“Are you always this insufferable?” I demand.
“Only when I’m right.”
“I thought the customer was always right.”
He cocks his head to the side, pretends to think for a second. Then says, “Nope. Not always. But hey, how about this? I’ll make your drink right now if you give the Ethan Special a try.” He pushes the smoothie a little closer to me. “Come on. Just one sip.”
“I didn’t realize this was a negotiation.”
“Life is a negotiation.”
“No. It’s a cereal.” I eye the smoothie. “What if I don’t like it?”
“What if you do?”
“It’s an unnecessary risk.”
“Almost everything is an unnecessary risk. Sometimes the risk is worth the reward.” He’s smiling now, but the look in his eyes is intense. Interested. Interesting. It tugs at something deep inside me, makes me wonder, when I never wonder. Makes me want, when I never want.
That’s when I take a step back and look at him, really look at him. Except for his dark hair, he’s the quintessential California surf bum. Bright blue Hurley T-shirt. Quiksilver board shorts with wide, color-blocked stripes in red, orange, yellow, and blue. Tan leather flip-flops. Gorgeous face. Dark stubble on his chin. Too-long hair flopping in his eyes. Even the hint of a tattoo peeking out from under the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt. Totally not the kind of guy I would normally go for.
And yet there’s something familiar about him. And also something that intrigues me. That makes me want to yield to him when I don’t normally yield to anyone. For a moment, just a moment, I think about picking up that stupid purple shake and drinking it. I’m running out of time, after all, and the afternoon will drag by if I don’t eat something.
I could just walk away, grab a sandwich and some fruit from one of the coolers, and eat it on my way back to Building Three. But that feels too much like retreat, something that I suddenly realize would disappoint us both.
Which means we’re at a stalemate. Him insisting I try something new. Me insisting I’m fine with the tried and true. It’s a stupid fight to have, especially with a stranger, but the look in his eyes can’t be denied. We both know there’s more going on here than a battle over a stupid drink
I can’t believe I’m going to do it, can’t believe that after all this fuss I’m going to take a sip of that damn smoothie, but I am. I reach for it, am compelled to reach for it by the look in his eyes and the sudden tension in his body. But as my hand closes around the cup, my stomach growls. Loudly.
It breaks the spell and I flush in embarrassment. So much for first-day nerves. A tangle with the juice-bar guy and suddenly my appetite is back with a vengeance.
“You’re hungry,” he says. His voice is colored with a sudden regret I don’t understand.
“It’s lunchtime. That’s my lunch.”
The next thing I know, he’s back at the blender, loading it with cut-up bananas and an extra-large serving of strawberries—definitely more than seven. He adds a large scoop of protein powder, then sherbet and juice.
Moments later, an extra-large Hawaiian Sunrise smoothie appears in front of me.
I’m confused. Uncertain, suddenly, though I don’t know why. I like to win. It’s kind of an obsession with me, so I should be happy that he backed down so unexpectedly. Except I’m not, because winning like this feels strangely like losing.
Under his watchful gaze, I reach for my smoothie. But at the last second—don’t ask me why because I don’t have a clue—I grab his instead. Take a long sip. Then place the cup back down on the counter.
Then I gather up my smoothie and turn away without glancing at him again. I can’t. I’m too unsettled by what just happened. By what I just did and why I did it.
I’ve only gone a few steps, though, when he calls after me. “Hey!”
I turn back, even though I tell myself not to. “Yes?”
“What did you think? Of the Ethan Special?”
“Exactly what I thought I would. It’s disgusting.”
He rears back in surprise. “Disgusting? Really?”
“Really. I hate blueberries.”
He doesn’t say another word, but then again, neither do I. Still, the question hangs between us. If I really hate blueberries so much, why did I drink his smoothie when he’d already given me what I ordered?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but as I walk away, I can feel his eyes on me. And somehow I’m certain that until I do know, until I understand, things will never be the same for me again.
“Hey, Chloe.” My roommate greets me without looking up from where she’s painting her toenails the ugliest cyanide green I’ve ever seen. “A package came for you about an hour ago. I put it on your bed.”
“A package?” The first thing I do after I close our apartment door behind me is to kick the ruby-red torture devices I’ve been wearing all day off my feet and halfway across the apartment. I watch with a demented kind of satisfaction as they bounce off the breakfast nook’s walls. It’s no way to treat a thousand-dollar pair of Christian Louboutins, but to be honest, at this point I don’t really give a damn. Never again will I wear those things to work. Never. Again. “I didn’t order anything.”
“The return address says Frost Industries. It’s pretty heavy, so maybe it’s a bunch of HR paperwork. You know, employee codes of conduct, stuff like that.”
“Maybe, but they emailed me all those things last week, made me sign a confidentiality agreement and a bunch of other stuff before they ever let me out of the HR offices.” I drop my purse on the table near the door, then gratefully shrug out of my jacket. I love this suit, I really do. But all I really want right now is to get the thing off of me. It’s definitely a yoga pants kind of night. “I doubt they’d send physical copies of the documents, too. Especially via UPS or FedEx. Not when they could have just given them to me when I was at work today.”
“How was work? Did you take the world of biomedical engineering by storm on your first day?”
“Not quite. But I managed to not humiliate myself, so that’s something.”
“I say it’s a definite win. And you know what that means—champagne for dinner!”
I glance at her, amused. “Don’t you mean with dinner?”
“Only if you want to be a party pooper.”
If those nine words don’t sum up my relationship with Tori, than I don’t know what does. She’s six months older than I, and ever since we were put together as roommates our freshman year at UCSD, she’s pretty much considered it her job in life to corrupt me—a position she has only grown more firm on since she turned twenty-one a few months ago.
For the sake of our friendship, some days I even let her think it’s working.
Curious about this strange and unexpected package, I head down the hall toward my bedroom. Having finally finished her last toe, Tori gets up to follow me. But since she’s worried about smudging the polish, she kind of waddles on her heels, toes in the air. With her hair dyed race-car yellow and cut short and spiky, she looks a little like a top-heavy duck. One that stuck its wing in an electric socket.
She’s actually a really pretty girl, with beautifully delicate features and the most haunting green eyes I’ve ever seen. But she’s got major issues with her looks, so she messes with herself all the time, changing her hair, her makeup, her clothes. She has multiple piercings, a few tattoos, has even experimented with scarification and branding on occasion. She says she’s just being young, trying to figure out who she really is. But I’m pretty sure it’s the opposite. For as long as I’ve known her, she’s been trying to forget who she is. To bury deep the sad little rich girl she still sees every time she looks in a mirror.
I’ve tried to talk to her about it on a few occasions—that’s what best friends are for—but every time I broach the subject, she shuts me down, hard. Maybe I should push it, but she’s fragile—a lot more fragile than she’d ever admit—and I’m terrified of breaking her with a careless word or too-vehement protest. So most days I just keep my mouth shut. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry, though.
“Well, open it,” she orders from my bedroom doorway, when I just stand there looking at what is, indeed, a very large box. It covers about a quarter of my double bed, and when I go to pick it up, I find that Tori didn’t exaggerate. It really is heavy. It’s also marked FRAGILE, with arrows pointing to the words THIS END UP.
Now I’m as curious as she is. Reaching into my nightstand, I pull out a pair of manicure scissors and start hacking at the tape on the box. It takes a couple minutes more than if I’d gone and gotten a knife from the kitchen, but eventually I get the box open. Once I do, though, I’m as confused as I was before I opened it. Because there are no HR manuals in the box. No new employee information. Just a four-hundred-dollar gourmet blender and a dozen pints of strawberries.
Immediately I think of him. Juice Guy. I know he’s the one who sent this to me—it’s the only thing that makes sense. But how did he get my address? And how does a guy who works in a juice bar afford to throw around this kind of cash? And even if he could afford it, why would he throw it toward me?
My heart is beating a little too fast, and while I try to convince myself it’s because I’m creeped out—it smacks of online stalkerdom that he managed to get my address so quickly—I know that it’s more than that.
He’s flitted through my mind all day, along with my very odd reaction to him. No matter how he did it, it’s nice to think that he’s been thinking of me, too. Provided, of course, he’s not a serial killer who wants to put my head in a box. Because I totally wouldn’t be okay with that. Strawberries and a blender I’m strangely fine with, despite their cost. My head in a box, not so much.
When I don’t do anything but stand there, peering at his gifts and contemplating what all this means, Tori creeps up behind me. Stares over my shoulder. “Strawberries? Who would send you strawberries?”
I don’t know where to begin, so in the end I don’t say anything. Just keep staring at the perfect red berries. The pint baskets they come in are stamped with the name of an organic strawberry farm about twenty miles up the freeway, which means he went to a lot of trouble to get this gift here so quickly.
The only question is why.
Tori takes my silence as ignorance and starts poking around in the box. “Is there a card?”
“I don’t see one.”
But when I reach in and pick up one of the baskets of strawberries, I notice the ivory business card that had slipped between the pints. It’s embossed, with Frost Industries name and logo on the front. But the name listed directly below the logo is all wrong. Not that I know Juice Guy’s name, but I’m pretty damn sure that the surf bum I met today isn’t Ethan Frost. Except when I turn the card over, there’s a phone number scrawled on the back in bold black writing.
“Ethan fucking Frost is sending you strawberries?” Tori demands incredulously. “How is that possible? He’s a legend. Not to mention the most eligible bachelor under thirty on the entire West Coast.”
“He’s not. Of course he’s not. They’re from…”
“Who?” She eyes me suspiciously.
“Some guy I met today. Not Ethan Frost.”
“You certain about that?” She grabs the basket out of my hands and whirls away. “Because it sure looks to me like he’s the one who sent these babies.”
“Hey!” Still confused, I follow her. “Where are you going with those?”
“Haven’t you ever seen Pretty Woman? Strawberries go awesome with champagne.”
“We can’t eat them!”
She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. “Why not?”
“Because we don’t know where they came from!”
Tori snatches the card out of my hand, waves it in my face. “They came from Ethan fucking Frost. That’s good enough for me.”
“Well, it’s not good enough for me. If these even came from him—”
“Oh, they came from him. See the watermarks on this business card? Plus the embossing? That’s a lot of money to shell out for a fake card.”
“But why?” I ask again, appalled by the whininess that has taken over my normally cool tone. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
It makes perfect sense, a little voice inside me whispers. If I put the puzzle pieces together, if I let myself go there, I know exactly what this all means.
“Well, the guy’s not known for being crazy. Brilliant? Yes. A little different? Sometimes. But out-and-out crazy? Not even close. Which means one of two things.” She uses a finger to tick off the first reason. “Either this is the same welcome-to-the-company gift he sends to everyone who comes to work for him…”