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He laughs. “God, I’m crazy about you.” And finally his hands come up to touch me, his fingers tracing soothing circles on my back.

“Then why did you stop me?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe something about wanting the woman I’m making love to to actually be into it?”

“I was into it!”

“No, you were trying to be into it. It’s not the same thing.”

“It doesn’t matter!” I smack at his chest, frustrated and furious and terrified that this thing between us is never going to go anywhere. And I want it to. I really want it to, I just don’t know how to get us there.

“Yeah, Chloe, it does.” He grabs hold of my hands, not hard enough to hurt but firmly enough to let me know that he means what he’s saying. “That’s all that matters.”

“I’m not like other women! I can’t just—”

“You can.”

“I won’t be able to—”

“You will.”

“Can’t we just do it?” I wail. “Just get it over with the first time and then I’ll be better. I promise.”

“Sweetheart, if you think I’m going to have sex with you while you are freaking out and terrified, then you have completely lost your mind. I promise you, that’s the one thing that absolutely is not going to happen here.”

I drop my head in defeat, rest the top of it against his chest as I wait for the tears—and the crushing sense of disappointment—to pass me by. “I don’t know what to do, then.”

Ethan puts a finger under my chin, tilts my head back up. Waits for me to open my eyes. When I finally do, he catches my gaze with his own, the deep indigo of his eyes as enthralling to me as the depths of emotion I see reflected there. “Do you trust me?” he asks.

I swallow against the sudden desert in my mouth. If he asked me if I loved him, I would have answered in a heartbeat. Or if I wanted him. Needed him. But trust is a funny thing. Just a week ago, I would have said I didn’t have any trust to give, to anyone. But when it’s Ethan Frost, a week makes all the difference. It makes every difference.

“Yes.” I whisper the word, because no matter how true it is, I can’t force myself to say it any louder.

“Then let’s do this my way. I’ll take care of you, baby. I promise.”

Nodding is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Harder than telling Ethan the truth last night. Harder, even, than listening as my parents sold me out. The control freak in me doesn’t like giving anyone else that kind of power over me.

But once it’s done, once I’ve handed myself completely over to his care, it’s like a weight disappears from my shoulders. Because I know that Ethan will never hurt me. And he won’t let me hurt myself, either. Not anymore.

Chapter Twenty-two

Long minutes pass as we do nothing but lie in the sun, my body stretched over Ethan’s as he touches me. Gentles me. He strokes my hair for a long time, his strong fingers rubbing at my scalp until I’m all but purring. Then he moves to my neck, my shoulders, and down my back, following the muscles of my spine. He kneads my waist, my arms. Threads his fingers through mine and rolls my hand around in a circular motion that somehow manages to feel nearly as good as an orgasm.

By the time he’s done, I’m nothing but a blissed-out pile of relaxed goo, every muscle in my upper body as soft and runny as melted butter.

“You still awake?” he murmurs, a smile in his voice.

I purr the closest thing to a yes that I can manage.

“Good.” He gathers me closer to his chest, slips an arm under my knees, and then stands.

“Where are we going?” I’m too lazy to even wrap an arm around his neck, so I just burrow in and let him do all the work.

“The bedroom.”

I smile against his chest. “It’s about time.”

“Really? You’re complaining?”

“Not complaining. Just anxious.”

He lifts one of my hands, then lets go, watching as it just flops by my side. “Yeah. You look real anxious.”

“Looks can be deceiving.”

“So I hear.” He mumbles the last under his breath, and this time I do lift my head, just in time to see a look I’ve never seen before cross his face. But then it’s gone, just as quickly as it appeared and I’m left wondering what it was I saw. And why I think it’s important.

When we get to the bedroom, he deposits me on the bed before walking into the bathroom. Seconds later, I hear the bathwater start to run.

Then he’s back, standing next to the bed. I watch with great interest as he shrugs out of his shirt—he never did rebutton it after I tore it open earlier—and drops it on the end of the bed. His belt buckle comes next, then the top button of his jeans. By the time I hear the snick of his zipper going down, I’m wet and achy and more than ready to pick up what we were doing before I completely lost my shit out on the patio.

But Ethan has other plans. He rolls his jeans and boxer briefs down his legs, and then he stands there, naked and aroused, in front of me.

It’s all I can do to keep my mouth from dropping open as I stare at him. I haven’t seen very many naked men in my life, but I don’t have to have seen that many to know that Ethan Frost is a prime specimen of manhood. Long and lean, with muscles in all the right places, he’s got the ultimate surfer’s body. Massive biceps for paddling through the big waves, powerful pecs to push him up on the board, tightly stacked abs that help him stay upright when he’s got a big swell beneath him and strongly muscled legs for all of the above. And then there’s his cock, which is as long and hard as the rest of him.

He’s gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous, and I itch with the need to touch all that golden skin. To kiss and lick and taste and test every delectable part of him.

He smiles at me like he knows what’s going on in my head, but all he says is, “Want to take a bath with me?”

I do. I really do, but I’m nervous as well. Small space, both of us naked. The last thing I want to do is make a fool of myself all over again.

But again, it’s like Ethan has a direct line into my brain. Because he reaches a hand out to me and says, “Come on. I’ve got you, Chloe.”

And though I know it may be a bad idea, that it may end with me as disappointed and humiliated and miserable as our last two attempts at sex have, I take his hand. Because when he asks like that I can deny him nothing. And because if Ethan says it’s going to be all right, I can’t help but believe him.

I take his hand, let him pull me up. I wait, a little tense, a little unnerved, for him to undress me, but he makes no move to do so. Instead, he places a hand on my lower back and guides me gently into the bathroom.

I go where he leads, but I have to admit that it’s strange walking with Ethan when he’s naked and I’m fully dressed. Not uncomfortable strange, but weird strange, and I can’t help wonder why he hasn’t stripped me out of my clothes as easily as he stripped off his own.

Then he crouches down to check the temperature of the water, and as I stare at the nape of his neck, at the vulnerable expanse of his naked shoulders, it finally hits me. Him being naked while I’m clothed is a shift in the power dynamic between us. Though he’s very clearly in charge—I abdicated my control to him the moment I agreed to trust him in this—the fact that I’m clothed and he’s naked makes me the armored one. It takes away some of the vulnerability I’m feeling and puts it squarely on him.

My knees tremble at the thought. This man. This wonderful, strong, thoughtful man is doing everything to make this okay for me. He promised that he would, and while I gave him my trust out there on that patio, for the first time I’m really beginning to believe that things might actually work out. That this moment won’t end the way last night did, with me screaming and terrified of the specters from my past.

“It’s almost ready,” Ethan says from where he’s perched by the tub. He’s completely at ease with his nudity, completely relaxed being on display for me. Then again, it’s not like the man has any reason to be insecure. He’s so beautiful to look at that it actually hurts.

I reach for the bottom of the floaty yellow tank I’m wearing and pull it off in one fell swoop. Then I shimmy out of the pretty skirt before hanging both on a set of hammered chrome hooks that decorate the wall closest to the shower. Ethan watches me from eyes gone dark with desire, and I force myself to stand before him in my yellow bra and panties as I wait for him to make the next move.

He doesn’t make it. Instead, he smiles at me and says simply, “You’re so beautiful.”

“So are you.”

I can tell from his face that that’s the last thing he expected me to say. I flush a little, wondering if I’ve done something wrong, but then he throws his head back and laughs. “I’m glad you think so.”

“Me too.”

The water hits the three-quarter mark in the massive tub, and Ethan leans over to turn the faucet off. I figure that’s my cue to finish undressing, so I reach behind me and unclasp my bra. I’m smart enough to know if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it.

Seconds later, I’m standing naked before Ethan, feeling more intensely vulnerable than I have at any other time in my life, with the exception of that night with Brandon and the mess that followed after it. I can’t help being glad that Ethan got undressed first. If he hadn’t, if he’d been the fully clothed one watching me disrobe, I’m not sure I could have done it.

“Ready?” Ethan asks, once again holding out his hand. And once again, I take it. It’s not like I actually need his help climbing into the bathtub, but it’s nice to have it. More proof that I’m really not in this alone. After the last five years, it’s a good feeling. Surprising, unexpected, but good.

I settle in at one end of the tub, then watch as he climbs in and settles back against the other end. A little ball of stress I didn’t even know I’d been holding on to relaxes at the arrangement. I’d been afraid he would want to sit behind me, my back against his chest. I don’t know if I could have done that.

Ethan’s watching me, and again I feel like my thoughts are being broadcast across my forehead, because he chuckles a little. “Relax, Chloe. This is supposed to be fun.”

“It is fun.” I pick up a handful of bubbles and blow them at him, just to prove my point. Then I dissolve in a fit of giggles, because Ethan Frost looks hilarious with a clump of bubbles hanging off his perfect nose.

His eyes narrow at my hilarity, and the next thing I know, I’ve got a bubble mustache and beard dripping from my face. Not to mention two little horns on top of my head.

Determined not to be one-upped, I fashion a bubble flower—a daisy, or as close as I can get to one—and press it to the side of his head so that it looks like he’s got a flower stuck behind his ear.

I wait for him to retaliate, but instead of more bubble games, he grabs onto my foot and slowly presses his thumb to my insole.

An involuntary moan comes from deep in my throat and he laughs a little. But he doesn’t let up on the pressure. Instead, he rubs up and down the sole of my foot, pushing down on all the important pressure points. Then he spends a couple of minutes on my toes and heels before slipping his hands up my calf. He massages and kneads the muscles there until I can do nothing but lean back against the wall of the tub, eyes closed, and just enjoy.

Over and over he works up my calf and down my shin. Up and down, up and down, letting the hot water and the jets aid him in his quest to turn me into a quivering puddle of incoherency.

He does the same to my other foot and leg until I’m nearly insensate with pleasure. Then he drapes my foot over his shoulder and presses warm, sexy kisses to my ankle, my calf, the sensitive spot at the back of my knee.

I don’t even think to stop him. How can I when I barely have enough functioning brain cells left to remember my own name, let alone form actual words?

He moves to the other leg, kissing and licking and caressing his way from my ankle to my knee. Then, with a quick glance at my face that both excites me and somehow manages to break through my pleasure-drugged stupor to set me on edge, he skims his lips farther up my thigh.

“Chloe, baby, is this okay?” he asks, before nuzzling my inner thighs.

I nod, because how can I say no to something that feels so good? Something that I want so badly.

“Are you sure?” he asks again, even as his hands slide under my hips and lift me up to the surface of the water.

“Yes. Ethan, please. Please.” The words falling out of my mouth don’t make any sense, but I don’t care. I’m so hot, so turned on, and his mouth is right there. Right there. All I have to do is arch a little and his lips will be on me, his tongue inside me.

“If at any time you want me to stop,” he says, “just tell me.” And then he is there, his mouth on my sex. His fingers inside me. His tongue tracing along my slit until I’m a trembling, incoherent mess.