Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 16

Pippa

Perhaps for the best, the flight back to the UK was less eventful than the one to Boston. The mildly disheveled gentleman next to me was asleep within five minutes of fastening his seat belt, and snoring quite robustly throughout the journey. Sadly, Amelia was not present again, but the flight attendant who was there offered me earplugs and a cocktail.

I accepted the earplugs, turned down the cocktail.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about the holiday, in hindsight. The trip had been a dream while I was there, of course, but—holy Christ—was I really better off having gone? Sure, I was over Mark’s thrusting bum, but after that last amazing night with Jensen and then his disappearing back into work, I felt dreary, like my best friend had up and moved to a city across the globe. And, worse maybe, the bar on decent blokes had been raised to a level that, sadly, I was unlikely to find passing through the streets of London, or anywhere, really.

Is that how it is when you meet The One? Do they raise the bar so impossibly high that you don’t even bother anymore? Jensen was fit, and tall, and clever. He was sexy in a secret way—where he gave it out in tiny pieces but turned into the most skilled and attentive lover behind closed doors. And . . . it felt like we fit. I was chatty, he was thoughtful. I was eccentric, he was classic. But when we came together, we worked.

Ugh, I hated when my thoughts turned into sentimental greeting cards.

I put in the earplugs and tried to think of anything else.

New clothes.

Hair dye.

Cheese.

Avoidance, the lot of it. I had to face the reality of my life head-on. I had to decide whether I wanted to spin my wheels indefinitely in London, or . . . try something new.

When I thought of work, any sense of dread morphed into the imagined joy I would feel walking into Anthony’s office and quitting on the spot.

And when I thought of the Mums, I didn’t see them wringing their hands over the prospect of me moving away from home, I imagined how happy they would be for me if I had a Boston adventure, living there for a few years.

And when I thought of my flat, all I could feel was . . . nothing. No sentimentality, no sadness at the prospect of moving. Everything there—from the shaggy blue rug in the living room to the white duvet on the bed—was associated with the wilder days of my early twenties, or with Mark.

Mark, who had been so similar to me in so many ways. We had everything in common: a love for the pub on the corner, the tendency to get a bit drunk and sing loudly, louder than our tone-deaf voices warranted. We shared a fondness for color, and sound, and spontaneity. But it was such an easy routine, almost frivolous. It required nothing of me to live like that; a life without challenges.

When I stepped away from it all, I saw that my life in London was easy, but it wasn’t satisfying, and it wasn’t ever going to give me what I wanted.

Unfortunately, what I wanted right now was for Jensen to come for me, and to have a flat in Boston near a circle of friends with floppy-eared golden retrievers and children who dressed up as Superman and goblins. My life in London was stuck in days spent working at a job I hated and nights of pints and passing out on the couch. Ironic, maybe, that the holiday that seemed to change my outlook on drinking consisted of four days straight of wine and beer tasting followed by another nine days in the cabin full of board games and debauchery. It occurred to me that the reason my friends had been excited about what lay ahead after the trip was because they—unlike me—had real lives to return to.

Case in point: of the three hundred and twenty-six emails in my inbox when I returned, only three were from someone other than department stores like House of Fraser, Debenhams, or Harrods. No one had called me the entire time I was away, although Mark had come by and cleared out the pantry of most of the food.

What an unbelievable wanker.

I sat on the floor in my quiet flat, with my still-packed suitcase next to the door, and ate peaches out of the tin.

Was this rock bottom? This image of me, disheveled and unshowered from the flight, skirt askew for completely respectable reasons, eating my dinner on the floor? Is this how the authorities would find me, sprawled on the carpet, slowly being nibbled apart by rodents?

Maybe rock bottom was several weeks ago, when I walked in on Mark and his lover in my bed?

I should have been depressed that there were multiple rock bottoms from which to choose, but I no longer felt sad about that, or even angry. I felt hungry for something . . . something other than peaches.

I tossed them into the bin, walking into my bedroom. I didn’t even want to sleep here.

Resolution is an odd thing. In films, it looks like a startle, the dawning realization of an answer, and—finally—a smile aimed toward the sky. For me, resolution to completely uproot my current reality was more of a prolonged blink, a slumping of the shoulders, and an audible “Aw, fuck me.”

I quit on Tuesday afternoon.

I’d planned to quit Monday, but once I was at work, I realized I wouldn’t be able to afford rent on my flat without gainful employment and should probably make sure it was okay with the Mums that I return home while figuring things out. Of course, they were over the moon.

“You want to move to Boston!” Coco said, clapping. “Honey, you won’t regret it. You won’t regret it at all.”

“I’ll need a job, though,” I mumbled around a carrot stick.

“You can figure that all out,” Lele said, curling an arm around my shoulders. “You’re our only kid. We can help you land on your feet.”

Anthony, my boss, was less cordial about it all.

“Where are you off to, then?” he’d asked Tuesday morning when I’d worked up the nerve to enter his office and break the news.

“Not sure yet,” I said, and watched as his expression turned from one of disappointment to scorn. “I’m looking at a few different options.”

And I was. I’d sent out letters to every address on Hanna’s list that morning. Well, every address on the list but Jensen’s. He hadn’t called, texted, or emailed since I’d left his house the morning after. Nearly a week, and I wondered if he even realized I wasn’t in Boston anymore.

Anthony leaned forward, sneering mildly. “You don’t have another job lined up?”

He’d been nearly sacked two years ago when Ruby quit and there was rumor of a lawsuit. But things quieted down when Richard Corbett discreetly paid Ruby an unknown sum of money under the table. Since then, Anthony had been quite strenuously capital-A Appropriate with his employees, but he couldn’t help also being a capital-A Asshole on occasion. It was how he was built.

I struggled to keep from sinking into my chair. “Not yet, but I don’t reckon I’ll have a problem finding one.”

“Don’t be daft, Pippa. Stay here until you do.”

I knew that was the smart way about it, but the problem was, I couldn’t. I couldn’t stay one second longer. I despised him, and the work, and the bland offices, and the way that I was so miserable at the end of the workday that I went straight to the pub.

I loved who I’d been in Boston.

I hated who I’d become here.

“I realize I’m not leaving with much notice, but you’ll give me a good recommendation when someone calls, Tony?”

He hesitated, spinning a pen on his desk. I’d been his right hand ever since Ruby left and Richard had promoted me from intern to staff engineer. From there, I’d moved into an associate engineer role, and I didn’t even have a master’s degree. No matter how Tony felt about me leaving, he couldn’t deny that I’d been stellar under his supervision.

“I will,” he finally said. And in a rare moment of kindness, he added, “Hate to see you go.”

I fumbled, jerking a little in my chair as if I’d been zapped by a touch of static. “I . . . Thank you.”

I cleared out my desk, carried everything in a box to the Tube, returned to my flat.

And I began to pack.

My mobile rang on the dining room table, pulling me out of the mindless task of sorting through which of the back issues of Glamour I wanted to keep. Crawling to the table, and with my heart already beating wildly—in the week since I’d been home, I’d already received four calls from possible employers in Boston—I reached for the phone only to see Mark’s face lighting up the screen.

“You’re calling me now?” I answered without greeting.

I heard him inhale sharply at this. “Is it a bad time?”

I stared at the wall. “You fucked another woman in my bed. And then you cleaned me out of house and home.”

“You sound very American,” he said.

“Sod off.”

“You’re right about the groceries. Sorry about that, Pipps. I was slammed with work and didn’t have time to shop.”

I sighed, sitting back down on the floor and leaning against the couch. “Well, after returning at midnight from three weeks away in the States, I was thrilled to go shopping for groceries.”

He groaned and then murmured, “I’ve called to apologize, and it seems I have one more thing to add to the list.”

“Maybe more than one.”

Sighing, he said quietly, “I am so sorry, Pipps. I hate to think of what I’ve done.”

This shut me up.

It wasn’t that Mark didn’t apologize. It was that he didn’t often sound sincere.

I was immediately wary.

“What are you up to?” I asked, suspicious.

“I’ve only called because I miss you, and wanted to see how your holiday had gone.”

“I’m not ever shagging you again,” I growled preemptively. Mark always had the ability to melt my anger with seduction. Even the thought had me feeling twisty and disloyal. Jensen’s kiss was still on my lips, his touch all over my skin. I didn’t know how long it would be before I was able to strip it all off. I wasn’t sure I wanted to, yet.

“It’s not why I’m calling,” he said quietly, “not for sex. Though it’s been five weeks since I’ve seen you, and I miss you like crazy . . . I realize I’m an enormous fuckwit.”

“Something bigger than enormous,” I told him. “Something worse than fuckwit.”

He laughed at this. “Meet me for dinner tonight?”

I shook my head. “Are you bloody kidding me?”

“Come on,” he pressed. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what I did, and how terrible I felt when Shannon did this to me, and it’s been eating at me.”

Now I laughed. “Mark, do you hear yourself? You want me to come meet you for dinner so that you’ll feel better about shagging another woman in my bed?”

“Won’t you feel better seeing me beg your forgiveness?”

It was so unlike him to say this, to be so belly-to-the-ground apologetic. And even in the face of it, I knew my answer was no. I related to Jensen so acutely in this moment. It wouldn’t make me feel better; it wouldn’t make me feel worse. It wouldn’t make me feel anything.

Mark wasn’t who I wanted.

So then, I wondered, why shouldn’t I go? If one of us could get some peace of mind tonight, why not let it be him?

“It doesn’t matter to me,” I told him. “You can be apologetic or self-righteous about it all. But I’ll be hungry at seven thirty and will be at the Yard.”

And then I hung up.

When Mark and I first met, even though he was still in love with Shannon, I spent an hour getting ready every time we planned to meet at the bar. He would show up unshaven in cargo trousers and an old Joy Division T-shirt, and I would come in as if I’d merely been walking around perfectly made up and coiffed, comfortably wearing this peacock-green silk skirt and red cashmere cardigan all day, thank you very much.

The bait-and-switch happened the first night he stayed over and woke up to me as I really was: purple hair a perfect nest for birds and face free of makeup. And it was Mark’s shining moment: he looked at me, eyes roaming my face, and said quietly, “There she is.”

Mark may have done a lot of things wrong, but one thing he always got right was making me feel beautiful just as I was. And as I got ready for dinner—by simply pulling on a pair of trousers, some old trainers, and a blue jumper—it occurred to me that was one area where Jensen failed me. He always seemed to weather Ruby’s references to my oft-dyed hair with a patient smile or a nervous laugh. He didn’t seem to love the volume of my clothes, or of me, for that matter.

It hurt, actually, to feel this first tiny splinter in my adoration of him. It hurt to not hear from him, to wonder if perhaps Becky did, to not get a single text or email or call after all of it. But I still wasn’t ready to let him go entirely, because I felt that buried in my feelings for Jensen were also feelings of an idealized version of myself that I wanted to know. One who found something she loved to do during the day, who found people she loved to be near at night, who chased ambition and adventure.

But looking at myself now, I wanted to remember this Pippa, too: the one who wore what she bloody well pleased, and didn’t get dressed for a man, or a friend, or anyone but herself each morning.

I glanced at the clock. I had time to ring Tami and get in before dinner.

It was the first thing he noticed, and his expression fell slightly, nostalgia plain on his face.

“You’ve dyed your hair,” Mark said.

I came closer, letting him hug me. “It was time.”

He reached for a strand, letting his fingers run down it. “It makes me miss you.”

“It makes me want to dance,” I countered, stepping out of his reach.

“We could have gone to Rooney’s instead,” he suggested, thinking I meant dance in the literal sense.

But he didn’t understand. I meant that dyeing my hair made me happy, brought me back to myself. I nodded to the hostess when she asked if there were two of us dining tonight. We followed her to a small table in the back, against the wall. “I don’t want to go to Rooney’s, or the Squeaky Wheel, or any of those old places.”

“You’re so angry at me,” he said quietly, turning the menu over in his hands to read the cocktail list.

“I’m not angry anymore,” I assured him. “But I don’t want to do a tour of our past tonight, either.”

He stared at me, as if studying, and then nodded a little. “You’re different.”

“I’m not.”

Shaking his head, he leaned in closer. “You are. You don’t like it here anymore.”

Mark always had been astute when he wanted to be. “I stepped into Trinity’s old job when she left R-C,” I reminded him, “and you rolled into my bed when you and Shannon split up.” Ignoring his pained wince, I said, “And it occurred to me: the two most important aspects of my life were hand-me-downs.”

“It wasn’t like that with us, Pipps,” Mark insisted.

I shook my head. “When we were just friends, I’m sure it felt good to you that I was so eager for anything you’d give me. You needed attention, and I just wanted you. But something happens when you betray someone who’ll give you anything. It sours their generosity. And you should have known that better than anyone, so I think you really wanted out of our relationship, you were just too cowardly to say it.”

For once, he didn’t immediately argue with me. He stared at his water glass, tracing the path of a drop of condensation as it slid down from the rim. “It wasn’t that organized. I met her at—”

“I don’t want to know a thing about her,” I reminded him sharply, interrupting. “I don’t bloody care.”

Mark looked up at me, surprised.

“She wasn’t the problem,” I told him. “You were. I don’t need someone else to blame for what you did, and you don’t get to pass that off, either.”

He smiled at me. “There she is.”

“Don’t say that,” I growled, and his smile disappeared. “This isn’t a sentimental trip down memory lane. You hurt me. You brought another woman into my flat, into our bed.”

He swallowed thickly, shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”

Clearly Mark needed to think on what to say next, because despite having been here more than once, he picked up his menu and scanned it before staring at the same spot for a full minute.

I looked to my own menu, decided to order the steak and chips, and put it back down. The waitress came to our table, took our order, and left us in continued silence.

From the set of his jaw, I assumed Mark was going to tell me I was wrong, and that he didn’t sabotage our relationship intentionally, and that he was a dedicated lover who simply made an innocent mistake. But when he did speak, it wasn’t at all what I’d predicted: “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know.”

I laughed dryly. “That’s terrible. It really is.”

“I know,” he said, voice pained. “But here’s the thing: You were the one who was really there for me when Shannon left. You listened, and you made me laugh, and you got me drunk and sang with me and . . . you were my best friend. I wanted it to be love.”

I leaned back in my chair, pressing my hands together beneath the table so I wouldn’t reach across and slap him. “I wanted it to be love, too. I thought it was, actually. But it wasn’t. It was infatuation. You’re gorgeous, and charming, and it didn’t take you forever to figure out how to make it good for me in bed. These days, that combination is a ruddy unicorn.” He smiled at this, and I allowed a small one in return. “But I promise, I’m not heartbroken.”

He went still.

“I’m not,” I repeated. “I was angry, and humiliated, and wanted to cut your balls off and have them bronzed, but then I went away, and I met someone, and . . . I met myself, maybe, too.”

“You met someone?” he asked.

I nipped this one in the bud. “You don’t get to ask about it.”

Laughing, he said, “Okay. Even if it will drive me mad?”

I ignored this, leaning forward, elbows on the table. “He’d been married before, to a woman he met in college and had dated for years. Four months after their wedding, she left. She told him it didn’t feel right, she didn’t want to be married to him.”

Mark let out a low whistle.

“Don’t act so surprised. That could have been us.” Pushing away from the table, I leaned back in my seat. “Why are people so cowardly? Why does it take them so long to figure out their own hearts?”

“You and I were together for a year, and you just admitted you didn’t love me, either,” Mark reminded me.

I looked back up at him. “That’s true. But I never would have hurt you while trying to figure it out. I would have talked it out.”

He looked up, thanking the waitress when she put his scotch and soda on the table in front of him.

Mark sipped his drink and noticed I hadn’t ordered one. “Nothing for you, then?” he asked, tipping his glass to me.

It was our routine: sit down, order a drink, order some food, order another drink. Maybe another. I had nothing against hard alcohol, but I wanted the warm flush of wine, the cold breeze outside, and Jensen’s long arm around my shoulders as we watched the sunset over a vineyard.

Or anywhere, really.

If I drank tonight, I wouldn’t stop at one, and I would go home soggy and depressed and probably call him and tell him I missed him.

And then what?

He might not even be surprised for me to do something so impulsive.

But being the straightforward man he was, he would remind me it had only been a fling.

But also being the kind soul he was, he would quietly promise to call me the next time he was in town.

And I would laugh with forced lightness, and assure him that I’m in my cups, and being nostalgic, and really have so many options here it’s fine, fine, fine.

“Not tonight,” I said, smiling over at Mark. “I feel the need to sweep away some old habits.”

But back home—even sober—it seemed the phone in the kitchen was trying to flirt with me.

Growing and shrinking, it was a pale blue beacon attached to the wall.

Call him, it said.

Do it. You know you want to.

And it would be good to hear his voice, wouldn’t it?

It would have, but instead I left the kitchen, walking into my bedroom, where I could tuck my mobile into a drawer and put on my PJs and pretend that there wasn’t a gnawing ache in me, wanting to hear his voice, wanting there to be a hint of thrill to hear from me.

He’d seemed happy to see me on the sidewalk outside his house, hadn’t he? While I’d stammered and flailed, he’d calmly listened and then bent down and put his mouth against mine.

Even the memory of what followed that night had me reaching up, touching my lips.

In some ways, I wanted to punch myself for not noticing more. Little things, like how he held his fork, and whether I’d ever seen his handwriting at any point on the trip. I knew he took his coffee black, but did he hold his mug by the handle, or around the curve of it, warming his hand?

“Fucking hell, Pippa.” I growled, throwing my jumper into the laundry bin. “Stop.”

It would be so easy if I knew these thoughts of Jensen were some sort of pep talk, a way to lure myself out of London and keep my bravery lifted. But it wasn’t that. I wasn’t afraid of leaving London, and actually I wasn’t keen on Jensen knowing I was moving to Boston if we weren’t in touch otherwise. It was that . . . well, I really fancied him.

I wanted him to fancy me.

I wanted him to call me.

Of course, right then, the landline scared the shit out of me, ringing brightly on my bedside table. No one but the Mums and irritating solicitors ever called me on this line, and so I answered it—assuring Lele that dinner with Mark had been predictably bland and no, I was not currently lying in bed with him.

But then the phone was right there, in my hand, looking all seductive again.

I dug in my purse for the papers from Hanna, unfolding them and smoothing a finger along his name in ink as I sat on the edge of my bed.

A million times in the history of the world, a girl had called a boy. A million times, too, she had felt nervous like this—like she might puke, really—and had debated for ten minutes over whether it was a good idea.

It was just past eleven here, which meant he might be home, or at least the office would be empty . . . it’s possible he would see the London number calling, hope it was me, and answer.

Right?

Carefully, I dialed, depressing each number with a steady finger. On my mobile, I could simply press his photo and it would ring him, easy as pie. But I didn’t want to, because that photo was a selfie we took while tipsy and wearing straw hats in the middle of a vineyard. To see the photo would bring the rush of memories attached to it. By contrast, this was just a series of numbers pressed in a particular order. Impersonal. Logical. I was a mathematician; I dealt with numbers every day. And if I took my time, let my fingers press each key without deliberate thought of sequence or pattern, there’d be no trace of it in my memory. So I couldn’t accidentally call him any time of day, or let the numbers unscroll in my mind, uninvited.

I entered the last digit, bringing the receiver up to my ear with a shaking hand.

A pause.

A ring.

My heart hammered so hard I was breathing with great effort.

Another ring—but it was cut off halfway.

Bloody cut off, as if he’d looked down at his phone, seen the UK number, and rejected the call.

There had to be another explanation, but my brain wouldn’t find a grip on any.

He’d seen I was calling. He’d declined the call.

I paced my flat. Maybe during work hours he had set his phone to go to voice mail after a single ring. Maybe he was in the middle of a dinner meeting and had automatically declined the call.

I put on a movie, thought too much, fell asleep on the couch. When I woke, the sky was still dark, and the clock over the fireplace read 3:07 a.m. The first thought in my head was of Jensen.

It would be just after ten o’clock at night for him.

Fumbling to my bedroom phone before my brain cleared, I dialed the number from the sheet again—not quite as carefully as before—listening as it rang once. Twice. And then partway into the third ring, it went to voice mail again.

He really had declined the call.

I told myself to hang up, felt the muscles in my arm tense as if to pull the phone away, but couldn’t do it, hating myself as I listened to the greeting, jaw tight, eyes wide.

“You’ve reached the voice mail of Jensen Bergstrom. I’m either away from my phone, or I am driving. Please leave your name, number, and any relevant information, and I will return your call.”

Beep.

I gasped into the line, eyes burning inexplicably, before slamming the phone back down in the cradle.

I moved back home to the Mums’ two weeks after returning from Boston. Coco cleared out her sewing room—which had once been my bedroom—and with Lele working at the law firm all hours and Coco painting in the attic, it really felt like my childhood was being rebooted.

I had job interviews over the phone with six different people, and follow-up calls with another three firms. I went on two dates: one with a bloke from the R-C offices who I’d been talking to for ages—but only as a friend, and now that I was single . . . well—and another man I’d met on the Tube and whose shoes were polished, and who wore a suit, and who made me think of Jensen. Each date was fine, pleasant even. But in both cases, I’d declined a good-night kiss and gone home alone.

I’d always heard that distance makes the heart grow fonder and scoffed at it. Distance away from any of my previous blokes had only made my eye wander. But here, even only a few weeks after I’d seen him last—and even though part of me wanted to punch him in the stomach for declining my call—it was as though I could think of no one but Jensen.

The two sides of him warred in my head: the man who could be so tender, so funny, so attentive, and the man who could forget when I was leaving town, decline my call, make love to me only when I was conveniently in front of him.

“You’re awfully distracted,” Coco said, sitting down beside me on the piano bench in the front room.

“I’m waiting to hear back from Turner in Boston,” I said, depressing the middle C key with my index finger. Although what I’d said was true, it wasn’t why I’d been staring at the piano for the past ten minutes. But fuck this, and that, and everything if I was going to mention Jensen aloud. “They said they’d like to bring me out for a face-to-face.”

Her brows lifted. “From London. Wow, sweetheart, that’s saying something.”

She took my hand and held it between hers, rubbing gently. “You’re not going to look for a local position, just in case?”

Shrugging, I told her, “I don’t want a just in case.”