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Unbuttoning the ceo, p.17

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 17

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series

 

Unbuttoning the CEO
 


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  “And the arrest? For solicitation, I mean. What the hell was that about?”

  “Gracie, I swear it was a setup.”

  Gracie stared at him and raised her eyebrows.

  “I’m not lying. I got trashed in a hotel bar. A gorgeous woman sidled up to me. Thirty minutes later, I was in the back of a squad car. The woman confessed to the cops that she’d been paid to do it. They didn’t even bring charges. But a tenacious reporter for a gossip rag had been tipped about the incident and was there to take my photograph as I left the police precinct.”

  “Who would do something like that to you?”

  “Bella. Her father. Who knows? They never admitted it. Bella wasn’t an angel. Our fights had just as much to do with her infidelities as my gambling and drinking. I suspected the whole setup was their way of making Bella look like the victim. But when I confronted Papa Bear about it, he scoffed at the idea that he’d be involved. Seconds later, though, he offered to put in a good word for me at Media Best. Said Bella would break the engagement and we’d move on. Quietly.”

  “And being the CEO at another tech company wasn’t what you wanted, right?”

  Ethan figured Gracie would understand. She’d picked up on his dissatisfaction with his career almost from the outset of their relationship. “You’re right. I didn’t want the position at Media Best. But when I went home with my tail between my legs, the disappointment on my parents’ faces rocked me. All their lives, they’d struggled. And what had I done? I’d made an ass of myself. The position at Media Best was a way for me to show them that I wasn’t tarnished goods. That I hadn’t wasted the opportunities I’d been given.”

  “Is that what they wanted for you?” she asked.

  “They want me to be happy. But I ran so fast and so far away from my former life that I didn’t think about what would make me happy. I just went with it, and then I continued to resent the demands of my position.”

  “Okay. It’s all coming together in my head now. And your stint at LTN allowed you to escape your past. To engage with people who didn’t know anything about your background. And that’s why you never told me who you were.”

  “Right.”

  Everything he’d told her swirled in her head. When she placed Ethan’s deceit in the context of his past, she understood its impetus. She couldn’t absolve him for what he’d done, but she understood now that his decision to withhold his identity stemmed from his embarrassment. What a mess. But it was his mess, not hers. “Thanks for the explanation,” she said as she stood. “I didn’t realize how much I needed this. Closure, I guess.”

  Ethan looked up at her and scrunched his face. “Closure?”

  Gracie steeled herself. “Yes, closure. Ethan, I appreciate the explanation, but that’s all it was. It doesn’t change the fact that you’re not the man I thought you were. It doesn’t change the fact that you lied to me. That you started a relationship with me, knowing that you weren’t being truthful about yourself.”

  He stood and paced. “Gracie, I understand why you’re angry, but I shared this with you because I want you to know everything, because I want to share a future with you. I told you everything that mattered.”

  Her heart tempted her to forgive him, but her pride rejected the idea out of hand. “You don’t get to decide what matters, Ethan. A relationship means you share the important parts of yourself.”

  He strode to her and placed his hands on her upper arms. “But that’s just it, Gracie. I did share the important parts of myself. My professional goals, my fears, stuff about my family. You can’t discount that so easily.”

  Yes, she could. Everything about their relationship made her doubt herself. She’d lost herself in him. Hadn’t picked up on the signs that something was amiss. She should have questioned him more about his work, about his past.

  When she failed to respond, he pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her. Gracie stood motionless, sapped of any energy to do more than that. Ethan’s chin pressed against her ear. “Gracie, listen to me. I want to start over. No bullshit about casual affairs. No limitations. We commit to each other.”

  His words gutted her. He didn’t understand, and she suspected he never would. He viewed his willingness to commit to her as a prize for which she should be grateful, as though it alone would absolve him of what he’d done. In short, he was this year’s version of Neal, which gave her an idea, a way to ensure he’d leave her alone.

  Infusing her voice with feigned confidence, she said, “I can’t make that leap. Given what’s happened between us, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take. I’m willing to return to our arrangement, however.”

  Ethan stepped back and his jaw went slack. “Until my hours are completed?”

  “Yes. This time we’d go into it without any pretenses. No lies, no promises of a future. Just enjoying each other for what it is.”

  “That’s all you’re prepared to give me?”

  “Yes.”

  Ethan scrubbed his hands down his face. “I can’t fault you for putting up walls. I screwed up. But what you’re proposing isn’t enough. We’re well beyond that.”

  “I disagree. And that’s all I’m prepared to give.”

  His face hardened under her watchful gaze, but she pushed ahead, knowing he wouldn’t agree to what she’d proposed. That was the point, after all.

  “So I guess we’re done here?” she asked.

  Ethan grimaced and shoved his fingers through his hair. “Yeah. I guess we are. But if you change your mind, you know where to find me. Take care.”

  When the door clicked shut, Gracie dropped to the couch. She’d made the right choice. Still, she hadn’t expected it to hurt so much.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  The next morning, Gracie strode into the office prepared to do battle. LTN would not close its doors on her watch. Not until she’d explored every avenue and harassed every potential donor into considering LTN’s cause.

  Seconds after dropping into her chair and placing her purse in her desk drawer, her intercom buzzed. “Yes, Brenda?”

  “Gracie, there’s a gentleman from Digitech Corporation on line one. Harry Seville. Says he’d like to speak to you about LTN. Are you available?”

  Gracie stopped straightening the papers on her desk and stared at the phone. She’d sent Digitech information about LTN weeks ago, thanks to Ethan’s thorough list. “Sure, Brenda. I’ll take the call.”

  When the line buzzed, Gracie snatched the phone from its cradle. “This is Graciela Ramirez.”

  “Ms. Ramirez, this is Harry Seville. I tried to reach you last week, but I understand you were on vacation. In any event, thank you for sending me information about LTN. I’m impressed by the operation.”

  Gracie’s heart hammered in her chest. “Thank you, Mr. Seville.”

  “I must confess that while I’d intended to call you, I’d set your request at the end of the many requests we receive, particularly at year’s end. But Media Best’s former CEO convinced me to take a second look.”

  Gracie’s head pounded. None of this made sense. Former CEO of Media Best? Surely, Mr. Seville was confused. “Did you say former CEO of Media Best?”

  “Yes. Ethan Hill. He resigned last week. But before he did, he asked me to consider contributing to LTN’s coffers. He gave an impassioned speech on LTN’s behalf, explained that he’d seen the organization’s good work firsthand after being sentenced to perform community service there.”

  “He told you all that?”

  “He did. Anyway, I can’t promise that we’d be able to make a substantial donation this fiscal year, but I’d love to meet with you and discuss ways Digitech can help LTN.”

  Gracie wanted to dance around her office. Instead, she simply replied, “Yes, yes. I’d love that, too. I have quite a few ideas about ways companies like yours could help, including a consortium of companies that would rotate financial contributions and volunteer services to LTN.”

  “Well, anything that would help u
s share the load with other companies has my attention. I’ll have my assistant send you potential dates.”

  Gracie nodded her head even though Mr. Seville couldn’t see her. “Sure, sure. I look forward to meeting with you soon. Thanks so much for the call.”

  Two similar calls followed in quick succession. Both callers, executives at area tech companies, remarked that Ethan had praised LTN’s mission. Ethan had made those calls before he knew how she’d react to his explanation and apology. Gracie didn’t know what to make of that fact.

  A quick tap at her door startled her out of her catatonic state. Jason, one of her favorite clients, stood outside the door shifting back and forth.

  “Hi, Jason,” she said as she waved him inside. “Please sit.”

  “Hi, Ms. Martinez. I, uh, I wanted to thank you, for LTN . . . and everything.”

  “You’re welcome, Jason. But what’s this about? You sound like you’re saying good-bye.”

  Jason pulled on the front of his jeans and shifted in his seat. “Well, I am. Sort of. I got a computer. It’s all state of the art and everything. Courtesy of Mr. Hill. Ethan, I mean. So I’m not going to need a computer here anymore. I’ll come to visit, but it won’t be for the computers.”

  Gracie stared at him as she processed his words. “Mr. Hill gave you a computer?”

  “His company did, yeah,” Jason said. Then he stared at her with a quizzical expression. “Is everything all right?”

  “How did you know his name was Ethan?”

  Jason’s shy smile transformed into a wide grin. “He told me. Said he didn’t want to make a big fuss about who he is. Now that he’s done, he said he wanted me to know.” Jason shook his head from side to side and slouched farther into the chair. “I was dealing with a baller, and I didn’t even know it.”

  “Baller?” Gracie asked.

  “Yeah, you know. A baller. Shot caller. Head honcho. Never treated me like I was beneath him. I thought that was cool. Anyway, he said he thinks I have promise and wanted to be sure I had a computer for school.”

  “That was very nice of him.”

  “Yeah. So I’ll see you around.” Jason rose from his chair.

  “Wait a minute, Jason. You’re not getting off that easy.”

  Jason sank into the chair again. “What is it?”

  “Mr. Hill’s right that you have promise. I’d be a fool to let you walk out of here. Would you be interested in part-time work here?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I’ve been thinking about a formal after-school program where kids would be exposed to programming, to tie into STEM classes at school. We’d need help. Nothing fancy. The basics of programming. My plan is to convince area programmers to train our most promising high school students. Then you guys would teach the kids, mostly primary school students. Interested?”

  “And I’d be paid?”

  Gracie knew most teenagers listened more closely when money was involved. “It’s my hope that you’d be paid. And that the position might lead to an internship at a company in the area.”

  “I’m in.”

  “It’s not solid yet, but I’ll be in touch soon, okay?”

  “Yeah. And thanks for everything.”

  They stood at the same time and shook hands. “This isn’t good-bye,” Gracie told him.

  He nodded and walked out. Gracie walked to her office window and stared at the rain pelting against the pane. In a matter of hours, the tenor of her day had changed dramatically. And she’d been bombarded with so much information she wasn’t sure she could process it.

  What had prompted Ethan to resign from his position? Where was he now? In that moment, Jason’s announcement that Ethan had completed his service hours sank in. Maybe she’d never see him again. That is, unless she reached out to him.

  She walked out of her office and approached Brenda. “Mr. Hill completed his service hours while I was gone?”

  Brenda looked away from her computer screen. “Yes. Debra signed off on his hours. He worked like a man possessed. Was here almost as much as I was.”

  Distracted by this information, Gracie trudged back to her desk. Of course, he deserved her gratitude. But did he deserve her forgiveness? Could she look past his deceit and accept his apology?

  After searching for a contact number on her computer, Gracie dialed Media Best’s number and asked to speak with Mark Lansing.

  “This is Mark.”

  “Mr. Lansing, you might not remember me—”

  “Graciela Ramirez, right?”

  How odd that he remembered her and recalled the sound of her voice. “Yes, that’s right. I’m looking for Ethan. Do you know where I might find him?”

  “Yeah. He went to visit his family in Pennsylvania. He’ll be back in the office on Wednesday.”

  “Oh, I thought he resigned?”

  “He did. From his position as CEO. He’s now head of software development. Plans to work in the office two days a week. Otherwise, he’ll be working from home. We couldn’t refuse him, and as the new CEO, I wasn’t prepared to let him go.”

  “Congratulations,” Graciela said.

  “I think the right phrase might be ‘good luck,’” Mark said. “I have incredibly competent shoes to fill.”

  “Right. Good-bye.” Gracie placed the receiver back in its cradle.

  She wouldn’t be able to talk to him for two days. Could she wait that long? She guessed she would have to, because what she wanted to say to him could only be said in person. For now, though, she had to prepare for her meeting with Belinda Cantrell of the Blakely Foundation, her only viable source for a quick and sizable influx of cash. If it went well, LTN would have enough funding for another fiscal year. If it didn’t go well, Gracie might soon be out of a job.

  * * *

  “Ms. Ramirez,” the receptionist said. “Ms. Cantrell will see you now.”

  Gracie smoothed her skirt and gave herself a mental pep talk. You can do this. Show her you believe in LTN’s mission. Show her you’re worthy of her confidence. With a deep breath, Gracie followed the receptionist to Ms. Cantrell’s office.

  Clad in a wool red suit, Ms. Cantrell sat at a large desk that dwarfed her diminutive figure. When Gracie strode across the large office, Belinda Cantrell smoothed her brilliant white hair, which surrounded her head like a cloud. Ms. Cantrell’s elegant appearance warred with the raspy voice Gracie had heard over the phone. “Ms. Ramirez, it’s a pleasure to meet you in person. Please sit.”

  “The pleasure is mine, Ms. Cantrell,” Gracie said.

  “I’d like to keep this brief. I’ve read the materials you sent. Tell me how the city’s residents benefit from LTN?”

  Gracie swallowed and perched on her chair. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the Internet has revolutionized the way Americans conduct business. People apply for jobs online, people complete business transactions online, the Internet opens up a world of resources for research and learning. But what of residents who don’t have regular access to computers, poor students in particular? The continuing problem of the learning gap between such students and students with more resources is compounded by the Internet.”

  Gracie ventured a glance at Ms. Cantrell. Was she even listening?

  “Please continue, Ms. Ramirez.”

  * * *

  Gracie had done the best that she could. She hoped it was enough.

  “Very impressive, Ms. Ramirez. Before we go any further, I wanted to ask you about your connection to Ethan Hill.”

  Gracie’s heart pounded in her chest. “I’m sorry?”

  “Ethan Hill. You know him, yes?”

  “I do. But what does that have to do with LTN?”

  “Well, as you might imagine, Ms. Ramirez, the Bentley Foundation would like to partner with organizations that are above reproach. Mr. Hill is a wild card, wouldn’t you say? ”

  Gracie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Why was this woman asking about Ethan, and why did it matter? “Ms. Cantrell, Ethan Hill
is no longer associated with LTN. But for the record, the man I know is honorable and nothing like the man the media portrayed him to be. He was the subject of bad press years ago. What he did then has no bearing on the man he is now.”

  “That may be, but those are the kinds of questions the trustees will ask.”

  “Why? Why would they care about Mr. Hill?”

  “Because Mr. Hill took out an ad in today’s Post in which he encouraged his corporate colleagues to find ways to expand Internet access to the city’s lower-income residents. You haven’t seen it?”

  “No, I haven’t.”

  “He wrote that he’d spent time at LTN as a result of a community service sentence, which makes me think Mr. Hill hasn’t gotten his reckless ways out of his system.”

  “He admitted that in the Post?”

  Gracie didn’t know what to think. Ethan had disclosed to the city the very information the company’s board wanted to keep quiet. Why?

  “Yes, he did. In any event, I need to know that Mr. Hill’s connection to LTN won’t be a distraction that will make others question the foundation’s decision to support your organization.”

  Gracie clamped down on her bottom lip. The nerve of this woman. Who was she to treat Ethan like damaged goods? “Ms. Cantrell, forgive me for saying so, but Mr. Hill’s personal history is none of the foundation’s business. If Mr. Hill matters at all, the man he is today should dispense with any of your concerns.”

  She’d find a way to save LTN, with or without the foundation’s help, and she wouldn’t turn her back on Ethan to do it. “Ms. Cantrell, if my connection to Mr. Hill is problematic, I’ll seek help elsewhere.” Gracie rose and straightened her suit jacket. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time.”

  “Ms. Ramirez, relax. Let me finish, please.”

  Against her better judgment, Gracie returned to her seat.

 
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