“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.
“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?”
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 mother-hen 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.
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.”