No one told me that the reason my brand-new pair of Christian Louboutins are called killer is because they are actually going to kill me before the day is over.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. What else should I expect from a pair of five-inch ruby-red stilettos? Even ones that come with the promise of comfort? After all, every woman knows that after a few hours and a few miles, even the most comfortable heels become instruments of torture.
Even I know that, and that’s saying something considering I spend most of my life in old jeans and older T-shirts. And ballet flats. I’m a big fan of ballet flats. Right now I’d pretty much sell my soul for a pair of them.
Which is why I’d planned to wear a totally sensible pair of shoes today. Navy open-toed pumps with a two-inch heel that perfectly match the five-hundred-dollar suit I’m wearing. It’s the same suit I scrimped and saved for for the better part of last semester, and it’s the same suit that helped get me the position I started this morning. My dream job. Technically, I suppose it isn’t actually a job, as I’m not getting paid for it—a salary is the defining quality of being employed, after all—but it is an internship. In the intellectual property department of the most innovative and fastest-growing biomedical corporation in the country. The world, even. If that isn’t a job and a damn good one, I don’t know what is.
But when I laid the whole outfit out on my bed last night, checking the individual pieces for any stains or tears or wrinkles or scuffs—anything that might give me away as the poor college student I am instead of the ambitious and hardworking future lawyer I intend to be—my best friend and roommate was horrified by my choice of footwear. She’d insisted that a suit as kick-ass as this one deserved shoes just as kick-ass. That’s when she’d pulled out the Loubies with a drumroll and a flourish, her gift to me on the first day of the rest of my life.
I couldn’t say no, not when Tori had gone through so much trouble to make this day special for me. And not when she’d insisted on me crashing in her guest room, rent free, for the summer just so I could actually afford to take this internship. Just so I could start the journey that would turn my dreams into reality.
So now here I am, tottering around on these skyscraper heels and doing my best not to look like my blisters are growing blisters. And it’s only lunchtime. I still have five more hours of this torture to endure.
Things probably wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d been able to stay at my desk, or even on the two floors that were devoted to intellectual property law at Frost Industries’s main headquarters. But since it was my first day on the job, my mentor—another intern who seems really nice and who’s been here awhile—had thought it’d be a great idea to show me around the property. A property that includes five main buildings and a number of smaller labs and encompasses several acres of prime beachfront realty here in sunny La Jolla, California. It had been a great tour of a great company, and I probably would have had to pinch myself if my shoes hadn’t been doing it for me.
But the tour is finally over, I remind myself as I walk into the huge cafeteria that overlooks one of the prettiest beaches in San Diego. There’s nothing on the agenda for this afternoon except lunch and a four-hour-long meeting with the other interns, all of whom have been here a lot longer than I. They’re supposed to bring me up to speed on the various patents and contracts we’ll be doing research on this summer. I know that probably sounds wicked boring to most people, but I can’t wait. This is the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I found out being the Pink Power Ranger was not actually a viable career choice.
Doing my best not to limp, I try not to look as overwhelmed as I feel in this huge, cavernous room with its 842 seats (that number came directly from my mentor, who is as proud of this place as Ethan Frost himself probably is—maybe more).
Like Google before it, Frost Industries is known for its state-of-the-art cafeteria. With two gourmet chefs and twelve different food stations that change their type of cuisine served on a weekly basis—not to mention the salad, juice, and dessert bars—it boasts something for everyone. And they do mean everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a janitor or an executive VP; as long as you have your employee badge, you eat free. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon snack. They’re all on the house for Frost Industries employees—another reason I’ve been able to take this internship. With no rent and no food bills to speak of, my meager savings should get me through until my scholarship and work study come in to offset the cost of my senior year.
Though it’s one o’clock, I’m still not very hungry—residual nervousness from my first day still has my stomach flipping a little—so I head over to the juice bar. A smoothie sounds about right for lunch today. It’s not too heavy, but it is substantial enough to get me through until dinner. Besides, the juice bar is the closest thing to me, and at this point, every step counts.
When I get there, there’s no line—everyone seems to be hanging at the pizza and Indian food stations today. There are two guys behind the counter, neither of whom seems in that big a rush to take my order. Which is fine, since I don’t know what I want yet anyway.
The menu’s not that extensive—eight different smoothies, and six different juices, including wheatgrass and beet, neither of which is high on my list of things to try—so it doesn’t take me long to make up my mind. And still neither guy tries to wait on me. I’m more intrigued than annoyed, though, especially since it looks like I’m not the only one who is new today. One of the guys is definitely instructing the other on the fine art of smoothie making, and he’s being very particular, talking about things like the proper juice-to-fruit ratio and how important it is to make sure that the frozen yogurt is just the right temperature. He even goes so far as to instruct him on exactly how many blueberries should go into the smoothie he’s making. It turns out thirty-eight is the right number. Not thirty-seven. Not thirty-nine. But thirty-eight.
Coming from another guy, the whole speech probably would have sounded jerky. But this guy is so passionate about smoothie making, so determined that it be exactly right, that he doesn’t sound jerky at all. Instead, he comes off like the Dalai Lama of blended-drink making. Patient, wise, omnipotent.
And the guy he’s talking to is hanging on his every syllable, like the words that fall from his lips are actually directions on how to reach nirvana. I’m amused despite myself, and am almost sorry to see the lesson end when the smoothie finally gets poured into two cups. Or I would be if the minutes of my lunch hour weren’t ticking rapidly away.
“Excuse me,” I say when it eventually becomes obvious that they’re both more than happy to stand around staring at the reddish blue smoothie in front of them for many moons to come. It’s like they’re both completely entranced by the drink, and I can’t help thinking that maybe Frost Industries doesn’t take their no-illegal-substance policy all that seriously. Because these guys have to be high on something, right? Otherwise a simple smoothie just wouldn’t be all that interesting. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m ready to order now.”
The trainer looks up at the sound of my voice, his dark blue eyes immediately zeroing in on mine. That’s when I realize he wasn’t as oblivious to my presence as I’d thought. He’d been testing me as surely as he’d been testing the other employee, waiting to see how each of us would handle the situation.
The knowledge gets my back up. It’s just a stupid drink, just a stupid little power play, but I don’t enjoy being manipulated. Even over something as ridiculous as a drink.
“No need to order,” he says, pressing a lid down onto one of the cups before sliding it across the counter at me. “You can have this one. It’s the Ethan Special.”
“No, thank you.” I don’t even glance at the cup. “I’d prefer a Hawaiian Sunrise.”
“How do you know that’s what you’d prefer? You don’t even know what’s in the Ethan Special.”
Judging from his behavior, I’m thinking grass of the non-wheat variety. And since this is my first day, I’m not exactly prepared to risk it, no matter how hot he is. “I don’t have to know what’s in it to know that I’m in the mood for” —I glance back at the menu— “A refreshing blend of strawberries, bananas, pineapple juice, and orange sherbet. None of which appear to be in the drink you just made.”
“This drink has strawberries in it. Seven, to be exact.”
Thirty-eight blueberries and seven strawberries. Is this guy for real? There’s a part of me that’s intrigued despite myself, but I’m not about to let him see that. So I just look down my nose at him and answer, “One out of four ingredients is not what I would call a perfect match.”
“Is that important to you?” he asks, one dark eyebrow raised. “That things match up perfectly?”
Absolutely. I’m obsessive about it, really, making sure things fit exactly where they’re supposed to. Making sure the i’s are all dotted and the t’s are all crossed and the rules have all been followed. Tori calls me OCD, but it’s not like that. It’s not the routine of doing something a certain way that appeals to me. It’s the order of the end result that I crave, the knowledge that things are exactly as they should be.
And while I’m aware that sounds a little crazy, it’s actually what’s kept me sane the last six years. Ever since Brandon—
I slam that door shut before the memories leak out from where I’ve buried them. No way am I going to think about him again ever, let alone on what is the best day I’ve had in a very long time. No, I’m going to focus on keeping things simple. Orderly. Easy. After all, I’m not one to rock the boat just to see what falls out.
I don’t tell any of this to him, of course. Instead, I raise one of my own brows and say, “You’re the one who counts the blueberries in his drink. All I’m trying to do is get what I ordered sometime before the dinner rush. Which, incidentally, starts in”—I make a show of glancing at my watch—“approximately four hours.”
“So, we’ve got plenty of time then. Why don’t you pull up a bar stool and we’ll get to know each other a little? I don’t have anywhere I need to be.”
The guy next to him—the trainee—makes a choked little sound in the back of his throat. But he doesn’t say anything, just takes a drink from the second Ethan Special cup, so I don’t bother looking over at him. Especially since every instinct I have is screaming at me to keep my eyes on the guy in front of me. That looking away would be akin to admitting a defeat I am suddenly hell-bent on avoiding.
“Well, that makes one of us. I, however, have a meeting in fifteen minutes that I can’t be late for.”
“Hmm. That certainly puts you at a disadvantage then, doesn’t it?”
“Why? Because I have a job that actually requires me to perform the duties that are in my job description?”
This time the noise the trainee makes sounds somewhere between a cat hacking up a furball and a hyena in its death throes. “Are you okay?” I finally demand, still not taking my eyes off his trainer. “Because, frankly, I’m getting concerned.”
He makes the sound again, then slaps his chest hard before taking another long sip from his drink. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Glad to hear it. I was beginning to think he’d poisoned you.”
“I never poison anyone on the first day. The second day, however, is an entirely different story.”
“I wouldn’t go around admitting that to anyone. It makes you—and Frost Industries—culpable if anyone ever suffers so much as a mild case of food poisoning.”
He steps back then, looks me over from top to toes. “God. You’re one of the lawyers, aren’t you?”
I might have been excited that it was that obvious, except he definitely doesn’t make it sound like a compliment. Which, I admit, gets my hackles up even more. “Is that a problem?”
Before he can answer, someone comes up behind me and orders a Hawaiian Sunrise. The trainer chats easily with him even as he begins scooping ingredients into a blender. Less than ninety seconds later, he puts a beautiful, pinkish orange smoothie on the counter. The guy runs his badge through the scanner, grabs his drink, and then heads off with a wave.
I watch the whole thing go down, then turn to him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? Are. You. Freaking. Kidding. Me?”
He does an admirable job of looking confused. “Is something wrong?”
“You just gave him my drink!”
“No. I just gave him his drink.” He taps the cup in front of me. “That’s your drink.”
I’m not even sure what I’m feeling at this point. Annoyance, definitely. Shock, probably. Amusement? Strangely enough, I think there’s some of that going on, too. This guy is so brash, so bold, so in-my-face that I can’t help being impressed. Even as I’m determined to put him in his place.