Chapter no 7 – Amelia

When in Rome

We’re full up.”

I watch in dismay as Noah’s jaw clenches. He

leans his wide shoulders slightly over the inn’s reception desk toward the sweet little old lady who dashed his dreams to the ground. I immediately feel sympathy for Mabel having to stare Noah down. Or up, since that’s the direction she has to tilt her chin to see him. She is a Black woman who looks to be in her seventies, has silver, extracurly hair, cropped short, is wearing deep mauve lipstick, and has just the sort of soft grandmotherly form you’d love to get a big hug from. Watching these two in a stare-off feels like a live action scene between the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma.

“That can’t be, Mabel. Hardly anyone ever visits this town.”

Her wise eyes flick briefly to me and then back to Noah. The sudden glint of mischief I see tells me I have this story all wrong. She’s the one in charge here—not Noah. “Well, that just plumb ain’t true, now is it? Besides, if it were true, I’d be bankrupt. And I’ve got piles of money.”

Noah’s nostrils flare as he takes in a deep breath. That man wants to get rid of me more than he’s ever wanted

anything in his life. I can feel his irritation leaking from his bones like fumes. “Can I see the scheduling book?”

Mabel abruptly shuts the book that was open in front of her and levels a frightening scowl at Noah. “No, you may not. And don’t you try to manhandle me like that again. I changed your diapers and don’t you forget it.” She wags her finger in his face. He doesn’t look chastised in the least. Weary is the word I’d assign to him.

“Mrs. Mabel,” says Noah, slowly and gently this time. He has dipped his voice in thick, decadent honey. “She has nowhere to stay. Surely you can find a room for her in your wonderful bed-and-breakfast.”

Mabel squints. “Sounds like you’re trying to plagiarize a bible story.” And then she grins. “Besides, Noah, it seems to me she does have somewhere to stay. Your guest room is still wide open and free as a bird if I’m remembering correctly.”

The look Noah gives Mabel has me wanting to shrivel up and sink into a hole in the ground. What is this woman thinking? Clearly, she’s lying and doing some sort of meddling to have me stay at Noah’s house. And clearly, Noah doesn’t want me anywhere near his house. I just can’t decide if it’s that he likes his space, or just doesn’t like me. A thick combination of both, I assume.

I could solve all this easily by calling Susan and having her send a car. Two and a half hours and I’d be buckled up in the back of a blacked-out, armored SUV and this town would be nothing but a dot in the rearview mirror. But I don’t want that. The longer I’m here, the more I feel my limbs tingling back to life. It seems important to stay, no matter how awkward it feels.

I step up to the counter, thinking that maybe if I finally do the talking, it will help. “Hi, Mrs. Mabel, I’m—”

“Rae Rose, yes, baby, I know. I have a TV and radio. Loved your performance on Good Morning America last month.”

“Oh.” I laugh lightly, not quite expecting that answer because she had scarcely looked at me before now. “Well, thank you.” Polite, polite, polite. “I would be immensely grateful if you could possibly squeeze me into a room here. I’d be happy to pay triple whatever the usual rate is.”

She smiles sweetly and raises her weathered hand over the counter to pat mine. I look down, a little shocked. No one touches me. Well, that’s not completely true. If I find myself in the middle of a fan mob, everyone tugs, snatches, and gropes at me…but strangers never affectionately touch my hand like a grandmother would. The gesture is so kind and sweet it feels like bubble wrap around my heart. Again, I miss my mom.

“I don’t need your money. I’m filthy rich. My sweet husband—may he rest in peace—had a fantastic life insurance policy. You’ll stay at Noah’s and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” She turns her sharp brown eyes to Noah and lifts her eyebrows as if she’s daring him to talk back.

Something like a growl sounds from his throat and he rolls his eyes before his large form storms out the door. Well, then. I look at Mabel and smile awkwardly. She winks, and whispers, “Hold your own, darlin’.” I get one more affectionate, fortifying pat on my hand before she releases it and gestures for me to go out after him.

Outside, I find Noah barreling toward his burnt orange pickup truck looking as stern and grumpy as a bull. I should be scared to approach him, but I feel like I understand him enough now to see that he’s all bark and no bite. Hold your own, darlin’. To be honest, I feel oddly

safe with him. Safer than wandering around by myself, at least.

He gets in his classic Chevy truck and slams the door behind him. I approach the passenger side slowly and peer through the window. Noah drapes his hand over the steering wheel and keeps his eyes facing forward, refusing to look at me. But then, in contrast to his grumpy, hostile exterior, he unlocks the door so I can slide in beside him. Minus the sweet scent of pancakes, his truck smells overwhelmingly like him. I run my fingers gently back and forth over the smooth leather bench, while I get up the nerve to say something to him.

“Hi,” I venture, in an apologetic tone. “How’s your day going?”

His mouth twitches and he cuts his woodsy eyes to me. “I’m being an ass and I know it.”

“Okay, well, they say the first step is admitting.” This earns me a genuine grin from his full lips to the soft crinkles beside his eyes. Oh, it looks so good on him. And I see why he doesn’t do it often—it’s disorienting. I want to poke his cheek right where that grin dimples, and only just manage to refrain. I’ve never felt this light with anyone before. There’s not a single star in his eyes when he looks at me, and it almost makes me feel normal. If I’m not careful, I could become addicted to this.

“Why don’t you like me?” I ask, not out of hurt, but genuine curiosity.

His eyes drop to the steering wheel. At first, I think he’s not going to answer me. The silence stretches on so long before he finally speaks. “It’s not you.” His eyes slide up to mine, and now I’m submerged in a dense green forest.

I wait a minute for him to expound, but I’m learning that expounding is not Noah’s specialty. I throw him a bone.

“Listen, I know you didn’t sign up for this. You definitely didn’t ask for a spoiled pop star to crash your life and stay in your guest room. So…” I don’t want to say it, but I have to. It’s the right thing to do. “Just say the word and I’ll call my manager and have her send someone. I can be out of your hair by the afternoon,” I say, trying not to look too disappointed as I offer up my least favorite option.

“But you don’t want to do that?”

I choose my words carefully. “I…was just hoping for some time away.” I try to keep it short because I haven’t forgotten how he reacted this morning when I started to tell him about my life.

His eyes stay focused on me. He’s reading me, looking for something and then finding an answer. He drags in a deep breath and stares out his front windshield. Three beats go by before he lets that breath out in one big gust. “All right. Tell you what, you can stay at my place through the weekend. But Monday morning you have to find somewhere else to go.”

“Really?” My voice belongs to a three-year-old who was just offered a brownie before bedtime. Never in my life have I felt so desperate for something. So happy at a prospect. I clear my throat. “I mean…are you sure?”

He fights a grin. “Yeah. Just…I can’t be your tour guide while you’re here. I work a full-time job, so you’ll have to fend for yourself. Got it?”

“Got it,” I say with a firm nod. “I’ll make myself scarce. Seriously, I’ll be quiet as a mouse. You won’t even know I’m around.”

He starts the truck and puts it in reverse, mumbling, “I highly doubt that,” over his shoulder as he backs his truck out of the space.

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