“You just forget what you were like before Sara,” I said. “Stop acting like you lived in a monastery.”
He acknowledged this with a wink and his big, easy smile. “So tell me about this little sis.”
“She’s the youngest of the five Bergstrom kids, and in grad school here at Columbia. Ziggy’s always been this ridiculous brain. Finished undergrad in three years, and now works in the Liemacki lab? The one who does the vaccine work?”
Max shook his head and shrugged as if to say, The f**k are you talking about?
I continued, “It’s a very high-profile operation over at the med school. Anyway, last weekend in Vegas when you were off chasing your pu**y to the blackjack tables, Jensen texted to let me know he was coming to visit her. I guess he gave her a Come-to-Jesus about not living among the test tubes and beakers for the rest of her life.”
The waiter came by to fill our water glasses, and we explained that we were waiting on a few more people to join the table.
Max looked back to me. “So you have plans to see her again, yeah?”
“Yeah. I’m sure we’ll go out and do something this weekend. I think we’ll run together again.”
I didn’t miss the way his eyes widened. “Letting someone in your private little running headspace? That seems like it would be more intimate than sex to you, William.”
“So it was fun then? Catching up with the little sis and all?”
It had been fun. It hadn’t been wild, or even anything all that special—we’d gone for a run, of all things. But I still felt a little shaken by how unexpected she had been. I’d gone in thinking there had to be a reason for her isolation, other than her long work hours. I’d expected she would be awkward, or hideous, or the poster child for inappropriate social behavior.
But she’d been none of those things, and she definitely didn’t seem anything like someone’s “little sister.” She was na?ve and a bit unfiltered at times, but really she was simply hardworking and had found herself trapped in a set of habits she didn’t enjoy anymore. I could relate.
I’d first met the Bergstroms over Christmas, my sophomore year in college. I hadn’t been able to afford to fly home that year, and Jensen’s mother had such a fit at the idea of me staying alone in the dorms that she drove down from Boston two days before Christmas to pick me up and bring me home for the holidays. The family was as loving and loud as one would expect with five kids spaced almost exactly two years apart.
True to form for that stage in my life, I’d thanked them by secretly fooling around with their oldest daughter in the shed out back.
A few years later I’d interned for Johan, and lived at the Bergstrom house. Most of the other kids had moved out or stayed near college for the summer, so it was just me and Jensen, and the youngest daughter, Ziggy. Theirs had come to feel like a second home to me. Still, even though I’d lived near her for three months, and had seen her a few years ago at Jensen’s wedding, when she’d called yesterday, it had been hard to even remember her face.
But when I saw her at the park, more memories than I realized I’d had came flooding in. Ziggy at twelve, her freckled nose hidden behind books. She’d offer only the occasional shy smile across the dinner table, but otherwise avoided contact with me. I’d been nineteen and nearly oblivious anyway. And I remembered Ziggy at sixteen, all legs and elbows, her tangled hair cascading down her back. She spent her afternoons wearing cutoff shorts and tank tops, reading on a blanket in the backyard while I worked with her father. I’d checked her out, like I’d checked out every female at the time, as if I were scanning and cataloging body parts. The girl was curvy, but quiet, and obviously na?ve enough about the art of flirting to earn my scornful disinterest. At the time, my life had been full of curiosity and kink, younger and older women who were willing to try anything once.
But this afternoon, it felt as though a bomb had gone off in my head. Seeing her face was—strangely—like being home again, but also like meeting a beautiful girl for the first time. She didn’t look anything like Liv or Jensen, who were towheaded and gangly, almost carbon copies of one another. Ziggy looked like her father, for better or worse. She had the paradoxical combination of her father’s long limbs and her mother’s curves. She inherited Johan’s gray eyes, light brown hair, and freckles, but her mother’s wide-open smile.
I’d hesitated when she stepped forward, wrapped her arms around my neck, and squeezed. It was a comfortable hug, bordering on intimate. Other than Chloe and Sara, I didn’t have a lot of females in my life who were strictly friends. When I hugged a woman like that—close and pressing—there was generally some sexual element. Ziggy had always been the kid sister, but there in my arms it fully registered that she wasn’t a kid anymore. She was a twenty-something woman with her warm hands on my neck and her body flush to mine. She smelled like shampoo and coffee. She smelled like a woman, and beneath the bulk of her sweatshirt and pathetically thin jacket, I could feel the shape of her br**sts press against my chest. When she stepped back and looked me over, I’d immediately liked her: she hadn’t dressed up, hadn’t put on makeup or expensive workout gear. She wore her brother’s Yale sweatshirt, black pants that were too short, and shoes that definitely looked like they’d seen better days. She wasn’t trying to impress me; she just wanted to see me.
She’s so sheltered, man, Jensen had said when he’d called a little over a week ago. I feel like I let her down by not anticipating she had Dad’s work-obsession genes. We’re going down to visit her. I don’t even know what to do.
I blinked back into awareness when Sara and Bennett approached the table. Max stood to greet them, and I looked away as he leaned over to kiss Sara just beneath her ear, whispering, “You look beautiful, Petal.”
“Are we waiting on Chloe?” I asked once everyone was seated.
Bennett spoke from behind his menu. “She’s in Boston until Friday.”
“Well, thank fuck,” Max said. “Because I’m starving and that woman takes forever to decide what she wants.”
Bennett laughed quietly, sliding his menu back on the table.
I was relieved, too, not because I was hungry but because I was fine occasionally having a break from the role of fifth wheel. My four coupled-up friends were two steps away from Smug and had long ago skipped past Overly-Invested-in-Will’s-Dating-Life. They were convinced that I was two breaths away from having my heart ripped out by the woman of my dreams and were eager for the show.
And, only increasing this obsession, upon returning from Vegas last week, I’d made the mistake of casually mentioning that I was feeling detached from my two regular lovers, Kitty and Kristy. Both women were happy to meet regularly for no-strings f**king and didn’t seem to mind the existence of the other—or the occasional new fling I might have—but lately I felt like I was just going through the motions:
and then I was gone, or they were.
Had it all become too easy? Or was I finally getting tired of just sex—sex?!
And why the f**k was I thinking about all of this again, now? I sat up, scrubbed my face with my hands. Nothing in my life had changed in a day. I’d had a nice morning with Ziggy, that’s it. That was it. The fact that she was disarmingly genuine and funny and surprisingly pretty shouldn’t have thrown me so dramatically.
“So what were we discussing?” Bennett asked, thanking the waiter when he slid a gimlet on the table in front of him.
“We were discussing Will’s reunion with an old friend this morning,” Max said, and then added in a stage whisper, “a lady friend.”
Sara laughed. “Will saw a woman this morning? Why is this news?”
Bennett held up his hand. “Wait, isn’t tonight Kitty? And you had another date this morning?” He sipped his gimlet, eyeing me.
In fact, Kitty was the exact reason I’d suggested to Hanna that we meet up this morning instead of tonight: Kitty was my late meeting. But the more I thought about it, the idea of spending my usual Tuesday with her seemed less and less appealing.
I groaned, and both Max and Sara burst out laughing. “Is it weird that we all know Will’s Weekly Hookup Calendar?” Sara asked.
Max looked over at me, eyes smiling. “You’re thinking of canceling plans with Kitty, aren’t you? Think you’re going to pay for that one?”
“Probably,” I admitted. Kitty and I dated a few years back, and it ended amiably when it came out that she wanted more than I did. But when we met up again in a bar a few months ago, she said this time she just wanted to have fun. Of course I’d been game. She was gorgeous, and willing to do almost anything I wanted. She insisted our just-sex arrangement was fine, fine, fine. The thing was, I think we both knew she was lying: every time I had to ask for a rain check, she would become insecure and needy the next time we were together.
Kristy was almost the complete opposite. She was more contained, had a fetish for being gagged that I didn’t share, but wasn’t against indulging, and rarely stayed beyond the moment of our shared release.
“If you’re interested in this new girl, you should probably end it with Kitty,” Sara said.
“You guys,” I protested, digging into my salad. “There isn’t a thing with Ziggy. We went running.”
“So why are we still talking about it?” Bennett asked with a laugh.
But I knew we were talking about it because I was tense, and when I was tense I wore it like a neon sign. My brows pulled together, my eyes got darker, and my words came out clipped. I turned into an asshole.
“Oh, we’re talking about it,” the Brit said, “because it’s getting William riled up, and that’s my favorite f**king thing. It’s also very bloody interesting how pensive he’s being today after a morning with this little sis. Will doesn’t usually look like he’s thinking so hard it hurts.”
“He snogged the older sister when they were teens,” Max added helpfully, overplaying his accent for dramatic effect.
“You are such a shit-stirrer,” I said, laughing. Liv was a short blip; I could barely remember much about what had happened other than some heated kissing and then my easy evasion when I’d returned to New Haven. Compared to some of my relationships at the time, what happened with Liv barely registered on the sex meter.
Our entrées came and we ate in silence for a little bit. My mind started to wander. Partway through our run, I’d given up and just outright stared at Ziggy. I stared at her cheeks, at her lips, at the soft hair that had fallen free from her messy bun and lay straight against the soft skin of her neck. I’d always been open about my appreciation for women, but I wasn’t attracted to every woman I saw. So what was it about this one? She was pretty but definitely not the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. She was seven years younger than I was, green as an apple, and barely came up from her work to breathe. What could she possibly offer me that I couldn’t find somewhere else?
She’d looked over and caught me; the energy between us was palpable, and confusing as fuck. And when she smiled, it lit up her whole face. She looked as open as a screen door in the summer, and despite the temperature, something warmed in my veins. It was an old, yet familiar hunger. A desire I hadn’t felt in forever, where my blood filled with adrenaline and I wanted to be the only one to discover a particular girl’s secrets. Ziggy’s skin looked sweet; her lips were full and soft, her neck looked like it had never been marked with teeth or suction. The beast in me wanted to look more closely at her hands, at her mouth, at her breasts.
I looked up when I felt Max watching me, chewing thoughtfully.
He lifted his fork, pointed it at my chest. “All it takes is one night with the right girl. I’m not talking about sex, either. One night could change you, young m—”
Bennett straightened, joining in. “It’s about finding the woman who gets you thinking. She’ll be the one who’ll change your mind about everything.”
I held up my hands. “It’s a nice thought, you guys. But Ziggy really isn’t my type.”
The guys hummed and nodded in understanding, but I could feel Sara watching me. “Out with it,” I said to her.
“Well, I’m just thinking you haven’t found anyone who makes you want to delve deeper. You’re choosing a certain type of woman, a type you know will fit into your structure, your rules, your limits. Aren’t you bored yet? You’re saying this sister—”
“Right,” she said. “You’re saying Ziggy isn’t your type, but last week you said you were feeling detached from the women who happily screw you without strings attached.” She forked a bite of her lunch and shrugged as she started to lift it to her mouth. “Maybe you should reevaluate your type.”
“Illogical. I can be losing interest in my lovers and it doesn’t have to mean that I need to overhaul the whole system.” I continued to poke at my food. “Though actually, I do have a favor to ask.”