The next day their tour of Roseford had continued into the surrounding countryside, including a visit to Sam's parents' graves. That brought back a memory.
"Sam, you once said - but if you don't want to talk about it, let me know, okay? - but you told me you were almost buried with your mom."
"Ah, that." He looked uncharacteristically somber. "It was a real low point of my life. You see, my momma was my biggest fan, the only one I had here. I was so isolated. And even though I was having some success with my stories, my daddy still hoped I'd come to my senses and find a real job. And there had been a woman I'd loved, and that hadn't worked out."
He laughed sadly. "I was a thirty-five-year-old man who still felt like a teenager - and not in a good way. After my momma's funeral, I packed my suitcase and got in my car but I wasn't sure if I should just drive off a bridge or what. Anyway, I ended up driving to New York City and met up with this agent who'd contacted me when my stories had started to get popular. He helped me get established there."
"The same agent you have now?"
"Oh my, no. My New York guy recommended that I find someone local, when I moved up to Toronto, because he thought I needed that close kind of contact. He said he was only sorry he didn't have any personal contacts in Toronto himself. No, for some reason I left behind the best agent in the world and ended up with Montgomery Dick-son."
Sam had said the name with obvious distaste.
"You see, I got me a lot of imagination, but not much in the way of business savvy. I didn't have the first clue of how to find what they like to call 'representation'. I, um, looked him up in the phonebook," he'd admitted sheepishly. "Of course, Monty tells me I'm lucky to have any agent at all, up there in Toronto, 'cause most of them are in New York."
From the few times she'd seen him, and the few stories Sam had told her, Tova had the impression that Montgomery Dickson was a wannabe alpha-male. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with straight blond hair and too many teeth, and he always wore a suit and tie. But a real alpha-male wouldn't have had that perpetually worried air about him.
She'd suspected Monty was aware of this, and that was why he always seemed so cranky.
By the time they got to Hughie's party, Sam had cheered up. He'd seemed excited about introducing her to his old friend. And despite the crowd of people in the house's big parlour - all of Sally's parishioners had been invited - their host took the time to welcome her personally and tell her some stories about high school.
Hughie was a tall, gangly man with thick glasses, a shy mischievous smile and clearly Asian facial features.
"Sammy was a bulldog, in high school," he'd told her. "I guess you know that in grade school he'd been the skinny kid who got picked on and he'd built himself up and learned how to fight. He never told you that? Huh. Anyway, when he saw me getting bullied for being a four-eyed whatever, he appointed himself my protector - which I didn't appreciate at first. My dad was the gym teacher and he wished I'd learn to defend myself; I just wanted to be left alone. It wasn't until Sammy showed me some of the stories he wrote that we became friends."
"And despite my loyalty, this guy couldn't get out of town fast enough," Sam added. "When he got that scholarship to Amarillo, he said 'good-bye and good riddance' to Roseford. But the joke was on him - he met Sally in college, and by the time she'd gone and got herself appointed to Roseford the darn fool'd fallen head over heels for her. What could he do but follow her back home?"
Later Sally had played the piano for a sing-a-long, which Tova enjoyed. After a few well-known folk songs, Sam insisted they add some local flavour, so he'd requested "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and some song about going home with an armadillo. He'd pretended to be offended that Tova had never heard of Jerry Jeff Walker, the Texan who wrote it.
By about eleven forty-five, however, Tova had had enough of being in a crowd of increasingly inebriated strangers, and she apologized to Sam but said she was going back to the hotel.
"I'll see you home," he'd said.
"You don't have to - it's only a block away."
But he'd insisted, and since it was almost midnight she'd invited him up to her room to see if they could tune in the Times Square show on the little hotel-room TV. After that, they found they were unable to say goodnight.
It wasn't what either of them had expected, but it wasn't unexpected, either.
Though he'd made his physical affection for her plain, in the first three months they'd known each other, Sam had never suggested they spend the night together. This had been something of a relief to hot-blooded Tova, since she was constitutionally unable to take sex lightly but she would have found it physically impossible to refuse him.
She'd just needed to wait for the right time - though she hadn't been sure she'd know it when it came. She never had before. She'd known love, and she'd known sex, but she'd never managed to get them to intersect.
That night, that was neither one year nor another, in that room that belonged to neither one of them, was just the right time and place. Sam's blood was just as hot as hers, and he loved everything about her middle-aged body and her ancient soul.
She'd always found love to be the most powerful aphrodisiac.
And he smelled good, too.
On the morning of January first, a festive brunch had been planned at the Roseford Hotel dining room. All the guests from Hughie's party had been invited.
At nine a.m. that morning, Sam reluctantly left Tova's room so he could go back to Hughie's, change clothes and shave; he'd promised to return by ten thirty, when the brunch would begin.
He was late.
Tova was famished, so she was half-way through a plate of buckwheat flapjacks with lemon curd when Sam showed up. He sat lightly in the chair next to her, his cheeks rosy and his brown eyes sparkling with gold flecks she'd never noticed before, and he'd leaned over and kissed her cheek.
"I'm about to do something," he whispered in her ear, "that might embarrass you a little. Just stay with me."
Then he'd gotten down on his knees and pulled the ring out of his pocket.
A/N: if you want to hear Jerry Jeff Walker's armadillo song - "London Homesick Blues" - I've added it to media, above
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