Birdie invited me to dinner again tonight and I’m starting to feel like an awful witch turning down the invitations. If the thought of sitting across from Jason didn’t make me jumpy, I would consider saying yes once in a while. As it is, though…I brace myself every time I know I’m going to see Jason. Whether it’s through the kitchen window or in the garage lifting weights with a cigar clamped in his mouth, I find my toes curling. Which is a polite way of saying my whole body grows flushed and sensitive, tingles running up and down my arms. He’s so intimidating in the daylight. Broad and covered in ink and frowning at whatever I’m wearing.

That’s why I get nervous. His demeanor. Not because I’m thinking of that almost-kiss. Or how he spoke to me afterward. If this closet door had been closed, we’d be rounding third base on this fucking bed right now, beauty queen, and we both know it. Third base. I had to Google it to be sure I had a clear picture of what he meant. And…wow. That would have happened so fast? Of course Jason has fast, rough sex. Do I harbor any delusions he’d be a gentle lover?

Not to me, obviously. Someone else. Someone available.

An image springs to mind of Jason’s powerful, tattooed back flexing as he overpowers a woman on a bed, his mouth rasping inappropriate words in her ears. Acid climbs my throat and sours in my mouth so fast, tears spring to my eyes. I’m sure that’s why my curiosity slips past my willpower and I replace the woman with myself. A moaning, messy, straining version of myself, fingernails scraping down Jason’s closely-shaved scalp. Down further, traveling over his sharp mountains of back muscle to his—

Mid-pace, I trip over the uneven sidewalk.

What am I thinking?

I’m not. I’m not thinking of Jason. Not like that.

Maybe what I need is a phone call with my mother to remind me I’m on borrowed time. I’m sure she’s ready to throw me to the wolves for staying away this long. And it’s only going to get worse, because I’m not ready to go back to Charleston yet. Birdie and I have finally begun making progress on her walk. The final turn of the dance is yet to click, but we’re nearing a breakthrough. I can feel it. I am invested in Birdie being successful.

More invested than you are in salvaging your relationship with Elijah?

I let the reminder of Elijah sink in. Since the day I met my ex-fiancé, Elijah was kind and caring, but distant. So distant. Smiling and attempting to respond with the proper remark to whatever I was saying across the dinner table, but never taken off guard. Never peppering me with questions, the way I would try to do with him. Because of this—because I cannot imagine him pining away for someone who stoked so little a fire, I haven’t wondered overmuch if he misses me. Did I hurt him by calling off the wedding…or was he relieved?

Not wanting to examine that possibility too closely, I lean against the wall of the building and slide my new cell phone out of my purse. I managed to make it almost three weeks without one, but scheduling practice sessions with Birdie was becoming too much of a challenge using the smoke signal method. I haven’t synced my email yet out of pure survival instinct, because I’m not ready to read messages with the underlying subtext of: Are you insane? Tapping my finger on the screen for a moment, I open the internet browser instead and search my name. A classic rookie mistake if I’ve ever heard one, but I promise myself to gloss over anything too negative. While I’m curious to know what’s being said about me, I’m freaked about dining alone in a restaurant—I definitely don’t need another complex.

When I hit search, all I can do is stare at the screen as dozens upon dozens of websites pop up with variations of the headline: Theories on the Naomi Clemons Disappearance.

Oh dear. That’s rather dramatic.

I click the first link. It takes me to a site called Conspiracy Crowd.

Did Naomi Clemons really run from her own wedding? Or was she taken by force? A witness close to Clemons claims she left a note and left of her own accord, but how credible is this bridesmaid? Does she know who kidnapped Clemons?

“Oh Lord,” I whisper, clicking over to another site. This one has an old picture of me at a charity event. I’m passing a man I don’t recognize, but the angle of the shot makes it look like we’re handing each other a note. The photo caption reads: What had Naomi Clemons gotten herself into? Inside sources hint at an organized crime ring dating all the way back to Prohibition. Debutante or mob shill? “You can’t be serious.”

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