That was all. Five words had sent me sobbing into my pillow for hours. I can still taste the salt of those tears and hear the irrational vows I made to myself that I would never go downstairs again. That I would live in my room forever.

My thoughts are in that same drastic category as I climb the stairs to my apartment, my dad following at a sedate pace behind me. Jason’s gaze is like twin brands burning into my back, but I can’t turn around and look at him. I’ll have the need to reassure him that I’m fine, but I don’t know if I am. This is the end of the road. I knew it as soon as I saw my father standing in the driveway, so out of place among the greasy boat parts and modest house. I’ve rarely seen him without a newspaper partially covering his face, a drink in his hand or glad-handing at a community function. Being the focus of his attention is polarizing. I’m caked in dread.

I wait until my father joins me in the chalet, catching just the barest hint of the intensity Jason is projecting from below, before I shut the door. Silence falls hard and I observe the small space from his point of view. Tiny kitchen with crooked cabinets, a twin bed in the corner, the vases of flowers sitting on various surfaces like lipstick on a pig.

The spark of embarrassment is what changes everything. It makes me angry at myself. I have nothing to be ashamed about. My spine fills with lead as I think back to how helpless I was when I arrived. How I barely knew how to cook my own meals. How little I knew about the cost of lodgings and toiletries. Since that time, I’ve learned how to be a pageant coach. After today, I’m a successful one. I think. I hope. I’ve participated in a parade wearing nothing but paint. I scuba dived with a shark. I’ve…I’ve had the most insanely satisfying orgasms of my life, not that I’m going to impart that information to my father, but the fact remains. They were so, so satisfying. And the man who gave them to me…navigating the way he makes me feel has quite possibly been the greatest feat of all. We’ve become friends, confidants. Lovers. I’ve become important to Jason and he’s become important to me and this apartment is part of him, so I will not be embarrassed. I’ll be proud of it, along with myself.

Oh God. I’m thinking of this sabbatical in Florida in the past tense already and panic spirals in my stomach, forcing me to brace a hand on the wall. My father catches the action and frowns. He’s not going to speak first, is he? He’s still waiting for me to answer the question he posed in the driveway. What are you doing here?

I don’t know how to answer that in a way he would appreciate.

I’ve been living.

“How did you find me?” I ask.

His lips pinch together. “Your car.” He dusts off the kitchen counter before leaning against it. “When you called your mother from the payphone, we knew the area code. I called in a favor with Charleston PD, who asked the department here to keep an eye out for your license plate. I’ve known for a couple weeks, actually.” He tilts his head. “I was giving you a chance to do the right thing.”

Pressure catches me around the throat, but I clear it. I’m a grown woman who has amazing orgasms and paints her boobs with butterflies. I’m not a sixteen-year-old girl who falls apart over criticism, veiled or otherwise. “I was planning on coming home tomorrow night.”

“Doesn’t look like it.” He blinks. “Who is that man?”

“Jason,” I rasp. “Jason and Birdie. I rent this room from them, but they’ve…I’ve become close with them.”

His stare is hard. “Your fiancé is in the midst of a dalliance that has captured the public attention and it’s proving quite problematic for your mother. I’ve come to bring you home. This has gone on long enough.”

I want to ask about Addison and Elijah. Are they together? Are they happy? But I’m stuck on the way he sneered through the latter half of his statement. “What exactly do you think this is?”

Surprise registers on his only lightly lined face. I’ve never spoken to him with anything but deference. “The truth?” I’m already regretting it when I nod. “I think you’ve been overindulged. You had only to repeat some simple vows and you’d have lived in comfort the rest of your life. Comfort and respectability. You’ve known nothing but those things from birth and they lost their value. You have no idea of your own luck.”

“I do, though,” I breathe, coming off the wall. “I do know I’m lucky. But I didn’t want to live my life in a holding pattern. Wake up, look pretty, entertain, express tasteful opinions over lunch, repeat. I didn’t know how to do or be anything else. Or…or if I was meant to repeat that pattern over and over. Comfortable or not, it’s like living someone else’s life. I couldn’t. I couldn’t start another chapter of the same without knowing what I’m capable of. Or knowing that my husband thought me capable of anything but being arm candy.”

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