Something Better

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Chapter 7

Unbelievably, I was beginning to form some kind of rapport with Aksel.

It was strange. In terms of friendship, I felt closer to Kjell and the others – we were always hanging out, always joking with each other. But Aksel...

Aksel, I realised, was the only person privy to my innermost thoughts. We never spoke much, but when we did, it was about all the things I had no desire to divulge to the others. Maybe it was because he was a little more than a stranger to me. It was easier to talk about these things, because I didn't much care what he thought of me.

This feeling didn't seem to be mutual, however. He had remained tight-lipped all the way from the cafe to our dorms. Our little heart-to-heart had, obviously, been over.

That night, when Tatiana barrelled into my room with a smirk, I realised that Aksel had been right. They had been trying to play Cupid by leaving the two of us alone.

"So?" Tatiana asked, grinning widely. "How was it?"

I rolled my eyes. "What are you, twelve? Who plays a prank like that anymore?"

"You two needed more time alone," she defended herself.

"Stop playing Cupid," I said drily. "It's never going to happen." Because he's more attracted to you than to me.

She'd been disappointed, but hadn't pushed.

And that had been that.

Or so I'd thought.


The next time I ran into Aksel, it was at yet another dorm party. There was one every Friday night, and I had found myself alone again that particular weekend. Kjell and David were hanging out with a bunch of guys from their faculty, and Tatiana was down with the flu. I had teased her for that, pointing out that Finland had to be much colder than Edinburgh, but she had only swatted me away and told me to leave her in peace. Since I didn't feel like staying in that night, I decided to head to the party alone. If there was no one I knew there, I could leave anytime.

The room was crowded when I walked in, but I couldn't have missed Aksel even if I had tried. He was leaning against the wall right next to the door, nursing a beer like the party already bored him.

I walked by him, hesitated, then decided it would be rude if I didn't say anything. "Hey," I said, nodding at him in the way guys sometimes did at each other.

He raised his eyebrows, but replied, "Hey."

Satisfied I had done my part as a polite dormmate, I moved away and headed for the table where the beer was.

"Hello," a male voice fairly purred in my ear.

I about jumped out of my skin. I whirled around and saw a really cute guy standing close behind me, smiling. His teeth glinted like white pearls. I blinked, more than a little dazzled.

"Um... Hi."

"I'm Jake," he said, offering his hand. "What's your name?"

"Emilie," I said, shaking his hand. He continued holding onto it, even after the handshake was long over.

"Pretty name for a pretty girl," he said. He had dark brown eyes at sparkled at me.

I felt a flush climb up my neck. Nobody had said that to me before. It had always been - 'where are you from?', or 'you're biracial?' It was refreshing that he hadn't even asked where I was from.

"Um," I stuttered. "Thanks."

"What do you think of this party? Kinda boring, eh?"

"I guess. I just got here."

"Then you need a bottle of beer," he said, heading for the table. He still hadn't let go of my hand, and I found myself following as if in a trance. He took a bottle, got rid of the cap with a well-practised twist, and offered it to me. I accepted it with a murmur of thanks.

He took another beer for himself, still smiling at me. "So, hey - what do you say we get out of here?"

I stared. Did he mean what it sounded like he meant? I had never gotten an invitation like this before.

"Well, it's fine if you don't want to," he backtracked, when I was silent for too long.

"I..." I stammered, "I don't know. Maybe later? I just got here..."

He smiled at me. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me."

My heart pounding and in a daze, I wandered away without paying much attention to where I was going. In the end, I found myself back where I had started – right beside Aksel by the door.

"We just keep running into each other, don't we?" I sighed.

He shrugged. "Some people would say it was fate."

I laughed, sure he wasn't serious. Since I'd met him, he had made his disinterest in me all too evident. "Yeah, right."

I sipped at my beer, my mind still fuzzy from what had just happened. To take my mind off it, I turned to Aksel. "Why are you standing by the door, like you're ready to leave any second?"

"Maybe I am," he said.

"Why bother coming, then?"

"For the beer." The expression on his face told me he was telling the truth.

I shook my head. "Why not just grab a bottle or two, then sneak off back to your room?"

"That's rude," he said.

I laughed at the sheer irony of it.

We stood there, leaning against the wall in what could be called companionable silence, before I spoke again.

"You know, some guy propositioned me just now."

Aksel's gaze sharpened, and he stood up straighter. "What?"

Something about his tone rubbed me the wrong way. "What, you think I'm lying?"

"More like I hope you are," he muttered, almost under his breath.

"Just because you don't like me," I said defensively, "doesn't mean someone else won't. He said my name is a pretty name for a pretty girl." It was embarrassing, repeating his words out loud.

Aksel's lip curled in disgust. "Who the hell is this Casanova and where did he download his pick-up lines from?"

I glared back. What was that supposed to mean? Couldn't some other guy find me attractive? Just because he had no interest in me...

"Just because you don't find me pretty..."

His eyes narrowed. "That's not the issue here."

My chin lifted a notch. "You know what? Maybe I will sleep with him after all."

I hadn't really planned on doing that, but now that the idea had taken root in my mind, I found that it had some merit. Why not? I was on exchange, in a foreign country with foreign boys, and everyone deserved at least one fling. Looking at people pairing off subtly in front of me, I knew most of the other international students thought the same. Even Aksel had said he would sleep with Tatiana, if given the chance. I was lonely, this was a party, and nobody had said such nice things to me before – why not? I'd never done anything crazy, anything exciting. Wasn't it time to break out of my shell?

Aksel's expression changed so quickly that I would've found it amusing, if I hadn't been so caught up in my own thoughts.

"Wait. What?"

I vaguely heard Aksel's question of disbelief, but I paid him no mind. I was searching through the crowd for that guy, Jake. He was close to where I had left him, still nursing his beer. As if feeling my gaze on him, he looked up. Our eyes met. After a long moment's eye contact, he smiled at me.

I smiled back, feeling my cheeks heat. He had laid it on a bit too thick, yes, but he was cute. Maybe, if he came over, I would say yes this time.

That was before Aksel stepped in front of me, cutting off the blossoming connection.

"Hey," I complained, "what are you doing?"

I tried to push past him, but he wouldn't budge. I tiptoed to try and look over his shoulder, but he was too tall. Huffing, I turned on my heel and prepared to wriggle through the crowd to approach Jake myself.

But I couldn't shake Aksel. He followed silently behind me, like a surly bodyguard. Jake took one look at him and turned his back.

Feeling thwarted, I stomped back to the door. When Aksel followed, I shoved him outside into the empty hallway and turned on him in a temper.

"What the hell are you doing? Why are you cockblocking me?" I demanded.

Hands shoved deep into his pockets, he simply stood there and stared down at me.

"What is this 'cockblocking'?" He sounded just as annoyed as I was. "It sounds vulgar as hell."

"You sound vulgar as hell," I muttered. "Look, I don't know what's wrong with you all of a sudden, but lay off! You're worse than a chastity belt!"

"Good," he said, his mouth drawn into a thin line.

"What do you mean, 'good'?" I pitched my voice higher on the last word to mock his use of it. "Not good! I want to go to Jake, and I can't do that if you keep standing around like that!"

Aksel looked annoyed. "Why the fuck would you want to sleep with some sleazy guy with insincere, pretty words?"

"I don't know, maybe because I'm sick of people like you who don't have anything nice to say to me!" I snapped.

"You're drunk," he said. "I'll walk you back to your room."

"Don't be stupid," I scoffed. "It's right upstairs. Besides, I've only had one beer."

"You shouldn't be drinking if you're allergic to alcohol," he said.

I rolled my eyes. "Yes, Papa."

He glared at me. The sight of his creased brow, narrowed eyes and flared nostrils told me he was at the end of his rope with me.

"You're not the boss of me," I said, tossing my hair. "I'm on exchange and I want to find a hot, foreign boy to sleep with. Now, as they say in Britain – sod off."

A hand around my wrist stopped me in my tracks. "You're going to lose your virginity to the first random guy who tells you stuff you want to hear?" Aksel asked bluntly. "He doesn't know you. He doesn't care about you. He's not going to do it right."

I snatched my hand back. "Who says I'm a virgin?"

He stared at me. I saw very real confusion cross his face. "You're not?"

"That's none of your business," I snapped.

"But you look–"

"What, innocent, demure?" I rolled my eyes again. I had heard it all before. My friends, back in Hamburg, had even gotten into the habit of pretending to cover my ears whenever they talked about sex.

"Twelve," he said. "You look twelve."

I glared at him. "And any guy attracted to me would have to be a paedophile, is that it?"

That stopped him short. He shoved his hands back into his pockets, scowling like I had insulted him personally. "No."

"If you're worried about protecting my chastity," I mocked, "don't bother. I'm twenty, not twelve. I know what I'm doing."

"You know," he said, in an over-casual tone of voice, "I read somewhere that they did a survey once, and Germans came out as the least likely in Europe to engage in one-night stands."

"Don't you know?" I asked, my voice mocking, "I'm not a real German."

"Shut up," he said harshly, suddenly, "don't keep repeating some throwaway remark a stranger made as if it's some kind of gospel truth."

I screwed up my face but didn't say anything. After a long beat, I felt all the annoyance drain out of me. I didn't know what his motive was, but he was, in his own way, just trying to look out for me. I admitted, "I've never had a one-night stand." I didn't add that the only guy I'd ever slept with was my ex-boyfriend back in high school. I didn't know why I was suddenly so adamant about having a one-night stand tonight. Maybe I just wanted to do something crazy. Something not me.

Being me was boring.

"Me neither." His reply was so swift I had to wonder if he had already guessed what I had been about to say.

"Really?" I strove to match the casual tone he had just used a minute ago, "I read somewhere that Finns are the most promiscuous in the Western world. One-night stands are practically a way of life in Finland. People sleep together without ever finding out other person's surname."

He blinked, his lips thinning briefly. "Maybe we shouldn't believe everything we read."

"Are you saying it's not true?"

"I'm saying it's not true for me. I am one person; I can't speak for the whole of Finland."

"I've heard about the attitudes towards casual sex in Finland, though," I said. "Is it true? That you sleep together even before dating?"

"I don't do that, but... Yeah. Some people do. Sex is a natural human need. There's no need to make things complicated."

"So it's the norm? Even for girls?"

He looked surprised I had even thought to ask that. "Of course. What men can do, women can do too. It makes no sense for women to be judged for something when the men are not."

I chuckled. I'd heard something of the progress of gender equality in the Nordic countries, especially in Finland. It was quite refreshing to see a guy treat the usual double-standard like a foreign concept. Then what he'd just said hit me. "Wait. Isn't this hypocritical? It's okay for Finnish girls to have casual sex, but when I try to do it, you no longer support gender equality?"

He glared at me. "This has nothing to do with gender equality."

"You said you'd sleep with Tatiana if you could," I reminded him, even though just saying the words left a bitter taste in my mouth, "but you've just spent the whole night blocking all my attempts to find a hot, foreign boy to sleep with. What's that about?"

He opened his mouth to answer, then changed his mind and shut it again.

"Cat got your tongue?" I asked slyly.

A hard glint came into his eye right then. "Then, what about me?"

I was thrown by the sudden change in topic. "What?"

"What about me? Or am I not foreign enough for you?"

It was on the tip of my tongue to snap that he wasn't hot enough, but that would've been a lie. I looked up slowly, finding myself trapped in those smouldering, ice-blue eyes.

"Are you drunk?" I asked, feeling my heart start to thud erratically. "What's wrong with you tonight?"

For the first time, I saw him lose hold on the icy control he had draped around him like a cloak from the moment we had met. As that cloak fluttered to the ground, he leaned into my face, letting me see the full force of his desire through his dilated eyes, and growled out, "What's wrong is that I want you!"

I felt my lips part of their own volition as I stared at him.

He swung away angrily, scowling like he had said too much. He had gotten halfway down the hall before I snapped out of my daze.

It wasn't an easy feat, trying to catch up with him. He had long legs – that, added to his quick walking pace, ensured that he was always more than two or three metres ahead of me.

I finally caught up with him at the door to his room. He was just stepping inside when I tackled him from behind and sent the both of us sprawling. Winded, we both lay unmoving in the middle of his room for a while, before I realised I was all but lying on him and scrambled to get off.

"Fuck," he muttered, turning over so that he was lying on his back but making no move to get up.

"You can't..." I had to stop to catch my breath before continuing. "You can't say something like that and then run off."

"I wasn't running."

I bit my lip, unsure of how to broach the topic. "You said..."

"So, any guy will do? Any Tom, Dick or Harry who tells you he wants you? And you call Finns promiscuous?"

I shrank back a little at his harsh tone. "Not any guy," I said in a small voice.

Just a guy that I had been attracted to from the moment he laid his cold blue eyes on me, but had never seemed interested before tonight. I'd tried hating him because it had seemed like he hated me, but that hadn't worked out so well.

"Weren't you ready to jump into bed with this Casanova who told you that you were pretty? And then now you're ready to be with me?"

I leaned my head back to scowl at the ceiling. "You're a hypocrite. You're the one who said sex is a natural human need, but now you're judging me for it?"

He didn't say anything.

We sat in silence for a stretched-out moment – a moment in which I felt my annoyance ebb away. A hot tingle was rising to fill its place.

"Since I'm here and you already think I'm promiscuous anyway," I said, my voice wobbling a little, "why don't we have sex?"

I could've sworn he stopped breathing for a moment. "What kind of proposition is that?"

"A convenient one." But my heart was thumping hard in my chest. "You're Finnish, aren't you? Why make sex complicated?"

Experimentally, I reached out and ran my hands over his chest. I had always thought of him as tall and kind of thin, so feeling the lean muscles of his chest came as quite a shock.

His resistance only lasted the breath of one second.

His kiss was fury and fireworks all rolled into one. My heart leapt at this proof that the attraction hadn't been one-sided. He really did want me. He brushed his tongue over my lips, asking a silent question. I opened my mouth in unspoken permission.

After I had all but melted against him, he raised his head to look into my eyes. "Don't believe all the stereotypes you hear," he murmured. "I don't do this with just anyone."

"Oh?"

"Yeah." His eyes glittered. "And I don't think you're promiscuous. Just too eager to believe sleazy, silver-tongued guys."

Then he kissed me again, cutting off any reply I might have made. This time, we didn't part for breath until my back was flat on the bed and he was propped up on his elbows above me.

"We're going to regret this tomorrow," he muttered, lifting his head briefly to look into my face. His fingers fluttered over my temple, lightly pushing back my hair.

"Why? Everyone gets to have at least one one-night stand when they go on exchange." I pulled his head down again. He went willingly, fusing his lips to mine in another hot, open-mouthed kiss. Then his lips left mine to trail down my neck, my collarbone...

I whispered, "Condom?"

He stretched out, reaching over me to yank open the drawer in the end table. After rustling around for a moment, he held up a small square packet.

Remembering that day, so long ago, when I'd drunk myself into a stupor and woken up in his room, I couldn't help but laugh. "You really have everything in here."

"Last chance to change your mind," he said, almost warningly.

I took the packet from him, put it in between my teeth, and tore it open in one swift move. "It's already too late."

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