Still, we can’t go on this way. “Let me go, Ethan.”
“I tried. Believe me. I tried to let you go. But I just can’t. I need you too much.” Shuddering, he buries his face against my throat. There’s a selfish part of me that wants to shrug him off, to reject him the way he rejected me, but I can’t do it. I can’t harden my heart to him any more than I can keep my body from him. Good or bad, Ethan Frost owns me. And, I realize as the desperation of his hold finally sinks in, I own him, too.
Silence stretches between us for far too long. Finally, when I can’t take it anymore, I demand, “Tell me why. If you want me to stay, you need to tell me why you did this. Why you tried to tear us apart so completely.”
He stiffens against me, pulls away. Puts me gently on the floor. My legs try to buckle when they first try to take my weight again, but Ethan grabs on to me. Holds me until I’m steady.
As I wait for him to speak, I retrieve my panties and yoga pants. Start to pull them on, then realize I’m wet with him. Ethan didn’t wear a condom.
For long seconds, my mind boggles at the realization. But before I can even begin to wrap my head around what that might mean, Ethan takes my hand and tugs me toward the closest bathroom.
“I wasn’t thinking.”
“Neither of us was.”
“It’s fine,” I tell him, having already done the calculations in my head. “We’re fine.”
He nods but doesn’t say anything else. Just wets a washcloth and cleans me up before tenderly—so tenderly—helping me dress. Only then, when I’m fully clothed and as armored as I can get, does he say, “I was trying to save you.”
“Save me?” I look at him in disbelief. “Let’s be honest. More likely you were trying to save yourself.”
“It’s too late for that. It has been for more years than I can count.”
“I don’t believe that. Everybody knows how amazing the great Ethan Frost is. Everybody loves you.”
He shakes his head. “Because nobody knows me.”
“I know you.”
“You don’t. If you did, you’d run out that door and never come back.”
“I tried that. You’re the one who stopped me.”
He closes his eyes, lowers his head like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. “Don’t you get it? I’m going to end up destroying you, Chloe.”
I gesture to myself, to the tearstains and the mess and the hands that still won’t stop shaking. “You pretty much already have.”
“Don’t say that.” He rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “Don’t even think it.”
I watch him for long seconds, trying to figure out what to do. Trying to find the hate or the rage, something that would make it easier to ignore Ethan and walk right out the door. But I’m still weak from his lovemaking and his tears and his need, so nothing comes, nothing but the mangled compassion that reinforces the knowledge that I still love him. That I’ll always love him.
“You need the peas.”
He stares at me without comprehension. “Excuse me?”
“Your face is swelling up more every minute. You need to put the peas on your eye and your cheek.”
“Do you think I give a damn about my face right now?”
“I don’t know what you give a damn about, Ethan. That’s the problem.” I stand up and start toward the kitchen.
This time, he follows me—after picking up the broken belly chain from where it fell on the foyer floor.
A couple of minutes later, he’s settled at the kitchen table holding the bag of peas to his face. I’m across the room, arms wrapped around myself. After everything that’s happened, I don’t trust myself to get too close to him, and I don’t trust him at all.
“It’s been a bad couple of days,” he finally says. “I found out some stuff about my family that—” He breaks off, shakes his head.
“No. My mom and brother.”
“You have a brother? I didn’t know that.” The news reports never mention him, or Ethan’s mom. She and his father divorced long before he became a national hero, so the only people in the public eye when he died were Ethan and his grandparents. It seems strange that no one’s picked up on this other side of his family, but then again, they’ve never been important to the story of his life, so why should the media care?
“He’s my half brother. My mom remarried.”
“What does that have to do with you?” With us?
“My mom’s pretty much a crazy person, always has been. Oh, she puts on a good show, but she is definitely a little nuts. Anyway, after she left my father, she never wanted much to do with me. She had a new husband, a new son, a new life. There was no room in it for me.
“And that was fine. I had my grandparents and my dad. I didn’t need her. But there was my brother, you know. I worried about him. Her husband seemed nice enough, but…who knew what went on behind closed doors?
“So from the time I’ve been old enough, I’ve kind of made a point of checking in on him. Make sure he’s doing okay.”
“Is he?” Despite myself, I’m fascinated by this glimpse into Ethan’s mind. Fascinated and worried, because if the way tonight has gone is any indication, this story isn’t going to have a happy ending.
“Yeah, he’s doing good. Better than he should be, probably,” he mutters darkly.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“When he was younger, he got into some trouble. Stupid stuff, mostly. I helped him get out of it. Figured with a mom like his, it was only logical that he’d have some problems. Except I screwed up. I got him out of too much trouble. Made things too easy for him.”
I reach for his hand. “You’re his brother. It’s only natural to want to save him from his mistakes.”
“Don’t say that. I can take that from anyone else, but I can’t take it from you. Not right now.”
Now I’m totally confused, but I don’t say anything. I just watch him, let him get it all out.
“On Thursday night, I found out that some of the trouble he was in…some of the trouble I was certain wasn’t his fault actually was. And I got him out of it.”
Thursday night. The night everything changed. The tight ball of hurt inside me loosens just a little. It doesn’t disappear, but I know about making bad decisions. Know about wanting to push people away.
“I fucked up, Chloe. I fucked up bad. Like I always do.”
“Ethan, that’s ridiculous. You fuck up less than anyone I know.” I reach for his hand, squeeze it. “But you’re not perfect. Nobody is.”
He looks from me to the broken belly chain that he still has clutched in his hand. “Yeah, obviously I’m not perfect.”
I bite my lip, look away. “Why did you say those things, Ethan? Why did you break up with me over something that has nothing to do with us?”
He watches me for long seconds, his eyes so dark and miserable that I can barely stand to look into them. I’ve never seen Ethan like this, never seen him look so defeated. So destroyed.
Finally, when I’m certain he’s not going to answer me, he says, “I’ve only ever loved a few people in my life, Chloe, and I’ve fucked it up with all of them. In one stupid, spiteful moment I ruined everything between my father and me, and he died before I could fix it.”
“That wasn’t your fault.”
“You don’t know that. My grandparents lost everything trying to help me achieve my dream of getting Frost Industries off the ground. And I let them. I didn’t know what they’d done, but I should have. They died before I could make it up to them.
“My brother. I’ve helped my mother ruin him without even knowing what I was doing.
“And now there’s you. And I’m terrified I’m going to destroy you, too.”
There’s not much I can say to that after the scene I made here tonight. I still don’t like the way he handled things and I’m still hurt that his first thought was to cut me out of his life. But if he thought he was protecting me, saving me from some ridiculous streak of bad luck, then I can forgive him. God knows I’m not exactly logical when it comes to the people I love, either.
My meltdown tonight being a perfect example of that.
“The only way you’re going to destroy me is if you cut yourself off from me. I freaked out tonight because I was already upset, Ethan. Already worried about you because you’d stopped calling and answering my texts. I was afraid you’d been hurt or gotten sick. Then when you treated me like that…it was like you were throwing me away. Like I didn’t matter to you any more than I mattered to those guys from high school.
“I’m not saying you have to stay with me forever. None of us knows what’s going to happen next week or next month or next year. But if you decide to leave again—”
I shake my head, refusing to let him get away with such shortsightedness. “If you decide things aren’t working out, all I ask is that you break things off in a reasonable way. I don’t need much, but a little compassion would be nice. Something that proves to me that I’m something more than some girl you picked up to fuck for a weekend.” My voice breaks and I turn away, taking a few deep breaths as I try to get myself under control.
“Don’t even say that, Chloe.” Ethan is up and in my face again, where he’s been pretty much from the moment I met him. “You’re not some girl. You’re the only girl. The only one who’s ever mattered to me. The only one who ever will.”
“You don’t know that.” I unconsciously echo his earlier words. But the truth is neither of us knows what’s going to happen. Not tomorrow and certainly not six months or a year from now.
“I do. I do know exactly that.” He takes my hand, presses it to his lips. “I just got confused and let all the shit in my head get out of control. It won’t ever happen again.”
I want to believe him. Of course I do. But I don’t know if I can. There’s more than what he’s telling me. I can sense it, feel it, and I don’t want to be blindsided by it again. Don’t want him to push me away the next time it comes up and he can’t deal.
But at the same time, it’s not like I have room to talk. There are some pretty big things I haven’t told him about my past, either. And while someday I hope I can, I know this isn’t the right time. For either of us. Not when the wounds from tonight are still so fresh, so raw. Not when we’re both still so vulnerable and shaky.
I’m still shocked at how easy it was for me to completely fall apart. I thought I was better. I wanted to be better. Now I don’t know if I can trust myself, let alone Ethan. And I hate that I feel that way.
But we’ve only known each other a couple of weeks, only been together less than that. There’s no rule, no timeline, about when we have to parade all our scars to each other. Maybe it’s enough that we’re trying. That we’re getting there, slowly.
“I’m scared,” I tell him.
“I know, baby. I know.”
“Please. Don’t hurt me like this again.”
His eyes are raw with a pain I don’t understand and can’t connect to. “I never want to hurt you again. In any way.” They aren’t the words I asked for, aren’t the words I want to hear. But combined with the tender, desperate look in his eyes, they’re enough.
He reaches for me then, pulls me up and into his arms, and I go. Of course I go. Because he’s Ethan and he’s mine, the same way that I’m his. Absolutely. Unconditionally. Irrevocably.
It’s not perfect. Not yet. And maybe it never will be. But as he leans down and takes my mouth with his own, it’s more than enough. For me. For him. For us.
“Wake up, sleepyhead.” Ethan rolls over on top of me and kisses my cheeks and lips and forehead.
I smile sleepily, stretch a little. “You’re the one who talked me into playing hooky today. I don’t have to wake up.”
“No. I called Maryanne and told her I needed you for a very important project in the CEO’s office today,” he corrects me as he slips inside me.
I arch against him, moaning softly at how good he feels. “Is that what you call this? An important project?”
“The most important.”
Our lovemaking this morning is as tender as last night’s was wild, as lazy as last night’s was frantic. And I love every second of it. Then again, I love everything Ethan does to me. I always have. I always will.
And while a part of me feels guilty for ditching work today, I know that Ethan and I need this time. After everything that happened yesterday, I’m not ready to be separated from him. I can tell by the look in his eyes and the possessive way he touches me that he feels the same way.