Mamaw looked up and, seeing them, set down the champagne bottle and called out in her cheery southern drawl, “Well, it’s about time you boys joined the party!”
Everyone else turned his or her head, grinning.
“There you are!” Harper hurried over to Taylor to take his arm and drag him into the room, her gaze taking in their running clothes. “You look like you’re coming from the gym. Honey, I told you nine o’clock. We couldn’t wait any longer. Erinne only has so much time, you know.”
“The cavalry’s arrived,” Carson called out, waving Blake and Atticus into the room from where they hovered by the door. “We need some more men’s opinions.” She gave their running clothes a once-over. “And you guys look like you could use a watering hole.”
Taylor wasn’t smiling. “Can I just ask what in Sam Hill y’all are doing?” Taylor looked at the glass in Harper’s hand. “Are you drinking alcohol?”
“No, silly, of course not.” Harper giggled. “It’s ginger beer. Carson and I are working on a nonalcoholic drink.” When Taylor still looked confused, she said with a huff of frustration, “We’re creating our signature drinks for the weddings. Don’t you remember? We talked about it.”
Taylor shot a glance to Blake. He lifted his shoulders in a classic Huh?
“Men,” Dora called out with mock frustration. “Hopeless.”
“Nah,” Devlin called out, coming over to greet the men. He handed them each a glass. “Be gentle with them, ladies. They just realized that there’s no one less important during wedding plans than the groom.”
“Blake, meet Erinne,” Carson said as Erinne walked up with her shaker. “She’s from Firefly Distillery and brought all these goodies for us to taste.”
“I don’t need an introduction to Firefly.” Blake took a sip from his glass. “Sweet tea vodka is a staple in my house. Okay.” He set down the glass and rubbed his hands together, eyes feasting on the choices. “I’m at your service, ladies. Though I have to say, I don’t usually drink at nine thirty in the morning. What’ve we got here?” He picked up a smaller bottle in the shape of a large mason jar. “Moonshine?”
“Really?” Taylor came closer. “Nothin’ says wedding in the South like a little moonshine.”
“It’s a specialty of ours.” Erinne joined them at the table. “We have more flavors than just this one, but I brought some peach moonshine specifically for the wedding cocktail.” She offered them two flutes. “This is the drink the group liked for the wedding. Sparkling wine and peach moonshine. Now that’s lowcountry.”
Blake and Taylor each took a swallow of the wine.
“Good.” Blake looked at the glass. “Mama’s going to love that.”
“Real good,” Taylor agreed. “For the ladies. But we need something with more bite for the guys.”
“See?” Harper said. “That’s why we needed you. Get busy, boys.”
Dora leaned over to Mamaw and said in a stage whisper, “She didn’t say chop-chop.”
Erinne poured two more cups of liquid from her shaker. “Try this, guys. It’s not so sweet. This is a mix of Cannonborough ginger beer and Firefly sweet tea vodka.”
Taylor tried a swallow. “Now we’re talking.” He smacked his lips. He stepped closer, getting into the mood. “Can I get in here and mix a bit?”
“Look who just became a mixologist,” Blake teased.
Erinne laughed. “That’s what you’re here for. Both of you. Dive in.”
As they did so, Carson stepped closer to Atticus and handed him a glass of iced ginger beer. “You’re gonna love this. You won’t miss the alcohol, it’s so good.”
He met her gaze and they shared a look of mutual support. “Thanks.” He took a sip and it was extraordinarily delicious. Not too sweet. He looked at her again, noticed she looked better. She had some color from her time out on the water. But more, she’d lost the sullenness that had cloaked her features the last time they’d talked.
“How are you doing?” he asked. They both understood this was a follow-up question to the long discussion they’d had after her last argument with Blake.
“Good.” She couldn’t hide the sparkle in her eyes. She looked around and saw that everyone was clustered around the table, talking, laughing, tasting. “Actually, do you have a minute?” When he nodded, she led them out the kitchen door to the porch, where they could talk privately.
The air felt warmer outside than it did inside. Atticus took a deep breath as he looked out over the majesty of the Cove. Spring had really set in now. He’d never realized that one could notice the change of seasons along the coastline as one could in the North. It was just more subtle, but when you knew where to look, the signs were obvious. The cordgrass was a deep green at the bottom, and as it grew, all the wetlands would be like the great prairies, waving green in the sun. The lowcountry was setting roots in his heart.
“That’s a new look for you, Rev,” Carson said, taking in his running shorts and sweaty T-shirt, his ball cap on backward. “I like it.”
“Yeah?” He chuckled. “We all met up on the beach. Had breakfast together. Have to say, they’re great guys. I really like them.”
Carson beamed. “Yeah, they are. They like you, too.”
“How can you tell?”
“I can always tell. If Taylor doesn’t like someone, he puts on his marine face to scare them away. Blake is more subtle. He just ignores you. Politely, of course. His mama raised him right. But you, they treat like one of the family.”
Atticus swallowed down the rush of emotion that comment elicited. “Yeah, we’re going to start some pickup games of volleyball or something. So, what’s up?” he asked, gently leading her back to the topic.
“I got a second interview with Charleston Waterkeepers. It’s this really great nonprofit that focuses on local water quality. The pay is nothing, of course.” She laughed. “But I don’t care about that. It’s a job I can really sink my teeth into. I can make a difference, and that’s what I need.” She grinned with pride.
“Are you going to take it?” he asked, knowing full well what that meant.