“It doesn’t. It sounds like … fun.” An Ava smile was a rare thing, but Hallie scored one. A few short months ago, Hallie had been the quiet girl at the table. Now she was taking the initiative to draw Ava out.

Kaleb cleared his throat, redirecting the conversation, probably to spare Ava. “My dad says hello, and ‘sends his regrets’ for the Hawaii trip. Mom’s at ninety-nine percent, and he’s not willing to risk the remaining one. Neither am I, and not just so I can take Lily for long walks on the beach without supervision.”


Lily rolled her eyes, but followed up with a kiss to Kaleb’s cheek.

“Down two chaperones.” Nate gave a fist pump. “I like it.”

“No,” Em said. “Down four. Dru’s doctor doesn’t want her to travel, so she and Thomas are staying home so she can rest up before her due date next month.”

Michael and Emerson exchanged a look that wasn’t hard to decode. Endless, unelectrified nature in Hawaii meant a lot of opportunities for two people who couldn’t touch without setting off sparks.

“I think as long as we avoid wayward tiki idols and hungry sharks, we’ll be fine.” Michael swiped the last beignet from the paper plate on the table. “Now we just have to talk plane tickets.”

“I have a solution for that, but it comes with a complication.” Hallie said. “Dad wants to pay for all of them, but only if he gets to come, too.”

No one said anything for a few seconds. Then Nate let out a whoop.

“Please and thank you, yes!” He stood up and did some sort of hip move that looked painful and obscene at the same time. “I’m an orphan, you know. Please, please let Daddy Warbucks know that if he needs a son, I’m not of legal age for two and-a-half more years. I could grow into a strapping young man.”

“You’d have to eat a cow a day to come anywhere close to strapping.” I held up my hands when Nate used the empty paper plate as a frisbee and aimed it toward my head. He missed, and a shower of powdered sugar headed for Ava.

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Poe jumped out of his seat and took most of it in the chest.

“Did I stop it?” he asked her. “I tried.”

“I’m fine, but you’re kind of a mess.” Ava grabbed a couple of napkins and tried to help him clean up, but ended up making it worse.

“Believe it or not, the mess is bigger on the inside. Kind of like the TARDIS.”

When Ava laughed, Poe stared at her as if he’d been struck dumb.

There was a moment. My suspicions were confirmed when Hallie’s elbow slammed into my ribs.

“We obviously need more beignets.” I pulled Hallie out of her seat. “This round’s on me.”

She managed to wait until we were out of earshot. Probably. “Did you see that? With Ava and Poe?”

“I can barely breathe from the elbow jab you gave me, so yes.”

“I can’t believe this is my life,” she said. “It’s like one of those teen shows with superpowers and pretty people. And kissing. Lots of kissing.”

“Happy?” I asked.

“You don’t even know.” Joy lit her eyes. “I have everything I’ve ever wanted. Almost.”

I knew she was thinking about her mother.

“I’m learning to let go. Looking forward to the future. To our future.”

I took stock as the bells of the Saint Louis Cathedral pealed through the spring air.

My friends sat at the table, still laughing over the powdered sugar explosion.

Less than a mile away, the Mississippi flowed, holding secrets and sorrows, buried for eternity. Gone, but not forgotten, like so many people I’d loved.

Hallie stood by my side. My reason for breathing, and the answer to every question I’d ever have.

“I couldn’t be happier,” I said.

And this was only the beginning.


Emerson, Late April

“Are you okay now?”

Michael held out a bottle of cold water, careful not to touch my skin. A hospital wasn’t a good place to set off an electrical current. I took the water, and like the two previous bottles, stuck it down the back of my shirt.

“Childbirth is supposed to be hard on the mother. Not the aunt. If I passed out for this baby’s birth, how am I ever going to manage having any of my own?”

“Knowing you, by sheer will and force of determination,” he said mildly. “We’ll deal with it when it happens.”

“We will, will we?” I grinned at him.

We both knew it was only a matter of time.

“Is there a baby?” Kaleb burst through the waiting room doors with Lily behind him. “Is it here?”

“There’s been a baby for months, and don’t call it an it,” I snapped. Fainting made me grumpy.

“You just did.” Kaleb cocked his head to the side.

Lily sat down beside me and lifted my hair off my neck with one hand, fanning me with the other. “You know Thomas and Dru won’t tell anyone if the baby is a girl or a boy. It’s not Em’s fault.”

“You’re too good for him, you know,” I said to Lily with a sniff, but I winked at Kaleb.

He flipped me off, but he was smiling.

“Why are you so excited, Kaleb?” I asked. “Babies don’t seem like your thing.”

“Neither do cookies, but you don’t complain about those.”

A door opened and a nurse stuck her head out. “Ready to meet your newest family member?”

My stomach tried to take a vacation by way of my mouth. “As I’ll ever be.”

“Thomas and Dru asked for all of you.” The nurse stepped back so we could enter the birthing room.

I wanted to take Michael’s hand, but I crossed my arms over my chest instead.

Dru’s face shone radiant, and my brother was so puffed up with pride I half expected him to pop.

“Emerson,” Dru said, “meet your niece. Clarissa Elisabeth.”

“After Mom.” I looked at Thomas, and couldn’t stop the tears from falling. He had a few of his own.

“And you,” he said.

And me.

“Do you want to hold her?” Dru asked.

“I … I don’t know. What if I break her?”

“You won’t.” Michael’s smile of encouragement was all I needed.

I bit my lip and stepped up to the bedside, psyching myself up. “Okay.”

Dru held a bundle of blanket and baby out to me, and I took her in my arms. She was beautiful, tiny, and perfect.

“Hello, Clarissa Elisabeth,” I whispered. “Welcome to the world.”

I bent down to place a kiss on her forehead.

And started laughing when every light bulb in the room blew.

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