Reeling, I dropped into my seat and surveyed the room, which was already filling with hundreds of eager conference attendees.
My mind raced as I fumbled for my notes, wishing I could be anywhere else. Just as full panic was setting in, Blake took a seat next to me, looking delicious in a gray V-neck shirt and jeans.
“What are you doing here?” I sounded more exasperated than I meant to.
“Good morning to you too.”
He gave me a smile, and my body relaxed a little, maybe from the sheer relief of seeing a familiar face in this crowd. Plus his mouth on me last night was not nearly a distant memory yet.
Everything about this trip so far had been unexpected—running into Blake last night and Alli’s understandable but problematic fascination with his brother. Now here I was with Blake again, sitting in the presence of geeky greatness.
After letting my wheels turn a bit he finally responded. “I’m moderating the panel.”
My mouth opened, but the questions of how and why stuck in my throat. There was only one logical reason why.
“You did this.”
I glared, wishing I could level him with my stare.
“You had me invited here, to speak on this panel.”
“I don’t think I can take all the credit. You’re a significant competitor in the social space. That’s what you told us at the meeting, right?” He leaned back into his seat the same way he had at the pitch, eyeing me cautiously.
“Yes, that is what I said.” I swallowed hard, incensed that Blake would toy with me this way.
“Well, then, you shouldn’t be worried about sitting up here with the big boys. You’ll do fine.” He turned to his smart phone.
I had caught Blake’s eye, and now he had drawn me into this game of professional cat and mouse. How long could this go on? Until I slept with him? Until my company suffered inexplicable damage? In the meantime, how the hell was I going to get through this panel where I was completely out of my league?
The room was filled and the other panelists sat down around us. I squeezed my eyes shut, rubbing my temples to stave off the tension headache coming on.
“You don’t like being challenged?”
I opened my eyes to find him staring at me, his beautiful green eyes appraising me cautiously. He was pushing me and something snapped.
“I like being challenged, Blake. I don’t like being sabotaged.” I strained to keep our conversation audible only to us. Maybe in his mind, Blake was challenging me, but it didn’t feel like that on my end. I had plenty of self-doubt, but when someone obviously underestimated me, the gloves came off. I had worked tirelessly, given him no reason to doubt me or my abilities.
“Trust me. If I wanted to humiliate you, you wouldn’t be here.”
“You have real fucking nerve.” My voice echoed through the room. The emcee had turned the microphone system on, and all eyes were on me. Shit. I sat all the way back in my seat, wishing I could disappear into the floor. Apparently I didn’t need Blake to humiliate me. I could do that fine on my own.
The emcee quickly recovered the moment and proceeded to introduce the panelists and the moderator, the esteemed Blake Landon. I cringed at the sound of his name and the applause that followed, but I needed to pull myself together. Shooting daggers at Blake would not get me through this panel. He would be guiding the conversation, and I had just very publicly cursed him out.
I straightened in my seat and steeled myself with a few deep breaths, willing myself to relax and focus. The panel started with introductions, which went well since I had practiced mine no less than fifty times on the flight here. From there, Blake asked a handful of prepared questions, directing them to the appropriate panelists. Nothing was far, if at all, out of my depth and my anxiety soon faded. I even mustered the courage to chime in where others left off on their questions, though I was careful to avoid eye contact with Blake. He could throw off my momentum with a well-timed smirk. His face had proven seriously distracting in the professional setting.
After a short round of questions from the audience, we wrapped up. I let out a sigh of relief, grateful that I had survived. That wasn’t so bad, I thought and scolded myself for freaking out at what had turned out to be a totally manageable public speaking engagement. Crisis averted.
“Not bad at all,” Blake said.
Too paranoid about the microphones, I shot him a glare. I pulled together my things and stood up, suddenly anxious to leave and regain some distance from Blake.
He quickly rose with me. “Hey, don’t run off just yet.” He stopped one of the other panelists on his way off the stage.
“Hey, Alex,” he said, getting the man’s attention.
He turned back and caught me by the elbow. I resisted, and then realized he was introducing me to Alex Hutchinson, CEO of one the largest e-commerce websites in the U.S.
“Erica, Alex. Alex, we’ve been working with Erica at Angelcom, and I thought it’d be good for you to connect. There might be some mutual interest with her focus on women’s apparel.”
“Nice to meet you, Erica. I’m looking forward to checking out the site.”
Alex had at least fifteen years on me and looked more like one of the suits I pitched to back in Boston, but he gave me his full attention.
“Thank you, I’d love to get your input.”
“Sure, when did you launch?”
“About a year ago.”
“Excellent, I’ll check it out. Here’s my card, and my cell is on the back. Let’s stay in touch, and let me know if I can help with anything, all right?”
“I definitely will. Thank you so much.”
As Alex headed off, two others approached us, both men around our age. One headed up a popular virtual game development shop, and another had founded a burgeoning music network for discovering new artists not long before Clozpin launched, which made me feel a little bit better about being there.
We made small talk, and Blake gracefully guided the conversation back to me at all the appropriate times. Giddy excitement washed over me. I’d have been too petrified to seek any of these people out on my own. The reception overall was very positive, and I felt validated that I could hold my own, that we had built something worth using.
Eventually the crowd and the rest of the panelists dispersed, leaving me alone with Blake again.
“Wow,” I said, still reeling from it all.
“Was that so bad?”
“No, it was awesome actually. I wasn’t expecting any of this.”