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.
Emma Ballard hated snow. Cursing her shoe choice—leather designer boots clearly not made for mid-Atlantic winters—she stomped her feet on the frozen sidewalk under the overhang outside of the Portuguese restaurant in Newark, New Jersey. As she rocked back and forth to stay warm, she wrapped her grey wool coat, a Ballard original, a little tighter around her chest, pulled a cap from her oversized bag, and cursed all things winter.
Despite her hatred of the white flakes falling around her, the bitter cold air felt good against her cheeks, which were still warm from the heat and activity of Russell Westingman’s retirement party. Even though Thanksgiving had just passed and it was still early in the season, the weather people had been predicting a snowy winter, starting with the storm today.
Emma had insisted on keeping the party on as scheduled. As CEO of Ballard Industries, she wanted to send Russell out in style, and the five-course, open invitation luncheon, complete with a band and open bar, seemed to do the trick.
If only Mother Nature had agreed with her party plans.
She should have left earlier but after the party cleared out, Emma had sat with Russell, polishing off a pitcher of Sangria. With her belly full and her head spinning from the alcohol, Emma listened to Russell’s stories about her father, and had to make a conscious effort not to let her tears fall. Russell missed Daniel “Danny Boy” Ballard, almost as much as she did.
Emma had known Russell all her life, since her father had started Ballard Industries with a flagship store thirty years earlier, and Russell had been his first administrative hire. Later, while her father focused on building the international and domestic business side of things, Russell “kept the home fires burning,” working out of the Jersey branch and focusing on human resources, office management, and technology. Their competition—Ann Taylor, Dress Barn, the Gap—had all tried to lure him away, but he’d been loyal to “Danny Boy” and BI from day one.
When they’d finally said goodbye, Russell thanked Emma for the party, gushed over the generous retirement package he’d been given, and cried reading the card she wrote out for him. His would be hard shoes to fill.
She stomped her feet again, but her toes had officially become numb. They’d gotten word earlier that the trains to Manhattan were cancelled due to the storm. Emma debated staying in a hotel for the night. But holding onto one last thread of hope that she could get home to the city, she willed herself to be patient, and waited for the car she’d summoned.
After adjusting her wool cap over her ears, she pulled out her phone and opened her email, figuring she’d give the car another ten minutes before high-tailing it to the nearest Hilton. Snowflakes dropped onto the device as she texted the Assistant CEO, Rhonda Lewis, that she was still in Jersey. She brushed the flakes off her phone, hating the snow even more.
“Ms. Ballard!” A man’s voice called from the street.
“Thank God,” Emma murmured to herself, shoving her phone back into her bag. Another minute waiting, and the frostbite would have set in.
A grey, Honda something-or-other idled at the curb, while the man attached to the voice waved at her from the driver’s seat. “Everything okay, ma’am?”
“Fine now.” She took a few careful steps toward the car. The man exited the vehicle and met her on the icy sidewalk, offering an arm to steady her. He was tall, but so was she, and she grabbed his forearm and leaned on him for support. “You can get me back to New York in this mess?”
The man quirked an eyebrow, glancing down at her with green eyes. The snowflakes gathered on his blond, unruly hair—hair that looked overdue for a cut. “Oh, um.” Looking across the street and then up to the sky, he finally focused on her. “I don’t think so.”
Her shoulders slumped. Dumb weather. She’d never make it back to the city. “Then why did you answer the call to pick me up?”
“Call?” His broad shoulders, covered in a navy blue dress coat, shook with his nervous laugh. “Oh, I’m not your driver. I… I work for BI. I was at Russell’s party.”
Her breath caught and she groaned, embarrassed. “I’m so sorry.” She hadn’t noticed him inside and certainly didn’t know every one of the company’s fifteen-thousand employees, or even the few hundred that worked in the New Jersey branch. Still, she felt the need to make excuses. “I’m a little out of it, drank too much and I’m tired. My feet…” She stopped talking, knowing she shouldn’t be complaining to an employee, especially a stranger.
“What’s wrong with your feet?” He peered down to the ground.
“They’re cold.” She stomped them with the hope of feeling her toes again. No luck.
Shaking his head, he pointed. “Makes sense. You’re not wearing proper footwear for a snowstorm.”
Ah, a know-it-all. “Aware, thanks.”
“Why didn’t you wear your snow boots?” He lifted his foot to show her his perfectly outdoorsy, warm and dry looking footwear. “I did.”
Who was this guy? “Good for you. But I don’t have snow boots. I don’t make it a habit to be out in this awful weather.” She moved back under the overhang of the restaurant before she froze to death or started babbling. “How can I help you, Mr….?”
“Mooney. Andrew Mooney. IT supervisor, Jersey branch.” He held out a gloved hand. She took it, the warm wool scratching her cold, uncovered hands. “Nice to officially meet you, Ms. Ballard.”
Emma smiled as she racked her brain for prior interactions with Andrew Mooney. “You can call me Emma.” She wasn’t sure that she’d ever spoken to Andrew in her five years as CEO. She certainly had never seen him. She would have remembered that full smile and angled jawline, those bright green eyes, and that height.
“Okay, Emma. As much as I’m enjoying holding your hand—”
“Oh!” She hadn’t realized her hand was still encased in his. She pulled it away as if it were suddenly set on fire.
“—we should probably not be standing in the snow on the streets of Newark. We could get sick. My company policy only allows for a few sick days a year, and I’m already tapped out.” He let his jaw drop, feigning shock. “Did I say that out loud?”
She laughed again, wondering how many sick days employees actually received. Her Human Resources Department handled those things, and HR was Russell’s end of the business. Now that Russell was gone, she’d have to learn that side of the company too. “You’re fired,” Emma barked, pointing at his chest.
He gasped. “For realsies?”
She tried to maintain her fake scowl but couldn’t stop the grin from forming. “No, for fakesies, I guess.”
His cheeks turned a cute shade of pink. “Sorry. I have little girls at home and that’s one of their favorite questions. ‘For realsies?’”
Girls at home. Emma was surprised at the wave of disappointment she felt upon learning that he had a family. Not for his sake, but for her own. Their short exchange was the most non-business-related conversation she’d had with a man her age in a long time. Maybe she was even flirting? It’d been so long, she wasn’t sure anymore.
“Do you mind if I start using that in my meetings? Like, when someone says something inappropriate or completely off the wall, I’ll just look at them like this,” she scrunched her face, “and ask, are you for realsies?”
He nodded. “Great technique. Now if you want to add the hand and the hip jut, you’d be exactly like my girls.”
She tried again, following his directions. “Like this?”
“Perfect,” he said, his eyes dancing. “You’re a natural.”
“Imagine that.” She adjusted her bag on her shoulder. “Well, I hate to do this in the middle of our training here, but I kind of need to find a hotel or something since it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting home tonight.”
He held out a hand and caught some snowflakes in his glove. “Oh right. That’s why I stopped originally, to help you, but then I just got distracted by your shoes and stuff.”
The way he peered down at her, like a complete gentleman helping a damsel in distress, made her pulse race. But she wasn’t a damsel in distress, she was his boss, and she was competent enough to deal with a weather inconvenience. “That’s okay, Mr. Mooney. I appreciate the offer of assistance, but I’ll be fine.”
“Andrew.” He tilted his head. “Why don’t you at least come wait out the storm at my place?”
She squinted at him.
“That came out weird, didn’t it?” he asked, copying her expression. “I mean, you can meet my family, have a meal, I’ll show you my company ID if you’re worried that I’m some wacko kidnapper or something.”
“Funny, I didn’t think that until you mentioned it.” Would she go home with this man? He was a stranger, sure, but he worked for her company and was willing to help. He had a houseful of girls too, apparently. Seemed sincere. She thought for a second. “How about this? I’ll ask you a company question and if you answer it right, I’ll believe you work for BI and take you up on your generous offer.”
“For realsies?” He rubbed his chin. “Okay, shoot.”
“What’s the name of the woman from the cafe in the Jersey branch who ran off with the V.P. of Sales?” Everyone in Jersey knew this story. It was corporate legend.
“Millicent,” he answered, without hesitation. “Personally, I think she could have done better.”
Emma stifled her laugh before it escaped. He wasn’t wrong.
“Did I pass?” Andrew asked.
“You did. Still going to text a picture of your license plate to Rhonda, though.”
He drew his hands to his chest, feigning pain. “Ouch. But smart. I’ll pose next to it if you want.”
“Perfect.” She dug her phone out of her bag and waved him toward his car.
With a huff, he took the two steps and leaned against the snow-covered trunk, crossing his boots at the ankle, and extending his long arms to the side. “My chariot. And my regards to Ms. Lewis.”
After she took the picture, he jumped back to her, extending his arm. She held it, and wobbled her way over the sidewalk, into the street, to the passenger side door. He opened it for her and she sat in the warm car, texting Rhonda the photo while he scraped the snow that had accumulated off the windshield.
Emma: Know this guy?
Rhonda: Andrew Mooney. NJ office. Something with IT?
Emma: He’s giving me a ride. Thoughts?
Rhonda: Neutral. If you go missing, I’ll know where to look.
By the time he sat in the driver’s seat, she’d defrosted and dried off a bit. “Thank you for helping me, Andrew Mooney.”
He put the car into drive and glanced at her in the passenger seat. “It’s an honor, Boss Lady.”
Smiling at the nickname, she realized she had no idea where they were going, but she didn’t really care. Despite Rhonda’s neutrality, her instincts told her she was safe with Andrew. Best of all, in the heat of the little car she could feel her toes again.
Andrew pulled the Accord onto the streets, which thankfully were plowed, and pointed them toward his home, mentally reviewing his factual knowledge of Emma Ballard.
He knew as much about the woman sitting next to him as she seemed to know about him. Very little. Emma Ballard. CEO. Former model. Took over five years ago when her father died, which would make her his boss’s, boss’s, boss. Considered a reluctant CEO, he’d heard she was a good businesswoman, tolerated by the Board of Directors as a legacy to her father but considered a placeholder until the Board could usher her out for a more suitable candidate. Smart. Neutral about employee issues. She didn’t bother the staff, they didn’t bother her.
He glanced at her in the passenger seat and added to his fact base about her. Beautiful. Brunette. Long, thick hair. Brown, mysterious eyes with long lashes, perfect for catching snowflakes.
At Russell’s retirement party—Russell being his boss’s boss—she’d glided around the room, somehow avoiding attention but at the same time lighting the place up. He vaguely recalled seeing her on the cover of magazines, but had a hard time reconciling the supermodel with the CEO. That afternoon was the first time he’d seen her in person.
That afternoon was also the first time he’d had a woman in his car since Hayley.
When the silence got to be awkward, for him at least, Andrew cleared his throat. “So, Emma. Any big plans for the holidays?”
“Not really. Just working. How about you?” Her tone was friendly, inviting the conversation.
“Hanging with my girls. They already made their lists for Santa.”
“Already? But Christmas is still a month away.”
He smiled. “They insisted the elves need the lists now to start making toys.”
“Smart. How old are they?” she asked.
She paused. “Both of them?”
“Yep. They’re twins.”
“The Realsie Twins?”
“You got it.”
“How fun. You and your wife must have a blast with them.”
Andrew gulped and glanced at her. “Oh, I’m not married.”
“I’m sorry.” She groaned. “I’m an idiot. You wear a ring. I just assumed…”
Andrew had loved his wife more than the world but hated talking about her out loud. Even after six years, when he heard the sadness in people’s reactions to her death, it felt like a vise around his heart. “My wife passed away.” He hoped she’d leave it at that.
“I’m so sorry,” Emma said quietly. “For you and your girls.”
She didn’t ask any questions, which he appreciated. “What about you? Are you involved with anyone? Any kids?” Andrew knew the answers to these questions from the company gossip hounds, but figured they’d make do for conversational purposes.
“Not married. Not involved. No kids.”
Andrew couldn’t imagine a life so free. He loved his girls more than anything, but between work and them, he didn’t have time for much else. Thankfully, his father lived next door and helped out more than he should so that Andrew could do things like attend the retirement party for Russell. “What do you do besides work?”
Emma shifted in the passenger seat. “Not much. I mean, sometimes I sew.”
“You do?” He hoped the shock in his voice was indecipherable. “What do you make?”
She twisted her hands in her lap. “I love to stitch by hand. I’ve been making a lot of scarves lately. Trying to make more functional stuff.”
“Really?” Andrew tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “Wasn’t your mom a clothing designer? I vaguely remember something in our company’s history.”
“She was.” When Andrew peeked at her, her eyes lit up. “She created the first designs that my father sold for BI.”
“Such an amazing story. I’m proud to work for the company.” He smiled and gave a curt nod.
“That’s a nice thing to say.”
They drove in silence for a few more blocks. Traffic slowed as the sun set and the roads iced up. “Only a few more minutes and we should be there.”
He tapped the wheel.
“What about you?” she asked. “What do you do besides work and parenting?”
Andrew pressed his lips together, unsure whether or not to confide in the fancy pants Boss Lady sitting beside him. After a glance her way, he realized that she may look fancy, but she didn’t act fancy, and that he could probably trust her with personal information. “Well, promise not to laugh?”
“I’d never,” she insisted.
“I like theater.”
“Yeah. And singing. Broadway. Musical theater is my passion. I memorized every song in Heatherby.”
She reached across the console, grasping his upper arm. “Wasn’t that a wonderful play? I loved it so much.”
Andrew tried not to pull away at the feel of her hand on his body. “I never saw it. I don’t really have time to get to the theater with the girls. It’s expensive too.”
Placing her hands back in her lap she nodded. “Yes. That’s true. Well I hope someday you get to see it. It’s,” she sighed, “absolutely indescribable.”
He smiled. “I bet.” He pulled up to the duplex, his tires crunching over the snow in the driveway that he already dreaded shoveling. “This side is me. The other side is my dad. He’s babysitting tonight so I could attend the party. Want to come in and meet everyone?”
“Sure,” she said. “Beats being home alone.”
If it weren’t for the sadness underlying her tone, he may have taken that as an insult. Instead, it almost made him feel sorry for her. As if he should be feeling sorry for a rich lady, his boss, as he struggled to make ends meet.
He helped her walk over the slick driveway and opened the door to his home, the feeling of relief washing over him. He always loved walking through that doorway. Whatever was happening on the outside always faded away as his girls ran to give him hugs and tell him about their days.
That evening was no exception. The soft lights and the crackle of the fire had created an orange glow through the house, and a smell of winter and Christmas. Devon and Bella darted into the room, screaming, “Daddy!” but then stopped short when they saw Emma.
“Devon, Bella, this is Daddy’s boss, Ms. Ballard.”
“Hi Ms. Ballard,” Devon said.
Andrew’s father joined them, extending a hand to Emma. “Jeffrey Mooney, Andrew’s father. Nice to meet you, ma’am.”
Emma shook his outstretched hand. “Please, call me Emma. I’m sorry to intrude on your evening.”
The girls circled her as they spoke, inspecting her like she was a great mystery they had to solve.
She addressed them directly, obviously not intimidated by their scrutinizing glares. “Your dad was kind enough to offer me shelter from the storm. I hope that’s okay with all of you.”
Bella stopped in front of Emma, crossing her arms. “You’re my dad’s boss?”
“She’s more like my boss’s, boss’s, boss,” Andrew added. “And I expect you all to be polite and respectful.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bella said, waving a hand at him. She turned back to Emma. “Why can’t he have more days off?”
“Bella!” Andrew yelled.
“It’s a fair question.” Emma pressed her lips together and side-eyed him, clearly trying not to laugh. “What would you do if he did?” she asked.
Devon joined her sister, striking the same pose. “Go to the zoo. I like elephants.”
“I like them too. I got to see some when I was on a safari in Africa.”
“For realsies?” Bella asked.
Emma jutted a hip and lifted her chin, in the pose that Andrew had coached her on. “For realsies.” She winked at Andrew. “I’ll tell you all about it. And I’ll do my best to get your dad more days off, okay?”
Amused, Andrew shot a grin over their heads to his father. Jeffrey raised his brows and tilted his head toward Emma, clearly impressed.
When Devon waved her down to eye level, Emma squatted before her. “You have nice hair,” Devon said, running her hand over it.
“Devon!” Andrew barked. “Leave Ms. Ballard—”
“Emma.” Emma smiled up at him. “Ms. Ballard makes me sound old and official.”
Official maybe. Old? Not so much. He vaguely remembered reading that she was thirty-something. “Miss Emma, alone please. Hands to yourself. Can you let her take her coat off and get comfortable?”
His father shooed the girls into the living room and looked to their houseguest. “How about a cup of coffee, Emma?”
“That sounds perfect,” she answered, as she slid her coat off of her arms. “You’ll join me?”
Andrew wasn’t sure if she was talking to his dad or him, but they both jammed their hands into their front pockets and answered in unison. “Sure.”
Something about Emma Ballard had turned the Mooney men to mush.
Emma woke to the sounds of whispers from the other side of the door. Confused, she looked around and remembered she was in Andrew Mooney’s bed.
“Why is she in your room, Daddy?” The little voice whisper-shouted.
Emma smiled at the girl’s attempt to be quiet. The clock on the nightstand read six-fifteen, and sat next to a picture of a woman, presumably Andrew’s wife, on their wedding day. The woman was a beauty. Smiling, beaming actually, in a long, lace-covered, A-line gown. Emma wondered how she’d died. How this family had survived without her.
“Because she was tired, and the blizzard would have made it hard to get her home.”
“But where does she live?”
“In New York City. I think. Make sure you whisper. We don’t want to wake her.”
“You know, the book? She lives in New York City too.”
“I thought Madeline lived in New York?”
“No, she lives in Paris.”
“Oh, that’s right. Come on. Let’s get moving. Go get Devon and we’ll have breakfast.”
“But I need my library book. I left it on your nightstand.”
Emma sat up and looked around. The nightstand was covered in books, mostly adult sci-fi, except for the one illustrated book with an elephant in a tutu on the front.
“You’ll get it later,” Andrew whispered.
With a long stretch, Emma grabbed the book and dragged herself out of bed. She looked down at her attire—a long, black, men’s T-shirt with a spaceship on it, and a pair of flannel pajama bottoms rolled up at the ankles. She barely remembered changing out of her work clothes the night before, after Andrew had convinced her to stay.
Emma shuffled to the door and opened it, as the two stunned faces turned to her. “I think this is yours.” She held the book out to Bella.
“Thank you,” Bella said, as she took the book. Then, in a flash, she stuck her tongue out at her dad and ran down the stairs.
“Hey, you. Watch that attitude.” Andrew’s loud, deep “dad” voice couldn’t scare a fly, as he called after Bella.
Emma took the opportunity to check him out. He was showered, shaved, his messy hair tamed with gel. He wore the typical IT outfit of khakis and a button down. “These kids,” he muttered, turning back to her. “Sorry. It’s only a little after six, but that’s like noon around here. We didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Please. It’s your house. There’s no need to apologize.”
“Did you sleep okay?” he asked.
She crossed her arms over the ridiculous shirt, as his eyes did a quick sweep of her. The combination of his warm gaze and the smell of bacon wafting up the stairs woke every wonderful nerve inside her body. “Perfect.” She made a show of sniffing the air around them. “That smells fabulous.”
“Breakfast is our favorite meal.” He pointed down the hallway. “Two doors down is the bathroom. Why don’t you get cleaned up and meet us downstairs?” His eyes darted back to hers. “Not that you’re dirty.”
She raised an eyebrow as he shifted before her. “But, you know, women do things in the morning in the bathroom I guess. I mean, what they do I’ll never know, but you’ll figure it out. I think what I’m trying to say is, you look great, but, if you need…”
He huffed as she reached to poke his arm, hoping to put him out of his misery. “Andrew. Stop. It’s fine. Yes, I’d love to have a minute in the bathroom.”
Andrew shook his head, clearly embarrassed. She thought it was cute, and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d made a man blush.
“Anyhoo,” he continued, rocking back on his heels, “we’ll eat and then I’ll drive you wherever you need to go. The roads are plowed, and the world keeps spinning so… Does that sound okay?”
“I’d be grateful, but I don’t want to put you out. I can call a car.” Emma already dreaded the ride back in this weather. Andrew Mooney’s house was so warm and bacon-y, she didn’t want to leave.
“It’s no problem. You may have to write me a late note for my boss though.”
“Who is your boss?” she asked, realizing that the topic of work hadn’t come up at all the night before. “I’m not clear on where you sit in the company flow chart.”
His laugh indicated he’d relaxed a bit. “I have three employees I supervise, so I’m sort of low-middle management. I report to Stuart, who used to report to Russell.”
“Stu Borowski? Oh, no problem. I’ll text him right now.” She knew Stu well, and would probably promote him to Russ’s now-vacant position.
Andrew held up a hand. “Maybe that’s not the best idea. Don’t want the rumor mill to get started.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Good point. You’d probably be embarrassed that I was squatting in your house…”
“I don’t mean for me, for you. They’ll say you’re slumming with the IT guy or something.” He sputtered out an awkward chuckle.
With a tilt of her head, she grinned. “You’ve been a perfect gentleman. But whatever you want me to tell Stu, I respect that.”
“Thanks.” He ran a hand over his head, but with the gel it only made his hair stick out at weird angles. “I’m really annoying, huh? How about I just go downstairs. Take your time, help yourself to what you need, and meet us down there. Deal?”
She nodded curtly. “Deal. And you’re not annoying.”
With a thumbs up, he started to the staircase.
“Andrew,” she called.
He turned to face her.
“Thank you for letting me have your room last night.”
He smiled a warm grin, his eyes crinkling in the corners. “You’re welcome, Boss Lady.”
A few hours later, after Andrew had dropped her off at her building and she had a much-needed shower and outfit change, Emma sat in her office overlooking Midtown Manhattan. The snow-lined streets were busy with business people weaving around the holiday influx of tourists who’d taken over the area. She wished she’d been at the office earlier, before the snow had turned the dingy-grey color that the city always painted it.
Which reminded her. She had to send an email to Stu. She opened her inbox and a started a new message, cc’ing Andrew. Seeing his name pop up on the company mailbox made her heart race. He really did work there. She wondered for how long.
Emma sent a simple message to Stu, explaining that Andrew had “assisted her with business that morning” and thanking him for understanding. Then, she called Rhonda’s office, opposite hers in the executive suite, and asked her to stop by when she had the chance.
Rhonda Lewis was born on the island of Trinidad, and had started working for Emma’s father at the flagship Ballard store in Brooklyn the month after she’d arrived in New York, shortly after her sixteenth birthday. She’d worked her way up through the corporation as she pursued her business degree, and eventually her MBA. Twenty years to the day of her hire date, Emma’s father asked Rhonda to be the Assistant CEO, the position she still held. She knew the company inside and out.
Knowing her mentor wanted Emma to learn the business, Rhonda didn’t object when Emma was named CEO after his death. Instead, Rhonda had taken her under her wing. Your father gave me a chance when I was starting out. It’s only right he should do the same for his daughter. I respect that man and his wishes more than I care about which office I sit in, she’d said. As much as she’d tried to teach Emma the art of people skills, Rhonda was the company expert on getting information, and Emma needed her help.
After a quick knock, Rhonda poked her head into the office. “Yes, Emma?”
Emma cleared her throat. Rhonda had known Emma since she was a child, and would be able to sense the curiosity in Emma’s voice if she wasn’t careful. “Could you find me a personnel file on the down low?” Her cheeks warmed as she shuffled papers on her desk in an effort to appear disinterested.
“Sure. What’s the name?”
Emma folded her hands on her desk, sitting up taller and meeting Rhonda’s gaze. “Andrew Mooney. The guy from the Jersey branch.”
Rhonda lifted her chin, squinting at Emma. “From the party? Did he give you a hard time? If HR needs to get involved—”
“Oh no, not at all,” Emma interrupted. “He helped get me home and I felt terrible that I didn’t know who he was, that’s all.”
“That’s all?” Rhonda asked, lifting a brow and studying Emma.
“Yes.” And I want to know more about him, Emma didn’t admit to Rhonda.
“I’ll have it to you in an hour.” Rhonda smiled at Emma and closed the door as she left.
Later, when Rhonda emailed the file on Andrew Mooney, Emma clicked on it but deleted it before reading anything. He’d been nice to her, and she wouldn’t abuse her position by stalking him through his company history.
She took a spin in her chair and then picked up her phone. Thinking of Andrew, she cashed in a few favors, made a few calls, and spent more than a few dollars.
Maybe she wouldn’t stalk him. Maybe she’d just be direct. One thing was certain—she hadn’t felt so alive at Ballard Industries in five years.
The letter was delivered after work, just as Andrew was returning home with pizza for dinner. He didn’t get a chance to open it until the girls were fed, bathed, and in bed.
His jaw dropped as he read the handwritten note.
I can’t thank you enough for helping me last night and for the hospitality your family showed me during the snow storm. I’ll never forget your generosity, your bacon, or your beautiful girls’ advice on life (secret girl stuff!). I came across these Heatherby tickets, and remembered you saying how much you wanted to see it. It’s late notice, I know, but I’ve set up a car to pick you up and bring you to the city if you are able to go. Please take your father, and I’d love to babysit the girls. They are welcome at my place, or I’d be happy to watch them at your place if you think they’d be more comfortable there.
I hope you enjoy the play as much as I did. Talk soon.
She’d signed the note and scribbled her phone number on the bottom.
The first thing he did, the first thing he always did when life threw him a curveball, was text his father.
Jeffrey walked through the door, hobbling into the kitchen before Andrew had a chance to put down his phone. He grumbled a greeting, then went straight for the leftover pizza, tossing a piece onto a paper plate. “What’s this about a letter?”
Andrew handed the card and the tickets to his father. He’d read the thank you note from Emma twice, and thought maybe he was in shock feeling the Heatherby tickets between his fingers. “Do you believe this? Is this even real?”
As Jeffrey scanned the card, Andrew paced the kitchen. “Nice penmanship.” His father lifted the tickets to the overhead light, as if he were an expert on counterfeiting. “They look real to me.”
“Not the tickets, the…the…sentiment.”
Jeffrey handed the card and its contents to Andrew and picked up his slice of pizza. “I think it’s appropriate for her to send a thank you to her employee who helped her out. You gave up your room and drove her into that horrid city in the ice and snow. She’s a classy lady, with a good upbringing—”
“She’s a corporate viper.” He tossed the card onto the counter.
“A damn pretty one—”
“Dad! You can’t say things like that. It’s not the sixties.”
Jeffrey scowled and pointed the tip of the pizza slice at his son. “If I think a woman is pretty, I sure as heck can say so.”
Andrew rolled his eyes, brewing a cup of coffee as his father took a bite of the cold slice. After Jeffrey finished, he stood next to Andrew, who was focused on the coffee streaming into his “World’s Best Dad” mug.
Jeffrey reached a hand out for his son. “I think maybe your…jitters…toward Emma come from a different place than you think.”
“A different place?” He felt like the twins snapping at his own father like that. All he needed was to put a hand on his hip and stick out his chin. “So it’s not because she doesn’t care about her job? It’s not because she has no clue how to run a company?”
Jeffrey waved his hands, turning his head away. “You know that’s not true. The woman has an MBA and the company’s doing fine. The stock market has held since she took over for her father. Listen, son, it’s been six years since Hayley—”
Andrew held up a hand to stop his father’s words, words he didn’t want to hear because they hurt his heart. “This has nothing to do with Hayley.” He picked up the note and tickets, and waved them at his father. “It’s not like she wants to date me, Dad. She wants me to take you.”
Jeffrey huffed. “So then why are you so upset?”
Andrew peeked at the envelope in his hand. He didn’t know why he was upset. Maybe because he’d never have been able to score Heatherby tickets on his own, and all Emma Ballard had to do was bat an eyelash, and they fall from the sky. Maybe because she’d assumed he’d leave his girls with her, a practical stranger, while he gallivanted around the city. Or, maybe it was because, like his father had said, she was really pretty, and had been sweet and nice to him during her stay in his home.
Emma Ballard scared him. Not so much as his boss’s, boss’s, boss, but because she was likable. He didn’t want to like her.
“I should have never stopped to help her yesterday. I should have left her to her own devices.”
Jeffrey grunted in disapproval. “That is not how you were raised. Don’t you lose your manners because you’re suddenly out of your comfort zone, young man.”
Young man. His father hadn’t called him that since he was a teenager so Andrew knew he was angry. And the whole situation did make him uncomfortable. “I’m sorry.”
Jeffrey took the note and pulled out the tickets again, studying them. “Friday night. I’ll be around to watch the girls.”
Andrew furrowed his brow. “I’ll call Mrs. Fletcher to watch them. You’re coming with me, remember?”
His dad laughed. “Oh heck no. I hate that city, and you know I can’t sit through that musical stuff. I fall asleep and my hip gets sore.” Jeffrey hated Broadway, a bone of contention between him and Andrew for years. It didn’t help that he’d had hip surgery after his time in the Army, which made it difficult for him to sit for long periods without stiffening up. “I’d rather have a movie marathon with Dev and Bells.”
Andrew sighed. “Well, who am I supposed to take?”
His father held up the card, tapping his thumb over Emma’s signature.
“Are you insane?” He grabbed the card from his chuckling father’s hand. “She’s my boss, Dad. And she doesn’t want to go. She said she’d seen it already, and the card says to take you.”
“Of course it does. A classy lady like Ms. Ballard wouldn’t invite herself out with a man she barely knows, especially one who works for her.”
“But I bet if you asked her, she’d say yes.”
“Well, I’m not asking.” Andrew huffed again, proving to himself that he was his daughters’ father. He sounded just like them. He glanced sideways at his father. “And what makes you think so?”
Jeffrey shrugged. “Just a feeling. The way she looked at you like she needed a friend. The way she poked around the house after breakfast, picking up the picture of you on the mantel, like it was the most fascinating thing ever.”
“Oh please,” Andrew sang, feeling his cheeks heat. He hadn’t noticed any of that. Did Emma really look at the picture of him with his prize-winning tuna catch? “You make her sound like a schoolgirl with a crush. She’s an ex-model, a spoiled princess turned CEO of a major corporation. She’s a vi—”
“A viper,” Jeffrey finished. “Yeah, right. She really seemed viper-ish and spoiled when she was letting Devon paint her fingernails orange.”
Andrew ignored his father’s sarcasm, taking a minute to think while he cleared the table and crushed the pizza boxes for recycling. Sure, Emma had seemed nice, sweet. But he’d heard stories about her tearing things up in the Board Room. Stories about how the Board constantly challenged her and tried to force her out, and how she’d never been able to move her agenda. She wasn’t strong enough to fight for the company, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t tried. At least from what he’d heard through the gossip that filtered to the Jersey branch.
Jeffrey stood next to him, leaning his bad hip against the counter. “It’s just a play. You don’t have to marry her. Heck, you don’t even have to talk to each other. It would be a common courtesy to ask the person who got the tickets if they wanted to accompany you. Just like you do when Uncle Sal gets you Yankee tickets.”
Andrew growled. Why did his father have to be so smart? He glared at Jeffrey, then sputtered out, “Fine. I’ll think about it.”
Emma stared at the screen on her phone as the shrill tone rang through her otherwise quiet office. A. Mooney-NJ flashed across the display, blinking, waiting for her to pick up the call. She’d given him her cell phone number, so she wasn’t sure why he was calling her internal office line. Whatever the reason for doing so, she knew it probably wasn’t good. She’d likely stepped over a line with the tickets. Once again, she hated herself for her social awkwardness.
She lifted her hand and touched the answer button without pressing it, then quickly returned her hand to her lap, as if the button had been on fire. What would she say to him? Was he mad about the tickets? Did he not trust her with his girls?
She couldn’t blame him. Maybe it was a little forward to suggest he leave the twins in her care, but she wasn’t sure what his babysitting situation was, and certainly didn’t want to place a financial burden on his family in order for him to enjoy her gift.
The phone stopped ringing, finally. She stood and paced behind her desk, looking out at Fifth Avenue twenty stories below. From up there, in her cherry-wood-paneled corner office, she could study the people on the street, watch their patterns of movement, imagine their feelings as they wandered her city during this special holiday season. But she wasn’t good at asking them, face-to-face, how it made them feel. Imagining was much easier.
She was a generous person, so she thought, but she’d never had to confront people one-on-one. She always had her father to fight her battles, or her agent when she was modeling. Now, as CEO, she was trying to learn how to manage the delicate balance of brains and brawn. The brawn part of that was the problem. The ideas flowed as she sat behind her desk, but as soon as she tried to verbalize them, she either floundered or crossed over the line and overdid it.
With Andrew, maybe the idea of the tickets for him and his father was nice in theory, but perhaps her execution had been a bit too aggressive.
When the voicemail came through to her email, she cringed as she clicked to open the recording.
“Hi Emma…Ms. Ballard…I was hoping to talk to you. Um…I hate voicemail. Maybe I’ll just email? I don’t know. I guess call me back at the office?”
She thought he’d hung up, but the recording continued.
“Oh, and, um, thank you. That was really nice of you.”
The last part put her at ease a bit. At least he thought it was a nice gesture, even if he’d ultimately end up refusing the offer.
Cindy, Rhonda and Emma’s shared administrative assistant, buzzed her speaker. “Ms. Ballard?”
“Yes,” Emma answered, hating that Cindy was so formal.
“Mr. Mooney from the New Jersey branch is on your outside line.”
Emma’s heart sped up. “Thanks, Cin. I’ll take it.” She looked at the blinking dot next to the official business line. With a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders and picked up the receiver. “Andrew?”
He cleared his throat. “Hi Ms.—”
“Emma,” she interrupted. “You have to call me Emma, please. Nobody around here does, and I miss my name.”
He chuckled. “Emma. It’s a beautiful name.”
She spun in her chair and smiled. “What can I do for you? I just got your voicemail.”
“Oh, right. I left it and then figured maybe you don’t answer calls on your internal line that aren’t screened, so I thought I’d try the official line. I don’t know.”
She could picture him fidgeting. “I gave you my cell phone number in the card I sent.”
“You did. I felt…I don’t know…I didn’t want to bother you.”
“I wouldn’t have given it to you if I thought you’d be a bother.” Emma watched the clouds move through the sky, wondering if she was being too much. “But this is fine, too, if you’re more comfortable. What’s up?”
“I wanted to say thank you for the tickets. It’s a very generous gift that goes above and beyond the hospitality provided, but I’m happy and excited to accept.”
“You are?” She mentally fist-bumped herself. Good job, Emma.
“I am. But there’s one thing.”
Emma’s stomach twisted into a knot. “I hope it’s not the girls. I mean, I only offered to watch them because—”
“No, no. Not that. I mean, I was wondering if you’d like to accompany me.”
Emma dropped the phone at his words. The handset tumbled to the floor, bouncing around on the wire as she tried to recover it. Did he just ask her on a date? A date that she’d set up? She fumbled the handset and sputtered a laugh as she returned it to her ear. “Sorry. You want me to go with you?”
“Obviously, it wouldn’t be, like, a date or anything because company policy forbids such things, and I’d never suggest that you’d be interested…” He huffed into the phone. “This is weird. Honestly, my father isn’t into the theater, like, at all, and there’s nobody I know who’d appreciate it like you would. I don’t want my first, and most likely only, Heatherby experience to be with one of my friends who would heckle the cast and sneak in a flask.”
She laughed. “Your friends sound interesting.”
“So, what do you say?”
Before she thought too hard about the consequences, she blurted out, “I’d love to go with you.”
“For realsies?” he asked, his voice high-pitched, like he didn’t believe her.
“For realsies,” she answered.
“Great,” he practically screamed. “I’ll call you before Friday, on the cell next time or maybe I’ll text you, I’ll figure it out, and we’ll finalize details.”
She smirked at his nerdy tone. Charming, smart, down to earth. Not bad on the eyes either. “Sounds good. Call or text anytime. When I’m busy I mute the phone, so you don’t have to worry about bothering me. Okay?”
“Okay. Talk soon, Boss Lady.”
Smiling, she hung up the phone and fanned herself with a file from her desk. Why did it feel like it was suddenly a hundred degrees in her office? Did she just make a date with her employee?
No. Wasn’t a date. He’d said so. He’d only invited her because he had nobody else to go with. Still, it would be the first time she’d been out with a man, platonic or otherwise, in a very long time.
And that made her more nervous than presenting before hundreds of shareholders or posing in a bathing suit for millions to see.
Emma stretched on her king-sized bed as her phone beeped on the nightstand. Of all the places in the townhouse, her bed was her favorite. The place was huge, but she mostly confined herself to her bedroom and her sewing room.
Her best friend’s face lit up the screen, right under the clock that read ten p.m.
Emma Ballard and Teagan Winslow were night and day. Emma had grown up in luxury on the Upper East Side, while Teagan’s mother had raised her on the streets of Las Vegas, hustling for cash. But from the time they both landed in the same modeling agency at the age of fifteen, they’d been inseparable.
Except now, Teagan was married to a doctor named Jack and lived in Los Angeles, while Emma was a world away in New York City.
“Hi, Tea,” Emma yawned.
“Don’t tell me you’re asleep. It’s, what, nine there? Shouldn’t you be out partying?”
“It’s ten. I’m tired and need my beauty rest. What’s up?”
Two of Teagan’s three babies, the twins, screamed in the background. Not the oldest though, Emma’s godson, Matthew. He just begged for the phone. “I wanna talk to Mem-ma, Mommy…. lemme talk to Mem-ma!”
Teagan shushed Matthew. “Me first, Matty. Go check on the babies.” After briefly placing Emma on hold she returned to the phone, and the background noise toned down. “Remind me why I wanted kids?”
“’Cause they’re cute? And because you married to a pediatrician?” Although she finally broke down and got the “mom bob” haircut, Teagan was still the most beautiful woman in the world. Literally. At least she had held the title when they were modeling. But to Emma, even after three kids and five years of marriage, Teagan was more beautiful because she was happy, and finally living the dream she deserved.
When the sounds in the background silenced, Emma heard Teagan take a deep breath.
“So,” Emma asked, “how’d you get them to quiet down?”
“I gave them knives to play with.”
Stifling a giggle, Emma sat up in the bed. “Good parenting. Tell me about Tyler and Petey.”
“The boys are beautiful angels from heaven, they’re growing so fast, they do cute tricks, blah blah, all is fine. Enough about me. What’s this text about you dating again?”
Emma sighed. “It’s not a date. It’s a thank you.”
“For what exactly?”
She told Teagan about the snowstorm. The ride. The girls. The warm, holiday-decorated townhome. The perfectly-cooked bacon. “It was nice being there. It reminded me of my childhood, before BI went public and Dad made all the money. It felt busy and active. I don’t know, I figured the tickets would be a nice thing to do. I never thought he’d want me to go with him.”
Emma fiddled with the edge of her bedsheet. “Because they all hate me at BI. They resent that Dad left me in charge.”
“Apparently this Andrew guy doesn’t hate you. Tell me about him.”
“Oh. Well, I already told you he’s in the New Jersey branch, a tech guy—”
“Tall?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah. Very actually.”
“More please. Details.”
Emma huffed. “What is this, seventh grade?”
“Yes. Please, let me live a single life vicariously through you.”
“Fine, you old married woman.” Emma thought about the morning after the snowstorm, when Andrew was showered and shaved, and fidgeting in the hallway as he tried to talk to her. “Blond. Thin, but not bony. Like not skinny, but…long, I guess. Fidgety. He has these green eyes that remind me of the water from the Maldives. Remember, the Athletes Illustrated issue?”
“How could I forget? I’d kill to have that figure back.”
“I mean the water. Do you remember the water, Tea?” Closing her eyes, Emma could almost feel the breeze against her face when she thought about the Maldives.
“His eyes are that sea green color?”
“So why don’t you ask him out, officially?”
Emma gasped. “Because we don’t know each other. Because he’s my employee, and he’s a widower with a family, Teagan. Not every guy is ask-outable.”
“But he has twins! I like him already.” She clicked her tongue. “Let me ask you this, Memma…”
Oh boy. When she used Matty’s nickname for her, she knew she was in for it. Emma quirked an eyebrow, waiting.
“When’s the last time you had a boyfriend?”
“Don’t ‘ew’ me. Because according to my calculations, it was sometime in the last decade. You’re barely thirty—”
“That’s what I said. Barely thirty, and you need to get your groove on.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “I really don’t. Last time that didn’t work out so well for me. I’m busy. I’m happy. I have a very fulfilling life.”
“All you do is work at BI and volunteer at the old people home.”
“That’s not all. I sew. Don’t forget that.”
“Oh right. Sewing. Because that’s super cool.”
Emma could picture Teagan doing an eye roll so she refrained from mentioning that sometimes, Emma combined the two and actually sewed at the senior center. The Westwood Senior Center was the one place outside of her penthouse where Emma felt truly accepted and loved. She didn’t have to pretend to be something she wasn’t. The residents, as well as the cancer support group headquartered there, loved her scarves. She loved that they knew nothing about her past or her position at BI, and simply enjoyed her company.
“All I’m saying is that you don’t have to be superwoman, staying busy all the time with work and all-things-old-lady, just because you’re afraid of men and what that dumb Dario did to you when we were young and stupid.”
“I understand what you’re saying. I do. I just don’t feel like putting the effort in. It’s not worth it.” Emma hated thinking about her past with Dario Santini.
“Babe,” Teagan said, pulling Emma from her memories. “Trust me. When you find the right one, it’s all worth it.”
“Maybe. Either way, it’s not with Andrew the IT guy.”
“How do you know?”
“There’s the office policy.”
“Policy, schmolicy. When are you going to resign that job? You hate it.”
“’Hate’ is a strong word.” Teagan had made her points and Emma had had enough of her criticism. “I love you, but you are seriously judge-y today and I’m tired. Where’s my godson? Maybe he’ll be nicer to me.”
“I love you, Em. Be happy.” Then she called for Matthew.
Emma talked to Matty for a while, trying to focus on his sweet little voice, his story about trains, and the soft sheets underneath her, but instead dredged up horrible memories of Dario.
Dario had stolen her heart, her virginity, and then her money, before dumping her in the middle of Seoul during a photo shoot. Thankfully, Teagan pulled her up and kept her going, getting her home in one piece. For the next six months, Emma resided in a “rest and relaxation” complex, paid for by her father, who had no clue what to do for her. After that, she quit modeling and went to college. Dario had disappeared before her father could find him. If her father had tracked him down, though, Emma wasn’t sure if he’d kill him, or turn him over to the authorities. Emma still had nightmares that Dario would come find her at BI.
If there was one thing Emma did not want in her life at the moment, it was more drama, with and without men. She’d had enough of it during her modeling years. The thought of being with Andrew as anything more than a theater buddy set off alarms. Between the work policy and his widower, single-father lifestyle, the man was nothing but drama.
Proud of this revelation, it was suddenly clear to Emma that Andrew Mooney could be nothing but a friend. No matter how much she’d enjoyed his company the evening of the snowstorm, or how much she was looking forward to Friday at the theater.
No matter how he tried to tell himself that Friday night’s Broadway play with his company’s CEO was nothing more than a thank you gift for being a decent person, Andrew found himself puttering around all week with nervous energy. On Wednesday, he texted Emma for the first time from his desk at work.
Andrew: Hi, Emma. It’s Andrew. Andrew Mooney?
Andrew started to sweat until the phone dinged again.
Emma: Kidding! Relax. I can feel you fidgeting from here.
Andrew: Do I fidget?
Emma: I think you do. Ready for our outing on Friday? I’ll send a car.
“Outing” was a nice way to think of it. Their upcoming trip to Broadway was nothing more than an “outing.” Like a field trip, of sorts.
Andrew: I don’t mind meeting you there.
Emma: Do you want to meet me at my office? We can take a cab to the theater.
Andrew: Will people gossip?
Emma: Would you talking to your boss be gossip-worthy?
She obviously didn’t know how gossip in the lower rankings of a corporation such as BI worked.
Andrew: It totally would be.
Emma: What if I let Cindy and Rhonda leave early? You can meet me here at six, after everyone’s gone.
Andrew could do that. By six on a Friday, the New Jersey office was a ghost town.
Andrew: Sure. I’ll text you when I get there, Boss Lady.
Emma: I need to come up with a nickname for you.
Andrew: Something like, “Star Lord,” maybe?
As soon as he sent it he regretted it, groaning out loud.
“You okay?” Stu asked, from the office next door.
“I’m good,” Andrew called through the thin wall.
Was he flirting now? Had it been so long that he had no idea how to interact with women outside of work. Oh wait. He wasn’t outside of work. Now he was confused. He cringed as her message came through, squinting as he opened it.
Emma: I was thinking more along the lines of “Andy” but Star Lord works too. 🙂
He chuckled. Yikes, this was not good.
For the rest of the week, he’d hardly been productive at work, and by Friday, he was downright distracted. He’d forgotten to pack the girls’ lunches and had to call his father to bring them off at school. Then, he failed to complete a review of one of the employees who worked under him, and completely blanked out about an online training he was supposed to virtually attend.
At lunchtime, he darted out of the building and across the street to Tony’s Barber Shop, hoping for a last-minute trim and to expend some nervous energy.
“Nice to see you, Andrew,” Tony said from his barber chair when Andrew pushed open the door. “Oh, yep. Time for a trim. How long has it been?”
“Since summer, I believe.” Andrew ran a hand through his hair. “What do you think?”
Tony stood and pulled Andrew’s blond hair from the roots, up to the tips. “I’d be happy to clean you up. As you can see,” he motioned to the empty shop, “I’m a little slow.”
Andrew scoffed. “Next week you’ll get slammed with people getting their holiday haircuts.”
“For sure.” He waved Andrew behind him. “Come sit. I’ll be right with you.”
Andrew made himself comfortable in Tony’s chair, placing his phone and wallet on the counter in front of him. Tony returned with a crisp, white cape. He was short, and Andrew was tall, so he also brought the foot stool he stood on to cut Andrew’s hair.
After he climbed up, he swung the cape around Andrew’s shoulders and snapped it behind his neck, looking at him in the mirror. “Hot date tonight?”
Andrew choked, apparently on his own spit.
“Whoa,” Tony sang, patting him on the back. “Settle down.”
“No,” Andrew sputtered. “Not a date. It’s an outing.”
“Ah, an outing.” Tony raised his eyebrows as he started to work on Andrew’s hair. “With a woman?”
Andrew gulped, clearing his throat. “Yes. I mean, outings can be with men or women, right?”
“But yours is with a woman?” Andrew nodded. “Just the two of you?”
Andrew nodded again.
Tony had been cutting Andrew’s hair for the past ten years that he’d worked at BI. He cut Andrew’s hair before his wedding, then before Hayley’s funeral. Andrew had been so happy and excited during the former, and incredibly distraught and broken during the latter.
“You know,” Tony continued, “after my divorce, I thought I’d never go on a da… an outing … again.”
“You were divorced?” Andrew would have never guess. Tony and his wife, Brenda, were a perfect match. He’d assumed that they had been together forever.
“I was. I loved my first wife since I was in middle school. I never thought I’d be graced with love like that again. But you know what happened?”
“What?” Andrew asked.
“Brenda rear-ended me on McCarter Highway, and my heart cracked open again.”
Andrew smiled, as Tony continued snipping his ends. “I’d have never guessed that you and Brenda were a second-marriage.”
“I wasn’t looking, believe me. You know what’s weird though?”
Andrew waited, knowing Tony would tell him.
“It’s completely different—how I loved my first wife, and how I love Brenda. I’m grateful that two beautiful women somehow gave a simple-minded, short, barber like me a chance.”
Andrew nodded. It wasn’t that he hadn’t gotten this “you can move on” lecture before. He certainly had. From his father, from Stu, even to some extent, from the twins. But he always thought his situation was different. He and Hayley were special—more special than any of the couples who’d come before and would come after them—which kept him from moving on.
The way Tony had put it though, that his “heart cracked open again,” gave Andrew pause. Had he closed off his heart? And if he had, was cracking it open something he’d want to do again?
“I’m happy that you and Brenda found each other. But tonight, there is no anticipation of romance. It’s sort of a business thing.”
“Good thing you’re getting your haircut then, huh?”
Andrew quirked an eyebrow but let Tony’s sarcasm slide. “Uh-huh.”
They made small talk as Tony finished with the scissors, shaved his neckline, and trimmed around his ears. Afterward, since the barber shop wasn’t busy, they went to the deli next door for sandwiches and ate lunch together.
When they said goodbye, Andrew shook his hand. “Thanks for the company. And the cut.”
“You look great. Have a nice time on your date tonight. Just be yourself. That’s all you have to be.”
Andrew nodded. “It’s not a date. Trust me. She’s not my type.”
“Okay then. Have a nice time on your outing.” Tony rolled his eyes and smacked Andrew on the back, before returning to the shop.
As Andrew headed across the street to his office, he shook his head and chuckled, thinking of Emma in his Star Trek T-shirt the morning after the storm. Her long, dark hair all messy from sleeping, her grey eyes smudged with makeup. Certainly not the CEO image that BI portrayed. Actually, as sexy as she’d looked in her dress at Russell’s party, he thought she looked even more enticing standing in the doorway of his bedroom in his clothes.
“Good thing she’s my boss,” he murmured to himself, as he swung open the door to BI and weaved his way through the cubicle farm back to his office. “Just an outing.”
“What?” Stu yelled from his office.
“Nothing. Go back to sleep, Stu.”
He shut the door and paced his tiny office, watching the clock tick and getting more nervous by the second. Emma was right—he was a fidgeter. After one experience together, she already knew things about him—his girls, his dad, his love of theater, his fidget problem. They were getting to know each other without even trying, like a force had taken over and put them on each other’s path.
He twisted his wedding ring around his finger, taking a deep breath, and studying the picture of him and a very-pregnant Hayley, just weeks before the girls’ birthdays. “It’s just an outing,” he repeated, this time more sternly.
Ten years earlier, Andrew graduated college, with Hayley at his side. A theater major, Andrew auditioned and took voice and acting lessons, and eventually found an agent. He and Hayley, a high school English teacher, struggled to make ends meet, while Andrew took on local roles, minor walk-ons and background work, and voice acting. But when they seriously talked about getting married, Andrew wanted to find something more stable. A steady income that could support his wife, and their dreams of owning a home and having a family. So he went back to trade school for computer science and interviewed at Ballard Industries.
The day he met Daniel Ballard, Emma’s father, he was a nervous wreck. He wasn’t used to formal, sit-down, corporate interviews, so he treated it like an audition. Mr. Ballard, though, wasn’t scary, and the two of them talked mostly about theater. The next day, he got the call to start in the Jersey branch’s IT department, at the employee help desk. That was ten years earlier. He hadn’t been back to the company’s New York headquarters since.
Friday evening, as he walked through the doors of BI to pick up Emma for their theater outing, the memories came flooding back. How mad Hayley had been that he’d taken the job. How happy his father had been. Hayley had wanted him to fulfill his dream of being an actor, but his father had always told him that wasn’t “practical.”
Sometimes he still missed the stage, but any void that giving up on acting had left in him was easily filled, ten-fold, by his love for Hayley and now, the girls. The best decision he ever made was to take the BI job, buy the duplex with his father, and provide his family with a comfortable life.
At the desk in the lobby, Andrew flashed his BI identification card. Security grunted at him, and he made his way to the elevators. He texted Emma while he waited.
Andrew: I’m in the lobby, Boss Lady. Okay to come up?
Her reply came immediately.
Emma: Sure. Everyone’s gone, so no rumors. 20th floor.
His palms sweat when the elevator doors opened and he stepped on. The twentieth floor was the top floor. He pressed the button and moved to the back wall to let other people crowd in.
As the elevator started to move, Andrew looked in the mirrored wall and made sure he was presentable. He hadn’t been to a Broadway show in ages, so he wasn’t sure how everyone dressed. A quick Google search advised that his best bet was to look neat and professional, so after work, he’d run home, got the girls and his dad settled, and changed into one of his nicer work outfits—grey pants, white button-down, and a sweater vest.
Looking in the mirror of the elevator, he kind of regretted the sweater vest, thinking he looked too nerdy, but it was too late to do anything about it anyway.
When the elevator emptied out, somewhere around the fifteenth floor, Andrew wiped his palms on the ridiculous sweater vest and stood tall, cracking his neck from side to side. There was no need to be nervous. It was only an outing. Someone to sit next to while he watched a show.
But then the doors opened to the twentieth floor, and his breath caught.
Beautiful wood paneling stretched across the wall before him, the words “Welcome to Ballard Industries” displayed across it. A giant vase of fresh flowers–he knew they were fresh because he smelled them the second he walked off the elevator–sat on a round table. He looked left and then right, remembering the time ten years ago when he’d last been there.
He wasn’t sure if he’d been more nervous then, or if he was more nervous now.
Emma’s office suite was to the right, so he walked to the glass doors and gently pulled them open. A very neat desk with Cindy’s nameplate stood in the center of the plush, forest green carpet between Rhonda and Emma’s offices.
He walked past the desk to the heavy-wooden door with Emma’s name on it and knocked gently.
One of the doors swung open, and there stood Emma. Her dark hair was down, laying in waves over her shoulders. Her brown eyes seemed to light up as a smile spread over her red-painted lips. He avoided looking lower to see what she’d worn because he didn’t want her to think that he was checking her out. Even though he really wanted to do just that.
Andrew’s pulse raced at the sight of her, and he felt his cheeks warm. “Hey, Boss Lady.”
“Hi yourself, Star Lord. Come in.”
She opened the door wider and he walked past her into the corner office of the twentieth floor, looking around the space. Dark wood and old-looking books didn’t seem to fit the Emma he’d met earlier in the week, but what did he know. “So this is what the top of the world looks like,” he joked.
She shrugged as she moved around her desk to the window. “It has a nice view, too.”
With a quick glance, he appreciated her form-fitting black dress, with some sort of pattern of white circles on it, and her black boots. “Yep, the view is great.”
She met his gaze. “You’re not even looking.”
He’d been looking at her, and she knew it, so he was honest. “Sorry. You look…very nice.” She looked perfect. Beautiful. But that wasn’t his place to say. This was only an outing…a field trip…a…
“You look nice too. Love the sweater vest.”
He squinted, not sure if she was being sarcastic. “For realsies? Because I debated… I almost whipped it off in the elevator.” He looked down at his chest, rubbing his hands down it. “I could still ditch it.”
“No, for realsies I like it. Looks soft.”
He took a deep breath. Were they flirting? God, he was out of practice. He shook his head to clear it, and joined her at the large window, looking down to the city streets. “I haven’t been to this office in ten years. I forgot it overlooked Rockefeller Center.”
“It’s busy this time of year. I love it.” Her sight was directed at the tree across the street from them, her face soft. “My parents used to take me to ice skate in front of the tree when I was little. I had no idea his office was right here, overlooking it.”
“Why’d they stop?” He knew he was prying but couldn’t help himself from asking.
Emma turned her gaze from the window to him, tilting her chin. “Stop?”
He cleared his throat. “You said they ‘used to take you.’”
“Oh.” She shrugged. “Well, my mom died, and I guess the tradition died along with her.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He knew tidbits about her father and his death but didn’t know much about her mother at all, besides the fact that she’d been a clothing designer. “Remind me of your mom’s name?”
“Lucy. Lucille, actually.” Andrew watched Emma shake her head, and then when she looked back up at him, her face had transformed back from her memories to the Emma he knew. The Boss Lady. “What happened ten years ago to bring you here? Did you get in trouble or something and have to report to the big boss?”
“Ha,” he laughed. “I had my interview ten years ago. With your dad.”
She gasped and faced him. “You did? Would you tell me what you remember? I love hearing stories about him. I was traveling a lot and never got to see the business side of him. All I know is that he ran a good company, and was a way better boss than I apparently am.”
“That’s not true,” Andrew said, not sure if that was the case. It didn’t matter, really. “Your dad and I sat right…,” he looked around the room and pointed to an area of the large room that had a small couch and guest chairs, “…there, and we sang Sinatra songs and show tunes.”
“Stop! You did not!”
“We did.” He loved seeing the smile it put on her face, so he continued. “We sang New York, New York, and My Way, and almost the entire Chicago soundtrack, and then he offered me the job.”
“He loved that stuff. That’s amazing that he showed that side of himself to you.” Emma’s eyes glazed over, clearly her memories were flooding her mind.
“He seemed like a good man. I’m glad I got to meet him.” Andrew walked over to the part of the office where the interview had occurred and pointed to a shelf that now held a globe and some classic looking books. “He had a picture of you. Right there.”
“He did? How do you remember that?”
“Well, because it was distracting. A beautiful woman on a sailboat in the sun.” Andrew focused on the spot where the picture was, remembering how he’d blatantly stared at it until Mr. Ballard took it off the shelf and handed it to him. “Your father told me that it was you, that you were a model, and that your name was Emma Grace.”
She smiled, tilting her head and crossing her arms. “I remember that picture.”
“Me too,” he said, looking up at her. When their gazes met, he cleared his throat. “He seemed very proud of you.”
“He was the best dad.” With a sad grin, Emma turned her back and returned to her desk, pulling a sweater off the back of her chair. “What do you say? Ready to see Heatherby?”
He nodded, the worry that he’d been too personal suddenly overcome by his excitement about Broadway. “I still can’t believe it. I feel like a little kid going to Disneyland. Thank you again.”
“My pleasure. And thank you for asking me to come.”
“And thank you for saying yes, Boss Lady.”
“Again, my pleasure, Star Lord.”
He couldn’t stop the smile from spreading over his face, as Emma Grace Ballard closed the door to her office behind them and walked with him to the elevators.
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.