Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 6

Jensen

Monday morning, I was up before the sun.

I blinked up at the darkened ceiling, the blankets still warm around me as the fog of sleep faded away. My admission to Pippa still rattled around inside my head.

We might have had kids by now.

They’d be in school. They’d be playing soccer, and riding bikes.

I had no idea where it all came from last night. Those were thoughts I rarely had anymore, usually only during a moment of weakness or after a particularly bad day, when there was nothing to come home to but an empty house.

Or, apparently, after a day of drinking and racing into a sprinkler-filled vineyard.

I’d dated a number of women since my divorce, and hadn’t given Becky much thought. But I’d spent a lot of time thinking about my marriage after I met Emily. With her, easy, predictable friendship somehow found its way into bed, and it tripped something in me how much easier it was to have something like that—that didn’t have to mean anything—than to have something I put my entire heart into.

We’d had a softball game, and Emily and I had met after for a beer, just like we often did. But that particular Thursday I’d paid the bill and walked her to her car, and she’d surprised me by asking if I wanted to follow her home. Turns out, I did. We had sex twice that night, and I was gone before her alarm went off the next morning.

Emily was attractive and smart—a pediatric neurologist on staff at Boston Children’s Hospital—but we both knew it wouldn’t go much further than friends who sleep together whenever it’s convenient. A couple of times a month we had sex. It was always good. It was never amazing. It was never amazing in part because it was never emotional for either of us.

And, frankly, I did know that a lot of my own hesitation to get more deeply involved was the residual bewilderment over Becky, and not wanting to deal with that again. Pippa had been right; the pain did get quieter with time, but it didn’t entirely go away. It changed, changed the way I saw things and the way people saw me. The acceptable grieving period for the loss of my marriage and all the things it meant for my life had expired. The rest of the world had moved on. I was supposed to, too.

So why hadn’t I?

I’m so angry at her that she couldn’t tell me earlier that it wasn’t what she wanted.

I’m so angry that she wasted my time. It feels like . . . why bother? Is it too late? Am I too uptight, or too uninteresting, or . . .

I wouldn’t finish that thought.

I wasn’t sure what it was about Pippa that had me admitting things I’d never said out loud before, but I didn’t like it. These next two weeks were supposed to be about getting away and drinking too much, not introspection and soul-searching.

I kicked off the blankets and sat up, reaching for where my phone was charging on the bedside table. Skipping over emails in a wholly uncharacteristic move, I opened the last text I had from Will, asking whether I’d be up for a run in the morning.

I’m up. You ready? I sent, and tossed my phone to the bed.

I checked the schedule Ziggy had printed for everyone: brunch, some free time to explore the area, a possible brewery tour, and dinner here, at the hotel.

Will’s reply came while I was in the bathroom, a simple No followed by silence.

I dialed his number and after four rings and the sound of the phone being dropped at least twice, he answered.

“You are as bad as your sister,” he said, words mumbled into what I could only guess was his pillow.

“You’re the one who asked me to run this morning, remember?”

“It’s not even”—he fumbled with the phone again—“seven yet.”

“So? This is when we always go.”

“Jensen, do you see the room you’re in?”

I glanced around the room. White paneled walls, large bed covered in a handmade quilt, brick fireplace. “Yes.”

“We’re on vacation. Brunch doesn’t even start until ten. It’s okay to sleep in.”

“You could have clarified this last night,” I told him, already opening up the menu for room service.

“I drank my weight in wine and tried to talk our waiter into opening a vineyard with me,” he said. “I’m not sure anyone should count on anything I said last night.”

“Fine,” I said with a sigh. “I’ve got some work I should get to anyway. Call me when you’re up and we’ll head out then.”

“Oh, no you don’t.” There was the distinct rustle of fabric and the sound of the mattress shifting in the background. “God damn it. No. No way are you sitting in there working on your laptop. Your sister will kill me.”

So Will had been put on Jensen duty, too.

I gritted my teeth.

“It’s fine,” I said. “No work. I’ll just head out now and catch up with you all later.”

“No, you’re right. Give me fifteen and I’ll meet you down in the lobby. Deal?”

“Deal.”

My room was at the end of the house and overlooked the lawn and breezeway that separated the main building from a large barnlike structure in the back. The sky was still dark but had lightened enough that I could see a copper-roofed gazebo just off in the distance, and a patio where—according to the brochure Ziggs had included in our itinerary—they served dinner most nights alongside a roaring fire.

Things were considerably busier downstairs, with a fire burning in the lobby fireplace and the sounds and smells of breakfast being made wafting out from behind the closed kitchen doors.

Will was already there, talking to the manager near the front door.

Catching sight of me, he raised a hand in greeting and said his goodbyes to the manager.

“Morning,” he said.

“Morning. Ziggs still asleep?”

“Dead to the world,” he said with an amused smile I did not work to translate. He began to slip on a pair of gloves and let out a little snort. “I see you got your shirt back.”

I looked down at my Johns Hopkins sweatshirt, the one my sister seemed to have the majority of the time. It was a little faded, a little worn in spots. The wristbands were frayed and one of the sleeves had started to unravel at the seam, but it was one of my favorites. Ziggy was always in and out of my house and had been stealing my clothes since she was old enough to reach my closet door. The only reason I had this one was probably because she’d changed at my place at some point and left it on the floor.

“I feel you judging my sweatshirt, William. This is a classic. Your wife gets that, she probably wears it more than I do.”

“No, Hanna, like you, is oddly sentimental. You two are the only people I know who will throw away a piece of old Tupperware because you don’t want to wash it out, but keep a sweatshirt for two decades.”

He had a point.

We crossed the lobby, leaving before the smell of bacon and brewed coffee had us abandoning a workout altogether, and slipped out the back door.

The chill hit us immediately. Will pulled his hat down lower over his ears and looked out over the yard.

“This place really is beautiful,” he said.

I followed his gaze. Mist clung to the fence lines in the distance, the trees a shock of autumn fire set against a colorless sky. The inn stood behind us—white clapboard siding and powder-blue trim, the copper-topped turret that gleamed like a new penny.

I nodded in agreement.

His phone buzzed in his jacket pocket and he pulled it out, laughing dryly. “Bennett just sent this to the group thread: ‘Chloe made me breakfast in bed. It’s two hours later and she hasn’t asked me to fix the garbage disposal yet. Do wives do this kind of thing out of . . . kindness? Please translate.’ ”

I laughed, shaking my head. “Do you think he’s genuinely confused, or just playing this up?”

Tucking his phone back in his pocket and zipping it closed, Will said, “I think it’s pretty genuine, though he is adding in some humor. She’s completely different. Those two had a particular dynamic, and now that there are one-point-five of her, it’s off-kilter.”

“Do you wish you were in New York to see more of it?”

“Actually, yeah,” he said, bending to the side to stretch his back. “It’s really weird. But entertaining.”

We stretched in silence like we’ve done a hundred times—quads, calves, hamstrings, glutes—and the sounds of the morning echoed around us. Horses munched on grass in a neighboring field, and a hammer pounded nails somewhere on the property, but it was quiet and peaceful as we stood and made our way to the head of the trail.

I set the timer on my watch and we started off, moving from dirt trail to sidewalk to road. Our feet landed rhythmically over the pavement, and I kept my breaths steady, my eyes on the path ahead.

“How’s work?” I asked. Will was an investor, and Max his partner. Together they owned Stella & Sumner, a venture capital company, with Max in New York City and Will now back home in Boston.

“Pretty good,” he said. “There’s a small Australian pharmaceutical company doing some great cancer work. I’m flying out to talk to them next month. Oh, and Max turned my old office into a crafts room for the days he has Annabel with him at work, so I’m going to have his redecorated the next time he’s out of the country.”

“Redecorated?” I asked.

“Yeah. Disco ball, pink faux leopard on his couch. Maybe a stripper pole right in the middle.”

“You guys are broken.”

He laughed. “The last time I was in the city I spent the week at the reception desk, sharing a computer with his mom. This should about even the score.”

“Didn’t Bennett’s eyebrows just grow back from the last time one of you tried to ‘even the score’?” I asked. “Remind me to stay out of New York.”

“One eyebrow lost, not both,” he clarified. “So what about you? Good to be away?”

“Yes and no,” I admitted. “I can see how badly I needed this, but it doesn’t mean I’m not constantly worrying about what’s going on while I’m gone.”

“Because you’re a control freak,” he said, smirking in my direction. “It’s a Bergstrom family trait. I’m thinking of having you all tested to find the genetic locus.”

“Really it’s because I’m good at my job,” I corrected, then quietly added, “And maybe just a little of that other part.”

Will laughed and we made a left onto South Jamesport Avenue, a rural two-lane road lined with trees and the occasional house.

We ran in silence, side by side at an even pace. But the familiar calm a good run always brought seemed to evade me. My thoughts were still all over the place, a sense of needling anxiety twisting in my gut.

“So what do you think of Niall and Ruby?” Will asked a few minutes later.

“They seem great,” I said, happy for any conversation that might get me out of my own head. “Niall is so much like Max, and yet not?”

“That’s exactly what I thought when I was with them both in New York,” Will said. “Ruby must be really good for him because he seems so much more relaxed now. Happier. Though I have to admit it tickles me to imagine uptight Niall working alongside both Pippa and Ruby. Those two are the enthusiasm twins. That must have been something else.”

“It’s a wonder anything ever got done.”

“Well, and I must say,” he said slyly, “it’s been nice seeing you and Pippa get along.”

The mention of Pippa’s name made something tense inside my stomach. “That’s because she’s nice, and I clearly just caught her in a bad moment on the flight,” I said. “Though I’m not sure I’ll ever get my foot out of my mouth. I can still hear the sound of her guffaw echoing through your kitchen.”

“I am really sad I missed that,” Will said.

“Well stick around, I’m sure I’ll find another way to do something equally horrifying.”

“You’re not the first person to say something stupid in front of someone they like, Jens. The shit I used to say in front of Hanna was unreal.”

I slowed as we passed a large piece of property surrounded by white rail fence and a few horses. The need to talk this out a little pushed up in my chest, forcing the words out.

“This Pippa situation . . .”

Will slowed beside me, glancing over. “Yeah . . . ?”

The streets were mostly empty at this hour, but we moved to the side of the road as a car drove past us.

“Look. You’re right. I do like her,” I said, “but it feels really loaded. I feel like we’re in a fishbowl.”

“Who cares? Hanna is invested, yeah, but that’s also what sisters do. Ignore her. Pippa is exactly what I would have pegged as your type back in school. She’s funny, a fucking mathematician for fuck’s sake, not to mention gorgeous. And if it isn’t that great, she’s here for a few weeks, and then will live across the ocean. Am I missing something somewhere?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Clearly I’m overthinking this.”

With his hands on his waist, he stopped and leaned against a wooden fence to catch his breath. “Listen, I told Hanna I wasn’t getting involved with this, but in college you would have seen this for exactly what it is: an awesome vacation with family and new friends, one of whom happens to be single and smoking hot.”

I squinted, staring down the road. “Yeah. I guess. I’d like to think I’m a lot smarter now than I was in college, though.”

“I don’t know about that,” he said before looking down and kicking a stone near his toe. “What’s really bothering you?”

I laughed. “That’s a big question for seven thirty in the morning.”

He looked up at me. “Is it? I’ve never really seen you have any existential angst. Not even after Becks left. You had a couple drunk weekends and then went back to work and never stopped. I mean, is that it? Have you decided that’s all you want?”

The mention of Becky sent a hot poker through my chest. That was happening way too often lately. “I—”

“I keep waiting for you to bring someone over for dinner,” he said, interrupting me. “When I lived in New York, I thought I wasn’t meeting your girlfriends because of proximity. But now that we’ve lived here for—what? Two years?—I’ve only met your platonic fuck buddy, and I’m going to be honest, Jens: I side with Hanna on this one. She’s about as interesting as a spoon.”

This made me laugh incredulously. “You’re one to talk to me about fuck buddies.”

He acknowledged this with a nod. “Okay, that’s fair. I get it. And if that’s what you want to do forever, fine. But then what’s your hang-up about this trip? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell me you want to stay unattached and also get neurotic about the Pippa situation.”

“Because I am neurotic, Will,” I said, my voice rising a bit in the damp fog of the morning. “Yesterday, I looked at Ziggs and realized how much she would love to see me have a little summer camp fling, and I was like—sure, why not, I can do this. But there’s something about Pippa that . . .”

“Makes you uncomfortable?” he asked, glancing up at me, eyes steady and knowing.

“Yeah, and I don’t really understand why.”

“Because she’s honest and doesn’t keep shit on the surface?” When I didn’t answer, he continued, “Because she asks you real questions about who you are and what you think? And because you don’t think you’ll be able to evade it for the whole two weeks?”

“Okay, so maybe you’ve put some thought into this.”

“Unfortunately, I have. I mean, I could be back in that giant bed sleeping with my beautiful wife, but instead I’m out here, having Feelings Time with you. So talk to me, Jens. Tell me what’s going on in that head of yours or let me go back and—”

“Okay, okay.” I laughed without humor, turning my face up to the sky. “Jesus, I don’t even know. Somehow she got me talking about Becks last night, and it’s not that I’m still in love with her—the exact opposite, actually—it’s that I fucking hate thinking about it. Why do women like to go there? I don’t even want to go there.”

“This is the extent of your relationships for the past six years,” Will said. “You meet women, go on a date or two, maybe have sex with them, and then don’t call them again. Is that about right?”

I shook my head, but I wasn’t exactly denying what he said.

“You’re a mess, man.” He straightened, brushing any splinters from his shorts. “I bet you even rationalize it by thinking you’re sparing them getting involved with a man who will eventually be inattentive because of his job.”

“Well, yeah,” I said, shrugging. “I haven’t met anyone I can see myself wanting to be with over wanting to work.”

“Can you hear how fucking pathetic that sounds?” he asked, and his laugh softened his words. “When in reality I think you’re just terrified of getting involved and having it end inexplicably again. It’s the same reason you hate talking about Becky. You just don’t understand it. Well I have news for you: None of us understand it. We never did. She hurt everyone. And I get that it’s worse for you—a lot worse—but we all lost her. Now you’re so afraid of trying again you just don’t bother.”

“Oh, please. You’re full of shit.”

Will shook his head. “This is fear of failure and you’re full of shit.”

Jesus Christ. Why did everything have to come back to Becky?

“I don’t think it’s that deep, Will.” I turned and started walking, slowly enough that he knew I wasn’t simply walking away.

“I’m not saying it’s deep,” he said. “I’m saying it’s obvious. You’re such a cliché. I love you, man, but you are as easy to interpret as a dream about going to school naked.”

This made me laugh. “Okay. So what you’re saying is, I’m a cliché, hung up on being dumped, and overthinking this.”

“In a nutshell.” He smiled over at me. “Did you really get me out of my warm bed to talk about this?”

After another day of wine tasting, and an evening with rich food and a blessedly earlier bedtime, we left just after breakfast on Tuesday. Our second leg of the trip took us from Jamesport to Windham, Connecticut. It was only a couple of hours by car, but having been at the same inn for the last two nights and then packing up to leave made the road trip start to feel real. Four days crashing around various breweries and small wineries, and then we would make our way to Vermont for a quiet week in a cabin.

But before quiet, we had wild. At least that’s how Ziggy pitched the next stop.

It was part of an organized tour of activities, with ten of us in total. Meaning four others would be joining us along the way. Niall gave us a playful lecture—with a lingering look at Pippa—on The Things We Share, and the Things We Don’t.

“For example,” he said from the front seat, where he sat beside Ruby as she drove, “we don’t talk about how itchy our bras are at the end of the day.”

“We don’t?” Ziggy asked, pretending to pout.

“And we don’t talk about our ‘wanker ex-boyfriends’ and their ‘thrusting bums,’ ” he said, and Pippa groaned playfully.

“Daaaad,” she whined.

“Everyone must remember there are new friends joining us.” He turned back around, and Ruby glanced over, shaking her head at him. “Let us try to be on our best—albeit drunken—behavior.”

“So, what’s the itinerary again, Hanna?” Ruby asked.

“We have a brewery tour at Willimantic at three. Tomorrow is a winery tour, and Thursday we have a wine and chocolate pairing, followed by a clambake.”

Will looked over his shoulder at me from the second row of seats, and I knew exactly what he was thinking: What a vacation. It sounded awesome—don’t get me wrong—but for a group of hyperambitious people, this wasn’t reading on the beach or floating lazily on a river with a beer in a foam cozy. This was my sister’s version of downtime.

But then he said, “Bet you’re relieved you’re not expected to sit still, eh?” And I registered that . . . okay, this was also my version of downtime.

Willimantic Brewing Company was a Colonial-looking building that couldn’t be more New England if it tried—and I grew up in Boston, so that was saying something. Willimantic, Connecticut—just beside where we would eventually stay in Windham—was driving distance to several major cities but felt oddly rural and quaint.

Pippa mirrored my thoughts. “I don’t feel like I’ve seen a city yet,” she whispered, staring out the window as we parked. “Why do I always assume your East Coast is built up and entirely urban?”

As a worldwide expert on urban planning, Niall opened his mouth to answer, but Ruby turned off the engine, saying a quick “No, my adorable one. We don’t have time to hear your dissertation now.” Pointing with a smile out the window, she added, “I think there’s our contact for Eastern Stumbles.”

“ ‘Eastern Stumbles’?” Will and I repeated in unison.

My sister waved her folder over her head as she slid open the side door. “The name of the group that organizes this. They’re pretty clear about what we’re here for: drinking, eating, and stumbling back.”

I reached over the backseat for my laptop bag and my sunglasses while Ziggy and Will jumped out to check in with our contact. Niall and Ruby got out to stretch their legs, Pippa following them onto the sidewalk.

My phone buzzed and I pulled it out, reading an email from Natalie.

“You coming?” Pippa asked, leaning in from the sidewalk.

“Don’t tell on me,” I said, typing out a quick reply. “I just have to send this real quick.”

Laughing, she ducked back out as I finished up my email and hit send. Bending to stand, I nearly ran into my sister.

She was blocking my exit. “I think we have a change of plans. Will wants to improvise and head a bit north.”

I looked up. Her face was flushed, eyes a little wild.

“Are you sure?” I tried to see past her. “Is this place shady or something? Drinking, eating, and stumbling sounds pretty great.”

She shook her head. “No, we’re just not feeling the vibe.”

I turned to glance out the window.

“Jensen!” Ziggy yelled, grabbing my attention back.

Startled, I looked back at her. “What?”

She shook her head, a little out of breath and maybe just a touch frantic. Ruby and Niall wordlessly climbed back in. Pippa hovered behind Ziggy, watching me with guarded eyes. “I really think we should head out,” my sister said.

Whether she was irritated with Will for suggesting that we skip an entire portion of her carefully laid plans or she was hungry, I had no idea. But I had to take a leak.

“Okay, let me at least run inside to use—”

I felt her hand grasp my arm as I pushed past her, felt her panicked grip around my bicep. What in the world was wrong with her?

“Jensen,” Pippa said quietly.

Or maybe she shouted it.

I barely heard.

Ten feet ahead, but I knew it was her without needing her to turn around.

Her hair was shorter, but she had that tiny mole on the back of her right shoulder. A shoulder I had kissed too many times to count. There was the scar running down the length of her left arm, where she’d been bitten by a dog when she was eight.

I took a blind stumble forward. It was true how these moments are described, like the world spins. Like there isn’t enough gravity. The world was definitely spinning, and I wasn’t sure when I’d last taken a breath.

“Becks?” I asked, voice rough.

She turned, deep brown eyes wide with surprise. “Jensen?”

I could practically feel the heavy silence behind me: my entire group of friends watched this unfold, no one else breathing, either.

A smile broke out on Becky’s face and she came forward and threw her arms around my neck. It was only when I lifted my arms, numbly, to return the embrace that I realized Pippa had been gently holding my hand. She let go but stood just beside me, a supportive presence.

Becky stepped back, reaching behind her. “Jensen. I want you to meet my husband, Cam.”

I hadn’t noticed the man at her side, though I have no idea how. He was a tower of muscle and bone, with brilliant white teeth when he smiled. His grip around mine was strong but easy. The way he slid his arm around Becky’s shoulders, the way she turned into his side, was like watching a memory unfold.

“Good to meet you,” I managed, somehow. How was this possible?

He smiled down at her. “You too, man, I’ve heard about you for years.”

Years.

She’d had someone else for years and I was still standing, left at the starting gate.

I grappled to my side, finding Pippa’s warm, comforting hand again. I felt Becky’s eyes follow the movement.

Before I could stop myself the words were out: “This is my wife, Pippa.”

I felt the tiny tug of her hand in mine, the stunned jerk of her arm. And I saw Becky take this in: Pippa’s hair in a messy bun, her fuzzy orange sweater, tight ankle jeans, and sky-high bright blue heels. I saw her take in Pippa’s necklace—a complicated cascade of green and red and yellow beads—and her wide, brilliant smile.

Fuck.

What have I just done?

“I’m sorry—” I began, wanting to immediately backtrack. Seeing Becky, being here . . . I knew in a heartbeat that the face I used to love—and which swam in my heartbroken thoughts for years—was now only a face from my past. With startling clarity, I felt very little hurt.

No renewed heartbreak.

No heated jealousy of her new husband.

Not even a hint of nostalgia.

But Pippa cut me off, letting go of my hand to grasp Becky’s instead. “Becky,” she said smoothly. “It’s lovely to finally meet you.”

Straightening, she looked up at me, eyes gleaming, and then slid her arm around my back, reaching down to spread her hand across my ass.

She gave it a squeeze.

“Jensen and I are celebrating our honeymoon. How funny to run into you here!”