“Hi, Tori. It’s nice to meet you.”
He smiles at her, one of his I’m-a-charming-bastard-and-I-know-it smiles, and my roommate—my world-weary roommate—giggles like a thirteen-year-old. Ugh. When I get her home I’m going to kill her.
“Nice to meet you, too, Ethan.” She runs a hand through her Technicolor hair, shoots me a sly look. “Fancy running into you here.”
“Frost Industries is sponsoring the fund-raiser,” I quickly interject before she can embarrass me any more than she already has. “The environment is one of the Frost Foundation’s big causes.”
“Isn’t that a coincidence? Environmental foundations are where all your extra money goes, too, aren’t they?”
And the girl wonders why I won’t let her set me up on any blind dates? If she’s this bad with a guy she has no vested interest in at all, imagine how she’d behave if she’d actually set us up together. She’d probably be asking about kid names and china patterns right about now.
Ethan doesn’t seem to mind, though. Instead, he looks at me with interest. “You’re interested in green issues, too?”
Interested enough that I came close to specializing in environmental law. Not that I’m going to say that—I have no desire to look half as desperate as Tori’s rabid interest is painting me. “I think everyone has some interest in green issues at this point, don’t you?”
“You’d be surprised.” He glances at the table, where Tori has a collection of street tacos. And two margarita glasses, one of which is already empty. “I’m going to go get a beer. Can I get you another one of those?”
“Sure.” There goes the fingers through her hair again. “It’s a mango margarita.”
“Got it.” He pulls out one of the vacant chairs with one hand, presses lightly on my back with the other to guide me into it. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“More like half an hour,” Tori says. “The booths are swamped.”
Ethan just smiles. “Can I get you anything?” he asks me before he leaves.
I take a long sip of my strawberry margarita. It’s delicious, and not too heavy on the alcohol—which is exactly how I like it. “If the lines are that long, maybe you could bring me another one of these as well?”
He grins wickedly, and I know he’s thinking of my predilection for all things strawberry. “You bet.”
Tori and I both watch as he walks away. And we’re not the only ones—every woman in the general vicinity has her eyes fastened on Ethan’s ass. Not that I blame them. It’s a really great ass. And the way his damp jeans mold to it should be illegal.
“Oh my God,” Tori says the moment he’s out of earshot.
“Oh. My. God.”
I take a long sip of my drink. “He’s just a guy.”
Now she’s breaking the sound barrier and I put a hand over the ear closest to her in self-defense. “I swear, it’s not a big deal. He saw me struggling with that ridiculous sand castle and decided to help.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s not a big deal at all. Ethan Frost does stuff like that all the time.”
“He might. You don’t know.”
“I think you forget what social circles I run in when I’m home. I do know. And making sand castles with a woman is totally not Ethan’s normal modus operandi.”
“Oh, yeah? What is?”
“I don’t know.”
I snort. “The truth is, you don’t know what he does with women. Building sand castles might be the same opening move he uses on every girl.”
“Seriously?” She makes an annoyed noise deep in her throat. “I swear, Chloe, you could suck the joy out of anything.”
“Just one of my many charms.”
“Well, stop it. And let me savor the fact that Ethan Frost is wooing my roommate.”
“We built a sand castle and he’s getting me a drink. That’s a far cry from wooing.” But I think of the seashell and the tea bags, of those hot, stolen moments in his office. And wonder if Tori might be right.
“Don’t forget the blender. And the strawberries. The man is obviously interested enough to pay attention to what you like. That’s half the battle.”
“I didn’t realize this was a war.”
She reaches over, pats my cheek. “Poor, sweet Chloe. Didn’t you know? The whole male/female thing is always a war for dominance.”
For the second time tonight I think of Brandon, of lying bruised and bloody when he was done with me. “That’s why I steer clear of romantic entanglements. I’m not much of a fighter.”
“That’s why you’ve got me. I’ve got enough fight for both of us.”
Eight simple words, and yet they sum up my best friend completely. More proof that she’s just as screwed up as I am, only she hides it better.
Before I can think of a retort to her very screwed-up relationship analysis, Ethan’s back. He’s carrying a tray loaded with chips and salsa, guacamole, queso, a half-dozen tamales, a plate of fruit, a couple small pitchers filled with mango and strawberry margaritas, and two bottles of Corona.
“Planning on settling in for a while?” I ask, even as I reach to help him unload the tray.
“I am.” He dips a chip in queso, holds it to my mouth. I open for him automatically, before I can even think about whether or not I should let him feed me.
He grins in approval as he arranges the rest of the stuff on the table. “It’s getting dark, which means they’ll be lighting the bonfire in a few minutes. Then the band will take the stage and I’d rather watch them perform than fight the crowds for another drink.”
“Good plan,” Tori says, already reaching for a tamale. “Who’s playing?”
He names a local San Diego band that has gotten some major play on the radio stations lately, not to mention a number one video. Tori and I glance at each other, surprised. We hadn’t been expecting anyone of that caliber—not for a five-dollar admission ticket. No wonder the whole area’s jam-packed.
Ethan fills up my glass, then Tori’s, before settling back with his beer and a taco. I expect things to be awkward—we’ve never actually tried to make nice social conversation before—but somehow everything just seems to flow. We talk about the fund-raiser, how awesome the weather’s been, a new movie we all want to see. It’s nice. Relaxed. Fun, just like Ethan promised it would be.
As we talk, he keeps my drink—and my plate—full. He also regularly leans over and pops something into my mouth. A chip, a piece of watermelon, a choice bite of his pineapple tamale. Normally I’d never let a guy feed me, but Ethan seems to enjoy it and, if I’m honest, so do I.
Tori watches the whole thing wide-eyed and approving, and I know I’m going to get an earful when I get home. But right now I’m stuffed with amazing food, halfway through my third margarita, and blissfully, utterly relaxed. The future can take care of itself. I want to stay right here, in this moment, for as long as I possibly can.
As darkness falls, people start to quiet down. Those who haven’t found tables to sit at settle on the sand to watch as the benefit organizers light the bonfire. Then, as it starts to burn, the band takes the stage.
They’re good, really good, and it isn’t long before I’m swaying and singing along with the music. Tori’s doing the same thing, and even Ethan’s tapping his foot to the beat.
I’m having a great time—the best time I’ve had in I can’t say how long—and I know at least part of that is because Ethan’s here with me. Which should be a huge warning sign, but somehow isn’t. Not when he smiles at me with such obvious delight. And not when he wraps his arm around my shoulder and pulls me closer.
Again, that’s not something I’d normally ever allow. But this is Ethan and I decide to go with it. In the back of my head, a lone warning bell is going off, telling me that I’m getting much too comfortable with this guy, but I ignore it. Tori’s here. She’s got my back and I know she’ll make sure nothing happens to me. She might be half infatuated with Ethan herself, but I know she’d never let anyone hurt me. Just like I’d never let any guy hurt her.
The band plays a whole concert instead of just a few songs, but I’m still sad when they wrap up. I’m not ready for the night to end, not ready to say good-bye to the sweet, jean-clad version of Ethan who is sitting next to me. Oh, I know I’ll see him at work tomorrow, but once I hit the office, tonight’s glow will be long gone. And if it isn’t, I’ll banish it myself, because there’s no way I want to give Rick anything else to hold against me.
As people all around us start to leave, I push myself reluctantly from my chair. Tori and Ethan do the same.
“It was nice to meet you,” my roommate says, hand extended to Ethan.
He takes it—too much of a gentleman to leave her hanging—but says, “I was hoping you ladies would let me walk you home.”
He phrases it like we’d be doing him a favor, but I know it’s really the other way around. Yes, we live in one of the best areas of San Diego, but the beach attracts all kinds of people, including the criminal element looking for an easy score. Add to that all the college kids looking for drugs and sometimes things get a little dicey. Not that Tori or I have ever had a problem, but it’s nice that Ethan wants to make sure.
“We’re okay,” I tell him. “You probably have stuff to do here—”
“I already did all the stuff, the sum total of which was to give a five-minute speech at the very beginning of the night. The foundation staff is in charge of everything else.” He holds a hand out to me. “Come on. Let’s get out of their way so they can get started on the cleanup.”
Again, his tone sounds perfectly innocuous, but there’s a layer of unbending steel beneath it. The message is clear: We might be grown women, but there’s no way Ethan is going to let us walk home alone.
I start to push back—I don’t like being told what to do, by anyone—but he’s got that look in his eye again. The same look he wore in the cafeteria when he wanted me to try the smoothie. The same look he had when he insisted that I ice my hip. And just like in those situations, I find myself caving in to him, though I’m unsure why.
I take his hand, knowing the whole time that Tori is watching us with wide eyes. We’ve been friends long enough that she’s seen me shut down more than one guy for trying what Ethan just did. I know I owe her an explanation—one she’ll demand as soon as the apartment door closes behind us—and I don’t have a clue what I’ll say. Except that with Ethan, everything feels different.
As we make our way off the beach, we pass a row of multimillion-dollar mansions whose backyards belly right up to a cliff that overlooks the Pacific. Their front yards are just as magnificent, and though they all have iron gates and fences, they’re close enough to the curb that you can see most of the structures.
Tori points at one that’s all glass and chrome and sharp edges. “That one’s my favorite.” It’s a little thing she and I do when we pass a row of really amazing houses—pick out the one we’d live in if we ever had the money. Tori’s closer to it than I am—she’s got a couple million dollars in her trust fund—but these houses cost ten, fifteen, even twenty million dollars. That’s out of even her price range. As for mine…well, at the moment, a studio apartment is pretty much more than I can afford.
“I like that one,” I say, pointing to a white Mediterranean-looking villa with a slate-blue tile roof. It’s gorgeous, a total showplace that somehow manages to be inviting as well as awe-inspiring. Unlike Tori’s pick, which is beautiful but way too cold-looking for me.
“How about you?” Tori asks Ethan. “Which one is your favorite?”
“I’ll have to go with Chloe’s pick,” he says with a grin. “Although I hear the guy who lives there is unnaturally attached to his blender.”
It takes a moment for the words to sink in. When they do, I whip my head around to look at him. “That’s your house?”
I wait for him to say something else. To brag about it or offer us a tour. He does neither. He just keeps walking, his thumb stroking the back of my hand. It’s not what I expect, but then, when you’re as rich as Ethan Frost, I guess you don’t have to brag. You just accept what you have as your due.
Again my brain shifts to Brandon, and again I try to put him out of my head. I can’t help it, though. I know Ethan is nothing like Brandon, that he’s worked for everything he has instead of having it handed to him on a silver platter. But still, in my head, the money is an issue. Or, more specifically, the sense of entitlement that comes with money is an issue. The rich just don’t think the same way.