Beautiful Chapter 2 and FREE STUFF!

HELLO FAVORITES! It’s almost time! Beautiful will be here in just over a week and we are so excited for you to see what everyone is up to. That’s right, EVERYONE. Bennett ✔ Chloe ✔ Max ✔ Sara ✔ Will ✔ Hanna ✔ Niall ✔ Ruby ✔ Pippa ✔ Jensen ✔ and George. YES GEORGE ✔. And if you’ve preordered your copy–but of course you have because preordering is like magic–fill out this form here and we’ll send you a free Beautiful series digital sampler with never-before-seen notes. That’s right, a chapter from each book with our notes, comments and penis doodles. You can also be entered to win one of 2 Beautiful themed baskets from our awesome publisher, Gallery Books.

Now about chapter 2… We want you to read chapter 2, but also want to warn you that there’s a bit of a spoiler in here. IT’S AN AWESOME SPOILER, but a big one. So if you don’t like that kind of thing, feel free to wait until Oct 4 when you can read Beautiful in full. We think that’s about it! Have an awesome weekend, if you’ve preordered be sure to fill out this form here, and happy reading. Love you guys and we’ll have some fun stuff to talk about soon!

Two

Jensen

 

I could remember exactly one flight more awkward than that

one.

 

It was the June after my freshman year in college, and

about ten months after I’d met Will Sumner. He’d blown into

Baltimore, the guy with the smile, swagger, and certainty

that he and I were going to be partners in crime. For someone

like me whose life had been, up to that point, quiet and

sheltered, Will Sumner was the best kind of wrecking ball.

 

That summer, we went to Niagara Falls with his extended

family and . . . let’s say we happened upon a VHS tape of

some badly shot porn. There was no music, no faces, and it

was all done by one stationary camera, but nonetheless we

watched it over and over until we were blurry and desensitized,

reciting the dirty talk in unison and shoveling Pringles

into our mouths.

 

It was the first time I’d ever seen someone having real

sex, and I thought it was fucking stellar . . . until Will’s

pretty aunt Jessica panicked at the airport, unable to find

her “home movie” in her carry-on.

 

I sat next to Aunt Jessica the entire flight, and it’s safe to

say I did not play it very cool. At all. I was sweaty palms and

monosyllables and constant awareness that I knew what she

looked like naked. I knew what she looked like having sex. My

sheltered brain could barely handle that kind of information.

Will was about as sympathetic as expected, pelting me

with tiny balls of his napkins and peanuts across the aisle.

 

“What’s got you all tied up, Jens?” he’d called. “You look

like someone saw you naked.”

 

Pippa was a different kind of awkward entirely. She was

the kind of awkward where pretty and engaging turns into

smeary makeup and incessant rambling from the miracle of

alcohol. The kind where you feign sleep for more than three

hours when your brain is panic-scrolling through the list of

ways the time on the plane might be better spent.

 

As we made the trek to baggage claim, the low hum of

airport noise drifted over me. It was nearly as familiar as

the sound of my heater switching on at night, or my own

goddamn breathing. I could sense Pippa behind me, chatting

idly with her grandfather. Her voice was nice—accent

thick with the polish of London and the streets of Bristol.

Her face was great, eyes bright and mischievous; they were

actually what drew me in right away because they were such

a startling blue, and so expressive. But I was afraid to make

eye contact and begin the talking all over again. I’d felt her

apology practically bubbling up as I nearly sprinted from the

plane, and worried that if I gave her an opening, she would

take it without question.

 

I rubbed my eyes and then spotted my suitcase sliding

down onto the carousel. There was something almost comically

intense about the message I felt I was receiving. Just

when I began to consider whether I was looking for women

in the wrong places, whether I was wrong about my type,

whether I should be more adventurous in dating, the universe

trapped me on a flight with a woman who was gorgeous,

eccentric, and completely insane.

 

So let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Jens. Stick with what

you know.

 

Maybe Softball Emily wasn’t so bad after all.

My driver stood with a placard bearing my name, and I

nodded, wordlessly following her out of the airport. The car

was dark and cool, and I immediately pulled my phone back

out, letting my brain slip into that familiar space where work

lived and breathed.

 

I would call Jacob on Monday to set up a time to review

the Petersen Pharma files.

 

I should email Eleanor in HR about getting someone to

replace Melissa in the San Francisco office.

 

I would need to get in early next week to tackle this inbox.

The car pulled up at the curb in front of my brownstone,

and it felt like a gentle tug, unwinding me.

 

Fall was upon us, spiraling through the trees that canopied

the streets, turning everything somehow brighter before

it all dimmed for the interminable months of winter. The

air outside was biting after the warmth of the car, and I met

the driver at the back, handing her a hefty tip for getting us

here so efficiently in Boston rush hour.

 

This London trip had been only a week, but it felt like

an eternity. Mergers were one thing. International mergers

were another. But international mergers gone wrong? Brutal.

Endless paperwork. Endless depositions. Endless details

to scrounge up and record. Endless travel.

 

Staring up at my house—a simple two-story, two lights

on in the bay window, front door framed by potted plants—I

let the unwinding work its way through me. As much as I

traveled, I was a homebody at heart, and fuck if it didn’t

feel good to be so close to my own bed. I didn’t even feel

privately embarrassed that the call of takeout delivery and

Netflix made me feel a little drunk.

 

The house lit up with the flick of a single switch, and before

I did anything else, I unpacked—if for no other reason

than to hide the evidence that I’d been traveling and would

no doubt have to fly again soon. Denial, you are my favorite

lover.

 

Suitcase unpacked, dinner ordered, Netflix loaded and

ready, and, as if on cue, my youngest sister, Ziggy—Hanna

to anyone outside our family—opened the door with her set

of keys.

 

“Hey,” she called out.

 

Like she had no reason to knock.

 

Like she knew I’d be sitting right here, in sweats and

slippers.

 

Alone.

 

“Hey,” I said, watching as she threw her keys toward the

bowl on the table near the door and missed by at least two

feet. “Nice shot, loser.”

 

She smacked my head as she walked by. “Did you just

get home?”

 

“Yeah. Sorry. I was going to call you after I ate.”

 

She stopped, turning to look at me quizzically. “Why? Am

I your ‘Honey, I’m home’ call?”

 

She turned away and I stared at her back as she retrieved

a beer for me and a glass of water for herself.

 

When she returned, I grumbled, “That’s a terrible thing

to say.”

 

“Is it inaccurate?” She flopped down next to me on the

couch.

 

“Why are you even here?”

 

Ziggy was married to my best friend of more than fifteen

years, Will—of Aunt Jessica fame—and the two of them

lived not five minutes down the road in a house much bigger

and much more lived-in than this one.

 

She pulled her hair over her shoulder and grinned at me.

“It has been suggested that I ‘stomp around the house,’

thereby ‘making it difficult to have work calls at night.’ ”

Ziggs shrugged and sipped her water. “Will has some big

conference call with someone in Australia, so I figured I’d

hang here until I get the all-clear.”

 

“Hungry? I ordered Thai.”

 

She nodded. “You must be tired.”

 

I shrugged. “My clock is a little off.”

 

“I’m sure a quiet night sounds good. I’m sure there’s no

one you’re dying to see now that you’re home.”

 

With my beer tilted toward my lips, I froze, sliding my

eyes to her. “Stop it.”

 

To be fair, my entire family tended to be overly concerned

with the goings-on in each other’s lives, and I would admit

to playing the protective older brother on more than one occasion.

But I didn’t like having my youngest sibling stepping

into my game.

 

“How’s Emily?” she asked, and faked a yawn.

 

“Ziggs.”

 

Knowing exactly how big a brat she was being, she turned

and looked at me. “She scrapbooks, Jensen. And she offered

to help me organize the garage.”

 

“That sounds pretty friendly to me,” I said, scrolling through

the channels.

 

“This is her before marriage, Jens. These are her zany

days.”

 

I ignored this, trying not to laugh and encourage her.

“Emily and I aren’t really a thing.”

 

Thankfully, she decided not to push or make some sex

joke. “Are you coming over tomorrow?”

 

“What’s tomorrow?”

 

Ziggy glared at me. “Seriously? How many times have

we talked about this?”

 

I groaned, standing up and trying to think of a reason I

needed to leave the room. “Why are you laying into me? I

just got home!”

 

“Jens, we’re hosting Annabel’s third birthday tomorrow!

Sara is ready to pop with their seventieth child, so she and

Max couldn’t handle throwing it at their place. Everyone is

coming up from New York. You knew about this! You said

you’d be home in time.”

 

“Right. Right. Yeah, I guess I’ll stop by.”

 

She stared at me. “There’s no stopping by. Come hang

out, Jensen—how wonderfully ironic that I’m the one telling

you this. When was the last time you went out with friends?

When was the last time you were social, or went on a date

with someone other than Softball Emily?”

 

I didn’t answer this. I dated more than my sister knew,

but she was right that I wasn’t all that invested. I’d been

married once. To sweet, playful Becky Henley. We’d met my

sophomore year in college, dated for nine years, and then

been married for four months before I came home to find

her packing her things through a haze of tears.

 

It didn’t feel right, she’d said. It never really felt right.

And that was all the explanation I ever got.

 

Okay, so at twenty-eight I’d had my law degree and was

newly divorced—turns out there’s not a lot of that going

around—so I’d focused on my career. Full steam. For six

years, I made nice with the partners, climbed the ladder,

grew my team, became indispensable to the firm.

 

Only to find myself spending my Friday nights with my

baby sister, being lectured about being more social.

 

And she was right: it was ironic that she was the one

having this conversation with me. Three years ago I’d said

the exact same thing to her.

 

I sighed.

 

“Jensen,” she said, pulling me back down onto the couch.

“You’re the worst.”

 

I was. I was absolutely the worst at taking advice. I knew

I needed to get out of this work rut. I knew I needed to

infuse some fun into my life. And as averse as I was to discussing

it with my sister, I knew I would probably enjoy being

in a committed relationship. The problem was, I almost

didn’t know where to start. The prospect always felt so

overwhelming. The longer I was single, the harder it seemed

to compromise with someone.

 

“You didn’t go out in London at all, did you?” Ziggs said,

turning to face me. “Not once?”

 

I thought back to the lead attorney on the London side

of our team, Vera Eatherton. She’d come over to me just

as we’d wrapped up for the day. We’d talked for a few

minutes and then I’d known the second her expression

shifted, eyes turned down to the floor with an air of shyness

I had yet to see from her, that she was going to ask

me out.

 

“Care to grab a bite later?” she’d asked.

 

I’d smiled at her. She was very pretty. A few years older

than I was, she was in great shape, tall and slender with

great curves. I should want to grab a bite later. I should

want to grab a lot more than that.

 

But putting aside the complications from a workplace

standpoint, the idea of dating—even of a simple night of

sex—exhausted me.

 

“No,” I told Ziggy. “I didn’t go out. Not the way you mean.”

“Where’s my player brother?” she asked, giving me a goofy

grin.

 

“I think you have me confused with your husband.”

She ignored this. “You were in London for a week and

spent all your free time in your hotel. Alone.”

 

“That’s not entirely accurate.” I hadn’t been in my room,

actually. I’d been all over, visiting landmarks and taking in

the city, but she was right about one thing: I’d done it alone.

She raised a brow, daring me to prove her wrong. “Will said

last night you need to get a bit of the college Jensen back.”

I glared at her. “Don’t talk to Will about how we were in

college anymore. He was an idiot.”

 

“You were both idiots.”

 

“Will was head idiot,” I said. “I just followed him around.”

 

“That’s not the way he tells it,” she said with a grin.

 

“You’re weird,” I told her.

 

I’m weird? You have lights on a timer, a Roomba to keep

your floor clean even when you’re out of town, you unpack

within minutes of entering your house—and I’m the weird

one?”

 

I opened my mouth to answer and then shut it, holding

up a finger so she wouldn’t let loose another playful tirade.

“I loathe you,” I said finally, and a giggle burst free from

her throat.

 

The doorbell rang, and I went to grab the takeout, then

brought it into the kitchen. I loved Ziggy. Since she’d moved

back to Boston, seeing her a few times a week had admittedly

been good for both of us. But I hated to think she worried

about me.

 

And it wasn’t just Ziggy.

 

My entire family thought I didn’t know they bought extra

gifts for me at Christmas because I didn’t have a girlfriend

putting presents under the tree. They always left the plusone

question hanging when they invited me over for dinner.

 

If I brought a random stranger into my parents’ house for

Sunday dinner and announced I was going to marry her, my

entire family would lose their minds celebrating.

 

There was nothing worse than being the oldest of five

children and also being the one everyone had to worry

about. Making sure they always knew I was fine, totally, completely

fine was exhausting.

 

But it didn’t stop me from trying. Especially because

when I’d pushed Ziggs to get out into the world more she’d

met up with Will, of all people, and their story was a happily

ever after I couldn’t begrudge either of them.

 

“Okay,” I said, bringing her a plate of food and sitting

back down beside her on the couch. “Remind me about the

party. What time?”

 

“Eleven,” she said. “I wrote it on your calendar on the

fridge. Do you even look at that, or did you immediately

throw out the Post-it note because it marred the perfectly

stoic surface of your lonely refrigerator?”

 

I quickly swallowed a sip of beer. “Can you put the lecture

on pause for a second? Come on, honey, I’m tired. I

don’t want to do this tonight. Just tell me what I need to

bring.”

 

She gave me an apologetic smile before shoving a forkful

of rice and green curry in her mouth. Swallowing, she

said, “Nothing. Just come over. I got a piñata and a bunch

of little-girl stuff, like tiaras and . . . pony things.”

 

“ ‘Pony things’?”

 

She shrugged, laughing. “Kid stuff! I’m lame! I don’t

even know what they’re called.”

 

“ ‘Party favors’?” I offered with dramatic finger quotes.

She smacked my arm. “Whatever. Yes. Oh! And Will is

cooking.”

 

“Aw, yes!” I fist-pumped. My best friend had recently discovered

a love for all things culinary, and to say we were all

benefitting from it would be understating the extra hour I

had to put in at the gym every night to compensate. “How

is our little chef? Catching up on episodes of Barefoot Contessa?

He does fill out an apron quite nicely, I’ll admit that.”

 

She looked at me sidelong. “You better hope I don’t tell

him you said that, or you’ll be cut off from dinners. I swear

I’ve put on five pounds since he got into this pastry obsession.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”

 

“Pastry? I thought he was on a Mediterranean kick.”

She waved me off. “That was last week. This week he’s

mastering desserts for Annabel.”

 

I felt my brows furrow. “Is she an especially picky eater?”

 

“No, my husband is just insane for his goddaughter.”

 

Ziggy slid another bite of food into her mouth.

 

“So if everyone’s in town, I’m guessing you’ll have a full

house tomorrow night,” I said. Between our sister Liv’s two

kids and our friends Max and Sara in New York about to

have their fourth, the adult contingent would soon be outnumbered

by adorable rug rats. Ziggs loved having the kids

over, and I was willing to bet money that Will would have at

least one of them attached to his leg for the majority of the

weekend.

 

“Actually, no,” she said with a laugh. “Max and the family

are staying at a hotel. Bennett and Chloe are staying with us.”

 

“Bennett and Chloe?” I asked, grinning. “You’re not afraid?”

 

“No, that’s the best part.” She leaned in, eyes wide. “It’s

like Chloe and Sara have traded personalities during their

pregnancies. You seriously have to see it to believe it.”

 

*******

As predicted, when Ziggy opened the door Saturday morning,

the only thing I could see behind her was a flash of

color and silk and tiny sprinting bodies. A small child ran

into her legs, hugging them fiercely and propelling her forward

into my arms.

 

“Hey,” my sister said, grinning up at me. “I bet you’re

already glad you came.”

 

I glanced over her shoulder at the entryway beyond. A

pile of assorted children’s shoes lay near the front door,

and I could see a mountain of birthday presents stacked

on the dining room table through a wide, Craftsman-style

doorway.

 

“I’m always up for some of Will’s cooking,” I said, setting

her upright and stepping past her into the melee. In the

distance, over the sound of Will’s deep laugh in the kitchen,

was a chorus of squeals and shrieks and what I imagined

to be Annabel’s clear cry of “It’s my birthday! I get to be

Superman!”

 

I needed more coffee.

 

I wasn’t really a very deep sleeper and had spent a majority

of the middle of last night awake, sitting in my living

room and trying to remember each of the times I’d done

something purely social—for myself—in the past five years.

The problem was, other than the gym, my softball games

on Thursdays, and drinks or coffee with one of my friends

afterward, I didn’t feel like I had all that much going on. My

social calendar was packed, sure, but it was nearly always

a work dinner, a visiting client, some milestone the partners

wanted to mark with a lavish meal. Two years ago I’d

come to the depressing realization that too much time on

the road and the couch had left me out of shape. I’d started

running and weightlifting again, dropping thirty pounds and

putting on some muscle. I rediscovered my love for fitness

only to realize that I hadn’t actually done it to look better or

catch someone’s eye. I’d done it to feel better. Aside from

that, nothing significant in my life had changed since then.

 

My failed marriage was something I tried not to think

about, but late into last night I had registered that Becky’s

leaving me had set off a chain reaction: heartbreak led me

to dive into work, which brought me success, which grew

into its own sort of obsessive reward. And at some point

I knew I had to commit either to work, or to a life outside

of it. Six years ago, with bitterness fueling most of my

thoughts about romantic relationships, the decision had

been easy.

 

Now I was happy, wasn’t I? Not entirely fulfilled, maybe,

but content, at the very least. But my sister’s mild needling

last night had sent me into a cold panic. Was I going to die

an old man in my neat-as-a-pin not-so-bachelor pad while

color-coding a closet full of cardigans? Should I give up now

and take up gardening?

 

I slipped down the hall and out the back into the yard.

Dozens of balloons were tied to the fence and the trees,

anchored with ribbons to white folding chairs, and arranged

along a series of small round tables. A white cake with ruffled

frosting topped with a little plastic giraffe, elephant, and

zebra sat in the center of the largest table near the patio.

 

A handful of small children in sweaters and scarves

raced across the lawn and I stepped carefully out of their

way and toward the cluster of grown-up-size humans near

the grill.

 

“Jens!” Will’s familiar voice called to me, and I maneuvered

my way over to him. More balloons hung from a

vine-covered pergola, along with a safari-themed birthday

banner.

 

“I have never had a birthday party this cool,” I said, star-

ing behind me at the color explosion in the backyard. “Annabel

doesn’t even live here. Who are all these kids?”

 

“Well, Liv’s kids are . . . somewhere,” he said, glancing

around. “The rest belong to Max and Sara, or people Hanna

works with.”

 

I blinked at him before looking back out at the yard. “This

is your future.”

 

I said it with a joking bleakness, but Will beamed. “Yep.”

 

“Okay, okay. I think I’m past the opportunity for more coffee.

 

Where’s the beer?”

 

He pointed to a cooler beneath their large oak tree. “But

there’s some scotch inside you might want to try.”

 

I turned just as Max Stella stepped out onto the patio,

grinning over at the gaggle of kids sprinting around the lawn.

Max and Will had started a venture capital firm together

years ago in New York, and seemed to be the exalted odd

couple of arts and sciences: their expertise and keen eyes

for their respective fields had made them both very rich

men. Though, I’ll admit, at six foot six and a genuine wall of

muscle, Max looked more rugby brute than art fanatic.

 

“If only we all made friends so easily,” Max said, watching

the kids run amok.

 

His wife, Sara, followed him out, holding her heavy pregnant

belly and sitting in the chair Max held steady for her.

I shook his hand in greeting before turning to Sara.

 

“Please don’t get up,” I told her, bending to place a kiss on

her cheek.

 

“I’m trying to be in a bad mood,” she said, a hint of a

smile tugging at her mouth. “Your chivalry is melting my

pregnancy rage.”

 

“I promise to work harder on being a jerk,” I said solemnly.

“Though congratulations are in order—I haven’t seen you

since this one started cooking. What is this? Number four?”

 

“Four in what is it now, Max? Four years?” Will said, grinning

over the top of his beer. “Maybe take a nap or something.

Find a hobby.”

 

The door opened again and Bennett Ryan stepped out,

followed by Ziggy and a very pregnant Chloe.

 

“I’d say he’s already got a hobby,” Bennett said.

 

Bennett and Max had been friends since they’d attended

school together in Europe. And while Max was all friendly

smiles and charm, Bennett was the personification of stony.

He rarely joked—or smiled much, that I had seen—so when

he did, you noticed. His mouth went a little lopsided, the

line of his shoulders softened. He got that way when he

looked at his wife, too.

 

He was practically beaming now.

 

It was . . . disorienting.

 

“Jensen!” The sound of my name jerked my attention

around behind me again. Chloe crossed the patio and

pulled me down into a hug.

 

I blinked for a moment, glancing curiously over to Will

before finally wrapping my arms around her. I had, without a

doubt, never hugged Chloe before.

 

“H-Hey there! How are you?” I said, pulling back to look

at her. Both pregnant women were small-boned, but where

Sara was willowy and delicate, there was a fierceness about

Chloe you couldn’t overlook. The Chloe I knew was not exactly

what you’d call touchy-feely, and I was at a bit of a loss

for words. “You look—”

 

“Happy!” she finished for me, and reached down to

place a hand on her round stomach. “Ecstatic and just . . .

blissed the fuck out?”

 

I laughed. “Well . . . yes?”

 

She winced, looking down at the kids on the lawn. “Shit,

I’d better work on not swearing.” Realizing what she’d just

said, she groaned, laughing. “I am hopeless!”

 

Bennett slid a gentle hand around her shoulders and she

leaned into him . . . and then giggled.

 

We all stared on in bewildered silence.

 

Finally Max spoke: “They haven’t tried to kill each other

in at least four months. It’s confusing the hell out of everyone.”

“I’m worrying everyone with how agreeable I’ve been,”

Chloe said with a nod. “Meanwhile sweet Sara couldn’t

open a jar of peanut butter last week and lost it so completely

she launched it out the window and onto the sidewalk

of Madison Avenue.”

 

Sara laughed. “No one was injured. Just my pride, and

my long-running streak of good behavior.”

 

“George has threatened to leave Sara and go work for

Chloe,” Bennett said, referring to Sara’s assistant, who had

a famous snark-hate relationship with Chloe. “Armageddon

is clearly upon us.”

 

“Okay, okay, quit hogging my brother.” Ziggy stepped

around Chloe and threw her arms around my neck. “You’re

still here!”

 

I gazed again in confusion at Will. “Of course I’m still

here. I haven’t been given cake yet.”

 

As if I’d uttered the magic word, a handful of children

appeared, bouncing excitedly and asking if it was time to

blow out the candles. Ziggy excused herself and led them to

where another group was playing Red Rover.

 

“When are you both due?” I asked.

 

“Sara is due at the end of December,” Chloe said. “I’m

December first.”

 

At that, we all seemed to take a moment to look around

us, sitting in the mild October chill with leaves falling sporadically.

“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” she said, noting everyone’s motherhen

expressions. “This is my last trip and then I’m back in

New York until this little thing arrives.”

 

“Do you know if you’re having a boy or girl?” I asked.

Bennett shook his head. “Chloe’s DNA has definitely

been handed down, because the baby was too stubborn to

let the technician get a good enough look to tell.”

 

Max snorted, glancing expectantly at Chloe for her sharp

comeback, but Chloe just shrugged and smiled.

“So true!” she sang, stretching to kiss Bennett’s jaw.

Given that Bennett and Chloe’s unique brand of flirtation

looked strongly like verbal sparring matches, watching her

brush aside his attempt to rile her up was . . . well, kind of

disconcerting in a way. For all its normalcy, it was a bit like

watching an alien courtship ritual.

 

Ziggy returned from the yard with the birthday girl in tow.

“The kiddos are getting restless,” she said, and everyone

took that as a sign that it was time to get the party started.

I made small talk with Sara, Will, Bennett, and Chloe

while Max, my sister, and a few of the other parents handed

out ingredients to make some sort of dirt cup, complete

with crushed Oreos, pudding, and gummy worms.

 

Max’s brother Niall and his wife, Ruby, were the last to arrive,

but I missed it in the chaos of sugar-fueled preschoolers.

It was slightly jarring meeting Niall Stella for the first time.

I’d grown used to being near Max, whose height was easy

to forget because he seemed so comfortable in his skin, so

eye-level emotionally with everyone. But Niall’s posture was

textbook perfect—nearly rigid—and although I came in at a

respectable six foot two myself, Niall had several inches on me.

I stood to greet them both.

 

“Jensen,” he said. “It’s so good to finally meet you.”

Even their accents were different. I remembered Max

telling me of the time he’d spent in Leeds, and how that

had shaped the way he spoke, his words much looser and

more common. But like everything else about Niall, even his

accent was proper. “It’s a shame we couldn’t meet while we

were all in London.”

 

“Next trip,” I said, and waved him off. “I was slammed

this time around. I wouldn’t have been much company. But

it’s really great to be able to meet you both now.”

 

Ruby pushed past him, stepping toward me and opting

for a hug. In my arms, she felt like a willowy puppy: vibrating

the slightest bit, bouncing on her toes. “I feel like I already

know you,” she said, pulling back to smile widely up at me.

“Everyone was at our wedding in London last year, and they

all had stories about ‘the elusive Jensen.’ Finally, we meet!”

Stories? Elusive?

 

I wondered at that as we all took our seats. I didn’t feel

like the most interesting person these days. Helpful? Yes.

Resourceful? Sure. But elusive has some mystery to it that

I just wasn’t feeling. It was strange to be thirty-four and

sense that my life was slowing down, that my best years

were somehow behind me, especially when I seemed to be

the only one who felt that way.

 

“Ziggy didn’t stop talking about you for about a month

after the wedding,” I told Ruby. “It looked like an amazing

event.”

 

Niall smiled down at her. “It was.”

 

“So what brings you to the States?” I asked. I knew Ruby

had moved to London for an internship that eventually led

to a graduate program, and that the couple currently called

London home.

 

“We’re taking a trip to celebrate our first anniversary, just

going a little later than planned,” he explained. “We started

here, to pick up Will and Hanna.”

 

Ruby bounced on her feet. “We’re doing a tour of breweries

and wineries up the coast!”

 

Her enthusiasm was infectious.

 

“What places are you hitting?” I asked.

 

“Hanna rented a van,” Niall said. “We’re starting down

in Long Island and over two weeks are working our way to

Connecticut, and then to Vermont. Your sister organized the

entire thing.”

 

“I used to work out there at a winery on North Fork,”

I told them. “Every summer in college, I worked at Laurel

Lake Vineyards.”

 

Ruby’s palm playfully smacked my shoulder. “Shut up!

You’re an expert at all of this!”

 

“I can’t shut up,” I said, grinning at her. “It’s true.”

“You should come along,” she said, nodding as if it were

already decided. Glancing at Niall, she gave him a winning

smile, and he laughed quietly. She turned toward Bennett,

Chloe, and Will. “Tell him he should come.”

 

“Innocent bystander here,” Will said, holding up his

hands. “Keep me out of this.” He paused, taking a drink

from his bottle. “Even though it sounds like a pretty great

idea . . .”

 

I stared blankly at him.

 

“Just consider it, Jensen,” Ruby continued. “Will and

Hanna and another friend are coming—and thank God

Hanna doesn’t drink much, because at least one of us will

be able to drive. It will be a fantastic group.”

 

I had to admit, a local trip would be perfect. Although

I had what felt like a million airline miles, the idea of flying

somewhere for vacation sounded awful. A road trip,

though . . . Maybe?

 

But I couldn’t do it. I’d already been away from the office

for more than a week, and I couldn’t fathom how I would

tackle everything in time. “I’ll think about it,” I told them.

“Think about what?” Ziggy said, joining us again.

 

“They’re trying to convince your brother to join you on

your trip,” Bennett told her.

 

Ziggy nodded slowly at Ruby, as if digesting this. “Right.

Jensen, would you help me get everything for the cake?”

“Sure.”

 

I followed my sister into the kitchen and moved to the

cabinet, reaching for a stack of plates.

 

“Do you remember what you told me at that party all

those years ago?” she asked.

 

I wondered if playing dumb would work.

“Vaguely,” I lied.

 

“Well let me clarify for you.” She opened a box and

pulled out a handful of plastic forks. “We were looking at a

bunch of hideous paintings, and you decided to lecture me

about balance.”

 

“I didn’t lecture you,” I said with a sigh. Her only response

was a sharp laugh. “I didn’t. I only wanted you to get out

more, live more. You were twenty-four and barely saw the outside

of your lab.”

 

“And you’re thirty-four and barely see the outside of your

office and/or house.”

 

“It’s entirely different, Ziggs. You were just starting life. I

didn’t want you to let it pass you by while you had your nose

stuck in a test tube.”

 

“Okay, first, I never actually had my nose in a test tube—”

“Come on.”

 

“Second,” she said, staring me down, “I might have just

been starting life, but you’re the one letting everything pass

you by. You’re thirty-four, Jens, not eighty. I go over to your

house and keep waiting to find an AARP membership on your

coffee table or those sock suspender things in your laundry.”

I blinked at her. “Be serious.”

 

“I am serious. You never go out—”

 

“I go out every week.”

 

“With who? The partners? Your softball friend?”

 

“Ziggs,” I chastised, “you know her name is Emily.”

 

“Emily doesn’t count,” she said.

 

“What’s your deal with Emily, for fuck’s sake?” I asked,

frustrated. Emily and I were friends . . . with benefits. The

sex was good—really good, actually—but it was never

more, for either of us. Three years into it, and it had never

gone beyond that.

 

“Because she’s not a step forward for you, she’s a step

to the side. Or maybe even backward, because as long as

you have accessible sex, you won’t ever bother looking for

something more fulfilling.”

 

“You think I’m pretty deep, then?”

 

Ignoring this, she continued, “You were in London for a

week and didn’t do anything but work. Last time you spent

a weekend in Vegas and didn’t even see the Strip. You’re

wearing a cashmere sweater, Jensen, when you should be

in a tight T-shirt showing off your muscles.”

 

I stared at her blankly. I couldn’t decide which of these

was worse: that my sister was saying this, or that she was

saying it at a three-year-old’s birthday party.

 

“Okay, gross, you’re right.” She shivered dramatically.

 

“Let’s strike what I just said from the record.”

 

“Make your point, Ziggs. This is getting tedious.”

 

She sighed. “You’re not an old man. Why do you insist

on acting like one?”

 

“I . . .” My thoughts hit the brakes.

 

“Just do something fun with us. Let loose, get drunk,

maybe find a nice girl and get your freak on—”

 

“Jesus Christ.”

 

“Okay, strike that last part,” she said. “Again.”

 

“I’m not crashing their anniversary trip and being the

third . . .” I did the math. “Fifth wheel. That’s not going to

add any sort of boost to my social life.”

 

“You wouldn’t be any wheel. You heard them, they have

another friend coming along,” she said. “Come on, Jens.

It’s a group of good people. It could be so much fun.”

 

I laughed. Fun. I hated to admit it, but my sister had a

point. I’d come straight home from a solid, nonstop workweek

in London—with many, many consecutive nonstop

workweeks before that—with every intention of heading back

into work on Monday. I hadn’t planned for any downtime.

 

A couple of weeks off wouldn’t hurt, would they? I’d left

the London office in good shape for the upcoming trial, and

my colleague Natalie could handle everything else for a lit-

tle while. I had more than six weeks of accrued vacation,

and the only reason it wasn’t more than that was because

I’d cashed out on ten weeks four months ago, knowing I’d

never use them.

 

I tried to imagine two weeks with Will and Ziggy, two

weeks of wineries, breweries, sleeping in . . . I nearly

wanted to weep, it sounded so good.

 

“Fine,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t regret this.

 

Ziggy’s eyes went wide. “Fine . . . what?”

 

“I’ll go.”

 

She gasped, genuinely shocked, and then threw her

arms around my neck. “Seriously?” she yelled, and I pushed

away to put a hand over my ear.

 

“Sorry!” she yelled again, not really any farther from my

ear than before. “I’m just so excited!”

 

A tiny ball of unease wormed its way into my chest.

“Where did you say we’re going again?” I asked.

Her expression became even more animated. “I’ve made

an awesome itinerary. We’re hitting breweries, and wineries,

and a few awesome resorts—with a final week at this

unreal cabin in Vermont.”

 

I exhaled, nodding. “Okay. Okay.”

 

But Ziggy caught my hesitation. “You’re not thinking of

changing your mind already, are you? Jensen, I swear to—”

 

“No,” I interrupted, laughing. “I just had this really insane

person next to me on the plane yesterday and she

mentioned going on a winery tour. I had a panicked moment

thinking, in some freakish joke the universe is playing, she

would be the friend coming along. Let me be honest: I’d

rather slam my hand in a door, or eat a brick.”

 

Ziggy laughed. “She was on the flight from London?”

 

“At first she was okay, but then she got drunk and

wouldn’t stop talking,” I said. “It would have been a more

pleasant flight if I’d been crammed into a middle coach

seat. God, imagine a week with such a woman.”

 

My sister winced, sympathetically.

 

“I feigned sleep for four hours,” I admitted. “Do you have

any idea how hard that is?”

 

“Sorry to interrupt.” A small voice rose up from behind me.

 

“But, Hanna, look: my Pippa is here!”

I turned and froze.

 

Playful blue eyes met mine, and her smile was delighted

. . . and, this time, sober.

 

Wait.

 

How long had they been standing there?

 

No.

 

Fuck.

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