“It’s my roommate.” I blurt out the words before I have a clue I’m going to say them. “We’re doing a girls’ night tonight. Dinner and a couple rom-coms. We have standing Tuesday-night plans.”
The tension is gone as quickly as it came, and I feel my shoulders slump in relief. But just as quickly I’m exasperated again—with myself more than him. Yes, Ethan is pushy, but he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in if he wasn’t. Head of one of the fastest-growing—and most lucrative—biomed companies in the country. A forerunner in research that saves the lives of soldiers in combat theaters. A self-made almost-billionaire who’s used his brains and business savvy to go from being the orphaned kid of a U.S. Special Forces soldier to a world-renowned CEO.
No, it’s not his pushiness I’m upset with. It’s the way I constantly want to yield to him. The way I cave to his wishes even when I have no intention of doing so. I haven’t been that girl in years, don’t want to be her ever again. The fact that Ethan can so easily bend me to his will is disconcerting. Worse, it’s alarming.
“Let me walk you to your car, then.” He takes my briefcase from me, slings the strap over his shoulder. Grabs his own. Then, taking a firm—but not too firm—grip on my elbow, he guides me out of his office and through the two reception areas to the bank of elevators.
“Good night, Dot,” he calls to the dragon lady, who is still manning her post. Except when she looks at him, she looks much more like a doting mother than a dragon guarding the entrance to a cave.
“Good night, Ethan. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The elevator comes before he can say anything else, so he simply shoots her a smile and a little wave. We step on, mere seconds after he called it, and I can’t help being disgruntled. It seems like I’ve done nothing but wait for elevators all day, but the second Ethan presses the button, one magically appears. Almost as if it knows who’s waiting on the other end and wouldn’t dare let the CEO of Frost Industries wait for anything.
As he walks me to my car, Ethan asks me how my summer is going. What my favorite class was last semester. If my roommate and I liked the strawberries he sent.
The last question throws me off my game. I’m good at small talk—I like the organized, predictable rhythm of it—and his gift so doesn’t qualify as small talk. Not when you consider everything that has happened today because of that damn gift.
I start to tell him so, that I don’t appreciate the strawberries any more than I did the four-hundred-dollar blender. But again, it’s like he has some kind of magic hold over me that makes me tell the truth, because what comes out is, “I would have returned them, too, but my roommate’s already eaten half of them. It seemed churlish to return only the uneaten half. Kind of like, ‘I’m going to give this back to you, but only after I take everything I want from it.’ So not okay.”
Much to my surprise, Ethan laughs at my explanation. “I’m okay with you giving the strawberries back—especially if it gives me another chance to get yelled at by you.”
I glance at him from under my lashes. “Like getting yelled at, do you?”
“I don’t, actually. At all. You seem to be the singular exception to that rule.”
I’m not sure how I feel about that—or how I’m supposed to respond. Thank God I don’t have to. We’ve made it to my car. “Well,” I say, stopping in front of the Mini Cooper I bought used when I got to UCSD three years ago. I call her Phoebe, after Lisa Kudrow’s character in Friends, because she’s fun and cute and loaded with eccentricities. Unlike the real Phoebe, however, not all of my Phoebe’s oddities are endearing. Like her propensity to break down at the least convenient moment. Or the way her air-conditioning only works in the winter. I’m a pretty decent mechanic and have managed to fix a bunch of her problems myself, but some of them refuse to be fixed. She’s stubborn that way.
Tori is after me to get a new car, but I love Phoebe. She’s the first thing I’ve owned that’s really mine. Bought with my own money and with my name only on the registration papers. It was an important step for me, helped me create the distance from my parents that I so desperately needed when I was eighteen. And the fact that my father can’t just take her from me—when he needs the money, when he’s in a mood, when he wants to punish me for some real or imagined slight—means even more.
Plus, she’s already paid for, which is very important to me. With tuition at UCSD as expensive as it is, plus living expenses, making ends meet is always a challenge. Doing it in the summer, when all I’ve got is a nonpaying internship, is even worse. Like the free rent I’m getting at Tori’s, no car payment makes this current dream job of mine possible.
“This is me,” I say, popping the trunk and loading my briefcase into it.
Ethan doesn’t look impressed. He doesn’t say anything, though, which is all that matters. After the day I’ve had, I’m not really in the mood for another argument. And we would have one, because I always defend Phoebe from the naysayers. Always.
“Go out with me tomorrow,” he says after I close the trunk and walk around to the driver’s-side door.
Shit. Why did I think he wasn’t going to push this? Just because he took tonight’s plans gracefully—once he realized I was planning on hanging with Tori—doesn’t mean that he’s willing to back off. But that’s what I need him to do. What I want him to do. My stomach clenches sickly, and to be honest, I don’t know whether it’s because I think he’ll take my refusal well…or because I think he won’t. Either way, I’m not going out with him.
“I can’t,” I tell him after a long, uncomfortable silence—at least on my part. I make sure I’m not looking him in the eye when I speak to him, afraid he’ll do his Jedi mind trick on me again and have me agreeing to something I have no intention of doing.
I pull open my car door, try to get in. But Ethan isn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. He takes my hand in his, bumps the car door shut with his hip—he’s way too tall to use his shoulder. At six foot four, he looks like a giant standing next to my little car, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find his size intimidating. Sexy, too, but mostly intimidating. At least until I think of how perfectly he fit between my legs earlier. Then it’s just plain hot.
“More plans with the roommate?” he asks.
“No.” Why, oh why, can’t I lie to this man? In self-defense, I’ve spent the past five years lying about nearly everything important, yet now, when I need the ability most, it’s totally deserted me.
“Plans with someone else?”
I can feel his eyes on me, know he’s willing me to look at him. But this time I refuse to give in. I can’t. Not if I have any hope of maintaining my distance, my sanity, and my ability to say no.
I’m stubborn, more than strong-willed enough that I can usually outlast the best of them—it’s how I made it through high school with my sanity intact—but Ethan has me beat. While I’m struggling with a way to fill the sudden awkwardness between us, one that doesn’t involve looking at him, he just leans against the door of my car.
Silence stretches between us, taut as a violin string. I tell myself not to say anything, not to babble uncontrollably, but with each second that passes it grows harder and harder.
The words well up on my tongue, all the excuses I don’t want to give but feel compelled to. Desperate to hold out, I bite the inside of my cheek so hard that I taste the metallic tang of my own blood.
And just like that, the standoff is over. Like yesterday, when my stomach growled, the moment Ethan realizes I’m suffering, he puts a stop to it. He rests his hand lightly on my cheek, uses his thumb to tug my cheek out from between my teeth. “Don’t,” he tells me.
“I can’t date you, Ethan.”
“You won’t date me, Chloe. That’s not the same thing.”
No, it isn’t, but my refusal is more than that, more than a simple no just because I don’t want to date the boss. This goes deeper, much deeper, but I don’t know how to tell him that. Not without revealing all my secrets…and all my wounds.
“I need to go.” I turn back to my car, tug on my door. I know I don’t stand a chance of opening it if he doesn’t move, but I’m hoping that he won’t push this. Not now, when the crack inside me is growing larger with each passing second.
For long moments I don’t think he’s going to move. Instead, his thumb coasts down my cheek to my chin. He tilts my head up, forces me to meet his gaze. I think I’ll see anger there, or disgust. Annoyance, at the very least. Instead, there’s something else, an emotion so unexpected and undeserved that I can barely wrap my head around it.
Mixed with the same desire and need that are even now bouncing around inside me is a sweetness, a tenderness, that he doesn’t try to hide. It’s the first time anyone has ever looked at me like that, the first time a man has taken the time to look into me instead of just at me. The first time a man has ever really seen me.
It melts my resistance, makes me question all the reasons I’ve told myself this is a bad idea. Which, of course, is only proof of how turned around and inside out Ethan has gotten me. Panic sets in, takes me over, and for a minute I feel like a wolf in a trap, willing to chew my own foot off for the chance to get away.
Just when I think I’m going to lose it completely, Ethan steps back—and opens my car door for me. I clamber in before he can change his mind, but then I can’t help staring up at him, wondering why. I was about to break, about to give him anything he wanted if it meant I could pull back from the emotional chaos swirling around me. Around us.
He stopped me from shattering, his simple actions giving me back the strength that had slowly leached from me during our battle of wills. I don’t understand, don’t know why a man who is so intent on winning would step back right before he claimed victory. All I know is that I’m grateful. And confused. But mostly grateful.
“Drive carefully,” he tells me, his voice dark and gruff.
“It’s okay. I can wait.”
“Wait for what?”
He smiles at me. “For you, Chloe. I can wait for you.” Then he grimaces. “Not, however, if you continue to sit there and stare at me with that adorably befuddled look on your face.”
I don’t move, don’t look away, don’t so much as blink. I’m confused, feeling vulnerable, and terrified that all of it shows on my face. My poker face seems to have gone the same way as my resolve when it comes to Ethan, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about that.
“Go!” he orders suddenly, then closes the door firmly between us.
I stick the key into the ignition, start to roll down the window, but he just shakes his head. Takes a couple big steps away from the car. Points at the exit from the parking lot.
There’s nothing for me to do but follow his directions. So I do, putting the car in gear and driving toward the exit he gestured to. But as I drive away, I have a terrible time not looking back. Not going back.
And the part of me that’s been hurt before, that’s been torn apart and put back together like a bunch of mismatched puzzle pieces, can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly what Ethan intended.
By the time I get home, I’ve stopped shaking. I’m no less confused, mind you, but at least I can hide it better. Which is important, because when it comes to emotional drama, Tori has a nose like a bloodhound. It’s one of the many reasons I don’t date—if I keep the drama to a minimum, she doesn’t know how much is under the surface, just waiting for her to dig it up.
At least that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. I only hope the fact that Ethan just gave me an earth-shattering orgasm isn’t written all over my face. God knows it feels like it’s written all over my soul.
“Hey, perfect timing! The pizza just got here.” She gestures to the box and two plates sitting on the coffee table.
I peel off my jacket, toss it onto the small entryway bench where my suit jacket from yesterday still rests. “What do you want to drink?” I ask, heading for the kitchen—and something alcoholic. After the day I’ve had, I’m about ready to start mainlining 180-proof liquor. Anything to stop the nerves—and everything else—currently rattling around just under my skin.
“I opened a bottle of Chianti. Grab that and bring it in.”
It wasn’t tequila, but it would do. And it would probably go better with pizza, anyway.
“Your mom called while you were at work. When I told her you weren’t here, she wanted your new cell number.”