Unbuttoning the ceo, p.15

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 15

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series

 

Unbuttoning the CEO
 


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  Ethan leaned on the door and rested his head against it. She might not forgive him. Then what? He’d plead, grovel, and beg for her forgiveness. And he’d convince her that he was committed to being a permanent fixture in her life.

  Minutes passed. Still there was no sign of her. He cupped his hands and blew on them, inwardly cursing the bite of the December wind. Then Gracie’s lithe form appeared. He watched her approach. His heart thumped a steady drum against his chest, and his stomach muscles tightened. She wore large, black-framed sunglasses, a red three-quarter-length trench coat, and a frown that suggested she wanted to squeeze his balls until he sang like a soprano.

  He pushed off the door and gave her space to pass.

  She didn’t acknowledge his presence. Instead, she opened the alarm panel and entered her entry code. The lock on the door clicked, and then she swung the door open and slipped inside.

  He’d just closed the door behind him when she rounded on him. “What the hell are you doing here?”

  “I called. All weekend. You didn’t answer. This was the only way.”

  She rolled her eyes, turned around, and stomped toward her office.

  This wouldn’t be easy.

  * * *

  Gracie wanted to feed her anger. Ratchet up her annoyance. Throw something at him. A vase. A stapler. Anything. She wanted her anger to fester, because she didn’t want to cry in his presence. Not over him.

  She struggled out of her trench and threw it on the guest chair. Behind her, his footsteps slowed. The click of the door assured them of privacy. She turned around and surveyed him, taking in his motionless form, the rigid set of his jaw, and the eyes that refused to gaze in her direction. With his shoulders lowered and his hands in his back pockets, his broad chest emerged as his dominant physical feature. She’d laid her head on that chest just days ago. Even now, the pull between them worked its way into her psyche, reminding her of his sexual appeal.

  She chastised herself for being drawn to him. Then she swallowed and channeled her inner bitch. “Ethan, Nic, whoever you are. There’s nothing to discuss. You played me. We fucked. You got caught lying. The end.”

  Ethan closed his eyes as he spoke. “That’s not what this is, and you know it.”

  Gracie seized on his words. “No, Ethan. I don’t know it. I don’t know you. Until Friday, I didn’t know your name. My God, Ethan. I shouted a fake name in the middle of an orgasm. How the hell do you think that makes me feel? How do you suppose we move beyond that?”

  He opened his eyes and his gaze bored into hers. “It’s not a fake name. My full name is Nicholas Ethan Hill. I stopped using Nicholas in professional circles a long time ago. Yes, you didn’t know I was Ethan Hill, but you knew everything else. Everything I told you about my family, about my upbringing, about my hopes and dreams, all of that was true.”

  “Everything except your real name and the identity of the company you work for. The company that, had I not had my head so far up my ass, I would have asked to support LTN. Tell me this, was it your idea to work at LTN as Nicholas?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why?” she asked.

  “It was important to the board. I’d been in the press before, when I was at my previous company. I was trying to leave that part of my life behind.”

  “You’re not a household name, Ethan.”

  “No, I’m not. But in the circles that matter to my company, I am. It’s a small, competitive world that thrives on weaknesses within a company. I strive hard not to be a source of my company’s weakness.”

  “So this is all about the company, to protect the company.”

  “Yes. No.” He swiped a hand down his face. “I don’t know.”

  “But you could have told me, right?”

  “Yes.”

  “So either you didn’t trust me or you didn’t care enough about me to tell me who you are.”

  “That’s not fair. Look at this from my perspective. Until Friday, we’d agreed to have a no-strings affair. We said there’d be no looking back after we went our separate ways.”

  “That’s your excuse? That we wouldn’t see each other again? Did it ever occur to you that years from now, as I looked back on this interlude, I would want to know the identity of the man who’d given me more than a dozen orgasms?”

  “I was going to tell you.”

  He might as well have slapped her. Did he think she was an idiot? “Ethan, it doesn’t matter what you intended to do. What matters is what you did do. And what you did do is lie to me for reasons that are, at worst, asinine, and at best, misguided. But in the end, you lied. And you compromised my ability to seek funding from Media Best. I gave you a task, Ethan. Give me a list of the companies who might be interested in LTN’s work. Simple. But Media Best wasn’t on the list you gave me, right? Now I know why. Not a good idea to ask your lover’s company for money, don’t you think?” She rubbed her temples. “God. Had I known your true identity, this relationship would not have happened.”

  When he closed his eyes again, Gracie’s stomach twisted at the realization that he was well aware of that fact. She stumbled back, needing to distance herself from him. “Is that the real reason you didn’t tell me who you are? You didn’t want to compromise your ability to get in my bed? Or did you think I’d use you for the money? Become a gold digger you’d have to fend off?”

  Ethan strode toward her and grabbed her arms, bringing her flush against him. “That’s enough. Don’t cheapen what we had together. Don’t do this.”

  “We didn’t have much together, Ethan. It was cheap the minute you became intimate with me knowing I didn’t have a clue who you really were.”

  “Gracie—”

  “Listen to me, Ethan. This is your issue, not mine. You need to figure out why you’re so good at being something you’re not. I really want that for you. But as for us, there is nothing you could say that would change the fact that we’re over.” She wrenched herself from his grasp and faced her window. “I’ll be away on vacation for two weeks. If you care about me at all, you will use that time to complete as many service hours as you can. The assistant director in New York will be here and can certify your hours. With any luck, you can be done within a month. The sooner you’re gone, the better.”

  “Gracie—”

  She spun around. “Ethan, don’t make this harder than it already is. If you could manage to think about someone other than yourself, just once, you’ll do as I’ve asked.”

  They stared at each other, neither wanting to back down.

  Finally, he spoke. “I’ll go. But I’d like a chance to explain. Maybe someday you’ll be ready to listen to me. I’ll wait.”

  As she watched him leave her office, Gracie stifled the tears that begged to fall. He could wait all he wanted, but doing so would be a waste of his time.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  The occasional bang of pots and pans interrupted Gracie’s fitful sleep. Why was she even trying to sleep? She wasn’t going to get a decent night’s rest for a long time.

  She stared at the pale yellow ceiling above her childhood bed and wished she were anywhere but here. The bed provided no comfort, and the whimsical toys she’d played with as a child mocked her current mood. Most of all, her father’s cheerful whistle, which accompanied his movements in the kitchen below, grated her. Her pain was her father’s gain. Or so he thought.

  She’d returned to Queens only two days ago. After a long talk with her mother, she’d shut herself in her old room, claiming she wasn’t feeling well. Her mother now knew what had transpired between Gracie and Ethan. And Gracie had told her about LTN’s troubles. Her mother, as usual, implored her to assess what had happened and figure out a way to move forward. That was the goal, of course. But it wouldn’t be easy to achieve.

  She was sure her mother had shared everything with her father. Gracie decided she couldn’t avoid the inevitable conversation with her father, the one in which he told her that her ordeal was a sign that she should return home
and take steps toward starting a family.

  She lifted the comforter and slowly rose from the bed. After brushing her teeth and using the bathroom, she trudged down the stairs and joined her father in the kitchen.

  Hector Ramirez shuffled around the kitchen in striped pajama bottoms and a Mets T-shirt. His dark brown hair, which still held its youthful luster, stood up in several directions. He wore glasses, which did nothing to improve his eyesight. He squinted as he read the side of a box of pancake mix.

  Gracie sighed and sat down at the kitchen table. “Good morning.”

  He lowered his head and regarded her over the top of his glasses. “Buenos dias, Graciela. Would you like a cup of coffee? I just made some.”

  “Sure, Papi. That would be great.” Despite her words, she’d failed to inject any enthusiasm into her voice.

  Her father turned and searched for a coffee mug. Mug in hand, he poured her a cup of coffee and set it on the table. “I’m making pancakes.”

  “You?”

  A playful grin spread across his face. “Yes, me. I can cook, you know.”

  That grin irked her. Really irked her. “That’s a change. For the better, I mean.”

  Her father ignored her comment and measured the pancake mix. Gracie, meanwhile, added cream and sugar to her coffee. “Go ahead, Dad. I know you want to talk about it.”

  He father stopped mixing the batter. “What do you think I want to talk about?”

  “The reason I’m here. The reason I’ve been holed up in my old room.”

  Her father nodded, crossed the room, and joined her at the table. “Your mother told me what happened, yes. Graciela, I don’t know what to think. This man. Is it serious?”

  “I thought it was. But it turns out he was living a lie.”

  “A big strike against him. Has he explained why he lied?”

  “He tried. But I wasn’t really listening. And the excuse sounded like horseshit to me.” Her father’s ears turned red. “Sorry,” she said.

  He waved away her apology. “But you’re still hurting.”

  Gracie nodded.

  Her father sighed. “I don’t know what to say. But I’ll tell you this, mija. Your mother and I are here for you. You can come home anytime you want. You can stay with us. You don’t have to go back to D.C. if you don’t want to.”

  His hopeful expression tore her up inside. Gracie chewed on her lip to stem the venomous words at the edge of her lips. What emerged was a lukewarm version of what she really wanted to say to him. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you? What is it that you want exactly? Do you want me to come home so I can spend the rest of my days taking care of you and Mami? Or do you want me to come home and search for a suitable husband who’ll take care of me?”

  Her father crossed his arms over his chest. “There’s nothing wrong with a man taking care of his wife and family, Graciela. I did it.”

  Gracie’s voice shook. “I know there’s nothing wrong with a man taking care of his family. But there’s nothing wrong with a woman taking care of herself, either. Women have choices, Papi. They can choose to work, or they can choose not to. But it’s a choice. You’ve never approved of my choice to pursue a career. And now that my career is on shaky ground, you’re happy. And that makes me incredibly sad. For you. For me. For Karen.”

  “Graciela—”

  “No, Papi. I’ll figure this out on my own. I don’t expect you to understand.”

  * * *

  Gracie’s first week of vacation was almost over. In that week, she’d acquired a moping uniform, which consisted of black sweatpants, a white T-shirt, and a ratty sky blue robe that no longer resembled its former self. But the robe had pockets, an essential accessory for a woman who gorged on M&M’s.

  She slept, watched television, and reacquainted herself with at least a dozen different flavors of ice cream. Even she was annoyed by her glum mood. She couldn’t seem to pull herself out of her self-induced funk, however.

  She knew why. It gave her an excuse to hide from the responsibilities that awaited her in Washington. They wouldn’t go away no matter how much she wished they would. And yes, she had no desire to revisit the moments she shared with Ethan.

  He hadn’t contacted her while she was away. Not that she’d expected him to. Well. That wasn’t entirely true. In fact, she had expected him to, and the fact that he hadn’t only confirmed how little she’d meant to him.

  When she’d begun to talk to the television, she knew she was in trouble. The notion that a man would turn her inside out and reduce her to this idiotic mess baffled her. Who was this woman? Even when she’d learned of Neal’s betrayal, she’d bottled her disappointment and handled the aftermath with dignity. This was different. She was different. But she didn’t want to think about the hows or the whys. The answers would only disappoint her.

  Later that afternoon, when her father came home from work, he took one look at her as she lay on the couch and ordered her to shower.

  Ignoring him, she snuggled into her blanket and reached for the remote. “I showered this morning.”

  Hector Ramirez’s mouth gaped. “Let me get this straight. You showered this morning and dressed in that getup?”

  “Sure did,” she said.

  He strode to the couch and grabbed the remote from her. “Graciela, this isn’t you.”

  Gracie righted herself, wincing at the worn slippers that peeked under the blanket’s edge. “Better?”

  He said nothing, so she stared at him. Her father wore his regular electrician’s uniform, a navy polo emblazoned with the company’s logo and gray cargo pants. His electrician’s license had put food on their table. And at Christmastime, their house was the brightest spot on the tree-lined block. He’d been her hero when she was young, but over the years, and after she’d left home in particular, their views had clashed in important ways.

  After several ticks of silence, he ambled toward her and hit the side of her thigh, motioning for her to give him space on the couch. He sat down, twisting the baseball cap in his hands. Then he took a deep breath through his nose, causing his chest to rise and fall. “I’m going to tell you something, and I hope you don’t get upset with me.”

  “Go on.”

  “We need you to leave.”

  Gracie’s head snapped back. “Excuse me?”

  “It’s time for you to go home. To D.C. The Graciela I know doesn’t mope about a job or a man. The Graciela I know would be in D.C. busting her butt trying to get money for her organization. The Graciela I know wouldn’t stuff her face with junk food over a guy.”

  Gracie heard every word. He was right. But what did he have to gain by pointing out her sorry state? “This is what you want, isn’t it?”

  He sucked his teeth. A very bad habit of his. “No, Graciela. This isn’t what I want for you at all.”

  “What do you want?”

  “I want you to be the best damn director of LTN you can be. I want you to find love. I want grandchildren.”

  “That appears out of the question at the moment.”

  “I don’t mean this minute. When you find the right man. Someone who will treasure you.”

  She’d never heard her father utter anything like this before. There had to be a catch. “What brought all this on?”

  “Your mother.”

  “Mami?”

  “Yes. I don’t need to tell you how persuasive she can be with just a few words. Last night, she asked me what I wanted most for my daughters. And I didn’t have to think about it. I told her I wanted you and Karen to be happy.”

  “And how does that change things?”

  “Look at you, Graciela. You’re not happy, and I have you right where I want you. With just a look, your mother made me realize that I was being selfish. You don’t come home enough, but when you do, you’re glowing, and you’re excited about your job. Karen is, too. Excited about school, I mean. How can I deny my daughters that?”

  “What led to this epiphany? Old age?”

&nbs
p; “See there. That’s the Graciela I know. Look, I’ll be honest. I hate that you live so far away.”

  Gracie sighed. “D.C.’s a train ride away.”

  “That may be true. But when I grew up, the family stayed together. Aunts and uncles lived within minutes of each other. Cousins spent the night on weekends. You and your cousins went off to college, moved beyond the neighborhood. It’s what we wanted for you, but I didn’t realize it would mean I wouldn’t get to see you. I expected my kids to live near me. I expected you’d drop off the grandbabies here so we could spoil them. I’m not going to pretend I love it, but I’m ready to accept it.”

  Her father’s gaze fell to the floor in front of him. Gracie studied the lines on his forehead, noticed the crow’s feet that pinched the skin around his eyes even when he wasn’t smiling. He’d weathered a lot for his family over the years, reinventing himself and learning new skills as the changing economy demanded it. He loved his family, and his resistance to change stemmed from his fear that he was losing his little girls.

  Gracie moved closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder. “I love you.”

  “I love you too, mija.”

  “And you’re never going to lose me. You’ll always be a part of my life. And if I get married—”

  “When you get married . . .”

  Gracie wouldn’t expect anything less of the mule. “If I get married, and if I’m lucky enough to have children, they’ll know their grandfather. And I’ll look the other way when you spoil them rotten. Deal?”

  Her father turned and kissed her on the forehead. “Deal.”

  Gracie threw off the comforter and rose from the couch. “I’m going to buy a train ticket. I’ll leave on Sunday.”

  Hector Ramirez stood and hugged her. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m glad you’re leaving.”

 
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