“When did he die?”
Carson turned back to Atticus. “When I turned eighteen, I moved out on my birthday. Happy birthday to me,” she said flippantly. Then her face grew serious again. “Parker died a few years after. Alone and drunk.” She looked into Atticus’s eyes, almost as a challenge. “I had to go to the morgue to identify his body.”
“I’m sorry you had to do that.”
She placed her hands around her cup as though seeking warmth. “I don’t think I’ve entirely forgiven myself. Or him.”
“What do you have to forgive yourself for?”
Carson looked up from the coffee. “For leaving him, knowing what he was.”
“Now you’re taking on too much responsibility. You were the child.”
Carson shrugged. “Maybe. But from that time on I had a hard time making a commitment of any kind, not to a boyfriend or a pet. I didn’t even take a long-term rental apartment.” She drank the dregs of her coffee and set her empty cup on the table. “One diagnosis would be attachment disorder.”
She was being curt, something he recognized as a front for her vulnerability. “Did a doctor make that diagnosis?” She shook her head. “Then neither should you.”
“Whatever you call it, the scars are there. I’m still skittish about losing my independence. Sticking to one place, one guy. It’s causing problems between me and Blake. Why else am I so afraid to commit? To settle down? It’s got to be because of my shitty childhood. Because of him.”
“You’re still angry at your father.”
“Hell yeah, I’m angry at him. He screwed up my life!”
“Carson, carrying around all that anger will only keep you tied to that tragic past. It’s like some heavy chain wrapped around your mind and your heart. The only way to release yourself from the anger and fear is to forgive him.”
“Forgive him for what? His whole life?”
“That’s a good question. Of all the things you’re angry with Parker about, what is the easiest to forgive?”
Carson scratched her head while she looked off. At first she seemed irritated by the question and wouldn’t answer. Then she looked at Atticus. “I suppose . . . it would have to be his alcoholism.”
“And the hardest thing to forgive him for?”
Tears unexpectedly flooded her eyes and her lips began to tremble. “For not taking care of me.”
Atticus was moved by the child’s cry he heard in the woman’s answer.
Carson wiped her eyes with quick strokes, trying to bring herself under control. “Isn’t that the responsibility of a parent?” she asked angrily. “To take care of his child?”
“Of course it is. Hey, I’m not a parent. I’m not even a spouse. But I know this much.”
Carson stilled to listen.
“What being a good parent is about—what being a spouse is about—is no longer thinking only of yourself or your self-interests. By that criterion Parker wasn’t a good parent. Or, apparently, a good spouse.” Atticus reached out to put his hand over hers. “But forgive his alcoholism. Start there.”
Atticus rolled into the Sea Breeze driveway a few hours later. He saw Carson’s Blue Bomber parked next to Harper’s Jeep—a car he found curiously incongruent with his image of its petite, proper owner. When his foot hit the pavement, he heard the thunder of paws against gravel as Thor came trotting from around the house to check out the new arrival.
“Hey, big boy,” Atticus called out, holding out his arms.
Thor bumped into him, sending Atticus tottering back with the weight of the huge dog. The Great Dane mix whined with pleasure at seeing him as Atticus scratched his ear.
“You know who I am, don’t you, old boy?” Atticus wished he could be as honest with everyone else at Sea Breeze. “Time to find out what’s bothering your lady, okay? Come on, boy, lead the way.” Atticus pointed to the front door.
When they reached the porch, Thor sat on his haunches beside the door and watched as Atticus knocked several times. There was no answer. Finding the door open, he hesitated. If Harper knew he was her brother, would he be able to stroll right in, like Carson and Dora? Would she still have reservations?
He glanced at Thor, wondering how he’d react to a home invasion. “You okay with this, old boy?”
Thor lay down on the porch and put his head on his paws.
All right then, Atticus thought, and pushed open the door a crack. “Hello?” he called out, sticking his head in. “Harper?”
Thor was instantly back on his feet, curious.
Atticus heard the sound of footfalls running toward him. In a flash, Harper appeared in tan pants and a flowing green print top. It was the first time he’d seen her wearing maternity clothes, and he thought she looked wonderful.
“You’re here! Come in!” She walked up to him. She kissed his cheek in welcome, then turned to Thor. “Not you. You stay outside.” She nudged Thor back out the door and ushered Atticus inside.
The usual fresh flowers were in a vase on the hall table. The house was filled with light and the scent of polish. Harper turned to Atticus. “Thank you for coming right over. You made good time. I hope it was no inconvenience.”
Atticus thought of the unfinished sermon on his table. “No problem.”
“Let’s go in the library.” She led the way down the hall. “We can talk there.”
The library was a handsome room, masculine with pecky-cypress paneling and walls of bookshelves filled with books, some new and some quite rare. Yet it had a strong feminine touch, clearly an effort of Harper’s since Atticus knew she’d claimed this as her office where she wrote. Her signature style was everywhere. An English chintz lined the windows and covered the chairs, a worn, muted Oriental rug had rose and creamy hues, and standing proud in front of the large windows was an exquisitely beautiful writing desk with cabriole legs. Harper had lit a fire in preparation for his visit. It snapped and crackled and created a cozy atmosphere. A pot of tea and mugs sat on the glass cocktail table along with a plate of cinnamon scones.
“I thought we’d be more comfortable in here, rather than the living room.”
And more private, Atticus thought to himself. Away from curious ears. “So many books.” He ran his fingertips along the spines. “I’ve always loved books. Felt I could get lost in them.”