Someone with class.

Motherfucker. I should never have performed that internet search.

As if the weird conspiracy theory sites speculating on Naomi’s whereabouts weren’t bad enough…I can put a face to her ex-fiancé now. All it took was their wedding announcement to know the score. Naomi Clemons, of the Charleston Clemonses, had been preparing to marry the goddamn future mayor. A millionaire with an honorable service history, even if he didn’t see the kind of brutal conditions and combat I’ve been involved in. Very few men have, though. That’s why it’s impossible for me to forget that kill-or-be-killed battles are taking place now. Now. At any given moment. And I’m standing here drinking a beer, thinking about the neck of a woman who probably scrubbed the spot where my mouth touched.

I slap the beer bottle down on the counter with a curse. Apparently, I’ve lost my self-respect, because it doesn’t seem to matter that Naomi isn’t interested. Or that she’s set on going back to her fiancé. I can’t stop thinking about her. The awkward dance I sense we’re doing to avoid each other in the driveway is gnawing at me. Over the course of the last week, I’ve watched a change happen in Birdie. She still wears the grief of losing Natalie on her sleeve, but she’s out the door earlier for school, testing her blood sugar more regularly, eating better. We still don’t have a lot to say to each other when we end up in the kitchen at the same time, but I’m paying attention. It’s the beauty queen making the difference.

Because of that, I feel the annoying need to make an effort. Naomi doesn’t want my mouth anywhere near her? Fine. Doesn’t mean she has to sneak up the steps to her apartment, trying not to press down on the creaky middle one. I don’t want to make her nervous. If I were a hospitable man, I might even want her to feel welcome.

Caging a growl in my throat, I push away from the window. Right now, I need to get out of the house. It’s too quiet. My mind interprets quiet to mean danger, which is why the nightmares creep in during the dead silence of night. Images from last night’s dreams project themselves on the backs of my eyelids, only now they’re woven through with the pictures I found on the internet. The handsome couple posing in front of a stately home, a soft smile curving the feminine lips I still want to taste, despite everything. Goddammit.

Before I’ve made a conscious decision where I’m going, I grab my house keys off the peg and walk out the front door.

I seem to recall writing out a check a few days ago to a church. Rental space in their basement? Yeah, I think that was it. I don’t question these things, but I’m thankful now for my airtight memory. Birdie’s explanation about needing more room to practice her walk went in one ear and out the other at the time, but I dig for the name of the place now. Ancient City? Definitely Baptist. A quick address search on my phone later and I’m in the truck, headed in the direction of the church. I’m not sure if men are welcome at pageant practice, but I’m about to find out.

The church is mostly empty when I walk in through the front double doors. A woman arranges silk flowers around the centered podium, a custodian with headphones in his ears vacuums the carpet. Neither one of them spares me a glance as I stride down the aisle toward the basement, and my jaw clenches. Good to know the security is on the up-and-up. I should have come with Naomi and Birdie to make sure they were safe.

When I reach the bottom of the stairs, I walk into what can only be described as mayhem. Naomi is losing a battle with a stereo from the nineties and an iPhone adapter. Birdie is fighting an equally difficult war with tears, and a young man I don’t recognize is pacing, flushed exasperation clouding his face.

“I don’t even have my walk down yet,” Birdie says, swiping the back of her wrist beneath her eyes. “Why am I learning the dance already?”

“The pageant is in a month, Birdie. We have to learn them simultaneously.” Naomi is facing away from my sister, so I’m the only one who can see her eyes closed, her mouth moving in a silent plea for patience. “The choreography might seem impossible right now, but we will get there. Eventually the waltz will click.”

“Not before I break his toes.”

The night Naomi moved into the apartment above the garage, I heard her singing all the way in my kitchen. It was so bad, I assumed she was playing a joke. But when I stepped in through the doorway and saw the concentration line between her eyes, my theory was dashed. She’s a horrific singer, which I never would have seen coming in a million years, since everything else about her is fine-tuned almost to a fault. Her bearing, her manner, her appearance. While standing on the threshold, I realized Naomi was revealing her flaw for Birdie’s benefit. That’s why I couldn’t walk away without asking her to come to dinner. I just couldn’t do it.

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