Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 2

Jensen

I could remember exactly one flight more awkward than that one.

It was the June after my freshman year in college, and about ten months after I’d met Will Sumner. He’d blown into Baltimore, the guy with the smile, swagger, and certainty that he and I were going to be partners in crime. For someone like me whose life had been, up to that point, quiet and sheltered, Will Sumner was the best kind of wrecking ball.

That summer, we went to Niagara Falls with his extended family and . . . let’s say we happened upon a VHS tape of some badly shot porn. There was no music, no faces, and it was all done by one stationary camera, but nonetheless we watched it over and over until we were blurry and desensitized, reciting the dirty talk in unison and shoveling Pringles into our mouths.

It was the first time I’d ever seen someone having real sex, and I thought it was fucking stellar . . . until Will’s pretty aunt Jessica panicked at the airport, unable to find her “home movie” in her carry-on.

I sat next to Aunt Jessica the entire flight, and it’s safe to say I did not play it very cool. At all. I was sweaty palms and monosyllables and constant awareness that I knew what she looked like naked. I knew what she looked like having sex. My sheltered brain could barely handle that kind of information.

Will was about as sympathetic as expected, pelting me with tiny balls of his napkins and peanuts across the aisle. “What’s got you all tied up, Jens?” he’d called. “You look like someone saw you naked.”

Pippa was a different kind of awkward entirely. She was the kind of awkward where pretty and engaging turns into smeary makeup and incessant rambling from the miracle of alcohol. The kind where you feign sleep for more than three hours when your brain is panic-scrolling through the list of ways the time on the plane might be better spent.

As we made the trek to baggage claim, the low hum of airport noise drifted over me. It was nearly as familiar as the sound of my heater switching on at night, or my own goddamn breathing. I could sense Pippa behind me, chatting idly with her grandfather. Her voice was nice—accent thick with the polish of London and the streets of Bristol. Her face was great, eyes bright and mischievous; they were actually what drew me in right away because they were such a startling blue, and so expressive. But I was afraid to make eye contact and begin the talking all over again. I’d felt her apology practically bubbling up as I nearly sprinted from the plane, and worried that if I gave her an opening, she would take it without question.

I rubbed my eyes and then spotted my suitcase sliding down onto the carousel. There was something almost comically intense about the message I felt I was receiving. Just when I began to consider whether I was looking for women in the wrong places, whether I was wrong about my type, whether I should be more adventurous in dating, the universe trapped me on a flight with a woman who was gorgeous, eccentric, and completely insane.

So let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Jens. Stick with what you know.

Maybe Softball Emily wasn’t so bad after all.

My driver stood with a placard bearing my name, and I nodded, wordlessly following her out of the airport. The car was dark and cool, and I immediately pulled my phone back out, letting my brain slip into that familiar space where work lived and breathed.

I would call Jacob on Monday to set up a time to review the Petersen Pharma files.

I should email Eleanor in HR about getting someone to replace Melissa in the San Francisco office.

I would need to get in early next week to tackle this inbox.

The car pulled up at the curb in front of my brownstone, and it felt like a gentle tug, unwinding me.

Fall was upon us, spiraling through the trees that canopied the streets, turning everything somehow brighter before it all dimmed for the interminable months of winter. The air outside was biting after the warmth of the car, and I met the driver at the back, handing her a hefty tip for getting us here so efficiently in Boston rush hour.

This London trip had been only a week, but it felt like an eternity. Mergers were one thing. International mergers were another. But international mergers gone wrong? Brutal. Endless paperwork. Endless depositions. Endless details to scrounge up and record. Endless travel.

Staring up at my house—a simple two-story, two lights on in the bay window, front door framed by potted plants—I let the unwinding work its way through me. As much as I traveled, I was a homebody at heart, and fuck if it didn’t feel good to be so close to my own bed. I didn’t even feel privately embarrassed that the call of takeout delivery and Netflix made me feel a little drunk.

The house lit up with the flick of a single switch, and before I did anything else, I unpacked—if for no other reason than to hide the evidence that I’d been traveling and would no doubt have to fly again soon. Denial, you are my favorite lover.

Suitcase unpacked, dinner ordered, Netflix loaded and ready, and, as if on cue, my youngest sister, Ziggy—Hanna to anyone outside our family—opened the door with her set of keys.

“Hey,” she called out.

Like she had no reason to knock.

Like she knew I’d be sitting right here, in sweats and slippers.

Alone.

“Hey,” I said, watching as she threw her keys toward the bowl on the table near the door and missed by at least two feet. “Nice shot, loser.”

She smacked my head as she walked by. “Did you just get home?”

“Yeah. Sorry. I was going to call you after I ate.”

She stopped, turning to look at me quizzically. “Why? Am I your ‘Honey, I’m home’ call?”

She turned away and I stared at her back as she retrieved a beer for me and a glass of water for herself.

When she returned, I grumbled, “That’s a terrible thing to say.”

“Is it inaccurate?” She flopped down next to me on the couch.

“Why are you even here?”

Ziggy was married to my best friend of more than fifteen years, Will—of Aunt Jessica fame—and the two of them lived not five minutes down the road in a house much bigger and much more lived-in than this one.

She pulled her hair over her shoulder and grinned at me. “It has been suggested that I ‘stomp around the house,’ thereby ‘making it difficult to have work calls at night.’ ” Ziggs shrugged and sipped her water. “Will has some big conference call with someone in Australia, so I figured I’d hang here until I get the all-clear.”

“Hungry? I ordered Thai.”

She nodded. “You must be tired.”

I shrugged. “My clock is a little off.”

“I’m sure a quiet night sounds good. I’m sure there’s no one you’re dying to see now that you’re home.”

With my beer tilted toward my lips, I froze, sliding my eyes to her. “Stop it.”

To be fair, my entire family tended to be overly concerned with the goings-on in each other’s lives, and I would admit to playing the protective older brother on more than one occasion. But I didn’t like having my youngest sibling stepping into my game.

“How’s Emily?” she asked, and faked a yawn.

“Ziggs.”

Knowing exactly how big a brat she was being, she turned and looked at me. “She scrapbooks, Jensen. And she offered to help me organize the garage.”

“That sounds pretty friendly to me,” I said, scrolling through the channels.

“This is her before marriage, Jens. These are her zany days.”

I ignored this, trying not to laugh and encourage her. “Emily and I aren’t really a thing.”

Thankfully, she decided not to push or make some sex joke. “Are you coming over tomorrow?”

“What’s tomorrow?”

Ziggy glared at me. “Seriously? How many times have we talked about this?”

I groaned, standing up and trying to think of a reason I needed to leave the room. “Why are you laying into me? I just got home!”

“Jens, we’re hosting Annabel’s third birthday tomorrow! Sara is ready to pop with their seventieth child, so she and Max couldn’t handle throwing it at their place. Everyone is coming up from New York. You knew about this! You said you’d be home in time.”

“Right. Right. Yeah, I guess I’ll stop by.”

She stared at me. “There’s no stopping by. Come hang out, Jensen—how wonderfully ironic that I’m the one telling you this. When was the last time you went out with friends? When was the last time you were social, or went on a date with someone other than Softball Emily?”

I didn’t answer this. I dated more than my sister knew, but she was right that I wasn’t all that invested. I’d been married once. To sweet, playful Becky Henley. We’d met my sophomore year in college, dated for nine years, and then been married for four months before I came home to find her packing her things through a haze of tears.

It didn’t feel right, she’d said. It never really felt right.

And that was all the explanation I ever got.

Okay, so at twenty-eight I’d had my law degree and was newly divorced—turns out there’s not a lot of that going around—so I’d focused on my career. Full steam. For six years, I made nice with the partners, climbed the ladder, grew my team, became indispensable to the firm.

Only to find myself spending my Friday nights with my baby sister, being lectured about being more social.

And she was right: it was ironic that she was the one having this conversation with me. Three years ago I’d said the exact same thing to her.

I sighed.

“Jensen,” she said, pulling me back down onto the couch. “You’re the worst.”

I was. I was absolutely the worst at taking advice. I knew I needed to get out of this work rut. I knew I needed to infuse some fun into my life. And as averse as I was to discussing it with my sister, I knew I would probably enjoy being in a committed relationship. The problem was, I almost didn’t know where to start. The prospect always felt so overwhelming. The longer I was single, the harder it seemed to compromise with someone.

“You didn’t go out in London at all, did you?” Ziggs said, turning to face me. “Not once?”

I thought back to the lead attorney on the London side of our team, Vera Eatherton. She’d come over to me just as we’d wrapped up for the day. We’d talked for a few minutes and then I’d known the second her expression shifted, eyes turned down to the floor with an air of shyness I had yet to see from her, that she was going to ask me out.

“Care to grab a bite later?” she’d asked.

I’d smiled at her. She was very pretty. A few years older than I was, she was in great shape, tall and slender with great curves. I should want to grab a bite later. I should want to grab a lot more than that.

But putting aside the complications from a workplace standpoint, the idea of dating—even of a simple night of sex—exhausted me.

“No,” I told Ziggy. “I didn’t go out. Not the way you mean.”

“Where’s my player brother?” she asked, giving me a goofy grin.

“I think you have me confused with your husband.”

She ignored this. “You were in London for a week and spent all your free time in your hotel. Alone.”

“That’s not entirely accurate.” I hadn’t been in my room, actually. I’d been all over, visiting landmarks and taking in the city, but she was right about one thing: I’d done it alone.

She raised a brow, daring me to prove her wrong. “Will said last night you need to get a bit of the college Jensen back.”

I glared at her. “Don’t talk to Will about how we were in college anymore. He was an idiot.”

“You were both idiots.”

“Will was head idiot,” I said. “I just followed him around.”

“That’s not the way he tells it,” she said with a grin.

“You’re weird,” I told her.

“I’m weird? You have lights on a timer, a Roomba to keep your floor clean even when you’re out of town, you unpack within minutes of entering your house—and I’m the weird one?”

I opened my mouth to answer and then shut it, holding up a finger so she wouldn’t let loose another playful tirade.

“I loathe you,” I said finally, and a giggle burst free from her throat.

The doorbell rang, and I went to grab the takeout, then brought it into the kitchen. I loved Ziggy. Since she’d moved back to Boston, seeing her a few times a week had admittedly been good for both of us. But I hated to think she worried about me.

And it wasn’t just Ziggy.

My entire family thought I didn’t know they bought extra gifts for me at Christmas because I didn’t have a girlfriend putting presents under the tree. They always left the plus-one question hanging when they invited me over for dinner. If I brought a random stranger into my parents’ house for Sunday dinner and announced I was going to marry her, my entire family would lose their minds celebrating.

There was nothing worse than being the oldest of five children and also being the one everyone had to worry about. Making sure they always knew I was fine, totally, completely fine was exhausting.

But it didn’t stop me from trying. Especially because when I’d pushed Ziggs to get out into the world more she’d met up with Will, of all people, and their story was a happily ever after I couldn’t begrudge either of them.

“Okay,” I said, bringing her a plate of food and sitting back down beside her on the couch. “Remind me about the party. What time?”

“Eleven,” she said. “I wrote it on your calendar on the fridge. Do you even look at that, or did you immediately throw out the Post-it note because it marred the perfectly stoic surface of your lonely refrigerator?”

I quickly swallowed a sip of beer. “Can you put the lecture on pause for a second? Come on, honey, I’m tired. I don’t want to do this tonight. Just tell me what I need to bring.”

She gave me an apologetic smile before shoving a forkful of rice and green curry in her mouth. Swallowing, she said, “Nothing. Just come over. I got a piñata and a bunch of little-girl stuff, like tiaras and . . . pony things.”

“ ‘Pony things’?”

She shrugged, laughing. “Kid stuff! I’m lame! I don’t even know what they’re called.”

“ ‘Party favors’?” I offered with dramatic finger quotes.

She smacked my arm. “Whatever. Yes. Oh! And Will is cooking.”

“Aw, yes!” I fist-pumped. My best friend had recently discovered a love for all things culinary, and to say we were all benefitting from it would be understating the extra hour I had to put in at the gym every night to compensate. “How is our little chef? Catching up on episodes of Barefoot Contessa? He does fill out an apron quite nicely, I’ll admit that.”

She looked at me sidelong. “You better hope I don’t tell him you said that, or you’ll be cut off from dinners. I swear I’ve put on five pounds since he got into this pastry obsession. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”

“Pastry? I thought he was on a Mediterranean kick.”

She waved me off. “That was last week. This week he’s mastering desserts for Annabel.”

I felt my brows furrow. “Is she an especially picky eater?”

“No, my husband is just insane for his goddaughter.” Ziggy slid another bite of food into her mouth.

“So if everyone’s in town, I’m guessing you’ll have a full house tomorrow night,” I said. Between our sister Liv’s two kids and our friends Max and Sara in New York about to have their fourth, the adult contingent would soon be outnumbered by adorable rug rats. Ziggs loved having the kids over, and I was willing to bet money that Will would have at least one of them attached to his leg for the majority of the weekend.

“Actually, no,” she said with a laugh. “Max and the family are staying at a hotel. Bennett and Chloe are staying with us.”

“Bennett and Chloe?” I asked, grinning. “You’re not afraid?”

“No, that’s the best part.” She leaned in, eyes wide. “It’s like Chloe and Sara have traded personalities during their pregnancies. You seriously have to see it to believe it.”

As predicted, when Ziggy opened the door Saturday morning, the only thing I could see behind her was a flash of color and silk and tiny sprinting bodies. A small child ran into her legs, hugging them fiercely and propelling her forward into my arms.

“Hey,” my sister said, grinning up at me. “I bet you’re already glad you came.”

I glanced over her shoulder at the entryway beyond. A pile of assorted children’s shoes lay near the front door, and I could see a mountain of birthday presents stacked on the dining room table through a wide, Craftsman-style doorway.

“I’m always up for some of Will’s cooking,” I said, setting her upright and stepping past her into the melee. In the distance, over the sound of Will’s deep laugh in the kitchen, was a chorus of squeals and shrieks and what I imagined to be Annabel’s clear cry of “It’s my birthday! I get to be Superman!”

I needed more coffee.

I wasn’t really a very deep sleeper and had spent a majority of the middle of last night awake, sitting in my living room and trying to remember each of the times I’d done something purely social—for myself—in the past five years.

The problem was, other than the gym, my softball games on Thursdays, and drinks or coffee with one of my friends afterward, I didn’t feel like I had all that much going on. My social calendar was packed, sure, but it was nearly always a work dinner, a visiting client, some milestone the partners wanted to mark with a lavish meal. Two years ago I’d come to the depressing realization that too much time on the road and the couch had left me out of shape. I’d started running and weightlifting again, dropping thirty pounds and putting on some muscle. I rediscovered my love for fitness only to realize that I hadn’t actually done it to look better or catch someone’s eye. I’d done it to feel better. Aside from that, nothing significant in my life had changed since then.

My failed marriage was something I tried not to think about, but late into last night I had registered that Becky’s leaving me had set off a chain reaction: heartbreak led me to dive into work, which brought me success, which grew into its own sort of obsessive reward. And at some point I knew I had to commit either to work, or to a life outside of it. Six years ago, with bitterness fueling most of my thoughts about romantic relationships, the decision had been easy.

Now I was happy, wasn’t I? Not entirely fulfilled, maybe, but content, at the very least. But my sister’s mild needling last night had sent me into a cold panic. Was I going to die an old man in my neat-as-a-pin not-so-bachelor pad while color-coding a closet full of cardigans? Should I give up now and take up gardening?

I slipped down the hall and out the back into the yard. Dozens of balloons were tied to the fence and the trees, anchored with ribbons to white folding chairs, and arranged along a series of small round tables. A white cake with ruffled frosting topped with a little plastic giraffe, elephant, and zebra sat in the center of the largest table near the patio.

A handful of small children in sweaters and scarves raced across the lawn and I stepped carefully out of their way and toward the cluster of grown-up-size humans near the grill.

“Jens!” Will’s familiar voice called to me, and I maneuvered my way over to him. More balloons hung from a vine-covered pergola, along with a safari-themed birthday banner.

“I have never had a birthday party this cool,” I said, staring behind me at the color explosion in the backyard. “Annabel doesn’t even live here. Who are all these kids?”

“Well, Liv’s kids are . . . somewhere,” he said, glancing around. “The rest belong to Max and Sara, or people Hanna works with.”

I blinked at him before looking back out at the yard. “This is your future.”

I said it with a joking bleakness, but Will beamed. “Yep.”

“Okay, okay. I think I’m past the opportunity for more coffee. Where’s the beer?”

He pointed to a cooler beneath their large oak tree. “But there’s some scotch inside you might want to try.”

I turned just as Max Stella stepped out onto the patio, grinning over at the gaggle of kids sprinting around the lawn. Max and Will had started a venture capital firm together years ago in New York, and seemed to be the exalted odd couple of arts and sciences: their expertise and keen eyes for their respective fields had made them both very rich men. Though, I’ll admit, at six foot six and a genuine wall of muscle, Max looked more rugby brute than art fanatic.

“If only we all made friends so easily,” Max said, watching the kids run amok.

His wife, Sara, followed him out, holding her heavy pregnant belly and sitting in the chair Max held steady for her.

I shook his hand in greeting before turning to Sara. “Please don’t get up,” I told her, bending to place a kiss on her cheek.

“I’m trying to be in a bad mood,” she said, a hint of a smile tugging at her mouth. “Your chivalry is melting my pregnancy rage.”

“I promise to work harder on being a jerk,” I said solemnly. “Though congratulations are in order—I haven’t seen you since this one started cooking. What is this? Number four?”

“Four in what is it now, Max? Four years?” Will said, grinning over the top of his beer. “Maybe take a nap or something. Find a hobby.”

The door opened again and Bennett Ryan stepped out, followed by Ziggy and a very pregnant Chloe.

“I’d say he’s already got a hobby,” Bennett said.

Bennett and Max had been friends since they’d attended school together in Europe. And while Max was all friendly smiles and charm, Bennett was the personification of stony. He rarely joked—or smiled much, that I had seen—so when he did, you noticed. His mouth went a little lopsided, the line of his shoulders softened. He got that way when he looked at his wife, too.

He was practically beaming now.

It was . . . disorienting.

“Jensen!” The sound of my name jerked my attention around behind me again. Chloe crossed the patio and pulled me down into a hug.

I blinked for a moment, glancing curiously over to Will before finally wrapping my arms around her. I had, without a doubt, never hugged Chloe before.

“H-Hey there! How are you?” I said, pulling back to look at her. Both pregnant women were small-boned, but where Sara was willowy and delicate, there was a fierceness about Chloe you couldn’t overlook. The Chloe I knew was not exactly what you’d call touchy-feely, and I was at a bit of a loss for words. “You look—”

“Happy!” she finished for me, and reached down to place a hand on her round stomach. “Ecstatic and just . . . blissed the fuck out?”

I laughed. “Well . . . yes?”

She winced, looking down at the kids on the lawn. “Shit, I’d better work on not swearing.” Realizing what she’d just said, she groaned, laughing. “I am hopeless!”

Bennett slid a gentle hand around her shoulders and she leaned into him . . . and then giggled.

We all stared on in bewildered silence.

Finally Max spoke: “They haven’t tried to kill each other in at least four months. It’s confusing the hell out of everyone.”

“I’m worrying everyone with how agreeable I’ve been,” Chloe said with a nod. “Meanwhile sweet Sara couldn’t open a jar of peanut butter last week and lost it so completely she launched it out the window and onto the sidewalk of Madison Avenue.”

Sara laughed. “No one was injured. Just my pride, and my long-running streak of good behavior.”

“George has threatened to leave Sara and go work for Chloe,” Bennett said, referring to Sara’s assistant, who had a famous snark-hate relationship with Chloe. “Armageddon is clearly upon us.”

“Okay, okay, quit hogging my brother.” Ziggy stepped around Chloe and threw her arms around my neck. “You’re still here!”

I gazed again in confusion at Will. “Of course I’m still here. I haven’t been given cake yet.”

As if I’d uttered the magic word, a handful of children appeared, bouncing excitedly and asking if it was time to blow out the candles. Ziggy excused herself and led them to where another group was playing Red Rover.

“When are you both due?” I asked.

“Sara is due at the end of December,” Chloe said. “I’m December first.”

At that, we all seemed to take a moment to look around us, sitting in the mild October chill with leaves falling sporadically.

“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” she said, noting everyone’s mother-hen expressions. “This is my last trip and then I’m back in New York until this little thing arrives.”

“Do you know if you’re having a boy or girl?” I asked.

Bennett shook his head. “Chloe’s DNA has definitely been handed down, because the baby was too stubborn to let the technician get a good enough look to tell.”

Max snorted, glancing expectantly at Chloe for her sharp comeback, but Chloe just shrugged and smiled.

“So true!” she sang, stretching to kiss Bennett’s jaw.

Given that Bennett and Chloe’s unique brand of flirtation looked strongly like verbal sparring matches, watching her brush aside his attempt to rile her up was . . . well, kind of disconcerting in a way. For all its normalcy, it was a bit like watching an alien courtship ritual.

Ziggy returned from the yard with the birthday girl in tow. “The kiddos are getting restless,” she said, and everyone took that as a sign that it was time to get the party started.

I made small talk with Sara, Will, Bennett, and Chloe while Max, my sister, and a few of the other parents handed out ingredients to make some sort of dirt cup, complete with crushed Oreos, pudding, and gummy worms.

Max’s brother Niall and his wife, Ruby, were the last to arrive, but I missed it in the chaos of sugar-fueled preschoolers.

It was slightly jarring meeting Niall Stella for the first time. I’d grown used to being near Max, whose height was easy to forget because he seemed so comfortable in his skin, so eye-level emotionally with everyone. But Niall’s posture was textbook perfect—nearly rigid—and although I came in at a respectable six foot two myself, Niall had several inches on me. I stood to greet them both.

“Jensen,” he said. “It’s so good to finally meet you.”

Even their accents were different. I remembered Max telling me of the time he’d spent in Leeds, and how that had shaped the way he spoke, his words much looser and more common. But like everything else about Niall, even his accent was proper. “It’s a shame we couldn’t meet while we were all in London.”

“Next trip,” I said, and waved him off. “I was slammed this time around. I wouldn’t have been much company. But it’s really great to be able to meet you both now.”

Ruby pushed past him, stepping toward me and opting for a hug. In my arms, she felt like a willowy puppy: vibrating the slightest bit, bouncing on her toes. “I feel like I already know you,” she said, pulling back to smile widely up at me. “Everyone was at our wedding in London last year, and they all had stories about ‘the elusive Jensen.’ Finally, we meet!”

Stories? Elusive?

I wondered at that as we all took our seats. I didn’t feel like the most interesting person these days. Helpful? Yes. Resourceful? Sure. But elusive has some mystery to it that I just wasn’t feeling. It was strange to be thirty-four and sense that my life was slowing down, that my best years were somehow behind me, especially when I seemed to be the only one who felt that way.

“Ziggy didn’t stop talking about you for about a month after the wedding,” I told Ruby. “It looked like an amazing event.”

Niall smiled down at her. “It was.”

“So what brings you to the States?” I asked. I knew Ruby had moved to London for an internship that eventually led to a graduate program, and that the couple currently called London home.

“We’re taking a trip to celebrate our first anniversary, just going a little later than planned,” he explained. “We started here, to pick up Will and Hanna.”

Ruby bounced on her feet. “We’re doing a tour of breweries and wineries up the coast!”

Her enthusiasm was infectious.

“What places are you hitting?” I asked.

“Hanna rented a van,” Niall said. “We’re starting down in Long Island and over two weeks are working our way to Connecticut, and then to Vermont. Your sister organized the entire thing.”

“I used to work out there at a winery on North Fork,” I told them. “Every summer in college, I worked at Laurel Lake Vineyards.”

Ruby’s palm playfully smacked my shoulder. “Shut up! You’re an expert at all of this!”

“I can’t shut up,” I said, grinning at her. “It’s true.”

“You should come along,” she said, nodding as if it were already decided. Glancing at Niall, she gave him a winning smile, and he laughed quietly. She turned toward Bennett, Chloe, and Will. “Tell him he should come.”

“Innocent bystander here,” Will said, holding up his hands. “Keep me out of this.” He paused, taking a drink from his bottle. “Even though it sounds like a pretty great idea . . .”

I stared blankly at him.

“Just consider it, Jensen,” Ruby continued. “Will and Hanna and another friend are coming—and thank God Hanna doesn’t drink much, because at least one of us will be able to drive. It will be a fantastic group.”

I had to admit, a local trip would be perfect. Although I had what felt like a million airline miles, the idea of flying somewhere for vacation sounded awful. A road trip, though . . . Maybe?

But I couldn’t do it. I’d already been away from the office for more than a week, and I couldn’t fathom how I would tackle everything in time. “I’ll think about it,” I told them.

“Think about what?” Ziggy said, joining us again.

“They’re trying to convince your brother to join you on your trip,” Bennett told her.

Ziggy nodded slowly at Ruby, as if digesting this. “Right. Jensen, would you help me get everything for the cake?”

“Sure.”

I followed my sister into the kitchen and moved to the cabinet, reaching for a stack of plates.

“Do you remember what you told me at that party all those years ago?” she asked.

I wondered if playing dumb would work.

“Vaguely,” I lied.

“Well let me clarify for you.” She opened a box and pulled out a handful of plastic forks. “We were looking at a bunch of hideous paintings, and you decided to lecture me about balance.”

“I didn’t lecture you,” I said with a sigh. Her only response was a sharp laugh. “I didn’t. I only wanted you to get out more, live more. You were twenty-four and barely saw the outside of your lab.”

“And you’re thirty-four and barely see the outside of your office and/or house.”

“It’s entirely different, Ziggs. You were just starting life. I didn’t want you to let it pass you by while you had your nose stuck in a test tube.”

“Okay, first, I never actually had my nose in a test tube—”

“Come on.”

“Second,” she said, staring me down, “I might have just been starting life, but you’re the one letting everything pass you by. You’re thirty-four, Jens, not eighty. I go over to your house and keep waiting to find an AARP membership on your coffee table or those sock suspender things in your laundry.”

I blinked at her. “Be serious.”

“I am serious. You never go out—”

“I go out every week.”

“With who? The partners? Your softball friend?”

“Ziggs,” I chastised, “you know her name is Emily.”

“Emily doesn’t count,” she said.

“What’s your deal with Emily, for fuck’s sake?” I asked, frustrated. Emily and I were friends . . . with benefits. The sex was good—really good, actually—but it was never more, for either of us. Three years into it, and it had never gone beyond that.

“Because she’s not a step forward for you, she’s a step to the side. Or maybe even backward, because as long as you have accessible sex, you won’t ever bother looking for something more fulfilling.”

“You think I’m pretty deep, then?”

Ignoring this, she continued, “You were in London for a week and didn’t do anything but work. Last time you spent a weekend in Vegas and didn’t even see the Strip. You’re wearing a cashmere sweater, Jensen, when you should be in a tight T-shirt showing off your muscles.”

I stared at her blankly. I couldn’t decide which of these was worse: that my sister was saying this, or that she was saying it at a three-year-old’s birthday party.

“Okay, gross, you’re right.” She shivered dramatically. “Let’s strike what I just said from the record.”

“Make your point, Ziggs. This is getting tedious.”

She sighed. “You’re not an old man. Why do you insist on acting like one?”

“I . . .” My thoughts hit the brakes.

“Just do something fun with us. Let loose, get drunk, maybe find a nice girl and get your freak on—”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Okay, strike that last part,” she said. “Again.”

“I’m not crashing their anniversary trip and being the third . . .” I did the math. “Fifth wheel. That’s not going to add any sort of boost to my social life.”

“You wouldn’t be any wheel. You heard them, they have another friend coming along,” she said. “Come on, Jens. It’s a group of good people. It could be so much fun.”

I laughed. Fun. I hated to admit it, but my sister had a point. I’d come straight home from a solid, nonstop workweek in London—with many, many consecutive nonstop workweeks before that—with every intention of heading back into work on Monday. I hadn’t planned for any downtime.

A couple of weeks off wouldn’t hurt, would they? I’d left the London office in good shape for the upcoming trial, and my colleague Natalie could handle everything else for a little while. I had more than six weeks of accrued vacation, and the only reason it wasn’t more than that was because I’d cashed out on ten weeks four months ago, knowing I’d never use them.

I tried to imagine two weeks with Will and Ziggy, two weeks of wineries, breweries, sleeping in . . . I nearly wanted to weep, it sounded so good.

“Fine,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t regret this.

Ziggy’s eyes went wide. “Fine . . . what?”

“I’ll go.”

She gasped, genuinely shocked, and then threw her arms around my neck. “Seriously?” she yelled, and I pushed away to put a hand over my ear.

“Sorry!” she yelled again, not really any farther from my ear than before. “I’m just so excited!”

A tiny ball of unease wormed its way into my chest.

“Where did you say we’re going again?” I asked.

Her expression became even more animated. “I’ve made an awesome itinerary. We’re hitting breweries, and wineries, and a few awesome resorts—with a final week at this unreal cabin in Vermont.”

I exhaled, nodding. “Okay. Okay.”

But Ziggy caught my hesitation. “You’re not thinking of changing your mind already, are you? Jensen, I swear to—”

“No,” I interrupted, laughing. “I just had this really insane person next to me on the plane yesterday and she mentioned going on a winery tour. I had a panicked moment thinking, in some freakish joke the universe is playing, she would be the friend coming along. Let me be honest: I’d rather slam my hand in a door, or eat a brick.”

Ziggy laughed. “She was on the flight from London?”

“At first she was okay, but then she got drunk and wouldn’t stop talking,” I said. “It would have been a more pleasant flight if I’d been crammed into a middle coach seat. God, imagine a week with such a woman.”

My sister winced, sympathetically.

“I feigned sleep for four hours,” I admitted. “Do you have any idea how hard that is?”

“Sorry to interrupt.” A small voice rose up from behind me. “But, Hanna, look: my Pippa is here!”

I turned and froze.

Playful blue eyes met mine, and her smile was delighted . . . and, this time, sober.

Wait.

How long had they been standing there?

No.

Fuck.