In case you somehow missed it, author and contemporary queen Katie Cotugno has written a sequel to 99 DAYS so we’re finally getting another summer in Molly Barlow’s story! And if you’ve never read 99 DAYS, then you should still check out this excerpt of 9 DAYS AND 9 NIGHTS because *of course* it can also stand alone as its own swoony summer getaway!
Here’s the rundown: Molly Barlow finds herself in Europe on her summer vacation with her new boyfriend Ian, desperately trying to forget everything that happened a year ago when she broke the Donnelly brothers’ hearts, along with her own. But over the course of nine days and nine nights, her whole life will be turned upside-down once more—because of course, her ex Gabe unexpectedly shows up.
Are you in? We’re so in. Scroll down and read the first chapter of 9 DAYS AND 9 NIGHTS!
Ian tells me he loves me for the first time in front of an enormous display of medieval torture devices, halfway through a tour of the Tower of London on the second morning of our trip.
“Shit,” he says as soon as the words are out of his mouth, reaching down for my suddenly sweaty hand and tugging me gently toward the back of the group. He’s sheepish and wide-eyed, his thick straight eyebrows hooked together with alarm. “I’m sorry. This is, like, the world’s most awkward venue to be saying this to you.”
For a moment I just gape at him. “No, no,” I lie—though not, I suspect, super convincingly. Over the nicker of my own skittish heart I’m vaguely aware of our guide rattling cheerfully on in a crisp British accent: “While these were once thought to be the axes which beheaded Anne Boleyn, in fact history shows she died by the sword. Now, if you’ll look over to your left . . .”
Ian grimaces and rests his warm, heavy palms on my bare shoulders, shifting me out of the path of a family speaking enthusiastic German and using a selfie stick to take a picture of themselves in front of a collection of antique flails. “I mean, it definitely is,” he admits. “But honestly, I’ve been thinking it since we took off from Boston. I mean, before that too, but especially since we got here. And every time I opened my mouth I was worried it was going to come out at a wicked inopportune time.”
I laugh at that, I can’t help it. “Like now?” I ask as he takes my arm and moves me again, both of us edging aside as another gleeful gaggle of tourists jostles its way through the crowd, camera flashes exploding.
“I mean, yeah,” Ian says, his pale face going pink under his Red Sox cap. He digs the complimentary Tower map out of his pocket and refolds it a couple of times, nervous. We’ve been in London since yesterday morning. We’ve been dating for five full months. “Like now.” He makes a face. “Is that weird?”
“Oh yeah,” I assure him, unable to hide a smile. Out the narrow window behind him I can see a raven flying in lazy circles against the blue-gray August sky, swooping low and then righting itself gracefully. The guide said there are seven of them living in the Tower, a creepily macabre brood of avian house pets. “But not in a bad way.”
Ian tilts his head to the side, hope splashed all across his handsome face. “No?”
“No.” I reach up and fuss with the sleeve of his T-shirt, suddenly shy myself. The skin of his upper arm is warm and solid and smooth. The truth is, I’m not so much shocked by the setting he’s chosen for this particular declaration as I am by the fact that he’s saying it at all. You don’t even know me, I think, then push the notion away, banishing it to the place where I store all the messiest parts of my past. “Not in a bad way at all.”
“Okay,” Ian says, letting a breath out, scrubbing a hand through the day’s worth of vacation beard on his chin and smiling a little uncertainly. “Damn, Molly. I should have at least waited till we got to the room with the Crown Jewels or something.” He glances around, shaking his head. “It’s really morbid in here, now that I’m looking. This was not a slick move on my part.”
“No, come on, this is great.” I giggle, motioning around at the empty suits of armor standing at attention along one wall, the reproductions of executioner’s masks hanging up alongside some horrifying metal contraption with a million sharp teeth, the intended purpose of which I’d rather not contemplate. “You’re really getting your William the Conqueror on.”
“Shut up,” Ian says, but he’s laughing too now, his studious face cracking open. “That’s not even the right time period.”
“Oh, well, God forbid I mess up my time periods,” I tease. That was one of the things I liked first and best about Ian, how silly and self-aware he could be for someone so serious; getting to know him was like finding a secret late-night dance party in the green-lampshade reading room at the Boston Public Library. “I love you too.”
“Really?” For one second Ian looks completely, purely delighted; then, just as quickly, he shakes his head. “You don’t have to say it back,” he reassures me, shoving the map back into the pocket of his dorky cargo shorts. “I mean, you know that, obviously. But you don’t.”
“Yes, thank you.” I wrinkle my nose. “I know that. But I want to.”
Ian squints at me like he’s looking for the punch line. “Really?” he asks again. He sounds very young even though he’s two years ahead of me at college in Boston; he’ll be a senior when we go back to campus in two weeks. “You do?”
I laugh, not a little nervously. “Yeah, nerd,” I say, trying not to feel like a jerk at how shocked he sounds by the admission. He said it to me without expecting it back, I realize abruptly. He said it to me like an offering. “I do.”
Ian grins at me for real then, slow and steady. You could light the whole London Eye with that smile. “Okay,” he says. “Well. Good, then.”
“Good,” I echo, more certain than I was even just a moment ago when I blurted it out. I do love him, after all: I love his brain and his heart and the person I am when I’m with him. The person he makes me want to be. And isn’t that what love is, really? Wanting to be the best version of yourself for someone else? If that’s the rubric that we’re using, then I’ve been in love with Ian since the very first day we met.
I was in the library at BU one rainy Saturday morning in late October of last year, rain streaking down the tall, wide windowpanes and a forbidden cup of coffee from the café downstairs rapidly cooling on the desk in front of me. It was barely a week after the clinic visit and I still had faint stomach cramps, a feeling like someone periodically reaching a cold hand inside my body and squeezing as hard as they could. Still, as I sat there in the carrel in my sweatpants and ponytail, a bulky plaid scarf wrapped around my neck, I was calmer than I’d been in two full weeks. I’d been gravitating toward the library more and more the last few days, in between classes and after dinner, drawn to the tall shelves and stain-resistant armchairs and most of all to the immaculate, antiseptic silence. Boston is a pretty quiet city, all Unitarian churches and hipster coffee shops and cobblestone streets made uneven by tree roots, but lately it was all too bright and loud and overwhelming, like I was walking around with my organs on the outside of my body. Everything felt screamingly, ferociously raw.
I was halfway through a calc problem set that wasn’t due until Tuesday when someone stopped next to my hard wooden chair and cleared his throat. I startled, blinking up at the sandy-haired guy casting a broad shadow over my notebook. He looked like everything I’d always pictured when I thought of Boston: broken-in corduroys and L.L.Bean boots unlaced halfway down, a plaid flannel shirt rolled up to his elbows. He was pushing a metal cart full of library books.
“Um,” he said, motioning at my coffee cup and smiling a shy, sheepish smile. “You’re really not supposed to have that in here.”
“Oh!” I felt myself blush deep and red, shame flooding all the way down to the soles of my feet inside my sneakers. “Shoot, I’m sorry.” It was such a small, stupid thing, a contraband coffee, but getting called out for it by a total stranger flew directly in the face of everything I was trying to be here, with my neatly organized planner and my soothing playlist of classical music and my homework done three days ahead of time: somebody who didn’t cause any problems. Somebody who didn’t break any hearts. “Um. You can take it, or I can go throw it away, or—”
I broke off, swallowing hard. I knew this was hormones, theoretically—the doctor had told me that might happen, a flood of emotion like PMS dialed up to a thousand—but suddenly I wasn’t at all certain I wasn’t about to burst into tears.
It must have been achingly clear on my face, because Library Boy blanched. “You know what, it’s okay, actually,” he assured me. Then he grimaced. “I mean, it really isn’t, probably my boss is going to be kind of a dick about it if he sees you. But I won’t tell.”
I took a deep breath, bit my tongue until I tasted iron. God, I was not about to have a meltdown in front of this random person just because he’d been unlucky enough to talk to me. I was not going to have any more meltdowns at all, not ever, but I was most definitely not going to have one now. “I’m sorry,” I said again, more calmly this time. “I’ll get rid of it. I don’t want to be a rule-breaker.”
That made him smile. “Fair enough,” he said, letting go of the cart handle and scrubbing a hand over his scruffy chin. “I don’t want to be an enforcer, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear.”
“Is that your job?” I asked, the small talk steadying me a little. There was something about him, that stormy morning, that felt oddly, instinctively safe. “The library enforcer?”
He nodded seriously. “Do I look intimidating?”
I gazed at him for another minute, taking in his tortoiseshell glasses and the Red Sox T-shirt peeking out from underneath the collar of his flannel, the beat-up leather band of his Swiss Army watch around one wrist. “Not really,” I admitted.
He grinned then, holding his hand out. “I didn’t think so,” he said with a shrug. “I’m Ian.”
“I’m Molly,” I said, and we shook.
After that I fell into a routine of Saturday mornings at the library: textbooks stacked neatly on the table, water bottle tucked safely away inside my bag. The following week, Ian smiled and waved when he saw me. The week after that, he recommended a Barbara Kingsolver book he thought I might like. The week after that, it occurred to me that I was looking forward to seeing him, glancing up from my notes every couple of minutes and scanning the stacks for his kind, serious face.
Still, after everything that had happened back in Star Lake and after, I definitely wasn’t looking for anything romantic, on top of which I couldn’t imagine who in their right mind would possibly want to date me if they knew the kind of skeletons I had rattling around in my dorm room closet. Which is why I was so surprised, right before Thanksgiving, when Ian came over to the carrel I’d started to think of as mine and asked, so haltingly it sort of broke my heart, if I wanted to go see a Springsteen cover band at the Paradise that night.
“Um,” I said, taken aback and caught off guard and so deeply pleased I physically couldn’t keep from smiling, like the Boss himself had shown up in the reference section, climbed up onto one of the study tables, and launched into “Born to Run.” It occurred to me, somewhere at the very back of my secret heart, that I hadn’t felt anything like that since Gabe. “Hm.” I put a hand against the side of my face, felt the blood rushing there. “So here’s the thing. It sounds really fun and I promise I’m not just saying that. But I’m—” I broke off. “Just . . . not really in a place to be dating anybody right now.”
Ian raised his eyebrows. “What makes you think I’m trying to date you?” he asked. When I blanched, he grinned.
“I mean, I’m definitely trying to date you,” he admitted, jamming his hands into the pockets of his olive-green khakis and rocking backward on the heels of his boots. “But if it’s not on the table, I can respect that. Honestly, no pressure. I’d also really like to just be your friend.”
I squinted at him, looking for the catch but not finding one. “Really?” I asked.
Ian nodded and held his hands out like one of the street magicians posted up by the T station in Harvard Square, nothing here. “Really.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding slowly. “Then let’s be friends.”
And that’s how it started, as a friendship: turkey-melt lunches in the dining hall where he asked about my business classes and told me about the books he was reading for his Irish-American Writers seminar; a trip to the Ben and Jerry’s on Newbury Street because somebody had left a stack of two-for-one coupons on top of the trash can in the hallway of my dorm building. “What’s the deal with you guys?” my roommate, Roisin, asked the week before Christmas break, pulling me aside at student-discount ice-skating night on the Common. Her hat had a giant pom-pom bobbing on top of it; her brown skin was faintly rosy with the cold. “I feel like he’s been staring at you piningly all night.”
I shook my head, reaching out for the paper cup of hot chocolate she was offering. “We’re just friends,” I told her, and I meant it; still, when Ian mentioned going on a few dates with a girl in his teaching cohort in the middle of January it put me in such a bad mood that I blew off the superhero movie we were supposed to go see and jammed my sneakers on my feet instead. I ran all the way to Jamaica Pond in the screaming, skin-cracking cold.
Don’t be spoiled, I scolded myself as I swallowed down deep gulps of the dry, stinging winter air. After all, it wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know if or when I would be. Ian might have thought he wanted to date me for a minute there, sure. But only because he didn’t actually know me at all.
Still, as the weeks went by I saw him more than I didn’t: we ate mushroom and ricotta slices at the trendy pizza chain across from the BU arena. We sat in the oversized chairs on the second floor of the student center and studied for exams. In March we went to an extremely long, extremely awkward improv show in the black box theater on campus, after which we stood bewildered on the sidewalk and tried to figure out what we’d just watched.
“Okay,” Ian said, rubbing a palm over his face. He shuddered visibly, like a dog shaking off water after a bath. “Wow. That was . . .”
“Special?” I supplied.
“That’s one word for it, certainly.” Ian grinned. “I think I need a beer. You wanna come over for a beer?”
I looked at him for a moment, his cheeks ruddy in the streetlight, his hair growing out past the collar of his warm-looking woolen coat. “Sure,” I said. “That sounds great.”
We followed the trolley tracks back down toward Kenmore Square, still totally unable to get over the weirdness of it: “I think my favorite part was when that one guy sang the Barney theme song and then meowed like a cat for six minutes,” Ian said thoughtfully, and I laughed. It was only a couple of weeks until spring break, but Boston was still freezing and damp, the winter clinging endlessly on; my mittens had long since gone gray and dingy, a hole in the webbing between my fingers and my thumb. It had snowed again a few days before, everyone in the dining hall looking out the window and groaning in unison as the fat flakes began to come down, and now I picked through the slushy black remains of it, water seeping into my ankle boots. “Easy,” Ian said, catching my hand when I almost slipped on a patch of ice slicked over the cobblestone sidewalk. “I gotcha.”
“Thanks,” I said as I righted myself again, my whole body going pleasantly alert inside my parka.
Ian smiled a little shyly. His hand was improbably warm. “No problem.” He started to let go, but before I knew what I was doing I tightened my grip, like a reflex. Ian’s eyebrows shot up in the darkness, but he didn’t comment. “It’s just down here” was all he said, nodding at a quiet side street.
Ian lived with two roommates in a scuzzy student apartment near the Fens, a listing walk-up where the narrow stairwells reeked of weed and Bagel Bites and his mail was perpetually getting stolen. The living room was drafty and cavernous, with tall coffered ceilings and molding that had been painted thickly over so many times it had lost all its detail; in the hallway, the colorless carpet was worn completely bald. The linoleum was peeling up in the kitchen. The windows rattled inside their frames.
It was Friday, and Ian’s roommates—a kid named Harvey who was studying engineering and stayed at his boyfriend’s most nights, plus a girl named Sahar who played in a punk band in Somerville on the weekends—were both out; the apartment was quiet, save a faint, irregular scratching in the walls. “It’s a mouse,” Ian confirmed, when he caught me tilting my head to the side to listen for it. “He’s basically our fourth roommate, I’m not going to lie to you. He doesn’t even have the decency to scurry. He just, like, strolls through the room while you’re watching TV or making a sandwich or something. Harvey calls him Old Chum.” He grimaced. “You’re rethinking your decision to come over here now, aren’t you.”
I looked at him evenly for a moment, then shook my head. “No.”
Ian’s ears got faintly red. “Okay,” he said, clearing his throat a bit. “Well, good.”
He got me a beer from the ancient fridge and burned some popcorn in the microwave; we sat on the sagging IKEA futon in the living room and watched a Friends rerun on cable. It was late, nearly time for the T to stop running, and I knew I should head home, but the longer I sat there the clearer it became that I didn’t actually want to go back to my tall, sterile dorm building. I wanted to stay here, in this warm, scruffy place.
“Your socks are wet,” Ian observed suddenly, reaching out and flicking the bottom of my foot; on TV, Joey and Chandler had just left a baby on a bus.
“My feet are freezing,” I confessed, tucking them up under me.
“They are?” Ian made a face. “Why didn’t you say something? Hang on, wait a sec.” He got up off the couch and disappeared down the long, narrow hallway, his shoulders so broad he seemed to fill the entire space. When he came back he was holding a thick pair of navy blue socks.
“They’re clean,” he said, handing them over. “I’m not a monster.”
That made me smile, surprised and delighted; then I felt my face fall. He was being too nice to me, I thought, suddenly as close to tears as I’d been that very first morning in the library. I didn’t deserve it, after everything that had happened. I didn’t deserve him. This was a guy who’d read to little kids at a Head Start for his senior service project and confessed to being the Dungeon Master for all his friends’ D&D games one of the very first times we hung out together. He’d been honest and good from the beginning. The last thing he needed was me stomping into his calm, steady life with my talent for drama and flair for catastrophe, leaving my muddy tracks across his floor.
I thought about leaving. I thought about getting up and making my excuses, calling an Uber and waving good-bye and keeping a safe distance from Ian’s sturdy, affable self until this longing—and that’s what it was, I realized as I watched his fingers curl around the neck of his beer bottle, longing, a physical ache in my chest—had passed.
Instead I waited for him to sit down beside me, and I swung my feet into his lap.
Ian looked at me for a long moment. Then he set the beer bottle down. He reached forward and peeled my wet socks off, pressing one careful thumb against my chilly instep; I shivered. “Your feet feel like a cadaver’s,” he informed me, smirking a little.
“Rude,” I said, but I was smiling. He squeezed my toes once before sliding the wool socks on with a surprising gentleness, pulling them all the way up over the bottoms of my jeans.
“Better?” he asked, and I swallowed.
Ian nodded. Outside it was snowing again, tiny flakes visible in the yellow glow cast by the streetlights outside his building. It felt like we were bears hunkering down for the winter, as if the world couldn’t get us up here.
Ian looked down at his grip on my ankles, then back up again; the moment that passed between us was so heavy I felt like I could reach out and hold it in my two shaking hands. He smelled like off-brand boy soap from the drugstore. I wanted to wrap him around me like a coat.
“Ooookay,” I said, suddenly breathless, sitting back on the futon. “I—huh. Okay.”
Ian let go of me abruptly, like he was worried he’d read me wrong. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean—”
“No no no.” I paused for a moment, trying to steady myself. “I know I told you I wanted to be friends,” I said. “And I really like that you were so cool about it.”
“Well, I’m cool,” Ian joked, gesturing down at his work shirt and flannel-lined khakis. “I mean, clearly.”
“No, I mean it,” I said. “You can always tell when a guy is trying to make something that isn’t supposed to be a date into a date, or when they’re secretly annoyed that it isn’t a date, and you just—you’ve never been like that.”
Ian tilted his head to the side, lips twisting. “I’m trying to figure out if that’s emasculating or not.”
“Can you just take the compliment?” I asked, more shrilly than I meant to.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “Yes.”
“Look,” I said, leaning my head back against the futon, curling my knees up in front of me. “Here’s the deal. Without sounding super dramatic or like I’m in a Lifetime movie or like I’m being really vague on purpose, there’s stuff about myself that I don’t necessarily . . . like to talk about. Stuff you don’t know about me.”
Ian nodded. “Without being super vague on purpose,” he echoed pointedly.
“I’m serious!” Deep down I knew this was silly, that by virtue of being so mysterious I was probably turning my past into a bigger deal than it needed to be. But what was I supposed to tell him? I spent the bulk of my high school career playing the hypotenuse of a ridiculous love triangle that you can read all about in my author mom’s international bestseller? “I’m not trying to be an asshole, I just—”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Ian interrupted.
I huffed a bit, surprised and—absurdly—a tiny bit offended. “No.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No.” I smiled.
“Are you a Republican?”
That one made me laugh. “No,” I said, kicking lightly at his thigh with one socked foot. “I’m not a Republican.”
Ian shrugged. “Then whatever it is, I don’t care.”
“Easy for you to say now, maybe.” I shook my head.
“You’re wrong.” Ian leaned forward. “Here’s what I do know about you,” he said, ticking the list off on his fingers. “You make me laugh. You’re smart and cool and kind and driven.” He smiled. “And you are, like. The prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.”
I rolled my eyes, quietly pleased. “Well,” I said finally, mirroring him, leaning in a little closer. “I don’t know about that.”
“I do,” Ian said calmly, then cupped the back of my skull in one hand and kissed me. He tasted like beer and like popcorn and like hope. And maybe this was how it happened, I thought to myself, eyes closed and heart creaking open. Maybe this was how I started over for real.
The next morning I went and cut all my hair off, then called my mom and got permission to swipe her credit card for a dye job to match. She was worried about me, though both of us had tacitly agreed not to talk about why beyond her careful, general probes into my emotions and a book about grief that she’d sent to my dorm. “Sure,” she said cautiously; she was in Chicago on a book tour, the hotel TV chattering away in the background. “Whatever makes you happy.”
Once I was finished at the salon I met Ian at a coffee shop not far from campus; he stood up from the table when he saw me, an expression on his face like I was a rare, delicate thing. “I like it,” he said, reaching up and tugging on the ends, then blushing a little. “You look like you.”
“I feel like me,” I told him, though I wasn’t entirely sure if that was true or not, and tipped my face up for a kiss.
Now, five months later and halfway across the globe, I reach for his hands and lace our fingers together, noting with a surge of affection that his are sweaty, too, his palms hot and damp. “Well, you big weirdo,” I say, standing on my tiptoes to kiss him, “now that we’ve got that all settled, you wanna go look at some more horrifying weapons?” We’ve lost our Tower tour group, the guide having led them off in a shuffling, murmuring cluster, no doubt to gamely exclaim over an antique stretching rack for the efficient tearing of one limb from another or a ruby-encrusted dagger that belonged to Thomas Cromwell. “We’re probably missing out on a live disembowelment right now.”
But Ian shakes his head. “I feel like I’ve kind of learned enough about medieval interrogation tactics for one day,” he confesses. “You wanna get out of here and find some food?”
I nod, the relief sharp and unexpected. It’s claustrophobic in here all of a sudden—those ancient stone walls getting closer, history pressing in from all sides. The soles of my feet itch with the instinct to run. For a moment I’m not sure which I’m more afraid of: Henry VIII’s wide and varied collection of bone-breaking apparatuses, or holding Ian’s heart in my two clumsy hands. Still, I remind myself it’s normal: of course those complicated old feelings would come roiling up now, my past tapping me naggingly on the shoulder. The last person I loved, after all, was—
“Yeah,” I say before I can think it, scanning the room for the nearest escape. “Let’s go.”
Outside we find a crowded pub to have lunch in, sitting side by side at the bar over heavy plates of fried fish and mushy green peas. Afternoon sunlight streams in through stained-glass windows, the slightly dank smell of beer and old wood dense in the air. The restaurant is teeming with smartly dressed office workers and clusters of chattering girlfriends on their lunch breaks, a pack of noisy English bros in quarter-zip sweaters laughing over something on one of their phones. “Is it rude to ask for ketchup?” I ask quietly, leaning toward Ian and nodding at my heaping pile of thickly cut fries. “Like, is ketchup even a thing in England?”
Ian frowns. “I think vinegar is the thing here, actually.”
“I was worried you were going to say that.” I twist the cap off the bottle of malt vinegar on the bar and sprinkle a few drops over my fries anyway, then hand it to Ian, who does the same before taking a big gulp of his Guinness. “When in London, right?” I tease, lifting a fry in salute.
Ian grins back, dimple popping in his right cheek. I like that he’s the kind of person who knows stuff like this: local customs and the right way to act in unfamiliar places, who to tip and how to navigate the Underground and what to order in a fancy restaurant. His family traveled a lot for his mom’s job when he was a kid, he told me once, so he comes by it honestly, but he also reads more than anyone I know. At any given moment he’s got at least three books on the go: a giant hardcover next to his bed, plus a paperback tucked into his schoolbag and something on his phone for unexpected emergencies. “Did you bring that ’cause you’re worried I’m gonna get boring?” I teased once, spying a dog-eared copy of Wonder Boys peeking out from the back pocket of his corduroys on the way to dinner not long after we started dating. “Is that why you’ve always got backup entertainment available?”
I was only joking around, but Ian shook his head seriously. “Not at all,” he promised. “But at some point you’re gonna get up and pee, right?”
Now he nods at the bartender for the bill and sits back on his stool. “So what’s next on the agenda?” he asks, gesturing at my phone, which I’ve set beside my plate for safekeeping.
I eye him over my pint of cider. “What makes you so sure I’ve got the next thing decided?”
Ian laughs out loud. “I mean, I’ve met you before, to start with.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I wrinkle my nose. The truth is I’ve planned every day of this trip down to the minute, complete with color-coded lists and preloaded Oyster cards for the train and an app on my phone to remind me what we’re supposed to be doing and when, plus the best way to get there and what to look at once we arrive. It’s really just a more concentrated version of the schedule I started keeping at school last fall, a training regimen for a brand-new me, but I can understand how it might be slightly overwhelming to the uninitiated.
Still, if I’ve learned anything over the last year it’s the importance of a concrete plan, a comprehensive guide for moving through the world with as few false starts as possible. A system, I have found, can stave off chaos. A system, I have found, prevents mistakes.
I pick up my phone and scroll through today’s itinerary, tapping the tiny checkboxes next to Tower of London and pub lunch. “Westminster Abbey,” I report after a moment, flicking to the next screen to double-check our route on the Underground. “So nothing as traumatic as this morning, hopefully.”
“What, the prison?” Ian asks, swiping a leftover fry off my plate. “Or me saying I love you?”
“What?” My head snaps up. “I wasn’t traumatized!”
Ian looks at me like, nice try, buddy. “When I first said it?” he asks gently. “You were something.”
I shake my head, trying to reel my guilty, embarrassed self back in. “I was surprised,” I tell him finally. “That’s all.” Then, reaching out and taking his bearded face between my two hands: “Hey. I am really, really happy to be here with you, do you know that?”
Ian smiles back, his hazel eyes warm and friendly, and I know he’s willing to let me off the hook. “I mean, you should be,” he says, the grin turning just the slightest bit wicked and his faint Boston accent getting a touch more pronounced. He turns his face to plant a kiss against my palm. “I’m really fucking fun.”
Ian pays the bill and we amble out into the late summer sunshine, weaving through the crowd on the bustling sidewalk and down into the Underground station. “This is so much nicer than Boston,” I comment as we sit down to wait on a bench in front of an ad for a fancy British department store. The T back at home is notoriously unreliable, rattling along aboveground tracks that are perpetually freezing over in the winter. “Why do you think—”
I break off all at once at the sight of a familiar set of shoulders across the platform; my whole body goes wary and watchful and still. For one sharp second it’s like all the air has gone out of this tube station, whooshing down into the dark mouth of the tunnel and leaving me gasping for oxygen like a hooked, terrified fish. Standing on the other side of the tracks, his beat-up backpack slung over one narrow shoulder, is—
I blink. I’m hallucinating, I must be, jet lag or exhaustion or some kind of weird transatlantic madness. To conjure my ex-boyfriend on the other side of the world—an hour after my new boyfriend tells me he loves me? The cold reality is I haven’t seen Gabe since our breakup last summer at home in Star Lake. We haven’t even talked, for God’s sake. And he made it clear that was exactly how he wanted it.
I force a deep, steadying breath, straightening my spine before squinting across the tracks one more time. The stranger looks like Gabe, that much is undeniable. The shaggy hair is gone, trademark curls cut close to his head, but the khaki shorts and the scruffy sneakers are achingly familiar. This guy even kind of stands like Gabe.
He’s also, I realize with no small amount of horror as he turns around and faces my direction, wearing a hoodie with the Donnelly’s Pizza logo on the front.
His dark eyes widen as our gazes lock across the train tracks, my heart like a house on fire and a mechanical jolt rattling deep inside my bones. I want to scream his name across the station. I want to ask him why he ever let me think we were okay. Instead I stand frozen and helpless as a million different emotions flicker like old home movies across his face: Shock. Confusion.
The train thunders into the station with a roar and a rumble, the doors sliding open on the opposite side and the crush of people obscuring any view I might have of him through the thick, smudgy windows. When it screeches off a scant moment later, he’s gone.
I don’t know how long I stand there before I realize Ian is looking at me—before I realize Ian is even still standing here, brow furrowed. “You okay?” he asks.
I nod, coming back to myself like a swimmer resurfacing from deep underwater, breathless and improperly depressurized. “Um,” I say, reaching for his hand and pulling him closer, stepping safely into the circle of his strong, sturdy arms. “Yeah, absolutely. Sorry. I’m great.”
Ian keeps looking. “You sure? You’re, like, ghost white.”
“Thanks a lot,” I say, managing a skim-milk smile, scooping my hair up off my sweaty neck. Suddenly the idea of spending the afternoon shuffling through a dimly lit church with a million other tourists makes me bone-crushingly weary. I want to sit down on the floor of the station and never get up.
“Um,” I say finally, my throat thick with something that is certainly—certainly—not tears. “I think maybe I’m just more jet-lagged than I thought.” It’s not a lie, exactly: last night I lay awake until it was nearly light out, watching the sun creep up outside the window of our rental apartment. “Or maybe it was that cider? I don’t know.” I shake my head. “Anyway, do you want to maybe skip the abbey and crash for a couple hours instead?”
Ian raises his eyebrows in exaggerated surprise. “You want to abandon the itinerary?” he teases. Then, off something in my expression: “Sure,” he says, more quietly this time. “Of course.”
It starts to drizzle as we’re heading back to the apartment, fat drops landing on the sidewalk and the metallic smell of rain on concrete saturating the air. I cross my arms, glancing up at the dark clouds creeping over the city and trying not to take them as an omen.
“It’s a vacation, remember?” Ian reminds me gently, taking my hand and squeezing. “Not the invasion of Normandy.”
“No, I know.” I nod, unsure how to explain to him why the idea of winging it, even a little, unsettles me so disproportionately much. From the beginning, I’ve been purposely vague about everything—and everyone—I left back in Star Lake; after all, “everybody in my charming, picturesque hometown thinks I’m a dumb, messy slut” doesn’t exactly make for sexy new-relationship banter—but it’s not like uptightness for uptightness’s sake is a particularly attractive quality, either. “Of course.”
“Here,” he continues, shrugging out of his hoodie as it starts to rain harder, his T-shirt riding up so I can see the pale, broad planes of his lower back. “Take this.”
I smile. “I’m prepared,” I say, pulling a travel umbrella out of my purse and waggling it in his direction, “but thank you. That’s very courtly.”
Ian shrugs. “It’s England, right?”
I bump his shoulder with mine, pleased. He’s taller than me, though not dramatically so: mostly he’s just solid and durable-looking, the kind of person you could imagine chopping wood or paddling a canoe down a river, although every time I say anything remotely like that Ian reminds me he’s from Worcester. “Oh, is that why?” I tease. “You’re getting into the costume drama of it all?”
“Totally,” he replies immediately. “I packed pantaloons. They’re in my bag back at the rental.”
“Dork,” I accuse, but I’m laughing. As we turn the corner toward our rental apartment, the slow, chilly drizzle tapers off.
We’re staying in an Airbnb in Shoreditch, a studio with a tiny kitchenette and a kind of purposeful hipster griminess that would horrify my mom. The floors are lacquered concrete layered with frayed kilim rugs, bright and threadbare; there are vintage army blankets on the bed. On the walls are unframed concert posters for the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, weighted down at the bottoms with binder clips to keep them from curling in the humid air.
I toe off my sandals and collapse backward onto the bed, barely resisting the urge to curl myself into a tiny ball on the starchy white sheets while Ian fills two glasses of water at the sink. “You okay?” he asks, handing one over as he stretches out onto the mattress beside me.
Well, I think I saw my ex-boyfriend on the subway, I imagine telling him; I cheated on him with his brother, who was also my ex, and I thought we’d kind of worked it out, but then when I got to Boston I realized I was—
“Just tired,” I promise brightly, sitting up and gulping the water, tucking my hair behind my ears. I lie back down and rest my cheek on his chest, listening for the reassuring thud of his heart beating underneath the cotton and trying to stop thinking about Gabe. Ian rubs my back for a long moment, making swirls and loops and intricate patterns, before ever so slowly rucking up the side of my tank top, running one gentle finger along the bare skin above the waistband of my jeans.
“That cool?” he asks quietly.
I swallow, my stomach swooping. “Yeah,” I tell him, smiling as he pushes himself up on one elbow, ducking his head to press a kiss against my mouth. I reach a hand up to scratch my fingers through the hair at the back of his neck, shifting to make room as he gets closer, his body heavy and dense and warm. “That’s cool.”
Ian nudges the strap of my tank top out of the way and plants a trail of kisses along my collarbone, dark beard rasping against my skin. I reach for the hem of his T-shirt and he hums. The anticipation sparks between us like a live wire, and I know he’s wondering if this is the moment, same as I am: even though we’ve definitely fooled around a bunch over the last five months, we still haven’t actually had sex.
“I want to,” I promised him the first time we really talked about it, sitting on the lumpy mattress in his apartment last April, my bra strap slipping down my arm. “I think I just need some time.”
“Yeah, of course,” Ian said seriously, rubbing at his own bare, freckled shoulder. “Take as long as you need.” The fact that he was so sincerely nice about it made me like him even more than I already did, although now it’s almost the end of August and I know he can’t have been expecting it to take quite this long. I’m just waiting for the perfect opportunity—for the stars to align and the lighting to turn golden, for that moment when I’m one hundred percent sure. God knows I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes about this kind of thing in the past, breaking hearts and ruining relationships and making choices I couldn’t take back. This time, I want to be absolutely certain I get it right.
I close my eyes and slide my palms over the muscles in Ian’s stomach, reaching around to count the ridges of his backbone and telling myself I’m not still thinking about Gabe. Ian’s a good kisser, friendly, and his fingertips are gentle along the underwire of my bra; he’s fumbling with the clasp when the reminder on my phone chimes out on the nightstand, the volume jacked loud and startling.
“Shoot,” I say, letting a breath out, squeezing Ian’s upper arms to call him off. “We’re supposed to go to that happy hour, remember? The place with the hundred beers.”
Ian groans. “Let’s skip it,” he says, ducking his head to nip at my shoulder.
“Can’t,” I murmur, grinning as I wriggle out from underneath him and reach for my tank top, enjoying the tease. “Gotta stick to the schedule.”
Ian grumbles a bit more, but after a moment he gets up too, heading into the bathroom to brush his teeth while I dig through my suitcase for a silky black T-shirt dress, pushing the thought of Gabe standing there on that train platform out of my mind once and for all. Everybody has their secrets, I tell myself, fluffing my hair out and slicking on a pale swipe of lip gloss. The trick is to leave the past where it belongs.
“You ready?” Ian asks now, coming out of the bathroom and holding his hand out, pink-cheeked and scruffily handsome.
“Sure am,” I say, then twist my fingers through his and squeeze. “Let’s go.”
So are you ready to travel around Europe?! Pack your bags and make sure you grab this book when it hits shelves—and let us know what you thought below!