Copyright © 2019 by Jessica Calla
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
They walked toward Times Square, Emma taking the lead, weaving through the crowds emptying from the theaters. Andrew practically bounced down Broadway after Heatherby, the smile on his face electric as he went on and on. Emma didn’t mind though. She loved seeing him so happy and hearing his commentary.
“The acting, the songs, it was all phenomenal! I hadn’t realized how far musicals have come the past ten years.” The lights of the city reflected in his eyes as he looked back at Heatherby marquee, snapping a photo with his phone.
“Want me to take your picture?” she asked.
“Would that be dumb? I’d love to show the girls though.”
“Give me your phone.” Emma took his phone and walked a few yards away. She turned to see Andrew posing, arms wide, his wingspan disrupting the delicate balance of foot traffic on the busy street.
She couldn’t help but smile. She snapped a few and then gave him back his phone, took out her own, and framed a selfie of the two of them. “Just for me. No rumors, no worries.”
Andrew shifted next to her and moved closer, ducking a little so the marquee behind them filled the top of the picture. As his body shielded hers, she felt warm. She also got a whiff of his cologne, a fresh, clean, man scent. Teagan’s “ask him out” comment rang in her ears, as he positioned himself behind her.
“Let me do the honors,” Andrew said, as he touched the button. When he moved away from her, the cold hit again, and she missed his warmth immediately.
She picked up the pace, clearing her mind of its inappropriate thoughts. Andrew was her employee. This wasn’t a date. She’d wake up tomorrow and everything would be the same as before. She’d hit the senior center for a little conversation, and then answer emails. Work until it was time to order dinner, et cetera, et cetera. Such the exciting life of the CEO.
Andrew walked next to her. No matter the temperature, the time, the day, Times Square was always busy. The tops of his ears had turned red with the cold air, but his cheeks looked rosy. “It’s been so long. I forgot how much I loved it here.”
“The city’s always alive,” Emma said, pointing up at a flashing electronic billboard. “I want to see that next. Moonlight Arrow.”
“I read about it. Looks amazing.” He touched the arm of her coat, but she felt it all the way to her skin. She didn’t think he realized that he’d done so. “You can get tickets?”
She laughed. “I’m not sure, but I can try. You’ll come with me?”
The second she said it she wanted to take it back. It had just seemed so natural to invite him, since his excitement matched her own. And being accompanied by a man, even if it wasn’t technically a date, felt nice. She’d been solo for so long that she’d felt special all night when she caught him looking at her, all fidgety and nervous.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to imply…”
“It’s okay.” He let her off the hook without accepting her invitation, which she was fine with her for the moment.
When they made it across Times Square to a side street, the rich smell of coffee beans warmed her. She pointed to the source–a small café. “How about a cup? Then I’ll get you home to your girls.” She wanted to spend more time with him before she gave him back to his life and returned to hers.
“Sounds great,” he answered.
Inside, he rubbed his hands together as they stood on line to order. “So cold. I checked the forecast and it’s supposed to snow again.”
“No,” she groaned. “When?”
They made small talk about the weather until they got their coffees. She paid, and Andrew carried the steaming mugs to a two-person table by the window overlooking the street. After they stripped themselves of their outerwear, they settled at the table. He was so tall, that when he sat, his knees bumped hers underneath. She didn’t mind.
“So, what do the Mooney’s do on Saturdays in December?” she asked, sipping her latte.
He shrugged. “Let’s see. Tomorrow is gymnastics, and I have about fifty errands to run, food shopping, laundry, all that exciting stuff. I’ll probably think about getting a tree soon.”
She smiled. “Sounds like fun.”
“Depending on your definition of fun, I guess.” He held his mug to his lips, blowing away the steam. “What about you? What do people on top of the world do on Saturdays?”
She scoffed. “You’d be surprised.”
“Flying to Aruba for the weekend? Buying a new car?”
She knew he was teasing by the way he smirked over the rim of his mug. She played along. “Honestly, I’m having tea with the Queen tomorrow.”
His eyes crinkled in the corners when he smiled. “Ah, yep. Should have guessed.”
“I’d invite you, but she’s very particular about her company.”
“And I don’t make the cut? What, she doesn’t like guys who spend their days staring at screens and wearing Dockers and no-wrinkle shirts?” His lips lifted into a one-sided grin. “What a snob.”
“She is the Queen.” Emma scrunched her nose, making a show of checking him out. “You may be able to get in with the sweater vest.”
“Ha,” he choked. “I did buy it in the mall, not online like I usually get most of my stuff.”
“I’m glad you didn’t leave it in the elevator at BI. It suits you.”
“Well thank you.” He offered a formal nod.
“For realsies, though, what are your plans for the weekend, after Her Majesty?”
Some glimmer of wishful thinking inside of her wondered if he was going to ask her out on a real date. The realistic side of her knew that wasn’t possible. “I kind of have a thing I do Saturday mornings.”
“What kind of thing?”
“There’s a commitment I have…a volunteer thing.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You volunteer?”
“Why do you look so shocked?” She knew her reputation around the company. “Am I ruining my BI persona? That of the spoiled daddy’s girl?”
“Stop. And it’s more like the cold-hearted, viper hottie.” He winked at her.
She laughed, realizing her interpretation of his surprise at her confession was mistaken. “Oh, I kind of like that.”
“I’m not sure it’s right for you.”
“Not hot enough?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“No. No viper enough. Certainly not cold-hearted.” Andrew shifted, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the little table. “I wasn’t shocked, more amazed, I guess. You seem busy at work, and then for you to donate your free time seems…generous.”
“I do it for purely selfish reasons, if that makes you feel better.”
He sputtered a laugh. “Yep. I’m sure the Queen is impressed.”
“It’s hard to impress that old witch.” Emma glanced at him over the rim of her mug and smiled. This flirty banter stuff was coming back to her. She’d been out of practice, but apparently it was like riding a bike. “Can I be honest with you?”
He nodded. “Please.”
“I like having a friend.” She didn’t mean for it to sound as pathetic as it came out. “I mean…you know…a theater buddy to have coffee with…I don’t know.”
“Look who’s fidgety now.”
“I’m not fidgety.” Except she fidgeted as she said it.
“You are.” He pointed under the table. “I feel your leg shaking. It’s vibrating the whole table.”
“Sorry, Star Lord. I’m not as cool and collected as you.”
“It’s okay.” He held up his mug. “It’s keeping the milk from settling at the bottom of my coffee.”
“Glad to be of service.” Oh my, he was adorable, his flirty eye-play with those big Maldives-ocean green eyes. “I’m not used to social interaction. I don’t fidget in business, so no worries.”
“I wasn’t worried. And can I be honest with you too?”
She nodded, gulping down her awkwardness in an attempt to pull herself together.
He tilted his head back and forth, as if he were debating his next words. Then, he leaned a little closer, and said, “I like having a friend too.”
Andrew felt himself being sucked in. Everything about Emma Ballard had kept him on his toes, from her high-pitched chuckles, to her quick wit, and her willingness to laugh at herself. Not to mention the way she’d led him through the city, like she owned the whole island. She walked like she was on a runway, and even under her long winter coat, it was mesmerizing. And that hair. He wondered if it cost her a fortune to have such thick, lovely, locks.
When they’d walked into the coffee shop, she didn’t seem to notice the way people turned to stare at the tall, gorgeous brunette, but he did. He also noticed their glances at him, as if to say, “What the heck is she doing with that guy?”
He’d enjoyed their time together—the play, the coffee. But his male ego, which had laid dormant after six years with the girls painting his nails and educating him on the princess life, suddenly bubbled to the surface after one evening with Emma.
He wasn’t sure he liked that.
With a few taps of her phone, Emma had the limo pick them up at the coffee shop. He’d always assumed she was a dominant personality. Strong, business-like CEO with a rich girl attitude to match her rich girl designer purses. But she wasn’t really anything like that at all. The Emma he’d spent time with that night had a quiet type of confidence. She wasn’t soft, but she certainly wasn’t hard. And there was a layer to her that she’d let him unpeel. A layer of Emma that was lonely, maybe a little shy.
It would have been easier if she were the cold-hearted viper. They could have parted ways and been done with each other. Yet, Emma Ballard wasn’t a viper—she was complex. And complex wasn’t really good for him right now. Especially complex in the form of a sexy woman who laughed at his lame quips.
But when she insisted on taking the ride back to Jersey with him and they sat next to each other in the limo, and he caught a whiff of her peppermint scent, he couldn’t help but want to see her again. That made him really uncomfortable as they pulled up to his duplex.
“Thanks again for the tickets,” he said, as the driver stopped at the curb. “It was a life-altering performance. So happy I got to see it.”
“My pleasure. I had a great time.” She pointed to the house. “Want me to walk you to the door, Star Lord?”
He laughed. “I think I can manage.”
She grinned. He grinned back. Awkward wasn’t a strong enough word to convey the feeling in the limo, until she presented her hand for him to shake. “Take care, Andrew Mooney.”
He took her hand, but instead of shaking it, he turned her knuckles upward. “You too, Boss Lady.” Then he kissed her hand.
She blushed. He bolted like a teenager with a crush, not stopping until he jumped up the stairs and put the key in the front door. He turned and waved, watching the limo drive away and around the corner, and then finally let out a long, relaxing breath.
Inside, the house was quiet and dark, the only light from the flickering television. His father snoozed on the recliner. Instead of waking him, he took a blanket off the couch and covered the old man up. He wasn’t in the mood for a million questions. Not when he had no idea what any of the answers were.
He left his coat on the couch and pulled his wallet out of his pants pocket, tossing it on the end table. As he walked through the house doing his usual nighttime ritual, he twisted the wedding ring around his finger.
He missed Hayley. Her smile, her light, the warmth she brought to their home. It wasn’t fair what had happened to her. To their girls. No matter how hard he tried to be a good parent, he could never quite fill her shoes. They were unfillable.
Upstairs, he poked his head into the girls’ room. Bella always slept in the bottom bunk. He leaned down and kissed her forehead, brushing her blond hair off her cheek. She shifted and turned her back to him, murmuring something about puppies.
Turning his attention upward, he found Devon, staring down at him. “Hey, Dev,” he whispered.
“You’re home,” she said groggily, gripping her doll tighter. “Did you like the play?”
“I did. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow, okay?”
“Sleep well.” When she closed her eyes, he turned to walk out.
“Daddy?” she whispered. He walked back to her side. “I like Miss Emma. She’s nice.”
Andrew smiled. He couldn’t disagree. “She is. Go to sleep.”
“Okay. ‘Night, Daddy.”
A few minutes later, Andrew was in his flannel pajama pants and his Star Trek T-shirt, the same outfit that Emma had worn a few days before. He fell into bed with his Playbill, remembering the show, flipping through and researching the cast. He’d missed the theater. It seemed like another lifetime when he’d search the trade journals for auditions and practice lines.
He turned on his side and looked at the picture on his nightstand of Hayley from their wedding day, wondering what she’d think if she could see him tonight. Would she be proud of the man he’d become? Would she think he was doing right by their girls, giving them the best life he knew how? Would she be mad that he’d gone out with another woman?
He didn’t know, and there was no way for him to find out.
Next to the picture, his phone buzzed from the nightstand. He reached for it and saw the text from Emma.
Emma: Thought you’d get a kick out of this. Thanks again for tonight.
Attached to the text was an image—a cartoon of Santa, wearing a sweater vest.
He smiled and thought about what to text back.
Andrew: If Santa wears it, then you know it’s cool.
She texted back a thumbs up emoji. Right after, the selfie she’d taken of them outside the theater popped up.
Without thinking too hard, he pounded out a second text.
Andrew: Would it be okay if I texted you again sometime?
He cringed as he watched the dots flash, indicating she was replying. Why would he want to text her again? Nothing could come out of any kind of relationship for either of them. Nothing good at least. Not for his job, and not for his heart. His heart already belonged to someone, and his days were full with his girls. He didn’t have room for her in his life. He barely had time to breathe.
Emma: I’d like that.
Well then. He couldn’t help the grin from forming as he put down the phone and turned off his bedside lamp.
- I don’t have too much to add to this chapter. Just a fun, getting to know you outing for Emma and Andrew. I skipped over the actual play, because really, what could I write about happening during a fake play on a first date? The coffee shop made for better conversation.
- While I like the dialogue in Emma’s section of this chapter, I also like the thoughtfulness of Andrew’s section, particularly as he walks around his house and closes up for the night. I hope you felt a better sense of him and what a big deal the night was for him.
- A little on romance: In romance, obviously readers know that our couple is going to end up together. Your reader should know from the beginning who the happy couple will be. “Reader expectation” is something talked about in the author-romance world. For example, if our heroine is hanging out with someone in the first chapter who is not the hero, it may frustrate a reader to then put the hero into the story later (unless you’re writing a love triangle, which can be a delicate situation). But wait! What about that guy? I liked him! As an author, you always prefer that your reader root for the couple you intend to be the happy couple.
- There’s something safe and cozy about reading a story that you know will end up with a happily ever after. So what makes romance an enjoyable read and a billion-dollar industry? Why do you keep turning back to the channel from the publisher-who-shall-not-be-named, to watch holiday romance movies, when you know exactly what’s going to happen in the end, every.single.time? The answer is: It’s not about the end, it’s about the middle. The back and forth. We need the characters to struggle, and we need to root for them until they figure out what we, the reader, already know… that they’re going to end up together. So for me, the fun of romance isn’t in the plot, it’s in the characters and their development, on their own and together. (That being said, some subgenres of romance tend toward a more plot-based read, like romantic suspense and fantasy).
- The next two chapters were fun to write. Emma gets out of the office and her penthouse a bit to visit the senior center, and then Andrew asks her for help with a special event for the girls. I hope you stick around to read more!