His smile flickers back into place, calm and restrained. “Yes, Poppy,” he says. “You get whatever you want now. Is that a problem?”
“What if I want you to have what you want?”
He arches an eyebrow. “Are you just saying that because you know what I’m going to say, and you want to make fun of me for it?”
“No?” I say. “Why? What are you going to say?”
Our hands go still between us. “I have what I want, Poppy.”
My heart flutters, and I pull my hand from his, coil it around his waist, and tip my head back to peer into his face. “I am resisting the urge to PDA all over you right now, Alex Nilsen.”
He bends his neck and kisses me so long that a few people start cheering. When we pull apart, he’s pink cheeked and bashful. “Damn,” he says. “I feel like a horny teenager.”
“Maybe if we utilize the Jäger Bomb station in the backyard,” I say, “we’ll go back to feeling like demure, mature thirty-year-olds.”
“That sounds realistic,” Alex says, tugging me toward the back patio. “I’m in.”
There’s a bar out back and a food truck serving fish tacos parked on the grass. Behind that, a garden stretches out like something from a Jane Austen novel, right here in the middle of the desert.
“Probably not great for conservation,” Alex remarks in true grandpa form.
“Probably not,” I agree. “But possibly great for conversation.”
“True,” he says. “When all else fails, you can always engage a stranger in thoughtful small talk about the dying earth.”
At some point we find ourselves sitting on the edge of the pool, pants and jumpsuit legs rolled up and legs dangling in the warm water, and that’s when we hear David shouting excitedly from within a crowd, “Where’s my brother? He’s got to be part of this.”
“Sounds like you’re needed.”
Alex sighs. David spots him and jogs over. “I need you to do this game.”
“Drinking game?” I guess.
“Not for Alex,” David says. “I bet he won’t have to drink one single time. It’s a David Trivia game. You in?”
Alex winces. “Do you want me to be?”
David crosses his arms. “As the groom, I demand it.”
“You really are never allowed to divorce Tham,” Alex says, lumbering to his feet.
“For a multitude of reasons,” David says, “I agree.”
Alex walks over to the long, candlelit table where the game is starting up, but David lingers by me, watching him go. “He seems good,” he says.
“Yeah,” I agree. “I think he is.”
David’s gaze drops to me, and he lowers himself onto the slick side of the pool, slipping his legs into the water. “So,” he says. “How did this happen?”
He lifts his brow skeptically. “This.”
“Um.” I try to think of how to explain it. Years of undying love, occasional jealousy, missed opportunities, bad timing, other relationships, building sexual tension, a fight and the silence afterward, and the pain of living life without him. “Our Airbnb’s air-conditioning broke.”
David stares at me for a few seconds, then drops his face into his hands, chuckling. “Damn,” he says, straightening up. “I have to say I’m relieved.”
“Yeah.” David shrugs. “You know. It’s like . . . now that I’m getting married—now that I know I’m staying in L.A.—I guess I’ve just been worried about him. Back in Ohio. On his own.”
“I think he likes Linfield,” I say. “I don’t think he’s there out of necessity. Besides, I wouldn’t say he’s on his own. Your whole family’s there. All the nieces and nephew.”
“That’s my point.” David looks toward the trivia game at the table, watches as the three other contestants down shots of something caramel colored and Alex sips on a cup of water victoriously. “He’s kind of an empty nester now.” His mouth twists into a frown that’s so like his brother’s that I feel a quick, painful impulse to kiss it away.
When I think about what David’s actually saying, the pain gets worse, harboring itself behind my rib cage like a little red knot. “You think he feels like that?”
“Like he raised us? Put all his emotional energy into making sure the three of us were okay? Driving Betty around to doctor appointments, packing our fucking school lunches and getting Dad out of bed when he had one of his episodes, and then, all of a sudden, we all went off and got married and started having kids of our own, while he’s left to make sure Dad’s all right?” Stony serious, David looks back at me. “No. Alex would never think like that. But I think he’s been lonely. I mean . . . we all thought he was going to marry Sarah, and then . . .”
“Yeah.” I lift my legs out of the pool and cross them in front of me.
“I mean, he had the ring and everything,” David goes on, and my stomach drops. “He was supposed to propose, and then—she was just gone, and . . .” He trails off when he sees the look on my face.
“Don’t get me wrong, Poppy.” He sets his hand on mine. “I always thought it should be you two. But Sarah was great, and they loved each other, and—I just want him to be happy. I want him to stop worrying about other people and have something that’s just his, you know?”
“Yeah.” I can barely get the word out. I’m still sweating, but my insides have swiftly gone cold, because all I can think is, He was going to marry her.
She said it in Tuscany, and after a few weeks, I brushed it off as an offhand comment, but now I can’t help but see everything that happened on that trip in a different light.