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Chapter no 11 – Amelia

When in Rome

Noah’s sisters are unlike anyone I’ve ever known before. They pulled up outside his house and then

honked their horn for me to come out. Literally. They honked. When I stepped outside, they catcalled and yelled, “Woo hoo, princess of pop coming out to Hank’s! Hop in the back with Annie!”

And by the back, they meant the back of their truck bed. If Susan could see me now, bobbing around on this pitch- black back road in the bed of a truck with no seat belt, looking like a popcorn kernel in a pan, she’d die. She’d just keel over on the spot. It’s going to be a rowdy night, I can feel it in my bones. My jostling, jerking bones.

Unfortunately, all this bumping around is starting to trigger a headache. It might be nothing, or it might turn into one of those whopping migraines I’ve started getting more frequently. My doctor says they are stress induced and that I should take more breaks. But I haven’t had time for breaks, so that’s why I have prescription-strength ibuprofen in my purse, which I fish around for right now.

Finding the little orange container, I discreetly unscrew the lid and take out a pill, using my spit to swallow it before Annie sees. I don’t know why I feel silly about this. It’s only

a strong ibuprofen, but people tend to get weird ideas in their heads when they see celebrities popping random pills, and I don’t feel like launching into my whole medical history with the ladies right now. I toss the container back in my purse just as we pull up to the bar and Madison sticks her head out the passenger-side window, shouting, “Look out, y’all! Teachers gone wild!”

“You guys are teachers?” I ask Annie, gripping the side of the truck as Emily turns sharply into the gravel parking lot.

Annie smiles. “They are, but they’re on summer break right now. I own a flower shop right next door to Noah’s pie shop.”

Flower shop. Suddenly, the bouquet on his table makes more sense. “So you must be the one putting fresh flowers in Noah’s house?”

Annie laughs and shakes her head. “Sort of. Noah comes by the shop almost every day and buys a bouquet from me to take home. I think he’s secretly worried I’ll go out of business if he doesn’t.”

Uh-uh. Don’t you do it, heart. I feel you trying to squeeze, but I won’t allow it. So what? He’s a good brother.

Big. Freaking. Deal.

Emily and Madison unload from the truck and come around to let the gate down for me and Annie to hop out. When I look at Hank’s, my stomach jumps into my throat. It’s a smallish bar, in basically the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a gravel lot and stuffed to the brim. A neon sign flickers above the bar confirming that we’re indeed at Hank’s Bar, and there are so many trucks here that the parking lot is packed in like Tetris. Those who got here first won’t be able to leave anytime soon. Through the window, I

can see that the bar is dimly lit, but there’s so many people in there I know it’s got to be breaking a fire code.

“Everything okay?” Annie says, stopping beside me and reading my nervous expression.

I swallow and gesture weakly toward the bar. “It just looks…busy.”

Emily comes up on the other side of me. “ ’Cause it is. Everyone…and I do mean everyone, comes to Hank’s on Friday nights. It’s the only fun thing to do in the whole town so no one misses it.”

Oh super. Everyone stuffed into one building and me without any sort of real protection. What are the odds anyone in there is obsessed with pop music? Suddenly, I wish Noah were here, which is such a ridiculous thought in and of itself. I’ve only known him for a few days, but somehow I know he’d make sure I was safe.

“There’s not like a…back entrance we could go in, is there? And do you have a hat in your truck? I didn’t realize this was going to be so crowded or I would have—”

Madison starts pushing me from behind. My body is being propelled toward the front door, and I look like a cat approaching water. She laughs. “This town is harmless. Trust us. We’ll take care of you. And Emily runs the roost around here, so they’ll listen to her.”

Mm-hmm. Then why do I feel like I’m being offered up as a sacrifice to the neon beast?

Annie opens the door for all of us and gives me an empathetic smile when the country music spills out. It’s loud and rowdy in there. Thrilling and terrifying. “Let Emily go first.”

I hang back as instructed and practice a few breathing techniques I use before going on stage when my nerves get

the best of me. I don’t get through my second breath before Madison grabs my hand and yanks me inside with her.

I swear the next thirty seconds happen like this: We walk through the door.

All heads swivel in our direction.

The group of people line-dancing in the middle of the room come to a swift halt.

The music cuts off.

Everything goes so silent we can hear the click of the door shutting behind us.

And everyone stares at me.

As it turns out…these people are familiar with pop music. Or at least just celebrities. Because they are definitely looking at me like I am one. The heavy scent of beer and sweat, mixed with the way my heart is ramming against my chest, makes me feel like I’m going to be sick. This was a bad idea. Leaving Nashville was a bad idea. Why in the hell did I think I could just slip into a town undetected and spend time here in blissful solitude? Now they all know I’m here and my peace has run out. Forget Monday, I’ll have to leave tonight because any second now they’ll lift their phones, snap photos, and upload them to all the social media platforms. Paparazzi will be here within the hour. It’s how it always goes.

I turn to rush out the door, but Madison catches my forearm. “Hang on. It’s okay.”

She nods at Emily and I watch in amazement as the woman hops up on the top of the bar and cups her hands around her mouth. “All right, listen up, all you fellow hillbillies! I’ve got my friend Rae Rose here and she’s looking for a good time and zero bother. So act like your mama taught you some manners and let’s treat her with respect! Also, she’s flying under the radar in our town for

the next little bit, so do her a favor and pretend you never saw her. Everybody got it?”

There’s a hearty roar from the crowd and affirming nods, beers raised, and wide smiles.

“Good! Now someone get me a drink!”

Emily is a goddess. That’s all I can say, because everyone does exactly as she says. The music cranks up, laughter starts again, everyone turns back to what they were doing before we walked in, the man behind the bar helps Emily down and then puts a beer in her hand.

And that’s that.

No one treats me differently. No one stares. No one asks for an autograph. For the next half hour, the Walker sisters and I laugh and drink and talk. I honestly forget that I’m considered important everywhere else in the world. Yeah, they want to know what it was like dating my ex, Tyler Newport (I imagine a lot like dating that vain Disney queen who constantly looked in the mirror and asked who was the fairest of them all). They also want to know my favorite thing about being a singer (an issue I sidestep because my career crisis has spiked to epic heights and I completely blank on any good aspects of it), but those questions end pretty quickly, and then our conversation moves along.

“I have to admit,” I tell the ladies after finishing my first beer and feel a little more loose. “I was worried everyone was going to freak out when they saw me walk in. I’ve been in the middle of fan mobs before and I was terrified it was about to happen again.”

Madison laughs, because to any outsider, a “fan mob” sounds like a whimsical scene in a Disney movie. In reality, it’s painful, scary, and such an invasion of emotional and physical security that it’s difficult to bounce back. But most

people have no idea about any of that so I forgive her the chuckle.

“If they looked interested, it’s only because this town’s been looking for something to talk about ever since Kacey got knocked up and everyone was sure it was Zac’s but the baby ended up just being her husband, Rhett’s, after all. They’ve been bored ever since.”

Emily leans over the table a little farther. “But seriously…I was sure it was Zac’s. Especially after the way he—”

“Looked at her at church that Sunday! Yes!” Madison slaps the table making their beers slosh. Annie only contributes to the conversation with a quiet smile and chuckle. “But anyway, we’re all good people around here. We just needed to set them straight from the start. They won’t bother you now, and you don’t have to worry about anyone leaking your visit on social media, because in case you haven’t noticed, there’s no cell service around here. Our brother doesn’t even own a cell phone.”

I’m not surprised that he doesn’t own a cell phone. I am, however, curious at the way my skin prickles from only that tiny mention of Noah. How my mind flashes a montage of his hands on my body, his moody mouth eagerly exploring mine. The zing of rightness that flew through me when our skin touched.

“So,” says Emily, leaning onto her forearms. “Where were you headed before you broke down in Noah’s front yard?”

I take a sip of my second beer and then lick my lips. “Uh…here actually.”

All three ladies frown.

“Here?” asks Madison. “As in Rome, Kentucky? You came here on purpose? Why the hell would you do that?

I’ve been trying to get out of this town for years now, but Annie and Em won’t let me.”

“You’re damn straight,” says Emily before Annie gives them both a frustrated look and whips out a little pocket notebook, adding a tally to some sort of chart. “Sorry, Annie. I mean, you’re darn straight,” Emily amends, adding a jaunty little arm gesture to the word darn.

Annie sees my confused look as I peer at the notebook. The names Emily, Madison, Annie, and Noah are all written and have marks beside them. Actually, Annie doesn’t have any marks, and Noah has at least twice as many as the sisters do. This makes me smile for inexplicable reasons.

“I’m trying to break them of swearing so much. When anyone reaches twenty tallies, they have to pay twenty bucks to the cussing jar,” says Annie, closing the notebook and setting it aside.

I laugh lightly. “And why’s that?”

“Because she’s a wholesome, sweet, little baby angel,” says Emily with a taunting smile.

Annie sticks her tongue out at Emily. “At least one of us should make it through the pearly gates and represent for the Walkers.”

Madison grins sardonically. “Pearly gates? I’m just trying to make it past the city limits of the fu—orking town.”

Annie smiles. “Nice catch.”

Madison tips her beer. “Only because I love you and also because if I get one more tally I have to pay up. Now, will you return the love and ever let me leave Rome?”

In unison, Emily and Annie both say, “Nope.”

Emily, who I get the feeling is the mother hen of the sisters, adds with a final note to her voice, “Noah’s back,

and we’re family. This is where our roots are, and where we belong.”

Noah’s back? I really want to ask Emily where Noah came back from, but I don’t get the chance.

Madison sighs and so much is conveyed in that one expelled breath. Longing, defeat, resolve. A whole slew of emotions I’ll probably never learn the origin of because I’ll be gone by Monday. She turns her eyes back to me. “Sorry, we get sidetracked easily. We were talking about why you came to visit.”

Now that I’ve spent a few days in the town, I can understand her astonishment. It’s not exactly a regular tourist destination. I take another drink of my beer to buy me some time to formulate an answer. But then the room wobbles a little, and my tongue feels heavy, but loose at the same time. Momentarily distracted by this sudden sensation, I blurt the truth. “I searched Google Maps for the nearest city called Rome, because that’s where Audrey goes in Roman Holiday.”

I’m met with blank stares, and I wonder what part of that statement is shocking them more. I decide to start with the least odd part of it. “You know…the classic movie?” More blank stares. “Oh, I’m sure you know it. It stars Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Audrey plays Princess Ann who runs away from her life of royalty one night, and…you have no idea what I’m talking about?”

All three women shake their heads. Emily speaks first. “I actually don’t think we’ve ever seen an Audrey Hepburn film. Are they good?”

My mouth gapes open. I am epically distraught. How can they not know who Audrey Hepburn is? “What?! How have you gone through your whole lives without experiencing Audrey? She is all things grace, and

precociousness. Beauty yet oddity.” I shake my head, bemused. “She’s…wonderful.” And my best friend, I don’t say because I have no desire for them to learn just how freakish I really am. Or lonely. Because only a friendless person would claim a dead movie star as their BFF.

Madison smiles. “Sounds like Annie.” She pauses dramatically, cutting her eyes mischievously to her sister. “The beauty yet oddity part at least.” It’s clear this is affectionate banter by the singsongy way she says it.

But still, Emily nudges Madison’s shoulder playfully. “Okay, enough picking on the baby for tonight. You know she’s too sweet to fight back.”

“Hey, you don’t have to defend me. I can hold my own,” Annie says, pulling herself up two more inches in height. Both her sisters eye her patiently and then wait with hands primly folded below their chins. “Maddie is so…well, she’s just…” Annie grunts an annoyed sound, rolls her eyes, and settles back against her seat when she can’t think of anything mean to say. “Clearly Madison is the grace and precociousness part, and you also look really pretty in that shirt tonight, Maddie.”

The sisters erupt in laughter and Emily affectionately kisses Annie’s cheek, who looks absolutely annoyed by her lack of zingers. “Don’t ever change, Annie.”

Sitting here watching these sisters banter, fuss, and love one another so well, I feel the lack of it in my own life so keenly. I’m desperate for this. To know and be known. I want to burrow my way into their little family and beg for them to make fun of me like they do each other. I want them to skewer me with the obvious truths about myself that I don’t see. I want to laugh and roll my eyes and be one of them. Have what they have. But to do that, I have to be honest and open about myself. I would have to let them

in, let them see that I’m a little weird and dysfunctional, and I’m not sure it would even be worth it since I’m leaving Monday.

Instead, I smile softly and sip my beer. Polite, polite, polite.

A few minutes later and after we’ve all ordered another round of beers, Madison looks over my shoulder and her smile grows even wider. “Oh, look, Noah’s here with James!”

An avalanche of butterflies tumbles into my stomach and the sensation is so overwhelming I nearly fall out of my chair. Somehow, I can feel Noah’s eyes on the back of my neck. My skin is warm. The hairs on my arms rise. My fingers are fidgety. I bounce my knee, but none of this works to erase the way I can sense him approaching. I raise my beer to my lips and chug half of it. I have no choice. I’m at the mercy of my frazzled nerves now.

Unfortunately, the room that only wobbled a little bit ago now feels like a spinning teacup ride. How am I drunk already? That doesn’t seem right for finishing only one and a half beers. Tipsy, sure. But this sensation is different. Alarming.

Noah and the guy they said is named James make their way over. Noah stays on the opposite side of the table, because as usual, he’s afraid I’ll bite if he gets too close. His friend, however, introduces himself with a welcoming, open smile.

He extends his tan, calloused hand. I would be lying if I said I didn’t immediately notice how attractive he and his dark brown hair and pearly white teeth are. “Hi, I’m James. And I’ll save both of us any awkwardness by admitting right away that I know exactly who you are.” He tacks on a good- natured smile that puts me at ease. “It’s such an honor to

meet you, Rae.” Well, I would be at ease if I didn’t feel so damn drunk.

I glance suspiciously at the remaining beer in my glass as nausea and exhaustion jump on top of me. I need to prop my eyelids up just to keep them open.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Rae,” I say, feeling like my words are thick molasses coming out of my mouth.

James’s face crinkles with a quizzical smile. Oh, wait. Did I accidentally call him by my name? I gently shake my head and laugh. “Sorry. I mean James. Nice to meet you, James.” I hold up my beer feeling like it weighs a hundred pounds. “Too much of this, I guess.”

Annie frowns. “You only had one and a half beers and were fine a second ago.”

Right.

It’s weird I’m acting this way.

I look up and lock eyes with Noah. He looks stormier than a hurricane. His thick golden brows are heavily pulled together and his jaw is set. He’s not happy. Well, is he ever happy when I’m around? His gaze feels so intense I have to look away, but from the corner of my eye, I can see that he’s still watching me closely. Chill bumps fly down my arms and I need for him to stop staring at me like that before he burns a hole through my face.

Also, whew buddy, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck all of a sudden and I need sleep more than anything. I’d like to lay my head down right on this table and—

Oh shit.

That’s when I realize what I’ve done.

“Oh! This is my favorite song!” yells Madison. She sounds so far away even though she’s right in front of me at the table. “Come on, let’s go dance!”

The sisters pop up and head toward the dance floor with James, but Emily hangs back. “You okay, Rae?”

I try to give her a normal smile. I’m not even sure my lips move. “Sh’yeah! Be there in a second!”

She chuckles, but I still hear the worry in her tone. Mother hen is on to me. “Okay. Noah, keep an eye on her, will you? I think she’s a lightweight.”

Now I’m alone at the table and I feel an equal amount of relief in knowing someone hasn’t slipped something in my drink, and dread for what I’ve done. The world is swirling around me, nausea churning in my stomach, and the desire to close my eyes is so overwhelming I can hardly fight it. But even worse, I’m completely vulnerable right now.

Trying to keep my eyes from crossing, I swivel toward my purse hanging on the back of the chair. I dip my hand inside and pull out my prescription migraine medication. It takes some serious effort to get my eyes to focus, but I’m finally able to determine that it’s not the same circle- shaped pill I took earlier. Which means…oh, no, no, no.

I take out the other prescription bottle in my bag. It’s a heavy-duty, knock-you-out-until-next-summer kind of sleeping pill that I only use when I’m traveling on tour and have serious jet lag in other countries. And yep, it’s the pill I took earlier. I don’t normally keep them in my purse, but I forgot that before I left town, I swiped everything from my bathroom counter into the bag I’m carrying now. I only take this medication when it’s a dire situation and I absolutely can’t sleep, because it knocks me out with the same power as a horse tranquilizer. Oh, and one more alarming realization, it’s a major no-no to mix sleeping pills with alcohol.

“Did you take one of those?” Noah’s voice rumbles right above me. I forgot he was here. Even my name is difficult

to remember. Now he’s squatting down beside me and gently taking the pill container from my hand. His fingers brush against mine and I shiver. He’s so warm. And even his hand looks strong. Making pies really does it for this man.

I swallow. “Yeah. Acccccidentally.” My words slur together as if I’ve had five drinks already. I feel absolutely intoxicated. And scared. And alone. “I thhhought I was taking my other mmmedication. Guess not.”

“How many did you take?” His voice feels like a microfiber blanket draped over my body.

“Only one.” I can’t physically stay awake any longer. I feel the claws of sleep sinking into me and pulling me under.

Laying my head on the table, I crack my eyes open one more time to look at Noah. He’s fuzzy and swimming in my vision but he doesn’t look stormy anymore. He’s got that wrinkle between his eyes. Worried Noah is cute. Worried Noah looks nice. Cozy.

And that’s the last thought I have before everything goes black.

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