“Well for one, you’re beautiful.”
I warmed at the compliment, though coming from someone who defined physical perfection, I had a difficult time truly accepting it.
“I’m not sure what looks have to do with it.”
“Looks can be persuasive. Secondly, you have a good concept.”
I frowned, confused as to why Blake’s glowing opinion of me this evening ran in such stark contrast to his brutal line of questioning at the pitch. “If you thought I had a good concept, then I’m not sure why you felt the need to humiliate me at the pitch and shoot me down.”
I had come to know Blake better these past couple weeks, but the tirade of emotions I felt that first day were not easily forgotten. My hand fisted as I remembered the experience, his simple and easy rejection stamped on my memory. I riled again, my skin prickling with anger.
“I wanted to see how you’d perform under pressure. Plus, how else was I supposed to find out if you were available? Two birds with one stone.” He shrugged, as if it were nothing.
To him, it probably was. To me, it was a life-changing event, the culmination of months of hard work. If we were going to move any further together he needed to know that.
“Blake, I worked really hard for the opportunity to pitch your group, and you completely disrespected me. It’s hard for me to imagine how I would have felt if I hadn’t gotten the second meeting because of you. The word devastated comes to mind, though.”
I looked out at the skyline to avoid his gaze, afraid my anger might fade when I genuinely wanted him to know what an ass he’d been that day. I’d been holding that thought to myself for weeks now, and I was suddenly ashamed that I’d actually slept with Blake before calling him out on his behavior. All my pride at having accomplished what I had at my age, and I was hardly a beacon of feminism.
“You’re right,” he said.
My anger slipped at the shock of hearing his words. The words nearly put me into shock.
“You didn’t deserve that.”
I was still processing Blake’s almost-apology when the server came with our food. We ate in silence for a few moments.
“Max seemed upset that you helped me,” I said.
His hand came down on the table hard enough to startle me. “You told him I helped you?”
“I assumed he would know eventually. I thought you were friends.”
“We’re colleagues, not friends, Erica.” He forked his duck aggressively and sliced off a bite before popping it into his perfect mouth.
“How do you know his dad?”
He raised his eyebrows, his patience with this line of conversation clearly thinning. I worried that my perfect day was being threatened, but we’d come this far already.
“Blake, you know all kinds of things about me, and I feel like I don’t know anything about you. Tell me something. Anything!” I waved my hand in frustration, needing him to know how difficult this inequity was becoming for me.
His jaw twitched as he continued with his entree. My appetite waned despite the mouth-watering fillet in front of me. Food this divine should never go to waste. I poked at the seasoned couscous around the fish when Blake began to speak.
“When I was fifteen, I got into some trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“What kind of hacker stuff?” I pressed.
“It’s not important.”
I settled back into my chair, pouting a little.
“At the time, Michael, Max’s father, wanted to diversify, so he started to invest heavily in software. He knew my story and sought me out. I was at a low point in my life, but he gave me an opportunity. I was able to build out the banking software on my own terms, the way it needed to be built. Obviously, it paid off for both of us, doubling his portfolio and setting me up to be able to do what I do now.”
“How does Max play into this?”
“Max was a few years younger. He watched Michael invest in me. Not just professionally, but as a mentor and a friend. He resented it, and when the software sold, he knew he’d never be able to catch up to me. It’s been chafing his ass ever since.”
“Are you happy now, boss?” he asked, pointing his fork at me.
He was kind of cute when he was annoyed and confessional.
“Well I’m not happy to hear that in particular, but I’m happy you told me.”
I replayed the two meetings at Angelcom through my mind with the new knowledge that Max was in constant competition with Blake, eager for any opportunity to overtake him. My business was about to become irrevocably tied to Max, so I harbored very rational fears that my association with Blake could become problematic at some point, but Max wouldn’t have known about our relationship if I hadn’t told him.
When the check came, Blake handed the server his card before I could reach for my purse. Not wanting to argue tonight, I let it go and excused myself to freshen up.
When I emerged, I made my way toward Blake, who waited at the elevators. He stood with casual grace, his hands in his pockets, his suit straining in all the right ways, reminding me of the rock hard body beneath it. I could focus on almost nothing else as I passed by the long elegant bar and its patrons, but a face along the way caught my attention.
I stopped in place, suddenly gripped with an all-consuming panic that drowned out the noise of the crowded restaurant. My heart beat ratcheted out of control. An icy pain rushed through me, seizing my body from my lungs to my fingertips.
I steadied myself on the wall beside me, seemingly unable to move forward another inch while the face of the man I recognized turned in my direction, as if he sensed me watching him.
Dressed in a tailored pinstriped suit, he looked like anyone else at the bar having a drink after a long day, but I knew better. After a few seconds, his face twisted into a smile as recognition dawned.
He remembered me.
After three years of looking over my shoulder, never knowing when I might see him again, I had come to believe I never would. Without a name, he was a ghost, a memory so excruciating that I’d spent years trying to convince myself he’d never existed at all. Yet here he was, a living nightmare come back to haunt me. I cursed myself as the irrational thought struck me that talking with Liz had somehow conjured him back to life.
I vaguely remember hearing Blake call my name before he was at my side, taking me by the arm to break me out of my trance. He came into focus and I tried in vain to mask the fear that plagued me.