An electrified spike rises under my skin. My breathing comes faster. She’s offering me a kindness, and for some reason, it goes against the very grain of my existence to accept it. I’m not earning it. I’ve completed no mission. I’ve done nothing to warrant a favor. “I don’t need your help. I didn’t ask.”

She cups her knees in her hands and waits, the moon making her face look silver, instead of its usual creamy peach. “On my drive to St. Augustine, I pulled over at a gas station in my wedding dress to use the bathroom. I fell on my butt and…” With a sniff, she picks an invisible speck off her nightgown. “I peed myself a little. A stranger saw it and everything. The woman who helped me hold my dress while I relieved myself asked me if I got excited.”

The distant blasts that were still going off in my ears when I walked out of the house fade some. I don’t want her to be the reason. I want to get rid of the horrible noise myself. “Why are you telling me this?”

“I don’t know.”

“We’re not trading humiliations here. I’m not humiliated.”

“I didn’t say you were. You shouldn’t be.” I’m snapping at her and yet, the soft rise and fall of her breasts makes me want to lay my head there. “Do you want me to leave?”

My swallow is thick. “No.”

“Okay.”

It takes me a full minute to sit down beside her. My veins feel pulled tight and ready to snap, my legs are still aching to sprint until I can’t go any farther. Everything else inside me seems drawn to her, though, and that gravitational pull wins. Her usual scent of cedar and blood orange is softer than usual, probably worn off in sleep. The smell of morning dew and saltwater surrounds us as she starts to talk, her light voice carrying on the easy breeze.

“The invasion of Normandy was the largest amphibious invasion in history. You’re a diver, so you probably already knew that.” She doesn’t wait for me to respond that yeah, I know a little, but not the finer details. Not the little nuggets of interesting facts she inserts into her stories. “For a successful invasion, the weather needed to be right. A full moon to illuminate the beach, mostly. The Allied forces couldn’t agree on a date for the invasion. The Americans wanted to go on the fifth, but the British were hedging. Finally, an Irish lighthouse keeper on the west coast advised them to hold off until the sixth…”

I’m halfway to getting lost in Naomi’s words when her pinkie finger nudges mine. It’s so faint, I wonder if I imagined it. But I look down to find her hand right there. Waiting. Without giving my head a chance to talk me out of it, I cover her hand with mine. She turns her palm up and we lace our fingers together. Friendly. It’s just friendly. Apparently not harmless enough to stop my eyes from closing, my skin from enjoying the warm grace of her, though. Her recounting wraps around me as the sun starts to rise over the distant houses. And for the first time since coming home, I return to normal without having to break myself. Holding the beauty queen’s hand in mine, though, I start to wonder if she’s capable of breaking me instead.

CHAPTER TEN

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Her palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy…

…and those are all symptoms of pre-combustion, if you’re interested.

Naomi

When I escaped to Florida, I envisioned myself participating in life-affirming feats. Skydiving, cattle roping, standing in the sunroof of a limousine with my arms thrown to the wind. Over the last couple of weeks, though, I’ve found that having dinner in a restaurant alone is panic-inducing enough. I’ve never eaten alone in public. Not once. It wasn’t something I acknowledged to myself as odd before now. I simply always had company. A reason to be out in the first place, whether it was charity planning, celebrating a birthday or attending a luncheon.

Since moving into the chalet—as I lovingly refer to my studio above Jason’s garage—I’ve been bringing home groceries and trying new recipes out in the tiny kitchen. My creations have become a source of pride for me. Look! Tacos! I can make edible tacos! Growing up, we always had a chef to make meals for us. Occasionally the chef would leave already prepared meals for my mother to pop into the oven and declare herself a cook. Thus, preparing my own food is new to me—and I love it. But I can’t allow myself to hide away in the comfort of the chalet. So here I am, pacing back and forth in front of a seafood restaurant. Afraid to go inside.

Ludicrous, isn’t it?

Blowing out a quick breath, I scan the menu, which is posted outside in a mounted plastic frame. On the other side of the front window, I watch a waitress drop off a glass of wine at someone’s table. I could be drinking that wine. All I have to do is go inside and sit down.

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