18. falling and fraternizing

Start from the beginning

He doesn't let my non-response faze him. If you want nice, Joshi, prepare to be wooed. I will woo your socks off.

Only he can make a sweet declaration sound so much like a threat.

As we trade a humid June for a stickier, muggier July, he does. He tries to, anyway. I can't fault his effort, and his execution is admirable, but I'm made of way sterner stuff than he thinks. Sure, he knocks off calling me Sushi, but that's the least he can do for a nickname he started to begin with. He coaches me and Adam at dance practice, even though he knows I'm a sponge who will eclipse his teaching and go on to win our bet.

It's hard not to feel clunky and ox-footed when you're in Ian's arms. For learning purposes, obviously. "Are you sure this is, uh, strictly necessary?" I try to keep as much space between our bodies as possible.

"Hands-on practice is the best way to learn theory," Ian says with a poker face.

The Cardinal's ballroom swooshes past me, one dizzying spin after another. It's like he's deliberately trying to make me throw up. I go even stiffer, inching away from his fiendishly warm palm at the small of my back. Damn this crop top.

Adam watches from the sidelines, ignoring the save me! look I hurl his way.

"Relax," murmurs Ian.

Relax?! Easy for him to say, he's not the one who's seeing double right now. He laughs when he sees the expression on my face. The timbre is low, deep. Kind of crunchy, like slow-grinding gears. My skin prickles. Ian's hands are too warm, too everywhere. Even though there's no wandering in his touch, I get the feeling that his offer of help led me right into his hands. Quite literally.

I am a pitiful excuse for a sponge.

This is all clearly for his benefit. The last time I trusted him, he led me into a trap. He played me. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, win a free dance!

Ugh. Weeeaaakkk.

"We should, uh, probably just dance with our partners," I say, trying to weasel away from his hands. It just brings me closer to his front. And his pointed chin. And his pale pink lips. And his—

Gross. Ew. No.

Don't notice his mouth.

Nope, nope, nope.

"Yes?" he asks innocently. Too innocently. It's like he knows what I'm thinking.

I need space between us. Right the hell now.

I break free. The burgeoning headache I've had since arriving pulses with Vesuvius-like vigor between my eyebrows. "I need a moment."

I try to rationalize that this is not running away and is definitely not hiding, but after skulking in front of the hallway water cooler for five minutes, those excuses hit the road.

Everything about Ian Min-joon aggravates me to the very core of my being. His smug, superior attitude. The way he gets under my skin. His weird preoccupation with making me as uncomfortable as possible. La la la, look at me, I can dance! repeats in my head in a chipmunk voice.

"Hey." Speak of the devil. "You okay?" asks Ian. "You ran out of there looking pretty flushed."

"I'm hot," I bite out. "Hello, stalk much?"

"I need water." He leans past me and dips his head. Water streams out of the fountain, arcing into his mouth.

My eyes unwillingly glue to his neck. I start to feel hot again. I dart my vampiric gaze away before he can catch me and get the wrong idea.

Ian straightens and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. A drop of water glistens on his full lower lip. "So are you acting this prickly because I told you I like you...or because you like me back?"

"What? No!"

"To which one?"

I hate that I'm pale enough that he can see me turn red. "Both. I'm holding you at an arm's distance because as per our little bet, it's not a good idea for us to fraternize."

"Fraternize," he repeats, drawing the word out so it sounds almost dirty.

"And you taking every opportunity to pull me into your arms is really not helping. Just, you know, as an FYI."

"I think we have different definitions of help." His brown eyes twinkle.


"Think about it this way. The more time you spend learning from me, the stronger an opponent you'll be for me to beat." He pauses, then shoots me a sly look. "So I don't have to hold myself back from crushing you."

I brighten; we're on safer ground. He's right, if I think of this as going behind enemy lines to overcome him from within, it all comes into perspective. "Well, come on, then. We'd better get back to practicing."

I pretend not to see his victorious grin as he gestures for me to precede him into the ballroom. As we fall back into the rhythm of dance, I ignore other things, too. The tingles on my body where he touches me, the power of his thighs as he leads us around the room. I really don't want to think about his thighs.

As we glide, he even offers to tell me exactly how many books he's already read for the library challenge, but a man has to keep a little mystery about him, right? I tell him I don't want to know, even though I do. But I'd rather pry it from his reluctant fingers than have it willingly.

Ian and I are both main characters in the same book—he's obviously the antagonist—but now he's rewritten everything I thought was true. The new book is blank. The only words there are I like you. This isn't the first novel in our staggeringly huge series. This is like reading book three and not figuring out you've missed the first two, and being mega confused but accepting it anyway.

Well, I won't. Accept it, that is. I refuse.

Yes, I'm totally self-aware of how absolutely ridiculous it is. No, he's not wooing me. Not even a little bit. The only thing he's succeeding at is wearing down my patience.

do we like these two kids when they're feuding...or when they're falling (into 💖)?

or when they're falling (into 💖)?

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