Page 100 of Runaway Girl (Girl 2)

The morning after I arrived back in Charleston, I immediately set out on my apology tour, hitting the wedding planner, catering company and pastor in the space of two hours. My closest relatives and bridesmaids each received a phone call and a wine basket. When it was all over and my list had been—mostly—checked off, I collapsed into bed and didn’t get up.

It took me until today to leave my room again and I was immediately scheduled for a dress fitting. With three weeks to go until my mother’s charity ball, I need some practice acting normal. I hate how weak I became at the drop of a hat, but it took all my strength to leave St. Augustine behind and drive back to Charleston. To walk through the door of my childhood home and have all the positivity of the last two months mean nothing to anyone but me. Did any of it really happen?

Right now, standing on a pedestal while the seamstress yanks my bodice tighter, it doesn’t feel like any of it was real. I feel bloodless and half-asleep. Around me in a semi-circle, my mother’s friends sit on cushy chairs sipping mimosas, suggesting different materials, new styles, dashes of bling here or there. Among them, my mother sits like a cat who caught the canary, allowing me to be on display. The object of curiosity.

“Naomi, you’re looking so skinny,” says Doris, one of my mother’s oldest friends. “Maybe I should run away for two months.”

The ensuing laughter carves another chunk out of me. In the mirror, I watch my mother calmly sip from her champagne flute, her eyes daring me over the rim to be anything but gracious. To do anything but fix the damage I’ve wrought by my absence. Oh yes, punishment comes in many different forms.

“You’re perfect the way you are,” I murmur to Doris. “There’s no need.”

“Speaking of running away…” says another woman while setting down her drink. Clink. It sounds like a starting gun. “Well, I’m sure we’re all aware of the theories, but I’d love to hear it from you, dear. How were you occupying yourself in Florida?”

I was falling in love.

My tongue protests when I bite down on it too hard. Four minutes. That’s the longest I’ve gone without thinking of Jason in weeks. I plummet back to the drawing board now, wishing I’d risked another lecture through the door from my mother and stayed in my room. What would Jason do if he walked in right now? He would pretend mimosas were for sissies, but he’d drink one, anyway. No, that’s not right. He’d get these stupid pins out of me, one by one, and kiss any spots left behind. He’d kiss my mouth, damn the crowd. Everything would be all right if he was here. Birdie, too. She would kick up her heels on my mother’s antique coffee table and demand some spikes be added to my dress. God, I miss Birdie to death.

They were real. They were real.

I’m the one who isn’t real. I’m exactly where I started. In the place I ran from. Except now there is a stigma attached to me that I will probably spend my whole life trying to overcome. And I won’t succeed. The conspiracy theories about my disappearance were mostly ludicrous, but some of them sounded credible. She was institutionalized. She had a nervous breakdown. She ran away with the gardener. I can see the women sizing me up in the mirror and I know their minds are already settled on whatever theory they chose on day one. This gathering is pointless. I wonder if my mother realizes that.

Even if she does, she’s made it clear she plans to trot me out like a show pony, regardless. Through my door for the last several days—in between lectures—there has been optimism on her part. If I just meet with Elijah, he’ll remember why good blood marries with good blood. He’ll stop his ridiculous gallivanting with Addison Potts and see sense. It’s what his parents want. It’s what’s expected.

Crazy enough, I feel more of a kinship for Elijah than I did when we were dating and engaged. I want to call him on the phone and command him to keep gallivanting, to hell with what our parents think. Yes, Elijah is the last stop on my apology tour, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to make it. Going to see him seems unfaithful to Jason.

Jason.

Another pin jabs me in the hip and I wince, jarred back into the moment. What did that woman with the ugly brooch ask me? How did I occupy myself in Florida?

A glance in the mirror tells me they’re all watching me expectantly. “Well…I took some educational classes.” On beer brewing. “I went scuba diving.” After which I had the most mind-melting sex of my life on a boat. “And I did some consulting for a beauty pageant contestant…”

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