All my joys are due to thee,
as souls unbodied,
bodies unclothed must be,
to taste whole joys.
John Donne, 1669
One Saturday evening in mid-December, Marian Paroo Hill arrived home from the library to find her husband sleeping soundly on the parlor sofa, with their infant daughters cradled in his arms. Even with a fire merrily burning away in the fireplace, the evening air was still chilly; the librarian was pleased to note that Penny and Elly were bundled in appropriately warm and snug attire – and not so pleased to see Harold reclined merely in his shirtsleeves. In addition to a suit-coat, he was also missing his usual dapper bowtie, and the top button of his collar was unfastened. A few loose curls draped over his forehead charmingly completed the tableau of a devoted father and his content daughters.
Although she was quite tired and longed for nothing more than to fall into bed herself, Marian couldn't help pausing for a moment and smiling at her slumbering family – as well as at the reassuring reminder that fatherhood brought its share of exhaustion. For even after Penny and Elly were born, the bombastic music professor still displayed the same boundless energy and vivacious spirit as he always had. With his affinity for and experience with children, Professor Hill displayed a talent for parenthood that made Marian envious; Harold's wonderful knack with their daughters occasionally caused her to wonder if she was living up to the duties and responsibilities of motherhood. Certainly, Penny and Elly's gazes followed their mother whenever she was in the room, and the infants nestled against her in a way they never did to any other woman who held them. But when the twins were ill or extremely cranky, only Harold could settle them down – at any rate, he seemed to have a much easier time of soothing the girls than she did.
Although Marian had convinced the library's board of trustees to hire an assistant for her – the young, perky, always-helpful and perhaps slightly overeager Jane Edna Peabody – she still wondered if three days a week at the library were too much time away from her daughters. The librarian had already relinquished her role as the music emporium's bookkeeper and secretary – when Dr. Pyne had placed her on bed rest last October, she and Harold agreed this would be the wisest course of action, at least for the time being.
But even though Marian had carefully crafted a plan that allowed her to meet all of her familial obligations, she still underestimated how exhausting it was to be a new mother. If it wasn't for the fact that her own mother and brother depended on the income from her library position, she might have seriously considered reassessing whether or not it would be in her growing family's best interests for her to maintain her position as River City's librarian. It didn't help matters that a few of the more narrow-minded townspeople muttered that she spent more time outside the home than was decent for a woman with two infants. Although the librarian knew just why this spiteful gossip had arisen – in the course of determining her priorities, she had been forced to resign from a committee or two and end her involvement in a few causes, which caused some resentment – the notion she was being inadvertently neglectful did grate on her conscience. Fortunately, her true friends understood the reasons behind her actions, and did not question her or second-guess her decisions. The ladies of the Events Committee in particular were surprisingly kind and reassuring – but perhaps that was largely because they were one of the few groups with whom she was still active. And Harold – Marian's truest friend of all – never displayed an iota of impatience when her obligations meant he had to attend to their daughters in her stead.
Indeed, Harold demonstrated the same endless forbearance with her as he always had. Although Marian did not suffer any undue complications during her labor, giving birth to two babies at once had certainly affected her physical form. As her body recovered from childbirth, she hadn't wanted anything more than kisses and gentle caresses from her husband – and there were often times she was so exhausted and out of sorts that she simply wanted to be left alone. But even when she was less than polite in her behavior, Harold responded to her snappishness with the utmost tenderness and concern, and seemed content merely to follow her lead when it came to bestowing affection.
Even though Marian was grateful to have such an understanding husband, she knew that, as carnal a man as he was, he must miss making love to her. Even in her discomfort and fatigue, she missed him as well – they had not made love since late August. However, although Dr. Pyne had confirmed during her appointment with him a week ago that she was now fully healed – in fact, he had expressed slight surprise that a woman who had borne twins recovered so quickly from the ravages of childbirth – she still hadn't told her husband the news. Dreaming about lovemaking was one thing, but actually engaging in it was a much different matter. With her usual bluntness, Marian's mother had informed her that marital relations could prove somewhat painful and difficult, at least in the beginning. At that, the librarian felt a similar twinge of nervousness as she had when contemplating her and Harold's wedding night. As much pleasure as she had experienced when consummating their union, the aftereffects had taken some getting used to – and this was when she was at her fittest. She certainly didn't feel up to dealing with such unpleasantness when she was still physically and emotionally adjusting to her new role as a mother.
But Marian still couldn't help yearning for her husband's touch – especially now that she knew precisely what she was missing. Upon coming home from the library and seeing the charming scene of her husband tenderly holding their daughters in his arms, she felt an intense wave of desire she had not experienced in quite some time. Suddenly, her exhaustion and apprehension fell away, and she wanted Harold terribly.
Kneeling before her husband, Marian leaned in – carefully, so as not to wake Penny or Elly – and gave him a gentle kiss.
Harold's eyes fluttered open. "Marian?" he asked, his voice hoarse with sleep.
She smiled and nodded, moving in for another kiss. This time, he tilted his head to better meet her lips with his. But when their noses brushed together, Marian flinched and pulled away. "Darling – you're like ice!" she chided. "How long have you been lying around in your shirtsleeves?"
Harold grinned sheepishly. "I'm not sure – what time is it now?"
"Seven minutes after eight," the librarian informed him in a somewhat stern voice. She moved to take Penny and Elly into her arms, the disturbance causing the infants to open their eyes and gaze around in confusion.
"I suppose a half hour, then – last I looked at a clock, it was around seven thirty," her husband replied, rubbing his eyes and stretching his arms over his head before standing up and heading over to the fireplace.
Marian tutted as she rocked her whimpering daughters back into a complacent lull. "What happened to your suit-coat?"
"You mean your favorite gingham monstrosity?" Harold teased, lifting his jacket off the arm of his wingback chair. "Penny and Elly got a bit overenthusiastic as I was tending to them after their dinner. My shoulders got the brunt of it, but my bowtie also suffered some damage. How they missed my collar, I'll never know... oh good, it dried out quite nicely, and didn't leave a stain!"
The librarian repressed a giggle as he slid into his suit-coat. "Oh, Harold," she admonished, an indulgent note creeping into her voice. "Why didn't you protect yourself with a cloth?"
"I did," he said, chagrined. "Everything soaked clear through!"
Marian grew concerned, and examined her daughters closely. Their color was decent and they felt neither too warm nor too cool to the touch, but they did seem unusually listless and lethargic this evening. "Hmm, that seems a bit excessive, even after a feeding – are the girls sick?"
"I wondered that, myself," Harold replied. "After rinsing my coat and tie and changing the girls into fresh clothes, I thought it best to keep an eye on them for a little while. Once we all got settled on the sofa, they drifted right to sleep – and I soon joined them!"
Marian frowned. "Perhaps they ate too much, or too quickly?"
"They ate no more or differently than usual," Harold promptly assured her, sounding the slightest bit defensive. "But their appetites are always healthy – you know that."
"I know," the librarian said understandingly. She hadn't meant to sound so accusing, but her frustration had gotten the better of her. Circumstances made it impossible for her to nurse her daughters for their every meal – another reason she regretted having to work outside the home. "Harold, I don't know what I'd do without you… you do a wonderful job of looking after the girls."
The dark cloud hanging over Harold's brow disappeared, and he walked over and wrapped his arms around his wife's waist. "So do you," he reassured her, dropping a kiss on her neck. "You do a wonderful job looking after us all."
Tears pricked at the corners of Marian's eyes. Even a few months after having given birth, she was still prone to crying over the silliest things. "I do?" she whispered.
She felt him nod against her. "No wife, mother, daughter or sister could be more devoted to her family. Our girls want for nothing, Marian. Neither do I. Nor do your mother and Winthrop. I don't know what any of us would do without you, my dear little librarian."
Now would have been the perfect time for Marian to inform Harold what Dr. Pyne told her about her health. But Penny shifted in her mother's arms and let out a cry – and the librarian's blouse was soiled. A moment later, Elly also awoke and followed suit.
"The girls are sick," Marian said guiltily. "I knew I should have come home earlier!"
As the librarian dealt with the cleanup and ensured Penny and Elly were made as comfortable as possible, Harold phoned Dr. Pyne. Fortunately, as the infants had no fever or other worrisome symptoms, the good doctor's hunch was that it was probably just a stronger-than-usual reaction to their last meal. His advice was to keep a close eye on the girls and, if they grew worse during the night, he would come out to take a look.
Although Harold sounded relieved as he related this information to Marian, her sense of guilt only increased, and her eyes remained riveted to Penny and Elly as they lay sleeping in their crib. She ought to have known it wasn't wise to nurse only part of the time! Her poor daughters' digestive systems were probably too delicate to handle such variety at their extremely young age. "We should probably stick to nursing," she told her husband, trying to keep her voice steady. "I can rearrange my schedule to be home for feedings – "
"You will do no such thing," Harold said firmly. He placed his hands on her shoulders and led her out of the nursery. "The girls could just have easily had the same reaction to nursing – I asked. Dr. Pyne says these things do happen, and there's no reason to take drastic action just yet."
"But they need me," Marian protested, even as she allowed her husband to lead her to their bedroom.
"So does the rest of your family," Harold reminded her. "Even if we could provide for your mother and brother on my salary alone, I'd never let you give up the library. You wouldn't be happy without it."
Marian burst into tears. Harold was right – he was always right, when it came to her. If she had borne employment entirely for her family's sake, she wouldn't have felt so conflicted about the matter. But she loved her library, and couldn't help being selfishly grateful that she had such an iron-clad reason not to relinquish her position.
Harold brought Marian to a halt and took her in his arms, simply holding her as she confessed her fears about being a terrible and neglectful mother. It wasn't until she had cried herself out that he spoke.
"Darling, the only thing you are is tired and overwrought," he said gently. "A mother's presence can't prevent every illness and upset. The girls will be right as rain tomorrow; they simply need a good night's sleep. And so do you."
Her sensible nature reasserting itself, Marian nodded at Harold's sound advice and pulled out a handkerchief to dry her cheeks. When husband and wife reached their bedroom, Harold insisted on helping her into her nightclothes. As he did so, the librarian was reminded of all the times in their marriage he had demonstrated similar care and concern – their second night after marriage and the evening she first suffered the nausea of being with child stood out in particular – and she remembered her earlier desire. So once they were both comfortably ensconced in their bed, Marian leaned over and whispered into her husband's ear that he wasn't the only one who had been lucky enough to receive good news from Dr. Pyne.
At first, she thought Harold had fallen asleep, as he didn't move or even twitch. Resigned, Marian retreated to her side of the bed, but she had barely gotten herself settled when her husband turned toward her and captured her mouth in a heated kiss.
"Oh Marian," he moaned, "I've been looking forward to the day you'd tell me this… I've missed you so much… "
"I know," she breathed, delighting as his hands roamed feverishly over her curves and his lips bathed her face with eager kisses. "I'm so sorry for keeping you waiting… "
"Waiting? I wasn't expecting you to tell me so soon!" her husband said happily, before falling silent and resuming his passionate explorations of her body. But when his hands discovered her breasts, Marian's sighs of pleasure ceased and she let out an anguished cry.
Harold immediately halted his ministrations. "Darling, are you all right?" he asked, alarmed.
Marian bit her lip in an attempt to stifle her pain. "I'm fine," she reassured him. Although her husband's touch had been gentle as ever, nursing two babies had taken its toll; she was always sore, these days.
"I shouldn't have been so enthusiastic," he said apologetically, withdrawing his hands to her waist.
She shook her head. "I should have warned you."
Their eyes met. "Are you sure you're up to this, tonight?" Harold asked in a low voice.
Marian gazed steadily at her husband, and nodded.
Although their lips met once more and her husband resumed his caresses – this time taking care to avoid certain areas – the heated urgency was no longer present between them. Harold moved so slowly that Marian began to grow impatient, and thought seriously about tossing caution to the wind and boldly taking the lead. But when her husband stilled in her arms and began to snore, she realized with a start that she wasn't the only one who had grown tired of their prelude to lovemaking. When Marian wriggled out of his embrace, he barely stirred. Clearly, she wasn't the only one in need of a good night's sleep!
But as Harold slumbered away, oblivious to the world, Marian's eyes remained firmly open, and she stared blankly into the darkness as she ruminated on their predicament. Ever since the birth of the twins, her and her husband's world had centered on them. Before Penny and Elly were born, the librarian and the music professor had solemnly promised each other they wouldn't turn into the kind of boring parents who talked only of their children, but now it looked like they were doomed – at least for the time being – to be a father and mother more than a husband and wife. They were both utterly enamored with their daughters – their thoughts and conversations usually turned to the little marvels they had created. Marian had always enjoyed the company of children, and they gravitated to her in return; she often felt more like a mother to Winthrop than a sister. But it was an entirely different matter when the children were her own. Even Marian hadn't been prepared for the sheer intensity of the love and devotion she felt when she heard, saw, held or even just thought of her dear little Penelope Anne and Elinor Jane.
Although the librarian's mother was just as thrilled about the newest additions to the family, even her enthusiasm occasionally waned long enough to attempt to change the subject. Just a few days earlier, Mrs. Paroo had asked how she and Harold were doing – a question Marian attempted to dodge by chattering on at length how wonderful he was with the girls and how he had taken to fatherhood as naturally as a duck takes to water. Mrs. Paroo then turned a little more direct and asked how they were doing as a couple. A little embarrassed and thinking her mother was worrying needlessly, Marian laughed and said they were just fine. And at the time, she had sincerely meant her assurances. Thankfully, Mrs. Paroo smiled as if she realized she was fighting a losing battle and, with a little shrug, let the conversation move back to Penny and Elly's latest brilliant exploits.
But there had been a few things lingering beneath the surface, things Marian hadn't fully realized were there – until tonight. Now that the babies were here, Harold no longer talked to her stomach, and – as much as it had irritated her at times – she missed it. He still occasionally ran his hands over her curves, but her stomach had ceased to be special. Not that Marian was having too much trouble losing the extra weight after her pregnancy – she had always tended toward thinness – but carrying twins had wrought a noticeable change in her physique. Although her corset kept things controlled and enabled her to present the illusion of a trim waist to the world, when she took off her undergarments, she realized just how dependent her hourglass silhouette had become on them for support. As a result, she had taken to avoiding standing before mirrors too long when she was unclothed, lest she glimpse something that spoiled her bliss. The librarian had always taken a certain amount of pride in her appearance, but she had never considered herself a vain woman, and it was disquieting to realize just how much she had enjoyed having an effortlessly pert, slender figure.
At first, it was easy to dismiss and ignore these concerns – Marian's great joy blotted out such insignificant anxieties, as did the time and energy demands of being a mother of two energetic infants. But when both her husband and babies were sound asleep and the house was dark and quiet, Marian had several hours to ruminate on old insecurities she thought becoming a mother had put to rest for good. Even though Harold had seemed eager enough to resume their intimacy, he hadn't suggested turning on the lights. At the time, she had been relieved, but now she wondered if it meant something ominous. Perhaps he was no longer capable of responding as passionately to the sight of her semi-clothed form – at least, not the way he used to…
After revealing the news of her pregnancy to her husband on that warm night in early May, Marian suggested taking a stroll to the footbridge to celebrate. Although Harold initially expressed reservations – suppose they were unlucky enough to come across another nausea-inducing odor on the wind? – he accepted her invitation when she reassured him that this time, she'd remember to take her lavender sachet along. In truth, Marian would much rather have gone upstairs with her husband but, as he refused to put her health in danger, she thought a walk in public would help cool their ardor.
However, going to the footbridge only exacerbated their longing for each other. By the time the music professor and the librarian reached their destination, Tommy, Zaneeta, and all the other teenage canoodlers had long returned to their homes. As it was nearly ten o'clock, even the older couples had been sensible enough to retire for the night. So even though they were in public, husband and wife were even more alone than usual in this already-secluded place. With only the ethereal moonlight and delicate spring blossoms as witnesses, Harold and Marian shared an ardent embrace in their favorite romantic spot.
It was just after midnight when the happily dazed couple finally returned home, but neither husband nor wife's appetite for passion was sated; as soon as the front door closed behind them, they wrapped their arms around each other and picked up right where they had left off. They stood together like that for quite awhile, until Harold hesitantly but definitively ended things.
"It's late – we need to go to bed."
Marian let out an impish laugh. "Do we indeed, Professor Hill?"
He gave her a crooked smile. "I meant we need to go to sleep, Madam Librarian."
"Of course, darling," she concurred, although she arched her eyebrow at him. When her husband took her by the hand and led her upstairs at a sedate and respectable pace, the librarian decided to play along, and did not attempt to nuzzle against him. There would be plenty of time for such affection later.
But it seemed Harold was serious in his stated intention of simply going to sleep; the moment their bedroom door was shut, he let go of Marian, marched right over to the armoire and threw it open. As he undressed, he kept his gaze resolutely away from where his wife was standing.
Marian quickly realized that if they were going to make love, she was going to have to take matters into her own hands. Normally, she would never have been so bold, but she knew if she didn't take the lead, nothing would happen between them tonight – or any other night in the foreseeable future. For all her husband's concern about her delicacy, she felt fine – in fact, after successfully weathering several weeks of nausea and fatigue, she felt downright wonderful. Any lingering maidenly hesitancy Marian might have felt in proceeding was overwhelmed by sheer desire. Right now, she wanted nothing more than her husband's caresses; she was positively starving for them.
Assessing Harold's position, Marian easily thwarted his evasive maneuver by standing in the reflection of the full-length mirror on the inside of the armoire's door. As her husband determinedly stared at his own image while donning his nightclothes, the librarian slowly and deliberately began to remove her lingerie frock. As she undressed, she met Harold's eyes in the mirror at several intervals, giving him that sly smile and sideways glance she knew drove him wild.
It wasn't long before the besotted music professor halted in his actions, his gaze now riveted to her half-naked body. Likewise, Marian froze and held his look with a heated one of her own.
Harold blinked and returned to his evening ablutions with a smile. "If you keep doing that, Madam Librarian, I'm not going to be able to refrain from taking you in my arms," he warned her.
"That's what I was aiming for, Professor Hill," she said mischievously, letting the last of her garments float seductively to the ground.
He whirled around to face her. "Marian," he protested, his voice strangled, "if you keep this up, I'm going to have to sleep on the couch!"
Her eyes widening in alarm, Marian paused in her posing and goggled at her husband. "Harold – do you really mean to tell me you're planning on waiting until late autumn to make love to me again?"
A tense silence fell between them as Harold regarded her with chagrined eyes. "Can't say I thought of it that way," he admitted. "I was planning on taking things one day at a time… "
Seizing her opportunity, Marian walked over and wrapped her arms around him. "Well, Professor Hill," she said in a low, throaty voice, "I'm not planning on waiting until the next morning – let alone six months!"
"But your health… " he replied – although he was starting to sound as if he desperately wanted to be talked out of his noble decision.
Marian was more than happy to comply. "I feel perfectly fine," she reassured her husband in a gentle, persuasive voice. "Although there is my condition to consider, I'm only in the beginning of my fourth month." Even now, she couldn't help blushing a little as she added, "Dr. Pyne assured me that we have done no harm in the past few months – he said that most newly-married women don't even realize what's occurring until the baby quickens. As I have a little ways to go before that happens, I think we can safely conclude that, as long as we're careful, we can still satisfy our passion. When our baby does quicken, then we can renew our discussions about what would be best for my health. But it's still early days for me yet."
Although the music professor relaxed a little in her arms, he still hesitated, and gazed at her with a sorely conflicted expression.
The librarian lightly but insistently brushed her hips against his. "I need you, Harold," she softly entreated.
Harold laid his hand on Marian's still-flat stomach. "Until the baby quickens," he agreed, and covered her lips in a passionate kiss.
Although Marian had gradually grown more confident in the bedroom since her wedding night, that evening in May was the first time she seduced her husband outright. But it hadn't been the last. Even after Dr. Pyne reassured Harold of the old adage that all things were fine in moderation, the music professor remained somewhat more reserved in his ardor than normal, preferring to follow his wife's lead lest his vigorous enthusiasm inadvertently cause damage to her or the baby.
As well as providing a lovely and reassuring reminiscence of Harold's strong desire for her, the memory of that evening gave Marian an idea. Christmas was less than two weeks away and, after last year's gift extravaganza, she hadn't known what to get for her husband. But now she had the perfect present in mind. Smiling mischievously as she formulated her plans, the librarian finally drifted into a deep, satisfying sleep.
However, when Marian awoke early the next morning to attend to the twins, she was perturbed to find herself alone in bed and, from the heavy silence permeating the atmosphere, it sounded like she was alone in the house as well. It was awfully early for Harold to be up and about – and stranger still for him to have left for the emporium without waking her up to give her a good-morning kiss.
Before the librarian could ruminate for too long on this disquieting state of affairs, the cantankerous cries of two hungry babies pierced the air. Ignoring her apprehensions for the time being, Marian hastened to the nursery and focused her attentions on nursing her daughters. Thankfully, they seemed to have gotten over whatever malaise had plagued them the night before, and received their morning meal with as much energy as ever. After a few hours of carefully monitoring Penny and Elly's digestion, the librarian finally relaxed when her vigil proved uneventful.
When Harold came home for lunch, he didn't speak of what had happened last night, or even give a reason why he felt the need to rise so early. However, in her haste to show him that the twins were indeed right as rain, Marian did not notice this omission until after the music professor had bid his wife and happily gurgling daughters goodbye and returned to the emporium for the afternoon. Having their hands full with Penny and Elly, it was all too easy to overlook – or outright ignore – such situations.
But later that evening, when the house was quiet and husband and wife were once again comfortably ensconced in their bed, Harold still did not mention lovemaking – bungled or otherwise. So Marian pretended everything was all right, too, and they exchanged nothing but a chaste kiss before turning over to go to sleep. Once again, the librarian lay awake for several hours, this time trying not to think as she listened to her husband's steady, deep breathing – obviously he was untroubled by recent events! There could only be two reasons why this would be the case: either he had reassumed his earlier caution out of concern for her well-being, or his attraction to her was waning. Or perhaps, said a wry voice in her mind, he's simply exhausted, and long ago dismissed last night as amusing and not worth dwelling on to this extent!
Once again finding solace in the memory of that heated May night, Marian rallied her usual determined spirit and ultimately came to the conclusion that she would proceed with her Christmas gift. If Harold was indeed too cautious to make a move, her present to him would certainly remedy that situation. If his hesitancy wasn't born solely of concern for her health – well, it was better to find out for sure than to live in perpetual denial.
The only thing left now was for Marian to determine what she was going to wear for the occasion. As she could no longer don the latest fashions with her usual ease, she needed guidance, and she wasn't sure where to turn for it. The librarian longed to ask Ethel for advice on slimming undergarments, but out of her innate sense of modesty, fear of being laughed at and concern that she would inadvertently cause insult, she initially refrained from saying anything at all. But as Ethel just recently discovered she was pregnant, the two women had started to spend a fair amount of time together; Ethel often sought counsel from Marian, which the librarian was always happy to provide. So the women had grown close enough that Ethel soon surmised what was going on – why else would she have begun to casually point out certain pieces of pretty lingerie she admired in Jeakins Women's Wear and catalogs?
A few days before Christmas, Marian finally found the perfect ensemble – a gorgeous crimson satin camisole and drawer set trimmed with delicate white lace. At first, she had thought to wear something a little more constricting, but realized it might prove too much of a letdown when she ultimately removed the garments. Something that softened rather than accentuated her curves and made her roundness appear alluring would work better – indeed, those were the types of undergarments Ethel showed her. When Marian purchased her lingerie and tried it on in front of the armoire's mirror, she was quite pleased with the results. If Harold could resist her in this, she had a problem that no amount of pretty clothes or pristine waists could fix!
Last year, Harold had secretly decorated the parlor for the holidays. This year, Marian decided turnabout was fair play. But with a clever husband who immediately knew a scheme when he saw one and two energetic infants who required constant attention, it was going to take some careful planning to succeed in keeping at her plans under wraps. Certainly, it wouldn't be a complete surprise that she was up to something, but the librarian was determined that her husband would be at least a little delighted by his present.
So after the conclusion of their delectable dinner on Christmas Eve, Marian sent Harold upstairs to put the twins to bed – giving him strict instructions not to venture back down to the parlor until seven o'clock. It was only around five thirty now, but she needed the time to prepare. Giving his wife a knowing grin, the music professor picked up their daughters and departed without protest.
As it turned out, Marian required only an hour to get the parlor ready. By the time six thirty rolled around, she had built a roaring fire, assembled several blankets and pillows into a warm and cozy bed on the floor, and adorned her makeshift love nest with several sprigs of mistletoe. After she was satisfied all was in place, she retired to the music room to change into the ensemble she had selected for the occasion.
When Harold descended the stairs promptly after the parlor clock chimed seven times, Marian's heart gave a pleasant little flip-flop when she saw she wasn't the only one who had dressed for the occasion. Her husband was wearing that elegant forest-green velour robe of his, and beneath it he had on her favorite pair of brown silk pajamas. This was the first time this winter he had donned either of these garments; as the weather had been especially cold this year, he had kept to wearing his warmer and more utilitarian flannel nightclothes.
Marian's joy only increased when, upon seeing the festive state of the parlor and his wife in her fancy new lingerie, Harold stopped in his tracks and said in a voice of quiet awe, "I think I'm overdressed for the occasion!"
While the librarian surrendered to the urge to giggle, her husband lost no time in removing his nightclothes. As she admired the way his bare skin gleamed in the light of the flickering flames, Harold turned a lamp on and approached her with a grin.
Marian's smile faltered. "Why the light?" she asked, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. She had purposely set the scene to present her beauty at its best and, in one quick motion, he had dismantled her carefully-crafted atmosphere.
"I want to be able to see the present I'm unwrapping," Harold replied in his low, velvety voice. Before she could protest, his lips were on hers, and his hands had found their way beneath her camisole. Intoxicated by her husband's kisses and caresses – oh, how she had missed them! – the librarian melted into his embrace. But when her husband began to unlace her camisole, she gasped and backed away.
"Taking things a bit quickly, aren't we?" Marian admonished. As Harold gaped at her, she went over and extinguished the lamp.
"Marian, what's going on?" her husband asked quietly. Even in the dim light of the flames, the hurt and bewilderment in his eyes was clearly visible. "Why won't you let me look at you?"
"I do want you to look at me," the librarian insisted, the words sounding as false and hollow as they ever did when she attempted to tell a lie. "And I do want you to make love to me," she added, this time speaking the truth. "Just… not with your eyes. Not yet."
Harold looked positively flummoxed. "So I'm allowed to touch, but not look?" he asked incredulously, as if she was being utterly unreasonable. "Should I close my eyes when we make love – lest I cause offense by looking somewhere I shouldn't? Perhaps I ought to wear a blindfold!"
Marian bristled. Turning the lamp back on and raising her crimson camisole to reveal her still-round stomach and stretch marks in all their unromantic glory, she challenged, "So you want to look at me – fine, look at me! Is this what you wished to look at? Because this is what you're going to see! Not very pretty, is it?"
Harold swallowed, his Adam's apple wobbling as it always did when he was trying to control his emotions. The appalled look in his eyes was replaced with a gaze of pure sympathy. Interpreting his reaction as pity arising from disgust, Marian glared at her husband. As vulnerable and awful as she felt displaying herself in such a manner, she wasn't going to be the one who capitulated to shame and turned away first.
But to Marian's shock, Harold came close and knelt before her. Placing his hands on her hips, he leaned in and gently traced his lips along each stretch mark, demonstrating the same deep affection as he had when she was still carrying his children.
"I can't tell you how much I've missed doing this," her husband whispered. He paused in his ministrations and glanced up at her. "Your stomach will always be precious to me, darling – whether you're pregnant or not."
Suddenly, Marian was sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks as she gasped for breath. Harold immediately rose to his feet and caught her in his arms. As she wept, he held her tight and planted several reassuring kisses on her cheeks, her brow and her hair.
"Forgive me, Harold," she said when she could speak again. "I ought to have known you would still find the sight of me attractive. But when you fell asleep that night a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure what to think – especially when you didn't mention the subject the following day, or any day after that. I wondered if perhaps you were relieved to have escaped the situation… "
"Oh, my dear little librarian," Harold admonished, sounding close to tears himself. "Do you know how much I've been kicking myself since that night? I was just as eager as you to resume our intimacy – but exhaustion won out. The reason I never said anything after that night was because I thought it best to wait for you to give me the go ahead. When you didn't, I wondered if you had lost interest – sometimes women do after they have children, or so I've heard."
Marian shook her head. "Not this woman," she assured him, capturing his mouth in a fervent kiss. Although he initially responded to her advances with his usual enthusiasm, he soon grew somewhat distant, and began to tremble in her arms. Concerned, the librarian ended their embrace – only to find that it wasn't sobs he was trying to contain, but laughter.
"What on earth is so funny?" Marian asked, feeling a bit miffed that her plans for him were foiled a second time.
"Forgive me, darling," he entreated as he wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes. "But we're really not so different in some ways, you and me. Remember how I hid my scars from you at first?"
"I do," she confirmed, and pointedly added, "I also remember how I kissed each and every one of them – on more than one occasion."
Harold's grin faded, and he looked wistful. "Yes… I count those occasions among my most treasured memories. But even so, I can't help wondering about the future. I'm a good deal older than you, and I'm already beginning to lose my looks a little, what with all these gray hairs" – he gestured to the one or two silver strands on the top of his head – "beginning to make an appearance! Long after I'm a decrepit old man, you'll still be young and beautiful."
Now it was Marian's turn to laugh. "Oh Harold, you needn't worry about becoming less attractive to me as you age!" she reassured him. "I could never think such things because I love what's on the inside – I always have."
When Harold grinned again, she realized he had been cleverer than even she allowed. "Well then, you should understand me perfectly when I tell you I feel exactly the same way," he said triumphantly. "My love for you doesn't hinge on your physical beauty. I will always find you wildly attractive, and I plan on making love to you as often as I can for as long as I can." He paused and regarded her with pensive eyes. "Marian… I understand if you still want the lights extinguished, but may I at least undress you?"
"I think we can come to an arrangement that will satisfy us both," she coyly replied. Giving her husband a sly smile, Marian backed out of his arms. Turning on all the lights in the parlor, she slowly and deliberately removed her garments – her actions as brazenly confident as they had been that May evening when she felt at the height of her beauty and glamour. And Harold looked at her the same way as he did that night – as if she was the most alluring woman he had ever seen.
Touched by the sincerity of her husband's adoration, Marian laughed at herself for making such a fuss over lingerie in the first place. But her amusement transformed into desire when Harold wrapped his arms around her waist and confessed, "I was hoping this Christmas would be the start of a second honeymoon for us – so I made sure to get plenty of sleep last night!"
"So did I," she said in a low voice. Grasping her husband by the hips, the librarian pulled him close and began whispering a few choice passages from Fanny Hill into his ear.
At that, Harold swept her into his arms, eagerly hastening to deposit her in the bed she had prepared for them. Completely content to let her husband take the lead, Marian settled in to enjoy their long-awaited rendezvous. The warmth of the fire, softness of the blankets and smoothness of her husband's nakedness against her own mingled together in a pleasant haze of sensation as Harold made love to her tenderly and reverently, just as he had the first time they were together. And, as happened on her wedding night, Marian was pleased to discover that marital intimacy was not as painful or difficult as she had been dreading. Despite her initial discomfort, their reunion was as just wonderful as she was hoping it would be – she especially enjoyed being as bold and open as Harold was in bestowing confessions and caresses, for she now realized he required the same reassurance about his desirability, as well.
All in all, it was another successful Christmas in the Hill household: Husband and wife happily spent the entire night together on the parlor floor in front of the fire, tracing each other's naked bodies with their hands and mouths until they drifted off to sleep wrapped tightly in each other's arms.