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When in Rome: Chapter 31

Amelia

It’s well after midnight now but I’m still wide awake staring at the ceiling. Noah and I didn’t say a word to each other when we got home. He unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, and I scurried off to my room like a mouse escaping with cheese. Noah made no attempts to stop me, so I feel like it was the right decision.

To keep my mind from racing down the path of What if we just, I hold the image of Gregory Peck in my mind. But after a while, I begin to resent that face and so I use an imaginary marker and draw a little mustache across his lip. Gregory’s face then transforms into Noah’s and he’s smiling because Noah would most definitely find that fake mustache funny. He might only show it in that usual, quiet, inconspicuous way of his, but he would smile for sure. And then he’d roll his eyes and make me pancakes.

Sadness leaks into my heart because more than anything, I want to explore this relationship with Noah. I want to follow my impulses. My heart says, This could be good. Very good. But my mind replays all the valid reasons we can’t. Why Noah doesn’t want it.

I’m feeling about as cheery as a Snickers bar run over by a truck on 100-degree pavement. Normally, when I’m in this sad state of being, I would get up and turn on an Audrey film. She would wrap me up in her comfortable familiarity, and by the end, I’d be feeling more hopeful. But tonight, I don’t, because the only movie I brought with me on this trip is Roman Holiday. For obvious reasons I don’t feel like watching that one right now. Maybe never again. I’m mad at Audrey. And I’m mad at myself for following in her shoes and coming here in the first place, and meeting Noah and his surly eyes, and his overly wonderful town, and his kindhearted, quirky sisters.

I kick the covers in a minitantrum. And then I kick them more. And again. This time, I add a little body swirl where I completely disrupt all my covers at once. It feels so good to let myself be angry. I fist my hands and pound them into the mattress now because I’m really getting the hang of losing my control and I don’t want to stop now. I add in a quiet little piggy squeal as I dig my heels into the mess of sheets and comforters, because I AM MAD.

Mad, mad, mad.

I’m mad that my car will be fixed and I’ll be leaving here in a week. I’m mad that I don’t want to give up my career. I’m mad that I’ll go home to loneliness. I’m mad that my mom is not my friend anymore, and that my dad never wanted to know me. I’m mad that over the years, I’ve let myself turn into a people-pleasing robot who’s afraid of upsetting anyone. And I’m mad that here, in this town, in this house, in this bed, is the first time in years I’ve been able to unleash my feelings and just be me without fear of repercussions.

But most of all, I’m mad that I’ve fallen in love with Noah, and I’ll never get to have a life with him.

As if the earth is angry with me, a loud peal of thunder shakes the house. I want to cheer and fist pump the air because it feels so good to just be pissed for a minute. What sounds like a deluge starts dumping over the house and the wind picks up. I think I must be the next Marvel villain because clearly my attitude summoned this. I want to stand on the bed and hold my arms out and let the storm take me. Cackle loudly with my fingers flexed.

Instead, I sob.

It’s the kind of cry you hold off as long as you can, pretending you don’t see the need for it even though it’s glaring you right in the face. And then one day, your emotions break, and anger dissolves into frustrated tears that won’t quit until your pillow is soaked through. There’s nothing for it—no magical answer or earth-shattering conclusion to be found. All I can do is wrap my arms around my abdomen and let my body rid itself of all this pain until it doesn’t hurt so much.

I hear a knock on my door and I sit up with puffy eyes and tearstained cheeks. “Noah?”

My door opens and there he stands in the dark. My heart hammers wildly in my chest, and when a sudden bolt of lightning strikes, filling the room with bright light for only a split second, I see the agony on his face. This isn’t a nighttime booty call. Something is wrong. I wipe under my eyes with the back of my hand.

Wordlessly, he walks over to the side of my bed and when he looks over the mess of sheets and comforter, I feel a twinge of embarrassment. “I was throwing a tantrum,” I say honestly, because that’s all I can be with Noah.

He nods, that painful scowl still etched between his brows. His eyes move to me, and instinctively, I reach out and take his hand. The hem of his long-sleeve pj shirt brushes against my knuckles. He’s in my room, in the middle of the night, in his favorite pajamas. This is level ten vulnerable for him. He notices that I’ve been crying, but he doesn’t ask me what’s wrong. I think he already knows. Instead, he brushes his thumb across my cheekbone, catching another tear.

“Can I sleep with you tonight? Just…sleep.” And the way he says it makes me know he means it.

There’s not a single part of me that hesitates. “Yes.”

Noah untangles my sheets and comforter, smooths them out over the bed before lifting a corner and sliding in. The mattress dips with his weight, and that small action shouldn’t make me need to swallow, but I do.

Once he’s under the covers, both of our heads lying on our pillows, we stare at the ceiling. Another flash of lightning illuminates the room and the wind beats the window. It sounds extreme. Noah rolls onto his side to face me, drapes an arm over my abdomen, and pulls me close to him so my back is pressed against his chest. It’s a tight hold. Like one someone would use if they’ve been out floating in the ocean near death and miraculously find a flotation device.

A warm ache settles low in my stomach. His body is so strong and solid against me. He smells crisp and cool and clean. And I can feel his breath against the side of my neck, blowing the tiny hairs around and making me dizzy.

I feel him take in a deep breath. “I…don’t like storms.” He pauses and I wonder if he thinks I’ll laugh. I will fight anyone who ever dares laugh at this man. “I’m terrified, actually.” He sounds shaken, so I wrap my hand around his forearm that’s holding me so snugly to him.

“We all…Well, after my parents died, I haven’t been able to sleep through a storm again. I usually just stay up and pace until it’s over. Sometimes I obsessively check the news. I call each of my sisters when it’s over just to make sure they’re okay. It’s probably a ridiculous reaction since I wasn’t even there when it happened to my parents.”

Another pause, and I wait.

“My sisters don’t seem to be as scared of storms as I am, but they each have their own things, too. Like earlier tonight, Emily’s freak-out wasn’t actually about you. It was because she’s afraid of abandonment in a big way. And the last time I was in a relationship, I packed up and left for New York without giving anyone much notice, and I didn’t come back for a year. She’s afraid that will happen again, and I’m afraid with each and every storm that it’ll take someone I love again.”

Words feel inadequate. That was so personal it felt like blood spill. I want to find a way to convey how much I hurt with him. But I can’t, so I just take his hand and raise it to my lips where I kiss his palm. I feel his chest move with a soft hum, and when my lips release from his hand, he pulls me in close again. I never want to not be surrounded by his body. We fit perfectly together and it’s not just because our pajamas most likely came in a set.

Lightning strikes again, and loud thunder shakes the house.

“Distract me,” Noah pleads, and I can feel how fast his heart is racing. “Say something.”

He doesn’t have to hold me as tightly as he is, I would cozy up to him even if he didn’t. He might not realize it, but there’s no getting rid of me now. I run my fingers up and down his arm, feeling the fine hairs tickle my fingertips. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this comfortable with someone before.

“Your sisters already know, but I’m obsessed with Audrey Hepburn.” I blurt my truth, not even sure why I’m nervous to tell him. But I am. My confession is a finger prick compared to his open heart surgery.

“The actress?” he asks, and I’m relieved he knows who she is, unlike his sisters.

“Yeah. The actress.” Thunder rumbles around us and the walls tremble from it. Noah’s hold doesn’t loosen. “My mom and I used to watch her movies together. It was our thing. But then after I became famous, we drifted apart, and now I feel so distant from her that I don’t know where to even begin to get that relationship back.” I pause a moment when I realize that finding a way back to my mom is something I do want to pursue. I just don’t know how. “Anyway, I continued to turn to Audrey Hepburn movies when I needed a hug or guidance. That’s why I’m here in this town with you, actually.” It sounds even more reckless than I thought when I say it out loud. “I played eenie-meenie-miney-mo with each of her movies, landed on Roman Holiday, and took it as a sign that I was supposed to escape to Rome just like Audrey’s character did because I was feeling scared and desperate. But since Italy was too far to drive…”

“You came here.”

“Right. Except I wasn’t supposed to find you here…and now, you’re Gregory Peck and don’t even realize it.”

Noah kisses my head like I didn’t just speak gibberish to him. “I like Gregory Peck. He’s a classy guy.”

“You would care about that.” I twist around and stare at the buttons on his shirt. I’m dangerously close to sobbing again, so I distract myself by counting his buttons.

He runs his palm over my cheekbone and his fingers splay into my hair. “I’ve been lying to you.”

I pause my counting on button number five. “Are you Hillbilly-Joe-serial-killer after all?”

“You really do have a lot of nicknames for me, don’t you?”

“More than I’ve even told you.”

He runs his hand through the length of my hair, and then repeats. “I do want something romantic with you. I have since I first laid eyes on you. And you’re not the only one who has developed feelings.” My heart stops. “But I’m still not ready for a relationship. I don’t see how it would work when I can’t leave my family right now until my grandma…well, anyway, I can’t leave. And you can’t stay.”

“What about—”

He knows what I’m about to say. Noah cuts me off gently, his hand cradling my jaw like he wants to soften the blow of his own words. “I can’t do long distance, Amelia.” I hate how final his voice sounds on the matter. Like he’s already contemplated it a hundred times and could never find a suitable solution. “When I had to move home for my grandma and Merritt wouldn’t come with me, I told her I’d come back to the city after I got everything situated at home. But after I was here about a month, I got a text from her that she obviously meant to send to the guy from her office she had apparently been cheating on me with for several months. It was an incriminating text to say the least, and I’ve had major trust issues since then. I don’t think another long-distance relationship is the best way to get back into dating.”

There is a part of me that wants to beg and plead. I will spend the entire night convincing him with a PowerPoint presentation that I would absolutely never cheat on him. But in the end, I stay quiet, because I don’t want to force, persuade, or manipulate Noah into anything he’s not comfortable with. He’s been through enough hurt—and I don’t blame him for wanting to avoid any possibility of it again.

Besides, I’m not completely convinced that he wouldn’t be better off with a regular woman who could put down roots right here. She’d work at The Pie Shop with him. They’d plant a vegetable garden. She’d probably love fishing, too. And most of all, she wouldn’t have to travel around the world for the next nine months. Noah deserves a secure happily ever after and I haven’t known him long enough to be sure I could give that to him. It’s a lot to have to gamble on right away when someone’s heart is on the table.

“If things were different…” he begins. “If you weren’t a celebrity, and I didn’t have…”

“It’s okay, Noah. I understand. I really do.” I finish counting his buttons because tears are an imminent threat. “You have eight, by the way. Eight buttons.”

His fingers continue to trail languidly over my face and hair and neck and arm and back up again. He touches me like I’m precious to him. It makes me ache all the more.

“Distract me.” I’m the one to ask this time.

His fingers pause momentarily before they continue their repeating pattern. “I cheated on a biology test in high school. James let me see his paper.” This one makes me laugh. He does, too, after blowing out a dramatic breath of air. “It’s good to get that off my chest.”

I curl up into a little ball at the front of his body. “I accidentally killed my goldfish,” I say, making Noah chuckle, full and rumbly. I softly pinch his arm. “Don’t laugh! I feel terrible about it. I left for my last tour and completely forgot to arrange for anyone to come feed it. When I came home, it was floating belly-up. Still haunts me.”

“Remind me to never let you own a dog.” Noah’s hand slides down to settle against my lower back. He holds me close and his face tips forward so he can whisper his next confession against my ear. “I love your voice.”

Love. Oof. That word takes on a life of its own and beats between us. I know we haven’t known each other long, and somehow it hurts that we’ll never get the chance, because I think I’ve fallen in love with Noah.

“But not enough to own any of my albums apparently,” I tease, desperately needing to lighten the air between us.

“It’s better that way. Imagine how creeped out you’d be if you’d turned on the CD in my truck and it had been one of yours.”

“I would have been flattered.”

“Liar.”

I nuzzle my face against his warm neck shamelessly. Because somehow I know that in this darkness, all bets are off. I can be as nuts as I want. I could snort his skin if I wanted and he would smile. “You’re the only man I wouldn’t mind being obsessed with me.”

“Sorry,” he says, and he lets that word dangle a moment. “I reserve my obsessions for flowers, Pop-Tart.”

I actually like Pop-Tarts, he had said that day in The Pie Shop.

And there it goes. My heart grabs hold of a swarm of balloons and leaves the earth. Off to find heaven it goes. Thunder booms again, but this time, Noah doesn’t seem to notice. He’s enamored with my hair and the curve of my ear.

“Amelia…” he says in this raw way that lets me know his head is in exactly the same place as mine. It keeps diving back into what if and hunting around for options that don’t exist. “I want to let it happen so badly—but I don’t think I’m the kind of guy who will ever be okay with you being gone for nine months at a time.”

I almost tell him it would be more like three months at a time, because I’ll have small breaks here and there. I could use those breaks to come here, and I’d fly him out to visit me on tour in between. But I don’t think it would matter. “Noah, you don’t have to keep explaining it to me. I really do understand and see where you’re coming from. It’s difficult to date a celebrity, and that’s honestly why relationships don’t last long in my circles. I get it. And I wouldn’t want to put you in that position.”

He laughs but it sounds more self-deprecating than humorous. “This would be a lot easier if you were just a little selfish and annoying. Could you be more terrible from now on?”

“I’ll try.” A tear that’s been clinging to my lashes slips down my cheek. This feels more painful than it should. It really sucks to be mature and decide all this on the precipice of something instead of the end. Why did I have to fall for someone whose world is on a completely different axis than mine?

“So what do we do now?” I ask, as his soft cotton shirt caresses my cheek and absorbs the tears I really wish I wasn’t crying.

“I don’t know,” he says honestly, his fingers still idly playing with my hair. Twisting it around his fingers. Letting it drop and then twisting it all over again like he’s finally getting to do the thing he’s wanted for days. “What happens at the end of Roman Holiday?”

Gregory Peck’s face surfaces once again in my mind. “Audrey—Princess Ann—leaves and goes back to her life. And Gregory Peck—Joe Bradley—stays in his.”

His fingers press into my back. It’s not a hopeful press. It’s a desperate one. “What about before that?”

I laugh sadly, thinking of Audrey and Gregory eating ice cream, riding a moped, touring Rome. “They have fun together.”

Noah presses his lips to my forehead, lingering there for a full in-and-out breath before pulling away. “What if we do, too? Is that too selfish? What if I suggested we just drop all our rules and…”

“Accept the time we have together? It could work if we manage expectations from the start.” I finish his thought—hoping a little too hard that that’s what he was going to suggest. Because if there’s an option where I hang on to Noah for dear life while I can—selfishly soak up every memory with him that is available to me—I will. I have a feeling that a temporary fling with Noah would be better than an entire year with another man.

He sighs after a thoughtful pause. “Yeah. Is that a terrible idea?” But his fingers are already tracing my collarbone. His touch is dazzling.

“Most definitely.” I’m struggling to breathe. “And very dramatic. But I’m up for it if you are.”

He tilts forward, lips pressing into that tender spot on my neck, just under my ear. “Mm-hmm. I love drama. You can call me Mr. Drama from now on.”

I laugh and nudge him back so his shoulders are flat on the mattress. And then I climb over him, placing my knees on either side of his hips, feeling (as do the Regency heroines in my favorite romance books that Noah doesn’t own a single one of) very wanton. “Don’t intrude on my nicknames. I’m in charge of those. And Mr. Classic fits you too well. Just look at you lying here all buttoned up in your cotton pa-ja-mas.” My fingers bounce like a skipping rock over each button.

I can barely see him in the dark, but I can sense his smile. His hands lightly grip my outer thighs. “They come as a pair. You don’t like the shirt?”

“I like what’s under it better. Can I?” I ask, my hands hovering at the top of his collar. My fingers tremble, giving away that I’m feeling some serious nerves under this cool and collected facade.

“Go ahead.”

Green light.

My heart beats painfully as I pop open the first button. I trace that warm sliver of skin at his chest and my finger comes away burned from his heat. With each button I undo, nerves twist my gut and pump into my heart. My pulse is a jackhammer. I fumble with the fourth button and I think it gets snagged on a thread because it won’t release. I yank it a little. Inhale and exhale in a rush. Tug a little more and it’s not budging. My movements are sharp and clunky.

Noah’s hand covers mine with a chuckle. “You’re shaking.”

“Yes, and it’s ungentlemanly of you to point it out.” My voice sounds embarrassingly breathless.

“Is this too much? You want to stop?” He’s cocooning my hands. Won’t let them go—not that I’m trying to free them.

“No, I don’t want to stop. It’s that…” I let out a little whimper and slump over, resting my forehead against his broad chest. “There’s been certain expectations for me in the past. Because I’m…a celebrity and all that, guys have thought I would be a certain way in bed and then seem disappointed when I’m not.” I wince feeling major embarrassment slide around me. “I don’t know. Sometimes I get in my own head about it.”

Noah makes a hum of understanding so deep that I feel it reverberate from his chest through my skull. He nudges me upright again and then ruthlessly rips the thread that is snagging his button before finishing the rest for me. He sits up, so we’re chest to chest with my legs wrapped around him, and he shrugs out of his shirt. Ah—skin. Noah’s skin. It’s perfect under my fingertips.

He cups my jaw and I can feel the intensity of his eyes. I think Noah can see right through to my bones. “To me, you’re Amelia. Maker of shitty pancakes and a smile that rivals the sun. All I want is you.” And just like that, I feel safe.

I give his mouth one soft kiss before pulling back. I trace my hands over his wide shoulders and biceps, his taut chest and then his lips. I sweep my fingers up to feel the lines where he’s now grinning. I will memorize him if it’s the last thing I do. I will carry the feel of his smile in my pocket for the rest of my life.

In one fluid motion, Noah flips us over so he’s pinning me in. The weight of him against me is earth-shattering. Euphoria. Delight. I’m finally anchored after drifting for too long, and in some corner of my mind I realize that his hands are the only ones I want against my body for the rest of my life.

Noah’s lips caress mine slowly, giving me rich kisses, sparkling with pleasure. His broad palms smooth and knead over every inch of my body with quiet confidence until my pulse is languid again and my limbs are melted. He whispers things against my skin and I feel coddled and held and like I’m absolutely darling to him. I want this forever, I think.

Outside, the storm continues to rage, but neither of us notice. For the rest of the night, we’re lost together as Noah proves that I am all he wants.


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