There was the guy I knew. At least he was reminding me that the sweet guy who had wanted me to experience some of Mississippi was a brief lapse. The Cruz I knew and disliked was back.

We checked in without saying much to each other. Our rooms were beside each other. When we got to the doors to our rooms, he looked over at me. “This gonna be too close for you? Planning on sneaking in some guy off the street you find and don’t want me to see?”

He was being a smartass. This Cruz I knew well. But the new Lila Kate wasn’t going to take his smart mouth. I unlocked the door and just before walking inside my room met his cocky gaze. “No. This is fine. My last one night stand was on a public beach. I figure if I can have sex on a public beach then I can have sex in the room next to yours.” I didn’t give him a chance to respond. I quickly went inside my room and closed the door behind me.

I almost expected him to knock on my door to ask me what I was talking about. He didn’t. But I knew he was thinking about it. I had nothing to unpack. But I did use a towel and some facial soap to wash my face. Then I got in the shower and bathed the road scum off me. I washed my panties in the shower then hung them up to dry.

I’d have to go without until we went to a store. Walking over to the window with the bath towel wrapped around me, I took my phone and snapped a photo of the French Quarter. Then I texted it to Eli.

Arrived. It’s just like I pictured it. Sorry I didn’t say goodbye.

I needed to call Nate and Bliss to explain. Then, of course, my parents.

I started to dial Nate’s number when Eli texted me back.

You left already? was his response.

I sighed. He hadn’t even gone looking for me when he woke up and I was gone. I don’t know why I expected him to. He had other things on his mind.

I didn’t respond to him. I called Nate instead.

“Just got off the phone with Cruz,” was Nate’s greeting. “Your dad is going to kill him. You thought of that?”

I sighed. I had considered that. But at the moment, I wasn’t thinking about anything other than doing something completely out of character. Something exciting and I did it. But there was going to be hell to pay later.

“I’ll handle my dad. I’m sorry I didn’t leave a note or get my things.”

“Cruz thinks he’s protecting you. That’s all this is Lila.”

Nate knew. I’d never told him, but he knew. He had been part of our trio as kids. He saw it even though Cruz never saw the little girl crush in my eyes. Nate was always more observant. Now he was making sure grown Lila Kate didn’t get the wrong notion that she had a chance with Cruz.

“I know.” I didn’t say more. It was embarrassing.

“I got your Rover in my garage, and your things will be in the guest bedroom until you return.”

“Thanks, Nate. Tell Bliss I’m sorry for running off without a goodbye.”

“I will. She gets it. Better than me I think.”

We said our goodbyes and ended the call. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to my parents yet. I was an adult. The money I was using was mine. I didn’t have to call them. I was free to be my own woman.

I felt guilty but I dropped my phone back on the bed and went to put my clothes back on without the panties. That wasn’t going to feel very good in jeans. I had to find a store.

I REALIZED THE jeans hadn’t been bad as Lila Kate came walking out of the department store wearing a short black skirt with a sleeveless silver top that tied above her navel. Then the heels. Did she really plan on walking around New Orleans in those heels?

I was still trying to decide if her “sex on the beach” comment had been completely made up or she’d been as serious as she looked when she said it. That was completely irresponsible. If she had then she was even more naïve than I ever thought.

“That’s completely functional,” I drawled trying not to be annoyed that most of her body was on display. I could see men turning their heads to check her out without even looking at them. I knew men. I was one. And I wanted to look at her too.

She lifted one bare shoulder as if I knew nothing. “I thought so.”

She had two other bags in her hands. I was carrying the one full of her toiletries she’d picked up at a pharmacy before we walked to this place. “Don’t get any more shit. That’s all that is going to fit on my bike.”

“This is plenty,” she told me. “Let’s drop it off at the hotel then I want to see Bourbon Street. “

Of course, she did.

We headed back from where we came and she seemed completely fine with the idea of walking in those damn heels. Didn’t they hurt? I decided to let it go and asked something else I’d been putting off. “You talked to your parents?”

I was expecting her to say “yes,” she called them as soon as she got to the room. Instead, she shook her head no.

That was not a Lila Kate response. I couldn’t decide if I liked this change or not. I’d grown up knowing there were two things I could depend on. That my dad was never going to make me forget what was expected of me. And that Lila Kate Carter was going to always do the right thing.

She’d just blown that out of the water.

“You’ve been grown awhile. What made you decide to embrace it?”

She didn’t look at me. She kept her gaze straight ahead. “Life.”

That was all she was going to say. Life. As if that made sense. I was in New Orleans babysitting her, and she was dressing like . . . like . . . like a fucking girl I’d pick up in a club, giving me one-word answers, and rebelling against everything she’d ever done.

I pushed for more answers. “What inspired this fit of rebellion?”

The pinched frown that came over her face was interesting. There was something, but I doubted if she was going to tell me. At least not yet. Our journey had just begun. Eventually, she’d tell me.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” was her final answer.

I didn’t push. I would let it go for now. “Fine. So tell me what is it you want to see on Bourbon Street?”

This brought a smile to her face. “I have no idea. I just want to see it. And can we get beignets? I’ve always wanted to try the real things.”

“Yeah, we can. Beignets are better if you eat them sober. Let’s do that before we hit Bourbon Street.”

I expected her to tell me she didn’t plan on drinking. But she didn’t. She just nodded in agreement. Jesus. I hoped she wasn’t planning on getting drunk. Not dressed like that.

“How far can you walk in those shoes?” I asked.

I started to argue and decided to let it go. If she wanted to walk in them, it wasn’t my business. Her toes could hate her later.

Lila Kate dropped her bags off quickly. She grinned like a little kid on our way to get beignets. I kept waiting for her to complain about the shoes she was wearing, but she never did. She seemed completely taken in with the scenery around her. Watching her experience New Orleans was more fun than my first trip. She was soaking it in. We had to stop to watch a group of guys doing a street show, flipping over people. Then we had to stop to watch a kid dance. Both times she left tips and clapped excitedly. It was fucking cute. That was the side of Lila Kate I knew. The innocence that only she made appear beautiful.