Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

beautiful player

Chapter 1

One ring. Two.

I stopped pacing long enough to pull back the curtain and peek out the window, frowning up at the sky. It was still dark out, but I reasoned it was bluer than black and starting to smudge pink and purple along the horizon. Technically: morning.

It was three days after Jensen’s lecture and, fittingly, my third attempt to call Will. But even though I had no idea what I would say—what my brother even expected me to say—the more I thought about it, the more I realized Jens had been right: I was almost always at the lab, and when I wasn’t, I was home sleeping or eating. Choosing to live alone in my parents’ Manhattan apartment instead of somewhere closer to my peers in Brooklyn and Queens didn’t exactly help my social options. The contents of my refrigerator consisted of the odd vegetable, questionable takeout, and frozen dinners. My entire life to this point had revolved around finishing school and launching into the perfect research career. It was sobering to realize how little I had outside of that.

Apparently my family had noticed, and for some reason, Jensen seemed to think the solution to saving me from impending spinsterdom was Will.

I was less confident. Much less.

Our shared history was admittedly scant, and it was entirely possible he wouldn’t remember me very well. I was the kid sister, scenery, a backdrop to his many adventures with Jensen and his brief fling with my sister. And now I was calling him to—what? Take me out? Play some board games? Teach me how to . . .

I couldn’t even finish that thought.

I debated hanging up. I debated climbing back into bed and telling my brother he could kiss my ass and find a new improvement project. But halfway through the fourth ring, and with the phone clenched so tightly in my hand I’d probably still feel it tomorrow, Will picked up.

“Hello?” His voice was exactly how I remembered, thick and rich, but even deeper. “Hello?” he asked again.

“Will?”

He inhaled sharply and I heard a smile curl through his voice when he said my nickname: “Ziggy?”

I laughed; of course he’d remember me that way. Only my family called me that anymore. No one really knew what the name meant—it was a lot of power to give then-two-year-old Eric, nicknaming the new baby sister—but it had stuck. “Yeah. It’s Ziggy. How did you—?”

“I heard from Jensen yesterday,” he explained. “He told me all about his visit and the verbal ass-kicking he gave you. He mentioned you might call.”

“Well, here I am,” I said lamely.

There was a groan and the whispering rustle of sheets. I absolutely did not try to imagine what degree of naked was on the other end of the line. But the butterflies in my stomach flew into my throat when I registered he sounded tired because he’d been asleep. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t technically morning yet. . . .

I chanced another look outside. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” I hadn’t even looked at my clock, and now I was afraid to.

“It’s fine. My alarm was about to go off in”—he paused, yawning—“an hour.”

I bit back a groan of mortification. “Sorry. I was a little . . . anxious.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I can’t believe I forgot you lived in the city now. Hear you’ve been holed up over at P and S, pipetting in a safety hood for the past three years.”

My stomach flipped slightly at the way his deep voice grew husky with his playful scolding. “You sound like you’re on Jensen’s side.”

His tone softened. “He’s just worried about you. As your big brother, it’s his favorite job.”

“So I’ve heard.” I returned to pacing the length of the room, needing to do something to contain this nervous energy. “I should have called sooner . . .”

“So should I.” He shifted, and seemed to sit up. I heard him groan again as he stretched and closed my eyes at the sound. It sounded exactly, precisely, and distractingly like sex.

Breathe through your nose, Hanna. Stay calm.

“Do you want to do something today?” I blurted. So much for calm.

He hesitated and I could have smacked myself for not considering that he’d already have plans. Like work. And after work, maybe a date with a girlfriend. Or a wife. Suddenly I was straining to hear every sound that pushed through the crackling silence.

After an eternity, he asked, “What did you have in mind?”

Loaded question. “Dinner?”

Will paused for several painful beats. “I have a thing. A late meeting. What about tomorrow?”

“Lab. I already scheduled an eighteen-hour time point with these cells that are really slow-growing and I will legitimately stab myself with a sharp tool if I mess this up and have to start over.”

“Eighteen hours? That’s a long day, Ziggs.”

“I know.”

He hummed before asking, “What time do you need to go in this morning?”

“Later,” I said, glancing at the clock with a wince. It was only six. “Maybe around nine or ten.”

“Do you want to join me at the park for a run?”

“You run?” I asked. “On purpose?”

“Yes,” he said, outright laughing now. “Not the I’m-being-chased running, but the I’m-exercising running.”

I squeezed my eyes closed, feeling the familiar itch to follow this through, like a challenge, a damn assignment. Stupid Jensen. “When?”

“About thirty minutes?”

I glanced out the window again. It was barely light out. There was snow on the ground. Change, I reminded myself. And with that, I closed my eyes and said, “Text me directions. I’ll meet you there.”

It was cold. Ass-freezing cold would be a more accurate description.

I reread Will’s text telling me to meet him near the Engineers Gate at Fifth and Ninetieth in Central Park and paced back and forth, trying to stay warm. The morning air burned my face and seeped through the fabric of my pants. I wished I’d brought a hat. I wish I’d remembered it was February in New York and only crazy people went to the park in February in New York. I couldn’t feel my fingers and I was legitimately worried the cold air combined with the windchill might cause my ears to fall off.

There were only a handful of people nearby: overachieving fitness types and a young couple huddled together on a bench beneath a giant spindly tree, each clasping to-go cups of something that looked warm, and delicious. A flock of gray birds pecked at the ground, and the sun was just making an appearance over the skyscrapers in the distance.

I’d hovered on the edge between socially appropriate and rambling geek most of my life, so of course I’d felt out of my element before: when I got that research award in front of thousands of parents and students at MIT, almost anytime I went shopping for myself, and, most memorably, when Ethan Kingman wanted me to go down on him in the eleventh grade and I had absolutely no idea how I was supposed to do so and breathe at the same time. And now, watching the sky brighten with each passing minute, I would have gratefully escaped to any one of those memories to get out of doing this.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go running . . . actually, yes, that was a lot of it. I didn’t want to go running. I wasn’t even sure I knew how to run for sport. But I wasn’t dreading seeing Will. I was just nervous. I remembered the way he’d been—there was always something slow and hypnotic about his attention. Something about him that exuded sex. I’d never had to interact with him one-on-one before, and I worried that I simply lacked the composure to handle it.

My brother had given me a task—go live your life more fully—knowing that if there was one way to ensure I’d tackle something, it was to make me think I was failing. And while I was pretty sure it hadn’t been Jensen’s intent that I spend time with Will to learn how to date and to, lets face it, get laid, I needed to get inside Will’s head, learn from the master and be more like him in those ways. I just had to pretend I was a secret agent on an undercover assignment: get in and out and escape unharmed.

Unlike my sister.

After seventeen-year-old Liv had made out with a pierced, bass-playing nineteen-year-old Will over Christmas, I’d learned a lot about what it looks like when a teenage girl gets hung up on the bad boy. Will Sumner was the definition of that boy.

They all wanted my sister, but Liv had never talked about anyone the way she talked about Will.

“Zig!”

My head snapped up and toward the sound of my name, and I did a double take as the man in question walked toward me. He was taller than I remembered, and had the type of body that was long and lean, a torso that went on forever and limbs that should have made him clumsy but somehow didn’t. There’d always been something about him, something magnetic and irresistible that was unrelated to classically symmetrical good looks, but my memory of Will from even four years ago paled in comparison to the man in front of me now.

His smile was still the same: slightly crooked and always lingering, lending a constant sense of mischief to his face. As he approached, he glanced in the direction of a siren and I caught the angle of his stubbly jaw, the length of smooth, tan neck that disappeared beneath the collar of his microfleece.

When he got to me, his smile widened. “Morning,” he said. “Thought it was you. I remember you used to pace like that when you were nervous about school or something. Drove your mom nuts.”

And without thinking, I stepped forward, wrapped my arms around his neck, and hugged him tight. I couldn’t remember ever being this close to Will before. He was warm and solid; I closed my eyes when I felt him press his face to the top of my head.

His deep voice seemed to vibrate through me: “It’s so good to see you.”

Secret Agent Hanna.

Reluctantly, I took a step back, inhaling the way the fresh air mixed with the clean scent of his soap. “It’s good to see you, too.”

Bright blue eyes looked down at me from beneath a black beanie, his dark hair tucked haphazardly beneath it. He stepped closer and placed something on my head. “Figured you’d need this.”

I reached up, feeling the thick wool cap. Wow, that was disarmingly charming. “Thanks. Maybe I’ll get to keep my ears after all.”

He grinned, stepping back as he looked me up and down. “You look . . . different, Ziggs.”

I laughed. “No one but my family has called me that in forever.”

His smile fell and he searched my face for a moment as if, were he lucky enough, my given name would be tattooed there. He’d only ever called me Ziggy, just like my siblings—Jensen, of course, but also Liv and Niels and Eric. Until I left home, I’d always just been Ziggy. “Well, what do your friends call you?”

“Hanna,” I said quietly.

He continued to stare. He stared at my neck, at my lips, and then took time to inspect my eyes. The energy between us was palpable . . . but, no. I had to be completely misreading the situation. This was precisely the danger of Will Sumner.

“So,” I started, raising my eyebrows. “Running.”

Will blinked, seemed to realize where we were. “Right.”

He nodded, reaching up to pull his hat down farther over his ears. He looked so different than I remembered—clean-cut and successful—but if I looked close enough, I could still see the faint marks where his earrings used to be.

“First,” he said, and I quickly pulled my attention back to his face. “I want you to watch out for black ice. They do a good job of keeping the trails clear but if you’re not paying attention you can really hurt yourself.”

“Okay.”

He pointed to the path winding around the frozen water. “This is the lower loop. It surrounds the reservoir and should be perfect because it only has a few inclines.”

“And you run this every day?”

Will’s eyes twinkled as he shook his head. “Not this one. This is only a mile and a half. Since you’re just starting out we’ll walk the first and last bit, running the mile in the middle.”

“Why don’t we just run your usual route?” I asked, not liking the idea of him slowing down or changing his routine for me.

“Because it’s six miles.”

“I can totally do that,” I said. Six miles didn’t seem like that many. It was just under thirty-two thousand feet. If I took big strides, that was only maybe sixteen thousand steps . . . I felt my mouth turn down at the corners as I fully considered this.

He patted my shoulder with exaggerated patience. “Of course you can. But let’s see how you do today and we’ll talk.”

And then? He winked.

So apparently I wasn’t much of a runner.

“You do this every day?” I panted. I could feel a trickle of sweat run from my temple down my neck and didn’t even have the strength to reach up and wipe it away.

He nodded, looking like he was just out enjoying a brisk morning walk. I felt like I was going to die.

“How much farther?”

He looked over at me, wearing a smug—and delicious—grin. “Half a mile.”

Oh God.

I straightened and lifted my chin. I could do this. I was young and in . . . reasonably good shape. I stood almost all day, ran from room to room in the lab, and always took the stairs when I went home. I could totally do this.

“Good . . .” I said. My lungs seemed to have filled with cement and I could only take tiny, gasping breaths. “Feels great.”

“Not cold anymore?”

“Nope.” I could practically hear the blood pumping through my veins, the force of my heartbeat inside my chest. Our feet pounded on the trail and, no, I definitely wasn’t cold anymore.

“Other than being busy all the time,” he asked, breath not even the slightest bit labored, “do you like the work you’re doing?”

“Love it,” I gasped. “I love working with Liemacki.”

We spoke for a while about my project, the other people in my lab. He knew my graduate advisor from his reputation in the vaccine field, and I was impressed to see that Will kept up with the literature even in a field he said didn’t always perform the best in the venture capital world. But he was curious about more than my job; he wanted to know about my life, asked about it point-blank.

“My life is the lab,” I said, glancing at him to gauge his level of judgment. He barely blinked. There were a few graduate students, and an army of post-docs cranking out papers. “They’re all great,” I explained, swallowing before taking in a huge gulp of air. “But I get along best with two that are both married with kids, so we aren’t exactly going to go hit the pool tables after work.”

“I don’t think the pool tables are still open after you’re done with work anyway,” he teased. “Isn’t that why I’m here? Big-brothering—getting you out of your routine kind of thing?”

“Right,” I said laughing. “And although I was pretty annoyed when Jensen flat-out told me I needed to get a life, he’s not exactly wrong.” I paused, running a few more steps. “I’ve just been so focused on work for so long, and getting over the next hurdle, and then the next one, I haven’t really stopped to enjoy any of it.”

“Yeah,” he agreed quietly. “That’s not good.”

I tried to ignore the pressure of his gaze, and kept my eyes pinned on the trail in front of us. “Do you ever feel like the people who mean the most aren’t the people you see the most?” When he didn’t respond, I added, “Lately I just feel like I’m not putting my heart where it matters.”

From my peripheral vision I saw him glance away, nodding. It took forever for him to reply, but when he did, he said, “Yeah, I get that.”

A moment later, I looked over at the sound of Will laughing. It was deep, and the sound vibrated through my skin and into my bones.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I followed his gaze to where my arms were crossed over my chest. I winced inwardly before admitting, “My boobs hurt. How do guys do this?”

“Well, for one, we don’t have . . .” He waved vaguely to my chest region.

“But, what about the other stuff? Like, do you run in boxers?” Holy hell, what is wrong with me? Problem number one: no verbal filter.

He looked over at me again, confused, and almost tripped on a fallen branch. “What?”

“Boxers?” I repeated, making the word into three full syllables. “Or do you have things that keep your man parts from—”

He interrupted me with a loud barking laugh that echoed off the trees in the frigid air. “Yeah, no boxers,” he said. “There’d be too much stuff moving around down there.” He winked and then looked forward at the trail, wearing a flirty half-grin.

“You have extra parts?” I teased.

Will threw me an amused look. “If you must know, I wear running shorts. Form-fitted to keep the boys safe.”

“Guess girls are just lucky that way. No stuff down there to just”—I waved my arms around wildly—“flop all over the place. We’re compact down below.”

We reached a flat part of the trail, and slowed to a walk. Will laughed quietly next to me. “I’ve noticed.”

“You are the expert.”

He threw me a skeptical look. “What?”

For a split second my brain attempted to hold back what I was about to say, but it was too late. I’d never been particularly good at censoring my thoughts—a fact my family was more than happy to point out whenever the chance arose—but here it felt like my brain was stealing this rare opportunity to let it all out with the legendary Will, as if I may not get another chance. “The . . . pussy expert,” I whispered, all but mouthing the P-word.

His eyes widened, his steps faltering a bit.

I stopped, bending to catch my breath. “You said so yourself.”

“When would I ever have said I was the ‘pussy expert’?”

“Don’t you remember telling us that? You said Jensen was good with the saying. You were good with the doing. And then you wiggled your eyebrows.”

“That is horrifying. How in the world do you remember all this?”

I straightened. “I was twelve. You were a nineteen-year-old hot friend of my brother who joked about sex in our house. You were practically a mythical creature.”

“Why don’t I remember any of this?”

I shrugged, looking past him at the now-crowded trail. “Probably for the same reason.”

“I don’t remember you being this funny, either. Or this”—he took a moment to covertly look me up and down—“grown-up.”

I smiled. “I wasn’t.”

He reached behind him, pulling his sweatshirt up and over his head. For a brief moment, his shirt underneath was pulled up with it, and a long stretch of his torso was exposed. I experienced a full-body clench at the sight of his flat stomach and the dark hair that trailed from his navel down into his shorts. His running pants hung low enough for me to see the carved lines of his hips, the enticing suggestion of man parts, and man legs and . . . holy crap Will Sumner’s body was unreal.

When he tugged the hem of his shirt back down, he broke my trance and I looked up to take in the rest of him, arms now bare below the short sleeves of his shirt. He scratched his neck, oblivious to the way my eyes moved over his forearm. I had a lot of memories of Will from the summer he’d lived with us while working for Dad: sitting on the couch with him and Jensen while we watched a movie, passing him in the hallway at night wearing nothing more than a towel around his hips, inhaling dinner at the kitchen table after a long day at the lab. But only from the evil influence of dark magic could I have forgotten about the tattoos. Seeing them now, I could remember a bluebird near his shoulder, a mountain and the roots of a tree wrapped up in vines on his bicep.

But some of these were new. Swirls of ink formed a double helix down the center of one forearm, the etching of a phonograph peeked out from beneath his sleeve on the other. Will had grown quiet and I looked up to find him smirking at me.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, smiling sheepishly. “You have new ones.”

His tongue darted out to lick his lips, and we turned to start walking again. “Don’t be sorry. I wouldn’t have them if I didn’t want people to look.”

“And it’s not weird? With the business job and everything?”

Shrugging, he murmured, “Long sleeves, suit jackets. Most people don’t know they’re there.” The problem with what he said was it didn’t make me think about the most people who remained ignorant to his tattoos. It made me wonder about the ones who knew each and every line of ink on his skin.

The Danger of Will Sumner, I reminded myself. Everything he says sounds filthy, and now you’re thinking of him naked. Again.

I blinked away, searching for a new topic. “So what about your life?”

He eyed me, wary. “What do you want to know?”

“Do you like your job?”

“Most days.”

I acknowledged this with a smile. “Do you get to see your family often? Your mom and sisters are in Washington, right?” I remembered that Will had two much older sisters who both lived close to their mother.

“Oregon,” he corrected. “And yes, a couple of times a year.”

“Are you dating anyone?” I blurted.

He furrowed his brows as if he hadn’t quite understood what I’d asked. After a moment he answered, “No.”

His adorably confused reaction helped me forget how inappropriate my question had been. “Did you have to really think about it?”

“No, smart-ass. And no, there is no one I would introduce to you by saying, ‘Hey Ziggy, this is so-and-so, my girlfriend.’ ”

I hummed, studying him. “What a very specific evasion.”

He pulled his hat from his head, running his fingers through his hair. It was damp with sweat and stuck up in a million directions.

“No one woman has caught your eye?”

“A few have.” He turned his eyes on me, refusing to shrink from my interrogation. I remembered this about Will; he never felt the need to explain himself, but he didn’t shy away from questions, either.

Clearly he was the same Will he’d always been: often with women, and never with just one. I blinked down, looking at his chest as it widened and retracted with his slowly-steadying breaths, at his muscular shoulders leading to a smooth, tan neck. His lips parted slightly and his tongue peeked out to wet them again. Will’s jaw was carved and covered in dark stubble. I had a sudden and overwhelming urge to feel it on my thighs.

My eyes dropped to his toned arms, the large hands relaxed at his sides—holy shit what those fingers probably knew how to do—his flat stomach, and the front of his running pants that told me Will Sumner had plenty going on below the belt. Good sweet baby Jesus, I wanted to bang the smirk off this man.

Silence ticked between us and awareness trickled in. I wasn’t living behind a damn two-way mirror and I’d never had a poker face. Will could probably read every single thought I’d just had.

His eyes darkened in understanding, and he took one step closer, looking me over from head to foot as if inspecting an animal caught in a trap. A gorgeous, deadly smile tugged at his mouth. “What’s the verdict?”

I swallowed thickly, closing my fists around sweaty hands, saying only, “Will?”

He blinked, and then blinked again, stepping back and seeming to remember himself. I could practically see the realizations tick through his mind: this is Jensen’s baby sister . . . she’s seven years younger than I am . . . I made out with Liv . . . this kid is a dork . . . stop thinking with your dick.

He winced slightly, saying, “Right, sorry,” under his breath.

I relaxed, amused by the reaction. Unlike me, Will had an infamous poker face . . . but not here, and apparently not with me. That understanding sent a jolt of confidence through my chest: he might be nearly irresistible and the most naturally sensual man on the planet, but Hanna Bergstrom could handle Will Sumner.

“So,” I said. “Not ready to settle down, then?”

“Definitely not.” His smile pulled up one corner of his mouth and he looked completely destructive. My heart and lady bits would not survive a night with this man.

Good thing that’s not even an option, vagina. Stand down.

We’d circled back around to the beginning of the trail, and Will leaned against a tree. “So why are you diving into the world of the living now?” He tilted his head as he turned the conversation back to me. “I know Jensen and your dad want you to have a more active social life, but come on. You’re a pretty girl, Ziggs. It can’t be that you haven’t had offers.”

I bit my lip for a second, amused that of course Will would assume that, for me, this was about getting laid. The truth was . . . he wasn’t entirely wrong. And there was no judgment in his expression, no weird distance around such a personal topic.

“It’s not that I haven’t dated. It’s that I haven’t dated well,” I said, remembering my most recent, completely bland encounter. “I know it might be hard to tell behind all this smooth charm but I’m not very good in those kinds of situations. Jensen’s told me stories. You managed to get through your doctorate with top honors and what sounds like a whole lot of fun. Here I am, in a lab with people who seem to consider social awkwardness a field of study. Not really that many jumping in the boat, if you know what I mean.”

“You’re young, Ziggs. Why are you worrying about this now?”

“I’m not worried about it, but I’m twenty-four. I have functioning body parts and my mind tends to go to interesting places. I just want to . . . explore. You weren’t thinking about these things when you were my age?”

He shrugged. “I wasn’t stressing over it.”

“Of course you weren’t. You’d lift an eyebrow and panties would hit the floor.”

Will licked his lips, reaching to scratch the back of his neck. “You’re a trip.”

“I’m a scientist, Will. If I’m going to do this I need to learn how men think, get inside their head.” I took a deep breath, watched him carefully before saying, “Teach me. You told my brother you’d help me, so do that.”

“Pretty sure he didn’t mean Hey, show my kid sister the city, make sure she isn’t paying too much for rent, and, by the way, help her get laid.” His dark brows pulled together as something seemed to occur to him. “Are you asking me to set you up with a friend?”

“No. God.” I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or crawl into a hole and hide for the rest of forever. Despite his DEFCON 5 degree of hotness, what I needed was for him to help me bang the smirk off other men. Maybe then I’d be properly degeeked and socialized. “I want your help to learn . . .” I shrugged and scratched my hair beneath the hat. “How to date. Teach me the rules.”

He blinked away, looking torn. “The ‘rules’? I don’t . . .” He shivered, letting his words fall away as he reached up to scratch his jaw. “I’m not sure I am qualified to help you meet guys.”

“You went to Yale.”

“Yeah, and? That was years ago, Ziggs. I don’t think they offered this in the course catalog.”

“And you were in a band,” I continued, ignoring that last part.

Finally, amusement lit up his eyes. “What’s your point?”

“My point is that I went to MIT and played D&D and Magic—”

“Hello, I was a fucking D&D pro, Ziggs.”

“My point,” I said, ignoring him, “is that Yale-attending, lacrosse-playing former bass players might have ideas about how to improve the dating pool options of bespectacled, nerdtastic geeks.”

“Are you fucking with me right now?”

Instead of answering, I crossed my arms over my chest and waited patiently. It was the same stance I’d adopted back when I was supposed to be rotating through several labs to help decide what type of research I wanted. But I didn’t want to do lab rotations for my entire first year of graduate school; I wanted to get started on my research with Liemacki, immediately. I’d stood outside his office after explaining why his work was perfectly positioned to move away from viral vaccine research into parasitology, and what I thought I could work on for my thesis. I’d been prepared to stand like that for hours, but after only five minutes he’d relented and, as the chair of the department, made an exception for me.

Will looked off into the distance. I wasn’t sure if he was considering what I was saying, or deciding whether he should just start running and leave me wheezing in his snow-dust.

Finally, he sighed. “Okay, well, rule one of having a broader social life is never call anyone except a cab before the sun is up.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that.”

He studied me, eventually motioning to my outfit. “We’ll run. We’ll go out and do stuff.” He winced, waving vaguely at my body. “I don’t really think you need to do anything but . . . fuck, I don’t know. You’re wearing your brother’s baggy sweatshirt. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have a feeling that’s pretty standard attire, even when you’re not jogging.” He shrugged. “Though it is kind of cute.”

“I am not dressing like a hoochie.”

“You don’t have to dress like a hoochie.” He straightened, messing up his hair before tucking it beneath his beanie again. “God. You’re a ballbuster. Do you know Chloe and Sara?”

I shook my head. “Are those some girls you’re . . . not dating?”

“Oh, hell no,” he said with a laugh. “They’re the women who have my best friends by the balls. I think they’d be good for you to meet. Swear to God you’ll all probably be best friends at the end of the night.”