Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 19

When I was little, I’d drive my entire family insane by not sleeping for days before any holiday or big event. Nobody understood why. My exhausted mother would sit up with me night after night, begging me to just go to bed.

“Ziggy,” she would say. “Honey, if you go to bed, Christmas will get here sooner. Time goes faster when you’re asleep.”

But it never seemed to work that way for me. “I can’t sleep,” I’d insist. “There’s too much in my head. My thoughts won’t slow down.”

I’d spend the countdown to birthdays and vacations wide awake and anxious, pacing the halls of our big house while I should have been asleep upstairs. It was a habit I’d never outgrown.

Saturday wasn’t Christmas or the first day of summer vacation, but I was counting every day, every minute as if it were. Because as pathetic as it sounded, and as much as I hated that I was looking forward to it, I knew I’d see Will. That thought alone was enough to find me up every night, wide awake at the window, recounting the streetlights to his building.

I’d always heard the first week after a breakup was the hardest. I hoped that was true. Because getting Will’s message on Tuesday night—You’re all I can think about anymore—was torture.

Could he have texted the wrong number by mistake? Or did he say that because he ended up alone, or because he was with another woman, but thinking of me? I couldn’t exactly be angry, and my initial self-righteousness over the prospect of him texting me while he was with Kitty faded quickly; I, too, had texted him when I was on my dates with Dylan.

The worst part was that I had no one to talk to about it, really. Well, I did, but I only wanted Will.

The sun had dipped low in the sky on Friday night as I walked the last few blocks to meet Chloe and Sara for drinks.

I’d tried to put on a brave front all week but I was miserable, and it was starting to show. I looked tired. I looked sad. I looked exactly how I felt. I missed him so much that I felt it with every breath, felt each second pass since I’d last seen him.

The Bathtub Gin was a small speakeasy in Chelsea. Visitors were greeted with an everyday storefront, the words STONE STREET COFFEE stenciled across the top. If you weren’t sure what you were looking for, or happened to pass by during the week when there wasn’t a crowd of people lined up outside, you might miss it. But if you knew it was there, illuminated by a single, glowing red bulb, you’d find the right door. One that opened up to a Prohibition-era club, complete with dim lighting, a steady hum of jazz, and even a large copper bathtub at the center.

I found Chloe and Sara sitting at the bar, drinks already in front of them and a gorgeous dark-haired man at their side.

“Hey, guys,” I said, sliding onto the stool next to them. “Sorry I’m late.”

The three of them turned, looked me up and down before the man said, “Oh honey, tell me all about the man who did this to you.”

I blinked between them, confused. “I . . . hi, I’m Hanna?”

“Ignore him,” Chloe said, sliding the menu across the bar to me. “We all do. And order a drink before you talk. You look like you could use it.”

The mystery man looked appropriately offended and the three of them argued among themselves while I scanned the various cocktails and wines, picking the first thing that seemed to fit my mood.

“I’ll have a Tomahawk,” I told the bartender, noticing in my peripheral vision the way Sara and Chloe looked to each other in surprise.

“So it’s like that, I see.” Chloe motioned for another drink and then took my hand, leading us all to a table.

In all reality, I’d probably just hold my cocktail for most of the night and absorb the comfort afforded by the option to get completely hammered. But I knew I wanted to race tomorrow, and no way was I going to run hungover.

“By the way, Hanna,” Chloe said, gesturing to the man currently watching me with curious, amused eyes. “This is George Mercer, Sara’s assistant. George, this is the adorable and soon-to-be-drunk and/or facedown-on-the-table Hanna Bergstrom.”

“Ah, a lightweight,” George said, and nodded to Chloe. “What in the world are you doing with this old boozehound? She should come with a warning label for girls like you.”

“George, how would you like my heel up your ass?” Chloe asked.

George barely blinked. “The whole heel?”

“Gross,” Chloe groaned.

Laughing, George drawled, “Liar.”

Sara leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Ignore them. It’s like watching Bennett and Chloe, but though they’d both rather screw Bennett than each other.”

“I see,” I murmured. A waitress placed our drinks on the table and I took a tentative pull from my straw. “Holy crap,” I coughed, my throat on fire.

I downed almost an entire glass of water while Sara watched me, appraising. “So what’s happening?” she asked.

“This drink is so spicy.”

“Not what she meant,” Chloe said bluntly.

I looked down at my glass, tried to focus on the tiny specks of paprika floating along the surface and not the hollow feeling in my gut. “Have you guys talked to Will lately?”

They each shook their head but George perked up.

“Will Sumner?” he clarified. “You’re banging Sumner? Jesus hell.” He motioned to the waitress again. “We’re gonna need another glass, lovely. Just bring the whole bottle.”

“Actually, I haven’t talked to him since Monday,” Sara said.

“Tuesday afternoon,” Chloe volunteered, pointing to her chest. “But I know he’s had a crazy week.”

“Uh-oh,” Sara said. “Didn’t he go home with you for the holiday?”

George sucked in a breath. “Yikes.”

And now I was that girl, the one with the breakup story I didn’t even want in my head, let alone as something to share over drinks. How did I explain that things had been perfect that weekend? That I had believed everything he said? That I had fallen in—I stopped, the words hardening like concrete in my thoughts.

“Hanna, honey?” Sara reached forward to set her hand on my forearm.

“I just feel like an idiot.”

“Sweetie,” Chloe said, her eyes full of nothing but concern. “You know you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“The hell she doesn’t,” George snapped. “How are we all supposed to make his life appropriately horrible if we don’t know every sordid detail? We should probably start at the beginning and work our way to the horror, though. First question: is his cock as epic as I’ve heard? And the fingers . . . are they truly quote-unquote magical?” He leaned closer, whispering, “And rumor has it the man could win a watermelon-eating contest, if you know what I’m saying.”

“George,” Sara groaned, and Chloe glared at him but I cracked a smile.

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” I whispered back.

“Look it up on YouTube,” he said to me. “You’ll get the visual.”

“But back to the part where Hanna is upset,” Sara said, eyes playfully stern and fixed on George.

“I just . . .” I took a deep breath, hunting for words. “What can you tell me about Kitty?”

“Oh,” Chloe said, sitting back in her chair. She glanced at Sara. “Oh.”

I leaned forward, brows drawn together. “What does ‘oh’ mean?”

“Is this the . . . I mean, is Kitty one of his . . .” George trailed off, waving his hand meaningfully.

“Yeah,” Sara said. “Kitty is one of Will’s lovers.”

I rolled my eyes. “Do you know if he’s still been seeing her?”

Chloe seemed to be considering her answer carefully. “Well—I don’t officially know of him ending things with her,” she said, wincing a little. “But Hanna, he adores you. Anyone can—”

“But he’s still seeing her,” I interrupted.

She sighed reluctantly. “I honestly don’t know. I know we all gave him a hard time about not ending things, but I can’t . . . for a fact, I mean, say that he ever stopped seeing her.”

“Sara?” I asked.

Shaking her head, Sara murmured, “I’m sorry, honey. I honestly don’t know, either.”

I wondered if it was possible for a heart to break by fractions. I’d been sure I’d heard it crack when I’d read the text from Kitty. Felt another piece break with his lie about Tuesday night. And all week, I’d felt bruised, felt every tiny shard as it fell away until I wondered what could possibly still be beating in my chest.

“I’d overheard him talking to my brother about wanting to be serious with someone but being afraid to end things with the others. But I figured, maybe he just meant officially end them? Things seemed really good with us. But then Kitty sent him this text,” I said. “I was playing with his phone and she replied to a message he’d obviously sent her about getting together Tuesday night.”

“Why didn’t you confront him?” Chloe asked.

“I wanted him to tell me himself. Will has always been all about honesty and communication, so I figured if I invited him over for dinner Tuesday he’d tell me he was going to be with Kitty.”

“And?” Sara asked.

I sighed. “He said he had a thing. A meeting that night.”

“Ouch,” George said.

“Yeah,” I mumbled. “So I ended it right there. But I did it really badly because I had no idea what to say. I told him that it was getting too heavy, that I was only twenty-four and didn’t want anything serious. That I didn’t want this anymore.”

“Damn, girl,” George sang quietly. “When you want to end things, you dig a hole and drop a bomb in it.”

I groaned, pressing the heels of my hands against my eyes.

“There has to be an explanation,” Sara said. “Will doesn’t say he has a meeting when he’s going to be with a woman. He just says he’s going to be with a woman. Hanna, I’ve never seen him like this before. Max has never seen him like this before. It’s clear he adores you.”

“But does it matter?” I asked, my drink long forgotten. “He lied about the meeting, but I’m the one who said we should keep it open. It’s just that open for me meant the possibility of someone else. Open for him was more of the reality already in hand. And all along he was the one pushing for more between us.”

“Talk to him, Hanna,” Chloe said. “Trust me on this one. You need to give him a chance to explain.”

“Explain what?” I asked. “That he was still seeing her, per the rules I’d initially set? Then what?”

Chloe took my hand and squeezed it. “Then you hold your head high and tell him to fuck off in person.”

I dressed as soon as the first hint of light appeared outside the window and walked the ten blocks to the race in a nervous haze. It was held in Central Park and the entire circuit went for just over thirteen miles, snaking through trails and paths in the park. Several local streets were cordoned off to support the sponsor trucks, tents, and herds of people, both racers and spectators.

This was real now. Will would be there and I would decide to talk to him or just leave things the way they were. I didn’t know if I could handle either choice.

The sky had just started to brighten and a chill hung in the morning air. But my face felt warm, my blood hot as it raced through arteries and veins, through my heart that beat too fast. I had to focus on pulling every breath into my lungs, pushing it out again.

I didn’t know where I was going, or what I was doing, but the event seemed well organized, and as soon as I neared the location, signs directed me to where I was meant to check in.

“Hanna?”

I looked up to see my former training partner, my former lover, standing at the registration table, watching me with an expression I couldn’t quite make out. I’d hoped my memory had exaggerated how striking he was, how overwhelming it was to just be near him. It hadn’t. Will held my gaze, and I wondered if I would start laughing uncontrollably, cry, or maybe just run away if he got any closer.

“Hi,” he said finally.

Abruptly, I held out my hand as if he should . . . what? Greet me with a handshake? Jesus Christ, Hanna! But I was committed now, and my trembling hand remained suspended between us as he looked down at it.

“Oh . . . we’re . . . going to be like this,” he mumbled, wiping his palm on his pants before gripping my hand in his. “Okay, hey. How are you?”

I swallowed, jerking my hand away as soon as I possibly could. “Hey. Good. I’m good.”

This was comically bad, and it was the kind of bad I wanted to dissect with Will and only Will. I suddenly had a million questions about awkward post-breakup protocol, and whether handshakes were always a bad idea or just now.

Bending robotically, I signed my name on some line and took a packet of information from a woman seated behind the table. She was giving me instructions I barely comprehended; I felt like I was suspended underwater.

When I finished, Will was still standing there, wearing the same nervous, hopeful expression. “Do you need help?” he whispered.

I shook my head. “I think I’m good.” It was a lie; I had no idea what I was doing.

“You just need to go to the tent over there,” he said gently, reading me perfectly as always and putting a hand on my arm.

I pulled back and smiled stiffly. “I got it. Thanks, Will.”

As the silence stretched on, a woman I hadn’t even noticed at his side spoke up. “Hi,” she said, and I blinked over to see her smiling with her hand outstretched. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced. I’m Kitty.”

It took a moment for the pieces to come together, and when they did, I couldn’t even contain my shock. I felt my mouth fall open, my eyes go wide. How could he possibly think this was even remotely okay? I looked from her to Will, who, I quickly realized, seemed as surprised as I was to find her standing there. Hadn’t he seen her approach?

Will’s face could have been at the dictionary entry for uncomfortable. “Oh God.” He looked back and forth between us for a flash before murmuring, “Oh, shit, um . . . hey, Kitty, this is . . .” He looked to me, his eyes softening. “This is my Hanna.”

I blinked to him. What had he said?

“Nice to meet you, Hanna. Will has told me all about you.”

I knew they were speaking but the words didn’t seem to penetrate the echo of that sentence repeating over and over again in my head. This is my Hanna. This is my Hanna.

It was a mistake. He was just uncomfortable. I pointed over my shoulder. “I’ve got to go.” Turning, I stumbled away from the table and toward the women’s tent.

“Hanna!” he called after me, but I didn’t turn back.

I was still a bit foggy when I handed over my information, got my race number, and walked over to an empty spot to stretch and lace up my shoes. At the sound of footsteps, I looked up, already dreading what I would find. Seeing Kitty standing there, it was worse than I thought.

“He’s really something,” she said, pinning her number to the front of her shirt.

I lowered my eyes, ignored the fire that flared low in my belly. “Yeah, sure is.”

She sat on a bench a few feet away and began peeling the label from a bottle of water. “You know, I never thought this would happen.” She shook her head, laughing. “All this time and he’s always used the It’s not you. I just don’t want more with anybody excuse. And now? Now that he finally ends things, it’s because he does want more. Just with someone else.”

I sat up, met her eyes. “He ended things with you?”

“Yeah. Well,” she said, considering. “This week was the official end but we hadn’t really seen each other since . . .” She looked up at the ceiling of the tent, considering. “Since February? And he’d been canceling on me ever since.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“At least I know why now.” I must have looked completely dumbstruck because she smiled, leaned in a little bit. “Because he’s in love with you. And if you’re as amazing as he seems to think you are, you won’t blow this.”

I don’t remember crossing the park to where the other runners were gathered. My thoughts were hazy and jumbled.

February?

We had only been running then . . .

. . . March—that’s when Will and I actually started sleeping together. . . .

Tuesday night . . . so he could end things, face-to-face.

Like a decent human being, like a good man. I closed my eyes when the full force of the realization hit me: he told her all of this even after I broke up with him.

“You ready for this?”

I jumped, surprised to see Will standing next to me. He put a hand on my arm, offering a tentative smile. “You okay?”

I looked around, as if I could escape somewhere and just . . . think. I wasn’t ready for him to stand this close or talk like we were friends again, to be nice. I had such an enormous apology to make, and I still had an angry earful to give him for lying. . . . I didn’t even know where to start. I met his eyes, looked for any sign there telling me that we could fix this. “I think so.”

“Hey,” he said, taking the smallest step closer. “Hanna . . .”

“Yeah?”

“You’re . . . you’re going to do great.” His eyes searched mine, heavy with anxiety, and it made my stomach twist with guilt. “I know things are weird with us. Just put everything else out of your head. You need to be here, head in the race. You trained so impressively for it and you can do it.”

I exhaled, felt the first flare of pre-race, non-Will anxiety.

Kneading my shoulders, he murmured, “Nervous?”

“A little.”

I saw the moment he switched into trainer mode and I took some small level of comfort in it, grabbed on to this splinter of platonic familiarity.

“Remember to pace yourself. Don’t start off too fast. The second half is the worst and you’ll want to keep enough in the tank to finish, okay?”

I nodded.

“Remember, this is your first race and it’s about crossing the finish line, not where you place.”

Licking my lips, I answered, “Okay.”

“You’ve done ten miles before; you can do thirteen. I’ll be right there so . . . we’ll do this together.”

I blinked up at him, surprised. “You can place, Will. This is nothing for you—you should be in the front.”

He shook his head. “That’s not what this one is about. My race is in two weeks. This one is yours. I told you that.”

I nodded again, numb, and couldn’t look away from his face: at the mouth that had kissed me so many times, and wanted to kiss only me; at the eyes that watched me intently every time I said a word, every time I’d touched him; and at the hands that were now braced on my shoulders and were the same hands that had touched every inch of my skin. He’d told Kitty he wanted to be with me, only me. It’s not like he hadn’t said those exact words to me, too. But I’d never believed them.

Maybe the player really was gone.

With one last, searching look, Will dropped his hands from my shoulders, and pressed his palm to my back, leading me to the starting line.

The race started at the southwest corner of the park near Columbus Circle. Will motioned for me to follow and I went through the routine: calf stretch, quad stretch, hamstring. He nodded wordlessly, watched my form and kept in constant, reassuring contact.

“Hold it a little longer,” he said, hovering over me. “Breathe through it.”

They announced it was time to begin and we got into place. The crack of the starter pistol burst through the air and birds scattered in the trees overhead. The sudden rush of hundreds of bodies pushing off from the line melded into a collective burst of sound.

The marathon route began at the circle and followed the outer loop of Central Park, arching around Seventy-second Street and back to the start.

The first mile was always the hardest. By the second, the world grew fuzzy at the edges and only the muffled sound of feet on the trail and blood pumping in my ears filtered through the haze. We hardly spoke, but I could hear every one of Will’s footsteps beside me, feel the occasional brush of his arm against mine.

“You’re doing great,” he told me, three miles in.

At mile seven, he reminded me, “Halfway done, Hanna, and you’re just hitting your stride.”

I felt every inch of the last mile. My body ached; my muscles went from stiff, to loose, to on fire and cramping. I could feel my pulse pounding in my chest. The heavy beat mirrored every one of my steps, and my lungs screamed for me to stop.

But inside my head it was calm. It was as though I was underwater, with muffled voices blending together until they were a single, constant hum. But one voice was clear, “Last mile, this is it. You’re doing it. You’re amazing, Plum.”

I’d almost tripped when he called me that. His voice had gone soft and needy, but when I looked over at him, his jaw was set tight, eyes straight ahead. “I’m sorry,” he rasped, immediately contrite. “I shouldn’t have—I’m sorry.”

I shook my head, licked my lips, and looked forward again, too tired to reach out and even touch him. I was struck by the realization that this moment was probably harder than all the tests I’d ever taken in school, every long night in the lab. Science had always come easy for me—I’d studied hard, of course, I’d done the work—but I’d never had to dig this deep and push on when I’d have liked nothing more than to collapse onto the grass and stay there. The Hanna that met Will that day on the icy trail would have never made it thirteen miles. She would have given it a half-assed try, gotten tired and finally, after having rationalized that this wasn’t her strength, gone back to the lab and her books and her empty apartment with prepackaged, single-serving meals.

But not this Hanna, not now. And he helped get me here.

“Almost there,” Will said, still encouraging. “I know it hurts, I know it’s hard, but look,” he pointed to grouping of trees just off in the distance, “you’re almost there.”

I shook the hair from my face and kept going, breathing in and out, wanting him to keep talking but also wanting him to shut the hell up. Blood pumped through my veins, every part of me felt like I’d been plugged into a live wire, shocked with a thousand volts that had slowly seeped out of me and into the pavement with every step.

I’d never been more tired in my life, I’d never been in more pain, but I’d also never felt more alive. It was crazy, but even through limbs that felt like they were on fire, and every breath that seemed harder than the last—I couldn’t wait to do it again. The pain had been worth the fear that I’d fail or be hurt. I’d wanted something, taken the chance, and jumped with both feet.

And with that last thought in mind, I took Will’s hand when we crossed through the finish line together.