BLUFFTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
The unopened letter perched on the side table like a single wing about to take flight. Katie Vaughn—who at thirty-five went by Kate—wanted to open the letter, but waited.
For Kate, the first day of spring held more than blooming daffodils. It was still a day of firsts. Kate had a ritual, a sacred ritual. She made sure that she did something she’d never done before, something that would count as new on the first day of spring. Six years ago she’d opened her boutique. The year before that she ran a marathon with her sister. Of course there was that trip to Charleston with Norah. Then four years ago the midnight swim in the darkest water with Rowan, the first time he’d visited her in South Carolina. It didn’t matter what she did or said or saw as long as it hadn’t been done, or said, or seen before.
This year, Kate’s parents, Nicole and Stuart, would meet Rowan’s parents for the first time. After four years of dating, Kate and Rowan had finally found a day and time when both sets of parents were not only willing, but also able, to meet. They’d tried this before, but someone always had a reason for backing out: a cancelled flight, a threatening hurricane, a bout of the flu or, mostly, overwhelming job responsibilities. Holidays had become a source of agony—who would get Kateand Rowan?
Kate wasn’t sure she was ready for this meeting, but as she knew: Life moved ahead without her permission.
And yes, it was time. Four years of dating and the parents should meet. Or so she was told.
The door buzzer forced its cracked sound into her loft, and her mom’s voice came through the intercom. “Buzz me up, darling.”
Kate’s loft was on the second floor of a historic brick building above the boutique she owned. Her living space ran the length and breadth of the building and overlooked an oak-lined street front bordering the lush Broad River.
When the elevator doors opened, Kate’s mom, Nicole, appeared with a cigarette balanced delicately between her fingers, like a gymnast on a balance beam.
“Mom,” Kate held her nose in disgust. “Not in here. Seriously.”
“Oh, darling,” Mom came close and kissed Kate’s cheek with the cigarette held up and out. Nicole ambled to the kitchen sink, taking one long draw before turning on the faucet to douse the embers,then tossing the offending cigarette into the trash.
She wore a pair of white linen pants and a pastel button-down—an outfit she wore almost every day with the shirt changing shades until Labor Day, when she donned khakis or pressed denim. (Never jeans, she’d said. Only boys wear jeans; girls wear denim.) Her copper hair was cut shortand tossed with gel in a style Kate knew was supposed to look casual, but looked messy. “I was downstairs shopping in your store for something to wear tonight, and thought I’d come up and say hello.”
“Did you find anything?” Kate asked, already knowing the answer.
“Oh, I tried. But you have such trendy things and it’s all so expensive. I couldn’t afford it even if Iliked it.”
“Well, then it’s a good thing you don’t like any of it. I know you have something in that closet of yours. It’s not like this is some fancy dinner.”
“But I want to make a good impression.” Nicole glanced at the unopened letter, tapping her finger on its edge. “Also, I wanted to check on you because I know what today is and I know it’s … hard.”
Yes, everyone fumbled to find the just-right word for what the day was and what the day meant,and hard was as good a description as any other. Kate smiled. “Thanks, Mom. Really, it’s okay this year.”
“Ah,” she said. “Love will do that.”
“Make everything better.”
Kate laughed. “You’re funny. I’ve never said I’m in love.”
“Well, dear Lord, you’ve been dating him for four years and I can see it. And you’ve never asked us to meet anyone’s parents. It’s time, sweet pea. It is time to fall madly and terribly in love.”
Kate stood. “Tara and Molly are going to be downstairs any minute and I’ve got ten million things to do before tonight, so hug me, then go home and pick out an outfit, okay?”
They talked for a few minutes about times and logistics for the evening. Even as Kate promised that her parents didn’t need to do anything but show up, Nicole won out with her insistence that she would bring an appetizer and her husband’s favorite whiskey in case Rowan was out.
“Dad can live without his whiskey for one night.”
“Maybe one night,” Nicole said, “but not tonight.” She hugged her daughter. A dark smudge of lipstick was smeared across Nicole’s front tooth, and Kate made a brushing motion with her finger across her own teeth.
Nicole reached up and wiped the lipstick off her teeth without a word: mother-daughter silent language.
They hugged good-bye and Kate stood in front of the closed elevator for a moment, thankful that her mother—no matter what excuse she’d used—had come by. No one in Kate’s tight-knit family ever really knew what to do or say on this day. Each family member—Mom, Dad, and Kate’s sisters, Tara and Molly—had all tried different ways to deal with it. They ignored the day. They sent cards. They made phone calls. They made visits. A lot of visits. Kate’s little sister, Molly, had once brought over a tiara and set it on the kitchen counter like a monument where it had stayed for almost a year until Rowan had asked what the sparkling crown was for, and Kate had hidden it in the box with all her other memories.
Kate was the oldest of three sisters and the one who baffled her parents the most. She didn’t conform to the Vaughn Family prototype: studious and bent on traditionalism. Fifteen years ago, when she still went by the name Katie, her family had begged her not to leave for south-of-nowhere Arizona, which was—in their humble opinion—far too close to the Mexican border. They told her not to leave South Carolina and all she knew. Jack had warned her that if she went, their relationship might not make it through the absence. But Katie left. At twenty years old, she hadn’t imagined ever losing anything of value: love, confidence, or, least of all, Jack Adams. Doing something so terrifying and wonderful as living in the wilderness and helping young girls could only hold the best of things. Young Katie hadn’t—couldn’t—conceive of all she would lose inside a single choice that had felt so right.
Maybe there was something to the supposed magic of March twentieth, because Kate hadn’t fully loved another man since her promise under the willow tree. Kate often joked to her best friend, Norah, that on that first day of spring, after that first kiss, she should have made Jack also promise to always love her. A one-sided promise hadn’t done Kate any good at all.
“It could be that a girl only loves like that once,” Kate had told Norah. “Only once and then after that, love is more sensible.”
Norah had completely disagreed. But Norah was a romantic; Kate was a realist. Or so she said.
And now there was Rowan.
* * *
Kate knew that Tara and Molly would be waiting downstairs, wandering the racks and asking to open the new boxes in the back room. The biggest perk when your sister owned a clothing store? First pick of the new shipments.
But Kate was wrong. Tara and Molly were sitting on stools behind the checkout counter, talking to Norah and holding their ever-present Starbucks cups.
“Kitty-Kat,” Molly said.
“Katie-Latey,” Tara said.
Kate laughed and pointed at the imitation Paris Train Station clock hanging on the back wall. “Two minutes. I’ve got two minutes until late is late.”
“Your definition of late and our definition aren’t quite the same,” Molly said.
“Just today, can we take a break from pointing out my faults?” Kate asked, trying to smile at her sister. That was the thing with Molly—she knew what dug the deepest and hurt the most, andsometimes she couldn’t help but use that superpower.
Norah, always the peacemaker, always knowing when the sisterly jabs were building, quickly interrupted and changed the subject. “We were talking about tonight, and wondering why we, the most important people in your life, weren’t invited.”
Norah stood between Molly and Tara. She was a light, a candle, a beacon really. Kate and Norah had been best friends since third grade and whenever Kate felt lost, she looked to Norah exactly as she did when she asked, “Do you really want to sit through a dinner with the Vaughn and Irving parents?”
The three of them looked at each other in alternate glances and laughed. “Um, no,” Tara said, standing.
Norah smiled at Kate and winked. Norah drew stares wherever she went, and yet she pretended she didn’t notice. It was her beauty, yes—with her long, dark hair and almost six-foot height, with her eyes so dark they appeared mystical—but the stares were mostly a result of gazes being drawn to Norah’s face where, at birth, a pair of forceps had gashed her left eye, leaving a dip andscar that made it appear as if Norah had wept enough to form a half-inch-long furrow into her cheek. Norah was told many times that there were methods and lasers and surgeries that could fix this, but she shrugged and nodded. “Yep, that might be a good idea one day.” Yet one day never seemed to matter to Norah. Only that day, the day she was living, was important to her.
“So, we’re here to pick out your outfit for the evening,” Tara said, her cheeks puckering inward as she took a long draw of her coffee, which she always desperately needed what with a ten-, a four-,and a two-year-old under her feet and in her hair and in her bed (her words exactly).
Kate laughed. “No way. I’ve got that under control. We’re going out to lunch and that’s it.”
Molly moaned. “Come on, Kitty-Kat. Let’s do something funner than that today.”
“Funner is not a word, Molly.” Kate kissed her baby sister, who wasn’t a baby at all but twenty-seven years old, on the forehead.
“Then let’s go do something that is memorable and silly instead.” Molly held out her hands. “I say kayaking out to Goat Island and drinking moonshine until dusk.”
Their joined laughter was a sacred sound. Kate shook her head. “I’m all in on the kayak, but sinceI want to appear vaguely human to the Irving family, I’ll skip the moonshine.”
The front door to the boutique was open, propped by a concrete garden statue of a little girl holding out her skirts. Birds called and the breeze rattled in the palmetto fronds, sounding like blessed rain. “God, I love spring,” Tara said as she stood. “It’s like anything, almost anything at all could happen.” She held her arms out wide, coffee cup still in hand as a permanent appendage.
Norah glanced at Kate, who attempted to smile back. Yes, anything could happen and mostly had.
“Where are the kids today?” Kate asked.
“Dearest hubby took the day off. He knew I wanted to spend it with you,” Tara said.
“It wasn’t necessary, but thanks,” Kate said and hugged her sister with one arm, keeping the full force of the day’s meaning close and distant in a dance of opposites.
“Let’s go then.” Molly jumped off her stool.
“I wish you could come,” Kate said to Norah.
“I almost asked Charlie to cover for me.” Norah smiled.
“Your husband’s too cute; I wouldn’t trust Kitty-Kat’s clients,” Molly said.
Norah laughed. “Good point. Anyway, I tried to get Lida to cover, but she has that mysterious stomach bug that grabs her every few weeks.”
“Sure thing,” Tara said and rolled her eyes. “The bug that sits on the bottom of the freaking tequila bottle.”
“Stop,” Kate said.
“I swear, Kitty-Kat, you take in humans like some people take in animals. I think you should move on to stray cats.” Molly poked Kate’s arm with one slender finger.
This never-ending subject irritated Kate, but she smiled. “I know.”
And she did know. Lida had once been one of the girls she’d counseled in the wilderness of Arizona. Now twenty-six years old, Lida could hold it together for weeks and sometimes months, but then she’d slide back into that dark place, a place where someone who hadn’t visited that same hell could never imagine or understand. The last thing Kate had energy for that morning was rehashing the pain that led Lida to do things Molly and Tara couldn’t fathom doing. Kate knew all about doing things she’d never once imagined doing. Explaining rarely helped.
* * *
Kate met Rowan Irving when she was on a buying trip for Mimsy Clothing. It was Rowan’s smile that caused Kate to grin in return. This was what she’d been waiting for: an open door that would shut all others. It had been nine years since she’d last cracked open her heart, and it was time to try again.
When she met Rowan, she’d resolved to forget the pain of the past. Time to move on, she’d told herself. Somewhere deep inside she’d remember what happened, but the world would never know or see. She would make a new life starting right there, right then. Nothing of the past would build the future.
Rowan’s eyes were brown, his eyelashes long and dark. His face was square and solid. He seemed able to hold the weight of her world without wavering. They sat across from each other at a bar table and laughed about the karaoke singers onstage. “Do you sing?” he asked.
She started to answer in her usual way, which would be “Oh, no, I could never get on that stage.”And then she remembered: Begin Again. Begin Anew.
His eyes were smiling. She’d never really seen anyone’s eyes smile like that, so fully. “Yes,” she said. “I try.”
“Okay, go for it.” He pointed at the stage.
“You’ll go with me?”
“I don’t karaoke.”
“Tonight you do,” she said, enjoying this new self who flirted and took chances and tried to talk a man into singing with her as if she were tasting a new flavor of ice cream.
“No way,” he said.
She leaned toward him, making chicken clucking noises.
The chair rocked as he leaned back to laugh. He slammed his hands on the table. “Is this a dare?”
“Just seeing if you’re worthy of my attention.”
“Throwing down the gauntlet.”
She stood. “Guess so.”
“You have no idea how awful this will sound.” He stood and took her hand as they walked to the karaoke stage.
“See, that’s the thing with bar karaoke, the worse it sounds the better it is.”
“Then this will be the best of the night.”
Kate flipped through the songbook. When they started with Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” the bar was packed. By the time they got around to “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, the place had almost cleared out.
It was closer to morning than night when they left the bar. “Can I call you or something?” Rowan asked.
“I live in South Carolina. That’s really … far away.”
He grinned. “Not for a phone call.”
“No, not for that.” Kate wrote down her number, then left without touching Rowan Irving.
They’d been dating four years now; their mutual love of the outdoors, rivers, and an ever-changing landscape were the solid base for all that came after. If Kate had ever made a list—which she hadn’t—Rowan would fill the imagined boxes of a perfect mate. She wanted those facts to move from her head the mere twelve inches toward her heart and settle in with deep love, something past admiration and comfort.
He was from Philadelphia, and when their long distance dating became more annoying than romantic, he’d moved to Bluffton. He’d said it was for the job offer—landscape architect for one of the most prestigious firms in the Low Country—but they both knew that it was love that brought him to South Carolina and love that kept him there. They hadn’t moved in together or even talked of engagement, but Kate understood a commitment was close, and fear was tucked inside the beautiful possibilities.
* * *
The evening with the Irving and Vaughn parents went better than she’d hoped, except for the moment when Mr. Irving, in his ascot and pressed pinstripe suit, asked why Kate was Katie to her parents, but Kate to everyone else.
“Oh, she decided to shed her old self,” Stuart, Kate’s dad, said with a dismissive wave.
“Why would she shed her old self?” Mrs. Irving asked, twisting a napkin in her hand.
Kate laughed, a false sound. “Oh, there was no shedding involved. One day I thought Katie was too cutesy. That’s it.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Irving lifted her hand to twirl her pearls, and attempted to smile, but Kate saw the underwriting: liar.
Other than that four-sentence conversation, the night had gone well. Kate’s dad hadn’t drunk too much whiskey. Her mother hadn’t lit a single cigarette. The steak dinner, which Rowan had cooked to impress her family, wasn’t burnt. No one brought up The Future or, for that matter, The Past. So, all in all, a success.
The evening was ending, coffee brewing in the kitchen. Rowan lived in a two-bedroom guesthouse behind a much larger house in the Bluffton historic district. A landscape designer, he lived there gratis in exchange for taking care of the yard and gardens surrounding the house. His den was crowded with leather furniture—the complete opposite of Kate’s cream and linen slipcovered aesthetic. She wondered how the two of them would ever combine not only their lives but their tastes. His windows overlooked a boxwood labyrinth with a large fountain in the center. The family gathered there as Kate slipped into Rowan’s bedroom to catch her breath.
She sat on the edge of his bed and placed her wineglass on the bedside table. Kate hadn’t yet told Rowan everything she needed to tell him about her history, and she knew it was time. After the parents left, she would tell him everything, all that was getting in the way of their future together.
What future? Kate sank sideways into Jack’s pillow. What would their future look like together? She couldn’t imagine it. She saw their separate lives as scattered remnants, and she wasn’t sure the pieces could ever come together to form any kind of whole. Was wanting to want it good enough?
Dixie, Rowan’s goofy and hyper golden retriever, came bounding into the room. Seeing Kate on the edge of the bed, the dog assumed it was playtime and jumped toward her, knocking the red wine onto the khaki bedspread and across Kate’s pale green sundress.
“Dixie,” Kate hollered, and ran into the bathroom for some towels. Mopping up the spill, Kate shooed Dixie off the bed and watched the wine drip into the top drawer of the bedside table. She yanked the drawer open to shove the towel under the rim of the table when she saw the box: a small white box with two bloodred drops of spilled wine on its top. She opened the box a fraction of an inch to see the ring—a round and brilliant engagement ring.
She jerked back.
“Kate,” Rowan’s voice called from the hallway.
She shoved the drawer shut. “In here,” she called. “Dixie spilled my wine.”
Her parents appeared at the doorway along with Rowan and his parents. Kate cringed. “Sorry. Iwas coming in here to use the bathroom and Dixie jumped up on me and…”
All gazes moved to the bed, which was of course not a bathroom. “Let’s go have some coffee,” Kate said, guiding the crowd back to Rowan’s den.
“Who wants dessert?” Rowan asked as they stood facing one another.
Kate felt the panic rising—a grip on her throat, a beehive in her gut. It always happened this way. Just when she thought she could love, just when she thought a man would be able to enter her life, she panicked. She wanted, more than she wanted anything, to make this dread end.
She smiled past the anxiety and then lied. “I’m exhausted. I think I just need to go home and hit the sack.”
Rowan looked at her and squinted, knowing her voice was off-kilter. “Okay,” he said, drawing out the end part of the word into a long “eh” noise.
Good-byes were said and hugs were given and when only Kate and Rowan remained in his den, he asked the questions she couldn’t answer. “What’s up with you? What’s wrong?”
* * *
Home in her loft, leaning against her bed’s padded headboard, Kate closed her eyes and took in a long, deep breath. What is wrong with you? Those weren’t Rowan’s exact words, but close enough to taunt her.
The sight of that ring should have sent any girl into spasms of happiness.
What is wrong with you?
The answer to that damn question seemed as far away as the moon: inaccessible, remote, andfrozen.
She slumped down under her covers, bringing the white duvet to her chin. Maybe the unassailable answer to what was wrong was to really and finally once and for all talk to Jack.
When all the mistakes had been made and all the running had been finished, a girl does not go back to the boy to undo what can never, ever be undone.