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Chapter no 17 – Amelia

When in Rome

It’s midnight and Noah isn’t back yet. Not sure why I’m fretting around like a wife whose husband didn’t come home tonight, but I am. Does he normally stay out this late? What is there to even do in this town after ten P.M.? I’m only worried because I think I upset him earlier trying to talk about his parents. What I need to do is quit trying to pursue this odd sense of friendship between Noah and me, and let it go. He’s essentially my Airbnb/tour guide. When I leave town, he won’t think of me again. He made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t interested in me. Just let it go, Amelia. And great…now I’m singing the song from Frozen because it’s literally impossible to say that phrase

anymore without singing it.

Wait, I hear something. It sounds like a… AH—a truck!

I let the blinds I was freakishly peeking through snap back into place and dive away from the window. What should I do?! Where do I hide? He can’t know I was just standing in here like a psycho waiting for him to get back.

I hear the door to the truck slam shut and I yelp. He’s coming and I have the house still lit up like the Fourth of July. There’s no way he won’t know I’m waiting up. Or wait.

He doesn’t have to know I’m waiting up. For all he knows I’m a night owl and this is how life works for me. Yes, I’m a celebrity with a thriving nightlife. That’s what I’m going to let him believe at least.

I race into the living room and slide in my socks across the floor, reenacting Risky Business in my oversized button- down pj shirt of his. Also, hello, Amelia, where’s your pants? YOU NEED PANTS. Years of skimpy stage costumes and magazine covers have desensitized me to modesty, and I forget other people don’t walk around half nude like I do.

Now I’m a cartoon trying to gain traction while running in place as I slip and slide my way to my room, jerk my legs into the pajama bottoms, and race back to the living room and dive onto the couch. There’s a blanket nearby so I snatch it and cocoon myself inside it similar to how Noah wrapped me earlier today. Does this look staged? Does it look like I haven’t moved since he left? That seems creepier somehow. At the last second, I decide to ditch the blanket, shut off the TV, and run into the bathroom. That’s a more normal thing to do and doesn’t scream I HAVE A CRUSH ON YOU AND HAVE BEEN WAITING UP TO SEE YOU.

The second I shut the bathroom door, I hear the front door open. I sag against the door and catch my breath. I flip on the water to make it sound like I’m washing my hands—buys me an extra thirty seconds of recovery. Except it’s cut to fifteen seconds when I hear a crash in the living room.

Oh shit. Is that not Noah out there? Maybe it’s an intruder. A stalker who found out where I’m staying. What should I do? I could call out his name but then it would also alert my presence to the creep in the living room. I look around the bathroom and find a mirror. Thanks to the movie that ruined my childhood, I know what to do with

this thing. (The movie was Signs in case you were wondering and it was horrifying.)

I slip the mirror under the door and angle it so I can see into the living room. It’s tougher to maneuver than it looked in the movie, but I finally get it to work. That’s when I see Noah crouched down scooping something up from the floor.

Whew.

Not going to die tonight. What a relief.

Giving myself a quick once-over in the mirror, and not choosing to wonder why I care so much what he thinks of how I look, I put the mirror back and go out into the living room.

Noah is hunched over a pile of broken glass from a lamp that he must have knocked off the end table and is scooping it up…with his hands. He hisses and his muscles bunch underneath his T-shirt when a shard of glass pricks his hand.

“Noah!” I move quickly to his side so I can tug on his arm, getting him to leave the glass alone and stand. “Drop those! What are you doing picking up glass with your bare hands?”

When I get the man standing, he immediately sways as if we’re on a ship and it was just pummeled by a massive wave. I have to wrap my arms around his torso just to keep him from stumbling backward. “I’m s’fine,” he says in a long slur, but not fighting my help.

“Noah, are you…drunk?” I ask once I have him safely standing and can release him. I won’t lie, I don’t really want to let go. This man is sturdy as an oak tree. Holding on to him like this, I can confirm that everything below this thin cotton shirt is solid muscle. Tempting, well-formed muscle. How does a baker get a body like that? Not fair.

When I step back, I look up into his grinning face. He looks almost boyish right now. I can’t help but chuckle because his hat is off and his hair is all askew and sticking up like he’s been running his hands all through it. Or I assume it’s Noah who’s been running his hands through it. But maybe it was a woman. Maybe it’s the mysterious woman he keeps meeting for lunch. Why does that inspire a jealous little troll to jump on my back and taunt me to start a war?

“Yeah. The girls can drink me under the table. Butdon’tworry, I didn’t drive mysmelf home,” he says, swaying heavily again. This time I take his arm and wrap it around my neck, steering him away from the pile of glass on the floor so I can plop him down onto the couch. He falls onto the cushions like a tree falling in the forest—on his stomach with the side of his face smashed onto the cushion, arm dangling off onto the floor.

I would take a minute to admire the way his body takes up this entire couch, but my mind is too busy obsessing over the word girls. Plural. Is Noah a playboy? How would that even be possible in a town this size? Although it’s always the small towns you have to watch out for. They are the ones you see surface in Netflix documentaries about how they had a whole underground meth lab.

“Girls, huh?” I ask, propping my hands on my hips and staring down at him like I have any right to be annoyed.

He smiles. SMILES. It’s blinding. My heart stops and then starts again, galloping right out of my chest. Good Gouda, that man has gorgeous teeth. And crinkles beside his eyes. When he smiles like that, he looks so approachable and comfy that I want to drape myself over him and just squeeze him in a giant hug. He’s huggable. The Grumpy Pie Shop owner is absolutely huggable.

He wags his eyebrows. “You jealous?” And he’s flirting.

Noah is smiling, and flirting, and rumpled, and wow. I like drunk Noah a lot. Actually, I like every version of Noah and that’s a real problem.

“No.” I kneel down beside him and pick up his arm. He doesn’t resist. Just stares at me with a smile hitching the side of his mouth as I raise his palm for inspection. Just as I suspected: he’s bleeding. “I’m just wondering why these mysterious girls got you drunk but then left you to take care of yourself tonight. But I’m thankful you didn’t drive yourself home at least.”

I gingerly set down his hand and leave his side to go rummage through his kitchen drawers and cabinets. “Anna- Banana dropped me off. Oopssss. I gave away the mystery. I was with my sisters.”

I pause my rummaging mid-drawer to smile. Tension slides off my shoulders and the burning in my chest dissipates. Jealous Little Troll hops off my back and returns to his bed for the night. I won’t let myself consider why I felt such a strong reaction to Noah being with other women. It doesn’t matter. It can’t matter. He’s a friend, Amelia, get it through your head!

“Why didn’t she come inside?” I ask, striking out with another drawer. I go to the back of the couch and peek over the top. Noah’s eyes are shut but he’s still grinning like a drunken fool. I love it.

“I ’spect she’s trying to make sure you take care of me.” “Me?”

He cracks open an eye. “Yeah, you. She’s scheming.

She’s a schemer.”

“Why would she do that?” I shouldn’t be baiting him for answers like this while he’s out of his wits but I can’t help

it. His tongue is loose and I feel like this is the only time I’ll get a straight answer out of him.

Or apparently not.

He smiles wider and raises a finger in the air. “Nice try.

I’m not that drunk.”

“Hmm. Can’t blame a girl for trying.” I nudge his shoulder. “Where is your first aid kit?”

He chuckles deep and low in his chest. “Who do you think I am? A mom? I don’t have a firstaidkit.” Those words were particularly difficult for him to get out. “Box of Band- Aids is in the bathroom, though.”

I hurry to the bathroom to find a Band-Aid. I have to push aside his deodorant and toothpaste, razor, and bottle of cologne before I find the box of Band-Aids smooshed into the back of the drawer. What I really want to do is open that deodorant stick and sniff it until I pass out, but I don’t because I’m forcing myself to act like a civilized woman. Polite, polite, polite.

…One sniff of cologne won’t hurt anyone, though. I do it, and I’m immediately addicted. I spray a tiny—nearly microscopic—spritz onto my PJs. Reckless, reckless, reckless.

When I go back into the living room with a damp hand towel and a Band-Aid, Noah looks like he’s almost asleep. His smile has faded and he’s a sleepy bear. So cuddly and approachable. If he were awake, he’d snarl and bare his teeth as I approach him, but right now, he’s pliable and warm. I sit down on the floor beside the couch and lift his hand again. There’s a little stream of blood dripping down his palm, but I don’t think it looks bad enough to need stitches. I also don’t see any shards of glass, so that’s good. It’s ironic that last night he took care of me when I was unconscious, and now I’m taking care of him. I’m not upset

about the opportunity to level the field a bit.

Carefully, I pat the damp paper towel across his cut to clean him up. His hands are like big, hot bricks. He has those large man knuckles, too. Calluses line the top of his palms, and if I had to guess, I’d say he’s never touched lotion a day in his life. I can’t help but stare, tracing a line with my gaze from the tips of his fingers all the way up his palm and wrist, turning my head to slide my eyes up his masculine forearm and bicep to his shoulder. There I find his startling green eyes blinking at me.

I clear my throat and whip my head back around to plaster the Band-Aid on his palm. I need to quit this futile pining. He’s. Not. Into. You. Amelia.

I work quickly with Noah’s arm draped over my shoulder, palm nearly in my lap. He doesn’t move or fight me. Which is good because I need to finish this up, clean the glass shards off the floor, and get my butt back into my bedroom before I fall in love with him.

“There ya go,” I say, giving the back of his hand a gentle pat and then sliding out from under his arm. “All doctored up. That will be a thousand dollars for my service.” I twist around to look at him, and when I do, he raises his hand and runs the back of his knuckles against my jaw. So tenderly, like he’s afraid if his big bear paw comes in contact with my skin it will bruise me. I shiver.

“You’re so pretty,” he says, without a slur but words heavy with sleep. “And you sing like an angel, too.”

“Thank you.” A soft joyous emotion bubbles from the pit of my stomach. I know he’s drunk. I know he doesn’t mean this. But I still want to catch his words in a net like butterflies. “And you’re sweet. Like powdered sugar.” His eyes drop to my mouth and I feel my stomach lurch into my throat. “So damn sweet.”

I smile and Noah hooks his finger under my chin and gently tugs me toward him. “Can I kiss you? Just one more time?”

My breath freezes in my lungs. I want to let him kiss me more than anything. His lips on my lips would be incredible

—I know from experience. But I can’t let him, because, you know…alcohol and all that. It wouldn’t be fair to kiss a man who’s not fully present in his senses.

So instead, I tip forward and I kiss his forehead. It’s a soft little peck—there’s no reason this nonlip contact should feel like a lightning strike in the rain. But it does. The feel of my lips against his skin, the closeness of our faces and bodies—it all pulses through me. And when Noah breathes in deep and lightly hums a sound of delight in the back of his throat, I’m permanently changed.

I break contact and look at him.

“Thanks,” he says and his thumb lightly strokes my jawline. It’s an indulgent gesture. So sweet my bones ache. So warm I’ll never need a blanket again. Even drunk Noah knows how to be tender and safe.

His eyes don’t open again, but he does smile. I can’t help but sit here and stare at him as his breathing turns heavy and his hand falls away. I want to figure him out—but I’m afraid I never will. He’s gruff and curt, and also poetic and kind. He doesn’t want me in his house but he goes out of his way to make sure I’m comfortable and taken care of. He’s strong and calloused, but tender and affectionate. He’s not interested but he asks for another kiss.

I finally clean up the glass and cover Noah with a blanket, and when I’m buried under the soft patchwork quilt on my bed, I fall asleep to the smell of Noah’s cologne and the misplaced hope that one day we’ll kiss again.

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