I swallow past the lump in my throat, hoping Z is so caught up in driving the winding roads up to the lodge that he doesn’t notice my little meltdown. But a quick glance at him as we pass under a streetlamp shows his jaw clenched tight enough to break teeth and his hands locked in a death grip on the steering wheel.
His stiff thumb taps out the melody and his left leg bounces, not to the slow, melodious beat, but to something else. Something in his head that only he can hear.
I snap my arm out, turn off the radio with one emphatic push. It’s one thing to torture myself, but to torture Z, too—or to watch him torture himself—is another thing altogether.
“Changed your mind?” he asks, shooting me a surprised glance.
“Yeah. Nirvana’s fine in New Orleans, where it’s warm and sunny most of the time. But here, where it’s dank and gray and cold, they are way too f**king depressing.”
He laughs, as I mean him to, and we’re close enough that I can sense the subtle relaxing of his muscles, though it takes a minute. Good. I wouldn’t wish what I feel on anyone.
“So,” I say a little while later as the silence stretches taut as a violin string between us. “What idiot stunt were you trying that landed you in the clinic’s urgent care today?”
“What makes you think I was doing something idiotic?”
“I’m sorry, have you met yourself?”
He chuffs out a laugh. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you know exactly what it means. From what I understand, snowboarders are total adrenaline junkies to begin with. And you, you’re the worst of the bunch. Everybody says so.”
“And how would you know? Have you been asking about me?”
“What? No way!”
“Uh-huh.” He grins. “I think the lady doth protest too much.”
“The lady doth not protest at all. And cut the cheesy Shakespeare quotes. Just because my mom’s a moron who named me Ophelia—”
“I like your name. It suits you.”
“Seriously?” I stare at him incredulously. “Telling me that the name of one of Shakespeare’s most abused, craziest characters suits me is so not the way to get into my pants.”
“There you go again, thinking everything’s about sex.”
“And there you go again, pretending it isn’t.”
“No offense, Ophelia, but you seem awfully obsessed with the idea that I want to bed you.”
“Bed me?” I scoff. “Are we actually in the fifteen hundreds?”
“Would you prefer I say I want to f**k you?”
His words slam into me with the force of a wrecking ball, and suddenly I’m hot. Really hot, despite the chill in the air and the frost creeping around the edges of the windshield. It’s been so long since I’ve been with someone, so long since I’ve been held and touched and kissed. It’s why I lost it at the park earlier, when I was on top of him, and why I’m close to losing it again right now.
For a minute I can all but picture it. Z’s mouth on my skin, his hands on my thighs, his body pressed against mine. His indigo eyes staring into mine as he slides slowly into me.
I shift in my seat, try to control breathing that has suddenly gone shallow and disjointed. Because I can’t not do it, I glance at Z out of the corner of my eye. I can tell by the look on his face and the tension in his body—so different from the stiffness of earlier—that he’s noticed my reaction. Shit.
I wait for him to say something, to press his advantage. But he doesn’t. Instead he clears his throat and says, “I was trying out an inverted 1440.” His voice is huskier than it was, thicker, which only makes me hotter. As does the knowledge that he’s trying to bring the temperature in here back down to normal by circling the subject back around to snowboarding.
“An inverted 1440? What the hell is that? I’ve never even heard of it before.”
“Oh, yeah? You hear a lot about snowboarding down there in Louisiana?”
“No. But I’ve been at the lodge almost two weeks now. With the X Games and the Olympics coming up, it’s all anyone can talk about. Especially with you guys boarding at the resort.”
“Is that why you decided to hang with us? Because you think Ash is going to win a gold medal at the Olympics?”
I start to get offended, but then I realize that’s exactly what he wants. “Maybe I think you’re going to win a gold medal.”
This time his laugh is filled with derision. “Yeah. That’s not going to happen.”
“You sure about that? People are talking.”
“People talk about a lot of things. But no, this year it’s all Ash.”
“You okay with that?”
For the first time since I got in the car he looks pissed. Really pissed. “He’s my best friend. I’m more than okay with that. I’m f**king stoked about it. He better go all the way. He’s the best damn boarder in the country right now. Definitely one of the best in the world.”
“So are you. Or at least, that’s what they say.”
“Who the f**k are all these people you keep talking about? They seem to know a hell of a lot about me. How come I don’t know anything about them?” He shoves an annoyed hand through his hair and I think he’s going to say more, but then the SUV hits a patch of black ice and starts to skid.
I freak out as the back of the Range Rover fishtails, my hands clenching at the seat while I bite my lip until it bleeds. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Please, not again. Please, not—
Z stays totally calm through the whole thing, steering into the skid and holding the car steady like it’s nothing. Within seconds we’re back under control.
I slump into my seat as we continue up the mountain. My heart is beating like crazy, and I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that I’m going to be able to pry my hands off this seat before we get to the resort. I only hope I haven’t left nail marks in the supple leather.
“Hey, you okay?” Z glances at me worriedly.
“I’m fine.” The hoarseness puts paid to the fact that I’m lying.
“That was no big deal, Ophelia. Honest. I’ve been driving on ice-slick roads since I was fourteen. I know what I’m doing. I’ll keep you safe.”
The concern in his voice is new, and it undoes me in a way nothing else could have.
Not the ride home.
Not the conversation that made me smile despite myself.
Not the sudden ache I’m feeling for sex after months of feeling nothing.
Not even his total modesty when it came to his fame and talent.
No, it’s none of those things that start to get through to me. I have defenses against everything. Or at least I thought I did. But the softness in his voice, the way he looks at me with such concern and sincerity while he promises to keep me safe, puts a couple of long cracks in the hard shell I’ve spent the last year building around myself.
The thought terrifies me. Absolutely, positively panics me on every level it can. So much so that it’s all I can do to keep from throwing the door open and flinging myself out of the SUV and onto the icy road.
I don’t want to feel … anything. I sure as hell don’t want to feel something for the most charming manwhore in Park City, Utah, who obviously has more than a few issues of his own. As for feeling safe? I haven’t felt safe in so long, I’m not even sure I’d recognize the feeling ever again.
“Ophelia?” He doesn’t touch me—he’s keeping both hands on the wheel as he negotiates the treacherous road—but I can tell he wants to. Not because he wants to f**k me, as he so eloquently put it earlier. But because he wants to reassure me. Wants to make me feel secure.
“I’m good, Z. It just startled me, that’s all.”
“You sure?” He sounds tentative, like he doesn’t believe me but doesn’t want to risk upsetting me any more than I already am.
“Yeah. It’s no big deal. It’s not like anything happened, right?”
He relaxes a little and I turn to look out the window. I recognize this stretch of road, know we’re only a couple of miles from the employee housing where I’m currently staying. Which is good. In my opinion, we can’t get there fast enough.
The next few minutes pass in silence of the uncomfortable variety. When we get to the turnoff, I start to tell Z—it’s kind of hard to see, even during the day—but he seems to know exactly where it is.
Of course he does. He’s probably f**ked every female who lives in the place. God only knows how many times he’s made this turn in the middle of the night.
When we pull up to the curb in front of the building, I all but leap out of the car. I start to call over my shoulder, “Thanks for the ride,” but Z turns off the SUV before I can even open my mouth.
Then he’s walking around the front of the car and reaching for my elbow. I’m so shocked that I let him grab hold, and then he’s walking me up the sidewalk to the building’s front door, making sure that I don’t slip on the ice that’s accumulated.
Again his concern gets to me. Again I slap it back, spackling the cracks in my armor almost as soon as they appear. I’m not doing this. I am not letting anyone in, and certainly not Z.
He waits with me while I fumble for my keys and unlock the front door. As soon as I’ve got it open, I turn to him with a smile I’m far from feeling and say, “Thanks for the ride. I appreciate it.”
“Where’s your room?” he asks, looking down the hallway.
“I’m on the third floor.” I gesture to the staircase, start to step back from the door so that it will close.
His hand shoots out, stops the door from slamming in his face. “I’ll walk you up.”
He cuts me off with a raised hand. “Once tourist season starts, there are all kinds of creeps around here. Let me walk you to your door, make sure you get inside safely, and then I’ll leave. I swear.”
He looks sincere, which only affects me more. The self-protective part of my brain is screaming at me to kick him out as soon as possible, to get him out of the building and my life. But, somehow, I find myself nodding and letting him walk me up the two flights of stairs to my room.
“I’m right here,” I say, stopping two doors into the hallway.
Z frowns. “I don’t like that you’re so close to the stairwell. It doesn’t seem safe.”
“Well, then, I guess it’s a good thing it’s none of your business, isn’t it?”
“Wow. A little prickly there, aren’t you?”
“You haven’t even seen me get prickly yet.”
“Hmm. That’s a real concern, considering you ruined a five-hundred-dollar pair of snowboarding pants yesterday when you weren’t being prickly.”
I nearly swallow my tongue. His pants cost five hundred dollars? And he’s wearing another pair today? Jesus, two days’ worth of clothes for him would pretty much pay for my whole damn wardrobe. It boggles the mind.
“Are they really ruined?” I ask, sick to my stomach. Since room and board is included in this job, five hundred dollars is close to two weeks’ salary for me. If I have to pay him back, I need to start saving now—
My alarm must show on my face, because he laughs. “They’re fine, Ophelia. I was just messing with you.”
Relief sweeps through me. “Thank God. I had visions of going bankrupt trying to replace them.”
“I’d never make you do that. It was my own fault anyway.”
My brows shoot up. “I didn’t think I’d ever hear you admit that.”
“I may be an asshole, but I’m not a total douche,” he tells me. “At least not normally. I know when I f**k up.”