Her phone rang, startling her enough that she jerked back from the computer. “Office of Madison Daniels, how can I help you?”
“Miss Rodgers, can you see Director Bernstein please?”
Bridget felt like a tool, since she should’ve known it was an internal call. “Yes. I’ll be right there.”
Assuming he wanted something to do with the Gala, she shut down her web and went ahead and powered off the computer. The desks outside of Madison’s office were empty. Robert was nowhere to be seen.
Swinging a left, she squeezed past a Christmas tree and entered Director Bernstein’s office. His secretary glanced up with smile. “Go ahead in,” she said.
Bridget pushed open the door and realized the director wasn’t alone. Madison was with him, and she looked pissed. Her stomach sunk as she sat next to her boss. “What’s going on?”
Director Bernstein smiled, but it looked pained, as if he were about to say something he really didn’t want to. “I know you’ve worked very hard and closely with Miss Daniels on the Winter Fund-raiser Gala, and there really is no amount of gratitude that I can express. Both of you have done a superb job.”
Bridget glanced over at Madison, having a feeling that whatever this conversation was truly about had nothing to do with his gratitude.
“The Gala is so important to the institute and for the volunteer process,” the director continued. “Each year, we see an increase in attendees and donations and those donations are what keep departments like the one Miss Daniels oversees running. We cannot afford to lose any donors who wish to have a nice evening at the Gala without the intrusion of press.”
Ice drenched Bridget’s veins as she stared at her boss’s boss. She forced herself to take a nice, slow breath. This had to do with Chad. Of course, everything had to do with Chad now, her fake boyfriend.
Whatever warm and fuzzy thoughts she had about him minutes before vanished like the doughnuts Madison had brought in this morning.
“Keeping that in mind, I’m going to have to ask that you not attend the Gala, Miss Rodgers.” That damn smile of his wavered. “Anything that involves Chad Gamble turns into a media circus, and many of our attendees do not want to be a part of an environment like that.”
Madison cleared her throat and said, “Just so you know, I do not agree with this at all.”
Funny how Bridget’s cheeks were burning when she felt so cold inside, but she’d be damned if this crap with Chad ruined something she’d been working on all year. Although, he’d seemed to be looking forward to attending the Gala with her, she knew he wouldn’t be too upset about being cut out of it. “He doesn’t have to attend,” she said. “I can do this without him.”
Director Bernstein leaned forward, folding his hands on wood so polished Bridget could see her reflection in it. “I’ve considered that, but with or without Mr. Gamble, the press will follow you. How many days are they waiting outside to get just a photograph of you alone?”
Five, but who was counting? Bridget’s hand curled uselessly in her lap. “I can try to talk to some of them. Ask them to stay away.”
“You and I both know that’s not going to work. They’re like vultures, and if they think there’s a chance they can film you and Mr. Gamble together, then they’ll be camping outside. I cannot have that kind of negative press in attendance. I’m sorry, but it’s in the best interest of the Gala and the Institute.”
Bridget wasn’t sure what she said next, but she was sure she’d nodded, agreed, and then the awkward-as-hell meeting was over. She was in a stupor as she went back to her office and grabbed her purse.
Madison looked as bad as Bridget felt. “I’m so sorry, Bridget. Bernstein is a huge Nationals fan—”
“It’s okay.” It really wasn’t, and the last thing she wanted to hear was how the director fanboyed Chad in private. “Really. I tried talking him out of it, but there’re a lot of conservative stiffs that come to this thing and donate a ton of money.”
Forcing a smile she didn’t feel, she gave her friend a brief hug. “It’s okay. Hey, I’m going to get out of here. Have a good Christmas, okay?”
She walked out of the office, blinking back tears, but her head was high.
As she climbed into her car, she sent Chad a quick text, checking to see if he was home. The response was a quick yes and the drive to his posh apartment was a blur. She figured dis-inviting Chad from the Gala was best done in person.
He answered on the first knock and stepped aside, allowing her to come in the foyer. She quickly averted her gaze from him, because really, no man should look as good as he did in a plain shirt and lounge pants.
“I…” She took a deep breath and smelled Chinese food. Her brows pinched as she glanced around. “Why do I smell General Tso’s chicken?”
Chad smiled. “When you said you were swinging by, I took the liberty of ordering a late lunch. It’s your favorite, right?”
Bridget winced at the considerate gesture. She wasn’t hungry, which was testament to how sucky she was feeling right now. “Thank you, but I wasn’t planning to stay very long.”
He’d stopped halfway down the hall and turned to her, his brows furrowing. “That’s— Hey, are you okay?”
She probably should’ve checked her face for smudged mascara. “Yes, I’m okay. I came here to tell you…to ask if you wouldn’t attend the Gala.” Not seeing the need to add the embarrassing part where she also wasn’t attending, she stumbled along awkwardly. Maybe a phone call or text would’ve been better. “I know it’s kind of rude to ask that of you and all, but I’d really appreciate it.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Chad leaned against the wall, folding his arms. “Did something happen with the Gala?”
She shook her head, still way too emotional to go into details, and seriously, it wasn’t like he really cared. Dating was a job to him right now, and she doubted he’d appreciate her going all drama llama on him. No one had agreed to that in the beginning.
“Did someone say something to you?”
Heat crawled up her neck. Goodness, he could be astute at times. “No. It…just is. Anyway, that’s all I came by for, but I really need to get going. Um, thanks for the Chinese. Rain check on that?”
“Wait.” He pushed off the wall, coming at her. “What time do you want me to pick you up tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” she repeated, searching her memory for plans. “Tomorrow is Christmas Eve…?”
A quirky grin appeared. “Yeah, and I always spend it with Maddie’s family, along with my brothers.”
Oh, Madison’s family Christmas celebration. She’d managed to avoid that like the plague the last couple of years.
“You’re going with me, right?” he said after a few moments, clearly choosing to ignore the fact she’d already shot his offer down once before.
Bridget pursed her lips. “Christmas Eve dinners are not my thing.”
“Well, it’s not really traditional. Actually it’s the opposite of traditional. Mostly it’s just drinking and snacking and watching Chase get drunk and make a fool out of himself.”
“As fun as that sounds, I’m going to have to pass.” She started backing toward the door. “But I hope you have a good time.”
“Hold on.” He put his hand on the door, stopping her. “What’s your deal? I’m cool with the Gala thing and I’ll take the rain check on the Chinese, so would it kill you to go to this with me?”
“Yes,” she snapped, reaching for the door handle. “Chad, come on. Open the door.”
“You know, sometimes I think I get you and then I realize I don’t have a freaking clue. You like Maddie and Chase, so it shouldn’t be a big deal.” He removed his hand from the door and thrust it through his hair. “It’s like you don’t want to…I don’t know, open yourself up.”
“Open myself up?”
Chad frowned. “Yeah.”
Bridget didn’t know what made the words come out of her mouth. The holidays always had her on edge and mix in all of this with Chad and the Gala, her patience and filter were nonexistent. “Why do you want me to go with you, Chad? Why would you want me to open myself up to you? It’s not like we’re really dating, and the last thing we should be doing is spending the holidays together or getting deep and meaningful with each other when it’s going to be all over soon anyway.”
“Whoa. Wow.” Chad reached around her, opening the door so she could dip under his arm. “That’s fine. Wouldn’t want to get all deep and meaningful, Bridget. You’re right. This’ll be over in days. Why bother?”
She blanched. “Exactly.”
“Whatever. Have a nice Christmas, Bridget.” And then he closed the door. He didn’t even slam it, which seemed worse somehow.
The Daniels’ house looked like Christmas got drunk and threw up on it.
There was a blowup Santa, one of those weird ones that reminded Chad of Bubble Boy, in the front yard. Wire reindeer glimmered in the night, flashing white and then red. On the roof was another Santa, perched near the chimney. There was a blowup sleigh on the other patch of frozen grass. Christmas lights in every color imaginable hung from the roof and circled the porch railing. A backlit Frosty the Snowman was waving at him. Creepy. On the porch was Frank E. Post, which kicked on and started singing “Have a Swinging Christmas” when Chad came within a few feet of it.
“Whoa,” he said, stepping around that thing.
Before he knocked on the door, he shook out his shoulders, trying to lose the pissy attitude he’d been rocking since yesterday courtesy of Bridget. How foolish did he look getting all…considerate and shit by ordering her favorite food and then assuming she’d want to spend Christmas Eve with him?
He should’ve known better. They were faking this whole dating thing. He just hadn’t thought about that when she’d texted him. Little did he know she was coming over to ask him not to go to the Gala with her.
Whatever. He wasn’t going to let this crap with Bridget ruin the one night a year he was actually surrounded by family.
His brother answered the door, decked out in a sweater that had Chad laughing so hard he was afraid he was going to drop the gifts he’d brought. Bright green with a knitted jolly Saint Nick, holding a sign that read: EVEN SANTA IS PREPARED 4 ARMAGEDDON. R U? MERRY CHRISTMAS!
“If you say one word,” Chase said, holding open the door, “I will kick your ass.”
Maddie’s father popped out and gave a huge wave. He wore the same sweater. “Hey there, all-star!”
Chad struggled to get the smile off his face. “I won’t say a word.”
“I bet.” Chase took one of the bags from him and then frowned. “Where’s Bridget?”
He followed his younger brother in. The air smelled of Old Bay seasoning and beer—a Daniels’ Christmas Eve tradition. “She couldn’t make it.”