“I know.” Carson looked down at the table. Saw the coffee cooling. A scented candle, already half-burned off.

“Then why are you rushing it?”

“I’m not rushing anything. I called to check in. I have to make a decision by the end of the week or this job is gone.”

Blake swung his head around. “What the hell do you care if this job is gone?”

Carson didn’t look up. “I care. I think I want to take it.”

Blake reached out and put his hands on her shoulders. “Carson, look at me and explain why you want to take this job, knowing what that would mean. For us.”

Carson leaned back so Blake’s hands fell from her shoulders. She still couldn’t meet his eyes. “You know how I feel. I . . . I wanted things—to change. I hoped—I’d find something here.” She looked up at him. “But it’s not happening. You say you have another job possibility. We both know it will end up being the same story: I won’t have the right credentials, or I’ll not be right for what they’re looking for, or it’s really just a courtesy because they already have someone on the inside they want to hire. This can go on for months and months.” She stopped and said loudly, angrily, “I can’t just keep applying, and hoping. And waiting. I’m not good at standing still, Blake. You know that. I have to keep moving.” She shook her head in confirmation. “I can’t just sit around and do nothing. I can’t.”

Blake looked off again, his jaw working furiously. When he turned back to her, his face was rigid. “Are you breaking our engagement?”

She looked at him in shock. “No.” She shook her head. “I’m asking you to still go through with the wedding if I take this job.”

Blake leaned back against the cushions, his shoulders drooped in defeat. “I’m sorry, Carson. I can’t do that. I know I don’t have the right to make this decision for you. I only know I can’t go through another six months like the last.”

So, Carson thought to herself. It sounded as if they were giving each other their bottom lines. She wondered what Atticus would advise now. “What do we do?” She looked down at the diamond on her hand.

“Are you asking out of politeness, or do you really want my answer?”

“I want your honest answer,” she said bluntly. “Of course.”

He looked at her, and though his face was calm, his eyes were dark with intent. “Okay then. I know what I think you should do. Contact Charleston Waterkeepers, the Coastal Conservation League, NOAA, and every other nonprofit and profit organization that deals with environmental subjects you can sink your teeth into and send a blitz of résumés out there. Frankly, you sat on your ass for the past month and assumed you’d get the aquarium job. Well, you didn’t. Now you say you’ve only got a few days to decide. So you’d better get cracking, girl. That’s what I think you should do. Fight for us, baby.” Blake took a breath. “Or break it off now. Don’t make me hope if there’s nothing to hope for.”

Carson sucked in her breath. She heard what he was asking, knew it was fair. Blake was always fair. Now she had to be fair, as well. She looked down at the ring on her finger, the small diamond bordered on each side with a sapphire. The ring that had been his mother’s. The ring that had helped keep her sober when she was out of town because when she looked at it, she saw Blake’s face.

“All right, I will. I do want to marry you. I don’t want to break off our engagement.”

Blake released a sigh. “Do you still want that drink?”

“Yes,” she replied honestly. “But then I always want a drink. I don’t want it as badly as I did when I walked in.”

“Do you need to call Bill?”

Bill was her sponsor. She shook her head. “I’m okay. I thought I needed to, but not now. Though, I might give Atticus a call.”

“Sounds good. I’m glad you feel you can talk to him.” Blake reached down and took her fingers and held them in his. Gently he stroked the inside of her palms with his thumb. “You can always talk to me, too, you know.”

“I know.” Then she laughed shortly. “Except I need to talk about you.”

“Okay.” He laughed, too, though there was no humor in it. He brought her fingers to his lips. “Are we still on for dinner?”

“I don’t want to go out. I want to get cracking, as you put it. Want to come over and we can work on them together?”

“Yeah,” he said, brightening. “I’ll bring sushi.”

“Sounds great.”

They’d reached an impasse. There wasn’t anything left to say.

Carson rose to leave. In the corner, Hobbs saw the movement and immediately climbed to his feet and trotted toward her. Carson, hoping to make up for her rude behavior earlier, gave him a generous pat and back scratch, sending tiny golden hairs flying in the air.

“See you in a little bit,” Blake said, and kissed her gently on the lips. She felt his warm breath, waited, hoping he would kiss her again.

But he didn’t.

Carson felt the chill when his arms slid from her shoulders. She smiled quickly as she said good-bye, then turned and walked head bent to her car, aware that he was watching her. She’d found a parking spot not far from the house, yet by the time she’d reached the car and turned to wave once more, Blake was already gone.

Atticus was sitting at the dining-room table of his condominium writing a sermon for Sunday. He’d been asked to fill in for the pastor of Morris Baptist Church while he went to a conference. Atticus gladly agreed. He needed to get back in the pulpit. Preaching gave his life purpose and meaning. The Reverend Manigault at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta had been wise to urge him to take a sabbatical in the lowcountry for as long as he needed. Atticus was doing more than forging new relationships. He was forming a new identity.

His sermon was on honesty. Something he’d spent a lot of time praying about in the past weeks. During that time he’d slowly gotten to know the Muir family, though he knew he’d only scratched the surface. A lot was bubbling underneath that he wanted to tap into. He’d spent several hours chatting with both couples—Carson and Blake, Harper and Taylor—but for the most part everyone was being on their best behavior in the small groups, keeping things vague. No one was digging into serious issues. Usually Atticus would have taken the gloves off by this point and started probing deeper, getting the couples to open up more. He felt that he hadn’t seen anything real, raw, and truly honest since that morning out on the water with Carson and Delphine.

Tags: Mary Alice Monroe Lowcountry Summer Romance
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