Vivienne Grace Cunningham was the youngest daughter of Caroline and Randy Cunningham.
Named after her great-grandmother, Vivienne, everyone called her Grace. It was a trend started by her older sister, Kate (the middle Cunningham child) whose full Christian name is Georgia Katharine Cunningham. As the youngest of the three Cunningham girls, Grace earned the nickname ‘Angel Baby’ for her sweet features and cherub-like disposition.
Unlike her two blonde sisters, Grace looked the most like their daddy with the same auburn curls and bright blue eyes. Grace was a true little sister, being six years younger than her oldest sister, Macy, and four years younger than Kate. She was several grades behind her sisters, although they all attended Magnolia Academy, one of Atlanta’s premier private schools. The only home Grace has ever known is in Atlanta’s most affluent neighborhood. Grace was just a baby when her family moved from Marietta to their big house in Buckhead.
The Angel Baby didn’t realize the world of privilege she was brought into, and how hard both her parents had worked to make a name for the Cunningham family. Grace simply knew that she was happy and loved her family very much.
She grew up beloved by others. Everyone who ever met Grace said she was “just the sweetest” and “such a little Southern belle.” It was her mama Caroline’s best friend, Birdie Roberts, who bequeathed her the nickname of Angel Baby. Birdie and her husband, Trey, lived next door and had four sons—Jake, Caleb, Wesley, and Christopher—who were all about the same ages as the Cunningham girls. Grace and Christopher were in the same grade together, as were Kate and Wesley.
One summer, when they were all at the country club pool together, Grace overheard Birdie say to her mama, “I hope one of your girls marries one of my boys.” Grace was only a little girl and not interested in boys yet, so she kept swimming without much thought.
Until one day, when she was in the eighth grade, Vivienne Grace Cunningham fell in love with Wesley Wade Roberts.
Although Grace had known the Roberts family since she was a baby, it wasn’t until a fateful day in spring when she realized Wesley was the man of her dreams.
Grace had been invited to her first boy-girl party. When Mama Caroline heard from Birdie that Chris was invited to that same party Grace was also attending, she and Birdie came up with the brilliant idea of carpooling. They agreed Wesley would drop the kids off and Kate would pick them up later.
At this point, Kate and Wesley were seniors at Magnolia Academy and both had their own cars. They were about to graduate then go off to college. It was a warm early spring evening, and the sun was starting to set as Wesley’s old Bronco came chugging up the Cunningham’s driveway.
His car was lifted, raised up on muddy tires. Grace thought, “I shouldn’t have worn a skirt,” since she was going to be riding in that contraption. She glanced down at her patterned sundress with its Lilly Pulitzer flowers, hoping the inside of the car was cleaner than the outside.
“Hey Grace,” Christopher Roberts said as he jumped out of the front seat to help her hop in the back. It as the first time she and Chris had been in the same car together. He was cute in his own right with his floppy brown hair and amber eyes. All the Roberts boys were good looking, and Grace was already a bit nervous to share a car with her cute classmate.
“Hi there,” she replied climbing into the truck. She settled into the old fabric seat, trying to ignore the slight mildew smell.
Then Grace saw Wesley Wade Roberts, smiling at her from behind the wheel. The butterflies in her stomach had a fit.
“Hey Grace,” Wesley beamed. Grinning at her from ear-to-ear, she was drawn to his smile, a set of white, square teeth. She’d never seen any boy smile like this before. The only slight imperfection was a teensy gap between his two front teeth. That made him look rugged, even more dashing, and then there were dimples, tan skin, freckles, the hint of a beard—really peach fuzz—from not shaving for a day or two.
Sweet Jesus, he looked so fine. And then Grace looked into his eyes: these blue-gray-hazel eyes which reflected the baby blue polo he was wearing. A dirty UGA cap covered his wavy blonde hair which curled naturally at the ends tucked behind his ears.
“Sorry about the smell,” he said. “I went camping last night and forgot to roll the windows up before it rained.”
“Oh it’s fine,” she said as her heart fluttered. Grace was apprehensive to say anything more because she had the most hideous braces. This was before the days of Invisalign when every adolescent kid was forced to wear chunky metal on their teeth for at least a good year. She sat in the back of that Bronco, praying that she wouldn’t make a fool of herself in front of Wesley by saying something stupid with a mouth full of metal.
“Buckle up kids, and I’ll get y’all to your party. I’ve got my own event to attend this evening. Mom said to call Kate when you’re ready to be picked up, but if you need me I’ll swing back by.”
“Nah, Wesley, we’re good,” Chris replied.
Grace wanted to shout, “Take me with you!” Instead, she quietly wished she was going to his party.
“I’m really sorry about the smell,” Wesley said turning around to face her. “If you roll your window down it will help but it might mess up your hair.”
“It’s okay,” Grace said, taking a hairband from her wrist to pull back her long auburn curls. She rolled down her car window, taking in the fresh Georgia spring air. Pollen season had passed and the night was fragrant with fresh pine and blooming flowers. Grace stared at the back of Wesley’s driver’s seat the whole five minutes they cruised through Buckhead to that party. Her eyes were fixated on the way those blonde curls popped out beneath the bottom of Wesley’s baseball cap.
When they arrived at their friend’s house, Chris popped from the front seat calling “Thanks, Wes,” as he bounced out of the Bronco. Grace took her time unbuckling her seat belt.
“You got that?” he asked smiling.
“Um, yeah,” she blushed. Looking up at him grinning at her in the rearview mirror. He made her flush even harder. “Thanks for driving us.”
“Not a problem,” he smiled. “Be good and have fun.”
She didn’t want to leave him. How had Wesley gotten so cute without her ever knowing? But what was up with him telling her to “be good” like a big brother? Would he always only think of her as little Grace, the Angel Baby?
That night at the party, as all the other eighth graders gathered around for spin-the-bottle, Grace found herself on the back deck of her friend’s house, looking up at the stars and wishing that Heaven would see fit for her to see Wesley again.
This was in April, and in May, Wesley graduated then went off to the University of Georgia. Even though Athens is only about sixty miles from Atlanta, Grace thought it might as well be a different planet. Her sister Macy was already a junior at UGA and she barely came home except for a few times a semester. The only time she’d see Macy is if her parents went up for a football game in the fall and they’d all tailgate together. Grace hoped she could convince Mama and Daddy to buy season tickets with the Roberts, or for Daddy’s business for Cunningham Construction, but that never happened.
For the next four years, Grace loved Wesley from afar. She’d barely see Wesley except on the rare occasions he was home for the holidays or met up with the Cunninghams for a tailgate in Athens. When he was home during the summer, Grace spent as much time as possible at the country club where she’d scour for his figure on the golf course, or lay for hours by the pool hoping he would make an appearance.
Alas, if Wesley did, he would always be too far out of reach. It’s not like Grace could try to flirt with him as he swam across the pool, not with Mama Caroline sunbathing next to her. Or if she was riding in Daddy Randy’s cart around the golf course and spotted Wesley across the green, it would take every bit of restraint in her not to dart across the grass to give him a hug.
When Wesley did see Grace, he’d always make polite conversation. Afterall, he’d practically grown up with the Cunninghams. Wesley would give Grace a big grin showing off those rows of perfectly square teeth. His hazel eyes that always seemed to reflect whatever color Polo shirt he was wearing: navy, forest green, or even steely silver. Wesley’s eyes had Grace’s heart.
But when a girl is under the age of eighteen, society doesn’t take kindly to the idea of her chasing after an older college boy. Heavens, though, he was all Grace ever wanted in a guy. Her affection for Wesley is why she’d never had a boyfriend, even though she was now a senior and about to graduate from Magnolia Academy. No other guy could measure up to Wesley Wade Roberts.
Grace had grown up to be as pretty as Macy and nearly as smart as Kate, although not as pragmatic. Other boys would ask Grace out and, as politely as she could, she’d turn them down. Grace had earned the reputation of being a prude but she didn’t care. Her heart only pined for Wesley. But she didn’t tell a soul. Over the years, she kept wishing on the stars to be with Wesley and this secret stayed in the deepest place of her young soul.
This perplexed Mama Caroline who wondered why Grace hadn’t had a boyfriend yet. When Macy was Grace’s age, Daddy was practically having to beat them away, and Lord knows how many boys Macy had gone through while at UGA. But not the Angel Baby. She just wasn’t interested in any other guy, much to Daddy Randy’s delight.
By her calculations, Grace wasn’t sure when she’d ever be able to be in the same city with Wesley again. But then, by God’s grace, during the spring of her junior year, she heard from Birdie that Wesley would have to take a ‘victory lap’ to do a fifth year of college. Grace could finally be together with Wesley in Athens, away from Mama and Daddy, and start her own life with the boy she’d longed for.
Knowing it would take good grades to get into UGA, Grace studied as hard as she could to make straight A’s. It was one of the sole reasons now that Grace wanted to go to Athens, for the promise of being with her handsome Wesley. She nailed the SATs and gained early admittance to UGA. Grace sailed through her senior year on cloud nine, for soon she would be heading to Athens and reunited with her love.
While all this was happening in Grace’s world, her sisters were off having their own adventures.
Macy had won Miss Georgia but didn’t even place in the national competition. After she’d graduated from UGA, Macy moved to New York to become a Rockette. Much to their parents’ delight, Macy was dating the son of Georgia’s governor, Campbell Brayden. Mama had told Grace she thought Campbell would propose soon.
Kate had gotten into Georgia’s Institute of Technology, studied abroad in Europe for a year, then graduated with her undergraduate degree from in three years. Now she was finishing up her master’s at Tech and wasn’t even twenty-two. The same fall Grace was applying to UGA, Kate was taking the LSAT with hopes of attending an Ivy League school.
And then, right after Thanksgiving, it was about eight a.m. when the phone rang in the Cunningham’s kitchen. Grace was wrapping up her breakfast and closest to the phone. She hit the speaker button and with a mouth full of biscuit saying, “Hello, Cunningham residence.”
“Hey, Grace, good morning. It’s Campbell.”
Grace about spit out her biscuit. “Oh, hi!” She wasn’t expecting it to be Macy’s boyfriend so early. “How are you? Is everything okay?”
“Yes ma’am. Sure is. Any chance your daddy is around? There’s something I need to talk to him about.”
“Yeah, one sec.” Grace finished chewing and swallowed hard on a big bite, knowing she shouldn’t be talking with her mouthful.
“Daddy!” she called upstairs through the foyer. “Campbell’s on the phone for you.”
“Comin’!” Randy hollered back. Grace listened, waiting for Randy to pick up the other end.
“Hey Campbell, everything okay?”
“Yes sir, all is well. I’m actually going to be in Atlanta today and wanted to see if I could stop by the house or your office to talk to you about somethin’.”
Grace was intrigued but knew she probably shouldn’t be listening.
“Angel Baby,” her daddy said, “If you’re on the other end, you can get off now.”
“Ok, sorry.” Grace clicked off.
About a minute later, Caroline came down into the kitchen asking Grace, “Who was that on the phone?”
“Campbell,” Grace said. “He was callin’ to talk to Daddy.”
“This early? Was something wrong?”
“I dunno,” Grace replied returning to her biscuit. “Daddy made me hang up.”
“Hmm,” Caroline said perplexed. Randy walked into the kitchen soon after. “What’s goin’ on honey?”
“Campbell wants to meet with me today,” Randy said. “He’s coming to Atlanta and said he wants to ask me somethin’. I’m pretty sure he’s comin’ to get my permission to propose to Macy.”
“Whaaaat?” Caroline drawled. “Seriously?”
“You bet. I do believe so.” He said, smiling, then looked to Grace. “Looks like you might be getting a brother-in-law, Angel.”
Grace smiled. Not only because she was excited for her sister, but also because she was thinking of the day when Wesley would call her daddy to ask for his permission to marry her.