“Did he . . . I mean, do you . . .” He looks away. “You’re really beautiful, Nic, and my brothers aren’t blind. But if you’re going to work for me, I’m going to have to ask that you don’t get involved with my family members.”
I step back. I guess I wasn’t overreacting. My cheeks heat with anger, and I cling to that feeling. If there’s one thing I’ve been proud of since I came to Jackson Harbor, it’s that I’ve been standing up for myself. After years of being a professional doormat for the men I fell for, I love that I’ve refused to take Ethan’s shit. I’m not going to start now. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I saw the way you and Jake were laughing together when you came up from the pole barn. You didn’t do anything wrong, but it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t make it clear up-front that—”
“You think I’m going to screw your brothers? What, like, I spread my legs for you, so it only makes sense that I’ll line them up and give them each their turn now?”
“Fuck.” He drags a hand through his hair. “That’s not what I meant. But you two were both covered in snow like you’d been rolling around together. It occurred to me that you might not understand that I wouldn’t be okay with you starting something with him. Or any of them.”
“You thought I’d been rolling around in the snow with Jake?”
A red flush creeps up his neck, but he holds my gaze. “We hadn’t talked about it. I needed to make the boundaries clear.” He steps forward and looks down at me. His nostrils flare as his gaze dips to my mouth.
Is he going to kiss me? He’s looking at me like he wants to. Do I want him to?
No. I hold tight to my anger. Asshole Ethan is back. No more assholes. “I don’t understand you.”
“Really?” He brushes his knuckles over my cheek. I step away from his touch, and he drops his hand. “You don’t understand why the possibility of one of my brothers touching you would upset me?”
“Why did you invite me here if you just think I’m some slut?”
“I don’t think you’re a slut.” He looks up to the ceiling. “I don’t know what you want, Nic. I just know that you came to my house with a bag full of sexy lingerie and a giant box of condoms.”
I gape at him. I swallow hard. Once. Then again. I feel like he just eviscerated me. As if my guts are on the floor between us and he doesn’t understand why that should bother me. “And you think I want those condoms for your brothers?”
“No, that’s not what I mean. When I tried to get closer, you pushed me away, and I just . . . Fuck it.” He steps forward until he’s so close that I have to step back. But he keeps coming, and soon enough, my back is against the wall and Ethan is pressed against me, his hand on my jaw, his mouth hovering over mine. “I can’t blame them for wanting you.” His breath sweeps across my lips as he speaks. “But I’m asking you not to let anything happen.”
“Because I’m your employee?”
I don’t know how long we stand like that—my heart hammering madly, and anger and frustration filling the air between us—but when he finally brings his mouth to mine, I don’t stop him. I kiss him with all the desperation and fear I feel when I think about walking away in February. When I think about never touching him again, when I imagine mornings that don’t start with Lilly’s bright smile, my chest aches. And there’s not a single thing I can do about it.
He breaks the kiss and backs away from me, his chest heaving.
I shiver again. I’m suddenly freezing. I’m scared and lonely. I’m exhausted from carrying these emotions I’m not supposed to feel.
I’m missing a man who’s standing right in front of me.
“Thanks for clarifying, boss.” I look to the bathroom. “I’m going to take my shower now.” I walk away from him and shut myself in the bathroom by Shay’s room. I run the shower hot and strip out of my wet clothes. I step under the spray and swallow back my tears.
When I came here, I thought I’d hit rock bottom, so how on earth did I fall in love?
I press my palm to my chest and force myself to take slow, measured breaths. In, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four. Breathe, Nic. Don’t panic. Just breathe.
I shampoo my hair, massaging the suds into my scalp and closing my eyes as I rinse it out. I’m reaching for the conditioner when I hear a knock on the bathroom door that makes me jump. I pull aside the shower curtain and stick out my head. “Hello?”