I plan to arrive at work thirty minutes early. I figure that will give me time to get to Building One, where the CEO’s office is, deliver the package, and make it to the second floor of Building Three, where my office is, with plenty of time to spare. But it turns out all the extra half hour I gave myself did for me was strand me in traffic. So by the time I get to work, I have only ten minutes to deliver my package.
It could wait for lunchtime, but I’m determined to get it out of my car and my mind. Then I can move on with the day and I won’t have to think about Juice Guy—Mr. Frost—anymore. His office is on the top floor of the building, which means waiting forever for the elevator since I don’t use stairwells by myself. Ever. Normally, elevators don’t bother me, but with only eight minutes to spare, I know waiting for one will mean I’m cutting it even closer.
So I try to take the stairs, even open the door and start to go in. But even that has me breaking out in a sweat, all the bad memories from years ago at boarding school swamping me. Nope, can’t do it. It’s definitely the elevator for me.
When I finally emerge onto the fifth floor, I walk straight off the elevator into a lush—dare I say opulent—waiting room. I don’t have to read the sign on the wall to know I’ve found the CEO’s office. Overstuffed couches, thick carpeting, expensive art—all done in rich autumnal golds and reds and browns. Even the coffee and side tables are dark, heavy wood instead of the glass and chrome you find in most offices these days. I have to admit I find it interesting that one of the foremost tech guys in the world has an outer office filled with antique furniture.
Not that it matters, except it’s another contradiction. Surf bum versus tech genius. Juice Guy versus CEO. Antiques collector versus visionary. Against my will, I’m fascinated. The part of me that’s determined to understand how things fit together wants to scatter all the different pieces of him out in front of me, then watch closely as I put them back together so I can see—really see—how they all line up. How they all work together.
Not that I’ll ever get the chance. After all, I’m here to return a blender. Anything else is completely out of the question.
The reception area is manned by an attractive older woman, one whose stern look says she could take on the devil and win—and probably already has. As I approach, she looks down her nose at me, no mean feat considering she’s sitting down and I’m almost five-nine. It’s a good look, one that I vow to practice until I can successfully imitate it. I’m sure at some point in my career as an intellectual property attorney a look like that will come in handy.
“Do you have an appointment?” she asks when I stop directly in front of her desk. Not once does she look at the large box in my arms, which I think shows admirable restraint considering it’s not every day people carry giant blenders into the CEO’s office with them. Then again, what do I know? Maybe Ethan Frost really does send Vitamixes to all his employees—in which case, I look even more stupid trying to return it than I already think I do.
“I don’t have an appointment. But—”
“Mr. Frost doesn’t see anyone without an appointment.”
“I understand that. But all I want—”
“You’re free to leave a message with your name, number, and what business you’d like to see him about. I will pass the message on. If he’s willing to see you, you’ll receive a call in twenty-four to forty-eight hours to set up the appointment.”
She delivers the whole speech in a perfectly polite tone, but it manages to get my back up anyway. Maybe it’s because of the way she’s looking at me—like I’m just a bug buzzing around the esteemed Mr. Frost—or maybe it’s because she assumes she knows what I’m going to say before I say it. I get that she’s the first line of defense between the public and one of the most revered CEOs on the planet, but really, he’s just not that special.
Liar. The little voice inside me is back, but this time I’m flatout refusing to listen to it. Especially since last time all it did was get me into trouble. So I wait for the receptionist to pick up her pen and message pad and then say, “I don’t need an appointment with Mr. Frost.”
She sighs heavily. “Everyone needs an appointment if they want to see—”
Completely fed up by this point, not to mention very aware of the minutes ticking away, I cut her off by dropping the blender on her desk with a resounding thump. “I just want to return this to him. There’s a note attached, but I’m sure he’ll know who it’s from. Thank you.”
I turn and walk away before she can say anything else. As I wait for the elevator, I’m conscious of her eyes on me and I try not to fidget as precious seconds and minutes slip away.
By the time eight o’clock rolls around and I am officially late for work, I’ve had it with waiting for the elevator. Though I’m sick to my stomach at the thought of taking the stairs, I’m even sicker at the thought of showing up any later to work. This is so not how I planned to impress my new boss.
The fear of making an ass of myself and somehow losing the internship is what finally gets me moving toward the stairwell. It’s broad daylight in one of the most reputable companies in the country. There’s no place safer for me to take the stairs, so I need to stop being a baby and just do it.
I’ve made it down one flight of steps—a task which is much easier today in my sensible navy pumps than it would have been yesterday in those ridiculous Louboutins, thank God—when I hear the stairwell door above me slam open. Though I know it’s ridiculous, know I’m completely safe, ice skates down my spine anyway. Freezes me in place for what feels like endless seconds.
Panic twists up inside me, makes my breathing quicken and my heart beat faster. It’s what I need—I start moving again, jogging down the stairs as fast as I can without looking like an utter lunatic.
But whoever is in here with me is moving even faster than I am. I can hear his shoes slapping on the concrete steps, know he’s gaining on me. He’s getting closer and closer and the fight-or-flight response goes into full effect inside me now. As images of the past bombard me, every instinct I have is telling me to run, to forget dignity and get the hell out of here as fast as I possibly can.
I listen, start running full-out now, my purse dangling from numb fingertips as I race for the ground floor. Maybe I’d do better exiting onto the second floor, but it’s early still, the back halls nearly deserted. The lobby is my best bet. If I can just get there—
My heel catches on the edge of one of the steps and I trip, go flying. I’m about six or seven steps from the bottom of the staircase and I know if I go down, it’s going to hurt. Not to mention give whoever’s chasing me the chance he’s been looking for.
Desperate to stop the fall, I claw at the railing, try to catch myself. I miss, the cool railing slipping through my fingers. I feel a bump, followed by a sharp pain in my hip. But I’m too busy trying to avoid injury to pay much attention. By now I know I’m going to fall, so I attempt to brace myself. Hunch my shoulders and try to tuck myself into a ball, like my self-defense instructors taught me.
But before I can hit the ground, a strong hand grabs my arm, stops my descent in midair. It’s the guy who’s been chasing me. I just know it. And while logic insists that I have nothing to fear from the man who just stopped my fall, the specter of my past is all around me. Clawing at me. Choking me. Destroying the peace of mind I’ve worked so hard for.
I’m frantic now, so crazed with fear that everything but instinct goes straight out the window. I lash out, try to kick him even as I’m still dangling over the stairs.
He blocks my kick, then yanks me toward him with his other hand. He keeps pulling until my feet are back on the step—and I’m wrapped in his arms, my back to his front.
I’m surrounded by him on all sides now, the hardness of his chest and stomach and thighs pressing against me even as his scent works itself into my consciousness. He smells like the ocean on a wild, storm-tossed day. Like moonlight on the open water. Like rain falling through leaves. All that with an underlying, barely discernible, hint of blueberries.
Suddenly I know who’s holding me, even before he growls, “Damn it, Chloe. Stop fighting me. I’ve got you.”
Juice Guy. Mr. Frost. Ethan.
Suddenly I’m furious, so furious that it overshadows the fear of being held so intimately. Of course it’s him. Why wouldn’t it be? The universe seems to have decided that if I’m going to make a fool of myself, he’s going to be there to watch it.
Then again, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been in any of these stupid situations to begin with. I sure as hell wouldn’t be in this damn stairwell right now, after having nearly plummeted to certain injury. It also means I wouldn’t be standing here, my body pressed intimately against a virtual stranger’s while every nerve I have stands at attention and my heart nearly beats out of my chest.
“Can you let me go, please?” I jerk against his hold, try to wrench my elbow from his grasp. Again, not the smartest move, but I need him to let me go. When he touches me I feel all kinds of things, things I don’t have a clue how to deal with.
But Ethan’s having no part of my bid for freedom. He holds me firmly, painlessly, as he guides me down the last six steps until we’re on the landing that opens to the lobby. Only then does he relinquish his hold and step away.
For long seconds he doesn’t say anything, and neither do I. I know he’s waiting for me to look at him, know he’ll wait all day if he has to. But I don’t have that luxury, so finally—reluctantly—I turn to him. “Thank you for catching me,” I say.
I also want to tell him it’s his fault I was falling in the first place, but I think I’ve done enough to alienate the man in the last twenty-four hours. No need to actually beg him to fire me. Besides, now that I know who was pursuing me on the stairs, my whole headlong flight makes me look a little too much like a basket case for comfort—even without explaining where my phobia comes from.
But then he says it for me. “It seemed the least I could do, since I was the one who made you fall.” He eyes me critically, looking for I don’t know what. “Are you all right?”
“Are you sure? It looked like you banged your hip against the railing when you started to tumble.”
“I don’t think so.” But now that he mentions it, I do feel an ache in my right hip that wasn’t there before. Wonderful.
I push at the sore spot a little, bite my lip to keep from whimpering when pain radiates out from under my fingers. So much for those self-defense classes I’ve invested so much time and money in over the last couple of years. What do I do the first time I’m in a sketchy situation? Panic and forget nearly everything they taught me.
Ethan’s watching me closely, so closely that I know he sees me flinch. His eyes darken to near black and he growls, “Let’s get you some ice.” For the first time I see the CEO and not the surf bum, and it has nothing to do with the expensive Italian suit he’s wearing.
Then his hand is back, only this time it’s not grabbing my arm. It’s resting in the center of my lower back as he gently propels me forward. I’m uncomfortable with him so close, with the heat that radiates through him and into me and with the sudden possessiveness of his hold. As a rule, I don’t let men touch me there. It’s too personal, too intimate. Ethan should be no exception.
Except he is, because I don’t step away. Don’t shrug him off. Instead, I let him guide me to the stairwell door, even wait pliantly while he opens it.
I’m limping a little, and he must notice, because he stops. Eyes me sharply. “Can you walk or do you need me to carry you?”
“Seriously?” I roll my eyes at him. “It’s a bruise. I think I can handle it.”
He doesn’t answer, just waits for me to pass through the doorway ahead of him. When we get to the lobby, I start to head for the front door—a glance at my watch says I’m already five minutes late reporting for work—but he stops me with a look. “You need ice.”
“What I need is to get to my office.”
“I’m sure the legal contracts department will survive without you for ten minutes.” He guides me across the lobby to the front desk, where two security guards are supervising the scanning of employee badges as people arrive for their workday. “Jose, Ms. Girard injured herself in the stairwell. Could you please get her a bag of ice?”
The bald security guard all but leaps to his feet. “Sure thing, Mr. Frost.” He turns to me. “Are you all right, Ms. Girard?”
“She tripped, banged against the railway. Nearly fell down the stairs.” Ethan speaks over me, and it gets my back up all over again. I spent most of my life being ignored by my family. No way am I going to put up with it from him, too. He might be my boss three times removed, but the vibes rolling off him today don’t feel like employer-employee to me, any more than the ones yesterday did.