outta here before I cause that scene.”
THE SAME. EVERY get together was always the same. The people and the scenery never change. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
I sighed and tried to keep a pleasant expression on my face. It was easy enough. I’d mastered it over the years. Smile, answer their questions, act interested in their life, and move on. Those were the survival steps required to get through an event among the Rosemary Beach elite.
As a child, it was fun. I played with the other kids. We found things to entertain us and our parents didn’t mind too much when Nate Finlay or Cruz Kerrington led us astray. It was easily exciting. Not a dull moment. But then puberty came and it all changed.
I turned my head to look at my parents. My father was handsome and didn’t look like a man on the back side of his forties. He was loved by this crowd, as was my mother, who I had always believed was beautiful. My father kept his hand on the small of her back, and the love in their eyes as they spoke to each other was real. You could see it. No one could question it—their love oozed from them.
Being raised by two people who had lived a fairytale romance set my relationship expectations a little high. No, make that ridiculously high. I wanted what they had and believed it was a given that I’d have a great romance too. The heartbreak of that notion is that at the age of twenty-two I had still never been in love. I’d thought I loved Cruz Kerrington once. We were kids. He’d kissed me, and I saw that fairytale in my future. Then the next week he’d kissed Melanie Harnett, and my fourteen-year-old heart was crushed.
That wasn’t the end of my dream, though. Cruz would flirt and wink. Come up beside me in the halls at school and whisper things in my ear. But he never did it in front of anyone. Girl after girl was on his arm, in his arms, and in the backseat of his BMW. Slowly, Cruz managed to disillusion me and the dream in my head.
“You’ve been quieter than normal tonight,” Caspian Manning, my cousin, said to me as he took the seat beside me. He was rarely at these events since he lived in Fort Worth. But mom had said he wanted to transfer to a college in Florida. She was hopeful he’d move here. I never imagined him anywhere else except Uncle Mase’s ranch, but he wanted something else from life. I could tell him Florida was a bad choice. Go west.
“A lot on my mind,” I said with less of my fake smile since he knew me too well.
He smirked. “Like how much longer until you can go home and hole up with a book in your room?”
I gave a small lift on my left shoulder then gave him my own smirk. “Mostly.”
He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Reckon these people ever think about leaving this place? These balls or whatever shit this is y’all do, all seem the same. Nothing exciting but that shrimp dip over there.”
“It’s a fundraiser for Dyslexia. Your parents are two of the sponsors. Don’t be a snot.” His mother, my Aunt Reese, had dyslexia for years and didn’t know it. Once she realized what her problem was she learned to read and finished school. She was a real inspiration.
“Yeah, I know. I get it, but last month there was another party here and the month before that. We always get the invitations. I see them on the kitchen counter. Fancy ass paper and gold wax stamp sealing the back,” Caspian said with a sigh and then surveyed the room from where we stood.
I wanted to agree with him but I kept my mouth shut. Last month was the annual cotillion where the girls who have come of age are presented to society. It’s so incredibly outdated, yet they still do it every year. I did cotillion when I was their age—I still have nightmares.
“Someone needs to take the booze away from Cruz. The dude looks like he’s bordering on tipsy headed to smashed.”
That, unfortunately, caught my attention. I followed his gaze and saw Cruz laughing a little too loudly and swaying a bit. I quickly checked the room for either of his parents and didn’t notice them. They would be very upset, and it would cause a scene. This would have been a good time for Nate to step in. But Nate wasn’t here. He was in Alabama with his fiancée where he now lived.
I waited a minute to see if anyone around him was going to do something when another drink was placed in his hands by a server. Not good.
“I better do something. His parents will be humiliated if he ruins this event.”
“Good luck,” was Caspian’s response as I reluctantly headed toward Cruz.
I didn’t go near Cruz for good reasons. However, his parents owned this place. Kerrington Country Club was theirs. If Cruz got crazy and did something ridiculous, I’d feel terrible for them. As much as I didn’t care for him, I liked his parents very much.
Before I reached him, he had handed his nineteen-year-old brother Blaze his drink and taken another from the tray. Two Kerrington boys getting drunk was even worse. I may never forgive Nate for moving, because for the first time in years I was forced to interact with Cruz.
Avoiding him had become a talent. A talent I was rather proud to possess.
I walked up unnoticed and snatched the glass right out of Blaze’s hand before he could tilt it back for a sip. “Don’t think so,” I said placing the full glass on a waiter’s tray before turning to Cruz who was watching me with an amused but confused grin. “As for you, let’s get out of here before you do something stupid. No wait, you’ve already given bourbon to a nineteen-year-old—before you can do anything else stupid.”
Cruz laughed then. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Cruz Kerrington, and you are?” He was mocking me.
“Don’t be an ass,” I replied with a scowl.
He threw his head back and laughed loudly. Too loudly. When he met my gaze again his eyes were still laughing at me. “I can’t believe that Lila Kate Carter just said the word ‘ass.’”
Why had I liked him once? Did I actually think I had loved him at the time? God, I was dumb when I was younger. “Cruz. Please. Let’s go.” I grabbed his arm to force him out when Chanel—whose last name I couldn’t remember, but that first name was hard to forget—stepped in front of me.
“Where are you going, Cruz?” Chanel asked. “We had plans.”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Ask Lila Kate.” He didn’t pull away from me. He seemed to be enjoying the awkward situation instead.
Chanel’s large brown eyes snapped away from Cruz to look at me. She was angry. I didn’t care. If she wanted to get Cruz out of here she was welcome to. “We’ve already made plans. He’s taken,” she all but growled at me.
“If your plans include getting him out of here, then please take him. He’s had too much to drink, and he needs to leave.”
“He can do whatever he wants. He’s a Kerrington.”
“Can I just say that I’m enjoying this immensely.” Cruz’s speech was now a little slurred.
“Just take him and leave.” I was tired of this. I wanted to walk back and sit quietly at my table. Dance with whoever asked, and be polite until I was safely in my room again.
“Don’t tell me what to do! I don’t care who your grandfather is. He’s retired. You’re so high and mighty. Stop acting like that makes you more important.”
Was she really going there? Jeez. I hadn’t dealt with that accusation in years. My grandfather was the lead singer of the legendary rock band Slacker Demon. They had stopped touring years ago—I don’t even remember when that happened it had been so long.
“I’ve changed my mind. I want Lila Kate to take me. I’m bored with you,” Cruz said. “And you’re mean.”
What? I jerked my gaze from Chanel to Cruz who was still grinning like a drunken idiot. “You’re more fun. Let’s go.”
“Are you serious?” Chanel screeched an octave higher. “She’s a boring goody-goody.”
“She’s real, Chanel. She’s fucking real,” he said calmly, and then he smirked at me. “You better get me
I didn’t argue. I was annoyed, but I didn’t argue. I didn’t take his arm this time. I just led the way out of the ballroom and outside the building. Away from the valet, because there was no way he was getting in his car and driving. I took him to the clubhouse instead. I figured he could sleep it off in there on one of the many large expensive leather sofas.
“Where are we headed? Are you taking me to the tenth hole to have your way with me?”
I knew he was joking. But it still got under my skin. “Not interested in having any way with you. Just saving Woods and Della the headache of their oldest acting like a moron in front of everyone.”
He chuckled. “God, you’re always so good. That’s sexy you know that? Your angelic face, killer body and perfect manners. It’s a combination that guys fantasize about—to get you to be wild. Taste some freedom.”
“I have plenty freedom,” I managed to say, although his description of me was a little startling.
“The untouchable Lila Kate Carter,” he continued. “So desirable and so freaking icy cold that you can’t get close.”
Icy cold? I wasn’t icy cold.
I stopped at the steps leading up to the clubhouse and glared at him with disbelief.
“You,” he said running a finger under my chin, “are an expensive china doll that can only be seen and not touched. It’s so tempting, but you know that if you try, it will shatter. So you don’t break it. You stay back. Admire from a distance. Until you’ve had too much to drink and you give in a little. Just to be near her.”
I didn’t like this. Not any of it. I wasn’t a breakable doll. I was very strong. I wasn’t emotional or dramatic. I was tough. I was obedient. I was a rule follower. That didn’t make me cold. “Just because I don’t get drunk, party and sleep with every guy in town doesn’t make me cold,” I shot back at him.
“No, but you’ve never gotten close to any guy. That verges on icy.”
“I am not!” I raised my voice. That wasn’t fair.
“Really? Then how about this?” he said just before he wrapped his arm around my back and pulled me to him. The whiskey on his tongue was the first thing I tasted as he kissed me. He did it like he was trying to force me to react. Like he was pushing me for more. He did it like he didn’t mean it at all. His hand squeezed my waist painfully and nothing about this moment was sweet or romantic.
I placed both my hands on his chest and pushed him back. He staggered back easily then shook his head with a smile. “See. I told you.”
“Cruz!” Chanel’s voice screamed.
Both our heads turned to see her storming toward us in heels so high that it was impressive she was so agile in them and didn’t break her neck. I would fall over.
“Well, Chanel, you found me. Good,” he pointed his thumb at me. “This one isn’t gonna work out. So, you get to go into this clubhouse with me and show me those red panties you said you weren’t wearing.”
Chanel looked smug. Like she’d won a prize that we had been competing for.
“You left me in there,” she pouted.
“Had to try out the other option. It was delicious but needs a little thawing for my taste,” Cruz drawled as he looked at me with hooded eyes. “Goodnight, Lila Kate.”
They walked into the clubhouse with his hand on her bottom. She was already kissing his neck. It was that easy for him. And he was that shallow.
His awful behavior was not what I wanted. If fairytales weren’t real, then I wanted adventure. Which meant I had to leave Rosemary Beach.
It was time.
THE MONEY THAT my grandfather had deposited in my trust fund remained untouched. I had gone to a private college on a scholarship for dance a little over an hour from here. I had been in private dance classes since I was three years old and had asked my dad if I could wear a tutu and twirl around on a big stage one day.
Originally, my dream had been to open a dance academy here in Rosemary Beach. But over the years that had changed. The more the fairytale in my head began to crumble, so did that idea. I didn’t want to travel the world and spend endless hours chasing a dream to be a famous dancer. I saw the dedication that went into it. I had friends who had gone on to do just that. It was all they had time for. It was their life. I wanted something else.
This past May, I had graduated with a Major in Literature and a Minor in Dance. I was still trying to figure out exactly what I was going to do with my degree, and what path I wanted to pursue. Nothing seemed right. Instead, I spent my time looking at condos to buy with some of my trust fund money. Living with my parents at twenty-two years old, almost twenty-three wasn’t exactly a goal of mine.
My idea to leave and find adventure had been exciting. But standing on the front porch of the house that had always been my home with a suitcase by my side and my parents hugging me goodbye was harder than I had imagined it would be.
“Call me. When you get to Sea Breeze, call me from Nate’s. Please,” my mom said as she held me tightly. As cliché as it may sound my mother was my best friend. I never went through a rebellious stage where I hated my parents or thought they knew nothing. I’d gone to my mother about all my problems.
“I will. And I’ll let you know my next stop as soon as I figure it out,” I assured her. I had a friend in Birmingham, Alabama who had taken a teaching position at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She wanted me to come for a visit. But I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep driving along the Gulf Coast or take that northward turn on my journey.
“Tires are new, oil is changed, and it’s been completely looked over,” my dad said as he nodded at my silver Land Rover that had been a college graduation gift from my mother’s father. “If any light comes on, take it directly to the nearest Rover dealer,” his voice was tight with emotion he was trying hard to conceal. My mother was my best friend, but my father was my hero. I’d told him so at two years old, and it was still true today.
I moved to hug him tightly. “Thank you. I love you, Daddy,” I said feeling tears sting my eyes. He held onto me as if he could keep me here forever.
“I love you, baby girl.” His deep voice cracked when he spoke. I blinked hard to fight back the tears threatening to spill. They didn’t need to see me cry. I wanted to do this. I needed to.
“I knew this day would come. We raised you to believe in yourself. Find what makes you happy and go get it. I couldn’t be prouder of the woman you’ve become.”
His words did not help me as I struggled not to cry. I swallowed hard and nodded my head against his chest. Then inhaled deeply, pulled myself together, and released him. I couldn’t stay here in this safe world where my dad took care of me and find my life.
“I am who I am because of you two,” I told them with a smile. “I’ll be fine. And I’ll call with updates regularly.”
Mom sniffled then and gave me a soft smile. “Go find your happiness. You may look like me, but you are so much braver than I was. I wish I’d been as brave at your age.”
My mother was the bravest woman I knew. She’d faced death to bring me into this world. She didn’t consider that brave though. No matter how many times I told her it was. Especially when we sat and read my letters together. The ones she’d written me when she was pregnant. In case she didn’t survive. Over the years we’d opened them and read them at the designated time. Dad had read them with us at first, but I had been little when I saw him leave the room quickly when mom began reading aloud. He didn’t read them with us again.
She’d patted my head and smiled. “It’s okay. He is happy that we’re all together and these just remind him that we are blessed that’s all.”
I didn’t understand when we had read the letters, but I did after a few years. The letters had reminded my dad of the hardest time in his life—when he thought he’d have to live this life without my mom. I couldn’t imagine living life without her. I understood his pain. I never mentioned th
em in front of him again.
Dad picked up my suitcase. “Can’t believe this is all you’ve packed.”
“I travel light,” I told him.
“And here I thought I was going to turn your bedroom into my private gym. You’ve left everything behind.” Now he was teasing me.
I shrugged and tried to appear playful. “I wanted to make sure it was all still here, and you that wouldn’t forget me when I decided to come home finally.”
Dad put my suitcase in the back of my Rover.
“We’d never touch your room. You know that,” Mom said seriously.
I laughed. “I know.” Although I never planned on moving back. For now, this was all I needed.
“Be careful, Lila Kate. We love you very much,” she said as I hugged her one more time then headed to the driver’s side where my dad already had the door open waiting for me.
“Don’t stop at service stations that aren’t busy and well lit. Try to get there before it’s dark. You got your pistol under the seat?”
“Yes, Daddy. It’s there. I’ll be careful,” I assured him.
With another hug, I climbed inside the Rover and drove away. I looked in my rearview mirror to see my parents waving from the front yard. My swing still hung from the tree there like it had my entire life. My world where I’d always known comfort—in this town where I only found the same emptiness every day—faded away behind me as I drove west.
I turned on the Bluetooth in my car and then found the travel playlist on my phone I’d put together last night. I felt free. Excited. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t want to feel like me anymore. I didn’t want to be labeled as prim and proper. Or icy . . . icy was the worst.
I’d thought about Cruz’s drunken words and realized they had been true. And I hated him for saying them as much as I hated him for being right. I didn’t want to be that girl. I wanted to be different. Take chances. Find my adventure.
Reaching for my bottle of water I sang along to the music.
The girl everyone met from now on would be a much different Lila Kate Carter.
I would never be labeled proper or cold again. I’d be fun, exciting, ready for anything. The idea made me somewhat nervous, but it also gave me a thrill I hadn’t experienced before.
Bring on my new life. Every crazy, wild, disorganized bit of it.