“Any song at the bar,” Jensen goaded me. “Your pick. You just have to sing something to me right now.”
“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.
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.
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?” 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.”