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When in Rome: Chapter 25

Noah

“You slept here?” asks James—his head leaning over the back of the couch to stare at me accusingly.

I grunt and throw my legs over the front of the couch, sitting up. Everything on me hurts as I press the heels of my hands into my eyes wishing I had gotten about seven more hours of sleep. Turns out sleeping on a couch in my thirties is not as easy as it was in my twenties. “Yeah. You need a new couch.”

“That’s it? That’s all you’re gonna say about it?” James laughs, coming around to settle into an armchair, steaming cup of coffee in hand.

I shrug. It’s too early for conversation. Not too early for James, though. He starts his day on the farm around five a.m. I bet that’s his second cup of coffee. Maybe even third.

“I left you in here with the TV on at nine o’clock assuming you’d go home when the girls left your house. And then I come out here to find you hiding on my couch, snoring away.”

“I don’t snore.” I pick up my shirt from the floor and tug it down over my head. “And I’m not hiding.”

James is smirking. “Oh yeah? What do you wanna call it then?”

I press my tongue into my cheek. “Avoidance.”

He chuckles lightly. “Well, at least you’ll own up to that much.”

It’s time for coffee. It’s always time for coffee, actually. Standing up, I go into James’s kitchen and find a full pot and a mug. James makes his coffee like a damn cowboy. I could throw a horseshoe in it and it would disintegrate. I take a sip and grimace. “How do you drink it like this?”

“Started when I was a kid. I think I burned up all my insides at an early age so I don’t even notice anymore.”

“Does Tommy drink it like this, too?” Tommy is James’s younger brother. James inherited the farm when his mom and dad got older and didn’t want to run it anymore, but Tommy has never been interested in being a farmer. He’s a successful entrepreneur, always traveling and starting up new companies, restaurants, and hotels all around the world. He’s good at it. But he’s also a douchebag. Can’t stand him if I’m being honest.

James laughs. “Hell no. Tommy won’t touch coffee if it’s not in some sort of latte form with a nasty syrup in it.”

“Sounds about right.” I take another drink, thankful that James seems to be distracted from any conversations of Amelia. I just need a few more milligrams of caffeine in me before I’m ready to discuss or even think about that woman. “Where is he now?”

“New York, I think. Working on a new gourmet noodle restaurant and sleeping with supermodels.”

“What a life.”

He groans. “Whatever. You know you’d choose this life over that one any day. In fact, you did.”

“To be fair, though, supermodels weren’t in the mix. Might have been different if that option had been available.”

James shakes his head with a smile. “Bullshit. You’re not into supermodels.” His smile turns searching. “You’re into dark-haired singers with a sweet smile and curves for days.”

“Easy,” I say, before I even realize that I’m getting territorial about the thought of James admiring Amelia’s curves. What the hell is wrong with me? She’s not mine to get territorial over. If James wanted to go for Amelia, that would be completely…unacceptable. Who am I kidding? I’d kill him. Limb by limb, I’d make it as painful as possible.

James’s eyebrows go up. He’s pleased to have successfully hit a nerve. “Knew it. Dammit, you’re falling headfirst for that woman.” He shakes his head. “You’re in trouble.”

I set down my mug of gasoline that James likes to think is coffee and raid his pantry. “You’re so dramatic. I’m not falling for her. I’m attracted to her. There’s a difference.” I pull out a loaf of homemade bread that I know is from Jenna’s Bread Basket and pop a slice into the toaster. Actually, I throw in two. “And that, if you must know, is why I spent the night here. Because I have enough sense to stay away from the woman I’m attracted to after the sun goes down.”

He pulls a face. “Does that mean I’m always going to wake up to you on my couch?”

“Hell no. I think I strained my neck sleeping there.” I rub the spot that feels like someone stuck a corkscrew in my neck and twisted. “I just needed a night away to get my head on straight again. I’m good now.”

“Sure. Yeah.” James gives a mocking nod. “A night away cured you.”

The toast pops up and that’s my cue to leave. I slap some butter on the slices of golden brown toast and then rip off two paper towels. One for each piece of toast. James notices because he’s way too invested in my life at the moment. “Why do you have two paper towels?”

“Why does it matter? You the paper towel sheriff?”

“Just want to know why you’re wasting all my good paper when you could just put your two slices of toast in one paper towel.” His voice is thick with amusement. He doesn’t care about his good paper. He cares about annoying me.

We’re interrupted by a light knock on the door. James and I both frown before he goes to open it because no one in this town makes house calls this early. He opens the door and there stands the woman I’m avoiding. Her new bangs are framing her pretty face and the rest of her hair is tied up in a messy bun on her head…and she’s wearing my sweatshirt. Does she ever wear her own clothes?

James’s house is small like mine, so even in the kitchen, I’m able to make eye contact with Amelia standing right outside the front door. She sees me frown as my eyes drop. Her cheeks pink. She’s a thief, caught red-handed in an alley. Those big blue eyes flash and she crosses her hands over her chest like I might steal it right back. “I was cold. It’s cold in your house. And I didn’t pack a sweatshirt.” She pauses and when my eyes narrow even further she adds, “I found this on the coatrack!”

James chuckles lightly and glances over his shoulder at me before looking back at her. “Morning, Amelia, what can I do for you?”

She dimples at James and I find myself wanting to cup my hands over her cheeks so he can’t see them. Like those dimples are an intimate part of her that only I should be entitled to see. Shit, Im in big trouble.

“Actually, I was looking for Noah.”

James steps aside and gestures for Amelia to come in. She does and that’s when I notice she’s still wearing shorts. Tiny ones. They just peek out from under the sweatshirt, and James notices as she walks by him. Because he’s a good friend, though, he looks away quickly. Straight into my glaring eyes in fact.

Amelia crosses the room and stops in front of me in the kitchen. Memories of last night standing with her in my entryway assault me. I touched her. Tenderly. While sober. I haven’t touched a woman that way in a long time. Yeah, it felt sexy, but it was also something different. The moment my skin connected with hers, it was all I could do not to savor it. The way I would with someone I care about. I keep trying to tell myself it’s only attraction, but I’m not sure that even I can believe that anymore. Not when she smiles up at me and it feels like my insides burst with light. When I’m dying to know how her night with my sisters went. Wishing I could cancel my day and spend the whole of it just listening to her talk. I’m terrified.

When Amelia is within arm’s length, I hand her one of the slices of toast. At first she hesitates. “I don’t want to take your toast.”

“I made it for you,” I say with an easy shrug. “I was about to head home.”

I accidentally make eye contact with James and he shakes his head, mouthing, I knew it. Then he makes a headfirst-dive gesture with his hands.

“Thank you!” There’s an awkward pause as Amelia shuffles on her feet and then glances briefly over her shoulder at James. He just stands there smiling like an idiot, not taking the hint that she wants to talk with me alone.

“Do you want to ride back over with me in my truck?”

“No!” she says a little too firmly and then smiles. “Sorry. Uh—I was actually just coming over to tell you I’ll be out of your hair today. Annie invited me to work with her at the flower shop and I said I would.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say invite in terms of work before. Don’t feel like you have to say yes. You’re here so you can get a break, not work for free at my sister’s shop.”

She fiddles with her bangs. “Oh, I know! I want to. It’ll be fun. I haven’t worked a job that wasn’t on a stage in forever. I’m actually looking forward to it.” She shoots a little airstream at her bangs to shift them. And before I can control my hand, I reach up and brush my fingers against her bangs, sweeping them out of her eyes. She smiles softly—curiously—at the gesture. I would give an excuse, but I don’t have a good one anymore. So I just shrug with an it-is-what-it-is smile. And then I make it worse.

“You can work with me at The Pie Shop.” The words are out before I can reel them back in. Why the hell did I say that? I had just decided to spend less time around Amelia and now I’m inviting her to spend the whole day with me?

“How come you’ve never invited me to work at The Pie Shop with you?” James asks, clearly trying to shorten his life span.

I look around Amelia toward my idiot friend. “Don’t you have something better to do? Corn that needs shucking? Cows to milk?”

He shakes his head and settles back into the armchair facing us. “Nope. Not a damn thing.”

Amelia looks at James. “Actually, I was hoping I could get a tour of your farm one of these days while I’m in town.”

I’m not annoyed. I’m not annoyed in the least that she bypassed my offer to work at The Pie Shop and asked James for a tour of his farm instead. Not annoyed at all.

“Of course. You wanna come work with me for a while tomorrow?”

Amelia’s face beams. “Yes! Can we go to lunch at the diner, too? I’m trying to soak up as much of the town as I can while I’m here.”

“Sure,” says James indulgently, and I fantasize about storming across the living room and tossing him through the window.

She looks back at me and lightly bumps my chest with the back of her hand. “Look! Now you don’t have to worry about me being in your hair for two whole days. Aren’t you happy?”

“So damn happy.” I take one more swig of battery-acid coffee just because I want to feel the burn, and then grab my keys off the counter. “I’m gonna head—”

“WAIT!” Amelia says, pressing her hand firmly into my chest. Her eyes are wide, eyelashes practically touching her eyebrows, and when she sees my expression, she drops her hand. She slowly backs away toward the window with her hand outstretched toward me like I’m a spooked horse about to bolt. “Just…wait a second.” When she reaches the window, she peeks through the blinds in the direction of my house and then sighs. “Okay, you can go home now!”

Her bright tone immediately has me suspicious. “What’d you do to my house, Amelia?”

“Nothing.”

“Amelia.”

She crinkles her nose and starts heading for the door, moving faster and faster with each step. “Really, it was nothing. Just…a small fire on the stove! But-the-fire-department-put-it-out-and-they’re-gone-now-so-see-ya-later!” she yells in a frantic rush, before sprinting out the front door with her piece of toast clutched in her hand.

The door slams behind her and after a moment of silence, I look at James. “Don’t say a w—”

“Amelia and Noah sitting in a tree…”

“Be sure and have a shitty day, James!” I say in a chipper tone, throwing him the bird over my shoulder.

“Tell your girlfriend I can’t wait for our lunch date. Love you!”

I then hop in my truck and drive exactly one minute over to my house. Getting out, I slam the door with determination. I will not care that Amelia will be spending the day with Annie instead of me. I will not be jealous that she’s spending tomorrow with James. I will not think about her for the rest of the day, in fact. I’ll enjoy my solitude at the shop just like I always do.


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