“Are you excited for school to be out in a few days?” Ashelynn asked Maggie as they gathered their book bags in the entry, waiting for Caroline to drive them to school.
“Yes, but I’ll miss my friends,” Maggie replied.
Ashelynn gave her a side-arm hug. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll see lots of each other over the summer.”
Maggie grinned up at her.
Caroline came down the stairs and stopped at the bottom to look around.
Ashelynn furrowed her brow. “Who are you looking for?”
Caroline shrugged. “Oh, no one.”
Just then, Conner rounded the corner, nearly running into her. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Miss Caroline.”
She danced back a step and her face lit up. “That’s okay! I’m just about to drive my sisters to school. Would you like to ride with me? There’s an art gallery downtown. I thought it’d be fun to stop by.”
“I have a couple of hours free this morning,” he answered. “I’m having lunch with Dottie and the mayor, but that’s not until noon. Sure, I can come.”
“I call shotgun,” Ashelynn exclaimed as they headed out the door.
“Do you like art?” Maggie asked Conner in the car.
“I suppose I do, although I know little about it. I could tell you who painted the Mona Lisa,” Conner replied with a laugh. “But beyond that, I truly don’t know much about art.”
“That’s alright. Caroline can teach you,” Ashelynn said.
“She’s an amazing artist,” Maggie added, waving her hands as if she were sketching. “She draws everything. You should see some of her work!”
“Oh, really?” Conner leaned toward Caroline to be heard. “You didn’t tell me you were an artist. That’s wonderful. I would love to see your work sometime.”
Caroline’s face flushed as she tried to downplay the praise. “I sketch a little; it’s not a big deal.”
“Sketch?” Ashelynn rolled her eyes.
“She won an award!” Maggie proclaimed.
“And a scholarship,” Ashelynn added.
“That’s impressive!” Conner declared. “But if you have a scholarship, why aren’t you in school now?”
Caroline quietly responded, “I took time off to help my mother with Father.”
“Do you plan on returning in the fall?” he asked.
At the gallery, Caroline pointed out some of her favorite pieces and explained why she loved them; then encouraged Conner to find pieces that he might like.
After a while, the curator walked toward them. “Good morning! I’m Mr. Jameson, and I’m at your disposal for any questions you may have.”
“Thank you very much, Sir,” Conner responded. He motioned to Caroline. “My friend is my guide this morning, and I’m learning a great deal from her.”
“I believe I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I?” Mr. Jameson asked Caroline.
“Yes, Sir,” she acknowledged. “I come here rather frequently.”
“I was informed this morning that she’s an award-winning artist,” Conner piped up. “And she’s won a scholarship!”
Mr. Jameson’s brows rose. “That’s wonderful! What kind of work do you do?”
“Typically, I draw,” Caroline answered. “It’s relaxing. But I’ve also done watercolors, oils, and acrylics.”
Mr. Jameson clapped. “Bravo! Will you come and draw something for the gallery?” He motioned to a drawing table in the back. “Do you have time?”
“Now?” Caroline blurted. She looked at Conner nervously. Could she keep a steady hand to draw in front of him?
“Unless you have to hurry off,” Mr. Jameson appealed, spreading his arms as if welcoming a guest.
Conner looked at his watch. “We still have a couple of hours, and I’m in no hurry to leave.”
Her eyes widened—stunned by the sudden feeling of being put on the spot.
“I would be so honored to have you create a masterpiece in the gallery!” Mr. Jameson beseeched.
Caroline took a breath. “I don’t know about a masterpiece, Mr. Jameson, but I suppose I can try to draw something.”
Mr. Jameson showed the way. “Our drawing table is a vintage 1945 Hamilton, with an oak base and a maple top. Isn’t it lovely?” He tore an 18” x 24” piece of paper from a drawing pad nearby and taped it to the tabletop, then pulled out a drawer to reveal a collection of pencils.
“It is a beautiful table, Mr. Jameson.” Caroline sat on the stool, ran her fingers over the pencils, and chose one. She closed her eyes to bring to mind a previous scene. Then opened them, and her hand brushed across the paper in delicate strokes. Soon a beautiful garden began to take form on the page. A gazebo housing a small orchestra appeared next, followed by a dance floor and a couple dancing.
Caroline finished and looked over her work, hesitating before daring to look at Conner and wondering if she had chosen the right scene. She drew a long breath and looked up, eager for his reaction.
“Is that the garden at Hathcock Manor?” Conner asked.
“Yes.” Caroline smiled up at him.
“It’s a nice drawing,” he remarked.
“Nice?” Mr. Jameson contended. “Why, it’s a beautiful scene! May I have your permission to put it on display?”
“It’s not good enough,” Caroline protested.
“Why not?” Conner asked. “I’m not an art critic, but I think you’ve done well.”
“What will you call it, Miss…” Mr. Jameson paused for her name.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m Caroline Hathcock, and this is Conner Burroughs,” she answered.
“I shall frame this lovely drawing and say it’s by award-winning local artist Caroline Hathcock!”
“Just Caroline will do,” she replied.
“Alright then,” he relented, “but you still have to name it. How about ‘The Dance’?”
“First Dance,” Caroline answered.
She glanced at Conner. Would he think “First Dance” was too forward a title?
He didn’t appear to have heard. He had wandered toward a painting of a lighthouse.
“That’s Cape Hatteras,” she said, walking over to him.
“Yes. Have you been there?”
“Once as a child. I love lighthouses.”
“I’ve been there a few times.” His eyes fixed on the painting. “I love them, too. A light in the dark has such incredible symbolism.”
“I think of John 8.” She marveled at how he seemed entranced by the contrast of the lighthouse light and the dark seas crashing against the shores at its base. “Jesus being the light of the world—to light the storms of life.”
“My thoughts exactly! The Lord has certainly gotten me through some rough seas.”
She pondered what his “rough seas” might be—his father’s passing, family pressures—she realized under that genial face he was a man led by the Lord. The thought caused her heart to soar.
He turned to her. “People can also be lights to each other.”
She nodded and touched the light in the painting, whispering, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
Putting her hand down, she looked at Conner. “I would like to take another lighthouse trip someday, along with a drawing pad, and capture some of that lighthouse symbolism.”
“I hope you get to do that one day.” He glanced at his watch. “We should probably go now. I don’t want to be late for lunch with my sister.”
“And the mayor,” Caroline teased.
“Yes, and the mayor!” Conner laughed.
“Goodbye, Mr. Jameson,” they said, heading to the door.
“Please come again soon,” he called back with a wave.
They walked toward Caroline’s car, passing the beauty salon next to the gallery. Dottie sat getting her nails done, facing the front window. She noticed Caroline and Conner walking past. Her eyes narrowed, and her mouth gaped in annoyance.
Later, Caroline found herself in the garden. The late-afternoon sun dipped below the tall pencil pines lining the back of the garden. She sat on a stone bench at the far edge of the reflecting pool.
Thoughts of her time spent with Conner went through her mind: their first dance, their walk together, the way he looked in the moonlight by the pond, the way he looked with his gaze fixed on the gleam of the lighthouse painting. She was in awe of how much goodness and wonder she saw in him.
Ashelynn appeared and sat next to her. “You’re falling in love with Conner, and I think he’s falling for you, too.”
“I don’t think we should assume,” Caroline responded.
“But you do like him, don’t you?”
Caroline sat quiet a moment before answering. “He’s such a good person. So kind, so generous, so fun to be with, and such a gentleman. I’ve always thought highly of him, but….”
“I do find myself hoping!”
“Hoping for…?” Ashelynn continued to goad.
“Oh, Ashelynn, you know what I’m hoping for!” Caroline said with a grin. “I like him very much, and I hope he likes me, too!”
Ashelynn laughed. “I knew it!”
Ashelynn stood up and did a wedding march with an invisible bouquet. “I get to be your maid of honor, of course! And what colors do you want for your wedding?”
Caroline giggled and stuck her foot out to trip her sister, but she hopped over and sat down again.
“Shall we plan for a Christmas wedding?” Ashelynn teased.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. I don’t even know if he likes me yet,” Caroline stated, with hope shining in her eyes.
“I’m sure he does!” Ashelynn put her arm around her sister.
Conner stepped out the back door and headed toward them.
“Oh look, here he comes now. Probably to declare his love for you,” Ashelynn said in a low voice.
Caroline shushed her.
“Well, I’ve got homework to do,” Ashelynn stated, darting off.
Conner sat on the far end of the long bench, not too close to Caroline. “I wanted to thank you for the trip to the gallery today. I learned a lot and really enjoyed it.”
“Thank you for going with me. I enjoyed it as well.”
“I’m sorry if you felt put on the spot to draw this morning.”
“At first, I was mortified,” Caroline admitted with a laugh. “But I’m glad he asked. I’m happy with how the drawing turned out, and I’m honored he’s going to display it.”
“You’re a very talented artist,” Conner told her. “I’m quite in awe of you.”
“Thank you.” Caroline blushed at the compliment and studied his face—wishing she could discern his feelings. Since she couldn’t, she felt it best not to share her own.
He turned his gaze from her to the reflecting pool, and so did she. They sat quietly, gazing into the reflecting pool. Neither was aware they were being watched from the house.
Mrs. Hathcock peered through the glass of the French doors, smiling at the couple.
Dottie appeared and stood beside her with arms folded—scowling at the same sight.
“Don’t they look good together?” Mrs. Hathcock remarked.
Dottie snapped back. “My brother has no time for silly girls of no consequence. My mother and I have invested too much time preparing him for his future political career. When the time is right, he will marry a woman with connections who can further that career. He will be president one day and Caroline will not be his First Lady!”
Mrs. Hathcock turned to Dottie in astonishment. “Does Conner get a say in his own life? Do his choices even matter?”
“If he wants his inheritance, he’ll choose what’s best,” Dottie retorted.
Mrs. Hathcock shook her head in disgust and turned to walk away. Ashelynn was behind them.
“Dottie, you’re a—” Ashelynn started.
“Careful what you say,” Dottie warned. “Remember who now owns the home you’re living in.”
“Let’s go upstairs, dear.” Mrs. Hathcock took Ashelynn by the arm, leading her away.
Upstairs, Ashelynn railed. “I can’t believe that woman! Doesn’t she care about her own brother?”
“Apparently she cares about the prestige he’ll bring the family,” her mother said. “However, I don’t believe Conner is like his sister. He seems to have a genuine heart, and if he has true feelings for Caroline, he’ll find a way to make them known. Let’s have faith in his goodness and pray he won’t be crushed under the weight of his family’s demands.”
Ashelynn nodded and retreated to her room.
In her own room, Mrs. Hathcock sat at her computer to calm her nerves. Checking her e-mail, one from her cousin surprised her.
The message read:
Dearest Cousin Sarah,
I’m sorry to hear of your husband’s passing. It must be a sad time for you and your daughters. I suppose your stepson owns Hathcock Manor now. I don’t know if that presents an uncomfortable situation for you, but if it does, may I offer you the cottage on my Northland Estate in Winston-Salem? Northland Cottage is a cozy 4 bedroom, admittedly not as grand as the manor you’re used to, but it’s comfortable and roomy and the rent would be only what you can afford. My mother lived there until her recent passing. We’ve given it new carpet and fresh paint, and it’s ready for new occupants any time you’d like. I would be thrilled to have you and your daughters as tenants!
Her anger toward Dottie turned to elation as she read. “Can this be true?” she asked herself. “This couldn’t have come at a better time! What a blessing! We’ll take it,” she said aloud joyfully. Immediately, she typed out a grateful reply. Before clicking send, however, she realized she had to tell her daughters.
She hurried out of her room, stopping by Ashelynn’s. “Come with me!”
Downstairs, they found Caroline and Maggie in the family room. “I have some great news!” their mother said, motioning them closer. “How would you like to move to Winston-Salem? My cousin has a four-bedroom cottage on his estate that he’s willing to rent to us for whatever we feel we can afford! Isn’t that generous?”
“Do we have to go?” Maggie asked, her eyes filling with tears.
Caroline stayed quiet while Ashelynn spoke up. “We could move once school’s out. Caroline, I’m sure your scholarship is transferable, and I have some news. I applied to the art school there, and they have approved me for an audition. With Dad’s passing and his funeral and then Dottie and Frank moving in, the timing never seemed right to say so. But the timing feels right now.”
“Ashelynn, that’s incredible news!” Caroline gave her a congratulatory hug. “As soon as they hear you play, they’ll admit you for sure. You’re the most talented pianist in the entire piedmont!”
“Agreed, my dear,” their mother added. “We’re very proud of you!”
Tears continued to roll down Maggie’s cheeks and her mother pulled her onto her lap and wrapped her in a hug. “I understand you don’t want to move, but it’s only a 2-hour drive and we can invite your friends to visit. We can also drive back from time to time to visit them. And we may find wonderful new things to love in our new place.” She kissed Maggie’s head and continued in a reassuring tone. “I feel it’s divine providence. The hand of the Lord is in this, and He will take care of us.”
It was quiet at dinner that evening. “Anything the matter?” Frank asked.
“Everything’s fine,” Mrs. Hathcock assured him. “We’ve been offered a home in Winston-Salem for an affordable rent, and I’ve accepted the offer. We’ll be moving as soon as school is out.”
Dottie looked up, a grin growing across her face.
Frank protested. “I don’t understand. Why would you move? This is your home.”
Mrs. Hathcock put her fork down and explained. “Well, things are a little more crowded around here now. If we move, it will lessen the congestion in what is now your home, Frank. And, Ashelynn has an audition with the performing arts academy there. Since school’s out in a couple of days, the timing just seems right.”
Frank glanced at his wife, who had a pleased expression. “Oh,” Frank stammered. “Well, I suppose you’ll call and let me know if you need anything once you get there.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Hathcock replied.
Frank looked concerned, but no more protests were made, and no encouragements to stay were offered.
Caroline looked at Conner, and they caught each other’s eyes.
Mrs. Hathcock noticed the exchange and added, “Of course, you are welcome to come visit once we’re settled.” The offer was made to all, but she looked directly at Conner.
Conner smiled his gratitude and looked back down at his plate.
Caroline studied his face, wishing she could discern his feelings. She wondered if he’d come. She sincerely hoped he would.