Schroeder and Lucy continued to see each other on a slightly more than cordial basis. His initial resistance having melted away, Schroeder now maintained a friendly, if cautious distance. They talked long and deeply, attended concerts, plays and shows, and dined together often. Schroeder saw to it, and Lucy seemed willing to accept, that there was nothing personal. They had yet to so much as kiss good-night.

That ended one evening, after dinner at Lucy's favorite Spanish restaurant. Schroeder ordered in Spanish to impress her, and they spent a lovely night in conversation, which continued during a walk in the park under the moonlight. As they stopped at the peak of a stone bridge that spanned a shallow rill, they sat on the metal bench, relaxing and holding hands.

"It's been a charming evening," Lucy said carefully.

"Yes, it has. You've been great, Lucy. I've really enjoyed your company, only-"

"Only, what?"

"Well, sometimes it feels as if we're walking through a minefield." He caught her quizzical look. "I know you've been trying to put your best foot forward-"

"Both of my feet are just fine, Schroeder."

"No argument from me," he said good-naturedly, missing the impatient tone in her voice, "but I think we're both being too cautious, Lucy; too much on edge. I think we should try to be more candid with each other, don't you agree? You never used to have any trouble with that before."

"I thought that was one of the things you didn't like about me."

"Maybe, but I like seeing you bottle up your feelings like you've been doing a lot less."

Lucy's easy-going expression changed to irritation.

"So, that's what you mean by 'candor?'" she asked. Continuous squabbling?"

Schroeder sighed.

Not this again!

"Good grief, Lucy!" he snapped, with an annoyed frown, "Can't you express a genuine feeling or an honest thought without starting an argument?"

Thus goaded, Lucy's eyes flashed.

"All right, Schroeder try this thought. Are we still just friends, or haven't we been getting closer? Or is that my imagination?"

Schroeder shifted in his seat.

"No, I do think we've gotten closer; what are you getting at?"

"When we started to see each other, I didn't want to be pushy," she said, her annoyance rising, "so I've let you decide how often, where, and under what rules we see each other. I didn't want to scare you off, so I tried to be patient, but Schroeder, my patience is wearing thin."

"What do you want, Lucy? Where do you want this to go?" he asked, his expression growing more concerned.

"When are you going to kiss me, Schroeder?"

He smiled, relieved. He'd wanted to kiss Lucy for weeks, but he felt content with the pace in which they were going. Not wanting to push it himself, Schroeder also didn't want to mislead her. He made a casual, off-hand gesture.

"What's a lovely evening without a kiss?"

He leaned into her and touched her face. Lucy waited, with the patience of a decade.

They kissed.

Although it was short, soft and simple, they both enjoyed the longed-for contact. Another kiss, this time longer with a tender embrace, and their hearts began to race excitedly.

"Oh, Schroeder," she whispered, laying her head on his chest, "I've missed you!"

"Do you want to hear something funny?" he asked, looking down at her, "I've missed you, too!" Lucy sighed.

They spent a blissful few minutes snuggled together, but Schroeder had more on his mind, and he summoned the courage to bring it up. He relaxed his embrace and Lucy, reading him, drew back, puzzled. Schroeder's serious look did little to allay her disquiet. He held up a hand to gesture for calmness.

"Lucy, I want to talk to you about something, and I don't want you to overreact."

"All right, I won't." Lucy straightened up and turned her face to him to give Schroeder her full attention. She folded her hands to mock his seriousness.

"What is it, Schroeder?"

"I think we should slow things down a little, before someone gets hurt."

"Slow things down? What do you mean?" She demanded, training her dark, attorney's eyes on him. "What are you not telling me?"

"Now, don't get upset, Lucy. I like things just as they are-"

"Now that we've started kissing!" Lucy smiled, and so did he.

"Yes, this is a good development," he said, touching her lips lightly with his fingertips.

"But I don't want us to move too fast. I don't want you to get your hopes up about where we're headed."

"Schroeder," she said, impatiently, "I've made a conscious effort not to have any hopes about where we're 'headed.' "

It was Schroeder's turn to withdraw. This sort of disdain he hadn't missed.

"I know that Lucy," he said, taking her hands. "I know that. I just don't want you to get hurt again. I care for you very much. You are very dear to me, and I'd really hate to hurt you."

"Why do you keep saying that I'll get hurt?" Lucy asked, annoyed. She released herself from his grip. "I'm not that fragile, Schroeder."

He could see in her expression that Lucy hated to be thought of as needy or vulnerable.

"Well, I-"

"What are you suggesting? That I'm planning our wedding already?"

He shrugged.

"No, but-"

"That I've been calling caterers for our reception?"

"You see, this is the sort of thing I wanted to avoid," he said, weakly.

"Do you think I'm picking out names for our children?"

"Of course not!" He squirmed under her relentless cross-examination.

Schroeder began to regret bringing up the whole thing.

"Schroeder, I'm not a fool!" Lucy said, frustrated. Her dark eyes, flashing impatiently, had a soft glint of hurt.

"I wanted to meet with you only because I missed you, not because I expected us to get back together. It's been pleasant, Schroeder, becoming friends all over again, but that was the most I ever expected. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't we past that? Haven't we become 'a couple'?"

"I think that's fair to say, yes," he said, softly.

Schroeder squeezed her hand affectionately, and Lucy's mood softened.

"Maybe I shouldn't have been so touchy," she conceded, leaning closer.

"I'm sorry for taking you so lightly, Lucy," he said.

Schroeder smiled his winning smile.

"We've surely come a long way quickly, haven't we?"

"I didn't plan it by myself, Schroeder, we did it together." She smiled, hoping to dispel his misgivings. "Don't worry; I'm not going nuts over this; whatever happens, will happen, and in its own time."

"So, you're not hoping for anything more?"

"Well, maybe more kissing," she said, taking his hand again.

"I'm not looking in Bride magazines, if that's what's worrying you. We're not even serious yet, after all."

"But where do you want this to go, Lucy?" He watched her closely as she answered him. "I thought you wanted us to be committed. Don't you want that?"

"I won't lie to you, Schroeder," she admitted, facing him squarely. "It would be nice, our getting serious, maybe even getting married, someday. I'd like it very much. But I'm not getting any 'hopes up.' I'm trying not to even think about that."

Schroeder sighed, reassured, and then caught a look of disappointment on Lucy's face.

"Now, I'm not ruling that out entirely, you understand," Schroeder said, relieved.

"I just don't want to mislead you. We need more time to sort things out, Lucy. Are you okay about it?" He kissed Lucy lightly, and she rested on his shoulder, purring.

"I knew after the first real date we had that I could be satisfied with our just being friends," Lucy said, snuggling.

"I was willing take whatever you could give me, Schroeder, as long as I could be with you. I'd still be satisfied with it. Honestly though, I really hope you won't be."

"I can't promise you anything, Lucy," he said, stroking her hair, "least of all the future. I can only promise that, if it happens, I'll try to be good to you. I'll try not to let you down."

"You'll never let me down, Schroeder," she said, smiling. "I'm a girl not easily discouraged."

"You were right," he said, kissing her. "You are worth it."

The Thanksgiving party at the Brookses' seemed to float on the good wishes of all present. The living room had been done up in Autumn Harvest decorations; ceramic Pilgrims and yellow and orange ribbons, bunting and napkins. The holiday season added a special nostalgic glow to the general good feelings. The combination of the fireplace, the decorations, and the frost on the trees outside and on the windows made the occasion a happy one. The seasonal music, at once cheerful and melancholy, made a steaming cup of hot cider with the best of friends cozy, and a warm house seem like the perfect place to be.

Schroeder roamed about, trying to be pleasant, but his mind was miles away. Thoughts of Lucy invaded his reverie, isolating him from the festive atmosphere of the party. Those preoccupations pulled him one way, and the gnawing guilt he felt over his unsorted feelings for Patty pulled him another.

Did he even have real feelings for Patty, aside from friendship? And if so, what were they? Was she merely a friend, or worse, a friend's wife? Was he attracted to Patty physically? Did he truly love her as a woman, or did he merely regard her as fair game, a prize to be pursued, and a conquest? Or was she just as she appeared to him, a lovely young woman, a friend he'd known his entire life, and genuinely liked? He honestly didn't know. When Schroeder was with Lucy, he never gave Patty a moment's consideration; why did his attention turn to her when she was near?

What kind of person am I? More important, what am I even accusing myself of?

"Schroeder!" he heard Patty's voice say out of nowhere, "Oh, I'm so glad to see you!"

He turned toward the sound of her voice to face her. Patty came up to him smiling in greeting.

"Likewise, Mrs. Brooks!"

With his sense of humor, insouciant yet harmless, Schroeder tried to insulate himself from Patty's affections. But there were not enough bricks in that wall to keep her out. He permitted her to kiss his cheek and give him a warm hug, while he clumsily put his hands lightly on her shoulders.

This wasn't helping.

After letting Patty handle him this way he gently removed himself from her welcome embrace. He resisted the dangerous urge to peck her cheek. Instead, Schroeder gave her a pleasant smile, his guts in a twisted knot.

"I wouldn't miss your party, Patty." She smiled and they both laughed politely at his inept pun.

"I wanted to thank you for your advice on how to deal with Lucy," he said, staring at her. "We've been seeing each other more or less regularly, and it seems to be less painful than I thought it would be."

"And why not?" she gushed, touching his cheek and making him more uncomfortable.

"You're a fine man, with a generous heart. Who wouldn't fall in love with you? I hope you'll find real happiness someday, Schroeder. You're an easy man to fall in love with."

What the hell is she saying?

"Schroeder?" he heard her say as he was lost in her blue eyes, "Are you all right?"

He shrugged, trying to shake off his guilt and the effects of his internal dialogue.

"Yes, I'm all right," he said, shaken. "I need a drink."

"I'll get it for you," she said, instinctively helpful.

"No, I can get it!" Schroeder snapped, causing heads to turn.

"I didn't mean anything," she said, embarrassed. Schroeder looked guiltily at Patty's hurt expression.

"Neither did I darling," he said unsteadily, his voice softening. "I'm sorry I barked." He took her slim hand, kissed it affectionately, and then let it go.

Patty smiled and touched his face with her warm hand.

Still not helping.

She took his arm while he sipped his drink, leading him to the piano by the window.

"Schroeder," she said, gesturing to the piano, "will you play?"

He stiffened, caught off guard.

Misinterpreting his reluctance, she said, "It's all right, isn't it? I know I don't usually bother you when you're here at a party, but you never seem to mind."

"I really don't mind," he said, trying to hide his rising uneasiness. "I'll do it, but it's the same deal as last time; I'll play if you'll sing."

"I was hoping you'd say that!" she replied, her eyes lighting up. Sensing an ambush, Schroeder watched with a growing feeling of alarm while she scurried behind the piano and showed him the sheet music for "I See Your Smile," by Gloria Estefan.

"I've been practicing!"

Schroeder permitted himself an inappropriate, unguarded comment.

"Shame on you, Patty, being so secretive! What would Shermy say?"

He'd meant it as a joke, but the sudden look on her face, slightly flushed, made him feel ashamed.

"I mean…" She turned away, a fragile smile on her pale lips

"Oh no, Schroeder, it's-"

Deciding to change the subject, he abruptly sat at the piano and began strumming the keys. The music alerted Patty's guests that the entertainment would now begin.

The song, one Schroeder would consider a maudlin, sappy ballad, was about lost love and missed chances, as the singer tells of suppressing her true feelings. He wondered, panicked, why Patty had picked that particular piece. True, it was in her key, suitable for her emotional delivery, the charming way she expressed herself, and within her limited vocal range, but…?

As Schroeder began the introduction, some in the audience murmured when they recognized it. Soft-pedaling the keys to allow Patty to sing over the music, Schroeder went into the song.

Patty sang:

I get a little tongue-twisted

Every time I talk to you,

When I see you.

And I'm so glad that you just missed it,

The way I stared to memorize your face.

To kiss you in my mind,

To love you all the time.

'Cause when I close my eyes,

I still can see your smile,

Bright enough to light my life,

Out of my darkest hour,

Please believe its true,

When I tell you I love you.

Patty stood before the piano to Schroeder's right, and she looked straight at him, instead of her guests. Not needing to watch his hands, and barely glancing at the familiar score, Schroeder found himself drawn to her face. Throughout the performance Schroeder's eyes remained locked in a long, intimate stare with Patty's.

She continued, never breaking eye contact.

I've taken too many chances,

Searching for the truth of love that's in my heart,

Tell me, if I've made the wrong advances,

Tell me if I've made you feel ashamed.

The lyrics did their work on Schroeder, causing his throat to clench as guilt and mortification clutched at him. Unable to pull his own eyes away from Patty, Schroeder hoped his expression wouldn't give away his inner torment. He did feel ashamed, and it made him sick.

Oh, I know I have to do this,

Would you hold my hand right through it?

'Cause when I close my eyes,

I still can see your smile,

Bright enough to light my life,

Out of my darkest hour,

Please believe it's true,

When I tell you I love you.

Patty and Schroeder's blatant exhibition soon became obvious to the company, and they began to feel uncomfortable. The guests whispered at their scandalous behavior. It seemed brazen, almost sexual, and most inappropriate. Shermy, standing off and out of Patty's vision, frowned.

Wanting to divert the guests' attention from his guilty emotions, Schroeder began frantically to ad-lib on the piano. He showed off with reckless improvisations during the interlude, ready to nod to Patty when she should come in. He glowered and cursed to himself as his feelings became more and more evident. He was losing control, offending his friend Shermy in his own home and humiliating his friend's wife. Schroeder became deeply angry at himself, and ashamed. Giving Patty her cue, he unwillingly continued looking into her moistening eyes as she sang,

Had to let you know just what would happen,

Yes, I had to let you know the truth.

I know I've got to do this,

Would you hold my hand

Right through it?

Would you?

'Cause when I close my eyes,

I still can see your smile,

Bright enough to light my life,

Out of my darkest hour,

Know now this is true,

When I tell you I love you.

'Cause when I close my eyes,

I still can see your smile,

Bright enough to light my life,

Out of my darkest hour,

Know now this is true,

When I tell you I love you.

Schroeder finished the song with a flourish, banging out its fading theme. Lost in the moment Patty, still staring at Schroeder, trailed off the ending. Her emotions, pure affection, sentiment and tenderness, showed plainly on her face. She saw, before he could conceal it, Schroeder's own look of reproach and self-loathing.

Frustrated and angry, he bolted from his bench and fled onto the porch. His abrupt exit caused a sensation, and no one dared to follow him. From outside on the porch his friends could hear him punching the post, stamping his feet in frustration, and grinding out curses. In moments, Schroeder's car revved up wrathfully and its tires squealed as he sped off into the night.

When Schroeder stormed off, Patty suddenly caught Shermy's eye, and she looked around. Realizing that she'd been found out, her emotion laid bare, Patty blushed deeply red, covered her face and ran whimpering into the bedroom.

"Patty!" her husband called, "What's the matter?

"Patty?"

The guests, seeing the situation plainly, began to whisper and murmur.

Not hearing them, Shermy continued to call from the living room, sounding pitiable as he slowly went to her, "Patty, what's the matter?"

"Patty?"