“More plans with the roommate?” he asks.
“No.” Why, oh why, can’t I lie to this man? In self-defense, I’ve spent the past five years lying about nearly everything important, yet now, when I need the ability most, it’s totally deserted me.
“Plans with someone else?”
I can feel his eyes on me, know he’s willing me to look at him. But this time I refuse to give in. I can’t. Not if I have any hope of maintaining my distance, my sanity, and my ability to say no.
I’m stubborn, more than strong-willed enough that I can usually outlast the best of them—it’s how I made it through high school with my sanity intact—but Ethan has me beat. While I’m struggling with a way to fill the sudden awkwardness between us, one that doesn’t involve looking at him, he just leans against the door of my car.
Silence stretches between us, taut as a violin string. I tell myself not to say anything, not to babble uncontrollably, but with each second that passes it grows harder and harder.
The words well up on my tongue, all the excuses I don’t want to give but feel compelled to. Desperate to hold out, I bite the inside of my cheek so hard that I taste the metallic tang of my own blood.
And just like that, the standoff is over. Like yesterday, when my stomach growled, the moment Ethan realizes I’m suffering, he puts a stop to it. He rests his hand lightly on my cheek, uses his thumb to tug my cheek out from between my teeth. “Don’t,” he tells me.
“I can’t date you, Ethan.”
“You won’t date me, Chloe. That’s not the same thing.”
No, it isn’t, but my refusal is more than that, more than a simple no just because I don’t want to date the boss. This goes deeper, much deeper, but I don’t know how to tell him that. Not without revealing all my secrets…and all my wounds.
“I need to go.” I turn back to my car, tug on my door. I know I don’t stand a chance of opening it if he doesn’t move, but I’m hoping that he won’t push this. Not now, when the crack inside me is growing larger with each passing second.
For long moments I don’t think he’s going to move. Instead, his thumb coasts down my cheek to my chin. He tilts my head up, forces me to meet his gaze. I think I’ll see anger there, or disgust. Annoyance, at the very least. Instead, there’s something else, an emotion so unexpected and undeserved that I can barely wrap my head around it.
Mixed with the same desire and need that are even now bouncing around inside me is a sweetness, a tenderness, that he doesn’t try to hide. It’s the first time anyone has ever looked at me like that, the first time a man has taken the time to look into me instead of just at me. The first time a man has ever really seen me.
It melts my resistance, makes me question all the reasons I’ve told myself this is a bad idea. Which, of course, is only proof of how turned around and inside out Ethan has gotten me. Panic sets in, takes me over, and for a minute I feel like a wolf in a trap, willing to chew my own foot off for the chance to get away.
Just when I think I’m going to lose it completely, Ethan steps back—and opens my car door for me. I clamber in before he can change his mind, but then I can’t help staring up at him, wondering why. I was about to break, about to give him anything he wanted if it meant I could pull back from the emotional chaos swirling around me. Around us.
He stopped me from shattering, his simple actions giving me back the strength that had slowly leached from me during our battle of wills. I don’t understand, don’t know why a man who is so intent on winning would step back right before he claimed victory. All I know is that I’m grateful. And confused. But mostly grateful.
“Drive carefully,” he tells me, his voice dark and gruff.
“It’s okay. I can wait.”
“Wait for what?”
He smiles at me. “For you, Chloe. I can wait for you.” Then he grimaces. “Not, however, if you continue to sit there and stare at me with that adorably befuddled look on your face.”
I don’t move, don’t look away, don’t so much as blink. I’m confused, feeling vulnerable, and terrified that all of it shows on my face. My poker face seems to have gone the same way as my resolve when it comes to Ethan, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about that.
“Go!” he orders suddenly, then closes the door firmly between us.
I stick the key into the ignition, start to roll down the window, but he just shakes his head. Takes a couple big steps away from the car. Points at the exit from the parking lot.
There’s nothing for me to do but follow his directions. So I do, putting the car in gear and driving toward the exit he gestured to. But as I drive away, I have a terrible time not looking back. Not going back.
And the part of me that’s been hurt before, that’s been torn apart and put back together like a bunch of mismatched puzzle pieces, can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly what Ethan intended.
By the time I get home, I’ve stopped shaking. I’m no less confused, mind you, but at least I can hide it better. Which is important, because when it comes to emotional drama, Tori has a nose like a bloodhound. It’s one of the many reasons I don’t date—if I keep the drama to a minimum, she doesn’t know how much is under the surface, just waiting for her to dig it up.
At least that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. I only hope the fact that Ethan just gave me an earth-shattering orgasm isn’t written all over my face. God knows it feels like it’s written all over my soul.
“Hey, perfect timing! The pizza just got here.” She gestures to the box and two plates sitting on the coffee table.
I peel off my jacket, toss it onto the small entryway bench where my suit jacket from yesterday still rests. “What do you want to drink?” I ask, heading for the kitchen—and something alcoholic. After the day I’ve had, I’m about ready to start mainlining 180-proof liquor. Anything to stop the nerves—and everything else—currently rattling around just under my skin.
“I opened a bottle of Chianti. Grab that and bring it in.”
It wasn’t tequila, but it would do. And it would probably go better with pizza, anyway.
“Your mom called while you were at work. When I told her you weren’t here, she wanted your new cell number.”
I nearly drop the bottle of wine. “Did you give it to her?”
“What do you think?” Tori’s voice is much closer now, and I turn around to find her standing in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Of course I didn’t.” She grabs the wine, pours both of us some. Watches without saying a word as I drain mine, then hold the glass out for seconds. “One of these days, you’re going to tell me what went down between you and your family.”
I nod, even as I think the opposite. That there’s no way in hell I will ever tell her, ever tell anyone, why my relationship with my family is so distant.
“What did she want?” I’ve calmed down enough that I can sound almost unconcerned when I ask the question. I take a small sip of my second glass of wine, wish I could chug it down the same way I did the first. But then Tori’s questions would get more insistent, and after the day I’ve had, I’m just not up for it.
“She asked me to have you call her. She didn’t say it was important. Only that she wanted to talk to you.”