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"Well, come on, I can't hold her up on our own!"

 

Matthias looks blankly at the group of partiers on his left who call out to him as he makes his way to the kitchen. Turning his head around to make sure it's not a mistake, the group at the keg beckons him over once again.

 

"I'm going to go find Jesper," says the same girl looking around in the crowd for someone.

 

"You'd be wasting your time, he said he saw someone cute fifteen minutes ago," says the girl next to her with her hands on her hips. "Oh, come on, handsome. We just need your help to hold up my legs." Her fingers tap against the tight leather skirt as she flicks her reddish-brown hair over her bare shoulder and throws him a flirtatious smile. Matthias blushes at the comment, and takes a step toward her, running a hand through his hair unconsciously. He definitely meant to shake them off and walk away, but now he's caught in this girl's orbit and he feels like he's being swept away.

 

"Uh... are you sure this is a good idea?" he nods to her skirt and she scoffs, yanking a thick velvet scrunchie off of her wrist and tying those thick locks of hair back.

 

"I've done this loads of times and in looser clothing. Just don't look up my skirt," she winks.

 

Matthias blusters, saying a weak, "I would never," as he watches her bend over to grasp onto the edge of the keg.

 

"I can't believe you're doing this and Jesper isn't even here," a short young woman appears with oil slick black hair that tumbles long past her waist. She pushes past a group of guys standing and watching on, one with a cigarette perched between his sneering lips and his arms crossed. She shoots the guy a glare before walking over to them. "Who are you?"

 

But before Matthias can say anything, the girl in the skirt is waving him off. "I don't back down from a bet. And Pekka is such a fucking shit, I'll be damned if he thinks he can hold his record while I'm in the house." She strides over to the smoking man and plucks forty dollars out of the frilly hem of her neckline to wave in front of him. "Get ready to lose, Rollins."

 

Walking back over she waggles her brows at the girl standing near the keg. "Ready, Alina?" Alina looks at the scene and nods with a defeated smile. Leather skirt girl looks at Matthias and smiles a million-watt smile and Matthias finds himself smiling back goofily. "Ready, handsome?" He nods, not quite sure what he's walked into but his feet are now glued to the spot.

 

The girl with the long black hair rolls her eyes and crouches down near the keg and holds the nozzle. Alina and Matthias lean down to lift up the girl's legs and then suddenly they're all chanting. 10 seconds, 20 seconds, "Drink, drink, drink, drink!" 30 seconds, 40 seconds, "Drink, drink, drink!" Finally, it passes the minute mark and by the end, even Matthias was chanting.It was impressive. The girl shakes her head and her friend shuts off the tap.

 

Coming up for fresh air, the girl has a flushed face and after a second of silence, lets out a massive belch that damn near shakes the house. Alina and her friend burst out laughing as the guy named Pekka tosses down $40 and flips them off as he walks away. Laughing gleefully as she walks over and picks up the money, the girl hands it over to her friend. "More money for Jesper to spend, I guess."

 

"This is going into the house fund, he still owes me for our last trip, and we need a new rug."

 

The girl laughs and taps her head, "Smart woman, Inej. Smart."

 

Dragging a hand through her hair and freeing her locks, Matthias is once again looking at her with a stupid expression on his face. Mostly impressed, also mesmerized.

 

"Thanks for holding me up," she says. He swears she bats her eyelashes at him as adjusts the low hemline of her off-the-shoulder top. "I'm Nina."

 

He awkwardly raises a hand and waves as if she isn't inches away. "Matthias."

 

"Matthias," she says, slowly, as if tasting his name in her mouth and rolling the syllables over her tongue. "Nice to meet you, Matthias."

 

She saunters away with her friends to go dance to the pounding music in the other room, and he realizes his hand is still up in a wave. "Nice to meet you, Nina."

 


 

"Nina! Did you eat all the pigs in a blanket?"

 

Nina looks up licking her fingers and shrugging. "They're so good, you even made the blanket out of a pretzel! You should take it as a compliment, Wylan!"

 

Wylan frowns, swatting Nina with a kitchen towel and picking up an empty platter. "I told Jesper I'd save him one."

 

"And that's why I know you've got another platter hidden around here somewhere."

 

Stopping her before she can get into the kitchen, he shooes her back into the living room. "Everyone will be here soon, I want it to look nice!"

 

"Wylan," she says, hands on her waist and looking very serious, "It's a group of frat boys and a hockey team. I could ravage the kitchen and it'll still look nicer than anything they've ever seen."

 

"No ravaging!" he squeaks.

 

"Oh fine. I'm only agreeing because I know you want to impress Jesper, and Jesper likes impressing Kaz, and Kaz is always trying to impress Jordie. Christ, men are so needy." Flopping down onto the couch, she reaches over for her beer and sips. "But when they get here, I make no promises not to seek out the food. And there will definitely be some ravaging," she says with a suggestive waggling of her brow.

 

Wylan blushes a little but waves her off, rushing back to the kitchen to set everything up with the others.

 

Twenty minutes later and it's exactly as Nina predicted. A bunch of hooligans stampede into the Kappa Epsilon Tau house and all the nicely fluffed throw pillows that she and Wylan had worked on are being destroyed by a bunch of idiots. The majority of the school hockey team is there celebrating a win and soon chanting and cheering starts as she watches the boys start their drinking games and rip off their shirts because men are painfully predictable.

 

Instead of joining them (though it was tempting), she sneaks back into the kitchen, hungry for some snacks and more of those pigs in a pretzel blanket. There's a giant bar set up on the countertop with all kinds of liquor and colorful bottles, but she finds her target still warming in the oven hidden beneath some foil. No harm in taking a couple. Plucking them from their hiding spot and replacing the foil, she stands up and damn near jumps out of her skin at the sight of a shirtless man behind her.

 

"Christ!"

 

"Sorry!" he exclaims after a second of staring. Had he been checking out her ass? She doesn't blame him, but also, rude. "Sorry, I was told there was food in here?" he says, covering his mouth up as he lets out a timid little burp. His cheeks are flushed and his hair is rumpled. He was probably one of the players by the way he towers over her.

 

She hides her hard-won stash of food and nods to a bag of chips. "Eat up."

 

Smiling gratefully, he walks over and a massive hand reaches out to palm the bag over to him. He rips it open and starts munching in the dim light of the kitchen. Frowning, he points with cheesy covered fingertips at her. "Nina?"

 

Her eyebrows furrow and she eyes him again. "Do I know you?"

 

"I held you."

 

"Excuse me?"

 

"Uh... I held you up. For a keg stand? A couple of weeks ago?"

 

The blush on his face is turning a remarkable shade of scarlet that spreads down a chest covered in a dusting of hair. But Nina recognized him after he'd opened the bag of Doritos, she had been waiting for him to recognize her. Watching him squirm a bit was a nice little revenge for him ogling her earlier.

 

"Oh!" she pretends to remember. "Matthew, right?" She just loves to tease.

 

"M-Matthias," he says licking his thumb in a way that makes her heart race a little. He was very cute. He tips his head down which gives his expression a puppy-like quality.

 

"Right, that's right. You've got quite the grip."

 

He chokes on the chips and Nina laughs as he hacks up a lung. She pops one of the pigs in a blanket into her mouth before handing over her beer to him. He doesn't question it and drinks it to steady himself.

 

"What are you eating?" he asks, once he's regained his composure.

 

"Pigs in a blanket." She decides to offer him an olive branch for making him so red. "Want my last one?" He reaches out to take it with a smile, but she pulls her hand back. "Say ah," she teases, trying to feed him. He leans down a little to take a bite, but she pulls away at the last moment. Really, she was being cruel but she doesn't want to just give him his treat and be done with it. And he looks like he can stand a bit of teasing. "You didn't say ah," she explains when he looks at her with a mildly annoyed expression. She backs up and he comes closer as she draws him in.

 

"Maybe I'll stick to the chips," his voice is low, his eyes wandering her face.

 

"Those shards of death? Trust me, you want this. Salty, a bit crunchy on the outside, juicy sausage, fluffy pretzel. I ate a whole platter earlier. This is the last one. And I saved it for you." She smells the snack with an exaggerated inhale tauntingly. She licks her lips and his eyes go to them. She takes another step back and leans against the cabinet behind her as he closes in. "Now, say ah."

 

He leans a hand against the cabinet, boxing the two of them in. Nina smirks, feeling a rush of excitement in her blood. Oh yes, he was very cute, especially up close.

 

"Ahh..." he finally relents, his voice breathy. She feeds him, watching as he enjoys the savory snack. It shouldn't have been hot, watching someone eat a literal appetizer, but she can't keep her eyes off of him. When she reaches up to wipe the crumbs off of the corner of his lips, letting her hand linger on his face, she can feel his lip tremble as his tongue darts out to lick up the salt there. "Delicious," he says, so quiet she can barely hear it.

 

Driven by her impulse, Nina can hardly resist. She swallows hard and tilts her head up before pushing up on her tiptoes to press her lips against his. It's meant to be a chaste, simple kiss because she just wanted to know what those lips felt like. But as she pulls away, he leans down to meet her again quickly and kisses her in return. It awakens a voracious part of her, and she grasps onto him, a searching hand going into that rumpled golden hair and another running up against the hard planes of his chest. His skin is radiating heat, her fingernails scrape the hairy chest. A moan rumbles through him. He feels great.

 

His kiss is desperate but it doesn't have the practiced experience that she's used to from guys like him and somehow it turns her on more. The timidity feeds the hungry beast inside her. He wants her but he doesn't know how to want her. She guides him, her tongue meeting his, tasting his mouth and letting him taste hers. He tastes like cheap beer and salty snacks, but it's perfect. His hands grip her with the same strength she remembers from the night at the party. His hand reaches down to grab her ass and she can't help but chuckle a little mid-kiss. How long has he been waiting to do that?

 

Pulling away, Nina stops herself from following, lips first, upset at the sudden lack of Matthias in her arms. He stumbles back as if he's been burned and it takes her a moment to realize that he thinks she's been laughing at him. "Sorry," he apologizes, his cheeks inflamed, biting his perfectly kissable lips, his eyes full of humiliation. He thinks he's done something wrong.

 

Nina doesn't take the time to smile at how endearing that is, instead, she walks toward him and tenderly puts her hand on his jaw, stroking the stubbly skin there. "Nothing to say sorry about. Well, other than the fact that you pulled away before we even got started." He looks at her as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. "I wasn't laughing at you," she makes it clear, her words more tender. "I wanted more."

 

At that, he swallows hard and reaches out to her, his hand landing gently on her waist. She wishes he would grab her again, kiss her with the same eagerness he showed moments ago, the same desperation as if he was drinking from a deep well after being left thirsty for days. But before he can lean his head down and they can drown in one another again, Wylan pops into the kitchen with Jesper and flips on the ceiling lights.

 

"Oh!" Jesper exclaims with a sly smile, his arm slung around Wylan's shoulder. "Looks like this room is occupied."

 

This time Matthias takes many steps back and she doesn't pull him back in because she can tell he's embarrassed again.

 

"It's a kitchen, Jes. The only person who is allowed to occupy this kitchen is Wylan," Nina jokes.

 

"That's true," Jesper says, leaning over and planting a kiss on Wylan's cheek, who scrunches up his face but smiles all the same.

 

Looking at her standing in front of the oven, Wylan frowns. "Oh no, Nina did you find my second batch?"

 

"Wylan, you hid them in the oven, the most obvious place to hide food that has been baked. Of course, I found your second batch." But before Wylan can whine, she holds her hands up. "I only had one. Technically I was testing the batch."

 

"They're good," Matthias offers from beside her and every head turns to him. He shrugs a little. "They are."

 

Wylan smiles a little, Jesper smiles a lot. "Well, I guess we can spare a couple for the reigning champ tonight," says Jesper.

 

"Reigning champ?"

 

"He scored the three goals that won tonight's game," Jesper explains, pointing at a bashful Matthias. "Number 6 Forward, Matthias Helvar. Don't you follow our social media account?"

 

Nina rolls her eyes, "Of course, I do, but I can't be expected to keep up with all of that. I follow a lot of people."

 

"Well, as social media manager of the school's account, let me tell you, you picked a champ. And, as the royal taster of Kappa Epsilon, I also picked a champ," he says dramatically, directing a warm expression toward his date.

 

Wylan looks at Matthias with his typical exasperated look. "It's like we're not even here." Matthias mirrors Wylan's expression, looking for a window where he can make his exit.

 

Nina nudges Jesper as she walks around them, grabbing Matthias' arm with her manicured hand and leading him out of the kitchen. "Go eat your fill, royal taster, we're going to go find a couch."

 

Before Matthias can pretend to complain, the two couples are separated and he's got another blush on his face again.

 


 

 

"Who are Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and..."

 

The study group watches as Nina stands in front of a large whiteboard with different Jeopardy categories scribbled on it like "Dark and Stormy" and "Sad White Men". Alina is standing beside her with a clipboard tapping a pen with a smirk on her face. An hourglass is on the coffee table in front of them, counting down.

 

"Almost time, Nina."

 

"Who are Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and the other Shelley!"

 

Jesper makes a loud error buzzer sound with his mouth and Nina shoots him daggers with her eyes.

 

"Sorry, we were looking for Coleridge, but we would have also accepted Keats."

 

"Technically, she's not wrong about the other Shelley being one of the Romantics," Kaz offers. The boy with dark hair and sharp features is sitting on a cushy armchair where Inej is perched on the large armrest besides him.

 

"Oh shut up Kaz, you're not even in the class!" Nina hits back with an annoyed huff as she walks back over to the loveseat where Matthias is sitting, comfortably alone.

 

"Well, we're going off Aleks' study guide, so sorry Nina. And Kaz, Mary Shelley does not fit into the category of 'Sad White Men.' Team Nina loses the points."

 

What was supposed to be a study group night to prep for the multiple-choice midterm next week turned into a competitive game of confusing Jeopardy/Trivia where it was Team Nina versus Team Jesper. Matthias was quickly learning that when it came Nina, she did nothing half-assed and had gone from trying to calmly answer questions to swearing vengeance on the House of Fahey in about half an hour's time.

 

Sinking into the spot next to him, Matthias becomes very aware of the fact that Nina's arm is resting on his thigh and when she crosses her legs, she intentionally brushes against his knee. Inej takes the next question but Matthias might as well have cotton stuffed in his ear because he can barely focus with Nina pressed up against him on this lumpy couch.

 

The last few weeks have been consumed by Nina. She absorbed him into her social circle, adding him to her group chats with her friends and bringing him into her life. It wasn't like he had been without friends, but he came to the university on a scholarship and instead of going to the school where all his high school friends filtered into, he was thrown into the deep end of a large institution where he had little-to-no friends. Sure, he had his teammates, who happily included the star player in all of their activities, but it was starting to feel very insular until he met Nina Zenik.

 

Of course, being with Nina felt like he was caught in a riptide. She was so easy to drown in. Everything about her was intoxicating and he felt like he could never get enough of her when he was with her. More than once a teammate had commented that he was whipped when he would turn down party invitations in lieu of spending time with Nina, but could they blame him?

 

Heat radiates from her next to him and when he looks to her, she returns his look with a heated glance. Those lips look so perfectly kissable, he thinks.

 

"Sorry, it's not much of a party."

 

Matthias chuckles and revels in her touch when she reaches up to dance her fingers across his chin. He'd learned quickly that she enjoyed stroking his chin and nearly preened when she would caress his face and the cleft there. "I didn't realize this was a study group, this is much more exciting."

 

"As long as you're entertained," she says, her voice low and her face close to him. In any other situation, being this close with a girl in public would be mortifying to him, he was hardly a fan of being this open and affectionate with someone, but it didn't matter with Nina. She invaded his dreams at night and his thoughts during the day. Any chance to be close to her was one he would take

 

"Excuse me, love birds! It's your turn! Zoya isn't here to carry your team so you better get your butt up here to reclaim some of your team's pride."

 

Nina groans and slides away from Matthias to go and scold Jesper, but all Matthias can think about is what they could be doing if they weren't in a room full of people. Truthfully, they'd spent very little time alone since the meeting. Nina was always inviting him to get-togethers and hangouts. Part of him wondered if she was just flirting with him, and the other part of him feared what would happen when they were finally alone. He got the sense that when compared to the men she'd been with, he might come out lacking. The one time he'd visited her apartment before a game, he'd required several frigid, cold showers to get his head back into the game. Did she sense that he was unsure? Thinking of his own inexperience brought an unfamiliar feeling of insecurity bubbling to the surface.

 

It wasn't like he didn't know what to do. Except that it was kind of like that. He knew the essentials, but Nina wasn't the kind of woman who would just be satisfied with the essentials, he wanted to give her more. He just didn't know how. And the thoughts running rampant in his mind didn't help soothe the eagerness he felt whenever she was in his arms.

 

Swallowing hard, he continues his own silent mental gymnastics as he watches Nina jumping around for joy after landing the "Sonnets and Bonnets" Daily Double for 500. She doesn't return back to his side on the couch, instead choosing to gloat and taunt Jesper and Kaz while Wylan, Inej, and Alina laugh at her elaborate victory dance. His heart clenches as she tosses him one of her winks after she has fully indulged in her win.

 

He was predicting many more cold showers in his future.

 


 

"Wow, Kaz really went all out, didn't he?"

 

He stares at the giant sign hanging from the roof of what was likely a garage that had been converted into a casino overnight. There were servers handing out hor d'oeuvres, a bartender shaking up a cocktail behind the bar, and multiple dealers standing behind a plethora of card tables.

 

"Christ, he even got a slot machine?" Nina balks from beside him, looking at the obnoxiously bright and loud machine where an excited Jesper was currently standing at.

 

Matthias still had not adjusted to seeing Nina in her dress yet, he didn't think he ever would. The silky red dress was cut in a way that was undoubtedly meant to torture him. The neckline plunged deep, exposing the soft pale skin of her décolletage that made Matthias' face hot. A glittering gold lariat necklace had drawn his eye the length of the neckline, garnering a sly swat on his arm from Nina when he had practically gone slack-jawed in silence staring at her. Then with every sashaying step, he was treated to a glimpse of her shapely thigh thanks to the generous slit in her dress that ran far too high up her leg.

 

"I didn't think Inej would pick casino night as a theme for her own birthday party," he says, looking around at the excess of the night in order to forget about the dress-that-should-not-be-remembered next to him.

 

"She didn't," says someone behind them. A woman glides in swathed in expensive-looking royal blue silk, she looks a little bored but her arrival garners an excited look from Nina.

 

"Zoya!" Despite the look of disinterest on her face, Zoya delivers a dazzling smile to Nina, who hugs the woman and plants a kiss on her cheeks. Nina initiates the introduction to apparently another member of Nina's social circle. Zoya, who the group often mentioned but was rarely seen, spent much of her time at her internship in the city, and balanced a busier schedule than anyone in the group while exuding confidence and sophistication. From the diamond choker around her neck to the towering heels on her feet, Matthias didn't need to spend long with her to know she was always a commanding presence.

 

"No date?"

 

"Please, if I start inviting one of the guys I'm seeing to a friend's birthday party, then they start to think it's more serious than it is. Better for them to understand that what we have is casual."

 

Nina and Zoya chat and gossip to themselves, but once again that pesky little thought permeates Matthias' mind. What is he to Nina? Was he one of her casuals? She'd introduced him to her friends, that was a good sign, right? Was he her boyfriend? Was he just a fling? (You haven't done enough for it to even be considered a fling, he tells himself.) He'd only been introduced as Matthias, but did he want to be more? Did she? This was doing a number on his confidence.

 

His friends on the team had advised him to play the field more, and he wasn't lacking in admirers. Every week's win came with a handful more puck bunnies ready to greet him when he got off the ice. But the problem isn't the lack of options, it's the lack of interest. Too bad he's plagued by the fear that Nina simply does not want to define the relationship between them.

 

The night passes on with Inej arriving and blowing out the candles to the giant three-tiered cake that somehow Kaz managed to get his hands on. Matthias had no idea how a Sophomore business student managed to pay for any of this, but everyone seemed to nod sagely when they found out that Kaz was the host behind all of this, they nodded more enthusiastically when Nina would reveal that the idea behind the theme was actually Jesper's idea. But it hardly seemed like Inej minded as she spent the night taking pictures with her friends and smiling widely every time Kaz presented yet another extravagance.

 

In many ways, Kaz and his quiet presence were intimidating to him, Matthias preferred Jordie's casual friendliness, and, as his teammate, it often surprised him that the popular Jordie would have such a subdued younger sibling. Though, the more time he spent with Kaz, the more obvious it became that the brothers both possessed the trademark of keeping people at a distance. Still, it was easy to tell that around Inej, Kaz's sharp edges became a bit softer. They weren't nearly as affectionate as Wylan and Jesper, but even Matthias could see that if there was something Inej wanted, Kaz would go to great lengths to acquire it for her.

 

"There you are!" Nina pulls him out of his thoughts as she appears beside him, hooking her arm with his and leaning up to press a kiss on his cheek. At this point, he's able to control his blushes better but he can't help another flush creeping onto his cheeks. Between the champagne and the neckline of her dress, he's fighting a losing battle. "Are you bored? I've got a bunch of chips that I won in a game of craps that you can use if you want."

 

Matthias smiles and shakes his head, "No, I'm not bored. This is just a lot more than I expected for a party. Also I lost my chips in a couple rounds of roulette."

 

Running a hand through the soft round waves of her hair, she sighs and looks at the surroundings. "Yes, Kaz does know how to spoil a girl, doesn't he?"

 

He did, Matthias agreed inwardly. Another niggling sense of insecurity. He could hardly afford to throw something like this for Nina. Was she the type of woman who liked this type of extravagance? He doesn't have to ask to know the answer is yes. Not for the first time, he's reminded that perhaps he doesn't really deserve to have a girlfriend like Nina.

 

But she catches the cloud that passes over his expression and she reaches up to tilt his face toward hers. "Hey, are you alright? We can leave if you're tired. I don't mind, we've already eaten the cake and drunk the champagne."

 

The insecure demon that's burrowed a place within the back of his mind gnaws at him but he'll be damned if it ruins the night. He's determined to wipe away the look of concern on her face. Leaning down, he catches her mouth in a kiss. She lets out a surprised giggle as he draws her close to him. He breathes in the scent of the heady perfume she's wearing tonight. She has the taste of champagne and chocolate and caramel on her tongue and he thinks there is nothing sweeter than this moment.

 

"We can't leave yet, you said you wanted a dance."

 

She looks at him with a dazed smile from the kiss and then pouts. "I told Jesper to include a dance floor in his list of demands, but that meant giving up a blackjack table and I lost the fight."

 

"Well, there's still music playing," he offers, feeling brave with Nina in his arms, the alcohol bolstering the rest of his confidence.

 

Smiling conspiratorially at Matthias, Nina wraps one arm around him and he takes her other hand, letting her rest her head against him. She lets out a sigh that sends a delicious shiver down his spine. He would do anything to hear it again, he thinks. The two of them sway in the corner of the little warehouse to a Frank Sinatra song playing over the sound of chips being thrown around and a roulette wheel clicking and clacking away happily.

 

In moments like this, he's content where he is. He doesn't need anything, as long as Nina is in his arms.

 


 

It was supposed to be a good night. It was supposed to be a great night.

 

She'd finally finished her move. They'd decorated the house. They got their new rug, the expensive Papasan chair, the ridiculously large amount of Zoya's house plants had been moved, Inej had finally remembered to call the internet company to start up the wifi. This was supposed to be a celebratory night.

 

Instead, here she was, yelling at Matthias. She should have put on waterproof eyeliner, and she should never have called him over at that party.

 

(She shouldn't have caught feelings for him, she made a promise to herself that she wouldn't.)

 

"I wasn't doing anything with her!"

 

"Oh, so she just happened to fall into your lap and you two just happened to start kissing?"

 

She'd spent the better part of the afternoon texting stupid lovey-dovey texts to him and he'd been keeping this from her? Unacceptable. Nobody stepped out on Nina Zenik, especially not someone like Matthias Helvar. He'd made her soft. Well, he was about to experience the full wrath of Nina.

 

"Yes! That's literally how it happened. I didn't even know who she was!"

 

"You're disgusting. I can't believe you think I'd actually fall for that. Were you upset I didn't go to your game? What, was I just keeping a spot warm? You must have girls lined up waiting to take my place. Maybe you're just bored of me?" She despises how she sounds, but the words come spilling out. 

 

"What? No! That's not it! It was just supposed to be a hangout and then the guys started inviting over girls and they were doing shots. I pushed her off of me a second later, I didn't want to kiss her. She didn't even introduce herself." Matthias runs his hands through his hair, making him look disheveled as he follows Nina down the front of her new lawn while she carries a bag of trash to take to the curb.

 

"So that picture Zoya showed me of you with some random girl on your lap was the product of a one-second kiss? How convenient."

 

"That's exactly what it was! I'm not that kind of guy. You know that!" His voice cracks a bit as he trails after her but Nina is on the brink of tears and she doesn't want him to see her cry. She doesn't want to see him at all. She wishes she could erase the memory of that blurry photo. What the hell was going on? She was never jealous. She let herself get too involved and now look where she was.

 

Wheeling around at him, she points a finger at his chest, "Who knows what kind of guy you are."

 

"What... What does that mean?"

 

"I just mean you never introduced me to your friends. You didn't invite me to that hang out when everyone was bringing their girlfriends. You never ask me to come to your games. Is this all some kind of prank? Are you really just some asshole playing the long con on me? Pretending to be the innocent guy to see if you can get a reaction out of me? Seriously, Matthias, what am I to you?"

 

His face wrinkles into a look of frustration and defeat. "You're seriously asking me that? I have a question for you, what am I to you?"

 

"You can't just throw the same question back at me, you oaf! I asked you first," she yells, shoving him back as he tries to approach.

 

"No, because, I don't know what we are, Nina. You never want to spend time with me alone. I figured you wouldn't want to come to some post-game hangout. I know you're not impressed with me, but I'm trying. This isn't just an 'act'. Who pretends to be innocent? Do you think I like feeling like I'm out of my depth with you? I've barely done anything with a girl and..." He pauses, his breath strangled as if he can't bear to say what he wants to say.

 

"And what?" she exclaims, her arms outstretched and frustrated. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

 

He drags his hand over his face as if trying to wipe away the expression on his face. But before he can finish his sentence, the door to Nina's house opens behind her and the sound of the housewarming party spills out into the winter night. Matthias shrinks back into himself, taking steps back as Inej makes a determined walk out onto the front yard, a hard look on her face.

 

"Nina? Are you okay?" Her voice is different, stronger, and strict, and sharp. She cuts her eyes at Matthias as she reaches out to smooth her hand over Nina's bare arm. She'd only meant to take out the trash, not engage in a full-fledged argument in front of the neighbors.

 

"I... I don't know," she confesses, feeling suddenly very small and sad. She doesn't want to meet Matthias' eyes because she's afraid she'll break down right here and she was stronger than that.

 

Inej nods, she doesn't need to say more because Inej knows. She always does. Her friend wraps an arm around her and says quietly, "It's okay. Let's go inside, it's cold out here. I told Jesper to rally the people into the other room to look at Zoya's plants. We can sneak you into your room without anyone seeing."

 

God, there were still people here. She suddenly hated the sight of all of them. She wanted a silent house where she could drink and maybe break some plates. Looking at Inej, she nearly loses all of her resolve. Lip quivering, Nina nods her head and turns her back on Matthias.

 

"And you," she says to him, sending him a withering look. "You can go home."

 

"Nina," he attempts, taking a step closer, but Inej puts up a firm hand.

 

"Let her go, Matthias."

 

"It isn't what she thinks. I wouldn't-- I'm not like that."

 

Inej's look spells out her disbelief. She'd been the first one to hear about that photo after Nina. "I don't care. You made her cry. Just go home."

 

Nina lets Inej take her inside and help her out of her dress and tuck her into bed. She comes in later with tea and lets Nina cry into her shoulder. And when she's empty of all her tears, she curls up beside Nina and the two drift off into a dreamless sleep.

 


 

Any other normal man would let some time pass before coming back around to the house of their maybe-girlfriend-maybe-ex-girlfriend's place to explain themselves after a scandalous photo left her in tears the night before. But Matthias was not normal, and when Nina woke up the next morning (afternoon, really), she was greeted with Zoya's sour face.

 

"That giant idiot has been calling you non-stop," she says, dressed in a sleek suit and perched on a barstool in their kitchen. She lifts up Nina's phone, confiscated the night before by Inej and rolls her eyes. "I offered to block your number but Inej thought it might be unethical for me to unlock your phone without your consent."

 

Nina can't help but smile a little. "That was very noble and correct of Inej." She reaches over and takes back her phone and looks down at the screen. 15 missed calls. A deluge of messages with apologies and asking to talk. She groans, her stomach doing backflips as anxiety builds up like a lump in the back of her throat. Putting her phone facedown on the counter, she walks over and pours herself some coffee.

 

Zoya continues to sip her espresso and tap on her phone, occasionally looking up at Nina.

 

"What?"

 

Zoya looks blankly back with a raised eyebrow.

 

"You keep looking at me while you're typing. You have something to say. Say it."

 

Zoya scoffs, setting down her phone and crossing her arms. "First of all, I do not appreciate the tone. I am not the one you're angry at here, Nina Zenik. Second, well..." She strokes her chin and tilts her head to the side. "I might have been a bit hasty last night in showing you that picture without the context."

 

Nina nearly chokes on her coffee as she looks up at Zoya. "Excuse me?"

 

"Well, just to say that Vasily sent that picture to me. And, it is definitely authenticated. But, there might be some validity to Matthias pushing that girl off of him." When Nina doesn't say anything, Zoya continues. "I mean, this is from Nikolai, who brought over the keg that night. He said the girl showed up and some of the other players, including Vasily, thought that Matthias might be spending too much time with you. They encouraged the girl to jump into his arms and shoot her shot."

 

Nina scowls, "So, she still kissed him."

 

"Of course, she did. The picture proved that," she said with a wave of her hand. "But he didn't want to kiss her and he pushed her off."

 

"I can't believe you're defending the man you've repeatedly called 'that tall, blond idiot,' right now."

 

Zoya laughs, flicking her hair back and tying the thick silky black tresses up into an elaborate updo with ease. "He is still a tall and blond idiot. I'm just trying to clear the story." Standing up from the stool, she picks up her massive purse and walks over to Nina. "I was upset seeing that picture. You know I have trust issues when it comes to men. I wanted to protect you. But I've seen the way you look at that fool. I didn't want you to move forward without knowing everything. Even idiots deserve a chance." And then, in a very un-Zoya move, she leans in for a hug and pecks Nina on the cheek before walking out the door.

 

An hour and many deep breathing sessions later, Nina picks up her phone. And about ten minutes after that, she sees Matthias pull up in front of their house.

 

"What were you going to say last night?"

 

She's sitting on the expensive rattan chair that Kaz bought for Inej on the porch, and Matthias is sitting on the railing of the porch looking very contrite. For once, his face is peppered with stubble and there is the shadow of dark circles under his eyes. He swallows hard and looks at her. "What?"

 

Nina looks down too, saying slowly, recalling from memory, "You said you've barely done anything with a girl, and then you got cut off. What were you going to say?"

 

Matthias rubs the back of his neck, his cheeks a ruddy red. He clears his throat but he fills the moment with silence.

 

"Do you want to see other people? Are you-- are you tired of seeing me?"

 

"What?" His head shoots up, his blue eyes wide and eyebrows lifted in shock. "I didn't say that. No. I just don't want you to get-- I don't want you to feel like I'm not enough." She gives him a confused look, perhaps a bit annoyed by the vague statement, and he sighs, looking infinitely more uncomfortable. "It's just... You know I'm not exactly the most experienced guy," he shrugs awkwardly. "And when I told you I hadn't... Well, when I told you you would be the first, I got worried that you wouldn't want that or that that was annoying. And then you didn't ever seem to want to spend time with me when it was just me. You never introduced me as your boyfriend. I don't even know if I am your boyfriend. Or," he struggles, looking away again, chewing the inside of his lip. "Or if I was."

 

Raking her fingers through her tangled hair, Nina leans back, not sure if she feels relief or frustration. "That's what this is about? You think the fact that you're a virgin is a problem?"

 

Matthias swallows again, daring to look at her. His ears are hot and his body is tense. He gives her a curt not.

 

"Matthias, I don't care about that," she says, her voice is softer. She gets up from the seat and approaches him. The space between them is cut in half exponentially as she comes into his personal space, tilting his chin so they can meet their eyes. "I'm sorry if I made you feel insecure. To be honest, I wasn't sure what to call us either. I haven't properly dated anyone since I was in high school, and when I did it was was only disappointment. I was afraid that if I called you my boyfriend, if I dragged you out on dates, you might think I'm coming on too strong, and you'd end up looking for something more casual. I thought you wanted casual."

 

His crystal blue eyes darkened and slowly, and Nina feels him anchoring his hands on her hips. She feels like she's been drifting around, it feels good to be held by him like this. Grounded.

 

"Last night. I meant to say I have barely done anything with girls. I feel like I'm not enough for you sometimes." His voice is low, a rumbling timbre that is reserved only for her ears, "But, I want everything with you."

 

Those words fill her body with such a delicious thrill and possessive satisfaction, that Nina has to steady herself against him. "Everything?" she tests, her tone lighter than before.

 

"Everything," he says, a little louder. She can feel her heart pounding blood through her entire body and when they start kissing, she feels the want and desire thrumming through him. He holds her tight like he's afraid she'll evaporate into mist. Fire courses through her, as his roaming lips and touch leave behind nothing but scorched earth. The scratch of his stubble leaves her skin feeling raw. They stay like this for a while, kissing, holding each other, breathing each other in. When they finally break apart, it isn't because someone's interrupted them. They're practically vibrating with desire.

 

Matthias looks perfect in the afternoon sunlight, and Nina feels the weight finally lifted off her chest.

 

"I'm sorry I kissed that girl."

 

She shushes him with a hand to his lips. "Zoya corroborated your account of the story."

 

He nods, smiling a little. "But still, I should have seen it coming. Vasily can be such a dick sometimes."

 

Nina snorts, rolling her eyes. "Yes, well clearly I'm going to have to start showing up at some of these games." She sighs, pretending to be annoyed.

 

"You don't have to if you don't want to." Matthias is still apologetic, giving her one of his signature puppy dog expressions. "I know you've got no real love for hockey."

 

Leaning in to press more kisses on his cheek and at the corner of his lip, she pays him an indulgent smile. "Yes, but I'll get a kick out of seeing the flames in those girls' eyes. And I do love the look of you in that uniform."

 

"As long as you're happy," he concedes, kissing her lips, her throat, her earlobe, leaving a trail of heat in his wake.

 

"Oh, I have a long list of things that could make me happy, Matthias," she says quietly, enjoying the way his hands grope her and bring her flush against him.

 

"I guess I'll have to start taking notes," he says, a smile on his lips.

 

"We'll organize a Jeopardy game around it and I'll quiz you."

 

"As long as it doesn't involve Jesper, Inej, Kaz, and Alina."

 

"Oh, so Wylan can join?" she teases, her eyes glittering with humor.

 

He looks at her, a mirthful smirk on his face as he cradles her close to him. "It'll just be you and me."