Sunday afternoons were a blessing, but this one was more so. The sun was warm and soothing. The breeze was light, carrying the sweet smell of tea roses and honeysuckle. The flower garden was an oasis that Grace gravitated to when time allowed. Sitting there now, she held the stem of a freshly cut pink rose, breathing in its scent.
Her father was visiting a neighbor, and the boys were out fishing. Her mother was in the house, baking bread. Only Pilot was with her now. Lying on his side in the grass, his legs stretched out in relaxation, he was thoroughly enjoying the moment of leisure. Now and then his front foot twitched, and the fold of his muzzle flapped as he let out a breath – along with a series of yip and whines. Clearly, his mind was at ease. Grace envied him for that.
As she’d suspected, Charlie had avoided coming to the house while everyone was there. The word around town was that after the gathering, he had gone back to Richmond with his aunt and uncle.
Good riddance, she said to herself. And she meant it. She was certain she meant it. And yet…
There was a nagging sensation within her – a feeling that wasn’t entirely born of anger. She had been so upset with him yesterday, mostly on Ollie’s behalf. But now that time had passed, she was beginning to share her cousin’s feeling of uncertainty.
Was he so very bad? Or was he merely misunderstood? Oh, it was so hard to decide which side of the fence to stand on! She was angry with him, yes. Ollie was so dear to her, and Charlie had upset her so. But she could not say she hated him now. She could not hate anyone, no matter their actions, and perhaps his intention had never been to hurt Ollie. Perhaps it was Ollie who had jumped to the entirely wrong conclusion from the first. And yet, it was Ollie who deserved her loyalty, no matter who was right or wrong.
Pilot lifted his head suddenly, his ears perking up. A low growl came from his throat. Someone was coming. Were the boys back already? Maybe it was her father coming home. The back door to the house squeaked as it opened, and she turned to look.
There he stood, beside her mother on the back stoop. Rachel was wearing a smile – a strange thing to see on her face.
“Gracie, someone’s come to see you.”
Grace looked at them, seeing how Charlie smiled at Rachel and how she smiled back, seeming quite charmed by him. As her mother turned to go back in the house, Grace saw Charlie’s eyes as he looked in her direction. There was that smile of his – that boyish expression she had first seen on his face. The one that had so excited her then. And for a moment, she felt that familiar stirring being reborn. But she turned from it, and from him - remembering herself. Even when he called out to her.
To answer, or not to answer. That was the question. Struggling with the decision, she found herself saying nothing, which of course would have seemed strange to him. The puzzlement was in his voice.
“Gracie? Don’t I get a hello?”
Say something, her conscience nagged her. It was not in her nature to be entirely hateful. Politeness had been bred and sometimes beaten into her. The impulse demanded satisfaction.
“Hey Charlie,” she said.
She felt his presence drawing near, even as she concentrated on her flowers, not looking up at him. As she clipped a rose and dropped it in the basket, he crouched down beside her.
“Is something wrong, Gracie?”
“Not a thing,” she said with a shrug. “I just ain’t in the mood for company.”
“Did I do something?”
Her answer came out more bluntly than she intended. “You broke my cousin’s heart!”
She hadn’t meant to be so direct. But once the words were free of her, the force of it felt justified, despite the shocked look on his face.
“I did what?”
“Ollie!” she said. “You hurt her bad. She’s like a sister to me, and anybody who hurts her is no friend of mine.”
Gathering up her tools, she intended to leave. But he reached out and grasped her wrist – his hold firm. His voice was calm, but there seemed to be an urgency in his words.
“Can I explain? Please?”
Pulling out of his hold, she picked up her basket and rose to her feet – and she avoided looking at him.
“Be quick about it.”
“Can we sit somewhere? Like over there? Under the arbor?”
The wisteria arbor, under the heavy shade of the elm trees. It seemed like too pretty and fragrant a spot to sit and have an argument. But where else would they go? She certainly didn’t want to go in the house where her mother would hear, and a long walk was out of the question. There was something about the thought of being alone with him that troubled her, in more ways than one. She was unsure of him, but just as unsure of herself. Looking into those beautiful green eyes – seeing that smile. It was so hard not to be dissuaded by such charms. Warily she sat beside him, and he beside her – a bit too close, it seemed to her. But she was calm, not letting on, as she listened to him.
“I like Ollie,” he said. “She’s very sweet. But she’s not the girl for me. There’s someone else…”
He looked stunned for a moment – a slight redness coming to his face. His eyes shifted and he looked away.
Guilty, she thought. He is guilty, and he knows it.
So Ollie’s suspicions were confirmed. The truth was written all over Charlie’s face, and he did not seem intent on denying what he’d done. Reaching up to rub the back of his neck, he grumbled.
“Is there a soul in this town that doesn’t know about that?”
“Everyone knows,” she scolded him. “That was shameful, Charlie.”
“It just sort of happened, Gracie. Wanda and I were friends a long time ago. I needed someone to talk to, and one thing led to another…”
“Oh Lord, Charlie Hillard.”
“It’s not as if I’m the first man to visit a woman like her. Sometimes, that’s just what a man does…”
“Don’t say another word!” she cried, trying to move away. “I don’t want to hear about your night of fornication. It’s awful. I won’t listen to it.”
She felt the urge to go, and meant to act on it. But then he was holding her wrist again. There was something in the gesture that made her uneasy, even though his voice seemed so calm and sincere.
“Then we won’t talk about it anymore,” he said. “Just sit with me.”
“I have to go, Charlie. Mama will need my help with supper.”
“She doesn’t need your help, Gracie. Now just sit down and be still!”
The force of his hold – the way he pulled her down. It startled her, and the boldness of his voice sent a nervous shiver up her spine. But it was the flash of fire in his eyes that troubled her the most. It was only there for a moment, but it was enough to make her deeply uneasy, even though he tried to soothe her with a softer tone of voice.
“I’m sorry, Gracie. I didn’t mean to sound angry. I have a temper, and sometimes it controls me.”
Now she did stand, taking a step away from him entirely, and she scoffed at his attempt to placate her.
“What a confession, Charlie Hilliard! You want me to sit with you, and then you go and tell me about a wild temper? You’re a few bricks shy of a load, you know that?”
He smiled at her. Smiled at her! As if her displeasure and mistrust of him meant nothing at all. He even dared to offer her a patronizing sort of compliment – one that he tried to cloak in a soft tone.
“You’ve always been pretty when you’re mad.”
She wanted to smack his face. Not just for the way he was talking down to her, as if she were a child who would be soothed with pretty talk. But it seemed little to him that this entire meeting was wrong – entirely wrong. This was the man that Ollie cared for, and it felt like an utter betrayal of her trust to be sitting here this way.
“I think you should go, Charlie.”
“And what if I won’t? I came here to see you, Gracie. To talk to you. To ask you…”
His words were broken off by the sound of hounds and of men talking. Her brothers were returning from their fishing trip, and for once, she was grateful for their interruption.
Thank heavens, she thought. Lord, let me be free of him!
She couldn’t remember being so uncomfortable in the presence of anyone before. Not even her brothers, who often tried to bully her or make a fool of her. Nor her father, who was prone to striking her when the mood set him right. At least with her father and brothers she could anticipate what was to come. She hardly knew Charlie at all anymore. And he had come to ask her something? Who knew what it could be? She was certain she had no desire to know the answer.
Much to her chagrin, Raymond welcomed Charlie as if he were a member of the family.
“Charlie!” he said, the two shaking hands. “Good to see you again. Are you stayin’ for supper?”
Lord no, Gracie thought with despair. Please, no.
But even as she pleaded for mercy from the almighty, she knew what the result would be. What sort of country fellow turned away an invitation for supper?
“I suppose I could stay,” Charlie replied. “If you’ll have me.”
Raymond snorted and chuckled, slapping him on the back.
“Of course we’ll have you! Come on in the house. I’m sure Mama has supper about ready.”
They all walked together towards the house, where Rachel was already waiting with the back door open, ready to welcome them. Grace stayed back, fearful of going in – a feeling of dread coming over her.
Heaven help me, she prayed. Heaven, please help me…
* * * * *
The men were talking of fish. What else would the subject be, when they had it on their plates? Usually, fried catfish was one of her favorite foods. But not tonight. She found she had no appetite.
She watched Charlie as he ate his supper...and she wondered if he knew how disgusting he looked. He talked with his mouth wide open, letting everyone see the food he'd just chewed up. And he was loud...obnoxiously so, shouting and carrying on just like her father and her brothers. They were all trying to talk over each other as they told their fishing stories. It was enough to make her sick. The way she felt at that moment, she could hardly stand the sight of him. She could only hope to get through supper, and then maybe she could make up some decent excuse to escape to an early bed.
Her father began tapping the tabletop with his hand, commanding attention. Grace only half-listened. What he said was usually directed at the boys, so it wasn't of much concern to her. She turned her head away, trying to ignore it all.
"Yesterday morning,” said John, “I ran into Charlie here while I was on my way to work. He had something real important to ask me. Now, he has something he'd like to ask our little Gracie."
She whipped her head around and a bolt of panic shot up her spine. It seemed in slow motion that she watched Charlie stand up, wiping his mouth with a cloth. She knew what he was going to say. She knew it as if she were saying the words herself, but she prayed it not to be so. She pleaded for help from heaven for it.
Dear Lord, please don't let him say what I think he'll say...Please Lord, get me out of this.
"I've been gone a long time," he said. "But you sure can't forget where you come from, or the people you left behind." He came walking around the table, and in a moment he stood at her side. Slowly he reached out to take her hand.
She wanted to jerk her hand away, so unnerving was his touch. She wanted to turn and run away. But she was rooted where she stood, unable to escape, trapped like a rabbit in a snare...and then the moment was upon her.
"Grace Langdon, will you be my wife?"
For the first time in her life, she thought she might faint. She wanted to.
If I could go out of life now, without too sharp a pang, it would be good for me, she quoted silently.
But there was no such mercy, and she felt every eye in the room on her, waiting for her answer. She looked at them, then at him. She knew just what they expected. She knew what Charlie expected. But the answer she gave was her own, bubbling up from somewhere within, almost involuntarily.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I can't."
There was a collective gasp...And then the whole room became silent as the grave.