The Next Best Thing

Page 30


Author: Kristan Higgins

“Was there anyone who ever reminded you of Daddy?” I ask.


She stares over my shoulder, lost in memories. “You know that actor?”


“Which one, Mom?”


“The good-looking one? With brown eyes?”


“George Clooney?” I suggest. My father had lovely brown eyes, something I like to think I inherited.


“Is that him? The crinkly eyes?”


I nod. Only Mom wouldn’t know George Clooney.


“Sometimes I rent movies that he’s in, just to…well.” Mom blushes a little at the confession.


I smile and squeeze her hand, then take a sip of my lukewarm tea. “So what do you think about the offer?”


Mom hesitates, then shrugs. “I don’t know. Mostly up to you, since you’re in charge of bread.”


“I only own ten percent of the bakery,” I remind her.


She stares out the window. “Lucy?”


“Yes?”


Mom sighs, then adjusts her wedding ring…she’s never stopped wearing it. “I know I’m not the best mother in the world,” she offers, still not looking at me.


“Oh, Mom, I wouldn’t say that,” I say.


She gives me a smile, then looks back down. “The thing is, when you lose someone like we have…it’s like part of your heart is cut out. And you always worry about how much more you can afford to lose. It can make a person sort of…stunted.”


I don’t say anything. She has, of course, just voiced my deepest fear. The pebble swells.


“I just…I just don’t want you to be disappointed, honey. Maybe you can find someone…you’re younger than I was, and without kids, maybe you’ll have an easier time of it. But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work the way you picture it.” She sighs gustily. “Well. Good talk. Let me know what you decide about the bread.”


Then she squeezes my hand and bustles off to the front.


When my work at the bakery is done, I decide to go for a bike ride and head north on Newport Road. The brisk wind stings, and my hair whips around my face. Salt is heavy in the air, as well as the smell of the autumn leaves, sharp and sad and lovely. I turn inland on Mickes Street. There’s Doral-Anne’s old house. It’s still the hovel it was in grammar school, a seedy little ranch with three rusted-out cars in the yard. The grass is long and thick with weeds.


Doral-Anne and I were on the same school bus, her stop about ten minutes before mine. Once, when I was about seven, she’d trudged down the bus steps and turned to look back, something like loneliness on her thin face. Surprised, I waved to her. She flipped me the bird in response. I can still remember the way heat flared across my cheeks, how I wish I hadn’t offered that stupid, naive wave that was so instantly and graphically rejected. It was the first time Doral-Anne had singled me out, though it wouldn’t be the last.


Ah, well. A mist is starting to fall, and I need to pay attention to the road, since it’s a little slick. After about a mile, I turn onto Grimley Farm Road, the wind in front of me now, slowing me, almost warning me off.


When I reach my destination, I lean my bike against the telephone pole and walk down toward number 73. The driveway is still unpaved, the sand softened by recent rains. My footsteps make a pleasant scraping sound as I approach the house where Jimmy and I never got to live.


It’s painted white now, our little Cape. It was gray when Jimmy and I bought it, but the white looks nice. The shutters are still green. I’d painted them myself.


Jimmy had surprised me with this house. Told me we were going on a picnic, came up here, said he knew the owners. I wondered why we were going to eat in someone’s yard; the house didn’t have a view of the water, and the property was fairly unremarkable. But Jimmy wouldn’t answer my questions. Instead he just grinned, took my hand and led me through the front door. The house was empty of furniture except for one small table in the living room. On the table was a jewelry box, and in the box was the key to the front door.


It might not have been the house I’d have picked out, but it was affordable, and the cost of real estate on Mackerly definitely limited our choices. While I’d felt a prickle of alarm that I now owned a house I’d had no part in choosing, Jimmy’s pride and excitement had swept that away. It was a grand gesture, and he loved making those. This was the guy, after all, who’d sent four dozen roses to my dorm room the night after our first date. Who surprised me with a honeymoon to Hawaii when I thought we were going to Bar Harbor, Maine. Who couldn’t spend one night away from me, even if it meant driving all the way home after a long day.


I’m not sure why I’m here now. I’ve visited a few times over the years, unable to ignore it completely, this little place that was going to be ours. It sold quickly enough…a family bought it, which was nice. A swing set adorns the backyard, and a little plastic car sits in the driveway.


I turn around and head back for home. The mist has turned to rain, and I’ll be soaked by the time I get there. My pastry class starts at five, and I decide to bring Ethan home some of the amaretto zabaglione that we’re scheduled to make, rather than letting the class eat it all, as I usually do. I guess I’m feeling a little guilty, mooning over Jimmy after nearly fainting at the sight of his doppelganger. Yes. Ethan more than deserves a little sweetness from me.


WHEN CLASS IS OVER, I RETURN to my apartment. Ethan’s not home yet, even though it’s eight-thirty. I try to quash the worry and click on my computer. When Google comes up, I type in “NatureMade” and sit back to read.


NatureMade is a sound company, from all accounts. Expanding slowly, holding tight when the economy’s been rough, good to its employees. Matt DeSalvo is mentioned a couple of times, in promotion announcements and as a contact person, stuff like that. After a moment’s hesitation, I try an image search on him, wondering if he really did look that much like Jimmy, but nothing comes up.


I wander to the window and look out into the dark. Where’s Ethan? It’s still raining, and with leaves on the road, it could be slick out there. His car is new. That’s good, but what if he’s not used to it enough? What if he had an accident? I left a message on his home phone earlier, announcing that dessert awaited him, if he was so inclined. So far, I’ve resisted the urge to call him on his cell, since I don’t want him to be talking while he’s driving, which is another thing he does that drives me crazy, even if he does use a Bluetooth.


Finally a knock comes on the door, and I start, then vault for the door. Sure enough, it’s Ethan.


“Where have you been?” I demand, my face burning at the sight of him.


“Hi,” he says, frowning. “I had a meeting.”


“Well, isn’t that nice to know,” I sputter. “I thought you were dead.”


His face softens. “Well, I seem to be alive,” he says, smiling just a little.


I almost kiss him. Almost hug him. Then the moment passes when that would be natural, and we’re left just looking at each other, Fat Mikey working on a hairball under the chair.


“I made zabaglione,” I mutter. “Come on in.”


He follows me into the kitchen, taking his usual seat at the table. “Thanks,” he says as I set a bowl in front of him. Then I sit down, too, and watch him eat.


“Want a bite?” he asks, holding out a spoonful.


“Wasted on me,” I answer. I’d tried some at class, actually…the smell of the eggs and cream, the vanilla and lemon zest was so tempting, and I’d tried a spoonful. As usual, it hadn’t tasted like anything.


“How was your day?” Ethan asks, and I tell him about the offer from Matt DeSalvo and NatureMade. For some reason, I don’t mention that Matt looks like Jimmy.


“That’s really something,” Ethan says, scraping his dish. He gets up and helps himself to another one, then rejoins me. “Think you’ll take him up on it?”


I hesitate. “I don’t know. Probably,” I answer slowly. Fat Mikey butts his head against the leg of the table, on the prowl for pudding. Ethan obliges, putting his empty dish on the floor so Fat Mikey can lick it clean.


“Seems like a great way to increase business,” Ethan says.


“I know,” I agree. “I’m just not sure I want to be a bread baker for the rest of my life. Even a really successful bread baker.”


“Mmm-hmm,” Ethan says, still eating. He looks at me expectantly.


I shrug. “I guess I still want to be a pastry chef.”


“And why aren’t you?” He leans over, setting dish number two on the floor for my cat, who purrs in appreciation.


I frown. “I can’t just leave Bunny’s, for one.”


“Why not? Didn’t the Black Widows get by just fine before you?”


“Well, first of all, I’d miss them. I love Bunny’s. And secondly, no. They were going out of business, inch by inch. Jimmy pretty much saved the day by getting the bread orders.”


“Ah, St. Jimmy,” Ethan says, smiling, his eyes slightly mocking. I frown, peevishly glad that I didn’t bring up Jimmy earlier. “But that was all before you started at the bakery, Lucy,” he continues. “They could hire someone else to do the bread. Your recipes, of course. I’m not saying you don’t make incredible bread.”


“So what are you saying?” I ask a bit crossly.


“I’m saying you should do what you want to do, that’s all.”


“Right,” I murmur, still irked. It’s just that…here it comes, the inevitable comparison. Jimmy would’ve sat down with a notepad and mapped out a plan. Here’s what you should do, he’d say, and he’d outline the next ten steps with utmost enthusiasm. Ethan…Ethan’s not helping.


Instead he looks at me with a half smile. Then he stands, comes over to me and takes my hand. “Come on,” he says. “Give us a hug, grumpy.”


My cheeks flush as I do what I’m told. God help me, I love the way he smells. His hand plays in my hair, his heart thumping steadily against mine. I remember that earlier this evening, I wondered if he was hurt, or worse.


Without another thought, I kiss Ethan’s warm neck, slide my hands up his back, the starched cotton of his shirt crisp under my palms, the heat of his skin radiating through the cloth. His beard scrapes gently against my cheek as he turns his head, and then the smooth, warm perfection of his mouth is on mine. Fat Mikey twines between our legs, and I feel Ethan smile, and there it is again, that painful, wonderful squeeze in my heart. He doesn’t do more than kiss me back, letting me set the pace, cupping my face with gentle hands.


It’s different this time—this isn’t a warm-up to sex, and this isn’t the hot, desperate kissing of two lonely people. We’re just kissing, mouths gentle, hands tender and chaste, but his heart thumps harder against my chest, and my knees are weakening. The sheer pleasure of the way he feels outweighs that faint flare of alarm in the back of my heart. I deepen the kiss, sliding my hands up his sides, feeling the lean muscles over his rib cage, tasting the faint combination of amaretto and Ethan, and the thought occurs to me that I’m already—


The phone rings, stopping my thoughts. Rings again, and a third time. I don’t move away from Ethan’s warmth, his mouth, the hint of the smile that always plays under the surface when we kiss. But then my sister’s voice comes on the answering machine.


“Lucy! Please! Christopher had a heart attack! Come to the hospital right now!”


CHAPTER NINETEEN


CORINNE’S USUALLY PERFECT HAIR IS WILD, and Emma wails in her arms.


“How is he?” I ask, but my sister is sobbing so hard she doesn’t make sense.


“I’ll find a doctor,” Ethan says, leaving the waiting room where we found Corinne.

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