“A soirée,” Benjamin whispered as he took my coat, “is the only marketing technique you’ll ever need.”
“Ah, won’t the marketing department be thrilled to hear that,” I replied, glancing around the room. I was fighting the urge to correct him, as this was a simple business cocktail party, but my mission was to have a naïve mind, ready to benefit from the wisdom his father’s money had given him.
“Not for the company. For marketing yourself.” I raised a brow and he sighed. “You know what I mean. It’s only outside the office that things happen the way we need them to. And there are always plenty of eager women, ready for a chance with a real man.” He straightened his tie and blushed. “Or, um, a real woman. If that’s what you’re interested in.” I assured him it was not. He continued to speak. “Of course, there are plenty of unattached men here. But be careful, Marjorie. These guys are great men to do business with but not to be involved with personally. They’re too experienced, too crafty. They’ll use you to get to the company. Be careful about who you trust with your womanhood.” I hid my urge to cringe and gave him an innocuous smile, thanking him for his counsel.
At first, he kept a dutiful eye on me as he introduced me to other party-goers, gauging my reaction to them, and upon realizing I would not reveal any company secrets, he relaxed. He was on his third glass of champagne when he approached a familiar figure, a short man with dark curls. Surely it isn’t. Surely he wouldn’t choose Chicago, I thought. Benjamin slapped his arm around the man and bellowed, “Alan! They’ll invite anyone to these parties anymore!” The man turned and laughed; it was him, but he hadn’t seen me yet. I wondered if I had enough time to fake a phone call. Although I wasn’t worried about seeing him, I wanted to prolong the meeting. I had just opened my clutch when I felt Benjamin’s arm around my shoulder.
“You must meet my new associate, Marjorie. She’s an invaluable asset to us. Who knows, she could be one to you as well. Marjorie, this is Alan. We’ve partnered together for several special projects.”
“Charmed,” I said, closing the clutch. I gave him the most charming smile I could manage.
An unmistakable look of disgust flashed in his eyes then disappeared as he composed himself. “Very nice to meet you, Marjorie.” I forced myself to shake his hand. If Benjamin noticed any tension, he didn’t let on. Instead, he excused himself and sauntered toward a group of women gathered by the bar.
Alan gestured to a painting behind us, and we turned to admire it. “Beautiful colors. So expressive,” I said, noticing a server approach us and stop with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Chicken liver crostini and prosciutto rolls. We both politely declined and turned our attention back to the painting.
“Yes, quite stunning. What the hell are you doing here?” he hissed.
“Same as you are. Don’t blow it.”
“I told you I never wanted to see your face again. Did you follow me?”
I scoffed at him. “Chicago is one of the largest cities in the country. I had no clue you’d come here. Did you run out of people to con in Manhattan?”
His face hardened and he grabbed my arm—subtle enough that no one would notice but intentional enough that I felt its forcefulness. “Your carelessness cost me thousands. It cost me my business, my reputation, my investments.”
“Like you had a reputation to begin with. I gave you everything you needed to succeed. You shouldn’t have crossed me. I wouldn’t have had to take it all away.” I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching and inconspicuously spilled my drink over my dress. It was a shame to watch the dark burgundy liquid trickle down my favorite blue cocktail gown, but it was a necessary sacrifice.
“Clumsy me,” I giggled. “Pardon me while I go clean up.” I could feel his eyes on me as I walked down the hall to the lavatory. I knew he was lurking outside the door, on the phone with Shane, planning his next move. Brute. He should have expected this to happen eventually.
I stood at the sink, dabbing at my dress, when he stormed in and locked the door. “Shit, Alan. This isn’t a commune. You can’t barge into any room you’d please.”
“Listen.” He inhaled and checked to make sure we were alone. “I would be content to never see you again. But I’m drowning in debt. It’s not going to be long before they’re onto me.” He stared into my eyes through the reflection on the mirror, and his voice softened to a gentler tone. “I know you, Eliza. This kind of job will lose its charm, and you’ll be bored. You need adventure. You need me.”
I broke his stare in the mirror and continued to blot the wine out of my gown. “Did Shane tell you that I’d eat those words up? I’m Marjorie now, and I’ve never needed you. Don’t you understand that you were never part of the end game? You’ve served your purpose, and now it’s time to go. Your inabilities aren’t my concern.”
“Shane advised me to leave, but I thought it was too risky. You’re too close to this situation. My cover could be blown any second. Please, Eliza. Nobody doubted our affections for each other, and that’s what made us unbreakable.”
“We did make a striking faux couple,” I replied, smirking at the desperation in his voice. He was convincing, but I could always tell when he was insincere. He was a talented actor, a marvelous cheater, but his eyes gave him away. It was clear he wanted me to buy into his plan, but what would he gain from my cooperation? More importantly, what could I gain from his.
I grabbed his hand and he smiled, smug and self-congratulatory. He thought he’d won. When would he learn that I was always ahead of him, always ready to play whatever game it took to win?