Beautiful [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 8

Jensen

Everything in Windham was in walking distance, but it seemed to take us an hour to get three blocks. Ziggy and Will stopped at every window—whether it was an antiques shop or a realty storefront. By the time we made it to Duke’s Tavern, the two of them had planned to buy a sofa, two end tables, an antique lamp, and a house just down the road in Canterbury.

Without realizing it, I held Pippa’s hand the entire time. Strictly speaking, I didn’t need to: there was no Becky, no Cam, no marriage show happening out on the street. But it felt good to touch her like this, and I remembered just a day ago when I was considering doing it anyway, and not for some impulsive lie but because she was beautiful and we were both single and why the fuck not?

Faced with the reality of Becky in the flesh, our history felt a little like the childhood monster in the closet. I really had built up our past in my head; I would have expected this sort of coincidental run-in to be flat-out painful, but the truth was, it was more awkward than anything. Cam seemed nice, if bland. Becky seemed happy . . . if a little fragile over seeing me again. Completely unexpectedly, it seemed harder for her than for me.

Duke’s reminded me of every small bar I’d ever visited. It smelled like spilled beer and also, faintly, of mold. There was a popcorn machine and a stack of paper trays for customers to help themselves. There was a single bartender working, and a lone karaoke machine in the corner. A scattering of patrons sat at the bar and at small tables throughout, but by no means could the establishment be considered busy.

Seeing Niall Stella—so tall, so eternally poised—in a place like this gave us each a measure of joy. He sat carefully on a vinyl-covered chair and ordered a Guinness.

“You’ve . . .” Pippa started, gazing at me. “You’ve softened.”

“Huh?”

Tilting her head, she said, “Five days ago I would have expected you to look like a businessman in here. Now you just look . . .” She let her eyes drop to my new Willimantic Brewing Co. T-shirt and the single pair of jeans I’d packed. “You look good.”

“I was on autopilot when I packed for this trip,” I admitted, deflecting the compliment. “It’s mostly sweaters and dress shirts.”

“I’ve noticed.” She leaned in, her breath warm on my neck. “I like you regardless. But I like it a bit more when I can see these arms.” Pippa ran a soft hand up my forearm and curled it around my bicep. “They’re good arms.”

I shivered, quickly diverting my attention to the server as he carefully placed a drink in front of each of us. Will lifted his glass, full of an amber-colored IPA. “To marriages: old, new, and pretend. May they give you everything you’ve ever wanted.”

With his eyes on mine, Will reached forward, waiting to clink my glass. I lifted the pint of dark stout and tapped it to his.

“Happy birthday, asshole,” he said, grinning.

“Happy birthday?” Becky’s voice rang out from behind me, and I watched the smile fall from Will’s face. He straightened, leaning to the side to put an arm around his wife. “Whose birthday is it?” Becky asked.

“Hey,” he said. “Yeah, we’re just fucking around.”

“It’s Pippa’s,” I said, smiling over at her, and she gave me an amused shake of her head. “We were just about to sing to her.”

Across the table, Niall bent, laughing into his hands. “This is too much,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t keep up.”

Cam waved down the server while Becky pulled out a chair on the opposite side of me from Pippa. “Is it okay if I sit here?”

I felt Pippa stiffen slightly to my left, and I stuttered out a quiet “Sure.”

The truth was, I didn’t want Becky sitting there.

I didn’t want Becky here.

I didn’t want her anywhere near this trip.

I wasn’t in love with her anymore, I didn’t want to go back and change anything. I didn’t even need a better explanation for why our marriage had ended. I just wanted to move on. And while the rest of my life had become a success, Will was right: my relationship life had been an utter failure, by my own design. I simply hadn’t wanted to deal.

Cam ordered a Bud Light and a glass of the crappy house merlot for Becky. I caught Will’s small laugh before Ziggs must have pinched him under the table because she leaned over, whispering, “Stop it.”

But I knew this was a mistake—playing nice, pretending to be old friends. I couldn’t do it. Will couldn’t do it. And Ziggy especially couldn’t do it. Becky had fucked up. We’d been having a nice time before she came along, and three more days of playing chummy were going to wear on us.

“Where did you guys go for dinner?” Becky asked, smiling amiably.

“John’s Table,” Ruby told her, correctly sensing the slight strain at the table. “It was amazing.”

“I think we have reservations there tomorrow,” she said, looking to Cam for confirmation. He nodded. “We ate at the Lonely Sail. It was pretty good.”

We all gave mild ahhhs as if any of us found this interesting.

“Do you guys remember,” Becky said, smiling, “when we broke the table at that sandwich place . . .” She trailed off, squinting up at me, uncertain of the name.

“Attman’s,” Will said before taking a sip of his beer.

I smiled, remembering. We’d been drunk, and Becky had jumped on my back, propelling us both into the table, where we’d fallen and snapped the top from the stem. The poor kid working there had squeaked out his panic and told us just to go, that he’d figure it out.

“We should have paid for it,” she said, shaking her head.

“The table? With what?” I asked, laughing a little. “If I recall correctly, we shared a sandwich that night because we had seven dollars between the three of us.”

I remembered the rest of that night, too: Will and I tripping back to our room, falling on the floor, and plotting a way we could project the television onto the ceiling so we could play video games drunk, on our backs.

We ended up successfully hooking up the TV to a retired projector we’d snagged from the bio department storeroom that weekend—and it was awesome.

In fact, the bulk of my memories from college were things I did with Will.

Silence engulfed the group, bringing to the forefront the realization—to all of us, I assume—that we didn’t have anything in common anymore.

Cam tapped his knuckles on the table. “Anyone here a Mets fan?”

We all shook our heads, mumbling some version of “No” and “Not really,” and he tilted his beer to his lips, looking up at a television mounted above the bar where, presumably, a Mets game was on.

Ziggy met my eyes and I could see the exasperation there.

The night, which had previously been the kind of fun that would drive me to stay up late, drinking to keep it all going, was losing steam. I missed Pippa’s laugh. I missed the rush I felt when she looked at me and I wasn’t entirely sure what she would do next.

Turning to her, I put my arm around her shoulders, pulling her into me.

“I believe I owe you a song,” I said.

She perked up, grinning at me. “Yeah? Brilliant!”

“Your pick.” I lowered my voice. “I just want to get away from the table.” My gaze flickered back and forth between her eyes, and I wondered if she saw the way they said, I don’t want to be with her.

I saw more than heard her quiet “Right, then.”

And then she took my hand, pulled me toward the corner where the microphone lay on the solitary stool under a single spotlight, and turned the mic on. Feedback squawked through the bar, and everyone winced before Pippa brought it to her lips.

“Hallo, Connecticut,” she sang, doing a cute little shimmy. “Jensen here promised he would sing with me, and so I thought it would be nice to sing something really romantic.”

Will laughed at the table, and my sister watched us with wine-sleepy eyes. Ruby was half in Niall’s lap, either sucking his neck or sleeping there, and the only person watching us with full attention was Becky.

I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

Pippa’s hand came to my jaw, turning me to face her. “This one is for you.”

The opening riff to Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off” began to play through the bar and Pippa bounced next to me, leaning in to sing.

Will put two fingers into his mouth and let out a piercing whistle. Even Ruby sat up, letting out a prolonged “Whooooo!”

“I need someone, a person to talk to / Someone who’d care to love,” Pippa sang, and after looking at her wide grin, her playful eyes, I couldn’t possibly resist. So I joined her: “Could it be you? Could it be you?”

It was ridiculous and embarrassing, and we sounded terrible, but it was the single most cathartic moment since my divorce. How was that even possible? I was yell-singing an angry song with a woman I’d met only days before, whom I initially thought I’d hate but I’d grown to somewhat adore, and Becky sat watching—Becky, of all people—with a mixture of relief and misery on her face.

But then even she disappeared, because the woman in front of me commanded every bit of my attention. Pippa’s hair was down and fell over her shoulders. Beneath her jersey dress, her body was easy to imagine, and I reached forward, sliding a hand around her waist to pull her just a little closer.

I wanted to kiss her.

I knew that in part it was the wine, and the beer, and the heady sense of freedom in a small town where I knew no one, but I also knew that in no part was that feeling about Becky.

Pippa bounced against me, singing terribly into the mic—perfect for the song, really. Her earrings cascaded down from her ears, nearly touching her shoulders. Her bracelets clanged on her wrist. Her lipstick stained her lips a seductive fire-red, and it made her happy smile seem boundless.

The song ended with a dissonant strum of the guitar and Pippa stared up at me, breathless. I rarely did things without thought, but leaning forward to kiss her wasn’t for show or because anyone was watching—it was because, in that moment, I couldn’t think of anything else.

We returned to the table and were met with Will’s slow clap, Hanna’s goofy grin, Ruby and Niall’s wide eyes, and Becky’s watery smile. Cam was playing on his phone.

“You guys are really cute together,” Becky said.

“You really are,” Ziggy agreed, and for some reason, her opinion meant something here.

I felt faintly restless, like I did sometimes in a pointless meeting that went long or at the end of a never-ending conference call. Pippa slid her hand into mine and watched as Becky and Cam replaced us by the karaoke machine, selecting an old Anne Murray tune. One of her slow country songs.

“An odd choice to follow, maybe?” Pippa asked, her head on my shoulder. “Though I suppose ours was an odd choice to begin.”

I turned a little closer so she could hear me over the volume of their song. “Her dad died when she was a teenager. He loved Anne Murray. It’s sort of a thing for her.”

She tilted her head to me. “Ah.”

This is how it begins, I thought. Not in a huge rush of information, but tiny tidbits. Cam could know all these little things about Becky now—and more.

I could learn that Pippa didn’t need to look at the video prompt to sing the Violent Femmes. I could learn that she dances like a muppet, has two mums, and likes to scream in the rain.

My mouth came over hers again, and when I pulled away, I could see a question in her eyes.

“What?” I asked, brushing a strand of her hair out of her face.

“Are you drunk?” she asked me.

Laughing, I said, “Well . . . yeah. Aren’t you?”

“Yeah, of course. But that felt like a real kiss.”

I opened my mouth to answer but felt the shifting of bodies beside us at the table and looked up.

“This place is pretty dead,” Will said, standing and pulling on his jacket. “Let’s hit the wine bar at the hotel.”

Glancing at my watch, I realized it was only ten.

I stood, helping Pippa with her coat, and we silently paid our tab and left Duke’s.

Only once we were stepping into the B&B did I realize we’d left in the middle of Becky’s song, and we hadn’t even said goodbye.

The moment of truth was upon us.

Well, almost.

I could feel the call of the room upstairs even as we filed into the small wine bar at the B&B. Were we putting off the inevitable—an awkward dance around a tiny bed—or were we searching to find the fun in our night again?

“I feel like we need to have a team summit,” my sister said, plopping down in one of the plush chairs. “We need to seriously discuss whether we stay on this tour or just head up to the next stop.”

“I thought this Becky thing would be no big deal,” Will said, nodding. “I thought your fake marriage would be funny, and we’d all get a kick out of it, but as the buzz wears off and the night goes on, it’s a little weird the way Becky can’t stop watching you.”

“It’s true,” Pippa said, looking at me. “Do you notice it?”

I shrugged, pulling my sweater off in the heat from the fireplace. “This is probably weird for her, too.”

“Cam seems like a good-looking lug nut,” Ruby said.

I closed my eyes, leaning back against the couch. Reality time: seeing Becky again had been more exhausting because of my constant anticipation of weirdness rather than any actual weirdness that had occurred.

“I’m honestly okay either way,” I said. “I’m fine staying, I’m fine leaving.”

“The person who seems to be handling it the best is Jensen,” Ziggy said. “I sort of want to go off on her whenever I see her.”

“Well, it’s been one hell of a day and I have had far, far too much to drink,” Will said. “Who was responsible for me? Was it you?” He leaned into Ziggy with a goofy smile. “Hi.”

“Okay, I think someone is ready for bed,” she said, smiling when he pressed his face against her chest. “Maybe we should talk about it in the morning? I’d have to rearrange some things for us to check in to the cabin early. Maybe we should sleep on it and see if we still want to murder Beck—” Hanna stopped and smiled mischievously. “Oops, my bad. I mean see how we feel tomorrow.”

“Excellent plan,” Niall said, and stood from the table. Ruby hugged everyone, and after a round of good nights and see you in the mornings, they headed in the direction of the elevator.

I looked at Pippa and found her watching me. Had the realization that we had one room and a single bed to share between us resurfaced for her, too?

She stood, reaching out her hand. “Ready?” She smiled down at me.

“I guess it’s that time,” I said, and inwardly cringed. Get it together, Jensen.

My heart took off beneath my breastbone as I stood and took her hand. It felt small in mine, warm and soft, but solid somehow, too. It was her reassuring me, just like this morning, and my feet almost came to a stop when my brain made the connection that to anyone watching, this was supposed to be our honeymoon.

That was not helping.

Hand in hand, we walked down the hall and up the stairs. We were going to our room, and I had no idea what came next.