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Judging Books

Shay Savage





Copyright © 2017 Shay Savage

All Rights Reserved



Editing : Chayasara

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without the express permission of the author, Shay Savage —except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations embodied in review or critical writings.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Cover art by Jada D'Lee Designs





Table of Contents

Chapter 1—Preparation

Chapter 2—Ride

Chapter 3—Interview

Chapter 4—Decision

Chapter 5—Explanation

Chapter 6—Bonding

Chapter 7—Evaluate

Chapter 8—Fear

Chapter 9—Obligation

Chapter 10—Read

Chapter 11—Escape

Chapter 12—Time

Chapter 13—Heartache

Chapter 14—Escalate

Chapter 15—Fascination

Chapter 16—Allure

Chapter 17—Longing

Chapter 18—Logic

Chapter 19—Chances

Chapter 20—Acceptance

Chapter 21—Resolve

Chapter 22—Position

Chapter 23—Expectations

Chapter 24—Deals

Chapter 25—Incident

Chapter 26—Enlighten

Chapter 27—Meaning

More Books by Shay Savage

Kindle Unlimited—Read for Free!

About the Author





Chapter 1—Preparation


“I do believe you are nearly perfect.”

Presley twirled a makeup brush between her perfectly manicured nails before laying it down on the bathroom counter. She tossed her platinum blonde hair off her shoulder before standing and motioning me to the mirror in her bedroom.

I glanced at the large, freestanding mirror in front of me and turned to the left and then the right. After spending years looking at myself in styles ranging from collegiate casual to evening formal, seeing myself in a conservative, corporate suit seemed strange. Hair up, simple diamond stud earrings, scarf around my neck…I barely recognized myself. Only the labels on the Versace suit and Prada purse were familiar.

I’d hardly call myself “perfect”;  though. Not “nearly perfect” either.

I smiled at my reflection, going for that look of confidence someone with a master’s degree in accounting should have when applying for a job. Smooth and easygoing, as if I didn’t have a care in the world.

Inside, my heart pounded and my stomach churned this morning’s takeout crepes from Barney’s Bakery. I wished I had just stayed at my own apartment last night instead of agreeing to stay here and let Presley fix me up for my interview.

“Ashlyn?” Presley placed her hand on my arm. “You all right?”

“Nervous.”

“Whatever for?” Presley looked genuinely confused. “It’s not like you aren’t going to get the job.”

“I still want to interview well. I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I don’t want to embarrass Dad. I feel like I’m representing the whole Dragonov family.”

“You’ll be fine.” Presley was dismissive in her tone and a flippant wave of her hand.

“I’ve never even had a job before,” I said. “I never so much as babysat a neighbor’s kid, delivered a pizza, or asked if anyone wanted fries with their order. If Dad didn’t hand me cash for whatever I wanted, I simply used the credit card.”

“You and me both, sister.” Presley laughed. “I’m not even sure if I’ll get a job after graduation. According to your dad’s company, my trust fund pretty much covers me for life and then some. I’m thinking about going to the Virgin Islands or maybe Puerto Rico and just chilling for a while.”

“Didn’t the last round of hurricanes make that a little difficult?”

“I figure I can help out,” Presley said with a shrug.

Trust fund lifestyle aside, Presley was often the first in line when it came to those she considered less fortunate, which were most people. She had a thing for five-kilometer walks and political fundraisers.

“Are you going to help distribute supplies?”

“I figure there’s probably a lot of people who won’t be able to fix up their homes or businesses. Zoey’s been talking about combining her broadcasting degree with her newfound love of house-flipping and starting up a new reality TV show. If we can offer people who want to relocate good prices for their homes…well, real estate is always a good investment.”

“Couldn’t that be considered…I don’t know…taking advantage of the situation?”

“Someone has to do it.” Presley tucked her hair behind her ear. “Ashlyn, you should go with. I bet we would need an accountant. Screw Daddy Dragonov’s company.”

“That is so not in the cards.”

“Just for a month or two,” Presley said. She was always good at pressing an issue. “It would be good to give yourself options.”

“No can do,” I replied. “I’ll start work just two weeks after graduation, and I still need to find a new apartment before our lease expires. I refuse to move back home. I’m not going to be one of those people who live with daddy into their thirties.”

“Always want to prove something to everyone, don’t you?”

“Just to myself.” My words were a lie but only partially. I did want to prove to myself that I could do well on my own without Dad’s backing. Inside, I knew I wanted others to look at me and realize I had done it on my own, too.

I took a deep breath and looked back in the mirror. At least I looked the part of a highly paid executive. If I added up the money spent on this single outfit, I would find something close to the gross national product of a small country.

“Are we done here?” I asked.

“Nope.” Presley tapped her finger against her lips and shook her head. “One change needed.”

I continued to stare at my reflection as Presley disappeared into her giant walk-in closet and rummaged around in the back. She returned with a pair of shoes.

“Seriously?” I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes at the monstrosities in Presley’s hands. Three-inch heels with pointy toes seemed a bit much for a job interview.

“Definitely. You can never go wrong with Louboutin.”

“There are steps leading up to the office building, you know.”

“You’ll live.”

“Ugh.” I grabbed the shoes from her fingers, sat down on a nearby chair, and put them on. I stood up, wobbled for a moment before getting my balance, and looked back in the mirror.

Presley was right. The shoes made the outfit.

“Now that is the look of an up-and-coming CFO!”

“I won’t start as the CFO.” I shook my head and laughed. “I’ll be her assistant until she retires.”

“I’ve seen her,” Presley said. “She should have retired last year.”

“She’s only sixty.”

“Right. Practically dead.”

“That is my aunt you’re talking about.” I scowled, but Presley only shrugged.

Presley plopped down on the edge of the bed and grabbed her phone. Her fingers flew over the touch screen for a few minutes as I flattened my skirt out with my hands and walked a few steps in the shoes. They weren’t too uncomfortable, and I wasn’t planning on walking in them very much. I should be fine.

I glanced at my childhood friend. She had narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips tightly together. I wondered who she was texting with so emphatically and hoped she wasn’t going to demand pictures of my outfit to send to our friends. I appreciated her help, but I never liked being the center of attention like she did.

“Club Mania tonight.” Presley leaned back and dropped her phone on the duvet beside her.

“I don’t know how long the interview will last,” I said. “Dad will probably want me to go out for dinner or something afterward.”

“So? Come later.”

“We’ll see.”

“We’ll see you there.” She stood, grabbed her phone again, tapped furiously for a few seconds, and then grabbed her purse. “Gotta run. Chem lab starts soon, and I need a mocha. You can let yourself out. Good luck and all that. See you tonight!”

I watched as Presley, the straight A chemistry PhD candidate, exited the room with a parting wave and a two thousand dollar backpack to hold her books. A moment later, I heard the apartment door close.

I checked my phone for the time and decided to review my notes before heading to the office for my interview. Everyone assumed I already had the job in my pocket, which was mostly accurate, but I couldn’t completely blow the interview and make my father justify hiring me anyway. I also wanted to make sure I got the assistant CFO job and not some underling starter position, or it would take that much more time to become the head of the financial department.

Nepotism was certainly evident at my father’s company, but I also knew my shit, and I planned on proving that today.

I sighed. I needed to get moving so I wouldn’t be late.

I picked up my leather briefcase full of actual, physical copies of my resume—on linen paper, which I thought was ridiculous in this day and age, but my advisor told me to do it anyway. On the way down the hall, I dug for the fob to my Saab and tried not to fall over in the ridiculous shoes.

In the parking garage for Presley’s apartment, my slick black Saab near the back wall sat off on its own with the trunk partially open. Apparently, neither Presley nor I had realized we hadn’t closed it after retrieving our shopping bags last night.

I slammed the trunk and lowered myself into the driver’s seat, automatically placing my foot on the brake. It felt weird, and I realized the high-heeled shoes were going to interfere with my ability to drive. Reaching down, I bumped my head on the steering wheel as I tried to get the shoes off and then scraped my leg with one of the spiked heels as I sat up.

“Ugh!” I tossed the shoes onto the passenger seat along with my purse and briefcase, placed my foot back on the brake, and pushed the start button.

Nothing happened.

I pushed the button over and over again, but all I heard was a clicking sound. I knew I had filled up the tank earlier in the week, so I definitely had gas. My father insisted on regular car maintenance, and it had been in the shop for a tune-up within the last two months.

The car simply wouldn’t start.

I grabbed my phone, ready to call roadside assistance to come and fix whatever was going on, but the first thing I noticed was the time. I had given myself plenty of time to drive to Dragonov Financial but not enough time to wait for someone to figure out what was wrong with my car. If I left immediately, I would just barely have enough time to reach the office on foot before my interview.

“Shit!” I reached over, grabbed the heels, put them back on my feet, and abandoned the car. For a moment, I stood just outside the parking garage, noticing the sudden pain from my left heel. There was no way I was going to be able to walk in these things, but I also couldn’t take them off and head down the city street; my stockings would be ruined! There wasn’t any time to run back up to the apartment to get any other shoes.

Once again, I glanced at my phone for the time. I only had a few minutes to get to my interview on time, and there wasn’t a choice. I was going to have to walk.

In these shoes.

Quickly.





Chapter 2—Ride


Damn these heels.

I walked as quickly as I could, given the three-inch stilettos Presley forced onto my feet, mumbling under my breath as I went.

“I mean, seriously? It’s not like this is the sort of job interview where you don’t know if you are going to end up with the position. I mean, when your father already owns the company, chances of you getting the job you want once you graduate are really pretty good. Why are you so nervous?”

Halfway there, I considered smacking myself for not calling a cab or an Uber or something. The walk from my place to Dad’s office wasn’t really that far under normal circumstances, but contacting someone for a ride just hadn’t occurred to me in time.

“It’s only a short walk,” I muttered. “It not like the subway is a better option. I should have called a cab, but it was only a twenty-minute walk, and hailing a taxi usually took a half hour.”

I was babbling like an idiot, and some homeless guy with a pair of socks on his hands and a mangy dog curled up next to him looked at me like I was the crazy one. I shut my mouth and continued on.

“Holy shit, she is fuckhawt.”

I didn’t even look over at the group of boys on the corner. Every city seemed to have a group of such kids—tattoos, piercings everywhere, chain smoking and generally looking like they exist just to piss off their parents. Usually they were on skateboards though this group seemed to prefer BMX bicycles.

Of course, the light changed right at that moment, and I was stuck standing next to them, waiting for the walk signal. I refused to look over in their direction though I could still hear them talking and trying to get my attention. I ignored them and stared straight ahead at the red hand denying me access to the other side of the road. I wondered if there might be a proverbial chicken nearby so I could staple myself to it.

“Hey,” a soft voice said beside me. I startled. I hadn’t even heard him come up, but when I looked to my right, one of the boys was right next to me.

He was standing up on the bicycle with one wheel high up in the air, balancing on the pedals as easily as if he were standing on the ground. He was wearing a faded pair of ripped jeans with one pant-leg completely missing, making the garment a half pair of shorts. His shirt was also faded with the logo of some metal band on the front.

When I looked up at his face, I was surprised to see he was a little older than I had originally assumed. I always figured groups of boys hanging out on the corner ranged from about fourteen to sixteen, but this one had to be out of high school. He had a couple of days’ worth of stubble covering his cheeks and neck, long and unruly black hair tied up in a man-bun, and intense, bright green eyes. His full bottom lip was adorned with a pair of thin silver hoops through the left side, and a matching hoop went through his eyebrow. Three more hung from the lobe of his right ear. There was some dark, swirling tattoo wrapping around his left arm and something more colorful just peeking out of the collar of his T-shirt, but I couldn’t make out the details of either design. There was a thin, gold chain around his neck, the front of which was tucked into his shirt with the chain pulled tight at the front, the lump of a charm of some sort hiding underneath the fabric.

“Would you go to dinner with me?”

“Excuse me?” There was no way I had heard him right. I mean—guys with piercings and tattoos didn’t walk up to women wearing suits and heels to ask them out for dinner.

“See, you’re really, really pretty.” He shrugged, twisting his hips a little and making the bicycle spin in a full circle before facing me again. “And my buddy CeeCee says if you’re pretty on the outside, you’re probably ugly on the inside. I just want to see if he’s right.”

I stared unabashed at him.

“I don’t think he’s right,” the boy said, clarifying. “I know a great place to eat, and it would be perfect for you.”

“Perfect for me?” I heard myself echo his words.

“I think you’d like to go someplace where you aren’t expected to wear those kinds of shoes.”

“What?”

“You don’t like wearing them,” he said, shrugging and swiveling the bike again.

“How do you know that?” I asked, unable to keep the surprise from my voice.

“The way you kept looking at them. I was actually waiting for you to tell them to fuck off or something.” He laughed. “I mean, you look at them like you hate them, like maybe the heels impaled your dog on your birthday or something.”

I heard a chime and looked across at the “Don’t Walk” sign and realized I had just missed my opportunity to get across the street.

“Dammit!” I mumbled. I turned back to him. “Look, I’m sorry, but I’m really in a hurry, and I don’t have time for this right now.”

“Why are you in a hurry?”

“I have a job interview, and it starts in ten minutes,” I said, wondering why I was even telling him these things. “And I am willing to admit these shoes aren’t helping me get there on time.”

“You want a ride?”

“What?”

“I’ll give you a ride,” he said. “Then you wouldn’t be late, and your feet wouldn’t hurt.”

“You have a car?” I asked stupidly. I knew he didn’t have a car around here. There wasn’t even a parking garage within six blocks.

He laughed.

“On my bike, goofball.” Half his mouth turned up in the most incredible smile I had ever seen in my life. Granted, lots of people have nice smiles. Lots of guys have those “panty dropping” looks that make girls want to throw their undergarments at them if they were up on a stage in front of a microphone. Most popular actors have one of those looks, too, but I had never seen a smile quite like this one.

Aside from the luscious curling of half of his perfectly formed lips, his smile didn’t just light up his eyes, like any good genuine smile will do; it lit up his whole face. He positively glowed as he tilted his head slightly to one side and looked at me with one eyebrow cocked. I could have sworn the sun even peeked out from behind a cloud at that point and lit up his hair as well.

His tongue popped out of his mouth and fiddled with the rings embedded in his lip, and he glanced down at the sidewalk for a moment before looking back up at me. The combined gestures gave him an odd combination of both cocky and shy all at the same time. Can looks be ambiguous?

“There’s only one seat on the bike,” I said.

“You can have it.” He leaned back and the bike dropped from its perpetual wheelie right next to my feet. He continued to stand on a pair of pedals attached to the rear wheel. “I don’t need the seat.”

I looked at the bike, then back to that incredible half smile, and then back to the bike again.

“Just get on,” he said softly, but the words were still very much a demand. “I’ll make sure you get there on time.”

I had no idea what I was thinking, but suddenly I was sitting sidesaddle on a BMX bicycle, wearing a pencil skirt and spiked heels, flying down the sidewalk in the middle of the city. The boy was alternating between rapidly rotating the functional pedals, standing on the pedals attached to the back wheel, and balancing on the handlebars with his legs stretched out behind us. I couldn’t help but noticed the definition in his arm muscles as they tightened and flexed during that particular move.

He swerved around the pedestrians and hot dog stands as if he did this kind of thing every day, and he probably did. I held tightly to the inside part of the handlebars and just prayed I wasn’t going to fall off. I had to admit, he did get me to the Draganov Financial building with five minutes to spare.

“Thank you,” I said as he stopped the bike and lifted me off the seat with both hands while balancing the bike with the toe of one foot.

“My pleasure,” he responded. “Will you have dinner with me now?”

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said, stammering.

“Why not?” he asked, his eyes narrowing a little. His hand went up to push a loose strand of hair out of his eyes but only ended up pulling more hair from the tie at the back of his head. “Do you already have a date?”

“No, but…”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No, I…”

“You’re not wearing a ring.” He gestured towards my left hand with his head.

“I’m not married. I just…”

“You are going to eat tonight, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes, of course, but…”

“Why not, then?”

“I don’t even know you!” I finally blurted out.

“Well, I know that,” he said with another smile. “The whole idea of going to dinner is for us to get to know each other.”

“But I’m going to be here for hours,” I said. “I’m not even sure when I’ll be done.”

“I’ll wait for you,” he said. He pointed to the ground beneath his feet. “Right here. I didn’t have any other plans today, so it’s no big deal at all.”

“I don’t even know your name,” I said.

“Ethan. Now will you go to dinner with me?”

“Well, Ethan”—I sighed, finally giving in—“I’m Ashlyn. And I guess if you really feel like waiting that long, I’ll look for you when I get out. If you are still here, maybe we can go to dinner.”

“Sweet,” he said, the half-smile returning. He maneuvered the bike behind him with one hand and stepped up closer to me. His tongue darted out and twisted the hoops in a circle through his lip. “Can I kiss you?”

“What?” I gasped. “No!”

“Okay,” he said, still smiling. “I’m gonna go get a couple things, but I’ll be back here in an hour. I know just where to take you.”

I glanced at my phone. Three minutes before two o’clock.

“I won’t be done until after six,” I said.

“That’s cool,” he responded, sitting on the seat of his bike and lighting a cigarette with a chrome-plated Zippo lighter. “I’m gonna go grab something, but then I’ll be right back here.”

He pedaled off slowly without looking back, perfectly balanced on the bike—one hand holding the cigarette and the other tapping on his phone.

I shook my head and went into the building.





Chapter 3—Interview


The interviews went fine, of course. I mean, having my dad ask me a bunch of questions about my GPA and why I wanted to go into accounting was ridiculous, but we played the game for the sake of appearances anyway. The current CFO and my immediate supervisor would be Helen Dragonov, my father’s older sister who didn’t even bother asking me about my schooling. Instead, we talked about my stepmother’s upcoming party.

“I swear, Miles makes a bigger deal out of it than Sue does,” Helen said. “He tries to tell everyone that she’s the instigator of such things, but my brother loves to show the estate off to anyone who will come around.”

“That sounds like Dad.” I laughed.

“He’s always been that way,” she said. “Even as a child, he would get angry if one of his playmates didn’t come to his birthday parties.”

“He still gets mad about that.” We both laughed, and Helen glanced down at her notebook. “I think we’re probably done here. I already know everything about you, so I’m not sure we have anything to talk about unless you have any questions.”

“Not right now.”

“If you think of any, we can talk about them during Sunday’s luncheon.”

After the round of interviews and introductions to the only two board members I hadn’t known since I was twelve, Dad took me to the room that would become my office. I met three women there and ended up interviewing each of them as my potential secretary. I met so many people and talked so much small talk, I was about to scream. Besides, my thoughts kept meandering outside.

I wondered if Ethan was really out there, waiting for me. I wondered if I should maybe go out the back door and avoid the whole situation, but that would be exceedingly rude, wouldn’t it? I had already told him I would look for him, and if he really did spend his whole afternoon waiting for me, I couldn’t decline his dinner invitation, could I?

Did I even want to?

One thing was certain: I wasn’t about to tell my father that I had a date because he’d insist on meeting the guy. I could just imagine how that would go! Dad would throw a fit when he found out I didn’t really know Ethan, and then if he actually saw him—all pierced and tattooed and riding a freaking bicycle—yeah, let’s just say it wouldn’t go over very well. I forced myself to focus on a little more corporate talk before Dad said he needed to leave to get ready for a dinner engagement.

“One thing about Vanessa,” Dad said to an aging board member, “she doesn’t care if you forget a birthday or anniversary, but dinner engagements with her sister and brother-in-law are not to be taken lightly!”

They both chuckled, and I wondered if Dad’s third wife had actually ever become angry about anything. I couldn’t see it. I gave Dad a quick kiss on the cheek and told him I would see him next weekend, and then I rushed down the hallway to get outside as quickly as I could. I pushed the elevator button for the lobby level about thirty times, just in case it really did make the door close faster. Once the doors opened again, I stepped out of the elevator, trying to decide if I was going to feel relieved or devastated if I did not find Ethan on the sidewalk outside the building.

The sun was peering out between two skyscrapers, and I could see the light shining through the spokes of the bicycle’s wheels and the faint glow of Ethan’s cigarette. I walked slowly towards him.

“Hey,” he said casually. He tossed the butt of the cigarette into the gutter and held out a small shopping bag towards me.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Shoes,” he said with a shrug. He pointed down at the heels still squashing my toes. “You don’t want to wear those anymore.”

I peered into the little, unmarked black bag and found a pair of pink Converse high-tops with small, black, cartoon kittens all over them.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked.

“Put them on, obviously,” he said. “You wear a seven and a half, right?”

“Yes…how did you know that?”

That smile came back, this time with both sides of his mouth turning up and his teeth rubbing against the thin metal rings in his lip.

“I have a thing for feet,” he said and then blushed. He actually blushed. “Put them on—they’re really comfortable. Here…”

He moved off the bike and held it steady, indicating that I should sit on the seat to change my shoes. As ridiculous as it was, my feet were killing me, and getting out of the heels sounded blissful. I looked at the ridiculous shoes in the bag, then at my $1500 executive-wear designer skirt and blouse.

“I don’t think they match my outfit,” I told him.

“Who gives a shit?” he asked, looking at me quizzically. “We’re not going to the fucking Candelabra downtown. No one is going to be looking at your shoes, and you’ll feel better.”

I couldn’t really argue with his logic but found myself looking around for anyone I might know exiting the building. When I didn’t see anyone, I sat down on the bike and pulled off the heels. Once I had the Converse laced up, I dropped my dress shoes in the bag.

“What’s wrong?” I asked when I noticed Ethan glowering at the bag in my hand.

“I don’t suppose you would let me burn those fuckers, would you?”

“The shoes?” I asked, incredulous. I thought of the look that would be on Presley’s face if her shoes were about to be tossed into a fire. “No! Of course not!”

“I figured,” he grumbled.

“Why would you want to do that?”

He looked up at my face again and gave me the same questioning look he had before.

“They hurt you,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t like them.”

He guided me on to the seat of the BMX and took off down the sidewalk in the same fashion we had before. I held tightly to the middle of the handlebars, with his hands on the outside. His thumb reached over slightly and ran down the length of my little finger.

“Your skin is so soft,” he said quietly, his lips near my ear. I felt my body shudder, whether at his touch or his soft voice, I didn’t know. I leaned back just enough to feel his chest against my back as he veered off the sidewalk, onto the road, and then back on the sidewalk across the street.

It wasn’t long before Ethan pulled into a side alley and parked his bike next to a brick building. There was a white door propped open, and the smell of simmering tomato sauce and fresh bread wafted out into the air around us. Ethan took my hand to help me off the bike and then looked down at my fingers wrapped up in his. He glanced up at my eyes, quickly looked back down again, smiling that crooked smile and—holy shit—blushed again. He kept a light grip on my fingers and pulled me through the kitchen door.

“Isn’t there a front door?”

“Sure,” Ethan said. “But it’s all the way around in the front.”

He led me through the bright white lights and stainless steel of the kitchen, calling out “yo” a couple of times and nodding his head at the kitchen staff. One of the guys with a floppy chef’s hat whistled, and Ethan told him to fuck off but smiled when he said it. The kitchen erupted in laughter just as we reached a set of saloon doors that opened into a small dining room with about twelve tables in it. Each table had a tiny votive candle and tiny vase with a single white rose in it. The linens were deep red and added to the atmospheric warmth emitted by the dark-stained hardwood floors.

It was quaint, cozy, and undoubtedly the most romantic place I had ever been.

“Hi, Ethan!” A tall woman with long, striking red hair and wearing a hostess uniform reached out and grazed her fingers down his arm. I bristled and glared at her. I mean, I realize this was a first date and all, but she didn’t necessarily know that. Even if she did, that was just rude. I stepped a little closer to Ethan’s side and wrapped the fingers of my free hand around his arm.

“Hey, Sheila,” Ethan said, looking sideways at me. “This is Ashlyn.”

“Ashlyn,” Sheila said. She looked over my outfit, all the way down to my shoes, and I could have sworn she was smirking. “Right this way.”

Sheila led us to the table in the middle of the small establishment, and I started to sit, but Ethan pulled me back to his side.

“Not here,” he said in a low voice. He turned to Sheila and indicated with his head. “Over on the other side of the fireplace.”

“Fine,” Sheila replied in a surly tone while flipping her hair. She took us around to the back of a large, round fireplace designed to sit in the middle of the room.

“This place has the best Italian food in the city,” Ethan said after we sat down and Sheila left. “Alfero makes everything from scratch; he even makes his own mozzarella. I worked here for a while, and he showed me how to make it. It’s really cool.”

“That’s sounds interesting,” I said with a nod. “How long did you work here?”

“Just that one day.”

“You worked here for one day?”

“Yeah, it doesn’t take that long to make the cheese—just a few hours, and most of that is waiting for it to cool.”

“That doesn’t seem like much of a job,” I said.

“That’s okay. I got paid in pizzas!” Ethan laughed. “I got to use the cheese I made on it.”

“So, where do you work now?” I asked, starting to fear the answer.

“Well, I’m kind of between jobs,” Ethan said, granting me a vision of his half-smile again. “I was working down at the pier with one of the crab boats a couple of weeks ago, but they were heading up to Alaska this week, and I didn’t want to be away from my friends that long.”

“Dare I ask how long you worked fishing for crabs?”

“Oh, I didn’t do the actual fishing,” he said, snickering again. “I went out on the boat and played my guitar while they were working. Once we got back, I helped them unload.”

“Did you get paid in crabs?” I had to ask.

“Nah, I don’t really like seafood,” he said. “I just wanted to know what it was like on the boats. I’d seen them out in the water all my life, but I had never been on one.”

“So you got actual money for that job?”

“Nah,” he said again. “I just needed something on my resume.”

I looked into his eyes, trying to decide if he was serious or not. His eyes were laughing, and he was biting those rings in his lip again.

“You’re teasing me.” I narrowed my eyes at him.

“Maybe a little,” he admitted with a shrug. “So what were you interviewing for?”

“Draganov Financial,” I said, not really wanting him to dig into this subject.

“What do you want to do?”

I considered saying something along the lines of “Absolutely nothing at my Dad’s company,” but I decided that was probably a little too much information at this point.

“I’m looking into one of the assistant executive positions,” I finally said. “I graduate next month with my master’s in accounting and business administration.”

“Oh,” he said. He scowled down at the table and started fiddling with the napkin-wrapped silverware.

A big guy dressed in all white stopped by the table just then, calling out in lightly accented phrases.

“Ethan! Good to see you again!”

“Hey, Alfero,” Ethan said, standing up and shaking the guy’s hand. “I’d like you to meet Ashlyn.”

“Wonderful to meet you, Ashlyn,” he said, taking my hand and shaking it lightly. “Watch out for this one; he’s a charmer.”

I smiled and looked away, trying to force myself not to blush. I probably wasn’t successful. When I glanced back at Ethan, I saw he was blushing as well, so I decided not to worry about it too much.

“Do you know what you want tonight?” Alfero asked, looking at me.

“Umm…I’m not sure yet,” I said, looking down at the menu for the first time. “Ethan? What are you getting?”

“I want a caprese salad,” Ethan said. “And a margarita pizza, bruschetta, the fettuccini Alfredo and a Coke. You got vanilla gelato today?”

“Of course,” Alfero responded. “I made it this afternoon.”

“Vanilla gelato for dessert.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Are you going to eat all of that?”

“Nah,” Ethan said. “I like everything, so I can never pick what I want. I take the leftovers to CeeCee and Gwen.”

I shook my head at him, trying to figure out what the heck I had gotten myself into with this guy. I glanced over the menu once more and decided on the eggplant Parmesan.

“Are you in school?” I asked when Alfero left with our order.

“No,” Ethan said. He didn’t look at me and didn’t seem to be prepared to elaborate. Just as I was about to change the subject, he spoke up again. “I had to drop out.”

“Oh.”

“I got hurt in high school,” he said, shrugging again. “I did a lot of track and field, mostly pole vaulting. I hit my head coming down when I was sixteen and ended up in a coma for a couple of days. I spent about a month in the hospital before I could go home. I have trouble reading now. All right, that’s not really true. I can’t read now, which made college pretty much impossible. I tried using someone to read everything to me, but it was just too cumbersome.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, not sure how to respond.

“It’s okay,” he said. The corners of his mouth turned up, but it didn’t hit his eyes this time. “I graduated from high school, at least.”

“How old are you?” I asked, immediately regretting the question.

“Does it matter?” he asked.

“A little,” I said. I tried to laugh it off. “I mean, can you at least buy me a drink?”

“No,” he replied and flashed that incredible half grin again. “But if you want one, you can order it, and I’ll slip you some cash when no one is looking.”

I think my mouth must have dropped open as I stared in disbelief. Ethan suddenly looked away, and his hand went up into his hair, making it impossibly messier than it already was.

“I’m nineteen,” he blurted out.

I felt my heart sink.





Chapter 4—Decision


I looked across the table at him, meeting his eyes and trying not to register shock in mine, but I could tell by his expression, he saw it anyway.

“Wow,” I finally said softly. I waited for him to ask me how old I was, but he didn’t, so I decided to offer it up anyway. “I’m twenty-six.”

“I figured,” he said simply.

“How’s that?”

“Four years in undergrad, plus two for your master’s. Assuming you started college right after high school and didn’t fall behind at all, you would have to be at least twenty-four.”

I couldn’t fault his logic.

“I was nineteen when I graduated high school,” I said. “Summer baby. I also took a year off between my undergraduate degree and master’s program.”

“Is that going to bother you?” he asked, his intense eyes boring into mine again. “The age difference, I mean?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “If we were in a relationship, maybe…”

“What did you like studying in college the most?”

His abrupt change of topic was extremely welcome, but there was still distance in his eyes that wasn’t there before.

“I liked a lot of things,” I said. “Obviously I had a lot of accounting and finance classes as well as economics…”

“Are those the classes you liked the most?”

“I needed them for my major.”

“What did you take that you liked?”

“Well, the past two years I have mostly focused on the classes I needed for my master’s,” I told him. “There wasn’t a lot of time for anything extra. I took a couple of lit classes.”

“Literature?” Ethan’s eyes brightened again. “What kind?”

“English and American, also one of German women writers. Those were all during my undergrad, though.”

“Who is your favorite author?”

“I have a lot of them,” I admitted. “It’s hard to choose just one. I love Austen, Bronte, Shelley, Poe, Tolkien, Anne Rice, and Stephen King—lots of different ones.”

“Sweet,” he said, and his smile glowed with the light of the fireplace and the light from his eyes. “I loved the Lord of the Rings movies.”

“They were all right,” I replied with a shrug. “I usually hate it when they take a great book and ruin it with a movie though.”

“Ruin it?” Ethan’s eyes widened. “Those were some of the best movies ever. I mean, the cave troll alone would have made a great flick! And you can’t tell me that Orlando Bloom wasn’t the most awesome Legolas there could ever be.”

“And that’s just the sort of thing I’m talking about. It was a journey about loyalty and friendship, and the movie had to make it a constant bloodbath just to keep teenage boys entertained.”

“That’s an extremely narrow-minded view of film,” Ethan argued. “Actually, if you look at…”

We had a fantastic dinner and spent the next two hours talking about every book we had ever read. Though I had a little trouble keeping the seven-year age gap from bothering me, both the food and the conversation had been wonderful. For someone who had dropped out of college, Ethan had obviously been remarkably well read before he was hurt. We had similar tastes in authors and had argued half the night about whether or not books should ever be turned into movies. He made great points in his arguments but not enough to change my mind. He might have had difficulty reading now, but whatever was wrong with him obviously didn’t affect his intelligence in the slightest. We laughed, and I was having such a great time, the next thing I knew we were headed back to his BMX bike, and I was agreeing to go back to his apartment with him.

“Yo, dude,” Ethan said into the phone. “I’m coming home tonight. Just wanted to warn ya that I’m bringing someone with me. So, I dunno…take the night off or something? We’ll be there in about ten…yeah, that’s cool. See ya in a bit.”

He ended the call and shoved his phone into his jeans pocket. I tried to figure out just what in the heck I thought I was doing.

“Your roommate?” I asked, trying not to show the nervousness I was beginning to feel. My eyes focused on the rings decorating his face and the ink decorating his arm. I had figured out the tattoo around his arm was a tail of some sort, but I hadn’t mustered up the courage to ask him about it yet. Ethan seemed great, but I didn’t really know him. He wasn’t exactly the type Daddy was going to welcome, and that by itself should have been enough for me to call it a night.

“Nah, just the help,” he said, laughing. “Frazier stays at my place ‘cause I’m not there too much. I usually stay with Gwen and CeeCee. I like it better there. I just didn’t want to scare him or anything.”

“Where do your friends live?”

“Lower West Side,” Ethan said. He maneuvered the bike away from the wall and held it steady with one hand so I could get on. Then we were off, and the cool, night breeze tossed my hair around my shoulders.

The area he mentioned was definitely not a nice neighborhood. My anxiety began to grow, and I wondered where Ethan could live that would make him prefer spending his time in the slums. I wanted to ask, but I had already agreed to go back to his apartment and didn’t want to hurt his feelings. At the same time, I knew this was an asinine thing to do. I hadn’t even told anyone I was going out tonight or whom I was with, and now I was going to this guy’s apartment.

If we were in a car, I’d be considering jumping out about now.

I recalled a narrow escape my friend Zoey had with a guy she met on an online dating app. She went to his apartment where he became a complete jerk to her after they hooked up. They were supposed to go out for dinner, but he said he was tired, offered her a yogurt, and then fell asleep. When she woke him up to say she was leaving, he yelled at her and called her all kinds of filthy names. There was a moment when she thought he wasn’t even going to let her leave.

“Ethan,” I said, and he leaned his head closer to mine as he continued to pedal down the sidewalk. I saw the entrance to the subway about two blocks away and figured this really was for the best. “Could you stop a minute, please?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, and pulled off to the sidewalk’s edge, dismounted and put one hand on my shoulder. He leaned over and looked at me. “You okay? You aren’t motion sick or anything, are you?”

“No, I’m not,” I said. I slid off the seat and bent down to start untying the shoes.

“What are you doing?” Ethan asked. He knelt down next to me and placed one hand over the laces to stop my movements.

“This really isn’t a good idea,” I said. What was I thinking? Going to some guy’s apartment when I just met him, and no one even knew where I was? Granted, I felt like I knew him a little now, and I really didn’t think he would hurt me, but he was practically a kid, a college dropout and…and…whatever else he was. A punk? A goth? I had no idea what he was supposed to be called. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t be with him. “I should go home, and I should give you the shoes back…”

“The shoes are yours,” Ethan said. His eyes darkened and narrowed at me. “I don’t want them back. Why do you want to go home?”

“I just…should.”

“I fucked something up, didn’t I?” He reached behind me and pushed the bike backwards, allowing it to crash-land against the side of the building. I hoped the package of leftover Alfredo wasn’t spilled. With a slight thump, he dropped to the sidewalk on his backside and his hands went up into his hair. “I’m sorry—whatever it was I did. I didn’t mean to piss you off.”

“You didn’t piss me off,” I tried to assure him. “This is just…a little weird for me. I can’t do this.”

“What’s weird?” Ethan asked, his eyes still narrowed. He released one of his hands from his hair and used it to pull a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. Lighting it quickly, he took a long drag off of it and then looked back up at me. He looked so…confused. “I thought you were having a good time.”

“I did have a good time, Ethan,” I told him. “I mean, I am having a good time. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just…not a good idea.”

“What isn’t?”

“Going back to your apartment with you.”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Ethan said. His eyebrows scrunched together as he furrowed his brow. “I wanted to spend more time with you. If the restaurant hadn’t been closing, we could have stayed there. I can ask Alfero. He might let us stay there for a while longer, but we’ll have to hurry, or he’ll be gone already.”

“No, don’t do that,” I said. I wanted to sit down, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. Ethan was sitting on the ground; the bike was in a small pile behind me, and I was in a skirt that was way too tight for sitting next to him. “I’m a little nervous.”

He looked up at me and tilted his head a little to one side.

“I would never hurt you, Ashlyn.” Ethan’s eyes were dark and intense. “Or take advantage of you. Never.”

“I know you wouldn’t, Ethan,” I said. I knew in my heart it was true. “I don’t know if this is the right thing to do.”

“Do you want to spend more time with me?” Ethan stared straight into my eyes.

“Yes,” I said, “but…”

“If you want to, what’s stopping you?”

Images of my father’s face bounced around in my head—every expression from his deep disappointment to his extreme ire made an appearance. The predictable opinions of some of my friends—Zoey, Presley, even Isaac—echoed through my head. I was an up-and-coming debutante expected to be the future of the financial business in this city. It wasn’t just a matter of whether or not I should be in this guy’s apartment. I shouldn’t even be seen with him.

“It doesn’t really look right…”

“You are worried about how this looks?” Ethan’s dark eyes glared at me, his head tilted off to one side a bit, and then he looked to the left and the right, down the nearly deserted streets. “Who’s going to see you?”

He had a point there. If his friends lived on the Lower West Side, wherever he was taking me was not likely to be a spot frequented by my father’s golf buddies. Then again, that also meant no one would know where I was or whom I was with.

“Well, that’s sort of the point.” I looked away, afraid of insulting him if I expressed my fears.

“You think I might hurt you.”

His words were a statement, not a question. Though what he said was true, I was also concerned about what people who knew me might think if they saw me with someone like him. How quickly would that information get back to Presley, or worse yet, my father?

“It’s not exactly that…”

“Yes, it is.”

“I just…don’t really know you.”

“Do you have a friend you can text my name and address to?”

I looked at him and then glanced down to the ground. I could send Presley his information, but if I did send it, and she thought I was going home with some guy in the most run-down section of town there was, she’d freak and might even send the cops there.

Ethan was still waiting for me to say something, but I had no idea what to say. Eventually, he got tired of waiting.

“You don’t have any friends you can text?”

“It’s not that,” I said, “I just…well, I wouldn’t know what to say to them. They’ll tell me I’m an idiot and probably send someone looking for me.”

“Hey, Ashlyn”—Ethan reached out and placed his left hand on my arm—“I don’t want you to be scared. I don’t know what to say other than what I already said—I’d never hurt you or anyone else, for that matter. I just want to spend more time with you.”

“I’d like to spend more time with you, too.” My heart was pounding. His words were pretty enough, but what else did I expect—a serial killer who says he plans to kill me and chop me up for dinner?

But Ethan hadn’t done anything but be perfectly polite and nice to me. He’d given no indications that he was dangerous. In fact, everyone we came across seemed to really like him. Maybe I was just being paranoid and silly.

“We both agree on that, at least.” Ethan grinned. “Why don’t you wait to decide when we get to my place? I can even tell Frazier to wait if you want.”

“All right,” I said. I took a deep breath. “You are right, and I’m being ridiculous. Let’s go.”





Chapter 5—Explanation


Ethan’s smile came back almost instantly, and he jumped up, righted the bike, and we were on our way again in no time. With the wind in my hair and eyes, it was difficult to figure out just which direction we were going, and Ethan kept speeding up one alley and down the other to avoid pedestrians. Before long, I looked up to find that we were riding past the high-rise department store buildings not far from where Presley and I liked to shop. Soon, we were approaching the end of the block.

I glanced back at Ethan as if that would give me a better idea of where we were going.

“Almost there,” Ethan said into my ear, his warm breath sending chills down my spine. He turned abruptly into a parking garage under the Marquise Apartment building and screeched to a halt near the elevator, wrapping one arm around my waist to keep me from falling off.

“Ethan.” A man dressed in a dark blue suit walked up and took a hold of one of the handlebars. “Good to see you again.”

“Hey, Henry.” Ethan greeted him by knocking his closed fist against Henry’s shoulder. “This is Ashlyn.”

“Good evening, miss,” Henry said with a nod. “Welcome.”

I was about as confused as I could get. I couldn’t even begin to guess what the rent in this building might be, so there was no way this kid who normally stayed with friends in the slums could possibly live here. This place was more than twice the price of the luxury apartments where Presley and I lived.

Henry took the bike and rolled it over to the elevator, waved a keycard, and the doors opened for us. He reached around and hit the button for the fifty-second floor, then stepped back out again.

“I’ll make sure your bike is stored properly. Do you know when you will be leaving?”

“Not sure yet,” Ethan said, looking at me through his lashes.

“I’ll keep it close by, then,” Henry said with a nod. “I’ll bring the car around as well if you think you’ll be needing it.”

“Nah,” Ethan said. “Don’t waste time with it. I’ll call ya if I need it.”

“Very good, sir.”

We entered the elevator, and I just stared at him as it began to ascend.

“Not what you were expecting?” Ethan said with a smile.

“You live here?”

“Not often,” he said, “but yeah, this is my place.”

“The penthouse?”

“The whole top floor,” he said. “It’s fucking insane. Way too big for one person.”

“How can you…?”

“Long story.” He laughed again. “I’ll tell you tonight if you really want to know.”

The doors opened into a large foyer, tastefully decorated with original prints of the city and fresh flowers. Ethan walked in and took off his shoes, motioning for me to do the same.

“My mom was always a nut about no shoes in the house,” he said. “It stuck with me.”

He took my hand and led me through the entryway and into a huge great room with an enormous fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. There was a black leather couch and a loveseat as well as mahogany coffee and end tables. In the middle of the room were two fluorescent pink beanbag chairs sitting in front of a gigantic television.

“Ethan, this place is incredible.”

“Good evening,” a voice said behind me, which caused me to jump and let out a little screech. Ethan tightened his grip on my hand and rubbed his thumb over my knuckles.

“Hey, Frazier,” he said. “This is Ashlyn. Ashlyn, meet Josh Frazier.”

“Good to meet you, Ashlyn,” Josh said, holding out his hand. I shook it briefly and echoed his reply.

“Do you want him to stick around?” Ethan asked me quietly. “We could just watch a movie or something.”

“No, that’s okay.” I honestly wasn’t more comfortable with the idea of being in a strange place with two guys I didn’t know. At least Ethan was starting to feel familiar to me.

“See ya later, Josh,” Ethan said.

“Have fun!” Josh smiled and winked. “Call if you need anything.”

“Will do,” Ethan responded. He gave Josh a high-five as he walked out of the room and towards the elevator. A moment later, Josh was gone and we were—as far as I could tell—alone.

“I do have a lot of movies if you want to watch something.”

Ethan stood in front of a cabinet, one hand in his hair and tugging at the ends. He danced from one foot to the other, then looked up at me, his cheeks red.

“They’re mostly movies based on books.” He let out a quick, nervous laugh. My laugh was more genuine, and he seemed to relax a little.

“I think I’ll pass,” I said.

“Do you want a Coke or something?”

What I really wanted was a glass of wine, but I didn’t say so.

“Maybe just some water?”

“Sure.”

Ethan walked up three short, hardwood steps to the raised kitchen area and pulled a glass out of the cabinet. He filled it with ice and filtered water, grabbed a can of Coke out of the fridge, and brought them both back to the living area. He handed me my water, then plopped down on one of the bean bag chairs.

I eyed the comfortable-looking leather couch and then the floppy bean bag chair on the floor next to Ethan. I pulled a bit at the edge of my skirt and tried to figure out if there was any way I could possibly sit down without ripping the seam or falling right on my face.

“Oh, shit!” Ethan jumped up out of the chair, spilling the Coke in his hand all over the floor. He cursed again, put the can on a coaster on the coffee table, and ran out of the room. He was back in less than a minute, holding a bundle of clothes which he thrust at me. “They won’t fit right, but you’ll be able to sit better.”

I looked at the pair of turquoise yoga pants and a beige tank top that were just a little too big for me. They obviously weren’t Ethan’s.

“My mom’s,” he said. I could have sworn he had mind-reading abilities.

“Will she mind?”

“Um…no.” Ethan grabbed a towel from the kitchen and started cleaning the Coke off the carpet. “Both my parents are dead.”

“Oh, crap…Ethan, I’m sorry.” I reached one hand out towards him but wasn’t sure what I planned to do with it, so I dropped it back to my side.

“It’s okay,” he said with a shrug. “It’s been a couple of years. There’s a bathroom down the hall—second door on the left.”

“I’ll go change.”

When I came back in the more comfortable clothing, the Coke mess was cleaned up and both of our drinks were sitting on the coffee table. Ethan was rinsing out the towel in the kitchen sink. He looked over his shoulder at me and smiled.

“That looks a lot easier to get around in,” he said. He hopped down the three stairs and flopped back into the bean bag, motioning me to do the same. “Why do you wear that stuff anyway?”

“I’ll be working in the corporate world,” I said. “It’s what you wear.”

“What does that stuff have to do with your job? Couldn’t you do the job just as well in a pair of jeans?”

“I suppose so,” I responded. I had never really thought about it. It was just what people wore in corporate America. “But people are expecting a certain look. If you want to convince them you will take care of their investments, they have to see you as a professional.”

“Doesn’t Draganov Financial already have a good reputation?”

“Yes, very good. We’re a leader in the industry.”

“I thought so.” He smiled that half smile at me, and I was fairly certain I was going to end up staining the crotch of his Mom’s yoga pants if he kept doing that. “If you weren’t, I might have to pay attention to what was happening with my money, and I really don’t want to fuck around with all that shit.”

“You’re invested with us?”

“Us?” he questioned. “I thought you just interviewed there today. Did you get the job?”

It was my turn to blush scarlet.

“Well, you see—it was really an interview in name only.” I had no idea how I was going to explain this without sounding like an entitled bitch. “I already have the job. My father is Miles Draganov.”

I sat back and waited for the shift in attitude that always occurred. Sometimes I truly hated my family name. The people in this town seemed to think we needed to be treated like Rockefellers or something. I hated it. Dad loved it.

“Oh, I got it,” Ethan said. He tipped his soft drink can up and drained it. “Yeah, my dad did a lot of business with Draganov Financial. Most of the money’s still there. I don’t really pay much attention to it. All the bills are paid automatically for this place, and I only use the account directly to pay Frazier and shit. Sometimes I’ll use the credit card, like tonight, but not often.”

He shrugged, half-smiled, and blushed again.

“I guess I still owe you a story,” he said, waving his hand, indicating the penthouse apartment.

“Yes, you do,” I agreed. “Will you tell me about your parents as well?”

“They are a big part of it,” he said with a wry smile.

“I guess that should have been obvious, huh?” I smiled back, hoping I hadn’t sounded flippant or anything. Ethan smiled and began speaking.

“My parents were awesome. They both worked really hard, but they would always try to make time for me when they could. One of them would always be at my major track meets and whatever.

“Mom said I was her miracle baby—she wasn’t supposed to be able to have any and ended up with a hysterectomy right after I was born. They were so proud of me, and I always felt loved and accepted. Even after the accident, when I wasn’t a straight A student any longer, and I wasn’t allowed to vault or even run track, they still said they were proud of me for how hard I was working to finish high school. I thought I was still going to get through college at that time, too, and I was going to pay my own way. Both of them came from families with money, but they also both made their own fortunes as well. They were starting to talk about retirement when the accident happened.”

Ethan took a long drink from his can of cola and paused for a moment before continuing.

“It was our regular family trip, and I always went with them. The three of us flew out to our lake house about once a month. I had just gotten out of the hospital after the last surgery, and the doctor said I shouldn’t be on a plane—something about the air pressure changes and possible swelling. I don’t really remember. They were going to forget the usual weekend voyage altogether, but I knew they needed a break, and I told them to go. A bunch of my friends were going to throw me some kind of get-well party or whatever, so I wouldn’t be on my own or anything. They finally agreed to go without me. It was a small plane flown by one of my dad’s friends, and it was just them, the pilot, and the pilot’s wife. No one knows exactly what happened—turbulence or what—but the pilot lost control of the plane and everyone was killed.”

Ethan reached up with the back of his hand and swept moisture away from his eyes. I maneuvered out of my bean bag chair and knelt before him, taking his hands. He glanced at me shyly and looked down to our joined hands. He shifted over a little in the bean bag, making room for me to sit next to him. I crawled in beside him and wrapped my arms around his waist. I felt his arms encircle my shoulders, holding me against his chest.

“Thanks,” he said softly.

“You’re welcome,” I responded, not really sure what else I could say.

“I spent a lot of time thinking I should have been with them—that we all should have been killed. Then I spent a lot of time deciding it was my fault because I told them to go without me. I don’t feel that way anymore, but it took a lot of time to work through it. I definitely learned something though.”

“Nothing matters more than the people in your life,” Ethan continued. “Your relationships with those around you are what defines you and makes you real. My parents live on because I remember them, and I see how what they did affects everything I do today. They don’t live on in the stuff in this penthouse, the family property in Wales, or the money in the trust funds.”

I could understand why he would think that though I wasn’t so sure my friends would agree. To many of them, money was everything.

“It’s usually lonely here,” Ethan said. “I spend time with my friends in their crappy, little, overcrowded apartment because they are real. They have no idea how much money I have though they know my parents left me something, but they do know that money means nothing. I’d rather eat grilled cheese made on a hotplate at their place than have some chef cook up filet mignon and eat it here alone. Nothing here means anything because I don’t share it with anyone else.”

Ethan was quiet for a minute, his fingers slowly tracing up and down my back.

“I think you are closer to your parents now than I have ever been to mine,” I said softly. “Mom is off in her own little world—I think in Paris now—and Dad is…well, he’s just Dad. I’ve never really known him.”

“Does he work a lot?” Ethan asked.

“Does all the time count as a lot?” I laughed humorlessly. “When he isn’t at the office, he’s having dinner with clients or golfing with board members. He’s never not working.”

“He sounds dedicated.”

“He is,” I agreed. “The business is very important to him. That’s one of the reasons he says he won’t trust it to anyone but me.”

“Well, I guess my money will continue to safely accrue interest, then.”

“What is your last name?” I asked, wondering if his family was one of the bigger clients whose names I would recognize.

“Ramsey,” he said softly, and I couldn’t help my gasp.





Chapter 6—Bonding


As soon as I heard him say it, the whole story he recounted came back to me. Doctors Bryson and Grace Ramsey, along with two colleagues, were tragically killed in a small-engine plane accident a little less than two years ago. It was all over the society pages for a month. I vaguely recalled mention of a single heir, and obviously Ethan was he. The Ramseys were one of the top five clients at Draganov Financial, going back to the turn of the century for both families. Their portfolio was in the billions.

“Oh my God,” I heard myself mutter. I lifted my head up off his chest so I could look at him better. I tried to remember if I had seen pictures of his family before. I probably had, but I couldn’t remember. “I had no idea.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ethan said, succinctly cutting me off. He looked down into my eyes, and his expression was pained. “Please, don’t let it make any difference.”

“It doesn’t,” I said. It was true, but not for the reasons Ethan thought. Even with his name, my father would never see past the metal and the ink. My friends would never see anything but the boyish face and the BMX bicycle of the guy seven years my junior. No one would see past the lack of college degree and the numerous friends living in the worst part of town.

“Can I kiss you yet?” he asked, his voice quiet again. He looked at me pleadingly.

“Yes,” I replied.

He tilted his head down and pressed a soft, gentle kiss against my lips. He hesitated only a moment before pulling back and granting me his glorious smile, times ten. It lit up his entire face. No, his entire body. No, wait—it lit up the whole fucking room it was so blinding.

“Again?” he asked.

I could only nod.

His lips met mine a second time, and again he was gentle and slow, leaving quiet, closed mouth kisses on my lips. He moved from my top lip to the bottom one, then to one side before the other. The metal from his lip-rings glided smoothly over my skin. I reached out my tongue to taste the rings and quickly found his tongue touching mine, first just the tip, then wrapping around and sucking my tongue into his mouth.

He tasted like warm summer dusk, vanilla ice cream, and Coca-Cola with the slightest lingering hint of his last cigarette. He moaned against my mouth and leaned back in the beanbag chair, pulling me slightly on top of him.

I opened my mouth and let him inside, his tongue reaching up and stroking my lips first before tasting me as well. Despite the desire I felt behind his kiss, he remained gentle, quiet, and completely, incredibly sweet.

I cupped his face in my hands, ran my fingers over the rough stubble on his cheeks, noting the contrast between his rough jaw and his smooth lips, and pushed against him to deepen the kiss. I ran my tongue over his top lip, then the bottom one. The metal loops slipped and slid across the tip of my tongue.

“Does it hurt?” I asked.

“Does what hurt?”

“The rings—the ones in your lip. Does it hurt to kiss?”

“Does this hurt?” Ethan’s teeth gently gripped my lower lip and pulled, biting and sucking it into his mouth before slowly releasing it.

“No…that feels awesome.”

“The rings kind of feel like that,” he said with a half smile. “Suck on them.”

I blinked a couple of times, a little surprised by his bluntness, but my curiosity overcame any hesitation I had. I leaned close to him again and wrapped my lips over the top and bottom of his lower lip, effectively trapping the rings in my mouth. I ran my tongue over the metal, which was warm from our kissing, before I did as he said and sucked a little.

Ethan moaned, and his grip behind my back tightened, crushing my chest to his. I pulled back and let go of his lip, and his eyes flew open.

“Was that too much?” I asked.

“Fuck, no,” Ethan said. “That felt great. Don’t stop!”

I sucked his lower lip into my mouth again, caressing the rings with my tongue and my lips, getting to know the feel of them before my tongue found his mouth. He let me lead for a while, then ran his hand up to the back of my head and pressed harder against me, invading my mouth with his tongue like the Roman army invading Gaul—relentless and all-powerful.

I have no idea how long we sat in a fluorescent pink, bean-bag chair, making out like a couple of high school kids, but I knew my lips were actually starting to get sore, and my bladder desperately needed a break. I pulled back from him.

“I think I need a minute,” I said quietly, trying not to blush.

“Are you okay?” Ethan asked, searching my eyes with his.

“I’m good,” I said. “I just need to, um, use the bathroom.”

“Oh, okay. No problem.” Ethan stood up, taking me with him and helping me turn around so I was facing the hallway. I stepped into the bathroom again and looked over my flushed face. My breaths were still coming in pants, and my heart was still trying to jump right through my ribcage so it could do a little happy dance on the bathroom counter. I tried to calm myself down a bit as I took care of business, washed my hands, and splashed some cold water on my face.

I came out of the bathroom and didn’t see Ethan in the living room any longer. After a quick look around, I felt a light breeze and followed it out to a balcony door where Ethan was leaning against the glass and metal rail, smoking a cigarette.

“Hey,” he said softly, and that half smile crossed his face again as he glanced at me, then looked out over the city. He flicked ash over the side and sighed.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said with a bit of a snicker. “I’m just trying to figure out what to do so I don’t fuck this up.”

“What do you mean?”

“I want to ask you to spend the night with me,” Ethan said, “but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I just want you to stay and sleep with me.”

“Ethan, I…”

“Wait a sec.” He took a long drag off the cigarette and crushed it under his heel. “See, I’m already saying it wrong. I just don’t want you to go. I want you to stay so I can make you French toast for breakfast in the morning. I swear I’m not trying to get you to fuck me or anything. I’m not like that. I haven’t had sex since the last steady girlfriend I had, and we broke up more than four months ago. Shit, now I’m just babbling like an idiot.”

“Ethan, you don’t have to tell me this,” I said, secretly thrilled he didn’t appear to be a complete manwhore or anything, not that he couldn’t be one if he wanted to with his looks and that smile. Regardless, I was glad to hear it had been as long for him—a little longer, even—as it had been for me, not that I was planning on sleeping with him or anything.

Not yet anyway.

“I know,” he said. “I just don’t want you to think I’m like that. I really like you, and I want to spend more time with you. If you leave, I might not ever see you again.”

“Of course you would,” I told him.

“You don’t know that.” His tone was insistent. “The last thing my mom said to me was “See you on Monday.” She didn’t mean for it to happen. She didn’t know we’d never lay eyes on each other again. Life’s a lot more fragile than you think. I don’t want to assume you aren’t going to be hit by a bus or have a fluke medical condition flare up all of a sudden and risk never making you breakfast. I’d regret never making you breakfast. Please stay with me.”

“It seems fairly unlikely…” I started to say that nothing was going to happen to me. I wanted to reassure him that sort of thing didn’t really happen, but I couldn’t. He knew that wasn’t always the case. He had lived through just such a fluke, and anything I said now would be a slap in the face to him.

I tried to wrap my head around what he was asking. He wanted me to spend the night with him so he could make me breakfast in the morning. He wanted to spend more time with me, and I wasn’t ready to leave just yet, either. However, it was getting late, and the Ubers were going to get fewer and farther between. I definitely wasn’t going to ride the subway after midnight—too many crazies. At home, there was still my car to deal with.

But stay overnight with a guy I just met? Even for college students, that was pressing the limit a little. What would Zoey say? No—scratch that. Zoey would already be dry-humping him. What about Presley, the voice of social reason? She’d never get past the piercings even if she did hear his last name. My father…well, Dad would probably just lie down and have a coronary.

Ethan reached over and ran his hand over my cheek, stroking my cheekbone with his thumb.

“Please stay,” he said and brushed his lips against mine. “You could use one of the guest rooms if you want, but I’d rather you stayed in my room.”

“I don’t know,” I replied, trying hard not to get lost in his eyes again.

“I’d like to make out with you again, if that’s okay.”

“You have a knack for changing the subject,” I said accusingly. Ethan laughed.

“Sometimes certain topics need to be shut down,” he told me. “People like to harp on the things they can’t do anything about, and it gets them all worried, upset, and even angry. Either you will decide to stay with me in my bed, in the guest room, or not at all. At some point, you’ll decide, and I can’t control your decision. So, I change the subject to something else so you aren’t just spending all your time being anxious about it, and I won’t be either. I would rather be enjoying your company, however long it lasts.”

“You sure are smart for your age,” I mused.

“I’ve lived a lot in the past few years,” Ethan said. “I think the only real mistakes I have made have been when I didn’t tell someone how I felt or didn’t do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. You never know what tomorrow’s going to bring, so don’t wait to do or say something important. You only make real mistakes when you refuse to live in the moment. I guess it’s my life motto now.”

Taking his advice, whether he meant it to be advice or not, I reached over and took his face in my hands, bringing his lips to mine. The night air had cooled off the thin silver rings, and the contrast between the metal and his soft, warm lips was enticing. I reached my tongue out and ran it over the little hoops, warming them. Ethan’s tongue pushed past my lips and stroked across my tongue, slowly caressing it and tasting me.

“Stay with me…please,” Ethan mumbled between kisses.

“I’ll stay,” I said. I felt his tongue reach back into my mouth, and his hands clasped the sides of my face. He found my chin with his mouth and then my neck and my shoulder before making the trail back again to my lips.

I didn’t know if what I was doing was a good idea or how it would look or how my father would react if he found out, but I was going to take Ethan’s advice, at least for now. I wasn’t going to count this night among my regrets. I was going to seize this moment, and I was going to do what I wanted to do and stay with him, consequences be damned.

Maybe I would learn a little.





Chapter 7—Evaluate


“Want a foot massage?”

I wasn’t sure if I was going to get used to Ethan’s bluntness. Then I freaked myself out a little, realizing I was thinking about how I was going to get used to the behavior patterns of a guy I met twelve hours ago. Of those twelve hours, I think we had been making out for nearly three of them. After we ended the last session, we went searching Ethan’s three bathrooms for ChapStick. I guess his idea of a make-out recess was to rub my feet.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said.

“I’d like to,” Ethan said. “I’m willing to bet your feet still hurt from wearing those fuck-awful shoes.”

“Those ‘fuck-awful shoes,’” I said, “cost eight hundred dollars. They’re perfect for the suit.”

“They hurt your feet,” Ethan said. “That means they suck. I don’t care what they look like. Come here.”

Ethan extracted himself from the bean bag chair and ran out of the room. When he returned, there was a bottle of lotion in his hands. He plopped down on the end of the couch, turned towards the center, and sat cross-legged, holding one hand out.

“Lay down with your head over there,” he said, indicating the arm of the couch. “Put your feet over here. I swear you won’t regret it. I give an awesome foot massage.”

“Yeah, you have a thing for feet,” I said with a grin. Ethan blushed. That was something I could easily get used to because it was so freaking adorable.

“Well remembered,” he said. He reached out his tongue and fiddled with the silver rings in his lip. “Please?”

I didn’t know if there was a woman in existence who could actually pass up a man pleading with her to let him give her a foot massage. I sat down and placed my feet in his lap. Ethan grinned over at me—I loved the way he smiled so often, almost as much as the blush—and picked up my left foot with both hands.

He coated his hands with the lotion and then started by rolling my foot in a slow, gentle circle, stretching out the muscles around my ankle. Once he was done with that, he moved to the top of my foot and stroked gently from the top of my toes towards my ankle, and then he added more pressure as he repeated the motion. He tilted my toes back a little, rubbing the balls of my feet in little circles with his thumbs before working all the way back to my heel. He swirled my ankle in a circle again—first one way, then the other.

Ethan made a fist with one hand and rubbed the tops of his knuckles over the sole of my foot before attacking each of my toes in turn, starting with the big one. At the end, he ran his index finger between each toe, and then slid his hands back over the sole of my foot.

By the time he was halfway done with my second foot, I closed my eyes and lay my head back on the arm of the couch. His hands felt so good on my skin, and his touch was just perfect—not too gentle or too rough. I was pretty sure I let out a moan more than once, which Ethan welcomed with a soft chuckle.

He started humming while his thumbs ran up and down my instep, something slow, haunting and unknown to me. I found I couldn’t open my eyes anymore if I wanted to, and his touch and his voice faded from my consciousness.

What seemed a moment later, I jostled awake, finding myself cradled in his arms as he stood in the middle of the hallway, looking back and forth between two doors.

“Ethan?” I said sleepily. He looked down at me, his expression confused.

“I didn’t know where I should take you,” Ethan said softly. “I didn’t mean to wake you up; I just…didn’t know where to go. There’s a guest room…”

“Just take me to your room,” I said.

“Thank God,” I heard him murmur right before I dropped back off.

*****

I woke up disoriented, trying to figure out where I was. There were warm, strong arms wrapped around me, one across my back and the other up near my shoulder. Fingers lay lightly across the back of my neck, threaded through my hair. Ethan’s fingers. I was at Ethan’s apartment, in his room, in his bed, in his arms.

Was I out of my mind?

True to his word, he hadn’t tried anything. Against my better judgment, I wouldn’t have minded too much if he had.

I raised my head a bit off his chest and looked up into his face. It was calm and peaceful in sleep, and the dark stubble covering his face was a little more pronounced than when I first saw him and was beginning to blend in with his sideburns. Most of his hair had escaped the unruly man-bun at the top of his head, and I noticed for the first time that his hair was long enough to reach past his shoulders. His dark lashes touched the top of his cheekbone. I could have just stared at him for some time, but nature called, and I shifted a little to break out of Ethan’s grip. As soon as I moved, his arms tightened and pulled me against his chest again.

“No.” His raspy voice echoed through the darkened room. I looked back up at him and found his forehead creased and his eyes tightly shut. There was a distinct frown on his face, but he didn’t appear to have awakened.

I smiled at his twisted up look of disappointment and gently released his arm from around my neck before trying to get up again. His eyes flew open.

“Don’t go,” he said. His voice held a touch of panic.

“I’m just going to the bathroom,” I said softly.

“Oh,” he mumbled and released his grip. He blinked a few times and then glanced over at the clock on the nightstand. It was early still—just a little past six in the morning. He followed me with his gaze me as I rolled over, placed my feet on the soft carpet beside the bed, and made my way to the master bath.

When I returned, Ethan was still awake and greeted me with that smile. A girl could really get used to seeing that in the morning.

Okay, obviously I was out of my mind.

He held his arms out, and I couldn’t help but return the smile as I clambered back into the king-size bed and back into the warmth of his embrace. He slid his hand up my back and threaded his fingers through my hair before resting his hand lightly against my neck once again. I heard and felt Ethan take a deep breath, which he let out slowly. I tilted my head a bit to look up at him and saw he was already asleep with the last remnants of his smile still visible on his face.

Contrarily, it took me significantly longer to fall asleep again. For a while I lay my head down on his chest and kept my eyes closed, but sleep didn’t come as quickly as I would have liked, so I turned my head up to watch him sleep. I could see just a little bit more of the top of the tattoo near his neck, almost completely hidden by his T-shirt. It was red and black with just a hint of green. I was pretty sure it was a flower of some kind—maybe a rose. With his arm wrapped around me, I couldn’t get a better view of the tattoo there, but it was definitely a tail. I thought it was most likely a dragon or at least something reptilian. There was something written on the bottom, under the triangular pointed end of the tail, but I couldn’t see all the letters from the angle I had. If I shifted my head, I could make out “i-e-m,” but that was all. I was going to have to ask him about the tattoos tomorrow. Maybe he’d take his shirt off so I could see them.

Now there’s an idea.

I listened to Ethan sigh in his sleep and thought about everything he told me the night before. I wondered how he had reacted when someone came to him and told him both his parents were dead. I wondered what went through his head when he realized he was alone. He had been so young, too. He still was really—only nineteen. Freaking nineteen. I wasn’t sure if I could cope with that or not. I started weighing all the pros and cons of this whole situation in my head.

Pros: he was really sweet and kind; he seemed very intelligent; he could have a difference of opinion, state his case, and not be mad or nasty afterwards. One definite pro—he was absolutely gorgeous, and his smile counted as doubly gorgeous, his eyes maybe triple. He also had great taste in books.

Con: he couldn’t read them.

Was that really a con? I took a mental step back and reconsidered. When I didn’t make any headway on that at all, I tried thinking about some other disadvantages.

Cons: he had dropped out of college, and my friends were going to think I’d lost my mind. They were going to roll their eyes, hope I just wanted to fuck his brains out for a while, and wait for me to move on to a “real” relationship. Dad was going to hate him.

That was a big one. If I told him who Ethan’s parents were first, then prepped Dad on Ethan’s appearance before he actually met him, there was a slim chance he wouldn’t completely freak out about the piercings, tattoos, and total lack of a real job. His friends in the slums could never, ever be mentioned.

This was not going to be easy. Back to pros.

Pro: kissing him was absolutely mind-blowing. I almost wanted to get my own lip rings.

Con: he had baggage, no doubt about that. I really didn’t want to hold that against him. It wasn’t like he could help what happened to his parents. He obviously had felt a lot of guilt over it at one time and maybe still did on occasion. Fault or not, guys with baggage were known to be troublesome.

Pro: foot masseuse. Definite, mind-blowing pro.

“What are you thinking so hard about?” Ethan’s unexpected voice shocked me out of my inner ramblings.

“Oh! You startled me!”

“I’m sorry,” Ethan said with a sheepish smile.

“You don’t look sorry,” I commented.

“You’re cute when you’re jumpy,” he said and then laughed.

“You’re cute when you’re sleeping,” I said, and I reached up to kiss the end of his nose.

“I liked waking up and having you here with me,” he said without warning, his tone suddenly serious. “It feels right.”

His words spooked me, not because he said them, but because I felt them, too.

“How did you get that scar?” he asked suddenly. He reached up and traced the edge of my lower lip.

I shivered and pulled back a little.

“Bumped into something,” I said quickly. “Not a big deal.”

“What did you bump into?”

“I don’t remember,” I lied. “It was a long time ago.”

He scowled for a moment, then smiled as his cheeks flushed pink.

“I gotta get up,” he said.

I rolled to my side, and Ethan squirmed out from under me and the blankets before rushing off to the bathroom. I rubbed the tip of my finger over the tiny, practically unnoticeable scar on my lip and swallowed hard.

Ethan was in the bathroom for a while, and I started to wonder just what the hell he was doing, but he finally came back out.

“You go ahead and take a shower or whatever, if you want.” Ethan motioned to the master bath. “I put out some stuff for you, including some clothes. I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course it is,” I said, wondering where he found clothes while in there. It was a big bathroom, but I didn’t think it was quite that big. “That’s very thoughtful, actually.”

“I’ll go start on breakfast.” Ethan reached out and ran his hand down my cheek before leaning in and kissing my lips quickly. His mouth was minty, and I watched him run his tongue over the lip rings before he smiled at me and practically skipped out of the room. I shook my head and walked into the bathroom.





Chapter 8—Fear


Two pink, fluffy towels were neatly folded on the edge of the tub, and a new toothbrush still in its packaging sat next to the sink in the bathroom. It was also pink, just like the towels and the bean bag chairs. I was starting to wonder about all the pink in Ethan’s apartment. I noticed another door on the other side of the bathroom, and when I opened it, I was floored by the size of the walk-in closet, two thirds of which was filled with women’s clothes. I closed the door softly and thought about how hard it would be to go through one’s parents’ things after they were gone. Obviously, Ethan hadn’t been able to do it. I fought back a tear and turned to face the shower.

To contradict my thoughts on color schemes, the products in the shower were decidedly masculine in nature. I smiled and lathered myself up with Axe body wash and washed my hair with American Crew shampoo. When I was clean enough, I stepped out onto the—yes, pink—bath mat and wrapped one towel around my body and the other around my hair. Once I was thoroughly dried and sporting a pair of lavender sweatpants and a—yes, pink—T-shirt from Ethan’s mother’s wardrobe, I opened the bathroom door and walked towards the kitchen.

The smell through the hallway, emanating from the stove, was nothing less than magnificent. Ethan was in the process of flipping a piece of French toast in a large, heavy-looking skillet at the same time he was stirring a saucepan of syrup. He looked over his shoulder and greeted me with his beautiful smile.

"You remember when we first met, and I said you were pretty?" he asked.

"Well, yes," I said, feeling my cheeks warm. "That was only yesterday."

"I was an idiot yesterday," Ethan said. "You're incredibly beautiful."

My cheeks went from warm to blazing, and I had to look away for a minute. I wasn't used to such comments, even with guys I had dated in the past. I really wasn't sure how to respond.

"They knew it, too," Ethan said quietly.

"Who knew what?" I asked, confused.

"Past boyfriends who never told you how beautiful you are. They saw it; they just didn't say it."

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"You're blushing," he said. "That means you aren't used to people telling you that. Also, most guys are pretty inept at relationships and never tell girls what they really want to say because they're afraid they'll sound stupid."

"Are you just that good at relationships?" I had to ask.

"No," Ethan responded, “but I don’t do much text communication, which is what fucks up all the relationships I see. You can’t convey tone in a text, and people are constantly getting pissed off just because a message is unclear or taken the wrong way. I also learn from my mistakes. My last girlfriend left because I didn't ever tell her how I felt. Once I realized what she wanted—no, what she needed—it was too late. I'd already fucked it up."

Ethan went back to flipping French toast, and I stood there with my mouth open for a bit. I couldn't decide if he was for real or not. I mean, even if you ignore all the pink stuff, a guy this insightful, sensitive, and thoughtful—and he's interested in women? It really didn't seem possible. I resisted the urge to start looking for cameras and game show hosts.

"Can I help?" I asked when I came out of my stupor.

"Sure!" Ethan nodded towards the refrigerator. "There's orange juice in there and glasses in the cabinet on my left."

I opened the door to the fridge and gawked a bit. Aside from a jug of orange juice, last night's leftovers, and the ingredients for French toast, the fridge contained a jar of pickles, a squeeze bottle of mustard, four cases of Coke and three cans of Sprite. That was it.

Okay, despite the pink color scheme, he definitely wasn't gay, not that I really thought he was. I retrieved the orange juice, filled a couple of glasses, and then placed them on the kitchen table. Ethan flipped more French toast and emptied the pot of warmed syrup into a small dish with a pour spout. I took it from him and put it on the table next to the jug of extra juice while Ethan loaded a plate full of French toast and deposited it in the middle of the table.

We dug in, and I moaned at the taste. It was undoubtedly the best French toast I had ever eaten.

“Ethan, this is fantastic!”

“Thanks,” he said with a blush. “My dad taught me how to make it when I was younger. I don’t think he knew how to cook anything else. Mom hated to cook, so we ate out a lot, as you can imagine.”

“My parents weren’t much for cooking, either,” I said. “I had a nanny when I was young, though. She did a lot of cooking for the family. She taught me how to make a bunch of stuff, which has come in handy since I moved out. It’s easy to get lazy and eat out all the time though.”

“It’s expensive to do it all the time,” Ethan said.

“You don’t really need to worry about that,” I said.

“No, I don’t,” Ethan said with a scowl, “but my friends do, so I usually try to bring some groceries over there instead. Since I eat over there more often than not, they’ll take it and not consider it like charity or anything. It’s just my contribution, you know? They don’t want any handouts, but food’s pricey. I usually take Faith with me to shop. She’s one of the few that knows I have money, but she won’t let on about it. She helps me pick out the right stuff to buy.”

“What’s do you mean, ‘the right stuff’?”

“The stuff that’s more economical and the stuff that’s healthier. I can’t figure out what’s on sale and what’s made from whole grains or not.”

I hadn’t even thought about it. It occurred to me that trying to get along in the world without being able to read was probably a lot more difficult than most people realized. I looked over at Ethan and saw a smile that didn’t reach any of the rest of his face. He looked…resigned …or maybe just sad. I wasn’t sure.

“Why is it hard for you to read now?” I asked. “It has something to do with the accident in high school, right?”

“You ready for another long story?” Ethan asked.

“Sure,” I said, dipping another forkful of French toast into a glob of syrup. Ethan shoved the last huge bite into his mouth, wiped syrup off his chin, and took a large gulp of orange juice before he started his story.

“After hitting my head, it took a long time for my brain to start working again. Like I said—I was in a coma for a couple of days. After I woke up, I couldn’t speak or walk or anything. I don’t remember any of this, just so you know. My parents told me what happened later. I don’t remember anything from the first week I was awake. Once the brain swelling came down, I could speak, but I had to have a lot of physical therapy to learn to walk all over again. About three weeks after the accident, I had the first grand mal seizure. I started having them about three times a week, and medication wasn’t working at all. Then they started coming more often—three or four times a day—and they were getting worse. My head was just too messed up, so they decided the only thing they could do was some pretty major surgery to stop the seizures.”

He paused for a moment and laced his fingers together, staring at the empty plate in front of him.

“There’s this part of your brain—it’s called the corpus callosum—that carries information from one side of your brain to the other. Sometimes seizures are caused by the information getting kinda…messed up, I guess. Messages between the two halves of your brain get lost and start bouncing around, which is what was causing the seizures. That’s what was happening to me. The seizures were so bad, they decided it would be better to…um…well, cut through it, so the two halves of my brain couldn’t talk to each other anymore. We talked about it for a long time before agreeing to the surgery. My dad was a general practitioner, and my mom was an ER surgeon, but they knew several good neurologists. After getting about six second opinions, we all decided it was the only way I was going to get any better, so they did it.”

He took a deep breath before continuing.

“So, when they do the surgery, they sever all the connections between the right and left hemispheres of your brain, which stops the seizure from being able to go from one side to the other. That’s what makes them really bad. When they cut through it, I stopped having seizures. It’s called an interhemispheric electrical storm, so you’ll be set if you ever get on Jeopardy.”

My own brain spun in a little circle. Did I just hear him right? Sever all the connections? Did he just say his brain was cut in two? I felt my heart rate increase as my chest muscles were clenching around it at the same time. My stomach tightened up as well, just for good measure. I had to have misunderstood what he said. Ethan looked over to me and smirked a little before continuing.

“Yeah, so there are some kinda funky side effects when your brain’s been cut in half. Like if I close my right eye, and you show me a picture of something, I can’t tell you what it is verbally. That’s ‘cause the speech center of your brain is in the left side, and the right side controls your left eye. I can write down what it is with my left hand, but then I can’t read it back to you, so it doesn’t help much. Other split-brain people could read it, and then they’d know what they were looking at. Originally, I thought it was kind of cool, but that wore off pretty quick.”

Ethan looked up from his hands for the first time since he started talking. I blinked rapidly, trying to hide the panic I felt. He blushed and then looked back down at his hands before continuing.

“The neurologist says my brain can’t comprehend symbols anymore,” Ethan explained. “I’m actually not even allowed to drive since I can’t understand the signs. The reading thing’s not common in spilt-brain people—that’s what they call you when you’ve had that surgery. Not being able to name stuff when you close your right eye, that’s pretty common. Since everything kinda happened at once, it’s possible my problems with symbols were part of the original damage from the accident. I’m just glad I’m not color blind, too. At least I know red means stop and green means go.”

“I don’t really give a shit about the driving.” Ethan continued, speaking quickly. “I can get wherever I need to be with my bike and the subway. I still take my dad’s car out a couple times a year—not during rush hour or anything—just so I know it still works. Dad really liked cars, so I kept his favorite. It sucks not being able to read, though. I used to read all the time. I tried listening to books on CDs, but they just don’t capture my attention the same way holding a book used to. I dunno why. I tried holding the CD case while I was listening, but that really didn’t do much for me, either. Mom read to me when I was in the hospital.”

I watched his tongue dart out over his bottom lip and fiddle with the rings there. Ethan looked nervously to his right, then his left, then finally back up to me.

“So, there you go,” he said softly. “I guess the shorter version would have been to say I’m brain damaged. Some of the friends I had back then said it affected my personality as well, but my parents died just a couple weeks after the last surgery, so it could have been that, too. I’m not really sure. I don’t have seizures anymore, at least.”

Ethan looked up from his hands and met my eyes. His look was intense, and I knew he was waiting for me to say something, but I didn’t know how to respond.

“Thanks for explaining it to me,” I finally said. “I have heard of people having seizures, obviously, but I never heard of anything like this.”

“It’s not common,” Ethan said. “It’s a pretty extreme way of resolving the problem, but in my case there really weren’t any other alternatives.”

“So, it’s not just reading?” I asked for clarification. “It’s all kinds of symbols?”

“Yeah,” Ethan nodded. “I can see fine, but when I look at a traffic sign or something, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. You can tell me twenty times what it means, but I just don’t get it. I know I should get it, and I know it should be easy, but the part of my brain that sees the picture and the part that can interpret it don’t talk to each other. Letters are the same way, I guess.”

Ethan laughed.

“Sometimes it’s funny, really,” he said with a smile. “CeeCee and I used to ride past this cafe every day. When we went by, I always got a craving for donuts but didn’t understand why. This happened about two weeks in a row before I mentioned it to him. He told me there was a big sign with the words ‘Fresh Donuts’ painted on the window. My eyes couldn’t read the word, but my stomach could!”

I smiled and shook my head but didn’t really find it funny. Ethan reached out and grabbed my hand.

“Don’t feel bad,” Ethan said quietly. “I don’t usually tell anybody about this. I mean, I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of it or anything—it’s not like there’s anything I can do about it. Most people don’t realize there’s anything wrong with me, and there are a lot of people who can’t read, so people who figure it out just assume I never learned how. I just didn’t want you to think I was, um, stupid or anything, I guess.”

“I never thought you were,” I told him. “I mean, you have some screwed up ideas about what makes a good movie, but I can forgive you for that.”

He met my gaze again, and I saw the light come back into his emerald green irises. A big, full smile lit up his face, and he just about jumped over the table to take my head in his hands and press his lips to mine.

“Thank you,” he said between kisses. “I was scared of what you would think. You’re so smart…”

I was going to argue with him regarding my intelligence level, but frankly his kisses were far too distracting, and within a couple of minutes both breakfast and his disclosure were completely forgotten as we found ourselves back in the pink bean bag chair. We spent about an hour kissing and talking before I realized I really needed to get out of there for a while.

“I need to go home,” I said, and I watched Ethan’s face fall and his gaze drop into his lap. He nodded slowly. “I have some errands to run, and I need to get back into my own clothes.”

“Will you let me see you again?” Ethan asked.

“Of course, Ethan,” I told him. I leaned over and placed my hand on his cheek. “I want to see you again.”

“When?” He looked up at me with the slightest glimmer of hope in his eyes.

“Anytime you want,” I said automatically.

“Tonight?” he inquired. I laughed.

“Are you serious?”

“It’s Saturday,” Ethan pointed out. “You shouldn’t have school or work.”

“I have studying to do.”

“You could do it here,” he offered. “Maybe I could help…as long as I didn’t have to read anything.”

“Ethan, that’s very sweet of you, but…”

“I’m not being sweet!” Ethan’s voice was loud and harsh. I flinched a little. I hadn’t heard that particular tone come out of his mouth before. I looked over at him and saw he had his eyes closed and his jaw set. He took three long, deep breaths and then opened his eyes. “Sorry, but I’m really not. I want you to come back, and I’m saying all the wrong shit. If there are errands you have to run, I want to go with you. If you need to study, I want to just be there in the same room, and I swear I won’t get in your way. If you have to go home to do laundry, I want to help you fold it. I just don’t want to be away from you… and I’m probably sounding like some kind of stalker nutcase and fucking scaring you.”





Chapter 9—Obligation


He stood abruptly, grabbed his pack of cigarettes off the end table, and yanked open the balcony door. I stared after him for a minute, wondering if maybe he was a little bit of a nutcase but ultimately deciding he was not. He was just expressing what he really felt.

Who does that in the twenty-first century?

I tentatively stepped across the plush carpet until I was close enough to prop myself up on the wall near the opening to the balcony and look out at him. He was leaning against the railing and sucking hard on the cigarette between his fingers.

“I’m sorry,” he said before I could comment. “I just like you, and I’m scared that if you leave, something will happen to you. I know. That’s fucked up and I need to get over it, but the fear always comes back when I meet new people, and I want to get to know them better. I want to spend more time with you, but I don’t want to freak you out, and I don’t want you to think I’m crazy.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” I told him. “It’s very…flattering that you want to know me better and that you are worried about me. I do think I need to go home for a little bit because I need a little space right now. If you want me to, I could come back tonight.”

“Really?” Ethan turned quickly, tossed his cigarette to the side and took two long steps to reach me. He took my face in his hands and just held me for a moment, looking into my eyes and making me feel a little like fainting. He crushed his lips to mine and then broke away quickly. “Shit! I’m sorry—cigarette breath…”

“It’s okay,” I said with a smile. “I don’t mind.”

“Really?” he said again. “You aren’t just saying that?”

“No, not just saying it.”

His lips were back on mine half a second later. His tongue was in my mouth, and my neck was bent backwards under the force of his grip. He moved his lips over my chin, down to my throat and back up again. He wrapped his arms around me, and he held me tightly against his chest. Finally he released me and took a step back, his brilliant smile lighting up the room again.

“I’ll give you the extra key,” Ethan said abruptly. He rushed back inside, opened a drawer in the kitchen, and pulled out a security keycard with “Marquis” scrawled across the front. “Just come on back as soon as you can. I mean, don’t feel like you have to rush, but…shit.”

He ran his hand through his hair.

“It’s all right, Ethan.” I took they key from his hand and slid it into my bag. “I’ll probably be back around seven. Is that okay?”

“That would be awesome,” Ethan said with a nod. “Do you want to eat here? I can order something for us, or I could make more French toast. Oh! I could make mozzarella for pizza! Sorry—those are really the only things I know how to cook.”

“You’ve cooked for me enough today,” I said. “Ordering something would be great, thank you.”

“Thank you,” he responded.

“For what?” I asked.

“For being so understanding,” he replied. “I know I can…take a little getting used to. I tend to be a little intense. I try to rein it in, but it doesn’t always work.”

“I don’t mind,” I told him. “Really, it’s kind of refreshing.”

I got the double-barreled smile, and I was pretty sure I was going to have to keep a fresh supply of underwear around for when I was near him. That thought brought on another one.

“Actually, as long as we are being straightforward, I have a question.”

“Anything,” Ethan said.

“Should I, um, bring a change of clothes for tomorrow?”

Ethan’s grin lit up the room.

“I’d really like it if you did,” he said.

I added my information on Ethan’s phone before I headed out, and he immediately called me so I would have his number, too. Then he insisted on taking my picture for his phone. I wasn’t too thrilled about it. I hated having my picture taken, and my hair was a mess—but he blushed and shrugged.

“It’s the only way I know who’s calling me.” He showed me his contact list, and every entry included a picture. “Since I can’t read the names, the pictures make it a lot easier. I use the voice control to call the right person. Pretty cool, huh?”

“Yes, it is.” I wasn’t sure if I considered it cool or sad that he had to use such devices just to communicate with people. It did make a lot of sense, but it also made me think about all the ways Ethan’s life without reading was more difficult than the average person’s. “I guess using a phone wouldn’t be possible for you otherwise.”

“It was really frustrating in the beginning,” he said, “but I got used to it. I don’t even think about it much now.”

Ethan called me a cab and walked me down to the front of the building to meet it. He kissed me softly on the cheek before I climbed into the back seat and gave the driver my address. During the time it took me to get home, Ethan sent me about fifteen picture messages. The first was of him waving at me, his hair loose around his shoulders and dripping wet from the shower. Then several more pictures came through, including one showing me the leftover French toast, a picture of a carry out menu from a Chinese restaurant that was all in Chinese—so I had no idea what it said—and pictures of three DVD covers depicting movies that were not based on books. I found myself wondering just why the heck he