“What?” Miss Gore sat back and let out a laugh. “You’re an idiot.”
“First off, I don’t think any of this is funny and secondly—”
“Yes. You’re an idiot.” Miss Gore shot to her feet, planting her hands on her hips. “Let me guess. Bridget started explaining to you why she agreed to do this, but you heard only what your sensitive male ears wanted to hear and jumped to conclusions? Because I didn’t pay Bridget a dime for doing this.”
“I did offer to pay her—to pay off her student loans, to be exact. I thought that would be a better incentive,” Miss Gore said. “And after dealing with you for less than a month, I figured we needed to pay the poor girl.”
Wow. Chad set the bottle down. “Well, that’s unnecessary.”
“But Bridget refused the money, which forced me to take more drastic steps. Trust me, I’m not proud of what I did, but Bridget has done nothing wrong. I gave her no choice in this.”
Chad thrust his fingers through his hair and turned, breathing in deeply. “She turned down the money?”
“And you forced her to do this?”
“Yes,” she replied. “But whatever happened between you had nothing to do with me. That was all you two.”
Chad closed his eyes as a rush of mixed-up emotions hammered inside him. He didn’t know what to think. Relief poured through him, but so did anger—mostly at himself. Miss Gore was right. His overinflated ego had gotten the best of him.
“It’s not too late.”
He faced her. “Yeah, I think it’s too late.”
“How can anything come from a relationship that started off because someone was forced into it?”
Miss Gore threw her hands up. “Look, you’ve spent your whole life never accepting responsibility for anything you do. It’s always everyone else’s fault. But here is the one chance for you to realize you had something to do with this. And do I need to remind you that you had a relationship with her before I stepped in? I just helped it along.”
She nodded, smiling. “Do you love her?”
“It’s an easy question, Chad. Do you love her?”
The answer was easy. His heart already knew what his mouth didn’t want to say. For some reason, he thought about the damn playground, saw his life going round and round but never really ending up anywhere—or with anyone. It was time to get off the merry-go-round.
“If you do,” she said firmly, “you will find a way to fix this.”
Chad stared at his publicist/babysitter/daughter of Satan. “Jesus, woman, I do not envy the man you end up with.”
Miss Gore’s smile was pure evil. “Neither do I.”
It was only an hour into the Winter Fund-raiser Gala, and her face hurt from all the smiling and her feet were killing her from avoiding Robert and Madison.
Really not fair for Madison, but she had Chase with her, and besides, the fact that he looked so much like Chad was a little bit disturbing. Plus he immediately wanted to know what the hell crawled up Chad’s ass since Christmas.
It hurt to even think about answering that, and she knew she would have to eventually once Miss Gore gave up on the idea of Chad coming around. Their very real breakup of their very fake relationship would go public soon.
Bridget tried not to think about that as she greeted guests and kept track of the caterers. She was pretty sure one of them was high as a kite. She was torn between asking the kid to leave and finding out where he hid his stash.
Director Bernstein approached her with a warm smile and clasped her hands in his. “The Gala is amazing, Miss Rodgers. You and Miss Daniels have outdone yourselves this year.”
“Thank you. I hope we can have the same turnout next year.”
The skin around his eyes crinkled. “Well, as long as that boyfriend of yours is around, I’m sure we will.”
Bridget blinked slowly. “Come again?”
Patting her on the shoulder, he laughed softly. “There’s no need for pretense. I know Mr. Gamble asked me to keep his donation a secret, but I’m sure he had to have shared his act of generosity with you.”
Her stomach dropped.
“Because of him, the volunteer department will see another year, probably two.” Director Bernstein squeezed her shoulder, but she really didn’t feel it. “I shouldn’t have been so quick to cut him out. After all that he has done for the Institute, he should be here.”
“Uh…” Bridget had no idea what to say.
The director gave her another squeeze. “Enjoy yourself tonight. You deserve it. And please pass along my gratitude to Mr. Gamble.”
Bridget nodded dumbly and watched Director Bernstein rejoin his wife. Several moments passed before it fully sank in.
Chad had made the last donation that might not have saved the department all on its own, but it had saved her job and was what had gotten her reinvited to her own event. Hope and confusion battled it out for top contender for what she was feeling right now. Obviously, he’d done this before he’d found out she had been conned into being his girlfriend. Right?
Dodging guests, she found Madison with Chase. “Did you know?” she blurted out.
Madison’s eyes widened. “Did I know what?”
“Did you know that Chad had been the one who made the donation that took us to our goal?”
“What?” She turned to Chase, smacking him in the arm. Hard. “You didn’t tell me?”
Okay. Madison really didn’t know.
“Hey.” Chase held up his hands. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh my God,” Bridget said, stunned. “I can’t believe he made that donation. That was so much money.”
“Damn,” Chase said, brows raised. “I don’t think Chad has ever made a donation to anything except when he plays poker, because he’s sure to lose. The Smithsonian should name a room after him.”
Madison grinned. “Actually, they should name it after Bridget, because I’m sure that’s why he made the donation.”
Turning around, Bridget smoothed her hands over the skirt of her simple black dress. She had to do something. She didn’t know what or if it changed a damn thing, but she had to thank him.
Bridget had to ask him why.
Spinning back to Madison, she took a deep breath. “I…I have to go.”
“What?” Madison stepped forward. “Bridget, are you—”
“I’m okay. Really.” She paused to smile at Chase. “I just need to go, okay?”
Whirling around, she didn’t wait for Madison or Chase to say anything else. She cut across the main room, hastily delving out smiles and kept going so she couldn’t be stopped.
She was ten feet from the entrance when she came to a complete stop and the air rushed out of her lungs.
Standing under the twinkling white lights was Chad Gamble.
He was dressed in a tux, dressed like he’d planned on attending, and God, he looked wonderful. His sky blue eyes scanned the room and landed on her.
She couldn’t move. The world around her ceased to exist.
With a look of determination, he strode toward her. He didn’t walk. Oh no, he stalked up to her.
“Going somewhere?” he asked.
“Yes.” She shook her head. “I was leaving to find you.”
“You were?” He cocked his head to the side. “Why?”
“I need to talk to you.” She glanced around as she took ahold of his arm, hoping to move the conversation to a much more private area. “You made the donation.”
Bridget couldn’t glean anything from his expression, and he wasn’t moving. “I did,” he replied.
“Why?” She kept her voice low. “Chad, that was so much money and—”
“I love you,” he said, and loud enough that several people around them stopped and turned. A bit of blush filled the hollows of his cheeks. “That’s why I did it. May not have fully realized it at the time, but I do. I love you. And I can’t have my girl not having her job.”
Bridget stared at him, unsure she heard him correctly, but by then, they had gained such an audience and, by the expressions on their faces, they had to have imagined the same thing.
“You love me?” she squeaked out.
A half smile appeared. “Yeah, I do.”
Everything felt surreal, like she was dreaming. “Maybe we should go talk somewhere—”
“No. I want to do this here,” he said, dropping his hands on her shoulders. “I’ve been an ass the majority of my life. I didn’t want to get off the playground, you know.”
He shook his head. “Forget the playground statement but listen. From the night I first met you, I knew I was never going to meet another woman like you. I should’ve found you after then, but somehow you came back into my life. I don’t know how. I really don’t deserve that kind of luck, and I sure as hell don’t deserve a woman like you.”
Tears were building in her eyes. “Chad…”
“I’m not finished, babe.” His blue eyes were dancing. “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. I didn’t sleep with those women, by the way. Still didn’t do that, but that’s not the point. I did do a lot of things that impacted other people. I never took responsibility for any of it, but what I regret most was leaving your place on Christmas Day.”
Oh God, she was going to start bawling. “Chad, it’s okay. We can—”
“It wasn’t okay. I should’ve heard you out.” He let go, taking a deep breath. “And I never wanted to fix anything until now, and it has nothing to do with the contract. Fuck the contract.”
Bridget sucked in a breath, but it got caught.
“I want to fix things because of you. I want to be worthy of you.”
Tears sneaked out of her eyes then. “But you are, Chad. You are.”
A bit of the smugness eked into his expression. “Well, I know I’m great, but I could be better for you.”
Bridget laughed shakily. “Wow.”
“What I’m trying to say is that you’re the best fake girlfriend I’ve ever had.” Chad went down on one knee in front of her and the entire world. “I’m in awe of you.”
She froze. “What are you doing?”
“Holy shit,” Chase said from the sidelines.
“Shut up,” hissed Madison.
Chad shot his brother a wicked look and then turned his gaze back to her. “This may be crazy, but what the hell, right?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small black box, and Bridget felt faint as he cracked it open. An emerald set in a silver band winked up at her. “I love you, Bridget. I’m pretty sure you feel the same way about me, and screw the whole dating thing. Let’s get married.”
Blood drained from her upper body so fast she really thought she was going to topple right over.