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Chapter 1 of WHAT IS LOVE?: Sneak Peek

* This is a pre-copyedits version of the text. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors. There may be small changes in the final version that goes to print.*




1
IN THE DICTIONARY: BETWEEN ‘LOATHE’ AND ‘LOVE
Answer:
Most Vulcans ascribe to this strict system of reasoning, from which we can deduce Vulcans must be good at Sudoku.
Question:
What is Logic?


Before.

Theodore “Teddy” Ferguson the Third fell in love with Maxine Hart the day before she crushed his intellectual prowess on national television.
Had he known his fate, that cold February morning in Culver City, he’d never have locked eyes with the big-eyed redhead when they’d both reached for the last powdered chocolate donut in the Answers! green room.
Had he known she’d ruin his waking life and haunt his dreams in explicit fashion, Teddy would have abandoned the donut—and the game show on which he’d set a winning-streak record for the past 71 games.
Instead, he’d have taken a rideshare directly to the airport, where he’d have boarded a flight for Ushuaia, Argentina. From there, he’d charter a boat to Antarctica, where he would begin a new life in the only location where he might not be recognized as the infamous Answers! Champion—and Oxford-educated Professor of Geography and Geoscience at Princeton University—who had lost to a woman who’d identified ice cream truck researcher as her profession during the interview segment.
This was, technically, an exaggeration, since Answers! only aired in 30 of the world’s 195 countries. But the point was, Maxine couldn’t humiliate him in front of millions of viewers if he lived at the South Pole. And Teddy would sleep well at night, never to be haunted by the knowledge that kissing Maxine tasted like Juicy Fruit—specifically, isoamyl acetate, the primary flavor ingredient found in jackfruit.
But Teddy was only a trivia genius with a mind like a steel trap; he was not an oracle.
He didn’t have a clue what he was about to go through.
“Did you know it’s titanium dioxide that makes them so white?” Teddy asked the mystery woman, nodding at the donut they’d both reached for. Her hand hovered next to his own, frozen two inches above the prize.
The truth was, Teddy was sick of powdered chocolate donuts. But he wasn’t eating them for pleasure—he was eating them out of caution. He’d eaten one before his first game and won; therefore, the safest course of action was to mimic the actions leading to his first win. Every day. For three straight weeks. Teddy wasn’t superstitious (after all, he was a well-educated scientist,) he simply ascribed to the religion of “better safe than sorry” with zealous devotion.
The point was, letting this pretty newcomer take his donut would be disastrous.
Besides, what she didn’t know was that her defeat was all-but-determined. Episodes of Answers! were filmed months in advance (taped at a rate of five games per day, three days a week) and players kept to a strict code of secrecy until episodes aired. And it was a new day in a new week, so this was a fresh batch of hopeful trivia adepts who hadn’t sat in last Thursday’s audience, watching him trounce their peers in the day’s five back-to-back tapings.
No, neither this donut-poaching woman nor any of the other contestants mingling in this green room had any idea that Teddy currently ranked as the second-best player in all of Answers! history—and the only player currently ranked higher than Teddy hadn’t played a competitive trivia game in two decades.
He was a wolf hiding in a flock of sheep, and this woman was a particularly fetching ewe.
Perhaps that was why Teddy had forgotten that nearly every version of the aforementioned fable ended with the wolf’s demise.
She blinked at him. “Titanium dioxide, huh?”
Teddy grinned, the confidence of having gone undefeated so long empowering him to flirt, when five weeks ago he’d have, at best, awkwardly mumbled an apology. “Don’t be alarmed. It’s a completely natural mineral, often used in sunscreen.”
(For Teddy, the relaying of trivia was flirting.)
Her eyes were moss-green and enormous, like one of those deer cartoons from the sixties. He memorized the rest of her like she was a composite of facts he’d need to recall on demand (and he would—but involuntarily, in his vividly explicit dreams). Tall. Pale skin. Pointy nose. Wide mouth. Wild mane of inferno-red curls. And, oddly, a full reptile-print pantsuit in the same green hue as her eyes. A name tag stuck her lapel declared her, “Maxine <3”
She smirked, her gaze flicking to his own name tag.
“The third, huh? And a posh English accent? Well, aren’t you fancy.” Was that a tinge of Brooklyn in her smoky voice? He’d have to hear it again—
Without breaking eye contact, she picked up the donut and swiped it down her nose, leaving a streak of white in its wake. “There. Now I won’t get sunburn from the stage lights.”
He felt his smile wither.
Maxine (with a heart) bit a hunk off his donut and chewed. Then, her face twisted. “Oh, I forgot. I hate chocolate.”
“You—what?”
“Chocolate,” she enunciated. (Brooklyn, without a doubt this time.) Her gaze was serial-killer calm.
As if in slow motion, he watched her flippantly toss his lucky donut in a nearby trash can. “By the way, most major donut companies dropped titanium dioxide from their ingredients in 2015. I subscribe to the Dunkin’ Donuts fan club newsletter. See ya out there, champ!”
She stalked off, leaving him staring into the depths of a sloppy wastebasket. He glanced over his shoulder, assured himself no one was paying him particular notice, and retrieved his mangled prize. It was halfway to his mouth when he stopped himself. He stared at the mystery slime coating the donut’s left flank.
Get a hold of yourself, man.
Teddy let the donut fall back into the bin. When he glanced up again, she was watching him.
Her smirk bloomed into a smile full of pointy canines and neatly rectangular incisors. It chilled his blood. Heated his skin. Made his brain tingle, in the way only really, really brilliant bits of trivia did.
Suddenly, there were two wolves in this flock.
She knew, didn’t she? Somehow, she must have caught wind of his record-setting run, and now she was trying to sabotage him.
He sidled up alongside her at the coffee station. “I see you’ve been informed. How?” Keeping match results hush-hush was a long-standing code of honor among staff and contestants on the Answers! game show and he wanted to know who’d dare betray this sacred institution.
Maxine made theatre of carefully selecting a stir stick. She inserted it in her coffee, gave it a thorough mixing, and took a delicate test sip. “Mmm. Tastes like victory,” she murmured.
“Was it Bryan? Was he the one who told you?” Bryan. That toadstool. He’d been especially sour after his match yesterday, hadn’t he? You never could trust a Dartmouth man.
“No clue what you’re talking about, bud.”
He cast a sidelong look to ensure no one was eavesdropping and lowered his voice to a whisper. “My record… win streak.”
Her fawn brows popped up in a facsimile of surprise. “You want me to believe you’re on a winning streak? A record-breaking one?”
“Don’t play coy.”
“You. The man I just saw trying to eat a donut out of a trash can. You’re a champion Answers! player.”
He gritted his teeth. “I eat a powdered chocolate donut every morning before taping.”
“And now you don’t have one.” She gasped. “Oh, no. What are you going to do? Are you going to… are you going to lose?”
His spine stiffened. “I am not.”
“Oh, silly me. I forgot you probably won’t play against me today.”
It startled Teddy when his stomach dipped in disappointment. How odd. “Why not?”
“I’m just an alternate. I’m scheduled to play tomorrow. But Ingrid over there has a case of the baby barfs and she might have to postpone.” Maxine nodded toward a blonde woman emerging from the restroom, her skin tinted the same shade as the room’s green walls. “Though between you and me, I think she’ll rally. She told me she’s in a women’s rugby league. I’ll bet she can handle a little discomfort.”
Teddy’s nose twitched in irritation, but he caught it before it showed on his face. A sick competitor was hardly any fun to beat. He’d be deflating her dreams when she was already suffering, and what was the fun in that? No, he’d been winning so easily for so long. He was bored. He wanted—needed—a vicious fight.
Could this woman before him be the worthy challenger he’d been waiting for?
“Where did you study?” he demanded. His brain flipped through its trove of data. If his teenaged years growing up in New Jersey had taught him anything, it was that denizens of the Manhattan boroughs were ferociously loyal to home. “Columbia, perhaps? Cornell?”
“Why does it matter?”
“Educational background is an objective measure of aptitude.” He shouldn’t have to state the obvious.
“Sure, it is.”
The way she looked like she was stifling a laugh made him want to defend his entirely reasonable question. “I’m attempting to determine if you’re as much of a threat as you say you are.”
“You want to know the truth?” Maxine crooked a finger.
Teddy didn’t remember making the conscious decision to lean in. But, suddenly, he was close enough to count her individual eyelashes as she lowered her gaze to his throat. She smelled of something faintly tropical that he couldn’t quite place and he had the irrational urge to press his thumb against her glossy lips and measure if they were as soft as they looked. His pulse thundered under his skin.
“The thing is…” she murmured, and Teddy knew in that instant, without a shred of doubt, he’d follow that velvet-washed voice into the depths of hell.
“What?” His voice came out scraped raw with desire.
“I’m worse.”
Teddy jerked back. He had the terrifying sensation of having picked up a rock only to find a snake clinging to its underside.
Maxine’s victorious expression made it all the more humiliating. She knew exactly what kind of effect she’d had on him.
His cheeks prickled with heat, and he glanced around the room to see if anyone had noticed him falling prey to her strange brand of hypnosis, but thankfully, the other contestants were busy studying or nervously chattering among themselves.
Maxine had made him feel like a fool, and that could not stand.
“I’ve already won seventy-one games,” he warned her in a low register he hoped conveyed the gravity of his threat. “There is only one man on earth who has performed more impressively on this show. What makes you think you have what it takes to defeat me?”
“Oh, Theodore.”
“Teddy,” he corrected. Maybe too quickly. “I go by Teddy.”
“Cute.”
“Many great men—”
She was already walking away.
He caught up with her again as she settled at one of the round tables scattered around the room beneath wall-mounted televisions airing the network’s other shows and framed photos of previous Answers! sets.
“Berkeley, then,” he continued guessing, as if she hadn’t rudely dismissed him already. “That’s where you attended university.” Of course, she’d be a Berkeley girl. With that hair and the outfit and that attitude
With a secretive smile, she swirled her coffee, pressed the pad of her fingertip to the top of her hollow stir straw, and brought it to her mouth like it were an eyedropper. When her glossed lips closed over the end of the red stick to suck the coffee out, Teddy’s abdomen clenched. She made the innocent action seem… provocative.
“You seem unsettled. Was it something I said?”
“Of course n--” His voice caught. He tried to swallow, but his mouth had gone as dry as the Antarctic (largest desert on earth, by geologic definition).
“Coffee?” She held out her cup.
Teddy ignored it, forcing the words out on a rasp. “Just tell me where.”
He sounded desperate. He didn’t care. The idea that she knew something he didn’t was unacceptable. It tormented him. He had to know. Not only the particulars of her schooling—everything about her. Who was she? Was she as smart as she claimed to be? What would her nails feel like digging into his scalp when he splayed her over the mahogany desk in his home’s study and--
Teddy swiped a hand over his face, as if that would cleanse him of the highly inappropriate thought.
Alarm sirens blared in what little remained of his reasonable mind, but he ignored them. Vaguely, he was aware he should be reviewing American presidents’ wives’ maiden names and Latin word roots—both areas he’d missed during his flashcard practice last night. But Maxine interested him a thousand times more.
She was the only trivia puzzle he wanted to solve right now.
The contestant coordinator entered the room and called his name along with two others to go to be fitted with microphones for the first match. They hardly mattered—neither name belonged to Maxine.
The woman in question raised her cup in salute. “Go get ‘em, Theo.”
“It’s Teddy.”
Her terrifying smile was back. “Come to the hotel bar tonight after taping. If you’re still around after today’s matches, you can buy me a drink and I’ll put you out of your misery.”
Did she mean she’d finally answer his question... or something more sinister?
“I’ll be there.”
She dared to wink at him. “Better win a lot of money today… I have expensive taste.”

***


Teddy found her at the dimly lit hotel bar that night, already sipping from a glass of glinting amber liquid. It matched the light-struck bits on her halo of curls. Her dark coat was draped over the stool next to her. She’d waited for him, like she’d said she would.
The tightness in his belly eased. Then it twisted again, into anticipation.
He wove through the lively crowd.
The show put all the contestants up in the same mid-priced hotel within shuttle distance of the studio, so he and Maxine weren’t the only ones who recognized each other. But most of the players he’d beaten today had already gone home in shame, and the rest were newcomers, having been flown in for the next day’s tapings. Only a few of his former foes lingered in the crowd, nursing their disappointments over house red wine and well cocktails.
“He’ll take one of these, Harris,” Maxine told the bartender when Teddy reached her, gesturing to her own drink. “And you can put both on his tab.”
Teddy settled into the leather stool next to hers. “Presumptive of you. I prefer red wine.”
“I know. The Bordeaux, right? Same glass, every time for almost three weeks? How superstitious of you.” She winked at the bartender.
“It’s not superstition. I simply don’t see a need to risk disappointment by alternating my selection.”
“Oh, but risk is the spice of life.” A sly smile settled over her lips, as if she had already determined he was the kind of man who drove exactly the speed limit. (Which he was.) But she only raised her glass. “To your wins today.”
So, she’d watched all of them. “To my wins.”
She watched him sip his scotch, rolling the honey sting around his tongue as peat stripped his wine-attuned palate of reason. “Do you like it?”
“It’s… excellent,” he admitted.
“Good. In victory, you deserve whisky. In defeat, you need it.”
Who was this woman who paraphrased Napoleon and had the confidence to taunt him?
“You’ve seen me play several near-perfect games today, so why do you believe you can defeat me tomorrow?”
Instead of answering, Maxine drained her drink in one go, set the glass down with an exaggerated sigh of satisfaction, and ordered another. He drummed his fingers on the bar. The new drink appeared, and she swirled it in the low glass, sampling the aroma like he wasn’t even there.
Teddy leaned forward. “Maxine.”
She glanced up and seemed surprised to find him there. “Right, sorry. ADHD. I get lost in my thoughts sometimes. I was just thinking about how weird your accent is. You use this super ritzy British vernacular, but every now and then you pronounce words like a basic American bro.”
Basic American bro? He knew his expression reflected the horror he felt by the way Maxine’s eyes lit up.
“My family moved to Princeton when I was nine for my father’s academic pursuits, and I didn’t return to England until I went to university at Oxford. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”
“Not at all. My curiosity is insatiable.”
“You were saying something about tomorrow…?” he prompted.
“Tomorrow…” She paused for effect. “I’m gonna humiliate you so bad you’ll cry on stage.”
“Badly. It’s badl—”
It came to him: where Maxine had gone to university.
He’d pondered this puzzle during the fifteen-minute breaks between tapings. During the lunch break. Even during gameplay, when he should have been focusing on the board. He’d missed ringing in on what had turned out to be a valuable Daily Duplex question because he’d been considering whether Maxine might have attended an institution overseas. Perhaps that was why she’d thought he wouldn’t guess.
But now Teddy realized he’d been assuming logical parameters she hadn’t set.
“Nowhere,” he said. “You didn’t go to university at all, did you?”
“This is going to come as a traumatic shock to a fancy professor like yourself, but I don’t need an expensive diploma to be good at trivia. There are other ways to learn stuff, you know.”
He wanted to crow with delight. For all her coy taunting and overconfident assertions, she was--“An uneducated nobody,” he marveled.
Her little smirk shrank, and he knew he was right. Guessing a correct answer always gave him a burst of satisfaction: he was intelligent, and there was no problem in the world he couldn’t solve with enough research and thought. But it still seemed as if the lights in the room had dimmed a bit.
Which was when he realized how his words had sounded. “I didn’t mean--”
“You’re sure you’re smarter than me, aren’t you?”
“Well... yes.” Was he supposed to lie?
Her sneer told him: yes, he was.
“Ms. Hart,” he explained gently. “I am an Associate Professor of Geography and Geoscience at--”
“Oh, I know. Everyone knows. Princeton. You did your undergrad at Oxford. Generations of distinguished scholars in the Ferguson family line, blah blah blah. Did you know the sound techs have a drinking game based on how often you bring up one of those facts in your contestant interview segment?”
This wasn’t going well. “I did… not.”
Perhaps elaborating on his elite pedigree was not the fastest way to endear himself to women in bars. And he did want to endear himself to her, he realized. But he’d clearly hurt her feelings with his uneducated nobody remark, and he didn’t like the way it had snuffed out her spark—her fighting spirit. It was what drew him, like a moth to her flame. He wanted to set it alight again, even if meant she hated him.
Maybe that’s why he said, “You’re rather confident for a Brooklyn girl with no formal schooling. What makes you think you can beat me?”
She speared him with her eyes. Teddy had never been so relieved so see a woman furious with him.
The room brightened again.
“I watched how you play. You run down every category from left to right, betting the same amount for every Daily Duplex, always betting just enough on the Final Answer question to hedge against the competition but not a dollar more. From a technical perspective, you play consistently and you’re rarely incorrect.”
“And? What’s the problem with that?”
She licked her lips like a cat scenting a mouse in the floorboards, and Teddy’s pulse shifted into a higher gear. “You really want to know?”
“Regale me.”
She scooted her chair closer, gesturing for him to lean even further in.
He did. He hadn’t learned his lesson.
“You play like a little bitch, Theodore.”
“A what?” His voice rose an octave.
“You heard me.” Maxine tossed back her drink again and plunked the glass on the bar with a flourish. “That’s your weakness. You’re a superstitious coward who doesn’t take risks. And tomorrow, I am going to annihilate you. I’m going to crush you so hard you’ll be on your knees begging for mercy before the Final Answer round.”
“Metaphorically, I assume.”
“...Yeah. Sure.”
Not a single proper rebuttal found its way to his lips. She couldn’t possibly be serious... was she?
Did he want her to be serious? Because the thrumming in his low belly made him think he really did—parts of him, anyway. What was wrong with him?
She unwrapped a stick of gum, releasing a burst of tropical scent into the air, and folded it neatly into her mouth. Then she hopped up from the stool, slinging her jacket over her arm. “Thanks for the drinks, champ.”
Maxine was already slipping through the crowd before Teddy registered what had happened. Feeling like a fool, he fumbled for his money clip, tossed what was probably far too many bills onto the counter, and hurried after her.
It wasn’t hard to spot her by the elevator bank, with that red hair glowing like an Olympic torch.
When Maxine saw him, she raised a brow but thrust her boot out to stop the elevator doors from closing.
“Well, aren’t you forward,” she remarked, eyeing him up and down in a way that made Teddy feel instantly too warm. “I don’t usually take dates back to my room after the first drink, and definitely not ones who’ve insulted my intelligence, but you are wearing glasses and suspenders, which I find very slutty on a man. My virtue is real negotiable right now.”
“I…”
The doors closed on them. Maxine pressed a floor, then blew a tiny bubble with her gum, waiting for him to continue.
Pop.
He managed to gather himself. Supply some flimsy reason for why he’d chased her down beyond irrational obsession. “I demand you elaborate. Why on earth would I wager beyond what’s necessary? That’s incorrect strategy.”
Was that an eye roll? How dare she roll her eyes at thirty years’ worth of data analysis on the most statistically beneficial way to win on Answers!?
“Strategy is a rulebook for good boys like you. I don’t like rules. They’re boring.”
The doors opened, and the smell of pool water hit him. It was enough to make him wrest his attention from Maxine’s mischievous cat gaze to realize that they’d somehow ended up at the rooftop pool. The lights were out on this level, so it was dark save for the reflection of Los Angeles’s city lights turning the hazy night sky purple. Through the closed glass doors to the patio, he could see the glowing aqua pool was still and the lounge chairs were neatly stowed.
“We’ve come to the wrong floor,” he observed.
“No, we haven’t.” Maxine stepped out and beckoned for him to follow. For some unfathomable reason, he did.
“It’s closed.” He pointed at the enormous sign posted on the door, warning guests about seasonal maintenance.
Maxine swiped something in front of the sensor above the handle, and it unlocked with a chirp. She swung the gate open. “Oops,” she said, biting her lower lip coquettishly. “Didn’t see the sign.”
Curious, he tried waving his own room card over the sensor. The panel light flickered red at him. “How did you—”
“Coming?” Maxine let go of the handle and the door began to close behind her.
He caught it before he could think twice. His heart was racing far too fast. The scotch—it had to be. The liquor had clearly gone straight to his head.
“I don’t have my swim shorts.”
“Better turn back then.”
He didn’t. Instead, he followed her out to the pool.
Chilly air buffeted him. He’d left his overcoat in his room.
“Let’s get in. The water is heated.” Maxine tossed her suit coat onto a stack of lounge chairs and kicked off her boots. Before he knew it, she was unbuttoning her high-collared blouse, and he wrenched his gaze away the instant he caught a flash of creamy skin. Teddy’s father had taught him to be a gentleman.
He focused on the haphazard trail of clothes she’d left behind, imagining the silk of her blouse sliding over his fingers—until he heard a quiet splash followed by her squeak of delight.
When he glanced back, she floated in the pool, bare limbs distorted below water line. She still wore her underthings, he noted with a guilty release of held breath, and they were vibrant green against her near-translucent skin. Tiny whorls of steam followed her as she swam out to the middle of the pool. Her long legs kicked out, slow and mesmerizing. When she reached her destination, she turned around to face him.
“Come on! It feels good, I promise. Unless you’re afraid of getting in trouble.”
It was a challenge. And Teddy’s pride took umbrage.
He stepped forward. It wasn’t until cold water closed over his calf that he realized he was still fully clothed, poised half-in, half-out on the top step of the pool’s shallow end.
What the hell am I doing?
“Why, my dearest Lord Ferguson, I believe this is a shoe-free pool,” Maxine warned, expression devilish with glee. “I didn’t know you were such a bad boy.”
He ignored the heat prickling up his neck. “I am most certainly not.”
“What a shame.”
He glanced around, trying not to betray his trepidation. What harm could this possibly bring, really? A scolding from the hotel staff? There was a clause in the Answers! show contract about not competing against anyone he had a personal relationship with prior to taping, but they weren’t doing anything that could jeopardize his run; it was only a swim. And it was chilly.
With as much dignity as he could muster, he perched on the stack of loungers to untie his soggy dress shoes, then slid them off and neatly stowed them off to the side. He began unrolling his socks when he felt her gaze on him. He slowed, suddenly self-conscious.
“You’re so… precise,” she observed. Her tone was playful, but there was something else there, too, and it made him acutely aware of the slide of his sock down his calf. The way the wet merino rasped over his ankle bone and whispered along the sensitive underside of his foot.
He swallowed and rushed the other sock off, trying not to think. About anything. All he knew was that he couldn’t bear undressing further. She’d already stripped him naked in other ways; the fabric over his chest was the only armor he had left.
When he padded over still fully-clothed, Maxine raised a brow. “You’re going to get your fancy pants and shirt all wet.”
“I have others.” He sat carefully on the pool’s edge, easing his lower calves into the water. Lukewarm heat closed over his legs, even as goosebumps broke out over the rest of his body. Best to get in entirely, before he froze—or lost his nerve.
“Now I know you’re rich.” Her tone was light, but there was bitterness underneath it.
Well, he had won over two million dollars in aggregate over the past three weeks’ of filming. But the truth was, Teddy simply wasn’t thinking about clothing while in her presence.
He was hardly able to think about anything at all.
He slid all the way in and let the water close over his head. When his feet hit the bottom, he opened his eyes, blinking at the sting of pool chemical. Maxine’s ghostly limbs floated mere meters away where the pool bottom dipped into the deep end, treading water with languid ease. Her underpants were the color of absinthe; lace, with little black bows affixed to each hip. He wanted to—
He squeezed his eyes shut. But the reverse image was imprinted on the back of his eyelids.
When he surfaced, scraping his hair out of his eyes, Maxine’s tinkling laughter floated across the water.
“Isn’t it great?” The topic of his wealth had been dismissed.
He looked down at the transparent white fabric stuck to his chest. “I look ridiculous.”
“Mmm.” It might have been agreement. He couldn’t tell. Maxine floated closer. Her red curls were still dry, clipped to the back of her head. He wondered what they’d look like down, floating in the water around her like a mermaid. “Sometimes you have to look ridiculous to have a good time. And that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? A good time?”
It wasn’t clear to him whether she referred to their current trespass in the hotel pool, their choice to compete on a game show, or their participation in the whole of human existence.
“Perhaps that’s what you’re here for, but this is not a game to me, Ms. Hart. You should know I take this trivia competition quite seriously.” Teddy wasn’t accumulating wins solely to pad his ego. He had a purpose, and it was one that meant something dearly to him—and his father.
Teddy did not like the thoughtful look on her face as she sank into the water up to her chin. “You seem like the kind of man who takes everything seriously. Don’t you ever get bored?”
Until today, he’d have answered without hesitation: I’m perfectly content with my solitary, predictable life. But a man who’d never seen the sun didn’t know to miss its warmth, and the thought of never seeing Maxine again made him shiver.
“Perhaps after I defeat you tomorrow, you’ll better appreciate the merits of such diligence and caution.”
“You’re sweet, you know that?”
“This warning is for your own good.” He tried to impart gravity in his tone. It didn’t work—Maxine drifted closer. Teddy had the distinct impression he was crocodile food. He rushed to add, “Managing expectations is integral to avoiding disappointment.”
She drew up to him and placed her hands on his shoulders to anchor herself. Her cheek brushed his as she leaned to whisper his in his ear, and her soft breasts pressed into his chest. Her flesh was hot, the water was cold, and he was dying. His throat closed in an inhale.
She whispered, “I’m going to eat you alive.”
God, I hope so. “You underestimate me,” he forced out.
“Prove it.”
“I intend to.”
“No. Right now.” She pulled back. Her lips were parted, her pupils dilated. It wasn’t only him. He wasn’t imagining this. Maxine felt the rush of battle, too. “Prove it,” she repeated, but this time her voice was breathy.
He shouldn’t do this. He really shouldn’t. He’d only just met this woman. And he had to compete against her tomorrow, in an effort that would require emotional detachment and complete, utter focus. But her lips glowed pale peach from the pool lights, and her bare skin pressed against his through his wet shirt, and above all—above all—she’d challenged him.
No one ever challenged him.
So, Teddy kissed her.
His lips found hers, and he tasted tropical fruit and chlorine. Her mouth was soft, and it moved gently against his. It was lovely and unremarkable—until he felt the hands on his shoulders glide up his neck to cup his face. Her lips parted.
And everything changed.
Teddy had experienced kisses before. Mediocre kisses and passionately brilliant kisses. He’d kissed women, and he’d kissed people who were not women. He’d been in a long-term relationship in his late twenties, and he’d had his share of casual dating and one-night-stands. He was not exceptionally worldly, but he was not particularly virginal, either.
But Teddy had never experienced a kiss like this.
Maxine kissed him like they were at war and their mouths were the battlefield, and it changed his world. Everything he thought he knew about love (a slow-burning, respectable, reasonable thing) was suddenly wrong, every unassailable truth about the universe flipped on its head.
Because in that very moment, Teddy fell helplessly in love with Maxine Hart.
And suddenly he—the man who had won 76 consecutive trivia games on the basis of his sheer accumulation of knowledge—wasn’t sure if he really knew anything at all.
At the thought, terror froze his spine into a rigid line. Like generations of Fergusons before him, Teddy had spent his entire life pursuing knowledge for the noble sake of it. He prided himself on his intelligence and scholarly accomplishments. So if he wasn’t a man who knew things, who was he?
He didn’t know. This woman was dangerous. An unpredictable variable that could upend his entire life.
The only thing he was utterly certain of was that if he let this kiss continue for a second longer, he wouldn’t be able to stop.
Teddy jerked away, backpedaling through the water. “I should go.”
At first, Maxine only blinked at him in lust-glazed confusion. As if she were translating his words from another language. Then her eyes narrowed, the rejection clearly registering. “You’re fucking kidding me.”
Teddy hoisted himself out of the pool, water pouring from his soaked clothes. “It’s late. We have to be at the studio tomorrow at seven,” he reminded her.
“Coward.”
Teddy winced. Not because the accusation stung—though it did—but because she was right.
And he didn’t know what to do about it except run away.

***
After.

The following day, Teddy lost to Maxine.
He lost so badly that he was embarrassed to show his face in the hotel bar after the show, though he did anyway, hoping she’d make an appearance—to gloat about her victory, if nothing else. Except he’d only waited in miserable, self-pitying despondency for a woman who never appeared. Teddy was too proud to seek her out in any other way, after how thoroughly she’d beaten him.
It had nothing to do with the shame of having retreated from their kiss like a gutless fool, having approached the abyss of love only to peer over the edge and decide that perhaps it was a bit too risky. Teddy was logical. Reasonable. Every impulse checked at the gate and properly queued for consideration.
He simply hadn’t had time to consider Maxine Hart.
When the episode aired three months later, article after article declared him thoroughly, and resolutely, eviscerated. Maxine had eaten him alive, like she’d promised. His brain had been so thoroughly scrambled by her deliberate attempt at distracting him with seduction the night before (or so he’d convinced himself) that he simply could not buzz in fast enough. When he had managed to ring in before Maxine, he’d stumbled over answers he’d once known cold. And for the first time in his entire record-breaking run, he’d gone into the Final Answer round in second place, though still within striking distance of Maxine. Except she’d gotten the answer wrong. He’d gotten it right. He should have won, but he hadn’t—because Teddy had bet conservatively, not trusting himself to answer anything correctly after what she’d done to his ego in the first two rounds.
If only he’d bet more.
If only he’d taken the risk.
If only he’d stayed after the kiss.
If only.
Instead, Maxine went on to set a record-breaking score total of her own. By the time she lost in a narrow match, she’d blown past Teddy’s total cash winnings record of $2.6 million—in half as many games.
But if there was one thing in this world Teddy could not bear, it was defeat.
He vowed to avenge his loss…

And thus, the greatest rivalry in the history of trivia was born...


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