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Temptation

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Since his reformation, Harold had behaved impeccably during their courtship. It was rather difficult, because he wanted to make love to Marian even more. And now that she trusted him, it was clear from the longing in her eyes that she no longer had any qualms about dreaming. So he had to be extra careful – when he visited her on a stormy afternoon and common courtesy demanded she let him in even though she was home alone, it took his entire force of will not to take her upstairs and finally see what her tower looked like from the inside.

~September 1912, Tower Room Drabbles, Marianne Greenleaf

XXX

The morning after the parade, Marian awoke feeling even more blithe and lovely and beautiful than she had the day after Harold’s reformation. While the mirror didn’t quite agree with this assessment, the librarian merely giggled to herself as she smoothed out her sleep-disheveled curls, massaged her cheeks, and made herself presentable for the day. The silver bracelet Harold had given her the evening before was still around her wrist – she hadn’t been using hyperbole when she told him she would never take it off – and she dreamily traced the dates engraved on the inside of it until her rumbling stomach forced her downstairs to seek a proper breakfast.

The librarian was somewhat surprised to find herself alone in the house. Her mother had left her both a meal and a note on the kitchen counter. Apparently, she was out shopping and Winthrop was playing with his friends, and they’d be back sometime in mid-afternoon before supper. As it was only eleven o’clock, Marian would have a good few hours to herself, which suited her just fine – after attending to her hunger, she returned to her tower to gaze out of her window and reflect on all that had happened yesterday.

Harold truly loved her. She had known that, of course, but he had also shielded the true intensity of his feelings, just as she had, to the point where she had almost forgotten the heady thrill of his embrace. While the music professor and librarian shared a few sweet moments since the night of July twenty-third, they had largely placed romance on the backburner as they concentrated on building a successful business venture. Although they had spent long hours alone in the music emporium together, they only exchanged witty banter and the occasional heated look as she drilled him in music theory in preparation for the concert and parade. Last night, their reserve finally shattered, and they each confessed everything they’d been holding back for the past month. In some ways, it felt like a new beginning for them, and she allowed herself to dream that someday, he would gift her with another, even more significant piece of jewelry for her finger.

As Marian continued to stare outside, she suddenly became conscious that not only was a storm rolling in, her beloved was in the vicinity. As lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and fat raindrops began to fall, Harold increased his already avid pace until he was outright barreling toward her front porch. With a gasp, the librarian raced downstairs and reached the front door just as the music professor rang the doorbell.

“How-de-do, Miss Marian,” Harold boomed, his energy as frenetic and electric as the storm. He had the most endearing grin on his face and he was practically bouncing on the balls of feet as he vibrated with delight. “I’ve just come from the post office – I mailed out the patent application for the Think System. Since I was passing your house on the way back, I just had to see you.”

Although she was just as thrilled to see him, Marian hesitated. Normally when she was alone, she’d join him on the front porch, or they would take a stroll together. But neither option was viable in a storm like this. Nor could she send him on his way in such horrible weather. The boarding house was a fifteen minute walk away and he was already soaked.

Marian had to make a decision, and quickly. The storm was getting closer and thunder rumbled menacingly overhead, making the house rattle. It wasn’t safe for them to be standing out here like this.

So she took a deep breath, opened the door all the way, and invited him into the house.

XXX

“I’m so sorry for the imposition,” Harold apologized as soon as he realized they were completely alone. Once again, he had been too overenthusiastic in his zeal to see the woman he loved, and his rashness had put him in danger of scaring her off. He ought to have continued on home and visited her later. “I could leave, if you prefer.”

But to his surprise and delight, Marian had come a long way from the blushing rose of July twenty-third. “Nonsense,” she said firmly as she knelt in front of the fireplace and gathered a pile of kindling together. “I care far more about your safety than my reputation. Besides, even if we weren’t courting, how could anyone decent begrudge offering someone shelter in a storm?”

After quickly and industriously getting a flame going, Marian stood up, moved the screen in front of the fireplace, and turned back toward him. “You ought to take off your suit-coat, shoes, and socks so they can dry properly. I won’t have you catching a cold!” she insisted when he opened his mouth to protest. She retrieved a heavy afghan from a nearby shelf and placed it on the sofa. “You can wrap yourself in this until your things are dry.”

After Marian bustled into the kitchen to make tea, Harold draped his suit-coat on the screen and placed his shoes on the floor nearby. His socks were dry enough, so he decided to keep them on, as even he felt it would be too indecorous to roll up his trousers and undo his garters when he was this alone with Marian. As tempting as it was to follow her instructions to the letter, it would be a lot more prudent to keep as much of his clothing on as possible.

As Harold wrapped himself in the afghan and settled himself on the sofa, he couldn’t help marveling at how much he’d changed in only two short months. Once upon a time, this would have been a situation tailor made for a long afternoon of the most heated and decadent lovemaking. No one could see or hear them, so he could be just as inventive and uninhibited as he pleased, making love to Marian in far more creative places than beneath the sheets in the bedroom. The sofa arm would make a very nice perch, and there was an awfully inviting blank patch of wall by the kitchen door…

Harold immediately put a stop to such thoughts. Although he avidly anticipated doing all of these things with Marian someday, at present he primarily cared about keeping both her dignity and her reputation intact. And he wasn’t going to be able to do that if got himself all worked up into a lather.

But it was difficult to be respectable when the librarian went upstairs to get herself a shawl. As Harold watched her ascend to her tower, he was sorely tempted to follow her up and finally see what her bedroom looked like from the inside. But there was not even the slenderest pretext that he could use for such a dangerous course of action as an honorable man, and his thoughts, while arising from a place of genuine love and longing, were far from honorable at the moment.

He wanted her. Badly. And his longing had only grown, especially since their heated rendezvous on the footbridge last night. To find himself alone with her, after watching her silhouette in the tower window and wanting to be in the room with her – it was almost as if whatever fortune, fate, or deity that watched over him was testing the strength of his resolve to be a gentleman. But they were wasting their time. The former conman was determined not to yield.

However, Harold was almost undone when Marian came back downstairs. She was wearing the most delectable black silk fringed piano shawl he had ever seen, embroidered with pink roses and covering most of her body. But instead of wrapping it artlessly around her shoulders, she had draped it becomingly around her curves like an overdress, leaving one arm completely free.

Although Marian was still fully and properly clothed, it was such an intimate, domestic sight that Harold grew hard. Despite his determination to be good, it was far too easy to imagine her wearing nothing beneath that alluring shawl, although putting those kinds of ideas into his head hadn’t been her intention. Fortunately, the thick afghan concealed his arousal, and the tea kettle whistled in the kitchen, so the librarian exited the room before he could open his mouth and make a complete fool of himself.

By the time Marian returned to the parlor with a heaping tray of tea and other confections, Harold had managed to settle himself down. It helped a great deal that her fetching piano shawl was now wrapped more decorously around her shoulders. As the music professor hadn’t eaten a thing since yesterday’s lunch – he never could eat when he was excited or unsettled – he suddenly realized he was famished, and tucked into the tea, finger sandwiches, and pastries with unusual alacrity.

As ever, the librarian was a lady from the ground up, and didn’t even raise an eyebrow at his indelicacy as she decorously nibbled at a sandwich and sipped her tea. She had taken a seat next to him on the sofa, and their conversation was far more companionable than charged as they enjoyed the refreshments she had procured for them.

“As soon as the music emporium is registered and the patent for the Think System is squared away, I plan to buy a house in town,” he informed her in between bites.

“That’s wonderful,” she said, her eyes glowing with joy. “Do you have a particular neighborhood in mind?”

He shook his head and swallowed a gulp of tea before responding. “That’s where I need your help, my dear little librarian. Since you’ve lived here much longer, you can tell me which neighborhoods are most desirable, and which ones I should avoid.”

Even in the dim light, he could see her blush, and it was thoroughly charming. “Well, it would largely be my opinion. There are many others in town who could give you better advice, I’m sure.”

He reached out and caressed the silver bracelet on her wrist. “Your opinion matters a lot more to me than anyone else’s, Marian.”

Suddenly, there was a flash of light and a loud clap of thunder – the loudest yet – and all the lights in the house extinguished. Fortunately, they still had the fire to keep them warm, and it lent a soft, romantic glow to their tête-à-tête. Her bracelet gleamed beneath his fingers.

“I love you so much,” she whispered. “So much that it almost frightens me.”

Harold swallowed and nodded. He knew just how she felt, because he felt that way, too. “I haven’t regretted this, not for a moment,” he assured her in a low voice that was not seductive but solemn. “Have you ever been sorry that you fell in love with me?”

“Never,” she said vehemently.

Having reached the end of his self-control at last, Harold dropped his afghan and pulled Marian into his arms. As his mouth covered hers, she opened her arms and wrapped him in her shawl along with her. So they were cocooned together as close as it was possible to be with clothes on, kissing as eagerly and as passionately as newlyweds about to embark on their wedding night. And as he was only in his shirt sleeves and stocking feet, this illusion was particularly potent.

Harold knew he ought to stop this, but as a man in love it was doubly hard for him to let go of Marian. The same shawl that pressed him inexorably to her was pulled too tight to allow his hands to wander freely, as one of them was firmly wrapped around her waist and the other was cupping her cheek and fingering a loose curl or two as he kissed her.

Eventually, they had to part for air, and as they did the shawl fell away. The librarian looked deliciously tousled and, as she appreciatively eyed his dishabille, his now-freed hands ached to roam over her breasts and her hips and her backside before finding their way beneath her skirts to the warmth between her thighs. He knew women’s undergarments well enough to know that she’d be wearing split seam drawers, and he was an expert at finding his way to a gal’s most intimate places while she was still fully clothed.

But somehow, even in the midst of the worst temptation he’d ever yet faced, he managed to restrain himself. Because this wasn’t the way he wanted their first time together to be. When Harold finally touched her that way, he wanted the two of them to be lying in bed together, fully unclothed. He wanted to see just as much as feel every inch of her. What’s more, Marian deserved a far better introduction to physical pleasure than a hasty coupling on a parlor sofa, and not even his basest instincts could convince him to seduce her before they were properly married. And he had no doubt that he was eventually going to marry her, so he had every reason to be patient. Paradoxically, the two of them being wrapped tightly together in a blanket was safer, so Harold reached out and enfolded her in his afghan.

“Are you sure this is wise?” Marian gasped, though from her delighted expression, she was clearly not inclined to budge from his arms.

“Not at all,” he admitted. “But it allows us to be close without getting too close, if you follow my meaning.”

She gave him an appraising look, but tinged with sympathy. “It must be very difficult for you. You’ve never courted a woman honorably before, have you?”

Harold shook his head. He wanted to turn from Marian before he accidentally revealed too much for his own comfort, let alone hers, but her gaze was far too mesmerizing. It was so open and honest, and the depth of her love and longing for him was fathomless. What man could look away from that?

“I trust you completely, Harold,” she said softly. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting with you like this right now.”

He found himself saying exactly what he did that first night they kissed on the footbridge: “Marian… there are a lot of things that you don’t know about me.”

Her response this time, however, was much different: “I know,” she acknowledged, lowering her eyes for just a moment, her elegant lashes briefly veiling the intensity of her gaze before she turned the full force of it on him again. “And perhaps you’ll tell me these things someday. When you’re ready.”

As if on cue, the lights came back on. But neither the music professor nor the librarian so much as twitched. Their eyes remained locked together, hers steady, his desperate. The invitation to unburden himself was even more dangerously tempting than going upstairs to the tower with her. For a moment, he seriously considered telling her a few things. But where should he start? And would she still love him after she found out the actual details of his checkered past?

Harold had no qualms about dropping his trousers and parading bare before a woman, but he had never been able to open his heart so freely. A few women had worked their way a little deeper into it than he intended, but they had never managed to breach the walls he had so carefully built to keep someone from breaking him. Only Marian had succeeded in scaling these battlements. To lose her now, after how deeply he had let her get under his skin, would be as debilitating as losing his right arm or his silver tongue. She had gone into the depths of his very soul and somehow drawn out the conscience and the decency he had buried long ago. He had built a thriving musical curriculum in River City, but she had built him, and he couldn’t bear the thought of her rejecting him that way.

“I’m not ready just yet,” he admitted. “But I’m hoping to be, very soon.”

She smiled sweetly at him and nodded in understanding. But there was a disquieting element of wistful resignation in her eyes, as if she’d known he would say that, but still couldn’t help hoping for more.

Harold felt duty-bound to give her something, to repay her tremendous – and perhaps unwarranted – faith in him. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Marian. It’s just – I was a terrible scoundrel. It’s hard for me to remember all the wrongs I’ve committed.”

“You are no longer that man, Harold,” she reminded him. “You’ve turned over a new leaf and have accomplished much to be proud of.”

“That still doesn’t erase any of the bad things I’ve done,” he said, pained.

She shook her head. “No, but you can repent and atone for them, as you have done and are continuing to do.”

“Marian… what is it exactly that you see in me?” he couldn’t help asking.

Her answer was almost immediate. “I see a man who is blessed with so many wonderful gifts, and who lives life with an enthusiasm and passion that we sorely need in this town. A man who is trying so desperately hard to be good, and to do the right thing with his prodigious talents. A man who loves me with his whole heart, just as honestly and fiercely as I love him. You are the cleverest, brightest, wittiest – and handsomest – man I have ever known. I thank Providence every single day that you came to River City.” Her gaze turned inward and became oddly shuttered. “And every single day, I’m amazed that a marvelous man like you saw something in a spinster librarian and lonely pariah that he felt was worth getting almost tarred and feathered for.”

Harold couldn’t bear to listen to her talk herself down like that. “Marian, you are so much more than that,” he said hotly, pulling her into a fierce hug and burying his face in her curls. “It’s not your fault that the River City-ziens were too blind to see the rare pearl of a woman you are. You are so good, without being hopelessly naïve or sickeningly saccharine about it. You saw not only who I was, but who I could be. I’ve never a met anyone who saw the world so clearly while still having such a strong sense of decency. You made me want to be a better man. And you were the only one who believed in me during my darkest hour – you showed me that I could teach music, after all. If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be riding the rails – probably to my untimely death in a ditch somewhere.” He lifted his head from the crook of her neck just enough to take in every detail of her beautiful face as she beamed warmly at him. “And as the cherry on top of all that, you are the most gorgeous woman I have ever laid eyes on. You’re amazed I saw something in you? I’m amazed a wonderful woman like you saw something in me!”

“Oh, Harold,” she pleaded, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “I know Mama and Winthrop are due home soon, but you’ve got to kiss me at least one more time – ”

She had barely gotten the words out before his mouth covered hers.

While Harold was slightly disappointed that she hadn’t yet worked up the gumption to initiate a kiss, the fact that she felt brave enough to outright ask for one showed just how far she had come over the course of their courtship. And as soon as his mouth met hers, she immediately parted her lips to welcome the advances of his tongue. Not only that, her tongue explored the contours of his mouth just as boldly and eagerly as he explored hers. Every day, she was becoming more and more of his equal in lovemaking – and it was thoroughly intoxicating.

They reveled in their cozy and heated embrace until the parlor clock chimed the top of the hour. The music professor pressed a final soft, sweet kiss to the librarian’s still-welcoming lips. “We should stop now.”

Marian took a deep breath and nodded shakily, and they both rose from the sofa. As she repaired her disheveled chignon in a nearby mirror, Harold retrieved both his suit-coat and shoes from the fireplace and slid into them.

By the time Mrs. Paroo and Winthrop walked in the door, the music professor and librarian were reading sedately in the parlor, seated in completely different chairs and flawlessly presentable in both attire and coiffure. Both the afghan and piano shawl were neatly folded and resting innocently on a nearby shelf, as if they hadn’t been disturbed at all.

But as ever, the matron wasn’t fooled. Though she didn’t scold or even tease, she regarded the courting couple with a sly smile as her daughter primly explained her beau’s inopportune presence in their parlor. And she was nothing if not pragmatic: “Well, since you’re already here, Professor Hill, you might as well stay for supper.”

“I’d be delighted,” Harold smoothly replied, even as he felt a strange heat rise to the back of his neck. Oddly, he felt the need to justify himself, although it would have been far safer to let the matter rest unspoken. “Forgive my unexpected visit, but I had several important things to discuss with Miss Marian after our successful concert yesterday.”

Mrs. Paroo looked pleased but wary. “Oh? And what were those?”

Harold paused for only a split second before leaping off the precipice. “Well, now that the boys’ band has put on a second successful concert and a full parade, I can finally register my business and apply for a patent for the Think System. I’m also planning to purchase a house in town. I’ve still got a little ways to go before I’m completely settled into River City and my job is secure enough to guarantee a steady living, but I’m making very excellent progress.” Ever a man to risk, he reached out and took Marian’s hand in his. As her eyes once again began to glisten, he allowed real feeling to enter his voice as he confessed, “I owe every bit of my success to your wonderful daughter. She’s been right by my side through it all, and I hope she’ll continue to be in the future.”

When Mrs. Paroo fully relaxed and grinned approvingly at him, he knew he had made the right choice. And not only that, he had bought the precious time that both he and Marian needed before they were finally ready to make their relationship official.

XXX

Several hours later, Harold finally got Marian alone again on her front porch. She had been waiting for this moment just as much as he – his hands found her waist and their mouths met almost immediately, and they stood in blissful silence for a good several minutes. The sun had fully set and the courting couple was standing where the shadows were darkest, so they were unlikely to be witnessed by any nosy mothers or passerby.

“Oh, my dear little librarian,” Harold groaned, looking thoroughly undone. “Every night, it gets harder and harder to let you go.”

Then don’t, she longed to say. The words lingered dangerously on the tip of her tongue. And perhaps she would have actually said them, if he hadn’t leaned in and kissed her again.

Marian knew that they were really going to have to address whatever it was that was holding him back from proposing, even as she eagerly kissed him in return. Though they had fallen head over heels together, they still hadn’t safely found their landing just yet. Things were getting perilously heated between them, and he hadn’t so much as mentioned the word marriage.

Still, she was not discouraged, as Harold was actively in the course of registering his business and buying a house in town. Until he got fully settled, it wouldn’t be prudent of him to propose. So she needed to be patient for just a little while longer. It all came down to whether or not she trusted him to make good on his implicit intentions toward her, and she did.

Once again, her faith in him was vindicated: he ended their embrace before it could become too heated, stepped back to a more respectable distance, and took her hands in his. “I’m going to dream of you tonight, Marian. Will you dream of me?”

She smiled. “I always do.”

Pressing a warm kiss to her hand, Harold bounded off with his usual vim and vigor. Once he had rounded the corner and completely disappeared from view, Marian turned around, entered the house, walked upstairs to her bedroom, and sank into her sheets. She had brought the piano shawl upstairs with her, and draped it over herself like a blanket. She not only remembered but reveled in the way Harold looked at her when she came downstairs wrapped in it, as if he wanted to gobble her up right then and there. Even though she knew it was too enticing to wear in front of him again until they were safely married – or at least engaged – she would sleep with it every night until then. And she would recall how delicious he looked sitting there on the sofa in his shirt sleeves and stocking feet, with a disheveled chestnut curl dangling rakishly over his forehead…

As the librarian caressed her kiss-swollen lips and breathed the intoxicating scent of Harold’s bay rum aftershave and sandalwood soap on her fingers, she dreamily anticipated that someday, they wouldn’t have to say goodnight, and she could do far more than trace the ghosts of his embrace in her lonely tower.