“Of course,” she says quickly, smoothing her hair. “Please. Ask the tough questions.”

“Why were you changing in your car?”

“Oh, that one.” She wets her lips, attention drifting to the ceiling. “I needed to get away for a while. Can we just leave it at that?”

“No.”

She shoots a frown at me. “Maybe you should advertise for a manners coach.”

“That’s no way to talk to your employer, beauty queen.”

“Oooh.” She shakes her head. “You’re lucky I like your sister or I’d go hunting for gift-wrapping jobs. It might not be Christmas, but every day is somebody’s birthday. There must be a demand for skilled wrappers—”

“Are you going somewhere with this?”

Naomi stops mid-sentence and pinches the bridge of her nose between two dainty fingers. When she drops them, I see she’s left a grease smudge behind, and honestly, the sight of it makes me want to kick a hole in the island. “I’m sorry. I’ve had an awfully trying day.”

Determined to ignore the way her confession—and apology—sinks into my gut, I move to the sink and wet a paper towel. She watches me warily as I cross to her and flinches as I lift the wet, wadded up square of Bounty. Fuck. Up close, she’s even more extraordinary. I had no idea women came this soft and beautiful. If someone laid a finger on this woman to send her packing, they’re going to pay. That’s a promise. “Stop fidgeting and let me clean your nose off.”

“I can do it,” Naomi murmurs.

She makes no move to take the paper towel from me, though, so I do it, removing the grease in two swipes and stepping back, hoping she can’t hear the rollicking thunk of my pulse. I need to distract her. “What are you doing in St. Augustine?” Before she can give me some rote line of sugar-coated bull, I shake my head. “A real answer.”

Time seems to creep past as I wait for her answer. It’s not what I’m expecting at all.

“I don’t want to be boring forever.” She traces the edge of the fork with a polished fingernail. “I’ve done everything according to someone else’s plans. The perfect plans. I want to make my own imperfect ones for a while. I want to surprise myself…and mostly…I want to learn to be interesting.” Pink rises in her cheeks, like she’s traveled into her own world and forgot I was standing there. “It won’t distract me from coaching your sister, Jason. You have my word. I’ll do the best I can.”

“I believe you,” I say slowly. “What’s this going to cost me?”

“I…well, I’m certain I have no idea. Someone else always paid my pageant coaches.” She chews on her lower lip. “Since I’m not a very experienced coach, why don’t we say…two hundred dollars an hour?”

“Are you insane?”

“Fine, forty. Plus the cost of wardrobe, shoes, and any other incidentals.” She holds out her hand for a shake. “I’m hired. I’ll start tomorrow.”

The last word breaks off into a feminine chuckle.

“What?” I ask, my throat feeling raw. This woman just played me. And I liked it.

“I’m doing it already. Surprising myself.” She reaches down and captures my hand, shaking it firmly as she comes to her feet. “It’s a fine start, don’t you think, Blackbeard?”

There are a million things on the tip of my tongue. Mainly I want to ask who gave her the false impression she was boring. But I’m worried where my curiosity will lead. I’m worried there won’t be an end to how much I want to know. “My sister isn’t easy.”

“I wonder where she gets it.”

A grunt escapes. I step closer to her, even though I shouldn’t. “Are you safe, Naomi?”

I’m still holding her hand in the pretense of a never-ending handshake. Her pulse doesn’t skip at my question, genuine confusion marring her brow. “Of course I am.”

Satisfied for now that she’s telling the truth, I let her go, watching as she rushes to step back and smooth herself. Hair, dress, collar. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Yeah.”

The shape of her hand refuses to leave mine long after she’s sailed out the back door.

What have I just set myself up for?

CHAPTER FOUR

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You’re all reaching.

Runaway Bride looked down the long barrel of monogamy…

…and got the fuck out. Godspeed, my friend.

Naomi

Taken for granted.

Now there is a phrase I’ve heard a million times throughout my life, but I never really understood the meaning of it until last night. I’ve taken so many seemingly small things for granted, only to find out they’re not small at all. Buying shampoo, for example. On a budget.

After being hired as Birdie’s coach, I ventured into downtown St. Augustine to find lodging. What a kick in the butt that turned out to be. The amount of spending cash I had packed to bring on my honeymoon wouldn’t have gotten me through one single night in all of the establishments I tried. At the final hotel—a sprawling, Spanish-style spa—I was not so politely directed to a different part of town.

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