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It’s one more reason I should keep my distance from Ethan. One more reason I should have said no to that date tomorrow night.

But then I think of that green ribbon, the exact shade of my eyes. I think of that gorgeous, perfect seashell. And know that, money or not, Ethan is nothing like my ex-boyfriend. Chad would never have sent me anything so simple—or so beautiful. He would have sent some expensive piece of jewelry, and expected something for it. Then gotten angry when I didn’t want to play along.

Though I was young, only fifteen, I’ve never felt more like a whore in my life than when I was dating that bastard—and in the months after we were through, when Brandon…I cut the thought off again. It took me forever to get over everything that happened, to get past it all and I never, ever want to feel that way again.

Ethan doesn’t say anything else on our walk home, and neither do I. Tori tries to keep the conversation going for a while, but I guess she eventually gets tired of talking to herself because she turns quiet, too. Which just gives me more time to think, to wonder and worry about what’s going to happen when we get to our apartment.

Should I invite Ethan in? Do I even want to invite him in? I’m tired and I’d really like to go to bed, but maybe he expects it. We are supposed to be going out tomorrow night. And he did spend a portion of yesterday evening giving me my first orgasm with another human being. That should count for something. A cup of coffee, maybe. Or some strawberry tea.

It probably even counts for a kiss. Which is fine with me. Really. I liked kissing him in his office. More than liked it, if I’m being honest. It’s just the expectation I don’t like. Again, that sense of bartering. Of having to do something for him because he’s done something for me. And if that’s the case, I’d at least like a vote in what happens. In what I’m expected to do. Chad never gave me that voice. Will Ethan? Already he’s talked me into doing things I don’t want to—simply because he asked me to. The smoothie. The ice. The walk home. It’s nothing like what Chad demanded of me, but could it be? If I let it?

By the time we walk into our apartment complex, I’m a nervous wreck. All mixed up and freaked out and unsure of what to say or how to say it. And when we get to our apartment and Tori disappears through the door with a thank-you and a wave, my confusion gets even worse. I’m left staring at Ethan with no idea of what I’m supposed to do. Damn it. Maybe I should have dated more these last couple of years. Then at least I wouldn’t feel so out of my depth.

“Do you—” My voice breaks, so I start again. “Do you want to come in?”

He leans a shoulder against the wall and just studies me for a moment, those crazy eyes of his the same shade as the sky outside as he tries to figure me out. Knowing what he’s doing only freaks me out more, makes me more wary and confused and defensive.

Eventually Ethan shakes his head, and I feel an overwhelming sense of relief mixed with a just as overwhelming sense of disappointment. Which makes no sense but is true nonetheless.

“Oh, um, okay. Then I guess—”

I break off as he rests a light hand on my shoulder. His fingers are warm and firm, but gentle, too. Tentative. Not nervous, like I am, but worried. Like he’s afraid that one wrong move will spook me. Guess I’m more transparent than I thought.

I wait for him to say something, but he doesn’t. Instead, he just stands there, watching me, for several long, tense seconds. I think he’s waiting for something, but I don’t have a clue what it is. If I did, I’d give it to him and damn the consequences.

I wait him out as long as I can, but eventually the silence gets to be too much for me and I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “Thanks for building my sand castle for me.” I sound awkward, and a little breathless from where my voice catches in my throat, but at least there’s something out there. Something between us besides tension so thick I could scoop it onto an ice- cream cone.

“Thanks for having dinner with me,” he answers.

“I should be thanking you. You bought most of it.”

“It’s not about the money, Chloe.”

Spoken like someone who has always had money. Or at least someone who’s had it so long that he doesn’t remember what it is not to have it. Because when you don’t have much more than a couple of nickels to rub together, it’s always about the money. My father taught me that a long time ago.

I don’t say that, though. Instead I ask, “What’s it about, then?” because I really want to know. I’m determined to find out the rules of this game we’re playing. Once I know them, everything will make sense again. And I’ll have more than a one-in-a-billion shot of actually winning.

His fingers are still stroking my neck, tender, feathery motions that somehow manage to turn me on and relax me all at the same time.

“You. It’s all about you.”

He leans down toward me, and I brace myself for one of his mind-numbing, breath-stealing, resolve-shattering kisses. But it never comes. Instead, he cups my face between his palms and skims his lips across my forehead. Soft, sweet, and oh-so-seductive in its own way.

Then he’s pulling back, smiling at me. Tucking one of my crazy curls behind my ear. “I’ll pick you up at seven tomorrow.”

He turns to walk away, and though he didn’t actually kiss me, it still takes me a few seconds to gather my wits enough to call after him. “Wait! What should I wear?”

He turns back around, spreads his arms wide. And with a grin that somehow manages to be both warm and wicked, he answers, “Whatever feels good.”

And then he’s gone and I’m left staring after him, wondering what the hell I’ve managed to get myself into.

Chapter Twelve

After a night of tossing and turning, I get to work to find out that I’ve been called into a meeting about the Trifecta merger. It’s me, two interns from legal, and a bunch of lawyers, all of whom are hyped up on coffee and the thrill of blood in the water.

I’m confused at first, but it doesn’t take long for me to figure it out. This merger isn’t really a merger. It’s a hostile takeover, one Trifecta is fighting with everything they’ve got. But the lawyers have found the final nail for the coffin, the one that will allow Frost Industries to absorb their current work on an invention whose purpose I don’t even understand.

I guess the takeover’s been in the works for quite a while and that Ethan has moved more slowly on it than the lawyers would have liked. That extra time allowed Trifecta to mess with their patents, to have the invention—whatever it is—patented under the names of the individual scientists instead of the company. Which their legal department seems to believe means we don’t have access to it.

But I found a case earlier this week that proves this assumption false—though at the time I didn’t know how Frost Industries would be using it, or the death blow it would deal Trifecta. If I had known, I’m not sure I would have turned the case over to the supervising attorneys.

I know that sounds bad. I am, after all, an employee of Frost Industries. It’s my job to do work that benefits them. But does that really include yanking the rug out from underneath a smaller company like Trifecta? Taking away people’s only means to keep not just their jobs but their life’s work? I want to be an intellectual property attorney to help the little guys, not harm them. I want to see them hold on to their inventions, not watch them be gobbled up by giant corporations with no souls or understanding of what went into the creation of said intellectual property.

My stomach is churning before we’re halfway through the meeting, and every time one of the lawyers congratulates me on my good work, it’s like a knife driven straight through me. Partly because I’m the one responsible for finding the work and partly because I thought Frost Industries was better than this. I thought Ethan was better than this.

Oh, maybe I was living in a dream world, but all the research I did, every article I read, talked about the ethical Ethan Frost. The son of a war hero, soon-to-be-billionaire who managed to build an empire that actually makes the world a better place. To find out that under the surface he’s just like everyone else—taking what he wants and to hell with the consequences—blindsides me in a way I am completely unprepared for.

Our meeting finally breaks up around ten-thirty, but that’s only because the lawyers have been called in to a bigger meeting. One that involves the head of R&D, the CTO, and, of course, Ethan Frost himself. It also involves the same people from Trifecta. Sick to my stomach and my soul, I gather up my things and prepare to head back to my desk. I’m lost in my own little world, thinking about my future career and how walking away from this internship will affect my chances of getting into a good law school, when one of the lawyers calls my name.

Dazed, I turn to Carlos, wondering what other morally corrupt task he’s going to assign me. But he just smiles and says, “Where are you going? You’re coming to the meeting with us.”

“I am?” I sound as shocked as I feel. Admittedly, I’m not up on how big corporations handle these things, but I’m pretty sure little interns like myself aren’t invited to the big shows.

“Absolutely,” Marni chimes in. She’s one of the other lawyers, and the woman I’ve been reporting to since I was assigned to the merger. “We’re big believers in rewarding good work around here, and yours has been stellar this week. Now you’ll get a chance to see how all your research will help close the deal.”

They’re both watching me like they expect me to start screaming in excitement at any moment, but all I can think is that what they’re offering is absolutely the last thing I want to be a part of. Bad enough to know I’ve contributed to the death knell of a family business, but to see it all happen in person…I’m not sure my stomach, or the rest of me, is strong enough for that.

But invitations like this one don’t grow on trees, and refusing it would be an extremely stupid thing to do. Part of me doesn’t care, but the other part—the one that cares too much about getting into law school—won’t let me do anything but nod and say, “Thank you.”

Trifecta is a San Diego company, only about a half hour’s drive away from the Frost Industries headquarters. I ride over with Carlos, Marni, and Jace, one of the other interns who is also being rewarded for his “stellar” work. We arrive before Ethan and the other bigwigs so we hang in the lobby waiting for them.

Though I’m facing away from the door, talking to Jace, I know the second Ethan walks into the lobby. The oxygen seems to be sucked out of the room even as an electric charge fills the air. One laced with excitement and determination and an underlying rage that seems completely out of place.

But when I turn to look at Ethan, I see all those emotions—and more—in his eyes. At least until he banishes them behind a poker face that would do Lady Gaga or a Vegas cardsharp proud. He scans the assembled crowd of lawyers, interns, and R&D people without expression. At least until he comes to me. Then his eyes widen slightly and he nods in acknowledgment, though he doesn’t address me directly.

Something I’m grateful for, considering the mixed-up state of my emotions. A confusion that only gets worse when Ethan quietly tells the lawyers, “Make no mistakes. We’re not leaving here without an iron-clad agreement. This is it.”

They nod accordingly, and any hope I had that this was a bad dream or a misunderstanding, something—anything—to prove this isn’t as awful as I think it is, vanishes. With it goes any interest I have in seeing Ethan for our date tonight, or ever. He may make me feel things no other man has, but my body isn’t in control. I don’t date men who care more about their power and their bank accounts than they do the people whose lives they ruin.

This meeting goes pretty much as expected—which is to say that it goes terribly. Jace and I are relegated to a corner of the table where we don’t talk, don’t move, barely breathe. All we do is listen and watch as the pincers of Frost Industries close slowly, relentlessly, around Trifecta.

“We’re giving you everything else,” the CEO says in a last burst of desperation. “And at a very fair price. It’s absurd that you’re holding out for these last three patents. They have nothing to do with your current agenda or products. I just don’t understand.”

The moment the words leave his mouth, I know they’re a mistake. I can see it in Ethan’s eyes, in the set of his shoulders and his mouth. The man has just pushed him over an edge that none of us had any idea he was close to. Even before he starts to talk, I know that the fallout isn’t going to be good.

Calmly—too calmly, in my opinion—Ethan leans forward. He looks the man directly in the eyes and in a voice so low it shouldn’t carry but somehow does, he says, “You don’t need to understand. All you need to know is that I own fifty-eight percent of this company, and hold nearly two-thirds of the voting shares. Trifecta, in its entirety, will be absorbed by Frost Industries and it will be absorbed now. Not in six months, not in a year.