When someone you love is down, it’s the worst feeling. I know it’s early, you guys, I do. But it’s true—I love Nova.
Inside my Ricky the Raven suit, I was grinning like a fool. Nova was performing an ice dancing routine with her team, and to me, she was the only person in the jam-packed arena.
Her smile lit me up. I preferred it when she was smiling just a few inches from my face, while curled up beside me in bed, but even from far away, she just shined.
As soon as the dancers finished their routine, I skated out to them and broke out some of my cheesy dance moves, and the crowd cheered. Nova came over and joined me in my fake lasso, and I fake swooned.
“Nice moves, babe,” she said, leaning up to kiss the beak of my costume.
The fans loved it. It was time for the game to resume, though, so we left the ice and Nova headed to the locker room with the rest of her team. I went to my designated post-halftime spot for fans to get in line for photos with Ricky the Raven, where a long line awaited me.
At the university, I was just a teaching assistant and a run-of-the-mill physics nerd. But at Mavericks games, I got to be something completely different. I hadn’t thought I’d love the attention as much as I did.
Maybe it was because of Nova. We saw each other every day, even if it was just for a few minutes at a time on busy days, but on game nights, we went out afterward. She stayed at my place often, but last night she was at her place, so I was looking forward to having her back in my bed tonight.
When I was on my way to the changing room after the game, I saw her sitting in the hallway, back to the wall, scrolling on her phone.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I asked, concerned that she was here alone.
“Waiting for you.”
“Maybe you should wait in the family lounge from now on, Ben said it’s no problem.”
Nova gave me a look. “It’s been a really long day and I didn’t feel like walking that far.”
“I just want you to be safe,” I said. “I worry about you down here all alone.”
She shrugged and got to her feet. “I’m fine.”
“Everything okay?” I asked, opening the door to the changing room with my key card and motioning for her to follow me.
She sighed heavily. “I guess. Like I said, it was just a long day. The insurance company accidentally charged me for two months of car insurance instead of one, so my account is overdrawn. Someone called in at work and we were so short-staffed I couldn’t take my lunch break and I had to work overtime. I came straight here from work.”
“Oh, babe. You must be starving.”
“I was, but now I’m kind of at the point where I don’t even care.”
I took off my Ricky the Raven head and bent to kiss her. “Let’s go get some dinner and then we can go back to my place and go to bed.”
“I’m not up for it tonight,” she said, looking away.
I shimmied my way out of the rest of the costume and ran a hand through my hair, which was damp with sweat.
“I don’t mean for sex,” I said. “You can take a shower and we can just snuggle and talk.”
Nova gave me a weary look. “I’m not up for anything. I’m sorry. I just want to crawl into my own bed and hope tomorrow is better.”
I’ve never seen her look so defeated. As her boyfriend...wait, was I her boyfriend? God, I hoped so. If I was, I needed to be the one to take care of her and cheer her up. Only a dick would tell her he’d see her another night and go do his own thing when she was feeling so down.
“Okay, well let me get a five-minute shower and then I’ll take you to get a quick dinner and I’ll take you home,” I offered.
“No, I drove here. I have to drive my car home.”
“Oh.” I deflated. “At least let me feed you first.”
She lowered her brows in a cross expression. “Look, I have a negative balance in my checking account right now. I’ll barely have enough gas to get to work until I get paid. I can’t go out to eat.”
“I want to take you out and pay for it.”
Her brows dropped even lower. “Seth, you’re so sweet. And generous. You’re amazing. But you don’t have a lot of money, either. You’re still in school and you only work part-time.”
“I get paid for my teaching assistant work, too. And I get some money from a research grant. Don’t worry about me, Nova.” I put a hand on the side of her shoulder. “There’s nothing I’d rather spend my money on than you.”
“Thank you,” she said softly, looking down. “You’re the best thing that’s happened to me in so long. I’m just in a mood, I guess. The insurance company wants to just credit the extra payment they charged me to next month’s bill, but I can’t do that. I need that money back and I didn’t have time to call them back again today because of work. If I don’t get that money back, the auto payment for my water bill will bounce.”
I brush the hair back from her face and lift her chin with my thumb so she can see my eyes.
“How much money do you need? I have savings, babe, and I want to help you.”
She shakes her head adamantly. “No, I don’t want your money.”
I hated seeing her like this—worried, stressed and exhausted. All I wanted was to be the man she could lean on, who could put the smile back on her face. The next words I said tumbled out of my mouth with no forethought.
“But I want to help you, Nova. I love you.”
Her eyes widened, then flooded with tears. “You do?”
A panicked sensation made my heart pound. Was it too soon to say that? Would I scare her off?
“I...do, yeah,” I admit. “But I don’t expect you to feel that way yet. I just want you to know, you mean so much to me, Nova. You don’t have to struggle though problems alone anymore. You have me now. I mean, if you want me.”
I grinned and pushed my glasses up on my nose. Nova cupped my cheeks in her hands and held my gaze, her expression serious.
“I do, Seth. And I love you, too.”
“I do. This conversation has been the highlight of my day. Just knowing you can pull me into your arms and make me feel like it’s all going to be okay...I’ve never had that before.”
I do just that—pull her into my arms and hold her close.
“Sorry, I’m sweaty,” I said.
“I don’t care. This feels amazing. You’re so...reliable, Seth.”
My heart sank. “Well, I guess that’s a good thing?”
Nova leaned back and looked up at me. “It’s a great thing. I feel safe with you. Secure. Like an adult in a real relationship.”
“I wish I had enough to take care of you completely right now, but until I get through school, I have to have a roommate and dress up as a raven.” I grinned. “But I’ll be done with school soon, and I have some great job prospects.”
“Of course you do.” Nova’s gaze softens. “You’re so smart, Seth. And so hard-working. You’ll go far.”
“You’re smart and hard-working too.”
She smiles sadly. “I’m not like you.”
“Yes, you are.” I kissed her forehead. “I’m going to take a three-minute shower, drive your car back to your place and stop for sandwiches on the way, and then I’ll Uber back here to get my car so I can go home.”
Nova started to protest, but I covered her lips with my fingertips. “No arguments. I won’t be able to sleep tonight until I’ve fed you and gotten you home safely. You want me to be able to sleep tonight, don’t you?”
She nodded, smiling. “Thank you, babe.”
“Anytime. That’s what I’m here for.”
Nova kissed me and said, “Sorry I’m so grouchy.”
“It’s nothing a steak sandwich and some ice cream won’t help. And we’ll sort out the money, okay? If you need a few hundred dollars to help with bills, I’m giving it to you.”
“We’ll see,” she said, her look skeptical.
I grabbed my clean clothes from my gym bag and said, “Three-minute shower. Time me if you want.”
“I’ll be right here,” she said.
“Look the door behind me when I go and I’ll knock when I’m back.”
“Hmm, we’ll need a secret password,” she said playfully. “How about pineapple?”
“Pineapple,” I said. “Got it.”
I closed the door behind me and heard her lock it, then walked to the shower, my mind spinning the whole way. Hopefully today had just been a bad day for Nova, and tomorrow would be better. I didn’t think I could stand to see her upset again. And I’d do everything in my power to make sure she wasn’t.