Chapter no 20 – Noah

When in Rome

So I guess you’re going to want to hear the whole sob story now?” I ask Amelia after we leave the diner

and are alone again.

She looks up at me with a smirk. “You sound like you’re resigning yourself to a root canal.”

“About the same pain level.” It’s supposed to be a joke, but it falls a little flat. Or maybe a little too on the nose. Because thinking back to Merritt hurts every time. In hindsight, I see myself eagerly following that woman off to New York, truly believing that our little summertime fling was real, and I cringe.

As Jeanine pointed out in the diner, Merritt came to town to take care of her uncle’s property after he died. It was her first time in town, and being the only lawyer in her family, her parents thought it would be best to send her to sell off his property and tie up all the other loose ends that come along with a family member dying. Well, that and because her mom and uncle had a bad falling-out before Merritt was born and never spoke again. I thought Merritt seemed pretty lonely in town while handling all that business on her own, so I offered her company. I spent my

afternoons helping her box up his house and then that turned into her spending nights at my place.

I spontaneously proposed on her last day in town, because it felt romantic and exciting. She agreed for those same reasons, but only if I’d move to New York with her. My sisters and grandma were shocked that I left with only giving them a day’s notice. Now, I want to go back in time and punch myself right in the stomach for being so naive and thoughtless.

We made it work for the first few months, but when that physical chemistry started to wear off (which was probably because Merritt was getting it with her co-worker instead), we had nothing. She was all about work, which was fine, except for the fact that she wanted me to be as well. In New York I used my business degree and got a job in a low- level position at a bank, and, boy, did I dream of clawing my eyes out each day at that boring, lifeless job.

I was never enough for Merritt and she became obsessed with wiping all the “country” from my personality. She made sure I worked my ass off so I could climb the corporate ladder and claim a position that she could be proud of when she introduced me to her friends. So I worked a crap ton up there, was incredibly lonely, had very little joy, and because I’m loyal to an absolute fault, it took me a whole year to end it. Fine…loyal and prideful. I didn’t want to drag myself back home and explain to everyone that I had made a huge mistake.

I can’t say I’m necessarily happy she cheated on me, but it did give me the push I needed to end things, or else I might have wasted a lot more time being miserable with a woman who was all wrong for me. And after it officially crumbled, I vowed I would never force a relationship with someone whose life doesn’t automatically fit with mine

from the start. Because that’s what Merritt and I boiled down to—two people who needed different things and couldn’t find any common ground.

Amelia hesitates a minute and must see something honest in my expression that I don’t mean to be showing, because she smiles and shakes her head. “Then no. I don’t want to hear it. Sounds like a real buzzkill to our morning.” Her blue eyes dart up to mine and they’re glinting. I shove my hands in my pockets and lightly bump my shoulder against hers. In quiet, introverted, hates-discussing- feelings language, I just said thank you.

Her shoulder bumps mine back.

“So what part of the town do you want to explore first?”

Amelia pauses and looks thoughtfully around. With her eyes distracted, I’m able to really take her in for the first time today. She’s wearing a simple cream-colored summer dress, with thin straps. I like the way the dress hugs her chest and torso, but sort of flares out a little at the waist. The bottom half of it sways back and forth when she walks. She looks so pretty it hurts.

“What’s that place?” she says, squinting at the building across the street. Her lips are extrapink today and I wonder if she’s wearing lipstick or tinted ChapStick. I know the difference because I used my sister’s tinted ChapStick once thinking it was the regular kind and had ripe, red lips for the rest of the night because my sisters thought it was hilarious not to tell me. I don’t think Amelia’s wearing lipstick, the color looks too natural. Kissable.

Right. Enough about her lips. I know exactly where to take her.

I turn in the direction she’s pointing. “That’s the hair salon.”

Wait,” says Amelia, hitting the brakes on the sidewalk. “It’s too scary. I can’t go in there.”

“ “It’s just a beauty shop.”

Amelia’s eyes slide to the front window and

she peers inside like a woman eyeing a diamond necklace in the shop display of Tiffany’s. A few minutes ago, she told me she’s wanted to cut her hair for so long but could never get up the nerve to do it. She’s contemplating doing it now, so I go stand beside her, shoulder to shoulder as we stare into the salon like creeps.

Heather, Tanya, and Virginia are all in there working to loud music and laughing with clients. The scene is cheery, if not a little over-the-top.

I look down at Amelia. “I’m failing to see the threat here.”

“I can’t do it,” she says in a daze. “I realllyyyy want to, but I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because Susan will be mad. Like really mad. My hair is a thing. It’s part of what I’m known for.”

With this new insight, my eyes trace the long waves of her hair cascading down her back. It is beautiful—the kind of hair that makes me want to tangle my fingers in it. Part of me is sad I’ll never get to do that, but I’m also getting real sick of hearing Susan’s name, so I will encourage Amelia to chop it off to her ears right now if that’s what’s going to bring her freedom. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize it was Susan’s hair. That makes sense then.” I’m being a smart-ass but she likes it.

She laughs with sad amusement and then looks up at me

—shoulders sagging in premature defeat. “I can’t, Noah. I

just can’t. I know it’s silly but it’s how things work for someone in my position. I don’t own my image anymore.”

“Okay.” I shrug. “But I’m just saying, if you want to be rebellious and break the Law of Susan, I’ll whip the truck up to the curb and you can slide in Dukes of Hazzard style when your haircut is finished, and we’ll make sure Susan can never catch us.”

She grins. “Us?”

“Well, yeah. I’ve seen you drive my truck. Snails were passing you—flipping you the bird and everything. It was embarrassing.” Amelia laughs and shakes her head, turning her eyes back to the window. And I realize in this moment, I’d do just about anything to make her laugh. What’s happening to me?

Looking through the window, Amelia takes one full breath and then nods once—firmly. She looks up at me again, and this time, she’s determined. There’s fire in those crystal-blue eyes. Determination looks so damn sexy on her. It’s making that fierce desire to kiss her boil up inside me again.

“Okay, I’m doing it. I’m going in there and I’m getting my hair cut. Better get the truck ready, Bo Duke,” she says, bouncing from foot to foot like a prizefighter about to step into the ring. If she had a mouthguard, she’d slip it over her teeth. I need to tape her knuckles. “I’m a woman who eats pancakes and gets her hair cut when she wants to. I’m my own damn boss, and I’m taking my life back!” She heads toward the door, puts her hand on the doorknob, and then quickly lets go and paces back to me. Nope, she passes right by me. She’s zooming toward the truck, and then abruptly freezes again. Slowly, she turns back around and treks her way to the door once again. We repeat that whole process two more times.

So on her fourth trip to the door, and when I can tell she’s about to lose steam again, I go up behind Amelia, open the door, and push my hand against her lower back, nudging her over the threshold. “It’s been entertaining as hell to watch, but I’m starting to get dizzy from all the back and forth.”

She looks at me over her shoulder with a thankful smile. “I was going to go in that time anyway.”

“Sure you were.”

“Are you going stay with me?”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to. Hell, I’d hold her hand in there if she asked me to. But I know I can’t let myself do that. If I’m going to keep myself from falling for her, I’ve got to keep some boundaries. Get some space and clear my head.

I hitch my thumb over my shoulder as I step backward. “I’m supposed to meet someone for lunch. I’ll be back in a little bit.”

I hurry out before Tanya’s heavily eye-shadowed eyes can sweep to the front desk and catch sight of me and Amelia. She’d sink her teeth in me and then I’d end up with a haircut I never asked for. Just before the door closes behind me, I hear, “Darlin’, yes! I’ve been hoping you’d stop in here since I heard you popped into town. Sit down and make yourself comfy. Wanna Coke? I know you’re probably used to wine but I’d have to drive home and grab the box from my fridge and that might take about twenty minutes.”

I just hope she doesn’t come out with a perm.

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