Wanting to make a difference, Maura uprooted herself and her eight-year-old son from the Sandhills of North Carolina and planted roots in Chicago, Illinois. After three years of struggling to publish even one hope-filled article, her dreams begin to crumble and fade, much like her run-down tenement. She works a second job to make ends meet and struggles to balance parenting with work, while her journalistic responsibilities are reduced to correcting typos for her plagiarizing co-workers.
Rick Figueroa seems perfect: he’s handsome, smart, and appreciative of Maura’s vision for their media company. He’s also in a position to share her writing and ideas. Together they launch a Dear Santa project that has the potential to restore hope and Christmas cheer to thousands of children.
But things are not always as they seem… As Maura’s attraction to Rick grows, so do her questions about his identity and his intentions. Soon she is faced with a choice between love, career, and doing the right thing…all before Christmas.
"Listen to the MUSTN'T, child
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS, the IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES, then listen close to me —
Anything can happen, child.
ANYTHING can be."
— Shel Silverstein
Maura’s phone buzzed its alarm as it rattled across the wooden barstool she used as a nightstand.
Even at the risk of oversleeping, she never set an audible alarm, lest the rest of the apartment wake up as well. Yeah, it was early, but waking up at four a.m. meant a hot shower, an hour or so of alone time, coffee, and most important … time to research trending news and social topics, so she’d be ready with a five-minute elevator pitch if the need ever arose.
Six years of college hadn’t landed her a position in the big leagues. The only way she’d make it to the top was if she ended up in the right place at the right moment. And when that serendipitous encounter happened — the moment all ambitious professionals dreamed of — she’d be ready with her A-game. The only way to prepare herself was to study — every day. Now was not the time to rest on her hard-earned laurels, which had landed her a job as an editorial assistant, not a journalist or senior editor. Talks of the impending retirement of the boss man she’d never seen meant a new CEO was taking over in the upcoming year. A new CEO meant a new regime, a level playing field. If she wanted her own house, she needed to up her game.
Morning internal pep talk over, she took a moment to study her little boy before rolling out of bed. Well, not so little anymore. He was becoming quite the cover hog. Her eight-year-old was way too old to be sleeping with his mother, but as she reminded herself daily, at least they weren’t living in a shelter — or worse, on the street.
Still, she hated that she couldn’t afford a place of their own, where her son could have his own bedroom, where she’d have privacy … to cry if she needed to. Not that she had time to cry, but all women needed a bawl-your-eyes-out cry every once in a while. No, she couldn’t cry in front of her son. Already, he was too grown-up, more concerned about her welfare than his own half the time.
In sleep, Ben’s relaxed face made him actually look like a child. His tangled curls, round cheeks, and thick fuzzy eyebrows, which were too big for his face, reminded her of the Coppertone baby.
Years ago, seemed like a lifetime ago, when her family had vacationed in Florida, her mother had purchased the brown bottle of sunscreen. When they’d returned home, Maura had doused herself daily with the potent lotion just so she would have a constant reminder of their time spent at the beach. Twenty years later, she still missed those carefree days — her untroubled life — a time when her parents were the responsible ones.
Resisting a sigh, Maura inched out of bed. Reminiscing was fine, but she didn’t have time to dwell on what had been or could have been. She turned and quickly tucked the covers around Ben so he wouldn’t freeze.
December wasn’t the coldest month in Chicago. But average temperatures of twenty-some degrees coupled with high winds and an unreliable thermostat made getting out of bed a challenge.
She stuffed her socked feet into waiting slippers, wrapped a tattered old robe around her body — even though she slept in sweatshirt and sweatpants — then snatched her bath caddy off their shared dresser, and headed to the bathroom.
“Mom,” Ben whispered. “Wake me when you’re done, okay? Yesterday all the hot water was gone.”
Maura shuffled back to the bed and stooped. “I’m sorry, baby. Was I noisy?”
He scrunched up his face and shrugged. “I’m a light sleeper.”
She curbed the urge to laugh at her little old man, then brushed back his curls. “Okay … but if you’re going to start getting up at four, you have to go to bed earlier.”
He sighed. “They never watch what I like anyway.”
They … his two older cousins and the teenaged girl who lived under the same roof, not to mention the three adults. Even if Maura could afford to buy a TV for their room, the internet was too slow. Her cousin’s name was on the lease, so she made the rules. Even though Maura paid her share, it wasn’t her apartment. She rented a hundred square feet of an eight-hundred-square-foot apartment. Seven people shared one bathroom, a living area barely large enough for a full-size sofa, and a tiny kitchen. That was all — just a roof over their heads, not a home.
“Let’s go, Ben!” Maura buttoned up her coat, draped a scarf around her neck, and scooped up her keys, briefcase, gym bag containing a change of clothes, and snacks out of the pantry she kept locked in their ten-by-ten space.
Ben’s backside remained facing her as he rummaged through the closet. “But I need …” He pulled items from boxes, tossing them on the floor. “Where’s the box where you keep …?” He hurled more objects behind him.
“Ben! We have to go!” She peered over him. “What on earth are you looking for, sweetheart? You’re making a mess.”
He turned to her. “Where’s Dad’s hat?”
“His hat? Which hat?”
He stared up at her, arms crossed, as if they’d been discussing a missing hat for days. “His uniform hat. What other hat would I be looking for?”
“I put it away.”
“I need it.”
She crossed her arms, mimicking his stance. “Why?”
“For the school play tonight.”
The school play … Maura had yet to find someone to cover her bartending shift tonight. Annoyed, but not wanting to upset her son, she kept her tone level. She lifted a finger. “One, why in the world would you be looking for something five minutes after it’s time to leave?” She raised another finger. “Two, even if I could get to it, I can’t let you take your father’s uniform. What if someone steals it?”
His fuzzy brows lowered as he held up a finger, mocking her. “One, I would never let someone take my father’s hat.” He held up another finger. “Two, if you’d made it home last night before I went to bed, I would have asked you yesterday.”
“That’s not fair, Ben.” She knelt and tossed several of the items he’d thrown out back into the closet as she locked eyes with him. “And we don’t have time to get it now.”
His shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, Mom. I know you work too hard. But please … I really need it. I told Mrs. Mills I’d bring it. It’ll make my role so much more convincing.”
“You’ll be late.”
His brow lifted. He knew how to play her like a fiddle. “You can write me a note. I haven’t been late all semester.”
“I’ll be late.”
His lips turned up at the edges. “You’re always the first to arrive anyway, right? They’re all lazy butts who drink and party all night and show up late, making you do their job —”
“Ben!” She couldn’t blame her son. Out of the mouths of babes, her grandmother had always said. He was just repeating her words. Words that, sadly, were true. “Fine. I’ll get the ladder.”
“Jim … I swear, you’re gonna drive me to drink.” Maura tapped on the outside of the man’s cubicle. His Travel & Outdoors article for the Lifestyle section was due at the same time every day, but he was always late — always. Cowboy boots propped on the desk, AirPods in, and typing on his laptop while laughing at whoever had his ear, he obviously couldn’t hear her. “Jim …” She tapped on his shoulder, and he jumped, the heavy heels of his boots barely missing her black pumps as he dropped his legs and swung around.
When he saw it was her, his eyes widened as he took in all five-foot-five of her. As usual, though, his eyes landed back on her chest, not her eyes, so he couldn’t see how frustrated she was.
Ugh! And he calls himself a southern gentleman. More like an Urban Cowboy. Who wears cowboy boots in downtown Chicago?
He clicked Mute then stared up with his too-white smile. The only thing missing was a toothpick dangling from his lips. “What’s up, darlin’?”
She didn’t have the strength or patience today. Not when she needed to finish her job and somehow get to her second job, then beg her way out so she could make it to Ben’s play.
“Your draft …” she said, hands raised in question. Every day she had to come looking for Jim, and every day he acted surprised, as if she might have come to take him up on his: We’re two peas in a pod, darlin’. You’re from the South; I’m from the South. Let’s go out sometime.
He glanced at his watch, then clicked the phone off mute. “I’ll call you back.” He clicked End, returned to his laptop, clicked Email, attached the document, hit Send, then turned to her. “Sent!” He stretched back again, looking like a cat eying a canary. “So … Ms. Maura,” he drawled. “Are you bringing someone special to the Christmas party tonight?”
The Christmas party … Oh, no! Craaaaaaaap!
If only she could be in three places at the same time. Not that she wanted to attend the Christmas party. The last thing she wanted was to rub elbows with the uber-wealthy while she showed up in an Off 5TH made-for-outlet LDB. Still, the annual Christmas party was a great way to meet execs she normally wouldn’t have an opportunity to talk with. Every chance she got, she reviewed other online media sites, studying what they did and didn’t do. She researched trends, news, social media … everything happening locally and around the world, in the event she found herself in an elevator with Mr. Barros himself, as unlikely as that was, since he normally entered the building via the roof — or so she was told. Missing the Christmas party would be tantamount to shooting herself in the foot before the big race. But how in the world would she manage to attend her son’s play, bartend, and then dress for the ball? Even without evil stepsisters tearing apart her dress, unless her fairy godmother suddenly made an appearance, she saw no way to accomplish all three of these responsibilities.
Instead of answering Jim, she clicked the email on her phone. She opened the Word doc and quickly scanned the article.
She stared down at him, hating she also had to copy-edit his article daily. “I’ve told you a million times, i-t-apostrophe-s is the contraction for it is, not the possessive determiner its.” He rolled his eyes, and she continued reading. “And you-apostrophe-r-e is the contraction for you are … not your. Jim … Why do I have to fix your article daily?”
“Maura …” he whined. “Copy editing is your-no-apostrophe-r-e job. Not mine. I’m the talent.”
“It was her turn to roll her eyes. “No, it’s not my job, Jim. I’m not your personal copy editor. And if I sent your pages in the way you send them to me, you wouldn’t be the talent for long.”
“It’s a good article, though, right? Very Norman-Rockwell-y, especially this time of the year. Gets people thinking about sleigh rides and hiking through the snow to chop down a Christmas tree.”
She sighed. “Few families have money to go on sleigh rides. And chopping down a tree? Really?” He waved her on, so she continued reading, then shrugged. “It’s all right.”
Jim threw a hand over his heart. “Oh, Miss Maura, you wound me! I thought you’d nominate me for a Pulitzer.”
A Pulitzer … She’d be happy if she could afford her own apartment, and his biggest worry was whether she was going to bring anyone to the party or if he’d win an award. And to think she fixed his stories, even though she made about a third of the income he did. When she’d gone for a journalism degree, she didn’t think she’d end up as an editorial assistant in a city that paid about ten percent less than everywhere else in the country.
Maybe her cousin was right. Perhaps she should go back to North Carolina. But the thought of returning to her hometown … without a husband — without a pot to pee in, as her grandmother had always said — instilled more sorrow in her than sharing a room with her eight-year-old son.
Or maybe she was like her grandfather had always quipped: Proud as a peacock.
In the lunchroom, Maura nibbled on her nails instead of her untouched granola bar as she waited for the nighttime manager to pick up the phone.
“You got Tony!” His tone was short and sharp. He hadn’t even bothered to add a hello. He clearly knew if the host was transferring a call to the office, it was an employee calling in sick. Maura didn’t want to lie, especially since she’d have to walk right past the bar to attend the Christmas party.
“Hey, Tony. It’s Maura —”
“Don’t say it, Maura. I know you ain’t calling to say what I think you are.”
“I can’t come in tonight —”
“I said …” he drew out the two little words, “don’t say dem words. I give you dibs on Friday night ’cause you’re reliable, but if I can’t rely on you, I’ll give dem to someone else.”
“What if I come in early, work through Happy Hour, and then dip. Dawn likes to work late, anyway. It’s my kid’s Christmas play, Tony. I can’t miss my baby’s first play. I tried to cover the shift, I swear —”
“Sheesh! Cry me a river, will ya? Fine! Be here by four, and we’ll see how it goes.”
“Thanks, Tony!” She hung up before she talked him out of it. She had a habit of rambling on instead of just taking the close.
Promptly at 3:45, Maura clocked out, dashed to the washroom, and changed into her black pants and white shirt. She pulled her long brown hair up into a ponytail, then darted out.
Seeing the mass exodus at the elevator doors, she sprinted for the stairwell. She practically hurdled the steps, making her way to the lobby of the high-rise. More than likely, she’d beat half of the employees waiting for the elevator, and then catch them as they ordered a drink before hopping on the L.
The only good thing about working Friday night Happy Hour in downtown Chicago was the tips. Chi-Town execs knew how to tip. Of course, those generous tips often came with other suggestions and proposals she never accepted. Going out with someone she worked with — or even someone who frequented the bar where she worked — was a big no-no. She’d learned that lesson at sixteen. Also, she certainly wouldn’t go to an apartment of a possible American Psycho, and she definitely wouldn’t bring a man home to her room with her son. So all suggestions were merely that, suggestions. Sex wasn’t on her horizon any time soon.
Maura tied a black apron around her waist and hopped behind the bar. “Hey, Dawn!”
“I’m so glad you came in early! The Christmas season is in full swing. The Mag Mile is hopping with holiday shoppers, sweetie, and we’re seeing the aftermath. Would you get those women over dere?” Dawn pointed to two women standing at the end of the bar as she tossed several cardboard coasters in front of three tall yuppies, who looked as if they’d stepped off a GQ shoot. “What yous having?”
Maura smiled at her friend’s Chicago accent, then redirected her smile to several regulars as she made her way to the opposite side of the dark wood bar top. She plopped coasters in front of the women Dawn had pointed to. “Hi, ladies. What can I get y’all?”
Y’all … Who was she to laugh about accents? She’d left North Carolina three years ago and, as much as she tried to suppress her southern roots, that y’all still popped out when she least expected it.
The tall blonde, still in her long overcoat, scarf, and gloves leaned over and whispered something.
“Honey,” Maura shouted over the din, “you’ll have to speak up. Friday night, you know!” The hundred-some people chattering at hightops and the twenty-foot ceilings didn’t help matters.
The woman turned to her friend, but not before Maura spied her rolling her eyes.
Maura tossed a coaster in front of an older gentleman, a consultant she’d spoken to a few times over the last few weeks. His contract was for six months, and then he’d be gone. In the meantime, he was friendly and a good tipper who deserved her attention more than the blond snob.
“Same as usual, Hank?”
He smiled and winked, so Maura snatched a rocks glass off the bar, ran a lemon rind around the lip, packed the glass with ice, and free poured Jameson.
She looked up at the women as she poured. “You ladies ready?”
“DO YOU KNOW HOW TO MAKE AN OLD FASHIONED?” asked the tall blonde.
An old fashioned … An old drink that had recently made a comeback. Maura resisted rolling her eyes and telling the woman she didn’t have to yell. Instead of responding, she pulled another rocks glass off the counter as she looked up at the woman’s friend.
“Whisky sour, please,” said the brunette. You could tell just by looking at the two women who ruled and who followed. Maura did neither anymore. High school was one thing, but she couldn’t imagine following an obnoxious be-atch around Chicago. Maura smiled at the second woman, letting her know she’d take care of her. At least the brunette knew if you wanted a good drink, fast, the key was to be kind. Being a snob had no power here.
The evening rushed by since, literally, one person after another stepped up to the bar to order. Normally, she’d make at least one or two loops of the hightops to ask if someone wanted another drink, but Dawn was right. Along with their typical happy-hour crowd, Maura barely had time to look at her watch, let alone leave early.
The first chance she had to breathe, she lifted her hand, lighting up her watch. Seven. Damn, she missed the start of the play.
She ripped off her apron. “Dawn, I gotta dip, girl. Can you handle it from here?”
“Sure, hon. Want me to just put your tips in the safe?”
“That’d be great. Minus a fifty. Mad money, you know, in the event I need to pay a bill and skip out quickly.”
“Yeah. Been there, done that. Have fun!” Dawn said. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Maura turned back. “I’m going to my son’s play.”
Dawn grinned. “I’m talking about the Christmas party later. You are going, right? I’m not covering your shift unless you say yes.”
“Girlfriend, you said it’s important. I don’t want to be hearing how …” She lowered her head and whispered, “That bitchy woman’s holding you back. Go meet some of the hotshots.”
Clearly, she had complained to Dawn once too often. “Okay … I’ll go for a bit. But first, I have to get to Ben’s play.”
Dawn swatted a bar towel at her. “Get!”
Maura slipped into the washroom and changed into her LBD. Yeah, the slinky black dress was too formal for a school play, but she didn’t have time to change after the play. She’d just keep her overcoat on and hope the wrinkles would fall out of the polyester dress before the office party.
As she exited the washroom, her phone buzzed through a text from Jessica. 911 – I need you in the office. STAT!
“Oh, God. What now?” She pressed call but, of course, Jessica didn’t use her phone to talk.
NOW! Another text came through.
Maura glanced at the time, then darted for the elevator.
Upstairs, Maura jogged down the corridor to Jessica Larson’s office, senior editor … and all-around pain in the neck. It wasn’t that she disliked Jessica. Jessica could actually be funny and charming when she wanted to be. But the woman worked her like a dog. Anything that went wrong was Maura’s fault, not Jessica’s or, God forbid, the talent’s fault.
Jessica stood outside her office, dressed to kill in an LBD that wrapped her slender figure, accentuating her waist and flat tummy. The black dress featured sheer embellished panels across the neckline and hem that made it look longer, even though the actual black part barely covered her breasts and rear.
Still, Maura had to admit the woman looked classy, even while fanning herself with a piece of paper, which was too far away for Maura to read. “Have you read this?”
“I’m not sure. What is it?”
“It’s supposed to be Jim Johnson’s article for the Lifestyle section.”
Maura slowed her pace as if slowing down the inevitable would lessen whatever she — rather, Jim had done wrong. It wasn’t her job to copy-edit the piece, but she had. What else could have gone wrong?
Jessica planted a hand on her hip, then held out the makeshift fan with her other hand.
Maura accepted the page as if it might burn her. “Yes, I read it.”
“Did you fact-check it? Check the text for plagiarism?”
“What? Umm … No, I didn’t.”
“Sixty-two percent, Maura. If you’d checked the article for those two issues, as I requested you do all articles, you would have discovered the error. Sixty-two percent is too high. I only ask a few things of you. Now I don’t have a Travel & Outdoors piece, and Christmas is only three weeks away. People need ideas this time of year. They want — Never mind. Just fix the error, Maura!”
Error … Jim’s piece wasn’t an error; he’d been lazy. Maura dropped her arms and stepped forward. This was her chance. She would never knock down another journalist, but Jim hadn’t left her enough time to check the article. Maybe he’d purposely held his piece in his rush to get to the party, hoping she wouldn’t check. “What about one of the articles I submitted? Oh!” Maura chirped. “What about the article I wrote: Chicago’s Christmas Lights on a Dime. I mentioned the ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo. Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Garden. The Holiday Train. There are so many free or inexpensive places for families who can’t afford …”
Jessica furrowed her brow as if she didn’t have a clue, so Maura stopped babbling. How many articles had she written for the woman over the last three years? Each time, Jessica had killed the piece before it saw the light of day.
The woman raised a hand. “I don’t want another article. Readers expect to see Jim’s story. I want you to rewrite the piece, so it doesn’t show up as plagiarized.” She turned and walked into her office.
Jessica turned back before she sat behind her desk. “No, I want you to rewrite the article after it’s supposed to be published online. Of course, now!”
Jessica raised a thin eyebrow. “Is there a problem, Maura?”
Maura plopped down behind her desk and retyped the article, replacing words, adding words … She pulled up Google and searched the topics of ice-fishing and snow-shoeing, neither of which she knew anything about. She didn’t participate in sports, especially winter sports, where she could slip and break something. Even ice skating was a challenge, and she promised Ben they’d go before Christmas.
After re-writing and re-reading nearly half the article, she checked the file, and it was passable.
She emailed the file to Jessica, then texted her: Sent.
Maura didn’t bother to look at her watch; she didn’t have time. She pushed the down arrow for the elevator. Now would be a good time for a fairy godmother to show up, along with a carriage and six white stallions.
She’d have to settle for a 4-cylinder Uber. She hated spending the money, but she didn’t have time. She ordered the service on the way down and shot a quick thanks to the heavens when the driver made it to the front of the building before she did.
“Working late?” the man asked as she got in.
“Something like that. I know it’s not far, but would you rush, please? I’m super late for my son’s school play.”
The man stepped on the gas and had her in front of the four-story brick building in ten minutes.
She stepped out into the biting wind, praising her luck that at least it hadn’t snowed yet. Her black pumps weren’t conducive to running across ice-covered sidewalks. “Thank you! I’ll add a big tip!”
Inside the building, she followed the discordant, but cheerful holiday music to the auditorium.
She carefully inched open one of the double doors, holding it so it wouldn’t slam. On stage, a handful of children marched across the wood floor, forming a parade line. Some pounded drums, others saluted as they made their way toward Ben, who stood on a raised platform, looking as solemn as usual. Of course, Mrs. Mills would pick Ben; he was the oldest elementary student in Chicago, she was certain.
The young man leading the parade stopped and held up a blue silk ribbon with a gold star to Ben. “For your bravery, son. We will never forget what you did to bring home our loved ones. Your father would have been so proud.”
Ben accepted the medal of honor and saluted. “I’ll never know, sir, because I wasn’t here when he died.”
Maura covered her heart with a cold hand. Tears brimmed, threatening to fall. She lifted her head to dry her eyes; she didn’t have time to redo her makeup.
The lights came up, and the curtains fell. The audience stood, sending up hoots and applause.
Mrs. Mills stepped from behind the curtain and called out the cast in pairs and groups, and then individually as she got to the leading roles.
Ben was the last to step out on stage and take a bow. Her son had landed the leading role, and she’d missed it. Because she’d been re-writing another journalist’s article.
Maura waited patiently for Ben to receive accolades from friends, teachers, and parents. She’d made eye contact with him, and he seemed happy, so either he hadn’t noticed she made it at the last minute, or he was his usual altruistic self. Her son was a precious gift she didn’t deserve.
She checked the time. 8:45. By now, most of her coworkers will have had before-party drinks, before-dinner cocktails, and at least a glass or two of wine. If she did happen upon any execs, they wouldn’t remember her anyway.
“Mom!” Ben broke free of his adorers and rushed her. “What did you think?”
She stared down at him, more tears threatening to break free. “What did I think? You brought tears to my eyes. You’re a natural, baby.”
“Oops. Sorry.” Ben wasn’t opposed to hugs in public, but he drew the line at endearments.
“It’s okay. I know I’m your baby.” He offered a little hop, his hands held up in entreaty. “Mrs. Mills is taking the whole troupe for ice cream. Can I go? Please?”
“Umm … I suppose. But … don’t you want me to come with?”
He rolled his eyes. “No … It’s the troupe, Mom.”
“Oh, right. The troupe. How will you get home?”
“I was hoping I could stay at their house. Billy’s a grade younger than me, but he’s cool.”
She forced a smile. “Sure, hon — Ben. What time should I pick you up tomorrow?”
“I’ll call you.” He hugged her, then ran off before she could respond. As much as she wanted to call out an I love you, she knew it’d only upset him.
“Hey, cuz. Glad you made it.” Brittany rested a hand on her shoulder.
Maura didn’t bother to turn; she didn’t want to see the disappointment in her older cousin’s face. “Did he know?”
“He was looking for you at the beginning, but then he was so into his role, I never saw him take his eyes off the other performers again. Ben’s some little actor. Before long, he’ll be using his talent on you.”
Maura sighed. “I doubt it. He has a heart of gold. Just like his father did. Thinks he can change the world.”
“Don’t tell him otherwise, and maybe he will.”
Maura turned and sighed. “The office party’s tonight, so I should go back. Ben is staying at a friend’s house.”
“Why are you so late? What’d that ho keep you for this time?”
Maura blew out a breath. “Jessica’s not a ho. Actually, lack of sex is probably her problem. Not that I’ve had sex in more than three years, and I don’t snap at everyone.” She shook her head. “I had to rewrite a plagiarized piece.”
“Oh, no, he didn’t.”
“Yeah, he did. But it’s my fault. Jessica instructed me to check the articles, and I only scanned it for errors.”
“Because he was late again, right?”
“Yeah.” Clearly, she needed to stop complaining about work to Brittany and Dawn … and her son.
Brittany folded her arms over her bountiful breasts. “Girl, you write circles around that man. Why do you stay with Jessica’s sorry ass … or the company? It’s not like we don’t have umpteen businesses in Chicago that could use a woman with brains.”
Maura shrugged. “I guess Ben doesn’t just get it from his father. I want to make a difference too. I still have hope that a locally based media company will care about its backyard.”
Brittany shook her head as she motioned to her son and daughter that it was time to go. “It’s not even your hometown. I swear you care more about Chicago than I do.”
Maura winked. “I know better. You play all tough, but you’re a big softie beneath that hard-candy shell.”
Brittany struck a pose. “Only my honey gets the sweet stuff.”
Maura waved her off. “I’ll see you later, Britt.”
“You better not see me later! It’s Friday night, and I know under that ugly old coat you’re wearing that little black dress we found. Go out and act like you’re single, Maura. ’Cause you are. And you ain’t getting any younger. And my apartment ain’t getting any larger.”
“Love ya!” Maura shouted over her shoulder.
“Uh-huh. You know I’m right.”
Maura ordered up another Uber, but this time, she had to wait. Ugly old coat or not, it was the only thing keeping her from freezing to death.
She glanced at her phone, happy to see the Uber was close.
Her cheeks and nose burned, probably turning an unflattering red. “Great. Now I’ll show up looking like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
A blue Ford Focus pulled up, so she glanced at the app and the driver. They matched.
She hopped in but didn’t give instructions to speed. She couldn’t afford another large tip. Truthfully, she couldn’t even afford Uber, but she didn’t have enough time to take the L.
The driver didn’t offer any conversation, so Maura sat back and searched trending topics. Oddly enough, Twitter was usually the most current with global events. Next, she clicked the Home tab on Google. Nothing new. Same news sites belaboring dead stories because they had nothing new to complain about.
The car stopped, and Maura opened the door. “Thanks!”
She sprinted to the elevator again, this time taking it to the top floor. A floor she’d only visited on two other occasions in her nearly three-year tenure: the previous year’s Christmas party, and the one preceding it.
Even before the doors opened, she heard the eighties music. Why are all the party songs from the eighties?
She stepped out, and the deliciously intoxicating scent of fresh bread and seafood hit her. Not a second later, a hunger pain stabbed her, nearly causing her to bend over. Oh, yeah! Other than a granola bar, I forgot to eat today.
Maura inched her way along the short corridor, inspecting the crowd from behind a tall topiary decked out with gold ribbon and glassy red ornaments. Like the previous two years, the enormous conference room was dressed to the nines, right along with all the employees, including a twenty-something-foot Christmas tree, embellished with more gold and red. How had they even got that beast up here?
Not that the room needed festive decorating. The floor-to-ceiling windows lining the back wall offered a spectacular view of not only Chicago, but also the lake. She couldn’t see Lake Michigan, but the lights from the thousands of other buildings filtered through the room, causing the crystal prisms on the chandeliers to bounce reflected light throughout the room.
Once again, she really wished she could have been three places at once. She would have loved to stand at the windows and gaze at the sunset, dreaming of the day she had a corner office overlooking this spectacular city.
Her stomach growled again, so she searched the room for food. Nothing but a dessert table remained.
The eighties song … Karaoke vocals, she realized, which meant that anyone who is anyone is already long gone. As the previous years, the brass had probably eaten dinner, said a few words, then hightailed it home. They didn’t hang around for drunken dancing and karaoke.
She headed back to the elevator. It dinged its arrival, so she stepped in. “A waste of an expensive dress,” she grumbled. Even as a knock-off, the dress had cost more than her weekly food budget.
“Hold the door, please!” a man called.
“Oh!” She stepped in the way of the closing doors, which continued to close, so she hopped out of the elevator, nearly losing a foot. She backed up as if the elevator planned to swallow her whole. “Sorry. I’m not sure what happened. Guess the thing was in a hurry. I always knew I was invisible, but that darn elevator …” She stared up at the man for whom she had nearly lost a foot, ready to blame him, but her words caught in her mouth. He was stunning. Not beautiful like an airbrushed magazine cover, but striking with shiny midnight-black hair and dark brows and lashes that framed hazel eyes.
“You don’t look invisible to me,” said the well-dressed man she’d rambled to … a man she’d never seen.
“Well,” she huffed out a chuckle, “I guess that’s not completely true. People sure know how to find me when they need something.” She pushed the Down arrow again. “Did you enjoy the party?”
“Okay, I guess. Weren’t you there?”
“Yes, I’m the invisible woman, remember?”
He laughed and leaned back against the wall. “I thought I saw something shimmer past me. I just assumed the old building was haunted.”
She cocked her head, tickled he was playing along … and looking at her face. Most of the men she worked with had a difficult time holding her eyes, let alone a conversation. Not that she tried to talk with them about anything other than work. No office romances … ever. But she never understood why men and women couldn’t just be friends. If she did talk to a man, he almost always asked her out on a date.
“Do you work here?” she asked. “I’ve never seen you.”
“Well, they didn’t actually announce that I would be working here when they made my big introduction and, technically, I don’t start until January, so don’t tell anyone. I only came because I was hoping to meet some interesting people at the company Christmas party.”
He was obviously joking with her again. The company didn’t make big introductions. The employees were just that — employees. She lifted her head. “Did you meet any interesting people?”
Jessica had been known to have one too many drinks and get frisky with the underlings. Maura hoped the new man hadn’t run into the minx while she was doing her karaoke rendition of Donna Summer’s Last Dance.
He glanced at his wrist and chuckled. “It’s nine o’clock on a Friday night, and I’m dipping. What do you think?”
A giggle escaped her lips. “True. So you’re new here, but obviously from Chicago.”
He cocked his head and chuckled. “How do you know I’m from Chicago? I spent years in other parts of the world, then went to college and worked in L.A. I thought I did a good job of suppressing the accent. What gave me away?”
“Dipping. I’m from North Carolina. We certainly have our crazy southern idioms, but I’ve had to learn to speak the lingo here, lest I be ousted.”
“You’ve done a great job. I hardly detect a southern accent.” He held out a large, well-manicured tanned hand. “I’m Rick Figueroa. ”
She accepted his hand. “Maura Hall.”
“So, tell me, Maura, why are you leaving this exciting party?”
The elevator dinged, and she stepped inside. “I ran behind at work, then realized I forgot to eat, and all the food is gone.”
Rick stepped in beside her. “I was just thinking of getting pizza. I haven’t had a good slice in a while. Care to join me? Maybe you can give me the lowdown on things.”
“Umm … it’s late.”
He peeked at his watch again without really looking. “It’s nine o’clock. If we rush, we can make it to Lou’s before closing.”
“I really shouldn’t …” she told him, then internally finished why she shouldn’t, leave the building with a man I just met outside the elevator.
“It’s just pizza, Maura. Truly, I wanted to meet some interesting people, but then they started up the karaoke machine —”
She covered her mouth. “Oh, yes, the famous karaoke.”
“So you know what I mean?”
“I do. Okay, I guess, but I warn you, I try not to keep up on the gossip.” She couldn’t eat pizza, but Lou’s had great salad and bread.
Rick nodded as if he got that and smiled. “I don’t really care to hear the gossip. I want the real behind-the-scenes info about what employees and the community think of our great company.”
He touched the button for the garage.
The garage, she thought. Oh, crap!
As he stared up at the numbers, she bit her lip. What am I thinking? He didn’t say a date, but isn’t leaving the workplace with a man to eat considered a date? And no one saw me walk in, let alone leave … I don’t know this man. So why am I going to the garage with him?
“Umm, Rick, maybe I should just …”
He turned to her, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Do you have a husband at home, or a big sister?”
“Why?” she asked, all humor gone from her tone. It’s none of your business whom I have at home, she wanted to say but held her tongue. He certainly isn’t expecting me to take him to my place, is he? Maybe that’s how they do it in L.A., but not where I’m from.
“Here.” He pulled out his license and handed it to her. “Take a pic and send it to your best friend. Heck, if I were a woman, I’d do it every time I went out.”
Maura laughed. “Oh … Yeah, well … I don’t date much, but … since you offered.” She snapped a pic, but she didn’t send it to Brittany, who would only say, Girl, why you texting me when you have that hunk of a man in front of you?
The elevator door opened, and Rick only walked a few feet before clicking a remote. The lights of a Silver Toyota Tacoma flashed in unison with a quick chirp. Front row. He must have arrived to work early. Nice to see a man who takes his job seriously.
Maura’s eyes drifted from Rick’s glossy black boots to his dark gray suit. She wasn’t a clothing guru, but she recognized quality. Rick hadn’t been hired as an editorial assistant like her; the man was wearing a five-thousand-dollar suit. She doubted he bought it just to return it, as she’d done with formalwear in the past. Just like Jessica, the execs made big bucks, while lowly editorial assistants who did all the work barely made a buck above minimum wage.
He walked past her and held open the front passenger door. She inspected the captain’s chair and the footwell. Clean. No smell of smoke … or the blood of his last date.
She sat down and looked up as he started to close the door.
“I promise I won’t bite,” he offered. “I’m hungry for pizza. I’m not a vampire or a werewolf, I swear.”
Maura gulped but felt a smile tug at her lips. Rick was funny. He didn’t act like the talent, as Jim reminded her daily. And maybe he’d just lucked out and landed a great job. He’d said years of college and then L.A., so he probably had more experience than she had. If she’d started in a smaller company back home in North Carolina, she could have gained experience, applied for a position in Chicago, and then waited for the right one to open up instead of fleeing her past.
Rick jogged around the front and hopped in the driver’s seat. “Man, I’ve been craving deep dish pizza.”
She smiled. Maybe Rick was just a nice guy. Those still exist, right? He hadn’t molested her with his eyes, anyway. That was a good start.