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“How long, Bennett? Chloe?” she said, looking between us.
“I—we just—” I started, but just what? How could I explain any of this? “We—”
“We made a mistake. It was a mistake.” His voice cut through my thoughts and I looked over to him in shock. Why did it bother me so much that he said it? It was a mistake, and yet hearing him say that . . . hurt.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away as she began to speak. “Mistake or not, it needs to stop now. What if I’d been Susan? And Bennett, you’re her boss! Have you forgotten that?” She exhaled deeply. “Look, you two are adults, and I don’t know what’s going on here, but whatever you do, do not let Elliott find out.”
A wave of nausea hit me at the idea of Elliott ever finding out about this, at how disappointed he’d be. I couldn’t bear that. “That won’t be a problem,” I said, purposefully avoiding Bennett’s gaze. “I intend to learn from my mistake. Excuse me.”
I moved past them and toward the stairs, anger and hurt settling like a lead weight deep in my stomach. The strength of my work ethic and motivation had always buoyed me through harder times in my life: breakups, the death of my mother, rough patches with friendships. My value as an employee at RMG was now tinged with self-doubt. Was I making him see me differently because I was f**king him? Now that he’d seemed to register—finally—that if others knew about us it could be bad for him, would he start to question my judgment more globally?
I was smarter than this. It was time I started acting like it.
I composed myself before stepping outside and returning to my seat beside Joel.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
I turned my head, letting myself look at him for a moment. He was really quite cute: neatly combed dark hair, a kind face, and the most beautiful blue eyes I’d ever seen. He was everything I should be looking for. My gaze shot up a moment later as Mr. Ryan returned to the table with Mina, but I quickly looked away.
“Yeah, I’m just not feeling well,” I said, turning back to Joel. “I think I might need to call it a night.”
“Here,” he said, standing to pull out my chair. “I’ll walk you to your car.”
I said my good-byes, feeling the unfamiliar shape of Joel’s palm on the small of my back as we walked into the house. Once in the driveway, he gave me a shy smile and took my hand. “It was really nice meeting you, Chloe. I’d like to call you sometime and maybe have that lunch.”
“Let me see your phone,” I said. Part of me felt bad for doing this, having been with one man upstairs not even twenty minutes ago, and now giving my number to another. But it was time to move past this, and a lunch date with a nice guy seemed like a good place to start.
His smile widened as I handed him his phone, and he gave me his card in return. Taking my hand, he lifted it to his lips. “I’ll call you Monday, then. Hopefully your flowers aren’t completely wilted.”
“It’s the thought that counts,” I said, smiling. “Thank you.”
He looked so sincere, so happy at the simple possibility of seeing me again, and it occurred to me that I should be swooning, or giddy. I really just wanted to throw up.
“I should go.”
Joel nodded, opening my car door for me. “Of course. I hope you feel better. Drive carefully, and good night, Chloe.”
“Good night, Joel.”
He closed my door and I started the engine, my eyes straight ahead as I drove away from my boss’ family’s house.
The next morning at yoga I considered spilling my guts to Julia. I’d felt reasonably certain I could handle things on my own, but after an entire night of staring at the ceiling and completely freaking out, I realized I needed to confide in someone.
There was Sara, and more than anyone Sara would understand how maddening my hot boss could be. But she also worked for Henry and I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position by asking her to keep such a huge secret. I knew Mina would be happy to talk if I asked, but there was just something about her being a Ryan, and knowing what she might have heard that left me feeling less than comfortable.
These were the times I really wished my mom were still alive. Just thinking about her brought a wrenching pain to my chest and tears to my eyes. Moving here to spend the last years of her life with her had been the best decision I’d ever made. And even though living so far from my dad and friends was tough at times, I knew everything happened for a reason. I just wished the reason would hurry up and make itself known.
Could I tell Julia? I had to admit I was terrified of what she would think of me. But more than that, I was terrified of saying the words to someone out loud.
“Okay, you keep looking at me,” she said. “Either you have something on your mind or I’m the embarra.s.sing and gross kind of sweaty.”
I tried to tell her nothing, I tried to brush it off and let her think she was being absurd. But I couldn’t. The weight and the pressure of the last few weeks came crashing down and before I could control it, my chin started to tremble and I began bawling like a baby.
“That’s what I thought. Come on.” She offered me her hand and helped me up and, gathering our belongings on the way, led me out the door.
Twenty minutes, two mimosas, and one emotional breakdown later, I was watching Julia’s shocked expression at a table in our favorite restaurant. I told her everything: the panty ripping, my liking the panty ripping, the various locations, the mid-make-out-session-I-hate-yous, Mina catching us, my guilt over feeling like I was betraying Elliott and Susan, Joel, Mr. Ryan’s caveman declarations, and finally, my fear that I was in the most unhealthy relationship in the history of the world, with no power at all.
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