“I was hoping maybe you and Chloe could take her out? She doesn’t have any real girlfriends here and you guys—”
“Of course,” she said again quickly. “I can’t wait to meet her.”
I glanced at Max from the corner of my eye, unsurprised to see him biting his lip and looking like the cat that had caught the canary. But Sara must have picked up a thing or two from Chloe and had him by the balls beneath the table, because, for once, he was uncharacteristically quiet.
Do you ever feel like the people who mean the most aren’t the people you see the most? Lately I just feel like I’m not putting my heart where it matters.
Her voice and wide, honest eyes when she’d said this had made me feel full and hollow all at once, like the ache was so heavy I couldn’t tell if it was pain or pleasure.
Ziggy wanted me to show her how to get out and date, how to meet people she wanted to get to know . . . and the reality was I wasn’t even doing that myself. I might not be the one sitting in my apartment alone, but that didn’t mean I was happy.
Excusing myself to the men’s room, I pulled my phone from my pocket and typed a text to the mobile number she’d given me.
Project Ziggy still on your mind? If so, I’m in. Running tomorrow, plans this weekend. Don’t be late.
I stared at the phone for a few seconds but when she didn’t reply right away I returned to my lunch, my friends.
But later, when I left the restaurant, I noticed there was a single message now and I laughed, remembering that Ziggy mentioned an old flip phone she barely ever used.
Between Ziggy’s, Chloe’s, and Sara’s crazy schedules, the three of them couldn’t get together until the weekend. But thank God they finally made it work, because watching Ziggy run every morning with her arms crossed across her chest was actually staring to make my boobs hurt.
That Saturday afternoon, Max was sitting at a table at Blue Smoke when I arrived, panting from my six-mile run and famished. As always seemed to happen with this group, a plan was formed without any of my help, so I woke to a text from Chloe that I was supposed to have Ziggy meet them for breakfast and shopping, meaning I’d be running by myself for the first time in days.
It was fine. Good, even. And even though my run felt silent, and strangely dull, Ziggy needed to get out and get some things. She needed running shoes. She needed running clothes. She could even stand to get some regular clothes if she was serious about dating, because most guys were shallow dicks and relied on the shorthand of first impressions. Ziggy wasn’t very strong in this department, but part of me didn’t want to push too much on her. I liked looking at well-dressed women, but oddly enough, with Ziggy, what was most intriguing was that she wasn’t really concerned with any of that. I figured we should probably stick with what was already working for her.
Without even looking up, Max moved the stack of newspaper pages from my chair and waved to the waitress to come take my order.
“Water,” I said, using the paper napkin to wipe my brow. “And maybe just some peanuts for now. In a little bit I’ll have some lunch.”
Max took in my clothes and went back to his paper, handing me the Business section of the Times.
“Weren’t you out with the girls earlier?” he asked.
I thanked the waitress when she put my drink down in front of me, and took a big gulp. “I dropped Ziggs off this morning. I wasn’t sure she would be able to navigate her way around anything past the Columbia campus.”
“Oh, in that case I should lovingly let you know that Sara accidentally texted a picture of her ass to Bennett.” There was virtually nothing I loved more than giving Max shit about his and Sara’s kinky photo obsession.
He looked at me over the top of his paper and his face relaxed when he saw that I was kidding. “Tosser,” he mumbled.
I flipped through the Business section for a few minutes before turning my attention to Science and Technology. Behind his wall of newspaper, Max’s phone rang. “Hey, Chlo.” He paused, putting the paper down on the table. “No, ’s just me and Will here getting a bite. Maybe Ben’s on a run?” He nodded and then handed the phone to me.
I took the call, surprised. “Hey . . . everything okay?”
“Hanna is adorable,” Chloe said. “She hasn’t bought new clothes since college. I swear we aren’t treating her like a doll, but she’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t you bring her around sooner?”
I felt my stomach tighten. Chloe hadn’t been at the lunch where we discussed Ziggy. “You know she’s not a girlfriend, right?”
“I know, you’re just banging, whatever, Will—”
I started to interrupt but she continued on.
“—just wanted to let you know we’re all good. She looks like she would get lost in this Macy’s if we didn’t keep track of her.”
“Okay, that’s all I got. Was just calling to see if Max knew where Bennett was. More shopping.”
“Hey wait,” I said before I really considered what I was about to ask. I closed my eyes and remembered jogging with Ziggy the past few days. She was relatively slim but damn, there was a lot up front.
“If you’re shopping, make sure Ziggs gets some . . .” I glanced up at Max, confirming he was absorbed in his newspaper before I whispered, “Make sure she gets some bras. Like, for jogging? But maybe also . . . just . . . regular ones, too. Okay?”
I felt rather than heard the silence on the other end of the line. It was leaden, and pressed down on my chest as the awkwardness grew. And grew. When I chanced a look up, Max was staring at me, wearing an enormous shit-eating grin.
“You are so lucky I’m not Bennett right now,” Chloe said, finally. “The amount of crap I would give you is on the planetary scale.”
“Don’t worry, Max is here and I can tell he’s enjoying this enough for the both of them.”
She laughed. “We’re on it. Bras to support the supple br**sts of your nongirlfriend. God, you’re a pig.”
She hung up and I handed the phone back to Max, avoiding his eyes.
“Oh, Victoria,” he said, giddy. “Do you have a Secret? Do you have a fondness for helping women find well-fitting ladywear?”
“Fuck off,” I said through a laugh. His expression was as if Leeds United had just won the f**king World Cup. “She’s been joining me on my morning run, and she wears these . . . whatever. They’re not sports bras. And her bras do that . . .” I gestured to my chest. “That weird four-boob thing up front? I just figured if they were out shopping already . . .”
Max leaned his chin on his fist and smiled at me. “Christ you’re precious, William.”
“You know how I feel about breasts. It’s no joking matter.” And, I didn’t add, Ziggy was stacked like a pinup girl.
“Indeed not,” he agreed, lifting his paper again. “I just like how you’re pretending you wouldn’t cream your panties for a girl with four tits.”
About half an hour later, the door behind Max opened and I looked up as a tangle of shiny hair and shopping bags careened toward our table. Max and I stood, helping Ziggy unload her loot on one of the chairs.
She wore a pale blue sweater, dark fitted jeans, and green flats. She wasn’t dressed like she was coming off a runway, but she looked comfortable, stylish. Her hair was . . . different. I narrowed my eyes, studying it as she slipped her messenger bag from her shoulder. She’d cut it, or maybe it was that she just had it down instead of confined to her trademark messy bun. It fell past her shoulders, thick, and straight and smooth. But despite the changes in her clothes and hair, she, fortunately, still looked like Ziggy: a tiny bit of makeup, bright smile, sun-kissed freckles.
She reached her hand out for Max’s, smiling. “I’m Hanna. You must be Max.”
Grasping her hand, he said, “Nice to meet you. I trust you had a good morning with the two crazy women?”
“I did.” She turned to me, wrapped her arms around my neck, and I tried not to groan when she squeezed. I both loved and hated her hugs. They were tight, almost smothering, but disarmingly warm. When she let go, she collapsed into a chair. “That Chloe likes her lingerie, though. I think we spent an hour in that section alone.”
“Let me find my surprised face,” I murmured, discreetly checking out Ziggy’s chest as I sat back down. The girls looked fantastic: full and high. Just perfectly in place. She must have purchased some lingerie herself.
“On that note . . .” Max stood, slipping his wallet into his back pocket. “I think it’s time for me to find the Petal and see how successful her shopping ventures were. Nice to meet you, Hanna.” He patted my shoulder, winking at her. “Have a nice lunch.”
Ziggy waved to Max, and then turned to me, eyes wide. “Wow. He’s . . . hot. I met Bennett earlier, too. You guys are like the Hot Men’s Club of Manhattan.”
“I don’t think that’s a thing. And anyway, do you really think we’d let Max in?” I said, grinning. “You look great, by the way.” Her head shot to me, eyes surprised, and I quickly added, “I’m glad you didn’t let them cover you up with makeup. I would miss your freckles.”
“You would miss my freckles?” she asked in a whisper and I winced inwardly at how forward I sounded. “What man says that? Are you trying to make me have an orgasm right now?”
Whoa. I no longer felt like I’d been too forward. I worked very hard to not look at her chest again when she said that. I was still getting used to the way she seemed to let out every thought she had. Glancing down at her shopping bags, I softly redirected, “I . . . uh, it looks like you bought plenty of running shoes.”
Bending, she rummaged through a few things and I blinked up to the ceiling, ignoring the view of her full cleavage. “I think I got everything,” she said. “I’ve never shopped like that. Liv is probably going to pop some champagne when she hears.” When I finally looked back down, her eyes were scanning my face, my neck, my chest as if she were just now seeing me. “Did you go for a run this morning?”
“You’re so disciplined.” She leaned forward with her hands on her chin and batted her lashes at me. “It does really nice things for your muscles.”
Laughing, I told her, “It calms me. Keeps me from . . .” I searched for words, feeling my neck heat. “From being stupid.”
“That isn’t what you were originally going to say,” she said, sitting up. “It keeps you from what? Like getting into bar fights? Release of tension and man angst?”
I decided to test her a little. I had no idea where the urge came from, but she was a confusing mix of inexperienced and wild. She made me feel reckless, and a little drunk. “It keeps me from wanting to f**k all the time.”
She barely skipped a beat. “Why would you want to run instead of fuck?” She tilted her head, considering me for a beat. “Besides, exercise increases testosterone and blood flow. I think, if anything, you’re having better sex because you exercise.”
Talking about this with her felt dangerous. It was tempting to look at her a little too long, and Ziggy didn’t shrink under my inspection. She would look right back at me.
“I have no idea why I told you that,” I admitted.
“Will. I’m neither a virgin nor a woman trying to get into your pants. We can discuss sex.”
“Hmmm, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” I lifted my juice to my lips, taking a sip while I watched her drink some of her water, her eyes locked on mine. She wasn’t trying to get into my pants? Not even a little?
The air between us seemed to hum quietly. I wanted to reach forward, run my finger over her lower lip. Instead, I put my juice down and curled my hands into fists.
“I’m just saying,” she said, “there’s no need to sugarcoat with me. I like that you’re not a guy who talks around things.”
“Are you always this open with people?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I think this might be you-specific. I say a lot of things, really, but I especially feel stupid around you, and I can’t seem to shut up.”
“I don’t want you to shut up.”
“You’ve always been so obviously sexual and open about it. You’re this hot, player guy who doesn’t apologize for enjoying women. I mean, if I noticed that about you when I was twelve, it was obvious. Sex is natural. It’s what our bodies do. I like that you are who you are.”
I didn’t respond, didn’t know what to say. She liked the thing about me that every other woman wanted to tame, but I wasn’t sure I liked that this was her primary impression of who I was.
“Chloe said you asked them to take me bra shopping.”
I looked up to catch her eyes as they flickered away from my mouth.
Her smirk curled into a playful smile. “How thoughtful, Will. So nice of you to think about my boobs.”
I bent to take a bite of my sandwich, murmuring, “We don’t need to discuss that conversation. Max already gave me an appropriate amount of shit.”
“You’re a mysterious man, Player Will.” She lifted the menu, skimming the choices before putting it back down. “But, fine. I’ll change the subject. What should we talk about?”