Beautiful Player (Beautiful Bastard #3)


by Christina Lauren

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 cocktail 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 assumed 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.

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