While making plans for the concert turned out to be a more involved process than Marian had been expecting, it was a relief to see Harold's uncertainty about the situation start to dissolve. It unnerved Marian greatly to see Harold so nervous about anything – she had always been a worrier, and Harold's characteristic confidence usually helped to put her at ease. Thankfully, music was an area in which she was confident without fail, and she couldn't help but feel proud that she had managed to do for Harold what he had so often done for her.
After they had finished examining the scores that Harold had brought with him, Marian at last glanced over at the clock and was startled to discover that it was nearly 7:30; they had well exceeded the hour that she had originally allotted for their lesson.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Harold," Marian exclaimed, quickly rising from the sofa and arranging the sheet music in a neat stack on the low table. "It seems that I've kept you too long. Please, if you need to leave, don't let me stop you.
Chuckling, Harold leaned forward to help her with her task. "Really, Marian, there's no problem at all. I really needed to get this concert business ironed out before I have to tell the boys about it tomorrow – and besides, where else do you think I'm planning on going tonight?"
"Well, home," Marian suggested sensibly.
Harold shrugged and responded in a tone that bordered on wistful. "To go home, for me, means to be all alone, and I'm certainly in no hurry to do that. It's really something, being around your family- it reminds me that I'm not alone in the world anymore."
As she often did whenever Harold alluded to the cold emptiness of his former existence, Marian found herself without any response that could comfort him, and the lump rising in her throat did nothing to help matters. Instead of speaking, the librarian simply put her arms around him, hoping that she could somehow communicate her understanding without words. Harold had not revealed many details of his past to her, but she knew that his childhood had been far from ideal – he had never met his father, and his mother had lived almost in her own world, distant and withdrawn. Though it saddened Marian to think that Harold had gone his entire life without knowing the feeling of belonging to a family, it was wonderful to see how much joy he found in being part of hers.
Almost as if in response to her thoughts, the voice of Mrs. Paroo rang out from the kitchen. "Dinner's ready! You're welcome to join us as always, Professor Hill."
"I'll definitely have to take you up on that offer, Mrs. Paroo," Harold answered enthusiastically as he bounded up from the sofa. "I've been eating pretty poorly lately, and your cooking smells irresistible."
Marian had to agree – the smell of the roast beef her mother had been cooking had become quite the distraction as their lesson had progressed. The former part of Harold's statement puzzled her, however. As they entered the kitchen and busied themselves helping her mother set the table, Marian turned to him, curious. "Why haven't you been eating?"
"I haven't tried to cook for myself in a long, long, time," Harold replied as he placed the salad bowl on the dinner table. "But since I've been living in a house of my own this past week, I haven't got much choice."
Marian's eyes twinkled with amusement as she sat down. "So, are you saying that the great Professor Harold Hill's cooking talents leave something to be desired?"
"Almost everything, sadly. You should have seen the disaster I created last night out of a baked potato!"
When Mrs. Paroo joined them at the table, she was positively beaming. "Fortunate for you that my Marian's such a good cook, eh, Professor?"
Several times, Marian had come close to begging her mother to refrain from making such comments; it would be cruel to put such pressure on any man, Marian insisted, let alone on a man for whom settling down had only become any kind of possibility in the past two months. Mrs. Paroo held firm, however, stating that it was the God-given right of all mothers to make such remarks, if only to ensure that their daughters could someday do the same to their own children. Finding that she was no longer in the least shocked by her mother's forwardness, Marian had devised a new solution: consistently and deliberately misunderstanding all of her mother's heavy-handed hints.
"Is that so, Mama?" Marian responded serenely. "I hardly think that I'll have time to give him cooking lessons in addition to his music lessons." Turning to Harold, Marian was delighted to see that he was clearly in on the joke, watching mother and daughter with unconcealed amusement. "There are some cookbooks in the library that I could recommend, if you have the time to stop by."
Marian cast a meaningful glance across the table to her mother, who looked on the verge of adding another wry remark to the exchange.
"That sounds... very nice," Harold answered warily, clearly uncomfortable at being caught in the middle of the Paroos' verbal battle. Marian was starting to feel badly for him, but thankfully for all involved, the tension was defused when Winthrop arrived in the room and blithely took his place at the table, full of stories about his day at school and his afternoon adventures with a pair of boys from his class. Harold gleefully joined in the conversation with genuine interest, seeming to know more about the young boy's life than even his family did.
Marian didn't think that she could ever get over her delight at seeing her brother so happy. Months before, she thought that she might never see him smile again, yet already that sad, broken little boy seemed to have healed entirely. And not to mention what Harold had done for her... sometimes it still felt unreal to her that she was loved now, that she had met a man who would wait outside the library to walk her home in the rain; who she could spend hours talking with, knowing that he truly cared about everything she said or did; who made her feel beautiful and fascinating and more alive than she ever had. Marian felt a warm rush of gratitude and love toward Harold, and turned to him with a shy smile even as Winthrop chattered on.
In response, Harold gently caressed her hand with his own under the table – just for a moment, too quickly for anybody else to notice, and then they were both back to eating and talking as if nothing had happened.
However, Marian's mind was elsewhere now, lost in that place of foolish romantic daydreams to which thoughts of Harold so often sent it. Though she knew it was silly to contemplate such notions so early in their courtship, she couldn't resist casting her mind back to what Harold had said a short while before, about going home to his empty house. She so wanted to change that for him, to make his home a place of welcoming happiness instead of loneliness. Marian imagined what it might be like for Harold to come home to a house with her in it, to have dinner at their own table and talk about their days, maybe even to lay cuddled together on the sofa afterwards, cozily entwined in each other's arms in front of a warm fire...
You're as bad as Mama, Marian chided herself. You fight back against all of those little things that she says, yet there's a part of you that wishes you could say them yourself.
In many ways, negotiating the complexities of her growing relationship with Harold was even more confusing to the librarian than it might have been if they had met and begun courting in a more orthodox manner. On that beautiful night in July when they had confessed their love for one another, they had promised each other unending love and devotion and poured out the very contents of their hearts – and then starting the next day, they had made every effort possible to avoid discussing such touchy subjects aloud. It was an effort, Marian assumed, to lend some much-needed normalcy to the dramatic turn their lives had taken, to prevent them from diving too soon into depths that they weren't prepared to navigate. But it had left Marian feeling rather lost about when it would be suitable to speak so intimately again – or even to mention that delicate little word, love.
Sneaking another glance at Harold, she wondered how she could ever learn these things when she was too afraid to ask the only person who could teach her.
After dinner, Harold asked Marian if she might like to accompany him on a stroll. Marian accepted his invitation eagerly; though it had been a rather hot day, the evening had brought some lovely weather along with it, and she had rather regretted having to spend so much time inside. The transition from summer into fall was one of Marian's favorite times of the year, as the hints of autumn breezes began to temper the oppressive heat of summer into something far more pleasant.
As they navigated the streets of the town, Harold's earlier promise of kisses popped back into her mind, and Marian found herself blushing whenever they crossed paths with anybody. Although he'd made no mention of a destination, Harold seemed to walk with such a sense of purpose that Marian began to grow suspicious of his intentions.
"Were you planning on taking me anywhere in particular?" Marian asked as they came to the edge of the park.
Harold shrugged with feigned nonchalance. "I don't know, Madam Librarian. You know me, I've never been much for plotting and scheming..."
Laughing, Marian lightly swatted at his arm. "I should have known better than to think you didn't have some devious plan in mind." For almost before she realized it, they were walking down the path leading to the footbridge. Rainy weather and obligations both social and professional had kept them away from their romantic hideaway for over a week and a half; of course Harold would jump at the first opportunity to take her back there!
Before they stepped around the corner, Harold motioned for her to stop. "You wait here for a second while I scout out the situation," he whispered. "We don't want a repeat of what happened a couple weeks ago..."
Wincing as she recalled the time in late August when they had come to the footbridge and found it quite occupied by Tommy and Zaneeta, Marian had to admit that Harold had a point.
Taking a few steps forward, Harold concealed himself behind a tree and peered around the corner through the leaves. Marian made a great show of rolling her eyes at the music professor's dramatics, though she couldn't repress an amused smile.
"The coast is clear tonight, it seems," Harold proclaimed as he walked back to her. "Looks like the all of the teenagers are off canoodling somewhere else for the time being, leaving you and I quite alone." Grinning broadly, he took her hand again and pulled her the last few feet of the way until they stood together on the bridge.
To Marian's surprise, Harold did not kiss her immediately, but merely regarded her with a tender smile.
"What is it, Harold?" Marian asked, feeling rather confused. After his bold proclamations earlier, Marian expected that he would be more impatient to claim his prize.
In response, the music professor pulled her close and trailed a finger down her cheek, making her nearly sigh in delight.
"You really have done so much for me," Harold confessed, his voice low and earnest. "Sometimes I look at you and I can't believe how lucky I am."
Feeling heat flood her face at both the flattery and the candor of his admission, Marian cast her eyes down. "I was thinking the same thing, earlier," she whispered, her previous daydreams flashing through her mind. She wondered if he had been thinking similar things – if he really was just as utterly besotted as she felt.
When Marian raised her eyes to his face again, she was struck by his expression. There was no hint of mischief or teasing on his face; whether he intended to or not, Harold was showing his emotions plainly on his face. Once again, she felt that intoxicating rush of love and affection toward him, and she realized that she longed for him to kiss her almost too much to bear – yet he still made no motion toward her.
The idea unfolded itself in her mind, so simple that it startled her that she had never thought of it before. She could kiss him. If she had been in a more rational mood, Marian might have fretted over the notion for hours, but right now, swept away on the waves of emotion, she didn't bother to think. Seized by her impulse, in a single swift motion she leaned up, threw her arms around Harold's shoulders and pressed her lips to his.
It was a brief, chaste little kiss, but Marian had never kissed him first before; she found it both exciting and a little frightening. When she pulled back to gauge his reaction, she could already feel herself blushing furiously.
"Why, Marian!" Harold exclaimed, looking pleasantly stunned.
She bit her lip and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. "Um, was that good, or... oh, you're not laughing at me, are you?"
"Laughing? Why would I laugh?" Harold murmured, pulling her closer until their lips nearly touched again. "I'm only smiling because of how delightful that was – how delightful you are, to do that."
His words had a nearly instantaneous effect on her, and Marian felt more confident in Harold's arms than she ever had. Truth be told, the idea that he had not only liked her kiss, but made a point to say just how attractive he found it, had given her a surge of curiosity and forwardness that she had never before experienced. Marian had never given a thought to the idea that she might be able to have any sort of control over Harold, especially not when it came to their physical relationship. The fact that he was apparently willing to give her the upper hand once in a while was awakening some intriguing possibilities in her mind.
And, she regarded with less shame than she felt was proper, it wasn't just her mind that seemed to have awakened. Marian was suddenly more aware of the beating of her heart, the heat that rose to the surface of her skin, and the shortness of her breathing. She felt a draw to be even closer to Harold, a draw that even she knew was not fueled by romantic sentiment alone.
Feeling reckless, Marian decided to give in to the feeling, just a little bit – just to see what it would be like to take a more active role for once.
Melting into Harold's embrace and letting go of her careful restraint, she leaned in to kiss him properly – the kind of soft, slow kisses that she had become accustomed to from him. As they embraces, Harold trailed his fingertips across the back of her neck, and the new sensation made her shiver a little. Vaguely, she wondered what it would feel like if he were to caress her there with his lips instead of just his hands.
Yearning to try something new herself, Marian allowed her hands to slip from behind his back to lay on his firm chest. She delighted in how warm he felt, and couldn't help but wonder just how he had gotten so strong – certainly not through any sort of physical labor, so perhaps it was just a natural tendency. Marian was just starting to contemplate sliding her hands beneath the lapels of his suit jacket when Harold abruptly broke their kiss and took a step back, holding onto only her hands. Even as she blushed with embarrassment, Marian couldn't help but let out a little sigh of disappointment.
When they parted, Harold looked even more astounded than before. His breathing uneven, he managed to murmur, "It would be wise if we put a stop to this now, sweetheart."
"Yes, it would be wise," Marian agreed. Although she knew that it was brazen of her, Marian had to smile in triumph at how thoroughly she had managed to knock her confident beau off-balance.
Harold grinned dazedly and shook his head. "What has gotten into you tonight, Madam Librarian?"
His reaction made her feel a little dismayed – she had hoped that her kiss would be enough to convey everything she was feeling, allowing her to avoid the words that she wasn't sure she could say. "I just wanted to show you how much... how I feel about you," she stammered. "I might have gotten carried away..."
"Absolutely not," Harold assured her, gently stroking her hands with his thumbs. "I don't ever want you to worry about things like that with me- I'm not the kind of fellow who's going to get offended because his gal cares about him enough to kiss him!"
Turning away from him, Marian gazed down into the water, trying to articulate her sentiments without revealing too much. "I do care about you that much, Harold – more than that, even. I don't want you to think that I'm pushing you, or that I'm being too forward. Or... or for you to think that I'm asking anything of you. But, tonight, when you mentioned how lonely you've been, I just wanted to tell you..." Marian drew in a deep, wavering breath – why was saying this now almost as difficult as the first time? "I wanted to be sure you knew how much I love you."
The brief moment of silence that followed was nearly unbearable, but Marian turned around to face him anyway, needing him to see the honesty in her expression. She was relieved to see that there was no displeasure on the music professor's face – on the contrary, he looked at her with that same awestruck expression that he had regarded her with before she had kissed him.
"Oh, Marian, I love you too, you know that." Harold pulled her close to him in a close, possessive embrace, and Marian nestled her head against him, letting happiness wash over her at hearing the affirmation of his love. "I never, ever wanted you to think that you couldn't say that to me. But I was afraid, too, for the same reasons."
"You were?" Marian's eyes widened in shock as she looked up at him. "You certainly haven't shown it!"
"It wasn't a conscious worry, I guess – not nearly as pressing as the concert, for example. But as confident as I may seem to you, remember that I've never been in love before, either. I've been trying so hard to make sure that I don't cross any lines or do anything improper, so I thought I should pull back. These things are a good deal tougher to learn than music, I think!"
"We've both been fools," said Marian with a small smile. "But it truly never occurred to me that you might have been having similar misgivings. I suppose that I should have talked to you about this before, but I didn't want to bring it up in case you truly weren't ready to say it..."
Harold nearly interrupted her, his answer was so fervent. "I'll make sure that you never have such suspicions about me again, darling." His smile turned mischievous. "Though I do like the way you think, with the whole kissing business – I'll certainly tell you I love you in words more often, but I'll also redouble my efforts to tell you in other ways..."
Before Marian could make any attempt to respond, Harold was kissing her again, and the only answer she felt inclined to give was to part her lips beneath his and kiss him back as ardently as he kissed her.
Several minutes later, when the two finally managed to pull apart, Marian found herself whispering "I love you" almost without thinking about it, and when Harold responded in kind, it was all she could do not to fall into his arms again. She could tell that Harold was wrestling with the temptation as well, but at last he seemed to think better of it and simply drew her into a gentle embrace once more.
Resting his chin against her fair hair, Harold let out a reluctant sigh. "I think I should take you home now, Miss Marian. Your mother will be wanting you back soon."
"I suppose that's true," Marian replied, as much as it disappointed her that they couldn't simply stay as they were forever. It was as if a great burden had been lifted from her by the words they had spoken; although there were certainly still some things that it would be too soon to say, Marian felt immensely relieved that they had overcome the hurdle of discussing their feelings.
Taking a step back, Harold offered her his hand, and Marian took it without hesitation. As they left the footbridge behind them, Marian turned to look at Harold. Just like him, she had so much to learn, she reflected – and a good deal of her learning would be about herself. But, as they strolled easily through the breezy night, the idea of learning from him didn't seem to be all that frightening anymore.