Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 5

I’d come to a decision: if I was going to monopolize Will’s time and insist on training with him, then I would have to actually . . . you know . . . train for something.

I’d decided to get serious, to stop thinking of it as a game and start really treating it like an experiment. I started going to bed at a decent hour so I could get up and run with him and still get to the lab early enough for a full day of work at the bench. I expanded my running wardrobe to include some quality workout gear and an extra pair of shoes. I stopped thinking of Starbucks as a food group and cut back on the complaining. And with much flailing on my part and much reassurance on his—we signed up for a half-marathon in mid-April. I was terrified.

But it turned out Will was right: it did get easier. Just a few weeks in and my lungs had stopped burning, my shins had stopped feeling like they were made of brittle sticks, and I no longer felt like vomiting by the time we reached the end of the trail. In fact, we’d actually been able to increase our distance and move to his normal trail along the outer loop. Will said if I could handle the six miles a day and get up to eight-mile runs twice a week, he wouldn’t need to train additionally without me.

It wasn’t just that it started to feel good. I’d started to see a difference, too. Thanks to genetics, I’d always been relatively thin, but never what you’d call fit. My stomach was a tad soft, my arms did that weird jiggle thing when I waved, and there was always this damn little pooch over the top of my jeans if I didn’t keep that shit sucked in. But now . . . things were changing, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

“So what’s happening here?” Chloe asked, eyeing me from inside my closet. She pointed a finger at me and swept it around. “You look . . . different.”

“Different?” I asked.

The point of Project Ziggy actually wasn’t to spend as much time as possible with Will—even though he was quickly becoming my favorite person—but to help me find balance, to have a life outside the lab. In the past couple of weeks, Chloe and Sara had become an important part of the effort, dragging me out for dinner or coming over to just hang for a few hours at my apartment.

This particular Thursday evening they’d brought takeout and we’d somehow migrated into my room, where Chloe had taken it upon herself to go through my closet, deciding what could stay and what absolutely had to go.

“Different good,” she clarified, and then turned to Sara, who was stretched across my bed, thumbing through some sort of financial file for work. “Don’t you think so?”

Sara looked up, eyes narrowing as she considered me. “Definitely good. Happy, maybe?”

Chloe was already nodding. “Was just going to say that. There’s definitely some kind of glowy thing happening in your cheeks. And your ass looks amazing in those pants.”

I looked at my reflection, checked out the front and turned to see the back. My ass did look pretty happy. My front wasn’t too bad, either. “My pants are a little loose,” I noted, checking the size. “And look, no muffin top!”

“Well, that’s always a plus,” Sara said with a laugh, shaking her head, then going back to her documents.

Chloe started putting things on hangers, shoving others into plastic bags. “You’re toning up. What have you been doing?”

“Just running. And lots of stretching. Will is big on the stretching. He added sit-ups to our routine last week, and let me be clear on how much I hate those.” I continued to study my reflection, adding, “I can’t remember the last time I had a cookie, and that feels like a crime.”

“Still training with Will, huh?” Chloe asked, and I couldn’t miss the look that passed between her and Sara. The look that said I’d just dropped a giant nugget of awesome in their lap and they were going to talk it to death and then dissect it until I begged for mercy.

“Yeah, every morning.”

“Will trains with you every morning?” Chloe asked. Another look exchanged.

I nodded, moved to pick up a few errant things lying around. “We meet at the park. Did you know he does triathlons? He’s in great shape.” I snapped my mouth shut, realizing it probably wasn’t safe to be as obliviously unfiltered with Chloe as it was with Will. I knew her well enough at this point to know she didn’t let very many things slide.

And indeed, she lifted a brow and reached up, pushing a thick wave of dark hair behind her shoulder. “So, about William.”

I hummed, folding a pair of socks together.

“Do you see him outside of this daily running date?”

I could feel their attention like heated laser beams on the side of my face so I nodded, not looking over at either of them.

“He’s very handsome,” Chloe added.

Danger danger, my brain warned. “He is.”

“Have you seen each other naked?”

My eyes shot to Chloe’s. “What?”

“Chloe,” Sara groaned.

“No,” I insisted. “We’re just friends.”

Chloe snorted, moving to the closet with a handful of clothes draped over her arms. “Right.”

“We run in the mornings, meet up for coffee sometimes. Maybe breakfast,” I said, shrugging and ignoring the way my honesty meter seemed to flare into the red zone. Lately we’d been having breakfast together almost every morning, and talked at least one other time during the day. I’d even started to call him for advice on my experiments when Liemacki was traveling or just busy . . . or just because I valued his scientific opinion. “Just friends.” I glanced at Sara. Her eyes were trained on her papers but she was smiling, shaking her head.

“Bullshit,” Chloe all but sang. “Will Sumner doesn’t have any women in his life that are just friends, outside of family and the two of us.”

“This is true,” Sara reluctantly agreed.

I didn’t say anything, just turned and began searching through my drawers for a sweater. I could feel Chloe watching me, though, could feel the pressure of her gaze against the back of my head. I’d never had a lot of female friends—and I’d definitely never had one like Chloe Mills—but even I was smart enough to be a little afraid of her. I got the distinct impression that even Bennett was a little afraid of her.

I found the cardigan I’d been hunting for and slipped it over my favorite Firefly T-shirt, doing my best to keep my expression neutral and my head free of anything Will-related that ventured outside of the friend zone. Something told me these two would see through that in a second.

“How long have you guys known each other?” Sara asked. “He and Max go way back, but I’ve only known him since I moved to New York.”

“Same here,” Chloe added. “Spill, Bergstrom. He’s too smug and we need some ammo.”

I laughed, grateful for the semi-shift in topic. “What do you want to know?”

“Well, you knew him when he was in college. Was he a giant dork? Please say he was in the chess club or something,” Chloe said, hopeful.

“Ha, no. I’m pretty sure he was the guy who turned eighteen and all of the moms wanted to bang.” I frowned, considering. “Actually, I think I might have heard that exact story from Jensen. . . .”

“Max said something about him dating your sister?” Sara asked.

I chewed on my lip and shook my head. “They hooked up once over a holiday, but I think they just made out. He met my oldest brother, Jensen, on their first day of college, and then he lived with us and worked with my dad after graduation. I’m the youngest, so I didn’t really hang around with them that much other than at meals.”

“Stop evading,” Chloe said, narrowing her eyes. “You have to know more.”

I laughed. “Let’s see, he’s the youngest, too. He has two sisters who are way older than him, but I’ve never met them. I get the feeling he was sort of mothered a lot. I remember hearing him talk one time about how his parents are both physicians, and they divorced long before he was born. Years later, they met up at a medical conference, got drunk, and reconnected for one night . . .”

“And boom. Will,” Sara guessed.

I nodded slowly. “Yeah. But his mom raised him. So, his sisters are twelve and fourteen years older than he is. He was their little baby.”

“Well, that would explain why he thinks women were put on this earth to cater to him,” Chloe added, flopping on the bed next to Sara.

That didn’t sit right with me, and I sat down, shaking my head. “I don’t know if it’s that. I think he just really, really likes women. And they seem to like him, too,” I added. “He grew up surrounded by women so he knows how they think, what they want to hear.”

“He definitely knows how to play the game,” Sara said. “God, some of the stuff Max has told me.”

I thought back to Jensen’s wedding and watching Will slip off, otherwise unnoticed, with two women at once. I was pretty sure that wasn’t the first or last time something like that had happened.

“Women have always loved him,” I said. “I can remember overhearing some of my mom’s friends talk about him when he worked for Dad. Jesus, the things they would have done to that boy.”

“Cougars!” Chloe squealed, delighted. “I love it.”

“God, every girl was in love with him.” I pulled a pillow to my chest, remembering. “I had a few girlfriends in school—I was twelve the first time he came home with Jensen—and they would find all these crazy reasons to need to come over. One of them pretended like she had to return my sweater on Christmas Eve, and it was her sweater she gave me. I mean, picture Will now but as a nineteen-year-old guy, playful, clearly wise to the ways of the female body, and with that damn cheeky smile. He was in a band, had tattoos . . . he was walking sex. Then when he lived with us over the summer? He was twenty-four and I was sixteen. It was unbearable. It was like it offended him to wear a shirt in the house and he had to show off all that smooth, perfect man skin.”

I broke out of my memory to see both of them grinning at me.

“What?”

“Those were some very lascivious descriptions, Hanna,” Sara said.

Glancing over at her, I asked, “Did you just use the word lascivious?”

“She most certainly did,” Chloe said. “And I agree. I feel like I just watched something dirty.”

I groaned, getting up off the bed.

“So, clearly, teenage Hanna had a bit of a crush on Will,” Sara said. “But, more importantly, what does twenty-four-year-old Hanna think of him now?”

I had to think on this for a beat, because to be honest, I thought about Will a lot, and in every possible way. I thought about his body and his dirty mouth and of course all the things he could do with them, but I also thought about his brain, and his heart. “I think he’s surprisingly sweet, and he’s absurdly smart. He’s a total player but underneath that, a genuinely good guy.”

“And you haven’t thought about banging him at all?”

I stared at Chloe. “What?”

She stared right back at me. “What what? You’re both young and hot. There’s a history there. I bet it’d be incredible.”

Hundreds of images flashed through my mind in only a few seconds, and even though I thought about banging him more than I should probably even admit to myself, I forced the words out: “I am absolutely not having sex with Will.”

Sara shrugged. “Not yet, maybe.”

I turned to her. “Aren’t you supposed to be the demure one?”

A laugh burst out of Chloe’s mouth and she shook her head, giving Sara a playfully scolding look. “Demure. It’s always the ones who seem sweet and innocent, trust me.”

“Well, regardless,” I said, “Will thinks of me as a little sister.”

Chloe sat up, pinning me with a serious expression. “I can tell you that when a man meets a woman, he puts her in one of two categories: unequivocal friend, or possible banging candidate.”

“Doesn’t he have scheduled booty calls?” I asked, wrinkling my nose. I liked the idea of dating, but I got the impression that Will was more structured in his relationships than just a conversation about keeping things casual. To have regular nights scheduled the way he seemed to? I wasn’t sure I could get behind that kind of boundary regarding something as fluid and shapeless as sex.

Sara nodded. “Lately, Kitty is Tuesday nights, Kristy is Saturday evening.” She hummed thoughtfully and added, “I don’t think he’s seeing Lara anymore, but I’m sure others make cameos here and there.”

Chloe shot her a look and Sara stared back. I blinked away, letting them have their little showdown in private.

“I’m not suggesting she fall in love with him,” Chloe said. “Just bang the hell out of him.”

“I’m only making sure everyone knows the score,” Sara answered, a challenge in her eyes.

“Well,” I started, “it doesn’t matter anyway. Given that he’s my brother’s best friend, I think we can pretty safely assume I am in unequivocal friend territory.”

“Has he talked about your boobs?” Chloe asked.

I felt the heated blush crawl up my neck. Will talked about, stared at, and seemed to idolize my chest. “Um, yes.”

Chloe smiled, smug. “I rest my case.”

The next morning, I’m sure Will was convinced I was on some sort of mood-altering medication . . . or needed to be. I was distracted during our run and kept going over my conversation with Sara and Chloe in my mind. Not only was I thinking about how often Will looked at my boobs, gestured to my boobs, and spoke to my boobs, I was unfortunately thinking about Will with the other women I knew were in his life: what he did with them, how they felt when they were with him, and if they had as much fun with him as I did. Plus the fact that he was probably naked with women . . . a lot.

This, of course, led to me thinking about Will naked, which did nothing to help my focus, or my ability to go in a straight line down the path in front of me.

I forced my thoughts away from the man running in easy silence beside me, and to the work I had waiting at the lab, the report I needed to finish, the exams I needed to help Liemacki grade.

But later, when Will leaned over me, stretching my right leg after I’d basically crumpled on the trail from a leg cramp, he stared at me so intently, his eyes moving slowly over my face, every thought I’d tried to banish came rushing back. My stomach twisted and a delicious heat spread from my chest and down to the neglected ache between my legs. I felt like I was melting into the cold ground.

“You okay?” he asked quietly.

I was only able to nod.

His brows drew together. “You’re so quiet this morning.”

“Just thinking,” I murmured.

His sexy little smile appeared and I felt my heart trip and then begin to hammer in my chest. “Well, I hope you’re not thinking about porn or blow jobs or how you want to experiment with sex, because if you think you’re keeping that shit to yourself, you’re in trouble. We have a rhythm now, Ziggs.”

I took a particularly long shower after that run.

I’d never been a texter—in fact, before Will, my only texts had consisted of one-word responses to my family or coworkers.

Are you still coming? Yes.

Can you pick up a bottle of wine? Sure.

Are you bringing a date? Ignore.

Until a week ago—when I’d finally unwrapped the iPhone Niels had given me for Christmas—I still used a flip phone Jensen teased was the first cell phone ever made. Who had time to type a hundred messages when I could call and get it over with in less than a minute? It definitely didn’t seem very efficient.

But with Will it was fun, and I had to admit, the new phone made it easier. He would text me random thoughts throughout the day, send me pictures of his face when I made a particularly bad joke or a photo of his lunch when the chicken breast he’d been served was shaped like a penis. So, after my . . . relaxing shower, when my phone buzzed in the other room, I wasn’t surprised to see it was Will.

What I was surprised by however, was the question: What are you wearing?

I felt my brows pull together in confusion. It was random but by far not the weirdest thing he’d ever asked me. We were meeting for breakfast in a half hour and maybe he was worried I would show up looking, as he liked to say, like a graduate student hobo.

I looked down at the towel around my otherwise naked chest and typed, Black jeans, yellow top, blue sweater.

No, Ziggy. I mean *insert innuendo* WHAT ARE YOU WEARING.

Now I really was confused. I don’t get it, I typed.

I’m sexting you.

I paused, looked down at the phone for a few more seconds before responding with What?

He typed so much faster than I did, and his response appeared almost immediately. It’s not nearly as hot when I have to explain it. New rule: you need to be at least borderline competent in the art of sexting.

Understanding went off like a lightbulb in my head. Oh! And ha! “Sexting.” Clever, Will.

While I appreciate your enthusiasm and the fact that you think I’m witty enough to have come up with that, he replied, I didn’t invent the term. It’s been around in popular culture for quite some time, you know. Now, answer the question.

I paced the room, thinking. Okay. An assignment, I could do this. I tried to think of all the sexy innuendo I’d ever heard in movies and of course, in the moment, could not think of a single thing. I thought back on every pickup line I’d heard my brother Eric use . . . and then shuddered, reconsidering.

I drew a total blank.

Well, actually I’m not dressed yet, I typed. I was standing here trying to decide if it’s against the rules to go without underpants because I think my skirt shows all the lines but I hate wearing thongs.

I stared at the phone as the little dots indicated he was replying. Shit that was pretty good kid. But don’t say underpants. Or blouse. Never sexy.

Don’t make fun of me. I don’t know what to say. I feel like an idiot standing here naked texting you.

I waited.

A few moments passed before my phone lit up again. OK. So you’ve obviously gotten the hang of it. Now say something dirty.

Dirty?

I’m waiting.

Oh God. Did I have time to google something? No. I searched my mind and typed the first semi-dirty thing I could think of: Sometimes, when we’re running and you’re controlling your breathing and lost in the rhythm of it, I wonder what noises you make during sex.

So maybe that was a bit more than semi-dirty, and for what felt like an eternity, he didn’t reply. Oh God. I put my phone down, convinced that Will was going to walk away and not reply ever again. He probably wanted something playful and not so . . . honest.

I walked into the bathroom, pulled a brush through my wet hair, and then piled it into a knot on top of my head. In the other room, I heard my phone buzz on the desk.

WHOA, was the first message.

The second message: Way to just . . . dive on in there. OK I’m gonna need a minute. Or five.

OMGIMSOSOEEY I typed, with stupid fumbling fingers and completely ready to climb into a hole and die. I MEAN SORRY I CANTBELIEVEISAIDTHAT

You’re kidding me, he replied. That was like Christmas. Clearly I need to up my game. Hold on, I might need to stretch first.

I rolled my eyes. Waiting.

Your tits looked great today.

That’s all you got? I typed. Honestly, he’d said more perverted things to my face. To my boobs. Did he really think he was schooling me in being sexy right now?

Really? You’re completely unimpressed?

Zzzzzzzzzzz, I wrote back.

Can I SEE your tits next time?

Well. I felt a little warmth in my cheeks but there was no way I was admitting that.

Yawn. I smiled like an idiot at my phone.

The little text bubble appeared in the window to show that he’d started typing. I waited. And waited. Finally, Can I touch them? Taste them?

I hitched my towel up higher over my breasts and swallowed, shaking. My face wasn’t the only thing that was warm now. I replied, That was a little better.

Can I lick them and then fuck them?

I dropped my phone, and scrambled to pick it up. Pretty good, I typed with shaking hands. I closed my eyes, struggling to push away the image of Will’s hips moving over my chest, his cock sliding over the skin between my breasts.

I could almost feel his determination through the phone when he said, Let me know when you need a minute of ALONE time. Are you ready?

No. Absolutely not. Yes.

You were wearing this shirt the other day, the pink one. Your tits looked fucking phenomenal. Full and soft. I could see your nipples when the wind picked up. All I could think about was what you’d feel like in my hands, your nipples against my tongue. What my cock would look like against your skin and how it would feel to come all over your neck.

Holy shiiiit. Will? Can I just call you?

Why?

Because it’s hard to type with one hand.

He didn’t reply for a minute and I let myself imagine he’d dropped his phone this time. But then he replied: YES! Are you touching yourself??

I laughed, typing, Gotcha, and then threw my phone to the side and closed my eyes.

Because yes, I absolutely was.

Since at the end of our run I’d agreed to meet Will for breakfast at Sarabeth’s, after I finished “thinking” about his texts, I hurried to dress and ran out the door. Despite the temperature and the snow starting to fall, I felt the heat of my blush all the way to Ninety-third, and wondered if it was possible to sit across from him and not have him figure out I’d just masturbated to his texts. Things felt like they were veering off course, and I tried to remember when it had happened. Was it the run earlier this morning when he’d hovered over my body, looking as if he were climbing on top of me? Or was it a couple of weeks back, at the bar when we’d started talking about porn and sex? Maybe it was even before that, the first day we went running together and he’d slipped a hat on my head, giving me a smile that made me feel like I’d just been fucked against a wall?

This was not going well. Friends, I reminded myself. Secret agent assignment. Learn the ways of the Ninja, and escape unharmed.

I kept my head down as I crunched through the thin layer of snow, cursing the March weather, as snowflakes tangled in my loose hair. A young couple was just leaving the restaurant, and I managed to slip in through the open door as they passed.

“Zig,” I heard, and looked up to see Will smiling down at me from the loft seating area. I waved before I walked to the stairs, taking off my hat and scarf as I went.

“Fancy seeing you again,” he said, standing as I neared the table.

I found myself becoming irrationally annoyed by his good manners, even more so by his still-damp hair and the way his sweater clung to his unending torso. He had a white shirt underneath and, with the sleeves pushed up his forearms, the lines of his tattoos peeked out from beneath the folded cuffs. Gorgeous asshole.

“Morning,” I said back.

“A little grumpy? Maybe a little tense?”

Scowling, I said, “No.”

He laughed as we each took a seat. “I ordered your food.”

“What?”

“Your breakfast? The lemon pancakes with berries, right? And that flower juice thing?”

“Yeah,” I answered, eyeing him from across the table. I picked up my napkin and unfolded it, laying it across my lap.

He bent to meet my eyes, looking a little anxious. “Did you want something else? I can get the waitress.”

“No . . .” I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and closed it again. It was such a small thing—the food I always ordered, the type of juice I liked, the fact that he’d known exactly how to stretch me this morning—but it felt big, important somehow. It made me feel a little bad that he’d been so sweet and I couldn’t seem to keep my head out of his pants. “I just can’t believe you remembered that.”

He shrugged. “No big deal. It’s breakfast, Zig-zag. I’m not donating a kidney here.”

I forced away the unreasonably bitchy attitude that flared up at that. “Well, it was just really nice. You surprise me sometimes.”

He looked somewhat taken aback. “How so?”

I sighed, deflating somewhat into my chair. “I just assumed you’d treat me more like a kid.” As soon as I said this, it was clear he didn’t like it. He sat back in his chair and let out a slow breath, so I continued on, rambling, “I know you’re giving up your peace and quiet to let me run with you. I know you’ve canceled plans with your nongirlfriends and had to rearrange things to make time for me, and I just . . . I want you to know that I appreciate it. You’re a really great friend, Will.”

His brows drew together and he stared down at his ice water instead of looking at me. “Thanks. Just, you know, helping out Jensen’s . . . baby sister.”

“Right,” I said, feeling my irritation flare up again. I wanted to take his water and dunk it over my own head. What was with the hot temper?

“Right,” he repeated, blinking up to me and wearing a playful little smile that immediately defused my crazy and made my girl parts perk right back up. “At least that’s the story we’ll tell everyone.”