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It hadn’t seemed like a particularly big deal to Jude Barlow, at the age of twelve, to pinkie promise to a marriage with fellow twelve-year-old Clem—Clementine—Jones if neither of them had found the one by the age of thirty. Marriage was a reasonably unsavory prospect given the terrible state of his parents’ union but, as thirty had seemed ancient and Clem had such pretty eyes and smiled a lot, it had been too far away to worry about.
And, even at twelve, Clem had possessed that quality that made a person believe everything would be okay, which had been sorely lacking in his life.
Sure, they only ever saw each other once a year at summer camp but her parents never seemed like they were only one argument away from a divorce so, she clearly knew what she was talking about. Except now he was approaching her house in Marietta, Montana—unannounced—with an origami crane in one hand and an engagement ring in the other, it was a big deal.
A big, fucking, hairy, bodacious deal.
Idiotic, some might say, but then he was severely jet-lagged after his four-day trek from the barren beauty of central Africa to the jagged peaks and big sky of Montana.
And, a promise was a promise. Despite the non-legally binding nature of the pinkie swear.
Plus… he needed her. Her sensible, rational calm. Her fondness for lists and planning. Her down-to-earth, girl next door-ness. Because he was done with a procession of parties and the revolving door of women who liked to go to parties. Who liked designer dresses, and flashy jewels, and getting their pictures taken. He was done with vanity. Theirs and his.
What he needed was Clem. Good, solid, dependable, book-nerd, Clem.
A real nip pervaded the night air on this last day in September as he took in her neat, low-set clapboard house on Third Street through gritty eyes. The low buzz of chatter, muffled laughter, and the background hum of music drifted out as he stood at the gate. There was obviously a party going on. Her birthday party he presumed given today was her big three-zero.
That had always been a possibility, of course, and he hesitated for a second. Maybe he should go back to the Graff and get some much-needed sleep? Maybe she wouldn’t want him to gate-crash her big night? But maybe, she was secretly waiting for him to come through the door and fulfil that promise from all those years ago?
Women liked grand gestures, right?
Mind—such as it currently was—made up, he opened the gate, ignoring the way his heart rate sped up as he strode down the path. This whole thing might be a little under-thought, but he wanted it suddenly with a desperate kind of intensity.
The laughter was louder as he took the two stairs to the porch and, before he could talk himself out of it, knocked on the door twice—loudly. He was about to knock a third time when it opened to reveal a woman with an ice-blonde bob, blunt bangs sitting just above eyebrow height, and a champagne glass in her hand. The house behind was crowded with people, the volume of their chatter and the music increasing considerably now the door was open.
“Lordy,” she said with a slight slur, looking him up and down and, evidently, finding much to be happy about, “please tell me someone ordered a strip-o-gram and you’re it.”
Jude blinked. Strippers did birthday parties in buttfuck Montana? “I’m afraid not.”
She sighed. “I didn’t think I could get that lucky.” Taking a sip of her champagne, her eyes narrowed. “Wait.” Jude steeled himself for the inevitable. “Oh my god.” She poked him in the chest. “You’re that Yes, Chef guy. Jude someone…”
He gave a small smile. Not even a year tucked away in sub-Sahara Africa and looking like hell after his tournament of travel, had dimmed his celebrity. “Barlow,” he supplied.
“Well.” She leaned her shoulder into the doorframe. “I take that back. This is my lucky night. Who needs a stripper when Jude Barlow is at the door?”
Jude laughed warily as he glanced over her shoulder at the partygoers, his palm sweating around the small, robin’s-egg blue box. “I’m assuming the birthday girl’s around somewhere?”
The woman narrowed her eyes again. “How do you know Clem?”
“We’re old friends.” When the woman crossed her arms like she had all the time in the world to stay right where she was, he elaborated. “We met in summer camp in third grade.”
She cocked an eyebrow, the tidbit sparking obvious interest. “Really? She never mentioned that to me.”
“It was a long time ago,” he dismissed. Because it had been. Although, had he been less exhausted, he might have been slightly miffed that she hadn’t bragged about him—even just a little.
“Did you bring a gift?” she asked, her slur making her sound a little belligerent.
He did if he was allowed to count the two-carat, princess-cut diamond ring he’d purchased on whim at the Tiffany store in Charles De Gaulle airport. Although, knowing Clementine, she’d probably go more gaga over the origami crane. “Yes.”
“Good.” The woman nodded. “She’s out back, follow me.”
She turned then with a swish of her long purple skirt and Jude followed. Barely any one looked at him as he passed, engrossed as they were in their conversations and that suited him just fine. He wasn’t tired anymore—he was nervous. Old Jude would have scoffed at the feeling, considered it a weakness instead of a normal reaction to uncertain events. The fact he hadn’t been nervous in a lot of years gave him hope that his attempts to reset the clock, to get his life back in balance, hadn’t been in vain.
The thud of his heart echoed in his ears obliterating the country music playing in the background as they approached the open back door and it was a relief to step out into the night after purple skirt. Jude inhaled the cooler air, his body too warm, his clothes too tight. His palm, closed around the box, was too damn sweaty.
He was really going to do this.
Purple skirt led him past groups of partygoers that had spilled out into the yard toward the glow of a fire blazing from a raised metal pit. People were huddled around it, drinking and laughing and chatting as his guide elbowed her way through the circle.
“Hey, Clem, visitor for you.”
Jude took a deep, cleansing breath as he, too, elbowed his way in to find her turning, her entire body gilded in light, an orange halo emblazoning the tips of her dark, springy curls. The breath he’d taken stilled somewhere between his throat and his lungs as the impact of seeing her again after all this time walloped him straight in the center of his chest. He hadn’t seen her since he was twelve but those years fell away and, in this moment, it was like they’d never parted.
She was still short and cute, her big amber eyes still glowed despite the light behind throwing her face into shadow, her chipmunk cheeks were still rosy. But she was definitely grown-up and wearing the hell out of a pair of skinny jeans and a sparkling top that shimmered like a disco ball thanks to the dance of the fire.
The girl next door was gone. Goodbye Clem, hello Clementine.
A frown drew her brows together as she walked closer and he held his breath again until her forehead smoothed out and a smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Oh my god, Jude?” She grinned. “Is that you?”
Finding his breath for a second time, Jude grinned also—he couldn’t help it, she still had a very pretty smile. “It is.”
She practically levitated the rest of the way and was in his arms in the blink of an eye. There was no formality or shyness as she raised herself up on her tippy toes and landed a smacker on his cheek before linking her arms around his neck and pressing her forehead into the hollow of his throat.
It felt good. So fucking good. Her body aligned with his, her curls tickling his chin, her perfume weaving around him like a spell. How long had it been since a woman had hugged him out of sheer joy? Because she’d missed him?
How long had it been since a woman had hugged him without an agenda?
“You remembered my birthday,” she said as she eased back from him, seemingly oblivious to the curious glances from every single person in the backyard.
“How could I forget? It’s a day after mine.”
“That’s right,” she said. “We’re so old now!”
“The big three-zero.” Or one hundred in jet-lag years. “It’s all downhill from here, apparently.”
“Or maybe it’s just beginning?” she suggested, a teasing twinkle sparking in the syrupy-gold of her eyes.
Jude’s heartbeat spiked. Was she thinking about their pinkie-swear pact? Warmth flushed through his system at the thought. “Here.” He presented her with the origami he’d practically crushed in his sweaty hand. “For you.”
She eased away from him as she took it, her lips gently parting as her fingertips caressed the folded wings. Glancing at him, she smiled and he swore he could see her eyes misting over. “Did you actually finally learn how to do this or did you buy it already made?”
There was still a tease in her voice but it was husky now and it wrapped around him, around them, drawing them into a warm, intimate bubble—just the two of them. The nostalgia of an idyllic yesteryear reached right inside Jude’s chest and cradled his heart. “It was all me.”
He’d found a pad of origami sheets in an airport shop on his way to Africa which had triggered a memory of Clementine. He hadn’t thought about her in a long time so he’d bought it on a whim. And there hadn’t been a lot to do at night…
The intimate mood was broken very quickly, however, by purple skirt’s belligerent, “You got her a paper crane?” She was clearly unimpressed. “That’s your birthday present?”
“No.” Jude slid his eyes sideways taking in a very disapproving glower. “There’s more.”
To prove it, he took a step back and knelt down on one knee.
A collective gasp ran around every person witnessing the unfolding events, which dragged Clem’s attention from the origami to Jude. Her smile faded.
“Clem… Clementine.” Jude’s voice almost cracked and he cleared his throat as he tried to zone out the fascinated-horrified gawkers in his peripheral vision. “At the age of twelve you made me pinkie swear that we would get married if we were both still single at thirty and—” Jude cleared his throat again. “Here we are.”
He didn’t miss her frown as he unfurled his hand to reveal the Tiffany ring box. Nor did he miss the murmur that ran around the gathering.
“Jude?” She stared at him intently. “What are you doing?”
He opened the lid to reveal the ring and this time there were gasps as the firelight did its job, reflecting on the exquisitely cut facets, making it twinkle more brilliantly than the stars overhead.
“Oh. My. God.” Purple skirt gaped as she pressed her hand to her chest.
“I’m asking you to marry me, Clementine. I know we haven’t seen each other in a long time but I think we knew even back then that we’d make a good team and I know it seems a little… crazy but, I think we should do it.” He pushed the box across the small space separating them until it was only an inch from the tips of her fingers. “What do you say?”
For long moments, she did nothing, said nothing. Nobody said or did anything. The hush that had fallen over the yard was absolute. Even the party noise from inside seemed to fade as everyone stared at Clementine and waited. Jude’s pulse, though, was loud. It raced like a train, hurtling against his sternum, rattling along his ribs, and echoing through his ears.
When Clementine finally moved it was only a blink but that blink said a lot. That blink said everything.
It was a very loud blink.
“Let’s talk inside, shall we?” she said, through stiff lips. Then, turning on her heel, she marched through the stunned onlookers in the direction of the door.
Purple skirt winced at him as Jude rose to his feet feeling every one of those transit hours. He ignored her—he ignored all of them—as he, too, turned, and followed Clementine into the house.
End of Excerpt