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I want to feel it again.

It’s addicting, overwhelming, and there’s a part of me that wants nothing more than to surrender. To give Ethan what he wants so that I can feel like that again. And again. And again.

I want his mouth on me. Want his fingers deep inside me. Even more surprisingly, I want to do the same to him. I want to kneel in front of him and take him deep into my mouth. To taste and explore him. To bring him the same kind of pleasure that he has brought me.

The idea arouses me even more, has me pressing my thighs together to stop the incessant ache. But at the same time, nervousness skitters down my spine, a precursor to the fear I know is coming. Because it always does.

Refusing to go there, I focus on the damn blender and try to figure out what I’m supposed to do. I think about keeping it, about taking it into the kitchen right now and using it to whip up a strawberry smoothie. But are those thoughts really mine, or are they the fantasies of this other side of me? The side that Ethan breathes life into, that has me wanting to do his bidding simply because it will make him happy? Can I do that? Can I just blindly do his bidding and trust him to catch me if I fall?

I think about the stairs today, about that strong hand reaching out and grabbing me. Pulling me against him so that I could feel the too-fast beat of his heart against my own. He did catch me. But can I count on him to do it again?

It’s the million-dollar question, and the fact that I’m even thinking about it makes me cringe a little deep inside. I push the blender away, promise myself that I’m not going to go down this path again.

I’m not the same girl I was at fifteen, won’t ever be her again. Not for Ethan. Not for my parents. Not for anyone. Not anymore.

I spent years being the good girl, doing whatever my parents asked of me even when what they asked was wrong or dangerous or just plain bad for me. Even when what they asked broke me into a million pieces.

It took me years to get away from them, to stand on my own two feet, to put myself back together into the mismatched mess I am today. I’ll be damned if I just give that all away again. If I just turn it over to Ethan with his gentle hands and domineering ways. Because I may still be working on putting myself back together again, but I’m doing it, one painful piece at a time. And I will not turn control of my life—of me—over to someone else ever again.

I turn to walk away, to put as much distance between the blender and myself as I can. But as I do, my eyes once again fall on the blue envelope resting on top of the blender. It’s large and bumpy and obviously holds something other than just a letter.

I want to know what’s in it. Which is why, even as I tell myself that curiosity killed the cat, I’m reaching for it. I can no more leave it there than I could fly to the moon under my own power.

As I touch the envelope for the first time, it hits me yet again how different our lives are. I gave Ethan a typed-up note on flimsy computer paper in a standard envelope. He sends me an envelope of the most exquisite stationery, thick and soft and obviously expensive.

Did he do it on purpose, to highlight the difference in our circumstances? To show me that he’s rich and eventually he’ll get whatever he wants, even if what he wants is me? It’s a terrible way to think about a man who has been nothing but kind to me, but I know how rich men are. How they take what they want and to hell with whoever gets in their way.

It’s why I’m here in San Diego, in fact. Because it’s as far away from Boston—from my family and everything that happened there—as I can get and still be in the contiguous United States.

So many reasons for me to put the envelope back into the box and walk away.

So many reasons for me to not even think about Ethan, let alone stand here like a lovesick fool wondering about the words he wrote.

I spent hours on the letter I sent him, brief and impersonal though it was. I know he spent not a fraction of the same amount of time on this, a metaphor if ever I’ve lived one. And yet…and yet I want to know what he has to say.

Being careful to not rip the envelope, I slowly ease the flap back, then reach in to pull out what turns out not to be a card at all, but a collection of mismatched items.

Two herbal tea bags.

A long, thick green satin ribbon the exact shade of my eyes.

A seashell that still has sand on it, like he picked it up from the beach only hours ago.

A sexy black-and-white vintage-looking postcard. The picture is of a woman with pin-up curves stretched across the bed. She’s on her stomach, her legs kicked up and crossed at the ankles behind her while her chin rests on her hands. She’s dressed in nothing but a corset, panties, stockings, and high heels. Oh, and gloves. Long, black gloves that reach her elbows and somehow manage to be the most elegant—and the naughtiest—thing about the whole picture.

I blush a little because I can’t help wondering if Ethan was thinking of me dressed like this when he selected it. If he imagined me waiting for him as this woman is obviously waiting for her lover. Is it wrong that I want him to have done just that?

Or that, if I close my eyes, I can imagine—just for a moment—that it is me? That I can be like her, smile like her, instead of being the messed-up, terrified control freak that I am?

What would that be like? To just be normal? To be able to accept a guy’s attention? More, to want it? To anticipate it? It’s been so long since I’ve felt that way that I can’t even remember what it was like. Everything is colored by Brandon, by what he did to me and by what came after.

I put the postcard on the table next to the other presents he sent me, and just stare at them for long seconds. I reach for one of the tea bags with its pretty wrapping, bring it to my nose. It smells like strawberries. I smile despite my confusion. And my pain.

I pick up the ribbon next. It’s soft and silky and cool as I run it through my fingers. It’s also long—too long to be worn in my hair or around my neck—and I wonder what it’s meant for. Why Ethan sent it to me, other than the color.

For a moment, just a moment, I have a flash of it wrapped around my wrists, binding them together. Binding me, for Ethan’s pleasure. A stab of desire works through me at the image, followed closely by discomfort. By fear.

I drop the ribbon like it’s burned me. Nearly walk away from the table and everything laid out there. But the shell is calling to me. It’s a brown-and-white torticone, small and tightly furled, with an inside of the softest, palest gold. Sand crumbles onto my fingers as I rub it, and I can’t resist the urge to bring it to my nose. Sure enough, I can smell the wild salt of the ocean on it.

I love that it came right off the beach. That Ethan didn’t bother to wash it or polish it before he sent it to me. That he gave it to me just as he found it. I can almost picture him walking on the beach in those board shorts of his, surfboard under his arm as he heads back to his house.

I don’t know for sure, but something tells me that the man lives in one of those huge houses off Prospect that let out right onto the beach. Did he step on the shell, hurt himself with it? Is that how he found it? Or did he see just a glint of it from where it was buried in the sand? Did he bend down and dig for it, his strong fingers burrowing through the sand in search of a prize?

After I’ve examined all of my treasures—and they are treasures, for all that they cost nearly nothing—I drop down into a kitchen chair and just stare at them.

What am I going to do?

What am I going to do?

I’ll return the blender, of course I will, but these things he gave me—these little pieces of his soul that have somehow become pieces of mine—they aren’t going anywhere. They’re mine now. They’re me, as I think Ethan always knew they would be.

I reach for the envelope, pull out the last thing inside of it. A thick, cream-colored piece of paper that’s been folded in half.

My heart in my throat, I open it. Read the two short lines he has written on it.

Then, as emotion—full-bodied, tempestuous, overwhelming—moves through me, I put my head down on the edge of the table. And try desperately not to cry.

Chapter Nine

By the time morning comes, I’ve recovered my equilibrium, if not my good sense. Once again I skip my morning run—something I know I’m going to pay for later this week when I finally get back to it—in lieu of getting dressed and heading out early.

I choose a yellow sundress today, one that I picked up for twenty bucks at the end of last summer. It’s a little too feminine for work, in my opinion, but I’ve only got two suits and I’ve already worn both of them this week, so this will have to do. The fact that it looks really good with my skin and hair is of no consequence—at least, that’s what I tell myself when I’m getting dressed.

Before I leave the house, I pack the blender back into the box, along with a “thank you, but no thank you” note. And then I do something really stupid, something I’m already regretting even as I do it.

I take an envelope of my own—a plain manila one, as I don’t have any interesting ones lying around—and put inside it a bead of pure lapis lazuli that I bought years ago on a whim. I’ve hung on to it as a kind of good-luck charm all this time, never paying much attention to it but never losing track of it, either.

When I went to put the ribbon in my jewelry box last night, the bead was just there, like it was waiting for me to remember it. To figure out why I’d really bought it. Richly, deeply blue, it matches Ethan’s eyes the way that ribbon matches mine. I can’t not give it to him.

To it, I add a handwritten copy of a Pablo Neruda poem, “Leaning into the Afternoons.” It’s one of my favorites, and from the moment I met Ethan, the first line has run through my head again and again and again: “Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets / towards your oceanic eyes.”

And finally I add a vintage Armani silk pocket square that I picked up at one of the used-clothing stores in Hollywood a couple of years ago. At the time, I bought it to go in a jacket I wore regularly. I threw the jacket away a few months ago, after wearing it nearly to death, but kept the handkerchief. It matches perfectly the suit Ethan was wearing yesterday. I can’t resist spritzing it with the strawberry spray I wear on a daily basis—a direct reference to the fact that he keeps sending me strawberries of one sort or another.

And then I sit down on my bed and try desperately not to shake. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m flying blind, by the seat of my pants. Scared to death, yet unable to not answer the tenderness implicit in Ethan’s gift.

It would be smarter, more logical, better for me to just ignore the words he wrote, the lovely things he sent me. But I’m not strong enough to do that. I never was. And so here I am, casting my nets onto a course that will only lead to disaster. To pain. To heartbreak. And I’m doing it with my eyes wide open.

I only hope I don’t drown.

After I finish with my total what-the-fuck moment, I seal up the envelope, drop it into the box with the blender, and then seal the box. I change the recipient information and carry it out to my car. At lunch, if I haven’t lost my nerve, I’ll run to the UPS place on the corner and send it to Ethan overnight.

I actually make it to work early today, much to my relief and—I think—Maryanne’s annoyance. Which only makes me more determined to do everything right. Ethan’s words still echo in my head, his belief that I really am the best person to head this research. I don’t think there’s any reason for him to lie, not about this, so I’ve decided I’m going to believe him. I’m going to do my job and do it well and not let anything else get to me.

For most of the morning I make a good run of it. I finish up the loose ends on the case I was working late on last night, then blow through questions about three more cases. It’s interesting stuff, too—at least to me. I love researching, love the hunt for the answers and all the new things I learn when I’m looking for those answers. And what I love most of all is the guarantee that the answers are out there. The fact that all I have to do is look hard and long enough and I’ll find out what I need to know.

I wish life were like that. More orderly. More assured. I think about all the things I’d like answers to—not just guesses or hopes or best estimates, but guaranteed, quantifiable answers. Like whether or not I should mail that stupid box to Ethan. Or if getting involved with him is a bad idea.

I work through my break, and when lunch comes around I try to ignore the fact that all the interns head down to the cafeteria together—and that they very definitely exclude me. I tell myself not to let it get to me, that the best thing I can do is just do my job well and not worry about anything else. But it’s one of those things that’s easy to say and not so easy to do.

Still, it isn’t like I could go with them anyway. I have that damn box to send. Which I do, with my fingers and toes crossed that I’m making the right decision. But the whole box-sending thing only takes ten minutes, which means I have fifty minutes to kill. And since I’m hungry—and broke—I decide it’s the cafeteria for me again. Even if it means dealing with the shade Rick and the other interns will throw at me.