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"Good morning, ladies." Sam, beaming with his usual early morning smile, came into the kitchen greeting Lillian and me. My second husband—so different from the first one—was a man of warm good humor from the time he got out of bed until he got back in it. That had been somewhat of a surprise to me, having been accustomed to steering carefully around a bristly, short-tempered husband every morning for forty-something years. Having watched my step and my words for that long had turned me into a woman of cool temperament with few smiles—and stiff ones, at that—before coffee was poured.
"Mornin', Mr. Sam," Lillian said as she stood beside the stove. "Eggs 'bout ready."
"Good morning," I responded but without the bouncing eagerness with which he started the day.
"Julia," Sam said as he sat at the kitchen table, "I have had an epiphany."
"An epiphany. You know, a sudden flash of enlightenment." He accepted the cup of coffee I'd just poured, then said, "Well, maybe it's more of a bright idea. What do you think of going to the beach for a couple of weeks?"
"The beach? Why, Sam, you and Lloyd and Mr. Pickens just got back from the beach. Why in the world would you want to go back?"
"That wasn't a beach trip. We went deep-sea fishing and stepped from a dock to a boat and back again every day without being on the beach at all. No, I'm talking about renting an oceanfront house on one of the islands out from Charleston and just enjoying the sun and the waves and the ocean breeze. And there'll be shopping in Charleston and a lot of good seafood dinners—a real vacation for everybody, especially you. You've done nothing this summer but worry with Miss Mattie's affairs. You need a break, sweetheart.
"And, think of this, Julia. Think of sitting out on a screened porch overlooking the Atlantic and watching the sun go down."
I looked at him from under lowered brows. "More like watching the sun come up. Last I checked, we'd be facing east."
He laughed. "Just testing you, honey. But what do you say? Lloyd and Latisha will be back in school in a couple of weeks, and August is always a slow month. Let's rent a huge house and take everybody."
"Everybody who wants to go—the Pickens family, the Bates family, Lillian and Latisha, Miss Wiggins, if you want, you, me, and Lloyd, and anybody else you want to ask."
"My word, Sam, you'd need a hotel for a crew like that."
"No, no. I've been looking online, and there're a few big houses—nice houses—still available. How many bedrooms would we need?"
"One for you and me, for sure. I'm not sharing with anybody else."
He laughed again, passed the cream pitcher to me, and thanked Lillian as she set his plate before him. "Let's count them up. I think five bedrooms would do it, though six might be better. Maybe put all the children together in one—they'd like that, wouldn't they?"
"Probably so, to start with at least. Then there'd be little feet pattering all over the house looking for their mamas. But, Sam," I went on, "August is an active hurricane month. What if we're there when a hurricane blows in?"
"Honey," Sam said, smiling with indulgence at my concern, "we'd pack up and leave long before it hit the coast. I tell you what—I'll check the Weather Channel every day and keep you fully updated."
I smiled and nodded. Then, realizing that Lillian had been noticeably silent during all this, I said, "What do you think, Lillian? Would you and Latisha like to go?"
"Yes'm, I guess we could," she said, busying herself at the sink. "Latisha, she never seen the ocean, so she would. But me, I could pro'bly take it or leave it." Latisha, Lillian's great-grandchild, had lived with her for a number of years. Bright as a new penny and full of energy, she kept Lillian hopping, so it occurred to me that Lillian herself could use a vacation—not just days off, but a real get-out-of-town vacation. Sam's bright idea suddenly seemed made to order.
"Well, what about James?" Sam asked, bringing up the touchy subject of the man who'd worked for Sam before we married and who now cooked for Hazel Marie and Mr. Pickens. "Think he'd want to go?"
"Nobody never know what he want," Lillian mumbled as she ran water into the egg skillet.
I shook my head at Sam, warning him off. "Let's just think about James. He can be hard to get along with at times."
"That be the truth," Lillian agreed with some force.
"Well," Sam went on with unflagging enthusiasm, "the first thing we have to do is find out how many want to go. Then I'll know how big a house we'll need. I'll start with Pickens and see what he says."
"All right," I said, "but, Sam, it's awfully late in the season to be looking for a rental. So I want to say right now that if you can't find a nice one, I'm not going. I don't want to either camp out or try to make do with the dregs of the rental market."
"Oh, I agree," he said, standing. "We'll do it right or not at all." And off he went, as happy as a clam—an expression I thought appropriate for the subject at hand.
"Come sit with me, Lillian," I said. "There's still some coffee in the pot." When she'd settled at the table, I went on, "Now tell me what you really think about this bright idea."
"Well, Miss Julia, I guess goin' to the beach won't never be my first choice—they's things in that ocean. But I'll go, 'cause y'all need somebody to cook, an' Latisha never let me forget it if she don't get to go."
"No, Lillian, I'm not thinking that way. I wouldn't ask you to cook three meals a day for as many people as Sam has in mind. That wouldn't be a vacation for you at all. I expect there're plenty of good cooks who hire out by the week for renters. No, I'm talking about your going just for the rest and the fun of it."
Lillian reared back at the thought. "With somebody else in the kitchen? No'm, I don't know 'bout eatin' somebody else's cookin' while I set around watchin'. I wouldn't know what to do with myself."
"Well, let's think about it. I don't want you having to cook for an army for days on end—we'd have to bring you home on a stretcher. Let's wait and see how many Sam can talk into going. To tell the truth, it wouldn't surprise me if nobody wants to go, and if that's the case, Sam's bright idea will get dim in a hurry."
Which, to be honest, wouldn't bother me at all. Oh, I'd hate for Sam to be disappointed, but let's face it—I hadn't lost one thing at the beach. My sweet, generous Sam, with his good heart and itchy feet, was always planning a trip to somewhere. Why, he'd even been to Russia, and a year or so ago, he'd wanted to float down the Rhine, and another time he'd gotten a bee in his bonnet about looking up ancestors in Scotland. And he always wanted me to go with him, although, as should be apparent by now, I wasn't the traveling kind.
So, considering the many times I'd turned him down while urging him to pursue his dreams, I felt that I could and should agree to a beach trip. What was it—two hundred or so miles from home? I could manage that for a couple of weeks, even though I am essentially a homebound, routine-loving, day-in and day-out kind of woman.
Ah, well, I sighed. For Sam's sake I could put up with a week or so of a house full of noisy children, occasional ill tempers, wet bathing suits, lumpy mattresses, and sand tracked in everywhere.
Maybe I'd never have to do it again.
I found Sam in the library, which had once been the downstairs bedroom but was now decked out in Williamsburg paint colors, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and eighteenth-century furniture. Reproductions, but still.
Making a note on a pad as he put down the phone, Sam looked up at me. "I think the Pickenses will go. Hazel Marie's excited about it, but she has to speak to J.D. She'll call back after they talk it over."
I nodded, but as I started to speak, the phone on the desk rang. "Hold on, honey," Sam said, as he reached for it. "It's Binkie, returning my call."
I sat on the leather Chippendale sofa, mentally counting Hazel Marie, Mr. Pickens, Lloyd, and the twin toddlers. Five of them, with Sam and me making seven. Nine if Lillian and Latisha went, eight if Lillian didn't.
As Sam's conversation with Binkie went on in the background, I thought of my curly-headed lawyer. I hadn't seen much of her lately as the estate Lloyd and I equally inherited from Wesley Lloyd Springer—my first, unfaithful and unlamented, husband—had been perking along quite well in Binkie's capable hands, especially with Sam's occasional advice. She had taken over Sam's law practice when he retired to begin his tortuous way to writing a legal history of Abbot County.
Binkie Enloe Bates was married to Coleman Bates, a sergeant in the Abbot County Sheriff's Department, a union which had begun in my living room when she had come running in soaked to the skin by a sudden summer shower. Coleman, my roomer at the time, had been smitten at once, and from all evidence I could see, remained that way. Little Gracie was their daughter.
So the Bates family would, if they accepted Sam's invitation, make three more beachgoers. Either eleven or twelve in all, still depending on Lillian's decision.
Then my thoughts drifted from one possible beachgoer to another as an image of Hazel Marie's sweet face formed in my mind. I'd seen so little of her recently, having been taken up with settling the estate of an acquaintance who'd obviously thought more of me than I had of her. Not that I'd disliked Mattie Freeman; it was just that I'd hardly thought of her at all, and to have been named executor of her will had been both shocking and remarkably time consuming. To be away from the constant concern about getting her last wishes through probate and put to rest, as she had been, was something devoutly to be desired.
But, back to Hazel Marie, as Sam's conversation with Binkie went on; what a change in that young woman. Well, not so young, unless compared to some whom we won't mention. I recalled the first time I'd seen her—knocking at my door, looking to my mind like a street harlot, as she introduced the skinny, freckled-faced urchin beside her as my recently deceased husband's only child. Lord, what a shock to my system! Wesley Lloyd Springer had been the wealthiest, most dogmatic and upright member of the First Presbyterian Church of Abbotsville—when he spoke, Pastor Ledbetter listened.
And standing right out there on my front porch was his longtime mistress and illegitmate son; and as if that hadn't been bad enough, come to find out that half the town had known of his extramarital activities. And that half had not included me—talk about having to live something down! But I'd done it, taking both mother and child under my wing and into my home and daring the town to snub either them or me. Money talks, don't you know, and Wesley Lloyd had left plenty, even when shared with Lloyd. It hadn't taken long to change a number of tunes.
Over the years, though, Hazel Marie, under my tutelage, had evolved into a classic young matron, well thought of around town, safely married, and the mother not only of Lloyd—the light of my life in spite of where he'd come from—but also of twin toddlers, courtesy of Mr. J. D. Pickens, PI, who had immeasurably improved his standing with me by adopting Lloyd.
"Julia?" Sam's voice broke into my reverie. "You all right, honey?"
"Oh. Yes, just daydreaming. What did Binkie say?"
"Well," he said, patently pleased with himself, "it just so happens that both she and Coleman have some time off coming. They were halfway planning a camping trip, but she likes the idea of going to the beach. Little Gracie is just old enough to enjoy it. So Binkie will talk to Coleman and let me know. But she said to count them in."
I laughed. "Coleman will do whatever she wants. I just hope the sheriff's department can get along without him for a few days."
"He's well thought of over there, that's for sure."
"Sam," I said, thoughtfully, so as to indicate a change of subject, "I'm a little concerned about Lillian. I don't think she wants to go, even though I assured her that it would be a vacation and not two weeks of extra work. But she knows Latisha will want to go and she doesn't want to disappoint her."
"Then let's take Latisha with us, and Lillian can have some real time off."
"What a good idea," I said, even though I'd already thought of it. "But that means we'll have to be extra careful keeping an eye on her. All the other children will have mamas and daddies watching out for them."
"We'll set some rules, and the first one will be no going to the beach alone. But, Julia, how would she do without Lillian? I doubt she's ever spent a night away from her great-granny."
"She'll have Lloyd and she adores him, and besides, we'll make sure before we leave that she really wants to go. Actually, though," I went on, thinking it through, "it'll probably be the other way around. Lillian may not be able to spend a night away from her."
"Well, see what she says. Lillian needs some time for herself, and we'll all watch Latisha. She's never any trouble when she's here, so I'm sure she'll be fine." Then with a few clicks at the computer, he said, "Come over here, honey, and let me show you what I found."
I leaned over his shoulder to view the picture of a large yellow house with white trim. "Oceanfront," Sam said, "and three, actually four, stories. Two bedroom suites on the main floor on opposite sides of the house, four suites on the second floor, and a huge dormitory room on the top floor. Oh, and there're two maid's rooms with a bath on the ground floor. See, the house sits on pilings, so the main floor is really the second. That's to get the ocean breeze through the living space and to give an ocean view over the dunes."