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Excerpt for Angels in the Snow by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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This is a work of fiction. Any names or characters, businesses or places, events or incidents, are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


ANGELS IN THE SNOW


Copyright © 2016 Amy Lark


All rights reserved.


No part of this book may be reproduced in any way, including information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.


Chapter One



“Man, I love this time of year. It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?”

Stacey stomped the snow off her shoes as big white flakes clung to her auburn hair. She quickly removed her gloves and shoved them in her pockets, hanging her coat in the closet a moment later along with her scarf.

I offered her a tight smile and returned to my work, reading over the case file I’d looked at yesterday. Sometimes I wondered where all her energy came from. Ever since she’d decorated the office, her get-up-and-go attitude had multiplied. To say it was exhausting would’ve been a complete understatement.

If I’d known how much she loved the holidays, I would’ve given her the entire month off. Instead, the Monday after Thanksgiving, I’d had the misfortune of finding Santa had thrown up all over the place. Garland and tinsel everywhere.

Our clients loved it even though I’d ended up tracking half the stuff home with me.

“You have any plans for tomorrow?” Stacey asked, standing in the doorway to my office.

“Probably just going to sit in and have some lasagna. It’s a pajama day for me.” The only one of the year, in fact.

“Lasagna?” She pushed off the door frame and closed the distance between us, resting her hip on the edge of my desk. “That’s a funny thing to have for the holidays.”

“Better than pizza.”

“Let me take you out tonight. You never have any fun. It’s always work, work, work. When’s the last time you took a day off?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Your last day.” She gave me a pointed look. “You can’t remember, can you?” With an exasperated sigh, she shoved off the edge of the desk, then came around to crouch in front of me. “Will you please, please come out with me tonight? The tree’s going up around seven and everyone will be there.”

Oh yes, the tree they put up a day before having to take it down again. I rolled my eyes. They used to put it up right after Thanksgiving, but because it was so big, they started doing it last minute. Apparently, it was great for business as most folks were in the holiday spirit. Not me. I hated it. The lights. The ornaments. All of it.

The way Stacey looked at me then with her big doe eyes, I didn’t have a choice.

“Fine,” I said, leaning my head back against the chair. “But only because I can’t stand it when you beg.”

She threw her arms around me. “You won’t regret it. Promise.”

I already was.

My heart seized from her tight embrace, and by the time I realized I was supposed to hug her back, she pulled away. “I, uh… I’m not a big hugger.” Heat rushed into my cheeks, and I hoped she didn’t notice.

The energetic smile never left her face. “You might act like a Scrooge with all your bah humbugs, but there has to be a part of this holiday you like.”

“Scrooge never went out for drinks with his employees,” I told her.

“True, but I wouldn’t say it was a pleasant experience, either. We talked about the Martins case the entire time. Just this once, I’d like to see you kick back, unwind, and leave work where it belongs.”

“And where is that?”

“In your office!” She shook her arms above her head in frustration.

“How can you not think about them?” It seemed as though the closer we got to the holidays, the worse our cases became. Kids ripped from their homes. Families torn apart. It was all the same, every one of them sad, bitter, and broken.

“Because I distance myself.” When I met her gaze, Stacey’s smile was gone. “Jill, the more time you spend on those files, the more you’re going to lose yourself. There’s only so much we can do for them, but you won’t be able to help anyone if you fall apart.”

She was right, of course, but I couldn’t put that wall between myself and our clients. Not the way she had done.

“Back when I interned for Simon and Graff, I thought I was invincible. Like none of the bad stuff could ever touch me,” I said, not meeting her gaze. “I hadn’t realized how much of a buffer there is working under someone else. I kind of miss it.”

She nodded her understanding, then pulled a chair closer to the desk before sitting down. “And I realize I can’t possibly get the full weight this places on your shoulders, but that’s also because you don’t let me help.”

“You don’t want this burden, trust me.” I didn’t even want it, but it was a big part of what we did.

“I do if it means seeing you smile every once and a while.” She took my hands in hers, holding them between us. Her touch was as warm as her smile, and I found myself staring at her slender hands as that warmth reached under my skin. “You barely talk to me about them unless we’re out having drinks. It’s almost like I’m your personal secretary. The clients spend five minutes with me and over an hour with you. I normally wouldn’t mind having the free time, but look at what it’s done… what it’s still doing. You can’t keep going like this and expect it to get easier unless you change something.”

“How can you be so energetic and happy when there are families who won’t get to experience the same happiness as you?”

“Because it isn’t my life.” She held up her hands before I could say anything. “I don’t mean to sound so heartless, but at the end of the day, it’s just me and my cats. I don’t have to worry about them because they aren’t my family. I love that you care so much. I do—”

“But?”

“You need to know when to let go. I’ve known you for close to six months, but I’ve never seen you happy. Ever since our first client walked through those doors, you’ve been consumed by your work. You can do that for a little while, but eventually, it’s going to beak you. You’ll end up hating this job. And, Jill? I really don’t want to get stuck working for Simon and Graff.”

I laughed at that. A small, uncomfortable laugh. “I promise to try harder next time.”

“Not next time. Now.”

“No time like the present, huh?”

“So, will you go with me tonight? I’d ask my sister, but she’s about ready to pop out another kid. Don’t think she’ll be in a walking mood.” There was that smile again, and damn if it wasn’t contagious.

“Yes, I’ll go with you. Who knows, it might even be fun.” I could’ve sworn Stacey’s jaw hit the floor.

“You just said the F word! I didn’t think it was in your vocabulary.”

I batted at her. “Oh please. I’m not that bad.”

“You kind of are.” With her grin as wide as the Cheshire cat’s, Stacey got up, put the chair back where it belonged, then grabbed her coat from the closet. I was about to ask where she was going when she pulled a box from its pocket, handing it to me a moment later. “Merry Christmas, Jill.” She turned on her heels and walked across the hall before I could say anything else.

As I watched her go, a smile played on my lips. Her hips swayed this way and that, the dark slacks hugging her form perfectly. You’re staring, Jill. I closed my eyes and counted to ten before opening them again. Across the hall, Stacey’s door was ajar, the frosted glass showing off her profile as I did my best not to imagine what it would be like to spend an entire day with her. To not have to worry about work and let it all go. She made it look so easy. Effortless. Maybe it was because I didn’t give her enough to do, but she was so… perfect. I couldn’t stand the thought of breaking her.

“This work will destroy her,” I said under my breath, glancing at the case file I had open on my desk.

This one in particular hit way too close to home. There were too many similarities, too many memories I could’ve swapped and still had the same childhood. It haunted me in my sleep and was a last-ditch attempt for a loving father to gain custody of his son after the mother overdosed. By all counts, the case should’ve been open and shut, but the mother’s side of the family was giving us a hard time.

I never should’ve agreed to this. I could’ve taken on any case I wanted, but I accepted the custody battles because I thought my personal experiences in the system would help me empathize better and put our clients at ease. Instead, the closeness of each case only made me work that much harder. It was great for our clients, but as Stacey said, it was bad for me.

Every case we took on caused a new wave of anxiety to rise within me. That wave soon turned to panic, then doubt. It didn’t matter how many of them we won, because I knew, eventually, we’d lose. That possibility plagued my mind every night as I tried to sleep. It was also why I kept as much of our work off Stacey’s shoulders as I could. She didn’t have to feel like this, like me.

Looking from the file to the gift she’d given me, I set the file to the side. The golden wrapping paper wasn’t as festive as I expected coming from her, but the candy cane tied up in the ribbon was. After removing the wrapping and placing the peppermint treat in my lap, I pulled a tiny piece of paper from the box. In beautiful lettering, it said:



A Night Out



The corners of my lips tugged upward as I set the slip of paper inside my desk drawer. In all honesty, I should’ve closed the office for the entire day since most of the places I’d planned to call had already done the same. The best thing I could do now for our clients was organize the paperwork for next week, which still left me the entire afternoon to sit on my thumbs.

You can take some time off, Jill.

A night out was exactly what I needed.

“Take the whole day,” I spoke under my breath, and once I put the file back in my desk, I grabbed our coats and made my way over to Stacey’s office.

One day. One day to let my hair down.

Then I could go back to being the same old Jill as before.

Chapter Two



Six Months Earlier



Rummaging through one of the many boxes around my chair, I removed its contents before breaking it down and setting the cardboard aside. A tendril of red hair fell in front of my eyes and I quickly tucked it behind my ear, not bothering with my ponytail which had already come undone twice since I’d first arrived.

Well,” I said, setting the golden plaque on the edge of my desk, “it might not be as big as Simon & Graff, but it’s mine.”

As it should be.” My father’s deep voice pulled me from my thoughts to where he stood in the doorway. “How ya holding up, kid?”

I took a deep breath, smiling as the smell of leather hung in the air. “Good. A little nervous,” I admitted, slipping from behind my desk before closing the distance between us. As soon as he opened his arms, I fell into his warm embrace, setting my head on his shoulder. “I never could’ve done this without you.”

He hugged me tight, then pulled back to meet my gaze. “That’s your name outside the door.”

Still. The amount of crap I put you through these last few years couldn’t have been easy.”

His eyes softened. “And I’ll tell you the same thing I’ve said since the day I adopted you. I’ll do anything for my little girl. Anything.” He leaned against the desk, palms pressed into the hard wood. “So, what about this assistant you have coming in? You meet her yet?”

I interview her in about an hour.” I’d managed to keep the butterflies in my stomach down to a reasonable level for most of the morning, but at his kind reminder, the tiny insects came to life. “What if she doesn’t like me?”

Oh, Jill, of course she’ll like you. This isn’t Kindergarten, you know? She wouldn’t have asked for an interview unless she wanted the job.”

Or she’s expecting someone more experienced. Not someone who’d literally just opened shop.

Hey.” He placed his hands on my shoulders. “Everything will be fine. You have a ton of experience, past clients to vouch for you, and more importantly, you’ve got me. If this new assistant can’t see how special you are, then that’s on her. Just you wait and see. You’re exactly what this town needs.”

A woman to shake things up?” I forced a smile.

You know it, kid. Knock ‘em dead.”

I hugged him again, then watched him go. As I did, the nerves in my stomach wound a little tighter.

You made the right choice going alone.

A few months ago, I might’ve believed it.

But now, with boxes stacked all around me?

I wasn’t so sure.



Present Day



The day Stacey stepped into my office, my ability to focus packed its bags and fell off the face of the Earth. The way that woman could grab my attention was like no other, and I’d tried everything to change that. I’d made sure our offices were one room apart, but still caught myself studying her more than the case files we were entrusted with. It was borderline creepy, and I’d be the first in line to admit it.

Up until now, it had been a quiet obsession. A puzzle to unlock. But as soon as we stepped outside, her invitation for a night out turned into one for the entire day. I could’ve gone home. I should’ve left. Instead, I took Stacey up on her offer and did whatever I could not to stare. To keep her from invading every single one of my thoughts.

I succeeded until I realized she’d slowed her pace so we could walk side-by-side, our hands so close I could reach over and touch her. Would she flinch if I did? Would she pull away? Find it awkward? Look at me like I had two heads?

Breathe, Jill.

Aside from the few nights we’d gone out for drinks, this was the first time we’d left the office together. It was both freeing and nerve-wracking as hell. Without the files to hide behind, she was left with me—awkward, trips-over-her-own-two-feet Jill. This Jill wasn’t confident. She had no idea what she was doing. I also had no idea what Stacey would say once she realized I couldn’t be two people at once.

Shoving my hands in my pockets to hide my nerves, I stared down at my feet. Just put one foot in front of the other. Left. Right. Left. Right.

I kept count as we walked in silence. While my mind flooded with everything imaginable, Stacey had the same serene look on her face as she always did. No one can be that happy. I wanted to be angry at her for it, but to be honest, I was jealous. If I could’ve had half the happiness she did… well, I wouldn’t have been the way I was.

It was nice seeing how much she loved this holiday. I would too if not for all the shitty things that tend to happen this time of year. Whenever the holidays rolled around, most folks changed. They drove carelessly, blazing through red lights, causing accidents, and tearing families apart. Even when I went to the grocery store, it was like a bomb had gone off. The shelves were bare, the eyes of the cashiers were empty, and when someone wished me a ‘happy holiday,’ it was almost always forced.

We all put on our fake smiles and went about our day, constantly wondering what we would get during the holidays instead of what we should’ve been doing for others. Thing is, I could handle all the niceties and decorations, but I couldn’t stand the music. I’d happily listen to classical music or soundtracks for the rest of my life if I could avoid the too-cheerful music they played this time of year.

“Earth to Jill.”

Snapping to attention, I shook my head and met Stacey’s worried eyes. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“We’re walking in circles.” She laughed, then pointed to the ground where our earlier footprints were starting to fade beneath a new layer of snow. “If this is boring you, you don’t have to stay. I just love walking around when it’s like this.”

“What? You mean with everyone honking, yelling, and clogging up Main Street?”

She shook her head. “You’re hopeless, you know that?”

I shrugged, resisting the urge to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Just telling it how it is.”

“You know, I could let you be all bitter and alone, but then I’d worry. No one should be alone on Christmas eve.”

“I have Frank.”

“Your houseplant?” She cocked an eyebrow at me, her cheeks red from the cold.

“He’s good company. I sit with my coffee and he doesn’t say a word.”

“You should get a dog,” she offered, shoving her hands in her pockets before resuming our walk around the same block we’d traveled before. “It won’t judge you or anything. It will also make you a better person. Not so grouchy.” She said the last words while scrunching up her face, and while I knew she was teasing, I let the words sink in deeper than they had to.

When Stacey first walked through my door, I knew she’d be trouble. From her upbeat attitude to the smile that never left her face, she was all the things I wasn’t, which made her perfect for the job. I hadn’t even finished unpacking the boxes when she arrived, standing in the doorway with her hip against its frame. The wind had tangled her hair in such a way that she looked even more attractive than she was with it tied back. And when her eyes met mine? They were enough to pierce the walls around my heart and send them crumbling to the ground.

I’d tried to keep my mind on other things, to not stare at her when I thought she wasn’t looking, but even with temptation sitting across the hall, it was too much. The more time I spent around her, the harder it was for me to keep my distance and not take an interest in her life. In fact, the reason I went over case files when we went out drinking was because it was the only way I could keep from complimenting her on her hair, the way those slacks hugged her curves, or how I would’ve given anything to kiss her. To see if her lips tasted as sweet as I imagined.

Good going, Jill. Hiring a woman when you’re clearly attracted to her.

At the time, I was more concerned with someone taking me seriously. We gals have to stick together. It was the same thing Stacey had said when I accepted her application and offered her a job on the very same day. I didn’t regret it, either.

She’d done wonders for our firm. I honestly believed she was more the face of our establishment than I was, even if it was my name on the sign outside and not hers. Her bright smile was the first and last thing our clients saw, and I’m pretty sure she was the reason they came back. Not because I was good at my job, but because she was ten-times the people person I was. You’re obsessing over her again, I chided myself.

In the short time I’d known her, I’d learned two things about Stacey.

She loved cats and had rescued a pair off the street. She was also big on family and tradition, which was something I couldn’t share unless I was willing to let my broken past get in the way of her happiness, so I kept my personal life to myself.

Instead, I shared stories with her about how I over-watered Frank that one time and had to nurse him back to health. Or how, when I cooked, the smoke alarm thought it was the perfect time to go off, scaring the crap out of me when it did.

My stories were nothing compared to hers, though. She had grand adventures at the supermarket, running Indiana Jones style from a melon that had fallen off the rack. Even her bedtime stories were cute, from the little fuzzy slippers she claimed to wear to how her cats insisted they were playthings to pounce on and chew.

“You’re smiling,” Stacey said, grinning from ear to ear. “You might want to stop before someone gets the wrong idea.”

“I was remembering something you told me not too long ago.”

“Oh?”

“Maybe a dog isn’t such a bad idea, but it wouldn’t be like your cats. Dogs need time and house-training, both of which I can’t offer.”

“A cat, then,” she said with a nod. “They’re independent, but if you get a pair, they can make you just as happy.”

“And what if I don’t want to be happy?” I tried to keep a straight face, but when she laughed, I couldn’t help doing the same.

“You’re a weird one, I’ll give you that.”

“Says the woman who always smiles.”

“I’m a happy person, what’s so wrong with that?”

“Nothing at all. Man, I’m hungry. Feel like getting a bite to eat?”

Stacey removed a hand from her pocket, then pulled back her glove to check the time. “It’s only 10:30 in the morning.”

“You have something against brunch?”

“Are you planning to talk about case files again?”

“Oh my god, it was just the one—”

“Twice. You did it twice.”

“Fine. I promise not to talk about work. Happy?”

“If you do, I’m going home to watch Jury Calls.”

Sensing it was her last warning, I said, “That doesn’t sound so bad. They’d be a lot more entertaining.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

“I would if—” I cut myself off. The lines between my personal and professional life were starting to blur. The longer we walked, the more I wanted to talk to her and tell her why I was the way I am. No one ever grew up hating the holidays. It was something I’d learned to do over time. It wasn’t my fault I was like this. It’s was all because some bas—

“Jill?” She touched my arm, concern filling her voice as we stood on the sidewalk with snow falling around us. “Come on, don’t shut me out. You were about to say something.”

“It’s not important.” I chewed my bottom lip and averted my gaze, but not before her eyes met mine the same way they had when we first met. I could’ve lost myself in those eyes.

“Here. Sit down a second.” She gestured to a nearby bench, brushing off the inch of snow before sitting with me beside her. “You closed the office for the day. Why?”

“I realized there was no reason to stay open since the other offices are closed.”

“Okay. How about when I told you I was going to walk home and enjoy the snow? Instead of going home or offering to give me a ride, you joined me instead.”

“I—” What was I supposed to say? That I enjoyed her company? That I didn’t want to go home to my empty house?

“You’re lonely.”

Was I that easy to read? Now I knew how our clients felt. Her ability to uncover every tiny detail was the reason I’d hired her.

I wrung my hands in my lap, not looking at her. “A woman in her mid-thirties should have a family, a warm home, a handful of pets—”

“And a white picket fence?” She looked at me from under her lashes. “I only have half of that, Jill, and we’re practically the same age. Are those things you want, or things you think you’re supposed to have?”

“Both?” Anymore, I wasn’t so sure.

“No family is ever truly happy,” she said. “But you already know this from our case files. Why does it bother you?”

“Because you said… you…”

She moved a tendril of hair from in front of my face and offered me a small smile. “Because I noticed?”

I nodded as tears stung at the backs of my eyes. I hadn’t realized I’d closed them until I felt her soft glove on my face.

“Of course I noticed,” she said, pulling me into her arms much like a mother would do with her child. “It’d be horrible if I didn’t. Even worse if I ignored it.”

“You could’ve.” I spoke into her hair, breathing in her sweet, fragrant shampoo as she rubbed my back.

“Then I wouldn’t be a very good friend, would I?”

I shrunk away from her arms and took a shaky breath. “A friend?”

“Yeah, you know… someone to have your back, tell you you don’t look fat in those pants, and to bitch over the latest drama at work.”

I smiled then. “But we’re the only ones there.”

“Every workplace has at least one drama lama.”

Which would be me. “What does that make you?”

“Sunshine Bear.”

Oh. my. god. She didn’t just reference the Care Bears.

“What?”

“I… I have no idea how to respond to that.”

“Not a Care Bear fan?”

“No, quite the opposite, actually. Although Grumpy was my favorite. Unless you include the cousins.”

“Oh, me too! Along with Eeyore.”

“Really?” I never would’ve guessed.

“So, do you still want to be a Grumpy-Guppy and go home?”

“Grumpy-Guppy?”

“Wow, you really are out of the loop. It’s a children’s book.”

“Which probably explains why I don’t know it.”

“It’s my niece’s favorite.”

“The clown fish?”

She released an exasperated sigh. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll go eat and warm up, then we’re going to the bookstore.”

“And the reason for that is…?”

“To educate you.”

“Uh huh. I suppose it’s super important I see this book?”

“Just you wait. You’ll read it and laugh. Come on.” She popped up from the bench and took my hand in hers, dragging me down the street. We’d gone twenty feet before she let my hand drop to my side. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s okay.” I wet my lips and considered my next words carefully. In the end, the filter on my mouth failed. “I liked it.”

She paused mid-step, her eyes meeting mine as she stared at me in disbelief. “Really?”

I offered her my gloved hand, half-expecting her to make fun of me and walk away. Instead, she laced our fingers together before giving my hand a squeeze. It’d been far too long since I’d held another woman’s hand, and even longer since I’d kissed one.

You don’t even know if she’s interested in you.

If she wasn’t, why hadn’t she pulled away? Why did she take my hand in the first place? There must’ve been a reason for her to make such a large gesture.

Unless it isn’t that big of a deal to her.

How could it not be? Holding hands—touching someone was the first intimate experience we could ever have. Seeing as I wasn’t child, there was no reason for anyone to take my hand unless they felt the same way, right?

We paused at the corner and waited for the light to change. Threads of doubt bombarded my mind, but she never let go. My heart skipped when she arced her thumb on the back of my hand. It was a smooth, calming gesture that made my nerves tingle and my toes curl. Had she meant to do it? Had it happened on its own? Maybe it was something she did when she was nervous. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she was. I feel the exact same way.

“I’m glad I came out today,” I said, running alongside her as we crossed the street.

“You make it sound like the day’s almost over. We have a lifetime until the tree goes up.”

If only. I didn’t want this day to end. Once we reached the middle of town, she let go of my hand, leading me between groups of people on the sidewalk. Some were on an early lunch break while others were busy getting their last-minute gifts before the stores closed.

“So,” Stacey said, looking up and down the street, “where would you like to go?”

Our small town was as busy as ever. If we waited half an hour, we could have lunch, but if we ate now…

“How about pancakes? We used to have them Christmas morning, and it’s been forever since I’ve had a big buttery stack to myself.”

She nodded and took my hand in hers, leading the way across Broad Street as the world swam around me.

I was holding her hand. Stacey’s hand.

And this time, it wasn’t a mistake.

Chapter Three



Floating above the crowds, I imagined I was a big balloon tethered to her hand, one she gripped and refused to let go. If I ever was a balloon, I’d be the shiny one with the smiley face on it.

Because, right then, that’s exactly what I was. One big smile.

My footsteps were feather-light as she pulled me with her, the light breeze playfully tugging on the hair that had somehow managed to escape her ponytail. My fingers itched to touch her. To tuck the hair back into place and caress her cheeks with the backs of my fingertips. Instead, I watched her lips and saw them move, but hell if I heard a word she’d said.

“Is here good?” Stacey asked as she held the door open for me.

Swallowing around my nerves, I offered her a nod. So long as the food was warm, I didn’t care.

The strong aroma of sausage, bacon, and eggs assaulted my senses as soon as we stepped through the door. My taste buds sprung to life, making my mouth water while images of delicious foodstuffs flooded my mind. This started a chain reaction, and once my stomach got wind of where we were, it growled loud enough for Stacey to hear.

“You’re doing it again,” Stacey said, referring to the smirk that had somehow become a permanent fixture on my face.

“You’re making me do it,” I said, trying my best not to smile and failing miserably at it.

“It’s okay. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

Feeling her shoulder press against mine was almost as good as holding hands. There was a closeness there, a warmth that reached all the way to my toes. It was a playfulness I hadn’t gotten to experience from her before, and right then, I couldn’t decided if I liked it or hated it.

Who am I kidding?

I loved it.

“Just the two of you, then?” the hostess asked, tucking a pair of menus under her arm before leading us to a booth near one of the large windows.

After removing our coats and ordering our coffee, Stacey and I sat opposite of one another, her hands suddenly a world away as the large table stretched between us. For the briefest moment, I entertained the idea of sitting on her side of the booth but thought better of it. The seats were small as it was, and even though sharing one meant siting next to her, knocking elbows with her wasn’t something I cared to do. So, as she looked at the colorful pictures on her menu, I did my best not to stare. Whenever I thought she’d catch me watching her, I hid behind my own menu, pretending to read over the specials even though I already knew them by heart.

“So, pancakes?” She didn’t meet my gaze, her brow furrowing as she continued to browse through her options.

“I’m simple. I suppose I could jump for the Belgian Waffles if I feel like splurging.”

“Blueberries or strawberries?”

“Strawberries. Not a fan of blueberries.”

“I’ll be sure to remember that.”

We weren’t talking about food anymore. At least, not the kind you eat in public. I was going to ask what she meant but decided her reasons were far more innocent than my own.

Get your head out of the gutter. I couldn’t help it. Outside the office and without a case to hide behind, I was weak in the knees for the woman sitting across from me. I’d been that way ever since I’d hired her, and yet, I took her on. Apparently, I loved to torture myself.

Dad’s words, not mine.

The few times he’d come to the office while he was in town, he’d commented on Stacey, her well manicured nails, her silky hair, and infectious smile. He’d also caught me ogling her more than once. I wondered then if my clients had ever caught me looking at her the same way my dad had done, almost embarrassing me in the process when he finally pointed it out. I thought for sure I’d been discreet, but then, he was my dad. Surely our clients weren’t as observant.

You should ask her out,” Dad said one night at dinner. “You obviously like her.”

I chased my food around the plate, barely touching it as his eyes burned against my skin. “It isn’t professional.”

You’re her boss.”

Exactly.”

And she’s your only employee, so it isn’t like you’d have to worry about favoritism.”

And if it doesn’t work out?” My heart skipped, snuffing out what was left of my appetite as I pushed the plate to the side.

You two would find a way to work together.”

He sounded so sure of himself, but I’d been down that road before. There was no making up in my relationships. Once they ended, that was it, and having to see Stacey on a more professional level after the fact? I couldn’t risk it. It would hurt too much to let her go, or to see her hurt.

You’re looking at her anyway, so why not?”

It wouldn’t be good for our clients.”

Your happiness is just as important as theirs.”

My happiness.

As Stacey curled a tendril of hair around her finger, I knew that was what she was. Happy. I soon realized with her around, I could share her in that happiness, so long as there was room for one more.

Still, the professional side of my brain insisted it was a bad idea, but it wasn’t like I had time to date anyone else. I didn’t even read or crochet anymore because, by the time I got home, I was too tired to do much else.

Just for today.

I’d promised myself to let work go for one day, and if that meant I could touch her hand and stare at her from across the table, then I would.

“I think you have a bit of drool right there on your lip,” Stacey said when she caught me ogling her.

I snapped my mouth shut and sat back, my cheeks flaming hot as she continued to look at me. “Do not.” I touched a finger to the corner of my lips just to be sure.

“Look at that. I think you’re loosening up, Jill.” She sounded so excited, like it was a breakthrough of some kind. In a moment, she’d yell eureka and run out the door with a new formula under her arm. “I know I’m all that, but can you please stop gawking at me? It’s embarrassing.”

“Why?” I asked, unable to take my eyes off her even if I’d wanted to.

She pursed her pink lips, and when she ran her tongue over the bottom one, I couldn’t help doing the same to mine. I hadn’t realized I’d done it until the air cooled around me. And you’re still staring. At her lips. At the red in her cheeks and how that blush reached all the way to her ears.

“Why what?” she asked, sounding as tongue-tied as I felt.

“Why does it embarrass you?”

“Because it’s more than that.” She wiggled in her booth and averted her eyes, picking at the corner of her menu as she did everything she could not to look in my direction.

“My, how the roles have changed.” I crossed my arms over my chest and tried not to sound so proud of myself. “You’re shy.” When she shrunk in her booth, I reached for her hands. “And I find it incredibly adorable.”

After a long unnerving moment, she put her hands in mine, releasing a nervous laugh as she did. “I haven’t been on a date in forever.”

A date? Was that where we were heading? “I wouldn’t go that far just yet.” Good going, Jill. Turn her down. God, I hated navigating crap like this. Relationships had always confused me, even when I knew what I was doing and it hadn’t been forever and a day since I’d been with someone else.

“A business meeting?” She was teasing me again, but I decided to play along anyway.

“Now that you mention it, I was thinking…”

“Yeah?”

“We should make the office brighter.”

“We’re a law firm. Isn’t beige the norm?”

“It is if you’re dealing with adults, but a lot of our cases involve kids, so why not have fun with it? Make it feel safer for them.”

The waitress came just then, and after ordering a stack of pancakes for me and an omelet for Stacey, we fell into easy conversation with one another.

“Like the toys in doctors’ offices?” She took two sugars from the display by the window and added them to her coffee.

I followed her example, adding a bit of cream to my own before taking the first sip. “Much better. As for the office, I’m talking about decorations, but for the entire year. Keep the walls as they are, but hang fun things all over. Maybe some children’s pictures, smiling stars, suns, and such like that.”

“What brought this up? Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea, but this doesn’t sound like the Jill I’d spoken to this morning.”

I shrugged, then thanked the waitress as she delivered our food, slathering butter all over my pancakes before drowning them in thick Maple syrup.


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