Excruciating, as always, she teased. She forced a smile she knew would help her sound normal and answered, Hey.

It’s okay, I crooned to him. I know exactly how you feel. I have trouble trusting people too.

Then you know how good the food is. I should have said more than that. But I didn’t. It was best for the both of us that I keep it this way. She nodded, but said nothing more. I had to get out of this truck. Put some distance between our bodies. Preferably where I couldn’t smell her. Or reach over and touch her. I loved Octavia in a way of speaking. Loved the idea of us. We fit. The sex was hot. She wasn’t needy. It was and had been the easiest relationship I’d ever had. I’d be stupid to destroy it. Opening my door, I got out. Inhaling the sea breeze deeply cleared my nose of Bliss’s sweet scent. I listened as she opened her door. My mother would be ashamed of me for not running around to do that. Octavia demanded that kind of thing, though Octavia didn’t really deserve it. On the other hand, well, Bliss did. Octavia would’ve waited until I came for her door, then emerged like she owned the place. Bliss was waiting for me to stop staring at the water. I had to get my head together. Whether grandpop would agree to play along wasn’t easy to predict or know. Before he saw her, I would intervene. Debrief him, shit like that. Let’s go eat. I shot her a friendly smile and started for the door of the restaurant. She fell into step beside me. Does your grandpop work here? she asked. I glanced. She was looking at his truck. He’d had that truck since he moved here. Bliss had seen it before. She knew it was his and was wondering if he’d remember her. Yep. Never missed a day. She gave me a tight, nervous smile. I opened the door then stood back and let Bliss go inside first. At least my momma would be happy about that. Even if she wouldn’t approve of everything else I’d done concerning Bliss and all my secrecy. Along with not opening the truck door. When I stepped in I saw grandpop animatedly speaking to the bartender. He’d always been happy here. That made my mother happy. Once he was dark and depressed. Grandpop made some bad mistakes but my mom forgave him. Because his mistakes had led her to my dad. That was a mushy, fairytale story I’d heard too many times. They took being in love way too far for the reality of the world around them. I’d never go in like that. Too deep. Too fucking deep. People didn’t stay together anymore. I wasn’t going to get myself burned. Octavia couldn’t burn me. She was safe. The effort was minimal. Pick a table. I’ll be right there. I then beelined for my grandpop. He noticed me headed his way, a smile spreading across his face. Look who can’t stay away from his grandpop’s cooking. Nothing beats you, I assured him. He liked being told that even if it wasn’t the actual truth of the matter. This place was more of a bar, though the food was above average for the bar cuisine and takeout. His poboys really were good. He stepped from behind the bar. Opened his arms to hug me. Haven’t seen you in a couple of days. How’ve you been eating? I grab something here and there. Been working on Octavia’s shit. He frowned at her name. Grandpop didn’t approve. Then his eyes fell on Bliss and he paused. I gave him the moment he needed. I’ll be damned, that one made a beauty. Glad you looked her up. Remind yourself what a good woman is. I didn’t. She works for Octavia. I haven’t told her I remember her. She thinks I’ve forgotten that summer and her and I’d like to keep it that way. She’s a good employee and Octavia needs someone, so please don’t make it complicated. Grandpop didn’t respond. His expression told me enough. He’d thought I’d lost my marbles. Are you shitting me right now? I shook my head. Well, hell. It’s just easier if our past stays there. Easier than what? Truth? He sighed. I’ll keep my mouth shut, but not for you, and your fancy ass fiancé. I’ll do it for that girl over there. She was sweet. Doesn’t need to get hurt. They raised money for her back when she was sick. I donated poboys to the community event. Even with insurance, which will tend to fuck you over, her hospital bills were steep. I have no idea how her parents got the hell out from under them. It’s all a goddamned roll of the dice. Sick? What? What bills? I don’t know what you’re talking about. The girl beat cancer. Fought and won the war. Strong girl. Town really loves her. Cancer? What the fuck did he mean she had cancer? He nodded. Yeah. She’s got a lot of friends in Sea Breeze. Worried the whole bunch to death. I looked back at Bliss. Letting his words sink in. Never had I imagined she’d lived through something like that. She was more mature, older, less naïve but I thought that all came with age. Not a brush with death. She didn’t look our way. She was intensely studying a menu. When did she get sick? Why didn’t you tell me? Happened after that summer. The one you spent with her. I figured you knew. Didn’t want to upset you by talking about the inevitable. I was going to let you bring it up if you wanted to further discuss it. You were just a kid then. I hated for you to see the ugly this world has so soon. Bliss looked up from her menu. She smiled and I saw a flash of sorrow in her eyes and across her brow. I’d missed it before, but there it was, hope, sorrow and something else. It was joy. Bliss was happy. Not because she hadn’t known struggle or fear, but because she’d faced them head on, and won. Shit, I was sinking in deep. Bliss York I READ THE menu through three times before Nate came back to the table. By then it was memorized. I could feel him looking at me. It made me nervous in a way that was both good and bad and then it all ran together. I wondered if his grandfather was reminding him about me. If he did would it change in an instant? Would my employment with Octavia end? When Nate sat down beside me my nerves were shot from the stress and the pressure of what would come from their talk at the bar. I couldn’t look up from my memorized menu until Nate put me at ease. Find anything you want? he casually asked. There was nothing in his voice to warn me that he knew or didn’t know. He seemed the same. Maybe his grandfather had forgotten who I was and what had happened. Had they simply been discussing that Octavia had hired me and the lunch was a professional courtesy? I think I’m going to trust you and go with the shrimp poboy. When I told him I smiled then brought the grin up to look into his eyes with confidence. He nodded. Good choice. Smart move. I felt my smile wobble and took a quick peek at his grandfather who was watching intently. Was he seeing how I reacted to his stare? Did he know that I knew he knew that I knew . . . ugh, I was losing my mind. In my head, I recited the list of appetizers without looking at the menu. Then I checked to make sure I got them right. Not a miss. Was I going insane? I can’t believe you don’t come here regularly. The place is pretty popular. Was he testing me now? Fishing for clues? Jesus, the pressure of this lunch. I don’t eat out much. I wasn’t going to lie. He didn’t appear surprised or confused by my response. He appeared his normal relaxed self. So when was the last time you were here? I gave a small shrug with my shoulders. It’s been years. It looks the same. Just saying the words was tough. Knowing he didn’t hold those memories as close to his heart as me. Or at all.There must have been oodles of girls since me. I blended in with all those women. I was just another name in a journal. I winced. I hoped he didn’t have a journal of women. Hasn’t changed much I’d guess. What was your favorite dish when you came in here before? To have a favorite I would’ve had to try several things. He was assuming I had been more than once. Or was I reading too much into this? I never came enough to have a favorite. He smirked then shifted his eyes to the bar where I knew his grandfather was studying. Maybe he’d clued Nate in with a little memory jolt? You’re right. I assumed that once you’d eaten here you’d want to come back repeatedly. My mistake. Forgive me. Sorry. My heart sank a little. That was it. All he was going to say. Every time I was faced with Nate forgetting me it hurt. I wished it didn’t, but the pain was overwhelming. If I’d had more experience with guys it probably wouldn’t sting as bad. The few I’d dated hadn’t been anything memorable. They weren’t enough compared to Nate. They never clicked, because they couldn’t be him, which was my own personal dilemma. I just wished he thought the same about me. Now it seemed like those guys, though few in number, may have been a good thing nevertheless. This entire time I’d been fixated on a fantasy that obviously wasn’t meant to be. I wasn’t important enough to remember. Octavia won’t eat here. It’s below her. Grandpop says that I should take note. A girl who will walk through those doors is a keeper, according to the old man over there. I didn’t respond to that. It wasn’t my business, although I did agree, you had to accept one’s family. This was his grandfather’s restaurant. Octavia should want to come here. But then of course I’d met Octavia. She wasn’t the type to be considerate of others unless it benefitted her. She did what she wanted to do. When will Octavia be back? She didn’t say anything on the phone. Nate shrugged. Hell if I know. She comes and goes on a whim. You’ll see soon enough. That didn’t sound like a healthy relationship. Was that what Nate desired? Wanted to be married to forever? A wealthy socialite that lived a life of leisure and ran a business as entertainment? No, that wasn’t fair. Octavia was working hard to make this a successful business. Sure her father was there if she needed him with unlimited money but she wasn’t to blame for that. In high school where did you and your friends hang out? Nate’s question came from out of the blue. I didn’t want to answer it. My life in high school wasn’t what he thought. Telling the truth would give away too much. Yet I wasn’t going to lie, so I chose a vague reply. Here and there. Not too much to choose from around here if you want to stay away from the tourist. He chuckled. Here and there? Really? That’s all I get? I shrugged and turned the question on him. Where did you and your friends hang out? The Kerrington Country Club. The beach and clubs in Destin. He then paused and finished with a wink. That’s the way you answer a question. I sighed. He was right. I didn’t go out a lot. I stayed home mostly. Eli was my only close friend. There, that was the truth. All he was getting from me. Why? He frowned, but it wasn’t a frown of confusion, he was pressing me for more information. He was curious. I’d have to answer. Because I was an introvert. I liked my house and the safety there. I wasn’t good with people and Eli understood me. It worked because it had to. There was no other choice for me. You don’t seem introverted. He didn’t know the girl who’d fought cancer. He knew the survivor. The outcome. My before and during cancer were something else entirely. People change. Circumstances change you. His grandfather appeared at the table with two beers and sat them down. Y’all decided on something to eat? I hated beer. But I kept my mouth shut. I could sip it to wash down my food. Two shrimp poboys with the chips you make. Extra salt. My blood pressure’s low. His grandfather nodded then smiled at me when I met his gaze with mine. Good to have you back, he said. Then he walked away. I became a block of ice. Unsure if I should look at Nate. You must’ve made an impression on grandpop when you did come in before. He leaned back and took a drink of his beer. Do you even drink beer? he asked. I shook my head. He waved over a waitress. Joyce, can Bliss have a . . . he looked at me for an answer to his question. Sweet tea, I replied. Thank you. Joyce nodded. Sure thing, then she walked away, switching her hips for Nate. The old man thinks the world drinks beer. He muttered, actually he whispered it. Then he added in a normal tone did you have a favorite subject? In high school or anything after? The questions went on like that. Each query made me think harder about how I answered his questions. Keeping my secret was difficult, but somehow I managed it. Nate Finlay IT WAS ALL I could think about Sunday. That damn lunch. All the answers she avoided. Asking her had been unfair. She obviously was trying her hardest to keep it a secret from me. Along with who she was. That was my fault. She thought I didn’t remember and after spending time with her I realized her not reminding me was for my own benefit. Not hers. The Bliss I’d fallen for that summer was the same. She was tougher now and had seen how ugly life can get. The girl became a woman, facing fear and winning, but her heart hadn’t changed. There was a kindness inside her that you couldn’t manufacture. It made you question your relationships. Had they been Bliss would it have worked? Why the hell am I focused on this? That was a recipe for disaster. I had a good thing. The easy drama free kind of relationship all men look for. I wasn’t going to mess that up with Bliss. Even if she made me feel something I hadn’t in a long time. Seeing her smile reminded me there were women out there that weren’t solely concerned with their needs and simply pleasing their selfish desires. I didn’t want to ever be as vulnerable as my father. Although my momma would never hurt my father . . . what if, I mean, if he lost her. If she died he wouldn’t live. He’d follow my mother in death. Sure he loved his children and had a good life, but mom was his number one. His center. A fucking necessity. That shit was scary as hell. Octavia would never be my center. I was safe from that kind of heartbreak. I could continue on breathing and living if something happened to her. Sure I’d be sad, but I wouldn’t die from it, which was healthy and normal. That was all I wanted in life. Shallow? Yes. But shallow is safe. I’d convinced myself of that. I was jerked from my thoughts when someone bumped me and dropped a box at my feet. Books went everywhere. Sorry man, I didn’t see you. My bad. Wasn’t paying attention. It was Eli. Standing in front of me. His eyes locked on me and he straightened. There was recognition there and he wasn’t hiding it like Bliss. Had she talked to him about me? Did he think I remembered what she thought I’d forgotten? My God, this was confusing. Please tell me you don’t have a place here, were the words that came from his mouth. If it had been anyone else I’d have considered that to be rude. But I understood and respected his concern. Bliss meant a lot to him. I wondered if she meant more than that? I couldn’t imagine them just being friends. I thought that would be fucking impossible. But then, of course, that was me. Eli may be different.

My grandfather does, I replied. Not that grandpop ever stayed here. He was always at the bar. I’d told him I would come by this afternoon and eat Sunday lunch with him. It was the only day of the week that he spent his afternoon at home. The bar was closed until six in the evening on Sundays. It was kind of his day off. Great, Eli muttered, bending down to collect the books. I could’ve kept walking and left it at that, but I wanted more information. About what? Bliss, that’s what. I wasn’t going to act on my feelings. But I wasn’t strong enough to stay away either. What I didn’t know about her past was a gap I had to close. In the end the more I knew would only cause pain when she left. I was asking for it. Normally I ignored the dramatic. This time I apparently invited it. My desire to know Bliss was now winning out over my own self-preservation. Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre . . . interesting reading choices. I was being an ass. These were Bliss’s books. She loved to read and Pride and Prejudice I knew was her all time favorite. I hoped the fucker hadn’t scratched them up being a clumsy son of a bitch. Can’t beat a good romance, he replied with a sarcastic drawl. He wasn’t going to admit they were Bliss’s. Why? Because he didn’t know that I was aware they lived together as friends? He was protecting her from me. Smart man. Can’t say I prefer that genre, but to each his own. Eli then jammed Sense and Sensibility into the box with unnecessary force before standing up and glaring at me. Not everyone knows a good thing when it slaps them in the face. He started to walk off and I should have let him, no point in digging any deeper. He didn’t like me. Probably hated me. Was Bliss talking badly about me? If so, then that sucked ass. Because other than forgetting her I was being nice. I thought she enjoyed her time with me yesterday at my grandpop’s. How long has she been cancer free? The words came out before I could stop them. He froze. We stood there like that for what seemed to be longer than it actually was. My head was pounding with the realization I’d just admitted I knew her. Had known her. Shit. He was gonna tell her. I’d have to face the past now. When he finally turned around to face me there was hardness in his expression. Eli seemed easy going. Kind and gentle, the sort she belonged with. He was the guy that believed in fairytales and could probably make them come true. You know, was all he said. I nodded. Fuck you, was the response I deserved. He then walked off towards the stairs. I stood there and waited just in case he decided to come back for answers. After five minutes I knew he wasn’t returning so I walked to grandpop’s condo. It was on the bottom floor. Eli would immediately tell her. She’d know when I saw her at work. My pretending would be over and we would have to deal with it. A large portion of me was relieved. But there was a small part of me that was terrified. Of what we would say and how things would be with us now. How strong was I? I’d soon find out. I knocked once and the door to my grandfather’s condo swung open and hit the wall. The smell of gumbo met my nose. My grandfather stood there with a black apron on that said KISS THE COOK in white lettering. There were tiny white handprints on it that belonged to a much younger me. My sisters handprints were on there also. My mother had us make it for him fifteen Christmases ago. About time you got here. I was getting close to eating this without you. There’s beers in the fridge. He then returned to his kitchen. I closed the door behind me. My thoughts drifted to the way it looked. Was Bliss’s place like this one? Was her bedroom to the left of the living room like grandpop’s guest room was? Or had Eli given her the master? Or were they sleeping together in his bed? Fuck that train of thought. It didn’t sit well at all. I headed for the fridge for the first of what would more than likely be too many beers. Bliss York ALL AFTERNOON ELI had acted weird. Like he was nervous or anxious or jumpy. By the time we needed to leave for Jilly’s third birthday party he’d barely said five words. We had to go to his grandparent’s house. I wasn’t looking forward to the trip. I wanted to ask him what was wrong. But asking would make us late and he didn’t need to be late. Jilly was Eli’s cousin. Jilly was the youngest in their group. It was fun having a little one around. Once I thought they’d never stop coming. Then as time went on we all grew up and our parents stopped reproducing. Larissa’s pregnancy had been exciting even after the father ran off. We all supported and assisted, came together as a group and the child was well loved in his absence. What did you get her? I asked. I was trying to make him talk, although I doubted I would be successful. Spiderman water gun. That sounded odd for a three-year old girl. But not for Jilly, she would love it. She was a huge Spiderman fan. The birthday party invitations were Spiderman themed and I expected the party would be. You? he asked. An art set. She’ll love that. I thought so too when I bought it last week. We headed for the door with our presents in hand. I decided to ask him what was wrong. I’d make sure we weren’t late. But I couldn’t go all evening without knowing why Eli was upset. Something was bothering him. Spill, I demanded, placing my hand on the door, to keep him from walking outside. He tried to frown in confusion, arching his brows, like he didn’t know what I meant. He failed but tried anyway. What? Spill what? I’m confused. I rolled my eyes. He sucked at this. You know what. You’re upset about something or there’s a contract on your life by a drug cartel or the mob. I seriously doubt it’s the last one. You don’t even take painkillers. I wouldn’t think you’re into the blow. He sighed and looked at me. His expression said I don’t want to tell but he would or I’d become angry. Nate’s grandfather lives in the building. That was it? He was upset over that? Eli could be as dramatic as a female at times, so I responded and . . . uh . . . so what? He shrugged. I just don’t want you running into him more often than you should. There he was, worrying again. Like he always had and would. Eli, I told you, I’m a big girl. Stop it with the hovering and concern. I am fine with Nate. I see him at work. I’m employed by his fiancé. Eli didn’t look convinced. Definitely not relieved. I opened the door before I lost my temper and fussed at him some more. He was way too overprotective. It was a waste of my breath I decided. We stepped out of the condo and headed for the stairs. I wanted to say more, but I kept my mouth shut, because changing the subject was better. Did you bring a swimsuit? I asked him. Mine was under my sundress. Eli’s grandparents had a beautiful pool on the beach and this was a swimming party. He nodded. Yeah. He was still being moody. Seriously? Eli, what is your deal? I should be the one acting pissy. You’re just being ridiculous. We’d just gotten to the bottom of the stairs when Nate came into view. He was walking toward the parking lot. I paused and his gaze found us both. He went from Eli to me then stopped. Like he was waiting on something to happen.We’re going to be late, Eli said, taking my arm and moving forward. No, we aren’t. I argued. We are if you stop and talk. I was only going to be polite. He doesn’t need polite. Doesn’t fucking deserve it. I jerked my arm loose from Eli. What is your problem? Are you mad at him because he doesn’t remember me? Eli, let that go. It was a long time back. I was a kid. I’ve changed. So has he. I turned my attention back to Nate. He was watching us like a hawk. Like he expected something to explode. I got the feeling there was more to this than I realized was currently happening. Had they talked today? Had words? Did Eli say something he shouldn’t? What’s going on? I asked Eli in a whisper. Yes, something had occurred. He glared at Nate. Nothing. Not a thing. Eli, I warned, something’s going on. He knew I’d discover the truth. No reason to hide it now. Why don’t you ask him? His tone was full of anger as he continued glaring. Eli then walked off, leaving me there with Nate. I watched as he stalked towards the car, completely baffled at his behavior. Turning my attention back to Nate I asked what the heck happened? Nate looked as confused as me. Not sure. He was really upset. Great, Eli was crazed over nothing and there’d been no reason for this. Nate would know if there was. I’m sorry. He’s been acting weird all day. I’m trying to figure out what’s bothering him. Nate nodded as if he understood. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then. I said it and started for the car. Bliss. His voice stopped me. Yes? He stared at me for a moment. It made me nervous, I wanted to fix my hair or check and see if there was something in my teeth. Those silver eyes made me a mess. They always had and always would. When did you beat cancer? I felt myself break. My heart plummeted. Right there lost in his eyes. He knew. I wasn’t a stranger. I was a healthy female that worked for his fiancé. Not the girl he once knew. I was A.C., no longer B.C. And they were different. Vastly different. He’d never look at me the same way again. And I knew Eli was to blame. Nate Finlay THERE. SHE KNEW. I couldn’t keep it in any longer. Knowing she had fought and won against cancer since we’d last seen one another made me feel like an even bigger bastard for pretending not to remember her. She remained quiet about it. Not reminding me. Not trying to get me to remember her. Most girls would’ve been upset and dramatic, needing to draw attention. Not Bliss. She said nothing at all. Did her job and smiled when I made her. The joy that had originally drawn me to her was still there as if it never left. Even after all she’d been through. I was the world’s biggest jackass. I intended to rectify that. If it was humanly possible I would. Who told you? Finally, she spoke the words. She’d been staring at me for a while, as if she wasn’t sure what to say, or if she’d heard me correctly. There was sadness. She didn’t want me to know. But why? Perhaps I didn’t deserve to. Does that matter? She nodded. Yes. It does. Bliss, let’s go, we’re going to be late, Eli called out to her. She didn’t look at him or speak. There was a flash of anger in her eyes and I realized she was mad at Eli. He didn’t tell me, I replied, although I don’t know why. I kind of liked the idea of her being angry with him over something like that. He fit so perfectly into her life. Eli was able to be with her through every moment of the day if he chose to. I wasn’t. I hadn’t been given a Bliss. I’d chosen, instead, an Octavia. Then who? she asked again, this time with obvious anger in her voice. It was sexy, she was never angry, or hell, never even ornery. She made pissed off look good. My grandfather. He thought I knew and mentioned it, while we were eating at his place. Her anger quickly faded. The sadness was back in an instant. She stood there for a moment bewildered. Okay, she whispered, turning to leave, but I couldn’t let her go. Wait, I called after Bliss. She knew the truth that I’d been a lying asshole and she hadn’t even mentioned it. I needed more. A slap in the face? She could yell at me if she chose to. She paused and with an obvious sigh turned back to me to speak. I’m sorry, was all I could say. I was, more so than I’d ever been for anything I’d ever done. For what? Did she actually have to ask me that? I would’ve thought the reason was obvious. I had a mountain of shit to be sorry for. For letting you believe I didn’t remember you. I thought it was for the best. But it was wrong. A cruel thing to do. Oh. I just thought I was forgettable. She shrugged her shoulders and tilted her head. That was a million years ago. We’ve both lived another life since then. She’d survived through a hell that changed her. Robbing Bliss of experiences she should have had, yet she didn’t complain in the least. I’d like to know the woman you’ve become. We were friends once, before I kissed you. We could be friends again. As I said the words I realized I didn’t have that many real friends. The relationship she had with Eli was unique. That, I had with no one. Lila Kate and I could’ve had that. If our mothers hadn’t intended us to marry. We’d never gotten too close. Our mothers’ hopes would rise if we did. Octavia wasn’t my friend. We didn’t talk about much. She talked about her store, parties to attend and the wedding, stuff like that. The way Bliss and I talked yesterday at my grandpops was a thing I wanted more of. That could be asking for trouble. A fucking load of trouble, but I wanted it. I don’t think that’s possible Nate. Her voice was soft as she said it and it waivered as if she didn’t want to say or believe her own words. Then she left me standing there. Watching her go. Eli was waiting at his truck. The look on his face said it all. She may see him as a friend, but he saw her as more than that. I believed he always had. There was a possessiveness in his stance. The way he held her door and watched me. Waiting to see if I spoke. I met his gaze and the warning was clear. He was staking his claim silently. Just for me. I understood it. That made more sense than what Bliss believed they were. A girl like that didn’t have a guy as just a friend not when you looked like Bliss. Any fucking man would want more from her. She was the perfect package of beauty and innocence, nothing ugly about her; inside or out, and you could see it. Other than Bliss I’d never seen that combination in a woman and trust me, I’ve looked. A lot. More than I should have. After my summer with her I measured every female by her standards. Until I convinced myself that what I was remembering was an illusion, because we’re all imperfect. I let it go and the line of beauties that followed had little more than unbelievable bodies. That was their selling point. Octavia was a drama free selection. Easy, unchallenging and simple. She had been a relief. What I thought I was looking for. Until I came back here. Until I saw Bliss again. Then I remembered what perfect actually was. What I wouldn’t have. What I had once had.Eli opened the door for her and I watched as she climbed inside. He spoke to Bliss, she only nodded, Eli quickly closing the door. Again, he looked at me. If Bliss were anyone else I’d take that as a challenge. I’d win. I always did. But this wasn’t a game I would play. She was what I knew I couldn’t touch. My world wasn’t for her. She was Sea Breeze and her world was here. Mine was out there waiting. Getting the hell out of one coastal town and settling in another wasn’t change. It was another fucking coastal town. What I wanted was Bliss’s friendship. Being friends with her would be the hardest damn thing I ever did but I could do it. Eli was what Bliss needed. I was made for the Octavia’s of the world. No matter what my mom believed. She had other ideas concerning me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her how off she was about her son. I was my father’s son. But there wouldn’t be a Blaire to save me. I wasn’t open to that. Bliss wasn’t going to change me. Just for this summer I’d like for her to be exactly as she was back then. To feel truly happy, full of hope, and alive as I’d once remembered. Life became dark at times. Bliss knew that better than anyone. Yet, she lived with a smile, maintained that hope in her eyes. For three months I could enjoy it. Getting past Eli was the problem. He didn’t trust me. Didn’t even like me. I thought about how much he’d hated me seven years ago. Bliss had been naïve, hadn’t seen it. I did and hadn’t cared. Bliss York IS HE EVER going to realize she doesn’t like him? Crimson disgustedly asked as she came to stand beside me. I searched for Cruz knowing it was him we were discussing without any explanation. He was, as always, talking to Hadley. Poor boy was fixated on her. Hadley had flown in on her father’s private jet with her parents and sister for this party. In the morning they’d return to their home in Beverly Hills. In June, they’d come back, to yet another house, the one here they occupied for the summer. She lived a life so distant from any of ours that none of us was close to her. He has to try, I replied. The real issue here was that Crimson had, as of late, become interested in Cruz . . . again. It wasn’t the first time. When they were little they were inseparable. Much like Eli and me. But Crimson had always had stars in her eyes whenever she was around him. Time had changed them both, but the stars were still there for Crimson. Cruz led the terrible six. It took a lot to keep them constantly in trouble. Crimson was too smart for that. Or I thought she was. He’s the son of my father. Or so my momma says. So be careful Crimson. He’s not the settling down type. I love him, don’t get me wrong, but he’s in it for women period. All women. Every single one. Crimson sighed and growled frustratingly. Yeah, that’s what my mom says, but your dad settled down for your mother. It is possible. Anything is. You’re nineteen. Don’t even think about settling down yet. She shrugged. I don’t think it sounds so bad. Crimson believed the fantasy. The one her parents had as did mine. I wanted that but I wondered if it was possible anymore. Did people still love like they did? Had that become a thing of the past? I want a fairytale, she said softly. I replied Crimson, we all do and put my arm around her shoulder. But Cruz isn’t the one. Keep looking. She nodded. Yeah, I know. What are y’all whispering about? Saffron asked as she sauntered up to us. Her skirt was so short if she bent over her bottom would show. How long everyone is going to pretend that Larissa and Micah aren’t dating. My guess is by Christmas we will all admit to knowing their secret. Unless Preston figures it out. Then their cover is blown. I said that to conceal Crimson’s issue from Saffron who couldn’t keep her mouth closed. If she got wind of Crimson liking Cruz then it would be her mission to have him. Although she’d already been there and done that. I thought they were awfully close, Saffron whispered as her eyes got big. Micah and Larissa would kill me if this got back to them. I’d made that up to get Saffron off the scent of a challenge, any obstacle, because she liked to take guys from other girls. Then she would throw them away. The constant chatter of my family that surrounded me helped distract me from the conversation I’d had with Nate. Tonight as I lay in bed I would have time to go over it. He wanted to be friends. Friends? My chest hurt every time that word rang in my ears. Of course that was all he could want. He was engaged. And SHE was my boss. How was I supposed to be friends with him? I needed to date again. That was my problem. My hurdle. Nate held a special place in my heart because he was my best relationship. The best I had experienced. After him no one had met my expectations. But I’d only been fifteen. We were kids being dreamy and irrational. I had to try some more. The few dates I’d been on hadn’t been that great but that didn’t mean they were bad. I needed to test the waters. Take chances with different personalities; anything to wash Nate’s memory from my dreams, both day and night, because our time together plagued me. I’ve got to go in the back and get Cleo off the phone. Quickly, before my dad sees. Crimson then excused herself to find her sister. Saffron saw Holland talking to James Stone and hurried over there to draw attention, knowing she didn’t like James. She just wanted his eyes on her. What’s going on in that head of yours? my mother asked as she walked over to me, holding out a cup of punch. I’ve watched you all evening. You’re upset about something. That frown line gives you away. I took the punch from her. I could lie but she would know. Momma knew everything. So, I was honest. Nate Finlay is engaged to my boss. Mom’s eyes went wide. The boy from that summer? I nodded. Yep, the same. Oh my, she whispered and her frown matched mine. After all I had inherited it from her. Yeah, ‘oh my’ is right. How long have you known? she asked. Since the very first day at work. I didn’t think he remembered me. He pretended not to until this afternoon . . . Mom looked mad and interrupted. Jerk. Goodness. That’s rude. I had to laugh. Momma was like talking to a friend. She listened and didn’t try to sugar coat it. We’d faced my cancer together. That made your bond stronger and I thought we were closer, as near to one another as could be. He wants to be friends, I said. She released a short laugh, as if that were ridiculous and I had to agree with her. At least she wasn’t telling me to give it a try, because my mom was honest and realistic. I loved that about her. He’s engaged. You can’t be friends. That’s impossible. I nodded. Does Eli know? I wasn’t sure why she asked that. There was no reason for Eli to know. He would just get overprotective and I wasn’t in the mood for that. No. He’ll worry. He loves you. I love him. Momma gave a sad smile. I know. I could tell by the look on her face she wanted to say more but she didn’t. Instead she took my hand and squeezed it. One day you’ll know more.

That didn’t make sense to me. Momma often said things that didn’t. Like she wanted me to figure life out on my own. I didn’t push for an explanation. Sometimes I did, but this time I didn’t, my gut telling me you don’t want to know. Right now I had enough to deal with. Like the fact that I knew being Nate Finlay’s friend was a terrible idea from the start. Yet, I was going to do it. Because if I didn’t, I would always wonder what if it had just been a friendship? It could’ve been one like Eli’s. I knew I was lying to myself. But cancer had taught me a lot. And the what if’s of this world were something I decided I never wanted to have. I wasn’t about to begin with Nate. Nate Finlay I WAS LATE coming into work because it had taken me three cups of coffee and about ten pep talks to get me out the damn door. Facing Bliss today wasn’t going to be easy. She hadn’t left me yesterday on a good note. She’d been hurt and angry. When I opened the back door and heard the familiar voice of my youngest sister talking I froze. What the hell was Phoenix doing here? She was supposed to be in school. Last time I checked she was still a senior. Graduation wasn’t for two more weeks. Bliss laughed and I stalked toward their voices. I didn’t trust Phoenix not to say a bunch of shit she shouldn’t. The girl was an annoying loud mouth. . . . and then we had to tell dad. Ophelia didn’t have enough money for bail . . . Phoenix finished with her cup of coffee in hand as she gestured theatrically with her other. Both females began to laugh. I’d never seen my sisters laugh with Octavia. She wasn’t much of a laugher herself. She thought my sisters were silly. I had to agree with her. However, seeing Phoenix so at ease with Bliss was nice. Too damn nice to be comfortable. Hate to break up the party but what the hell are you doing here? Why aren’t you in school? Phoenix didn’t even jump at the sound of my voice. Good to see you to big brother. Hope you’re doing well. Yes, I am wonderful. Ready for finals and oh, of course, I’m registered at Washington State. I rolled my eyes. This was how Phoenix got the subject off her and made you feel guilty in the process. It worked with most of my family. Not me. Never had. I didn’t ask about any of that shit. Why aren’t you in school? Why are you here? She turned her attention back to Bliss. He’s rude. Always has been. Bliss softly giggled. This morning I arrived ready to convince her to be a friend to me. Why, I wasn’t sure, because it was probably a stupid idea. But I wanted it nonetheless, like asking to be punched again. And after hours of talking myself into acting, I arrive to find my freaking sister here. Screwing it up for me. I need to get back to the window display. I’ll leave you two to visit. Bliss spoke, then stood, walking away and though I shouldn’t watch her walk, I did because I was a man. Well, I’ll be damned, Phoenix said, snapping my attention back to her. What? She smirked and looked at Bliss’s back then cut her eyes at me. Please tell me that she, Phoenix threw her chin at Bliss has the ability to end this ridiculous relationship you have with Octavia. It wasn’t just my mom who didn’t care for Octavia. It was all the women in my life. Octavia’s been nothing but nice to you, I reminded her. She had been nice to all of them. Nice, but uppity, she replied. There’s always a snarl beneath it. We lived in a world of uppity with snarls. I didn’t point that out. I decided to let it go. Why are you here? I asked more firmly this time. I was close to calling dad. Phoenix didn’t want that. Because, she said with a sigh a few of the graduating class hung our underwear on the flagpole. That was the night before last. Alcohol may have been involved. It seemed hilarious at the time. Even the next morning at school. Until we found out there were security cameras. We should’ve known that beforehand. Anyway, today they’ll be calling our parents. So I’m hiding. What are you up to? She ended it so casually. The flagpole thing was stupid, not criminal. Hell, I’d done a lot worse when I was a student there. Go home and face it Phoenix. Mom will remind him that he’s getting paid back for the sins of his younger years. You’re the baby. He’ll calm down. They always let you get away with shit. Phoenix frowned. I was drunk in the security footage. That’s why they’ll go bananas. Agreed. They’d be furious. But she wasn’t hiding here forever. I had my own shit to deal with. Octavia would be back soon. I had to get my head on straight before she walked in the door. Stop drinking. It leads to stupid shit. Wait until you’re legal then make your mistakes. Now go home and get it over with. She pouted. Please go with me. I glanced over at Bliss working in the window. Normally when Phoenix needed me I was there without delay. She was, after all, the baby. And we babied the shit out of her. That was the reason she was wild as a buck. Even Ophelia bailed her out of trouble. Took the blame for things she shouldn’t. I can’t. Phoenix released a defeated sigh. Normally, now, I’d commence the waterworks and cry until you caved. But I love you and will refrain. And if that girl Bliss can remove your head from Octavia’s uptown ass, where it seems to have been lodged for months, then good, that’s what I want. Even more than our parents assaulting me and burying my body in the sand. I rolled my eyes. How fucking dramatic. For starters, my head is free of all asses and has never been in Octavia’s. Secondly, our folks aren’t exactly the toughest parents in Rosemary. She shrugged and stood without worry. I’m going to enjoy the day here. Walk on the beach where people don’t know me and eat some lunch like a stranger. Then, after they’ve worried, I’ll call and head home in shambles. Maybe their relief that I haven’t washed up on the beach or been drawn into a sex racket, will make them forget about the punishment. I doubted it and figured it would only make it worse but I wanted her to leave so I nodded. Truth was if they called me frantic I was telling them where she was. I didn’t want my momma to worry. Dad would worry, but he’d be pissed, and wouldn’t care about her emotional wellbeing. See you in a week Phoenix. I’ll be home for graduation. She kissed my cheek then headed for the door. Bye Bliss! Lovely meeting you! Would be even lovelier if you . . . Phoenix! I stopped the comment. She threw her head back and laughed, then sashayed out the door. Life with two younger sisters had never been easy. Dad said it was why I was patient, with women and animals and old people. He had raised my Aunt Nan, said it taught him a lot, Phoenix often compared to her in looks and personality. She wasn’t as mean as they say Nan was, but then she had a stable life growing up. Aunt Nan hadn’t had that. Until Uncle Cope came along she was a destructive and angry hot mess. Or at least that’s the story I’ve heard. I turned my attention back to Bliss and the way she was studying the window. Her intensity reminded me of a moment seven years ago. It was then that I realized she was special and I wouldn’t be able to forget her.She must have felt my gaze. Bliss paused and looked directly at me. Her eyes met mine and she smiled. As if she knew what I was thinking and she remembered it too and while remembering turned to me. Seven years ago . . . She was worried about her friend. He was home from basketball camp. She’d convinced her parents to let her stay another week at the beach with Larissa, who had helped with that, because her parents were constantly fretting. Eli, however, wasn’t real happy about her being with me all the time. I woke up and headed for our spot on the beach every morning around the same time. Quite often she was there first. Others days I beat her there. At night we texted on the phone until she stopped which meant she’d fallen asleep. This summer was a hell of a lot better than I ever imagined it being. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to Rosemary Beach next month. I liked my grandpop’s condo and the food at his bar, the way this beach was touristy, but not so exclusive and elitist like it was at home. And well, if I was being absolutely fucking honest, I liked Bliss York and was pretty sure I was in love. She ruled my thoughts. I watched her as she watched Eli walk away. We’d been standing in line at the ice cream stand when he came up to her to talk. Asked if she wanted to go surfing with him and someone I didn’t know named Micah. She had declined and he’d glared at me, before walking away with his shoulders drooping, doing that defeated thing. Maybe I should have gone. We both could have gone. Her frown was so damn sweet it hurt. Of course I had to add stark reality. I wasn’t invited Bliss. She inhaled and exhaled deeply then turned back to me. That’s because he doesn’t know you Nate. He has to warm up to you. No, that wasn’t correct. It was because her friend was jealous. I saw it, understood it, but I wasn’t about to let her leave me for him. If she really wanted I’d let her go, but not because that pussy pouted and retreated like a ten-year old child. I could go do something else. Catch up with you later, I replied. I tried to sound cool, like I was fine with that, but I knew this was a gamble. She could easily agree and walk off. But the way I scanned the area, as if searching for someone to hang with, was the card I was playing at that moment. No, she said quickly. I want to stay with you. I turned back to her and smiled. She felt it to. I knew it. I wasn’t alone in this. The girl who had gotten under my skin was feeling it just like me. Why she liked me when a girl like her fit best with an Eli was beyond me. I wasn’t sure, but damn I was lucky. Good, I replied. You make being here worth it. The smile that lit her face made me want to say all kinds of mushy shit. Just to see that smile again, and again and again and again . . . Bliss York HAVE YOU FORGIVEN me for lying? was the first thing he said when his sister left. I was relieved Phoenix had been here. It kept us from having this conversation long enough to get my head together. Yes, I replied, because I had. I understood why he did it. It didn’t feel good but I got it. And have you thought about us being friends? He wasn’t wasting time getting to the point. But then Nate Finlay never had. The truth was there waiting and he dealt with it. It was best this got done before Octavia returned. That was probably what he was thinking at the moment. We have to work together. I mean you’ll be here helping Octavia. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be friends. It would make things run a little easier. He frowned. That hadn’t been the answer he was looking for. Well, what was? What did he want me to say? Yes! Let’s go get ice cream then kiss under the bridge like we used to? That memory stung deep. I shoved it down. Way down. Those memories weren’t available anymore. They couldn’t be unpacked and toyed with. Not if I was going to get over him. Octavia will be here in the next few days . . . and . . . I have questions about the past and you . . . your illness . . . how you overcame it. Well boo-hoo. I bet he did. That didn’t mean I was going to open up and share with him. I didn’t want him to know. In my head, I wanted us to remain the way we were, which was stupid, because I had no future with Nate. I suppose, I had no real reason not to tell him, except I didn’t want to, didn’t have to, and would do whatever I chose. Not be pressed into telling because he carried some guilt and needed that burden lifted. I don’t talk about it, I replied and continued working on the window. I had to find a way to make the scarves fit with the summer display I’d arranged. This was south Alabama. It was scorching hot in the summer. Octavia needed to remember that when she went buying stuff to sell. We both had a lot to learn and I appreciated her hiring me. Why? he asked. Why not get it off your chest? I rolled my eyes. Yes, I was acting like a teenager. He wanted to know something I didn’t want to talk to him about so he was going to ask me why. Did he think he’d get me to open up? Talk about it? Because he was being nosey? I’d been there and done that with plenty of people and wasn’t doing that with him. Because Nate. Simply BECAUSE. He became silent. Good. He needed to get on with his work for the day and I needed to do the same. You didn’t answer my texts or calls. I tried. Made the effort. It wasn’t me who turned you away. I closed my eyes tightly and sighed. He wasn’t letting this go. We were going to have to discuss it. Get it out in the open and deal. Which was ridiculous. We’d been kids. I had handled it the way a teenage girl knew to handle things. I was facing the scariest thing imaginable. What else do you need to know? I wasn’t in the frame of mind to keep up with a childhood crush. That was a little harsh, but it was the truth and the truth can sting. But I thought we were more than that? Maybe we had been. Maybe it was my fault. I’d been confronted with something that changed me. And when I was ready to tell him it had been too late. Too much time had passed and I was different, so very different. My fairytale life had ended. The real world had slapped me in the face. A loving family and a stable home with all the support on earth, can’t save you from something like cancer. It only deals in darkness and pain. You defeat it or it defeats you. Until you experience it you don’t understand the depth of it I folded the scarf and looked to him. I was too scared to think about boys. About friendships or the drama of people. Because I wasn’t sure I had a future beyond my next doctor’s visit. I woke up one day with my life all planned to look a certain way. It had been so exciting, so full of dreams, but then in one doctor’s consult I was told that I had cancer. That my life wasn’t guaranteed. Nothing was ever the same and it won’t ever be. Nate kept his gaze on me. There wasn’t pity or fear that it could happen to him, beneath the silver pools of his eyes. I saw those two things a lot, pity and fear in people. Not seeing them in his eyes was a relief. It would have hurt. Let me down. But like I’d always known Nate was different. He wasn’t like the other boys. He still saw me. Most people didn’t. They just saw the disease inside me. The one I had beaten, yet that seemed to remain in their minds after it was gone. I wanted to hug him for that. Thank him and rely on his judgment for that not to be weird and out of place. But he wouldn’t understand. He hadn’t lived what I had been through.

She giggled and I cringed. I didn’t like the gigglers. They annoyed the shit out of me. Bliss didn’t do the flirty giggle thing. Two years back that was the primary reason Bliss became attractive to me. Of course, after raw beauty. My grandparents are members of The Kerrington Club. I normally spend a month each summer in Rosemary Beach with them. I’ve seen you there. The two beaches were only two and a half hours apart. But seriously, the place had to follow me here? Jesus. Well now, I replied. Now you see me here. I tried my hardest to sound like an asshole so she’d leave before Bliss got here. I didn’t need her walking up to me while talking to Miss Big Tits, especially after last night’s kiss. She did the giggle again. Yes, I do. Want to sit with my friends and I? I saw you yesterday with the young girl and pointed you out to them. They’re fascinated that your grandfather is Dean Finlay. My dad’s dad is the famous drummer for Slacker Demon. They’re the iconic rock band that was now retired for the most part. They’d become grandfathers and the new generation wasn’t to their liking. When asked they came together for fundraisers, but that was the extent of their performances. Still though, there were the worshippers. They had a lifetime of fame that spanned three generations of fans that would never forget them. Most people are, I replied. And just as I said those words Bliss’s dark hair came into view. She was walking this way somewhat casually. The simple white lace cover-up she wore over her hot pink bikini didn’t show nearly as much body, compared to this other girl. Bliss looked classy and sure of herself. She had the brain to go with everything else. Excuse me, my girl is here, I said without looking back. I then headed to meet Bliss in my eagerness. Had I been another guy, one who wasn’t in love with Bliss York then I’d gone the other route. She would’ve been my first and I would’ve enjoyed every moment of losing my virginity. I knew that, but no, not now, she wasn’t what I was looking for. Bliss York LUNCH WITH NATE and Octavia. Great. Just what I wanted to do. Never. Sitting across from them at some fancy lunch place that I didn’t even know was in Sea Breeze I tried to keep a polite smile and I didn’t make eye contact with Nate. Which was difficult when I could feel his steady gaze on me. Watching me. Trying to read something into my expressions. I was easy to read. I hated that. Knowing he could see how uncomfortable I was. I like the way you incorporated the scarf into the summer pieces I’ve chosen. It works and it’s exactly what I had in mind. You have an eye for this thing. We just need to get you into the clothing. Your wardrobe doesn’t fit with the look of the place. But with your body advertising the inventory then we will sell more. In other words, my clothes were too cheap. My momma had always bought me designer clothing. I had never been accused of not being stylish. However, compared to Octavia I might as well be wearing clothes from a thrift store. She had another level of acceptable. I had seen the price tags on the items she bought for the store. I imagined her closet was full of similar items. I’m open to whatever you need me to do, I assured her. I was thankful I had this job. It gave me my independence and I was finally able to live like an adult. Not a kid. She flashed a very white glamorous smile my way and I wondered how much that smile had cost. There was no way those teeth were real. They were too white, too straight, too perfect. My braces hadn’t even given me those straight lines. Now that the summer line is in and I’ve chosen everything, I’ll give it a couple weeks then begin buying for the fall. It’s still warm here then so I’ll keep that in mind. I wasn’t sure who she was talking to, me, Nate or herself. But she continued to rattle on about profit and design and expanding. She hadn’t even been officially open yet and she was talking about opening five other stores within the US. I wouldn’t be surprised if she started planning her stores in other countries before the salads got to the table. The tourist arrive here the first week in June? Octavia asked as she looked at me. Yes sometimes sooner. We start to see more traffic the last week in May. Depends on when schools let out in the surrounding states. She nodded and the waiter arrived with our salads. I took a peek at Nate and he was frowning at his salad in disgust. I assumed he was used to places like this. I knew his lifestyle outside of Sea Breeze was very different. A shrimp poboy would have been a helluva lot better than this, he grumbled. Octavia rolled her eyes with an amused smile. You’d have those shrimp poboys at or wedding reception if I let you. What is a poboy anyway? Why call them that? It’s so degrading. Why not just call them a hoagie. It’s what they are. A hoagie? What was a hoagie? Jesus, he muttered but that was the only response he was giving her. I see you two have worked well together, Octavia said as she went to take a bite of her salad. I froze. What did she mean? I hadn’t been looking at Nate or even saying anything about him. I’d been very careful. Had his staring at me gave it away? Dangit Nate! I needed this job. She’s a hard worker. You hired well, Nate said then took one of the long toasted pieces of bread that came with our salads and shoved it in his mouth. Octavia cocked an eyebrow at him as if she wasn’t thrilled with the way he was eating then turned to me. Agreed. I can tell you’re going to be easy to work with. I like you and I don’t like people easily. You’ve got that something about you that people are drawn to and that will only help the store. I need the store to flourish so daddy will let me continue with more Octavia’s. A part of me felt admiration for her. A very, very small part. She wanted to do something with her life. Make a mark. Be more than a socialite and I admired that. You had to. I saw so many like her on the news and media that were just living off their parents wealth. Sure, Octavia was also living off her father’s fortune but she was trying to make a fortune herself. He was just her stepping stool. . . . Or her very high ladder. Or her private jet. It wouldn’t be too hard to make a success with the money she had to play with. But still. She was trying. That counted for something. I wasn’t much better. I’d lived with my parents well past the age I should have. I had let them feed me and put a roof over my head. And buy me a car, and buy my clothing . . . it was all on a much smaller scale but in comparison it was the same. Nate won’t be here much and I will need to travel once we get things going. So, it will be on you to handle everything soon. I believe you can do that. We will look into hiring two other employees to work under you before I leave for Spain at the end of the month. Nate will more than likely be back in Rosemary Beach or in Beverly Hills by then. But I feel confident I can trust you. Why would Nate be in Beverly Hills? He hated it there. Other than visiting his other grandfather he tried to go there as little as possible. I glanced at him and he was watching me again. I only met his eyes briefly before dropping them back to my salad. Thank you, I told Octavia. I’ll do my best. Great. After we returned to the store I made myself busy in the front. Although my thoughts stayed on how odd Octavia and Nate were with each other. There was no connection of any kind. They seemed annoyed by the other. Did he realize that?

Just as I began to wonder if I should say something to him before he made a mistake and married her I heard laughter. I paused and listened. It was both of them. Their voices mingled as they laughed. Setting down the dress in my hand I walked quietly over to the door. It was wrong to eavesdrop but I did it anyway. They were laughing and that seemed so out of place after watching them together. I love your stories, Octavia said with a hint of amusement still in her voice. It’s a gift, he replied. Hmmm, one of the many reasons I love you, was her response then the distinct sound of kissing followed. It wasn’t loud. It was just the sound of bodies pressed close. Breathing erratic and choppy, and silence when there had been talking. I stepped back. Eavesdropping was never a good thing and those who did it deserved to be punished. This was my punishment. Nate Finlay I MADE EXCUSES to stay away from Octavia’s for three days. The more distance I could put between Bliss and I the better things would be for all three of us. Octavia was back and that was enough to remind me what I needed in a life. What fit me and was safe, because being near Bliss was not safe. Just being in a room with Bliss wasn’t safe. She tempted me with a life I didn’t want. Each evening I listened to Octavia talk about Bliss’s ideas for the store. I took her out to dinner to the places she chose and was supportive without intervening. I did the things I normally did. However, when she asked to go listen to a band on Friday night at Live Bay I paused. That was a bad idea. More than likely Bliss would be there. Dating Octavia with Bliss watching wasn’t okay with me. If the situation were reversed it wouldn’t be easy for me to watch her with another guy. I didn’t think it was fair to Bliss. Even if she’d moved on and was over what we had or what we thought we had in the past, rubbing the other’s face in that history seemed cruel. I tried talking Octavia into going somewhere else. She was dead set on Live Bay and checking out the local scene. Octavia said she needed some down time, like there was any real stress heaped upon her. Mixing with the regular people here would help her release the tension that comes with being a success. There was a chance Bliss had other plans. That’s what I held onto until Octavia shot that to hell. We were entering Live Bay when Octavia stopped. She scanned the crowd like a Secret Service agent: Bliss said her table was to the left near the bar and that she’s saving us a spot. This was one small piece of information that Octavia failed to mention. She must have not considered it important. I gazed at Bliss’s table and there she was, sitting in some guy’s lap, laughing with a drink in her hand. That was nothing like Bliss and he was older than me. What the fuck? Why was I here? There she is, Octavia announced. She then slipped her arm through mine. Drug me towards the pair like a child. I then tried to think of a logical excuse to get me the hell out of there. Trusting myself not to do something stupid wasn’t easy with Bliss flirtingly drunk and lap wiggling on older guys. Where was fucking Eli? Jesus! Y’all came! Bliss beamed and jumped up. I hoped you would but I wasn’t positive. Here, take those seats. She didn’t sound drunk, but was too damn happy about this unfolding before her. Everyone, this is my boss Octavia and her fiancé Nate Finlay! She then looked back at us. That’s Jimmy, she pointed to the guy whose lap she’d been perched on wiggling and laughing. I glared at Jimmy who returned a smug smile then drank from his whiskey glass. That’s Micah, Daisy May, James and Crimson Bliss said, going in a circle, like we were at a book study group. Oddly, none of them appeared to be couples, which was weird and wasn’t lost on me. I’m just here to take care of Saffron whenever she appears, said the girl Crimson, with an annoyed look and a huff. Bliss added Saffron is a bit of a handful. What do y’all want to drink? Grey Goose martini, Octavia replied. Maker’s Mark is fine, I told her. She waved her hand towards the bartender. Larissa, we need a Grey Goose martini and a Maker’s Mark, please. The red head shot her thumbs up and went to work. I knew she looked familiar the last time I was in here. Hearing Bliss say her name I remembered why that was. Larissa was the girl who brought Bliss to the beach that summer long ago. Glancing around at the others, I wondered if I’d met them before. As if he could read my mind Micah pointed his beer at me: Nate Finlay? Damn, you look familiar! We’d met once, I remembered his face as well, but he didn’t need to figure that out right here in front of Octavia. We’d have a shit ton of explaining to do. Octavia knew nothing at all. The less she knew the better, as far as I was concerned. His grandfather is famous, Octavia replied. When he was younger Nate’s father was in the media a lot. They look like twins I swear. It’s freaky to see them together. Micah started to shake his head no. Bliss walked over, grabbed his hand, and blurted out Micah, you promised me a dance. Let’s dance now . . . right now. Micah looked confused, but he didn’t turn her down. I doubt any man would. He stood and stretched like he’d be jumping hurdles: I like it when you’re bossy and shit. Do it more. Make me mind. He was grinning like it was a joke. It really pissed me off. Bliss, however, laughed and tugged his arm, so he followed her willingly to the dance floor. Drinks are ready, Jimmy said, nodding his head toward the bar. I needed an escape so I took it. I’ll get them, I replied, before bolting the scene, getting away from the pack and keeping my eyes off Bliss, especially while she danced. That seemed an important task. Not to watch her body move. When I got to the bar the gorgeous red head stopped mixing and looked directly at my face. They don’t remember Nate, but I do. Shit. What do I say to that? She sat down her shaker, walked over to me, until she was as close as she could get. Still, she leaned aggressively forward, only the bar separating us. She’s been through a hell we can’t imagine. You hurt her and those guys over there will rearrange that pretty face. We don’t care who your daddy is. Got it? Are we clear? I was being threatened. Interesting. That didn’t happen to me. This was a first. I felt very normal. I said what came naturally. I’m engaged. Larissa didn’t look convinced. Don’t hurt her, she repeated, before walking back over, to continue working her shaker. She works for my fiancé. I didn’t come looking for her. That was seven years ago. Larissa paused, her icy green eyes, lifting to meet mine in space. Your reasons and excuses mean nothing. That girl is special. We all love her. We’ll protect her at any and all cost. She didn’t have a normal teenage life, those years robbed by that damn disease. You were the last real memory she had before it all went to shit. She’s strong in many ways but her heart is innocent, fragile and please don’t forget that. I realize that, but I’m not going to date her, it isn’t like I can hurt her. Larissa rolled her eyes and muttered a curse. You’re the only one who can dumbass. Didn’t you hear what I said?I glanced up from our hands to hold her gaze. Okay.

I promise. I took strength from her strength.We have each other. That’s more than some people ever get.

Our eyes were mirrors, reflecting back pain that we were determined to obliterate with our silent solidarity and gratitude for each other.Five minutes after the cab pulled away, my phone rang. Harper saw the gut-punch look on my face and promptly took the phone from me and blocked Caleb’s number. She then proceeded to give the cabdriver her address, in case the Scot decided to pay me an immediate visit.