Nineteen

I knew women could get moody out of the blue. I knew a few women who would get wrapped up in thoughts and scenarios and take a single what-if down the road thirty thousand years into the future, getting upset about something they assumed I’d do three days from now.

But that didn’t feel like what was going on with Chloe, and she’d never been that kind of woman anyway. I’d seen her mad before. Hell, I’d seen every flavor of mad from her: pissed, irate, hateful, borderline violent.

I’d never seen her hurt.

She buried herself in documents on the short drive to the airport. She excused herself to check in with her father when we were waiting at our gate. On the plane, she fell asleep almost as soon as we were in our seats, ignoring my very clever requests to join the mile-high club. She woke up only long enough to decline lunch, even though I knew she hadn’t eaten any breakfast. When she woke up as we began our descent, she stared out the window instead of looking at me.

“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

She didn’t answer for what felt like forever, and my heart started to race. I tried to figure out all of the moments I could have fucked up. Sex with Chloe in bed. More sex with Chloe. Orgasms for Chloe. She had a lot of orgasms, to be honest. I didn’t think it was that. Wake up, shower, basically profess my love. Hotel lobby, Gugliotti, airport.

I paused. The conversation with Gugliotti had left me feeling a little slimy. I’m not sure why I had acted like such a possessive jackass, but there wasn’t any denying that Chloe had that effect on me. She’d been amazing at the meeting, I knew she had, but I would be damned if she would take a step down and work for a man like Gugliotti when she finished her degree. He’d probably treat her like a piece of meat and stare at her ass all day.

“I heard what you said.” Her voice was so quiet it took me a moment to register that she’d said something, and then another beat to process it. My stomach dropped.

“What I said when?”

She smiled, turning to look at me finally, and fuck me: she was crying. “To Gugliotti.”

“I sounded possessive. I’m sorry.”

“You sounded possessive . . .” she muttered, turning back to the window. “You sounded dismissive—you made me seem na?ve! You acted like the meeting was a training exercise. I feel ridiculous for how I described it to you yesterday, thinking it was something more.”

I put my hand on her arm, laughing a little. “Guys like Gugliotti have egos. He just needs to feel like the executives are listening to him. You did everything we needed. He just wants me to be the one to hand him the official contract.”

“But that’s absurd. And you perpetuated it, with me as the pawn.”

I blinked, confused. I did exactly what she said. But that’s how the game is played, isn’t it? “You’re my intern.”

A sharp laugh escaped her lips and she turned to me again. “Right. Because you’ve cared all this time how my career progresses.”

“Of course I do.”

“How would you know I need seasoning? You barely looked at my work before yesterday.”

“Patently false.” I shook my head, getting a little riled. “I know that because I’ve watched everything you do. I don’t want to put pressure on you to do more than you can right now, and that’s why I’m maintaining control of the Gugliotti account. But you did a great job in there, and I was very proud of you.”

She closed her eyes, and leaned her head back against her seat. “You called me ‘kid.’”

“I did?” I searched my memory and realized she was right. “I guess I just didn’t want him to see you as this bombshell businesswoman he could hire away and try to fuck.”

“Jesus, Bennett. You are such an asshole! Maybe he wanted to hire me because I can do the job well!”

“I apologize. I’m acting like a possessive boyfriend.”

“The possessive boyfriend thing isn’t new to me. It’s that you’re acting like you did me a favor. It’s how condescending you’re being. I’m not sure now is the best time to engage in more typical boss-intern interactions.”

“I told you I think you did an amazing job with him.”

She glared at me, her face turning red. “You never would have said that before. You would have said, ‘Good. Back to work.’ That’s it. And to Gugliotti you acted like you have me under your thumb. Before you would have pretended you didn’t even know me.”

“Do we really need to discuss why I was an asshole before? You weren’t exactly Little Miss Sunshine yourself. And why is now the time to hash this out?”

“This isn’t about you being an asshole before. It’s about how you’re being now. You’re compensating. This is exactly why you don’t fuck your boss. You were a fine boss before—you let me do my thing and you did yours. Now you’re the touchy-feely mentor who calls me ‘kid’ to the guy I saved your ass with? Unbelievable.”

“Chloe—”

“I can deal with you being a giant dick, Bennett. I’m used to it, I expect it. It’s how we work. Because beneath all the huffing and door slamming, I knew that you respected me. But how you were today—it puts a line there that wasn’t there before . . .” She shook her head, glanced back out the window.

“I think you’re overreacting.”

“Maybe,” she said, leaning down to dig her phone out of her purse. “But I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am—am I risking all that?”

“We can do both, Chloe. For a few more months, we can work together and be together. This? What’s happening today? Is called growing pains.”

“I’m not sure,” she said, blinking away and looking past me. “I’m just trying to do the smart thing, Bennett. I never questioned my own worth before, even when I thought you did. And then when I believed you saw exactly who I was, and you belittled me . . .” She looked up, eyes pained. “I guess I don’t want to start questioning myself now. After everything I’ve worked for.”

The plane landed with a jolt and even still it didn’t rattle me as much as what she said. I had led discussions with the heads of some of the largest finance departments in the world. I had taken on executives who thought they could squash me. I could fight with this woman until the world ended and feel like more of a man with every word. But right then, I couldn’t find a single thing to say.

.

To say I couldn’t sleep that night would be an understatement. I could barely even lie down. Every flat surface seemed to have her imprint, and it didn’t matter that she’d never been to my place. The mere fact that we talked about it—and that I’d planned for her to come here our first night back—made her ghost as good as permanent.

I called her; she didn’t answer. Granted, it was at three in the morning, but I knew she wasn’t sleeping either. Her silence was worsened by the fact that I knew she felt what I felt. I knew she was in just as deep as I was. But she thought she shouldn’t be.

Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.

.

I got in at six, before I knew she’d be there. I got us both coffee, updated my calendar to save her some time she could use to catch up after being gone. I faxed the contract to Gugliotti, telling him the version he saw in San Diego was final, and whatever Chloe presented would stand. I gave him two days to return the signature pages.

And then, I waited.

At eight, my father came into my office, Henry close behind. Dad scowled often, but rarely at me. Henry never looked pissed.

But both of them looked like they wanted to murder me.

“What did you do?” Dad dropped a piece of paper on my desk.

Ice dripped into my veins. “What is that?”

“It’s Chloe’s resignation letter. She dropped it off with Sara this morning.”

It was a full minute before I could speak. In that time, the only sound was my brother saying, “Ben, dude. What happened?”

“I fucked up,” I said, finally, pressing the heels of my hands to my eyes.

Dad sat down, face composed. He was sitting in the chair that, not a month ago, Chloe had sat in, spread her legs, and touched herself while I tried to keep it together on the phone.

Christ, how did I let it get to this?

“Tell me what happened.” My father’s voice got very quiet: a lull between quakes.

I pulled my tie looser around my neck, suffocating under the weight on my chest.

Chloe left me.

“We’re together. Or, we were.”

Henry shouted, “I knew it!” just as Dad yelled, “You what?”

“Not until San Diego,” I reassured them quickly. “Before San Diego we were just—”

“Fucking?” Henry offered helpfully, and received a sharp look from Dad.

“Yes. We were just . . .” A spike of pain gouged into my chest. Her expression when I leaned in to kiss her. Her full bottom lip caught between my teeth. Her laugh against my mouth. “And as you both know, I was a jerk. She gave back just as good, though,” I assured them. “And in San Diego, it became more. Fuck.” I reached for the letter before pulling my hand back. “She really resigned?”

My father nodded, his face completely unreadable. It was his superpower, all my life: in the moments when he felt the most, he showed the least.

“This is why we have the office fraternization policy, Ben,” he said, softening his tone with my nickname. “I thought you knew better than this.”

“I know.” I scrubbed my hands over my face and then motioned for Henry to sit down, and told them every detail of what happened with my food poisoning, the meeting with Gugliotti, and how Chloe had covered, capably. I made it clear that we had essentially just decided to be together when I ran into Ed at the hotel.

“You are such a stupid son of a bitch,” my brother offered once I’d finished, and what could I do but agree?

After a stern lecture and an assurance that there would be more discussion on all of the ways I fucked up, Dad went to his office to call Chloe to request that she come work for him for the remainder of her internship.

His concern wasn’t just for Ryan Media, though if she chose to stay on after she finished her MBA, she could easily become one of the most important members of our strategic marketing team. It was also that she had less than three months left to find a new internship, learn the ropes, and take on a new project to present to the scholarship board. Given their influence on the business school, their feedback would determine whether Chloe would graduate with honors and receive a personal letter of recommendation from the CEO of JT Miller.

It could make or break the beginning of her career.

Henry and I sat in stony silence for the next hour; he glared at me and I stared out the window. I could almost feel how much he wanted to kick my ass. Dad came back into my office and picked up her resignation letter, folding it into neat thirds. I still hadn’t been able to look at it. She’d typed it, and for the first time since I met her, I wanted nothing more than to see her ridiculously bad penmanship instead of impersonal black-and-white Times New Roman.

“I told her that this company values her and this family loves her and we wanted her to come back.” Dad paused, his eyes turning on me. “She said that was more reason for her to do this on her own.”

.

Chicago turned into an alternate universe, one where Billy Sianis never cursed the Cubs, Oprah never existed, and Chloe Mills no longer worked for Ryan Media. She resigned. She walked away from one of the biggest deals in Ryan Media history. She walked away from me.

I pulled the Papadakis file from her desk; the contract was drafted by legal while we were in San Diego, and all it needed was a signature. Chloe could have spent the last two months of her master’s perfecting her slide presentation for the scholarship board. Instead, she’d be starting all over somewhere else.

How could she have handled everything I gave her before but have left over this? Was it really so important for me to treat her like a peer with a man like Gugliotti that she would sacrifice what we had between us?

With a groan, I suspected that the reason I had to ask that at all was also the reason Chloe left. I thought we could have our relationship and our careers too, but that was because I had already proven myself. She was the intern. All she ever wanted was reassurance from me that her career wouldn’t suffer from our recklessness, and I ended up being the one to ensure it did.

I had to admit, I was surprised the office wasn’t on fire with the story of what I’d done, but it seemed only Dad and Henry knew. Chloe had always kept our secret. I wondered if Sara knew everything that had happened, whether she was in touch with Chloe.

I soon had an answer. A few days after Chicago changed, Sara walked into my office without knocking. “This situation is complete bullshit.”

I looked up at her and put down the file I held in my hands, staring at her just long enough to make her fidget before I spoke. “I want to remind you that this situation is not your business.”

“As her friend it is.”

“As an employee of Ryan Media, and an employee of Henry’s, it isn’t.”

She gazed at me for a long beat and then nodded. “I know. I would never tell anyone, if that’s what you mean.”

“I mean that, of course. But I also mean your behavior. I won’t have you barging into my office without knocking.”

She looked contrite but didn’t shrink under my stare. I was beginning to see why she and Chloe were such close friends: they were both strong willed bordering on reckless, and fiercely loyal. “Understood.”

“May I ask why you’re here? Did you see her?”

“Yes.”

I waited. I didn’t want to press her confidence, but good lord, I did want to shake every detail out of her.

“She’s been offered a job at Studio Marketing.”

I let out a tense breath. A decent firm, if small. An up-and-comer with some good junior executives but a few real assholes at the top. “Who is she reporting to?”

“A guy named Julian.”

I closed my eyes to hide my reaction. Troy Julian was on our board, an egomaniac with a penchant for barely legal arm candy. Chloe would know this; what was she thinking?

Think, asshole.

She was probably also thinking that Julian would have the resources to get her a project that she could get worked up substantially enough to present in three months.

“What’s her project?”

Sara walked to my door and closed it to keep the information quiet. “Sanders’ Pet Chow.”

I stood, slamming my hands on my desk. Fury strangled me, and I closed my eyes to get a grip on my temper before taking it out on my brother’s assistant. “That’s a tiny account.”

“She’s only a master’s student, Mr. Ryan. Of course it’s a tiny account. Only someone in love with her would let her work on a million-dollar, ten-year marketing contract.” Without looking back at me, she turned and left my office.

.

Chloe didn’t answer her cell, her home phone, or any e-mails I sent to the personal account she had on file. She didn’t call, come by, or give any indication that she wanted to talk to me. But when your chest feels like it’s been cracked open with a pickax and you’re unable to sleep, you do things like look up your intern’s apartment address, drive over there on a Saturday at five in the morning, and wait for her to come out.

And when she didn’t emerge from the building after almost an entire day, I convinced the security guard that I was her cousin and was worried about her health. He escorted me up and stood behind me as I knocked at her door.

My heart was going to slam its way out of my chest. I heard someone moving around inside, walk to the door. I could practically feel her body just inches from mine, separated by wood. A shadow moved through the peephole. And then, silence.

“Chloe.”

She didn’t open the door. But she didn’t walk away either.

“Baby, please open up. I need to talk to you.”

After what felt like an hour, she said, “I can’t, Bennett.”

I leaned my forehead against the door, pressed my palms flat. A superpower would have come in handy at that moment. Fire hands, or sublimation, or even just the ability to find the right thing to say. Right now, that felt impossible.

“I’m sorry.”

Silence.

“Chloe . . . Christ. I get it, okay? Berate me for being a new kind of prick. Tell me to go fuck myself. Do this on your terms—just don’t leave.”

Silence. She was still right there. I could feel her.

“I miss you. Fuck, do I miss you. A lot.”

“Bennett, just . . . not now, okay? I can’t do this.”

Was she crying? I hated not knowing.

“Hey, buddy.” The security guard definitely sounded like here was the last place he wanted to be, and I could tell he was pissed I’d lied. “This isn’t why you said you wanted up here. She sounds fine. Let’s go.”

I drove home and proceeded to drink a lot of scotch. For two weeks, I played pool at a seedy bar and ignored my family. I called in sick and only got out of bed to grab an occasional bowl of cereal, or refill my glass, or use the bathroom, whereupon I’d look at my reflection and give myself the finger. I was a sad sack and, having never experienced anything like this before, had no idea how to snap out of it.

Mom came by with some groceries and left them at my doorstep.

Dad left me daily voice mails with updates about work.

Mina brought me more scotch.

Finally, Henry came by with the only known set of spare keys to my house and dumped a pot of cold water on me, then handed me some takeout Chinese. I ate the food while he threatened to tape pictures of Chloe all over my house if I didn’t get my shit together and come back to work.

Over the next few weeks, Sara surmised that I was incrementally losing my mind and needed a weekly update. She would keep it professional, telling me how Chloe was faring in her new job with Julian. Her project was coming together well. The folks at Sanders loved her. She pitched the campaign to the executives and got their go-ahead. None of this surprised me. Chloe was better than anyone they had, by a mile.

Occasionally Sara would let something else drop. “She’s back at the gym,” “She looks better,” or, “She cut her hair a little shorter—it looks really cute,” or, “We all went out on Saturday. I think she had a good time, but she left early.”

Because she had a date? I wondered. And then I discarded the thought. I couldn’t imagine seeing someone else. I knew what it had felt like between us, and was fairly sure Chloe wasn’t seeing anyone either.

The updates were never enough. Why couldn’t Sara pull out her phone and take some covert pictures? I hoped I would run into Chloe at the store, or on the street. I trolled La Perla a few times. But I didn’t see her for two months.

One month flies by when you’re falling in love with the woman you’re using for sex. Two is an eternity when the woman you love leaves you.

So when the eve of her presentation rolled around and I heard from Sara that Chloe was prepared and handling Julian with a fist of fire, but also looked “smaller and less like herself,” I finally found my balls.

I sat down at my desk, opening PowerPoint and pulling up the Papadakis plan. Beside me, my desk phone rang. I considered not answering it, wanting to focus on this, and only this.

But it was an unknown local number, and a significant portion of my brain wanted to think it could be Chloe.

“This is Bennett Ryan.”

A woman’s laugh rang through the line. “Beautiful, you are one Stupid Bastard.”

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