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Not sure what to expect, I open the box slowly, gingerly. Then gasp when I see what he’s bought me.

“It’s beautiful,” I tell him, reaching out to touch one of the delicate platinum links.

“Do you like it?”

“What’s not to like?” I remove the belly chain from the box, hold it up to the light to admire the intricate designs on each of the links. As if the actual links aren’t beautiful and elaborate enough, one end of the chain sports a cascade of clear stones. I try to convince myself that they’re crystals, but I know better. Ethan has bought me diamonds, albeit not in the traditional piece of jewelry.

But this is better, so much better than anything else he could have gotten me. Because I know Ethan and he knows me and I understand what he’s saying with this chain without him ever having to say a word.

Last night he promised me that he wasn’t going anywhere. That no matter what I told him, no matter what had happened to me, he would stay. This chain is a physical manifestation of that promise. It’s just between him and me; no one else will ever see it. But it means, despite everything, that I’m his.

It’s not a collar, not a sign of ownership, but a reassurance nonetheless. One I didn’t even know I needed until he gave it to me.

“Do you want me to help you put it on?” His fingers brush against mine as he reaches for the chain.

“Yes. Please.”

He smiles at my acceptance, and the wariness in his eyes slowly dissipates until there’s nothing left but affection and joy and…love? I cut the thought off, refusing to go there yet. He hasn’t said the words and neither have I. And we’re not going to, not for a while. Hell, we’ve only known each other a week.

And yet, as he lifts my shirt and wraps the chain—and his arms—around me, I can’t deny the feelings welling up deep inside me. I wouldn’t want to, even if I could. I’m not sure how it happened, not sure what I did to deserve him, but Ethan Frost is mine as surely as I am his. And I’m not giving him up.

“What do you think?” he asks after he fastens the clasp. His hands are still around my waist, his fingers toying with the navel ring I got my freshman year in college in my first of many attempts to reclaim my body as my own. Tori talked me into it, and though I thought it was crazy at the time, it actually worked. The pain, and the act itself, grounded me, and now the ring is a reminder that I decide what to do with my body. No one else.

I look down at the chain. Ethan left it loose, so it rests on my hips, right below my belly button. The cascade of diamonds drips down my abdomen, rests directly above my mons. No, this isn’t a collar. But it is the most possessive piece of jewelry he could buy me outside of a wedding ring. “It’s perfect for me,” I tell him as I wrap my arms around his neck, lift my mouth for a kiss. “Just like you.”

Chapter Twenty-one

We have breakfast out on the patio. Warm chocolate croissants. Bowls full of succulent berries—strawberries for me, blueberries for Ethan. Mimosas that are heavy on the champagne, exactly as I like them.

“You sure know how to spoil a girl,” I tell him, leaning back on one of the chaise longues with my second drink in hand.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. But you keep resisting.” He reaches for my free hand, kisses my fingers in a gesture that should be cheesy but is somehow sexy as hell.

“No more resisting,” I tell him. “I’m yours.”

He doesn’t say anything to that and I freak out for a second. Have I overstepped? Did I read too much into the belly chain? Into the way he’s been touching me, holding me, treating me? But then he lifts his face to mine and I realize he’s as affected by this thing between us as I am. Maybe more.

That’s when I realize I don’t know Ethan’s story. Not really. Not the way he knows mine. Oh, I know the basics. His parents divorced at an early age. He lost his father in a very public way when he was just a boy. He was raised by his dad’s parents instead of his mother. And he lives through having his dad’s life and death dragged out every couple of years when the government wants to remind people what a hero looks like.

I know he’s spent his life trying to ensure that other people don’t lose their loved ones the same way he lost his father—from injuries that fifteen years ago couldn’t be treated anywhere but in a surgical suite. Self-made soon-to-be-billionaire. Philanthropist. Environmentalist. Genius.

But there’s something else there. Something that doesn’t fit with the charming public image. Something darker and more damaged than he ever lets on. It never stays around for long, but it definitely exists. I’ve seen it a couple of times, lurking in the back of his eyes. I don’t know what it is, but something tells me it’s bad. That deep inside, he’s hurting as much—if not more—than I am.

The thought galvanizes me like nothing else could. I drain my mimosa in one long sip—a little Dutch courage never hurt anyone—and deposit the glass on the nearest table. Then I climb off my chaise and onto Ethan’s lap, my knees resting on either side of his thighs so that I’m straddling him.

It’s by far the most aggressive I’ve ever been with him, and his blue eyes widen in surprise. Still, it doesn’t take long for him to get with the program. His hands come up to cup my face and—looking directly into my eyes—he slowly, slowly raises his mouth to mine.

It’s as good as it always is. Better, maybe, now that he knows so much of my truth. I guess subconsciously I’ve been afraid things would be awkward between us after what happened on the beach yesterday, but as he licks his way inside my parted lips, I know that those worries were for nothing. The heat is still there between us.

His tongue slides against my own and need rips through me, makes me anxious. Makes me hurt. I slide my hands up Ethan’s shoulders to his neck and then to the back of his head, grab a fistful of his hair, and pull his lips even more tightly against my own. He’s being sweet, gentle, and while I appreciate the concern, it’s not what I want from him. Not now when my body’s on fire and all I can think of is him. All I want is him.

I grind my mouth against his, suck his lip between my teeth and bite a little harder than I normally do. Not hard enough to do more than sting a little, but definitely enough to let him know I want him. Want this. He tastes like chocolate this morning. Like champagne and berries and Ethan. Just Ethan.

Ethan groans low in his throat at my enthusiasm, and his hands slide down to tangle in my hair. He tugs a little and a frisson of awareness tears through me, increasing the want—and the need.

But he’s still moving too slowly. Still savoring where I want him to rush, still showering me with sweet, gentle softness when what I need is a blistering, headlong race toward completion.

“Ethan.” I rip my mouth from his, then lick and nibble my way over the dark stubble that decorates his jaw. He groans, his head falling back against his chair to give me better access. I take instant advantage, racing my lips down his neck to the hollow of his throat.

I find the spot where his heart beats fast and frantic and lick over it. Once, twice, then again and again. He tastes different here, wilder, sexier, though I didn’t think that was possible. Salty-sweet like the ocean, earthy like the sand. I love it.

My hands go to the buttons on his shirt and I start to flick them open, one after the other. I want to see his chest again, when I’m not freaking out. I want to study his tattoo before kissing and licking my way over it to the hard, flat planes of his abdomen. And lower. He’s brought me pleasure a couple times now, taken me to the edge and hurtled me over into the stars, but I’ve never done the same for him.

Today I will. Today I’ll take him in my hands, in my mouth, in my sex. My mind is a cacophony of rioting images and sounds and longings, everything I want to do to this man coming together in an explosive cataclysm of need. I’m desperate for him, for the taste of him on my tongue, the feel of him inside my body.

I’m clawing at him now, ripping the buttons of what is probably a five-hundred-dollar shirt in my desperation to get to him. His hands come up, cover mine, his thumb stroking across the back of my hand in a rhythm that is somehow both soothing and arousing.

“Chloe, sweetheart, it’s okay,” he murmurs as he dots kisses across my forehead and down my cheeks. “There’s no rush. Let’s take it slow.”

He doesn’t understand. I don’t want to go slow. I’m afraid to go slow. Right now I want him, need him, am entirely caught up in the way he smells and tastes and feels. I want to run with that before something happens, before that damn switch gets triggered in my brain again and I freak out on him for the second time.

“Please, Ethan.” I shove the shirt off his shoulders, down his arms, then press hot, open-mouthed kisses to his warm, bare chest. “I need you.”

“You’ve got me, baby. I’m not going—” He breaks off, hissing out a breath as I lick across his nipple.

“Jesus.” His hands tangle in my hair and for one long, perfect moment he lets me have my way. I roll his nipple between my lips, nibble softly, relishing the way his hips pump against mine and the groan he can’t hold back.

I slide backward a little, bending forward so I can kiss lower on his torso. His abs, his navel, the beginning of the V cut that just shows above the low-rise waist of his jeans.

“Chloe, baby, that’s enough. I want to touch you, too.”

I shake my head as I run the tip of my tongue around his navel, circling it again and again as my fingers fumble with his belt. His hands cover mine, try to move my fingers away, but I nip at his stomach to distract him, then run my tongue under the waistband of his jeans.

“Chloe!” There’s a warning in his voice, a dark urgency that tells me that no matter how much he’s enjoying what I’m doing, he’s not going to put up with being ignored much longer. Which means I have to move faster, take more of him, get him so crazy that he makes love to me without realizing how close I am to freaking out.

The panic is rising, already eating away at the need, the desire, that was so all-consuming just a few minutes ago. I try to ignore it, to push it back down. I want this. I want Ethan. I want us to have a normal relationship, one where he doesn’t have to worry all the time about me freaking out at any second. And the only way I’ll get that is to get through this, get through it now. Because I know if we do this just once, if I feel him inside me and know that it’s Ethan and that he cares about me, that I’ll be okay. I’ll be better. And neither of us will have to worry about me losing my shit again.

Except Ethan isn’t buying into my plan. Instead of just relaxing and letting me give him pleasure, he’s stopping me. Pulling me back up his body so that we’re once again face-to-face.

“I want you,” I tell him, looking into his eyes for the first time since I threw us into this mad rush. I don’t know what I expect to see—pleasure, maybe? Arousal, certainly. The same need that is so much a part of me?

But when he looks at me, I see none of that. Instead, he’s got his thinking face on. His lips are pressed together, his jaw is set, and his eyes—instead of being cloudy with desire—are a clear, bright blue. So clear, in fact, that I can all but see the gears turning in his brain.

Shit. He doesn’t want me, not the way I want him. I fucked everything up yesterday—freaking out on him, telling him about Brandon. Is there any wonder he’s not into me? He’s probably afraid I’ll lose my shit all over again. The fact that that’s a distinct possibility is all the more humiliating.

The last of my desire dies and I push at his shoulders, start to stand. I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to go—

“Chloe, stop.”

Ethan’s voice halts me in my tracks. He doesn’t touch me, doesn’t make any move to make me stay on his lap, but his voice is so commanding that I automatically obey.

I settle back onto his legs, but I duck my head. I can’t stand for him to see the hurt and the humiliation that are currently ripping me apart.

“Look at me.”

I shake my head. I can’t. There are tears in my eyes, and after the show I put on yesterday, there’s no way I’m going to let him see me cry again.

He sighs, his hands clenching where they’re resting on his legs. But still he makes no move to touch me. “Come on, baby. I need to see your face. I need to see you.”

Again I shake my head. But I’m lifting my chin even as I do, my eyes shooting up to meet his one more time.

I try to blink the tears away, but I know he sees them. I can feel it in the way his body tenses against mine, hear it in the “fuck me” he mutters beneath his breath.

“Don’t blame me for your frustration,” I say with the last bit of spirit I can muster. “That’s what I was trying to do.”