chapter 16 - nice to meet you all

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ELLE

I had no idea which entrance I was supposed to use for the press conference, but luckily the hotel staff were expecting me. A kind woman with the name tag, Teresa, standing behind the front desk, pointed a finger toward the conference room down the hall, telling me security would let me in. Mr. Daniels asked me to attend the press conference in case things went sideways. I wasn't sure what to expect walking through those doors after the imposing security guards who stood pin straight let me in. Inside, the rows and rows of reporters with cameras are the most intimidating thing. I couldn't tell if things were going right, but as soon as the heads started to turn and eyes locked onto me, it was clear something unexpected had just happened, and I was just in time for it.

I couldn't make it on time for the start of the press conference because the photo shoot with Ascendé took longer than planned. There was a mix-up with the wardrobe department, which set back the shoot schedule. The team apologized many times, even though I insisted it wasn't a big deal. Being a new brand, they were aiming for everything to go smoothly. I even got to see Raul and Sanya—this time, we were able to follow each other on social media.

Their business wear line is the cutest, with all the styles, colors, and sizes. I even got to keep my favorite outfit for the shoot: a slightly oversized beige blazer with a matching sleeveless knit crop top and skirt set. It made me feel professional and trendy at the same time. At least I'm dressed for the occasion.

I'm now gazing up into Ace's unwavering stare, a hesitant smile tugging at the corners of my lips. It feels more like a plea for reassurance than anything else. I have no idea how to act or stand properly as my arms hang awkwardly at my side like misplaced puppet limbs. I swear my heart wants to burst free to keep my nerves from taking over. Somehow, locking onto his familiar eyes becomes a sort of comfort or fixed point in the middle of flashing lights and the cacophony of the press—even though his gaze has never held a hint of warmth for me.

With confidence, Ace pushes back from the table and strides towards the edge of the platform, where a set of steps is. I follow his lead, and as I approach, he extends a hand. His eyes never leave mine, even as I slip mine into his warm grasp. Ace guides me steadily, almost with a sense of protectiveness, to the press conference table. I catch Mr. Daniels standing at the side of the stage. His brief and friendly nod shows a hint of encouragement that speaks volumes. It's enough to convince me that, with Ace by my side, I might just pull this off.

This whole thing feels odd. Holding each other's hands and acting like we're close to each other when we're not. I remind myself that we need to do this. All part of a charade where my self-appointed mission is to teach him how to be a decent person. I'm not going to give him any more chances to antagonize me, telling me I'm doing this because I have a secret crush on him. I'm not sure how many times I scoffed at that while thinking about it in my bedroom, holding my Daryl Dixon pillow against my chest—he's definitely had enough of the fair share of complaints and death grips.

We sit down together, facing the sea of reporters whose eyes gleam with anticipation. They've probably already guessed what type of relationship we might have from how readily Ace took my hand. The thing that surprises me the most is that he hasn't let go. In fact, he places both our hands, still entwined, on the tabletop deliberately, like a silent declaration laid bare for the room to see.

The questions begin as soon as the flashes die down. A man with a comb-over that seems to defy gravity leans forward, barely concealing his impatience behind a wide, unsettling smile. He instantly reminds me of Bruce from Finding Nemo—menacing, but instead of being friendly, he's very unfriendly. I think I squeezed Ace's hand from the sudden fright this man gave me. The man, Mr. Shark-smile as I now dub him in my mind, clearly wants control.

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