“Thanks for letting me crash on your couch.”
Cleo was sitting in the backyard of Noah and Olivia’s house, watching as Noah finished throwing down salt on the stairs with his good hand. She’d offered to help and he’d refused, so she wasn’t going to push it. So now she sat on the stone wall on a chair cushion she’d found laying beside it.
“No problem,” Noah said, his voice soft.
“I’m going to go grab a few things to make dinner tonight,” Cleo continued, trying to ignore how unsettled he sounded. “What do you want to eat?”
Noah shifted his hat, which was sliding down his face. Then he tossed down another cup of rock salt on the steps from Olivia’s deck. “I’m fine with anything,” he said.
He still wasn’t looking at her. Cleo decided it was time to push her luck. “I’m not a great cook, so I’m thinking something frozen from the general store,” she said. “Or we could go grab some takeout?”
She kept her eyes on him until he finally seemed to realize she was waiting for an answer. He stopped and looked at her.
“Lasagna or pizza?” Cleo asked.
Finally, the slightest hint of a smile appeared on his face. “Lasagna,” he said.
Cleo smiled. Finally, he had actually said what he wanted, not what he thought everyone else wanted. Unless he thought she wanted lasagna and that was why he said it. Did she want to go down that road?
Whatever, lasagna sounded good to her.
“It’s just us tonight,” she said. “Liv and Andrew are both working. Want to take a ride with me?”
Before he could refuse, she fished into her jacket for her car keys. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go spend too much money on mediocre food at the only store in town.”
The lasagna was, in fact, mediocre. And Noah managed to let it burn in the time it took Cleo to bring her bag in from the car and have a quick conversation with Edie on the phone. She walked in, listening to Edie talk about a gig the band was planning, and was greeted with the scent of smoke.
Cleo’s stomach dropped, and her mind immediately went back to her mother’s house. Smoke pouring off the stove, the alarm going off.
But what her mother’s house hadn’t had was Noah swearing loudly as he fanned the smoke out the window. And that sight was so comforting, so familiar, that she had to laugh. And then she was even more gratified to see Noah laugh too, just a little.
“I have to go,” Cleo said to Edie as she closed the door behind her. “My dinner is on fire.”
Edie laughed and they hung up as Cleo reached up for the alarm. She pressed the button and it went quiet.
“Nice to see some things never change,” she said lightly, grabbing a towel and getting the burnt lasagna out of the oven. “Want to revisit that takeout idea?”
Noah’s smile faded a little. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s a burned freezer lasagna, don’t worry about it.”
But he still looked distressed. “Seriously,” Cleo insisted. “It’s fine.”
Noah nodded, but the good humor from a few minutes ago seemed to be gone. She gently touched his elbow. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Her bluntness seemed to take him aback. “I just…”
He faded off and she waited patiently for him to continue. He looked over at the burnt pasta, then back at her. “I just wanted to be better,” he finished.
This was so much more than dinner and she wasn’t sure she was equipped to deal with it healthily. So instead, she just wrapped her arms around him. He felt warm in a way that she knew was stupid not to expect. Maybe it was the chill that had come between him and them in the past year. Like that cold had become physical, emanating out of him. But he felt warm and solid in her arms, smelling like clean laundry and traces of smoke. After a few seconds, she felt his arms slide around her back as he gripped her back.
Cleo suddenly thought of Christmas Eve last year. That first time she’d had even a clue about the extent of Noah’s problems. So much had changed in a year, but the way he clung to her like she might be the only thing keeping him from disappearing hadn’t changed.
Instead of saying anything, she just continued to hold him, laying her head on his shoulder. He was the only person she knew who was tall enough that she could do that, and there was a novelty to it. Andrew and Liv obviously gave great hugs too, but neither of them were six feet tall so it wasn’t the same. Not that she’d ever tell them that.
“So here are our options,” Cleo said, still gripping Noah. “We try round two at the general store. Or we get in the car and we go for a drive somewhere for dinner.”
She knew that New Winslow House of Pizza was a perfectly valid option, but she also knew that running into Roman might not do wonders for Noah’s mood, which already seemed fairly fragile tonight.
He was quiet for a moment and she waited patiently, then slid her arms out from under his. He moved his back, then winced slightly as his hand bumped her shoulder.
“You okay?” Cleo asked, knowing he wasn’t going to answer.
Sure enough, he ignored the question. “I’m fine with anything for dinner,” he said.
“Let’s take a drive.”
Noah frowned. “Haven’t you been driving all day?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Yeah, but this time I get to eat the food. Come on.”
The smile was small, but at this point, she’d take it.
An hour and a half later, they were walking back into Noah’s kitchen carrying bags of burritos. Cleo set hers down on the table as her phone buzzed.
How’s your night?
She smiled as she wrote out her response. When she looked back up, Noah was looking at her.
“Edie is just checking in,” she explained, setting her phone aside.
He was standing in the middle of the room with his takeout bag in hand, looking a little lost. Cleo’s impulse was to ask what was wrong, but she’d been doing that so often lately that honestly, it might push him even further away. So instead, she offered a smile, then sat down at the small table and pulled out her burrito. After a second, he sat down across from her.
“How’s, um, how’s everything with Edie?” he asked as he pulled his own burrito out of the bag.
“Fantastic,” Cleo said with a laugh, unwrapping her burrito. “It’s just…it’s great.”
He smiled too, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Hey,” Cleo prompted, immediately disregarding her plan to not ask. “What’s up?”
She thought he’d dismiss it, maybe even get angry. At the very least, shut down. But he just started fiddling with one of the napkins that had come with their order. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you when you and Jenna broke up,” he said.
Well, that wasn’t quite where she had expected this to go. “It’s okay,” she said, a little cautiously. “I have Edie now, I’m way happier.”
“I should have been there though.”
“If it makes you feel any better, Andrew couldn’t stand her.”
This got his attention. Noah looked up from what had apparently been the most fascinating napkin in the world. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. He tried to keep it to himself, but you know how he is.”
Noah laughed a little and set the napkin down. “Yeah, I do.”
There was no way he was elaborating on that one, so she wasn’t going to push it. Instead she took a bite of her food and waited for Noah to do the same.
“I’d like to see them again sometime,” he said, before finally taking a bite of his own burrito.
Cleo nodded. “Definitely,” she said. “They want to come back too. I just haven’t brought them back here because…”
“Because of the curse?”
“Because of the curse.”
She took a sip from her seltzer water. “I feel bad because they keep saying they want to visit. But if I get someone else stuck, I just…”
Noah frowned. “What do you mean, got someone else stuck? Andrew wasn’t your fault.”
“I asked him to come with me,” she said. “Hell, I paid him to come back.”
Oh shit, Noah didn’t know. Andrew hadn’t told him. Shit shit shit shit. Cleo’s brain was screaming at her to FIX THIS! FIX IT!
“Oh, for the apartment.”
She blinked at him. But Noah just took a tortilla chip, dipped it in his tiny container of salsa, and took a bite. Something must have shown up in her expression, because he frowned at her.
“Was that supposed to be a secret?” Noah asked.
“I…I don’t know?”
Had Andrew told any of the others? It wasn’t like they’d done anything underhanded, it was just that money complicated everything. And the idea that she paid him to come with her seemed kind of sketchy.
“He didn’t tell me,” Noah said. “But I was talking to him the night he found out they sold it to someone else. And he said he had the down payment. I assume in a market like Boston you need twenty percent down minimum. So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what exactly would get him to actually come back to New Winslow.”
Cleo wasn’t sure how to react. Noah’s tone was mild, and he was scooping salsa onto another chip as he spoke. He wasn’t looking at her, but that didn’t mean anything.
“You’re right,” Cleo said. “He refused to come back with me at first, so I offered the last of the money he needed to get the apartment down payment together.”
“It’s none of my business.”
Now he was looking at her, his dark blue eyes looking directly into hers. “What Andrew does and doesn’t do is his business, not mine. I’ve got my own shit to deal with right now, I don’t need to take on judging other people for theirs.”
“He offered to give it back.”
“Yeah, before I moved out of Boston. He told me it was just sitting in his account and if I was having trouble making my rent, I could have it back.”
“That was good of him.”
“I told him no. It’s his money.”
“And it’s your fault he’s here?”
Cleo flinched. “You said it,” Noah said. “I’m not agreeing.”
“And it’s my fault he’s here. Plus, it would have bought me maybe a month before I made the same decision.”
“Are you happy?”
Noah took another bite of his burrito, chewed, then swallowed. “I mean, with moving. Are you happy?”
“Yeah,” Cleo said. “Yeah, I am. I miss Boston, but I feel better not working eighty hours a week to barely afford it. And I love living with Edie. It’s…”
She stopped for a moment, trying to find the exact words to describe it. Apparently the silence implied something else, because a slow smile came over Noah’s face. “That good, huh?”
She was blushing now. “I mean, yeah,” she said with a laugh. “Yeah, it’s that good. But the rest of it is good too.”
His smile was warm and familiar and it struck Cleo exactly how much she’d missed the real Noah. “How about you?” she asked.
“Oh, no. No, if I don’t get laid soon, I’m going to die.”
The sip of seltzer she’d been taking went straight into her lungs and she began choking, sputtering water all over her shirt as she coughed furiously. She pushed away from the table and tried to catch her breath.
“I meant, are you happy?” she exclaimed as she finally got herself under control. “You asshole.”
Noah raised his eyebrows as he let out a long breath. “There’s a question,” he said. “Yes? I mean, I’m so grateful to have a second chance that I get emotional just thinking about it. But honestly, it’s hard as hell. And there are some things I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully atone for.”
Luckily for Cleo, Noah didn’t seem to be looking for a response to that. “I think I’m getting there,” he said. “It’s hard, but I owe a lot to a lot of people. And I think the more I work on that, the happier I’ll be.”
He went back to his burrito as though he hadn’t said anything. After a beat, Cleo started eating too.