Despite my better judgment, I’m moving on to a third site when Birdie’s face pops up on my phone and it begins to vibrate. Still in shock over the conspiracy theories floating around about my disappearance, I answer with numb lips. “Hello?”

“Naomi, can you please, please come home?”

Hearing the tears in the younger woman’s voice, I push off the wall. “What’s wrong, Birdie?”

She blows out a shaky breath. “Remember when you suggested I tell Natalie’s friends about my plans to compete in the pageant?”

“Yes.”

“I took your advice and—like, I fucking doubled down for some reason. I was feeling all confident and in charge, which is totally your fault, by the way. And I invited them over. They’re coming over. Here. To hang out.”

“That’s great, Birdie. Good for you!”

“No. They’re coming now. Now.”

“Oh. So soon. Well, order some pizzas and…” I drop my voice in deference to the people around me. “Tell Jason to wear a shirt.”

“He’s not even home yet. Naomi, I can’t do this by myself.” She pauses. “I barely knew how to talk to Natalie, okay? And her friends aren’t forced to endure me out of sibling obligation. When I bend over backwards to out-awkward myself, they’ll just leave.”

“You’re not awkward.”

“You’re not at school. You don’t know how everyone looks at me.”

Birdie is right, of course. I have no perspective on her high school experience. Mine was exactly as it was supposed to be. Junior committees and homecoming dances and football games. Smiling for yearbook pictures and gossiping between classes. It almost seems like I watched a movie about someone’s life instead of living it myself. Birdie lives in an awareness right now that I didn’t achieve until I was getting ready to walk down the aisle. There’s no one to guide her through this phase of her life, either. Jason isn’t ready to handle teenage drama while he’s battling his own demons, is he?

For a moment, I get stuck in that morning on the back stoop when he held my hand and I let his sweat soak clear through the side of my nightgown. I’m not sure I’ve felt more…real. Vital. Helpful. In a way I’ve never been before. The fear of getting too close to Jason and Birdie is why I’ve been eating dinner alone. Why I’ve been spending my days exploring St. Augustine and getting comfortable in my own company. My own skin. I can’t help but feel like I’m about to cross the line I’ve drawn…but I close my eyes and cross it, anyway, knowing full well I’m making things harder on myself in the future.

“How long do we have?”

I start down the sidewalk with a burst of purpose. Now that I’ve made the decision to go from pageant coach to slightly more than a pageant coach (read: it’s complicated), I’m ready to dazzle these teenagers within an inch of their ever loving lives. Being that I ran away from a life of entertaining and frippery, I shouldn’t be so excited to help Birdie play hostess. But I am. Maybe I’m allowed to enjoy making things pretty and being the classic Southern hostess I was trained to be. I’m also allowed to want more. To be more.

A quick stop at the market and I’m standing at the back door of the main house. My hands are full, so I use my foot to tap on the door. “Birdie?”

Jason opens the door while my foot is mid-knock and I almost do the splits right there on the threshold. He catches me around the waist before I drop, though, steadying me on my feet. Amid the tangle of limbs and grocery bags, his fingertips brush the underside of my breast and we both suck in a breath.

“Shit,” he grunts, deep gray eyes running over my face. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I say in a high-pitched voice, praying my nipples aren’t hard. They feel hard. Oh God, they are. They have to be. Trying to move before he has a chance to notice, I start to sidestep Jason, but he refuses to let me carry the bags, taking them out of my hands one by one. My breath remains poised in my throat as his gaze darkens to the shade of thunderclouds, letting me know he most definitely sees my pointed nipples through the thin, red cotton of my tank top. “I can manage the bags,” I whisper. “They’re t-tight—light. I mean light.”

Without breaking our eye contact, he reaches out with the fist full of bags and sets them on the nearest counter. “You don’t carry bags when I’m around.”

Why that causes the private place between my legs to cinch up tighter than a girdle, I don’t know. It startles me into sounding breathless. “Thank you, Mr. Bristow. That’s very gentlemanly of you.”

Look out, Scarlett O’Hara. There’s a new, simpering Southern belle in town.

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