Now that Harold Hill had proven the success of the Think System for a second time and established the legitimacy of his business, it was time to turn his attention to the next phase of his plan for building a life with Marian Paroo in River City: purchasing a house.

As ever, the music professor had planned for this eventuality in advance; during his and Marian's strolls, he made it a point to traverse various neighborhoods and note her reactions to their surroundings. Sometimes he would even pose a few hypothetical questions or make offhanded remarks about various homes, which spurred casual but crucial conversation in which Harold discovered his beloved's preferences and figured out how to align them with his own. This method accomplished his aims quite nicely; in the course of their constitutionals, he and Marian often passed by a charming Victorian on East Pine that captured both their fancies. Further research revealed the house was owned by a widow whose husband had passed away a few months ago. As her only son had married and moved to California several years ago, it seemed just a matter of time before the lady would pack up and head out West to join her family. Indeed, the charming Victorian went on the market at the end of August, and Harold moved quickly. By the middle of September, he had secured the house at a reasonable price and, for the first time in his adult life, he possessed a permanent residence.

It was really quite something, the idea that he had a fixed place to lay his head at night – and in all probability, every night for the remaining decades of his existence. Used to a nomadic lifestyle, Harold prided himself on not keeping anything that couldn't fit into his traveling trunk. Now he owned something that he couldn't pick up and carry off with him on a moment's notice. It ought not to have been so surprising that it was having a house that really made him feel tied to River City, as he had already established a local business and was heavily involved in the most influential social circles. But even as entwined in the town's affairs as he was, Harold had lived in the boarding house, and he was no stranger to such places. Nor was he a stranger to hanging out a shingle and collecting the cash and, although going the legitimate route did require the completion of a lot more paperwork, running such an enterprise was not outside of his ken; after all, he had been in business for himself for at least the last two decades. The only real difference – besides the red tape – was the nature of his trade.

Owning a home, however, was something else entirely. With all the maintenance, renovation, repairs, decoration and furnishing a house demanded, Harold could easily see himself spending years completing one project after another – and he already had no shortage of business and community commitments to keep him occupied. He could certainly see why practical-minded men remarried quickly after their wives passed away, especially if they also had children that still needed raising.

With that in mind, perhaps Harold should have been relieved at the enthusiastic response when, a week after purchasing the charming Victorian, he invited Marian and her family for a tour of his new house. As he surmised, they loved the place – to the point where he had to wonder just how many people were planning to move in. Mrs. Paroo, of course, didn't hesitate to offer her advice regarding décor and kitchens – the latter of which she was a self-declared expert on, as she'd presided over one for thirty years. Winthrop, in a burst of boyish glee, clamored for the construction of a tree fort in the backyard. Even Marian got into the act, saying excitedly that the downstairs tower would be a wonderful place for a music room – a remark which she immediately and blushingly qualified with, "If that is your intention, of course."

It hadn't been Harold's intention, and he simply grinned in response – but he silently added the downstairs tower to his list of rooms that had to be fully furnished before moving on to the next phase of his plan to build a life with the librarian. This was a short list; the only other – and most important – room he wanted to complete before proposing to his beloved was the bedroom. At present, it only contained a bed, although he had much grander plans for the space. Apparently, Marian also saw possibilities for this room, as her cheeks turned the most charming shade of crimson when Harold showed the Paroo family where he slept. However, while the librarian kept her comments to herself, her mother certainly didn't. Ever the practical woman, Mrs. Paroo's first question – asked in a tone of utter bewilderment – was how in heaven's name could he possibly make do without a proper dresser? When Harold informed the august matron he was keeping his clothing in his traveling trunk for the time being, she clucked her tongue at him. She also didn't hesitate to make the barely-veiled hint that he might want to consult her daughter's tastes in the course of furnishing this room. As Marian's blush deepened even further, Harold thanked Mrs. Paroo for the suggestion and tactfully turned the conversation back toward the kitchen.

Fortunately, both the music professor and librarian were spared from further embarrassment when Mrs. Paroo happily turned her attentions to this new subject and asked if she could take another peek downstairs. When Harold gave her and Marian leave to explore the house at their leisure while he changed into a fresh suit, Winthrop seized the opportunity to head to the backyard to scout out trees for potential forts.

Although it warmed Harold's heart to see how much they all loved the house, the time alone was a welcome respite. He appreciated their input – especially Marian's – but he was surprised to realize how territorial he was beginning to feel about this house. Even though the Victorian was sparsely furnished and he still found it a bit overwhelming to have so much space to rattle around in, it was his space, and some of Mrs. Paroo's advice, though well-meaning, was starting to grate on his nerves. While Harold respected the woman's long experience of home ownership, he wanted his house to reflect the tastes of his future wife, first and foremost. But after Marian's spontaneous outburst about the downstairs tower room, it appeared she was taking particular care to prevent from being too forward – not to mention she probably felt she had to be especially courteous and retiring in order to balance her mother's blunt inquisitiveness. While Harold appreciated the librarian's restraint, he wished she would be a bit more forthright in her opinions. But it looked like he was going to have to do a little more digging – and carefully, so as not to spoil all the surprises he had planned for her.

When Harold finished changing and descended the stairs, he found the librarian standing alone in the front hall. Apparently, she was having difficulty with her chignon, as she was fiddling with a few errant strands and scowling at her reflection in the full-length mirror.

When Harold paused and grinned at this charming tableau, Marian caught sight of him in the mirror and regarded him with a shy smile. "A strand of hair keeps coming loose in the back, and I can't get it to lie right," she explained as she continued to struggle with her hair. "I was hoping to have finished with this nonsense before you came back downstairs."

His grin turned impish. "I don't mind waiting."

Marian laughed and shook her head – which caused the offending strand of hair to slide out of her chignon again. "Oh, drat it all!" she exclaimed, growing even more flustered.

As she attempted to re-pin her hair, Harold conversationally asked, "So how do you like the house, now that you've seen the inside?"

Her eyes twinkled. "You might not have much in the way of furniture, but you certainly aren't short of mirrors!"

Harold chuckled. Trust the clever librarian to make his work more difficult! But her indomitable spirit was precisely why he loved her. Without pausing to consider the propriety of his actions, he walked over to Marian and plucked the hairpins from her hand. "At this rate, we'll be here all evening," he affectionately teased. "Allow me." Tucking the errant strand securely into her chignon, he tenderly fastened it with a hairpin.

Amazingly enough, Marian didn't scold him for taking such liberties. On the contrary – she relaxed and smiled at his touch, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for the two of them to be standing alone together in his front hall and engaging in such domestic intimacies. But it did feel natural and right – so right that once Harold finished pinning Marian's hair, he couldn't resist wrapping his arms around her waist and dropping a few kisses on the nape of her neck. When she leaned against him and closed her eyes, he tightened his embrace and buried his head in the curve where her neck met her shoulder, savoring this new closeness between them.

Although Harold had initially been uncomfortable at the speed in which Mrs. Paroo had insinuated herself and her daughter into his surroundings – he half expected her to fish for a marriage proposal to Marian before the end of the day and, as much as he loved and esteemed the woman who would be his mother-in-law, her haste, though understandable, was also a bit disconcerting – he now realized just how quickly he could get used to the hustle and bustle of a full house. It was easy to imagine Mrs. Paroo and Winthrop visiting regularly and making themselves comfortable, and easier still to imagine Marian living with him, filling the empty Victorian with her presence and lending her personal touch to the décor so that the house was truly theirs, and not just his.

In the midst of these imaginings, Harold's thoughts inevitably turned to fantasies that had seen him through many a lonely night: Marian curled up beside him in bed, the two of them tenderly and passionately learning the shape of each other with hands and mouths, free from the restraint they had to practice at present. And in the course of their intimate explorations, perhaps they would one day have children of their own…

Harold had often envisioned the conjugal delights he longed to experience with Marian, but never in such a domestic context. The idea of becoming a father both excited and terrified him – although he liked children, he had never felt the inclination to have any of his own and, to the best of his ability, he had refrained from doing so. But as he held Marian in his arms and bathed her neck and shoulder with gentle kisses, Harold realized just how much he was looking forward to the opportunity to build a family with the woman he loved.

However, even though everything was coming together nicely, it was still unwise to indulge in such fancies at present. He was getting a little too far ahead of himself and, if he wasn't careful, he'd end up speaking too soon. Lifting his lips from Marian's neck and letting his arms fall to his sides, Harold smiled and said, in an attempt to lighten the mood, "Your family seems quite at home here – next thing you know, the house will be decorated for me!"

Marian laughed. "My mother can certainly be overbearing at times, I'm afraid," she said ruefully.

"Oh, I wasn't just talking about your mother," Harold replied with a grin. "As I recall, you were the one who declared the downstairs tower would make a wonderful music room."

"Well, that was only a suggestion," the librarian coyly demurred.

"Don't be shy, darling – I'm sure you have several ideas," Harold said in a shamelessly provocative voice. Leaning in until his lips were next to Marian's ear, he whispered, "For instance, maybe the thought has crossed your mind that the upstairs tower room would make a charming nursery?"

At that, Marian turned to look at him, all traces of her smile gone. As she regarded him with those uncomfortably appraising eyes of hers, Harold squirmed a little beneath her inexorable gaze. If he hadn't been thinking of things that were best left undisturbed for the time being, he would never have said that – so much for not speaking too soon! Meeting the librarian's eyes, Harold molded his expression into a mask of teasing yet affectionate nonchalance – but his discomfort only deepened when she looked hurt by what she saw.

Lowering her gaze, Marian began to turn toward the kitchen. "Enough of this frivolity," she said coolly. "I should go see what Mama and Winthrop are doing."

Harold chided himself for his blunder – how could he hold her and kiss her with such promise in his embrace, and then tease her for responding so warmly to his unspoken overtures? It was no wonder she was upset. Grabbing her hands, he turned her to face him again. "Marian – "

"Yes, Harold?" she asked. Although her voice was soft and undemanding, her eyes were bright and full of hope.

But Harold couldn't continue. Even though the last thing he wanted to do was leave Marian uncertain about his intentions, he was still apprehensive about proposing too hastily. But why should he continue to stall? He knew beyond all doubt that he was going to marry the librarian, and their romantic interlude in the hall had made him realize he wouldn't feel fully at home in his house or completely content in his bed until she joined him. So although Harold hesitated to abandon the timetable he had so carefully crafted – he hadn't even ordered the ring yet – he was going to take the plunge and tell Marian just how serious he was being when he made that remark about the nursery.

Now, if only he could get rid of the infernal lump in his throat that was preventing him from speaking the words – since when was he this tongue-tied? Swallowing and tightening his hold on Marian's hands, Harold tried again. "Marian, I – "

At that moment, the back door slammed shut, and he heard Mrs. Paroo telling a cheerfully chattering Winthrop that it was high time they go find his sister.

Giving Marian an apologetic glance, Harold fell silent and moved away to a more respectable distance as her mother and brother entered the front hall. Yet even as he thanked his lucky stars for this fortuitous interruption, he was also rather disappointed – subterfuge, while necessary, could be a bit burdensome at times.

Masking his true feelings with a jovial grin, Harold inquired if Winthrop had found a suitable tree for a fort.

"Yes – lots!" Winthrop said happily. He gazed at the music professor with an expression of endearing entreaty. "I'm having a hard time figuring out which tree to set things up in, though – maybe you can help me pick the best one sometime?"

Knowing full well it would be too dangerous for the Paroos to visit until he and Marian were safely married, Harold promised, "As soon as the house is furnished and ready, I'll invite you all for dinner. In the meantime, what say we head over to the Candy Kitchen? My treat!"

Eagerly accepting this invitation, Winthrop bounded out the front door, with Mrs. Paroo following closely behind. But when Marian started to exit as well, Harold tugged her arm, holding her back long enough to whisper, "I picked this particular house because I knew how much you admired it, my dear little librarian."

Satisfied that he had once again managed to reassure Marian of his devotion without divulging anything he wasn't ready to reveal, Harold moved to catch up to Winthrop and Mrs. Paroo. When he turned back to glance at the librarian, he was pleased to see her regarding him with that dreamy, beaming look that always made his heart race faster. Once she had taken his proffered arm and added her voice to the conversation, Harold slipped his other hand into the pocket of his trousers. As his fingers closed around the hairpin he had surreptitiously stowed away in the course of arranging Marian's hair, he almost wished he was holding a ring, instead.

Almost – but not just yet.