I can’t help glancing over at the juice bar when I walk in, but of course Ethan’s not there today. I think of how he was dressed yesterday, in his full-on Armani suit, and wonder for the millionth time what he was doing working the juice bar on my first day. I can’t help wondering if it was fate, or some darker force at work. Either way, I’m afraid that that one meeting is going to change my life in ways I never expected.
As soon as the thought occurs to me, I feel completely melodramatic. Yes, I’m attracted to him. Yes, he’s obviously attracted to me. And yes, today I did something about that attraction. Where this thing is going to end up, I don’t have a clue. But thinking that it might actually change my life is absurd.
Deciding against a smoothie, because it just won’t be the same if Ethan’s not there making sure they add exactly seven strawberries to the blender, I grab a sandwich and some fruit. I think about taking it back up to my desk, but the sad fact of the matter is that I don’t want to give the other interns the satisfaction of thinking they made me turn tail and run. They’re sitting a few tables away from me and I know they’ve noticed me. I can feel Rick’s eyes raking down my back as I look for an empty table.
As we’re in the middle of the lunch hour rush, there aren’t any completely empty tables, so I grab an open seat at the first one I come to. Not until after I put down my tray do I realize I’ve sat down in the middle of a table of guys not much older than I am.
As the three closest ones turn to look at me, I do my best to control the blush creeping up my cheeks. “I’m sorry. Is this seat taken?”
“Not at all,” the blond one tells me. He’s got a British accent and a cheeky grin that I can’t help responding to. “We’re just not used to beautiful women plopping themselves down in the middle of our conversation without any warning.”
“I can leave,” I tell him. “Try to give you a little more warning the second time around.”
“That won’t be necessary,” one of his dark-haired friends assures me as he extends his hand. “I’m Zayn.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Chloe.” Zayn grins at me.
“I’m Austin,” the blond one says.
“And I’m Ro,” the third one adds. They’re all good-looking, but he’s definitely the best-looking of the bunch. With his chiseled cheekbones, shaggy black hair, and dark, soulful eyes, he’d look as much at home on the cover of a magazine as he does here. Maybe even more so.
“Ro?” I ask, wanting to make sure I get his name right.
He sighs while the other two guys cackle. “His mama named him Romeo,” Austin tells me in his very proper English. “But he refuses to let anyone call him that.”
I raise my brows at him, but he just shrugs. “It’s a lot of name to live up to.”
“Or down to,” I say. “He was a spoiled fourteen-year-old brat way too used to getting his own way.”
“See!” Ro slaps the table hard. “That’s what I’ve been telling these guys for the past two weeks, but they insist on calling me Romeo. It’s obnoxious.”
“Are you kidding? It totally gives you a great opening with the ladies,” Austin protests. “Your name has swagger, dude. You should embrace it.”
“If by swagger you mean it invites women to think of me as an adolescent douche bag with a death wish. One who’ll ask them to commit suicide before the week is out.”
“Hey, I hear whiny-ass adolescents are very big right now,” Zayn says with another huge smile. I grin back at him—I can’t help it. The guy’s personality is totally infectious. “Justin Bieber certainly doesn’t seem to be having any trouble getting women.”
Ro glares at him through narrowed eyes. “You did not just compare me to Justin Bieber.”
“I’m sorry.” Zayn holds his hands up in mock surrender. “I know the similarities are a sore spot. I’ll lay off until you’re in better mental health.”
“I’ll be in better mental health if I can shove my fist down your throat.”
“Temper, temper,” Austin tsks. “Didn’t you read the new-employee package? Frost Industries frowns on violence.”
“That wouldn’t be violence,” Ro argues. “It’d be doing society a favor.”
I’m full-on laughing at their ridiculousness now. I can’t help it. It’s like watching the Three Stooges in action, minus the eye gouging and face slapping. When I finally get myself under control, it’s to find all three of them staring at me, huge grins on their own faces.
“What?” I ask, my hand going instinctively to my face. “Do I have mustard on my nose or something?”
“You have freckles on your nose,” Austin comments. “Do they count?”
“Well then, you’re good.”
“So why are you all smiling at me like you know a secret?”
“You’ve got a great laugh,” Zayn says. “We like it better than the frown you were wearing when you sat down.”
“Oh. Sorry.” I look away, tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “It’s been a rough first week.”
“First weeks usually are,” Austin commiserates. “I got lost like twenty times my first couple of days—and was late almost that many times because of it.”
“I was late to a meeting yesterday,” I admit. “It totally sucked.”
Ro reaches toward my hip, and I startle and start to shove him away. But it turns out he just wants a closer look at my badge. I flush a little, embarrassed at overreacting. He doesn’t seem to notice, or if he does, he’s nice enough not to say anything.
“So, you’re an intern, too,” he comments.
“What kind?” Zayn looks interested.
“Intellectual property. How about you guys?”
“We’re over in the labs. It’s mostly research, but I’m hoping to get some hands-on stuff once I prove myself.”
“I’m doing research, too. But then, I want to be an attorney, so I need to get used to that.”
“Right?” Zayn says something else, but I don’t hear it. A shiver runs up my spine, and I know, without looking, that Ethan has entered the cafeteria. My body has never responded to anyone else in quite the same way.
I grit my teeth, try to focus on my new acquaintances and just ignore it. But it’s impossible. I can feel the weight of his stare, know that he’s watching me.
I’m not sure what it says about me that I like having his attention. I don’t want to, but I do.
In the end, Ro unknowingly solves my dilemma. He gives a long, low whistle and then says, “Look who just walked in.”
Of course, Austin, who is sitting next to me, immediately turns to look. “Holy crap, that’s Ethan Frost. And he’s staring at us!”
“Yeah, he is.” Zayn looks at me questioningly. “What did you do?”
“Why do you automatically assume I did anything?”
He snorts. “In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen him four times—and all but one of those times he was a lot closer to me than he is now. And never has he done more than nod a quick hello. I know it’s the same for Ro and Austin. Which means, Chloe, that the only thing that’s changed in this equation is you.”
I can’t help it. I sneak a quick glance over my shoulder, then nearly jump when my gaze collides with Ethan’s. He doesn’t look upset, but there’s an intensity about him that’s undeniable. And it’s focused 100 percent on me.
Even the two men he’s with—executives, by the way they’re dressed—seem to notice, at least judging by the furtive glances they’re sending in my direction. I look away. I know I made the decision to respond to Ethan last night, but that was when I was alone in my apartment with nothing but that damn envelope. And his seashell.
Here, now, it’s a different story. I’m overwhelmed and a little frightened. Not of him, but of all the crazy things he makes me feel. I don’t know how to deal with these emotions, don’t know how to deal with what he does to me.
“It’s no big deal,” I say when I realize Zayn is still waiting for an answer from me. “We had a disagreement a couple days ago.”
“Over what?” Ro asks, wide-eyed.
Austin elbows him, and I don’t know why. At least not until Ethan’s dark, rich voice slips into the conversation. “Over a smoothie.”
I freeze. He’s so close that I can hear him breathing, can feel the heat of his body as it soaks into mine. Then his words sink in. A smoothie? Is that really what he thinks we fought about? Or is he just trying to get to me?
Before I can decide, he’s putting a hand on my shoulder as he leans across the table to shake hands with Austin and Zayn. For a moment, I’m transfixed by the sight. And the memory of what those hands were doing the last time I saw them. It takes every ounce of willpower I have not to squirm as he says, “Hi, guys. Nice to see you again.”
They practically trip over their tongues. “Nice to see you, too,” Zayn finally manages to get out.
Ethan shakes Ro’s hand as well, then turns to me. “Hi, Chloe.”
“Hi, Mr. Frost.” I clear my throat, try to get a little of the hoarseness out.
“How has your third day been? Better than your second?”
I reach for my water, take a big sip. “Yes. It’s been good, thanks.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” He smiles his blinding Ethan smile and I’m dazzled despite myself. Damn it. “How’s your hip?”
“It’s fine.” Black and blue, not to mention very tender, but I have no intention of telling him that.
“Good. Make sure you let HR know if you need to see a doctor. There’s worker’s comp for stuff like that.”
By this time, my face is so hot I’m afraid I’m going to burn up completely. Ro, Austin, and Zayn are staring at me like I’ve grown an extra head, and I can all but feel the interest from others in the cafeteria. I’m sure Rick and the other interns in my department are falling all over themselves to hear our conversation.
The thought makes me physically ill. I’ve been the object of that kind of vicious focus and conversation before, and it’s not fun. Dealing with the interns is one thing. But half the company is in the cafeteria right now. My fears from yesterday, about being the object of discussion around the water cooler, seem all too real.
I try to hide my upset, but I can tell the moment it registers on Ethan. His smile fades and for a second those brilliant blue eyes of his burn even more brightly, before the intensity fades to a polite disinterest. The hand on my shoulder disappears and he takes a step backward, two.
“Well, I just wanted to check and make sure you were doing okay. That fall yesterday was a little unnerving.”
His sudden distance might have upset another woman, but I see it for what it is. An attempt to protect me. And another small piece of my defenses crumbles on the spot. No one has ever tried to protect me before. Not my parents. Not my brother. No one. Just Ethan.
“I’m good,” I tell him, my own smile in place for the first time since he walked over to me. “Thank you for checking on me.”
“No problem.” He gives a half wave to Ro, Austin, and Zayn, then heads back across the cafeteria without another word. Within seconds, I can feel all the tension leak out of the air, almost as if the entire cafeteria took a collective breath.
“You didn’t tell me your bad day yesterday involved a fall!” Ro scolded me.
I decide to take the out Ethan provided us. “It was awful. My heel caught on the stairs and I would have fallen down the whole flight if Mr. Frost hadn’t caught me. As it is, I banged my hip pretty badly.”
“So that’s why he came over. To check on you?”
“More likely to make sure you weren’t planning on suing Frost Industries,” Austin says. “You wouldn’t be the first employee injured at work to bring a lawsuit against the company.”
“Yes, well, that’s not going to happen. I’m just happy to have escaped with my life.”
The explanation Ethan provided seems to satisfy the three guys, and there’s no more talk about Ethan’s unusual interest in me. Which is exactly how I want it.
The rest of lunch passes uneventfully, and when I get up to leave—with ten minutes to spare, so I’m not late getting back to my desk—Ro asks, “Hey. You planning on meeting us here for lunch tomorrow?”
I can’t help smiling. The intellectual property interns may not like me, but these guys do. It feels nice to make a few friends. “You bet. And if you’re nice, I’ll even buy you lunch.”