When Marian Paroo had dreamed of her ideal wedding, as all little girls do, she hadn't taken into account the nitty-gritty details and paltry annoyances of actually planning the event.
Originally, she and Harold wanted a simple affair, but they had soon discovered that wasn't going to be possible. Though Marian's extended family was small and Harold had no living blood relatives that he knew of, the two of them possessed an impressive roster of friends and acquaintances in River City. There were too many people they simply had to include on the invitation list – for both personal and political reasons – so their original idea of having the wedding in the Paroo back yard was soon discarded.
And then there was the matter of the Events Committee. As soon as Marian had shared with them the news of her engagement to Professor Hill, Mrs. Shinn enthusiastically volunteered the Committee's assistance with the wedding planning. Upon seeing the ladies' beaming, ecstatic expressions, Marian couldn't refuse such a generous offer – though she knew full well what she was getting into by accepting their help. Indeed, when Marian later told Harold what she had done, he laughed and said:
"Well, that puts the final nail in the coffin of 'simple affair,' doesn't it?"
Marian had laughed along with him. She understood as well as Harold did that the townspeople considered him something of a public commodity; it was therefore natural that River City's most prominent citizens would expect to be able to offer their input on something as momentous as his wedding. And for the most part, Marian was truly thankful for the outpouring of assistance; after so many years of being shunned and badmouthed, it touched her that the River City-ziens now considered her "one of the family."
However, having so many "cooks in the kitchen" did have its downsides. Even though Marian didn't have strong opinions one way or the other about the actual details of her ceremony and reception – the marriage itself was the main thing, after all – it was rather disconcerting to hear the ladies of the Events Committee argue so passionately over the minutiae of her and Harold's nuptials. Usually, the women were able to come to amicable agreement without outside assistance, but there were times when Marian was prevailed upon to cast the final vote on an issue. These occasions were quite nerve-wracking – the "wrong" answer could mean the unpleasant souring of an important relationship – but somehow, she always managed to muddle through these trying times without causing too many ruffled feathers.
Still, as accommodating as she was, there were a few areas Marian refused to let the Committee commandeer, one of them being her wedding ensemble. She planned to have her mother make her a simple empire-waist gown, and was prepared to politely but firmly maintain her position on this matter. Fortunately for the librarian, ornate wedding dresses were going out of fashion, and the Committee wholeheartedly applauded her decision.
Harold, of course, found all the fuss amusing. When he visited with Marian after the conclusion of Events Committee meetings, he'd teasingly ask for the latest news regarding their wedding:
"So what has the Committee decided will be our main course? I heard from Jacey Squires it is to be roast beef, but I understand Mrs. Grubb and Mrs. Hix campaigned vigorously for beef stew."
"How many people has the guest list grown to, today? At the rate it keeps increasing, even the armory won't be enough to accommodate everyone!"
Though Marian and Harold usually enjoyed spirited discussions about a wide variety of subjects, their topics of conversation had narrowed considerably of late. But neither of them was overly concerned about this – as fiancés, they had started to spend a good portion of their time alone together not talking. Although Harold honored his promise and never again demonstrated the lack of restraint he had shown on the evening before the Halloween masque, the frequency and fervency of his kisses had markedly increased since she accepted his proposal. Secure in the knowledge that she was soon to become Mrs. Harold Hill, Marian had become much more comfortable in her beau's arms – even to the point where she was the one to initiate a few of their embraces.
Occasionally, Marian did wonder if they were tempting fate a little too much, but in the heady bliss and busyness of her days, she didn't ponder the subject as deeply as she ordinarily would have. Much of her apprehension about her clandestine strolls with Harold had vanished; since their engagement was now public knowledge, the townspeople no longer found it suspicious and indecent that the music professor and the librarian spent a great deal of time in each other's company. And now that Mrs. Paroo's dearest dream for her daughter was finally about to come true, she had relaxed her henpecking considerably. On the few occasions she caught Marian and Harold canoodling, Mrs. Paroo still scolded them for impropriety, but there was a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face as she did so.
One blustery Monday afternoon in mid-November, Marian found herself alone in the library. Though the day had dawned cold and overcast, by midmorning the sun had come out to temper the sharp chill in the air. So instead of dutifully heading over to the library to work on their assignments after school let out, many of River City's youth had ventured outside to take advantage of what was likely to be one of the last nice days before winter arrived in earnest.
Still, even when she had no patrons to assist, Marian industriously kept herself busy. Normally, she would have engaged in some task as soon as she had marked the final borrower's book with her stamp and bade them good afternoon, but today she allowed herself the luxury of standing idly at her post. As her wedding day was fast approaching, the librarian had developed the somewhat girlish tendency – fueled in large part, no doubt, by her fiancé's ardent kisses – of getting swept away by the most delicious of daydreams.
Indeed, Marian would have been happy to remain behind her desk all afternoon and indulge in such pleasant ruminations, but in the course of her woolgathering, her gaze fell upon the nearby clock on the wall. It was nearly two thirty. Usually, this would not have been cause for alarm, but today, she was due to close in a half hour. Glancing at the book-return cart behind her, she saw an enormous mound of books waiting to be put away. As easygoing as she had become, Marian could not in good conscience leave such a pile overnight. Chiding herself for her indolence – she hadn't kept pace with the volume of returns all morning – Marian began to sort the books into two categories: upper and lower level.
As if to compound her punishment, a sizeable majority of the books – including the heaviest volumes – belonged on the second level. This necessitated several loadings of the dumbwaiter, which, after having lain dormant all day, creaked and groaned in protest at the sudden upsurge in activity. The poor machine had never been the same since Harold had used it as an impromptu elevator, and Marian frowned as she watched the fifth load of books travel haltingly upward. She was really going to have to talk to Mayor Shinn about getting the dumbwaiter repaired – or perhaps even replaced.
Finally, Marian only had one armful of books left to put away before she could close up for the day. Though she had nearly completed her task – and in decent time, too – she felt an unpleasant twinge in the pit of her stomach as she approached the ancient history section. Located in one of the dimmest recesses of the library, it was not an area she or any other patron often perused. But one of the teachers at River City High School had recently assigned his students to write a report on Mesopotamia and, of late, Marian found herself shelving books in the ancient history section considerably more often than she would have liked.
Yet the area still bore signs of neglect and disuse – her fingers brushed dust and cobwebs as she moved methodically down the aisle, returning books to their proper places. Marian shuddered as she moved deeper into the section, fighting with each tentative step forward the ever-increasing urge to flee from this gloomy corner and back to the safety of the well-lit main chamber of the library.
When she had reached the end of the aisle – which, unlike most of the other sections, concluded in a wall – Marian's heart started hammering wildly, and she froze. She still had three books to shelve. If she was to be thorough – and she always had to be thorough – she would have to turn her back on the entrance to the ancient history section. This was something she simply could not do.
Marian, it happened over two years ago, she scolded herself. Things are different now. Without allowing herself so much as a glance backward, Marian firmly set about her task, and reached up to deposit the first book back in its home.
Without warning, a strong pair of arms encircled her waist. Letting out a piercing shriek, Marian dropped her books, twisted around in her assailant's arms and, before she could even discern who had grabbed her, delivered the sharpest of kicks to that person's shin.
The arms fell away from her, and she heard a pained grunt – unmistakably masculine, which confirmed her deepest fears. Marian tried to run, but she was soon captured around the waist again.
"Darling, darling," Harold said soothingly, turning her to face him. He smoothed back a tendril of hair that had fallen from her chignon. "It's only me."
For the briefest of moments, Marian's tense expression relaxed into one of relief, and Harold was gratified to see he hadn't done too much damage. But before he could give her his usual kiss hello, she raised her hand and slapped him across the face.
Harold reeled back again. "Marian," he gasped, stunned.
"Don't you ever do that again!" she reprimanded.
Both his shin and his cheek still throbbing from her blows, Harold's first impulse was to angrily retort that if he had known he was going to be on the receiving end of this much abuse, he wouldn't have bothered with her in the first place. But then he noticed that despite her bravado, she was trembling, and her voice shook, as if she were close to tears. "Darling, you're white as a sheet," he observed with concern. Cautiously, he put his hands on her shoulders. "What happened?"
Marian paused and inhaled deeply, and the skittish fear in her eyes disappeared. "I'm sorry, Harold," she said penitently. "I shouldn't have lost my temper like that. You just – frightened me, that's all."
Willing to let bygones be bygones – and ruefully acknowledging that surprising his beloved in such a gloomy corner of the library wasn't one of his better ideas – Harold pulled her closer. "Madam Librarian," he said with a grin, "that certainly wasn't my intention… "
But she moved out of his would-be embrace. When he gazed curiously at her, she said stiffly, "Someone could come by and see us."
Harold raised an eyebrow at her – such reticence, while not unfamiliar, had started to wane the closer they got to their wedding. "Darling, there's no one else in the library but you and me," he assured her.
For once, there was nothing suggestive or mischievous in his tone as he spoke, but Marian bristled. "Is that all you men can think about? We're to be married in two weeks – surely you can curb your ardor until then!"
His eyes widened, but before he could respond, she shoved by him in the narrow aisle and stormed off. As he watched her go, Harold was truly bewildered by the intensity of her anger – on past occasions when he'd sneaked up from behind and put his arms around her, she had given a soft little start, but soon settled into his embrace.
Since they had become engaged, Marian was letting herself go, bit by bit, and it charmed Harold to see it. Now it seemed they were back to square one. Normally, he would have given her a day or two to cool off, but some instinct was strongly urging him to follow her. Hastening to the lower level, he was alarmed to see that Marian was not at her post – though her coat was still hanging on the nearby coat rack. Ominously, the library doors stood wide open.
Whenever Marian ventured outside, she always had a destination in mind. She had never engaged in aimless strolls – at least, not until Harold came to town. In fact, she could think of only one occasion in her adult life when she rushed along River City's streets like this, heedless of where she was going, her eyes blinded by the tears she was desperately trying to hold back.
Fortunately, Marian managed to marshal the strength of her considerable will, and her vision soon cleared. But it had taken her a lot longer than she anticipated to regain her composure – when she finally came to her senses, she was standing in the middle of an empty cornfield. Looking around, she guessed she was somewhere in the midst of one of the farms just north of town.
At that inopportune moment, when she no longer had her blazing fury to keep her warm, the sun went behind the clouds. Marian had worn her green-and-gold dress with the low collar – the wind nipped unpleasantly at her ears and neck, and she shivered. It was a long walk back to the library and, though no one seemed to have noticed her mad dash earlier, anyone she met on her return journey was certain to wonder what she was doing so far from home, and without a proper coat. With the sense of resigned but steadfast determination that had gotten her through so many difficult situations in the past, she gritted her teeth against the cold and set off for the library.
Marian hadn't walked far when she saw a figure striding toward her from the south. Even though she was still too far away to discern the person's facial features, she recognized the distinctive gait of Professor Harold Hill.
Feeling a curious mixture of elation and dread, Marian forced herself to maintain a steady pace forward. Though she walked no faster or slower than she did before, her heart did a queer somersault when she saw her fiancé's pace quicken. Marian felt herself welling up again; after everything she had said and done to Harold, he had still followed her – and to such barren regions.
But when they finally met, Marian hid her true feelings. "Good afternoon, Professor Hill," she said coolly.
Amazingly, Harold didn't take offense at her frosty tone. "Miss Marian, you left this in the library," he said gently, holding out her coat. "Allow me?"
After hesitating for just a moment, Marian tentatively started to slide into her coat. This brought her close enough to Harold to feel his warm breath against the back of her neck; she heard him inhale sharply as she accidentally brushed against him, and knew that he longed to take her in his arms. But Harold was the perfect gentleman and, once he had bundled her into her coat, he stepped away to a more respectable distance.
But he wasn't finished with her yet. "Another thing I thought you should know – I locked the library doors on my way out." Harold handed her the key. "Everything should be in fine form when you reopen tomorrow."
Putting the key in her coat pocket, Marian opened her mouth to thank him, but instead, her face crumpled and she burst into tears. Alarmed, Harold reached out for her, but in her mortification, she dodged his embrace. She had to get herself under control again – even a man as astute as he must be perplexed by such behavior! But the more Marian tried to contain her sorrow, the more it burst out of her, until she was wracked by great, gulping sobs that left her nearly breathless. As she started to sink to the ground in defeat, Harold caught her in his arms.
"Darling, you mustn't fight it," he said soothingly. "Whatever it is, let it out."
Even though she was still embarrassed – it had been several years since she had wept so noisily in the privacy of her own bedroom, let alone in front of someone else – Marian clung to Harold and indulged in a good, solid cry. Remarkably, once she allowed herself this luxury, she found the knots in her stomach and throat finally began to loosen, and it wasn't long before her tears started to ebb of their own accord.
As Marian's breathing once again steadied, Harold pulled out a handkerchief. Even in her wretchedness, Marian was amused to see he still carried around that dainty pink lace thing he had used as a ruse to flirt with her on the night of July third. "That's the gaudiest handkerchief I've ever seen," she teased.
He smiled as he mopped up her remaining tears. "Well, I guess I'll have to find you another wedding present, then."
She gave a light laugh, and silence fell between them. As Harold looked searchingly into her eyes, Marian lowered her gaze. "Why don't we head back to town?" she suggested.
Putting two fingers under her chin, Harold lifted her head until their eyes met again. "Now Miss Marian," he gently reproved, "aren't you going to tell me what made you cry like that?"
As Harold had expected, Marian stiffened and backed out of his embrace. "It was nothing; I was being foolish," she demurred.
Gazing steadily at her, he let the silence stretch.
As he predicted, Marian soon felt compelled to speak. "I never liked that corner of the library. When you came up behind me like that, I couldn't help being startled a little more easily than I might have been, otherwise."
Harold raised an eyebrow at her, but he still said nothing.
"It was really rather ridiculous of me to behave in such a fashion," she continued. "Especially as it happened so long ago… "
When Harold's eyes widened, Marian abruptly stopped speaking. But it was too late; he had all the ammunition he needed. "Marian," he said firmly. "I have spent a good deal of the previous month telling you about things that happened 'long ago.' 'How can we have any sort of relationship if you won't let me into your heart?' you asked. Or does that question not apply to you?"
Marian turned away from him. "You have an excellent memory, Professor Hill," she said ruefully.
As she spoke, she continued to sidle away from him bit by bit; quietly, he narrowed the distance between them. "I've told you so much about my past; it's time you told me more about yours."
Though Marian halted in her subtle attempt to escape him, she didn't reply. Harold was now standing close enough for his breath to stir the loose curls that had fallen from her chignon, but he refrained from touching her.
"Marian," he entreated in a low voice, "I know you've been alone for a long time. But you don't have to be, anymore."
After a brief pause, Marian faced him again. "I've wanted to tell you for so long, Harold," she confessed, her voice quavering as she spoke. "But the trouble is – I hardly knew where to begin… "
"How about at the beginning?" Harold suggested, taking her hands in his. Wincing at how cold they were, he gently began to rub them. "Go as slow as you need to, darling – there's no rush."
She paused again for a few moments, and he could see her gathering her thoughts. "Well, I suppose I could start by telling you a little bit more about my father. Papa was raised in River City, but he demonstrated such talent in music that he won a scholarship to study at the Conservatoire de Paris. While he was in Europe, he married a Frenchwoman."
Harold nodded; Marian had already told him this much. "As I recall, she died in childbirth?"
"Yes," she confirmed. "As did their child. Grief-stricken, Papa returned to America. He played with several touring orchestras over the next few years – he was a part of Theodore Thomas' touring orchestra when they came to Cincinnati in 1872. Papa liked Cincinnati so much that he settled there. In addition to playing with the newly formed Cincinnati Orchestra, he also taught music. In all his Iowan stubbornness, Papa was firmly resolved to remain a bachelor, but one day, ten years after he'd arrived to town, a young, high-spirited lass with the most beautiful red hair started to take piano lessons with him. She and her family had recently come over from Ireland."
Harold smiled. One lazy August afternoon, Mrs. Paroo had been in a nostalgic mood, and related this tale to him and Marian over a cool glass of lemonade.
Marian smiled as well. "They were married within three months. I was born a few years after and then later, Winthrop came along." Her expression turned grim. "But by then, Papa's health was starting to fail. He relinquished his teaching position and retired from what was now known as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. My father's old boyhood chum, Henry Madison, had been after him to come back to River City for years now. Papa had always declined but, wanting to make sure we were provided for, he accepted his best friend's invitation to relocate his family to River City. We came here in 1907. Mr. Madison paid for our moving expenses and, since Papa refused to take any more charity than that, he sold us one of his houses at a very reasonable price.
"Papa, being a native son, was welcomed back into the fold almost immediately. Though Mama missed Cincinnati a little, she was happy to live wherever Papa dwelled. Winthrop was only five – too young to have put down roots anywhere. In fact – and this was largely due to my dear father's efforts – he looked upon our move as a grand adventure."
Harold raised an eyebrow at her. "And what about you?"
Marian shook her head. "Even though my father was an Iowan, through and through, I had never set foot in this state. And as you're well aware, the River City-ziens don't take too kindly to strangers. Mama, of course, never let that bother her. She was always telling me I had to stop taking their brusqueness so much to heart, but I couldn't heed her advice. I missed my home; I had spent my whole life in Cincinnati, and couldn't comprehend the idea of living in any other place." She sighed. "Now I realize that if I had made more of an effort to be friendly, they would have eventually warmed to me. But even so, I don't have your winning ways, Harold."
"Oh now, Miss Marian, your ways are plenty winning," Harold chided. To prove his point, he deliberately caressed the diamond solitaire on her ring finger with his thumb.
"Well, in the end, I suppose it didn't matter how winning my ways were," she said sadly. "About a year after we arrived to town, I noticed people began to look at me with even more suspicion than usual. It wasn't until I accidentally overheard a conversation between Mrs. Shinn and her ladies that I realized they had come to unwarranted conclusions about my relationship with Mr. Madison." Her cheeks crimsoned.
"Ah, yes," Harold said, rolling his eyes. "Mrs. Shinn said he never had a friend in this town, till you came here."
"Oh, did she really?" Marian said indignantly. "That's pretty rich of her! Unlike Mr. Madison, Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn is not a native of River City. But I suppose by now, she's been here so long that no one would dream of calling her an outsider. And of course, when George Shinn brought her to town as his bride, no one dared snub the mayor's new wife."
Harold chuckled. "If Mr. Madison was a native of River City, then why did everyone dismiss him as a miser? Surely he would have had other friends in town."
"Like Papa, Mr. Madison also spent a good part of his life away from River City," Marian explained. "No one was exactly sure why he left, or what he did in the years while he was away. Obviously, he managed to amass a great deal of wealth in his travels. When he returned to town as an old man, most of his peers had passed away, and there were few who remembered he'd grown up here. And unlike Papa, Mr. Madison was a bit of a curmudgeon; too reserved even for the stoic Iowans." The indignant note crept back into her voice. "So they called him a miser, and never thought to question their initial impressions of him – not even after he left them his entire fortune!"
"In short, they treated Mr. Madison as badly as they treated you," Harold said shrewdly.
At his words, he saw that familiar spark of intense emotion in Marian's eyes. "It was a lot worse for me, Harold," she said in a quiet voice.
He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze; they were finally starting to get to the heart of the matter. "How so?" he prompted.
Marian lowered her gaze. "It is amazing, the things men will say to you, when they think you're a scarlet woman."
At this, Harold felt an unpleasant twinge. But even though her remark hit uncomfortably close to home, he kept his expression neutral. "Indeed," he concurred gravely.
"Before I came to River City, I dreamed of romance, of finding my white knight," Marian said wistfully. "I never knew men could be so vulgar… so base in their desires." Her expression hardened into the mask of coldness he had seen her wear the night he first met her. "I was a foolish, naïve girl. But I learned how to rebuff the men quickly enough. I resolved that no man would unsettle me – no matter what he said." She paused, and the mask cracked. "But there were some men who did more than talk."
Harold inhaled sharply, and tightened his grip on her hands. Unable to maintain his cool composure, he gazed at her with a horrified expression. He could have kicked himself for this blunder – Marian's eyes began to fill with tears again, and it took every ounce of self-control he possessed not to take her in his arms and kiss them away.
Harold took a deep breath and cleared his throat. "Please, go on," he said contritely.
Marian swallowed. "I'm not sure I can."
"You'll feel better once you finish – I promise." He gave her a meaningful look. "I always do."
She nodded, and the light in her eyes dulled as memory shrouded her gaze. "One summer afternoon about two-and-a-half years ago, Ed Griner came into the library. As most of the patrons had abandoned the building in favor of jollier warm-weather pursuits, I was busy reshelving books in the ancient history section… "
"Miss Marian," a husky, masculine voice whispered next to her ear.
So wrapped up in her task that she hadn't heard anyone approach, Marian jumped and turned. As her eyes came to rest on the tall, lanky frame of Ed Griner, she scowled. Would the man never cease using this tired old tactic to get near her? "May I help you?" she asked coolly.
Marian expected him to pepper her with his usual barrage of questions – anything to have the excuse to linger – but he only beamed at her. "You sure do look beautiful today."
Marian had never liked Ed Griner's smile – it always had the disquieting hint of a leer in it. Bringing herself up to her full height, she glared at the man and said in the most glacial voice she could muster, "Mr. Griner, if you are trying to flatter me, then you are wasting your time."
Normally, that would have been enough to put him off – at least for the time being. But today, he moved closer to her. "Miss Marian, I've wanted you since the day you came to town," he baldly confessed.
Normally, Marian wouldn't have hesitated to firmly and unequivocally tell him to leave her alone, but something about his manner gave her chills. When a telltale, pungent aroma drifted across her nose, she realized he had been drinking. Though Marian herself was a teetotaler, like any other upstanding River City-zien, she was well aware there were farmers who secretly brewed their own moonshine. Apparently, Mr. Griner was one of them.
So Marian resorted to her last, desperate ploy. "Mr. Griner," she said nonchalantly, as if nothing was amiss, "I must remind you that I have a fiancé back in Cincinnati."
But this time, he wasn't buying it. "If that's true, how come you never received a single letter from any man in all your time here?"
Marian was so stymied by this unusual demonstration of perceptiveness that she couldn't think of how to respond.
"Aha," he said triumphantly. "You think Ed Griner's an idiot, but he ain't." He scowled at her. "I've known all along you don't have no fiancé back in Cincinnati."
Gazing levelly at him, Marian tried to think of how best to extricate herself from this perilous situation. Unfortunately, Mr. Griner had her backed up against the wall, and the aisle was too narrow for her to easily slip past him. And she had the unpleasant hunch he wasn't about to let her leave that easily. So she decided to appeal to his sense of decency. "Then surely you must also know," she said politely but firmly, "that I am not interested in overtures from you, or any other man."
Mr. Griner's scowl deepened. "That's right, keep looking down your nose at me," he said bitterly. "None of us River City-ziens are good enough for the high-and-mighty librarian from Cincinnati." He looked appraisingly at her. "Except for Old Miser Madison."
Though that nagging little voice was urging her to remain calm, Marian lost her temper. "Mr. Griner! If you do not leave these premises at once, I shall call for Constable Locke to arrest you for public intoxication!"
As if he had been waiting for just such a provocation, Mr. Griner grabbed Marian by the arms and yanked her toward him. "Look, I know I ain't fit to so much as shine your shoes, but at least be kind enough to give me one of those kisses you give to him."
"What?" she breathed, horrified.
"I've seen you going and coming from his place at any and all hours," he said sullenly. "You spend far more time there than anyone ought to – especially a woman. Only one reason for that, now isn't there?" He gazed at her with pleading eyes. "I want you to kiss me. Just once, Miss Marian – so I'll have something to remember on those long, lonely nights when you're busy warming Mr. Madison's bed."
Marian gasped, and her cheeks crimsoned. "Mr. Griner!"
"Call me Ed," he whispered, and moved closer.
Marian struggled to free herself, but his grip on her was firm. As Mr. Griner leaned in, she raised her foot and delivered a sharp kick to his shin. When he groaned and reeled backward, Marian seized her chance to escape. Pushing past him, she bolted out of the aisle, tore down the spiral staircase and fled from the library.
"He didn't follow me, thank heavens," Marian said shakily. "But even so, I kept running. When I finally stopped, I was in the middle of a cornfield – much like this one. Only it was summer, so I was surrounded by a sea of green stalks. I remained there for quite awhile, attempting to come to terms with what had just happened. Despite all the leers, wolf whistles and suggestive remarks, no man had ever dared to accost me in such a manner. Mr. Griner's actions were quite the shock – even though he'd pursued me before, he'd never been so bold in his behavior." She paused and took a deep breath to steady herself. "Once I had regained my composure, I returned to the library – "
Harold couldn't remain silent any longer. "Wait a minute," he interrupted. "What do you mean, you returned to the library?"
Marian looked perplexed. "Just what I said."
Harold's eyes narrowed. "You mean to tell me that you returned to the library alone and unaccompanied" – his voice shook with barely contained anger – "after everything that had happened?"
"Yes," she said resolutely.
He goggled at her. "Marian, how could you have been so foolhardy?"
"What would you have had me do, Harold?" she snapped.
Harold's response was immediate. "Well, inform Constable Locke, for starters!"
"Yes, he would have upheld his duty as an officer of the law, and promptly arrested Mr. Griner," Marian said grimly. "But was that really the wisest course of action? Once the news got out, it would have put me at the center of another scandal, another firestorm of rumors. And who would ever believe that the scarlet woman was accosted? It was difficult enough to live down the Mr. Madison rumors; I did not want another black mark against my name."
Even though he realized the sad truth of Marian's words, Harold simply could not accept it. "But to let Mr. Griner's actions go unpunished – "
"Of course, if Mr. Griner had tried to accost me again in such a manner, I would have been obliged to seek out the constable," she conceded. "Fortunately, I never had to resort to such drastic action. After that day, it was a long time before Mr. Griner showed his face in the library again. I daresay he was ashamed of his behavior, once he came to his senses."
As much as Harold loved Marian's strong sense of independence, at times it made him heartsick. "The constable might not have reached you in time," he said ominously.
A shiver shook her slender frame at his words, and Marian gazed at him with stricken eyes. "You don't think I thought of that, Harold?" she asked, anguished. "That's all I could think about. Each step I took, each step that brought me closer to where it happened, was agony – I felt like I was going to my doom. Believe me, if hadn't had to go back there, I never would have. But I didn't have a choice. Mama and Winthrop were depending on me for support. So I returned to the library, took my place at the front desk, and went about my business as if nothing had happened.
"But inside, I was terrified. The library had once been my refuge; now it was a sinister prison. A prison with too many hiding places, too many nooks and crannies. Who knew what danger lurked in some dim corner? When I was alone, especially at night, I'd flinch at every shadow, jump at every creaking noise. I didn't start to feel secure again until a month had passed without incident. Even now, I avoid the ancient history section as much as I possibly can."
Harold knew he should demonstrate restraint, especially when she was in such a fragile, vulnerable state, but he couldn't help himself; he reached out and pulled Marian into his arms. To his amazement, she eagerly nestled into his embrace. As he held her tightly, protectively, her shuddering ceased and she let out a deep sigh of contentment, as if, at long last, she had come home.
But even though Marian had finally calmed, Harold couldn't shake the sense of dread her story inspired within him; the idea that she had suffered such a torturous, fearful existence was too much to bear. "The next time I see Ed Griner, I'm going to give him a piece of my mind," he said hotly.
Marian pulled away from him with a weary sigh. "I knew you'd react this way," she said, shaking her head.
"How do you expect me to react?" Harold asked in disbelief.
She gave him a flattered but exasperated smile. "Darling, I love that you want to be my white knight, and defend my honor, but it's really not necessary. Once I regained my sense of perspective, I realized that Mr. Griner was more deserving of pity than censure. He's an awkward, plain-looking man with few social graces; women have always shunned him. What could possibly be gained by confronting him now? Leaving him to his lonely existence is punishment enough."
Harold had to admit she was probably right. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he spoke. "Forgive me, Marian. I just can't stand the thought of anyone treating you that way."
Marian's smile widened. "Harold, ever since you came to town and made it quite clear you intended to pursue the librarian, no man has dared to be anything but polite to me. I imagine the thought of getting on Professor Hill's bad side must have given them quite a bit of pause!"
Hearing the confident satisfaction in her words, Harold could no longer conceal the guilt that had been pricking at him as she revealed this part of her past. "But Marian, my intentions were no purer than any of those other men's."
"I know," Marian acknowledged. She lightly pressed her diamond solitaire into his palm. "And yet, all these months later, you're still by my side. I can't tell you how much it meant to me, when I saw you bounding across the cornfield with my coat."
With a shaky, relieved grin, Harold lifted Marian's hand to his lips and kissed the ring on her finger. "Well, what kind of man would I be, if I abandoned my wife-to-be in her time of need?"
Her expression grew solemn. "If anyone had ever told me I was going to be this happy, on that awful day two-and-a-half years ago, I wouldn't have believed it. I could no longer take refuge in such dreams. There was no white knight, no hero to rescue me." Marian gave him a sidelong glance. "The only person standing in that cornfield was a foolish librarian who'd had one infatuation too many."
Silence fell as Harold pondered the significance of her words. "Marian," he said, awed, "were you in love with Mr. Madison?"
She looked deeply ashamed. "Growing up, I had always mooned over someone – the trolley runner, the principal of the high school, my music teacher. And when I came to River City, I was so lonely. Especially after Papa died. My only friends were a despondent boy and a well-meaning but prosaic woman – I was starved for intellectual discourse. I visited Mr. Madison almost every day, and we'd talk, sometimes for hours. He was the only person with whom I could have a good conversation; we discussed Shakespeare, Chaucer, Rabelais – "
" – and Balzac?" Harold finished with a smile.
Marian smiled as well. "Especially Balzac. I knew I should have exercised more restraint – there came a point when even Mama warned me I shouldn't visit so often. But by then, he was dying. And how could I let the man I loved spend his last days alone? Oh – nothing untoward ever happened between us," she was quick to add. "Uncle Maddy only ever loved me as a man loves his niece – as is proper and fitting. And I never let on that I felt anything but an avuncular affection in return… " She trailed off and gazed at her fiancé with an apprehensive expression, as if she was uncertain of what effect this new knowledge would have on his regard for her.
Harold immediately took her hands in his. "Marian, even if it turned out you did have an affair with Mr. Madison, I would still want to marry you," he said earnestly. "I once told you I'd be in your corner, whatever happened. And I meant it, with all my heart."
Marian looked at him with shining eyes. "Oh Harold," she said wonderingly, "what have I done to deserve you?"
Harold caught her in a fierce hug. "I should be the one asking that question," he whispered into her hair. "Not a day goes by that I don't wonder what made a lovely young woman like you give her generous and loving heart to a fellow sixteen years her senior – and a scoundrel, at that!"
"Every man I've ever had feelings for has always been at least ten years older than me," she shyly admitted. "I never had any use for boys my age. They only cared about prosaic things, and they'd express their regard in infantile ways. I can't tell you how many times I came home from school with India ink staining the ends of my pigtails."
Harold grinned, recalling the times he had engaged in similar mischief as a boy. "If I had sat behind a pretty little gal like you in school, I would have been sorely tempted, myself," he teased. "But I did eventually outgrow such foolishness, my dear," he added when Marian shot a look at him.
She smiled ruefully. "Well, in any case, I suppose my head was too filled with images of Lancelots and Romeos and Scarlet Pimpernels to settle for the mere sons of farmers. But even when I did realize how ridiculously lofty my expectations were, I still preferred an older man, a man who knew something of the world. It's been my experience that older men tend to be more sophisticated and mature" – her eyes twinkled with mischief – "at least, some of the time."
Harold chuckled. "Oh, you'll pay for that," he teasingly scolded. Unwinding his arm from around her waist, he waved his fingers at her in a menacing tickling gesture.
Giggling like a girl, Marian slipped out of his embrace and hastened away. Letting out a giddy laugh himself, Harold tripped along behind her and caught her around the waist. When he turned her to face him, she relaxed into his arms. And when he leaned in to claim his victory with several hearty, playful kisses to her cheeks and neck, she joyfully welcomed his advances. For Harold, there was no sweeter delight than these brief intervals when Marian surrendered to levity, and he looked forward to a future filled with similarly pleasant moments.
But what had started out as a lighthearted romp in the cornfield soon developed into something far more serious. Leaving his right hand still wrapped firmly around her waist, Harold brought his left upward to gently stroke her cheek. He felt a small shiver run through Marian as their eyes met, and the laughter in her gaze melted into desire. Impulsively, Harold leaned in to kiss her again. But this time he went slowly, his lips lightly tracing their way from her temple to her throat, leaving a delicate trail of goose bumps in their wake.
By now, Harold's rational mind had caught up to his actions, and it was warning him he'd better stop this now, before things got too heated. But when Marian's breathing quickened into soft, shuddery sighs that made his pulse begin to race as fast as hers, he found himself returning his lips to her temple and repeating his ministrations. And this time, he worked his way down the curve of her neck with languid, open-mouthed kisses.
Lingering briefly at the base of her throat to drink in her sweet scent, Harold glanced up at Marian to gauge her reaction. After what happened between them at the music emporium in early October, he had not allowed his lips to brush her neck even in the briefest of caresses. Her earlier scolding about containing his ardor until their wedding day rang unpleasantly in his ears, and Harold wondered if perhaps he had gone too far, too soon.
But Marian still stood frozen in a rapt daze, eyes half closed, cheeks flushed, her breath coming in small gasps. "Oh, Harold… " she said softly, the tantalizing hint of a moan in her voice.
If ever there was a man who could resist hearing his name spoken in such a way, a loving caress framed by such captivating crimson lips, Harold was certainly not that fellow. "Marian," he whispered hoarsely, his voice filled with the same heated longing. His mouth descended over hers and he kissed her deeply, passionately. Marian wrapped her arms around his neck and, as she lazily raked her fingers through his hair, Harold let out a small groan and pulled her closer. As he pressed against her, she clung tightly to him, kissing him like she never wanted to let him go.
Somewhere in the torrent of emotion flooding his senses, Harold was dimly aware that he was going to have to bring an end to this far sooner than he preferred. It was extremely dangerous for them to continue on the path they were headed down; isolated as they were out here, it was all too easy to surrender to passion without interruption. Yet that stark remoteness also proved to be Harold's saving grace: As much as he ached to make love to Marian, the idea of consummating their relationship on the cold, hard ground of a barren mid-November cornfield was too tawdry to seriously contemplate.
With that thought in mind, he finally – if regretfully – ended their kiss. As Harold gazed fondly at the woman he loved – the woman he was going to marry – he reflected that the next two weeks couldn't go by fast enough. And he could see from the longing in her eyes that she felt exactly the same way.
With a wistful sigh and tender smile, Harold let go of Marian and took her hand in his. "Well, Madam Librarian, what say I walk you home? Your mother is sure to have lunch waiting, and then you can give me the latest news on our wedding. I understand there's been quite a frenzy of discussion over the color of the table linens for the reception."
Marian laughed, and Harold was delighted to hear the carefree merriness in her voice once more. "That was last week's heated debate," she informed him as they started to make their way toward West Elm. "This week, the issue of contention is music. The members of the Events Committee are having difficulty coming to a consensus on the hymns for the ceremony… "