Harold Hill was a man on a mission.
Although the music professor usually reserved his weekend library visits for Saturday evenings, he had made an exception this late November Saturday morning and headed out bright and early in the hopes he could convince Marian Paroo to join him for a late-morning excursion that might possibly involve a romantic interlude in a secluded patch of trees.
A grin lit up the former charlatan's face as he recalled the particularly heated and vivid dream he'd had the night before – the impetus for this morning's visit – and the pace of his footsteps increased as he bounded up the stairs to Madison Public Library. His and Marian's wedding was still almost two months away – in January – but his dreams had become increasingly lurid as the day slowly approached. Harold knew the extended time he spent in Marian's company – escorting her home from the library, sharing dinner at her mother's home and their frequent-but-not-frequent-enough-to-raise-too-many-eyebrows trips to the footbridge – weren't helping with his increasing frustration. But Harold couldn't help it. He had to be near Marian. It still made his head spin – the desire he felt to be in her company, even when there was no canoodling involved. Simply sitting nearby as she read or notated entries in her library ledger were enough to bring him contentment.
Although after last night's dream, Harold was decidedly in the mood for a little canoodling. He vaguely wondered how many patrons he'd have to wait on before finally spiriting Marian away, but when he walked through the door, he found himself staring only at the librarian.
It was 11:15 in the morning, and amazingly enough, the library was empty of patrons. Although Harold hadn't expected record crowds, he was still surprised to discover that Marian's few die-hard patrons weren't ensconced in their usual spots. If nothing else, he'd figured he could count on having to wait for Miss Ida to finish perusing her usual educational volumes, but even she was glaringly absent.
However, Harold wasn't going to dwell on this fact for too long. The unexpected absence of patrons worked seamlessly with his plan. Without the excuse of having to see to the library clientele, Marian would have a much harder time refusing his request for a stroll. Although Harold wasn't daft enough to think his little librarian wouldn't leave without out some pretense of resistance.
Indeed, when the music professor took the librarian by the arm and advised her to retrieve her coat, she glanced up in surprise through her spectacles and then shook her head.
"Harold, I couldn't possibly," she protested. "I have far too much to attend to today. The card catalog is horribly out of order. It's going to take hours to sort everything back in its proper place."
"Marian, I'm sure the catalog can survive disorder for another half hour," he assured her and gave her a beseeching look. "We won't be gone long. I promise."
His fiancée gave him a searching look, but Harold wisely chose to remain silent, lest he ruin his chance of convincing her to leave with him. After a long moment of thought, Marian finally sighed and laid down her pencil. Giving Harold a pointed look, she made her way to the door and reached for her coat which hung on the nearby peg hooks. She flipped the "Closed for Lunch" sign in the glass pane and then waited for him to follow her outside. Harold tried to contain his glee at having convinced Marian so easily, but he couldn't refrain from bouncing on his toes when his fiancée turned to methodically lock the doors. He patiently waited while she gave them a quick tug to ensure they were secure, but as soon Marian turned back to him, he tucked her arm through his and escorted her down the stairs toward Oak Street.
Harold and Marian passed a few familiar faces as they strolled along the street, but the same absence that affected the library seemed to have settled upon the rest of the town: very few River City-ziens were out and about this morning, and most of the passerby they encountered were safely situated away along the other side of the street. Even so, Harold gave their surroundings several furtive glances before he tugged Marian away from the sidewalk and into the dense thicket of trees. It was the same place the music professor had squirreled away his librarian the night he had proposed, and Harold remembered being particularly pleased by the relative seclusion it offered from prying eyes.
"Does this spot bring back any memories, my dear?" he inquired gleefully.
Marian didn't even glance around before replying. Harold would have been hurt by her refusal to at least humor him with a brief scan of their surroundings had it not been for her gentle reply. In a soft tone, laced with immediate recognition, she responded, "Of course it does, Harold. This is where we came after you proposed."
Harold smiled, warmed that she remembered their post-engagement tryst here. But Marian wasn't finished speaking, and her voice, which had grown fond at the romantic recollection, was once again tinged with exasperation.
"However, I'm at a loss as to why you decided to bring me here. I have several tasks to finish today, and this is not accomplishing any of them."
Harold's smile faltered. Although Marian often chided him about responsibility, she had often told him his boyish enthusiasm and infectious way of embracing life were the things she loved most about him; however, today, he got the feeling she was somewhat irritated by these particular qualities of his character. Her next question confirmed his suspicions, even though she kept her voice level as she spoke.
"Harold, this is all very romantic, but I do have things to attend to at the library. And you still haven't told me why you brought me here." Her courtesy was genuine, but so was the hint of impatience that flickered in her eyes.
Now Harold was certain of it. Although Marian's statement was delivered without overt irritation, he noticed the slight trace of frustration in her tone. Another man might have missed this, but after several months of carefully studying Marian Paroo, Harold Hill had no problem discerning it. His darling librarian was annoyed with him. But she was also amused by his antics. The twinkling gleam in her eyes told him that much.
Harold was well used to dealing with this particular combination of emotions when it came to Marian. His bombastic manner had earned him several scoldings regarding propriety courtesy of well-mannered his fiancée. But as was often the case, Harold's sincere apologies and vows to exercise restraint usually resulted in Marian nestling closer to him, which in turn, led to more ardent kisses and whispered words of love and longing.
Harold found the entire process remarkably satisfying. Marian was able to maintain her standards of decorum, while he still managed to sneak in a few extra kisses. Who knew playing by the rules could be so rewarding?
But right now, Harold was quite willing to bend the rules a bit, and he hoped Marian was, too. After all, the library had been empty when he'd arrived. There were no patrons to whom she had to attend, and he hadn't seen any books on the cart to be shelved. Surely, Marian could spare a little time from her schedule for him? If so, he could coax a smile from those lovely lips and convince her that a little time spent in his company wouldn't completely derail her day. Donning his best devil-may-care attitude, Harold winked and gave a little shrug.
"Do I need a reason, Madam Librarian?"
Marians rolled her eyes, but Harold thought he saw the hint of a smile playing around her lips as she replied, "Honestly Harold, do you mean to tell me you brought here for no apparent reason?"
Emboldened by the chink in her armor, Harold shook his head and inched closer. "I assure you, my dear little librarian, I had a very good reason."
Still, Marian held firm in her propriety, though her eyes now twinkled with mischief and she valiantly tried to contain that looming smile. "And what, may I ask, might it be?"
Charmed by her stubborn resistance, Harold flashed that winning smile of his and spread his hands wide as if the answer was obvious. "Why to shower you with affection, of course!"
Instead of firing back another scolding retort, Marian appeared nonplussed by his revelation, and a slight nervousness appeared in her gaze. Harold was surprised. Although he knew she was occasionally frustrated by his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants methods, she normally didn't respond so cautiously to his overtures. Usually, he could coax an expression of genuine delight from her after a few moments alone in his company. Today, however, the librarian seemed both exasperated and wary of such time together. Hoping to alleviate her fears, Harold leaned closer in an attempt to kiss away her worries. But Marian ducked away from his intended affection, although this time, he definitely thought he saw her smile as she did so; however, she turned too fast for him to confirm that. But quick as she was, Harold was quicker, and caught the librarian by her wrist as she headed back toward the sidewalk. Even though Marian gently scolded him, the music professor merrily ignored this and tugged his fiancée back to him, rotating her until he was able to back her against a nearby tree.
Now when he met her gaze, he confirmed that Marian was indeed smiling. More than that, her eyes danced with barely-contained laughter. Harold smirked and inched in closer. He watched as Marian held his gaze, almost silently daring him. Never a man to pass up a good challenge, the music professor placed his hands against the rough bark of the tree alongside Marian and leaned in, his lips hovering only mere inches from hers.
"I won't kiss you if you don't want me to, Marian," he murmured, a husky note entering his voice.
The librarian openly giggled at his obvious tactic, and Harold could taste the sweet peppermint flavor on her breath. It was alluring, and it took considerable self-control not to capitulate to her dare.
"Harold," she admonished, even though she continued to smile warmly at him. "That's not a fair fight, and you know it."
"You're right, it's not," he blithely agreed, grinning like a school boy who'd won all the marbles in a schoolyard match. Once more confident in his ability to charm the lovely librarian, Harold closed the distance between them and covered her lips with his, his hands effortlessly sliding along Marian's waist to firmly anchor her between him and the tree. Marian seemed amenable to his idea, because she sighed into his kiss and wrapped her arms around his neck before burying her fingers in the short fringe there, which caused pleasant little shivers to shoot down the music professor's spine. Harold knew Marian was well aware of the effect this had on him, as he'd confessed it to her one evening after a heated kiss, and he suspected she was doing it on purpose to get back at him for his earlier cheekiness.
But whether she was motivated by playful revenge or genuine desire, he didn't particularly care. Harold was too busy savoring the way Marian's body felt against his; it thrilled him to feel her heart rhythmically thumping and the warmth of her waist beneath his palms.
"I've been dreaming of this," he whispered, when his lips finally fell from hers. Marian's eyes were closed, but a delighted smile curved her lips.
Harold nodded and placed feather-light kisses along her cheek. "I have," he affirmed.
Marian turned her head to him and bestowed a soft kiss when their lips met. Her eyes found his, and Harold was startled by the desire he saw in them. Her next words almost made his heart stop.
"Harold," she murmured, trailing her hands through his rich brown locks, "I've been dreaming of this, too." Her cheeks darkened a lovely shade of crimson as she said this, but she didn't take her eyes from his. Harold wasn't sure what to say in response to her honest admission. Four months ago, he would have taken her by the hand and whisked her away to his room at the boarding house, happy to spend the rest of the day turning those dreams into reality over and over again until he was satisfied. There was a small part of his brain urging him to do that very thing right now. But his heart, which had slowly taken ownership over all things pertaining to Marian Paroo, told him now was not the time; however, he didn't think it'd mind if he helped fan the flames of his lovely librarian's thoughts a bit. After all, they were going to be married in two months and a little, innocent canoodling never hurt anyone.
With that in mind, Harold lowered his head to resume his earlier explorations, his kisses trailing down Marian's jaw line until he was nuzzling the side of her neck. "This, too?" he whispered, his mouth pressing against a spot he knew to be particularly sensitive.
Marian squirmed and pulled him closer, releasing a delicious sigh in apparent agreement. Harold smiled and gently nipped at her smooth skin. "The lady doth approve?" he teased.
Marian's response was a low moan that went straight below his belt, and the music professor momentarily halted his caress, his mind reeling from the passionate sounds emanating from his usually demure fiancée. But his librarian, in a startling change from her earlier demeanor, showed no such hesitancy. Whether it was the revelation of his desire for her that fueled this change, or the love bite, Harold wasn't sure. But something seemed to come over Marian. Without so much as a word, she pulled him close and pressed several affectionate kisses against his cheek. Her fervent display fueling his ardor even further, Harold was about to capture those wandering lips with his, but to his surprise and delight, she was too quick for him.
"Harold," she moaned again, bringing his mouth back to hers and eagerly seeking another kiss. Harold was more than happy to oblige her request, but then without warning, Marian pressed in to his lean form and opened her mouth beneath his, her tongue brazenly sliding between his parted lips.
At that bold gesture, Harold's rational mind was overcome by maelstrom of emotions. The sensation of her warm body, flush against his own, caused him to momentarily forget his carefully cultivated rules regarding Marian and courting proprieties. Tightening his hold on her, the former conman unconsciously deepened their kiss even further and his hands, which had rested on her waist, slid down her curves to settle firmly against her hip. When he felt Marian shudder and intuitively press her hips to his at the contact, he began to subtly, but purposefully, move against her, effortlessly slipping into the seduction routine he'd so often employed in the course of a con. Marian was as soft and yielding as he'd imagined her to be, and Harold found himself becoming lost in instinct and need.
When his mouth moved down to bathe her neck in heated kisses, Marian's fingernails sank into his scalp, driving the last vestiges of self-control from the music professor's mind. Mimicking his lovemaking in earnest, Harold grasped his fiancée tightly by the hips, pulled her against him, and began to repeatedly nip at her neck, eager to give Marian all the pleasures she'd never known. Although she gasped at his boldness, she melted into his embrace all the same, as if she had been waiting for him to embrace her like this for ages. Her body aligned perfectly with his own, as he rocked back and forth, silently urging his darling librarian to share in his passion. Harold's mouth curved in a triumphant smile when Marian released a throaty moan and raised her hips to meet his insistent thrusts, pressing back and undulating with him as he groaned her name and buried his face against the smooth skin of her neck. But when Marian's gasping moans became intensely pleading cries, his name falling from her lips in a voice laced with passion but mingled with the beginnings of ecstasy as well, Harold raised his head to look at her with stricken eyes, a combination of horror and shame washing over him as he realized what he had almost done.
"Marian," he whispered shakily, his voice laden with regret. What had he been thinking? He'd very nearly introduced Marian to the one thing he'd sworn to keep sacred until their wedding night.
The former conman could felt an odd heat rushing to his cheeks as he observed Marian, who by all appearance was still engrossed in the throes of passion. He was alarmed to note her hips were still slightly moving against his – and that he was continuing to press against her in return. He pulled away from her immediately and her heavy breathing slowly tapered off, as did her movements. Harold watched with steadily increasing shame as Marian's eyes, flushed with desire only moments before, now began to waver as confusion and embarrassment slowly crept in. Harold wanted to comfort her, to apologize and explain that his actions weren't motivated out of lust alone. But he could only stare at her, motionless, as he, too, struggled to catch his breath and regain his balance. It was apparent Marian noticed his discomfort, because she moved toward him with a concerned expression and raised her hand to gently cup his cheek. Even after he'd taken advantage of her, her first thought was of his well-being. But Harold would not allow her ministrations, and he stepped away, shaking his head as he did so.
"No, Marian. Don't."
He fumbled and attempted to find the appropriate words to atone for his misdeeds, but try as he might, he couldn't produce them. Because, what could he possibly say?
Nothing, his conscience informed him. There were simply no words when one deflowered an unmarried woman – even if she was his fiancée. He, of all people, should know that.
Standing silently before her, Harold observed Marian's crestfallen reaction to his brusque dismissal of her comfort. Her hand slowly fell to her side, and she turned away, her eyes growing wet with tears. Harold saw the scarlet blush rise along the smooth skin of her throat, and his shoulders slumped, knowing that Marian was no doubt castigating herself over the liberties she'd just allowed him to take. Although he was well aware that there was no inherent depravity in merely getting caught up in the moment, he knew Marian would have a lot of difficulty forgiving such leeway, especially considering they were out in the open, vulnerable to prying eyes and ears. Harold turned his head to ensure they were – indeed – alone, and he felt a wave of gratefulness wash over him that no one had been around to witness his lapse in judgment.
Marian, startled by his sudden movement, followed his eyes and then clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes widening as she realized the significance of his glance. As Harold desperately tried to think of something – anything – to say to smooth things over, the librarian clumsily excused herself, her skirt swishing as she turned sharply on her heel and retreated back to the Oak Street, her usual poise and grace glaringly absent.
Still thoroughly at a loss for words, Harold raised a hand in a half-hearted attempt to halt her, but Marian was already near the street, so he lowered his hand and let her go, listening as the leaves and twigs snapped beneath her rapid steps. He knew he should follow her, but he was certainly in no condition to trail after Marian right now – not unless he wanted to risk Constable Locke citing him for causing a public disturbance. Harold felt a twinge of desire rush through him, and he clenched his teeth in frustration. Even amidst his self-recrimination, his body mutinously continued to betray him. It had been far too long since he'd felt the warmth of a woman against him. That sensation, coupled with the perfect way Marian's shape conformed to his and the knowledge that she would soon be his wife in every sense of the word, sent his pulse racing yet again. He groaned. How was it possible for him to battle arousal and remorse at the same time? It was disconcerting enough to realize the unfamiliar sensation battering his conscious was shame.
Shame wasn't an emotion he'd ever associated with his seduction of a woman, and Harold found himself frowning at the bitter taste of it. He was suddenly reminded of the euphoric thrill that was once synonymous with his past conquests; the arrogant sense of accomplishment that flowed through him when he finally charmed his way in to a woman's arms. That was soon followed by the seductive satisfaction of listening to her hungry moans as she moved beneath him, her eager cries urging him on until he found release. Oftentimes, Harold would wait until his lover fell asleep, before extracting himself from her embrace. On the fortunate occasion that the woman was eager for more, he happily obliged her. But inevitably, she always succumbed to slumber, and it was then that he retired to the washroom. Upon his return, he would dress quietly, careful to not wake the slumbering girl – her name already fading from his mind – lest he have to deal with hysterics or worse, the local constabulary.
Although he couldn't quite call himself a gentleman, Harold certainly never saw himself as a cad. He always requested a room near the back stairs, first and foremost so he had a quick exit if necessary, but also to ensure his abandoned lover had a discreet means of escape when she awoke and realized he was gone. It wouldn't do for the poor girl to suffer censure merely because she had decided to embrace the pleasures life had to offer.
But now, as he waited for his body to calm itself, Harold realized he had done nothing but deceive himself by trying to justify his reprehensible actions. Although he had enjoyed rolls in the hay with experienced women – in fact, he'd grown to prefer to prefer it as the years passed –he had also taken the virtue of innocent women who deserved better. They had willingly shared his bed, but only because of his silver tongue and seductive persuasion. And now, he'd used that same charm to coerce Marian into performing actions that were best left for their wedding night. He bowed his head as a wave of regret washed over him. From the night he'd decided to stay in River City, Harold promised himself that he would treat Marian as tenderly and properly as a man should regard the maiden he was courting. Marian was unlike than any woman he'd ever been with, experienced or innocent. She was the woman he loved; the woman he planning to marry. She deserved a lot better than what he'd just given her.
Harold knew he had to find Marian and make amends. He still didn't know what he was going to say to her, but he knew he shouldn't waste any time; however, there was still a looming matter that had to be dealt with first. Begrudgingly taking a seat on a nearby stump, the music professor sighed, waiting for his traitorous carnal inclinations to subside.
Half an hour later, Harold walked along Oak Street, but the usual spring in his step was noticeably absent. His normally confident gait was a terse shuffle, and in his distraction, all he could do was offer a subdued hello when the occasional passerby greeted him. He knew he should probably make more of an effort to conceal his unrest, but he couldn't. All he could focus on was apologizing to Marian. He had to see her and try to set things right.
But apparently, that wasn't meant to be, because as Harold neared the large double doors of Madison Public Library, he saw the familiar closed sign hanging in the window. Drawing closer, he spied a note – neatly written in Marian's concise hand – taped next to the sign indicating that she was closing the library early because of a headache. But her words assured her patrons that she would return tomorrow and the library would reopen at the usual time.
Harold frowned as he finished reading the note. Not only had he taken one too many liberties with Marian, now he'd upset her so much that she'd actually closed the library early. She had never taken such a drastic step before, not even when he'd disrupted her patrons with loud declarations of love back when he was still a conman. Although he knew it was necessary for her to provide her patrons a reason for the abrupt closure – by doing so, tongues were far less likely to wag – he still felt a pang of guilt that his actions had forced his scrupulously honest fiancée to engage in duplicity.
Harold sighed. It would be best for him to return home and allow Marian a little time to herself before attempting to seek her out again. He didn't like it, but it seemed that Providence was telling him to leave her be for the time being. His shoulders slumping in defeat, the music professor lowered his head and began making his way to the empty home that awaited him on West Oak.