The Girlfriend Contract 2

By: Lucy Lambert

Chapter 1

This had to be the most intense car ride Gwen had ever taken. Static electricity practically crackled at the midpoint between Aiden and Bradley, between father and son.

And, despite her position sitting beside Aiden, Gwen felt like she was stuck right in the middle of it.

So far, the journey in the back of the limo had lasted about ten minutes. In that brief span of time, Gwen nearly forgot about her night in with B. It felt like she'd been watching When Harry Met Sally with Beatrice a month ago, instead of the less than half an hour it had actually been.

Gwen felt herself trying to let the plush contours of the limo's leather interior swallow her up so that neither man could put their cold eyes on her.

What have I gotten myself into? she wondered.

Bradley Manning had the type of imperious glare to put a king to shame. Something well honed over years of ruthless business practice, she assumed.

He was probably the most frightening man she'd ever met face to face.

But what was more surprising was how Aiden matched it with one of his own. Bradley might have perfected the look over the last few decades, honing it to perfection. But Aiden, Gwen realized, had been born into it, had probably been subjected to it his whole life.

She couldn't really imagine how that must have been, growing up under a look like that. It intimidated her just sitting there, and it wasn't even directed at her!

"So... This is a nice surprise..." Gwen said, "I thought we were holding off on meeting the parents for now, honey?"

But this was an old contest, it seemed. Aiden's jaw clenched stubbornly and she didn't think either man blinked. Or noticed her. She squeezed his hand, which still held hers with quite the grip.

"He doesn't hear things, at times," Bradley said.

"At least I hear things other than what I want," Aiden said.

Gwen could practically feel the wattage of the tension increase. It came across as a stiffening of the spine, as a crackle in the air just beyond sensing, but somehow still there.

"Really? Well, did you hear the question your lovely lady friend just asked you?" Bradley said.

Aiden's fingers squeezed hers again, and she thought for sure that it was panic, that he hadn't in fact heard her. That he'd lost this little duel already. She wondered if she could repeat herself without it seeming too strange.

"Yes, of course I did. I listen when someone important to me speaks," Aiden said, offering Gwen a sidelong glance and a smile. His eyes flicked right back to his father, though, as though the older Manning were a snake waiting for a moment of distraction to strike.

"And what is your answer?" Bradley said. The smallest of smiles touched his lips.

And then Gwen understood. At least partly. Bradley Manning had no faith in his son. Perhaps Aiden had been a disappointment all his life, had never really lived up to however Bradley perceived the Manning name.

She felt sympathy for Aiden, then, having to grow up with this kind of disapproving presence in his life. She thought back to her own childhood. Her parents had always been rather cold to each other, but they'd also always been careful to praise and nurture their daughter whenever possible.

"Gwen," Aiden said, "As soon as Bradley heard about you, he insisted on meeting you right away. Insisted."

She saw then that both men watched her. Two sets of those cold eyes froze her in place. And what was worse was that they expected some sort of reply or comment from her.

"Umm..." she started. It was an experience rather like being called out in the middle of class by a teacher who'd just caught you dozing, that moment of standing up to answer a question you hadn't heard and realizing just how screwed you were.

"Oh, don't put her on the spot like this, boy," Bradley said.

She decided then that not only was she afraid of Bradley Manning, but that she didn't like him at all. He and his son shared similar features in both body and face, but what she assumed to be the influence of his mother softened Aiden's features just enough so that they didn't look cruel and harsh like his father's.

And Gwen wasn't about to let Bradley win this particular fight. She smiled at him sweetly. "Oh, you're not putting me on the spot at all. In fact, I've been planning on asking to meet you anyway. I have to say, you're not like your son at all." The sweet smile never left her lips.

Bradley Manning blinked. It may sound insignificant, but it was the only outward sign that what she said affected him. And it was more than Aiden had managed so far.

She knew then that Bradley didn't like her. Not at all. And she also got the impression that he suspected something. Something about his son's relationship to her. And that this impromptu meeting had been his underhanded way of trying to shake the truth free.

Aiden relaxed slightly beside her, perceptible only in the way his hand didn't squeeze hers quite so hard. I passed his test, she realized. She got the impression that Aiden was grateful for what she'd just done. That sparked a warmness inside her, far disproportionate to what she expected. On some level, she still wanted him to like her.

"So where are we going?" Gwen said, her confidence at an all-time high due to her successful sortie against Manning the Elder. "You boys pulled me away from girl's night, so I hope it's good."

"I have some private dining arrangements made for us," Bradley said.

The sound of the road shooting by beneath the limo changed slightly as the long vehicle started its trek across the upper level of the bridge.

Gwen watched the lights from the Manhattan skyline glittering on the black surface of the water, shifting back and forth on the rolling surface.

That was some good news, anyway. She'd told Beatrice that Aiden wanted to take her out for some sort of surprise meal at a new and exclusive restaurant. At least that wasn't a total lie. She hated lying to B.

At this time of night, the city streets weren't clotted with taxis. The city that never sleeps dozed around them. The limo took them to a regal old building on the Upper West Side that looked like it might have been a hotel back before World War 2. The driver stepped out and opened the door.

Gwen shivered when she climbed out onto the sidewalk. Why did I have to forget my coat? she thought. Because Aiden gave me no notice, and Beatrice thought it was a good idea to pretend like it was freshman year of college again, Gwen answered herself.

She hugged herself, rubbing at the stubble of goosebumps on her bare arms.

Like many older buildings in the city, this one had an awning that reached most of the way out to the street. A quiet man in a dark suit greeted Bradley at the door, opening it for them.

"Here," Aiden said, taking off his jacket and hanging it over her shoulders.

It still held his warmth, and she smiled at him in genuine gratitude. The jacket stayed on all the way through the lobby - apparently, it really was an old hotel. Old Art Deco sconces and wainscoting lined the walls.

Although "old" was probably the wrong term. Old style worked better. The place felt old, yet new. Gwen couldn't put her finger on it.

Bradley must have sensed her question. "The best businesses diversify. While my son believes in charity, I prefer things that might actually make us money. You might call this my pet project, restoring this old place..."

"And a dozen others throughout the city," Aiden said, looking around with distaste. Clearly, he thought those resources could be put to better use elsewhere.

But Bradley simply chuckled at his son's criticism, letting it roll off his back like water off an umbrella.

Gwen wondered if the two men agreed on even a single point. She doubted it. She also found herself agreeing with Aiden's point of view on all this. From the looks of it, she bet this place was intended to cater to more rich people. It made her think of Astor's party, the place Beatrice took her and where she'd met Aiden for the first time.

All that money concentrated in one place, doing nothing except showing how much of it you could throw around on pointless stuff. She wondered what one of Aiden's charities could do with the funds it took to restore a decrepit old building like this.

Bradley led them through a set of fresh mahogany doors which let into an opulent dining room, its walls consisting of more mahogany, giving the place a warm feel. A few of those Art Deco sconces spilled light up towards the ceiling, drawing the eye to a chandelier that again reminded Gwen of that party.

A single circular table occupied the space in the center of the floor, a crisp white tablecloth hanging from it almost to the floor. Three chairs waited for them.

"Thanks," Gwen said as Aiden pulled her chair out for her and sat her down. Bradley watched dispassionately.

"I just hired this chef from Paris. He came highly recommended; I'm sure you'll enjoy the food," Bradley said.

But no sooner had the food (succulent medallion steaks that had Gwen's mouth watering) arrived then Bradley began his interrogation.

The man would have made an excellent detective. Gwen's five-star steak grew cold on her plate as Bradley fired question after question at them. He really did suspect something, she knew.

She also knew that Aiden probably set up this whole relationship for his father's benefit, which in turn led to the question of what Bradley held over his son's head to make him go to these lengths.

"So tell me, how did you meet?" Bradley said. He hadn't even looked down at his food when the white-jacketed waiter set it down in front of him.

"Astor's party. Gwen couldn't find the washroom," Aiden said.

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