Madison stopped in front of her desk, a look of sympathy crossing her face. “You look like crap.”
“Thanks,” she muttered.
“But you need to feel better before the third because guess what?” Of course Madison didn’t wait for Bridget to guess. Not that she ever did. “Director Bernstein changed his mind. He wants you at the Gala.”
“What?” Bridget turned away from her computer. “But he didn’t want me—”
“I know, because of Chad, but he’s even okay if Chad comes.” Madison rocked back on her heels, happy as can be while Bridget’s heart cracked a little more. “At first I thought someone pulled the stick out of his ass, but then he shared even bigger news, which is why he’s in such a great mood.”
“What?” Viagra no longer posed heart attack risks?
Madison slapped her hands down on Bridget’s desk, rattling every item on it. “There was a generous donation that came in after Christmas.”
Despite her craptastic mood, hope swelled. “How generous?”
“Generous as in we have met our goal for the year!”
Bridget shot to her feet. “Are you serious?”
“Yes!” Madison jumped. “The department has their funding for the year, and there are still some donations expected to be made at the Gala!”
Rushing around the desk, Bridget joined Madison in the jumping and squealing celebration. Her mood most definitely approved upon hearing the good news, which helped get her through the day. There were only a few times the stuff with Chad overshadowed the good, but she kept telling herself at least she didn’t have to worry about finding a new job for another year.
It was when she returned home that evening and set Pepsi’s dinner on the table, she almost broke down again.
Tears never solved anything, but she wanted to cave to them. Right now, she had so much to look forward to, but it had lost a little of its luster.
A knock on her door had her heart stopping. Was it Chad? She’d called and texted him several times, wanting a chance to explain, to talk, to do something, but he hadn’t responded.
She rushed through the living room, catching her toe in the threadbare carpet, nearly face-planting into the floor. Catching herself at the last minute, she threw open the door. “Cha…oh, it’s you.”
Miss Gore arched a brow. “Nice to see you, too.”
Well, if she hadn’t felt like crawling into a hole before, now she did. “What do you want?”
“We need to talk.” She pushed her way into Bridget’s apartment. For someone so small, she was definitely strong. Turning around, Miss Gore placed her purse on the coffee table and folded her arms. “Can you tell me why I just got off the phone with a really pissy Chad, who just explained to me that the whole thing was off, ahead of schedule, and will not tell me why?”
Bridget’s shoulders slumped. “It’s over.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean? We weren’t planning to break things off—”
“There isn’t any ‘we’ in this! And I don’t care if this messes up everything for you!” She stepped back, taking a deep breath. “Look, I want Chad to keep his contract and for everything to work out for him, but it’s over.”
Miss Gore watched her a moment and then sat down. “What happened?”
“Why do you think something happened?”
“Because you’re hurt,” she said, taking off her glasses. “I can tell. It’s in your eyes. So I imagine something happened. And we planned to call this off after New Year’s. And that is still a few days away.”
Bridget couldn’t even believe she was considering telling her the truth, but she sat down, shaking her head slowly. “I’m in love with him.”
Miss Gore sat back.
“And I think… Well, I thought he felt the same way.” Tears crawled up her throat. “But I screwed up. I told him the truth.”
“The truth about what?” she asked. “The student loans? Look, I know that’s a sore spot with you, obviously, but it’s not that big of a deal. I doubt Chad—“
“No.” Bridget sighed. “I told him why I agreed to do this.”
Miss Gore paled. “Oh, dear…”
“I told him that I hadn’t wanted to and that you basically blackmailed me.” She pursed her lips. “By the way, don’t think I’m not still pissed off by that. I am.”
She nodded. “Understandable. And he was mad?”
“Mad?” Bridget let out a short, humorless laugh that just sounded really sad. “He was beyond pissed. He walked right out.”
Miss Gore raised one brow. “Well, I imagine it doesn’t do wonders for a man’s ego, especially one of his size, to hear a woman agreed to be his girlfriend because she was blackmailed. Have you tried calling him?”
Pressing her lips together, Bridget nodded. The ball of ugh was in her throat and going nowhere. “I’ve called. I’ve texted. He hasn’t responded.”
Her brows puckered. Several moments passed. “I do believe he’s developed strong feelings for you—possibly even love.”
Bridget scowled. “What part of the conversation do you not understand? He left. He doesn’t want to see me. That’s not love.”
The publicist smiled. “The only reason why he’d be mad is because he has feelings. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have cared. The fact that he is upset proves that he has feelings.” She leaned forward, patting her hand. Bridget jerked back, but Miss Gore was nonplussed. “This is good—great. I couldn’t have dared to hope for a real relationship to come out of this, but this is perfect. People will be clamoring to hire me.”
“You’re insane,” Bridget said, staring at her.
“No. You just wait and see. He’ll come around.” She stood, smiling like she just had the best year at work. “You know, I was starting to suspect something.” She clapped her hands together. “You will end up thanking me for this.”
Bridget’s mouth dropped open. “Get out of my apartment.”
“I’m serious.” She picked up her purse. “In the end, you’ll invite me to the wedding, and you’ll thank me in the toast.”
In total shock, Bridget did the same thing she had done the first time Miss Gore visited her apartment.
Bridget flipped her off.
With both hands.
Chad was in a funk or, how his brothers put it, PMSing. He hadn’t told them what went down between him and Bridget. It wasn’t any of their business.
His feet pounded on the treadmill. He’d been running for the last hour. Sweat poured from him. Every night since he discovered the truth behind why Bridget had readily agreed to be his pretend girlfriend, he’d spent more hours on the treadmill than he cared to count.
Muscles burned an unholy fire, but it was better than the cold cavern in his chest. It was better than sitting in front of the TV not really paying attention to the screen. And it was far better than lying in bed staring at his ceiling, wondering how in the fuck he had misjudged Bridget so badly.
He slowed down and then smacked the stop button. He got off the treadmill and ripped the towel from the arm and started mopping up his sweat.
Then again, how fucking stupid was he that he really thought she’d go along with this just because of who he was? Even he could admit that his ego had surpassed all of his brothers’ combined—and his father’s.
Maybe he could one day understand why she did it, but he could never get past it. Not when his father did shit like that, buying his “girlfriends” jewels, cars, paying off debt, and furnishing their apartments while his mother doped herself into an early grave.
And what the hell was he thinking, anyway? Him in a relationship—one that had started off by two people pretending to be in love? Shit, he was worse than his father when it came to his track record with women.
But he missed Bridget’s smile—her laugh. He missed how she always smelled of jasmine and the way she felt against him. He missed the blush that always popped up on her face and traveled down her neck.
Chad missed the witty comebacks and the way she was okay when things were quiet. He missed her asking about his day and hating the paparazzi and the way she never let him get away with anything. He even missed that fat-ass cat of hers.
He just fucking missed her.
Dropping the towel, he then ran his hands down his face. Avoiding the calls had been hard enough, but not reaching out to her had been a real effort. He was about to hop in the shower when he heard a knock on the front door. Figuring it was one of his brothers trying to drag him out for New Year’s and ignoring the rush of excitement at the thought it might be Bridget, he answered the door.
It was worse.
“Miss Gore.” He drew her name out, the way he knew she hated. “What did I do to earn this pleasure?”
She scowled as her gaze drifted over him. “Do you ever wear a shirt when you’re home?”
“No. If you have a problem, see you—”
She put her hand up, stopping his attempt to close the door in her face. “I wouldn’t have to be coming here if you would answer your phone and stop acting like a general ass.”
Chad closed his eyes and counted to ten. “Like I said in the last phone call, I don’t need your services anymore. You did your job. Congrats and thank you. Now please get the hell out of my life.”
Miss Gore pushed past him, went into his kitchen, and hopped up on the bar stool and crossed her legs. “I’m still your publicist until the Nationals decide my services are no longer needed.”
“Great,” he muttered.
“And you do need me.”
Chad grabbed a bottle of water and propped his hip against the counter. “You’re the last person I need.”
“Okay.” She smiled. “You need Bridget.”
A sharp pain hit him in the gut. “I stand corrected. She’s the last person I need.”
“Really?” she replied. “Then if she was the last person you needed, why did you sleep with her?”
Chad swore under his breath. “I’m not talking—”
“Oh, you’ll talk to me, all right.” Miss Gore spun on the stool, tracking his movements. “You shouldn’t have slept with her if you were going to turn around and walk out!”
“Why are you upset? You set this whole damn thing up!” Chad was dumbfounded. “What did you think was going to happen?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Miss Gore folded her arms. “That you actually got over yourself? So what? She didn’t want to date you in the beginning—she needed a little push.”
Chad was about to throw this woman out of his apartment. “You blackmailed her into being with me.”
“I didn’t blackmail her into sleeping with you, you big dumbass!”
“Yeah, you’re paying her to do so.” Chad smirked. “Big fucking difference there.”