I let my recalled irritation at him bubble up, although it doesn’t exactly feel like irritation. I’m a wary cat approaching the house on the balls of its feet, ready to take a polite warning swipe if needed. When we hit the driveway, I search the front yard—which is littered with engine parts, lifejackets and oxygen tanks—and I see Jason.

Retreat. Retreat.

Before I can stop myself, I’m actually backpedaling on the sidewalk and I have no idea why. It might be the fact that Jason is now visible in the parked, elevated boat. Shirtless.

Not merely shirtless, however. He’s indecently shirtless.

There’s a lit cigar in the corner of his clamped together lips. Dangerous, considering there’s enough black hair on his chest to start a forest fire if one single ember should escape. Lord, I thought men his size only existed in the Bible. Built for fighting lions in dens or carrying giant stone tablets down from the mountaintop. Jason is a modern version of a Bible warrior in a peeled down wetsuit that wraps far, far too low on his hips for decent company. And the tattoos. They’re everywhere. Poking in and sneaking out of places they shouldn’t. No. No, sir. I’m not getting any closer to that.

To my utter horror, I realize my mouth is open wide enough to catch a battalion of bees. No honey required. Stop looking at the unruly line of dark hair below his belly button. I know where it leads. I’m a grown woman. Old enough to know I do not want that zipper to come down any lower. Old enough to know my toes should not be curled in my sneakers right now, too.

Why is he looking at me like that? Is he smirking at me through all that cigar smoke?

“I-I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say, patting Birdie awkwardly on the shoulder.

“Wait, what?”

I pull my ponytail as tight as it will go, continuing my backward journey on the sidewalk, away from the sight of Jason. “Um. Tomorrow we’ll outline the competition and get a better idea of what we need to work on. I’m going to make some phone calls and try to get us some affordable indoor space. We’ll need to perfect your pageant walk and—”

“Why can’t we do it now?”

“It’s a school night.”

Birdie looks at me like I’m nuts. Maybe I am. “It’s four thirty.”

“That is true, isn’t it?” Over Birdie’s shoulder, I see Jason jump down from the boat and land on bare feet, like some huge, nimble king of the jungle. He starts in our direction, that cigar glowing red between his teeth, and I back up another several yards, horrified to realize my belly is tingling. Nerves. Just nerves. For some reason, he inspires them in me like no one in my experience. “You should speak to your brother about proper running shoes.”

“Okay.” Birdie looks over her shoulder, coming back with a knowing look I don’t care to interpret. “Do you want me to ask Jason to put on a shirt?”

“What? No. Why would you…what?”

Jason’s low chuckle snaps my spine straight.

“I was just about to head home,” I say to them both, pretending to be fascinated by a palm tree as I cross the street toward my car. “I’ll be back the same time tomorrow.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay for dinner?”

Birdie asks the question, and one glance at her expression tells me she’s enjoying my suffering. Maybe if I ask nicely, she’ll explain the source of it. Sure, I’ve never been around such a rough and tumble man, but I don’t understand why his appearance should distress me like this. “Thank you so much for the invitation, but I’ll have to decline until another time.”

Jason plucks the cigar out of his mouth, flicking ashes onto the sidewalk. “See you at six thirty, beauty queen.”

I grind my teeth behind a smile. “I have plans.”

He’s smirking again. He doesn’t believe me. “You do now.”

With that, he saunters back to the boat, leaving me with a view of his back, which is equivalent to the broad side of a barn. If barns were made of muscle and such. Such being…scars and interestingly shadowed valleys. Running straight down his spine is the tattoo of a dagger, and stretching across ridges of muscle from one shoulder to the other is a pair of crossed arrows, bisecting the dagger. I refuse to let my gaze go any lower.

“He can be a little scary,” Birdie says, nudging me. “But he’s only killed, like, two out of my last five pageant coaches. The odds are in your favor.”

I can only stare as she jogs off toward the house.

“See you tonight, coach number six!”

CHAPTER FIVE

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Let me be plain. The only one with a motive to kill Naomi was the mother.

Bridezilla? Ha! Try Momzilla. She wasn’t about to let her daughter ruin HER perfect day. Tale as old as time.

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