Standing proud in the middle was an enormous live oak tree, its boughs drooping low and laced with moss. The magnificent tree was ancient, budding countless green leaves that would provide welcome shade in the summer. Atticus drove around the gravel circle to park near the line of bright pinks of azaleas that bordered the front of the house. Stepping from the car, he paused to breathe in the cool, moist air that tasted of salt, and stretched his neck after the five-hour drive.
So this was Sea Breeze. Home of the Muir family. He wondered if his illegitimate tie to the bloodline would earn him a welcome here. As he climbed the front stairs to the veranda, he noted that the tidy house was well maintained with a fresh coat of paint on the trim, green ferns already hanging in large baskets over the railing, and black iron urns spilling colorful, cool-weather pansies on either side of the door. Staring at the closed glossy black door with the striking brass knocker in the shape of a shell, Atticus wondered which of the Muirs he’d meet when the door opened. Perhaps Marietta, his grandmother. She was widowed and had lived alone in this house for over a decade. Though recent real estate reports revealed that the house had recently been sold to a Miss Harper Muir-James. This would be his youngest half sister. Quite a purchase for a single woman about the same age as himself, he thought.
He stood at the door. No more stalling, he told himself. There was only one way to meet the family, and that was to knock on this door. He took a moment to compose himself, breathing deep as he did before a sermon. Then he rang the doorbell.
In the tense silence he heard the sound of footfalls in the house. His stomach tightened. Too late to change his mind. The front door swung open.
An elderly woman stood before him, tall and slender and with the straight carriage of confidence. His first impression was of an elegant woman dressed in a quality tan sweater with a crisply ironed white blouse. A coral scarf softened her appearance, as did her white hair, which seemed to float around her head like a halo. She had a pretty face, even kind. One that was open and welcoming. She had a mug in her hand, and Atticus was relieved to see warmth in her clear blue eyes as she offered him a smile of welcome.
“Hello?” she said inquiringly.
His shoulders began to relax.
Then suddenly her expression froze. Her eyes rounded as though startled. “Parker!”
The mug dropped from her fingers, tumbled, crashed on the floor, shattering.
The mention of Parker’s name shook Atticus to the core. He stood momentarily frozen as Marietta gasped and rushed to pick up the broken pieces of the cup.
“Please, wait one moment,” Mrs. Muir said, flustered. Her cheeks were pink and she cast several curious looks at his face, trying unsuccessfully to be discreet. “I’ll just dispose of these. I’ll be right back.” She hurried off, leaving the front door open.
Atticus rammed his fists into his pockets and stared unseeingly over his shoulder at the scenery. He was stymied, unable to think of what to say or do next. All he could hear in his mind was the woman’s startled cry of her son’s name. Parker! The poor woman was clearly upset. She’d left the door open to a complete stranger.
“Forgive me,” Mrs. Muir said on returning. She appeared once again composed, though her eyes betrayed her, shining unusually bright. “You reminded me of someone I knew.” She added airily, “I don’t know what came over me.” Mrs. Muir extended her hand and approached him. He saw her long fingers with clean, short, polished nails and only a simple platinum wedding band. “I didn’t catch your name.”
Atticus cleared his throat and lifted his hands from his pockets. “I’m Reverend Atticus Green, ma’am. My mother was a friend of your son.”
“Really? Of Parker’s?”
In his mind he heard her startled cry of that same name and knew what they were both thinking of that moment. “Yes. She often talked about him. And how he described this place. Sea Breeze, correct?”
“Yes.” A soft smile relaxed her features. “Did he?” The comment pleased her and he felt another stab of guilt.
“I was in Charleston on business and thought I’d drive by and see it. I shouldn’t have come by uninvited.” He broke a quick smile. “My mother would be very angry with me. Truly, I’m sorry I disturbed you.”
“Any friend of Parker’s is welcome at Sea Breeze. Please, Reverend, won’t you come in? Mind the tea,” she warned him, indicating the spilled liquid on the floor. “I’ll get to that later.”
He followed her into a large living room that was all creams and blues, the colors of the sea. Atticus appreciated the refinement and wealth reflected in the well-appointed room.
“Won’t you sit down, Reverend Green?” Marietta led him to a Chippendale cream sofa. “Would you like something to drink? Water? Coffee or tea?”
Atticus felt his first relief that she’d welcomed him into her home as any genteel lady would a guest, even an uninvited guest as he was. He felt the first flush of shame that he’d put her into this awkward position by not calling first. His mother had taught him better.
“No, thank you.” He sat straight backed on the linen sofa, uncomfortable in the strange surroundings that were, he knew, his family’s home.
“It’s a lovely home.”
“Why, thank you.” Mrs. Muir joined him, sitting on the matching sofa across from him, her hands folded tightly on her lap. Blue-patterned pillows bolstered her back, lending her a regal air. Yet despite her outward composure, two bright blotches of pink stained her pale cheeks, a sign of heightened alertness. “So, Reverend, what can I help you with?”
Atticus hadn’t planned what to say once he’d gained entry to the house. And now that he’d met Mrs. Muir—his grandmother—the inclination to tell her the truth sat at the tip of his tongue. Especially since she’d seen in him a resemblance to her son. He ventured the topic by saying, “I’m sorry I startled you.”
Mrs. Muir looked at her hands. “You’re probably wondering why I called out the name Parker?”
She paused again, studying his face as an expert would a portrait. She put her hand to her heart, as though she still couldn’t get over it. “Parker was my son. He’s passed now. When I saw you, I thought you were him. The resemblance is uncanny.”
Atticus remained silent, enduring the scrutiny.