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Distance, Dani Clayton is told, makes the heart grow fonder--and maybe that’s true, for some situations. For the situation that is her mother, she thinks there isn’t enough distance in the world. Not even hopping a plane to England, telling Karen with the slapdash over-her-shoulder desperation of a woman on the run, “I’ll call! I’ll call when I get settled!” was enough. 

She’s a grown woman, she reminds herself entirely too frequently. A grown woman with a good job, a nice living situation, a whole life out here in Bly, and if her stomach still sinks into her sneakers when the phone rings--if she still wakes in a cold sweat from dreams of home--if it makes her feel like she’s going just a little bit out of her mind when her mother sends “well-meaning” texts about Dani’s love life...

Grown women still have to deal with ghosts of a certain kind, it would appear. 

Still, Dani’s comfortable with her decisions. Happy, even. Most girls don’t flee the country over a breakup, but when that breakup comes with disapproving head shakes in the grocery store, and with cajoling Facebook posts, and with Eddie’s mother materializing on her doorstep to insist that cold feet happen, Danielle, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t still love you--dire choices must sometimes be made. Some girls would leap headlong into a new relationship, or invent wild excuses for their behavior, or have a public meltdown. 

Dani Clayton--quietly, without asking permission or for anyone’s advice on the subject--packed three small bags, bought a ticket to anywhere else, please, and left. 

Six months later, she found herself here: a live-in au pair for a couple of incredible children in a stately country manor she couldn’t have conceived of back in Iowa. It had been less than simple, at first: Miles was alternately sweet and cold, Flora bouncing between hyperactive and nearly sick with misery. They missed their parents, they missed their former au pair, they missed Peter Quint, for reasons no other occupant of the house had seemed quite able to understand. And Dani, who had been looking for a distraction big enough to wield against the shadows of her own failed relationship, had felt strangely at home without even trying.

The others had, of course, helped--Owen, with his brotherly teasing and top-notch culinary skills; Hannah, an excellent listener who made Dani feel instantly as though she had nothing to be ashamed of; Jamie, who walked into the room day one and felt as though she’d been in Dani’s life from the start. Dani, whose friend list had previously consisted of Edmund and all of his friends, as well as a handful of colleagues from school, had felt as though she was plunging out into a deep ocean only to be caught by these three people. Caught, and buoyed, and loved, against all odds. 

It has been strange, and it has been complicated, but it has also been good. Not that she’s been able to get as much across to her mother, who calls once a week with barbed questions on her tongue: when are you coming back? are you even bothering to look for another job? you know Eddie’s still talking about you, don’t you, Danielle?

All the more reason to stay here forever, she thinks each time she hangs up. All the more reason to build a permanent life out here in Bly, with its huge staircase and its elegant walls and its tiny little family tucked into a warm kitchen. 

“I don’t know why I even pick up,” Dani tells Jamie one day, tossing her cell phone so hard, it bounces off the couch and clatters to the floor. Jamie bends, picks it up, inspecting the screen for dents. 

“All good,” she says, handing it back. “And you do it ‘cuz you’re kind. Couldn't say I’d be the same, if I had a mother that relentless.”

Dani laughs, feels just a little better, as she always seems to with Jamie in the room. She’s never had a friend like Jamie before, someone so willing--even eager--to listen to her speak. Not that Jamie is one of those people who tells Dani what she wants to hear, someone poised to constantly stroke Dani’s ego. She’s a little rough around the edges, uninterested in lies or games, and when she looks Dani in the eye, Dani always feels seen. It’s been refreshing, these months with Jamie. Makes her feel safe in a way she can’t remember ever being before, even when she was little.

Closest, maybe, was that first year being Eddie’s best friend. That first year, with her dad freshly in his grave and her mother pulling further away each day, before Eddie ever thought about kissing or marriage or what-comes-next. She thinks about that year often, how they’d both been small for their age, how his family had been so big and warm and welcoming, and hers had shriveled to bitter silence one night without warning. She’d felt at home in Eddie’s house, eight years old and trying so hard to look stronger than she felt. 

And then, the rest of it--like a bad 80s movie come to call. Eddie’s attention growing bigger by the day, while Dani felt herself growing smaller beneath its weight. Eddie’s mother, the sweetest woman in the world, dropping hints about how nicely Dani would fit into the family Christmas card, how beautiful Dani would look in Eddie’s grandmother’s ring, how perfect Dani would be, dropping her father’s name and wearing O’Mara like an anchor around her neck instead. 

She’d run, before it could all set in. Before the cement around her shoes could dry, and the cage door could slam, and her story could be stamped with a filigreed The End before it had even gotten started. She’d run, and the worst part about it was Judy on the other end of every social media messenger, asking what she’d done wrong. 

“Heavy,” Jamie had said when Dani told her the whole sordid tale. She’d left out some parts--how she’d always felt wrong in a way she couldn’t quite pin down, with Eddie; how she still feels it now, in a hot-rush-opposite way with Jamie sitting beside her on the couch. But most of it, she’d let fall out in a single evening, passing a bottle of wine back and forth with Jamie while the kids slept. 

“I should have stayed, shouldn’t I?” she’d said, swaying a little, her knee pushed up against Jamie’s thigh. “I should have just figured it out. Who runs away like that?”

Jamie, true to form, hadn’t danced around it, hadn’t even tried to find the nice way of saying the thing. She’d closed a hand over Dani’s kneecap, the callouses of her fingers rough against Dani’s skin, and looked her dead in the eye. 

“Poppins. Were you happy?”

Dani, tears in her eyes, had shaken her head hard enough to blur the world. Jamie handed the bottle back, leaned against the arm of the couch, gave her knee a single firm pat. 

“And are you now?”

Dani, bottle raised clumsily to her lips, had nodded. Jamie looked satisfied, messy curls backlit by the room’s single lamp. 

“Well, there you go.”

That had been her first month at Bly, and Dani hasn’t allowed herself to stray down that line of thinking again since. That was Danielle’s life, not hers. This, living at the manor, tucking Flora into bed after a nightmare, pushing Miles gently away from bad habits plucked from Peter Quint: this is her life. Laughing at Owen’s puns, helping Hannah tidy the house, stealing little glances at Jamie out in the greenhouse. This is her life. And she loves it. She genuinely, truly does.

Distance. That’s the key to every problem. A little distance. A little freedom. Took her nearly thirty years, but Dani has it figured out now. And she’s satisfied with that much--

--right until the Monday morning phone call from Karen Clayton.

***

“Mom?” Dani tries her hardest not to sound ragged, as if she wasn’t just chasing Flora down the stairs in a feeble effort to coax the girl into picking up after herself. It’s one of those days already, where Flora is distant, impatient, not quite there. Dani doesn’t really have time for this call. 

Dani doesn’t ever really have time, where Karen is concerned. Her mother always starts the same, a record that refuses to skip:

“Honey, have you done something to your hair?”

Dani resists the urge to close her eyes. Her mother has opted again for the impossible-to-escape FaceTime call, her face small and pinched and angled just-so to prevent Dani seeing her rounding jawline.  She looks so fragile, filling Dani’s screen, and Dani briefly thinks, I could toss this phone into the lake, and we’d never have to do this again. I could drown what’s left of Danielle and forget, finally. 

“Hi, Mom,” she says, pitching her voice toward cheery, consciously wiping the weariness away. “What’s up?”

What do you want, more likely--her mother has that look Dani remembers all too well from growing up, the one that said Karen was about to make demands phrased carefully to feel like questions. Would you mind running to the store, Danielle? We’re out of milk and cigarettes again. Oh, and if you could drop this bill off while you’re at it? Wouldn’t want the electricity to shut off again, would we?

“Danielle, I know it’s been a hard year,” her mother is saying now, her voice skipping and stuttering with her poor wifi connection. She’s not at the house, Dani thinks; the kitchen behind her doesn’t look familiar. Or maybe the house, the one Dani grew up in, isn’t the house anymore. Maybe Karen has moved on without her. Wouldn’t that be something?

“What?” Dani asks, when her mother’s face freezes, blurs, jumps forward a few frames. Her voice has stopped altogether. Dani moves automatically toward the front door, stepping out into sunshine in hopes of locating a better signal. “Try again now.”

“Can you hear me now?”

“Yeah--yes, that’s better.” Few more minutes. Few more minutes, and I can forget this call even happened. “Bad signal, Mom, I keep telling you I’m out in the country--”

“So, of course, we’ll need you to come home for it,” Karen says at the exact same moment. Ice water has somehow found its way into Dani’s veins, a riptide turning her body to stone. 

“Say again?”

“For the wedding,” her mother says impatiently. “Danielle, are you listening?”

“Mom--I can’t--I can’t hear--” Just wind back and throw, Dani thinks helplessly, staring out at the grounds. Just throw it as hard as you can, and maybe a bird will take it off to its nest, and you can be free—

I said.” Karen’s voice is chipped, shrill, awful in her ears. Is she going to sound like that someday? Did she pick up too many of her mother’s genes in the great lottery that was her birth? Will she, one day, be squinting into a phone at the daughter she can’t comprehend, sounding like a witch from some old fairytale in which children are devoured and home is a broken story? “You’ll be here for the wedding, of course. You’ll be standing up in the wedding, Danielle, as my bridesmaid. Or is that not going to work with your plans?”

Wedding. She’s definitely said wedding, several times over now. She’s said wedding, and also my, and also bridesmaid, and Dani feels like the world has been slammed into fast-forward. 

“You’re getting married?” she says, trying not to sound like a third marriage is probably the worst idea Karen Clayton could have. If there’s an art to love, her mother missed every class. Resentment, on the other hand-- “Again?”

“Danielle, honestly, it’s like you’re not even--yes, I’m getting married. In two weeks. And I’ll need you here the whole time, all right? None of this sweeping in Friday night and running away before the reception’s over nonsense. I need my daughter.”

Since when? Dani thinks almost idly. She catches sight of Jamie, overalls and flannel shirt, clearing out a nearby gutter, and finds her feet carrying her slowly in that direction. At the very least, Jamie can help talk her down from whatever cliff she’ll feel like flinging herself off of when this conversation finally ends. 

“And, dear, I think it’s time we put all that runaway-bride crap behind us,” her mother goes on. “I’ve put Edmund at your table, and I think you know he’s still sweet on you. His Facebook relationship status hasn’t changed since you left, not once. He’d take you back in an instant if you just--”

“I’m not--I don’t want that,” Dani says, feeling as though the air has gotten strangely thin all of a sudden. She catches Jamie’s eye, some distant part of her warming when Jamie gives a little nod, a wave from atop the ladder. 

“Don’t want that?” her mother repeats, like Dani’s just started speaking French. “Danielle, what’s not to want? The man is handsome, tall, has a terrific job, and has been in love with you since the third grade!”

Not a single part of that sentence is doing what you think it’s doing. “I don’t love him, Mom.”

“Oh, don’t be silly, of course you do. Practically had to drag you kicking and screaming out of that house for years, didn’t I?”

Because Judy’s idea of dinner wasn’t a ramen packet and a Diet Coke in front of the TV, Dani tactfully does not say. “Mom--Mom, I’m not--”

“So, it’s settled. You’ll fly in Wednesday night--that’ll give you plenty of time to help with the rehearsal dinner Friday, we’ll have all sorts of odd jobs that need doing beforehand, you remember the last time--and I’m sure Judy would just love it if you stayed over--”

“Mom,” Dani says, feeling as though someone has wrenched the contrast up on the world. She’s almost at the ladder now, too aware that Jamie is still watching her, an expression of mild concern on her face. “Mom--I’m not--I’m--Mom, I’m gay.”

It just slips out, really. Slips out, the way an avalanche slips out over a small village, crushing the inhabitants before they’re even aware it’s happening. I’m gay. Is it even true? Maybe. Probably. To some degree, at least, though she’s spent nearly three decades trying her hardest not to interrogate it too closely. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Not that she has any problem at all with it--especially not with Jamie, who is probably her best friend in the world, if she’s honest with herself, and who is about as gay as they come. 

Jamie, who is hopping off the ladder and standing just out of frame with hands in her pockets, looking at Dani like she’s not sure her services are needed, but is perfectly willing to offer. Dani gives her a dizzy little smile, her head rushing with hostile adrenaline. 

“Gay,” Karen repeats. 

“Yeah. Y-yeah, gay.” If she keeps saying it, if she keeps letting that word dance across her lips, it’ll start to sink in that she’s just said it to her mother. That she has, finally, given Karen the first real key to her authentic self. 

Only took thirty years. 

“Well,” her mother says stiffly. “If you say so.”

It’s her tried-and-true you’re being dramatic voice, Dani recognizes--the one her mother used whenever Dani came home from school with an injury, or a complaint about an unfair teacher, or a nervous retelling of a nightmare. If you say so, Danielle--meaning, of course, it must be an attention-seeking lie. 

“It is,” Dani says, her voice firming up with irritation. “It is, and I--I’ve got a girlfriend.”

This is, quite patently, not as true. Not true at all, in fact. There is a gulf of difference between looking at women, curious as to what they’d feel like kissing her, loving her, and understanding she is not prepared to look that curiosity in the face. Or wasn’t, for most of her life. 

Jamie is watching her closely, brow tight with worry. Dani licks her lips, tries to gesture without her mother seeing: It’s fine. This is fine. It’s fine. Nothing to see here, just trying to come out to my mom and get out of seeing my ex-fiancé at the same--

“So, you’ll be bringing her,” Karen’s tinny voice says, jerking her out of her thoughts. Dani makes a very small, unpleasantly squeaky noise. 

“Sorry?”

“The girlfriend. You’ll be bringing her along?” Her mother is still stiff, irritable, but Dani thinks she senses a challenge beneath the words, too. “I hadn’t factored in a plus-one for you, but things can be moved around. You know I’ve never liked Susan’s daughter, we can muscle her aside for your...girlfriend.”

She doesn’t believe me, Dani realizes. About any of it. But especially that part. And what is she supposed to do about that, anyway, hire someone on Craigslist? Is she going to be the next viral meme, the next fool desperately seeking someone, anyone, willing to feign a relationship in front of her small-town family for an entire long goddamned weekend?

“Poppins,” Jamie says, striding over like she has all the time in the world, “love, been looking everywhere for you.”

Love, Dani registers, even as a shiver works down her spine. One of those colloquial British-isms, love, but Jamie’s never used it with her. It’s always seemed intentional, somehow, like a line in the sand Jamie isn’t up for crossing--maybe because Jamie is gay, maybe because Jamie does find women attractive, and has always been so careful to keep Dani on the other side of friendship. 

“What--what for?” she manages, too aware of her mother watching from across an ocean. Jamie slides an arm around her waist, leans in, presses a kiss to the skin just beside her ear. 

“Look like you could use the help,” she says quietly. Dani, desperate, nods once. Jamie leans back, making a show of noticing the phone. “Hey! Mrs. Clayton! Pleasure!”

She gives Dani’s waist a gentle squeeze, her smile sterling even as her eyes say, All right? Dani nods again, subtly, and Jamie releases. 

“Off to work,” she says, loudly enough for Karen’s benefit. “Lovely seeing you, Mrs. Clayton. Poppins, find me later?”

A gift, Dani registers. A small, simple gift, exactly Jamie’s speed: giving Dani a moment to use however she requires, without pushing. She loves this about Jamie, loves Jamie’s ability to walk into a room and instantly read her like a book. No one has ever been so capable, so aware of the language Dani has been speaking into unpracticed ears her whole life. 

“Was that her?” Her mother’s voice is even more challenging, somehow. “Why does she call you that?”

“Nickname,” Dani says shakily. Her face is doing something, she senses, terribly unexpected--a white-hot blush radiating out from the place Jamie’s lips grazed her skin. She only hopes the connection is too bad for her mother to see it. “Mary Poppins, you know? The--nanny--”

Her mother isn’t listening. “Well. You’ll bring her along, I suppose. Everyone will want to meet...what was her name, again?”

“Jamie,” Dani says around the desert heat of her tongue. “She’s--”

“Going to need a dress. I don’t suppose she owns a dress? And she’ll have to tolerate you taking time for your mother, I can’t have you ducking out of the preparations, Danielle, this is very important. A wedding like this is--”

Dani, FaceTime or not, closes her eyes and tries very hard not to hang up.

***

“That sounded rough,” Jamie says when Dani trudges back into the house twenty minutes later. Her ears are still ringing, her mother’s list of expectations longer than the flight home. “She always like that?”

“Rare form,” Dani says dully, dropping down at the kitchen table. Jamie slides a mug of tea in her direction, and she gulps it down gratefully. “I’m sorry you got dragged into that, I--panicked. Didn’t know how to else to get her to stop.”

“Other than telling her you have a girlfriend, you mean?” Jamie’s eyes are bright, sparkling with something dangerously like mischief. Dani reaches for the cookie tin, unable to meet her gaze. 

“Should have told her a long time ago.”

“That you have a girlfriend?” Jamie repeats, a little less teasingly. Dani stuffs the cookie into her mouth, buying time. 

“That I’m--whatever I am,” she says at last around a spray of crumbs. “That’s why I broke it off with Eddie, you know.”

“Didn’t,” Jamie says, taking the seat beside her. She’s watching Dani again, that keen observation that makes Dani feel so important every time. “Wondered, though. The way you talked, always using that word--wrong. He was wrong. It was wrong. Wondered if that had something to do with it.”

Dani lays her head against the cool wood of the table, trying to stabilize her breath before it can steer her straight into panic. She feels Jamie’s hand lay tentatively between her shoulder blades, a single reassuring pat that vanishes before she even has time to enjoy it. 

“Anything I can do?” Jamie asks. “Doubt anyone can ever make it easier, and not sure I helped with the, ah, playacting for your mum, but--”

Dani turns her face against the table, looking up at Jamie with one wet eye. She shouldn’t be crying. She should be brushing herself off, standing up, going in search of Flora and whatever mood is steering that bus today. 

“She thinks you’re my girlfriend, you know.”

Jamie’s face doesn’t twitch. “That so.”

“Wants me to bring you along,” Dani hurries on miserably. “Wants me to prove it, I think.”

“Prove...that you have a girlfriend, or that you’d like one?”

“Both. I don’t know.” She sits up, scrubbing both hands through her hair. “I can’t believe she’s actually doing this again. How many times does someone need to get married?”

“At least one more, from what I can tell of your mother,” Jamie says with a smile.  She hesitates. “Ah...what did you say?”

“When?”

“When she told you to bring me along for the ride.” Jamie’s trying very hard, Dani senses, to pretend this is a normal conversation to be having on a Monday morning. A normal conversation between normal friends, as though Dani’s whole face isn’t still tingling from the feather press of Jamie’s lips half an hour ago.

“I told her I’d have to talk to you,” Dani mumbles. When Jamie’s eyebrow arches, she adds, “I know, I know, I should have told her we weren’t--but you’d just done the--the thing, and she jumped to the conclusion on her own, and it’s not like she’s great at listening to me, so--”

“Poppins.” Jamie’s fingers, resting light against her knuckles. She holds there, as if the gentle pressure can keep Dani from running straight into a panic attack. “S’all right. Do you want me to go?”

“Do--do I want you to go...to the wedding?” 

Jamie looks amused. “No, Dani, do you want me to go dunk myself in the lake. Yes, to the bloody wedding. Only, your mum already thinks I’ll be there, right? And I’m guessing you’re not leaping to deal with it on your own.”

“You want,” Dani says slowly, feeling as though she’s woken up in someone else’s life, “to go to a wedding. My mother’s wedding. In Iowa.”

“Well, not for my health,” Jamie laughs. “For yours, maybe, yeah. Poppins, come on. You really want to walk into that fight alone?”

“I was thinking I’d change my name and move to Australia,” Dani says vaguely. Jamie shakes her head. 

“No good. I’d be bored witless without you. This is, I’m afraid, the only answer left to us.”

Dani narrows her eyes, searching Jamie’s calm smile for traps. “You are being way too okay with this. What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Jamie says, leaning back in her chair. She’s grinning, something Dani finds just a little dangerous and a lot compelling at the same time. “Maybe I just want to see America, s’all.”

Dani stares. She shrugs. 

“And maybe Hannah told me I’d be the world’s biggest twat if I left you hanging.”

***

What Hannah had said, in fact, was, “She needs you, dear, and I think you know that.” Jamie’s not looking to say as much, not to Dani, who needs a friend more badly than she needs anyone to tell her what she needs

“You really think I could pull it off?” she asks Hannah, watching Dani argue with her mother outside. “Going to play nice-girlfriend in front of the people she never wants to see again?”

“Any particular reason you wouldn’t be capable of that?” Hannah is sweeping the hall with great interest, barely paying Jamie any mind at all. Jamie hates when she does this--this thing where she pretends she can’t see Jamie quietly losing her mind over some little detail of Dani Clayton, like Hannah thinks it’s not her business. Which, fair, it isn’t--but Jamie needs someone to bounce this off of before she breaks the last of her self-control and bounces it off of Dani. 

“You know why not,” she says in a low voice, glancing again toward the window. Dani has one hand in her hair, looking as though she’s seconds from yanking a thick clump of blonde strands out. Jamie’s been there. Mothers, from her minimal knowledge, have that effect on most people.

“Seems as good a reason as any,” Hannah tells her mildly. Jamie scoffs. 

“What, because you think I’m in love with her--”

“I,” Hannah points out, “have never said anything of the sort. Though you most certainly are not walking away clean, regardless of your decision.”

Jamie kicks the floor, careful not to scuff the hardwood with the toe of her boot. “She needs a friend, Hannah. More’n anyone I’ve ever met.”

“A friend,” Hannah says, pausing in her work to lean on the broom, “does not leave one to suffer lions alone.”

“What’s that, some Biblical nonsense?”

“Just something to keep in mind.” Hannah jabs a finger under Jamie’s nose. “And I’d thank you to keep nonsense out of my faith, or else find what else this broom can do.”

And so, Jamie finds herself sitting at this table, one arm slung over the back of a chair, grinning like anything about the situation is funny. Maybe to someone else, it would be--to someone who hasn’t been slowly falling for a co-worker over the span of a summer, someone who didn’t promise herself long ago not to crack the seal of friendship in the name of blind attraction. Dani’s gorgeous, and smart, and so goddamned good with those kids--and Dani is full of shadows. Jamie could see it even before Dani opened her mouth and let anything real spill out; there’s a tension to every inch of her body, a distance to her eyes, that doesn’t come from a silver-spoon upbringing. 

Dani has been through some shit, and it isn’t up to Jamie to carry that for her--but it is up to Jamie to make the next bit of her life that much easier. Even if just with a bottle of wine, a gentle smile, a friendly joke. 

“You don’t have to,” Dani says, though her eyes are pleading. “Really, Jamie, they’re awful. I mean, Judy means well, but my mother--”

“Will think I’m a star by the end of the weekend,” Jamie promises. “I’m excellent with parents, Poppins.”

“You hate talking about your parents,” Dani points out. Jamie winces.

“Excellent with other people’s parents, then. Haven’t had a chance to abandon me to the system, have they? I tend to cut them more slack.” She reaches out, gives Dani’s shoulder a companionable shake until Dani begins to smile. “It’ll be fun, I promise. I’m terrific on the dance floor.”

“Really?”

“Not in the least,” Jamie says, pushing to her feet and pulling Dani with her. “But at least it’ll be hilarious, yeah?”

***

Henry Wingrave isn’t thrilled about letting two of his employees off for five days, but when Dani coolly reminds him the kids have been asking for their uncle since her arrival, he relents. Jamie isn’t sure if that’s to do with Dani’s actual powers of persuasion--magnificent though they unexpectedly are--or with Wingrave’s crushing guilt. Either way, he agrees for the first time since Dani’s arrival at Bly to spend a long weekend with Miles and Flora. 

With Miles, anyway; Jamie’s not certain they’ll make it to America without discovering Flora tucked away in Dani’s suitcase.

“Why d’you have to go?” Flora asks, bouncing on Dani’s bed. Jamie, leaning against the doorframe with a backpack slung over one shoulder, smiles. 

“My mom’s getting married,” Dani explains. Flora wrinkles her nose. 

“Your mum isn’t already married?”

“Nope. You remember what I told you, about my dad?”

“He died,” Flora says with the somber certainty of her eight years. “When you were little, like me.”

“Right. Well, my mom’s been trying to find someone else--someone else to be happy with, since that happened.” The amount of tact in Dani’s phrasing should be framed and mounted in a museum, Jamie thinks. Flora looks puzzled.

“Why? Wasn’t it true love, with your dad?”

Something in Dani’s expression tightens for a moment, a shock of sadness around her mouth that gives way to a small smile. “I don’t know. Maybe. But with him gone--”

“Dead,” Flora corrects. “Not gone.”

Jamie rolls her eyes heavenward, even as Dani patiently says, “Not with my mom, either way. With him not there, she was...sad.”

“And this man makes her happy,” Flora says decisively. It isn’t a question, merely a statement of reality. A person only gets married, in Flora’s world, if they are happy doing so. Flora’s world has no room for repressed guilt, for closets with doors firmly barred, for choices made based on surprise pregnancy or expectation. 

If only we could all live in your world, kid, Jamie thinks. Dani places the last item in her suitcase and flips the latch, hefting it off the bed with a tiny groan. 

“But you’ll come back,” Flora says. Her eyes are serious, the way Jamie sometimes notes with a shiver as being too adult. A kid Flora’s age shouldn’t understand the things Flora understands, about how easily promises are broken, how the best of intentions can still lead to accidents. “Only--the last time someone left--”

Dani crouches beside the bed, looking up into Flora’s solemn face. “If I have any say in it,” she says, taking Flora’s hand, “I will be back Monday morning at the absolute latest.”

Flora nods. She doesn’t quite believe it all the way, Jamie suspects, but this is as good as it’s going to get. 

“And why’s Jamie going?” 

Jamie leans into the room, an easy one-two-three bringing her to the bed. She doesn’t come in here often, preferring to leave Dani her space, and walking inside with such bravado feels almost like opening a treasure chest. This room is Dani, to a degree--it smells of her, holds safe her small amount of possessions, keeps her secrets and hugs her close at night. She meets Dani’s eyes, Dani still kneeling on the floor, and smiles. 

“Have you ever been to a wedding, Flora?” Flora shakes her head. Jamie had assumed as much. “Well, when you go to a wedding as a grown-up, the bride and groom like to give you the chance to bring a friend. In case you don’t know anyone else there. It’s called a plus-one.”

“And you’re Miss Clayton’s plus-one?” Flora looks absolutely delighted with this new information. “Because she needs a friend?”

Dani is still looking at her, Jamie realizes, with an expression so soft, it makes Jamie want to cry. “Exactly.”

“Come on,” Dani adds, standing and lifting her suitcase. “Don’t want to miss our flight.”

Jamie scoops Flora off the bed, hiking her over her backpack-less shoulder. Flora giggles, head dangling against Jamie’s back, her arms flailing. Jamie glances back to find Dani watching them with a fond smile. 

“Shake a leg. I want your mother thinking I’m the most punctual human on the planet.”

Owen is kind enough to drive them to the airport, apparently not minding going into London to do so. He drops them off with a less than subtle, “You know, if you wanted a final out, I could say I wrecked the car.”

Dani gives him a tight hug, Jamie holding the bags simply for something to do with her hands. 

“Five days,” Dani says, in the sort of voice that suggests she isn’t sure who she’s saying it for. “Five days, and we’ll be home.”

Home. That big stupid house, excessive and sprawling, with Owen and Hannah and the kids. And Jamie. If she’s nothing else, Jamie is, at least, home to Dani, and that’s more than enough most days. 

“It’ll be great,” Jamie says, clapping Owen on the shoulder and pushing him back to the car. “Poppins is going to teach me all about America. Maybe I’ll stay forever.”

“Don’t you dare,” Owen laughs. “Leaving me with the gremlins and Mrs. Grose, what would Henry say?”

“About time?” Jamie suggests brightly. He gives her a good-natured glower. 

The bustle of an airport is, Jamie recognizes quickly, not for her. She’s never actually flown before, never actually felt the need to board one of these giant metal birds and set her life in the hands of complete strangers. It seemed like a great idea, right up until the little video that tells her all the ways she can try to scrounge survival should one of the wings malfunction and fall off or whatever. 

“I am,” she says quietly, glancing out the window, “rethinking my choices just a bit.”

Dani smiles. She’s looked a bit pale all day, the notion of seeing her mother face to face for the first time in almost a year doing nothing good for her color. With Jamie’s anxiety rising, however, she seems to slide effortlessly back into caretaker mode. 

“The odds of Owen crashing on his way back to Bly are like ten times higher than the odds of us going down on this plane.”

“That,” Jamie says tightly, “is not nearly as big a comfort as I’m sure you meant it, Poppins.”

Dani laughs. Jamie darts a small look at her face, pleased to see the iron Dani’s been holding between her teeth for days drop into an easy grin. 

“You really like it? Being thousands of meters up like a lunatic?”

Dani mulls it over. “I like...not having to think about it. Because there’s nothing I can do once I’m here, right? I can put on my seatbelt and stay in my assigned spot and other than that, I just...have to hope it all works out. There’s something nice about that.”

Jamie closes her eyes. The engines are going, a heavy rumble under her senses, and she suddenly wonders if Dani will still respect her if she has a screaming fit as they’re going up. 

“We are very different people,” she says. Dani’s hand bumps hers, gripped tight to the armrest between them, Dani’s fingers gently prying hers loose. “No, no, s’all right, just leave me here. I’ll just hang on until I die of shock, and that’ll be the escape you were looking for from this blasted wedding.”

“Come here,” Dani laughs. Reluctantly, Jamie allows her to finish the work of unbinding her death grip, until Dani’s palm fits neatly against her own. Dani’s grasp is gentle, but strong, and Jamie peeks open an eye to find her watching from inches away. “I’ve got you, okay? If you go down, I go down.”

“Also not the most reassuring sentence,” Jamie says weakly, unwilling to tell Dani just how wonderful it really is. She forces herself to breathe, as the plane rushes the end of the runway, as they lift off, as Dani’s hand squeezes and releases, squeezes and releases in time to Dani humming what Jamie dimly recognizes as “Leavin’ On A Jetplane” in her ear. 

“Terrible song,” Jamie says with a breathless laugh when they’ve leveled out and the seatbelt light has clicked off. Dani grins. 

“My dad used to sing it any time he had to go on a work trip. I hated it. Meant he was going to be gone for days every time.”

“And you performed it flawlessly all the same.” Jamie releases Dani’s fingers, which Dani politely pretends she has not been smashing for several minutes, and flexes her hand. “Hey, bright side? Maybe that’ll be the worst this weekend has to offer.”

Dani settles back in her seat, preparing to flag down a flight attendant in search of a drink. “It is very sweet that you think risk of death could possibly hold a candle to my mother.”

***

She almost feels bad about forcing Jamie to fly for this. They could be going anywhere just now, Dani offering gentle reassurances regarding the safety of planes, Jamie muttering into a small plastic cup of alcohol as she tries not to look out the window. They could be off to Brazil, New York, Japan. Anywhere in the huge wild world.

Anywhere but Iowa, and Dani’s mother, and a show they’re supposed to uphold entirely for the sake of people Dani would rather not see again at all.

Jamie, apart from her absolute terror of flying, proves to be as charming a travel companion as anything else. She does an admirable job, by virtue of jokes about airline food, color commentary on their fellow passengers, and running through the list of film options on their little TV like she’s hosting the Oscars, of keeping Dani’s mind in the air. Dani finds she especially likes the way Jamie leans close, lowers her voice, speaks right against Dani’s ear to prevent anyone overhearing her call the rude woman across the aisle a “pent-up Thatcher look-alike, anyone checked her grave recently?”

She likes Jamie in general, the way Jamie seems to find good humor in absolutely everything, even when the plane bucks in a few moments of turbulence. Jamie turns her eyes to Dani’s, grim, and says, “Poppins, if I die on this plane, should I haunt the whole of Iowa, or keep it localized to just you?”

“I’d make a boring hauntee,” Dani replies. “Being equally dead and all.”

She dozes off in the middle of a Disney sequel selected at random, chosen largely to keep the silence from growing awkward between them. She can’t remember the last time she was alone with Jamie for this long, without Hannah or one of the kids cutting into the conversation, and the idea that it might at some point become untenable is upsetting. With cartoon lions singing, Dani hopes Jamie won’t have time to realize what a bad idea this probably was. How Jamie doesn’t owe her anything, particularly anything as huge as flying to another country to pose as Dani’s first actual girlfriend in formal wear. 

It’s going to explode, she thinks as her chin dips toward her chest and her eyelids flicker. It’s going to all blow up in my face, and then we’ll have to slink back and work together, and I won’t have my friend anymore, again, and--

She wakes to the plane descending, her head pillowed on the slope of Jamie’s shoulder. Jamie is tense beneath her, head tilted back, eyes closed as she drags shallow breaths through her nose. 

“I’m so sorry,” Dani gasps. “You should have woken me, I didn’t realize we were--”

“Looked peaceful,” Jamie says without opening her eyes. Her fists are clenched against the legs of her jeans, her chest stuttering with abortive little breaths. Dani reaches over without thinking, presses a palm flat against the front of her t-shirt. 

“Out against my hand,” she instructs quietly. Jamie darts her a sharp look, cheeks bloodless. Dani presses harder against her breastbone. “Out against my hand.”

Forehead crinkled with the effort, Jamie obeys, exhaling shakily. When Dani is confident she’s emptied her lungs, she says, “Now in. Keep going. Deeper. And out again. Against my hand.”

Jamie doesn’t look at her until the plane is on the runway, the other passengers beginning to stand and root around overhead compartments for luggage. Dani tries not to feel as though she’s made a terrible mistake, tries not to remember how instinctively--and intimately--she’d touched Jamie without asking. 

“Look,” she begins when the plane has mostly emptied out and Jamie is starting to push out of her chair. “I--”

“Thank you,” Jamie interrupts. She looks, Dani realizes, mortified. “Know I’m here to keep you sane, but I...needed that.”

“I didn’t think about it,” Dani tries to explain. Jamie shakes her head, a crooked smile darting around her mouth like it’s trying to escape. 

“Didn’t have a reason. You didn’t know I’ve never been out of the country, or on one of these fuckin’ things, right?”

Not what I meant, Dani thinks, wanting to clarify that it was the touching she hadn’t thought about. The slow, patient manner of walking Jamie through a series of breathing exercises had come too naturally, the product of her still-waking mind not quite grabbing hold of reason. She had fallen asleep on Jamie without asking, had touched Jamie without asking, is asking too much of Jamie without making absolutely certain Jamie is okay with it.

Boundaries, she decides, making her way into the aisle and reaching for her bag. Need to set some before I do actual damage here. 

***

They’ve got a hotel room, the cost split between them, though Dani’s mother has been sending jabbing little texts for days about her guest bedroom. It’s free, Karen had said snidely, and your Jamie person could have the pull-out couch. 

“Free,” Dani had muttered to Jamie. “Minus the cost of my sanity.”

The hotel is a better idea, a single room in which they can drop all pretense at the end of the day. Something about booking it had felt like securing a safe haven, a tiny sanctuary where her mother is not welcome, where Eddie can’t possibly give her those big puppy eyes, where no one from her old life will come to call. It’ll just be her, and Jamie, and the awareness they share that this is truly bound to be a stupid weekend.

A stupid weekend, with--

“I booked two,” Dani says weakly, leaning against the wall. “I swear I booked two.”

“I believe you,” Jamie says, her bag hanging from one hand. Dani closes her eyes, opens them again, praying a second bed will materialize if she just tries hard enough to summon it.

“I can go--talk to the receptionist--”

Jamie laughs, catching her by the arm before she can make it to the door. “Poppins, I promise, I don’t bite. Anyway, what if dear old mum visits? Wouldn’t it look a bit strange to have two beds, anyway?”

Dani sags, hands digging into her hair. “I must have been going too fast on the website, I’m sorry--I can sleep on the--”

“Bed,” Jamie says gently. She’s looking at Dani with something like true amusement, the nerves from the flight completely gone. The teasing nature of her smile seems to be the only normal thing about the world just now. “You’ll sleep in the bed, and we can stack a little pillow fort between us, if it makes you more comfortable.”

“That isn’t necessary.” How can Jamie be so calm? How can Jamie--standing in a cheap hotel room in Iowa, knowing what’s going to be expected of her over the next few days--be smiling like this is just another day in the life? As if they never left Bly, as if they’re going to step through that door and find everything is as they left it? 

“This is going to be hard enough on you,” Jamie says, as if reading her mind. “Here? This room? You don’t have to be anyone you’re not, Dani.”

She blows out a long breath, letting her hair fall across her face, staring at the carpet until her heartbeat levels out into something resembling natural. ”Okay. Yeah. You’re right.”

Jamie gives her shoulders a light squeeze and lets go. “All right. Walk me through the plan.”

Dani watches her move to the bed, sinking down at the foot of it with her legs dangling off the plush gray carpet. The plan. Right. 

“Mostly,” Dani says, letting her weight fall back against the corner desk, “the plan is to keep me from having to stand still too long. I have no idea how many people my mother has invited, but if I had to guess, it’d be in the ballpark of...”

“Everyone you’ve ever met, and then some?” Jamie suggests. Dani sighs.

“Well, my grandparents are all dead, so there’s that.”

Jamie snorts a laugh, leaning back on her hands. “Right. No grandparents to keep straight, as it were. What else do I need to know?”

“Three major things.” Dani raises a hand, ticking them off on her fingers. “One: my mother is going to look for any sign, any crack at all, that our story is a lie. She’s like a bloodhound with drama, and the minute she notices we aren’t behaving exactly as she’d expect a pair of girlfriends to behave, she’s going to pounce.”

“Check. My most girlfriendly behavior, at all times.” Jamie makes a face, as if thinking hard. “Granted, my experience with such mostly involves heavy petting in locked bedrooms, but I’m sure I can adjust.”

“Two,” Dani says quickly, before the blood can rush to her face. “She already told me she invited Judy, which means she invited Eddie, and they’re both going to be at our table.”

Jamie nods. “The boyfriend. Right.”

“Ex,” Dani says, almost sharply. Jamie looks amused. “And it sounds like he hasn’t let that sink in yet. Somehow.”

Jamie’s brow furrows slightly. “Hang on, hasn’t it been a--”

“Year. Yeah. Almost. He’s always been...persistent.”

“So, you’d like me to make certain you’re not left alone to be cornered, then.” 

“By him or his mother,” Dani says. “Judy might be...harder to talk to, even. I didn’t exactly leave on good terms.”

Jamie tips her head, waits for clarification. Dani’s skin is burning, the collar of her shirt suddenly too tight. 

“I may have pushed her off my doorstep five minutes before sneaking off to the airport. Right after she invited me to dinner that Sunday.”

Understanding blooms across Jamie’s face, mercifully leaving any trace of judgement behind. “Ahh. And I’m guessing you didn’t reach out to tell her where you’d gone once you landed in England.”

“Technically, I landed in France,” Dani says. “And...no. I haven’t actually spoken to Judy since I left. Just kept...you know. Forgetting to respond to her Facebook messages.”

It’s hard to explain, just how difficult that was--how cutting ties with Eddie had felt a little like shame, a lot like breathing again, but cutting ties with his mother had just hurt. Judy always liked to say she understood Dani, that they were so similar, that she would always be there if Dani needed to talk--about her dad, about her home life, about anything at all. Judy had been kinder than all her teachers and relatives put together when Dani had needed her most, and leaving without a word had felt like making off with the silverware. 

“And three?” Jamie presses gently. Dani jumps, rubs her mouth with the back of one trembling hand.

“Three. Maybe most important. I...never told anyone. That I was--that I'm--”

“Not straight,” Jamie fills in without missing a beat. Quite suddenly, Dani realizes there should have been another path to this story, another method of saying it for the first time. Something neater than blurting it out to her mother, fortunate that Jamie had been there like magic, willing to do anything that might help ease the tension from the moment. 

“Right,” she says, throat tight. “I’ve never told anyone that before. And I’m sure, knowing my mother, she’ll have spread it through the county before we even turn up tomorrow, but...I don’t know what to expect.”

Jamie is leaning forward now, hands clasped between her knees, expression serious. Dani tries to smile, finds herself not quite capable of it. 

“It was a small town,” she explains. “And there was...enough to worry about, growing up. Never seemed like the right time. And then Eddie...I always knew, I think, but I never really...processed it? And then I left, and I was worried about finding a job and finding a place where I fit, and...now, there will be all these people who never saw it in me. Maybe they won’t want to, even now. I don’t know...how that’s going to go.”

Jamie lets her stumble along, lets her talk her way through it, even as her vision blurs and her voice catches. Jamie, whose best attribute is how easy she is to talk to, how she never rushes or pressures or cuts Dani off to tell her what she should be thinking. 

“I’m scared,” Dani says simply, shrugging one shoulder and trying again to smile. “Guess that’s it, really.”

Jamie nods, pushing herself to a standing position. “Right. Okay.” She crosses the room in several quick steps, until her hands are resting on Dani’s shoulders, her eyes showing no trace of amusement now. “Here’s what we’re gonna do.”

Dani looks at her, swaying a little, relieved when Jamie’s hands tighten just the barest amount to keep her steady. 

“We,” Jamie says, “are going to order room service. And we’re going to find the stupidest movie on that impressively-large television. And tomorrow, when we’re well-rested, we’re going to meet up with your dear mother, and I am going to be the best girlfriend anyone’s ever met. Best girlfriend anyone could imagine. By Sunday brunch, they’re going to all wish they had a girlfriend like me. Even your mum.”

Dani bursts into giggles, catching herself by surprise. Jamie gives her a gentle shake back and forth, grinning, until Dani’s laughing too hard to remember how close she’d just been to tears. 

“There we are,” Jamie says. “Chin up, Poppins. It’s going to be one hell of a weekend.”

She gives Dani a wink and heads off to explore the bathroom. Watching her go, Dani suspects there isn’t anyone in the world who could make this feel the way Jamie does--like, even though Dani is pretty sure they’re both about to go careening off a cliff to smash on the rocks of her childhood below, at least Jamie will be holding her hand the whole time. 

She’s not entirely sure why, but knowing that much is enough to loosen the fist around her heart just a little. 

***

Jamie’s surprised she sleeps at all. 

She doubts Dani can see it--she’s put a significant amount of energy into not letting Dani see it--but the past half a day has been a roller coaster the like of which she hasn’t lived through in years. The plane, for one thing--then Dani’s method of coaxing her back down from the edge of panic, her hand implacable and perfectly fitted against Jamie’s chest--then walking into the hotel room to find a single king-sized mattress waiting for them. By the time she was listening to Dani talk of abandoned family and fear of being seen for who she is, Jamie felt more than a little punch-drunk. 

Dinner had been easy enough, and they’d spent almost an hour debating whether a bad 90s rom-com or a fantastically-terrible action movie best suited the evening. Jamie had felt good about that much, comfortable in her skin as she reclined against the headboard and insisted She’s All That--unable to hold up under even the barest amount of scrutiny--was a proper classic. 

Dani, who had been pushing with all her considerable debate skills for Sucker Punch, had insisted she couldn’t take seriously a movie that hinged on glasses being the defining oddball characteristic of a woman. Jamie, fully aware she’d already lost this battle, countered with, “Oh, but short skirts while fighting mech-samurai works for you?”

It hadn’t really mattered, of course; Jamie, worn to the bone from holding her body tense for an entire flight, would have happily skimmed through the TV guide channel for the rest of the night if it meant sitting next to Dani. 

She’d do almost anything, if it means sitting next to Dani.

Sort of the crux of the problem, really.

Dani had not, as it turned out, allowed Jamie to build a fort of pillows between them. She’d leaned back against most of those pillows herself, giving herself an extra couple of inches over Jamie, and looked immensely pleased with her situation.

“Can I get you anything for your throne, highness?” Jamie had drawled up at her. “A cocktail? A foot rub?”

Dani, looking more at ease than she had all day, swatted her and swiped the remote. “You can watch this movie with me and pretend to like it.”

“That,” Jamie laughed, “might be beyond even my skill set.”

It hadn’t been as taxing as she’d hoped, however, watching Dani watch the movie out of the corner of her eye. Dani’s primary mode on any given day is Politely Tense; only when she has been drinking or when a movie is on does her body relax, her smile lightening around the edges. Jamie found herself following exactly nothing of the plot, her attention entirely on the little duck and weave of Dani’s head as she tracked action scenes, the absent way she hummed along with the soundtrack as she slid slowly down the pillows. By the time the film was hitting its climax, Dani’s eyelids were drooping, her head tipping sideways to land just off of Jamie’s arm. 

One night down, Jamie had thought with a pang of mingled sorrow and relief. One night without letting Dani know just how difficult this was going to be. 

Doesn’t matter. She needs me. Hannah’s right, it’s what any good friend would do. 

Hannah doesn’t know what it’s like, however, to sleep inches away from a woman you’ve been trying not to care for. To wake in jolts throughout the night, making absolutely certain all limbs are kept where they ought to be, making certain not to cross any invisible boundaries in the ease of dreaming. By the time the sun is prying its way over the horizon, pouring through the crack in the curtains, Jamie’s pretty sure she’s managed about two hours of shut-eye.

Good enough, she tells herself, hoisting out of bed and making for the shower. Karen Clayton’s bound to be a shot of espresso to the system, anyway. 

Dani sleeps through her shower, and through Jamie slipping down to the lobby in search of anything that might resolve into a decent cup of tea. She stirs only when Jamie, grumbling over the electric kettle on the desk, makes a disgusted sound at the box of discount teabags she finds in the drawer.

“Americans,” she mutters, glancing toward the bed and glancing away again just as quickly. There is something about Dani in a t-shirt and rumpled bed-head she is not emotionally equipped to handle at eight in the morning. “Sleep all right?”

“Like the dead,” Dani yawns. “Have you been up long?”

Jamie shakes her head, pointedly not watching Dani slip out of bed. “Long enough to wash up and discover the aversion to a decent brew isn’t a personal problem of yours, Poppins. What is it about your country that so likes imposing suffering via beverage?”

“Something about the time we tossed a bunch of your tea into the river, I think,” Dani says as she disappears into the bathroom. Jamie grins. 

“What are we looking at today, anyway?” she asks when, twenty minutes later, Dani emerges again with a towel wrapped around her hair. “Rehearsal shenanigans aren’t ‘til tomorrow, I thought?”

“They are. Today is what my mother called ‘miscellaneous errand day’.” Dani pulls a face, scrubbing her hair dry and casting around for a pair of socks in the same motion. “I’m supposed to pick up my dress, be on call if needed, and have dinner with her tonight.”

“We,” Jamie corrects. Dani looks up from her suitcase, face brightening. 

“Yeah. We.” She brushes her hair back into a ponytail. “Have I mentioned how glad I am, that you came with me?”

The tea is decidedly not good--though hot enough to scald--but Jamie takes a hefty swig to keep from grinning. Dani doesn’t appear to notice. 

“I was thinking,” she adds, coming up behind Jamie to inspect the single-serving coffee options with a critical eye. “We should probably talk before we meet my mom.”

“About?” This might be the worst tea she’s ever tasted, barring that which was made by Dani’s own incredibly well-meaning hands. 

“What you’re okay with. We. What we’re okay with. That is--me, and you, and...together.” Dani is staring fixedly at the instant coffee, her mouth a fidgety line. Jamie frowns into her paper cup. 

“In...what way, sorry?”

Dani makes a strained flapping gesture between them. “With the--the faking it. The faking of the dating, I mean. With the. Stuff that goes with that.”

Jamie watches her close her eyes, her face such a perfect image of why me that Jamie can’t help a laugh. 

“I don’t mind,” she says around another sip of tragic tea. “Whatever you need.”

Dani’s eyes are wide, entirely too blue to be fair. “Well, I mean--most people, when they’re dating, they--there’s touching and public...public displays of...”

She seems to be working herself into a proper tizzy, her hands starting to get in on the action. Jamie grabs one to prevent it bopping her in the head. 

“Poppins. Honestly. Anything you need.”

She’s been holding Dani’s hand, she realizes, longer than she meant to. Her fingers release with convulsive suddenness, her eyes darting away from Dani’s too-honest ones. 

“S’what I’m here for, right?” she adds, a display of bravado that doesn’t sail entirely home. “For the next five days, consider me the love of your bloody life, Dani Clayton. I am yours to mold.”

She’s grinning, and Dani’s face is pink, and this is still salvageable, she thinks. Just so long as she can keep this up--this teasing, easy best-friend-rescue persona she’s cultivated--it will all be just fine. 

Just so long as she doesn’t let herself think too long about the way Dani’s lips twitched at love of your bloody life, she’s going to be fucking perfect. The perfect wedding date. 

They rent a car, Dani bunching up in the passenger seat with the look of a woman off to the gallows. She directs Jamie in a too-calm voice, every turn dictated like Dani’s coming for Siri’s job. If not for the thudding hammer of Dani’s leg against the floor, Jamie might actually think she’d been body-snatched between the hotel lobby and the Prius.

She pulls up to the curb of a small, pleasantly-kept house with white shutters, a pink door, a manicured lawn. It looks like something out of Barbie’s Dream Catalogue. 

“You grew up here?” She squints, trying to picture a young Dani reading on the front stoop, running across the lawn, laughing with friends. “Seems...cozy.”

“She’s selling it,” Dani says woodenly. “Moving uptown. His place is bigger.”

Jamie tries to read her profile, tries to see beyond Dani’s head resting against the window, one knee pulled up to her chest. Dani’s normally so easy to decipher, every curve of her body clarifying what her words can’t say; right now, however, Jamie thinks she’s never looked more shut-off.

Killing the engine, she reaches across and gingerly touches Dani’s knee. “You want to run? I can turn this car right back around, and we can catch the first flight back.”

“Yes,” Dani says, letting her head roll on her shoulders until she’s smiling tiredly at Jamie. “But she already knows we’re here.”

Jamie glances back toward the house in time to catch the telltale twitch of curtains. “Ah. Damn. She’s, ah, not coming out?”

Dani gives a single bark of laughter, sounding more unlike herself than Jamie’s ever heard. “You kidding? And miss a chance to set the stage for our arrival?”

She looks small, hunching her way out of the car, and smaller still as she cranes her neck to look the house over from the September sunshine. Jamie slides a hand lightly around the bend of her elbow, knitting their fingers together.

“Into the breach, then, Poppins.”

Dani squeezes once in thanks and leads them up the brief walk, climbing the porch steps as though expecting to find an executioner waiting at the top. Her hand, curled into a loose fist, raps once against the storm door and falls to her side.

Her mother must be on the other side, waiting, Jamie thinks, but no one answers right away. Dani gives her a thin, sharp smile. 

“She does this. Give it a sec.”

Jamie counts to thirty before the door actually opens, revealing a small blonde woman in glasses and a cold smile. Her expression is so uninterested, she could be greeting a political canvasser, rather than the daughter she hasn’t seen in almost a year.

“Danielle. I thought you’d be another hour, at least.”

“You did say nine-thirty,” Dani says placidly. Karen Clayton makes a gesture Jamie takes to mean yes, well, who cares about that?

“You’re jet-lagged, darling, I didn’t think you’d actually be on time. Here, come in, wipe your feet. I’ve just had the carpets cleaned for showings.”

Dani shoots her a grim look, her hand clenching so tightly around Jamie’s, Jamie can feel the bones grind. She leans in close to prevent Karen from overhearing, murmurs, “This is the woman who raised you? What, did she steal you out of a tower?”

The choked laugh Dani releases is worth the suspicious glare they receive from her mother. Jamie knocks lightly against her hip, doing her best to convey I’m here and your mother is a goblin all in a single motion. 

“I’m glad you’re here, at any rate,” Karen is saying briskly when they join her in the kitchen. “Coffee?”

Dani shakes her head. Jamie, painfully curious if Dani’s failures with beverages is genetic, says politely, “Love some.”

Karen’s eyes narrow. “I thought you Brits drank tea.” She says it as an intellectual might say arsenic. Jamie bites back a grimace.

“When in Rome, eh?”

“Mom,” Dani says quickly, pulling Jamie a little nearer her mother, “this is--”

“I assumed as much, dear,” Karen interrupts. “Since you’ve got her in a death grip. And what do you do, Jamie? Help chase after children, too?”

Oh, she’s grand. “I’m groundskeeper for Bly Manor, mainly. Gardening, small repairs, the whole lot.”

Dani’s mother makes a noise that sounds very much like a repulsed scoff. “Dig in the dirt all day, I imagine.”

“If I’m lucky,” Jamie says patiently. Dani is clutching her hand like she sort of wants to use it to beat her mother to death. “Bit of a jack-of-all-trades position, really.”

Karen sniffs, thrusting a bedazzled mug into Jamie’s hand. “And you’ve been...with my daughter for how long?”

Jamie doesn’t so much as glance at Dani, all too aware that a lie is most readily snagged on hesitation. “About three months.”

“Haven’t you only been working there three months?” Karen asks her daughter, whose entire body appears to have locked up. Jamie swipes her thumb lightly across Dani’s skin, a tiny signal of comfort. 

“True love, Mrs. Clayton. I’m sure you’re familiar, what with the big day around the corner. Sometimes, you just know.”

Dani is looking at her. Jamie can’t quite bring herself to meet her eyes, focusing her energy, instead, on Karen Clayton’s unmoved face. She puts on her best I’m charming, and I know it smile, the one that got her the job at Wingrave’s in the first place. 

“I’m told we have errands to run? Happy to help with anything that’s weighing heavy.”

The coffee, she is gratified to note, is actually worse than Dani’s.

***

“My mother,” Dani says with a wild sort of flourish when they’re safely back in the car. “You see why I never leapt to bring friends home.”

“Don’t know what you mean. She seems a peach.” When Dani slides her a disbelieving glare, Jamie grins. “Don’t worry about it. Had too much slung through the grapevine over the years to be rattled by a little passive-aggressive suburbia.”

“It doesn’t make it okay,” Dani says with so much venom, Jamie can’t help giving her a smile. 

“Poppins, important question. Do you think I’m a lazy layabout with a pointless career?”

“Of course not!”

“Then we’re settled,” Jamie says easily. “Point me to this boutique, yeah? I can feel your mother’s disapproval through two layers of wall.”

Honestly, she thinks, if this is as bad as it gets, the weekend’s bound to go all right. Mrs. Clayton is something of a nightmare, certainly, but as long as there are errands to run and escapes to be made, Jamie is confident she can navigate Dani through the awkward conversations easily enough. It certainly didn’t feel as though Karen wanted to know anything about her daughter’s so-called girlfriend--or their relationship together. 

Which, Jamie concedes silently, might be worse, all things said. She looks to Dani out of the corner of her eye, quietly gnawing on a thumbnail as she stares out the window. How much pressure must she be feeling, having practically somersaulted out of the closet on her mother’s whim? 

“We should have a code,” Jamie says. Dani frowns. 

“A code what?”

“Word. Or gesture, I’m not picky. Something to say when you need me to sweep you away from a situation.”

Dani shakes her head. “Where would we go?”

“Away,” Jamie says pleasantly. “Here, how’s this--you need an escape, code word is...I dunno, Flora.”

“And if Flora comes up in actual conversation?” Dani asks. Jamie scratches her nose. 

“Fine, not a word. You could...tug on your earlobe.” Dani laughs. Jamie grins. “You could tug on my earlobe. Really feel like earlobes ought to be involved, somehow, it’s just classic.”

Dani is giggling like a kid, the scowl melting out of her as though never there at all, and Jamie feels as though she really did make the right choice coming on this trip. No matter what else happens, as long as she can make Dani laugh, she gets the sense it will work out. 

“D’you want me to come in?” she asks, parking in front of the dress shop. Dani shakes her head.

“My mother’s meticulous with measurements, the fitting will probably take twelve seconds. There’s a sandwich place next door, would you mind grabbing lunch? If I have to deal with people on low blood sugar this afternoon, there might not be a wedding at all.”

Jamie orders, collects the bag of sandwiches and potato crisps, leans against the car to wait with a cigarette between her lips. She’s been trying to quit, all too aware it sets a bad example for the kids, but there’s just something about this town that makes her feel like smoking is the least of her worries. Maybe it’s the way people keep looking at her--young women darting glances over their shoulders as they pass, like they’re seeing in her the teenage ruffian destined for jail time--or maybe it’s just the old-fashioned shop fronts. Feels as though this town hasn’t seen an upgrade in fifty years, she thinks. No wonder Dani wanted so badly to get out. 

And she did, she thinks with a blossom of pride. She got out, and she ran, and she didn’t stop running until she found a place that fit like home. Best any of us can do, no matter what our parents have to say about it. 

“All set.” Dani, materializing back into the sunshine with a garment bag over one shoulder. Jamie flicks the tail end of the cigarette away, exhaling skyward. 

“How is it? Good color, at least?”

“You’ll see Saturday,” Dani says mysteriously. Jamie’s heart gives a tripping little thud at the gleam of her smile. “What are you wearing, anyway, you didn’t show me.”

“Surprise,” Jamie teases. “Figured I’d give you something to look forward to.”

“Is that right?” She likes this smile on Dani, this rare light-and-breezy expression when Dani is fully present in a moment. Doesn’t happen nearly often enough for Jamie’s taste. 

“Mmhmm. I plan on blowing your mind, Dani Clayton.”

"Can’t wait.” Dani take the bag from her hand, scrounges out a bag of sour cream and onion. “Amazing. What would I do without you?”

Jamie could ride this feeling all the way to Sunday. 

***

Dani’s not going to make it to Sunday. 

At this rate, Dani’s not going to make it through dinner. 

“You’re kidding,” she says dully. “Right? You said this was about meeting--what’s his name?” 

“Christopher.”

“Right. Christopher. You very clearly said that was the point of this.” Breathe. If she loses her temper now, there’s no telling how far off the rails this is going to fly. “Which is important, you know, given that he’s going to be my step-father.”

Her mother is looking at her as though Dani is all of seven years old and throwing a tantrum in a Pizza Hut. “Danielle, I don’t understand what the big deal is. I invited Judy to look over the flowers, and she said--”

“Judy, who I haven’t seen since--”

“--and she said Edmund has been just wild to see you again,” her mother barrels on, as though Dani isn’t even there. How quickly Dani had forgotten her mother’s incredible ability to talk circles around an actual conversation.

She’d thought it would be easier, somehow, after Bly. Easier, with time managing those kids under her belt, after so many weeks of travel and testing the boundaries of her life. She’d thought she would step back into this house a changed woman, someone with the tools it takes to spar with Karen Clayton on her level.

Instead, she finds herself shrinking under her mother’s stare, wrapping her arms around herself in a desperate bid for stability. She can feel Jamie, hovering just to the left, clearly uncertain what Dani needs of her. 

Turn back time. Take me back to before I thought this could ever go well. “Mom, I broke up with him. Because I’m--”

“Going through something, yes, I see that, Danielle.” Karen sounds aggrieved, as though Dani is doing this just to spite her. “It’s my wedding, can’t we all just get along for a couple of days? Please? Jamie, would you tell her?”

A hot burst of rage, small and compact and nonetheless built like a grenade, threatens to detonate in her chest. Don’t you dare bring her into--

“Poppins, a word?” Jamie says, pleasantly dodging around Karen’s attempt to use her as a weapon. Her arm loops through Dani’s elbow, pulling lightly until Dani stumbles backward, out of the kitchen. She’s shaking, she realizes, the room going black around the edges. 

There had been an evening, early on at Bly, where the kids had thought it funny to lock her in a closet. Just little kids testing the resolve of their new au pair, doing what kids do, but it had set off a panic attack like nothing Dani had been through since arriving in England. This feeling now, this reckless energy bound up with nowhere to go, reminds her a little of that night--slamming her fists on a locked door, screaming herself hoarse. 

Ladies don’t scream, she vaguely remembers her mother saying when she’d been much younger, the stress of a test or a school play setting off a similar attack. Honestly, Danielle, always with the drama. 

Jamie pulls her blindly down the hall, her hand firm on the crook of Dani’s elbow. Dani forces her attention to dwindle to that hand, to counting Jamie’s fingers wrapped around her skin. 

“Where’re we goin’?” she asks dimly. Jamie continues forging ahead, though Dani knows she has no idea what awaits at the end of this path.

“I want to see your room.”

Dani, whose brain is trying desperately to come up with a way to convince Hannah to drum up a work emergency to send them home, pauses mid-step. “My what?”

“Your room,” Jamie repeats. “Place you grew up. I want to see it.”

She’s serious, Dani realizes. She genuinely is asking, as she hauls Dani down the dark hall of her childhood home. Some of the anger drips out of her as Jamie says, “Which one? Left?”

“Right,” Dani corrects quietly, reaching around to push the corresponding door open. Jamie fumbles for the lightswitch, her other hand still gripping Dani’s arm. 

It’s like stepping into a dream--one she’s had more often than she'd like to admit, cast back through the years to before her dad died. The room, with its pale yellow walls and its perfectly made bed, belongs to someone Dani barely remembers anymore. 

To see Jamie standing in the middle of it, hands in the back pockets of her jeans, is another kind of dream entirely. Dani feels as though she is standing with a foot on either side of a time loop, caught halfway between the lonely girl who would have given anything to leave forever and the desperate young woman who actually managed to run. 

Jamie gazes around, turning in a slow circle on the soft gray rug. Her eyes slide carefully over boy band posters Dani had never really liked, movie clippings she’d been wild for, a model of a space station that had taken her almost a month to put together. Presents from Eddie are everywhere--a stuffed frog, a carnival baseball cap, books he’d thought she’d like and music he’d thought she needed to know. Every inch of this room belongs to someone tailored for consumption, Dani thinks, and maybe that isn’t entirely a bad thing. Maybe that’s every child’s space, built for and by parents who just want the best for their kid.

Jamie, trailing her fingers along a line of tacked-up academic decathlon ribbons, looks almost awed. Dani remembers suddenly, with a pang very like guilt, Jamie once saying, “You learn to pack light, when you’re bouncing around like so much rubbish through the system.”

“This was you?” Jamie asks, casting a smile over her shoulder. She’s looking at a photo from middle school, Dani’s hair in a braid, her arm tossed over Eddie’s shoulder. He’d still been two inches shorter that year--hadn’t sprouted until the following summer--and she remembers how much she’d loved lording it over him. 

“I thought she’d get rid of all this,” she says now. Her fingers brush the framed photo of her toddler-self on the shoulders of her father. “Figured when I ran, she’d burn it down.”

Jamie shakes her head. “Glad she didn’t.”

“Why?” Dani plunks down on the edge of the dusty bedspread, smoothing her hand over a long-untouched pillow. “This isn’t really me.”

“Parts of it, though,” Jamie counters. “Like this.” She holds up a book, a copy of A Wrinkle in Time so worn, the cover is practically falling off in her hand. “How many times did you read this?”

“Every time I wanted to escape,” Dani says ruefully, smiling a little. “Had it memorized before I was ten.”

“See?” Jamie joins her, kicking one foot gently against Dani’s ankle. “Wouldn’t have known that about you, if not for this.”

“You want to know the books I read to tatters?” Dani laughs. Jamie smiles. 

“Kind of want to know everything about you, Poppins.”

She’s looking at Dani with an expression of such affection, it steals the breath from Dani’s chest. She can’t remember the last time someone looked at her like that--not even Eddie, who always seemed to have a price tag dangling from the end of a smile like this one. Jamie, leaning back on her hands, scanning the room for more hidden treasures of Dani’s past, never seems to put a price on anything.

“She invited him to dinner,” Dani whispers, like saying it softly enough might stop the avalanche from coming down. Jamie brushes her fingers lightly against Dani’s hand.

“Gonna have to face him eventually, right?”

Dani, feeling a little sick at the notion, nods once. Her fingers wind around Jamie’s, pinky crossing pinky in the lightest caress. She swallows hard, finds herself looking just shy of Jamie’s eyes, not quite at her mouth. 

“Are you coming, or will I have to tell them you were throwing a fit like a teenager?” Karen snaps from the doorway. Jamie jumps, hand losing contact like she was caught doing something shameful. It only makes Dani want to grab that hand back all the more. 

“We’ll meet you there,” she says, fighting the urge to argue. “He knows about Jamie, right?”

***

Eddie does not know about Jamie. This does not surprise Dani in the least. 

Her mother has picked an Italian restaurant of middling value, one Dani remembers from her teenage years. Even back then, Karen Clayton had done everything in her power to keep from needing to actually cook. 

“Posh,” Jamie murmurs as they step inside, taking in the multicolored glass lamps, the deep burgundy booths, the checkerboard floor. Dani digs an elbow lightly into her ribs, smiling despite herself. 

“Almost worked here, when I was sixteen.”

“What stopped you? Didn’t suit the fine apron-bowtie combo?”

No--it had been Eddie who had stepped in the way of that plan, Dani remembers. Eddie had worked at the bookstore down the street, and had talked the manager into giving Dani a job. The matching shifts, the way he’d lit up every time she made her way to the cash register, had been an albatross and a gift all at once. 

“Shit,” she says softly, turning her head away under guise of looking at a poster-sized menu by the door. “They’re here.”

Jamie leans into her as though seeking an embrace, peering over her shoulder. Her hand, barely pressing at all, settles on Dani’s hip. “Ah. Tall bloke, I take it. Glasses?”

“That would be--”

“Danielle!”

She stiffens, the name too much like a javelin hurled across the restaurant, but the voice isn’t Edmund’s. It’s Judy calling her, waving madly, as though there was any chance Dani could possibly miss her. 

“Not a one of them,” Jamie observes into her ear, “call you Dani, huh?”

“Not a one,” Dani agrees, trying to smile. She’s relieved to find Jamie’s hand does not leave her hip, her arm tucked neatly around Dani’s body as they make the short walk to the appropriate table. “Judy, hi. So good to see you.”

Jamie steps back just enough to allow Judy to muscle in, sweeping Dani into an enormous hug. Dani, who had very much been planning to hold herself as solidly, as independently, as possible, finds herself melting. Judy’s hugs have always had this effect, this incredible way of banishing every dark thought Dani’s ever had for the span of a single embrace. 

“I’m sorry,” she begins, hating the catch in her voice, but Judy makes a shushing sound against the side of her head. 

“I know, it’s been a lot. You’ve been so busy. Your mother says you’ve been an au pair! An au pair in England, Eddie, can you imagine?”

And there it is, Dani thinks, as Judy steps away and Eddie takes her place. He is not, she is grateful to realize, trying to hug her. He’s just standing a little too close, hands in his pockets, glasses falling down his nose. 

She almost reaches. Almost pushes them back up, twenty years of instinct butting up against her desire to be anywhere else. 

“Danielle,” he says, formally, like they haven’t watched one another fall off bikes, sneak alcohol, learn to drive, learn to run from a bad marriage in the making. She nods. 

“Eddie. It’s--it’s good to--” 

She can’t quite make herself finish the sentence--the lie. Jamie, taking pity on her, slides a hand forward. 

“Eddie, yeah? Jamie.”

“Right,” he says, barely looking at her even as he accepts the handshake. “You work with Danielle?”

“I do. And, ah...” Her eyes flick to Dani’s face once, almost imperceptibly. Relief floods Dani’s body, her hand groping for Jamie’s, the plan falling back into place as though never rattled by the force of memory. 

“Jamie’s my girlfriend.” It’s getting easier to say, she finds with some surprise. Easier every time, like learning a language that comes too naturally to explain. “We met at work, and, well--”

A divot is burrowing between Eddie’s brows, clear confusion. “Girlfriend.”

“Yeah,” Jamie says easily, slotting her fingers through Dani’s and pulling her close. “You know. As in plus-one for the wedding?”

Too little, Dani senses, too little, that leaves them an opening--and sure enough, there goes Eddie’s smile, Eddie convincing himself in the span of a breath that Jamie is nothing, Jamie is only a wedding date, here only to keep Dani from looking pathetic sitting alone while her mother gets married. 

“Girlfriend,” she repeats firmly. “Three months now. She’s--”

Before she can settle on an appropriate word to sum up Jamie (incredible? perfect? awe-inspiring?), a man is standing from the table. Dani hadn’t even noticed him, sitting beside her mother, this man with dark hair and thick brows and a smile so thin, she wonders if she’s imagining it.

“Danielle.” His voice is almost too soft to be heard over the other diners, the soft classical music piping in from above. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Christopher,” she says, voice going up on the last syllable as she darts a glance to her mother. Karen nods sharply. “Right. Hi. How are you?”

“Hungry,” he says, giving Judy and Eddie the sort of look that says that’s quite enough socializing, don’t you think? “Here, bunch in.”

He’s making sharp motions with both hands at Jamie, whose brows go up nearly to her hairline in surprise, leaning into the booth awkwardly when it becomes apparent there’s no other choice. Dani slides in beside her, praying to any god who might listen that Judy will follow--but, of course, it’s Eddie who finishes out the trio. Dani carefully arranges her face to keep from scowling at him, even as Judy, Karen, and Christopher settle in across the table. 

“Booth was a brave choice,” Jamie says brightly. Judy gives a polite laugh. No one else says a word. “Ah--Christopher, how did you and Karen...”

She doesn’t even have to finish the question. He’s off on a story involving much laughter, much gesticulation, and Dani finds herself fading back into the faux-leather booth away from it all. Eddie is too big beside her, taking up far too much space in his gray sweater and pressed slacks. 

Jamie’s hand, light as air, finds hers under the table. Dani turns, meets her eyes, mouths, I’m sorry. Jamie squeezes her fingers, gives the tiniest shake of her head. 

“Danielle, you’ll have to catch us up,” Judy is saying, even as the waitress is taking drink orders and offering special discounts on appetizers. “What does this job of yours entail? I see the photos online, of course, but you don’t update often.”

“Well, you know, not my kids. Feel a little weird, posting them on the internet.” 

Eddie is too close, his hand brushing hers. Dani struggles to draw breath, relieved when Jamie--reading her with a pleasant smile still on her lips--scoots along the bench until her hip is mashed against the wall. Her hand slides along Dani’s skirt, tugging lightly until Dani follows nearly into her lap. 

Yes, she thinks feverishly, this is better. Eddie is giving her a small, strange look, as though thinking she’s making too big a deal of things. And who among them, Dani wonders, doesn’t think she makes too big a deal of things? Dani Clayton, drama queen. 

Jamie doesn’t. Jamie, whose hand is still on her knee, thumb rubbing reassuring little circles through her skirt. Jamie, who looks Eddie dead in the eye when she speaks, who smiles like this is all a wonderful little evening, like Dani isn’t going slowly crazy packed between her best friend and her ex-fiancé. 

She steals a glance at her mother, relieved to see Karen, at least, is engaged in pleasant mealtime conversation. She’s looking at this man, this Christopher, like he’s personally responsible for the sun coming out each day, and that is...new. That is not something Dani remembers ever seeing on her mother’s face, even back when her dad was alive. 

Eddie is staring at her, his mouth a thin line. Dani turns her head subtly away, pressing harder into Jamie, too aware that she’s about half an inch away from simply giving up and sitting across her thighs. 

“Okay?” Jamie asks softly, sipping a glass of water. Dani makes a manic little gesture with one hand, a well it could be worse, but no. Jamie’s thumb presses again into her kneecap, the skirt sliding up under her hand, her skin finding Dani’s. She pauses, searching Dani’s eyes.

“Okay,” Dani mouths, almost relieved when Jamie allows her hand to cup around Dani’s bare knee, the calloused pads of her fingers drawing tiny arcs like protective sigils. 

This genuinely, she thinks as she accepts a glass of wine and resists the urge to pound it down, could not get stranger. To be sitting here, in a restaurant from her childhood, with this group of people, seems an event designed by some nasty prankster. To be sitting here, eyes bouncing from face to face, seeking refuge in the strangers around them--half of whom, she notes, are staring; are they really so loud? are they really so interesting? is it Dani they’re judging, these young women with too-keen expressions?--while her ex-boyfriend tries casually to close the gap of freedom she’s stolen from him, is just too goddamn strange.

And still, the evening meanders on, heedless of her discomfort. Food comes. Judy and Karen are laughing over stories of when Eddie and Dani were children, Judy telling most of the tales while Karen pretends she was there. Jamie listens eagerly, perfectly attentive, evidently not noticing the way Eddie’s stare burns past Dani’s ear into the side of her face. 

And all the while, Dani sits. Choking down sub-par pasta. Her focus pinging between her mother’s smile, Judy’s stories, Jamie’s hand under her skirt. Jamie’s hand, a grounding force as she eats, laughs, prods Judy into elaboration. 

Jamie’s hand, warm and firm, holding Dani’s knee under the table like they really are a couple. Like this is just how they sit in public, a natural pair. 

Dessert is on its way when Dani’s resolve reaches a breaking point. Eddie’s elbow keeps bumping her arm, Eddie’s voice too grating as he joins in with his mother’s stories. She turns her eyes to Jamie’s, gives her earlobe one brief tug. 

“Pardon us,” Jamie says without missing a beat. “Off to the ladies for a sec, if you don’t mind.”

Dani manages to keep breathing with Jamie’s hand at the small of her back, keep breathing as they duck and weave around diners, keep breathing until they’re pushing into the women’s bathroom. 

“Jesus,” she gasps, spilling over the sink in a near-boneless heap. “Jesus, Jamie.”

Jamie’s hands are gentle, catching her by the waist. In the mirror, her face is worried. “Poppins, you’re not gonna pass out on me?”

“Jesus!” Dani repeats, standing up straight. “He’s right there. He’s there, Jamie!”

“He is,” Jamie agrees. She looks as though she isn’t quite sure if she’s been helping or hurting all evening. “Man has quite the stare.”

Dani buries her face in her hands for a moment, seeking the relief of looking at nothing at all. She can still feel him, the insistent jabbing pressure of his elbow, the way his laugh seems to fill the whole room and drain the air away. 

“We can go,” Jamie says quietly. “Can say I don’t feel well, or--something, but we can go.”

Dani doesn’t realize she’s laughing, at first. Not until she raises her head to find Jamie watching her with puzzled uncertainty does she realize she is full-on cackling in this bathroom, wild-eyed, the sound reverberating off the stalls. 

“She invited him!” she gasps. “Because she thought she could just--what? Muscle me into taking him back?”

“Probably,” Jamie says, which only makes her laugh harder. 

“I told her--I told her you were--”

“Some people,” Jamie says carefully, “aren’t going to get it straight away. Some people might not ever. S’not on you to change their mind, Dani. Just...”

Dani looks at her, laughter drying up. “Just what?”

Jamie shrugs, scratching the back of her head, looking uncomfortable. “Just up to you to do what makes you happy,” she says at last. “Can’t change the rest.”

“He,” Dani says fiercely, “doesn’t make me happy.”

“Then I guess I’d better step up my game for the remainder of the weekend, eh?” Jamie extends a hand. The same hand, Dani registers, that has been drawing patterns into her skin for the past forty minutes. 

Can’t look at that just now, she tells herself. Later. Later, we can investigate that all we need. 

For now, she takes Jamie’s hand, allows Jamie to pull her to the door. Jamie’s just about to push it open when Dani pulls back, stopping her short.

“I’m going to make this up to you, you know. Don’t know when, or how. But I will.”

Jamie’s smile is a little lopsided, her eyes surprisingly blue under bad bathroom lighting. “No need, Poppins.”

***

That they survive the remainder of the night unscathed is a miracle, in Jamie’s eyes. Dani sits more easily back at the table--Eddie has been prodded in toward the wall by a grinning Jamie, who had truly intended on positioning herself between him and Dani from the start--and the parents are well into their cups. They seem almost to have forgotten they’re in public, roaring laughter and shoveling cake into their mouths. 

They are not, as Jamie sees it, giving Americans a particularly good name. But, neither are they prodding into Dani’s life anymore. Take the good, she figures, and make it count for something.

She keeps her hands to herself the rest of the night, too aware that the soft slide of Dani’s knee under her palm is a memory she hasn’t earned. Anyway, with Jamie pressed in beside him, Eddie seems suddenly interested in making himself small. It’s a good look on him, she thinks with toothy amusement. 

How can he not tell? she wonders, glancing from him to Dani. How can he not see how she shrinks from him? How she clearly wants nothing to do with him? Dani isn’t exactly difficult to parse out, hasn’t exactly been making her intentions murky all evening. With Jamie between them, she’s finally allowed her shoulders to relax, her hands stealing out from between her knees only to take occasional sips of wine. From where Jamie’s sitting, Dani is the clearest thing in the room, every angle of her posture screaming for everyone to just leave her alone.

Everyone, she reminds herself, clasping her own hands carefully on the table. 

Finally, after a lifetime of tiny-Dani stories and adult-Eddie droning about his job, after a lifetime of Judy’s bright-bell laughter and Karen’s blatant tuning-out of her daughter, the bill is settled. There is noise in the parking lot, a conversation that should have ended somehow dragging its feet as they discuss last-minute wedding needs, small-town gossip, things Jamie can’t imagine being truly important until morning. By the time they’ve gone their separate ways, she and Dani loading with relief into their rental, Jamie’s head is ringing.

“Is that how it always is?”

“Which part?” Dani asks. Jamie shrugs, hands on the steering wheel.

“Honestly, if I had to do any of it more than twice, think I’d go screaming for the exit.”

Dani makes a noise she’s pretty sure is a laugh, exhausted and more than a little sad. “Thank you. Again. Honestly, you have no idea how you’re saving my life.”

“Could’ve done more,” Jamie says, steering them onto the street and back toward the hotel. Dani tips her a curious look.

“Like what?”

“Dunno,” Jamie says. “Started a fire, maybe. Could’ve ended that whole business right quick. Or made a scene.”

“Mm.” Dani closes her eyes, head bobbing lightly as the car bounces along. “Scene could’ve been good. Probably should save it for tomorrow, though.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Messy makeout on the table?” Dani suggests, laughter running a sweet undercurrent to the words. Jamie forces herself to match her, gripping the wheel in suddenly-sweaty hands. 

“I’ll keep it in my back pocket, in case any aunts turn rude.”

The quiet is pleasant the rest of the way back, Dani dozing lightly as the streetlamps skate by. Jamie finds herself stealing glances at every stoplight, entranced against her own will by the way the red glow flames against Dani’s hair. 

This is a weekend, she reminds herself. One weekend, and that’s it. Already almost halfway there. Back to normal soon enough. 

She can believe it, if she tries hard enough. She can believe in the power of forgetting--forgetting Dani’s face in her childhood bedroom, forgetting Dani’s hunched shoulders as her mother sniped and snapped, forgetting Dani’s knee under her hand. She can forget, and they can go back to how it’s always been. Easy. 

She’s half-tempted to let Dani sleep, to coax her arms beneath Dani and carry her into the building. It is only common sense--partially the awareness that she likely isn't strong enough to make it up to their floor, partially the knowledge that Dani really wouldn’t like waking to find Jamie actively carrying her anywhere--that leads her to gently jostle Dani’s shoulder instead. 

“Come on, Poppins, up you get.”

Dani makes a grumbling sound, sliding out of the car and leaning her weight against Jamie’s shoulder. Her arm moves comfortably around Jamie’s middle, her feet dragging. 

“Come on, lazy,” Jamie laughs. “You didn’t have that much wine.”

“Tired,” Dani complains. She peels open her eyes, squinting up at Jamie in the yellow light of the hotel parking lot. “That was bad, wasn’t it?”

“Wasn’t the worst,” Jamie says, trying not to think too hard about Dani’s gaze so near her own. Dani sighs, standing on her own merit at last and stretching. 

“Can’t believe she invited him. D’you know, I still don’t have the first clue what he’s like.”

“Eddie?”

“Christopher.” She makes a face. “Do you think he’ll want me to call him Chris? Do you think he’ll want me to call him Dad?”

“I think,” Jamie says gently, “you’ve more than earned a night’s rest. Come on, off we go...”

She fires off a text to Hannah while Dani’s getting ready for bed in the bathroom. worse than we imagined. mum’s a nightmare. met the ex tonight.

Hannah, responding in surprisingly short order: You’re behaving, I take it? 

Jamie snorts. perfectly, i'll have you know. a beacon of reform, as ever.

Hannah: Proud of you. Get some rest. 

“One to talk,” Jamie mutters. She wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find Hannah Grose no longer needs sleep--or food, or anything except the goodwill of her fellow man. She’s just a saint that way.

“Everyone alive?” Dani asks, popping back into the room just in time to see Jamie slide her phone into her pocket. Jamie nods. 

“Or, if they aren’t, Hannah’s kind enough to keep it to herself until we’re home.”

“Home,” Dani sighs, falling forward onto the bed. “Can’t wait. I miss the air, you know? Didn’t know that was something that happened outside of movies, but it’s just...better there.”

“Less pollution,” Jamie suggests, gathering her own change of clothes and heading to the bathroom. “Or fewer ex-boyfriends.”

Dani groans. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that.”

“Me?” Jamie leaves the door cracked, stripping and redressing in a series of weary motions. She feels as though every muscle has been strung tight all evening, her body holding the weight of all Dani’s nerves. “They’re your family, Poppins. I’m just the bloody guest.”

“Hey.”

She pokes her head back out, her dirty laundry a bundle under one arm. Dani is propped up in bed, frowning at her through a curtain of hair. 

“You’re important,” she says, as Jamie deposits her clothes in a heap by her things. “Really important.”

“Don’t have to tell me.” Jamie gestures to the still-made bed. “You want left or right tonight?”

Dani rolls right, already clambering under the blankets. Jamie nods.

She does not say what is dangerously true: that this already, after almost no time at all, feels familiar. That Dani’s leg brushing hers under clean sheets feels very much the way things should be. That Dani, settling her head upon a too-soft pillow, gazing at Jamie’s face in the fresh-lain darkness, seems too right for words. 

“G’night,” Jamie says, her heart all but stopping when Dani’s hand moves across a brief gulf of blankets and curls around her wrist. 

“’Night Jamie.”

***

Guess I’d better step up my game, Jamie had said. It had felt to Dani like a joke at the time, something just to make Dani smile in a moment stress--and yet, when she wakes Friday morning to Jamie setting a paper bag on her stomach, she can’t help but wonder.

“What is...”

“Up and at ‘em, Poppins,” Jamie says breezily. “Big day ahead.”

“You brought me...” Dani struggles to sit up, shoving the hair out of her face and squinting into the bag. “Muffins?”

“Doubt they’ll square up to Owen’s standards, but they’ll do in a pinch.” Jamie perches on the desk, sipping from a Starbucks cup. It looks wildly incongruous in her hand, an image of modernity snatched from Dani’s other life and pasted awkwardly into this one. 

Everything about Jamie today, in fact, is not as Dani expected. There’s something almost clean-cut about her propped against the desk in gray slacks, a white shirt, suspenders hanging loose. Her hair is tied back from her face, a light coat of makeup turning her eyes smoky. She looks like she’s been awake for hours.

“Do you ever sleep in?” Dani asks, simply to banish the sudden cotton from her mouth. Jamie flashes a grin. 

“Habit. I’d have thought you’d be the same, runnin’ after those kids all day.”

“I,” Dani says primly around a mouthful of chocolate-chip muffin, “am cherishing my vacation in the only way I can.”

It’s hard to tear her eyes away from Jamie. She can’t entirely say why--whether it’s the fact that Jamie rarely wears makeup at all, or the fact of Jamie’s languid manner, or simply the fact of Jamie having thought to bring her coffee and baked goods after the nightmare of last night. It’s all still Jamie, in that indefinable, wonderful way Jamie has of always seeming to know what she needs, but...more, somehow. An added dose of effort. 

“You don’t have to do this,” she says, polishing off the muffin and slipping out of bed at last. Jamie’s eyes follow as she crosses to her suitcase, digs around for something that says presentable, but functional enough to deal with Mom’s bullshit

“And what am I doing?”

“Being...perfect,” Dani says over her shoulder. “I don’t blame you for last night, you know. It was my fault, really, I should have seen it coming.”

Jamie shakes her head. “You did see it coming. Didn’t make it any easier. Nothin’ about that is on you.”

Dani makes a noncommittal noise, picking out a sweater and holding it up for inspection. Jamie’s being kind, as Jamie always is, but the fact of the matter is none of this should have come as a surprise. Dani had hoped--Dani had wanted to hope, maybe--that things would be different after a year away, with that brave new word stretched out between them. She’d hoped, but Karen is nothing if not predictable. 

“Never really saw the point of a rehearsal dinner,” Jamie tells the back of her head. “Just more of an excuse for folks to get drunk and talk about themselves, yeah?”

And for my mother to tell me off in front of family members I’ve forgotten about. “She tried skipping it last time. Said rehearsals are for plays, that she already knew how to get married.”

“What happened?”

Dani smiles. “One of the bridesmaids tripped into a candle, caught the train of her dress on fire.”

“See.” Jamie snaps her fingers. “Told you I could’ve started a fire yesterday. Works every damn time, fires.”

“And I said--” Dani hesitates, the muddled memory of last night’s car ride coming back to her. She hadn’t been drunk, not really, but exhaustion can loosen the tongue as well as any booze. “Oh.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten that option,” Jamie says, almost slyly. “I’m hangin’ on to it until it’s truly needed.”

Dani hears herself make a sound that might be laughter, if laughter is a high-pitched, glassy thing. “I’m gonna--go get--”

She is not, she tells herself, running away from the image of making out with Jamie on a table. She is not, certainly, running away from the very idea of Jamie leaning her back, hands warm on her cheeks, mouth sliding across--

“You all right?” Jamie calls as she darts into the bathroom. Dani clears her throat, staring herself down in the mirror. 

“Yeah!” No. Jesus, this is not the time for tumbling down this kind of rabbit hole. It’s one thing to glance at Jamie around the house, to catch herself thinking Jamie bent in the sunlight over a rose bush is strangely alluring. It’s quite another to have talked Jamie into being her pretend girlfriend for a family wedding and to imagine--to hope--to want--

“Nope,” she mutters to the woman in the mirror. “No. Absolutely not.”

Friendship is a sacred thing, something she hasn’t had nearly enough of in her life. Friendship is trusting someone with your secrets, trusting them to care for you, to listen to you, to read your mood. Friendship is not--as she learned all too well with Edmund--getting close to a beautiful woman with the hopes of sliding into her bed. 

Jamie deserves better. 

It’s pretend, Dani thinks, yanking on her clothes like a suit of armor. It’s pretend, and she’s only doing it because she’s kind, and I will not be making a big deal out of this today.

***

The wedding is being held in a hall Dani’s probably driven past a thousand times over the years, but never set foot inside. It’s too nice, she feels, for Iowa--too nice for any of the people milling around the parking lot, waiting for her mother to arrive and bark out orders about what boxes of supplies need to be removed from which trunks. She thinks briefly about asking her mother how they’re affording a wedding here, where the chandeliers gleam and the walls would look at home in Bly Manor, and decides it isn’t worth the hour-long diatribe about finances not being Danielle’s business, thanks very much.

“Posh,” Jamie murmurs in her ear when they steal a glance inside--a reflection of the night before, except with actual admiration in her voice this time. “Wingrave’d be fuckin’ proud.”

Dani leans into her now, the pair of them seated on the hood of their rental. Jamie’s arm has been looped around her waist since the arrival of the first helper--Christopher’s son, by the look of him; he shares his father’s eyebrows--and Dani has been trying extremely hard not to think about the placement of Jamie’s hand. Has been trying to watch the other people rolling in--cousins, relatives so distant, she couldn’t pick them out of a crowd, her mother’s book club--to keep from dwelling on Jamie’s fingertips tracing the hip pocket of her jeans. 

Anything’s too much, say the word, Jamie had said before stepping out of the car, and Dani had laughed it off. Jamie’s idea of too much yesterday had been holding her hand, soft and easy and more than Dani’s ever asked of her. If her fingers through Dani’s had sent giddy sparks up through her wrist, if each slide of her palm had made Dani just a little less tense, that hadn’t been hard to look away from. 

Today, though. 

Jamie is making small talk with a trio of women Dani vaguely remembers from high school, girls who had appreciated Dani’s willingness to share notes and not much else about her. They had made a beeline for Dani, fawning over how nice it was to have her back in town, how sweet it was that her mother was finding true love at insert-polite-stab-at-age here, how lovely the wedding was going to be. Dani, face feeling very much as though it has been cast in resin for the day, hasn’t been able to let her smile drop once. 

“So, what do you do?” one of the girls is asking Jamie, and there’s something about her voice Dani doesn’t entirely like. Something that sounds like judgement, maybe, coated over with a veneer of cotton-candy that reminds her forcibly of being fourteen, and wearing the wrong skirt, and having this same sort of girl smile at her. 

“I’m, ah, groundskeeper for a family over in England,” Jamie says easily. Dani is impressed with how level her voice is, the perfect balance of charm and cheer. Impressed, too, with how natural her hand feels, tracing the seam of Dani’s pocket, like she’s not even thinking about it.

The girl has noticed this much, her eyes narrowing over her smile. “Danielle, I didn’t know you were--y’know.”

“Interested in gardening?” Jamie says. “Hidden talents aplenty, this one.”

A warning, Dani recognizes, though it is delivered without razor wire. The girl, whose name Dani can’t even remember, takes it in stride.

“Anyway, I’m glad you found someone...capable,” she says. “After Eddie, I know that was rough.”

“Capable,” another girl parrots, looking Jamie over in a way Dani finds she likes even less. “And funny. Eddie wasn’t very funny, was he, Danielle?”

Dani opens her mouth, not entirely certain where she’s planning on going with this, and catches sight of her mother’s car pulling in. Oh thank god. “Sorry, should probably go see where we’re needed,” she says brightly, grabbing Jamie and tugging her away from the rental.

“Who even are they?” Jamie mutters. Dani gives a helpless shrug.

“Stephanie? Ashley? I have no idea, that was weird. Mom!”

There are tasks, mercifully, doled out in a frenzy. Dani finds out just how quickly a strange location can begin to feel worn-out, rushing back and forth with boxes of candles, complimentary wine glasses stamped with the details of the wedding, floral arrangements. Each time she passes, she gives Jamie a smile, a quick-mouthed I’m sorry; each time, Jamie catches her by the arm, pulls her close to murmur tiny observations about the other helpers until Dani laughs.

Those girls are looking at them, she notes, their eyes following Dani’s path with a vulture-like intensity. Or...

Not my path, she realizes. Jamie’s. The little one who had called Jamie capable and funny, particularly, her face lit with an interest Dani finds almost alarming. 

“You’re getting the eyeball,” she mutters in Jamie’s ear, an overstuffed vase clutched in her hands. Jamie looks around, puzzled.

“From who?”

“Stephanie-or-Ashley. Don’t look.”

“What’s she want with me?” Jamie frowns. Dani grins a little, unable to help herself. 

“I...uh...think she likes watching you walk away.”

It’s worth it, to watch the color rush into Jamie’s cheeks. 

“I--don’t--” Jamie shakes her head once, as if trying to get rid of a fly. “What is it about you Iowa girls? Something in the water?”

Dani bursts into laughter, almost dropping her flowers. Jamie’s hand comes up to steady hers, expression halfway between pride and alarm. 

“I mean,” Dani says, still giggling, “if you’d like to go say hello again--”

The look Jamie gives her is heart-stopping in its sincerity, her eyebrows arched, her smile soft. 

“Think I’ve got all the American I’m likely to need, thanks.” She darts a rabbity look back at the girl, who is still watching her with great interest. Jamie gives her a quick nod, an I see you--and then, without warning, presses her lips lingeringly to Dani’s cheekbone. “See you inside?”

Dani, swaying a little, can only nod.

***

It was supposed to be easy, playing nice. It had felt easy, telling her reflection to calm down this morning, reminding herself Jamie is simply playing a part Dani cast her in. 

But Jamie in Full Girlfriend Mode is above and beyond anything she’d expected, and Dani has never felt...quite so tended to.

She knows, intellectually, that this is Jamie’s way of shielding her from unwanted advances--that every time Jamie’s hand strokes down her arm, every time Jamie’s eyes seek her from across the room, every time Jamie asks if she needs a break, it’s another layer of padding against Eddie, or Judy, or those girls from high school. Nothing could be clearer than Jamie’s reasoning for catching her by the hand, spinning her around, pulling her close when Karen passes with her suspicious stare. 

Jamie is playing the part in which Dani cast her. And she is playing it perfectly.

It’s just that Dani never realized how much she’d like it.

She hadn’t counted on the relief that spills through her body when Jamie’s hand brushes hers reaching for the same glass. Hadn’t counted on the shiver that drags up her spine when Jamie presses up against her back, reaching over her shoulder to adjust a bouquet. Certainly hadn’t counted on the warm tingle still present from Jamie’s kiss on her cheek, somehow so much more than it had been that day back at Bly.

There are calculations that need to be done, she thinks, this whole mess needing to be uncovered and carefully inspected, but Jamie is always right there. Jamie, true to her promise not to allow anyone to corner Dani again, is rarely more than a couple of steps away. 

And Dani doesn’t want her to move away. 

Which is, frankly, making this even harder.

She puts her head down, puts all her focus into making sure the reception decor is perfect. When her mother sweeps by with instructions to move this flower, or change that place-card, Dani obeys without complaint. This is the easy part. Being little more than a pair of hands to her mother, taking in the chatter of people who speak past her, over her, around her at all times. She catches her name from time to time--Danielle...off to England...yes, broke her engagement...--and turns her head away before she can hear anything too damaging. Danielle, dumped that nice O’Mara boy for a lesbian, did you hear?

She’s grinding her teeth, she realizes only when Jamie’s hand touches her shoulder. 

“What’s wrong? Someone say something?” 

She shakes her head, unable to find the words to explain how it’s not what they’re saying, but what they might say. Jamie looks around. 

“Shit, c’mere.”

Dani allows herself to be pulled away from the table she’s been working on, around the corner toward the hall’s front doors. “Where’re we goin--”

Jamie positions her against the wall, tilting so her forehead is pressed tight to Dani’s. Dani sucks in a breath, hands landing instinctively on Jamie’s hips. 

“Sorry,” Jamie says, breath ghosting warm across Dani’s lips. “Sorry, saw him coming, panicked.”

Dani turns her head very slightly, peering over Jamie’s shoulder just in time to see Eddie scowling at them. She closes her eyes, pretends not to notice the way his mouth turns down, his hands opening and closing at his sides. 

“Still there?” Jamie asks, moving as though laying a light kiss against the corner of Dani’s mouth. She does not, Dani notes, actually touch her, save for the way her hands bind in the hem of Dani’s sweater. 

You could, she thinks with mad hope. You could do it for real. 

“Yes,” she manages to say, her voice too reedy. “He’s--not happy.”

“Nor would I be,” Jamie mumbles, bowing her head in a parody of kissing Dani’s throat. Dani leans her head back, one hand sliding up Jamie’s spine, folding under her collar. “This seemed like a better idea when I thought it’d be quick.”

Dani tries to agree, the words strangling in her throat as Jamie’s hips press her into the wall. Jamie isn’t actually doing anything, she understands--her hands are still, her mouth barely brushing the high collar of Dani’s sweater--and somehow, that’s worse. Somehow, the idea of Jamie’s body resting against her own, Jamie’s breath sweeping hot down her collar, Jamie being right there and still not quite closing the gap, is enough to make her crazy.

“It was this, or actually kiss you in front of all those people.” Jamie sounds helpless. Dani discovers she has one hand in Jamie’s hair, isn’t entirely sure when that happened. “Thought this would be less, uh, of a show.”

She’s explaining like she expects Dani to be mad at her, Dani realizes. She steals another nervous glance toward the reception area, finds they are finally alone for real. 

“He’s gone.”

“Thank Christ,” Jamie breathes, letting go and taking a sharp step backward. Her face is neon. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know what else to do. Man’s been circling like a goddamned shark for an hour.”

“It’s--it’s okay.” Dani almost wants to laugh. Almost wants to cry. Desperately, above all else, wants the sharp heat in her belly to disappear. “Took me by surprise, is all.”

“I’m sorry,” Jamie repeats miserably. She scratches a hand through her hair, squeezing the base of her skull. “Next time, I’ll just pitch something at his head, yeah?”

There’s the laughter, burbling up and out, and Dani throws her arms around Jamie’s neck. Buries her face in Jamie’s shoulder, the giggles racking them both even as Jamie hesitantly hugs her back. 

“Thank you,” she says when the laughter subsides, her face still pressed against Jamie’s shoulder. Her heart is a thrashing creature, pounding under her wrists, in the line of her throat. “Seriously, honestly, thank you.”

Jamie exhales shakily. “Anytime.”

***

Karen releases them at four, under pain of death should they fail to return by six-thirty for dinner. The walkthrough of the ceremony proper has, against all expectation, gone smoothly--the ring bearer cries when he has to hold the flower girl’s hand, and one of Christopher’s groomsmen looks repulsed to have to walk beside a woman twice his age, but there are no fires, no violence of any kind. Karen Clayton looks happy, if not exactly relaxed. 

A greater victory: after Jamie’s admittedly-insane Hail Mary moment, Eddie kept his distance for the remainder of the day. Judy ventured over once or twice, but only to help them position a banner or an especially large arrangement. She even laughed at Jamie’s jokes, a show of good faith Karen has yet to attempt.

“Easy enough,” Jamie says back at the hotel. She’s in the bathroom, changing for dinner, Dani doing the same in the main space. Both of them have been pretending to have forgotten the little debacle in the hallway. 

Dani’s better at it, Jamie thinks. Dani is proving excellent at playing nice with these people, all sweet smile and silent nods. It’s bizarre to watch this woman Jamie perceives as having a particularly low threshold for being jerked around just...accept the way these people talk to her. The way each and every one of them seems to be speaking to someone just over her shoulder, their mouths forming the word Danielle, Danielle, never once Dani. 

How can they not see it, Jamie has wondered more than once, how small she gets whenever they do that? Or maybe it’s not how can they not see it so much as how can they not care?

She zips into her dress, gives herself a once-over in the mirror--silver earrings, black jacket, stockings patterned with subtle flowers. It’s not exactly wedding material, but the last-minute nature of the trip had left her with few options. 

“You decent?” she calls through the bathroom door, emerging only when Dani gives the affirmative. 

“Mostly, anyway,” Dani adds, twisting in an effort to zip the back of her own dress. “Damn it. Can you--”

She stops swiveling in place, and Jamie tries to close the distance while staring fixedly at the wall. This day has been entirely too long, involved entirely too many risky choices on her part; staring at Dani’s dress, gaping open to reveal half of her back, is a step too far.

“Please?” Dani asks, oblivious to Jamie’s suddenly-sweaty hands. “I hate this dress, can never reach the damn...you all right?”

She’s looking over her shoulder, catching Jamie red-handed in her wall stare. Her hair is too thick, too pretty, cast over half her face. Jamie swallows. 

“Great. Yeah.”

“Is that the funeral dress?” Dani asks. She winces. 

“Might come as a bit of a shock, Poppins, but I am not actually the sort of person who owns more than one.”

“It’s nice,” Dani says, and Jamie gets the feeling she means it. She gets the feeling Dani means just about everything she says to Jamie, particularly when she tacks on that smile. “Anyway, could you...?”

The dress, right. The dress is still hanging open, the smooth expanse of Dani’s skin broken only by her bra, and Jamie could just feign a heart attack. Could just fake terrible illness here and now, and be done with it, to avoid this moment. 

She clears her throat. Fake girlfriend of the year, you are. “Why d’they design ‘em this way, anyway?”

Dani laughs. It sounds shaky to Jamie’s ears, but maybe that’s just the blood crashing through her head as she takes the material in one hand and the zipper in the other. “It’s like they want to make sure it’s a team activity.”

“Fair enough, I suppose. Dress like this, no one would be alone for long.” She closes her eyes, shakes her head. Slides the zipper slowly up, more relieved with every inch of Dani sealed away behind a wall of black. Her knuckle brushes Dani’s skin only once, and Dani shivers. 

“Sorry,” Jamie murmurs. The urge to place her hand above the last pull of material is strong, if only to see what Dani would do. If she’d shiver like that again. If she’d turn her eyes to Jamie’s. If--

Fake, she reminds herself, latching the zip into place and giving Dani one small pat on the back. “All good.”

It is, she thinks, very good, as dresses go. Or maybe that’s just Dani in it, showing off a surprising amount of leg through a surprisingly high slit. Jamie resists the sudden desire to cup a hand against Dani’s jaw, to tilt her head back again, to recreate the moment at the reception hall with less awkward miming, more...

More Dani. More Jamie. More honesty strung between them than she’s allowed to want. 

She clears her throat again, takes a halting step back. “Boots. Where’d I leave...”

Just don’t look at her. Just don’t look at her in that tight dress, don’t look at the way she keeps running her hands through her hair, don’t look at the expression on her face which says she’s maybe glad Jamie was there to zip her up. She’s maybe glad Jamie was there, standing two inches away with her knuckles grazing Dani’s skin, and Jamie has to get out of here. 

“Are you upset with me?” Dani asks abruptly. Jamie wheels around, one boot in hand, feeling as though she might come unhinged at any moment.

“No. Of course not. Why would I be?”

“You’ve been weird,” Dani says. Her forehead crinkles, her head shaking. “Or, we’ve been weird? Since the hall. Since the...hall.”

Oh, thinks Jamie dizzily, we’re discussing it after all. “Sorry again, about that. Ought to keep my head better in a crisis.”

Dani huffs out a tiny laugh, moving across the room, closing the gap. Jamie takes a step sideways, trying not to look like she’s running away even as she bends for her other boot. 

If she gets close enough, this is going to be the wrong kind of night. 

“Are you,” Dani begins. She pauses, seems to think better of it, as Jamie perches gingerly on the edge of the mattress and pulls on her shoes. “Will you do me a favor?”

Any and all, Poppins. “’Course.”

“Will you just...be my date tonight,” Dani says slowly, like she’s picking every word very carefully, “without finding reasons to apologize for helping me out?”

Throat burning, heart doing its very best to shatter her ribs with the force of every punch, Jamie nods. Dani is walking to the bed, sitting beside her to put on her own heels, tension evident in the curve of her back. 

“Only,” she goes on, not looking at Jamie, “you’re my best friend. I don’t know if you know that, but you are. And you’re here for me, dealing with my family, and you’re...you’re just doing a great job.”

Job, thinks Jamie, right. 

“And I want you to have a good time,” Dani says. She’s speaking faster now, like she thinks Jamie might cut her off at any moment. “Or, as good a time as we can, at my mother’s wedding. So...if you’re okay with it...I’m okay with...anything, really.”

She stops, mouth pulling into an awkward grimace. Jamie almost covers her hand, almost lets herself reach across to touch her fingers reassuringly. 

Anything, really. Like Jamie pushing her up against a wall in a public place. Like Jamie burying her face in her throat as she arches into Jamie’s hands. Like they’re just two people, feeling nothing, putting on a show. 

“Deal,” Jamie says, and smiles, and keeps her hands to herself.

***

They’re on time for dinner, though Karen makes a small production of their arrival, and Jamie wonders if it’s more to do with a need to belittle every decision Dani makes, or because Dani walks in with a hand firmly placed into Jamie’s. Certainly, there are no shortage of heads turning their way as they stride into the banquet hall, and part of Jamie wants to shout that there is nothing to see here. Nothing fascinating about a pair of women walking into a room together, even with Dani’s hand warm in her own. 

Christ, the idea that they’ve all just been waiting for this moment all day--just for the novelty of it--makes her skin itch.

Dani, beautiful, perfectly made-up, holding her hand like it’s the only thing keeping her going, draws a deep breath as they take their seats. Eddie is, thankfully, sitting at the next table over; Jamie gives him a small smile, a wave, like she isn’t playing the role of the woman who stole his fiancée away. 

“Are you taunting him?” Dani asks into her ear, rouged lips brushing Jamie’s skin. She clenches a fist beneath the table, nails digging into her palm, to keep from shuddering.

“Just sayin’ a friendly hello. Maybe we can even be pen-pals when this is over.”

Dani snorts. “If you can manage that, you really are magic.”

Jamie expects this whole event to be even worse than the previous night, but no one seems to be asking much of Dani tonight--save for to be their personal entertainment. Jamie catches sight of the three young women who had been so interested in her that morning, sees one wrinkle her nose as if in disgust. 

“C’mere,” she mutters, placing a hand on Dani’s cheek and leaning their foreheads together. It’s not enough--it’s not nearly what she wants--but she can sense them jerking their eyes away all the same. Dani, face pink, grasps hold of her shoulder and holds on tight. 

“Now they’re really staring.”

“Doesn’t feel like an us problem, does it?” Jamie asks, pleased when Dani laughs. She darts another glance at the women, finds one of them looking at her with such green envy, she can’t help but grin. Her thumb arcs along Dani’s skin in a single sweep, the most she can allow herself before dropping her hand. 

“You two are sweet,” a slightly older woman says from across the table. Jamie snaps her gaze to sharp blue eyes, expecting jealousy or mockery or outright cruelty--but this woman, dark hair and full lips, is smiling with surprising sincerity. “Danielle, right?”

Dani, still flushed, swallows a sip of wine and says, “Dani, please.”

It’s the first time she’s said as much since landing on American soil, Jamie notes with approval. A small step, to any outsider, but enormous for Dani. 

“You probably don’t remember me,” the woman says, reaching a gloved hand across the table for each of them to shake. “Haven’t seen you since we were...well, Nellie was probably six?”

Dani’s polite expression says she has absolutely no idea what this woman is talking about, though she isn’t going to admit it. The woman laughs.

“Anyway, it’s been a while. Theo. This is my wife, Trish. We’re, ah, your...third cousins now? Twice removed? I can never keep it straight.”

“You have a lot of family,” Trish says mildly, “have I ever pointed that out?”

“It’s distant,” Theo goes on, making a face even as she takes Trish’s hand. “I hear you’re recently--” She makes a gesture with her drink, summing up Dani and Jamie in a single motion. “How’d they take it?”

“What, my mom?” Dani laughs. “Have you met her?”

“Infrequently,” Theo says with a smile. “Thankfully. I’m sorry, for whatever she’s put you through. Couldn’t have been easy.”

Dani is smiling and nodding, that well-mannered way of navigating a conversation without really engaging, but Jamie thinks she can see some of the armor coming down. It’s less the way Theo speaks--confident, secure--and more the way she holds Trish’s hand in full view of the world. There is, indeed, a wedding band on her finger, a casual joy in sitting beside someone who clearly understands her. 

Jamie, with all her experience with women, has never seen this up close. She can’t imagine what it must be doing to Dani.

There are toasts--Dani, it seems, was not asked to make one; Jamie watches the clench of her jaw around her smile, wondering if this fact sparks bother or relief--and there are meals brought around by a catering team, and the conversation at their table is effortless. Theo speaks of her family, telling stories that seem as new to Dani--who is even in a few of them--as they are to Jamie. She keeps saying names--Shirley and Steven, Luke and Nellie--and though Jamie has no face to place with any of them, she feels as though she knows them all the same. Tries to imagine what it would be like to grow up like Theo: on the east coast of America, surrounded by loving siblings and parents who genuinely cared for her well-being. 

She steals glances at Dani, half-expecting to see jealousy splashed across her beautiful face--but Dani, to her surprise, is leaning on her elbow with an enamored smile. There’s a loose grace to her Jamie hasn’t seen since touching down in this god-forsaken country, reminding her irresistibly of dinners at home. 

“It must have been amazing,” Dani says over after-dinner cocktails, watching Trish filch an olive out of Theo’s drink. “Growing up in a big old house like that.”

Theo shrugs. “It was never boring. Unlike...” She makes an eye-rolling gesture toward the head table, where Dani’s mother seems to have engaged an anxious-looking waiter in argument. “You really can’t pick your family, can you?”

“Nope,” Dani and Jamie say in unison. Theo raises an eyebrow. 

“What are you two doing after this?”

***

What they are doing, it would appear, is letting Theo talk them into ditching her mother’s rehearsal dinner for a club. 

gay club.

Dani hadn’t even known there were gay clubs in Iowa.

Theo calls a car, allowing one stop-off at the hotel for a quick change--”I am not,” Jamie says, “wearing a funeral dress to a goddamn American gay club”--looking rather pleased with herself when Dani agrees. “You haven’t lived,” she promises, “until you’ve danced off a shitty night with the family in a room full of beautiful women.”

Trish clears her throat. Theo laughs. 

“As if this isn’t exactly how we met.”

Jamie, back in her white button-down and suspenders from earlier, takes Dani’s hand. “Good?”

Dani--still in her ridiculous party dress and heels, having been unable to settle on anything more appropriate in the ten minutes Theo had allotted--is doing her best not to look as nervous as she feels. “Never done this before.”

“No time like the present,” Theo announces, and without another word, heads for the door. 

A gay club, Dani notes immediately, is...loud. Loud, and dim, and wet in a way she’s not sure she wants fully to define. On a Friday night, the place is packed to the rafters, an endless sprawl of bodies gyrating, shouting drink orders, lip-syncing along to music she likely wouldn't recognize if it hit her around the head. 

“Stay close?” she says into Jamie’s ear, a slightly-embarrassed plea. Jamie squeezes her hand once in solidarity, shoulders back, head held confidently high.

“Whatever you want.”

“Drinks!” Theo announces, making them both leap with surprise. 

“How’d you get those so fast?” Jamie demands, accepting the shot as though she is not entirely in control of her body. Dani hefts her own glass experimentally, not loving her inability to tell what color the liquid inside is.

When in Rome...

“And now!” Trish bops her hip into Dani, who stumbles and narrowly misses going down only because Jamie catches her around the middle. “Go wild, you crazy kids!”

She grasps Theo by the front of her tank top and shimmies away in the direction of the dance floor. Jamie gapes after them.

“Your cousin,” she says, rather admiringly, “is a trip.”

Dani can’t take responsibility for that, and is beginning to feel like this was a terrible idea. She’s grown used to small English pubs--not necessarily the quietest drinking venue in the world, but certainly not this. Rainbow lights strobe, red to blue to green and back again, and all around her, people are...

People are just people. Dancing in pairs, or clusters, or--in one case--a huge group of young men operating as a single twisting entity, every last one of them looking more free than Dani’s ever felt. She watches a person in a short skirt and a neat-trimmed beard grasp the chin of a man in glasses, kissing him in full view of the entire world--and no one laughs, or screams, or throws anything. No one is even staring, in a place like this.

Well--not staring like she’s used to, anyway. 

There are women, she notices. The world is filling in a piece at a time as her mind expands to allow for the thriving club to take up all the space usually reserved for nerves, and there are so many women. Tall women, tiny women, women in blazers and short dresses and t-shirts, and they are--a surprising number of them, frankly--looking at Jamie. 

Not surprising, she corrects herself dazedly, watching a pair at the bar size Jamie up. Not surprising at all. Jamie, one hand still grasping her empty shot glass, looks like she actually belongs here, with her smudged eyeliner and her messy hair and her faintly amused expression. Jamie could make a home here, leaning against the bar, taking numbers and breaking hearts with such gentleness, the women would probably not even realize she’d done it until they’d made it home. 

“Poppins?” Jamie isn’t looking at any of those women. Jamie is, for whatever reason, looking at her instead, her hand grazing the small of Dani’s back. “You all right? Look a bit--”

“Drinks,” Dani says, too quickly. “More drinks.”

***

There are no shortage of those, certainly--not with Dani in this dress, her hair loose around her shoulders, her smile nervously bright under the haze of rainbow lights. 

“That is too many,” she’s saying to a woman with close-buzzed red hair and a nose ring. There’s something slightly manic about her smile, the expression of a woman who has never been bought a single drink by a stranger, much less seven in a row. “But that’s very nice of you, thank you--”

They’ve found their way to a booth just off the bar, Jamie’s logic having been--well-meaning, but evidently faulty--that there would be a moment’s privacy in which they could both find their bearings. What had happened, instead, was an invisible sign announcing to an entire club of queer women: Here’s Dani Clayton! She’s new at this, but painfully gorgeous, and utterly incapable of being rude to a woman offering her a free drink. 

Jamie, who has managed to secure a number of free drinks herself, and is not entirely sure how to feel about either situation, has an arm around Dani’s shoulders. She hadn’t started off this way; had felt it was important, in fact, to let Dani get the lay of the land as much as she liked. They’d slid into this booth, Jamie tossing one arm casually across the table, her eyes sliding from pretty face to pretty face without ever really settling. 

The women had come, surprising her not at all. The women had come, and Dani had, with every potential new friend, slid further along the bench toward Jamie. She’d smiled, and exchanged names, and all the while, her hand had slipped beneath the table to rest on Jamie’s thigh. 

And now, Jamie is here: a couple of drinks in, feeling the music move through her frame, one hand lightly playing across the warm skin of Dani’s upper arm. The women are growing less frequent, she realizes, scanning the floor around their booth--and whether it’s because enough of them have tried their hand and walked off alone, or because Dani is leaning into her body, she can’t say. 

Wants to say, maybe--but shouldn’t. Because under it all--the thumping bass, and the pleasant bite of alcohol around her senses, and Dani’s head on her shoulder, Dani’s hand stroking absently up and down her thigh--she is still all-too aware why they’re here. Why they flew out here in the first place. That Dani needs a friend, more than anything else in the world, that Jamie is her best friend. That best friends, no matter how gone they are for someone, don’t take advantage. 

“I want to dance,” Dani decides. She turns her face to Jamie, barely two inches away, her eyes holding something of an excited plea. “You want to dance?”

Jamie doesn’t really dance, but this doesn’t seem the time or place to say so. Anyway, hasn’t she already made her bed tonight?

“Whatever you want,” she repeats, letting Dani drag her by the hand toward the dance floor.

***

Dani hasn’t been dancing in years--not since college, when she’d briefly tried to form a friend group outside of Eddie and found the experience complicated at best. Back then, it had felt like a ritual she wasn’t entirely designed for, her body unable to banish the grasp of trigger-happy panic long enough to actually enjoy the experience. 

Now, tonight, she finally understands why people do this. 

This is the first place--aside from the hotel room, anyway--in the whole weekend she hasn’t found herself worrying about anyone looking at her. The first time in days without the sharp needle of expectation pricking her skin, without Eddie, or her mother, or some great-aunt she barely remembers picking her apart with a gaze. 

Here, tonight, there is only the quicksilver beat of music, the tang of pot smoke and sweat on the air, the crush of bodies she couldn’t care less about around her. It’s a mark of alcohol, her rational mind understands, and of the desperate need for freedom, and for once, she’s not thinking about any of it. She moves with the beat, dimly aware of bodies sliding against her own and bouncing off again, of Theo nearby with Trish in her arms, of how it feels to swing her hips and shove her hands into her hair and forget everything else. 

Nothing else matters. 

Nearly nothing else. 

Jamie is never far, and no matter where else Dani’s mind spirals, she can’t forget that. Jamie, who does not look nearly as at-ease as she feels, but whose smile flashes almost sheepishly when Dani loops an arm around her neck. Jamie, who does not strictly seem built for dancing, but who touches her gently at the waist, her grip firming up when Dani pushes against her and laughs. 

No matter who else is here, no matter what strangers try to catch her attention, there is only Jamie. Jamie, who spins her by the hand and pulls her close again, careful to keep Dani from crashing into other dancers. Jamie, in whose arms she turns, pressing backward, liking the way Jamie’s hands bracket her hips as they move together. 

Jamie has been touching her all weekend, but this is perhaps the first time Jamie has done so without real reservation. Without stopping to check with Dani first, without hesitating in an attempt to find a reason. On the dance floor, with Dani’s arm cast back around her neck, Dani’s hand digging into her hair, Jamie holds her close and moves with her like there’s no reason to question any of it. 

It’s fun, Dani thinks--and it’s something else, too. Something warmer, something that has been trying so hard to catch her attention all weekend. All summer, maybe.

Fun, she reminds herself with the certainty of the relatively-tipsy, rocking her hips back and feeling Jamie respond in kind. Jamie’s chin is tipped down toward her shoulder, her face shining with sweat, her eyes closed. Dani revolves slowly in her arms, fingers laced behind her neck, enjoying the almost lazy way Jamie opens her eyes to look at her. 

There’s a lot behind a look like that. A lot behind the way her hand anchors at the small of Dani’s back, bunching her dress. A lot behind the way they slide together, barely breaking contact even when the song changes over to something faster, something with the kind of filthy beat that makes Jamie smile and Dani’s stomach twist. 

Fun, Dani thinks again, her eyes on Jamie’s mouth, on the sheen of sweat beading above her lips. She’s more than dimly aware of Jamie’s hand sliding up her spine, of Jamie’s hips grinding against her own. 

“Bit drunk,” she hears herself say. Jamie nods. 

“Need to go?”

Dani shakes her head, pressing her face against Jamie’s shoulder, breathing hard into her open collar. Jamie’s heart is a drumbeat against her, Jamie’s hands loosening around her body as if worried she’s crossed a line. 

“Dance with me,” Dani says, tilting her head back to smile up at her. “Dance with me,” because there are other words hovering dangerously close, other words she means more. She could say them. She could beg Jamie for more than a dance. Right now, with free drinks calling the shots and Theo kissing Trish a few feet away and Jamie looking at her like this, she thinks Jamie would give in easily. 

But Jamie is her best friend. Jamie’s only here because Dani needed her to be. Jamie is more than a drunken demand on a dance floor. 

“Dance with me,” she says, and lets the rhythm sweep the rest of it away.

***

Jamie manages a cigarette before they pile into the car Theo has called to get them safely home. She thinks that’s the only reason she survives the wait, frankly--the gentle hum of nicotine scratching a much deeper itch as she props a boot against the club wall, watching Dani under the streetlamp’s halo. 

She’s never quite seen Dani as she has tonight. Dani’s never shown her this side, the carefree delight of a woman in the grip of music and fruity drinks and no responsibility. It’s good to know Dani has that freedom in her, buried beneath layers of shame and anxiety. 

Better to know Dani is willing to show her that much. 

Dangerous to know how close Dani is coming to showing her something else.

Jamie wants to believe she’s got more self-control than this, but there were too many drinks, and too-fast music, and Dani too close for too long. Her head is spinning, the night air doing very little to pull her rational mind back into the driver’s seat. 

The whole way back to the hotel, she’s too aware of Dani, of the radioactive heat that seems to come off her in waves. Her elbow is against Jamie’s ribs, her leg flush against Jamie’s, her hands twisting in her own skirt like she’s just barely restraining the urge to put them somewhere else.

Drunk, Jamie thinks. It was silly to get this drunk--reckless, even. Dani might have needed it, but Jamie knows better. Knows how hard this has been without the added benefit of alcohol making everything feel just a little bit less enormous. 

They ride back in silence, Dani gazing out the window, Jamie trying not to gaze at Dani. It’s impossible to ignore the crash of her heart, the almost sickening backflips her stomach is performing just sitting here with Dani belted in beside her. 

Just drunk, Jamie thinks. Just drunk, and exhausted, and still riding an adrenaline high. That can be all it is. That can be enough to blame for all of it--for how her skin seems to carry the imprint, even an hour later, of Dani’s hands, of Dani’s breath, of Dani’s sweat. Just drunk, and tired, and ready for bed. 

It seems like a good idea, until they’re tumbling through the door of their room. Until Jamie is looking at the big, clean, single bed. 

I could sleep in the bath, she thinks wildly. Take a pillow, tuck her in, might not even notice I’m gone. 

Dani, for her part, is not looking at the bed. She’s kicked off her heels, is turning in place like a puppy chasing its tail, trying to find the zipper of her dress. Despite everything, Jamie laughs. 

“Come--will you stand still a sec?--come here.”

Her hands are clumsy, one grasping Dani’s hip just to stop her swaying long enough for Jamie to find the zipper. They’re both giggling, she realizes, the muffled hands-over-mouth laughter of kids at a sleepover. Even as she tugs the zipper down, Jamie is saying, “Shh, gonna wake the fuckin’ neighbors--”

“Was stuck,” Dani giggles, the words coming out higher than normal. Jamie shakes her head. 

“Not anymore, are you?” Her hand, she realizes, is brushing between Dani’s shoulder blades, the backs of her fingers trailing lightly down the ridge of Dani’s spine. She snatches it back, stuffs it into the pocket of her trousers. “There. Free as a bird. You can, ah, get ready for bed.”

“Could sleep in this,” Dani says, and to her credit, she’s only slurring a little. Jamie catches hold of her shoulders before she can tip face-first onto the mattress, unable to let her imagination skitter toward what she might see if Dani were allowed to sleep in a half-undone party dress.

“C’mon, go get undr--ready. Go get ready.”

Next time, she thinks as she changes swiftly into a sleep shirt and shorts of her own, Theo fucking Crain doesn’t get to buy the shots, for starters. 

She perches on the left side of the bed--my side, she thinks, registering again that my side means there must always be Dani’s side to go with it--relieved when the bathroom door opens and the Dani who slouches back out is actually dressed for bed. Her hair’s a mess, her makeup smudged, but she is no longer wearing that fucking dress, and that has to count for something. 

Just go to sleep. Go to sleep, and it’ll all be normal in the morning. She’s not sure if she means to say it out loud to Dani, or if it’s simply a reminder for herself, a desperate attempt to quell the itch to reach across the bed even as Dani tumbles into it.

It’s fine. This is fine. She can just lay here, on her back, staring at the ceiling, and sooner or later, she’s bound to fall asleep. Dani’s probably already well on her way, though Jamie can’t bring herself to look. Can’t quite bring herself to--

Dani has, for the most part, kept quite politely to her side of the bed. She’s slept with her arms wrapped tight around one of the extra pillows, and if a hand happened to find Jamie’s arm, or a leg happened to brush Jamie’s under the sheets, it had been innocent. Easy to write off. That Jamie hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in days isn’t Dani’s fault

What Dani’s doing now, however, is pushing Jamie straight past uneasy rest, all the way to no sleep tonight at all, eh?

Her lips form Dani’s name, but her voice has abandoned her utterly. Dani--still tipsy, still smelling faintly of smoke and sweat and something that dries Jamie’s mouth right out--is curling around her like a flower seeking light. Her face is pressed against Jamie’s neck, her hand wound tight in Jamie’s shirt. Jamie drags in a ragged breath, even as Dani curls against her hip, her leg slung carelessly between Jamie’s. 

“Okay?” she mumbles into Jamie’s neck, sounding half-asleep, half-gone already. Her grip is pulling Jamie’s shirt up, her hand brushing Jamie’s side with such a brazen lack of intention, Jamie can’t quite remember how to inhale. 

“Yeah.”

Dani sighs, relaxing so completely, Jamie can feel every inch of her fitting against her body. She’s asleep already, Jamie thinks, though she can’t fathom how that’s possible. How Dani could manage sleep over here, on Jamie’s side of the bed, half of her weight pressing Jamie into the mattress like they do this every night.

There’s a wedding tomorrow, and Jamie’s body is vibrating, the liquor and the music still swirling in her blood. There’s a wedding tomorrow, and even in her sleep, Dani’s fingers are brushing tiny arcs along the base of her ribs. There’s a wedding tomorrow. 

And Jamie, breathing slowly through her nose, feeling very much like one taut muscle, does not sleep a wink.

***

It isn’t a plan.

If it were a plan, it wouldn’t be happening.

If it were a plan, she’d have time to think it through, to pick it apart, to find all the little cracks and flaws that say she shouldn’t, she absolutely shouldn’t, it could do irreparable damage. 

It isn’t a plan--it’s only the holdover of a noisy club, of a contact high from Jamie’s arms around her, of Jamie’s crooked little smile with a cigarette between her lips and her eyes fixed on Dani. It’s just instinct, pushing her across the bed and into Jamie again, needing in some helplessly unconscious way to fall into Jamie and be caught. 

Jamie, who sees her. Jamie, who has her hand, gently folding her fingers around Dani’s like she doesn’t question a second of it.

Jamie, turning her head very slightly and looking at her in the dark. 

The kiss is not a plan, but it is Dani’s doing--she can’t deny that, even as she’s pushing up toward Jamie, a sigh passing between them. Her hand drags up, gripping Jamie’s shirt, every ounce of this born of Jamie’s body against hers on the dance floor, Jamie’s fingers between her own, Jamie looking at her like no one else existed. 

The kiss is not a plan, and even as she’s opening over Jamie’s mouth, even as she’s making a recklessly-hopeful noise into Jamie, she thinks it should have been. It should have been, and they should have done this so long ago.

Jamie is gentle, hands cradling beneath Dani’s jaw, and Dani finds the lights are off on common sense, on thought, on everything that isn’t the instinctive roll of her hips against Jamie’s side, the instinctive search for more contact. Jamie is gentle, but with every passing moment, there is more of her to explore: the way her tongue slides against Dani’s, the way her lashes brush Dani’s cheek when she turns her head, the way she groans when Dani rubs harder against her leg. 

Dani should have done this forever ago--should have done this the first week back home, should have reached for Jamie’s hand and closed her eyes and leapt. Here, with hotel sheets slipping, with her fingers tracing Jamie’s ribs beneath her shirt, with her body fully in charge, Dani can’t imagine why a person wouldn’t want to jump. 

Jamie’s hands are everywhere, somehow, Jamie’s mouth a hot slide down her jaw, down her neck, and Dani isn’t thinking at all. Her mind is blissfully blank, occupied only with Jamie licking at her jumping pulse, with Jamie under her as she rolls, pinning Jamie into the blankets. She’s here, guiding Jamie’s hands under her shirt, and she’s on the dance floor, gazing into Jamie’s eyes, and it’s all Jamie’s bite on her shoulder, Jamie’s hand cupping, kneading, Jamie’s hips matching her thrust for thrust. 

There are clothes, and there are not, and Dani doesn’t care that it’s like magic. Doesn’t care that she can still see the strobing lights behind her eyelids, that she can still hear the drum of some distant unknown song, that her body is here and there at once as Jamie flips her onto her back and leans over her. There’s a hunger in Jamie she finds unfamiliar and thrilling, her pupils blown, her kiss growing rough and ragged and perfect in its reckless angle. 

It should give her pause--all of it feels like something she should interrogate--but all she knows is Jamie’s hand sliding into her shorts, Jamie kissing her, Jamie turning the entire world into a pulsing, rhythmic heat, and she’s trying to keep quiet, she’s trying not to let it out as Jamie slides in, kisses her, curls deeper, kisses her, and all there is is--

***

Jamie.”

Jamie has not been sleeping. Maybe, if she’d been so fortunate as to grab even a little bit of shut-eye, she wouldn’t have been awake to hear it. Maybe, if she’d been a little drunker, or a little less aware of how hot every inch of her skin feels with Dani sleeping half on top of her, she’d have missed it entirely.

Jamie has not been sleeping. Jamie has been staring at the backs of her eyelids, trying as hard as she’s tried anything in her life not to match her every breath to Dani’s. They started off shallow, so deep, she found herself resting a palm lightly against Dani’s back just to make sure she was even alive. All good. 

As the night wears on, Dani’s breaths have grown a little faster--a little sharper. A dream, Jamie assumed; hopefully a good one, none of the rampant nightmares Dani has mentioned offhandedly over the summer. Something strange and wonderful, Jamie hopes for her, to keep Dani’s mind off the stress of the coming day. 

Then...a little noise. Just a small one. Barely anything, really. Maybe she’s imagined it.

Dani shifts against her, giving no sign of being anything other than dead to the world. She gives a little sigh, her hand flexing its grip on Jamie’s shirt. 

Another noise. Bit louder this time, and Jamie thinks, Sleep as hard as she can. If she just keeps thinking it--sleep, sleep, for the love of Christ, sleep--she’ll finally pass out. She’ll finally disappear into glorious dreamland, a world Dani is clearly occupying quite happily, a world where she won’t be able to hear the tiny whimpers Dani is giving in her sleep. 

Sleep, thinks Jamie with such ferocity, it almost bursts a blood vessel. 

Jamie,” Dani says. 

Says maybe isn’t the word for it. Says suggests just a simple release of syllables, a conversational tone implying Dani is dreaming of Bly, of the kitchen, or the rose gardens, or the greenhouse. Says implies she has not, in fact, sighed Jamie’s name like a plea, like a prayer, like she’s halfway to moaning it against Jamie’s shoulder. 

Right, thinks Jamie. Enough sleep for me. 

She extricates herself carefully from Dani’s grasp, slipping out from between the sheets with a truly unusual level of grace. Clothes, she grabs in a blind rush, hoping against all hope that every article is actually her own; she dresses quickly in the bathroom, jeans and t-shirt and one of these socks is actually Dani’s, fuck

Her phone blinks 4:49 at her, its white blocky numbers accusatory. Get back into that bed. Get some actual sleep. You’re going to lose it tomorrow if you don’t. 

Gonna lose it tonight if Poppins starts acting out her fuckin’ dreams on me, Jamie tells it silently. There are things she cannot be, things she cannot do, and still be able to look her reflection in the eye the next day. Dani is asleep. Dani is blameless. Jamie is entirely too here

She slips outside, knocks out a cigarette, smokes half of it in a sickening rush before she’s able to convince her hand to steady. She’s still smoking it when, in a mad effort to banish the memory of Dani’s leg sliding against her own, of Dani’s voice saying her name like it was the most sacred goddamn thing in the world, she calls Hannah.

“Jamie?” Hannah sounds perplexed. “What time is it there? Are you all right? Is Dani--”

“Sleepin’,” Jamie says, exhaling smoke through a grimace. “It’s, ah, five? Roundabouts.”

“Is there a particular reason you are not, also, asleep?” Hannah asks. There’s a brief scuffle, the sound of pattering feet headed away from the phone, and she adds in a voice not meant for Jamie, “Miles! Not the lighter again, please.”

“All normal there, I take it,” Jamie says, grinning a little despite the flush still hot on her face. Hannah seems to be suppressing a sigh. 

“They’ve had cake this afternoon. Owen’s been on a--well, never mind, you know how he is. How are you? How are things?”

She’s only going to be polite so much longer, Jamie senses. Hannah Grose knows all too well she wouldn’t be calling at this hour if things were right as rain.

“Her mother is--”

“You’ve mentioned that part,” Hannah says gently. Jamie closes her eyes, picturing clearly the kitchen, Owen puttering at the stove while Hannah clears the lunch dishes. Life makes so much more sense back at Bly, where there are plants to tend and children to tease and feelings to try to outrun at the end of the night. 

“We went clubbing this evening,” she says at last, flicking hot ash from the stub of cigarette still left to her. Hannah makes a sound of amusement into the phone. 

“That doesn’t sound like either of you.”

“Was her cousin’s idea. Or...seventeenth cousin, I don’t know how it all works. She took us to a gay bar.”

“Sounds enlightening,” Hannah says wryly. “And how did that shake out?”

“Too much booze, not enough good sense,” Jamie says, crushing out the remainder of the cigarette beneath her boot. “Nothing happened,” she adds when Hannah’s silence remains pointedly expectant. “Not for lack of want.”

“Yours, or hers?”

Jamie laughs once, bitterly. “Who could even say just now?”

“Is that not promising?” Hannah, bless her, is plainly trying to step lightly. It has never been her strongest suit. 

Lighting a second cigarette, trying not think about how she’s actively chain-smoking outside the hotel to avoid her bed, Jamie sighs. “Hannah, I’m here to pretend. Whole point of the exercise, really.”

“But you aren’t pretending,” Hannah points out. “Haven’t been, have you?”

“Yes, but she has. And it must be confusing, right? To have her ex floating around, mooning after her, and her mum spouting the bitterest shite I’ve ever heard, and everyone expecting so much. I can’t, Hannah. I can’t put more on her.”

“Have you considered,” Hannah says slowly, “that this is a conversation you might want to have with Miss Clayton?”

Jamie sinks down on a bench just off the parking lot. “Not the day of her mother’s bloody wedding, I don’t. Might just be getting carried away on all the drama of it, yeah? Last thing I need’s for her to--” Run. Jump away at the first sign of me being honest. She shakes her head. “Later, maybe. When we don’t have to share a flight, or a room, or a bed--”

“I’m sorry?” Hannah says, sounding significantly more delighted than Jamie finds appropriate. 

“Hannah Grose, I am trying to have a crisis on the other side of the Atlantic, if you don’t mind.”

“No, no,” Hannah says happily. “Carry on.”

***

Dani isn’t sure how a person can at once feel as though they’ve had the best sleep of their life and gotten exactly no relief all night long, but it’s certainly possible. Whatever mad balancing act it is, it’s her bag to carry from the moment her eyes open Saturday morning. 

The room is empty. There is a text in her phone from Jamie--woke early, off to grab a half-decent brew--and Dani sits up to squint at it for nearly a full minute before punching in a You ok? response. There is, she notes, a tiny heart beside Jamie’s name in her contact list. When did she add that?

Last night? It doesn’t feel like something she’d do, but then again, last night was full of those moments. She isn’t the sort of person who amasses free drinks at a bar, either, or lets loose on the dance floor, or...or...

“Shit,” she whispers, the rest of it crashing into place. “Shit.” Jamie, not here. Jamie, very conspicuously absent. 

Jamie, who had--had they--had she

A dream. It had to have been a dream. There is simply no way Dani would have--with Jamie--without talking to her first, without making sure Jamie was okay with—

She is clutching her phone hard enough to hurt. She tosses it aside, scrubbing both hands through her hair, closing her eyes in an effort to remember. There had been dancing...there had been Jamie smiling at her through a blue haze of smoke...there had been the car ride back, Dani wishing with everything in her for Jamie to take her hand, touch her knee, do anything...

And Jamie...hadn’t. Jamie had helped her into the elevator, up to the room, out of her dress--politely, laughing, not trying to wind Dani up further. If Dani had been wound already, if Dani’s hands had tingled from every brush of Jamie’s skin, if Dani had looked at Jamie’s smudged makeup and tiny grin and wanted Jamie to act...she hadn’t said so. She’s very certain of that much. Certain she changed out of her dress, climbed into bed, and...

Then what?

She stumbles to the bathroom, cranking the heat in the shower, her head pounding. Attending her mother’s wedding--a thrice in a lifetime event!--with a hangover feels on brand for the weekend, somehow. 

Jamie, what did we do? Nothing. The answer must be nothing, she thinks as she stands numbly beneath the spray. If she has twitchy, too-vivid memories of Jamie gazing down at her--of Jamie’s hands rough on her hips--of Jamie’s mouth working miracles with her shirt pushed nearly to her shoulders--

Dream. A dream. Perfectly normal thing to happen, particularly after a night of stress and alcohol. Dreams happen. Hell, she once had a dream about being replaced at school by a llama with an Elizabethan dress sense. Dreams mean nothing

But if it was nothing, why on earth did Jamie feel like she had to vacate the room before Dani could wake?

She does this every morning, she reminds herself sharply, groping past the curtain for a towel. Jamie is a morning person. Jamie’s probably out roaming the hotel grounds searching for a shrub she can tend back to life, missing the routine of gardening each day. There is absolutely no reason to believe Jamie is actually avoiding her.

There is another text waiting when she returns to her phone: all good. just restless. pick you up in ten?

It’s only a little strange, she tells herself, that Jamie doesn’t come up to meet her. Only a little odd, that Jamie waits in the car with the windows down and an almost too-casual smile on her face. 

Just a dream, Dani tells the annoyingly loud part of her brain that insists on replaying Jamie’s fingers drawing sharp little patterns between her legs. Dream. It’s fine. 

Never mind that she never had a dream like this with Eddie. Never mind that she’s gone three months without having a dream even close to this ballpark. Never mind--

“Good morning!” Too bright. Too chirpy. She forces herself to tone it down a step, sliding into the car. “How did you sleep?”

“Great,” Jamie says. “Yeah. Really excellent. Ah--head hurt?”

“A little.” There’s pretending things are absolutely fine, and there’s lying, and--thin though that divide may be--Dani isn’t interested in the latter. Anyway, Jamie would know; she can tell from the way Jamie slides a greasy breakfast sandwich and a large cup of coffee over before putting the car back into gear that Jamie’s having a similar morning on that front.

“Remind me to thank your cousin,” Jamie adds. “For reminding me why I don’t much care for nights out on the town.”

Dani sips the still-boiling coffee, assessing Jamie’s posture as best she can. What did that mean? Teasing disavowal of American entertainment culture, or genuinely-upset reference to last night as a whole? And which part of last night, if so--the dancing? The women piling into their space, hoping for attention? 

“You all right?” Well, that just came spilling out. She grimaces into the coffee, looks out the window as Jamie steers them through an intersection.

“My head’s thumpin’ a top-forty hit, and I think I can still taste that last shot,” Jamie says easily, “but otherwise, fine enough. Is there a reason we’re picking the lady of the manor up? She doesn’t have a limo on call?”

Dani laughs, though doing so jars her head more than she’d like. “Said it was important to her that we bond today.”

“Is bonding code for anything pleasant?” Jamie wonders. “Like, say, not inviting your ex-boyfriend over for breakfast?”

Judging by the car waiting in the drive--Judy’s white SUV, pristine as the day she bought it--Dani suspects not. She groans, sinking down in her seat as Jamie parks at the curb. 

“You had the right idea Thursday,” she says, rolling her eyes in Jamie’s direction. “We probably should have run.”

“Could’ve made it to the coast by now,” Jamie agrees. She slides a hand across the console, hesitates, lets it land on Dani’s knee. “Hey, we’re almost there. Hard part’s nearly over.”

Dani, staring at Jamie’s hand, tries not to remember where else that hand has been. Hasn’t been. Probably hasn’t been. She shakes her head slowly, sits up straight. 

“Sure you’re all right? You’re not--upset?”

“About what?” Jamie looks genuinely puzzled. Dani exhales. 

“Nothing. I don’t know. Woke up...weird.”

“You’re always a little weird, Poppins.” Jamie flashes a smile. “S’why I like you. Come on, or your mother’ll be out to drag us in by the ear.”

***

Woke up a little weird, Dani says, and Jamie nearly tells her. Nearly blurts out, “I’m running on enough caffeine to fell a moose, ‘cuz I didn’t sleep, ‘cuz you were moaning in yours.”

It would do nothing to brighten Dani’s day. She opts to keep it to herself. 

Still, if there’s a situation she can think less kindly of after a night of zero sleep, it’s this: walking into Karen Clayton’s kitchen to find Judy O’Mara and her son at the table, all three of them looking up like they’d been hoping Dani would sort her out with the rubbish. 

Just keep smiling. Perfect presentation. One more goddamn day. “Mornin’, you lot. How’d we enjoy last night’s party?”

“You left,” Karen tells her daughter, as if Dani isn’t perfectly aware. “We looked for you after dessert.”

“Went out with some people.” Dani almost makes it sound breezy. Jamie’s proud of her, the way she’s leaning against the counter and sipping her coffee. Like she doesn’t care about three pairs of judgmental eyes tracking her every move. 

“What people?” Karen says, even as Eddie is adding, “Out where?”

“Theo,” Dani explains. Karen wrinkles her nose.

“Didn’t think she’d turn up. Invited that whole damn family, she’s the only one who did. Did you know her brother’s in rehab? And the other one, the twin sister, off on some kind of backpacking adventure with her husband--”

Jamie can’t listen to this woman speak with idle hands. She busies herself with the kettle, locating a small drawer of tea with little effort. Mostly variants she wouldn’t put in her mouth for all the biscuits in Owen’s cupboard, but there’s a little English Breakfast tucked away at the back. It’ll do.

Dani reaches over her, pops open a cupboard to reveal a host of mismatched mugs. Jamie gives her a grateful smile. 

“Bless. You want a cup?”

She watches Dani toss back the remainder of her coffee, trying not to stare dazedly at the column of her throat as she swallows, at the pretty arc of her smile as she says, “I can make it.”

“You most certainly cannot, and I love you no less for it.” Words, thinks Jamie as a hot flush curls around her neck. Just words, pretty and dancing for their audience. Dani is staring at her, a grin brightening her whole face properly for the first time all morning.  

Across the kitchen, Judy says, “I’d love a cup, dear. If it’s not too much trouble. Left too early for coffee this morning.”

“Tea all around,” Jamie decides, because it’s frankly better than letting herself fall into the truly inexplicable delight on Dani’s face. She’s walking a tightrope, a perfect balancing act of charm and caffeine, and at any moment, she could tumble to her death. So long as she’s the only one who knows it, this will all work out just fine.

But if Dani keeps smiling at her like that--if Dani leans any nearer, her hand drifting across Jamie’s on the counter--

"The schedule,” Karen says, disregarding all signs of Jamie transforming into a human disaster right here in the kitchen. “I texted you a copy, Danielle, did you get it?”

Dani draws out her phone, flicks it open. Jamie glances over to read over her shoulder, catching sight of her most recent text--all good. just restless. pick you up in ten?

There’s a small red heart beside her name. Her stomach has discovered a heretofore-hidden trampoline. 

“Here,” Dani says, tilting her phone so Jamie can see. Sure enough, a bullet-point schedule: hair and makeup at 9. church by noon. photographer. dress. ceremony at 2. photos to follow. 

"And I expect you to be there for all of it,” Karen tells her daughter coolly. “No rushing off with Theo Crain this time. Or your...” She makes a flippant hand gesture in Jamie’s direction. 

“Girlfriend,” Dani says. 

“Sure,” Karen replies, already turning back to Judy. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind helping corral the boys, you know how they can be...”

And I’ll just be blending with the wallpaper, shall I? Jamie is half-listening, allowing her body’s instincts to take over as the water comes to a boil. Weddings have always seemed to her like an awful amount of work. People on their own, truly, are entirely too much; smush them together and ask for the big dress, the expensive venue, the family drama of it all, and you get...

Well. You get Dani Clayton, hovering on the edge of her mother’s conversation like an unwanted pet. 

Jamie grinds her teeth, forcing her attention back to the tea. Nothing to be done for it, she reminds herself. Not her place, to change the story of Dani’s relationship with her mother. Christ knows, she’s not one to talk about maternal bonds, not with two parents who hadn’t been able to cut the simple act of living in the same house with her. 

But, Christ, how she talks to her...

She transports the mugs carefully to the table, one-two-three. Judy, she is delighted to see, takes a careful sip and smiles. 

“Oh, this is delicious. You’ve got a good one, Danielle.”

Eddie, who hadn’t looked particularly thrilled about the offer to begin with, leans away from his mug as though suddenly believing it poisoned. Jamie gives him a cheery little wink, unable to help herself. 

Day’s not a total waste, anyway. 

“So, it’s settled,” Karen says. “You’ll come with me to the salon, Danielle, and Judy and Eddie will head to the church to make sure Christopher is...ready.”

“Ah.” Jamie clears her throat. “And, uh, where’m I meant to...”

“With me,” Dani says, without missing a beat. “You’re with me.”

She’s looking at Jamie with such sincerity, such hope shining in her eyes, that Jamie can’t say anything for a minute. There’s something about Dani Clayton with a mug clutched between her hands, half-believing Jamie’s upset with her, staring at her like this. Something about it, Jamie couldn’t turn down for anything.

“I suppose,” Karen says, long-suffering, “she can be on lunch detail.”

She does not, Jamie notes with absolutely no surprise, touch her tea until they are walking out the door. She watches Karen Clayton pour the still-steaming mug straight down the sink and thinks, Thank fuck you got away, Poppins. 

***

The morning bleeds together, a constant stream of blush and hair pins and her mother talking nonstop, and Dani feels more and more as though she’s forgetting how to breathe. It’s bad, sitting in this chair, watching Jamie try and fail to make conversation with Karen and the other bridesmaids--three women she dimly remembers as reasons her mother found to stay out most nights, while Dani became more and more of a fixture around Eddie’s. 

It’s worse when Jamie isn’t talking. When Jamie is just sitting in an uncomfortable streamlined chair, watching Dani with eyes that seem to grow heavier by the minute. 

She looks exhausted. Worse, she looks unhappy. As though there’s something weighing on her, more crushing than simply trying to field the gossip American white women find so thrilling. 

“You should go,” Dani tells her when there’s a break in people fluttering around her face. Jamie frowns. 

“Where?”

“Back to the hotel. Take a nap, Jamie, you look like you haven’t slept in days.” Is that Dani’s fault? Did she do something last night, something horrible and regrettable, and Jamie just isn’t telling her?

Jamie’s lips bow in a wry little grin. “Tryin’ to tell me I look awful, Poppins? Not very girlfriend-ly.”

“You’re perfect,” Dani says without thinking. “I just don’t want you to pass out at the church.”

Something around Jamie’s brow seems to soften. She brushes a hand across her nose, nodding. “Okay. Yeah. You sure? I don’t need to--”

“Sleep,” Dani repeats. And, later, we should talk about why you didn’t last night. “I can pretend to listen to them belittle a perfect stranger’s divorce just as well on my own.”

“Yeah. All right.” Jamie hesitates, hands in her pockets. “I--”

It’s risky, with her stylist giving her the dirtiest glare she’s ever received in her life, but Dani finds she doesn’t care. She catches Jamie by the sleeve, pulls her close, brushing a light kiss against the corner of Jamie’s mouth. 

“Go on. I’ll text you when we’re at the church.”

Jamie is staring at her, and Dani’s lips are tingling, and there are four middle-aged women glaring at her back. Still, she smiles. It’s impossible not to. 

“Go.”

“Well,” one of the women says when Jamie has vanished from sight. “She seems like fun.”

Dani sinks back into her chair and does her best to turn invisible for the remainder of the session. It proves depressingly easy to do--with Jamie gone, there is nothing interesting left about her, no show for the others to leer over. The conversation tilts toward people Dani has never met, new city ordinances she couldn’t care less about, Christopher’s ex-wife having the audacity to send flowers, can you believe her, as if she’s happy for you. 

Her phone goes off once, Jamie saying, at the hotel. alarm set. call if you need a white knight, Poppins. Dani traces the screen, the little heart she doesn’t remember placing beside Jamie’s name. 

It’s fine. It’s nothing. They just have to keep this up for another twenty-four hours, and then they’ll be on a plane back to normalcy. They’ll be back at Bly, back to work, and they won’t have to think again of this insane weekend. It’s what Jamie wants, she’s sure--Jamie, who is a better friend than she’s ever had, who offered to run the gauntlet of her mother’s theatrics if it meant keeping Dani out of the fire. Jamie deserves to be home, tending her plants, comfortable in the manor, sharing bottles of wine and childhood stories with Dani like they were always meant to. 

Jamie deserves to stop play-acting for people she doesn’t even know. 

“Are you all right, dear?” the woman in the nearest chair asks. Dani brushes carefully at her eyes, pastes on a smile too cold and too plastic for anyone to take seriously. Not that they notice. 

“Perfect. I’m perfect.”

“Well, that’s a little over-confident, don’t you think?” Karen says from the end of the row, and Dani makes a mental note not to say another word until the church.

It’s a factor she hasn’t exactly considered until now--the transportation without Jamie. 

“I could call a--” Too late, she registers the white SUV. Too late, she registers the curly hair and glasses. Of course. 

call if you need a white knight, Poppins. If only Jamie could teleport. If only Jamie could reel back this moment as it happens: the SUV pulling into a parking space, Eddie meeting her eyes through the windshield with a smile that says he’s been waiting for this moment for days. Months. 

“We’ll ride with Cheryl,” her mother says, and Jesus, it’s like a movie. It’s like that terrible 80s movie again: Dani staring at her mother, all made-up and off to her wedding, leaning out of a friend’s sedan to wave as they leave Dani here with her ex-fiancé. 

Jamie would laugh. Jamie would find a way to make her laugh. Jamie’s always good at that, at bringing the good humor into any situation, no matter how terrible. 

“Are you getting in?” Eddie asks. She’s almost relieved to hear a note of uncertainty in his voice. 

She should have planned for this. Should have planned for all of it, every possible twist and turn and hidden beast. That she’s here, sitting in the passenger seat, reliving nearly twenty years of time with Eddie in a single moment, shouldn’t surprise her. 

What does it say, about the person she’s moved on to be, that it does?

Eddie is silent for almost two minutes, his hands clasped precisely at ten and two. When he finally speaks, finally says, “So...how have you been...”, she nearly shouts with a different kind of relief. This man, who was her entire childhood, her whole teenage experience, her early twenties bound up in a slow smile and angular motion, finally speaking to her like a human person.

“Tired,” she says honestly. “You?”

He laughs. She’s missed that laugh--missed the boy who used to snort orange pop out of his nose, who thought there was no funnier human being alive than Steve Martin in The Jerk, who was ticklish just about everywhere a person could be. She’s missed that boy, her friend, who rescued her from the boredom of a front stoop while her mother was away and showed her what a family really looked like.

She’s grinning a little, remembering the good of him, when he brings it crashing down. 

“I’ve missed you, Danielle.”

No, she thinks, don’t say it like that. Don’t make this into something it doesn’t have to be. Why couldn’t it have been smooth, simple, her handing a ring back to a man she couldn’t love the way he deserved? Why couldn’t that have been enough for him?

“I’ve been hoping,” he goes on earnestly, not so much as glancing away from the road, “that we could talk. Without, you know.”

“Jamie,” Dani says. He blanches. 

“Our mothers, I meant. I’ve been waiting for them to leave us alone long enough for us to have a conversation about what happened.”

“What happened,” she repeats. “Eddie, what do you think happened?”

He shifts her a quizzical look, plainly not getting it. “I mean--something did, right? Something I said, or didn’t say, or something I did that wasn’t--because a person doesn’t just do that, Danielle. You don’t just break up after that many years for no good reason.”

“There was a reason,” she says. It’s been too long a morning for this conversation, and the church is still entirely too far away. 

“Yeah, but you never--”

“There was a reason,” she repeats. “It wasn’t right, Eddie.”

“No, you said that.” He’s clearly frustrated. “You did, but you also said you loved me.”

She’s here again, somehow. A year later, a year older and stronger, a year braver than she’s ever been able to admit, and still: she’s here again. Made small in the front seat of a vehicle with a man who should only ever have built her up. 

“I do. I did. I--” She closes her eyes. “Eddie, I’m--”

“No,” he says, “come on, we can make it work. Whatever it is. I’ll stop trying to get you to quit your job, I know that was old-fashioned and...and we can talk about the rest. Whatever it is. If you just move back home--”

Bly is home,” she says sharply. “And it’s not about any of that. Eddie, I’m not coming back.”

“Because you don’t think you love me enough.” He doesn’t sound angry, even. Maybe this would be easier if he did. “Danielle, what does that even mean?”

“It means I--” Oh, this isn’t the way to do it, hungover and irritated with her mother and still tasting the last fragments of that goddamned dream. This wasn’t how she wanted to-- “It means I’m with Jamie. I’m...in love with Jamie.”

Well. That wasn’t the plan, either. 

He’s silent the rest of the way to the church. She’s started to grow used to the good kind of silence, the silence that only springs up with someone who really sees you. This is not that. This is the silence of a man who has been running on expensive, unwarranted hope for nearly a year, a man with a ring in his pocket and a dream of making things right. 

She’s just wondering if she should throw herself from the car the absolute second it’s in park when he says, “In love with her, huh?”

“I--” If it’s a lie, now’s the time to feel it come crashing home. If it’s a lie, she’ll know, just as she’d known Eddie was a nice, warm, comfortable lie. “Yes. I--yes.”

She can’t look at him. Can’t bear to be back in this moment a second time, shattering him all over again, watching the anger and the hurt turn him into someone she’d rather not know. 

“Okay,” he says. His hand is fumbling for the door. Now’s the part, she thinks, where she’s expected to apologize again. To say she’s sorry for all of it--for loving Jamie, not loving him, running away in the first place. 

He’s out the door and halfway to the church before she realizes she can’t find it in her to apologize for a single bit of it. 

***

There is a part of Jamie--a very small part, of which she is not proud--that actively considers sleeping through the wedding. A tiny, pathetic, frustrated part that says it can’t possibly lead to anything good. 

It isn’t a part of her that wins, naturally, but the entire time she’s showering, getting dressed, arranging her hair in a style designed to look effortless, that part of her is thinking, Wouldn’t she be better off? Wouldn’t it be easier on us both? 

No. Certainly not. That’s the self-restraint-shaped bit of her talking, the bit that has been trying to figure out how to slip back to nice-and-boring all weekend. Back to the old way of things, of listening to Dani’s stories and offering her a kind shoulder, a reassuring smile, a way out for a little while. 

That hadn’t been easy, exactly, but it had made sense. Stand just a little ways apart, don’t let it entirely in. It had been all right that way. 

Now, in the car, following the directions Dani had texted over, she’s not sure what all right looks like. Not with last night having gone down the way it did, or with the way Dani had looked at her this morning. Not with the way Dani had kissed her cheek--her lips so near Jamie’s own that she’d sat trembling in the car for a full five minutes before even being able to make the drive back. 

The church is what Americans think of as old, and Jamie thinks of as merely uncomfortable. This is Hannah’s territory, all the crosses and candles and ceremony. Jamie finds more religion among rosebuds than anything a place like this could serve up. 

Still, she supposes it’s pretty enough. And she doesn’t burst into flames upon entry, despite not entirely following Karen Clayton’s dress code.

here, she texts Dani from the entry. how can i help?

Dani doesn’t answer, but Jamie’s only been peering through the open doors leading to the main church for a few minutes when the clatter of heels sounds from behind her. She turns, prepared to field Judy or one of the strange girls from Dani’s school days, and all good sense flees entirely. 

Bridesmaids dresses are, traditionally, not attractive articles. Bridesmaids dresses are, most generally, not beloved by those asked to don them. 

This one, Jamie is convinced, is the exception that slams home the rule. 

From the way Dani is looking at her just now, she’s convinced she’s missed something huge in her three-hour absence. That Dani has been abducted by Edmund’s family, perhaps, or gotten into some kind of fistfight with an already-drunk uncle. There aren’t a lot of other explanations for the widening of Dani’s eyes, the slight parting of her lips. 

Except, maybe...ah. 

“Thought I’d give your mum the surprise she’s earned,” Jamie says, as lightly as possible. Like her own jaw isn’t trying to unhinge itself at the sight of Dani in a surprisingly-flattering lavender, the dress hugging every line of her like it was made for this express purpose. 

Dani doesn’t laugh. Dani only steps nearer, inching across the tile floor with her hair immaculate and her makeup perfect, looking like it’s Jamie who has blown the doors off the world. 

“S’just a suit,” she says, a bit awkwardly. “If you don’t like it, I’m afraid we’re low on options--”

Dani shakes her head slowly. “It’s perfect.” She seems to be coming back to herself, blinking rapidly, the sharp wing of her eyeliner making Jamie just a little bit dizzy. 

“We,” she says, hitching a smile onto her lips, “make a fine pair.”

“My mother is going to lose her mind,” Dani says, and grins so hard, it makes the entire day worth it. 

“Yeah, well.” Jamie shrugs, glancing down at her open jacket, the deep cut of a half-unbuttoned shirt over bare skin, the tie looped with a loose knot around her neck. “Couldn’t better look the part if I tried, could I?”

“Did you try?” Dani asks, sounding just a little breathless. Jamie tips her a wink. 

“Maybe a bit.”

Dani has stopped just out of arm’s reach, swaying slightly in place. Her hands are fisted at her sides, fidgeting. Jamie hesitates a moment, understanding Dani has placed herself this way on purpose, even if she can’t be absolutely certain why. 

“If you want me,” she says quietly, glancing around for eavesdroppers, “to keep my distance today--”

“I don’t,” Dani says quickly. She really is staring, Jamie thinks with distant fascination. Truly, unreservedly staring like this is the only thing she’s meant to do with the day: stand here, just out of reach, gazing at Jamie. 

“’Cuz I can,” Jamie says, feeling quite as though her mouth is in another movie altogether, reading a script the rest of her is not privy to. “Can stand back and run interference, not a problem--”

“I told Eddie,” Dani blurts. Jamie stops dead, cold uncertainty in her chest. 

“Told him what, exactly?”

“Why it ended. Why it won’t be starting again. The whole thing.” That is pride, Jamie can tell suddenly, blazing in Dani’s blue eyes. Pride, and value, and the sheer joy of having done something so huge, she hadn’t thought herself capable. 

“Well...good.” She’s starting to grin herself, unable to hold it back. “’Cuz it would’ve been dramatic, if I’d had to sort him out for you. Would’ve made for good pictures, mind--”

Dani takes another step, as near glowing as Jamie thinks is possible. Her hand slides down Jamie’s wrist, curling gently around Jamie’s hand, her thumb stroking lightly back and forth in quick succession. When she drops her arm, eyes fixed on Jamie, the room goes just a little bit dimmer. 

Can’t be, thinks Jamie. 

Might be, thinks Jamie. 

Isn’t the place, thinks Jamie. 

“Oh, good, you’re here!” says Judy, materializing out of the church proper like an angel sent to ruin what is possibly the most tense moment of Jamie’s entire life. “Jamie! You look great, hun!”

Hun, thinks Jamie, tearing her gaze from the longing expression on Dani’s face with agonizing effort. Americans. “Apologies for the wait. Had a bit of a rough night.”

“All good now, I hope.” Judy is looking at her with actual concern. So, for the matter, is Dani, though hers is tempered with a flurry of other emotions Jamie can’t quite work out just now. 

“Perfect,” she says, sliding that old easy charm back on like a favored jacket. “Dani, did you need...?”

Me, she doesn’t say. 

“Yes,” says Dani. “Yes, the photographer’s in the back--and people should start arriving soon--”

Move as she moves, Jamie thinks, a bit insanely. Let her lead. Work the rest out when there’s a moment to breathe. 

***

There is no time to breathe. Dani ought to know; Dani’s been scrounging for a moment to process the day since leaving the salon. 

Eddie hasn’t tried to speak with her again, but Judy has. Judy, who descends upon her, not even noticing when Dani flinches in surprise. 

“You look beautiful. Listen, Danielle--”

“Dani,” she hears herself say. Feels herself blink once, dream meeting reality. Judy looks surprised. 

“Dani. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. Dani.” She smiles, and it’s the most genuine thing Dani’s ever wanted from her. “It really does suit you, doesn’t it?”

She wants to cry. Feels herself fold into Judy, who hugs back like there weren’t over nine months of complete silence from Dani, like Dani didn’t disappear off the face of the earth for as long as she could possibly manage. 

“I’m glad,” Judy says into her ear, giving her a gentle jostle from side to side, “you found her. I want you to know that. And if you need anything--I didn’t know if I’d be able to catch you later, so I wanted to say it now--if you need anything, you just call. Okay?”

There isn’t time to process that, either--not with the photographer bustling around the changing rooms, immortalizing dresses and jewelry, shoes and refreshments. In a way, Dani’s relieved. Her mother looks so happy, the women all congratulating each other on dresses well-worn and hair perfectly-coiffed, and there isn’t time to think about Eddie’s miserable expression, or Judy’s maternal smile, or Jamie last night, Jamie this morning, Jamie as compelling with exhausted eyes as she’d been in Dani’s dream. 

There’s no time to process any of it, and by the time Jamie texts, Dani feels as though she’s swimming upstream. There is, she knows, an end in sight now--a ceremony soon begun, posing and smiling and small talk to come in its wake. All of it manageable. All of it near enough the end of the story to be all right.

She steps out to find Jamie looking at her like she’s some kind of Cinderella on a mad dash toward her happy ending, and the world tilts. The buzz of adrenaline, carrying her from beat to beat all morning, cranks to eleven. Jamie, hands in her pockets, watching Dani approach like it’s taking everything in her not to run to meet her, is...

“Perfect,” she hears herself say, and winces, but Jamie looks pleased. Even more so when she adds, “My mother is going to lose her mind,” both of them understanding there is no greater compliment. 

She doesn’t entirely mean to grab Jamie’s hand this way, the tension between them too electric to ignore--and before she can do anything further, before she can explain how much she feels just now, Judy is back. Judy is back, and Dani is being shuffled back to the join the rest of the party, and Jamie is back in Perfect Girlfriend Mode the minute she walks through that door. All smiles, all charisma, remembering names and complimenting jewelry. She lavishes particular attention upon Dani’s mother, who is finally too nervous to be anything but gracious in response. 

“Too much?” Jamie mutters when Dani leans close. 

“I think you made her month.”

Jamie is not placed beside her for the wedding, sitting several rows back with Judy, instead. Eddie, on Judy’s other side, looks as though he is actively trying not to scowl, which Dani considers a cautious improvement. From her place up near the altar, she tries to focus on the task at hand, on her mother and Christopher beaming at one another like teenagers in puppy love. She does reasonably well.

If she steals a glance back every so often--if she finds Jamie gazing right at her every time--she supposes no one could fault her for it. 

***

Jamie has been making small talk with people who all sort of look the same for an hour. 

It started with a man she supposes is of Christopher’s lineage--they all seem to have these same remarkable eyebrows and soporific voices--asking if she knew where he could locate a drink. He had transformed into several more people of varying ages, all seeming to think Jamie was some sort of bartender. Then there had been a number of teenage girls, all of whom had been nearly choking themselves with giggles as they tried to get her to order them drinks. When she’d politely declined, two had slumped off, looking dejected; the third had wound even closer, asking Jamie where she was from, if she often strayed to Iowa, if she was seeing anyone.

“Looked like you needed a rescue,” Theo drawls, having stepped neatly between the fifteen-year-old hopeful and Jamie’s horrified expression. “You really are not used to having that effect, are you?”

“What effect?” Jamie asks blankly. Theo snorts. 

“Come on, sit with us until your girlfriend shows up, or they’ll just keep finding you.”

Trish waves as Jamie drops into her seat, staring fixedly at the placard with Dani’s name on it. “Not a wedding person?” she says sympathetically as Jamie gropes for a glass of water. 

“Not really a people person.”

“Sounds familiar.” Trish gives her wife a gentle prod. “Hey, you should tell her how you got through your sister’s wedding--”

“What, by getting friendly with a bridesmaid? Think that’s already on the table, isn't it?” Theo raises her glass in toast. Jamie tries not to look as though she’s sucked water down the wrong pipe, to very little avail.

Even if they’re sort of trying to kill her, she’s relieved to have Theo and Trish while she waits for Dani. There’s an easy banter between them, a clear affection that needs no one else to chime in. They are, for the moment, the only three people at their table--Edmund seems to be working terribly hard to make himself scarce, and his mother is evidently teaching the bartender a few tricks--and Jamie, for the first time all day, lets herself recline and breathe a little.

“Does she know yet?” Theo asks, sipping her drink. Jamie frowns. 

“Who?”

“Dani.” When Jamie’s brow furrows with polite confusion, Theo rolls her eyes. Jamie gets the sense this is how Theo is accustomed to speaking with her younger siblings. “That you’re head over ass for her?”

Jamie smiles, as broad and as charming as she can manage around the panic in her throat. “Hope so, we’ve been together for--”

Theo wags a gloved finger. “Please. Spare me the bullshit. You think I don’t know what active pining looks like?”

“Be nice,” Trish intones into her glass. 

“I am being nice. Very fucking nice. Because someone’s got to say it.” She leans across the table, fixing Jamie with such a look, Jamie feels as though she’s been locked into this seat for life. “You two dance around each other like you’re ready to set the room on fire.”

“You know that thing we’ve talked about?” Trish says mildly to the ceiling, swirling her drink. “Where sometimes you go a bit harder than necessary?”

Theo raises an eyebrow. “Am I doing it now?”

“You’re not not doing it.”

“I’m sorry.” Theo manages to make it sound as though no one has ever engaged less politely with an apology in human history. “But I’m just saying.”

Jamie darts another desperate look at the door, relieved to see the bridal party entering to applause and general fanfare. Oh thank fuck. There’s Dani, in the middle of it all, looking harried and as though she wants nothing more than to escape these chattering women. 

“That’d be my cue, then,” Jamie says, pushing up from the table before Theo can get another word in. 

Dani, when she reaches her, looks frazzled--but something of the tension melts from her at the sight of Jamie. It’s in the way her eyebrows arch up, her eyes widening, and Jamie thinks, Is this how she’s always looked at me? With absolute relief?

“How’d it go?”

“Have you ever taken hundreds of photos with women twice your age while they flirt with the groom’s sons?” Dani asks. Jamie wrinkles her nose. 

“Can’t say I have.”

“Then consider yourself the luckiest person in the room.” Dani heaves a sigh. “Can’t wait to get--”

Whatever she’s about to say is jostled aside as one of what Jamie has come to think of as the Eyebrow Elite stumbles, his wine glass tipping. It is, thankfully, nearly empty—though not quite empty enough, the remainder of its contents finding it way onto Dani’s dress. 

“Damn,” he says, blinking owlishly at his mistake. “Damn.”

Dani closes her eyes, an expression Jamie recognizes all too well from home--not rising anxiety, but the plucking at her patience the kids manage once every few weeks. She’s never actually seen Dani snap before, but then again, there is a huge disparity between irritating children and grown men. 

“C’mon,” she says before Dani can open her mouth. “This can be fixed.”

***

Dani has made it four days without reaching the end of her rope, and part of her feels she should be given a medal for it. If nothing else, she should be given a medal for tolerating her mother pretending the past few days haven’t happened--all saccharine smile, pulling Dani close, even calling her Dani once or twice in that voice that says don’t get used to it. There had been an eternity of photos, Dani held close and made to smile and pose and pretend she didn’t still have Jamie set up at the forefront of her mind.

How can you see someone all day, every day, and still feel time slow to a crawl when they’re gone? It was never like this, with Eddie--and, yes, she can say that about just about every little thing. Jamie is everything Eddie wasn’t, everything Eddie should have been, and more. Jamie is a piece that fits without having to be pushed into place, shaved at the edges, twisted to fake it. 

Jamie is the first thing she sees, walking into the reception hall, and it’s like someone turned the lights on in a haunted house. 

If only it meant the lights came on for everyone else as well. 

“It’s really okay,” she’s saying now, embarrassed beyond belief. “You don’t have to do that.”

Jamie, dabbing gently at a spot high on her stomach with club soda, smiles. “You know your mother will want to take it back at the end of the night. Have it fuckin’ framed or something.”

“Then she can have the memory of this experience stained into it,” Dani says with a sigh. Jamie laughs. 

“It’s comin’ up, believe it or not. Few more minutes, should be all good.”

Dani swallows hard, trying to focus her attention away from the concentration on Jamie’s face, the confident press of her hands. It hadn’t surprised her, really, that Jamie had taken her gently by the elbow and led her to the bathroom, armed with paper towel and patience. Hadn’t surprised her at all, that Jamie had set to work with her usual cool determination. Jamie, in her too-attractive suit, with her silver necklace and loose tie and easy smile, working to right any wrong within reach. 

Dani tries to count ceiling tiles, even as Jamie’s hands dab and press, Jamie’s head tilting to track the progress of her work. Dani tries to find interest in the floral painting across the room, even as Jamie is lightly chewing her lip in concentration. Dani tries. 

Dani has been trying. 

Jamie looks up, pleased with her handiwork, tossing a clump of used towels in the trash. “There. Should do it.”

She’s smiling--not the tense fixed smile of this morning, or the play-acting charm for other people, but her normal smile. Her for-Dani smile, the one she offers back at the house as she passes Dani a bottle of wine, a cookie stolen from Owen’s stash, a teasing glance. She’s smiling, and her hands are back in her own space, and Dani should be handed a medal for having kept it all together this long. 

But every patience has its end. Even the thickest ice cracks, eventually, given enough weight. 

Her hands are at Jamie’s collar before she can reel them back, straightening the crisp fabric, sliding lightly under to grip her shoulders. She can feel Jamie’s next breath, her body tensing under Dani’s palms, even as Dani lets one hand--one brave, stupid, reckless hand--touch lightly to the silver chain around her neck. 

Pretend, the last of her restraint says weakly, even as she’s playing the chain between thumb and forefinger, her knuckle dragging lightly across Jamie’s skin. 

This isn’t, she thinks, as Jamie’s eyes darken, as her own skip from Jamie’s gaze to her mouth and back again. She thinks, Tell me not to even as Jamie’s tongue darts out to wet her lips. 

She thinks Jamie might speak--thinks Jamie might shatter the moment--but Jamie is just watching her. The alert, hungry expression of someone who half-expects Dani to run away. The alert, hungry expression of someone who can’t resist leaning in, just a little, to see what Dani will do. 

She isn’t conscious of breathing, of her hands on the lapel of Jamie’s shirt, of Jamie’s hands on her hips. She isn’t conscious of anything until she closes her eyes and falls. 

And then--then it’s like waking for the first time, to a riot of color and taste and sigh. Then it’s her back against the sink, Jamie’s lips soft, pliant, hopeful under her own, Jamie’s hands cupping her face so lightly, she can barely feel them. She leans in harder, until Jamie is touching her not as something that might at any moment break in her hands, but with genuine intent--thumb sliding across Dani’s cheek, fingers cradling behind her ear, tipping her face nearer as Jamie makes a breathless sound like a confession into her mouth. 

If the rest wasn’t enough--if Jamie’s dark gaze, and the crooked arc of her smile, and the warmth of her skin beneath the cool of her necklace in Dani’s fingers hadn’t been enough--that sound does it. That sound, like Jamie’s been fighting down the need to do this very thing all weekend, all summer, grabs what’s left of Dani’s resolve and breaks it open. She finds herself sliding rapidly out of control, pushing into Jamie’s kiss with a ferocity that takes her by surprise--seems to take Jamie by surprise, too, but Jamie doesn’t argue. Jamie’s got her pushed hard against the clean rectangular length of the sinks, her hands grasping Dani’s dress so hard, Dani wonders how they’re going to make it out of here with everything intact. 

She doesn’t care. Doesn’t care about anything except the way Jamie is kissing her, angling her head for more contact, tongue a hot flick against her lips. Doesn’t care about anything except the way Jamie’s body arches when she grips Jamie’s shirt in her fists, yanking the hem out of Jamie’s pants, using the fabric to pull Jamie closer. 

This--the build of it, the stacking weight of hour after hour of pretending to pretend, of pretending Jamie’s every glance wasn’t stoking something sincere--is like drawing a great breath. Like coming home. Like finally admitting to herself that great, enormous truth: this is what it is to need something. This is what it is to want, and be wanted, and be okay with all of it. 

Jamie makes a low sound in her chest, even as Dani’s sliding a hand under her open collar, her fingers curling around the bare skin of Jamie’s shoulder and digging in. If Jamie keeps kissing her this way, nothing tentative in the least about the curl of her tongue around Dani’s, the push of her hands rucking the skirt nearly to Dani’s waist, this is going to--this is going to--

The door, slamming open, is a crowbar between them. Dani’s back, already leaning against the sink, jerks harder against its edge; she hisses, certain there will be a bruise by morning. Jamie, shirt half-untucked, one side of the hem almost obscene in its rumpled hang over her belt, brushes a hand against her lips. Dani can see, even from this sudden distance, her own lipstick smeared across Jamie’s mouth; quite apart from filling her with embarrassment, the incongruity of it sends a fresh spike of warmth through her body. 

There are women--one of the other bridesmaids, and a few of her mother’s book clubbers--pushing in on the clamor of conversation. They titter when they take note of Jamie, her open collar no longer so carefully arranged, of Dani with her perfect hair somewhat askew. Dani brushes down the hem of her dress, tries to catch Jamie’s eye, tries to convey, It’s okay with everything she has. 

“Right,” Jamie murmurs, still touching her lips with the back of her hand like she’s trying to rub something away. “Right. Uh. Better...better get--”

“Toasts, dear,” the bridesmaid says around a giggle, and Dani recognizes with distant carelessness that this is the first time in days someone has actually caught them at something. The first time someone is actually judging them for what they’ve done, and not what they’ve fabricated.

She looks to Jamie again, her lips parted in a soundless apology. What is there to say? What is there to say when she wants so badly to grab Jamie by her thin black tie and drag her back in again? When she wants to take Jamie’s hands in her own, guide them back to push the dress up her thighs, pulling Jamie to stand again between her legs and rock her hips until Dani forgets there’s anyone else capable of walking in on them? 

Stay with me, she thinks desperately, as Jamie rubs the last of Dani’s lipstick onto her fingers and just stands there staring at them. Stay with me, don’t leave it like this. 

“Toasts,” Jamie repeats hoarsely, as the women file into their respective stalls. “We--we should--”

Dani touches her shoulder, relieved when Jamie only stands a little straighter, allowing her to adjust her shirt back into place. Jamie, putting on that too-charming smile again. Jamie, preparing once more for the show.

Quietly, Dani says, “We need to--” Jamie’s hand on her wrist, thumb laid lightly over her racing pulse, stops her.

“Later, Poppins. Later.”

***

Jamie is dizzy. She’d like to say it’s the product of too little food, meager scrounged sleep, the cocktail she’d been nursing at the table--but there’s Dani, lipstick just a little less perfect than it was, hair just a little less managed, dress still bearing the telltale creases from Jamie’s roaming hands. 

There’s Dani Clayton, with Jamie’s near-invisible mark all over her, and no one else knows--but Jamie does. Jamie is all too aware of how she’d backed Dani against the long marble row of sinks, how she’d been notched perfectly between Dani’s thighs with Dani’s tongue pushing past her teeth to swallow her low moan. 

Not what she’d dreamed--not what she’d expected--when she’d thought of kissing Dani for the first time. She’d thought it would be a small, shy, careful moment, if it ever happened at all. Something gentle and soft in the rose gardens, maybe. Somewhere that belonged only to them. 

Not this. Not the rough, desperate gasp of Dani rocking under her, the ruined quality of Dani’s makeup evidence that this is something they can’t take back. 

Not the sound of Dani whimpering into Jamie like whatever dream she’d been having last night was barely a preview for the real thing. 

She’s sure Theo, at least, can tell something has happened--Theo has been watching them with slightly narrowed eyes, a faint smirk dancing around her lips, since they slunk back to the table. Jamie’s presentable, she thinks; Dani, as much so as she could correct in five hurried minutes. Still, Theo gives Jamie the kind of smile Jamie wants to crawl under the table to avoid. 

“Be nice,” Trish sing-songs quietly again. Theo gives Jamie a very tiny nod. 

No one else, thankfully, takes notice. Eddie has been staring at the head table as though personally responsible for keeping the bride and groom alive with the force of his eyeballs. His mother keeps dabbing at her eyes each time someone speaks--for reasons Jamie couldn’t process even if she was entirely present, since neither Christopher’s son, nor Karen’s maid of honor seems especially designed for public speech. She darts a look to Dani, finds her staring straight ahead with a plastic smile arranged on her lips. 

The same lips Jamie had been exploring not twenty minutes ago. She grips the tablecloth for purchase, closes her eyes. 

“Hungry?” Theo asks slyly. Jamie fixes her with a glare. 

Dinner is mercifully timely, though Jamie thinks she could be dining on a sumptuous meal of cardboard and glass, and wouldn’t be the wiser. She’s too aware of Dani beside her, in a chair set at a perfectly polite distance from Jamie’s, keeping her body exactly where it ought to be at a celebratory dinner. Nothing at all about the way Dani makes small talk with Judy, Trish, Theo acts as a clue that she was, not so long ago, leaving finger-shaped marks on Jamie’s back. Nothing at all gives up how she had squirmed under Jamie, each kiss less graceful and more wonderful than the last. 

Even now, her hand lightly skimming Jamie’s on the tablecloth, gives nothing away. Nothing more than what they’ve been doing for days, for the sake of all these relative strangers. 

Later, Jamie had said, and she knows she was right to say it--that any conversation held at her mother’s wedding would not improve Dani’s grasp on the day. She was right to give Dani that space, to allow Dani the room to process before leaping into an explanation that might well ruin them both. 

And yet, with Dani’s fingers playing lightly against her own, with the memory of Dani jerkily untucking her shirt and letting those same fingers trace newly-accessible skin, Jamie thinks she’s never said anything more foolish. Later. How late is later? 

“So, Jamie, how are you liking America?” Judy asks politely. Jamie clears her throat, sliding her hands away from Dani’s, under the table, curling them into tight fists. 

“It’s been...very interesting. Yeah. Enlightening, might say.”

“How so?” 

Christ deliver me. “Well, it’s, ah...quite a bit...younger. Than England.”

Dani gives her a tiny amused look, brows coming together in an expression of really? best you can do? 

Jamie fires a look back, attempting with every inch of her smile to convey just had you bent over a sink with your dress to your waist, you really want to test my mental acuity just now?

Perhaps the desperation in her eyes is enough to secure a telepathic connection; more likely, Dani just knows her too well. She reaches beneath the tablecloth, gathering Jamie’s fist in her hand and loosening the fingers even as she tells Judy, “Jamie’s been talking about us coming back, maybe in the winter. There’s something about Vermont we’ve been really wanting to explore.”

Jamie, who had actually forgotten about telling Dani that--the childlike tether of Christmas to snow and Vermont--starts a little. Dani’s fingers are tracing the half-moon marks her nails have left in her palm, each pass drawing slightly more tension out of Jamie’s body and leaving her breathless for closer contact at the same time. 

I thought loving her in secret was too much, she thinks dimly, but this might actually be the night that sends me over the edge.

***

This might be the thing that actually sends her over the edge, Dani thinks. It hadn’t seemed like such a big deal, when her mother had announced it at the rehearsal. Had seemed perfectly normal, to expect the bridal party and their dates to engage in this, a timeless wedding ritual. 

Now, with one hand braced in Jamie’s, the other on Jamie’s shoulder, she wishes she’d told her mother she was allergic to slow dancing.

“All right?” Jamie asks, her face inches away, and Dani tries not to look at her mouth. Tries not to look like the urge to trace Jamie’s lips with the pad of her thumb isn’t driving her somewhat out of her mind. 

Tries not to think about Jamie’s lips parting under her hand, replaced by her own in a soft, warm--

“Good,” she breathes, eyes darting away. “Great. Dancing.”

“Told you I wasn’t made for it, didn’t I?” Jamie sounds amused, though in truth, she’s doing just fine. They can’t seem to decide who is taking the lead, even with Jamie’s palm sliding around her hip, rooting at her back. Her hand rests just under the spot on this dress where the material opens up into a diamond, Dani’s skin on display to the world, and Dani doesn’t think she’s imagining the way Jamie’s hand flexes once around the dress like she’s actively keeping from moving up. 

“You’re okay to--”

“Poppins,” Jamie says in a grim voice. “There is a photographer.”

“So?”

“There’re things I’d...rather not find immortalized in Mother Dearest’s photo album, is all.”

Dani almost giggles, but the way Jamie is looking at her--gazing straight into her eyes like she’s lost all need to look at anything else--turns her amusement to a soft, embarrassingly desirous little sound. She could lean in, she knows. Could just brush her lips against Jamie’s, light and singular and restrained. 

Jamie’s hand squeezes once around hers, Jamie’s body flush against her own as they revolve slowly around the dance floor. It is, somehow, more intimate than they had managed at the club. It is enough to tell her if she did lean in, if she did kiss Jamie here in front of all manner of great-aunts and distant cousins, they’d be more than the talk of the wedding. They’d go down in infamy. 

“Later,” Jamie says in a strangled voice, even as Dani slides her hand beneath the lapel of her shirt again. There’s something about the warmth of Jamie’s skin through a single layer of cloth, Jamie all but vibrating under her touch, that makes Dani feel impossibly brave. 

There is a world, she thinks, where I could be kissing her while we dance. And that world, suddenly, doesn’t feel so far away. If she’d offered this image to herself two weeks ago, with her mother’s call fresh in her mind, it would have seemed like gorgeous insanity. 

Would have felt like insanity, too, if she’d gone back a year and told herself she could flee a marriage before it became a cage. If she’d gone back to that girl in a pink party dress and an engagement ring and said, Go. Go now, and you can find everything you’ve been looking to be and more on the other side of the ocean. 

Every new chapter feels too huge, too insane, to fathom until you’re turning the page, she reasons. There is no way to understand your own courage until you’re in the thick of it, instinct taking over and turning terror into solid iron. 

She leans into Jamie now, bowing her forehead against Jamie’s shoulder and resting there as they turn on the spot. Jamie is shivering very lightly, leaning her cheek against the side of Dani’s head. 

“I like your dress,” she says, very quietly. “Don’t think I said as much before.”

Dani grips her tight, breath quickening, and grins. 

***

Weddings, as it turns out, are a lot longer than they have any right to be. Jamie’s of the mind that these things should be quick: ceremony, dinner, toast, dance, farewell to all. Americans--these Americans, anyway--seem less inclined to pack it in early. 

“I have run out of commentary on the weather,” she mutters as Theo saunters up and presses a drink into her hand. “And if I have to hear Uncle Ernest explain one more time about gun laws, I don’t think I can actually be held accountable for my lapse in patience.”

“Drink,” Theo advises. “It’s my go-to whenever I feel like punching something.”

Jamie obediently raises the glass to her lips, eyes scanning the room for Dani. She keeps finding Jamie, her hands straying instinctively to grasp Jamie by the hand, the sleeve, the front of her shirt--and then, inevitably, a relative appears. It’s like magic, Jamie thinks with frustration; after days of treating them like the hottest show in town, suddenly no one seems able to leave them alone for so much as a conversation. 

The brief interactions ought to be a balm, but there’s something about the way Dani smiles whenever she comes back that seems to have the opposite effect. Something about the skid of her hand up Jamie’s arm, down the line of stylishly-undone buttons, gripping lightly to the lapel of her jacket that has turned Jamie from a perfectly confident adult human into a too-warm mess. 

“You look like you’re having fun,” Theo adds, and Jamie realizes she’s grinding her teeth together, watching Dani chat politely with a three-thousand-year-old woman. Dani has, over the course of several hours’ dance-and-conversation, pulled most of the pins from her hair, unable to keep her hands from threading through over and over again. It should not, in any rational world, make her more beautiful somehow, standing with one hand buried in thick blonde hair and the other clenched at her side. 

Could go out to the car, she thinks, and it’s like clockwork, the thought that rises to follow: could bring Dani out to the car. Could lean Dani across the backseat, knees bent, allowing Jamie to sink down between her thighs and--

“Oh, you look bad,” Theo says, sounding delighted about it. Jamie growls. 

“You really are a younger sister, aren’t you?”

“They’ve both been married since the dinosaurs, I haven’t had a chance to tease someone in years.” Theo pats her shoulder delicately. “You want to get away for a minute?”

“God, yes,” Jamie says helplessly. She glances back at Dani, pushing that glorious waterfall of hair off her forehead, and feels her mouth go pathetically dry. “I should, ah--”

Theo shrugs, working open a small silver case from her bag and sliding what is unmistakably a joint between her lips. “I’ll be out front.”

It’s a mistake, walking up to Dani. Dani, who is entirely too enticing from across the room, only grows more so with every step Jamie takes. By the time she reaches her side, fingers ghost-light on Dani’s elbow, she finds herself thinking, There’s a table. What have we said about tables and distractions? 

“Your cousin,” she says, embarrassed when her voice comes out deeper than it ought to. “The troublesome one. Invited us outside for a smoke.”

Dani gives the old woman a brief hug, slipping a hand into Jamie’s. The moment they turn away, the pleasant smile drops away, replaced by naked relief, and Jamie thinks yet again: How is it none of them can see her?

“Thank you,” Dani says in a low voice. “That woman must be from the Crain side, she kept calling me Eleanor and asking after my husband.”

“Do you look like Eleanor?” Jamie asks, interested. Dani makes a face.

“How should I know, haven’t seen the woman since I was three.”

Her hand feels so good in Jamie’s, who couldn’t say why a grip has any right to feel like home after one round of making out in a washroom. She thinks, briefly, of asking Dani to step out through the back with her, to hide away with her against a brick wall. Thinks, briefly, of pushing Dani back under the light of a single lamp and putting the washroom to shame. 

Theo and Trish are passing the joint back and forth, shivering a little in the night air. “About time,” Theo says idly, holding it out. “Hit?”

Dani shakes her head. Jamie slips a hand into the pocket of her trousers, removes a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a Bic. She glances to Dani, who is once again watching her mouth with fixated interest. 

“Share?” she offers, though Dani rarely smokes. Dani nods, rubbing her arms, and Jamie lights up, takes a drag, hands it over without another word. Her jacket, she slips off and drapes around Dani’s shoulders, pleased when Dani smiles. 

“See you’ve got your shit together,” Theo observes. Dani gives her a sharp, surprised look, and she laughs. “You look different. More natural.”

“Were we not before?” Jamie had thought they’d been doing a splendid job, as point of fact. Fake Girlfriend of the Year, and all.

Theo shrugs. “Maybe if you don’t know what to look for. There’s a thing people do, when they both want to make a move, and no one’s making it. Sort of a...”

“Tension,” Trish offers. Dani snorts a laugh around smoke, chokes a little. 

“You sure that isn’t the Iowa of it all?” Jamie drawls, accepting the cigarette from Dani’s flailing hand. The mild brush of skin on skin is enough to send sparks straight through her. She takes a long, slow drag, letting the smoke curl into her lungs to keep from making a scene.

When she looks up again, Dani is staring so openly, she thinks it might be illegal in at least a couple of states. Dani, clutching with one hand the jacket around her shoulders, her hair rumpled, her bottom lip between her teeth as she watches Jamie place the cigarette between her lips again. 

One round at it, and she’s suddenly the boldest person I’ve ever met, Jamie thinks shakily, liking the way Dani follows the path of smoke from her mouth. Liking more how Dani is moving slowly nearer as though in a daze. 

“Okay,” Theo says dryly. “Think that’s our cue to bow out.”

Jamie gives a distracted wave, unable to look away as Dani closes in. The parking lot, she registers, is not so far away. The car. An escape to be made.

“How much longer do we have to--”

Dani’s hands are gripping her cuffed sleeves, her eyes searching Jamie’s. She tilts her head, presses in, her mouth sliding across Jamie’s in time to fold the last exhalation of smoke into the kiss. Jamie, already dizzy with the contact, flicks the cigarette away and closes both hands loosely around Dani’s elbows. 

When Dani pulls back, there’s a fierce, glazed joy in her eyes. The mark of a woman making a choice she stands firmly behind. 

“Sure?” Jamie asks softly. She does not add real?, though she knows they both hear the echo of the unasked question. Dani nods, already leaning back in. 

***

Dani is not accustomed to actually wanting the car to arrive when the person in the driver’s seat has spent the night kissing her. She holds too many memories of being young, and already tired, already not sitting well with the idea of reaching Eddie’s house, Eddie’s dorm room, Eddie’s ability to move them to a bed. At best, it was quick; boring; never something she actually craved, though she’d do her best to play along. 

So many memories, of sitting in the passenger seat hoping for traffic. Wishing the road would lengthen before them, turning a quick trip into something interminable in the hopes he’d lose the drive before they could reach a bedroom. 

Tonight, there is no such thought in her mind. 

“Dani,” Jamie says in a voice like she’s strangling. “If you keep doing that, can’t promise we’ll actually reach the hotel.”

Dani smiles. “Would that be the worst thing?”

“If we crash before getting there, yeah.” Jamie’s right hand drops off the wheel, covering the hand Dani has slowly been stroking up her thigh. “Genuinely, Poppins, it’s not that I’d like to disabuse you of this...mm...newfound...bravado.”

Her hand is still on Dani’s, her fingers tracing the ridges of Dani’s knuckles. She is not, Dani notes, working particularly hard to stop the trail Dani has been forging toward her knee, back up toward the apex of her thigh, down again. 

“You’re speeding,” Dani points out. Jamie swears, stomping a little harder on the brakes than is truly necessary. 

“Don’t suppose we’re gonna talk about it,” she says after a moment. Dani, who has dimly been considering leaning over as far as her seatbelt will allow to kiss Jamie’s neck, pauses. 

“About...”

“What we’re off to do.” Jamie’s voice is steady, though Dani sees her throat bob with a hard swallow. “Not that we have to. Up to you, I wouldn’t want to--but if you’re wanting--”

“Jamie,” Dani says gently, squeezing her leg. Jamie’s mouth snaps shut. “What are you trying to ask?”

She knows. Thinks she knows. Wants Jamie to say it anyway, to lead her down this path of vulnerability. It’s easy, kissing Jamie--easier than anything else has ever been--but this part is still the newest thing. 

“When did it change?” Jamie asks. Her eyes are fixed on the road ahead, the only sign that she’s listening the slight flex and relax of muscle beneath Dani’s hand. “When did--”

“It stop being pretend,” Dani fills in. Jamie nods. “It...didn’t.”

Jamie’s head turns very slightly, the hope dying before Dani’s eyes. She presses down on Jamie’s knee, twisting in her seat to look more fully in her direction. 

“No, Jamie. I mean, I don’t know if it ever was.”

Now Jamie mostly just looks confused. Dani closes her eyes, tries to find the dropped thread of her thought beneath the driving heat of wanting to keep touching Jamie. 

“I mean I don’t think I would have said yes--to another thing that didn’t feel right, after Eddie, even if it was pretend--if I didn’t...feel it. I think I--I think I felt it even before we left.”

And now that she’s letting herself look at it, isn’t the color coming into the image all at once? How many times has she lifted her head, the stress of a long day banished in an instant by Jamie’s stroll into the room? How many times has she been in the middle of scolding Miles, of worrying over Flora, only to have Jamie’s smile turn down the shadows that have a way of spilling over that house?

“And you?” she asks, a little embarrassed that she didn’t work this out earlier. “How long have you--”

“Long time,” Jamie says, almost gruffly. Her mouth is working, though around a smile or a nervous grimace, Dani can’t tell in the dark. “Didn’t want to complicate it. Knew you needed a shoulder.”

“You can be both,” Dani says gently. “You’re...really good at being both, Jamie.”

She feels Jamie’s thigh flex again beneath her hand, Jamie rolling her hips in the driver’s seat as she sits a little taller, straightens out her spine. Even the smallest action is distracting, she finds, as she lets the tips of her fingers trace the charcoal of Jamie’s pants higher. 

“I know it hasn’t always been easy,” Jamie says after a moment. “I’ve seen it. How hard you’ve...had to work at being at home. Don’t want to damage that.”

“You won’t,” Dani says. “You wouldn’t.”

“Might. I don’t want you to think I’ve put anything on you. Expectations or whatever it was--” Jamie pulls up short, sucking in a breath. “Whatever it was he--”

Dani almost laughs. The idea of Jamie being anything like Eddie, the idea of Jamie putting on her shoulders even a fraction of what Eddie laid there without even noticing he was doing it, is nothing but laughable. But Jamie is darting little looks at her, her eyelashes framing a worried gaze, and Dani knows she needs to hear it. That Jamie’s experience with relationships hasn’t been clean or easy or overly burdened with trust, either. 

“He wanted me to promise tomorrow.”

Jamie frowns, taking a turn with careful certainty. They’re nearly to the hotel now, and Dani feels as though this conversation needs to be complete before they leave the car. Feels like she needs to hammer this much home before they can be allowed to cross to the next step. 

“Eddie. He wanted me to be able to promise, even when we were kids. Tomorrow--and the next day--and the next year. That I’d be there, that I’d always be the same girl he fell in love with.”

Jamie is shaking her head very slowly, but she isn’t interrupting. She seems, as always, to sense this is not the place for interruptions. 

“It was reassuring, at first,” Dani goes on. She finds herself gazing out the window at the familiar street sliding by, the shop fronts and restaurants that made up an entire life before Jamie. It all looks so hollow, cardboard set pieces in the orange glow of streetlights. “After my dad...it was reassuring, to think anything could be that stable. That anything could just stay the same, for once. But then I realized I wasn’t staying the same. I was...growing up, I guess? Growing up, and learning what I really wanted, but I couldn’t tell him that. And he just kept asking for promises, that I’d be his girlfriend, that I’d be his wife. For me to be able to tell him what tomorrow would look like before today was even over.”

Jamie’s hand is soft, turning hers over, fingers curling around her own. She gives a grateful squeeze in return, smiling a little. 

“I can’t do promises like that. Big ones. People shouldn’t ever be asked to do that. They die, or they get sick, or they lose themselves--or maybe they just change. Big promises, like the ones he wanted, are doomed to turn into lies, eventually. And I don’t want to lie to you.” 

Jamie smiles. It isn’t a sad smile, really, so much as a knowing one. “I’m not asking.”

“I know.” She loves that about Jamie. She can already tell, despite the words sitting so prettily in her mouth, that she could love that about Jamie forever. It’s too big, too brave, to say tonight--but maybe someday. Maybe someday, she will change and grow enough to fit that idea, too. “What I’m saying is...if you can just do now. If you can just take my hand and just do today. I think that’s...”

“Enough,” Jamie says. She’s pulling them into the parking lot, sliding neatly into a space. The car in park, she turns her full attention on Dani, and Dani feels as though she could sit and let Jamie look at her this way for the rest of the night. 

“Yeah. I think that would be enough.”

Jamie raises her hand, still holding Dani’s, presses a kiss to Dani’s fingers. Her eyes never dart away, her expression serious. 

“One day at a time seems as fine a philosophy as any, Poppins. Think that’s the best anyone has a right to hope for, in the end.”

Dani exhales, relief and desire and pure, clean happiness in a single breath. “I can do that.”

Jamie leans across the console, kisses her slowly, one hand cupped around the back of her head. The other is still holding her fingers in a loose, gentle grasp, tucked between them like quiet certainty. Dani sighs into her, shivering from the chill of the night, the warmth of Jamie’s skin, the solidity of having told someone for the first time what she really needs. 

“Inside?” Jamie asks against her lips, and she shivers again. 

“Please.”

***

That they manage not to stumble through the hotel lobby entangled, a jumble of groping limbs and giggles, is a mark of something. Jamie isn’t entire sure what that something is--the weight of the conversation, maybe, or just Dani’s unshakeable awareness that she is always being watched in the prison of her hometown. They are, in fact, on their very best behavior until the elevator arrives. 

Dani is in her arms before the doors are even closed, Dani’s hands smoothing under her collar to close over her skin, sending Jamie stumbling back against the wall. Dani laughs into her neck, and Jamie groans, as one of Dani’s hands slips to her belt and gives a single playful tug. 

“Camera,” she mutters, glancing past Dani at the ceiling. Dani’s mouth is a hot slide against her throat, and she feels her eyes roll back. “Patience.”

“Out of that,” Dani says around kisses. Jamie feels her knees buckle, her hands gripping Dani’s dress to stay upright. 

She manages to keep them on their feet and in their clothes all the way to the room, though it’s an eternity of struggle, getting the keycard out of her pocket with Dani behind her, pressing her toward the door, one hand sliding around her hip. She pushes her forehead against the smooth wood as Dani leans into her shoulder, her body rubbing lightly against Jamie’s impatiently. 

“Hurry up.”

“You are not bloody helping.” She can’t help but laugh, even as Dani’s searching hand slips up to tuck into the open line of her shirt, short nails dragging an arc over her pounding heart. “When did you get so--”

“Needy?” Dani suggests, kissing the back of her shoulder. “I don’t know, Jamie, something about spending a weekend pretending every time you touched me wasn’t unlocking doors I’ve never looked at.”

The door clicks open on cue, the pair of them tumbling through in a heap. Jamie staggers, catches herself on the wall, laughing even as her heartbeat rockets to a speed she thinks might actually knock her out. 

“Weddings,” she says. “Who the hell knew?”

Dani smiles, looking suddenly small and nervous in the drape of Jamie’s jacket over her less-than-pristine dress. Jamie leans back against the wall for a moment, giving herself this gift, this long look at Dani with her hair messy around her face, her makeup smudged, her lipstick nearly gone--Jamie’s more than a little aware most of it has ended up on her own skin, and that knowledge sends such a pulse through her, she has to grip a small table for balance. Dani, in silver earrings and a nearly sheepish smile, her hands curled instinctively into loose fists at her sides. 

It doesn’t need to be a rush, Jamie senses. It doesn’t need to be a desperate wanton grope in a washroom, a now-or-never chaos of hand and kiss and thrust. One day at a time--and today, there’s all the time in the world. 

She moves to Dani, taking her face in both hands, letting herself memorize the angle of Dani’s cheekbones under her thumbs, the texture of her skin under her palms. Dani closes her eyes, breathing in slow, shaky time with Jamie’s hands testing along the slope of her jaw, down the column of her neck.

It’s the softest kiss yet, a bare graze that makes Dani whimper, and Jamie thinks, Real. Real. Realest goddamn thing in the fucking world even as Dani surges into her. Even as Dani’s hands are rising to her face, pushing into her hair, her nails dragging along Jamie’s scalp, she thinks, Real. She’s real. She’s here, and I’m here, and we’re--

Dani has always been a little left of tangible, Jamie thinks, a little off-center from being wholly present. Dani has spent a lifetime trying simply not to be, ghosting through her own world on other people’s whims. Now, she is so solid, so utterly present, it turns her from someone to admire into someone Jamie can’t possibly get enough of. 

The frenzy is building again, that wild inability to stop touching, stop exploring, for even a moment’s breath. They’re in the middle of the room, Jamie’s jacket on the floor, Jamie’s tie wrapped around Dani’s hand as she drags Jamie close, and Jamie’s world has never been so bright. She closes her eyes, feeling as though looking right at it is not allowed, not acceptable, not for her--and then Dani is moaning into her mouth, Dani is propelling her back toward the desk, Dani is saying her name in a hopeful, pleading way that tells Jamie every inch of this is all right. Every inch of Dani’s tongue tracing her lips, Dani’s hands untucking her shirt, Dani’s hips pushing hard against her own is for Jamie. 

She hears herself swear as her back hits the desk, as Dani sucks a biting little mark just under her collar. Dani’s fingers trace the chain of her necklace, her kisses spanning across Jamie’s chest, her gasp hot and sharp as Jamie pushes the strap of her dress down her shoulder and follows with her nails. 

“Still think you’ll need to return this?”

Dani’s laugh turns to a groan as Jamie catches her by the hips, spins her around, jerks the zipper down with more force than she means to. Her hands roam across Dani’s body, down her breasts, settling low on her stomach. She waits, even as Dani tips her head back against her shoulder, even as Dani covers that hand with her own and urges it lower. 

All at once, Jamie is back on a dance floor in a dark, pounding club, Dani’s hand in her hair, Dani breathing hard as she presses back against Jamie’s slowly thrusting hips. All at once, there is music in her head, mingling with Dani’s strangled little whimpers as she guides Jamie’s hand down, as Jamie pushes her dress up, as Jamie’s fingers circle the front of her underwear. 

“If you,” she starts to say against Dani’s ear, and Dani grips her hand, fingers pressing Jamie’s into soaked-through cotton. Jamie makes a noise, too raw to be a laugh, even as Dani is showing her what she wants, even as Dani is guiding Jamie into slow friction.

She kisses her way down Dani’s neck, pausing here and there to read Dani’s body as she licks, as she bites gently down. Dani’s hips twitch against her hand, jerking when Jamie presses her face into the juncture of Dani’s shoulder and begins working on a mark that makes Dani say her name like she’s forgotten every other word exists. 

It almost doesn’t surprise her, that Dani comes undone hot and fast under the combined pressure of their hands. Almost doesn’t surprise her, that Dani throws her head back in a silent cry before Jamie has even touched her bare skin, her fingers still following the pace Dani herself has set. 

“Okay?” she asks against Dani’s neck, nuzzling gently with her nose when Dani doesn’t answer. “Dani?”

Dani’s hand is still clutching her own, her hips still moving in small, jerky motions. She breathes hard, turns her eyes up to Jamie’s, her expression somewhere between embarrassed and elated. 

“I--didn’t--” 

“Think you did,” Jamie teases, pleased when she laughs. 

“Didn’t realize it could be that, uh...fast, I mean. I didn’t mean to--”

Jamie lays a hand on her hip, pulling until Dani turns in her arms. “You’re not actually apologizing, I hope.”

“Well--it--I mean, I wanted--” There’s an almost frustrated cast to Dani’s face, to the furrow of her brow and the way her mouth has gone tense around the corners. Jamie kisses her, slowly, taking her time, until Dani leans back to look at her. 

“You didn’t really think that was it?” Jamie asks. “I mean. Can be, if you’re tired--” Dani shakes her head, and Jamie laughs. “Wasn’t like that, with him, I take it.”

“Nothing about you is,” Dani says, so seriously, Jamie’s heart squeezes. She leans into Dani’s kiss, unfamiliar good fortune winding around the moment even as Dani pulls at her tie, easing it up over Jamie’s head and tossing it aside. She lets Dani use the front of her shirt to guide her forward, Dani’s fingers working the buttons with surprising deftness. 

There’s a sudden slow grace to it all that makes Jamie feel more unbound than ever, somehow. A sudden setting in of ease to the way Dani kisses her, curling her tongue around Jamie’s in a soft stroke to match the way her fingers curl around Jamie’s bare shoulders under her open shirt. Her nails graze the raised scar tissue behind Jamie’s right shoulder, and Jamie flinches a little; Dani pulls back, eyes searching. 

“Long story,” Jamie says, and finds she doesn’t mind Dani moving around, pulling the fabric aside to look at this long-printed mark of mistakes long dead. Doesn’t mind Dani kissing around the scar in sweet, small motions, her hands pulling the shirt down Jamie’s arms and letting it flutter to the carpet. 

Certainly doesn’t mind Dani slipping out of her own dress, taking her hand, moving with her to the bed. It had always seemed so small, such a dangerously minute territory on which Jamie tried not to cross boundaries. Now, with Dani astride her, sitting lightly on Jamie’s thighs as she unbuckles Jamie’s belt, the bed is an endless expanse to explore. With Dani undressing her, laughing a little when Jamie lifts her hips and shimmies free, this bed is the only place Jamie ever wants to visit again. 

***

Embarrassment doesn’t last long, Dani is coming to realize, with Jamie around. There is too much to explore, too much adventure ahead, to waste time on embarrassment, on worrying about what her body is or isn't doing of its own volition. When she comes under Jamie’s touch, there is confusion--memories of how long it’s always taken on her own, how often she’d gone to bed with no resolution at all while Eddie had slept soundly beside her are hard to banish. With Jamie, she’s in a half-ruined dress, bucking and crying out in no time at all. 

And she could be embarrassed--but something about Jamie, about the way she smiles until her eyes crinkle, about the way she kisses Dani like this is only chapter one of the best book ever written, turns embarrassment to fresh lust. Turns that sense of having already tipped over the edge into a renewed climb toward the top of some great mountain, her skin electric under Jamie’s hands. 

She’s finding all manner of secrets on Jamie now, looking at her against the stark white of the hotel bedsheets. A scar beneath one breast, Jamie sighing when Dani tracks it with the tip of her tongue. A freckle high on her hip, Jamie pushing toward her hand when she traces it with the edge of her thumbnail. A spot below the waistband of Jamie’s pants as she eases the zipper slowly down, Jamie’s bottom lip between her teeth, Jamie breathing in hot little pants as her hand folds beneath the material and plucks the waistband of unexpected boxer shorts. 

“Nice,” she mumbles, and Jamie shrugs as best she can while laying beneath Dani. 

“Seemed to fit the outfit.”

Dani laughs, and that right there is surprising enough. Jamie brings so much laughter wherever she goes, even here, even laying naked and vulnerable as Dani studies her with languorous kisses and curious hands. Jamie, giggling when Dani finds a ticklish spot on her thigh. Jamie, gasping when Dani slides down the bed to inspect that spot with a tentative bite. Jamie, hands in her hair, eyes watching her with dark interest, a smile playing around her flushed lips. 

There is no time for embarrassment, with all the things she still has yet to learn of Jamie. No time for worrying about inexperience, about not having liked this with someone else--because, with Jamie, she finds she likes it very much. Finds she enjoys, especially, how Jamie’s hand threads through her hair, tightening when Dani licks her through the surprisingly-alluring boxers.

“Dani--”

Likes that, too, she finds, as she helps Jamie out of that final barrier and settles between her bent thighs again. Likes the way Jamie raises to meet her, the surprising heat, the unsurprising wet on her tongue as she curls around Jamie, flicks and sucks and sighs when Jamie makes a long, hopeless noise above her. Jamie’s nails, digging into her scalp. Jamie’s body, arching and falling, her hips twisting to pull Dani closer. 

Jamie is not quick, and she likes that most of all--how much time she has to study Jamie’s body, how much time Jamie gives her to learn how scraping her nails across Jamie’s hipbone at the exact moment she gives a particularly hard stroke with her tongue will make Jamie say her name in almost filthy benediction. How much time Jamie gives her, as she’s rocking and grinding against Dani’s mouth, for Dani to process that loving Jamie needs no stopwatch, no search for an ending, no desire to move on to whatever comes next. 

When Jamie finally does shudder under her, Dani does not slide back up to lay with her, not yet. She presses a kiss to Jamie’s ribs, mouthing lightly over freckle and imperfection and scar as her hand strokes Jamie softly. Something about Jamie, smeared across her fingers, soaking into her skin, is mesmerizing. Something about Jamie making small sounds of exhausted desire as she traces swollen skin, as she toys lightly across the place where Jamie is wettest, warmest, most welcoming, is making her almost light-headed. 

Jamie says her name again, breathy and hopeful, and Dani turns her eyes up to meet her gaze even as she slides a finger gently in. Jamie’s eyelids flicker, a convulsive expression that makes Dani feel very much as though they never have to stop--never have to leave this room again--could make a home here, with Jamie reaching for her, with Jamie pulling at her arm in an effort to bring her closer. 

It could be like this, she thinks as she lets Jamie coax her up the bed, as she adds another finger and curls, testing the way Jamie contracts around her, the way Jamie makes an almost mewling sound into her mouth. It could be like this--curling deep into Jamie as Jamie cups between her own legs, mirrors what she’s doing until Dani spreads for her and cries out. It could be like this forever, one day stacking on the next, Jamie saying her name over and over in wonderment as they clutch each other. 

“Jesus,” Jamie says eventually--Dani thinks maybe they’ve both dozed off, Jamie’s head against her shoulder, Jamie’s hand still resting between her legs. “Full of surprises.”

Dani waits for it--the old uneasy tension between her shoulders, the tightening of anxiety around her throat--and finds her body tired, pleasantly sore in places where Jamie has bitten harder than she’d meant to, but not in the least bit primed for panic. Jamie is turning, a half-asleep sigh on her lips as she burrows her face against Dani’s chest, and all is warm and lovely and so much like home, she could cry. 

Her hand is still stroking the back of Jamie’s right shoulder--long story, she’d said, and Dani is confident that story will come out, that Jamie will tell her all the stories she’s come to carry over the years--when, content for the first time in a long, long stretch of years, she falls asleep. 

***

The knock on the door is startling, and for a moment, Jamie has no idea where she is. She’s naked--there is a tension in her legs that speaks of having clutched tight every muscle, straining toward something as Dani--as Dani’s tongue--

Right, she thinks, eyes opening with a start. Right, of course. 

The room is a glorious wreck--clothes scattered across the floor, one of Dani’s earrings tossed onto the nightstand (Jamie has a very strong memory of removing it for her with shaking fingers, with the intention of sucking Dani’s earlobe between her teeth and biting down until Dani scratched sharp heat down her back), items bumped off of desks and nightstands in their hurry to undress. She remembers falling asleep in Dani’s arms, remembers waking once in the middle of the night with her body searching out Dani’s, the both of them sighing and moving together in a slow grind until Dani was murmuring ecstatic curses into the underside of Jamie’s jaw. A night of sleep and sex and the very specific way Dani has of smiling into a kiss Jamie thinks she could stay in forever. 

And now: a knock. A knock at the door of their sanctuary. 

“Who,” she asks Dani in an exhausted rasp. “Who has the room number?”

“Hannah?” Dani says into the back of her shoulder, one hand cast over Jamie’s middle like she has no intention of letting anything intrude on this lazy morning. Jamie blinks, the image of Hannah having flown across the ocean with the express purpose of banging on their hotel door at seven in the morning too much to handle. 

Another knock, three quick raps. Then, a voice: “Daniell--no, sorry, Dani. Are you awake?”

“Not by choice,” Dani mutters into Jamie’s skin, her lips tickling as they form the words. A beat. Then, sounding considerably more conscious: “Judy?”

She tumbles out of the bed, grabbing for clothes--Jamie watches with heat pooling in her stomach once more as Dani sweeps Jamie’s shirt from last night around her shoulder and buttons it haphazardly, as she slides into sleep shorts without bothering to locate underwear first. 

“Here,” she adds, tossing a shirt out of her suitcase toward Jamie--one of Jamie’s own flannels, she notes with a start, which Dani appears to have co-opted into her own closet sometime over the summer. To Judy, she calls, “Just a minute!”

“No rush, dear,” Judy says pleasantly, and Jamie thinks it would be so nice, if that were true. If she could have the time to hike Dani onto the desk in Jamie’s wrinkled dress shirt, kneel between Dani’s legs, start their morning off right--

“Stop that,” Dani says in a low voice. Jamie, buttoning her shirt and flattening her hair, raises an eyebrow. 

“What’m I doing?”

“Looking at me like you want to--” Dani closes her eyes for a minute, smiling. “Do inappropriate things while my ex-boyfriend’s mother is on the other side of that door.”

“Hate to break it to you, Poppins, but I think I’m going to be looking at you like I want to do inappropriate things to you while anyone is around for a while.”

“Shh.” Dani kisses her once--twice--moans softly as Jamie deepens the kiss. “Shh, stop that. Come on.”

She opens the door, looking for all the world like she actually wants to see Judy on the other side. It’s impressive, how quickly she can hitch that expression of American good manners onto her face, even with her hair a complete mess and the memory of Jamie’s bite neon under the collar of her stolen shirt. 

“Judy, good morning. How, uh. How’d you find out where we--”

“I have a friend at the front desk,” Judy says merrily. Her eyes seek out Jamie, perched awkwardly on the edge of the mattress, and she raises an offering: a large red thermos. “Morning, Jamie! Did you enjoy yourself last night?”

A quick flash: Dani pressed back against her in an unzipped dress, riding Jamie’s hand. Jamie smiles. “Very much. A lovely event all around.”

“I thought so, too. I brought you something. Figured you might not have had a chance yet.”

“For...?” Dani asks, trying to surreptitiously kick last night’s underwear under the bed. Judy gives her the bright smile of a woman who has been awake since dawn.

“Caffeine. I know you’re going to have a busy morning, with brunch and your flight, so I wanted to kick you off right.”

Christ, thinks Jamie, another bloody round of coffee. She accepts the paper cup Judy offers her, smiles politely, takes a sip. 

“You--you’ve made real tea,” she says before she can stop herself. There are simply only so many restraints a person can put on herself first thing in the morning. Judy beams. 

“I spent some time in England when I was a girl. Bet you didn’t know that, Dani.”

“No,” Dani agrees, sipping her own tea. Judy nods. 

“Always wanted to go back, but you know--the boys. Life gets in the way sometimes.”

Doesn’t have to, thinks Jamie, watching Dani’s arms extend over her head in a small stretch, Jamie’s shirt pulling high to reveal her stomach. Not if you’re lucky. 

“Judy, I...” Dani hesitates. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but--what are you doing here? Not that I’m not happy. To see you, I mean. I just. It’s--”

Judy gives her shoulder a reassuring pat. “I talked with Eddie more last night. Wanted to get a chance to talk to you, too, before you went home.”

Jamie watches some of the color bleed out of Dani’s face, replaced by the familiar set of her jaw that says she’s waiting for a blow. “Oh yeah?”

“He told me what he did,” Judy says soberly. “How he tried to talk to you into taking him back yesterday. He was embarrassed, I think.”

Should’ve been, Jamie thinks, perhaps a bit more savagely than is necessary. She drinks half the tea, relieved as it warms away that tiny bit of dislike she can’t seem to shake for how Edmund moves around Dani like he owns her. Doesn’t matter, she knows. Dani makes her own choices. 

“I didn’t want to hurt him,” Dani says haltingly, clearly struggling to find the right words to explain to Eddie’s mother why she told his son off. “I just--”

“You’re in love,” Judy says simply. Jamie’s heart performs that incredible backflip trick again, punching against her ribs hard enough to make her vision swim. She looks to Dani’s face, which does not change, save for the softness of her smile. 

“He wasn’t happy about it.”

“No,” Judy agrees. “And he won’t be, for a while, I think. You know Edmund. He isn’t exactly good with change. But he’ll be all right, eventually.”

“And you--” Dani seems to be walking slowly toward an open flame, flinching from the heat even as she nears its roar. “You’re not...upset?”

“Upset?” Judy blinks. “God, no! Dani, I want you to be happy. Since you were a little girl, that’s all I’ve ever wanted for you. And, selfishly, I’d hoped--well, I’d always wanted a daughter, and you were...are. Are so special.”

Dani’s blinking too fast, her nose reddening the way it does when she’s about to cry. Judy pulls her close, sloshing tea over the side of the paper cup, heedless of it landing on her sleeve. 

“I just want you to know,” she says into Dani’s shoulder, hugging her tight, “that you are always welcome. I meant what I said, for you and Jamie both. If you’re ever in town again, if you need somewhere to stay or someone to talk to. Don’t hesitate to call.”

Jamie raises her cup in a small salute, appreciating the way Judy looks her in the eye and smiles. This woman is one of the good ones, one of the rare lovely humans who was truly meant for motherhood. Dani deserves someone like that in her life. 

Hell, maybe Jamie does, too. 

Judy doesn’t stay long after that, bustling back out the door with a wipe of her eyes and a cheerful, “See you at the pancake house!” Dani closes the door behind her, sags against it with a sigh. 

“All right?” Jamie asks. “She seems...”

Dani’s crying, she realizes, and laughing at the same time. She turns into Jamie’s arms, shaking with what Jamie suspects might be the purest relief of the weekend. 

“Think she’d adopt me, too, if I asked nicely?” Jamie asks against Dani’s hair, smoothing it down with one gentle hand. Dani hiccups laughter into her neck, kisses a spot already dampened by her own tears. 

“Sorry. I just never thought--I thought she’d hate me. For--”

“Never,” Jamie says. “Who could hate you, Poppins? You’re a goddamned star.”

***

Jamie still seems baffled by the concept of an after-wedding brunch. Dani, if she’d had a real say in the matter, would much rather skip it altogether, spend the morning showering with Jamie and making the most of the hours before they have to check out for the airport. 

“Last time seeing my mother for...who knows how long,” she says, half to Jamie, mostly to reassure herself. “Might as well get it over with.”

“Sure. All right. One question, though.” When Dani raises her eyebrows, Jamie grimaces. “What the fuck is a pancake house?”

The tables have been pushed together, taking up the majority of the most popular breakfast establishment in town. Dani squares her shoulders, reminding herself that there is a particular kind of courage to coming out, to coping with her mother for a weekend, to kissing Jamie and facing Eddie and setting the stage for the next chapter of her life. A particular kind of courage she’s proven more than capable of, so seeing her mother now should be...

“Morning, Mom.”

“Danielle!” Karen’s face is brighter than Dani’s seen it in a long time, the afterglow of the wedding still doing its work. She reaches for Dani’s hand, squeezes it like they’ve ever had the kind of mother-daughter relationship marked by small physical gestures. “I missed you at the end of the night.”

“You did?” Dani frowns, waiting for the knife between her ribs, but her mother only continues to smile. 

“Did you have a good time?”

Who is this woman? “Great time. Yeah. I, uh. I’m really happy for you, Mom.” She looks to the man beside Karen, this still-strange man who feels like walking into a new house and only being able to smell the unfamiliar staleness of the air. “And for you, Christopher.”

“Chris,” he says, as close to jovial as Dani has seen him yet. “Please. We’re family.”

Dani, she almost replies, but there’s a shine to her mother’s eyes that warns against it. A pleasant morning can turn on a dime. Best not to bother. 

Jamie seems baffled by everything from the twelve varieties of syrup to the nearly five-page spread of breakfast options. Dani promises herself, watching Jamie mutter over who could possibly eat a meal of four eggs, three kinds of meat, three pancakes, and a hashbrown casserole, that they will come back someday. Not to Iowa, maybe; she’s had her fill of Iowa since she can remember. But Jamie in the US is a marvel, and she finds she wants to explore more of it with Jamie on the other side of the car. Jamie, raising her eyebrows at the absurdity of American culture, kissing her knuckles while Dani sips coffee, chatting with Judy over the finer points of proper tea, is a treasure Dani finds she could spend quite a lot of time exploring. 

All the time in the world, maybe. Each day as it comes on its own merit. 

“So,” Karen says as they’re settling the bill--Jamie looks physically pained as Christopher negotiates a twelve-way split--and Dani is preparing to stand. “When will we be seeing you again?”

Dani waits for the dread, the solid weight of impending doom, to collide with her good mood. It is, perhaps, a mark of Jamie’s hand on her back that she finds herself able to smile through it. 

“I don’t know. I’ll be needed with the kids through the holidays, but--”

“Not Christmas, surely,” her mother says, a note of that familiar expectation wrapped around her smile. “You know how important Christmas is to this family.”

Since when? Dani doesn’t say, remembering more than one year sitting with Eddie’s family while her mother spent the day at a friend’s adults-only party. She takes Jamie’s hand, relieved when Jamie gives her mother a grand smile of her own. 

“See, Mrs. Clayton, it’s important to my side of the family, too. I’ve been hoping to introduce them to Dani before I get around to proposing--”

It takes everything in Dani not to explode with laughter as her mother’s face opens up in horror. Jamie leans in, gives Karen a polite little hug which goes unreciprocated, a shake of Christopher’s hand that seems to leave him puzzled.

“Now you’re just being mean,” she whispers when they’ve extricated themselves from the hugs and goodbyes and escaped the table. “Propose, huh?”

“It was my hidden ace,” Jamie says mildly. “They don’t need to know I have no family.”

Dani leans into the arm Jamie has around her shoulders, kissing Jamie’s cheek as they step out onto the sunlit street. “You do, you know. And if we ever do get married, I think Flora would trample anyone in her way to get to be flower girl.”

“The job,” Jamie says, leaning Dani back against the rental car and cradling her face in both hands, “is all hers.”

***

The flight back is still not Jamie’s favorite thing--though she finds it significantly harder to focus on the horror of taking to the air with Dani’s mouth sliding sweet, open little kisses along her neck--and by the time they touch down in England, she isn’t sure if she’s shaking more from fear or desire. Dani’s method of keeping her calm had been productive, in that Jamie hadn’t had another panic attack; less so, in that it had largely involved her hand resting in places just this side of getting them thrown off the airplane for improper conduct. 

“We’ll have to have rules about that,” she tells Dani, slinging her bag over her shoulder. “You can’t just go having your way with me about the gardens, the plants will die in a week.”

“You didn’t seem to be complaining,” Dani points out. There’s a rather cheeky quality to her grin these days Jamie finds herself quite unable to dislike. 

“Right, well, just remember there are...ah...impressionable little...gremlins about...” She’s losing her train of thought fast; Dani, evidently interested in amusing herself as they wait for Owen to pull up, is teasing a hand beneath the hem of Jamie’s t-shirt, tracking her nails along the small of Jamie’s back. “Not gonna be satisfied until--”

“You can probably just end that sentence there.” Dani is gazing at her mouth, not a single sign of shame to be found in her eyes. Jamie swallows. 

“Oh thank Christ, Owen.”

“I’ll remember you said that,” Dani teases, even as Owen is stepping out and approaching with arms wide open. “Hey! How are you?”

“Pleased to see you both alive and intact,” he replies. “The kids’ve missed you dearly, Miss Clayton.” He flashes Jamie a smile. “I only let Miles murder half of your roses, you’ll be pleased to find.”

“Prat,” she replies, hugging him. “How was the esteemed Lord Wingrave?”

“Smiled three whole times. I think Hannah caught one on film, if you’re interested.”

Hannah. Jamie realizes with a hot flush of amusement she had been too preoccupied with Dani’s affections to actually update Hannah on the matter. Oh, she’ll have some feelings about that. 

“So?” Owen pulls onto the road, apparently not minding both of his charges having chosen the backseat. “How was Operation Fool Dani’s Family?”

“Went so well,” Jamie says breezily, her hand sliding to cover Dani’s knee beneath the hem of her skirt, “we managed to convince even ourselves.”

“You--sorry?” His eyes widen in the rearview. “You’re kidding.”

“Not in the least, I’m afraid.” Jamie pokes a finger between the seats, jabbing him in the shoulder. “We are, it seems, about to test out a romance at Bly.”

“Hannah says those are doomed,” he says, half-grinning, though she can hear the tight coil of sorrow in the words. She shrugs. 

“Maybe this is how we prove her wrong. And then...”

He gives her a warning look, just as Dani is saying, “You know, if you need an excuse to process complex feelings toward a friend, a wedding is an excellent place to do it.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jamie says idly, letting her fingers trace lightly up Dani’s thigh until her breath catches. “It went so poorly for us...”

“Hey! No fooling about in my backseat!” Owen flaps a hand backward without looking, laughing when Jamie gives him an awkward high five for his trouble. “What would Hannah say?”

***

“About bloody time,” Hannah says, hugging them both in a single tight embrace. Dani’s head bumps Jamie’s, her face aching from the force of her smile. As they break apart, Hannah adds a flick to the side of Jamie’s temple. 

“Ow! Fuck was that?”

“The last I heard from you,” Hannah says in a mild voice, her lips curving, “you’d been having a moral crisis due to a single bed and a certain dream.”

“Hold on,” Dani says, a blush creeping into her cheeks, “you were doing what?”

“Look!” says Jamie quickly. “Wee child creatures!”

Flora and Miles are, indeed, rushing toward them at top speed. Despite Miles’ longer legs, Flora collides with Dani first, face like summer sunshine. 

“Miss Clayton, Miss Clayton!”

“Told you I’d be back before you knew it, didn’t I?” Dani crouches, giving her hair an affectionate tousle. “Did you have fun with your uncle?”

“I made him a doll!” Flora says happily. Henry, pulling up behind her with the expression of a man who had not been prepared to run after children this evening, smiles. 

“She has a real talent for it.”

He looks better than Dani has ever seen him, though tired around the eyes. She gives him a small hug, pleasantly surprised when he returns the embrace without flinching.

“How was it back home?”

“It was...” Dani glances at Jamie, who is swirling Flora around in circles while Flora squeals. “A good reminder. Of where I really fit best.”

Henry nods once, relief in his face. “Oh good, I’d been worried I’d have to hire yet another au pair...though, perhaps, someday, your position can be adjusted. I’ve been thinking about moving back full-time--maybe by winter. We can discuss adjusting your hours, perhaps keep you on with a schedule matching Jamie and Owen?”

A flare of unhappiness, followed resolutely by pleasure. The kids are beaming at Henry, Flora nestled in Jamie’s arms, Miles leaning against Hannah’s hip. He belongs here, as much as any of them--probably should have been the whole time. 

“I will, of course, assist with living arrangements,” Henry says hurriedly, as if realizing an ambush regarding changing Dani’s entire career situation was not the best route to take on the heels of her trip. “I’m sorry, we can talk about this later--”

“Think she’ll be all right,” Jamie says, stealing up behind Dani and slipping an arm around her middle. There’s something, Dani thinks, particularly grounding about the splay of Jamie’s fingers high on her ribcage. “I know a place, wouldn’t mind another tenant.”

Henry’s eyes zip from her face to Dani’s and back again. “Oh. Oh, well, that’s--that’s lovely, I’m--congratulations.”

“What does that mean?” Flora asks. Jamie gives her a gentle jostle. 

“Means Miss Clayton and I are--erm...”

“Dating,” Dani says. It’s too small a word, she feels, too neatly clipped, but it’s more than enough for Flora. 

“See!” she crows at her brother, who looks mildly aggrieved. “See! I told you.”

“Told him what?” Dani asks. Miles heaves a sigh.

“She’s been saying for weeks and weeks she thought Jamie thought you were pretty.”

“I do think she’s pretty,” Jamie says, like being found out by an eight-year-old isn’t turning the tips of her ears red. 

“See!” Flora says again, happily. “Jamie, can I have your phone?”

“What for?”

“I have to change Miss Clayton’s name,” Flora says seriously. “To match yours.”

Dani recalls all at once the little red heart beside Jamie’s name, the bewildered way she’d stared, wondering if it had been a drunken truth spoken before her sober mind was ready for it. “Flora. We’ve talked about playing with people’s phones.”

“I’m sorry! It won’t happen again!” A beat. “Jamie, can I see your phone, please?”

Distance, thinks Dani, as Jamie digs the phone from her pocket and unlocks it for Flora, sometimes really does do the trick. Sometimes, distance is the thing to prove a point--the place you don’t belong finally set in stone, positioned beside the place you feel most at home. Sometimes, distance does indeed make the heart grow fonder. 

Her mother, she knows, will be calling tomorrow to ensure Dani has landed safely. She’ll already have stories--gossip Dani can’t bother tracking, bitter monologues that make little sense. Maybe some of her stories will even be pleasant this time around, detailing the first days of her shining new marriage. 

Maybe she’ll even let Dani tell a story or two of her own. 

Or maybe, when her phone rings, Dani will be occupied. Chasing Flora, running Miles through his sums, laughing with Hannah in the kitchen.

Kissing Jamie in the greenhouse, the sun warming her hair as Jamie folds her back on the little couch, her hands pleasantly insistent under Dani’s sweater. 

One day at a time, she thinks, gazing up at this house which feels more like home than any part of Iowa ever has. One day at a time feels just fine to her.