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He glances at my nails, which are currently painted a soft shell pink. “What do you know about grease under your fingernails?”

“More than you’d think.”

We dive into an in-depth discussion of engines that has all three of us grinning. Viktor isn’t much on fixing cars, but he’s thrilled beyond all comprehension that I know how to do it. He and Alejandro take turns quizzing me on what I’d fix if a car behaves a certain way. I get all but two of the questions right.

Alejandro’s in the middle of explaining why I missed the second question when Ethan comes back to get me. I’m facing Alejandro, my back to the door, but I still know the second Ethan gets close to me. There’s an electricity in the air around us, a current that originates with him and flows straight into me whenever he’s around. It sounds crazy, but I don’t know of a better way to describe the way my body lights up when he’s around, my every nerve ending sparking as they wait for contact—any contact—with him.

I turn to him with a smile and instinctively take the hand he holds out to me. “You been taking good care of my girl, guys?” he asks Viktor and Alejandro.

“I think it’s more like she’s been taking good care of us,” Viktor tells him. “I like her. You should keep her around for a while.”

“I’m trying to do just that.” Ethan raises one dark eyebrow. “Any suggestions on how I can accomplish it?”

“Let her get dirty,” Alejandro tells him with a wink.

“Excuse me?” The second eyebrow lifts to join the first, and I get the impression that, injured or not, Alejandro is in danger of getting his ass kicked. I’m not offended because I know exactly what he means, so I put a calming hand on Ethan’s shoulder.

“Your girl’s a grease monkey,” Alejandro continues. “She likes getting her hands dirty. You should get her a car to fix up. I bet she’d like that.”

“I’d love it,” I tell him, leaning over to give him a gentle kiss on his still healing cheek. “But I can buy my own car to fix up, thank you very much.”

“Uh-oh,” Viktor says teasingly. “You got yourself one of those feminists, Ethan. You better treat her right or she’ll be gone.”

“Believe me, I intend to.” He reaches over, shakes both their hands. I kiss Viktor’s cheek as well before we walk away.

“Hey, chica!” Alejandro calls after me. “Come back and visit us sometime.”

I turn to smile at him. “I plan on it. Take care, okay?”

He winks. “I always do.”

“I’m sorry I was gone so long,” Ethan tells me after we say a quick hello to the last soldiers in the ward. “Andrew has some interesting ideas for some new bone-grafting technology we’re working on. I wanted to make sure I understood what he was talking about before I went into R&D with his thoughts on Monday.”

“That’s okay. You couldn’t have left me in better company.”

“I could tell. You looked like you were really enjoying yourself.”

“I was. Alejandro and Viktor are great. Really cool guys.”

“And closer to your age than I am, certainly.”

I turn to look at him, confused. “I don’t know what that means.”

He studies me for long seconds, and more than once he looks like he’s going to say something. But in the end he just shakes his head and escorts me back onto the elevator.

He doesn’t say anything else until we’re out of the hospital and walking through the parking lot to the car. “Have you figured out why I brought you here yet?”

“Frost Industries has done a lot of good at that hospital. It doesn’t take an expert to see that everything they have is state of the art.”

He waves his hand dismissively. “I didn’t bring you there because I wanted to impress you with my philanthropy. That’s the least of my worries.”

I’m not sure how to react to that. Does he mean he doesn’t care about impressing me? Or simply that he doesn’t think philanthropy is the way to do it? Either way, I’m pretty sure I should be insulted. Only he looks so annoyed, so frustrated, that it’s hard for me to be anything but interested.

“So, tell me. What did you want me to see?”

“Those patents you were so upset about from Trifecta. Do you know what they were for?”

I don’t. Obviously something medical, but in the meeting people referred to them by their official numbers, never by what they were for. And my part of the research hadn’t dealt with them specifically in any way. I’d been looking at older cases, precedents set before these patents were even filed.

When it becomes obvious that I’m clueless, Ethan thrusts a frustrated hand through his hair. Then walks right past his car to the edge of the parking lot. We’re on the edge of Balboa Park, the cultural mecca of San Diego. We’re surrounded by museums and theaters, botanical gardens, and even the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Ethan stands there looking out over the lush and verdant landscaping for long seconds before turning back to me.

“They’re for artificial skin regeneration. Do you know what that means?”

I shake my head, mutely fascinated by the passion, the determination, in his eyes.

“It means that those patents hold the key to easing the suffering of every man you met today—only Trifecta’s too small and too inefficient to do anything with it. The technologies in those patents will make burn recovery faster and less risky, and when combined with some of the research my own scientists are doing, they’ll also lessen by at least half the scars these men will have to deal with for the rest of their lives. That means less painful scar tissue, less disfiguration, less chance of infection setting in early in the process.

“You may think me a heartless bastard for pushing through the takeover, for demanding those patents. But all you see is that family and what they stand to lose. Which really isn’t all that much. I paid them very well for their products, gave them more money than their shares of the company are worth. Because I understand what it’s like to lose what matters most to you.

“But I don’t have the luxury of only seeing them, of worrying about what a couple of guys in suits are going to do if they only make twenty million dollars on their invention instead of the fifty they might make if they ever manage to get their shit together. Not when I have hundreds of thousands, even millions of people depending on the products my company makes.

“When you look at Trifecta, you see victims. I see selfishness and incompetence. People who are so concerned with lining their own pockets and protecting their own interests that they’ll let thousands upon thousands of people suffer needlessly. And that is something I am not okay with.”

He holds my gaze for long seconds, then shoves his hands into his pockets and turns away.

His words reverberate inside me, make me see things in a whole new light—exactly as he intended. They don’t change my mind about wanting to be an intellectual property attorney, about wanting to protect the little guy from corporate domination. But they make me think twice about what happened in that conference room, make me understand in a way I didn’t before that there really are two sides to every story, even when I can’t see the other side.

Ethan might have been ruthless toward Trifecta, but he wasn’t heartless. Not by a long shot. Understanding that makes a world of difference. How can it not when I’ve just met all those men who are suffering? When I saw the way Alejandro winced with every move or the way Viktor faded in and out of the conversation because of the high from the pain medication? If I could find a way to ease their pain, I would. Of course I would.

I want to apologize, but I don’t know how. Don’t know what to say that will make everything I told him yesterday okay. “I’m sorry” just doesn’t seem good enough.

But it’s obvious he’s waiting for me to say something. Though he’s not looking at me, I can tell from the set of his shoulders. From the clench of his fists in his pockets. From the tightness of his jaw. I think about launching into a flowery apology, but in the end, I settle on the truth and hope it’s good enough.

“My brother is a genius. I don’t mean that he’s a really smart guy. I mean, he’s brilliant, so brilliant they can’t even reliably measure his IQ. Or at least that’s what all the psychologists say.

“Anyway, for as long as I can remember, he’s been inventing things. When we were little, it was stupid stuff that made me laugh. Or made one of the chores we had to do easier. Nothing big. But as we got older, he got really interested in global communications and energy efficiency. In how telecommunications was changing everything, and yet also doing a damn good job of destroying the entire planet one cell phone at a time.

“So he decided to figure out how to fix the problem of telecom pollution. He isn’t the only guy in the world interested in that, obviously. All the major telecom companies are into it now. But still, his ideas are pretty awesome. He worked up some stuff, showed it to my father, who promised to show it to some people he knew. This was before he started his own business based on my brother’s ideas. You see, Miles never wanted to work for corporate America. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do and was happy making enough money to pay for a small garage lab where he could also tinker with cars.”

“That’s where you got it from.” Ethan interrupts for the first time.

“Yeah.” I decide to test the waters, to move a little closer to him. He doesn’t reach for me, but he doesn’t move away, either. For now, it’s enough. “Anyway, at the beginning, my dad didn’t think what Miles was doing was worth much. He’d sell his ideas for a few thousand dollars here or there. ‘Cash in the hand,’ he used to say. And then those companies who bought the ideas for nothing—who knew exactly what they were getting and took advantage just because they could—made a lot of money off my brother’s ideas. A lot of money.

“And my dad got mad. He blamed Miles for not knowing his own worth. Blamed the companies for screwing him over. Basically, blamed anyone and everyone but himself for the fact that my brother got screwed. That’s when he decided they would start their own company once they got the necessary start-up cash.

“Needless to say, it’s kind of a sore spot with me. It’s why I want to be an intellectual property attorney, and it’s why I jumped down your throat without really understanding yesterday. I shouldn’t have done that and I’m sorry.”

I stop there, because saying any more gets dangerous. Gets me into areas I don’t really want to talk about with anyone, let alone with Ethan.

“You still think I was wrong,” he says without looking at me.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“I think there are two sides to every story, and I think your reasons for doing what you do are incredibly compelling. And no, I don’t think you’re wrong. I’m just not sure you’re a hundred-percent right, either.”

He doesn’t speak for long moments, and then when he does, the words he says aren’t what I’m expecting at all. “I can live with that if you can.”

I think of my brother, of my father, of the shit storm that’s been my life for as long as I can remember. And then I think of the tender way Ethan holds me. Touches me. Kisses me. And I know that there’s only ever been one answer. “Damn right I can.”

Chapter Sixteen

His arms come around me then, and he’s kissing me, his mouth skimming over my forehead, my cheeks, my jaw, my lips, my neck. I tilt my head back to give him better access, then moan as he presses soft kisses over my collarbone.

“Your heart’s beating fast,” he tells me, even as he delivers more kisses to the rapid pulse at the hollow of my throat.

“I wonder why.”

He grins at me. “I don’t know. Maybe we should investigate.”

“I thought you already were.”

He drops more kisses over the base of my neck, darts his tongue out and licks at my mouth, my jaw, the sensitive spot behind my ear. Then he presses two fingers to my jugular. “It’s beating even faster now.”

I lift my hand to the center of his chest, feel the steady but rapid boom-boom-boom of his own heart. “Yours isn’t exactly slow, you know.”

“You didn’t expect anything different, did you, when I’ve got you pressed up against me, all soft and sexy and sweet-smelling?”

“Wow,” I say with mock gravity. “How very sibilant of you.”

“Not to mention charming.”

I look away, feign an interest in the landscape that I’m far from feeling. I even manage to fake a small yawn.

“So that’s the way you want to play it, hmm?” He grabs my hands, gently turns me to face him.