Today's Reading

She blinked. "You mean your dream of dreams? Your professional Everest? What you've called your 'gift to the future' with a straight face?"

"Governor Mane finally hired the person who's supposed to help me make it a reality. Help me push the bill through the House and Senate, with all the political maneuvering."

Mac's eyes widened. '"Ben?"'

"Ben." I was in shock. That had to be what this strange faraway feeling was, like I was a little ghost, floating outside my body, looking down from a distance.

"The ex-boyfriend you drove out of the state?"

I glared. "You mean the one who tore out my heart and ran it over with a semitruck?"

"The one you tortured with every bad behavior you're capable of, which, by the way, we both know is a long and sordid list?"

This was the problem with having friends who really knew you. "I mean, yes, but—"

"The one you said, and I quote, 'I can't believe what I did to my grad school boyfriend Ben, I literally lit his life on fire, I really need to evaluate my drinking habits and my deep-seated need to destroy people's lives when they hurt me'?"

Yet another reason why it was inconvenient to have one of your best friends around when you received terrible news. "Yes, okay, that one. The last person in the world I want standing between me and the biggest environmental victory in American history, and not to mention, between me and my promotion. Ben 'hates' me."

I clutched my hair to ward off the memory of his face the last time I saw him, the way he'd looked at me, as if I was the Very Worst Person in the World. Which, to be fair, I might have deserved, after mistakenly assuming he was cheating on me and then cheating on him in revenge. In a truly flamboyant fashion. In front of everyone he knew.

Panic mounted. "Forget helping me pass the bill. He's going to tell everyone at work I'm a horrible person. Do you know how hard I've worked to keep my personal life and my work life separate? What if he tries to kill the bill or get me fired out of revenge?"

"Belle!" yelled an excited little girl with long, dark hair, flinging herself toward us on stout legs.

I froze in front of the fountain. "Oh my God, I 'am' Belle. But instead of a book-filled mansion, I'm going to be trapped in the Texas State Capitol with something worse than the Beast. An ex- boyfriend. A very wronged, very crafty ex-boyfriend. I know for a 'fact' he's read Machiavelli. I was there." I bent over to catch my breath and slow my heart, which was beating like a bass drum in an EDM song.

"There, there," Mac said, going full mother teapot, stroking my shoulder soothingly. "You're having a tiny baby panic attack. I'll call Claire and Annie. We'll figure it out, I promise. It's going to be okay. But first, I'm going to need you to take a deep breath and—Ah, crap."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little girl with dark hair throw caution to the wind and careen toward us. She latched on to my legs. I looked up, desperate to find whom she belonged to—at the exact moment her father, grinning and giving me a thumbs-up, started snapping pictures.

'Pop! Pop!' The light from the professional-grade camera went off like fireworks, blinding me. I took a staggering step back, tripping the little girl, who lost her balance and tipped over, still clutching my ball gown, and I in turn clutched Mac.

I could hear Mac's "Ohhhhhhh, nooooooo," in slow motion, as if it was coming from the end of a long tunnel. And then all three of us were falling, falling, falling, and it dawned on me where we would land the second before we toppled backward into the ice-cold fountain. For a moment, the world was all flailing limbs and water that smelled suspiciously like pennies.

I surged for air, sitting up in the fountain, and immediately grabbed for the little girl. To my surprise, she was already up, laughing and clapping like we'd orchestrated all of this for her amusement. I tugged her wet little body up to the fountain ledge and then, child secured, fell backward with a splash. Next to me, Mac floated on her back. Her teapot costume was acting like a flotation device, buoying her on little eddies of water.

"I think we're going to miss our flight," she rasped.

I simply stared. A grown-ass woman dressed like a sopping wet Disney princess, sitting in the middle of a fountain as a crowd of tourists gathered and the little girl's father continued snapping pictures. With my luck, we'd go viral.

But none of that mattered, because my life had hit rock bottom even before my ass had landed in this fountain.

The past I'd thought I closed was coming back to haunt me. Ben Laderman, my greatest mistake—the one person in the world who'd seen me at my worst, who'd seen the 'real' me, whom I'd thought I'd really, truly loved—was coming back. To ruin everything.

...

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