I nearly drop the bottle of wine. “Did you give it to her?”
“What do you think?” Tori’s voice is much closer now, and I turn around to find her standing in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Of course I didn’t.” She grabs the wine, pours both of us some. Watches without saying a word as I drain mine, then hold the glass out for seconds. “One of these days, you’re going to tell me what went down between you and your family.”
I nod, even as I think the opposite. That there’s no way in hell I will ever tell her, ever tell anyone, why my relationship with my family is so distant.
“What did she want?” I’ve calmed down enough that I can sound almost unconcerned when I ask the question. I take a small sip of my second glass of wine, wish I could chug it down the same way I did the first. But then Tori’s questions would get more insistent, and after the day I’ve had, I’m just not up for it.
“She asked me to have you call her. She didn’t say it was important. Only that she wanted to talk to you.”
I relax a little more. That means she wants something from me. I can handle that—after all, my whole life has been about giving my parents what they want. “Did she mention Miles?”
“She just asked me to let you know that your brother’s doing fine. He’s working on some new project that he’s very excited about.”
“That sounds about right.” I smile, let the last of the tension go. My older brother, Miles, is a tech genius who never quite learned how to function in the real world. From the time we were little, he’s always been more wrapped up in imagining things and figuring out how to make them a reality than he’s ever been about mundane things like eating or making a living or protecting his ideas.
If it were up to him, he’d share his inventions with the whole world for free and we’d all survive on gumdrops and lollipops and live happily ever after. But not everyone is as nice—or naive—as he is, and he’s had ideas stolen more than once. It’s why I’m so interested in intellectual property law. My brother might not care about protecting himself, but I sure as hell care about protecting him.
Crisis averted and wineglass in hand, I wander back into the living room. As far as I’m concerned, my mother can wait until hell freezes over for me to call her back.
“So, what are we watching tonight?” I ask as we settle down on the sofa. “Something that won’t make me cry, I hope.” Between Ethan and that orgasm and now my mother, I feel so vulnerable that I’m afraid if I start to cry tonight, I’ll never stop. After all, I have a lot of tears saved up. Five years’ worth, to be exact.
“Actually, I’m going to have to skip the movie. Maybe we can do it tomorrow? Lisa got tickets for Imagine Dragons tonight. Her boyfriend had to cancel because of work, so she asked me to go.” Tori shoots me an apologetic look. “Do you mind?”
“No, of course not! That’s amazing. You love them.”
“I really do! I didn’t even know their tour was stopping here, and then Lisa came into work with the tickets this morning.”
“That’s awesome. What time are you leaving?”
“I’m picking up Lisa at eight-thirty.”
“Cool. So you have time for pizza.”
“There’s always time for pizza.”
Tori takes a big bite of one of her slices of pizza. I say “her slices” because we have two very distinct sides to the pizzas we order from the gourmet Italian place down the street. Her side is loaded with every kind of meat available, plus pineapple and black olives. My side has grilled vegetables on it.
“Who’s opening for them?” I keep my voice upbeat, even though the last thing I want is to be stuck in this apartment alone tonight. It’s selfish of me, I know, but I don’t want her to go. Not tonight. Not when so much of my well-ordered life is already disintegrating around me.
Tuesday-night movies are one of those things Tori and I don’t normally mess with. Plans on any other night of the week are subject to change, but since we first started rooming together at the beginning of our freshman year of college, Tuesday night has been our catch-up night. The night where we sit around, drink a little—or a lot, depending on how things are going—read gossip mags, watch movies, eat too much, and generally tell each other everything that’s happened over the last week.
And while I don’t know if I was really planning to tell Tori about what happened in Ethan’s office today—I can barely wrap my head around it myself, let alone expect her to—it still would have been nice to have had that option. To maybe drop it into the conversation after we’d each had a couple of glasses of wine and had chilled out some. Maybe even ask her advice about what to do. Now I won’t have the chance.
“Some band I never heard of. That’s why we’re blowing them off,” she tells me when she finishes chewing. Then she looks at me, really looks at me. I shift uncomfortably under her scrutiny, even before she asks, “Hey, are you okay? You look upset.”
“I’m good. It’s just been a long day.”
“I bet. How did Ethan take the return of his blender?”
“Better than I expected.” In fact, now that I think about it, he never even mentioned it. Of course, that could be because he was too busy giving me an orgasm to think about fruit smoothies, but no need to tell Tori that.
“Really?” She sounds a little disappointed. “I expected him to get pissed off about it. Or at least to argue with you about it.”
Me too, actually. And maybe he’d planned on doing just that when he chased after me this morning, only to be distracted when I nearly plummeted down half a flight of stairs to certain bone breakage. Now I guess I’ll never know.
The thought is oddly depressing. But then, everything is this evening. I decide to chalk it up to girls’ night being canceled. On the best of days I’m not great with routine changes. After a day like today, it’s no wonder that I’m feeling a little discombobulated. Keeping my life ordered, routine, is the only thing that helps me deal with the chaos of my past. The puzzle pieces that I just can’t make fit together, no matter how hard I try.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.
The old nursery rhyme runs through my head as I dish up my own piece of pizza and sit back to listen to how Tori’s day was at the advertising agency where she’s been working this summer. Most days I can fool myself, pretend that everything’s fine. That everything’s normal. But today isn’t most days. From the moment Ethan kissed me, I’ve felt my brokenness keenly. Felt the cracks in the placid calm of my surface.
Maybe it’s good Tori isn’t going to be home tonight. After she leaves, I can have another glass of wine, watch some TV, then have an early night. And while I do all those things, I can work on shoring up my defenses. On getting rid of the cracks, or at least burying them so deeply that it will be another five years before they resurface. Maybe even longer.
Tori takes off about eight-fifteen to pick up Lisa before heading downtown to the concert. She invites me to go with her, tells me she’ll buy a ticket and let me have the free one, but the last thing I’m up for tonight is loud music and a crowded venue where I can’t even hear myself think. Besides, she’s already doing so much for me. There’s no way I’m going to take her free ticket and make her buy another one. And since I can’t afford to buy one on my own—not with how much they cost and how broke I currently am—I’m going to just sit this one out. Let her have some fun. God knows she deserves it.
But Tori’s been gone only a few minutes when the front doorbell rings. Figuring it’s one of our neighbors stopping by to hang for a while—Tori’s an extrovert who has somehow managed to make friends with half the building in the year she’s lived here—I almost ignore it. The last thing I’m in the mood for is having to entertain someone who really only stopped by because they wanted to hang with my best friend.
Still, I go to the door. Check the peephole. Just in case it’s Marta from down the hall. When she stops by for girls’ night, it’s usually with some fabulous creation from the bakery where she works. And since a big slab of sugar and fat sounds incredibly appealing tonight, I’m almost hoping it is her. If nothing else, an hour listening to the latest stories about Marta’s messed-up love life will keep me from brooding.
But it’s not Marta at the door. Instead, it’s a delivery man, carrying a medium-sized box and an electronic clipboard. I’m suspicious—less of the delivery man than of the package—and I almost let him walk away with it. If this is another present from Ethan, it would be better for both of us if I just refused to accept it.
There’s no guarantee the package is from him, though. Tori is always ordering things online—the delivery could just as easily be for her. It’s a galvanizing thought, one that has me opening the door, despite my misgivings, just as the delivery man is turning away.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
He turns back to me. “Package for Ms. Chloe Girard.”
So much for the online-ordering theory. I take the box gingerly, glance at the return address. Sure enough, it’s from Frost Industries. And it’s heavy.
Despite my best intentions, a hum of excitement works its way through me. Ethan sent me another present. Ethan is thinking of me. Quite a bit, if the speed of this delivery counts for anything. I only left him a little over an hour ago.
I sign the clipboard before carrying the box into the apartment. I set it on the dining room table and then just stand there staring at it for long seconds, trying to decide if I want to open it or if I want to leave it exactly as is.
I know it sounds crazy, but in my experience, sometimes not knowing is better than knowing. Not knowing is filled with possibilities, questions, suppositions. But once you take that final step to find out the truth, then the suppositions fall to the wayside. You lose the chance at what could be, get caught in what is. And in my experience, what is is rarely as glamorous or fun or exciting or real as what could have been.
In the end, though, curiosity gets the better of me. I head into the kitchen for a knife—something that will make it easier to open the box than damn manicure scissors. As I cut through the tape I think of everything that happened today. Everything that passed between us despite my best efforts to keep our interaction purely businesslike, and try to figure out what this gift might be.
Yesterday proved that Ethan doesn’t give gifts just to give them. There’s a reason behind what he does, a method to what he chooses.
Knowing that, I shouldn’t be surprised when I open the box, but I am anyway. How can I not be when sitting there in front of me is the blender I so inauspiciously returned to him this morning? In place of the note I taped to the top of the blender sits a large envelope of the palest, purest blue.
For long seconds I just stare at the damn Vitamix, which is quickly becoming the bane of my existence. Then, because I don’t know what else to do, I throw my head back and laugh. And laugh. And laugh.
No wonder he didn’t mention the blender to me this afternoon. He’d had no intention of taking it back, no intention of letting me win this round of our power struggle. Oh, I’d read that about him when I researched him—that Ethan Frost doesn’t take defeat lightly, that he always likes to win—but I’d thought that was in the business world. I hadn’t realized it extended to things as minor as an unwanted present.
In retrospect, I probably should have. His personality is so large, so in-your-face, so determined. Why wouldn’t that spill over to every aspect of his life instead of just those that deal with business?
Either way, I’m left with a problem. I obviously can’t carry this thing back into his office tomorrow morning—today certainly bore out what a disastrous plan that had been. But I can’t keep it, either. And not for the same reasons I was determined to return it yesterday. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s too much. But that’s not the real reason I have to give it back.
No, I have to return it because this isn’t just about a blender anymore. It isn’t just about a silly meeting in the cafeteria or him giving me a gift. No, with this new delivery, Ethan has turned this present into a battle of wills, one I can’t afford to lose. Not when that blender is beginning to feel suspiciously like a collar.
Returning it a second time might actually get across the message that I’m not interested. God knows I tried to do that today. Several times. And it might actually have worked if I hadn’t let him go down on me in his office this evening.
I still can’t believe I let that happen, can’t believe he so easily got around my fears and my objections. My knees weaken at the memory of him kneeling in front of me, his hands on my thighs, his tongue deep inside my sex. My body flushes. My panties grow wet all over again. I’ve never felt anything like what I did during those moments with Ethan, never imagined I could feel such brain-numbing pleasure.