“Harsh.”

“You don’t know the half. She used to follow me around with a tape to check my measurements. If she was feeling particularly mean, she’d wait until after lunch.”

The younger girl pulls a face. “What a bitch.”

A surprised giggle tumbles out of my mouth. “Language.” I wait until I can talk without laughing. “How about I start singing and you join in when you’re comfortable?”

She covers her face with her hands, dropping them a moment later. “Oh God. Fine.”

I stand up and clasp my hands in front of my waist. If I wasn’t still nursing a tiny buzz from the beer, I might be more self-conscious. As it is, though, I’ve had a terrible phone call with my mother today, sipped past my limit and been almost kissed by Jason. A little laughter at my expense won’t hurt. And laugh she does. As soon as the butchered beginning note of “America the Beautiful” leaves my mouth, she doubles over with laughter and I snort on the word spacious.

Birdie lets me get almost to the middle of the song before she adds her voice to the mix.

She’s as terrible as I am.

I drop into the kitchen chair and she plops onto the ground, both of us holding our sides to contain the mirth. She seems almost surprised to be laughing at all, and it’s probably the beer, but for some reason her astonishment sends me over the edge. “You didn’t even know you were that bad. I could tell.”

“Jesus Christ.” She wipes her eyes. “I should have left it a mystery.”

“We’ll go with a waltz.”

Until Birdie flops back on the floor, I don’t notice the imposing figure standing in the doorway. It’s Jason. I have no idea how long he’s been watching us, but it’s impossible to read his expression. But I do notice the lines around his mouth seem deeper than they did this afternoon and that observation causes my amusement to die a quick death.

“Dinner’s in an hour.” He cuts me a bland look. “You coming?”

I want to go. I had fun the last time. Real fun. That’s precisely why I shouldn’t accept dinner invitations, I think. My mission in St. Augustine is to learn to do, to live, for myself, before I return to the life of duty of tradition I’ve been groomed for since birth. I can’t help but worry that getting too close to Jason and Birdie might make accepting that role difficult. There needs to be some part of myself I hold back.

“Thank you for the offer, but I think I’ll spend the night getting situated.” I splay my fingers over the surface of Birdie’s notebook. “May I keep this for the night?”

Birdie splits a look between me and her brother as she rises to her feet. “Sure.” She takes a step toward the door. “See you tomorrow?”

“Count on it.”

Jason remains in the doorway for a few beats after Birdie bypasses him, watching me with shadowed eyes before leaving. A while later, there’s a knock at my door. When I go to answer it, there’s a plate covered with foil sitting on the top step. And a Budweiser.

CHAPTER NINE

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Username: IWant2Believe2000

Runaway Bride’s alien abductor was probably a guest at the wedding.

They operate in plain sight. They are MASTER deceivers.

Jason

I stand at the kitchen sink with a beer in my hand, looking for signs of life in Naomi’s apartment. Nothing. She and Birdie don’t share their rehearsal schedule with me—I just shell out the cash—but since my sister isn’t here, I’m pretty sure she’s practicing with her coach.

I’m not sure what’s worse. Having the beauty queen living above the garage and not seeing her. Or having her live in a dump and bumping into her constantly. Both of those arrangements have their drawbacks. For instance, it has been over a week since we’ve made eye contact and I’m growing more irritable by the day. I wasn’t the only one interested in that kiss. Was I? Did I push too hard like I do with everything else and now she’s nervous around me?

That’s the worry that has burrowed under my skin since the night she moved in. Forcibly. My style of solving problems is abrasive. Cut and dried logic. The fastest way from point A to B. But I can’t expect other people to see my solutions the same way. I can’t expect Naomi to understand that leaving her in an unsecured location would have cost me sleep.

Right. As if I’m sleeping.

Every time I close my eyes, I taste her neck. I haven’t been to a lot of exotic places on vacation, but those hints of blood orange and cedar and grapefruit on her neck make me think of boats on a pond, big trees full of flowers. I can see her in a beach house with loose bracelets tinkling together on her wrist. A glass of wine in her hand. And a tuxedoed gentleman to fetch her another one before she even finishes the first. Someone who knows how to make her comfortable and engage her in a normal, non-antagonistic conversation.

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