Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 3

This running thing really wasn’t getting any easier.

“This running thing will get easier,” Will insisted, looking down at where I sat, slumped over in a whiny pile on the ground. “Have some patience.”

I pulled a few blades of brown grass from the frost, mumbling to myself exactly what Will could do with his patience. It was early, the sky was still dull and gray and not even the birds seemed willing to venture out into the cold. We’d run together almost every morning for the past week and a half, and I was sore in places I didn’t even know I owned.

“And stop being a brat,” he added.

Looking up at him, eyes narrowed, I asked, “What did you say?”

“I said get your ass up here.”

I stood, lagging behind a few steps before jogging to catch up. He glanced over at me, assessing. “Still stiff?”

I shrugged. “A little.”

“As stiff as you were on Friday?”

I considered this, rolling my shoulders and stretching my arms over my head. “Not really.”

“And does your chest still feel like—how did you put it—like someone doused your lungs in gasoline and lit them on fire?”

I glared at him. “No.”

“See? And next week it’ll get easier. And the week after that you’ll crave running the way I bet you sometimes crave chocolate.”

I opened my mouth to lie but he quieted me with a knowing look.

“This week we’ll call and get you with someone who’ll keep you on track and before you know it—”

“What do you mean ‘we’ll get me with someone’?” We moved into a jog and I lengthened my stride to match his.

He gave me a brief glance. “Someone to run with you. Like a trainer.”

The bare trees seemed enough to insulate us because, though I could see the tops of buildings and the skyline in the distance, the sounds of the city felt miles away. Our feet pounded over fallen leaves and bits of loose gravel in the path, and it narrowed just enough that I had to adjust my steps. My shoulder brushed against his and I was close enough to smell him, the scent of soap and mint and a hint of coffee clinging to his skin.

“I’m confused, why can’t I just run with you?”

Will laughed, drawing an arc with his hand as if the answer were suspended in the air around us. “This isn’t really running for me, Ziggs.”

“Well, of course not; we’re barely jogging.”

“No, I mean I’m supposed to be training.”

I looked at our feet and up at his face, my eyes full of meaning. “And this isn’t training?”

He laughed again. “I’m doing the Ashland Sprint this spring. It’ll take more than a mile-and-a-half run a few days a week to get me ready.”

“What’s the Ashland Sprint?” I asked.

“A triathlon just outside Boston.”

“Oh.” The rhythm of our steps echoed in my head and I felt my limbs warm, could almost feel the blood pumping through my body. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. “So I’ll just do that with you.”

He looked down at me, eyes narrowed and a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Do you even know what a triathlon is?”

“Of course I do. It’s the swim, run, shoot a bear thing.”

“Good guess,” he deadpanned.

“Okay, so enlighten me, Player. Exactly how long is this triathlon of manliness?”

“Depends. There’s sprint distance, intermediate, long course, and ultra-distance. And no bears, dumbass. Swim, run, bike.”

I shrugged, ignoring the steady burn in my calves as we reached an incline. “So which one are you doing?”

“Intermediate.”

“Okay,” I said. “That doesn’t sound too bad.”

“That means you swim about a mile, bike for twenty-five, and then run the last six.”

The petals of my blooming confidence wilted a little. “Oh.”

“And that’s why I can’t stay over here on the bunny trail with you.”

“Hey!” I said, shoving him hard enough that he stumbled slightly.

He laughed, steadying himself before grinning over at me. “Has it always been this easy to get you worked up?”

I raised my brows and his eyes widened.

“Never mind,” he groaned.

The sun finally broke through the gloom by the time we slowed to a walk. Will’s cheeks were pink from the cold, the ends of his hair curling up from beneath his beanie. A hint of a beard covered his jaw and I found myself studying him, trying to reconcile the person in front of me with the guy I thought I remembered so well. He was such a man now. I bet he could shave twice a day and still have a five o’clock shadow. I looked up in time to catch him staring at my chest.

I ducked to catch his gaze but he ignored my attempt to redirect his attention. “I hate to ask the obvious, but what are you looking at?”

He tilted his head, studying me from a different angle. “Your boobs look different.”

“Don’t they look awesome?” I took one in each hand. “As you know, Chloe and Sara helped me pick out new bras. Boobs have always been sort of a problem for me.”

Will’s eyes widened. “Boobs are never a problem for anyone. Ever.”

“Says the man without a pair. Boobs are functional. That’s it.”

He looked at me with genuine fire in his eyes. “Fucking right they are. They get the job done.”

I laughed, groaning. “They aren’t functional for you, frat boy.”

“Wanna bet?”

“See, the problem with boobs is if you have big ones, you can never look thin. You get these burns on your shoulders from bra straps, and your back hurts. And unless you’re using them for their intended purpose, they’re always in the way.”

“In the way of what? My hands? My face? Don’t you blaspheme in here.” He looked up to the sky. “She didn’t mean it, Lord. Promise.”

Ignoring him, I said, “That’s why I had a reduction when I was twenty-one,” which is when his expression morphed into one of horror.

You’d have thought I told him I made an amazing stew from tiny babies and puppy tongues.

“Why on earth would you do that? That’s like God giving you a beautiful gift and you kicking him in the nuts.”

I laughed. “God? I thought you were agnostic, Professor.”

“I am. But if I could motorboat perfect tits like yours I might be able to find Jesus.”

I felt my blush warm my cheeks. “Because Jesus totally lives in my cleavage?”

“Not anymore he doesn’t. Your boobs are now too small for him to be comfortable in there.” He shook his head, and I couldn’t stop laughing. “So selfish, Ziggs,” he said, grinning so widely that I actually stumbled a little.

We both snapped around at the sound of a voice. “Will!”

I glanced from the perky redhead jogging toward us, to Will, and back again.

“Hey!” he said awkwardly, waving as she passed.

She turned to run backward, calling out to him, “Don’t forget to call me. You owe me a Tuesday.” She gave him a flirty little smile before continuing down the path.

I waited for an explanation but none came. Will’s jaw was tight, his eyes no longer smiling as he focused on the trail ahead of us.

“She was pretty,” I offered.

Will nodded.

“Was she a friend?”

“Yeah. That’s Kitty. We . . . hang out.”

Hang out. Right. I spent enough time on college campuses to know that ninety-five percent of the time the phrase hanging out was boy-code for doing it.

“So, not someone you would introduce as a girlfriend.”

His eyes shot to mine. “No,” he said, looking almost as if I’d offended him. “Definitely not a girlfriend.”

We walked in silence for a few moments and I looked back over my shoulder, understanding dawning. She was a nongirlfriend. “Her boobs were . . . wow. She clearly knows Jesus.”

Will completely cracked up and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “Let’s just say finding religion cost her a lot of money.”

Later, when we were done, and Will was stretching on the ground next to me, reaching for his toes, I peeked over at him and said, “So I have this thing tonight.” And then I winced.

Beneath his track pants I could see the pop of muscles in his thigh and so almost missed it when he repeated, “A thing?”

“Yeah. It’s sort of a work . . . thing? Well, not really. Like, a social mixer, an interdepartmental thing. I never go to these, but in the spirit of not dying alone surrounded by feral cats, I figured I’d give it a go. It’s Thursday night so I’m sure it’s not going to be that wild.”

He laughed, shaking his head as he switched his position.

“It’s at Ding Dong Lounge.” I paused, chewing my lip. “Seriously, is that a made-up name?”

“No, it’s a place over on Columbus.” Reaching up, he scratched his stubbly jaw, thinking. “Not far from my office actually. Max and I go there sometimes.”

“Well, a bunch of my coworkers are going, and this time when they asked if I was going I said I was, and now I realize that I totally have to at least pop in and see what it’s about, and who knows, maybe it could be fun.”

He peeked up at me through his thick lashes. “Did you even breathe during that entire sentence?”

“Will.” I stared him down. “Will you come tonight?”

He snickered, shaking his head as he looked down, stretching.

It took me a beat to understand why he was laughing. “Ugh, pervert.” I groaned, shoving his shoulder. “You know what I mean. Will you come with me?”

He looked up at the sound of me smacking my forehead.

“Oh my God, that’s worse. Just text me if you’re interested in coming.” I winced, turning to walk down the trail toward my apartment building and basically wanting the trail to crack open and transport me to Narnia. “Forget it!”

“I like it when you ask me to come!” he called after me. “I can’t wait to come tonight, Ziggy! Should I come around eight? Or do you want me to come around ten? Maybe I’ll come both times?”

I flipped him the bird, and kept moving away down the trail. Thank God he couldn’t see my smile.