I find myself nodding and taking the ice pack. I don’t know why it’s so important to him, but it won’t hurt—and will probably help—me to do what he wants. “I have to go now.”
He glances at the Tag Heuer watch on his wrist. “What time was your meeting?”
“Like I don’t know that?” Just that easily I’m annoyed again. He says it so brusquely, like my extended tardiness is my fault instead of his. “You’re the one who insisted I put ice on the stupid bruise.”
“It’s not stupid. You need to take care of yourself.”
“I do take care of myself. I’ve managed to get myself to twenty in one piece, after all.”
“Twenty.” He draws the word out like he’s contemplating it…or savoring it. Savoring me. “You sound like that’s a huge accomplishment.”
I think automatically of Brandon, of my parents. “It’s a bigger accomplishment than you might think.”
The words pop out before I know I’m going to say them. Which is a mistake. I regret them as soon as they’ve left my mouth, and I glance up at Ethan, struggle to say something funny to defuse their meaning.
But it’s too late. His lips are tight, his shoulders tense, and his eyes have gone dark and stormy again. For a second it looks like he’s going to push for more information, and in my head I start scrambling for an explanation. For something, anything, I can tell him other than the truth.
But in the end, it isn’t necessary. Though I can see the questions in his eyes, on his lips, he chooses to back off. At least for now.
“Come on. I’ll walk you down to Building Three.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“Sure I do. You’re twenty minutes late to your meeting. Definitely not a great sign on your second day on the job.”
“I know that.” Already my stomach is tight with dread at the idea of facing my boss. What am I going to tell her? I doubt she’ll believe the truth. Besides, the last thing I want to admit is that I freaked out and nearly fell down half a flight of stairs. I’d really prefer not to be labeled a basket case, or a klutz, during my first week.
“So I’ll talk to Maryanne, tell her I detained you.” He opens the door, ushers me through—this time without his hand on my back. I miss it, even as I’m grateful that he’s taking my decision seriously. God, the man is turning me into a crazy person, one who can’t make up her mind from one second to the next.
“You don’t need to do that.”
“It’s not a problem.”
“I’m not a child. I can fight my own battles.”
He turns to look at me then. “I am well aware you’re not a child. You are a bright young woman with an even brighter future. I don’t want to see you start out your time here with undue strikes against you. Not because I’m interested in you, not because I think you’re beautiful, but because, after looking at your personnel records yesterday, I have a feeling that you are going to be a real asset to Frost Industries in the future.
“Mentioning my role in making you late is something I would do for any employee of mine, Chloe. Not just you. Okay?”
I struggle to find my voice in the rush of pleasure that hits me at the truth—and the approval—I hear in his voice. “Okay.”
“Good.” He smiles easily as we pass the security guards. “Thanks, Jose. Thanks, Danny.”
“Is Ms. Girard all right?” Jose asks solicitously.
“I’m fine,” I tell him, unwilling to be spoken about like I’m not here. I’ve spent too much of my life as a commodity, worked too hard to make myself more than that, to slip back into the role so easily. Another reason I should avoid Ethan Frost like the plague. It’s disturbing how easy it is for me to do what he wants me to do instead of what I think I should do.
Jose flushes a little guiltily. Nods at me. “I’m glad to hear that. Take care of yourself, Ms. Girard.”
Immediately I feel churlish. But I get the sense that Ethan is amused as he pauses so that I can precede him out the front door. “You have Jose wrapped around your finger and it’s only the beginning of your second day.”
“I think you’ve got him wrapped around your finger. He was completely normal when he checked me in to work this morning. And since the only thing that’s changed is you…”
We’re walking down the sidewalk at a fast clip now—but not too fast, as if Ethan is aware of just the right speed to go so as not to put undue pressure on my injured hip. Every few steps someone calls out a greeting or waves at him, and he returns each acknowledgment, nearly always calling the person by name. I don’t know how he does it. He’s the CEO of a large corporation, one that’s growing larger every day. And yet he knows all his employees’ names. Even hangs in the cafeteria and makes smoothies for them.
I think of the guy yesterday—not the trainee, but the one who came up and ordered a smoothie while I was there. He was friendly to Ethan, definitely seemed to know who he was. And yet didn’t find it odd at all that the CEO of Frost Industries was the one making him a smoothie.
I don’t understand. He’s a conundrum, a puzzle whose pieces don’t quite fit together, and the not knowing is going to drive me insane. I need to let it go, need to just put Ethan’s odd ways out of my head and go on with my life, but I’m afraid doing so is going to be much harder than it sounds. Especially when I want so desperately to figure him out.
“Why were you behind the juice bar counter yesterday, making that smoothie?” The words come out before I know I’m going to say them. “And why were you dressed like a surfer?”
“I am a surfer.”
“I know. But you’re also a CEO and this is your workplace. Board shorts seem inappropriate.”
He laughs. “You’ve obviously never seen the guys from R&D. Half the time I count myself lucky if they remember to wear clothes.”
If the R&D guys look anything like what I imagine they do, that’s an image I can definitely do without. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“You’re right, I didn’t.” For a minute I’m convinced he isn’t going to, either. But then he shakes his head ruefully. “It’s embarrassing, to be honest. The Frost Foundation gives a lot of money to ocean-centric charities, and the PR people thought it’d be a good idea to have some pictures of me surfing. Swore it would help draw more attention, and raise more money. Yesterday was the photo shoot.”
Of course. Ethan Frost the philanthropist is almost as famous as Ethan Frost the visionary. But since I can tell he really is embarrassed, I don’t comment on what he’s told me. Instead I ask, “And the smoothie making?”
“I’m very particular about my smoothies.” He looks dead serious now, which I find hilarious. I actually have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing when he continues, “Rodrigo was doing it wrong.”
“There’s really a wrong way to make a smoothie?”
His eyes gleam wickedly. “Chloe, sweetheart, there’s a wrong way to do just about everything.”
I’m almost sorry I asked. Almost.
* * *
It only takes us six or seven minutes to go between Buildings One and Three. And yet by the time we’re getting off the elevator at my floor, I’m a nervous wreck. Partly because I don’t want to face my boss and partly because everyone keeps staring at us. Yes, they’re acknowledging Ethan, calling out greetings to him, but they’re staring at me, too. Enough so that I know Ethan escorting a new employee around the premises, especially one with a bright green intern’s badge, is an unusual sight.
Too late I realize that he could have just as easily emailed my boss or had his secretary make the call. The fact that he’s hand-delivering me to the second-floor conference room makes all this feel like more than it is. More than I can let it be.
When we get to the conference room, he once again opens the door and gestures for me to precede him. He’s such a gentleman, even when I wish he wouldn’t be. It sounds cowardly, and I pride myself on facing up to my fears, but just this once, I wish he’d go in first. I can see my boss at the head of the conference table, the other seven interns I met yesterday sitting at attention on either side of her, hanging raptly on every word that she says. I’m certain none of them was even a minute late for the meeting.
Maryanne looks up the second the door opens. She doesn’t see Ethan right away because the way he’s holding the door open puts him to the left of her sightline. Which is fine—I don’t want him fighting my battles for me anyway—but the first step I take into the room feels like my first step on death row. Like I’m a dead woman walking her way straight to Frost Industries’s own version of the guillotine. Or the electric chair.
“Ms. Girard, thank you for joining us.” Maryanne’s voice rings through the room, sounding snippy and more than a little put out. “But the meeting started almost half an hour ago—”
“I kept her, Maryanne.” Ethan’s voice was charming, the look he shot my boss even more so. I don’t know what else he says to her because he crosses to where she’s sitting and speaks to her in a voice so low it becomes nothing but an indistinguishable murmur to the rest of us.
The other interns are all staring at me, some with curiosity and some with blatant hostility. I cross to one of the empty seats at the table and slide into it. My injured hip protests a little, but I ignore it. The last thing I want to do is show any weakness now.
I know that Ethan thinks he’s doing me a favor—and maybe he is, with my boss. But with the other interns all his appearance here is going to do is cause me grief. I can feel it in the assessing way the male interns are looking at me, as if they know exactly what Ethan and I were talking about earlier. The female interns aren’t as blatant—especially not Chrissy, who was my mentor yesterday, and the most welcoming of the group—but I can tell they, too, are putting the pieces together and coming up with a picture I really would rather they didn’t.
At the front of the room, Maryanne nods and smiles. Ethan steps back, says a few words to the room as a whole. Even stops to talk to a couple of the interns who are on the side closest to the door. They preen under his attention, and I know what he’s doing—he’s trying to protect me, trying to make things as easy for me as he possibly can. If him coming here with me ends up giving the other interns a chance to shine, then maybe I won’t get as much grief.
The knowledge warms me, even as I doubt that what he’s doing will have much of an effect. I’ve been the pariah before, I know how it works. And a few benign words from on high rarely gets the job done.
Sure enough, once Ethan leaves, most of the room goes back to staring at me. I concentrate on pulling my tablet out of my briefcase and preparing to take notes on whatever shit assignment my tardiness has left me with.
Maryanne makes no move to give me my assignment, though. Instead she dives right back into what they were doing when I got here, which is talking through the main points and areas of interest in each case that is being assigned this week. While different people are in charge of the research and grunt work for different contracts, Chrissy explained to me yesterday that Maryanne likes to go over the main points of all of them with the group so that we all learn the ins and outs of different types of contracts and research. And so we can take over for each other with as little disruption to the actual attorneys as possible if something goes wrong.
It’s actually an extremely valuable learning tool and I’m grateful to be included in the process, even if I don’t know what research I’m going to be working on. By the time the meeting breaks up at ten-fifteen, I have page upon page of notes and a much better idea of some of the main cases deciding intellectual property law in the tech industry today.
The others file out, but I wait behind for my chance to talk to Maryanne. I still don’t have any research assigned to me, but I didn’t want to bring that up during the meeting. I’ve already been the object of enough speculation and interest today to last me for the rest of the summer.
Chrissy hangs at the door for a minute until she snags my attention. Then she mouths for me to come find her when I’m done.
Some of the knots in my stomach slowly untwist themselves. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Maybe everything will be all right after all.
But then Maryanne finishes the conversation she’s having with Rick, one of the interns who has been here the longest. He doesn’t look happy when he turns away from her, but he keeps a professional demeanor—at least until his back is to Maryanne and his eyes meet mine. Then he glares at me and mouths the word “slut” before walking to the conference room door with a calmness that belies the hatred I saw in his gaze.