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When in Rome: Chapter 2


She’s still out there. It’s been twenty minutes, and she’s yet to so much as crack her door. And, yes, I am watching her creepily from my window acting like the psychopath she thinks I am. I’m not, for the record—though I’m not sure my opinion really counts in this situation. I am a little worried she’s gonna die tonight, however. It’s 80 degrees outside and she’s not allowing any ventilation through her car. That woman is going to smother herself out there.

Whatever, not my problem.

I let the blinds snap closed and pace away from the window.

And then I pace right back and open them again.

Dammit, get out of the car, woman.

I look at the clock. 11:30 p.m. I shoot up a prayer to anyone listening above that Mabel won’t be too pissed at me when I call and wake her up. After dialing her number, I have to wait six rings before her scratchy forty-years-of-smoking-but-recently-quit voice answers. “Who is it?”

“Mabel, it’s Noah.”

She grunts a little. “What do you want, son? I was already dozing in my chair for the night, and you know I have insomnia so this better be good.”

I smile. “Believe me, Mabel, I wouldn’t be disturbing your beauty sleep unless it was an emergency.”

She acts tough but her heart is mush for me. Mabel and my grandma were best friends—more like sisters really. And since my grandma was the one who raised me and my sisters, Mabel always treated us like family, too. Lord knows we act related. We look different, Mabel is Black and I’m white, but we both share the same general dislike for people being up in our business. (And yet she’s always more than happy to be all up in mine.)

“Emergency? Noah, don’t string me along. Your house on fire, son?” She’s called me “son” since I was in diapers and continues to despite the fact that I’m thirty-two years old. I don’t mind. It’s comforting.

“No, ma’am. I need you to speak to a woman for me.”

She coughs with disbelief. “A woman? Honey, it’s good to hear you’re looking again, but just ’cause you’re lonely in the middle of the night doesn’t mean I have a list of ladies on speed dial ready to—”

“No,” I say firmly before she continues with what I’m sure would be a string of words I never want to hear exit her mouth. “The woman is in my front yard.”

I hear the squeak of a chair and imagine Mabel snapping her EZ Boy recliner shut, sitting bolt upright. “Noah, tell me now, are you drunk? It’s fine if you are, I’m not the judgy type, you know this. I’ve said many of my best prayers to the Good Lord after a night with Jack Daniel’s, but I need for you to call James or one of your sisters when you’re drunk, not—”

She’ll go on and on if I don’t stop her. “Mabel, a woman’s car broke down in my front yard and the engine is smoking but she’s scared to get out because she thinks I’m going to hurt her. I need for you to act as my character reference so she’ll get her ass out of there.” I would call one of my sisters but they would definitely say something off-color about how long it’s been since I’ve slept with anyone and then ask the woman what her relationship status is. Definitely not calling them. Definitely don’t care what that woman’s relationship status is.

“Oh, well, baby, why didn’t you say so! Get out there and let me talk to the poor girl!” I hear a twinkle of excitement in Mabel’s voice that I don’t appreciate or want to encourage. This whole town has been on my back lately to give dating another try, but I’m not interested. I wish they’d leave me alone about it and let me live in peace, but that’s not their style. And now that I think about it, I’m not so certain Mabel won’t say something similar to what my sisters would say.

I peek through the blinds again and see the woman fanning herself aggressively with her hand. I swear, if I have to call a paramedic and spend the whole night in the hospital losing sleep with this strange woman because she gave herself heatstroke out there, I’ll never open my front door again. I’m one more woman wrecking my life away from boarding up all my windows and turning into a hermit that yells profanities at Christmas carolers.

“Don’t get any ideas, Mabel. This isn’t a romantic thing. I just don’t want her to die in the heat out there.”

“Mm-hmm. Is she pretty?”

I pinch the bridge of my nose and shut my eyes against the annoyance building up my spine. “It’s pitch-black outside. How would I know that?”

“Oh, please. I asked you a question. I expect an answer.”

I groan. “Yes.” So damn pretty. I only got a brief look at her with my flashlight, but what I saw had me doing a double take. She had dark hair piled in a bun on her head, a pretty smile, thick lashes, and sharp blue eyes. The odd thing is, I feel like I’ve met her even though I’ve never seen her car in town before. It must have been one of those weird instances of déjà vu.

“Well then,” she says with a pleased sigh. “Take me out to our fair beauty.”

“Mabel…” I use a warning tone as I open the front door and step outside. The summer heat immediately threatens to strangle me, and I wonder how the woman has survived this long in her car with the windows rolled up and no air-conditioning.

“Oh, hush! It’s not every day a woman is dropped into your lap like this, so zip your lips and hand the phone over.” This is what I get for living in Rome, Kentucky, most of my life. My neighbors still treat me like the boy who ran through town in his Superman underwear.

Leaving the front door cracked so the phone cord doesn’t get pinched, I walk through the yard toward the little white car. It’s too dark out here to see her features without shining the flashlight at her again, but I do see the silhouette of her face turn my way. And then she immediately throws her seat back. She’s trying to trick me into believing she’s not in there. I refuse to smile at the ridiculousness of it.

When I knock on the window, she screeches. Jumpy.

“Hey…” You? Woman? Lady currently killing the grass in my yard? “Uh…Here. This is a friend of mine on the phone. She’s going to act as my character reference so you can feel safe to get out of your car.”

The lady pulls the lever on her seat and the whole thing comes flying up. She yelps and I have to bite the inside of my cheeks. Her big eyes peer up at me through the glass, and unfortunately, there’s not enough light to figure out how I know her, but now I’m convinced I do.

She frowns. “How do you have cell service right now?”

“I don’t.” I raise the phone up so she can see it.

Her eyes drop to it and she laughs. “What is that?!”

You’d think I was holding a rare species of animal by the way she’s gaping and laughing. “It’s generally called a telephone.”

“Yes, but…” She pauses to let out another delighted laugh and the sound curls around me like a cool breeze. “Did you steal it from the museum of 1950s history? Now the mannequin with the blue gingham print dress and matching headband won’t receive her husband’s call saying he’ll be late for dinner! Oh my gosh, that cord has to be fifty feet long!”

I narrow my eyes. “Are you going to roll down your window or not, Smart Mouth?”

Her eyebrows lift. “Did you just call me…Smart Mouth?”

“Yes.” And I won’t apologize for it. I’m not trying to make friends with her or make her feel cozy—besides she insulted my phone. I love my phone. It’s a good phone.

Oddly, her face splits into a full, gorgeous smile and she laughs. It makes my stomach tighten, and my heart thump angrily. I tell them both to shut up and behave. I will not be moved by another woman passing through my town. I’m going to help her tonight because (1) it’s the right thing to do; (2) so she doesn’t die in my front yard; and (3) so I can get her the hell on her way again.

“Well, okay, then.” She cracks the window only about two inches so I can slip the phone in. Our fingers brush in the exchange and my whole body reacts to it because apparently it wasn’t listening to the threatening speech I gave it a minute ago. The woman whips the phone into the car and zips her window back up before I can slide a pitchfork in and impale her.

She eyes the phone warily before raising it to her ear. “Hello?”

Immediately I can tell that Mabel takes over because the woman’s eyes grow twice their size and she listens with rapt attention. Five minutes later, beads of sweat are rolling down the back of my neck as I lean with folded arms against the hood of her car, waiting for Smart Mouth to finish laughing her ass off with Mabel.

“He didn’t!” she says practically howling and now I know it’s time to take the phone back. I go to her door, knocking against her window. “Time’s up. Are you getting out or not?”

She holds up a finger to me and finishes with Mabel. “Uh-huh…uh-huh…yeah. Okay, it was great talking with you, too!”

I have to back up when, surprise, surprise, the woman opens the car door and steps out, handing me back my phone. At her full height, she comes to my chin, but her messy brunette bun stands to about the top of my head. I don’t want to admit it, but she’s cute—classy. She’s wearing a navy-and-white-striped T-shirt tucked into white, old-timey-looking shorts. They’re the kind that climb high on her petite waist, hug the soft curve of her hips, and cut off high on her thighs. She belongs on a sailboat in a black-and-white photo—not from around here, that’s for damn sure. She’ll be gone in the blink of an eye, so there’s no use letting myself admire her looks.

She turns her face up to me, but her gaze bounces nervously back and forth between me and my house. “Your friend, Mrs. Mabel, gave you a glowing recommendation, Noah Walker.” She says my name with a greedy emphasis, gloating that she knows my name but I don’t know hers.

“Super, I’m so relieved.” My tone is the Sahara Desert. I cross my arms. “And you are?”

Whatever ease she was starting to feel vanishes, and she takes one large step away, anxious to crawl right back into that death trap. “Why do you need to know my name?”

“Mostly so I can know who to charge for my grass seed bill.” I don’t mean for it to come off as friendly or jokey, but she seems to take it that way.

She smiles and relaxes again. I’m not so sure I want her to feel relaxed. In fact, I have a strong urge to tell her not to get comfy at all.

“Tell you what,” she says with a sparkling smile of camaraderie that I don’t return. “I’ll leave some cash on the counter for you in the morning.” In the gaping silence that follows her statement, I lift an eyebrow and she finally hears what she’s just said. “Oh! No. I didn’t mean—I don’t think you’re a…not a prostitute.” She winces. “Not to say you can’t be a prostitute if you—”

I hold up a hand. “I’ll stop you there.”

“Thank goodness,” she whispers, dropping her gaze while running her fingers over her temples. Who the hell is this woman? Why is she driving through my backwoods town in the middle of the night? She’s jumpy. She’s a nervous chatterbox, and she gives off the impression of a woman on the run.

“You can stay in my guest room tonight, if you want. There’s a lock on the bedroom door so you can feel safe while you sleep…Unless there’s someone you can call tonight who will be able to come get you?”

“No,” she says quickly. I can’t read the look on her face. It’s guarded and defiant at the same time, and dammit, I wish there was more light out here. There’s something my brain is trying to put together about her but I can’t quite make it out.

“I…” She hesitates, like she’s looking for the right words. “I was actually headed to stay at a bed-and-breakfast near here for some time away from work. So…as strange as it is, I think I will take you up on the use of your guest room tonight and then tomorrow I can call to have my car towed somewhere to get it fixed?” Why does she phrase it like a question? As if she’s waiting for me to confirm that’s a good idea.

“Sure,” I say with a shrug that conveys I don’t care what her plans are as long as they don’t include me doing anything else for her.

She nods once. “Okay, then. Yep…let’s…see your house, Noah Walker.”

A few minutes later, after helping her get a bag out of her trunk and carrying it up to my front door, I step inside my house and hold the door open for her to walk through. When she passes me, her soft, sweet smell slips under my nose. It’s so opposite of my me-scented home it scrambles my brain for a second. It takes a big eraser and smudges over my usual I’m happy being alone thoughts and doodles in obnoxious little hearts.

She hesitates with her back to me, taking in my living room. It’s not much, but at least I know it’s not garbage, either. My sisters helped me furnish the house after I renovated it, saying I needed a Traditional Farmhouse decor style, whatever the hell that means. All I know is now I have some rustic, wooden-looking shit that cost me a lot of money and a big white comfy couch that I rarely use because I prefer the leather chair in my room. It’s homey, though. I’m glad they convinced me to do it and didn’t let me keep living like a miserable bachelor when I moved back here.

My eyes trail from my couch to the little wisps of dark hair clinging to beads of sweat at the back of her neck. And then as if she can feel my gaze on her, she turns sharply. Her eyes collide with mine, and my stomach drops off a cliff. It makes sense now why she wouldn’t tell me her name. Why she didn’t want to get out of her car. Why she looks like she’s been standing on pins and needles this whole time. I know exactly who Smart Mouth is, and any prayers Mabel is currently sending up to heaven are going to waste because I will absolutely not be letting myself form any attachments to this woman.

“You’re Rae Rose.”


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