“That’s okay,” I assure him with a casual wave. “I’m fine not talking about my dating life.”
“Yeah, but I want to know. We’re sort of friends now, right?” Blue eyes twinkle when he smiles, the dimple makes an appearance, and I look away, noticing that others are noticing his smile, too. “I mean, I did rub your butt yesterday.”
“Stop reminding me.”
“Come on. You liked it.”
I did. I really did. Taking a deep breath, I tell him, “My last boyfriend was a guy named Carl, and—”
“I’m sorry. Carl?”
“Look, they can’t all be sexy Sophie names,” I say, and immediately regret it because it makes him frown, even when the waiter places a giant, alcohol-soaked, fruit-filled drink in front of him. “So, his name was Carl, and he worked at 3M, and—God, it’s so dumb.”
“I broke up with him because when the whole thing with 3M and the water pollution went down, he defended the company and I just could not handle it. It felt so corporate and gross.”
Ethan shrugs. “That sounds like a pretty reasonable reason to break up to me.”
I meet his high-five without thinking, and then mentally log how awesome it is that he chose that moment to high-five me. “Anyway, so that was . . . a while ago, and here we are.” He’s already put away about half of his mai tai, so I turn it back to him. “Has there been anyone since Sophie?”
“A couple Tinder dates.” He drains the rest of his drink, and then notices my expression. “It’s not that bad.”
“I guess not. In my head, I just picture every dude on Tinder is expecting it to just be sex.”
He laughs. “A lot probably are. Probably a lot of women are, too. I’m certainly not expecting sex on the first date.”
“Or, what? The fifth?” I say, gesturing to the table, and then clap my mouth shut because HELLO, THIS IS NOT A DATE.
Thankfully, my idiocy coincides with the waiter coming by to take another drink order, so by the time Ethan turns back to me, he’s ready to move on.
And as it turns out, Ethan is a really cute, happy drunk. His cheeks turn pink, he’s got a permagrin, and even when we return to the topic of Sophie, he’s still giggling.
“She wasn’t very nice to me,” he says, and then laughs. “And I’m sure it made it worse that I stayed. Nothing is harder in a relationship than not respecting the person you’re with.” He leans his chin heavily into his hand. “I didn’t like myself with her. I was willing to try to be the guy she wanted rather than who I really am.”
He laughs. “Okay, here’s one that might give you a sense of it: we had a couple’s photo shoot.”
“White shirts and denim with a fence backdrop?” I ask, wincing.
He laughs harder. “No, she wore white, I wore black. In front of an artfully dilapidated barn.” We both groan. “More importantly, though, we never fought. She hated fighting, so it was like we couldn’t even disagree.”
“Sounds just like me and you,” I say sarcastically, giving him a grin.
He laughs, and his smile lingers as he looks at me. “Yeah.” After a pause that seems to hang, heavy and expectant, he inhales deeply and says, “I’ve never been like that before.”
God, I relate to this more than I can say. “Honestly, I get that.”
“Before Carl—” I say, and he snickers again at the name, “I dated this guy, Frank—”
“We’d met at wor—”
But Ethan will not be deterred. “I know your problem, Odessa.”
“What’s my problem, Ezra?”
“You’re only dating guys who were born in the 1940s.”
Ignoring him, I press on. “Anyway, I’d met Frank at work. Things were going well, we had a good, sexy vibe ifyouknowwhatImean,” I say, and I expect Ethan to laugh at this, but he doesn’t. “Anyway, he saw me freaking out about a presentation one day—I was nervous because I didn’t feel I’d had enough time with the material to get comfortable—and I swear, seeing me like that totally turned him off. We stayed together another few months, but it wasn’t the same.” I shrug. “Maybe it was all in my head, but, yeah. That insecurity just made it worse.”
“Where did you meet Frank again?”
“Butake.” As soon as I say it, I realize it was a setup.
“Bukkake!” he sings, and I push his water toward him.
“It’s Butake, you dumbass, why do you always do that?”
“Because it’s funny. Didn’t they run the company name through some test audiences or—or—what’s it called?”
He snaps his fingers together. “That. Like, Urban Dictionary is right there! It’s like naming a kid Richard.” He leans in, whispering like he’s imparting some great wisdom. “He’s gonna be called Dick. It’s just a matter of time.”
I register that I’m staring at him with overt fondness when he reaches forward, touching a careful fingertip to my chin.
“You’re looking at me like you like me,” he says.
“It’s the mai tai goggles you’re wearing. I hate you as much as ever.”
Ethan lifts a skeptical brow. “Really?”
He exhales a little growl and polishes off his sixth mai tai. “I thought I rubbed your butt pretty well, well enough to at least be shifted up into the strongly dislike category.” The waiter, Dan, returns, grinning down at sweet, pliable Ethan. “One more?”
“No more,” I quickly answer, and Ethan protests with a drunken Psssshhhhhh. Dan waggles his eyebrows at me, like I might have a great time with this one tonight.
Look, Dan, I’m just hoping I can get him to the car.
I can, in fact, but it takes both me and Dan to keep him on task. Drunk Ethan is not only happy, he is exceedingly friendly, and by the time the three of us get out the door, he’s received a phone number from a cute redhead at the bar, bought a drink for a man wearing a Vikings T-shirt, and high-fived about forty strangers.
He babbles sweetly on the drive home—about his childhood dog, Lucy; about how much he loves to kayak in the Boundary Waters and hasn’t been in too long; and about whether I’ve ever had dill pickle popcorn (the answer is hell yes)—and by the time we get back to the hotel, he’s still drunk off his ass, but slightly more collected. We make it through the lobby with only a few more stops so Ethan can make new friends with strangers.
He stops to give a hug to one of the valet attendants who helped us check in. I give an apologetic smile over Ethan’s shoulder and check his name tag: Chris.
“Looks like the honeymooners are having a good time,” Chris says.
“Maybe too good.” I lean toward escape—I mean, the path to the elevator. “Just taking this one upstairs.”
Ethan lifts a finger and beckons Chris closer. “Do you want to know a secret?”
Uhhhh . . .
Amused, Chris leans in. “Sure?”
“I like her.”
“I would hope so,” Chris whispers back. “She’s your wife.”
And boom goes my heart. He’s drunk, I tell myself. This isn’t a thing he’s saying, just drunk words.
Safely in the suite, I can’t help but let Ethan collapse on the enormous bed for the night. He’s going to be rocking a pretty serious headache in the morning.
“God, I’m so tired,” he moans.
“Rough day of sightseeing and drinking?”
He laughs, one hand reaching up and coming in for a heavy landing on my forearm. “That isn’t what I mean.”
His hair has fallen over one eye, and I’m so tempted to move it aside. For comfort, of course.
I reach out, carefully sweeping the hair across his forehead, and he looks up at me with such intensity that I freeze with my fingers near his temple.
“What do you mean, then?” I ask quietly.
He doesn’t break eye contact. Not even for a breath. “It’s so exhausting pretending to hate you.”
This pulls me up short, and—even though I know it now, the truth of it still blows through me—I ask, “So you don’t hate me?”
“Nope.” He shakes his head dramatically. “Never did.”
Never? “You sure seemed to.”
“You were so mean.”
“I was mean?” I ask, confused. I scrabble back through the mental history, trying now to see it from his perspective. Was I mean?
“I don’t know what I did.” He frowns. “But it didn’t matter anyway, because Dane told me not to.”
I am so lost. “He told you not to what?”
His words are a quiet slur: “He said, ‘Hell no.’ ”
I’m starting to understand what he’s telling me, but I repeat it again anyway: “Hell no to what?”
Ethan looks up at me, gaze swimming, and reaches up to cup the back of my neck. His fingers play with my braid for a contemplative beat, and then he pulls me down with a surprisingly careful hand. I don’t even resist; it’s almost as if, in hindsight, I’ve known this moment was coming forever.
My heart vaults into my throat as we move together; a few short, exploratory kisses followed by the unbinding relief of something deeper, with tiny sounds of surprise and hunger coming from both of us. He tastes like cheap alcohol and contradictions, but it is still hands-down the best kiss of my life.
Pulling back, he blinks up at me, saying, “That.”
I’ll need to see if there is a doctor in the hotel tomorrow. Something is definitely wrong with my heart: it’s pounding too hard, so tight.
Ethan’s eyes roll closed, and he pulls me down beside him on the bed, curling his long body around mine. I can’t move, can barely think. His breathing evens out, and he succumbs to a drunken slumber. Mine follows much later, under the perfect, heavy weight of his arm.