Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 4

Jensen

“I heard a rumor.”

I finished the last line of the email I’d been working on before looking over to the door.

“Greg. Hey.” I pushed back from my desk and waved him in. “What’s up?”

“I heard you’re taking a vacation,” he said. Greg Schiller was another business attorney, specializing in biotech mergers, and loved gossip more than anyone I’d met, aside from my aunt Mette and Max Stella. “And now I see you in here scrambling on a Saturday night, so I know it must be true.”

“Yeah,” I said, laughing. “Vacation. Just until the twenty-second.”

Vacation. My mind tripped on the word and how unfamiliar it felt in the context of I, Jensen Bergstrom, am going on vacation.

I was the guy who stayed late and worked weekends when something had to be done, the one you called in an emergency. I didn’t rush through emails to get out of the office, and I definitely didn’t have my assistant clear my schedule for the next two weeks so I could third-wheel it across the East Coast.

Except a couple of hours ago, I’d done just that.

I’d cleared my schedule to go on a road trip to wineries with my sister and brother-in-law and their friends and a drunken woman I’d met on the plane.

What in the world was I thinking?

Uncertainty clutched me. There were still a few loose ends to clean up on the London side of this HealthCo and FitWest merge. What if I was out of cell range at some point and—

As if sensing my hesitation, Greg leaned across my desk. “Don’t do that.”

I blinked up at him. “Do what?”

“That thing where you imagine any and every catastrophic scenario and talk yourself out of going.”

I groaned; he was right. It was so much more than missing work. It was a gnawing sense that I was at a fork in the road in my life. Again. It would be eminently easier to stay home, get some rest tomorrow instead of hopping into a van with my sister and her friends, and then dive back into the familiar routine of work on Monday.

But to do that would be to stay exactly where I’d been for the past six years.

Shaking my head, I spun a stapler on the top of my desk. “I never thought I’d be this guy, you know? I mean, you’re right, it’s Saturday. Natalie could handle all of this.”

“She could.” He sat in the chair opposite me.

“Well, what are you doing here?” I asked, looking up at him.

“I left my wallet in my office yesterday.” He laughed. “I’m not Jensen Bergstrom level of dedicated yet.”

I groaned.

“But we all know there are two paths in this firm. Sacrifice everything and become partner, or remain an associate for a decade. A lot of us envy you, you know.”

I ran a hand through my hair. “Yeah, but you have three kids and a wife who brews beer. Some of us envy you.”

Greg laughed. “But I’ll probably never make partner. You’re almost there.”

God, what a strange finish line. And to be thirty-four and nearly there. Then what? Two decades of more of the same?

He leaned in. “You spend way too much time here, though. You’re headed straight to midlife crisis and yellow Ferrari in less than three years.”

This made me laugh. “Don’t say that. You sound like my sister.”

“She sounds pretty smart. Where are you going, anyway?”

“A winery tour with a group of friends.”

His brows lifted in surprise. But the unspoken hung in the air—the question of whether there was someone else coming, someone else in my life. Red flags waved in my peripheral vision.

“Well,” I corrected, “mostly with my sister’s friends.”

He grinned, and I realized I’d made the right call. Better to have Greg know I was tagging along than think there was some interesting gossip to be found.

“Booze and time off,” he said. “Well done.”

The Sunday-morning air carried a damp chill. My car was silent in the driveway, already bombarded with leaves falling from the sugar maple in the front yard, and I wondered how much dust it would accumulate out here. Ziggy had offered to come pick me up in the van, but in an impulsive burst I’d said I’d meet them at her house. My car hadn’t been out of the garage in three months. I either took the bus to the office or caught a taxi to the airport. My life felt small enough to fit into a thimble.

I climbed the stairs to Will and Ziggy’s, kicking a few leaves off the porch as I went. The birthday balloons were gone, and two fat pumpkins and an urn of mums now stood in their place.

I thought back to my own house—no pumpkins, no wreath on the door—and pushed down the wiggly, hollow feeling in my chest.

I wasn’t denying that I wanted more for my life.

I just wasn’t thrilled that my little sister had pointed it all out to me so glaringly. Having always had a knee-jerk response to criticism, I tended to shut down and need to think for a bit. Last night’s thinking still lived as an exhausted yawn, echoing in my head.

I pressed the doorbell and heard Will’s shout of “It’s open!” from inside.

The knob turned easily and I stepped in, dropping my bag near the others by the door, toeing off my shoes, and following the scent of fresh coffee down the hall.

Niall sat at the breakfast bar, mug in hand, while Will stood at the stove.

“Scrambled, please,” I said, earning a piece of mushroom lobbed at me in lieu of a reply. Reaching into the cupboard for a mug of my own, I looked around the room and out into the backyard. “Where is everyone?”

“We’ve only just arrived,” Niall said. “Pippa and Ruby went to help Hanna finish packing.”

Nodding, I sipped my coffee and looked around the kitchen.

Whereas my house was—even I could admit it—a bit uptight in its tidiness, Will and Ziggy’s house looked . . . lived-in. A small pot of flowers sat on the windowsill near the kitchen sink. The refrigerator door was covered in drawings from Annabel’s party, and even though they didn’t have any kids of their own yet, anyone could see it was only a matter of time.

Elsewhere, I knew what I would find: Books and scientific journals on every flat surface—the pages marked with whatever scrap of paper my sister could find at the time. An upstairs hallway lined with photos of family gatherings, weddings, trips they’d taken together, and framed comics.

Will’s phone was vibrating somewhere behind him.

“Can you grab that for me?” he said, nodding toward the counter. “It’s been going off all morning.”

I reached for it, seeing a new group message flash across the screen. “You’re in a group text? How adorable.”

“It’s how we all stay up-to-date with what’s happening, but it’s taken on a whole new life since Chloe got pregnant. Bennett will either have a heart attack before this baby comes or need to be sent away somewhere. Read it to me, will you?”

“It says the airline lost Chloe’s luggage,” I started. “ ‘Her favorite shoes were in there, a clutch I got her for our anniversary, and a present she picked up for George.’ Max then asks if her head has spun around, or whether she’s started speaking in tongues. Bennett’s answer is ‘If only.’ ”

Will laughed as he turned over a few sizzling pieces of bacon. “Tell him I read an article in the Post that said only six or seven priests in the US actually know how to perform exorcisms. He might want to start making some calls.” Shaking his head with a wistful sigh, he added, “God, I miss New York.”

I typed out his message before setting his phone back on the counter. “Need me to do anything?”

He shut off the stove and began scooping eggs onto six brightly colored plates. “Nah. The van is here and fueled up, the bags are mostly packed. Should be ready to go as soon as breakfast is done.”

I’d gone over the itinerary my sister had provided, and knew the drive to Jamesport, on Long Island, was around four hours—give or take, with traffic and the ferry.

Wouldn’t be too bad.

I felt a rebellious pull in my thoughts, knowing this trip was good for me but wanting, somehow, to prove them all wrong. To prove, maybe, that I didn’t need more than what I already had to have a happy life. Otherwise, how could I find pride in all that I’d accomplished?

I heard Ziggy’s voice upstairs, followed by Pippa shrieking something dramatically and Ruby and Ziggy bursting into hysterical laughter.

Will met my eyes, brows raised.

I didn’t have to ask to know what he was thinking, and if it wasn’t glaringly obvious to all of us, we were a group of idiots.

This trip was a lot of things—vacation, bonding time—but now it was also a setup.

I already anticipated the knowing looks, the insinuations, and—especially after a glass or two of wine—the outright understanding that this was a group of couples on a trip together.

Pippa was sexy; that wasn’t the issue. She was beautiful; that wasn’t the issue. At issue was her type of beauty, her type of sensuality—flamboyant, loud, bright—and how I knew, in my bones, that she wasn’t right for me. At issue was also my ambivalence about relationships, and the odd, instinctive recoil I had developed as a response to them.

But this was just a vacation. It didn’t have to be more.

“You’re freaking out about something,” Will said, handing me a large cup and gesturing to the silverware drawer.

I put a handful of forks inside it, turning my back to him. “No. Just doing the math.”

He grinned. “Took you a while.”

“I’m good at avoidance.”

Will burst out laughing in the easy way of a man about to have two weeks of vacation with his best friend and wife. “Now, that’s a lie. We’ll talk later.”

I grunted some sound of ambivalence, buttering the toast, pouring the juice, and helping bring everything to the table.

“Breakfast!” Will called up over the banister.

Footsteps thundered down the stairs and I looked up to see Pippa enter the room first, her red-blond hair worn back in a loose braid. Anticipating the long drive, she wore a pair of electric-blue leggings, tennis shoes, and a loose-knit black sweater that slipped gently off one shoulder.

“Hiya, Jens,” she said, smiling brightly on her way into the kitchen. Her braid swung behind her with each step, and I watched her retreat, glancing away immediately at the sight of her ass in those pants.

Fuck me.

I turned back to the table only to be faced with Will’s knowing smile.

“Hiya, Jens,” he repeated, smug grin growing wider by the second. “How’s that math looking now?”

“Looks a little like me punching you in the dick.” I sat down, placing my napkin in my lap.

He laughed and pulled out a chair for Ziggy as she joined us. “I love being right,” he said, leaning over to kiss her.

She gazed back at him in confusion. “Huh?”

“I just . . .” He turned, stabbing a forkful of eggs and smiling at Pippa as she pulled out the chair beside me. “I’m just really looking forward to this trip.”

We crowded around the shiny silver van at the curb, watching Niall arrange the luggage in the most efficient way possible and deciding who would sit where. Ziggy had thought of everything. The van seated eight, so our little group of six fit inside with plenty of room to spare. There were pillows, blankets, snacks, water, satellite radio, and even travel-size Yahtzee, Boggle, and Scrabble.

We’d decided to share the driving, but—it being my sister’s forum here—we decided who would take first shift via the dorky scientist version of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Pipette, Beaker, Notebook. Pipette stains notebook, notebook covers beaker, beaker smashes pipette, she explained. It took longer for us to figure out the hierarchy than it did to just fucking agree that Will would drive first, but when I smashed his pipette with my beaker, we were off.

Pippa slid into the seat beside me, offering me a knowing smile. “Hey, friend.”

I laughed. “Wanna play Scrabble?”

“You’re on, sir.”

She pulled the game pieces out with an odd, wolfish smile.

Okay, so Pippa was surprisingly good at Scrabble. I tossed the box back into Ziggy’s games bin and looked over at her.

“That was fun,” I said flatly. “ ‘Gherkins’? What the hell, woman.”

She let out a delighted laugh. “I sat on that G and K for most of the game, sweating it out.” Leaning forward toward Ruby and Niall, she asked, “Anyone up for more Scrabble?”

“I’ll sit by you on the next stretch,” Niall said, smiling over his shoulder at her. “I’d be happy to take one back for the men’s side.”

“In your dreams,” she teased. Falling back into her seat, she sighed, looking out the window. “Road-tripping is such a different experience here than in England.”

“How so?” I asked.

She swept the hair from her forehead and turned slightly to face me.

“You could get from one end of England to the other in a single day,” she said, and then raised her voice to the row in front of us. “About fourteen hours from Cornwall to the Scottish border, wouldn’t you say, Niall?”

He considered this. “Depending on traffic and the weather.”

“Right,” she said with a nod. “But the roads are endless here. You could start driving on a Monday and keep going for days, truly let yourself get lost. Wouldn’t it be lovely to do that? Get a motorcycle or one of those silver Airstream campers and just drive and drive, no destination in mind?”

“Stop at all the sights. Eat junk food in every state,” Ziggy said from the front seat.

“Need every restroom along the way,” Will added with a wink in her direction. He looked up, meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror. “Do you remember the dart trip we took in college, Jens?”

“How could I forget?”

“Dart trip?” Pippa asked, looking between us.

“I don’t know how much Ruby has told you,” I said, “but Will and I went to college together. That’s how he knows Zig—Hanna.”

Her eyes widened, seeming to realize that there was an ocean of untold stories between us, and two weeks stretching in front of us for her to hear them.

I smiled. “A dart trip is where you basically throw a dart at a map to decide where you’re going. In our case it landed near Bryce Canyon National Park, so the summer before junior year that’s what we did.”

“You drove from Boston to Utah?” Ruby asked incredulously.

“Apparently Will’s aim veers a little to the left,” I said. “A lot to the left.”

Will grinned at me from the mirror. “God, we were so broke.”

“I remember us having four hundred dollars—what felt like a fortune at the time—and it had to cover gas, food, toll roads, and somewhere to sleep. And when money ran short we had to, uh . . . improvise.”

Ruby had turned fully in her seat to face me now. “In my head you both worked as strippers in a roadside bar somewhere in Nebraska. Please don’t spoil this for me.”

Will barked out a laugh. “You aren’t that far off, actually.”

“How long a trip was that?” Niall asked. “I’m not an expert on US geography, but that has to be, what, three thousand miles?”

“About twenty-five hundred,” I said. “In Will’s mom’s old Lincoln. No air conditioning. Vinyl seats.”

“No power steering,” Will added. “A long way from the leather interior and DVD player in this thing.”

“Still one of the best weeks of my life.”

“Maybe you’re forgetting about our little hike through the canyon?” he asked, meeting my eyes in the mirror again.

I started to laugh. “I try to forget.”

“Well don’t leave us hanging,” Pippa said, and reached out to place a hand on my leg. It was an innocent touch, one meant to urge me into my story, but I felt the heat of her palm, the point of each finger through the fabric of my pants.

I had to clear my throat.

“It was July, and hot as hell,” I began. “We pulled into one of the lots and climbed out of the car. We had water and a little food, sunblock—everything we thought we’d need for a few hours. The sun was overhead and we hiked up this beautiful trail with high rock walls on either side. After a while we reached a flat point where we could either finish the loop or continue on toward a larger trail to see more of the canyon. Of course, being twenty at the time, we kept going.”

Ziggy looked at Will and rolled her eyes with a little laugh. “Of course you did.”

“It was breathtaking,” I said, “with hoodoos and spires just off in the distance. It was like looking at a fortress that had sprouted right from the ground, made entirely of red rock. But it was also fucking hot. And by this point the sun had moved to the other side of the sky and we still had a hell of a hike back. We stopped to rest a couple times along the way and had drained all of our water. We were starting to get tired, too, and without water we were getting a little nuts. We were young and fit, but we’d been hiking for hours in the blazing heat by that time. I’ll spare you the misery of it, but trust me, it was awful—”

“It was,” Will added.

“It was nearly dark by the time we got back to the car,” I continued. “We both sprinted to the drinking fountains and drank our weight in water. We used the bathroom and cleaned up a bit, feeling like we’d somehow cheated death,” I said with a laugh. “And then dragged ourselves back to the car.”

“Why do I feel a ‘but’ coming up somewhere?” Ruby said.

“But,” Will continued, “we got back to the car, I reached into my pocket for the keys, and they were nowhere to be found.”

“Shut up,” Pippa said with a gasp.

“We were still so relieved we made it back alive,” Will said, “that we were able to be calm about it, mentally retracing our steps. We’d stopped for a drink at a few points along the trail, I’d taken my ChapStick out, my camera, but those places were at least a mile away. We took a flashlight from our pack, walked out to the first point we knew we’d stopped, and then realized we couldn’t retrace our entire hike again. We walked back to the parking lot—”

“—and since neither of us were proficient at breaking into a car or hot-wiring—” I started.

“We were stuck,” Will finished. “Neither of us bothered with cell phones back then, and there was no pay phone nearby. We had to wait for someone to find us, or for the sun to come up. But it was getting colder by the minute, and have you seen the spiders that live in the desert? I finally gave up and used a rock to break the back window and unlock the car.”

“Did you two sleep there?” Pippa asked.

I nodded. “In the backseat.”

“Who was the big spoon?” Ruby asked, and Will tossed a couple of M&M’s at her.

“The next morning we climbed out and had a look around,” I told them. “I’d walked to the back of the car and for some reason looked down. There were the keys. On the ground, where they must have fallen when we got out before the hike.”

“You’re joking,” Pippa said, expression thrilled. “They were there the whole time?”

“Must have been,” I agreed. “We just didn’t see them in the dark.”

She shook her head at me, an amused light in her eyes, before she turned back to the window.

We fell into a companionable silence then, and I was surprised by how easy it all felt. How easy it was to be sitting here, next to Pippa and surrounded by our friends, like our adventure on the plane was something that had happened to two other people. She was sweet and funny, adventurous and a little wild, but also thoughtful and self-aware.

I don’t know what I expected, whether it was for her to have the same assumption I had—that we’d been coupled up by default—but she wasn’t climbing into my lap. She wasn’t desperate for my attention. She wasn’t pushy.

She was just here, on a holiday, getting away from a shitty situation back home.

And this entire time I’d been so focused on my own life, my own lack-of-situation back home, that I hadn’t given a thought to how much she might need this. I’d just assumed she would be the same drunken woman I’d met on the plane—something to bear on this trip. A game with which I needed to play along.

Instead, she was self-assured and unobtrusive.

“Are you glad you came?” I asked her.

She didn’t even turn around to look at me. “I’m so glad I came. I’m so glad to be away from home for a while. I needed this.”

I’d just nodded off when I felt the van slow.

Pippa had fallen asleep, too. The space between us had disappeared somewhere around the last toll road, and she now slept on my shoulder, her breath warm in my ear, her body a comforting presence at my side. I straightened, adjusting my sunglasses where they’d slipped down my nose, and steadied her back against the seat.

Looking out the window, I saw we were parked in front of a large white multistory Victorian inn, surrounded by lush gardens and a fountain happily gurgling near the front entrance. A sign out front told me we’d arrived at the Jedediah Hawkins Inn.

Large stands of trees stood on either side of the building, their leaves flaming in fall colors against the blue sky.

Will and Ziggs were climbing out, and Niall was busy waking Ruby, which left me to rouse Pippa. I reached across my body with my free arm, the one that wasn’t pinned by her gentle weight, and touched her hand.

She inhaled sharply, stiffening as she came into consciousness.

Wiping her hand across her face, she looked at me guiltily. “Did I fall asleep on you? Oh God, Jensen, I’m sor—”

“It’s fine,” I said quietly, and it really was. “I fell asleep, too. We’re here.”

We exited the van and followed everyone inside, shaking awake limbs and getting blood flow going again. We checked in, grabbed our keys, and agreed to meet shortly back at the entrance to explore the grounds before doing a wine tasting nearby.

My legs were stiff, my back tight from sitting so long. I groaned, stretching in my empty room before walking to the bathroom to splash some water on my face, relaxing incrementally: shoulders, arms, neck. I could feel it pushing at the edges of my mind, too: that need to just turn off everything, to unplug. It was easy to do today, a Sunday. Would I be able to keep it up for two full weeks?

When I got back down to the reception area, Pippa was talking to the woman at the desk; they were already laughing at something together. Pippa seemed to make fast friends wherever she went, whereas I was . . . a generous tipper?

Jesus Christ, I was a stiff bastard.

Bending over a map, the woman circled a few things, offering suggestions for the two nights we’d planned to stay. I heard Pippa say the words holiday, wanker ex, and new friends before Ziggy came up behind me, jumping on my back and scaring the hell out of me.

“Jesus Christ, child,” I grumbled at her. “You’re not tiny anymore.”

“You could carry me.” She reached up, squeezing my bicep.

I pretended to scowl at her. “I could. But I shan’t.”

Pippa came over to us, smiling widely. “You guys are the cutest siblings in history.” Her enthusiasm was contagious. She was wide-eyed as she took everything in. “Rachel says there’s an amazing restaurant semi–walking distance down the road. We could get breakfast there tomorrow?”

“Sounds good to me,” I told her, wrapping my arm around Ziggy’s neck to give her a noogie.

Our first stop was the tasting room of a local winery called Sherwood House Vineyards. The GPS directed us to a gray Colonial building tucked beneath tall trees and surrounded by flowering shrubs. It looked more like a private residence than a tourist attraction, with acres of manicured lawn, tidy boxwoods lining the path, and a pair of potted topiaries flanking the front porch. In fact, if it weren’t for a sign pounded in near the road, I would have passed it by altogether.

We parked and climbed out of the van, and through some instinct I can’t explain, I found myself walking rather close to Pippa, my hand just shy of touching her lower back.

“A girl could get used to this,” Pippa said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked up at the house. “Remind me to schedule all my holidays with you lot, please.”

“We get together at Christmas, too,” I told her. “You’d have to listen to Ziggs and Will geek out over God knows what and how our mother can’t seem to find any good rakfisk at the market anymore, but dinner itself is guaranteed to be amazing.”

“Are we making hypothetical holiday plans together already?” she asked, smiling as I motioned for her to precede me up the path. “Because wow, would Lele love you.”

I searched my memory. “Lele, the one who gave birth to you. With Coco being the American,” I said, and her face lit up with surprise.

“You were listening?”

“It wasn’t that bad—”

“It was awful,” she corrected, the color of her cheeks deepening. She’d changed at the hotel and was now wearing a yellow shirt-dress and a pair of light blue tights with brown boots. The combination wasn’t something I would have expected to work, but it did. The dress brought out the flush in her face and caught the gold at the ends of her hair. Her legs were long and toned, and for a flash I wondered what they would look like bare, how they might feel under my hands.

I stumbled.

“But let’s not talk about that anymore,” she said, smiling over her shoulder at me.

“Talk about what?” I asked.

She laughed, not realizing my confusion was genuine. “Exactly.”

Inside, Sherwood House reminded me of someone’s living room. White beams supported an exposed ceiling; a brick fireplace complete with a crackling fire stood at one end and a long wooden bar at the other. Smaller rooms—including what looked like an antique store—branched off from the main one, and a set of stairs led to a second floor.

I felt someone loop her arm through mine and looked over to see Ziggy grinning up at me.

“Isn’t this great?”

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Good choice.”

“Actually, George hooked us up. You having fun?” And before I could even formulate an answer, she added, “Pippa seems nice.”

I lowered my chin to meet her eyes.

“Okay, okay,” she whispered. “I’m just—”

Don’t say “worried,” I thought, unwilling to be the sad, lonely guy the women in my life fussed over anymore. Becoming aware of it made it suddenly unbearable.

I knew some part of my reaction must have made its way across my face because my sister placed her hand on mine as if to soften her words, and then paused, considering me. “I just want you to enjoy yourself,” she said finally.

With a tiny shift in my thoughts, I understood what I could give her on this trip: I could give her my all-in. I could do exactly what she wanted me to do. Nobody worried about Liv or Ziggy, because they were married and settled. Niels had a long-term girlfriend and Eric was always out with someone new. I was the oldest child in a family of meddlers, and just like I’d butted in and encouraged Ziggy to get out more, the same was being done to me. She wanted me to come on the trip. She wanted me to have fun. And part of her, no matter how much she denied it, wanted that fun to be with Pippa.

And even if I knew Pippa wasn’t a real prospect for me, I’d had casual relationships before. I didn’t love them, necessarily, but I wasn’t a monk.

I smiled and wrapped an arm around Ziggy’s shoulders. “I am having fun,” I told her, and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Thanks for making me come.”

She looked up at me, blue-gray eyes narrowed slightly, and I wondered when my little sister became so fucking smart.

The first wine was a sauvignon blanc: nice, mildly acidic, not too intense. I watched as Pippa picked up her glass, brought it to her nose, and inhaled before taking her first sip.

I worked on the mental transition: Don’t fight it. Don’t overthink it. Just . . . enjoy it.

“So you worked in a place like this?” she said, oblivious to my inspection.

I blinked away, down at the slice of bread in my hand. “I did, uh, yes. In college. During the summer.”

She gave me a cute little grin. “Meet a lot of women? I’m imagining you in college and swooning a tiny bit.”

I laughed. “I was with Becky then.”

A tiny sting intensified in my chest.

“Your ex-wife?” she asked, and I met her eyes.

I let out a short chuckle, a small burst of air. “To be fair, she’s more ex-girlfriend than ex-wife.”

Pippa laughed not unkindly at this. “Oh. What a horrible realization.”

I glanced over to where she was settled against the arm of a sofa, one leg tucked beneath her as she enjoyed her glass of wine. The fire crackled behind her, the air warm with just a touch of smoke.

Taking another sip, she swallowed and asked, “Was the winery a lot like this?”

“It was less cozy and more commercial than this, but yeah. Same general vibe.”

“Did you love it?”

“I don’t know if I’d use the term love,” I said, easing onto the couch. “But it was cool to see the process from vineyard to cellar, why they made certain wines, and how even the slightest fluctuations in temperature or humidity affected the final product.”

“Plus, you know—free wine,” she said, lifting her glass in salute.

I laughed and raised mine, too. “I didn’t have quite the appreciation for it that I do now, but that aspect certainly didn’t hurt.”

“I can’t imagine you and Will at uni together. You’re both functioning adults now, but I can look at you and see the shadow of the insanity.”

“Like an aura?” I said, laughing.

“Your wild side lurks just there,” she agreed, smiling back as she drew a circle over my head.

“Here I thought I had everyone fooled with my pressed dress pants and sweaters.”

Pippa shook her head. “Not me.”

Conversation flowed around us, and I could feel my sister watching us from where she sat across the table.

I rubbed a finger over my brow, working to not feel self-conscious. “Once I moved in with Becky, we weren’t so crazy,” I said. “But before that, I have no idea how we got through each weekend without an arrest or our parents murdering us.”

“Tell me more about college-aged Jensen,” she said, delighted.

The next bottle of wine was opened and Pippa took the offered tasting glass with a quiet “Thanks.” I took a sip of my own selection, a peppery zinfandel, already feeling the effect of the first one. My stomach was warm, my limbs a little looser, and I leaned in a little more, close enough to smell the subtle citrus of her shampoo.

“College-aged Jensen was an idiot,” I said. “And for some reason he seemed to go along with most of Will’s terrible ideas.”

“You can’t say something like that and not elaborate,” she prodded.

I thought back to the summers Will spent at my house, the holidays. I suspect Will was just as wild in high school, but add in being away from home during college and having the ability to purchase alcohol—all bets were off.

“Sophomore year, Will talked me into smoking a bong out on our balcony, and then didn’t realize the door had locked behind him. I should mention it was about two a.m., in November, and we were both in nothing but boxer shorts.”

“This might be better than the dart trip,” she said. “Though I can’t imagine you high.” She considered me for a moment. “The boxer shorts are easier to visualize.”

I laughed at her easy flirting. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t as awesome as you might expect, given the laid-back partier I’ve become,” I said, gesturing to my dress shirt and polished shoes. “Most people relax or laugh or snack when they’re high, right?” She nodded. “When stoned, I become neurotic.” I paused, grinning. “More neurotic.”

“So how did you get back in?”

“We had a new, cute neighbor in the apartment with the adjoining balcony. Will found a few little pebbles, a beer cap, and a soda can, and threw them at her window until she finally came out. Then he flirted with her until she said she would help us.”

“Help you how?” Pippa asked, grinning.

“Obviously wary about letting two half-naked guys climb onto her balcony, she offered to just call someone to let us in. Unfortunately, we didn’t really want to explain to campus security why we were locked out in our underwear with a bong and a bag of weed. I was totally freaking out. In my head I’d skipped forward two years to us serving time in prison for smoking a bowl, me with a sugar daddy named Meatball.” I shook my head, remembering. “Anyway, our neighbor was also pre-law, and made us plead our case before she’d agree to let us over. I’ve never seen either of us hustle like that—before or since.”

Pippa rested an arm against the back of the couch as she listened, expression delighted. “I bet you did okay, Jensen Bergstrom, esquire.”

I lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I’d give you more detail on my argument if I remembered even a word of it.”

“So I’m assuming you finally got inside?”

“Yeah. There was a lot of awkward clinging to each other and terrified yelps that we might fall to our death, but we finally managed to navigate the three-foot crevasse between the balconies. Now that I think of it, Will actually saw her for a few weeks after that . . . Huh, maybe that was part of the settlement?” Scratching my shoulder, I smiled at her. “Anyway, enough reminiscing.”

“Absolutely not. I’m here to forget the Wanker. You’re doing a great job.” Pippa looked up at me and then motioned toward Ziggy. “Don’t make me ask Hanna. I bet there are loads of stories I could get out of her, and it wouldn’t take more than a glass or two. A bit of a lightweight, that one.”

Looking up, she let out an amused snort. I followed her gaze to where Will was standing next to my sister, refilling her glass and—if my guess was correct—talking to her boobs.

It didn’t matter how often they were like that or how many times I’d walked in on them, it was still gross. I groaned.

“Though by the looks of it,” Pippa said, tilting her head, “Will has her monopolized at the moment.”

“They’re eternal newlyweds,” I explained, lacing my words with a hint of playful disgust. “But I think Will is volunteering to be the designated driver tonight, and trying to get her a little drunk. My sister is hilarious when she’s had a few.”

“Is that strange at all? Baby sister married to your best mate?”

“I’m not going to lie, it was at first. But when I thought about it and realized I was the one who suggested they reconnect in the first place . . .”

“You set them up?” she asked, smiling over the top of her glass. “Most men wouldn’t encourage their best friend to date their sister.”

“I didn’t realize that was what I’d done,” I said, and drained the rest of my wine. I set the glass down on the table and reached for another olive. “In hindsight, yeah, I told her to call Will. But at the time, she was a workaholic dork. It never occurred to me that he would look at her—at Ziggy, the lab rat—and see anything but my nerdy little sister.” I watched them for another few seconds. Will said something that made Ziggy burst into laughter, leaning into his chest. He bent, kissing the top of her head. “But he’s good for her—she’s good for him, too,” I added quickly. “And I’ve never seen either of them so happy.”

Pippa nodded in agreement and looked over at the rest of our group. “I felt the same way about Niall and my Ruby. She’d been in love with him for ages and he had no idea she was alive.”

“That’s right,” I said. “You used to work together.”

“It alternated between being hilarious and excruciating to watch, but I couldn’t be happier for them now.” Pausing, she added, “Even if I do want to turn the hose on them at times.”

I let out a wry laugh; I knew exactly how she felt.

She leaned back in her seat. “I’m sure I sound like an old spinster saying it, but come on now, leave a little snogging for the rest of us.”

Straightening, I motioned for the server and was met with Ziggy’s wide, hopeful eyes.

The server poured us each another hefty tasting.

Pippa took her glass, holding it aloft. “To old maids?” she asked, and I considered.

“To a little snogging for the rest of us,” I said instead.

Pippa beamed and lifted the glass to her lips. “I will definitely drink to that.”