Chapter no 5 – Amelia

When in Rome

Turns out, impulsive decisions really do look different in the light of day. Correction: not different—bad. They

look very, very bad.

I am in a strange house, in the middle of nowhere, with a broken-down car, zero cell service, and my only somewhat-kind-of-friendish person left me with a note explaining who to call to get my car fixed, but no other guidance. I guess that’s better than nothing. This is a completely new experience for me, though. Usually I have strange men climbing my gate to get into my house with me, not clearing out before I’m even awake so they don’t have to see me.

“Okay, Amelia, you can do this,” I say out loud, because it seems talking to myself is my new MO. It is completely ridiculous that I would be nervous to call an automotive shop, but it’s been a while since I’ve done…well, anything for myself. I usually leave all scheduling up to Susan or Claire. I haven’t made a single appointment for myself in ten years, and if that’s not bad enough, I don’t even drive myself to them.

Fame came swiftly for me. One day I was normal—a high school student posting a video on YouTube of me singing

one of my original songs at my piano. The next, I was an internet sensation. I posted daily videos of my original songs as well as popular covers and people went nuts over them. Back then, when the term “going viral” was still new, I felt like an anomaly. Even before I ever released a professionally recorded album, people knew who I was from my YouTube channel. I was praised for my mature sound—a soulful voice that belonged to a thirty-year-old even though I was only sixteen.

I remember getting booked for weddings and special events for two hundred dollars and thinking I was filthy rich. But I didn’t care about the money. It was worth it just to finally play my music in front of others. And then when I was seventeen years old, a manager (Susan) reached out telling me she thought I had something special and wanted to help take my career to big places. And she was right. It all happened so fast after that. Susan helped me land a record deal that made me internationally famous, and nothing could have ever prepared me for how completely it would change my life. How it would ruin my relationship with my mom.

Those first few years were pretty thrilling, and my mom and I were still close. Fame was deliciously satisfying…until it wasn’t. I gained all these celebrity friends, who I quickly realized would never be anything more than surface level. You know, the kind that asks how are you? and you say great! even if your life is falling apart. Definitely not the sort of friends you can text an SOS from the bathroom at a party, admitting you accidentally clogged the toilet and need a getaway car.

From the outside, people would think I have it all. Rae Rose is strong, talented, poised, and oh-so-successful. She owns any room she walks into and her confidence behind a

microphone will make your knees buckle. The problem is, even I am not Rae Rose. I don’t run my social media, I don’t choose my outfits for events or interviews, I want to call my mom more than anything but our relationship is crap so I don’t, and most of the stories I tell on talk shows have been finely tuned and vetted by my PR team first. Rae is nothing but a character I hide behind, because I learned from a young age that faking confidence is the only way to make it through this business.

But the more times I have to put on that facade each day, the more I feel myself slipping away. I miss Amelia. I miss the days when playing music and singing was what it was all about. These days, I’m nothing but a maxed-out credit card that everyone keeps swiping.

And at this moment, I would trade my celebrity confidence for basic social skills in a heartbeat. Because I have to make a simple phone call and my hand is shaking. What do I even say when I call? I lift the ancient dinosaur phone from the receiver, and it’s so heavy I’m going to count it as my upper body workout for the day. In my other hand, I clutch Noah’s note like a lifeline. His handwriting is beautiful. I trace my thumb across the bubbly swoops and slashes of each letter, realizing how rare it is for someone to write in cursive these days. Somehow, these letters perfectly match the man. Intriguing. Commanding. Precise. And yet…there’s a softness to them.

When I bring myself to stop fondling Noah’s note, I steel myself and punch in the phone number. And, wow, that’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. Do people know these old phones are the equivalent of a fidget popper? My smartphone is going to be a horrific letdown after using this thing. I’m momentarily calmed by these satisfying

buttons, but when the line starts ringing, my anxiety jumps up again.

Would it have killed Noah to give me a tad more direction? This note—however beautiful and frameworthy— is severely lacking. I’m told to Ask for Tommy. He’ll tow your car and fix it for a good price. Well, I hate to sound like a snob, but I’m not exactly worried about the price. In fact, I’d love to pay this Tommy a million dollars if he’ll assure me I won’t be abducted by him or anyone else in his automotive shop.

The phone rings one more time before a man answers. “Ello? Automuphinandsons.”

Huh? What did that man say? I didn’t understand a single word. Was that even English? Honestly, it sounded like a pile of jumbled-up words being eaten by a garbage disposal. And this is a prime example of why I don’t do phone calls. You never know what you’re going to get on the other end, and it’s almost never a pleasant experience.

“Uh…hi…is…Tommy there?” I ask, glancing down at the paper to make sure I got the name right, even though I’ve read it roughly twenty times now and might be pregnant with its babies due to all the caressing.

I wince when there’s suddenly loud banging noises on the other end of the line, making it even harder to understand the man when he grumbles out his response, which honestly sounds like, “Uh-huh, you’re a honking table.”

That can’t be right.

A cold sweat breaks out over my skin, and I’m about two seconds away from losing it in the form of epic waterfall tears. I feel like a toddler lost in an amusement park. I can’t find my way and nothing looks familiar. I hate that I’m regretting leaving Nashville. I hate that I can’t stand on my

own two feet. And I really hate that I don’t belong anywhere anymore.

And now I’m shaking. Maybe I’m not cut out for this. Maybe it’s time to end this call and dial Susan instead. I’ll beg her to send me a car, or a jet, or she can even send me a freaking unicycle for all I care. I could be home by dinnertime like nothing ever happened. But as I picture my life back there, a vise clamps down on my chest and screws tight. I can’t go back yet. I can’t give up on whatever I’m looking for in this town just yet.

“Ello?” the man says again, sounding more impatient than before.

“Yes, I’m here. Umm…I’m not actually sure what you said but—”

I gasp when a male hand reaches around my shoulder to take the phone from my hand. I whirl around and find myself staring right at Noah’s mountain of a chest. I never heard him come into the house, and now my heart is not just racing, it’s shouting and stomping indignantly on my ribs just to make sure I’m paying attention. Or maybe it’s trying to flee my body and get to safer ground.

My eyes tiptoe up his neck, and jaw, stagger slightly over his full, moody mouth until I safely land on his green eyes. He holds my stare as he lifts the phone to his ear. “Tommy? Yeah, it’s Noah. I got a woman here who needs you to pick up her car and tow it to the shop.” He pauses and listens, eyes never leaving mine. The intense, unwavering way he looks at me makes me want to squirm. What an excellent Buckingham palace guard he’d be.

Noah nods. “Mm-hmm. That’ll work. Thanks, Tommy.”

He leans around me and his chest brushes delicate fire across my shoulder. The click of the phone landing on the receiver is so startling against the dead silence that I jump

a little. I feel reactive to Noah in a way I’ve never experienced before.

“Thanks,” I say, having to push my voice out from under a thick cloud of sudden attraction. “I can’t believe you understood him.”

The corner of his mouth twitches like he wants to smile, but won’t. “Tommy dips. That combined with his thick accent makes him hard to understand.”

“But you didn’t have any trouble.”

“ ’Cause I grew up here. I speak dip. It’s a language in and of itself.”

“Bilingual,” I state with a light chuckle and let my eyes fall down the same path I traversed a moment ago. Nose, mouth, scruffy jaw, neck. When his Adam’s apple bobs, I realize I’m staring. Drooling. I don’t mean to, it’s just that there’s something different about him that turns me into a magnet. It’s more than the fact that he’s ridiculously attractive (and, hello, he is!), but there’s this soft grit, this delicious paradox of rugged masculinity that mixes with a comfy normalcy that makes me want to wrap myself up in the gray cotton T-shirt he’s wearing and live in it forever. I don’t even know him and I feel safe. Noah is the blanket fort you used to make and hide in as a kid. So warm and reassuring.

I think it’s that he’s so different from the men I’m around in my day-to-day life. The artist types that are at all times worried about the swoop of their hair—or in my last boyfriend’s case, only paying attention to me when we were in public where everyone could see.

The relationship wasn’t necessarily fake—but it was suggested by our managers as “a good fit for both of us.” I hoped it could end up being something great, but like the handful of other nonserious relationships I’ve had, it was

ultimately flat. A two-liter bottle of soda that’s been lidless for a week.

He wanted to publicly date Rae Rose, venture out to parties all the time, spend enormous amounts of money at restaurants, and milk our stardom to its fullest—always making sure the press was around to capture our “completely candid moments of affection” so we would be on the front page of magazines as often as possible. (And by the way, he was a terrible kisser. Two out of ten, would not recommend.)

I might have been into the sort of lifestyle he lived when I was twenty-one and not burned out by the limelight yet, but now, I just want someone to play Scrabble with me and get snuggly in a blanket. I never could get him to do that, so I ended it pretty quickly, just like all the others who were even less notable than him. (But at least better kissers.)

None of those men felt genuine. Unlike the man standing in front of me right now.

Noah clears his throat and steps back. “Tommy will be here at nine to get your car. He’ll take it to his shop and diagnose it.”

I swallow and nod, welcoming the cool air that replaces Noah’s body heat. Etiquette nudges me. “Great. And thanks again. I’m so sorry to be putting you out like this. I’d love to repay you.” Polite, polite, polite. At all costs, I am always faithfully polite.

“Don’t worry about it” is all he says before the room drops into silence again, and I feel jealous of his ability to just say things. He says only the things he wants and not a single word more.

It’s so quiet I can hear my own breathing. My thoughts knock around my head like a fly in a jar. I can’t help but wonder where he was this morning and why he came back?

His note implied he wouldn’t be around today. But here he is.

As discreetly as possible, I size him up and speculate on what sort of job a man like him would have. He’s wearing a baseball hat and a T-shirt that hangs appropriately loose over his torso, but still snug enough around his shoulders and chest that it’s not sloppy or baggy. His jeans are simple yet still stylish. Well-worn and slightly whitewashed in areas that make me think they’re his favorite pair. On his feet are brown work boots. But here’s the catch, they’re not real work boots. They’re the kind that trendy guys wear to coffee shops in the city. Interesting.

“You’re squinting at me,” he states, making me blink out of my Sherlock Holmes investigation.

I feel compelled to a moment of rare honesty. “I’m trying to figure out what a man like you does for a living.”

He lifts a brow and crosses his arms. It’s a surly pose. “A man like me?”

“Yeah, you know…” I say, daring to give him a teasing smile. “All the muscles and scruff and commanding attitude.”

“And?” His tone is clipped. He doesn’t find me charming. I’m the most uncharming person in the world to him, and I think I love it.

“And what?”

He drops his arms (no more Surly Pose) and turns away to go open a cupboard and pull down a mixing bowl, leaving me lingering near the phone because I’m not sure where I should stand in his house. “What’s your guess?” he prompts gently.

I’m taken aback for a second because I didn’t think he’d play along. He doesn’t seem like the play-along type. Okay, then. Let’s do this.

“Hmm.” I give him one more thorough and blatant perusal. Damn. His body is good. Like really good. He’s got to be a little over six foot (I’d say three inches over if I had to bet), with veins extending out from under his short sleeves and wrapping down his long, lean biceps and sturdy forearms. I’d say he does something with his hands based on his upper body strength alone. And since he’s wearing a hat, maybe his job requires him to be in the sun a lot? The golden hair lightly flipping out from under his hat lends weight to my suspicion.

“A rancher?” I ask, leaving my phone friend behind to take one of the stools on the opposite side of the little island where Noah’s begun assembling ingredients for something.

“Nope.” He pulls a carton of buttermilk and a few eggs out of the fridge.

“A farmer?”

Next comes butter. “Wrong.”

“Okayyyyy. Then you own a lawn care service?”

Containers of flour, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda are the last to find their way to the counter. Noah’s eyes glance briefly at me and then away. “Should I be offended you haven’t mentioned a lawyer or doctor yet?” he says in a dry tone that somehow still conveys humor.

That tiny hint of teasing in his voice is enough incentive for me to try to win him over. He’s a little grumpy, there’s an edge to him that says careful, I might bite, but then his eyes whisper but I’ll be gentle. What a mystery he is. Then again, everything is a mystery to me lately. I feel like I’ve woken up from a cryogenic sleep, and suddenly, I’m having to relearn this new and evolved world around me.

“I don’t know many lawyers who would go to work in jeans.” I lean my elbow on the counter and rest my chin on

my palm.

“That’s just because you haven’t met Larry yet.” Yet. Why does that word make my stomach flip? “Come on, tell me. I’m out of guesses.”

He shrugs, and after adding ingredients to a bowl without ever using a measuring tool, mixes it all together. His forearm flexes and draws my eye to the soft sprinkle of blond hair across his skin. “Guess you’ll never know.”

Noah turns around, fires up his gas stove, and melts some butter in a skillet. Not to stereotype but he moves with way more ease around the kitchen than I would expect from someone that looks as…well…male as he does. I keep quiet, enjoying this puzzle of a man more than I should. He scoops out a dollop of batter and drops it into a pan, and now I realize he’s making pancakes. Pancakes from scratch and without a recipe.

It hits me.

I gasp and point at him. “Baker! You’re a baker, aren’t you?” He earned those delicious forearms from kneading dough!

I can only see a sliver of Noah’s face as he tilts his head, but it’s enough to catch the hint of a grin. I feel that grin in the tops of my ears. In the tips of my toes. In the depths of my belly. “You guessed it, Nancy Drew. I own a pie shop.”

My mouth falls open. “You do not.” “I do. Something wrong with that?” So defensive, this one.

Shaking my head, I slide off the stool so I can go lean back against the countertop beside the stove. Noah doesn’t look at me, but he cuts his eyes to where my palm is planted on the surface beside me. Thinking maybe it’s in his way, I cross my arms in front of me.

“It’s great. I just didn’t expect it. Not with all your… well…you know.” I gesture toward his masculine form again because my awkward ship has sailed and there’s no pulling her back into port. “So what’s your favorite pie?”

“I don’t like pie.” He says it so definitively. I blink at him. “But you own a pie shop.”

“Probably why I don’t like pie.”

I shake my head feeling dumbfounded. More paradox. How would he feel if I told him I don’t like singing? I love to sing, though, so that thought’s irrelevant. Or—at least, I used to love singing and I’m hopeful I will again.

“So if you don’t eat it, how do you know if it’s good or not?”

“I inherited the pie shop from my grandma. It’s been in our family for generations. I use the same foolproof recipes they used.” He glances down at me and takes in my curious frown. “Have you never loved something just for what it means to you?”

First, I’m stunned because Noah doesn’t strike me as the sentimental type. But he owns his grandma’s pie shop so clearly I’m wrong. Two, yes, I absolutely have. And her name is Audrey Hepburn. Immediately I’m transported back to that night when I was thirteen and couldn’t sleep. I had a bad dream and woke up in a cold sweat, going out to the living room to find my mom. She was a night owl (probably because as a single mom, those few hours after I’d go to bed were the only ones she had for herself), and I found her curled up on the couch watching a movie.

“Hi, sweetie pie, can’t sleep?” she’d asked, lifting the edge of her blanket so I could crawl under and snuggle with her.

“I had a bad dream,” I’d said.

She tucked me up close to her and we both turned our attention to the black-and-white movie playing on the TV. “Well, I have the perfect cure for bad dreams. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn always makes me feel better when I’m upset.”

Together, we’d stayed up late watching that classic movie, and my mom was right. For those few hours, I didn’t feel scared or sad. It became a tradition for us to watch Audrey Hepburn movies together when either of us was having a bad day. Except now, I watch them by myself because our relationship fractured a long time ago and I don’t think it’ll ever heal.

But I can’t tell Noah any of that because it’s too personal. So I take a page from his book and simply say, “Yeah. I have.”

He accepts my answer for what it is and flips a pancake. I have a thousand questions I want to ask—but just like last night, being this close to him ties my tongue. Right now, he smells like clean laundry, masculine bodywash, and sweet, buttery pancakes. It’s the perfect scent.

The quiet stretches and I’m not eager to interrupt it. Instead, I watch the batter sizzle and bubble in the pan, wondering when the last time anyone felt comfortable enough around me to just be quiet. It’s been years.

“You don’t like pancakes?” Noah says, pulling me from my thoughts. When I give him a curious look, he adds, “You were frowning at the skillet.”

I have zero desire to tell him I was frowning at the thought of my mom, so I sidestep. “Uh…no. It’s only that I can’t eat them.”


“Carbs. I have a very strict diet I have to adhere to. Especially leading up to my tour in a few weeks. My

manager will murder me if I come home with an extra inch on my waist.” I have several costumes I need to be able to fit into—and believe me, Susan will tell me if she thinks I look too lumpy in them. Or she’ll talk to the chef who makes all my meals for the week, and not so subtly adjust the menu to consist of smaller portions and nothing delicious.

“Okay,” he says, scooping the most fluffy, golden-brown pancake I’ve ever seen out of the skillet and onto a plate. He drops another dollop into the pan and it hisses. “Eggs then?”

I narrow my eyes at him. “You’re not going to try to convince me to eat the pancakes?”

This time he looks at me, confused and intrigued all at once. “No. Should I?”

“I was sort of hoping for it. Because then I could tell my manager you accused me of being rude by rejecting your hospitable offer, and she’d see I was left with no choice but to eat them or else you’d go slander me to the press.”

He raises a brow, flips a pancake. “You need your manager’s approval to eat?” I hear the challenge in his voice.

But more than that, I hear the simplicity of his question and how easy it should be to say No, ha ha, of course not. That would be ridiculous! But holy shit, I do. I think of how many times Susan’s name has crossed my mind since I left last night and I begin to wonder if she’s part of whatever problem I’m having. Have I let myself completely defer all decisions regarding my life to her?

My eyes follow the spatula as Noah lifts a golden pancake onto the beautiful stack he’s already made. It looks like a piece of art. That pancake should have its own social media account devoted to nothing other than adoring

it from all angles. “So…” says Noah. “Scrambled eggs for you?”

When I don’t answer right away, Noah finally looks into my eyes. When our gazes connect, I feel that same thrill run through me from last night. It’s terror and joy. Hope and dread. All I know is, it gives me the push I need to trust myself.

“No. I’ll have pancakes today.”

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