“The pictures are already out.”

“Already? What the hell? Claire only left a few hours ago.”

I squeeze my eyes shut, roughly rubbing them with the palms of my hands, wishing that all of this will be a bad dream when I open them.

But when I open my eyes, it isn’t a dream. It’s all just a blurry, very real, nightmare that I have to live with.

“What do you want to do, AJ?”

My brain scrambles for the words. How will this affect in Claire’s reputation? How will this ruin her life? How can I fix this before anything happens?

“Tell them … tell them …” The words won’t come to me. This is what I have a PR team for, right? Why haven’t they thought of something and brought it to Carson’s attention? Am I really alone in this?

I know the answer to all of this is yes, I am alone in this. PR only gets involved if my actions involve the team. If Claire had been a prostitute, they would have been all over it. But me having sex with an old friend who just happens to be the head of a medical center I’m financially responsible for doesn’t affect the team whatsoever. I doubt it will even affect me in the long run, or even the short run. The only person it will hurt is Claire.

My phone beeps. I look down at the screen and see that it’s an unknown number. “I’ll call you back,” I tell Carson and hang up, relieved by the distraction. I’ll need time to come up with a statement for this one.

I switch over to the incoming call. The moment I say “Hello”, Claire’s irate voice explodes on the other end. I barely understand what she’s saying except the curse words; those are coming in loud and clear. At one point I have to hold the phone away from my ear because she’s just shrieking. Part of me wants to laugh because it’s kind of cute, but the other part of me wants to reach through the phone and hold her because I know she’s angry and hurting.

When her words finally die down to an irritated sigh, I tell her, “I’m so sorry, Claire. I never meant for any of this to happen.”

She sounds resigned when she finally says, “I know.”

“We have the opportunity to shape this story,” I tell her.

“Well, right now they’re trying to spin it into some sordid affair. They’re calling me a gold digger, and saying that I used you to get this job at the Hope Center. The board could fire me for this!”

I cringe. Those pieces of shit. I should have known they’d pull that crap. Claire is anything but a gold digger. If she were, she would have held onto me in college since everyone knew I was being scouted for the pros. There were plenty of girls back then trying to slap marriage cuffs on me, and yet the only one I wanted dropped me as if I were some sort of poisonous thing.

“I’m going to propose something, so hear me out, okay?” I tell her.

She huffs. “What are you proposing.”

“I’m proposing.”

There’s a brief, confused silence on the other end before she says, “What?”

“I’m proposing,” I repeat. “The story will be that we were college sweethearts and that we reconnected when you—unbeknown to me—got the job at the clinic. No one knows I’m the one who brought your name to the board. You were hired solely on your skills and experience. Everything I did to help you get on their radar was done through other channels.”

I expect her to swear up a blue streak again, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t say anything. The only way I can tell she’s still on the other line is the faint sound of her breathing.

I continue, hoping to sell her on the idea that is sounding better and better as I sort through the details. “The press will love it. Everyone loves a good romantic story, right? The doctor and the jock.” I chuckle. “Imagine the headlines.

I think I hear the sound of her chuckling too. Hope makes my stomach clinch. If she’s laughing, there’s a chance she won’t hate me as much as I feared she would.

I sigh. “Then once all of this media buzz dies down and the new season starts, we can part ways. We’ll say our hectic schedules were too much for the relationship to sustain itself. We’ll only have to pretend for a few weeks.”

She’s still silent. I liked it better when she was screaming at me. “Your job at the Hope Center will always be yours. I can promise you that. If you want, when we’re done with the lies, you never have to see me again.”

“Okay,” she says, sounding defeated. “I’ll go along with it.”

“Good. I’ll go over the details with Carson and we’ll send out a press release.”

Tags: Penny Wylder Romance
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