Eight Years Earlier
All communication from Daniel ceased after our chat in front of Paths of Purpose. I was disappointed, expecting more from him. I didn’t envision him as a quitter, someone so easily scared away. And I didn’t think I was asking too much, wanting to know him before intimacy. I couldn’t risk being a one-night stand…not with him. I felt him too much already in places I wasn’t sure I wanted him to be. If he rejected me, the hit would be a blow to my fragile confidence. I’d only alluded to a relationship beyond sex, and he’d shut down faster than a power station struck by lightning.
Except for that brief kiss he’d taken, and I’d been all too willing to give back. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, the memory from a week ago still fresh the way I’d felt that contact from head to toe, like I was his string and he’d plucked me. It was a mistake to give him anything. He’d proved he was in control, and I wanted him to be. My heart was a fragile thing, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could resist him.
I went back to my life, and he did whatever it was he did. I was only a few days away from my six-month evaluation at Hamerstein, but I wasn’t leaving anything to chance, working harder and longer than ever, making sure my presence at this company became a necessity, not an option. All the interns had stepped up their game hoping to get a permanent position, but I didn’t let that discourage me. There was no way in hell I was going back to Texas with my tail tucked between my legs. My desk phone rang at 4:45 on Friday afternoon. Mr. Hamerstein’s secretary summoned me to his office. I smoothed my hair, refreshed my lipstick, and went to my boss’s office. My evaluation wasn’t scheduled for another week, but I squelched the butterflies and put on my game face. I was determined not to leave that office as an intern.
Mr. Hamerstein’s secretary indicated I should sit. The pep talk I’d given myself on the way up went right out the window as I sank into a seat in the intimate waiting area. I crossed my legs and then uncrossed them. Picked up a magazine from the end table and flipped through a few pages without looking at them before tossing it back on top of a few others.
None of the other interns had mentioned meetings with Mr. Hamerstein. Was I being let go? I fidgeted with the sleeves of my sweater, my mind whirring through the past few months to figure out if I’d done anything wrong.
I’d given everything I had to this. Worked long hours. Never complained. Did whatever was asked of me. There was nothing I could have done any better. Still, the knot in my stomach wouldn’t let up.
It took a valiant effort on my part to stay seated, the urge to get up and pace putting me on the edge of the chair.
“Miss DeGraw,” the secretary said behind her desk. My head jerked toward her. I interpreted the smile she gave me as sympathetic. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. “Mr. Hamerstein will see you now. Go on back.”
I inhaled a lungful of air, pushing to my feet as I released it. Straightening my shoulders, chin up, I strode past the secretary on shaky legs. Mr. Hamerstein’s door was open. He was behind his desk, head bowed as he studied the papers on it. His tanned skin was a stark contrast to his white hair. I’d seen him a few times, actually met him only once, but he was distinguished, had an air of authority. There was never a question that this was his company, which ramped up my nervousness another notch.
I tapped on the door with my knuckles, his eyes finding mine when he looked up.
“Vivian. Come on in.” He took off his glasses and set them on the desk as he stood. His suit jacket gaped, revealing a crisp white shirt and the tip of his emerald and blue striped tie.
“Mr. Hamerstein.” I crossed the plush navy carpet and extended a hand. His eyes were bright and welcoming, which gave me hope.
We shook, and he motioned to the chair across from him. The leather was cool against the backs of my knees.
“Would you like something to drink? Coffee? Water?” he offered, somehow spurring my worry instead of quelling it.
I straightened, clasping my hands over one knee. “No, thank you.” The smile I was aiming for was polite. I hoped it came across that way instead of as a scared grimace.
“The evaluations are scheduled for next week, but I’ve already made up my mind in your case. I didn’t see a reason to waste time.” Mr. Hamerstein pushed some papers aside, revealing a leather inlay on the surface of the desk. He leaned back and absently picked up his glasses, twirling them around by the temple tip. “Tell me how you like it here.”
My brows shot up, but I quickly lowered them, clearing my throat. “Um, I’ve learned so much already. This opportunity has been so much more than I imagined. The work is interesting—difficult at times,” I said with a knowing smile. “But interesting. And I love the connection we have with Paths of Purpose. There’s a lot of potential for developing that further.”
His lips curved up into a pleased line, eyes studying me intently. “You’re doing a hell of a job. No matter what department you work with, they always have something to say about you. Whether it’s your work ethic, persistence, or drive. You’ve made quite a name for yourself, Vivian.”
I swallowed hard, still not completely convinced he wasn’t firing me. “Thank you, sir,” I said.
“I’m going to do something I haven’t done in fifteen years. I see a lot of potential in you. What I’m proposing won’t be easy, but I think you’re up for it.” Mr. Hamerstein set the glasses back on the desk and leaned forward. “I’d like you to be my apprentice. I’ll teach you everything I know.” My lips parted as my eyes rounded. He chuckled. “Don’t look so surprised. You’ve earned it.”
“I won’t let you down,” I said when I found my voice.
His eyes softened, his smile broadening. “I know you won’t. If I thought you would, I wouldn’t have asked.” Mr. Hamerstein sniffed at his own wit. I let out a little laugh.
This was really happening. All my hard work was paying off in spades. “I’m thrilled, Mr. Hamerstein, and honored.”
“We only have the best of the best at this firm. I see the traits that could make you a star.” I wasn’t going to bother pointing out there were other interns who were as qualified as I was. If Mr. Hamerstein saw something in me, far be it from me to dissuade him.
“Is this effective immediately?”
He grinned. “See what I mean? Eager to start.”
“I am, sir,” I said solemnly.
“We’ll get to it on Monday. How does a little raise sound?”
“I thought so. In six months, the firm will pay for the necessary schooling for you to get your masters in accounting,” he said with a flair of triumph.
I gripped my knee with both hands to keep from shouting in excitement. “Mr. Hamerstein. Thank you. I—I don’t know what else to say.”
“I’m looking forward to this.” He stood, and I awkwardly followed suit. “Have a good weekend. Relax. We’ll hit the ground running on Monday.”
“I can’t wait.”
Nearly bursting with pride as I stepped out into the November chill, I was on top of the world. I was tempted to call my father, tell him he’d been wrong about me, but I refrained. If he thought so little of me, he didn’t deserve to know about my success. I kept hearing him in my head saying something about counting chickens before they hatch.
“What’s that smile about?” Daniel looked more devastating than I’d ever seen him, in a three-piece suit, Persian blue tie, and long black cashmere coat, a gray scarf hooked around his neck. He fell in step beside me as I moved down the sidewalk.
“What are you doing here?” I was surprised, not unpleasantly, to find him waiting on me. I glanced toward the street, the black car nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s your coat?” Daniel asked, completely ignoring my question. He frowned as he took in my thin sweater and the stockings under my skirt, which did nothing to keep my legs warm.
“In Texas,” I replied nonchalantly. He kept up with me as he shrugged out of his long coat and draped it around my shoulders. All I could focus on was breathing in and out, his enveloping scent a blow to my senses. I temporarily forgot everything else, especially the cold. “I’m fine,” I said, even as I slipped my arms through the sleeves. The coat swallowed me whole. If I wasn’t careful, Daniel Elliott was going to as well, especially if he kept up this behavior. He’d never been blatantly disrespectful, but gentleman wasn’t a description that immediately came to mind.
“Does your coat usually travel without you?” Is he making a joke? The Daniel I had met over the last few weeks didn’t seem capable, always so serious, a man of few words. I’d wondered more than once if he even knew how to laugh.
“You’re not funny,” I said mock seriously.
“Then why are you smiling?” he challenged.
“I’m not.” But a corner of my mouth turned up in spite of myself. I pretended it hadn’t happened, making a conscious effort to frown. “I haven’t gotten around to asking my mother to send it yet.” I didn’t mention that was because I didn’t want my parents to think I was too immature to have remembered to bring a jacket to New York.
Typically, it was a fight for real estate on the sidewalk after work. I would bump and brush against so many people, I didn’t even notice when it happened anymore. But as I walked with him, the Sixth Avenue seas parted as if we had a bubble around us, like he owned the space and had allowed others to use it.
“Back to my original question. Why were you smiling when you left your office? I know it wasn’t because you were happy to be off work.”
I was excited, so eager to share my news that I couldn’t help myself. Words flowed out of my mouth in rapid fire, and I couldn’t stop. Daniel listened to every single one of them as if they were the most important he’d ever heard, focusing on me instead of where he was walking. It might normally have been unnerving to have all that attention on me, but I was too worked up. I didn’t have anyone else to share the news with. The closest thing I had to friends were coworkers. I couldn’t exactly gloat that I’d gotten this awesome position when some of them were after the same thing. I might be confident and competitive, but I wasn’t cruel.
“Congratulations, Vivian. I’m proud of you.”
My steps faltered, but I squared my shoulders and kept moving. I didn’t know if anyone had ever said that to me. I filtered through as many memories as I could in the span of a few seconds and didn’t come up with a single time. Hearing them from Daniel momentarily threw me off balance, because he actually did look pleased for me. It seemed as if he’d have been surprised by anything else, which caused a tightening in my chest I’d never felt before. “Thank you.” My cheeks got hot before I remembered myself.
“I know Hamerstein. For him to take you on personally speaks volumes.” My cheeks heated again. Daniel’s confidence in me felt unreasonably good.
“This is me,” I said as we approached a set of stairs descending into the underbelly of New York. I started to shrug off his coat, but he placed a hand on the small of my back, guiding me down the first step. So I kept moving, staying ahead of him. He should have appeared awkward down here among the normal, everyday people, but he blended seamlessly, surprising me when he fished a MetroCard out of his wallet while he walked through the crowd like he did this on a daily basis. How often did he come down here?
When I held my card against the sensor on the turnstile, it flashed red. “Damn it,” I cursed under my breath.
Daniel had already made it through to the other side. “Use mine.” He held out the card, and I leveled him with a look that would have reduced anyone else to rubble. I pushed past the annoyed man behind me and walked over to the machine by the wall to add a little cash. I dug in my purse, finding four dollars at the bottom, and smoothed out each bill by vigorously rubbing it on the metal edge of the machine. Twice it spit the dollar bills back out, and I tried my trick once again. “I’m trying to give you money,” I grumbled to the machine. “You’d think you’d be grateful and accept it any way you could get it.” As if it had ears to hear, the bills disappeared.
This time the turnstile offered no resistance, allowing me through. Daniel was waiting for me as if he had all the time in the world, following as I led us through throngs of people to my train. We’d just missed one when we approached the platform, so we stood close to the edge, first up to get on the next one.
“Hold this.” Before I could push my bag into him, it hit a brick wall of arm muscle he’d folded over his chest, lightning fast.
“Add please to the end of that, and you’ll get a lot further,” he said, tossing my words back at me verbatim.
“Please.” I gave him the most sugary sweet smile, and he took the tote from me. I rummaged around in it while he held it open. “How was your day?” I pulled out one black ballet slipper and then the other. Bracing my hand on his shoulder, I lifted one foot off the ground, slid off my heel, dropped it in my bag, and replaced it with a ballet shoe. My big toe peeked out through the hole I’d worn through the leather, a jagged island of red nail color in the space where the nylon of my stockings should have been.
I repeated the process until I had both ballet shoes on. When I put my foot back on the floor, I noticed Daniel wasn’t breathing, just staring at me. That was the thing about eyes the color ours were. They were easy to hide behind. It was difficult for anyone to read beyond the onyx, even for someone trained in the art, like me. The black depths were captivating, a distraction the average person never got past.
I peeled my fingers off of his shoulder and watched air fill his chest again. It occurred to me I’d never voluntarily touched him, and my own insides were buzzing like mad. A man like Daniel wasn’t one to let contact—or anything—-affect him. I wondered if it was my touch or if he just didn’t like it in general.
“Getting more interesting by the minute,” he finally said.
“I’ll take that back now.” I held out my arm for him to hang the straps on, but he clutched it in his large hand.
“Allow me. It weighs more than you do.”
I put a hand on my hip, and his eyes flickered with interest. “Did no one ever teach you a thing about women?” I asked, exasperated.
“As a matter of fact, they didn’t.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m here to help you,” I told him earnestly. “Never ever mention a woman’s weight. Even if you don’t mean it in a derogatory way. You might think it’s a nice thing to say something like, ‘Oh, you’ve lost weight. You look fantastic.’ Seems innocent enough, right? All she hears is that you thought she was fat before, even if you didn’t. It’s a no-go topic, Princess. You can thank me in five years when your eyes are still intact because no female has clawed them out.”
“What else do I need to know about the opposite sex?” He was amused, a cocky smirk on his face. Daniel probably had more knowledge of women in his pinky than I did as a whole.
“Oh no. You’ve gotten your free piece of advice. This isn’t an all-day buffet.”
The sound of his laughter was drowned out by the approaching train, and for once I wished it could have waited another second. Eliciting that laugh from him seemed the equivalent of winning a gold medal. I was filled with the sound, my already stellar mood enhanced because I had gotten a laugh out of the no-nonsense Daniel Elliott. It seriously competed for the best part of my day, and I’d had a pretty damn good one.
The doors to the subway car opened, a few people exited, and I pushed my way in, making a beeline for a vacated seat. Daniel sank into the one beside me, and I seized my purse from him, settling it on my lap.
“On your way to a performance?” he asked, pointing his chin at my worn out ballet slippers as if he’d just noticed them.
“Cute,” I said, pretending to be unimpressed by his wit. “For your information, these are comfortable.” Although they really weren’t much better than walking barefoot on the streets, they were a vast improvement over heels. “Obviously, you have no fashion sense.” Obviously, I was lying through my teeth. The man looked amazing in whatever he wore. It was kind of disgusting what he did for a suit.
“It is true I am most definitely not on the cutting edge of high fashion,” he said dryly.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who appreciated the gorgeous package that he was. The woman seated across from us wasn’t even trying to hide that she was staring, her lips slightly parted as she was imagining exactly what was underneath that power suit. Daniel didn’t notice his observer, his eyes trained on me like I was the only other person on the planet.
I shifted in my seat, though I met his gaze head-on, as if all that intensity didn’t affect me in the least. “Then you’re really in no position to comment.” Something about him made me extra sassy, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
My phone pinged inside my bag, and I pulled it out to find a text from my carrier that a payment was due or my service would be suspended. I couldn’t get a signal down here if my life depended on it, but the damn phone company is going to get the message through when I owe them money. I snapped the phone shut, hoping Daniel hadn’t seen that. The bill wouldn’t be paid for at least another week.
“You dropped this.” The nosy bastard was holding out a wrinkled piece of paper that he’d unfolded. “Where is it?”
“New Zealand.” I’d printed it off the internet. I snatched the photo from him. The mountains were so majestic in the picture that every time I looked at them, they took my breath away.
“Did you take that?”
“No. But someday I will,” I told him confidently, folding the paper back into a square.
“What’s all that?” He indicated the rainbow of writing that covered the back of the white copy paper.
“The places I have to visit someday. I want to spend at least a month on the South Island. I mean, I’d like to see the north one too. But the south is what I want to visit first.”
“May I have a look? Please?” he added, and I felt a small victory that he was doing something for me that he didn’t for anyone else.
I held the paper a little tighter. This was something I’d never shared with anybody. It’s not like it was a big secret or anything, but if nobody knew and for some reason I never made it, then no one would know I’d failed. Except I wasn’t going to fail. Because I was on my way to being an accountant, and one day I would see this mountain for myself. Without any further hesitation, I passed the paper to him, deciding I could share my dreams with him. If I expected him to do the same, I had to go first.
Daniel took it from me as if I was handing him a glass egg. He unfolded the picture again, studying it.
I’d found the photo online several years ago during a mindless perusal of the vast information superhighway. The mountain had spoken to me right away, had some kind of spiritual pull on me. My desire to see it made no sense, yet I couldn’t ignore it. That’s what I’d been saving all the money for. It wasn’t a question of if I would go, but when.
“We’re almost to my stop,” I said after a few minutes. Daniel’s eyes were still riveted to my notes. He blinked at me, almost as if he’d forgotten where he was, gently folded the printout, and handed it to me. “Think you can find your way back on your own?” I goaded as I slipped it back in my purse.
He pressed his lips together and pretended to give the question serious thought. “Not sure if I can manage.”
I actually smiled at that, standing when the train came to a stop. Daniel got to his feet along with me and followed me through the open doors and out of the station. I was three stops away from my apartment, but I didn’t want him knowing where I lived.
“Here’s your coat,” I said as I shrugged it off. “You shouldn’t be out in this weather in your frail condition without it.” My body temperature plummeted without the outer garment, and I immediately missed his scent that had surrounded me.
I squeezed his biceps, which were solid. I gave him an apologetic look. “Definitely frail.” Definitely lying. “Now get back into the station before you freeze.” I handed him his coat, which he didn’t seem to want to take.
“Keep it,” he said, still sounding miffed.
“I’ll be fine. I have a lot of energy, so I can get home in a flash.” I gave him another saccharine smile, and sauntered off, stopping after a few steps, turning back to him. He was still standing at the mouth of the subway, coat draped over his arm like an accessory. “Where do you want to go, Daniel?”
For a moment, he appeared caught off guard. The question was innocent enough, a generic, run of the mill, everyday kind of question. Yet I knew it meant more to him. Just like that picture meant more to me.
He’s not going to answer.
I focused my expectant gaze on him. If he wanted off this hook, he’d have to find his own way.
I hid my surprise at such an obscure answer and then turned away, heading down the sidewalk. I half expected him to follow me. He didn’t.
When I got into my frigid apartment and changed into my thermal underwear, flannel pajamas, a hoodie, and three pairs of socks, and settled under two blankets, I realized he hadn’t once demanded I go out with him. No. Everything he did today was about getting to know me and nothing more. He’d upped his game.