Allie leaned back against her front door with her eyes closed, listening to the blood pounding in her head.
Or maybe that was Jack knocking.
“Why are you here, Jack?” she yelled through the door.
“Paige forgot her sweater.”
Great. Of course she did. Allie gritted her teeth.
She’d assumed she’d never see Jack again after last night, and she sure as hell wasn’t in any shape for entertaining. The mud mask she’d smeared on her face smelled nearly as bad as the blue silk tank top she’d pulled on before realizing it had hollandaise on the hem. But she hadn’t had the heart to remove it—the shirt or the sauce—because she’d gotten both on a brunch outing with her grandmother just a few months ago.
Crap, where was the sweater? She glanced around the living room before remembering she’d stashed it in the coat closet at the far end of the hall like a stupid fucking perfect hostess.
She sighed. “How about I mail it to you?”
On the other side of the door, Jack stayed quiet. She thought for a second he’d gone away, and it annoyed her that she felt the tiniest hint of disappointment. She should probably just grab the damn sweater and toss it to him. It would take all of thirty seconds, and then he’d be on his way and out of her life for good.
“Allie, come on. Don’t be vain. I’ve seen you looking worse.”
“Thanks, Jack. That makes me feel much better.” Her cheeks burned hot with embarrassment, but she’d infused her voice with enough steel to cover it.
“Just toss it out the door,” he coaxed. “I won’t look at you, I swear. Or just have your fiancé bring it out.”
Something bubbled hot and shameful in her chest. She felt tired and embarrassed and really, really exhausted. Maybe it was the stress of planning her grandma’s funeral. Maybe it was the evening spent surveying the dilapidated B&B. Maybe it was something else entirely. Something that had been brewing long before last night’s silly game of make-believe with Jack.
Before she realized what she was doing, she turned and flung open the door.
Jack jumped back, startled either by the door opening or by her appearance again. Probably both. “Allie—”
“Look, I’ve had the week from hell,” she snapped. “My grandma died on Sunday and I had to visit both my parents in prison to tell them, which was about as much fun as ripping off my own eyebrows with duct tape. I just spent my whole evening crawling around in basements and crawlspaces to realize I’ve just inherited a massive tax liability filled with dry rot and woodpecker holes and cat fur. Pardon me if I’m not thrilled by unexpected company.”
Jack blinked, his expression ashen. “Your grandma died?”
The sympathy in his voice was enough to make her eyes sting with tears. Allie nodded, afraid to trust her own voice.
“God, Allie. I’m so sorry.” He started to reach for her, then seemed to stop himself. “Your dad’s mom? The one with the B&B?”
Again she nodded, and felt something thawing in the center of her chest.
“Shit, I’m so sorry. I know how much you loved her. Why didn’t you say something last night? We could have cancelled dinner or—”
“No, we couldn’t, Jack.” Allie shook her head, feeling deflated. “I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted you to see how fabulously awesome my life has turned out without you. I wanted to impress you and your gorgeous wife, so I cleaned my house and faked a fiancé and squeezed into Spanx so tight I still can’t feel my thighs, all so I could spend an enchanting evening listening to you talk about your amazing, perfect life.”
Jack just stared, and it occurred to her she hadn’t meant to say any of that out loud. She sounded like a crazy person. Looked like one, too, considering the mud mask and hair that looked like she’d been electrocuted. God, she was pathetic.
“My amazing, perfect life,” he repeated, looking a little dumbstruck. He nodded once, then turned. “Wait here.”
He jogged off down the driveway, and Allie stared after him. She should probably shut the door. This was her chance to lock it behind him and pretend none of this had happened. Last night, right now—hell, maybe even sixteen years ago.
But instead she turned and walked down the hall, leaving her front door wide open. It was probably a dumb move, though not much dumber than opening it in the first place when she looked like this. She opened the coat closet. The little cream-colored sweater was right in front, and Allie pulled it off the hanger.
It had daisies stitched around the collar and on the front pocket, and a silly pang of longing rattled through her chest. She’d always imagined herself buying clothes like this for her own daughter, laughing and smiling as they sipped Italian sodas at the coffee shop next to Nordstrom. She folded it over her arm and walked back to the front door.
Jack had already returned from wherever he’d gone, and had set up camp in her living room. He’d closed the front door and parked himself right in the middle of her sofa with a shopping bag on the coffee table in front of him. He looked up as she walked in, and gave her a smile that made her traitorous heart surge in her chest.
“Hi,” he murmured, and her heart thrummed faster.
“Make yourself at home,” she muttered, trying to muster up some indignation. In truth, she wasn’t that annoyed. It felt good to have another living, breathing human in her home, someone who wasn’t looking at her like she was crazy or pathetic despite all evidence to the contrary.
“Please join me,” he said.
“Just let me change into—”
The forcefulness in his voice surprised her, and she was about to tell him to stop bossing her around in her own home. That’s when he reached into his shopping bag and pulled out a box of Crest whitening strips.
Wordlessly, he opened the package and peeled the back off one of the strips. He pressed it against his front teeth, using his oversized fingers to smooth out the edges. He repeated the process on his bottom teeth, then worked his way around the sides.
Allie stood watching, fascinated, not sure if she’d entered some sort of Twilight Zone episode or if she’d finally gone crazy.
“You’re whitening your teeth,” she said unnecessarily.
“Yep,” he said, applying another strip to his teeth. “Would you mind shutting off the TV? This is the episode where Ramona looks at real estate, and I’ve already seen it.”
“You’ve watched Real Housewives of New York City?”
“Yep. It’s my guilty pleasure after Paige goes to sleep. Can I have some of that green face goop?”
Allie stared at him a moment, then picked up the remote and switched off the TV. “Why are you doing this?”
“So you stop feeling embarrassed and exposed and sit down on the damn sofa with me and have a snack.” He put down the box of whitening strips and turned to grin at her.
Allie felt something soften in the center of her chest. “You look like a dork.”
“Yep. That’s the idea.”
The corners of her mouth twitched up, threatening to morph into a smile. “And you can’t eat snacks with those things on your teeth.”
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong.” He reached into the shopping bag again and pulled out a can of non-dairy whipped topping. He popped the top off and opened his mouth, aiming straight down his throat.
The hollow, foamy sound was both familiar and foreign, and Allie tried not to remember the times in college when she’d walked in to find him doing this in the kitchen. Or the other times when he’d brought the can of whipped cream into the bedroom and—
“All right,” she said, stepping around the sofa. “You win.” She sat down beside him, her butt landing a little closer to him than she’d aimed for. Her thigh touched his, but it would be awkward to move away, so she grabbed the can of whipped cream out of his hand. She hesitated a second, then squirted it straight onto her tongue.
“Nice,” Jack said.
“This is disgusting.” She lifted the can again and took another hit, enjoying the creamy sweetness more than she expected.
Jack grabbed the can back and squirted another mouthful, smacking his lips. Then he set the can down on the table and rested one massive palm on her knee, just like it belonged there.
“Look, there’s nothing I can say about your grandma that will make this hurt any less,” he said. “Anything I have to offer will just sound trite and clichéd and won’t cancel out the fact that you won’t bake cookies together again, or hear her tell you how much she paid for the antique carving set at Thanksgiving dinner. You’ll never get to hug her or smell those fancy roses she put all over the house. You’ll go to buy Mother’s Day cards and you’ll realize you need to buy one less than you did the year before, and you’ll end up standing there in the aisle at Target bawling like an idiot while people bump into you with their shopping carts, and it’s going to suck like you wouldn’t fucking believe.”
He held her gaze with his, and Allie felt a tear slip through the green goo on her cheek. “Hypothetically speaking,” he added softly.
“Hypothetically speaking,” Allie whispered as the tear dropped onto the leg of her sweats, making another discolored spot. “Thank you.”
“You get it.”
She bit her lip, then thought better of it when she tasted minty clay. “Want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve spent enough time telling random strangers how one shitty car accident left my kid motherless and made me a widower. I don’t need to relive it.”
“I’m sorry.” Her throat felt thick again, but it was clear from the look on Jack’s face that he didn’t want her to ask more questions. “And I take back what I said about your amazing, perfect life. You’ve obviously been through some tough stuff.”
He nodded and picked up the whipped cream can again. He tilted his head back and took another hit, and Allie felt her shoulders relax for the first time since she’d gotten the call about her grandma.
When they looked at each other again, there was something different between them. Allie couldn’t put her finger on it, but it felt like things had shifted.