I SETTLED INTO THE SEAT, ACUTELY AWARE OF MY proximity to him. Noah fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, then a lighter. I spoke before I could help myself.
He flashed a small, mischievous smile at me. “Would you like one?” he asked.
Whenever he arched his eyebrows like that, his forehead creased in the most appealing way.
There was something wrong with me, absolutely. I chalked it up to my deteriorating sanity and avoided his eyes.
“No, I would not like one. Cigarettes are disgusting,”
Noah placed the pack back in the top pocket of his shirt. “I don’t have to smoke if it bothers you,” he said, but the way he said it set me on edge.
“It doesn’t bother me,” I said. “If you don’t mind looking forty years old at twenty, smelling like an ashtray, and getting lung cancer, why should I?” The words tumbled out of my mouth. So obnoxious, but I couldn’t help it; Noah brought out the worst in me. Feeling a tad guilty, I snuck a glance at him to see if he was annoyed.
Of course not. He just looked amused.
“I find it hilarious that whenever I light up, Americans look at me like I’m going to urinate on their children. And thanks for your concern, but I’ve never been ill a day in my life.”
“How nice for you.”
“It is nice, yes. Now, do you mind if I drive this starving dog in the back of my car to the veterinarian?”
And the guilt was gone. A rush of heat spread from my cheeks to my collarbone. “I’m sorry, is driving and talking too complicated? No problem, I’ll shut up.”
Noah opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again and shook his head. He pulled out of the parking lot and we sat in awkward silence for nine minutes, thanks to a train.
When we reached the vet’s office, Noah left the car and started walking to the passenger side. I flung my door open, just in case he had a mind to open it. His coltish gait didn’t change; instead, he opened the back door and reached for the dog. The upholstery was mercifully free of canine bodily fluids as he lifted the dog out. But instead of placing her on the ground, Noah carried her all the way to the door of the building. She nuzzled into his chest. Traitor.
As we neared the door, he asked me what her name was.
I shrugged. “I have no idea. I told you, I found her ten minutes ago.”
“Yes,” Noah said, cocking his head to one side. “You did tell me that. But they’re going to need a name to register her under.”
“Well, pick one, then.” I shifted my weight from foot to foot, growing nervous. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to pay for the vet visit, or what I would say once we went inside.
“Hmm,” Noah murmured. He looked at the dog with a serious expression. “What’s your name?”
I threw my head back in exasperation. I just wanted to get this over with.
Noah ignored me, taking his sweet time. After an eternity, he smiled. “Mabel. Your name is Mabel,” he told the dog.
She didn’t even look up at him; she was still curled up comfortably in his arms.
“Can we go in now?” I asked.
“You’re a piece of work,” he declared. “Now be a gentleman and open the door for me. My hands are full.”
I complied, sulking the whole time.
When we walked in, the receptionist’s eyes widened as she took in the dog’s appearance. She rushed off to get the vet and my mind raced, trying to think of what I could possibly say to finagle treatment for the dog without having to pay for it. A cheerful voice from the other side of the large waiting area startled me from my scheming.
“Noah!” A petite woman emerged from one of the examining rooms. Her face was pleasant, alight with surprise. “What are you doing here?” she asked, beaming at him as he bent over and kissed both her cheeks. Curious.
“Hello, Mum,” Noah said. “This is Mabel.” He nodded down at the dog tucked into his arms. “My schoolmate Mara found her near campus.”
It took a conscious exertion of will to nod my head. Noah’s smile suggested that he noticed my bewilderment, and enjoyed it.
“I’m going to take her in the back to weigh her.”
She motioned to the veterinary assistant, who gently extracted the dog from Noah’s arms. Then it was just me and Noah in the waiting area. Alone.
“So,” I started. “You didn’t think to mention that your mother was the vet?”
“You never asked,” he said. He was right, of course. But still.
When his mother came back into the room, she outlined the various treatments she was going to administer, which included keeping the dog over the weekend for observation. I silently thanked the heavens. That would buy me some time to figure out what I was going to do with her.
After she finished ticking off a list of Mabel’s ailments, Noah’s mother looked at me expectantly. Guess I couldn’t delay the payment discussion any further.
“Umm, Dr. Shaw?” I hated the sound of my voice. “I’m sorry, I don’t—I don’t have any money with me, but if the receptionist can give me an estimate, I can get to the bank and—”
Dr. Shaw cut me off with a smile. “That won’t be necessary, Mara. Thank you for … catching her, did you say?”
I swallowed and my eyes flicked to my shoes before I met her gaze. “Yes. I found her.”
Dr. Shaw looked skeptical, but she smiled. “Thank you for bringing her in. She wouldn’t have lasted much longer.”
If she only knew. An image of her owner’s body lying on blood-darkened mud flickered in my mind again, and I tried not to let it show in my face. I thanked Noah’s mother profusely and then he and I headed back to the car. Noah’s stride was twice as long as mine and he got there first, opening the passenger door for me.
“Thanks,” I said, before glancing at his smug, self-satisfied expression. “For everything.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, his voice laced with obnoxious triumph. As expected. “Now, are you going to tell me how you really found the dog?”
I turned away from his stare. “What are you talking about?” I hoped he wouldn’t notice that I couldn’t look him in the eye.
“You were walking Mabel on a slip lead when I saw you. There’s no way she was wearing that, from the wounds on her neck. Where’d you get it?”
Being trapped, I did what any self-respecting liar would do. I changed the subject. My eyes fell on his clothes.
“Why do you always look like you just rolled out of bed?”
“Because usually I have.” And the way he raised his eyebrow at me made me blush.
“Classy,” I said.
Noah leaned back and laughed. The sound was raucous. I loved it immediately, then mentally flogged myself for the thought. But his eyes crinkled at the corners and his smile illuminated his entire face. The light changed, and Noah, still smiling, took his hands off the steering wheel and reached into his pocket, withdrawing the cigarettes. He drove with his knee as he tapped one out in his hand, flicked open a small silver lighter and lit up in one fluid movement.
I tried to ignore the way his lips curved around the cigarette, how he held it pinched between thumb and third finger, and drew it almost reverently to his mouth.
That mouth. Smoking was a bad habit, yes. But he looked so good doing it.
“I hate uncomfortable silences,” Noah said, interrupting my less-than-clean thoughts. He tilted his head back slightly and a few strands of his spiking, curling hair caught a shaft of sunlight that filtered through his car window. “They make me nervous,” he said.
That comment warranted an eye-roll. “I have a hard time believing anything makes you nervous.” The words rang true. It was impossible to imagine that Noah was anything but comfortable, all the time. And not just comfortable—bored. Bored. And gorgeous. And I was sitting next to him. Close.
My pulse raced to catch up with my thoughts. There was some villainy afoot, absolutely.
“It’s true,” he continued. “I totally freak out when people look at me, as well.”
“I call shenanigans,” I said, as the sounds of Miami floated in through the window.
“What?” Noah looked at me, all innocence.
“You’re not shy.”
“No,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “And pretending to be makes you look like a jackass.”
Noah feigned offense. “You’ve wounded me to the core with your profane characterization.”
“Pass the tissues.”
Noah broke into an easy smile as the cars in front of us lurched forward. “All right. Maybe ‘shy’ isn’t the right word,” he said. “But I do get—anxious—when there are too many people around. I don’t really like attention.” He then studied me carefully. “A vestige of my dark and mysterious past.”
It was a struggle not to laugh in his face. “Really.”
He took another long drag on his cigarette. “No. I was just an awkward kid. I remember being, like, twelve or thirteen and all my friends had little girlfriends. And I’d go to sleep and feel like a loser, wishing that one day I could grow up and just be fit.”
“Yeah. Fit. Hot. Anyway, I did.”
“I woke up one morning, went to school, and the girls noticed me back. Rather unnerving, actually.”
His candor caught me a little off guard. I tried not to let it show. “Poor Noah,” I said, and sighed.
He smirked and stared straight ahead. “I figured out what to do with it eventually, but not until we moved here. Unfortunately.”
“I’m sure you worked it out just fine.”
He turned to me and arched an eyebrow. “The girls here are boring.”
And the arrogance was back. “We Americans are so uncouth,” I said.
“Not Americans. Just the girls here, at Croyden.”
I noticed then that we were back in the parking lot. And parked. How did that happen?
“Most of them, anyway,” Noah finished.
“You seem to be managing.”
“I was, but things are looking up this week in particular.”
So awful. I shook my head slowly, not even bothering to hide my grin.
“You’re not like other girls.”
I snorted. “Seriously?” And Jamie said he was smooth.
“Seriously,” he replied, missing my sarcasm. Or ignoring it. Noah took a final drag on his stub of a cigarette, breathed the smoke out of his flared nostrils and flicked the remains of the cancer stick out the window.
My mouth fell open. “Did I just see you litter?”
“I’m driving a hybrid. It cancels out.”
“You’re horrible,” I said, without conviction.
“I know,” Noah said, with it. He smiled, then reached over my lap to open my door, brushing my arm with his as he leaned across my body. He cracked my door open but didn’t move away. His face was inches from mine, and I could see hints of gold in his perpetual five o’ clock shadow. He smelled like sandalwood and ocean, but only faintly of smoke. My breath caught in my throat.
When my cell phone rang, I jumped so forcefully that my head hit the roof of Noah’s car. “Whatthef—!”
The phone continued to ring, ignorant of my pain. The lyrics of Tupac’s “Dear Mama” that Joseph had programmed for my ringtone indicated the culprit.
“I’m sorry, I have to—”
“Wait—” Noah started.
My heart galloped in my chest and only partly from surprise. Noah’s lips were inches away from my face, my phone was protesting in my hand, and I was in trouble.