Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 3

Pippa

God, imagine a week with such a woman, he had said.

The woman had winced sympathetically.

I feigned sleep for four hours, he had said, then shivered—actually shivered.

I’d known it was him, of course. Even from the back—with his perfectly styled hair, impeccable cashmere sweater, and pressed trousers at a child’s birthday party, no less—I’d recognized him the instant I entered the kitchen. And then of course I was aided by the rhythm of his voice—smooth, low, never loud or strained—as we’d stood just behind him, waiting for a good moment to interrupt. Part of me had wanted to let him keep going forever. It was like scratching an itch inside my brain, knowing that I’d been just as tedious as I’d believed myself to be. And, also a little bit, I was tickled by his ability to bitch about it with such a fluid combination of articulation and irritation.

I wouldn’t have predicted that. He seemed so even-keeled.

But he’d had no idea I was standing there, and I watched as the color vanished from his cheeks in the tiny duration of a surprised, sharp inhale.

I heard my own laugh bursting through his horrified silence. And then, when I said a quiet “Hallo, Jensen,” it seemed the reality descended upon Hanna, and then Ruby, and finally Niall, who murmured, “Good Lord. He was talking about Pippa, wasn’t—?” before Ruby shut him up with a smack to his shoulder.

Jensen nodded and let out a mortified, “Pippa.”

If you had asked me yesterday what I would expect Jensen to do after that flight, I would have said either (a) promptly forget me, or (b) tell someone how dreadful I was, and then promptly forget me.

The fact that everyone was clearly so horrified on my behalf—I looked back and forth between Hanna’s gaping mouth and Jensen’s colorless face—reminded me they had no idea how right Jensen was in saying all of this.

And then there was Ruby and Niall. Ruby had slapped a hand over her mouth to hold in her laughter. Niall stood grinning down at me. Neither was at all surprised by Jensen’s story of my behavior.

I looked around at all of them with a big smile. “My God, people, he’s not wrong.”

Jensen stepped forward haltingly, and I spoke more to him than to the rest of them: “I was . . .” I searched for the right word. “I was a complete maniac. He’s right. I’m so sorry!”

“Not a complete maniac,” he said, slumping a little in relief. Stepping closer to me, he lowered his voice. “Pippa, how rude of me to—”

“It’s only rude because I’m here,” I said, and when his eyes widened in embarrassment, I quickly added, “And how would you know that I’d turn up at this party? Talk about coincidences!”

He shook his head but looked at my smiling eyes. “I guess.”

“And if I hadn’t shown up, and you’d been telling your sister about this awful flight, it would only be a funny story. A funny, very true story.”

He smiled gratefully, and—seemingly on instinct—glanced to the glass of wine in my hand.

“It’s my first,” I assured him, then added, “Alas, it won’t be my last today. Lots of new faces. Liquid courage and all that.” I shrugged, feeling a giddy pull in my belly at the sight of him. “But at least here you have an escape?”

He nodded, finally tearing his attention from my face to look around. Lifting an awkward hand, he said, “So, right, this is my sister Hanna.”

The biomedical engineer; he’d mentioned her on the plane. A lawyer and an engineer? So they were one of those families. I smiled. “I’ve heard so much about you from Ruby.”

“Well, she probably didn’t mention how much I love seeing my brother make an ass out of himself.” She came forward, embracing me.

Jensen mumbled out a dry “Thanks, Ziggs.”

Like her brother, Hanna was fair and on the tall side. Both were also in great shape. I was graced with thin genes but would likely only run if I were being chased, and even then, it would depend on what was chasing me. Realistically, I stood no chance against, say, vampires.

“Have I entered a room full of fitness fanatics?” I asked. “Thank God Ruby doesn’t regularly exercise . . .”

Niall raised a curious eyebrow. “She doesn’t?”

“Oh bollocks,” I cut in, “stop it already.”

A gorgeous dark-haired man peeked his head into the kitchen, addressing Hanna. “Plum, can you bring out the second cracker tray? These kids are bottomless pits of—” He stopped when he saw me, and grinned. “Hey! You must be Ruby’s friend who’s coming along on the trip.”

Jensen’s face went ashen again, as though he’d just put that bit of information together, too.

“Pippa, this is my husband, Will,” Hanna said with a grin.

I reached forward to shake his hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Bring her outside,” Will said. “She needs to meet everyone.”

Looking grateful for the change of venue, Jensen placed his glass on the counter and gestured for me to follow Hanna out of the kitchen.

She led us out onto a wide deck, where five other people stood, holding beverages and watching over a gaggle of small children running and rolling on the lawn.

“You guys are not going to believe what—” Hanna started, but Jensen cut her off.

“Ziggy, don’t,” he said, warning in his voice. “Seriously. Don’t.”

She must have seen the same thing in his eyes that I did—sheer mortification—because she smiled, introducing me instead.

“This is Pippa. She was sitting next to Jensen on the plane yesterday, isn’t that insane?”

“Completely insane,” I said, laughing. “As in playing the part of a drunken maniac,” I added, smiling up at Jensen. The poor man looked like he wanted to fall through the deck and never reappear.

“Well, then I love her already,” a pretty—and very pregnant—brunette said from my right.

Another woman, also very pregnant—seriously, was something in the water around here?—stepped forward from where she’d been standing beside a giant man only slightly shorter than Niall.

If I had to guess, I would say he was Max, and she was Sara—Ruby’s sister-in-law.

“I’m Sara,” she confirmed. “Mom to a few of the kids down there on the lawn . . .” Searching for them and seeming to come up empty, she turned back to me with a wry, tired smile on her face. “It’s so nice to finally meet you. Ruby has told us all about you.”

“Oh no,” I said, laughing.

“All good things, don’t worry.” The dark-haired woman who had first spoken to me came forward, hand extended. For a beat she looked as though she might slice me and serve me as Pippa sushi, but then she smiled and her entire face warmed. “I’m Chloe. This is my husband, Bennett.” She nodded to the man at her side, a tall and intimidatingly gorgeous—but frankly quite serious—bloke. Chloe held her stomach. “Soon-to-be parents to . . . this mystery.”

I shook Bennett’s hand and nearly fell over when he said, “You would have done us all a favor if you’d asked Jensen to join the Mile High Club.”

Sara gasped, Hanna reached over and smacked Bennett’s arm, but I coughed out a laugh. I looked at Jensen. “Is that right? Should you have followed me to the loo?”

He laughed, shaking his head in amusement. “I try not to have sex with women who won’t remember it later.”

I grew mildly light-headed from the flirtatious lean to his words. “Too worn out from that mistress in the London flat?”

“A figment of your imagination, sadly.”

“And the gorgeous wife in the brownstone down the street?”

“Again,” he said, stifling a smile, “you’ve given me quite a fantasy life.”

“Well.” I clapped my hands. “This just means you’re free to shag the entire two weeks we drink our way around the East Coast vineyards!”

Jensen turned bright red. A few people—Chloe, Sara, and Niall—barked out surprised, delighted laughs.

“Oh my God,” Sara said, placing a delicate hand to her throat. “Jensen, you look like you just swallowed a plate. Wow, am I sorry I’m going to miss this.”

And it was true. He looked exactly like he’d swallowed a plate.

“Can’t wait!” Jensen said, voice wobbly.

My poor put-together seatmate was rather surprised to find himself the subject of all this attention.

This trip would undoubtedly be fun.

“Pippa is exactly as I described, isn’t she?” Ruby said to everyone and no one, smiling at me fondly.

I put my arm through hers and grinned up at her. “Now, introduce me to all the little ones. Your friends are quite the breeders.”

“I don’t know why you don’t work at a daycare,” Ruby said. “You’re so cute with kids.”

I tickled little Annabel’s tummy and pretended to shriek in surprise when her younger sister, Iris, jumped out from behind the playhouse, yelling, “Boo!”

“Because,” I answered, my voice going muffled when Iris and Annabel hugged me around my face simultaneously, “I’d be plastered day and night.”

Ruby laughed.

Gently prying them off me, I gave them a task: “See if you can find Auntie Pippa some carrot sticks!” and then turned back to Ruby when they sprinted over to the table laden with food. “Besides, I make more money working at R-C. It’s hard to leave.”

She pulled up a blade of grass, grumbling, “Not that hard.”

“Well, not for you. Especially not when you have one Niall Stella in your bed, and a position at Oxford waiting in the wings . . .” I bumped her shoulder, smiling at her when she looked over at me.

She gave me a grudging laugh. “God, that whole time was so crazy. It’s two years ago—can you believe that? It feels like yesterday.”

It wasn’t easy to forget Ruby’s harrowing experience at the end of her tenure at the engineering firm where we met: Richardson-Corbett, where Ruby fell in love with Niall, Niall eventually noticed—and quickly fell in love with—Ruby, and then he ruined it all by being a coward when she was told to choose between her job and her relationship.

I forgave him not long after she did, but occasionally like to throw a quietly muttered “Wanker” at him whenever it comes up.

He takes it in the good spirit it’s intended.

I think.

Speaking of the devil, Niall appeared, finding a spot between us on the lawn and handing Ruby a glass of wine. I watched, grinning, as he leaned close and kissed her.

“That will never get old,” I mumbled.

“What won’t?” he asked, pulling away from her to turn to me.

“Seeing you be affectionate in public. You used to go into your office and close the door so you could retie your shoes in private.”

Ruby laughed. “It took a while to train him.”

He shrugged without protest, sipping his beer. The change in Niall Stella since he’d met Ruby was fascinating. He’d always been confident but also carried the air of formality with him when he moved. Now he was just . . . calm. Now he was perfectly, obviously happy. It made something swell inside me, a flower blooming in my throat.

I watched Sara in the distance, holding her one-year-old, Ezra, in an airplane position across her full pregnant belly. “Your brother nearly has four children already. When are you two going to try for kids?”

Turning back, I caught Niall just as he put a fist to his mouth, coughing and working not to lose his swallow of beer.

From the other side of his long torso, Ruby groaned. “Pippa.”

“Aw, come on then,” I said, poking Niall’s ribs. “I get to ask all of the inappropriate questions because I’m your wife’s best mate. See also: How’d you get that scar on your face? How awkward were things after your first shag? Are you going to try to get pregnant soon?”

This earned a laugh from Niall, and he wrapped an arm around me, pulling me in to kiss the top of my head. “Don’t change, Pip. You keep things interesting.”

“Speaking of,” I said, sitting back up. “What is the plan for this trip? Aren’t we leaving in the morning? It occurred to me as I was sexually harassing Jensen back there that, while I am happily crashing your holiday, I don’t actually know where we’re going.”

Ruby waved her hand in the air at someone across the yard, and I turned to see that she was flagging down Hanna. “Let’s ask the brains behind the operation. I’ve done nothing—literally, we’ve just written checks and shown up. Hanna and Will have taken care of all the details.”

A tangle of limbs and light brown hair landed on the grass to my left, and it—Hanna—was quickly covered in two little squealing, wiggling girls.

“I’ve been replaced,” I noted with a feigned pout.

“Auntie Fancy is the favorite.”

I turned my face up at the sound of a deep voice.

Will sat down beside his wife: tall, inked, breath-catchingly pretty, and, from the twinkle in his eye, knew all of the world’s very naughty things.

I watched his face as he gazed at Hanna, Annabel, and Iris. “Hanna is Auntie Fancy?” I asked.

He nodded, reaching for Iris and pulling the little girl into his lap. “Back when Hanna was still my fiancée, Anna couldn’t say the name. She called her Fancy. And now,” he said, smooching Anna’s younger sister on her sweet, chubby neck, “she will forever be known as Auntie Fancy.”

“I mean, obviously,” Hanna said through a laugh, gesturing to her outfit of jeans and a Harvard sweatshirt.

Her easy comfort was actually the first thing I liked about her. It was an effortless inattention to clothing I’d never been able to pull off.

“Obviously,” another male voice added from behind us. Jensen came and closed this small circle of bodies on the lawn, sitting directly across from me. “Sorry,” he said, grinning. “What were we talking about?”

“That Hanna is rather fancy,” I said. “Though no one competes with you.” I gestured to his own perfect put-togetherness.

“You’re not so bad yourself,” he said, nodding to my dress.

I skipped over the compliment with a shake of my head. “I always feel like I don’t quite blend in. People are comfortably casual or, like you, impeccable. I’m the knob with the fluorescent tights at the nice restaurant. Someone help me figure it all out.”

“I do always feel like a low-wattage bulb beside you,” Ruby said.

I scoffed at this; that was not at all how I meant it. Ruby was stunning: willowy and poised, with a smile that could light up an entire building.

“I’ve just come to the realization that I’m clothes dumb,” Hanna added, shrugging.

Ruby squealed. “I always say I’m hair dumb!”

They leaned across Niall and me and high-fived. Niall and I exchanged knowing glances. The two of them were rather twinnish.

Leaning in and unfolding an actual paper map, Hanna showed us the highlighted path from the Long Island wineries, up north through Connecticut, and to Vermont, where we would spend our second week together at a spacious cabin that—from the photos Will showed us on his phone—promised to be rustic and luxurious in the way only an expensive vacation rental can manage.

Ruby was giddy; she leaned into Niall and hugged him. Will was staring at Hanna adoringly. Suddenly immensely grateful that Jensen was coming along, I glanced up at him. He was carefully studying the map and arguing with Hanna about the best route.

His hair fell forward over the smooth arch of his forehead, obscuring his bright eyes from me. But I took a moment to catalog his features: straight nose, a mild, constant bloom to his cheeks, full lips that I now knew curved into a wide, effortless smile, and a jaw I wanted to cup in my hands.

After a few minutes, he caught my eye, doing a slight double take.

I tried to look away, but it would have been an obvious—and awkward—maneuver. I’d been very clearly staring at him.

I don’t know what was happening in my belly. I felt warm, nervous, curious—suddenly seeing the trip as the setup that it was.

Will and Hanna.

Niall and Ruby.

Jensen and . . . me.

Did I want to play this game?

Maybe. I mean, clearly I had a crush. Immediately, blindly, and—most likely—uselessly. Our start hadn’t been the smoothest.

But then the warmth inside me twisted when I remembered Mark the last time I’d seen him, a week ago. His face as he begged me not to end things, promised that he really didn’t want us to be over. The truth was, he didn’t want to be out of a flat, didn’t want to be out of a good source for wireless, didn’t want to lose the rooms he quite conveniently used as an office all day while I was at work. Unfortunately, I wanted to be valued a bit more highly than that.

But could I be valued as a fun shag for a week?

I looked at Jensen again.

Yes. Yes, I could.

Unfortunately for this plan, Jensen had an air about him that said: I’m comfortable in my skin, but I am not free with my affections.

After nodding to Hanna when she excused herself and Will to go greet someone who’d just arrived, Jensen looked back to me and then smiled. He patted the grass beside him, tilting his head just slightly and mouthing the words Come here.

So I stood, unable to refuse such a quietly sweet invitation. Swiping the dried grass from my skirt, I walked two paces to him, settling beside him on the lawn.

“Hallo,” I said, bumping his shoulder with mine.

“Hey.”

“I feel as if we are already old friends.” Tilting my head back toward the sweets table, I asked, “Did you manage to get a Cookie Monster cupcake before they were decimated?”

He shook his head, laughing. “Unfortunately, no.”

“I suppose I could have guessed that,” I said, smiling back. “Your lips have not yet taken on that semipermanent blue tin—”

“Pippa,” he cut in, holding my gaze, “I really am sorry. I wasn’t being very kind.”

I waved him off. How did I know this would come up again? I could see Jensen so transparently for the kindhearted, responsible person he was. “Trust me,” I told him, “I’m mortified about all of it.”

He started to shake his head, to interrupt, but I held up my hand to stop him. “Honestly. I’ve never spilled my life story to anyone like that before. I presumed I’d never see you again, and I could . . .” I shook my head. “I don’t know, perhaps just unload it all in the hopes that it would wipe my mind free of it.”

“And did it?”

“Not as such.” I smiled a little at him. “Instead it just made for a very unpleasant trip for both of us. Lesson learned. It would have been best for me as well if I’d never seen you again, but here we are.”

“Here we are.”

“Let’s start over?”

He nodded to the empty spot where Hanna’s map had just lain. “I think this trip will be fun.”

“You don’t mind being coupled off with me?”

He deflected this with a little laugh. “Happy to be your leaning post for the drunken stumble back to the van.”

I shook my head, marveling. “The? You think there will be only one drunken stumble? Did you already forget the number of wineries on that route?”

He opened his mouth to answer with a smile already curling his lips, but we both startled when his name was called from across the lawn. And my heart drooped a little, inexplicably disappointed to see it was Will, needing Jensen’s help hanging the piñata.

“Why would he ask me, and not Max or Niall?” Jensen playfully grumbled, pushing to stand.

The answer was very clear: Max was busy giving airplane rides to a line of squealing three-year-olds. Niall was busy snogging Ruby over in the shade of the porch.

But as Jensen left, Niall looked up, moving into action and following him.

Ruby scrambled over to me, tackling me with a hug. “I’m so glad you’re here!”

I fell back on an elbow under the sheer length of her slim torso, laughing. Once we were both upright again, I agreed. “I’m glad to be here.”

“It’s going to be so fun,” she whispered.

I nodded, looking at where Jensen and Will were stretching their arms over their heads, wrapping the piñata’s rope around the branch of a large elm tree. Will’s T-shirt slipped up, exposing a tiny stretch of inked skin.

Jensen’s sweater shifted up as well but, sadly, did not show me anything. He had another shirt there, carefully tucked into his trousers.

“So he’s gorgeous,” Ruby said conversationally.

I agreed with a hum.

“And single,” she said. “And funny, and responsible . . .”

“I see what you’re doing.”

“And fit . . . and related to Hanna. Which means he’s awesome.”

Turning to her, I asked, “What’s that about? Why is he single?”

“I think he works a lot,” she said speculatively. “I mean, a lot, a lot.”

“Loads of people work a lot. Fuck, look at you and Niall. But you manage to shag daily—” I held up my hand when she opened her mouth to agree. “And I really don’t want to hear confirmation of that, I’m just being rhetorical.” She closed her mouth and pretended to button it shut. “But I don’t get it. Is he kinky?” I glanced at him again briefly, wondering if I preferred that possibility. He and Will were done, and laughing at the slightly skewed lean of the papier-mâché pony hanging from the tree. “Think he might be into blokes?”

“I doubt it.”

“I’m not so sure,” I murmured, looking at him. “He’s awfully well dressed.”

Ruby smacked me. “Okay, so here’s what I’ve heard.” She angled her body to face me, keeping her back to the rest of the party. I watched the thrill of gossip briefly light her eyes. “He was married in his twenties. Hanna told me it only lasted for a few months, though.”

I pulled a face. “That’s . . . interesting?”

I imagined this Jensen, in his blue cashmere sweater and neatly pressed black trousers at a child’s birthday party. I tried to imagine Jensen from before—perhaps he met this girl outside on a rainy day, when her groceries spilled from a torn sack. He bent to help her, and later they were a tangle of sweaty limbs, sheets on the floor. They had a shotgun wedding, something scandalous and wild . . .

“He was with her for nine years,” Ruby said. “From college until after they’d both finished law school.”

My fantasy wilted. “Oh.” So I was right: he wasn’t likely the type for a wild weekend, then.

“I guess pretty soon after the wedding she told him she didn’t think they were right for each other.”

“She couldn’t have done that before they exchanged vows?” I asked, pulling up a blade of grass. “That’s shite.”

“You’re not the first person to ask that.” All the color drained from Ruby’s face, and I immediately recognized Jensen’s voice.

“Oh, fuck,” I groaned, turning and looking up at him. “I’m sorry. We’ve been caught talking about you this time.”

He laughed, reaching for his wineglass, which sat, empty, beside us.

I winced, madly searching for the right thing to say. “I hardly think it’s fair for you to know my entire life story, and here I know nothing other than there is no London mistress and no wife in the brownstone.”

He smiled, nodding. “There is neither.”

“Well couldn’t you have been a bit less efficient with the piñata?” I asked, trying to cover my embarrassment with humor. “Honestly, you hardly gave me any time to get the dirt on you.”

He squinted up into the sun. “That’s about the only dirt there is.”

He looked down at me and I couldn’t for the life of me read his expression. Was he furious? Indifferent? Relieved that the score was even now? Why did I feel as though we’d just met but already had so much baggage?

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

I opened my mouth for a few confused seconds before asking, “You mean, is it a good thing or a bad thing you only have one interesting story?”

He winced, but it was gone in a blink. “Let me know if you want some more wine.”