Merging onto the sweltering Texas highway, headed for Houston, Norah’s mind reeled with the news of her infertility. The one thing she’d dreamt of since she was nine was a family, a stable family, filled with love. Evan, her handsome coworker and a devoted widower, was the only one who knew her deepest desires. He’d question her change in mood. That was certain. But she had more important things to think about today: reviews and sorting the discrepancy in Clerester Enterprises Inc. finances. She could’ve sworn everything was perfect before she’d left early last Thursday.
Pressing the back of a hand to her lips, she choked down a nauseated sob. She didn’t know a single human could feel such emptiness, not so much in such short a time. Exhaustion tugged at her eyelids. They drooped shut.
It was only for a second.
A car horn blasted to her left. Norah jerked awake and swerved back into her lane, heart pounding in her chest. Driving. You’re driving, Norah. Focus. She pinched her thigh hard, sending an awakening jolt through her body.
The accounting job at Clerester Enterprises Inc. was Norah’s only anchor in life now—a fast-growing, plastics repurposing company. They needed her to be reliable, as did Evan. Evan had begged Norah to help him with his daughter, Ashley’s, Halloween party two years back. Being the amiable one she was, Norah caved. Norah had trouble telling others no—a self-confidence problem. After that raucous, sugar-infused night, Norah wanted to spend more time with them. Evan was a kind man, like her father. Ashley was a jumping bean that spread smiles and laughter everywhere she went. It was impossible not to love every second with them.
Early sunlight danced in golden beams between the buildings of the Houston suburbs. When nature’s warm fingers crawled over Norah’s skin, they didn’t carry with them the same peaceful feeling they did most mornings. Fighting the dolor mood she was in was going to take the strength of a god she hadn’t believed in since she was a child, and her abusive step-mother, Jolene, had moved in.
Monday traffic was packed as usual. She felt smaller, more insignificant. Horns honked, and headlights flashed as if they could move mountains. Norah struggled to keep herself upright against the gravity of the black hole that had become her stomach. She wheezed through the gnawing agony, her weighted breath puffing out her cheeks. Norah popped four more ibuprofen into her mouth.
She looked forward to seeing Evan. After two years with their desks locked together, they knew each other well. Evan was nothing like her fiancé, Ray. Ray wasn’t likely to tolerate any more of her excuses for missing date nights. He had standards. For them to be together, she’d agreed to his stipulations—no children, no house, no van. Norah always hoped he’d come around to wanting children like everyone said people did in their twenties and thirties. Ray was good to her, as good as a man with lots of money but little free time could be. But he didn’t understand how important Norah’s goal of a healthy family structure was. And because she came from a broken one, she always let it slide.
Broken felt normal.
But it’s not what she wanted, and Ray wouldn’t budge.
Pulling off onto the frontage road, Norah cracked the windows of her old Jeep, letting in the salty, gulf air. Her air conditioning needed a recharge again. To her right, a splotch of sunshine-yellow caught her attention amongst the brick homes and industrial, metal barns. It was a small, weathered, stick-framed house. It looked like a lone daisy, repeatedly trampled as it fought to grow through the cracks.
Alone, forgotten, and undervalued but still trying to live. Like me, Norah mused. She thought about that house as she continued deeper into the city. Suburbs traded out for taller commercial skyscrapers, and Norah turned off and down a ramp into a parking garage. The bustling city noise faded, replaced by the echo of her motor through the concrete cavern. Scanning her keycard made the barrier arm lift, and she drove inside.
Norah stopped in a space beside a familiar white van. A head of brown hair popped up on the driver’s side as Evan got out. The sound of a door slamming reverberated through the garage.
Grabbing her briefcase, Norah hastily slid out of the seat and onto her glossy flats, wondering why Evan hadn’t gone to the company fitness center before work. Being a single parent, that was the only time he had to himself. It wasn’t like him to miss it.
Dressed in a casual, heather-gray suit, Evan swiveled at her question. His shoulders shifted as if the position of the jacket stretched around his shoulders was off. But his smile was in place—thrown a little crooked from a dimple in his right cheek. “Hey, yeah. You ready for reviews?”
Norah did her best to mirror his confidence, but too many things ached this morning. Straightening her back evoked a stronger cramp deep in her belly. The sting zipped up into her heart, causing it to stutter. “Sure.”
His forest green eyes dissected her with unusual focus—digging, prying her open. She could feel him dismantling the walls she’d been constructing all weekend to survive today. “Don’t sound very confident.”
She wanted to get upstairs and sit down at her desk. Anything to decrease the cramps she was dealing with from Thursday. Growing impatient, she shifted around him, aiming for the elevators.
“Evan, you know I’m not getting the promotion. Grant has the skills they want.” She covertly swiped a tear from her cheek and tried out a distraction. “You didn’t go to the gym this morning?”
“Didn’t want to, because of reviews.” His hand wrapped gentle but firm around her arm, stopping her before she could reach the elevator button. Its orange glow pulsed slowly, taunting her.
Norah took a deep breath and cursed in the privacy of her mind. She had to be strong, unmovable. It was the only way to get through her life in one piece. Time had shown her she could endure a lot. Retaliation had only ever earned her punishment.
He dipped his head and caught her eyes. “Please, tell me what’s upsetting you. You never look this pale or walk away from me in such a rush. I’m—concerned.”
Norah swayed, fighting back the rush of hot tears into her eyes. The lump in her throat made every word ache worse. She looked away.
“I lost the baby.”
The burn of the words still made her shiver like the chills from the flu. “I can’t have children.” She peered up into his eyes and watched them soften with pity. “Why does it hurt so much?”
“Oh, Norah.” His arms snugged around her like nautical rope, securing her splintering body against the rock of his. Evan’s mouth pressed to the side of her head, whispering into her hair. “I’m so sorry.”
Evan liked hugs. Ray liked sex. Her first serious relationship, Damon, liked pain-induced manipulation. Jolene liked hitting and humiliation. Until she’d met Evan, only her adoptive father, Phil, had treated her with respect. But he was always working.
Norah couldn’t help but melt into Evan. He was a tender human underneath his suit with scents of body wash and laundry soap instead of an overpowering cologne store like Ray.
“If you need anything—” Evan started.
“Thanks, but I don’t want to talk about it. It makes me cry. I don’t want to cry at work.” She slipped herself from his hug and tapped the button for the elevator, not wanting to waste more time thinking about the mess that had become her life. She needed work, distraction, desperately.
Evan pulled his satchel higher up on his shoulder. “Forgive me.”
She tightened her grip on her heavy briefcase as the doors opened. They stepped inside. Norah shrugged, mechanically repeating what every relationship advice website she’d read had agreed upon. “I shouldn’t have been afraid to tell him about the baby. But I was because I didn’t want our relationship to fall apart. After this, I’m feeling less inclined to stay.”
Leaning back against the steel panels, Evan stole a timid glance at her. His fingers drummed on the polished steel. “Not all men want to be fathers. Some think they don’t until they are.”
“I know plenty of businesswomen who are the same way,” Norah muttered, watching the numbers of passing levels climb on the screen above the buttons. “I suppose I didn’t tell him mostly because of how he complains about childr—”
The elevator lurched to a stop. Norah and Evan braced themselves against the handrails. Lights flickered all around them. Norah blinked slowly from the disorientation and pulse now pounding in her temples.
“You okay?” he asked.
Her knees shook as she forced them to hold her upright. “I think so.”
“That doesn’t look good.” He pointed at the screen. A fractured image of numbers and symbols danced across its surface in ribbons.
Norah stepped closer. Computer programming code. The streams reminded her of high school, of her friend Cyrus, and getting picked on for always wearing black. “Maybe it got a virus? Can elevators get them?”
“Ah, tech is not my thing.” Evan’s face flushed. “You know that. Social media is no problem as long as you don’t ask me how it was made.”
Norah tamped down a laugh. “Well, it stopped at the lab’s level. I suppose if it’s broken, we can at least get off here and take the stairs.”
After a screeching clunk, the elevator lifted again, and the lights returned to normal.
Norah spread her feet. “Never mind.”
Evan gave her a look of suspicion, then scanned the ceiling as if looking for the cause of the disruption. “How did you know what floor we were on?”
“I count a lot of things.”
He chuckled lightly. “Guess that’s a fitting habit for an accountant to have.”
The elevator slowed to a stop, and Evan and Norah stepped out onto the gray carpet of the main entrance. Throughout the floor, fluorescent ceiling lights flashed as if every ballast had gone haywire at once.
“When did they start renting out the office for raves on Mondays?” Evan asked their receptionist.
Rita swiveled on her barstool behind the tall mahogany desk, her hands formed around her brown eyes like blinders. She squinted over at Norah and Evan. “About twenty minutes ago. It’s honestly giving me a headache. I hope Adrian gets it fixed soon. He and Mr. Frenton came up about five minutes later. They’re in the back.”
“Tech Support is fixing lighting?” Norah felt her nausea rise with new force and did her best to swallow it down. “Any idea why?”
Rita shook her head before resting it to the desktop and folding her arms around her chestnut perm. “It’s only our floors. The Internet’s down too. But no one else is affected,” she muttered to the wood.
Glancing askance at Evan, Norah considered leaving. But the strobes of light made the flecks of gold in his blue-green eyes shimmer as they silently begged her not to.
“Something’s wrong,” he whispered. “I know you want to know what’s up, same as me.”
He was right.
Evan encouraged her down the hall toward their desks. As she passed him, she felt a hand rest against her low back, warm and steady.
She glanced up to see him scouring the people on the floor. His shoulders hunkered forward as if anticipating an attack. When Evan pulled her against him, a tiny tickle of excitement wiggled its way through her discomfort. This touch was new, protective, and heart-stopping.
His grip loosened, worry suddenly strewn in his gaze, the gaze he’d locked on her. “Sorry. Instinct with my girl.”
Norah lifted her brows in surprise.
“Gah,” Evan grimaced. “Ashley. I wasn’t—implying anything.”
“I hope they get it figured out soon,” Norah said low. She was engaged and knew it was wrong to be touched by another man. Still, Evan hadn’t harmed her.
Norah continued across the floor, trying to get away from the stimulation. It wasn’t until they turned down their row of gray cubicles that Evan withdrew his hand to skirt the narrow walkway between their cubicle quad and the next. He set his things down and eyed the stack of papers in his inbox. Evan frowned and mumbled something Norah couldn’t discern.
The lights came on steady, and everyone groaned in relief.
“Finally. That was making me sick.” Laisha, the stock room manager, snorted as she sashayed by pushing a cart packed with reams of paper, envelopes, and printer cartridges.
It was the first time Norah agreed with the woman. Most of Laisha’s words were contorted and filled with gossip she’d overheard from conversations.
Norah sat down and collected her bag in her lap. “See if you can check your email. I managed to proofread those pitches you sent me.”
With a disbelieving shake of his head, Evan signed in on his computer. “You didn’t have to, but thanks.” He paused to lean across their desks. “Are you coming to Ashley’s birthday party next Saturday? She asked me this morning when I dropped her off at school.”
“I’d love to. What is she into these days? I still need to get her a gift.” Drawing her laptop out of her bag, Norah opened it and turned it on. She enjoyed Ashley’s company but always worried she’d say the wrong thing and upset Evan and then have to deal with the backlash at work. Evan was Norah’s only exception to her separation of work and home rule.
He leaned back in his seat with a grin. “Boy bands, makeup, hair stuff, music. Typical teen things.”
Inside, she sighed with relief. Something I know.
“Speaking of hair—” Evan shamelessly eyed the long strands that fell around her shoulders. “I know Ray likes blondes, but what is your natural color?”
Medium sable-brown. “Plain old brown. Need any help with food?”
“What—like honey brown, cherry cola brown, or dark chocolate brown?”
Her fingers paused over her keys, warmth flooding her cheeks. She inspected Evan over the top of her screen.
His eyes twinkled as if smiling at a private conversation. He looked away to open his email. “Sorry. We’re doing pizza. I’m getting the cake delivered. Honestly, that many girls is a bit intimidating. I could use a side-kick.”
“Pushing the fraternization boundary, Mr. Swanson,” Norah teased, stifling a giggle behind a hand. They weren’t actually at risk, working in different departments. But she was engaged, and Evan’s home was filled with photos of Demi and Ashley.
Her stomach tightened, sending a dull ache weaving through her insides. She grimaced and took a steadying breath. Note to self: laughing isn’t a good idea yet.
Norah’s phone buzzed from her purse. Drawing it out, she found a message from her father, Phil.
Good luck with reviews today! Just remember, no matter what happens, you are strong, you are beautiful, and you are loved.
Norah smiled inside and put her phone away.
“Ashley wants you to join. She won’t stop badgering me about it.” Evan’s response was too flat and rehearsed for her liking. Something more was going on. Something with Ashley.
“I hate to break it to you, Superdad, but this side-kick doesn’t own any brightly colored Spandex. I’ll have to come undercover.”
A distinctive thud and clink followed Evan’s stapler as it tumbled and skidded onto her desk. She looked up. In two years, she’d never known him to drop anything. Between karate, the gym, and wrestling in college, Evan was an exceptionally agile individual.
Evan’s hands hung in midair as if his failure to catch the item had stunned him stiff. His lips parted. His eyes met hers as he spluttered his way through an apology.
Picking up the stapler, she placed it back on his desk, wondering what had gotten into him. “Don’t worry about it.” Norah forced a smile through the pain. You just made me feel like less of a klutz.
Clearing his throat, Evan jerked himself back in his chair. He slammed his mouth shut and refocused on his screen, his light olive skin tinting pink.
“No swearing?” she asked in surprise. “You must be working hard on your filter.”
His dark eyes hung on hers for an intimate moment. Evan didn’t move except for one finger, which swept over his lips the way it always did when he was deep in thought.
Norah’s heart thumped hard in her chest. She scanned around her, looking for what else might have his attention, denying the notion it was her. Their banter had always been playful, lighthearted, and brief—nothing this intense.
Evan carefully set his paperwork on his desk, leaned forward, and reached for the stapler. His voice rumbled soft as distant thunder. “You have no idea.”