“Ugh.” I bury my head in the pillow again. The only thing worse than having Ethan see me looking like this is to have him see me looking like this after he’s gotten a package from me that pretty much proclaims my interest in him. After we’d already had the fight.
This time he reaches down and pries the pillow from my hands. Then he settles on the couch, smoothes my hair back from my face.
“I really liked the things you sent me.”
I don’t answer him. Instead, I focus all my wrath on the hapless blender. “Why do you keep giving me that thing when I’ve made it obvious I don’t want it?”
“Balanced nutrition is important.”
“Balanced nutrition doesn’t have to come in a blender.”
“But it tastes better when it does.” He grabs my hand, pulls until I’m standing in the V made by his open legs. “Go get dressed. I’ll buy you breakfast.”
“What if I don’t want breakfast?” I sound like a sulky kid, but the truth is I don’t give a damn. I’m tired and sad and embarrassed and annoyed, all rolled into one volatile package.
“It’ll be a long day without it.”
“What makes you think I’ll go anywhere with you?”
He grins. “My charm? My wit? My generous soul?”
“And here I was thinking what I really liked was your humility.”
He laughs, and the sound warms me despite my determination to keep myself hardened against him. But the truth is, he is charming and witty, and it’s damn difficult not to respond when he is so obviously trying to get back into my good graces. No wonder he’s such a force to be reckoned with in the business world. No one can hold out against him for long.
“Where are we going?” I ask as I make my way down the hall to—surprise, surprise—get dressed. I’m beginning to think I’m destined to give this man what he wants. It’s a disconcerting thought, one I’m sure I’ll dwell exhaustively on later. For now, I’ll settle for thinking about breakfast. French toast in particular.
“I find I don’t like you thinking ill of me.” He’s followed me down the hallway and now lounges in my doorway. “I want to show you something.”
I’m rummaging in my dresser, pulling out underwear and a bra, when I glance back at him. He gets points for looking me in the eye and not staring at the scraps of blue lace in my hands. Then again, he’s probably seen more ladies’ lingerie than I have—and much sexier stuff than what I wear.
The thought depresses me a little, so I shove it away—to the same spot where I’ve buried all my other doubts and concerns about this whole Ethan-and-me thing. For someone who usually confronts life head-on, with a detailed plan in place for every eventuality, I’m becoming quite the master of avoidance.
It’s not a good realization.
“Do you really believe that you can show me something that will change my mind about what happened yesterday?”
His eyes darken to a deep midnight blue, one loaded with a tortured pain I am intimately familiar with—but which I never imagined I’d see reflected in his gaze.
Instinctively I cross to him. Lay a soft hand on his biceps and another on his cheek. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
For long seconds he doesn’t answer. Instead, he just stands there staring at me, a million different demons looking out at me from his familiar eyes. But then he blinks, shakes his head, and everything is as it was. Ethan’s smiling at me, telling me that casual clothes are just fine for our outing. Urging me into the bathroom for a quick shower.
He’s good at what he does, so good that it isn’t until I’m standing under a spray of hot water that I realize he never answered my question.
Of all the places I imagine that Ethan will take me, the VA hospital near Balboa Park doesn’t even make the list. And yet here we are, turning into the parking lot in his electric-blue Tesla Roadster.
“What are we doing here?” I ask as he pulls into a parking spot a few rows from the front entrance.
He comes around and opens the door for me before I even think to reach for the handle. Then his hand is on my lower back and he’s guiding me toward the large building with its Spanish architecture and the palm trees that circle it like sentinels.
I can feel the warmth of his hand through the soft cotton of my T-shirt, and there’s a part of me that wants nothing more than to arch into his touch like a cat. I can’t help it. Though I know he’s bad for me, that this thing between us can’t go anywhere, I can’t help but love the feel of his hands on me.
The tingle of electricity that sizzles over my skin at whatever spot his body comes into contact with mine.
The feel of his fingers, rough and just a little callused, as they glide over my too-sensitive skin.
The strong yet tender way he handles me whenever we’re together.
Before I can think better of it—before I can stop myself—I lean into him. Align my body with his so that I’m cradled in the crook of his arm, my side resting lightly against his. Ethan makes a sound deep in his throat at the contact, and his hand shifts until he’s holding on to my hip, his whole arm now wrapped around me.
It feels good. Then again, everything about this moment feels good. The summer sunshine beating warmly down on us. The soft sea breeze playing with our hair. Ethan’s arm wrapped so possessively, so tenderly around me—like I’m the most precious thing in the world to him.
It’s not true, but that doesn’t matter here, doesn’t matter now. Not when it’s so easy for me to believe that I matter to him and that all our differences can be worked out. Just this once, just for now, I want to stay here in this moment and let the future take care of itself.
The automatic doors that mark the hospital’s entrance swoop open as we approach. There’s a visitor’s desk directly across from us, and the two men who are working it call Ethan by name as we check in. They’re obviously military, and obviously on the recovery side of some pretty awful injuries. And from the way they look at him it is just as obvious that they think he’s the best person they’ve ever met. Maybe even the best person in the whole world.
Even more obvious is the fact that the feeling is mutual. Ethan introduces me to them, then chats animatedly with each of the soldiers about their physical therapy schedule and the new treatment they’re both receiving—courtesy of the United States government and Frost Industries.
Eventually the conversation finishes and we take the elevator up to what turns out to be the burn unit. Up here there are both private rooms and long wards filled with numerous soldiers. The private rooms are for those who are in the first stages of treatment, when infection is such a problem, while the many-person ward houses those who have already gotten past the most dangerous stages.
Ethan doesn’t go into the private rooms—the risk of infecting the patients is too great—but he does take me to the ward. Here, too, he knows most of the patients. As we walk the length of the room, we stop at every bed, talk to every soldier—even those Ethan doesn’t know. Some of the conversation is about their injuries, the hospital, how well they’re healing. But much of it centers around other things, like the Padres’s chances for making the World Series and the opening days of the Chargers’s training camp.
Ethan introduces me to each man we come to, and I find myself just as fascinated by them and their stories as he is. To be honest, I’ve never really known many military men before and have never given much thought to those I do know. But as I wander this ward, see the sacrifices each of these men has made for America, I can’t help but be awed.
For the first time, I think about what I know of Ethan’s past and how it’s shaped him into the man he is today. Oh, everyone knows the story of little Ethan Frost, son of a real-life American hero. Pictures of him at eleven, a beautiful, solemn boy sitting with his grandparents as they received his father’s posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, graced the cover of every newspaper and every political magazine in the country. Hell, in the whole Western world.
I was too young to pay attention at the time it happened, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know the story of how his father, a Navy SEAL, rescued the vice president and numerous other important politicians from a volatile and deadly hostage situation in the Middle East. It’s still one of the first things that comes up when you Google Frost Industries, just as it’s something the papers and news shows still bring up on patriotic holidays or when Ethan makes headlines for some new invention or philanthropic interest.
His father’s death from catastrophic injuries that couldn’t be treated in a battlefield theater with the technology of the day is what has driven Ethan from the very beginning. It’s what has made him push for better technology, better medicine, better science for military personnel and civilians alike, and it’s what has led him to having the most cutting-edge research in the country.
I’m guessing it is also what brings him here, to this veterans’ hospital, to spend time with these soldiers who have lost so much during their own service to this country.
We’re halfway down the second row of soldiers when a man with a lot of stripes on his shoulders comes up and shakes both of our hands. Ethan introduces him to me as Dr. Andrew Mitchell, the Navy captain in charge of this hospital.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Ethan, but can I have ten minutes of your time? There’s something I want to discuss with you in the surgical wing.”
Ethan looks like he’s about to refuse, but I can tell he’s interested in what Dr. Mitchell has to say. It feels nice to know that he’d put me first, but I don’t need him to. Not here. “Go ahead,” I urge. “I’ll be fine here with Viktor and Alejandro.”
I smile at the two soldiers whose beds I am standing between. Both were caught in the same roadside bombing in Afghanistan. Alejandro has third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body, while Viktor got “lucky” and only sustained burns to 30 percent of his body. Of course, those burns were almost exclusively on his upper body—torso, arms, face. They are Marines out of Camp Pendleton, a huge base north of San Diego, which is why they were moved back here for treatment once they were stable.
I stay with them for the next twenty minutes or so—Dr. Mitchell’s discussion with Ethan is obviously more involved than they’d thought it would be. We talk about their families, the ocean, music, Ethan. Both of them have nothing but good things to say about him.
“You know he’s the reason this is the best-outfitted VA hospital in the world, right?” Alejandro says at one point. “He’s here every week making sure the directors have whatever they need whenever they need it.”
“Plus, he’s always talking to the vets,” Viktor tells me. “About their experiences in the field, about their injuries. About what they think is working in their treatment, and what they think isn’t. He doesn’t only listen to the doctors. He talks to us, wants to know what we think, even if we are just grunts from the front lines.”
Of course he does. Their words don’t surprise me at all, not after seeing the way he is with each of the soldiers he meets. The way he listens to them, really listens, no matter what it is they’re talking about. Too many of us tend to underestimate sick people, to think of them as somehow less. The fact that Ethan doesn’t do that is one of his finest qualities, in my opinion.
Still, I can’t resist teasing Viktor and Alejandro a little. “I’m already on a date with him, you know. You don’t have to lay it on quite so thick.”
Viktor laughs. “Just doing what we can to help a brother out.”
“I can tell. When you get out of here, we should get you a job in Frost Industries’ PR department. I bet you’d do wonders for his reputation.”
Alejandro laughs. “We probably would at that. But once I’m out, I’m going home to Chicago. My dad has a mechanic shop there. I think I’m going to settle down, get my mechanic’s license.”
“You want to fix cars?” I ask, excited because that’s always been a secret passion of mine as well. Miles taught me all about how engines work before I hit high school, even let me help him fix up what had been his pride and joy at the time—a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT. I’ve never had more fun on a project in my life. He’d loved that car—right up until my dad lost it in a poker game.
“I think so. When I was younger, I wanted to see the world and the Marines gave me a chance to do that. But since I got injured I’ve been thinking it might be nice to be home for a while. To have a chance to build things instead of just tear them down.”
“That sounds like a really good plan to me.”
He grins. “You think so?”
“Absolutely. Nothing like a little grease under your fingernails to make everything seem better.”