The Next Best Thing

Page 33


Author: Kristan Higgins

“Lucy, would you like to come up for dinner tonight?” Ethan asks, a tad abruptly, I think.


“Um…well, uh, sure,” I stammer. “That sounds nice, Eth. I’ll bring dessert.”


“Sounds great.” He packs up his bartending kit, then kisses each of the Black Widows in turn. “Good night, you Hungarian beauties,” he says.


“Good night, Ethan,” they chorus.


We all four watch him go out the back.


“Maybe you could marry Ethan, Lucy,” Rose suggests.


“Nonsense!” Iris immediately trumpets. “It’s against the law.”


“Excuse me?” I blurt. “It’s not against any law. But actually—”


“Well, God’s law,” Iris interrupts. “I was watching The Tudors on Showtime last night,” she adds, as if that explains everything.


“You get Showtime?” my mom asks. “It’s so dirty.”


“I know!” Iris agrees happily. “They showed Anne Boleyn’s mellbimbók, can you believe it?”


“I’m pretty sure it’s not against the law, God’s or anybody’s,” I say mildly.


“Well, Henry VIII thought it was, Miss Smarty-Pants,” Iris says. “That’s why he divorced Catherine the Great.”


“He was a pig, for one, and two, it was Catherine of Aragon,” I correct.


“She’s so grouchy these days, Daisy,” Rose chides, as if it’s my mother’s fault.


“I know,” Mom agrees, ignoring my sigh. “What else do you watch on Showtime?”


“There’s a show called Dexter,” Rose breathes. “Iris made me watch it. Terrifying!”


Once again, I let the opportunity to say something about Ethan and me pass by, untouched. They barely notice as I pack up my stuff and head for home.


DINNER AT ETHAN’S IS FINE. Delicious, really…eggplant parm, an old favorite of mine. Salad. Red wine. A loaf of Italian, made by my own two hands this very day, served with a gorgeous garlic-and pepper-infused olive oil that I’m tempted to drink. Ethan makes short work of the blueberry crisp I made…such a simple, pleasing dessert. From the looks of it, anyway, and the way the aroma filled the kitchen.


“What’s the secret ingredient?” Ethan asks, scraping up the last bit of his second enormous helping. The boy can eat.


“I threw some cranberries in. And I ground the nutmeg myself,” I add, pleased that he noticed something special.


“Nice,” he says.


Ethan is trying hard to be normal, but like most liars or poker players, he has a tell, and the little muscle below his eye jumps with regularity. He tells me about a book Nicky and he wrote—well, Nicky dictated and Ethan typed—and I laugh as Ethan describes the many sword fights and severed limbs that inspire my nephew.


We manage to load the dishwasher under our everything is fine pretense. It’s when we sit down in the living room that things get really itchy. Ethan pours us each a second glass of wine, which, on top of the few sips of martini that I could manage, has gone to my head…not a bad thing, considering how tense I am.


“So, Lucy,” he says, sitting in the chair adjacent to the couch, where I’m clutching a pillow to my stomach and trying to look relaxed.


“Yes, Ethan,” I answer.


He looks at his hands, which are loosely clasped in front of him, then up at me. “Luce, I think we should try to move things forward a little.”


I swallow my mouthful of wine hard and fast, wincing at the slight burn. “Um…do you mean sex?”


“Not necessarily,” he says, looking at his hands again. The muscle jumps, and I resist the urge to press my fingers to that spot and ease his worry. Instead I sit tight and listen as he continues. “Obviously I noticed that you haven’t told your aunts and mother about us. Or Corinne. Or my parents, given that they asked me again today when I’m going to make an honest woman out of Parker.” He looks at me, an eyebrow bouncing up. “So.”


“Right,” I say, shifting on the leather sofa. “Well, um, I guess I’m still…wary. That things won’t work out.”


“I think we need to try something before we decide if things are going to work or not, honey.”


Ethan has called me honey for years and years, but tonight, the word lodges in my heart like an arrow. His eyes are gentle, his hands still.


“What do you want to try?” I whisper, then clear my throat.


He smiles, his face transforming from serious to wicked in a heartbeat. “Well, I am a guy, so sex is always welcome.” His laugh is warm and naughty, and I feel it in my stomach. Blushing, I clutch the pillow a little tighter.


“But anything would be okay, Lucy. Just telling people we’re together. Or going out in public together.”


“We did go out together in public,” I say. “To Lenny’s.”


“Right. But you didn’t let me hold your hand or kiss you good-night, either.”


I take a deep breath, nodding. “I’m sorry,” I say.


“You don’t have to be sorry, Luce.” He gets up from his chair and sits next to me, putting his arm around my shoulders. I rest my head on his shoulder, grateful that I don’t have to see his face, welcoming the physical comfort he’s always given me. “I know it’s scary,” he murmurs, his breath warm against my hair. “But if you didn’t want anything from me, Lucy, I don’t think you’d kiss me the way you do.”


“Good point,” I say, swallowing. I wish I could tell him the truth—that if I didn’t love him enough—the way I loved Jimmy—he’d end up hating me, and that’s something I couldn’t bear. “I just don’t know how to…I’m not sure how to be anymore, Ethan,” I whisper, a tear sneaking out of the corner of my eye. “But you’re right. I do…feel things for you. It’s just that I’m a mess, too.”


He pulls back to smile down at me. “I know,” he says gently, wiping the tear off my cheek. “I do know.”


“That I’m a mess?”


“Absolutely,” he agrees.


Then he kisses me, and as always, his wonderful, smiling mouth makes me forget my worries. When his hand slips under my shirt, a little moan sneaks out of my throat. Ethan would never do anything that would hurt me. I know this. Of course I do.


So when he stands up and asks me to come to bed with him, I go.


But here’s the thing.


Sex with Ethan has always been a guilty, delicious pleasure, sometimes urgent, always smokin’. My college roomie had diabetes, and once in a while, when her blood sugar was falling, she’d come crashing into our room, wrench open the emergency jar of Nutella and inhale a big spoonful, then collapse gratefully onto the bed. That’s what Ethan was to me. My emergency Nutella.


But now things are different. The hedonistic pleasure is gone, dang it. It’s not that I’m lying there like a Regency virgin, mind you…it’s that Expectations Are High. And I can’t seem to shut off my brain. Ethan unbuttons Lucy’s shirt, kissing the exposed skin. He really does have the best mouth, doesn’t he, ladies and gentlemen? Nice effect, with the bristly tickle of his beard.


“So do you have a special razor or something?” I ask aloud.


He pulls back to look at me. “What?”


“Never mind. It’s just…never mind.”


He raises an eyebrow, then kisses the corner of my mouth. I sigh, running my fingers through the cool silkiness of his hair. I wonder what kind of shampoo he uses, then roll my eyes, wishing I could just be quiet and enjoy.


Folks, isn’t it nice that Ethan takes his time undressing Lucy, knowing that she’s about ready to jump out of her skin and run screaming back to her cat?


“Relax,” Ethan mutters against the lace of my bra. Not one of the La Perla confections I blew a ridiculous amount of money on…just a little thing I got at Target, nothing special, though it does have cute stripes on the—oh, for God’s sake! Listen to me!


“Eth, could you move just a little? You’re on my hair.” It used to be that Ethan could take me against the wall, and I wouldn’t have noticed a crowd of fifty thousand. At the memory of the wall, I sink a little more into the bed. Oh, yes, the wall. Now that was hot.


“Better?” Ethan asks, shifting his weight.


“Perfect,” I say.


He smiles, then kisses my neck as he unhooks my bra. He’s good at this. Ethan is an expert at undressing women. He’s certainly undressed Lucy quite a few times, hasn’t he, folks? I imagine applause from our studio audience. From downstairs, I can hear Fat Mikey start to yowl. Merrrrrooooow! Merrrooow! Did I feed him? Can’t he be quiet for, I don’t know, twenty more minutes so I can get this done? And where’s Corinne? She said she might spend another night with me, not wanting to be at her place without Christopher. Will she feed Fat Mikey? Is she nursing?


I remind myself that I’m partially naked—actually, yes, I’m feeling it now, and I slide my hand up Ethan’s gorgeous back, relishing the smooth skin at his neck, the soft, fine hair that always sticks up in the back of his head.


“Ouch,” Ethan mutters. “Honey, your bracelet’s caught.”


“Sorry,” I say. Sure enough, the gold chain has tangled in Ethan’s hair. Poor guy. I turn my wrist, and Ethan yelps as he loses a few strands. “Sorry,” I say again, feeling the giggles coming on. I clamp my lips together, shoot, just when he’s kissing me…okay, here it comes, sloshing over the edge, and I can’t help it, I start laughing. Hard. Wheezing, my features contorting in helpless hilarity. Grabbing a pillow, I clamp it over my face. Stop, Lucy, this is really inappropriate, how much can the guy take? I snort like a pig, which makes me laugh harder and snort again. Tears leak out of my eyes as I shake with near hysteria and slap the mattress, trying to stop.


“I take it we’re not quite ready for sex,” Ethan says dryly.


“Sorry,” I wheeze, another gale sending me into convulsions of laughter.


“You’re not sorry,” he says, rolling off me. But there’s a smile in his voice, and he grabs the pillow, looks at my laughing face, grins and shoves the pillow back with considerable force.


“I’m taking a cold shower, woman,” he says, getting off the bed. “I hope you feel guilty as sin.”


CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


“AND THERE WE HAVE GRAYHURST, the lovely home of the Welles family,” Captain Bob says, suppressing a belch. He’s pinker than usual today, making me glad I’m the one steering past Parker’s dock. “The house was built in 1904 as a gift to Lancaster Welles’s second wife, who found her husband in the sack with a maid. She would be the first in a long line of wives who got a home as a pay-off for Lancaster’s infidelity,” Captain Bob continues, taking a pull from his doctored up coffee. This, at least, is the correct version of the past.


“It’s gorgeous,” says a lady from Nebraska. Her sweatshirt sports a Siamese kitten with sequined green eyes. The rest of the charter is similarly dressed…one lady is clad all in pink sweats, looking like she fell into a vat of Pepto-Bismol. Another wears elastic-waisted clam diggers and a sweatshirt proclaiming her World’s Best Gramma. My mother would die if she saw them. Or murder them as a group.


“Oh, look,” Pepto-Bismol cries. “A rich person!”


Captain Bob, who has eyes sharper than an eagle’s no matter how many ounces of alcohol he’s consumed, nods. “That would be Lancaster’s great-granddaughter, the lovely Parker Welles,” Captain Bob comments.


Sure enough, Parker, Nicky and Ethan are out on the lawn for a picturesque family romp. The Nebraskans leap to the side of the boat to snap photos of the three against the impressive backdrop of the back patio, which is about as big as a football field and bordered with animal-shaped topiary bushes. I give three short blasts from the horn. Nicky runs to the edge of the patio and waves, as do Parker and Ethan. I think, as I so often do, what a good-looking couple they make, Ethan’s dark hair and nice way of dressing a good match for Parker’s stylish looks and blond hair.

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