Shenanigans, and some important things are said… and not said.
Noah’s room looked exactly the same, but it was funny how it didn’t look childish. Dark blue sheets and pillowcases, wooden desk with papers lined up precisely and small exquisite writing utensils standing like sentinels above them. It was like Noah had been preparing all his life to be a lawyer.
Of course, Claire grinned to herself as she stepped outside, it wasn’t like she was any different. Her room might be a wedding boutique at the moment, but under the taffeta and rainbow colored flowers were about a thousand recipe books, plating diagrams, and equipment catalogs.
“What’s that smile for?” Noah said, closing the door behind himself as he stepped in.
Turning around, she smiled at him, shoving her hands in her back pocket. “Just thinking about how we both ended up right where we wanted to be.”
It was shocking how fast his face changed, falling from a smile into something else, something dark. “Are we?”
“Well, yeah.” Claire gestured at the stack of law books. “We both got our dreams, right? I’m a professional chef now, and you’re a big shot lawyer.”
Noah’s lips moved in a bare humorless twitch of a smile. “And you think that’s my dream.”
“Isn’t it?” Claire asked tentatively. “That’s what you’ve always wanted, right? I know that. I know…” Something about the way he was looking at her, those blue eyes intent on her face, on her mouth…
It was so familiar.
Even more familiar when he stepped closer, and the sharp hard thudding of her heart in her chest was the most familiar rhythm of all.
“Claire,” Noah said darkly. “I don’t think you know a god-damned thing.”
And then, while she was still trying to digest that, Noah moved. His arms went around her and he pulled her tight to his chest and-
-his mouth came down on hers, and Claire gasped deep in her throat and arched against him. Noah took advantage of her open mouth shamelessly, his tongue licking in like it belonged there and setting fire to her blood.
For a long moment, Claire could only feel. All that existed was the heat of Noah’s hand where it pressed against the small of her back and the much-missed feel of his body against hers and the taste of him… oh god, the taste of him. Better than any dish she’d ever made.
But then sanity returned, and Claire shoved him away.
“What—what the hell, Noah? What do you think you’re doing?”
To her fury, he just grinned at her, that long slow lazy grin that she hadn’t seen on him since she came back. “What do you mean, baby?”
“I’m not—Noah, you kissed me!”
When he laughed, Claire realized that she’d been fooling herself. Those little chuckles hadn’t been what she’d remembered so fondly, this was. Noah, laughing bright and open with a smile on his face and his eyes on her. Always on her.
She’d forgotten that part. Or maybe she’d made herself forget.
“Sorry, sorry.” Noah waved his hand, still chuckling. “But I know I kissed you, sweetheart. I hope you know it too, but if you don’t… I’ll be glad to give it another try.”
Claire backpedaled when Noah took a step closer, and even she wasn’t sure if her heart was pounding because she was worried that he’d kiss her again… or because she was worried he wouldn’t.
“What do you think you’re doing, Noah? We’re not…”
“Together?” Noah suggested when her voice trailed off, and he still sounded altogether too amused about that. “
“Yes, well. That’s at least half your fault, baby. So I’m willing to call it even if you are.”
Claire really wished that her stomach would stop fluttering every time Noah used an endearment. Damn reflexes.
“It’s… it wasn’t… okay, how the hell was it my fault at all? You dumped me!” Just saying it hurt.
Tapping his finger on his chin, Noah said, “I figure it gets to be just a little your fault because of your genes.”
“What?” She was starting to think that this was all some kind of weird dream.
The expression of good humor fell away from Noah’s face like it had been a mask. “Namely, you being related to that scum-sucking weasel of a brother of yours.”
“Yes. Alex.” Noah said the word like it was a curse. “Alex, who – damn it, Claire. He told me that you were going to stay!”
There were only so many times that Claire could say ‘what’ before the word lost all meaning. So she just shook her head, dazed.
Noah’s hands landed on her shoulders, and he shook her a little. “Baby, the only reason I broke up with you is because he told me you were going to turn down going to London. For me.”
“But…” Claire said blankly. “But I would never do that. You would kill me. I would kill me. You helped me apply, for god’s sake.”
“But you didn’t tell me you got in,” Noah said grimly. “Even long after you’d gotten the letter.”
“I…” She’d wanted to cook him a romantic dinner and tell him, but she couldn’t decide on the menu. Nothing had seemed good enough. “I was going to!”
“I didn’t know that. I didn’t know why you weren’t telling me.” Noah lifted a hand and carded it through her hair, the touch sending shivers through her. “And then you told me you loved me.”
Somehow, Claire had thought that she’d go the whole rest of her life without ever having that moment brought up again. And somehow, three years and an entire continent of distance hadn’t made it any less painful.
Looking down, her throat clenched. “And then you told me you didn’t,” she managed to say, even though it felt like she was speaking through broken glass.
Noah’s hand on her chin brought her eyes back up to his. His face was serious, blue eyes dark and focused. “No. Then I lied.”
Claire’s mind stopped.
“Claire. I loved you.” Noah’s palm slid up to cradle her cheek, and he leaned forward until she could feel his breath on her face. “Claire, I love you. Full stop.”
The words might as well have been cannonballs, ricocheting into Claire’s brain and wrecking up the place. Suddenly, it was all too much. Noah was too close. His hand on her face was too warm.
She couldn’t hear anything.
Pushing on his chest, Claire shoved him away and stepped back. She was breathing hard, angry tears coming unbidden.
“You don’t.” It was a fact of her life. Water was blue, everything could be pickled, and Noah Fowler didn’t love her. She’d built her new life on that foundation. How dare he?
“I do. I always did.” Noah didn’t try to step closer, just standing there watching her. But the words felt like a touch. “I love you, Claire. Jesus, of course I love you.”
“Stop saying that!” Claire rubbed at her eyes, holding up a hand when he started to move forward. “We broke up years ago… no, we were never even really together. You can’t just—”
Noah cut her off. “Alex lied to me, Claire, and believe me-I will be talking to him about that. But I listened to him, and that’s on me. And you can yell at me about it as much as you like.” His grin was sudden and bright as quicksilver. “You can yell at me for the rest of our lives, if you want.”
“Someone should,” she muttered.
“But what I won’t do, is let Alex’s lie and my stupidity take any more time from us. We should have been together, baby. All this time.”
“But we weren’t…”
Noah stepped forward, his eyes once more that drowning blue. “But we should have been. I should have kissed you goodbye at the airport. Told you I loved you when you landed.”
Against her will, Claire’s eyes watered. Because how nice would that have been, those first long lonely days in London?
“I should have been the one you Skyped to every week. Not Jason. When I got hired at the firm, you were the one I wanted to call. I should have. Would you have been happy for me?”
Claire nodded jerkily. Of course she would have. She would have baked him cookies and sent them by mail, even if they’d have been stale.
Once again, their bodies were almost pressed together. “I’m glad,” Noah said in a low purr. “I wouldn’t have my new car, of course.”
Getting drawn into this little fantasy was killing her, but Claire couldn’t help but ask, “Why not?”
They were close enough that she could feel Noah’s low chuckle all through her. “Simple, baby. All my money would go on plane tickets. You don’t think I could leave you over there all alone, do you?”
The noise Claire made in her throat was soft and wounded. It was almost too much to bear, because the thought of him in London was like a miracle. That first year had been so busy, and so lonely. And she’d wanted Noah. Every minute of it, she’d wanted Noah.
But he hadn’t been there.