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Chapter Fourteen

I’m still smarting over Ethan’s comments hours later, when I let myself into the apartment. He’s known me a week—who the hell is he to call me self-righteous and sanctimonious and supercilious? And does the man not know an insult that doesn’t begin with an s? Although I have to admit, the ones he’d chosen certainly packed a wallop.

And maybe it is wrong of me to think I know him based on a couple hours’ observation of his behavior. But I heard him threaten those people like it was nothing. Watched as he threatened to take everything they had just to get some leverage in a negotiation. I might be wearing rose-colored glasses, but anyone could see that what he did was not okay.

Tori’s not in her usual spot on the couch, but I saw her car in the garage, so I know she must be around. After dropping my briefcase by the front door, I go in search of her. I find her sunbathing topless on the patio while the guy from across the courtyard does his best to pretend he isn’t totally skeeving on her.

She makes a grab for her bikini top when she sees me, not out of modesty—the girl has none—but because she’s practically jumping out of her skin with excitement.

“So, I went through your closet when you were at work and I’ve narrowed it down to three outfits I think should work for your date. Four, if you consent to borrowing my purple dress.”

“Why would I borrow your purple dress? You’re a size two, I’m a size six. If I wore that, I’d look like an eggplant about to split its skin.”

“It’s a little big on me—”

“Which means it would be too tight on me.”

“Exactly! But in a good way. It’ll show off all those gorgeous curves of yours. Ethan won’t know what hit him.”

“Yeah, well, the point is moot. We’re not going out.”

“What do you mean?” For a second, she looks like a little girl who’s had her favorite teddy bear yanked from her arms. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day!”

Yeah, well, she isn’t the only one. I’d been excited—nervous and a little overwhelmed, but excited—at least until everything went to hell in that stupid meeting.

Settling down on the chaise longue next to Tori’s, I reach for her wineglass. After draining it, I tell her the whole sordid story.

When I finish, I expect her to offer me some more wine. I figure she’ll at least lead the way on some major guy-bashing before raiding the back of the freezer for some Ben and Jerry’s and watching some ridiculous rom-com. But instead she just stares at me like I’ve grown three heads. Or more. She looks so disgusted that it’s hard to tell exactly what she thinks of me. Except that it’s bad. Really bad.

“Are you kidding me?” she shrieks when she finally finds her voice. “Are you freaking kidding me?”

“What?” I know I sound defensive, but it’s hard not to be when she’s screaming in my face. “We think differently. Which is fine. I mean, he’s entitled to his point of view, his way of doing things. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it or be involved with him when I obviously don’t agree with the way he does things. I figured it was better to stop things before they ever got started than to worry about those differences later.”

I’ve so stupefied Tori that it takes her several long seconds to close her mouth. Then several more seconds before she shakes her head and says, “You are an idiot.”

“Why? Because I don’t jump to do Ethan Frost’s bidding? Because I’m not dying to hop into bed with him?”

“No. Because you are dying to hop into bed with him and you just sabotaged the whole thing!”

“That’s not true!”

“Really?” She sounds more exasperated than anything else. “I saw you with him last night. The way you lit up when he touched your hand or put an arm around you. I’ve never seen you like that with anyone. You want that man, so of course you take the first opportunity to run away from him.”

“I’m not running away. I’m simply choosing not to be with him because—”

“Because of one incident that you don’t even understand.”

“You weren’t there.”

“No, and neither were you. Not really. Not for all the buildup that led them to that point.” She sighs, then reaches over and pats my knee. “Look, I get it. You saw Ethan strong-arm those people and it freaked you out. Made you think of whatever happened with Miles and your dad. Maybe all of it rolled into one. But he’s not any of those people. He’s Ethan fucking Frost, the man I had to hear about for months when you were researching the internship. You worshipped him before you met him, were completely enthralled with all the things he does for charity and the environment. With how he treats his employees.

“And now you’re basically acting like he’s Satan himself, all because of one business meeting. Even though everything else—the charity, the employee benefits, his business model—are all the same as they’ve always been.”

“You think I’m looking for flaws in him?”

“I think you’re only human. And you’re scared. It would be completely natural for you to try to find something wrong with him before you get in too deep. But I also think you jumped at the first thing you could find without giving him a chance to explain himself, simply because it was your way out.”

I don’t say anything else, and Tori doesn’t push. She’s smart enough to know I need some processing time. I don’t think she’s right, but I do know that from the moment I mailed back that blender—with my own personal letter full of stuff—that I’ve been a nervous wreck. Completely freaked out by what my doing so implied. Seeing the way he treated Trifecta stopped my worries pretty much instantly, gave me something much bigger to focus on. Something I don’t want to see happen to anyone ever again.

But was that one meeting enough reason—enough proof—for me to shut him down the way I did? Especially when I know all the great things he’s done through the years? Or is Tori right? Did I just use that as an excuse to extricate myself from a situation I was terrified would turn sticky? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t do it subconsciously.

Tori lets me brood for a while as she orders dinner from the Greek place down the block. But when the intercom buzzes with the delivery, she decides brooding time is officially over. She drags me inside to watch Crazy Stupid Love, and sometime between eating Greek salads, hummus, and stuffed grape leaves and discussing how awesome it would be to lick ice cream off Ryan Gosling’s abs, I get roped into helping Tori dye her hair.

Normally she gets her hair dyed at a salon over on Prospect, but I guess what she wants this time is just too wacky, because her stylist, Geoff, refused to do it for her. He’s never said no to her before, no matter how crazy the color is, and I’m a little shocked he managed to stand his ground this time.

At least until I see the myriad boxes of hair dye she lays out on the coffee table in front of me and I realize she’s going for rainbow hair. Suddenly I’m not so sure, either. I don’t know why it seems more normal for her to have green hair or purple hair, but it does. Having multicolored hair just strikes me as an inability to commit.

I tell her so, but she just laughs. “Who said I had to commit? I’m twenty-one. If I can’t be fickle now, when can I be?”

She makes a good argument, but still. “Are you sure they’ll let you in the building at work if you do this?”

She waves her hand, and I know what she’s saying even without the words. If her job doesn’t like it, she’ll just quit and find one that does. It’s not like she’s worried about paying the bills or anything. Not that I’m complaining, considering her money is what has made this last week—and all my future weeks at Frost Industries—possible.

In the end, I agree to turn my best friend’s hair the color of Easter eggs—not as though there was ever any doubt. Still, it’s a long, time-consuming process. First because it takes hours to bleach out the dark yellow that is her current color, and then because it takes hours more to paint individual clumps of hair with every color of the rainbow from fuck-me red to Ethan Frost blue.

When we’re done and she’s washed out all the dye and then styled her hair, I have to admit the look is as beautiful as it is striking. Like she’s been kissed by a thousand rainbows—or fallen headfirst into a bag of Skittles. Either way, she looks amazing.

We finish the night with a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream around 3:00 a.m. As I take the last spoonful, I start to congratulate myself for going hours without thinking about Ethan, but that thought blows the whole deal. Suddenly I can’t help but think of the disgust in his eyes in those last minutes. The disappointment. Like I was the one who had screwed things up, not him.

Maybe in his eyes I am. Which is just more reason why this thing between us wouldn’t work. We see the world in very different ways. Which means Tori’s wrong. I wasn’t being a coward, wasn’t running away because I felt something. I was just doing what I do best. Being pragmatic. Making a plan.

The realization should make me feel better, but instead all it does is depress me. Which only makes me more determined to not think about it. Sinking deeper into the couch, I lay my head on Tori’s shoulder and watch Cary Elwes storm the castle in The Princess Bride. For the first time ever, it fails to make me laugh.

* * *

I wake up early Saturday morning to a loud pounding. I’m still on the couch, half tangled up with Tori from when our sleeping selves were looking for some comfortable position to sleep in.

“What the hell is that?” she groans as she hefts herself into a sitting position.

I shove my heavy curtain of hair out of my eyes, then immediately wish I hadn’t when the sunlight slams into them, makes them burn. “I have no idea,” I answer, burying my face in my hands in a desperate bid to stop the pain.

The pounding gets louder, and Tori’s the one who finally identifies it. “Someone’s at the door.”

“Oh. Right.” That rhythmic pounding was actually someone knocking.

She nudges me with her foot. “Aren’t you going to get it?”

“You’re the extrovert. If someone is knocking this early on a Saturday morning, we both know it’s for you.”

“Good point.” She groans a little as she pulls herself off the couch—how early is it anyway?—and stumbles toward the door. The second she’s gone, I fall facedown onto her side of the couch and pull a pillow over my head. If I’m lucky, whoever it is will keep Tori busy for a few minutes and I can go back to sleep.

I hear voices near the front door, notice that my roommate is talking a lot more animatedly than she usually does. Which is a good sign. I close my eyes, start to drift. Then groan what feels like mere seconds later when she starts shaking my shoulder.

“What?” I demand without pulling my head out from under the pillow.

“It’s for you.”

Of course it is. What are the odds? The one morning I want to sleep in and lounge around pitying myself is the one time someone actually comes to the door for me. Lifting up the corner of the cushion, I blearily stare at a pair of worn jeans with a hole over one knee.

“What time is it?”

“Nine o’clock,” Tori tells me.

“Go away,” I tell the legs that are standing right in front of me. It’s too damn early for politeness. But even as I say it, a frisson of awareness works its way down my spine and into my heart, which is suddenly beating much too fast.

“Hangover?” asks a warm male voice dripping with amusement.

Sure enough, I know that voice. Tossing the pillow onto the floor, I force myself into a sitting position. Even force my eyes to open wider than little slits. The resultant pain makes me grumpy. “Ice cream coma.” I gesture toward the two empty cartons on the coffee table.

“Nice,” Ethan says with a laugh. “I always go for Phish Food myself.”

“I wouldn’t go around admitting that if I were you. It’s just another black mark against you.”

“I didn’t realize ice-cream-flavor selection was such a serious business.”

I shake my head mournfully. “And you seemed like such a promising young man.”

Out of the corner of my abused eyes, I see Tori slip down the hall toward her bedroom. Coward. So much for the promise of solidarity she offered me halfway through our pints of Ben & Jerry’s. Guess it was just the sugar talking after all.

“Get dressed,” Ethan tells me. “We have places to go.”

I pin him with a look of flat disbelief. Like I would go anywhere with him. “What are you even doing here? I thought we’d both had our say last night.”

“I had to bring the blender back.” He gestures to the coffee table, and for the first time I notice the Vitamix box sitting there. “I got your package.”