Without a word, the following morning Mamaw had driven to her house on East Bay Street in Charleston and returned with the painting of Claire in tow. With Lucille’s help, Mamaw had hung it so that Carson could look at the famed beauty every day when she awoke and every evening before she fell asleep, so that Carson would appreciate the beauty of her own dark hair and blue eyes. Mamaw understood that the motherless girl needed a role model to emulate, someone with spirit and courage.

Carson had stared into her ancestor Claire’s eyes when she’d needed to find her own courage, or to confess her heartbreaks, the changes in her body, her thoughts, her dreams. The times a girl needed her mother. This painting had been the one thing she’d most wanted from Sea Breeze, and the previous summer Mamaw had given it to her. Someday, Carson knew, the portrait would hang in her own home. But that was a ways off. For now, the portrait of Claire would remain at Sea Breeze, in Harper’s good care.

Yes, Carson thought begrudgingly, Harper was taking good care of Sea Breeze. Thanks to her, the house and property had stayed in the family. And from the looks of the extensive gardens and the scents of wax, soap, and polish, Sea Breeze was being lovingly tended. Carson would like to say it was easy for someone with as much money as Harper to keep up a property, but that would not be true. Harper’s personal touch was everywhere. She loved Sea Breeze, as much or, perhaps in her own way, even more than Carson.

Resentment aside, Carson was grateful. Looking around her room, she saw that Harper had kept everything just as Carson had left it. Even her messy drawers and closets. Carson chuckled to herself, thinking how knowing that mess lay there behind a closed door must have driven her fastidious sister crazy these past months. It was a symbol of her respect for Carson’s place in the house. And it meant a great deal.

With her head on the pillow and staring at the ceiling, Carson brought to mind all the surprises she’d learned throughout the evening. Dora had passed her real estate exam! Carson had never seen her so chuffed. And Nate was blooming. Carson thought he’d shot up at least two inches. Mamaw seemed quite content staying in the cottage. She was, Carson thought, even glowing. Dora had confidentially whispered that the reason had nothing to do with the cottage but with the continued presence of a certain gentleman caller whom the girls had all been introduced to last summer. Carson liked Girard and found that tidbit most interesting.

The one who’d changed the most, however, was Harper. She had softened, not only metaphorically, but literally. Her face, her contours, were rounder, softer. If she were painted in a portrait, she’d have to be a Rubens. No, Carson amended. Perhaps not a Rubens—those curves were more Dora. Perhaps a Monet or a Renoir. Harper was an impressionistic vision of a country maid, her red hair tumbling down her shoulders, her large blue eyes wide.

Was the change wrought by love? Carson wondered. Or merely the prospect of being a bride? Harper was positively giddy with wedding plans. Carson had never seen her so animated. Surpassing even Dora with exuberance. In fact, Dora seemed surprisingly subdued tonight on the whole topic of the weddings. Harper, however, was a force of nature. She’d already scheduled them for cake tasting. When Carson had complained of jet lag, feisty Harper told her to “get over it” and reminded Carson that she was already ridiculously late in getting her wedding gown. Or choosing the bridesmaid dresses, selecting items for the goodie bags, and countless other decisions that had Carson’s brain swelling. And apparently, Harper believed all these decisions had to be made “together.”

Harper was determined not to make another wedding decision unless Carson was involved. She’d even gotten a bit teary eyed about it all. Carson’s objections were silenced by that. Who knew the cool, collected Harper could be so emotional? Or that the seemingly remote Taylor would be so protective? To see him place his arm around her shoulder and plant a gentle kiss on her head was touching. Sweet, Carson thought. She’d glanced at Blake and could tell that he’d noticed, too. He was as emotional about the upcoming vows as Harper. Blake’s eyes had smoldered and he winked at Carson from across the table. Perhaps, she thought with a yawn, some of Harper’s romantic wedding spirit would rub off on her. Thinking again of the message pulsing in Blake’s smile, she felt a slight shiver of pleasure and thought it might already be.

Carson moved to slip under the thick down blanket, bringing the softness over her chilled shoulders. The sheets were crisp and scented with lavender. She smiled again, realizing Harper must have freshly laundered them before Carson’s arrival.

She closed her eyes, suddenly awash with nostalgia and feeling a little emotional herself. How many nights had she fallen asleep in this bed to the sound of palm fronds rustling in the breeze? Or heard the roar of a restless ocean pounding the beach? These were the lullabies of her childhood that could woo her to sleep. Soon, she fell into a deep slumber listening to the gentle music of Sea Breeze.

Dora folded the kitchen towel and laid it on the counter. At last, the dishes were done. She glanced around the kitchen before turning off the lights. Everything was neat and tidy, like Harper herself. Lemons and avocados filled the wire basket, spices were organized in the rack, a to-do list was on the chalkboard. The leftover red velvet cake, another of Lucille’s recipes, sat under a glass globe. Dora resisted the urge for one last piece.

She flicked off the lights and walked through the living room to collect Nate from the library where he slept. It was late and past time to go home. Sea Breeze was blanketed with a hush. Taylor had taken Thor for a walk. Mamaw and Carson had already retired. Dora was the last to leave. She was dragging her feet, not ready to go back to the empty cottage.

Tonight she’d felt happy. After dinner she and her sisters had gone out to the dock, bundled in blankets, and talked and laughed as they did last summer. She’d missed that . . . missed them. Missed this house and the feeling of security and support that surrounded her in these walls. So real she could almost smell it.

Dora laughed to herself. Tonight, security smelled like gumbo. Darn, but that Harper made a mean gumbo. Along with warm corn bread and red velvet cake for dessert. All accompanied by stories every bit as rich, filled with the myriad details of what had transpired in their lives over the six months since they’d last been together. All in all a note-perfect family gathering.

Dora had to ask herself, was there anything that Harper wasn’t good at? She was an Ivy League scholar, a former New York editor, fluent in three languages, and if she didn’t know something, she always had her trusty computer nearby to look it up. Tonight, Dora felt a little as she had last summer when Harper had arrived from New York. She appeared sleek and polished in her Armani suit and Louboutin shoes, dragging her Louis Vuitton luggage. Dora had felt like a sea cow beside her. Over the past months, Harper’s style had relaxed, and so had Dora’s diet. She’d put on weight again and it only made her want to eat more. Tonight her eating was out of control—she’d had seconds of gumbo and rice, several glasses of wine, and she’d sneaked a second piece of cake in the kitchen while doing dishes.

Tags: Mary Alice Monroe Lowcountry Summer Romance
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