Read Part One here.
We hear the music before we see the estate. Trumpets from the band herald the night’s arrival. A sumptuous night it is, too. Sky thick with stars, the day’s heat still hanging about but tempered by the salted breeze off the ocean. It is end-of-summer splendor.
Our hired driver putters up the driveway, behind and before at least a dozen other cars delivering guests to the soiree. The scene unfolding with each forward movement sheds new light on the preparations Aunt Rita insisted upon in the last several hours: new gowns in the most current style; hair curled and pinned to perfection; polished shoes and glittering, albeit modest, jewels.
I have spent the time trying and failing to ask my aunt not only why the party necessitated such measures, but why we are attending this party at all. Though the name feels intangibly familiar, I am not aware of any personal connection to the Colemans. I am certain Aunt Rita has never mentioned them before. Yet here we are, pulling ever closer to the front steps of their impressive mansion, readying our skirts and shawls to emerge from the car into the glittering crowd milling about the lawn.
Finally, entirely too close to our exiting the vehicle, my aunt rushes to explain.
“The Colemans,” she begins with a clearing of her throat, “reside in California. Their home, Grove Palace, is a vineyard. Their wines are among the most superb wines currently being bottled. This is their vacation home.”
I gaze out of the automobile’s rectangular window. Only two vehicles remain ahead of us. I can see the valets ushering the guests from their cars. The mansion is larger than any I’ve seen in the region. Three stories, a pillared façade, and as wide as the full city block that contains my family’s home in Boston. Candlelit lanterns flicker in every window and line the paved path to the lawn. Guests adorn the courtyard and gardens like sprinkles on a cake.
“Do you know them?” I ask.
When Aunt Rita doesn’t answer, I look her way. She bites her lip. She is lovely tonight – a description I have never applied to my aunt. Her usually stern features are softened by the dusting of powder and rouge, as well as the fetching arrangement of her hair. Looking past me and out the window as we roll forward, she sighs.
“I knew them.”
“A lifetime ago.”
We move again and before the wheels are still, a man in a tuxedo opens my door and offers his hand.
We keep to the edge of the activity. I feel like a moth in a butterfly garden. A footman presents a tray of beverages. Aunt Rita chooses a red wine and I pick a crystal glass filled with pink punch. The first sip tells me it is not merely punch. It burns deliciously in my throat.
My eyes roam. Face after face, glowing in the lantern light, beautiful but unfamiliar. I watch for Michael and wonder if I’ll recognize him. His smile is the most lasting impression left from our boardwalk encounter.
Aunt Rita interrupts my search, “Miles and I were to be married.”
“Miles?” My deceased uncle, my mother’s brother, was named Otto.
I stutter over this bit of information. “What, what do you mean?”
“We weren’t publicly engaged, but privately.” Aunt Rita purses her lips. Her eyes look wet. “Privately, we were promised to each other.”
I face her, the strangers’ laughter and conversations fading to the background. She has never spoken to me of her younger years. She is still staring into the crowd, or perhaps beyond it. For a moment, my eyes see her as a woman I do not know, another stranger at this party. She is not old, though I think of her as such. Fifty-two, healthy, her body trim and her hair still dark and full. It is her frowns and general air of disenchantment that ages her. And her walking cane. Her use of it is only a habit after requiring it for a year after an injury to her foot. She does not need it, and for the first time, she left it at the hotel tonight.
“I summered here for two years when I was very young, seventeen and eighteen, with my dearest friend and her family. They owned a cottage in Hampton Beach. I met Miles my first week here that first summer, and spent every possible minute with him. I loved him with my whole, naïve heart. For the year in between our two summers together, we wrote letters. Dozens of letters. Before the end of the second summer, he proposed to me. He was twenty at the time. We decided we would wait to announce it, we would wait to marry, until he finished university. He had two years of schooling left before he was to join his family’s business. That was the plan. That was the promise we exchanged.”
The remembrance, the revelation, thickens her voice. One shaking hand she presses to her chest while the other lifts her wine glass tremulously to her lips.
“Three months after his proposal, he told his parents our plans. They objected. With each month that he insisted on marrying me, their objections grew stronger. Eventually, they demanded he make a marriage that was advantageous to the family. My middleclass roots and my father’s unremarkable financial standing didn’t fit the bill. They pressured. He slowly weakened. We were thousands of miles apart. There was little I could do. Nine months after his proposal, he undid our arrangement. Three months after that, he wrote a final goodbye and informed me of his upcoming marriage to the daughter of a family friend. I have not seen Miles Coleman in thirty-two years, Mary, but I will see him tonight.”
I try to respond. I try to sort out the right thing to say but my tongue is dry and my thoughts are foggy. The pink punch and the revealed secret are a heady combination. “Why now? You take your holiday here every summer. Why see him now?”
“Do you know why I take my holiday here every year?” She doesn’t wait for a reply. “To remember that girl. To remember that version of myself from those memories really existed, and to feel I might still be her. I come here to remember I did love like that once. I need to remember.”
Aunt Rita sips her wine, wine that, I assume, is a Coleman Family vintage. “I never tried to see him though, not once in the sixteen years I’ve come here. So, ‘why now’ is a terribly good question, Mary. Of course, the notion crosses my mind each and every year. To what end, though? That is the question that stops me each year.”
“Except for this year,” I say.
“Yes, except for this year.” She sips again. The glass, as she tips it to her mouth, seems to catch the moonlight itself and sets her visage aglow. Her eyes are dry now, and open wide. “When your acquaintance, who is clearly not your acquaintance,” she smiles a little, “asked if we were attending tonight’s soiree, I decided then and there it is time to meet Miles again. I cannot explain it better than that, I’m afraid.”
“You aren’t asking yourself, ‘to what end’ this time?”
“Oh, I certainly am. I stopped caring about the answer though. Even if it is only to see his face again, or,” she swallows hard, pushes out her next words, “or maybe meet his wife, I need to be here.”
As Aunt Rita falls silent, I see him. I recognize his smile in an instant, then every feature of his handsome face.
“You knew Michael was a stranger?” I ask.
My aunt casts a sideways glance at me. “I was not fooled.”
Michael is only steps away.
“Guard your heart, Mary, but not too tightly.”
To be continued.
Read Part Three here!