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Chapter no 8 – Amelia

When in Rome

Now to do the thing that sounds less appealing than poking my eye out. I stare down at my cell phone and

open Susan’s contact info. I don’t have any missed calls or texts from her because I still don’t have service (a small mercy). Even though I want to drop off the grid more than anything, I know that I can’t be that irresponsible. At this moment, I’m officially ten minutes late for my Vogue interview and I’m sure that Susan is wearing a hole through the floor wherever she is and seconds away from calling in the SWAT team.

I didn’t mean to go this long without checking in with her, but I got caught up in the pancakes and the trip into town, and for once, I forgot about Susan or my responsibilities. They’ve caught up to me now, though, and my hand is trembling.

I walk out of the bedroom Noah is letting me stay in for the next four days and into the living room. Noah said he has to work, but he didn’t leave immediately after we came home. Instead, he looked at the time and then sighed like he’d made a decision of some sort and set about doing random tasks in his house. He put a load of laundry in his washing machine. He started the dishwasher. He slipped in

and out of his room again, cracking it open just enough to walk through. My curiosity piqued to epic proportions. What the hell is in there, and why doesn’t he want me to see it?

My imagination has been running wild. It’s a kinky sex den. He’s a Trekkie and the room is full of Star Trek memorabilia. Oh no, maybe he’s a Beanie Baby hoarder. The horrifying options are endless, and I will never know what’s on the other side of that door (probably for the best) because come Monday, I’ll be finding somewhere else to stay. Maybe by then Mabel will have changed her tune and will have pity on me.

Noah’s back stiffens ever so slightly when he hears me approach, but he doesn’t turn right away. He lingers for a moment, wiping down his kitchen counter, and then he and his broad shoulders turn to face me.

“Hellloooo,” I say with a bright smile.

“Hi,” he replies, skeptically. His eyes radiate concern like he’s waiting for me to do something terrible at any moment.

“Look, I’m not going to steal your pillows, okay?”

He frowns and shakes his head. “Didn’t think you were.”

I scoff lightly and roll my eyes. “Well, you sure seem like it from the way you’re walking around here like a caveman guarding all his precious rocks.” I stomp around and mime what I imagine a prehistoric male would look like when he’s pissy and possessive. It’s not a cute look on me.

Noah’s brows go up. Arms cross. Surly Pose. “Is that supposed to be me?”

“Obviously.”

“Huh.” A pause. “I need better posture.”

I feel my lips curl. “Is that…a joke, Noah Walker?”

“No.” He says no, but the word slides across my skin as if he were whispering yes against the back of my neck. Confusing, confusing man. Also confusing is the temperature of my body right now as he and I have a stare- off that feels like our clothes might spontaneously burst into flames. Ridiculously, the procedure I learned in kindergarten but haven’t yet found a need to use pops in my head: Stop, drop, and roll.

“Did you need something?” asks Noah, his eyes shuttering against any hints of finding me desirable a moment ago. All traces of it are gone, making me wonder if I imagined it.

“Uh…yeah. Do you have Wi-Fi?” I hold up my phone.

“Nope.” With his arms folded he leans back against the countertop and crosses a boot over the other. The pose is a spin-off of his critically acclaimed Surly Pose (trademark pending) and it’s so incredibly masculine the hairs on my arms stand. Stop, drop, and roll.

“You don’t…you don’t have internet?” Surely he’s just not understanding the question.

He gives his sandy-blond head one good shake. “No internet.”

Noah is like a piggy bank full of money. His words are coins and I have him physically flipped upside down, shaking him just to get a few cents to fall out. I almost wonder if he’s withholding words just to annoy me. Just to get under my skin. And why do I like it so much?

I have two responses warring inside me. The first is my usual fine-tuned, never-failing polite, polite, polite. The second, and the one I decide to pursue, is a new instinct full of selfish primitive desires. Play, play, play.

“And you wondered where I got the caveman comparison.” But no, he’s not a caveman, he’s…classic.

Like his truck. Like his phone. Like his handwriting. Like the plaid shirt rolled up over his sturdy forearms.

“Is this your version of quiet as a mouse?” He holds his frown so well even though I can feel the amusement vibrating between us.

“Is that the longest sentence you’ve ever strung together?”

He tips one of his eyebrows. A hit. “She commandeers my guest room. Eats my food. Calls me a caveman. And insults my intelligence,” he says while shaking his head in a mock reprimand.

“And next I’ll ask if I can borrow some pj’s.” I wish I could train my face to be as frowny and stoic as his— deliver my jokes with wit so dry the single strike of a match would send it all up in flames, but I can’t. I’m a cheeseball, smiling the entire time I say it.

“Why do you need my pajamas?” Ah—He’s a starchy pa- ja-mas kind of guy instead of the cute and short pj’s I like to say. This tiny distinction sums us both up so perfectly.

I smile faintly. “Because I assume you don’t want me to walk around naked?” Play, play, play. I notice the tips of his ears turn pink, so I have mercy on him. “I forgot to pack something comfy for lounging.”

He swallows, dips his eyes once over my body—very quickly—and then nods. “I’ll be right back.”

Noah escapes toward his room like the Pillow Bandit is hot on his heels, and I use the moment of privacy to call Susan. After reading her number from her contact information and punching it into the cathartic dinosaur phone, it rings.

“Susan Malley,” she answers in her matter-of-fact tone. “Susan! Hey, it’s—”

“Rae! Oh thank GOD!” I have to hold the phone a little away from my ear so she doesn’t permanently damage my hearing. For a moment, her obvious relief fills me with bursts of warm fuzzy light. She noticed I was gone and was worried about me! For a brief moment, it feels like I’m talking to the old Susan who first reached out and cared so much about me in the early years of my career. But then she continues and all that light fades. “Where are you?! It’s really shitty of you to be late like this. And where has your phone been? I’ve been calling you all morning! You better be vomiting with a stomach bug is all I’m saying.”

She wasn’t worried about me. She’s worried about Rae Rose missing an interview.

“I’m not sick. I just…don’t have service.”

Susan laughs, but it’s clear she doesn’t find anything funny. “What are you talking about? You get great service in your house. Do you need me to order you a new phone? I’ll pick one up this morning because we can’t have this happening when—”

“Susan,” I say, cutting her off. “I’m not at home.”

A pause. “Okaaay,” she says slowly, finally clueing in on the change in my voice. “Where are you?”

“I’m…” I press my lips together and look over my shoulder toward the hallway that leads to Noah’s and my rooms. Do I tell Susan where I am? Do I trust that she won’t come bang down the door immediately or send a whole team of security personnel to trail me? For once, I feel a taste of freedom and I’m terrified to lose it. “I’m taking a vacation before the tour.”

“You’re…taking…a…vacation.” She says it all painfully slow, like a parent giving their child a chance to rectify the thing the child previously said.

I shut my eyes and steel myself. “Yes.”

This time she lets out one frightening laugh. “You’re kidding me?”

“No, I’m not. I’m taking some time away for myself because…” Noah’s question from this morning pops into my head. You need permission to eat? Suddenly, I don’t feel like explaining. I feel like being a piggy bank. “Because I need it.”

Susan is not happy. The silence is so tense I feel myself beginning to waver. If she pushes this, I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold out. “You have obligations. Lots and lots of them, Rae. What do you want me to do? Just call and cancel them? It’s promo for your tour! This is all to help you achieve your dreams and people have put aside precious time to accommodate you.”

Ugh, I hate the way she makes me sound. Suddenly, I feel like a spoiled brat who needs a time-out to learn her lesson. Like all I ever do is think about myself. I’m starting to think if that were true, though, I wouldn’t feel like the numb pile of garbage that I have lately. And the thing is, I never put up a fight. I never miss interviews, and I try to always be gracious with other people’s time. This is the one instance where I’ve backed out of something. That has to count, right?

Noah turns the corner and when he sees me on the phone, does a half turn, pivoting into the living room and dropping himself onto the couch in a surprisingly boyish way. It’s unnerving having him there, listening even though he’s pretending not to.

I turn away from Noah and twist the rubber phone cord around my finger. “I’m really sorry, Susan. I’m just really tired and need some space to breathe and feel like myself again.”

Early on, Susan and I were very close and talked about everything. I remember not long after my career took off, she took my mom and me on a radio tour. Susan booked us in the nicest hotels, and then after each interview, we went to all the best touristy sightseeing places and fun restaurants for dinner. Or we’d just order room service and watch movies in our plush hotel robes—laughing like friends. It was the best, I had my mom and a friend in my manager. Life was still exciting and new, and fame hadn’t burned me yet.

During those days and nights, we talked extensively about my dreams and what I wanted out of this career. Susan was so invested and loving. Patient and understanding. I’m not sure when she stopped being those things, but it’s clear to me now that the Susan I used to know is long gone.

I miss her, as well as the bright-eyed girl who played music and sang because if she didn’t, the world felt wrong. Who woke up early in the morning because a song lyric was buzzing in her head that she had to write down. The girl whose fingers and back ached wonderfully at the end of the day from getting lost at the piano for too long.

But part of me wonders if Susan even noticed she’s gone.

“We’re all tired, Rae, but you don’t see us just quitting and putting people out like you did this morning. Now, look. I’ll give you through the weekend and then you have to come back. Also I need to know where you are so I can send Will to stay with you.” Will—my bodyguard. He will follow me everywhere. And while I normally appreciate and need him with me, I think of Mabel and the soft pat of her hand this morning, and I don’t feel like Will’s presence here is necessary.

I realize I’ve turned back to Noah when he looks over his shoulder and our eyes meet. “I don’t need Will. I’m safe and staying under the radar.”

“No. Unacceptable. I’ve got a pen, now tell me your address. Also, you’re still going to need to do some over- the-phone press interviews while you’re there. It’s important we keep momentum up before the tour. You’ll have time to rest on the tour bus in between venues.” Geez, has Susan always been this much of a steamroller? I feel flattened to the ground.

Noah stands and walks over to me. Instead of giving me a repeat of this morning, he stops a few feet away. Butterflies swarm in my stomach and I’m sure that if he knew, he’d force me to drink hot sauce or something equally brutal to kill them all. Having his eyes on me reminds me that I need to be here—that the slow tingling- back-to-life sensation is essential and that Audrey Hepburn is never wrong. I need to lean into whatever this is, and Susan will have to deal without me being available 24-7 for once.

“Actually, Susan, I’ll call you Sunday night and tell you where to send a car to pick me up Monday morning. I’ll be out of pocket until then.”

“No, Rae, wa—” I hang up.

And then I stare with wide eyes at the receiver. Did I really just do that? I feel free and powerful and INCREDIBLE…until the phone starts ringing again. I wince at the sound and look frantically over my shoulder at Noah. I have no idea why I’m looking at him. It’s not like he can do anyth—

Just like this morning, he’s behind me again. His arm reaches around my shoulder and he disconnects the

landline, dropping the little curly cord to the floor. The ringing stops and I feel helpless to do anything but look up at him.

He’s not quite smiling but he’s not frowning, either, as he says, “Cavemen don’t need phones anyway.” He places a pair of pj’s into my hands.

I unfold the bundled fabric, and why am I not at all surprised to find that he’s handed me a matching, button- up, top-and-bottoms sleep set. Flannel fabric—slate blue with white vertical pinstripes. They look exactly like the sort of pj’s Gregory Peck would have worn in Roman Holiday. Sophisticated, wholesome, classic pa-ja-mas. Of course Noah would own these.

He sees me smiling at the pj’s and automatically knows why. “I have sisters,” he admits, and it’s truly a joy to witness his embarrassment. “They bought them for me as a gag gift at Christmas, because they say I’m like an old man.”

“Careful. That was a lot of words. I might think you like talking to me if you keep that up.” I smile faintly and raise the fabric to my face, running it lightly across my cheek, reveling in the softness. It’s a weird thing to do—and I don’t know why I feel comfortable enough to do it right in front of him.

He studies me closely for a moment and then looks over his shoulder, trying to keep me from seeing his smile. But I see it. “I have someone I have to meet for lunch before I go back to the shop.” Oh. Is that why he was lingering instead of going right back to work this morning? He has a lunch date? He said he was single, but I guess that doesn’t mean he’s not casually dating. And WHY does that make me clench my jaw?

He picks up his keys from the counter. “So um…there’s stuff in the fridge if you get hungry, and you know where the town is now, so there’s a bike out back if you need to go in for anything. Call 911 if there’s a fire.”

“Stop, drop, and roll,” I say with a grin.

He nods a few times. “Right. Well. I guess I’ll see ya later.”

“I guess you will.”

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