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Kandi Steiner

“Sorry,” I murmured, removing my hand from her arm and stretching out my fingers as she rubbed the spot I’d been holding fast to. My nervous hands reached for my camera next, and once they found their comfortable placement on either side of the sleek, black object, I immediately felt a subtle calm wash over me. I idly ran my thumbs up and down the cool metal. “I don’t think I can do this, Lo. Everyone is going to judge me.”

“Try being one of only three black girls in the town, Nat. Trust me, you’ll get used to it.” She winked and I shook my head, smiling a little. She was exaggerating, of course, but not by much. Poxton Beach definitely wasn’t known for its diversity and Willow stood out both with her skin color and her personality. She was confident, smart as hell, and usually the life of the party.

So basically, she was my polar opposite.

Still, I trusted her more than anyone. I questioned a lot of my friendships in Poxton Beach, but never hers. She liked me before we were old enough to realize money meant something in the world. It wasn’t that I thought my friendships were fake, but after graduation and the lack of phone calls from friends to see if I was okay, I wondered if all the people who claimed my friendship actually wanted it. Maybe they just wanted the privilege that went along with it.

If only they knew everything that went along with it. The Poxton name was splattered all over that town, on everything from the local pharmacy to the bank and everything in-between. I couldn’t even walk into a convenience store to get a pack of gum without everyone knowing who I was. There were eyes on me at all times, and that was more pressure than I knew how to handle most of the time. I wasn’t born a Poxton, I was married into it — and sometimes I felt like I let Dale down.

Like right now — when I couldn’t even handle a stupid break-up.

When I started chewing my lip and clicking the shutter buttons on my camera, Willow realized how shaken I was. She inhaled a deep breath and pulled me to the side of the building, away from the crowd waiting to get in.

“Listen to me, Natalie,” she said, her hands finding my shoulders as she leveled her eyes with mine. “Mason made a huge mistake letting you go, and I know he’ll recognize that some day. I’m not going to lie to you and say it’ll be tonight because it probably won’t be. If I had to bet money, I’d say he’s going to have that new brunette Barbie hanging around his arm and he’ll likely pretend like you don’t exist or like nothing happened between you two at all and everything is normal. Either way, don’t let him get to you. Hold your chin high and walk in that bar like you haven’t been fazed at all. Take illegal shots out of this flask with your best friend and dance until those cute red boots of yours shred to pieces.” Willow smiled, holding up her favorite, sleek black flask, her bright white teeth glowing against her dark skin in the neon light of the bars. Her long hair was still braided to one side, elongating her face even more than usual and reminding me how flawless my best friend was. I put her in the same category as my mother — effortlessly beautiful.

“I’m just scared, Willow. He was my best friend. He was my everything.” Saying the words out loud made my chest sting.

Willow threw her arm around my shoulder, steering me back toward Hay Stacks. “I know, babe. And maybe that’s part of the issue, you know? If you give your all to someone else, realize you may one day have to change all you know about yourself.”

I nudged her playfully. “You and your words of wisdom.”

She shrugged. “What can I say? It’s a gift. Now put on your happy face and let’s do this. And please don’t hide behind that lens all night,” she added, eying my camera.

I sighed, looking around at the crowd gathered like someone out there would have the mental strength I needed and I’d be able to steal it from them with one glance. We walked straight up to the bouncer, ignoring the small line that had formed. He smiled at us and tipped his hat to Willow as he moved to the side to let us in, my hands still holding fast to the camera around my neck. I heard a few groans from the out-of-towners, but the locals didn’t even bat an eye. I was Natalie Poxton. And that meant I didn’t have to wait.

If only I were as powerful on the inside as the name I’d been given.

I let out a long breath as my hands tightened their grip around my camera. I felt safer with it hanging around my neck, and my fingers played with the flash, clicking it up and back down again as we made our way to the back bar where our friends would no doubt be gathered.

I spotted Mason immediately.

I half hoped he wouldn’t show, but he did. And as soon as my eyes found him and witnessed his signature, full-faced smile break across his face, I almost fell to my knees. He looked more handsome than usual, if that was even possible, and it absolutely killed me. I pulled my bottom lip between my teeth out of habit and followed Willow a little closer.

“Lo!” Stephanie shouted over the music, throwing her arms around Willow’s neck when we reached the group. “Okay, it’s official. The party can start now.”

“I have arrived!” Willow yelled in response and the group laughed. I felt hot eyes burning holes through me as I gripped my camera even tighter and waited for the first person to speak to me. I tried to hold my head high like Willow said, but I was pretty sure I was failing miserably.

“Nice to see you, Natalie,” Dustin said first, offering a kind smile. Dustin was Mason’s best friend and, from what he had said to me after the break-up the week before, he didn’t exactly agree with Mason’s choice. I smiled back at him and dropped my hands from my camera, trying to relax.

“You too, Dustin.” I’d chewed off all the lip balm I’d put on in the car ride over, so I retrieved a small tube from my purse and reapplied, using the old habit to calm my nerves as Dustin continued smiling at me.

Dustin and Mason were practically twins, though Mason’s features were perfectly symmetrical, giving him just a small edge up on Dustin. They both had shaggy brown hair and matching chocolate eyes. While Mason was always tan from working on his parents’ land, Dustin’s skin was light and dotted with tiny freckles. And though Mason was tall with broad shoulders, Dustin was at least six inches taller, his frame lanky in comparison.

I tucked my lip balm back into my purse just as my eyes moved to Mason, who was officially staring at me along with everyone else. “Hey Mase.”

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