“I know the one.” Suddenly my heart is beating hard for a whole different reason.
“I was fascinated. The argument you made was original, well researched, and well thought out, and also happens to be exactly what I believe about those cases and that particular issue.”
I stare at him. “It’s not a popular stand. In fact, I nearly didn’t submit that paper at all because I was afraid it would work against me.”
“But you did submit it. And while your opinion varies even from that of my chief counsel, it dovetails nicely with my own. If I hadn’t met you, I might not have given you the Trifecta merger based solely on the merits of that paper, but I would have seriously considered it. Having met you and been impressed by both your intellect and your spirit, it was a no-brainer. I’d decided to request that you do the research for the merger even before I saw you this morning.”
I stare at him, trying to judge his level of sincerity. He certainly looks like he’s telling the truth, but that doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things. CEOs for Dummies and all that—I’m sure he’s an expert liar when he wants to be.
But I want to believe him, so badly that it’s a burning in my gut. Because if what he’s saying is true, if he believes in me because of my brain and not just because of how I look, then I don’t want to give up this project. I want to grab on to it with both hands and show him—show everyone—just what I can do. Maybe that’s arrogant, but I don’t give a damn.
I’ve done my research, hours and days and months of research, on intellectual property laws. I know I have more to learn—of course I do—but I would put my knowledge base up against Rick’s any day.
Suddenly the need to take this new position out for a spin is a driving urgency inside of me. One that makes all the shit from earlier seem not so bad. Because as long as I know the truth, as long as I believe I got the position because of what I’ve done and not because the boss wants to date me, then the rest doesn’t matter.
“Do you mean it?” I finally ask Ethan. “You think I’m good enough to do this project?”
“My company wouldn’t be as successful as it is if I was in the habit of putting incompetent people into positions that matter, Chloe. I don’t know how many other ways to say it.”
He’s right. I need to either believe him or not, but I can’t keep asking him the same thing over and over again. Deciding that the sincerity on his face is real, as are his reassurances that any attraction he has for me is separate from my work, I relax for the first time since I opened that box last night.
“Thank you for giving me the shot,” I tell him.
He grins. “You look like you swallowed the sun.”
“I feel like I did. I promise I’ll do a good job on the project.”
“I have no doubt.” His smile fades. “But what’s going on over there? You said you’re having problems with the other interns?”
I think of Rick’s smarmy face, of Chrissy’s total lack of friendliness after she realized what project I was assigned. None of it seems so bad now, not when I know that I got the job because Ethan believes in me. “It’s no big deal. I can handle it.”
He doesn’t look pleased. “What exactly do you have to handle?”
“Nothing you need to worry about.”
“You sure about that?”
“Positive.” I push to my feet. “Thank you for your time. I won’t keep you.”
He reaches out, snags my elbow. “What if I want to keep you?”
The question hangs in the air between us, and it occurs to me that he’s talking about a lot more than just this moment. A lot more than I’m prepared to even consider.
It’s there in the air between us. In the look on his face and the conviction in his voice.
In the way his thumb brushes against my inner elbow with whisper-soft strokes.
In the way he angles his body so that he’s on the outside, shielding me, protecting me from I don’t know what.
And it’s there in the butterflies in my stomach, the electric sparks racing from one nerve ending to the other.
I’m shocked by how much I want to say yes. Yes to dinner, yes to a walk on the beach, yes to what comes after. But nothing’s changed between when I came charging up here and now. Nothing but my perceptions. The rest of the world is exactly the same. I’m exactly the same. As damaged—as ruined—as ever.
I don’t want Ethan to see it, to see me. If he does, he’ll know just how broken I am, and I’ve spent too many years trying to keep my past private to simply roll over and expose the underbelly of my secrets now. Even if there is something about him that makes me want to.
“I need to go.”
His eyes narrow at the huskiness of my voice, and he stands up. Steps closer to me. Watches me with an intensity that says he notices everything. Sees everything.
It’s what I’m most afraid of, and contrarily what I most want. Someone who really sees me, who takes the time to look beyond the surface and the lies and the No Trespassing signs I wear like my own personal armor. That Ethan can do it so easily cripples my defenses, and I find myself clinging to him, my fingers tangled in the soft silk of his dress shirt. He reaches up to stroke my hair back from my face and even my curls hold on for dear life, wrapping themselves around his fingers in a desperate attempt to keep him close.
His hand tightens on my elbow, not enough to hurt, but enough to let me know that he’s there. Enough to make me feel him, really feel him. And then slowly, inexorably, he pulls me closer until I can feel the powerful beat of his heart against my chest. The hard ridge of his erection against my hip.
I wait for the panic, for the fear. For the inevitable freak-out that has followed every time a man invades my personal space.
This time it doesn’t come. I don’t know why, not when Ethan is as close to me—closer—than I’ve let anyone get in a very long time. It’s not because I’m not nervous, because I am. My heart is nearly beating out of my chest while drops of sweat work their way slowly down my spine.
And yet I don’t feel threatened. Don’t feel like he’ll take any more than I want to give. Maybe it’s a pipe dream. Maybe I’m just as foolish as every other girl caught in the throes of sexual attraction for a powerful man.
I shake my head, look away. There’s no maybe about it. Ethan wouldn’t have built the company he has if he was willing to settle for crumbs and half measures. He wouldn’t be where he is if he couldn’t look below the surface to what lies underneath and figure out how to get it. If he can do that in business, what makes me think for a second that he won’t also be able to do the same with me?
I don’t. Standing here, looking into those cerulean eyes, I come to understand the truth. That Ethan Frost is a man who will accept everything I have to give and demand more. Demand everything. And then keep searching for whatever lies beyond even that.
Just the thought should terrify me. And maybe it would—maybe it does. But not enough to send me running from this room, running from him. Because along with the need, along with the demands, I can also see the tenderness. Ethan may want everything from me, but he won’t take more than either of us is willing to give.
I don’t know how I know that, but I do. And still I hold back. Still I refuse to yield. How can I not when everything inside me screams that this—whatever this is—can’t end any way but badly?
“Where’d you go?” he murmurs softly, his mouth centimeters from my ear. My cheek.
My breath catches in my throat. How can it not? There’s an electricity between us, a knowledge and a need that throbs in the very oxygen we breathe. It’s there when I suck in a gulp of air, sizzling its way down my windpipe and into my desperate lungs. It’s there when I try to look away, stopping my head from turning, keeping my eyes pinned to Ethan’s. And it’s there working its way inside me with every second that passes until I don’t—I can’t—remember what I felt like without it.
“I’m still here.” I shouldn’t be, but I am.
“I want you, Chloe.” His mouth skims across my cheek, down my jaw. “And I think you want me, too.”
I shake my head, but it’s more acknowledgment than denial, and we both know it. “Ethan—”
He pulls back, smiles, and it’s the happiest look I’ve seen from him yet. “You said my name again. That’s progress.”
Progress? Was it only just this morning that I insisted on calling him Mr. Frost? It seems so strange, when he’s been Ethan to me all along. Well, Juice Guy and then Ethan. Only when I was determined to defy him was he ever Mr. Frost.
“Most guys wouldn’t consider that progress.”
“I’m not most guys.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Yeah, right. I’ve heard that before.” I’m teasing him, actually teasing him. It’s kind of hard to imagine.
He laughs. “That didn’t sound nearly as clichéd in my head.”
“Or maybe I just didn’t think it through well enough.”
“Yeah, maybe not.”
“Since we’re on the subject of clichés, we could try another one.” This time he’s the one who lifts a brow questioningly.
“I have to admit, I’m a little jealous. I’ve always wanted to know how to do that.”
“What?” He looks baffled.
I reach out and touch the eyebrow he just raised, smooth my fingers over it. He grows still. Serious. But I keep talking, not wanting to let this moment go. Not the sweetness nor the easiness of it. In my life, there’s been too little of both. “That whole one-eyebrow thing. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
“Oh, yeah? Maybe I’ll teach you someday.”
“I’d like that.”
We’re close now, even closer than we were just a minute ago, and I didn’t think that was possible. But with each sentence, each word we exchange, we move inexorably closer. Like magnets, drawn together by a natural chemistry over which we have no control.
Again, it occurs to me that I should be frightened—that I am frightened—but not enough for me to stop this. Not enough for me to walk away. Not enough for me to do anything but stand here and wait for Ethan to close the final few millimeters between us.
He does, slowly. Oh so slowly. Until I’m nearly insane with nervousness and anticipation and need. Oh, God. The need. It’s overwhelming.
He’s so close that I can see the little crinkles by the corners of his eyes, can feel the heat rolling off him in waves. I can hear the hitch in his breathing, smell the sweet spearmint of his breath. And still it’s not enough. I want to taste him. Need to taste him.
And then he’s there, his lips whisper-soft against my own. Once, twice, then again and again. Little glancing kisses that do nothing but fan my desire, nothing but make me want more. I kiss him back, part my lips to encourage firmer, deeper contact, but he doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he continues with the tiny kisses—on my cheek, my jaw, the corner of my mouth, my upper lip, my lower lip, the other corner of my mouth.
Frustrated, I slide my hands up his muscular biceps, let my fingers rub at his tense shoulders before walking them slowly up his neck. He groans a little, and this time when he takes my mouth, it’s no light, glancing thing. It’s a full-fledged kiss, one that weakens my knees and makes my head spin even as it grounds me firmly in the here. The now.
Ethan nips at my lower lip, and it’s my turn to open my mouth, my turn to moan. He takes instant advantage, his tongue stealing inside to explore. Now that he’s got me, I expect an invasion, an annexation. In my experience, that’s how most guys kiss. Like they’re claiming your mouth for the motherland or something. Like you’re some prize they’ve won and have to mark or risk losing.
But Ethan’s been different all along, and in this, he continues to be. He doesn’t thrust his tongue inside me, doesn’t try to conquer by enthusiastic force. Instead, he coaxes. He charms. He seduces. And against that, I have no defense.
The tip of his tongue slides gently along my own, circling slowly, slowly, slowly. Licking along the top of my tongue, then the bottom before moving on to the inside of my cheek, the roof of my mouth. He plays with the frenulum between my upper lip and my gum, and I shudder a little—no one’s ever done that before and it’s shocking how good it feels.
His hands come up to cup my face, to tilt my head this way and that so he can delve deeper. So I can welcome him wholly inside me. And I do. For these few, stolen moments out of time, I welcome everything he can give me.
He tastes like spearmint and lemonade. And blueberries. Always blueberries. On him, they taste delicious. Sweet and tart and oh so addicting.
Need, powerful and unexpected, blossoms inside me, and the fingers I still have tangled in his hair tighten as I pull him more tightly against me. I’m the aggressor now, the one on fire. The one who craves, who wants to conquer. And if there’s a part of me that’s shaking with nerves, with fear, then I ignore it. Shove it deep inside me to the place where everything I don’t want to deal with goes, and concentrate on the now.