“That’s eerily accurate.”

He whoops a laugh and takes out his wallet, signaling the end of the night. “Well, hot damn. Let’s go meet her.”

I know Musgrave too well. There’s no way out of this.

Getting my own wallet out and throwing money on the bar before Musgrave can, I sigh and begin to wade through the crowd toward the exit. “This should be interesting.”

I have no idea how right I am.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

EndoftheInternet.net

Username: IGotAnswerz9

Let me be plain. The only one with a motive to kill was Naomi’s father.

She was threatening to expose his illegitimate child. Textbook!

Naomi

Body paint parade.

Who knew such a thing existed?

I scroll through the bright images of people—naked ones—in nothing but artwork to keep them modest. In some cases, painted flowers cover breasts. In others, elaborate designs wind head to toe, covering every inch of the subject’s skin. My mouth hangs open in awe. What kind of confidence would a human being need to walk down the street without clothes?

I’m in a lull. I’ve been so focused on the pageant and taking baby steps in my quest to live on my own terms that time has become an issue. In other words, I don’t have enough of it. If I return to Charleston having mastered nothing more than buying my own shampoo, making tacos and eating in a restaurant without a reservation, this whole mission will have been for nothing. I need to try harder. I need something way outside my comfort zone. Maybe the body paint parade is exactly what I need. After all, I won’t be alone, will I? Thousands of people participated in Daytona Beach last year…and it’s only a couple hour drive from St. Augustine.

Maybe getting out of St. Augustine for a day or two would give me some peace. I haven’t seen Jason since I…well, I can’t even believe what I did. Let him act as an audience while I touched myself. Honestly, Naomi. Shame is what I should feel. Unfortunately, every time I think about that afternoon, vines wrap around my thighs, climbing, climbing until I’m trapped in a pulsing, forbidden garden of need. It’s indecent and…I shouldn’t want to do it again. I shouldn’t lie in bed night after night, wishing my doorknob would turn, Jason would walk in and drop all that tattooed muscle on top of me.

I frown when I realize I’m fanning my face.

Yes, getting out of town for a while is a smashing idea.

Resolving to make a pro-con list before the parade next weekend, I close the window on my web browser. I tap my index finger on the click pad for a few seconds, chewing the inside of my cheek, before opening a new window and signing in to my email.

Four hundred and ninety messages.

I almost shut the laptop, content to live in blissful ignorance for the foreseeable future, but something stops me. What if Elijah emailed me? Don’t I owe him a response?

With a blown-out breath, I scroll all the way to the bottom of my inbox, recognizing the names of several friends and acquaintances, all of the subject lines overrun with question marks. News outlets and a couple of those ridiculous conspiracy theory websites are attempting to get in contact, too. But no Elijah. A thickness builds in my throat as I scroll back to the top to find a new email from my mother, subject line: Are you enjoying yourself?

“We’ve moved into the passive-aggressive phase, have we?” I murmur. Knowing I’ll obsess about the contents of the message all night unless I read it, I click.

Dearest Naomi,

By all means, please take your time coming back to Charleston. Your father and I are faring well, despite the relentless questions from our friends and unwanted attention from the press. The important thing is that YOU are happy. Our quality of life is of little importance.

I’ve been in close contact with Mrs. DuPont and been assured that Elijah is eagerly awaiting your return home but has elected to give you space to figure things out. Isn’t that the kind of unselfish behavior we all hope to see from our children?

Signed,

Your mother

A tremor passes through me. “Right on target, as usual, mother,” I say with a tremor.

I am selfish, aren’t I? All my life, everything has been handed to me. Walking down the aisle, despite knowing I bore my fiancé to tears, would have been my way of showing gratitude. For all my parents have given me. That would have been the behavior of a dutiful daughter, which is what I’ve been raised to be. I’d be married to a man who would give me everything…

But no. I wouldn’t have been able to give Elijah everything. No excitement. Nothing unique. Isn’t that why I’m here? As much as I want to learn what I’m capable of, I want to return to Charleston with experiences under my belt. This time away is meant to break me out of the Mattel box I’ve been living in. So I can be a better wife, mother. Person.

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