Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 2

“So wait,” Max said, pulling out his chair to sit down. “Is this Jensen’s sister you shagged?”

“No, that’s the other sister, Liv.” I sat across from the Brit and ignored both the amused grin on his face as well as the uncomfortable twist in my stomach. “And I didn’t shag her. We just hooked up a little. The youngest sister is Ziggy. She was only a kid that first time I went home with Jensen for Christmas.”

“I still can’t believe he took you home for Christmas and you made out with his sister in the backyard. I’d kick your ass.” He reconsidered, scratching his chin. “Ah fuck that. I wouldn’t have given a shit.”

I looked at Max, felt a small grin pull at my mouth. “Liv wasn’t there when I came back a few years later for the summer. I behaved myself the second time around.”

All around us, glasses clinked and conversation carried on in a quiet murmur. Tuesday lunch at Le Bernardin had become a routine for our group in the past six months. Max and I were usually the last ones to the table, but apparently the others had been held up in a meeting.

“I suspect you want an award for that,” Max said, studying his menu before closing it with a snap. Truthfully, I’m not sure why he even bothered to open it in the first place. He always got the caviar for his first course, and the monkfish for the main course. I’d recently surmised that Max kept all of his spontaneity for his life with Sara; with food and work, he was a quiet creature of habit.

“You just forget what you were like before Sara,” I said. “Stop acting like you lived in a monastery.”

He acknowledged this with a wink and his big, easy smile. “So tell me about this little sis.”

“She’s the youngest of the five Bergstrom kids, and in grad school here at Columbia. Ziggy’s always been this ridiculous brain. Finished undergrad in three years, and now works in the Liemacki lab? The one who does the vaccine work?”

Max shook his head and shrugged as if to say, The fuck are you talking about?

I continued, “It’s a very high-profile operation over at the med school. Anyway, last weekend in Vegas when you were off chasing your pussy to the blackjack tables, Jensen texted to let me know he was coming to visit her. I guess he gave her a Come-to-Jesus about not living among the test tubes and beakers for the rest of her life.”

The waiter came by to fill our water glasses, and we explained that we were waiting on a few more people to join the table.

Max looked back to me. “So you have plans to see her again, yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m sure we’ll go out and do something this weekend. I think we’ll run together again.”

I didn’t miss the way his eyes widened. “Letting someone in your private little running headspace? That seems like it would be more intimate than sex to you, William.”

I waved him off. “Whatever.”

“So it was fun then? Catching up with the little sis and all?”

It had been fun. It hadn’t been wild, or even anything all that special—we’d gone for a run, of all things. But I still felt a little shaken by how unexpected she had been. I’d gone in thinking there had to be a reason for her isolation, other than her long work hours. I’d expected she would be awkward, or hideous, or the poster child for inappropriate social behavior.

But she’d been none of those things, and she definitely didn’t seem anything like someone’s “little sister.” She was naïve and a bit unfiltered at times, but really she was simply hardworking and had found herself trapped in a set of habits she didn’t enjoy anymore. I could relate.

I’d first met the Bergstroms over Christmas, my sophomore year in college. I hadn’t been able to afford to fly home that year, and Jensen’s mother had such a fit at the idea of me staying alone in the dorms that she drove down from Boston two days before Christmas to pick me up and bring me home for the holidays. The family was as loving and loud as one would expect with five kids spaced almost exactly two years apart.

True to form for that stage in my life, I’d thanked them by secretly fooling around with their oldest daughter in the shed out back.

A few years later I’d interned for Johan, and lived at the Bergstrom house. Most of the other kids had moved out or stayed near college for the summer, so it was just me and Jensen, and the youngest daughter, Ziggy. Theirs had come to feel like a second home to me. Still, even though I’d lived near her for three months, and had seen her a few years ago at Jensen’s wedding, when she’d called yesterday, it had been hard to even remember her face.

But when I saw her at the park, more memories than I realized I’d had came flooding in. Ziggy at twelve, her freckled nose hidden behind books. She’d offer only the occasional shy smile across the dinner table, but otherwise avoided contact with me. I’d been nineteen and nearly oblivious anyway. And I remembered Ziggy at sixteen, all legs and elbows, her tangled hair cascading down her back. She spent her afternoons wearing cutoff shorts and tank tops, reading on a blanket in the backyard while I worked with her father. I’d checked her out, like I’d checked out every female at the time, as if I were scanning and cataloging body parts. The girl was curvy, but quiet, and obviously naïve enough about the art of flirting to earn my scornful disinterest. At the time, my life had been full of curiosity and kink, younger and older women who were willing to try anything once.

But this afternoon, it felt as though a bomb had gone off in my head. Seeing her face was—strangely—like being home again, but also like meeting a beautiful girl for the first time. She didn’t look anything like Liv or Jensen, who were towheaded and gangly, almost carbon copies of one another. Ziggy looked like her father, for better or worse. She had the paradoxical combination of her father’s long limbs and her mother’s curves. She inherited Johan’s gray eyes, light brown hair, and freckles, but her mother’s wide-open smile.

I’d hesitated when she stepped forward, wrapped her arms around my neck, and squeezed. It was a comfortable hug, bordering on intimate. Other than Chloe and Sara, I didn’t have a lot of females in my life who were strictly friends. When I hugged a woman like that—close and pressing—there was generally some sexual element. Ziggy had always been the kid sister, but there in my arms it fully registered that she wasn’t a kid anymore. She was a twenty-something woman with her warm hands on my neck and her body flush to mine. She smelled like shampoo and coffee. She smelled like a woman, and beneath the bulk of her sweatshirt and pathetically thin jacket, I could feel the shape of her breasts press against my chest. When she stepped back and looked me over, I’d immediately liked her: she hadn’t dressed up, hadn’t put on makeup or expensive workout gear. She wore her brother’s Yale sweatshirt, black pants that were too short, and shoes that definitely looked like they’d seen better days. She wasn’t trying to impress me; she just wanted to see me.

She’s so sheltered, man, Jensen had said when he’d called a little over a week ago. I feel like I let her down by not anticipating she had Dad’s work-obsession genes. We’re going down to visit her. I don’t even know what to do.

I blinked back into awareness when Sara and Bennett approached the table. Max stood to greet them, and I looked away as he leaned over to kiss Sara just beneath her ear, whispering, “You look beautiful, Petal.”

“Are we waiting on Chloe?” I asked once everyone was seated.

Bennett spoke from behind his menu. “She’s in Boston until Friday.”

“Well, thank fuck,” Max said. “Because I’m starving and that woman takes forever to decide what she wants.”

Bennett laughed quietly, sliding his menu back on the table.

I was relieved, too, not because I was hungry but because I was fine occasionally having a break from the role of fifth wheel. My four coupled-up friends were two steps away from Smug and had long ago skipped past Overly-Invested-in-Will’s-Dating-Life. They were convinced that I was two breaths away from having my heart ripped out by the woman of my dreams and were eager for the show.

And, only increasing this obsession, upon returning from Vegas last week, I’d made the mistake of casually mentioning that I was feeling detached from my two regular lovers, Kitty and Kristy. Both women were happy to meet regularly for no-strings fucking and didn’t seem to mind the existence of the other—or the occasional new fling I might have—but lately I felt like I was just going through the motions:

Undress,

touch,

fuck,

orgasm,

(maybe some pillow talk),

a kiss good night,

and then I was gone, or they were.

Had it all become too easy? Or was I finally getting tired of just sex—sex?!

And why the fuck was I thinking about all of this again, now? I sat up, scrubbed my face with my hands. Nothing in my life had changed in a day. I’d had a nice morning with Ziggy, that’s it. That was it. The fact that she was disarmingly genuine and funny and surprisingly pretty shouldn’t have thrown me so dramatically.

“So what were we discussing?” Bennett asked, thanking the waiter when he slid a gimlet on the table in front of him.

“We were discussing Will’s reunion with an old friend this morning,” Max said, and then added in a stage whisper, “a lady friend.”

Sara laughed. “Will saw a woman this morning? Why is this news?”

Bennett held up his hand. “Wait, isn’t tonight Kitty? And you had another date this morning?” He sipped his gimlet, eyeing me.

In fact, Kitty was the exact reason I’d suggested to Hanna that we meet up this morning instead of tonight: Kitty was my late meeting. But the more I thought about it, the idea of spending my usual Tuesday with her seemed less and less appealing.

I groaned, and both Max and Sara burst out laughing. “Is it weird that we all know Will’s Weekly Hookup Calendar?” Sara asked.

Max looked over at me, eyes smiling. “You’re thinking of canceling plans with Kitty, aren’t you? Think you’re going to pay for that one?”

“Probably,” I admitted. Kitty and I dated a few years back, and it ended amiably when it came out that she wanted more than I did. But when we met up again in a bar a few months ago, she said this time she just wanted to have fun. Of course I’d been game. She was gorgeous, and willing to do almost anything I wanted. She insisted our just-sex arrangement was fine, fine, fine. The thing was, I think we both knew she was lying: every time I had to ask for a rain check, she would become insecure and needy the next time we were together.

Kristy was almost the complete opposite. She was more contained, had a fetish for being gagged that I didn’t share, but wasn’t against indulging, and rarely stayed beyond the moment of our shared release.

“If you’re interested in this new girl, you should probably end it with Kitty,” Sara said.

“You guys,” I protested, digging into my salad. “There isn’t a thing with Ziggy. We went running.”

“So why are we still talking about it?” Bennett asked with a laugh.

I nodded. “Exactly.”

But I knew we were talking about it because I was tense, and when I was tense I wore it like a neon sign. My brows pulled together, my eyes got darker, and my words came out clipped. I turned into an asshole.

And Max loved it.

“Oh, we’re talking about it,” the Brit said, “because it’s getting William riled up, and that’s my favorite fucking thing. It’s also very bloody interesting how pensive he’s being today after a morning with this little sis. Will doesn’t usually look like he’s thinking so hard it hurts.”

“She’s Jensen’s youngest sister,” I explained to Sara and Bennett.

“He snogged the older sister when they were teens,” Max added helpfully, overplaying his accent for dramatic effect.

“You are such a shit-stirrer,” I said, laughing. Liv was a short blip; I could barely remember much about what had happened other than some heated kissing and then my easy evasion when I’d returned to New Haven. Compared to some of my relationships at the time, what happened with Liv barely registered on the sex meter.

Our entrées came and we ate in silence for a little bit. My mind started to wander. Partway through our run, I’d given up and just outright stared at Ziggy. I stared at her cheeks, at her lips, at the soft hair that had fallen free from her messy bun and lay straight against the soft skin of her neck. I’d always been open about my appreciation for women, but I wasn’t attracted to every woman I saw. So what was it about this one? She was pretty but definitely not the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. She was seven years younger than I was, green as an apple, and barely came up from her work to breathe. What could she possibly offer me that I couldn’t find somewhere else?

She’d looked over and caught me; the energy between us was palpable, and confusing as fuck. And when she smiled, it lit up her whole face. She looked as open as a screen door in the summer, and despite the temperature, something warmed in my veins. It was an old, yet familiar hunger. A desire I hadn’t felt in forever, where my blood filled with adrenaline and I wanted to be the only one to discover a particular girl’s secrets. Ziggy’s skin looked sweet; her lips were full and soft, her neck looked like it had never been marked with teeth or suction. The beast in me wanted to look more closely at her hands, at her mouth, at her breasts.

I looked up when I felt Max watching me, chewing thoughtfully.

He lifted his fork, pointed it at my chest. “All it takes is one night with the right girl. I’m not talking about sex, either. One night could change you, young m—”

“Oh, stop,” I groaned. “You’re such a fucking asshole right now.”

Bennett straightened, joining in. “It’s about finding the woman who gets you thinking. She’ll be the one who’ll change your mind about everything.”

I held up my hands. “It’s a nice thought, you guys. But Ziggy really isn’t my type.”

“What’s your type? Walks? Has a pussy?” Max asked.

I laughed. “I guess she just feels young?”

The guys hummed and nodded in understanding, but I could feel Sara watching me. “Out with it,” I said to her.

“Well, I’m just thinking you haven’t found anyone who makes you want to delve deeper. You’re choosing a certain type of woman, a type you know will fit into your structure, your rules, your limits. Aren’t you bored yet? You’re saying this sister—”

“Ziggy,” Max offered.

“Right,” she said. “You’re saying Ziggy isn’t your type, but last week you said you were feeling detached from the women who happily screw you without strings attached.” She forked a bite of her lunch and shrugged as she started to lift it to her mouth. “Maybe you should reevaluate your type.”

“Illogical. I can be losing interest in my lovers and it doesn’t have to mean that I need to overhaul the whole system.” I continued to poke at my food. “Though actually, I do have a favor to ask.”

Sara swallowed, nodding. “Of course.”

“I was hoping maybe you and Chloe could take her out? She doesn’t have any real girlfriends here and you guys—”

“Of course,” she said again quickly. “I can’t wait to meet her.”

I glanced at Max from the corner of my eye, unsurprised to see him biting his lip and looking like the cat that had caught the canary. But Sara must have picked up a thing or two from Chloe and had him by the balls beneath the table, because, for once, he was uncharacteristically quiet.

Do you ever feel like the people who mean the most aren’t the people you see the most? Lately I just feel like I’m not putting my heart where it matters.

Her voice and wide, honest eyes when she’d said this had made me feel full and hollow all at once, like the ache was so heavy I couldn’t tell if it was pain or pleasure.

Ziggy wanted me to show her how to get out and date, how to meet people she wanted to get to know . . . and the reality was I wasn’t even doing that myself. I might not be the one sitting in my apartment alone, but that didn’t mean I was happy.

Excusing myself to the men’s room, I pulled my phone from my pocket and typed a text to the mobile number she’d given me.

Project Ziggy still on your mind? If so, I’m in. Running tomorrow, plans this weekend. Don’t be late.

I stared at the phone for a few seconds but when she didn’t reply right away I returned to my lunch, my friends.

But later, when I left the restaurant, I noticed there was a single message now and I laughed, remembering that Ziggy mentioned an old flip phone she barely ever used.

Aw3esome!Icantfindthespacekey=butIwillcall you.

Between Ziggy’s, Chloe’s, and Sara’s crazy schedules, the three of them couldn’t get together until the weekend. But thank God they finally made it work, because watching Ziggy run every morning with her arms crossed across her chest was actually starting to make my boobs hurt.

That Saturday afternoon, Max was sitting at a table at Blue Smoke when I arrived, panting from my six-mile run and famished. As always seemed to happen with this group, a plan was formed without any of my help, so I woke to a text from Chloe that I was supposed to have Ziggy meet them for breakfast and shopping, meaning I’d be running by myself for the first time in days.

It was fine. Good, even. And even though my run felt silent, and strangely dull, Ziggy needed to get out and get some things. She needed running shoes. She needed running clothes. She could even stand to get some regular clothes if she was serious about dating, because most guys were shallow dicks and relied on the shorthand of first impressions. Ziggy wasn’t very strong in this department, but part of me didn’t want to push too much on her. I liked looking at well-dressed women, but oddly enough, with Ziggy, what was most intriguing was that she wasn’t really concerned with any of that. I figured we should probably stick with what was already working for her.

Without even looking up, Max moved the stack of newspaper pages from my chair and waved to the waitress to come take my order.

“Water,” I said, using the paper napkin to wipe my brow. “And maybe just some peanuts for now. In a little bit I’ll have some lunch.”

Max took in my clothes and went back to his paper, handing me the Business section of the Times.

“Weren’t you out with the girls earlier?” he asked.

I thanked the waitress when she put my drink down in front of me, and took a big gulp. “I dropped Ziggs off this morning. I wasn’t sure she would be able to navigate her way around anything past the Columbia campus.”

“Such a loving mother hen, you.”

“Oh, in that case I should lovingly let you know that Sara accidentally texted a picture of her ass to Bennett.” There was virtually nothing I loved more than giving Max shit about his and Sara’s kinky photo obsession.

He looked at me over the top of his paper and his face relaxed when he saw that I was kidding. “Tosser,” he mumbled.

I flipped through the Business section for a few minutes before turning my attention to Science and Technology. Behind his wall of newspaper, Max’s phone rang. “Hey, Chlo.” He paused, putting the paper down on the table. “No, ’s just me and Will here getting a bite. Maybe Ben’s on a run?” He nodded and then handed the phone to me.

I took the call, surprised. “Hey . . . everything okay?”

“Hanna is adorable,” Chloe said. “She hasn’t bought new clothes since college. I swear we aren’t treating her like a doll, but she’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t you bring her around sooner?”

I felt my stomach tighten. Chloe hadn’t been at the lunch where we discussed Ziggy. “You know she’s not a girlfriend, right?”

“I know, you’re just banging, whatever, Will—”

I started to interrupt but she continued on.

“—just wanted to let you know we’re all good. She looks like she would get lost in this Macy’s if we didn’t keep track of her.”

“That’s exactly what I said.”

“Okay, that’s all I got. Was just calling to see if Max knew where Bennett was. More shopping.”

“Hey wait,” I said before I really considered what I was about to ask. I closed my eyes and remembered jogging with Ziggy the past few days. She was relatively slim but damn, there was a lot up front.

“Hmm?”

“If you’re shopping, make sure Ziggs gets some . . .” I glanced up at Max, confirming he was absorbed in his newspaper before I whispered, “Make sure she gets some bras. Like, for jogging? But maybe also . . . just . . . regular ones, too. Okay?”

I felt rather than heard the silence on the other end of the line. It was leaden, and pressed down on my chest as the awkwardness grew. And grew. When I chanced a look up, Max was staring at me, wearing an enormous shit-eating grin.

“You are so lucky I’m not Bennett right now,” Chloe said, finally. “The amount of crap I would give you is on the planetary scale.”

“Don’t worry, Max is here and I can tell he’s enjoying this enough for the both of them.”

She laughed. “We’re on it. Bras to support the supple breasts of your nongirlfriend. God, you’re a pig.”

“Thanks.”

She hung up and I handed the phone back to Max, avoiding his eyes.

“Oh, Victoria,” he said, giddy. “Do you have a Secret? Do you have a fondness for helping women find well-fitting ladywear?”

“Fuck off,” I said through a laugh. His expression was as if Leeds United had just won the fucking World Cup. “She’s been joining me on my morning run, and she wears these . . . whatever. They’re not sports bras. And her bras do that . . .” I gestured to my chest. “That weird four-boob thing up front? I just figured if they were out shopping already . . .”

Max leaned his chin on his fist and smiled at me. “Christ you’re precious, William.”

“You know how I feel about breasts. It’s no joking matter.” And, I didn’t add, Ziggy was stacked like a pinup girl.

“Indeed not,” he agreed, lifting his paper again. “I just like how you’re pretending you wouldn’t cream your panties for a girl with four tits.”

About half an hour later, the door behind Max opened and I looked up as a tangle of shiny hair and shopping bags careened toward our table. Max and I stood, helping Ziggy unload her loot on one of the chairs.

She wore a pale blue sweater, dark fitted jeans, and green flats. She wasn’t dressed like she was coming off a runway, but she looked comfortable, stylish. Her hair was . . . different. I narrowed my eyes, studying it as she slipped her messenger bag from her shoulder. She’d cut it, or maybe it was that she just had it down instead of confined to her trademark messy bun. It fell past her shoulders, thick, and straight and smooth. But despite the changes in her clothes and hair, she, fortunately, still looked like Ziggy: a tiny bit of makeup, bright smile, sun-kissed freckles.

She reached her hand out for Max’s, smiling. “I’m Hanna. You must be Max.”

Grasping her hand, he said, “Nice to meet you. I trust you had a good morning with the two crazy women?”

“I did.” She turned to me, wrapped her arms around my neck, and I tried not to groan when she squeezed. I both loved and hated her hugs. They were tight, almost smothering, but disarmingly warm. When she let go, she collapsed into a chair. “That Chloe likes her lingerie, though. I think we spent an hour in that section alone.”

“Let me find my surprised face,” I murmured, discreetly checking out Ziggy’s chest as I sat back down. The girls looked fantastic: full and high. Just perfectly in place. She must have purchased some lingerie herself.

“On that note . . .” Max stood, slipping his wallet into his back pocket. “I think it’s time for me to find the Petal and see how successful her shopping ventures were. Nice to meet you, Hanna.” He patted my shoulder, winking at her. “Have a nice lunch.”

Ziggy waved to Max, and then turned to me, eyes wide. “Wow. He’s . . . hot. I met Bennett earlier, too. You guys are like the Hot Men’s Club of Manhattan.”

“I don’t think that’s a thing. And anyway, do you really think we’d let Max in?” I said, grinning. “You look great, by the way.” Her head shot to me, eyes surprised, and I quickly added, “I’m glad you didn’t let them cover you up with makeup. I would miss your freckles.”

“You would miss my freckles?” she asked in a whisper and I winced inwardly at how forward I sounded. “What man says that? Are you trying to make me have an orgasm right now?”

Whoa. I no longer felt like I’d been too forward. I worked very hard to not look at her chest again when she said that. I was still getting used to the way she seemed to let out every thought she had. Glancing down at her shopping bags, I softly redirected, “I . . . uh, it looks like you bought plenty of running shoes.”

Bending, she rummaged through a few things and I blinked up to the ceiling, ignoring the view of her full cleavage. “I think I got everything,” she said. “I’ve never shopped like that. Liv is probably going to pop some champagne when she hears.” When I finally looked back down, her eyes were scanning my face, my neck, my chest as if she were just now seeing me. “Did you go for a run this morning?”

“And a bike ride.”

“You’re so disciplined.” She leaned forward with her hands on her chin and batted her lashes at me. “It does really nice things for your muscles.”

Laughing, I told her, “It calms me. Keeps me from . . .” I searched for words, feeling my neck heat. “From being stupid.”

“That isn’t what you were originally going to say,” she said, sitting up. “It keeps you from what? Like getting into bar fights? Release of tension and man angst?”

I decided to test her a little. I had no idea where the urge came from, but she was a confusing mix of inexperienced and wild. She made me feel reckless, and a little drunk. “It keeps me from wanting to fuck all the time.”

She barely skipped a beat. “Why would you want to run instead of fuck?” She tilted her head, considering me for a beat. “Besides, exercise increases testosterone and blood flow. I think, if anything, you’re having better sex because you exercise.”

Talking about this with her felt dangerous. It was tempting to look at her a little too long, and Ziggy didn’t shrink under my inspection. She would look right back at me.

“I have no idea why I told you that,” I admitted.

“Will. I’m neither a virgin nor a woman trying to get into your pants. We can discuss sex.”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” I lifted my juice to my lips, taking a sip while I watched her drink some of her water, her eyes locked on mine. She wasn’t trying to get into my pants? Not even a little?

The air between us seemed to hum quietly. I wanted to reach forward, run my finger over her lower lip. Instead, I put my juice down and curled my hands into fists.

“I’m just saying,” she said, “there’s no need to sugarcoat with me. I like that you’re not a guy who talks around things.”

“Are you always this open with people?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I think this might be you-specific. I say a lot of things, really, but I especially feel stupid around you, and I can’t seem to shut up.”

“I don’t want you to shut up.”

“You’ve always been so obviously sexual and open about it. You’re this hot, player guy who doesn’t apologize for enjoying women. I mean, if I noticed that about you when I was twelve, it was obvious. Sex is natural. It’s what our bodies do. I like that you are who you are.”

I didn’t respond, didn’t know what to say. She liked the thing about me that every other woman wanted to tame, but I wasn’t sure I liked that this was her primary impression of who I was.

“Chloe said you asked them to take me bra shopping.”

I looked up to catch her eyes as they flickered away from my mouth.

Her smirk curled into a playful smile. “How thoughtful, Will. So nice of you to think about my boobs.”

I bent to take a bite of my sandwich, murmuring, “We don’t need to discuss that conversation. Max already gave me an appropriate amount of shit.”

“You’re a mysterious man, Player Will.” She lifted the menu, skimming the choices before putting it back down. “But, fine. I’ll change the subject. What should we talk about?”

I swallowed, watching her. I couldn’t imagine this wild young thing with the intense and poised combination of Chloe and Sara. “Whatever you ladies talked about today,” I suggested.

“Well, Sara and I had a fun conversation about what it feels like to be almost revirginized after not having sex for so long.”

I almost choked, coughing loudly. “Wow. That’s . . . I don’t even know what that is.”

She watched me, amused. “Seriously though. I’m sure it’s not like that for guys. But for girls, after a while, you’re like . . . does the virginity grow back? Is it like moss over a cave?”

“That is a disgusting image.”

Ignoring me, she sat up straighter, excited now. “Actually this is perfect. You’re a scientist so you’ll totally appreciate this theory I recently developed.”

I pressed back farther into my chair. “You just ended with a moss over a cave analogy. Honestly, I’m a little scared.”

“Don’t be. So, you know how a girl’s virginity is considered kind of sacred?”

I laughed. “Yes, I’ve heard of this concept.”

She scratched her head, her freckled nose wrinkling a little. “My theory is this: Cavemen are making a comeback. Everyone wants to read about the guy who ties the girl up, or gets all violently jealous if—God forbid—she wears something sexy outside the bedroom. Women supposedly like that, right? Well, I think the new fad is going to be revirginization. They’ll want their man to feel like he’s their first. And can you imagine how women will do this?”

I watched her eyes grow increasingly excited as she waited for me to attempt an answer. Something about her sincerity, her earnest consideration of this topic tightened an invisible band beneath my ribs. “Um, with lies? Women always assume we can read braille with our cocks. What’s that about? I honestly probably wouldn’t know a girl was a virgin unless she—”

“With surgery first, probably. Let’s call it ‘hymen restoration.’ ”

Dropping my food, I groaned. “Jesus Christ, Ziggs. I’m eating brisket. Can you just hold off on the hymen talk for like—”

“And then”—she drummed her hands on the table, building suspense—“everyone is waiting to see what stem cells can do for us. But spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s . . . I don’t think that’s where they’ll start. You know what I think the big splash will be?”

“Edge of my seat,” I deadpanned.

“I bet it will be a restoration of the maidenhead.”

I coughed again, loudly. “Dear God. ‘Maidenhead’?”

“You said no ‘hymen,’ so—but am I right?”

Before I could answer and tell her the theory was actually pretty good, she barreled on. “Stupid amounts of money are spent on this kind of thing. Viagra for boners. Four hundred different shapes of fake boobs. Which filler feels the most natural? It’s a man’s world, Will. Women won’t stop to think that you’re putting actively growing cells in their vagina. Next year, one of your nongirlfriends will get her hymen regenerated, and she’ll give her new virginity to you, Will.”

She leaned down, put her lips around her straw, and sucked, her gray eyes locked on mine. And with that lingering, playful look, I felt my cock harden slightly. Releasing the straw, she whispered, “To you. And will you appreciate what a gift that is? What a sacrifice?”

Her eyes danced and then she tilted her head back and burst out laughing. Holy fuck, I liked this girl. I liked her a lot.

Leaning forward on my elbows, I cleared my throat. “Ziggy, listen up because this is important. I’m about to impart some wisdom.”

She sat up, her eyes narrowing conspiratorially.

“Rule one we’ve already covered: don’t ever call someone before the sun is up.”

Her lips twitched into a guilty little smile. “Right. Got that one.”

“And rule two,” I said, shaking my head slowly. “Don’t ever discuss hymen regeneration over lunch. Or . . . like, ever.”

She dissolved into giggles and then moved out of the way when the waitress brought her food. “Don’t be so quick to mock it. That’s a billion-dollar idea, moneyman. If that comes across your desk soon, you’ll thank me for the heads-up.”

She dug into her salad, taking an enormous bite, and I tried not to study her. She wasn’t like any of the girls I knew. She was pretty—actually, she was beautiful—but she wasn’t poised or contained. She was silly, and confident, and so much her own person it almost made the rest of the world seem monochromatic. I had no idea if she even took herself seriously, but she certainly didn’t expect me to.

“What’s your favorite book?” I asked, the question bubbling up out of nowhere.

She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth and I blinked down to my sandwich, picking at the tiny pieces of crispy meat at the edges.

“This is going to sound cliché.”

“I sincerely doubt that, but hit me.”

She leaned forward, and whispered, “A Brief History of Time.”

“Hawking?”

“Of course,” she said, almost offended.

“That’s not cliché. Cliché would be if you said Wuthering Heights or Little Women.”

“Because I’m a woman? If I asked you, and you said Hawking, would you be cliché?”

I considered this. I imagined saying that book was my favorite, and getting a few Dude, of course’s from my grad school friends. “Probably.”

“So that’s bull, for it to be cliché for you and not me just because I have a vagina. But anyway,” she said, shrugging and popping a small bite of lettuce into her mouth, “I read it when I was twelve, and—”

“Twelve?”

“Yeah, and it just blew me away. Not so much what he said—because I don’t think I understood everything then—but more that he thought that way. That there were people out there who spent their lives trying to figure these things out. It opened up a whole world for me.” Suddenly she closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, and smiled a little guiltily when she opened them again. “I’m talking your ear off.”

“Yes, but lately you’re always talking my ear off.”

With a little wink, she leaned forward to whisper, “But maybe you kind of love it?”

Unbidden, my mind flooded with the fantasy of her neck arched, her mouth open in a hoarse plea while I licked a line from the hollow of her throat to her jaw. I imagined her nails digging into my shoulders, the sharp sting of pain . . . and blinked, standing and pushing my chair back so quickly that it hit the chair behind me. I apologized to the man seated there, apologized to Ziggy, and practically sprinted to the restroom.

Locking the door behind me, I wheeled around on my reflection. “What the actual fuck was that, Sumner?” I bent to splash a handful of cold water over my face.

Bracing my hands on the sink, I met my own eyes in the mirror again. “It was just an image. It wasn’t anything. She’s a sweet kid. She’s pretty. But, one: she’s Jensen’s sister. Two: she’s Liv’s sister, and you practically dry-humped Liv in a shed when she was seventeen. I think you cashed in your single Bergstrom-Sister-Hookup Card already. And three . . .” I bent my head, took a deep breath. “Three. You wear track pants around her way too often to be having sexual fantasies without her getting wise. Put a lid on it. Go home, call Kitty or Kristy, get some head, call it a day.”

When I returned to the table, Ziggy had nearly polished off her salad and was watching people move down the sidewalk. She looked up when I sat down, concern etching her features. “Stomach troubles?”

“What? No. No, I . . . had to call someone.”

Fuck. That sounded douchey. I winced, and then sighed. “I actually should probably go, Ziggs. I’ve been here for a couple of hours, and was planning to get a few things done this afternoon.”

Damnit. That sounded even douchier.

She pulled her wallet from her purse and put down a few fives. “Of course. God, I have a ton to do, too. Thanks so much for letting me meet you here. And thanks so much for hooking me up with Chloe and Sara.” With one more smile she stood, hitched her bag over her shoulder, collected her shopping bags, and walked to the door.

Her sandy hair shone and fell most of the way down her back. Her spine was straight, her gait steady. Her ass looked fucking amazing in the jeans she wore.

Holy fuck, Will. You are so goddamn screwed.