Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 18

Pippa

When I was sixteen, I was picking up some groceries from the corner market on my way home from school, grumbling about the Mums, and how much homework I have to do, and don’t they realize how busy and important I am? How dare they ask me to do the grocery shopping! when I looked up from the carton of eggs in my hand directly into the face of Justin Timberlake as he reached for . . . God knows what.

Apparently, Google told me later, he was in town for a show. To this day, I have no idea what he was picking up at our tiny corner shop.

In the moment, my brain did this stalling thing where everything just shut down. It’s happened to my computer before—the monitor makes a faint popping noise just before everything goes black, and I have to boot it up all over again. Whenever it happens to my dinosaur desktop in my bedroom, I now call it Justin Timberlaking because that’s exactly how it felt in that moment.

Pop.

Black screen.

Justin had smiled over at me and then ducked his head to meet my eyes, his expression growing more concerned.

“Are you okay?” he’d asked.

I shook my head, and he took the carton of eggs from my hand and put it in the basket hanging from my arm, smiling again. “Don’t want you to drop your eggs.”

Now, I will never stop laughing about that, by the way, because when Justin Timberlake told me not to drop my eggs, the tiny, still-beating part of my brain started cracking up at the multitude of ovulation jokes.

Not that I would have been brave enough to make any of them.

So, it’s my cross to bear, really, that during the biggest celebrity sighting I will likely ever have, I was completely mute, to the extent that the celebrity in question was genuinely unsure whether I would survive the encounter without dropping a dozen eggs.

And this is exactly how I felt looking up at Jensen Bergstrom, standing in front of me on the plane.

Pop.

Black screen.

In the time it took my system to reboot, Jensen had stepped out of the aisle, asked the man walking in behind him and looking at my row with intent if he wouldn’t mind trading places with him, and then lowered himself into the seat beside me.

Thank God this time I’d been sitting. And not holding any eggs.

“What—?” My question was cut off by a choking sensation in my throat.

He let out another breathless “Hi.”

When he swallowed, my eyes moved to his throat. He wore a dress shirt, open at the collar. No suit coat, no tie. And where my eyes were glued to his neck, I could see his pulse, and I suddenly felt sunbaked, too warm.

I looked back up at his face, and it was like filing through all of my favorite memories. I remembered the tiny scar beneath his left eye, the solitary freckle on his right cheekbone. I remembered the way his front incisor just very slightly overlapped the tooth beside it, making what would be a perfect smile just a tiny bit easier to digest. All of these minor imperfections had once made Jensen less of a god to me, but seeing them now made his my favorite face in the entire world.

Our eyes met, and there it was: that unbelievable friction of chemistry.

We had that, didn’t we?

But then, I supposed—maybe too late—that every woman would have the friction of chemistry with a man like Jensen. I mean, fuck. How could she not? Look at him.

And look I did. He wasn’t wearing dress trousers, either. Instead, he had on dark jeans that hugged his muscular thighs, dark green Adidas trainers . . . and my brain tripped on his casual attire for a second before it passed over, trying to work out the greater question of him being here.

“Hi?” I answered, shaking my head before blurting nonsensically, “I didn’t ring you back.” My words sounded jagged, like little bits of torn paper. “Oh God. And you were here? In London?”

“Yes,” he said, frowning a little. “And no, you didn’t call me back. Why?”

Instead of an answer, another question tumbled out of me: “Are you seriously flying home on the same flight taking me to Boston? What are the odds?”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. I simply felt so many competing things about it and wasn’t sure which one was winning the battle for dominance.

First: Elation. It was reflexive, like the jerk of my knee. He looked good, and happy, and there was some frantic energy in his eyes that felt like a life preserver thrown overboard, directly to me. No matter what else, I’d loved my time with him. I’d begun to love him.

But also: Wariness. For obvious reasons.

And anger. Also for obvious reasons.

And maybe, just a tiny flicker of hope.

“What are the odds indeed,” he said quietly, and then smiled in a cascade that worked its way down his face: from his eyes to his cheeks and finally his perfect lips. “You’re coming to Boston?”

I tried to translate the hopeful twitch of his brow, the way he searched my eyes.

“I have three interviews,” I said, nodding.

Happiness seemed to drain from his face. “Oh.”

Well.

I nodded, turning my face away and biting back the words Don’t worry, I won’t ring you unsolicited, which were making a tight loop in my throat.

“And they got you a first-class ticket?” he murmured. “Wow.”

I was officially done with this conversation. This was what he found interesting? That I was worthy of their expensive ticket? Turning my face to the window, I laughed to myself without humor.

I’d spent the last three weeks working to stop thinking about him. It was taking me longer to get over a two-week fling than it had to get over the cohabitating thrusting bum. But here I was, right back beside Jensen, and it was painful.

“Pippa,” he said quietly, putting a careful hand over mine on my lap. “Are you angry at me about something?”

Gently, I pulled my hand away. The words bubbled up and then I bit them down, because it was just a fling.

It was just a fling.

Pippa, bloody hell, it was just a fling.

I looked back to him, unable to keep telling myself that lie. “The thing is, Jensen, what happened between us in October? It wasn’t just a fling to me.”

His eyes went wide. “I—”

“And you completely brushed me off.”

Jensen opened his mouth to speak again, but I beat him to it: “Look, I know I was meant to keep it casual, but my heart apparently had other plans. So if I’m not looking at you it’s because I care for you . . . and I also want to break your face a little.”

Shaking his head as if he wasn’t sure where to start, Jensen said, “Saturday night, before I called, I went by your old flat. Sunday, I emailed Ruby trying to find you. I’ve called you every four hours for the past three days.”

A hammer went to work inside my chest. “I was out with friends celebrating my job interviews on Saturday when you called. I shut off my mobile service on Sunday because I couldn’t afford it. Just over a week ago, I moved out of that old flat and back home with the Mums. I called you not long after I got back to London from Boston. Twice, in fact. You sent it to voice mail each time. Maybe Saturday seemed a little too late to return a call.”

His green eyes went wide. “Then why on earth didn’t you leave a voice mail? I had no idea you’d called. I have you in my contacts, but I didn’t have a missed call from you.”

“It was a UK number, Jensen, my home line, calling at night London time. Who else would it be?”

He laughed. “Maybe one of the fifty people I work with here in the UK office?” His voice was gentler when he added, “Do you think anyone stops working at this firm?”

I ignored his tender smile because a hot burn of humiliation was quickly spreading across my cheeks. “Don’t make me feel like an idiot. Even I know you would never send a work call directly to voice mail.”

“Pippa,” he said, leaning in and reaching for my hand. His was warm, firm. “London starts work in the middle of the night for me, and the West Coast office doesn’t close until nine at night. That means from six in the morning until around nine at night I’m in meetings, or answering the emails and voice mails people send me when I’m sleeping or in meetings. I almost never answer my phone, especially when I finally get home.”

That bitch hindsight reared her mocking head again.

I’d immediately assumed he was brushing me off, when in fact he was just doing what he did for every call, not really being a phone-talker.

“Why do you even have a cell phone?” I asked, eyes narrowing.

He smiled. “Work, for one. I can’t ignore the call when it’s my boss—who owns the firm—or my mother.”

Shaking my head, I whispered, “Don’t try to be charming.”

This clearly bewildered him. “I’m not attempting charming. I’m being honest. I didn’t know you called. I wish I had known. I missed you.”

This tripped something in me, some bittersweet reaction that I couldn’t quite name. It was nice to hear this, but it didn’t mean much. I’d been in his neighborhood for days at the end of my holiday, and he hadn’t called me after our night at his house, or shown any interest in seeing me again. And despite what we’d once said lightly, the truth was, I really wasn’t all that interested in the When Jensen Visits London booty call.

“While it’s nice to hear,” I said, “in the end I don’t reckon I want you to call me when you’re passing through London. I’ve discovered I’m not really the fling type.” I sniffed, trying to look composed. “Not anymore. I don’t think I want to go back down that road.”

Jensen paused before speaking, blinking at me a few times. “I was never the fling type.”

“You seemed to do it quite well, if memory serves.”

A smile pulled at one side of his mouth. “Pippa, ask me why I’m here.”

“I believe we’d already established you’re here for work. The London office, remember?”

He tilted his head, eyes narrowed. “Did we establish that?”

I frowned. Hadn’t we? This was all becoming rather confusing, talking about time zones and work hours and . . .

“Fine,” I said, giving in, voice flat. “Why are you here?”

“I flew here to see you.”

Pop.

Black.

While my mind tried to shuffle these words into sense, he simply watched me, his tiny smile lingering before turning slightly unsure.

“You . . . What?”

He smiled wider, nodding. “I came here to see you. I realized I wanted more. I came to see if you might . . . want more with me. I’m in love with you.”

My legs straightened, shoving me upright and standing of their own volition, and before I knew it, I was awkwardly stepping over his lap and tripping down the aisle to the lavatory.

The flight attendant gently called after me: “We’ll be taking off shortly . . .”

But the flight was still boarding. And I had to . . .

move

walk

breathe

something.

I slid into the loo and was beginning to close the door when a hand reached out, stopping me.

Jensen looked at me, pleading.

“There’s barely room in here for me,” I whispered, putting a hand on his chest.

He stepped forward anyway, deftly swapping our positions so my back was to the door.

“Just . . . give us a second,” he said to the bewildered flight attendant.

Sliding the door carefully closed behind me, he lowered the lid on the toilet before sitting and looking up at me.

“What in the bloody hell are we doing in here?” I asked.

He took my hands, staring down at them. “I don’t want you to walk away from me after I tell you I love you.”

“I’ll be sitting next to you on the entire flight,” I countered lamely.

He winced, shaking his head a little. “Pippa . . .”

“I came home from Boston and was miserable,” I told him. “I quit my job, moved back home, and set about making my life something I would want to rejoin after vacation.”

Jensen listened, watching me patiently.

“I couldn’t decide if you ruined me, or . . . or found me,” I said. “I went on dates”—he winced again—“and didn’t enjoy any of them.”

“I haven’t been out with anyone since you,” he said.

“Not even Softball Emily?”

He laughed. “Not even her. It wasn’t a sacrifice.” He reached up, cupping my jaw and staring directly into my eyes. “And maybe Hanna and Will would say that’s par for the course, but I did date, before. I just hadn’t met you yet. You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever known.”

He was looking at my face when he said this. And he hadn’t said anything about my hair.

If he’d noticed that it was lavender, he’d given no indication. He didn’t even do the casual—but obvious—scan of my bracelets stacked up my arm, or my chunky necklace or my red combat boots.

And I think that’s when I knew. I was done for. Those thickly lashed green eyes; the smooth, flushed cheeks; the hair he’d let grow long enough to fall over his brow; and now, the way he saw me for me, not as a series of eccentric parts and bright colors . . .

My brain tried one last argument. “You’ve come to London for the grand gesture because you’re lonely.”

Jensen studied me, reaching with one hand to thoughtfully scratch his jaw. “It’s true.”

The two short words hung heavily between us, and the longer they lingered, the more I realized he could find someone else if it was only about wanting companionship.

“It’s too late?” He stared up at me, lips slowly pulling into a skeptical half smile. “I feel like we haven’t really had a chance yet. We were both trying to make it casual last time.”

“I don’t know what to think about all of this,” I admitted. “You’re not the impulsive type.”

He laughed, taking my hands. “Maybe I want to change things a little.”

“Before . . .” I began, gently, “you really only wanted me when I was convenient.”

Jensen looked around at the tiny bathroom we were crammed into, on the flight he had booked only to see me. His argument was superfluous, and we both knew it, so he looked back up at me and grinned. Playful. Relaxed. Exactly the man I knew on our wine trip. “Well, here we are. Not exactly convenient,” he added with a teasing smile. “And I love you.”

The words burst out of me: “I’ve slept with a lot of blokes.”

“What?” He laughed. “So?”

“I’m shit with money.”

“I’m great with money.”

I felt my heart reaching out, trying to claw its way out of me. “What if I don’t get a job in Boston?”

“I’ll move to the London office.”

“Just like that?” I asked, my heart a mass of flapping wings in my chest.

“It isn’t exactly ‘just like that,’ ” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve spent the last month being miserable and debating every reason why this doesn’t make sense. The problem is, there are no more compelling reasons remaining.” He ran his index finger across one raised eyebrow. “I don’t care about the distance. I’m not worried that you’ll leave me without explanation. I don’t care that we’re such different people, and I’m not worried that my job will get in the way. I won’t let it. Not anymore.”

Pausing, he added, “I made partner on Friday.”

I felt the air around us go still, and the tiny space seemed to shrink further. “You what?”

His smile was tentative and sweet. “I haven’t told anyone yet. I . . . I wanted to tell you first.”

Clutching his shoulders, I cried, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

He laughed. “No. It’s crazy, I know.”

But being so close to him and feeling this crushing hope was terrifying.

“Pippa,” he said, looking up at me, “do you think you could love me, too?”

“What if I couldn’t?” I whispered.

He stared up at me, unspeaking. It wasn’t cockiness in his eyes, and it wasn’t defeat, either. It was some surety, deep in his heart, that told him he wasn’t wrong about us.

I know how hard he had worked to trust his emotional compass, and I would be damned if I extinguished that trust.

“If I said that, you would know I was lying,” I said.

His chest fell a bit in an unsure exhale. “Lying?”

I bit my lip before clarifying, “Because you know I already do.”

His entire face transformed with a smile. “Sorry,” he said, “you’re standing a little far away, I couldn’t quite—”

Bending down, I spoke the words against his mouth again before kissing him.

Strangest thing: The kiss felt familiar, as if we’d done it a thousand times before. Which I suppose we had. I expected it to be some revelation, to somehow feel like a committed kiss.

Saying the words out loud hadn’t changed a thing—it had just acknowledged what was already there.