ROWS OF PALM TREES SPRUNG UP FROM THE sides of the narrow street, and the ocean peeked out from the spaces in between homes. When we drove to the end of the cul-de-sac, an enormous automated iron gate opened for us. A camera was perched at the entrance. The day was getting weirder.
“So … what does this friend do, exactly?”
“You could call her a lady of leisure.”
“Makes sense. You probably don’t have to work if you can afford to live here.”
“No, probably not.”
We passed an enormous, garish fountain in the center of the property; a muscled, barely clothed Greek man clasping the waist of a girl who reached into the sky. Her arms transformed into branches and spouted pale, golden water in the sunlight. Noah pulled all the way up to the front entrance, where a man in a suit was waiting.
“Good morning, Mr. Shaw,” the man said, as he nodded to Noah, and then moved toward the passenger side door to open it for me.
“Morning, Albert. I got it.”
Noah exited the car and opened the door for me. I narrowed my eyes at him, but he avoided my stare.
“You must be here often,” I said cautiously.
Albert opened the front door for us and Noah breezed right in.
As extravagant as the landscaping, fountain, driveway, and gate were, nothing, nothing could have prepared me for the mansion’s interior. On either side of us, arches and columns towered into a double balcony. My Chucks squeaked on the flawless patterned marble floor, and there was another Greek-inspired fountain in the center of the inner courtyard, with three women carrying watering jugs. The sheer enormousness of the place was staggering.
“No one can possibly live here,” I said to myself.
Noah heard me. “Why’s that?”
“Because this is not a house. This is like … a set. For some mafia movie. Or a tacky wedding venue. Or … Annie.”
Noah tilted his head. “A scathing, yet accurate analysis. Alas, I am afraid people do actually live here.”
He sauntered carelessly to the end of the courtyard and turned left. I followed him, wide-eyed and wondrous, into an equally expansive hallway. I didn’t notice the small, black streak of fur hurtling in my direction until she was only a few feet away. Noah whisked the dog into the air just as it charged me.
“You little bitch,” Noah said to the snarling dog. “Behave.”
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Mara, meet Ruby.” The squirming mass of fat rolls and fur strained for my jugular, but Noah held her back. The pug’s smushed face only magnified the sounds of her fury. It was disturbing and hilarious at the same time.
“She’s … charming,” I said.
“Noah?” I turned around to see Noah’s mother standing about twenty feet behind us, barefooted and impeccably dressed in white linen. “I thought you were out for the day,” she said.
Out for the day?
“Like an idiot, I left the keys here.”
Left the keys … here.
That was when I first noticed the fawn-colored dog trying to hide behind Dr. Shaw’s knees.
“Is that …?” I looked from the dog to Noah. His face broke into a smile.
“Mabel!” he called loudly.
She whined in and stepped backward, farther behind the fabric of Dr. Shaw’s dress.
“Come here, gorgeous.”
She whined again.
Still looking at the dog, Noah said, “Mum, you remember Mara?” He tilted his head in my direction while he crouched, trying to call the dog over.
“I do,” she said, smiling. “How are you?”
“Good,” I said, but I was too absorbed in the scene unfolding before me to really focus. The vicious pug. Mabel’s terror. And the fact that Noah lived here. Here.
He walked over to where his mother stood and reached down to pet Mabel, with Ruby still struggling in his other arm. Mabel thumped her tail against Dr. Shaw’s legs. It was incredible how much better she looked after just over a week. Her spine and hip bones still protruded, but she was already starting to fill out. And her coat looked impossibly healthier. Amazing.
“Would you take her?” He offered the little dog to his mother, who held her arms out. “Since I had to double back, I thought I’d let Mara and Mabel get reacquainted while we’re here.”
Mabel wanted no part of that plan, and Dr. Shaw seemed to know it. “Why don’t I take them both upstairs while you two—”
“It’s Ruby fussing that’s making her nervous. Just take her, we’ll be fine.” Noah crouched down to pet Mabel.
Dr. Shaw shrugged. “It was nice to see you again, Mara.”
“You too,” I said quietly, as she walked out.
Noah lifted Mabel in a football carry before she could bolt after Dr. Shaw. The poor dog’s legs paddled as if she were running on a phantom treadmill. A memory of a hissing black cat flared in my mind.
“You’re scaring her,” Joseph had said.
Mabel was scared too. Of me.
My breath caught in my throat. That was a crazy thing to think. Why would she be scared of me? I was being paranoid. Something else was freaking her out. I tried not to let the hurt leak into my voice when I spoke. “Maybe your mom’s right, Noah.”
“She’s fine, Ruby just made her nervous.”
The whites of Mabel’s eyes were visible by the time Noah carried her over to where I stood. He looked at me, confused. “What did you do, bathe in leopard urine before you left the house this morning?”
“Yes. Leopard urine. Never leave home without it.”
Mabel whined and yelped and strained against Noah’s arms. “All right,” he said finally. “Mission aborted.” He placed Mabel on the floor and watched her scramble out of the hall, her claws clicking on the marble. “She probably doesn’t remember you,” Noah said, still looking in Mabel’s direction.
I dropped my gaze. “I’m sure that’s it,” I said. I didn’t want Noah to see that I was upset.
“Well,” he said finally. He rocked back on his heels and studied me.
I willed myself not to blush under his stare. “Well.” Time to change the subject. “You are a lying liar who lies.”
I looked around us, at the towering ceiling and sweeping balconies. “You kept all of this a secret.”
“No, I didn’t. You just never asked.”
“How was I supposed to guess? You dress like a hobo.”
At this, a mocking grin crept over Noah’s mouth. “Haven’t you heard not to judge a book by its cover?”
“If I’d have known it was Trite Proverb Day, I would have stayed home.” I rubbed my forehead and shook my head. “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything.”
Noah’s eyes challenged me. “Like what?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Like, ‘Mara, you might want to wear some makeup and put on heels because I’m going to take you to my family’s palace in Miami Beach on Sunday.’ Something like that.”
Noah stretched his lithe frame, locking his fingers and raising his arms above his head. His white T-shirt rose, exposing a sliver of stomach and the elastic of his boxers above the low waistband of his jeans. Button fly, I noticed.
“First, you don’t need makeup,” he said as I rolled my eyes. “Second, you wouldn’t last an hour in heels, where we’re going. Speaking of which, I have to get the keys.”
“Oh, yes, the mysterious keys.”
“Are you going to go on about this the entire day now? I thought we were making progress.”
“Sorry. I’m just a tad rattled by the pug attack and Mabel’s freak-out. And the fact that you live in the Taj Mahal.”
“Rubbish. The Taj Mahal is only a hundred eighty-six square feet. This house has twenty-five thousand.”
I stared at him blankly.
“I was kidding,” he said.
I stared at him blankly.
“All right, I wasn’t kidding. Let’s go, shall we?”
“After you, my liege,” I said.
Noah gave an exaggerated sigh as he started walking to an enormous staircase with an intricately carved banister. I followed him up, and shamefully enjoyed the view. Noah’s jeans were loose, barely hanging on to his hips.
When we finally reached the top of the staircase, Noah took a left down a long corridor. The plush Oriental rugs muffled our footsteps, and my eyes drank in the detailed oil paintings that hung from the walls. Eventually, Noah stopped in front of a gleaming wooden door. He reached to open it, but we heard the careless slam of a door behind us and turned.
“Noah?” asked a sleep-ridden voice. Female.
Even with pillow creases on her face, the familiar girl was absolutely stunning. She looked as otherworldly standing there in a camisole and shorts set as she had in her fairy getup. Without the costume and the pulsing lights in the club, it was obvious that she shared Noah’s extraterrestrial beauty. Her hair was the same dark honey brown color as his, only longer; the ends skimmed the lace bottom of her camisole. Her blue eyes widened in surprise as they met mine.
“I didn’t know you had company,” she said to Noah, suppressing a smile.
He shot her a look, then turned to me. “Mara, my sister Katie.”
“Kate,” she corrected him, then gave me a knowing glance. “Morning.”
I couldn’t manage much more than a nod. At that moment, a perky, blond cheerleader was doing cartwheels in my vena cava. His sister. His sister!
“It’s almost noon, now, actually,” Noah said.
Kate shrugged and yawned. “Well, nice meeting you, Mara,” she said, and winked at me before heading down the stairs.
“You too,” I managed to breathe. My heart rioted in my chest.
Noah opened the door all the way and I tried to compose myself. This changed nothing. Nothing at all. Noah Shaw was still a whore, still an asshole, and still painfully out of my league. This was my inner mantra, the one I repeated on a loop until Noah tilted his head and spoke.
“Are you coming in?”
Yes. Yes I was.