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When in Rome: Chapter 30


“Oh stop, it’s not that bad!” I rest my elbows on the table and point my empty fork at Madison across the table.

Madison wraps her hand around her throat and gags after taking a bite from one of the pancakes I made. She mouths the word water like she’s been in the Sahara Desert for thirty-five years. I grab an uneaten biscuit and throw it at her head.

She grabs the biscuit from her lap and takes a big bite. “The biscuits are good. Your pancakes, however, are inedible.” A big smile wraps around her mouthful.

“That’s because the biscuits were from a can,” James offers unhelpfully from down the table.

I gasp in mock outrage and look daggers at him. “You can’t just out my biscuits like that!”

Emily laughs. “Hate to burst your bubble but we all took one bite of those biscuits and knew you didn’t make them.”

“So rude! Annie, tell them my pancakes weren’t that bad.”

My sweet Annie presses her lips together with an apologetic smile. She says nothing. I drop my head into my hands, laughing and feeling my own heated skin on my face. I’ve had two glasses of red wine, and red wine always makes my cheeks pink. Well, that and the table roasting. But I love it. We’re all sitting on James’s back porch, eating and drinking. I’m free and untethered here surrounded by these people. All day I’ve felt like singing—something I haven’t felt like doing in a long time.

The sun set an hour ago after painting the sky in a dusky pink and orange sunset, and now the warm string lights around the edges of the screened-in porch cast a thematic glow on the evening. Beyond this porch are hundreds of acres of vegetable crops, barns, and greenhouses. I know because James gave me the full tour—and although I would have rather spent the day with Noah, I enjoyed every second of my new friendship with James.

I still can’t believe I’m here with these people. These people who like me enough to poke fun at me. To acknowledge when I’m bad at something. To let me fail and enjoy the hell out of it over and over again.

And then the other reason my cheeks are pink is sitting down at the foot of the table to my right. Noah. I can hardly think of his name without breaking out in chill bumps. Just having him in the same vicinity as me after that kiss has my skin so hot I could fry bacon on it. I have been studiously avoiding glancing at him tonight because I don’t trust myself to look in his evergreen eyes and not think of his hands on me. Of his smile. Of the feel of his laugh.

I’ll blurt to everyone that I caught feelings, and then his sisters will be upset because we just talked about how it would be best if I didn’t get romantically involved with him. But now I have and all I can see is that still frame of Gregory Peck’s downcast face at the end of Roman Holiday. Is that what Noah will look like when I leave? Maybe I’m being presumptuous. Maybe his life will keep moving and he won’t miss a beat. Maybe it was just a kiss for him and it won’t leave him with a completely gutted, hollowed-out sort of feeling like it has me.

I feel his eyes on me now and it’s agony not to look at him. I need a reason to get out from under his gaze, so I set down my now empty wineglass and stand. “James, is that piano in your living room in working condition?” My stomach flutters. Because the truth is, I’ve been dying to play piano all day, ever since I got here this morning and noticed it. I’m also a little nervous to play it because it feels like testing out a leg after removing a cast. When I put my weight on it, will I feel that old sharp pain or will it have healed?

“Of course,” he says happily.

“Great! Who wants to play a game with me?”

Ten minutes later, we’re all huddled in James’s living room, laughing our butts off. They were skeptical when I first suggested we play a musical game, but once they learned the rules, everyone was up for it.

It goes like this: One person suggests a genre (’90s pop, grunge rock, R&B, etc.), another selects a children’s nursery song, and then one of us has to sing it in the chosen style while I play the piano. I was actually introduced to the game when I was a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and then I enjoyed it so much that it’s become my go-to game when I’m in the studio creating a new album and feeling blocked. It’s been forever since I’ve played it, though.

Surprisingly, everyone participates. I started us off having to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in the style of ’80s funk songs. Don’t tell anyone, but I played the chords for “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” and then replaced the lyrics. It worked a little too well. James went next, completely shocking me with his phenomenal piano skills, and sang “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” in a blues style. He and I then took turns playing piano for everyone else when it was their turn to sing.

We’re about an hour into the game, and the later it gets, the more fun it becomes. Even Noah sings, putting his whole heart into his ’90s pop rendition of “Hickory Dickory Dock.” It seems I was wrong about Noah in the beginning. He’s a master of fun, and the more I get to experience these small moments with him where his eyes are crinkled in the corners and his mouth is spread wide in a smile, the harder I fall for him.

Everything about this night is wonderful. It feels too good to play and sing just for the hell of it again. It makes my fingers itch to create something new. To wear my voice out and really push myself with new riffs and runs. I feel that light inside me that had begun to dim burn a little brighter. My mind races to my upcoming tour and butterflies swarm my stomach—feeling an eagerness to get back into music and performing.

But then I think of leaving all the people I’ve grown to love in this town, and my heart feels heavy again. I want to find a way to make it all work out—but I don’t know that there is a way. If I continue to visit—or let’s say for the sake of an argument that I move here permanently after the tour—eventually, word would get out, and it would take away the town’s privacy. Not only would paparazzi swarm here, but fans, too. This sweet quiet place could get turned upside down. I’m not sure I could do that to them.

Suddenly needing a break from the piano and attention of everyone in the room, I stand and start in the direction of the kitchen. Of course Noah does the same, and just like our episode at the front door earlier tonight, we pause facing each other.

“Sorry.” Even just that single word from his mouth makes me feel tingly.

“No, I’m sorry.” I stare in the general vicinity of his broad chest. “You go ahead.”

“No, you go first. I got in your way.”

We’re being so polite it’s ridiculous. If we can’t interact in this small way, how are we going to manage living under the same roof for another week? We’ll have to take shifts. A spreadsheet and a schedule will need to be made. I’ll use different colors of tape to mark lanes on the floor so we make sure to never accidentally fall in the other’s path again.

When I tell myself to stop being a coward, I look up. The heat in his eyes wraps around my heart and smothers it. He will have a Gregory Peck face, I think. He likes me, too. Those thick dark eyelashes will be cast down, hands in his pockets walking away, and I’m not sure I can take it.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Madison rips our attention to her.

Noah and I both swivel our heads back to the group, chests still facing each other. Everyone is frowning and staring. Madison points in our direction, flicking her finger back and forth between us. “What’s going on here?”

“What do you mean?” I was going for nonchalant and normal. I think it sounded scripted.

The siblings and James exchange looks around the table and come to a unanimous, silent conclusion.

“You guys slept together, didn’t you?” Emily asks sharply.

Noah and I are immediately a clash of words.

“No!” I say, honestly, because we didn’t. Haven’t. Won’t!

“Absolutely not.” Noah has the audacity to sound commanding and not at all bumbling like me.

“We would never.” I give that last word a little too much force and Noah looks down at me with pinched brows. His eyes say, Never?

“What the hell, y’all?” says Madison, and then immediately turns toward Annie’s reprimanding expression. “This is not the time for your delicate sensibilities, Cherub Annie.”

James casually shakes his head while skewering Noah with a grin. “I knew it. It was only a matter of time.”

“Stop.” Noah is back to stern and grumpy. Just how I like him. “You know nothing. We have not slept together. Not that it’s any of y’all’s business.”

I’m trying not to combust in flames of embarrassment. And it doesn’t help matters that Noah seems to somehow discern my discomfort and moves even closer to me. Like he’s going to use his body to shield me from their knowing eyes.

“Okay, that’s it. Sit down and explain, because we can all tell that something has happened.” Emily sounds frighteningly close to a mother right now. “You haven’t looked at each other all night, barely spoken, and now whatever that uncomfortable little encounter was is the icing on the cake. Y’all did something.

“Fess up.” Madison crosses her arms, like a mob boss. She needs a leather jacket.

Annie is the only one who doesn’t look concerned.

Noah and I retake our seats, looking as guilty as kids with orange powder staining their fingers saying they never ate the Cheetos.

“We kissed,” he states plainly.

It’s a sea of pearly white molars as everyone’s mouth—including mine—hangs open. I thought he’d deny it. We’d go on happily as if nothing ever happened for the rest of the week and I’d implement our color-coded lanes and that would be that. But no. He just dropped a conversational grenade and stepped back to watch it explode.

“You kissed?” Emily does not look happy. “That’s worse!”

A line between Noah’s brows deepens. “How is that worse?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not better.”

“Why do you care so much?” Noah’s gaze zeros in on Emily with an intensity that for once reveals their sibling dynamic. Emily is loud and in charge most of the time, but Noah is the oldest and they all look to him for guidance at the end of the day. He carries so much on his shoulders.

“She’s leaving, Noah.” That’s the only explanation Emily offers and I feel her words like little jabs to my lungs. Emily looks at James, clearly hoping for backup. James shakes his head and looks down—not jumping in like she’d hoped. Madison lays her hand on Emily’s forearm, but Emily rips her arm away. The levity from our musical game has disappeared and the atmosphere turns thick.

I watch as Noah’s entire demeanor shifts. His large shoulders tip forward, his eyes are pillows, his smile is calming. He puts his hand on Emily’s knee. “Em, I’m not leaving again. And I promise that if I ever do, you’ll get plenty of warning. Not like I did last time.”

An entire conversation passes between these two in the quiet moments after his words. Emily relents, softening and nodding her head. I’m not sure what that was about, but the heaviness in the air tells me it was important. She looks like a woman slowly sobering. Embarrassment washes over her face.

She bows out of the argument gracefully by slipping from the living room and returning with a cold, rock-hard pancake on a plate. She sits down, balancing the plate on her lap, and shovels a bite onto her fork. I think this is her way of apologizing to me.

“You don’t have to do that. Really, we’re good,” I say meaningfully, because I wouldn’t force these pancakes on my worst enemy.

She raises the fork to her mouth anyway, and we all watch in silence as she takes a bite. She chews. And chews. And chews. And then finally shivers it down and nods before chugging her beer. She then nods firmly at me and I smile in return. That was more than an apology, that was a pledge of her life.

A chuckle runs through the room, and after a while the conversation hums back toward normalcy. The siblings talk through their schedules for the next week—determining which days they will each visit their grandma. We all joke and cuss too much while Annie keeps adding tallies beside all our names so we know how much money to pay out at the end of the night. She didn’t ask me if she could add me to the list, she just did. I caught a glance at her little notebook earlier and there it was. Amelia. Right next to the rest of the group and my heart burst like confetti.

Now Emily stands, collects the empty beer bottles and plates around the room. The group begins to break up, murmuring about how tired they are and blah blah blah. I don’t care how tired they are, they can’t leave us.

“Wait!” I’m frantically grabbing hold of Annie’s shirt to keep her from getting away. “You guys can’t leave yet. It’s early!”

“It’s after ten.” Madison is suddenly the timekeeper apparently.

“Like I said, early. Stay. Let’s all play another game. Monopoly or something.”

James laughs. “The hell we will. Monopoly would take all night. Some of us have to be up with the cows in the morning. Y’all better get out of my house now.”

“Don’t worry,” Annie tells me in her sweet southern drawl. “We’ll have another group dinner before you leave town.” She’s completely misconstruing my reasons for wanting them to stay.

I’m losing. They’re all scattering across the room like marbles now, and just Noah and I are left seated. I make eye contact with him, which is a mistake. His grin twists—the same unease I’m feeling sweeping over his expression. We’re both terrified to go home and be alone together. Both unconvinced the other has enough willpower to stay away.


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