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 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 ass**le. 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.”
“I want to help you.”
“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 f**ked 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.”