He rolls his eyes at my lame joke. “We’ll see you then.”
“See you then,” I echo, turning to head for the doors of the cafeteria. As I do, I see two things. One, Ethan Frost is sitting with the two executives at a small table near the window. He’s studiously not looking at me, but I can tell by the shift in his body—yes, at this point I am that attuned to him—that he is aware I’m leaving.
And two, Rick the intern is looking at me. And the expression on his face chills me to the bone.
“Come on, Chloe! Let’s go out!” Tori’s whining is driving me crazy, just as she intends. “We haven’t been dancing in forever.”
“Because the last time we went clubbing, I got groped on the dance floor. You know how I feel about that.”
“That’s what dance floors are for!” She flops back onto the sofa. “I swear, hanging with you is like hanging with my ninety-year-old grandma. Only without the interesting stories.”
I don’t take offense. Partly because I know she’s poking at me, hoping to get a rise, and partly because I know she’s right. I’m a pretty boring person. During the school year, I’m too busy to party because of my heavy class load and the job that helps pay for my tuition. Now that it’s summer, I’m busy with my internship. Honestly, it’s a wonder she hasn’t traded me in for a better friend yet.
“Why don’t you go?” I tell her. “I’m perfectly okay just hanging out here.”
She rolls her eyes. “I bailed on you yesterday. I’m not going to do it two days in a row.”
“You’re not bailing on me. It’s not like we had plans for tonight.”
“It was implied when I took off yesterday.” She sighs heavily. “Fine. No club. What movie do you want to watch?” She sounds so put-upon and so resigned that I can’t help laughing. And try to compromise.
“There’s a bonfire down at the beach tonight. One of the Save Our Oceans groups organized it. They got the fire department involved and everything, so it’s legal. There’s a five-dollar donation to hang out, and they’ll have street tacos. Beer. Margaritas. We could try that.”
“Yay! Let’s go change.” She bounces to her feet, throws her arms around my neck. “Thank you for going out with me.”
I laugh. “Well, it’s not any fun staying home watching movies if you’re not into it. Besides, I like bonfires.”
“Me too. You know what else I like?” she asks, licking her lips.
“Street tacos?” I tease.
She throws a pillow at me and we both laugh as it hits me in the face. “I was thinking more along the lines of the guys who eat them.”
Tori already has her shirt off and she hasn’t even left the living room yet. But that’s my roommate for you, no modesty whatsoever. Which makes me worry about her a little, especially when I think about what she considers appropriate public attire. And yes, I know that makes me sound like I really am ninety—but that’s only because you haven’t gone out in public with her when she’s dressed in a see-through shirt with nothing underneath.
I change quickly, into a pair of jean shorts and a white off-the-shoulder peasant blouse. It’s not my usual style—way too relaxed—but Tori bought it for me and I know she’ll love to see me wearing it. Besides, if I can’t relax at a beach bonfire, then I figure there’s no hope for me.
Fifteen minutes after I make the suggestion, we’re walking up Prospect toward La Jolla Shores. One of the best things about living with Tori is the fact that her apartment is only about a mile walk from one of the most beautiful beaches in the country—which is awesome considering the disaster that is parking around here.
The beach is already crowded when we get there—or I suppose I should say still crowded. It’s a beautiful day and the tourists have obviously come out in droves, but Save Our Oceans has set up a pretty large bonfire on the north end of the beach. They’ve also got a bunch of food trucks set up, selling everything from street tacos and margaritas to gourmet cheesecake. Normally San Diego has an ordinance that prohibits drinking on the beach, but SOO has a large area around the bonfire roped off—people inside the ropes can drink, as long as they purchase the alcohol from one of the vendors at the fund-raiser and don’t take it beyond the ropes.
It’ll be at least an hour before the sun sets and a little longer than that before they light the bonfire, so Tori and I pay our entrance fee and then head for the sand castle contest going on down by the shore.
Imperial Beach in South San Diego has one of the most elaborate sand-castle-building competitions in the nation, with people coming from all over to participate or watch the amazing creations the artists come up with. I’ve gone down for it every year that I’ve lived in San Diego, and every year I’m in awe of what people come up with.
I can’t say the same about the castles we’re walking by tonight. Most of them are tiny and ill-formed, slanting sideways, or just plain disastrous. Still, it’s fun to see them, and when Tori grabs a bucket, plops herself down in the middle of a pile of sand, and calls, “Come on, Chloe! Let’s make one,” I can’t resist the invitation.
The only problem is that neither one of us has ever made a sand castle before. Within minutes I’ve got a whole new respect for the small, sad-looking dwellings popping up all around us, because all we’ve managed to do is build a round-looking hill. And it’s not even much of a hill.
I keep packing the bucket with wet sand and then turning it over to dump it out, just like everyone around us. But instead of coming out in the shape of the bucket, our sand just plops out in a crumbly mess. Over and over and over again.
“I’m getting hungry,” Tori says after we’ve tried—and failed—for about the twentieth time.
“We’re not quitting,” I tell her through gritted teeth. “There must be a secret to this.”
“If there is, we don’t know it.”
“Well, we’re going to figure it out.” I nod toward a boy of nine or ten who has managed to build a towering castle, complete with turret and drawbridge. “If he can do that, surely we can build a one room hovel.”
She looks at my latest disaster with raised brows. “Somehow I’m not so sure.”
“I am.” I scoop up more sand, determined to make the hill bigger if nothing else. At this point I’d be happy if it ends up looking like a fire-ant mound. After all, then at least it’d be home to something.
Tori watches me with an indulgent smile for a couple more minutes, but after I’ve tried—and failed—numerous times to add on to the hill, she stands up and brushes off her legs. “I’m ready for a beer.”
“Are you kidding me? This was your idea to begin with.”
“Yeah, because I thought it’d be fun. And it was. But now it’s not anymore, so…time for food. The smell of those carne asada tacos has had my mouth watering for the past fifteen minutes.”
Mine too. Still, I glare at our pathetic excuse for a castle. I hate the thought that a pile of sand has somehow gotten the better of me. “You go ahead,” I tell her. “I’m going to try this a couple more times.”
She rolls her eyes but doesn’t argue with me. She knows me too well. “Fine. I’ll go grab some tacos and find seats. When I text you, I expect you to stop tilting at windmills and come eat with me.”
“Ooh, a Don Quixote reference. I am so impressed.”
“And well you should be.” She sticks her tongue out at me. “I didn’t sleep through my entire Spanish lit class last semester. No matter how tempting it was.”
“You’re a better woman than I.”
She snorts. “I wish.”
There’s something in her voice that has me glancing up. “You okay?” I start to get up. Making a damn sand castle may have turned into a ridiculous quest, but she’s still my best friend. If something’s wrong, she comes first.
But she just waves for me to sit back down. “I’m fine. Finish your beach shack and then get your ass back over to the bonfire so we can gossip about your ridiculously hot boss some more.”
With that parting shot, she turns and walks away, completely oblivious to what her mention of Ethan has done to me. I shift a little, trying to ignore the need that twinges at the very heart of me. It doesn’t work—but then again, when has it? Whether I’ve wanted him there or not, Ethan has been on my mind almost continuously since I met him Monday.
After what happened in his office last night, I expected him to try to contact me today. Something beyond that brief, and weird, meeting in the cafeteria during lunch, I mean. But he hasn’t. No phone call, no delivery, not even a quick text message to say hi. Nothing that might give me the idea that he’s been thinking about me at all.
And while I tell myself I’m being an idiot, that he’s the owner and CEO of one of the fastest-growing companies in the country, I know I still have my panties in a twist over it. Why do guys act like they’re interested and pursue you until they wear down your resistance, only to lose interest right about the time you start thinking they might be interesting? I’ve seen it happen to Tori over and over again, and it drives me nuts every time. This is the first time it’s happened to me, but that’s only because I don’t put myself out there. Or at least I haven’t in a very long time. And I’m rethinking whether I want to now or not.
Then again, it’s not like I really have anything to say to him if he does call. But still. I expected him to. More, I wanted him to. That thought only makes me more annoyed with him. I was fine before he sent that stupid envelope, completely good with the superficial knowledge I had of him. Then he had to go and show me more. He had to make me want. And that only makes me more annoyed—with him, with myself, with the entire situation.
I slam the bucket down on top of my hill a little harder than I intend, and watch in frustration as a crack works its way straight down the middle of all my hard work. Damn it. I guess it’s a good thing I’m pre-law instead of an architecture major.
“I like your sepulcher. It’s a very…what’s the word I’m looking for here?”
“Uninterested.” I don’t bother looking up. I don’t have to see him to know I’ve got no interest in some guy trying his luck on the beach. Even if the sudden prickling of my nerve endings says otherwise.
“And here I was going to say it was interesting.” He leans down a little, puts his mouth closer to my ear so I can hear the tenor of his voice now, even over the din of the crowd. Realization sinks in and I stiffen, even before he says, “Hi, Chloe.”
The damn chills are back double time, although how I can feel both hot and cold at the same time—without having the flu—is a mystery to me. “Ethan.” I turn to look at him. I can’t help it. His presence is like a magnet I have no defense against. I want to see him. “What are you doing here?”
“Building community. Saving the oceans. You know, the usual.”
“Frost Industries is sponsoring this event.” It’s not a question. Only now do I remember reading about Ethan’s philanthropic interests. For obvious reasons, he spends a lot of time and money doing stuff for veterans, but the environment—and the oceans, in particular—is another big interest of his. I think back to the day I met him, to the board shorts and flip-flops. The Save Our Oceans stuff actually makes perfect sense.
“It’s a good event,” I tell him a little grudgingly. I guess I’m more upset about him not calling than I thought.
“I’m glad you approve.” He sits down on the other side of the sand castle, gently extricates the bucket from my sudden death grip, and starts to pack it with sand. “So, are you really building a sand tomb?”
I look at the mess in front of me. “It’s supposed to be a sand castle.”
He laughs. “I guess it’s a good thing you’re pre-law then, hmm?”
His words so perfectly echo my own thoughts from a few minutes ago that I can’t help but stare at him. It feels weird to think the same things as him.
When he sees my expression, his smile fades. “You know I’m just kidding, right?”
I force myself out of my Ethan-induced stupor. “Maybe, but you’re totally right. It’s a disaster.”
“Not a disaster. It just needs—” He breaks off when he sees my face. My lips are pursed, my brows raised, and I know I look as skeptical as I feel. “Okay, yeah. It’s a disaster. But I can fix it.”
“What if I don’t want you to fix it?”
He pauses in his sand-packing activities, his indigo eyes suddenly as deep and fathomless as the Pacific licking at my toes. “Then I should probably walk away now. I’m not very good at sitting by and doing nothing when I know there’s a problem—and how to fix it.”