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Chapter no 34 – Amelia

When in Rome

Noah and I race down the back alley just like the last time, except now, there’s a heavy dread in the pit of

my stomach. If there are as many as Mabel says, it means they’ve had some kind of confirmation that I’m here and they won’t let up until they’ve gotten the pictures they want. Which reminds me.

“Noah,” I say, tugging him to a stop. “You can’t be seen with me. I need to take your truck by myself and you can get a ride with Annie.”

His brows stitch together and his jaw tightens. “Why?”

I look down to where our hands are clasped together. “This is why. If you don’t want your life to change, they can’t find us together.” My voice shakes. “They’ll take photos from a hundred different angles, and tomorrow morning, you’ll be all over social media and tabloids.”

I expect him to drop my hand. I’m preparing for the loss of it. Instead, his grip tightens and he answers, “I’m going with you.”

“Noah!”

This time he breaks our hold and crowds me, cupping my jaw in his hands and looking fire into my eyes. “I’m not leaving you. I thought I could keep this temporary but—”

He breaks off, shaking his head and kissing me hastily. Nearly painfully. It’s the most exquisite torture. “I don’t want it to be over between us. I can’t let it be over.”

I’m breathless with hope. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying fears be damned. I want a relationship if you do.”

“I do!” I say so fast he was barely able to finish his sentence.

“But you’ll have to be patient with me—” “I will!”

“—because it’s going to take some time for me to get used to the distance thing. And I still need to be around to take care of my grandma so I won’t be able to visit you much.”

I go up on my toes to wrap my arms around his neck. “We’ll figure it out. And I’ll give you so much patience, you’ll be overwhelmed with how benevolent I am. But, Noah, are you sure? Just last night—”

This time he cuts me off. “Last night, I held you in my arms and realized I’d be an idiot to ever let you go. Not only an idiot, but I’d be miserable. I could never forgive myself for letting you get away.”

I shake my head frantically, smiling and trying not to cry. “Mr. Romantic.”

“Mr. Ridiculously Lucky.”

“Shush. I told you not to encroach on my nicknames.”

He grins and his eyes lower to my mouth. “So is that a yes? You’ll officially date this lowly pie shop owner?”

“As long as you never refer to yourself as that again, yes.

Absolutely times a million.”

He kisses me once more and slides his hand up my arm before taking my hand and continuing our escape down the alley. “We’ll figure out the details when we get home.”

Home. The sudden burst of joy I feel hearing that word nearly trips me.

But when Noah and I surface from the alley, we immediately realize our mistake. Somehow they knew this is where we’d end up, and all sorts of paparazzi and media are gathered in the parking lot—waiting for us. My heart lurches and I try to turn back before they notice us, but I’m not fast enough.

“There she is!” “Rae Rose!”

“Rae, over here! Who’s the guy?!”

“Is it true you’ve been having a love affair with a pie shop owner?”

They’re all shouting and racing toward us. Noah grips my hand firmly and looks down at me. “What do you want me to do? Do we make a run for it?”

I swallow and allow myself one second of anger before I train my face into an impassive expression for the flashing cameras. I cover my mouth and angle my face up to him so they can’t read my lips. “We need to get to your truck. Don’t say a word to them other than asking them to move as we walk.” I wish I could have had more time to prepare him for how to interact with the media, but there’s no better way to learn than as you go, right?

Holding hands and keeping our gazes down, we walk toward his truck. But the paparazzi are hungry today and they form a barrier around us, taking advantage of my lack of security.

“Excuse me. Move. Let us through.” Noah is doing a valiant job of trying to get me through the pressing maze of media, but they’re not budging. I keep tugging on his hand because I can feel his rage building and I’m afraid he’ll do something rash like shove the guy who’s currently putting

his camera about five inches from my face and yelling questions at me.

“Who are you with right now, Rae?” He’s so close I smell what he had for lunch.

“Back off,” Noah barks at him, but he doesn’t relent.

“Is he your new boy-toy? Are you finally veering away from your rich and successful type?” He’s trying to provoke us into an answer, and I can feel that Noah is close to snapping.

Noah angles his shoulder in front of me so he can make better eye contact with the paparazzi. “I said back off and let us through.”

All the others are closing us in as well, shouting questions and begging for a comment, but they’re not as in- our-face as this man. “Sure thing, big guy. Just answer my question and I’ll back right off. What makes you think an average guy like you is good enough for a worldwide star like her? Care to comment?”

Panic seizes me at his question. I’ve been cornered like this before in my career, and it’s terrifying each time, but I’ve never heard a paparazzi say something so cutting or intentionally insulting. Also, something about his question is niggling the back of my mind. Like I’ve heard it before.

Is this how it will always be for Noah? The media constantly reminding him of his place? This time it’s me who is about to snap. I ball my fist—to what—punch him? I think so, because in the next moment, Noah is covering my fist with his hand and when I look up at him, he shakes his head the tiniest bit. Don’t do it.

To make things worse, new voices enter the mix. “Hey! Get away from them. Leave our girl alone!”

I look over my shoulder to the sound of Mabel and Harriet, along with Phil and Todd yelling angrily at the

paparazzi. No, no, no. They need to go inside. There’s no reason anyone else should get dragged into this breach of privacy, but they’re relentless until their voices are heard and half of the flashing cameras turn in their direction. This story is getting juicier and juicier for them by the minute.

But then two familiar blacked-out SUVs whip into the parking lot and blare their horns. As soon as they come to a stop, I see my usual bodyguards jump out and race toward the paparazzi, followed by Susan until they’re at my side.

“Are you okay? Let’s get you out of here!” she says, and my guards provide coverage for me and Noah as we’re guided through the crowd, pushing them back in the process.

I’ve never been so happy to see Susan and her jet-black bob in my entire life. I could kiss her matching pantsuit.

“Get back,” Will, my head bodyguard, says forcefully and everyone complies because Will looks like a street fighter you’d never want to cross. He also makes the very best gingersnaps I’ve ever had and is a wizard with a travel sewing kit, but I’m thankful this zoo of paparazzi doesn’t know that.

I jump in the SUV first, quickly followed by Noah. He settles close to me on the bench and puts his arms around me. I breathe in his comforting scent. “Are you okay?” he whispers close to my ear.

“Better question, are we okay?” I ask, because I’m terrified that Noah is rethinking everything after that run- in. That our relationship will go down in history as the shortest ever lived. I know he has all kinds of trust issues already, so I’m afraid what that man said today is going to change his mind about us.

To my shock, he lets out a soft laugh through his nose and grins, kissing my forehead. “It’ll take more than that to

get rid of me now. The only person’s opinion I care about is yours. If you’re still up for ‘dating an average man,’ I am still in.”

I sag against him with relief just as Susan steps up into the SUV and takes the bench facing us. “Are you two all right? You’re lucky we got here when we did.” The door shuts and immediately the cries of the paparazzi are blessedly muffled.

But when my eyes lock with Susan’s, realization knocks into me. I suddenly remember where I’ve heard that guy’s question before.

“Susan, where’s Claire? She’s usually always with you.” “Oh.” She pulls a face. “Sadly, I had to let her go. Just

wasn’t doing her job well anymore.” She shrugs, and a boulder settles in the pit of my stomach. Something is not right.

The ride home is quiet as we all settle and process. The other SUV hung back and blocked the exit of the parking

lot so we were able to make it to Noah’s without being followed. Will drops us off close to the front door, and then backs down the driveway again, angling the vehicle so that no one can enter the driveway if they find us. I should feel safer with my team around me again, but I don’t. At least not with all my team.

Noah and I are thinking in tandem. We both watch Susan closely as she pulls out her cell phone, registers the lack of service, and then tells us she needs to walk back down the driveway to give Will instructions. “Go ahead and pack your things, Rae. We’re going to leave as soon as

possible so we can get you safely back in Nashville before they find you here.”

She doesn’t wait for my answer because Susan is used to me complying without hesitation. When the door shuts behind her, I head into the kitchen where I pick up the phone and immediately dial my mom.

“Do you think Susan’s timely appearance was fishy, too?” Noah asks.

“Yep. And her assistant told me the other day that things are going on behind my back that I don’t know about. It’s time to get some answers.”

The phone rings several times and I bounce on my feet, anxious to talk to my mom before Susan returns. Noah tells me he’s going to step outside to give me privacy and keep Susan away for a few minutes.

Finally, my mom answers. “Hello?” “Mom, it’s me.”

Her voice is level ten cheery. “Amelia! Hi, sweetie! It’s so good to hear from you. What’s going on? I’m at the beach so you might not be able to hear me very well. Listen to this ocean today. It’s roaring!”

“No, Mom. I—”

She removes the phone from her ear and is extending it toward the ocean. I know because it sounds like I’m practically inside a wave. “Mom!” I yell a few times. “I need to ask you a question! Put the phone back on your ear!”

“Doesn’t that sound amazing? Wish you were here. Oh, the sun is incredible today. And Ted is here, too! Do you want to say—”

I cut her off before she hands the phone off. “Mom, this is important and I’m in a hurry. Did you tip off anyone from the media to where I am staying right now?”

I have never once confronted my mom after she’s done this. In the past when Susan would tell me that she confirmed it was my mom leaking the stories, I’ve silently stewed and pulled further away from her. But now, I need to know.

The line goes silent. At first I think it’s because she’s guilty, but when she speaks again, I realize that she sounds hurt instead. “No. Of course not. Why would you think I’d do that?” I can’t answer right away—too many responses are swirling around my head. But apparently my silence speaks volumes. “Amelia, I don’t know where this is coming from, but I swear to you, I would never sell a story about you to a magazine. Never in a million years.”

My gut twists. I shut my eyes trying to sort this out—and all I keep coming back to is the fact that the aggressive paparazzo said nearly word for word the same thing Susan said to me over the phone a few days ago. It is possible that someone from the town called a magazine and told them where I am. But…it’s rare for the media to all gather like they did today. Like it was organized and planned. Someone would have had to go through a lot of trouble to orchestrate the ambush today—and I really don’t think anyone in this town would have done that to me. There’s only one person who has been upset by my time here in Rome and would want to smoke me out of hiding.

“Mom,” I say, swallowing against a suddenly dry throat. “Why aren’t we close anymore?”

I hear my mom release a sigh, and I think it’s one of relief. “I wish I knew. I’ve wanted to bring it up for a while now, but didn’t know how. Is it me? Did I do something? Because I want to know and make it right if I did.”

I might have thought it was mostly her fault a few days ago, but now, I don’t think she’s the only one to blame. I

should have spoken up long ago. Questioned my mom about the tabloid stuff instead of just blindly accepting everything Susan has ever told me. I wish I had fought for my relationship with my mom instead of quietly stepping back from it. I’m finding my voice now, though. “I think we have a lot to talk about and sort through, but I can’t get into it all right now. I just need you to know, I miss you a lot. And…” My voice hitches. “I love you. I want to get back to the sort of relationship we used to have.”

She breathes in deeply and then sniffles. “I want that, too. Yes, call me back when you can. Or we can FaceTime. Or I’ll fly to wherever you are. You name it! I’m just…” She’s crying—I can hear it in her voice. “I’m happy you brought it up. Things have been so weird between us, and sometimes, I’ve wanted to call you and catch up, but…I’ve chickened out because I’ve gotten the impression that you don’t want to talk to me anymore.”

“That’s because I thought you were selling stories about me to tabloids.” As well as the constant money requests and mooching, but I don’t feel like now is the time to mention that. Not sure I’m even ready to admit my feelings about it to her yet.

“No—hon. Please believe me. I have never once contacted anyone from the media and tipped them off to anything about you. I love you too much to do something like that.”

“I believe you,” I tell my mom because I really do. I can hear the earnestness in her voice. Plus, too many other puzzle pieces are falling into place. “But, Mom…is there anyone—even a friend you might have told that I’m in Rome, Kentucky, right now? Your boyfriend, maybe?”

“No, I haven’t even told him.” She pauses a moment. “But…actually. I did tell someone.”

“Who?”

“Susan,” she says, and it makes my pulse jump. “When I called her to help me set up the flight, she told me how worried she was about you and afraid something terrible had happened since you hadn’t checked in. She asked if I’d heard anything and so I told her what town you were in because she sounded really freaked out. Was that wrong? You normally tell Susan everything.” She sounds so concerned. History suggests that she’s only showing this worry because she’s afraid I’m going to cut her off financially. But in light of everything I’m learning today, I wonder if that’s not true. I wonder if some of the wedge between my mom and me only exists because of the woman I’ve given too much power over my life.

There’s no time to answer her question. I have a few more that need answers first. “Mom, a few years ago, for your forty-fifth birthday, did Susan ever send a car to pick you up for the surprise weekend away I planned for you?”

“What?” She breathes out. “No. I had no idea you did that. In fact, I thought you forgot about my birthday that year.”

I see red. Susan’s fingerprints are all over my relationship with my mom—and although it’s my fault for delegating so much to that woman, I thought she was a safe place. Turns out, she sabotaged my relationship with my mother. How could Susan do that to me?

“I actually had planned a fun getaway for us, and Susan told me when I sent a car for you that you declined, saying you already had plans with your friends.”

“Oh, Amelia. You must have been so hurt.”

I laugh but it’s not in amusement. “You must have been, too.”

“Well…” She lets it dangle.

My mom and I still have so much to talk through, and I need her to understand that only contacting me when she needs something has been hurtful. But first, I want to hear her side. Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture after all. Maybe she has been reaching out and Susan has been getting in the way—making a point to tell me when my mom asks her for something so she’ll look worse.

“Susan also told me you declined my invitation to join me for the first few U.S. dates of the tour. Was that true?”

“Absolutely not. I would love to come to those concerts— she never called me.”

I feel like I could punch through a wall right now. A Susan-shaped wall.

“Mom, I’m so sorry. I think…ugh, I think this is my fault. I’ve let Susan have too much power in my life, and…I’m pretty sure she’s been purposely getting between us.”

Now I think back to all the times Susan encouraged me to not confront my mom, but to just cut off communication with her, and I want to scream. How could I not see it? How could I let so many years go by like this without my mom? I had completely gone to sleep on my own life. Not anymore.

“Oh, hon—it’s not all your fault. I should have questioned things, too. Reached out to you even when it was hard. I’m so sorry, Amelia.”

“It’s okay, Mom. We’ll figure it out. I’ve got to go, right now. But I’ll call you tomorrow and we can talk through some more of this. Oh, and you’re absolutely invited to those concerts, okay? I want you there—I love you.”

“I love you, too, Rae-Rae.” My heart cracks open—but this time with hope. Maybe my relationship with my mom isn’t so far gone as I thought.

I hang up at the exact moment that Susan walks through the front door, Noah hot on her heels.

“What’s going on here?” she says, looking over her shoulder at Noah. The sharp edge of her bob whips her jawline. “Why was he trying to keep me out of here?”

“You’re the one responsible for the paparazzi showing up today, aren’t you?” I ask Susan as she walks in.

She’s so stunned by my accusation that her purse falls off her shoulder and hits the floor. After blinking several times, she clears her throat and bends gracefully to retrieve her purse. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just throw that horrible accusation at me, and instead, help you get packed like we discussed.”

“You discussed it, not me. And I’m not leaving.” I say this calmly, while anger pulses through my veins. Noah steps past Susan and crosses the room to stand beside me, putting his hand on my low back. It’s such a supportive gesture without trying to handle anything for me that it jostles the release mechanism on my tears. Not now, emotions.

Susan’s eyes drop to where Noah is touching me and she sighs with annoyance. “Let me guess. He is the one who planted this idea in your head?” She scoffs. “So typical. Rae, open your eyes and see that he’s not right for you. In fact, have you stopped to think that maybe he’s the one who told the photographers where to find you? Or maybe that money-sucking mother of yours. We both know that she—”

“Enough.” My voice is sharp as the crack of a whip. “I just got off the phone with my mom. It wasn’t her. In fact, it’s never been her, has it? You’ve been leaking stories about me to the tabloids for years and using my mom as your scapegoat. Also, how many of those money-sucking requests you tell me she makes actually come from her?”

“This is ridiculous. You’re going to trust your mom—the one who’s been using you for years—over me?”

“Yes.” My reply comes instantly and Susan looks like I just impaled her. Noah presses lightly against my back. Quiet solidarity. “I know it was you, Susan, and now I know you’re responsible for so much more than I ever realized, so you can cut the shit. And thanks to finally talking to my mom about all this, I know that you’ve been meddling in our relationship and purposely not relaying messages and making up lies instead.” I shake my head at how obvious it seems to me now.

Susan crosses her arms and I have the strongest urge to push them back down by her sides, because that’s Noah’s Surly Pose and she has no right to it. “You’re wrong. Your mom is the one who continues to lie and let you down. I’ve always been the one to take care of you.”

“No, Susan. You’re fired.” The words glide right off my tongue, and suddenly, I feel lighter than I’ve ever felt before. Like my feet might lift off the ground.

Susan’s mouth falls open. “You’ve got to be kidding me?” Her eyes bulge. “I have done nothing but bend over backward for you the last ten years! I have gotten you the best gigs. Major deals on your contracts. The best endorsements. I have single-handedly grown your career, and you wouldn’t be anywhere right now if it wasn’t for me!”

“If you had truly cared about me, you would have been looking after my well-being, too. Noticing that you were working me into the ground. That I was so lonely without my mom. But instead, you were so consumed with making more money that you just used me. You used me and you pushed the most important person in the world away from me.”

She stares at me—no, glares at me—for two beats. Her eyelids are twitching from withheld rage. “It’s him, isn’t it? Is he pressuring you into this? He’s brainwashing you into thinking I’m the problem.” She’s grasping at straws, but it’s too late. I can see the truth perfectly now.

“Stop. You need to go.”

Susan’s lips tremble but not from tears. It’s pure anger. “You’re making a mistake.”

I shrug. Even if I am (which I’m not), it’s my mistake to make. It feels incredible to allow myself to follow my gut again. “This is your thirty-day notice since that’s what is in our contract. But consider it a paid vacation because I don’t want to see or hear from you over the next thirty days or thereafter.”

She grips the strap of her purse so tightly, her knuckles go white. “I’ll leave, but you need to know that you’re wasting your life out here, and that man”—she spits those last two words while nodding in disgust toward Noah—“will only bring you down just like your mom was doing. Believe it or not, what I did today was for your own good.”

“So you’re admitting to being behind the paparazzi ambush today?”

Susan takes a second to think it over, and when she decides she has nothing left to lose, she nods. “Yeah. I did. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat because I could tell you had deluded yourself into thinking this place could be your new home. It never will, Rae, because your life and his life don’t mix.” I grit my teeth against her words. “So I brought what would have inevitably happened anyway to you a little sooner—was that really so wrong? Was it so terrible to force some space between you and your mom who were so obnoxiously inseparable? I mean for shit’s sake, Rae, you were attached to that woman’s hip when I found you. You

always listened to her advice over mine, and she held you back. So yes, I meddled a little, but it was necessary to help you achieve your dreams.”

I take one step toward her. “Get out.” Before I throw something at you.

Her nostrils flare once, and then she turns around, chin held high as she leaves the kitchen.

“Actually, wait, Susan!” She turns around hesitantly. “Send me Claire’s number the moment you’re back in service. I’ll be hiring her immediately as my own assistant.” I have no doubts now that Claire was fired because of what she uncovered about Susan. And I could really use her help now as I begin the process of finding a new manager before the tour starts.

Susan rolls her eyes and then walks away, muttering, “Go to hell, Amelia,” before the door shuts behind her.

Well, at least I know she does remember my name.

And then she’s gone. Only when I see her disappear past the window do I spin around and sag right into Noah’s chest. He wraps his sturdy arms around me and holds me close, pressing his lips to the top of my hair. “You were incredible.”

I’m trembling now and my legs feel like they’re going to give out. The adrenaline is wearing off and I’m left feeling raw.

“I’ve got you,” Noah says, scooping me up and carrying me back to his bed where he lays me down gingerly.

“She’s wrong, you know?” I say, looking up at him with wide eyes. “We’re going to be great together.”

He tucks a blanket around me and kisses my forehead, lips lingering in a soft, delicate press. “I know.”

Noah climbs on the bed beside me. He sits upright against the headboard and retrieves a book from his side

table, and then he does the most incredible thing: he reads aloud to me. All week I’ve asked him to and he said no. But now he is, and his voice is rumbly and comforting in the most perfect way.

My heart quivers and I press a kiss to the outside of his bicep. His eyes glide like a smooth caress over my face and my hair and my neck until he focuses his gaze on the book again and continues reading aloud from his boring, nonfiction biography. It’s wonderful. I wouldn’t change a thing.

We have so much to talk about, so many decisions to make, but instead, I let myself rest in this moment and lean my head back against the pillow, smiling as I run my fingers up and down his arm while he reads.

Maybe he won’t have to have a Gregory Peck face after all?

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