Princess and Freckles: a (sort of) love story

a/n: just a cute story idea I've been fooling around with for years now. I never had the motivation to flesh out the whole thing into a novel, and then I realized, why not just keep it a short story. It's going to be complete in 3-5 parts, so here is part 1. Hope you'll like it. Leave a review!


I.

Mechanical Behaviors of Polymers was an unnecessarily hard course.

Of course, some would argue that a four-year bachelor's of science degree in chemical engineering would warrant some hard courses, but Mechanical Behaviors of Polymers was unnecessarily hard.

As I stared blankly at the last problem set left on my exam, completely unable to remember if I should've been deriving or integrating, I had an uncharacteristic thought.

Fuck it.

This was the last midterm exam of my junior spring. I was a few months shy of finishing my third year at Caltech, quickly on my way to becoming a chemical engineer, making my parents proud and all that. Whether I got a B+ in this class or a C+, it wouldn't matter. I was going to get my degree. I was going to get a job. This one teeny-tiny problem set was not going to be the end of the world.

At least, that's what I told myself.

With one final bit of encouragement, I forced my fingers to loosen their grip on the 0.5 mm mechanical pencil in my hand and let it roll gracelessly onto my desk. On stiff legs, I crossed to the front of the lecture hall and placed my exam on Professor Barrows' desk and mumbled a half-hearted "have a good break!" without looking him in the eye.

As soon as I exited the physics building, I let out a relieved sigh. Midterm season was over. I would be going home for Thanksgiving break on Sunday. My friends and I were going out tonight. That problem set would soon be forgotten.

At least, that's what I repeated to myself the entire two-mile bike-ride home from campus to my apartment. I needed to get my act together before I went inside, especially if Pooja was there.

Pooja Menon: pre-med, Malayalee, one of my roommates, my rock, the love of my life. She was like the sister I always wanted, in as many bad ways as good ones. One of the bad ways, unfortunately, was her less than favorable sense of humility. She had taken some other physics courses with Barrows, and she loved him. I couldn't have her knowing I felt slightly less than confident about the exam. She'd tell me that I should've studied harder, even if I spent the previous night in the library until four AM.

Despite my fears, the smell of sambaar simmering on the stove greeted me when I finally made my way into the apartment, the scent carrying a wave of comfort over me faster than my essential oil diffuser could have.

"Pooj! Is that what I think it is?" I yelled out from the entry hallway as I hung my keys and jacket on the wall.

"You know it is, bitch!"

I laughed at her response while toeing my worn, yellow Vans off and shoving them against the wall with the rest of the shoes that never actually made it onto the shoe rack by the door.

I turned right into the kitchen and inhaled deeply. I loved my dad, I really did, but he never taught me how to cook Indian food, and for that, I was eternally grateful to have Pooja in my life.

"Is Shola joining us?" I asked Pooj, while grabbing plates out of a cupboard.

Pooja turned away from the stove, her long black curls tied back into a bun at the top of her head. She was wearing old jeans and a plain gray tee, sans makeup, but she still looked stunning. And she could cook. I fought off a wave of uninvited jealousy and took a seat at our small kitchen's little breakfast bar.

It wasn't anyone's fault my friends were perfect.

"No, she's getting dinner with Arman once again," Pooja rolled her eyes as she said it, but her tone was kindly teasing. "But they're coming to Jax tonight."

Shola Jackson, my other roommate, my best friend, and a comp-sci major, had recently started dating this Lebanese international student named Arman Shehad, and we hadn't seen enough of her in a while. She was either sleeping over at Arman's, getting dinner with Arman, or studying with Arman. I couldn't blame her. The first time she brought him over to the apartment she'd needed to use a wrench to get mine and Pooja's jaws off the floor. With his sharp facial features and flawlessly-connected beard, he looked more like an editorial model than a Poli Sci major at USC.

Then again, Shola, who stood at 5'9" with the longest legs I'd ever seen on a Real Life Person, her beautiful 'fro and deep black skin, looked like she belonged right up there on the Vogue cover with him. They were a perfect match.

Living with such extraordinarily beautiful women, you would think some of it would transfer my way via osmosis, but unfortunately, that wasn't how things worked.

Which is why I felt the need to dress up for Jax tonight.

While the nightlife in Pasadena wasn't necessarily bopping, there was a graciously large selection of clubs to choose from just a short drive away in LA. Jax was one of them, and it was Shola and Pooj's favorite. Young crowd, strong drinks, and lots of reggaeton and hip-hop, as opposed to the singular electronic trash some clubs seemed to insist on nowadays. It was also one of my favorites, mostly because there was no cover on weekdays and they didn't usually ID girls.

I dressed in black jeans and a v-neck, shimmery grey top––borrowed from Shola's closet––that hung loosely off my body but dipped low enough with a push-up bra to make my As look like Bs. On my feet were my favorite strappy heels that I'd found at TJ Maxx on sale for $22. A little mascara and eyeliner, some highlighter, a dark matte lip, and I was ready to go.

"Ya'll are finding your own Armans tonight, okay?" Shola yelled over J Balvin's crooning as she handed two rum-and-cokes to Pooja and me.

"If you say so, sis!" Pooja sang back, gratefully accepting the drink even though she was still nursing a beer in her other hand.

"Where'd Arman go?" I mumbled while chewing on my straw. "And how much was this? I'll Venmo you later."

Shola waved her hand dismissively, "He had to make a call, but drinks are on him, don't worry about it. For now."

Shola grabbed me by the hips and steered me towards the dance floor, following after a stumbling but still surprisingly rhythmic Pooja.

"Like I said, find your own Arman, so you can make out with him tonight and he can buy me a drink." Shola giggled and gave me a twirl, and I couldn't help but laugh with her.

I was no bumbling Becky, but I didn't quite have the same kind of flow on a dance floor that Shola and Pooja shared, but when it was just the three of us dancing together, I tended to forget about all that and just…let go.

Of course, drinking aided that process greatly.

So much so in fact, I hardly noticed when Arman came back to dance with Shola and Pooja had slinked away, off to make out with a new lady friend of hers in the bathroom, I'm sure. I felt nothing the teensiest bit of envy at my friends' romantic luck, but nonetheless I kept dancing, even as I felt a large pair of hands land on my waist.

A quick, purposefully uninterested look behind me revealed a surprisingly nice face. More than nice really. He was…hot. About 6'2, bright smile, slight scruff, shaggy black hair and dark blue eyes.

I smiled at him.

He smiled back. Well, at least I thought so. His teeth were showing, but his eyes were roaming all over the club, till they stopped at a spot just a few feet behind me.

And before I could blink––we were kissing.

It was funny, really, I thought, as a rather enthusiastic tongue wiggled its way into my mouth and a large hand palmed my ass. The last time I had DFMO'd was freshmen year. But then again, Buddy over here definitely was not a college freshman.

"What's your name, sweetheart?" he rasped against my lips after pulling away.

Trying and failing miserably to keep from panting, I shouted a slightly slurred "Nina!" at him but he kept signaling with a hand to his ear that he couldn't hear me. He gestured to the front entrance and with a slightly anxious-slightly excited look at Shola and Arman, the former who nodded encouragingly and the latter who looked slightly unsure, I let Buddy grab my hand and lead me outside of Jax.

Once we were outside, I moved to lean against the wall but Buddy kept walking, till we were around the side of the building. Whether it was the fact that he was 6'2 (come on, I was only human) or that I could see his veins doing that thing in his forearms or because I had four drinks, I let him guide with me with no resistance.

"Right then," he turned around rather swiftly, his face inches from my own. "Your name."

I giggled nervously at his curtness, and backed away slightly till I hit the wall. "Um, Nina. I'm Nina. Nice to meet you."

He grunted and grabbed a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket. He tilted the box in my direction, but I shook my head. He lit one and brought it to his full lips, took a long drag, then blew the smoke out in front of my face.

My nose wrinkled and I tried not to breathe in. He looked so good doing it I decided now was not the best time to tell him I was asthmatic.

With the lit cigarette in one hand, Buddy––who I just realized still hadn't offered me his name in return––grabbed a fistful of my hair and kissed me again. He'd pulled away much quicker than last time, and I tried not to pout. He really knew what he was doing, better than the guys at Caltech certainly did, but that wasn't surprising.

"I'm Alec."

"Hi, Alec," I giggled. Crap, I needed to stop doing that.

It was a wonder, really, why this guy had decided to start dancing with me. He was so handsome, and definitely older. And I was…Nerdy Nina. Something didn't add up.

He raised an eyebrow at me, and I wondered if he had them threaded.

"Sorry," I shrugged and giggled again. "Rum makes me giggly."

And then he was smiling at me again, and I felt almost blinded by those teeth. He must model.

"Do you model, Alex? Oops," I hiccupped, "I mean Alec."

He chuckled, and it was a low, throaty sound that had me thinking things I shouldn't have about a man I'd quite literally just met.

"No. Do you?"

I––you guessed it––giggled again and shook my head.

"You look like you could." Alec stubbed his cigarette against the wall to the side of my head and tossed it to the ground.

I frowned, both at his words and his littering. He was only saying that because I was wearing contacts and had curled my hair and let my friends dress me. No one would ever think Nerdy Nina could model. Calculators, maybe, but not high fashion.

"So what are you? Arab? Serbian?"

My lips pinched together, and I rolled my eyes slightly. Judging by Alec's slight accent, he likely wasn't American, and so perhaps I couldn't fault him for his unchecked curiosity. Although, as far as I knew, the Arab world and Serbia were pretty far removed from one another.

"I'm half Indian, half Filipina."

"You eighteen yet?"

I almost choked on my spit. Jesus Christ, he was subtle."I'm twenty."

"Good." Alec's eyes were darting all over the place again, right before he kissed me. "Live around here?"

He kissed me again, after the question, and I was unable to answer until he pulled away.

"Yeah. Well, in Pasadena."

"Let's go." With a quicker, chaster kiss, Alec grabbed my hand and started leading me down the sidewalk.

I followed after him dumbly for a good three seconds before my senses caught up with my feet.

"Wait, Alec," I tried to stop walking but what do you know, my 6'2, bulging-veined buddy had a pretty firm grip. "Hey, stop! I'm not taking you home, dude."

Alec kept walking and tugging me along. "Your car will do."

My mouth actually fell open in shock. I'd met a lot of douchebags in my past, both directly through my own failed pursuits and indirectly through Shola's, but this was an entirely new level of bold. I'd never before experienced such singular, or aggressive, male attention, and frankly, I didn't like it. I'd only gone outside to talk to him. My friends would most certainly be expecting me back any time soon.

So I stood there in shock, my brain trying to confirm he'd actually said that and I hadn't fallen asleep watching something on the CW, while Alec fidgeted with something at my side. With my rum-riddled mind doing overtime, it took me a while to realize he was messing with my purse.

"Hey, what the hell are you doing?" I snapped, shoving at his large, muscly arms and snatching my purse closed.

Alec looked angry, and for the first time––and probably way, way too belatedly––I felt a little afraid of him. By this point, we were a good block away from the entrance of Jax. I don't suppose making a quick getaway back inside was an option, but we were still within earshot of the stragglers lingering outside the club.

"Listen, sweetheart, this could've been nice, really, for both of us. I could've shown you a good time, and then been on my way, but you're being difficult," Alec grabbed both my wrists in one hand and I twisted immediately to free myself, but with one swipe of his feet he had me pressed against the wall of the alleyway beside us, his bulky form keeping me from even wiggling against him.

"Don't touch me, you––"

"Rape's not my thing, sweetheart. I just need a car." With that, he snatched my purse and took off running down the alleyway.

"Fucker!" I cursed, before taking off after him.

I'd only managed a few steps before my heel caught in the gravel ground and I fell to the ground.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," I hissed, undoing the ribbons on my heels as quickly as I could before climbing back to my feet.

My ankle was sore and hurt like hell, but I ignored it and took off after the guy.

"Get back here, you asshole!"

He was only about seven feet in front of me, and I tossed my heels at him. The first one was an outlier, but the second managed to thunk him neatly on the side of the head.

I giggled then––honestly, I didn't even mean to. It was the rum's fault. But then he stopped.

Alec turned around, comically slowly, and my heels dug painfully into the ground as I came to a hasty halt.

"You fucking cunt," he hissed, rubbing the back of his head. His blue eyes were narrowed and glinting.

I stammered and stumbled back a few steps on my injured ankle, realizing suddenly how stupid I was for following after him. Sure, I was humiliated and violated and angry at his actions, but were the contents of my purse––a three-year-old phone, a debit card I could easily cancel, and seventeen dollars in cash––really worth chasing after a potential criminal?

As Alec––if that was even his real name––stalked deliberately towards me, the answer became a clear, resounding no. It was not worth it.

"I don't even have a car," I said, my voice shaking as I spoke.

Alec started cursing again, but I ignored him and tried to recall the self-defense lessons my ex from sophomore year had taught me once.

If someone tries to choke you, lock your arms around their grip.

Aim backwards at the groin with the knee.

Stick to your elbows rather than your fists.

Okay––I let out a deep breath––I could do this.

I looked up then, feeling more determined than before, and blinked.

Behind Alec, just a few feet to the left, was a man. He looked young, maybe closer to my age, and…cute. Like, boy-next-door, I-wanna-pinch-his-cheeks-and-ruffle-his-hair kinda cute. And he had a finger pressed to his lips, clearly indicating he wanted me to stay quiet.

Unfortunately though, my brain was running on about 60% rum-power, and the new stranger really should've realized that me staying quiet wasn't enough. If he really didn't want me to give away his position, he should've also signaled to me to stop staring right at him with confusion––and hope––plain on my face. Clearly.

"What the fuck are you looki––" Alec had barely turned back around to face our new company before the young man had Alec's arm twisted around to his back in what looked like a very unnatural and painful position, with his other arm wrapped around his head, an elbow pressed to his throat.

Alec had about eighty-pounds on the guy, for he managed to get out of his grip rather quickly and land a good punch to the boy's jaw. I gasped, just as the boy retaliated, sending one fist into Alec's face and a knee into his stomach.

He faltered for only a second, before jumping back up to his feet, spitting loudly to the side, and putting up his fists––just as the guy pulled a gun out from behind his back and pointed it squarely on Alec's face.

I couldn't help it––I screamed.

"Quiet, kid," my savior snapped at me, his eyes unmoving from the man in front of him. "Drop her fucking purse, Štimac. That's a new low, even for you. The Cohens really that pressed up for money these days?"

Alec started cursing in a foreign language. German? Polish? I couldn't be sure. All that mattered was that he listened to my new best friend and dropped my purse. Tossed it, rather.

I grabbed it and then stumbled back a few steps.

Whoever my new friend was, he knew Alec, though he didn't seem to particularly like him. He was also holding a gun and he certainly didn't look like a cop. So at this point, even though I knew my brain was not operating on 90% Nina-power, said brain was telling me this situation was not one I needed to be in further. I began to back away, a process which slowly turned into me hopping on one foot to avoid causing further harm to my other, while watching the new guy and Alec continue their conversation.

"You know I'm unarmed, you're really not playing fair. What would your grandfather say about this, Danny boy?"

"Shut the fuck up, Štimac. Don't talk about my fucking grandfather, you son of a bitch. Fairness went out the door the second you used a sorority girl as your human shield."

My still not-quite-sober brain was having trouble comprehending their discussion, but I had caught onto at least one word!

"I am not a sorority girl!" I slurred, stomping my uninjured foot childishly.

Alec muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like "drunk bitch", while the stranger chuckled in both amusement and disgust.

"Not your usual type, eh?"

I would've allowed myself to feel indignant, but I reminded myself I needed to be getting away from here. I began once again to hop away slowly as I watched the stranger accost Alec and drag him, cursing all the while, out of the alley.

Once they were out of my sight and I heard a car engine start and tires screech, I slowed to a more comfortable hop and began searching through my purse. Jax was just around the corner, but I wanted to call one of my friends. Maybe even the police.

My hands shook as I fiddled with the zipper and fumbled about inside, but I couldn't find my phone. My wallet, chapstick, and inhaler were all inside. But no phone.

I tried to ignore the panic rising up my throat, and instead squinted my eyes to look around the alley. My flustered brain started making excuses, trying to justify the situation and calm myself down.

Maybe it had fallen.

Maybe it was lying on the ground somewhere here.

I got on my hands and knees, as it was easier than standing on one foot, and scrambled about the dirty, gravel ground, ignoring the small, sharp pieces of rock pressing into my knees and palms.

"Fuck," I moaned, feeling hot tears prick my eyes.

Never mind the fact that I'd almost been…well, really, I had no idea what to call everything that had just happened. Assaulted? Kidnapped? Mugged? Nearly all three? But now on top of it I didn't have my fucking phone.

Just as I was about to start full on sobbing, a crunch behind me had me whirling around, so fast that I landed painfully on my ass with my elbows slamming into the ground.

It was him. The cute guy. The one who'd saved me.

"Forgot this, sorry."

He tossed something my way, and I flinched, my hands reaching out protectively in front of me to shield my face. I heard a crash and peeked behind my hands to hear what had caused the loud clatter, only to stare, open-mouthed, at my now broken phone.

"What the fuck?" I shrieked, grabbing the device and pressing uselessly at the shattered touch screen.

"What do you mean, the fuck? You were supposed to catch it."

I didn't mean to start bawling then, I really didn't, but it kinda just…happened.

It was bad, too. There was snot, and sniffling, and hiccups. It was worse than when sophomore year ex had dumped me. Worse than when my family's Siberian Husky, Bear, had died. Worse than when I got a D on my econ final freshmen year––really, why did Cal insist on making engineering majors take an intro economics course?

The point is, it was bad.

My whole body was shaking, and I felt suddenly very, very cold. My vision blurred in front of me, and I pulled my knees into my chest and buried my head between my legs, muffling the sounds of my sobs.

I startled when I felt something touch me, before realizing it was just fabric. A suit jacket. It smelled like cinnamon and some cologne, and I found I rather liked the smell.

Warm hands landed on my shoulders and a voice was crooning something into my ear. It was Italian. I had no idea what he was saying.

"Vieni caro, non piangere. Quel fottuto bastardo, avrei dovuto ucciderlo. Merda."

I started sobbing harder until I realized it was now English being spoken.

"I think you're going into shock, princess. It's okay. It's natural. Štimac's a piece of shit. He's gone though, don't worry."

I remembered the man's gun and felt the blood drain from my face. Poking my head out of its new home between my knees, I turned bleary brown eyes to the stranger beside me.

"Did you shoot him?" My voice came out hoarse and scratchy, and I yearned suddenly for a cup of green tea.

The man barked out a laugh and shook his head, "No, I'm afraid I didn't."

"But…you had a gun?" I wiped at my cheeks and cocked my head, confused.

"Concealed carry," he nodded patiently at me. "I heard you yelling, ran over here, thought I could scare him off."

"But he drove away?" I was so confused. Something wasn't adding up. Alec had said he needed a car. He thought I had had a car. And besides…they were acting like they knew each other.

"Yeah, must've been waiting for him, or something."

I couldn't get a good look at the man in front of me with the poor lighting in the alley, but I had a feeling he was lying to me. And I had a feeling he had a feeling that I had a feeling he was lying to me, for he cleared his throat and changed the subject.

"Listen, princess, you're alright, and that's all that matters, yeah? I think you should get home. Can I take you home?"

"My phone's broken," I mumbled sadly, my voice sounding strange and defeated and completely unlike me.

"You can call your friends, tell them I'll drop you home," the man pulled a shiny iPhone 8 out of his pocket.

I planned on allowing no such thing, but I quickly dialed Shola's number as I needed to talk to someone anyways. I waited anxiously for the ringing to stop, and it was Arman's voice that greeted me.

"Nina?"

I felt a wave of relief rush through me just hearing him.

"Hi Arman," I croaked, before clearing my throat and trying again. "Are you with Shola and Pooj?"

"Uh, well, Shola's knocked out right now in my passenger seat. We left just a few minutes ago, we told Pooja, don't worry. I think she's going home with that girl. Everything good?"

I stared at the phone, dumbfounded, before eyeing the time. I hadn't even been gone more than twenty minutes. Had all of that happened so quickly?

"Um. Yeah. I…" I trailed off, hesitantly.

Did I need to tell Arman what happened? Did I need to tell any of my friends? They would freak out, I was sure, and knowing Arman, he'd want to get the police involved or something. My head hurt too much for me to think about all the potential consequences right now. This conversation needed to be saved until I was sober with some Tylenol and greasy food in my system.

"You okay, Nina?" Arman's voice brought me back to the present, and I looked up to see the stranger watching me intently.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. I'm gonna Uber home. Thanks Arman."

"Of course, let me know when you're home."

I nodded at first, stupidly, before the stranger beside me chuckled and I threw in an embarrassed, "Of course" and hung up the phone.

"Nina, huh?" The man sent me a wayward glance as he pocketed his phone.

I ignored him, but he kept going.

"Was that your boyfriend?"

More silence from me.

"What happened to your shoes?"

Now that gave me pause. Huh?

I felt a warm hand wrap around my foot and I squealed, kicking it away and scooting backwards.

"Your shoes, princess, where'd they go?" The man chuckled, undeterred, and grabbed my other foot, the one that I'd twisted, and I hissed in pain.

"Ow, fuck, please don't––"

"Shh," the stranger murmured, loosening his grip and running a finger along the slight swelling on my ankle, "I don't think it's sprained. Don't worry. But you shouldn't walk on this, c'mon."

I barely had a minute to protest before the stranger was lifting me in his arms like I was a little child and walking us back down the alley––away from Jax.

"I––You––What?" I managed to splutter, smacking him against the shoulders wildly with my purse.

"Calm down, let me just get you to my car, you shouldn't be walking."

"Your car? Are you nuts?" I felt myself starting to panic again. So much for thinking this guy was any better than Alec was. "I'm not going anywhere with you! Let me go!"

"For fuck's sake, calm down. I'm trying to help you, princess," the guy chuckled, seemingly completely unfettered by my squirming and punching.

We were now heading towards Green Avenue, a main street where surely someone would notice and say something if they spotted this man quite literally attempting to kidnap me.

"I'm not getting in your car!" I screamed as loud as I could, just for a hand to smack over my mouth.

"Alright, fine. Just let me call an Uber then, okay? Can you shut your fucking mouth for a second and let me do that?" The man's patience seemed to have finally thinned, and when he let me go to pull his phone out of his pocket, I felt cold again, despite the fact that his jacket was draped over me.

I leaned hesitantly against a light pole on the sidewalk and stared at him nervously. I hadn't gotten a good look at his face until now, and I felt an uncharacteristic blush rise to my cheeks looking at him.

His hair was a dark brown, cropped so short it was almost a buzz cut. His eyes were like warm pools of milk chocolate, and there were even a few freckles on his otherwise tan face. His face was clean-shaven and smooth, with the slightest definition to his jawline.

He was…adorable.

But then he looked up, his face twisted into a scowl, and I remembered the gun holstered behind his back, and I took a step away.

Not adorable, I tried to convince myself. Scary.

His nostrils flared and he let out a frustrated breath while checking me out just as thoroughly as I'd done him. I tried not to squirm under his gaze, but his eyes were just so…focused. It was unnerving.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you."

My own brown eyes widened in shock. "You…what?"

He was apologizing?

He scowled again and looked down at his phone, avoiding my gaze. "I'm sorry. You're shaken up, I should be more understanding. Here, put your address in."

He handed me his phone and my gaze darted between him and the screen as I quickly typed my address in. Hopefully he wouldn't be able to access the location later, but really, what choice did I have right now?

"It'll be here in nine minutes," I mumbled quietly.

Why did I say that? He knew that. He could read. Stupid, stupid Nina.

"I'll wait with you," he mumbled back.

I nodded quietly and made to sit down, with my back against the wall of the building behind us. Stranger joined me, with his legs spread out in front of him instead of bent at the knees like mine.

I realized he was tall too, not quite as tall as Alec, but still. He had to have at least half a foot on me.

"Um. I should thank you, I suppose," I said sheepishly, turning my face slightly to peer at my––I hated to admit it––savior.

"It's nothing," Stranger waved a hand in the air and shrugged. "I was looking for him anyways. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

I didn't really know what he meant by that, but I decided to let it go.

"I'm sorry about your phone."

Fuck. I'd nearly forgotten about that. It was going to put a rather ugly dent in my savings account to fix it.

"It's fine. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't even haveit at all."

We sat in silence for a while then––Stranger on his phone and me picking at a loose sequin on my borrowed top.

"What were you doing out here anyways?" he broke the silence.

"I was just out with my friends," I sniffled slightly. "At Jax."

"No way you're twenty-one."

"So drinking underage is worse than whatever you're up to?" I retorted, flipping my hair with an unnecessary flourish.

Stranger chuckled. "Owning a gun isn't illegal. And you should be lucky I had it on me."

I chose not to respond to that comment, but he didn't seem to mind. He just kept talking.

"So how old are you? Nineteen?"

I rolled my eyes in irritation. "I'll be twenty-one in February."

Stranger chuckled, "Shit. You're a baby."

I fumed at his pretentiousness. Sure I was young, but did he own a mirror? I knew he had to have old ladies pinching his freckled cheeks at least once a week. "And you? You can't be older than twenty-two!"

He rolled his brown eyes at me and frowned. "I'm twenty-six, thank you. I'm just…aging well. Least I'm not naïve."

"I am not naïve!" I yelled, punching him in the arm and trying to act like I hadn't noticed how hard his bicep was, "I'm a chemical engineering major at Caltech!"

Stranger laughed, loudly, and I felt my face heat up. So maybe engineering majors at Caltech weren't considered to be the most experienced people, but still. He didn't need to laugh!

"A Tech student out and about on a Thursday night? Wow, things are really changing over there, huh?"

I snorted, just as the Uber pulled up in front of us.

"Look, whatever. Goodnight."

Stranger ignored me and opened the passenger side door for me.

"You're not coming with me…" I started, whirling on him anxiously.

"No, princess, I'm not. Just making sure you get in safely."

Ugh. How did he keep managing to make me feel so stupid? So…naïve. I glowered at him as I managed to squeeze into the seat without jostling my ankle too much.

"You're welcome," he added pointedly, as he shut the door with just a little bit more force than was necessary.

I felt a bit of guilt assuage me then, and with a quick finger to indicate to my rather bored-looking driver that I needed a minute, I stuck my head out the window.

My stranger was already headed back down the alley, and I realized I didn't have a name to call after him with.

"Hey! Wait!"

He stopped immediately and swiveled around, his hand already going to his belt. I shivered at the sight. There was something about him…Something off. But right now, it wasn't my place to question it.

I only had one thing left to do.

"Thank you, really. Thank you for your help."

He smiled then, a small, close-mouthed smile that was really just nothing but the left corners of his lips turning up, and I felt a funny feeling in my gut.

"You're welcome, Nina."


Needless to say, Shola and Pooja freaked out when I finally shared with them what had transpired the previous night at the club. I'd been alone when I got back home, and I'd promptly knocked out while still fully dressed. It was like that that they'd found me: scabs on my elbows, dirt on my knees, ankle still swollen, wearing a stranger's suit jacket––oops––and really, really hungover.

The story I had given them went something like: I made out with the guy, he tried to get me to leave with him, I didn't want to, I drunkenly threw my shoe at him, and then I dropped and cracked my phone screen, before borrowing someone's phone outside Jax to call Arman and get an Uber.

The lies flew surprisingly easily off my tongue, and I was equal parts ashamed and proud of myself.

I don't know why I felt the need to leave my superhero-savior-stranger out of the story, but I did. He was an enigma, and one I knew it was better for me not to dwell on.

And that was what I told myself, every single day of Thanksgiving break that I found myself thinking about him, and every single class the following week when he interrupted my daydreams.

"You okay?" Shola asked me as we met up after our Wednesday afternoon labs in the quad.

We both began tracing our steps towards the campus Jamba Juice without having to say a word to each other. It was post-Wednesday lab tradition.

"Yeah, why?" I gathered my hair into a ponytail and slipped my round glasses up my nose. I hadn't slept well the night before, but I didn't think I looked that worse for wear.

"You just seem…distracted," Shola frowned, and tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear.

I smiled, feeling warm and reassured by her kindness. I loved my friends.

"I'm fine, Shola, thanks."

She didn't seem convinced, but as we got in line at Jamba, she let it go and changed the subject. Arman's parents would be visiting from Lebanon for Christmas break, and she was already freaking out about meeting them.

While I was equally ecstatic and anxious for her, I knew she had nothing to worry about. Shola was an absolute gem, and it was no wonder Arman had fallen for her. He'd told her so himself. Apparently, the night he'd dragged her drunk ass back to his house after they left Jax, she had thrown herself all over him, and he had respectfully and kindly rejected her advances. She had fallen asleep more than upset with him, but after a long conversation in the morning, Arman had explained that he wanted their first time together to be one that she would a) most importantly, remember, and also b) cherish. And then he had told her that he loved her.

Pooja and I had squealed for a good seven minutes following that tale, and after hearing about Pooja's equally enjoyable though much more short-lived night after Jax with some girl named Brandie Stone––you were automatically cool in my book with a name like that––it was easy to forget about just how traumatizing my own night was.

A certain freckled, brown-eyed young man, however, was not as easily forgotten.

"Do you think he'll ask you to move in with him?" I asked while chewing on my straw once we seated ourselves at a table in the Jamba Juice patio. It was a bad habit––the straw-chewing. My mother hated it, but here I was, twenty-years-old and still chewing.

Shola, fortunately, was not paying attention to me. Her blueberry-lemongrass smoothie lay untouched on the table in front of her, her dark eyes focused on something behind me.

"Earth to Shola. Do you think he'll ask you to move in?" I repeated the question, in between a slurp of my own smoothie.

God. I loved mushed-up frozen fruit.

"Babe!" I snapped a finger in Shola's face, and she suddenly turned her attention back to me.

"Yeah, um, sorry, there was just a really cute guy over there."

I groaned playfully and asked my question a third time. "But maybe he won't if you continue to obsess over every cute boy you see like this!"

Shola frowned, and for a third time, ignored my question.

"I think he's staring at you, Nina."

I felt the blood drain from my face as images of a tall, potentially Polish/German man with piercing blue eyes came to mind. He was pretty fucking pissed at me last I saw him. What were the odds…?

"Just ignore it, Shola. Let's finish our smoothies and get out of here." I tried to tamp down my worries. It was a Wednesday afternoon; we were in the middle of a very crowded college campus. No one would try anything.

And besides, I was probably overreacting.

It could have been anyone.

"Oh my God, Nina!" Shola suddenly leaned across the table, whispering furiously. "He's coming over here. He's coming over here and staring right at you."

I stood up and started shoving my belongings into my bag, uncaring of how nuts Shola must've thought I was acting.

"Let's go. I'm not even thirsty anymore, how about––"

"Hey, princess!"

I choked on my spit and stilled immediately. I knew that voice. God, did I know that voice. It had been plaguing my every other thought for the past week and a half.

Shola's eyes were wide as saucers as she stared at the person behind me, and I knew before I turned what I would see: freckles and brown eyes.

He was dressed more casually than the last time I saw him. Black jeans, black leather boots, and a long-sleeved navy blue t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing forearms that were covered in both black and multicolored tattoos. His hair was still just as short, and I wondered if it would feel soft or fuzzy against my skin if I rubbed my palms against his scalp.

I felt my face flush as my mind processed my ovaries' wayward thoughts. What was wrong with me?

I couldn't bear to break my gaze from him though, even while knowing Shola was probably staring at me like I'd grown a second head. I was Nina. Nerdy Nina who was on the robotics team and hardly went out unless her hot roommates forced her to and was always, always the third wheel and looked too skinny for her own good and sometimes snorted at her own jokes. I did not blush over bad-boy, baby-faced strangers who had concealed weapon permits and called me demeaning nicknames like "princess".

Stranger's lips quirked up in that same half-smile I had been daydreaming about earlier today in Mechanical Behaviors and I felt my heart thud painfully in my chest.

"You look different with the glasses, and the hair all…" he gestured vaguely at the top of his head, and I tried to smile in response, but I think it came out more like a grimace.

"Uh, um, wha––"

At this point, Stranger was now just a few feet away front of me and rapidly approaching our table.

Shit, Shola. With a quick, pleading glance at my friend that I hoped screamed "I'll fill you in on everything later" I crawled over the bench we were seated on and speed-walked towards Stranger. Grabbing the sleeve of his denim jacket, I pulled him safely out of hearing distance.

I didn't know why he was here, or what he was planning on saying, but I didn't want to get caught in the lie I had told my best friends.

Stranger seemed not to mind my forceful tugging of him, and he even chuckled as he allowed himself to be led behind a large oak tree. I said "allowed" too because I recalled the way he had held his own against Alec, and I knew there was no way I was actually succeeding in tugging him by my sheer strength alone.

"Glad to see your ankle is fully functioning once again."

"What are you doing here?" I snapped, whirling on him the moment Shola was out of view.

He held his hands up in a "don't-shoot" motion and shined two rows of what had to have been years of dental work at me.

"Look, I felt bad about breaking your phone, so," he reached inside his denim jacket, fiddled around for a few seconds, and pulled out a black iPhone 8.

I stared at him, unblinking, before he grabbed my hand and placed the phone squarely in my palm.

I looked down at the phone, then at him, then back down at the phone.

"Are you on something?" I whisper-hissed, shoving the phone back at him.

He put his hands in his pockets and shook his head. "It's yours. Brand new. Haven't even turned it on yet. Actually, that's a lie. I did, but you'll see why."

"What the fuck?" I looked around suspiciously, expecting hidden cameras or Ashton Kutcher or something to convince me this wasn't really happening. "Why would you…" I trailed off, not even knowing how to complete this sentence.

Something was up. Something was really, severely up. Cute boys who ran around with guns fighting bad guys and threatening to kidnap you did not just…just…show up outside your campus Jamba Juice with a brand new $1000 phone to replace the $300 one that they had broken!

"Are you…are you in a…?" I didn't wanna say "gang", but the way things were looking…well, I couldn't be too sure. I was in LA after all.

"Can I be completely honest with you?" Stranger asked, looking unusually vulnerable.

Just like that, I forgot all about his bad-boy vibes and the gun he owned and his shady behavior and just saw freckles and warm brown.

I wanted to pinch his cheeks.

"Yeah," I breathed, just as he took a step closer to me and rested his hand on my shoulder.

"I haven't been able to get you out of my mind since that night. I've been replaying what could've happened if I hadn't found Štimac," his grip on my shoulder tightened considerably, "Or what could've happened if you'd let me drive you home," his eyes darkened, and I gulped, "Or what could've happened if I'd asked for your fuckin' number before you left."

My mouth fell open in what I was sure wasn't a very attractive look, but I couldn't help it. I felt like I'd lost all control of my bodily movements. My knees might've sagged beneath me if I hadn't been leaning heavily into Stranger's grip.

"H-how did you find me?" I managed to ask, my voice light and shaky.

"There aren't actually that many Ninas in the chemical engineering program here," he grinned, looking all too proud of himself despite not giving me an actual answer.

"B-b-but––"

He placed a finger over my lips, silencing me, and gave me a warning glare. "Keep the phone, princess, please."

I tried to fight down another rising blush and prepared to protest immediately, before he promptly leaned in and replaced his finger with his lips. His lips. Over my own. Kissing me.

My eyes widened and my hands flew up to his shoulders, but in less than a second, I found myself responding. I couldn't help it. He, much like Alec, was certainly no Caltech freshman. His lips were so soft. His hands so gentle. Such a stark contrast with the last kiss I'd had. I itched to feel his cheeks, wondering if they were as baby-smooth as the rest of him.

To hell with it, I figured, finally giving in to my fantasy and planting a good, hard pinch on his cheek.


Needless to say, Shola had some questions for me when I finally reemerged from behind the oak tree and joined her at our table some fifteen minutes later. My lips were noticeably swollen, my cheeks flushed, and my shirt slightly wrinkled. Not to mention there was a brand-spanking-new iPhone in my hand.

"Who? What? When?" Shola was on me immediately.

I took a minute to calm down––nothing like a charming Italian with wicked lips and an even wickeder tongue to send my asthmatic ass hyperventilating––and relayed to her some poorly-fabricated tale about how he was the stranger whose phone I had borrowed, and how he'd wished he had asked for my number. Shola ate the whole thing up, but I realized we had a problem when she asked me what his name was.

I'd never gotten it.

After my rather bold cheek-pinch, Stranger had bit my bottom lip rather hard and warned me to never do that again, unless I'd like him to pinch me somewhere it would really count. I must've looked like a goldfish with my mouth opening and closing for a good minute before he put me out of my misery and kissed me again.

He said that he needed to get going after that, but that he hoped I would enjoy the phone and he bid me adieu with a wink and a "See you later, Nina."

"What's his name, Nina?" Shola was getting impatient, and I scrambled to think of an excuse.

How much of an idiot could I be? I had just made out with the man behind a tree in the middle of campus, and I didn't even know his name?

My new phone started buzzing then, and I wondered how he possibly could have fixed it with cell service by now, before realizing it was a FaceTime audio call and the phone was connected to Caltech public wifi.

The number flashing on the screen had an LA area code, and I nervously slid my hand over the green button and held it up to my ear, already knowing who it was going to be.

"Forgive me, princess. I completely forgot to introduce myself."

When I hung the phone up a few seconds later, Shola looked like she wanted to pounce on me.

"Nina, I need some details, sis."

I smiled. "His name is Danny Ardizzone, and he wants to have dinner with me."