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Noa struck the match against the side of the matchbox with numb fingers, her teeth chattering in the frigid darkness. She carefully lowered it to the wick on the fat, squat candle on the ledge of the shop’s front window—and the wind blew it out.
She huffed in frustration. All that time she’d spent coming up with ideas for her Hanukkah display, and not once had she considered the weather. Twenty minutes of careful setup, kneeling on the freezing-cold sidewalk, positioning her nine candles in exactly the right spots on the narrow, calf-high ledge, only to rip through her box of matches without a single flame to show for it.
One match left.
She withdrew it gingerly, silently urging it to stay lit. She leaned forward, struck it against the side of the box, and moved her other hand to shelter the tiny flame—which disappeared into a wisp of smoke as the wind gusted down the street.
“Need a light?”
A pair of canvas sneakers had arrived beside her. Her gaze moved up tawny slacks and a seasonally inappropriate but trendy jacket to the hottest guy she’d seen in a long time. Tall, slender, with a short-sided haircut that left the top long enough for a few gingerbread-brown curls to tumble over his forehead. She couldn’t tell what color his eyes were because she was far too distracted by his mouth, particularly the pillowy lower lip that looked even more kissable as it stretched into a smile.
He dropped into a crouch, and she wrenched her attention from his lips to his eyes.
Which were hazel.
“I know the key point is the oil lasted for eight nights, but I’m starting to think the miracle was getting the menorah lit in the first place.”
She offered what she hoped was a self-effacing smile, and he grinned in response.
“Sometimes we can make our own miracles.”
He took a battered silver lighter from his pocket, clicked the flame to life, and lit the wick on the first candle.
It glowed steady and strong.
“Now why didn’t I think of that?” she half joked, using the first candles to light the others in turn.
“Because you don’t have an unlucky lighter. It’s a few days early for Hanukkah,” he observed, rising to his feet.
“Just a trial run, but it’s back to the drawing board. These will never stay lit.” She blew out the line of candles, two of which the wind had already extinguished.
He offered his hand to help her up. She grabbed it and yanked herself to her feet. Her muscles were stiff from the cold, her knees tight and achy, and when she landed upright, she nearly fell straight into him. Thankfully she caught herself just in time but was still close enough to feel the heat of his body, to see that his eyes were mostly green with a ring of gold around the pupil.
She took an unsteady step back. “Thanks again for your help.”
“Do you own this store?”
“I do. Can I help you with something?”
“I hope so. I’m Zach Strauss. I’m looking for a job.”
He stuck out his hand again, and she shook it. “Noa Jacob. Unfortunately—”
“Can we talk inside? It’s freezing out here.”
“Sure.” She quickly popped the candles back into their cardboard box, and he held open the door for her to pass through.
Stepping out of the dim, frosty evening and into Second Chance’s warmth and light eased her immediately. As she set down the box and moved behind the counter she glanced around the full interior of the shop, and it was beautiful. A dark, musty, overstuffed thrift store when she bought it, Second Chance was now a lovingly curated boutique, combining carefully chosen vintage items with brand-new inventory from local artisans. Antique paintings and photographs hung in perfect cohesion with contemporary counterparts, the shelves were uncluttered and meticulously organized, and a strategically hidden reed diffuser filled the space with gentle, unobtrusive scents. Today’s blend was spiced chestnut to warm the wintry weather outside and signal the start of the holiday season.
She loved this store. Overanalyzed every detail. Came in early, left late, and spent most of her waking hours in between thinking about how to make it better. Second Chance was everything she’d dreamed of the day she spent her life savings buying it—elegant, welcoming, and most importantly, entirely hers.
And although she hated to admit it to herself, unprofitable.
She’d started strong a year ago, even expanded to opening a courtyard café in the spring, but the last few months had been underwhelming. She wasn’t sure whether her newcomer shine had worn off, or if the local supermarket’s revamped celebrations aisle was putting her out of business, but she needed a good holiday season or she’d have some unpleasant decisions to make in the New Year.
Which is why she was already shaking her head as she accepted the sheet of paper Zach passed over, trying to ignore that he looked even better under the store’s fluorescent lights, his cheekbones ruddy from the cold.
“I’m sorry, I’m not hiring at the moment. Business has been—” Her attention snagged at the top of his résumé. “You have a PhD in molecular biology?”
“From Berkeley. And I did my undergrad at Stanford. Last year I was on MIT’s list of thirty-five under thirty-five biotech innovators.”
“And you want to work here,” Noa said slowly, wondering if this was one of those social media pranks.
“It’s a long story—I’m in between ventures right now. But yes, I would love to work here.”
She looked at his résumé again. “This says you were the CEO of…Deucalion Biosciences?”
“Deucalion is a next-generation drug discovery company, which uses a computational platform to identify novel small molecules and develop them into drug therapies. Or, it will be. First attempt didn’t quite work out.” His smile turned apologetic.
“Sorry to hear that. I’m just not in a position to take on anyone new.” She slid his résumé across the counter.
He didn’t touch it. “Not even temporarily? For the seasonal rush?”
“Do you see a rush?”
He glanced over his shoulder at the empty shop. “No, which seems strange—it’s so nice in here. I remember the old store, and if it weren’t for the number on the door, I’d struggle to believe this is the same place.”
“You’re from Orchard Hill?”
He nodded. “I moved to South San Francisco after college, but I’ll be in town for a few weeks. You’ve probably heard of my younger brother, Sam. He had this weird viral moment here a couple of months ago.”
She nodded, some of the pieces clicking together. Sam Strauss had become a household name in Orchard Hill after he delivered a baby in a hardware store with his long-lost ex-girlfriend, Mabel Antonoff. Noa wanted to ask Zach more, understand why he’d come here now, get to the bottom of this unlikely job applicant, and spend just a couple more minutes stealing glances at his lips—but she had work to do. She’d indulged in this handsome distraction enough.
“Well, I hope you enjoy your visit. You might try the bakery down the street, I think they’re hiring. Or there’s a temp agency—”
“I’d really like to work here. I can take any shift, do as many hours as you need.”
“That’s the issue—I don’t need anyone.”
“What if I work on commission? I only get paid for what I sell. I’m a good salesman.” Zach grinned, and it was so freaking charming, Noa couldn’t help but smile in return.
“I’m sure you are, but earning commission on five- and ten-dollar items won’t be worth your while.”
“Listen, Noa, I’m in a tight spot right now, and I think I can bring a lot of value here. What’s the most expensive thing you’ve got?”
She indicated the far wall. “That antique painting, with the ship. That’s four hundred dollars.”
“If I can sell that for you tomorrow, will you give me a job?”
She should’ve said no. She didn’t need him, couldn’t afford him, and she should’ve sent him on his way.
But something about Zach was…magnetic. Endearing.
She’d put herself through college by juggling a logistical marvel of minimum-wage jobs. She remembered all too well the complex scheduling, the sweat and backaches, and the paralyzing panic when she miscalculated, or a temporary position concluded early, or she had an unexpected expense that threw her precariously balanced finances into disarray.
She didn’t know how a PhD-level scientist and former CEO could fall quite this far from grace, but maybe that wasn’t her business. Second Chance was, and if she could use it to help someone in need, why shouldn’t she?
“Okay,” she agreed. “Sell that painting before closing tomorrow and you’re hired.”
His big, thankful grin was nearly worth whatever she’d pay him.
“Thank you. You won’t regret it. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Eight o’clock sharp.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
He ducked his head in farewell, leaving as abruptly as he’d appeared, the jangling bells on the door as it shut behind him and the sheet of paper on the counter the only evidence that their strange, fleeting encounter hadn’t been a stress-induced mirage.
She picked up his résumé one more time, shaking her head in disbelief. Had he really just charmed his way into a job? Only if he could sell the painting—but still.
Noa considered herself practical, grounded, and matter-of-fact—yet she’d always been a sucker for a charity case. She hoped that’s what Zach was, and not anything more sinister.
Not that she had anything to steal or exploit, unless he could turn past-due bills into gold. She considered herself a good judge of character, too, and when he spoke, she heard nothing except taut sincerity and a hint of desperation.
We can make our own miracles, he’d said to her on the sidewalk outside. Had he just done exactly that, talking his way into a job?
“Maybe he can conjure up some customers, too,” she remarked to the empty shop. Because if he didn’t, she’d have to rely on her Hanukkah decorations to entice people inside—and right now those consisted of a box of unusable candles and not much else.
Noa heaved a sigh and started over. Again.
Zach hunched his shoulders against the icy wind, the jacket that served him perfectly well in northern California proving to be no match for a December cold front in eastern Missouri. He turned the corner to begin the long, hungry trek home, and exhaled for what felt like the first time in weeks.
Orchard Hill was not where he’d planned to end the year. Apart from a brief return for his grandmother’s funeral, he hadn’t properly visited his hometown in more than a decade, not since his parents moved to Connecticut while he was in college. But when the clinical trial data came out and concluded that Deucalion’s highly anticipated Alzheimer’s treatment simply didn’t work, his plan for his entire life—never mind the next few months—went up in flames.
The biotech market was jumping and his investors wanted out, eager to move their money to the next big thing. He’d put everything he’d ever earned into this venture, which began as an insomniac side project while he was finishing his PhD, and its collapse had wiped him out. What he’d had left in the bank, he’d given to the many creditors who’d called in their loans the minute the trial results were released, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Zach had never experienced failure on this level before, had never been anything other than a high-flying success story, and the weight of it all—the humiliation of the bad data, the spiraling debt, the angry phone calls, the bewildering reset to zero—was suffocating. He had to get out of South City, if for no other reason than he wouldn’t be able to pay his next month’s rent. His brother had sublet the DC apartment where he’d hoped to crash and offered his girlfriend’s vacant place in Orchard Hill instead, so Zach consolidated his life into a duffel bag and a satchel, turned in his key, and used the few hundred dollars he still had in cash on a one-way flight from San Francisco to St. Louis.
This was his third day in town, and everything was jarring. Deceptively familiar, then just different enough to remind him he was an outsider, that this wasn’t his home and hadn’t been for a long time. He’d lost count of how many places he’d walked into, expecting to be recognized or at least remembered, only to find new owners who regarded him suspiciously before informing him he was clearly overqualified.
Thank God for Noa. Second Chance was literally his last hope. He’d been to every other business in Orchard Hill that might reasonably hire a walk-in, including the fast-food chains, and gotten a firm no each time. He could tell from the dramatically transformed exterior that Second Chance had new ownership, and possibly hadn’t been trading long enough to need staff, so he’d left it to the end, figuring the probability of success was low.
For once he was grateful he’d miscalculated. He’d have a hell of a time flogging that ugly painting tomorrow, but he’d make it happen. He always did.
His increasingly numb lips pulled into a smile as he recalled the way Noa’s expression had turned from thoughtful to decisive, and in that moment, he knew he had a job. She was a fellow entrepreneur who’d balanced calculated risk with gut instinct. He liked her already.
Didn’t hurt that she was smoking hot, too, olive-complexioned, with thick, black hair and eyes so dark they were disorienting, like staring into the night sky and realizing the black depths overhead were infinite.
Not that he’d be at leisure to gaze into her eyes all day. He quickened his step, tucking his chin into the collar he’d zipped all the way up.
He was down, but not out.
He’d known all his life he was only as good as his last achievement, so this couldn’t be an end to his career as a hotshot biotech entrepreneur—just a pause. He’d lie low, let the market cool down, earn enough to keep himself fed and warm. Second Chance wasn’t exactly overrun with customers, so he could use his downtime to work on the next phase for Deucalion, figure out what went wrong with his miracle drug, and hatch a plan to make it work.
It’d take longer this time, it’d be harder to raise money, and he still needed a scheme to pay off his existing debts. But he wouldn’t accept failure. Not now, not ever.
Zach took a shortcut down an alleyway, and when he turned the corner he stepped into a freezing gust of wind, its howling force channeled by the cold brick walls on either side. His eyes stung and the chill penetrated straight through to his bones, nearly rocking him back on his heels, but he put his head down and pushed forward.
He couldn’t slow down—couldn’t stop for a second. He would fix this. It wasn’t over. This wasn’t the end, not of his career, not of the only version of himself he’d ever known.
He’d rebuild it all.
End of Excerpt