Twenty

Director Cheng and the other members of the scholarship board filed in, greeting me amiably before finding seats. I checked my notes, triple-checked the connection between my laptop and the projector system, and waited for the last few stragglers to make their way into the conference room. Ice clinked in glasses as people poured themselves water. Colleagues spoke to each other in low voices, the occasional louder laugh breaking through the quiet.

Colleagues.

I had never felt so isolated. Mr. Julian hadn’t even bothered to show up to the presentation to support me. Big surprise.

This room was so much like another boardroom, in a building seventeen blocks away. I had stood outside Ryan Media Tower earlier that morning, silently thanking everyone inside for making me who I was. And then I walked, counting the blocks and trying to ignore the twisting pain in my chest, knowing that Bennett wouldn’t be in the room with me today, stoic, fondling his cuff links, eyes penetrating my calm exterior.

I missed my project. I missed my coworkers. I missed Bennett’s ruthless, exacting standards. But mostly, I missed the man he’d become to me. I hated that I’d felt the need to choose one Bennett over the other, and ended up with neither.

An assistant knocked, poking her head in and catching my eye. To Mr. Cheng she said, “I just have a few forms for Chloe to sign first. We’ll be right back.”

Without question I followed her out the door, shaking my hands at my sides and willing my nerves to disappear. You can do this, Chloe. Twenty measly slides detailing a mediocre five-figure marketing campaign for a local pet food company. Piece of cake.

I just had to get through this, and then I could get the hell out of Chicago and start over somewhere hundreds of miles away. For the first time since I moved here, Chicago felt completely alien to me.

Even so, I was still waiting for the thought of leaving to feel like the right decision.

Instead of stopping at the assistant’s desk, we moved on down the hall to another conference room. She opened the door and motioned for me to go in ahead of her. But when I walked in, instead of following, she closed the door behind me, leaving me alone.

Or not alone.

She left me with Bennett.

It felt like my stomach evaporated and my chest sank into the hollow space. He stood at the wall of windows at the far side of the room, wearing a navy suit and the deep purple tie I got him for Christmas, holding a thick folder. His eyes were dark and unreadable.

“Hi.” His voice broke on the single syllable.

I swallowed, looking away to the wall and begging my emotions to stay bottled up. Being away from Bennett had been hell. More times a day than I could count, I would fantasize about going back to Ryan Media, or watching him walk into my new cubicle Officer and a Gentleman–style, or seeing him show up at my door with a La Perla bag hanging from a long, teasing finger.

But I wasn’t expecting to see him here, and after not seeing him for so long, even that one crooked syllable almost wrecked me. I’d missed his voice, his snark, his lips, and his hands. I’d missed the way he watched me, the way he waited for me first, the way I could tell he had started to love me.

Bennett was here. And he looked terrible.

He’d lost weight, and although he was neatly dressed and clean-shaven, his clothes hung all wrong on his tall frame. He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. I knew that feeling. Dark circles were carved beneath his eyes, and gone was the trademark smirk. In its place was a mouth fixed in a flat line. The fire I’d always assumed was just ingrained in his expression was completely extinguished.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

He lifted a hand and ran it through his hair, completely ruining the pathetic styling job he’d attempted, and my heart twisted at the familiar disarray. “I’m here to tell you that you are a fucking idiot for leaving Ryan Media.”

My jaw dropped at his tone, and a familiar surge of adrenaline heated my veins. “I was an idiot about a lot of things. Thanks for coming. Fun reunion.” I turned to leave.

“Wait,” he said, his voice low and demanding. Old instincts kicked in and I stopped, turning back to him. He’d taken a few steps closer. “We were both idiots, Chloe.”

“On that we agree. You’re right to say you worked hard to mentor me. I learned my idiocy from the biggest idiot of all. Any good stuff I learned from your father.”

That one seemed to hit home and he winced, taking a step back. I’d had a million emotions in the past few months: plenty of anger, some regret, frequent guilt, and a steady hum of self-righteous pride, but I realized what I’d just said wasn’t fair, and I immediately regretted it. He had pushed me, even if he didn’t always mean to, and for that I owed him something.

But as I stood in the cavernous room with him, the silence blooming and spreading like a plague between us, I realized what I’d been completely missing this entire time: he gave me the chance to work on the most important projects. He brought me along to every meeting. He made me write the critical reports, make the difficult calls, handle the delivery of the most sensitive accounting documents.

He’d mentored me—and it had mattered greatly to him.

I swallowed. “I didn’t mean that.”

“I know. I can see it in your face.” He ran his hand across his mouth. “It’s partly true, though. I don’t deserve credit for how good you are. I suppose I want to take some of it anyway, being an egomaniac. But also because I find you truly inspiring.”

The lump that had started in my throat seemed to spread both down and out, clogging my ability to breathe, pressing down against my stomach. I reached for the chair nearest me, repeating, “Why are you here, Bennett?”

“Because if you mess this up, I will personally ensure you never work for a Fortune 500 again.”

That was not what I expected, and my anger reignited fresh and hot. “I’m not going to mess this up, you asshole. I’m prepared.”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I have your Papadakis slides here, and I have handouts here”—he held up a USB drive and a folder—“and if you don’t ace this presentation to that board, I will have your ass.”

There was no cocky grin, no intentional play on words. But behind what he said, something else began to echo.

Us. This is us.

“Whatever you have there isn’t mine.” I motioned to the drive. “I didn’t prepare the Papadakis slides. I left before I put them together.”

He nodded as if I was exceptionally slow. “The contracts were drafted for signature when you resigned. I put these slides together from all of your work. This is what you’re presenting today, not some marketing campaign for some shitty dog food.”

It was humiliating having him throw that back in my face, and I took a few steps closer. “Damn you, Bennett. I worked my ass off for you, and I worked my ass off for Julian. I will work my ass off wherever I go next—whether it’s selling pet food or brokering million-dollar campaigns—and I’ll be damned if you think you can come in here with this and tell me how to manage my career. You don’t control me.”

He walked closer. “I don’t want to control you.”

“Bullshit.”

“I want to help you.”

“I don’t need your help.”

“Yes, Chloe, you do. Take it. This is your work.” He was close enough to reach out and touch, and took one step closer. Close enough now for me to feel his body heat, smell the way his soap and skin combined into that familiar scent. “Please. You’ve earned this. It will impress the board more.”

A month ago, I’d wanted more than anything to present this account. It had been my life for months. It was mine. I could feel tears forming in my eyes and blinked them back.

“I don’t want to be beholden to you.”

“This isn’t a favor. It’s me paying you back. It’s me admitting I fucked up. It’s me telling you that you’ve got one of the sharpest business minds I’ve ever known.” His eyes softened, his hand reaching out to push a strand of hair behind my shoulder. “You won’t be beholden to me. Unless you want to be . . . in a completely different way.”

“I don’t think I could work for you again,” I said, pushing the words past the wall of heartbreak in my throat. It was taking every ounce of strength I had to not reach out and touch him.

“That isn’t what I mean. I’m telling you that I messed up as a boss.” He swallowed nervously, taking a deep breath. “And I really messed up as a lover. I need you to take these slides,” he said, holding out the USB drive. “And I need you to take me back.”

I stared at him. “I need to get back to the boardroom.”

“No, you don’t. They’re delayed.” He glanced at his watch. “About a minute ago I had Henry call Cheng with some bullshit distraction so I could talk to you alone and tell you A, that you’re an idiot and B, that I want another chance with you.”

A grin wobbled at the edges of my mouth and I bit down on my lower lip to keep it in check. Bennett’s eyes flamed victorious.

“I appreciate what you’re doing here,” I said carefully. “I worked hard on that account, and I do feel ownership over it. If you don’t mind, I’d like the board to see the details on the Papadakis in the handouts you have. But I’m still going to present the Sanders pitch.”

He considered this, eyes moving over my face. A muscle in his jaw twitched, a telltale sign of his impatience. “Fine. Pitch it to me here. Convince me you’re not committing suicide in there.”

Straightening, I said, “The campaign is a play on Top Chef. But each episode, or ad, will feature a different ingredient in their food and will be a challenge to create something high-end gourmet for pets.”

Bennett’s eyes were veiled, but he smiled sincerely. “That’s clever, Chloe.”

I beamed at his honesty, savoring this moment. “Not really. That’s the joke. Sanders ingredients are basic: good meat. Simple grains. Dogs don’t care how fancy their food is. They want meat. On a bone. That tastes good. My dad gave his dogs gourmet chow every day, with brown rice and wheatgrass. I’m not kidding. And as a special gift on their birthday he’d give them a cheap, meaty bone. It’s the owner who cares about the greens and the brown rice and all that shit. Not the pets.”

His smile broadened.

“It’s a way to make fun of ourselves for pampering our pets and embracing that side of us that treats them like cherished family. Sanders’ is the meaty-bone chow that you can spoil them with every day. The animal ‘judges’ will always choose the Sanders recipe.”

“You did it.”

“A campaign? That’s the point.”

“Yes, but I knew you could do that. I meant the way you pitched it. You reeled me in, caught me.”

I laughed, knowing a Bennett compliment when I saw it. “Thank you.”

“Take me back, Chloe. Tell me right now that you will.”

A louder laugh burst out, and I rubbed my hands over my face. “Always such a bossy asshole.”

“You’re going to pretend you don’t miss me? You look like hell too, you know. Julia called me last night as I was putting the slides together—”

I gaped at him. “Julia called you?”

“—and told me you were a mess and I had to get my shit together and find you. I told her it was already under way. I was going to do it anyway, but her call made it easier to come here ready to beg.”

“Do you even know how to beg?” I asked, grinning outright now.

Bennett licked his lips, dropping his eyes to my mouth. “Probably not. Want to show me?”

“Give it a try. Give me your best grovel.”

“With all due respect, I’m going to have to ask you to suck it, Miss Mills.”

“Only if you beg.”

His eyes widened, and before he could say anything else, I took the Papadakis folder from his hand and left.

.

I entered the boardroom with Bennett right on my heels. The murmuring voices stopped when we appeared.

I handed Director Cheng the folder, and he sifted through the handouts of the Papadakis slides. He smiled. “How on earth did you manage to finish two projects?”

I stammered out a few syllables, completely unprepared for his question.

“She’s efficient,” Bennett said, walking around me and taking a seat at the table. “When she wrapped up the Papadakis account, we suggested she take a short internship elsewhere until she finished her degree. After all, we’re hoping she’ll be at Ryan Media for the foreseeable future.”

I struggled to hide my shock. What the hell is he talking about?

“Fantastic,” said an older man at the end of the table. “On Papadakis?”

Bennett nodded. “Working under my father. He needs someone to manage this one since it will take up an FTE. Chloe was the obvious choice, if she’ll accept.”

I swallowed down about five thousand different reactions. The primary one was irritation, for his bringing this up in front of the board. But tangled up with that were also gratitude, excitement, pride. Bennett would be getting an earful after I was finished here.

“Well, let’s get started then,” Cheng said, leaning back in his chair.

I picked up my laser pointer and walked to the front of the room, feeling as though the floor were made of Jell-O. Two seats away from the head of the table, Bennett cleared his throat, catching my eye.

I’d need to ask him about that too. Because I was pretty sure that right before I began speaking he mouthed the words “I love you.”

Sneaky bastard.

.

They said my presentation would be one for the brochure, the Web site, the company newsletter.

They had me sign some papers, pose for some photos, shake a lot of hands.

They even offered me a job at JT Miller.

“She’s taken,” Bennett said, pulling me to the side. He stared down at me, wordless, while everyone eventually filtered out of the room.

“Yeah, about that,” I said, trying to sound angry. I was still on a crazy high from the presentation, from the discussion, from the entire day. Having Bennett within kissing distance didn’t hurt at all.

“Please don’t say no. I sort of stole Dad’s thunder. He was going to call you tonight.”

“Is he really going to offer me a job?”

“Are you going to take it?”

I shrugged, feeling giddy. “Who knows? Right now I just want to celebrate.”

“You were amazing up there.” He bent and kissed my cheek.

“Thank you. It was the most fun I’ve had in weeks.”

“The handouts were good, am I right?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, but you made one critical error.”

His face fell. “What?”

“You admitted that you know how to operate PowerPoint.”

With a laugh, he took my laptop bag from me and put it on a chair behind him, stalking closer with a dark smile. “I used to make slides for my boss. I was an intern once too, of course.”

Goose bumps broke out along my skin. “Did your boss yell?”

“Occasionally.” He ran his index finger up my arm.

“Criticize your handwriting?”

“Constantly.” He leaned down, kissed the corner of my mouth.

“Did your boss kiss you?”

“My father has always been more of a handshaker, really.”

I laughed, slipping my hands under his jacket so I could wrap my arms around him. “Well, I’m not your intern anymore.”

“No, you’re my colleague.”

I hummed, liking the sound of that.

“And my lover?”

“Yes.” My voice shook on the single syllable, and I understood very clearly the meaning of “drowning in relief.” I was positive Bennett could feel my heart pounding against him.

He bit my earlobe. “I’ll have to find new excuses to get you up to the boardroom and naked against the window.”

Steam filled my veins, thick and warm. “You don’t need excuses to take me home, though.”

Bennett kissed across my cheek and pressed a single, soft kiss to my mouth. “Chloe?”

“Yes, Bennett?”

“This flirting is all well and good, but I mean it when I tell you, I can’t have you leaving me again. It almost broke me.”

My ribs seemed to squeeze all of the air out of my lungs at the thought. “I don’t think I could. I don’t want to be away from you again either.”

“But you need to give me a chance to fix things when I screw up. You know I’m an ass sometimes.”

“Sometimes?”

Growling, he whispered, “And I tear lingerie.”

I pushed a curl off his forehead. “And hoard it. Don’t forget the creepy hoarding.”

“But I love you,” he said, looking at me with wide eyes. “And I’m on a first-name basis now with most of the sales staff at La Perla. I did a lot of in-store moping while you were gone. I also have it on good authority that I’m the best sex you’ve ever had. So, hopefully those things outweigh the bad.”

“Sold.” I pulled him down to me. “Come here.” I slid my mouth over his, nibbling his bottom lip. With my fists gripping his lapels, I turned and pressed him against the window, standing on my toes to get closer, as close as I possibly could.

“So demanding now that you’re all official.”

“Shut up and kiss me,” I laughed into his mouth.

“Yes, boss.”

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