Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 16

I turned off the car and the engine ticked in the answering silence. Beside me, Hanna was asleep, her head resting away from me and against the passenger window. We were parked in front of the Bergstrom family home on the outskirts of Boston, which featured a wide, white porch wrapping around clean brick. The front windows were framed by navy shutters and inside could be seen the hint of heavy cream curtains. The house was large, and beautiful, and held so many of my own memories I couldn’t even imagine what it was like for Hanna to come back here.

I hadn’t been here in a couple of years, not since I’d visited with Jensen for a random summer weekend to catch up with his folks. None of the other kids had been there. It was quiet and relaxing, and we’d spent most of the weekend on the back veranda, sipping gin-and-tonics and reading. But now I was parked in front of the house, sitting next to my friend’s sister, who had given me two rounds of stellar car head, the last one ending less than an hour ago with my hands white-knuckling the steering wheel and my cock so deep in her throat I could feel her swallowing when I came. She really was a natural with the oral skills. She thought she needed further instruction, and I was happy to keep up the ruse long enough for her to practice on me a few more times.

In the city, enmeshed in our day-to-day lives, it was easy to forget the Jensen connection, the family connection. The they’d-all-kill-me-if-they-knew-what-we-were-doing connection. I’d been blindsided when she’d brought up Liv because it had felt like such ancient history. But I would be faced with all of that this weekend: my brief history as Liv’s former flame, as Jensen’s best friend, as Johan’s intern. And I would have to face all of that while trying to hide my infatuation with Hanna.

I put my hand on her shoulder, shaking gently. “Hanna.”

She startled a little, but the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was me. She was groggy and not quite conscious but she smiled as if looking at her favorite thing in the world, and murmured, “Mmmm, hey, you.”

And, with that reaction, my heart exploded. “Hey, Plum.”

She smiled shyly, turning her head to look out her window as she stretched. When she saw where we’d parked, she startled a little, sitting up straighter, looking around. “Oh! We’re here.”

“We’re here.”

When she turned back to me, her eyes looked mildly panicked. “It’s going to be weird, isn’t it? I’m going to be staring at your button fly and Jensen will see me staring at your button fly and then you’ll check out my chest and someone will see that, too! What if I touch you? Or”—her eyes went wide—“what if I kiss you?”

Her impending little freak-out calmed me immeasurably. Only one of us was allowed to feel weird at a time.

I shook my head, telling her, “It’s going to be fine. We’re here as friends. We’re visiting your family as friends. There will be no public dick appreciation, and no public breast admiration. I didn’t even pack another pair of button flies. Deal?”

“Deal,” she repeated woodenly. “Just friends.”

“Because that’s what we are,” I reminded her, ignoring the organ inside my chest that twisted as I said this.

Straightening, she nodded and reached for her door handle, chirping, “Friends! Friends visiting my house for Easter! We’re going to see your old friend, my big brother! Thanks for driving me up here from New York, friend Will my friend!”

She laughed as she got out of the car and walked around to get her bag from the trunk.

“Hanna, calm down,” I whispered, placing a soothing hand on her lower back. I felt my eyes move down her neck and settle on her breasts. “Don’t be a lunatic.”

“Eyes up here, William. Best start now.”

Laughing, I whispered, “I’ll try.”

“Me, too.” With a little wink, she whispered, “And remember to call me Ziggy.”

Helena Bergstrom was such a good hugger she could have been from the Pacific Northwest. Only her softly lilting accent and dramatically European features gave her away as Norwegian-born. She welcomed me in, pulling me just past the front door and then into her familiar embrace. Like Hanna, she was on the tall side, and she had aged beautifully. I kissed her cheek, handing her the flowers we’d bought for her when we stopped to refuel.

“You’re always so thoughtful,” she said, taking them and waving us in. “Johan is still at work. Eric can’t make it. Liv and Rob are here, but Jensen and Niels are still on the road.” She looked past me, eyebrows drawn together. “It is going to rain, so I hope they all get here for dinner.”

She rattled off her children’s names as easily as she breathed. What had her life been like, I wondered, herding so many kids? And as each of them got married and had little ones of their own, this house would only grow more full.

I felt an unfamiliar ache to be part of it somehow and then blinked, looking away. This weekend had the potential to be strange enough without my new emotions thrown into the mix.

Inside, the house felt the same as it had years ago, even though they’d redecorated. It was still comfortable, but instead of the blue and gray décor I remembered from before, it was done in deep browns and reds with plush furniture and bright, cream walls. In the entryway and along the hallway leading deeper into the house, I could see that, redecoration or no, Helena still embraced her American life with a healthy smattering of life-affirming quotes masquerading as art on the walls. I knew what I would see farther into the house:

In the hallway, Live, Laugh, Love!

In the kitchen, A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand!

In the family room, Our children: We give them roots so they can take flight!

Catching me reading the one closest to the front door—All roads lead home—Hanna winked, wearing a knowing smile.

As feet tapped down the wooden stairs just to the side of the entryway, I looked up and met Liv’s bright green eyes. My stomach dropped a little.

There was no reason for me to let things be weird with Liv; I’d seen her a handful of times since we’d hooked up, most recently at Jensen’s wedding a few years ago, where we’d had a nice conversation about her job at a small commercial firm in Hanover. Her fiancé—now husband—had seemed nice. I’d walked away from the evening not thinking twice about where things stood with Liv of all people.

But that was because I hadn’t considered that our brief fling had meant anything to her, I hadn’t known she’d been heartsick when I returned to Yale after the Christmas holiday so many years ago. It was as if a huge chunk of my history with the Bergstrom family had been rewritten—with me as the flaky lothario—and now that I was here, I realized I hadn’t done anything to mentally prepare for it.

As I stood stiff as a statue, she walked up and hugged me. “Hey, Will.” I felt the press of her very pregnant belly against my stomach and she laughed, whispering, “Hug me, silly.”

I relaxed, wrapping my arms around her. “Hey yourself. I think it’s safe to say congratulations are in order?”

She stepped back, rubbing her stomach and smiling. “Thanks.” Amusement twinkled in her eyes and I remembered that Hanna had called her after our fight, and that Liv probably knew exactly what was going on with me and her little sister.

My stomach twisted back into a knot, but I pushed past it, forcing the weekend to not be peculiar on every level. “Are we expecting a boy or a girl?”

“It’s going to be a surprise,” she said. “Rob wants to know, but I don’t. And so that means, of course, that I win.” Laughing, she moved to the side to let her husband shake my hand.

We shared a few more pleasantries in the foyer; Hanna updated her mother and Liv on the latest news from graduate school, Rob and I spoke idly about the Knicks before Helena gestured to the kitchen. “I’m going to get back in there. Come on down for a cocktail after you’ve settled in a little.”

I grabbed our bags and followed Hanna up the stairs.

“Put Will in the yellow room,” Helena called.

“Was that my room before?” I asked, checking out Hanna’s perfect ass. She had always been slender, but the running was doing really great things for her curves.

“No, you were in the white guest room, the other one,” she said, and then turned to smile at me over her shoulder. “Not that I remember every detail of that summer or anything.”

I laughed and stepped past her into the bedroom that was meant to be mine for the night. “Where is your room?” The question came out before I’d really considered whether it was a good thing to ask, and certainly whether I’d checked to make sure no one else had followed us up here.

She looked back over her shoulder and then stepped inside, closing the door. “Two doors down.”

The space seemed to shrink, and we stood, staring at each other.

“Hey,” she whispered.

It was the first time since we left New York that I considered this might be a horrible idea. I was in love with Hanna. How would I be able to keep that from showing every time I looked at her?

“Hey,” I managed.

Tilting her head, she whispered, “You okay?”

“Yeah.” I scratched my neck. “Just . . . want to kiss you.”

She took a few steps closer until she could run her hands under my shirt and up my chest. I bent, pressing a single, chaste kiss to her mouth.

“But I shouldn’t,” I said against her lips when she came back for another.

“Probably not.” Her mouth moved over my chin, down my jaw, sucking, nibbling. Beneath my shirt, she scratched my chest with her fingernails, lightly sliding over my nipples. In only seconds I was rigid, ready, felt the fever slide over my skin and dig down into my muscles.

“I won’t want to stop at just kissing,” I said, half-warning for her to stop, half-plea for her to keep going.

“We have a little time before everyone else gets here,” she said. She stepped back far enough to unbutton my jeans. “We could—”

I stilled her hands, the cautious side winning out. “Hanna. No way.”

“I’ll be quiet.”

“That isn’t the only issue I have with fucking you in your parents’ house—during daylight, no less. Didn’t we just have this conversation outside?”

“I know, I know. But what if this is the only time we’ll be alone together?” she asked with a smile. “Don’t you want to fool around with me here?”

She had lost her mind. “Hanna,” I hissed, closing my eyes and stifling a groan as she pushed my jeans and boxers down my hips and wrapped a warm, tight hand around my shaft. “We really shouldn’t.”

She stopped, holding me gently. “We can be quick. For once.”

I opened my eyes, looking at her. I didn’t like to be quick ever, but especially not with Hanna. I liked to take my time. But if she was offering herself to me and we only had five minutes, I could handle five minutes. The rest of the family hadn’t arrived yet; maybe it would be okay. And then I remembered: “Fuck. I don’t have any condoms. I didn’t pack any. For obvious reasons.”

She cursed, wincing. “Me, either.”

The question hung between us when she looked at me, eyes wide and pleading.

“No,” I said without her having to say a word.

“But I’ve been on the pill for years.”

I closed my eyes, jaw tight. Fuck. Pregnancy was the only thing I’d really been worried about. Even in my wildest days, I’d never had sex without a condom. In the past several years I was tested for anything every few months anyway. “Hanna.”

“No, you’re right,” she said, thumb sweeping over the head of my cock, spreading the moisture there. “It’s not just about getting pregnant. It’s about being safe . . .”

“I’ve never had sex without a condom,” I blurted. Who knew I had a death wish?

She stilled. “Ever?”

“Never even rubbed around on the outside. I’m too paranoid.”

Her eyes widened. “What about ‘just the tip’? I thought every guy did just the tip as a point of habit.”

“I’m paranoid and careful. I know it only takes one time.” I smiled at her, knowing she’d understand the reference: I was an “oops” baby.

Her eyes darkened, moved to stare at my mouth. “Will? This would be your first time like this?”

Fuck. When she looked at me like that, when her voice got all husky and quiet, I was lost. It wasn’t just a physical attraction between us. Of course I’d been attracted to women before. But there was something more with Hanna, some chemistry in our blood, something between us that snapped and crackled, that made me always want just a little more than I should take. She offered her friendship, I wanted her body. She offered her body, I wanted to hijack her thoughts. She offered her thoughts, I wanted her heart.

And here she was, wanting to feel me inside her—just me, just her—and it was nearly impossible to say no. But I tried.

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea. We should be a little more thoughtful about that decision.”

Particularly if there will be other guys in your “experiment,” I didn’t say.

“I just want to feel it. I haven’t had sex without a condom, either.” She smiled, stretching to kiss me. “Just inside. Just for a second.”

Laughing, I whispered, “Just the tip?”

She stepped backward and leaned against the edge of the mattress, pushing her skirt up her hips and shimmying her panties down her legs. She faced me, spread her thighs and leaned back on her elbows, her hips hovering at the edge of the mattress. All I had to do was step closer and I could push inside. Bare.

“I know it’s crazy and I know it’s stupid. But God, that’s how you make me feel.” Her tongue slipped out, pressed to her bottom lip. “I promise to be quiet.”

I closed my eyes, knowing as soon as she said that, I’d decided. The more important question was whether I could be quiet. I shoved my pants farther down and stepped between her legs, holding my cock and leaning over her. “Fuck. What are we even doing?”

“Just feeling.”

My heart hammered in my throat, in my chest, in every inch of my skin. This felt like the final sex frontier; how weird that I’d done almost everything except this? It seemed so simple, almost innocent. But I’d never wanted to feel anything as much as I wanted to feel her, skin to skin. It was like a fever, taking over my mind and my reason, telling me how good it would feel to sink into her for just a second, just to feel and that would be enough. She could go back down to her room, unpack, freshen up, and I’d jerk off harder and faster than I’d ever jerked off in my life.

It was settled.

“Come here,” she whispered, reaching for my face. I lowered my chest, opening my mouth to taste her lips, sucking on her tongue, swallowing her sounds. I could feel the slick skin of her pussy against the underside of my cock but that wasn’t where I wanted to feel her. I wanted to feel her all around me.

“You good?” I asked, reaching between us to rub her clit. “Can I make you come first? I don’t think we should finish like this.”

“Can you pull out?”

“Hanna,” I whispered, sucking on her jaw. “What happened to ‘just the tip’?”

“You don’t want to feel what it’s like?” she countered, hands sliding over my ass, hips rocking. “You don’t want to feel me?”

I growled, nipping at her neck. “You are a fucking devious girl.”

She reached down and moved my fingers away from her clit, and took hold of me, rubbing my length over and around her sweet, drenched skin. I groaned into her neck.

And then she guided me there, holding, waiting for me to move my hips. I shifted forward, and back again, feeling the subtle give of her body when the head of my cock slid just inside. I moved deeper, the tiniest bit into her, just until I felt her stretch around my shaft and I stopped, groaning.

“Fast,” I said. “Quiet.”

“I promise,” she whispered.

I’d expected warmth, but I was unprepared for how warm, how soft, how fucking wet it would feel. I was unprepared to feel dizzy from the feel of her, the sensation of her pulse beating all around me, muscles fluttering, of her tight hungry sounds in my ear telling me how different it was for her, too.

“Fuck,” I grunted, unable to stop from moving all the way into her. “I don’t . . . I can’t fuck like this yet. It’s too good. I’ll come fast.”

She held her breath, hands gripping my arms so tight it hurt. “It’s okay,” she managed, and then let out her breath in a gust. “You always hold out so long. I want it to feel so good you can’t last.”

“You’re so evil,” I hissed and she laughed, turning her head to capture my mouth in a kiss.

We were propped at the edge of the bed, our shirts still on, my jeans around my ankles and her skirt bunched at her hips. We’d just came upstairs to put our things away, freshen up, get situated. It was so bad that we were doing this here, but somehow we were hardly making any sound, and I convinced myself that if I could keep my wits about me, maybe I could fuck her slow enough to keep the bed from squeaking. But then I realized that I was inside her, completely bare, in her parents’ house. I almost came just looking down at where I was buried inside her.

I slid almost all the way out—reveling in how wet I was from her—and inched back in, and then again, and again. And fuck, I was ruined. Ruined for sex with anyone else, ruined for using a condom with this girl.

“Executive decision,” she whispered, voice hoarse, breaths coming out in sharp spikes. “Forget the running. We need to do this five times a day.” Her voice was so faint I pressed my ear to her lips to hear what else she might say. But all I could make out in my haze of sensation were whispered broken sentences with words like hard, and skin and stay inside me after you come.

It was that last idea that did me in, that made me think about coming inside her, kissing her until she grew fevered and urgent again and then growing hard with her tensing all around me. I could fuck her, stay there, and fuck her again before falling asleep inside her.

I moved harder, holding on to her hip, finding that perfect rhythm that didn’t jolt the bed frame, didn’t bounce the aluminum headboard into the wall. The pace where she could still stay quiet, where I could try to hold on until I got her there . . . but it was a losing battle, and it had barely been a few minutes.

“Oh shit, Plum,” I groaned. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I threw my head back, feeling my orgasm barreling up my legs, down my spine, coming too soon. I pulled out, jerking my cock hard in my fist as she reached between her legs, pressing her fingers to her clit.

Footsteps sounded just outside in the hall, and my eyes flew to Hanna’s to see if she heard it, too, just a split second before someone pounded on the door.

My vision blurred and I felt myself starting to come.

Fuck. Fuuuuuck.

Jensen yelled, “Will! Hey, I’m here! You in the bathroom?”

Hanna sat up abruptly, eyes wide and wild with apology but it was already too late. I closed my eyes, coming in my hand, on the bare skin of her thigh.

“Just a second,” I wheezed, staring down at where I still pulsed in my grip. I bent over the bed, leaning one hand on the mattress for support. When I looked up at Hanna, she couldn’t seem to tear her eyes away from where my release landed on her skin, and—fuck—all over her skirt.

“I’m just changing. I’ll be right out,” I managed, my heart feeling like it was about to pound out of my body with the sudden flush of adrenaline that pumped through my blood.

“Cool. I’ll meet you downstairs,” he said, his footsteps retreating.

“Shit, your skirt . . .” I stepped back, scrambling to get dressed quickly, but Hanna hadn’t moved.

“Will,” she whispered, and I saw the familiar hunger darken her eyes.

“Fuck.” That was too fucking close. The door wasn’t even locked. “I don’t . . .”

But she leaned back, pulling me over her. She was so completely unconcerned about her brother walking in, seeing us. And he had left, hadn’t he?

This girl made me insane.

My heart still racing, I bent down, pressing two fingers inside her and sliding my tongue over her pussy as she let her eyes fall closed. Her hands went in my hair, her hips rocked up to my mouth, and within only seconds, she started to come, lips parted in a silent cry. Beneath my touch, she shook, hips rising from the bed, fingers pulling my hair tight.

As her orgasm subsided, I continued slowly moving my fingers inside her, but kissed a gentle path from her clit, to her inner thigh, to her hip. Finally, I rested my forehead against her navel, still struggling to catch my breath.

“Oh God,” she whispered once her hands had eased their grip on my hair, and she slid them up and over her breasts. “You make me feel crazy.”

I pulled my fingers from her and reached to kiss the back of her hand, inhaling the scent of her skin. “I know.”

Hanna remained still on the bed for a quiet minute and then opened her eyes, gazing up at me as if she’d just come back to her senses. “Whoa. That was close.”

Laughing, I agreed, “Very close. We should probably get changed and head downstairs.” I nodded to her skirt. “Sorry about that.”

“I’ll just wipe it off.”

“Hanna,” I said, stifling a frustrated laugh. “You can’t go downstairs with a giant jizz stain on your skirt.”

She considered this and gave me a goofy smile. “You’re right. I just . . . I kind of like it there.”

“Such a twisted girl.”

She sat up straight as I pulled my pants up, and she kissed my stomach through my shirt. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders, holding her to me, and just reveling in the feel of her.

I was so lost in love with this girl.

After a few seconds, the sun passed behind a cloud outside, dimming everything a little, beautifully, and her voice rose out of the quiet: “Have you ever been in love?”

I stilled, wondering if I’d said it out loud. But when I looked down at her, she was only glancing up in open curiosity, eyes calm. If any other woman had said this to me after we just had a quickie, I would have felt the hot flush of panic and the itching need to extract myself from the situation immediately.

But with Hanna, the question seemed somehow appropriate for the moment, especially given how reckless we’d just been. In the past several years I’d grown, if anything, overly cautious about when and where I had sex, and—Jensen’s wedding aside—rarely put myself in situations that would ever require a quick exit or explaining. But lately, being with Hanna made me feel slightly panicked, as if there were a limited number of times I would be able to feel her like this. The thought of having to give her up made me nauseous.

There were only two other lovers in my life for whom I’d ever felt something deeper than fondness, but I’d never told a woman I loved her before. It was weird, and at thirty-one I knew this omission made me weird, but I’d never felt the weight of that strangeness until just this moment.

I grew hyperaware of every blasé comment I’d made to Max and Bennett about love, and commitment. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in them; I just had never been able to relate, exactly. Love was always something I’d find at some vague point in the future, when I was somehow more settled or less adventurous. The image of me as a player was very much like the deposit of minerals on glass over time; I hadn’t bothered to care it was forming until it was hard to see past it.

“I’m guessing not,” she whispered, smiling.

I shook my head. “I’ve never said ‘I love you’ before, if that’s what you mean.”

Though Hanna would have no way of knowing I said it to her, silently, nearly every time we touched.

“But have you ever felt it?”

I smiled. “Have you?”

She shrugged, and then nodded to the door to the Jack-and-Jill bathroom that I was pretty sure adjoined Eric’s bedroom. “I’m going to go clean up.”

I nodded, closing my eyes, and slumping down after she left. I thanked every lucky power in the universe that Jensen hadn’t just walked in. That would have been a disaster. Unless we wanted her family to know what was happening—and I was pretty sure that since Hanna still wanted this to remain friends-with-benefits—we would have to be way more careful.

I checked my work email, sent a couple texts, and then pulled myself together in the bathroom, with some soap, water, and vigorous scrubbing. Hanna met me in the living room, wearing a bashful smile.

“I am so sorry,” she said softly. “I don’t know what got into me.” She blinked, putting a hand to my mouth just as I started to crack the obvious joke. “Don’t say it.”

Laughing, I looked behind her into the kitchen, making sure no one was close enough to hear. “That was awesome. But holy shit it could have gone very wrong.”

She looked embarrassed, and I smiled at her, making a goofy face. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a little ceramic Jesus statue on an end table. I picked it up, holding it between Hanna’s breasts. “Hey! Look! I found Jesus in your cleavage after all!”

She looked down, cracking up and started to shimmy a little, as if letting Jesus enjoy this most perfect of locations. “Jesus in my cleavage! Jesus in my cleavage!”

“Hey, guys.”

When I heard Jensen’s voice for the second time today, my arm flailed, hand flying away from the vicinity of Hanna’s tits. Feeling as if I were watching it happen in slow motion and somewhere outside my own body, I flung the Jesus statue as quickly as I could, only realizing what I’d done when it landed on the hardwood floor several feet away from me, bouncing and exploding into a million little ceramic pieces.

“Oh, shiiiiiiit,” I groaned, running over to the massacre. I kneeled down, trying to pick up the biggest shards. It was a worthless effort. Some of the pieces were so small they could be characterized as dust.

Hanna bent over, wheezing in laughter. “Will! You broke Jesus!”

“What were you doing?” Jensen asked, kneeling to help me.

Hanna left the room to get a broom, leaving me alone with the person who had witnessed much of my early-twenties bad behavior. I shrugged at Jensen, trying to not look like I’d just been playing with his little sister’s breasts. “I was just looking at it. I mean, at the statue, and seeing what it was. And looking at the shape—of Jesus, I mean.”

I ran a hand over my face and realized I was sweating a little. “I don’t even know, Jens. You just startled me.”

“Why are you so jumpy?” He laughed.

“Maybe the drive? It’s been a while since I was behind the wheel.” I shrugged, still unable to look at him for very long.

With a pat to my back, Jensen said, “I think you need a beer.”

Hanna returned, and shooed us away so she could sweep the shards into a dustpan, but not before giving me a conspiratorial holy shit look. “I told Mom you broke this and she couldn’t even remember which of her aunts gave it to her. I think you’re fine.”

I groaned, following her into the kitchen and apologizing to Helena with a kiss on her cheek. She handed me a beer and told me to relax.

At some point when I’d been upstairs fucking Hanna, or maybe when I’d been madly washing her scent off my dick and my fingers and my face, her father had arrived home. Jesus Christ. With some clarity away from naked Hanna and a closed bedroom door, I realized how insane we had been. What the fuck were we thinking?

Looking up from where he’d been digging in the fridge for a beer, Johan came over to greet me with his own brand of warmth and awkwardness. He was good at eye contact, bad with words. It usually meant that he ended up staring at people while they scrambled to come up with things to say.

“Hi,” I said, returning his handshake and letting him pull me into a hug. “Sorry about Jesus.”

He stepped back, smiled, and said, “Nah,” and then paused, seemed to reconsider something. “Unless you’ve suddenly become religious?”

“Johan,” Helena called, breaking our moment. I could have kissed her. “Honey, can you check the roast? The beans and bread are done.”

Johan walked to the oven, pulling a meat thermometer out of the drawer. I felt Hanna step beside me, heard her clink her water glass to my beer bottle.

“Cheers,” she said with an easy smile. “Hungry?”

“Famished,” I admitted.

“Don’t just stick the tip in, Johan,” Helena called out to him. “Shove it all the way in there.”

I coughed, feeling the burn of beer as it almost came out my nose. Cupping my hand over my mouth, I urged my throat to open, to allow me to swallow. Jensen stepped behind me, slapping my back and wearing a knowing grin. Liv and Rob were already sitting at the kitchen table, bent over in silent laughter.

“Holy shit, this is going to be a long night,” Hanna mumbled.

Conversation looped around the table at dinner, breaking into smaller groups and then returning to include everyone. Partway through the meal, Niels arrived. Whereas Jensen was outgoing and one of my oldest friends, and Eric—only two years older than Hanna—was the wild child in the family, Niels was the middle child, the quiet brother, and the one I never really knew. At twenty-eight, he was an engineer with a prominent energy firm, and almost a carbon copy of his father, minus the eye contact and smiles.

But tonight, he surprised me: he bent to kiss Hanna before he sat down, and whispered, “You look amazing, Ziggs.”

“You really do,” Jensen said, pointing a fork at her. “What’s different?”

I studied her from across the table, trying to see what they saw and feeling mysteriously irked at the suggestion. To me, she looked as she always had: comfortable in her skin, easy. Not fussy with clothes, or hair or makeup. But didn’t need to be. She was beautiful when she woke up in the morning. She was radiant after a run. She was perfect when she was beneath me, sweaty and postcoital.

“Um,” she said, shrugging and spearing a green bean with her fork. “I don’t know.”

“You look thinner,” Liv suggested, head tilted.

Helena finished a bite and then said, “No, it’s her hair.”

“Maybe Hanna’s just happy,” I offered, looking down at my plate as I cut a bite of roast. The table went completely still and I looked up, nervous when I saw the collection of wide eyes staring back at me. “What?”

Only then did I realize I’d called her by her given name, not Ziggy.

She covered smoothly, saying, “I’m running every day, so yes, I’m a little thinner. I did get my hair cut. But it’s more. I’m enjoying my job. I have friends. Will’s right—I am happy.” She looked over at Jensen and gave him a cheeky little grin. “Turns out, you were right. Can we stop examining me now?”

Jensen beamed at her and the rest of the family all mumbled some variation of “Good,” and returned to their food, quieter now. I could feel Liv’s smile aimed at my face, and when I looked up from my plate, she winked.

Fuck.

“Dinner is delicious,” I told Helena.

“Thanks, Will.”

The silence grew, and I felt silently inspected. I’d been caught. It didn’t help that Jesus’ tiny decapitated porcelain head was watching me from the sideboard, judging. He knew. Ziggy was a nickname as ingrained in this family as their father’s crazy work hours, or Jensen’s tendency to be overprotective. I hadn’t even known Hanna’s given name when I’d gone running with her nearly two months ago. But fuck it. The only thing I could do was embrace it. I had to say it again.

“Did you know that Hanna has a paper coming out in Cell?” I hadn’t been particularly smooth; her name came out louder than any other word but I went with it, smiling around the table.

Johan looked up, eyes widening. Turning to Hanna, he asked, “Really, sötnos?”

Hanna nodded. “It’s on the epitope mapping project I was telling you about. It was just this random thing we did but it turned into something cool.”

This seemed to steer the conversation into less awkward territory, and I let go of the little extra breath I’d been holding in. It was possible that the only thing more stressful than meeting the parents was hiding everything from the family. I caught Jensen watching me with a little smile, but simply returned it, and looked back down at my plate.

Nothing to see here. Keep moving along.

But during a break in the chatter, I found Hanna’s eyes lingering on me, and they were surprised and thoughtful. “You,” she mouthed.

“What?” I mouthed back.

She shook her head slowly, finally breaking eye contact to look down at her plate. I wanted to reach under the table with my leg, slide my foot over hers to get her to look back at me, but it was like a minefield of non-Hanna legs under there, and the conversation had already moved on.

After dinner, she and I volunteered to wash the dishes while the others retired to the family room with a cocktail. She snapped me with her dish towel and I flung soap suds at her. I was on the verge of leaning close and sucking on her neck when Niels came in to get another beer and looked at us both as if we had traded clothes.

“What are you doing?” he asked, suspicion heavy in his voice.

“Nothing,” we answered in unison, and—making it worse—Hanna repeated, “Nothing. Just dishes.”

He hesitated for a second before tossing his bottle cap in the trash and heading back to the others.

“That’s twice today we’ve almost been busted,” she whispered.

“Thrice,” I corrected her.

“Nerd.” She shook her head at me, amusement lighting up her eyes. “I probably shouldn’t risk sneaking into your room tonight.”

I started to protest but stopped when I caught the sly grin curving her lips.

“You’re the devil, do you know that?” I murmured, reaching out to glide my thumb across her nipple. “No wonder Jesus didn’t want to be in your cleavage.”

With a sharp gasp, she smacked my hand and looked over her shoulder.

We were all alone in the kitchen, could hear the others’ voices trailing in through from the other room, and all I wanted to do was pull her into a kiss.

“Don’t.” Her eyes grew serious and the next words came out shaking, as if she couldn’t catch her breath: “I won’t be able to stop.”

After staying up for a few hours to catch up with Jensen, I finally headed to bed. I stared at the wall for an hour or so before giving up on waiting for the quiet padding of Hanna’s feet from down the hall or the creak of the door as she snuck into my room.

So I drifted off and missed it when she actually did slip in, get undressed, and climb naked under the blankets with me. I woke only to the feel of her smooth, bare body curling around mine.

Her hands ran up my chest, mouth sucking at my neck, my jaw, my bottom lip. I was hard and ready to go before I was entirely conscious, and when I groaned, Hanna pressed a hand over my lips, reminding me, “Shh.”

“What time is it?” I murmured, inhaling the sweet smell of her hair.

“A little after two.”

“Are you sure no one heard you?” I asked.

“The only people who could hear me at this end of the hall are Jensen and Liv. Jensen’s fan is on, so I know he’s asleep. He can barely stay awake for ten seconds once that thing starts.”

I laughed because she was right. I’d been his roommate for years, and I hated that fucking fan.

“And Rob is snoring,” she murmured, kissing my jaw. “Liv has to fall asleep before him or else his snoring will keep her awake.”

Satisfied that she’d been sufficiently stealthy—and that no one would be likely to knock on the door again while we were making love—I rolled to my side, pulling her close.

She snuck in for sex, clearly, but it didn’t feel like all she wanted was a quick fuck. There was something else there, something brewing beneath the surface. I saw it in the way she kept her eyes open in the darkness, the way she kissed me so earnestly, each touch offered tentatively, as if she were asking a question. I saw it in the way she pulled my hand where she wanted it: over her neck, down across her breasts, coming to rest over her heart. It was pounding. Her bedroom was only a few doors down the hall; she wasn’t winded from the effort. She was worked up over something, her mouth opening and closing a few times in the moonlight, as if she wanted to speak but couldn’t find air.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered, lips pressed to her ear.

“Are there still others?” she asked.

I pulled back and stared at her, confused. Other women? I’d wanted to have this conversation again a hundred times, but her subtle evasion had finally worn down my need for clarity. She wanted to date around, didn’t trust me, and didn’t think we should try to be exclusive. Or had I misunderstood? For me, there was no one else.

“I thought that’s what you wanted?” I replied.

She stretched to kiss me; her mouth felt so familiar already, molding to mine in the easy rhythm of soft kisses that grew heated, and I wondered for a fevered beat how she could ever imagine sharing herself with anyone else.

She pulled me over her, reaching between us to slide me across her skin. “Is there a rule about having unprotected sex twice in a day?”

I sucked on the skin below her ear, and whispered, “I think the rule should be that there aren’t any other lovers.”

“So we break that rule then?” she asked, lifting her hips.

Fuck that. Fuck that noise.

I opened my mouth to protest, to put my foot down and tell her I’d had enough of this circular nondiscussion, but then she made a quiet, hungry sound and arched into me so that I slipped all the way inside her and I bit my lip to stifle a groan. It was unreal; I’d had sex thousands of times and it had never, ever been like this.

I tasted blood on my lip and fire beneath my skin wherever she touched me. But then she began to circle her hips, finding her pleasure beneath me, and I felt the words dissolve from my mind.

I’m only one man, for Christ’s sake. I’m not a god. I can’t resist taking Hanna now and figuring out everything afterward.

It felt like cheating; she wouldn’t give me her heart but she’d give me her body, and maybe if I took enough of her pleasure, stored it up, I could pretend it was more.

It didn’t matter at the time how much I might regret it later.