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The early morning sun streamed across their backs as they unhooked their bicycles in front of Eliot House on the Harvard campus. They stopped for a moment to smile at each other. It was May and they were very young. Her short hair shone in the sunshine, and her eyes found his as she began to laugh.
"Well, Doctor of Architecture, how do you feel?"
"Ask me that in two weeks after I get my doctorate." He smiled back at her, shaking a lock of blond hair off his forehead.
"To hell with your diploma, I meant after last night" She grinned at him again, and he rapidly swatted her behind.
"Smartass. How do you feel, Miss McAllister? Can you still walk?" They were hitching their legs over the bicycles now and she looked back at him teasingly in answer.
"Can you?" And with that, she was off, pulling ahead of him on the pretty little bike he had bought her for her birthday only a few months before. He was in love with her. He had always been in love with her. He had dreamed of her all his life. And he had known her for two years.
It had been a lonely time at Harvard before that, and well into his second year of graduate school he was resigned to more of the same. He didn't want what the others wanted. He didn't want Radcliffe or Vassar or Wellesley in bed with him. He had known too many of those girls during his undergraduate days, and for Michael there was always something missing. He wanted something more. Texture, substance, soul. He had solved the problem for himself very nicely the summer before, with an affair with one of his mother's friends. Not that his mother had known. But it had been fun. She was a damned attractive woman in her late thirties, years younger than his mother, of course, and she was an editor at Vogue. But that had been merely sport. For both of them. Nancy was different.
He had known from the first moment he had seen her in the Boston gallery that showed her paintings. There was a haunting loneliness about her countrysides, a solitary tenderness about her people that filled him with compassion and made him want to reach out to them and to the artist who painted them. She had been sitting there that day in a red beret and an old raccoon coat, her delicate skin still glowing from her walk to the Charles Street gallery, her eyes shining, her face alive. He had never wanted any woman as he wanted her. He had bought two of her paintings, and taken her to dinner at Lockober's. But the rest had taken longer. Nancy McAllister wasn't quick to give her body or her heart. She had been too lonely for too long to give herself easily. At nineteen she was already wise and well versed in pain. The pain of being alone. The pain of being left. It had plagued her since she had been put in the orphanage as a child. She could no longer remember the day her mother had left her there shortly before she died. But she remembered the chill of the halls. The smells of the strange people. The sounds in the morning as she lay in her bed fighting back tears. She would remember those things for the rest of her life. For a long time she had thought nothing could fill the emptiness inside her. But now she had Michael.
Theirs wasn't always an easy relationship, but it was a strong one, built on love and respect; they had meshed her world and his, and come up with something beautiful and rare. And Michael was no fool either. He knew the dangers of falling in love with someone "different," as his mother put it when she got the chance. But there was nothing "different" about Nancy. The only thing different was that she was an artist, not just a student. She wasn't still searching, she already was what she wanted to be. And unlike the other women he knew, she wasn't auditioning candidates, she had chosen the man she loved. In two years he had never let her down. She was certain he never would: they knew each other too well. What could there possibly be that she hadn't already learned? She knew it all. The funny stuff, the silly secrets, the childhood dreams, the desperate fears. And through him she had come to respect his family. Even his mother.
Michael had been born into a tradition, groomed since childhood to inherit a throne. It wasn't something he took lightly, or even joked about. Sometimes it actually frightened him. Would he live up to the legend? But Nancy knew he would. His grandfather, Richard Cotter, had been an architect, and his father as well. It was Michael's grandfather who had founded an empire. But it was the merging of the Cotter business with the Hillyard fortune, through the marriage of Michael's parents, that had created the Cotter-Hillyard of today. Richard Cotter had known how to make money, but it was the Hillyard money--old money--that had brought with it the rites and traditions of power. It was, at times, a heavy mantle to wear, but not one Michael disliked. And Nancy respected it too. She knew that one day Michael would be at the helm of Cotter-Hillyard. In the beginning they had talked about it incessantly, and then again later, when they realized how serious their affair really was. But Michael knew that he had found a woman who could handle it, the family responsibilities as well as the business duties. The orphanage had done nothing to prepare Nancy for the role Michael knew she would fill, but the groundwork seemed to be laid in her very soul.
He watched her now with almost unbearable pride as she sped ahead of him, so sure of herself, so strong, the lithe legs pedaling deftly, her chin tucked over her shoulder now and then to look at him and laugh. He wanted to speed ahead and take her off the bike...there...on the grass...the way they had the night before...the way...He swept the thought from his mind and raced after her.
"Hey, wait for me, you little twerp!" He was abreast of her in a few moments, and as they rode along, more quietly now, he held out a hand across the narrow gap between them. "You look beautiful today, Nancy." His voice was a caress in the spring air, and around them the world was fresh and green. "Do you know how much I love you?"
"Oh, maybe half as much as I love you, Mr. Hillyard?"
"That shows what you know, Miss Nancy Fancypants." She laughed, as always, at the nickname. Michael always made her happy. He did wonderful things. She had thought so from the first moment he walked into the gallery and threatened to take off all his clothes if she didn't sell him all her paintings. "I happen to love you at least seven times as much as you love me."
"Nope." She grinned at him again, put her nose in the air, and sped ahead again. "I love you more, Michael."
"How do you know?" He was pressing to catch up.
"Santa Claus told me." And with that she sped ahead again, and this time he let her move out on the narrow path. They were in a festive mood and he liked watching her. The slim shape of her hips in jeans, the narrow waist, the trim shoulders with the red sweater loosely tied about them, and that wonderful swing of dark hair. He could watch her for years. In fact, he was planning to do just that. Which reminded him...he had been meaning to talk to her about that all morning. He narrowed the gap between them again, and tapped her gently on the shoulder.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Hillyard." She jumped a little at the words, and then smiled shyly at him as the sun shone across her face. He could see tiny freckles there, almost like gold dust left by elves on the creamy surface of her skin. "I said...Mrs. Hillyard..." He mouthed the words with infinite pleasure. He had waited for two years.
"Aren't you rushing things a little, Michael?" She sounded hesitant, almost afraid. He hadn't spoken to Marion yet. No matter what he and Nancy had agreed to between themselves.
"I don't think I'm rushing anything. And I was thinking about doing it two weeks from now. Right after graduation." They had long since agreed on a small intimate wedding. Nancy had no family, and Michael wanted to share the moment with Nancy, not a cast of thousands or an army of society photographers. "In fact, I was planning to go down to New York to talk to Marion about it tonight."
"Tonight?" There was an echo of fear in the word, and she let the bicycle come to a slow stop. He nodded in answer, and she grew pensive as she looked out at the lush hills around them. "What do you think she'll say?" She was afraid to look at him. Afraid to hear.
"Yes, of course. Are you really worried about it?" But it was a stupid question and they both knew it. They had plenty to worry about. Marion was no flower girl. She was Michael's mother, and she had all the tenderness of the Titanic. She was a woman of power, of determination, of concrete and steel. She had carried on the family business after her father died and again with renewed determination after her husband's death. Nothing stopped Marion Hillyard. Nothing. Certainly not a chit of a girl or her only son. If she didn't want them to get married, nothing would make her grant that "yes" Michael pretended to be so sure of. And Nancy knew exactly what Marion Hillyard thought of her.
Marion had never made any secret of her feelings, or at least, not from the moment she decided that Michael's "fling" with "that artist might be for real. She had called Michael down to New York and cooed, soothed, and charmed, after which she had stormed, threatened, and baited. And then she had resigned herself or seemed to. Michael had taken it as an encouraging sign, but Nancy wasn't so sure. She had a feeling that Marion knew what she was doing; for the present she had clearly decided to ignore "the situation." Invitations were not extended, accusations were not made, apologies for things said to Michael in the past were never forthcoming, but no fresh problems had sprung up either. For her, Nancy simply did not exist. And oddly, Nancy was always surprised to find just how much that hurt. Having no family of her own, she had always had odd dreams about Marion. That they might be friends, that Marion would like her, that she and Marion would go shopping for Michael...that Marion would be...the mother she had never had or known. But Marion was not easily cast in that role. In two years, Nancy had had ample opportunity to understand that. Only Michael obstinately held to the position that his mother would come around, that once she had accepted the inevitable, they would be great friends. But Nancy was never that sure. She had even forced Michael to discuss the possibility of Marion's never accepting her, never agreeing to the marriage. Then what?..."Then we hop in the car and head for the nearest justice of the peace. We're both of age now, you know." Nancy had smiled at the simplicity of his solution. She knew it would never be as easy as that. But what did it matter? After two years together, they felt married anyway."
They stood in silence for a long moment, looking at the view, and then Michael took Nancy's hand. "I love you, babe."
"I love you too." She looked at him worriedly and he silenced her eyes with a kiss. But nothing could still the questions that either of them had. Nothing except the interview with Marion. Nancy let her bike fall and with a sigh, slipped slowly into Michael's arms. "I wish it were easier, Michael."
"It will be. You'll see. Now come on. Are we going to ride, or just stand here all day?" He swatted her behind again and she smiled as he picked up her bike for her. And in a moment they were off again, laughing and playing and singing, pretending that Marion didn't exist. But she did. She always would. Marion was more an institution than a woman. Marion was forever. In Michael's life anyway. And now in Nancy's.
The sun rose higher in the sky as they pedaled through the countryside, alternately riding ahead of each other or side by side, at one moment raucously teasing, at the next growing silent and thoughtful. It was almost noon when they reached Revere Beach and saw the familiar face riding toward them. It was Ben Avery, with a new girl at his side. Another leggy blonde. They all looked like homecoming queens, and most of them were.
"Hi, you two. Going to the fair?" Ben grinned at them, and then with a vague wave of his hand introduced Jeannette. They all exchanged a round of hellos, and Nancy shielded her eyes to glance ahead at the fair. It was still several blocks away.
"Is it worth stopping for?"
"Hell, yes. We won a pink dog-- he pointed at the ugly little creature in Jeannette's basket--"a green turtle, which somehow got lost, and two cans of beer. Besides, they have corn on the cob and it's terrific."
"You just sold me." Michael looked over at Nancy and smiled. "Shall we?"
"Sure. You guys going back already?" But she could see that they were. Ben had a recognizable gleam in his eyes, and Jeannette seemed to be in agreement. Nancy smiled to herself as she watched them.
"Yeah, we've been out since about six this morning. I'm beat. What are you two doing for dinner tonight, by the way? Want to stop in for a pizza?" Ben's room was only a few doors down from Mike's.
"What are we doing for dinner, seÒor?" Nancy looked at Michael with a broad smile, but he was shaking his head.
"I have some business to attend to tonight. Maybe another time." It was a rapid reminder of the meeting with Marion.
"Okay. See ya." Ben and Jeannette waved and were off, as Nancy stared at Michael."
"You're really going down to see her tonight?"
"Yes. And stop worrying about it. Everything is going to be just fine. By the way, Mother says he's got the job."
"Ben?" Nancy looked up questioningly as they started pedaling toward the fair.
"Yes. We start at the same time. Different areas, but we start the same day." Mike looked pleased. He had known Ben since prep school, and they were like brothers.
"Does Ben know yet?"
Michael shook his head with a secretive smile. "I thought I'd let him get the thrill of hearing the news officially. I didn't want to spoil it for him."
Nancy smiled back at him. "You're a nice guy and I love you, Hillyard."
"Thank you, Mrs. H."
"Stop that, Michael" She wanted the name too much to hear it bandied about, even by Michael.
"I won't stop it. And you'd better get used to it." He suddenly looked serious.
"I will. When the time is right. But until then, Miss McAllister will do just fine."
"For about two more weeks, to be exact. Come on, I'll race ya."
They sped ahead, side by side, panting and laughing, and Michael reached the entrance to the fair a full thirty seconds before she did. But they both looked tanned and healthy and carefree.
"Well, sir, what's first?" But she had already guessed, and she was right.
"Corn, of course. Need you ask?"
"Not really." They parked their bikes next to a tree, knowing that in that sleepy countryside no one would steal them, and they walked off arm in arm. Ten minutes later they stood happily dripping butter as they ate their corn, and then they gobbled hot dogs and sipped ice-cold