Noel called Saturday morning. "I want to talk to you," he said. "Can we go for a drive and have lunch somewhere?"
She hesitated, then said, "Give me an hour," and told him her address.
It was a cold, blustery March day. She dressed warmly in navy slacks and a white turtleneck sweater under a navy windbreaker. Above the white of the sweater her ivory skin gleamed. Noel's glance when he tucked her into the car, told her none of this was lost on him.
He was rather quiet as he maneuvered through the Saturday traffic. It was a friendly quiet, and Farah was content just to ride along. He followed the coastline north past Malibu. Heavy surf pounded the shores. The fury of the waves and the screaming of gulls could be heard over the purr of the engine.
"Is it too cold for a walk on the beach?" he asked.
"Oh, no. I'd love it."
Noel's body was braced against the wind was lean and hard. In a powder blue crewneck sweater and an Eisenhower jacket, he looked youthful. The wind ruffled their hair and deposited a light spray on their faces. It was cold but stimulating on the beach, and they ran and laughed and threw rocks into the water.
As they turned to retrace their steps Noel said, "Farah, the other night at Monica's I felt there was something special between us. Was I wrong in thinking that?"
She shook her head.
"Then why did you run out on me?"
"Things were going too fast. Besides ...," she hesitated, "I know you're married."
"My marriage is over. I moved out weeks ago."
"Are you planning to divorce?"
"I hadn't really planned to just yet. Because of my daughter. She hasn't been well for a long time and clings to me." He was silent for a while. "My marriage has been over for years. I only stayed because of Judy. She's recovering now, but she made me promise not to get a divorce until she's eighteen and starts to college. She's almost seventeen now."
"Then you're not really free."
He didn't answer directly. Instead he said, "Farah, when I saw you across the room the other night at Monica's, I had such a strange feeling. I looked at you for the very first time, and it was sort of recognition. A mutual recognition. Don't tell me you didn't feel it, too."
"Yes, there was a ... recognition." She couldn't look at him. It was Donna he recognized, she thought. Somehow he looked into my soul and recognized Donna. And he loved me, Donna. She thought her heart would burst.
Noel stopped walking and faced her. "I've been telling myself for a week that I'm an old fool. Too old for someone as young as you." He reached out and smoothed back a tendril of her hair, dark and lustrous as it fell almost straight to her shoulders. "Am I too old for you, Farah? Do you think I'm too old? If you do, just tell me and I'll go away."
She said huskily, "You're the perfect age for me, Noel."
He kissed her lightly. Then the kiss became hungry, passionate. After a moment Farah broke away. Noel's expression showed that he felt rebuffed.
"I'll get a divorce, Farah," he said.
"But you promised your daughter."
"I'll talk to her. Surely she'll release me now from my promise."
She crept back into his arms. "If she loves you she'll want you to be happy." She didn't want to think about it now.
But the thought had intruded, and they began to notice the cold. Returning to the car, they drove until they found a restaurant with a view of the ocean. It was cozy and warm inside after the windswept beach, and almost empty. They lingered, talking, long after they had eaten.
"Tell me about yourself, Farah," Noel said.
So she told him of Farah's life with her parents and all that had happened thereafter, including the story about her having been hidden away from suspected assassins. It tore her apart to tell Noel these lies. She wanted no deceit between them. But she was committed now to being Farah forever.
Noel had followed her story with a rapt interest. He touched her cheek gently and said, "How terrifying it must have been for you. To take you away from everyone you knew, when it wasn't even necessary."
"I'm sure they meant well," Farah said.
"Still, it seems callous. When they decided you were out of danger did they just turn you loose? You said Louise had died."
"They offered to contact some distant relatives, but I wanted none of that. They were strangers. I didn't know what to do or where to go. It was a very bad time for me. Then I remembered Louise's brother, Jason, and decided to look him up. On his visits to Louise he had been very kind to me and I thought perhaps he could help me pick up the pieces. It wasn't a question of finances; I was well provided for."
Noel's face was so full of concern that the words almost stuck in her throat. But the worst was over. From now on her story was essentially true.
"I had no trouble finding Jason," she continued. "He took me in and befriended me. Then he offered to adopt me." She laughed. "I guess you're thinking I was pretty old to be adopted, but he said we both needed a family and the tongues would wag if I just moved in. We became such good friends. I do miss him."
A look of uncertainty crossed Noel's face. "Farah, I've been wondering what a girl like you, so young and lovely, could see in me. Maybe you're searching for a father figure. I am old enough to be your father."
At that she burst into laughter, easing her tension and breaking the somber mood generated by her story. Looking relieved, Noel joined in.
"Just checking," he said. "How old are you now?"
"I'm twenty." She thought he might be more comfortable with twenty than with nineteen. It took her out of the teenage bracket.
"Lord, Farah, I'm forty-four. I've got a son older than you." "Oh, Noel, please don't keep worying about the age difference. I prefer men your age. I can't relate to younger men."
"Don't ever stop feeling that way. About me, at least."
She gave him a reassuring pat. "Now let's talk about you."
"What do you want to know?"
"That's a tall order; I don't know where to begin," he said. "You know about my daughter. I have two sons, very fine young men. That's something to be thankful for in times like these. I've been married since I was twenty-one to the same woman. We were in college when we married, and very much in love. My wife is a fine person, but over the years we've just grown apart. There's no communication between us any more."
"That happens," Farah said.
"Yes. There was never any thought of divorce. We wanted to give our children a home, so we worked very hard to make a go of it. I love my children and I've had my work, so I haven't been too unhappy."
"What finally caused you to separate?"
She thought she saw a closed look settle over his face. Then it was gone, and he said, "I met someone. Oh, nothing came of it, but for a while I knew again what it was like to be interested in a woman, to feel again all the excitement that had been missing from my life. After that the marriage just seemed to go downhill. It was by mutual agreement that we parted."
He means Donna, she thought again. He did love me. Her spirit broke free of all that had festered and grieved in her. "Thank you for telling me this." She lifted his hand to her cheek. "Now tell me about Judy. What's wrong with her?"
"The doctors have never been able to pin it down exactly. Something about her blood. Not lukemia. They've tried everything. She always responds to each new treatment and seems to be almost normal. Then the effects wear off and she has a relapse. Now there's a new drug that seems to have lasting effects. For almost a year she's appeared completely well. We're keeping our fingers crossed."
"That's great, Noel. I hope her recovery is really complete this time." She glanced at her watch. "Oh, look at the time. I promised some friends to go to a play tonight. I'd better get home." To herself she was thinking, I can break this date if he wants me to.
But he said, "I have to go, too. I promised Judy a week ago that I'd take her out tonight. I'm leaving at noon tomorrow on a business trip." He looked at her in dismay. "What a helluva time to be so tied up. I don't want to leave you."
"How long will you be gone?"
"Probably until Friday. I wish I didn't have to go."
"So do I."
"Have you got a steady boyfriend, Farah?"
"You're the first man I've met since ... since I came to live with Jason ... who has interested me the least bit. The boy I'm going out with tonight is just a friend."
"Because I'm suddenly jealous of every other man you've ever known. I want you all to myself."
There isn't anyone you need to be jealous of, Noel."
He stood up. "Let's get out of here. I've got to hold you."
They ran laughing to the car and sat inside holding each other until Farah said again it was time to go.
At the door of her apartment, she said, "I won't ask you in. I'll have to rush to be ready on time."
He kissed the tip of her nose. "I'm so glad I found you, dear Farah. Don't let anything or anybody come between us while I'm away. Or ever."
"I promise," she said. "And speaking of promises, do you really think Judy will release you from yours now?"
"I'll talk to her."
"Call me when you get back in town."
"I'll do better than that. I'll call you while I'm gone. If you don't mind."
"I don't mind."
"Promise me something else."
"Don't do another Cinderella act on me, okay?"
"You're so beautiful," he said and kissed her. "Can I come in awhile?"
"Of course not, I have to get ready to go out."
"Well, all right, but I go very unwillingly." He kissed her again. "Goodnight, my love. It's going to be a very long week."
"For me, too," she said, and closed the door.