“Good evening,” Michael greets us. “You both look lovely. I am glad to see you.”
He addresses Aunt Rita too, but his gaze remains on me and I am surprised to see a touch of nervousness in his friendly expression.
“Good evening, Mr. Gable. I hope you are well tonight,” Aunt Rita responds.
I blush under his attention. He is even more handsome in this glittering, giddy atmosphere than in the midday sunlight. His black tuxedo is well tailored, with a pop of color in his emerald green pocket square.
The band begins another high spirited tune. Dancing couples cover the open space on the large, raised patio where the band is arranged, facing the ocean. The harmonizing notes fill the silence that falls between us.
Aunt Rita clears her throat. “I’m going to find some acquaintances.” She finishes her wine and places the empty glass on a passing footman’s tray. “Enjoy yourself, Mary.”
While I am wondering what I might say to encourage her in her mission for the night, she is already striding away with her chin high.
Michael looks toward the band and back at me. “Would you care to dance?”
Again, I am struck by his nervousness. It is slight, and if I did not have his self-assured demeanor of this afternoon with which to compare, I might not notice. Somehow, the alteration in him bolsters my confidence. This man, this stranger who feigned friendship in order to speak to me today, has a unique effect on me.
“Perhaps we could walk first and see the grounds,” I suggest. “I can’t say I’ve ever been to a party quite like this one. Have you?”
He offers his arm and I slip my hand into the bend of his elbow. We begin to walk the circumference of the lawn and the crowd it contains.
“Do the Colemans host many of these?”
“Twice a year. This is their annual end-of-summer garden party.”
I laugh in disbelief. “Garden party?” Images of the garden parties I’ve attended flash through my mind: small gatherings of intimate friends; tea and finger sandwiches; quiet conversation.
“They like to take something average and raise the bar," he remarks with a laugh. “Their other annual event is the Christmas party. That one is indoors, of course, and even more grand.”
The reality that I know nothing about Michael is dominant in my thoughts. “How do you know the family?”
“I am a second cousin. Mrs. Coleman’s maiden name was Gable.” He greets someone as we round a back corner of the courtyard, then returns his focus to me. “And you, Mary? If this is your first Coleman celebration, how did you happen to be here tonight?”
I admit, “We weren’t invited.”
“Do tell." His eyes widen with curiosity.
“I don’t think I can.”
“You are more a mystery than I expected.”
“I’m not, truly, but it turns out my aunt might be.” I leave it at that, unwilling to confide Aunt Rita’s secrets.
Michael stops beside a stone fountain at the end of the courtyard. It is a circular structure with a tall statue of a heron perched on a pedestal at the center. The bird’s wings are spread as if about to take flight. Water flows from the backs of its wings and around its feet down into the tiled bowl below. We admire it in silence. The band segues into a softer, slower melody.
“You’re a bit of a mystery yourself, Michael.”
“Tell me about yourself, Mary.”
“I was about to make the same request.”
“You first. Tell me anything you’d like.”
He lets my hand slip off his arm and takes a seat on the edge of the fountain.
“My full name is Mary Eve Harper and I have lived in Boston all my life. I have an older brother and sister, both married. I teach piano to schoolchildren, which I rather enjoy. I paint, though I’m terrible at it. I have a collie named Jasmine and a nephew named Paul, and I love both of them dearly."
I ignore the wave of embarrassment I feel over the bits of autobiography that tumbled from my mouth without forethought. "It's your turn."
“Fair enough.” He thinks for a moment. “I live in Manchester. I’m a civil engineer for the city, as is Tommy, whom you met this afternoon. I have four sisters, two older and two younger. I have a spaniel named Devlin. He’s my bird hunting partner even though he’s fairly useless. I’ve vacationed here in Hampton Beach with my family every summer of my entire life except when I was eight years old and sick with the measles. I almost didn’t come this summer, but I am exceedingly glad I did now.”
My cheeks blush madly and I’m thankful for the low light of the lanterns in the courtyard behind us.
“I do have to add one more thing.”
Michael fiddles with the buttons of his jacket, diverting his eyes from mine. “I’ve been watching you all week.”
My mouth drops open and I take a step back. “Excuse me?”
“No! No, I said that all wrong.” He half groans, half laughs. “I’m sorry. I mean, I’ve seen you around the town throughout the week. I mean, I’ve noticed you several times this week.”
I bite my lip, unsure if this is an improvement.
Michael leaves his seat on the fountain and stands in front of me. His voice softens. “I first saw you on Sunday, walking with your aunt on the boardwalk and wearing a blue hat. I was drinking coffee at an outdoor table at a café. You passed right by me," he refuses to drop his eyes from mine, “and I wanted to follow you then and there. You were conversing with your aunt, but your eyes watched everything around you. You looked like you wished for nothing less than adventure.”
I remain stunned and speechless, but also thrilled in a manner that makes me anxious.
“Then you were in the crowd at the concert in the park on Tuesday evening, and I saw you again the next day when you were eating lunch with your aunt and someone else, one of her friends, I guess, at the same café where I had coffee on Sunday. I just finished brunch with my parents and aunt and uncle when you arrived there. That’s when I promised myself I’d speak to you somehow the next time I saw you.
“I waited for my next opportunity, watched for you everywhere we went. I had Tommy on the lookout for you too,” he says with a chuckle. “You can imagine how relieved I was this afternoon when I realized it was you and your aunt walking so closely behind us on the boardwalk. I’d begun to wonder if you’d left town already.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You didn’t notice me even once before this afternoon, did you?”
“I’d be lying if I said I did.”
Nerves threaten to disband the gumption I’ve somehow possessed since meeting Michael today. Behind the fountain is a gravel footpath extending away from the house and toward a manicured maze of tall hedges. I walk to the path without a word and hear Michael follow. Our feet crunch on the stones covering the narrow lane. Rosebushes laden with late summer blossoms in an array of hues – red, pink, white, orange, yellow – line the length of the path. I stare at one perfect, pink bloom and am overcome by the beautiful unexpectedness of this night.
Before we reach the entrance to the hedge maze, I stop and Michael comes around in front of me. I want to tell him every thought in my head. I want to tell him I’m flattered, but that is an entirely inadequate word for what I feel. I want to say I wish we’d met on the first day I arrived instead of a week into my stay. I want to ask if he ever visits Boston for any reason at all, and if I might be a reason to visit if he does not. My search for words lasts longer than I’d like.
“Have I scared you off?” he asks, hands in his pockets and eyes on his feet.
I inhale the intoxicating fragrance of the flowers, then I lay my hand on his smooth cheek. The feel of his skin against my palm startles me, as if I didn’t realize I was touching him. He frowns when I drop my hand back to my side. I do not want to make him frown.
“Does your invitation to dance still stand?”
The party, the patio, and the band are all behind me. He looks over my shoulder and asks, “You want to go back?”
I shake my head.
He surveys our spot here on the white gravel path, with its rosebush walls and high-rise, starry ceiling. His smile reappears and, with a deep bow, he extends a hand. “Would you do me the honor, Miss Harper?”
Mirroring the smile while suppressing a giggle, I curtsy. “It would be my pleasure, sir.”
We sway and turn with the distant music. His hands, one wrapped around my fingers and one on my waist, are warm, like the inside of my chest where my heart beats at a doubled pace.
“If you tell me you are going home tomorrow, my summer will be utterly ruined,” he declares.
I laugh aloud, setting a sparrow flying from its hiding spot in a hedge. “We are here another week.”
He twirls me out and back in again. “May I take you to lunch tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, I’ll ask to see you on Monday.”
I nod again. Anticipation tingles in my fingertips.
We slow our dancing though the music’s rhythm does not change. “On Monday, I’ll ask for Tuesday, and then for each day that remains.”
“We’ll have a splendid week.” I am breathlessly aware of how near his face is to mine. I almost ask about after, about letters or telegrams or visits, then I tell myself to enjoy tonight. Tomorrow, I will enjoy tomorrow. I’ve never felt that the days ahead must be known before they arrive, and I don’t wish to start now.
As if reading my thoughts, Michael winks the way he did in the first minute of our first meeting. “Maybe I’ll take piano lessons in the fall, in Boston.”
The song comes to an end and we stand still. Statues sculpted in a dance. I try to remember what it was like to be unfamiliar with his smile. We are both holding our breath until we laugh in unison at ourselves. He releases my hand and my waist.
“Would you like to return to the party? You haven’t even tasted the food, have you?”
At the mention of food, I realize I am famished. Back at the hotel, Aunt Rita only ordered a light supper for us while we prepared for the party. Knowing all I know now, I realize she was likely too anxious to eat.
“Food does sound good, thank you.”
Before we can step from the shadows of the tall hedges though, we hear footsteps. Two people deep in conversation, and clearly assuming they are alone, approach on the gravel path. I freeze.
“It’s okay, Mary. We won’t be in any trouble for walking back here.”
I shake my head. I know immediately the identity of one of those voices, and I feel certain in my guess at the other. Grabbing Michael’s wrist, I pull him through the entrance of the maze. There are only the stars to see by now, tucked away behind the eight-foot-tall, two-foot-thick hedge.
Michael peers at my face in bewilderment. “What’s wrong?”
How can I explain? I cover my face in my hands, realizing how ridiculous I must seem. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “It’s my aunt and Miles Coleman.”
To be continued.