“I couldn’t.”

“Then you get how good we were as friends that I’m not leaping across this desk and strangling you right now!” Allen raked a hand through his thinning hair. “How could you do this? To me? Was that the whole plan? The moment I sent Jessica to you for one of my errands, you were going to seduce her?”


Brent shook his head and held up his hands in a supplicating gesture. “No, you have to believe me. At first, it was all about Cara. Jessica was so kind to her. The children at school were bullying my daughter. She had no friends, and then Jess came along like an angel. Everything else fell into place after that. It just happened.”

“So, no setup?”

“Jesus, what kind of a monster do you take me for?”

“The kind who’d have sex with his close friend’s college-age daughter. The kind who’d lie to his closest collaborator for months with a smile on his face. The kind who leaves that daughter he claims to love oh-so-much in tears for over a day.”

“About that. I have to talk to Jessica.”

Allen balled his hands up into fists at his side. “You’re never seeing her again.”

“Did she come to you?”

“No, you idiot – I saw some paparazzi photos from the event, and she’s been wearing that necklace nonstop for a few weeks. I knew exactly what was going on even with a mask and wig. Damn it, don’t you think I know my little girl. The second I saw it come up on a site, I booked a flight here from NYC.”

“Yeah, I can say both you and my bruised jaw are a surprise.”

“I called her but was screened, so I talked to her roommate, Ashley, who said that Jessica was too embarrassed to talk to me, but I could hear her crying in the background. I don’t know what you did to her—”

“I’d never do anything to harm her.”

“So you say, but she sounded like a wounded animal. You leave her alone. Jessica and I are none of your business ever again. In fact,” Allen added, his nostrils flaring wide, “you’ll never see either of us again. I quit.”

“Allen, please. I need her.”

Allen shook his head and stormed for the door. “She never needed you. Maybe you should think about that.”

***

He’d begged his father’s housekeeper, Cecile, to take some extra time that night and babysit Cara after school. So far, he’d hidden the fact he’d fucked up royally with Jessica by having Cecile spin some lie for his daughter about Jessica traveling for vacation. Cara was smart enough to know that made no sense at the beginning of a college semester. However, it was the best he could do to buy time and to have an eye on his daughter.

Right now?

Right now, he was getting shit-faced at the Ace of Clubs, a bar a few blocks from their offices. He hoped that with enough vodka in his system, he wouldn’t care that he had just lost the best thing in his life. Originally, his plan was to go there and think of another way to get Jessica to speak with him. Instead, his brain had come up with nothing. As a result, getting blotto seemed like the best analgesic he could come up with.

“Another!” he said, waving at the bartender. He’d had four so far, and the bartender was going to cut him off eventually. However, as another martini was poured out before him, Brent knew that, currently, he hadn’t reached the cutoff point. “Thanks,” he said, saluting the bartender. Then he brought the drink to his lips. “Congratulations, everyone, I really managed to fuck everything up.”

“I’ll say.”

Brent turned and looked at Carl who was slipping onto a bar stool himself. “You’re here to go, ‘I told you so?’ If you want to rub it in today, then I’m not in the mood. I’m painfully aware of how badly I messed everything up. My life just turned Chernobyl today. So, if you’re here to get joy out of being right, then soak it up.”

Carl sighed and ordered a club soda. “I don’t drink on weekdays. My wife’s rule.”

“Good you still have someone to go home to.”

The other man took his drink and took a small sip before replying, “I came to see how you were. Obviously, everyone in the company knows what happened. Allen is the best, smartest financial manager here or in L.A. We won’t get far without him, and you know, I liked having a job.”

“We’ll figure something out.”

“Maybe, but this isn’t the way things should be, man. We’re friends, and we work even better as a production team. I don’t want this to be the end of how things are.”

Brent rubbed his rapidly purpling chin. “I don’t want it to be either, but I’m pretty much out of ideas. I can’t get Jessica on the phone. Her roommate threw me out of her apartment building, and her father isn’t exactly going to be a way to offer an olive branch, is he?”

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