Chapter no 4 – Noah

When in Rome

I throw on my sunglasses and baseball hat and hold my coffee like a shield. I’m going to need the added protection for my walk from the communal town parking lot to the shop. It’s only about a five-minute walk down Main Street, but that’s plenty of time to run into every single one of those damn townsfolk. Doesn’t matter that Rae Rose has only been in my house for nine hours. That’s eight more hours than necessary for Mabel to have called every person she knows and started the most incredible game of telephone anyone has ever seen. At least this means business will be booming today. Everyone is going to want

a pie with a heavy side of gossip.

That’s the problem with living in the hometown you grew up in. They remember the time you sang “Mary, Did You Know?” in the church choir wearing an ugly-ass sweater vest at age seven, and when the sheriff got called on you and your high school girlfriend for fogging up the windows of your truck by the lake. And they sure as hell never forget when your fiancée broke your heart. So when a woman is rumored to have slept in your house—a pretty one no less—there’s no way they’re going to let me have any peace. These people forget absolutely nothing and they

couldn’t be more invested in my romantic life if it were a daytime TV show.

I’d probably close up the shop for the day and go fishing instead of sending myself right into the belly of the beast (aka the town square) if this wasn’t a delivery morning. But James, a friend of mine who owns a local farm and provides all my fresh ingredients, will be dropping off several crates full of produce, eggs, and milk, and I need to be there to receive it.

If you would’ve told me I’d be living in this town at the age of thirty-two and running a pie shop (creatively named The Pie Shop) that my grandma left to me, I’d have thought you were out of your damn mind. Especially after moving everything I owned to New York with Merritt, planning out our life together there and trying to drop roots into a place where I only felt like a piece of driftwood in the ocean for an entire year. But here I am—back home and living a life I never saw coming, and loving the hell out of it.

Well, for the most part. I could do without all these nosy people kicking up dust around my life all day.

And here we go. Pass obstacle number one: Phil’s Hardware. As I approach, I can see that Phil and his business partner, Todd, are standing outside pretending to sweep and clean the front glass even though they hire Phil’s grandson to do exactly those two jobs after school.

They pause when I get close, frantically murmuring something under their breath I can’t hear, and then act as if they’re surprised to see me even though I walk by here at this exact time each day.

“Whew! It’s a hot one we’re having today, isn’t it, Noah?”

“Same temperature as yesterday, Phil,” I say, before taking a sip of my coffee. I don’t stop walking.

Phil blinks a hundred times and looks around for some conversational genius to strike him that will snag my attention. He can’t come up with anything so Todd tries his hand. “Maybe the heat will bring in some new customers for you? Some out-of-towners, perhaps?”

“Heat usually make you crave pie, Todd? Might want to see the doc about that. Seems odd to me.” I keep walking and raise a hand over my shoulder after I’ve passed them in lieu of a parting greeting. They’re lucky I didn’t throw up the bird instead.

Now, obstacle number two: Harriet’s Market. I pull my hat a little lower over my eyes because if there’s anyone I really don’t want to see today, it’s Harriet. That woman is ruthless. I pass under her blue-and-white-striped awning and think I’m in the clear until her shop door chimes. I wince and consider speed walking away, but it’s too late. I’m caught.

She cuts right to the chase. “Noah Walker, don’t think I didn’t hear you had a woman staying over last night.” I have no choice but to take a fortifying breath and turn around to face Harriet. Her hands are perched on her slender hips, a severe glare on her face, adding new frown lines to the ones already present. The cheery yellow sundress she’s wearing doesn’t match her personality. Harriet keeps her salt-and-pepper hair tied back into a tight bun. It’s not that Harriet is grumpy because she doesn’t like people—it’s that she’s nearly 100 percent certain she’s better than most people. Who knows, maybe she is.

“In my day, young men and women weren’t so intimate before they were married. It left a little something to the imagination. Something to be desired.” She tilts her head down so she can purse her lips and raise her brows. “Now

who is this woman you spent the night with and do you plan on marrying her?”

That escalated quickly.

“Uh—no, ma’am. And I didn’t spend the night with her. Her car broke down in my yard, so I offered up my guest bedroom to her.” Not that it’s any of your business is what I’d tell her if I wasn’t chickenshit and scared to death of this woman. I like to spar with Mabel, but I hide from Harriet.

She wags her finger in my direction. “Then you keep your hands to yourself. If you don’t intend to walk her down the aisle, then don’t go dipping your toes in her pond.”

I grimace. Not entirely sure if that’s supposed to be an innuendo or not but grossed-out all the same.

“Don’t worry. I’m not interested in her…pond.”

Yep. That felt as disgusting to say as I thought it would. Wonderful. Now I need to find a way to boil my brain today. This is also why I have to go outside the city limits if I want to spend any time with a woman. Which, let’s be honest, I haven’t done in a long time. I’m not really the one-night- stand sort of guy, because, like Rae Rose pointed out last night, one-nighters are always sort of awkward. I find the whole situation around them uncomfortable. I like to have an emotional connection with a woman before I sleep with her and it’s damn inconvenient.

All that to say, I don’t take any women back to my place because someone’s always out with binoculars prowling for gossip in this town. Harriet will find out and send the Nazarene preacher over to knock on my door and remind me that lust is one of the seven deadly sins. Except Pastor Barton loves pie and will eat no less than three pieces while sermonizing. It’ll take a whole afternoon.

Harriet nods, her scowl still deeply marring the space between her brows. “Well, good. Keep it that way.”

Great, glad that’s over.

“I’ll have your peach pie ready at closing for you.” It’s Wednesday so I know she’ll be by to pick it up on her way to her knitting group. I lift my coffee in silent cheers and then keep walking.

I pick up my pace and miraculously do not encounter anyone else as I pass the diner, and then the flower shop (which is run by my youngest sister, who I’m sure would be bursting out and demanding answers if she wasn’t out of town currently with my other two sisters), and finally make it to the front door of The Pie Shop. I shove my key in the lock even though I could probably leave the thing wide open at night and no one would even consider vandalizing or stealing anything. In fact, Phil would probably come in and fix the wobbly barstool and then lock the place up for me on his way out.

Stepping inside the shop feels like a hug. It might not look like much to anyone else, but to me, it’s home. This pie shop has been in my family for decades. Very little about it has changed over the years, which I’m grateful for. The same blue-and-white-checkered curtains hang above the double windows. The same scratched-up wooden countertop sits beside the pie case. I had to replace the high-top table that sits in front of the large storefront window because it was definitely the worse for wear, but I managed to find one that was nearly an exact replica.

I take ten steps into the shop, lift the folding countertop, walk through, and then latch it closed behind me. It, as well as the domed-glass pie case, separates the front half of the store from the back half. And back there behind me is a tiny kitchen where my mom, and my grandma, and her

mom before her, and her mom before her baked our Walker family pies with their secret recipes. But that’s basically it. It’s small, or quaint, or whatever you want to call it, but it’s all I need.

I spend the next few minutes getting the shop ready to open—turning on the giant oven, brewing a fresh pot of coffee for customers, wiping down surfaces. I’m just popping a tray of pies from the freezer into the oven when the back door opens and James steps in with a crate full of apples. Like me, he grew up in this town and took over his family’s farm. We went to school together from preschool all the way through community college where we both majored in business.

“How’s it going, Noah?” “Good. How are—”

“So who’s the woman?” he says, setting down the crate and crossing his arms.

I pour myself a fresh cup of coffee because I get the feeling today could be a several-cupper. “Damn. How do you know about her? It’s only eight in the morning.”

He shrugs a shoulder. “Mabel called asking if I could see anything from my porch.”

James is technically my neighbor. Except our houses are separated by several acres.

I raise my coffee to my lips and take a sip. “Could you?” “Nah—too far off.”

“Couldn’t find your binoculars?”

“I think I lent them to someone.” James helps himself to a Styrofoam to-go cup and fills it with coffee before leaning back against the counter like he doesn’t have a damn thing to do all day. He crosses one booted foot over the other.

“You comfy?” I ask in an annoyed tone. “Anything else I can get you? A magazine? A blanket? A chair?”

“I’m good, thank you.” He smiles indulgently. Women often call James charming. I call him a pain in the ass. “So…what’s her name?”

I actually don’t know what the protocol is here. Are you supposed to tell people if you have someone famous in your house? “Rae,” I say with a discreet clear of my throat.

“Last name?” He blows on his coffee and peers at me over the rim of his cup.

I turn my eyes up like I’m racking my brain for the answer. Like it’s not been buzzing through my head all morning. Sitting on the tip of my tongue. Racing through my dreams last night. “Umm…I think it was Mind-Your- Own-Damn-Business. Don’t you have more crates to unload? I know I ordered more than this.”

I pick up the apples and carry them over to my walk-in pantry and start unloading them into bins. My annoying shadow follows. “Why are you being so secretive?”

“I’m not. I’m just tired of talking to you.”

“Hmm, extraprickly today. This woman must have gotten under your skin. How long is she staying?”

I turn around and bump his shoulder on my way out of the pantry. “You’re the one getting under my skin.”

If he’s not going to unload the crates, I will. This town is making way too much out of nothing. So there’s a woman at my house? Big deal. She’s not staying. In fact, I’m hoping she’ll be out of there by the time I get home. The last thing I need is some privileged pop star running up my electricity bill.

I go out into the back alley and pull a crate of eggs off the bed of James’s truck. I consider skimming one or two off the top and throwing them at his front windshield. When I turn back toward the shop, James is blocking the back entrance looking just as mischievous as when we were kids

and he talked me into sneaking out at night so we could go swimming with the Fremont girls. It was a good night, though.

“Just give me the details and I’ll leave.”

I let out a deep breath and it escapes more like a growl than an exhale. “Fine. Her name is Rae Rose and her car broke down in my front yard. I let her sleep in my guest room and that’s it. End of story.”

His brows pull together and I can see that he’s trying to place her name. He’s heard of her—everyone has—so it’s only a matter of time before he realizes just who is at my house. Annnnnd there it is. His eyes go wide and his mouth drops open. “You don’t mean to tell me that…”

I nod, finishing his sentence for him. “The princess of soulful pop is in my house right now breathing up all my bought air.”

“No shit!” A new dawning look that I don’t quite like hits him. Like he’s imagining her face. Like he’s imagining his new prospects. And then his eyes shift to me and his look changes. “Ohhhh, now I see what’s up with the surly attitude.”

“I’m always surly.”

He’s smirking now like he understands everything about me. He probably does. I hate it. “She’s gorgeous and talented and you like her. But she’s an out-of-towner, and you’re too jaded to let yourself even talk to her.”

“I talked to her just fine. Now move,” I say, breezing past him and setting down the eggs. I run my hand over some pots and pans, making a ton of noise just for the hell of it. I don’t like that he picked me apart so easily.

Unfortunately, James isn’t scared of my moods like the rest of the town. “Man, you’re being an idiot. Rae Rose is…” He trails off with another look that makes me feel like

punching something. Or him. “Anyway, it’s gotta be like a one in a million chance that she would break down in your front yard. Where’s she headed anyway?”

I wish she’d dropped into his front yard instead of mine. Clearly he appreciates the situation more than I do. “Why should I care?”

“Because…I don’t know. Maybe you’d have a shot with her.”

“I don’t want a shot with her.”

He scoffs and rolls his eyes. “Man, come on. Are you just never gonna date again? Merritt messed you up that bad?”

I clench my jaw. “Don’t talk to me about her.”

He ignores my threat. “You’re gonna have to try again eventually. Why not go all out and try with a gorgeous celebrity?”

What makes him think I would have a shot with a woman like her, anyway? This town is nuts. Rae Rose is so far out of my league she wouldn’t even give me a second thought.

It’s clear that James is not going to stop pushing if I don’t give him what he wants. So after filling my lungs as full as possible, I push through the uncomfortable feeling that comes along with sharing any emotional part of myself and look straight at him. “I’ll date again when I’m good and ready. But I sure as hell won’t be trying with another woman whose life exists outside of this town—because you know I can’t go with her. And let’s say the world has flipped upside down and she was interested in a pie shop owner from Kentucky; I don’t care to date a celebrity and find out through a tabloid that she cheated on me.”

James gives me a pitying look. “Just because—”

“No, we’re done now.” I open the back door to the kitchen, not so subtly telling James to get out. He doesn’t

budge. I’m going to have to rent a forklift for the day and physically scoop him out of here. “Will you quit making this out to be something it’s not? She’ll be leaving just as soon as Tommy tows her car to his shop and throws some oil in it.” If I’m lucky, I’ll never even have to see her again. It’s what I should have done when Merritt passed through town all those years ago—ignored her. I left Rae a note on the kitchen counter this morning with the phone number to Tommy’s Automotive shop, hoping that she’d get everything taken care of before I get home.

“What’s she doing right now?” he asks, and I sigh, slamming the door shut again and going into the fridge and unloading the carton of eggs into it.

“I don’t know, James. Scrolling through all the local cable channels? Like I said, I don’t care.”

He steps up beside me so he can look at my profile. “You’re an asshole, you know that, right?”

“I had a hunch.”

He shakes his head and rubs the back of his neck. “Your grandma would be ashamed of your manners.”

Okay, well, that’s a low blow and he knows it. My grandma is still my favorite person that ever lived. Even the slightest thought of her being upset at me makes my skin feel itchy.

I narrow my eyes on him. “How do you figure? I gave the woman a safe place to sleep last night and left her with the number of the local automotive shop. Just how does that make me shameful?”

“You left her alone in a random town to fend for herself in the midst of strangers.”

I turn sharply to him. “I’m a stranger!”

He waves that off like it’s not a valid point. “You know you should’ve done better. Imagine how she’s feeling right

now? That woman is ridiculously famous. I bet she’s terrified to have to go anywhere by herself if she doesn’t have a bodyguard.”

Seems like something she should have thought about before leaving her house without any security. She’s not my problem. She’s not. Couldn’t be less of my problem, in fact.

James’s face shifts into an expression of complete and utter smugness. It tells me whatever he’s about to say will land the final match-ending blow. “How would your grandma have treated her if she were around?”

What a little shit. Of course my grandma would say I should do everything in my power to help Rae. She would also probably smack me upside the back of my head for not making her breakfast this morning and giving her a ride to the mechanic’s so she doesn’t have to ride in Tommy’s gross tow truck with his nasty dip in the center console. And oh man…the war stories. He’ll for sure tell her every gory detail.

I groan and snatch my keys off the counter. “Get the pies out when the timer goes off and then shut off the oven. Lock up on your way out.”

“Uh…I have a job, you know?” he says to my retreating back.

“Funny. Didn’t seem like it five minutes ago when you were helping yourself to coffee and a chat.”

I hear him chuckle. “Fine. But I’m taking a pie with me when I leave!”


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