It didn’t matter which one she’d picked. There was a decent chance that they all tasted the same. Robotically, she lifted the casserole an inch off the table but froze when her name floated in from the buzz of conversation down the hall.
Can you believe all he has left is Mabel? Poor Elias has buried his wife and son, and now what’s he to do with that daughter of his?
She is a peculiar one—prancing around town in those ridiculous clothes. My Missy said she was always a strange one. She never really had friends. A little too high and mighty for her own good.
What would Carol say? God rest her soul.
Stupid small-town gossips!
Seething, she dropped the casserole onto the table. It hit the sturdy oak with a muted thud as a limp green bean fell onto the floor.
Those people could get their own gelatinous goop. Blinking back a fresh round of angry tears, she charged through the house, passing by her father and the guests, not caring in the least what she looked like. She stomped up to her room like a belligerent child—an image that clearly fit with what they thought of her.
She slammed her door and sank onto her bed. Her heart hammered in her chest. She wanted to scream, to yell, to cry out and wail at the injustice of having to mourn the loss of her brother surrounded by these provincial idiots. She wanted to pound her fists on the hardwood floor until her knuckles bled and her blood and tears mixed together. Ragged frustration tore through her body. Short of climbing out her window and scaling down the lattice frame to escape, there was only one thing that could center her and remind her of the big picture. She reached under her bed and removed the binder hidden beneath an old quilt.
This was for her. She hadn’t even shared it with Jamie.
With a trembling hand, she traced the letters on the cover.
Bella Mae Beautiful.
Bella Mae was the name she’d chosen for her online persona. She’d generated the accounts but hadn’t posted any pictures of herself yet. She hadn’t needed to. Her graphic design skills allowed her to create the kinds of worlds she’d dreamed about. Teeming with clippings and torn out notebook pages, her Bella Mae binder was part diary and part scrapbook. Sometimes, she’d print off one of her images and add it to the book. Other times, she’d pen stories as if she were a young woman living in Paris or London.
The binder was her secret, but she couldn’t help herself from decorating her room with a few subtle signs of her aspirations. She’d hung a corkboard on the wall above her bed and filled every inch with photographs of glittering cityscapes of the places she’d dreamed of visiting.
Her gaze slid from the photos of dazzling cities to her pink consignment couture shoes, and a steely resolve coursed through her veins. It was time to add Bella Mae to Bella Mae Beautiful. She could almost hear Jamie telling her to go for it.
Her heart fluttered as she grabbed her phone, kicked her legs into the air, and framed the pink shoes with the photographs in the background. It was a cute shot—reminiscent of other social media influencers she followed. She could tag it as retro Prada. People loved throwback pics.
But it was missing something. And she knew just what this first post with the actual Bella Mae needed.
Lifting the crossbody strap over her head, she unzipped her purse, and that flutter in her chest swelled to a heady flurry of exhilaration as she slid her passport from the slim side pocket. Exhaling a shaky breath, merely the sight of it had her giddy, imagining life in a city electric with different languages and cultures. With her phone in one hand, she reclined onto the bed, held the passport near her Prada-clad feet, then assessed the shot.
The composition was charming yet sophisticated. If she gave it the right hashtag, the sky was the limit for how many likes and shares she could garner. She’d seen social influencers take off overnight. All it took was one image to catch the eye of a social media marketing rep or talent agency, and boom, the offers and sponsorships would come pouring in.
Adjusting herself on the bed, she angled her legs to the side as her skirt bunched at her waist, then snapped the picture. It didn’t matter if she looked ridiculous. Nobody downstairs was about to come up and request her company. But just as the thought crossed her mind, the door to her bedroom flew open. A rush of air had her scrambling to get out of this oddly compromising position. But before she could see who burst into her room, an irritated harrumph had her pulse racing.
What the hell was he doing here?
She didn’t even need to look up to identify the unwelcome visitor.
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