I knew these small inconveniences got me too worked up, but it was this type of detail that defined a team. Which was exactly why I needed someone on top of their game for New York. I groaned as I dropped back into my car and started the engine, knowing this was just one more thing I needed to accomplish in the next month.
In my current mood, I was in no state to return to Chloe. I’d only be surly and irritable . . . and not really in the fun way.
God, I just wanted to be with her. Why did it have to be so f**king difficult? I had so few hours with Chloe as it was, and I didn’t want to waste them because I was stressed about work and apartment hunting and finding someone who could just do their f**king job without being babysat. We’d complained about not seeing enough of each other, of working too hard, why didn’t we just . . . fix it? Go away? I knew Chloe thought the timing was all wrong, but when would it ever be right? Nobody was going to just hand it to us and since when had I ever been the type of person who waited for something to come along anyway?
“Get your shit together, Ben.” My voice rang out in the quiet interior of my car, and after a brief glace to the clock to make sure I wasn’t calling too late, I reached for my phone, scrolling to the correct number before hitting dial. I pulled out of the parking spot and turned onto Michigan Avenue.
After about six rings, Max’s voice boomed from the car speakers. “Oi, Ben!”
I smiled, accelerating away from work and headed toward one of the most familiar places on earth to me. “Max, how are you?”
“Good, mate. Very bloody good. What’s this rumor I hear of you lot moving out to the big city?”
I nodded, answering, “We’ll be there in a little over a month. Getting set up at Fifth and Fiftieth.”
“Close by. Perfect. We’ll have to get together when you get to town . . .” He trailed off.
“Definitely, definitely.” I hesitated, knowing Max was probably wondering why I was calling him at eleven thirty at night on a Tuesday. “Look, Max, I have a bit of a favor to ask.”
“I’d like to take my girlfriend away for a bit, and—”
I laughed, too. I was fairly certain I’d never introduced anyone to Max that way. “Chloe, yes. We both work for RMG and have been slammed lately with the Papadakis campaign. It’s rolling quite nicely now, and we maybe have some wiggle room before we move . . .” I hesitated, feeling the words bubble up inside me. “Would I be insane to hire someone to pack up our life here, find us a place in New York, and just . . . leave for a few weeks? Just get the hell out of town?”
“That doesn’t sound mental, Ben. It sounds like the best way to keep yourself sorted.”
“I think so, too. And I know it’s impulsive, but I was thinking of taking Chloe to France. I was wondering if you still had the house in Marseille, and if so, whether we could rent it for a few weeks.”
Max was laughing quietly. “Fuck yeah, it’s still mine. But forget renting it—just have at it. I’ll send you the directions straightaway. I’ll have Inès go by and clean up for you. The place has been empty since I was there over the winter holidays.” He paused. “When were you thinking of heading out?”
The vise that seemed to grip my chest loosened immeasurably as the plan began to solidify in my head. “This weekend?”
“Shit yeah, I’ll get on it. Send me your flight details when you have them. I’ll call her in the morning and make sure she’s there to give you the keys.”
“This is fantastic. Thank you, Max. I owe you.”
I could practically hear his sly grin when he said, “I’ll remember that.”
Feeling relaxed for the first time in ages, I turned up the music and let myself imagine getting on a plane with Chloe, nothing ahead of us but sunshine, long mornings spent na**d in bed, and some of the best food and wine the world had ever conjured up.
But I had one more stop to make. I knew it was late to go to my parents’, but I had no choice. My mind was spinning with plans, and I couldn’t head to bed until every last detail had been sorted out.
On the twenty-minute drive to their house, I called and left a message for my travel agent. Then I left a message on my brother Henry’s work voice mail that I was leaving for three weeks. I didn’t even let myself imagine his reaction. We had a new office, we had everything at work sorted, and we could leave the business of packing up to someone else. I left a message for each of my senior managers letting them know the plan and what I expected each of them to handle in my absence. And then I rolled down all of the windows and let the cool night air whip around me, taking all of my stress with it.
Pulling up in front of my parents’ house, I laughed thinking back on the first time Chloe and I had come here together as a couple.
It was three days after her presentation to the scholarship board. Two of those days we’d scarcely left my home or my bed. But after the constant calls and texts from my family asking us to come over, for me to let them share some time with Chloe, we agreed to a dinner at my parents’ house. Everyone had missed her.
We talked on the drive, laughing and teasing, my free hand entwined with one of hers. Absently, she ran the index finger of her other hand in small circles over the top of my wrist, as if reassuring herself that it was real, that I was real, that we were. We hadn’t faced the world outside yet, other than that night out with her girlfriends following her presentation. The transition would no doubt be at least a little awkward. But I would never have expected Chloe to be anxious about any of it. She’d always faced every challenge with her own brand of bullheaded fearlessness.
It was only when we stood on the porch and I reached to open their front door that I realized her hand inside mine was shaking.
“What’s wrong?” I pulled my hand back, turned her to face me.
She threw me an annoyed look. “I’m fine. Just open the door.”
“Holy shit,” I said on an exhale, stunned. “Chloe Mills is actually nervous.”
This time she turned to glare up at me fully. “You spotted that? Christ, you’re brilliant. Someone should make you a COO and give you a big fancy office.” She reached to open the door herself.
I stopped her hand from turning the knob and a grin spread across my face. “Chloe?”
“I just haven’t seen them since before . . . you know. And they saw you when you were all . . .” She made a gesture around me, which I gathered was meant to indicate “when Bennett was a complete disaster, after Chloe left him.”
“Just . . . let’s not make this a thing. I’m fine,” she went on.
“I’m just enjoying the rare sighting of a jittery Chloe. Give me a second, let me savor this.”
“Fuck off?” I stepped in front of her, moved until her body pressed into mine. “Are you trying to seduce me, Miss Mills?”
Finally, she laughed, her shoulders surrendering their tense determination. “I just don’t want it to be—”
The front door flew open, and Henry took a step forward, enveloping Chloe in a massive hug. “There she is!”
Chloe peeked up at me over my brother’s shoulder and laughed. “—awkward,” she finished, wrapping her arms around him.
Just inside the doorway stood my parents, wearing the biggest shit-eating grins I’d ever seen. My mom’s eyes were suspiciously misty.
“It’s been way too long,” Henry said, releasing my girlfriend and looking right at me.
Groaning inwardly, I registered that this entire night could very easily turn into a giant recap of what a trial this whole thing had been for Chloe, of how impossible I’d been to work with; the details of Miss Mills’s challenging attitude would be whitewashed for history.
It was a good thing she looked so damn fit in her little black dress. I’d need the distraction.
I’d called Dad the morning of Chloe’s presentation, telling him I’d planned to attend and convince her to present the Papadakis slides. I told him, too, that I was going to ask her to take me back. As usual, Dad had been supportive, but guarded, telling me that no matter what Chloe said, he was proud of me for going after what I wanted.
What I wanted now stepped into the house and hugged my mother, and my father, before looking up at me. “I don’t know what I was worried about,” she whispered.
“I just left so abruptly. I’ve felt bad about that, and about not seeing either of you for months . . .” Chloe trailed off.
“No, no, no, no—you had to put up with Bennett,” Henry said, ignoring my irritated sigh. “Trust us, we get it.”
“Come on,” I groaned, pulling her back. “We don’t need to make this a thing.”
“I just knew,” Mom whispered, putting her hands on Chloe’s face. “I knew.”
“What the hell, Mom?” I stepped closer, hugging her first and giving her a scowl second. “You ‘knew’ this even when you set her up with Joel?”
“I think the phrase is ‘shit or get off the pot,’?” Henry offered.
“That is absolutely not the phrase I would have used, Henry Ryan.” Mom threw him a look and then wrapped her arm around Chloe, urging her down the hall. She turned to talk to me over her shoulder. “I figured if you didn’t see what was right in front of your face, maybe another man deserved a shot.”
“Poor Joel never had a shot,” Dad mumbled, surprising all of us and apparently even himself. He looked up, and then laughed. “Someone had to say it.”
Climbing out of the car, I smiled at the memory of the rest of that evening: the ten minutes during which we’d all dissolved into hysterics over our shared experiences of getting food poisoning at inopportune times, the unbelievable crème br?lée my mother had served after dinner, and, much later, the way Chloe and I had barely made it back inside my house before falling into a tangle of limbs and sweat on my living room floor.
I turned the knob on my parents’ front door, knowing my dad would still be up, but hoping not to wake my mother. The knob creaked and I eased it open with familiar care, lifting it slightly where I knew the wood swelled a little at the threshold.
But, to my surprise, Mom greeted me in the entryway, wearing her old purple robe and holding two cups of tea.
“I don’t know why,” she said, extending one cup to me, “but I was pretty sure you were going to turn up here tonight.”
“Mother’s intuition?” I asked, taking the cup and bending to kiss her cheek. I lingered there, hoping I could keep my emotions in check tonight.
“Something like that.” Tears filled her eyes and she turned away before I could say something about them. “Come on, I know why you’re here. I’ve got it down in the kitchen.”
“And you’re sure we’ll get the signatures on time?” I asked my assistant, who checked her watch and jotted something down in her notepad.
“Yes. Aaron’s on his way over there now. We should have them back by lunch.”
“Good,” I said, closing the files and handing them back. “We’ll give it a final look before the meeting and if everything goes—” The door to my outer office opened, and a very determined-looking Bennett walked inside. My assistant let out a terrified squeak and I waved for her to go. She practically sprinted out of there.
Long legs carried him across the room in only a few strides, and he stopped just on the other side of my desk, slapping two crisp white envelopes down on a stack of marketing reports.
I looked down to the envelopes and then back up to him. “Something about this is so familiar,” I said. “Which one of us is going to slam the door and storm out to the stairwell?”
“Well, good morning to you, too, Mr. Ryan.”
“Chloe, don’t be a pain in the ass.”
“You’d rather be a pain in mine?”
His eyes softened and he leaned over my desk to kiss me. He’d gotten home late last night, long after I’d fallen asleep. I’d woken to the sound of my alarm clock to find his warm and very na**d body pressed against mine. I deserved some kind of a medal for managing to leave that bed.
“Good morning, Miss Mills,” he said softly. “Now open the damn envelopes.”
“If you insist. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Slamming things down on desks has never really ended well for us. Well, for me. Maybe you could rectify that . . .”
“Fine, fine.” I lifted the flap on the one with my name and pulled a printed sheet of paper from inside. “ORD to CDG,” I read. “Chicago to France.” I looked up at him. “They’re sending me somewhere?”
Bennett beamed, and frankly, he looked so good while doing it I was glad I was sitting down. “France. Marseille, to be exact. The second ticket is behind that one.”
Plane tickets, one envelope for each of us. Scheduled to leave Friday. It was Tuesday already.
“I . . . I don’t understand. We’re going to France? This isn’t about last night, is it? Because we have busy lives, Bennett. These kinds of things will always happen. I promise I wasn’t upset.”
He rounded the desk and kneeled in front of me. “No. This isn’t about last night. It’s about a lot of nights. This is about me putting what’s important first. And this,” he said, motioning between us. “This is what’s important. We hardly see each other anymore, Chloe, and that’s not going to change after the move. I love you. I miss you.”