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Like last year, it seemed odd for us to have an Independence Day celebration without letting the Independence Islands celebrate with us! After all, these islands got their name during the War for Independence! This one is a sort of prequel to my upcoming January release, Finding a Memory.
Happy Fourth, and may God Bless America!
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A Declaration of His Dependence
It began with a smile when he was eleven. She never noticed. He tried again several years later. In mid-June 1974, a year after her fiancé had been listed as presumed dead in Vietnam, Francis Grace decided it was time. Just after everyone stepped from church, the ladies all fanning themselves and talking about the desperate need for air-conditioned cooling, Francis looked over at Patti Mercer and smiled again. He’d never been one to rush things.
Ten long days later, she returned from a week spent up in the mountains. As her daddy piloted their 1970 Century Coronado into the marina, he positioned himself up by the railing where they’d have to pass him to get to their car. Mrs. Mercer didn’t bother to untie the scarf she wore over her hair. Patti scrambled out of the boat, pulled a tie from her hair, and let it swing free in the wind. By the way she laughed and grabbed a couple of canvas laundry bags, Patti didn’t seem to mind her mother’s scolding—probably over her “wild hair.” It was the kind of thing Mrs. Mercer would fuss about.
All plans to act nonchalant fled as he saw her lug those bags up the docks. Francis raced down to take them from her before he had a chance to figure out what he’d say. “Let me help you with those.”
Patti might have protested, but Mrs. Mercer beamed at him. “Why thank you, Francis. That’s right gentlemanly of you.” She nudged Patti. “Don’t you think so, honey?”
“Of course. Everyone knows Francis Grace is the politest boy on the islands.”
For a moment, it sounded like an insult, but then he saw that sparkle that always followed one of Patti’s little teases. She’s just rilin’ her mama.
It took three trips, ones in which Mrs. Mercer sat in the front seat of their Ford Fairmont wagon, fanning herself with a magazine. Patti strolled alongside him, chattering about the family conference they’d attended up in the Carolina mountains. “I think I need to take my faith more seriously. Does that sound stuffy?”
“Sounds smart to me. If the Lord went to the trouble to die for us so we could live for Him, then I reckon we oughtta do just that. Live for Him.”
“I don’t know how to do it, but I figure maybe the pastor will have ideas for me.”
Francis gave her what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “I hope you’ll let me know what he says.”
“Well, if Francis Grace doesn’t have his faith squared away, I reckon none of us do.”
“You reckon right. We none of us do here, but someday…”
Mr. Mercer brought up the rear with the final Coleman hamper. At the car, Francis helped shove it into place while Patti climbed in. As their car backed out of its parking place, Francis smiled at her again, and this time, he winked.
Maybe it was his imagination, but he could’ve sworn two pink spots appeared on her cheeks. I’ll go ask her to the Independence Day bonfire. Tomorrow. Just about the time she goes out for a swim.
Having Mondays off work helped with being able to hang out with some of the young folks who were headed to college in the fall. Francis wasn’t. He’d have to save for another year or two before he could do that. But he headed out on Monday morning, a lunch packed away in his mother’s Coleman drinks cooler—with plenty of ice to keep it fresh, too. That he’d brought enough for two was just a happy bit of overplanning.
So swinging the cooler from one hand and with a towel rolled under his arm, he hopped in his Ranchero and rolled on down to the part of the beach everyone loved most. Sandy, good waves for the surfers… almost as nice as being in California some said.
Tanned bodies greeted him before he even got out of the truck. Maybe his mama was right. It sure seemed like swimsuits covered less and less every year. Some of the girls were practically naked from the back and only had scraps of fabric covering pertinent parts of the front. He spied Patti looking out of place in her full suit. A one-piece, his mama called it. The way she picked at the legs told him she wasn’t happy.
Well, I am. Wouldn’t want the guys ogling her more than they do already. Oughtta say something… but what?
Someone was stringing up a volleyball net, and someone else called him to help. Patti turned at his name, and this time Francis allowed himself a full-on grin. “Hey…”
Of course, he ended up on the opposite team.
When lunchtime rolled around, Francis stopped her from heading up the beach toward home. “I have an extra ham and cheese if you want. A few of mama’s peach cobbler cookies, too.”
“Got sweet tea?” His heart soared at the arch of the eyebrow and the slow smile forming. “Can’t get sandwiches and cookies down without tea.”
“If you don’t mind sharing my jar…” Please say yes.
She plopped down on his towel and held out a hand. It took everything in him not to take it and kiss it. Instead, he passed over the top sandwich in case the bottom had had any melted ice leak into the tinfoil. And she noticed.
“Francis Grace… how come some girl hasn’t snapped you up?”
Shock registered on her face just as those pink spots returned. She began stammering, but Francis just said, “Only one girl can snap me up, and she hasn’t tried yet. When she does, I’m a gonner.”
“Oh, yeah?” Patti took a large bite and challenged him at the same time.
“Yeah.” As if to prove it, he added, “Want to talk a walk when we’re done eating?”
Around a mouthful of sandwich, she asked, “A walk where?”
Wherever you’ll go with me for as long as you’ll go? Aloud he just suggested down the beach away from the noise of squealing girls and boys showing off. “I’ve something to ask you.”
“Okay…” She said okay, but her smile said “I know what you want.”
Who cared? She’d say yes. He just knew it.
For months he’d been practicing how to tell Patti just how he felt about her. She needed to hear it all—the day he’d realized just how special she was, the way her laughter made even a dark day seem sunshiny, what he’d give up just to be with her. A girl like Patti thrived on kind, sweet words, and he could learn to do it. For her sake, he could try. He would learn. If Jonathan Weston could tell her how pretty she was, he could, too. When you loved someone, you pushed past your own comfort lines and into the no-man’s land of someone else’s. And I’ll do it. I’ll learn how to show her how I feel. She’ll never wonder.
Once the sandwiches and cookies had disappeared so that even the gulls had given up hopes of a crumb, Francis stood and held out his hand. “Ready for that walk?”
She took it, but she let go fast enough to send his heart tumbling into the water. Francis buoyed his spirits and headed away from where everyone still sat laughing and eating. Not until they’d gotten far enough away to hear the cries of gulls and the softer sounds of waves lapping the shore again did Francis decide it was the right time and place to ask. “Going to the bonfire with anyone, Patti?”
“No one’s asked. They’re all afraid I’ll burst into tears or something, Mama says. I think she’s crazy.”
Sometimes, Mrs. Mercer could be a bit brutal in her suppositions. Francis shook his head. “I expect they’re showin’ respect is all. No one wants to bring up painful memories or anything.”
A show of exasperation followed that. “I’m just supposed to put on black and walk around like Queen Victoria, I suppose. I can’t have fun anymore because my fiancé died. Well, it’s not fair.” He heard the tears in her voice when she added, “And then I feel guilty for even wanting to do anything. I’m here and whole and happy.”
“Will you go with me, Patti?” He cleared his throat. “I didn’t speak before—you were with Jon, and well, that was your choice. But I’ve been sweet on you since we were little kids.” He sighed. “But you knew that.”
She’d stopped, staring at him. “What? I didn’t know that. I mean, I thought recently, sure but…” Again, the pink spots filled her cheeks. “I mean—”
“Does that mean you’ll go?”
“You’ll walk me home? Daddy doesn’t like me walkin’ alone after dark. Says it’s safe enough here, but it puts you in bad habits for when you’re somewhere else.”
“I’ll walk you home. Of course, I would have anyway but only because I’ll want to spend every second I can with you.” He reached out and touched her cheek. “You should know that. I want to spend all the time I can with you. Today, the fourth, always.”
“Will you dance with me?”
“Now?” He glanced around with an odd expectation that Don Ho would be sitting somewhere with a ukulele, ready to serenade them.
She nudged his elbow and started walking, still up the beach and away from the others, too. “No, silly. At the bonfire. I’ve never seen you dance…”
“You were always dancing with someone else.”
The tide had been working its way up the beach and finally rolled over her toes as Patti sent him another sidelong glance and said, “You’ll dance with me.”
He nodded. “I’ll dance.”
Mr. Mercer met him out on the porch the afternoon of the fourth. Leaning along the railing of Skimmer Cottage, he nodded as Francis gave the gate a shove to get it to open. “Evenin’ Francis.”
“I hear you’re taking our Patti to the bonfire.”
“Yessir…” He tried to keep the nerves from showing in his response. “That all right with you, sir?”
Mr. Mercer pushed away from the railing. “Lucky for you, son. It is. Might have considered talking to her ma or me before askin’. She’s still a bit skittish after Jon. If she hadn’t been ready…”
The man burst out laughing. Between wheezes he said, “Of course, it’s all right. I was pleased as punch when Ruthie told me you’d asked her. We weren’t fond of the idea of her and Jon, you know.”
Francis didn’t know, but he hadn’t been either. He’d just assumed his own jealousy drove his opinions. “I see.”
“It wasn’t just his bein’ older’n her when he left. I saw a littleness in him that worried me. He was the sort of man who’d put himself first and give his wife the leavin’s. Like I told Ruthie, ‘Francis Grace is just the opposite. He’d do without himself.”
“Yessir. But I think Jon would’ve matured some. He’d gone to war. He’d seen what happens when people put their wants ahead of others’ needs.”
The man gave him a long, hard look before sticking out his hand. “I can trust my girl with a man like you. Don’t mess with her honor, and you’ll have a friend in me.”
Patti stepped out on the porch wearing a red dress with a navy belt. With the white splotches on that red dress, she looked like a firecracker and set his heart ablaze. “Wow, Patti.”
“Got that tie knotted well?” Mr. Mercer glared at his daughter and then over at Francis.
“I do.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss her tall father and added, “And I’m wearin’ my swimsuit under it just in case someone gets ornery.”
Mr. Mercer glared at Francis. “Better not be you.” Before Francis could promise he’d never, the man winked and waved them off. “Midnight, Patti. Don’t want you out past midnight. Reputations can’t be bought back once sold.”
The moment they got out of sight of the cottage, Francis nudged her hand with his. “Mind if I hold onto this for you?”
She glanced down as if she’d forgotten something. “What?”
Francis laced their fingers together. “This…”
A chuckle behind him turned his neck red. Should’ve known he’d follow just to see if I’d make a move.
Patti whirled, squeezing his hand until his heart thudded in return. “Daddy, go home! Francis’ll think I’m not worth the hassle.”
“Never,” he murmured. “Never.”
All week he’d debated about kissing Patti goodnight. The debate ended when she shot him a look and murmured back, “Good.”
As the sun crept toward the western horizon, several guys went to prepare their fireworks display while a few of the girls and guys pulled out instruments. Someone started picking the tune to “Old Man,” and one of the men started singing. Patti’s wrinkled nose told him she didn’t like his voice. He didn’t either.
“I hate this song.”
Interesting. Thought you didn’t like that whine he has in his tone. Francis waited for her to explain why.
“It’s so demanding. ‘Here. Look at me. You have to accept me and everything I think and do because I think I’m like you were. I need. I want. I’m lonely…’ It’s all about him expecting someone to see him for what he is, but he doesn’t show any care for the old man at all.”
“Hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“Besides, that song should be sung by a baritone, but this guy is a clear tenor.”
Francis would have argued that Neil Young hadn’t sung it in a baritone range, but he didn’t. The song swung into “Sloop John B” and someone shouted, “Pick up the tempo!”
Another guy hopped up and sang out, drowning out the John B sail-singers, and began singing another Beach Boys song. “‘If everybody had an ocean…’”
Patti hopped up and began a strange dance—something like he’d never seen. It took a moment to realize she mimicked someone trying to stay up on a surfboard. “Come on, surf with me!”
I thought you wanted me to dance? But he tried. Several others pointed, laughing, but one by one the crowd picked up on the swaying movements. One guy pushed another over. They went racing down the beach, and Francis suspected one or both of them would get a ducking.
Songs followed back-to-back, the musicians changing out from time to time, and even Francis took a turn at the guitar to play the one song he knew, “House of the Rising Sun.” He sang with Barbara Jo Crandall and didn’t mess up her harmony too much. Patti just watched him.
When Gerald Beaudine took back his guitar he called out, “Any requests?”
Patti piped up before anyone else, “Let It Be Me.”
A few sour notes followed before the right combination of musicians, notes, and tune blended into the opening strains. Francis moved around the guys who were piling up the wood for their bonfire. With the sun creating fiery streaks across the sky and reflecting them across the water, Francis pulled Patti into his arms and began a slow shuffle in the still warm sand. Those first words—how true. He did bless the day God showed him her. He did want her to choose him, “now and forever.”
The breeze picked up, and she squeezed his hand before dashing back to their towels to slide her dress back over her swimsuit. As she ran back to his side, his breath caught, and this time he didn’t have to force the words out of his heart and through his lips. They raced there of their own accord. “Patti Mercer, seeing you in red sets my heart on fire.”
She cocked her head and smiled. “Looks like I’ll have to wear more red, then.”
And as if he hadn’t imagined it more times than he’d ever admit, she tucked her head in under his chin, her arms around him. On the last line of the last refrain, he whispered along with the singer, “‘Let it be me…’”
The first crackle of the fire reached them just as the last note died. Patti didn’t move. Her head still rested on his chest. Her arms still encircled him. Francis held her, wondering how a dream he thought had been ripped from him could be coming true right then.
Someone set off a firecracker. Nothing big, just a few sparks around the fire. Patti jumped. With the spell broken, he led her back to the fireside, ready to pull out marshmallows and weenies. But as they passed the Baker girls, he overheard Eva Mae say, “Jon’s not dead a year, and she’s hooked herself a sweet fellow like Francis. It’s scandalous.”
Patti stiffened, but he urged her forward, making a place for her near the sisters. Once seated, he smiled over at them. “Can you believe it? I finally talked Patti into giving me a chance. Only took nine years, but she’s worth the wait.”
As if picking up his cue, Patti smiled at Ima Lue. “Are you girls having fun? We brought extra weenies if you’re hungry.” She pulled out one of the mason jars and offered it to them. “Sweet tea? Always refreshing, don’t you think? Francis’ mother freezes half of it so it stays nice and cool. Such a clever woman.”
The girls gushed and chattered—something about how glad they were to see Patti out and about again. He might have even believed it if they’d managed to leave off the dusting of venom. Though she held her own, he could feel it. Patti would crumble if he didn’t do something and fast.
Like his mama always said, “When all else fails, be forthright. You’ll either get through finally, or you’ll get rid of ‘em.”
“Has Patti offended you, girls?”
Both of the Baker sisters blinked and turned their heads in one, slow, synchronous movement. Ima Lue spoke up first. “Offended us? Whatever could you mean?”
Any chance he’d been wrong disappeared in that obnoxious phrase. Francis stared back at her. “After your snide comments about her chasing after me—completely untrue, by the way—and now the not-so-subtle digs, one would assume she’d either offended you or that you were jealous.” He gave his best smile and ordered himself not to completely lose his temper. “Which is it?”
“Well, I never!” Ima Lue jumped to her feet, followed by a scrambling Eva Mae. “I won’t be insulted by the likes of Francis Grace.”
There Patti perked up, “Odd… I thought I heard you call him a ‘sweet man.’”
“Fellow, Patti. She said fellow, not man.” He flashed the girls a smile. “Wouldn’t want you misquoted.”
The girls flounced off, leaving their beach bags behind. Before he knew what hit him, Patti had kissed his cheek and whispered, “Thank you for sticking up for me.”
A few low murmurs around the fire made him wonder what the others would say, but Emily Sue Fenwick called out, “Took you long enough to ask her, Francis. I thought I’d have to do it for you.”
Laughter followed, and everyone settled back into their conversations. Someone picked up a guitar and picked out a few notes of “American Pie.” Others argued about when they should set off the fireworks. Francis just ate his weenies and apple pie, drank his sweet tea, and tried to act like nothing ugly had happened at all.
Patti eventually relaxed. “I shouldn’t let them get to me. They’ve always been like that.”
And didn’t he know it. He’d overheard their gossip about just what Patti must have had to do to get Jon Weston to notice her.
Someone hinted that couples might not like having their private moments interrupted by exploding bits of black powder, and the display commenced. No, it wasn’t as impressive as what they could have seen on Mimosa, or even Hopper. But Sparrow always had an extra-large dose of independence. Folks said it came from when Livinia Hooper lived there among the Creek. Somehow it had become infused into the very fiber of their beings.
The way the revelers on the beach cheered each little roman candle with its bombettes and each fountain, anyone would think it rivaled that of some big city hoopla! But as the last cluster of screams, crackles, pops, and flashes lit up the sky above them, Francis stood and held out his hand. “Walk with me?”
“As long as it’s not home,” Patti said as she stood. “I know it’s not even close to midnight.”
Not home… just far enough away that the kiss he’d planned wouldn’t have a crowd ready to applaud or boo their performance. “Come…”
Hand in hand, they strolled up the beach. Patti pulled them further and further into the water until it began to billow out her dress. “I love the ocean in the moonlight.”
I love you. He wouldn’t say it. It was far too soon, but he could think it. It was never too soon for that.
They’d made it nearly to the little marina before he’d worked up the courage. “I want to kiss you, Patti… mind?”
“How old-fashioned of you.” She nudged him. “Most fellows would just do it.”
“I like to think of it as respectful.” When she didn’t respond, his heart sank a little, but he added, “I’d rather wait until you want it as much as I do.”
“Who says I don’t?”
Although it was permission, it wasn’t enough. Not for him. “No one.”
“There now, see—”
“But no one said you do, either.” Francis stopped and pulled her just a little closer. “May I?”
This time, when she slipped her arms around his neck, Francis took it as a definitive, silent yes, and he made sure she didn’t regret it.
“I knew you liked me, Francis Grace, but I didn’t know you liked me that much.” The words came out in a breathless whisper.
“Always have. Always will. I need you, Patti. And I’m going to do everything I can to convince you that you need me, too.”
Thank you for reading our Independence Islands short story!
The Independence Islands authors, Melissa Wardwell, Kari Trumbo, Rachel Skatvold, Tabitha Bouldin, Carolyn Miller and I wish you all a very Happy Independence Day. Please do take a minute to learn all about the books and don’t forget to find out how to get your collector postcards by visiting HERE.
The first Sparrow Island book, Finding a Memory features Patti Mercer over forty years after this story.
Finding a Memory
He loved her then. Will she love him now?
The fourth book in the Independence Islands series and the first on Sparrow Island, Finding a Memory will touch your heart and fill it with hope and love.
He loved her then. Will she love him now?
When Mallory Barrows finds an old diary in a box of books, the story she finds within sends her on the hunt for the owner–and maybe more.
Theirs is a story ripped from a country song. A wedding, a former love presumed dead, her new love stepping aside. And over forty years later, their story is one few remember.
With Mallory determined to find the people in the pages of that diary, one couple is offered the second chance of a lifetime.
This “second-chance / seasoned romance” novel introduces the next island in the Independence Islands Series featuring five islands, six authors, and a boatload of happily-ever-afters.
The Independence Islands Series: beach reads aren’t just for summer anymore.
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