SNOWED IN (cont’d)
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.
Gladys held up the triangle-shaped fabric, stretching the elastic that ran along one end. “I think this is your best work yet.”
Emma beamed. “That’s high praise coming from you.” She reached for the head scarf she’d made for Gladys Pickleton, the grumpiest senior at the center’s cancer support group. “Let me help you.”
She stood behind Gladys and pulled the elastic around the crown of her head, in her third attempt to provide Gladys with a scarf. For some reason, Emma couldn’t make a scarf that stayed on Gladys’s head. They kept sliding into her eyes. She’d made it her personal challenge to make Gladys a scarf she’d approve of—not a simple task since Gladys hardly approved of anything—and asked sewing experts, searched through patterns, and finally came up with the elastic idea.
Gladys had been fighting cancer for four years, in and out of remission. Emma didn’t know the details, she never asked, and when Emma offered to make a scarf, Gladys initially fought back. “I don’t need a scarf,” Gladys had said, a Texas twang purring from her red-painted lips.
But last week, Gladys looked tired, and her hair was thinning from the chemo. She motioned for Emma to follow her to a corner. “Miss Emma, I think it’s time for my scarf.”
Emma’s lips turned down into a frown. “Well, I’m not so sure about that,” she’d said. “But I’d be happy to make you one.”
Most of the group loved the scarves that Emma sewed. She wasn’t sure if it was because of her actual sewing talent, or because they were simply ecstatic that someone cared. Emma would spend hours at the group with them, listening to their stories, and then searching for fabrics that related to their lives. In Gladys’s case, Emma knew that her husband used to sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” to her, back in the “good old days” when they lived outside of Houston.
At first, Emma was afraid that her scarves made people sad, or were some sort of symbol of them accepting their mortality. Instead, she found that they’d sort of became a status symbol around the center. A conversation starter. Something to brag about.
“Miss Emma made you one with glitter? Oh, I’m going to ask for glitter for mine!”
“See this kitten here on my scarf? It looks exactly like my first cat, Buttons. Oh, I loved Buttons!”
“I served in the Navy. Do you see this scarf on my head? It’s the Navy’s emblem. I was a SEAL in nineteen-eight-two!”
After Emma fitted Gladys’s scarf, she wasn’t sure about the way it bunched around the elastic. But as soon as Gladys lifted the hand mirror and looked at the headpiece, she gasped. “It fits! I love the roses.” Then she put down the mirror and held out a shaky hand to touch Emma’s arm. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Emma straightened her shoulders. “Now are you going to quit complaining all the time?”
Gladys pressed her lips into a tight smile, before saying, “Well, maybe not all the time.”
The cancer group came together every week to support each other and share their stories. Emma was proud of her scarves, but more of the people who wore them, who fought every day just to have another night, so they could wake up to another experience, another conversation with their kids and grandkids, another birthday celebration.
Of course, nobody at the center knew about the first scarf that Emma had made, ten years earlier. Emma still had it at home. It was a dark blue material designed with stars. Her mother had always loved the sky.
“Your iPad thing is dinging.”
Gladys’s voice pulled her out of her memories. “Excuse me?”
Gladys pointed to the pocket of Emma’s long, button down sweater. “Your thing. It’s glowing too.”
“Oh!” Emma pulled her phone out and smiled at the name that lit it up: Andrew.
“Are you blushing?” Gladys asked, peeking at the screen. “Who’s Andrew?”
Emma yanked the phone away. “Nosy!” But she couldn’t stop the corner of her lip from lifting into a grin.
“You are. Hey, everyone,” Gladys called to the room. “Miss Emma’s got a boyfriend.”
“Andrew,” Gladys yelled back.
“When did that happen?”
The questions came flying as Emma scrunched her nose at Gladys. “What kind of friend are you, spreading rumors like that?”
“Your flushed cheeks tell me that I’m right though.” Gladys moved closer as the interested people from the group, about half of the fifty or so in attendance, huddled around Emma.
“Oh my,” Emma said, holding up a hand. “I do not have a boyfriend. Absolutely not.”
Groans followed and the crowd dispersed. All except for Gladys.
“You may have fooled the rest of those baffoons, but I don’t believe you. Now you tell me what’s going on or I’ll…”
“You’ll what, missy?” Emma teased.
“I’ll…I’ll tell everyone that you smell bad and you don’t bathe!” Gladys’s eyes widened, like that was the most evil thing she could think of.
Emma plopped into a chair next to her. “I can’t have that now, can I? My reputation as a clean-scented lady would be ruined.” She opened the text.
Andrew: Hey Boss Lady. I know you’re busy today but was hoping I could call you later for some help with something for the girls.
“Huh,” she said to the phone. What could she possibly do to help? She stuck the phone back in her pocket.
“Who is he?” Gladys asked, her eyes bright for the first time in weeks. “Tell me everything. Is he hot?”
“Come on, throw an old lady a bone!”
Emma huffed. “He’s very handsome. But we’re just friends.”
“Uh-huh. That’s how it all starts you know.”
“How what starts?”
“Love.” Gladys lifted her chin, studying Emma like she knew a secret that Emma wasn’t in on. “First you find friendship, then you see if that changes. If it works.”
“Is that how it’s done?” Emma asked, furrowing her brow. “The only time I thought I was in love was a decade ago, when I dropped everything and followed a photographer around the world, just to be dumped in a foreign country.”
Gladys gasped. “That’s terrible! What an evil man to do that to you.”
“Right?” Emma appreciated the validation. Dario certainly was not a gentleman.
“That sounds more like lust than love though. Trust me. Mr. Pickleton was my best friend before we ever even kissed. And he gave me the best life I could ever dream of.” Gladys’s eyes started to water.
Emma took her hands, fighting back her own tears. “He was a lucky man to have you. And he must have been very patient to put up with your nonsense.”
Gladys’s jaw dropped but when Emma smiled, she scrunched her face and pointed at her. “You kids these day. No respect.” And just like that, Gladys was back to herself.
As Gladys fiddled with her new scarf, showing it off to the other ladies, the group meeting came to order. Emma sat in the back for a while, and then snuck out to get on with her day, like she did every week.
As much as she loved the seniors, she didn’t really have the time to linger in New Jersey for the entire Saturday. Saturday, post-senior center, always started with a latte from the coffee house at the corner. With a smile on her face, she got her coffee to go and waited outside for her car to arrive, thinking about the next scarf she’d sew for Reginald, the musician.
When she remembered Andrew’s text, she pulled up the message again and replied with one hand, while holding her coffee in the other. Multi-tasking, she thought, laughing to herself.
Emma: Call me later and I’ll try to help. Even though after some late-night Googling, I learned that Star Lord is pretty smart and probably wouldn’t need help…
His text dinged back immediately.
Andrew: Ha! Good research. But even Star Lord needs to collaborate once in a while. I’ll call later. And thank you. Again. Am I always saying thank you?
Gosh, he was cute.
Emma: It’s not the worst thing I’ve heard all day. Thank away, friend. I’ve been told a lot worse.
As her car came to the curb, Emma realized it was barely noon, and she’d already had a fulfilling day. The hot latte steaming in her hands made it all the better, as did the ding from her cell phone.
Andrew: Don’t let those corporate types talk bad to you. They give you any crap, you tell me and I’ll sabotage their computers… JUST KIDDING. Go. Talk later.
She smiled at the phone, as the car headed back to the city.
Andrew moved around the kitchen, grabbing snacks for the girls and cleaning up the remnants of breakfast. His father fiddled with their leaky faucet. “I’ll fix this up for you today while you’re all out.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” Andrew knew the answer before he asked.
Jeffrey groaned, waving a hand. He’d always hated the city. “No thank you. It’s too busy and noisy, and it smells weird.”
“Don’t let the girls hear you say that. This is their first time to the Big Apple and I want them to form their own opinions.”
Jeffrey harrumphed. “Devon will agree with me. Bella, maybe not.”
“You think so?” Andrew lifted his brows and side-eyed his father. “Want to bet on it? Fifty bucks says they both love it.”
“You’re on.” They shook on their deal, and Jeffrey moved to the table. He grabbed his phone and the paper newspaper that he still insisted be delivered every Sunday.
“I don’t like leaving you. I wish you’d come.”
“Are you kidding? I’ve been trying to ditch you three on a Sunday for six years. I’m going to fix that faucet and go enjoy the quiet now that this Emma lady’s getting you all out of my hair.”
Andrew knew his dad was kidding, but he did feel a little guilty running out on him. “This was all my idea, Emma just helped me with the details. And I guess, technically, she put the idea in my mind.”
Andrew remembered the way Emma’s face had looked Friday evening gazing out of her office window before they left for the play. Soft. Real. He’d loved that she had memories of her parents like that to recall, and thought it was time for his girls to have some Christmas memories, too. Rockefeller Center for a skate around the tree, Emma’s same tradition, was a good place to start.
When he’d talked to Emma the night before just for some general information about parking and timing and details like that, she’d gone into planning mode. Despite his protests that he hadn’t intended to bother her, she’d talked a mile a minute and begged him to let her plan the day.
Then, he’d asked her to join them.
The sound of her voice, the way her laugh made his stomach do a flip, turned him into mush, and by the end of the call, he’d basically given up any semblance of being in charge. She was the Boss Lady after all. Planning a city outing for him and his girls was certainly making her a happy woman, so why not let her do it? She was the one with the knowledge of holiday season happenings anyway.
Now all he had to do was get the girls into the city and to her building, where Emma had secured him a guest spot in the residential garage.
Jeffrey tucked his paper under his arm and headed for the door. “I’m glad you’re taking them. They’re big enough now for you to handle on your own, but I’m glad Emma will be there. You know that city is crazy, and with two of you to look out for them, I’ll worry less.”
“Two grown-ups. Two kids. Man-to-man coverage always works best. Why do you think I keep you around?” he teased his father.
“Brat.” Jeffrey laughed. “Have a good time today, okay? Don’t you worry about me. I’ll call you if there are any emergencies, which I don’t anticipate at all. And send me a picture of the girls and that big goofy tree.”
“You got it.”
As Jeffrey started to pull the door open, Andrew called him back. “Hey, Dad?”
His father turned in the doorway. For a second, Andrew almost told him to forget it, to go enjoy his day. But his father had become his best friend. His closest confidante. And Andrew needed someone to gauge his sanity. “This is okay, what I’m doing, right?”
“Taking your girls to that crappy, overcrowded city across the river?” Jeffrey nodded. “It’s more than okay.”
“But…Emma. Not that it’s like that, but exposing them to her…I don’t know.”
Jeffrey huffed. “They’re girls. They need to be around women who aren’t their teachers, and Emma’s a good example and role model. I don’t think she’ll do any damage.”
“But it’s not like we’re dating. We may never see each other again after tonight. What if they get attached?”
“I have no doubt that they’ll enjoy her company, and I’m sure she’s going to make this a day they’ll remember. I certainly don’t think this is the last time they’ll see her. But no matter what happens, kids bounce back.”
“I don’t want them to have to bounce back. They’ve already had a loss in their life. I don’t want to risk them having another.”
“Then you don’t want them to live.” Jeffrey waved the newspaper at him. “Let them live, Andrew. And while you’re at it, you should live a little too.”
“It’s not like that.”
“So you’ve said.” His father rolled his eyes.
“Remember the office policy? Even if I were ready, which I’m not, even if she were willing, which she isn’t, there’s the policy.”
“I think she likes you and the girls. That’s a special gift. That’s all I’m going to say about.” He winked at Andrew and cupped a hand around his mouth. “Devon! Bella!” he yelled up the stairs. “Come say goodbye to your old grandpa.”
The girls sounded like a herd of elephants as they clamored down the stairs. “Grandpa!” Bella yelled. “We’re going to Manhattan, where Eloise lives!”
Devon shoved her sister with her shoulder. “I’m bringing my doll.” She held up Ginger. Andrew’s Christmas bonus the year before had gone toward two Country Girl dolls and accessories.
“Good for you.” Jeffrey touched their noses, one at a time. “Listen, stick with your dad and Miss Emma, okay? Don’t go wandering off. The city is a big place to get lost in and Ginger won’t be much help—she never pays attention.”
Bella giggled, shaking her head. “When are you going to learn that Ginger isn’t real?”
Devon scowled at her sister. “She’s real to us, right, Grandpa?”
Their exchange went on for another minute until Jeffrey was able to drag himself away. Andrew waved as Jeffrey made his way to his half of the duplex. “If you need anything, call me, and I’ll get home.”
“I’m fine. I’m happy to see you all going on an adventure.” Jeffrey looked past Andrew to the girls. “They’re ready, Andrew. Are you?”
He shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out. Wish me luck.”
When he turned back to the girls, they were packing the snacks he’d bagged into their backpacks. They’d worn matching outfits—Christmas skirts with green and red stripes, red tights, red turtlenecks, and their black fuzzy boots. Devon ran her hands over Bella’s long, blonde hair, in an attempt to make a ponytail.
“I’ll take care of that, Dev.”
At the sound of his voice, they both looked to him. Two sets of blue eyes, exactly like Hayley’s. Andrew shouldn’t have missed her as much as he did, because every time his girls set their eyes on him, she was there. He knew it. He felt her in them.
Soon, the twins’ eyes would be set on a different woman. A woman with dark features, warm, brown eyes, and long dark hair. Andrew’s body jerked awake at the thought of Emma, remembering her runway walk and her dress the night of the play. The way she worked the room at Russell’s party. The way his pillowcase smelled like peppermint since she’d used it the weekend before.
As alluring as Emma may be, the girls looking back at him were full of Hayley’s spirit. They were Hayley’s blood, heart, and soul, and he couldn’t let them lose that, no matter how much of a nice time they would have in the city that day.
Emma finished off her weekend meetings and emails so that she’d be free on Sunday to enjoy the day. She hadn’t been skating to Rockefeller Center in years, even though she’d been working across the street for five Christmases. Without telling Andrew, she’d also made plans to go to the Country Girl store and restaurant, and later to the see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.
She’d prepaid everything so that Andrew wouldn’t have to foot the bill for what would be her holiday dream day. Still, she wasn’t sure how strict he was with the girls. Maybe he’d want to skate and then dart home. Whatever he wanted to do, of course, would be fine by her, and he knew how much excitement the girls could handle in one day. Even so, she hoped he’d let them enjoy the day she’d planned, and tour the city as her guests.
Awaiting their arrival, she paced around her penthouse in her jeans, green blouse, and a scarf she’d made for herself out of the same star-patterned material she’d used for her mother’s headscarf. She loved the black and gold pattern, and the sparkly thread gave it a holiday feel. Wearing it reminded her of Christmases with her mother.
Emma needed to channel her mother’s strength and grace that day. She wasn’t good at the social, people-type stuff, especially around holiday season. She hoped she wouldn’t be too pushy with the family who’d been so kind to invite her along.
Panic overtook her as she raked her mind, her palms sweating as she fisted them at her sides. Had she forced herself on this man? Had she invited herself? She grabbed her phone from her kitchen counter and pounded out a text.
Emma: It’s just dawning on me that maybe I’ve overstepped. If you want to spend the day with the girls alone, I totally understand that.
In seconds, the phone rang, his name displayed over the screen. She picked up. “Andrew?”
“Got your text. Everything okay?”
She could tell he was in the car, on speaker, from the muffled sound. “Yeah, I—”
“Is that Miss Emma?” one of the girls yelled. “Hi Miss Emma! It’s Devon! I brought my doll, Ginger.”
“And Bella! I’m here too. I have Stella with me. Is Santa there? Daddy, are we in the city yet?”
“We have to go through a tunnel,” Devon answered. “Right, Miss Emma? Do you know Madeline?”
“Eloise,” Bella yelled. “Not Madeline.”
Emma laughed and opened her mouth to answer but the girls kept yelling out questions. Finally, she gave up and let them argue, until she heard a rustle.
“Sorry,” Andrew said. “Hold on.”
She smiled as she heard him say, “Calm down. Let me talk.”
“Emma?” Andrew asked, as the girls chattered in the background. “Are you having second thoughts about today?”
“Oh, no, but…”
“Tell me what’s on your mind. Use code if you’re afraid of the Realsies twins.”
She sputtered a laugh. “You’re such a nerd.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
She heard the flirt in his tone. “As you should,” she countered, with a little flirt of her own.
“He is a nerd,” one of the girls yelled. “He wears math socks.” The other started cackling.
“Girls, please. Settle down. And they aren’t math socks.” He yelled at them, any ounce of flirtiness replaced with his stern “dad” voice. “Emma?”
She cleared her throat as she paced her kitchen, then took a deep breath. “Okay, well, I sometimes overstep boundaries and I know we’ve set some. And I wanted to make sure that you weren’t just trying to be polite by inviting me or afraid not to because of the work situation.” She waited, biting her knuckle and cringing at how she’d blurted that all out.
“I appreciate your honesty, but no…and no. We want you to come with us, and it has nothing to do with work.”
The girls screamed in the background about seeing Miss Emma again, which warmed Emma from head to toe. She spent so much time around adults and seniors that the occasional time she got to be around little people was all that more enjoyable. She loved tiny humans, especially when they gave her an excuse to go to the Country Girl store and see the Rockettes.
“All cleared up?” Andrew asked.
“Yes. Thank you. Sorry I’m a weirdo.”
He laughed. “You’re not a weirdo.”
“It’s just that I can talk in front of a conference of thousands of stockholders, but then I can’t seem to communicate to you, and instead just push my way into your family day. And look, now I’m babbling.”
“Emma,” Andrew said sternly.
“I invited you. You aren’t babbling. In fact, you’re actually kind of charming for a mean, viper, corporate type.”
“And we’re pulling into your garage right now. Will you come down and meet us?”
Emma grinned into the phone, relieved and assured. “You’re on the visitors’ list, so take the garage elevator to the lobby and I’ll meet you there.”
“Elevator to the lobby. Gotcha.”
“Thanks for letting me share your girls today.”
“Give them a few hours. You’ll be begging us to leave.” He laughed, as they yelled in the background.
A few minutes later, Emma grabbed her coat, bag, and keys. Her work cell sat on the kitchen counter, programmed to take any calls right to voicemail. She’d check it later if she had the chance, but today was for tourist-ing.
The penthouse elevator lifted right into her foyer, so she put the key in and waited for the doors to open. Before she knew it, she was down in the award-winning lobby, designed for boring wealthy folks, not little girls. They stood out like sore thumbs, bouncing around, flailing their dolls, singing a Christmas song.
Emma absolutely loved it. They brought life to the wood and silk-covered couches, and stern doormen. She may have caught Richie, her favorite doorman, grinning a bit.
“Friends of yours?” Richie asked.
When she nodded, he gave her smile.
Then she saw Andrew. He wore jeans, but with a few layers of shirts on top. A skull cap that matched his sea green eyes covered his blond hair. He looked like a model from the Ballard male line’s outdoor catalog.
He froze when he saw her, then held her gaze for a second. As if they were the only two people there, he took a long look at her, head to toe.
She’d modeled for the world’s best photographers in provocative poses that would make men blush. She’d been scrutinized from head-to-toe by famous clothing designers, who’d treated her body like a plastic mannequin. She’d even walked practically naked down runways in Milan in front of hundreds of industry professionals without batting an eyelash.
But something about the way Andrew looked at her in the lobby of her building made her insides turn to jelly and her knees weak. As she lifted a hand to wave, Bella, or was it Devon, jumped onto him, clinging to his shoulders, and the moment passed.
But it had been there. She was sure of it. He liked her, liked her. She liked him. This could be bad. Very bad, on many different levels.
She walked toward the group and ran a hand over her hair, smoothing it down, with the hope that the action would distract her from her thoughts. “Who’s ready to have some holiday fun?” she announced.
The twins squealed and wrapped their arms around her waist, Richie gave her a warning glance, probably because they were being noisy in the otherwise-snooty lobby, and Andrew smiled at her.
Over the girls’ heads, he reached out and placed a palm over her shoulder. She noticed his wedding ring right away, as he gave her a squeeze, the warmth of his touch traveling down her chest all the way to her toes. “Good to see you again, Boss Lady.”
She winked at him, then decided to focus on the girls. She couldn’t fall for Andrew Mooney. He didn’t fit into her life, and he certainly wasn’t ready for her to be part of his.
As Emma introduced him and the girls to Richie, Andrew was distracted by her peppermint scent. She looked beautiful, did she always? But it was the scent that lit him up from the inside. The scent of a gorgeous, sexy woman, close to him, smiling at him as if he were the best thing since sliced bread.
After making small talk with Richie, Emma suggested that Andrew let the girls see the elevator panel behind the desk, and pulled Andrew to the side. Keeping his eyes on Devon and Bella, he stood next to her as she dug through her bag.
She pulled out some papers and flung them at him. He didn’t take them at first, as he pathetically got lost in her big, brown eyes. Until finally she smacked him with them. “Wake up.”
“Sorry,” he said, and took the paper. “What is this?”
“Our agenda today.”
He raised an eyebrow. “We have an agenda?”
“I wanted to make a nice day for the girls, so I arranged everything on this list to happen.”
“And you call me a nerd.” Andrew scanned the agenda—limo service, skating, the Country Girl complex, the Rockettes. “Wow.”
“I maybe went a little overboard. But it’s all paid for and reserved. If you don’t think the girls can handle it though, we can modify.”
“It’s amazing. You didn’t have to pay for everything though.” Andrew mentally calculated the cost of the day and tried not to feel guilty that he would never be able to afford it without her help. The fact that she’d taken care of it was a relief.
“The Mooney’s are my guests today. If you wanted to get back at a certain time though, I know it’s a Sunday—”
“No, this is…” He looked up to meet her gaze. “It’s very generous of you. The time, the expense.”
Her smile filled his heart. “It’s my pleasure,” she said. He really thought she meant it, too. “Should we tell the Realsies?”
“We may want to get them outside though. They’re probably going to scream.”
“This place could use a little excitement. Hey, Devon, Bella?” Emma yelled.
They ran from Richie. Andrew made them go back and thank Richie, and then properly walk across the room. When they had done so, he glanced at Emma. “Do you want the honors?”
“What’s going on?” Devon asked.
Emma twisted her lips into an animated half-smile. He noticed they were shiny, like with lip gloss or something sparkly. “I think we should surprise them. What do you think, Star Lord?”
They giggled at her nickname for him. “Star Nerd!” Bella said.
“Math socks!” Devon added.
Andrew turned to her, his hands out in front of him, palms up. “They aren’t math socks.”
Emma shrugged. “Whatever you say. The girls seem pretty convinced though…”
“They’re not!” His eyes widened, pleading in jest. After a second, he relaxed his stance. “Okay, they may have numbers on them.”
Emma bust out a laugh. “You really have math socks? You work at Ballard, a trendsetter in the fashion industry, and you wear socks with numbers?” She focused on the girls. “I don’t know, you may be right, because they sound like math socks to me.”
The girls laughed and ganged up on him. He had no defense except to surrender. “Fine. They are math socks.” He pointed to the girls with his stern “dad” look. “And there is nothing wrong with math. Math is fun.”
The girls giggled, his little ones jumping up and down and completely focused on the tall, brunette. This was going to be a long day.
A long, wonderful, laughter-filled day.
By the time they arrived at the five o’clock showing of the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, the twins were exhausted, giddy, and hyper with holiday cheer. Andrew and Emma, were exhausted too, but they carried on for the sake of the girls.
As the girls ran through the doors into the theater, even Emma admitted that maybe her agenda had been a bit too enthusiastic. “Do they ever stop?” she asked. “Where does the energy come from?”
“I have no idea,” he answered, thinking of his girls. “It’s like they are constantly fully charged, but then at night, they’re down to zero percent. There’s no in between.”
Devon and Bella bounced up and down as they found the row with their seats. They shuffled in, near the front and center, to the best seats in the house. Emma had spared no expense that day, and he appreciated it.
“Look how happy they are,” she said.
When Emma moved to follow them into the row of seats, he reached for her hand to stop her. He held it tightly, until she turned to face him. “They’re so happy because of you,” he said. “The limo, the skating, the Country Girl doll place. What was that place?”
She laughed, keeping a hold of his hand. “It was pretty intense. Ginger and Stella seemed to like it though.”
He glanced toward the girls, who looked from their tickets to the seat numbers on the chairs. When they plopped down into the seats, Ginger and Stella sat on their laps in their new Christmas outfits, courtesy of the hundred-dollar bill Jeffrey had insisted he spend on them. “I don’t know,” Andrew teased. “That Stella seems a bit shifty to me. I caught her eyeing one of Santa’s elves at the giant display.”
Emma laughed at his dumb joke, which made him like her even more.
“Come on, Boss Lady. Let’s go get some more spirit.” He led her into the row of seats.
“Secret?” she asked from behind him, leaning a little closer to talk over his shoulder.
He nodded, trying not to focus on how close her lips were to his ear. How their connected hands were smushed between them, against his lower back.
She whispered, “I think I’m actually Christmas-ed out.”
Feigning shock, he spun around. “No? Has that ever happened before?”
She pursed her lips and looked to the ceiling, as if thinking. “Nope. I can’t say it has.”
“Well, lucky for you, we only have two more, song-filled, tap dancing, loud, overstimulating hours to go until we complete the agenda.” With his free hand, he pulled the folded paper out of his back pocket and flicked it open. He didn’t want to let go of her hand yet. “Yep. This is the last activity.”
“Not really,” she said. “I think you all should stop up at my place to eat before you head back.”
“You do?” He scrunched his face, studying hers, over his shoulder.
“Am I being too pushy again? I’m sor—”
“Don’t say it. You aren’t. It’s just that…you aren’t sick of us yet?”
Her jaw dropped. “Sick of you? No, of course not. I’m sick of seeing Santa and candy canes, but I’m definitely not sick of the Mooney girls.”
He nodded and moved down the row again. The girls. She dug his girls. Of course she did—they were awesome.
Emma jerked back his hand. He spun to face her again. “Or the Mooney Dad.”
“You know,” he said, lifting a brow, “I would have been upset if you didn’t included me in that statement.”
“I could tell. Also,” she lifted their joined hands, “you’re holding my hand.”
“I am?” He looked at the hands like they were foreign objects. “I had no idea.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “I think you have to let go now though, because I have to sit over there.”
The girls had taken the two middle seats of their four. It was probably better for Andrew and Emma to bookend them anyway, keep them trapped between them. “But I like your hand,” he said. “It’s warm.”
“Lucky for you, it should still be attached to my wrist after the show, so feel free to find it again.” She grinned and winked, and his pulse raced.
He let go of her hand, and silently chastised himself for overtly flirting. Apparently, he’d forgotten how energizing it could be to socialize with the opposite sex.
Emma sat next to Devon, and he sat next to Bella. The girls bounced in their seats, the dolls on their laps flying up and down.
“Settle down,” he said.
But he wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself or the girls.
Emma, with Richie the nice doorman’s permission, let the Mooney’s ride the private elevator to her penthouse suite twice—once so Devon could turn the key and press the button, and then again so that Bella could. She was dead on her feet, and it felt like after their holiday extravaganza day, that the extra elevator ride took hours.
The girls were on hyperdrive, though. Andrew glanced at her, over their heads. “You’re sure we haven’t overstayed our welcome?”
She shook her head. “Chinese is already on its way.”
The girls stopped moving and looked up at her. Bella scrunched her nose. “Chinese?”
Emma shrugged. “Is that okay?”
Andrew rubbed Bella’s head. “I forgot to tell the girls that when you come to New York City, it’s a rule that you have to try new things.”
Emma widened her eyes at Andrew, mentally running through her cabinets wondering if she had any kid food. “Sorry,” she mouthed.
He shook her off. “No worries. They’ll love it.”
“I practically live on it. What do you guys do for dinner every night.”
Andrew smirked. “Uh, there’s something called ‘cooking’ that people in the suburbs do. You go to a grocery store and buy food and then use that thing with the fire in the kitchen to heat it to an appropriate temperature.”
“He means a stove,” Devon added. “Do you have one?”
“Oh, yes.” She scrunched her face like she was thinking. “I think I have one of those.”
The elevator finally dinged after ride number two, and the doors opened to the foyer of Emma’s home. The girls stepped off.
“Is this the hallway?” Bella asked.
Emma caught Andrew looking around. Suddenly, she felt embarrassed by her wealth. But the fact of the matter was, she had money. It wasn’t a secret, so they’d have to deal with it. She looked down at Emma’s tangled blond hair. “This is my foyer. We are in my house.”
The girls gasped and chattered as she led them into the living room.
“This is a fine place you have here, Boss Lady,” Andrew said. He stopped at the large window in her living room, overlooking the city. The window took almost the whole length of the room, with a bench and a cushion to enjoy the view. “God, I hope the girls don’t wreck it.”
“There’s nothing in here that’s irreplaceable,” she said. “My dad left it to me, and since I’ve been working at BI, it’s convenient.”
The girls squealed from the kitchen. “Daddy?”
Andrew cupped his lips. “Yep?”
“Everything’s black and white in here. And there’s a stove in the kitchen!” one of them yelled. “I don’t think it’s used. It doesn’t look dirty like ours.”
“Ouch.” Andrew looked at Emma and laughed, then cupped his hand again. “Don’t touch it. Get out here where I can see you.” When the girls reappeared, he waved them over. “You like cooking? If you had more time?”
“Nope. Hate it.” Emma leaned closer. “But I like to bake. I’m good at following recipes. I may have made cupcakes.”
“Cupcakes!” Bella shouted. “Where are they?”
“First,” Emma said, “you have to try some Chinese food. Deal?”
“But Ginger needs a cupcake,” Devon said.
“Stella too,” Emma added.
Andrew stood taller, crossing his arms. “You heard Miss Emma.”
The intercom buzzed and the girls’ faces lit up. “What’s that?” Bella asked.
“That’s my doorbell. Richie wants to talk to me.” She waved for them to follow her. Out in the foyer, she pointed to the intercom. Although the bell also worked through her phone, she knew the twins would get a kick out of the speaker on the wall. “Hi Richie,” she said into it.
“We have that at school,” Devon said.
“Ms. Ballard, your food delivery arrived. Shall I bring it up?”
“That would be perfect, yes—”
“Hi, Mr. Richie!” Bella screamed, her lips against the apparatus. She lowered her voice. “Send up the food so we can have cupcakes.”
“Sugar,” Richie said. “Just what you girls need.”
Emma chuckled. “Thanks, Richie.”
“Your house is so cool,” Devon said.
“I haven’t even showed you the best part yet,” Emma teased. “After you eat, have a cupcake, and wash your hands, I’ll give you the tour. Deal?”
“Another deal?” Bella whined. Emma didn’t have much experience with kids, but it sounded like she was getting tired.
“That’s what I do, I make deals. So what do you say?” Emma jutted a hip and tapped her foot, waiting, egging on the girls.
“Dealie wheelie,” Bella answered.
The elevator dinged, and Richie’s assistant handed Emma the bags of food. The girls stared at him like he was from outer space. “They said they put it on your account.”
“Thanks, Ron.” She watched him leave and walked back into the house, the girls in tow. “Hungry?” she asked Andrew, holding up the bags.
He was back at the window. “I could sit here for days and just watch the people. How high are we?”
“Twenty stories. Just like at the office.” She led the girls to the kitchen and spread the food on the marble-covered island. Andrew joined them.
Devon loved the Chinese food, trying a little bit from each of the ten or so cartons. Bella loved the little cartons, but not so much the food. Andrew still had her try a taste of everything, but didn’t force her to eat what she didn’t like.
After they ate, Emma pulled the cupcakes out of the fridge. The yellow cakes were decorated with white icing and red and green sprinkles. The girls’ eyes lit up.
“You even made holiday-themed cupcakes?” Andrew asked.
“Of course, Star Nerd.” Emma scowled. “What else would I make? Easter cupcakes?”
The girls giggled. She loved that she could make them laugh, even at the expense of their father.
Andrew caught her eye while the girls cackled. “You really went all out for us.”
She shrugged, her cheeks warming under his gaze. “Too much?”
“No. Well…yes, but we appreciate it. It’s nice to be taken care of.” When he smiled, his eyes brightened and the corners crinkled. She couldn’t help but notice that his teeth were as white as the snow outside, and there was one crooked one on the bottom. Emma’s cheeks went from warm to hot. She must have stared too long, because he cleared his throat and looked away, turning to the girls. “What do you say to Miss Emma?”
They were already grabbing for the sweets, mumbling thank yous. Emma barely knew these girls, but they were so happy, and she knew she had something to do with that. “Thank you for coming to visit me, and my city. I haven’t had this much fun during the holidays for years.”
She hated that her eyes watered, but loved the reason why. For once, her penthouse felt full.
“Girls,” he said, “eat nicely and don’t touch anything. Then wash your hands so we can get home.”
“We can’t,” Devon said. “Miss Emma’s giving us a tour after we eat.”
“Oh really?” he asked.
“Just a quick one. If it’s okay.”
“You are going to sleep well tonight. We’ve been in your hair all day. Please, don’t feel like—”
“Stop.” She reached to nudge his arm. “I told you, this is fun for me. Let me spoil them a little.”
Andrew bobbed his head back and forth. “You’ve done too much already.”
“Look how cute they look?” Emma pointed at the kitchen island where the girls sat, cupcake icing smeared all over their hands and faces.
Andrew let out a chuckle. “They can be cute when they want to, I guess.”
“I can tell you’re a great dad. They’re so happy and bright. You’ve done a wonderful job with them.” Emma smiled at him.
He scrunched his nose. “You think?”
“Well, thank you, Boss Lady.”
“You’re welcome. Now how about that tour?”
Andrew was hesitant about letting the girls run wild in Emma’s walk-in closet. It was about the size of his townhome’s entire first floor. But she’d insisted there was nothing breakable and pointed them to her more playful, less expensive clothes like dresses and girly-looking things, and away from her more business-like CEO suits. They chattered in the closet, as Andrew shifted his gaze around the bedroom suite. He glanced at her bed, covered in a purple comforter, which looked larger than a king-size, and quickly looked away. Thankfully, there was a sitting area outside of the closet to give him something to focus on besides her bedroom set.
After she’d introduced the girls to her things, she waved Andrew past the sitting area, to a set of glass-paneled French doors. She twisted a lock and the doors opened outward, onto a balcony that seemed to wrap around the building.
He’d never been in the presence of such wealth. He’d also never have guessed that the woman who’d played at the Country Girl complex with them, or who ate cotton candy from a street vendor by twirling it around her fingers, was the same woman who lived in that penthouse.
“This is my favorite part. It’s too cold outside to sit out here on a winter night, but when the sun hits this side of the building, it warms up fast. During the day, you can see Central Park.”
“It’s lovely, Emma.” He grasped the rails, squinting through the dark to try and see the park. “I can’t believe you spent a night in my dumb little townhouse when this is how you live.”
She scoffed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I feel a little embarrassed that I exposed you to my small world, when your world is so big.”
She laughed, shaking her head.
“What?” he asked, annoyed at the thought that she was making fun of him, but at the same time, hoping she’d give him a reason to not like her and make it easier for him to leave.
“It’s just that I was thinking the opposite. That your world is so big, with the girls, your dad. Your townhome is so warm and perfect, Andrew. This is a great view, but it’s all it is. You have an actual home. You’re very lucky.”
He huffed, his chest warm from her words. “Grass is always greener, I guess.”
“So they say.” She lifted her chin to the sky. “It’s snowing again.”
Sure enough, the pure white flakes peppered her dark hair. “Looks different in the city.”
When she looked at him again, the wind blew her hair over her forehead. He reached up and gently pushed the long locks off of her face, behind her ear. Her lips curled up into a grin.
More than anything, he wanted to kiss her. Not only because she was a beautiful woman against a beautiful backdrop, but also because there hadn’t been one minute of his time with her that he hadn’t enjoyed. Even though neither one of them was relationship material, she washis boss after all, the generosity she’d shown his children just added to the feeling. Never had he ever felt so…wanted. He and the twins had been completely welcomed into this very different world.
He must have been staring like some kind of creeper because Emma cleared her throat and broke the stare. “Everything okay?”
“Oh,” he shook his head. “I was just thinking.”
Without a thought, he blurted, “You.”
Raising her eyebrows, she bit her bottom lip, and he almost reached out to touch it. “Me?”
Yes, you, and your warm eyes, your peppermint scent. “You’re my boss.”
“Oh. Right… yep.” She took a step away from him.
“Technically, my boss’s, boss’s, boss. I mean, if you replace Russell.”
She stood a little taller and crossed her arms over her chest. “I figured Stu would be his natural replacement. I’m going to call him tomorrow and offer it to him.”
Andrew nodded. “Makes sense.” He tried not to think that might also mean that he’d have the opportunity to move into Stu’s position. He could use the boost to his income, even if it meant more hours at the job.
“Now what are you thinking about?” she asked, side-eyeing him. “If you have any insider info, I’m happy to hear it. Confidentially, of course.”
He shook his head. “Nothing like that. I’m going to miss Russell, that’s all. He always advocated for us.” Andrew’s eyes popped. “Not that you haven’t. I guess it’s just been that Russell was never able to move anything. Or maybe HR wasn’t interested in what he had to say.”
Emma rubbed her arms. “What did he have to say?”
Andrew bobbed his head, debating whether he should be having this conversation. Since he had her ear, he may as well go for it. “Confidentially?” She nodded. “Well, compared to other big companies, BI is far behind on employee holidays, vacation, sick, personal time, that kind of thing.”
“Really? I hadn’t thought to discuss this with HR. Russell never said anything to me.”
“Maybe he was trying to go around you. A lot of people don’t know how to approach you, Emma. Middle-management, I mean. Are you a serious CEO, or a figurehead…no offense.”
Emma took a deep breath. “Can I be honest with you, confidentially?”
“I don’t know the answer to that.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Of course I want to be a serious CEO, and I do the best job I can, but it’s not exactly my life’s calling. I sort of got stuck into it when Dad was sick, but I only want to make him proud. The company is his dream.”
“What’s yours, Emma Ballard?”
She pursed her lips, taking a pause. “I really don’t know, and I’m not going to figure it out tonight. Also,” she added, “as pretty as this snow is, I’m freezing.”
Andrew laughed. “Me too.”
Emma took his hand and led him back through the French doors, into her bedroom, to the sitting area near the closet. Her hand was cold, but fit nicely in his. They stood before the modern-looking, upholstered love seat. She nudged her chin to the closed closet door. “What do you think they’re doing in there?”
Looking toward the closet, he cringed. “Hopefully not too much damage.”
He didn’t complain that she was holding his hand. They sat next to each other, their fingers still entwined. He resisted the urge to drop his head onto her shoulder and close his eyes. Instead, he decided to tease her a little. “Your hand is still attached to your wrist.”
“Glad about that.”
He nodded, watching her fold her legs underneath her, twisting to face him. Lifting their joined hands, he inspected hers. “It’s a pretty hand.”
“Why thank you. Yours is too.”
He furrowed his brow. “I don’t want pretty hands. I want calloused, cracked man hands.”
She opened her grip and examined his fingers. “Nope. You must not be doing enough man chores or something.” Her fingers moving over his palms, soothing him.
“Or something,” he murmured, closing his palm over her hand again. He didn’t want to lose the contact, but didn’t want to be drawn in either.
As if he could stop it.
“Andrew?” she asked, leaning the side of her head on the back of the couch as she faced him. Her hair fell over her shoulder, as her dark eyes looked into his. She released his hand and ran her fingers through her hair. “Can I be honest about something?”
“Of course,” he answered, although the simple question scared him, especially combined with the serious look on her face, the way her gaze pierced his. The potential behind the word “honesty” had the power to open a floodgate.
“I really like…”
He gulped when she stopped talking.
She reached for his hand again, this time, his left hand. She looked down at his wedding ring, then back up at him, and continued. “…your girls. I really like them.”
He pressed his lips together, wondering if that’s what she’d intended to say, or if the ring on his finger influenced her. It should, he reminded himself. That’s why he wore it. He was in love with someone else. His wife. The ring was meant to influence him, Emma, and everyone who saw it.
“I like them too,” he answered, standing up. “I better go check on them though.” He needed a break from Emma and her deep, dark eyes, her peppermint scent, her soft fingers.
Cautiously, and with a prayer that he wouldn’t find a disaster, he opened the glass door and stepped into the room Emma called a closet. The girls were fast asleep on a pile of clothes on the floor.
With a chuckle, he looked back at Emma, waving her over.
“Aw,” she whispered, her hand to her heart. “They finally ran out of batteries. Look how sweet they are.”
He smiled at his little ones. “They’re angels when they’re asleep. I better get them up and moving.”
She waved him out of the closet, shushing him. “If you want to stay over, you’re welcome. I have a guest room for you, and they can stay right there.”
He considered her offer, but knew that him staying another night, snowed in with his CEO, probably wasn’t a smart decision for him or his family. “They have school tomorrow.”
“Oh, right. And work. We have work.” She shrugged. “Back to real life, I guess. Will you be at the Jersey holiday party?”
The party was in less than two weeks. He hadn’t planned on going this year. Spending eight hours a day at work was long enough for him, but if Emma was going to be there… “Will you?”
“Yep. With Russell leaving, I want to make sure the staff feels confident and secure with Stu, or with whomever takes that position. And I have a new friend there. He’s the IT Supervisor.”
“Oh, that guy,” Andrew teased. “Heard he’s a jerk.”
She laughed. “Not at all. He has math socks and sweater vests. They say he’s pretty hip.”
“Har har.” Andrew rolled his eyes. “You said you liked the sweater vest.”
“I do. I’m just kidding. Yes, I’ll be at the New Jersey party. Me and Rhonda. It will be nice to see you again.”
“And you also.”
She scrunched her face, her perfect nose crinkling. “Can I admit something?”
“I enjoyed today. Not just because of the girls, but because of you.” She took a step toward him and touched his cheek.
Then she leaned in and kissed it.
Dizziness overcame him. Not only because her lips were touching his skin, but because she was so close to him that the heat of her warmed him. She didn’t move away after the peck, but lingered, her mouth near his, their cheeks close enough that he could feel her breath on his skin.
With the twist of his head, his lips would meet hers. The thought excited him, but then the panic set in. He took a deep, steadying breath and a step back. “I can’t thank you enough for today. You’ve created a memory for my girls that I’d never be able to provide them. I’m sure they’ll remember this day forever.”
She smiled, her cheeks turning pink.
“In fact, the entire weekend has been a dream come true. Heatherby, now today.” His gaze dropped to the floor, and then back up to her eyes. He had to see what she was thinking, what she wanted from him. He was scared to death when he saw something he’d never expect to see in her eyes.
Love. Sweet, uncomplicated love.
His heart raced and his palms sweat. He had to rein this in before it took control over him. “But tomorrow, it’s back to work. You’re back to being my boss.”
She sighed. “Yep. I guess so.”
Neither one of them seemed particularly thrilled about it.