Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 13

Jensen

For the most part, my habit of waking early had served me well.

An eternal early riser, I often wondered whether it was just the way I was wired or some direct result of growing up in a house with six other people. Being out of bed before everyone else meant a hot shower, dry towels, and a level of bathroom privacy—or any privacy, really—that was unheard of after seven. In college it meant I could party until the early hours of the morning, drag myself back to my dorm, and still get up early enough to tear through homework or study for an exam before class.

It was only on this vacation that I’d somehow learned to stay asleep, rousing only when Pippa’s warm body began to stir next to mine and the smell of butter and berries drifted from downstairs. Most mornings we slept until ten. One morning—after a particularly memorable night in bed—we didn’t wake until after eleven.

It was unheard of for me . . . but it was fucking blissful.

So when my eyes opened early Sunday morning and the sky was still dark, I tried to go back to sleep. In only a matter of hours we would be leaving the sanctuary of the cabin and the bubble that kept the world locked safely outside. I wanted to stay here, mentally, as long as I could. I didn’t want life to come back just yet. Pippa was warm and naked beside me. Her hair was a jumbled mess across my neck, my pillow, her pillow; her lips slightly parted in sleep. But I felt the telltale buzzing in my thoughts—the list making, the mental tallying, the snapping into place of our schedule to return to Boston.

No doubt I would be grateful for it tomorrow, but I cursed my internal clock and its prompt return just as my vacation ended.

Wide awake against my own will, I lifted my head, careful not to dislodge Pippa from where she slept on my chest, and tried to make out the time on the bedside clock.

Just after five. Fuck.

I’d grown used to sharing a bed with someone again, and even though I knew I should stay and savor every last moment I could get—who knew when it would happen again—my brain was wired. At home I’d get up and work or go for a run, maybe catch up on some TV. But this wasn’t home. It was too early to go banging around the house and risk waking everyone up on their last morning to sleep in, but as I waited, listening to the soft sounds of Pippa’s breath against my neck, I knew I couldn’t just lie there and think, either.

I shifted, careful to climb out without jostling her. My suitcase was in the other room, and I padded down the hall, pulling on my clothes and running shoes before slipping quietly out the door.

I came back from my run to find Pippa sitting up in bed, reading.

“Well, hello there,” she said, abandoning her book with a grin.

I felt mildly guilty for sneaking out on our last morning together, but managed to tuck the feeling away. I pulled my shirt over my head and used it to wipe down my chest and the back of my neck. When I turned, I found her watching me.

“I went for a run,” I said. “I tried not to wake you.”

She kicked off the blankets and lay back, arms folded behind her head. Her legs were crossed, toes pointed as she wiggled them in my direction. “Hmm, I sort of wish you would have.”

She was naked, skin creamy against the dark flannel sheets. My eyes trailed down her body, and despite knowing we were going home today and should probably have some sort of conversation—I’d been avoiding it up until this point—I couldn’t look away.

“I need to shower first, but . . .” I said, trying to organize my thoughts but unable to keep my gaze off her breasts. Her nipples were pink, pebbled into tight little points in the cool morning air. Goose bumps covered her skin, and she stretched, arching her back.

“A shower.” She sat up, swinging her legs to the floor. “Now, that is a brilliant idea.”

I blinked up to her eyes again, catching the mischievous glint there.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one avoiding conversation.

Pippa stood and walked over, stopping just in front of me. With a faux-concerned pout, she reached up and traced the frown lines in my forehead.

“Remember our deal?” Pushing up onto her toes, she pressed a kiss to my lips, making a smooching sound. “Fun.”

Her naked body was only an inch away from my partially clothed one, and I felt myself harden in my sweats. She smelled warm, like honey and vanilla and something so distinctly Pippa I wanted to taste it again, remind myself of how she felt against my tongue.

With a final kiss, Pippa headed into the adjoining bathroom. My gaze slipped down along the curve of her spine, to the roundness of her ass and down, down the length of her legs. She slipped out of sight and I heard the water start, followed by the closing of the shower door.

I looked to the window. The logical part of my brain did its best to reason out why I shouldn’t just strip off the rest of my clothes and follow her in there, forget about everything else, and fuck her against the shower wall. We were leaving in a few hours—back to Boston and the inevitable mess I knew would be waiting for me. Pippa would head to her grandfather’s house and, eventually, back to London. Didn’t that mean I should stop playing house and start thinking about real life?

I snapped back to the sound of her humming in the shower and stepped around the corner, catching sight of her naked silhouette on the other side of the frosted glass door. There was no way I wasn’t joining her.

Since we needed to empty the fridge before we left, our last breakfast was big enough to feed an army. Will poured pancakes onto a griddle while Niall cooked what was left of the sausage and bacon. Ruby and Pippa sliced melon, strawberries, bananas, and anything else they could find in the produce drawers for fruit salad; I must have squeezed enough oranges to make at least a gallon of fresh juice.

We stuffed ourselves while a Tom Petty record spun on a turntable in the living room, and if there was a more perfect way to end this entire trip, I couldn’t think of it.

Dishes were washed and bags carried to the car. Pippa and I smiled as we passed one another in the hallway. Only a day ago, I would have reached for her without question, pressed her to the wall, suggested we sneak off into the woods or lock ourselves in the bedroom.

But it was like an alarm had gone off somewhere and we didn’t have time for that anymore. Our sell-by date had arrived. Hands were kept to themselves and mouths turned up into happy smiles, but there was no touching, no teasing kisses or last-minute fumbles in the hall. We were friends again, intimate acquaintances, maybe. And that would have to be enough.

With everything packed and a final goodbye said to our beautiful cabin, we set out for home. Will had done the bulk of the driving up until now, and so when I saw him stifle a yawn as we climbed in, I volunteered to take the first leg. I told myself it was because I wanted a change and not because it was the easy way out, that in the driver’s seat I could focus on the road and not on the conversation—or lack of—going on around me.

Pippa sat in one of the back rows, next to Will, who, after the giant breakfast of pancakes—not to mention two weeks of vacation and probably a lot of sex—fell asleep almost immediately. Everyone chatted for the first little bit, and then conversation gradually tapered off and we either napped or turned to our headphones. Pippa’s voice was noticeably missing, and its absence seemed to echo in my ears. She looked thoughtful for much of the drive, and every now and then I would glance up to her in the rearview mirror. More easy smiles, more friendly nods.

We switched places after a stop for gas, and I moved to the empty seat next to Pippa. Forest gave way to meadows, which gave way to country road and then highway. Highway emptied onto surface streets crowded with tall buildings and cars and people everywhere. Pippa was noticeably still. Gone was the quiet comfort I’d found with her all week, and in its place was a sort of palpable silence, growing larger with each mile until it felt like another person sitting between us.

I stared, unseeing, as we turned from one street to the next, a slew of random thoughts tumbling around in my head. I wondered if Pippa was excited about getting home. It would make sense. Her life was in England: her moms, her apartment, and her job. But all the things she wanted to escape were there, too, including the thrusting bum, as she so often referred to Mark.

Which led my thoughts to why Pippa came here in the first place. It had to have been hard on her, hard enough that she’d kicked him out of the flat they’d shared together and flown halfway across the world to get some distance. I might have been a lackluster boyfriend at best, and apparently an even worse husband, but I could never cheat. Pippa was vivacious and smart, funny and beautiful, and I felt a level of smug self-satisfaction knowing how quickly she realized Mark was undeserving and that he had lost her forever.

But there would surely be others, I knew. My hand moved to my chest and rubbed at the unexpected tightness there. It was jarring to note that while the idea of Becky dating again—and the reality that she had actually remarried—didn’t really bother me, the idea of Pippa dating back in London tasted sour in my thoughts.

That’s not to say it hadn’t been really fucking hard to lose Becky, but the immediate pain had been short-lived. What lingered was the way she left—and my complete bewilderment over it—not really her absence itself.

Pippa was different. She was an electric charge, a flash of light. Falling in love with Pippa and watching her walk away would be like watching someone extinguish the sun.

For the first time, I actually pitied Mark.

The car came to a stop and I blinked, looking around, realizing that we’d parked in front of Niall and Ruby’s hotel. We unloaded and I made my way to the back of the van, busying myself pulling out their luggage and reorganizing the rest.

I shook Niall’s hand and hugged Ruby, smiling over her shoulder—Ruby was a great hugger. She and Pippa said their goodbyes, leaving with promises to meet up the minute Pippa was back in the UK.

And the pressure against my breastbone was back again.

Everyone was awake and decidedly more alert when we piled back into the van, but Niall and Ruby’s absence hung heavily in the air. I watched Ziggs check Will’s phone and giggle over Bennett’s increasingly anxious texts. I knew mine was in my backpack at my feet and would probably have service by now, but I left it there, knowing once I started scrolling through emails and calendar requests, there’d be no turning back.

“What are our dads-to-be up to?” I asked, ready to think about anything but work or the tension I could feel radiating from Pippa. “Has Bennett run screaming into the night yet?”

“Close,” Ziggy said, scrolling back through the messages before she began to read. “ ‘Chloe wants to talk about water births, hoping to bring the baby into a serene world without any jarring sounds or voices.’ And then Max replied with, ‘No jarring sounds or voices? Does Chloe realize this baby will be coming home with the two of you?’ ”

Ziggs dissolved into a fit of giggles, and Will took his phone away. “I’m trying to imagine Bennett and Chloe as parents,” he said. “Bennett and his pristine suits and that white couch in his office. Can you imagine him wearing a BabyBjörn and helping someone blow their nose?”

“I cannot wait to see it,” my sister said. “I’m a little sad we moved away and will only get to view it through text messages and FaceTime.”

“Didn’t you say you were going out there for Christmas?” I asked. “Or at least after the baby?”

Will made a right-hand turn and slowed to a stop as a group of children on bikes crossed the street in front of us.

“That’s the plan. Hopefully she and Sara have them close enough we can see them both in one trip. This it, Pippa?” Will asked, glancing at her from over his shoulder.

Pippa nodded, suddenly more alert.

Turns out Pippa’s grandfather lived only about twenty minutes from me. We had stopped in front of a modest brick home on a tree-lined street, and she practically burst from the van, stepping to the driver’s side to hug Will before walking over to where Ziggy stepped from the passenger side to give her a tight, lingering hug.

Reluctantly, I slid across the seat to climb out and caught sight of my sister, watching me.

Of course she was.

I gave her a warning look and walked around to the back of the van to pull out Pippa’s bag. I had no idea how to proceed here.

Wordlessly, Pippa walked ahead of me up the tidy path from sidewalk to steps, up to the wide porch, and bent, pulling a key from a loose brick beside the door. I hovered behind her. “Is your grandpa home?”

“He’s probably playing bingo,” she said, opening the storm door before fitting the key into the lock.

“Do you want us to wait with you?” I asked.

She waved me off as the bolt clicked and the door swung open in front of her. A dog barked happily from somewhere inside.

“No, it’s okay. He’ll be home soon. Likes to flirt with the coat check ladies.” She reached for her bag and set it down just out of view.

The wind rattled the storm door and I steadied it with my hand.

Pippa glanced past me out to the street. Silence was new to us.

I didn’t like it.

Finally she looked at me. “I had fun,” she said. “A lot of fun.”

I nodded, leaning in to kiss her sweet smile, which carried none of the awkward tension that had accompanied us the entire ride.

It was meant to be a soft kiss, barely a brush, simple and warm. But I pulled away only to come back again, her bottom lip caught between both of mine, a tiny suck, a drag of teeth, and then again, and again, heads tilting and mouths open, tongues sliding against each other. I felt drunk from it, pulled into the undertow of the familiarity, stunned by the heat crawling up my spine, needing more.

Abruptly, Pippa pulled away, eyes tight. She ran a finger over her mouth, swallowing thickly behind her hand. “Okay . . .” she whispered, ashen.

My stomach dropped. Here we were, saying the dreaded goodbye.

“I should go,” I said, and motioned over my shoulder, adding lamely, “I had a really great time.”

She nodded. “So did I. It was a great partnership. Call me again when you need a fake wife or a holiday girl. I seem to be quite good at it.”

“That’s a bit of an understatement.” Taking a step back, I ran my hands through my hair again. “It was really nice to meet you.”

And . . . that was pretty terrible.

I took another step back. “Have a safe trip home.”

Her brow furrowed and then she gave me an uncertain smile. “I will.”

“Bye.”

“Bye, Jensen . . .”

My throat tight, I turned and jogged back to the van.

Hanna was still watching me.

“That was . . .” she said.

I glared at her, feeling defensive, and fastened my seat belt. “That was what?”

“Nothing, just, I don’t know.”

I hated how clearly Ziggy saw this situation. It made me feel itchy, restless. “We’re dropping her off, aren’t we?” I asked, settling into the seat. “Wasn’t I supposed to kiss her goodbye?”

“I mean after the kiss. Last night you missed dinner because of her. Just now you kissed and then it looked like you were thanking her for doing your taxes. I could feel the awkward from here.”

“Last night we were on vacation,” I told her. “What were you expecting?”

Both Will and Ziggs stayed quiet.

“We aren’t getting married,” I reminded them sharply. “We didn’t spend two weeks together and suddenly decide we were in love.” I immediately felt bad for my tone. Ziggy wasn’t trying to tell me how to live my life, she was just telling me to live. She only wanted me to be happy.

And I was.

I waved to Will and Ziggs from my car window before backing out of their driveway. Four minutes later, I was pulling up in front of my house.

Home. Damn, it was good to be back, alone in my own space and surrounded by my own things, with Wi-Fi and cell reception, like the good Lord intended.

Fall was in full swing now, with more leaves on the ground than in the trees. I made a note as I climbed the steps to call the gardener and arrange for a little extra time to clean everything up this weekend.

I dropped my keys in the little dish on the entryway table and my bag by the door, taking a second to enjoy the quiet. My parents’ grandfather clock ticked in the dining room and a mulcher ran somewhere nearby, but other than that, it was silent.

Maybe—and I couldn’t believe I was saying it—a little too silent.

Fuck it.

I was home, shoes off, soon to be in lounge pants with some takeout and a beer in front of me. I bent, grabbing the TV remote to turn on the system before heading into the kitchen. My stack of takeout menus slid easily from their perch on the counter, in a plastic envelope holder. In my hand, they felt worn and familiar.

This was good, right? Unwind on the trip, unwind the rest of the way at home.

I hadn’t felt this relaxed in years.

I was putting my last load of clothes in the washer when the doorbell rang a few hours later.

I opened the door and froze.

I hadn’t been expecting this.

“Becky?” I asked, and then stopped, because my brain was empty of even a single follow-up that didn’t begin with What the fuck are you doing on my front porch?

She lifted her hand in an awkward little wave. “Hi.”

“Hi?” I said, quietly confused. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re visiting my family,” she said.

“I mean, what are you doing here?”

“I . . . um . . .” She cleared her throat, and it was only then that I noticed the thin coat she wore, the fact that I could see each of her breaths in the cold air in front of her. It was probably freezing outside. Fuck.

“Come in,” I said, and took a step back, giving her plenty of space as she walked past me.

She stopped inside, taking a few seconds to look around. Some of the furniture she probably recognized. The end table. The lamp on the entryway table. She had taken nothing with her when she left except for a few suitcases full of clothes and a couple of paintings her grandmother had given us.

I still ate off our wedding dishes, for fuck’s sake. A gift from my brother Niels; my family hadn’t let me return them. Maybe that was something I should change.

“You guys took off before the tour ended,” she said, turning to face me.

I nodded, sliding my hands into the pockets of my track pants. “Yeah, we left sort of on impulse.”

“Was it because Cam and I were there?”

Shrugging, I said, “That was part of it. Really, though, the tour wasn’t our thing, in the end.”

Silence ticked between us, and her eyes scanned the walls and the living room just beyond, the kitchen, and it was then that I realized my mistake.

“Where’s Pippa?” she asked.

I coughed out a quiet laugh. I was too fucking tired for this.

“Pippa is . . .” I started, and then realized I didn’t have to explain a thing. “She doesn’t live here.”

Becky blinked, confused.

“We aren’t married,” I said simply.

“What?” she asked, eyes wide.

“We were just—it was just us having fun.” I ran one hand through my hair and watched as she scanned the room again.

“Why would you make that up?” she asked, looking back to me. “You looked like a couple, acted like . . .”

“We were together,” I said with a tiny twinge of discomfort.

“But you’re not actually married?”

“I just . . .” I trailed off, deciding it wasn’t worth getting into. “Becky—sorry—but is there a reason you’re here?”

She opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again, shaking her head with a small laugh. “I wanted to say goodbye,” she finally said.

“You came over here because you didn’t get a proper goodbye?”

Becky grimaced, clearly catching the irony there. “Well, and . . . we didn’t really get any time to talk. Just the two of us. Cam is really encouraging me to try to communicate better. Do you have maybe twenty minutes? I just . . .” She turned and walked farther into the room, pushing her hands into her hair before facing me again. “There are so many things I want to say.”

I’m sure the loaded silence that followed wasn’t what she’d expected. I almost wanted to laugh. If someone would have asked me five years ago—maybe even only two—whether I had anything to say to my ex-wife, I could have written a dissertation.

And, in truth, I’d certainly had a lot to say that night at the vineyard with Pippa, shouting up to the sky while the sprinklers soaked us from every direction. But now I felt strangely empty. Not angry, not even sad. I’d left those parts of me at the winery, and only Pippa knew about them anymore.

“If you want to talk . . .” I trailed off and then amended for clarity, “I mean, if it will make you feel better to talk . . .”

She took a step closer. “Yeah, I think I can explain now.”

I couldn’t stop the short laugh that burst from me. “Becks, I don’t need you to explain anything to me now.”

Shock moved across her face and she shook her head as if she’d misunderstood. “I don’t feel like we ever really discussed it,” she explained. “I’ve never acknowledged how shitty it was to leave you the way I did.”

I pulled back a little, realizing even now how self-absorbed she was. “And you think six years after we split up is a good time to hash it out?”

She stuttered out a few sounds of protest.

I lifted my shoulders in a helpless gesture. “I mean . . . if you want to get it off your chest, I’ll listen.” I smiled at her, not unkindly. “I’m not saying this because I’m bitter or because I want to hurt you, but because it’s the truth. There isn’t anything you need to explain to me, Becks. This isn’t something I live with every day anymore.”

She moved to the couch, tucking her feet up under her and staring at her hands. It was odd to gaze at a profile that had once been so precious to me and now just looked . . . familiar.

“This isn’t really going like I expected,” she admitted.

I came around the couch, sitting beside her. “I’m not sure what you want me to say,” I admitted quietly. “How did you expect this to go?”

She turned her face up to me. “I guess I felt like I owed you something, and that it would be a relief to you to hear me say it. I’m glad you don’t need it,” she said quickly, “but I didn’t really realize I needed it until I saw you at the tour.”

Nodding, I said, “Well, what is it you needed to say?”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry,” she said, holding my eyes for a few seconds before blinking back down at her hands. “The way I left was terrible. And I wanted you to know it wasn’t really about you.”

I laughed a little, dryly. “I think that was partly the problem.”

“No,” she said, looking back up, “I mean that you hadn’t done anything wrong. I didn’t stop loving you. I just felt like we were too young.”

“We were twenty-eight, Becks.”

“I mean, I hadn’t lived yet.”

I watched her, feeling the truth of it. Feeling a tightening of my breath as I remembered Pippa saying much the same thing just last week, but saying it so much more readily, with confidence, with wisdom.

Becky had gone from living at home, to living in a dorm, to living with me. With the tendency to be a bit of a wallflower, she had never sought adventure, per se. I just never thought she craved it.

“I understand all of this in hindsight, of course,” she said quietly. “But I saw this life stretching out ahead of me, and it was content and easy, but not very interesting.” She pulled at a loose thread on her sleeve, and it unraveled a bit more than she expected, I guess, because she lifted it to her mouth, biting it off. “Then I thought of you, and this person I was married to who was ready to take the world by storm, and I knew that—at some point—one of us would absolutely lose it.”

This made me laugh, and she looked back up at me, a little relieved.

“I don’t mean actual insanity,” she added, “but I mean cheating, or midlife crisis, or something.”

“I wouldn’t have cheated on you,” I said immediately.

Her eyes softened a little. “How can you know? How long did it take you to fall out of love with me?”

I didn’t want to answer this, and my silence gave her what she needed. “Can you really tell me you’re not better off?”

“You’re not asking me to thank you?” I said, incredulous.

She quickly shook her head. “No, I just mean that I saw my own loose foundation. I saw myself breaking at some point in the future. Or maybe that was my break. But for whatever reason, I knew we weren’t forever. I knew we loved each other enough to get through the obvious, temporary stresses like career changes and having young children. But we didn’t love each other enough to get through boredom, and I worried you would be absolutely bored with me.”

I wondered if that explained Cam, whether she found him to be a simpler man than she found me. I also wondered how I should feel about that: flattered that she regarded me so highly, or troubled that she valued herself so little.

“Are you happy with him?” I asked.

“Yeah.” Her smile, when she aimed it at me, was genuine. “We’re talking about having kids. We’ve traveled a lot since we met: England, Iceland, even Brazil.” With a little shake of her head, she added, “He has a good job. He doesn’t need me to work. He just wants me to be happy.”

Becky had never liked a lot of pressure.

And this made me wonder whether I gave the appearance of a man who needed a wife who was willing to compete with my career, making Becky feel like she could never win.

The truth was, maybe I did need that. And maybe she couldn’t have won. But how could I know?

And did it matter anymore? I was older now. I wanted someone whose presence demanded more space in my thoughts and my heart. When I thought back to how I had described Becky to Pippa, I registered how generic it all sounded.

She was nice.

We had fun.

I wasn’t whitewashing it. I just didn’t really remember much beyond it being pleasant. Because Becky was right; she hadn’t lived yet. Neither of us had.

“Do you feel better?” I asked.

“I guess so,” she said, taking a deep breath and then letting it out through puffed cheeks. “Though I still can’t understand why you pretended to be married to Pippa.”

“It isn’t that complicated.” I reached up, scratching my eyebrow. “When I saw you, I panicked.” Shrugging, I added, “It just came out. And almost immediately after, I realized I was fine, and that it wasn’t all that hard to be around you. But at that point, the lie felt easier. I didn’t want to embarrass you. Or me, either, really.”

She nodded, and kept nodding for a few seconds as if settling on a realization herself. “I should go.”

I stood after her and followed her to the door.

This entire conversation was both strange and totally banal.

When I opened the door for her, I realized Cam had been parked at the curb all this time. “You could have invited him in,” I said, incredulity threading through my words. “It’s been forty-five minutes he’s been sitting there.”

“He’s fine.” She stretched, pecking my cheek. “Take care, Jens.”

I collapsed on the couch, feeling a little like I’d just run a marathon.

It was early, way too early for bed, but I shut off the TV anyway and switched off the lights, and finally pulled my phone from my bag. I would set my alarm but not check emails, I told myself. I would read my book and I would go to sleep.

I wouldn’t think about Becky, or Pippa, or any of it.

A text flashed on the screen. It was from Pippa.

Gramps is an adorable loon and he wants me to take him to dinner tomorrow at 3. THREE, Jensen. By half seven I’ll be starving. Please have dinner with me at a normal, adult hour?

I stared down at the screen.

The idea of dinner with Pippa sounded good. She would make me laugh, maybe we’d even come back here, to my place. But after Becky and knowing the nightmare that waited for me tomorrow at work, I wasn’t sure I’d be good company.

To put it simply, I was tired. I just couldn’t deal—with anything right now.

I felt terrible before I even replied.

This week is really nuts. Maybe next week? I typed.

I tossed my phone to the side, feeling faintly nauseated.

A half hour later, climbing into bed, I checked my phone for a response. There was none.