Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 15

Jensen

The thing about going away is that everything feels just a little bit off when you get back.

I told myself this was simply the result of having an amazing vacation after years of never daring to take one. I told myself it was the result of having been someone looser, having unplugged, and the novelty of being surrounded every hour by close friends instead of the isolation of living alone. Maybe it was also the effect of seeing Becky again, and having our past shove its way into my present, initially not knowing what to do with it before realizing I didn’t need to do anything at all.

But this unsettled feeling when I got home felt bigger than that. Yes, I was so busy I fell off my routine, skipping workouts and working through lunch to catch up. Yes, I was so wrung out by the end of the day that I came home and ate, showered, went to bed. I would get up and do it all over again. And it didn’t take a genius to know it was more than just the weight of my workload coming crashing down that had me feeling off.

Pippa and I had both been clear on what we wanted—a little fun, a fling, and a break from real life—so why had I let myself feel more?

I couldn’t stop thinking about her, daydreaming about our time together in the cabin, and wishing we could have all gone with her suggestion to stay there and pretend, for half of every year, that life in London and Boston didn’t exist. Six months with no phones, no email, and the people I cared about most right there at my side? It sounded like heaven.

Having Pippa for one more night was more torture than anything. I had been stunned by the surreal wave of getting out of my car and seeing her staring at my house. It took maybe five full seconds for me to realize I wasn’t imagining it. I’d been exhausted, ready to forgo a shower for even ten extra minutes of sleep, but suddenly sleep was the furthest thing from my mind.

The next morning she’d dressed and quietly kissed me goodbye, and left.

A fling, I reminded myself. And that was that.

Days later, I stared at the spreadsheet on my monitor, the numbers blurring at the edges. It was almost seven, and after hours of sorting through the same list of assets, I was ready to set the computer, the project files, and maybe even my office on fire.

“I knew you’d be here, so I come bearing gifts,” Greg said, warily eyeing my desk and the stacks of files there. He set down a wrapped sandwich and then pulled a bottle of beer out of the pocket of his slacks.

“No thanks,” I said with a faint smile, glancing up at him before turning back to my screen. “I had a bagel or something earlier.”

“ ‘A bagel or something,’ ” he repeated, and instead of leaving, he folded himself into the chair opposite me. “You know, usually when people go on vacation they come back a little less . . . feral.”

I pressed my fingers to my eyes, blocking out the light. Too little sleep and too much coffee had left me irritable and with a pounding ache at my temples. “I didn’t get as much done as I should have while I was gone, and now it’s sort of a mess.”

“Did the junior staff not do what you left them, or . . . ?” he asked.

“No, they did, they just . . . I don’t know. They didn’t do it how I’d have done it. Not to mention that I left the London office with the depositions finished and plenty of time to wrap up their end before the hearing and they missed the filing deadline.”

“Oh shit.”

“Exactly.”

“You know none of that is your responsibility,” he said.

“I mean,” I countered, “technically it’s my—”

“Your job was to run through the depositions,” he said, interrupting me, “not file the fucking paperwork. And of course you didn’t get as much done on vacation as you’d have liked. That’s why it’s called vacation.” He enunciated every syllable, reaching for an old dictionary on my shelf to begin thumbing through the pages. “Give me a second and I’ll look it up for you. I can’t believe you actually have a dictionary . . .”

Reaching across the desk, I took it from him. “I get that, strictly speaking, it wasn’t my task,” I said, turning back to my computer, “but there’s that mess to clean up as well as the things that came in while I was out, and—” I let out a breath and rolled my shoulders before calmly saying, “It’ll be fine. It’ll take some catch-up, but it’ll be fine.”

He stood, ready to leave. “Go home, have some dinner, watch TV, something. And start again tomorrow, yes, but leave at a decent time. You’ll burn yourself out this way, and you are too good at what you do to let that happen.”

“I will,” I mumbled, watching as he turned toward the door.

He laughed. “You’re a liar. But have a good night, Jens.” And when he was farther down the hall, he called out again, “Go home!”

I smiled and then blinked down at my spreadsheet.

He had a point. Long hours and no social life had become the norm. I was the only junior partner still in my thirties; without a spouse or kids to get home to, it hadn’t ever been a hardship for me to stay late. I was fortunate to be at this place in my career. I remembered how hard it was in the early days—I’d struggled to acquire enough billable hours a year, and hoped I was good enough that the senior partners put files on my desk.

Now I was drowning in work, with more cases than I knew what to do with, and unable to leave for any extended amount of time without the world inside my office walls imploding. Yeah, it was a problem of my own making, but I didn’t know how much longer it could go on. I loved my job, loved the orderly, nonnegotiable balance of the law. It had always been more than enough, until it just wasn’t.

The cup of coffee I’d been nursing for the last hour had gone cold, and I pushed it aside, opening my drawer and counting out change for the vending machine down the hall.

My phone was next to a pile of quarters, and on a whim—and knowing I’d probably be here for a few more hours—I picked it up. There were about fifteen missed calls—many of them from Ziggy—and a handful of texts. The most recent was a text from Liv.

Ziggs wants you to go to her house for dinner.

I’m at work, I typed back. Why didn’t she just text me herself?

You’re at work? WHAT A SURPRISE, Liv answered right away. She says you’re not answering your phone.

Guilt and irritation twisted in me. Ziggs was the last person who should be complaining to Liv about me working too much.

I looked around my desk and then at the clock. The building was silent but for a vacuum running down the hall, and exhaustion hit me like a warm, heavy wave. Dinner at Will and Ziggy’s sounded amazing. I was tired of this chair and the endless emails, stale coffee, and takeout. Ziggy worked almost as late as I did; they would probably just be starting. I texted her that I was headed over and then shut my computer down, shut my phone off.

The giddy levity I’d felt only days ago had already evaporated, and I was right back where I’d started: tired, marginally lonely, and hungry for the warmth of real company.

I parked at the curb and made my way up to the house, noting the way it glowed on the darkened street. Tiny lights dotted the flowerbeds and shone up into the trees; lamps filtered through sheer curtains on the second story. From where I stood I could see into the living room and just down the hall, where my sister and Will stood, wrapped in each other’s arms. Through the open window, a Guns N’ Roses song drifted out onto the street. They were slow-dancing in the kitchen to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

Fucking romantics.

On the porch, the pumpkins were gone, but in their place was a hammered tin planter bursting with fall flowers. On the door was an autumn-themed wreath.

“Hey,” I called out, stepping inside.

Penrose bounded around the corner, tail wagging.

I bent to pet her, ruffling her ears. “They finally let you come home?”

“Yo, Bro!” Ziggy called from the kitchen.

Penrose spun in circles before rolling at my feet for a belly rub. I kicked off my shoes, set them by the door, and followed the dog as she bounded down the hall.

“You came,” my sister said, stepping back from where she’d been dancing with her husband.

Bending, I wrapped my arms around her and pressed a kiss to her head. “Of course I came. I love Will.”

She punched my arm and then walked over to a pile of vegetables on the counter.

“Can I help with anything?” I asked.

Ziggs shook her head. “Just dancing, finishing the salad, you know. Preference on dressing?”

“Whatever you have is fine.” I watched them work in tandem for a moment before telling them about Becky showing up at my house.

My sister turned and gaped at me. “She did what?”

Will, who had been searching through the refrigerator for a head of lettuce, looked at me around the door. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

“How long did she stay?” Ziggs asked, incredulous.

“I guess about forty-five minutes?” I scratched my jaw. “I mean, I basically told her that she was welcome to get it off her chest if it would make her feel better, but it wouldn’t do anything for me. She went on a bit about realizing now that she’d felt too young and like she hadn’t had any adventures yet.”

Will whistled. “She’s kind of a dick, right?”

“Yes, that. She’s—that,” Ziggy spluttered, and my chest tightened with love for my adorably goofy sister and her perpetual need to protect me.

“She’s fine,” I said, picking up a slice of carrot and eating it. “I don’t think she’s evil, just historically not great with the communication.”

“For the record,” Will said, “I think you handled it perfectly.”

“He did, but—ugh. I am so over her.” Ziggy took a deep breath and then looked down at the knife in her hand. “Let’s change the subject before I need to find something to cut.”

Will looked at her with a fond smile and gently took the knife from her. “Good idea. Jens, you up for a run this weekend?”

I reached for another carrot. “Maybe. As long as we go early enough that I can still get in to work.”

My sister turned and stared at me in renewed shock before clapping her mouth closed and turning to pick the knife back up, her shoulders tense.

I watched her for a few seconds. “Is there a problem, Ziggs?”

“I don’t know,” she said, slicing cucumber with gusto. “I mean, it’s none of my business, but it’s interesting that you can run with Will on the weekend and you’re free tonight, being last week you told Pippa you were working nonstop.”

“I told Pippa what now?” I asked, pulse tripping before thundering down my limbs.

“Well, not in those exact words,” she said, somewhat mollified. “And, obviously, I’m so glad you’re here. But that you were too busy for dinner with her and yet”—she looked dramatically around the kitchen—“here the three of us are.”

“Is there wine?” I asked Will, who reached for a glass and an open bottle and put them both on the counter in front of me. I poured myself a good amount, took a long drink, and then set it down again.

“I have no idea where this is coming from,” I said, “or how you know what I said to Pippa. But this—being here? It isn’t work for me to come over and hang with you guys. If I don’t feel like talking I can stare into my plate and eat and thank you for dinner and head home. It’s not the same, even with Pippa, even if things were good. And I did have to work, by the way,” I added. “I was still at work when Liv sent me a text that you weren’t able to get hold of me.”

Ziggy turned to look at me like I’d said something absurd. “I don’t understand why you’re always—”

“Oh my God,” I said, putting my head in my hands. “Can we have dinner before we get into this? At minimum another glass of wine? It’s been a really shitty day.”

My sister seemed to deflate and looked immediately apologetic.

“Don’t do that,” I added quickly, guilt filling my chest like a balloon. Ziggs was only trying to help, I knew that. Her intentions were good, even if her method was maddening. “Just, let’s at least get some food in us, and then you can yell at me all you want.”

Will had made a roast with baby red potatoes and brown-sugar-glazed carrots, and as I sat there, eating the best meal I’d had since leaving Vermont, I felt a little cheated that he’d learned all this now and not when we were still roommates in college.

As usual, dinner was relaxed and easy. We talked about my parents and their upcoming trip to Scotland. We talked about our family’s traditional after-Christmas-before-New-Year’s trip we usually took together. With the babies due in December, I’d been given a reprieve of sorts for this year, but I steeled myself for the inevitable discussion about next year’s destination choice—Bali—and, in the event that I couldn’t get away, whether we’d have the But poor Jensen will be on his own conversation.

By the time I’d finished my first helping of roast, the subject had moved to Max and Bennett and the beloved text thread filled with Chloe the Saint and Sara the Monster stories.

Will turned to me after confirming that, yes, both women were still behaving suspiciously. “How’s your reentry going?” he asked, stabbing a bite of roast.

“This international merger I’ve been overseeing is a mess right now,” I told them. “And even though the things that went wrong don’t have anything to do with our office, it still reflects badly on the team. Just going to take some extra work to clean up.”

“That sounds aggravating,” Will said.

“It is, but it’s the job.” I took another drink of my wine, feeling the warmth work its way through my bloodstream. “So what about everyone else, they get back okay?”

Ziggy nodded. “Niall and Ruby left the day after we got back from Vermont. Pippa left last Sunday.”

I stilled. How had I not realized Pippa left four days ago?

“Oh,” I said, busying myself cutting a piece of meat. “I didn’t realize . . .”

“Well, you might have known her schedule if you bothered to see her before she left,” my sister said in flat challenge.

I picked up a hot roll and tore it open, letting the steam escape. I took a bite and chewed it slowly before swallowing. It settled like a ball of flour and glue in my stomach. “Actually, I did see her.”

Ziggy froze with her water glass almost to her mouth. “When?”

Nodding down at my plate, I tried to sound as casual as I could. “She was there when I got home from work last Wednesday. I think she came over after having dinner here.”

“Oh,” she said, and then smiled slowly. “Well that’s great, then! Are you two doing the long-distance thing or—?”

“I don’t think so.” I pulled the butter dish toward me, spreading some over my roll.

“You don’t think so?” she repeated.

“Honey, I told you, I have work.”

If anything, this only annoyed her more. “There are seven days in a week, honey. Twenty-four—”

“She lives in England.”

My sister put her fork down and braced her forearms on the table, leveling me with a steely look. “You realize this is exactly why you’re single, right?”

“I’m assuming that’s a rhetorical question?” I asked, and took another bite of my dinner. It went down worse than the last. I knew I was goading her; she hated my calm exterior and wanted some kind of reaction out of me, but I didn’t care.

“You meet someone you like and you can’t find a way to carve out even a bit of time for her? To cultivate—”

“Cultivate what?” I said, voice raised, surprising myself with my own anger. How many times did I need to explain this? “We live in different countries, want different things. Why would either of us work to prolong the inevitable?”

“Because you were so good together!” she yelled back. Will put a calming hand on my sister’s arm and she shrugged it away. “Listen, Jens, your career is crazy, and I’m so proud of you. If that’s all you want out of life, then fine. I’ll let it go. But after watching you last week, and seeing the way you laughed and lit up whenever Pippa walked into the room, I don’t think it is. And don’t say it was all for Becky’s benefit, because she wasn’t at the cabin. You were so happy.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, my face heating. “As opposed to what? How miserable I am the rest of the time?”

She lifted her chin. “Maybe.”

Will cleared his throat, glancing between us. “Why don’t we all take a breath,” he started, but I wasn’t finished.

“I don’t understand what the big deal is and why everyone is suddenly invested in my love life.”

Ziggy slapped her hand down, laughing angrily. “You have got to be kidding me!”

I actually laughed. “You can’t possibly be comparing the two situations. You’d never actually dated anyone. I’ve had relationships; I’m divorced, for God’s sake. That’s a little different than never coming out of the gate.”

“You got divorced six years ago!”

“Why can’t you let this go? It was a fling, Ziggy. What Pippa and I had was a fling. People have them every day—ask your husband, he has a little experience in the matter.”

“Didn’t look like a fling to me,” Will said, and gave me a warning look.

“And not that it’s any of your business,” I said, putting down my fork, “but this decision wasn’t only mine. We’re on the same page. Neither of us was in a position to want more.”

“How do you even know what page she’s on? You’ve never called her.”

“I—”

“You sent her a fucking text!”

Both Will and I gasped, instinctively moving back in our seats. My sister did not swear. And if she did, it was because something was on fire or a new copy of Science had shown up early at the house. It was never directed at me.

“Pippa just got out of a relationship,” I told her, trying to soften my tone. Ziggy only wanted what was best for me. I knew that. “She was living with someone, Ziggs. What she and I had was never meant to be more.”

“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be,” she said.

“Yeah, it does.”

“Why? Because you were a rebound? Because you’re a buttoned-up lawyer and she sometimes has pink hair? Anyone with a pulse would bang Pippa. Heck, I would bang her.”

Will’s head snapped up. “Really?”

“Well, yeah, in my head I would.” Ziggy shrugged. “And if Jensen would stop being such an—”

“Enough!” I shouted, and the room went still. “This isn’t about you, Hanna.”

“Did you just Hanna me?” she asked, face pink. “You think it’s fun to watch you like this? To know you go home to your empty house every night and that that will never, ever change because you’re too scared or too stubborn to make the first move? I worry about you, Jensen. I worry about you every fucking day.”

“Well, get over it! I’m not worried!”

“You should be! You’re never going to be with anyone at this rate!” Her eyes went wide and she sucked in a breath. “I didn’t mean—”

“Yeah, I know. You didn’t mean to say it out loud.” I pushed myself back from the table.

Ziggy looked horrified and apologetic, but I was too riled up to listen to more.

“Thanks for dinner,” I said, tossing my napkin on the table and walking down the hall.

Despite the cold, I drove home with the windows open, hoping the sound of the wind whipping through the car might blast away the echo of my sister’s words.

The street was silent when I pulled up in front of my house, cutting the engine. I didn’t get out, and not because there was somewhere else I was considering going. I just didn’t really want to go inside. Inside it was tidy and quiet. Inside there were vacuum lines across most of the living room carpet that were never disrupted by footsteps. Inside there was a stack of well-worn takeout menus and an expansive list of shows in my Recently Watched category on Netflix.

Inside suddenly felt unbearable.

What was going on with me? I’d always loved my house, excelled at my job, and enjoyed my routine. I could admit to not being downright ecstatic most of the time, but I’d been happy settling for content.

Why did that not seem like enough anymore?

I finally climbed out of the car and walked up to the porch, slowly pulling my keys from my pocket. My windows were dark save for the lamps with the timer, and I refused to make yet another comparison between my porch and Ziggy’s, my life and Ziggy’s.

Hanna’s, I thought, catching myself for the first time. I don’t want to compare my life and Hanna’s.

She’d grown up.

She’d even surpassed me in how well she did it, how much gusto she gave it.

I unlocked the door and stepped inside, tossing my keys in the direction of the entryway table. Without bothering to turn on any lights or grab the remote first, I sat down in front of the dark TV.

Hanna was right, I should be worried. I had a job I’d sacrificed everything for and a family I adored—which was a hell of a lot more than most people had—but I wasn’t doing anything to make my life fuller.