Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 18

There was a hill near my mom’s house, just before the turn down the driveway. It was an uphill followed by a blind downhill curve, and we’d learned to honk whenever we went over it, but when people drove it for the first time, they were never aware of how tricky it was at first and would later always tell us how crazy that turn was.

I supposed my mom or I could have put up a curved mirror at some point, but we never did. Mom said she liked using only her horn, she liked that moment of faith, where she knew my schedule and she knew the curve so well she didn’t need to see what was ahead in order to know it was clear. The thing was, I was never sure whether I loved or hated that feeling myself. I hated having to hope the coast was clear, hated not knowing what was coming, but I loved the moment of exhilaration when the car would coast downhill, clear and free.

Hanna made me feel this way. She was my blind curve, my mysterious hill, and I’d never been able to shake the lingering suspicion that she’d send something the other way that would crash blindly into me. But when I was with her, close enough to touch and kiss and hear all of her crazy theories on virginity and love, I’d never felt such a euphoric combination of calm, elation, and hunger. In those moments, I stopped caring that we might crash.

I wanted to think her brush off tonight as a glitch, a scary curve that would soon straighten out, and that my relationship with her wasn’t over before it even started. Maybe it was her youth; I tried to remember myself at twenty-four and could really only see a young idiot, working crazy hours in the lab and then spending night after night with different women in all manners of wildness. In some ways, Hanna was such an older twenty-four than I’d ever been; it was like we weren’t even the same species. She was right so long ago when she said she always knew how to be a grown-up and needed to learn how to be a kid. She’d just accomplished her first immature blow-off with a complete lack of clear communication.

Well done, Plum.

I’d put Kitty in a cab and returned to work around eight, intent on diving into some reading, and trying to get out of my own head for a few hours. But as I passed Max’s office on the way to mine, I saw that his light was still on, and he was sitting inside.

“What are you still doing here?” I asked, stepping just inside the room and leaning against the doorway.

Max looked up from where he’d been resting his head in his hands when I walked into his office. “Sara’s out with Chloe. Just decided to work a bit late.” He studied me, mouth turning down at the corners. “And I thought you left a few hours ago. Why are you back? It’s Tuesday . . .”

We stared at each other for a beat, the implied question hanging between us. It had been so long since I’d spent a Tuesday night with Kitty, I don’t think even Max knew exactly what he was asking.

“I saw Kitty tonight,” I admitted. “Earlier, just for a bit.”

His brows pulled together in irritation, but I held up a hand, explaining: “I asked her to meet me for a drink after work—”

“Seriously, Will, you’re a right toss—”

“To end it, you ass,” I growled, frustrated. “Even though things with her were always meant to be casual, I wanted her to know they were done. I haven’t seen her in forever but she still checks in every Monday to ask. The fact that she even thinks it’s a possibility made me feel like I’ve been cheating on Hanna.”

Just saying that name out loud made my stomach twist. The way we had left things tonight had been a mess. I’d never seen her look so distant, so closed off. I clenched my jaw, looking over at the wall.

I knew she’d been lying; I just didn’t know why.

Max’s chair creaked as he leaned back. “So what are you doing here? Where is your Hanna?”

I blinked back over to him, finally taking in his appearance. He looked tired, and shaken, and . . . not at all like Max, even at the end of a long workday.

“What’s with you?” I asked instead of answering. “You look like you’ve been through the wringer.”

Finally he laughed, shaking his head. “Mate, you have no idea. Let’s collect Ben and go grab a pint.”

We got to the bar before Bennett did, but not by much. Just as we sat at a table in the back, near the dartboards and the broken karaoke machine, Bennett strode in still wearing his crisp dark suit and a look of such utter exhaustion I wondered how long the three of us would manage to remain conscious.

“You sure are making me drink a lot on weeknights lately, Will,” Bennett mumbled, taking a seat.

“So order a soda,” I said.

We both looked at Max, expecting his usual semi-serious and barely intelligible rant about the blasphemy of ordering a Diet Coke in a British pub, but he just remained uncharacteristically quiet, staring at the menu and then ordering what he always ordered: a pint of Guinness, a cheeseburger, and chips.

Maddie took the rest of our orders and disappeared. We were back on yet another Tuesday night and, just as before, the bar was almost empty. A strange quietness seemed to ring our table. It was as if none of us could get it up tonight to bother shit-talking.

“Really, though. What’s up with you?” I asked Max again.

He smiled at me—a genuine Max smile—but then shook his head. “Ask me again after I’ve had two pints.” Grinning up at Maddie as she put our drinks on the table, he gave her a little wink. “Thanks, love.”

“The text from Max said we are convening at Maddie’s for a girls’ night out,” Bennett said, and then took a sip of his beer. “So which of Will’s women are we discussing tonight?”

“There’s only the one woman, now,” I murmured. “And Hanna ended it earlier tonight, so I guess technically there are no women.” Both men looked up at me, eyes concerned. “She said, essentially she didn’t want this.”

“Fuck,” Max murmured, rubbing his face in his hands.

“The thing is,” I said, “I think she’s full of shit.”

“Will . . .” Bennett cautioned.

“No,” I said, waving him off, and feeling a surge of relief, of realization as I thought more about it. Yes, she’d been pissed tonight at her place—and I still had no idea why—but I remembered how it felt making love on the floor this weekend, in the middle of the night, and the hunger in her eyes like she didn’t just want me, she was starting to need me.

“I know she feels this, too. Something happened between us this weekend,” I told them. “The sex has always been fucking amazing, but it was so intense at her parents’ place.”

Bennett coughed. “Sorry. You had sex at her parents’ place?”

I chose to believe his ambiguous tone meant impressed, so I continued: “It was like she was finally going to admit there was more between us than just sex and friendship.” I lifted my water glass to my lips, took a sip. “But the next morning, she snapped closed. She’s talking herself out of it.”

Both men hummed thoughtfully, considering this. Finally, Bennett asked, “Did you two ever decide to be exclusive? I’m sorry if I’m not following the map of this relationship very clearly. You leave a very treacherous path of women behind you.”

“She knew that I wanted to be exclusive, but then I agreed to keep it open—because that’s what she wanted. For me, she’s it,” I said, not caring whether they gave me a mountain of shit for being so whipped. I deserved it, and the funniest part was I relished being claimed. “You guys called it, and I have no problem admitting you’re right. She’s funny, and beautiful. She’s sexy and she’s fucking brilliant. I mean, she is completely it for me. I have to think today was just a bump in the road or else I will probably go on punching walls repeatedly until my hand is broken.”

Bennett laughed, lifting his glass to clink it against mine. “Then here’s to hoping she comes around.”

Max lifted his glass, too, knowing there wasn’t really anything he could say. He winced a little, apologetically, as if this was all somehow his fault simply because he’d wished lovesick misery on me only a couple months back.

After my little speech, the silence returned, and the weird mood with it. I struggled to not be pulled under. Of course I was worried I wouldn’t be able to win Hanna back. From the first moment she slid her fingers beneath my shirt in the bedroom at the party, I’d been ruined for anyone else.

Hell, even before then. I think I’d been lost in her the second I pulled the wool cap over her adorably rumpled bed head on our first run.

But despite my certainty that she had lied about her feelings, and that she did feel something for me, doubt crept back in. Why had she lied? What happened between our obvious lovemaking and when we got into the car the next morning?

Bennett interrupted my downward spiral with his own misery: “Well, since we’re letting out all of our feelings, I guess it’s my turn to share. The wedding is driving us both mad. Everyone in our family is traveling to San Diego for the ceremony—I mean everyone—step-great-aunts and second-cousins-twice-removed and people I haven’t seen since I was five. The same thing on Chlo’s side.”

“That’s great,” I said, and then reconsidered when Bennett slid his cool gaze to me. “Isn’t it good when people accept your invitation?”

“I suppose it is, but many of these people weren’t invited. Her family is mostly in North Dakota, and mine is all over Canada, and Michigan, and Illinois. They’re all looking for a reason to have a vacation on the coast.” Shaking his head, he continued: “So last night Chloe decided she wanted to elope. To cancel all of it, and she’s so hell-bent on it that I’m afraid she is going to call the hotel and cancel and we’ll be thoroughly fucked then.”

“She wouldn’t do that, mate,” Max murmured, roused from his uncharacteristically quiet mood. “Would she?”

Bennett’s hands slid into his hair and curled into fists, his elbows planted on the table. “Honestly, I don’t know. This thing is getting huge, and even I feel like it’s spiraling out of control. Everyone in our family is inviting whoever they want—as if it’s just a big free party and why not? It’s not even about cost at this point, it’s about space, about having what we wanted. We were imagining a wedding of about a hundred and fifty. Now it’s close to three hundred.” He sighed. “It’s just one day. It’s a day. Chloe is trying to stay sane but it’s hard on her because there’s only so much I . . .” He laughed, shaking his head, and then sat up to look at us. “There are only so many details I give a shit about. For once in my life, I don’t need to control everything. I don’t care what our colors are, or what wedding favors we choose. I don’t care about the flowers. Everything that comes after is what I care about. I care that I get to fuck her for a week in Fiji and then we’ll be married forever. That’s what matters. Maybe I should just let her cancel it all and marry her this weekend so we can get to the fucking.”

I opened my mouth to protest, to tell Bennett that I was sure every couple went through this kind of crisis, but the truth was, I had no idea. Even at Jensen’s wedding—where I’d been the best man—the only thing keeping me going during the ceremony was the thought of taking the two bridesmaids to the coat closet to bang. I hadn’t paid particularly close attention to the more sentimental emotions of the day.

So, I closed my mouth, rubbing a palm across it and feeling a dose of self-loathing sweep over me. Fuck. I already missed Hanna, and being with my two closest friends who were so . . . situated made it hard. It wasn’t that I felt I needed to catch up to some milestone of theirs; I simply wanted that comfort of knowing I could go out with my friends for an evening and still come home to her. I missed the comfort of her company, the way she listened so carefully, the way I knew she said whatever came to mind when she was around me, a thing I noticed she didn’t do with anyone else. I loved her for being so wildly her own self—so fierce and confident and curious and smart. And I missed feeling her body, taking pleasure from her, and, fuck, giving her pleasure unending.

I wanted to lie in bed with her at night, and bemoan the ordeal of planning a wedding. I wanted it all.

“Don’t elope,” I said, finally. “I realize that I know shit about any of this, and I’m sure my opinion means nothing, but I’m pretty sure every wedding feels like a complete clusterfuck at one point or another.”

“It just feels like so much work for a single day,” Bennett mumbled. “Life goes on so much longer beyond this one slip of time.”

Max chuckled, lifting his glass, and then reconsidered, putting it back down on the table, before he started laughing again, and harder. We both turned to look at him.

“You were acting like zombie Max,” I noted, “but now you’re creepy clown Max. We’re all sharing here—I’ve had my heart stomped on by Hanna, Bennett is wrestling with the age-old crisis of wedding planning madness. Your turn.”

He shook his head, smiling down at his empty pint. “Fine.” He waved to Maddie for another Guinness. “But Ben, you’re here tonight only as my mate. Not as Sara’s boss. Understood?”

Bennett nodded, brows pulled together. “Of course.”

Offering a one-shouldered shrug, Max murmured, “Well, lads, it turns out I’m going to be a dad.”

The relative quiet we had been enjoying seemed like roaring chaos in comparison to the vacuum that now existed. Bennett and I froze, and then exchanged a brief look.

“Max?” Bennett asked, with an uncharacteristic delicacy. “Sara’s pregnant?”

“Yeah, mate.” Max looked up, cheeks pink and eyes wide. “She’s having my baby.”

Bennett continued to watch him, probably assessing every reaction on Max’s face.

“This is good,” I said carefully. “Right? This is a good thing?”

Max nodded, blinking over to me. “It’s bloody amazing. I just . . . I’m terrified, to be honest.”

“How far along is she?” Bennett asked.

“A little over three months.” We both started to respond in surprise but he held up his hand, nodding. “She’s been stressed, and she thought . . .” Shaking his head, he continued: “She took a test this weekend, but didn’t know until today how far she was. But today, when I was out at meetings . . . we had an ultrasound to measure the baby.” He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. “Bloody hell, the baby. I just found out Sare’s pregnant, and today I could see there’s a fucking kid in there. Sara’s far enough along that the ultrasound technician guessed it’s a girl but we won’t know for sure for a couple months. It’s just . . . unreal.”

“Max, why the fuck are you out with us?” I asked, laughing. “Shouldn’t you be at home drinking sparkling cider and picking out names?”

He smiled. “She wanted some time away from me, I think. I’ve been fucking unbearable the last few days, wanting to remodel the bloody apartment and talk about when we’re getting married and all that shite. I think she wanted to tell Chloe. Besides, we’ve got a date planned for tomorrow.” He stilled, his brows pulling together in concern when he said that. “But now that this day is over, I’m just beat.”

“You’re not worried about this, are you?” Bennett asked, studying Max. “I mean, this is unbelievable. You and Sara are going to have a baby.”

“No, it’s just the same worries I’m sure everyone feels I imagine,” Max said, wiping a hand across his mouth. “Will I be a good dad? Sara’s not much of a drinker, but did we do anything in the past three months that could hurt the baby? And, with my giant spawn growing in there, will little Sara be okay?”

I could barely hold back. I stood, pulling Max out of his chair and into a hug.

He was so in love with Sara he could barely think straight when she was around. And although most of the time I gave him endless shit about it, it was a pretty amazing thing to behold. I knew without him ever having to say it that he was ready for this, ready to settle down and be the devoted husband and dad. “You’ll be amazing, Max. Seriously, congratulations.”

Stepping back, I watched as Bennett stood, shaking Max’s hand and then pulling him into a brief hug.

Holy shit.

The enormity of this started to sink in and I all but collapsed back into my chair. This, here, was life. This was life beginning for us: weddings and families and deciding to step up and be a man for someone. It wasn’t about the fucking jobs we had or the random thrills we sought or any of that. Life was built from the bricks of these connections and milestones and moments where you tell your two best friends that you’re about to have a child.

I pulled out my phone, sending Hanna a single note.

You’re all I can think about anymore.