Suddenly, I’m having a hard time swallowing—or breathing. My throat is tight, my hands shaky. He’s talking about a lot more than the stupid sand castle, and we both know it.
“I’m not broken.” The words come out sounding harsh and jagged.
“Oh, baby.” He reaches for my hand, rubs his thumb gently over my knuckles. “I know that. I just wasn’t sure you did.”
I rip my eyes from his. I don’t know what to say to that—don’t know if there’s anything to say—but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He goes back to calmly filling the bucket and I…I go back to watching Ethan.
He looks good. Really good. He’s dressed casually tonight, in a pair of worn jeans and a Kings of Leon T-shirt that I can’t help coveting a little. They’ve been my favorite band for pretty much ever, though I’ve never gotten the chance to see them in person. Tickets cost too much, and besides, I’m not sure I could handle that many people crowded around me. I tend to freak out in big groups.
Another phobia that started when I was fifteen.
Another phobia that I can lay at Brandon’s door.
I cut off that train of thought before it can go any further down the tracks—and before it can derail me completely. I’m here on this beautiful beach with my best friend and a very attractive man, who just happens to be looking at me like he wants to lick me all over. My present is good. No reason to dwell on a past I can’t change.
As he turns the bucket over and the sand slides out effortlessly—into what I’m sure is to be the first turret of our sand castle—I think about his present yesterday. About the tea bags and the other stuff. It seems churlish not to mention it, especially when he won’t get my response until tomorrow.
“Thank you for the seashell,” I tell him, even as I follow his lead and start patting at the sand turret, making sure it is so tightly packed that it won’t collapse this time. Then again, it probably wouldn’t dare. Not with CEO, genius, and all-around Renaissance man Ethan Frost watching it like a hawk.
He freezes in place. It’s just for a second, but I’m watching him so closely that I can’t help but notice it. His eyes jerk back up to mine, and they’re burning hot, the amusement and control I’m so used to seeing there is suddenly gone.
“You liked it?”
“I loved it. Loved everything, really.”
He relaxes then. “Even the blender?”
I think about the package he’s going to get tomorrow and can’t help but smile. Nothing to do now but dodge the question. “You seem oddly attached to that blender.”
“A good blender is an important tool for any kitchen.”
I laugh. “Now you sound like Martha Stewart.”
“You sound like Melissa Etheridge.” This time when he touches me, it’s to stroke one gentle finger down the front of my throat. “I love your voice. All jagged edges and rock and roll. It’s sexy as hell.”
I don’t answer him this time. I can’t. I’ve completely forgotten how to breathe. If I duck my chin just a little, my lips will be against his hand and I’ll be kissing him. It’s all the invitation he needs, and for a moment I’m tempted. Really tempted.
I want to kiss him again, want to taste him and touch him and let him do the same to me.
I crave him on his knees in front of me, crave that wicked tongue of his once again taking me over the edge of orgasm.
I need to do the same to him, need to take him in my mouth, in my body, and give him the same pleasure he gave me.
Except I don’t know how to do that. How to do any of that. Not without inviting the memories back. Not without freezing up completely.
I break eye contact, pull away. Concentrate on the sand castle with a vengeance. Ethan doesn’t say anything, just goes back to building the second turret. But for a moment—just a moment—his fingers brush against, tangle with, hold my own, and it feels better than it has any right to.
This whole thing feels better than it has any right to, and I know I’m getting in over my head. Not like that’s a surprise. When I put that envelope together for Ethan this morning, I knew things would get complicated quickly. But now that it’s starting, now that he’s here and he’s interested and I’m interested despite the warning bells clanging in my head, it’s all just a little overwhelming. Like I’m walking a circus high wire without a net and any small miscalculation will send me hurtling toward utter disaster. Utter ruin.
Except I’m already there, and I have been for five long, interminable years. I’ve spent those years just trying to survive, and I have. It’s been no small feat, not when some days it takes every ounce of energy I have just to get out of bed, go to class, build some semblance of a life for myself.
For the first time in a long time, I’m starting to wonder if that’s enough. Or if maybe I should want more.
I look down at the sand castle Ethan has helped me build, at our fingers that keep tangling together, sliding against one another. Every instinct I have is screaming at me to pull back. To stand up and walk away before I get in over my head.
But it’s too late. It’s been too late from the moment he slid that smoothie across the juice bar to me, only I’ve been too stupid to realize it.
I look up, find him staring at me with an intensity that belies his casual clothes and surfer-boy demeanor, his charming smile and smooth moves. It’s an intensity that reaches to the very heart of me—into my soul, into my sex—and for the first time I realize the true enigma that is Ethan Frost.
“Let me take you out tomorrow night.”
It’s more a statement than a question, more an order than a request, and normally it would rub me very wrong. But in those moments, caught in Ethan’s eyes and his spell, I can do nothing but nod. Do nothing but surrender and hope the ride is worth the inevitable fall.
Ethan builds me a sand castle worthy of an architect—or a genius. It’s not the biggest on the beach, but it is the most elegant. The best-made. And he does it with nothing more than a bucket and his hands.
When it’s finally done, when my six-turret palace complete with drawbridge and moat is standing tall and proud I take a few long moments to admire it. To wonder what it would be like to live in such a perfect, well-thought-out place. Then I think of the huge, beautiful monstrosity that my parents live in, and I remember for the millionth time that perfection is only ever skin deep.
The thought has my stomach clenching, and I look across at Ethan, who is busy watching me admire his creation. He’s perfect, or as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen. Brilliant, funny, gorgeous, philanthropic, kind. Or at least that’s how he appears on the surface. I wonder what’s underneath and if I’ll ever get the chance to see it.
Just as I’m deciding that I’ve had enough of the deep philosophy, my stomach growls. Ethan laughs as he climbs to his feet, then holds out a hand to help me to mine. I can get up just fine on my own, but I take his hand anyway. Let him pull me up.
Trust has to start somewhere.
“What do you want to eat?” he asks, and I’m acutely aware of the way he bends his neck so his mouth is inches from my cheek. I’m also aware of his hand on the small of my back, guiding me through the throngs of partiers and sand-castle enthusiasts. There are hundreds of people down here and this area of the beach isn’t that big, but somehow he manages to ensure that no one gets too close, that no one touches me.
It’s a relief, the way he instinctively seems to know what I need. Later, when I’m home, it may freak me out. But here, now, surrounded by these crowds—and by the heat and strength of Ethan—I feel protected, safe. It’s not a feeling I have often, so I can’t help but savor it.
“Chloe?” he prompts, and I realize I never answered him.
“My roommate was going to get us some carne asada tacos.” I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. “You’re welcome to join us.”
“I’d like that, if she doesn’t mind.”
“Are you kidding? She’ll be thrilled. Tori loves gorgeous men.”
“So, you think I’m gorgeous?” he asks with a wicked grin.
I roll my eyes. “Don’t fish for compliments. It’s so unbecoming, especially when you know exactly how devastatingly hot you are.”
“I was beginning to think I’d lost my touch. Trying to get your attention has been…challenging.”
“Yeah, well, don’t get ahead of yourself just yet. I agreed to go to dinner, not have sex with you.”
He glances at me out of the corner of his eyes. “I don’t remember asking for sex.”
“Oh, yeah? And how do you know that?”
I turn my head so our gazes meet and for a second I forget my train of thought. Hell, I forget how to breathe, let alone how to make words.
But I can see the gleam of triumph deep in his eyes, can see the hint of a smirk on his lips, just waiting to form. And suddenly I’m determined to not let him get the best of me. I reach up, pat his cheek. “Because they all do, darling,” I tell him in the best femme fatale voice I can muster. Maybe it’s foolish, maybe it’s arrogant, but I don’t want him to know just how messed up I am. How our date tomorrow night will be the first one I’ve gone on in a long, long time.
He stiffens at the challenge in my words, in my eyes, but it’s not an insulted movement. Not a threatening one. No, it’s more like the movement of a large jungle cat moments after it’s scented its prey. A stretching, an awakening, just a hint of danger as awareness prickles in the air all around us.
I wait, breath held, for him to say something else. Do something else. But in the end, he just laughs. I laugh, too, and somehow it doesn’t shatter the tension between us like most moments of amusement would. No, it only fans the flames, only ratchets up the attraction and the energy between us.
I hold his eyes as long as I can, let him see just how unafraid I am—and that I have no intention of backing down.
His whole body seems to grow harder, hotter, where it rests against the side of my own. And while he doesn’t say anything, I know he understands the gauntlet I’ve just thrown down, just as I know that he has picked it up.
He leans in closer, ostensibly to be heard over the music and the crowds, but as his breath brushes against my ear, my throat, the sensitive nape of my neck, I know the truth. That he is doing it to torment me, to arouse me. As my nipples peak and my sex throbs, I have to admit that he is very, very good at what he does.
“This is going to be fun,” he tells me, the words soft and warm as they caress the sensitive skin behind my ear.
I suck in a deep breath at the sensations rioting inside me, and immediately regret it as I pull his scent deep into my sinuses, into my lungs. He smells like the ocean, only sweeter. Like oranges and secrets and smooth, rich chocolate. There’s a part of me that wants nothing more than to roll around in his scent, to wrap it around myself and huddle inside it—inside him—until everything bad in my life just floats away.
Still, I manage to rally. I won’t give him the satisfaction of knowing just how easily he can throw me off my game. “It’s going to be something. I’m not sure fun is quite the word for it.”
“Sure it is. There’s no point in doing anything if it isn’t fun.”
The words work their way inside me, pull me out of the sensual fog his touch and voice and scent have enveloped me in. I look at him curiously. “Do you really believe that?”
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if I didn’t enjoy what I do.”
His answer makes sense, and yet I know there’s more to it. I can see it burning in his eyes, feel it in the way his body tenses against mine. But before I can call him on it, my phone vibrates in my pocket.
Normally I’d ignore it, but I’m pretty sure it’s Tori. I pull it out, glance at it. Sure enough. “Tori’s got a spot to the left of the stage. She wants me to meet her there.”
Ethan nods, then effortlessly steers us in the right direction until we run straight into Tori. Maybe I should have warned her, because for the first time in the three years I’ve known her, my best friend is speechless. Face-slack, mouth-open, eyes-wide speechless.
It’s not a great look on her, but Ethan doesn’t seem overly concerned. Which makes me wonder just how often women look at him like that. Then again, maybe I don’t want to know. Especially if it’s on a daily basis.
“Ethan, this is my best friend, Tori.” I step on her foot in an effort to pull her out of her dazed stupor. “Tori, this is my boss, Ethan Frost.”
Ethan gives me a strange look when I call him my boss, but it’s not like I have another moniker for him. He’s not my date tonight. He’s not my friend yet, and he certainly isn’t my boyfriend. I guess I could have just introduced him as Ethan, but it isn’t like Tori doesn’t know who he is. The fact that she has yet to blink is a pretty good clue that the cat was out of the bag before I so much as opened my mouth.