Following my lunch with Soo Min, I spent some time working on my manifesto for the elections before heading to Ethan's for our weekly poker games. This time, I wasn't surprised to see that Ben and Sandra were there too.
Tonight's game was progressing slower than usual, on account of Sandra who had decided that she did want to learn how to play poker after all. Someone had dealt her a hand and it seemed like all of the guys were taking extra care to explain each move they made so that Sandra would get a hang of things.
"Now, we're going to deal the flop," Ralph said emphatically, dealing the three cards in front of Sandra before Josh launched into another explanation about how she was supposed to evaluate her cards and think about whether she had a good chance at winning the round with the cards that she'd been dealt.
This was going to go on all night, I realised. I couldn't help but heave a sigh, which went unnoticed by everyone else except Ben. He caught my eye and winked before turning his gaze back at his own cards. I too quickly averted my eyes, embarrassed about the heat slowly creeping up my neck.
Ever since meeting Soo Min for lunch today, I could not keep my mind off Ben. I was dying to know what his deal was and getting some information that I could use against him. I briefly considered confronting him myself but every time I tried to figure out a way to seek him out in private my brain insisted on dredging up memories of the two nights I'd spent at his. Adding to that, I couldn't forget how he'd danced with me last night at the Liquid Lounge before he'd spotted Soo Min. Speaking to him alone would be very difficult indeed.
"Maddie, your turn," Josh's voice forced my attention back to the game. We were still on the flop and placing our bets. I looked down and stared at the cards I was holding and even though I was holding on to a pair of threes, I decided to fold. I didn't feel like playing anymore. At least not while they were all trying to teach Sandra how to play.
I stood up to stretch my legs and told the guys I was going to sit out for a couple of rounds. I grabbed the empty popcorn bowl in the middle of the table and headed to the kitchen to refill it, glad to have something to do.
I had just tossed the popcorn packet into the microwave when I felt a pair of arms on either side of me, pinning me against the kitchen countertop. I recognised his cologne immediately and to my chagrin, my heart fluttered involuntarily.
"I suppose I should thank you for your gift," Ben murmured close to my ear, sending tingles down my spine.
I spun around to face him, still enclosed between his arms. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I think you do," he insisted. "Why else would I have had a cute Asian girl snooping around my apartment last night?"
I pretended to think. "Because you're a man-whore who always takes home the girls you meet at a club?"
"Is that why you thought your plan would have worked?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"Well clearly it was a failed mission since she couldn't tell me anything useful," I shrugged.
Ben leaned closer, a smirk stretched across his perfect lips. "Baby, if you want to get to know me, all you have to do is ask."
"Where's the fun in that?" I teased then placed my palms on his chest and pushed him away from me.
Be chuckled softly. "Of course. Who else would have thought to send a spy my way?"
"It would have worked too. I hear she didn't face much resistance getting into your apartment."
"Well, she was cute."
"And you're just easy."
"If that's what your spy told you –"
I interrupted. "Actually no. She told me you suddenly had cold feet and nothing happened."
"Well, finding someone snooping around my things is a bit of a turn off for me," Ben sniffed.
"I'll keep that in mind for my next spy," I smirked and turned to check on the popcorn. It was still popping away in the microwave.
"Or you could just come by and snoop around yourself," Ben suggested.
I snorted. "That would involve being in your apartment and I've already been there twice more than I would have liked."
"Yea, you keep telling yourself that Goldie," Ben rolled his eyes before opening the fridge and helping himself to a beer. He pulled open the tab and took a swig. "So?"
"What is it that you want to know about me so badly that you would send one of your friends?" Ben asked.
I looked up from the microwave and my eyes met his blue ones. I regarded him for a minute, debating on whether or not he would even answer my questions if I simply asked. It seemed too easy. But he had that stupid half grin on his face, challenging me to try.
"What made you change universities in the middle of your degree?"
"That's what you wanted to know?" Ben almost choked on his beer.
I folded my arms and frowned. "Its a legitimate question."
"I'm surprised you haven't broken into the student records office and looked at my file to find out," Ben said.
"Gee, thanks for the suggestion," I rolled my eyes. "So are you going to answer me or not?"
Ben shook his head. "I have a question first."
I had a bad feeling that I knew where he was heading so I cut in before he could ask. "God, please don't start again about Josh."
"Well, since you've brought it up, I still don't get what you see in the guy," he said idly.
"You wouldn't," I muttered coldly, "you're nothing like him. He's the sweetest guy I know and he knows me like no else does."
"Really?" Ben raised an eyebrow before taking a step towards me. "Does he know how your eyes alight with more gold in them when you are in the middle of a really good argument?"
Instinctively I took a step back. "We hardly argue," I said.
"Or how about the fact that you are not above sleeping with someone else just to get over how much you ache for him?" his voice grew lower as he came even closer to me. I took another step back and realised that I was trapped, knowing that I had no where else to go when I felt the edge of the kitchen counter press into my back. A lump formed in my throat and I swallowed hard, choosing to ignore his question.
Ben closed the gap, eliminating the small space between us. My heartbeat raced and I could barely breathe with his stifling proximity. "Does he know that you tremble whenever someone touches you just there," he said, skimming his fingers over the hyper-sensitive skin at the side of my neck, just below the ear. My breath caught in my throat as he continued to run his fingertips over my skin and my eyelids fluttered shut of their own accord.
"Stop it," I whimpered.
"Oh, right, someone might see you," Ben murmured, sarcasm laced in his tone. But he made no move to stop. His hand curled around my neck and his fingers found themselves threaded in my hair. This simple act had a profound reaction on my body; suddenly I just wanted to pull him in and let him do whatever it was that he wanted. I glanced up at him and that wicked look in his blue eyes was enough to send me over the edge.
Ben leaned in as my hands found their way to his shirt collar to pull him towards me but I froze and immediately dropped them when I heard Sandra's anxious voice from the doorway. 'Oh my god, I'm so sorry."
Ben sprang away from me as I vehemently shook my head, "no. no, Sandra, its not what you think!"
"No, I'm so embarrassed, I didn't realize you two were-"
"We're not!" I cut in. "This isn't what it looks like. Please, don't say anything about this to Josh or the guys. Please."
Sandra regarded us both with a confused expression. "Are you guys dating?"
"No way," I said quickly. "That's just ridiculous!"
I was so busy trying to manage Sandra that I didn't notice Ben beside me growing more irritated by the second. So it was like a kick to the gut when I heard him say, "Of course not, Maddie here is too in love with Josh."
My jaw fell open as I whirled to face Ben, stunned by the words he'd uttered. Any lust I'd felt for him just moments before had completely evaporated, leaving me boiling mad at him once again. And just when I thought things might have been improving between us.
Ben didn't stick around after dropping the bomb and pushed his way past Sandra who was still glued at the doorway, staring at me with a shocked expression to match my own.
"Maddie-" she started softly.
I shook my head furiously. "No, Sandra, pay no attention to him, please. He is just trying to stir up shit."
"But why would he say that?" Sandra asked, looking at me. "Unless... do you have feelings for Josh? Is that why you never seemed to like me?"
I had to appreciate that the girl wasn't as dense as I had made her out to be. She'd clearly picked up on signals that I hadn't realised I was sending. Still, this was not at all how I had wanted the truth to come out.
"Sandra, Ben doesn't know what he's talking about okay? He's been out to get me ever since he got here and we just don't get along. He's got it in his head that I'm going after Josh only because I've turned down his advances." I lied so boldly, it made me sick to my stomach.
"So you don't have feelings for Josh?" she asked softly."Because I would never want to get in the middle of the two of you."
The sincerity in her tone made me want to kick myself for how little I had regarded her before and for some inexplicable reason, I felt the need to reassure her by denying my true feelings even though this could have been an ideal opportunity to come clean with Josh about how I felt.
"I really care for Josh and I always will," I finally said. "He's been my best friend since we were kids. I guess I'm just protective over him. But he's always been free to date who ever he wants and he seems happy with you."
"I'm happy with him too," Sandra smiled and it warmed her face. "You're a good friend Maddie. I really do hope one day we'll be better friends too."
I still doubted it but I smiled anyway. It was only then that I caught a burnt whiff in the air. "The popcorn!" I had completely forgotten about it. The microwave must have 'dinged' some time ago but went completely unnoticed in the drama. I rushed over to pull open the microwave door and with it, unleashed the strong smell of burnt popcorn into the house.
"Maddie have you burnt my kitchen? What the hell is that smell?" Ethan yelled from the dining room.
"I'm sorry," I called as I retrieved the burnt bag from the microwave and tossed it into the dustbin. "It was the popcorn. I must have spaced out and missed the timer."
Sandra waited in the kitchen while I cleaned up and her mood seemed to have lightened considerably. She started chattering on about making plans to have coffee together. "It'll be great! You, me and Josh and we can all get to know each other better."
"Yeah, that sounds great," I said half heartedly before turning serious. "But hey, just one thing. About earlier, with Ben, would you mind keeping it to yourself? I'm kind of embarrassed about the whole thing and I really don't want the guys to know, they'll only tease me about it."
"Sure," Sandra said, patting my arm. "It'll be our secret."
I nodded and the two of us made our way back to the poker game. I sat down at my seat and caught Ben looking at me over his cards. I returned it with what I hoped was a scathing stare. I wanted him to know that his little stunt would not go unpunished.
AN: First of all, I really must apologise. I don't know if anyone is still reading this after so long but I promised myself that I would finish this story, however long it takes. Over the past few months I've been thinking about this story and my characters and plot, writing loads of notes and considering a massive rewrite but I think I'll just aim to finish this first before seriously editing it. I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has ever read, or still is reading this story. Your support has been overwhelming.