Eighteen

Bennett went to get the car while I checked us out at reception. With one final glance around the lobby, I tried to download every memory of the trip. When I stepped outside I saw Bennett standing near the valet. My heart felt like a wild drum beneath my ribs. I was still reeling. I realized he’d given me so many chances to tell him what I wanted, and I’d just been too unsure of whether we could ever make it work. Apparently, his spine was stronger than mine.

I’m falling for you.

My stomach twisted deliciously.

Mr. Gugliotti spotted Bennett from the sidewalk and moved to him. They shook hands, seemed to exchange pleasantries. I wanted to walk up, join the discussion as a peer, but was worried that I wouldn’t be able to contain what was presently happening to my heart, and my feelings for Bennett would show all over my face.

Mr. Gugliotti looked up at me but didn’t seem to recognize me out of context. He blinked back to Bennett, nodding at something he said, and that lack of recognition made me hesitate even more. I wasn’t someone to be noticed yet. The checkout paperwork, Bennett’s to-do list, and his briefcase were all in my hand. I hovered at the periphery: an intern.

Hanging back, I tried to enjoy the last few moments of ocean breeze. Bennett’s rich voice carried across the few feet separating us.

“Sounds like you all threw around some good ideas. I’m glad Chloe had the chance to go through the exercise.”

Nodding, Mr. Gugliotti said, “Chloe is sharp. It went just fine.”

“I’m sure we can telecon soon to start the process of handing it over.”

Exercise? Start? Isn’t that what I’d done? I had given Gugliotti papers from legal to sign and FedEx back.

“Sounds good. I’ll have Annie call to set something up. I’d like to go over the terms with you. I wasn’t comfortable signing them quite yet.”

“Of course you weren’t.”

My heart sped up as the spiral of panic and humiliation rose in my veins. It was as if the meeting that took place had been a mere performance for my benefit and the real work would happen between these two men, back in the real world.

Was this entire conference one giant fantasy? I felt ridiculous, remembering the details I’d shared with Bennett. How proud I’d been to have crossed this off his list and taken care of it so he could get better.

“Henry mentioned that Chloe’s got a Miller scholarship. That’s fantastic. Is she staying on at Ryan Media after she finishes?” Gugliotti asked.

“Not sure yet. She’s a great kid. Definitely needs some seasoning, though.”

I lost my breath in a rush, as if it’d been pulled out by a vacuum. Bennett had to be kidding. I knew, without Elliott having to tell me (and he had, countless times), that I could have my pick of jobs when I finished. I’d worked at Ryan Media for years, working my ass off to both do my job and get a graduate degree. I knew some of the accounts better than the people managing them. Bennett knew this.

Gugliotti chuckled. “Seasoning or no, I’d snatch her up in a beat. She held her own in there, Bennett.”

“Of course she did,” Bennett said. “Who do you think trained her? The meeting with you was a great way for her to get her feet wet, so I appreciate it. No doubt she’ll be just fine wherever she ends up. When she’s ready.”

He sounded nothing like either Bennett Ryan I knew. This wasn’t the lover I’d just left a moment ago, grateful to and proud of me for capably stepping in for him. And this wasn’t even the Beautiful Bastard, begrudgingly parsing out praise. This was someone else entirely. Someone who called me “kid” and acted like he’d done me a favor.

I felt my face flame with anger and I stumbled back into the hotel lobby, suddenly feeling like there wasn’t enough oxygen, anywhere.

Seasoning? I did fine? He’d been my mentor? In what universe?

I stared at the shoes of people moving in front of me as they came and left through the revolving lobby doors. Why did it feel like my stomach had dropped out, leaving nothing but a hole filled with acid?

I’d been in the business world long enough to know how it works. The people at the top don’t get there by sharing credit. They get there through big promises, big claims, and bigger egos.

In my first six months at Ryan Media, I brought in a sixty-million-dollar marketing account.

I managed the hundred-million-dollar L’Or?al skin portfolio.

I designed the latest campaign for Nike.

I made a country bumpkin into a business shark.

I had always felt like he praised me against his will, and there had been something satisfying about proving him wrong, about exceeding his expectations almost to spite him. But now that we’d admitted our feelings had turned into something more, he wanted to rewrite history. He hadn’t been a mentor to me; I hadn’t needed him to be. He hadn’t pushed me to succeed—if anything, before this trip, he’d stood in my way. He’d tried to get me to quit by being a bastard.

I’d fallen for him despite all of this, and now he was throwing me under the bus just to save face for missing a meeting.

My heart splintered into a thousand pieces.

“Chloe?”

I looked up and met his confused expression. “The car is ready. I thought we were meeting outside?”

I blinked, wiped my eye as if I had something in it, and not as if I was about to break down in the lobby of the W.

“Right.” I stood, collected my things, and looked up at him. “I forgot.”

Of all of the lies I’d ever told him, this was the worst, because he saw it, and from the way his brows pulled together and he stepped closer, eyes anxious and searching, he had no idea why I felt like I needed to lie about something like that.

“You okay, baby?”

I blinked. I’d loved it when he’d called me that twenty minutes ago, but now it felt all wrong. “Just tired.”

Again, he knew I was lying, but this time he didn’t push it. He placed his hand on my lower back and led me out to the car.

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