For now, walking and drinking orange juice is just my way of sanding down a mental weakness and making sure it doesn’t get too coarse. Too strong. Because someday—God knows when—I will need the ability to differentiate between danger and safety.

Nearly at the bagel shop, I can’t stop myself from searching rooftops, looking into the faces of everyone who passes and trying to determine their intentions. The lack of heavy gear on my body leaves me too weightless and a trickle of sweat beads and slides down my spine. In the midst of this blurring between real and fake, there’s a constant, though—which is new. Naomi is real. I know because I’ve held her in the palm of my hand. Fitted her into my lap. If I close my eyes, I can hear the tiny intake of breath she took when I squeezed.

My thoughts become more depraved with every step I take. They change shape, too. One second I’m dragging Naomi’s panties down to her knees, testing her wetness. And the next…I’m simply knocking on her door to make sure she’s safe. I’m listening to one of her battle stories. She’s taking up every corner of my mind, so when I spot her up ahead in a crowd of milling people, I think my brain is playing tricks on me. But, no. Another step, another, and she’s still there. I speed up. It’s involuntary. What is she doing out here alone? It doesn’t help that she seems…nervous. Why?

I’m caught in the middle of a swallow when I reach her where she stands outside of a packed restaurant. Some remaining strand of common sense reminds me not to be obvious about positioning her between my body and the wall of the establishment, giving my back to the street. She rejected me in the kitchen a few nights ago and I shouldn’t be standing this close, no matter how badly I need it—to smell her, feel her heat—but I’m not in full control of my actions. I’m driven to protect her.

“Jason?” She lowers her silver-rimmed sunglasses. “What are you doing here?”

“Getting bagels.” My voice sounds the furthest thing from normal, but I manage to hitch a casual thumb over my shoulder. “I, uh…get bagels and orange juice at Holy Doughers on Sundays. Their cream cheese is better than their name.”

“Oh.” Her tongue dances out to wet her lips, her eyes not quite meeting mine. “Okay, well don’t let me keep you.”

It’s clear she wants me to leave. Ignoring the ridiculous shift of hurt in my chest, I run through a laundry list of reasons she’d want me gone so soon. Yeah, I propositioned her up against my refrigerator, but I’ve made it pretty clear since the beginning I’m interested in sex. I might have put my hands in places they’d never gone, but only after being positive she wanted them there. Before she didn’t. What happened aside, it’s not like Naomi to be abrupt. Is there another reason she wants me gone?

I’ll say one thing for jealousy. It stops the unwanted bout of paranoia in its tracks. When am I not jealous lately? She’s going back to a man she almost married and you’re worried about a brunch date? “Are you meeting someone?”

“What?” Naomi waves off the question with a flutter of delicate fingers. “No. No, nothing like that. I’m just trying to…oh Lord, it’s too embarrassing. Could you just forget you ever saw me?”

“Impossible,” I say, my tension ebbing so fast I momentarily forget to guard my words. Thankfully, she seems too distracted to notice my slip. I’m not dwelling on it, either, because I’m more interested in why she’s twisting her fingers in the material of her skirt, her face the color of cotton candy. “What could you possibly be embarrassed about, beauty queen?”

“You’re going to poke fun at me.”

My stomach drops. Have I teased her too much? “Swear on my life I won’t.”

Naomi fidgets for a few more seconds, then apparently takes my vow seriously, thank God. “I looked up the best brunch spots in St. Augustine and made a list of them, weighed the pros and cons. The Speckled Hen has Nutella-stuffed French toast and that moved them to the top of the list. But I got here and…I’ve never gone into a restaurant by myself. The idea of it intimidates me.”

“You’ve never been to a restaurant by yourself?”

“Isn’t that just crazy? I’m always meeting a friend or accompanied by someone. And a reservation has always been made, but the Speckled Hen doesn’t take reservations. I’m not even sure I could go in there and sit by myself, even with a reservation. Won’t everyone stare at the pathetic loner?” She fans her face. “Look away, Blackbeard. I think I’m starting to sweat.”

Not for the first time, I want to ask this creature where the hell she came from. She’s not typical. In Charleston or anywhere else. I can say that with total conviction. In this moment, I would give a limb to lay her down and study her without a time limit. Asking her where she came from wouldn’t be helpful right now, though. She’d assume I was making fun of her, when in reality I couldn’t give her a more sincere compliment. You’re like no one else.

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