“I have been patient while the lawyers on both sides worked up an agreement that is more than equitable for you. I’m done being patient. Either you and your board of directors sign the agreement—as is—or the next one you get will be a lot less beneficial to any of you. And you will sign that one.
“Either way, I’m done arguing about it. This merger will happen. I will get the patents that your family holds. And you will be out. The only thing left to decide is if you walk away with enough money to make you, your children, and your grandchildren comfortable for the rest of your lives or if you walk away with nothing. The choice is yours.”
Ethan stands up then, his words still ringing in the shocked and silent room. Then he walks out, his CTO and the other executives right behind him. Which means the only people left in the room from Frost Industries are the lawyers—all of whom suddenly look extremely formidable.
After a moment, Carlos clears his throat. He looks their head counsel in the eyes and says, “You heard the man. It’s time to make this happen.”
The next ninety minutes are some of the most uncomfortable of my life. Blood is in the water, and everyone knows it. Any objections by Trifecta’s team are dealt with quickly and ruthlessly, and in the end we walk away with a preliminary agreement in place. One that gives the Trifecta group quite a bit of money but which in return takes every single thing they have. Exactly as Ethan said it would.
My blood is boiling when I climb into the backseat of Marni’s car. The two lawyers and Jace are ebullient, nearly high with the thrill of their victory. All I can see, however, are the faces of the Trifecta CEO and his son, both of whom have spent their whole lives working to make the company what it is today, only to have it snatched away from them right before they took it to the next level.
But, really, it’s not their faces I see. It’s my brother’s. My brilliant, trusting brother, whose mind has conceived of some of the greatest breakthroughs in communications technology in decades. My brother, who has had two of his ideas stolen right out from under him by corporations just like Frost Industries. Whose subsequent ideas have all gone to my father and the company he opened with the blood money he received from Brandon’s family in exchange for selling me down the river.
My brother doesn’t understand my outrage. To him, it’s all about the glory of the idea. Seeing what he invented out in the world, doing what it was invented for. As long as he makes enough money to live comfortably and still fund his research, he’s happy. And if everyone but him gets rich off what he invents, it doesn’t bother him. Hell, he doesn’t even seem to notice. My dad tells him the money is all in the family, that there’s enough for everybody, but I know the truth. The second Miles stops conceiving of new and exciting things, the second he stops inventing things that will move my family’s bright and shiny new company forward, he’ll be out. Just like me. My father might draw the line at eating his own young, but he has absolutely no problem with sacrificing us.
The rage is building inside me, making it hard to breathe, to think, to function. So I slam a door closed on my emotions, stop thinking about my family and Frost Industries and what just happened in that conference room. Instead, I pull out my phone. Open up my email. And send a short, not-so-sweet message to Ethan’s work account.
I can’t make it tonight. Please don’t call me again.
We get back to work around one-fifteen. Since we worked through lunch, Marni suggests we all head down to the cafeteria, but I beg off, saying I’ve got a lot of work to do. Which is the truth. Though the preliminary agreement is in place, there are still a lot of questions in my files that I need to answer, a lot of case law that I need to weed through. And since the last thing I want to do is spend another hour listening to them congratulate themselves for pulling the rug out from under the Trifecta CEO, I might as well get started.
Back at my desk, I open up my email, nearly afraid of what I’m going to find. Sure enough, there’s a reply from Ethan, one that came only a few minutes after I sent the original email.
My hand is shaking when I open it, but I force myself to do it. I’ve made the right decision, for both of us, and I need to see it through. We’re too different to ever have made a go of it.
Ethan’s email is as terse as mine was. Just two sentences:
You owe me an explanation. I will collect.
Fueled by anger, I type my own response.
You may try.
I hit send before I think better of it. I don’t owe him anything, and the sooner he understands that the better. A couple of margaritas and some trinkets don’t mean anything, and he’d do well to remember that.
As would I.
I settle down to work, choosing a particularly complicated court case to focus on. Usually I can lose myself in the twists and turns of testimony and judicial decisions, but today all I can think about is Trifecta and Ethan and that stupid email I sent. The more I go over it in my head, the more it sounds like a challenge. Exactly what I didn’t want it to be.
Every few minutes I click back over to my email account to see if Ethan has answered me. He hasn’t. Which is good. Better than good. It means he’s as finished with this thing between us as I am. But no matter how much I tell myself that all I’m feeling is relief, there’s something else there. A disappointment I refuse to acknowledge and a trepidation that I’m afraid not to. Because much as I’d like to believe I’ve dodged a bullet, that Ethan has written me off as surely as I’ve done him, I don’t believe it. A man doesn’t get to where he is in life by just giving up. By letting challenges go unanswered. The fact that I didn’t intend to challenge him doesn’t mean anything.
Forty-five minutes after I sent the email, I can’t take the waiting any longer. I’m jumping out of my skin, waiting for the other shoe to fall. Grabbing my purse, I tell Angela that I’m taking my afternoon break, then head for the cafeteria.
It’s no wonder I’m shaky and out of sorts—I haven’t eaten anything besides a banana all day. I’ll feel much better once I get a sandwich or something. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
When I get to the cafeteria, I spot Zayn right away. He’s at the coffee bar, chatting up the new barista as she makes him some kind of iced drink. I catch his eye and wave, then move on to the pizza station. Forget a sandwich. Today calls for something ooey, gooey, and calorie-laden.
I’ve barely slid into a small corner booth on the patio when Zayn joins me. He puts a second iced coffee in front of me and says, “I didn’t know what you liked, so I went with an iced mocha. I figure most girls like chocolate.”
“Good choice. Thanks.”
“No problem. You look like you could use a little pick-me-up. Bad day?”
“You have no idea.”
“That’s what I’m here for. So you can fill me in.”
I take a bite of pizza, then laugh as a long, gooey strand of cheese winds itself around my chin. I reach for it, but Zayn beats me to it, pulling it off and then slipping it into my mouth before I register what he’s doing.
Except for Ethan, it’s the most intimately a guy has touched me in I can’t tell how long. He didn’t mean anything by it, but still it feels weird. A little uncomfortable even. I know that for most women, being touched is no big deal. But for me, even the most casual of intimacies is foreign.
I decide not to dwell on it, though, because it’s nice to have a friend besides Tori. Especially one who is smart and funny and gets what I’m talking about when I say intellectual property.
So I thank him for saving me from the cheese, and smile at the corny joke he cracks.
“See!” he crows. “I knew I could make you smile.”
“I never said you couldn’t.”
“That’s because you didn’t see your face when you walked in here. You looked like you were going to cry.”
“I don’t cry.”
“Ever?” He looks at me incredulously.
“Well, obviously I have cried. But I don’t do it very often. And not without a really good reason.”
“And a bad day isn’t a good reason?”
I think of Ethan and our never-to-happen date. Then I think of that damned meeting. “Nope. Today is definitely not a good enough reason to cry.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” He pauses, takes a sip of his drink. Then says, “I’ve got to get going. I have a meeting in five minutes. But—”
“Oh, sorry!” I interrupt, feeling like an idiot. “I didn’t mean to monopolize your time.”
“You didn’t. I came over to talk because I wanted to. But what I was going to suggest before you so rudely interrupted to apologize”—he winks at me so that I know he’s kidding—“is that we get a drink after work. Or several drinks. You can bitch about your bad day, I can commiserate…it’ll be fun.”
“She’s already got plans for tonight.”
Zayn freezes as Ethan walks up behind where I’m sitting, and so do I. I’d left my cubicle to get away from thoughts of him, and it never occurred to me that I would see him here. Which seems stupid now, considering that two of the four times I’ve seen the man at work it’s been in this very room. But I figured that today he’d be busy with world domination or something—surely he has something better to do than stake out the cafeteria. Trifecta can’t be the only small company waiting around for him to crush their dreams.
“Actually, my plans have been canceled.” I turn to Zayn. “I’d love to get a drink. Where should I meet you?”
“Oh, um, how about—” He breaks off as Ethan turns on him. Ethan doesn’t say anything, but then he doesn’t have to. His look is enough to have Zayn clambering from the table and backing up, hands extended out in front of him in the universal gesture of I didn’t know she was taken, man. He doesn’t even bother to look at me when as he calls, “Maybe some other time then. Okay, Chloe?”
Needless to say, he doesn’t wait around for my answer. I turn to Ethan, ready to tell him off for sticking his nose in my business. And find him staring at me with the hyperintense focus of a predator about to bring down his prey.
I swallow past the sudden lump in my throat, try to force myself to look away from the intensity of his gaze. But I’m trapped, completely ensnared, and he knows it. Worse, he uses it.
Instead of sitting across from me in the booth as Zayn did, Ethan slides in next to me—forcing me to either move deeper into the curve of the booth or sit with my entire body pressed up against his. I move deeper, of course, but it doesn’t matter. Those brief moments of contact are branded onto my body from shoulder to knee, so that I can still feel his heat even with close to a foot of space separating us now.
Furious, disconcerted, aroused, I wait for Ethan to say something. He’s the one who burst into the conversation uninvited. He’s the one who chased my friend away. And he’s the one who has yet to look away from me.
His blue eyes are steady, unblinking, as if they’re cataloguing everything about me. Worse, as if they can see straight through to the heart of me, to everything I’ve worked so long to keep hidden.
“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to stare?” The words burst from me without permission. “It’s rude.”
“And here I thought rude was canceling plans at the last minute without an explanation.”
“Is that why you’re here? For an explanation?”
“It sure as hell isn’t so I can watch you make a date with another man!” He closes his eyes, takes a couple of deep breaths, and when his eyelids finally lift again, the intensity is gone. In its place is a flat, hard stare that tells me he wants answers…and warns me that there will be hell to pay if I don’t provide them.
But I’m not in the business of jumping simply because a man tells me to, even if that man is Ethan Frost. So this time I do keep my mouth shut and wait for him to start things off. After all, it’s not my job to make things easier for him.
“You want to tell me what happened?” he asks after what I swear is the longest, tensest sixty seconds of my life. “I thought last night went well and then suddenly you’re writing me a ‘get lost’ email. And a damn obnoxious one at that.”
“I disagree. I was perfectly polite.”
“If by polite you mean abrupt to the point of rudeness.” He shoves a hand through his hair, and for the first time it occurs to me that he’s as frustrated, as mixed up, by the crazy chemistry between us as I am. It’s an unexpected revelation, one that should give me some feeling of control but somehow only makes me feel more confused. More frightened.
“I changed my mind. I’m allowed to do that.”
“You absolutely are,” he agrees. “But I want to know why. I think you owe me that much.”