MY ALARM SHOCKED ME AWAKE SUNDAY morning. I hadn’t remembered falling asleep at all. I was still in the clothes I was wearing the day before.
I was just tired. And maybe a little nervous about meeting Noah today. Maybe. A little. I focused on my closet and surveyed my options.
Skirt, no. Dress, definitely not. Jeans it would be, then. I pulled on a destroyed pair and snatched a favorite T-shirt from my dresser drawer, yanking it over my head.
My heart beat wildly in sharp contrast to the sluggish movement of every other body part as I made my way to the kitchen that morning, as if everything was normal. Because it was.
My mother was putting slices of bread in the toaster when I walked in.
“Morning, Mom.” My voice was so even. I gave myself an internal round of applause.
“Good morning, honey.” She smiled, and pulled out a filter for the coffeepot. “You’re up early.” She tucked a strand of her short hair behind her ear.
“Yes.” I was. And she didn’t know why. Since Wednesday, I’d been trying to think of some way to mention today’s nonplans to her, but my mind kept blanking. And now he was almost here.
“Got any plans today?”
Go time. “Yeah, actually.” Keep it casual. No big deal.
“What are you up to?” She rummaged through the cabinets and I couldn’t see her face.
“I don’t really know.” It was true; I didn’t, though that is generally not what parents like to hear. Particularly not my parents. Particularly not my mother.
“Well, who are you going with?” she asked. If she wasn’t suspicious yet, she would be soon.
“A boy from school …” I said, my voice trailing off as I braced myself for the third degree.
“Do you want to take my car?”
I blinked. “Sorry … I thought I said ‘what?’ What?”
“I asked if you wanted to take the Acura. I don’t need it today, and you’re off the codeine.”
Daniel must have held up his side of the bargain. I’d have to ask how he finagled it later.
I declined to correct my mother and tell her I’d been off the codeine for days. The burn still hurt, but since Friday, it had subsided quite a bit. And under the dressings, it didn’t look nearly as bad as I’d expected. The ER doctor told me I would probably scar, but my blisters already seemed to be healing. So far, so good.
“Thanks Mom, but he’s actually picking me up. He’ll be here in—” I checked the clock. Damn. “Five minutes.”
My mother turned to look at me, surprised. “I wish you’d given me a bit more notice,” she said, as she checked her reflection in the microwave’s glass surface.
“You look great, Mom. He’ll probably just honk or something anyway.” I was tempted to sneak a quick glance at myself in the microwave too, but wasn’t willing to chance who might be staring back. I poured myself a glass of orange juice and sat down at the kitchen table instead. “Is Dad here?”
“Nope, he left for the office. Why?”
Because that would leave one less person around to witness my coming humiliation. But before I could translate my thought into acceptable speech, Daniel sauntered in. He stretched, glancing his fingertips against the ceiling.
“Mother,” he said, kissing Mom on the cheek, as he made his way to the refrigerator. “Any plans today, Mara?” he asked, his head buried in the contents of the fridge.
“Shut up,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it.
“Don’t tease her, Daniel,” my mother said.
Three knocks at the front door announced Noah’s arrival.
Daniel and I looked at each other for a half a second. Then I shot up from the kitchen table and he slammed the refrigerator door. We both bolted for the foyer. Daniel got there first. Bastard. My mother was right behind me, rubbernecking.
Daniel opened the front door wide. Noah was a standing ovation in dark jeans and a white T-shirt, exuding his scruffy charm.
And he was carrying flowers. My face didn’t know whether to blanch or blush.
“Morning,” Noah said, flashing a brilliant smile at the three of us. “I’m Noah Shaw,” he said, looking over my shoulder. He extended the bouquet of lilies to my mother, who reached past me to take it. It was stunning. Noah had good taste. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Dyer.”
“Come on in, Noah,” she gushed. “And you can call me Indi.”
I was dying. Daniel’s shoulders shook with silent laughter.
Noah stepped inside and grinned at my brother. “You must be Daniel?”
“Indeed. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” my brother said.
It was a slow, painful death.
“Please sit, Noah.” My mother gestured at the sofas in the living room. “I’m going to put these in some water.”
I saw a window of opportunity and latched on to it. “Actually, I think we have to—”
“I’d love to, thanks,” Noah said quickly. He was trying to hide a smile and failing, while Daniel looked like a canaryeating feline. They both walked into the living room. Daniel sat in an overstuffed armchair as Noah settled himself into one of the sofas. I stood.
“So, what are you doing with my little sister today?” Daniel asked. I closed my eyes in defeat.
“I’m afraid I can’t ruin the surprise,” Noah said. “But I promise I’ll return her intact.”
He did not just say that. Daniel cackled, and the two of them somehow segued into a conversation. About music, I think, but I wasn’t sure. I was too busy drowning in my embarrassment to pay much attention until my mother returned from the kitchen and breezed past me to sit directly across from Noah.
“So Noah, where in London are you from?” she asked.
This morning was full of surprises. How did she know where in England he was from? I looked at my mother and stared.
“Soho,” Noah replied. “Have you been there?”
My mother nodded, as Joseph wandered into the living room in his pajamas. “My mother lived in London before she moved to the U.S.,” she said. “We used to go every year when I was little.” She pulled Joseph onto the sofa next to her. “This is my baby, by the way,” she said, grinning.
Noah smiled at my younger brother. “Noah,” he said, introducing himself.
“Joseph,” my brother replied, and held out his hand.
My mother and Noah proceeded to chat like old mates about Mother England while I shifted from foot to foot, waiting for them to wrap it up.
My mother stood first. “It was so nice to meet you, Noah. Really. You’ll have to come over for dinner sometime,” she said, before I could stop her.
“I’d love to, if Mara will have me.”
Four pairs of eyebrows arched in expectation, waiting for my answer.
“Sure. Sometime,” I said, and pushed open the door.
Noah grinned unevenly. “Can’t wait,” he said. “It was an absolute pleasure, Indi. Daniel, we must talk. And Joseph, it was wonderful to meet you.”
“Wait!” My little brother shot up from the coach and ran to his room. He returned with his cell phone. “What’s your number?” he asked Noah.
Noah looked surprised, but he gave it to him anyway.
“What are you doing, Joseph?” I asked.
“Networking,” my brother said, still concentrating on his phone. Then he looked up, and a smile brightened his face. “Okay, got it.”
My mother smiled at Noah as he followed me out of the house. “Have a good time!” she called after us.
“Bye, Mom, we’ll be back … later.”
“Wait, Mara,” my mother said as she took a few steps out the door. Noah’s eyes lifted to us, but when my mother pulled me aside, he kept walking to his car, leaving us alone.
Mom held out her hand. A little round white pill was inside it.
“Mom,” I whispered through gritted teeth.
“I’d feel better if you took it.”
“Dr. Maillard said I didn’t have to,” I said, glancing over at Noah. He stood next to his car and looked away.
“I know honey, but—”
“Fine, fine,” I whispered, and took it from her. Noah was waiting, and I did not want him to see. This was blackmail of the worst kind.
“Take it now, please?”
I tossed the pill in my mouth and held it under my tongue as I pretended to swallow. I opened my mouth.
“Thank you,” she said, a sad smile on her face. I didn’t respond, and walked away. When I heard the front door close, I extracted the pill from my mouth and threw it on the ground. I hadn’t decided not to take the drugs, but I didn’t want to be forced.
“Pre-date pep talk?” Noah asked as he sauntered over to open the passenger door for me. I wondered if he’d seen the pill exchange. If he did, he didn’t act like it.
“This isn’t a date,” I said. “But that was quite a performance in there. She didn’t even ask what time I’d be coming home.”
Noah grinned. “Glad you enjoyed it.” He glanced down at my clothes and nodded once. “You’ll do.”
“You’re so fucking patronizing.”
“You have such a filthy mouth.”
“Does it bother you?” I smiled, pleased by the thought.
Noah grinned and shut the door behind me. “Not in the least.”