Beautiful Player [Beautiful Series]

Chapter 9

I was not going to text Will.

“. . . and then maybe live abroad someday . . .”

I was not going to text Will.

“. . . maybe Germany. Or, maybe Turkey . . .”

I blinked back to the conversation and nodded to Dylan, who sat opposite me and who had basically trekked the entire globe during our conversation. “That sounds really exciting,” I said, smile stretched wide across my face.

He looked down to the linen tablecloth, cheeks slightly pink. Okay, so he was pretty cute. Like a puppy. “I used to think I’d want to live in Brazil,” he continued. “But I love visiting there so much, I don’t want it to ever feel familiar, you know?”

I nodded again, doing my best to pay attention and rein in my thoughts, to focus on my date and not the fact that my phone had been silent all night.

The restaurant Dylan had chosen was nice, not overly romantic but cozy. Soft lighting, wide windows, nothing heavy or too serious. Nothing that screamed date. I’d had the halibut; Dylan had ordered a steak. His plate was practically empty; I’d hardly touched mine.

What had he been saying? A summer in Brazil? “How many languages did you say you spoke again?” I asked, hoping I was close enough to the mark.

I must have been because he smiled, obviously pleased I’d remembered this detail. Or at least that such a detail existed.

“Three.”

I sat back a little, genuinely impressed. “Wow, that’s . . . that’s really amazing, Dylan.”

And that wasn’t even stretching the truth. He was amazing. Dylan was good-looking and smart and everything an intelligent girl would be looking for. But when the waiter stopped at our table to refill our drinks, none of those things kept me from glancing quickly down to my phone again, and frowning at the blank screen.

No messages, no missed calls—nothing. Damn.

I swiped a finger over Will’s name, and reread a few of his texts from earlier in the day. Random thought: I’d like to see you stoned. Pot amplifies personality traits so you’d probably talk so much your head would explode, though I don’t know how you could possibly say even crazier things than you do now.

And another: Just saw you on 81st and Amsterdam. I was in a cab with Max and watched you cross the street in front of us. Were you wearing panties under that skirt? I plan on filing that away in the old spankbank so whatever you do, just say no.

The time stamp on his last message was just after one this afternoon, almost six hours ago. I scrolled through a few more before pressing the box to type, my thumb hovering over the keyboard. What could he possibly be doing? The phrase or who crept into my thoughts and I felt my frown deepen.

I started typing out a message and deleted it just as quickly. I will not text Will, I reminded myself. I will not text Will. Ninja. Secret agent. Get the secrets, and get out unharmed.

“Hanna?”

I looked up again; Dylan was watching me.

“Hmm?”

His brows drew together for a moment before he laughed a small, uncertain sound. “Are you okay tonight? You seem a bit distracted.”

“Yeah,” I said, horrified to have been caught. I lifted the phone from my lap. “Just waiting for a text from my mom,” I lied. Horribly.

“But everything’s good?”

“Absolutely.”

With a small, relieved sigh, Dylan pushed his plate away and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “So what about you? I feel like I’ve done nothing but talk. Tell me about the research you’re doing.” For the first time all night, I felt the grip on my phone lessen. This I could do. Talk about my work and school and science? Hell yes.

We’d just finished dessert and my explanation of how I was collaborating with another lab in our department to engineer vaccines for Trypansoma cruzi when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to see Max standing behind me.

“Hey!” I said, surprised to see him here.

He was about ten feet tall and yet when he bent to kiss my cheek, he didn’t look awkward at all. “Hanna, you look absolutely smashing tonight.”

Damn. That accent was going to kill me dead. I smiled. “Well, you can pass your compliments to Sara; she’s actually the one who picked out this dress.”

I wouldn’t have thought it possible for him to get even more attractive, but the proud grin that stretched across his face did just that. “I’ll do that. And who is this?” he said, turning to Dylan.

“Oh!” I said, turning back to my date. “Sorry, Max, this is Dylan Nakamura. Dylan, this is Max Stella, my friend Will’s business partner.” The two men shook hands and chatted for a moment, and I had to talk myself out of asking about Will. I was on a date, after all. I shouldn’t be thinking of him in the first place.

“Well, I’ll just leave you two to it, then,” Max said.

“Tell Sara I said hi.”

“Absolutely. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

I watched Max walk back to his table, where a group of men were waiting for him. I wondered if he was out for a business dinner, and if so, why hadn’t Will gone with him? I realized I didn’t know much about his job, but didn’t they do this kind of stuff together?

A few minutes later, just as the bill came, my phone vibrated in my lap.

How’s your night, Plum?

I closed my eyes, feeling that word vibrate through me like an electrical current. I thought back on the last time he’d called me that and felt my insides liquefy.

Fine. Max is here, did you send him to check on me?

Ha! As if he’d ever do that for me. And he just messaged. Said you look pretty hot tonight.

I’d never known I was much of a blusher before Will, but I felt the heat as it flashed through my cheeks. He looked pretty hot himself.

Not funny, Hanna.

You home? I hit SEND and then held my breath. What would I do if he said no?

Yes.

I was really going to have a talk with myself; knowing Will was home and texting me should not have made me quite so damn happy. Running tomorrow? I asked.

Of course.

Quickly wiping the smile from my face before Dylan noticed, I tucked my phone away. Will was home and I could rest easy and attempt to enjoy the rest of my night.

“So how was your date?” he asked, stretching beside me.

“Good,” I said. “Fine.”

“Fine?”

“Yeah.” I shrugged, unable to get it up for a more enthusiastic response. “Fine,” I said again. “Good.” I felt decidedly worse about my Will codependency this morning than I did last night. I would need to get my act together and remember: Secret agent. Like a Ninja. Learn from the best.

He shook his head. “What a glowing review.”

I didn’t respond, instead walking to retrieve the water bottle I’d stowed against a nearby tree. It was cold—so cold the water had turned to slush and sloshed around as I tried to force it open. We were at the post-workout stage of our run, where Will would give me a pep talk and say something inappropriate about my boobs, and I would complain about the cold or the lack of easily accessible bathrooms in Manhattan.

And I really wasn’t sure I wanted to have this conversation today, or admit that while I actually liked Dylan, I didn’t daydream about kissing him or sucking on his neck or watching him come on my hip, like I did a certain someone else. I didn’t want to tell him I was constantly distracted on our dates and having a hard time becoming invested. And I also refused to admit that I was failing at this whole dating thing, and might never learn how to keep things casual, enjoy life, be young, and experience things the way Will could.

He ducked to meet my eyes and I registered that he was repeating a question. “What time did you get back?”

“A little after nine, I think?”

“Nine?” he said, laughing. “Again?”

“Maybe a little later. Why is that so funny?”

“Two dates in a row end at nine o’clock? Is he your grandfather? Did he take you out for the early bird special?”

“For your information I had to run into lab early this morning. And what about your wild night, Player? Partake in any orgies? Maybe a rave or two?” I asked, intent on changing the subject.

“Kind of did the Fight Club thing,” he said, scratching his jaw. “Except without the guys or the punching.” At my confused stare, he clarified, “Basically, I had takeout with Chloe and Sara at my place. Hey, you sore today?”

I immediately remembered the delicious ache his fingers had left me with after Denny’s party, and the way my pelvic bone felt almost bruised from grinding against him on the floor of his apartment.

“Sore?” I repeated, blinking quickly back to him.

He smiled knowingly. “Sore from yesterday’s run. Jesus, Hanna. Get your mind out of the gutter. You were home by nine—what else could I possibly have been talking about?”

I took another pull from my water bottle, and winced at the cold on my teeth. “I’m good.”

“Another rule, Plum. You can only use the word good so many times in a conversation before it becomes disingenuous. Find better adjectives to describe your state of mind post-dates.”

I wasn’t exactly sure how to handle Will this morning. He seemed a little edgy. I’d thought I had him figured, but my thoughts, too, seemed to be all over the place, a growing problem when we were together. Or judging by last night, when we were apart, too. Did he care at all that I’d been out with Dylan?

Did I want him to care?

Ugh. This dating thing was way too complicated, and I wasn’t even sure whether Will and I were technically dating. It seemed to be one of the only questions I couldn’t ask him.

“Well,” he said, sliding his gaze to me with a teasing little smile. “Just so you’re clear on the meaning of the word ‘dating’, maybe you should go out with someone else. Just to see how it all works. What about another one of the guys at the party? Aaron? Or Hau?”

“Hau has a girlfriend. Aaron . . .”

He nodded encouragingly. “He seemed pretty fit.”

“He’s fit,” I agreed, hedging. “But, he’s sort of . . . SN2?”

Will’s brows pulled together in confusion. “ ‘SN2’?”

“You know,” I said, waving my hands awkwardly. “Like when the C-X bond is broken, and the nucleophile attacks the carbon at one hundred-eighty degrees to the leaving group?” The words came out in a breathless rush.

“Oh, my God. Did you just use an O-chem reference to tell me Aaron looks better from the back than the front?”

I groaned and looked away. “I think I just broke some sort of nerd record.”

“No, that was amazing,” he said, sounding genuinely awed. “I wish I thought of that about ten years ago.” His mouth turned down at the corners when he considered this. “But honestly, it’s awesome when you say it. If I said it, I would just sound like a giant dick.”

I swallowed, most definitely not glancing down at his shorts.

Despite the dropping temperatures and early hour, more people than usual had decided to brave the cold. A cute pair of college guys kicked a soccer ball back and forth, dark beanies pulled down over each of their heads and Styrofoam cups of rapidly cooling coffee in the grass nearby. A woman with a giant stroller power-walked by us, and a handful of others ran along the various trails. I looked over just in time to see Will bend in front of me, reaching to tie his shoe.

“I’ve got to hand it to you. I’m really impressed with how hard you’re working,” he said to me over his shoulder.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, moving to stretch my hamstrings the way he’d taught me, and most definitely not look at his ass. “Hard.”

“What was that?”

“Hard work,” I repeated. “Really hard.”

He straightened and I followed the movement, forcing myself to blink away before he turned.

“Not going to lie to you,” he said, stretching his back. “I was surprised you didn’t punk out that first week.”

I should have glared and been annoyed that he’d assumed I’d give up so quickly, but instead I nodded, attempting to look pretty much everywhere other than that strip of stomach that showed when he stretched his arms over his head or the line of muscle that cut down both sides of his abdomen.

“Might even place in the top fifty at the race if you keep it up.”

My eyes darted across that small sliver of skin, and the landscape of muscle beneath it. I swallowed, immediately recalling what it felt like under my fingertips. “Definitely keeping it up,” I mumbled, giving up and staring outright at his exposed skin.

Clearing my throat, I turned away from him and began walking back down the trail because honestly, that body was just obscene.

“So what time’s your date tonight?” he asked, jogging to catch up.

“Tomorrow,” I said.

He laughed beside me. “Okay, what time’s your date tomorrow?”

“Um . . . six?” I scrunched my nose, trying to remember. “No, eight.”

“Shouldn’t you be sure?”

I slid my eyes to him, giving a guilty smile. “Probably.”

“Are you excited?”

I shrugged. “I guess.”

Laughing, he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “What does he do again?”

“Drosophila stuff,” I mumbled. He’d given me an opening to talk about science and I couldn’t even get it up for that this morning. I was a mess.

“A genetics man!” he said in a playfully booming voice. “Thomas Hunt Morgan gave us the chromosome, and now labs across the country give other labs tiny, escapee fruit flies all over the building.” He was trying to be jovial, but his voice was so deep and sexual, even when he geeked out, he only made my bones rattle, my limbs go all liquid. “And Dylan is nice? Funny? Great in bed?”

“Sure.”

Will stopped, his look thunderous. “Sure?”

I looked up at him. “I mean, of course he is.” And then his words sunk in. “Well, except the great in bed part. I haven’t sampled the goods.”

Will turned to keep walking, staying silent, and I chanced another look over at him. “Speaking of which, can I ask you a question?”

He glanced at me from the corner of his eye, wary. “Yes,” he said slowly.

“What exactly is third-date etiquette? I googled it—”

“You googled it?”

“Yes, and the consensus seems to be that the third date is the sex date.”

He stopped and I had to turn to face him. His face had gone red. “Is he pressuring you to have sex?”

“What?” I stared at him, bewildered. Where did he get that idea? “Of course not.”

“Then why are you asking about sex?”

“Calm down,” I said. “I can wonder what the expectations are without him having to be pushy about it. Good Lord, Will, I just want to be prepared.”

He exhaled and shook his head. “You drive me insane sometimes.”

“Likewise.” I stared off into the distance, thinking out loud. “It just seems there’s like some sort of progression chart. Dates one and two seemed pretty much the same. But how does one go from that to sex date? A cheat sheet would definitely make this less confusing.”

“You don’t need a cheat sheet. Jesus.” He pulled his beanie from his head, pushed his hair back, I could practically see the wheels turning in his head. “Okay, so . . . the first date is sort of like the interview. He’s scanned your resume”—he looked at me meaningfully and lifted his brows, eyes moving directly to my chest—“and now it’s time to see if you live up to that. There’s the field trip portion, the Q and A, the could this person be a serial killer? thought process, and of course, the do I want to have sex with this person? elimination decision. And let’s be honest, if a man has asked you out he already wants to have sex with you.”

“Okay,” I said, eyeing him skeptically. I tried to imagine Will in this scenario: meeting a woman, taking her out, deciding if he wants to have sex with her or not. I was ninety-seven percent sure I didn’t like it. “And date two?”

“Well, the second date is the callback. You’ve passed the preliminary screening—so the other party obviously likes what you bring to the table—and now it’s time to follow up. To take it to human resources and see if your charming answers and sparkling personality were all just a fluke. And also to see if they still want to have sex with you. Which again . . .” he said, and shrugged as if to say duh.

“And the third date?” I asked.

“Well, this is where shit gets real. You’ve gone out twice and obviously still like the other person; they’ve met all your requirements so this is where it’s all put to the test. You’re compatible on some level and usually this is where you get naked, to see if you can ‘work well together.’ Guys usually up the stakes: flowers, compliments, romantic restaurant.”

“So . . . sex.”

“Sometimes. But not always,” he stressed. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, Hanna. Ever. I will remove the balls of any man who pressures you.”

My insides went warm and fluttery. My brothers had said almost the same thing to me on different occasions and I can assure you, it sounded very different coming out of Will Sumner’s mouth. “I know that.”

“Do you want to have sex with him?” he asked, attempting to sound casual but failing miserably. He couldn’t even look at me, and instead stared down where he was pulling at a string in the hem of his shirt. I felt a shiver move down my spine at the hint that he wasn’t entirely okay with this.

I took a deep breath, thought about it. My first instinct was to rush to an automatic no, but instead, I just shrugged, noncommittal. Dylan was cute and I’d let him kiss me good night at my doorstep, but it was nothing compared to what I’d experienced with Will. And that was one hundred percent of my problem. I was pretty sure the reason Will made me feel good was that he was experienced. But that was exactly why he was off-limits.

“Honestly,” I admitted. “I’m not even sure. I guess I’ll just have to see how I feel when the time comes.”

Any doubts I may have had about Will’s third-date protocol were quickly put to rest as soon as Dylan and I stepped inside the restaurant I had chosen.

Dylan had wanted to take me somewhere I’d never been before—not hard considering I’d been in New York three years and barely left the lab to eat. He smiled proudly when the cab pulled up and deposited us at Daniel, at Park and Sixty-fifth.

If I’d been asked to draw you a picture of a romantic eatery, it would have looked exactly like this: cream walls, silvery grays and chocolate browns, arches and Grecian columns that skirted the main dining area. Round tables draped in sumptuous linens, vases of greenery everywhere and all of it set beneath giant glass light fixtures. The complete opposite of our second-date place. The stakes had been raised.

I was not prepared.

Dinner started off well enough. We selected appetizers and Dylan ordered a bottle of wine, but it had gone downhill from there. I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t text Will but near the end when Dylan excused himself to go to the bathroom, I caved. I think I’m failing third date 101.

He answered almost immediately. What? Impossible. Have you seen your teacher?

He ordered some expensive wine and then seemed insulted when I didn’t want any. You never care that I don’t drink, I typed.

The icon appeared to show that he’d entered text—quite a bit of it if the amount of time it took was any indication—so I waited and looked around to make sure Dylan wasn’t headed back my way.

That’s because I’m a genius and can do basic math: I pour you half a glass, you pretend to drink it all night, and so the rest of the bottle’s for me. Boom, smartest man alive.

Pretty sure he doesn’t see it that way, I typed.

So tell him you’re much more fun when you’re actually awake and not drooling into your soup. Why are you texting me, btw? Where’s Prince Charming?

Bathroom. We’re leaving.

A full minute elapsed before he answered, Oh?

Yeah, my place. He’s coming back, I’ll let you know how it goes.

The ride back to my apartment was awkward. Stupid dating rules and expectations and Google, and stupid Will for getting in my head in the first place.

I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t really want Will. Will had a program of lovers and a shady past. Will didn’t want attachments or relationships, and I at least wanted to be open to it. Will wasn’t an option or part of the plan. I liked sex; I wanted to do it with another person again soon. Wasn’t this how it happened? Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, girl decides to let boy in her pants. I was definitely ready to let someone into my pants. So where was the rush, the feeling of heat climbing up my legs and settling in my stomach, the ache I’d felt at the very idea of pulling Will into that bedroom? The feeling that had sent me out into the snow at 3 a.m. and the thought that I might explode the moment his hands found my skin?

I most certainly didn’t feel that now.

The snow had just started to fall outside by the time we reached my building. Upstairs in my apartment, I switched on the lamp and Dylan hovered near the front door awkwardly for a moment before I invited him in. I was moving on autopilot. My stomach was in knots and the white noise in my head was so loud I wanted to turn on the most obnoxious music I could find just to block it out.

Should I? Shouldn’t I? Do I even want to?

I offered him a nightcap—I actually said “nightcap”—to which he said yes. I moved to the kitchen, pulled down some glasses and poured a tiny bit for me, a large drink for him, hoping maybe it would make him sleepy. I turned to hand him his glass and was surprised to find him right there, completely in my space. A strange sense of wrongness seeped into my chest.

Dylan wordlessly took the glass from my hand and set it back on the counter. Soft fingertips brushed along my cheeks, over my nose. He took my face in his hands. His first kiss was tentative, slow and exploring. A small peck before he came back in for another. I closed my eyes tight at the first touch of his tongue, felt the racing of my heart and wished it had something to do with longing and lust, and not this clawing sense of panic that had started to build in my throat.

His lips were too soft and tentative. Pillow lips. His breath tasted like potatoes. I was aware of the ticking clock above the stove, the sound of someone yelling in an apartment nearby. Did I notice anything when I kissed Will? I noticed the way he smelled, the way his skin felt beneath my fingertips and the way it felt like I might explode if he didn’t touch me there and deeper. But never anything as commonplace as the garbage trucks rumbling outside.

“What’s wrong?” Dylan said, taking a step back. I touched my lips; they felt fine, not swollen or abused. Not thoroughly ruined.

“I don’t think this is going to work,” I said.

He was quiet for a moment, eyes searching mine, obviously confused. “But I thought—”

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

He nodded, taking another step back before running his hands through his hair. “I guess . . . If this is about Will, well, tell him congratulations.”

I closed the door behind Dylan and turned, pressing my back to the cool wood. My phone felt heavy and leaden in my pocket and I pulled it out, found the name of He Who Effectively Hijacked My Brain, and started to type.

I started and erased a dozen different messages before finally stopping on one. I typed it and waited just a moment before I pressed SEND.

Where are you