Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 14

Pippa

Grandpa handed me a bowl of steel-cut oats, and it took several seconds for my stunned brain to register that the ceramic in my hand was hot.

Yelping, I quickly set it down on the counter beside my hip, thanking him absently.

“All you Millennials staring at your phones,” he grumbled.

Blinking up, I watched as he ambled over to the kitchen table, sitting down to tuck into his own bowl.

“Sorry,” I said, turning the screen off. “I must be gaping at this like a snake that’s unhinged its entire jaw to eat a small creature.” I put the phone down, joining him at the table. Staring at my mobile in bewilderment wouldn’t change the message there from last night:

This week is really nuts. Maybe next week?

Yes, you wanker, but next week I won’t be here.

“Am I a Millennial?” I asked, grinning at him to push aside my irritation and confusion. “I felt I was an in-betweener. Not an X, not a Y, not a Millennial.”

He looked up at me and grinned. “Twelve hours you’ve been back and already it’s going to feel quiet when you leave.”

It already feels quiet, I thought. One week of a house with six people and it became the norm.

“How about this,” I said, swallowing a bite of oatmeal. “I’ll leave my mobile here and we’ll catch a film?”

Grandpa nodded into his mug of coffee. “You’ve got yourself a plan, kiddo.”

The road passed under us in a steady hum that filled the car.

I had a pretty nasty hangnail on my left middle finger.

My skirt needed to be laundered.

My shoes were falling apart.

I suppose I should have clued in with his It was really nice to meet you when he dropped me off, but I’d been hoping it was just nerves or the awkwardness of Hanna watching us so intently. It wasn’t. That hadn’t really been a see-you-later kiss, it was a goodbye.

Jensen was an asshole.

I’d forgotten how horrible it felt to be dumped.

“I realize I don’t know you as well as I used to,” Grandpa said carefully, “but you’ve seemed pretty quiet all day.”

Looking over, I gave him a halfhearted smile. I couldn’t deny it, and even going out to see a beautifully shot and wonderfully distracting documentary on the migration patterns of African birds hadn’t snapped my mood away from Jensen’s brush-off last night.

It wasn’t that I’d expected more, it was that it had genuinely turned into more. I knew I wasn’t imagining it. I trusted my view on things too much to believe that.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“That’s the tenth time you’ve apologized today,” he said, frowning. “And if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you’re not a compulsive apologizer.”

“Sorr—” I stopped myself, giving in to a real smile this time. “Oops.”

He stared stoically at the road ahead of us. “I’ve been told I’m a terrible listener,” he joked, “but you’ve got me trapped in the car.” Softening, he added, “I’m all ears, honey.”

“No, it’s nothing,” I began, turning slightly in my seat to face him. “But those mobile phones you hate? I hate them, too, now.”

Glancing at me quickly, Grandpa asked, “What happened?”

“I believe I was dumped via one.”

Grandpa opened his mouth to speak, but I continued on, clarifying. “Not that Jensen and I were together. Though, in a sense, we were?” I winced.

“Jensen?”

“The guy I talked to on the plane. Apparently he’s Hanna’s brother.”

Grandpa laughed. “And Hanna is . . . ?”

“Sorry,” I said, laughing now, too. “Hanna is the wife of Ruby’s brother-in-law’s business partner.”

He gave me a blank look before turning back to the road.

I waved my hand, letting him know it wasn’t mission critical that he understood the spiderweb of relationships. “It’s this giant group of friends, and I went on the trip with some of them: Ruby and Niall, Will and Hanna. Jensen is Hanna’s oldest brother, and he came along.”

“So it was two married couples and you, and Hanna’s brother?” Grandpa asked, frowning. “I think I’m getting a picture of what’s going on.”

“I honestly don’t want to overshare here,” I said, “and since that’s my given superpower, I may need to physically cover my own mouth to keep from doing so, but I will say that I liked him. I think I rather liked him a lot. And on this holiday, for two weeks, it felt like . . . he might like me, as well? But now that I’ve reached out, wanting to see him one more time before I leave, he’s . . .” Frowning, I murmured, “Well, he’s got work.”

“Work,” Grandpa repeated.

“Every waking hour, apparently. He has too much work to do to see me even for a late dinner.” My heart seemed to dissolve, painfully, inside my chest.

“So,” he said, making sure he understood, “he was pursuing you on this two-week trip, but back to the real world and he doesn’t have time.”

Ugh. Enough. “It’s some version of that. We were both on the same page, but then suddenly . . . we weren’t.”

Grandpa turned down the tree-lined street of Coco’s childhood home. “Well, then I guess it’s time for some whiskey.”

By seven, I’d had just enough whiskey with Grandpa on the porch that, when my phone lit with Hanna’s number, I wasn’t entirely sure it would be a good idea to answer.

But then my gut grew a little tight with guilt, because I didn’t want to ignore her call, either. She was doing what I’d wanted us to do, after all: call each other, stay connected.

“Hanna!” I said, answering as I stood, walking to the other end of the porch.

“Gah,” she started, without greeting. “It’s so good to hear your voice. I feel like we’re all going through withdrawal today!”

I laughed, and then felt my humor cool. Maybe not all of us.

“Absolutely,” I said, as evenly as possible.

“What are you doing Wednesday night? Do you want to come over for dinner?” Without waiting for an answer, she added, “You’re in town until next Monday, right?”

“I leave on Sunday.” I glanced at Grandpa, who sat sipping his whiskey and staring serenely out at the brilliant green lawn. He loved his granddaughter, but even more, he loved his quiet. “Uh . . . let me check my calendar for Wednesday.”

I pretended to open the calendar app on my phone, knowing of course that I had literally nothing scheduled the entire week other than sitting around Grandpa’s enormous house and wandering Boston alone. The idea of going to Hanna’s for dinner sounded perfect.

But the possibility that Jensen might show up, after telling me he was busy all week? A little nauseating.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t head this potential awkwardness off at the pass and ask whether Jensen would be there, because the last thing I wanted to do was open up the conversation with Hanna about her brother having sex with me in nearly every position possible for two weeks and then blowing me off via text message. No doubt Jensen wouldn’t discuss me with Hanna unless she pried, and she would assume all was well. I was also sure that while he was still a jerk for the text brush-off—and it didn’t excuse his behavior—he probably was busy. After being away for two weeks, the odds of him taking time to go to his sister’s were probably not good. It would be fine.

“Wednesday is free,” I said. “I’d love to come over.”

After agreeing that I could come anytime after seven thirty that night, we rang off, and I returned to my Adirondack chair beside Grandpa.

“How’s Hanna?” he asked, voice slow and calm as honey.

“She made a joke that we’re all going through withdrawal.”

I felt him turn and look at me. “Are you?”

“Maybe from all the wine we drank,” I joked, but my laugh was cut off as I stared wryly at my glass of whiskey.

The irony seemed to drift past him. “You really like this Jensen guy?”

I let the question settle between us, plant roots, show me what it was made of. Of course I liked him. I wouldn’t have had sex with him if I hadn’t. We’d been a team. We’d had fun.

But shit, it was more than that. Away from him, I felt sort of hollow, as if some ball of light had been scooped out of me, and it wasn’t only that the trip was over and it had been amazing. It was more of an achy hollow, and it was shaped like his guarded smile, like the big, greedy hands that belied his boundaried facade. It was shaped like the arc of his top lip and the flirty bow of his bottom . . . Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“Yeah, I really like him.”

“You came here because of a loser boyfriend, and here you are again.”

I had to love my grandpa for being so utterly blunt.

“Too right,” I mumbled into my tumbler. Did this feel worse? It was less humiliation and more heartbreak. Humiliation had an angry fire to steer it. Heartbreak just had . . . whiskey and grandfathers, and the Mums waiting for me back home.

And God, I missed them right now.

“It’s not a crime to love, you know,” he said.

This piqued my interest. Grandpa had worked his entire life as a supervisor at a shipping yard; he’d made a decent wage, but it was hard work and the kind of job that called for someone with a distinct lack of turbulent emotions.

“I know,” I said honestly. “But I actually feel terrible about this Jensen thing, as brief as it was. Because even though it only lasted a couple weeks, he was genuinely good. Genuinely kind, and attentive. He’ll be very good for someone, and I’m sad it won’t be me.”

“You never know how things will work out. I was with Peg for fifty-seven years,” Grandpa said quietly. “Never really expected her to end up with me, but she did.”

I’d never heard the story of how he and Coco’s mum met, and the raw edge to his voice caught me off guard. “Where did you meet?”

“She was at her father’s soda shop, working behind the counter.” He swirled the amber liquid in his glass. “I ordered a malt, and watched the way she lifted the metal cup, scooped the ice cream, added the malt. I’d never done that before. Every move she made fascinated me.”

I stayed perfectly still, terrified to disrupt what he was saying because it felt like there was some bone-deep truth in there, something that would tell me what it was I was or wasn’t feeling. Something to let me off the hook of my own torment.

“She handed it to me, and I paid, but when she gave me my change, I told her, ‘I want you to wear your hair like that when we get married.’ I’d never seen her before, but I knew. It wasn’t something I would ever say to a gal. I didn’t ever tell her what to wear or do again, not for fifty-seven years. But that day, I wanted her to look just the same when she became my wife.”

He took a sip and settled the tumbler back on the wide armrest of his chair. “I didn’t see her again for nearly a year, you know that?”

I shook my head. “I haven’t heard any of this.”

“It’s true,” he said, nodding. “Turned out she left for college pretty soon after that. Came back that summer, though, had some preppy following her around like a puppy. Couldn’t say I blamed him. She saw me, and I looked up at her hair, all meaningfully—she had it in the same pretty updo she favored in those days—and she smiled. I guess that was it. We got married the very next summer. When she died, I couldn’t stop thinking about that first day. Like something was itching at my brain. I couldn’t remember how she’d worn her hair the few days before she died, but I could remember how she had it the first day I saw her.”

I had never in my entire life heard my grandpa say so much all at once. If words were doled out across a family, I would have received the bulk of the quota. But here, I stayed entirely silent.

Looking over at me, he said, “And it was because it didn’t matter. In the beginning, love is this physical thing. You can’t get enough. Everyone loves talking about infatuation, like that’s love, but we all know it’s not. Infatuation becomes something different. Peg became part of me. The idea that you grow into one person sounds silly but isn’t. I can’t go to a new restaurant without wanting to know whether she’d like their eggs Benedict. I can’t get myself a beer without instinctively reaching for the pitcher of iced tea to bring her something, too.” He took a deep breath, looking back out to the street. “I can’t get into bed at night without anticipating the dip of her side of the mattress.”

I reached out, put my hand on his rough arm.

“The thing is,” he continued more quietly, “it’s hard now without her. Real hard. But I wouldn’t change a damn thing. When I said that to her, that first day in the soda shop, she smiled so wide. She wanted it, too, in that second, even if she stopped wanting it for a little while when her life got too busy, too different. But that infatuation grew and grew, into something better.” He looked back at me. “Your mom Colleen’s got that. I know I don’t always understand her choices, but I can tell she loves Leslie the way I loved your grandma.”

I felt the sting of tears across the surface of my eyes, wondering what Coco would give to hear Grandpa acknowledge that.

“And I want it for you, too, Pipps. I want a fella who notices everything about you when you first meet, but would only notice everything that’s missing when you’re not around.”

Will answered the door just after six on Wednesday, but Hanna wasn’t far behind him, bounding down the hallway with an enormous yellow dog close on her heels.

“Pippa!” she sang, throwing her arms around me.

The two of us were nearly knocked over by the dog when it jumped up, paws outstretched against Hanna’s back.

“You have a dog?” I asked, bending to scratch its ears when Hanna stepped away.

“This is Penrose! She’s been at my parents’ place for the past couple weeks, with the birthday party and the trip.” She signaled for the dog to get down, and when Penrose did—obediently—Hanna produced a treat from the pocket of her cardigan. “She’s a year old now, but we’re still working on a few things.” Hanna threw a wry smile to Will over my shoulder.

“I am assuming she’s named after the famed mathematician?” I asked, grinning.

“Yes! Finally someone appreciates our nerdiness!” She turned, leading me down the hall and toward the kitchen. “Come on, I’m starving.”

Having been here twice before, I was familiar with the layout. But this time, the house felt more . . . homey, even though there were no multitudes of squealing children and no buzzing anticipation of a long holiday in the air. Instead, there were just the signs of Will and Hanna, at home, at the end of the day: Hanna’s laptop bag leaning against the banister and the desk in Will’s home office—just off the hallway—scattered with papers, medical journals, and Post-it notes. Two pairs of running shoes were lined up side by side near the front door. A stack of mail was sitting, still unopened, on a small table in the entry hallway. In the kitchen, the scent of rich marinara and bubbling cheese wafted from the oven. After a tight hug, Will returned to the center island and the salad he had been making.

And yet, there was no other dinner guest to be found here. There were only four of us in the kitchen: Will, Hanna, me, and the adorably floppy Penrose.

Dare I ask?

“How’s your grandpa?” Will asked first, dropping a couple of handfuls of cucumbers in the dark wooden bowl.

“He’s well,” I said. “And I’m so glad for the wine trip. I love seeing him, but I can already feel how disruptive I’ve been. I think he can really only take a few days in a row of visitors. He’s a man of routine.”

“We know someone like that,” Hanna said with a snort, sliding her eyes to me knowingly.

Well now I have to ask.

After a steadying breath, I let it out: “Will Jensen be joining us tonight?”

Hanna shook her head. “He said he’s got work.”

But from where he stood at the island, Will had gone still and then slowly looked up at me.

Shit.

“Haven’t the two of you spoken?” he asked, voice careful.

“We . . . no.”

His brows pulled together. “After . . . the cabin . . . I would have expected you to at least . . .” He trailed off, glancing to Hanna, who seemed to register that yes, it was strange that I wouldn’t know whether Jensen would be here tonight.

I didn’t want this to turn into drama. I knew how Hanna could be with Jensen—adorably pestering—and Will, too, had seemed to grow invested in the two of us becoming a couple.

“I’d asked him on Sunday, after we all returned home, whether he wanted to get dinner this week. Unfortunately, he said he’s swamped.” Pausing, I couldn’t help adding with a wry grin, “He suggested—via text—that we shoot for next week.”

“But you’re gone next week,” Hanna said slowly, as if she hoped she was missing some obvious detail that meant her brother wasn’t being a bit of a wanker.

I nodded.

“Is Jensen going to London next week?” she asked, hope bringing her voice up an octave.

“Not that I know of.” God, this was so awkward. If I was being honest, there was more than just heartache here after all. There was some humiliation, too. I loved that Hanna liked me enough to ignore all the reasons why Jensen and I couldn’t be together long term—the fact that we lived on different continents being one—but it did sting a bit that Jensen so obviously couldn’t even be bothered while I was still in town, and now we all knew it. Also, I really liked Hanna and Will; I didn’t want whatever was happening—or rather, not happening—to ruin that.

She reached for three glasses and, over her shoulder, asked if I wanted wine or beer.

“Water?” I said, laughing. “I feel I’ve had enough alcohol to last me a decade.”

Walking to the enormous refrigerator, she growled a little. “I’m so mad at him! I wondered when we dropped you off, but I’d hoped—”

“Honestly,” I said, “don’t be angry on my account.”

Will shook his head a little. “Plum, it’s just not our business.”

“Has that ever stopped Jensen before?” she asked, voice rising. “And I’m glad he did butt in back in the day, otherwise I would never have called you!”

“I know,” he said, voice placating. “I agree. And I know you’re worried about him being alone.” Looking at me apologetically, Will said, “Sorry, Pippa.”

“I don’t mind,” I said, shrugging, and honestly I didn’t. Hearing Hanna’s frustration made me feel better, not worse.

“It’s just that . . .” Hanna started, “I want—”

“I know you do.” Walking over to her, Will wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pulling her in. “But come on,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “Let’s eat.”

Will piled an enormous slice of lasagna on my plate, shoved some salad beside it, and handed it to me.

“I think this plate weighs more than I do,” I said as I thunked it down onto the autumn-themed place mat before me. “If you tell me I can’t leave the table until I’ve finished this, I’ll miss my flight on Sunday.”

“Will’s lasagna is famous,” Hanna said, and then shoved a forkful in her mouth. “Well,” she said after she’d swallowed, “famous in this house. With me.”

I took a bite and could see why. It was the perfect balance of cheese, meat, sauce, and noodles. Unreal. “It really isn’t fair that you’re pretty and you know how to cook,” I said to Will.

He beamed. “I’m also fantastic at taking out the recycling and sweeping the deck.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, babe,” Hanna said, laughing, “you scrub a mean toilet, too.”

“Um,” I said, laughing at this, “not to mention the part where you’re also an investment mastermind with a PhD, Dr. Sumner.”

Will and Hanna exchanged a look. “True,” Hanna said, raising her eyebrows at him.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ve been with you for the past two weeks. What am I missing?”

“We decided last night that I’m probably leaving the firm in . . .” He looked to Hanna for guidance, saying quietly, “. . . the next year or so.”

“Switching careers, or quitting work entirely?” I asked, shocked. I knew Will worked with Max; I assumed it was the perfect work situation for everyone.

Hanna nodded. “He doesn’t need to make more money, and . . .” She smiled over at him. “When I get tenure, we’re going to try for kids. Will wants to be a stay-at-home dad.”

I shook my head, smiling at the two of them. “Is it odd? To be at that place when these things begin to happen, and all of your friends are married and having children? It feels as though it happens in a burst. Everyone I know is getting married this summer. Next it will be babies.”

“It does happen in a burst,” Will said, laughing. “I remember when Max and Sara had Annabel, and the rest of us were like, ‘How does it work? Why is it crying? Why does it smell?’ Now Max and Sara are going to have four kids soon, and we could all change a diaper with one hand tied behind our backs.”

Hanna nodded, adding, “And Chloe and Bennett are joining them. To me, that was the biggest sign that we’re all headed that way. When Chloe told us she was pregnant, I was like . . . okay, this is when it all changes. In the best way.”

“It’s amazing,” I said, poking at my dinner. I felt mildly melancholy, but not because I wanted a child, or even a husband. I just wanted one specific person here with us, and the seat beside me felt like an obvious absence. “It feels so far away for me, though not in a bad way.”

“I think Jensen feels that way, too, sometimes,” Hanna said, as if reading my mind, stabbing at her salad with a fork. “But in his case I think it does—” She stopped talking when Will let out a sigh. “Sorry,” she said, slumping. “I’m doing it again.”

Will laughed. “You are.”

“But maybe it will be better now?” I asked. “With a little of the Becky water under the bridge? He was quiet through it all, but I have the sense it was pretty cathartic for him to register that he didn’t need anything from her.”

“I agree,” Hanna said. “It seemed really good for him. I was ready to Hulk-smash her, but he handled it better than I ever would have. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with you.”

“I would agree with that,” Will echoed.

“Is it weird that I see Pippa and I’m immediately thinking about Jensen?” She looked over at her husband, and when he shook his head, she turned back to me. “You guys were so cute together. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen him happy like that.”

I wiped my mouth with my napkin before speaking. “I don’t think it’s weird, but I do think ‘Jensen and Pippa’ was just a vacation fling. The holiday, in large part, is why he was happy.”

She stared at me, disbelieving, and I could tell that she did not agree. “So you don’t mind if it ends?”

The thought of this caused a twinge of pain to twist through me.

“I do mind. I don’t want it to end.” The words were so raw they left my chest feeling a bit achy. “But what do we do? I live in London.”

Will groaned sympathetically. “I’m sorry, Pippa.”

“I like him,” I admitted, suddenly wishing I’d taken Hanna up on the offer of wine. “I . . . wanted it to keep going. But—distance aside—I don’t want him to need to be convinced of anything. I wouldn’t feel good about any of this if he called me only because someone had yelled at him to do it.”

Hanna winced a little at this, understanding. “Would you ever consider moving here?”

I thought this over, holding in my thoughts for a few breaths even though my immediate reaction was an enthusiastic yes. I loved the Boston area, loved the idea of living somewhere else for a bit, even if I would miss the Mums and Ruby and my other friends in London. But I craved a change. I already had friends here—people who I once aspired to know, whose esteem felt like a goal to me, and who now seemed eager to spend time with me, too.

Nodding slowly, I said, “I would move here for a good job, or even a job that allowed me to move and be comfortable.” I met her eyes, saw the tiny gleam there. “I wouldn’t move here for Jensen. Not like this.”

She smiled guiltily. “Well, I have a few names of contacts who are expecting to hear from you when you return to London. A couple are at Harvard, but there are a few at firms in the Boston area.” She stood, walking to the buffet near the windows and picking up a folded piece of paper.

“Here,” she said, returning to hand it to me. “If you want any of these opportunities, they’re there.”

I sat in Grandpa’s car in their driveway for a few minutes after we’d said our goodbyes. We’d made tentative plans to see each other on Saturday, but Hanna was fairly certain she would have to go into the lab to help one of her graduate students at some point, so I felt a bit as if I’d just said goodbye to them for an indefinite amount of time. Ruby and Niall had returned to London a couple of days ago, and I would see them soon enough, but I felt more than the momentary sadness of a holiday ending. I felt a connection to the place and the people here, and the idea of returning to rainy London, and a shit job, and a shittier boss, made me . . . grumpy.

I reached for the keys in my purse and felt the paper Hanna had given me at dinner. Pulling it out, I realized it was actually two pages, single-spaced and full of names. Professors looking for someone to run their lab, privately funded campus institutes, engineering firms looking to hire someone into a position much like the one I was already in . . . each job described there seemed realistic, and Hanna had put so much time and thought into this. If I wanted to come to Boston or New York, there were at least twelve opportunities for me to pursue.

But then I saw what other information she’d provided.

It was typed, like the rest of the page, so clearly Hanna had meant to include it all along. As if knowing I wouldn’t already have his address.

I stared at the page. Even the sight of his name in stark black and white made me feel tight and restless in my skin. I wanted to step toward him, feel his long arms coil around me. I wanted to get a goodbye that felt like a see you soon, and not the see you around that I got on Sunday, and which—so far—hadn’t come to pass.

I felt a surge of now or never climb into my pulse. Turning the key in the ignition, I pulled from the driveway. Instead of turning left, though, I turned right.

Jensen lived in a stunning brownstone on a wide, tree-lined street. It was two stories tall, but narrow, with impeccable brick and a freshly painted green door. Ivy trailed up narrowly along one side, as if it had recently been pruned, and its delicate fingers held on to the wide white-framed window facing Matilda Court.

A light was on in the front room. Another in the deeper spaces of the house. The kitchen, maybe. Or the den. In any case, I knew Jensen well enough to know that he wouldn’t leave both on if he weren’t home. One lamp on in an empty house: safety-minded. Two lamps on in an empty house: wasteful.

A chilly wind blew a tangle of leaves down the street, and several of them passed over the tops of my feet, pulling my attention to the ground. It was dark—late enough that no one was out walking, no cars were pulling up at the curb.

What in the bloody hell was I doing here? Looking for another serving of rejection? It wasn’t exactly true that I had nothing to lose: I still had my pride. Coming here after being blown off by a text message had a certain aura of desperation to it. Was this what it had come to? Had Mark and his thrusting bum taught me nothing? I looked up at the window again, groaning inwardly. I left London to get over one man, and opened my heart up to another to stomp on?

Pippa Bay Cox, you are a bleeding idiot.

God, what a nightmare. It was cold on the street and warm in my car. Maybe even warmer in a doughnut shop round the corner, where I could eat my feelings with a side of powdered sugar. A car pulled up to the curb behind me and I realized how I must look: standing in front of a house, staring in the window. I straightened as the automatic lock sounded in a bright chirp, and turned, walking directly into a hard body.

“I’m so sor—” I began, dropping my purse. Flustered, I bent to pick it up.

“Pippa?”

I stared at the polished brown shoes on the ground in front of me, pondered the smooth, gentle voice that had said my name.

“Hallo.” I didn’t bother to get up quite yet.

“Hello.”

I’m sure, to anyone witnessing, I appeared to be genuflecting at the foot of a businessman, but if there were some secret code I could tap on the concrete to make the sidewalk open and eat me, I would have done it in a heartbeat. This was . . . horrifying. Very slowly, I put the contents of my purse back in the bag.

He crouched down. “What are you doing here?”

Oh, Christ.

“Hanna . . .” I said, reaching inside for my car keys. “She gave me your address. I thought—” I shook my head. “Please don’t be cross with her. Knowing there would be no lingerie-loving mistress inside with you gave me some bravery to stop by. I guess I wanted to see you.” When he didn’t immediately reply, and I wanted to burst into flames, I added, “I’m sorry. You told me you were busy.”

A large hand came toward me then, wrapping around my elbow and pulling me up with him. When I looked at his face, I saw a faint smile there.

“You don’t have to apologize,” he said quietly. “I was just surprised to see you. Pleasantly so.”

I looked at his suit and then back at his car. “Are you just getting home?”

He nodded, and I glanced at my watch. It was after eleven.

“You weren’t kidding about the work thing,” I muttered before looking up at his house. “Your lights are on.”

He nodded. “They’re on a timer.”

Of course they bloody are.

I laughed. “Right.”

And without another word, he bent, wrapping his arms around me and pulling me closer so he could press his lips to mine.

The relief of it, the warmth. There was no stutter to the kiss, only the familiar sweep of his lips across mine, the reflexive opening together, the aching stroke of his tongue. His kisses narrowed, shortened, until he was just placing tiny pecks on my mouth, my cheek, my jaw.

“I missed you,” he said, kissing down my neck. Exhaustion was evident in the curve of his shoulders, the way his lids looked heavy.

“I missed you, too,” I said, wrapping my arms around his neck as he straightened. “I just wanted to say hi, but you look like you might drop where you stand.”

Jensen pulled back, looked at me and then up at his front door. “I am about to drop, but you don’t need to go. Come inside. Stay here tonight.”

We passed through the downstairs without speaking. Jensen held my hand, pulling me with determination to the bathroom in the master suite—where he retrieved a fresh toothbrush for me—and, after we’d brushed our teeth in smiling silence, through the double doors into the bedroom.

His room was full of muted colors: creams and blues, rich brown wood. My red skirt and sapphire-blue top looked like jewels in a river on his floor.

Jensen didn’t seem to notice. His clothes fell beside mine and he drew me with him down between the sheets, his mouth moving warm and barely wet over my neck, my shoulders; his lips sucking at my breasts.

We’d never made love like this: without the awareness that had seemed to heighten everything on the winery trip. Here, it was just us in his bed, in his dark bedroom, our hands touching now-familiar skin, laughing into kisses. A heavy ache settled low in my belly, radiating between my legs, and his body grew hard and hungry over mine until he was there, pushing inside, moving with the same perfect curl of his hips, the same anchoring of his arms around me, the same press of his mouth to my neck.

It was heaven, and it was hell. Relief was a drug: being here with him was as it always was—perfect; under his mouth and his possessive hands, it was impossible to not feel that I was the only person in the world who mattered. But this awareness was a torture—accepting for the first time how starkly temporary it all was. Knowing now that if I hadn’t come, he wouldn’t have made the effort.

“It’s good,” he gasped into my neck. “Jesus, it’s always so good.”

I wrapped myself around him, arms and legs and heart, truly, feeling once again what I had in Vermont. What reverberated between us wasn’t a respectful admiration but something with fire and depth, something that would be hard to shake. I felt, as he moved over me, shifting right where I needed, that the question of whether I could fall in love with Jensen was moot.

I had.

The realization made me gasp, a tiny cry that he caught, and he slowed, not stopping entirely but adjusting so that he could see my face.

“You okay?” he asked, kissing me. Above, his shoulders shifted higher and back, higher and back. I stared at the muscular curve of his neck, the definition of his chest.

“Will you ring me when you come to London?” I asked, in the absolutely most pathetic voice.

Apparently I would settle for that.

He slid a hand down my side to my leg, pulling it higher over his hip. With the movement, he pressed in deeper and we both shuddered from the relief of it, from the maddening ache. He tried to smile down at me, but it came out as more of a grimace from the tension all along his body.

“I don’t come back until March. I’ll call if you don’t have a boyfriend by then.”

It was meant to be a joke, I think.

Or a reminder.

I closed my eyes, pulling him back down, and he moved in earnest, tripping that wire inside me that seemed to make pleasure the only thing that mattered.

It was good that the thought slipped away—a boyfriend—and that it didn’t allow the twin thought to follow—a girlfriend—and that we could just move like this and climb higher and come in shaking, gasping unison, and we wouldn’t have to put our hearts on the line and try to make it anything more.