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!”
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!”
“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 . . .”
“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?”
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.
“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—”
“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 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.”
“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.”