I swallowed, watching her. I couldn’t imagine this wild young thing with the intense and poised combination of Chloe and Sara. “Whatever you ladies talked about today,” I suggested.

“Well, Sara and I had a fun conversation about what it feels like to be almost revirginized after not ha**g s*x for so long.”

I almost choked, coughing loudly. “Wow. That’s . . . I don’t even know what that is.”

She watched me, amused. “Seriously though. I’m sure it’s not like that for guys. But for girls, after a while, you’re like . . . does the virginity grow back? Is it like moss over a cave?”

Ignoring me, she sat up straighter, excited now. “Actually this is perfect. You’re a scientist so you’ll totally appreciate this theory I recently developed.”

I pressed back farther into my chair. “You just ended with a moss over a cave analogy. Honestly, I’m a little scared.”

“Don’t be. So, you know how a girl’s virginity is considered kind of sacred?”

She scratched her head, her freckled nose wrinkling a little. “My theory is this: Cavemen are making a comeback. Everyone wants to read about the guy who ties the girl up, or gets all violently jealous if—God forbid—she wears something sexy outside the bedroom. Women supposedly like that, right? Well, I think the new fad is going to be revirginization. They’ll want their man to feel like he’s their first. And can you imagine how women will do this?”

I watched her eyes grow increasingly excited as she waited for me to attempt an answer. Something about her sincerity, her earnest consideration of this topic tightened an invisible band beneath my ribs. “Um, with lies? Women always assume we can read braille with our cocks. What’s that about? I honestly probably wouldn’t know a girl was a virgin unless she—”

“With surgery first, probably. Let’s call it ‘hymen restoration.’?”

Dropping my food, I groaned. “Jesus Christ, Ziggs. I’m eating brisket. Can you just hold off on the hymen talk for like—”

“And then”—she drummed her hands on the table, building suspense—“everyone is waiting to see what stem cells can do for us. But spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s . . . I don’t think that’s where they’ll start. You know what I think the big splash will be?”

“I bet it will be a restoration of the maidenhead.”

“You said no ‘hymen,’ so—but am I right?”

Before I could answer and tell her the theory was actually pretty good, she barreled on. “Stupid amounts of money are spent on this kind of thing. Viagra for boners. Four hundred different shapes of fake boobs. Which filler feels the most natural? It’s a man’s world, Will. Women won’t stop to think that you’re putting actively growing cells in their vagina. Next year, one of your nongirlfriends will get her hymen regenerated, and she’ll give her new virginity to you, Will.”

She leaned down, put her lips around her straw, and sucked, her gray eyes locked on mine. And with that lingering, playful look, I felt my c**k harden slightly. Releasing the straw, she whispered, “To you. And will you appreciate what a gift that is? What a sacrifice?”

Her eyes danced and then she tilted her head back and burst out laughing. Holy fuck, I liked this girl. I liked her a lot.

Leaning forward on my elbows, I cleared my throat. “Ziggy, listen up because this is important. I’m about to impart some wisdom.”

She sat up, her eyes narrowing conspiratorially.

“Rule one we’ve already covered: don’t ever call someone before the sun is up.”

Her lips twitched into a guilty little smile. “Right. Got that one.”

“And rule two,” I said, shaking my head slowly. “Don’t ever discuss hymen regeneration over lunch. Or . . . like, ever.”

She dissolved into giggles and then moved out of the way when the waitress brought her food. “Don’t be so quick to mock it. That’s a billion-dollar idea, moneyman. If that comes across your desk soon, you’ll thank me for the heads-up.”

She dug into her salad, taking an enormous bite, and I tried not to study her. She wasn’t like any of the girls I knew. She was pretty—actually, she was beautiful—but she wasn’t poised or contained. She was silly, and confident, and so much her own person it almost made the rest of the world seem monochromatic. I had no idea if she even took herself seriously, but she certainly didn’t expect me to.

“What’s your favorite book?” I asked, the question bubbling up out of nowhere.

She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth and I blinked down to my sandwich, picking at the tiny pieces of crispy meat at the edges.

“This is going to sound cliché.”

She leaned forward, and whispered, “A Brief History of Time.”

“Of course,” she said, almost offended.

“That’s not cliché. Cliché would be if you said Wuthering Heights or Little Women.”

“Because I’m a woman? If I asked you, and you said Hawking, would you be cliché?”

I considered this. I imagined saying that book was my favorite, and getting a few Dude, of course’s from my grad school friends. “Probably.”

“So that’s bull, for it to be cliché for you and not me just because I have a vagina. But anyway,” she said, shrugging and popping a small bite of lettuce into her mouth, “I read it when I was twelve, and—”

“Yeah, and it just blew me away. Not so much what he said—because I don’t think I understood everything then—but more that he thought that way. That there were people out there who spent their lives trying to figure these things out. It opened up a whole world for me.” Suddenly she closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, and smiled a little guiltily when she opened them again. “I’m talking your ear off.”

“Yes, but lately you’re always talking my ear off.”

With a little wink, she leaned forward to whisper, “But maybe you kind of love it?”

Unbidden, my mind flooded with the fantasy of her neck arched, her mouth open in a hoarse plea while I licked a line from the hollow of her throat to her jaw. I imagined her nails digging into my shoulders, the sharp sting of pain . . . and blinked, standing and pushing my chair back so quickly that it hit the chair behind me. I apologized to the man seated there, apologized to Ziggy, and practically sprinted to the restroom.

Locking the door behind me, I wheeled around on my reflection. “What the actual f**k was that, Sumner?” I bent to splash a handful of cold water over my face.

Bracing my hands on the sink, I met my own eyes in the mirror again. “It was just an image. It wasn’t anything. She’s a sweet kid. She’s pretty. But, one: she’s Jensen’s sister. Two: she’s Liv’s sister, and you practically dry-humped Liv in a shed when she was seventeen. I think you cashed in your single Bergstrom-Sister-Hookup Card already. And three . . .” I bent my head, took a deep breath. “Three. You wear track pants around her way too often to be having sexual fantasies without her getting wise. Put a lid on it. Go home, call Kitty or Kristy, get some head, call it a day.”

When I returned to the table, Ziggy had nearly polished off her salad and was watching people move down the sidewalk. She looked up when I sat down, concern etching her features. “Stomach troubles?”

“What? No. No, I . . . had to call someone.”

Fuck. That sounded douchey. I winced, and then sighed. “I actually should probably go, Ziggs. I’ve been here for a couple of hours, and was planning to get a few things done this afternoon.”

She pulled her wallet from her purse and put down a few fives. “Of course. God, I have a ton to do, too. Thanks so much for letting me meet you here. And thanks so much for hooking me up with Chloe and Sara.” With one more smile she stood, hitched her bag over her shoulder, collected her shopping bags, and walked to the door.

Her sandy hair shone and fell most of the way down her back. Her spine was straight, her gait steady. Her ass looked f**king amazing in the jeans she wore.

Holy fuck, Will. You are so goddamn screwed.

This running thing really wasn’t getting any easier.

“This running thing will get easier,” Will insisted, looking down at where I sat, slumped over in a whiny pile on the ground. “Have some patience.”

I pulled a few blades of brown grass from the frost, mumbling to myself exactly what Will could do with his patience. It was early, the sky was still dull and gray and not even the birds seemed willing to venture out into the cold. We’d run together almost every morning for the past week and a half, and I was sore in places I didn’t even know I owned.

Looking up at him, eyes narrowed, I asked, “What did you say?”

“I said get your ass up here.”

I stood, lagging behind a few steps before jogging to catch up. He glanced over at me, assessing. “Still stiff?”

“As stiff as you were on Friday?”

I considered this, rolling my shoulders and stretching my arms over my head. “Not really.”

“And does your chest still feel like—how did you put it—like someone doused your lungs in gasoline and lit them on fire?”

“See? And next week it’ll get easier. And the week after that you’ll crave running the way I bet you sometimes crave chocolate.”

I opened my mouth to lie but he quieted me with a knowing look.

“This week we’ll call and get you with someone who’ll keep you on track and before you know it—”

“What do you mean ‘we’ll get me with someone’?” We moved into a jog and I lengthened my stride to match his.

He gave me a brief glance. “Someone to run with you. Like a trainer.”

The bare trees seemed enough to insulate us because, though I could see the tops of buildings and the skyline in the distance, the sounds of the city felt miles away. Our feet pounded over fallen leaves and bits of loose gravel in the path, and it narrowed just enough that I had to adjust my steps. My shoulder brushed against his and I was close enough to smell him, the scent of soap and mint and a hint of coffee clinging to his skin.

“I’m confused, why can’t I just run with you?”

Will laughed, drawing an arc with his hand as if the answer were suspended in the air around us. “This isn’t really running for me, Ziggs.”

“Well, of course not; we’re barely jogging.”

“No, I mean I’m supposed to be training.”

I looked at our feet and up at his face, my eyes full of meaning. “And this isn’t training?”

He laughed again. “I’m doing the Ashland Sprint this spring. It’ll take more than a mile-and-a-half run a few days a week to get me ready.”

“Oh.” The rhythm of our steps echoed in my head and I felt my limbs warm, could almost feel the blood pumping through my body. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. “So I’ll just do that with you.”

He looked down at me, eyes narrowed and a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Do you even know what a triathlon is?”

“Of course I do. It’s the swim, run, shoot a bear thing.”

“Okay, so enlighten me, Player. Exactly how long is this triathlon of manliness?”

“Depends. There’s sprint distance, intermediate, long course, and ultra-distance. And no bears, dumbass. Swim, run, bike.”

I shrugged, ignoring the steady burn in my calves as we reached an incline. “So which one are you doing?”

“That means you swim about a mile, bike for twenty-five, and then run the last six.”

The petals of my blooming confidence wilted a little. “Oh.”

“And that’s why I can’t stay over here on the bunny trail with you.”

“Hey!” I said, shoving him hard enough that he stumbled slightly.

He laughed, steadying himself before grinning over at me. “Has it always been this easy to get you worked up?”

I raised my brows and his eyes widened.

“Never mind,” he groaned.The sun finally broke through the gloom by the time we slowed to a walk. Will’s cheeks were pink from the cold, the ends of his hair curling up from beneath his beanie. A hint of a beard covered his jaw and I found myself studying him, trying to reconcile the person in front of me with the guy I thought I remembered so well. He was such a man now. I bet he could shave twice a day and still have a five o’clock shadow. I looked up in time to catch him staring at my chest.

I ducked to catch his gaze but he ignored my attempt to redirect his attention. “I hate to ask the obvious, but what are you looking at?”

He tilted his head, studying me from a different angle. “Your boobs look different.”