When I was little, Coco and Lele repeatedly watched—and sobbed over—a film about a bunch of old people in ruffled shirts or tiny running shorts who all got together after a funeral and basically sat around for a week afterward having sex with each other.
At least, that’s how The Big Chill felt to me when I was small.
All these years later, one scene in particular stuck with me—the scene where Chloe walks over to Nick, reaches out for his hand. She’s the young, odd one, the ex-girlfriend of their suicidal friend—the one none of them knew before the funeral, the one who sounds a bit daft and laughs at the wrong time—and she’s taking a chance by asking the other odd man out to come with her.
He says, “You know I don’t do anything.”
And Chloe nods, because she doesn’t care. She just wants to be with Nick, because she feels that he might understand her grief in a way others don’t.
All of this had been running through my head when I’d taken Jensen’s hand. I was thinking of Chloe, and how it was quite brave that she did this, quite noble really, to offer Nick access to his dead friend’s closet to rifle through his clothes and remember him.
In my case, and even if Jensen didn’t realize it at the time, I’d also taken his hand for support. Just outside the van, it took Hanna about two seconds to identify Becky from the back—about as long as it had taken Jensen himself—and she’d quickly told me who the woman joining our tour was. I’d taken his hand because I imagined the same scenario, years in the future, where I might run into Mark and see him happily married—again—and even then, no matter how hard it was, it would feel only a fraction as bad as how this probably felt for Jensen.
I would be the first person to admit that I rarely think things through, which is both a blessing and a curse. When asking Billy Ollander to meet me in the broom cupboard in year six, I hadn’t anticipated that he’d run out and tell his twatty little mates that I was a sloppy kisser. When blindly agreeing to a holiday with Ruby and her friends, I figured Ruby was undoubtedly being overly positive, and I would never have guessed they would end up being some of the loveliest people I would ever meet. And when I’d reached for Jensen’s hand, never in a million years did I expect him to introduce me to his ex-wife as . . . his wife.
Jensen and I watched in mutually bewildered silence as Hanna came forward and tentatively hugged Becky, and then Will took a turn. Both hugs were visibly awkward; I’d spent enough time with them in the past four days to know their hugs were normally tight and warm—not these stiff triangles formed by bodies touching at the fewest points possible.
I watched them stumble through the explanation that yes, they were married now. Yes, that’s what they meant, Will and Hanna were married. It seemed this hit Becky someplace tender, because we all watched, unsure what to do, as she teared up and pulled Hanna back in for another hug.
But beside me, it was impossible to miss the stiff lean of Jensen’s posture. I knew without having to ask that sure, it was all well and good to see this affecting Becky, to see her registering the extent to which she wasn’t a part of their lives anymore. But that was a choice she had made.
I tugged his arm, his hand still in mine.
He turned to face me, and I sensed Will and Niall struggling to not gawk at us.
“Thank you,” he whispered while Hanna and Becky talked, his eyes searching mine. “What the hell did I just do?”
I shook my head, smiling up at him. “I have no idea.”
“It’s a mess. I need to tell her the truth.”
“Why?” I asked, shrugging. “This is the first time you’ve seen her in over six years, isn’t it?”
He nodded, but began to turn to look back at them.
The misery on his face was nearly too much for me to bear. Instead of letting him turn back over to where Becky and Hanna stood speaking, I cupped his jaw and pulled him to me.
His mouth met mine with a surprised gasp before he slowly relaxed, tilting his head and turning the kiss from a simple meeting of our lips to something real, and warm, and . . . lovely. My mouth opened under the urging of his, and I felt his arms go around my waist, his chest press into mine.
He leaned away, just a breath, and it was all I could do to not pull him back again. “You’d do this for me?” he whispered against my lips.
I giggled. “Kissing you is a hardship I’ll have to bear.”
Jensen pressed another sweet peck to my lips. “It was already so weird, and then this . . .”
“It was never that weird.” I glanced over at the group of friends catching up, pointedly ignoring us. “But this . . . this makes things very interesting.”
We were all a bit stunned, to be fair. The entire drive from Jamesport to Willimantic, Hanna and Will had been prattling on happily about the history of our next destination and all the things we were going to do. I assume this played into our reaction when we saw Becky and Cam and were faced with either climbing into the tour bus or awkwardly bowing out: we moved on autopilot, silently forward.
We could have left, really. There were a million other things to do, and absolutely no reason to stay in a stilted situation, but in the end—standing in a small huddle outside the bus—it had been Jensen who insisted he was fine.
And, at his side, I nodded. “We’ve got this. Not a problem.”
So we climbed aboard the tour bus, sitting in tidy rows and making polite small talk as we drove.
In truth, I had no idea what I was in for. We got off pretty easy with the brewery tour—hand-holding throughout, a few kisses here and there when it seemed the newlywed thing to do. I figured the rest of the week would be more of the same: some snogging, some canoodling, maybe I’d get to sit on that lap, feeling those muscular thighs beneath me for a few minutes here or there.
All of this was so naïve, and just within the context of brewery tours, wine tasting, grape smashing. It never occurred to me what it meant that we were all staying in the same small B&B in Windham.
Until we stood at the reception desk, checking in.
“I have you for four rooms, three nights,” the woman said, smiling up at Jensen. “Is that right?”
As fate would have it, Hanna had sent Jensen and I up to check in for all of us while she found a parking spot for our van on the street. Becky and Cam and the other couple in our group—Ellen and Tom—were lined up behind us to get their own room keys.
“That’s right,” Jensen said, and then startled markedly beside me. “Oh,” he said, too loudly. “No. Only three. Rooms. We only need three rooms. Right? Did you . . . ?” He turned and looked down to me. In my peripheral vision I could see Becky watching us.
“We got four rooms at the last place,” I explained to the woman, laughing awkwardly.
“Pippa likes to . . .” Jensen said, searching. And then he answered, “Sing loudly,” just as I answered, “Practice yoga early.”
“Very early,” he agreed in a burst, just as I said, “Very loud singing.”
“Singing and yoga,” I said, laughing.
Because that’s what normal people do.
Because I didn’t look at all like a bleeding idiot.
“You practice yoga?” Becky asked, eyes lighting. “Me too—I’d love to join you!”
Cam squeezed her, a proud smile on his face. “Becks is getting her instructor certification. She’s a real convert.”
I nodded quickly. Shit shit shit. “I practice a . . . special . . .”
“Hot yoga,” Jensen offered helpfully.
“Bikram?” Becky said.
“Oh . . . it’s the British version . . . of that,” I said, with a casual wave of my hand. Yes, because I was so sophisticated that I practiced a niche British version of hot yoga. My brain went into overdrive as I tried to explain how I would do this in my hotel room. “You know, with the . . . steam, from . . . the shower?” I said, looking up at Jensen, who nodded as if this were a perfectly normal explanation for why he and his new bride would get two bedrooms on their honeymoon.
“Listen,” Becky said, excitement making her voice go up an octave, “Cam runs early every morning. Why don’t you just save yourself the money and come do your steam yoga in my room in the morning? Or better yet, we could do some yoga outside, in the field? I’d love to practice some of the routines I’ve been working on with someone else.”
I blinked at her, wondering why she was being so nice, trying so hard. Really, wasn’t it better for everyone if we just agreed there was no requirement to socialize?
“It won’t really help with the loud singing,” Jensen said dubiously.
The woman at the front desk perked up and handed us the three room keys. “We have karaoke at the bar next door, every Tuesday from seven to close!”
Beside me, Becky clapped in delight. “Perfect!” She looked emotional, almost as if she might . . . cry?
I glanced up at Jensen.
He worked to smile through a grimace. “Perfect.”
“I don’t think you realize what a disaster this is,” I said, opening my suitcase and pulling out my toiletries bag.
Jensen stared bleakly down at the tiny bed we were meant to share. “No, I think I do.”
“I don’t mean the bed, you wanker,” I said, laughing. “For fuck’s sake, we can share a bed. I mean the yoga.”
“You don’t have to do the yoga,” he said, confused.
“Of course I do! Did you hear the hope in her voice? She was nearly in tears, she was so happy. I can’t suddenly be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t want to do the famous British Steam Yoga I prattled on about.’ We’d look insane.”
I walked into the bathroom and heard him laughing behind me. “As opposed to how we look right now?”
Jensen followed me in and watched as I unpacked my toothbrush and squeezed some toothpaste on top. I wasn’t all that bothered about my impending yoga fail, or the fact that I’d essentially agreed to give a concert at karaoke tonight. It wasn’t that we would be spending the next four days with the woman Jensen had married. It wasn’t even that it would be so hard to pretend to be married to Jensen on this short leg of the trip.
It was that I was sort of looking forward to it.
I knew myself and my own heart. It tended to dive first, think later. Working like this, as a team—a kissing team, for God’s sake—I was doomed.
“Hey.” His hands slid around my hips, fingers clasping together at my navel, and he rested his chin on the top of my head. As delightful as this was, it wasn’t really helping.
I met his eyes in the mirror. “Hey.”
I watched him watching me, and we both bit back a laugh. What in the world were we doing? I hadn’t let myself give much thought to how this would go tonight but
I shoved my toothbrush in my mouth and began vigorously brushing.
He straightened a little, giving me room. “I don’t remember the last time I watched a woman brush her teeth.”
“Is it as good as you remembered?” I asked, mouth foamy. I bent down to spit and came back up, filling a glass with water to rinse.
He opened his mouth to say something, but I beat him to it after spitting again. “I kissed you.”
“You did.” He nodded, leaning back over me and resting his chin on my head again. “And then, if you remember, I kissed you.”
“Was it rubbish?”
He shook his head. “Pippa?”
I laughed. “For what? Laying one on you? I can assure you, it was my pleasure.”
He shook his head, his eyes holding mine in the mirror. “For making this easier.”
I grinned up at him, leaning back into his embrace. “Easier on you.”
His eyes narrowed, not understanding.
“Jensen, we’re sharing a bed tonight; I can barely touch my toes, let alone do yoga; and I am completely tone-deaf. This is going to be a disaster.”
“You said it earlier: we’ve got this. Hanna and Will have been looking forward to this part of the trip for weeks. Let’s tough it out.”
I stared at his eyes in the mirror. “Why is she being so nice?”
His expression straightened, and his eyes grew a bit unfocused. “Becky was always nice, but . . . yeah, I don’t know.”
We met downstairs for dinner, walking—self-consciously—hand in hand toward Will and Niall, who were waiting near the front desk.
Will turned, grinning down at our linked hands. “This,” he said, arms outstretched. “This is what I’m here to see.”
“Making the best of a bad situation!” Jensen said cheerfully, pulling me into his side and planting a loud kiss on my temple.
“Oh no, what bad situation?” Becky asked, coming out of complete, bloody nowhere, and we all jumped. We would definitely need to put a bell on her.
Will barked out a laugh. “Holy shit, Jensen, I am living watching you do this over and over lately.”
Jensen stuttered out a few things. “No, no, nothing . . .” He blinked down at me. “We just . . .”
“Pippa’s just found out she’s pregnant,” Will blurted.
Both Jensen and I turned to him in shock.
“Will!” I yelled, smacking his chest. What on earth? “Are you crazy?”
Will’s brows shot up. Still looking a bit tipsy from the rather extensive beer tasting earlier, he leaned in, whispering without subtlety, “What? Shit. No good?”
“We’re on a winery tour, you twat!” I hissed, eyes wide. “I’m not preten—” I stopped when Jensen squeezed me roughly into his side. I smiled through clenched teeth to a bewildered Becky. “Will’s joking, that clown! I’m not pregnant.”
“See?” Will said, rocking back on his heels. “I told you I could get them to see the bright side. So you didn’t get that house in Beacon Hill that you’d offered on. But at least your new wife didn’t get pregnant on your honeymoon, right?”
Jensen narrowed his eyes at Will.
Hanna came down the stairs and sidled up to her husband, correctly reading the situation. “Are you causing trouble?”
“What? No.” He bent, kissing her as a distraction.
“You’re looking to buy in Beacon Hill?” Becky asked Jensen quietly, giving me the impression that Beacon Hill must be a pretty fancy area. Cam came up beside her just as she added a hushed “Wow.”
“Jensen’s about to make partner,” Niall said. “Hard work pays off.”
Turning from Hanna, Will added, “Got the job and the girl.”
Becky looked up at Jensen, her eyes glassy again. “I’m so glad. And this is so amazing because Cam is a real estate agent! He can definitely find you a house in Beacon Hill!”
I felt Jensen’s arm tighten around me. Without him even needing to say it, I could tell this was the last place he wanted to be right this second.
“That . . . is . . . fortunate,” he said through a pained smile.
She took a step closer. “I think I worried that when we—” Becky began, her eyes suspiciously shiny, and I cut her off.
“Mates, I’m famished!” I exclaimed. “All the hot newlywed sex and whatnot. Where are we headed for dinner?”
Of course Jensen blushed when I said sex.
“I feel like I missed something really interesting back there,” Ruby said, leading the way on our walk to dinner.
“Will dropped the Hiroshima of awkward,” Niall explained, “and Pippa followed up with Nagasaki.”
“It was pretty bad,” Jensen agreed.
I smacked his shoulder. “This is incredibly hard on me, pretending to be your wife.”
“Too much hot newlywed sex?” he deadpanned. Niall choked on a cough. “Oh, and apparently Cam is going to sell us our dream home in Beacon Hill. Thanks for that, Will.”
Will grinned back at us. “Welcome!”
I bit back a laugh. “What am I supposed to do in the face of your ex-wife who keeps tearing up every time she’s near you guys?” I said. “It’s been five hours and I already feel like we’re dysfunctional.”
“What is with Becky’s crying?” Hanna asked.
Will looked back at us again, wide-eyed. “Maybe she’s pregnant?”
“She was drinking beer,” Ruby reminded him.
“Maybe she realized she lost the best thing that ever happened to her?” Hanna asked in a protective growl.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Jensen said, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.
Hanna pointed across the street and we followed her toward the small farm-to-table restaurant where we had reservations for dinner—alone, without Becky and Cam or Ellen and Tom.
“God,” I groaned. “What am I going to do at karaoke tonight? Do we have to go?”
“Well, we wouldn’t if you hadn’t accepted,” Jensen said, laughing.
“This is amazing,” Will said, and giggled, still tipsy. “ ‘Come on this trip with us, Jens! You’ll be paired up with your crazy flight mate and then we’ll run into your beast of an ex-wife for the first time in a decade, and we’ll all pretend you’re hot and heavy, married to a stranger.’ ”
“Hey,” I protested, feigning insult.
Jensen looked over at me. “You’re not a stranger.”
“Right, because I gave you my entire life story.”
He grinned. “Starting with the turkey baster.”
The rest of the group went quiet in confusion.
Jensen ignored them. “You know what this night needs?” He asked us all rhetorically, but looked directly at me.
“The way this trip is going, I can’t imagine where you’re headed with this,” Hanna said.
He shook his head and in a quiet little growl said, “A lot of wine.”
Maybe it was the run-in with Becky that had everyone a little slap-happy, but having a lot of wine wasn’t an issue. The moment we sat down, Will ordered two bottles—a red and a white—and some appetizers and told the waiter it was Jensen’s birthday.
Jensen got a straw hat and a plastic bib for the two-pound crab they brought out, and after we polished off the two bottles, it seemed appropriate to order two more. Hanna reasoned—quite rationally, I felt—that there were only six four-ounce servings in a bottle of wine, which meant we’d each only had two glasses.
“A pretty rubbish showing if we’re lighting it up tonight,” Niall said as he waved down the waiter.
Two more bottles in and Will’s cheeks were rosy, Hanna was snort-laughing indelicately, and Jensen had his arm around the back of my chair in a familiar, casual lean.
We ordered dessert wine when they brought out the crème brûlée and lava cake.
We ordered after-dinner cocktails when we finished dessert.
And then we remembered we still had karaoke with Becky and Cam at a dive bar in town.
Ruby waved a finger in the air. “We don’t have to go,” she said, blinking tipsily over at me and Jensen. “If this is awkward for you guys.”
I laughed. “It’s not awkward for me. We’re not actually married.”
“I think she means the tone-deaf thing,” Jensen said, his voice suddenly very warm and very soft in my ear.
“That’s really only a problem for everyone else in the bar,” I told the table, and then I turned to him, so close I could just lean in a little and kiss him. It was, in fact, hard to resist. He smelled like chocolate and had the smallest bit of stubble lining his jaw. “And I’ll have you know, I do very good Violent Femmes karaoke.”
His mouth tilted in a half smile. “You could eat some glass and gargle some whiskey and then do Tom Waits.”
“We could duet,” I suggested.
“My vote is duet,” Will nearly shouted from across the table. Hanna gently shushed him as a few of our fellow diners glanced in our direction.
“I tell you what,” Jensen said, reaching up to scratch his eyebrow. “You sing me a little song right here at the table, and I’ll do a duet with you.”
I pulled back a little. He’d said it as a joke, as though this were something I would never do. “I’m not going to sing in a restaurant,” I told him.
“If you do, I’ll sing with you in the bar.”
I did the math in my head, trying to calculate how much he’d had to drink. He was being quite adorable. “You’re crazy.” I shook my head and felt Ruby’s eyes on me before she leaned to the side to whisper something to Niall.
“Any song at the bar,” Jensen goaded me. “Your pick. You just have to sing something to me right now.”
I grinned widely at him. “My pick?”
“Sure,” he said, waving a casual hand.
“It’s a shame you don’t know me better.” I pushed back from my chair and then climbed onto it, standing high above everyone seated.
“Pippa,” he said, laughing. “What are you doing? I just meant sing to the table.”
“Too late,” Ruby told him. “You, sir, have released the kraken.”
“Excuse me, everyone,” I called to the entire restaurant. It was small—maybe ten tables in all—but completely full. Forks scraped across plates and ice clinked in glasses as people came to a rustling quiet. At least thirty-five pairs of eyes were trained on me. “It’s my husband’s birthday today, and his best friend from college—who is now actually his brother-in-law—bought a really disturbing amount of alcohol tonight, and I would greatly appreciate it if you would join us all in singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jensen.”
Without waiting for them to agree, I began the opening verse to the song—loudly, off-key, and probably too high for most men to be able to sing along. But as luck—or Connecticut—would have it, everyone in the restaurant was game, singing raucously and with their glasses raised in the air. At the end, they all cheered loudly as I climbed down from the chair and bent, planting a kiss on Jensen’s mouth.
“My birthday is in March,” he whispered.
“Don’t you know?” I said, running my fingers through his hair just because it seemed I could. “We’re playing pretend. You’re married. I’m the lucky gal. And today is your birthday.”
Jensen looked over at me, eyes dark with some unnamable emotion. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t even surprised. But I couldn’t interpret it because it looked mildly like adoration, and we all knew I was shit at reading men.