Miss Gore scowled. “I don’t see what’s so funny.”
“This…” Bridget waved her arms. Poor Pepsi’s head was swinging back and forth between the two women. “I’m sorry, but this is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Pretend to be Chad Gamble’s girlfriend? Are you on crack? I don’t think anyone in the city would believe that he was capable of being in a relationship with an oven mitt, let alone with a woman.”
Miss Gore’s lips pursed and then she reached up, took off her glasses, and carefully folded them. “According to my records, you owe around fifty thousand in student loans?”
And that sobered Bridget up real quick. Her laughter died off. “Excuse me?”
“Remember how I said I have many tools at my fingertips?” She held the glasses in her lap. “You went to University of Maryland and graduated with a degree in history; however, without a doctorate in that field, there’s not much you can do. You took a job at the Smithsonian, which gets you in the field you love but most definitely doesn’t pay the bills. So, as I said, you owe around fifty thousand?”
What in the hell. To know that this uppity woman had obviously been poking around in her personal business and finances, and was a complete stranger, was mortifying. And it all had to do with Chad Gamble, no less. She was pissed as she squirmed in her chair. “That sounds about right.”
“What if I could cut you a check for that amount today and all you’d have to do is pretend to be Chad’s girlfriend over the next month?”
Bridget leaned forward and then sat back. She snapped her mouth shut. There was no way she could’ve heard the woman correctly, but she was watching her with a levelheaded stare. “You can’t be serious,” she finally choked out on a surprised laugh. “There’s no way you’re being serious.”
Miss Gore didn’t blink. “I’m being completely serious. You have to understand that my reputation and ability to do my job is on the line. I will do anything to ensure that Chad’s image is repaired. Anything.”
Was she being punked? “You’re willing to pay me fifty grand to pretend to be Chad Gamble’s girlfriend?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
There was a part of Bridget that wanted to jump at the offer. Partly due to the fact she couldn’t even comprehend a life where she wasn’t sinking under debt. To be out from underneath that mess would be a true blessing. With the extra money from not having to pay those insane loans, she could move into a nicer area and stop the depressing search for a new job. She could sleep a full night without waking up at four a.m., stressing over how she was going to make ends meet. She’d feel like her life was her own again and not owned by debt collectors. And there was also a teeny, tiny part of her that perked up solely based on the fact that she’d be able to see Chad again.
And dear Lord, she didn’t even want to look too far into that.
But her pride surfaced. There was no way she could be a part of something like this. Her parents would be rolling over in their graves. It was dirty money. “As helpful as that would be, I’m not a prostitute.”
“You wouldn’t be required to have sex with him. Frankly, I’d prefer that there was another woman in the city besides me that he hasn’t had sex with.”
Bridget arched a brow. “You can put this offer in pretty wrappings and tie a bow around it, but I’m accepting money to be someone’s girlfriend. No matter which way you look at it, that’s a form of prostitution. I’m not that desperate.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
“Then why even approach me with it?”
Miss Gore sighed as she placed her glasses back on, and her expression hardened. “Well, if you’re unwilling to take payment for the service, I have another offer for you.”
She started to stand. “I’m not interested. I hope Chad works this out and stays with the Nationals, but this isn’t—”
“Please sit,” Miss Gore said in such a diplomatic manner Bridget found herself sitting. “You didn’t let me finish.” She paused and that tight, tense smile appeared. No teeth. “Did you know that upon being hired by the Smithsonian, as with all government-funded jobs, a background and credit check was run? That as a condition of your employment, you must avoid any criminal acts but also keep a clean, healthy credit score?”
A tingle of unease raced down Bridget’s spine.
“Defaulting on a student loan can result in termination of your employment even if you’ve made attempts to make arrears and are currently working with a collection agency.” Miss Gore crossed her legs as Pepsi inched closer to her. “Now most employers don’t keep up on things like credit checks, but all it would take is one phone call.”
Bridget’s jaw hit the floor as the unease exploded like a cannon.
“Do you understand, Miss Rodgers?” she asked politely.
“You…you wouldn’t.” Bridget couldn’t even believe this woman would do something like that. “That’s blackmail.”
“Or it’s just me doing my civil duty.” She shrugged stiffly. “Perhaps you should’ve accepted the money.”
Bridget stared at her a moment and then shot to her feet, sending Pepsi scurrying into the kitchen. “You bitch!”
Miss Gore arched a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “I have certainly been called worse. This isn’t personal. I have a job to do.”
“This isn’t personal?” Bridget had never hit someone before, but as she curled her hands into fists, she was damn close to doing a meet-and-greet with the woman’s face. “You’re threatening my job—my livelihood!”
“And Chad’s behavior is threatening mine,” she replied. “If you want to get angry with anyone…” Her gaze dropped to Bridget’s hands. “Or hit anyone, take it out on Chad—but not in public, please.”
“Get out of my house. Now.” Bridget’s hands were shaking with the effort to restrain herself.
Instead of standing and leaving like anyone who valued her life would, Miss Gore reached into her bag and pulled out the newspaper. It was open to the gossip section and there it was, the picture of her and Chad on the street, practically eating each other’s faces.
Bridget flushed as her lips tingled. Such inappropriate timing.
“You do understand your reputation is also at stake,” Miss Gore announced.
Forcing her gaze away from photographic evidence of her attraction to Chad, she took a deep breath. “I don’t see how my reputation is affected by this.”
Miss Gore picked up the paper and her brows lifted. “Funny thing about photos is how differently they can be perceived from one person to the next, and sometimes all it takes is a different side of the story to be pointed out.”
Bridget folded her arms. “What are you getting at?”
She looked up from the paper. “My job as a publicist requires me to spin things. That’s where the whole term spin doctors comes from. And I’m really, really good at spinning things. Take this photo, for example. It looks like two people sharing a kiss. Something both of them wanted.”
“It was a mistake, but—”
“What it really was doesn’t matter. It’s all how the public perceives it, and right now they think you’re Chad’s newest flavor of the week. But what if there was a different side to the story?”
“There isn’t a different side to the story. Chad kissed me. I kissed him back.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Something I regret for several reasons.”
“There’s always a different story,” Miss Gore said. “Look at this picture—closely. See how you’re gripping the front of his shirt, by his shoulders?”
Bridget really didn’t want to examine the picture that closely. Bad enough that all she had to do was close her eyes to remember what being kissed by Chad felt like.
“You’re also pressed against him,” Miss Gore continued. “And a woman of your size has to be fairly strong.”
Slowly, Bridget drew in a low, steady breath. Like she was the size of Jabba the Hut or something.
“To me, it looks like you’re grabbing Chad and forcing him to kiss you.”
“What?” she shrieked. “That’s—”
“Celebrities like Chad do have many women—sad, lonely, and slightly overweight women—who do approach him quite often. It’s no stretch of the imagination to assume that he has a stalker or two.” Miss Gore glanced at the photo. “To me it looks like you accosted him on the street and forced yourself on him.”
Red-hot fury slammed into Bridget. “I would never do something like that! How dare you insinuate—”
“I don’t dare, Bridget. I will do it. You’ll give me no other choice. It’s the only way I can cover up his latest mess-up, which is you. Perhaps you should’ve avoided his advances.” Miss Gore smoothed her hands over her skirt. “It’s unsavory and quite a bitch move. I agree. But that doesn’t change the fact that I will release a public statement accusing you of stalking Chad Gamble and forcing yourself on him.”
“I’m going to hit you—put all of my considerable weight behind it,” Bridget said, eyeing the heavy lamp beside the couch. How much prison time would she get if she whacked it over the bitch’s head?
Miss Gore didn’t look too concerned. “All you have to do is pretend to be dating Chad. That’s all. You’ll keep your job and your reputation. And let’s be honest here, dating Chad is surely going to increase your dating potential later on. Every man in the city is going to want to know what you have that hooked a playboy like Chad.”
If she wasn’t so pissed off, she’d be offended by those statements. What she wanted to do was kick her foot so far up this lady’s rear that she’d need a doctor to remove it.
Bridget turned away and stalked behind the chair she’d been sitting in, taking several deep breaths. Her apartment was shoebox sized, but now she really felt it—the walls closing in. She was trapped. There was no doubt in her mind that Miss Gore would do exactly what she threatened. Bridget would lose her job and end up looking like a psycho in the process. And just like her pride had refused to let her accept money for being Chad’s pretend girlfriend, pride refused to allow her to be labeled as some kind of fatal attraction wannabe with a weight problem. She could see the gossips now. The things they’d say about her…
She swallowed hard, but the sudden lump of messy, ugly emotions didn’t budge. Damn Chad for dragging her into this mess.
Facing Miss Gore, Bridget sent her a death glare. “I think this is disgusting, and I’m sure there’s a special place in hell for you, Miss Gore, but you’ve left me no other choice.”
A look of remorse flickered across Miss Gore’s otherwise impassive expression, but it was so quick that Bridget soon doubted she even saw it. Miss Gore placed a card on the coffee table as she stood. “I expect you to be at the address provided tomorrow evening at seven to go over the ground rules with Chad. Wear something…nice.” That tight, fake smile again. “You will have a late dinner with Chad at Jaws.”