Rain poured hard outside, but Marilyn didn’t care. Riding a horse was the fastest way to get where she needed to go, and Ben the butler had been most pleasant in explaining on how to get to the address.
A lifetime passed before Marilyn finally arrived at the estate. She tied her horse to one of the horse’s posts nearby the building, and ran as fast as she could to the doorway.
The butler answered the door, shocked.
“Why, miss!” he proclaimed in surprise. “You’re soaked to the skin! Do come in.” Without her agreement, he took her hand and led her inside.
The front room was decorated with extravagance and fancy furniture – much more stunning than her own home. The tile floor was black and white, and so shiny Marilyn thought perhaps she could see her reflection inside of it.
The butler cleared his throat, taking her shawl from her. “Miss, I’m afraid the master and mistress are not here. They’ve gone to town. It’s their shopping day today, after all. Only their son is home.”
“Their son will do fine,” Marilyn answered, her voice breathless. “Please have him come see me right away.”
“Of course, miss.” The butler indicated one of the chairs by one of the front windows in the foyer. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you.” She cast him a grateful, but nervous smile.
Then he disappeared, leaving Marilyn to wonder, for the tenth time since she’d mounted her horse, why in the world she had come here.
She let her gaze travel over the room, and then noticed the stunning paintings on the walls. They were paintings of beautiful, breathtaking landscapes. They made her wish to be within those mountains, those hills, walking through the gardens the painter had designed without a care in the world.
She sighed, and sat down on the chair nearest the door. She should not have come here, but she did not know what else to do. She needed someone to talk to, to share her troubles with, and if later she left disappointed, then at least she had tried.
“Now, Luther, I’m afraid I don’t believe you.”
“See for yourself, sir!”
Marilyn turned, then, standing, and her breath caught in her throat at the sight of Henry Jackson following the butler into the foyer. She swallowed hard, watching him stride toward her. He looked good, far too handsome on this cloudy rainy day, book in one hand with one finger propped somewhere between the pages, as if he’d been in the midst of reading it when Luther had snagged his attention.
“Marilyn.” His surprise was quite evident, but pleasant overall. He smiled, and then glanced at the butler. “Luther, thank you. You may leave us now.”
“Aye, sir.” Luther marched out of the room, his footsteps fading away.
Henry closed the distance between them, and Marilyn struggled to speak, realizing that maybe she liked the man far more than she ever had before.
“I…I was wondering…”
“If you’d like my coat? You’re shivering.” Without another word, Henry had it off, draping it over her shoulders. “Come, let’s go sit in the parlor where it’d be more private.” He extended his left elbow, which Marilyn took, and together they walked off in the opposite direction Luther had gone, to a narrow hallway. He opened the first door, and let her slip inside first.
Flames sparkled inside a fireplace hearth of a large, but cozy and warm parlor with several comfortable-looking sofas and chairs. One sofa sat in front of the fireplace, and Marilyn sat there. Henry followed, sitting in the chair across from her.
Marilyn stared into the spitting heat of the fire for a long moment, fraught to find the right words to speak.
“May I offer you some tea, Marilyn?”
She shook her head. “No, that’s all right, Henry.” She glanced at him, shy. “I’ll be fine warming up by the fire.”
“Oh, all right.” Henry smiled, and then cleared his throat, marking his book and setting it aside. “May I ask what you’re doing here then? My parents went to town. It’s their shopping day.”
“I know, the butler told me.” Marilyn chuckled. “I…I didn’t come to see them.” She glanced over at him. “I came to see you.”
“Me?” He raised his eyebrows. “But you’re not interested in the arranged marriage.”
“It’s not that. It’s…” She sighed. “My parents don’t know I’m here.” Then, trembling with anxiety, she went into the story of her parents: her birth mother, and the fact that her birth mother was actually a maid of their household. Once she finished, Henry looked shocked.
“Wow.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I.” She shook her head too, dropping her gaze.
Henry leaned forward, making him look far more rugged and handsome in the light of the fire than deemed necessary. “If you don’t mind me saying so, Marilyn, I hardly know your folks at all. So maybe this isn’t much of a shock to me as it is for you. I understand it to be so. But why, Marilyn, would you still come and see me, of all people?”
“I’m not sure.” Marilyn swallowed hard. “Perhaps it is because you might be my husband one day.”
“I know.” Henry nodded with understanding. “But…it’s still an arranged marriage.”
“And yet I feel…” Marilyn glanced over at him, growing shy once again. “Comfortable with you. You are easygoing. I feel like I can be comfortable talking to you, almost like I was talking to myself, without being judged or looked down upon which so often happens in my home, except from most of the servants, of course.” She sighed. “But still, they’re too busy with their work to really care about me and my personal life. This does not include my birth mother. What I’m trying to say, Henry, is it’s nice.” She focused upon the warm hearth. “It’s nice to have a friend, someone who seems like they actually care.”
Henry cleared his throat, as if the conversation topic made him nervous, and he nodded. “Yes. Definitely. Is there anything I can do for you, Marilyn? I’d do anything.”
“No, nothing.” Marilyn smiled. “It’s nice to have somebody to share my feelings with. But…thank you.” She returned to the fire, feeling shy once again.
Henry didn’t say anything for a long moment. Perhaps he might have been giving her some space to recollect her thoughts and ponder everything that had happened today. But then, he surprised her: he stood and slipped right to the couch beside her. Marilyn didn’t turn, didn’t want to appear startled, which she hadn’t been. She’d wanted him to sit beside her anyway.
“You know…” Henry extended his hand. “It’s nice, too…for me, to have a companion to talk to.” He glanced over at her. “Being an only child, I didn’t always have people to talk to. My so-called friends were of course interested in much more different things. A lot of times as I grew up, I’d find myself talking more to myself.” He chuckled.
Marilyn smiled, and then nodded. “I know the feeling.” She glanced over at him, then, and that was when she recognized how close in proximity he sat. There had been a whole lot of space on this couch, and yet, he’d chosen to sit very close to her.
Henry lured so near, in fact, that she counted the tan-colored specks in the blues of his bright, handsome eyes. She listened to his breathing, noticed his pulse pound from beneath the skin of his neck.
And there he sat, frozen, incapable of looking away.
Then again, so was she, staring at him, knowing she didn’t feel the cold chills in her body anymore. Every cell of her being stayed focused on him and who he was as a man.
Henry’s body lurched forward, his gaze focusing on her, closer and closer. Her breath caught in her throat.
As if hearing it, Henry whispered: “I want to try something. Do you trust me…Marilyn? I…I want to try something.”
Marilyn nodded, struggling to breathe, forcing herself to remain still. She closed her eyes, waiting, as Henry shifted closer until she felt the warmth of his hand touching her hand on her lap, comforting. Then, she relaxed, felt herself trust him, and at the precise moment she did, too, Henry’s breath shifted on her cheek and his lips brushed over hers. He hesitated, their foreheads touching, and Marilyn, surprising even herself, leaned forward a half an inch and once more, Henry’s lips touched hers, but in a deeper, softer kiss.
Henry’s other hand cradled the curve of her cheek in his palm, He tugged her closer to lengthen the kiss.
No matter how comfortable the kiss was, no matter the feelings that erupted inside of her and caused her to feel, Marilyn believed this kiss to be a mistake. She gasped, pulling apart from him, and Henry let her go. He sat back in his old chair, burying his face in his hands.
They didn’t speak for a long moment. Marilyn gazed back at the fire, regaining her composure and pretending nothing had happened. Henry stared at the floor as he leaned forward in his chair, drumming his fingers together.
“I’ll…I’ll give you some tea, Marilyn. Would you like that?”
Marilyn glanced up at him. Henry smiled at her, something like love glistening in his gaze—yet how could he love her when they barely knew each other? Perhaps Marilyn had imagined it. Relieved, she nodded. “Tea sounds good,” she agreed, and felt grateful the tone of her voice sounded normal.
“Be right back then.” Henry winked at her. Then, after he stood, he soon vanished from the room.
Marilyn shook her head hard, telling herself she wasn’t thinking straight. But then, remembering the kiss, she pressed the tip of her right index finger against her lips, and then felt a smile curl the edges of her mouth. She had received her first real kiss.
And yet, had it been real?
And why had Henry kissed her? Did he feel that fond of her? Or had he done it to prove how an arranged marriage between them could work?
Marilyn highly doubted that, because between the weight of her feelings balancing between them, particularly when their lips had touched, she distinguished with every cell of her body that what she’d received had been a real kiss.
This was a real kiss with a man she’d fallen in love for head over heels, from the moment he strode into her parents’ parlor, after dinner, to comfort her.
Marilyn couldn’t put her finger on why he made her feel this way, or how in the world it had happened so fast. Whatever the case, she decided she better play hard with him. She didn’t want anyone to become too close. And yet, she did. A wonderful man was everything she’d ever wanted in her entire life, everything she’d never had.
Henry soon returned, bringing with him a nice cup of hot, herbal tea with a lemon floating on the top. The simple, sweet gesture caused Marilyn to smile, and she thanked him as she took it from him, letting his jacket drift down from her shoulders to reveal the dress she wore beneath it.
She stirred her tea for a long moment, and then sipped from it, careful since it was still hot, and didn’t realize Henry staring at her until she glanced up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing.” He shook his head and looked away, blushing. “It’s that…you’re stunning and beautiful.”
Marilyn gasped, looking away in bashfulness.
“No. I mean…” He sighed, lifting a hand. “I don’t mean to sound as if I’m a desperate man searching for marriage or anything.”
“No.” Marilyn chuckled, shy. “You’re not at all like that. I’ve never thought otherwise.”
“Oh.” Henry smiled, as if he, too, had become shy. He cleared his throat. “Then…um…may I ask, then, what you were thinking?”
She glanced up at him, and caught his gaze. “If I ended up being forced to marry you one day, I know for the rest in my life, I would not mind. Because you’re so kind.” She smiled, then gazed down to some more tea.
Which left Henry staring at her for perhaps, longer than necessary.
By the time Marilyn returned home to the estate, night had fallen and the rain had long stopped. After letting her back inside the house, Ben assured her that neither the master nor the mistress noticed that she’d been away for several hours.
She was thankful for that, and she smiled at him as she passed, reminding herself to get him a gift next time she went into town.
The following evening, Marilyn sat at the dining table with Zelda and her father in silence. As Marilyn ate the mashed potatoes and sirloin steak, however, Ben came into the quiet dining room and handed Zelda the mail as usual. After waving him away without thanking him, Zelda flipped through the thin pile of envelopes she received.
Then, stopping at one letter, she gasped.
“Oh!” she exclaimed with much delight. “Here is a letter from the Jackson estate.”
Marilyn froze in her seat, a mouthful of meat in her mouth, and glanced up at Zelda as she tossed the other mail aside to tear open the envelope. She glanced at Father, who didn’t seem like he noticed as he flipped his most current newspaper to the next page, pushing his reading glasses farther up his long nose.
Marilyn decided she better not seem enthusiastic or excited at all about whatever the letter from the Jackson estate said. After all, not only would Zelda be curious, she’d assume something wasn’t right, therefore causing her to rethink Marilyn’s relationship with Henry. She would no doubt come to the assumption of it not being an arranged marriage, but a romance which went against every one of Zelda’s orders.
Zelda removed the letter from within the envelope, flipped it open, and read it through. Marilyn finished chewing the steak in her mouth and swallowed, hoping Zelda didn’t assume something she shouldn’t about her and Henry’s relationship.
After all, she very much looked forward to seeing Henry again…no matter what that meant.
Zelda cleared her throat as she studied the letter. “It seems, my dear, you have been invited to a formal dinner at the Jackson estate tomorrow evening.” She beamed and glanced up at her. “Now isn’t that exciting!”
Marilyn swallowed hard, sent up a quick prayer, and then said, in her most natural pleading tone: “Please, Mother, please. Don’t make me go.”
“Now, Marilyn.” Zelda refolded the letter and set it on the table by her plate, giving her a stern look. “You know how important it is to—” She glanced at Father in annoyance. “—us that you give very polite and appropriate actions toward these people. They are not as wealthy as us. However, they are still very well-off.” She picked at the green beans on the edge of her plate. “That is well enough for me.”
Marilyn rolled her eyes, even though deep inside she whooped cheers of pure joy. “Mother, why do you have to drag me along into every aspect of your life in which I do not want?” she complained in a forced frustrated tone.
But Zelda, oblivious, cast her a dark look. “Marilyn, you are going to that dinner tomorrow and that is final!” She frowned. “It’s scheduled for six o’clock. You shall leave here by four-thirty. End of discussion.” She bowed her face back to the remains of her meal.
Marilyn exaggerated a long sigh, shifting around the food on her plate…while inwardly screaming with excitement.
In obedience to Zelda’s orders, Marilyn left home by four-thirty, and by the time they were at the Jackson estate, which took a good long hour to arrive there, she had to tone down the happiness escalating through her. Her heart was pounding. She’d never been on her own before where her parents approved. But being alone was both refreshing and heartwarming; refreshing, because it was rare that she left the estate due to Zelda’s strict orders; and heartwarming, because the Jackson family wanted to see her and her only!
The carriage came to a rest in front of the Jackson manor. The door swung open as the horses slowed the carriage to a halt, and Luther appeared, striding over to the side door to open it and take her hand.
“Here you go, miss,” he said, leading her out of the carriage and onto the gravel beneath their feet.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Luther.” She smiled at him before he nodded back with a kind smile, and led the way inside the domain.
As they came into the emptiness of the foyer, Marilyn fought the urge to glance around, wondering where everyone was.
As if sensing her uneasiness, Luther closed the door and strode toward her. “The family will greet you in the dining room, miss. Let me take your shawl and bonnet here.”
“Oh, am I late?” Marilyn asked, worried.
Luther chuckled as he helped her with the shawl and brought it over to the nearest coat rack. “Certainly not, miss. The master and mistress are not strict when it comes to schedules. Besides, it’s not even six o’clock.”
As she handed Luther her bonnet to hang up, she noticed the grandfather clock in the foyer read five minutes to six. She breathed a sigh of relief, and then let Luther lead the way. After he hung up her bonnet, he asked her to come with him, and she instantly followed him down the hall to the left, passing a maid and beautiful paintings on friendly walls instead of the bleak ones she recognized far too well.
Finally, Luther stopped at one doorway and called out, blocking her path: “Master.”
“Yes, Luther,” came a booming, but welcoming voice.
“Miss Marilyn James is here for the dinner, sir.”
“Excellent. Send her in.”
Luther stepped back, gave her an encouraging wink, and extended his hand toward the room.
Marilyn swallowed hard. Then, taking a deep breath, she breezed past Luther and entered.
The first thing she perceived as she appeared was Henry’s handsome grin. He stood on one side of the beautiful dining table, his parents on either side of the table’s ends, all waiting for her.
“Hello, Marilyn.” Roger Jackson approached her. He stood as a big man who had many similar qualities of Henry’s facial features, except for his chocolate brown-colored beard and well combed hair. He wore glasses at the edge of his nose, and also wore a suit. “It is so good to see you again, my dear.” He took her hand and kissed the top of it.
Marilyn chuckled. “Thank you, sir.” She beamed. “It is very good to see you, too.”
Eliza Jackson laughed nearby. “Oh, Roger, you sure know how to compliment the ladies.” She giggled some more. She appeared as a fancy dressed woman with a beautiful tan dress and a beautifully beaded, brown necklace that curled down the front of her dress. She also had auburn brown curls ordaining the soft cheeks of her face.
She smiled from ear to ear as she strode forward, too, and surprised Marilyn by giving her a gentle hug. “Marilyn, dear, it is so nice to see you again.” She stepped back and smiled with excitement. “It seems like there’s been nothing else Henry has talked about but this dinner.” She laughed.
Marilyn smiled. “I am very glad to be here, ma’am.”
“Oh, please. Call me Eliza, everyone does. Except the servants, of course.” She grinned, then, as Henry stepped forward.
Marilyn spun toward Henry, her heart pounding within her, and she smiled over at him.
“Hello, Henry,” she greeted him.
Henry smiled in reply, and it was apparent he hid his emotions. “Hello, Marilyn. It’s a pleasure to see you again.” He took her hand, and kissed it.
But this kiss meant much, much more to Marilyn.
The dinner went very smooth. Roger and Eliza cleared any awkwardness in the air by saying the blessing—which surprised Marilyn since she wasn’t used to a family prayer at all—and joking around during the meal. The meal consisted of a salad and then beef stew, and it tasted delicious.
“Roger,” Eliza said with a chuckle as she buttered her biscuit. “You should tell Marilyn the jam story.”
Marilyn, enjoying herself a lot, smiled as she glanced across the table to Henry, who winked at her.
“The jam story?” she prodded.
Roger shook his head. “It’s Eliza’s favorite story.” He shook his head again, but his brown eyes twinkled with mischief, something else Marilyn really did not have at home.
“But you always tell it well, sweetheart.” Eliza gazed at her husband with true, devotional love, and Marilyn had to look away at the deep longing coursing through her heart. She wished so much that her parents were able to lead their estate together instead of apart. She longed for Zelda to leave and never return.
Roger took a bite of his stew. He glanced at her. “When Henry was, oh, about three years old—”
“Oh, no,” Henry remarked, shaking his head which caused Eliza and Marilyn to both laugh.
“Eliza and I were shopping for the day.” Roger sipped at his iced water. “Since Henry is the youngest, he had no choice but to stay at home while the servants looked after him. Well, when we came home, we found out that the maid watching him left him alone in the kitchen for only a few minutes to get a couple of his toys since he refused to leave the kitchen.”
Marilyn chuckled, glancing at Henry, interested in learning more about his childhood games.
“When she returned, he was—and I am not making this up—head to toe in blueberry jam!” Roger took a bite of his stew again, narrowing his twinkling eyes over at his son.
“Henry!” Eliza teased her son, causing Marilyn to giggle some more. “What in the world were you thinking?”
Henry shrugged. “I’m not sure.” He chuckled. “I must’ve loved blueberry jam back then.”
Marilyn laughed along with them, shaking her head.
“I enjoy spending time with your family,” she told Henry after dinner when they were alone. “I look forward to meeting all of your friends one day, maybe soon.”
Henry led her from the parlor out onto the beautiful, spacious, stone balcony overlooking the backyard gardens below. The view was stunning, one that caused Marilyn to not want to look away as she followed him to the thick, stone railing. Gazing off into the distance, they were on top of the world, since the estate also sat on top of a hill, and it caused Marilyn to feel safe, a feeling she hadn’t had in a long time.
“I wouldn’t be as excited to see my friends,” Henry teased, shifting toward her. “I’m afraid they’re a lot less playful and much more serious than both my parents and myself are.”
“I can handle it.” She winked over at him.
Henry chuckled. “I’m very glad you could come here and have dinner, Marilyn.”
Marilyn studied his face, where he finally showed his emotions of tenderness and interest. It caught her off guard—and yet, these feelings were all she needed and much, much more.
Henry stared at Marilyn for a long moment. Then, he stepped closer, in one swift movement that caused her to close her eyes with uncertainty. He rested his forehead against hers, and she swallowed hard, feeling how close he stood against her, and she longed for his arms to go around her.
She gazed up at him then, trying to ignore the tenderness in his sky blue eyes in which she wasn’t sure she was prepared for. “I want to live a good life like you want me to. I long to be happy, truly happy.”
Henry smiled then, gazing at her as if staring at an angel. “What are your dreams, Marilyn?”
She grinned. “I dream of being in a faraway land, wealthy or not, where I’m with people I love in a world with no hurt and no pain.” She looked off toward the lush trees. Her heart pounding beneath her skin, and yet, she was as comfortable with him as if she were speaking to a male version of herself.
“I dream of being married one day, and of having a household of children.” Marilyn didn’t meet his gaze when she said that, but she discerned still that he was her friend. He would never judge her. “Children of all personalities, shapes, sizes, and a good amount between both genders.” She smiled. “These children should always be happy with their lives and who they are. They shall be the children that will look up to my husband and I, children who desire to look off toward the future and dream their own dreams, plan their own futures as long as God’s will and plan for their lives is at the center.”
“I agree.” His voice rumbled over her like gentle thunder, causing her to look up.
Henry grinned. “I dream for the same.”
“You do?” Marilyn brightened.
“Yes.” Henry trod closer. “I dream of a wife to take care of the home while I’m gone working and being the breadwinner. I dream of a household of children, as long as they learn to both respect and admire their parents, first and foremost, as they should. I dream of raising them in a way that pleases God. I aim to protect them, defend them, and take care of them at all times, even if it costs me my own life.” His smile faded, serious now. “As I will do for my wife.”
Marilyn admired him even more at that moment, and she swallowed hard as his left hand cradled her cheek within his palm. “You can be a serious man when you want to be,” she teased.
Henry closed the distance between them until their foreheads were almost touching. “Well, Marilyn…I am very serious about you.” One side of his mouth quirked up, and Marilyn’s heart melted.
As she gazed into the blues of his eyes, Marilyn desired nothing more than to be his wife for the rest of their lives.
“You are?” she whispered. And at his slight nod, she closed her eyes, whispering, “I’m very serious about you, too.”
Henry swept his mouth over hers, and this time, he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her closer. As Marilyn placed her hands to the front of his suit, she leaned into the amazing kiss. Within that moment, she was the happiest she’d ever been in her entire life.