Julia's house was stunning. Stunning. Like something out of a magazine. I was feeling a little country-mouse-goes-to-town while I waited on the porch, but that disappeared when I saw Julia's wide welcoming smile. "Katherine! You came. I think Momma's in the sunroom - come on back and we'll go find her."
Minna Clairborne was a tiny woman with the face of an angel and a back bowed by years of illness. She waved me into a chair near hers and chirped "Oh, you look just like your Mama! Alice had the same eyes and pretty little hands. I'd know you anywhere, child. Come tell me what you've been doing."
Julia brought in teacups and passed around sweets while I regaled them both of what had been happening this summer, how I'd uprooted myself and come to Bailey, how people were changing the house around me, how waking up to diesel engines and the sounds of work-boots clomping didn't phase me anymore.
Julia whistled. "Sounds like everything in your life changed. Are you missing anyone back home?" She waggled her eyebrows at me, ignoring her mother's shocked hiss. "Julia!"
"Oh, Momma. Besides, that handsome Porter's back in town for the summer, and living right on her doorstep. If he's going to have a broken heart, I'd like to know about it. Might want to stand in line." She laughed at her mother's expression. "I'm kidding, Momma. Porter Ryan is still just the boy who used to pull my pigtails."
I felt a quick twinge of something - was it relief? - that pretty, smart Julia didn't see Porter - well, that way - and changed the subject to Aunt Maud, feeling my cheeks heat up.
"Aunt Maud hasn't been here to see the house. I wonder if she's waiting until it's all finished?"
Mrs. Clairborne patted my hand. "Maud always was a firecracker. She gave your mama fits when she and your daddy first got married - wanted everything to be proper all the time, when your Mama was more....relaxed, dear. Alice was a gentle soul, but she could get riled up with Maud - I swear the first year they were married she must have threatened to leave six or seven times. 'Get that woman off my back, Phillip,' she'd laugh. 'You never knew what you were marrying into!' And he'd grin at her and tell her she brought the crazy into the marriage. Of course when they had your brother, he had to take care of your mama for awhile while she got her strength back, and that summer was when things changed. Alice never told me what they said, but things were never the same between Phillip and Maud after that."
She smiled. "But people have a way of taking little insults and blowing them up out of proportion. By the time Dover was in knee-pants, things were simmered down. But then, a few days after your Mama ran over here all excited to tell me she was having another baby, Maud showed up on her doorstep and there was a hummer of a row. Maud was screeching and your mother was shouting back that she'd do as she pleased and your father was stuck in the middle of it, trying to make peace where there was suddenly none."
Mrs. Clairborne jumped as the clock bonged. "My! You shouldn't have let me go on like that. Julia, why don't you take Katherine out and show her the gardens and I'll clear away these tea things. Katherine, Julia will invite you to tea again soon - next time I'll try not to get stuck in stories about long ago!"
I had so many questions, but I dutifully followed Julia out to the gardens and admired the flowers and shrubbery there. Sinking down on a bench, Julia smiled at me, twining some blossoms around her fingers. "So, what's it like living next to Porter?"
I shrugged, trying not to look too eager. "I just met him yesterday. He seems...nice."
Julia nodded, then grinned. "Yeah. Nice is SO the word I'd use to describe Porter Ryan."
She jumped up and gestured me ahead of her. "Come on - I'll show you the rest of the backyard and you can tell me how ....interesting....Porter Ryan is."