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Chapter no 15 – Noah

When in Rome

I haven’t seen Amelia since this afternoon at The Pie Shop. Our meeting was cut short (which I was glad of) because this town can’t hold their horses. Geez. Having to wait five minutes nearly killed them. After Mabel shoved her nose onto my glass window, she pretended to faint. Miraculously,

when I opened the door, the smell of pie revived her.

I let Amelia take my truck home and I borrowed Annie’s for my lunch date. I know Amelia was eaten up with curiosity about who I was meeting, but I’m not ready to tell her yet. Maybe never. We’ll see. She also looked shocked that I’d lend her my truck. She assumed I was doing something special for her, but the fact is, that’s just how we are around here. I let Phil drive it the other day when he needed to go into the larger town an hour away to pick up some things for the hardware store, and then Mabel took it last Friday when she walked into town and then got too tired to walk home. So she took my truck and then I borrowed Annie’s to go home and she ended up swapping with…I can’t remember. It was a shit show the next day, too, when none of us could remember who had the other one’s truck and all had to meet in town to sort it out.

Anyway, Annie gave me a ride home from work a little while ago and casually mentioned that Amelia had spent her afternoon at Mabel’s bed-and-breakfast, helping her repaint the lobby. If I know Mabel, she didn’t lift a finger, but propped her feet up on the reception desk and stuffed a little umbrella in her drink while she watched Amelia push a roller across the walls all day. The mental image makes me smile. Is helping old ladies paint their small-town inn customary behavior for celebrities? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, it didn’t help that my head was already full of charitable thoughts of Amelia when I got home and realized she was in the shower. My shower. The one right down the hall, so close to me that I could see the steam coming out from under the crack in the door. She sings in the shower, and let me tell you, I’m not one to spout poetry, but the sound of her voice sliding through the door had me writing sonnets in my head. People pay hundreds of dollars to hear her perform and I got a free front-row seat of listening to her sing “Tearin’ Up My Heart” by NSYNC. Seems unfair.

I needed a distraction from her voice and the thought of her body and the smell of her shampoo filling my home, so I turned on the TV, and now here I am watching an old black- and-white western where men are being shot off horses to a playful pew pew pew sound.

It’s the perfect distraction until…holy shit, I shouldn’t

have come home from work at all. I’m going to have to move out and let Amelia have this house, because the sight of her turning the corner in my blue pajama bottoms but with only her black camisole covering her top half is too much. The bottoms swallow her whole so she has them rolled down at the waist a few times and that camisole doesn’t quite meet the top of the pants. There’s this

enticing little band of skin showing all the way around her body. This woman looks like a fantasy come to life. Plucked straight out of my best dreams and placed right in my living room. The audacity of her.

I keep very still as Amelia pads her bare feet across my living room; her damp hair is draped over her shoulder, so long it nearly touches her waist. It hangs in this loose, easygoing way that’s somewhere between wavy and straight. A drop of water clings to the end of a lock of hair, and I watch closely as it lets go, dripping down the side of her bare arm. She belongs on a beach in Hawaii with a flower in her hair and sand clinging to her legs while a photographer snaps photos for a glamour magazine. She shouldn’t be in my tiny, unimportant living room smiling at me in a way I definitely don’t deserve. And yet, I find myself wanting to trace a line around her smiling lips so I can always remember the shape of them. I want to wind her long thick hair around my hand and wrist. I want to brush my fingers across her accentuated collarbones. Shit, none of that is good.

She opens her mouth but I bark first. “Where’s the top of those pajamas?”

Amelia’s eyebrows raise. Her face is clean of makeup right now, and unfortunately, she’s somehow prettier this way. “In my room. Don’t worry, I haven’t lost your precious Christmas gift pj’s.” That’s what she thinks I’m worried about?

Amelia sits down beside me and I stand up. We look like we’re on a seesaw. “Wait, where are you going? I wanted to show you this.”

I don’t know what this is because my back is to her. I slip around the corner where I find the thermostat and turn it down to 60 degrees. My old AC unit turns on with a roar

and only then do I feel comfortable enough to take my seat again on the couch. Far away. Nearly sitting on the armrest.

If she realizes I’m acting weird, fighting with every fiber of my being to keep my eyes from dropping to her chest, she doesn’t let on. She smiles brightly at me and then tosses the notepad I gave her this morning onto my lap. She turns to face me, pulling her legs up under her. A little too comfy there if you ask me. I want to put my finger on her knee and slowly slide her to the opposite end of the couch.

“I finished it! The list,” she says, nodding toward the notepad in a hopeful tone.

I drag my eyes away from her beautiful face. (Shoot, not beautiful. Just…fine, it’s beautiful.) Look at the damn list. Just as I’m about to start reading, I notice a shiver race through her. “Cold?” I ask, a little too eagerly.

“Yeah. Does it feel like it just got supercold in here all of a sudden?”

I shrug with a light frown and then shoot from the couch to grab a plush blanket that was draped over the armchair. I bring it back with me, hug it around her shoulders, and then start wrapping it around her like plastic wrap, all the way up to her neck. She’s a human burrito. I give the overlapping corner one good yank to make sure she’s nice and snug and then I tuck it into the top (which is sitting just below her earlobes). Her eyes flare wide with disbelief because she can’t tell if I’m playing or not. I’m not playing. I made a homemade chastity blanket.

“Umm…thank you?” she says, close to laughing.

Feeling pretty secure now, I sit back down beside her, pick up the notebook. “Just trying to be hospitable.”

“Right. Mr. Hospitality. That’s definitely the title that comes to mind when I think of Noah Walker.” I cut my eyes to her head poking out the top of the plush burrito and it’s impossible to keep the smile from my face. She still looks too damn cute so I turn my eyes down and read her list.

 

Explore the town

Go fishing

Do something exciting

Play Scrabble

Teach me how to make Noah’s pancakes

 

“Play Scrabble?” I ask, lowering the list to look at her. She’s somehow managed to loosen the burrito and now has it loosely draped around her shoulders and open in the front like a normal person would wear a blanket. It doesn’t work for me at all.

“Yep.” She runs her fingers through her hair like a brush.

“You don’t need me to play Scrabble.”

“It would be boring to play by myself. I’d win for sure.”

I give her a derisive look. “What I mean is, you can play Scrabble anywhere. That’s not unique to our town.”

She pulls her feet out from under her and wraps her arms around her knees, hugging them to her chest, and thank God, wraps that blanket all the way around her again. “Actually…I haven’t been able to find anyone back home who wants to play.”

I stare at Amelia’s soft face and downturned eyes as she pretends to pick at the red nail polish on her toenails, but I know she’s only avoiding eye contact because she’s embarrassed. A surge of protectiveness rams through my

body and suddenly I want to hunt down anyone who has ever turned her down for a game of Scrabble and force them to play all night with her. And you’re going to smile and like it! What kind of asshole wouldn’t want to be friends with her? She’s sweet. Funny. Easygoing. Gorgeous. It’s unfathomable that she’s single.

“We’ll see,” I say, attempting to sound harsh and noncommittal even though we both know I’m going to do it. I read the list again. “Exciting, huh? What’s your definition of exciting?”

“Susan would say anything that could potentially break a bone, make me smile, or generally get my heart rate up at all.”

“Well, that takes sex with me off the table.” I wince the moment it’s out of my mouth. Her jaw drops. “I’m sorry…I meant it as a joke but my delivery is always too dry and—”

“Don’t be sorry!” Her face lights up with joy. “You joked! Mr. Classic Man just made a dirty joke and now I have to write it in my journal as the best day of my life.”

“I thought I was Mr. Hospitality?”

She pokes my cheek. “What other jokes do you have in there?”

I throw my body dramatically to the side like her strength knocked me over. “Geez, don’t be so rough.”

She’s shaking her head now, a wide smile on her mouth, eyes brimming with delight. “I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

I right myself and clear my throat. It’s time to get serious and quit playing around. Playing around leads to flirting. And flirting leads to trouble. “Back to your Susan. Did you tell her you’re staying in town longer?”

“Yes. And it did not go well.”

“Did she give you crap about it?”

She fills her chest with air and her lips flap animatedly when she lets it out. I love this side of her. The messy, not- so-put-together woman. It suits her. “She was livid. Tried to convince me that I was being reckless and selfish by not telling her where I am and bailing on business engagements that I didn’t even agree to!” Her voice rises on the last part, and I sort of love seeing this fire in her.

“And then she pried it out of me that I was staying with a single man…and in an attempt to make you sound harmless, I told her you’re a pie shop owner, and then I might have accidentally talked you up quite a bit and now she’s convinced I’m about to throw away my entire career for a guy.”

I lift a brow. “You talked me up? What’d you say?”

Her cheeks flush and she dodges the question with a roll of her eyes. “Doesn’t matter. I still can’t believe I’m here and going head-to-head with Susan like this. I haven’t…I haven’t done anything for myself in years.” She pauses and I don’t rush to fill the silence. “Susan wasn’t completely wrong, though. Leaving town without a bodyguard or having anyone from my team make sure I had safe accommodations waiting for me was reckless.” A soft smile tugs at her lips. Like she wants to feel proud but isn’t sure whether she’s supposed to or not.

I look down at the notepad in my hand and then pick up the pen. “What are you doing?” she asks as I mark off Do Something Exciting from her list.

“Congrats. You already accomplished one thing from your list all on your own.”

Amelia stares at that crossed-off item and looks as if she wants to clutch it to her cheek like she did my hand last night. Her eyes are filled with emotion, and I can tell she’s

breathing deeper to keep from tearing up. Nope. No tears, please. I’m not good at those.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, I lightly tap my knuckle against her knee and regret the contact instantly. “Not that you need my approval, but I think getting away was the right choice. Your Susan sounds like a real killjoy.”

Amelia laughs and lays her head to the side on the couch cushion. My eyes trace the long exposed line of her throat and when I make it to her face again, Amelia is staring right at me. “Oh, she is. That woman doesn’t let me do anything. But…she’s good at her job. And is the one to thank for my career reaching the height it’s at now. Plus, in her weird way, she’s been there for me more than my own mom has lately.”

“But you’re not happy,” I say as half question, half statement. Everything in me screams that I don’t care if she’s happy or not. I don’t even want her in my house or taking up space on my couch or forcing me to be kind to her with her big puppy dog eyes and sunshine personality. But damn it, if I don’t care, then why am I asking? Why am I already brainstorming ideas of other places I can take her while she’s here? Who she should meet. What would make her smile. What could potentially make her look at me with warmth in her eyes. I’m so mad at myself right now I could kick the wall.

“Sometimes I’m happy.” She keeps her eyes down to where she’s resumed picking her nail polish off and placing the chips in a neat little pile. “Or at least I used to be. I think.”

She turns her face away, and I can tell she’s ready for this conversation to be over. I understand that feeling perfectly well, so I won’t push it. She can talk to me when she’s ready. Or never if she doesn’t want to. Doesn’t matter

to me. I’m just here to be a safe place for her to hide away for a little while, because it’s what my grandma would have me do.

Her eye snags on something in my kitchen and I watch as a soft smile curls on her full lips. “The flowers I gave you. You put them in a vase.”

I’m pudding in her hands. Spineless, melted, wobbly, pointless pudding.

“One of my mom’s old vases, actually. My dad gave it to her.” I’m not able to look away from her soft smile, and I’m so angry that I can’t keep the facts of my life hidden from her like I want. I usually don’t like talking about my parents. Or anything that makes me feel in general. I’m not big on sharing my emotions with people. But for some reason, when Amelia’s blue eyes slip to me, I feel stripped. I want to tell her everything.

“They both died when I was ten.” I swallow. “They were big outdoorsy people and loved to go on extreme hikes for vacations. There was a freak accident while they were camping for their anniversary in Colorado. Storm came out of nowhere…and…there was a lot of lightning, and well, they didn’t make it off the mountain. My grandma took over guardianship and raised me and my sisters after that.”

Amelia’s hand drops to mine and she squeezes. “I’m so sorry.” Her voice is nothing but gentleness. And the way she’s looking at me, it’s been a long time since anyone has looked at me like that. Like she wishes she could take care of me. The skin of her hand is soft, and the smell of her bodywash is something warm and comforting, and because I suddenly find myself wanting to lean into her and kiss a line up her exposed throat, I stand up. Pulling my hand out from hers, I head into the kitchen just behind the sofa. There. A much-needed barrier.

“It was a long time ago. No need to be sorry for anything.” Where’s my metal trash can? I’ll happily climb inside and pull down the lid right now, because I like being Oscar the Grouch. That trash can is comfy, and I’ve really made it homey in there. Keeps strangers out, and even better, keeps beautiful singers who will only treat my heart like an all-you-can-eat buffet at a distance.

She hesitates a moment. “Okay. Are you sure you don’t want to—”

“Nope,” I interrupt while slapping my baseball hat back on my head, knowing she was going to offer to talk more about it. Believe me, the last thing I want to do is talk. About anything. Ever. Words make me uncomfortable. And why would I share anything with her when she’ll be gone before I know it?

She laughs lightly—but not with amusement. It’s more like bewilderment. “I don’t know what to think about you, Noah.”

I pick up my keys. “Just don’t think about me at all and you’ll be fine.” I want to look back at her, which is why I don’t. “I’ll be back late. There’s leftover vegetable stew in the fridge. Don’t take any more sleeping pills. Oh, and by the way.” I pause and give into temptation, looking back at her wide puppy dog eyes one last time tonight. “You can’t have my pancake recipe. It’s a secret.”

 

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