Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 5

Pippa

“He reminds me of this boy I went to uni with,” I murmured, staring at Jensen across the room as I absently licked a drop of wine from the rim of my glass. “Danny. Daniel Charles Ashworth. I mean, are you kidding me with that name? Fucking unreal.” I shook my head. “Fucking beautiful, too. Smart, and kind. He was funny and charming . . . and he never dated a soul.”

Ruby followed my gaze. “Was Danny shy or something?” We both watched for a few seconds as Jensen, Niall, and Will chatted amiably with the owner of the winery. “Jensen sure isn’t.”

I’d lost count of how many tastes I’d had, and given up and ordered a full pour of the delicious petite sirah. Ruby was halfway into her generous pour of a viognier, and we were both perched rather crookedly on our stools at the wine bar while the men debated which—and how many—bottles they wanted to buy to bring home.

“Not shy,” I told her, blinking and turning my attention back to her. “Just incredibly picky.” I shook my head to clear it, reaching for an almond from the dish before us. “Danny admitted to me one night—totally pissed on tequila—that he didn’t like to have sex with lots of women. Didn’t like it,” I repeated. “Said he loved sex, of course, but it was too intimate to do with a stranger.”

Ruby popped an almond into her mouth, staring blankly at me. “Huh.”

“Isn’t that sort of lovely?” I asked, thinking about the sight of Mark’s thrusting bum, of the way I didn’t—and wouldn’t ever—know the name of the woman beneath him. The way I felt like he’d ended our relationship so easily, without any fear that he’d miss it. “Isn’t it sort of lovely to have it mean so much that, even when you’re nineteen, you don’t want to do it with just anyone? No one is like that anymore.”

“True.”

“Well,” I amended, lifting my chin toward Niall, “he is.”

Ruby laughed. “Oh, he’s not. He was just married those years. I always maintain that if Niall had never met Portia, some sexually liberated woman would have found him first and turned him into the most adorable slut.”

“God, that’s a lovely mental image,” I said in a breathy gust. “A sexually insatiable nineteen-year-old Niall Stella.”

She nodded in agreement. “Right?”

“Oh, boo, I missed the ogling,” Hanna said, following our attention and plopping down beside me.

“No, you’re right on time,” I told her, resting my chin in my hand. “Lord, but that’s a lovely wall of men right there.”

As if they could feel the weight of our attention, the three men turned in unison, catching us all resting our jaws on our palms, staring hungrily at them.

This was fantastic for everyone except me and Jensen, who both immediately turned our attention elsewhere as the three of them wound their way through the crowd to reach us.

“You look good,” Hanna growled when Will sidled up to her.

“Hey,” Ruby said with a breathless smile when Niall hugged her from behind.

Jensen waved, being playfully awkward with me. “Have you tried the house-made pickles?”

“The—? No,” I stuttered, playing along. “I haven’t—yet.”

“They’re very good.”

“Are they?” I asked, laughing as the other two couples beside us kissed, crowding us closer together.

He hummed, nodding. “The spicy one is great, if you like spice.”

I quickly answered: “I do.”

“Well,” he said, biting back a laugh and taking a step to his right as Will pressed Hanna into the bar with a deeply intimate kiss, “they’re very good.”

“I’ll have to try them.”

Jensen looked at me, eyes dancing. He shook his head, holding my gaze.

It was good to acknowledge the premise of this openly, wordlessly. The expectation that we would eventually pair off was thick in the air. And while I was open to a holiday affair, and he didn’t seem entirely repulsed by it, he covered his deeper feelings with a confusing mix of humor and formality. I wanted us, at the very least, to be partners in crime here.

Travel friends.

Buddies.

Niall, of course, seemed to pick up on our pointed banter and pried himself out of Ruby’s tipsy embrace. “Shall we change for dinner? I know I’d love a shower.”

I appreciated that the three women on this trip were nearly more efficient at the shower-and-change routine than the men were.

Ruby and Hanna were in the hall—hair wet, makeup minimal—when I emerged from my own room in a similar state.

“High fives to low-maintenance women.” Hanna lifted her hand, meeting my palm with hers in a quiet smack.

Niall and Will were standing together a few paces down the hall, conversing quietly.

“Are we just waiting on Jens?” Ruby asked.

Hanna nodded. “He’s probably ironing. No one loves to iron as much as my brother. He would iron his socks if he thought no one would ever find out about it.”

“That’s precious,” I said, and then glanced down at my own outfit: tall boots, red tights, my favorite twirly black-and-white striped skirt—a bit rumpled from the suitcase—and a white tank top beneath a fitted aqua cardigan with a parrot embroidered over the breast. “I look like a box of markers exploded in the hallway.”

“I love the way you put outfits together,” Ruby said. “You’re so brave.”

“Thanks . . . I think?” I murmured, smoothing my sweater. Honestly, I just liked these colors.

Jensen stepped out into the hallway and did a slight double take to find the three women huddled practically in front of his door. “Sorry,” he said, looking at each of us in mild confusion. “I . . . didn’t realize you were all waiting on me.”

“It’s all right, princess,” Hanna said, smooching his cheek loudly.

“I had to iron,” he said quietly, and Hanna threw me a called it! smile of victory.

Ruby took Niall’s arm. Hanna took Will’s. And Jensen turned to me with an easy smile that belied the tension in his eyes and said, “You look lovely.”

It made me suddenly uneasy. I knew that the setup aspect of this entire trip was written in the brightest invisible text just above our heads and followed us around wherever we went, but I wanted us to both be able to ignore it. I could enjoy the safety of a crush on Jensen—knowing he would be cautious in all the ways I might be impulsive—and he could enjoy the work-free time, and together we could pretend it didn’t exist.

But in reality, attention from him was only truly flattering if it was genuine.

Once we’d arrived at the restaurant-winery and checked in at the hostess stand, I carefully pulled Hanna aside.

“I don’t want . . .” I trailed off. I had begun to speak before determining what, exactly, it was that I wanted to say.

She smiled, taking a little step closer. “You okay?”

“Good,” I answered, nodding. “It’s only that”—I glanced over at Jensen and quickly back—“I don’t want him to feel any . . . undue pressure.”

Hanna blinked, scrunching her nose as she worked to understand my meaning. “With you?”

“Yes.”

Her confusion melted into amusement. “You’re worried my brother feels pressure to hook up with a bombshell on vacation?”

“Well,” I said, flattered at the description. Bombshell. Well. “Yeah.”

She snorted. “Rough life, Jensen, let me give you a cuddle.”

I laughed at this, realizing that each time she spoke, I fell in love with her a bit more. I understood Ruby’s infatuation. “You’re adorable, and you know what I mean. The attraction may not be mutual—”

“So you are—?”

“—and if it’s not,” I continued over her, “that’s okay. I’m here for a laugh. I’m here to get away.” I looked at the wall displaying hundreds of bottles of wine and felt my brows rise as if it were there to challenge me personally. “I’m here to get rather sloppy, actually.”

“Let me tell you a little something about my brother,” Hanna said, leaning in. “He used to be this legendary player—honestly,” she added, most likely at my surprised expression. “And then he married a witch who broke his heart. She broke all our hearts, really.”

I frowned at this, thinking on a nine-year relationship and how that must have stretched beyond Jensen and deep into his family.

“Now he’s a workaholic who doesn’t remember what it’s like to be spontaneous and have fun just for the sake of having fun,” she continued. “This vacation is so good for him.” Her eyebrows twitched when she added, “It could be great.”

I watched her make her way back to Will, whose arm snaked its way unconsciously around her middle, and studied the five of them huddled together, waiting for our table to be called.

True to expectations, I was seated beside Jensen at the broad hexagonal table in the center of the dining room. The restaurant was gorgeous, with a statue that appeared to be an inverted tree trunk coming out of the ceiling, its branches and leaves built up entirely of thousands of tiny lights. Waiters wore crisp white shirts with black aprons tied neatly around their waists, and filled our glasses with water ribboned with tiny bubbles.

My wine haze from the afternoon had cleared, and I agreed to share a bottle of the house pinot noir with Jensen.

Why in the bloody hell not.

I could tell he was trying to relax. Part of me loved that it wasn’t in his nature, though. I always felt that I was nearly too relaxed for everyone around me; someone had to be the pillar. I could try to be the pillar, but as I probably could have predicted, that plan was doomed before it even began when—ever the gentleman—Jensen poured my glasses larger than his, and more frequently, too.

“Are you forgetting my propensity to ramble drunkenly?” I asked, watching him drain the bottle with a long pour into my glass. The appetizers fanned across the table: endive with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and a sweet balsamic glaze; tiny meatballs with rosemary and sweet corn; a bowl of perfectly charred shishito peppers; and—my favorite—a shrimp-and-calamari ceviche that made my eyes water with its perfect tartness.

“Contrary to what I said,” he told me, putting the empty bottle back on the table, “I think I like your rambles. You aren’t some crazy lady on the plane anymore.” He lifted his own glass to mine and clinked it gently. “You’re Pippa.”

Well. That was rather sweet.

“I think tonight I want you to ramble,” I said, flushing and leaning a little closer.

Jensen’s eyes dropped to my mouth, and then he seemed to remember himself and he sat up. “Unfortunately,” he said, “I’m the least interesting person at this table.”

I glanced around at our friends. Ruby and Niall had their heads together, Hanna had gotten up to use the restroom, and Will was reading the scotch menu, clear across the other side of the table and—in a restaurant like this—only in the loudest shouting distance.

“Well,” I allowed, “that may be true—as I’ve heard nothing from you to dispute it—but as you’re my only option at the moment, I want to hear you talk.”

He blinked down into his glass, took a long breath, and then looked over to me. “Give me a topic.”

Oh, the heady power. I leaned back in my chair, sipping my wine as I considered this.

“Don’t look so Machiavellian,” he said, laughing. “I mean, what do you want to hear me talk about?”

“I certainly don’t want to hear you talk about work,” I said.

He agreed with a smile: “No.”

“And the ex-wife sounds like a pretty gross topic.”

He nodded, laughing now. “The grossest.”

“I could ask why you haven’t been on a proper holiday in two years, but—”

“But that would be discussing work,” he interjected.

“Right. I could ask about this softball team Hanna keeps mentioning,” I said, and Jensen rolled his eyes in exasperation, “or your ability to run several miles every morning without requiring payment or some sort of monster chasing you . . .” I chewed my lip. “But really, I think we both know that I find you rather sweet, and more than rather attractive, and I know there is no London mistress, or Boston wife, but I want to know whether you have a girlfriend.”

“You think I would be on this trip,” he said, “with my sister and her husband, and Ruby and Niall and . . . you . . . if I had a girlfriend?”

I shrugged. “You’re a mystery to me in many ways.”

His smile was a tiny tilt of his mouth. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend.”

I smacked the table, and he startled. “Lord, why not?” I cried. “Virility such as yours should not go wasted.”

Jensen laughed. “ ‘Virility’?”

“Right.”

He flushed at this. “Well . . . I guess I’m picky.”

“I gathered,” I murmured dryly.

He squirmed a little in his seat. “I like to be able to control things.”

I leaned in. “Now, that sounds interesting.”

Smiling in a way that told me he knew he was going to disappoint me with what he would say next, he added, “I meant, I think I enjoy that aspect of my work. Every relationship I’ve been in since Becky feels a bit like chaos.”

“They can be,” I admitted. And when I said it, I realized I knew exactly what he meant. I’d never felt with Mark that I could predict what he was going to do next, like I had any finger at all on the pulse of his love for me. Ours was a relationship constantly unscrolling, the remaining story unknown. I understood for the first time since the breakup why, for the past year, I’d felt that tight, needling anxiety inside me. And why I didn’t feel it at all anymore.

For as much as I wanted love to be an adventure, there was certainly something to be said for stability in places.

“But, yeah,” I continued, “I agree they shouldn’t.”

“Dating after being with someone for a decade was disorienting,” he said. “It’s a new language I haven’t quite mastered yet.”

“I’m sure Niall can relate,” I said.

He nodded. “Max and I talked about that once. Luckily, Niall’s settled now. What’s weird,” he continued, and then smiled sheepishly up at me, “and sorry, this veers into gross ex-wife territory, but things with Becky always felt predictable, until she left, out of the blue. I thought we were happy. I was happy. Imagine how stupid I felt that I didn’t even notice she wasn’t.”

I realized in a depressing gust what he was telling me: as far as he was concerned, relationships were damned if you do, damned if you don’t. His first love seemed to be happy, but wasn’t. And everything that came after felt like it was happening in a language he didn’t speak.

I opened my mouth to answer, to reassure him somehow that this is life, and it’s messy, but for all the women out there like Becky, there are at least as many who know our minds and our hearts enough to be honest—but the words were cut off by a piercing wail.

The sound was so wholly different from any version of a fire alarm I’d ever heard that for a second some odd, ancient part of my brain screamed SEEK BOMB SHELTER IMMEDIATELY before Jensen took my hand and pulled me after him, calmly exiting the restaurant via the indicated fire escape route.

He did it with such surety that it occurred to me he might have scouted out the exit plan before we were seated. Not only did he stand and react as if he’d been expecting the fire alarm to go off, but he knew exactly where to go. I wanted to hand him a shaken martini and live out a one-night James Bond fantasy.

The fire alarm carried over the sounds of surprise and concern and finally the understanding, shouted by waiters as they ushered people outside, that it was a small kitchen fire and everything was fine, please stay calm.

As it turned out, the escape route placed us behind the winery’s restaurant, at the top of a hill overlooking the vineyards. Long past sunset, the vines seemed like a dark labyrinth of wood and foliage. Jensen dropped my hand, quickly tucking his into a pocket, and gazed out at the view. At the far end of the row before us was a small structure, what appeared to be a shed built in the center of the vineyard.

“What is that out there, do you think?” I asked him, pointing to it.

Will and Hanna slid around a few mildly hysterical older gentlemen and then sidled up beside us, looking at it.

“I think that’s where they sit outside and have lunch,” Hanna guessed. “I would. It’s a beautiful view.”

We scooted forward, making more room as people poured outside.

Will shook his head. “I’m going to say it’s the Shagging Shed.”

“I think it’s likely where they keep their smaller harvesting implements,” Niall said logically, and we all glared up at him, Will making a quiet snoring sound.

Behind us, waiters and staff were scurrying around, trying to reassure diners that everything would be handled and the situation wouldn’t interrupt our meal indefinitely.

But for now we were banished out here.

“I want to go see,” I said.

“Do it,” Will urged.

“Pippa—” Jensen began, but I turned to him, grinning widely.

“Race you!” I said, stepping off the concrete patio and taking off into the soft earth, leaving a stunned silence in my wake.

The wind felt amazing, cool and sharp against my cheeks, and for the first time—thank you, pinot noir—I giddily pretended I was in an actual race, pumping my arms, feeling the ground give beneath my shoes and pass behind me.

I heard the steady footfalls behind mine and then Jensen was there, slowing to run alongside me and giving me a bewildered look before his competitive side seemed to win out. He sprinted the rest of the way to the shed, turning when he reached it and waiting for me to come to a gasping, wheezing finish at his side.

Standing still as the shed itself, he stared wordlessly down at me while I caught my breath.

“What the hell was that?” he finally asked, a small smile pulling at his lips. “I thought you didn’t run.”

I laughed, turning my face up to the sky. The air was cool, a little damp; the sky was the color of my favorite indigo dress. “I have no idea. We were getting so serious in there.” I pressed my hands to my sides. “I liked it, I just . . . I think I’m a bit tipsy.”

“Pippa, I don’t—” Jensen stopped when I turned, walking over to a small window of the shed to peer inside. Just as Niall had predicted, it was full of gardening supplies, buckets, tarps, and coiled hoses.

“Well. That’s decidedly uninteresting,” I said, turning back to him. “Sadly, Niall was right.”

Jensen took a deep breath, staring at me with an unreadable expression.

“What is it?” I asked him.

He laughed without humor. “You can’t just—” He stopped, digging a hand into his hair. “You can’t just run off into a dark vineyard.”

“Then why on earth did you follow me?”

He blinked, surprised. “I mean . . .” He seemed to find something suddenly ridiculous in his answer but gave it to me anyway: “I couldn’t let you run off into a dark vineyard alone.”

This made me laugh. “Jensen. I’m barely a city block away from the restaurant.”

We both looked back at the group of restaurantgoers still mingling on the sloping patio, still waiting to be allowed back inside, and still entirely unconcerned about what we were doing.

I turned and looked at his profile in the dim light from the distant winery. I wondered if he was thinking back to our conversation at the table, about the conundrum of not trusting yourself and not understanding others.

“I’m sorry about Becky,” I said, and he startled a little, looking down at me. “I’m sure loads of people said that in the beginning, when it was most raw. But I bet hardly anyone says anything about it anymore.”

He turned to face me fully but didn’t respond except to give a cautious “No . . .”

“I remember when my grandmum died.” I looked away, out at the rows and rows of grapevines. “It was years ago; she was relatively young. I was eleven, and she was . . . well, let’s see . . . she would have been in her late seventies.”

“I’m sorry,” Jensen said quietly.

I smiled up at him. “Thank you. The thing is, everyone was quite sad for us at first. Naturally. But over time, it seemed harder that she was gone, for Lele, at least. All these big and small moments Grandmum was missing. It didn’t really get easier, per se. Our sadness just got quieter. We just didn’t talk about it anymore, but I know every tiny heartbreak and victory that Lele couldn’t share with her mum weighed on her.” I looked back up at him. “So what I’m saying is, yes, it’s six—six years since Becky?”

“Yeah. Six,” he confirmed.

“Six years later, and I’m sorry that she’s not in your life anymore.”

He nodded, opening his mouth and then seeming to try to strangle down the words. Jensen clearly didn’t like to talk about himself when it came to relationships. At all.

“Thank you,” he said quietly again, but I knew that wasn’t what he’d originally had on the tip of his tongue.

“Say it,” I said, holding my arms out. I spun in a slow circle, arms outstretched. “Vent it to me, and to the grapes, and the vines, and the tiny gardening tools in the shed.”

Jensen laughed at this, glancing up to where our friends stood talking as they looked out at us in the middle of the vineyard. “Pippa, you’re—” He stopped abruptly as a quiet hissing noise came from our right, and then our left.

I bolted backward. “What is that?”

He groaned, reaching for my arm. “Fuck! Come on!”

We started to run, but in only a few seconds, we were inundated with the heavy spray of sprinklers from every direction. Water poured on us, drenching us, from delicate pipes of water strung across the vine lattice, from the sides, and from below, delivered by quickly rotating sprinkler heads near our feet.

We took several more slippery steps in the dirt, but then I nearly fell onto my back; Jensen barely caught me.

Running was futile. We were soaked.

“Forget it,” I yelled to him over the deafening sound of the sprinkler system. It was as if we were caught in a downpour. “Jensen,” I said, grabbing his sleeve as he made to return to the winery. I turned him to face me.

He stared at me, eyes wild. It wasn’t just that we’d had a bottle of wine after a day of drinking small tastes over and over and over. It wasn’t just that our meal had been interrupted, or that we were presently soaked outside, in October, in a small Long Island winery.

From the savage flash in his eyes, it was as if something had been shaken loose in him.

“I know we don’t know each other at all,” I shouted, blinking the water out of my eyes. “And I know this sounds crazy, but I think you need to yell.”

He laughed, spluttering under the spray of the sprinklers. “I need to yell?”

“Yell!”

He shook his head, not understanding.

“Say it!” I cried over the roar. “Say whatever it is that’s in your head this second. Whether it’s work, or life, or Becky, or me. Like this!” I sucked in a gulp of freezing air as words nearly burst from me. “I want to hate Mark, but I don’t! I hate that I fell so easily into a relationship that was just a pit stop for him, one that I saw as a possible forever! It never was, and I feel like a fool that I didn’t see it earlier!”

He stared at me for several breaths, water running down his face.

“I hate my job!” I yelled, fists at my sides. “I hate my flat, and my routine, and that it could go on like this forever and I might not have the courage to do anything about it! I hate that I’ve worked so hard but when I look around—compare my life to everyone else’s—it feels like such a small drop in such a massive bucket!”

He looked away, blinking past the fat drops of water on his lashes.

“Don’t make me feel foolish,” I said, reaching out to press my hand to his chest.

Just when I thought he was going to turn away and walk back to the restaurant, he tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and yelled over the roar of the sprinklers: “We might have had kids by now!”

Oh my God.

I nodded, encouraging. He looked back down to me, as if seeking affirmation, and his features changed when he let in the emotions: his expression grew tighter, eyes sharper, mouth a harsh line. “They’d be in school!” he said, wiping a hand down his face, momentarily clearing the water away. “They’d be playing soccer, and riding bikes!”

“I know,” I said, sliding my hand down his arm, lacing my dripping fingers with his.

“Sometimes it feels like I have nothing,” he gasped, “nothing but my job and my friends.”

That’s still a lot, I didn’t say. Because I understood: it wasn’t the life he’d imagined for himself.

“And I’m so angry at her that she couldn’t tell me earlier that it wasn’t what she wanted.” He wiped his face again with his free hand, and I wondered for a beat if there was more than just water running down his cheeks. In the darkness, I couldn’t tell.

“I’m so angry that she wasted my time,” he said, shaking his head and looking away. “And then, I’ll meet someone, and it feels like . . . why bother? Is it too late? Am I too uptight, or too uninteresting, or . . .”

“Just been stabled too long?” I said, trying to make him laugh, but it seemed to have the opposite effect and he dropped my hand, sighing heavily.

“What a pair we make,” I said. Taking his hand again, determinedly, I waited for him to look at me. “It’s not too late. Not even if you were eighty. And you’re only thirty-three.”

“Thirty-four,” he corrected in a growl.

“And, please,” I continued, ignoring this, “most women aren’t that obtuse about their own lives and feelings. Your first real bite was into a rotten piece of fruit. There are so many more ripe ones on the vines.” I did a tiny, drenched shimmy, and he cracked a little smile at this, glancing to the gnarled zinfandel vines around us. “I don’t mean me,” I added. “I don’t necessarily mean the next woman you meet, either. I just mean, she’s out there. Whoever she is.”

He nodded, staring down at my face. Water sluiced across his forehead, over his nose, tripping across his lips. For a heartbeat, he looked like he might kiss me. But then he shook his head a little, staring at me as if waiting for some magical directive.

“I’m sorry you lost her,” I said more quietly. “And I know it’s been a long time, but it isn’t too long to still be royally pissed off about it. It was a dream you lost, and that’s bloody terrible from any angle.”

He nodded, squeezing my hand. “I’m sorry about Mark, too.”

I waved this away with a laugh. “Mark wasn’t a dream. He was a fantastic shag I kept waiting to turn into a better bloke.” Considering this, I added, “Maybe he was a dream, but it was a short one. If I’ve realized anything on this trip so far, it’s that I didn’t really need to take three weeks away to get over him. But I’m glad to have it anyway.”

I saw the shutters return but didn’t really curse them. It was his process—I knew it already: Give a little, close up shop. Protect. So I made it easy for him and dropped his hand so he could lead us back to the patio, where people were filing back inside. We would laugh about how insane I’d been, how wacky that Pippa is, and go back to our rooms to change into dry clothes for a new dinner.