Beautiful Player
Author:Christina Lauren
Synopsis:

Prologue

    Prologue

    We were in the ugliest apartment in all of Manhattan, and it wasn’t just that my brain was especially programmed away from art appreciation: objectively these paintings were all hideous. A hairy leg growing from a flower stem. A mouth with spaghetti pouring out. Beside me, my oldest brother and my father hummed thoughtfully, nodding as if they understood what they were seeing. I was the one who kept us moving forward; it seemed to be the unspoken protocol that party guests should make the circuit, admire the art, and only then feel free to enjoy the appetizers being carried on trays around the room.

    But at the very end, above the massive fireplace and between two garish candelabras, was a painting of a double helix—the structure of the DNA molecule—and printed across the entire canvas was a quote by Tim Burton: We all know interspecies romance is weird.

    Thrilled, I laughed, turning to Jensen and Dad. “Okay. That one is good.”

    Jensen sighed. “You would like that.”

    I glanced to the painting and back to my brother. “Why? Because it’s the only thing in this entire place that makes any sense?”

    He looked at Dad and something passed between them, some permission granted from father to son. “We need to talk to you about your relationship to your job.”

    It took a minute before his words, his tone, and his determined expression triggered my understanding. “Jensen,” I said. “Are we really going to have this conversation here?”

    “Yes, here.” His green eyes narrowed. “It’s the first time I’ve seen you out of the lab in the past two days when you weren’t sleeping or scarfing down a meal.”

    I’d often noted how it seemed the most prominent personality traits of my parents—vigilance, charm, caution, impulse, and drive—had been divided cleanly and without contamination among their five offspring.

    Vigilance and Drive were headed into battle in the middle of a Manhattan soiree.

    “We’re at a party, Jens. We’re supposed to be talking about how wonderful the art is,” I countered, waving vaguely to the walls of the opulently furnished living room. “And how scandalous the . . . something . . . is.” I had no idea what the latest gossip was, and this little white flag of ignorance just proved my brother’s point.

    I watched as Jensen tamped down the urge to roll his eyes.

    Dad handed me an appetizer that looked something like a snail on a cracker and I discreetly slid it onto a co**cktail napkin as a caterer passed. My new dress itched and I wished I’d taken the time to ask around the lab about these Spanx things I had on. From this first experience with them, I decided they were created by Satan, or a man who was too thin for skinny jeans.

    “You’re not just smart,” Jensen was telling me. “You’re fun. You’re social. You’re a pretty girl.”

    “Woman,” I corrected in a mumble.

    He leaned closer, keeping our conversation hidden from passing partygoers. Heaven forbid one of New York’s high society should hear him giving me a lecture on how to be more socially slutty. “So I don’t understand why we’ve been visiting you here for three days and the only people we’ve hung out with are my friends.”

    I smiled at my oldest brother, and let my gratitude for his overprotective hypervigilance wash over me before the slower, heated flush of irritation rose along my skin; it was like touching a hot iron, the sharp reflex followed by the prolonged, throbbing burn. “I’m almost done with school, Jens. There’s plenty of time for life after this.”

    “This is life,” he said, eyes wide and urgent. “Right now. When I was your age I was barely hanging on to my GPA, just hoping I would wake up on Monday and not be hungover.”

    Dad stood silently beside him, ignoring that last remark but nodding at the general gist that I was a loser with no friends. I gave him a look that was meant to communicate, I get this coming from the workaholic scientist who spent more time in the lab than he did in his own house? But he remained impassive, wearing the same expression he had when a compound he expected to be soluble ended up a goopy suspension in a vial: confused, maybe a little offended on principle.

    Dad had given me drive, but he always as**sumed Mom had given me even a little charm, too. Maybe because I was female, or maybe because he thought each generation should improve upon the actions of the one before, I was meant to do the whole career-life balance better than he had. The day Dad turned fifty, he’d pulled me into his office and said, simply, “The people are as important as the science. Learn from my mistakes.” And then he’d straightened some papers on his desk and stared at his hands until I got bored enough to get up and go back into the lab.

    Clearly, I hadn’t succeeded.

    “I know I’m overbearing,” Jensen whispered.

    “A bit,” I agreed.

    “And I know I meddle.”

    I gave him a knowing look, whispering, “You’re my own personal Athena Poliás.”

    “Except I’m not Greek and I have a penis.”

    “I try to forget about that.”

    Jensen sighed and, finally, Dad seemed to get that this was meant to be a two-man job. They’d both come down to visit me, and although it had seemed a strange combination for a random visit in February, I hadn’t given it much thought until now. Dad put his arm around me, squeezing. His arms were long and thin, but he’d always had the viselike grip of a man much stronger than he looked. “Ziggs, you’re a good kid.”

    I smiled at Dad’s version of an elaborate pep talk. “Thanks.”

    Jensen added, “You know we love you.”

    “I love you, too. Mostly.”

    “But . . . consider this an intervention. You’re addicted to work. You’re addicted to whatever fast track you think you need your career to follow. Maybe I always take over and micromanage your life—”

    “Maybe?” I cut in. “You dictated everything from when Mom and Dad took the training wheels off my bike to when my curfew could be extended past sunset. And you didn’t even live at home anymore, Jens. I was sixteen.”

    He stilled me with a look. “I swear I’m not going to tell you what to do just . . .” He trailed off, looking around as if someone nearby might be holding up a sign prompting the end of his sentence. Asking Jensen to keep from micromanaging was like asking anyone else to stop breathing for ten short minutes. “Just call someone.”

    “ ‘Someone’? Jensen, your point is that I have no friends. It’s not exactly true, but who do you imagine I should call to initiate this whole get-out-and-live thing? Another grad student who’s just as buried in research as I am? We’re in biomedical engineering. It’s not exactly a thriving mass of socialites.”

    He closed his eyes, staring up at the ceiling before something seemed to occur to him. His eyebrows rose when he looked back to me, hope filling his eyes with an irresistible brotherly tenderness. “What about Will?”

    I snatched the untouched champagne flute from Dad’s hand and downed it.I didn’t need Jensen to repeat himself. Will Sumner was Jensen’s college best friend, Dad’s former intern, and the object of every one of my teenage fantasies. Whereas I had always been the friendly, nerdy kid sister, Will was the bad-boy genius with the crooked smile, pierced ears, and blue eyes that seemed to hypnotize every girl he met.

    When I was twelve, Will was nineteen, and he came home with Jensen for a few days around Christmas. He was dirty, and—even then—delicious, jamming on his bass in the garage with Jensen and playfully flirting away the holidays with my older sister, Liv. When I was sixteen, he was a fresh college graduate and lived with us over the summer while he worked for my father. He exuded such raw, sexual charisma that I gave my virginity to a fumbling, forgettable boy in my class, trying to relieve the ache I felt just being near Will.

    I was pretty sure my sister had at least kissed him—and Will was too old for me anyway—but behind closed doors, and in the secret space of my own heart, I could admit that Will Sumner was the first boy I’d ever wanted to kiss, and the first boy who eventually drove me to slip my hand under the sheets, thinking of him in the darkness of my own room.

    Of his devilish playful smile and the hair that continually fell over his right eye.

    Of his smooth, muscled forearms and tan skin.

    Of his long fingers, and even the little scar on his chin.

    When the boys my age all sounded the same, Will’s voice was deep, and quiet. His eyes were patient and knowing. His hands weren’t ever restless and fidgety; they were usually resting deep in his pockets. He licked his lips when he looked at girls, and he made quiet, confident comments about bre**asts and legs and tongues.

    I blinked, looking up at Jensen. I wasn’t sixteen anymore. I was twenty-four, and Will was thirty-one. I’d seen him four years before at Jensen’s ill-fated wedding, and his quiet, charismatic smile had only grown more intense, more maddening. I’d watched, fascinated, as Will slipped away into a coatroom with two of my sister-in-law’s bridesmaids.

    “Call him,” Jensen urged now, pulling me from my memories. “He has a good balance of work and life. He’s local, he’s a good guy. Just . . . get out some, okay? He’ll take care of you.”

    I tried to quell the hum vibrating all along my skin when my oldest brother said this. I wasn’t sure how I wanted Will to take care of me: Did I want him to just be my brother’s friend, helping me find more balance? Or did I want to get a grown-up look at the object of my filthiest fantasies?

    “Hanna,” Dad pressed. “Did you hear your brother?”

    A waiter passed with a tray of full champagne flutes and I swapped out the empty one for a full, bubbly glass.

    “I heard him. I’ll call Will.”