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 designed the latest campaign for Nike.
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.
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.
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.
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 f**ked 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.
She smiled, turning to look at me finally, and f**k me: she was crying. “To Gugliotti.”
“You sounded possessive . . .” she muttered, turning back to the window. “You sounded dismissive—you made me seem naïve! 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.”