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When in Rome: Chapter 24

Amelia

The house smells like popcorn and Pop-Tarts. I don’t know how to cook many things, so when Annie called earlier suggesting we have an Audrey Hepburn introductory movie night tonight, I turned to the only things in Noah’s pantry that I could make without fear of setting the house on fire. Even the popcorn was touch-and-go there for a minute.

“You have everything you need?” Noah asks me, lingering by the front door with his keys in hand.

He and I have steered clear of each other today. Something happened yesterday that has set us on a trajectory that neither of us can afford to follow. First, there’s this ridiculous sexual chemistry between us that, at times, feels like desire is going to set my skin on literal fire. Second, we have an emotional connection. Friendship. Those two combined feel absolutely lethal.

So without acknowledging it, we took a step back. I hung out at his house this afternoon and read more of the fantasy book he let me borrow, and even though he’s supposed to have Mondays off, he went into the shop and worked for most of the afternoon. Now, he’s going to James’s house while the Walker sisters and I take over his house.

“Yep!” I say, mimicking a normal person who isn’t nervous to spend an evening with other women having a girls’ night. But I am. I don’t want a repeat of Hank’s. I’m determined to show them that I’m completely normal. N.O.R.M.A.L. Or at least, trick them into thinking I am.

Noah sees right through me. He can feel my nervous energy from a mile away. My foot is tapping. I’m blinking too much. I’m a bottle rocket about to take off.

He tilts his head slightly, those green eyes zero in on me, and when he lifts his brow invitingly, that’s all it takes for me to spill my guts.

“Okayyyyy. No! I’m so nervous! I don’t think I can do this. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a girls’ movie night? High school, Noah! HIGH SCHOOL! We were still talking about Backstreet Boys and layering our Hollister polo shirts!”

His moody mouth grins, and he takes a step toward where I’m standing on the threshold of the entryway. “You’ll be fine.” He takes another step. Closer, closer, closer. This is why we’ve avoided each other. This keeps happening when we’re in the same vicinity, and I think we’re both incapable of stopping it. Our bodies are on a wavelength our minds are not privy to.

I have to tilt my chin higher and higher as he gets closer. I love that he’s taller than me. “You don’t have any better advice for me?”

“Nope.”

“No tips for how to get your sisters to love me?”

He shrugs. “Don’t get water rings on the coffee table.”

“That will make them love me?”

He’s so close now our chests are nearly touching. “You’ll be fine.”

“Noah?”

“Hmm?”

“What are you doing?” I ask quietly. Like someone else might overhear our secret.

“Hell if I know. I think I was going to hug you.”

I bite my lips against a smile. “Was?”

“Well, now I’m here and I don’t feel like it’s a good idea anymore.”

I nod, unable to keep the smile from my mouth. He doesn’t have to explain. We both feel it like a change in pressure before a storm. There’s no wondering if he likes me or not—I know he does. He wants me, and I want him, but we can’t let that happen. Because for whatever reason, he’s not interested in anything romantic with me. Smart. A relationship with me would complicate his life beyond what he even realizes.

“Might still do it anyway,” he says, either hesitation or nerves touching his voice.

Honesty bleeds between us. “I want you to.”

A soft smile touches his full lips. “Okay, I will. Here I go. I’m going to hug you now.” I’ve never been preemptively warned about a hug. It’s adding a whole new anticipation to the embrace.

His hand slowly rises and I stay very still as his fingers settle lightly against my bicep. His thumb rubs a quiet little streak of heat across a one-inch section of my skin, and I feel myself melting toward him. I shuffle a little. He tugs a little. The result is me entering his arms, and just before we’re settled into what I know would be a life-changing hug, the front door flies open.

“Hiya! Oh shiiiit!” It’s Madison, holding a pan covered in plastic wrap. She whistles while coming to a stop in the doorway. Noah and I jump apart looking as guilty as teenagers emerging from a dark room. The other sisters come up behind Madison.

“That’s another dollar in the jar,” says Annie, popping her head over Madison’s shoulder.

Emily surfaces on the other side. “What? What did I miss?”

My face is on fire. Noah rubs his jaw.

“I think I just interrupted a little sensual rendezvous,” says Madison with an indulgent eyebrow arch.

Noah grabs a hat from the coatrack on the wall and pushes his hand back through his hair before slapping it firmly on his sexy head. Sexy? No…stop that, Amelia.

“It was not…that,” says Noah with pain in his voice. “Okay, I’m leaving.” He won’t make eye contact with me. I think he’s too embarrassed.

The sisters part as Noah barrels through them out the door and into the night. I’ve never seen someone jump into a truck and back out of a driveway so quickly.

The moment he drives off, they all turn their eyes to me. I am one big prickle of embarrassment. Did we just get caught naked playing Twister rather than about to hug? Feels like it. But geez, that was going to be some hug. A hug so powerful it would’ve made Noah’s baby.

I hold up my hands and lie. “It wasn’t sensual.”

Madison scoffs. “Yeah right, that was so sexy. I know because I was grossed-out seeing my brother in a sexy situation.”

“A hug! That’s all,” I plead defensively for myself as much as them.

“An erotic hug,” Madison adds with a wicked gleam in her eye as she closes the front door with her foot, closing us all in together.


We all sniff and wipe our eyes as THE END flashes across the TV screen.

“I love her,” Annie says in a weepy voice.

“I told you she was incredible.” I use a tissue to blot under my eyes. It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen this movie twenty times, Roman Holiday never fails to make me cry at the end. Weep. Like a pitiful little baby.

“But…” Emily has to take a moment to collect herself before continuing. “But why did she have to leave in the end?”

Madison blows her nose. “She had to! She had a duty to her country. She couldn’t just stay in Rome with him forever. She had to go, Em.”

We’re all spread out in various positions of sitting and lying down across Noah’s living room. I’m on the couch with Annie, Emily is in an armchair, and Madison is lying on a pallet of blankets and pillows on the floor. We’re all disheveled and dressed for nothing but comfort in sweats and messy buns. I’ve been having to blow my bangs out of my eyes every other second because I’m not used to them yet, but they’re worth it. I love them. I love what they represent to me.

The girls all see me fidgeting with the bangs and look at me meaningfully. “What?” I ask, lowering my hand from my freshly chopped locks.

“You cut your hair,” says Madison.

Emily’s eyes bounce from me, to the TV, and back to me. “Just like Audrey did in the movie.”

“And you’re in Rome,” Annie adds.

I gasp and my hands fly to my head. “You’re right. But, you guys, I swear I’m not being creepy and trying to copy the movie. I just…well, I did intentionally copy it in the beginning by leaving in the night and coming to Rome and all that…but the copying stops there!”

Emily nudges my knee with her foot. “That’s not why we’re worried. We’re worried, because…Audrey leaves in the end. There’s no happily ever after.”

Oh. That.

I swallow. “Well, that’s not necessarily true.” I’m grasping at straws. What felt liberating about this movie at the beginning of my adventure is now feeling like a death sentence. “I think Audrey did get her happily ever after. It just…wasn’t with Gregory Peck. She had a happily ever after for herself. And that was enough for her. I think we can all learn a lesson there.”

I have three puppies staring back at me that all look as if I’ve just mercilessly kicked them. Madison is the first to attempt to recover the happy mood, but her voice sounds too peppy. “True. And…it’s not like we actually expected you—I mean Audrey—to stay in Rome for good. That’s impractical for your—HER career.”

“But now we know you—her—or…ugh. Forget it. We’re all talking about you, and we know it,” Annie says quietly, pulling that mood right back down. “And it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.”

“And Noah…” Emily adds, ensuring that the mood is now buried six feet under and completely unrecoverable. “He’ll have to say goodbye to you…just like Gregory Peck did with Audrey.” All our glittering eyes shift to the TV screen frozen on the downcast face of the man himself.

Oh, Gregory. How have I never realized before that this movie is a tragedy? It might as well be Shakespeare! GOD! How could Audrey just leave like that in the end?

I blink at the TV. “Maybe they stay in contact.”

“Uh-uh,” grunts Emily, clearly projecting when she says, “He has major trust issues. He’ll never have a long-distance relationship.”

“You know a lot about Gregory Peck’s character’s backstory?” I ask sarcastically.

Emily gives me a pointed look. “I know every bit of it. I know what he’s been through. I know that he deserves a woman who’s going to stick around and love him like he needs. And I know that erotic hallway hugs are not going to help the situation if Audrey knows she’s leaving in the end.”

Emily then takes a pillow to the face when Madison launches one from her pallet. “Mind your own biscuits, Em! Gregory wouldn’t want you meddling. He can make his own choices.”

Gregory has been through a world of hurt, and I just don’t want to see him go through it again, because the last time a woman passed through this town and stole his heart, he uprooted his life to follow her, and then when he had no choice but to come home, she stomped on it, making him lose faith in all women!” Her eyes snap to me—expression softer than the one she’s giving her sister. “No offense to you, Amelia.”

I shake my head. “None taken.” And really, I don’t take offense to what she said, because in no way would I want to hurt Noah. Or anyone. And I think she’s right. There’s no way I can give Noah what he needs or wants. I’m about to set out on a nine-month world tour for goodness’ sake. Noah seems like a matching-rocking-chairs-and-multiple-children kind of guy.

Suddenly, my mind snags back on something Emily said. “Why did Noah have no choice but to come home?”

“Okayyyy!” Annie stands from the couch, grabs another one of the amazing spicy-chicken-calzone-things Madison made, and then settles back on the couch. “I think we’re getting off topic here. Gregory would not like it if we were spilling all his beans during girls’ night.”

Madison barely contains a laugh. “You can’t say spills his beans in reference to a man, Annie.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’ve heard men refer to their balls as beans sometimes.”

Annie gasps. “No. Why would they do that? That’s gross.”

Madison gives Emily a look. “This is why we need to take some trips and get out more. She needs to experience more of the world.”

“So I can learn more words for male genitalia? No, thank you,” says Annie, snuggling deeper into her blanket and munching on the calzone.

Emily raises a brow at Madison. “You haven’t seen the world and you seem to be doing just fine with terms for male anatomy.”

“But I could learn more! Just imagine. I could learn how to say balls in French! Italian! Spanish!”

Annie tsks. “Audrey Hepburn would never say anything so crude.”

“Actually,” I interject, “Audrey was a call girl in another movie. That’s what’s so great about her. She’s unpredictable. You’ll see her in a ball gown in one movie, and a man’s oversized shirt with no pants in another. And in her personal life, she had a baby deer for a pet.”

“That’s it. I want to be her.” Madison holds her hand up and begins ticking items off her fingers. “She travels. Has an incredible fashion sense. And would definitely teach me the word for balls in French.”

“Why do you think I’m always turning to Audrey when I feel lost?” I don’t mention how watching Audrey movies also makes me feel close to my mom again when I miss her.

Madison points at me. “YES. I’m doing that from now on. I need a life coach and she seems like the closest thing.”

Emily scoffs. “I thought I was your life coach?”

Self-appointed life coach.”

“But a life coach no less,” Emily says grinning.

Madison does not return her sister’s smile. “You turned me into a teacher.”

“And?”

“I hate being a teacher.”

“Oh, you’ll grow to like it.”

The three sisters continue to banter back and forth and it’s enough to erase the tension that had filled the room after the movie. At least it is for them. They’re laughing and my heart is sinking. It’s sinking right down to the floor where my feet have been trying to sprout little baby roots. For a moment there, I forgot I’ll be leaving. This town is like an antigravity chamber. I’m light and hopeful inside its city limits. But I know that when it’s time to go, I’ll leave. Just like Audrey.

Whatever has started to develop between me and Noah has to stop. Not only am I leaving soon, he made it clear in the beginning that anything romantic was off the table. I just wish his body language and eyes weren’t saying something different. I need to be careful with him. As the one who will be leaving when her car is fixed, I need to be the one to reaffirm the boundaries he originally put in place to protect himself.

Annie—the ever emotionally perceptive sister—must read my thoughts. I’m starting to think it’s her superpower. “You’ll figure it out—and you’ll do what’s best for you in the end, and whatever that is, it’s okay. We’re your friends so we will support you. So will Noah.”


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