A couple of days into their vacation, Jessica woke up one morning alone. She slid her hand along the other side of the bed and found it cold. From the way the sunlight slanted on the carpet, it appeared to be late morning. Jessica stretched, then got out of bed to find everyone.
The previous day, it had snowed heavily, so the four of them had stayed inside the cabin. They sat around the fire and told stories, and when the snow abated enough to go outside, they’d had a small snow fight. Ryan and Ashlee had jumped into the Jacuzzi after that, leaving Josh and Jessica alone. Before dinner, they’d taken a shower and made considerably more steam that the taps had. Josh seemed happier after their private interlude. Jessica found that she could not exactly say the same. She couldn’t figure out why.
Jessica padded into the kitchen, but found it empty. Instead, she discovered a note, written in Ashlee’s hand, lying on the counter in the kitchen.
Dear Josh and Jessica,
We’re sorry, but we had to go home, Ryan’s mother is in the hospital.
Hope you can understand. I want to be with Ryan during this time.
If we don’t see each other anymore, have a Happy New Year, and
enjoy your stay here in ML.
Ryan & Ashlee
“They left this morning.” Jessica whirled around to find her husband in the doorway to the kitchen. He nursed a cup of coffee as he walked into the kitchen. His feet were bare and he wore only pajama bottoms. Any other morning, she would have been thrilled at the sight of his highly toned body, but this morning was different. She picked up the note and frowned over it.
“Maybe we should go skiing today,” Josh suggested. Jessica looked at him, then looked outside. “The slopes are open.”
Jessica considered this. She suddenly felt like being around the pure, white snow and the wind stinging her cheeks. “Sure. Just let me shower and dress.”
* * *
At the ski lodge several yards away from the slopes, Nick, Katie, Aidan, and Claudia-Michelle were crowded at a table. Claudia-Michelle, Aidan and Nick were chattering, but Katie didn’t join in.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” Katie announced sullenly, and then left the table.
Claudia-Michelle sighed and wrapped her long, skillful fingers around her cup of hot chocolate. “I suppose she’s still angry about yesterday.”
“I can’t fathom why she would be angry,” Aidan remarked in his usually jocund way. “We were just messing around. She could have joined us if she wanted to.”
Claudia-Michelle shook her head and traced the rim of her hot chocolate mug idly. “She doesn’t like me around Nick,” she commented. Nick exhaled and didn’t say anything, so Claudia-Michelle turned to him. “Am I that intimidating?”
“No,” Aidan replied. “She just felt left out.”
Claudia-Michelle lifted the mug to her lips again and exhaled. The snow, too, had kept them confined to their cabin, so Claudia-Michelle had decided that she and Nick should work on some songs. Nick had earnestly tried to include Katie, but it hadn’t worked. Aidan, of course, had planted himself in the middle of the scene whether he was accepted or not, which he had been. So then the aim of working had ventured off to the same rowdy improvisation of the night before (minus the liquor), and Katie had stormed off and left the cabin. She didn’t return for a couple of hours. When she did return, she and Nick had disappeared into their bedroom, and Aidan and Claudia-Michelle passed fretful glances between them while Claudia-Michelle had played on the piano.
Now, Claudia-Michelle pushed her hot chocolate aside, not having a taste for it anymore. She looked at Nick, who was watching the skiers on the slopes nearby. She placed a hand on his. His blue eyes shifted to her.
“Do you want to stop talking about it?” Claudia-Michelle asked softly.
“Maybe we should change the subject,” Aidan said, sensing Nick’s discomfort.
“Good idea.” Claudia-Michelle glanced in the direction of the bathrooms. “Maybe I should go talk to her.”
Before Nick had a chance to stop her, Claudia-Michelle was pushing out of her seat. She had taken a few steps before she suddenly paused and grinned. She lifted her arm and waved.
“Jessica! Josh! Fancy meeting you here!”
Nick felt his heart skip at the sound of that name. It can’t be her. It’s just a coincidence. There are a lot of Jessicas in the world.
A dark-haired man with a petite blonde acknowledged Claudia-Michelle’s call. He led his wife by a hand on the small of her back. Claudia-Michelle clasped the man’s hand and hugged the woman. Over Claudia-Michelle’s shoulder, Nick recognized those whiskey-brown eyes.
“Would you like to join us?” Claudia-Michelle asked the man. “We would enjoy your company.”
The man shrugged. “Sure. Why not? It’ll give us a chance to catch up on things. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.”
When Claudia-Michelle turned around to lead them to the table she shared with Nick and Aidan, several things happened at once. Nick, against his will, looked up. Aidan watched his reaction from across the table, frowning thoughtfully. Josh secured two chairs from an empty table and turned away from the scene for a moment. Jessica met Nick’s eyes with her own, and the air seemed to crackle. Jessica paused a bit, eyes wide at the meaningful way Nick was staring at her. But she didn’t spend too long in one spot as Claudia-Michelle prodded her along as if willing to ignore the look that passed between Nick and Jessica. At least forget for now.
And now out of the bathroom Katie saw the whole thing.
* * *
A few moments later, Claudia-Michelle suggested, “Why don’t we go back to the cabin? Maybe we’ll be more comfortable there.”
Upon Claudia-Michelle’s suggestion, the three women and the three men returned to cabin number seven. When Aidan suggested that the men watch the game and the women go off and “do their girly thing,” he earned a slap on the arm from Claudia-Michelle.
“What?” Aidan asked when everyone laughed.
“That was really the wrong thing to say, Bloom,” Nick remarked. He figured as long as he didn’t look at Jessica, he wouldn’t lose his mind, so he was carefully blocking her out.
“Just because we’re in the presence of witnesses, I’m going to ignore that sexist comment.” She turned to Jessica and Katie. “We can go to the den. I’m sure it’ll be more civilized there.”
Aidan winced with mock hurt. “Ouch. Oh how those pithy words of hers have the bite of a sharp object.”
“You’d better be lucky I’m not armed with said sharp object.” Because she was closer, Claudia-Michelle linked arms with Jessica and turned to leave the living room. “Let’s go to the den. We’ll leave these savages to their asinine football game.”
“Can you spell asinine?” Nick joked and Claudia-Michelle gave him A Look. The girls disappeared into the den and closed the double doors. Sighing, and sensing that Nick really didn’t want to talk with Josh, Aidan picked up the remote and turned on the television. He turned it on something resembling a sporting event and shouted with the offense scored a touchdown.
“Hot damn!” declared Aidan. “We came in just in time.”
“I’ll go get the beer,” Nick commented, and left the room.
Josh settled on the loveseat across from Aidan on the couch and took in the game. When Nick returned, he passed out the bottles and took the armchair. He tried to relax and forget that his first love was in the other room with his current girlfriend. He hoped it would not come to blows.
* * *
In the den, Claudia-Michelle put in a CD of old songs that a friend had made for her and tried to relax. She could feel the animosity coming from Katie and Jessica’s imminent confusion. Sitting down on the loveseat with Jessica immediately next to her and Katie in the armchair, Claudia-Michelle imagined that she was in the middle of something. Whether or not she wanted to be or should be was unclear at the moment.
“So how was skiing?” Claudia-Michelle asked Jessica.
Jessica seemed to relax as she related her misadventures with skiing. Claudia-Michelle poured tea in decorative cups and watched Katie from her peripheral vision. Katie sipped with all deliberateness and didn’t smile when Jessica giggled at herself. Claudia-Michelle smiled and handed Jessica the tea cup.
“I wasn’t that good at it either,” Claudia-Michelle admitted. “I would have to have someone help me, but eventually I got the hang of it.” Claudia-Michelle turned to Katie. “And you, Katie?”
It was as if someone had passed a lemon under Katie’s nose. “I used to go skiing with my family every winter.”
“So you’re good at it?” Jessica peered at the teacup for a second, as if she was awed by the intricateness of it. She seemed to overlook Katie’s brevity. “Where is this teacup from?”
Claudia-Michelle explained that it belonged to her mother. They belonged to a set, and each one of her sisters received three saucers and three teacups. The oldest, Jessica, had the teapot at the moment. But Claudia-Michelle seemed to do well without it.
Ready to get rid of the silence, Claudia-Michelle asked, “So how are things with you and Josh?”
Jessica sipped on tea after blowing on it, then answered. “We’re doing okay,” she replied.
Claudia-Michelle chuckled and spoke before Jessica could go on. “Okay? Not spectacular? Wonderful? Swimmingly?” Jessica laughed. “Is there something going on here that you need to reveal?” Claudia-Michelle made a show of leaning in. “Is the sex that bad?”
Jessica laughed hysterically, and Katie managed a smile that looked suspiciously like a grimace.
“I’m not supposed to kiss and tell,” Jessica said, blushing.
“And they’re not supposed to charge a high tax on gas but they do.” Claudia-Michelle paused. “You and Josh have been married for a year, right?” Jessica nodded. “Well, the sex is still good, then.” Jessica’s cheeks turned crimson. “Seemed to have hit that nail right on the head.”
“Claudia-Michelle!” Jessica exclaimed in embarrassment. “Geez. I don’t go around asking about your sex life.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you did.”
Jessica raised her eyebrow at Claudia-Michelle.
“It’s going great, by the way. Couldn’t be better.”
“Oh really? And just who are you sleeping with?”
Claudia-Michelle gave her patented Mona Lisa smile. “But I’m not supposed to kiss and tell.”
Jessica hit her with the throw pillow. Claudia-Michelle nearly dropped her teacup. They looked at each other and giggled in an undignified way that belied their age. Katie raised her chin, then placed her tea cup aside. She straightened and spoke.
“Nick is a brilliant lover,” Katie remarked.
Jessica went alarmingly still. Claudia-Michelle felt the temperature in the room drop so low that she was surprised that the tea didn’t instantly freeze. Discovering that she felt like getting Katie back for that comment, and instinctively knowing that Jessica was shaken by it, Claudia-Michelle placed her teacup aside and let the anger show in her eyes. Her tone, on the other hand, was even.
“Lucky you,” Claudia-Michelle responded in a bored tone, as if she didn’t care. She turned to Jessica, who seemed to trying to regain her composure. “If you didn’t know, I’ve been sleeping with Aidan.”
Jessica’s brown eyes went huge. “Aidan? The tall, dark, and English one?” Claudia-Michelle nodded. “He’s so gorgeous. Is he…?”
Claudia-Michelle blinked coquettishly. “Is he what?”
Determined to break Jessica’s spirit, Katie admitted spitefully, “Nick is.”
“That’s nice to know,” Claudia-Michelle snapped. “I’m sure he really wants us to know the mass of his loins.”
“Just saying.” Katie tried to appear innocent.
“Then just don’t.” Claudia-Michelle turned to Jessica. “Are you okay? You look a little pale.”
Jessica gave a noncommittal shrug. “Just shocked is all. I knew Nick in high school and…”
Ah, so the plot thickens! Claudia-Michelle’s eyes went wide. “You went to school with Nick? And you didn’t say anything? Do you know how much ammunition you could have given me by that one fact?”
Jessica laughed nervously. “He was a senior, and I was a freshman. He never even noticed me.”
The edges of Claudia-Michelle’s eyes crinkled. She could see something in Jessica’s eyes that indicated that some more happened between her and Nick than an occasional passing in the hallways at school. “I’m sure he noticed you, Jessica. You’re too radiant for him not to have.”
Jessica took in a sharp breath. Claudia-Michelle was sure she hit the mark. Jessica placed her teacup aside and muttered something about having to go to the bathroom. Claudia-Michelle frowned at this sudden departure and picked up her teacup.
When the door closed, and Jessica was out of earshot, Katie turned to Claudia-Michelle, eyes narrowed.
“What else do you know about her?” Katie demanded angrily.
The mug of tea hesitated just a fraction in its movement as Claudia-Michelle brought it up to her lips. Claudia-Michelle countered coolly, “Whatever do you mean?”
Katie’s perceptive eyes narrowed more. “Don’t play coy with me.”
“I don’t play coy with women, Katherine,” Claudia-Michelle remarked, her voice frigid now. “I usually save that game for members of the male species.” When Katie just growled, Claudia-Michelle added, “I don’t see why you’re worried about her anyway. Do you see her as a threat to some nonexistent problem?”
“I saw the way Nick looked at her,” Katie snapped abruptly. “There was something between them. I know there was. And you do, too.”
Actually, Claudia-Michelle didn’t. Not for sure, anyway. Her powers of discernment had picked up on something when she’d asked Nick about Jessica a couple of nights ago, even though Claudia-Michelle had been drunk at the time. Slightly drunk. But it could have been anything. Nick didn’t specify, and it wasn’t her business.
Claudia-Michelle placed the mug on the end table beside her and fixed Katie with a level stare. “If I were you, I wouldn’t worry so much about Jessica and if she has a past with Nick. If you want to keep him, I’d suggest you pay more attention to him and drop the inferiority complex. It makes you appear desperate.” Katie’s eyes went hot with anger, and Claudia-Michelle picked up the tea pot. “More tea, Katherine?”
* * *
In the bathroom, Jessica splashed her face with cold water and tried to calm herself.
She knew that Katie was trying to shake her. Unfortunately, it had worked. Almost too well. She didn’t want to be reminded of all the private things about Nick that she wanted to forget. Recalling some very private things incited a tug in her belly, and Jessica turned on the cold water again, swearing under her breath.
“I can’t be thinking about him like this,” Jessica muttered. She straightened and looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was pale from being out of the direct sunlight for so long. Her eyes were weary, and a little too big. She shook her head and turned away from her reflection. She decided that she’d better face the music. After all, if Katie married Nick, and Josh and Claudia-Michelle, who was very close to Nick, were friends, Jessica would see more of Nick—even if she didn’t want to or not.
Jessica walked out of the bathroom and into the dim hallway. Looking around, she saw that the hallway was empty and prepared to dash back to the den without incident. But someone said her name.
Jessica froze. She would recognize that voice anywhere, even if he was cloaked and blinded. She exhaled and slowly turned around. In a pewter sweater that brought out his eyes and jeans, Nick Lachey stood before her. And she was at a loss, so she didn’t speak.
“I just wanted to say—” Nick began.
Jessica raised a hand. “Don’t. It’s pointless. It’s been seven years, and we’ve both moved on to other things.”
“I know.” Nick took a tentative step forward. “But it just feels better to get it off of my chest. I want you to know that I really am sorry for how things turned out between us.”
Jessica nodded absently. “I accept the apology.” She stepped back and turned to walk away when he spoke again.
Jessica turned. “Yes?”
“I would like us to be friends.”
Jessica nodded absently once again, suddenly feeling scraped raw on the inside. “Maybe we can be.” She said it even though she knew it was a lie. Not wanting to continue the conversation, she turned and walked back to the den, leaving Nick to stare after her. Jessica didn’t want to see the look she knew would be in his eyes. It would only hurt her at this point.