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By D. A. Ratliff
Harper Anderson turned onto the street where her parents lived, hoping she was wrong. She wasn’t. Cars lined the normally quiet residential street along the river, giving no doubt that the wedding festivities were in full swing. She found a spot to park three houses past her destination and decided her suitcases could wait. It was July in Beaufort, South Carolina, and too hot to drag them that far down the street.
Two years had passed since she had been home for Christmas. Two years since her divorce. She shuddered in the afternoon heat not from remembering the stupidity of her marriage but why she had fled Beaufort in the first place. At least the reason she left town nine years before was no longer around.
Opening the gate, she walked around the side of the house, following the laughter. It was Saturday, and her “personalized” wedding itinerary said this was the first of two bridal showers she would have to endure this week. As she turned the corner into the backyard, she took a deep breath. Were there enough Bellinis in Beaufort to get her through the next eight days.
A squeal coming from the garden room stopped her, and she braced her body as the bride-to-be, her younger sister Hannah, ran out the door. “Harpy.” Hannah leapt and flung her arms around Harper.
Footsteps echoed on the sidewalk as she hugged Hannah before pulling away. “Do not call me Harpy.”
“But I love calling you that.”
“You heard your sister, please don’t call her that.” A gentle hand pried her from Hannah and drew her into an embrace.
“Thank you, Mom. Good to see you.”
“You too, darling. Where are your suitcases?”
“I had to park in front of the Clowers’s house, too hot to drag them.”
“Well, give your keys to your father when we get inside. He’ll get them. Now, Grandma Ester and Nana are waiting to see you.”
Harper looked toward the glass-enclosed room, and her mother laughed. “Don’t look so anxious. There’s wine punch, we’ll get through this.”
It had been a long time since she woke up in her parents’ home alone. She stretched and sat up, gazing out the window at the broad river flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico. A sight she had treasured since she was a little girl and no longer had to share a room with Hannah.
She plopped back on the bed. So many thoughts running through her head. The last time she was in her old bedroom, she had a terrible fight with her now-ex. That fight continued during the return trip home to Atlanta, and three days later, she filed for divorce. She had not been able to come home yet, but Hannah’s wedding changed that.
Her phone dinged. Her mom. Get down here, breakfast is ready. Leaving for church in 90 mins. She laughed. Just like the old days, summoned by Mom. She got out of bed to start the busy day.
Coming down the stairs, she heard children’s laughter, which meant her brother and sister-in-law were there with their kids. She stepped through the kitchen door, hearing Aunt Harpy as her niece and nephew ran to hug her. At Harpy, she glared at her sister, who just smiled.
“Clarise, good to see you!” She kissed her sister-in-law on the cheek then turned to her brother. Older by two years, he had always been her rock when growing up, and she felt that security wash over her as he hugged her.
He whispered, his eyes twinkling. “Harper Anderson, good to see you.”
“Hampton Anderson, good to see you.”
Her mother shooed everyone to the dining room, and as they headed there, Hampton pulled her aside.
“Harp, you okay? We’ve all been worried since you kept refusing to come home. I think Hannah just got engaged to get you here.” Her shocked look must have surprised him. “No, no, not really, but we were all happy when you said you would come.”
“I couldn’t stay away. You know that. Besides, I’m in the wedding party, so I had to come.” She grinned. “Now that might have been by design. And to answer your question, I am fine. I realize now that I am here, it was foolish to think this would be hard.”
“We’ve always got your back, Harp. Nothing that happened was your fault. You married him for love, but he wasn’t capable of loving anyone but himself.”
“And maybe every other woman in Atlanta. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t love. Maybe just the hope for love, but I have learned my lesson. I won’t stay away any longer. Let’s get in there, I’m starving.”
Hannah’s fiancé, Allan Stapleton, joined them for church services where the couple received blessings on their upcoming marriage. After the service, Hannah walked her through the decorations planned for the sanctuary, every minute detail. Thankfully, her mother intervened, there were lunch reservations.
Lunch was at the Beaufort House, a converted residence setting along the river. The Federalist-style antebellum house was 180 years old and beautifully maintained. Turned into a bed and breakfast and restaurant, the beautiful setting was the site of the wedding reception the following Saturday night.
Harper was enjoying a Bellini while nibbling on a cheese and bacon omelet as Hannah went on about decorations for the reception. She tried to zone out and not listen to the joy in her sister’s voice. Her wedding reception to Jacob had been a quiet affair in her parents’ backyard, but then she didn’t marry a congressman’s son as Hannah was. Listening to her sister, she came to the realization that she had never felt that joy when she married. She should have. Maybe it was just the wrong person—definitely, the wrong person. But that was over too.
Hearing her sister call her name—actually, Harpy—interrupted her self-imposed inattention. She refocused on her sister’s beaming face catching her in mid-sentence. “…. love the photos we have planned here. We are going to take a lot of photos on the river path where you used to read.”
She could swear her sister’s eyes were taunting her, but Hannah would never be that cruel. Everyone knew why she avoided the river path. The memories of the small picturesque cove and the bench that sat there hovered in her mind. A sigh escaped her, it was a beautiful spot, and her sister had the “Martha Stewart” flair of wanting everything perfect. Photos taken there would be magical. Time to face the past and maybe the nagging hurt would finally go away.
Excusing herself, Harper walked out onto the wide veranda that wrapped around three sides of the house. She leaned against a post on the east side of the porch and gazed out at the broad river. She could see the path winding along the water’s edge, and she allowed herself to walk it in her memory.
Her mother’s parents lived about equidistant from the cove in the opposite direction of the Beaufort House. She, Hannah, and Hampton went to their grandparents after school and in the summers while her parents worked. She discovered the bright blue bench at the cove the summer she turned fifteen. The blue was ugly, and she had always wanted to paint the bench her favorite color, red. It became her chosen place to read. It was there that she met him.
Harper sighed. No need to dredge up the past, it was over. She turned, intending to rejoin her family in the dining room, but stopped in her tracks. The last person she hoped to see was blocking her way. Her ex-sister-in-law, Lucy Blakely Watson.
‘Harper Lee,” Lucy paused. “… Anderson. Momma was so happy to hear you had gone back to your maiden name.”
Taking a deep breath, Harper debated whether to simply walk past the woman or slap her. She decided slapping someone was generally frowned upon regardless of how tempting.
“Glad to know your momma is happy about something, I didn’t think that was possible. Now if you will excuse me.” She attempted to brush past Lucy, who stepped in the way.
“You stay away from Jacob. He was devastated after you threw him out, but he has remarried, in case you hadn’t heard. I don’t want you making trouble for him.”
Seething with anger, Harper wanted to scream, I threw him out because he was having an affair, but she didn’t. Hands clenched, she smiled. “Did he marry the one he had an affair with when married to me or cheat on her too?”
Jerking her hand away, she walked away as Lucy called after her. “You heard me, stay away from him.”
That evening was another shower given by Hannah’s sorority sisters. The house was full of laughter and squeals as it was a lingerie shower. Sitting with Clarise in the corner of the front parlor, she was surprised when her sister-in-law commented.
“Honestly, Harper, I didn’t even know they did these kinds of showers anymore.”
“I know, and well, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
“I hate to admit it, but I’m not certain what some of those toys are.”
They both laughed, but Harper sensed Clarise was staring at her.
“From where I was sitting at lunch, I saw you talking to that vile Lucy, and I was wondering what she had to say.”
“She warned me to stay away from her brother. Like that would be an issue.”
“When he returned here after the divorce, he went to work for his dad. Hampton heard his dad has caught him a few times with his hand in the till. I’m glad you got rid of him.”
“I never expected him to move to Atlanta to work for the same sports PR firm where I worked. Handsome, charming, and well, I was lonely, and prime for the picking. He only wanted my connections. The fight we had here at Christmas was not only about his latest conquest, but I found out he had stolen two of my large accounts. Went to my boss as soon as I returned, and he was livid. Jacob had presented him with forged documents showing I had released the accounts to him. You know I filed for divorce the same day the company fired him for his actions. He tucked tail and ran home to mommy and daddy.”
“Harper, I think you should know…”
Hannah interrupted. “Harper Lee, Clarise, get over here. I am about to open y’all’s presents now. I am sure hoping they are silky cloth and not silicone.”
As they rose to join the others, Harper paused. “What were you going to tell me?”
“It’s okay, it can wait.”
Monday and Tuesday passed in a whirlwind. The days filled with last-minute fittings for all the bridesmaids, a minor catastrophe with the florist—the centerpiece roses were not peachy enough. Wedding presents were arriving by the truckload, and Harper and two sorority sisters oversaw cataloging them. Harper collapsed into bed on Tuesday night, exhausted, hoping Wednesday would be a quieter day.
After breakfast on Wednesday morning, were last-minute seating arrangements for the reception before they dressed for the family luncheon at the country club. Harper had seen little of the men in the family and was looking forward to spending time with them.
Her hope for a quiet Wednesday ended when, near the end of the luncheon, her grandpa Franklin collapsed.
The nine-mile trip from the country club on Lady’s Island to the hospital felt like an eternity to Harper. Her father driving, her mom quiet, but her eyes never leaving the ambulance carrying her father.
She sat in the backseat, texting with Hannah, who was riding in the car behind them with Allen and his parents. Her brother was in a third car with her dad’s parents and Clarise and the kids. Allan’s brother stayed behind to deal with the restaurant.
As the ambulance pulled into the emergency bay, her dad parked at the curb. “Harper, take your mom in. I’ll park the car and be right there.”
The emergency room was quiet. Her mom joined her parents as soon as he was in a room. As the minutes passed, the rest of the family arrived. They waited.
When her mom came to the waiting room, the look of relief on her face allowed everyone to breathe easier. “Not a heart attack, or a stroke. The doctor,” she paused and glanced at Harper, “believes a new med his doctor just put him on is the culprit. Doctor… uh, the ER doctor… is calling Dad’s doctor now. I think we should…”
Harper’s grandmother appeared at the ER door. “Your dad is asking for you.”
“I’ll be back in a bit.” She gave Harper a quick glance before she returned to her dad.
Harper felt the unease in the room. It was more than Grandpa Franklin’s health. She was about to ask Clarise what she was going to tell her earlier when the answer walked into the lobby. She was certain from the chill that flooded her body that all blood had drained from her face. It was him. The man she loved. The man who had left her.
Dr. Garrett Frazier’s eyes darted around the room until he found her. Harper was rooted to the floor, keeping her from running. When he spoke, the voice that she loved so much flooded her with heat.
“Good to see all of you and glad that I have good news. Franklin had a reaction to a new prescription, and I have spoken to his doctor, who is calling in a new drug for him.”
Hannah was beaming. “Then, he’s going to be able to come to the wedding?”
Garrett smiled. “Yes, I want him to rest for the next couple of days, but he’s cleared to attend your wedding.”
As Hannah hugged Garrett, Harper spun and ran from the emergency room.
The afternoon passed, and in the early evening, Harper was in her room, staring out the window. A knock on the door brought a sense of dread. Someone wanted to talk about Garrett. It was inevitable, so she called out—come in.
Her mother and Hannah walked in, and her mother started the conversation. “Darling, we have a confession to make.” Looking nervously at Hannah, her mom continued. “We knew Garrett was back. He accepted the position of Medical Director of ER and came to see me shortly after he arrived. He wanted to know about you. His mom told him you had divorced, and well, he was hoping you would talk to him. He said he missed you a great deal.”
Hannah took a deep breath. “It was my idea to surprise you at the wedding. He’s invited, and well, we were hoping at the reception you would talk to him.”
Harper didn’t speak for a moment, and she could tell it made them nervous. Good. They should be. “You should have told me. When Garrett decided to turn down the residency in Atlanta for the hospital in Chicago, he broke my heart. I had already taken the job in Atlanta, thinking he would be there. He didn’t even discuss it with me.”
“Harper, we should have. I am sorry.”
“Mom and I talked about this, if you are uncomfortable with him being there, I will ask him not to come. His mom was coming with him, but I am certain she will understand.”
“No, don’t do that. I can deal with this. No more talk about it.”
The next two days passed in a whirlwind of more final fittings, last-minute details regarding the reception, the bridesmaids’ luncheon and rehearsal, and dinner on Friday night. Their Saturday morning consisted of a family breakfast, then off to the salon for hair and makeup. It wasn’t until she was waiting to precede her sister down the aisle that she allowed herself to take a breath. All she had to do was get through the next few hours, and tomorrow she could go home.
As the music started and the procession began, she promised herself that she wouldn’t look for him. Three steps into the church, and she spotted him. He was staring at her, and she felt anger that morphed into desire. She wasn’t over him, but she was going to be. She had to be. Taking a deep breath, she concentrated on her sister’s ceremony. Her problems could wait.
Next came the photoshoot along the river path. She was dreading it as the memories were now very raw. As they approached the cove, her heart skipped a beat. The blue bench—it wasn’t blue. It was red. Her favorite shade— red pepper red. When did….? She turned to Hannah, who smiled. “A little surprise for you.”
“I remember how you always wanted this bench to be red.”
Garrett. She turned. “Did you do this?”
He stepped closer. “I have a confession to make. I did. It helps to have a mother on the city council. She got approval, and I bought the paint and painted it.”
“Because I never forgot you or what I did to you. You were so proud of your job in Atlanta and angry with me for changing my mind at the last minute that I just walked away. I wanted you to be happy, and I thought the job was what made you happy. I was hoping this would make you happy.”
“I was never happy when you left. But you never came back.”
“I thought you didn’t want me.”
Harper clenched her fists. “I always wanted you. You broke my heart.”
Garrett placed his hands on her upper arms. “Well, I am a doctor. Maybe I could put your broken heart back together?”
“Are you that good a doctor?”
She leaned against his chest. “Then start healing me.”
Author’s Note: I am going to attribute this story to a Hallmark moment. Try as I might, this red bench just spoke romance to me. As I don’t normally write in the romance genre, I asked my best friend for some assistance. The main character and the good doctor’s name and profession came from her, and the story followed. Stacy, I wrote this story for you to enjoy. I think I will return to mysteries!
Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/