Chapter no 13 – Amelia

When in Rome

I’m in a different house—one that is definitely not Noah’s. The last thing I remember, I was at Hank’s Bar.

And now I’m waking up in a strange bed. Panic is hovering on the seams of my consciousness until I realize this room is incredibly feminine. A pretty floral comforter is lying on top of me, the color palette olive, dusty pink, and cream. There are succulents on the windowsill and a giant bouquet of flowers beside the bed. And I’m still in my clothes.

The sound of whispering female voices (that are doing a very poor job of actually keeping their voices down) floats through the closed door, and now with a sigh of relief, I know where I am.

“Should we wake her up?”

“No. The doc said to let her sleep.”

The doc?

It all suddenly comes back to me in broken fragments. Feeling weird and woozy at the bar. Realizing I took a sleeping pill and then drank alcohol. And then lots of memories featuring Noah’s green eyes: beside me at the bar, looking down at me in his truck, in an exam room as a doctor pried my eyelids open and shined a light into them.

And then one more view of his startling green eyes staring at me in the dark—not worried, but something else…

I cringe, shutting my blurry eyes and groaning. I bet I made a real ass out of myself last night. If he didn’t hate me already, he really does now. Maybe that’s why I’m here instead of at his house. He packed my bags and kicked me out. I wouldn’t blame him if he did.

“It’s almost ten o’clock. Shouldn’t we at least make sure she’s still alive in there?” That voice most definitely belongs to Madison.

“Fine, but just peek in to see if she’s still among the living and then we leave her be. Noah will murder us if he finds out we woke her up.” And that’s Emily.

“I still can’t believe he sat beside her bed all night and monitored her. Did you take a picture? I’m so mad I didn’t— Ow!” says Madison, with a loud yelp on the end.

“No, she didn’t take a picture. How are you so rude, Maddie?”

“Me? Annie’s the one who’s always pinching me! Will you quit it?”

“I prefer pinching to arguing,” says Annie in a better whisper than either of the other two sisters.

And, wait wait wait. Did they say Noah sat by my bed all night and monitored me? My gaze slides beside the bed to an innocently empty accent chair that is now pulsing with importance. It’s angled toward the bed. Noah sat in that chair all night and made sure I was taken care of. I’m here. You’re safe, I remember him saying.

The bedroom door opens a crack and I don’t even bother pretending to be asleep. Three pairs of eyes blink at me, and I raise a hand in a weak wave. “Hi. I’m alive and I heard all that.”

They push the door open all the way and groan. “Sorry. We were trying to be quiet,” says Annie. She’s wearing a pj set covered in cartoon bananas.

Madison hops onto the bottom of the bed wearing a bright tie-dyed hoodie, turquoise joggers, and glasses with bubblegum-pink frames. She props herself up on her elbow and rests her head against her knuckles. “So…sleeping pills, huh?”

“Madison! Don’t pry into her life, that’s rude,” Emily reprimands, flashing me an apologetic smile.

“No, it’s okay. I thought I was taking my other prescription for a headache but I totally forgot that I had also stuffed my sleep aid in my purse earlier this week. I usually only take it when I’m visiting another country and have horrible jet lag.” I shake my head. “I feel so bad that I caused so much trouble last night. I’m really sorry, guys.”

Saying I feel like an idiot would be an understatement.

My eyes drift to the angled chair again.

Emily perches on the side of the bed, wearing a sophisticated, satiny lounge set in burgundy. She tucks the covers around my feet like I’m a burrito. “If it makes you feel better, you were only trouble for Noah and Anna- banana.”

And now the banana pj’s make more sense.

I look up at Annie. “I’m really sorry. And also, I thought your name was Annie?” She shrugs with a soft smile. “Annie. Anna-banana. Either one. They’re both short for Annabell.” I don’t think anyone’s name has ever fit someone as perfectly as her name fits her. Soft. Southern. Kind and welcoming. It’s not fair that they are being so hospitable and I’m doing nothing but taking from them.

I decide to give a little of the thing that’s hardest to give

—myself. “Well, my name is actually Amelia. Rae is only a

stage name.”

All three of them exchange guilty looks. “We already know,” says Madison. She raises and lowers a shoulder. “Wikipedia is such a little snitch. You can find every celebrity’s name and home address on that thing.”

I laugh because here I thought I had this great secret about myself—and turns out, it’s been public all this time. That’s what I get for never googling myself. Suddenly, I wonder what other deeply personal information is available out there. If only Noah had a Wikipedia…

My eyes drift to the chair again. “Umm…so…Noah? Is he mad? I imagine he is since he kicked me out.”

“Noah didn’t kick you out,” Annie says in a soothing tone. “He wanted you to stay here last night because he was afraid you wouldn’t feel safe knowing you’d slept all night in his house when you were pretty much unconscious.”

His woodsy eyes flash in my mind again. You’re safe.

The teeny tiny crush I’ve been harboring for Noah flares into something a little terrifying and consuming. Why can’t he be like the others? It would be easier to disregard his actions if he had made sure he was here when I woke up so he could gain all the credit. But no. Just like the first morning I woke up in Rome, Kentucky, Noah is nowhere to be found.

The odd thing is, if I had woken up in his house this morning, I wouldn’t have felt unsafe. There’s just something about Noah that feels honorable. Grumpy as hell, but honorable no less.

“Where is he now?” I ask, looking around like maybe he’ll pop out from behind the door or something.

“Oh, he didn’t want you to know he’d been here all— OW! Would you quit?!”

I look over just in time to see Annie’s fingers reeling back from the underside of Madison’s arm. “He had to go to work,” she says like a soft little springtime butterfly. “But he said for you to stop by the shop when you’re feeling up to it. Has something he wants to talk to you about. I can drive you in on my way to the flower shop if you want. I don’t open until eleven on the weekends.”

My stomach flips inside out. And whether it’s out of excitement or dread, I’m not sure yet. There’s still a good chance Noah’s going to tell me to pack my bags and hit the road two days early.

After scarfing a bowl of cereal, finger-brushing my teeth, and running a brush through my hair, I turn on

my cell phone for the first time. I’m told by Madison that if I stand on her bed and wave my cell phone around the ceiling for a minute, I’ll be able to gain a bar. And she’s right—it works. I finally get a bar of service, and along with it, sixty-seven text messages, and thirty-two emails. Most of the texts are from Susan, a few are from my mom.

I hate the hope I feel that maybe her texts will be about something mundane or simple like:

Saw this random flip-flop on the street and it reminded me of the time you got your foot stuck in a public toilet and had to leave the mall without a shoe! Miss you! Call me soon to catch up!


Mom, 7:02 A.M.: Hi sweetie! Are you at your Malibu house this weekend? I was hoping to go stay there for a bit. LA is feeling cramped. Bleh.

Mom, 7:07 A.M.: You’re probably busy with friends this weekend. I’ll email Susan instead. Hugs!

I shouldn’t, because I’ve learned from history that my mom doesn’t care anymore—but for some reason, I find myself typing out a response to her.

Amelia: Actually, I’m in a small town in Kentucky called Rome this weekend. I needed to get away from everything.

I hit send and stare at my phone for her response— hoping she’ll comment on the fact that I’m in Rome. Show some spark of a memory that tells me she still thinks of our Audrey movie nights and what we used to have. My heart is begging her to show any sort of concern to my subtle call for help.

Three dots appear for a while followed by her response.

Mom: Okay. Sorry for bugging you while you’re away! I’ll go through Susan for any other questions.

Right. That’s my fault for expecting anything different.

I don’t even bother reading all of Susan’s messages. I glance through the first twenty, and at first, they are kind and placating. She gently asks me to reconsider and come back. They then quickly jump into reprimanding authority figure: Remember your duty. You would think by the guilt trips she throws at me in these texts that it was a war I didn’t show up to rather than an interview.

But one thing is clear as her texts progress: Susan is not comfortable with me being outside of her reach. A little light turns on in the corner of my mind, but I don’t have time to explore it right now. I shut off my phone without responding to anything else, making a mental note to call my housekeeping service later. I told Susan I would be in contact Sunday night, and I’m sticking to it.

The ride into town with Annie feels like a decompression chamber after a loud, exhilarating brunch with her sisters. How those women can all talk at once and still manage to follow each other’s conversations is sheer talent. I felt like I was witnessing a sitcom and had to physically sit

on my hands to keep from clapping when one of them would say something funny.

Now I’m in Annie’s truck (apparently you have to own one if you live around here) and we’re pulling into town. Most small towns I’ve traveled through are shaped like a square. Rome is shaped like a lowercase “t” with both roads extending out to farmland and locals’ houses. Most of the shops are made of brick, with colorful awnings above the storefronts. It’s a tiny minuscule dot on a map, and if you blink while driving, you’ll miss it. But somehow they manage to have everything you need right here. Just on Main Street they have an ice cream shop, hardware store, market, coffee shop, diner, flower shop, and of course The Pie Shop. No one parks on the street; instead, Annie drives us over to the communal lot beside Phil’s Hardware. Morbidly, I wonder if when someone dies around here, the new store owner changes the shop name, or if they change their given name to fit the store? Maybe there’s a whole cemetery somewhere full of Phils and Hanks.

Two steps out of the truck and I spot Noah’s burnt orange Chevy. I knew he’d be here. He’s the whole reason I’m in town right now, and still, I’m frozen as my eyes glue themselves to the side of his truck. An inanimate object shouldn’t evoke the warm, fluttery feelings sweeping through my body right now, but it does. It really does. I blame it on the man’s overall mystery and the added bonus of a time crunch. It reminds me of summer camp as a teenager. You know you’ll only be there for a few days, so immediately you set out to find the hottest person available, zero in on them, and initiate instant-crush. That’s all this is. It’s a crush. Attraction. Forbidden. Temporary. My body likes his body and that’s all there is to it.

When Annie clears her throat, I realize I’m staring at Noah’s truck as if I’d like to make love to it. She graciously doesn’t comment and I catch up to where she’s been standing watching me drool. I feel like a supercool person right now, let me tell you.

Annie’s flower shop is neighbors with The Pie Shop and she asks if I want to come inside with her first. Since I’m apparently the world’s biggest coward, I jump at the chance to put off my meeting with Noah. Her shop is the Disney World of flower shops. It’s bursting with color and natural light and the innate feeling that everything will turn out okay in life. Tubs of flowers line the walls and in the back of the shop is a giant old farmhouse table, painted white.

“What made you want to start a flower shop?” I ask her as I pick out a few different single-stemmed flowers and piece them together into a bouquet. A sunflower, a few daisies, a big, pink, puffy, cone-shaped one, and a few stems of greenery. I’m not sure I’m cut out for assembling bouquets after I see them all grouped together in my hand.

“My mom. She loved flowers.” We make eye contact over my shoulder when she says loved. Past tense. Annie doesn’t make me ask. “Or so I was so told. She died when I was little so I don’t remember a lot about her,” she says, all while taking the small bouquet from my hand, removing the cone-shaped flower and replacing it with a soft pink rose and then adding in a few orange carnations. Much better. She then places it on her worktable where she wraps the bundle in brown paper, fastens a little twine bow around it, and adds a sticker with her logo.

“I’m sorry to hear that. But it’s a lovely idea to run a flower shop in her memory.”

Annie’s smile is like a ray of sunshine. “It is. And I think she’d be thrilled to know I named the store after her.” She points to the hand-painted calligraphy sign behind her worktable. Charlotte’s Flowers. A million questions float through my mind about when she passed away, and how; but none of them are any of my business, so I keep quiet and pull my wallet from my purse to pay for the bouquet.

Annie chuckles, shaking her head. “It’s on me today.” “No, really, I want to pay,” I say, immediately feeling

guilty. I can’t not pay for this. It would look tacky— especially since I’m the one sitting on millions of dollars over here, and she’s running a niche business in a tiny town. Even Noah buys flowers from her often so her business doesn’t go under.

But then Annie just hands the bouquet over the table to me with a soft, dimpled smile. “A token of friendship.” Her gesture rams into me. She’s not asking anything of me. Doesn’t want my money. Just friendship.

Her smile dims into sympathy when she sees my face. “Are you…crying?”

No! Absolutely not.” I sniffle. “That’s—no. I would be— it’s the flowers. I think I’m…allergic. Or maybe just the sleeping pill still making its way out of my system.”

She laughs. “Mm-hmm. Sure. I think you got hit with the feelings allergy.”

I sigh and clutch the flowers desperately to my chest. “Yeah…maybe. Something about this town is really making them act up.”

“Imagine living here,” she says with an amused twinkle in her eye.

But no. I absolutely will not imagine that, because I know I would like it far too much. In fact, it’s time for me to go and see the man that I know will wipe away any of these

illusions. He’ll be grumpy and stern and make me feel like my company is the last thing on earth he wants, and it will be lovely.

Before I leave the flower shop, I have Annie help me put together a bouquet of Noah’s favorite flowers (which I convince her to let me pay for).

You stand there much longer and your feet will grow roots, making those flowers sprout out the top of

your head.”

I expel a breath and look over my shoulder. Mabel is walking toward me on the sidewalk, floral print cotton dress swaying in the breeze, leather loafers lightly squeaking under her feet. Her wise eyes slip from me to The Pie Shop I’m standing just to the side of, and then back to me. She stops beside me, her ample hips nearly brushing against mine. I’m holding the flower bouquets against my chest like they’re newborn babies and I’ll protect them with my life.

“I’m too nervous to go in,” I admit openly, because instinctively I know Mabel would accept nothing less. She’d see right through any lie of mine.

We stand quietly shoulder to shoulder like two soldiers on the outskirts of battle. She breaks the reverent silence without looking at me. “Why are you here, young lady?”

“Because Noah asked me to—”

“No.” Her raspy voice barks, making me jump a little. A quick reminder that she may be nurturing but she’s not soft. “In this town. Why are you here?”

I look down at the cheerful blooms. “I don’t really know.

I’m not supposed to be.”

“What do you mean?” She will settle for nothing but exact precise answers. Mabel doesn’t beat around the bush.

The desire to hightail it away from her in a full sprint is nearly unbearable. I think if I did, though, the powers of her stern mind would capture me by the collar of my shirt and yank me back. “I’m not supposed to be here outside of Noah’s shop. In this town. Away from my life. On vacation.” I say it as many ways as I can so there’s no way she’ll misinterpret.

“Heavens why, child?” Child. When was the last time someone thought of me as a child? The endearment is so nice and cozy. Like holding cold hands up to a crackling fire.

“I’m not supposed to take vacations if they’re not planned a year out and okayed by five different people. My manager has reminded me repeatedly over the last few days that I’m neglecting my responsibilities and being selfish by leaving suddenly like I did.”

“And let me ask you something? When the hell did it become such a crime to be selfish now and again?” Mabel turns to face me, propping her hands on her hips. “I tell you what makes me madder than a hornet. When people tell other people how they should feel. Everyone’s getting too damn people-ly lately and I’ve had enough of it. Sometimes a woman is just worn out and needs a break, you know?” The lines on her forehead deepen. “That doesn’t prove that you’re weak or neglectful, it proves to all the women standing by and watching you pave the road to success that it’s okay to say no. It’s okay to shut your door every now and then and put up a sign that says Busy taking care of me today. Piss off.

Tears choke my eyes. I look over at the woman who seems ready to do battle on my behalf and my truth spills out before I can stop it. “Mabel, I don’t love my career anymore. I haven’t even loved singing lately. That’s why I’m here.”

She smiles softly. “Well, of course you don’t, darlin’. No one loves anything they’re miserably chained to.” Her eyes narrow thoughtfully. “But you own the key to your own lock and don’t you forget it. Set yourself free for a while and that love will come back, just you watch.”

I can’t help but laugh lightly because with those words, I feel like she’s rolled a boulder off my shoulders. The feelings I’ve kept strung up and gagged inside me for so long because I knew no one would understand are free and floating on the wind. Mabel understands.

She steps a little closer and takes my hand like she did that morning in her inn. She grins and her wrinkles multiply. “Go have your break, darlin’. And even better, have it with a good man who’ll treat you right.” She nods over my shoulder to The Pie Shop.

“Mabel, I can’t stay. Noah said I have to leave his place on Monday.”

“Oh, you’re staying all right.”

The confidence on this woman.

I give her a hopeful smile. “Does this mean you’ll let me rent a room at your inn? I can even help out with chores to make it worthwhile for you.”

“Nope. We’re full up, told ya that already.” I’ve never seen a woman enjoy telling a lie more. “But you’ll stay in town. Mark my words.”

“I can’t help but feel like your hope is misplaced. Noah doesn’t even want me around him.”

She grunts a laugh. “Bullshit. I’ve known that boy since he was a baby. I can read him like a book, and I’d bet my entire living he’s grumpy because he wants you around too much.” I don’t disagree, but I do turn my eyes to the shop window. “And I saw him staring at your backside when you weren’t looking.”

I whip my head back to Mabel. “He did not.”

Her smile widens. “No, he didn’t. But now I know by the rosy hue in your cheeks that you wish he did.” She raises and lowers her eyebrows and begins trundling away, passing The Pie Shop entirely. “Oh, this is gonna be good,” she says softly to herself. And when I glance down at my flowers and back, she’s gone, just like a mischievous ghost sent to taunt the town. In all likelihood she just dipped into the market, but I like the ghost theory better.

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