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Unbuttoning the ceo, p.14

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 14

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series

 

Unbuttoning the CEO
 


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  He rested his forehead against hers. “Not my idea. My sister Emily changed it the last time I was home. I didn’t bother to change it back.” He pulled his phone out of his back pocket and stared at the screen. “It’s Mark. Work interferes again. Listen, I have a work event this evening, but I’d like to see you later tonight. We need to talk.”

  “Talk? Right.”

  “Yes, talk.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “What happens after that is up to you.”

  “Sure. I’ll text you when I get home.”

  “Okay.” He pressed a soft kiss to her lips and stepped back.

  “Have a nice evening, Nic.”

  “I’ll be thinking about you, Gracie.” He spun toward the door and strode out of her office, giving her a final glimpse at his tantalizing backside. Some men were made to wear jeans that sat low on their hips and hugged their thighs. Nic was one of them.

  She shook her head and took a deep breath. Nic wanted to be with her. He wanted to be hers, he’d said. So she was going to give him the chance she asked for. And she wouldn’t lose sight of her priorities in the process. She could have it all, couldn’t she?

  Suddenly, tonight’s awards dinner didn’t seem as ominous. Probably because she had a weekend with Nic to look forward to. The sooner the dinner ended, the sooner she could enjoy her time with Nic.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  Gracie slipped through the doors of the Newseum and searched for signs to the Blakely Awards Dinner. Mimi was right. The dinner would be an appropriate place to begin touting LTN as an organization worthy of donor support. She would mingle with the guests and talk up LTN whenever possible.

  She wished Nic were here with her. Nic. He was addictive. Even now she would have preferred to be in his bed, wrapped in his arms. She had to remember, though, that LTN came first. Her clients needed her, and if she had to spend time away from Nic to save LTN, she would. No question.

  She followed the signs to the awards dinner and entered a stately atrium with a jaw- dropping glass roof. Guests stood in small groups, laughing and talking, while others waited in line to order a drink. Good idea. She needed liquid courage. She was comfortable in social situations, but she preferred to be out of the spotlight. Talking up LTN would require her to grab the attention of strangers. A glass of wine would relax her.

  As she waited in line, a familiar voice whispered in her ear. “Lovely to see you, Graciela. You look beautiful tonight.”

  Gracie smiled, genuinely happy to see Daniel. “Good evening, Daniel. How are you?”

  “Great, now that you’re here. Are you alone?”

  He was handsome. She’d give him that. Daniel was refined and suave. He worked at it, and it showed. Nic, on the other hand, was comfortable in his own skin. He owned who he was. And he didn’t need to put on airs. He was a formidable man. Intelligent. Charming. Strong. Although Daniel possessed many of those qualities, he always seemed to be working at it, whereas, for Nic, those qualities came naturally to him.

  “Mimi’s here,” she told Daniel. “She’s working, though. I’ll be sitting at her table once I find it.”

  She moved to the bar counter when it was her turn. “Do you have a Sauvignon Blanc?” she asked the bartender.

  He nodded and poured her a glass.

  “I’ll have the same,” Daniel told him.

  When they’d received their wine, they moved away from the bar. Her gaze swept the room. Then the lights flickered. “Daniel, I’m going to find my table. Maybe I’ll see you later?”

  “Sure. Save a dance for me.”

  Gracie gave him a noncommittal nod and headed toward the double doors of the ballroom. After she located her place card, she smiled at the young man who handed her a program. He was smartly dressed in a tuxedo. “You look nice,” she told him.

  The young man blushed. “Thank you.”

  Gracie laughed as she wove her way through the tables to find her own. The evening would be a success. She’d make sure of it.

  She’d just found her table when Mimi brushed against her.

  “Gracie, goodness. You look remarkable.”

  Gracie twirled so Mimi could get the full effect of the dress, a one-shouldered red silk gown reminiscent of the glamorous styles Hollywood starlets had made famous in the forties. Gracie’s hair, which she’d curled into loose waves, complemented the dress. “You like?”

  “Like?” Mimi asked. “I love.”

  “You look stunning, too,” Gracie said. And it was true. Mimi’s blond hair was pulled into a stylish chignon, highlighting her elegant neckline. Pearl teardrop earrings were her only accessory. And the black dress, complete with an embroidered bustier, emphasized her sleek physique.

  Mimi’s eyes lit up. “Ah. This old thing. I just threw on whatever was in my closet.”

  Gracie laughed. “Right.”

  Mimi snorted. “I owe you one for being my plus one. C’mon, let’s sit.”

  “Okay.”

  Mimi immediately struck up a conversation with a gentleman to her left while Gracie studied the program. The awards dinner honored individuals and companies that had made significant contributions to the Blakely Fund, which in turn donated money to literacy programs around the country. Mimi was the Fund’s publicist, hence the reason Gracie was able to snag an invitation to the exclusive dinner.

  Media Best was one of the companies being honored. According to the program, Media Best was a leader in Internet software and technologies. She wasn’t familiar with the company and didn’t recall seeing it on the list Nic had prepared. She circled the name and made a mental note to look into the company this weekend.

  Thirty minutes later, Gracie talked with a woman seated next to her. The woman was the vice president of a local bank and expressed interest in LTN’s mission.

  Mimi tugged her arm. “The honors are about to be handed out,” she said. “The person accepting for Media Best is not to be missed.” Then Mimi fanned herself.

  Ah, man candy.

  “How do you know?” Gracie asked.

  “It’s my job to know, remember? This guy’s the CEO of Media Best. Champion of all causes. A man with a bad boy streak and a guilty heart. And he’s not a big fan of being in the limelight, so this is a rare treat. You need to hit him up for a donation.”

  Gracie took a sip of her wine and turned toward the stage. Mimi’s description had sparked her attention. The emcee read a description of Media Best’s interests and its contributions to the Blakely Fund. Impressive. She’d definitely research the company this weekend.

  “Accepting on behalf of Media Best is Ethan Hill,” the emcee said as he encouraged the crowd to clap with him.

  Gracie’s soft clap ended with a gasp. Attempting to reach for her wineglass for fortitude, she knocked it over instead. Her neighbor rose to avoid getting the spilled wine on her dress, and all eyes, including Nic’s, searched for the source of the commotion.

  Gracie apologized, and a waiter swept in to clear the mess. Gracie just sat there. Nic was on the stage. In a tuxedo. That alone confused her, because it was so different from his typical jeans and plaid shirt or sweater, which she’d come to think of as his staple wardrobe. Her brain failed her, unable to connect the moving parts that jumbled in her head. She shook her head as though doing so would help clarify what her mind was unable to process.

  Mimi leaned toward her. “What’s wrong?”

  “I know him.”

  Mimi’s eyebrows shot up. “You do?”

  Gracie’s heart raced, and her stomach rumbled. She had no idea what game he’d been playing, but she knew she’d been duped. By Nic. Ethan. Whatever the hell his name was. “I do. That’s Nic.”

  Mimi’s eyes widened, and a hand flew to her mouth. “Ethan is Nic? Nic is Ethan?”

  “Yes.”

  “Oh, Gracie. I’m sorry. There has to be some reasonable explanation, though.”

  Her brain flashed an image of the paperwork his lawyer had submitted with the court’s brochure about the community
service program. Ethan had been identified as Nicholas E. Hill. He hadn’t misrepresented himself, but he hadn’t been entirely forthcoming, either. “There’s an explanation, but it’s not reasonable. I guarantee it.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  An excellent question to which she had no answer. She took a deep breath as she tried to make sense of it all. And piece by piece disparate parts of the puzzle came together to form a whole. His initial resistance to being in a relationship with her now made sense. His presence at the Kennedy Center to “fulfill an obligation” now made sense. The man on stage today bore a striking resemblance to the stranger she’d seen that evening. She hadn’t known it then, but Nic, not Ethan, had been the impostor all along.

  She winced as she remembered the stupid deal they’d negotiated. Of course, he’d been all in after that. And why not? She’d given him a free pass to walk away after their affair was over. She’d offered him the perfect arrangement: sex without the inconvenience of strings. No hard feelings, she’d promised. No drama, she’d said. To hell with that.

  Gracie’s eyes narrowed. “I’m going to confront him.”

  Mimi laughed. “There’s the fire. This is why we’re best friends. What can I do to help?”

  “I’m not going to confront him just yet. Could you use your feminine powers of persuasion to get the band to play ‘At Last’?”

  Mimi nodded. “Okay, then. I’ll do that and come back here to watch the show.”

  “You do that. I’m going to the restroom to freshen up. Be back soon.”

  As she fled, Gracie tried to shut out the sound of the audience’s applause. Yes, he should take a bow. His Oscar-worthy performance certainly had fooled her.

  * * *

  In the restroom, Gracie paced. She wanted to cry, but a mussed look wouldn’t be appropriate for what she had in mind. What possible reason could he have had to lie to her? They’d made love numerous times. She’d opened up to him about her insecurities, about her job, about her father’s long-standing disapproval of her desire to be a professional in her own right.

  She grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. He’d shared his thoughts, his views on politics, and bits and pieces about his family life. But she knew now that he was holding back the most important piece of information about himself: who he really was.

  She was a fool. A fool who’d almost fallen in love with him. A fool who was paying for her lapse in judgment yet again. Hadn’t she learned anything from her experience with Neal? She didn’t need any more heartache to get the message: Your career will always be there for you, but a man most certainly will let you down. Okay. She finally got it. Yes, she’d move on, and she’d view the man out there as an unfortunate mistake, set aside her time with . . . Nic . . . Ethan . . . She didn’t know what to call him. Shit.

  She grabbed the compact from her clutch and freshened her makeup. With a soft pop of her newly glossed lips, she stormed out of the restroom. Then she searched for Daniel.

  She found him within minutes. He was standing at the outskirts of the dance floor, surrounded by a gaggle of women laughing with him. She didn’t bother to be polite. She simply walked up to him and grabbed his hand. “Sorry, ladies. I need to steal him for a minute.”

  Daniel gaped at her, but he recovered quickly and assumed the commanding pose of the debonair bachelor he purported to be—chest out, legs locked, hands in his pockets. “What’s going on, Gracie?”

  “Look, we’re just friends, right?”

  Daniel chuckled. “Yep. You made that clear in New York.”

  “Okay. Well, now I need your help. I want to make someone jealous. I figure you might be up to the task. But I didn’t want to confuse you with this charade.”

  “No worries, Gracie. I know it’s never going to happen between us.”

  She breathed a sigh of relief. She'd gotten through to him, thank goodness. “Okay.”

  Daniel nodded. “Okay. So what do you need me to do?”

  “I need you to act like we’re together. Dance with me. Nothing overt. I don’t want to make a bad impression with potential colleagues. But something that will stake a claim.”

  Daniel’s lifted an eyebrow. “Mixed signals, much?”

  “Daniel.”

  Daniel sobered and jammed his hands in his pockets. “Okay, okay. I’ll do it. This should be fun.”

  Gracie smirked. He wasn’t bad at all.

  With an elegant flourish, he threaded his fingers through hers. “Shall we dance?”

  Gracie aimed a playful smile in his direction. “I thought you’d never ask.”

  Daniel swept her on to the dance floor. On Mimi’s cue, the band began to play Etta James’s ‘At Last.’ The song was perfect. Daniel wrapped her in his arms, and she laid her head on his shoulder. She squirmed, though, when he began to rub her back.

  “Too much?” he whispered.

  “No, it’s fine. But if you touch my butt, I will knee you in the nuts.”

  “Not the nicest thing to say to a man who’s helping you out. What about a kiss on the jaw. Would that work?”

  “A quick one. No need to overdo it.”

  “Got it.”

  She lifted her head and stared into his eyes. She felt nothing. And she cursed Ethan for making her feel something. Everything. Too much.

  Daniel bent his head and kissed her jaw. Instinct compelled her to close her eyes.

  A voice behind her cleared his throat. She turned and there he was. Nic. Ethan. The reminder that she’d been calling him by another name—in bed, too—incensed her. The tension in his jaw mirrored the tension between them. His eyes flashed in anger. Was she supposed to understand the reason for his deceit from that look alone? She thought not. She wasn’t the one in the wrong here, but his clenched jaw suggested he thought otherwise. Damn him.

  Gracie wanted to run, but she stood her ground. She refused to reveal how much he’d hurt her. She edged closer to Daniel and linked her arm with his. Ethan’s gaze darted from their linked arms to her face.

  Somehow she managed to pretend his revelation hadn’t shocked her. “Mr. Hill, congratulations,” she said. “Your company’s charitable contributions are impressive.”

  He relaxed the squint in his eyes and held out his hand. “May I speak with you, Gracie?”

  She ignored his hand and lifted her chin a notch. “I don’t think so, Mr. Hill. I don’t know you very well, do I?”

  His head whipped back as though she’d sucker-punched him. Lips pressed tightly together, he dropped his outstretched hand. “Fine. I’ll follow up with you soon. This isn’t the place. But we will talk.”

  Daniel grabbed her hand, raised it to his mouth, and kissed it. “C’mon, Graciela. Let’s head out. I’d like to get you away from here.”

  Ethan’s jaw froze, and the hands at his sides clenched into fists. He stepped close to Daniel and ground out his words in a scratchy tone. “She’s mine, whether she knows it or not. There will be no scraps, no leftovers, no nothing. There’s nothing left of her she could give you. I have it all. She knows it. I know it. You should know it, too.”

  What the hell? When had she morphed into a piece of beef jerky? In that moment, she hated him. She hated him so much her body trembled from his proximity. “Okay, that’s enough,” she said to Ethan. With a practiced smile, she turned to Daniel. “Let’s go.”

  Daniel shrugged his shoulders and sneered at Ethan. “The lady has spoken.” Then he draped his arm around Gracie’s shoulders and led her to the doors of the ballroom.

  As she and Daniel walked away, Daniel whispered, “Is that what you needed?”

  “Yes, that was perfect. Thanks.”

  Daniel followed her out the door, his comforting hand resting lightly on her back. Gracie took several steps and paid no attention to her surroundings. Instead, she recalled the tick in Ethan’s jaw and marveled at the man’s gall. He’d hidden his role at Media Best. It was bad enough that he’d hidden such an important part of his life from her. But she
suspected there was more to the story, a reason he didn’t want her to know about his connection to the company.

  Yes, they’d talk. But they’d do it on her terms. And her terms required her to sob in private, until she could face him without any emotion. She planned to wring her eyes dry of any tears, so she could excise him out of her life forever without him knowing how much he’d hurt her.

  She reached into her clutch for her phone, but Mimi was right behind her.

  “Need to stay at my place for the weekend?” Mimi asked.

  Gracie’s heart swelled. Ethan’s betrayal made her appreciate Mimi’s loyalty more than ever. “Yes,” she whispered as she wiped away a tear.

  Mimi hugged her. Then Mimi turned to Daniel. “I’ve got it from here, Daniel.”

  The light in Daniel’s eyes dimmed. “Fine,” he said to Mimi. “Take care, Gracie. Hope you’re okay.” He strode away.

  Shielding Gracie from inquiring eyes that noticed the distress on her face, Mimi led her to the elevator that would take her away from the travesty of this night.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  The Monday after the charity awards fiasco, Ethan stood outside LTN’s doors, checking his watch. The wind howled, and the force of it against his cheeks chased away his lingering grogginess. He hadn’t slept well over the weekend. When he tried, the disappointment that flashed across Gracie’s face would appear in his dreams and stir him to wake.

  Where was she?

  She’d ignored the voice mail messages he’d left her over the weekend. She’d ignored his insistent banging on her apartment door. But she couldn’t ignore him here.

  Before his evening had turned to shit on Friday, Ethan had planned to tell Gracie everything. He’d known she’d be angry, but he’d hoped she would come to understand the reasons for his deception.

  Unfortunately, his chance to volunteer that information had evaporated the minute she’d seen him on that stage. He’d smiled for the cameras, accepted the award on behalf of Media Best, and thanked the audience for its support of the company’s charitable endeavors. All the while, Gracie had been in that audience, shocked by the revelation that the man she was dating was Ethan Hill, CEO of Media Best. Ethan couldn’t fault her for being angry.

 
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