“Oh, very well.” Disappointment flooded Marietta’s features. She went to the sofa and sat, fingers tapping her lap.
Atticus walked around the room, filling the empty silence with random questions about the art on the walls. With relief, a short while later they heard footfalls in the hall. Both of them turned toward the noise expectantly.
Harper entered, followed by a taller, striking woman of uncommon beauty. This must be Carson, he realized. She was a study in contrasts with Harper with raven hair and a southwestern-chic style of dress. But as she drew near, he saw the same blue eyes that he now knew were dominant in the Muir line. Those eyes studied him with cool appraisal.
To usher Carson closer, Harper held out her arm, acting as if she and Atticus were already old friends. “Carson”—she waved her sister closer—“come meet Reverend Green, an old friend of Mamaw’s. But we call him Atticus.”
Carson walked closer with long strides and held out her hand. “So you’re the man who’s going to marry us?”
A bold move, he thought, appreciating it. He took her hand. “If that’s okay with you?”
Her handshake was firm and he liked that she looked him straight in the eye. He could tell that she was recognizing the eye color, working it out in her mind, but her smile remained in place as she politely withdrew her hand.
“It’s okay with me,” she said nonchalantly. “You should know I’m not much of a churchgoer.”
“So I’ve been told.”
She ventured a curious smile at that. “And I’ve been told you’re a Baptist minister.”
“Southern Baptist,” he confirmed.
“One’s the same as another. Blake’s family is Baptist,” Carson said. “They’ll be pleased as punch.”
Atticus held his tongue. He didn’t want to get into an argument about her comment “one’s the same as another,” at least not yet.
“Shall we all sit down? I’ll make coffee,” Marietta offered.
“Mamaw”—Harper reached out to stall her with a soft touch on her arm—“I’m sorry but Carson and I have an appointment at the bakery. To taste the cakes. We have to leave.” Harper looked at Atticus. “I’m so sorry to cut out on you.”
Atticus wasn’t sorry. He was relieved. “No, that’s all right. I have to leave anyway. I need to go and check into a hotel.”
“Where are you staying?” Harper asked with alacrity.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Stay here! With us,” Harper exclaimed.
Carson swung her head to deliver her sister a hard stare of warning.
Atticus immediately backtracked, “No, I couldn’t impose.”
“It’s no imposition at all, really. We have loads of room,” Harper said, ignoring Carson. “Well, at least until the weekend when my grandmother arrives.”
Atticus glanced at Carson in her pale blue shirt regarding him from under furrowed brows. She was clearly wrestling with the invitation. He looked at Marietta, and her eyes were shining with reassurance, even hope, that he would accept, reminding him of her warm and sincere welcome.
“No. Thank you,” Atticus said more firmly. This was all moving far too quickly for him. He needed time alone to reflect on all that had transpired—possibly life changing. “I have other business to attend to while I’m in town and will be in and out. I’ll need my own place. But again, thank you for the invitation.”
“Of course. We understand,” Mamaw said firmly, putting the invitation to rest.
Harper reluctantly accepted this, but wasn’t through yet. She took a step closer. “How long are you in town?”
Atticus had taken a leave of absence from his ministry. After a long discussion, his pastor had advised him to take all the time he needed to get answers, to ponder them and come to conclusions before he returned to work. But of course Atticus kept this to himself. Even with Marietta’s warm welcome, he didn’t know how long he could bear to stay in Charleston, caught in this web of lies.
“Undecided. For several weeks. Possibly longer. My, uh, research is just beginning.”
“Then you absolutely must come for dinner Saturday night. I’m having a pre-wedding gathering at Sea Breeze. All the usual suspects will be there. Taylor, my fiancé, Carson and her fiancé, Blake. Our other sister, Dora, and her boyfriend, Devlin, and her son, Nate. And all the parents and grandparents. You can meet us all in one fell swoop. This Saturday. Six o’clock cocktails. Seven o’clock dinner. Casual attire. Please say you will come. You’re the minister, after all.”
He felt the force of Harper’s invitation and thought how much like her grandmother Marietta the young girl was. Gracious and warm, with an underlying will of iron. He felt the lie closing in on him and began to make his exit, subtly backing toward the door.
“Six o’clock. I’ll be there.” He checked his watch. “But now, I really must go. It was nice to meet you, Harper.” He offered his hand.
Harper stepped forward to take his hand, then leaned in to kiss his cheek. The kiss surprised him. He nodded, mumbling some agreeable parting comment.
“Good-bye. See you Saturday,” Carson told him.
Atticus looked to Marietta. Her blue eyes were still shining. With joy or triumph—or both—he wasn’t sure.
“Good-bye,” he said to her. His smile was sincere. “It truly was nice seeing you.”
Marietta couldn’t be restrained. She rushed across the space between them to put her hands on his arms and squeezed tight with a gentle shake. The kind a grandmother might give to her grandchild. Once again she seemed at risk of crying.
“Atticus. You have no idea how happy you’ve made me.”
Atticus couldn’t get to his truck fast enough. The emotions were too strong, too confusing. As soon as he stepped from the house, he took deep breaths of the fresh air and stretched out his arms, not realizing how stiffly he’d been holding himself. He looked behind himself at the closed door, not quite believing all that had transpired in the past hour.
Atticus turned the collar of his suit coat up around his neck and quickly descended the stairs. His heels dug deep half-moons into the gravel as he marched to his truck. He needed some time alone to think. With a yank he swung open the door and had one foot in the truck when he heard a voice calling his name.