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Emma was going to be late—there was no question about it. And even worse, long before she’d glanced up from her cluttered desk at five fifteen and felt the prickles of panic shoot across her scalp, she’d known of her inevitable truancy.
Because, truthfully, Emma Wallace had known she’d be delayed meeting her boyfriend, Sam Cole, for dinner at their favorite restaurant the minute she’d walked into her office at Zenith Media that morning and learned that the Johnson Cookware account was up for grabs again—and her proposal was getting a second shot.
So why hadn’t she texted to let Sam know way back then?
That was, of course, the question Emma tried to ignore as her stylus flew wildly over page after page, reworking her initial ideas for the cookware company’s new look—her gaze zooming from paper to computer screen with equal speed as she madly worked—telling herself her boyfriend would surely understand that after ten years in digital design, Emma was, at thirty-two, finally due the break of her career.
“Still here?” Vanessa appeared in Emma’s doorway, her colleague’s cloud of strawberry blonde curls bursting out of the bottom of a purple beret. After being cubicle neighbors at Zenith for four years, the fellow designer was more than just a trusted coworker. She was Emma’s best friend. “So how’s the redesign going?”
“I wish I knew,” Emma said, reaching back to make a twist of her hair and snapping an elastic around the tidy knot. “One minute I think Diane’s going to love it, the next minute I think a first-grader could come up with a better concept.”
Vanessa leaned into the jamb. “Sounds like you could use a little something to sweeten your mood right now too. Want to grab an eggnog latte with me at Cocoa’s?” The café’s seasonal special was their favorite elixir for work stress—any other night Emma would have accepted the invitation.
“I wish I could, but I don’t dare stop while the ideas are flowing.”
“No worries—I understand.”
But Emma swore a flicker of disappointment crossed her best friend’s face before she looked away. What did Vanessa mean by, “Sounds like you could use a little something to sweeten your mood right now too?” Her friend was still feeling the aches and pains of a recent breakup—had today been especially tough? Emma would have gladly offered counsel, but buried this deep under deadline, she could only offer a warm smile—and an apology. “I’m really sorry, Ness. At this rate, I’m not even sure I’ll make it to dinner with Sam.”
Vanessa’s thoughtful expression turned fierce. “Don’t you dare cancel,” she said, fixing Emma with a hard look. “Do you know how lucky he was to get a reservation at Ivy’s this close to Christmas?”
She knew, all right. And the creeping remorse wasn’t exactly helping her creative flow. Then again, neither was the relentless chime of Christmas carols their receptionist Denise insisted on playing on her computer.
Fortunately, Sam would understand her late arrival. After three years together, her boyfriend had grown accustomed to Emma’s devotion to her work. After all, he had a demanding job too—although she would be hard-pressed to recall one time her architect boyfriend had ever been late for one of their dates—a record that, she’d admit, often stirred more than a few tremors of guilt. Tonight, however, she worked to tamp them down before they could start.
“Just don’t push it too late,” Vanessa said, turning to go. “As far as I know, Uber hasn’t started offering teleportation service yet.”
“If only.” Emma grinned. “Oh, and do me a favor, will you? When you pass reception, can you ask Denise to turn down her music?”
“I most certainly will not. Some of us actually like getting into the holiday spirit. You know, holiday? As in, taking a break?”
“Denise started playing Christmas songs in October—you’ll forgive me if my holiday spirit doesn’t have a three-month shelf life,” Emma said, spinning back to face her desk. “Besides—deadlines don’t take holidays.”
“Careful now, my friend…” Vanessa raised one side of her mouth in a smirk. “You’re starting to sound like another person I know who always put work before fun.”
“Oh yeah, who’s that?”
Emma pushed through Ivy’s double doors at six forty-two and scanned the crowded restaurant with her heart in her throat for several seconds before she spotted Sam at a booth in the back, his brown hair falling over his forehead in the sexy, just-woke-up way that had sent butterflies of heat fluttering through her stomach the first time they’d met. Three years in, it still did. Only tonight, those butterflies were competing with the batting wings of nerves as she hurried across the busy floor.
Despite the lack of Christmas music in favor of a live bluegrass duo, there was no confusion as to the season. Twinkle lights swung from the exposed beams and wrapped around the room’s unfinished wood columns, and every table boasted a festive centerpiece of pine boughs and holly sprigs, the thick, sappy scent of fresh pine nearly overpowering the smell of sautéed garlic.
“Baby, I am so, so sorry,” Emma blurted breathlessly as she slid into the bench.
“Me too.” Sam’s voice was uncharacteristically tight, sending a knot of regret sinking in her stomach. His gaze remained fixed on his menu. “The couple over there just got the last order of scallops.”
“I know you’re angry.”
“Believe it or not, I’m actually impressed. I’d bet you’d be an hour late, and here you are, just under fifty minutes.” The strained smile he offered as she shrugged out of her coat did little to mask his sarcasm.
Then Emma saw the ramekin of crème brûlée in front of her and she sucked in an appreciative breath.
Sam gave a shrug. “I overheard the waiter say they were running low on those too.”
She looked up at him, flushed with affection as she scanned his warm eyes. “I don’t deserve you, do I?”
“Nope,” he said flatly, and with just the right amount of gravity that Emma waited a beat before smiling, not sure if he was kidding or not.
Their waiter arrived to take their orders. Suddenly starving, she chose the broiled salmon with quinoa and an extra side of the restaurant’s famous curry fries.
Sam gave her a wary look as he handed the waiter back their menus. “Let me guess—you skipped lunch again?”
“I ate a protein bar,” she said, though, inhaled might have been a better verb. But who had time to waste eating? “I had a good reason,” she said, leaning forward, bursting. “I have amazing news. Diane announced that Simon’s presentation to Johnson Cookware was a total flop.”
He stared at her, one sandy blond eyebrow arching dubiously. “I’m waiting for the part where you tell me the amazing news.”
“It’s amazing because Johnson said they’d be willing to look at the other proposals before going to another firm—which means I can finally get my ideas in front of Diane and knock their socks off!”
Sam reached for his water. “Don’t you mean their aprons?”
Emma smiled, her racing nerves finally calming. Though there was no denying she’d been dazzled by Sam’s bright blue eyes when she’d first met him, his sense of humor was, without a doubt, his very best feature.
“I’ve got some news too…” He opened his napkin and laid it across his lap. “We got the additional grant to keep Kids Who Cook going another year.”
“Sam!” She clapped a hand over her forehead, feeling the flush of remorse burning there, remembering he was supposed to hear the news today. “Baby, I’m so sorry—I totally forgot to ask. That’s fantastic! We should be toasting you.” She reached for her wine then stopped. “Wait—we should order champagne!”
“It’s a grant for ten thousand dollars, Em—not ten million,” Sam said dryly, raising his glass. “Wine’ll do.”
“Still! It’s amazing news.” She tapped her wine to his, meeting his tender gaze over the rim as she took a sip. “I really am sorry, Sam,” she said, setting her glass back down. “And not just because I forgot to ask about the grant.”
Finally, a smile melted across his face, thawing the last of the chill he’d been wearing since she’d sat down. “Baby, it’s okay. I know how disappointed you were not to get a shot at this account the first time around. And if a few late arrivals is what I have to trade so we can leave Saturday morning for my folks’ house, then I’ll gladly white-knuckle it.”
Heat flooded her face. She blinked up at him, her voice nearly cracking as she asked, “Christmas is this Saturday?”
“Yup.” Sam grinned. “I sent the big guy a text asking for an extension for you this year, but he turned me down. Sorry, babe.”
A chuckle was the appropriate response, but Emma didn’t dare risk choking on the knot of panic in her throat. Instead, she reached for her glass again and took a longer swig this time, hoping to force the ball of nerves down, but it remained lodged in her throat. When Diane had notified the design team this morning that they had until December twenty-third to polish their original campaigns for resubmission, Emma hadn’t realized that date was only days away.
After three years of dating—and declining the invitation to spend Christmas with Sam’s parents for every one of them—she had known she couldn’t say no a fourth year in a row. But she’d made that promise two months ago, before she’d gotten the second chance to win her dream account.
When she looked up, she found Sam’s eyes trained on hers and pooling with dread.
“We are still on for this, right?”
“Of course!” The waiter returned with their order of bruschetta, his timing the perfect rescue, allowing Emma a few extra minutes to continue tamping down her rising nerves as she and Sam each dug into a slice.
“Speaking of my folks,” he said. “My mom keeps forgetting about the whole pescatarian thing—even though I’ve told her you only eat fish no less than two hundred times.”
Emma smiled as she unfolded her napkin. “At least your mother knows it’s a dietary choice. When I explained it to my mom, she thought it meant I was going to a new church.”
“Pescatarian, Episcopalian…” Sam grinned. “It’s an easy mistake.”
“It’s okay, really. I don’t want her making a special dish just for me.”
“Are you kidding?” he snorted. “Elaine isn’t making anything. She’s ordering in the whole spread from her favorite restaurant.”
Of course, Sam’s mother wasn’t cooking a single dish herself.
Unlike most people, whose passion for cooking came from watching their parents make meals, Sam’s fondness came from the opposite. While most of his male friends could barely boil water if someone else didn’t fill the pot for them, Sam was an accomplished and entirely self-taught chef, a passion he’d detailed to Emma on their first date. Growing up the oldest of three boys, Sam had been responsible for making his younger brothers’ meals when his parents had been gone at all hours to run the family’s insurance business. And though his brothers had soon developed their own erratic schedules, thanks to sports practices and other after-school commitments, and had no longer needed him to cook for them, Sam’s passion for cooking hadn’t dimmed. When the local elementary school had wanted to offer after-school programs, he had volunteered to teach cooking lessons. Two years later, he’d turned a few classes for a handful of elementary students into a wildly popular neighborhood program called Kids Who Cook.
The news of his culinary expertise had excited Emma from the start—not just because she was a hopeless cook and looked forward to enjoying his skills, but because she also liked knowing he had grown up living with people who’d made sacrifices for their careers, so her own demanding and often unpredictable work schedule wouldn’t be hard for him to adjust to. And in their three years together, it hadn’t been.
At least, not that she had ever witnessed.
“So you think you’ll have a better shot the second time around?”
He was steering them back to talk of her work—a good sign the sting of her late arrival had finally softened.
She smiled gratefully. “I’m hoping.”
“Have you told your folks yet?”
“So my mom can tell me I work too hard and that I should be working toward settling down instead?” Emma shook her head. “No thanks.”
Her mother, a nurse with a great-paying job when she’d married Emma’s father, had chosen to stay home after Emma was born—a decision Emma always believed she must have regretted, living with her penny-pinching father. Having grown up watching her mother be put through the ringer just to buy light bulbs, Emma vowed from an early age to make her own money—money she could spend however she wanted and didn’t have to ask permission for from anyone.
Sam chuckled as he reached for his glass.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“It just occurred to me…” He swirled his wine.
His eyes appraised her tenderly, all traces of the earlier frost gone. “The cosmic irony in a woman who can’t cook landing a major cookware account.”
End of Excerpt