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For those who need closure after those four final words...

Now that the Gilmore Girls' lives have come full circle, it seems predestined that Rory follow in her mother's footsteps. But does she have the will to break away and write her own story? And will she do it alone or will Jess Mariano finally take his place beside her?

Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction. The characters and locations are not my own. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from either the author or the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote a brief passage in a review.

 

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Chapter 1

 

“What?” Lorelai's mouth hung open, her eyes fixed on her daughter. As she sat on the steps of the gazebo that morning, trying to process the news that was just dropped on her lap, she couldn't help but still see her daughter as a little girl. Rory was thirty-two years old now; why then did Lorelai feel as if her daughter was way too young to be having sex, let alone getting pregnant? “With who?” she asked, her head whipping around.

“That's... not important right now,” Rory said, a flicker of doubt in her eyes.

“Not important? Are you kidding?” Lorelai found herself on her feet, looking down on her daughter. “Knowing who knocked you up is pretty damn important. Almost as important as finding out what the hell the Backstreet Boys mean when they sing they want it that way. What do they really want? And in what way? Also, why are they still called boys? You're in your forties. You're men!”

“Mom, sit down,” Rory said, tugging on her dress. “You're drawing attention.”

Lorelai sank back down on the steps, her chest tight, feeling as if clouds were casting a pall on her otherwise happy day. “Rory...” she began but her throat tightened up and she couldn't say more. “How?”

Rory looked down at her lap, where her hands were wringing together. “It just happened. I definitely wasn't planning on it.”

“I didn't want this for you,” Lorelai said softly. “I thought we'd done enough to make sure you didn't turn out like me.”

When Rory looked up, her eyes were glittering with unshed tears. “I know. But, as it turns out, the apple really doesn't fall far from the tree.”

Lorelai reached over and grasped Rory's hand. Her daughter was trembling—or was that her? “Oh, honey,” she said with a sigh.

Rory stood up. “But you don't have to worry. I've already started making plans.” She nodded, ever the optimist. “I've got it under control. I'll figure it out.”

“No, kid,” Lorelai said, rising to her feet. She wrapped an arm around Rory's shoulder and pulled her close. “We'll figure this out.”

“But—”

“I'm here, Rory.”

Rory stopped, nodded. “Thanks, Mom.” In that moment, she looked and sounded all but fifteen, and it just about broke Lorelai's heart.

Then Lorelai gasped, her blue eyes going wide in an effort to add levity to the moment. “It's not the Wookie, is it?”

 

~

 

“Mom, don't tell Luke,” Rory said as they walked up the porch steps to the blue Victorian house. “Not yet.”

Her mother's eyebrows drew together. “Honey, you know keeping secrets is how Luke and I broke up in the first place. Remember the whole April thing?”

“I don't mean forever forever. I just mean for a little while.”

“Until when? I think he'll notice when you outgrow your jeans and start borrowing his.” She sighed. “Rory, it's bad luck to start a marriage with a secret as huge as this. Soon the secret will grow and grow, probably at the same rate as your belly.”

Rory touched a hand to her stomach. “I know,” she said in a small voice. “I just need to figure out how to tell the father first.”

 

Mother and daughter were quiet and efficient as they showered and dressed for the faux wedding that was to take place in the town square. The real wedding had taken place earlier, when Lorelai and Luke had decided to elope at midnight. This second ceremony was for the rest of Stars Hollow, for the townspeople who had been invested in the relationship between the diner owner and inn owner since the beginning.

Rory finished first and she waited at the bottom of the steps, feeling uncomfortable at the way her dress hugged her waist a little tighter than she was used to. But she wasn't far along yet—only nearing at the six week mark—and hopefully nobody would be able to tell.

Her mother didn't make a grand entrance in her white dress. She didn't strike a pose at the top of the stairs, or swoop down and swoosh her skirts around at the landing. Lorelai just descended with a thoughtful look on her face, her eyes fixed on Rory's, a million silent words passing between them. They may speak rapid fire outwardly, but inside they could have whole conversations in mere seconds. And right then they were agreeing to forgo thinking of the pregnancy and pretend, at least for today, that all was happy and shiny and bright.

So Rory pasted a happy, shiny, bright smile on her face and held out a parasol. “Ready to get hitched?” she asked.

Lorelai opened the parasol and twirled it over her shoulder. “As ready as I'll ever be.”

They walked the short way to the town square, the same route they'd taken for what seemed like forever. It seemed fitting that they would take it now, as they journeyed towards their new lives. One as Mrs. Danes and one as a soon-to-be-mother.

They heard Babette's voice before they saw her. Her voice always seemed to precede her wherever she went. “Lorelai! Rory!” she said, running on the sidewalk and trying to catch up. She stopped in front of the girls, bending down and gasping for breath. “I don't know how you two walk so fast in those heels.”

“Practice,” mother and daughter said in unison. They glanced at each other and grinned.

“I can't believe you're walking in that dress! Oh, sugar. Why aren't you in a limousine or horse-drawn carriage?” Babette said, motioning to Lorelai's off-white princess dress. It was a perfect blend of simplicity and extravagance, both her Stars Hollow and Hartford sides showing.

“Kirk offered to pull me on a rickshaw but he's still asleep on my living room floor. Seems he went a little wild decorating last night,” Lorelai said. “I figured I could use the fresh air anyway.”

“Well you look beautiful. A real sight for sore eyes.” Babette turned to Rory. “And look at you. You're practically glowing!”

Rory faked a laugh. “Thanks.”

“Seems moving back agrees with you.”

“I'm not back,” Rory protested as they began to walk again.

 

Rory's nerves began to fray with each step they took toward the square. Laughter and light conversation floated along on the breeze, the townspeople now sitting on white chairs facing the gazebo. Her mother hadn't been exaggerating—Kirk had gone insane last night, decorating with twinkle lights and hanging flowers. It was beautiful and crazy and completely over-the-top. On second thought, it was perfect for Lorelai.

Then she spotted the groom standing at the top of the steps, hands clasped at his front, a wide smile on his face. But it was the person standing beside him that drew Rory's eyes, this man that she once knew as a boy.

Jess Mariano was taller now, more muscular and scruffier than that smooth-faced skinny boy she knew way back then. Young Jess had been aimless, full of insecurity, and was completely deficient in expressing himself. She didn't know much of this older, albeit sexier, iteration of her old boyfriend but, at the very least, he appeared to have his act together. Unlike her—no home, no job (her non-paying gig as the Stars Hollow Gazette's editor notwithstanding), and absolutely no clue what to do with her life.

“Rory?”

She blinked, realizing she and Lorelai were standing at the end of the aisle. The town troubadour was already playing his song and the guests were all twisted in their chairs, staring at the Gilmore girls.

“Guess it's my turn,” Rory said, setting her parasol down and starting down the aisle. She looked around at the happy faces of the people who had had a hand in raising her, who'd all celebrated with her during the high times and wept with her during the low. Her eyes swept around and up, to the man who'd always played a sort of father figure in her life, actively avoiding looking at his nephew, even if she felt his eyes on her.

She didn't know why but, at that moment, she was sure she'd break down and cry if their eyes were to meet. Chalk it down to hormones.

 

Fifteen minutes later, the bride and groom kissed and were declared married for the second time that day. Lorelai and Luke turned to the guests and were greeted with whoops and shouts. They didn't even make it back down the aisle; they were swarmed as soon as they stepped off the last step.

Rory faded back inside the gazebo, taking it all in with a sense of unease in her stomach.

“You okay?”

She turned to find Jess approaching her with a concerned crease to his eyebrows. “Yes. I'm fine,” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“You're not fine,” he said, his frown deepening as his dark brown eyes looked her over. “You're pale and sweaty.”

She wiped at the sweat beading on her upper lip. “Just a little tired, I guess, from being up all night.”

“Come on, let's sit a sec.” He touched her elbow and led her to the curved bench.

She sat down, folding her arms over her stomach, trying her hardest not to gag as the scent of the flowers assaulted her nostrils. Had there been this many flowers last night? Were they multiplying somehow?

“Rory?”

The deep, rich timbre of Jess' voice reached through her panic attack and calmed her a little. It struck her then that the presence of the boy who'd once caused her immense stress now had a soothing effect. “Are you having a panic attack?” he asked, dipping his head to look at her more closely. “Rory, talk to me. What's wrong?”

She shook her head, swallowing down the bile rising in her throat. “I don't know. I just need to get out of here.” She jumped up, already halfway down the back steps of the gazebo by the time she could finish her sentence.

Jess fell right in step beside her. “Where are you going?”

She bit her lips together, scanning the area. She made it as far as Luke's diner before she doubled over and threw up into a potted plant. Jess stood in front of her, shielding her from the rest of the town as she emptied her stomach into the hapless bush.

“Come on,” he whispered and whisked her inside. Luckily the diner was empty, all the customers currently celebrating across the street, and they were able to make it through the place and up the stairs to Luke's old apartment without being seen.

She stopped just inside the doorway to the apartment, taken aback at the sight—nothing had changed. The furniture was still in the same place she saw them last over nine years ago. She'd always assumed Luke would have taken all of his things once he moved in with her mother.

But she didn't have time to consider it further. She ran to the bathroom around the corner just in time for the second wave of vomit to rise.

She retched into the toilet, the thing growing in her belly seemingly punishing her for being so callous and careless with their lives. She should have never reconnected with Logan, should have broken it off the moment she learned he was engaged. But she had been impulsive and full of self-importance, not realizing that the higher you fly, the harder you'll hit the ground when you fall. Now here she was, kneeling in a bathroom, facing a toilet.

My, how the mighty have fallen.

She leaned her head on her arm, self-hatred burning her throat. Odette. The other woman's name was Odette. Or, to be more accurate, Odette was the fiancee.

Rory threw up some more at the thought of bearing the title of The Other Woman once again. First with Dean, now with Logan. She should have learned her lesson the first time around and yet here she was, pregnant with a man who was getting married in a week.

She pushed up off the toilet and got to her feet, rinsing out her mouth at the sink.

“What is wrong with you?” she asked her splotchy reflection in the mirror. But try as she might, she couldn't come up with a reasonable answer. Gone was the girl with the grades and the plans of the big future; the person who stood in her place was lost and downright terrified of what tomorrow would bring.

“Rory?”

From behind the nearly-opaque glass of the door, she could see Jess' shadow pacing back and forth. She ran her fingers through her hair, took a deep breath, and readied herself for what came next.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Jess spun around as soon as she emerged from the bathroom, one hand on his chin, one on his waist. “Feel better?”

Rory stared at him, at the lines worrying his eyebrows and and bracketing his mouth. For a split second she considered laying it all out for him—the affair, the baby—simply to see how he'd react. But then, she couldn't bear the thought of that expression on his face morphing into something else. Maybe something like disappointment.

“Are you living here?” Rory asked, taking the coward's way out. “I saw a wet toothbrush at the sink.”

He set both hands on his hips and took a deep breath. “Yeah. Luke lets me stay here when I'm in town.” He motioned to her with his head. “You want some coffee?”

“No thanks. Maybe tea?”

His eyes sparked with surprise but he turned and headed to the kitchen, looking inside cabinets until he found a box of tea bags. He set the kettle on the stove and pulled out a chair, waiting until she sat down before pushing it back in.

“Thank you,” she said in a small voice, her eyes following him as he moved around the kitchen, quietly admiring the way his black shirt hugged his wide back.

After several minutes, he set a steaming mug in front of her, a string hanging off its side. Then he took the seat across the table from her.

“Food poisoning or something?” he asked.

“Yeah. Must have been something I ate yesterday,” she said, blowing into the mug. She sipped her tea and allowed her eyes to meander leisurely over the planes of his face. His jet black hair was longer now, curling a little behind his ears, and the lower half of his face was covered in day-old stubble. But the sharp look in his eyes was the same, that uncanny way he could look directly into her soul. She supposed it was what had always drawn her to him, his ability to reach right into her darkest fears and hold her true feelings to the light. “You have a lot more hair than I remember,” she said.

He grinned that crooked grin of his that always made her heart stutter. “I had a full, bushy beard, if you can believe that,” he said, rubbing the dark scruff covering his jaw.

“What happened to it?”

“Luke made me shave it off for the wedding,” he said. “I don't blame him. Pretty sure I could have starred in one of those Alaska Axe Men shows.”

She smiled, finding humor in the image of Jess in a plaid shirt and boots, chopping wood with a huge axe.

“What?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Something funny?”

She shook her head, still smiling. “Just imagining you as a lumberjack.”

The corner of his mouth tipped up. He leaned back in the chair, linking his hands at his stomach. “So we didn't get much of a chance to catch up the other day. How have you been?”

Her happy little bubble burst and reality seeped back in. “Life is...” She paused, her eyes turned down. She traced a finger around the lip of the mug, catching her reflection in the dark liquid inside. “Tumultuous.”

“That bad, huh?”

When she looked up, she found his dark gaze on her. “Yeah,” she said on a whisper.

“Anything I can help with?”

She shook her head, fighting back the tears. God, to cry in front of Jess was the last thing she needed. “I'll be fine. I'll figure it out eventually.”

He sat up, leaning forward. “What about that book you're writing? You were so excited about it yesterday.”

A humorless laugh escaped her lips. Funny how things could change overnight. Yesterday she had a novel and a wide open future; but that was before she'd sealed her fate with a pregnancy test. “That was yesterday.”

“What changed between now and then?”

She wanted to tell him, to blurt it all out in hopes he'd have a viable solution, but when she looked into his face, she couldn't make her lips move.

“Come on, Rory. Since when were you the silent, brooding one between the two of us?” he said, setting his hands on the table.

“A lot has changed, Jess. You wouldn't even recognize me if I told you everything I've done.”

“Try me,” he said. “Remember, I know you better than anyone.”

She shook her head sadly. He might have, once upon a time, but now things were completely different. Some days she hardly recognized herself. “Maybe another time,” she said, pushing away from the table. She took the mug over to the sink and headed to the door. “I'd better get back out there. People will notice we're both gone and start making assumptions.”

“So let them.” He motioned toward the windows overlooking the town square. “I don't care what they think.”

“Yeah, but I do,” she said. “So, how long are you in town?”

“I had planned on leaving tonight.”

“Oh. Well, don't leave without saying goodbye, all right?”

He let out a breath through his nose. “I won't.”

 

~

 

Jess stood at the window, peering between the closed blinds, watching as Rory crossed the street and rejoined the reception. She walked up to her mother with a smile on her face, her lips moving rapid fire in unison with her mother's. He moved away from the window, shaking his head as he remembered the early days, when he'd first stepped foot inside the Gilmore house and been introduced to their crazy way of conversing. He had been such a young punk then, so angry at the world, but the moment he'd laid eyes on Rory, he'd known she was It. His chest tightened at the memory of the cute girl with the big blue eyes, innocent smile, and drawers full of books.

Now here she was, even more beautiful, but gone was the sheen of innocence. Rory Gilmore was keeping secrets behind those blue eyes, things that she might have told him once, back before he'd broken her trust. To this day, he couldn't believe the way he'd treated her, how he had gotten too close then disappeared, confessing he loved her only to disappear again.

But he was no longer that stupid, impulsive boy who was so scared of being abandoned that he had destroyed the best relationship in his life. He had finally found himself and, in the process, discovered his love for writing. His life was all but complete, save for the gaping absence of love.

He sighed as he grabbed his duffel bag and dumped its contents out on the bed. He refolded his clothes and placed them inside the dresser, then he took his books and set them on the nightstand. Finally, he took his laptop and stack of notebooks over to the big wooden desk that had once belonged to Luke's father. Jess trailed his fingers along the edge of the dark wood, the varnish rubbed off in places over the years. He imagined what his grandfather was like, if he was like his son with the tough, prickly exterior protecting the gooey heart underneath. Seemed the trait ran in the family.

And, hell, if Luke could convince a woman to marry his grumpy, nagging ass, then Jess had hope. He could be Rory's Luke; he could be there for her in any capacity she wanted, until the day she realized Jess was the man for her.

Still, it didn't seem likely that she'd ever take another chance on the boy who had broken her heart many times over. Even if she looked at him with fondness, he knew it was more out of sentimentality than affection. There was nothing in her words or her actions that would lead him to believe she still loved him.

But he could wait. He owed her that much.

 

~

 

The wedding reception went on through the afternoon and into the the evening. It was the biggest event in Stars Hollow in decades and everyone, even Taylor Doose, was in high spirits.

Rory's everything hurt and so she excused herself and started the walk home. But what seemed like a short distance before now seemed like miles long. After a few steps, she took off her heels and walked barefoot the rest of the way home, shoes dangling from the tips of her fingers.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she stepped inside the door, but didn't linger in case she lost all motivation. She took a long, hot shower and dressed in pink flannel pajamas with cartoon desserts all over, most notably the ice cream sundae directly over her left boob. Then she grabbed her laptop and collapsed on the couch, sinking down into the cushions.

With a sigh, she opened the file that contained her novel and began to read through the first three chapters again. But, for whatever reason, her brain refused to focus on the words. It was as if someone had cut open her skull and poured mud inside. Her eyes struggled to stay open but it was a losing battle and, eventually, she leaned her head back surrendered.

She awoke to a cacophony of noises: buzzing and dinging and chiming. She sat up in a daze, trying to get her bearings. Finally she ascertained that the chiming and buzzing were coming from her phone, and the dinging from the front door.

With great effort, she grabbed her phone off the coffee table and answered it while making her way to the foyer. “Hello?”

“Oh good,” came Jess' relieved voice. “I thought I was going to have to break in.”

“Where are you?” she asked. “Are you at my house?”

“Just let me in, Rory.”

She opened the door and found Jess at the stoop, holding a big box of paper sacks. “Delivery,” he said with a crooked grin.

 


Chapter 3

 

Rory rubbed her eyes and blinked at Jess with a box full of Luke's Diner food in his arms and an insolent grin on his face. The entire situation was surreal, like a scene straight out of the past. “Excuse me, have I stumbled back into 2001?” she asked.

Without waiting for an invitation, Jess entered the house and headed straight for the living room, setting the box on the coffee table. Rory followed him, running her fingers through her tangled hair. “What are you doing here?”

“They sent me to bring you sustenance,” Jess said.

“That's what you said back then too,” she pointed out. “But, as it turned out, you were only using that as an excuse to come see me.”

He flashed her a grin over his shoulder. “This time it's the truth. Sort of. Your mom asked me to come over and bring you food. She thought you might be hungry.”

“My mom?” Rory asked incredulously. “My mother, Lorelai Gilmore, asked you to come to her house and bring her daughter food? Alone? With her daughter? My mom?”

He shrugged, unperturbed. “Lorelai Gilmore didn't, but Lorelai Danes did. What can I say? People change when they get married.” He sat down on the couch and started unpacking the sacks, taking out container after container of food.

Rory's stomach grumbled at the sight of the feast. Jess had brought practically everything from the diner—hamburgers, mac and cheese, sandwiches. She might have even spied some donuts in there. “There's enough here to feed—”

“Twelve people,” he said with a nod. “But I've seen you eat.”

“Fine. Six.” She stood back, shaking her head in disbelief.

“You okay?”

“Just deja vu,” she said.

He looked her over, his eyes catching on her pajamas. “If it helps, you look sixteen again.”

She looked down at her clothes, hoping her cheeks weren't turning red. Here she was, a thirty-two year old Yale graduate who still wore pajamas from high school. Well, at least she still fit in them. For the next few months, anyway.

She sat beside him and opened a container full of french fries then held it out to Jess. He took two and stuffed both in his mouth.

Rory looked over the spread, trying to decide what her stomach wanted more. She picked the burger but as soon as she opened the lid, she got a whiff of the red onion and dropped it back onto the table. She went for the mac and cheese instead but found the flavor of the cheese off-putting. She tried something else but that too didn't seem to agree with her taste buds. All the while Jess chewed quietly, watching her play food whack-a-mole.

“Stomach still bothering you?” he asked after some time. “You've never had a problem eating before. Usually you start at one end and hoover your way through.”

Rory let out a surprised laugh. “Yeah. I feel like I'm having a bit of an identity crisis.”

He looked through the sacks and pulled out one more container. “How about this?” he asked and handed it over.

Her nose wrinkled. “What is it? It's just leaves and more leaves and some other stuff.”

“I think it's called a salad.”

“Is it a palate cleanser, like when dogs eat grass when they have an upset stomach?” she asked with a teasing glint in her eyes.

He shook his head and handed over a plastic fork. “Just try it.”

Eventually she accepted the container, opening it and giving the contents a careful sniff. Nothing. Her stomach didn't want to turn inside out. In fact, the sight of the tomatoes and boiled egg looked downright appetizing, which had never, ever happened before.

“Well, I'll be darned,” he said, watching as she dug into the salad. “Miracles do happen.”

She nudged him with her arm. “Shut up. Identity crisis, remember?”

He grabbed the remote control then leaned back and set the sandwich container in his lap. “Want to watch a movie?”

“Do you even have to ask?”

“Yes.” He motioned to the fork full of lettuce that was making its way to her mouth. “It's like I don't even know you anymore.”

 

Rory let him choose the movie, a detail that didn't escape Jess. In the past she'd always had strong opinions about what they watched, but tonight it seemed as if all her opinions had been watered down. So he chose Mad Max—the most obnoxious guy movie he could find—and sat back, waiting until the inevitable diatribe about the portrayal of women as objects.

But none came. She simply sat there, munching on her salad (a salad!), and watched the movie with unfocused eyes. Finally, after a while, he turned off the television.

“What I'd like to know is,” he began, putting the empty containers away and turning to face her. “Who are you and what have you done to the real Rory?”

She blinked at him for a few seconds, as if having difficulty focusing. Something was wrong, he could feel it in his gut.

“Are you having a stroke?” he asked in alarm.

“No,” she said, and finally he saw a little spark return to her blue eyes. “No. I'm just a little dazed.”

He let out a relieved breath. “What's eating at you? Are you still down about being unemployed?” he asked. “Because if you are, I can give you a job at Truncheon. It won't pay much, and you'll probably have to move to Philly, but it's something.”

“No, no. Thank you. I appreciate the offer, but I can't move to Philadelphia. I can't leave The Gazette right now. It'll shut down and Esther and Charlie will be without jobs.” She paused. “On second thought, they'd probably just keep showing up anyway.”

He leaned forward, his eyebrow raised. “Well?”

“I was just thinking about my book.”

“What about it?”

“I'm... stuck.” She chewed on her bottom lip then stood up, shuffling out of the room. She came back several moments later, holding a sheaf of paper in her hands. “Here are the first three chapters,” she said, setting it on his lap. “Maybe you can figure out what's keeping me from moving on.”

He stared at the title page where “The” had been crossed out, leaving only “Gilmore Girls” as the title. “You want me to read it?”

“Read it. Critique it. Be honest and blunt. Please.”

“You sure?”

“I can't think of anyone more qualified. You own a print company, you write books, you're a multiple New York Times Bestseller.”

He narrowed his eyes, taken by surprise. “You know?”

She cocked her head. “Come on, J.M. Dodger. You think a little pen name can stop me? I'd be a terrible journalist if I couldn't even figure that out.”

He let out a breath. Here he was under the impression he had been flying under the radar all along. “Did you..?”

“Yeah. Every single one,” she said with that familiar Rory smile, the one filled with excitement at the prospect of reading a new book. “You, my friend, are a bona fide author. And have a bit of a cult following, might I add.”

He sat back with a sigh. “Nah.”

“I believe you've been hailed as the next Dave Eggers.”

He looked away, feeling the heat creep up his neck. “This is exactly why I never told you.”

She looked genuinely confused. And maybe a little hurt. “Because I'd be proud?”

“Because you'd gush.”

“Why wouldn't I?” she asked. “I own all of your books, in paperback, hardcover, and digital. All these years, I've been your personal cheering squad.”

He stared at her, overcome with the need to lunge forward and kiss that smile off her face. He didn't think he'd ever loved her more than in that moment, with her messy hair and old pajamas and unfailing faith in him.

“So, I figured out the J.M., but why Dodger?”

He winked. “Figure it out.”

Her eyes flew over his face a few moments before he saw the flash of recognition. “Oliver Twist,” she said with a nod.

“You remembered.”

“How could I? You stole my book the first night we met, then returned it to me later with notes written all over it,” she said. “You're a book vandal.”

He grinned, unable to tear his eyes from her face. “It's because of you, you know,” he began in a soft voice. “I don't know where I'd be right now if you weren't around to push me to be better.”

She looked at him with warm eyes and, for the first time, he felt some hope. Maybe there was still some love there, after all. “But you did it. You did all the work. And look where you are now.”

He glanced down at the manuscript on his lap. “Time to return the favor.” He leaned back, crossed one leg over the other, and flipped to the first page.

“Wait, right now?” Rory asked in a high-pitched voice. “I thought you were leaving tonight?”

He shook his head, a little amused by the sheer panic in her eyes. “I'm staying.”

“How long?”

“As long as you need me.”

 

Rory sat next to him as he read, looking over his shoulder and generally driving him crazy. But it was good to see this spunky Rory again, so full of ideas and spark. But eventually, she quietened down and seemed content to watch him read. Before long, he felt her leaning into his arm, her cheek resting on his shoulder. He didn't move a muscle, enjoying the warm weight of her against him, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't concentrate on the words before him. How could he, when her lavender peppermint scent kept drifting up to his nose?

“Don't take this the wrong way,” he said. “But I've read the same sentence three times.” When she didn't respond, he looked down and realized she had fallen asleep.

He shook his head, unable to keep the wry smile off his face. He brushed wayward strands of hair away from her face, tucking them behind her ear. Then he leaned over and pressed his lips to the top of her head for a long, sublime moment.

After, he turned back to the novel and was finally able to give it his full attention.

Well, at least half anyway.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

Rory awoke to her mother and Luke looming above her. For a few dazed moments, she wondered why they were over ten feet tall before she realized she was laying down.

“Jess.” The name escaped her lips as she sat up, the blanket sliding off her shoulders. She looked around, seeing that her favorite pillow had somehow migrated from her room to the couch sometime in the night.

“I sent him home,” Luke said. “Back to the diner, I mean.”

“He was sleeping there with his head thrown back, snoring like a dying warthog,” Lorelai said, motioning to the oversized armchair beside the fireplace. “We figured he'd be more comfortable in a real bed. Or, at the very least, he could take that racket somewhere else. Somewhere not in the audible vicinity.”

“What time is it?” Rory asked, getting up and throwing the blanket onto the back of the couch. She looked around and saw that their mess from earlier had been cleaned up, the paper sacks and plastic containers all gone. Even the stack of magazines that had lived on the coffee table since the dawn of time had been arranged neatly.

“It's almost three in the morning,” Luke said.

“I can't believe you two were out so late,” Rory said, and gave Luke a mock stern expression. “I told you to have her home by two, young man.”

“The party was over at one,” Lorelai said, smiling up at her new husband. “But we sat in the gazebo, surrounded by the lights and the flowers, and we just enjoyed our first night together as man and wife.”

Rory smiled. “Sounds nice.”

“Also, we may have gotten a little naughty on one of the benches,” Lorelai added with a mischievous grin.

“Ew, which one?” Rory asked. “On second thought, maybe I don't want to know.”

“A lady never tells,” Lorelai said with a mock-Southern belle accent then reached over and pinched Luke's behind.

He let out a groan and rolled his eyes. “Never happened.” He took hold of Lorelai's hand and started tugging her up the stairs. “Come on, crazy. Let's get you to bed. Goodnight, Rory.”

“'Night.” Rory watched them go with a bittersweet smile then grabbed her pillow and made her way to her bedroom. She closed the door with a yawn and turned to her bed, only to find her manuscript on her desk.

She withdrew her phone from her pocket and sent Jess a quick text.

Thank you. For everything.

Once she was tucked under her blanket, she leafed through the manuscript and saw that Jess had written down notes all over the place in his small, blocky handwriting; what he liked and what he thought needed improving. Rory smiled to herself, glad that, even after all this time, Jess still did not hesitate to write in a book's margins.

 

Rory was up early the next morning, her laptop in her bag and a spring in her step. For the first time in a long time she hadn't woken up sick to her stomach, which was in and of itself a triumph of sorts. She headed over to the diner, expecting Cesar to be waiting the tables. Instead, through the window she saw Jess taking orders and pouring coffee, wearing a white t-shirt that was definitely not loose, jeans, and motorcycle boots. In other words, he looked like the world's sexiest biker who also moonlights as a waiter.

“Morning,” he said when she entered the place she'd come to consider a second home. He flung a dish towel over his shoulder and leaned on the counter. “You feeling better?”

She flashed him a smile as she settled on a barstool. “Much.”

“Coffee?” he asked, already sliding a huge mug across the counter. It stopped directly in front of her, mocking her with its gaping pit of emptiness.

She sighed, dying a little inside. Everything in her body screamed out for the heavenly manna that had helped her survive many a difficult situation. Yet now that she was facing down the biggest, most monumental predicament of her life, she wasn't even allowed a cup. The irony was dark and bitter, much like the coffee she really, really wanted to drink.

When she looked up, Jess was frowning at her. “Maybe tea then?”

“You wouldn't happen to have decaf coffee, would you?”

Jess looked scandalized. “In the years you've been coming here, have you ever known Luke to brew decaf?”

Her shoulders sagged. “No.” She cupped her hands around the mug, longing for the comfort of her old friend coffee.

Jess shook his head. “Hold on, let me go check in the back.” He came back a few minutes later with a small cardboard box. “Lady Luck is on your side. I found an old box of decaf pods.”

“Luke has a Keurig?” Rory asked in surprise, her eyes sweeping over the counters but not locating the coffee machine.

“If you can believe that.” He disappeared below the counter then came back a few moments later with a dusty machine. “Here we are.”

“Wow. As I live and breathe,” she said, holding a hand up to her heart. “And you think you know a person.”

He grinned. “A while ago, Luke ranted about how your grandmother had bought him a Keurig one Christmas, saying it was all the rage and would help with the business.”

“She did?” Rory asked. God, how long was she gone? What else had happened around Stars Hollow that she'd missed?

He wiped it off and plugged it in. “So not only did she give him this abomination, she also gave him this atrocious excuse for coffee,” he said, ripping open the box full of pods. “He was livid. It was awesome.”

“I bet.” When he reached for her mug, she said, “Actually, can you make that to go?”

He nodded and grabbed a paper cup, setting it under the machine and pressing the button. It lurched to life, making strange gurgling, squirting noises. “So you writing today?” he asked, motioning to the laptop peeking out of her bag.

“Yup. Heading to my grandparents' house to write.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Did my notes help?”

A smile spread over her face. “Yes, thank you. Consider me definitely unstuck.”

“Good.” He fit a lid over the cup and handed it over. “So, hey, why go all the way to Hartford when there's a perfectly good table—or ten—right here?” he asked, motioning around the nearly empty diner. “Or you could go upstairs and write in peace. I'll be down here, out of your way, for most of the day.”

Rory paused, seriously considering the offer, made even sweeter when he added, “Plus, easy access to food.”

She took a sip of the coffee and winced. Still, it was coffee... ish. “Thank you, but I've sort of taken over my grandfather's office. It's dark and moody which, as you know, is the perfect place to write.”

“It doesn't feel weird to be in there?” he asked as he wiped down the counter.

She shook her head. “Not really. In fact, it makes me feel a little closer to him, like he's there with me. Sometimes I imagine he's standing over my shoulder, holding a tumbler of whiskey, cheering me on.” She played with the cardboard sleeve wrapped around the cup, swallowing down the unexpected lump in her throat. It had been over a year since her grandfather's death and still she felt his absence every day. But then, a part of her was glad he wasn't around to see his only granddaughter turn into a terrible person who did awful things to seemingly good people. People like Paul. And Odette.

“He's proud of you,” Jess said as if he truly believed it.

She sighed and placed a five dollar bill on the counter. “Yeah, maybe.”

 

Jess watched Rory leave with an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He liked to think he had a sixth sense about her, that even from across the country—hell, the world—he could somehow tell when she was in trouble. He felt it back then, when she had taken a sabbatical from Yale, and last year when her grandfather had passed away. And he felt it now. Rory was anchorless and adrift from being unemployed and homeless, but he sensed her troubles ran deeper.

For one thing, she was avoiding real coffee. That alone raised serious red flags.

Before he could chew on it further, the front door swung open and his uncle entered, bringing with him his unique crotchety vibe. Luke stopped in the middle of the place that had once been his father's hardware store, set his hands on his hips, and looked around.

“Everything's fine,” Jess said, refilling a customer's coffee cup. “We've had zero cases of salmonella, though there was that one guy who came down with some really explosive—” He stopped when he received the patented Fed Up Luke look, the same one Jess had hated at first, then came to understand (and even like) after a while. Hell, Jess might have given people the very same look, he'd become so accustomed to it.

Luke's eyes caught on something across the room and he stalked over to the counter. “What the hell is this?” he asked, pointing to the Keurig. He turned to Jess in horror. “Tell me you haven't been serving this to customers?”

Jess shrugged. “I heard it would help with business.” Luke's face turned so red, Jess thought he'd burst a blood vessel. “Relax,” he said, biting back a laugh. “I was just trying it out. Figured I could use it upstairs.”

“And what? Boil socks?”

At that, Jess chuckled. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you'd have better things to do the day after your wedding. Like you know, spend it with your wife?”

“Lorelai wanted pancakes.”

“You couldn't make that at home?”

He released a long-suffering sigh, but his voice held affection when he said, “She said the ones from the diner taste different, fluffier. Something about the cooked-in flavor of the griddle here. I don't know.” He shook his head, a grin on his lips. “That woman is a lot of work.”

Jess raised an eyebrow, spying something like contentment—however begrudging—on his uncle's face. “What is this?” he asked, poking at Luke's cheek. “It almost looks like a smile, but that can't be it. You only have two expressions: Grumpy and Grumpier.”

Luke swatted his hand away. “Get back to work. Kirk looks like he could use more toast,” he said and headed to the kitchen.

“Hey,” Jess called.

Luke stopped, took a deep breath, and turned back. “What?”

“Worth it?”

Luke's wide shoulders relaxed under that flannel shirt and he began to nod. This time he didn't bother to hide the smile stretching across his face. “Definitely.”

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Rory couldn't park in the Gilmore's driveway, couldn't even get her mother's Jeep past the gates. Instead, she parked out on the street and walked to the house, a sense of dread snaking up her spine as she passed by a moving truck. Men in white shirts moved around, carrying boxes and heavy, dark furniture.

“Grandma?” she called at the door. She walked in, narrowly avoiding a man carrying a gilded floor lamp, and ventured further inside, finding the place all but empty. The sitting room where she'd shared many a drink with her family was bare, the settees and the bar cart were gone. Even the giant portrait of her grandfather beside the mantle was gone.

The dining room, too, had been emptied out. Where the Gilmores had spent many a Friday night eating and fighting was now just an empty room devoid of character or life. There was nothing left.

The bare space brought tears to her eyes. At that moment she could relate to that room, emptied out and lifeless.

“Oh, Rory, there you are!”

She turned around and came to face with her grandmother, the indomitable Emily Gilmore. “I didn't know you had already sold the house,” Rory said.

Emily frowned. “Closing was over three weeks ago. Your mother didn't tell you? I emailed her about it,” she said. “Nevertheless, I'm glad you're here. Come with me please.”

Their steps echoed as they made their way through the house toward Richard Gilmore's office. Emily opened the door to reveal an untouched room and Rory stepped inside, blinking back tears. She had been prepared to see an empty space, but to have everything still in its rightful place was almost too much. So she kept her back turned to her grandmother, hoping to hide the beginning of a mini breakdown.

“I wanted you to look around and take whatever you'd like before the room is packed up,” Emily said.

“Where will you put the rest?” Rory finally managed to ask. She swiped at the tear tracks on her cheeks before turning around.

Emily walked over to the built-in shelves and ran her fingers along a shelf with a wistful smile on her face. “I'm keeping those with sentimental value, like the cigar humidor I gave him for his birthday.” Her chin trembled, the first crack in her otherwise calm and collected armor. “And I'm donating the rest to a charity.”

Rory nodded as she turned in place, her gaze floating around the room. It seemed impossible to decide what to keep and what to discard of her grandfather's things.

“How about this?” Emily asked, picking up an antique brass compass from the bookshelf and carrying it across the room.

A breath escaped Rory's lips when Emily placed the compass on her open palm.

“He so loved this thing. It was passed down to him from his father, and his father before that. A relic from the Civil War, I believe.”

Rory turned the object over, admiring the intricate embossing on the lid that had been rubbed smooth in some places. “Grandma, I couldn't. This should be in a museum somewhere.”

Emily shook her head. “Don't be silly. It needs to stay in the family. Who better to keep it than Richard's favorite grandchild?”

“Only grandchild,” Rory said with a small smile that Emily returned.

“Favorite nonetheless.”

Rory couldn't take her eyes off the compass, couldn't get over the feeling that it was a gift sent to her at the time she needed it most. She wondered if maybe her grandfather really was watching over her shoulder, trying to guide her back onto the right path.

“And the desk. I can arrange to have it delivered to Stars Hollow,” Emily said. “And all of his books, of course.”

Rory found it hard to catch her breath, her bag seemingly weighing a hundred pounds on her shoulder. “I don't know if we have room at mom and Luke's.”

“You'll have room,” Emily said with a confident nod. She reached out and rubbed Rory's arms, taking Rory by surprise. She wasn't yet used to this new iteration of her grandmother. Compared to the curt and oftentimes cold Emily she knew, this woman in front of her was almost tender. Disconcertingly so.

It struck Rory then how much people can evolve over the years, most often, as with her grandmother, for the better. However, in Rory's case, her personal growth was not so much a growing process but a dying of sorts. But to see her grandmother in front of her, thriving and evolving despite the death of her husband, gave Rory some hope. After death comes life, after all. She just had to hold on and wait for new growth to emerge.

Rory touched her stomach. Growth, both literally and figuratively, was going to happen whether she was ready or not.

 

As Rory was getting ready to leave, the compass tucked safely in her bag, Emily called her back. “I almost forgot,” she said, hurrying over with two envelopes. “If you could please give this to your mother, I'd appreciate it,” she said, holding out an envelope addressed to Lorelai. “And this one is for you,” she said, handing over one labeled Rory.

“What are these?”

“They're gifts,” Emily said with a mysterious smile.

“Grandma,” Rory said, somehow sure the envelopes contained checks. “You don't have to do this.”

“I don't have to; I want to,” she said with a wavery smile. “Richard and I bought this house with the intention of passing it down to our children. And seeing as Lorelai would rather take residence in a dumpster in the back alley of a strip joint than live here, I suppose the next best thing is to divide the money between the two of you.”

“But it's too much.”

She reached up and touched Rory's cheek. “Nothing's too much when it comes to you.”

“Thank you,” she said, wrapping her arms around Emily's shoulders and holding on tight. “For everything.”

“Just promise me you'll use the money for something good. Something that will make you happy.”

“I'll try,” she said, wondering if it was possible to buy back one's self-esteem.

Emily pulled away but her soft expression hardened the minute she noticed the absence of noise in the house. “Now, where are those movers?” she asked, stalking off down the hall. “They'd better not be taking another break. That will be the fourth time today. You'd think I had invited a bunch of college kids over with promise of beer and pizza instead of hiring a professional moving company...”

Rory smiled to herself. Sometimes, no matter how much you change, a little kernel of your old self still remains.

 

Rory came home an hour later to find her mother sitting in the living room with a fork in her hand and three-quarters of a wedding cake on her lap.

“Hey, you're home,” Lorelai said with uncannily bright eyes, a sure signal that she'd eaten way too much sugar. Again.

“What's going on here?” Rory asked, sitting on the arm of the couch.

“Well, I decided I needed an afternoon snack and since Sookie made over a dozen cakes, I figured it would be fine to eat one by myself. Only this one is really heavy, but not heavy as in dense—which, it's that too—but heavy as in Help, I've fallen and I can't get up,” Lorelai said. “And I really have to pee.”

With a shake of the head, Rory heaved the cake off her mother's lap and set it on the coffee table.

Lorelai jumped up. “Don't eat it all before I get back,” she said, handing Rory the fork before dashing to the bathroom.

Rory sank onto the couch and faced the cake. Most of its right side was already gone, but before it was attacked, it used to be a simple rectangular cake with various sculptures on top that signified milestones in Lorelai and Sookie's friendship over the years. Rory picked up a severed finger made of fondant and stuck it into her mouth, chewing as she wondered how Sookie and her mother managed to remain best friends even if one of them no longer lived in Stars Hollow.

But then again, Rory and Lane had managed to remain close over the years. Well, as close as two people who had grown into completely different people with vastly divergent lives could be, anyway.

“What did I miss?” Lorelai said, grabbing the fork and taking a seat beside Rory. “Hey, aren't you supposed to be writing?”

“That was the plan. Except someone forgot to tell me that Grandma was packing up the house today. Since I really didn't relish the idea of working on the floor while a bunch of harried men carried heavy objects around me, I came back here.”

“Oh,” Lorelai said, her eyes wide. “I'm so sorry. I completely forgot.”

“Uh-huh,” Rory said, snatching the fork back and taking a bite of the cake.

“I did. I read it and even starred it so I'd remember but then it got buried under a bunch of other emails.”

“What emails?”

“You know, reservations and inquiries.”

“You have Grandma's messages going to the Dragonfly's email address?” Rory asked, shaking her head in disbelief. “I thought you two had put everything behind you?”

“We have,” Lorelai said. “I just haven't unfiltered my life from Emily Gilmore yet, I guess.”

“Well unfilter it,” Rory said, getting up. She grabbed the envelope from her purse and held it out. “Here. It almost didn't make it, but lucky for you, your daughter doesn't use filters in her life.”

With that, Rory grabbed her bag and started down the hall to her bedroom.

“Hey, filters are good. Filters are wonderful little miracles that allow us to have smooth coffee,” Lorelai said, following into Rory's room. She sat down on her daughter's bed, her expression infinitely more serious than before. “So have you told Logan yet?”

Rory sat on her computer chair and pulled off her boots. “No,” she said, hoping her mother would be satisfied with that answer and leave her be.

But of course not. This was Lorelai Gilmore, descendant of a long line of naggers.”Why not?”

Rory grabbed her laptop and opened it on the desk.

“It is Logan, right?” Lorelai asked. “Or should I give Tristan from Chilton a call and tell him his nickname for you has eerily come true?”

Rory kept her eyes fixed on the computer screen. “Barring an immaculate conception, yes, Logan is the father.”

“So tell him.”

“I can't.”

“Come on, Rory,” Lorelai said, getting to her feet and walking over to her daughter. “I know it's scary. I've been in the same super cute but ultimately uncomfortable shoes. But no matter how difficult it seems, Logan still deserves to know.”

“I'll do it. I just...” Rory stopped, trying to imagine Logan's reaction when he learns he's going to be a father. Would he be elated or angry? Or, maybe worst of all, apathetic? She honestly didn't know. “He's getting married in a few days.”

Lorelai dangled the phone in front of Rory's face. “All the more reason.”

Rory sucked in a deep breath and took her cell phone. Before she could talk herself out of it again, she dialed Logan's number and held the phone up to her ear. Stars Hollow was five hours behind, meaning it would be almost six p.m. in London.

From the corner of her eyes she watched her mother walk out and close the door quietly behind her. Finally, on the sixth ring, Logan answered. If Logan was female.

“Hello?” said a soft voice.

Rory's heart seized and her tongue froze to the roof of her mouth. Odette.

The woman's voice took on a sharper edge when she said, “Who are you, Rory? Why are you calling my Logan? What do you want?”

Not knowing what else to do, Rory ended the call and and threw the phone under the bed.

 

 

Chapter 6


Jess sat at his grandfather's desk, fingers tap-tap-tapping on the keys of his computer. His laptop was a relic, a veritable dinosaur by today's standards. Bulky and definitely not light, with keys that often stick, saving a document on its hard drive had long become a game of chance. But Jess and this laptop had been together for a long time and he refused to part with it. Maybe he was becoming a sentimental old fool, but he couldn't imagine writing without Big Helga at the helm.

When he completed the chapter—a cliffhanger, of course—he stood up and stretched his arms over his head. As he did, he caught a glimpse of dark hair out the window. He moved closer to get a better view and saw Rory walking on the sidewalk with her black laptop bag slung on her shoulder and a Weston's coffee cup in her hand. She looked different today, but he couldn't pinpoint why. She seemed almost smaller, as if she'd shrunk overnight. But then again, it was easy to think that from up above.

Turning away from the window, he hit save on Helga then grabbed his jacket on the way out.

“Where you going?” Luke asked as Jess strode through the diner.

Jess headed straight for the door. “Out.” His boots hit the concrete at a rapid pace and he caught up to Rory before too long. “Hey,” he said, falling in step beside her.

She yawned. “Hey.”

“Long night writing?”

“Just couldn't sleep,” she said. “Had too much on my mind.”

When they arrived at the Stars Hollow Gazette, Jess took hold of the door and held it open, waiting until Rory entered before following inside.

“Charlie, Esther,” Jess said, greeting the two Gazette employees who seemed to always be in the same place each time he saw them.

“Don't steal anything,” Esther said and returned to her endless filing.

With a shake of the head, Jess took a seat in front of Rory's desk, in the same place he'd been when he first learned of her less than ideal circumstances. He always knew she'd end up working for a newspaper, but not in this place that time had forgotten. No offense to this little town but he felt she had always been destined for something bigger than Stars Hollow.

“Whatever happened to your dreams of becoming the next Christiana Amanpour?” he asked, crossing one leg over the other.

She shrugged. “Life,” was all she said before booting up a computer so old it could have been Big Helga's great, great granddaddy.

“Got any more for me to read?” he asked, desperate to get her talking. A quiet Rory had always unsettled him.

“Unfortunately not.” She pulled out her laptop and a brass object and set them on the desk.

Jess reached over and grabbed the item before she could react, clicking it open to find an old compass.

Rory walked around the desk and leaned against it, looking down on him with an unreadable expression on her face. “It was my grandfather's. It apparently dates back to the Civil War.”

“This should be in a museum somewhere.”

A shadow of a smile touched her lips but was gone too soon. She lifted the compass from his fingers and studied it. A second later, her rueful expression gave way to surprise as her eyebrows drew together. Then her eyes flicked up to his and their gazes locked. Everything stilled in that moment, the entire world growing silent.

But in the next second Rory blinked and severed the connection. She shut the lid of the compass, carefully setting it down beside Bernie Roundbottom's name before returning to her seat.

“Do you know what today is?” Jess asked, hoping to jumpstart her spiritless body back to life.

She frowned, eyes darting around for clues. “November nineteen?” She checked the calendar on her phone. “Actually, I have to meet my mother at three. Thanks for the reminder.”

He shook his head and stood up. “See you later, Rory,” he said on his way to the door, not in the least bit worried. He had faith she'd remember it eventually.

 

Rory watched Jess leave with a strange tickle in her chest. She no longer needed coffee—decaf or otherwise—because the look she'd just shared with him had just jolted her awake. She didn't know what she'd expected to see when she looked down at the compass, but to find it pointing at him was definitely not something she could have anticipated.

On an intellectual level, she understood why the needle would point in his direction since has was directly north to her south. But to have that moment with him, when their eyes had locked together, was beyond explanation. That unexpected connection had sapped her lungs of air and shot electricity straight into her veins.

It was the same kind of feeling she'd experienced at the beginning with Jess, when they'd share long, lingering looks across the room.

Determined to recapture the excitement, Rory opened up a new document on her laptop and began to type. Her fingers flew over the keyboard as she wrote about the first time Jess came to Stars Hollow, hoping to capture the magic in word form. A smile touched her lips as she dove back into the past—it was as if she was seventeen again, getting to know one of the most difficult, smart, infuriating, tender people she'd ever met.

Her heart clenched as she relived the day of the Founder's Firelight Festival. She had thought she was over Jess after he skipped town without telling her, thought she'd managed to push him out of her mind for good, but then, without warning, he'd reappeared in the middle of the festival. Rory recalled the way she'd sprinted away in a serpentine fashion and how he'd followed her anyway, begging for a chance to talk.

“What do you have to say to me?” she'd asked, her blood boiling at his audacity.

He'd sighed and, with a desperately defeated look in his eyes, said, “I love you.”

Goosebumps broke out all over her skin at the memory and, for a moment, it was as if she was back there on that dark street, surrounded by twinkling lights, facing the boy who had broken her heart, fixed it with three words, then shattered it again. She imagined the look on his face, the utter helplessness and longing there, before he walked out of her life once again.

And all of a sudden, it all clicked into place. Rory understood.

With renewed energy, she continued the story of Jess Mariano, the kid who had been abandoned by his parents and had learned early on to fend for himself. Young Jess hadn't been equipped to deal with emotions and even Luke, try as he did, hadn't been able to set the best example. Jess never really knew what it took to love somebody, at least not until later.

But by then it was too late.

When Rory typed the last word, she leaned back with an exhausted but satisfied sigh. For the first time, maybe ever, she felt like she finally understood Jess.

But as she read over her words, it dawned on her that his story was deeply personal. Would he, like her mother, have a problem having his story told to the rest of the world?

So she grabbed her phone and sent him a text. Meet tonight?

Sure. Where? came his reply a few moments later.

Diner, after closing. I want to show you what I've written.

I'll be here.

 

Rory was a bundle of nerves as she headed back to the diner that night with a folder in her hand. On her way in, she passed by Miss Patty, who had just finished paying for dinner.

“Oh, Rory, my dear,” she said in that grand way of hers, as if she was perpetually on a stage. “Still as beautiful and fresh as the day I first saw you.”

“Oh, thank you,” Rory said and bid Miss Patty goodbye before going inside.

“Lock the door and turn off the lights,” Luke ordered from the other side of the room where he was clearing one of the tables.

No sooner had Rory done what was asked than Kirk rounded the corner with a pig in his arms. He tugged on the door handle and frowned when it didn't open.

“Sorry, we're closed,” Rory mouthed through the window.

“Luke!” Kirk called out, pressing his face against the glass. “I still see you.”

Luke carried the tub full of plates over to the kitchen, shaking his head and mumbling along the way. “Whatever you do, don't let him in,” he said to Rory.

“Is Jess upstairs?” Rory asked.

“Yeah, go on up,” Luke said before disappearing into the kitchen.

As Rory made her way across the diner, toward the curtain that hid the stairs to the second floor, she heard Kirk call out again. “Luke! Petal really needs to use your bathroom...”

Rory walked up the short flight of stairs and found the door open. She knocked anyway. “Hello?” When there was no answer, she poked her head inside and heard the muffled sound of the shower in the back. Not eager to wait in the stairwell for several minutes, she ventured inside and sat at the kitchen table. While she waited, she stared at the folder in front of her, wondering how Jess would react to what was inside.

A few moments later, the shower stopped and the bathroom door opened. Rory kept her back turned in case, not wanting to catch Jess unaware.

“Sorry, about the wait,” Jess' voice came from behind, his bare feet padding across the wood floor. “I smelled like burgers.”

Unable to help herself, she twisted around and looked over, finding him standing in front of the dresser in nothing but a towel. She had seen naked men before but never Jess. She never knew he was so built, never knew his arms were so muscular or his back so wide. She found herself wishing she could see what was underneath the towel.

He glanced over his shoulder with a cocky grin. “Can I help you?”

Her head whipped away, cheeks instantly hot. Jess stepped into view a few seconds later, wearing clothes on his body and a barely concealed smile on his face.

“So I guess you work out,” she said matter-of-fact, hoping to ease the tension.

“I lift weights here and there,” he said, taking the seat across from her. His eyes flicked down to the folder on the table. “This it?”

She nodded, sliding it across the table. “This feels so formal,” she said with a nervous laugh.

He raised an eyebrow, glaring at the folder. “Why do I get the feeling this is about me?”

“Because it is.”

“Ah.” With great deliberation he flipped the folder open and picked up the stack of papers inside.

Losing her nerve, she stood up, the chair making a scraping noise on the floor. “I'll just be downstairs while you read. I think Luke needs help closing up,” she said, backing away to the door.

“Rory,” he said in a way that stuck her feet to the ground.

“Yeah?”

He sighed. “Stay. Please.”

She swallowed, stomach inexplicably trembling. “Okay,” she said and sat back down.

 

 

Chapter 7

 

“So?”

Jess set the last piece of paper down and tried to swallow but his throat was dry. Without answering, he pushed away from the table and went to the fridge. “Want a drink? Beer or water?” he asked, turning his back on Rory while he gathered his thoughts.

“Water please.”

He grabbed a bottle of water and a beer and took them over to the table, setting the former in front of her. Then he opened his beer and sat down.

“You're being eerily quiet,” Rory said with a nervous catch in her voice. “If I were a cartoon character, I'd be chewing on my nails right about now.”

Jess stared at his drink, his mind still racing with everything he'd just read. The writing itself was technically perfect—this was Rory after all—but it was what she'd revealed that had him so troubled. “I'm... processing.”

“If it's too personal, I'll change it,” Rory said. “Or if you want, I can omit—”

“No,” he said, his head snapping up. He blew out a breath, trying to remain calm. “Don't take me out of your story.”

She frowned. “I didn't mean take you out entirely. I meant just omit the part about your parents.”

“Oh.” He wasn't that insecure boy anymore; at least, he didn't think so. Still, a part of him had been so sure she'd have no qualms about erasing him from the book and, in turn, from history.

She flashed him a sad sort of smile. “Jess, if I took you out, my story would be woefully incomplete.”

He looked away, the relief giving way to a burning in his chest. He took a swig of the cold beer but it did nothing to soothe the guilt. He drank again, nearly emptying the bottle, but it was pointless. Just as he'd found out the hard way many years ago, you can't drown regret, no matter how much you drink.

He'd hurt Rory; there was no getting around that. His actions were spelled out on the page in front of him, as clear and crisp as the black ink. And even if Rory never said it outright, her pain was woven within her words, infusing the story with a bittersweet atmosphere.

When he finally looked up, he found her staring at him, waiting. “So... take it out?” she asked.

He leaned forward, setting his hands on the table. And with a voice raw with remorse, he said, “I'm sorry.”

Her face paled and she sighed. “I guess I'll rewrite—”

“No, I meant I'm sorry for hurting you,” he said. “For ruining your relationship with Dean. For leaving without saying goodbye. Twice. And generally for being the biggest jackass in the world. You didn't deserve any of that, and I'm sorry.”

Her lips trembled. “This isn't why I asked you to read my story.”

“I know.”

“I wasn't after an apology.”

“I know. But I want to apologize anyway. Because I really am sorry I put you through all that.” He held out his palm and held his breath. After what seemed like forever, she finally reached out and placed her hand in his.

Only then did he exhale. “I hope it's not too late to be forgiven.”

She looked at him with those expressive blue eyes, then she blinked and a tear escaped, making a jagged lightning path down her cheek. “We're good,” she said, wiping at her face.

He squeezed her hand, so small and fragile in his, before letting go. “Use it,” he said, drawing back. “Every single painful bit.”

“You don't mind?”

“You have a right to tell the truth.”

She flashed him a small smile. “Thank you.”

 

Luke's voice boomed up the stairs, shattering the moment. “Rory, I'm headed back to the house. You want a ride?”

“I'll be right there,” she called over her shoulder and turned back to Jess. “I guess I'd better go,” she said, getting up.

“I could just walk you home,” he said, rising to his feet as well. “If you need more feedback on your story, I mean.”

“I think I'm good for now.” She smiled over at him with a buoyant feeling, as if she'd just let go of a great anchor.

With his hands in his pockets, Jess walked her to the door. “I'm here if you need me,” he said. It struck her then that, even now, he was still trying to prove he wouldn't hurt her again. “For the story. And anything else.”

“Thank you,” she said and, before she could overthink it, she stood on her toes and pressed a kiss on his cheek. As her lips made contact with his skin, she felt his sharp intake of breath and then the slow release. 

But before she could pull away, his arm wound around her waist and held her close. “Rory,” he said in a husky voice, his breath warm against her cheek. “You, me...”

She swallowed hard. “It is what it is.”

“And what do you want it to be?”

With her heart fluttering around in her chest, she whispered, “I don't know yet.”

“I'm not that same boy anymore, Rory,” he said, his voice low and raspy. “You can count on me now.”

“I know.” She didn't dare move, knowing that with just a small turn of the head, their lips would touch. When she felt his hand fold around her waist, his fingers making contact with her stomach, reality came crashing down around her, reminding her that there was more at stake here than the two of them.

As hard as it was to do, she pulled away and put distance between them. “I still have a lot of things to figure out in my life, Jess,” she said. “I'm not that same person you knew either. I've done many things I regret. And there are things in my life that still need fixing.”

“Let me help you.”

She shook her head sadly. “Thank you but this is something I have to do on my own.”

 

Rory was quiet on the short drive back home and Luke, thankfully, was thoughtful enough not to say a word. Even if she could tell he had many questions tucked away under that blue baseball cap.

After he parked the truck in the driveway and they got out, he paused. “Look, I know I'm not your father,” he said, playing with the keys in his hands. “But if you ever need some fatherly advice, or even need someone to fix things, like that crooked shelf in your room that really should have been fixed years ago but your mother wouldn't let me touch anything in there—” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, I'm here.”

She wrapped her arms around him and received a certified Luke Danes bear hug in return. “Thank you.” She pulled away, a smile on her face.

“And about Jess,” he began. “If you want him to back off, you just have to be firm. Sometimes things take a while to get through his thick skull.”

“He's fine.”

Luke looked into the distance. “I don't know what's going on in that kid's brain half the time, but I'm pretty sure he means well.”

“He does.” She nodded. “He's just like his uncle.”

“God, I hope not,” he said and punctuated it with a grin. “Let's go inside. It's cold out here.”

On his way up the steps, Rory said, “Hey Luke?”

“Yeah?”

“When you were engaged to my mom for the first time and then you found out about April...”

He faced her, his eyebrows drawn together. “Yeah?”

“Do you think it would have been better if you'd found out after you were married?” she asked. “Would it have made a difference?”

He frowned, deep in thought. “I don't know,” he finally said. “Maybe not. I don't know if your mother was really ready. I guess not seeing as it took a hell of a long time to finally get that ring on her finger.”

“I guess.” Rory paused, chewing on his words. “Would you have wanted to know about April before she was born?”

“Of course,” he said without hesitation. “I missed a lot in that girl's life. I should have been there. Anna denied me that.”

Rory nodded, tears stinging her eyes. “Okay,” she said, turning away.

“Rory?”

“I'll stay out here for a bit,” she said, keeping her back turned.

“You okay?”

“I am. Thanks.”

After Luke went inside, she sat down on the porch steps and thought about the disaster that was her life. Somewhere along the way, she'd lost sight of who she was, who she wanted to be. She had become unrecognizable, definitely not someone young Rory would have looked up to.

But she knew what needed to be done; the question was whether she had the courage to do it. She closed her eyes and tried to summon the younger version of herself, the girl who fought for what she believed in, the girl who wasn't afraid to do what was right.

With a deep, fortifying breath, she pulled out her phone and dialed. But it wasn't Logan she called. It was Jess.

“Hello?” he answered after a few rings.

“I'm going out of town,” Rory said without preamble.

He paused. “Where?”

“To London.”

“What's in London?”

“Unfinished business.”

He was quiet for a long time, the dead air crackling with tension. “How long?”

“A day, maybe two. I just need to do something I should have done a long time ago.” When he didn't say anything, she added, “Will you be here when I get back?”

“I don't know. Should I be?”

“Yes.”

“I'll be here then,” he said in a husky voice.

She found herself smiling into the darkness. “Hey, I remembered what today is.”

“Yeah?”

“It's the day we officially started dating in high school.”

His soft chuckle filled her with unexpected joy. “It's about time you remembered.”

She nodded, smiling to herself. “It's all starting to come back to me now.”

 

 

Chapter 8

 

When Rory arrived, she found London cloaked in gray, its pavements dark from recent rain. As she sat in the back of a cab on the way to Logan's apartment, she gazed out at the gloomy streets, unable to shake the feeling of heading to a funeral rather than paying a visit to the father of her child.

Her hand instinctively went to her stomach as she neared her destination. When the taxi pulled to the curb, Logan emerged from the apartment building in his expensive blue suit, walking over with a smile on his face.

He opened the door for Rory before handing the driver some cash.

“You didn't have to do that,” she said as they watched the taxi pull away.

He shrugged in that nonchalant way of his, always so confident and sure. She had been the same way once. “So how are you?” he asked.

“I'm good.” She motioned to him, admiring the impeccable cut of his suit. Logan had always had style. “You look good. Like you're about to head a meeting in a board room full of stuffy big wigs.”

He grinned, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Got me pegged, Ace.” He touched her elbows and leaned over to kiss her cheek. “So what brings you to my neck of the woods?”

“We have some things to talk about.” Rory wrapped her arms around herself, eyes darting around. “Can we go upstairs?”

“Of course.” He led the way back to the building, holding the door open. Perhaps sensing the gravity of the situation, he said nothing as they boarded the elevator. Both were quiet as they rose up to the top floor, saying nothing until they were inside the closed door of Logan's apartment.

“What's going on?” Logan asked, the mirth all but gone from his face.

Rory did a quick check of the rooms then stood at the foot of the steps, listening for any signs of life upstairs.

“She's not here. She's in Nice for the bachelorette party,” he said.

Rory's skin prickled at the mention of Odette and the impending nuptials. Again Rory wondered if she was doing the right thing, if coming here two days before his wedding was the wisest decision. She'd thought about this moment so many times during the eight hour flight, she could no longer tell if she was being selfless or selfish. Was she really here to be considerate or was she, as she secretly feared, intentionally ruining his chance at a happy marriage?

“Rory?”

“Excuse me, I have to use the bathroom. Or the loo as you Brits call it, though technically you're not a Brit,” she said, mumbling and stumbling over her words as she walked away. She stopped. “I'll be right back.”

She spent a long time in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet lid, trying to gather her wits, her thoughts going round and round in dizzying circles. When she stood up, she was lightheaded and even more unsure than before.

Nevertheless, she squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. “Fake it 'till you make it, kid,” she told herself before marching out.

“Okay, so I gather this isn't a social call,” Logan said, leaning against the back of the gray couch that looked almost identical to the sectional upstairs. He stood up as she neared, the skin between his eyebrows wrinkled. “Are you all right? Did someone die?”

“No,” she said. And before she knew it, the words were tumbling from her lips: “Logan, I'm pregnant.”

His face registered shock from her words but, a moment later, a smile began tugging on the corners of his mouth, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “Did Colin put you up to this?” he asked. He walked over to the window and looked out, as if expecting his Life and Death Brigade friends to suddenly Mission Impossible off the roof, jump through into his apartment, and yell “Gotcha!”

“They're not here,” Rory said from across the room. “It's just me.”

Logan slid his hands in his pockets with a sigh, keeping his back turned. He stayed that way for a long time, staring out the window, saying nothing.

After a long time, his voice reached across the space between them. “Is it mine?”

“Well it's certainly not the Wookie's,” Rory cried out in frustration.

Logan turned around, looking even more perplexed than before. “Do I even want to know what—”

“No.”

Logan's eyes flicked down to her stomach. “How far along?”

“Six weeks,” she said, wrapping her arms around her middle again. “Since...”

“Since New Hampshire.”

She nodded. “Since New Hampshire.”

He ran a palm down his face, turning away. “Damn, Rory,” he said, staring off into space for a few moments.

“I know the timing is really unfortunate, what with your wedding coming up, but I thought...”

“You thought what?” he asked, watching her with sharp eyes.

She sighed. “I thought you had a right to know.”

“You're pregnant,” he said, a flush creeping up his face. His lips thinned and jaw muscles worked as he stared at her. “That's... that's...”

She tried not to squirm under his gaze, but she couldn't help but feel as if a giant spotlight was shining directly into her face. “Yes. It's certainly that.”

“So what do you want me to do?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

“Because you made it clear a long time ago that you don't want to be with me, remember?”

She looked down at the polished dark wood floors, nodding.

“Do you need money?”

She glared at him. “No.”

He held up his hands. “I had to ask.”

“Well, don't.”

He walked over and stopped in front of her, touching a finger to her chin and tipping her head back. “Are you here because you've changed your mind about us?” he asked, his eyebrows raised in question.

She looked up at him, her heart pounding in her chest. A million thoughts went through her head, memories of her life with Logan rushing by, of the good times and the bad. “But Odette...” was all she could think to say.

“I can break it off with her, no questions asked,” he said without hesitation.

“Two days before the wedding?”

He shook his head. “She was never the one I wanted. You know that.”

“I didn't come here to break up your engagement,” she said, feeling as if she was standing at the edge of a cliff with the wind at her back. She needed only to lean forward and she would fall right into Logan's world, into a future that was certain and sure.

Logan smiled, taking her hands in his. “Just say the word, Ace, and it's done.”

 

~

 

Jess awoke to a buzzing sound. He threw an arm out to the side table, his hand making contact with his phone. Peering out of one eye, he looked at the screen and saw Lorelai's name on the caller ID.

“Hel—” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Hello?”

“Were you still asleep?” Lorelai asked, sounding as if she'd already had three cups of coffee. “It's eleven-thirty.”

“I write at night,” he said. “What's going on? Did something happen? Tell Taylor to take his witch hunt somewhere else because I didn't do it.”

“How did you know Taylor was—never mind,” Lorelai said. “No. I meant to call you.”

“Why?”

“I need your help with something.”

He sat up and rubbed his face, trying to wake up. “Now I know you really have the wrong number.”

“I seem to have a problem with a desk that magically appeared on my porch between last night and just now. I tried moving it but it's extremely heavy and there's a crisis in the diner so Luke can't help me.”

“What crisis?” he asked, listening for any sounds of an emergency downstairs and hearing none.

“Something about a bacon shortage right before the weekly CrossFit paleo meeting. He said it's like the Hunger Games there right now, people in booty shorts throwing barbells around and shooting arrows at each other to get to the last piece of bacon.”

“Kirk had better keep Petal at home then,” Jess said with a chuckle.

Lorelai sighed. “So? Can you help me?”

“So a desk, huh?” he asked. “On your porch you say?”

“Yes, a desk on my porch,” she said, sounding low on patience.

“What kind are we talking about here?” he asked with a grin. Even after their agreed ceasefire, with many years of peaceful coexistence between them, he still enjoyed antagonizing her a little. “For example, is it made of particle board? Oak? Plastic? Steel? Knowing is half the battle.”

“I don't know. It's real wood. It looks like something you'd see in one of those fancy attorney's offices with elaborate engravings and wood inlay and—ahh!”

“What? Are you all right?”

She gasped. “Oh my God, I think my father's haunting me.”

 

A few minutes later, Jess found Lorelai standing on the porch with a hand held over her mouth. Her eyes were wide, fixed on the massive wood desk sitting smack dab in the middle of the front porch.

“Redecorating?” he quipped. “Though, for maximum feng shui, I recommend a coffee table on the roof.”

Lorelai shook her head, eyes fixed on the desk. “I've gone through every possible scenario in my head and I still can't fathom how my father's desk got on my porch without my notice,” she said. “And I think my mother is filtering me because my calls keep going to voicemail.”

“Maybe the desk was lonely and came round for a visit?”

She fixed him with a wry look. “Rory would know,” she said, getting out her phone and dialing.

Jess walked around the table, testing its weight while listening in on the call, shaking his head and smiling as Lorelai described the desk situation to her daughter.

While mother and daughter talked, an idea came to him about where to place the desk. It would take some effort to move, but it would be worth it.

It took Jess a moment to notice that Lorelai had grown silent. He looked up and found the phone still held up to her ear, a shocked expression on her face. A strange sense of foreboding crawled up his spine, similar to the time his mother had dropped the bomb that she was sending him away, off to a small town he'd never seen, to live with an uncle he barely knew.

Jess tried to shake it off but, when Lorelai glanced over at him, the fear took hold and its sharp nails dug in.

Only after Lorelai hung up, did he try to speak. “How's Rory?” he asked casually.

“She's...” Lorelai stopped, looking down at her phone instead of him. “She's good. She made it to London okay.”

He stuck his fists inside his jacket, fighting the urge to leave. “She take care of business yet?”

Lorelai blinked a few times, a troubled look on her face. “Jess,” she said, finally meeting his eyes. “She's with Logan.”

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Lorelai regretted the words the instant they left her mouth. She didn't know why she'd told Jess; the words just kind of tumbled out in her shock.

Rory. In London. With Logan.

Again.

She shook her head, trying to tamp down the mounting frustration. Lorelai had watched her daughter make some huge mistakes in the past—from sleeping with a married Dean, to quitting Yale—but she'd tried to stand back and give Rory room to learn her lessons in her own time. Rory was an incredibly smart girl and often learned her lesson, even if, sometimes, it was in a roundabout way. So when Rory broke the news that she was back with Logan—who was engaged to a French heiress—Lorelai was sure it was only a matter of time before Rory saw the error of her ways. And Rory had, finally breaking it off with Logan. Only to find out later that she was pregnant with his child.

Lorelai felt like a spectator at a tennis match but instead of a ball, it was her emotions getting batted back and forth. And now, seeing the look on Jess' face, she felt herself getting smacked back over to the other side of the court again.

“Logan?” Jess asked, his eyebrows drawn so tight, they were almost touching. He set his hands on his hips and let out a breath through his nose. “The hell?”

“Look, I know how you feel about Rory...” she said, hoping to salvage the situation.

He looked up, anger lining his face. “Do you?”

“Uh, yeah,” she said. “I've watched you over the past decade pining over her.”

“How? You barely even see me.”

“But when I do, your eyes are flicking around, searching for her,” she said. “I've noticed, Jess. I know you've been waiting for her to come home.”

“Did you notice her sneaking off to London to be with that blond dick from Yale?” he said, jabbing a finger in what she assumed was the general direction of London.

“Hey, that's not fair,” Lorelai said. “You don't know why she's there.”

“Do you?” he asked, glaring at her.

She stopped short. “Come on, Jess. Don't do this whole destructive thing again. You've been through this phase of pushing people away. It wasn't pretty then and it's not pretty now.”

“I'm pushing people away?” He paused, eyes narrowing. “Nice misdirection, Lorelai. Real nice. Just answer the question.”

“What question?”

“Of why she's in London!”

“I can't tell you that,” she said, fighting the urge to yell back. She wasn't sure what would happen if they both blew up right then. “But it's not what you think it is.”

“So why do you look like how I feel?” When she didn't have an answer, he nodded. “Thought so.”

“I trust my daughter to do the right thing. If you care about her even half as much as I think you do, then you'd trust her too.”

With hands on his hips, he scrunched his lips together. He stared off into space for several moments, shaking his head every now and then. “You know, I've loved your daughter since the first day I met her,” he said, his voice thick with anger. But underneath all the layers, she knew there was sadness buried there. “Even when I didn't have it in me to care about myself, I still cared about her.”

“I know,” Lorelai said quietly, her heart hurting for the person before her. She had known Jess first as a self-destructive boy with a sharp tongue and a chip on his shoulder. But he had evolved over the years, shedding the anger and doubt, finally becoming a successfully functioning adult, something she never thought she'd see. Though they still provoked each other once in a while, Lorelai often came dangerously close to liking him.

And in moments like these, her heart broke for the man who still carried a torch for her daughter even after all these years.

“She loved you, too, you know,” Lorelai said, trying to offer him a sliver of hope. Maybe, just maybe, he was the Luke to her daughter's Lorelai. If only she could keep him from running again.

He took in a deep, ragged breath, looking unconvinced. “That's just it though,” he said, beginning to step away, back towards the road. “I only exist in the past tense.”

 

~

 

“You sure you want to do this?” Logan asked.

Rory nodded. This past year she'd been so unsteady, as if standing on straw and could fall through at any moment. She had second-guessed every decision, had hesitated when she should have just jumped. But as she stood there that evening, facing the father of her unborn child, she knew without a doubt that she was making the right decision. “I'm sure.”

Logan touched her face, the ever-present smile in his eyes even if his voice didn't reflect it. “I don't know how many more times I can take you leaving me.”

“This is the last time. Promise.” She covered his hand with her own, tears prickling her eyes. “Get married, Logan. Be happy.”

“And you?”

She gave him a hopeful smile. “I'll get there.”

He pressed one final kiss to her forehead before pulling away. “Take care of yourself, Ace.”

“I will,” she said, taking a few steps back, towards the airport security line.

“Keep me updated with the baby.” He shook his head, chuckling. “It'll never not feel weird saying that.”

“Give it time.”

She joined the line and soon she was swallowed up by the crowds, everyone around her either traveling to or away from their loved ones. And as she took her seat on the plane that would take her back to Stars Hollow, she felt a warm glow inside knowing who was waiting for her back home.

 

As soon as Rory's plane landed in Hartford, she went straight home and fell into bed. She slept for hours, possibly days. And she dreamed.

In one instance she was in her blue Chilton uniform, reading on the bus on the way to school. Lane was beside her, talking about Hep Alien's latest gig at Madison Square Garden, formulating a plan on how to get to the venue without alerting Mrs. Kim or the twins. On Rory's other side sat Paris Geller, looking over her notes for a debate a few months away while simultaneously criticizing the youth of today for the blatant abuse of acronyms.

While the two talked, Rory looked up and noticed a dark-haired boy in the back of the bus. With her heart in her throat, she stood up and made her way over to him. In his hands he held The Subsect, his head cocked while he scribbled notes in the book's margins. This time she noticed the duffel bag sitting by his feet.

“Can I sit?” she asked.

He looked up at her, a pen cap caught between his teeth, and grinned. “Sit where you like.” As soon as she sat down, he slung an arm over her shoulder and drew her close, kissing the top of her head.

“Come on,” he said, taking hold of her hand after a few blissful minutes. “This is our stop.”

 

The house was silent when Rory finally emerged from the dream world. When she looked over at the clock, she saw that it was almost ten in the morning. She had slept through most of yesterday and, apparently, a good portion of today. It was the best damn sleep she'd had in a long time.

Desperately needing to wash off the funk of travel, she took a long, hot shower. Afterward, she got ready, smiling at her reflection in the mirror as she applied a light layer of makeup. Then, with her heart on her sleeve, she stepped out the front door and set out to find the boy from her dreams.

Her footsteps felt light on the concrete as she walked through the streets of Stars Hollow and, though the air was nippy, the bright sun lent a warm glow to her beloved town.

“Good to see you up and about,” Luke said when she entered the diner. “Your mom kept checking in on you to make sure you were still breathing.”

“I guess the ol' body doesn't bounce back from two international flights in one day as quickly as it used to,” she said with a shrug. “Hey, is Jess around?”

“Haven't seen him,” Luke said, walking past her with two full plates.

Her stomach rumbled as she looked longingly at the food, reminding her she hadn't had anything to eat in a long while. As if sensing her hunger—or perhaps, hearing the loud percussion section that was her stomach—Luke took a donut from the cake stand, wrapped it in a napkin, and handed it to Rory.

She took a bite and almost moaned in relief. “Oh my God, thank you,” she said around a mouthful of donut.

He grinned. “Go on up and check on Jess. He's probably still asleep.”

With only half a donut left in her hand, Rory went upstairs and rapped her knuckles on the glass. Hearing no answer, she tried the knob and found it unlocked. “Jess?” she called out, sticking her head in the door. When there was no answer, she entered and stopped in the middle of the place.

The apartment looked as if it had recently been cleaned. Dishes sat in the drying rack by the sink, the tables were cleared, and there were no books laying around haphazardly.

A strange sensation washed over her as she approached the old desk by the window, finding its scuffed surface bare. She walked past the bed and into the bathroom, finding the counter cleared of all signs of life. Nothing was left, not even a water droplet in the sink.

Her throat tight with dread, she wandered back out, eventually finding herself in front of the window. Her eyes scoured the streets below, knowing in the pit of her stomach she wouldn't find the face she was looking for.

Jess was gone. She knew this tale all too well.

She let out a breath, fighting back the tears as she headed downstairs. As soon as she stepped back inside the busy diner, her eyes met Luke's across the room. He took one look at her face and knew. Ignoring the calls of customers, he walked over to Rory. “I'm sorry,” he said with a sigh that dragged his shoulders down.

“Me too.”

He led her over to the nearest empty table and pulled out a chair. She sank onto it, grateful to be off her feet. With unfocused eyes, she looked down and realized she was still holding onto half a donut. By this time the icing had melted, seeping into the napkin and sticking to her fingers. She ripped a napkin out of the dispenser with more force than necessary and tried to wipe her fingers clean, but the sticky residue remained.

She didn't know how long it was before a plate of food appeared before her, like a peace offering from the heavens in the form of scrambled eggs, bacon, and waffles. If nothing else, at least she had her appetite back.

Immediately, she picked a strawberry off the waffles and popped it into her mouth. When she looked up to thank Luke, the fruit almost lodged in her throat. “Jess,” she gasped.

He looked down on her, an unfathomable expression on his face. “You need to eat,” he said, motioning to the plate with his head.

“But...” She looked around and spotted his big green duffel bag leaning against the counter. She looked up at him, relief blurring her eyes. “You stayed.”

His eyebrows were knotted but he tipped his head. “Yeah,” he said. “I stayed.”

 

 

Chapter 10

 

Lorelai came home that afternoon to towers of boxes in the foyer, the hallway, and in the kitchen. “Rory?” she called out.

“In here,” her daughter's voice came from somewhere within the house.

“Where?”

“My room.”

“And where is that again?”

“Exactly where it used to be.”

Lorelei skirted around the maze, almost making it to the kitchen. “Marco.”

“Polo.”

“Marco—oh no.” Lorelai stopped short. If she thought the boxes were bad outside, they were ten times worse inside Rory's room. Or what used to be Rory's room. “What happened?” she asked, barely able to see her daughter sitting on the bed, looking as claustrophobic as she felt.

“Grandpa's books were delivered,” she said with a helpless look.

“Along with the entire Bodleian Library?”

Rory stood up and shuffled sideways between towers to make it out of her room. Once she was free, she walked over to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of orange juice. “Don't worry. I'll take them to a storage facility. And the desk too.”

Lorelai began to set her purse down then thought better of it. She might never find it again in this labyrinth. “So what did you get up to today?”

“I went to see Jess.”

“Oh.” She paused. “How did that go?”

“I don't know.” Rory sat down at the kitchen table and recounted what had happened at the diner that morning.

“So he was packed and ready to go but decided to stay,” Lorelai said when Rory was done. “Well, color me surprised.”

“But he didn't say anything else to me. He just grabbed his bag and went upstairs.”

“Did you follow him?”

“No. He seemed angry, like I'd done something to him.”

Lorelai sighed, taking a seat. “That's my fault. I told him about Logan.”

Rory's eyes grew wide. “What?”

“I don't know. I was rattled by the desk and then you said you were there with Logan,” Lorelai said. She was gesticulating wildly but couldn't stop herself. “I kind of had a Mean Girls moment with the verbal diarrhea and the Burn Book—”

“There's a Burn Book too?” Rory cried.

“Sorry, got a little carried away with the references. There's no book. Only a really hurt guy and a cool mom—not one of those regular moms—who apparently doesn't know when to shut up...” She trailed off with a sigh. She felt like a chastised child the way Rory looked at her.

“You sure that's all it was?” Rory asked.

“Meaning?”

“That maybe you wanted to tell him.” Rory played with the label on the bottle. “Maybe... maybe because you thought he had a right to know.”

“Do you think he does?”

Her daughter got up from the table. “So, should we order Chinese food?”

Lorelai said nothing, only waiting while her daughter's train of thought arrived at the same station.

“I should have told him before I left,” Rory finally said, playing with the sleeves of her sweater. “I think I was afraid he would just leave again. Like he always does.”

“He does have a long history of pulling a David Copperfield. He should be a magician, that Jess.” But unlike the times before, this time, Jess had remained. Lorelai had to believe that meant something.

Rory looked at her mother, not saying a thing.

“And Logan? How does he feel about all of this?” Lorelai asked. “I'm assuming he had strong opinions.”

“He did. He said he'd leave Odette and raise the baby with me.”

Lorelai's mouth dropped open. “And you said...”

“I said no,” Rory said. “Logan would have given me a good, stable life. He would have been a good husband.”

“Buuuuut...?”

Rory looked up, her blue eyes full of doubt.

Lorelai gave a nod. “Jess.”

“No. I just... I don't like the person I am when I'm with Logan. I was sleeping with him even though he was engaged. I compared our affair to a vacation in Las Vegas, for crying out loud. I mean, what the hell is that?” Rory stopped, sighed. “But it's not his fault. I'm the only one responsible for my actions.”

“Buuuuut...?” Lorelai said again.

“But I don't want to be that person anymore. I want to fix my life. I want to do what's right for me.” Her hand went to her stomach. “For us.”

“So not Jess?”

“Maybe Jess,” she said. “Someday. When I've figured out how to fix my life.”

 

That night, Luke slipped the shirt over his head and padded off to bed, slipping under the thick blanket and reaching for the remote control. With a tired groan, he leaned against the headboard and began to watch some TV show while waiting for Lorelai to finish with her overlong bedtime routine.

Even after all these years he still had no idea why it took her so long to get ready in the morning—with the makeup and the hair curling and the coordinating of the outfit—only to waste the same amount of time to take it all off at night. It would make life easier to cut out the middleman and forgo all the unnecessary steps. But every time he mentioned it to Lorelai, she'd just shaken her head and told him it was for his benefit.

Which explained why he was always first in bed each night, watching shows he couldn't care less about and waiting to turn off the lights.

“Can you believe this?” he called out to Lorelai while she brushed her teeth. “These two guys are trying to convince this old codger to sell them an old sign for two hundred dollars.”

“Well, what does the sign say?” Lorelai asked from within the bathroom.

“Who cares? It's a sign. It's a rusty sheet of metal with peeling paint on it. It's junk.”

“Funny, that's exactly how I feel some days.”

His eyes strayed from the TV when Lorelai emerged from the bathroom in the blue satin negligee that he had always liked. With a tight feeling in his chest, he watched her walk over to the bed and pull back the covers. Even after all their years together, the sight of her still took his breath away at the most unexpected times.

“I'd definitely pay upwards of two hundred dollars for you,” he said.

She slid into bed beside him. “Why Mr. Danes, you sure know how to make a girl feel special,” she said with a teasing glint in her eyes.

“You know what I mean. I'm not good at the sweet talk,” he said, gathering her into the crook of his arms. He kissed the side of her head and let out a happy sigh.

“So how's Rory?” he asked after some time. “She seemed a little dazed this morning.”

“Still jetlagged and dealing with the city of boxes downstairs.”

“I figured with the baby and all—”

Lorelai sat up and stared at him. “Baby?”

He gave her a weary look. “I know about the baby.”

“How?”

“I've heard her throwing up. Also, her eating habits have changed drastically. She doesn't drink coffee anymore,” he said. “Oh, and the other day she ordered a veggie sandwich. I didn't even know we offered that.”

“Yeah, it's on the secret menu.”

“What secret menu?”

“Right. What secret menu?” Lorelai said with an exaggerated wink.

“Who's the father?” he asked, refusing to be derailed by his wife's antics.

Lorelai said nothing, a highly irregular and uncommon phenomenon that instantly made him suspicious.

“It's Jess, isn't it?” he asked, sitting up. “How could this happen? I thought he'd grown up and become responsible. Though, to be honest, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. I always thought those two would work it out in the end. They could get married and live at the apartment above the diner for the time being, until they find a suitable house...”

“Cool your heels there, Patti Stanger,' Lorelai said. “No, Jess is not the father.”

“Okay, Maury,” he shot back. “Who is the father?”

“Logan.”

He fell back onto the headboard. “Oh.” He stared off into space. “Does Jess know?”

“No.”

He thought of his nephew, who had never been very good at hiding his feelings for Rory. With the telling way he looked at her every time she entered the room, Jess definitely wouldn't be winning any Oscars anytime soon. Luke's thoughts moved to Rory, the girl he'd always considered his daughter in some form or another. He'd been there for her since the beginning, watching her grow from a sweet little girl with stars in her eyes to an intelligent young woman who had the world at her feet. He always imagined she'd grow up and go off to some foreign country, doing foreign correspondent stuff. Or perhaps working as the editor of the New York Times. She wasn't supposed to be back here in Stars Hollow, jobless and pregnant.

“Rory can stay with us as long as she needs. We can build an addition to the house. Create a separate room for the baby,” he said, the wheels in his brain spinning. “We can take turns watching the baby while Rory goes to work. I could probably take her to the diner, hold her in one of those baby carrier contraptions while I work. Or you can take her to the Dragonfly and have Michel watch her. On second thought, she can come with me.”

Lorelai gazed at him with warm eyes, biting back a smile. “She?”

“Yeah. I guess I just figured it would be another Gilmore Girl.”

She lifted his arm and snuggled against his body, holding her palm against his heart. “I love you, Mr. Danes,” she said, looking up at him.

He bent his head and touched his lips to hers. He gathered her closer and deepened the kiss, not needing sappy words or corny poetry to tell his wife exactly how he feels.

 

 

Chapter 11

 

Rory stacked a third box on the hand truck and took a deep breath, lamenting the fact that she wasn't as fit as she used to be, back when she used to run. Or, more accurately, jog at a pace only slightly faster than walking. Exercising had gone against her upbringing, but she'd needed a way to relieve the stress when she was on the campaign trail with Obama, and running was the only thing that had been able to relax her. She had even entertained the idea of running a half marathon, but she'd been too exhausted just thinking about it to actually sign up.

Now she tap-danced during times of high stress but it no longer seemed enough. Not when she couldn't even lift a few dozen boxes without getting winded.

But as exhausted as she was that morning, she knew she had no other choice. She needed to get the boxes out of the house and return her mother and Luke's house to normal. With a sigh that sounded more like a groan, she grabbed the dolly, tilted it back, and carefully dragged it out front door.

“Here let me do that.”

She turned to find Luke hurrying around the corner with an anxious look on his face.

“Oh, I got it, thanks,” she said, dragging the dolly down the porch one step at a time, holding her breath with each bump.

“No, really, let me do this,” Luke said, gently nudging her aside. “All this lifting is probably not good for the baby.”

Rory sucked in a breath. “You know?”

Luke took the boxes over to his truck and began loading them up onto the back, not saying a thing.

“Luke?”

“Yeah, I know,” he finally said with a sigh. She opened her mouth to speak when he quickly added, “She didn't tell me. I figured it out on my own.”

“Oh.” Rory averted her gaze, feeling awkward and slightly guilty.

“Hey,” Luke said, looking at her with soft eyes. “It'll be fine. You have me and your mom. And you have this entire town to help you raise that kid.”

She blinked back tears as Luke's words unexpectedly hit her right in the chest. This quaint little town and its quirky cast of characters had had a hand in raising her over the years. How fitting that it would also help her raise her child.

 

Afterward, they unloaded the truck at the storage facility in Woodbridge then Luke dropped Rory off at The Gazette.

“Luke?” Rory said as the truck idled at the curb.

“Yeah?”

“Nobody else knows about the pregnancy,” she said.

“So you haven't...?”

“No, I haven't.”

“Are you going to?”

“Eventually. When I figure out how.” She slipped her purse over her shoulder. “Please don't tell anyone. Not yet.”

He looked at her across the way, understanding crinkling the corners of his eyes. “You got it.”

 

The office of The Stars Hollow Gazette normally moved at a sleepy pace, at least, compared to the controlled chaos that was the Yale Daily News. But due to a problem with the printers, Rory was swamped all morning, fixing files and making calls to the press.

She groaned when the phone rang for the third time in five minutes. “Randy, give it a minute. They're already uploading to the server—” She stopped when her mother's voice came through the line.

“Stand down! Stand down!” Lorelai said.

Rory released a long breath. “Sorry. I'm having quite the day.”

“You get so scary when you have your bossy editor voice on.”

“Randy's driving me crazy hounding me about the files,” she said, leaning away from the desk that she'd been stuck at all day. “What's up?”

“I wanted to ask what happened to the desk.”

“What desk?”

“What desk? The desk. The haunted desk,” Lorelai said.

“What do you mean?”

“It's gone.”

Rory sat up. “Like it just up and walked away?”

“As in it left as mysteriously as it came, without a note or even an uttered goodbye.”

“It's not in the living room anymore?”

“No. I came home and all the boxes are gone along with the desk. I'm seriously starting to think it was sent here by my father as a prank from the afterlife.” Her voice softened when she added, “He always did have a bit of a fondness for practical jokes.”

“Wait, all of the boxes are gone?”

“Yes, I can actually walk in a straight line now. Wait, I thought you and Luke took care of that this morning?”

“Not all of it. We were only able to move twelve.”

“Well he must have done the rest because the house is back to normal.”

Rory paused when she noticed Esther and Charlie look up from their work. She followed their gaze, twisting around in her seat to find Jess standing in the doorway in his usual uniform of jeans, boots, and some obscure band t-shirt.

“Mom, I have to go,” Rory said into the phone, unable to keep the smile off her face.

“Okay, but if the hall table starts talking, I'm calling John Edwards.”

“Do that.” She hung up with a soft chuckle and turned to Jess. “Hi.”

“Hi.” He gazed at her for a few uneasy moments before clearing his throat. “I wanted to see if you could come by the diner later. I wanted to run an idea by you.”

“Sure,” she said, brightening.

Then, with barely a nod, he turned and left.

 

Rory wasn't sure what to expect when she left work later that afternoon. As she walked to the diner, she tried preparing herself for what was to come even if she knew it would all be for naught. Jess had never been transparent with his thoughts and she was definitely no mind reader. Who knew what tonight would be about.

“Hey, you here for dinner?” Luke asked when she came inside.

She pointed a finger toward the ceiling, heading to the stairwell in the back. She stopped and peered around the corner. “Can you please set aside a veggie burger for me, though?”

Luke gave her that bemused look. “You bet.”

Upstairs, after Rory knocked on the door, she saw Jess' shadow moving around behind the glass. His blurry, dark form went across the room to the left, disappeared from view for a few seconds, then returned to open the door.

“Hey,” he said, looking a little out of breath.

“Is this a good time?”

“Yeah,” he said and let her through.

As soon as she stepped inside the place, she noticed the cream-colored curtain that hung from the ceiling, hiding the area to the left of the kitchen from view. “Oh, what's over here?” she asked, walking over.

He stepped in front of her before she could go further. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” he said, looking a little nervous.

“What are you hiding back there?” she asked, trying to peer over his shoulder.

He set his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. “It's just an idea I had. If you don't like it, you can say no,” he said and stepped aside.

With a curious smile, she grabbed a handful of the soft curtain and began to tug. Slowly the room came into view. The single bed was still in its original place but the dresser had been moved beside it, and the armchair and side table that once occupied the corner were now gone.

Rory gasped when she saw that her grandfather's desk now sat in their place.

“It's here,” she said, walking over. The massive desk was pushed against the wall, with a chair behind it and a lamp on top.

“Luke and I moved it earlier. I did most of the lifting, he did most of the grumbling,” Jess said, scratching the back of his head.

In that moment he reminded her of that boy she used to know, who often hid his insecurity under layers of bravado and sarcasm. “You moved the boxes too, didn't you?” she asked.

“I heard about it and figured Luke would appreciate an uncluttered house,” he said with a shrug.

She bit back a smile. “Look at you, going all HGTV all over town.”

He chuckled, that crooked smile finally coming out. “I just thought, what with your grandma's house being sold, that you needed a dedicated place to write. Somewhere quiet and away from the weirdos out there.”

“What about the weirdos in here?” she teased.

He yanked on the curtain, isolating them from the rest of the room. “There. You'll never even have to see me,” he said with a grin.

She sank down onto the plush computer chair and looked around, her heart fit to burst. Even when she didn't deserve it, Jess endeavored to make her happy.

He walked over and came to a stop beside her. “I know it's not as nice as the places you're used to but it's something,” he said, leaning against the desk.

She looked up at him with a grateful smile. “I love it. Thank you.”

“You sure? Because I could move it back,” he said with eyebrows raised.

“Don't you dare.”

He blew out a relieved breath. “Good. This thing weighs a ton.”

She stood up, belatedly realizing how close it brought them together. “Jess, about London...”

She felt him tense up, saw his jaws clench. “It wasn't my business. You didn't have to tell me anything,” he said.

“I didn't go there to be with Logan. I went there because he and I had unfinished business to take care of.”

His dark gaze held hers. “And is it finished?”

“Yes,” she said, finding it hard to breathe from their close proximity. She could feel the heat radiating from him and found herself leaning closer. “It's over.”

The tight coil that was his body unwound. “Then that's all I need to know,” he said in a raspy voice.

Rory couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything but look into the face of the boy who had always challenged her to do things beyond her comfort zone. Judging from the daring glint in his eyes, he looked to be provoking her to act again.

But she'd jumped once before, leaving everything safe and comfortable behind to be with Jess. She didn't know if she could take that leap again, knowing the pain that could meet her at the bottom.

“What are you scared of?” he whispered, eyes flying over her face.

“You,” she said a moment before she lunged forward and kissed him. 

 

 

Chapter 12

 

Jess kissed Rory like a man drawing breath after years of being underwater, she the air that filled his lungs. He wrapped his arms around her waist and dragged her closer until her body was flush with his, but it wasn't nearly close enough. Rory kissed him back with the same desperate kind of need, her hands smoothing over his face before moving up, threading through his hair.

And then it was over as soon as it began.

Rory wrenched herself away, looking as torn as she had when she'd kissed him at Sookie's wedding almost half a lifetime ago. She stared at him with wide eyes, holding a hand up to her mouth. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that.”

“Why the hell not?” he asked, struggling to catch his breath. “That was a damn good kiss. I could live in that kiss.”

“Because...” She bit her lips together, her eyebrows furrowed, and said nothing for the longest, most maddening length of time.

Jess set his hands on his waist and tried to breathe through the ever-increasing frustration. His body still vibrated from the kiss even as his brain struggled to make sense of the situation. “Well?”

She blinked at him, her eyes deep pools of uncertainty. Finally, after what seemed like a million freaking years, she spoke. “Jess,” she began, her voice wavering. “I'm... I'm...”

“What, Rory?” he exploded. He caught himself and took a steadying breath. In a less strained voice he said, “Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

“I'm having a baby.”

His entire body turned to stone. Those four words felt so final yet he knew they signaled the beginning of something more.

“I'm seven weeks along,” she continued.

He wanted her to stop speaking, to stop driving that stake into his chest, but he had asked to hear the truth and couldn't very well turn away from it now. His eyes flicked down to her stomach but her thick sweater revealed nothing of the secret. Suddenly all of those oversized shirts she'd been wearing lately made perfect sense. “You're pregnant?” he asked, feeling short of breath.

“Yes,” Rory whispered.

“Logan's?”

She nodded, looking as wretched as he felt.

Jess turned away, trying to absorb the information, but it all floated on the surface, refusing to sink.

“Say something, Jess,” Rory said, taking a step toward him.

He stopped her with a look. “You couldn't have told me sooner?”

“I was scared.”

“Of me?” he asked. “What did you think I'd do?”

“I thought you'd give me that look,” she said, motioning to his face.

“What look?”

“That! Like I'm some sort of screw-up.”

He sighed, trying to school his expression. But he'd never been very good at keeping his face from reflecting his emotions, especially when it came to her.

“Well, it's true, isn't it?” she asked, swiping at the tears on her cheek. “You think I've made a mess of my life.”

“Don't put words in my mouth,” he bit out.

She threw her hands up. “Then say something. Tell me you're disappointed. Tell me you expected more from me. Tell me I don't live up to expectation.”

He stared at her, finding it difficult to reconcile the girl he knew to this woman before him. He couldn't speak, and even if he could, he didn't know what to say. To keep from blurting out things he didn't mean—and plenty that he did—he ground his teeth and stalked off, yanking the curtain halfway off the rails as he passed by.

As soon as he got downstairs, Luke came at him with a plate of food. “Bring this to Rory, would you?” he asked.

Jess looked at the veggie burger with a side of steamed vegetables then back up at Luke. He couldn't believe he didn't figure it out sooner, with the salad and the decaf and the throwing up. All the clues were there, he'd just been too dense to see them. “You know, don't you?”

Luke studied Jess' face, understanding dawning on him. Finally, he gave a sigh. “Yeah.”

Jess ground his teeth, looking away. “Did everyone in this town know but me?”

“Hey, count yourself lucky that she told you. She didn't have to.”

“What do you mean she didn't have to? She and I were—” He stopped short, unable to finish the sentence.

“You were what?” Luke challenged. “Are you her boyfriend? Are you her fiancé? Are you anything other than the guy trying to get in her pants?”

Jess ground his teeth together, unable to say a word. Truth was, he was just a guy who'd thought he was finally worthy of the girl he loved.

“What makes you think you had a right to know before she was ready to tell you?” Luke asked.

Jess set the plate on the counter with a clang. “I'm out of here.”

“Jess...” Luke began but Jess was already gone.

 

Rory stared at the door through tear-blurred eyes, holding onto the hope that Jess would change his mind and come back. But deep down she knew he wouldn't. What self-respecting man would return after what she'd just told him? She didn't blame him, which was not to say his reaction didn't hurt.

After some time, she wiped at her cheeks and tried to gather whatever was left of her dignity. The memory of the kiss still lingered on her lips, a reminder of what they used to have. Even now, a single kiss from Jess still managed to take her breath away.

Well, whatever else happens between us, at least we know that part works.

His words from a long time ago echoed in her head as she grabbed a chair and began to clip the curtains back onto the rails. From the first moment she met him, she'd felt drawn to him. Oftentimes she'd imagined an invisible thread tethering them together, and even there was a lot of slack over the years, she always felt that connection. But now that thread was beginning to fray and she knew it was only a matter of time before it snapped altogether.

When she finished with the curtains, she stood back and looked longingly at the lovely space Jess had carved out for her. For a second there, before everything had barreled downhill, she had actually envisioned herself writing at the desk late into the night, imagined Jess doing the same right across the room.

“Well, it was nice while it lasted,” she murmured before turning off the lights and going back downstairs. She almost made it to the diner door unnoticed when she heard Luke call out her name.

She turned to him, hoping her eyes weren't red and puffy, but the moment she saw his expression she realized he knew. Luke was an unassuming guy, content to blend into the background, but the man never missed a thing.

“Come on,” Luke said with a knowing look and set a plate and glass down on the table at the corner, away from the rest of the diner. “You must be hungry.”

Her mother breezed in the door at the same time, filling the room with her manic energy. “There you are. So I was sitting in the living room by myself, holding a Virgin Mary candle just in case, when I heard this noise coming from the hallway closet—” She stopped and gave a puzzled look over Rory's shoulder. “What are you doing?” she asked Luke. “You look like a flight attendant giving the world's most confused pre-flight demonstration.”

Luke let out a long-suffering sigh. “I was telling you to take it down a notch,” he said right before a customer called him over.

“You can take off the kid gloves,” Rory said, taking a seat. “I'm fine.”

Lorelai took the seat beside her, wearing her concerned mother face. “What happened?”

“I told Jess,” Rory said and took a bite of the burger to keep from having to say more.

“And?” Lorelai asked. When Rory took another unhurried bite, Lorelai added, “Honey, you gotta chew a little faster here. If there was ever a time for you to eat like a Gilmore, it's now. Time to put all those years of training into practice. Chop, chop. Or, more appropriately: Chew, chew.”

Rory swallowed and took a drink of orange juice. “He stormed out in typical Jess fashion.”

“He did?” her mother asked, looking genuinely surprised. “He didn't even stay to talk about it?”

Rory shook her head. “What's there to talk about? I'm pregnant and he's not the father. End of story.”

“Not end of story,” Lorelai said, her blue eyes sparking. “If he really cared about you, he wouldn't just up and leave. The old Jess, sure. But he's older now. I have to believe he's evolved past that.”

“Turns out he hasn't.” Rory picked up the fork and poked at the broccoli. Her brain said she needed to eat it for the baby but her stomach balked at the idea. Or maybe it was just the idea of Jess leaving that had her stomach roiling. “He's probably headed back to Philadelphia as we speak.”

“No, his car is still parked outside,” Lorelai said.

Rory resisted the urge to look, afraid her mother might be mistaken. “In any event, he didn't want to stay and talk it out.”

“Give him time. He's always been a bit of a hothead but his heart is usually in the right place.”

Rory stabbed a baby carrot with her fork and swirled it mindlessly around the plate. “Our timing has always been off, but this time I thought things would be different.” She blinked, trying to fend back the tears. “Maybe it's time to retire that idea. Maybe I need to accept that Jess and I just aren't meant to be.” A tear slid down her cheek. She'd never been more glad than at that moment to have her back to the rest of the diner. The last thing she needed was to have more people finding out about the baby.

Lorelai took a napkin from the dispenser and handed it over. “Honey...”

Rory wiped at the corners of her eyes, soaking up any other tears that threatened to escape. “I feel like all I've done since I got back to Stars Hollow is cry.”

“You have pregnancy hormones to blame for that.”

“And I have to pee all the time. What is that about?”

Lorelai nodded. “Pregnancy.”

“And the—”

“Pregnancy.”

“What about—”

“Pregnancy.”

Rory let out a soft chuckle, her mother's presence easing some of the tightness in her chest. “If I can be half the mother that you are, I'd consider myself successful.”

Lorelai flashed her a warm smile as she reached over and squeezed Rory's hand. “Not even a question, kid.”

 

 

Chapter 13

 

Rory met the new day with renewed spirit. Last night's events had jumpstarted the part of her that had lain dormant all these years, the part of her that still wished and dreamed, and she woke up rearing to go. Before her mother had even come downstairs, Rory was already showered, dressed, and making a healthy breakfast.

“Coffee, coffee, coffee,” Lorelai chanted as soon as she entered the kitchen.

“Morning to you too, Sunshine,” Rory said from where she sat the kitchen table. She stared down at the bowl in front of her, contemplating its goopy contents, before finally lifting a spoonful up to her mouth. The lack of taste almost made her gag. “I know this is supposed to be oatmeal, but why does it taste like the color beige?”

Lorelai walked over and handed her the Nutella jar. “One or two spoonfuls. Trust me.”

Rory, desperate for her tastebuds to live again, swirled a spoonful of Nutella into the oatmeal before trying another bite.

“Eh?” Lorelai asked with a smile. “What did I tell ya?”

“Not bad.”

“And it's got hazelnuts, so there's one of your food groups.”

“I don't think it works like that,” Rory said, taking another bite.

“Course it does. It's science.” Lorelai yawned as she sat down at the table with her mug of coffee. “So why are you up so early today?”

“I'm getting my life in order.”

Her mother's eyebrows rose.

Rory consulted her notebook. “First item on the agenda: Go to Hartford and get license renewed.”

“You mean you've been driving around with an expired license?”

Rory ducked her head, avoiding her mother's shocked gaze. “Two: Buy a car.”

“What kind?”

“I haven't decided.”

“You mean you haven't already created a spreadsheet, comparing all the cars based on mileage, trunk size, and cost?” Lorelai asked.

Rory pulled out a printed sheet from under the notebook. “I have. I just haven't made up my mind yet,” she said. “Item three: Find place to live. Four: Sign up for grad school.”

At that, Lorelai's eyes grew wide. “Grad school? What? When did this happen?”

“Last night. I couldn't turn off my brain to sleep. I just laid in my bed and thought about my life, about where I am and where I'm headed. And to be honest, I don't know where that is. For the first time in my life, I feel rudderless. Aimless. As I was laying there, my thoughts kept drifting back to Grandpa, during that low time in his life when he was forced to retire from his company,” Rory said, feeling a wistful smile touch her lips. “He didn't let that get him down. He got back up and built a new company to rival the old. That was Richard Gilmore, you know? Whenever life knocked him down, he always got back up.”

“Yes, he did,” Lorelai said with a wavery smile.

“I like to think that he handed that tenacity down to his daughter. And, hopefully, to his granddaughter.”

“There's not even a question.”

Rory nodded. “So I'm not going to let this get me down. I've decided where I want to go—back to school to get my masters.”

“Plus, school, right?” Lorelai asked with a knowing smile.

Rory shrugged, even as the thought of returning to school thrilled her. “I am kind of looking forward to going back to school. The books, the classrooms, the school supplies,” she said. “It'll be fun.”

 

A little while later, Rory followed Lorelai out the front door with a box in her arms.

“Where are you going?” Lorelai asked. “The DMV doesn't open for another few hours.”

Rory held up the box. “I need to get some things done before then.”

“Need a ride?” Lorelai asked, getting into the car.

“Sure.”

Lorelai started up her Jeep and started backing out of the driveway. “You know, you don't have to move out. You can stay as long as you need. Forever, if you want,” Lorelai said as she drove. “Luke is already drawing up plans to extend the house.”

The image of Luke mulling over blueprints brought an unexpected smile to Rory's face. She counted herself lucky to have such a wonderful father figure in her life. “That's sweet. But I think I need to do this. It's strange but I sometimes still feel like a kid in that house, like I'm in a state of arrested development. I think it's time for me to find a place where I can plant my roots and grow. Somewhere... mine,” Rory said. “Does that make sense?”

Lorelai reached over and patted Rory's hand, her eyes misty. “More than you know.”

 

Jess awoke to the sound of the front door opening. He lifted his head off the bed, listening to someone moving around the apartment, pulling aside the curtain. He rolled over to his stomach and tried to go back to sleep, but the sounds carried across the apartment.

“Luke, keep it down,” Jess grumbled, tugging a pillow over his head. He groaned when the footsteps became louder as his uncle made his way over to the bed, no doubt to berate Jess for pulling a disappearing act last night. But Jess hadn't really gone anywhere; he'd only sat on the old bridge, trying to parse through his jumbled emotions, only coming back to the apartment when his toes and fingers had gone numb from the cold.

“You're here,” said a surprised voice that was definitely not his uncle's.

Jess peered out from under the pillow, his eyes making out legs in dark skinny jeans, sweeping up to the long sweater, and coming to a stop at a pale face furrowed with emotion. “So are you,” he said.

“I didn't know you'd be here.”

“Well, I am.” He let out a sigh and turned his head away, hoping she'd get the hint.

“Sorry for waking you. I'll try to keep it down.” And without an explanation of what she was doing here, or how she even got in, Rory walked off. A few minutes later, he heard the unmistakable sound of fingers tapping on a keyboard.

He wrenched his eyes shut, trying to force his mind to go blank, but Rory's presence was impossible to ignore. How could he, when she was right across the way, typing madly on her laptop. His brain betrayed him by speculating on what she could be writing, and he found himself badly wanting to read over her shoulder as she did.

Before he knew it, he was rising up out of the bed and padding across the apartment in his bare feet. Through the partly open curtain, he could see Rory at the desk, her attention on her computer. On the floor beside the desk sat a box full of books and office supplies.

Jess stood back a moment and observed her working, feeling a small sense of satisfaction that she was actually using the writing area he had created for her. He and Luke had all but killed themselves trying to get that behemoth up the narrow stairwell, but seeing Rory utilize it made all the aches and pulled muscles worthwhile. Even if he and Rory couldn't be together, at least he could give her the gift of an office.

“What are you doing here? It's not even seven in the morning,” Jess said in his best disgruntled voice. Belatedly he realized he was shirtless, but decided he didn't care. If she was just going to come barging in here, then she had better be prepared to see all manners of things.

Her eyes flicked down to his bare torso, looking unimpressed, then she turned her attention back to the computer. “Filling out grad school applications.”

That gave him pause. “Grad school?”

With her eyes on the screen, she nodded. “Yes. I'm going to get my masters.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, thinking of the possibilities. He'd always thought she should have gone to grad school immediately after graduating from Yale, but there was no way she would have taken educational advice from unruly jerk who didn't even graduate high school. Sure he got his GED after the fact, but in the grand scheme of things, he was still a dropout and she was an Ivy League school grad. They were the living, breathing West Side Story of Stars Hollow. “What's the endgame?” he asked.

“Teach at Chilton.”

That took him aback. “Teaching? Since when?” But the image of Rory in front of a classroom wasn't all that hard to imagine. He remembered when she'd tried to tutor him once upon a time, and how it had ended in complete disaster that resulted in him skipping town. But then, that had all been his fault, not hers. He was sure she would have proven herself an excellent tutor had he not been so difficult.

“Since Headmaster Charleston offered me a job,” Rory said, bristling.

“What about journalism? For as long as I've known you, you've been propelling yourself towards becoming a journalist. Why settle?”

“I'm not settling,” she said with a resolute set to her jaw. “I'm merely changing course.”

“You good with kids?”

She flashed him a nervous smile. “Guess I'll find out in seven months.”

The mention of the baby was like a deluge of cold water over his head, dousing any warm feelings that might have started to return. It was exactly what he needed to remind himself why they were here in this place, with this gaping chasm between them, talking without really saying anything at all.

He turned to leave when Rory's voice reached out and held him in place. “Jess. We should talk.”

He shook his head, keeping his back to her. “It's not going to work, Rory. It's too complicated.”

“Can we still be friends?”

When he turned around, he found her standing only a few feet away. He gazed at her, thinking how beautiful she was in that moment, her face absolutely aglow, her eyes so blue and hopeful. He thought of the girl who had visited him in New York despite the fact that he'd just crashed her car and fractured her wrist a few weeks before, remembered the rueful expression on her face when they'd said their goodbyes. He had decided in that moment he would do anything to see her smile again. Because if there was only one constant in Jess Mariano's mercurial existence it was this: He loved Rory and would do anything for her. Even hurt himself over and over to make her happy.

He let out a sigh. “Yeah. Friends.”

 

 

Chapter 14

 

For as long as Luke could remember, he'd been serving Thanksgiving lunch at his diner for the townspeople of Stars Hollow. This lunch had become something of an institution over the years, like a giant family gathering where people were free to come and go, eat and mingle, before going home to unbutton their pants and take a nap. And though Luke would never admit it, Thanksgiving was one of his favorite days of the year.

On any given day, Luke was territorial over his diner but today, of all days, he didn't mind some behind-the-counter participation. For the most part, he actually liked Lorelai coming back there to help prepare food (as much as she was able, considering her lack of experience with a knife, or a ladle, or anything involving cookware), enjoyed the sight of Rory moving around the diner, refilling the shakers and decorating each table with tiny pumpkins and pine cones. Even if he grumbled and barked out orders, having Lorelai and Rory helping with the meal made Luke feel as if he were a part of a team. A family.

“What's with the goofy smile on your face?”

Luke's serene moment popped the moment his nephew showed his face. As much as he liked Jess and was proud of his success, the guy had a real talent for rousing the hornet's nest. “Here,” Luke said, handing Jess a bucket full of silverware and the special cloth napkins reserved for special occasions. “Start wrapping.”

“I need coffee first.”

Luke took hold of Jess' shoulders and steered him toward a table. “Fold now, coffee later.”

“I'm calling my union,” Jess quipped, casting a quick glance across the room at Rory before turning to his task.

Shaking his head, Luke poured out a cup of coffee and set it in front of Jess. Luke wanted to ask about the Rory situation but resisted. He was trying this newfangled thing called staying out of people's business. He wasn't sure he could do it, not when it came to people he actually cared about, but he'd at least give the impression that he was trying.

Jess took a grateful sip of the coffee. “I know what you want to ask me,” he said in a low voice. “And the answer is no. We're just friends. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Luke held up his hands, backing off. “Hey, I didn't say a word.”

Jess' eyes flicked over to Rory once again. “You didn't have to.”

“Make way. The most amazing cranberry sauce coming through,” Lorelai said, holding a bowl up in the air with one hand as she sashayed out of the kitchen. A moment later, her hip caught on the edge of the counter.

Luke watched the entire thing happen as if in slow motion—Lorelai bounced off the counter just as the glass bowl came flying out of her hands. It sailed through the air and landed face down onto the floor, red sauce splattering everywhere.

Lorelai's hands flew up to her mouth, her eyes as wide as the splash radius.

Luke wiped at the sauce spot on his cheek, shaking his head as he surveyed the mess. “People are going to come in here and wonder who got murdered.”

“Time to call Dexter Morgan,” Jess said from where he sat.

Rory walked over, biting back a laugh. “Now if we only knew someone with experience in drawing chalk outlines,” she said, flashing Jess a meaningful smile.

Jess just gave her a tight smile in return and got up. “I'll go get the mop,” he said and walked off to the stock room.

 

Rory watched Jess retreat to the back of the diner, a little disappointed he'd chosen not to acknowledge her reference. Still, she wasn't naive enough to think he'd be all jokes and smiles already; it would take time and patience to earn back his regard.

After helping her mother wipe up cranberry sauce from the baseboards, Rory looked around the room and realized they'd missed something. “We didn't get flowers,” she said and turned to Luke. “Do you have a vase?”

“Yes he does,” Lorelai said with a wide smile. “Ask him how many.”

Luke let out a deep sigh. “Your mother's been buying me a vase every year since we got back together, so now I am two vases short of a dozen,” he said. “She won't stop buying them.”

“It's not my fault you have hoarding tendencies,” Lorelai said, smiling at him with warm eyes.

“Or that you have compulsive buying disorder,” Luke shot back.

It occurred to Rory that this back and forth ribbing between her mother and Luke was their own unique way of flirting. All these years they'd been doing it right in of Rory and she hadn't even known. “Okay, well, while you two bicker, I'll just run over to Gabby's and buy us some flowers,” Rory said and started for the door.

“Hurry. We start eating right on the hour,” Lorelai called out. “As soon as Cesar makes more cranberry sauce, anyway.”

Rory rushed out, heading down the sidewalk towards Gabby's Flowers. But when she got there, she found it had already closed for the day. She turned to the next best place: Doose's Market. Thankfully, the market was still open but their flower selection was paltry at best.

“Do you have anymore in the back?” Rory asked Taylor as she looked over the three bouquets available.

Taylor paused from making half-off signs for his leftover pumpkins. “That's all we have left. It's Thanksgiving, not Mother's Day.”

Barely suppressing an eye-roll, Rory picked out the biggest bouquet and took it to the cash register. As she was paying, she heard the unmistakeable voice of Zack Van Gerbig somewhere within the store. After Rory received her receipt, she followed the voice to the back corner of the store, finding Lane's husband on the phone, staring at a shelf full of cold and flu medicine.

“Which one? Cold and flu, just cold, or just flu?” he said. “Nighttime cold or daytime flu? Gel caps or liquid? Lane, this is giving me a headache. I'd go get some medicine for that too but I'm afraid to look and fall into some sort of drug-confused inception.”

“Hey, Zack,” Rory said, approaching. “Is Lane sick?”

Zack hung up and nodded in that loose, swaying way of his, as if he's always hearing a beat. “As a dog. She's bedridden and hacking up buckets of phlegm. So uncool,” he said then added, “because, you know, fever.”

Rory asked him to list Lane's ailments and then picked out the most appropriate medication. “Try this one. This is what works best for me,” she said, handing him an orange box. Then she grabbed the blue box too. “Might as well take this to be sure.”

“Thanks,” Zack said. “I guess it's just me and the boys eating tofurkey with the in-laws this year.”

“Ah, the infamous tofurkey,” Rory said with a smile. It had been years since she'd been invited over for a Korean Thanksgiving, but the taste of tofu cooked to mimic turkey meat was one she didn't think she'd ever forget. “Well, give Lane my best,” Rory said, a plan already forming in her head.

“Will do.”

 

Thanksgiving lunch went off without further problems. Turkeys were sliced, gravy was ladled, and as usual, Lorelai stole the marshmallows off Luke's sweet potatoes.

“I missed this,” Rory said, her eyes floating around at the happy faces around the room. She had spent the last several years hopping from one Thanksgiving table to another, but no place had ever felt as comfortable, as right, as in this diner with her mother, and Luke, and this odd assortment of people. Even if Jess was sitting across the room, braving his meal with Miss Patty and her overt advances, Rory still felt a feeling of contentment settle over her.

 

After finishing her food, Rory pushed away from the table and picked up her plate.

“You done already?” Lorelai asked, giving Rory a bewildered look. “You haven't even had seconds. Or pie. You can't miss the pie.”

“The pie will be eaten, I promise,” Rory said. “First I want to take some food over to Lane.”

Luke frowned up at her. “Isn't she down with the flu?”

“And with OPP?” Lorelai piped in.

“She is,” Rory said with a nod. “Which is why she'll need some food. So if you'll excuse me,” Rory added and headed to the kitchen.

A few minutes later, Rory started out the door with a paper sack full of food in her arms. She was already halfway down the street when she heard footsteps coming up fast behind her. Then Jess appeared at her side, his hands in his pockets and a sheepish grin on his face.

“Uh, hello.” Rory expected him to breeze past but he remained in step with her. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“I'm just here to make sure you don't get mugged,” he said with a shrug.

“Because Stars Hollow is second only to Detroit in violent crime?”

“Look, I'm only doing my civic duty,” he said.

Rory shook her head. Typical Jess, not giving a straight answer.

They remained unspeaking until they rounded on Lane's house, the same place where Sookie and Jackson used to live before their family had outgrown it.

Jess jumped up onto the porch steps and held out his hand. “Here, I'll take it inside.”

“I'm perfectly capable of doing it myself,” Rory said, trying to move past him but Jess blocked her way, his body a warm, immovable wall.

“Let me take it, Rory,” he said, his voice hard and forbidding.

She held onto the paper sack, her eyes flying over his face, searching for clues to his bizarre behavior. “What is with you?” she asked and tried to dodge past him again. She froze when his arm wrapped around her, holding her in place.

“Rory, just let me do this, okay?” he asked, the texture of his voice changing, softening. With his face uncomfortably close, he pried the sack from her hands. “Wait here.” Then he turned away, opening the front door and calling out a greeting to Lane. When he heard her voice, he promptly disappeared inside.

Rory stood on the porch, staring after him. A minute later, she heard a window sliding open, then Jess stuck his head out. “Come on,” he said with a crooked grin.

Rory walked over and peered into the window, seeing Lane in her bed. “Hey there, sicko,” Rory said with a wave.

Lane shifted to a sitting position, her short hair sticking up in places. “Why are you out there?” she asked in a hoarse, congested voice. She shot a puzzled look up at Jess. “And why is he in here?”

“I have no idea.” Rory watched him unload the food, setting each container on the side table beside Lane. A shiver traveled through her and she hugged her arms around herself, wishing she'd remembered to take a jacket. But, then again, she hadn't exactly counted on her food run being hijacked.

“Thank you,” Lane said when Jess handed her a fork and knife.

“So how are you feeling?” Rory asked, leaning closer to the window.

“Better now,” Lane said, opening the container with the stuffing and taking a bite. “I can't taste anything but I'm sure this is delicious.”

“Luke certainly outdid himself this year,” Jess said, walking over to Rory as he shrugged his jacket off. A moment later, he stuck it out the window.

Rory didn't hesitate to take the jacket. As soon as slipped it on, she was immediately enveloped in his lingering warmth. Its fuzzy collar even smelled like him, his scent floating around her like a cool ocean breeze. “Thanks,” she said, their eyes locked.

He nodded, saying nothing. But even in the absence of words, Rory could feel the silent push and pull between them.

“What's going on between you two?” Lane asked. “I'm either sensing some major tension here or the Dayquil is really kicking in. Or was that Nyquil I took?”

“Definitely the Nyquil,” Jess called over his shoulder.

“But why is Rory afraid to enter my house? Is she a vampire?” Lane insisted. 

Jess held Rory's gaze, his jaw muscles working. “No,” he said. “I just don't want her to catch the flu.”

Rory's chest swelled as his actions came into focus. Despite it all, Jess was trying to take care of her—and the baby—in his own gruff way.

She opened her mouth to give voice to her gratitude, but he turned away from the window and walked back over to Lane. “Do you need anything else?” he asked, actively avoiding looking at the misty-eyed girl at the window. “Maybe some juice? Water? Whiskey?”

Lane held up a container, taking huge chunks out of the cranberry jelly and scooping it directly into her mouth. “Nope. It's all good.”

 

 

Chapter 15

 

“What's going on here?”

Jess spun around to face his uncle, a can of Lysol in his hand. “Decontaminating,” he said and finished spraying off the couch.

Luke stood in the middle of the room and surveyed what used to be his bachelor apartment. It was mostly the same, save for one glaring thing. “What's with the curtain?” he asked, walking up to scrutinize the curtain rails affixed to the ceiling. “Are you putting on an off-Broadway play up here? Please tell me I'm just in time for the matinee?”

“It's just an office, Sondheim,” Jess said, shaking his head. He walked over and pulled the curtain aside, revealing Rory's pristine writing space. Jess had spent all morning disinfecting every surface and cleaning the floors. He wasn't sure if or when Rory would be back to write, but he wanted to be sure there were no lingering traces of the flu virus just in case.

“So that's what you did with this thing,” Luke said, walking over to the desk. He stood there, arms folded over his chest, looking around. But even as he said nothing, Jess could feel Luke's curiosity poking around. “Has she used it?” Luke asked, unable to help himself.

“Yeah. Once,” he said with a nod.

“You think she'll come back again?”

Jess shrugged. “Who knows.”

Luke raised a dark eyebrow, unconvinced by Jess' nonchalant act. “Because you know, with the way things are, how you've been avoiding her...”

Jess turned away, unable to come up with a response that wouldn't betray his feelings on the matter. “So, did you need something?”

“Yeah, I was looking for this.” Luke walked over to the kitchen table and grabbed the bucket full of cleaning sprays and sponges. On his way to the door, he stopped and turned around. “Don't expect her anytime soon. She's out looking at houses right now.”

A strange prickle went down the back of Jess' neck. “Houses?”

“I told her she could stay with me and Lorelai but she's got it in her head to move out. Said she wants a place to raise the baby on her own. She's got her mother's independent streak for sure.”

A vision of Rory raising a child alone flashed before Jess' eyes. He rubbed his chest to ease the tightness there, pushing the image out of his head. “In Stars Hollow?” he asked.

“Maybe. Or in one of the neighboring towns.”

“Rory not living in Stars Hollow?” Jess asked. “That doesn't seem right.”

“When you have no choice, you have no choice,” Luke said and left Jess to stew in his own thoughts.

 

After looking at the third house that day, Rory went over to what mother lovingly calls “the Katy Perry house” where Lorelai was overseeing the renovations to turn it into the Dragonfly Inn spa annex.

“Mom?” Rory called out as she walked past a man with a yellow hard hat on his head and a two-by-four on his shoulder.

“Over here,” Lorelai said.

Rory followed the sound of her mother's voice and found her with Michel and Tom, the contractor, looking over a set of blueprint plans on the table.

“I'm not so sure we should build a wall there,” Tom said, pointing a stubby finger to the print.

“Yes, wonderful idea. Let's leave the walls out of the changing room,” Michel said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “We can call it a flashing room instead. Then we can change the name of the inn to The Openfly and make it a nude resort.” He scoffed when Tom nodded as if the idea had real merit.

Lorelai turned away with an amused shake of the head, leaving Michel to deal with the foreman. “Michel's head might actually explode today,” she said with a conspiratorial grin.

“Now that I'd like to see,” Rory said, looking over at the Frenchman.

“Hey, what are you doing here? I thought you were looking at houses?” Lorelai asked.

“I was,” Rory said.

“And?”

“I might have found a place. But I want you to see it before I make an offer.”

Lorelai frowned. “What's wrong with it?”

“Nothing major. A few things to update here and there,” Rory said.

“So what's the issue?”

Rory blinked off into space. “I can't tell if it's the house I like or just the idea of decorating something. I just really want to buy furniture and move it around and around until I find a configuration I'm happy with.”

Lorelai patted her hand. “I believe you have just entered the nesting phase of the pregnancy.”

“Well, it needs to stop. I found myself signing up for Pinterest last night and pinning hundreds of pictures of baby rooms. What is happening to me? I don't pin! I'm not a pinner.”

“Well hold onto your hand-stitched britches, honey, because it will get worse as the pregnancy progresses. Next thing you know, you'll find yourself crafting.”

“Oh, God.”

Lorelai shook her head, leading Rory out the front door. “Let's go. I want to see the house responsible for the Etsyficiation of my daughter.”

 

A few minutes later, Rory parked her new car in front of a pale yellow, one story Victorian bungalow in the outskirts of Stars Hollow.

“Oh,” Lorelai said as she stepped out of the car, her eyes fixed in horror at the house before her. The house wouldn't be winning any neighborhood awards, with its peeling paint and falling gutters, and the wisteria plant that had once adorned the roof was nothing more than a collection of desiccated branches, but Rory thought the house had some potential.

“I know it's a little rundown but it's kind of cute, don't you think?” she asked.

“I think...” Lorelai cocked her head and tried to look at it from a different angle. “I don't know what to think.”

“The realtor said it was a fixer-upper,” Rory said.

“Well your realtor didn't lie.” Lorelai walked up the uneven path, her heels catching on the broken brick, and up onto the rickety porch. She tried the front door but found it locked. “How many bedrooms?” she asked, walking to a window and peering inside.

“Three.”

“Bathrooms?”

“Two.”

“Square feet?”

“Twelve hundred square feet.” Rory followed her mother down the porch, around to the back of the house, ending the tour where they began. “It's within my budget and less than a ten minute walk to town.”

Finally, Lorelai stopped. Rory could see her mother's thoughts explicitly on her face. “You don't like it,” Rory said.

“I didn't say that...”

“You didn't not say it.”

Lorelai's eyes flicked back up to the front facade of the house. “It's not exactly move-in ready.”

“I can renovate bit by bit. I'm not scared of a little hard work,” Rory said. If anything about the past year had taught her anything, it was that she couldn't wait around and hope that her dreams came true.

“Twelve hundred square feet is not very big when raising a child.”

“You raised me in a shed,” Rory pointed out.

Lorelai sighed. “So you love it?”

Rory turned her gaze back to the yellow house, imagining herself in a rocking chair on the porch, cradling a baby in her arms. The idea sent a little jolt of fear through her but, more than anything, she found herself incredibly moved. This life wasn't one she hadn't counted on, but it was the one she wanted. “Yeah. I do.”

 

Jess sat at the desk, fingers picking away at Big Helga's keys, but no matter how hard he tried, the words would not come. For every word he'd written the past hour, he'd had to delete two. The most frustrating part was that he knew where his story was headed; he just couldn't figure out how to get there.

With a groan, he lowered his head to the laptop and smacked his forehead on the keys. Deciding to take the William Faulkner approach to writing, he got up to go to the kitchen, reaching into the cabinet by the sink for the whiskey bottle and a tumbler. He was busy pouring the amber liquid when someone knocked on the door.

“Come in.” He turned and leaned against the counter just as Rory entered with a pizza box in her hands.

“Hey. I got you some Antonioli's,” she said with a small smile.

“Luke let you bring that in here?”

“I may have sneaked it in,” she said, walking over and setting the box on the kitchen table.

He remained by the counter, sipping his drink. “You do realize you're bringing food to a man who lives above a diner, right?” he asked. “Or have you decided to start a delivery service?”

She shrugged. “I just wanted to thank you for jumping on a flu-infected grenade for me.”

“Does Lane know you talk about her like that?” he asked with a teasing lift to his eyebrow.

“Just... thank you,” she said and turned to go.

“Not writing tonight?” he asked before she could leave.

She turned to face him, her lower lip trapped between her teeth. “I wouldn't be able to focus. I have so many things on my mind.” She looked at him for a moment before saying, “I put an offer in on a house today.”

“Yeah?”

She nodded, her eyes bright. “We haven't heard back from the homeowners yet, but I'm hoping they'll accept.”

“In Stars Hollow?”

“Yes, a few blocks west of here.”

“Good. This town wouldn't be the same without you,” he said, their eyes meeting across the way. He cleared his throat and turned away, grabbing two plates out of the cabinet. “You hungry?” he asked, taking a slice of the pizza and holding it out to her.

“No, thanks. I got it for you,” she said.

“There's no way I can eat a whole large pizza by myself, especially seeing as you asked for every topping known to man.” He set the plate down in front of her and grabbed a slice for himself. He took a seat across the table, chewing and waiting until she finally relented and sat down. The awkward silence wrapped around them as she picked the olives off her pizza.

“So tell me about this house,” he said to fill the lull.

A smile touched her mouth. “Well, it desperately needs updating but it's got good architectural bones. It just needs a little work.”

“You need a handyman?” he asked, unable to help himself. He shook his head, realizing he was just like his uncle who couldn't leave well enough alone, not when someone he cared about was in need. Hell, Jess would tear down that house and rebuild it from the ground up with his bare hands if that was what Rory needed.

“I'm going to need a whole construction team,” she said.

Without warning, he reached over the table and plucked the olives from her plate, popping them into his mouth with a grin. “Still don't like olives, I see.”

“Still stealing them off my plate, I see,” she said, shaking her head.

“You know, if the deal with the house falls through, you can always stay here,” he said and realized too late the implications of his words. “I mean, after I leave.”

She tried to school her features but he could see she was struggling with his news. “When is that?”

“When I get done writing my book. And when I'm done helping you with yours.”

Her eyes flicked down to her plate. “Oh.”

“I need to head back home soon,” he said, feeling the need to explain. It seemed imperative that she understand he wasn't abandoning her again. “I still have a press to run, business to take care of.”

She nodded. “Will you be back?”

“Sure. Holidays and special occasions.” He swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Or if you need me. With your book.”

“Okay.” They stared at each other across the table, the divide seemingly so wide between them. Finally, Rory rose to her feet. “Well, it's late. I should probably get home.”

He motioned to her plate. “You haven't even touched your pizza.”

She pressed a hand to her stomach, an apologetic look on her face. “Sorry. I'm actually not very hungry.”

He followed her to the door, wishing he hadn't mentioned the apartment. For a minute there it was almost like old times; trust his big mouth to ruin the moment.

Rory stopped at the door, her eyebrows drawn together in thought. “Jess?”

The tone of her voice gave him pause. “Yeah?”

She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “I don't think I can do this anymore. This, being friends with you.”

Every muscle in his body froze. He hadn't known until that moment, until she said those words, how much he wanted to remain in Rory's life. And even if he'd lived in Philadelphia for a long time, the past few weeks had him reevaluating the place he called home. “Rory...” he said, taking a step forward.

“No, Jess,” she said, holding her hand against his chest. “Just let me get this out. Please.”

Left without a choice, he ground his teeth together and waited, keenly aware of her palm over his heart.

Rory fixed him with a determined gaze. “Today, I realized something about myself, a flaw that has held me back for a while now. I grew up with so many opportunities available to me, so many advantages that other people don't have, but I took them for granted. I unknowingly walked around with this sense of entitlement, expecting good things to fall in my lap. So when nothing happened, when my dream life didn't magically materialize in front of me, I fell apart,” she said. “But I'm picking myself back up. I'm rebuilding and working towards a better life. Because if I've learned anything this year, it's that I have to work hard for what I want. And if things don't work out the way I envisioned, then I'd better be prepared to fight for it.”

Jess stood rooted to the spot, unable to look away from her luminous face. “So what are you for fighting for, Rory?”

Her eyes glittered as she looked up at him. “You,” she replied. “I'm fighting for you.”

 

 

Chapter 16

 

“I thought we agreed to stay friends?” Jess asked.

Rory looked up at him, knocked back by the ominous expression on his face. “We did, but...”

“But what? Isn't that enough for you?”

Rory's heart thudded out of her chest. She hadn't known what to expect when she'd made her grand speech, hadn't even planned to say anything until the words started spilling out of her mouth, but she'd hoped for a different reaction. Perhaps a little more smile and a little less grimace. Regardless, she had just given a speech about being a fighter and couldn't very well back down now. Time to walk the walk. “No, that's not enough for me,” she said.

“Well, you don't have much of a choice.”

Rory squared her shoulders and nodded, fighting the urge to avert her eyes. “I do. And I'm choosing you.”

He stood stock still, acting as if her words didn't affect him, but his flaring nostrils gave him away. “Rory...”

She waited for him to declare he was done, that it was all too complicated, but he didn't say anything at all. Hope buoyed her, filled her lungs with air. “Would you like to go on a date with me tomorrow?”

His eyebrows drew together, his dark eyes flying over her face. He didn't speak for what seemed like hours until, finally, “What time?”

She let out a breath. “I'll let you know. I'm not the kind of girl who lives by a schedule,” she said with a grin.

He was still for a moment, then the corner of his mouth tugged up. “Guess I'll sit at home on a Saturday night and wait for your call then.”

“Do that,” she said and turned to leave. She took two steps, changed her mind, and whirled back around. “Six thirty,” she added then left.

 

“Did something good happen or is this pregnancy glow?” Lorelai asked as mother and daughter walked to the diner that sunny Saturday morning. “Wait, don't tell me. You had a really good Alexander Skarsgard dream, right? The one where he's wet and shirtless in the jungle, with the V prominently showing?”

“No, but now I wish I had,” Rory said.

“Don't underestimate the V. Many men have carved their careers out of that area of the body. Ryan Reynolds, Joe Manganiello, Chris Hemsworth, Channing Tatum. The power of a chiseled hip is infinite.”

Rory laughed. “There was no V involved,” she replied. “I just got the call from my realtor. My offer was accepted.”

Lorelai stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, her mouth dropping open. “Honey, that's amazing. Congratulations! That's way better than a V.”

“Yeah, I can't believe it. I'm going to be a homeowner.” She shook her head, still a little shaken by the news. It was all becoming so real—the house, the baby, the growing up.

“It'll be great,” her mother said, squeezing her hand. “Luke and I will help.”

“Thank you, but please don't feel like you have to.” Rory turned, realizing they were standing in front of the diner. Through the window she could see Jess walking around, setting plates in front of customers. “Hey, where's Luke?” Rory asked her mother.

“Jess sent him home,” Lorelai said.

Rory watched as Jess maneuvered around tables with practiced efficiency. “Why?”

“We don't know. Jess just came downstairs this morning and said he was giving Luke the morning off to relax.”

“Huh.” A smile grew on Rory's face as Jess wrote down an order and stuck the pad of paper in his back pocket. “So what's Luke doing right now?”

“I'll tell you what he's not doing. He's not relaxing like he's supposed to,” Lorelai said, her phone held up to her ear. “He's left me several messages since we left the house, asking me for a list of things to repair. The man has gone cuckoo-bananas.”

“He's obviously never heard of Saturday, the holy day of pre-rest. Not a religious man, that Luke,” Rory said in mock-commiseration.

Lorelai checked her phone again, shaking her head. “Well, he's resorted to putting up Christmas lights. That should keep him busy for several hours.”

“I never took Luke as a Christmas decorations kind of guy.”

“That's because he's not. He must be desperate. Maybe I should go home and break something for him to fix.”

Rory threaded her arm through her mother's, dragging her away. “No, come on. It's chocolate pie day at Westin's. And you know how I get about chocolate pie.” Rory took one last look through the window, at the dark-haired man who had his back turned. At the same moment, Jess glanced over his shoulder and met her gaze. She lifted her hand in greeting; he tucked a pen behind his ear and flashed her a crooked grin.

“What was that about?” Lorelai asked as they sauntered off.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing nothing or nothing something?”

“That has yet to be determined,” Rory said even as she tried to keep the excited smile off her face. And failed. “Guess I'll find out after tonight.”

 

That night, Rory arrived at Jess' door ten minutes before the agreed time. She looked down at her outfit, smoothing down the front of her shirt, before knocking on the door. Taking note of the darkness inside, she waited an entire minute before knocking again. But like before, there was no answer. The door, too, was locked.

Thoroughly confused, she headed back down the stairs. Her phone buzzed just as she'd reached the bottom step.

Where are you? said Jess' text.

Where are you? Rory typed back as she continued out the diner.

Here at your place.

She chuckled, making her way down the dark sidewalk towards her mother's house. I was waiting for you at yours.

“Guess we should just meet in the middle.”

She looked up and found Jess walking towards her, a half-grin on his face. “I guess so.” She tucked her phone away and smiled up at him, her skin tingling in anticipation.

“Hi,” he said on a breath.

“Hi.”

His eyes flicked down to her outfit, catching on what was under her jacket. “Nice shirt.”

“Oh, this old thing?” she asked, looking down at the black The Distillers t-shirt that Jess had bought her at a concert all those years ago. “I haven't worn it in forever. It's a little more snug than it used to be.”

“It looks great,” he said, shooting her one last appreciative look. “So where to?”

“Come with me.” She held out her hand and waited, holding her breath until the moment he slid his warm hand in hers. Then, side by side, she led him to the town square, up the path, and into the gazebo. They stood in the center, lights twinkling around them and casting a soft glow all around.

“You did this?” he asked, shadows playing on his face.

“Not exactly. They were from the wedding but Taylor decided to keep the lights up until after Christmas.” She walked over to one of the benches and sat beside the basket she'd stashed there earlier. She laughed when his face registered horror, no doubt remembering the time he'd bought her basket and found nothing edible inside. “Don't worry. I didn't cook it,” she added.

He sat down on the other side of the bench, eyes still on her. “You feeling sentimental tonight, Gilmore?” he asked as she handed him a plastic container and fork.

“A little,” she said with a sheepish smile. She filled her mouth with a big bite of pasta to keep from saying more and giving away her hand.

“Well, this tastes much better than whatever it was you fed me back then,” he said, his cheek bulging with food. “What was that anyway? I couldn't get the taste out of my mouth for a week.”

“I don't remember. It was just a blended mix of leftovers from the fridge. Oh, and couscous,” she said. “I was impressed you didn't die from that.”

“Thank the gods for an iron stomach,” he said with a chuckle.

Then they sat in silence for a while, both looking out over the town, mired in their thoughts.

After they finished their food, Rory turned to Jess and held out her hand. “Phone, please.”

Jess narrowed his eyes but handed it over. “What are you doing?”

“You'll see,” she said, messing with his phone. When she was done, she stood up and extended her other hand.

“I have no more phones to give you,” he said with eyebrows raised.

“Come on,” she said, just as the opening notes of a song began to play on his phone.

He pushed up off his knees and stood before her, their bodies so close but still so far. “You know I don't dance.”

“Then we'll stand,” she said, slipping his phone back inside his jacket. Then she reached up and wound her arms around his neck.

He followed her lead and set his hands on her hips and there they stayed for a long while, not moving, bodies touching, eyes locked, while a soft melody floated around them.

“Rory.”

The way he said her name, the depth he infused into those two syllables, made her stomach tighten. “Yeah?”

“I don't need reminding when it comes to the past,” he said, reaching up to brush hair away from her face. “I remember everything.”

“Me too,” she whispered, finding it hard to breathe from his close proximity. He was all around her—his scent drifting up to her nose, his solid body under her hands, his voice murmuring in her ear.

“But this—you, me, the baby—it's complicated.”

She lifted her chin. “Is it?”

His eyebrows drew together. “Yeah.”

“Jess, do you want to be with me?”

He took in a ragged breath and said, “You know I do.”

“Then be with me. Right here, in this moment.” She swallowed, her heart thudding painfully in her chest. “And if, in the future, you change your mind, then go. I won't hold you back.”

His jaw muscles ticked as his eyes flew all over her face. With a deep breath, he brought both hands up to her face and cradled her cheeks. Rory closed her eyes and nuzzled into his palm, relishing his strength and his warmth.

“After you came to Philadelphia all those years ago, I stopped hoping for you,” he said. “I tucked the memory of us away and lived my life. And it's been a good life, with the press and my writing and my friends. I think I've done better than anyone could've expected from a punk kid who couldn't even graduate high school.”

She shook her head. “Except for me. I always knew you were capable of more.”

“Except you,” he said, a smile touching his lips. “But I did it. I moved on. I had my share of relationships. I loved and was loved in return.”

“As you deserve,” she said, her voice breaking at the end.

He nodded, pausing for a long, heart wrenching moment. “But my relationships always ended because something was always missing. This element, this unidentifiable thing, that always kept me from making a commitment. It took me a long time to realize it wasn't a something but a someone.”

She held her breath, too anxious to speak, too scared hope.

“And now that someone is standing in front of me, asking me to love her in the present.” He let out a soft snicker, shaking his head. “How the hell do I say no to that?”

Tears blurred her vision as she tilted her head back. At that same moment, he dipped his head, and their lips met somewhere in between. They kissed for a long while, holding each other like wanderers who had been lost and alone through the years and, now, inside this twinkling gazebo, were finally found.

 

 

Chapter 17

 

“Jess,” Rory said as soon as they broke apart.

Jess stilled, her face cradled in his hands, and waited for the other shoe to drop. But this time, he didn't see a trace of regret on her face. All he saw, as he looked down on her, was a woman with flushed cheeks and bright eyes.

“So, just to be clear, you're not saying no, right?” she asked.

“Let me clarify,” he said with a chuckle and captured her mouth again to erase any doubt in her mind. He deepened the kiss, wrapping his arms around her back and pulling her flush to his body, the contact making him groan. But before things veered beyond his control, he managed to pull away. “Rory,” he said, tilting his forehead to hers. “I can't believe I'm saying this, but... we should stop.”

She nodded, breathing hard. “We should.”

He swallowed, pressing his thumb to her bottom lip. “We really should.”

“In a minute,” she said a moment before she hooked a hand around the back of his head and dragged him down for another searing kiss. He went under willingly, diving again and again, until his lungs burned for air.

Finally, after what seemed like forever and the blink of an eye, they surfaced.

“I should take you home,” he said, trying to catch his breath.

She blinked up at him with a dazed look in her eyes. “Okay.”

“Come here,” he said, beckoning her closer with a finger. He slid one hand around to the back of her head and the other to the small of her back, and he kissed her again, slowly this time, like a man savoring an incredibly rare glass of wine.

When he was through, she opened her eyes and gazed up at him with a dreamy smile on her face. He badly wanted to kiss her again (and again and again and again) but it took everything he had to turn away and grab the picnic basket off the bench. “Let's get you home,” he said, even if it was the last thing he wanted.

“It may appear like I'm coming willingly, but let it be known this is under protest,” Rory said, reaching for his hand.

“Duly noted,” he said and the pair made their way down the gazebo and through the square in comfortable silence.

“So I heard back from my realtor,” she said after some time.

“Yeah?”

“My offer was approved.”

“Congrats. You're a homeowner now,” he said, nudging her with his shoulder.

She shook her head, disbelief wrinkling her features. “Yeah,” she said, shaking her head. “It sounds so grown-up.”

“Soon you'll be in es-ca-row,” Jess said with a grin.

She let out a nervous laugh. “It feels like everything is happening so fast, even though I know I'm late in the game. By this age, my mother had already bought her own house, raised a teenage daughter, and had a stable a career.” She paused, looking off into the darkness. “But the thing I have to keep reminding myself is that I'm not my mother. I'm writing my own story here.”

He stopped on the sidewalk, struck with an idea. “So let's go see it. The place where your story will be written.”

Her eyes grew wide. “Right now?”

“No time like the present.”

She stopped, turning her gaze to the west. For one second he thought she'd say no, but then she closed her eyes and lifted her face up to the night sky. “Smell that?” she asked.

“What? I don't smell anything.”

“Snow.”

He snickered. “You and Lorelai are not all that different, you know that?”

“Come on,” Rory said, taking hold of his hand and starting off towards her house. “Let's go.”

 

Before long, they walked up to a pale yellow Victorian bungalow. Rory had expected the house to look downright scary in the dark, but the bright moon was casting a glow that lent an almost dreamlike quality to the house.

Rory let go of Jess' hand and waited for the inevitable commentary on how he'd pictured something grander, something more suitable for a Gilmore. But she should have known by now that this was not the same callously candid boy she knew. Present Day Jess only stood back and appraised the house in silence. “So this is Casa Rory,” he said after a few moments.

“Soon to be, I hope.”

“I want to see inside,” he said, starting up the broken brick path.

“Are you crazy? It's pitch dark in there,” she said, suddenly aware of how loud their voices carried. “Not to mention my distinct lack of a key.”

He flashed her his patented cocksure grin. “Don't need one,” he said before bounding up the steps.

She followed him onto the porch, casting quick glances around. The streets were dark at this time, all the houses on the block tucked away for the night. But if anyone happened upon them now, they'd have a lot of explaining to do.

“Jess,” she whispered, finding him tampering with a window. “Stop.”

He turned to her, one eyebrow raised. She heard a click, and then, before she could stop him, he was lifting the window up.

“How did you do that?” she asked, eyes wide.

“A magician never reveals his secrets,” he said and climbed in, the darkness swallowing him whole.

With one last look around, Rory folded her body over and maneuvered her way inside the window. She struggled a little, not familiar with all the ways to break into a house. She was almost inside when her foot caught on the sill and she tumbled forward.

Jess appeared out of nowhere and caught her. “Careful,” he said, lifting her to her feet.

“The night wouldn't be complete without a comical fall from the klutzy heroine,” she said with a laugh.

“And then the hero says something cheesy like, I will always be there to catch you.”

She raised an eyebrow, unable to keep the grin off her face. “So you're the hero now?”

He shook his head, his gaze warm even in the dark. “You're the last person who needs a hero,” he said in a tender way that made her chest tighten.

Unable to come up with a response, she turned to the house. “So. Here it is.”

The interior of the house was not as dim as she'd expected, the light of the moon shining in through the windows. Rory ventured over to the galley-shaped kitchen, with its chipped counters and yellow cabinets with doors that barely hung on the hinges. “I have my work cut out for me. But I'm excited to get started.”

Jess' boots echoed off the dusty wood floors as he made his way over to the living room. “It's a good space,” he said, his deep voice echoing around the room. “Open and bright.”

She walked over to where he stood, imagining where furniture would go. “The couch that I haven't bought will go there, and the imaginary coffee table will go in front of that,” she said, turning in place.

“And fictitious widescreen TV up there?” he asked, motioning to the bare wall.

She paused. As much as she loved watching movies, she couldn't see herself with a huge flatscreen mounted on the wall. “Um, I'm not sure.”

He walked around until he was behind her. She could feel his presence looming over her, his body a solid wall of heat. “How about this?” he asked, his voice suddenly so close to her ear. “Built-in bookshelves that span the entire wall,” he said, sweeping a hand in front of her. “And in front of it is the dining table. It'd be the perfect place to eat or write. Or—” He paused a moment before saying, “A child to do his or her homework.”

Rory's heart fluttered as the vision appeared before her eyes: a room full of color and texture, of laughter and deep talks. Before long, the image of a family living in the company of books came into vivid focus. “It's perfect,” she found herself whispering.

She turned around, surveying the place with new eyes. All of a sudden, the house was no longer just an empty shell to fill with furniture, but a home to fill with memories.

And in that moment she knew she was exactly where she wanted to be.

 

Later, as Jess walked Rory back home, he couldn't stop thinking about what he'd said inside her house, when he'd painted that picture of a happy little family. Rory hadn't asked if he'd seen himself in that scene, and he hadn't volunteered the information. Truth was, he didn't know the answer himself.

He was taking it step by step, deciding to forgo worrying about the future and just live in the now. Right here, in this moment, he was walking with Rory tucked under his arm and he was happy.

And, for him, that was more than enough.

“Jess,” Rory said, as they neared the diner.

“Yeah?”

“I'd like to go upstairs.”

He stopped, his arm sliding off her shoulder as he faced her. “To go use your office?” he asked slowly.

She let out a nervous laugh. “Not exactly.” Just then, a snowflake floated down from the sky and settled on her cheek.

Jess reached up and touched a finger to the snowflake, noticing several others that were floating down around them. “Guess you were right,” he said, brushing another from her eyelashes.

And then the snow fell in earnest, big feathery clumps drifting down around them. “My mom always used to say good things happen when it snows,” she said with a smile that held meaning.

He took a step closer, brushing away the snow gathering on her hair. “Oh yeah? What kind of things?”

“Maybe lifelong questions are answered,” she said, tilting her head back to look up at him. “Questions that you've been mulling over for years, that have kept you up at night, imagining what it would have been like.”

He raised an eyebrow, moving even closer, crowding her with his body. “Who said I've been mulling?” he asked, capturing her waist to keep her from retreating.

“Who said I was talking about you?” she asked with a playful grin.

A soft laugh escaped him and he dipped his head to nuzzle the soft skin of her neck. “You sure about this?” he whispered, even as he wondered why the hell he was trying to talk her out of something he himself wanted so badly. “We can take this slow, if that's what you need.”

She shook her head, a tiny move that had his entire body vibrating with anticipation. “Take me home, Jess.”

And that's exactly how it felt, as he took her upstairs and laid her down, as their bodies joined and they moved together, and later, as they lay trembling, tangled up in each other's arms. It was like coming home.

 

 

Chapter 18

 

When Rory awoke, she found herself tucked into Jess' body, his arms wrapped around her back. She pressed her lips to his chest, a smile spreading over her face when she felt the steady beat of his heart.

“Morning,” he said in a sleep-roughened voice, kissing the top of her head. “You sleep okay?”

“Best sleep I've had in a while.” She tilted her head back to look at him. “You?”

He grinned down at her, his face wrinkled from sleep. “Oh yeah.”

When she tried to pull away, his arms tightened around her like steel bands. “Let me go,” she said with a laugh. “I have to pee.” She laughed again when his fingers danced along her sides; she squirmed in his arms until he finally let go.

She rolled away, grabbing the first shirt she could find—the Smashing Pumpkins shirt he'd been wearing last night—and slipped it over her head before heading to the bathroom.

Just as she closed the door, his phone rang. Through the closed door she heard him answer, and even if his voice was muffled, she could detect the change in his tone. Whoever was on the other line was definitely not calling just to say hi.

After flushing, Rory stood at the sink and looked at her reflection in the mirror. A few short weeks ago she was in this same place, emotionally and physically exhausted, wondering how she had allowed herself to fall so far. And now here she was, not all that different-looking, but feeling a little more hopeful about the direction of her life.

When she emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, she found Jess sitting up, pinching the bridge of his nose as he continued with the call. He looked up when he noticed her, his dark eyes following as she made her way back to the bed.

“Em? Yeah, I have to go. Yes, I'll be there.” He hung up and threw the phone aside before twisting around and dragging Rory down onto the bed, kissing her for a long, unhurried time. “Morning,” he said as he hovered above her.

She smiled up at him, head foggy with desire. “You already said that.”

“So I did,” he said. But while his voice sounded playful, his face revealed that his thoughts were elsewhere.

“Everything okay?” she asked, brushing away hair that had fallen over his eyes.

He let out a breath. “Yeah. Well, no. That was my business partner, Emmeline, on the phone. Said there's an issue at Truncheon.” His eyes flicked to hers before he said, “I need to get back to Philadelphia.”

Too soon! her brain cried out, but she asked, “When?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Oh,” she said, sure her face was not doing a good job at hiding the disappointment she felt.

“One of the plate making machines is malfunctioning and we have a huge print run scheduled in a week.”

“And nobody else can fix it?”

“They've tried. They've called in the pros but nobody can figure out how to get it running again.”

“So what can you do?”

“I've worked on those machines for years. I know them inside and out,” he said. “If I can't get them to work then we have to purchase a replacement. And that means time and money.”

Rory's stomach lurched. She'd toured printing presses before and knew that the process was more complicated than simply unplugging the malfunctioning machine and sticking a new one in its place. “How long will it take?”

“I don't know.” He stared off into space for a time, his bottom lip trapped between his teeth. Then his eyes flicked to hers. “You should come with me. You can stay at my place and we can do Christmas in Philadelphia. We can go see the Liberty Bell or run up the steps of the Art Museum like Rocky. Hey, I'll even get you a Philly cheesesteak, since you're so fond of regional fast food.”

Her stomach chose that exact moment to rumble. “Well, we know my stomach's in,” she said with a rueful smile. “But I can't. I have to take care of house paperwork and get out the holiday edition of The Gazette. And I've promised my grandmother Christmas in Nantucket.”

He stared at her for a long time, not saying anything. Finally, he nodded in resignation and rolled away. “Should we go eat?” he asked, reaching for his clothes on the floor.

“Starved. I'd kill for coffee and a cheese Danish.”

He slipped into his pants then looked over with a raised eyebrow. “Having caffeine withdrawals?”

“Like you wouldn't believe.”

“Oh, I can believe it,” he said with a crooked grin. “For someone whose body composition was previously eighty percent coffee, I'm shocked and incredibly impressed you've lasted this long.”

“Me too,” she said, touching her stomach. “It's crazy, the things you do for the ones you love.”

He looked at her over the bed, his eyes flicking down to her stomach. “Yeah. Crazy.”

 

After getting dressed, Rory and Jess headed downstairs in silence. Rory knew he'd only be gone a few weeks, if that, but the idea of spending Christmas apart made her eyes sting.

As soon as they passed through the curtain, they froze. The entire diner was packed with people, all of whom had stopped mid-bite or mid-sentence to stare at Jess and Rory, who still wore the effects of their night on their rumpled faces and disheveled hair.

Rory almost spun on a heel and marched right back through the curtains, but she stayed, finding her mother sitting at the other end of the counter with a huge mug of coffee in her hands.

“It's moving. It's alive. It's aliiive!” Lorelai said in an overly loud, theatrical voice that drew even more attention.

“Mom,” Rory hissed, taking a seat beside her. Embarrassing or not, it was the only seat left in the place. The upside was that she had her back turned to the rest of the diner and wouldn't have to face the overly curious stares. “What's going on? Why is everyone and their extended family in here?”

“It's the first snowfall of the season,” Lorelai said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“And?”

“And people always come out in full force after it snows. It's like a Stars Hollow tradition.”

“Don't these people know you're supposed to stay at home, start a fire, and snuggle under a blanket?” Rory asked, chancing a glance over her shoulder. “This is not normal behavior.”

“Hello? Are you new? Nothing in this town can be considered normal,” Lorelai said. “Pretty, yes. Whimsical, definitely. But normal? Oh no.”

Jess finally moved away from the doorway and reached for two mugs from the shelves, setting one in front of Rory.

“Bet you didn't plan on announcing your coupledom so soon, huh?” Lorelai asked him.

“We hadn't planned on announcing it at all,” he said, reaching for the half-full pot of coffee.

“Well, now you don't have to,” Lorelai said.

He held up the pot with a questioning look and Rory nodded. “Please,” she said eagerly.

Luke walked by at that same moment and saw what his nephew was getting ready to do. “That's not decaf,” he said, trying to grab the pot from Jess' hands, but his nephew was too quick. Jess spun away and, with a smirk, filled Rory's cup.

Luke set his hands on his hips, shaking his head as Rory took the first heavenly sip. She might have moaned out loud or maybe spoken in tongues.

“That's not good for the—” Luke stopped, catching himself before the 'b' word slipped out. “For you.”

“Relax, Inspector Javert. It's just one cup,” Lorelai said. “No need to throw yourself off any aqueducts over it.”

Luke glanced around and lowered his voice. “Am I the only one with some sense here?”

“It's fine,” Jess said, filling his own mug. “She can safely drink a ten ounce cup of coffee, or the equivalent of two hundred milligrams of caffeine a day, without adverse effects.” When three shocked expressions met him, he lifted his shoulders and said, “What? I'm a grown man. I am perfectly capable of using a search engine.”

Rory tried to conceal her smile but failed miserably. Sometimes the guy was just too adorable for words.

 

“So,” Lorelai said as mother and daughter walked back to the house after brunch. “I guess it was a nothing something kind of date if the state of your hair is anything to go by.”

Rory reached up and brushed her fingers through her hair. “Yeah.”

“Looks like things are going well with you two,” Lorelai said.

“Very well, actually.” Rory smiled to herself, feeling her mother's frustration grow with each snowy step they took.

“And?” Lorelai asked.

Rory shrugged. “All's well that ends well.”

“Are you trying to kill me?” Lorelai asked. “Because if you are, there are more humane ways. A katana to the head, for one. Lucy Liu would vouch for me on that one.”

Rory shook her head, laughing. “I just... I don't want to talk about it yet. The relationship is still so new—”

“Ah-hah, so there's a relationship!”

“Yes. And I don't want to jinx it.”

“So he's okay with the baby?” her mother asked. “I knew he would be. He's a good guy, that one.”

“I don't actually know how he feels about the baby,” Rory said.

Lorelai shot her a look of disbelief. “How many men do you know Google things like coffee consumption of a pregnant woman? Or, for that matter, look up anything about pregnant women that doesn't involve the word fetish?”

Rory wrinkled her nose. “That was an image I did not need.”

“I think it's clear how he feels about the baby,” Lorelai said.

Rory wanted to agree. Sure, it seemed as if Jess was starting to dip his toe in, but in the back of her mind she worried he might never be ready to take the plunge. “I guess we'll just have to see.”

 

A little later, Rory went back to the apartment to see Jess off. She'd tried to prepare herself emotionally for the goodbye, but to see his duffel bag on the bed, all packed and ready to go, was like a punch to the gut.

“Hey,” he said, emerging from the bathroom, rubbing his head with a towel. He was almost fully dressed in his dark jeans and boots; the only thing left to do was button up his shirt and then he'd be done.

She motioned to his things on the bed. “You pack fast.”

He lobbed the towel into the laundry basket and approached her. “Yeah. I really have to take care of this problem.”

She touched the lapels of his shirt, breathing in his fresh, soapy scent. “Are you sure you can't find anyone else to fix the machine?”

He settled his hands on her waist, shaking his head. “Sometimes responsibility really sucks ass.”

“So quit. Just stay here and write forever.”

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and, for a second, it looked as if he was actually considering her suggestion. “Rory, I have to go,” he said instead, his voice gentle and low.

She averted her eyes, distracting herself by buttoning his shirt. “Be careful on the drive. The roads might be icy,” she said around the lump in her throat. “Maybe you can come to Nantucket when you're done?”

“Your grandmother hates me, remember? Lorelai said she called me an abominable thug.”

“Sorry.”

“Don't be. She's right.”

“That was a million years ago. She probably doesn't even remember that night,” Rory said, doing and undoing the last button at his neck.

“Rory,” he said, taking hold of her hands to keep her from fidgeting. “Look at me.”

She drew in a breath and lifted her gaze.

“Are you worried about something?”

Her eyes flew over his face, trying to find the words to express herself. “Maybe. I don't know,” she began. “I have this feeling you'll change your mind about us while you're gone.”

His dark eyebrows shot up. “How?”

“I don't know. Things happen.”

“Like what?”

“I don't know.” She blinked and shook her head, trying to shake off the gloom that had settled over her. “Never mind. I'm just being silly.”

He shook his head and pressed his lips to her forehead. “Nothing's going to happen,” he said, his lips drifting down to the tip of her nose. “I'm going to fix that machine and make sure the books are printed to perfection.” He stopped, pressing a soft kiss to each of her eyelids. “Then I'll come back here and we can resume where we left off,” he murmured, finally capturing her mouth.

After they pulled away, Rory took a deep, steadying breath. “So go already. The sooner you leave, the sooner you can come back.”

He grinned but the smile failed to reach his eyes. “I'll see you soon.”

“Not soon enough.”

He put on his jacket and gathered his things, slinging the bag over his shoulder. “Bye,” he said, dropping one last kiss on her forehead before walking out the door.

Rory walked over to the window and watched with a throbbing chest as he walked out to his car and threw his bag into the backseat before clearing the snow off the windshield. Then he opened the driver door and stopped, tilting his head to look up at the apartment above the diner.

She lifted her hand and waved. He flashed her a half smile and climbed inside. A few seconds later, his car pulled away from the curb, leaving tire tracks in its wake.

With arms wrapped around herself, Rory stayed at the window long after he was gone, watching the snow come down and fill in the tracks, erasing all traces of Jess from the street.

 

 

Chapter 19

 

Rory sat at her grandfather's desk with her fingers resting on the keys of her laptop, trying to start the next chapter of her story and failing. She stared into space for thirty minutes, finding it near impossible to keep from thinking of the previous night, of what she and Jess had finally done. After all these years, she finally received her answer on what it would be like with Jess. She had known it would be good—after all, they had always shared a strong attraction to each other—but it far surpassed anything she could have ever imagined.

Her cheeks flushed at the memory of his face as he'd moved over her, his expression a mixture of tenderness and possessiveness that had taken her breath away. In that moment, she'd felt no hesitation or doubt. For the second time that night, she'd come to the realization that she was exactly where she was meant to be.

She wondered, as her entire body rose in temperature, if maybe the two of them had been working up to that moment, if maybe all those years apart had led up to that night when they found their way back to each other.

Struck with inspiration, she sat up and searched for the document she'd written about Jess. The story had ended with their goodbye in Philadelphia, when he'd kissed her and she'd confessed she was in love with Logan.

She began typing, starting with the drive home from Philadelphia after seeing Jess, when she'd sat alone in her car with only her regrets for company. It had been the longest drive of her life.

 

She didn't know how long she'd been writing, but she finally surfaced from the depths of her thoughts when there was a knock on the door.

“You busy?” Luke asked, peering in.

She finished typing and hit Save. “Nope.”

He came in and stood by the open curtains, arms folded at his chest. “You getting much writing done?” he asked, motioning to the laptop.

She glanced back at her laptop. Almost sixteen hundred words in a little over an hour. “I actually am. My veins are open and the blood is flowing.” When Luke's eyes widened in horror, she added, “It's a quote from Walter Wellesley Smith. He said You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

He let out a relieved breath. “Yeah, might want to start off with that.” He stared at her, opening his mouth as if to say something only to shut it again. He repeated the process a few more times before Rory finally asked, “Everything okay, Luke?”

His forehead wrinkled. “Have you heard from Jess?”

“No. Why?” she said, dread snaking up her spine.

He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “I just had customers who came in from New York. They said the interstates were bad. There was a—” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Never mind. I'm sure he's fine.”

“What is it?” she asked. “Tell me.”

He sighed. “There was a huge accident on I-95. But I'm sure it's nothing.”

“What?” Before she knew it, she was on her feet, dialing Jess' number on her phone. It rang and rang and eventually went to voicemail.

“I'm sure he's fine,” Luke said, trying and failing to conceal his worry.

Rory shook her head and dialed again. And once more, it went to voicemail. She turned to her computer and performed a search for Truncheon Books, locating the company's phone number without problem.

“Truncheon Books. Mark speaking. How may I help you?” said the voice on the other line.

“Hi. I'm trying to get a hold of Jess Mariano,” Rory said, glancing up at Luke. “I was just wondering if you'd heard from him yet?”

“No. Not yet. But we're not expecting him for another hour or so.”

“Has he called to check in?”

“No.”

“Okay. Can you please tell him Rory called? Thank you.” After she hung up, she sank down on the chair, staring off into space.

“I'm sure he's fine,” Luke said again.

“Is it hot in here?” Rory asked, pushing her sweater sleeves up.

“No. It's cold up here actually.” He turned to the thermostat on the wall. “No wonder. It's set to sixty-eight.”

“What about the air? Is the oxygen levels dangerously low? How about the carbon monoxide?” she asked, sucking in air as her eyes flew around the room. “We need a carbon monoxide detector up here.”

Luke nodded, his eyes fixed on her face. From a faraway place she could hear him saying something over and over, and it wasn't until the sixth repetition that she realized he was saying her name.

“What?” she asked, blinking up at him.

“Your phone,” he said, pointing at the desk. “It's vibrating.”

Her heart stopped when she saw Jess' name show up on the screen. “Hello? Jess?”

“Hey.”

The vice around her lungs loosened the moment she heard his deep voice. “Hi,” she said on a breath.

“You okay?” he asked.

“No, are you okay?”

“I'm fine. Wait, you're not okay?”

“I'm fine. I'm okay.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “I just heard about the accident on the interstate and was worried.”

“So that explains why I've been sitting in traffic for almost an hour.” The next time he spoke, she could almost hear the smile in his voice. “You were worried about me?”

“Well, you do have a track record for crashing cars,” she said, trying to sound lighthearted even as her eyes watered.

He chuckled. “Crash a car one time...” He paused. When he next spoke, his voice had taken on a more somber tone. “I'll be back, Rory. Nothing is going to keep me from making my way back to you.”

 

It was close to six o'clock by the time Jess arrived in Philadelphia. What should have been a four hour drive turned into six. He'd sat in the car, gripping the hell out of the steering wheel and generally cursing at the world, angry for the wasted time spent in traffic when he could have been back in Stars Hollow with Rory instead.

By the time he made it to Truncheon Books, he was pissed off and even more determined to get the job done.

“Is Em in?” he asked the admin, Mark, as he strode into the front office.

Mark jumped up from his seat. “Yes. She's on a call with Penguin,” he said, handing Jess a stack of phone messages as he passed by. “We were expecting you a few hours ago.”

“Funny, so was I,” he grumbled under his breath, going straight into his office and turning on the lights. As he shrugged his jacket off, he flipped through the slips of paper, frowning when he saw Rory's name on one of the messages. He paused, realizing she'd been more worried than she'd let on. Before he exited his office, he texted her a quick message. 

Made it to Philly. Gonna get this job done.

Jess exited and made an immediate left to Emmeline's office. He knocked softly on the door before peering inside, finding his business partner at her desk with a phone up to her ear.

Emmeline Waters was a force of nature, a bona fide rags-to-riches story. Orphaned at a young age, she'd grown up in the system, sliding in and out foster homes like a playing card. Armed with nothing but determination, she'd studied her ass off to get into one of the best colleges in the country, hustled to get experience, and now ran one of the most sought-after presses in the country. With short pixie hair surrounding her classically beautiful features, Emmeline was the face of the company, while Jess was happy to melt into the background. It was a partnership that had worked for three years and, he hoped, would continue for many more.

Emmeline looked up and waved him inside, scribbling on a pad of paper as he walked over. When she was done, she spun it around for him to read.

Thank God you're here, she'd written. They're freaking out.

He plucked a pen from her desk and wrote Tell them we are taking care of it.

Her hazel eyes flicked down to the page then back up to him. “Okay,” she mouthed and turned away.

Jess walked through the building the size of two football fields, passing by offices before finally pushing through the heavy metal doors that led to the warehouse. He stood in the doorway, eyes floating over the large space that housed the presses, binders, sorters, hoppers. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, the scent never failing to bring him back to his younger days, when he'd first found work with two guys who'd owned a few machines and had had the audacity to call themselves a printing press.

Truncheon Books had come close to bankruptcy five years ago but Jess had been determined to keep it going. He had a long list of things he'd given up on in his life; he wanted to make sure Truncheon wouldn't suffer the same fate.

And that's how he'd come to buy out Chris and Matthew's shares of the business when they'd wanted out, after which Jess had literally gone door-to-door to all the publishing houses in New York to find work. It was exhausting, time-intensive, and oftentimes humbling, but he'd managed to keep Truncheon afloat. Emmeline had come in a few years later, bringing along new clients and fresh, effective ideas that helped grow Truncheon from its humble beginnings in a little house to this vast operation he was faced with today.

With a sigh, Jess headed to the plate making machines, folding the sleeves of his shirt as he did. He had no trouble spotting the malfunctioning machine—it was the one already sitting open with its innards lying on the table nearby.

With a shake of the head, Jess grabbed the toolbox on the table and got to work.

 

A while later, while the top half of his body was literally inside the plate machine, he heard high heels clacking on the floor, coming to a stop nearby. “You hungry?” came Emmeline's voice from behind him.

He extracted himself from the machine, sitting on the floor as he wiped his greasy hands. “Yeah.” He looked down at his watch and realized he hadn't eaten in twelve hours, not since brunch at Luke's. “What are you still doing here? It's almost eleven.”

Emmeline set a plastic bag on the nearby table and started setting out little white boxes of Chinese takeout. “Trying to finish up so I can go on vacation.”

“Oh, that's right,” he said, getting to his feet and dusting off his jeans.

She leaned against the table. “You're still welcome to come,” she said, one corner of her mouth twisting up. “Copious amounts of skiing and drinking will be had by all.”

He reached around her for a paper plate. “Oh yeah?”

“Sometimes simultaneously.”

“Sounds like fun,” he said, opening the boxes until he located the lo mein noodles.

“So you in?”

He shook his head while shoveling food into his mouth. He didn't realize until he smelled food how hungry he'd been.

“Did I mention there will be a hot tub involved?”

He snickered. “There always is.”

“Private hot tub.”

“The best are.”

“So that's a yes?”

He finished his food and folded his plate before throwing it into the trash. “I'm going to stay and make sure this job is done,” he said, getting back down to the floor.

Emmeline jumped up onto the table, crossing one long leg over the other. “You could always come to Colorado after it's completed and delivered.”

He looked up at her, pretending to give the idea some thought. It wasn't very often Emmeline invited him anywhere and he wanted to keep things friendly between them. “Yeah, maybe,” he said with a shrug, even if he had no intention of going.

 

It was past one in the morning when Jess finally gave up, leaving everything as it was as he locked up the building. The place was eerily quiet as he walked through, locking doors and turning off lights before driving home.

As soon as he entered his apartment, he trudged over to the leather couch, and dropped down with a sigh. But even as his entire body longed for the comfort of his bed, he reached for his phone and wrote a quick message to Rory.

Just got back home. Machine 1. Jess 0.

Thirty seconds later, his phone began to ring. “Hey,” he said with a weary grin. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” she said, her voice soft and husky. “I was just laying in bed, rereading one of your earlier novels.”

“Oh yeah? Which one?”

Every Hidden Word,” she said. “More specifically, I was paying close attention to the character Lila.”

The grin on his face turned into a full-fledged smile. “What about her?”

“Well, she was a minor character who only appeared every now and then throughout the book, and the protagonist, Jack, never says much about her. In fact, he goes out of his way to act aloof when she's around. But, to me, it always seemed like an act.”

Jess held his breath, waiting for her to continue. 

“I always got the sense that he really cared about her. That he searched for Lila in every crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of her face even for just one second.” She stopped and let out a soft laugh. “I'm just reading too much into it, aren't I? I've probably just been shipping the wrong couple all along.”

He shook his head, impressed by her perceptiveness. He hadn't meant to make the parallels between author and character so obvious. “You're not wrong,” he said.

“So I was right? Lila was the Katie to Jack's Hubble?”

He let out a breath. “Yeah.”

“I like to think those two will finally get back together, even if it all happens off the page,” she said with a wistful quality to her voice. “I just... I hate the thought of two people being apart when they clearly belong together.”

“Yeah. Me too.” He sighed, wanting nothing more than to wrap his arms around Rory and confess that there was a version of her hidden in every book he'd ever written. That, even in the years they spent apart, she was always present in the worlds he created in some small way, from the woman standing in line at the grocery store to the journalist reporting from a crime scene.

But, then, he had a feeling he didn't have to say a word. Rory already knew.

 

 

Chapter 20

 

Lorelai stood at the foyer with her coat already on, checking her watch for the third time. “Rory! You're going to be late!”

“Hold on,” Rory called from the bathroom. Almost an entire minute later, Rory finally emerged, her cheeks red. “I'm ready for the nausea to stop now,” she said in a weary tone.

“It will. Soon,” Lorelai said, holding out Rory's jacket and purse.

As they headed out onto the porch, Rory asked, “Why were you waiting for me? Don't you have to get to the inn?”

“Well...” Lorelai began, slinging an arm over Rory's shoulders. “I was thinking, since I have the morning off...”

Rory stopped and gave her a knowing look. “You want to come with me.”

Lorelai scrunched up her nose and squeezed her hands together. “Please, please, please,” she began to sing. “Let me, let me, let me. Let me get what I want this time.”

“Okay, okay. Just promise me you'll stop singing,” Rory said, shaking her head as she unlocked her car and climbed in.

Lorelai practically bounced on her way to the car, flashing her daughter a wide smile from the passenger seat.

“Shame on you for abusing The Smiths for your own gain,” Rory said as she started the car and began backing out of the driveway.

“Just count yourself lucky I didn't get to Boyz II Men. You would have had to vomit again.” She took a deep, steadying breath. “Besides, it's not everyday I get to meet my first grandchild.”

The car came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the street, Rory seemingly frozen at the wheel.

“Rory?”

She turned her head, her mouth open, her blue eyes wide. “I... I think...” She pursed her lips and nodded. “Yup. I'm definitely freaking out.”

“Well, judging from the way you're white-knuckling it right now, I'd say you're right.”

“I don't know if I can do this,” Rory said.

“Of course you can do this. You just lift your foot off there that thing called the brake, and start doing that thing people call the driving. Though, the way some people drive, it should be called racing. Or, if you're Mrs. Kim, steamrolling.”

Rory's eyebrows knotted. “That's not what I meant.”

Lorelai reached over and patted her daughter's arm. “I know what you meant,” she said gently. “And you know you can. There has never been anything you haven't been able to conquer.”

“Actually, there's been plenty of times—”

“Rory,” Lorelai cut in. “Just breathe. It'll be okay. We are just going to the appointment right now and then you'll have plenty of time to freak out later on.”

“Okay.” Rory took a deep breath and gave a resolute nod.

“Want me to drive?”

“No. I got this. I can do this.” Rory looked down and lifted her foot. “Step one, off the brake...”

 

An hour later, Lorelai stood beside the exam table, trying to remain quiet—trying being the operative word—while the doctor ran the ultrasound scanner over Rory's lubed-up stomach. But as soon as the black and white image came onscreen, showing nothing but a stippled white landscape with a black area in the middle, she squeaked.

“We haven't seen anything yet,” Rory said.

“Yes, we have. Your uterus,” Lorelai said, pointing. “And what a lovely uterus it is. So shapely and womb-like. It looks very fertile and nurturing, don't you think?”

The doctor said nothing, only shaking her head and trying to bite back a smile. All of a sudden, a bean-shaped embryo appeared on the screen.

Lorelai didn't even bother trying to prevent the various squeals and squeaks from escaping. She might have even jumped a little. When Rory turned her head and looked up at her with misty eyes, she almost lost it. She took hold of her daughter's shaking hand and squeezed it to her chest, tears blurring her vision.

The doctor pointed to a tiny, pulsating pixel on the screen. “There's the heartbeat.”

At that, Lorelai let out a sob and allowed the tears to slide down her cheeks. She tried to recall her first ultrasound, when she was pregnant with Rory, but for some reason the memory refused to surface. But, then again, that had been over thirty two years ago and whatever it was she felt then was currently being overshadowed by this tidal wave of love and excitement rising up her chest and pouring out her tear ducts.

“Mom?”

She blinked and realized Rory was calling her name. “Yeah? What did I miss?”

“You're dripping on me,” Rory said, wiping at her cheeks.

Between the laughter and the tears, Lorelai grabbed a tissue from her purse and dried off her daughter's face. Only after a few moments did she realize that the tears were not hers alone.

“Oh, kid,” she said, bending down and hugging Rory, exposed belly and all. “You're going to be a mom.”

 

Jess' phone had been chiming with email notifications all morning, but seeing as he was currently elbow-deep in machine parts and his phone was in his back pocket, he decided everyone could just wait. He had spent several hours taking the plate printing machine apart which, at the time, seemed like a surefire way to completely break it, but later on proved beneficial when he finally figured out the problem.

Now came the difficult and time-consuming part: Putting the whole infuriating thing back together.

It was after lunch by the time he screwed in the last piece. With a loud groan, he pushed up off the floor and got to his feet, stretching out his aching muscles.

“Okay,” he said, glaring at the machine and trying to intimidate it back to life. Hell, he'd tried everything else. “Let's see what you got.” He pressed the power button and held his breath. Various lights flickered on the control panel then went out. Jess' hands curled into themselves as he fought the overwhelming urge to scream and rage, to drag the machine outside and go Office Space on its ass.

Then a miracle happened—the machine blinked back to life, its soft whirring indicating the warmup process.

Jess fist-pumped the air. “Finally, you beautiful, infuriating contraption!” he said, pressing a kiss to the top of the machine. When he straightened, he stopped and realized he wasn't alone. All around people were flashing him strange looks.

Jess folded his arms across his chest and flashed his employees a triumphant grin. “And we have lift off!”

 

Only after all forty-four printing plates were etched and baked then sent off to get inked did Jess finally leave the warehouse. Back in his office, he sat down at his desk and leaned back, not bothering to cover his mouth as he yawned. He'd only had a few hours sleep at his place before returning to Truncheon, but now that the crisis had been averted, he could finally breathe a small sigh of relief.

He turned on his computer and checked his mail, scrolling through various work-related emails until he found one from Emmeline.

 

You're definitely missing out.

xoxo Em

 

With trepidation, he clicked on the attachment, not at all surprised to find a picture of nearly-naked people in a hot tub with the snow-capped mountains in the background. And there, right in the center, was a beaming Emmeline, holding a glass of red wine in the air. Not for the first time, he wondered how a self-professed party girl could command a board room full of suits or hold court during press conferences, but somehow, Emmeline Waters had a handle on it. And, most impressive of all, she looked to be having fun every step of the way.

Jess shook his head as he closed her email and began to go through the rest. Not for nothing, he liked his reclusive tendencies. Still, the image of Emmeline and her friends remained with him, nagging him with the question: When was the last time you really let loose and had fun?

 

After Jess finished a conference call to Penguin, having assured them that the books would be delivered on time, he turned off his computer and turned off the lights.

“Headed out?” Mark asked as Jess passed by.

“Yep. Meeting up with a friend for an early dinner,” he said. “You should knock off early too.”

Twenty minutes later, Jess stood just inside the entrance of Melrose Diner, scanning the place for a familiar face. When he spotted his friend Chris, he nodded and walked over to the booth in the back. Chris stood up and greeted him with a quick hug.

“What's up?” Chris said with a wide smile as he sat back down. “Long time no see.”

“How are you?”

“Good. And how is Truncheon?”

After Jess relayed the goings on at the press, Chris shook his head. “Man, I do not miss it at all. Printing was stressful business.”

Jess grinned. “It was nice to get my hands dirty though. Reminded me of the old days when it was just the three of us with those antiquated printing machines Larry, Curly, and Moe.”

“Yes, we were a real comedy act back then,” Chris said just as the waitress came by and took their orders.

“So how are Sarah and the kids? I haven't seen them in a while,” Jess asked.

“I know this is a classic married guy move, but, here...” Chris held out his phone and showed off pictures of his family. “These were taken on Thanksgiving. Keep in mind that the boys are not normally that well groomed.”

As Jess looked over the photos of the seemingly happy family, he couldn't help but compare it to Emmeline's photo. In the same afternoon, Jess had been presented with two wildly different lifestyles: First of the young, carefree kind; the other steeped in responsibility and adulthood. Both lives guaranteed fun—as well as promised a lot of sleepless nights—but the only difference was that, with the latter, you had the privilege of waking up to the same person for the rest of your life.

Jess leaned back and studied his friend. Chris Robinson had definitely evolved over the years from the tall, skinny guy with dreadlocks to the tall, not-as-skinny guy with the short, sensible haircut. After leaving Truncheon, Chris had gone into accounting and, while Jess might never understand why anyone would choose to work with numbers day in and day out, Chris seemed as if he wanted for nothing.

“You happy?” Jess asked.

Chris looked up at him in surprise. “Yeah. Yeah, I am,” he said with a half-smile. “Work is steady and comfortable. The kids are doing really well in school, but neither one is showing any signs of being into poetry. Yet. And Sarah is...” He stopped, a pensive quality glossing over his features. “Well, she's my Sarah.”

“That's really good to hear. I'm happy for you,” Jess said with a smile.

“What about you?” Chris asked. “Still with that girl with the purple hair?”

Jess frowned at the mention of his ex-girlfriend, Desirae. “We broke up a while ago.”

“Good. Because that girl was reaching Britney-with-an-umbrella levels of crazy.”

Jess looked away, unwilling to talk about Desirae, afraid that whatever he said would make her look mentally unstable. Truth was, it had been nothing but a classic case of a relationship that had run its course. Sure, Desirae had handled the breakup badly, but who was he to judge? He used to be the king of making terrible choices. “It just wasn't meant to be,” he said with a shrug.

“If that's the case, Sarah has a friend that I'd like you to meet.”

“I'm actually seeing someone,” Jess said, the thought of Rory warming his chest. He wondered where she was at that moment, what she was thinking. Was she reading another one of his books, accidentally stumbling onto another iteration of herself?

“Who?” Chris asked.

“Rory.”

Chris' eyes grew wide. “Yale Rory? Rory, the girl you credit for all your success? Rory of that tiny little town you escaped from? Rory, the girl who chose that trust-fund jackhole over you?” Chris leaned back, shaking his head. “Yeah. Never heard of her.”

Jess snorted. “So I might have talked about her a little.”

Chris raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, a lot.” Jess' eyes flicked around the room but for all the thoughts running through his head, he couldn't give voice to a single one.

“So you managed to win back the heart of the legendary Rory Gilmore,” Chris said with something like awe in his voice.

“Yeah.” Jess played with a napkin on the table, twisting its corners into points. “But she's very different from the girl she used to be.”

“Well, you're not the girl you used to be either,” Chris quipped.

A smile touched Jess' lips. “That's true.”

Chris looked at him for a long time before finally saying, “You know, it happens more often than you may think. High school sweethearts reunite after many years and find that the spark is gone, that the relationship doesn't hold up to what they remember.”

Jess shook his head. “That's not it. I mean, yeah, it's different. The feelings are definitely still there, though, but even that's different. It's more...” He stopped, his chest tightening at the thought of having Rory in his arms, in his bed, in his life. “More...”

“Say more no more,” he said with a grin. “So, then, what's wrong?”

Jess looked up as image after image flipped before his eyes, of nearly-naked hot tub parties and kids with cranberry sauce smeared on their faces. “You ever get that feeling, like you're standing on a precipice and you have to either turn back to your old life or leap into the unknown?”

“Yeah,” Chris said without hesitation. “Right before Sarah and I got married. And again when my first was born.”

“You ever regret it?”

Chris cocked his head, one eyebrow raised. “What do you think?”

Jess nodded, letting out a breath. “I think you got everything you ever wanted.”

 

 

Chapter 21

 

Rory trudged through the snow, wondering when it would stop falling. Stars Hollow was blanketed in nearly fourteen inches of snow already and the skies were showing no signs of letting up. Even her mother, who was normally a fan of the stuff, was beginning to wish for a standstill as it was delaying construction at the annex.

When Rory reached her destination, she kicked snow off her boots before walking up onto the porch and ringing the doorbell.

“Come on in!” she heard Lane call from somewhere inside.

Rory opened the door and took a step inside the house. “Hello? Lane?”

Her best friend rounded the corner, a knife in her hand. “Come on in,” she said before turning on a heel and marching back into the kitchen.

Rory followed her, coming to a stop in the doorway. “What is going on in here?” Every available surface—the counters, table, and even some of the chairs—were overrun with tomatoes. “It's like I've walked into the beginnings of a Veggie Tales horror movie.”

Lane walked over to the counter, back to the half-cut tomato on the chopping board. “I decided to make tomato sauce.”

“For the whole town?”

“They were on clearance,” Lane said. “Taylor was just going to throw them out.”

“Okay.”

Lane sighed. “I figured I could save some money by making my own tomato sauce. Get a few dinners out of it, at least.”

Rory's eyes flicked around. “Do you need help?”

“Please.” Lane grabbed a knife and cutting board, handing both to Rory.

Rory turned in place, trying to find an open spot on which to work. Finally, she went to the table and began to stack tomatoes on top of each other until she had enough room. “So what are you saving for?” she asked as she sliced into the first tomato, finding it overripe and mushy.

Lane gave her a long look before saying, “Don't laugh, but we're thinking of recording an album.”

“You are?”

“I know we're old and will probably never reach rock star status, but it's something, you know? At the end of the day, it's about making music.”

“I think it's a great idea,” Rory said with an encouraging smile.

“You do?” Lane asked, her eyebrows furrowed. “You don't think we're lame for desperately clinging to a dream that's already passed us by?”

“Of course not. You guys are good. Frankly, I don't know why you never thought of recording until now.”

“Because studio time—and I mean a real recording studio that's not in someone's mom's basement with Dora the Explorer microphones—is ridiculously expensive.”

“How much do you need?”

Lane sighed. “Way more than we can afford.”

“How long have you been saving?”

“A long time.” Lane's eyes flicked down to the tomato in her hand. “But it doesn't matter how long it takes. Even if we're in adult diapers and wheelchairs, we're still going to record that album, damn it.”

“You will!” Rory said, nodding. “And it will be awesome.”

Lane threw up the rock 'n roll hand gesture. “Geriatric rock!”

With a chuckle, Rory picked up another tomato and cut into it. Just then, from somewhere within the house she heard a clock chiming a familiar tune. “I know that sound,” she said, listening until the melody was complete. “Where have I heard that sound?”

“From the grandfather clock in my parents' house. You remember that really old one that nobody wanted to buy, no matter how many times my mother put it on sale?” Lane asked. “She even moved it in precarious corners, trying to see if people would accidentally knock it down.”

You break, you buy,” Rory said with a mock-stern face. “So what's it doing here? Did you accidentally break it?”

“Oh, no,” Lane said. “Zack's mom bought it for us as a Christmas gift. So that chime that marked every repressed hour of my childhood is now in my adult home.”

Rory made a face. “Sorry.”

Lane grinned. “Don't be. It actually inspired a Hep Alien song that we want to put on the album.”

“Well, I'm glad.”

The two continued to cut in silence for a time. After a while, Lane finally broke the silence. “Thank you for feeding me on Thanksgiving, by the way. It saved me from having to eat crackers and some weird soup that Zack brought home from the store.”

“You're welcome.” Rory flashed her friend a wistful smile. “I'm sorry I haven't been around much. I've been a terrible friend.”

“No, you haven't. We've both been busy,” Lane said with a shrug. “Life happens.”

“Yeah. Boy, does it.”

“So what's with you and Jess?” Lane asked.

Rory glanced up. “What about me and Jess?”

The corner of Lane's mouth curled up. “Word on the street is that you and Jess were caught coming down from Luke's old place, looking fifty shades of busted.”

Rory bit back a smile. “I guess that's true.”

“And? Why? How?”

“Jess and I are seeing each other.”

Lane's eyes widened behind her glasses. “Huh. I thought the Nyquil had me imagining things. I mean, yeah, I was loopy and was swatting at cartoon birds over my head, so I thought I was just imagining the thing between you and Jess.”

“What thing?”

“You know what thing. With the long, intense looks, and the giving you his jacket, and the shielding you from sickness. That thing.” She cocked her head and frowned. “Jess, though? I thought that was long over.”

“It was,” Rory said. “But, I don't know. It came back.”

“And Logan? You're not still calling or seeing him, right?”

“No. He's married now.”

Lane's mouth dropped open. “Okay, you have got to talk.” She brought her knife and chopping board over to the table and sat down. “You'd better tell me every single thing. And don't even think about leaving anything out. I need details. Copious amounts of details.”

For the next thirty minutes, Rory chopped tomatoes and recounted all that had taken place since her return to Stars Hollow. When she finished, the clock had sounded a half-hour chime and all the tomatoes on the table had all been chopped.

“So let me get this straight,” Lane said, pushing her glasses up her nose. “You're pregnant but the babydaddy is married.”

Rory wrinkled her nose. “Please don't say babydaddy.”

She started counting off on her fingers. “You're writing a book. You bought a house. You're going back to school. Oh, and you're dating Jess again. Is that everything?”

“Pretty much.” Rory reached into her bag and retrieved the ultrasound and handed it over. “Here.”

Lane stared at the printout for a long time, her face uncannily blank. But when she looked up, her eyes wide. “Oh my God,” she said, covering her mouth. Then she leaned over and threw her arms around Rory, bouncing in her seat. “It's real! You're really pregnant.”

“I know!” Rory said. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. Honestly, not very many people know.”

“It's okay.” When Lane pulled away, the smile had been replaced with a frown. “Have you shown Logan?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because...” Rory began.

Because I'm a scaredy cat.

“He's married now,” Rory said instead. “And seeing that ultrasound might, I don't know... it might drive a wedge between him and Odette.”

Rory stared off into space, her lungs burning at the thought of the first time she'd come between a married couple. For a long time, she was tortured by the thought of Lindsey finding her letter inside Dean's jacket and the devastation she must have felt when her worst fears were confirmed. Rory had played a large part in the breakup of that marriage; she could think of nothing more appalling than doing it again.

If Rory sent this ultrasound to London and Odette found it, what would she think? How would she feel?

“Rory?” Lane asked, peering into her face.

“Yeah?”

Lane's voice was gentle, but underneath it was a steeliness that sounded very much like Mrs. Kim. “Logan is the father. He deserves to see this.”

Rory blinked fast, her eyes stinging. “I know.”

“It's not the same thing that happened with Dean,” Lane said.

“It's pretty damn near close.”

“No, it's not,” Lane said with more force. “Because this time, there's a baby involved. And if Logan didn't tell Odette before they got married, then that's on him.”

Rory nodded, taking out her phone. “You're right.” She set the photo on the counter and took a picture, remembering her promise to Logan to keep him updated. She attached the image to an email and began to type a message, then changed her mind and hit backspace, deciding that the image of their baby was all she could offer at that time.

Then she took a deep breath and hit Send. “Okay,” she said, staring at her phone on the table. “It'll be fine.”

Lane gave her a small smile that said she understood, that she loved Rory regardless. The two had been best friends for as long as they could remember and, even if they'd been apart for nearly a decade, it was nice to come home and resume their relationship as if no time had passed. That, Rory thought, was the true mark of friendship.

“Thanks,” Rory said, her throat tight with emotion.

Lane grinned. “Hey, I'm always here for the tough love. Seems like there's more of my mother in me than I care to admit.”

Both women jumped when Rory's phone began to ring. Rory snatched up the phone and answered it breathlessly, “Hello?”

But the person on the other line wasn't the one she was expecting. “Hey,” Jess greeted.

She tried to take shallow breaths to slow her racing heart, but hearing his deep, rumbling voice had the opposite effect. “Hi.”

“How are you?”

“Doing fine,” she said, glancing at her friend and mouthing Jess' name. “I'm at Lane's.”

“Is she better?” he asked immediately.

“Yes. She's better,” Rory said. “The flu has flu'd away.”

He snorted. “That was a terrible pun, Gilmore.”

“I was good at puns once. But you've been a bad influenza on me,” Rory said, earning an eyeroll from Lane.

He chuckled. “God, I miss you.”

“Me too,” she whispered, very much aware of Lane's curious eyes and keen ears. “So, how are things over there?” she asked in a more normal tone.

“Good, good. The books are nearly done. That's what I was calling about, actually. I know you're leaving for Nantucket on Saturday but I think I can get back on Friday. Barring any unforeseen disasters with the press, that is.”

“But what if a meteor hit the earth?” Rory asked.

“Then I'll deploy Bruce and Ben to take care of it,” he replied with a smile in his voice.

“And if a fault line opened up in the middle of New York?”

“I'll call The Rock to give me a ride.”

“What if the world started rotating backwards?”

“Then I'll drive in reverse to get to you,” he said. “So we can watch the sun rise in the west and set in the east.”

Rory couldn't keep the giddy smile off her face if she tried. “I'll see you Friday, then.”

“Friday,” he said in a husky voice before hanging up.

Rory shut off her phone, her face warm. When she looked up, she found Lane watching her.

“You guys are gross,” she said. “But you look happy. Are you? Happy?”

Rory nodded, sure her emotions were written all over her face. “Yeah. I really am.”

 

 

Chapter 22

 

The printing job was officially complete on Thursday afternoon—all fifty thousand books quality-checked, counted, and boxed. Only after the forklift loaded the last pallet of boxes into the back of the truck was Jess able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Back at his office, he checked Truncheon's schedule, verifying with Mark that he hadn't missed anything, before sending out a company-wide email thanking everyone for their efficient, meticulous work before dismissing them for the rest of the week.

After he caught up on his emails, he turned off everything in his office and locked up. As he drove back to his apartment, he had the sudden urge to turn the car around, hop on I-95, and head back to Stars Hollow. But he'd made plans with the guys and, seeing as they hadn't gotten together since March due to conflicting schedules, Jess couldn't very well call it off.

So he went back to his apartment, changed out of his button-down shirt, tie, and slacks—his “Mr. Fancy Pants costume” as he liked to call it—and changed into the more comfortable jeans and t-shirt. On the way out, he reached for his jacket and already had one sleeve on when he stopped.

He went into his bedroom closet and shuffled through his clothes, hangers scraping across the rod until he located the item he hadn't worn in years. Shaking his head in amusement, he took the black leather jacket over to the mirror and tried it on, quickly finding out that he was not as lean as he used to be. The jacket had once been slightly too loose for him—so much so that he had to wear a hoodie inside to make it more snug—but was now tight around the arms, its back threatening to rip apart if he so much as inhaled.

He snickered at his reflection.”Big guy in a little coat,” he muttered before taking the jacket off with some difficulty and tossing it onto the bed.

 

Thirty minutes later, Jess walked inside CBR, the bar he and his friends had opened a long time ago, back when Truncheon had finally started turning a profit. With its wood and brick walls, wooden booths, and the stately liquor display cabinet that took up an entire wall, CBR was a throwback to the unruly, bohemian ways of the late Cedar Bar in New York.

After opening, CBR had floundered for a while but under the careful management of Matthew Lawson, it had blossomed into one of the busier bars in the area. Of course, it was not at all the beatnik hangout the boys had envisioned but one had to adapt in order to survive. Jess knew that from personal experience.

After checking for his friends and not locating either one, Jess walked over to the bar and ordered a whiskey on the rocks from a bartender he didn't recognize. But then again, he didn't recognize half the staff anymore since he became a silent partner.

Jess sipped his drink, planning on taking it easy on the alcohol and calling it an early night. With any luck, he could be on the road back to Stars Hollow by midnight.

“Mariano, long time no see.”

Jess looked up as his buddy Matthew appeared, taking up the seat beside him. “Yeah, no kidding,” Jess said, giving his friend a quick hug.

Matthew picked up Jess' drink and sniffed it. “I'll have the same,” he said to the bartender.

The bartender gave a nod and returned a few seconds later with his drink.

“Gannon, meet the great Jess Mariano,” Matthew said.

The bartender reached a large hand over the bar. “Nice to meet you.”

Jess shook the young man's hand. “Whatever Matthew told you is an exaggeration or an outright lie,” he said, punctuating it with a grin.

Matthew laughed beside him. “Not everything.”

Chris arrived a few minutes later, completing the trio. The three men took their drinks to a table, sat down, and began the long and enjoyable task of catching up.

 

Half an hour later, one of the waitstaff came by and dropped off a fresh round of drinks.

“I think I'll hold off for a bit.” Jess set the drink in front of him and leaned back, becoming aware of the goofy smile on his face that signaled the alcohol taking effect. Things were starting to blur around the edges and his thoughts were starting to get fogged up. “I'm going to need some food here shortly,” he said, eyes flicking around in search of a waitress. “I haven't eaten since this morning.”

“Why didn't you say so?” Matthew asked and motioned to someone across the room. A young woman came over and handed out laminated pieces of paper.

“Just a burger and fries,” Jess said without bothering to look at the menu. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a familiar face at the bar. He looked over at the woman, making no attempt to hide the fact that he was staring, but his brain couldn't make sense of the face and the short, black bob.

“Who are you looking at?” Chris asked.

Both guys turned in their seats to follow Jess' gaze.

“Is that—” Matthew began, squinting.

Chris nodded. “Yep. That's—”

“What's her name?”

Chris snapped his fingers. “Damn, it's on the tip of my tongue. Weren't we just talking about her?” he asked Jess.

“Wasn't her hair longer? And a different color?” Matthew asked.

Jess nodded, a sense of foreboding washing over him. “Yes. To all of the above,” he said, his fingers tightening around the glass. He was going to need that second drink sooner than he thought. “That, my friends, is Desirae.”

The woman in question raised her glass in greeting, a smile playing along her ruby red lips. Then, to Jess' horror, she slid off her bar stool and started to come over.

“Damn it,” Jess said, sighing through his nose. He should have left when he had the chance.

“Hi.” Desirae's smile was wide, her eyes warm. “Been a while.”

Jess took in a deep breath before looking up at the woman he'd dated for five months and avoided for the next ten. “Yeah.”

“It's good to see you.” When Jess didn't respond, she looked around the table and smiled. “How are you, guys?”

“Good,” Chris said. “You?”

“I've been fantastic. The bakery is doing really well. We just expanded and are actually turning business away, if you can believe that.”

Matthew nodded. “That's great.”

Jess took a sip of whiskey, eyeing her warily over the glass.

“I'm also engaged,” she said and, though her eyes were not on Jess, he knew her words were meant for him. She held up her left hand and showed off the glittering jewel on her finger with a wide grin on her face. “The wedding is in June.”

“Congratulations,” Jess said and meaning it.

“Thank you,” she said, finally looking at him. “He's a great guy. He loves kids and wants to start trying for a baby as soon as we're married.”

Jess schooled his features, despite the reminder of the times Desirae had talked about starting a family, the way her face had glowed as she'd talked of the features she wished Jess would pass down to their child. Jess, on the other hand, had not been as thrilled.

She glanced at her watch. “Well, it was great catching up with you. I just wanted to come over and wish you Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah. You too,” Jess said, a little more forgiving now that she was leaving. “Good luck on the wedding.”

She gave him a tight smile and a nod. “Thank you.”

Jess watched Desirae walk away, not taking his eyes off her back until she finished her drink at the bar and walked out the door. Only then did he lean back in his seat and unclench his jaws.

“She looks like she's doing well,” Matthew said, straightening in his seat as their food arrived.

“She looked almost normal,” Chris added. “Not as together as pre-fame Britney but, at the very least, Vegas Britney.”

“Chris, man, you have got to stop with those references,” Matthew said with a groan. “It's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed for you and I'm doubly embarrassed for your wife.”

Chris laughed. “Screw you. How do you think I even know about Britney? I didn't come by that information voluntarily.”

Jess took a hefty bite of his burger, chuckling as his friends continued to trade barbs. Still, he couldn't help but think of the scene that had just taken place, so odd in its uneventfulness. Never in a million years did he think he'd ever again have a conversation with Desirae that didn't end in tears or threats, let alone one so calm and almost mundane.

He decided to take it as a sign to put the past firmly behind him and look only to the future, to Rory and the life they might one day build together.

 

All of Jess' plans were shot to hell. Despite eating the burgers and fries, the alcohol went straight to his head and rendered him unable to refuse the drinks that the waitstaff kept dropping off.

By the time midnight rolled around, the three friends were thoroughly plastered. Completely unaware of the volume of their voices, they argued about books and artistic expression like their nonconformist heroes of yore.

“To Kerouac and Pollock and Kline,” Jess said, holding his glass in the air.

“To the bar we promised we'd never name Cedar Bar Redux,” Matthew said and the three clinked their glasses together, spilling a bit of liquid in the process.

At close to one in the morning, the party finally ended and the guys shared a cab to their various homes. Only when Jess was fumbling with the keys to his apartment did he realize that there was no way he could go to Stars Hollow now. Not only due to his current inability to operate heavy machinery, but also because there was no way he could face Rory. At least, not in his current state.

Thinking he had time, he fell into bed—shoes, clothes, and all—and promptly fell asleep.

 

Rory sat at a table at Luke's and checked her phone for what must have been the hundredth time that day. Four o'clock. No calls, no messages.

“Did the realtor message you about the title?” Luke asked, taking the seat on one of the barstools. The diner was all but empty at this hour and he seemed to have forgotten about his cell phone ban for the time being while Rory waited to hear from her realtor. She just needed confirmation of a clean title search then she could wire the money to the bank and become an official homeowner.

Rory shrugged, trying to maintain an appearance of calm. “Still waiting,” she said but didn't elaborate on who she was really waiting for.

“He'll come,” Luke said with a knowing smile.

Her eyes flicked up to him. “He hasn't answered any of my calls or messages,” she said, giving up the ruse.

“Then I'm sure there's a good reason for it.”

“Yeah,” she said, staring at her phone. “Or maybe he changed his mind.”

Luke snorted. “Not likely. The way that guy looks at you...” He shook his head. “No way he'd change his mind.”

Just then, the diner door burst open and Mrs. Kim came charging through, her eyes zeroing in on Rory. “You!” she said, marching over.

Rory never quite understood until that moment how a deer really felt when caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Or a mack truck, in this case. “Hi, Mrs. Kim,” she said, glancing over at Luke to make sure she had backup but found he was nowhere to be found.

“I know what you did.”

“What did I do?” Rory asked, her mind going blank. Staring into the dark, razor-keen eyes of Mrs. Kim had always had that effect on her.

“Lane has been trying to save money for a long time and you come along, throwing money in her face.”

“I didn't throw money. There was no money thrown,” Rory said, finally understanding what they were talking about. “I offered her an interest-free loan—in check form, by the way—so her band can finally record an album.”

“And who are you to do that? Warren Buffett?”

Indignation carried Rory to her feet. She didn't know where this wave of courage was coming from, but she had every intention of riding it all the way to the shore. “No. I happen to have a little bit of money, most of which I've put aside for my ba—put in a high-yield savings account. And what's left is being used to put my life back in order.”

“And where does my Lane come in?”

“She's my best friend and I wanted to help her with a lifelong dream,” Rory said, tears stinging her eyes. She blinked rapidly, trying her best not to cry in front of this indomitable woman who'd probably never even shed a tear her entire life. “Lane was always meant for more. She was always destined to be on a stage, rocking out to sold-out stadiums.”

“She's happy with her life here, with Zack and the boys.”

“I know. But she never got her chance to rock out,” Rory said. “I want to help make a bit of that dream come true, in the only way I know how. If that makes me a terrible person, then so be it. But Lane is recording that album, whether you like it or not.”

Mrs. Kim scowled. “That is not your place.”

“Yes, it is. Lane is not just my best friend; she's my sister. She's family.”

Mrs. Kim lifted her chin, fixing Rory with a stony look that could reduce a grown man to tears, or in Luke's case, send him scurrying off to the storage room.

Finally, Mrs. Kim gave a short nod, the sharp edges of her face smoothing out. Rory blinked, unable to believe her eyes as the corners of Mrs. Kim's mouth started to lift up. It almost looked like a... smile. “You are family, Rory.”

Then she did the most unexpected thing of all: She wrapped her arms around Rory and pulled her in for a hug. Rory stood, immobilized, not sure what was happening until it was over.

Mrs. Kim pulled away, straightening her coat. “I want Lane's dream to come true too. With your loan and the money I've saved up, Hep Alien will have enough to record an album and go on a cross-country tour.”

Rory's chest swelled at the thought. “Does Lane know?”

“I will tell them tomorrow,” Mrs. Kim said, her voice back to its usual stiff staccato. “I will sit the band down and show them the itinerary I've written up. The tour will, as the kids say these days, be fire.”

Rory choked back a laugh. “Yes, yes it will.”

After she left, Rory turned around and found Luke emerging from the back room, a sheepish smile on his face. “All clear,” she said.

“I was doing inventory,” Luke said, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder. “We're low on flour.”

“Of course,” Rory said with a nod.

“What was that about? She sounded angry.”

Rory smiled. “I think she was trying to thank me. In her own distinct way.”

Luke set his hands on his hips and stared out the door, looking as bewildered as Rory felt. “Huh.”

 

 

Chapter 23

 

Rory stood at the front door of the yellow Victorian house, pausing with the key halfway in the lock. A thousand emotions swirled around inside her but, of them all, the most profound was the pure joy of knowing she finally had a place to call her own. Beaming ear to ear, she unlocked the door and took the first official step inside her new home.

She stopped at the foyer and flipped on the switch, the dusty brass chandelier coming to life and illuminating the space. Her chest swelled with pride at the sight. A wistful smile tugged at her lips as she pressed a hand to her stomach and whispered, “Welcome home.”

After a few moments, she turned around and grabbed the box she'd left on the porch, carrying it  into the kitchen. She took out the various cleaning sprays and paper towels and set them aside, then brought out her most favorite books—Anna Karenina, Howl, Leaves of Grass, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Jane Eyre—before taking them over to the mantel over the fireplace. From her coat pocket she brought out her grandfather's compass, opened it up, and set it atop the stack of books.

With a giddy smile, she stood back and admired the scene. Perfect.

A moment later, the sound of a vehicle driving up the street caught her attention. Her heart raced when the rumbling stopped right outside, and a car door slammed shut. Then heavy footsteps pounded up the porch steps, as loud as the pounding of her heart.

Rory tried to retain a cool demeanor as she walked over to the door, but she was kidding herself if she thought she could remain calm. Not now; not when her heart was so full in her new home, it was fit to burst. She took hold of the handle and opened the door, stopping short when she realized her first visitor wasn't Jess.

“Rory,” Luke said, sounding out of breath.

The expression on Luke's face sent a frisson of fear shooting through her. “What's wrong? What happened? Is Mom okay?”

His jaw tightened. “It's Jess.”

She took a step back, a cold sweat breaking out over her skin.

“I just got the call. He's in the hospital. In Philadelphia,” Luke said between breaths.

Rory's brain processed the words, but she refused to absorb them. Instead she went on auto-pilot, grabbing her purse and leading the way out the door. “Come on.”

Luke stayed long enough to turn off the lights and lock the door. Rory was already on the sidewalk, unlocking her car. He didn't bother suggesting taking his truck; she wouldn't have heard it anyway. “You want me to drive?” he asked, pausing at her passenger door.

She shook her head, her mind already racing down the street towards the interstate, due southwest to Philadelphia. “I got it. Let's go.”

 

Rory counted herself lucky to be in the driver's seat, glad she wasn't Luke at that moment, looking absolutely miserable as he stared out the windshield. At least she had the driving to occupy her mind, to keep her from imagining all the terrible scenarios that could have landed Jess in the hospital. Like a car accident, or a mugging, or possibly even being eaten by the machine he'd been battling all week. 

Yeah, she was real lucky.

“I guess the hospital called earlier and I didn't see it,” Luke said after some time, looking so defeated in the passenger seat as he stared down at his phone. “It was my fault. I shouldn't have turned my phone off. But I never have it on in the diner. I have a sign that clearly states No Cell Phones. It's been there for as long as I can remember. I can't break my own rules.”

Rory reached over and touched his arm. “Luke,” she said gently. “It's not your fault.”

He sighed, his shoulders sagging. “I should have known something was wrong when he didn't show up. Should've listened to my gut.”

Rory fixed her eyes on the dark road ahead, trying her best not to cry. She'd spent a good portion of the afternoon resenting Jess, thinking he had broken his word and had abandoned her yet again, and the whole time he had been laying in a hospital bed. “What happened?” she asked in a small voice.

“I don't know. All they said in the message was that there was a fire and he was in the hospital.”

Rory's grip tightened around the steering wheel. “Was he hurt? What am I saying? Of course he was hurt. He's in the hospital for crying out loud.” She turned to Luke. “Was he burned? Is he conscious?”

Luke shook his head. “I only know as much as you.”

“Luke, I don't want... I don't want him to...” She stopped, unwilling to finish the sentence.

He looked over at her, the concern on his face reflecting her own. “I know,” he said with a nod. “I know.”

 

As soon as they arrived at the hospital, Rory rushed toward the nurse's station and asked for Jess Mariano. Then she headed down the hallway, eyes flicking left and right for the correct room number. But when she reached the door, she found she couldn't take another step.

“Are you going to go in?” Luke asked behind her.

She turned around to face him, an uneasy feeling washing over her.

He nodded. “Hospitals make me nervous too.”

She looked down at her hands. “No, it's not that. It's just déjà vu, I guess. I've been through this so many times before, with Logan, and my grandfather.” Her throat tightened at the memory of the day she'd stood right outside her grandfather's ICU room, her hand already turning the door handle before she'd heard the sobbing inside. “Grandpa...”

Luke laid a hand on her shoulder, sadness etched into his face. He remembered that day, too.

“I didn't make it in time to say goodbye,” she whispered. “I was traipsing around the world when I should have been in Hartford, spending what little time we had left together. I still had so much to tell him. I was saving up all these little anecdotes, of things that I saw or heard or did, knowing how much he enjoyed hearing about my adventures. But I never got to talk to him. I never got to say goodbye.”

Before she knew it, Luke was drawing her in to his arms for an all-encompassing hug. He didn't say anything for a long time, only held and comforted her like only a father could.

After they pulled apart, Rory wiped at her cheeks and took a deep breath, taking comfort in the fact that, at the very least, she wouldn't be walking in there alone. “Okay.” Then she steeled herself, turned around, and pushed open the door.

She thought she'd been prepared to face whatever was inside but to see Jess laid out the hospital bed, his eyes closed and face covered in soot, with an oxygen mask covering the lower half of his face, made Rory's knees buckle.

Beside her, Luke let out a long, ragged breath. “Geez,” he said, running a palm down his face and turning away.

Rory's lungs felt as if in a vice as she took slow, measured steps towards the bed. Her eyes were glued to his chest, watching the blue hospital gown rising and falling to indicate his breathing. Before she knew it, she was at his side, slipping her hand in his. “Jess?”

His eyes blinked open, but they were glassy and unfocused as they flicked around the room. He tried to say something but it was muffled and incoherent under the mask. Before she could say anything else, his eyelids drifted shut.

A moment later, a nurse came into the room, stepping around Luke to reach the clipboard from the foot of the bed.

“What happened to him?” Rory asked her.

“He was found unresponsive in his apartment during the fire. He's being treated for smoke inhalation,” the nurse replied. “Thankfully, firefighters got to him before the fire engulfed his apartment.”

Rory sucked in a breath, eyes flying back to Jess. “He just woke up a second ago and looked disoriented.”

“That happens,” the nurse said with a nod, checking the plastic clip on Jess' finger that monitored the oxygen in his blood. “We're keeping him overnight for treatment and observation.”

Rory brushed hair away from his forehead, finding it a little hard to breathe herself, as if she was sharing in his pain. 

After the nurse left, Rory looked over at Luke, surprised to find him so pale. “You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, his eyes fixed on the foot of the bed. “I'm just... I'm going to go call your mom. Let her know we made it okay,” he said, following the nurse outside.

Rory let out a breath and bent down to place a kiss on Jess' forehead, tears stinging her eyes when she caught a whiff of smoke on his skin. She couldn't wrap her mind around the idea that he'd been so close to death's door. If the firefighters hadn't found him when they did, if they'd come even a few minutes later, what would have happened to Jess? Would there still be a Jess?

Refusing to entertain the idea any longer, she turned away and grabbed a chair, dragging it beside the bed. She took hold of his hand once again and pressed her lips to his fingers, sending up a silent prayer in gratitude that, this time, she wasn't too late.

 

Jess awoke feeling like hell. He tried to remember where he was but his foggy brain refused to cooperate. The last thing he remembered was coughing his lungs out on the cold sidewalk, catching sight of flashing lights before he passed out. He had no recollection of how he got here in this white room, wearing little more than a paper napkin, with a big plastic alien sucking on his face. And he had no clue what he was holding in his hand, but it was warm and comforting and made him feel a little less disoriented.

Then, from his periphery, he saw something dark on the bed beside him. Trying to force his bleary eyes to focus, he lifted his head and made out Rory slumped forward, her head resting on her arms as she slept. He lifted his arm and saw it was her hand he was holding. The sight of her made his chest tighten with emotion, made his already aching lungs burn even more.

He pulled the mask off his face and tried to say her name but his voice was all but gone. He cleared this throat and tried again but only managed a groan.

She stirred at the noise and lifted her head, her eyes immediately alert even if her face was still rumpled from sleep. “Hey,” she said, sitting up and running her fingers through her hair. “You're awake.”

He nodded, trying to speak but, again, his voice box wouldn't cooperate.

“It's okay,” she said, reaching for the mask and settling it back over his face. “Just get this back on and breathe.”

He wanted to apologize, to explain why he he hadn't been able to make it back to Stars Hollow as promised, but he couldn't speak. He'd said many pointless things in his life, had carelessly flung out sharp words like darts, but now that he actually needed to say something important, he was without ability to say it. Life had a twisted sense of humor that way.

Jess squeezed her hand instead, hoping his eyes would be sufficient in conveying his remorse.

To his relief, Rory smiled. Even if her chin trembled, at least there was no contempt in the way she looked at him. “Luke was here too, but he had to go back to Stars Hollow,” she said, fussing with the sheet and smoothing it out over his chest. “He was so worried about you.”

Jess took hold of her hand, trying to take her nervous energy and refocus it. Then he puckered his lips and pressed her knuckles to the plastic thing over his mouth, eliciting a small laugh. But the reprieve was short lived.

“I didn't know what had happened to you. If you were okay or—” She paused, blinking fast. “I was so mad at you today. I thought you were going to be a no-show. I thought you'd changed your mind about us. About me.”

With a burning in his lungs that had nothing to do with the fire, he pulled aside the mask and tugged on her hand, overcome with relief when she bent down and pressed her lips to his. He threaded his fingers through her hair, deepening the kiss, pouring into it everything he'd felt this past week. 

He was gasping for air by the time they pulled away, but he held his forehead to hers and used the last of his breath to whisper, “Rory, I love you.”

 

 

Chapter 24

 

Rory stilled, her eyes flying all over Jess' face as she drew back. His words had come as a surprise, rendering her without the ability to think let alone speak.

One dark eyebrow quirked up on his face as he waited for a response, but the silence stretched and stretched.

Just say something. Anything!

Rory finally opened her mouth to attempt to explain all of the emotions swirling inside her, when the door burst open and a woman came breezing into the room. Beautiful with short blonde hair and the physique of a Victoria's Secret model, she filled the room with her commanding presence.

“Oh, thank God,” she said, heading straight to the bed and bending down to give Jess a hug. Then she pulled back and smacked him on the chest. “I was on a double black diamond when the hospital called and said you were in a fire. Do you know how tough it is to get down a double black diamond on a snowboard after a phone call like that?”

Jess shook his head. Rory tried to edge away but he held tight to her hand.

The woman paused and, for the first time, looked at Rory. “I'm sorry. I'm so rude,” she said, holding her hand out over the bed. “Emmeline Waters.”

Rory shook her hand. There were very few times in her life when she'd felt like the ugly, fat friend but at that moment, in her sweatshirt and jeans, she was every bit the D.U.F.F. “I'm Rory. Well, actually, Lorelai Gilmore but everyone calls me Rory. Lorelai is actually my mother.” Rory clamped her lips shut to stop the nervous rambling.

“It's nice to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you,” Emmeline said in a carefully diplomatic way.

“All good things, I hope,” Rory said with a thin smile.

Emmeline glanced down at Jess. “I actually don't know if Jess is capable of saying anything negative about an ex-girlfriend, no matter how crazy she is,” she said. “But yes, he used all glowing adjectives with you. If he could carry a tune, I'm sure he would have sung your praises.”

Emmeline's words should have allayed Rory's fears; instead they felt forced and overly nice. Suspiciously so. “Actually, I'm not an ex,” Rory felt compelled to say. “Jess and I are together.” She avoided looking at Jess. Still, she felt his eyes on her.

“I stand corrected,” Emmeline said, a smile stretching across her face as she nudged Jess on the arm. “Good for you.”

Jess grinned then lifted his hand to shoo Emmeline away.

Emmeline turned to Rory with one perfect eyebrow raised. “It seems I'm getting dismissed,” she said, backing away from the bed. “I guess I'll go get a coffee downstairs so Jess can give you his letterman jacket and ask you to go steady.”

Only after she had left the room was Rory able to breathe again. She liked to think she wasn't a jealous kind of person but she found herself resenting Emmeline's familiar manner toward Jess. Rory understood where it came from, which was not to say she liked it.

She didn't realize she'd been staring off into space until she felt Jess tugging on her hand. She looked down and saw that he'd moved over on the narrow bed and was patting the space beside him.

Rory kicked off her shoes and stretched out beside him, snuggling into his side. She wrapped an arm around his stomach and laid her head on his chest, listening to his heart beat.

“So that's Emmeline, huh?” she asked, knowing Jess wouldn't be able to answer.

He made a grumbling noise she took to mean yes.

“She looks like she belongs on Taylor Swift's squad.”

His chest grumbled again, this time in a chuckle.

“You never told me she was so gorgeous.”

At that, he took hold of her chin and urged her head back. When she looked up, she saw nothing but warmth in his eyes.

“Yeah, I know. I'm being silly.” She looked up at him, deciding to let it go. “So, what glowing things have you been saying about me?”

He shrugged and motioned to his throat, indicating his inability to speak.

“Oh, all of a sudden you can't talk.” She shifted up to one elbow on the bed, resting her head on her hand to better face him. Then, with the pads of her fingers, she wiped away the soot on his forehead. “Fine. Then I'll do the talking.”

Before she could continue, he took hold of her hand and held it against his chest, shaking his head.

“Oh no, you don't get away that easily,” she said, one corner of her mouth tugging up. “You seriously didn't think you could get away with that evasive maneuver again, did you?”

His eyebrows drew together in confusion.

“Last time you told me you loved me, you just up and left. Didn't even give me a chance to respond.”

His eyes flashed in understanding then he began to shake his head again. He pulled the mask off his face and ground out in a voice pitted with gravel, “Rory...”

“Stop,” she said, covering his mouth with her hand. “I'm trying to tell you I love you.”

He stilled, his eyes fixed on hers. When she pulled her hand away, he wore that crooked smile on his face that she loved so much. Then he raised one eyebrow, looking so sure of himself, before tugging her down for a wordless kiss.

 

Rory stayed at a hotel that night after visiting hours were over. The next day, she came back to find Emmeline sitting in a chair, talking to Jess, who sat on the edge of the bed. He was still in the hospital gown but at least he was no longer attached to the machines.

He looked up when Rory entered the room, a smile already on his face. “Morning,” he said, his voice still hoarse.

Rory walked over and gave him a quick peck on the lips. “Are you being released?”

“You know it.”

She held up a sack. “I got you some fresh clothes. Figured yours probably smelled like smoke.”

Jess glanced over at Emmeline, who kept a perfectly neutral expression. “Thanks,” he said to Rory, accepting the bag. He stood up, not bothering to hold the back of his gown together, and disappeared into the bathroom to take a shower.

In his absence, an awkward silence settled over the room.

Rory looked around, noticing the bag by Emmeline's feet. “Did you already bring him clothes?”

Emmeline's poker face dissolved. “Yeah. He had some clothes at my place.”

Rory looked away, her face growing hot. A part of her wanted to let the comment slide, but there was a growing voice inside her that wanted answers. And she'd be damned if was that woman who let doubt eat away at her relationships. So she forced her gaze up to Emmeline's and asked, “Did you and Jess date?”

Emmeline's eyes flashed in surprise. “No,” she said as if it was the most ludicrous thing in the world. “Didn't he tell you?”

Rory shook her head. “No. What?”

“I'm gay.”

“Oh.”

“He leaves clothes at my house so he can come over after work and swim laps in my pool.”

“Oh.” Rory let out a soft laugh. “Okay then.”

Emmeline gave a nod, her eyes full of warmth. “You have nothing to worry about, Rory. Not with me.”

 

After Jess was released, they said goodbye to Emmeline, who was headed back to the airport to return to her vacation. Then Jess and Rory took a cab to Jess' apartment to see the damage. When they arrived, Jess was surprised to find the building itself was intact, the scorch marks above the broken windows the only visible evidence of the fire. He headed to the parking lot first, finding all but one of the spaces empty. To his surprise and acute relief, he found his Harley-Davidson Softail Breakout where he left it, untouched by smoke or fire.

Filled with hope, he led Rory up the cement steps to his apartment, but his optimism dissolved the moment he turned the corner and saw the battered state of his front door. With a sick feeling in his stomach, he turned the handle and pushed open the door.

Behind him, Rory let out a soft gasp.

“You should probably stay out there,” he said, stepping under the yellow tape stretching across the doorway. “It might not be safe inside.”

His eyes stung the moment he entered his apartment, but not from lingering effects of the fire. His entire apartment had been reduced to ash and debris and fire-eaten walls. Everything was gone. Even his formidable leather couch had burned to almost nothing.

Jess stepped around what might have once been an ottoman and headed to the bedroom, finding it had fared a little better. At the very least, he could still make out the pattern of his duvet on the charred bed. He walked over and picked up a black lump on the mattress, belatedly realizing it was his leather jacket.

“Jess?” came Rory's voice from somewhere inside the apartment.

“In here.”

She appeared at the opening that had once been the doorway, looking around with her eyebrows drawn together and her mouth open. “I can't believe it.”

He looked around, shaking his head. “I know.”

“I mean, you couldn't even clean up before inviting me over?”

Jess let out a surprised laugh, grateful for the small moment of levity. But the moment was gone too soon. “Helga,” he said, spinning in place, trying to recall where he'd left his beloved laptop.

Rory covered her mouth. “Is Helga your dog? Cat?”

“My laptop.”

Rory went back to the living room to help him look as he continued searching his room. Then it came back to him—the night he'd come home from work and sat on the couch to write.

He hurried out of the room and found Rory crouched over by the wall where a massive bookcase had once stood. Now it was just a pile of wood and burned paper.

“Were these all of your books?” she asked in a small voice.

He set his hands on his hips, taking deep breaths. “Yeah,” he said, trying to sound unconcerned and not sure he was succeeding. “But books can be replaced.”

She picked up a charred page, and though its edges were burned black, his handwriting was still visible in the margin. “But all your notes...”

“I can write more.” But his bravado evaporated the moment he spotted the pile of scorched plastic and glass that had once been Big Helga.

Rory saw his expression and followed his gaze. “Please tell me you have your files on a cloud server somewhere.”

“Yeah,” he said, ripping his eyes away from the remains of his old friend. He turned to Rory, his hand held out. “Come on. We should go.”

“You're not going to try and salvage anything?”

“There's nothing to save. It's all gone.” She opened her mouth to object but he was already on his way to the door. “I have to get out of here.”

 

The two sat in silence during the cab ride to CBR to get Jess' car, and still on the way back to Rory's hotel room.

As soon as they went inside, Jess walked over to the bed and sank down, weighed down by his thoughts. His eyes flew around the impersonal hotel room, trying and failing to shake off the distinct feeling of floating untethered in the middle of space.

“Hey,” Rory said, standing in front of him and threading her fingers through his hair.

With a sigh, he pulled her between his legs and held tight. He might have lost everything he was and everything he represented in that fire, but he still had the one thing that mattered.

He looked up at her and asked, “Have I told you how happy I am that you're here?”

“No.”

“Well I am.”

She flashed him a tight smile but said nothing.

“What's wrong?” he asked.

She let out a breath. “I just can't believe you lost everything. Your clothes, your music, your computer, and your books. Your books...”

“It's not that big a deal,” he said, trying to convince himself as much as her. “I'm used to it. This is not the first time I've lost everything and it won't be the last.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Rory,” he said, rising to his feet and holding her close. “I have you and that's enough.”

She looked down, swiping at her cheek. “I'm sorry. This is ridiculous! You shouldn't be comforting me. I should be the one comforting you. Sometimes I can be so selfish. And look! I'm doing it again, making it all about myself. How can you even stand me? I'm a terrible person.”

He reached up and cradled her face in his hands. “Hey. Don't talk about my girlfriend like that,” he said, swiping at a wet track on her cheek with his thumb.

Her gaze lifted to his as a begrudging smile formed on her lips. “Have I told you how happy I am that you're okay?”

“Not in so many words.”

“Well I am.” She looked up at him, shaking her head. “It's funny how I went all those years without seeing or hearing from you and I was fine. I was my own independent person. But then you came back to Stars Hollow, with that cocky smile of yours and that way you have of looking directly into my thoughts that's sometimes really infuriating, and now...”

He dipped his head. “Now?”

“Now I can't imagine life without you.”

 

 

Chapter 25

 

Rory leaned her head back and sighed as warm water trickled down her scalp and sluiced down her back. She let out a soft moan as Jess repeated the process, combing his fingers through her wet hair.

“I can sit in this tub forever,” she said, leaning into his hands as he massaged her scalp. Around them steam rose from the surface of the water, wrapping them in a foggy, dreamlike atmosphere.

A moment later, she felt Jess' lips on her bare shoulder. “Sounds doable,” he said. “I mean, we'd eventually get pruny and would definitely have to change out the water at some point, but it sounds like a damn good way to spend the rest of our lives.” He gathered her in his arms and she leaned back into his chest with a contented sigh.

They were quiet for a few tranquil moments, each lost on their own thoughts. The entire time Jess' hands slid all over her body, caressing, tracing, smoothing over her curves. She felt a little like clay and he the artist molding her to life with his talented hands.

“Jess?”

“Mmm?” he said, the sound rumbling deep in his chest.

“Remember that night when you came to my dorm room in Yale and asked me to run away with you?”

He was quiet for a time. Finally, he said, “I do, yes.”

“Remember what you asked?”

“How could I forget?”

She twisted around in the water until they were facing each other. “Let's do it. Let's run away and spend the next few weeks traveling and pretending we're young again. It'll be like a do-over. A relationship mulligan.”

“What about Nantucket?” he asked, his eyes flickering all over her face.

She paused. In her excitement, she had all but forgotten about her grandmother. “It'll be fine. They'll understand,” she said, hoping she didn't sound as uncertain as she felt.

“When was the last time you got to spend Christmas with your grandmother?”

“I don't know. Three, four years ago.”

He slid a hand up the curve of her spine and let it rest on the back of her neck. Then he gazed at her for a long, quiet time, his expression giving nothing away. Just when she thought he'd shoot down her idea, he said, “How about this: We spend Christmas in Nantucket, then we leave right after?”

“We?” she asked with a hopeful smile.

“Yep.”

“An editorial we?”

“Nope.”

“You want to go to my grandmother's house willingly?” she asked incredulously.

“Stranger things have happened.”

“Is there a gun pointed at your back that I'm not seeing?”

“Not that I'm aware of.”

“Did you, perhaps, hit your head during the fire and are now suffering from some mild form of amnesia?”

He pursed his lips and flashed her an adorable frown. “I don't remember?”

She laughed, flicking water on his face. He retaliated by tickling her sides, making her squirm, the sound of laughter and splashing water echoing through the enclosed space. She managed to grab hold of his hands, holding them together to keep him from attacking again.

He stopped, his voice taking on a more serious tone when he said, “I know you, Rory. I know that Christmas with your family is a big deal to you.”

She leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “You're a big deal to me.”

“Besides, can you imagine the wrath that will befall me if your grandmother discovers I'm the reason for your absence during Christmas?” he asked. “Tarring and feathering may have gone out of style, but if anyone can bring it back, it's Emily Gilmore.”

The visual made Rory laugh. “She is a willful one.”

He extricated his hands from her grasp and held her face. “So what do you say?”

Rory gazed at the man before her—he who was willing to put her needs above his own—as her chest swelled with emotion. Sometimes she wondered if he was even real. “I want you to have a good Christmas, too.”

“I will,” he said with a resolute nod.

She let out a slow breath. “Christmas in Nantucket it is.”

He grinned, his hands sliding down the sides of her neck and down her shoulders.

She grabbed hold of his wrists again. “Do you think you can behave?”

His eyes sparkled with mischief as leaned closer, stopping when their mouths were a hair's breadth apart. Then he tilted his head and skimmed his lips along the edge of her jaw, coming to a stop at her ear. “Never,” he whispered.

An unexpected shiver racked her body even as liquid heat flowed through her veins.

“You cold?” he asked, his hands smoothing across her back and down her sides.

She shook her head and moved closer until their bodies were flush, her bare skin meeting with his. And then there were no more words, no more plans and jokes, and all that remained were Rory and Jess and the steam.

 

After, they lay tangled in bed until late into the night, talking about anything and everything. They discussed movies and books and music, speculated on who would die next on Game of Thrones, argued over the merits (if any) of Nickelback. By the time the sun began its rise, they were both exhausted but still fighting sleep.

“Tell me something else,” Jess said even as his eyelids began to drift shut.

Rory mumbled something unintelligible beside him as she snuggled into his chest.

“Mmm?” he asked, gathering her closer. When she didn't reply, he forced his eyes open and saw that she had fallen asleep. He watched her for a few moments, a smile touching his lips at her peaceful, unguarded state. And for the first time in a long time—at the very least since discovering he'd lost all of his material possessions—he felt a calm settle over him like a warm blanket.

Because despite having lost everything, here in his arms, he still had more than any one man deserved.

 

“So this is Truncheon,” Rory said as they walked through the main workspace, passing by desks that sat lonely and deserted for the weekend. She followed Jess through dark hallways, all the way to the back where dozens of large machines reside. She'd toured a printing press before but Truncheon was a cut above, more organized and grander in scale. “This place is massive.”

Jess let out a soft laugh as he walked beside her. “It's okay for what it is.”

She flashed him a dubious look. “You're kidding. I've been walking so long, I'm starting to get blisters. Pretty sure Stephen King based his first book on this tour.”

Jess stopped, let out a breath, then turned his back. “Hop on,” he said, crouching down.

Rory snorted. “I was kidding.”

He looked over his shoulder, motioning with his head. “Get on, Gilmore.”

“But I'm too heavy.”

He snickered. “Trust me, you're not.”

“Just remember, you asked for it.” With a laugh, she wrapped her arms around his neck and hopped on his back. He straightened, hooking his hands under her legs to secure her around his waist before starting back down the hall.

“Just so we're clear, not everyone gets to ride the big boss,” he said with a smile in his voice.

“Duly noted. And appreciated.” She leaned into him, relishing the feel of his muscular body beneath her. She had seen him naked, had felt the weight of him on top of her, but she still found herself marveling at the physical change he'd undergone over the years. The Jess of today was built like a brick wall, secure and solid.

With a happy smile, she set her chin on his shoulder and nuzzled his neck, surprised to feel him flinch. “What do we have here? Is Mr. Big Boss ticklish?” she asked, doing it again and eliciting the same reaction.

“It's just itchy,” Jess said, tipping his head to protect his neck from further ambush. He chuckled the next time she did. “My hands are slipping, Rory,” he warned.

“Then let me go.”

He adjusted his hold on her legs. “Not a chance.”

Jess carried her through the dark building, finally setting her down inside his office. He turned and flipped the switch to reveal an eclectic office. The room was laid out like most offices, with a desk in the middle of the room, and while it definitely had a masculine air with its leather chairs and dark wood furniture, it was also unexpectedly cheerful. The dark eggplant walls were adorned with colorful art arranged in a thoughtful way. There were original paintings on canvas, framed prints, movie posters, an antique telephone, battered license plates, vinyl albums, and sculptures. She didn't know how, but he'd managed to take many different colors, textures, and shapes and made them belong together.

Rory walked over to one wall and touched a carved wooden mask that hung between a framed subway map of Manhattan and a lithograph print of a swan. “I did not expect to see all of this.”

Jess sat down at his desk and turned on the computer. “No?”

“Well, for one thing, it's not dark and brooding enough,” she said. “Did Emmeline help you decorate?”

He snorted. “Emmeline's office is all glass and chrome and completely devoid of color.”

“Oh.” Rory continued walking around, pausing at each piece, wishing she could hear the story of each one. She'd always wondered what Jess had done over the past decade and here, right in front of her, was the answer, all of his thoughts and dreams on display. “Did you paint or draw any of these? Take the photographs?”

“No. I just collected them over the years. From art festivals, galleries, friends.” He stopped and pointed to three small frames grouped together. Inside were ink drawings of buildings on heavily textured paper. “Those are from a homeless man selling his napkin drawings outside the Melrose Diner.”

She looked back at the drawings, surprised to discover that, yes, they had indeed been done on napkins. “Did you keep in touch with him?”

“Yeah,” Jess said with a nod. “Word is he still sells his napkin drawings, but now he has a steady job and an apartment.”

She paused, looking over at Jess. “He works here now, doesn't he?”

He shrugged and forced his attention back to the computer.

She made her way to his desk and sat on his lap, unable to keep the smile from taking over her face. She said nothing, only looked at him while he typed up an email.

“What?” he asked.

“You're sweet.”

He sighed through his nose. “So I gave the guy a chance, like someone else did to me when I needed a job. I was just returning the karmic favor. It's not a big deal.”

“It kind of is,” she said, wrapping an arm around his shoulder.

He kept his eyes fixed on the monitor, but she could see the tiny smile he was trying to hide behind the stubble. “Stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Looking at me like you want to pinch my cheeks.”

“Can't I just pinch it a little?” she asked with her finger and thumb held up.

He fixed her with a wary look. “No.”

“Fine,” she said, pressing her lips to his cheek instead. “You're a good guy, Jess Mariano.”

He turned to her, a thoughtful look on his face. But as indifferent as he pretended to be, in his dark hazel eyes she saw traces of lingering doubt. Because even after everything he'd accomplished, despite all his hard work and good deeds, he still wasn't sure if he'd done enough.

“You are,” she repeated. “One of the best I know.”

He gazed at her for a long, quiet time. Finally, after what seemed like forever, he began to nod. “Okay,” he said, clearing his throat. “So I've cleared my calendar for the next three weeks. I'm good to go.”

“It's not too late to back out of Nantucket,” she said, giving him one more chance. “Last call.”

He wrapped his arms around her waist and shook his head. “Nope. I am in,” he said. “Got my boxing gloves tied and my jockstrap on. It's time for a Gilmore Christmas.”

 

 

Chapter 26

 

“Hey,” Luke said, greeting Rory with an awkward hug the moment she stepped off the ferry.

“Hi,” Rory said, patting his back.

Then Luke turned to his nephew with a concerned expression on his face. Though he didn't say it, Rory could tell he was thinking of the last time he'd seen Jess unconscious in a hospital bed. “Good to see you up and moving,” Luke said, smacking Jess on the shoulder.

Jess nodded. “Heard you braved the hospital for me.”

Luke flashed him a proud smile. “I only threw up once.”

And with that, the three headed to the car and made their way through the snowy streets of Nantucket.

“It's so charming here,” Rory said, her eyes fixed on the scene outside the window. “I feel like I'm in a postcard.”

“I think I'm getting a cavity,” Jess said as they passed by a family of four who wore color-coordinated everything.

“So did you drive back to Stars Hollow to get your things?” Luke asked as he drove.

“No. I just bought a few things before coming here,” Rory replied.

Luke pointed out the window at the storefronts. “There are plenty of clothing stores around here if you need it. I'm pretty sure your mother has dragged me to every one.”

“It's okay. I have toiletries and a few items of clothing. I'm all set.”

Jess glanced over at her with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. He leaned over and said under his breath, “What about underwear?”

“I don't need it,” she whispered back, almost laughing out loud when Jess' eyes grew wide.

Luke glanced at them through the rearview mirror and just sighed.

 

A few minutes later they drove up a curving driveway to The Sandcastle, a sprawling white house set on a cliff that looked over the ocean. Stately and unassumingly beautiful, it was exactly what Rory had pictured for her grandmother.

Even before Luke set the car to Park, Lorelai was already hurrying out the front door in her pink robe and fuzzy bunny slippers. “Oh thank God, we have reinforcements,” she said, gathering Rory in her arms before she was even all the way out the car. Then, to everyone's surprise, Lorelai turned to Jess and gathered him in for a warm embrace. “Good to see you, kid,” she said, pulling back.

Jess chuckled. “You are definitely a shoe-in for the Nantucket Welcome Committee.”

“Well, what can I say? I run on coffee and enthusiasm,” Lorelai said. “So, Luke told me what happened. Are you all right?”

“I'm still breathing,” he said with a shrug.

“Well, I'm glad you're okay. Now, let's go inside. My toes are going numb,” she said, taking Rory by the hand.

Rory was surprised to find the house's interior to be so casual, with its wide plank floors and eggshell walls. But it was the wide windows that caught her attention, offering panoramic views of the ocean.

“Wow,” she said, eyeing the grey waters beyond the cliff. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked around. “Where's Grandma?”

“She's still at the museum,” Lorelai said. “Did you know she volunteers there, giving a presentation about whaling? I didn't know that. She never said a thing at the wedding. I mean, can you picture it? Emily Gilmore giving a presentation on whaling?”

“Where's Berta and her family?” Rory asked, noticing how quiet the house was. The only sound she could hear was the rushing of the waves below.

“They're gone,” Lorelai said with that expression on her face that Rory knew so well, the one that said she was dying to share some juicy information.

“Who's Berta?” Jess asked before Lorelai could continue.

“Emily's maid,” Luke said. “She and her family moved in—” Luke stopped and motioned with his head. “Come on. I'll tell you over mimosas.”

Jess stopped mid-step and gave him a horrified look. “Mimosas?”

Luke shook his head warily. “It's Emily's thing. Come on,” he said, walking off.

With their bags in hand, Jess followed Luke, all the while shaking his head. “Two days here and you've already turned into a Golden Girl...”

Once the men were gone, Rory turned back to her mother with a questioning look. “So?”

Lorelai pulled Rory down to the sofa, barely managing to open her mouth before the words came tumbling out. “So when Luke and I got here, we first noticed the noise. Or lack thereof. Luke loved it—because, of course—but it was so unnerving. There were no sounds of children playing or Berta talking in that language that not even Google translate has figured out. So I asked Mom where they were and you know what she told me?” Lorelai continued in her best Emily impression, “They told me they were moving back to Connecticut. They said they're not comfortable living in a house full of spirits.”

“Spirits?”

Lorelai nodded. “Smell that?”

Rory frowned then sniffed the air. “What is that? It kind of smells like—”

“Sage,” Lorelai said, her eyes wide. “Your grandmother has been burning sage.”

“No,” Rory said, covering her mouth. “Grandma thinks this place is haunted?” A chill traveled up Rory's spine, not because she was afraid of ghosts, but because she was afraid of what this could mean for her grandmother.

“She keeps talking about things moving, like they're not where she left them. Oh, and she swears she keeps seeing shadows out of the corner of her eye,” Lorelai said. “But you haven't heard the craziest part.”

“It gets worse?”

“She thinks the ghost is Dad.” Lorelai nodded at Rory's dumbfounded expression. “She thinks the great Richard Gilmore has apparated all the way here to haunt her—”

“Ghosts don't apparate. Witches and wizards do,” Rory interjected. “Sorry, go on.”

“Okay, you raging Pottermaniac—”

“I prefer Potterhead.”

“Anyway, my point is that your grandmother is convinced Dad's spirit is lingering here, haunting her.” She shook her head, a wistful smile on her face. “Frankly, I think Dad would rather do other things in his afterlife than hang out in Nantucket. Talk books with Elie Wiesel, play golf with Arnold Palmer, maybe even sing a tune with Bowie.”

Rory let out a breath, pausing to remember all who'd recently died. “This past year has really been brutal.”

“Yeah, it has.”

“So many of the greats.”

“I think, if i were Dad, I'd track down Carrie Fisher and force her to hang out with me. We'd play with lightsabers, since she wasn't allowed to have one in Star Wars, and talk about her secret love affair with Harrison Ford.”

Rory smiled, visualizing it for a moment before clearing her thoughts. “Hey, let's focus. What are we going to do about Grandma?”

“What can we do?”

“Perhaps—and please stop me if this idea is too bizarre—try to convince her that ghosts aren't real?”

“Orrrr we can get some big old chains and just kind of clang them around, making ghostly type noises outside her bedroom in the middle of the night. We can hang up a white sheet and rig it on a wire...”

“You're sick,” Rory said, shaking her head.

Lorelai nudged her, wagging her eyebrows. “Come on, don't tell me you didn't even consider it.”

 

After taking the bags over to the guest room, Jess followed his uncle to the bright kitchen, with its white cabinets and marble countertops. Everywhere he turned were windows that overlooked the ocean or the snow-covered backyard.

“I'll pass on the mimosa,” Jess said, taking up a stool at the massive kitchen island. “I'll take a coffee, though, if you have any.”

Luke nodded, taking out two mugs from the cabinet and taking them over to the coffee machine. Jess laughed when he saw that it was a Keurig. “Yeah, shut up,” Luke grumbled.

“So when does the Dowager Countess return?” Jess asked.

Luke frowned. “Who?”

“Violet Crawley.” When Luke still didn't get the reference, Jess said, “Emily.”

Just then the back door opened and the woman in question came waltzing in, a purse slung over one arm. “Oh, hello,” she said, looking at Jess with a warm smile. “It's wonderful to see you again. It's been far too long.”

Jess fought the urge to look over his shoulder to make sure she wasn't speaking to someone else. Emily had acted friendly toward him before but it had all been an act to appease Rory. He hoped this time was different.

He stood up and held out his hand. “Ma'am. Thank you for having me over.”

“It's my pleasure,” she said, shaking his hand.

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior the last time I came to your house...”

“Nonsense. That was a million years ago. You're more than welcome here in my home,” she said, waving his words away. “Now, where is my granddaughter?” she said, wandering off.

After she'd disappeared around the corner, Jess shot Luke a puzzled look. “Who was that woman?”

Luke walked over with two cups of coffee in his hands and a smirk on his face. “I'm pretty sure she's been body snatched.”

“Did I imagine it or was she actually nice?” Jess asked. “And were those white tennis shoes on her feet?”

With coffee in hand, the two made their way back to the living room, arriving in time to see the bewildered look on Rory's face as her grandmother hugged her. And hugged her.

“I'm glad everyone's here,” Emily said, finally pulling away. “Now we can put up the Christmas tree.”

 

Emily's tree was an artificial Blue Spruce that she had bought for the simple fact that it came prelit. It was nothing like the ten foot live Douglas Firs that she and Richard used to have in their home, but it was good enough. At the very least, it was the only one that would fit in her car.

From the hallway closet, she dragged the box out and took it to the living room, relishing the look of shock on her daughter's face when Emily began unpacking the tree.

“Is this a practice tree?” Lorelai asked, bending down and taking out one of the tree sections. “Or a stand-in until the real tree gets here?”

“No, this is the Christmas tree,” Emily said, attaching the uppermost section. When they were done, it stood no taller than Luke.

“But it's small and it's fake,” Lorelai said.

Emily gave her daughter a look. “Yes, I noticed.” Then she reached into her sweater pocket and withdrew a dried starfish with wire attached at the bottom. “Luke, would you mind putting this on top?”

Luke looked the starfish over. “Did you find it on the beach?” he asked, reaching up to affix it to the top of the tree.

“Close. I found it in the museum gift store.” She motioned to the boxes stacked beside the fireplace. “Would you mind getting those? The ornaments are in there.”

While Jess and Luke retrieved the boxes, Emily looked over at her daughter and granddaughter with a happy glow in her chest. “I'm so glad to have you two here,” she found herself saying. She had been doing that a lot lately—speaking her mind. It was a far cry from her life hobnobbing with the wealthy, when displaying one's emotions was frowned upon. Nowadays she just let the words fall from her lips and to hell with the consequences.

“Is this a Gilmore tradition?” Jess asked as he ripped open a box and unpacked the trays of ornaments inside.

“No. The real Gilmore tradition is to hire someone to cut down a tree and set it up in a room we never used. After which the maids hung the lights and decorations,” Lorelai said. “One time, when I was seven, I wanted to make a popcorn garland but I ate the popcorn instead. Figured they wouldn't have let me hang it on the tree anyway.”

“We might have. You never know,” Emily said, taking the tray of ornaments that Jess held out. When she pulled out a crystal angel, Rory let out a soft gasp. “What is it?” Emily asked.

“That was always my favorite one. But it was always hanging up beyond my reach,” her granddaughter said, her eyes fixed on the sparkling ornament.

Emily held out the angel with a smile. “Here. Put it wherever you like.”

“Thanks, Grandma,” Rory said. With ornament in hand, she walked up to the tree and quietly considered where to place it. Finally, she decided on the lowest branch. “So I can always reach it,” she said, turning back to Emily with a smile.

“It's perfect,” Emily said, gazing at her beautiful granddaughter, taking note of the glow in her cheeks. “I know what we need: Some hot cider,” she said, starting towards the kitchen.

“Do you want help?” Lorelai called.

“No. Stay and decorate the tree. I'll be right back.” Emily walked through the house, turning on every light along the way. In the kitchen, she headed straight for the refrigerator, gathering ingredients for hot cider. It wasn't until she had a pot of apple cider simmering on the stove that she noticed something was different. The vase of white ranunculus blooms that always sat in the middle of the island counter had moved several inches to the left.

With a huff, she stalked over and pushed it back to the center. “Richard, if this is your idea of a joke then you need to stop. Everyone is finally here and I don't need you scaring them away.” She stopped, unable to tear her eyes away from the white arrangement, the kind she bought every week in memory of her beloved husband. When she felt the sadness starting to settle back over her, she shook it off—literally shook her shoulders and imagined the sorrow flowing down her arms and out her fingertips. Most days, like today, it worked.

A few minutes later, she went back to the living room with a tray of mugs in her hands. “Now, who wants one?” she asked, setting it on the driftwood coffee table.

Everyone reached for a mug, murmuring their thanks before taking a sip.

“It tastes different,” Rory said over her mug. “But good different.”

“Yeah, Mom, what's in this?” Lorelai asked. “It tastes like it has rum.”

“That's because it does. I spiked it,” Emily said with a smile.

“You spiked it?” Lorelai asked, her gaze flicking over to Rory.

“What? I believe we're all over the legal drinking age. What's a little rum between adults?” Emily asked. From the corner of her eye she caught Rory setting her cup back down on the tray. “Rory, do you not want anymore?”

“Oh, it was good,” Rory said with an unconvincing nod. “I'm just going to save some for later.”

“Is it the rum you don't like?” Emily pressed, fighting back a smile as her granddaughter squirmed.

“No, it's not that.”

“Then what could it possibly be? Surely it's not because you're avoiding alcohol?”

Everyone in that room not named Emily froze.

“Are you a recovering alcoholic? Or, wait, do you have a rum allergy I wasn't aware of?” Emily asked, setting her mug down.

Lorelai stood up and spoke slowly. “Mom, do you know something?”

Emily shrugged. “I don't know. Do I?”

“Do you?” Lorelai asked.

“I don't know. Do I?” Emily repeated, her gaze fixed firmly on Rory until the girl was squirming in her seat.

“Grandma, I have to tell you something,” she finally said.

“Oh? What's that?”

Rory hesitated a moment before finally saying, “I'm pregnant.”

Emily folded her arms across her chest and smiled. “It’s about time you told me.”

 

 

Chapter 27

 

“You know?” Lorelai asked. “So you were toying with us this whole time?”

Emily raised an eyebrow. “I was giving Rory a chance to tell me.”

But Lorelai would not relent. “More like forcing her hand. What if she'd kept drinking?”

Emily gave a long-suffering sigh. “Oh, please. You think I wouldn't have stopped her?”

Rory stood up then, drawing everyone's attention. “I'm sorry, Grandma,” she said, wringing the edges of her sleeves together. “I was just waiting for the right time.”

“You should have told me.”

“I know.”

“How did you know, Mom?” Lorelai asked.

Emily picked up her mug and took a long, leisurely sip of her drink, keeping everyone in suspense. Finally, she set down her cup and said casually, “I have my sources.”

“Was it one of the Huntzbergers?” Lorelai asked. “Did Logan call you?”

“So there I was at the yoga studio—”

“Wait, you do yoga?” Lorelai interjected.

“As I was saying, I was in the middle of a yoga glass—”

Lorelai pressed a hand to her forehead. “Can we press Pause for a second here? I'm just having a really hard time imagining you in yoga pants and performing the downward dog. The Emily Gilmore I know would never be caught dead saying Namaste.”

“Well, Namas-freaking-te. I'm allowed to try new things, Lorelai,” Emily burst out then took in a breath to calm herself. “Now can I speak?”

Lorelai motioned to her. “Go ahead.”

“Like I was saying, I was in the middle of a yoga class when I received a call from none other than Shira Huntzberger, asking me what we needed to do to fix the situation. I said, What situation? and she proceeded to inform me—quite haughtily might I add—that her son and Rory were expecting a child together.” Emily gave a pointed look to Rory. “Can you imagine my shock and distress to learn that my own granddaughter was not only pregnant, but that she'd failed to tell me?”

“I'm sorry,” Rory said again. “I was waiting for the right time to tell you.”

“As soon as possible was the right time to tell me. Preferably the moment you found out.”

“How dare you not call her while you were still peeing on the stick?” Lorelai asked Rory.

“Oh Lorelai, don't make light of the situation. I'm upset with you and—” She pointed at Rory. “I'm upset with you.”

Rory sighed, her eyes full of remorse. Emily had just decided to offer her forgiveness when Rory turned on a heel and left the room.

“Rory!” Emily called but she'd had already disappeared down the hall. “What has gotten into that girl?”

“I don't know, maybe the fact that you ambushed her with rum to get her to tell you a secret? And not just any secret, but a huge, life-changing secret,” Lorelai said.

Emily looked over at Jess and Luke, who appeared uncomfortable in their seats as they looked at anything but her. “I bet they already know this huge, life-changing secret.”

Jess opened his mouth to say something when Rory returned.

“I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner, Grandma, but I thought this kind of news was best delivered in person. And I wanted to give you this after I told you,” she said, handing over a little slip of paper. “It's a copy of the first ultrasound.”

Emily teared up the moment she realized what she'd been given. With trembling fingers, she lifted it up to take a closer look at the first image of her first great grandchild. “Oh, Rory, this is wonderful,” she breathed, one hand floating up to her chest. Overcome with bittersweet joy, Emily reached out and gathered her granddaughter in for a warm embrace.

 

“I always knew your grandmother was wily,” Jess said as they retired to the guest bedroom later that night. “But that, back there, was a stratagem worthy of the CIA.”

“Yeah, my grandma has always had a gift for skullduggery,” Rory said as she changed into her new pajamas.

Jess took off his shirt and jeans, setting them on a chair. “Maybe my next protagonist will be an unassuming old widow who turns out to be a super spy. And she's partnered with a young stud, fresh out of the academy, who doesn't take her seriously until she saves his life in the most kickass way possible.”

Her eyebrows rose in amusement. “Young stud, huh? He sounds made up.”

“Completely imaginary,” he said with a grin. “So the widower has a granddaughter that the guy instantly falls for. The first moment he sees her, BAM, he's smitten.”

Rory raised an eyebrow. “This granddaughter—is she also a spy?”

“No. She's a civilian reporter who finds herself in the midst of trouble. But instead of the guy saving her, it's her grandmother who comes to her rescue. What do you think?”

“I'd read it,” she said with a weary smile as she sank down to the edge of the bed.

Jess stopped and, not for the first time, noticed the exhaustion lines on her face. “You all right?” he asked, taking a seat beside her.

Rory let out a long breath. “I think so. This pregnancy is just so exhausting. Not just the changes in my body but everything. My grandmother, the Huntzbergers, you.”

“Me?”

She gazed at him with woeful eyes, saying nothing. After a few moments, she shook her head and dropped her gaze down to her lap.

“Rory?”

When she looked up, there were unshed tears in her eyes. “You've been great. Really. You've been nothing but supportive and amazing and just... you,” she said, taking a quick swipe at her cheek. “But I'm just so tired. My emotions are all over the place and I'm just so sleepy all the time. Right now I want to close my eyes and sleep forever.”

Jess reached up and wiped a tear off her cheek with his thumb, ignoring the burn in his chest. “Then come on, Little Briar Rose. Let's get you to bed.”

 

Jess had no problem falling asleep; it was the staying asleep that was the trouble. Throughout the night, he kept waking up, gasping for air, paralyzed with the feeling that something important had been taken away from him.

At close to four in the morning, he finally gave up. He rolled out of the bed and dressed to take a walk by the beach. He didn't know how to get down there yet, but he figured he had plenty of time to figure it out.

But first he needed coffee.

Carrying his boots in his hands, he tiptoed down the dark hallway to the kitchen, then flipped the first switch he could reach. The pendant light above the island turned on, illuminating the bouquet of white flowers below it. Jess' eyes immediately zeroed in on the black and white print propped up amongst the white blooms, and goosebumps broke out on his arms.

Trying his best to shake off the odd feeling, he slipped into his boots and walked over to the other side of the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee. Then he sat down at the island, sipping his drink while actively trying to avoid looking at the ultrasound. Eventually, he gave up trying and reached for the piece of paper, his eyes taking in the image of a bean-shaped embryo as various emotions swirled around inside him. He thought about his friend Chris and what he must have felt during the first pregnancy, wondered if he'd experienced any apprehension when he'd seen the first image of his child.

He thought about TJ and how he'd fainted immediately after Doula was born.

But, mostly, Jess thought about Rory, about the fact that she hadn't told him about the ultrasound. The two of them had spent practically every minute of the past few days together and she hadn't so much as mentioned the doctor's appointment.

“Funny, I never took you for an early riser.”

Jess turned around to find Emily standing at the doorway, already dressed in slacks and a cardigan, hair already coiffed and makeup already done. “Neither did I,” he said, putting the printout back where he found it.

Her eyes flicked over to the flowers. “Seems we both have a lot on our minds.” She walked over to the stove and put on the kettle, starting to make herself a cup of tea. “I have a hard time staying asleep these days. It's like someone keeps shaking me awake.”

Jess frowned into his coffee, a chill crawling up his spine.

An awkward silence followed; a long stretch of time when neither one said a word. Jess acted relaxed even as he burned his tongue trying to finish his coffee.

Once her tea was done, Emily brought her cup and saucer over and joined him at the island. Then she reached over and plucked the slip of paper from the flowers and stared at it for a long, quiet moment. “I always hoped Rory and Logan would end up together,” she said, staring wistfully at the printout, no doubt imagining the perfect kind of world where Rory and Logan were married and all the birds chirped happily and there was peace and prosperity all over the land. “I wonder if this child will inherit her blue eyes and his blond hair.”

Jess fought against his very nature and, though it was difficult, actually managed to keep from making a cutting remark.

“Richard and I have only ever wanted the best for that girl. She had such a bright future: graduating from Yale, going on the campaign trail with Obama, being a freelance journalist. Richard so loved receiving her emails and reading about her adventures around the world. But then they came less often as she became more busy, “ Emily said, still lost in her reverie. “I wish he were alive to see this, her greatest adventure of all,” she said with a soft sigh.

Jess fixed his eyes on the white bouquet, unable to hold onto his resentment. How could he when Emily's grief was so palpable, he could almost feel it in the air? “I'm sorry to hear about your husband,” he said, his words sounding inadequate and hollow.

Her eyes flicked up to his face. “He was everything to me,” she said with a sad smile. “You must know how it feels. To lose everything.”

Jess looked into his coffee, shaking his head. “It's not even close to the same. Everything I lost can be replaced.”

“You know, after Richard died, I couldn't bear to be in that house by myself. It wasn't home anymore. Not without him. So I left it all behind,” She paused, looking over at Jess. “It's tough letting go, isn't it? It's as if your identity is wrapped up in material things and then when they're gone, you feel a little lost.”

Jess frowned, shocked to find something in common with Emily Gilmore. “Yeah.”

“You ask yourself Who am I without these things? Am I the person I was before?” she said. “And I did lose myself there for a while. It felt like I was turning in place, not knowing which direction to go. I even wore blue jeans at one point. And it had holes in it! Can you imagine?”

Jess snickered softly. “You know, I really can't.”

“Well it was hideous. I don't know what I was thinking.” She set the ultrasound down on the counter between them, the pensive expression gone from her face. “So let's discuss you and Rory.”

Jess sat up, a determined set to his jaw. “Look, I know I'm not your first choice for your granddaughter, or maybe even your fiftieth choice, but I love Rory. I've loved her for a long time.”

“I see that,” she said, picking up her tea cup.

“And I intend on loving her for as long as I possibly can.”

Emily took a thoughtful sip of tea. “Well,” she said with something resembling a smile. “That is certainly good to hear.”

“It's the truth.”

“And when do you intend to marry her?”

Jess faltered. “I hadn't thought that far ahead.”

She set her cup down, the smile melting off her face. “Oh?”

“Rory and I are taking it a day at a time. We don't want to rush.”

“You don't want to rush?” she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Young man, have you asked yourself if you're ready for this commitment? Are you prepared to stick it out through the hard times, through the dirty diapers, and the never ending crying, and the sleepless nights? Because those days will arrive sooner than you think, whether you rush the relationship or not,” she said with steel in her voice and fire in her eyes. “If you're not ready, if you even have one sliver of doubt in your heart, then I suggest you step aside and allow someone else to take your place. Someone capable of providing for Rory and the baby.”

Jess bristled. “Someone like Logan?”

She said nothing. She just sat there, sipping her tea with a smug smile.

Jess rose to his feet. “I'm done listening to this,” Jess said, stalking over to the back door. At the last minute, he stopped. “For the record, I think Rory is more than capable of raising this child on her own. She doesn't need me and she sure as hell doesn't need Logan for anything,” he said over his shoulder before walking out.

 

 

Chapter 28

 

“Why did you do that?” Rory rounded the corner in time to see Jess stomping off down the snowy path toward the front of the house.

“How long have you been standing there?” her grandmother asked, setting her teacup down with a sharp clink.

“Long enough to hear you tell Jess to step aside and let someone else take care of me,” Rory said on her way to the back door. She didn't know what she'd do once she got there—she was barefoot and wore only pajamas—but she needed to at least try and call him back.

“Rory, don't you dare go out there,” Emily said, her tone rooting Rory to the spot.

She turned and faced her grandmother, her face flushed with anger. “Grandma, I love you, but you have got to stop meddling. You did it with Mom and Dad and Luke for years with your scheming and your machinations. But I'm not going to let you do that to me and Jess. He may have made some mistakes in the past but he's more than made up for them. He doesn't deserve this kind of treatment from you.”

Emily stood up from the counter and took her cup and saucer over to the sink as if she had all the time in the world. “Are you quite done?” she asked, turning to face Rory.

“Oh no, I have plenty more to say.” Rory glanced back out the window, knowing Jess was already long gone. “Logan and I are never going to happen. He and I have both moved on. So I think it's best you give up that little fantasy of yours.”

“You think I still want you with Logan? He who was quite content to use you as a side piece while he was engaged to someone else?”

Rory froze. “How did you know about that?” she asked slowly.

Emily raised an eyebrow in a perfectly sardonic expression. “Frankly, I'm surprised you managed to keep it a secret for as long as you did, carrying on in public as if nobody would see.”

“Mitchum,” Rory said, grinding her teeth.

“It doesn't matter who told me. The question is why would you get involved with an engaged man?”

“It was an arranged marriage.”

“I don't care what it is, Logan still put a ring on another woman's finger,” Emily said, her eyes flashing in anger. “Who does he think he is? Bill Clinton? You are nobody's mistress. You are a Gilmore, not a Lewins—” She stopped abruptly, the blood draining from her face as she narrowed her eyes and stared at something beyond the kitchen doorway.

Rory turned to look but saw nothing in the dark hallway. “Grandma?”

For a long, uncomfortable moment, her grandmother stared into space, her lips moving as if talking to someone under her breath. Rory was halfway convinced her grandmother was suffering from a stroke when Emily blinked and turned to face her. “I'm sorry, what were we talking about?” she asked with her eyebrows knitted.

“Are you all right?” Rory asked.

Emily's eyes snapped back toward the shadowy hallway. “I was just reminded that, one time, I too was the other woman, that I stole your grandfather away from that dreadful Pennilyn Lott,” she said, casting a smile into the shadows.

Rory's shoulders sagged, her anger escaping with a sigh.

“But the difference is that Richard broke off his engagement before pursuing me,” Emily said, the gloss dissipating from her eyes. “He never would have allowed me to become the other woman.”

“That was my choice, not Logan's,” Rory said, the fight leaving her. She slumped against the counter, weary down to the bones. “Yes, my personal life was in shambles and I made a lot of bad choices, but I've taken great strides to clean up my mess. Now, please, I need you to stay out of my personal life. Because, for the first time in a long time, I have a clear vision of where I'm headed. And Jess? I see him right there beside me.”

“And what if, somewhere down the road, you find that he is not equipped to be a father? What then?”

Rory paused, continuing to hold her grandmother's gaze. “Then I'll stop the car and let him out. But for now, we're together and we're happy.” She motioned to the back door. “At least, we were happy.”

“Believe it or not, my intentions in questioning that boy are pure.”

“You know what they say about the road to hell,” Rory mumbled.

Emily folded her arms across her chest. “I have said or done nothing wrong. All I did was speak the hard truth. And if Jess can't handle that then he has no business being with you.”

“But that's my decision, not yours.” Unable to take anymore of her grandmother, Rory pushed away from the counter and stalked out of the kitchen. Goosebumps broke out on her arms as she walked through the darkened hallway, but the feeling passed as soon as she entered the guest room.

Rory dressed for the cold weather, intent on chasing after Jess; he couldn't leave her now, not like this. She pulled on her boots and got as far as the doorway when the ugly truth crawled out from the dark recesses of her mind and exposed itself to light: She was chasing after him because, in her heart of hearts, she didn't trust Jess to stay. Maybe she never did.

 

“Hey, you writing?”

Rory looked up from her laptop to see her mother approach with a coffee cup in her hand. “Yeah,” Rory said, gaze returning to the blinking cursor on her screen. She'd been sitting at that same oversized chair for the past hour, her fingers tapping madly on the keyboard as she wrote about the time her father had disappeared from her life yet again.

Lorelai sat on the arm of the chair and looked out at the window and its unobstructed view of the ocean. “I don't know how you can focus with this view right over your shoulder,” she murmured into her cup. She looked back over at Rory with a twinkle in her eye. “So, Mom just left to go to the museum. What do you say we sit in on her presentation and heckle her? Or we could hold up some lighters and ask her to perform Freebird.”

Rory shook her head, snickering softly. “As fun as that sounds, I think I'll stay here.”

“What about Jess?”

“He went out,” Rory said, trying to sound casual.

Lorelai eyed her for a moment, her mother's instincts no doubt kicking in. “Why do I have the feeling something bad happened?”

Rory waved her worry away. “It's nothing,” she said flippantly, then snapped her laptop shut. “You know what? We should go somewhere. How about we go shopping? I hear Nantucket has some world-class shopping.”

Lorelai eyed her for a few moments before nodding her head. “All right,” she said, getting up. “Let's go buy you some world-class underwear.”

 

Rory immediately felt better the moment she stepped out on the snowy sidewalks of Nantucket, the crisp air cooling her lungs and clearing her head. She'd felt inactive back at her grandmother's house, sitting and waiting for the return of her man like some 1950s housewife. But she was done being passive, especially when it came to her happiness.

When they reached the main shopping area, Rory threw herself into buying Christmas gifts, looking for something meaningful for each person in her family, finding a lovely angora cardigan for her grandmother and an antique tackle box for Luke.

She and her mother made their way through the various streets lined with shops until they came upon a charming little bookstore with a grey and white facade. 

“I'd like to look in here for a few minutes,” Rory said, her eyes flying to the books displayed in the window.

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “A few minutes? Are you kidding? Since when have you ever gone inside a bookstore and come out after a few minutes?”

“Well, what is a few?” she asked with a smile, reminded of Jess.

Lorelai shook her head. “How about I just meet you back at Mom's?”

“Okay,” Rory said and waved goodbye. The minute Rory stepped inside the store, she immediately felt at ease. No matter how far from home or how unfamiliar the place, she always found comfort in the company of books.

Rory ventured inside, her eyes floating over the colorful little store. Aside from books, there were toys and gifts on display along with head busts and globes. String lights and star lanterns hung from the ceiling, lending the space a festive atmosphere. She passed by a sitting area consisting of four leather armchairs surrounding a round table, on top of which sat a small Christmas tree decorated with tiny stuffed dolls dressed in period costumes.

It was one of the most charming bookstores she'd ever had the pleasure of visiting.

She wandered up and down the aisles, stopping to read the blurbs of books that caught her eye, until she came upon the section she was looking for. Pulling three books off the shelf, she paid at the cash register then brought them over to an unoccupied armchair, where she opened the first book and began to write in its margins.

 

Hours had passed by the time Rory finished writing notes in the first book. She blinked, realizing that all of the other chairs sat empty, their occupants long gone. When she checked her phone she saw there were no texts or missed calls.

She gathered her things and left the store, a shiver racking her body as she started back to her grandmother's house. By then the sun had begun its descent and the snow-covered sidewalks were all but deserted, making for a lonely journey back. It was there, during that long walk, that Rory remembered the look she'd spied on Jess' face the night before. After she'd given her grandmother the ultrasound print, her gaze had flicked around the room and had stopped at Jess' face, at his carefully blank expression that had not been enough to hide the hurt in his eyes.

Rory sped up, her boots slapping onto the sidewalk at a fast clip. She needed to get back to the house and find Jess, to try and explain to him all the thoughts that were going through her head. It wouldn't be easy—it was a tangled jungle in there right then—but she needed to try.

When she arrived back at The Sandcastle, she came upon Luke and her mother in the living room. Luke was on a ladder, reaching up to change the recessed lightbulb in the ceiling while her mother looked on, calling out unhelpful tips.

“Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey,” Lorelai said, holding onto the ladder as she looked up.

“Yeah, I got that,” Luke called down.

“Should I get a potato?” Lorelai asked.

“What for?”

“I don't know. I just heard when you're changing a lightbulb, it helps to have a potato handy just in case.”

Luke sighed. “A potato is only needed when the bulb breaks off inside the socket.”

“Good, because we only have yams.”

“Mom,” Rory said, interrupting their banter. “Have you seen Jess?”

Both Luke and Lorelai stopped and fixed Rory with matching concerned looks.

“He's not with you?” her mother asked.

Luke started down the ladder, the burned out bulb in one hand. “He was looking for you earlier but we haven't seen him since. We thought he'd gone to the bookstore to find you.”

“No,” Rory said, her hands tightening around the bag in her hand. She could not—would not—give up hope. “We must have just missed each other,” she said, turning away and heading down the hall towards the bedroom, desperately trying to stave off the encroaching doubt.

He'll be here. He has to be here.

Please be here.

She pushed open the door and froze. There, laid out on the bed, was Jess, with his eyes closed and an open book on his chest. As quietly as possible, she came closer and peeked at the title of the book.

What to Expect: The First Year.

Tears stung her eyes even as a smile tugged at her lips, the image of Jess holding a baby in his arms flashing before her eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that he'd try his best, that he'd be there for her child in every possible way.

And in that moment, she finally allowed herself to believe that Jess would stay.

With happy tears sliding down her cheeks, she slipped off her coat and boots and carefully climbed onto the bed, taking the book off his chest before stretching out beside him. She curled into his side and wrapped an arm around his chest, listening to his heart beat and falling in love all over again.

 

 

Chapter 29

 

Jess awoke to a pleasant weight on his chest. When he opened his eyes, he found Rory snuggled in the crook of his arm, her blue eyes blinking up at him. “Hey,” he said, his voice still hoarse from sleep.

Her lips curled up, her eyes warm and tender. “Hi.”

“Find anything good at the bookstore?” he asked, bending down to press a kiss to her forehead. He lingered a little with his lips on her skin, breathing in the cool ocean scent in her hair.

“I did.”

“You were there for a while,” he said. “I was going to call you but decided you were probably lost in a book.”

“I actually was.”

He folded his arm and gathered her closer, remembering a young Rory in her Chilton uniform, sitting on a bench with a book in her hand. He used to stand back and watch her during those times, burning to know what she was reading, wishing he could join her in whatever land she had been transported to. He knew, even back then, that wherever she went, he'd willingly follow. “Anything good?” he asked.

He regretted his question the moment she pulled away, leaving him cold, but she returned moments later with a sack in her hand. “Definitely,” she said, reaching into the bag. “Close your eyes.”

“Is this really necessary?” he asked, eyeing the bag.

“Hey, if you want your first Christmas gift, you'll close your eyes and hold out your hand.”

“Yes, ma'am,” he said, holding out his open palm and pretending to close his eyes.

“Hey, all the way,” she said. A moment later, she placed something hard and flat on his hand.

He opened his eyes and saw a copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, the same book of poetry he'd stolen from her bedroom the first night they met.

She smiled down on him, her eyes bright. “You need to restart your library somewhere and, I figured, this book is a great jumping off point.”

He flipped open the thin book to a random page and grinned. There, in the margins, were various notes written in her small, neat handwriting. As he continued paging through the book, he couldn't help but remember that night a long time ago, when he'd given back her stolen book and she had compared him to a thief in Oliver Twist. It was the very night he'd begun to realize there was more to Rory Gilmore than just a pretty face.

“I plan to have your bookshelves restocked as soon as possible,” she said with a resolute nod.

He glanced down at the book, his heart clanging around in his chest. And, before she could react, he sat up, pulled her close, and kissed her for a long, luxurious time. “Thank you,” he whispered after he pulled away.

She blinked up at him, biting at her bottom lip. “I'm sorry.”

He drew back, frowning. “For?”

“For always doubting you, for always thinking the worst. I thought I was your biggest advocate but, come to find out, I always expected you to hit that comically large self-destruct button at the first sign of trouble,” she said. “I don't know why I'm that way, why I presumed you'd let me down at every turn. I think, maybe, I've been unconsciously doing it my whole life. To you, to everyone.”

He dragged in a breath, unable to do anything but stare at the wrinkled skin between her eyebrows.

“But I'm trying to change that. I don't want to be that way anymore,” she said, reaching for his hand. “Not with you.”

Jess opened his mouth to respond when there was a knock on the door. He let out a frustrated groan before calling out, “Yeah?”

“You guys hungry?” Luke's voice filtered in from the hallway.

Jess glanced at Rory, who nodded sheepishly. “Yeah,” he replied.

“Lorelai ordered a ton of Chinese food, so I guess just come eat when you're...” He cleared his throat. “When you're done.”

Rory bit back a smile at the discomfort in Luke's voice. “Okay, we'll be right out,” she said. When Luke's footsteps receded down the hall, she turned to Jess with a tight smile. “Can we continue this conversation after we eat? I'm starved.” She grabbed a handful of Jess' shirt and pulled him close. “Feed me, Seymour.”

Jess laughed, shaking his head. “Come on then, Audrey II.”

He was still teasing Rory about her off-key singing when they walked down the hall, coming to a stop at the doorway to the kitchen.

“That was quick,” Lorelai said from the center island where she was setting out the classic white takeout boxes.

“Not that quick,” Rory said.

From across the room, Jess spotted Emily standing on her toes and reaching up into a cabinet to get plates. He pressed a quick kiss to Rory's head and headed over to help.

“Thank you,” Emily said when he brought down five white plates edged in gold.

He gave a nod. “What else do we need?”

“Some glasses,” Emily said, pointing to another cabinet by the fridge.

Jess retrieved five tall tumblers and set them down on a silver plated tray. He leaned against the counter and said in a low voice, “Look, you don't have to worry about Rory and the baby. We all know she'll be a great mother. Besides, she has Lorelai and Luke and the entire town of Stars Hollow to help her.” He stopped, holding Emily's gaze. “And she has me.”

Emily raised an eyebrow. “So you think you're ready for that kind of responsibility?”

He eyed her for a long time, thinking about the wayward life of a teen boy who had been abandoned by his own father as a baby, who had walked through life with the knowledge that his dad hadn't wanted him, had not even bothered sticking around long enough to see Jess say his first word or take his first step.

Jess clenched his jaw and said with a determined edge to his voice, “I intend to be everything my father wasn't.”

Emily studied him for a long, unnerving time. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him, if she could spot his determination or if all she could see was that angry hell raiser from the past. Finally, she nodded and flashed him one of her rare smiles. “Then it's settled,” she said before grabbing the tray and turning away.

 

By Emily's request, they ate at the kitchen island instead of the formal dining table. It was as informal as Jess had ever seen of her, but then again, it wasn't completely out of the realm of believability, especially after all she'd done since he arrived in Nantucket. And so they sat on stools made of driftwood, eating cheap Chinese takeout on fine bone china.

Jess sat on a stool beside Rory, unable to concentrate on the conversations around him, his eyes constantly flicking to Rory. He sensed something different about her, as if her trip to town had changed something fundamental in the way she carried herself. She didn't help, driving him crazy with her meaningful little looks, and the flirty quirk of the mouth as she chewed on her food.

After dinner, Rory volunteered to clean up while everyone else retired to the living room with their drinks.

Jess stayed, collecting all of the dirty dishes and taking them over to the sink. Then he stood behind her and set his hands on her hips, nuzzling into the side of her neck. “I got this,” he whispered by her ear, drawing her away from the sink.

“Fine, Mrs. Doubtfire.” She jumped up and perched on the edge of the counter, grinning at him. “I've never seen you so domestic. It's kind of sexy.”

He smirked at her as the sink filled with hot, soapy water. “There are many things you don't know about me.”

“Like?” she asked with a teasing smile.

“Like I can make a mean lasagna.”

“Pity. I prefer my pasta on the friendlier side.”

He snickered and flicked his wet fingers at her. She ducked, laughing, but the moment was gone too soon. “Jess, I'm sorry for not telling you about the ultrasound,” she said, the humor sliding off her face.

Taken aback, his gaze dropped down to the plates in the water.

“I should've told you right after the appointment,” she continued in a soft voice. When he still didn't say a word, she said, “Jess?”

He took a deep breath and faced her. “Why didn't you?”

“I don't know.”

“Did you think I wouldn't be interested?”

“No. It wasn't that.” She paused, twisting her fingers together. “I think I was worried it would freak you out.”

“You thought it would scare me away,” he said with a nod.

She took in a deep breath. “Yeah.”

He stared at her for a long, quiet time, trying to come up with an honest response. “I'd be lying if I said the thought of raising a child doesn't make me break out into a cold sweat. I don't know the first thing about babies. I don't even know which end to put the diaper on.”

She laughed softly. “I bet your new book has a tip or two about that.”

He dried off his hands and moved closer, standing between her legs. He leaned into her, holding her face in his warm hands. “I don't know a lot of things, but I do know this much: I'm going to be there for you and this kid,” he said, his throat tight with emotion. “I can't guarantee I'll do a great job—or, hell, even a decent job—but I can guarantee you I'll try.”

Tears shone in her eyes as she smiled at him. “I know you will.”

 

“You want more, Mom?” Lorelai asked when her mother drained the last of her wine.

Emily stood up from the armchair with her empty glass. “No. I'm headed to bed,” she said, her eyes suddenly flicking to something across the room. She walked over to the painting of Richard hanging on the wall and straightened it. “Every night I fix this painting, and the next day it's crooked again,” she said, with a strange tone in her voice that caught Lorelai's attention.

“Must be Dad trying to tell you something,” she teased, hoping to lighten the mood.

But her mother nodded solemnly. “I think so too,” she said, head tilted back as she looked up at the image of her late husband.

Lorelai looked over at Luke—who wore a bewildered expression on his face as he shrugged—then stood up and joined her mother in front of the painting. From the corner of her eye, she noticed Luke get up and leave the room.

“Mom,” Lorelai said, a strange feeling coming over her as she stared up at the striking likeness of her father. “What's going on?”

Emily's eyes never strayed from the painting. “Your father is here. I feel him,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself.

“God, I hope not. Otherwise Luke and I have some explaining to do.”

“Please, Lorelai. There is no need to be crude.”

“Sorry.” Lorelai looked down at the older woman with growing concern, beginning to regret her cavalier attitude about her mother's mental health. “You don't actually think he's haunting this house, do you?”

Emily was quiet for a long time. Lorelai almost repeated the question when, finally, her mother said in a tiny voice, “I don't know anymore.” She sighed. “My old dingbat of a therapist would probably say I'm rationalizing, that I have somehow managed to convince myself your father is haunting me to justify my irrational behavior.”

“I'd say your old therapist sounds like she has given it some thought,” Lorelai said. It was then she realized how frail and small her mother had become, a far cry from the intimidating, larger-than-life woman she'd always known. “What do you think?”

“I think she's an overpaid halfwit who doesn't know a thing about the human mind, but... maybe she's right,” she said, her chin trembling and her voice wavering. “I thought if I just changed enough things, I wouldn't feel so stifled by Richard's absence.”

“Maybe...” Lorelai stopped, chewing on her thoughts. “Maybe it doesn't work that way. Maybe you have to take the time to process the loss. You were with him for fifty years. You can't expect to recover in a few months.”

She nodded, her eyes dropping down into her empty wine glass. “Perhaps it was wrong of me to make such drastic changes. What must Richard think?”

“I think Dad would want you to be happy.”

Emily looked up at her, her face lined with exhaustion and lingering grief. “I still miss him, Lorelai.”

“Oh, Mom.” Overcome with emotion, she wrapped an arm around her mother's shoulder and pulled her close, her heart breaking over again.

 

 

Chapter 30

 

On Christmas morning, Luke got up out of bed, buttoned up his plaid shirt, fit his blue cap on his head, and went out to the dark house. Six o'clock wasn't exactly early by his usual standards, but he'd started sleeping in since he arrived in Nantucket, a fact that he hated and tried to remedy but never could. But today was Christmas and, as such, he had a very important job to do.

So at six-oh-five, while the rest of the house slept, he stood in the middle of the bright kitchen and looked over everything he'd bought at the store the day before, making a mental list of what needed to be cooked and in what order. He hated inactivity, had always felt antsy and out of sorts whenever he wasn't at the diner, so this vacation had been a little bit of a nightmare for him. He wanted—no, needed—something to do, and changing a few lightbulbs or tightening some screws wasn't going to cut it. Even if everything on this island was strange and unfamiliar (including the woman in whose house he was staying), this part—the cooking—was his domain.

A little while later, with the turkey already in the oven, Jess came shuffling in, his hair still wet from a shower. “Morning,” his nephew said, heading straight for the so-called coffee-making contraption that produced more waste than it did coffee. Jess started making a cup and turned to Luke with one eyebrow raised. “Is it killing you to have to use this every day?”

With a snort, Luke reached under the counter and produced a french press. “Guess again.”

“You've been holding out on me!”

Luke grinned, enjoying the look of indignation on Jess' face. “I thought you preferred the taste of boiled socks,” he said all too casually.

Jess walked over and grabbed an apple from Luke's pile. “Karma's going to come bite you in the ass later on,” he said, shaking the fruit at him before taking a bite.

“Hey, that's for the pie,” Luke said, throwing a rag at Jess' head.

Jess put the apple back in the pile, much to Luke's chagrin. “Need some help?” Jess asked, his gaze flying over the counter.

Luke pointed with the knife in his hand. “Touch anything and you're dead.”

Jess backed off, holding his hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. No need to go all Gordon Ramsey on me.” He sat down on a stool instead, sipping his coffee and staying the hell out of the way.

“So, now that you and Rory are together, you think you'll stay in Philadelphia?” Luke asked as he sliced the apples, cutting away where Jess' mouth had been.

“Yeah. I kind of have to, being that my livelihood is there.”

“What about Rory and the baby?”

Jess bobbed his head with confidence. “We've got it figured out. We'll split the time between Philly and Stars Hollow.”

“Ever thought about just staying in Philadelphia?”

“Nah,” Jess said with a half smile. “Rory's life is in Stars Hollow; I can't ask her to leave. Besides, I'm pretty sure Lorelai and that quirky little town are her touchstones. Without them, she kind of loses herself.”

“So you good with being third?”

“I'm just glad to be on the list at all.”

Luke snickered. “I can't believe we're getting out of this vacation unscathed.”

“Speak for yourself,” Jess said. “I almost got voted off the island my second day here.”

“Yeah, well, what can I say? You've always been a people person,” Luke said with a grin.

“What I'd like to know is: How the hell did you, a curmudgeonly diner owner, and me, a punk kid from New York, end up here in this fancy kitchen with these fancy people?” Jess asked, shaking his head. “In what universe would a girl like Rory ever give someone like me the time of day?”

“Chalk it down to one of the great mysteries of the universe, second only to the Bermuda Triangle,” Luke said. He paused to look at his nephew, who was miles different from that juvenile delinquent who first stepped off the bus that day in Stars Hollow. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't proud of the kid. “I think Rory's lucky to have you,” Luke said in a moment of unexpected honesty.

“Yeah?” Jess asked with one eyebrow raised.

Luke flashed him a smile. “Yeah.”

 

Christmas lunch was served in the formal dining room. Luke and Jess set the table then called the Gilmore Girls in for the meal. As soon as Emily entered, she stopped and stared at the final and sixth place setting at the other end of the table where nobody would be sitting.

She turned to Luke with a stone face that softened into a smile before his eyes. To his relief, she said nothing. She only tipped her head in gratitude and sat down, her misty gaze floating across the table to where her late husband would have been.

 

The meal was a success, most notably perhaps because he had insisted that Lorelai not help out in the kitchen. The turkey came out beautifully—not too dry or underdone—and his cranberry sauce made it to the table without issue the first time around.

After people had been eating for a time, Emily set her silverware down and rose out of her seat. In that moment she reminded Luke of a fading queen holding court for the last time. “I'd first like to thank you for traveling all the way to Nantucket to spend Christmas with me. It has been wonderful to have you all here.”

“You're welcome,” Rory replied with a smile.

“Yeah, Mom. It's been a great visit,” Lorelai added.

Emily took up her wine glass and lifted it in the air. “I'd like to raise a toast, to you, Rory and Jess. And to you, Lorelai and Luke,” she said, her eyes flicking around to the faces around the table. “May you stay happy and madly in love for fifty years and beyond.”

Luke turned to his wife, sure he was the luckiest man in the world. With a smile, he clinked his glass to Lorelai's then leaned over and dropped a kiss on her lips.

“And to my great-grandchild,” Emily continued with a glimmer in her eyes as she smiled over at Rory. “I know this child will grow up surrounded by love.”

“Hear, hear,” Jess said.

“I only wish he or she would have had the honor of meeting Richard. Oh, he would have spoiled that child rotten.”

From beside him, Luke caught a glimpse of Lorelai swiping at her cheek. Quietly, he reached for his napkin and handed it to her.

“Which is why I need to step up and spoil the child for the both of us,” Emily said with a nod.

Everyone's heads snapped up in attention.

“What do you mean?” Lorelai asked.

“I've decided to sell the house,” Emily said simply, as if she was talking about something as mundane as taking a walk around the neighborhood instead of moving two hundred or so miles away.

Luke patted his wife's back when she started choking on her wine.

“My time in Nantucket has come to an end,” Emily said. “I feel it's time to move back home.”

“To Hartford?” Rory asked.

“To Stars Hollow.”

Luke stilled at the news, the sound of the rushing waves outside suddenly so loud in his ears.

“You want to move to Stars Hollow?” Lorelai asked, her eyes wide with disbelief. “Or did you mean to say Bars Mallow? Because I hear that town's great.”

Emily gave her daughter a sardonic look. “No, Lorelai, I'm not planning on moving to a fictional town that sounds like an overly sweet alcohol drink.”

“But why Stars Hollow?” Rory asked.

“To be closer to my great-grandchild, of course. I wasn't there when you were growing up. I missed your first step, your first word. I was never given the opportunity to be a grandmother. I've always regretted that,” Emily said, sadness lining her face. “But now I have another chance. And I promise you, I'm not going to waste it. Time is too precious, life too short.”

Luke and Jess exchanged a look of dread, like two men tied down to the tracks while a freight train came bearing down on them at full speed. Only a costumed hero could save them from The Emily Express, and Luke was definitely no Superman. So, in a move that took even himself by surprise, he did the only heroic thing he could: He smiled at his grieving mother-in-law across the table, and said, “You can stay with us.”

 

“I think Nantucket has fried my uncle’s brains,” Jess said as he sat in the armchair later that night with Rory on his lap.

Rory finished writing in the new book she'd given him—a Kurt Vonnegut—before giving him her attention. “Yeah, what was that? Was he possessed?”

“Definitely. We need two priests and some holy water, stat.” He chuckled, rubbing his hand up and down her thigh. But all the jokes about his uncle lay forgotten as his palm slid upward, coming to rest on the soft swell of her stomach.

Rory set the book down and looked down at his hand before meeting his eye.

“Regardless of how much your grandmother is going to drive you all crazy, I think it’s nice she wants to be near,” he murmured, holding her gaze. “This child is going to grow up surrounded by people who care.”

She covered his hand with her own. “Yes, she will,” she said, smiling at him in a way that made the breath hitch in his throat.

He thought of that day before Luke and Lorelai’s wedding, when he'd gazed at Rory through the window, wishing he could go back to the past so he could undo all the stupid things he'd done. And now here they were, a few short months later, with another chance at a relationship. Only this time, Jess was bound and determined not to screw it up again.

“Thank you,” he said in a wistful voice. He cleared his throat. “For my new books. And more importantly, for the thoughts that went in them. They are literally the most thought-full gifts I've ever received.”

“It's the least I can do.”

“Unfortunately, my gift for you is not here. It's in Stars Hollow.”

She fixed him with curious eyes. “Did you have it delivered?”

He pulled up a picture on his phone and handed it over with a healthy dose of trepidation. He still wasn't sure if he'd done the right thing, if she'd think he had overstepped his bounds, but it was too late to turn back now.

She looked at the picture for a long time, her lips unmoving, her face revealing nothing. “What am I looking at?” she finally asked.

“Your house,” he said, turning the phone sideways.

Her eyes flicked up to his then turned back to the picture, enlarging parts of the image to get a better look.

“It's a bookshelf that takes up the entire wall. See? I had them build a few cabinets down there for extra storage.”

She looked at him with wide eyes. “This is in my house? You had this bookcase built? In my house?”

“Do you like it?”

“It's perfect! It looks exactly like what I'd imagined.” She turned to him with eyebrows knitted. “How did you know that's the bookcase I wanted?”

“Your mom may have steered me toward your Pinterest board. But she made sure I understood that you're definitely not a pinner, even if you have dozens of boards with that very bookcase pinned several times.”

She shook her head, chuckling softly. “I think it's finally time to come clean.” She held out her hand. “Hi, I'm Rory and I'm a pinning addict.”

“Hi, I'm Jess. And I'm addicted to a pinning addict,” he replied with a grin.

She looked down at the phone again. “I still don't get how you managed to do this. You've been with me this whole time.”

“Your mom helped me get in touch with Tom and gave him the keys to your house so he and his guys could start working on it while you're gone.”

“But that must have been before Mom and Luke got here. So you've been planning this for a long time?” she asked with a frown.

“I couldn't think of anything else to get you.”

“You didn't have to get me anything. But thank you,” she said, bending down to drop a quick kiss on his lips.

He held his hand to the back of her head and drew her down for a longer kiss. “Rory,” he whispered after they pulled away.

“Yeah?”

He looked up at her, keenly aware of his palm against her belly. “When you think of that scene at your house, in front of that bookcase—Do you see me in it?”

She blinked down at him for a long, quiet time, her blue eyes flying all over his face. “Yes. I saw you there the moment you painted the scene with your words. I want you there... with us.”

Jess couldn't stop smiling if he tried. “Then that's where I'll be.”

 

Early the next morning, Rory awoke to a flurry of text messages from her mother.

Hey.

You awake?

Wake up.

Come on.

I'm waiting.

Get up.

Rory peeked at the phone through barely open eyes and typed a reply. I'm awake now. Can't imagine why.

Were you in the middle of something? her mother wrote.

It's seven in the morning. What could Jess and I possibly be doing apart from sleeping soundly?

I get many things done before seven, if you know what I mean.

Ew. Just no.

Just get decent and meet me outside before I start using emojis.

Okay, okay. Rory tried to disentangle herself from Jess' arms without waking him, to no avail.

“Where you going?” he mumbled, his eyes still closed as he tried to draw her back into the hollow of his body.

For a moment, she was tempted to just stay in bed, surrounded by warm skin and hard muscle, but she knew her mother would hound her until she relented. “Mom needs me,” she said instead, pressing a kiss to his forehead before pulling away.

“Hurry back,” he said and rolled onto his stomach.

Rory ventured out of the room in her pajamas, closing the door behind her and finding her mother at the end of the hall.

“What?” Rory hissed under her breath. “What could you possibly need at this ungodly hour?”

“Come on. I want to show you something,” Lorelai said, taking hold of her hand and dragging her through dark the house. “Hey, what time are you and Jess leaving for New York?”

“We're planning to leave around one, so we have a little bit of time,” Rory said, following her mom through the house. “How about you?”

Her mother shot her an annoyed look over her shoulder. “Well, we were supposed to leave tomorrow but Luke suggested we stay a few more days.”

Rory stopped, her mouth falling open. “Luke did what?”

“I couldn't believe it either. For a second I wondered if the real Luke had been abducted by aliens and replaced with an equally hot but less grumpy clone,” Lorelai said. “But he said he wanted to stay and help Mom get the house ready to sell.”

“I can't believe it.”

“Neither can I.” The two stopped at the mudroom at the back of the house. “Get your coat and boots on.”

Rory glanced out the window. “We’re going out there? Where it’s cold and dark?”

Lorelai grabbed Rory’s coat from the rack and thrust it to her daughter’s face. “Trust me. I’m your mother.”

“Oh sure, Mommie Dearest,” Rory grumbled. At the last minute, she changed her mind and grabbed Jess' coat instead, slipping her arms into its long sleeves and enjoying the way it wrapped around her like one of his hugs. “Luke is not sick, is he?” Rory asked, as she tied on her boots.

“In the head? Yeah.” Lorelai sighed as she pulled a cap over her head. “I think he just feels for her. He went through something similar when his dad died.”

Rory nodded, remembering all too well Luke’s dark days. “He's just a giant teddy bear.”

“He really is,” her mother replied before leading the way out to the wide backyard, their boots crunching in the snow as they made their way toward the edge of the cliff.

“So why are we out here again?” Rory asked, burying her hands inside the coat pocket and staring out at the dark grey sky.

“Because of that,” Lorelai said, pointing beyond the shore, to a spot in the distance.

Rory squinted, searching in the dark waters below. “What am I looking for? Is it a pod of whales?”

“No. There,” Lorelai said, taking hold of Rory's chin and tilting her head up.

Rory’s breath caught in her throat. The line where the sky met the sea was beginning to glow a fiery orange. They stood in stunned silence as world began to stir, as the sky brightened to blue and the sun cast a golden gleam on the waves rolling in to shore.

And there, on that cliff, mother and daughter greeted a new day.

“Mom?” Rory whispered after some time, her chest swelling with emotion.

“Yeah?” Lorelai asked, her cheeks glowing, her eyes absolutely luminous in the morning light.

Rory opened her mouth to speak, to try and describe the incandescent feeling radiating inside her, but words failed her.

Lorelai wrapped an arm around her shoulder, nodding. Understanding. “Me too, kid. Me too.”

 

THE END

 

 

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