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“It isn’t important.”

“It is to me.”

“No,” I tell him. “It’s long over. None of it matters anymore.”

“Considering you’re still traumatized by what the bastards did to you, I’d say it still matters a whole hell of a lot.”

“I’m sorry about what happened on the beach. Normally I can handle it better than that. It’s because you were behind me, like he was. I mean, not like he was, obviously. But that’s how it happened. He shoved me face-first into the seat and—”

“Jesus Christ.” He shoves a hand through his hair, looks like he wants to say something a hell of a lot worse. “I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so fucking sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Neither did you.” He puts two fingers under my chin, tilts my head up so that I’m once again looking him in the eye. “None of what happened to you is your fault. You know that, right?”

“Of course.”

His eyes narrow. “Why do I get the feeling you’re only telling me what you think I want to hear?”

“I don’t know. But it’s not true, believe me. It’s not like I think for one second that you wanted to hear any of the crap I just dumped on you.”

“That isn’t what I meant.” His words seethe in the air between us, raw and painful and honest. I want to respond in kind, to tell him everything, but there’s still that damn nondisclosure agreement to think about. Plus there’s the fact that I don’t want him to know I sold myself for three million dollars. Somehow I don’t think he’ll understand.

“You need to let it go, Ethan.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You have to. I told you because I lost my shit for a minute and I owed you an explanation. But everything we just talked about is in the past. For my own sanity, I left it there a long time ago. It’s the only way I can function. The only way I can live the life I have now. The life I’ve built for myself.

“I need you to leave it there, too. I know it’s hard for you, I know you want to protect me. But going after some guy for something that happened years ago isn’t the way to do that.”

“What is?” He cups my face in his hands, drops his forehead down to rest on mine. “Because Chloe, baby, I’m about to jump out of my skin here. I don’t know what to do for you. How to help you. How to love you.”

His words tear through me, rip a hole down the middle of my already cracked defenses. “Just hold me,” I tell him, burying my face in the curve of his neck. “Hold me and don’t let me go. Not tonight.”

“I won’t,” he says, his breath soft against my temple.

And he doesn’t. Not for a minute. Even after I slip into a fitful sleep, I can feel him holding me. All night long. And for now, for this moment, it’s more than enough.

Chapter Twenty

I drift into consciousness slowly, to the feel of early morning sunlight on my face and the scent of coffee in my nose.

There’s no disorientation at waking in a strange bed, no moment of trying to figure out where I am or how I got here. The second I open my eyes, I know I’m at Ethan’s house. In Ethan’s bed. He brought me to it last night after the temperature dropped so much on the patio that my teeth began to chatter.

Pushing my riot of curls out of my face, I sit up on my elbows and look around at Ethan’s private domain. Last night I’d been too wiped to do anything but curl up with him in bed, but this morning I notice the slate-blue walls. The smoky gray of the comforter I’m lying beneath. The huge painting of a sailboat that takes over a significant portion of one of the side walls.

For some, Ethan’s color choice might be depressing—dark blues and grays with only a few instances of a lighter accent color—but in my mind, it’s perfect. I feel like I’m in the belly of the Pacific Ocean, cradled in the arms of the ever-changing waves. It’s a good feeling, especially considering all that happened last night. And not nearly as violent as the drowning I had so often imagined.

On the nightstand beside the bed is a cup of coffee and a long, flat white box. I reach for the coffee first, take a long, deep inhale. It works its way inside me, finding those last little frozen places that I didn’t think anything could melt and warming them through. Of course, I know it’s not the coffee doing that. Not really. It’s Ethan and the perfect care he takes of me.

I spend the next few minutes sipping my perfectly made coffee and contemplating the white box on the nightstand. There’s a part of me that wants to grab it, rip the red ribbon off, and dive inside. But there’s another part of me that’s relishing the surprise. That wants to wait just a little longer to draw out the anticipation. I’m the kind of girl who believes in delayed gratification.

Except, it seems, with Ethan.

Suddenly I can’t wait until I finish my coffee to know what’s inside the box. I put my cup aside and grab the present, doing my best not to rip the box to shreds as I open it.

Just like with Ethan’s other gift, inside this one is a myriad of things that don’t really fit together but are somehow perfect anyway. I push the tissue paper aside and pull out the first treasure, a pair of delicate gold filigree earrings. Flamingos, I realize with a stab of delight, from our zoo trip yesterday. I admire them for long seconds before sliding them out of their container and into my ears. I can’t wait to see what they look like.

The second object I pull out of the box is a small vial of perfume. It’s one of those specially mixed ones that people can design to their own specifications. The label has only my name on it and the date from three days ago.

Ethan designed it for me.

I pull the little stopper out of the top of the vial, bend my head for a sniff. And nearly cry all over again. Strawberries, jasmine, the ocean, champagne. Somehow he’s managed to have my favorite scents mixed into a perfume that’s perfect for me in every way.

I can’t resist dabbing a little on my pulse points before I close it up and put it back in the box. It smells good, really good, and I couldn’t be more delighted.

Except as soon as I reach into the box again, I realize that’s not true. Ethan’s next gift is a peacock feather, beautiful and exotic and just a touch naughty. For a moment, I stroke it against my throat and imagine that it’s Ethan touching me with it, Ethan running it all over my body.

Arousal spikes through me and I nearly leave the rest of the present unopened to go in search of him. I want him to hold me, to touch me, to kiss me. Want to do the same for him, if he’ll let me.

In the end, though, curiosity gets the best of me and I pull out the final object in the gift. It’s another box, though this one is smaller and flatter than the original. And a distinctive light blue that I recognize even before I see the name on the top of it: Tiffany & Co.

I bobble the box, watch as it falls to the floor. Instead of diving for it, I just stare. I’m not sure if I want to pick it up, if I want to open it. Oh, I know most women dating Ethan Frost would love to get something from Tiffany’s. Hell, they’d probably expect gifts like this regularly.

But I’m not so sure. I’ve enjoyed my small, thoughtful gifts from Ethan. The strawberries, the tea, the feather. This, though, this feels like something more. It feels like a blender, only much more expensive, and I’m just not sure I want to go there with him. Not because of him, per se, but because money has such negative connotations for me when it comes to things like this. I don’t want it to get in the way, don’t want to feel like he expects something for his expensive gifts. And I don’t want him to feel like I expect him to spend a lot of money on me.

It’s a double-edged sword, one I don’t want to grab on to until I actually have some idea of how to wield it.

Climbing out of bed, I gingerly pick up the box and place it on the nightstand. Then I go into the bathroom to clean up. I’m dressed in one of Ethan’s T-shirts and not much else, but he’s Ethan so he’s already provided me with a new outfit, a flirty little skirt and tank top in a fun yellow and white pattern that will look great with my hair and complexion. There’s also a new bra and a pair of panties, both in sunshine yellow and both costing more than my entire lingerie drawer at home.

I can’t help wondering, like with the wetsuit, where the clothes are coming from. Does he have a closet somewhere in this monstrosity of a house that holds clothes of different sizes so that his one-night stands won’t have to do the walk of shame in the morning? The thought depresses me, even though we didn’t do anything last night that would even remotely qualify as shameful.

After I’m showered and dressed, I pick the Tiffany box off the nightstand and go in search of Ethan. In a house this size, it might take a while.

I get lucky, though, and find him in the third place I check. He’s on the patio, standing at the railing and looking out over the roiling Pacific.

He’s lost in thought and I hesitate to disturb him. But part of me knows that’s just embarrassment talking. Just worry. Talking to him last night, in the dark, is one thing. Facing him in the light of day is something else entirely, especially with the weight of everything I told him stretching between us.

“A summer storm’s coming in,” he says after a minute. He turns to me, holds an arm out. It seems he wants to touch me as badly as I want to touch him, so I go to him. Cuddle into his arms. Then turn to look at the dark and seething waves.

Though it would probably be the most natural thing in the world for him to stand behind me and wrap his arms around my waist and rest his chin on the top of my head, Ethan stands to the side of me instead. He wraps an arm around my shoulder and hugs me into his side.

Part of me is upset that he’s being so careful with me, that he’s making sure not to do anything that might freak me out. It’s why I didn’t want to tell him about the rape to begin with—the last thing I want is for things to be awkward between us.

Yet this doesn’t feel awkward, and if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I like how careful he is with me. How he makes me feel like I matter, not just because he wants something from me but because he values me. It’s a novel experience, one I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted.

“Does everything fit okay?” he asks in between pressing soft kisses to my shoulder and the curve of my neck.

“Yeah, of course. Everything’s great.”

“I’m glad. I guessed on the sizes when I called Lola’s this morning.”

Relief courses through me. These aren’t generic morning-after clothes—Ethan got them especially for me. Except…“It’s only eight o’clock now. On a Sunday morning. What on earth was Lola’s doing open so early?”

He just smiles at me, and I’m reminded, again, what it must be like to be Ethan Frost. To have so much money that people jump to do your bidding, no matter what time it is.

His gaze drops to the blue box I’m still clutching in my hand. “Don’t you like it?”

“I haven’t opened it.”

For the first time, he looks confused. “Why not?”

“Because I know I’ll probably love it and I don’t want the temptation.”

“I don’t even know where to start with that.”

I sigh, run a frustrated hand through my hair in a gesture I’m pretty sure I picked up from him. “I don’t need you to spend this kind of money on me. That’s not what I’m here for.”

His face clears. “Like the blender. The strawberries were okay, but in your opinion, the blender was too much.”


He reaches up, plays with one of the delicate flamingo earrings dangling from my ears. “But you finally accepted the blender.”

That’s what he thinks. I’d love to see his face when I hand-deliver it to his office again tomorrow morning. “Money doesn’t impress me, Ethan.”

“It doesn’t impress me, either. But there are things I want you to have. Things I think you need to have. Is it so wrong that I want to be the one to give them to you?”

“I need a blender?”

He grins. “For a woman who loves margaritas as much as you do? Absolutely. Besides, now it’s the general principle of the thing.”

It really is, which is why I’m going to hand that damn blender to his assistant first thing in the morning. “And this?” I shake the box a little. “I need this?”

“Why don’t you open it and find out?”

He’s watching me, his face carefully blank. But I can see it in his eyes, just a hint of vulnerability that he’s working hard to hide. It melts my resolve, this proof that his feelings for me are as powerful, as overwhelming, as confusing as mine are for him. Knowing that, knowing how much he needs to give me this present—whatever it is—means there’s no way I can turn it down.