“Are you certain?” Michael tries to peek around the leafy wall.
I tug on his arm to come back. “I’m certain.” My brain holds an open debate on the best next move.
“And why is it that we’re hiding from your aunt and my cousin?” he asks in a whisper.
Sighing over the impossibility of avoiding an explanation, I step further into the corner we are tucked into just inside the hedge maze. The close quarters do not appear to bother Michael. Even in the filtered moonlight, I observe the playfulness in his eyes. He takes my hand and it takes everything in me to stay on task. I need to explain before Rita and Miles get any closer. Already, their words are becoming discernible. I can only suppose ours will soon be overheard by them as well. In haste, I deliver a summary.
“Rita and Miles knew each other many years ago. They were once engaged but Miles broke it off. They have not seen or spoken to each other since. Rita decided to seek him out here tonight.”
Michael’s eyebrows are arched high on his handsome face. He releases a low whistle that I silence with my fingers over his lips, which makes him smile.
“Sorry,” he says, “but this night keeps getting more interesting.”
“Tell me about it. I knew nothing of this until we were driving up to the party.”
“I still think we could have greeted them and went on our way, Mary.”
I shake my head. “Maybe, except it took every bit of courage for Aunt Rita to come here and speak to him tonight. That much was clear. I could be wrong, but I have a hunch that if they are interrupted before Rita says whatever it is she hopes to say, she’ll lose that courage.”
“Couldn’t we walk further into the maze?” I ask.
He stares into the blackness of the tall, perfectly pruned hedges. When he turns back to me, his brow is creased with concern. “That isn’t a good idea. There is no lighting in there, and this maze has won awards for its cleverness and difficulty. I’ve ventured into it plenty of times and I still would not do so at night.”
I cover my face with my hands.
Michael squeezes my shoulders. “I’m sorry, Mary. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to eavesdrop. Nonetheless, it seems our only options are to wait them out here or mysteriously appear back on the path with them.”
We are silent as Miles’ and Aunt Rita’s footsteps come to a halt on the other side of the hedge. Their voices reach our ears clearly now.
“I can’t believe this,” we hear Rita say.
“Neither can I,” Miles replies. “You really never knew I didn’t marry her? That I never married at all?”
“How could I have? We didn’t exactly live in the same social universe, Miles. My family and friends knew nothing of you, and I wasn’t one to read the society pages in my father’s newspaper.” After a pause, she adds, “Besides, my only aim was to avoid every thought of you.”
There is the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. Michael and I exchange a hopeful glance and put our faces up to the wall. It takes a moment to find adequate spaces between the leaves and branches to peer through to the other side.
“Are we in the clear?” I whisper.
Michael shakes his head. When I find a sightline through the hedge, I see it is only the sound of Miles pacing while Rita stands still with her eyes on him. The moment gives me an opportunity to observe him. He is of average height and a slim build. His face is pleasant and attractive. There is a peppering of gray throughout his black hair. He wears a black tuxedo, like Michael, but his bow tie is a bit askew. I see why when he tugs at his collar more than once.
I know I should back up, give them at least that much privacy, but I can’t look away from the quiet pain on my aunt’s face.
She swallows hard, wrings her hands, and asks, “Why didn’t you marry?”
Miles stops in front of her. He reaches for her hands but she folds them behind her back. Her expression clears and she lifts her chin. I see in her posture all the strength I used to mistake for mere hardness.
“I didn’t marry her, or anyone else, because she wasn’t you.”
“There had to be more than that. There had to be. We were so young.”
“Don’t do that.” His voice is harsh. “I had to hear all of that from my parents, non-stop until I gave in to their demands. I was so ashamed of myself, Rita. That’s why I didn’t contact you immediately after I ended the engagement they’d arranged for me. I couldn’t imagine you forgiving me.”
He pauses but Rita holds her tongue, so he continues. Regret laces through his words. “By the time I did seek you out, I discovered you were to be married that very week. It was too late. I did my best to accept it. In the next couple years, I checked up on you a few times. I told myself it was to make sure you were okay, that you were content, after what I’d done to you. Really though, I wasn’t ready to let go of you. I stopped after I got word your first child was born. I’ve known nothing of your life since then.”
“You checked up on me?” She looks stunned.
They watch each other, uncertainty filling the silent air between them until Miles asks, “Were you happy, Rita? With your husband, were you happy?”
“I was,” she says quickly, then adds, “eventually.” She swipes at her cheeks for tears that I cannot see from my hidden vantage point.
“I’m so sorry, Rita. I have never stopped regretting my choice.” He takes a step closer to her.
“We were so young.”
“I loved you. You loved me. That’s what is true.”
Rita releases her hands from behind her back and he immediately takes them in his. A smile breaks across his face.
“I remember these hands in mine. It’s like arriving home for the first time in over thirty years.”
She doesn’t match his smile though and he loses his.
Rita’s eyes widen at his words. “Am I, though?”
“Of course you are.”
“We have lived whole lives since then, Miles. So much has happened and changed. How can I be?”
“Did you love me?”
“With all my heart,” she admits without hesitation.
“And that heart is still in you.”
A smile now tugs at her lips and she stares up at the stars. “Maybe.”
Miles touches her chin, leading her to meet his gaze again. “You owe me nothing. Nothing. I understand if you never want to see me again. I understand if you wanted an apology tonight, and nothing more. Considering that you thought I was married all these years, I suspect that’s all you thought you might receive tonight.”
“If, however, there is anything in you inclined to see me again, to speak with me again, I only ask that you consider it. Please. You say the word, and I will not contact you or try to see you for the rest of our years. Say otherwise, and I will be grateful for any time you are willing to give me.”
I glance at Michael beside me, having nearly forgotten his presence. I feel the sting of tears in my eyes. He grins at me before we both resume our watch through the wall of foliage.
Rita lays her hands on Miles’ cheeks. “It’s hard to say what I expected to gain by coming here tonight, but it was not this.”
His arms encircle her waist and draw her to him.
She hurries to add, “And I don’t know what to expect going forward. I don’t know.”
“I don’t need to know. There is possibility, and that is enough.”
Miles kisses her. It is a firm, needful kiss and when Rita’s arms wrap around his neck, I force myself to step back from the hedge.
Michael is grinning again and I cannot help but do the same. We stand side by side when, overhead, fireworks begin to fill the sky. I jump as the boom of the first ones catch me by surprise. A chorus of cheers floats to us from the party up near the house.
“Wow,” I whisper. Even when Michael takes my hand, I do not look away from the bursts of fiery color.
He kisses my cheek and I do look at him then. “Mary.”
“I’m glad I pretended to know you today.”
I cover my mouth to silence my laughter. “Michael, it has been an unexpectedly splendid night.”
“The best?” he asks.
I lean into his side and he slips his arm around my waist. A red firework cascades across the sky, its sound thrumming in my chest. “The best so far.”