Chapter no 9 – Noah

When in Rome

Beady eyes follow me everywhere I walk. Like annoying little gremlins that won’t leave me alone.

Amelia has been at my house for almost three full days now, but other than Mabel, no one has been able to confirm her existence because she hasn’t ventured out from under my roof, and I’ve kept a firm no-comment stance. I don’t know what in the hell she’s been doing there over the last two days because I’ve avoided her like I avoid Harriet at the…well, everywhere. But clearly speculation about Amelia—or Rae as they know her—has spread rapidly through the locals because my pie shop has had more foot traffic over the last two days than it’s had all month.

No one around here really listens to mainstream music, because they prefer songs with a country twang and lyrics about a man and his beloved dog driving over dusty roads. So no one’s been fanatic about seeing her or anything. No, they’re only in it for the juicy taste of gossip on their tongues. They hope to stir their coffee in Sunday school while coyly distributing details of the famous star like they’re graciously handing out hundred-dollar bills to the poor and needy.

Plus, they remember how it all went down with Merritt, and they want front-row seats to the potential sequel of my terrible love life. I’ve got news for them, they’re going to be sorely disappointed because I’m not going anywhere near Amelia.

Those are the only reasons they’re lurking around here. Everyone knows what pies I offer. They each have a favorite and I can name every town citizen’s usual order while flat- out drunk. And yet, they have all lingered and stared at the pie case like these little round pastries are a fresh invention.

“And this blackberry pie is filled with…?” “Blackberries,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Well, I know that, but it doesn’t have any secondary berries in it?” asks Gemma, who owns the quilting shop across the way.

“Nope. Same ingredients it’s had for the last fifty years.” Gemma is around fifty years old herself, and also a town native, so she knows this as well as anyone.

She wrinkles her nose, admitting her stalling techniques have come to an end. I stare at her without a smile, willing her to just pick a damn pie and leave.

Phil and Todd are sitting at the high-top table, nursing the coffees they ordered an hour ago and eating bites the size of crumbs. I’ve seen mice tackle a larger mouthful. Thank goodness I can close up in about thirty minutes, and…wait, no, I can’t go home. She’ll be at home. What am I even supposed to say to her? How will I avoid her with so many hours left until I can justify going to sleep? I’ve been going to James’s house every day after work until I’m ready to go to bed just so I don’t have to spend any time with Amelia. But he told me—not very politely—to quit being a

coward and that I wasn’t welcome this evening at his house.

I’ve been kicking myself for agreeing to let her stay the weekend. Should have turned her away immediately. It’s not like she’s homeless or penniless. And when I stop and ask myself why I did let her stay, I’m not comfortable enough to answer. Because I’m pretty sure it would have something to do with the way I lingered in the bathroom over her bottle of body lotion like a freak. I told myself to leave it alone. Just leave it ALONE. But it was sitting there next to her hairbrush and makeup bag and it was too tempting not to pop the top to sniff it like the pathetic piece of shit that I am. Even worse, I felt disappointed when I smelled it because I knew—from standing too close to her on too many occasions—that the scent was all wrong. It changes when it’s on her skin. Turns deeper, softer, and warmer.

I’m annoyed.

I’m angry.

I’m frustrated.

And I lean into those emotions like old friends because those are the ones that keep me from making a careless mistake like growing attached to a beautiful, talented woman with a great personality and a life far far away from Rome, Kentucky.

Gemma finally leaves the shop with her apple bourbon vanilla pie (the same one she always gets, by the way), and most everyone else, except Phil and Todd, clears out. I’m wiping down the counter when I spot a woman rolling up in front of the shop window on a bicycle…

No. What is she doing here? And why is she wearing my hat?

The little thief.

The door chimes as Amelia steps in, sunlight spilling all around her form like she’s a damn angel sent to earth to prove that heaven really exists. I wish I could say my eyes don’t track the length of her tan, toned legs in her white shorts—the same ones she was wearing the night I met her

—but they do. Her long dark hair is now braided over her shoulder and drapes all the way down to the middle of her abdomen. It’s tied at the end with a navy silk ribbon that matches the blue in the striped tank top she’s wearing. White canvas sneakers cover her feet, but I know there’s red toenails hiding underneath. Needless to say, this classic and sophisticated style of hers is a complete contradiction to my old, faded Atlanta Braves baseball cap. Does she think it’s helping her hide? She sticks out like a beautiful, radiant thumb.

She ducks her head a little and then approaches the counter hesitantly. “I know I said I wouldn’t bug you, but your fridge was sort of empty, so I thought I’d come into town and get a few things to make dinner tonight. Earn my keep and all. But then I saw the name of this shop and remembered you saying you owned a pie shop, and ohshootyou’remad.” She sizes up the frown on my face and starts backing away. “I’ll just go. Sorry. This was a bad idea and—” She cuts herself off and turns around, heading for the door, braid whipping her back like it’s spurring her to move faster.

Phil and Todd duck their heads together, whispering and casting me disappointed looks. Like James, they don’t think I’m treating Amelia well enough. This town is too damn polite for its own good, and I wish I wasn’t raised to think the same way. I wish I could successfully push her away like I’ve been trying to do instead of immediately tugging her back.

“Amel—Rae.” Her shoulders bunch when I call her name, and she freezes, lightly spinning on the balls of her feet to face me again. I hitch my head toward the pie case. “Have a look around.”

Maybe if I let her see everything now, she’ll get her fill of the “normal life” and hit the road sooner. Because I’m sure that’s all this is for her. The rich and famous star is stooping down from her stage to ooh and ahh over our quaint little lives and then she’ll take some stories of our Mayberry-type town on the road with her to tell her friends. This town is just a layover for her type. Believe me.

I don’t know if Amelia is smiling or frowning as she looks over every nook and cranny of my pie shop because I go into the back kitchen and clean up for the day. When I hear the front door chime, I audibly sigh with relief knowing that the bell means she’s gone.

“Shouldn’t have let her stay,” I grumble under my breath as I scrub a mixing bowl in the sink. “Not worth it.” Scrub, scrub, scrub. “Such an idiot.”

“You talk to your dishes more than people.”

I jump a mile out of my skin at the sound of Amelia’s voice behind me. I startle so much that I accidentally fling a big glob of soap bubbles right into my eye. “Shit. Dammit!” Now my eyes are burning like they were just doused with bear spray. I’m trying to use my elbow to wipe them out, but it’s not working and my hands are still too soapy to use them.

“I’m so sorry! Let me help.” Amelia tugs my shoulder turning me toward her, and through my burning, squinting eyes, I can see that she has wet a dish towel. If she thinks I’m going to let her doctor me up, she’s got another thing coming. I don’t want her anywhere near me.

“I’m fine.” I wipe my eyes with my forearm again, but it’s getting worse. Involuntary tears are starting to stream from my eyes. I’m not crying! Let the record show my eyes are doing this on their own!

I shove my soap-covered hands under the stream of water and frantically try to rinse them so I can wipe what I now think might be straight-up battery acid out of my eyes. Amelia tries to tug my shoulder again, but I don’t budge.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” she says like she’s lived in this town for more than two days. She then slides herself up under my arm, right between me and the sink. My arms are wrapped around her now and our chests are touching. Hot electricity surges through my veins and I’m left stunned. It’s been too long since I’ve had a woman in my arms and that’s the only reason my body is reacting so intensely right now.

“Just let me get the bubbles out and then you can go back to ignoring me,” she says, lifting up on her tiptoes to push the dish towel into each of my eyes, wiping the suds out. It helps. Or maybe I just don’t feel the pain anymore because my brain is zeroing in on all the places our bodies are touching. It takes me all of two seconds to note that her eyes have flecks of green. That when her vanilla lotion mixes with her skin it smells like brown sugar. A light dusting of freckles sits on the bridge of her nose. Other than that subtle black line that extends over her lid and flicks out beside her thick eyelashes, I don’t think she wears much makeup. If I had to wager, I’d say those raspberry-pink lips are all natural.

I swallow when her hand lowers and my eyes are no longer burning. She doesn’t move. I don’t move. There’s this magnetic sort of pull between us that I’m not happy to realize exists. More than anything I’d love to be repulsed

by her—but I’m not. And I sure as hell don’t hate staring at those full lips, wondering if they taste just as tart and sweet as they look.

I should step back. Drop my arms. Take a deep breath and cool off. But I can’t—my feet won’t move and my eyes won’t budge from her mouth.

And then, I don’t know who moves first, but our lips collide. My hand shoots up to cradle the back of her neck, and her arms wind around my waist, pulling my body flush with hers. Tender curvesWarm scent. Greedy hands. Her delicious mouth chases away my logical thoughts until all that’s left is desire. I step forward, pressing her back against the sink. We should stop. This goes against everything I’ve told her—but she makes a soft sound of encouragement that spikes a sharper need in me than I can contain.

Usually, I kiss like I have all day. A gentle build of sensuality that’s meant for savoring. Amelia unlocks something in me, though. Impatient. Needy. Her tongue glides over mine and she’s so damn sweet I feel like I’m burning alive.

I glide my hands to her waist and wrap my fingers around her hips, one second away from hoisting her up on the counter when the shop door chimes. The sound douses us in reality and all my rational thoughts return.

I drop my hands and step wayyy back, feeling strongly that whatever that was—it was a mistake. Amelia shuffles to the farthest corner of the counter. We’re not making eye contact anymore, and the atmosphere turns awkward.

“Amelia, I’m sorry. That was—”

“Not supposed to happen,” she finishes my statement in a rush. “I know. And I’m sorry, too. Let’s just move on and agree not to do it again.”

We’re prevented from talking anymore about this— which is probably for the best—when a familiar voice calls out to me from the front of the shop.


Oh no. Not now. Not yet. I thought they’d get back in town tomorrow!

“He must be in the back.” “Hiding probably.”

I look at Amelia and grimace. “I apologize in advance.”

Amelia only has a second to look confused before all three of my younger sisters barge through the kitchen door, eyes frantic and on the hunt.

“There you are!” says Emily, the oldest of my sisters, who I can best describe as a bottle of hot sauce. “You have so much explaining to do!” She just turned twenty-nine last year and has my mom’s green eyes. The same ones I have.

Next comes Madison, second to youngest, pushing through the swinging door and peering over Emily’s shoulder. “We just got back into town and had to hear from Harriet that you had a random woman stay over at your house last night!” Madison looks the most like my dad. She has dark hair and dark eyes. She pretends to be as assertive and unflappable as Emily, but she doesn’t fool me

—she feels deeply.

And then next comes Annabell (aka Annie), the baby of the family at age twenty-six, the soft, quiet, wholesome one, and also the only one with naturally bright, nearly white, blond hair. We used to joke that she got it from the mailman since neither my mom or dad had blond hair. Even Emily and I have more of a golden, sandy color than true blond. “But then, we heard from Phil, who heard it from Gemma, who heard it from Mabel that it’s not a random woman but Rae Rose! As in the Rae Rose!”

Madison comes up and pokes me in the chest. “What were you thinking, keeping something like this from us? Do you not love us?”

I grin lightly. “How was the flower show?”

“Don’t try to distract us! Go ahead, Noah, tell us you hate us!” says Emily.

Annie puts her hands on her hips. “It’s the only reason we can imagine you wouldn’t call us immediately and tell us that pop royalty is staying in your house.” She pauses a moment and her face turns slightly abashed. “And the flower show was nice. Thank you for asking.”

Like I said, energy of the sun. These ladies talk at a clip that only the most seasoned of listeners can keep up with. I happen to be one of them.

I clear my throat and then glance over each of their heads toward the poor woman with wide eyes in the back corner of the room, looking like a trapped bunny. This is good, actually. Maybe it’ll scare her out of town. I should have sicced my sisters on her sooner.

My sisters follow my gaze until their heads are swiveled toward Amelia.

“Ladies, this is Rae Rose.” Amelia, my mind corrects. “Her car unfortunately broke down in my front yard a few nights ago and she’s stranded in town until Tommy can fix it…or…” I let that or hang. Or until she gets sick of us and calls a driver. Or until my agitation drives her out. Or until I wake up from this dream/nightmare.

My sisters’ mouths are wide open, catching flies, and they are speechless for probably the first time in their lives. Amelia smiles, and I’m unable to stop myself from noticing how it’s completely different from the one she gives me. With what can only be described as grace, Amelia raises a

hand in their direction and waves good-naturedly. “Hi. So nice to meet you guys.”

There’s about two seconds of complete silence before my sisters’ shock wears off and they pounce. It’s a swirl of peppy southern voices bombarding Amelia with question after question. Fortunately for Amelia, there’s only three people in this town who are genuine fans of hers. Unfortunately for Amelia, they’re all currently in the kitchen with her.

The conversation goes like this but pretty much all at once.

EMILY: You’re stuck at Noah’s house? He doesn’t even have Wi-Fi, you know?

MADISON: Noah is boring. Come out with us tonight! ANNIE: We’re going to Hank’s if you want to come?

EMILY: Hank’s is a local bar where we all go and drink on Friday nights.

MADISON: We can pick you up!

ANNIE: We’ll make sure no one annoys you while you’re there.

EMILY: You’ll love it, I promise.

I fully expect Amelia to shove them out of the way and take off running for the hills. There’s no way she even comprehended all those words pelted at her at once. But of course, I’m wrong again and Amelia is apparently the one woman in the entire world who can speak Excited Walker Women.

Her bright smile stretches across her mouth, and honestly, I’ve never seen someone look happier. Or prettier, my mind adds again because it’s a little jackass. “Umm— Hank’s, I’d love to go with you guys. That is if…” Her eyes

slip to me and her smile falters a fraction. “If Noah’s okay with it.”

I’m not given a chance to respond before Emily steps between us and says, “Why the hell do you need his permission? Last I checked he doesn’t own the place. Well, he does own this place, but he doesn’t own Hank’s. So will you come with us?”

How has this woman infiltrated my life so quickly? I think tornadoes have blown through this town slower. And probably with less damage than she’s likely to inflict.

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