I’m not sure how much time passes while we sit there, but I open my eyes to find Birdie’s feet crossed on the dashboard, her expression thoughtful. “Let’s save the dive for another day.”

“Yeah,” I say, my voice rusty. “You pick the date and we’ll get it scheduled.”

“I should probably practice my walk, anyway. I’m finally beginning to look less like a T-Rex in heels and more like one of those green, blow-up car dealership guys.”

Chuckling silently, I put the truck into reverse and pull out of the parking spot. “I’m sure you look like neither of those things.”

She snorts her disagreement. “Also, I have some online dress shopping to do.” Just like on the drive to the marina, she’s back to chewing her lip. “Already had a little peek at the tabs Naomi left open on her laptop, matter of fact.”

Hearing the name of my tormentor makes my hands flex on the steering wheel. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Definitely a good idea to move diving to another day, because I’ve been meaning to tell you…” That knee starts bouncing. “Some of those tabs Naomi left open are…curious. Yeah. Curious is the right word.”

“Out with it, kid.”

“I think Naomi might be at a nude body art parade.”

I slam on the brakes and the truck skids to a rough stop, a roar climbing my throat. “What?”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

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I volunteer to search the nation’s nudist colonies for Runaway Girl.

I promise to leave no stones unturned.

Naomi

I opt to leave my underwear on. That decision is validated in spades when I see how up close and personal the artist gets to my lady region. He’s on his knees now with an airbrush, spraying a swarm of butterflies onto my skin, starting at my ankles and ending at my neck. From my vantage point, it looks like splatters of color, but the man assures me it will all come together in the end. Not for the first time, I glance surreptitiously at the clock. When is the end? I’m a brutal shade of pink, and if it weren’t for the two college girls getting the same treatment across the room, I would be hiding under the covers in my hotel bed.

Oh Lord. He’s moving around to the back side now. I chose a very brief pair of briefs, trying to be considerate in giving the artist more canvas. I must have been in denial of the fact that more canvas meant more butt cheek. Now he’s right on level with them. I don’t think anyone has ever been this close to my bottom before, save my pageant coach with her measuring tape.

And Jason.

A little squeak leaves my mouth when the cold paint lands on my lower back. “It’s a little cold is all,” I say, striving for casual. “Have you been doing this long?”

His head peeks around my thigh and he tugs a headphone out of his ear. “Sorry, what?”

“Oh nothing.” I’m talking to a man who painted butterflies on my boobs. “I didn’t realize you were listening to music.”

“It helps me focus.”

I pat him on the shoulder. “Then by all means, listen away.”

He starts to put the bud back in, then seems to think twice about it. “This is your first body art parade, isn’t it?”

“Is it that obvious?” I force myself to stop smoothing my hair. “I didn’t realize people did them over and over. Seems like something you’d get out of your system after just once.”

“Oh no. It’s addictive.” He moves the airbrush over my hip, leaving a trail of magenta behind in the shape of a wing. “Walking around free like that is…symbolic in a way. For one, there’s nowhere to carry your damn cell phone, which kind of cuts the world off. It’s just you. Everyone is naked, so we’re on the same level. That’s how it should be.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I murmur, mentally repeating what the artist said so I won’t forget when nerves eventually strike. “I was mostly hoping to shock myself out of my comfortable little box, but the bigger meaning is even better.”

“Oh, it’s good for that, too. I can guarantee you’ll never have that dream again where you show up for the first day of school naked.”

“Because it’s not scary anymore.”

“Exactly.”

Over the course of our conversation, I’ve managed to forget I’m standing here naked. But I remember when he taps my thigh and asks me to bend forward. “I need to get under the crease of your butt.”

I put my hands against the wall like I’m being frisked. If only my mother could see me now! “Oh, of course.”

“Perfect.”

Biting down on my bottom lip, I try to stop the flow of nervous chatter, but it won’t be deterred. There’s something that has been on my mind since I left St. Augustine this morning and the artist is so easy to talk to. “How fast do you think someone can form a bad habit? Does it take one time? Two?”

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