MY BODY WARMED AT THE CONTACT AS Noah led the way into the bustling restaurant. I watched him in profile, talking to the host. Somehow, he didn’t look like the same person I’d met two weeks ago. He didn’t look like the same person who picked me up this morning. Noah—sarcastic, distant, untouchable Noah—cared. And that made him real.
I wondered if anyone else knew, but enjoyed a fleeting moment thinking that I might be the only one as we were led to a table by the window. But then Noah’s grip tightened on my hand. I looked up at him. The color had drained from his face.
“Noah?” His eyes were tightly shut, and I began to feel scared without knowing why. “Are you okay?”
“Give me a minute,” he said, not opening his eyes. He dropped my hand. “I’ll be right back.”
Noah threaded back the way we’d come in and disappeared out of the restaurant. A bit dazed, I sat down at the table and perused the menu. I was thirsty, though, and lifted my head to scan the restaurant for a waiter when I saw him.
Staring at me from under the brim of his hat. In the middle of a throng of people waiting for a seat.
He started walking toward me.
I squeezed my eyes shut. He wasn’t real.
“How does it feel to be the most beautiful girl in the room?”
I jumped at the accented voice. Not Noah’s. And definitely not Jude’s. When I opened my eyes, a fair-skinned guy with blond hair and hazel eyes was standing next to the table with an earnest expression. He was cute.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked as he slipped into the seat across from me. Apparently he had no intention of waiting for my answer.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Actually, I’m here with someone,” I said. Where was Noah?
“Oh? A boyfriend?”
I paused before answering, “A friend.”
His grin widened. “He’s a fool.”
“If he’s just a friend, he’s a fool. I don’t think I could stand being just your friend. I’m Alain, by the way.”
I snorted. Who was this guy? “Luckily, Alain,” I said, mispronouncing his name on purpose, “I don’t foresee that being a problem.”
“You don’t? Why’s that?”
“Because you were just leaving,” Noah said from behind me. I half-turned and looked up. Noah stood inches away, leaning over me just slightly. The tension was evident in the set of his shoulders.
Alain stood, and fished for something in the pocket of his jeans, withdrawing a pen. “In case you get tired of friends,” he said, scrawling something on a napkin, “here’s my number.” He slid it over the surface of the table in my direction. Noah’s hand reached over my shoulder and took it.
Alain’s eyes narrowed at Noah. “She can make her own decisions.”
Noah stood still for a second, staring at him. Then he relaxed, and a spark of amusement lit his eyes. “Of course she can,” he said, and raised an eyebrow at me. “Well?”
I stared at Alain. “That seat’s taken.”
Alain grinned. “It certainly is.”
Noah turned to him too casually and said something in French—I watched Alain’s expression grow increasingly anxious. “Still care to join us?” Noah asked him, but Alain was already leaving.
Noah slipped into the now-empty seat and smiled. “Tourists,” he said, shrugging lazily.
I glared at him, even though I wasn’t mad. I was calm, actually. Unusually so, for my post-hallucinatory state. I was glad Noah was back. But I couldn’t let him off so easily. “What did you say to him?”
Noah picked up the menu and spoke while studying it. “Enough.”
But I wasn’t having it. “If you’re not going to tell me, then give me his number.”
“I told him you were in high school,” he said, without looking up.
“That’s it?” I was skeptical.
A hint of a smile appeared on Noah’s lips. “Mostly. You look too old for your own good.”
My eyebrows shot up. “You’re one to talk.”
He grinned and placed the menu on the table. Then stared out the window. Distracted.
He glanced up at me and gave me a tight smile. “Nothing.”
I didn’t believe him.
The waiter appeared then, and Noah plucked the menu from my hands and handed it over, rushing off our order in Spanish. The waiter departed for the kitchen.
I shot him a dark look. “I hadn’t decided yet.”
“Guess I don’t have much of a choice.” A devious smile formed on his lips. I took a deep breath and, for the sake of peace, let it go. “So, Spanish and French?”
Noah answered with a slow, arrogant grin. I had to concentrate to prevent myself from melting in the plastic-covered seat.
“Do you speak anything else?” I asked.
“Well, what level of fluency are we talking about here?”
The waiter returned, and brought two empty, frosted glasses along with dark bottles of something. He poured the caramel-colored drinks for us, then left.
Noah took a sip before answering. Then said, “German, Spanish, Dutch, Mandarin, and, of course, French.”
Impressive. “Say something in German,” I said, and took a sip of the drink. It was sweet with a spicy, sharp finish. I wasn’t sure I liked it.
“Scheide,” Noah said.
I decided to give the drink another shot. “What does that mean?” I asked, then sipped.
I almost choked, and covered my mouth with my hand. After I composed myself, I spoke. “Lovely. Is that all you know?”
“In German, Dutch, and Mandarin, yes.”
I shook my head. “Why, Noah, do you know the word for vagina in every language?”
“Because I’m European, and therefore more cultured than you,” he said, taking another swig and trying not to smile. Before I could smack him, the waiter then brought a basket of what looked like banana chips accompanied by a viscous, pale yellow sauce.
“Mariquitas,” Noah said. “Try one, you’ll thank me.”
I tried one. And I did thank him. They were savory with just a hint of sweet, and the garlic-burn of the sauce made my tongue sing.
“God, these are good,” Noah said. “I could snort them.”
The waiter returned and loaded our table with food. I couldn’t identify anything except for the rice and beans; the oddest looking were plates of glistening fried dough balls of some sort, and a dish of some white fleshy vegetable smothered in sauce and onions. I pointed to it.
“Yuca,” Noah said.
I pointed to the dough balls.
I pointed to a low bowl filled with what purported to be stew, but then Noah said, “Are you going to point, or are you going to eat?”
“I just like to know what I’m putting in my mouth before I swallow.”
Noah arched an eyebrow, and I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
Shockingly, he let it slide. Instead, he explained what everything was as he held the dishes out for me to take from. When I was full to bursting, the waiter arrived with the check, setting it down in front of Noah. In an echo of his earlier gesture with Alain’s number, I slid the check my way as I dug in my pocket for cash.
A look of horror dawned on Noah’s face. “What are you doing?”
“I am paying for my lunch.”
“I don’t understand,” Noah said.
“Food costs money.”
“Brilliant. But that still doesn’t explain why you think you’re paying for it.”
“Because I can pay for my own food.”
“It was ten dollars.”
“And, wouldn’t you know, I have ten dollars.”
“And I have an American Express Black Card.”
“You have a little something right here, by the way,” he said, pointing to the side of his scruffy jaw.
Oh, how horrible. “Where? Here?” I grabbed a napkin from the dispenser on the table and rubbed at the location where the offending food bit seemed to be lurking. Noah shook his head, and I rubbed again.
“Still there,” he said. “May I?” Noah indicated the napkin dispenser and leaned over the table at eye level, ready to wipe my face like a food-spattered toddler. Misery. I squinted my eyes shut out of shame and waited for the feel of the paper napkin on my skin.
I felt his fingertips on my cheek instead. I stopped breathing, and opened my eyes, then shook my head. How embarrassing.
“Thanks,” I said quietly. “I’m completely uncivilized.”
“Then I suppose I’m going to have to civilize you,” Noah said, and I noticed then that the check had disappeared.
One look at Noah told me he’d taken it. Very slick.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I was warned about you, you know.”
And with that half-smile that wrecked me, Noah said, “But you’re here anyway.”