While they laughed, still not realizing I stood there watching, I remember Naomi telling Birdie they would hire a partner to perform the waltz with her. I decide I don’t like him when he bends down to massage his toes, giving Birdie a pointed look.

Naomi gets the stereo working and the strains of violin fill the basement. “Let’s try it again.” Her smile is bright and positive. “Positions, please.”

Birdie groans. “Can my position be prone?”

Mister Toes rolls his eyes. Yeah, really not liking him.

The first few steps of the routine are impressive. I’ve never even seen my sister dance, but the instructor must be good because she’s got posture and rhythm I wasn’t aware she had. After fifteen or so seconds, however, they lose momentum and Birdie’s foot slams down on her instructor’s foot. With a groan, she plops heavily onto the floor.

Naomi hides her disappointment well as she returns to the stereo in a few quick steps. That’s when she notices me. “Oh. Mr. Bristow.”

I bite down on the impulse to remind her my name is Jason. “Yeah.” Feeling Birdie’s surprise, I send her a nod. “Hey.”

She stands, wiping the floor’s dust from the seat of her jeans, reminding me of when she was a second grader playing Barbies versus Monsters with Natalie in the front yard. Before I enlisted. Long before my parents moved away. So long ago, I don’t remember what I worried or thought about back then, besides my first boat and how fast I could enlist.

The sharp focus of before and after catches me hard. Reminds me of what I missed when I left. Those last years of Natalie’s baton competitions, school plays and first boyfriends. Birdie getting older and transforming into this quick-witted ball-buster with an iron will. There’s also what I’m missing now. The sounds of battle are always in the back of my mind, pulling me. Making me feel utterly out of place and helpless in this stale basement. It’s not a feeling I handle well. At all.

“I’m not paying to have you sit around,” I snap, attempting to jab a hole in the tension in my chest. The air in the room turns frosty. Naomi slowly sets down the iPhone and crosses her arms. Birdie doesn’t move at all. I couldn’t give a shit about the partner’s reaction…I just know I’ve fucked up and clearly hurt my sister’s feelings. Who am I to criticize her when she’s throwing herself outside her comfort zone to honor our sister? All I know how to do is work, provide, repeat. She’s not only allowed herself to feel the loss of Natalie, she’s leaning into it.

I need to fix this fast. How, though?

Naomi draws my attention. So perfect and pretty in her fluttery yellow top and white jeans. But she’s not perfect, is she? No, she sings like a choking cat.

That’s what gives me the idea. A terrible one, obviously. Dancing is meant to be graceful and requires the kind of coordination I’m not sure I have, since I haven’t attempted to dance since high school—and I was still getting used to my size fourteen feet back then. If I make this attempt, there’s a very good chance I’ll make a fool out of myself. No, it’s a certainty. Birdie is shrinking more and more into herself as the seconds tick past, though, and I have to act.

I can’t believe I’m about to do this.

“Show me how to do it.” I roll my neck. “Let’s give it a shot.”

“What?” Some of the ice melts in Birdie’s eyes. “Shut up.”

It occurs to me too late that if I waltz to make my sister feel better, I’ll either have to partner with her. Or Naomi. Considering our resident Southern belle has been avoiding me for a week, I’m pretty sure she’d rather dance with a giant lizard than partner with me. So I’m surprised when the music kicks off again and she steps forward. “I think that’s a lovely idea.”

Naomi understands what I’m doing. It’s there in the softness of her voice. There’s no denying my pulse triples when she sails up to me, joining my right hand to her left, placing her opposite one on my shoulder. Christ, I didn’t forget how beautiful she is, but her nuances—a scattering of light freckles on her nose, the sexy indent at the top center of her bow lips—they blow me away now. Did I really almost kiss this woman? Was I fucking crazy to try?

“I’m going to lead for the sake of teaching,” she murmurs, her blue eyes ticking up to mine. “We’ll have to be just a touch closer.”

I swallow hard. “Come on then.”

There’s a momentary hesitation on her part. That tongue skates out to wet her lips, the flyaway blonde hairs around her forehead seem to quiver. One step forward, though, and her tits flatten against my belly, her breath bathing the hollow of my throat. I take the opposite tact and stop breathing altogether, just not fast enough to bar the grapefruit-cedar and blood orange scents entrance to my nose. She feels so small against me, but substantial. Feminine. Alive.

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