Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 11

Pippa

A weight was lifted after we agreed to cut the trip short in Connecticut. The idea had been a good one; the reality less so. Instead, we would hop into the van and head up to Vermont early for a little more than a week of quiet in the cabin. Like Niall said: back in our bubble.

It all sounded easy, really. Relaxed, right?

Except we still had one more night in the B&B, and the other two couples were planning to hole up with takeout, and . . . well.

Jensen and I could either go out to eat and risk running into Becky and Cam in this tiny town . . . or simply stay in.

We didn’t discuss it. We didn’t have a plan. We just sort of . . . walked that way, went inside, dropped our things, and gazed at each other.

“So,” he said.

“So.”

After bending to catalog the minibar, he pulled out a half liter of chardonnay, holding it up in question.

“You haven’t grown sick of wine yet?” I asked, laughing.

“I don’t think I would ever grow sick of wine,” he said, reaching for the corkscrew.

There was no need for nervous chatter while he opened the bottle. He was a man used to being watched at the head of the room, to the room quieting when he spoke, to being brought there specifically so that others would hear what he had to say and do as he did. I watched his forearm flex as he turned the corkscrew, the cork gently squeaking its way out of the glass neck.

“What are you thinking, watching me right now?” he asked, looking up only once the cork was free and captured in his wide palm.

“Just . . . watching.”

He nodded as though this answer was enough, and it made me smile a little because it was precisely the kind of answer Mark would give me and I would have needled him for more.

I wondered if this thing we had going was weird to Jensen, tethered as it was in absolutely nothing. No business partnership would come from this fling; no romantic partnership, either. For a man used to spending his effort only on things worth his time, I wondered if, just being here, he had to overwrite some Efficiency Required program, or whether I was like text written on a dry-erase board with the instructions Leave this up until October 28.

I found him truly fascinating.

He came toward me slowly, extending a hotel tumbler half filled with wine. But before I could bring it to my lips, he was there, bending in close, his closed mouth over mine pressing, opening, tasting me.

Somewhere in the last couple of days, the tables had turned. Jensen looked less windblown in his surprised reaction to me and more sure of himself, like he was going after something familiar now and was ready to reestablish control.

Pulling back, he nodded to the glass in my hand and let me sip it before immediately returning, licking the wine from my lips.

“I like the way your lips move,” he said quietly, so close, his eyes still focused on my mouth. “Whenever you speak it’s impossible to not watch them.”

“It’s the accent.” I’d heard this before. American men liked watching British women speak; it wasn’t a mystery: we pout our words, we flirt with them.

But Jensen shook his head. “They’re so pink,” he said. “And full.” Bending, he kissed me again and then pulled back, shifting his gaze up to my eyes, and higher, to my hair. “You said you often dye your hair?”

He reached up, capturing a strand between his thumb and fingers, and dragged them down to the tip.

“Sometimes.”

“I like it like this,” he said, watching his fingers repeat the action. “Not red, not blond.”

I suspected the reason he liked it like this was the same reason I tended not to: It was rather quiet, well-behaved hair. It was long and predictably wavy. Vaguely blond, vaguely red, maybe even vaguely brown—unwilling to commit. I wanted hair that made a declaration: TODAY, I WILL BE PINK.

“Your hair like this makes your eyes bluer,” he continued, and my mind hit the brakes. “Makes your lips pinker. Makes you look too perfect to be real.”

Well.

No one had ever said that to me, and suddenly pink seemed like a terribly distracting thing for hair to be.

“That’s a delightful compliment,” I said, grinning widely up at him.

His eyes mirrored the expression, but his mouth stayed the same: lips only slightly parted, as if he tasted me in the air. He lifted his glass, finishing the short pour in a long gulp, and then put it behind him on the desk and turned back, clearly waiting for me to do the same.

So I sipped it slowly.

“Pippa,” he said, laughing as he bent to kiss my neck.

“Yes?”

“Finish your wine.”

“Why?”

He brought my hand to the front of his trousers so I could feel why. “I’ve spent all day watching you jump and run around in those tight pants and that practically sheer shirt.”

“You really are used to seeing women in thick turtlenecks and smart wool skirts to their knees.”

He laughed. “Come here.”

My smile slid from my face and he watched it happen, that realization of what we were about to do.

“We don’t have to,” he whispered. “It’s fast. I know.”

“No . . . I want it.”

The tumbler was pulled from my hand and dropped haphazardly down onto the desk. Jensen picked me up, my legs came around his waist, and he was above me, working his body over mine in barely another breath.

He ground against me, impatient as he found a rhythm, his mouth covering mine, lips sucking, tongue sliding inside. He groaned, pulling my leg higher up his waist. “I’ve been hard for hours.”

God, I could come like this.

I had, just last night.

His cock just there, between my legs, so right, shifting harder and faster, his breath hot on my neck, quiet grunts freer now, as if he were a sweater and I’d tugged a loose thread and now he was slowly unraveling.

“I don’t want to come like this,” I managed from beneath him. “I want—”

I’d have to check later to see whether my shirt was torn or whether it was just a stitch ripping loudly through the room as he pulled it off me. He peeled my trousers and underpants off in a long, determined tug. His own shirt came off with a hand reaching backward, grabbing a fistful of cotton, and yanking it forward, pulling his hair with it into his eyes.

Fevered hands pushed his pants down, fumbling in his suitcase for a condom, and the tear of the foil seemed to crackle through the room.

The wet slide of it, the feel of him pulling me over him, holding his cock for me to take in . . .

And when I did, we both went silent in that gasping, aware moment. He was staring up at my face, and I felt so entirely naked above him, in a way that I really hadn’t before in any of my quick drunk fumblings or under-the-covers rutting. My sex life before seemed so . . . obvious compared to this, and even though Mark was older than Jensen by a number of years, he’d never seemed this assured, this mature, this . . . experienced.

His hands cupped my hips, helping me find a rhythm, and I was so overwhelmed by it all that I couldn’t really focus, couldn’t get into the headspace I needed, where I could just let go and have at him. But he seemed to get it, sitting up beneath me and finally breaking that quiet habit of his to tell me how it felt for him, how warm, and his hand came between us, touching me for the first time ever like this, pressing and patient. I wanted to apologize, in a silly burst; I felt so foolish that my body was so distracted by the reality of it that I couldn’t focus on the pleasure, but he didn’t even seem to care.

Slowly, slowly, he worked me over, kissing me and touching me and praising until something clicked inside, some track sliding into place. It turned from self-conscious, awestruck desire into focused pleasure—and it was obliterating, pleasure so good it was nearly numbing, my orgasm tearing through me before I realized how loud I’d been, how frantic, with nails digging into his back and my neck arched away, face tilted toward the ceiling.

He rolled us so he was above me now, watching where our bodies came together as he slid back inside. His eyes traveled the path to my face, and only once he was looking at me did he begin moving again.

“You good?” he whispered.

I nodded, but the truth was, I wasn’t good. Not at all. I was slowly losing my bloody mind.

This wasn’t what a fling should be. He wasn’t casual, forgettable. He wasn’t flaky or flippant. He was attentive, he was considerate, and—holy fuck—he seemed more committed to spending time with me than he was to sleeping, to eating, even to finding closure with Becky. It was almost as if this was what he wanted.

But only temporarily.

Wanting to somehow encode his body on my hands, I ran my palms down the definition of his back, across the firm curve of his backside, and forward—feeling the muscular shifting of his hips.

Up his stomach. Over his chest.

My arms went up then, snaking around his neck and urging his body back onto mine.

He came down to me with a smile, his lips meeting mine briefly, sweetly, before he pressed his face to my neck and gave in to the genuine fucking his body needed.

His chest slid across me, up and back, up and back, his breath a rise and drop of warm, bursting air on my neck.

Speeding up, he exhaled a sharp grunt, his hand smoothing down my side to pull my leg higher, to push in deeper, to work himself inside me. It was the only thing I could possibly notice—how it turned for him from good to necessary, how his body hit a place of no return and he was grunting with every breath, and finally tensing beneath my hands with a long, rough groan.

The sound of it echoed in my ear, seeming to settle gently around us.

Sex.

We’d had sex.

Good sex. Not just good but . . . real.

And he didn’t roll off me, didn’t immediately retreat.

His mouth pressed warm, small kisses along my neck to my jaw, until it met mine and we kissed, mouths open to catch our breath, wordless.

I don’t know what I would have done with a man like Jensen back in my real life.

Would I have even been able to let him in? Or would I have been all chatter and booze, jokes and chaos? Would he even have looked at me, with my every-colored hair, vibrant bird tattoo, and wildly bright skirts?

No, I thought. There were no other circumstances under which a man like Jensen would look twice at a woman like me. And even if he had, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what to do with his attention.

I sat up, jerked from sleep.

The room was dark and I assumed it was still the black of night, but I had no real sense of the time: at some point, Jensen must have gotten up and closed every layer of curtains to build a dark, warm fortress.

I hoped I’d been daintily curled on my side, nose-breathing like a lady. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the most delicate sleeper.

Indeed, I must have roused Jensen with my startled awakening, because he sat up beside me, rubbing a warm hand on my back.

“You okay?” he asked.

I nodded, wiping my face. “I just had an odd dream.”

He pressed his lips to my bare shoulder. “A nightmare?”

“Not exactly.” I lay back down, pulling him beside me and curling on my side to face him. “I have it all the time. At the beginning of the dream, I’m just leaving my flat. I’m wearing a fashionable new dress, and I feel quite smart in it. But the day goes on, and I realize the skirt is shorter than I thought it was, and I’m sort of nervously tugging on it, wondering whether it’s proper for work. Eventually I’m in an important meeting, or stepping into a new classroom, or—you get it—”

“Yes.”

“And I register that the dress I thought was a dress is really just a blouse, and I’m naked from the waist down.”

He laughed, leaning forward to kiss my nose. “You woke up with a gasp.”

“It’s shocking to realize you’ve gone to work half naked.”

“I would imagine.”

“What’s your recurring dream?”

He closed his eyes, thinking and humming in pleasure when I ran my hand into his hair. He had the softest hair, cut short on the sides and a little longer on top. Just enough to make a tight fist around. I think he rather liked that.

“Mine is usually where I’m enrolled in a class and realize at the end of the semester that I have the final and I haven’t studied—or even been to class—yet.”

“What do those dreams say about us, do you think?” I asked, massaging his scalp.

“Nothing,” he murmured, his voice thick and relaxed. “I think everyone has these exact same dreams.”

“You really aren’t doing this fling right,” I said quietly, watching his face as I moved my attention down his neck, rubbing his shoulders. “Reassuring me after a dream in the middle of the night. Cuddling me. Kissing me like that after we have sex the first time.”

He shrugged against my touch but didn’t say anything.

We fell into silence, and I thought he was asleep until his voice rose from the quiet. “I guess I’m not very good at casual. I’m trying.”

“Well, judging by the way it feels like I was shagged by a jackhammer, I would say there are aspects of it you’re very good at.”

He growled, so low in his throat it made his chest rumble, and something about the sound felt like a current of electricity along my skin. I snuggled into him, and his arm came around me, pulling me tight.

“Is that right?” he asked, lips pressed to my neck.

“I think you know I enjoyed myself.”

“I didn’t expect you to be so shy at first,” he admitted.

“I didn’t, either.” I hummed when he moved his mouth higher, just beneath my jaw. “You’re a perfect lover.”

“Me?” He laughed, a small burst of air. “I nearly passed out when I came.”

With pride, I tilted my chin up. “Was I amazing as all that?”

“Yeah.” He rolled so he was hovering above me, staring down. Thoughtfully, he murmured, “What is it about you?”

The answer to this seemed obvious: “I eat a lot of cheese.”

Jensen ignored this. “You’re silly, and beautiful, and . . .”

“A little daft?”

He shook his head, all sincerity. “You’re just unexpected.”

“Maybe because you’re not looking for anything expected here?”

He looked at me with the question in his eyes, not understanding.

“I mean,” I clarified, “you’re doing what you should be doing and enjoying this.”

Jensen bent to kiss me, pressing his lips to mine, slowly capturing the bottom one and biting it gently. “You’re the perfect holiday girl.”

Something about that made me twist a little inside, a tiny splinter in the tender flesh of my feelings. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be the perfect holiday girl for him. It was that he was so much better than the perfect holiday boy. He was ideal, in so many ways, really, and would leave this trip refreshed, going off to find someone suitable for him. Someone who wasn’t silly, and daft, and unexpected. And addicted to cheese. I would head home and forever compare the next bloke—and the one after that—to the man above me right now.

And here I was, anyway, on this trip with a group of people I genuinely admired, and who—if I was being honest with myself—I was rather lucky to have stumbled upon in the first place. I wasn’t sure I was of the right caliber for any of them, really.

As if he knew that, or could somehow see this insecurity on my face, he said, “You seem like you’d be a fun best friend.”

I blinked up at him, pushing away the mild unease in my chest. “Does that mean you don’t like me naked?”

Shifting so I felt him, hard again between my legs, he said, “Trust me, I like you naked.”

I couldn’t quite translate his tone in my head. A “fun best friend” and a good shag were essentially all I wanted out of a lover someday. But Jensen’s tone still carried the holiday girl echo.

“Do you not date friends?” I asked.

“I mean . . . every female friend I have is either married or . . . yeah, just strictly platonic.”

“How sad.”

He laughed, kissing my neck. “Well, if I want someone, I want to be with her, not be her buddy.”

“You weren’t buddies with Becky?”

Above me, Jensen froze and then slowly rolled off me, onto his side.

“Don’t get weird,” I said, scooting toward him and cuddling into his chest. “We’re just talking.”

“I mean . . . no,” he said quietly, staring up at the ceiling. “We were drunk one night our sophomore year of college and hooked up. After that, it was just sort of assumed that we were together.”

“But presumably you liked being around her.”

Shrugging, he said, “She was Becky. She was my girlfriend.”

“A fun girlfriend?”

He turned to look at me. “Yeah, she was fun.”

What a weird compartmentalization he practiced. “This is why you don’t do flings, you know,” I said. “Because you put people into categories. Potential-girlfriend-maybe-someday-wife, or friend.”

“I’m not putting you in any category,” he said, finally smiling a little again.

“Which is why I think you find me unexpected.”

Pulling back, he studied my face. “How old are you? I should know this.”

“Twenty-six.”

“You sound wise.”

This made me grin. “I feel like an idiot much of the time, so I’ll take that compliment and tuck it in here.” I pretended to slide it into a pocket on my chest.

Bending forward to kiss my hand, he said, “Tell me about your last boyfriend.”

“You want to hear all about Mark again?” I asked, incredulous.

He shook his head, laughing. “Sorry, no, whoever came before that guy.”

“I am assuming you mean a man who I was with longer than a shag?” Laughing more, Jensen nodded, so I said, “In that case, his name was Alexander—not Alex, by God!—and he essentially wanted to get married after three dates.”

“Did you like him?”

I thought about this. It felt so long ago. “I did. I believe I liked him a lot. But I was only twenty-four.”

“So?”

“So,” I said, growling playfully at him, “I feel like I barely know myself now. How could I promise to be loyal to someone forever when I’m not really sure yet whether I’m loyal to this version of me?”

He stared at me after I said that, and I wondered whether it shook something loose in him about Becky, or about himself.

“You don’t want to get married?” he asked, slowly, as if working it out.

“I do,” I said. “Maybe. Someday. But it isn’t my endgame. I don’t wander the world wondering if the man I’ve just passed who smiled at me might show up at the hotel bar later and we get to talking and boom, I’m in a flowing white dress.”

He nodded, understanding. And then he pulled back a little, probably overthinking something, so I yanked him back to me, asking, “Do you approach every date thinking of marriage?”

“No,” he said carefully, “but I don’t bother dating someone more than once if I can’t imagine myself with them.”

“Not even for a shag?”

He smiled, kissing my nose. “Well, my friend Emily would be the exception, but as a general rule, I don’t sleep with women I’m not dating.”

“Only ‘holiday girls’?”

Jensen allowed a tiny smile at this. “Only holiday girls.”

“It’s nice, though, innit?” I asked quietly.

He kissed me, tongue sliding over mine, warm and slippery, making me ache from my chest and down, down between my legs. “It’s nice not having the pressure, knowing neither of us wants more.”

“I think you enjoy this kind of sex,” I whispered. “I think you like being a little fast and dirty with someone.”

“It’s true I usually wait until a few dates in before sleeping with someone. And I haven’t had a girlfriend, strictly speaking, in a while.”

“Who was the last woman you were with? Emily?”

He shook his head and chewed his lower lip, thinking, as his hand absently smoothed up and down my bare back. “Let’s see. Her name was Patricia—”

“Patricia!” I cackled. “Did you play Naughty Banker with her?”

He rolled to me, tickling my side. “How did you know? She actually is an executive at Citibank.”

“A rollicking good time in bed, then?”

Jensen pulled back a little, admonishing me with a look. “Relationships are about more than what happens in bed.”

And when he said this, I could feel the ironic press of him against my stomach, and slid my hand down to wrap around him.

“But what happens in bed is crucial for a relationship,” I reasoned. “At least to start.”

He shifted forward and back in my grip. “True . . .”

We shared a lingering moment of eye contact, his hips slowly shifting forward and back as he dragged his cock across my palm. I wanted to touch him everywhere, not only because I liked the lines and the tension of his body but also because I sensed that no one had ever made it their mission to learn each and every bit of him.

“It’s too bad . . .” he began, and then let the rest remain unfinished as he started moving faster, breath catching.

“It is,” I whispered.

It’s too bad I’m too eccentric for you.

It’s too bad you’re too busy for me.

It’s too bad I’m only learning my heart and you have yours rolled in bubble wrap.

His mouth came over mine then, lips warm and just a tiny bit wet, moving down my neck. He pulled at my breasts, sucking, teeth scraping down lower, over my navel until he was there, warm and breathy, tonguing at the aching space between my legs.

“Harder,” I gasped when he licked me too carefully. “Don’t be gentle.”

He did as I asked, sliding fingers into me while he sucked and licked and it was perfect and frantic and my body chased and chased the feeling until I knew what I wanted, and—

“Up here—please.”

In only seconds he was there, rolling on a condom, needing it, too, and I was consumed by the relief of him pushing into me: heavy, eager, his arms curling beneath my shoulders to anchor him there.

I wanted to see it from above, needed to

—in this oddly desperate way—

because all of a sudden I was thinking of Mark, and his thrusting bum, and how it looked—even at the time, while my heart broke into pieces in my throat—like his movements over the nameless woman were so remote, so detached, like a pivoting machine.

But here, it felt as though Jensen was trying to slide across every inch of me.

His chest over mine, and his thighs to mine, and his cock inside me. He pushed so deep, arching into me as if trying to enter me completely.

It was as if every bit of him needed contact. How could a man so restrained by his own rules not see how much passion he craved?

I gripped his backside, pulling him still deeper, urging him with my voice and my movements from beneath, and we fit—it sounds insane, and I hated this idea, but we did; his body fit mine like we were some sort of carved, complementary pieces—and I could barely keep from biting his shoulder as it stabbed through the air above me.

I was in that space where I didn’t want this to end, couldn’t imagine ever waking up without the feel of this and moving through the day without his skin to my skin and his mouth to my neck and his guttural sounds—so unrefined, nearly savage—hammering in my ear. It made me euphoric, seeing this side of him. It was like being let in to watch the unraveling of the prime minister, a tsar, a king.

My orgasm really was like a revelation: it was a spiral twisting through me, beginning at the center and climbing down and up at the same time, so that I arched and bent beneath him, begging him to not stop, never stop, please, Jensen, don’t ever stop.

But he had to, because his body did the same above me: growing still in the tension, arms gripping me, face pressed to my neck in a posture of relief that felt like giving up and letting go all at once.

They sound the same, but they aren’t. I felt it.

The air around us was warm, and still, and slowly—but not slowly enough—it mixed with the conditioned air beyond, and everything seemed to cool. Jensen pulled from me in a move that made us both groan quietly, and he kneeled between my legs, looking down as he removed the condom and then sat there, chin to chest, breathing heavily.

I’d had flings before. I’d had casual nights with men. Sweet men, distracted men, hungry men; forgettable in many ways.

This—tonight—wasn’t like that.

I knew I would remember Jensen when I was old and thinking back on things. I would remember the lover I had on my Boston holiday. I would remember this tender moment, just here, when he was overwhelmed by the love we’d just had. It may have been a spark, a match struck to pavement and extinguished, but it was there.

I stared at him as he reached across the bed to throw the condom in the bin near the bedside table. He came back over me, warm, tired, and wanting the languishing sort of kisses that are the sweetest prelude to sleep.

It didn’t scare me, but it didn’t quite thrill me, either.

Because Jensen was right: this was all very unexpected.