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Unbuttoning the ceo, p.16

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 16

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series

 

Unbuttoning the CEO
 


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  Gracie smiled. Sure, he wasn’t comfortable with the physical distance between them, but it was something he would have to get used to. She was committed to making Washington, D.C., her home.

  Her father was right. She could have a career and a family; she didn’t have to give up one to have the other. It wouldn’t happen today. Not even tomorrow. But someday. Given the dismal state of her love life, though, someday was probably a long time from now.

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  Ethan sat in his office chair and stared out the window. He’d pummeled the stress ball in his hands to no avail, so instead he simply tossed it up and caught it repeatedly.

  A quick tap at his door elicited a growl low in his throat. “What?” he said.

  Mark stuck his head through the door. The rest of him followed despite Ethan’s best death stare.

  Mark stood before him and grabbed the stress ball in midair. With his second best death stare of the day, Ethan reached into his desk drawer and withdrew another stress ball. He smiled at Mark and tossed the ball in the air.

  “I’ve never argued with the fact that you have plenty of balls,” Mark said.

  Ethan grimaced. “What do you need, Mark?”

  Mark set the stress ball on Ethan’s desk and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Two things. One. The staff is running scared. Your assistant, for one, thinks you’re going to blow her head off. And two, said assistant mentioned you’re going on a trip. To Vegas.”

  “I’m not going to blow her head off, and Vegas is none of your business.”

  Mark sat down. “That’s where you’re wrong. Vegas is trouble. Trouble for you. And trouble for me, because I’ll be the one to have to bring your sorry ass back from whatever gutter you find yourself in.”

  “I’m just going for the weekend. I need to get away.”

  “Ethan, are we going to pretend those three years didn’t happen? The gambling? The booze? The women? What happens in Vegas is going to get your sorry ass fired.”

  “Stop being so fucking melodramatic. I’m going to decompress, that’s all.”

  “I call bullshit. This is about that woman at the nonprofit. What happened?”

  “Her name is Gracie and nothing happened.”

  “I call bullshit again. Vegas means you’re trying to forget something. I’m done for the evening, so if you plan on heading to Vegas, I’ll be going, too. You might as well tell me.”

  Ethan massaged his temples. “There’s not much to tell. We had a thing. She found out who I was. She’s pissed. We’re done.”

  “Holy shit. You had sex with her?”

  “Many, many times.”

  “And she didn’t know your real name, or who you are?”

  “Right.”

  “I should slap you on her behalf. What the fuck were you thinking?”

  Ethan sprang from his chair and paced. “I wasn’t thinking. I don’t know what I thought. This was supposed to be a no-strings affair, so I didn’t think it would matter.”

  “Even I know that’s a load of crap. Wait. You didn’t tell her that, did you?”

  “I did.”

  “Jeez, Ethan. You’re a dick and an idiot. Makes me wonder why you’re regarded as such a prize.”

  “Fuck you, Mark. You were the one who suggested I complete my hours at that place.”

  Mark leaned back and raised his hands in the air. “Oh, no. Don’t blame me for your screwup. I thought you’d get to know her. And if it ever got beyond the casual acquaintance stage, you’d tell her who you are. I never expected you to continue the farce after sleeping with her.”

  That’s exactly what he should have done, but it hadn’t worked out that way. His idiocy had gotten in the way. “I didn’t know how to tell her. By the time things got heavy between us, she liked Nicholas Hill. I liked Nicholas Hill. I wanted to be that guy. An unassuming computer consultant with a life beyond these walls.”

  Mark cocked his head and regarded him. “You didn’t want her to learn about your past.”

  Ethan frowned. “What?”

  “You heard me. This is about your old position at Global Systems. And what went down afterward.”

  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Maybe I don’t. Maybe I do. But I know this. By heading to Vegas, you’re trying to get away from something. This job. Your troubles with Gracie. Your past. I don’t know. But you’re running. And when you run, you get into trouble. And I’m the poor schmuck who ends up cleaning up your mess. I did it before, but I won’t do it again.”

  “Mark, I’m okay. There’s nothing to worry about.”

  Mark stared at him. Ethan glared back. They regarded each other like two men who’d just agreed to a gunfight at high noon.

  Mark blinked first. “When you asked me to join you at Media Best, I jumped at the chance. Because I knew the man I’d work with at Global Systems was brilliant. Hotheaded but brilliant. Don’t make an ass out of me. Let her see who you are, Ethan. You’re not a criminal with a dark past, just a dipshit with an unflattering history. And don’t make the same mistakes again. Fix it.”

  Ethan only nodded. Disparate thoughts collided in his brain, and he couldn’t make sense of them all. Was Mark right? Had he kept up the ruse because he didn’t trust her to like him despite his past? The possibility floored him.

  Mark stretched his legs out in front of him. Then he rose from the chair. “Ethan, cancel the trip to Vegas. You don’t need it. And ask yourself this. If you intended this to be a casual affair, why did you care so much about her opinion of you?”

  Ethan had no answer.

  Mark strode to the door. “The tech squad is upstairs discussing the Teleconnectiv launch. Maybe you should stick your head in.”

  Ethan’s ears perked up. “What are they doing here this late?”

  His friend shook his head in disbelief. “If you have to ask, then this job really has sucked the life out of you. It’s pre-launch time, Ethan. Do you remember that excitement?”

  When Ethan simply stared at him, Mark said, “No, I didn’t think so.” With a stiff salute and a shake of his head, Mark strolled out of his office.

  Ethan threw the stress ball across the room. He needed a break.

  * * *

  The “break” led Ethan to the conference room on the top floor. There, he watched the engineers huddled around a long table. Empty pizza boxes littered the table, interspersed between laptops of various sizes. Very expensive laptops. He’d approved the expenditure himself.

  When they saw him, the laidback air in the room froze, as though a billion feel-good atoms were suspended in air, ready to disintegrate the instant he opened his mouth. A few of his employees removed their feet from the table. Others straightened their workspaces, throwing the empty pizza boxes beside them on the floor. Ethan hated that they didn’t feel comfortable around him. The suit created a wall between them, signifying that he signed checks, answered to the board, and strategized about the big picture. But the details? These men and women performed the company’s technical work.

  He left his place at the door and sat down among them. “Relax, ladies and gentlemen. I come in peace.”

  Gillam Bart, a young engineer who’d made himself indispensable to the team, spoke first. “Mr. Hill, the launch is on track. We’re hashing out a few glitches, but they’re nothing major.”

  Ethan removed his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair. “Tell me about the glitches. Walk me though it.”

  The software they’d designed had sprung from an idea he’d pitched to the board years ago. He’d left his old firm disillusioned and disgraced. But his ideas remained part of his core, no matter how many bad personal decisions he’d made, and he’d used those ideas to convince Media Best he would excel as the company’s CEO.

  “Okay, the first has to do with connectivity. We’ve designed this video call service to be seamless. Whatever smartphone you have, it will work, right?”

  Ethan nodded. “Right. We nee
d to be able to deliver on that promise.”

  “But the lag for certain smartphones is greater than others, and nothing indicates the phone is the issue. It’s something in the software.”

  Ethan rolled up his sleeves. “Could this be an issue with the network?”

  “We don’t think so. Here’s why.” Gillam jumped up from his chair and paced. “You sure you want us to walk you through everything?”

  Ethan motioned for Gillam to continue. “Everything.”

  Hours later, Ethan rolled his shoulders and popped open a can of soda. “Great work, folks. There’s more to be done, but you’re on the right track. Now go home and get some rest. This work will be waiting for you on Monday.”

  A collective groan suggested they didn’t appreciate the reminder, but Ethan knew better. He’d watched and listened. And what he saw inspired him to rethink his career path. His life path, really. These men and women enjoyed their jobs. Hashing out new ideas or resolving problems excited them. It excited him, too. But as CEO, he no longer brainstormed. That was someone else’s job. And the resulting frustration had nearly driven him to repeat the mistakes of his past.

  No more. This time, rather than engage in destructive behavior to diffuse his frustration, he was going to change his situation altogether. Sure, he wanted to make the most of the opportunities he’d been afforded, but he wouldn’t do so at the expense of his own happiness.

  As for what he would do about Gracie? Ethan had no clue.

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  Gracie returned to her apartment the weekend before she was due back at the office. When she reached the second-floor landing, she spotted an unmarked manila envelope propped against her door.

  She carried her bags into her apartment, placed the envelope on the coffee table, and dropped onto her couch. The train ride had exhausted her, but this time she hadn’t suffered through it with a talkative college student by her side. The relative quiet had given her several hours to plan her next steps. The ideas she’d come up with, which she’d jotted on a napkin, gave her new hope for LTN’s future. She wouldn’t give up. She would push through her heartbreak and focus her energy on saving LTN’s Washington, D.C., facility.

  Heartbreak.

  She’d never experienced it. Until now. Yes, she’d been hurt by her ex-boyfriend’s betrayal, but she’d placed Neal firmly in her past and vowed to learn from that particular mistake.

  Almost two weeks after learning Ethan’s identity, she still moved within a bubble of sadness that belied her attempts to keep his memory at arm’s length. Even now she pictured the images of their lovemaking on this couch, of the way he’d shouted her name in unbridled pleasure. The mental replay elicited a frustrated groan. Enough, she told herself. It was time to move on.

  Gracie sat up and reached for the manila envelope. Unable to contain her curiosity, she ripped it open and peeked inside. Someone had stuffed newspaper clippings and sheets of paper inside. Turning the envelope upside down, she watched its contents scatter on the coffee table. Her heart leaped when she saw Ethan’s stationery—and she grimaced when she remembered the last time he’d sent her a note, the time he’d sent her cash to repay her for the birthday gift she’d tried to give him.

  The knowledge that Ethan had sent the envelope dampened her curiosity. She shot up from the couch and headed to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Minutes later, as she sipped a steaming cup of java, she eyed the pile of papers on the coffee table. What was that hackneyed phrase? Curiosity killed the cat? Well, me-fucking-ow. She couldn’t resist.

  Gracie strode across the room and settled herself on the couch. Then she spread the papers on the coffee table, lifting Ethan’s note to her nose, searching for his signature scent. Nothing.

  The words summoned her tears: After you’ve had a chance to review this, call me. Please. I need to explain. Yours, Ethan.

  She sniffed and wiped her eyes. His bold writing reminded her of his strong hands, his long fingers, the veins that traveled from his knuckles to his muscled forearms. Her mind wandered, clamoring to return to the days when his warm breath puffed against her ear, when his early morning stubble scraped against her skin, when his cock stretched her. Good Lord, she was in trouble.

  She stared at the papers, a few of which included photographs of Ethan, not knowing where to begin. She moved the papers around, noting a few were screenshots of social media pages. Order. They needed to be placed in chronological order. After accomplishing that task, Gracie began to read.

  The first news item was a small announcement in a local paper, The Hanover Reporter. It congratulated Ethan on his acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania on a four-year scholarship. It noted that his parents, lifelong residents of the town and employees of a local food plant, were thrilled their son had been given the opportunity.

  The second news item, published six years later in that same paper, announced Ethan’s graduation from business school.

  Years later, the New York dailies reported Ethan’s engagement to Bella Sedrick, a New York socialite-in-training whose father chaired the board of Global Systems, a technology company. The news blurb ended with a snarky comment questioning whether the company had created Ethan’s new position as a reward for his promise to marry Bella.

  After that, a flurry of news blurbs chronicled Ethan’s rise within the company and his membership in an elite circle of young professionals with pedigreed backgrounds. Lots of partying, lots of drinking, and very public arguments with Bella about his behavior followed. The gossip columns reported Ethan’s supposed infidelity, gambling bouts, and drunken behavior. And if the pictures of his swinging fists were any indication, Ethan gave the gossip rags plenty to write about.

  The second to last news blurb reported Ethan’s arrest—for solicitation—and his quick release from jail. The last item announced in a two-sentence blurb that Bella had ended their engagement.

  Gracie sat back and dropped her head against the sofa.

  The man reflected in the reports bore no resemblance to the man she knew. And yet. If she’d known his past, would she have given him a chance? Probably not. And what of his erratic and irresponsible behavior? What had caused it? Was that what he wanted to explain?

  She picked up her phone and called him. He picked up after the first ring, as though he’d been waiting for her call.

  “Gracie,” he whispered.

  His voice wrapped around her like velvet. It would be so easy to forgive him, but her heart admonished her to be cautious. “I’m ready to listen,” she said.

  “When?”

  “Now if you’d like. I’m back from New York.”

  “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He hung up before she could suggest a neutral meeting place. But if they met in public, she might cry, might engage in histrionics. She cringed at that possibility.

  He buzzed her apartment nine minutes after he’d disconnected their call. Her heart tripped at the sight of him. His disheveled appearance did nothing to diminish the ache in her chest or the urge to circle her arms around him. His eyes lacked the brilliance she’d come to expect, and the shadow of stubble across his cheeks indicated he’d skipped his usual grooming habits. The stubborn part of her took comfort in his obvious distress. The rational part of her mentally scolded herself for being so childish.

  He stood at the threshold of her apartment. “Hi. Thanks for seeing me.”

  “To be honest, I feel like an ass for listening. But I read the papers you sent me. I know you would have preferred for that to be a part of your past, so I can give you this. Come in.”

  Ethan unzipped his jacket and walked inside. “May I?” he asked as he pointed to the couch.

  Gracie wrapped her oversized cardigan around her waist and folded her arms over her chest. “Yes.” She sat in the recliner across from him, not trusting herself to be near him.

  “I’ll explain in a minute, but I want to start with this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you. I’m sorry
you found out about me in the way that you did. I’m so fucking sorry. About everything. Whatever else happens between us, you need to know that I never meant to hurt you.”

  Gracie’s brain scrambled for something sarcastic to say, but the words wouldn’t come. His eyes, tired and lifeless, pleaded for her understanding. She’d never seen him this way, unsure and struggling to make his point. Still, she didn’t want to bend to him, not after what he’d done, and she desperately needed a barrier to protect herself against the sincerity in his voice. “Is there an explanation forthcoming?”

  Ethan pressed his lips together and nodded. “I grew up in a rural area outside Harrisburg. My parents didn’t have much, but they loved my sister and me. For years, I watched my parents come home from their shift work. Exhausted. Troubled about finances. They never complained. But I knew it was hard on them. I vowed to help them. Decided I’d take any opportunity to give them a better life.”

  Ethan stretched out his legs and stared at his shoes.

  “I read about your engagement. When did you meet Bella?” Gracie asked.

  Ethan lifted his chin and clenched his jaw. “I met Bella after I’d graduated from business school. She was my first serious girlfriend. She wasn’t a breath of fresh air, she was a hurricane. She stormed into my life, and I was so flattered that a girl with her upbringing and connections was interested in me, I got caught up in her, in her world. Before I knew it, her father had become my mentor and had promised me a place in his company.”

  “What went wrong?”

  “I wasn’t happy. Not with Bella. And not with my job. It was great in the beginning, when I was doing what I loved. But as I moved up the ranks, my love for the job waned. As did my desire to be with Bella and adapt to her lifestyle.”

  “Judging by the pictures, you seemed to take to it very well.”

  “I acted like a jackass, all in an effort to numb myself. I didn’t know what I was doing, alienated my family the few times I came back to visit. Missed my niece’s birth because I had box seats for an NFL game, courtesy of Bella’s dad. I gambled. Drank too much. I was a fucking mess. Bella was the darling of New York’s high society scene. I was the working-class upstart riding on her gravy train. Or that’s how the gossip mongers painted me.”

 
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