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