When Michael wrote that he would be returning in late April, Farah was no nearer a decision than she had been in February. While they were together she had felt they were right for each other; but she no longer had faith in her own judgment.
She woke one morning from a dream about Noel, and it haunted her as she hurried through her preparations for the day. As she stood before her mirror brushing her hair, she said aloud to her reflection, "I'm hanging on to my guilt about Noel the way he hangs on to his guilt about Judy."
She stood quite still, her hand holding the brush in midair, as understanding flooded her. It isn't just Judy, she thought, it's guilt over the failure of his marriage that keeps Noel from making a real commitment. Perhaps it's my guilt about Noel that keeps me from making a commitment to Michael.
Through her window she could see an early flowering peach tree, the kind that "still must bloom and may not yield." This, she thought, is Nature's way of handling her mistakes, the tree renewed itself year after year, though its lovely blossoms yield no fruit, telling us that we can't avoid life because of failure; that we, too, must go on renewing ourselves.
I have to talk to Noel, she thought. If I decide to marry Michael it would be cruel to let him learn about it secondhand.
She called him late that night at his apartment. "I need to talk to you, Noel," she said. "Before the week is up, if you have time. I thought perhaps some place private."
"I can make it around four tomorrow afternoon. Where shall I meet you?"
"I'll take flowers to Kevin. It's private there." She hung up slowly. All her resolves had wavered at the sound of Noel's voice, and she knew no one would ever take his place in her heart. But she had to be finished with the past; it was spring again and time for renewal.
Farah was waiting when Michael got off the plane. At what he read in her face, he held out his arms and she went to him. He had told himself all along that of course she would marry him, but if he had been that sure why did he now feel so relieved?
His mother had given him a devil of a time. She had nothing against Farah except that she was a "commoner." Her Russian heritage decreed that the noble line be kept "pure," at whatever sacrifice of personal happiness, and she expected her son to feel the same way. Boris was all for Michael's marrying whom he pleased, especially now that his wife Maria was pregnant and the heat was off Michael to carry on the line. But he usually took the easy way out in dealing with his mother as long as it didn't interfere with affairs of state.
Michael knew that as soon as Alexandra realized he was serious about Farah she had ordered an investigation of Farah's background and financial status. She would have investigated the Queen of England, he thought, in like circumstances. And rightly so. It was a matter of Noblesse Oblige to choose someone suitable. He himself didn't need proof that Farah was suitable.
Alexandra had to agree when she got the results of the investigation, but this didn't alter her preference for a titled bride for Michael. She could find no basis for further objections, however, and gave a reluctant approval, knowing that Michael didn't feel any need of it but unwillingly to give up to the pretense.
She was relieved that Farah had arranged to entertain Michael at the home of her aunt in Boston. The Alderson and Fuller backgrounds had also been investigated and found to be impeccable -- for commoners.
Michael had been a little puzzled by Hack. He had noticed a slight alteration in Hack's attitude toward him and wondered if perhaps he also was in love with Farah. Couldn't blame him if he was, but surely he was too old for her, thought Michael from the arrogance of his twenty-four years.
Now as he stood in the Los Angeles Airport holding Farah in his arms, he pitied all the other poor devils who had lost her.
Michael was delighted with Margaret, whose presence on occasion could be every bit as formidable as Alexandra's. He told Farah he thought Margaret would be more than a match for his mother, and looked forward to their meeting.
"After seeing your Aunt Margaret," he said later when they were alone, "I feel that I should have asked Her permission to marry you." He fumbled in his pocket and brought out a small box, which he opened to reveal a ring set with a diamond of such color and brilliance, that Farah caught her breath. "This was my grandmother's ring," he said. "She was a brave and loving woman. It would make both of us very happy if you would wear it."
They stood very close, not touching, the chemistry strong between them, and Farah knew that she wanted this man. "Yes," she said. "Oh, Michael, yes."
She held out her hand and Michael slipped the ring on her finger. Then he kissed her, and any lingering doubts she might have had were swept away in the passion and sweetness of his kiss.
As soon as Margaret was told about the engagement, she set about investigating Michael and his background. She knew practically nothing about his country, and although she had liked Michael at once she knew that wealthy girls were often easy prey for fortune hunters, especially titled ones. In her youth she had known about girls of wealthy families who were wooed and won by indigent princes and lived to rue the day.
Michael was all for making a public announcement at once, but Margaret delayed until her lawyer could assure her that the royal family of Zhad was solvent and that no scandalous incidents involving Michael had ever been reported by the press.
Satisfied that Farah had chosen wisely, Margaret consulted her about preparations to make the announcement.
"Do you think," asked Farah, "that perhaps it should be handled by Michael's family, he being a prince?"
This hadn't occured to Margaret, so they took the matter up with Michael, who said he knew his mother would be pleased to be consulted, but he understood it was customary at most levels of society for the bride's family to do the honors.
"Even Boris's engagement to Maria was revealed by her family," he said, "but of course she was already a princess."
There followed a long distance conversation with Alexandra and Boris, and it was agreed that Margaret should hold the reception in conjunction with the Zhad Legation in Boston, through whom Alexandra would furnish a list of several people she deemed it politic to invite.
Alexandra then got in touch with the Zhad Legation, consisting of a legate and his secretary and housed in two rooms in a downtown office building, arousing them from their apathy (for in truth there was little to do at the legation) and galvanizing them into action.
They were instructed to make reservations at a first-class hotel for the Count and Countess DuBois, who were flying over immediatly to represent Michael's family and who were to be met at the airport. A list of guests to be invited was furnished, and instructions given to hand deliver invitations as soon as the date had been settled on. They were told that Margaret would be in touch with them, and they were to work closely with her on the details.
A large room in one of Boston's finest hotels was then reserved for a buffet luncheon. Both Farah and Michael wanted everything kept under wraps as far as possible, but eventually the news leaked out. It didn't make much of a splash, however, because few people had ever heard of Zhad or its prince or even of Farah.
It was chiefly Margaret's standing in the community that prompted the Editor of the Boston Globe to send a young reporter by the name of Cindy Peterson to cover the reception. This was considered a routine assignment of the type delegated to rookie reporters, and Cindy expected to find it boring and dull. It was destined to change her life.
Young and ambitious, she started preparing for the job by boning up on Farah's background. She called a colleague in Los Angeles, who turned up a file on Jason which included his adoption of Farah, with a few lines about her background. Sensing something big, Cindy got in touch with another colleague in Paris. He dug up the information that Farah's parents had been killed in a plane crash and that Farah herself had later been killed in an accident while traveling abroad! Startled, he made a thorough search but failed to find a death certificate on file.
Armed with this information, Cindy attended the reception. When she had a chance she introduced herself to Farah and asked for a minute of her time. When Farah hesitated, she added, "It's about your rumored death in the Mideast."
FArah went numb with shock. I knew this would happen some day, she thought. With an effort she managed to hold her agitation in check and continue to smile. "If you'll wait around," she told Cindy, "I'll talk to you after the guests are gone."
The rest of the afternoon seemed unending as Farah continued to smile and talk brightly to the guests, her mind busy with questions. Could her story be disproved? Could she be unmasked as an imposter? Jason had said this could never happen, as no death certificate had ever been filed. And he was cynically sure no government official would deny or verify the story, since in matters of governmental secrecy one hand seldom knows what the other hand is doing.
As the last guest departed, Cindy approached. Farah had hoped to conduct the interview without Michael, but he was standing right beside her. She was caught.
"Michael, this is Cindy Peterson from the Globe," she said. "She has some questions to ask me."
"What about?" Michael was brusque; he had had run0ins with the press.
"It's about the erroneous report of my death. I told you about it."
"Why does she need that information?"
"She's a reporter, Michael. It'll take only a few minutes. Why don't you talk to the staff while she interviews me?"
"I'd rather stay." He turned to Cindy. "What is it you want to know?"
"I have information," said Cindy, trying not to be overwhelmed by Michael, "That in 1958 Miss Fuller was in an accident and listed as dead. Can you explain that, Miss Fuller?"
"It's all right, Michael. Why don't we find some place to sit?"
Farah told her story calmly, with little touches she had added from time to time in the retellings, being now misty, now with a bit of humor, faltering girlishly here and there, being studiedly charming.
Cindy was impressionable and romantic and it was plain that her heart ached with pity for this lovely young girl who had had such a tragic life. After thanking Farah for being so gracious and apologizing for taling up her time, she said goodbye and rushed back to the city room to write a story which earned her a raise, a promotion, and an offer from a New York City paper.
"I should have warned you about reporters," Michael said when Cindy had gone. "You don't have to answer their questions."
"I know, darling, but I didn't mind." She squeezed his hand. "It is an unusual situation and it's better to clear it up right away." She took his arm as they went to join Margaret and her family and thenk everyone involved for the success of the party.
But despite Farah's reassurance to Michael, she continued to be uneasy. Some eager beaver in Government might take it upon himself to check for verification of her story. However, Jason was proved to be entirely correct: Nobody denied the story, one man "vaguely remembered hearing about it," but no verification or denial was forthcoming, then or ever. The only statement anyone would make was that they were not at liberty to discuss it.
After a time it got buried under more current issues, and Farah ceased to worry, assuming that once she was married it wouldn't be prudent for her government to press the matter even if it entertained doubts about its authenticity.