Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 10

Jensen

I was startled awake by a scratching sound to my right, and pushed up onto an elbow.

The blankets fell away from my body, sliding down my hips, and Pippa’s eyes flickered from my face, and down, and back to my face again. Her cheeks flushed, and I was pretty sure I knew why.

I’d kicked off my shorts sometime after our . . . exchange in bed.

She was seeing me naked for the first time in the light of the morning after.

“You’re up,” I said, my voice still heavy with sleep. As my vision cleared, I realized she was dressed in leggings and a T-shirt, her hair knotted in a messy bun. She was crouched by the bed, tying a pair of brightly colored sneakers. “You’re dressed.”

For the first time on this vacation, I didn’t want to bolt from bed. I wanted her warmth with me, under the covers.

“Yeah, sorry,” she whispered. “I tried not to wake you.”

“Where are you going?” Unease slid through me. She was just going to leave?

After a small hesitation, she said, “I’m off to yoga with Becky.”

I sat up fully, squinting at her. “You know you don’t actually have to do that, right?”

“I know,” she said, nodding. “But I did say I would meet her.”

She looked back down to her shoe, but I knew there was more there. “And?” I asked.

“Aaand,” she said, drawing the word out, “I just wanted a moment to think. You’re the first man I’ve woken up next to other than Mark . . . in a long time.”

Sliding my legs over the side of the bed and pulling the sheet across my lap, I bent, resting my elbows on my thighs and studying her. “Okay.”

“I liked it,” she assured me quietly, looking up at me. “Just doing something I don’t usually do and taking a moment to pace myself.”

I reached forward, taking her hand in mine. It was cold, as if she’d washed her hands under the tap before coming over to put her shoes on.

She chewed her lip, eyes scanning my face. “On a scale of sloth to Woody Allen, what level of freaking out are you?”

Laughing, I said, “I am somewhere between sloth and old lazy dog.”

“Oh.” This seemed to surprise her. “Okay. I can handle that.”

My chest grew tight. “Look. Let’s make a deal.”

She shifted to her knees, scooting closer. “All right.”

“Let’s just have fun,” I said, staring at our hands. She was pale and smooth against my tanned skin. Tendons and veins wove together along the back of her hand—she was so strong. “We have a week and a half left together,” I said. “You live in London, I’m in Boston. So far, this trip has been . . .”

“Crazy,” she said, smiling up at me. “Good. Different.”

“All of that,” I agreed, nodding. “So let’s just make a deal that we’re partners in this. I want to make your holiday perfect.”

“I want to make yours perfect, too.” She leaned forward, kissing the inside of my wrist.

“And if you decide you just want to be a single woman on a trip . . .” I began.

“I’ll tell you. And same,” she added quickly. She pressed the back of my hand to her cheek. “I like this plan.”

“So are you sure you wouldn’t rather get back in bed?” I pulled her forward between my legs.

But she resisted, even though she took a few seconds to look at my chest, my stomach, my hips. “I should . . . yoga.”

I exhaled slowly. “Right. Where are you meeting?”

“We’ve opted to skip the steam thing, and are yoga-ing it up in the backyard.”

“Have you ever done yoga before?”

She shook her head. “Not once in my life. But it’s bending and putting your legs in the air. How hard can it be?”

I laughed.

“For what it’s worth, Becky is trying,” she said quietly, her expression straightening. “And it’s easier for me, your wife, to respond to it than it is for you.”

“Are you protecting me?” I asked, grinning at her.

“Maybe.”

My quiet laugh broke free. “Who would have pegged you as the wise peacekeeper?”

She stretched, kissing my chin. “See you at breakfast.”

I pulled on my jeans and a sweater, heading downstairs to grab a cup of coffee from the pot near reception before padding out to the back porch. There was a thick layer of fog hovering over the grass, and it was chilly out, but it was beautiful. Stark greens seemed to explode from behind the thick clouds—in the grass, the trees, the hills in the distance. Just down the broad back steps and to the left of the house a bit, on the flat, smooth lawn, Becky and Pippa stretched out on yoga mats I assumed Becky brought along for her and Cam to use.

I sipped my coffee, watching them.

Pippa’s general fitness had to be due to genetics and her constant energy and motion rather than a natural proclivity for athletics. Even stretching, she looked unsure of herself and wiggly, dancing and talking.

The screen door creaked behind me, and Ziggy came to sit on the step at my side, her hands cupped around a steaming mug.

“What on earth is she doing?” she asked, voice still scratchy.

“Yoga.”

“That’s yoga?”

“Pippa’s version of it, at least.”

“Wow. And with Becky? She should have told her to get bent.”

I nodded, smiling over the top of my mug. “Apparently she’s true to her word.”

Becky straightened, instructing Pippa on something I couldn’t hear, and then I watched as Pippa bent to touch her toes and stiffly lifted one of her legs behind her. She was about one-eighth as flexible as Becky.

She looked ridiculous.

She was amazing.

Ziggs snorted. “She’s flipping awesome. She looks like little Annabel doing yoga.”

Becky mimicked what Pippa had done, and then transitioned it into a complicated version of Downward Dog that nearly sent Pippa to the ground.

“I think Becky is onto her,” I said, shaking my head as Pippa collapsed onto the mat in a pile of giggles.

“Onto her how?”

“Pippa said she was really into this fictional British Steam Yoga.”

My sister’s eyes narrowed as she studied them more seriously. “The weird thing is,” she said, “I don’t even worry about Pippa being able to take care of herself out there.”

“Becky isn’t exactly a predator,” I noted dryly. “And they’re not sword fighting. It’s yoga.”

“No,” she said, laughing. “I mean you guys made up this whole complicated story, and now there’s pretend yoga, but it’s like . . . Pippa is game for anything. I like that about her.”

On their backs now, they lifted their legs, letting them fall back over their heads in what I remembered from a few yoga classes as Halasana.

I heard Pippa’s exuberant “Oof!,” her ringing laugh, and then her shirt slid up her body, exposing most of her stomach and back.

“She has a nice body,” Ziggy mumbled.

“She does.”

I sensed my sister turning to look at me. “Did you guys . . . ?”

“Not quite.”

“But almost?” She sounded hopeful.

I met her eyes. “I’m not discussing this with you.”

She acknowledged this with a little smile. “I like her.”

Unease settled in my gut. I liked Pippa, too. The problem was the impossibility of it all.

Pushing that aside, I turned my attention back to where my fake wife and my ex-wife continued doing yoga together on the lawn. Standing now, and lifting one leg, bending it at the knee and holding the foot in one hand while stretching out the other arm in front of them—a move I think was called Natarajasana—Pippa toppled facefirst and ended up landing in a clumsy half somersault. Rolling to her back, she held her stomach, laughing. Becky straightened, staring down at Pippa with an amused grin.

It was more than obvious that the jig was up: Pippa was no yogi.

“Hanna and I will throw the red balls,” Pippa explained to me a couple of hours later. “You and Will throw the blue balls.” Giggling at this—I gave her a patient yet amused sigh—she held up a small yellow ball. “This is the pallino.” She placed it in my waiting palm and said, “Toss it past the center line, but not past the four-foot line”—she pointed to the fifth white line in the grass—“that far one, there.”

We were playing bocce, of all things, out on the rolling lawn beside the B&B. After yoga, Pippa had met the rest of us for a mimosa brunch, Becky and Cam in tow.

It felt as though some tension had solidified overnight, and although I was firm in my decision to avoid drama, Becky seemed unsure where to look at all times and ended up mutely poking at her eggs for most of the meal.

The problem wasn’t so much that conversation was stilted; it was that we literally had no overlap, no grounds for conversation to start when it wasn’t polite small talk. It didn’t help that I simply wasn’t interested in catching up or knowing what she’d done these past six years.

I studied Becky in tiny, covert glances. I’d said as much last night to Pippa, but had she always been this quiet, always blended into the background this much? I tried to figure out if it only felt that way because this situation was awkward and she was clearly the bad guy here in many ways so was playing it carefully . . . but really, other than the odd crying yesterday, it just felt like Becky was being Becky.

Now we had two hours before a group vineyard tour, and instead of heading up to the room for a leisurely shower—like I’d suggested—Pippa and Ziggy had challenged Will and me to a battle-of-the-sexes bocce match.

Taking the ball from Pippa now, I approached the court. “Yes, ma’am.”

“But don’t suck,” she added quickly.

My sister snickered beside me.

“This is very important,” Pippa added loudly as I extended my arm to throw. “Men versus women, you wouldn’t want to perform badly.”

Pausing, I turned and looked at her over my shoulder. “I don’t think my performance to date has been a problem.”

Ziggy groaned, but Pippa grinned at me. “Yes, but if you recall, I was the one in a position to play with the balls. So—”

Screaming in protest, my sister scurried away just as a giant hand clapped around Pippa’s mouth and she was lifted from the ground. Will removed her from the vicinity with an arm around her waist.

“I’ll take care of this one,” he said, his laugh ringing out. “Go ahead and throw, Jens.”

I turned back to the bocce court and tossed the ball neatly onto the grass. It rolled only a few inches from the four-foot line: a clean throw.

Pippa kicked, wiggled out of Will’s arms, and went to pick up the first red ball. “And now the ladies show you how it’s really done.”

“So this is essentially like shuffleboard?” I asked, getting a hang of the rules. “But we try to get closest to the pallino instead.”

“Right,” Ziggy told me, “but hipsters play bocce at wineries, and old people play shuffleboard on cruise ships.”

“Not only old people,” Pippa protested, bending to throw. “There’s a brilliant shuffleboard table at one of my favorite pubs.”

“Fascinating.” I stood right at her side, speaking directly into her ear, and she startled, turning to fake-glare at me.

“Go away.”

“Tell me more about this shuffleboard table at a pub,” I whispered, working to distract her from her efforts.

She turned and looked at me, her eyes a startling blue, and so close. My heart stumbled, and when it picked itself back up, it was racing.

What a strange fling this was.

“You’re pretty terrible at this distraction game,” she said.

“Am I?”

She took one more step forward and arced the ball away just as I said quietly, “I can still feel the heat of you all along my cock.”

The ball overshot badly, landing out of bounds by a mile, and she whipped around to playfully smack me. “Not fair!”

I caught her hand, and wrestling, I curved around her, my front pressed along her back, gently restraining her arms. “Pretty terrible, was I?”

Will picked up a blue ball and tossed it lightly in his hand as he stepped forward to take his turn. “You guys are adorable.”

He said it absently, but I could see the effects of the words roll over Pippa, and she glanced over her shoulder at me, concerned, before stepping out of my arms.

Instinctively giving me space.

The timing was all wrong. Just as Pippa turned back to me, she looked over my shoulder, toward the inn, and deflated slightly. “Becky.”

“What?”

Tilting her chin to indicate behind me, she repeated, “Becky. She’s coming over here.”

I turned around with a smile on my face. “Hey, Becks.”

Becky startled. “You haven’t called me that in forever.”

“I haven’t seen you in forever.”

This seemed to hit her somewhere tender, and she winced. “I was just coming to see if you guys wanted to leave a little early for the tour. The van is here.”

“I haven’t showered,” Pippa said. “I can be quick, though.”

“Okay,” Becky said, studying me still. “Sure.”

Pippa retreated, watching as she moved around Becky and began walking toward the inn.

“Do you need to shower?” Becky asked, looking me over from head to toe before her eyes came to linger on my stubbly jaw.

“Yeah, probably. I might head up with her.”

“I was wondering if we could talk real quick first?”

I glanced behind Becky to where Pippa had already disappeared into the building. “Becky,” I said gently, sensing my sister and Will pretending not to listen a few feet away, “now isn’t the time.”

“What did she want to talk about?” Pippa asked, buttoning a shirt up her stomach and over her chest.

Goodbye, perfect breasts.

“Jensen?”

I blinked up to her face. “Hmm?”

“I asked what Becky wanted to talk about,” she said, laughing at me.

“Oh.” I shrugged and rubbed a towel over my wet hair. We’d showered separately, much to my chagrin. “No idea. Maybe about Cam selling us our dream house.”

Pippa grunted skeptically as she stepped into a pair of black pants, shimmying them up her hips. They were tight, and her shirt was practically sheer. “Beacon Hill must be fancy for how excited he seems to get this fake commission.”

“Is that what you’re wearing?” I asked, lifting my chin.

She looked down at herself. “Well. Yeah. And some shoes. Why?”

Because I can see your breasts? “No reason.”

She smoothed her hands over her stomach, regarding me with uncertainty. And then her jaw set. “If you think you get an opinion on what I’m wearing, you don’t understand how this works.”

I stood, laughing. “I like it. I can just see your bra.”

“So?” she asked, tilting her head.

“So,” I repeated, “it makes me think of your boobs.”

Pippa bent, slipping on her boots. “You are far less evolved than I initially believed.”

We were the last to join the group at the van, and climbed into the first row of seats, tangling ourselves in the seat belts. I’m not sure how we managed it: Pippa ended up with a strap around her neck and nearly popped a button off her shirt. The buckle snagged on my pocket.

As I worked to disentangle us, she gazed at me, bemused. “This makes me wary of ever dabbling in bondage with you.”

Silence greeted us, and I unlooped the belt from her neck before looking up and around us at the other passengers.

“We’re not alone, are we?” she playfully stage-hissed.

“There are others,” I confirmed. “They’re regarding you with curiosity.”

“And mild horror,” Niall added dryly.

Pippa looked up and grinned winningly at the driver gazing at her in the rearview mirror. “And this is me sober. Best of luck.”

Will turned and looked at us from the front seat. “Are you two going to be trouble today?”

“Probably,” I admitted. “How’s the headache?”

He laughed, facing forward again. “It’s slowly diminishing.”

“How late were you guys out?” Becky asked from the very back.

“Until about midnight?” Ruby guessed.

Cam leaned forward in his seat. “Where did you go?”

“We were just at the wine bar at the B&B,” Niall told him.

The van went silent for a few heavy seconds.

“We didn’t see you leave,” Becky said. Beside me Pippa tensed, and I put a hand on her thigh, urging her to not feel obligated to answer.

“Karaoke was loud,” Ziggy said, and I heard the smile in her voice. “And beer makes me sleepy.”

Ellen piped up. “We found a lovely quilting show just down the highway. They have some truly amazing crafts there if anyone is interested in joining us later today.”

The silence that followed was painful. I looked over to Pippa and could see the effort it was taking her to not accept the invitation, knowing her own sense of obligation would require her to follow through. My hand curled tighter around her thigh, and she met my eyes and smiled weakly.

“That sounds lovely,” Niall said smoothly, “but we’ve a late lunch reservation.”

“I’ve got another Bennett dispatch,” Will called out, quickly explaining the situation to the rest of the group in the van before reading aloud, “ ‘Chloe ironed my shirt this morning. It was already pressed from the dry cleaner, mind you, but she said they hadn’t done a very good job. Did you read that? She ironed. My shirt.’ ”

“That doesn’t seem so bad,” Pippa said. “Odd, but still sane.”

“You’d have to know Old Chloe,” Will explained. “Old Chloe would’ve burned Bennett’s shirt before she’d’ve ironed it.”

My phone vibrated in my pocket. I’d turned off email notifications, and couldn’t imagine anyone was possibly calling or texting me. Pulling my phone out, I looked down to see a text from my sister.

This sucks. I want to hear Bennett texts in our van, not with all these people. I want our little group back.

I quickly typed a reply. Organized tours maybe aren’t the thing for us?

What is up with sad-sack Becky?

Don’t know, I answered.

Don’t care, I didn’t add.

And of course Becky approached me again on the tour, asking to talk.

I let go of Pippa’s hand and, after my pretend wife gave me a small nod of approval, stepped to the side, into the shadows of the oak barrels.

“It’s good to see you,” Becky began.

I nodded but didn’t agree. “It’s been a while.”

“I really like Pippa.”

My stomach tightened. I really liked Pippa, too. “Cam seems . . . great. Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

“And thank you for taking her out to do yoga this morning,” I said with a smile. “She has a pretty fun sense of adventure.”

“I didn’t realize she hadn’t done it before.”

“I’m sure she’d done it lots, just in her imagination.”

We both laughed courteously—awkwardly—until Becky looked to the side, taking a deep breath. And before she could speak, before any sound escaped, I already wanted out of this conversation.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t think we should do this.”

“You don’t think . . . we should talk?” she asked.

Her face was so familiar to me, even aged six years as it was. Big brown eyes, dark brown hair. Becky was always described as “cute”—because she was petite, and perky, and—this trip aside—always had a smile on her face. But she was more than cute; she was beautiful. She just wasn’t made of something very solid inside.

“Right now? No,” I told her honestly. “Not while I’m on vacation for the first time in years.”

After giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze, I walked back over to the group, sliding my arm around Pippa’s back. My sister caught my eye and then looked over to Becky, who was returning to Cam’s side with a defeated frown. Shaking my head, I tried to communicate that everything was fine, but Ziggs looked determined.

With a quick nod, she ducked out of the group and back toward the winery lobby. She caught up with us about ten minutes later, a picnic basket slung over her arm and a triumphant grin on her face. “Let’s bail.”

We should have known it would rain.

“Never trust a blue sky in October,” Ziggy said, giving up on trying to repackage her sodden sandwich and dropping it back into the basket the winery had loaned us. We were seated under an enormous oak tree, and it sheltered us from most of the rain, but an occasional spout would fall from one of the branches, soaking an unexpected spot.

“Whose rule is that?” Will asked, gently chucking her chin. Water ran down his face, dripping off the tip of his nose, but he didn’t seem to care. “I’ve never heard it before.”

“I just came up with it now.”

“It’s oddly warm,” Pippa said, turning her face to the sky. At everyone’s protesting expression, she added, “It is, though. In London, when it rains, it’s so cold you don’t just feel wet, you feel waterlogged.”

“It’s true,” Ruby agreed. “I thought, coming from San Diego, that I would love the rain. But I’m over it.”

Despite this, none of us seemed to mind the rain all that much—certainly not enough to leave the meadow beside the winery, framed by fall colors, trees lush with late-season apples.

“I’ve never lived anywhere but London and Bristol,” Pippa said. “I would miss the Mums, but I don’t know that I would miss London, exactly. Maybe I need an adventure. Myanmar. Or Singapore.”

“Move here,” my sister said, lying down in Will’s lap as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders.

“Right now that sounds bloody amazing. Granted, it’s probably the present state of mind—cheating ex back in London, dreary job, we always want to move wherever we end on holiday, et cetera—but I do think I’d enjoy a stint in the States at some point.”

Propping herself up on an elbow, Ziggy perked, serious now. “Okay, then why not? Do it!”

“It’s not so easy,” Niall said quietly. “Getting a job, a visa . . .”

“I mean,” Ziggs said, wiping a few drops of water from her face, “if you’re interested, I have a lot of connections in the engineering world.” She continued on about international hires and some people she knew in the field, but I tuned out, watching Pippa instead. She was such a surprising mix of gentle and brash, of focused and flighty. It was almost as if I could see the little girl in her battling with the responsible woman, figuring out which would lead the way.

“I don’t know,” Pippa said, voice quiet. “I have a lot to figure out.”

The rain picked up, beginning to fall more heavily from the leaves until we no longer felt like we were sheltered. Soon we would be inundated.

“Guys,” my sister said as we stood and collected our trash, “I know I brought it up last night, but I think we need to cut this trip short. We have two more days in the area, and it just feels like . . .”

“Like we’re happier in our bubble?” Niall finished for her.

Everyone looked at me, almost in unison. I hadn’t wanted to be the reason we would leave Connecticut early, but in the end, it seemed I wasn’t the only one wanting to escape. Finally I gave in. “Okay, fine. You’re right.”

“More wine,” Pippa said, “fewer strangers.”

Glancing at me, she laughed and added, “Well, other than me.”