“I want you to know,” I tell him as I tug it down my torso, “and I’m sure you hear this a lot, but that was by far the worst sexual experience of my life.”
“I feel like we should have used protection.”
I turn to confirm what I’ve heard in his voice—repressed laughter again—and catch him smiling, still facing the wall.
“You can turn around now,” I say. “I’m decent.”
“Are you ever really, though?” he asks, turning and blushing and grinning at me. It’s a lot to take in.
I wait for the annoyed reaction, but it doesn’t arrive. Instead, I realize with surprise that seeing his real smile aimed my way feels like getting a paycheck. “You make a good point.”
He seems equally surprised that I haven’t snarked back at him, and reaches past me to unlock the door. “I’m feeling queasy. Let’s get out of here.”
We emerge, red faced for reasons that are immediately misinterpreted, and Ethan gets a high-five from a couple of men we’ve never met. He follows me to the bar, where I order a margarita and he orders a ginger drink to help his stomach.
One glance at him tells me that he wasn’t kidding about feeling queasy—he looks green. We find seats inside, out of the sun but near a window, and he leans forward, pressing his head to the pane, trying to breathe.
I blame this moment right here, because it creates a tiny fracture in his role as nemesis. A true nemesis doesn’t show weakness, and for sure, when I reach out to rub his back, a true nemesis wouldn’t lean into it, moaning in quiet relief. He wouldn’t shift so that I could reach him more easily, and he certainly wouldn’t scoot down the bench and rest his head in my lap, staring up at me in gratitude when I gently rake my fingers through his hair, soothing.
Ethan and I are starting to build more of these good moments than bad; it sends the balance swinging into an unfamiliar direction.
And I think I really like it.
Which makes me incredibly uneasy.
“I still hate you,” I tell him, pushing a dark curl of hair off his forehead.
He nods. “I know you do.”
Once we’re back on solid ground, most of his color returns, but rather than push our luck—or risk having to dine with Sophie and Billy—we decide to turn in early and order room service.
Although he takes his dinner in the living room, and I take mine in the bedroom, it occurs to me somewhere between my first bite of ravioli and my fourth episode of GLOW that I could have sent Ethan back to the hotel and gone out myself. I could have done a hundred different things without even leaving the hotel grounds, and yet here I am, back in the room at night because Ethan had a rough day. At least now I’m only a room away if he needs someone.
Needs someone . . . like me? I want to point at and tease myself and this new tenderness for thinking Ethan would seek me out as a source of comfort at any time other than when we’re trapped on a boat. He wouldn’t, and that’s not what we’re here for anyway!
But as soon as I start shadowboxing myself into a mental froth about needing to enjoy my vacation and not slide into liking this guy who has only been quasi-friendly to me in paradise but never in real life—I remember what it felt like underwater at the crater, how his front felt all along my back up on the deck of the boat, how it felt to run my fingers through his hair. My heartbeat goes all haywire thinking about how his breathing started to sync with the pace of my nails scratching lightly over his scalp.
And then I burst out laughing remembering our naked Twister in the Bathroom of Doom.
“Are you laughing about the bathroom?” he calls from the other room.
“I will be laughing about the bathroom until the end of time.”
I find myself smiling in the direction of the living room, and realize that staying firmly on Team I Hate Ethan Thomas is going to be more work than it may be worth.
• • •
MORNING COMES TO THE ISLAND in a slow, blurry brightening of the sky. Yesterday morning, the cool overnight humidity was gradually burned off by sunshine, but not today. Today, it rains.
It’s chilly as I shuffle out of the bedroom in search of coffee. The suite is still pretty dark, but Ethan is awake. He’s stretched along the full length of the sofa bed with a thick book open in front of him. He wisely leaves me alone until the caffeine has had time to work its way into my system.
Eventually, I make my way into the living room. “What are your plans today?” I’m still in my pajamas but feeling much more human.
“You’re looking at it.” He closes the book, resting it on his chest. The image is immediately filed in my braincyclopedia as an Ethan Posture, and subcategorized as Surprisingly Hot. “But preferably at the pool with an alcoholic beverage in my hand.”
In unison, we frown at the window. Fat drops shake the palm fronds outside, and rain runs softly down the balcony door.
“I wanted to paddleboard . . .” I wilt.
He picks the book back up. “Doesn’t look like that’ll happen.”
My knee-jerk instinct is to glare at him, but he’s not even looking at me anymore. I grab the hotel guidebook from the TV stand. There has to be something I can do in the rain; Ethan and I are capable of spending time together outside, but there would be bloodshed if we both hung around in this suite all day.
I pull the phone closer and open the directory in front of me. Ethan moves to my side and reads the list of activities over my shoulder. His presence is already—suddenly—like an enormous cast of heat moving around the room and now he’s standing shoulder to shoulder with me. My voice grows wavery as I read down the list.
“Zip-lining . . . helicopter . . . hike . . . submarine . . . kayaking . . . off-roading . . . bike ride . . .”
He stops me before I can get to the next one. “Ooh. Paintball.”
I look at him blankly. Paintball always struck me as something that gun-obsessed, testosterone-fueled frat boys did. Ethan doesn’t really seem the type. “You’ve played paintball?”
“No,” he says, “but it looks fun. How hard can it be?”
“That feels like a dangerous taunt to the universe, Ethan.”
“The universe doesn’t care about my paintball game, Olive.”
“My dad gave me a flare gun once when I took a road trip in college with a boyfriend. It went off in the trunk and set our luggage on fire while we were swimming in a river. We had to go to a local Walmart to buy clothes—keep in mind, all we had were our wet bathing suits—and it was this tiny town, like seriously just populated by the creepy people from Deliverance. I have never felt more like someone’s future dinner than I did walking through the aisles trying to find new underwear.”
He studies me for several long seconds. “You have a lot of stories like this, don’t you?”
“You have no idea.” I glance at the window again. “But seriously. If it’s been raining all night, won’t it be all muddy?”
He leans against the counter. “So you’d only want to be covered in paint, but definitely not mud?”
“I think the goal is to not get covered in paint.”
“You are incapable of not arguing with me,” he says, “and it is so aggravating.”
“Weren’t you just arguing with me about being covered in paint but not mud?”
He growls, but I see him fighting a smile.
I point across the room. “Why don’t you go over to the minibar and work out that aggravation?”
Ethan leans back in, closer than before. He smells unbelievably good, and it is unbelievably annoying. “Let’s do paintball today.”
Turning the page, I shake my head. “Hard nope.”
“Come on,” he wheedles. “You can pick what we do after.”
“Why do you even want to hang out with me? We don’t like each other.”
He grins. “You are clearly not thinking about this strategically. You’ll get to shoot me with paint pellets.”
A video game montage scrolls through my head: my gun spitting out a stream of Skittle-green paintballs, green splatters landing in bursts all across the front of Ethan’s vest. And finally, the kill shot—a giant green splat right over his groin. “You know what? I’ll go ahead and make us some reservations.”
• • •
THE HOTEL ARRANGES A BUS to take us to the paintball field. We stop in front of an industrial building fronted by a parking lot on one side, with forest all around. It isn’t outright raining—more like a steady, misty drizzle—and oh yeah, it’s muddy.
Inside, the office is small and smells like—you guessed it—dirt and paint. A big and tall white dude in a hybrid floral/camouflage Hawaiian shirt with a name tag that reads HOGG stands behind the counter to welcome us. He and Ethan discuss the various options for play, but I’m barely listening. Above the counter the walls are covered with helmets and body armor, goggles and gloves. A poster hangs next to another door and reads: STAY CALM AND RELOAD. There are also guns, lots of them.
It’s probably a bad time to realize I’ve never held a gun before, let alone shot one.
Hogg moves to a back room and Ethan turns to me, pointing to a wall with a list of names and rankings—players who have won some sort of paintball war. “This seems pretty intense.”
I point to the other side of the room, and a sign that says WARNING: MY BALLS MIGHT HIT YOU IN THE FACE. “The word I think Hogg was going for is ‘classy.’ ” I pick up an empty paintball gun made to resemble a rifle. “Do you remember that scene in 9 to 5 where Jane Fonda is dressed in safari gear and goes through the office looking for Mr. Hart?”
“No,” Ethan says, tilting his head up at the gear on the walls, sweetly oblivious. “Why?”
I grin when he looks down at me. “No reason.” Pointing to the wall, I ask, “Have you ever shot a gun before?”