Against my will, I think of conducting practices in a space designed and decorated by my own hand. Tasteful white walls with silver and bright poppy-red accents. Gleaming red wood floors and gauzy curtains that would float around during consultations, letting the girls dream of their shining moment on the stage…

I swallow hard and command myself to focus and stop being fanciful. It’s so hard to do that now that I’ve let myself imagine possibilities, though. Imagine more than a life of following the dictates of others. Showing my face where I’ve been asked to show it. Making phone calls to assist local Charleston charities, but not really putting in the time and effort to personalize them. To put my own unique stamp on something. Isn’t the effort behind Birdie’s pageant what will make it worthwhile?

I shake myself. “Want to run through some practice questions?”

Birdie is staring back at her reflection in the mirror.

“Birdie.”

“Huh?”

“Is everything okay?” I hunker down beside her chair. “You’re doing incredible out there. If I didn’t know this is your first pageant, I wouldn’t believe it.”

“Thanks.” She nods and sits up straighter. “Yeah, I think it’s going well? Hard to tell. I can’t see anything out there. Just vague outlines of heads.”

“Every pageant is different. Some of them don’t have spotlights.” My forehead tugs with a frown. “Maybe we should have—”

“Rented a spotlight for practice? Jason would have loved that expenditure.”

Hearing his name sends a wave of longing down my back. “So. Practice questions?”

“Bristow.”

Birdie and I trade a smirk at the director calling her name. “Too late.” She doesn’t seem to realize she’s rubbing the bracelet between her thumb and forefinger. “Here goes nothing.”

My pulse pounds thickly in my ears minutes later as I watch Birdie approach the microphone, pose and smile at the host. To strangers, she probably doesn’t appear timid, but I can see the fingers out of view from the audience rubbing at her skirt.

“Miss Bristow. Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I slap a hand to my forehead and somewhere in the back of the theater, I swear I hear a low, disbelieving chuckle. Silence ticks past. One second, two. Oh my God, she isn’t going to answer. I should have forced her to answer this practice question. Why didn’t I—

“It’s important to have plans. Goals. It’s just as important to know when your plan needs to change, though. Life…requires change. Five years ago, I wasn’t planning on competing in a beauty pageant. I don’t even like wearing dresses.” The host and audience laugh. “You have to decide what’s worthwhile and adapt, even if it’s new or you didn’t expect it. Maybe it’s just as productive to live without a five-year plan. Or to start with a five-day plan and see where it takes you.”

The buzzer peals.

Birdie’s words strike deep, but I’m all about her as she glides toward me and falls through the curtain into my arms. “Shit. Did that even make sense?”

“Yes. Yes.” I squeeze her tighter. “Perfect sense.”

A full minute passes. The next contestant takes the stage, but Birdie still doesn’t let go. “I thought I would feel her,” she whispers. “I thought there would be some part of Nat here, but there’s nothing. It’s just a microphone and lights and…” She steps back with a hiccup. “I just wanted her to be proud or close. Just close one more time. But she’s not. She never will be again, will she?”

This is why she’s been distracted. She was waiting for a full circle moment and it hasn’t come. “That’s not true.”

“Please don’t tell me I carry her in my heart.” Birdie moves past me in a rustle of fabric and I catch the sheen of moisture in her eyes. “Can you get Turner? Let’s get the dance over with and go home.”

Defeat weighs me down as I turn to do what Birdie asks…but something stops me. Birdie’s words echo back from that first run we took together. Natalie was the one who brought everyone together. With friends and family. Both. She’d put on a silly play or throw a board game on the floor and whine until everyone picked a talisman. She was the glue. Everything…everyone is apart now because there’s no glue.

An idea occurs to me. A crazy one.

I have one shot to make this pageant what Birdie needs, though. Who cares if we win? It was never really about winning, was it? No, it’s about family.

After throwing a quick glance at the clock, I sprint out the backstage area, urgency pumping my legs faster than I thought possible. On the way out of the exit, I pass Turner and skid to a stop. “Uh…you can go home. I’ll mail you the check.”

He salutes. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

“It’s been real,” I shout over my shoulder, then throw the metal door open and run smack into Jason. He catches me by the elbows, not budging a single step even though I’ve essentially just hit him with my full weight. All the breath in our bodies seems to escape at the same time, softening every line of where we connect. Then he stumbles a little, his arms sliding up to my shoulders, into my hair. Oh God. How am I going to survive without him?

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