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 them in front of him again.

Dad picked up my suitcase. “Can’t believe this is all you’ve packed.”

“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.

SEA BREEZE, ALABAMA was similar to Rosemary, but it was completely different. The beaches looked the same. Sea Breeze and Rosemary were on the same coast. However, the town of Sea Breeze was . . . well . . . less structured. There was no country club, and the stores weren’t high end. There were souvenir stores with large tacky floats outside and airbrushed t-shirts that you would never see along the streets of Rosemary Beach. I loved it. The realness. The neon yellow signs flashing Free Hermit Crabs and Twenty-Four-Hour Breakfast and All You Can Eat Shrimp made me feel like I was in another world already.

My GPS was programmed to lead me to Nate’s, but they weren’t expecting me until later. I wanted to explore first. And to have some time to myself before I had to talk about my plans yet again. And Nate would ask. My actions were so out of character for me that I was expecting him to ask a lot of questions.

I made a quick call to let Mom know I made it to Sea Breeze safely, was doing some shopping and exploring, and that I’d call when I got to Nate’s later. That way she’d relax and stop worrying. I decided to drive around until I saw another neon sign that said Live Music and Fresh Crab, so I turned in. It was almost six o’clock, and I had told Nate and Bliss I would eat dinner before I got there. This looked like a good place to stop. The building was crowded already, so I could just blend in.

The music could be heard pouring from the speakers inside out into the parking lot. It wasn’t bad. Not my thing but then I was changing me so I should learn to enjoy this kind of thing. Walking inside, I realized this was a bar. I was second guessing my decision to eat here when I realized that was an old Lila Kate way of thinking. The new Lila Kate was good with bar food. She’d try it.

The tables surrounding the place were tall with stools. They were also packed with girls in tiny shorts, halter tops and some wearing their bikini tops. Summer was over, but it was still hot outside. Fall didn’t arrive until late October here. Tourists still came to the area, but the way everyone seemed to know each other, I wondered if this was the local crowd.

I decided to take one of the empty spots at the bar. The bartender was female which made me feel more relaxed. I sat down and turned back once to glance around. I watched the band on stage and took in the way the people acted. It was like some of the bars I’d gone to with friends when I was in college. I had never fit in there. But I would here. I was determined.

“What can I get for you?” I swung my attention back around to see the stunning bartender smiling at me. Her hair was a shade of red people paid good money for, and her eyes were an icy green that made me envious.

That response got a large grin from her. “Yeah, okay.” She slid one over to me. “You look that over, and I’ll be back. Unless, you know, you want to order a drink right now?”

“Oh, no, I need a moment. Thank you.”

She started to walk off then paused. “You’re not from here, are you?”

She seemed amused. “Didn’t think so. If you’ve got any questions holler. My name’s Larissa.”

“Yes, okay. Thank you, Larissa.”

I studied the menu. Crab nachos—I’d never heard of that combination. Did they make nachos with crab on them? It sounded like an excellent idea. Fried pickles, I’d seen those at bars before, but I’d never tasted them. Dancers had to keep their weight in check. Fried foods were off limits. I thought about trying that. Redneck caviar, now that sounded intriguing. But I wasn’t a fan of black-eyed peas, and it didn’t seem anything like caviar to me.

“Try the loaded potato skins with crab meat. Greasy as hell, and not at all healthy, but so damn good,” a male voice said close by, startling me. I jumped a little and dropped the menu.

I turned my attention to him, and my breath caught a little. He was blonde, tall, tanned, well built and his smile was something. He also smelled good. Like soap and . . . whiskey. But it was a good combination.