Free SHORT STORY! from Susan Meier

December 20, 2019

 

We are SUPER EXCITED to bring you a FREE SHORT STORY from Susan Meier, set in the same world as her Christmas book Cinderella's Billion-Dollar Christmas

 

 

Happy Christmas, everyone!

 

I hope you enjoy Reid and Ashley’s story. Book three of the Manhattan Babies mini-series is Trent Sigmund’s romance, Falling For The Pregnant Heiress, where Ashley, now his assistant, pops up a time or two. She even saves Trent and Sabrina McCallan when they are stuck in a storm in Ireland.

 

The Billionaire And The Barista

By Susan Meier

 

Copyright @ December 2018 by Susan Meier

Cover Design by Ecila Media

All Rights Reserved

 

Licensee Notes: No part of this story  may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.This is a work of fiction. Names, Characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 Chapter One

 

Behind the tinsel-trimmed counter of Caffeine Burst, the coffee shop on the ground floor of Manhattan’s Shutto Building, Ashley Stevens quickly scrolled through her smart phone, searching a popular bidding site for the laptop her mom wanted.

 

Finding it, she filled in a dollar amount, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath, praying her paltry bid would win. The past six years, she’d been working toward her bachelor’s degree, and she’d finally, finally accomplished that goal. But she couldn’t have ever done it without the sacrifices her mom had made. She desperately wanted to buy her a Christmas gift that showed how much she appreciated her help. Unfortunately, she hadn’t yet gotten a new job and the extra salary that would come with it. Money, as always, was tight.

 

The bell above the door chimed and Ashley glanced up. Reid McDowell, one of three heirs to the McDowell fortune, walked in. Her bones melted and her breath stuttered.

 

Tall, with sexily tousled black hair and intriguing green eyes, he could have any woman he wanted – including rock stars and super models. Which was why it was pointless for Ashley to have a crush on him.

 

But she did.

 

He headed to the counter. The place was empty except for Josie Santiago – who wore a headband with reindeer antlers over her ugly black uniform hat – and Ashley – who liked to think of herself as a normal person. No antlers required.

 

“I think I’ll try the peppermint latte today.”

 

Ashley tallied Reid’s purchase and he used his bank card to pay. Behind him, the shop’s front window displayed a panoramic view of the snow falling on the busy Manhattan street. Green wreaths with multi-colored ornaments decorated the entryway of the building across the bustling thoroughfare. Red bows adorned the antenna of bright yellow taxis. Shoppers scurried by, carrying red and green bags filled with their purchases, huddling into their winter coats.

 

She smiled at Reid. “Peppermint latte is the perfect choice on such a cold day.”

 

He nodded in agreement as Ashley turned toward the counter to make his drink.

 

He was incredibly likeable for a rich guy, not just because he was gorgeous. In six years of Saturday afternoon chats when Reid was working overtime and the tiny coffee shop was like a tomb, she’d discovered he was making his own name, working at McCallan and Hargraves, the investment firm on the twentieth floor, instead of depending on his family’s name and money.

 

He was smart, gorgeous and humble. Everything a woman would look for in a man. But he was out of her league.

 

Not wanting to risk their hands brushing and the zap of electricity she was certain would sprint up her arm if she touched him, she set his latte on the counter.

 

Taking his drink, he grinned boyishly. “How’s the laptop search going?”

 

“I found the one my mom wanted on eBay.”

 

“That’s great!”

 

“Yeah, now that every cent I earn isn’t going for tuition, books or rent, I scraped up enough for a decent bid.” She displayed her crossed fingers. “So, I guess it comes down to luck.”

 

He laughed. “Actually, I have some news that might mitigate the luck factor.”

 

She frowned. “You do?”

 

“I’ve arranged for you to interview with three of my friends. The salaries for all three jobs are amazing. This time next month you could be earning a bundle.”

 

Her heart stopped. Her having a crush on him was one thing. Something she could keep to herself. But him arranging three interviews for her? That only proved how little he knew her and reinforced the pointlessness of her crush.

 

“You think I’m ready to work for one of your billionaire friends?” It was everything she could do not to stutter.

 

“Technically, only Trent Sigmund is a billionaire.” His grin returned. “The other two are worth high hundreds of millions.”

 

She fought a panic attack. She hadn’t expected to get a good job immediately. She’d wanted to start at the bottom and make her way through the ranks of a few companies, to learn the ropes of not just corporate inner workings and politics, but also proper behavior and manners.

 

She could not be dropped into the world of high finance.

 

She stepped back, away from the counter, away from all the energy and sexiness Reid exuded just standing there. “I appreciate the effort, but I can’t interview with your friends.”

 

Confusion darkened his green eyes. “Why not?”

 

She glanced at Josie, who didn’t appear to be paying attention, but could very well have her ears tuned in on their conversation. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I know you consider us friends, but I’m not your equal. Not even close. I was raised by a single mom in Indiana, remember? I didn’t grow up learning how to schmooze with the people at the top. I’ll make a fool of myself on those interviews and they won’t hire me anyway.”

 

 

Reid studied Ashley. Her loose uniform didn’t give a clue about her figure. Her dorky hat hid all but the bangs of her red hair. But even her hat couldn’t hide her pretty face. From the way her big brown eyes had widened, he could see she wasn’t kidding about fearing she’d make a fool of herself. But every day for the past six years, he’d seen her working toward her degree and recognized how much she deserved solid employment with a future. He couldn’t let her back out.

 

He ran his hand across his mouth, thinking. “Okay. So, you’re nervous?”

 

“It’s more than nerves. I don’t know what to say or how to behave with such high-powered people.”

 

“You don’t have any trouble talking to me.”

 

She snorted. “Do you remember the first two months I worked here? I barely made eye contact.”

 

It was true. He’d had to use every ounce of his charm to lure her out of her shell, but he disagreed about them not being friends. They might not be cronies, but he cared about her. That’s why he wanted to help her get a job.

 

“Okay. I understand. I should have thought of that. But, Ashley, these are great opportunities. I don’t want you to waste them. You’re smart. You’re funny. You can do this.”

 

She closed her eyes. “I’m not ready.”

 

“Okay. How about this? The first interview isn’t until next week. We’ve got seven whole days to get you ready.”

 

“How?”

 

“For starters I could do practice interviews with you.”

 

She brightened a bit. “Really? You think that would work?”

 

“Sure. Billionaires are people too. You just need to get comfortable.”

 

She considered that for a few seconds. Reid did his best to look innocent, as if interviews with billionaires really weren’t hard, and a little practice would push her over the top.

 

Eventually, she sighed. “Okay. We can try that.”

 

He pulled a card out of his jacket pocket. “The address for my penthouse is on the card.” He began walking to the door, not giving her a chance to change her mind. “See you at six.” He stopped and faced her again. “Oh, and don’t eat. I’ll have my housekeeper make something for us.”

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Ashley refused to let herself overthink spending time with Reid in a penthouse. She took the subway home after her shift, dressed in her best jeans and the leather jacket her mom had found in a secondhand store and took the subway back to Manhattan. Gliding along the sidewalk, kicking the six inches of snow that had been falling since morning, she made her way to Reid’s building. Christmas lights glittered on streetlamp poles and even some of the balconies of the condo units above her. Once in the well-lit lobby, she was escorted to the elevator for the penthouse by a doorman.

 

The doors closed, and she took a long, slow breath. If the luxury of his glass and black-slate building hadn’t intimidated her, the private elevator would have. No stops. No other people. Just her.

 

The little car rose slowly. When it stopped, the doors pulled apart to reveal an open-floor-plan condo.

 

Reid ambled over. “Hey! You made it.”

 

Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he looked like an average guy on the street. That should have comforted her, except he was so darned gorgeous in casual clothes that her breath caught. Her crush on him rose like a full moon that sends light glittering over a fresh blanket of snow.

 

“Don’t let all this scare you.” He motioned around the huge space containing a living room with a fireplace, formal dining table with upholstered chairs and what looked to be a game area with a pool table and a bar. “It’s just home.”

 

She cautiously stepped out of the elevator. “It’s beautiful.”

 

“Let me take your coat.”

 

She shrugged off her jacket, feeling like an idiot for being so proud of a secondhand coat and fighting the case of nerves that bubbled through her. Those nerves were the whole purpose of her being here. She had to learn how to be comfortable with wealthy people.

 

 

 

After stowing her coat in a convenient closet, Reid led her to the dining area where Cathy had set the table and put salad and bread at each place, along with serving dishes filled with spaghetti and meatballs.

 

“I’m glad you got here so soon.” He turned to smile at her. “Cathy, my housekeeper, needed to be home at seven, so she’d already set the food on the table.” He pulled out her chair for her. “If it’s cold, we can microwave it.”

 

She gave him a funny look, her brown eyes scrunching with confusion. Well, she could join the club because he was pretty darned confused too. When he’d seen her step out of the elevator in her jeans and leather jacket, her red hair cascading down her back, he’d about swallowed his tongue. He’d known all along that her face was pretty. But without the dorky Caffeine Burst hat and uniform and in normal clothes and she was gorgeous. Stunning. So perfect with her pert little body and glorious hair that he’d frozen.

 

Pulling his hand away from her chair, he accidentally grazed the knit of her sweater. His heart thumped. In six years of knowing each other, they’d never touched. Not even a brush of hands when he took his coffee. Mostly because she usually set it on the counter for him to pick up.

 

Now that he thought about it, that was odd.

 

“I suppose we’re already starting the lessons.” She glanced around. “I’ve never eaten in a place so pretty.”

 

“And you’re doing fine.” He frowned. “Aren’t you? I mean, you’re not nervous with me, are you?”

 

“No. No.” She might have said it a little too quickly and her voice had definitely gone up an octave, but she’d pushed through her nervousness.

 

Pride skittered through him. She was already doing what she was supposed to be doing. Learning to get comfortable.

 

As they ate, he shifted the conversation to talk of popular music, then movies and didn’t hit a sweet spot until he mentioned art. There were several museums and galleries in the city that were free or had free showings and she could browse to her heart’s delight. That discussion totally relaxed her and got them through the rest of dinner and two glasses of wine.

 

He motioned for her to take her remaining wine to the sofa. As they walked over, she said, “I’m such a fan of impressionists.”

 

“Really? So am I.”She sat on the pale blue cushion, put her left ankle under her and faced him. “I love the brush strokes and the whimsy of the colors.”

 

“I sort of love that the person looking at it gets the chance to fill in the blanks.”

 

She laughed. “What?”

 

“You know. Lots of the paintings are light, airy…sometimes vague. The person looking at them can imagine stems for flowers.”

 

“Or the person looking at the picture can realize the stems aren’t as important as flowers.”

 

He shrugged. “Maybe. But stems are necessary.”

 

“Ah, you’re a pragmatist.”

 

“And you’re a dreamer.”

 

She didn’t even try to deny it. “You have to be to endure six years of school because you have to scrounge every cent, so you can make rent and tuition.”

 

“I was lucky enough not to have those worries. My biggie has always been proving myself to my dad. Showing him that while I appreciated the money for school, I could and would make my own way.”

 

“That’s why you work for McCallan and Hargraves.”

 

“Six years.”

 

“Yeah. For six years, we’ve both been pushing toward a goal. I guess, we’re kind of the same but different.”

 

“Or you could say we’re yin and yang. We balance each other.”

 

Their gazes met, and he suddenly realized something that his subconscious might have known all along. They were good for each other. Maybe even meant to be together.

 

It was such an alleluiah moment that he leaned across the sofa and brushed a quick kiss across her lips. When his mouth met hers, his empty soul seemed to fill. So, he brushed her lips with his mouth again, and scooted closer to kiss her fully, but she jumped off the sofa.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

His brain froze. Somehow, he’d thought they were on the same page about this. “Kissing you?”

 

“We can’t do that!” She all but raced to the elevator and hit the button. The doors slid open and she jumped inside. “Ever!”

 

The doors closed on her and she was gone. Reid stared at the door. He’d never had a woman yell at him for kissing her before.

 

Still, warmth rippled through him. He liked her.

 

He liked her.

 

Even as a sort of wonder filled him, he remembered her racing out of his condo.This was not the obvious match made in heaven he’d thought before he kissed her.

 

He’d also never pursued a woman who didn’t want him.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

The next morning, Ashley tried to be on her break when Reid arrived. But wearing a Santa hat and two bracelets of jingle bells, Josie was having a high-old-time chitchatting with a table full of shoppers from Texas. She couldn’t leave the counter until Josie relieved her.

 

When the door to Caffeine Burst opened and Reid walked in, Ashley started to look away, but he had her coat.

 

She’d forgotten it in her rush to leave the night before and hadn’t even noticed she was cold walking to the subway station. But she’d certainly missed her jacket on the walk to her apartment building.

 

“Hey.”

 

He offered the coat. “Hey.”

 

“Sorry about running off.”

 

“That’s okay.” He glanced around, saw the Texans and grimaced. “I’m also sorry about the other thing.”

 

Not wanting to discuss the heavenly feelings that had cascaded through her when his mouth had met hers, she tossed the coat to the counter behind her. “What can I get you?”

 

“Well, I thought the peppermint latte yesterday was good luck.” He met her gaze. “Seems it wasn’t. So, I’ll just go back to black coffee.”

 

Her heart stumbled. The earnest expression his in eyes told her he was sorry he’d kissed her, but he was still interested in her.

 

She glanced away. He was wasting his time. She didn’t belong in his world. Never would. Just the thought of working with people like him sent her blood pressure to the moon. She couldn’t even imagine dining with him in restaurants with tables set with rows of silverware or meeting his parents.

 

Oh, Lord! Meeting his parents? Two of the wealthiest people in the world?

 

After ringing up his purchase, she spun away to get his coffee. “Okay. Great. Black it is.”

 

She set the cup on the counter. He didn’t take it immediately. Instead, he peeked at her and she saw the wheels turning in his brain. He’d finally realized why she never handed him his coffee. She didn’t want their fingers to brush. Didn’t want him to know she was attracted to him.

 

He left without another word. Josie’s shoppers followed him out. When the door closed behind the cheerful group, Josie spun on her, her jingle bell bracelets tinkling. “What happened between you two?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Do you think I’m blind? I virtually saw the sparks flying. He’s interested in you!” She made a hand pump motion, sending her bracelets tinkling. “This is so cool! Now that you’re done with your degree, he can make a move.”

 

Ashley untied her apron. “I’m going on my break.”

 

Josie gasped. “And you don’t want to talk about it, which means you like him too!”

 

Ashley said nothing. Just picked up her coat and slid into the little “Employees Only” room behind the counter. Hanging her jacket on the back of a chair, she sat at the small table and put her head in her hands.

 

Her soul ached, but she ignored it. She’d spent her entire life struggling. Raised by a single mom. Saving pennies to get tuition, rent and food. Never being able to do more than window shop.

 

Getting involved with a man so far above her socially would mean more struggle, more bumps and bruises as she made wrong moves.

 

At the point when she should be thrilled about getting out into the workforce to make a real salary, she was tired. Worn down.

 

As much as she liked Reid, she did not want more struggle.

 

Reid also deserved better.

 

 

 

Reid took the elevator to his office. He’d planned on spending at least fifteen minutes talking this out with Ashley, but she’d shut him down so thoroughly that he’d decided to step back and try again the next day.

 

Given that Harper Hargraves, the widow of Clark Hargraves, deceased owner of McCallan and Hargraves, sat in the reception area, he decided his early return to his office might have been a blessing in disguise. Not only had he not made a fool of himself, but also, he didn’t want Harper waiting in the reception area like a common guest. With her long black hair and sharp blue eyes, she wasn’t common. As the person who’d inherited the firm, she also wasn’t a guest, and he didn’t want to upset her any more than he would when he made his offer to buy the failing investment company.

 

When they were seated in his office, they talked for a few minutes before she asked if he really was interested in buying McCallan and Hargraves.

 

“Yes, but…” He sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry. The markets are down. The firm’s not worth much over what Clark borrowed to buy Seth McCallan’s share of the business.” He told her a price that was about a hundred thousand over the real value, the extra hundred thousand being Reid’s gift to a pregnant wife grieving the loss of her husband.

 

Harper swallowed. Her pretty hair curled softly around her face when her eyes met his. “It’s fine. I need to come out from under this debt and get ready for the baby.”

 

He nodded and handed her the agreement written by his lawyer to take to her legal counsel to review.

 

He should have spent the rest of the day hoping Harper’s lawyers didn’t try to play hardball. He needed this firm, wanted this chance to really prove himself to his dad. If she didn’t accept his offer, another opportunity like this might take years to come along.

 

But for the next few hours, he couldn’t stop thinking about Ashley. He tried to tell himself that her backing off was for the best, but he couldn’t forget the way she wouldn’t hand his coffee to him. It was such a simple thing, but so telling. They’d known each other six years. How many of those years had she found him attractive—

 

And why was he just noticing her now?

 

Because he’d been busy. Because his mom had had cancer. Because he’d spent his entire life knowing he had to prove himself, not just be the lucky guy who inherited one-third of a fortune.

 

But now, remembering back to all those Saturday afternoons she’d talked him through his mom’s illness and recovery, he realized what a great person she was. Not that he hadn’t seen it before. It was more that he’d never made a romantic connection.

 

Now, he couldn’t stop thinking about the romantic connection. Couldn’t stop imagining how good they’d be for each other. How happy they’d be together.

 

How sexy and cute and fun she was –

 

He glanced at the clock. Almost three. Ashley’s quitting time. He whipped his black overcoat out of his private closet. This wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

 

He walked into Caffeine Burst and caught her just as she was grabbing her jacket to leave for the day.

 

“I have my car. Why don’t you let me give you a ride home?”

 

She only looked at him.

 

“I didn’t get the chance to really apologize this morning, and I thought offering a ride home, so you don’t have to take the subway, might be the best way to do it.”

 

She nodded and walked over to him. He held the door for her and opened the door to the back seat of his limo. She didn’t slide to the opposite side, as he expected she would, and he gave her points for diplomacy. She didn’t want him to feel bad that she was rejecting him. But from the way she hadn’t said a word and wouldn’t look at him, he could tell she was rejecting him.

 

“I’m sorry about kissing you.” He started with the apology, but the guy inside him who liked her – a lot – couldn’t seem to shut up. “But I like you. For six years we’ve been chatting like friends. Last year, you spent almost every Saturday afternoon talking me through my mom’s struggle with breast cancer.” He shook his head. “It seems like we should be taking the next step.”

 

“I’m a poor girl from the Midwest who needs lessons from you to get comfortable enough to go on a job interview.” She raised her eyes until their gazes clicked. “If I can’t go on an interview, how am I going to date someone like you? I don’t fit in your world.”

 

His chest squeezed. He knew how tense and pretentious parties, dinners and charity events could be. And that was part of his life—

 

But she was smart, funny, wonderful. She would fit. Maybe she simply needed a chance to see that?

 

And he knew exactly how to get that chance.

 

“So, if I tell you I’ll back off the romance end of things, will you let me continue your interview lessons?”

 

She stayed silent.

 

“You said yourself you need time in my world to feel comfortable with my friends. These are great jobs and you deserve a great job. I don’t want to be the one who screws it up for you.”

 

She thought for a second, then drew a hard breath and nodded. “Okay.”

 

He wanted to cheer. Instead, he quietly said, “Okay. My condo tonight?”

 

“That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

 

“It’s either that or a restaurant.”

 

“Restaurant is probably better.”

 

“All right. I’ll make reservations and pick you up.”

 

Her face suddenly whitened. “I’m not sure what to wear.”

 

“Wear your jeans and I’ll choose somewhere we’ll both be comfortable.”

 

 

 


That night, Ashley was surprised that he told his chauffeur to take them to a pizza place in White Plains, until she realized the drive gave them time to talk in the limo. Reid explained the things his assistant did for him and she listened intently, recognizing that if she got a job with one of his friends, she’d be doing those same things.

 

Though it seemed like a contradiction, the fact that he wasn’t using these lessons as a chance to change her mind about them getting involved made her like him more. Her heart swelled at his generosity, even as her tired soul lapped up the opportunity to spend time with him – a guy she couldn’t have, a guy she shouldn’t click with.

 

But that was her life. Always just a little messed up. She liked the wrong guy and now he liked her, but nothing could come of it.

 

Still, spending time with him outside Caffeine Burst was heaven.

 

Over pizza that could only be described as perfect, in a shop with had real brick ovens and red-and-white-checkered cloths on wooden tables, she asked about his mom and he told her she was still in remission and the family was back to feeling whole again.

 

He also thanked her for talking him through it, and she reminded him that he’d coached her on how her mom should invest her retirement money.

 

He shoved his chair back, getting comfortable as they spoke. “Did you get the laptop for your mom’s Christmas gift?”

 

“Yes! She’s going to love it.”

 

“She sounds easy to please, like my sister.” He snickered. “My brother is another story.”

 

Ashley leaned her elbow on the table and her chin on her fist, enjoying the animation in his face as he talked of his sister and brother. “I don’t have any siblings.”

 

“When you’re a kid they are a pain in the ass. When everybody grows up, has a job…they become your best friends.”

 

“My roommates are my friends.”

 

“If you live with anybody for any length of time, I think the family dynamics kick in automatically.”

 

He rose and lifted her leather coat from the back of her chair and helped her slide into it. Then he tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow as they walked to the limo.

 

They talked through the drive back to Manhattan, and she relaxed against the seat. In two meals, she’d gotten comfortable with him. They still hadn’t pretended to do an interview, but that was actually a chance to see each other again.

 

She told her heart to stop wishful thinking. To stop pretending she could extend their time together and not fall even more in love with him than she already was. He wasn’t right for her…No. She wasn’t right for him. He deserved someone with class and sophistication. And she wore secondhand clothes, had barely scraped together enough money for tuition and lived with four roommates.

 

Finally, the limo pulled up to her building. She slid out and he followed her. “Where are you going?”

 

“I’m walking you to your door.”

 

She thought about the kiss the night before, a light brush that had made her breathless. With falling snow twinkling in the glow of warm-colored Christmas lights, she froze.

 

Their gazes caught and clung. She knew he was thinking of that kiss every bit as much as she was.

 

Time stretched out. Every longing she’d ever had about him bubbled to the surface and begged her to take the chance.

 

But that was just it. She’d never have forever with a guy like this. She’d only have a chance. One or two parties with his family or his well-to-do friends and he’d see what she already knew. She was clumsy and awkward, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who’d suffered enough humiliation in her life to risk the biggest rejection of all—

 

The loss of love she should have never tried for.

 

She stepped away. “I’ve walked myself into that building and up the stairs hundreds of times. I’ll be fine.”

 

She left him standing in the circle of light, surrounded by falling snow.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

The next four days, Reid’s limo waited outside Caffeine Burst at three to drive Ashley home. It stayed parked outside her building until she changed clothes, then it took her to Reid’s penthouse.

 

She made one small attempt to explain that leaving his car for her everyday wasn’t necessary, but Reid liked her, and she liked him, and she was refusing to give a relationship between them a chance. She couldn’t argue about a limo ride. It would make her seem petty, when she wasn’t. She simply accepted who she was and the realities that came with that.

 

When the elevator door opened on his now-familiar penthouse, she slipped out of her jacket and hung it in the closet herself. Reid walked through the door that she knew led to the kitchen and a delicious aroma floated out with him.

 

“Don’t look so surprised. I can cook.”

 

Considering how he’d gotten her to come to his penthouse for six days and to go on the interviews that terrified her, she didn’t doubt his ability to do anything.

 

He served her shrimp tacos and she laughed. “This is barely cooking.”

 

“But it is cooking.” He frowned at her. “Okay, Miss Expert. What can you cook?”

 

“Many, many things.”

 

“Such as…”

 

“Hamburger pasta. Stew that feeds four starving roommates with enough left over for the next day’s lunch. Mashed potatoes and anything.”

 

He laughed but sobered suddenly. He slowly raised his eyes until their gazes met. “You know I haven’t ever been this happy in my life.”

 

She turned her attention to rearranging her silverware.Yeah, well, I haven’t either, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

 

“It means a lot. Ashley, money doesn’t buy happiness. It also doesn’t buy class or intelligence. Those are the things I get with you. A good conversation partner, fun.” He paused, sucked in a breath. “Come to the office Christmas party with me next Friday.”

 

She gaped at him. “No! That’s like announcing to the world that we’re a couple and we’re not.”

 

“We should be. I need you. I bought the firm this week.”

 

“What?” He’d bought the company he worked for? Now, they were even more distanced. Up to this point, he’d been a worker like her. Buying McCallan and Hargraves, he wasn’t just the boss – he owned the whole company.

 

“You know that the founder of the firm, Clark Hargraves, died.”

 

“Yes.” She remembered the stunned silence of the entire building the morning after the automobile accident that claimed his life, remembered that Seth McCallan, his former partner, hadn’t been able to work for weeks.

 

“His widow, Harper, is in trouble. The firm’s not worth what her husband paid Seth for it. I’m bailing her out. I can’t let a pregnant woman go bankrupt after losing her husband a few short months ago.”

 

“Oh.” Her heart stuttered, but something else filled her chest. Love. Real love. Reid McDowell was a wonderful person. Everything she would want in a life partner. Except she was nothing he needed.

 

“Will you at least think about it?”

 

She nodded but couldn’t speak. When she was a child, watching other kids get tons of Christmas gifts, soft sweaters, new jeans, she’d held her head high and told herself that someday she’d be more, have more. But tonight, here she was, being offered the love of a wonderful man, and she had nothing to give him. Nothing to bring to this relationship but herself.

 

It was a cruel twist of fate. But she couldn’t blame fate or destiny. She’d seen herself falling for him and should have stopped it. Not given them even more time to get to know each other.

 

They didn’t meet on Sunday. Monday morning, her first interview was with Reid’s friend Trent Sigmund, the one guy Reid had admitted was a billionaire.

 

She put on her best dress, topping it with another secondhand store find of her mom’s, a blue blazer, and managed to keep her composure through explaining herself to the building doorman, Sigmund Enterprises’ receptionist, and his obviously pregnant assistant who was leaving to become a full-time mom, then walking into his office and taking a seat in front of his desk.

 

“So, you’re a friend of Reid’s.”

 

“I’m not sure we’re friends.” She smiled at the thirty-something guy with thick, curly black hair and eyes as rich and dark as good coffee. “I’ve been his barista for six years.”

 

“You’re the barista!”

 

Oh, boy. Reid had done more than ask for interviews for her. He’d talked about her to his friends. “I guess. Unless there’s another place he gets coffee twice a day.”

 

“He thinks you’re brilliant.”

 

She laughed. “He just likes a good cup of coffee.”

 

Trent shook his head. “No. He told me about how he would stumble in when his mom was sick, and you’d say all the right things.”

 

She remembered those days and a band tightened around her heart. She’d barely been able to stand seeing him in so much pain. “It was a hard time for him.”

 

“And whatever you said helped him. But he also told me that you’d gone to school for six years.”

 

“Needing six years to get a simple bachelor’s degree is not a positive thing. I only had enough money for a few classes every semester.”

 

Trent wrote something on a sheet of paper. “To me, your plugging along like that shows initiative and determination.” He leaned back in his chair. “How good are you on the Internet?”

 

She laughed and held up her phone. “I know everything there is to know as long as I have this.”

 

He told her a bit about his business, which wasn’t really much of a business. He didn’t run an investment firm like the one Reid had purchased. Trent’s company was nothing but a genius investing for himself and making tons of money.

 

“I like you. I understand what Reid sees in you. I suppose you’ll be at his office Christmas party.”

 

She shook her head. “I might work in the same building as the people at McCallan and Hargraves, but I don’t work for McCallan and Hargraves.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought Reid had given you an invitation. This is a big deal for him. His first gig as owner.” He took a quick breath. “He’s a great guy, but he told me he feels all alone in this. Next Monday morning, after his announcement at the Christmas party Friday night, he’ll be everybody’s boss.”

 

“That shouldn’t scare him.”

 

“It doesn’t. He’s one of the smartest guys I know. And he paid his dues working at that firm for six years. There isn’t an inch of that business he doesn’t know. Being the boss for the first time just makes him feel alone. That’s sometimes what the top of the ladder looks like. When you take that final step, you leave your peers behind. And you’re responsible for everybody’s salary, everybody’s family.” He shrugged. “The top can be a lonely place.”

 

 

 

Ashley left the interview confused. On the one hand, Trent Sigmund offered her a second interview. On the other, her feelings for Reid were a jumbled mess.

 

She’d never thought of him as being alone, and something inside her saw a space beside him that she desperately wanted to fill as more than a friend. More than a confidante. As a partner, a lover.

 

Just the thought shot yearning through her. A longing so deep in her soul that rightness bubbled through her. But it couldn’t be right. She didn’t fit. Didn’t want to spend years being miserable around his family, embarrassing him—

 

She shoved those thoughts out of the way in favor of mentally preparing to meet Trent again on Thursday. He gave her a tour of his very small corporate headquarters and asked her to find three articles on the internet, read them and write summaries.

 

She easily handled the test and found herself sitting across from his massive desk again. This time he offered her a job.

 

She shouldn’t have pounced on the offer from the first of three interviews Reid had gotten her, but she couldn’t help herself. Not only was Trent genius-level smart, which would make working with him an adventure, but he offered her the kind of salary that would allow her to have her own apartment. She could get new clothes, new furniture, and her mom could visit any time she wanted.

 

She almost couldn’t believe it.

 

She walked to Caffeine Burst on a cloud of joy and told the manager that the next day, Friday, would be her last day.

 

Friday morning, she eagerly awaited Reid’s coffee stop so she could thank him. But he never showed.

 

She slogged to the subway with sadness permeating her soul. Even the falling snow and the Christmas feel swirling around her didn’t help. She had a fabulous job thanks to Reid McDowell and though he wouldn’t want to take credit she knew she owed him.

 

And she missed him. In six years, they had never gone an entire week without seeing each other. Was this what the rest of her life would be like? Empty without him?

 

Worse, he’d asked her to go to one measly Christmas party and she’d refused. She thought about what Trent had said, about how life was sometimes lonely at the top. She stopped seeing dinners with his parents, fundraisers with celebrities and politicians…and just saw him. Her friend. The guy whose kisses filled her with pleasure. The man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with—

 

She could see herself spending the rest of her life with him! The picture in her brain sent joy careening through her. She wouldn’t be alone. He’d help her adjust. Or maybe they’d create their own way of doing things. Whatever they chose, they would be happy! How could she have missed it?

 

Two feet away from the subway entry, his party popped into her thoughts again and she came to a crashing halt. She couldn’t leave him high and dry. Not when he needed her. Not when everything in her life – their lives together – had suddenly become crystal clear.

 

She was going to that party. Even if it meant paying for a gown with her credit card – which she could do because she now had a great income. A real job.

 

Because of Reid, the love of her life. The guy she absolutely refused to let get away. She was claiming her man!

 

She turned and headed for the secondhand store.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

Reid tried to be inconspicuous as Harper Hargraves made her way through the crowd at the party. Though strands of Christmas lights gave the room a soft red glow and Christmas music floated around them, he could feel the jitters in the air.

 

Everybody knew Harper had met with him that week. But everybody also knew the firm was on its last legs, and no one believed there was a buyer with enough money to keep the firm afloat until the markets changed. The prevailing rumor was that Harper intended to close McCallan and Hargraves, and Reid had given his blessing – with this party being a thanks to the employees who had hung in there until the decision had been made.

 

He took a glass of champagne and slid into a corner, watching Harper artfully dodge questions about the future as she made her way through the tinsel and holly to the front of the room where the band had set up on a small stage.

 

Glancing around, he looked for Ashley. It was silly to want her support, but he didn’t so much want her support as he did her presence. It was odd. Something he couldn’t explain, but in the biggest moment of his life he just wanted her there.

 

Trent Sigmund entered, and Reid smiled. If he couldn’t have the woman he was just about certain he loved, a good friend was a solid second.

 

“Hey.”

 

Reid froze at the sound of Ashley’s voice to his left.

 

“I hope you don’t mind, but I asked Trent to let me be his plus one.”

 

Disappointment sputtered through him as he faced her. “You came as Trent’s date?”

 

She laughed. “No. His plus one. His invitation said he could bring someone. And I…” She paused, her voice shaking with nerves. “And I wanted to be here for you.”

 

He blinked. She looked amazing in a slim red velvet dress with her red hair pulled into a tight bun and a spring of holly for a decoration.

 

His heart filled with hope. “You wanted to be here for me?”

 

“I realized today that in the past six years, we’ve always been there for each other.” She met his gaze with a small smile. “I got the job as Trent’s assistant and I quit Caffeine Burst today.” She shrugged. “That’s when it hit me that I’d never see you again. And I couldn’t have that.”

 

He could have exploded with happiness. But what she’d said could mean anything. He searched her face, those big brown eyes, looking for signs of what he already knew. He supposed the “being there for each other” for the past six years was a hint. But his heart didn’t want a hint. It wanted a commitment.

 

“So, you came to my party?”

 

She took a long breath, glanced to the right and then caught his gaze again. “Coming to the party was the only way I could see you long enough to tell you that…”

 

She stumbled, and his nerve endings caught fire. He wasn’t a patient man, not about something so important. He also couldn’t force her to be the one to say it first.

 

He stuck his neck out one more time, praying he wasn’t reading this situation all wrong. “I’m not a hundred percent sure what you’re trying to say, but if it’ll make things easier, I love you. I’ve loved you for the past six years, just didn’t know it until this week when I could tell you were moving on without me.”

 

Her mouth had fallen open with surprise and Reid wondered if he hadn’t said too much too soon, but she sprang to her tiptoes and pressed her mouth to his. His arms slid to her back, pulling her closer so he could deepen the kiss. Nothing had ever felt so wonderful or so right.

 

When they finally broke apart, she said, “I love you too.”

 

The pleasure that filled him stole his breath, stopped his heart. “Really?”

 

“Where’s that McDowell confidence you’re so famous for?”

 

“It’s stuck on wondering what happened to your worry that we live in two different worlds.”

 

“All that went away when I realized that I was being silly pretending I didn’t love you when I could see our future together.”

 

“So can I. But it doesn’t come without risk. I’m about to take on a project that will either make me professionally or toss me into the poor house.”

 

She slid her hands up the lapel of his tux. “You’ll never be in the poor house. You’ve got a great mind and lots of ideas. I trust you.”

 

“You’re right. But I could look like an idiot if I don’t save McCallan and Hargraves.”

 

“And I could look like an idiot working with a certifiable genius like Trent. But as long as we have each other, I think we can do anything.”

 

He tightened his arm around her waist. “Me too.”

 

Harper finally made it to the stage and announced that Reid had bought the firm, everyone’s job was safe, and she hoped everyone would give Reid their full cooperation.

 

She motioned for him to join her at the microphone, and he made a short speech.

 

But the truth echoed through him, filling him with joy. Buying the firm might be the biggest financial decision he’d ever made, but winning Ashley’s heart was the biggest, happiest moment of his life.

 

He intended to spend every day making her glad she’d chosen him. Starting with the best Christmas present he’d ever given anyone. A diamond.

 

 

Susan's fabulous seasonal read,  Cinderella's Billion-Dollar Christmasis available right now with the third book in the Manhattan Babies mini-series, Falling For The Pregnant Heiress, released in January 2020. To find out more about Susan you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter or visit her website at www.susanmeier.com

 

What are you reading over the holidays? Have you recently read a book you think everyone should hunt down? Let us know in the comments or on Social Media using #amreading.

 

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