HE’S SURE GOT A WAY WITH WORDS…
The last person True Maybank expected to run into while picking up her wedding gown was country music superstar Harrison Gamble. Years ago, when they were small-town teens in Biscuit Creek, South Carolina, they shared a forbidden night of passion. Now that she’s about to settle down, True’s love affair with the handsome crooner is a thing of the past. Or is it? From the moment he says hello, she has to fight swooning like an adoring fan.
CAN SHE RESIST HIS CHARMS?
Today he’s rich, famous, and on every woman’s hot list. But back in the day, Harrison wasn’t good enough for debutante True. Since then she’s had her fair share of marital prospects, including the perfect Southern gentleman she’s about to settle down with. Is Harrison the only one to realize the mistake True’s about to make? Can the society girl and the sexy singer make music together—this time around?
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When country music superstar Harrison Gamble appeared on the sun-dappled sidewalk outside the hotel on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, the crowd roared its approval—everyone, that is, except True Maybank. She’d as soon scream as chase a pig around a mud pen. Maybanks didn’t holler. They believed in decorum. Tradition. Using something until it wore out. Keeping up appearances even when the world had gone to hell in a handbasket.
“Well, I swanny,” she murmured, her entire body filling with a prickly sensation. She’d never thought she’d see him again.
Behind her late great-aunt Honey’s oversized Nina Ricci sunglasses, she watched Harrison take his fans’ hysteria in stride, as if it had nothing to do with him, his smokin’-hot body, that sparkling white smile, the bronzed skin, sexy stubble, and those sideburns, which were longer than they used to be—just long enough to qualify for serious bad-boy status.
Move on, girl! You got a wedding dress to get home!
She circled the heavily policed chaos, risking her life in the street for a few seconds, and quickly began walking again, uphill. With her mother’s newly repaired vintage gown in her arms, it was as if Mama were walking with her, Mama with all her high expectations and impeccable standards. And here True merely hoped that the double-whammy dreamboat behind her—the first guy she’d slept with and her only one-night stand—wouldn’t somehow recognize her.
At the corner, she couldn’t resist a glance over her shoulder back down at the scene at the hotel. What a collage that would make. The thought crept up, wily and insistent, and she fought to dismiss it. But it was too wild, too alive …
It kept coming, the image, blossoming in her mind and taking over her body, making her fingertips buzz with the need to arrange. She would collage this memory. She would. It would be her best work yet.
And no one would ever see it.
Harrison signed an autograph and with a quick kiss to the crowd got into the back of a black Humvee. Two Taylor Swift look-alikes scooted inside as well. The car’s dark-tinted windows slid up, its front tires angled toward the street, and True’s arm began to sweat under the plastic bag.
Change, light, change!
Seconds later the Humvee whooshed past her. Two more scary-looking black SUVs followed behind.
She took a deep breath. There. It was over. Harrison was the Big Bad Wolf to millions of captivated Red Riding Hoods, and once upon a time True had been one of them.
Admit it. You nearly got sucked in again today.
No. She wouldn’t think of him anymore. It had been a crazy minute in an otherwise fairly sane week. All she had to do now was get to the parking garage, find her car, and drive the four hours back to Biscuit Creek. Back to Weezie, her sister. To Carmela, her best friend. And to Dubose, the man she was to marry.
Back to the life that was finally falling into place.
A block later, a sporty aqua-blue coupe with darkened windows slowed to a crawl next to her, and the passenger-side window lowered a crack. “Get in, Miss Junior League,” Harrison said, his voice ringing out loud and clear.
True’s heart clanged like a fire station alarm bell, and she stopped walking.
She was seriously nonplussed. In Biscuit Creek, they’d say she was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. But True favored words like nonplussed, probably because she was a big reader. She had a book stuffed up the right leg of her Spanx right now, a dog-eared Agatha Christie paperback that didn’t fit into her pocketbook. That minimalist creation—a Target find, a faux yellow leather tote—was actually overflowing with three lipsticks of varying coral shades, a two-inch Velcro hair roller, travel hair spray, a pack of Kleenex, Juicy Fruit gum, her cell phone, a round hairbrush, a black Sharpie, her keys (which weighed a ton), a banana, a tube of Advil, a spare pair of sunglasses, and her ancient Cinderella wallet from Disney World, which had a rubber band around it to keep the cards and money from falling out.
“Well?” Harrison revved the engine. “You gonna get in here and tell me what you been up to all these years or stand there stiff as a poker and pretend you can’t see me?”
True pivoted on a heel to face the car. “I see you, all right.”
Daddy always said if you couldn’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch. True wasn’t an under-the-porch sort of gal.
* * *
Harrison hid his amusement behind a cool stare, the one he dragged out when the higher-ups interfered too much with his creative vision or a fan overstepped her bounds, which was basically getting naked without asking him first.
That wasn’t going to happen with True. She was a lady—at least on the surface. But those snapping blue eyes gave her away. Beneath that prissy exterior, a sexy damned hellion wanted out. He’d seen her. He wished he could forget her—he’d written songs trying to exorcise her from his brain—but sometimes he still dreamed her arms were wrapped around his neck and her sweet body was beneath his.
Now she leaned down to peer inside his passenger window, a bulky garment bag slung over her arm. She smelled good, like some kind of magical spring flower in a secret bower filled with singing chipmunks and tweety little bluebirds. “I can’t ride home with you, even if I wanted to.”
Implying that she didn’t. Typical of her. She’d always been too proud for her own good.
“But we can talk,” she added. “Lemme buy you a Coke.”
Which meant any drink. Everything was a Coke in the South, especially in Atlanta.
“Not thirsty,” Harrison said back. “Gimme your keys. I’ll get my manager to drive your car all the way home.” Harrison had always wanted to show Dan around his old stomping grounds anyway.
True shook her head. “The last thing I expect you to do is come back to Biscuit Creek.”
No one expected him back. Ever. Which had always been fine with him. He went to LA. Aspen. Tropical islands.
“I don’t have all day to argue,” he said. “The paparazzi are hot on my trail. I gotta keep moving. So let’s drop the polite chitchat and get down to business. Knowing you, you can’t dillydally, either.”
True never sat still.
“I might as well stop by and say hello to Gage,” he added. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen him.” But he’d make the visit to his brother short. Harrison was due in the Hamptons at the beachfront home of an equally famous singer, a sexy, single woman who wasn’t looking for a serious relationship but wouldn’t mind the occasional fling and the publicity that went with it.
True hesitated. “There’s a lady about to cross the street, and she has a tattoo of you with a guitar in your hand walking down her belly into her pants.”
“My first album cover. People do all kinds of things with it.”
True carefully laid her garment bag on his car roof, then dug through an enormous purse and managed to pull out a huge set of keys tethered to a pink rubber ball with pink rubber spikes all over it. “All right,” she said. “I’ll ride with you.”
“That’s the ugliest key chain I’ve ever seen,” Harrison said to cover up how awesome he felt about her actually getting in his car.
“But I can see it, and feel it. It’s gushy.”
“Gushy?” Such a True word. He lowered the window farther.
She dropped the keys in his palm, but even so the tips of her fingers brushed his, and he had an instant memory of those fingers trailing over his naked back, curling into his hair. “Only you would want a gushy key chain.”
She arched one eyebrow. “Lots of people like them.”
“Is that so? How would you know?” Teasing her had always been his go-to diversion when wild sex fantasies intruded. Of course, now she had a big rock on her finger. A really big one.
“They have a huge barrel of them at Walmart.”
Always the authority on things. She hadn’t changed one bit. But when had she started shopping at Walmart? And who’d given her that ring?
“Was the barrel empty or full?” he asked her.
“Full. There were hundreds. Different colors, too.”
“It would have been nearly empty if everyone liked ’em, though, right?”
“Maybe they just restocked.” She sighed. “Look, Harrison, could you let me in? Preferably before the rest of the world figures out you’ve escaped your guards.”
He unlocked the car door. “Like King Kong?”
“Something like that.” She yanked the door open, grabbed her garment bag, and slid inside.
“Let me.” He took the bag off her lap and laid it behind them. It was heavy and said CARR’S BRIDAL across the front.
Damn. She was getting married soon, from all appearances. Not that he’d ask.
“Thanks.” She had two little spots of pink on her cheeks when she pulled her door shut.
The window on her side hummed upward and shut—his doing. “I’ll drop the keys off with my team, and you and I will be on our way.” He caught a glimpse of her tanned calves and tapered ankles. Bad idea. Heat flooded his belly. “What’re you driving these days?”
“Really? You’re a loyal customer. Did you get a convertible this time?”
She gave him a sideways glance. “It’s the same car I drove in high school.”
Whoa. That surprised him. “Good for you, keeping it up so long. How many miles you got on it?”
She shrugged. “A hundred eighty thousand.”
“Still got some juice, then.” When his truck finally bit the dust, it had 245,000. “Nothing better than a reliable car.”
“Honey taught me how to look after things.”
He noticed that her hair was flipped out on the ends, the same way it used to be. “She still alive?”
True shook her head. “She passed on six years ago. Mama thought she was a liability, but that woman had game.” She sang the song “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” quietly in a husky-sweet voice:
Harrison could listen all day long.
“It was her favorite,” True said. “That and ‘S Wonderful.’”
“I’m really sorry.” He was tempted to put a hand on hers, but he didn’t, just in case she got all jumpy about it. “She was the coolest person in Biscuit Creek. She could work out a ukulele something fierce.”
True chuckled. “Yes, she could.” She looked down at her lap a moment, then back up. “You know how to get to I-40 from here?”
“I think I know my way around this part of the world.” He grinned at her, and for a minute he was eighteen again. “Damn, True.” He soaked her up, all that creamy skin, platinum-blond hair, wide blue eyes, and that pale mole near her mouth. “You’re still gorgeous.”
She fiddled with her sun visor. “You’re not so bad yourself, as you well know. Although I’m not crazy about the hair gel.”
He laughed and pulled out onto the street. “Me, either.” He made a right turn and waited for the bodyguard to catch up with him so he could hand him True’s keys. A few instructions later, and they were on their way. “My makeup girl insists on the gel. She was one of the women who got in the car with me today.”
“You don’t have to explain anything to me.” True squirmed in her seat.
Damn, she was nervous.
“I know I don’t,” he said, and put on his blinker. It felt good to drive. “I’m just talking. Gotta break the ice somehow.”
“Not really. We have no business talking to each other.” Her voice was soft. Almost sad.
It was his turn to shrug. “How’s everyone doing at Maybank Hall?”
“Ten years have gone by. Hasn’t Gage kept you informed?”
“Of course not. He’s too busy making crossword clues.”
“That’s a lot of catching up, don’t you think?”
“Well, why not? We’ll do it on the plane. Do you mind getting home a lot faster than you anticipated?”
Her eyes flew wide. “Please don’t rent a jet for me.”
“Rent-a-Jet. I like the sound of that.” He grinned. “It’s for me, not you, if that makes you feel any better. I gotta be in front of a TV before the Spurs game.”
“So you can do that? Just get someone to fly you wherever you want to go for whatever reason?”
“It comes with the territory. Country music’s been good to me.”
She stared at him long and hard. “I’m glad for you, Harrison,” she said quietly. “Mighty glad.”
He snuck another peek at her. “Are you?”
She nodded. “Of course. Think how proud you’ve made Biscuit Creek. Why, you’ve put us on the map.”
“Most certainly. The water tower has your name on it.”
“Did you see to that?”
She blushed again. “Of course not. It was the mayor.”
“But you always were the civic-minded citizen,” he reminded her.
“Oh, I still am.” She looked straight ahead. Her earlobes had tiny pearl studs in them.
Harrison held back another grin. There was always something about True that put him in a good mood. Maybe it was how transparent she was. That was it. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and wary and practical as that heart was, it was a good one.
“Hey.” He leaned over to her. “Do me a favor. At the airport, put on a hat.” He pointed to the glove compartment.
She opened it, revealing a stack of sunglasses and two nylon baseball caps. “What?” A wrinkle formed on her brow. “Why?”
“A disguise, of course. Look out back. Someone’s on to us. Probably the National Enquirer.”
She twisted her neck to look, and hell if he didn’t enjoy seeing the swell of her breasts in that fuddy-duddy dress against the cream leather seat.
“How can you tell?” Her voice was a little breathy, and he felt a response in his jeans, which was wrong, considering who she was, but entirely understandable from a biological standpoint. So he wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it.
“Easy.” He sped up and switched lanes. “Watch what happens.”
She kept her gaze behind them.
“Did a black Volvo follow us?” he asked.
“Well, I’ll be,” True murmured. “It most certainly did.”
He switched lanes again, taking an odd satisfaction at hearing the wonder in her voice when she exclaimed that once again, the Volvo was keeping track of them, right on their bumper as a matter of fact.
Yep. Harrison really was famous. Although why he felt the need to make sure she knew, he had no idea.
“He should be ticketed!” she exclaimed. “Where are the police when you need them?”
“I don’t know.” It was fun playing a martyr, especially in a $160,000 sports car.
“It must be hell to be you,” True said.
“I suppose it is.” Harrison enjoyed her pity. “So you listen to my advice and wear that disguise, all right? Otherwise, my wife will be pissed when she sees a picture of us together.”
True whipped around to face him. “Your wife?”
He laughed out loud at the drama he’d stirred up, then suddenly felt sheepish. “I was just kidding. There’s no little missus. You ought to know better than to think there would be.”
“Of course I knew better.” True frowned at him. “Still, that wasn’t very nice.”
“Why?” He swung the car over to the airport exit. The black Volvo stayed with them. “What difference would it have made if I was married?”
There was a second of taut silence.
“It wouldn’t have made any,” True said. “It’s just that friends don’t tease friends.”
“They don’t? Who made that rule?” He followed a service road around to the back of a yellow Butler building, a hangar for a couple of Learjets. “You got a lot of rules, True. And the truth is, I don’t recall us particularly being friends anymore.”
What the hell. Let her feel a little embarrassed at dumping him. This was an opportunity he’d no idea he’d been seeking, but now that it was here, it felt good to get some things off his chest.
She pursed her lips. “I thought that by now—”
“I am over it,” he said, and pulled the car into a parking space. “Which is why we can talk about it. You’re never gonna leave Biscuit Creek, and I’m never going to tie myself down.” He shut the engine off. “Got it.”
He ignored her and opened his door. The photographer had already exited the Volvo, camera ready, the bag still on his shoulder. “Take a picture of me and my old friend together, Charlie, and I’m going to make sure my team puts you in the back row of every single press conference I give from here on out. And about the rock on her finger, it’s not from me. I’m trying to get her home to her beloved, whoever the poor sap may be. Is that clear?”
“Got it, Mr. Gamble.” Charlie didn’t look the least bit fazed. He was a real pro.
“Dubose is not a poor sap!” True said from behind Harrison at the same time, right on cue. “And I resent you for saying so.”
“You resent me? So what’s new?” Harrison kept his eyes on Charlie and winked. “And you’re kidding me about Dubose Waring, aren’t you? He’s a putz.”
“No, he is not,” she slammed.
He looked back at her in all her quivering, self-righteous glory. God, it turned him on. “When are y’all getting married?”
“None of your business!”
He pretended to be properly chastened, but from the withering look she sent him, she knew damned well he wasn’t.
“How about a couple snaps of you alone, Mr. Gamble,” Charlie interjected with a grin, “looking travel-weary. Is there a guitar in the backseat?”
“No.” Harrison sighed. “But since you came all this way, you can grab a few shots when I get out—and then you leave.” He glanced at True. She was clawing at her dress a little, wiping her palms on it.
It was odd, to say the least.
“Do you—do you have a paper bag?” she asked him in a squeaky voice.
“No,” he said, wondering what was going on.
“Nothing?” Her pupils were dilated.
Uh-oh. Not a good sign. Was she taking drugs, his True?
“True, baby, what’s wrong?” he asked her, his pulse speeding up.
She wasn’t his baby and never had been. But for one night he’d pretended she was.
True shook her head and fumbled for the door handle, her hands shaking. “N-nothing.” She got it open, stepped right on her giant purse, and jumped out, leaving the door wide open.
Harrison was already around the front of the car. “What is it?” When he caught up with her, she was shaking like a leaf, walking around in circles. And then a damned book fell out of her dress, a strange event he’d choose to ignore. He knew she liked to read, but this took the cake. “Are you diabetic?”
He held a finger up at Charlie. It meant, Stand by. Just in case this is a real-ass emergency.
Charlie didn’t move. His camera dangled from his hand.
True swallowed, crouched on her haunches, and cupped her hands around her mouth. She breathed in, then out. In. Held it. Then out.
Harrison put an arm on her back. “I’m with you.”
Her forehead was sweaty. Her spine curled, the muscles in her back trembling.
He pulled out his cell phone.
“No!” she cried.
“Yes.” His tone was ugly. He’d never been able to remain cool in a crisis. “We can’t mess around. You’re pale. Shaking. Something’s seriously wrong.”
She shook her head. “Let me breathe into my hands,” she said into her hands. Loud. So he could hear. Which was awfully considerate of her since he was now out of his mind with worry.
“Give me your camera bag,” he yelled to Charlie.
Charlie came running with it and handed it directly to True.
She grabbed it and put her whole face inside.
“What the hell is happening, True?” Harrison’s heart slammed against his chest.
“It’s just a panic attack.” Her face still in the bag, she fell back on her bottom. But it was a controlled fall, as if she was getting herself together again.
Harrison felt a slight—very slight—lessening of worry.
She lowered the bag. “I’m afraid of flying,” she whispered and flinched once. Twice. Like a bird that had hit a glass window.
And then she burst into tears.
“Shit,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He sat next to her and pulled her close.
She put the bag back to her face. “I thought I could handle it.”
Even muffled, her voice did something to him, especially those little hiccups. “You always think you can handle it.”
She didn’t say anything to that. Her arms looked so skinny, and her neck was just a twig, dammit.
“That’s right,” he said roughly. “It’s about time you just shut up and breathed, Maybank. Let the world run without you for a few minutes.”
Charlie backed away, his shoes making gritty sounds on the rocky asphalt.
Harrison rubbed his hand up and down True’s arm, which was warming up a little, and waited. Waited for her to perk up. Waited to feel remorse that he’d reconnected with her.
But it didn’t come.
Here he was comforting a woman who didn’t think he was all that special. In fact, she was sure he was the opposite. She believed he—Harrison Gamble, number one right now on the iTunes country chart—had major flaws.
Who’da thunk it?
“Don’t let my book get away,” she ordered him from inside her camera bag house, then added, “Please.”
But it was a feeble please. She was getting back to her old bossy self.
A jumbo jet coasted in for a landing above their heads, its wheels locked into the down position. Welcome back to real, Harrison thought, the smell of diesel in his nostrils. He might write and sing about the ordinary, the substantial—the stuff of life—but he’d been running from all that reality crap for a long time.
Funny how it managed to find him anyway here on a hot gravel parking lot with a mixed-up bookworm named True. He was sure after their effed-up good-bye ten years before that he’d be glad never to see her again. But he didn’t want to leave her this time, either.
Damn, that surprised him.
He cast a sideways glance at Miss Priss with her knees hitched up, ankles touching, and eyelids closed. Her arm was tanned, her knuckles white as she gripped the camera bag. But her lashes lay thick on her cheek, like the old days, the really, really old days, when she’d join him on the trailer park dock and tilt her face up to the sun to bask in its warmth.
He remembered the first day she ever caught a crab on that dock. She got so rattled, she tilted the net and the crab dropped out. It ran sideways, a little tap dancer, straight over her feet. “Ooohhhaaghh!” she’d shrieked, and fallen backward into the water.
In the Atlanta sunshine, he chuckled at the memory, threw a pebble, and watched it bounce. Nah. It didn’t surprise him at all that he wanted to stay.
So True’d had a panic attack in front of Harrison. La-di-dah. She’d even cried for a minute, but those were tears of frustration. She never saw them coming, these unfortunate episodes—that’s what her doctor called them. Each time she was sure she was going to die. She just wanted to breathe, to stay alive, and she always felt like such an idiot afterward …
But she refused to care this time.
As far as she was concerned, Harrison could see her do other embarrassing things, too, like wearing white shoes before Easter—or worse yet, adding dark meat to her mama’s prizewinning chicken salad. She wouldn’t even blush. And why should she? Right now he looked like a roughed-up Brad Pitt, weary from a honky-tonk brawl or a night of hot sex. Or both.
“Thanks for getting my book.” She imagined him punching a drunk guy in the jaw and sending him sprawling across a table covered with beer mugs, poker chips, and playing cards.
“Not a problem.” He spanked all the grit off the cover and handed it back to her with one brow quirked and the tiniest vertical line on his forehead, right above his nose.
True couldn’t lie to herself anymore. She was secretly aghast that he’d seen her freak out—not the Entertainment Weekly A-Lister, but the guy who’d brought her to wild and utter completion on a beach when she was eighteen years old. It irked her that Harrison was the only person who’d ever witnessed her out of control.
Yes, that meant the big O had never happened with Dubose. He didn’t notice, and she didn’t care. That was what a vibrator was for. It was a poor substitute for the real thing, but the real thing with Harrison had been a fluke. Right? An utter freak occurrence, like a 75 percent off sale on boots the same day your best pair gets chewed up by your dog.
“Are you sure you don’t want a drink?” Harrison asked. “We could stop off for a quick beer—”
“No, thank you.” After the barroom brawl, he’d probably kiss a girl up against a wall. Feel her up, too, while he was at it, his long, golden-brown hair hanging like a curtain to block the view.
“A Coke then?”
“I wish.” A bead of sweat popped out on her brow, and she swiftly wiped it away. “But somebody’ll recognize you in the drive-through. Chicken nuggets will go flying, and mothers will leave their children in the play area just to catch a glimpse of you. I’m fine, Harrison. Thank you.”
“I hope so.” He pulled out a pair of sunglasses and put them on.
Sickening. Truly sickening how good looking he was!
She picked up her book. “I really don’t like the page corners getting bent.” She didn’t like her life getting bent, either, so he’d better not try.
“Then put it back in your dress,” he said. “I don’t care.”
“Fine.” She knew she sounded starchy. But not caring was her new theme. Especially now that she knew he didn’t care. She looked pointedly at him and stuffed the musty paperback down her high scooped neckline.
Shoot. It wasn’t very comfortable. It felt somewhat akin to a mammogram plate wedged between her breasts. But the book would warm up, she was sure.
A hand would feel better. A big, warm male hand.
“There.” She hitched her shoulder and tried to think of Dubose. Washboard-ab and well-endowed-in-every-way Dubose—who had cold hands. But it wasn’t his fault. He got it from his mother Penn’s Puritan side of the family. “You can’t be too careful with print books these days. Heck, this could be worth some money in a few years.”
Harrison shook his head and held the passenger door of his car open.
True slipped inside and looked up at him. “Been in any fights lately?”
“No reason.” She wouldn’t dare ask him how many girls he’d kissed up against honky-tonk walls since he’d moved away from Biscuit Creek.
“I’ll drive you home.” He got in the cream leather driver’s seat and put the car in reverse.
“Thanks,” she said, feeling guilty. Then remembered it was his idea to take her home in the first place.
“Not a problem.” He flicked on the radio. Then flicked it off immediately. His latest number one hit was playing: “Snack on This.”
“That’s a sexy song,” she said.
“But people like it because it’s funny, too.” Like Harrison. He was flirty and fun. Real. Adorable, even—and she saved that word for special occasions. “The part about the Fig Newtons is cute.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled back.
She’d forgotten that he’d never taken compliments from her well. “How’d you come up with it?”
“You really want to know?”
He gave a little chuckle. “Late one night, I couldn’t sleep. So I got up and had a handful of Oreos and some milk. I’d just drifted off when pow”—he made his fingers do a fireworks burst—“next thing you know, I was sitting up in bed singing, ‘That damned tootin’, Fig Newton, highfalutin girl of mine—”
“Junk food lover, undercover—” True sang.
“—I’m her Twinkie, and she’s MoonPie fine.” His velvety twang wrapped around True like a caress.
“Wow.” She felt short of breath. “Straight from the horse’s mouth.”
He grinned. “It’s your lucky day.”
Her heart pounded like crazy. “I heard a bunch of kids singing it yesterday. Yelling it at the top of their lungs coming out of Sunday School.”
Harrison stuffed a bunch of papers under his seat. His ear was red. “Some people might look at it as racy, but it’s meant to be pure fun, okay? That’s something you’ve never understood too well.”
True felt her whole face heat up. “I do, too, get fun.” Had he forgotten? She’d shimmied up and down his body like he was a stripper pole that night on the beach. She’d been so fun that it had scared her.
Harrison finished adjusting his mirror and looked over at her. “It comes off you in invisible waves. You and your mama both. Some sort of disapproval of the rest of the world.”
“That’s nonsense.” She felt it again—the old gap between them. Nothing had changed after all these years, and it made her sad. “I’m as fun as they come, Harrison.”
Or she wanted to be. Hadn’t he seen long ago how her life had been locked into place, and there was no room for maneuvering—except maybe once in a lifetime? That night on the dunes at the Isle of Palms had been her once. The cool sand, the full moon, the scudding clouds, his salt-spiked hair, her prom dress flung over a clutch of sea oats …
They’d had fun, all right.
“I like ‘Snack on This,’” she said. “A lot. So does the whole world. You’re the king of hick hop, and you’re gonna win a CMA easy with that one.”
“Thanks.” He stared out his own side window for a long moment.
She could tell he heard compliments all the time. It must suck not to suck—at least at something. She prided herself on being hopeless at whistling. And making cookies. They always burned. And she was short-tempered in the worst way. That was a biggie—not that she was proud of it.
“Can you get me home by five?” she asked, hoping to distract him from the funk that seemed to settle over him.
“I’ll have you there by quarter to four.” He sounded a little peppier.
“But you can’t—you’d have to—”
The sports car took off like a shot. It was a manual shift. No country boy worth his salt drove an automatic. They all learned to drive on tractors, as True had, as a matter of fact.
“I know a back way off the interstate,” Harrison said. They’d returned to normal, whatever that was. “The paparazzi will never find us.”
“Are you sure they’re looking?”
“They’re always looking.”
A car was better than a plane, True reminded herself as they took a curve at a ridiculously high speed. And it was impossible to have two panic attacks in a row, wasn’t it?
She sure hoped so.
Her eyes popped open. “Sorry. Yes, I’m fine. There’s a couples wedding shower for Dubose and me at seven in Charleston. So we have to leave by six, and if I factor in time to fix my hair—”
“I’ll get you home in time, so stop worrying. I want you to tell me about what’s going on in Biscuit Creek. But how about resting a few minutes first?”
“I don’t need to.”
“I’d rather you try.” He flung her a quick look. “Whatever happened to you back there took a toll. Your voice is a little thin. Close your eyes again. Relax. We’ve got several hours to catch up.”
“Okay,” she said, “but only for a minute or two. I can’t sleep in a car.”
She put her hand on the door rest, took a moment to be proud of the French-tip manicure she’d given herself—she hadn’t had a real manicure in years—and closed her eyes.
Eighteen years earlier, True was on the porch with her father, which was her second favorite place to be. The honeysuckle bower at Sand Dollar Heaven with Harrison was her first. Harrison was her secret best friend. They’d met in front of Wyatt’s Pharmacy under the awning. Mr. Wyatt never turned kids away, even the ones like Harrison who didn’t always have money in his pocket to buy candy.
“Cumyeah, birthday girl,” Miss Ada called to her in her Geechee accent. “Time for your favorite dinner.”
Lunch was called dinner, and supper was the preferred name for the evening meal around these parts. True was excited about her pimiento cheese sandwich, sweet pickle, and potato chips.
“Give us another minute, Miss Ada?” Daddy asked their housekeeper. “I was just about to tell my girl something mighty impoh-tant. She’s ten today, old enough to heah some things.”
Daddy spoke with the same Lowcountry drawl as Miss Ada. So did Honey. They were white, and Miss Ada was black, but it didn’t matter. Lowcountry born and bred—your words stretched like taffy, curled like smoke, and lingered … saltwater sounds. For True it was like listening to a fairy language. Her people said “boe-at,” for boat. “Fohd,” for Ford, “coat” for court. And don’t ask them to say the letter H. “Ey-yuch” is what you’d get.
“Better make that birthday speech quick, Charlie Maybank.” Miss Ada had known True’s father since he was a baby. “True’s got to ride her bike to choir practice.”
“All righty, then.” Daddy stood up from the bench they were sitting on, and beckoned True to follow him to the top of the house steps. True leapt up and raced to his side. Her father surveyed the property with a look of utter contentment. “You got yourself a special piece of the world right heah,” he told her. “Better’n any birthday present your mothah’s gonna buy you on Main Street.”
“I know it, Daddy.” True looked out over the sparkling wide body of water known as Biscuit Creek. The brown-green reeds of the marsh fronting it held all sorts of treasures: fiddler crabs, pluff mud, egrets, and tiny wrens. “My favorite part is the water. I love when the dolphins come.”
“Me, too, sweetheart.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “You know why it’s called Biscuit Creek?”
“A long time ago, an old Sewee woman lived up the creek. She made hardtack for the travelers going through.”
Harrison said he was one-sixteenth Sewee. They played Sewee warrior and tribal princess all the time at Sand Dollar Heaven.
“And after a while,” Daddy said, “the other women—the settlers—joined in with their own recipes. But that Sewee woman started it all. So eventually the creek was called Biscuit Creek in her honor.”
“I love Honey’s biscuits,” True said.
“Don’t we all.” Daddy chuckled. “You know how she treasures her recipe? You have to do the same for this property. Don’t you ever let it go. And make sure you keep the Maybank name prominent in these parts. I know you’re gonna marry someday, but Maybank would make a helluva good first name, right?”
“Yes, sir, Daddy.” True could tell he wished he’d had a boy. “I don’t care what my husband says. I’m gonna be True Maybank forever.”
“No, no, no,” her father said. “You take your husband’s name, like a good girl. Maybe you’ll be True Maybank Waring. You marry Dubose, and bring our families together, then you’ll have done your mother and me real proud.”
She tried her best to look obedient. She felt sorry for Daddy. None of the women in his life listened to him. He called Honey his crazy spinster aunt, all because she refused to “settle down and behave,” Mama’s favorite phrase.
But Mama had misbehaved, too. Just last week, True heard Daddy and Mama fighting late at night after a party. Daddy found out that Mama had their new baby with another man’s help. Daddy told Mama she hadn’t behaved like a Maybank should. But Mama said he’d driven her to it by marrying her for her money and then slowly forgetting about her. Daddy cried. And Mama cried. And they both said they were sorry, and then Daddy pulled Mama onto the back porch and called her “Helen, my love.” True didn’t know what happened after that.
But she cried, too, from where she was sitting on the stairs. The next morning, she asked Ada what it was all about, and Ada said that all Daddy meant was that another man helped Mama pick Weezie up at the baby store. It was all in the past, Ada assured her, so it didn’t matter. But True was ten, for goodness’ sake. She knew babies didn’t come from a store.
Her father looked down at her with a slight frown. “Warings and Maybanks are the two oldest families in Biscuit Creek. And we’ve never married.”
“Why is that, Daddy?” True wasn’t too crazy about Dubose. He was a tattletale. Once she stole a piece of ham off his mama’s table before they were called in for Sunday brunch. And he told their cook. All because she’d sunk his battleship and beaten him at Go Fish.
“Rivalry,” Daddy said. “And none of us have ever fallen in love with each other. No Romeo and Juliet stories. But these are harder times. We could lose everything our families have fought for and stood for these past two hundred yeahs. It’s about time we unite, and you and Dubose would make a fine pair.”
“But I’m only ten years old, Daddy. So is he.”
“So?” He pulled out a cigar and lit it. “You just keep him in mind. You’ll both be grown up before you know it.”
After that, True’s father spoke to her on the porch every year on her birthday. When her twelfth one came along, she was wearing a bra even though she didn’t need one, and she had a cheap lip gloss from Wyatt’s hidden in the secret pocket of her purse. She was almost a woman, especially now that Harrison had kissed her—kissed her right on the lips—not three days ago. And it wasn’t anything like that kiss they’d shared when they’d gotten married two years before in their fake Sewee marriage ceremony in the honeysuckle bower. She didn’t know why things had changed between them. All she knew was that one day she was watching him, and his profile suddenly looked like the handsomest thing she’d ever seen. When he’d turned to smile at her, her heart had literally stopped in her chest and she couldn’t breathe for a second.
She was madly in love. And as soon as she could escape, she was meeting him on the dock at Sand Dollar Heaven. He had a birthday present for her.
Now her daddy said, “The sheriff was over at Sand Dollar Heaven the other day.”
“Oh?” True’s heart sped up.
“He told me he saw you there.” Daddy’s voice was low.
“I-I go there sometimes to play.” But True knew her mother wouldn’t like it. Not one bit.
“You won’t be going anymore. Heah? You’re lucky your mama doesn’t know.”
“Sheriff said you were hanging around the younger Gamble boy. That’s gonna stop right now.”
“Why?” True felt all trembly inside. Did the sheriff see them kiss? “Harrison’s my best friend.”
“Enough of that talk.” Daddy’s brow furrowed. “You got plenty of friends from good families. His daddy just got arrested for bootleggin’. He’ll be locked up at least a couple years.”
True got tears in her eyes. “R-really?”
“It’s a sad story.” Daddy shook his head. “He had a still out in the woods.”
Was that what that collection of junk was—the one Harrison had always told her to ignore in the honeysuckle bower?
“If your mama ever finds out you been over at Sand Dollar Heaven, you’d be off to boarding school the next day,” Daddy said in a scary voice. “She’d insist.”
“I’m not going to boarding school.” True could hardly fathom such a thing. Leave this house? Leave Biscuit Creek and all she held dear?
“I don’t want you to go, either.” Daddy spoke softer now. “But Weezie’s a handful already. Honey’s no easier. Your mama’s stressin’ about both of ’em. She can’t take any more. I need your help, little lady, keeping the peace around here.”
And she could tell Daddy really did. His eyes were troubled when he looked at her.
“Yessir.” She was frightened seeing Daddy so worried. It shocked her that he thought a twelve-year-old girl could make things better. But maybe she could. She had to try.
In that moment, she grew up. A lot.
He patted her shoulder. “Good job, honey. Now you have fun today.”
Behind a fake smile, True’s heart broke. It was the worst birthday she’d ever had. But poor Harrison. He had it far worse. What was it like to know your daddy was in jail? And then for your best friend not to show up when you’d told her you had a gift for her?
But birthdays, True finally came to understand that day on the porch, weren’t for herself. They were to remind her of her duty as a Maybank, which was why that night she wrote Harrison a note and told him she could never meet him at Sand Dollar Heaven again.
I hope you’ll understand, she wrote at one point, tears rolling down her cheeks. My family needs me to grow up.
She added a few more lines, and then she folded the note into a tiny football and tried to shove it in his locker at school, but too many people were looking. So she found Gage at the high school track and told him to give it to his brother as soon as he got home—without delay. She made him promise over and over. It was all she could do.
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Copyright © 2014 by Kieran Kramer.
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USA Today bestselling author Kieran Kramer is a former CIA employee, journalist, and English teacher who lives in the Lowcountry of South Carolina with her family. Game show veteran, karaoke enthusiast, and general adventurer, her motto is, “Life rewards action.” Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and at her website.