Where would it lead anyway? I’m a Charleston girl. This is only my temporary home. Based on what Birdie said at dinner the other night, this isn’t Jason’s permanent home, either. He’s being deployed once Birdie graduates high school. St. Augustine is only a detour.

A knock on the door brings me hopping to my feet. “Yes?”

“You naked in there?” Birdie calls back.

The tightness leaks out of my muscles, leaving me slumped against the table. “No, I’m decent. Please come in.”

Birdie slides in on a pair of striped socks, a backpack slung over one shoulder. “We’re officially shacked up, I hear.”

“Yes, it’s been quite a day.” I chew my lip. “Does it bother you? Me staying here?”

“No, I’m just surprised.” She hops up onto the kitchen counter. “I kind of pictured you staying somewhere way nicer than this. Ocean view. Room service.”

“There was free coffee in the lobby.”

“We have free coffee, too, but you have to make it before Jason gets there.” She shudders. “He makes it way too strong.”

“That doesn’t sound like him.”

“Your sarcasm is duly noted.” She seems to be thinking something over, her mouth moving in time with her thoughts. “Is everything okay? Jason was even less of a sparkling conversationalist than usual when I got home.”

“Yes, everything is fine.” I press two fingers to my forehead, trying to massage away the mounting ache. “But would you mind if we skipped the run today? I’m not going to lie to you, Birdie, I discovered wine-and chocolate-flavored beer today and everything went downhill from there in deplorable fashion.”

That surprises a laugh out of her. “And that downhill slide included my brother clubbing you over the head and dragging you home?”

“You’re not far off.”

Birdie’s ankle starts to jiggle. “I know my brother comes off like an indestructible badass—that’s because he is. Being home has been hard on him because of it. It’s like throwing the Terminator into a knitting circle. He’s out of his element just walking down the street. Now he’s obligated to play my babysitter, too.”

Picturing Jason looking for danger on a perfectly peaceful street, my heart gives a heavy thud. “You’re way more than a simple obligation.” She seems skeptical—and also like she wants the subject closed. “Anyway, what does your brother’s condition have to do with me?”

She shrugs. “Once he decides you’re in his keeping, you get the full Jason.”

This is where I should point out that I didn’t ask to be in anyone’s keeping and I’m just fine on my own, thank you very much. But I manage to keep it to myself. It’s not that hard, actually, because I’m nursing a little bubble of sympathy for the man who wasn’t physically capable of leaving me at the broken-down motel. “Is he in the habit of collecting strays?”

“Nope. Just the two in this room.” She slides off the counter and removes a notebook from her backpack, flipping it open and dropping it on the kitchen table in front of me. Bold, slanting letters are tangled up with rough sketches of dresses, shoes, crowns. It’s a work of art that reminds me a lot of Birdie herself. Kind of chaotic at a glance, but smart and focused if you pay attention. “I had some extra time in study hall today and I spent it writing down my pageant vision, like you asked. I figure you’ll be able to whip my walk into shape and get me ready for the question and answer round, but I’m stuck on one minor part.”

“Which is?”

“I have no talent for the talent portion.”

“Um. Excuse me. You certainly do.” I pick up the notebook and turn it her way. “I can’t even draw stick figures. These dresses you’ve drawn could have come from the mind of a professional designer.”

Birdie snorts. “Doubtful. But either way, it’s not like I can draw on stage.” She blows out a breath. “Anyway, that wasn’t really Natalie’s style. She would have done something more traditional like singing or dancing.”

“Can you sing?”

Red appears on her cheeks. Likely feeling that rise in color on her face, she paces away, feigning fascination with the wall. “I don’t know. I’ve never sung in front of anyone before.”

“Not even Natalie?”

“No. I was more of the listener. Not that I minded,” she rushes to add. “You’re not going to ask me to sing right now, are you? That would be on par with jogging—on broken glass.”

Lord, I really like this girl. I don’t know if we have enough time to ensure she wins the pageant, but I’m going to do everything possible to see she does well. No more daytime beer drinking. I’m not sure there was anything adventurous about that anyway. I’m still the same predictable Naomi. No matter, though. I’ll start small and work my way up. “I was once told by a pageant coach that when I sing, wine turns back into water. She called my voice the anti-miracle.”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com