in this quiet embrace for quite some time.
Later, when Harold walked Marian home, neither one of them said anything. It wasn't necessarily a comfortable silence, but it was deeper than he had ever shared with her, or anyone. He was startled to discover that he rather liked this feeling of knowing someone, and being known in return, and wanted to prolong it. When his eyes met Marian's, Harold was staggered by the love in the librarian's gaze. As he returned her fond look, Harold realized he was willing to do anything to build a life with her – even though he knew it meant he'd have to bare his soul, again and again.
When they got to the librarian's front porch, he spoke as if there had been no interruption to their conversation. "Marian… why would you take that risk?"
Her response was immediate. "For the same reason you stay in River City."
When Harold's eyes widened, Marian smiled and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. "Good night, my someone."
Instead of the usual desire to draw out their interaction for as long as he could, Harold felt a strange sense of contentment as he watched Marian go inside and close the door behind her. After a few moments, he turned and headed for home, a smile playing around the edges of his lips.
So, he had started to open up to her. And instead of driving her away, as he had initially feared, they had ended the evening with a greater sense of intimacy – much deeper than they had ever achieved, even during their most romantic trysts at the footbridge. Harold still wanted Marian as much as he ever did – the memory of her tender kiss and the warmth of her against him made his heart race – but somehow, he was just as affected by the interlude of tranquil silence that followed.
What had he been missing his old life for? There was no longer any charm in being a nomadic conman; such an existence seemed hollow and empty, now that he had discovered what real love was. All the heated embraces in the world couldn't compare to the wonderful sense of serenity and ease he was starting to feel in Marian's company. Harold had met a lot of women who loved him, but he had never once known a woman who also understood and accepted him, just as he was. He would be foolish to let the one who did get away.
Harold was finally ready to ask Marian that question, and he knew exactly how he wanted to do it. Halloween was approaching, and he had the most wonderful idea for a costume masque…