“Do you want to do something today?” I blurted. So much for calm.
He hesitated and I could have smacked myself for not considering that he’d already have plans. Like work. And after work, maybe a date with a girlfriend. Or a wife. Suddenly I was straining to hear every sound that pushed through the crackling silence.
After an eternity, he asked, “What did you have in mind?”
Will paused for several painful beats. “I have a thing. A late meeting. What about tomorrow?”
“Lab. I already scheduled an eighteen-hour time point with these cells that are really slow-growing and I will legitimately stab myself with a sharp tool if I mess this up and have to start over.”
He hummed before asking, “What time do you need to go in this morning?”
“Later,” I said, glancing at the clock with a wince. It was only six. “Maybe around nine or ten.”
“Do you want to join me at the park for a run?”
“Yes,” he said, outright laughing now. “Not the I’m-being-chased running, but the I’m-exercising running.”
I squeezed my eyes closed, feeling the familiar itch to follow this through, like a challenge, a damn assignment. Stupid Jensen. “When?”
I glanced out the window again. It was barely light out. There was snow on the ground. Change, I reminded myself. And with that, I closed my eyes and said, “Text me directions. I’ll meet you there.”It was cold. Ass-freezing cold would be a more accurate description.
I reread Will’s text telling me to meet him near the Engineers Gate at Fifth and Ninetieth in Central Park and paced back and forth, trying to stay warm. The morning air burned my face and seeped through the fabric of my pants. I wished I’d brought a hat. I wish I’d remembered it was February in New York and only crazy people went to the park in February in New York. I couldn’t feel my fingers and I was legitimately worried the cold air combined with the windchill might cause my ears to fall off.
There were only a handful of people nearby: overachieving fitness types and a young couple huddled together on a bench beneath a giant spindly tree, each clasping to-go cups of something that looked warm, and delicious. A flock of gray birds pecked at the ground, and the sun was just making an appearance over the skyscrapers in the distance.
I’d hovered on the edge between socially appropriate and rambling geek most of my life, so of course I’d felt out of my element before: when I got that research award in front of thousands of parents and students at MIT, almost anytime I went shopping for myself, and, most memorably, when Ethan Kingman wanted me to go down on him in the eleventh grade and I had absolutely no idea how I was supposed to do so and breathe at the same time. And now, watching the sky brighten with each passing minute, I would have gratefully escaped to any one of those memories to get out of doing this.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go running . . . actually, yes, that was a lot of it. I didn’t want to go running. I wasn’t even sure I knew how to run for sport. But I wasn’t dreading seeing Will. I was just nervous. I remembered the way he’d been—there was always something slow and hypnotic about his attention. Something about him that exuded sex. I’d never had to interact with him one-on-one before, and I worried that I simply lacked the composure to handle it.
My brother had given me a task—go live your life more fully—knowing that if there was one way to ensure I’d tackle something, it was to make me think I was failing. And while I was pretty sure it hadn’t been Jensen’s intent that I spend time with Will to learn how to date and to, lets face it, get laid, I needed to get inside Will’s head, learn from the master and be more like him in those ways. I just had to pretend I was a secret agent on an undercover assignment: get in and out and escape unharmed.
After seventeen-year-old Liv had made out with a pierced, bass-playing nineteen-year-old Will over Christmas, I’d learned a lot about what it looks like when a teenage girl gets hung up on the bad boy. Will Sumner was the definition of that boy.
They all wanted my sister, but Liv had never talked about anyone the way she talked about Will.
My head snapped up and toward the sound of my name, and I did a double take as the man in question walked toward me. He was taller than I remembered, and had the type of body that was long and lean, a torso that went on forever and limbs that should have made him clumsy but somehow didn’t. There’d always been something about him, something magnetic and irresistible that was unrelated to classically symmetrical good looks, but my memory of Will from even four years ago paled in comparison to the man in front of me now.
His smile was still the same: slightly crooked and always lingering, lending a constant sense of mischief to his face. As he approached, he glanced in the direction of a siren and I caught the angle of his stubbly jaw, the length of smooth, tan neck that disappeared beneath the collar of his microfleece.
When he got to me, his smile widened. “Morning,” he said. “Thought it was you. I remember you used to pace like that when you were nervous about school or something. Drove your mom nuts.”
And without thinking, I stepped forward, wrapped my arms around his neck, and hugged him tight. I couldn’t remember ever being this close to Will before. He was warm and solid; I closed my eyes when I felt him press his face to the top of my head.
His deep voice seemed to vibrate through me: “It’s so good to see you.”
Reluctantly, I took a step back, inhaling the way the fresh air mixed with the clean scent of his soap. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Bright blue eyes looked down at me from beneath a black beanie, his dark hair tucked haphazardly beneath it. He stepped closer and placed something on my head. “Figured you’d need this.”
I reached up, feeling the thick wool cap. Wow, that was disarmingly charming. “Thanks. Maybe I’ll get to keep my ears after all.”
He grinned, stepping back as he looked me up and down. “You look . . . different, Ziggs.”
I laughed. “No one but my family has called me that in forever.”
His smile fell and he searched my face for a moment as if, were he lucky enough, my given name would be tattooed there. He’d only ever called me Ziggy, just like my siblings—Jensen, of course, but also Liv and Niels and Eric. Until I left home, I’d always just been Ziggy. “Well, what do your friends call you?”
He continued to stare. He stared at my neck, at my lips, and then took time to inspect my eyes. The energy between us was palpable . . . but, no. I had to be completely misreading the situation. This was precisely the danger of Will Sumner.
Will blinked, seemed to realize where we were. “Right.”
He nodded, reaching up to pull his hat down farther over his ears. He looked so different than I remembered—clean-cut and successful—but if I looked close enough, I could still see the faint marks where his earrings used to be.
“First,” he said, and I quickly pulled my attention back to his face. “I want you to watch out for black ice. They do a good job of keeping the trails clear but if you’re not paying attention you can really hurt yourself.”
He pointed to the path winding around the frozen water. “This is the lower loop. It surrounds the reservoir and should be perfect because it only has a few inclines.”
“And you run this every day?”
Will’s eyes twinkled as he shook his head. “Not this one. This is only a mile and a half. Since you’re just starting out we’ll walk the first and last bit, running the mile in the middle.”
“Why don’t we just run your usual route?” I asked, not liking the idea of him slowing down or changing his routine for me.
“I can totally do that,” I said. Six miles didn’t seem like that many. It was just under thirty-two thousand feet. If I took big strides, that was only maybe sixteen thousand steps . . . I felt my mouth turn down at the corners as I fully considered this.
He patted my shoulder with exaggerated patience. “Of course you can. But let’s see how you do today and we’ll talk.”
And then? He winked.So apparently I wasn’t much of a runner.
“You do this every day?” I panted. I could feel a trickle of sweat run from my temple down my neck and didn’t even have the strength to reach up and wipe it away.
He nodded, looking like he was just out enjoying a brisk morning walk. I felt like I was going to die.
He looked over at me, wearing a smug—and delicious—grin. “Half a mile.”
I straightened and lifted my chin. I could do this. I was young and in . . . reasonably good shape. I stood almost all day, ran from room to room in the lab, and always took the stairs when I went home. I could totally do this.
“Good . . .” I said. My lungs seemed to have filled with cement and I could only take tiny, gasping breaths. “Feels great.”
“Nope.” I could practically hear the blood pumping through my veins, the force of my heartbeat inside my chest. Our feet pounded on the trail and, no, I definitely wasn’t cold anymore.
“Other than being busy all the time,” he asked, breath not even the slightest bit labored, “do you like the work you’re doing?”
We spoke for a while about my project, the other people in my lab. He knew my graduate advisor from his reputation in the vaccine field, and I was impressed to see that Will kept up with the literature even in a field he said didn’t always perform the best in the venture capital world. But he was curious about more than my job; he wanted to know about my life, asked about it point-blank.
“My life is the lab,” I said, glancing at him to gauge his level of judgment. He barely blinked. There were a few graduate students, and an army of post-docs cranking out papers. “They’re all great,” I explained, swallowing before taking in a huge gulp of air. “But I get along best with two that are both married with kids, so we aren’t exactly going to go hit the pool tables after work.”
“I don’t think the pool tables are still open after you’re done with work anyway,” he teased. “Isn’t that why I’m here? Big-brothering—getting you out of your routine kind of thing?”
“Right,” I said laughing. “And although I was pretty annoyed when Jensen flat-out told me I needed to get a life, he’s not exactly wrong.” I paused, running a few more steps. “I’ve just been so focused on work for so long, and getting over the next hurdle, and then the next one, I haven’t really stopped to enjoy any of it.”
I tried to ignore the pressure of his gaze, and kept my eyes pinned on the trail in front of us. “Do you ever feel like the people who mean the most aren’t the people you see the most?” When he didn’t respond, I added, “Lately I just feel like I’m not putting my heart where it matters.”
From my peripheral vision I saw him glance away, nodding. It took forever for him to reply, but when he did, he said, “Yeah, I get that.”
A moment later, I looked over at the sound of Will laughing. It was deep, and the sound vibrated through my skin and into my bones.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I followed his gaze to where my arms were crossed over my chest. I winced inwardly before admitting, “My boobs hurt. How do guys do this?”
“Well, for one, we don’t have . . .” He waved vaguely to my chest region.
“But, what about the other stuff? Like, do you run in boxers?” Holy hell, what is wrong with me? Problem number one: no verbal filter.
He looked over at me again, confused, and almost tripped on a fallen branch. “What?”
“Boxers?” I repeated, making the word into three full syllables. “Or do you have things that keep your man parts from—”
He interrupted me with a loud barking laugh that echoed off the trees in the frigid air. “Yeah, no boxers,” he said. “There’d be too much stuff moving around down there.” He winked and then looked forward at the trail, wearing a flirty half-grin.
Will threw me an amused look. “If you must know, I wear running shorts. Form-fitted to keep the boys safe.”
“Guess girls are just lucky that way. No stuff down there to just”—I waved my arms around wildly—“flop all over the place. We’re compact down below.”
We reached a flat part of the trail, and slowed to a walk. Will laughed quietly next to me. “I’ve noticed.”
He threw me a skeptical look. “What?”
For a split second my brain attempted to hold back what I was about to say, but it was too late. I’d never been particularly good at censoring my thoughts—a fact my family was more than happy to point out whenever the chance arose—but here it felt like my brain was stealing this rare opportunity to let it all out with the legendary Will, as if I may not get another chance. “The . . . pu**y expert,” I whispered, all but mouthing the P-word.