Chapter 2 A Garden Party
By A.P. Maddox
“I’ll be hosting a party in the garden this Friday evening,” Dottie announced, stepping into the kitchen for breakfast one morning.
Ashelynn glanced at Caroline, her eyes wide with anticipation.
After weeks of adjusting to renovations and life with Dottie, a party would be nice, Caroline thought.
“What’s the occasion?” Mrs. Hathcock asked, pouring orange juice into glasses.
“Her brother, Conner, is coming to stay,” Frank added, trailing behind his wife, and scrolling the financial news on his tablet.
“Yes,” Dottie went on. “He’s graduating from Duke, and the party will be in his honor. A crew will arrive Friday morning to set up. They’ll be here all day, so do try to stay out of their way.”
Caroline poked at her scrambled eggs with her fork. Conner Burroughs, she thought, her mouth turning up. The last time they saw each other, they were awkward teenagers; she wondered if he’d even remember her.
“May we invite some friends?” Ashelynn asked excitedly.
“What sort of people are these friends?” Dottie challenged.
“They’re nice,” Ashelynn responded.
“You may give me a short list with their parents’ names and phone numbers,” Dottie replied, putting great emphasis on the word short. “I will call them, and if I feel they are right for my party, I will offer an invitation.”
Ashelynn’s shoulders fell, and she sunk into her seat. “Alright,” she muttered.
Friday evening came quickly, and only a few of Ashelynn’s friends from the most influential families were invited.
“I should’ve known Dottie would only allow my rich friends to come tonight,” Ashelynn lamented as she and Caroline primped for the party at their large, double-seated vanity.
Caroline fluffed the golden blonde ringlets in her shoulder length hair. As her green eyes gazed back at her in the mirror, she tried to convince herself she looked well enough to see Conner again.
“I had to apologize to my other friends and explain that if it were up to me, they would’ve been here too,” Ashelynn said. She polished her lips with a dusty rose gloss and gathered her long, hazelnut-colored hair to one side. Running her fingers through the loose curls, she secured them with a ribbon in an elegant side ponytail just above her left shoulder.
She turned to Caroline with a mischievous grin. “So, do you know what I did?”
Caroline looked puzzled. “I can’t imagine.”
Ashelynn bit her bottom lip mischievously. “I invited them over tomorrow night for a party of my own, and I’m not going to tell Dottie! I told them to show at up around 8 o’clock to watch movies.”
They giggled at the roguish plan before Caroline let out a sigh and wondered aloud, “What do you think Conner looks like now?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ashelynn answered with a shrug. “The last time we saw him, he was pimply faced and scrawny.”
“But he was always so nice,” Caroline said.
“Come on!” Ashelynn jumped up from the vanity, excitedly. “Let’s not let this party get started without us!”
Out in the garden, circular tables were dressed in white linens and centerpieces of red and blue flowers. Clear lights were strung around the trees, gateways, and walkways. Lighted candles floated in the reflection pool, and the smell of jasmine graced the air. A small orchestra in the gazebo played cheerful melodies.
They strolled through the garden, and Caroline thought every detail looked so perfect. She’d want to recreate this scene later, on her sketch pad.
Ashelynn tapped her shoulder. “Is that Conner?” She pointed to a trellised archway where a tall young man stood next to Dottie and Frank. “It’s been a while; do you think that’s him?”
Caroline looked in the direction Ashelynn motioned. Her eyes caught sight of him. “Yes!” She smiled. “That’s him.”
Ashelynn looped her arm through Caroline’s. “Since you’re so eager to know what he looks like now, we must get a closer look,” Ashelynn teased as the two made their way toward Dottie, Frank, and Conner.
They stood patiently in queue as Dottie introduced Conner to guests lined up to meet him and express their congratulations on his graduation.
They got closer to the front, and Maggie darted toward them with a friend chasing her. Maggie ducked behind Ashelynn, giggling, and hiding from her friend. Her friend reached around Ashelynn, trying to grab Maggie. She jumped behind Caroline to get away. Her friend jumped too, and Caroline found herself at the center of their game of tag.
“Okay, you two, go play over there.” She pointed to an open grassy area at the end of the garden where they could run around without disturbing anyone.
Maggie looped around Ashelynn again before starting to bolt toward the grassy area. In one last effort to grab her before she got away, her friend lunged, knocking Caroline off her feet. She tumbled backward and suddenly a pair of strong arms caught her and bore her back to her feet.
She spun around. “Conner!”
“Hello, Miss Caroline.” His voice, deeper than before, stirred her.
“I knew I shouldn’t have allowed children to attend,” Dottie complained, then continued. “Girls, you remember my brother Conner?”
“Of course,” Ashelynn said, shaking his hand.
He offered his hand to Caroline next. She shook it. “It’s a pleasure to see you both again,” he said.
“You two will have to show Conner around during his stay,” Frank said. “Make sure he doesn’t get bored around here.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Dottie countered. “He has a full schedule!”
Dinner was announced, and everyone moved to their assigned seats. Dottie, Frank, and Conner sat at the head table with the governor and two state congressional leaders. Caroline discreetly watched Conner throughout dinner and thought his manners seemed polite, but also thought that he didn’t seem as interested in promoting himself to the powerful political leaders as his sister did.
Dinner ended and the orchestra played music appropriate for dancing.
Mrs. Hathcock and Caroline sat together and watched Maggie and her friends playing at the reflection pool, swirling their fingers in the water, making the floating candles spin.
Mrs. Hathcock motioned toward Ashelynn and her friends gathered at the west end of the garden. “It’s good to see her enjoying herself. It sure hasn’t been easy dealing with all these changes lately and I know she misses your father.”
“We all do, Mom,” Caroline said, giving her mom’s hand a squeeze.
Caroline glanced toward the crowd, involuntarily looking for Conner. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw him walking straight toward them.
“Miss Caroline. Mrs. Hathcock,” he greeted politely, taking a chair at their table. “I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve seen your family.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Mrs. Hathcock said, smiling. “We should have made more of an effort to visit your family in Charlotte.”
“However,” Conner said, “I do seem to remember how Mr. Hathcock felt about my mother…”
“They got along like oil and water, didn’t they?” Caroline responded.
They all laughed.
Conner’s smile faded. “I was sorry to hear about him.”
“We appreciate that, dear,” Mrs. Hathcock said.
“Thank you,” Caroline added.
After a heartbeat of silence, Caroline asked timidly, “Conner, would you care to dance?”
Conner looked surprised, then agreed. “Yes, that would be nice.”
He stood and offered his arm like a gentleman. She took it, and Mrs. Hathcock looked pleased as she watched the two of them walk to the dance floor.
“I feel I need to apologize for earlier,” she said, as they began to dance.
“It’s not every day I get to rescue a damsel in distress.”
Caroline looked away shyly—the corners of her mouth turning up before looking back at him. The look on his face, so kind, she thought.
“It seems your sister is interested in shaping a future political career for you,” she said as they swayed.
“Yes,” he acknowledged. “Everyone seems interested in that.”
“But perhaps that’s not what you want?” she questioned.
Conner looked at her, surprised. “What makes you think so?”
Caroline wondered if her assumption had been wrong and hesitantly continued, “Well, it seemed your sister was more excited about dining with the governor than you were.”
Conner’s eyes widened in wonder. “You’re rather perceptive, Miss Caroline.”
The song concluded, and before Conner could thank her for the dance and return to his sister, Caroline found herself asking, “Would you like to go for a walk?”
They looked at each other in surprise—Caroline at herself for being so bold, and Conner to hear she wanted to walk with him.
“There’s a pond down beyond the stables. It’s gorgeous when there’s a full moon, like tonight.”
Conner glanced over at Dottie. She was busy chatting with the governor. “That would be nice,” he said. “But let’s hurry, so my sister doesn’t catch me leaving the party.” Discretely, they hurried out of the garden.
They walked along the path to the stables. “So, if not politics,” Caroline said. “What then?”
“Honestly?” Conner asked.
“Of course,” she replied.
“I really enjoyed the business classes I took in college and I haven’t said this to my family, but I’d rather go straight to work at my family’s company instead of going into politics.”
“But your family wishes you to be a powerful politician,” she replied.
“Yes, they want me to follow in my mother’s footsteps,” he acknowledged.
“Another great Senator Burroughs in the family?” she asked.
“That’s exactly what their wishes are.”
Caroline shrugged. “It’s too bad you can’t follow in your father’s footsteps and lead your company to new heights.”
Conner nodded. “They feel that’s Randall’s job.”
“Will he be any good at it?” she asked.
“Hard to say yet. My brother is still at school with 2 years to go, but he does seem to be working hard and is serious about his education. He might do a great job.”
They reached the edge of the pond and stopped. An early summer breeze caught the branches of a nearby weeping willow, causing it to bend and dip its branches in the water. They watched as the moonbeams shimmered in the ripples.
“You’re right,” he said softly. “It’s beautiful.”
She looked up at him and gazed as the soft moonlight shone on his dark hair. She studied the details of his face, the strong brow line over his steel-grey eyes, which glistened with a hint of slate-blue when the light hit them. There was a warmth in his eyes that made her feel safe. She watched as his lips turned up in a serene smile—sure that serenity wasn’t something he often felt.
He turned to look at her. “Thank you for bringing me here, Caroline.”
They looked in each other’s eyes for a moment before she said, “We should get you back to your party before your sister sends out bloodhounds.”
“I prefer the current company to all those at the party,” he said before turning his gaze back to the moonlit pond. “But I suppose you’re right.”
On their stroll back to the garden, they talked about their likes and dislikes. By the end of their walk, Caroline knew his favorite flavor of ice cream was pralines and cream, and Conner knew what her favorite gemstone was.
“Emeralds,” he said softly. “Like the color of your eyes.”
“They haven’t changed,” he added.
Caroline caught her breath. “He didn’t forget,” she said to herself.
The next evening, Ashelynn’s friends descended upon the manor precisely on time. Dottie happened to be in the office while Ashelynn ushered them into the family game room. Caroline joined them and brought Maggie along.
Soon Conner found the party and asked if he could sit in, to which everyone agreed. By the time they were discovered by Dottie, there were bags of microwave popcorn being passed around and soda cans scattered across the room. Star Wars was just getting to the part where Ben Kenobi was saving Luke Skywalker from the sand people.
“What’s going on in here?” Dottie furiously demanded, storming into the room. “This is my home! Nobody asked my permission for these people to be here! I want an explanation now!” Dottie looked like a snarling beast that had just emerged from a creepy dungeon in the darkest part of the old house.
Before she could begin devouring the guests, Conner stood up like a knight to the rescue, his shield a bag of popcorn and his sword a soda can. “I’m sorry, dear sister,” he said. “I authorized it! I thought it was a good way for me to get reacquainted with your husband’s sisters and to get to know their friends.”
Dottie’s mouth fell open in bewilderment, realizing her own brother played a part in such a disrespectful display in her home. She huffed and left the room, but not before noticing Conner sitting back down rather close to Caroline. She took a deep breath. With her blood boiling, she turned and stomped away.
“Sir Conner!” Ashelynn declared, standing up to bow toward Conner. “Our brave knight in shining armor!”
Everyone clapped and cheered.
“I’ll be back in a second.” Caroline rose from the sofa and was gone from the room before Conner had time to ask where she was going.
She went to the kitchen searching the freezer for pralines and cream ice cream to reward Conner’s act of heroism. Her mother had also come into the kitchen looking for a snack.
“Mom, what do you think of Conner?” Caroline asked.
“He’s always been a dear boy,” her mother answered.
“You should have seen him just now! He saved us from a snarling Dottie.” Caroline extolled. “I was sure she was going to demand that Ashelynn’s friends leave, but Conner talked her out of it!”
“I see.” She noticed the spark in Caroline’s eyes. “I see,” she repeated, smiling.