The arias which always helped him to relax and enjoy his evenings did nothing to quell the uneasiness plaguing him. He switched off the radio and the silence which followed was a painful reminder that he was alone. It was near mid-night and she wasn’t home as yet. Where on earth could she be? He had tried calling her cell many times but it was turned off. When he came home that afternoon, she wasn’t there but he thought nothing of it. She was probably with her friends or at the library. However, as it got late and she hadn’t come home or called, he began to get worried. A couple of hours earlier, he looked across the street and saw a group of young people congregate outside of his neighbor’s home but she wasn’t among them.
He put off calling her friends because he didn’t want to come across as overprotective but eventually, he had no choice. None of them knew where she was but promised to call him if they heard anything. He closed his eyes in despair. Tonight was supposed to be a special one. He was going to tell her that he loved her but first they were going to enjoy the dinner he had prepared for them. It was probably cold by now. Oh, Rebecca, where are you? Why don’t you call me? It was not like her to do this. He was out of his mind with worry.
The last time he felt like this was nine years ago when they were in the shopping mall and somehow they got separated. One minute she was right there beside him and the next she was gone. Frantic, he went through the mall, looking for her until finally, he went to the courtesy desk and asked them to make an announcement.
Ten minutes later, the embarrassed and distressed twelve year old showed up. After hugging her tightly, they left the mall with him holding her hand in a firm grip. He didn’t lecture her right away because she was visibly upset. Suffice to say, they never got separated again whenever they went out together.
He would never forget the first time he met Rebecca. She was eight at the time and it was at the company’s annual summer picnic. Her father brought her with him that year. It was two years after her mother died. She and her father have moved out of the house and to a flat in the old neighborhood where he grew up. He and her father worked together and over the years, they had become very good friends. He always used to tell him, “I hope that Becky ends up marrying a good man like you, Noel.”
Rebecca stared up at him with those huge brown eyes and stole his heart. So, three years later on that fateful day in the hospital when Clyde asked him to become her guardian he said yes. Clyde died two days later and was buried next to his beloved wife. Noel took Rebecca home and raised her as if she were his own daughter. He was thirty at the time.
They had a very close and loving relationship. He took her to museums, concerts, operas, on day trips and the movies. His life was never the same and he was thankful for that. She filled his heart and home with such joy. Whenever they visited her parents’ graves, he would silently thank Clyde for bestowing such an awesome responsibility on him and promised him that he would make sure that Rebecca married a good man.
He knew that she still missed her father, especially when it was his birthday or Father’s Day and she always talked about how conversant he was with movie classics and that it was from him that she developed her love for them. So, whenever it was her father’s birthday or Father’s Day, they would watch old movies on TCM in his memory.
Things continued in much the same vein until Rebecca turned eighteen. That’s when his feelings toward her began to change. It became increasingly hard for him to be around her and not want her. He continued to kiss her on the forehead as they bid each other goodnight every evening but how he ached to kiss her on the lips. He considered sending her away to college in Washington, but quickly squashed the idea because their separation would be unbearable for him. They still spent a lot of time together but he encouraged her to hang out more with people her own age. At first, she protested, preferring to be with him like old times but he insisted so, she acquiesced.
He remembered one night when she came home from a friend’s birthday party and was aghast at the dress she was wearing. Her hair was pulled up in a ponytail, she wore makeup, the gold earrings he had given her as a birthday present and the dress–if you could call it that, was short, hugged her figure and had fine straps. Her cleavage was there for the entire world to see.
His face suffused with color and he took a deep breath before he muttered, “Please go and take off that dress.”
She went and ten minutes later, she was wearing a pair of pajamas, her face was scrubbed clean and her hair fell about her shoulders. She watched him warily. “You’re angry with me,” she said.
He dragged his fingers through his hair as he struggled to remain calm. His heart was racing. He wasn’t upset with her only but with himself because of his body’s response to seeing her in that dress. He was relieved to see her in the pajamas because they were a bit loose on her. “Rebecca, what were you thinking wearing a dress like that?”
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I wanted to look good.”
“Wanting to look good doesn’t mean you should expose yourself like that. That dress was tacky. You’re a beautiful young woman, Rebecca. You don’t need to flaunt yourself in order to fit in. I don’t care if your friends are wearing those kinds of dresses, I only care about you and so, I don’t ever want to see you in a dress like that ever again.”
She nodded. “All right, Noel. I won’t dress like that again, I promise.”
“Do you still have the receipt?”
“Okay. Tomorrow, I would like you to return it. I’m surprised they sold it to you.”
“I’ll return it right after school.” She went over to him, her eyes wide as they met his. She put her arms around his neck and hugged him, burying her face in his chest.
At first he stood there, stiff as a board, unresponsive and then he put his arms around her waist and hugged her tightly, closing his eyes as strong emotions washed over him like a tidal wave. After several tortuous minutes, he extricated himself and put a little distance between them, his eyes dark and stormy as they returned her gaze. “Goodnight, Rebecca,” he said quietly.
“Goodnight, Noel.” She hesitated for a moment and then turned and walked out of the room. He watched her go. He had dared not give her the usual kiss on the forehead because he might have ended up devouring her lips instead.
The loud peal of the phone jolted him back to the present and he grabbed the receiver, his heart thudding. “Hello?”
It was Chloe, one of Rebecca’s friends. “Hello, Mr. Harding. I’m sorry to be calling at such a late hour but I thought you might want to know that one of our friends saw Becky talking to a woman right outside of the university campus. She said they looked like they were having words and then Becky ran off, very upset.”
“Did you friend describe what this woman looked like?”
“She said that she was blonde, stunning and drove a red Porsche.”
His fingers tightened around the phone. Emma. “Thank you, Chloe, for calling and letting me know.”
“Has Becky come home as yet?” She sounded very concerned.
“No, I’m afraid not. When she does, I will have her call you in the morning. Goodnight, Chloe.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Harding.”
As soon as he rang off from Chloe, he dialed Emma’s number, fuming.
“Hello, Noel. Why are you calling me instead of coming over?”
He ignored her question. “Why were you here this afternoon?”
“I stopped by to see you, of course. Where were you?”
“What do you say to Rebecca?”
“Why what did she tell you?”
“I haven’t seen her since this morning and I’m out of my mind with worry.”
“Well, she’s probably doing this to spite you. When I came by, she looked at me as if I were trespassing and when I told her that we were seeing each other, she as much as called me a liar. So, I showed her a photo of the two of us together–you know the one I asked the waitress to take of us when were having dinner at that Italian restaurant? You should have seen her face. I told her that she was only there because of the promise you made to her father–”
“How dare you tell her that?” he demanded furiously. “I agreed to be her guardian because I loved her. She means the world to me. Damn you, Emma. Don’t ever show your face around here again.” He slammed the phone, shaking. He could kick himself for ever getting involved with her.
He went to the window and looked out, his forehead pressing against the glass. It was then in a moment of sheer desperation, that he mouthed a silent prayer, his eyes squeezed shut.
“Noel?” a timid voice called behind him.
Swinging around, he found himself staring at Rebecca. For a moment, he thought it was a figment of his imagination. Had God answered his prayer that quickly? In a flash, he was across the room and pulling her roughly in his arms. “Oh, Rebecca,” he moaned. “Where have you been? Have you any idea of the torment you’ve put me through?” He drew back to stare down into her face. She had been crying. Her eyes were red and swollen. Even now, tears were glistening in them.
“I’m-I’m sorry,” she cried. “I didn’t mean to worry you but I was so upset this afternoon. I had just come home from the library when I heard the doorbell. It was a woman I’d never seen before. She asked for you and when I asked her who she was, she told me that the two of you had been seeing each other. I didn’t want to believe her and told her that she was lying. She showed me a photo of the two of you and I realized that she was telling the truth. I got so jealous and upset that after she left, I left too. I couldn’t stay here. I had to get out and go somewhere–anywhere.
“I went to Daddy’s grave and stayed for a long time, telling him about you and how much it hurt that you were with someone else. On the day after my eighteenth birthday, I told him that I was in love with you and that I’d loved you since I was eight. That day when I first saw you, I thought that you were the tallest and handsomest man I’d ever seen. And you were so kind to me. Next to my father, you were the only other person I really and truly loved. I love my mother but I didn’t know her.
“Anyway, I told my father things that I never told another soul. I know he can’t hear me but it helps to talk about things whenever I visit his grave. I imagine that he’s listening. This afternoon being at his grave didn’t help so I left there and went to the park you used to take me to when I was a child. I sat in the same bench we used to sit on and I wished that you were there so that I could yell at you, let you see how much I was hurting inside.
“After I left the park, I just wandered all over the place, trying to forget about you and her but I couldn’t get the photo out of my mind. You had your arm around her shoulders and you were smiling. You looked happy…” her voice broke and a sob rose from her throat. Tears fell afresh down her cheeks and she tried to push him away.
He caught her hands and held her immobile, his own emotions evident on his face. “She doesn’t make me happy,” he told her thickly. “You do. My life wasn’t complete until you came into it, Rebecca. You filled it with so much joy. The moment I met you, my heart belonged to you. I loved you as a father loves his beloved child but when you grew up, that love changed. It turned into the love a man has for a woman. What I’m trying to say, Rebecca, is that I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you–not as your guardian but as your husband.”
She blinked at him. “You want to marry me?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yes.”
“Oh, Noel,” she cried, her heart in her eyes which were sparkling now. She reached up and kissed him on the mouth.
Groaning, he released her hands and cupped her face between his hands as he kissed her passionately, letting go of all the pent up feelings he had kept bottled up inside for so long. For several minutes, they exchanged hungry kisses and then, he raised his head to gaze down at her, his face flushed and his eyes dark with desire. “I won’t make love to you now although I want to very badly,” he muttered, breathing heavily. “I want us to wait until we are married.”
Disappointment clouded her face. She was on fire and ached for him. “I don’t know if I can wait,” she admitted, trying to catch her breath.
“We’ve waited for four years, so six months wouldn’t hurt–”
“Six months,” she exclaimed. “That’s too long.”
“That’s when you turn twenty-two,” he reminded her.
“I can’t wait until then.”
“What about three months?”
“What about three weeks?”
He smiled. “All right, three weeks, it is.”
She smiled because they had reached a compromise. In three weeks, she was going to marry the man she had loved for most of her life. “I love you, Noel,” she whispered.
“I love you too, Rebecca,” he replied before he lowered his head and kissed her.
Three weeks later, as they faced each other at the altar in front of their friends and his family, he smiled as he imagined Clyde saying to him, “I got my wish, Noel. My girl is marrying a good man.”