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Restless in Carolina

By Tamara Leigh

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Deep breath. “…and they lived…”

I can do this. It’s not as if I didn’t sense it coming. After all, I can smell an HEA (Happily Ever After) a mile away—or, in this case, twenty-four pages glued between cardboard covers that feature the requisite princess surrounded by cute woodland creatures. And there are the words, right where I knew the cliché of an author would slap them, on the last page in the same font as those preceding them. Deceptively nondescript. Recklessly hopeful. Heartbreakingly false.

“Aunt Bridge,” Birdie chirps, “finish it.”

I look up from the once-upon-a-time crisp page that has been softened, creased, and stained by the obsessive readings in which her mother indulges her.
Eyes wide, cheeks flushed, my niece nods. “Say the magic words.”


More nodding, and is she quivering? Oh no, I refuse to be a party to this. I smile big, say, “The end,” and close the book. “So, how about another piece of weddin’ cake?”

“No!” She jumps off the footstool she earlier dubbed her “princess throne,” snatches the book from my hand, and opens it to the back. “Wight here!”
I almost correct her initial R-turned-W, but according to my sister, it’s developmental and the sound is coming in fine on its own, just as her other Rs did.

Birdie jabs the H, E, and A. “It’s not the end until you say the magic words.”
And I thought this the lesser of two evils—entertaining my niece and nephew as opposed to standing around the reception as the bride and groom are toasted by all the happy couples, among them, cousin Piper, soon to be wed to my friend Axel, and cousin Maggie, maybe soon to be engaged to her sculptor man, what’s his name.

“Yeah,” Birdie’s twin, Miles, calls from where he’s once more hanging upside down on the rolling ladder I’ve pulled him off twice. “You gotta say the magic words.”

Outrageous! Even my dirt-between-the-toes, scab-ridden, snot-on-the-sleeve nephew is buying into the fantasy.

I spring from the armchair, cross the library, and unhook his ankles from the rung. “You keep doin’ that and you’ll bust your head wide open.” I set him on his feet. “And your mama will—” No, Bonnie won’t. “Well, she’ll be tempted to give you a whoopin’.”

Face bright with upside-down color, he glowers.

I’d glower back if I weren’t so grateful for the distraction he provided. “All right, then.” I slap at the ridiculously stiff skirt of the dress Maggie loaned me for my brother’s wedding. “Let’s rejoin the party—”

“You don’t wanna say it.” Miles sets his little legs wide apart. “Do ya?”

So much for my distraction.

“You don’t like Birdie’s stories ’cause they have happy endings. And you don’t.”

I clench my toes in the painfully snug high heels on loan from Piper.

“Yep.” Miles punches his fists to his hips. “Even Mama says so.”

My own sister? I shake my head, causing the blond dreads Maggie pulled away from my face with a headband to sweep my back. “That’s not true.”

“Then say it wight now!” Birdie demands.

I peer over my shoulder at where she stands like an angry tin soldier, an arm outthrust, the book extended.

“Admit it,” Miles singsongs.

I snap around and catch my breath at the superior, knowing look on his five-year-old face. He’s his father’s son, all right, a miniature Professor Claude de Feuilles, child development expert.

“You’re not happy.” The professor in training, who looks anything but with his spiked hair, nods.

I know better than to bristle with two cranky, nap-deprived children, but that’s what I’m doing. Feeling as if I’m watching myself from the other side of the room, I cross my arms over my chest. “I’ll admit no such thing.”

“That’s ’cause you’re afraid. Mama said so.” Miles peers past me. “Didn’t she, Birdie?”

Why is Bonnie discussing my personal life with her barely-out-of-diapers kids?

“Uh-huh. She said so.”

Miles’s smile is smug. “On the drive here, Mama told Daddy this day would be hard on you. That you wouldn’t be happy for Uncle Bart ’cause you’re not happy.”

Not true! Not that I’m thrilled with our brother’s choice of bride, but… Come on! Trinity Templeton? Nice enough, but she isn’t operating on a full charge, which wouldn’t be so bad if Bart made up for the difference. Far from it, his past history with illegal stimulants having stripped him of a few billion brain cells.

“She said your heart is…” Miles scrunches his nose, as if assailed by a terrible odor. “…constipated.”


“That you need an M & M, and I don’t think she meant the chocolate kind you eat. Probably one of those—”

“I am not constipated.” Pull back. Nice and easy. I try to heed my inner voice but find myself leaning down and saying, “I’m realistic.”

Birdie stomps the hardwood floor. “Say the magic words!”

“Nope.” Miles shakes his head. “Constipated.”

I shift my cramped jaw. “Re-al-is-tic.”


Pull back, I tell you! He’s five years old. “Just because I don’t believe in fooling a naive little girl into thinkin’ a prince is waiting for her at the other end of childhood and will save her from a fate worse than death and take her to his castle and they’ll live…” I flap a hand. “…you know, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me.”

Isn’t there?

“It means I know better. There may be a prince, and he may have a castle, and they may be happy, but don’t count on it lasting. Oh no. He’ll get bored or caught up in work or start cheatin’—you know, decide to put that glass slipper on some other damsel’s foot or kiss another sleeping beauty—or he’ll just up and die like Easton—”

No, nothing at all wrong with you, Bridget Pickwick Buchanan whose ugly widow’s weeds are showing.

“See!” Miles wags a finger.

Unfortunately, I do. And as I straighten, I hear sniffles.

“Now you done it!” Miles hustles past me. “Got Birdie upset.”

Sure enough, she’s staring at me with flooded eyes. “The prince dies? He dies and leaves the princess all alone?” The book falls from her hand, its meeting with the floor echoing around the library. Then she squeaks out a sob.

“No!” I spring forward, grimacing at the raspy sound the skirt makes as I attempt to reach Birdie before Miles.

He gets there first and puts an arm around her. A meltable moment, my mother would call it. After she gave me a dressing down. And I deserve one. My niece may be on the spoiled side, and she may work my nerves, but I love her—even like her when that sweet streak of hers comes through.

“It’s okay, Birdie,” Miles soothes. “The prince doesn’t die.”

Yes, he does, but what possessed me to say so? And what if I’ve scarred her for life?

Miles pats her head onto his shoulder. “Aunt Bridge is just”—he gives me the evil eye—“constipated.”

“Yes, Birdie.” I drop to my knees. “I am. My heart, that is. Constipated. I’m so sorry.”

She turns her head and, upper lip shiny with the stuff running out of her nose, says in a hiccupy voice, “The prince doesn’t die?”

I grab the book from the floor and turn to the back. “Look. There they are, riding off into the sunset—er, to his castle. Happy. See, it says so.” I tap the H, E, and A.

She sniffs hard, causing that stuff to whoosh up her nose and my gag reflex to go on alert. “Weally happy, Aunt Bridge?”


“Nope.” Barely-there eyebrows bunching, she lifts her head from Miles’s shoulder. “Not unless you say it.”

Oh dear Go— No, He and I are not talking. Well, He may be talking, but I’m not listening.

“I think you’d better.” Miles punctuates his advice with a sharp nod.

“Okay.” I look down at the page. “…and they lived…” It’s just a fairy tale—highly inflated, overstated fiction for tikes. “…they lived happily…ever…after.”

Birdie blinks in slow motion. “Happily…ever…after. That’s a nice way to say it, like you wanna hold on to it for always.”

Or unstick it from the roof of your mouth. “The end.” I close the book, and it’s all I can do not to toss it over my shoulder. “Here you go.”

She clasps it to her chest. “Happily…ever…after.”

Peachy. But I’ll take her dreamy murmuring over tears any day. Goodness, I can’t believe I made her cry. I stand and pat the skirt back down into its stand-alone shape. “More cake?”

“Yay!” Miles charges past me.

Next time— No, there won’t be a next time. I’m done with Little Golden Books.

Birdie hurries to catch up with her brother. “I want a piece of chocolate cake.”

I want to go home. And curl up in my hammock. And listen for the hot air to stir up a breeze and creak the leaves. And try not to think about my lost happily ever after. I set my shoulders and thoughts against memories and check my watch. I’ve been in this dress and these shoes for four hours. It’s time.

Outside the library, I pause at the grand staircase, step out of the heels, and try to flex my toes. They’re numb. I declare, if I have to have anything amputated, someone will hear about it. I retrieve the shoes and hobble into the hallway, through the kitchen, and outside into a bright day abuzz with wedding revelry.

No matter the season, the beauty of Uncle Obe’s garden always gets to me, especially now that it and the entire Pickwick estate will be passing out of Pickwick hands. For months, I’ve about killed myself trying to find a way around the sale that will provide restitution to those our family has wronged, as well as something of an inheritance to kin, but everywhere I turn, I find walls.

“Hey, babies,” my sister’s voice rings out, “did you have fun with Aunt Bridge?”

I halt and look to the linen-covered table where a large three-tiered wedding cake was the centerpiece earlier. Only one tier remains, and it’s had its share of knifings.

“Yeah, it was okay.” Miles holds out a plate for his mother to fill. “Until she made Birdie cry.”

My little sister’s gasp shoots around those standing in the twenty feet between us. “What happened?”

“Aunt Bridge didn’t want to finish the book. Did she, Birdie?”

Hugging it to her, she shakes her head.

“Well,” Bonnie slides a piece of cake onto each of their plates, “maybe she’s tired.”

“Nuh-uh.” Miles leans his face into the cake, takes a bite, and with crumbs spilling and frosting flecking, says, “She told us the prince gave the glass slipper to another girl and kissed sleeping beauty and then died.”

“Oh.” Bonnie’s lids flutter. “Huh.” Sunlight glints off the knife in her hand as she meets my gaze. “Well.” She forces a smile. “Hmm.” Back to her daughter. “We know that’s not true, don’t we, Roberta baby?”

Birdie bounces her head. “They lived happily…ever…after.”

Time to go. But as much as I long to run, I’m civilized despite rumors to the contrary. I search out my brother where he stands with his bride, Trinity, my mother and father, and Uncle Obe in the gazebo built for the reception. A quick congratulations and I’m out of here.


I hurry past Maggie’s brother and his latest wife, around Uncle Obe’s attorney, between—

“Don’t think I don’t know you can hear me, Bridget.”

And so can everyone else. I swing around. “Bonbon!”

Bonnie rushes the last few feet. “I know we’re mostly family here, but I’ll do you the kindness of talking to you in private.” She points to the mansion.

I don’t care to accompany her, but neither do I want to throw a shadow over Bart’s special day. And going by the eyes turning our way, it’s fast approaching. “Of course.” I set off ahead of her, raise my eyebrows at Maggie when she turns a worried face to me, and give Piper a shrug.

In the kitchen, I cross to the pantry and raise my hands in surrender. “I didn’t mean to say what I did. I certainly didn’t mean to make Birdie cry.”

Bonnie steps near, causing my hackles to rise. I don’t like sharing my personal space, even with my own sister. My hotheaded sister. And then she goes and puts a finger in my face, and I have the urge to bite it. But I won’t. That would end badly.

“I trust you with my most precious possessions,” Mama Bear growls, “and what do you do? Try to steal my babies’ sweetness and innocence with that ‘life is dark’ outlook of yours.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just on edge, what with tryin’ to find a buyer for the estate who won’t turn it into a crowded development or a nasty theme park. And now Uncle Obe has listed it and the real estate agents are swarmin’. It’s too much, Bonbon.”

She narrows her lids. “Don’t you Bonbon me!”

Though she’s five foot two, one hundred ten pounds to my five foot six, one hundred twenty pounds, I know she could take me down if I riled her enough to forget we’re grown women. But that’s not the reason I pull back on my emotions. I do it because I’m the one who lost control in front of her twins. I clear my throat. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Yes, you did!” The finger again. “You can’t stand for anybody to be happy if you aren’t happy.”

Ignore the finger. “That’s not true.” My throat strains from the effort to keep my voice level. “I—”

“Woe is me. My husband’s dead, and I refuse to get over it. Even though he’s four years gone!”

I suck breath. Oh, God. I mean, no! I’m not talking to You. Of course, I could use a little self-control if You’ve got some lying around. But that doesn’t mean I’m talking to You.

“Have mercy on us, Bridget, ‘cause you know what? Grief is contagious. And I don’t want my babies catchin’ it.”

A chill goes through me. I never thought of grief as contagious, but I suppose it could be.

“So stop casting your widowhood like a net, catching others in it and saying stuff like that just because Easton is dead.”

Just because? I feel warm again. “Maybe…” My voice sounds all wet and buggered up with that stuff that buggered Birdie’s nose. “Maybe I said it because my constipated heart needs an M & M.”

Bonnie startles so hard I find myself checking the whereabouts of my hands to be certain I didn’t slap her. Not that I would, although she might slap me.
“Oh.” She steps back and gives a nervous laugh. “They told you I said that?”
Having regained some of my personal space, my shoulders unbind. “Out of the mouths of babes.”

“Uh, yeah. I didn’t realize they were listenin’. They had their earphones in and were singing along with their IPods.” She frowns. “Or so I thought.”

I pull a hand down my face. It’s a good thing I never took to makeup. “It’s all right. I know you didn’t mean it to hurt me.”

She raises her hands palms up. “I needed to talk it out with Claude. You know how I worry about you.”

Not really, but we live a ways from each other, averaging two visits a year when she and her family drive through on their way to elsewhere. However, that pattern will be broken when my sister and her husband leave the twins with their grandparents for eight weeks while they’re in the Ukraine to study the development of children awaiting adoption. My mother will have her hands full, but I’ll help however I can.

“I really am sorry for what I said to Birdie and Miles. It won’t happen again.”

Once more, Bonnie invades my space, and this time I’m the one who startles when she lays a hand on my cheek. “Oh, Bridget, how are you going to keep that promise when you’re still wrapped up in all those widow’s weeds?”

Don’t pull back. It’s your sister, not a “widow sniffer” trying to get a hook into the lonely little widow. Pressing my dry lips, I long for my Burt’s Bees lip balm. “I’ve accepted my loss. It’s just taking me longer than some to adjust. But I am adjustin’.”

Her eyes snap to slits. “Really?”


“No, if you were adjusting, you wouldn’t still be clinging to your wedding ring.”

I catch my breath. “There’s nothing wrong with wearing it.”

“Yes, there is.” She grabs my hand and lifts it before my face. “It’s time. Past time. You have to let him go.”

I do not like this. “I have. I accept he’s gone—”

“No, not gone. That implies he can come back. He’s dead. And you have to call it what it is and get on with your life. Not yours and Easton’s life. Your life.”

I pull my hand free. “I’m getting there.”

“Well, at this rate, you’ll be in your own grave before you arrive.”

My own grave… I feel cold. At thirty-three, if I live to see my body stoop and shrivel, that will be a very long time. Like one big unending yawn.

Bonnie tilts her chin forward. “That makes me plain sad, so take off the ring.”
Now? That’s asking too much. “I will when—”

“Take it off.”


“You made my little girl cry!”

I did. And though I don’t care to look too deeply into myself, here I am, still holding tight to my interrupted life with Easton.

“Give me your hand.”

I don’t want to, and yet I raise my arm.

With surprising gentleness, Bonnie cups my fingers in hers. “It’s for the best. I promise.”

I hold my breath, and she tugs. And tugs. Then wrenches.

“Ow!” I try to pull free, but she sets her jaw and lifts her foot, as if to brace it against me for leverage.

“Stop it!” As I push her away, the ring comes free.

“Got it!”

Staring at it between her thumb and forefinger, I feel the air go out of me. How long before my deflated self pools on the floor? It doesn’t happen. I miss the constriction around my finger, and I may be a bit numb, but that’s it. Am I in shock?

“You okay, Bridge?”

“I think so.”

She presses the ring into my palm. “Put that in a good place where you won’t be looking at it every day.”

I close my fingers around it. How’s that for a good place?

She smoothes her blouse. “Now let’s go outside so everyone will see I didn’t yank out those ugly dreadlocks of yours.”

“They aren’t ugly.”

“They aren’t beautiful. Just…” She waves at my head. “…more widow’s weeds.”

She’s not the first to call them that, seeing as Easton had dreads and always wanted me to try them. Unfortunately, God didn’t give him a chance to see how well I wear them. No, God had other plans for my man, and they didn’t include me. If ever there was a reason not to talk to Him or His Son, there it is.

“Those are next,” Bonnie says.


“The dreads have to go.”

I want to argue, but I don’t have the energy. Besides, maybe she’s right. Since that night on the mansion’s roof months ago when a dread caught in the telescope and I had to cut it free, I’ve considered returning to my formerly undreaded locks that once fell soft and fluid down my back.

“Bridget?” She worries her bottom lip. “I know you have a business to run, but when Miles and Birdie come to stay in September, you will help Mama, won’t you?”

“Of course.”

Her gaze intensifies. “I mean really help—take them off her hands overnight and some weekends.”

Overnight? Weekends? Visits to the park, nature walks, and occasional lunches out are what I had in mind. Though Maggie’s daughter, Devyn, sometimes sleeps over, she’s the only one I’ve allowed to do so since I lost Easton. And she either shares the bed in the guest room with me or crashes on the couch. There’s no way Birdie, Miles, and I will fit into the guest room’s full-sized bed.

“It’s going to be a long eight weeks for”—Bonnie’s voice cracks—“everyone.”
I can’t remember the last time I saw her so sorrowful. Was she ever? I have a sudden impulse to give her a hug, but she’s not a hugger, and since Easton’s death, I’ve related to this side of her.

“So?” She prompts.

She’s not asking much. And it’s not as if she even knows what she’s asking. Or does she? Keeping Birdie and Miles overnight fits nicely with her demand that I remove my wedding ring. Which is only a problem if you plan to live the rest of your life in mourning and persist in making little girls cry.


Out of my mouth pops, “I’d be happy to keep them overnight.”

Bonnie’s body eases. “Thank you.”

I can handle it—once I get used to my bare left hand. And it is six weeks before my niece and nephew return to Pickwick. Surely between now and then I can, well, reset my life.

“Eight weeks didn’t seem long when we started planning the study a year ago, but now…” Bonnie sniffs, only to snort. “My period must be coming. We won’t be gone that long, for goodness’ sake! And this is our last opportunity to conduct a full-fledged study abroad before the children start school.”

Is the study the reason Miles and Birdie aren’t enrolled in school this year?
The newly minted five-year-olds certainly seem bright enough to start kindergarten.

Bonnie points a finger at me. “No more tales of heroes dying.”

“I won’t make that mistake again.”

“Good. Let’s get back to the party.”

Over the next two hours, I stand on the sidelines, watching happily married couples as my finger silently mourns the loss of its constant companion. Time and again, I touch it through the dress’s crisscrossed top where I slipped the ring into my bra. I know it’s just a symbol of the love Easton and I shared, but on my wedding day, I’d believed I would wear it to the grave after years and years with the man I loved. I didn’t even come close. And as I watch Trinity with her Bart, Piper with her Axel, and Bonnie with her Claude, I force myself to put a name to what earlier made me retreat inside the big house.


An ache opens at the center of me and radiates out to the ends of me. I want what they have—one another. All I have is “one.” My “another” is gone, and every time I think about opening my eyes to other men, I’m set upon by guilt and uncertainty. After all, it may have been four years, but Easton wasn’t a coffeepot that needs replacing every so often. He was my love. How could I ever have another? And yet…

My cousin Maggie puts her head on the shoulder of what’s his name. I frown. What
is his name? Since it looks like he plans on being a major part of her life, I ought to make more of an effort to— Reece! That’s his name. Reece who runs his fingers through her red curls, tilts her chin up, and kisses her.

My hand goes to my ring, but the feel of it does little to ease my longing for a shoulder on which to lay my head…a mouth to make mine flush…a heart to make mine jump…

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