Romantic relationships have begun with far less, haven’t they? We started as friends and now we can graduate to more. That’s all. There’s no pressure. It can be something of our own making. Not quite friends with benefits, because that title cheapens how much I care about her. But I’ve already been down the “promised couple in love” road and it doesn’t work out. Naomi and I loved each other, but once expectations and duty weigh a relationship down, someone gets left behind while the other plows ahead. I can’t let that happen to Addison and me.

What we have is friendship. And heat.

It’s perfect and it’s all we need.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Addison

Why the dark circles, Mr. Mayor?

We’ve got the homemade remedy on page six…

—Avant-Charleston

Just where did Miss Naomi Clemons disappear to?

Experts speculate.

—Charleston Courier

If I squeeze my eyes shut really tight and concentrate on the music, I can feel like my old self. The girl who, sure, had some mommy issues, but was mostly a good time. A great time, even. When I lived in Brooklyn, just a short while ago, this is who I was. I was low stress dancing girl who wasn’t looking for a one-night stand, but if someone impressed her enough, she’d consider it. No attachments, no insomnia, no yearning for some elusive contentment. Just this. Arms above my head on the dance floor. A body in the darkness.

Lights change colors and crawl over unfamiliar faces, until Lydia’s comes briefly into view, before she twirls away. Bass tickles my blood. It feels amazing to be making an effort. Just knowing that I can put on a skirt and move. There’s no cure available for the injured heart that ails me, but the act of seeking one is enough for this minute. Maybe this hour, if I keep dancing.

Calling Lydia was the best decision I could have made. I’ve been in Charleston for months, but it’s still such a mystery to me, apart from the market and the immediate area surrounding my apartment. This place, this vibe and the music, is right down the street from where I’m living. I’m going to take advantage while I can. Yes, my main motive is distracting myself from thoughts of Elijah. He’s literally everywhere. On the news, in the papers, on the deed to the mansion where I lay my head at night.

But being out tonight is more than a distraction. It’s reclaiming my time. Reminding myself that I make choices for Addison. Locking myself away and narrowing my world down to Elijah got me nothing but this giant burden of unrequited love. Something tells me I would still love him even if I’d only given him a ride to the corner on his wedding day, but that hurts too much to think about.

Bottom line is, this is a big step. It’s proof I’ll be able to survive when this is all over.

“Addison.” Lydia slides in front of me, no longer moving. But I get the impression she’s battling a smile. “Do you believe in coincidences?”

“No.”

“Me either.” She sips from her cocktail, which has melted down to a few ice cubes and their runoff. “Elijah is here.”

The floor vanishes from under my feet and I’m free falling. At least that’s what my stomach feels like. An elevator with snapped cables racing to the bottom of the shaft. Thank God the loss of equilibrium has stopped me from swiveling around like a barber chair to find him in the bar area. Am I really having a mild stroke over seeing my best friend? A man I used to eat dinner with on a nightly basis?

Lydia’s hum draws my attention. “Well, you just filled in all my blanks.”

“I-I just wasn’t expecting him,” I rasp. “Should he be in a bar? Isn’t that bad PR?”

“He doesn’t seem to care.”

Finally, I allow my gaze to travel across the dance floor and find Elijah. Oh, sweet mother of God. If I thought my stomach was free falling before, it’s broken through the bottom floor now and is hurtling toward the Earth’s core. No one in the packed bar is taller than his shoulders. He’s like a living legend, receiving applause, shaking hands and taking pictures. His tie is a little loose and he has…grown a beard? Making him look kind of disheveled. A man of the people. Someone presses a pint of beer into his hand and he hefts it up to a round of cheers.

And then his eyes cut through the darkness and land on me. They stay there, drinking me in as sure as he drains a portion of his beer. Black-tarred need scrapes along the lowest part of my belly, sticky and a little bitter. My back straightens to lift my breasts, as if I have no choice in the matter. It’s all about chemicals and masochism. Because Elijah’s set jaw and hooded eyes tell me he came here for a reason. It had nothing to do with nickel wing night.

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