It’s hard to believe there was a time when I couldn’t wait to meet Ethan. Things between my sister and her boyfriend were starting to get serious, and Ami wanted to introduce me to Dane’s family. In the parking lot at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, Ethan climbed out of his car, with astonishingly long legs and eyes so blue I could see them from two car-lengths away. Up close he had more eyelash than any man has a right to. His blink was slow and cocky. He looked me squarely in the eye, shook my hand, and then smiled a dangerous, uneven smile. Suffice to say, I felt anything but sisterly interest.
But then apparently I made the cardinal sin of being a curvy girl getting a basket of cheese curds. We had stopped just past the entrance to make a game plan for our day, and I slipped away to get a snack—there is nothing more glorious than the food at the Minnesota State Fair. I came back to find the group near the livestock display. Ethan looked at me, then down to my delicious basket of fried cheese curds, frowned, and immediately turned away, mumbling some excuse about needing to go find the homebrew competition. I didn’t think all that much of it at the time, but I didn’t see him for the rest of the afternoon, either.
From that day on, he’s been nothing but disdainful and prickly with me. What am I to think? That he went from smile to disgust in ten minutes for some other reason? Obviously my opinion of Ethan Thomas is: he can bite me. With the exception of today (wholly because of this dress), I like my body. I’m never going to let someone make me feel bad about it or about cheese curds.
Voices carry from the other side of the groom’s suite—some fratty cheer about man sweat or beer or opening a bag of Cheetos with the force of a hard stare; who knows, it’s Dane’s wedding party we’re talking about. I raise my fist and knock, and the door opens so immediately that I startle back, catching my heel on the hem of my dress and nearly falling.
It’s Ethan; of course it is. He reaches out, his hands easily catching me around the waist. As he steadies me, I feel my lip curl, and watch the same mild revulsion work its way through him as he pulls his hands away and tucks them into his pockets. I imagine he’ll rip open a disinfectant wipe the moment he has the chance.
The movement draws my attention to what he’s wearing—a tuxedo, obviously—and how well it fits his long, wiry frame. His brown hair is neatly combed off his forehead; his eyelashes are as preposterously long as they always are. I tell myself that his thick, dark brows are obnoxious overkill—settle down, Mother Nature—but they do look undeniably great on his face.
I really don’t like him.
I’ve always known Ethan was handsome—I’m not blind—but seeing him dressed in black tie is a bit too much clarification for my liking.
He gives me the same perusal. He starts with my hair—maybe he’s judging me for wearing it clipped back so plainly—and then looks at my simple makeup—he probably dates makeup-tutorial Instagram models—before slowly and methodically taking in my dress. I take a deep breath to resist crossing my arms over my midsection.
He lifts his chin. “That was free, I’m assuming.”
And I’m assuming driving my knee right into his crotch would feel fantastic. “Beautiful color, don’t you think?”
“You look like a Skittle.”
“Aw, Ethan. Stop with the seduction.”
A tiny grin twitches the side of his mouth. “So few people can pull off that color, Olivia.”
From his tone, I can tell I am not included in this few. “It’s Olive.”
It amuses my extended family to no end that my parents named me Olive, not the eternally more lyrical Olivia. Since I can remember, all my uncles on Mom’s side call me Aceituna just to rankle her.
But I doubt Ethan knows that; he’s just being a dick.
He rocks back on his heels. “Right, right.”
I am tired of the game. “Okay, this is fun, but I need to see your speech.”
“Are you correcting my wording?” I wave a hand forward. “Let me see.”
He leans a casual shoulder against the doorframe. “No.”
“This is really for your safety. Ami will murder you with her bare hands if you say something dickish. You know this.”
Ethan tilts his head, sizing me up. He’s six foot four, and Ami and I are . . . not. His point is made, very clearly, with no words: I’d like to see her try.
Dane appears over his shoulder, his face falling as soon as he sees me. Apparently I’m not the beer wench they were both hoping for. “Oh.” He recovers quickly. “Hey, Ollie. Everything okay?”
I smile brightly. “Fine. Ethan was just getting ready to show me his speech.”
Who knew this family was such a stickler for labels?
Dane nods to Ethan and motions back inside the room. “It’s your turn.” He looks at me, explaining, “We’re playing Kings. My big brother is about to get owned.”
“A drinking game before the wedding,” I say, and let out a little chuckle. “Sounds like a prudent choice.”
“Be there in a minute.” Ethan smiles at his brother’s retreating form before turning back to me, and we both drop the grins, putting our game faces back on.
“Did you at least write something?” I ask. “You’re not going to try to wing it, are you? That never goes well. No one is ever as funny off the cuff as they think they are, especially you.”
“Especially me?” Although Ethan is the portrait of charisma around nearly every other human, with me he’s a robot. Right now his face is so controlled, so comfortably blank, that I can’t tell whether I’ve genuinely offended him or he’s baiting me into saying something worse.
“I’m not even sure if you could be funny . . .” I falter, but we both know I’m committed to this horrific rim shot: “. . . on the cuff.”
A dark eyebrow twitches. He has successfully baited me.
“Okay,” I growl, “just make sure your toast doesn’t suck.” I glance down the hall, and then remember the other bit of business I had with him. “And I assume you checked with the kitchen to make sure you don’t have to eat the buffet for dinner? Otherwise I can do it when I’m down there.”
He drops the sarcastic grin and replaces it with something resembling surprise. “That’s pretty considerate. No, I hadn’t asked for an alternative.”
“It was Ami’s idea, not mine,” I clarify. “She’s the one who cares about your aversion to sharing food.”
“I don’t have a problem sharing food,” he explains, “it’s that buffets are literal cesspools of bacteria.”
“I really hope you bring that level of poetry and insight to your speech.”
He steps back, reaching for the door. “Tell Ami my toast is hilarious, and not at all dickish.”
I want to say something sassy, but the only coherent thought that comes to mind is how insulting it is that eyelashes like his were wasted on Satan’s Errand Boy, so I just give a perfunctory nod and turn down the hall.
It’s all I can do to not adjust the skirt while I walk. I could be paranoid, but I think I feel his critical eyes on the tight sheen of my dress the entire way to the elevators.
• • •
THE HOTEL STAFF HAVE REALLY taken Ami’s Christmas-in-January theme and run with it. Thankfully, instead of red velvet Santas and stuffed reindeer, the center aisle is lined with fake snow. Even though it’s easily seventy-five degrees in here, the reminder of the wet, slushy snow outside makes the entire room feel cold and drafty. The altar is decorated with white flowers and holly berries, miniature pine wreaths are hung from the back of each chair, and tiny white lights twinkle from inside the branches. In truth, it’s all very lovely, but even from the back where we’ve lined up, I can see the little placards attached to each chair encouraging guests to Trust Finley Bridal for your special day.
The wedding party is restless. Diego is peeking into the banquet hall and reporting back the location of hot male guests. Jules is valiantly trying to get the phone number of one of the groomsmen, and Mom is busy telling Cami to tell Dad to make sure his zipper isn’t down. We are all waiting for the coordinator to give the signal and send the flower girls down the aisle.
My dress seems to be growing tighter with each passing second.
Finally Ethan takes his spot next to me, and when he holds a breath and then releases it in a slow, controlled stream, it sounds like a resigned sigh. Without looking at me, he offers his arm.
Although I’m tempted to pretend I don’t notice, I take it, ignoring the sensation of his curved bicep passing under my hand, ignoring the way he flexes just a bit, gripping my arm to his side.
“Still selling drugs?”
I clench my teeth. Ethan knows damn well I worked for a pharmaceutical company. “You know that’s not what I do.”
He glances behind us and then turns back around, and I hear him take a breath to speak, but then he holds it, wordless.
It can’t be about the size, volume, or general insanity of our family—they broke him in long ago—but I know something is bugging him. I glance up at him, waiting. “Whatever it is, just say it.”
I swear I am not a violent woman, but at the sight of his wicked smile aimed down at me, the urge to dig my pointy heel into the toe of his polished shoe is nearly irresistible.
“It’s something about the line of Skittle bridesmaids, isn’t it?” I ask. Even Ethan has to acknowledge that there are some pretty amazing bodies in the bridesmaid lineup, but still, none of us can really pull off spearmint-green satin.
“Mind-reading Olive Torres.”
My sarcastic smile matches his. “Mark the moment, people. Ethan Thomas remembered my name three years after we first met.”
He turns his face back to the front, smoothing his features. It’s always hard to reconcile the restrained, biting Ethan I get with the charming one I’ve watched make his way through a room, and even the wild one I’ve heard Ami complain about for years. Independent of how he seems determined to never remember a thing I tell him—like my job, or my name—I hate knowing that Ethan is a terrible influence on Dane, pulling him away for everything from wild weekends in California to adrenaline-soaked adventures on the other side of the world. Of course, these trips conveniently coincide with events deeply cherished by contest-hunters such as my sister, his fiancée: birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day. Just last February, for example, when Ethan had whisked Dane off to Vegas for a guys’ weekend, Ami ended up taking me to a romantic (and free) couple’s dinner at the St. Paul Grill.