Chapter Eighteen

"Come on, Ains. It'll be fun!"

"No it won't. It's too hot."

And so it went for nearly an hour. Michelle wanted Ainsleigh to go with her to the Neshoba County Fair, but Ainsleigh was not interested. All she wanted to do was sit at home and wallow in self-pity.

"Tell Evan to take you. That's what boyfriends are for," Ainsleigh said as she plopped down on the couch and reached for the TV remote.

"He's working today. I already told you that. Besides, can't we have some girl-time?"

"Oh no," Ainsleigh snorted. "Last time I fell for that line I got drunk and made a fool of myself. No thanks."

"Really? How?" Michelle asked, sidetracked. "Never mind. It doesn't matter. I promise I won't get you drunk. Just come out with me and get some fresh air."

Ainsleigh shot her a look, but she did not refuse. And she did put down the remote.

Michelle smelled victory, so she went in for the kill.

"Brittani Marie is going for Miss Neshoba County in the junior division. The pageant starts in an hour."

Ainsleigh rolled her eyes. "You've been hanging out with Evan too much, Michelle. You fight dirty."

Michelle laughed and clasped her hands together when Ainsleigh slid off the couch and headed upstairs to change. "I'll take that as a compliment," she said cheerily.

#

Two hours later they were congratulating Britt on her victory and peeling her mother off the stage floor. Beauty queens and humidity do not mix, or so they were told. After vowing never to participate in an outdoor pageant again, Marlene gathered up their winnings and headed for the cool confines of home.

Michelle easily convinced Ainsleigh to stay and explore the other areas of the fair. Unlike Marlene, they were not too bothered by the heat.

"I must admit, it is nice to be out of my living room for a change," Ainsleigh said as they walked away from the pageant.

"See, I told you so."

"Don't get me wrong, I still believe I'm doing the right thing, but that doesn't make it any easier."

"I know," Michelle said, pulling Ainsleigh toward the food tents. "Let's get something to eat." While she didn't want to be dismissive of her friend's feelings, she knew they would never be able to discuss it without arguing, and she didn't want to spoil their afternoon.

They muscled through the crowd, only to discover that everybody at the fairgrounds seemed to have the same idea. Empty tables were sparse and lines were long.

"Why don't you go grab us a place to sit and I'll get the food," Michelle offered, knowing Ainsleigh's edginess would serve them well. This might be one time her mood swings could pay off.

Finding a table was easier than expected with the the "don't mess with me" vibe Ainsleigh was putting out. She slumped down into a chair and dropped her purse into another one to hold Michelle's spot.

She had taken off her sunglasses and was rubbing the spots from her eyes when she heard the sound of very familiar—and very fake—laughter. Her face fell when she turned to find Nick standing several feet away with Tabby Montgomery hanging on his every word.

Nick had his back to the tables, but Tabby was looking right at Ainsleigh, who quickly schooled her features and glanced casually around the area. When she turned back to wait for Michelle, she found her already standing by the table watching her.

"It's not like that, Ainsleigh. He doesn't care about her."

She raised her hand to stop Michelle. "It's none of my business," she said brusquely.

"Of course it is! Let me call him over. He'll tell you."

"Don't you dare," she demanded through clenched teeth. "I'll kill you where you stand, Michelle Carlson!"

Michelle scowled at Ainsleigh as she unloaded the tray of food and sat down. "You're being stupid," she muttered, but still she honored her friend's wishes.

At least until Tabby upped the stakes by linking her arm through Nick's, all the while staring at Ainsleigh. She only took her eyes off of the two women to smile sweetly at Nick. That was more than Michelle could bear.

Ainsleigh, seeing her reaction, turned to see what had her so upset.

Michelle could see that she immediately regretted it.

"I can't believe I did this," she said weakly. "How could I have given another man so much power to hurt me?"

"He doesn't want to hurt you." Michelle covered Ainsleigh's hand with her own, her anger taking a back seat to her friend's pain.

Ainsleigh nodded. "I know," she whispered.

When the first tear escaped, Ainsleigh sprang to her feet and walked away from the food tents.

Michelle was torn between supporting Ainsleigh by minding her own business and ripping Tabby apart. She also had a word or two for Nick. But when she saw how quickly he pulled himself from Tabby's grasp, she knew what she had to do.

She took a deep breath, plastered on a smile, and walked over to the couple.

"Hey Nick!" she said as she gave him a friendly wave. "Tabby," she added flatly. "I'm surprised to see you here," she said, addressing only Nick. "So are you guys an item now?"

He choked on his lemonade while Tabby tried to kill Michelle with a glare. "What? Oh, we … no! Why would you—?" he stammered, taking a step away from Tabby. "I just ran into her while I was waiting for the next show to start."

"Or she ran into you," Michelle muttered.

"You here alone?" he asked, looking past her for Evan.

"No, I'm with Ainsleigh. She just had to run to the ladies room."

Nick's jaw dropped and he glanced at Tabby. Michelle could see the horror on his face, and so could Tabby. Michelle only wished Ainsleigh could see it. She tried to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing, but she could not stop smiling long enough.

When Michelle stopped toying with Tabby and really looked at Nick, she saw the pain and indecision in his eyes—all the things he wanted to say, to ask. She almost regretted what she had done. But one glance at Tabby steeled her resolve.

"Well, I better go find her. She's probably at the bake sale giving the ladies advice," she chuckled. As she started to go, she squeezed Nick's hand in a show of support. Then she gave Tabby a knowing look and went in search of Ainsleigh.

She glanced over her shoulder just before turning a corner that would take them out of her line of vision and found Tabby standing where she had left them, pouting, and Nick walking in the opposite direction alone.

She sighed with relief. "My work here is done.