Beautiful Bastard (Chapter 17 OMISSIONS)

My father sat at his large desk, his chin resting on his tented fingers, a hardened expression on his face. My eyes scanned the room, stopping at the familiar face of the man in the chair opposite him. My jaw tightened and my stomach clenched as the pieces began to come together. I glared at him, and he smirked back.

"Bennett," he stated, his arms coming to rest on the desk and his gold pen turning idly in his fingers.

"I believe you know Mr. Darby."

I nodded. "Yes, sir."

I thought back to that night at dinner, how glad I'd been to see my old friend.

He took a deep breath. "Bennett, I've called you in here because Mr. Darby has leveled some pretty serious accusations against you. I thought it best to allow you to defend yourself face to face."

A deep weight began to settle in my chest as he continued.

"He claims that during the time you and Ms. Mills were in Seattle together, you behaved inappropriately. To be more specific, he claims to have witnessed the two of you kissing rather heatedly before entering her room together." His voice had a disbelieving, almost mocking quality to it and I felt my shoulders slump slightly. I realized he hadn't brought me here to chastise me, but to defend myself from what he believed were false accusations.

The silence in the room pressed upon me, amplifying my loss for words. My eyes drifted to the floor in defeat.

A throat cleared, but I wasn't sure whose.

My father stood, his glare reproachful as he rounded the desk and made his way to the door.

"I think we're done here, Mr. Darby. Thank you for bringing this to my attention." He paused, the prolonged quiet only increasing my dread. "And I would appreciate your discretion."

"Of course, Carlisle."

The door closed and he exhaled deeply, walking past me to stand in front of the large expanse of floor to ceiling windows.

I waited.

"How long?" he asked in a voice that was entirely too calm.

I hesitated, still gripping even now to the promise I had made to keep our relationship between us. "A few months."

He sighed heavily again, his gaze falling to the sidewalks below.

"Bennett." The sound of my name edged by such disappointment tore at my stomach. "If I would have believed for even a second there was one bit of truth to his story, I would never have discussed this in front of him."

"I know."

"So, I'm correct in assuming that this is why you've seemed distracted recently." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes, sir." My voice was tentative, almost unrecognizable to my own ears.

The leather chair creaked as he returned to his seat. I raised my chin to see him. His expression was pensive while his tone belied his anger, calm and reproachful.

He did not meet my eyes.

"Bennett, to say that I am disappointed in you does not begin to express my frame of mind right now.

You are my son, but you are also an executive of this company and have therefore been entrusted with the livelihood of others. Your behavior shows a wanton disregard for that." He paused and I saw a flash of sadness sweep over his features. "I realize that this is…Chloe that we're talking about, but do you have any idea what the ramifications would have been if she had reported you? This isn't just about you, Bennett. "

"Yes, sir. I know." I cleared my throat and met his eyes. "I take complete responsibility for this."

"This isn't just about you taking responsibility. If this would have gone badly, your family and the families of your employees would have been jeopardized," he said, the disapproval evident in his voice. "I expected more from you, son."

A deep sense of shame crept through me. I had disappointed my father; the one person whose opinion, up until recently, meant more to me than anyone else's.

"I know," I answered, my eyes boring into the complex wood grain of his antique desk. What more was there to say?

"You do realize that if this was anyone else, you two would be fired with no questions asked?"

"Yes, sir. I do."

He waited and I glanced up at him again, the weight of his thoughts visible in his features. He began shuffling through a stack of papers on his desk as he considered his next words.

"I can't allow Chloe to continue working for you," he said solemnly, the finality in his tone leaving no question that this was not up for debate. I froze as the reality became clear that as of this moment, Chloe no longer worked for me.

"As you know, there's a new executive beginning next month. I worked with him years ago and he's already been approved by the board. He'll be in need of an assistant." He paused, nodding as if he'd come to some decision. "I'll have all the arrangements made for Chloe to be transferred and hopefully, no one will be the wiser." Raising his eyes, he continued. " If she plans on staying, that is."

I swallowed loudly and met his gaze, his last words breaking me from my stupor. He watched me and his eyebrows lifted, as if knowing his words had hit home. I felt something shift inside, the shame of disappointing my father quickly replaced by the fear of how she would react to this.

She would be devastated, of that I was sure. But she wouldn't leave…would she?

I watched as he picked up his phone. I assumed he was speaking to his assistant, but his hushed words didn't register.

My body seemed to be made of lead, my feet planted to this spot as my mind raced with the possible outcomes. As much as I hated the truth coming out this way, there was something freeing about others finally knowing.

Beneath the guilt and dread, there was also relief; as if a burden had suddenly been lifted from me.

We could finally move forward; surely she would see this. No more hiding, no more sneaking out of each other's apartments in the early hours. I could tell everyone I loved her, I could hold her hand, I could ask herA familiar, cheerful voice from the reception area broke into my thoughts. She entered the room, and my body instantly responded to her presence. I felt my breathing even out and my muscles relax slightly; the vice-like grip that had been holding me here finally starting to loosen.

I longed for her, even now. I longed to spare her from this and ease the pain with which she would soon be confronted. My hand twitched at my side, my fingers itching to feel her, to entwine with hers and face this together.

She crossed the room to stand beside me, the sound of her dress swinging around her beautiful legs and her delicate scent reaching me before she did. Her mere presence soothed me, even when she was unaware of it.

Her eyes met mine, her lips turned up into a gorgeous smile I knew was meant for only me. I attempted to reciprocate, managing only a small, apologetic one in return.

Her once beautiful, shiny curls were now loosened, the result of my greedy hands threading into her hair. Her lips were red; her neck covered in small sshites from my face and my teeth. The neckline of her perfect white dress was now misshapen, due to my desperate need to see and touch her. These details were so slight that I was sure only someone who had studied her as much as I had would notice them, but as I met my father's disapproving eyes, I felt certain he did as well.

Her gaze moved between us and the smile fell.

"Mr. Ryan?" she questioned, her eyes now on my father.

I exhaled deeply, readying myself for what was to come.

"Chloe," he began, his tone professional but the undertone of regret apparent. "I'm sure you're aware we have a new executive starting next month."

"Yes, sir," she answered, her confusion evident. She watched as he began to move files into his briefcase, his eyes focused on his task.

"I've decided to transfer you to his office."

Chloe's POV

My stomach dropped.

"Excuse me?" I asked, turning to look at Bennett, positive I'd heard him wrong. "I don't understand."

The moment I met his expression, I knew. I closed my eyes as I felt my world fall apart around me.

"You'll be on paid administrative leave until then-"

" Dad." Bennett's impassioned plea cut him off.

Carlisle glared at him reproachfully before closing his briefcase and continuing.

"I'm not discussing this any further. Bennett can answer any questions you have," he said with an air of finality.

My eyes fell to the floor, the sting of tears threatening to escape.

I wouldn't do this, not here.

Angry with myself and determined to regain my composure, I hardened my expression; straightening my back and lifting my chin to meet his gaze. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears, my skin felt hot and uncomfortable and my nails dug painfully into my palm, but I wouldn't break down.

His expression softened slightly, and it only deepened my shame. I couldn't blame Carlisle for what he was doing; if anything, I deserved much worse. I'd seen other employees fired for infractions far less severe, and I knew that my job and reputation were only being spared because of my relationship with his family.

Knowing that and having disappointed him hurt worse than I could ever have imagined.

"Yes, sir," I answered, my voice trembling slightly.

I heard Bennett sigh next to me and saw his head drop in my peripheral vision, but I didn't look away.

Carlisle looked at me for a moment longer and I was instantly reminded of my father and how he would react if he knew how I'd behaved. The tense silence seemed to stretch on until he cleared his throat and stood from his chair.

"I have a meeting I need to get to," he said, his eyes moving to his son. "I'll explain your absence and expect to see you at the house tonight."

Once again, his tone was firm, leaving no room for argument. Bennett muttered something in acknowledgement and Carlisle nodded, retrieving his briefcase from the desk and making his way to the door.

The soft click as it closed echoed in the silent room. I continued to stare unseeingly at the vacant chair, not trusting myself to speak or consider what was really happening.

"Chloe," he said softly. "I'm so sorry."

"No," I started with a slight shake of my head. "Don't do that. I'm a big girl, Bennett. I knew exactly what I was getting into."

"But I shouldn't-"

"Don't," I said, cutting him off, pleading with him not to apologize for what we had. "How..?"

I wasn't sure I wanted to know how he'd found out. When I thought about it, there were so many times we should have been caught, each possibility more humiliating than the last.

With a heavy sigh he stepped towards the window, his hands running through his hair. "Seattle," he began, the bitterness already apparent in his voice. "That night I left and had dinner downtown…the night you stayed…I ran into an old college friend at dinner."

He shook his head and laughed sharply, the sound harsh and ugly in the silence. "I had no idea he was staying in the same hotel." He paused, pressing his palm against the glass. "Apparently he saw us together… leaving the elevator after being on the roof."

My stomach dropped as I remembered the moment with perfect clarity. I recalled the feel of his lips on mine as we kissed and stumbled, making our way to my room. He had seemed uncharacteristically carefree as he touched me, each of us lost in the other, completely unaware that we were being watched.

I nodded robotically.

"I'm not sure why he came to my father, although I'd be lying if I said I was surprised."

"Why?" I asked numbly, knowing the answer didn't matter.

"He mentioned something about wanting a move to Chicago…I just…" He laughed again humorlessly, his hand dragging roughly across his chin. "I guess he has no qualms about cutting throats in an attempt to get to the top."

I nodded again, more to myself than as a response to anything he said. One by one the pieces began to fall together and suddenly, the panic that had been flitting on the edges of my mind began to make itself known. Carlisle knew, Esme would know. My father would probably find out, as well as everyone at the company when the news of my transfer was announced. My new boss…everyone would think that I… I felt myself sway slightly and leaned forward to grip the desk, attempting to swallow as a wave of nausea swept over me. My stomach began to churn, and although I felt like I was gasping, no air seemed to be reaching my lungs. My throat felt dry, as if it was tightening with each labored breath and my body began to tremble with the effort.

"Chloe?" Bennett turned and began to walk towards me, the worry unmistakable in his voice. "Are you okay?"

I shook my head and closed my eyes, attempting to calm my breathing; the sound of my pulse pounded in my ears.

"I know how you must feel, but-"

"You what?" I asked, a spark of anger igniting in my chest at his words.

"I know how you must feel," he said again, stopping in front of me and taking my hands in his. "But it will be fine. We'll get through this and it will all be fine."

"How can you say that?" I asked, shocked at his nonchalance and tore my hands from his. "How can you say it will be fine?"

"Because it will be," he answered, keeping his tone calm. "This will blow over, everyone will forget.

Don't let them win, Chloe."

An angry tear slipped down my cheek at the suggestion that I was somehow giving up, letting the proverbial them win.

"Chloe, I need you to calm down." He placed his hands on either side of my face and looked into my eyes. "There are people out there," he said, motioning towards the outer office. "And this isn't the place to have this discussion."

I nodded, knowing he was right and instinctively leaned into him, wrapping my arms around his waist and pressing my forehead against his chest. I shivered slightly as his arms encircled me, pulling me to him as if he could protect me from anything.

If only he could.

I held him closer as his lips brushed against my hair, taking comfort in his touch, his smell, his closeness. For one small moment I felt the world and the weight of the last few minutes slip away. I loved him and I let him love me in return.

The initial panic receded briefly as I stood wrapped in his embrace. My lungs seemed to open, the wild thumping of my heart slowing to a near normal pace as his palm made small circles on my back.

"I love you, Chloe," he murmured into my hair. "It will be okay. Somehow things will work out."

Closing my eyes tightly against the tears, I nodded silently; my ability to translate my jumbled, erratic thoughts into words seemed to have left me.

Our moment of peace was short lived as hushed voices began to filter in from the reception area.

Bennett cleared his throat and pulled away slightly, bending his knees to bring him level with my eyes.

"Are you okay?" His eyebrows were drawn together, the worry evident in his pained expression.

"I just…" I began, my brief respite of calm beginning to slip. "I need to go." My voice was nothing more than a whisper and his concern seemed to deepen.

"Chloe-"

I shook my head. "I can't….it's just too much right now"

He straightened and sighed deeply. "Can I see you tonight?"

I attempted to swallow around the lump in my throat. My mouth felt dry, and I found myself once again fighting the urge to be sick. My eyes fell to the floor briefly, and I wrapped my arms around my body as I sought to hold myself together.

"I just…" I began, only to have the words vanish from my mind. I shook my head again and pressed my palms to his chest. "I just need to go for a little bit. I promise I'll call."

I turned to leave, only to be pulled back into his arms, his hand gripping my neck and his mouth finding mine. He kissed me passionately, his lips demanding, his hands tangling into my hair, pulling me into him.

"I love you," he breathed against me. His hand slipped down my neck and shoulder to grasp my hand and bring it to his chest, his thumb brushing along the bracelet he'd given me. "Please remember that."

"I love you too," I said softly, my voice trembling.

Stepping away, I looked back at him briefly. His expression was grim as he watched me walk away, his eyes tight and full of concern.

As I entered the outer office, there was no doubt we'd been heard. The others in the room were scattered around, conveniently busy with tasks that allowed them to avoid making eye contact. I walked quickly to my office to retrieve my purse, making sure not to pass anyone on the way. I quickly reached my car and pulled out of the garage, beginning the familiar route to my apartment.

The world seemed to blur around me as I drove, finally allowing the tears to fall freely down my face, the sobs amplified in the silent interior. I replayed the scene in Carlisle's office, the way he had avoided my eyes, a hint of having been betrayed resonating in his voice. It was as if I had disappointed my own father and I was unsure whether I would be able to fix it. Another sob broke from my chest as I imagined him telling Esme.

Esme who had been like a mother to me since losing mine, who had told me she loved me and looked at me with such pride, would know of the lies and the way I behaved.

Emmett would find out, Angela… my father. An utter feeling of anguish settled over me when I considered how far reaching my actions would be, and it was all I could do to make it home and drag myself out of the car and to the elevator.

As my apartment door closed behind me and I took in the familiar space, I closed my eyes tightly, waiting for the warmth and safety of my home to comfort me.

I found silence rather than comfort, emptiness rather than security. I walked into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of water, my eyes drifting to the pizza stone sitting on the counter, the clean plates and wine glasses from last night next to it. I remembered joking with him in this very room, the stolen kisses and the laughter. I saw us sitting in my living room, his head in my lap as he told me of his love and respect for his father.

My heart ached for how he must be feeling, having disappointed him.

I wiped my damp cheek as another round of silent tears fell.

I made my way to my room, ignoring the photos we spoke of as I passed, the couch we had made love on, and stopped at my bedroom door. The sight of my unmade bed, the tangled sheets and my discarded clothing still forgotten on the floor, was just another physical reminder of how perfect everything had been only hours before.

Moving to the bed, I kicked off my shoes and lay down, my face pressed against the very pillow he had slept on. His scent clung to the soft cotton, bringing with it the ache I always felt when we were apart.

Still dressed but uncaring, I pulled the thick down comforter over me, burying myself in its warmth.

I knew eventually I would get over the embarrassment; I could live with the looks and the questions, but what about Bennett? We'd disagreed in Carlisle's office over how people would react, and it had hurt that he was so quick to disregard my feelings. Could he live with the things people would inevitably say about me? People were going to talk, whether he believed they would or not.

The tears had subsided briefly, my sobs having ebbed into the occasional sigh and sniffle. I huddled into the safety of my bed, Bennett's smell all around me lulling me into a sort of comforting numbness.

My emotions were so conflicted; anger battled fear and dread, each one overtaking me briefly before a shift would occur and my thoughts would wander. I was angry at the man who had used our lives as pawns to prove himself. I was angry at Bennett for his naive optimism that things would work out and even angrier at myself for allowing things to go this far. Looking back, I saw all the foolish mistakes I had made to simply be near him. I should have asked for a transfer or quit or even stayed away.

I traced the delicate chain around my wrist and couldn't help but smile. I'd never be able to stay away. I'd been so scared; worried he would only want me for a physical relationship, thinking I could only be with him as long as I stayed. I had never imagined that he could actually return my feelings.

I thought back to how we'd been this morning; the tender touches, the passionate kisses. The hours of exploring each other's bodies, feeling him inside of me, wrapped in his unwavering embrace. The absolute adoration in his eyes whenever he caught my gaze. I knew he loved me; but would it be enough? Would he tire of the obstacles in our way?

I must have dozed at some point and was awakened by the low beep of my cell phone. Leaning over the edge of the bed, I pulled my purse towards me and retrieved it, five new text messages and four missed calls.

The texts were from Bennett, asking if I was home, making sure I was okay and asking me to call him when I could. The calls were from Angela, and my stomach clenched with anxiety as I wondered why she had called me so many times in the last fifteen minutes.

I called him first, my stomach sinking as it went straight to voicemail. I left a simple message and hung up to call Angela, jumping as the phone beeped in my hand, the words 'Angela Weber Work' appearing on the caller ID.

Swallowing loudly, I took a deep breath and answered.

"Oh my God! Chloe! Thank God you picked up. What the hell is going on?" she practically shouted into the phone.

"Hi, Angela," I answered timidly.

"Chloe, what's going on? Mr. Ryan is in with his brother and…" She paused and I knew it was worse than I thought. I could only imagine what he was facing in there.

"I can hear bits and pieces and…Chloe," her voice dropped, her tone apologetic. "They're talking about you."

"I know," I replied softly, surprised by how strange it felt to not deny it.

"Chloe?" she asked uncertainly, her voice more hesitant now.

"God, Angela, I'm so sorry. I never wanted to lie to you." My voice shook and I bit my lip, terrified of what she would think of me when she knew. "Um…Bennett and I-"

"Bennett?" she said incredulously.

"Yes, Bennett and I, we've been…seeing each other." I lowered my head slightly, wishing that it hadn't taken something as drastic as this for her to find out.

"What? Oh my god, Chloe," she said in a gentle, sympathetic voice. I could almost envision her face in my head, her fingertips pressing against her lips, her eyes wide in astonishment… her disappointment.

"I know," I whispered, unable to bring my voice to a clearly audible level. "I'm so sorry, Angela."

"Chloe, you don't have to apologize to me. I'm your friend, regardless of what else is going on." I realized again how lucky I was to have her in my life.

"Thank you. You have no idea how much that means to me." A sharp knock came from the living room." Listen, Angela, I have to go. Someone's here, but I promise to call you later."

We said our goodbyes and I walked down the hall to the door, surprised to be faced with a man holding a huge vase of the most beautiful pink flowers I'd ever seen.

"Chloe Mills?"

"Yes?"

He nodded and handed me a clip board. I signed quickly, handing it back to him and taking the flowers in exchange.

"Thank you," I said absentmindedly, shutting the door.

I inhaled deeply as I walked into the kitchen, the delicate scent of orchids and calla lilies filling the large room. Placing the vase on the counter, I began looking for the card.

My heart raced as I opened the small envelope tucked inside the profuse blooms, my mind temporarily unfocused on my problems. I bit my lip nervously, unabashedly excited at the prospect that he might have sent me flowers.

Pour la femme de mes reves.

For the woman of my dreams.

Love, Your BB

I couldn't help but smile softly as I read the card, shaking my head at the way he'd slipped in my nickname for him.

For the woman of my dreams.

Those words would have filled me with such joy this morning, but now, as beautiful and heartfelt as they were, they struck a chord of anxiety in my chest. Leaning in again, I inhaled deeply, letting the sweet scent wash over me, thankful for this small moment of respite.

Replacing the card, I moved the vase to my dining room table and sat in contemplative silence, wondering how he always seemed to know exactly what I needed.

I'd been feeling apprehensive about his feelings, and he had somehow found a way to tell me he loved me in the exact moment I needed him to.

I'd been worried about my place in his life, and without a big show or unnecessary words, he'd given me his bracelet as I'd slept.

Even now as I worried about my future, disappointed in myself and how I had hurt the people around me, he'd somehow managed to bring a smile to my face.

Glancing at the time again, I groaned. There was no way I could sit here and wait to see what was happening. I needed a distraction and debated my options, finally deciding on a drive to take my mind off things.

I drove to the outskirts of the city, the windows down, the music up, and thought about everything that had happened. Was it really only hours ago that I had been on this same road with him? I thought over our conversation, the way he'd lost his temper as I mentioned David and the way I'd yelled back in return. I remembered the way he'd pressed me against the window in his office and the way my body had reacted despite my anger.

I remembered the way he'd taken me on his desk, each of us so lost in the other that we'd forgotten the world existed outside of us. He'd asked me to go to Paris and initially I'd been thrilled, but as he mentioned Christmas time, I realized that he still planned on things being a secret months from now.

Had I thought that far ahead? I'd needed time, but what were my plans for telling everyone? Had I envisioned us still being a secret? I shook my head as I realized that wouldn't be a consideration now.

Everyone would know soon. I could only pray that we were strong enough together to survive it.

An hour later, the elevator doors opened and I saw him at the end of the hall. He was muttering to himself, his jacket and tie on the floor, his hands running nervously through his hair as he paced in front of my door. How long had he been here?

I got within ten feet of him when he stopped, turning suddenly and clearing the distance between us in only a few steps to take me in hisarms. "Chloe," he breathed, his lips pressing into my hair as he held me close.

I hummed in response, my body relaxing instantly against him as I wrapped my arms around his neck.

Closing my eyes, I gave myself to the moment; relishing in the feel of his hard body pressed against mine, the way he smelled and the rightness of being in his arms. He lifted me slightly, my feet leaving the ground as we embraced. I felt his heart pound against my chest, his warm breath in my hair and his fingers as they traced small circles where he held me.

"I love you," I sighed and placed a kiss against his neck as he slowly lowered me to the floor.

His hand held the back of my head as his eyes searched my face. I tried to read his expression. He seemed anxious, his brows knitted and his jaw locked, and it did nothing to calm the sense of unease looming over me. I placed my palm on his face, my thumb lightly smoothing the crease in his brow. I exhaled, a small sense of relief washing over me as I felt his features soften under my touch.

"Thank you," he said quietly. I nodded, understanding that he was thanking me for more than my declaration of love.

"You're welcome," I answered, my breath hitching as his thumb traced my bottom lip, his gaze falling to my mouth.

In small, almost tentative movements, he leaned into me, his soft lips brushing against mine for the briefest of moments before pulling away. He hesitated, our mouths hovering just a breath apart, his chest rising and falling in time with mine.

He breathed into my mouth and I shivered, his lips so close I could taste them, his breath warm and sweet on my tongue. I sensed a moment of uncertainly and moved to pull back, wanting to look into his eyes and question him. His grip tightened, a minute shake of his head causing me to relent.

"Stay," he murmured into my mouth, tilting his head, his lips sweeping over mine.

Without a word, I could sense that something had changed. He was hesitant, treating me as if I might break or run away. My anxiety increased, my mind racing with the possibilities of what could have happened.

"Ben-" I started to question, the edge of panic already evident in that one small word. His other hand moved to cup my face, his thumb moving between us to press against my lips.

"Shh. Can we…can we just be us?" he whispered, pressing a tender kiss to the corner of my mouth.

"For just a little while? I promise, I will tell you everything," he paused, his head tilting to brush his lips softly along mine. "But right now, I need to have this. Please."

His simple plea broke through my worry and I lifted up onto my toes, closing the small distance between us to press my lips fully to his. He moaned softly at the contact, increasing the pressure but never deepening the kiss. I felt cradled in his hands, his love and adoration evident even now in the chaste and gentle way his lips pressed against mine.

He pulled away slowly, pressing one final kiss against my forehead before meeting my eyes.

"Can we go inside?"

"Of course," I whispered, kissing him softly once more. "Are you okay?"

Nodding, he motioned towards the doorway, picking up his tie and jacket from the floor. He stood behind me then, taking my hand as I unlocked the door. He walked inside and tossed his jacket to the chair, leading us wordlessly to the couch, sitting with his back against the armrest and his long legs stretching out along the cushions. Guiding me down, I crawled into his lap, my head resting in the crook of his neck. I sighed as he wrapped his arms around me, his long fingers idly toying with the strands of my ponytail.

I closed my eyes and tried to enjoy his closeness, pushing aside all the worries and frustrations for the moment.

His pulse thrummed beneath my ear, my body rising and falling softly with each breath as we sat in comfortable silence. Placing a kiss on my nose, his fingers moved down my side, resting on the expanse of skin visible above my waistband. I shivered slightly, a path of goose bumps following his touch as he moved under my shirt to my ribs and back down. He drew lazy circles on my back as I toyed with the buttons on the front of his shirt, my hand curving to the muscle and smooth planes of his chest and abdomen.

"Why do you love me?" he asked quietly.

I frowned slightly, surprised by his question.

"Because you let me be who I am and love me because of it," I whispered against his neck. "You're brilliant and kind. You love your family without question. You're funny and sexy. You make me feel beautiful and smart," I paused, placing a small kiss below his ear. "You make me want to be everything for you."

His breathing stopped and he swallowed, the muscles in his neck flexing against my lips.

"You are everything to me," he countered, moving to look into my eyes. "You know that, right?"

"I do," I answered honestly. I knew we had so far to go, so many things to overcome, but his love was something I no longer questioned.

"Chloe," he began, turning his body into me slightly and pulling my head back down to his shoulder.

"It wasn't my intention to demean your concerns earlier. I would never do that, I just…this isn't how I wanted people to find out about us," he said tenderly, his voice apologetic. He had removed my ponytail, one hand now running through my hair, while the other brushed up and down my arm.

"I know," I said softly, my fingers dipping into the open collar of his shirt, skimming along the light dusting of hair. Despite how our tempers often got the better of us, I knew in my heart that he hadn't meant to be condescending.

"I think this can be a good thing, Chloe."

"A good thing?" I asked confused, not understanding how he could possibly see this as being a good thing.

"Yes, we won't have to hide anymore." I felt my frustration ebb with his words as I imagined the possibility. "Things can just be normal."

"What does normal mean? We've never done normal before. Do we even know how?" I questioned, a hint of fear seeping into my voice.

"We've done normal, we've just always hidden it," he said softly, his lips brushing my cheek. I nodded, understanding what he meant. My chest ached as I remembered the quiet moments we'd shared, watching movies together, cooking dinner, learning about the other-moments just like this.

I wanted a lifetime of those.

"And I know this upset you earlier," he began tentatively. "But you don't need that job. I can take care of you."

"I don't want you to have to take care of me," I countered, my tone edged in frustration. "I want to succeed on my own. I realize it may not seem like a career to you, but my job is important to me."

He brushed a piece of loose hair behind my ear and sighed.

"I know that, baby, and I understand," he said, his hand moving to rest on my hip. "But I don't think people will react the way you think they will."

"How can you say that?" I asked, pushing him away slightly to sit up. "Bennett, you may not think that people are going to talk, but you're wrong. You need to prepare yourself for it instead of living in this dream world where you assume everyone will be happy that we love each other."

His face contorted slightly as he sat up and turned toward me. "I'm not naive, Chloe. I know not everyone will understand, but I really don't think it will be as bad as you think."

"Bennett, you need to take a step back. Put yourself on the outside and think of how you would react seeing two people in our situation. Think about how you would see him; think about what your opinion would be of her. Your perspective comes from sitting in your big office, as a man."

"What is that supposed to mean?" he asked through narrowed eyes, his tone sharp and bordering on anger.

"What it means is that you're a man and I'm a woman. The world is going to judge us by two different standards, Bennett. No matter what. Because you're an important man, you'll always be known as the guy who slept with his secretary. It's such a minor executive cliche that it's not even worth judgement anymore."

I could feel myself getting angrier by the second, no longer because of the situation, but because of his casual dismissal of it.

"And because I'm the woman, I'll always be known as the gold digging whore who slept with her boss to get ahead."

"So in turn, you're saying that because I'm a man, you don't think it's possible that I could be equally as embarrassed by this as you are?" He glared at me, his chest heaving and his expression furious.

I flinched, not having ever considered that he could be embarrassed by this as well.

He stood and began pacing the room, his hands moving roughly into his hair.

"I understand that you're upset, but I just…" he stopped in front of my fireplace and picked up the frame containing the photo of his parents and I. "You can't allow other people to drive a wedge between what we have."

"I'm not allowing anything," I said, standing as well. "But I want you to be prepared, you need to be prepared. Because eventually, someone somewhere is going to say something, whether it's to you or behind your back or even to me about what happened. Someone is going to call me a whore or call my integrity into question, and I need to be sure that you can handle that. Because regardless of what you think, it will happen. I've seen it happen in this very company. I don't understand why you're not getting it. Is it because you really don't see it or you don't want to? Because honestly, the fact that you aren't even trying to understand is what is hurting me the most right now!"

"Chloe, that's not what I meant at all," he started, but I instantly cut him off.

"How am I ever going to face your parents again? What about my father? Or your brother?" I shot back, angry tears beginning to build in my eyes. "Judging from your face, I assume that conversation didn't go over well."

His forehead creased and he eyed me questioningly, his hand coming up to rub along a faint bruise forming on his jaw. "How did you know I talked to him?"

"Angela called," I replied pointedly. "And that's another thing. How am I ever going to walk back into that building again? Look my colleagues, my friends in the eye, and not feel their judgments being laid down upon me? How will you? Regardless of what we feel for each other, it's not going to matter in the grand scheme of things, Bennett. Not to them. It will always be the boss and his secretary.

Always."

"And you're just thinking of this now, Chloe?" he retorted, driving his hands into his hair in frustration only to have them fall roughly to his sides a moment later.

"I knew from that very first time that all this could happen, but imagining it and living it are two very different things. That's why you have to be prepared, and I need to know that you won't let this drive a wedge between us…that you won't tire of the looks or the whispers and decide it's not worth it."

I wiped at my eyes angrily, attempting to brush away the tears that were now falling down my face.

"I don't want to be the next Rachel," I cried, a sob breaking in my chest. "I don't want to be the one you tell the next woman about with no other explanation than 'it just ended' ."

He flinched, his face contorting as if he'd been slapped. Exhaling deeply, his eyes fell to the floor. We stood apart from each other in silence. My body trembled with repressed emotions. When he looked up, his face had paled, his features tensed.

"Chloe, I…" he said quietly, his voice weak and shaking slightly.

"No," I snapped, shaking my head. "I can't do this right now. You need to go to your parents and deal with this and I…" I paused, feeling myself tremble, a deep sigh shuddering through me. "I just need some time."

He nodded, his gaze locked with mine, his jaw clenched. "Can I come back over tonight?"

Pain ripped through me, nearly taking my breath away. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"Okay," he answered quietly. "If that's what you want."

It wasn't what I wanted. What I wanted more than anything was to run into his arms and feel comforted by his touch. But I couldn't. Not talking, not thinking was how we'd ended up like this to begin with.

We stood for another moment before he walked over and picked up his jacket, stopping next to me on his way to the door. His fingers brushed my arm and moved down to my hand.

"I love you, Chloe," he said softly.

"Loving you isn't the problem," I answered, my eyes on the floor. He leaned in and kissed the side of my head, his lips lingering in my hair. I closed my eyes, another fresh wave of tears spilling from beneath my lids, and I bit my lip to keep myself from stopping him.

With a resigned sigh, he straightened and walked to the door, closing it softly behind him.

The quiet click of the latch seemed to echo throughout my empty apartment.

I stood feeling as if I were rooted to the spot after he'd left, the tears falling silently down my cheeks. I swayed slightly, exhaustion and despair threatening to overwhelm me. Walking slowly to the door, I turned the lock and pressed my cheek against the cool wood.

The elevator chimed from down the hall and I heard the doors open. Closing my eyes tightly, a sob shook my body as I pictured him stepping inside and disappearing from my sight. The succession of chimes filtered through the door again signaling it's decent to the lobby.

I walked quickly to my room, stumbling as I tried to see through my teary vision, and collapsed on my bed. Once again I buried myself under the blankets and cried myself to sleep.

Some time later, I awoke. With closed eyes, my hand slid along the cool sheets out of habit, recoiling instantly as I felt only the empty spot beside me. In that moment, reality slipped quickly back into my consciousness and I rolled onto my side, pulling my knees up to my chest.

I was unsure of the time, the sun having gone down and my room now blanketed in darkness and moonlight. My throat was sore, my mouth dry, and my face left raw from my unending tears. My body shook in the silence, my blurry eyes attempting to focus on the flashing red light from across the room. With a heavy sigh, I reluctantly crawled out of bed and picked up my phone, taking it with me back under the covers. My chest shuddered as I wiped my eyes with the sheet and pressed the message icon on my Blackberry.

Message after message from Bennett waited for me, some in English and some in French, but all bringing another wave of fresh tears with them.

6:32 pm – I still remember the first moment I realized I loved you.

6:44 pm – I know I've kept things from you. I'll tell you everything. Please give me the chance.

7:14 pm – Je ne peux pas vivre sans toi.

I copied and pasted the message into my browser to translate: "I can't live without you."

8:26 pm – Je suis a toi.

I didn't need the translation as I remembered the countless times he'd said it to me. " I am yours."

9:12 pm – I want to be your everything too.

9:35 pm – I'm sorry. I understand now.

10:07 pm – Je vais t'aimer toujours.

I translated again and choked back a sob as I read the words, "I am going to love you forever."

10:32 pm – Please say you still love me.

Running my finger along the screen, it broke my heart to imagine the desperation he must have felt as he typed those words. I loved him wholly, with every fiber of my being and every breath that I took. He consumed my body and every thought I had. The prospect of my life without him was crippling.

I looked at the time, the last message had been sent twelve minutes ago. He would be up, waiting for me to respond.

Would he really tell me everything? Did he really understand? I rolled over in bed and looked out into the darkness, my phone cradled against me. For the first time, a spark of hope ignited in my chest.

I loved him, absolutely. I knew in my heart that there would never be anyone else for me.

I thought back to Alice's words. Was he worth risking everything?

Without a doubt.

Even before realizing that I loved him, I'd known that my life had been forever changed. I'd always known and accepted that when he was gone, he would take my heart with him.

Closing my eyes, I remembered the way he'd asked why I loved him, the timid and unsure tone of his voice that I'd never heard before. I thought back to my answers, feeling the truth of them even now.

Glancing at the clock again, I considered sending him a text. Maybe I could call him, or even… I pictured the look of surprise on his face as he opened the door to find me there, the way he would take me in his arms and kiss me. I sat up, the ache in my chest already beginning to recede. Reaching for his pillow, I held it to me, closing my eyes and inhaling deeply. His scent still clung to the material and I remembered how it felt to lay next to him, his warm skin pressed against my naked body, the way he touched me and whispered tenderly in the dark.

I reread his texts, and my mind was made up.

I would go to him. I would tell him I wanted to be his, for as long as he wanted.

Climbing out of bed, I washed my face and brushed my hair, putting my phone in my purse before stepping out the door. I made it to my car and pulled out of the garage, thankful for the light traffic at this hour. In no time flat I was pulling up, returning a small smile as the doorman greeted me and opened the door for me to proceed inside.

My nerves began to get the better of me as I passed through the gleaming bronze elevator doors.

Pressing the button for his floor, I retrieved my phone again and reread his texts, attempting to reassure myself that I was doing the right thing. The lift came to a stop, and I took a final calming breath before stepping out into the elegant, brightly lit hallway.

I stopped abruptly at the sight before me.

Just down the hall, he stood outside his door, his hands holding the face of a beautiful blonde woman.

I blinked several times, sure that this couldn't be real, hoping a different sight awaited me each time I opened them. My mind told me there had to be an explanation, there was no way this could be what it appeared to be, but my heart… I saw that she had been crying, but these were happy tears. She smiled at him adoringly, and he smiled back.

They whispered to each other in French and I watched as he brought her left hand to his mouth, placing a single kiss on the back of her fingers. She leaned in and whispered, his arms wrapped around her, their bodies rocking back and forth in the quiet hallway, oblivious to me or anything else around them

My vision clouded as I watched their tender embrace, the way her hands moved through his hair and how he buried his face into her neck.

I shook my head as numbness crept over me. I hadn't realized I'd moved until my back pressed against the interior of the elevator. With shaky fingers I blindly pressed buttons, the doors closing quietly, taking them from my line of sight. I reached for my glasses and wiped my wet face with trembling hands, barely noticing the sound of them dropping to the carpet.

The silence surrounded me, the only sound being the hum of the elevator as it moved through the shaft.

Was I breathing?

The doors opened and I stepped out.

"Ms. Mills?" A voice called to me. "Miss, are you okay?"

I shook my head and waved it off, continuing to my car.

Pulling out of the garage, I made a left turn and headed down the empty street, moving as if on autopilot. I swiped my key card and pulled into the spot labeled 'Chloe Mills' for what would be the last time.

The lobby was empty as I made my way across the glossy floors to the familiar gold elevator, my mind focused on only one task.

The art deco light fixtures were dimmed, round pools of light stretched along the carpet. My mind drifted to another night like this. I recalled hurried steps, my arms full of spreadsheets, and my focus on the man I knew would be waiting in the conference room down the hall.

Unlocking my office, I stepped inside, turning on the small lamp that sat on my desk. My eyes scanned the room, seeing moments instead of things.

With a deep breath, I crossed the room to his office, the scent of wood and leather and him filling the air. The city lights of Chicago shone through the large windows and I walked determinedly into his bathroom, removing an empty box from the shelf over his dry cleaning I knew would be there. As I turned to leave, my eyes fell to a ball of discarded cotton behind the trash can. Bending to retrieve it, a searing pain crept through my chest, spreading out until it nearly consumed me.

I held his shirt in my hands, my fingers touching the lose threads where the buttons had been torn loose. Without thinking, I brought it to my nose and inhaled deeply, taking him in. Eyes burning with unshed tears, I wiped at my cheeks out of pure habit.

I fought with myself to toss his shirt aside, to do the smart thing just this once and push him away, but I knew I couldn't. With a defeated sigh, I stood, carefully folding the material and stepping out of the bathroom.

Without another glance, I returned to my desk. The shirt was the first thing to go inside the box, quickly followed by the contents of my drawers.

"Chloe?"

I jumped and turned quickly, my stomach dropping to see Carlisle standing in the open doorway. He looked tired, his impeccably groomed appearance, so much like his son's, slightly disheveled. His jaw was clenched, a deep crease stood between his brows, and a pained expression on his face.

"Carlisle," I began sheepishly, my gaze downcast. I couldn't look at him; I couldn't stand to see the disappointment in his eyes. "I didn't think anyone would be here."

"Chloe," he sighed, crossing the room to stand in front of me. "I think we need to talk."