“It might have mattered to some people,” Dora argued. “He’s a black man from the South. Of course he wondered.”
“Dora’s right,” Mamaw said. “I’m not sure he believed me when I told him it wouldn’t matter until he met you, Harper. Then you, Carson. After that, he agreed to go along with my plan. It seemed harmless at the time. I don’t think either of us realized how quickly he would come to feel like one of the family. By then it was too late.”
“It doesn’t matter. You should have told us,” Harper said, frowning. “Atticus preached honesty, and now it all feels like a sham. All of it. And it’s all the worse now because we feel that you lied to us, too. I don’t know if I can forgive him.”
The door knocked again. “Mrs. Muir?”
“Coming!” Mamaw called out sharply, at the end of her patience. “I have to go before they knock the door down,” she said irritably. She put her fingers to her temples, took a breath, then slowly rose to her feet and rounded the sofa. She paused, hands on its back. She turned to her granddaughters sitting before her, her face grave.
“Your father, God rest his soul, is dead. We were blessed to find these treasures. And more than blessed to discover he had a son.” She took a breath. “I have a grandson! And you have a brother. Be careful, girls. You’re all self-righteous now. But think. How has Atticus helped you these past few months? Whenever you called, he came running—and you called him often. You couldn’t have asked more from him if you did know he was your brother. In matters of the heart, he couldn’t have been more true.”
Across the room the three women’s faces were introspective more than angry.
“Where is Atticus now?” Dora wanted to know.
Mamaw was pleased to hear Dora’s tone was conciliatory. “On his way here. I called him. He should be here soon. I think”—Mamaw walked toward the door—“that you should all talk amongst yourselves before he arrives. I’ll make tea.”
Atticus slipped in the front door without anyone’s noticing him. Men and women were buzzing everywhere like worker bees, traipsing across paper walkways that protected the newly buffed floors. He ducked his head and walked quickly down the hall to Harper’s office, where Mamaw had told him the girls had congregated when she called him to come.
He knocked three times, firmly, on the office door.
The door opened and he was face-to-face with Harper. She looked trim and tidy, but her face was chalky with fatigue. He was sorry to see that. She should look happy the day before her wedding festivities began. Elated.
“Come in,” she said in a flat voice, void of her usual charm.
Across the room, Dora and Carson sat side by side on the settee. Neither of them smiled when they saw him. Nor was Mamaw in the room. He could have used her support. His heart sank as he walked in, but his shoulders were straight with determination. He knew what he had to say.
Harper shut the door and followed him across the room. When they reached the group, she said graciously, “Won’t you sit down? There’s tea. Would you like a glass?”
Always the proper hostess, he thought. “No, thanks. I prefer to stand.”
Harper’s brow rose but she accepted his decision and went to sit in the chair beside Carson. Atticus faced his three half sisters. They made a united front, and he’d never felt more the outsider. He took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you who I was. There were many times over the past months I wanted to, believe me, I really did. But the lie had grown so big I couldn’t tell you without you feeling”—he paused, then continued with regret—“without you feeling exactly the way you do now. This isn’t what I wanted to happen. Your grandmother and I both had the best intentions when this ruse started. And, ladies”—he paused, then said with heart—“Sisters, I hope you know I care about you. Deeply. I would never do anything to intentionally hurt you. I realize now that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
They all were looking at him, hands folded in their laps, sitting on the edge of their seats, listening. But not one of them spoke. If this was his jury, he’d just been found guilty. They were cutting him off without uttering a word. And he couldn’t blame them. He felt embarrassed, ashamed, alone.
“I’ll go. I’ll make arrangements with a local minister to officiate the weddings, so I won’t be leaving you stuck at the eleventh hour. There’s just one more thing.” He lifted the plastic grocery bag in his hands and pulled out the manuscript. “I received this from my mother’s lawyers. Along with birthday cards your . . . our . . . father sent me every year. He put dollars in the cards, to match my age.” Atticus laughed shortly. “I never got more than eight dollars. Of course, I never received them as a child. Not until the lawyers sent me the letter from my mother after her death. When she told me about Parker Muir being my father.”
He took a breath and began telling them the full truth. “My mother was an assistant editor in New York. Her name was Zora Green. She worked for your mother, Harper.”
Harper gasped and clutched her sister’s arm.
“Georgiana ordered my mother to edit your father’s manuscript. That’s how they met. How they fell in love. Neither of them planned for her to get pregnant, but she did. With me. My mother returned to Atlanta where my real father raised me as his own. And as you know, Georgiana divorced Parker.”
“That’s why she hated him,” Harper said with new insight. “He cheated on her.”
Atticus shook his head. “Apparently she wasn’t too fond of him before that. According to my mother’s letter, their marriage was on the rocks already.”
Harper put her hand to her forehead. “That, sadly, sounds more like Georgiana. She no doubt hated him all the more for embarrassing her.”
“We’ll never know. I don’t care, to tell you the truth. But you should know your father did the honorable thing. He asked my mother to marry him. But she refused. All she asked of him was that he never contact me. Other than the birthday cards, which my mother saved for me, he never did. She also saved this.”
Atticus carried the manuscript to the coffee table. The pitiful-looking pile of papers, curled at the edges, was heavily marked in blue, cut and pasted old-school with scissors and tape, all bound by two thick elastic bands.