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Chapter 26

"Yeah, Mr. Dreeson, I know she's only marrying me on account of she needs it to take care of her folks. So what? I've seen people get married for lots worse reasons."


"Yeah, Mr. Piazza, I know I only just met her and we hardly know each other. So what? The way I figure it, we'll have years together anyway with nothing else to do."


"Yeah, Mr. Ferrara, I know we'll probably just wind up getting divorced anyway. So what? Some of you folks have been divorced, haven't you?"


A moment's pause in the ruckus. Not much. Just a little stutter before the voices of adult wisdom plowed on.


"Yeah, Mr. Underwood, I know she's dirt poor and she's just marrying me for my money but that's a laugh because I don't have any worth talking about anyway. So what if I lose it? She's welcome to it."


"Yeah, Mr. Hudson, I know she's a knockout and that's probably at least half the reason I'm dumb enough to marry her. So what? I don't see where that's much different from lots of the other marriages I've seen in this town." Unkindly: "At least my girl is a knockout."


Driven off by the armor of youthful folly, adult wisdom turned on the eccentricities of maturity.


"Melissa!" roared Dreeson. "Will you please stop encouraging this child with your—what are you doing, anyway?"


Melissa paused in her awkward gesturing. "Give me a break. I know I'm not good at it. I was much too refined to be a cheerleader in high school. Got to ask Julie Sims to give me some pointers." She rose from her seat and took a dramatic pose, as if holding pom-poms. "Two! Four! Six! Eight! What do we appreciate? Matrimony! Matrimony!"


By now, James Nichols was laughing gaily. Mike, standing by the window staring out into the darkness, was grinning. So was Rebecca, sitting on her chair.


Frank Jackson, on the other hand, was glaring. Not at Jeff, however.


"All of you just shut up," he snarled. The genuine anger in his voice brought silence to the room. Startled, everyone except Mike stared at him. James stopped laughing and Melissa stopped gesturing.


When Frank continued, his voice was a low growl. " 'She's not good enough for you,' " he mimicked. " 'She only wants American citizenship.' 'She's too different.' 'It won't work.' " Snarling: "Jesus!"


He fixed Underwood with a cold gaze. Underwood had been the most vociferous—and crude—in his opposition to Jeff's announcement. "Let me ask you something, Quentin. Just where in the hell do you think I met Diane, anyway?"


Sarcastically: "You do know who I'm talking about, right?" He held up his hand, palm down, less than five feet from the floor. "Little-bitty woman, 'bout so tall. You may have seen her around town now and then. Woman I been married to for, what is it now, thirty years? Mother of my three kids." His anger faded, for just an instant, replaced by sorrow. Frank and Diane's three sons were all adults, and had moved out of town. The Ring of Fire had left them behind.


The anger returned, along with a half-sneer. "Yeah, Quentin, I'm curious. Did you think I met her at a gala reception at the embassy? Me in my swank uniform and her wearing a slinky evening gown imported from Paris? Did you think she was some kind of Vietnamese princess?"


Underwood looked away. "It's none of my business, Frank," he said, uncomfortably. "I never asked. Nobody knows, I don't think."


Frank snorted. He glanced at Mike. "He knows. A few others." Frank was in one of his very rare tempers. He leaned forward, clenching his fists on the table. "Well, I'll tell you what. I'm going to make it your business. I met Diane at—"


"Frank!" Mike's voice was not loud, just insistent. He turned away from the window and walked back to the table. He put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Leave it alone. There's no need for this."


He looked at Jeff, still standing in the doorway. "If it's worth anything to you, Jeff, I think you're probably the smartest person in town at this particular moment. You already figured out something the rest of us are trying to catch up with. Except maybe Melissa."


His eyes fell on another figure. Softly: "Or Rebecca."


Startled, Rebecca's eyes widened. Mike smiled. "Especially Rebecca, I think. Why don't you explain it to them?"


Rebecca hesitated. She asked questions at these meetings, but, so far, had rarely offered an opinion. Mike's warm eyes—loving eyes—emboldened her.


"I am not sure, Michael. But I shall try."


She turned her gaze to the other people sitting at the table. "You have a choice here." She took a little breath, and closed a final gap. "We have a choice here. We can take one of two roads. Jeff's road—as 'foolish' and 'impetuous' as it may be—or a different road. Jeff's road leads to a country very much like the one I believe you once had." Sadly: "Like the dream my people once called Sepharad. The other—"


Her voice grew harsh and cold. That tone, coming from soft Rebecca, was quite shocking. "The other leads to a military aristocracy. A land of hidalgos and inquisitors. So-called 'pure-blood' Americans—limpieza—ruling over a horde of German peons."


She gestured with her head toward the window. "What are those people out there going to be for us? Those dirty, diseased, desperate people out there in the camps and the woods. Fellow citizens, neighbors, friends—wives and husbands? Or are they going to be serfs, servants, lackeys—concubines? That is the choice."


Underwood was ogling her. "What? You aren't—" His eyes were very wide.


Melissa's laugh was sarcastic. "Oh, for the sake of Christ, Quentin! Of course she's not proposing that we require anybody to get married. Grow up!" An impish gleam came to her eyes. "Although, now that I think about it—Alexander the Great did, you know? Made his Macedonian officers all marry Persian girls. Hmmm."


Mike chuckled. "Stop feeding the tourists, Melissa."


Quentin's eyes were still wide. Mike shook his head. "The point, Quentin, is not what this or that individual decides to do, but what stance we take toward whatever decision somebody does make. People can think or say or do whatever they want. That's not the same thing as what a society sanctions." He pointed at Jeff. "For the first time, an American young man is going to be marrying a German young woman. So what's it gonna be, 'Fathers of the Nation'? Is it going to be sanctioned, or not? Are you going to handle it publicly the way you'd handle any other wedding, regardless of your personal reservations? Or are you going to tell the world what an idiot he is and how the German girl's a worthless gold digger? Scum—not good enough for American blood?"


All the humor faded from his eyes. "What's it going to be?"


Willie Ray Hudson expelled the breath from his chest. "Aw hell, Mike. Since you put it that way." The old farmer leaned back in his chair and cocked his head at Jeff. "This girl of yours? Has she got a father to walk her down the aisle?"


Jeff's face fell. "I'm not sure, Mr. Hudson. But I don't—I don't think so. If I understood something she said, I think her dad was murdered a couple of years ago."


Hudson winced. "Jesus," he muttered, "I don't even want to think what that poor girl's been through."


"No, you don't," said Melissa forcefully. "Trust me on this one, Willie Ray. You don't."


Hudson rose and walked over to Jeff. "Well, then. Jeff, you tell this girl of yours that—if she wants—I'd be more than happy to take her father's place at the wedding."


Jeff's face was suddenly eager. "Would you, Mr. Hudson? Everybody in town's known you their whole lives. Oh, that'd be great! I'll have to ask Gretchen, of course." He looked back at Larry. "You still got the dictionary?" Larry held it up.


The laughter in the room drew Jeff's eyes. "What's so funny?" The laughter got louder.


"This has got to be a record," chuckled Ferrara. "Meet a girl and propose in one day, maybe. But using a dictionary?"


Jeff flushed. Willie Ray patted him on the shoulder. "Ignore that lout, boy. I'm sure it's not a record. Just a contender."


That didn't seem to help, judging from the color of Jeff's cheeks.


"Ignore that lout, too," pronounced Melissa. She held up her wrist and examined the clock. "All right, that's enough. It's almost ten thirty. Let's not get crazy. We did fight a battle today, remember?" She gave James a serene glance. "And poor Dr. Nichols here has to be back at the hospital early in the morning."


"Real early," agreed Nichols. "Adams agreed to handle the cases tonight, but I've got to spell him first thing. We've got dozens of badly wounded men on top of everything else."


Mike nodded. "Yeah, I agree. Besides—" He looked over at Jeff. "Are you staying here tonight?"


Hesitantly, Jeff eyed Ed Piazza. "Well, if the principal doesn't mind." Jeff waved at his friends. "We decided we'd all like to camp out here. On the library floor, I guess. Gretchen and the others are asleep now, but they'll be waking up early and—and—" He stood a little straighter. "We're going to be their new family, now—all of us, since Larry and Ed and Jimmy live with me and they'll be I guess kinda like uncles or something—so we thought we should be here when they wake up. Just because—" He groped for words.


"Absolutely," agreed Piazza. He dug into his pocket and came up with a set of keys. Quickly, he began removing one from the key ring. "But don't use the library. There'll be people in there all night. Besides, my office has a carpet. You might actually get some sleep. Just try to be out of there before Len Trout comes in so he doesn't trip over you. He'll be groggy like he always is in the morning. Low blood sugar, you know. Makes him a little grumpy until he's had his coffee and you'll be right in front of the coffee machine."


Looking a bit alarmed, Jeff took the key. It was universally known by the high school's students that you did not want to arouse the vice-principal's ire before he'd had his dose of three cups of coffee, laden with sugar and cream. Not.


He and his friends sped on their way. Early to bed, early to rise.


 


When they were gone, Quentin Underwood heaved a great sigh. "Oh, hell. I still think the kid's crazy, but you know what? After this nightmare we've been plunged into, I swear I can't think of a single thing that'd be better for my soul than to watch a young woman walk down the aisle in a wedding dress."


Dreeson nodded. "Goes for me too. The whole damn town, for that matter."


His eyes widened.


Mike laughed. "I'm way ahead of you, Henry. If we can talk Jeff out of getting married as fast as possible—which won't be all that easy, let me tell you, 'cause I've actually seen the girl—then I'd like to hold the wedding four days from now."


Melissa looked startled. "Four days from now?" Her eyes fled to the wall. "What calendar are we using, anyway? Here in the seventeenth—"


"Don't care!" proclaimed Dreeson. "As far as I'm concerned"—he clapped his hands—"four days from now is the Fourth of July!"


Mike grinned. "Yeah, sure is. Just what we need. A celebration, parade, fireworks—and we'll cap it off with the biggest wedding this town ever saw."


Quietly: "It'll remind us what we're all about." He gave Rebecca a very warm smile. "And not about."


 


The meeting broke up then. As Melissa was walking down the corridor to the school entrance, she heard quick footsteps behind her. Turning, she saw that James Nichols was hurrying to catch up with her.


When he arrived, the doctor broke into a smile. "May I walk you home?" he asked.


Melissa grinned. "Shameless!" she exclaimed.


Nichols was startled. "Me? I was just—"


Melissa shook her head and took James by the arm. "Not you, doctor. I would be most delighted to have you walk me home." As they made their way down the corridor, she chuckled. "I was referring to a certain former student of mine. Prizefighter turned matchmaker. Shameless."


Nichols looked a bit embarrassed. "Oh." They walked on a little further. He cleared his throat. "Actually, it was Rebecca who gave me the elbow. Not"—a big smile, here—"that I hadn't been thinking about it."


Melissa turned her head and studied him. His smile, rather. She liked that smile. Immensely. It was a cheerful, happy, relaxed smile. The smile of a very grown-up man, well into middle age. He was fifty-five years old, she knew, only two years younger than she. Secure in himself, knowing himself well, and glad to be in that place. But also delighted to discover that he wasn't, apparently, all that old after all. As delighted as she was.


They were both smiling now. Both enjoying the relaxation of their age. Knowledge, certainty. Fumbling in the back seat was ancient history. Aches and pains of the body had come, but at least guessing was behind them.


Once they left the school and started walking down the parking lot toward the road below, James' arm slid around Melissa's waist. Gently, easily, he pressed her to his side. She leaned into him, covering his hand with her own. Her palm felt the wedding band on his finger.


Melissa knew that James was a widower, his wife dead in an auto crash, but she knew none of the details.


"How long ago—"


Apparently, he could read her mind. "Long enough," was his answer. "I grieved, Melissa. Long and hard. I loved her dearly. But it's been long enough."


 


As they approached the Roths' house—the Roth and Abrabanel house, now, since the arrangement had by mutual agreement become permanent—Rebecca turned and leaned into Mike. He folded her into his arms and they began kissing.


Five minutes later, more or less, they separated. Not far. Maybe half an inch.


"I must speak to your father," Mike said softly.


Rebecca nodded, her head against his chest. "How do you want to do this, Michael?" she whispered.


"Your father?"


She shook her head. "No, no, not that." She smiled, still against his chest. "I do not think, now, that will be the problem I once assumed. I am not certain, but after what Melissa said—"


She nuzzled his shoulder. "He has been reading this philosopher named Spinoza, lately. He smiles a lot. At me, especially. And now and then I see him smiling at you. As if he knows something we do not."


Mike chuckled. "He probably does, at that."


Rebecca leaned back and looked Mike in the eyes. "I will do whatever you wish," she said softly.


Mike studied her in the moonlight. Her eyes were like dark pools, soft, limpid, loving.


"You would prefer it slowly," he said. The statement was a simple declaration.


Rebecca hesitated. Then, ruefully: "Not entirely!" Her hands were suddenly pressing into his ribs, kneading, almost probing. Mike felt the passion flashing from her fingers down to his heels, back to his skull, down his spine. He swayed giddily, and pressed her close.


"Not entirely!" She laughed, turning her face eagerly to meet his. Five minutes more elapsed.


When they broke away—maybe an inch—she was smiling warmly. "But—yes. If you don't mind. I am still—" She hesitated, fumbling for the words.


Mike provided them for her. "You are in a new world, and pushing yourself as hard as possible to grow into it. You would like time, to fill every room properly, before you move into the house."


"Yes!" she said. "Oh, yes. That is exactly it, Michael." She stared up at him. "I love you so," she whispered. "Believe me that I do."


Mike kissed her forehead. "All right, then. That's how we'll do it." For a moment, feeling her shoulders under his hands, he almost hissed. Desire.


Then, laughing softly. "What the hell? My grandpa always used to say we youngsters didn't know what we were missing. Anticipation, he'd say. 'By the time you little twerps get married, you're already bored with sex.' "


Rebecca giggled. How easily they talk and joke about this!


Mike stepped back. Two inches, maybe three. "All right, then," he repeated. "We'll get engaged. A long engagement, just like in the old days. As long as you want, Rebecca Abrabanel."


He stepped back another few inches, slowly and reluctantly, but firmly for all that. "I will speak to your father tomorrow." Then, he was walking away.


Standing on the porch, Rebecca watched him recede until, with a last turn of the head and wave of the hand, he rounded the corner. Her head was straight, her hands clasped together, fingers pressed to her lips. Simply savoring the passion which flowed up and down through her body, like a surging tide.


Not so long as all that, Michael! Oh, I love you so. Oh, I want you so.


 


 


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