Chapter no 16 – Noah

When in Rome

After parking my truck, I walk to The Pie Shop, and see that my sisters have already beaten me here. It’s dark

outside so I’m able to see a straight shot into the lit-up shop, card table in the center of the usually open area, junk food on the countertop, and my sisters all gathered around the table drinking and laughing. It’s Saturday night, aka our night to get together and play hearts. We’ve been doing it since I came back to town three years ago. And since none of us ever have anything to do on the weekend (singletons party of four) we rarely miss a Saturday night. Despite the fact that we’re pretty much on display, it’s after business hours, and the town knows not to disturb us. Because if there’s anything citizens of Rome, Kentucky, love, it’s familial traditions. No way in hell they’d stand in the way of that.

I open the door and step inside to the cheers and whistles of my overzealous baby sisters. “There he is! Casanova!” yells Emily, with her hands cupped around her mouth.

“No! Not Casanova…something more tragic and brooding. Romeo, for sure,” says Madison.

I flip them all off and go over to the counter, where I set down the case of beer I picked up on the way in. It looks like each of my sisters brought a case, too, so I take this one into the back to stick in the fridge for next week. When I return to the shop front, my sisters are still debating my nickname. They think they are absolutely hilarious.

Emily is kicked back with her tube-socked feet up on the card table, catching jelly beans in her mouth in between debates. Annie is sitting cross-legged at the table, reading a book and minding her own business as usual. And Madison is sitting on the card table, painting her toenails. She always keeps nail polish in her purse for moments like this.

“Gross,” I say, coming over and taking the brush from her hand, returning it to the bottle, and screwing on the lid. “Now the shop is going to smell like this shit tomorrow.”

She sticks her tongue out at me acting more like the children she teaches than an adult. Then again, teaching has always seemed like an odd career choice for her. She’s always loved to cook—even teaches a cooking class one night a week during the winter—and I always thought she’d end up going to culinary school. Instead, she surprised us all by staying in Rome and following in Emily’s footsteps, becoming an elementary-school teacher. Sometimes I worry that Madison adheres too much to what Emily wants—even down to both teaching at the same school—when actually she’s more fit to something freer. More explorative.

“You’re just annoyed because we gave you a nickname, Lover Boy,” says Madison.

“Don’t call me Lover Boy.” Well, shoot. That was a mistake. I know better than to tell these ladies not to do anything, it just makes them want to do it that much harder

and with greedy smiles on their faces. Look at them. Their eyes are glowing now. Annoying me is their calling.

Even quiet Annie shuts her book and plays along. “Why not, Lover Boy?”

I groan and grab a beer from behind me on the counter.

I’d leave if I didn’t love them so much.

My sisters laugh, and Emily moves her feet to the floor to give her more teasing leverage. “Aw, Lover Boy, do you not like the nickname?”

Madison practically croons, “Come on, Lover Boy, be a good sport and grab me that bag of potato chips before you sit down.”

These women.

Luckily, I have so much dirt on them I could make a whole new continent. I look at Emily. “Should I tell them about May twenty-third?” Her smile drops. “Mm-hmm. Thought so.” I turn to Madison next. “How about the name of the guy I saw leaving your house the morning after Emily and Annie went to pick up that farmhouse table in Alabama?” Madison zips her lips.

I’m just about to unleash my blackmail on Annie when she holds up her hand. “Save it. Point made. We’ll shut up.” “Thank you,” I say, taking my seat at the table and

stealing one of Emily’s jelly beans. “Now, can we get the game going, please?”

Emily starts dealing. “Fine. But you’re being a killjoy.”

Her words immediately snap me back to that moment on the couch with Amelia. I can’t stop thinking about her and what she said. Sometimes I’m happy. At least, I used to be. I think. But I don’t want to think about Amelia tonight, so I force myself to focus on cards with my sisters.

We play a few rounds of hearts and shoot the breeze until they can’t stay quiet about it any longer. They are all

three practically vibrating with unasked questions. Their bodies can’t take it anymore or they’ll just pass out.

“Soooo,” Emily starts. I raise my second beer to my lips and take a long sip, watching her with narrowed eyes. “How are you feeling about Amelia leaving on Monday because you won’t let her stay at your place?”

“Amelia, is it?” I ask, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Yeah, she told us everything, including her name. We offered to let her stay with us since you’re being rude. Told her she could have my bed and I’d sleep on the couch, but she’s too nice and said she wouldn’t put us out like that.”

Yep. Amelia’s got them under her spell just as I suspected she would.

I set my beer down carefully and try not to act too eager to discuss her. “Thoughtful of you guys.”

“Mm-hmm,” Madison says, laying down a five of clubs. Her eyes pop up to mine with an amused glint. I can tell she’s trying to outsmart me in more than just this card game. “Does it annoy you that you’re not the only one she confided in?”

I hold her gaze. “Not a bit. She can tell the whole damn town and I wouldn’t care.”

I would care. I do, in fact.

They all grumble and grunt and roll their eyes because the only thing these girls hate more than not making fun of me is being left out of the loop. I throw them a bone because they’ll forever be five, six, and eight years old in my eyes, begging me to take them along on my adventures with James. “I told her earlier today that she could stay with me until her car was fixed, though.”

They all squeal. My eardrums burst. I regret all my choices.

“All right, all right,” I say, rubbing my ear and then standing to go grab another beer. Because I’m going to need it.

Emily points an accusing finger. “You do like her! I knew it! Lover Boy strikes again!”

“I do not.” I pop the top off my beer. “I just feel pity for her and looking out for her is the right thing to do.”

Madison wags her eyebrows. “Look out for her or check her out?”

“I’m serious. Nothing’s gonna happen between us. She’s just passing through town and needs a place to crash while she’s here. Besides”—I sit back down at the table and look at my hand of cards again like I’m actually paying attention to this game—“I already told her I’m not interested.”

“You didn’t,” Madison says. She’s never been more disappointed in me.

“I did. It’s only right to set expectations up front. I’ll be her friend, nothing more.”

Emily lifts her eyebrows while staring at her cards. “Well. Probably smart. It’s fun to tease you, but I agree with not pursuing her. You’re not really the fling type of guy and she’ll have to leave eventually…and you can’t go with her.” We all feel the warning in Emily’s voice in that last statement. She still hasn’t fully forgiven me for moving away with Merritt to New York. I think Emily was the only one who wasn’t upset when everything blew up between me and my ex-fiancée because she knew it meant I would stay in town for good.

Madison is appalled. “No! Not smart! You’re an idiot, Noah, and I want to push your chair over.”

“So violent. Play your hand, Annie.” We all look up to see what’s holding Annie up. She’s smiling at me. A soft, knowing smile that prickles at me. Annie has always

seemed to understand me better than my other sisters, and it grates on me that she knows something now that I’m desperately trying to pretend doesn’t exist.

I chug the rest of my beer and decide to have another… and then another…and another.


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