Devlin froze and studied her face. There was an awkward moment. Then his face fell and he put the ring back into its place in the box. “Right.”

“I love you, Devlin. You know that.”

“But you’re saying no.”

Dora shook her head. “I’m not saying no. I’m saying not right now.”

“Aw hell, woman. We’ve been through this before. You told me last September that you needed to wait till the divorce was final and I waited. Did I pester you to get married? No. I bided my time. Dora, you’re a free woman now.” Frustration bubbled under his words. “Your divorce is signed, sealed, and delivered.”

“I’m only just divorced. The ink’s barely dry. I still am figuring out who I am, what I want out of life, what I can do on my own. I need to love me before I can give myself to you. Fully and without doubt. It’s not about you. It’s about me.”

“That’s not what I’m hearing. I hear you saying that you don’t love me enough. Not yet.”

“That’s not at all what I’m saying.”

“Well, that’s what I’m feeling.”

“Dev . . .”

“What’s next, Dora? Tell me. What are you going to need before you say yes?”

“I don’t know. I . . .” She thought. “My starting work as a real estate agent is a big step closer. That’s good, right? I suppose the last thing I need is to be financially settled. Once that damn house sells in Summerville, I can pay off my debts and feel like I’m well and truly done with the past.”

Devlin furrowed his brows, listening hard.

“Dev, honey, I love you. I want to marry you. I just need to stand on my own two feet. I want you to be proud of me. Then I’ll wear that ring. I’ll hoot and holler and show it off to anyone and everyone. I promise.”

Devlin closed the top of the box with a snap. It sounded ominous to her ears. He tucked the box back in his khaki pants pocket, then rose from the table. “Well, darlin’, you put me between a rock and a hard place. Something’s got to give. I’ll put my house on the market. And I’ll put the cottage on the market. As planned. See what happens.”

She knew impatience, with herself and with him. “Fine.”

He pursed his lips and looked at her, as though holding back words. In the end he only looked toward the door and sighed. “It’s getting late. I have an early showing.”

Dora watched him walk to the door and grab his jacket from the hall tree. “Don’t leave mad.”

Devlin slipped into his jacket, stuck his hands in his pockets, and pulled out his keys. He looked at them in his palm, then lifted his head to her. “I’m not mad. I’m disappointed,” he said in a flat voice. “I just asked you to marry me and you turned me down.”

Dora lowered her head but didn’t respond., wincing as she heard the front door shut firmly behind Devlin’s retreating figure. There was nothing more she could say.

Chapter Four

Love . . . acceptance . . . forgiveness . . . commitment. These are the cornerstones of marriage.

The Reverend Atticus Green paused to smile warmly at the young couple before him at the altar of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The young bride was swathed in white tulle. The groom was smartly dressed in a black tuxedo and gray waistcoat. Atticus winked at his best friend, Kwame, the groom.

Kwame was one of his basketball-team friends from their days at Howard University. Kwame was a big man with as big a heart, appropriately the team’s power forward. Beside Kwame stood a line of tall athletic men, handsome in their groomsmen suits. Marcus, whose long arms could sink a basket from any distance, was the shooting guard. Standing beside him was Beau, a bull both in frame and attitude. He was the small forward. Atticus, though neither the tallest nor broadest, was fast and clever. And like his idol, Michael Jordan, Atticus had a winning smile that endeared him to the fans and ladies alike. He played the team’s leader as point guard.

Atticus loved these men as brothers. He felt a rush of emotion at being able to marry Kwame today. It was a privilege and an honor. Clearing his throat, he lifted his prayer book and began the service.

“Love . . . acceptance . . . forgiveness . . . commitment. These are the cornerstones of marriage. We stand together, before God, to witness this couple pledge themselves to one another. Please, take each other’s hands.”

The over-the-top wedding reception was at the St. Regis, a five-star hotel in Atlanta. No expense was spared. There was mood lighting, tall silver candelabras blown out with flowers, and a seated dinner with prime rib and seasonal foods. Atticus didn’t want to think of the cost nor how much his church could have done with that money. He wasn’t being critical. Everyone had the right to the wedding of his or her choice. He’d held services at most every venue imaginable in the Atlanta area. Formal, like this one. In the country with horses, on beaches in bare feet, and even on boats cruising the river. Yet there was no evidence that a wedding that cost $100,000 could guarantee a successful marriage any more than a $10,000 wedding or, for that matter, an elopement.

As the hour grew late the guests thinned out and the music had changed to the soul funk he loved. Beyoncé, Estelle, Jill Scott—ladies who could really blow. The lights dimmed and people shouted over the loud music to be heard. Someone called out his old college nickname. Atticus cringed hearing it, hating it now as much as he did back then.

“Hey, Attaboy!” Beau called, waving him over.

Following the voice, he spied Beau standing beside Kwame with his arms around his groomsmen. Their ties and jackets were off and each had a drink in his hand.

“Big Beau!” Atticus called back.

“Get your ass over here and link arms. Forget the four cornerstones of marriage. We got to get a picture of the four cornerstones of the Bison basketball team.”

Kwame laughed, waved over the photographer, and said, “You got that right. We’re the four cornerstones of the Bisons.” Kwame opened an arm for Atticus. “Our team was the stuff of legends.”

Atticus laughed softly as he slipped off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt collar. They were ribbing him, borrowing his phrase “the cornerstones” from his service. It was true. The four of them were the power players for the four years they were at Howard. Atticus joined his basketball brothers, slipping arms over Kwame’s and Marcus’s shoulders, feeling the old camaraderie that he knew would always be between them. They’d all taken different paths in life. Kwame was a sports reporter for CNN. He was just married, wanted a family, he was on his way. Marcus had gone into medicine. Beau was a manager for a construction firm. His wife was at home, too far along in her pregnancy to come to the wedding. Atticus had taken a different turn after college and gone to Yale Divinity graduate school. In his black wool jacket and open-collared black shirt, he looked cool and available. No one would guess he was a minister.

Tags: Mary Alice Monroe Lowcountry Summer Romance