They must not feel that way to Jose, either, because in the course of twenty minutes he’s gone from teasingly calling me “new girl” to calling me “Ms. Girard” in the same formal tone he uses when he speaks to Ethan.
The difference sets my teeth on edge, so much so that when he asks, “Should I call for a doctor?” I all but shout at him.
“No, I don’t need a doctor! I have a bruise. It’s no big deal.” I make a show of glancing at my watch. “I also have a meeting that starts in ten minutes that I do not want to be late for.”
My mentor had explained to me that Tuesday mornings are when the new assignments get divvied up to the interns. If you want a good one, you need to be there early, ready to present your case. Unfortunately, at the rate these two are moving, I’ll probably end up researching the most boring, nastiest contract in the bunch. So not what I had planned for my first week at my dream job.
“Jose.” That’s all Ethan says, but the security guard immediately turns and heads toward the cafeteria at a jog.
Tired of biting my tongue, I turn toward Ethan with an exasperated sigh. “Really! Are you serious with this?”
“I’m very serious. The health of my employees is important to me.”
Once again he rests his hand on my lower back and propels me forward. This time it’s into the small room to the side of the security desk. Inside is one security guard and a ton of monitors that show different areas of the property. “Give us a minute, will you, Danny?”
“Sure, Mr. Frost.” He gets up right away but eyes me curiously as he heads for the door.
At the rate things are going, I can’t begin to imagine what gossip will be circulating about me by lunchtime. Just the thought makes me crazy. I came all the way to California for school three years ago to get away from the gossip about me and another rich guy. The last thing I want is to go through all that again.
I close my eyes, shake my head. I can’t believe this. I just can’t believe it. I wanted so badly to fit in here, to find a place for myself. I’d even hoped that maybe I could return here once I’d graduated, to continue interning while I worked my way through law school. Because of my family—my brother—intellectual property law in the tech world is a subject that’s very important to me. And I know that if I keep my grades up and do as well in law school as I plan to, I’ll be able to find a job at any number of places. But, again, Frost Industries is one of the most exciting companies to work for in the world. Being here is a dream come true, and I cannot believe Ethan Frost himself is screwing that up for me.
Determined to get him to stop this thing—whatever it is—before it gets even more out of hand, I clear my throat. Prepare my arguments. When I finally feel like I’m ready to speak, I say, “Mr. Frost.”
He just looks at me, strokes his fingers over the back of my hand. I shiver despite myself. His touch is light, delicate even—as if he’s afraid he might break me. But there’s a heat that comes with his touch, too. One that confuses me, makes me stumble over my own thoughts. “Call me Ethan.”
“Mr. Frost, I—”
I don’t know why this is so important to him, but it is. Obviously. Still, I know if I give in—if I call him by his given name—it will shift things between us. Hand him some kind of power over me, some kind of right to what I say or do, and I’m not okay with that. I think back to the cafeteria yesterday, to that damn blueberry smoothie, and I promise myself that this time I won’t do as he asks.
“Mr. Frost, I really need to get to work. I appreciate your concern, but it’s unnecessary. And, frankly, it’s embarrassing.”
At first he looks like he’s going to argue with the fact that I still haven’t used his given name, but then he gets distracted by what I’ve said. “My attention embarrasses you?”
“Well, yeah. Obviously.” I gesture to the empty room around us. “Unless commandeering security booths so that you can talk to your female employees is something you do every day—”
“Then this is extremely embarrassing. Everyone in that lobby was staring at me because you were with me. You were touching me.”
He raises a brow. “A hand at your back is simple courtesy.”
“No,” I correct him, because I’m not crazy and I won’t let him make me feel that I am. “Offering your arm is simple courtesy. Your hand on my lower back is something else entirely.”
“Really?” He smiles at me, just a subtle turning up of his lips that shouldn’t raise my blood pressure or send shivers down my spine. Somehow it does both. “What is it, then?”
“What is…what?” I stumble over the words a little as I try to get my brain cells back in working order.
“My hand on your back. If it isn’t courtesy, what is it?”
Intimacy. The word is right there on my lips, and I nearly say it. Nearly blurt it out. But I can’t, because it’s crazy to think such a thing, let alone say it. Crazier still to want it. Which I don’t, I assure myself. I never have.
Except I feel strangely bereft now that he has let go of my hand. It’s an odd feeling, and one I don’t like. I take a step back, two, and I can tell from the way he narrows his eyes that he’s not happy with my sudden retreat. But before he can say anything, the door slams open. Jose stands there, a grin on his face and a large bag of ice in his hand.
Ethan walks over to take the ice from him, and I shudder in relief. I feel like a prisoner who’s just been granted a stay of execution—relieved but still unsteady, because I know it can be taken away at any moment.
Sure enough, Ethan waits for Jose to back out of the room before closing the door behind him. I watch as he locks it this time, and any relief I felt slowly drains away. Because he’s stalking toward me, a long, lean panther of a man whose intentions are clearly written on his face. Intentions that are a long way from honorable.
“Where does it hurt?” he asks after he stops in front of me.
“Hurt?” My mouth is so dry I can barely get the word out.
“Your hip. Where’s the bruise?”
“Oh, right.” I yank my eyes away from his too-pretty face, gesture awkwardly to the top of my hip. “Here.”
I try to take the ice pack from him, but he brushes my hand away. Then slowly, gently, presses it to my hip.
His fingers are big and warm where they rest against my waist, a direct contrast to the cold of the ice pack. For long seconds, I don’t move. Don’t breathe. I can’t. Not when he’s so close that I can feel the brush of his hair against my cheek as he tilts his head down to watch what he’s doing.
“Is this the spot?”
“Yes.” My breath breaks on the single syllable.
His head jerks up then, his gaze locking onto mine. I’ve never seen eyes so intensely blue—or so turbulent, like the storm-tossed Pacific as it beats against the shore.
The way he’s looking at me is overwhelming. Terrifying. Mesmerizing. Like he wants to devour me and at the same time shelter me. I stand frozen—nothing so much as prey to his predator—while I wait to see which instinct will win out.
He lifts his hand to my face, runs his fingers down the line of my jaw. His touch is soft, so soft, and I can’t help myself. I lean into it, press my cheek into the palm of his hand until he’s cupping my face.
The hand on my hip tightens convulsively but then he closes his eyes, takes a few deep breaths. His hand relaxes again, and when he opens his eyes they are filled with unspeakable tenderness.
“Chloe.” My name sounds almost reverent on his lips.
“Have dinner with me.”
“Tonight.” His thumb whispers across my lips. “I want to take you out.”
I’m so lost in his touch, in the feel of his skin against mine, that I can barely focus on his words. Or on my answer. There’s a part of me that knows that this is a bad idea. That it won’t work out the way he wants it to. It can’t, not when I’m involved. It’s why I always say no when a man asks me out or when Tori tries to discuss setting me up with someone.
But standing here, wrapped up in Ethan—drowning in him—I want to say yes. I want to go out with him, want to see if he’ll touch me this sweetly, this tenderly, when we’re on a date together. Want to find out if my instincts, which are telling me that I can trust him, are right.
For a moment, just a moment, I turn my face into his hand. Let my lips brush against his surprisingly callused palm. He stiffens—in surprise or arousal or something else entirely, I can’t tell. But before he can say or do anything else, I pull away. And give him the only answer I can.
After all, my instincts may want to trust him, but the rest of me isn’t nearly as easy to impress…or fool.
Ethan actually jolts a little in surprise at my answer, his brows raising nearly to his hairline. “No?”
It’s like he’s never heard the word before, but I know for a fact that isn’t true. I said it to him myself, just yesterday. Right before I did exactly what he wanted me to.
Color rushes into my cheeks at the thought, even though I know that this time is going to be different. This time I’m not giving in to him. I can’t. No matter how much I ache to do just that.
“No,” I repeat. “I’m sorry, but it’s just not a good idea.”
At first I think he’s going to argue. He tilts his head to the side, stares at me for long seconds like he’s building an argument in his head. But in the end, all he asks is, “Why?”
“Because! This internship means a lot to me. I busted my butt to get it, turned down other internships at other places just for the chance to work here. There’s no way I’m going to compromise everything I worked for just to go on a date with you.”
“Just to go on a date with me, huh?” He sounds more amused than offended, but still I feel the need to clarify.
“You know what I mean! I—”
“It’s okay, Chloe. But I want you to know that no matter what happens with us—or doesn’t happen—your internship is secure. You earned that spot and no one is going to take it away from you for dating me, or for not dating me. The two things have nothing to do with each other.”
And my friends all think I’m naive? I don’t know how Ethan can stand there and tell me so convincingly that my dating him will have no impact on my internship. Maybe he really believes it, maybe he’s just trying to placate me, but the truth is, it’s a completely absurd assumption. Already people are looking at me differently, and I’m pretty sure in the fifteen minutes we’ve been in here, gossip has begun to run rampant. After all, Ethan told me himself that he isn’t in the habit of closeting himself in the company’s security headquarters with all that many female employees.
“Maybe not, but I can’t take that risk. I’m sorry, Ethan.”
He studies me for a moment, as if assessing the strength of my conviction. But then the calculation slips out of his eyes as quickly as it entered. “Well, at least I got you to call me Ethan instead of Mr. Frost like in that ridiculous letter,” he tells me with a grin. “That’s something, I suppose.”
I blanch as I realize I’ve done just that when I’ve been working so hard to keep things professional between us. When did I start thinking of him as Ethan? And how could I be so stupid as to call him by his first name? The last thing I need is to encourage him—or to slip up and refer to him as Ethan when I’m with someone from the company.
My chagrin must show on my face, because he takes a step back. “I’m just messing with you, Chloe. I do know how to take no for an answer.” He lifts the ice pack away from my hip. “How’s that bruise feeling?”
The abrupt change in subject throws me off balance, as does his switch from teasingly intimate to remotely impersonal. His smile is gone, as are the warm little crinkles by his eyes. In their place is the poker face of a top executive, one who knows how to keep his thoughts well hidden.
I feel an immediate sense of loss. Which is stupid—he’s giving me exactly what I want. Treating me like any other employee. And yet as he steps away from me, I immediately miss his heat. His closeness. His concern.
“It’s fine. I told you before. It’s just a little bruise.”
“Still, it doesn’t hurt to be careful.” He extends the ice pack to me. “Ice it again in fifteen minutes. It will keep the bruising from getting too bad.”
“I don’t need—”
“Chloe.” It’s the firmest I’ve heard his voice in two days, and it snaps me to attention. Speaks to something deep inside me that I still don’t understand. “Can you do what I ask without arguing? Just this once. Please? I promise not to let it go to my head.”