Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 8

The promise of crowds was always a reality, living near the Columbia campus, but, mysteriously, the Dunkin’ Donuts nearest my building always seemed busiest on Thursdays. Even during a slow stretch, though, I probably wouldn’t have recognized Dylan in line, just ahead of me.

So, when he turned, eyes widening in recognition, and let out a friendly “Hey! Will, right?” I startled.

I blinked, feeling caught off guard. I’d just been daydreaming about taking things with Hanna in a different direction than I had two nights ago, when she’d come to my apartment in the middle of the night and ended up beneath me, both of us coming with our clothes on. The memory of that night was a current favorite, one I’d pulled out in almost every quiet moment since, to play with, take down a different path, warm my blood. It had been years since I’d dry-humped a girl, but fuck, I’d forgotten how dirty and forbidden it felt.

But the sight of this kid in front of me—the guy Hanna was dating—felt like an ice bucket dumped over my head.

Dylan looked like every other Columbia student in the place: dressed down to the point he was toeing the line between pajama-clad and hobo.

“Yeah,” I said, extending my hand to shake his. “Hi, Dylan. Good to see you again.”

We stepped forward as the line moved ahead, and the awkwardness hit me slowly. I hadn’t realized at the party how young he looked: he had that silently vibrating, feet-bouncy thing going on, where he seemed constantly excited about something. He nodded a lot, looked at me as if I was someone to be treated as a superior.

Looking between us, I registered how much more formal I looked in my suit. Since when was I the guy in a suit? Since when did I have little patience for stupid, twenty-something grad students? Probably the same day Hanna jacked me off in the back room of a grad student party and it was the best sex I’d ever had, I reminded myself.

“Did you have fun at Denny’s?”

I stared at him for a long moment, trying to remember when I had last been to Denny’s. “I . . .”

“The party, not the restaurant,” he prompted, laughing. “The apartment belonged to a guy named Denny.”

“Oh, right. The party.” My mind immediately went to the image of Hanna’s face as I slid my fingers beneath her underwear and across her bare skin. I could remember with perfect clarity her expression just before she came, like I’d done something fucking magical. She looked like she was discovering sensation for the first time. “Yeah, the party was pretty great.”

He fidgeted with his phone, looking up at me, and seemed to be working up to something.

“You know,” he said, leaning in a little, “this is the first time I’ve run into someone who’s sort of dating the same girl I’m sort of dating. Is this really weird?”

I bit back a laugh. Well, he certainly had blunt-force honesty in common with Hanna. “What makes you think I’m dating her?”

Dylan immediately looked mortified. “I just assumed . . . because of how it seemed at the party. . . .”

Giving him a sly smile, I chided him, “And yet you asked her out anyway?”

He laughed as if he, too, couldn’t believe his own audacity. “I was so drunk! I guess I just went for it.”

I wanted to punch him. And I registered that I was the world’s biggest hypocrite. I had absolutely no right to feel so indignant about any of this.

“It’s fine,” I said, calming down. I’d never been on this side of a conversation before, and for a beat wondered if any of my lovers had ever run into each other in places like this. How awkward. I tried to imagine what Kitty or Lara—all sparkles and sunshine—and Natalia or Kristy—who would barely crack a smile even in the best of moods—would do if they were put in this kind of situation.

Shrugging, I told him, “Hanna and I go way back. That’s all.”

He laughed, nodding as if this answered all of his unasked questions. “She said she’s just dating right now. I get that. She’s a really fun girl, I’ve been wanting to ask her out for ages, so I’ll take whatever I can get, you know?”

I stared at the cashier, silently begging her to ring up customers just a little faster. Unfortunately, I knew exactly what he meant. “Yeah.”

He nodded again and I was tempted to tell him the rule of silence: sometimes an awkward silence is actually far less awkward than forced conversation.

Dylan stepped up to order his coffee and I could return to the safety of distraction via smartphone. I didn’t meet his eye again as he paid and walked away, but I felt like my gut was made of lead.

What the fuck was I doing?

With every step to my office, I felt more and more uncomfortable. In the past near-decade, the lines were drawn with each of my sexual partners before the sex even happened. Sometimes the conversation occurred as we left an event together, other times it came up organically when they asked if I had a girlfriend and I could simply say, “I’m dating, but not seeing one person exclusively right now.” In the few cases when the sex turned into something more, I’d always made a point to be clear about where I stood, find out where they stood, and discuss—openly—what we both wanted.

I hadn’t registered how blindsided I’d been by the appearance of Dylan—in my world, and, more importantly, in Hanna’s. For the first time ever, I’d made the assumption that when she pulled me to that back bedroom, she would want to explore sex with me . . . and only me.

Karma was clearly a bitch.

That morning, I dove into work, burning through three prospectuses and a stack of bullshit paperwork I’d been putting off for the past week. I followed up on calls, arranged for a business trip to the Bay Area to check out a few new biotechs. I barely stopped to breathe.

But when the afternoon rolled around, and I hadn’t eaten anything for hours and my caffeine rush had long since tapered, Hanna pushed her way back into my thoughts.

My office door opened and Max walked over, tossing an enormous sandwich on my desk before sinking into the chair across from me. “What’s going on, William? You look like you just found out DNA is a right-handed helix.”

“It is a right-handed helix,” I corrected him. “It just turns to the left.”

“Like your dick?”

“Exactly.” I pulled my sandwich toward me, unwrapping it. I hadn’t realized until it was in front of me, smelling delicious, just how hungry I was. “Just thinking too much.”

“Why do you look mental, then? Thinking too much is your fucking superpower, mate.”

“Not about this it isn’t.” I rubbed my face, opting for honesty over jokes. “I’m kind of confused over something.”

He took a bite, studied me. After several long moments, he asked, “This is about Tits, isn’t it?”

I looked up at him, expression flat. “You can’t call her that, Max.”

“ ’Course I can’t. Not to her face anyway. I mean, I call my Sara ‘Tongue’ after all, but she doesn’t know it.”

Despite my angst-ridden mood, I laughed at this. “You do not.”

“No, I don’t.” His smile gave way to a frown of mock contrition. “That would be tacky, wouldn’t it?”

“Very tacky.”

“I can’t help but notice that Hanna does have a fantastic pair, though.”

Laughing again, I murmured, “Maximus, you have no idea.”

He sat up straighter in his chair. “No, I don’t,” he said. “But it sounds like you do. Have you seen them? I wasn’t aware things had progressed beyond your dating-mentoring bullshit.”

When I looked up at him, I knew he could see it all in my face: I was in deep with Hanna. “I have. Things . . . uh . . . progressed the other night. And then again a couple of nights ago.” I picked at my sandwich. “We haven’t had sex, but . . . Alas, tonight she’s going on another date with this one guy.”

“Doing the ‘dating’ thing she was so keen on, eh?”

I nodded. “Seems like it.”

“Does she know you’re walking around under a lovesick rain cloud?”

I took a bite of my sandwich and threw him a look. “No,” I mumbled. “Dick.”

“She seems pretty great,” he hedged carefully.

I wiped my mouth on my napkin and leaned back in my chair. Great didn’t seem to cover it with Hanna. I hadn’t known a girl like her, maybe ever. “Max, she’s the entire package. Funny, sweet, honest, beautiful . . . I just feel so out of my depth on this.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I could sense how foreign they sounded coming from me. A strange ringing silence filled the room, and I knew the wave of mockery was coming straight at me. It was evident in the little twitch of Max’s lips.

Fuck.

He stared at me a beat longer before holding up a finger for me to wait, and pulling his phone out of his jacket pocket.

“What are you doing?” I asked, wary.

He shushed me, hitting speaker so we could both hear the call ringing. Bennett’s voice answered on the other end: “Max.”

“Ben,” Max said, leaning back in his chair with a giant grin. “It’s finally happened.”

I groaned, resting my head on my hand.

“You got your period?” Bennett asked. “Congratulations.”

“No, you twat,” Max said, laughing. “I’m talking about Will. He’s gone arse over tits for a girl.”

A loud slap sounded in the background and I imagined Bennett’s desk had just received a very enthusiastic high-five. “Fantastic! Does he look miserable?”

Max pretended to study me for a beat. “As miserable as they come. And—and!—she’s going on a date with another bloke tonight.”

“Oooh, that’s rough. What’s our boy up to?” Bennett asked.

“Looking like a sad sack of shite, is my guess,” Max answered for me, and then raised his eyebrows as if I was allowed to answer now.

“Just hanging at home,” I said. “Watching the Knicks. I’m sure Hanna will tell me all about her date. Tomorrow. When we go running.”

Bennett hummed on the other end of the line. “I should probably inform the girls.”

I groaned. “Don’t inform the girls.”

“They’ll want to come over and mother-hen you,” Bennett said. “Max and I have a dinner meeting anyway. We can’t leave you alone in this pathetic state.”

“I’m not pathetic. I’m fine! Jesus,” I muttered, “why did I say anything?”

Ignoring me, Bennett said, “Max, I’ll take care of this. Thanks for letting me know.” And the line went dead.

Chloe pushed past me, into my apartment. Her arms were full of bags of takeout.

“Having some people over at my place tonight?” I asked. She threw me a look over her shoulder and disappeared into my kitchen.

Behind her, Sara lingered in the hall, holding a six-pack and some sparkling water. “I was hungry,” she admitted. “I made Chloe order one of everything.”

I pushed the door open wider to let her in and followed her into the kitchen, where Chloe was busy unpacking enough food for seventeen people.

“I already ate,” I admitted, wincing. “I didn’t realize you were bringing dinner.”

“How can you think we weren’t bringing dinner? Bennett said you were a hot mess. Hot mess means pad thai, chocolate cupcakes, and beer. Besides, I’ve seen you eat,” she said, pointing to the cabinet where I kept my plates. “You can eat more.”

Shrugging, I grabbed three plates, some silverware, and a beer. I eased back to the living room and set up our plates on the coffee table. The girls joined me, Chloe sitting on the floor, Sara curling up next to me on the couch, and we all dug in. We sat and ate in front of the television, watching basketball in comfortable, intermittent conversation.

After all of it, I was glad they were here. They didn’t bother me with a thousand questions about feelings; they just came, ate with me, kept me company. Kept me from getting too lost in my own head. I was fairly certain it wasn’t the first time someone I was dating was out on a date with someone else, but it was the first time it even occurred to me to care.

I was happy Hanna was out, having fun. That was the weirdest part of all of it—I wanted her to have what she wanted. I just wanted her to want only me. I wanted her to come over tonight, admit that she would prefer to just fuck me and quit this dating nonsense, and that would be that. It was ridiculous, and I was the world’s biggest asshole for thinking it, especially since in the past I’d made a hundred girls feel just like I did now, but it’s what I wanted.

And, fuck, I was restless. As soon as I finished eating, I began obsessively checking my phone, checking the clock. Why hadn’t she texted? Didn’t she even have one question she needed answered? Didn’t she even want to say “hi”?

God I hated myself.

“Have you heard from her?” Chloe asked, correctly reading my fidgeting.

I shook my head. “It’s fine. I’m sure she’s fine.”

“So what did Kitty and Kristy say?” Sara asked, putting her glass of water down on the table.

“To what?” I asked.

Silence filled the space between us and I blinked, confused. “To what?” I asked, again.

“When you ended things with them,” Sara prompted.

Fuck. Fuuuuuuck.

“Oh,” I said, scratching my jaw. “I haven’t technically ended things.”

“So, you’re hung up on Hanna, but you haven’t let your other two lovers know that you have sincere feelings for someone else?”

I picked up my beer, stared down into it. It wasn’t just the hassle of going through the awkward let’s-end-this conversation with Kitty and Kristy. If I was honest with myself, it was also partly about the security of the distraction they could provide if this whole thing with Hanna went downhill. That sounded like a dick move even to me.

“Not yet,” I admitted. “It’s all so casual. Who knows if a conversation is really needed?”

Chloe leaned forward, setting her bottle down and waiting until I looked her in the eye. “Will, I love you. I really do. You are going to be a part of our wedding; you will be a part of our family. I want the best things in the world to happen to you.” She narrowed her eyes at me, and I felt my balls crawl up into my body. “But I still wouldn’t tell a girlfriend of mine to take a chance with you. I’d tell her she should let you fuck her brains out, but keep her emotions out of it because you are a clueless little shit.”

I winced, kind of chuckled, and shook my head. “That’s refreshingly honest.”

“I’m being serious. Yes, you’re always open with your sex buddies. No, you don’t have anything to hide. But what’s your thing against relationships?”

Throwing my hands in the air, I said, “I don’t have anything against relationships!”

Sara jumped in, saying, “You assume from day one that you won’t want anything more than convenient sex,” before continuing more gently, “and let me tell you, from a woman’s point of view? When you’re younger you want the boy who knows how to play the game but when you’re older you want the man who knows when it’s not a game anymore. You don’t even know that yet, and you’re, what? Thirty-one? Hanna may be young in years, but she’s an old soul, and she’s going to quickly figure out that your model isn’t the right one for her. You’re teaching Hanna how to balance multiple lovers but you should be teaching her what it feels like to be loved.”

I smiled at her, and then rubbed my face with both hands, groaning, “Did you guys come over here to lecture me?”

Sara said, “No,” at the same time that Chloe said, “Yes.”

Finally, Sara laughed and said, “Yes.” She leaned forward to put her hand on my knee. “You’re just so clueless, Will. You’re like our adorable, derpy mascot.”

“That is awful,” I said, laughing. “Don’t ever repeat that.”

We all turned back to the basketball game. It wasn’t awkward. I didn’t feel defensive. I knew they were right; I just wasn’t sure what I could actually do about any of it, seeing as how Hanna was out with fucking Dylan. It was fantastic for me to be able to admit that I wanted more with her, and that I didn’t want her out with another guy, but it one hundred percent did not matter as long as Hanna and I were on different pages about it. And the truth was, I wanted her to fuck only me, but I didn’t really want things between us to change.

Did I?

I picked up my phone, checking to see if I’d somehow missed a text from her in the past two minutes.

“Jesus, Will. Just fucking text her!” Chloe said, throwing a napkin at me.

I stood abruptly, less to comply with Chloe’s bossy shit and more to just move. What was Hanna doing right now? Where were they? It was almost nine. Shouldn’t they be done with dinner by now?

Actually, given his track record, she was probably at home . . . unless they were at his place?

I felt my eyes go wide. Was it possible she was in his bed? Having sex with him? I closed them just as fast, jaw bulging as I remembered how she felt beneath me, her curves, the feeling of her knees pressed to my sides. And to think she might be with that weaselly kid? Naked?

Fuck that.

Turning, I walked down the hall toward my bedroom, stopping when my phone buzzed in my palm. I don’t think even my knee-jerk reflex was as fast as my reaction to the lit screen. But it was only Max.

Your girl is here at the restaurant with me and Ben. Nicely done on the Project Hanna, Will. She looks bloody hot.

I groaned, leaning against the wall in my hallway as I typed. Is she kissing the kid?

No, Max replied. She keeps checking her phone though. Stop texting her, you little shit. She’s “exploring life” right now, remember.

Ignoring his obvious attempt to rile me, I stared at the text, reading it again, and again. I knew I was the only person who regularly texted Hanna, and I hadn’t sent her anything all night. Was it possible she was checking her phone as obsessively as I’d been checking mine?

I moved down the hall, slipping into the bathroom under the ruse of actually using it for its intended purpose and instead sitting on the edge of my tub. It wasn’t a game with her. Sara was wrong there; I knew it wasn’t a game. It wasn’t even fun right now. My time away from Hanna oscillated wildly between exhilaration and obsessive anxiety. Is this what it was about? Taking this kind of risk, opening up and gambling on someone else’s ability to tread carefully with your feelings?

My thumbs hovered over the letters for several pounding heartbeats and then I typed a single line, reading it over, and over, checking it for diction, tone, and the overall no-big-deal-I’m-not-obsessing-about-your-night-or-anything vibe of it. Finally, I closed my eyes, and hit SEND.