Celeste had laughed and wiped tears from the bottom of her eyes. “You’re very welcome. It’s not Park Avenue or London, of course…”
“It’s a sweet little town,” Benji said. “It must have been a nice place to grow up.”
Celeste flinched at this assessment; something about his tone sounded patronizing. “It was,” she said defensively.
Benji reached over to squeeze her knee. “Hey, I’m sorry. That came out wrong. I liked Easton, and your parents are true gems. Real salt of the earth.”
They’re people, Celeste had thought. Good, honest, hardworking people. She had never understood the phrase salt of the earth, but it sounded like something you said about someone you knew was beneath you. To make the moment even more humiliating, Celeste started to cry again and Benji said, “Wow, I’m making things worse. Please don’t cry, Celeste. I love you.”
Celeste shook her head. “You’re just saying that.”
“I’m not,” Benji said. “I’ve been wanting to say it for weeks, months even, but I’ve been afraid because I wasn’t sure you felt the same way. But believe me, please, when I say I love you. I love you, Celeste Otis.”
She had felt emotionally goosed. He loved her. He loved her. Celeste didn’t know what to say, and yet it was clear Benji was waiting for a response. “I love you too,” she said.
“You do?” he asked.
Did she? Celeste thought back to the first time she met Benji, how wonderful he had been with Miranda, how exasperated with glamorous Jules. She thought of the flowers and the books and the restaurants and his mind-boggling apartment and the homeless shelter. She thought about the ease she felt in his presence, as though the world had only good things to offer. She thought about how much his opinion mattered to her. She wanted to be good enough for him.
“Yes,” she said. “I do.”
If Celeste loves Benji, then what is happening now, with Shooter? Celeste knows her parents’ story by heart: Karen came marching up the pool steps and introduced herself to Bruce, who was sweating off water weight and staring at his orange. Karen had stuck out her hand and said, I admire a man with willpower. And those, apparently, were the magic words, because they both knew instantly that they would get married and stay together forever.
I wasn’t even hungry after that, Bruce said. I threw my orange away, I made weight, I won my match, but it barely mattered. All I wanted was a date with your mother.
That’s how love works, Karen said.
Does love work only one way? Celeste wonders. She has spent the past nine months carefully, cautiously getting to know Benjamin Winbury and has just decided to call that experience love. But only five days later, she’s pretty sure she has made a mistake. Because in meeting Shooter, Celeste has been swallowed whole by the world. Goner, she thinks. I’m a goner.
No. She is a scientist. She believes in reason. What she’s feeling now is as ephemeral as a shooting star. Soon enough, it will fade away.
“The old boy isn’t going to make this flight,” Shooter says. “He gave me very strict orders to take care of you.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Celeste says. “I can take care of myself.”
“Can you?” Shooter says. His eyes flash with blue sparks. Celeste can’t look directly at him, then she decides that she’s being silly, of course she can look at him, and she does. The bottom drops out of her stomach, whoosh! He is so painfully attractive. Maybe she just needs to build up a tolerance. Even the best-looking men in the world—George Clooney, Jon Hamm—might seem run-of-the-mill if you looked at them long enough. “What seat are you in?”
“One-D,” she says.
“I’m in twelve-A,” Shooter says. “I’m going to ask them to give me Benji’s seat.”
“I’m not a senior vice president from Prague,” Celeste says. “You don’t have to babysit me.”
“You’ve been dating my best friend for nine months,” Shooter says. “I want to get to know you. Hard to do from eleven rows away, don’t you agree?”
“Agreed,” Celeste concedes.
They sit side by side in the front row of the plane. Shooter lifts Celeste’s carry-on into the overhead compartment, then asks if she would prefer the window or the aisle. She says aisle. She realizes most people who have never flown before might want to sit at the window but Celeste is terrified. Shooter waits for her to sit down and then he sits. He’s a gentleman, but then so is Benji. Benji is the ultimate gentleman. Benji stands whenever Celeste leaves the table to go to the ladies’ room and he stands when she gets back. He holds doors, he carries a handkerchief, he never interrupts.
Shooter pulls a flask out of his back pocket and hands it to Celeste. She eyes the flask. It’s alcohol, she assumes, but what kind? She is far too cautious a person to drink without asking. But in the moment, she doesn’t feel like being cautious. She feels like being daring. She accepts the flask and takes a swig: It’s tequila. Celeste drinks tequila only when she’s with Merritt, although personally she thinks it tastes like dirt. This tequila is smoother than most, but even so it singes her throat. However, an instant later the tension in her neck disappears and her jaw loosens. She takes another slug.
“I carry that because I hate flying,” Shooter says.
“You?” Celeste says. “But don’t you fly all the time?”
“Nearly every week,” he says. “The first time I flew, I was eight years old. My parents were sending me to summer camp in Vermont.” He leans his head back against the seat and stares forward. “Every time I fly I have an atavistic reaction to the memory of that day. The day I realized my parents wanted to get rid of me.”
“Were you a very naughty child, then?” she asks. She sounds exactly like Merritt, she realizes.
“Oh, probably,” Shooter says.
Celeste hands Shooter back the flask. He smiles sadly and takes a slug.
Later, Celeste will think back on the twenty hours she spent on Nantucket with Shooter alone as the kind of montage they show in movies. Here’s a shot of the airplane bouncing and shaking during turbulence and Shooter raising the window shade in time for Celeste to see bolts of lightning on the horizon. Here is Shooter taking Celeste’s hand, Celeste imagining her parents’ reaction when they are informed that Celeste has died in a plane crash. Here is the plane landing safely on Nantucket, passengers cheering, Shooter and Celeste executing a perfect high-five. Here are Shooter and Celeste climbing into a silver Jeep that Shooter has rented. The sky has cleared, the top of the Jeep is down, and Shooter takes off down the road while Celeste’s blond hair blows behind her. Here is Elida, the summer housekeeper, meeting Shooter and Celeste at the front door of the Winbury property, known as Summerland, and informing them that Mr. and Mrs. Winbury have also been detained in New York but that they should make themselves at home; she, Elida, will return in the morning.
Here is Celeste acting nonchalant when she enters the house. It’s a palace, a summer palace, like the monarchs of Russia and Austria used to have. The ceilings are soaring, the rooms are open, bright, airy. The entire thing is white—white walls, white wainscoting, whitewashed oak floors, a kitchen tiled in white with pure white Carrara marble countertops—with stunning bursts of color here and there: paintings, pillows, fresh flowers, a wooden bowl filled with lemons and Granny Smith apples. Celeste would say she can’t believe how glorious the house is, with its six bedrooms upstairs and master suite downstairs; with its uninterrupted views of the harbor; with its glass-walled wine cellar off the casual “friends’” dining room; with its dark rectangular pool and Balinese-style pool house; with its two guest cottages, tiny and perfect, like cottages borrowed from a fairy tale; with its round rose garden in the middle of a koi pond, a garden that can be accessed only by a footbridge. Shooter gives Celeste the tour—he has been coming to Summerland since he was fourteen years old, over half his life—and hence his attitude is charmingly proprietary. He tells Celeste that he used to have a terrific crush on Greer and had near Oedipal dreams about killing Tag and marrying her.