With the harsh scrape of chair against linoleum, Jill jerked out of her day dream as the dripping moss-hung trees of an ancient forest dissipated into the bland meeting room of the offices of Brasher Books, Inc. Blinking, she heard more chairs pushed away from the conference table. They had been dismissed.
It wasn’t like her, to lose focus like that.
She looked over the notes she’d just taken, circling the number she was to call the minute she returned to her desk, where she’d absently left her phone on a pile of paper. Again, out of character. People filed out of the room, murmuring about trends, clients, and the Labor Day weekend they had planned.
“Is this a manuscript?”
Jill hastily looked to the manicured fingertips pressed on the stack of documents next to her. “Oh,” her gaze moved up to the face belonging to the red lacquered nails, “Ms. Martin. Yes. I mean, no. I mean . . . I was just cleaning out my desk before the meeting and it was tucked in my—“
Rowena Martin, managing editor of Brasher Books Publishing, pointed to the name under the title. “This is you?”
“What is it about?”
“Umm . . .” She swallowed. She had just read somewhere that an author should have two really good sentences at the ready, so she can answer that exact question. Jill hadn’t taken the time to think of any. “It’s a novel . . . based on a woman’s faith . . . and overcoming obstacles against all odds.” Ugh. Boring. “It’s a romance.”
“What faith, if I may ask?”
She took a deep breath. “I’m LDS.” Wait for it. “It’s a Mormon novel.”
Ms. Martin’s sharp eyebrows rose. “And this is the title?”
In a quick movement Jill’s manuscript was in the woman’s arms. “Are you any good?” She looked down, lifting the top page. What kind of question was that? The woman didn’t seem to expect an answer. “I’ll take a look. We’re exploring a new division, as you heard. Faith-based fiction. Ripley and Grosskopf have already approached me with their own ideas.”
Jill thought to argue that though Ripley and Grosskopf were slush-pile editors, given the mind-bending task of sorting through doubtful first submissions, they were probably above mere secretaries on the publishing ladder. She held her tongue.
The woman perused the unbound pages. “This falls into that category, does it not?”
Jill nodded numbly, her voice receding somewhere deep inside her abdomen, not to be found. The woman turned on her heels and walked away.
Jill blinked, then panic slapped her in the gut, dislodging her voice. “Ms. Martin!”
The woman turned, looking over her rectangular glasses.
Jill stood and steadied herself, eyeing the manuscript in such powerful hands. “I’m sorry, Ms. Martin, but I can’t let you take that.”
The woman stared, disbelieving.
“I mean . . . that’s only the second draft, a partial. It’s a mess. Since then I’ve cut two characters, an aimless subplot, and thirty pages off the ending. That’s not the copy you want.” She swallowed and tried to stop grasping at her hands. She pulled them behind her back. “Actually, I’ve already submitted it to Brasher. The edits were based on remarks in the rejection letter.” Jill lowered her eyes, but then blew out a breath and stepped forward, lifting her chin. “I can get you a copy of the finished revision, though. It’s on my jump-drive.”
Ms. Martin gazed at Jill, then snapped her wrist over and glanced at her watch, then at the title page in her grasp. She handed the manuscript back.
Jill’s voice fled back to its hiding place, along with any hopes this encounter had conjured.
“I’ll be in Bob Brasher’s office until 2:00. Get the copy to me before I leave, Miss Parish.”
Jill’s heart raced. “Yes. Thank you. I will.”
The glass door closed behind Rowena Martin, soundless.
Jill stood, magnetized in place, trembling hand holding the partial manuscript. She had nearly thrown it out while cleaning her desk, but decided last minute to hang onto it with the crazy notion it might, just might, be valuable someday. It was sheer luck that she’d mistakenly grabbed it with her notebook in her haste to get to the meeting.
“I would get on that if I were you.”
Jill jumped at the soft voice next to her ear. A shiver dispelled any lock the moment had on her. It was not pleasant.
“Not so close, Ortiz, I’ve got your wife’s cell phone on speed dial.”
He put his hands up defensively, his dark eyes wide in feigned innocence. “Hey, hey. Just sayin’ you shouldn’t waste time, that’s all.”
Jill cut him a sharp look, ignoring his smoldering grin and heady cologne, and gathered her things.
He chuckled. “I love it when you call me by my last name.”
Ugh. She pushed through the door. She could think of a few things she’d rather call him. She made her way to her cubicle.
Marci popped up over the partition, her red bob bouncing. “Hey, how’d it go?”
“You mean besides the visual groping I just received from Ortiz?” Marci grimaced. Jill took a deep breath. “Ask me in twenty minutes.”
“Right-o.” Marci dropped back down.
Jill liked that about Marci. Not too pushy. She opened the top drawer of her desk. “Keys, keys, keys . . .” they weren’t there. She began again, methodically this time.
“My keys are gone. My keys are gone . . . Marci.”
Marci popped up. “Yes?”
“Have you seen my keys? You know, four keys, library card, very important zip-drive?”
Marci was nodding her head, searching the unusually littered desktop over the partition. “Yeah, with the silver palm tree. No, I haven’t seen them. Wow, I’ve never seen your desk this messy.”
Jill spoke from below the desktop. “I was cleaning it out.”
“Why are you cleaning your desk now?”
“I wanted it done before the long weekend.” Jill blew out an exasperated breath and scanned her desk on her knees. She attacked the drawer where she kept her keys once more. “Wait a minute.” Her eyes came up, searching. “Where’s my phone?” She stood up. I left it here on top of this pile.” She glanced around the office. “Has anyone been at my cubicle?”
“I didn’t see anyone while I was here. But I’ve been down in editing for the last hour.”
Jillian sat down hard on her chair and rubbed her hand over her forehead. “Okay, okay, I’ve got it at home.” She looked at the time. She’d never make it. And her keys were missing. She dropped her elbows on the manuscript. “Why would this happen right now?”
Abruptly, music started playing and she jumped.
“Is that your phone?” Marci asked.
“No, I don’t have that ringtone.”
“Well, it’s coming from your desk.”
“It is coming from my desk. What in the . . .?” She sorted under some files and wrapped her fingers around the slim phone. She pulled it up. 3 Doors Down played Away From the Sun. “This is not my phone, but the call is my number.”
“Well, answer it.”
“Don’t you think this is odd?”
Marci shrugged, her blue eyes unquestioning.
Jill lifted the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Hey, I believe you have my phone.”
“Who is this?”
She didn’t have time for this. “Why should I? Do you have my phone?”
“Relax, Sister Parish, and the phone won’t get hurt.” His voice was friendly. “Stand up . . . please.”
Carefully, she stood.
“Now, walk to the east windows.”
Marci followed her as Jill canvassed the east windows beyond the next row of cubicles. She entered the empty conference room she had just left and stood facing the next glass building on their block. Cape & Moore Publishing occupied the same floor in that building as her company did in this one. They were a smaller company, new.
“Is something going to blow up?” she asked, only half joking. Marci widened her eyes and stepped back, twirling a short lock of red hair in her fingers.
The voice chuckled. “No. Well, maybe your temper, but I hope not.”
Jill took a deep breath and folded her arms. “Who is this and how did you get my phone?”
“Fourth window from your right, straight across.”
She counted. She saw him. “Wave.”
He did. He placed his hand in his pocket. Scott Gentry.
Marci peered forward. “Ooh, do you know him?”
Jill covered the phone and steadied her breathing. She did know him. A little. She doubted he remembered. “He moved here a couple of weeks ago . . . goes to my church.”
“Hm. Church-going, and bold. And cute. At least from here. Well, what does he want? Not to blow us up, I hope.”
Jill’s curiosity was overcome by her sense of minutes ticking away.
His voice came across again. “Do you have a key to that drawer in your desk?”
Jill took a deep breath. “Yes.” She pictured it in the tray, next to the place her keys should have been.
“Hm. You should use it. By the way, your desk is a mess.”
“How dare you. Listen, I—“
She stopped at his soft laugh and watched him as he paced casually behind the window. “Please, the front desk was busy, so I asked someone where I could find you. I only wanted to get your attention.”
Her heart flopped unpleasantly. “Why would you want to do that?” If he remembered anything at all, he would say so now.
“I don’t know, I was hoping we—“
Wrong answer. “So you stole my keys?”
“Well, I didn’t want you driving off. And I borrowed them. They’re ransom.”
“My phone isn’t?”
“Well, you have my phone.”
“Not for long. You have my attention Brother Gentry, but I don’t think it’s the kind you’re after.”
“See, you do know me. And it’s Scott.”
Her teeth ground at the clumsiness of her heartbeat. “Listen, Scott, I am in dire need of those keys.” She glanced at her watch. “There is something on that zip drive and if I don’t get it in the next ten minutes, I could miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Do you understand me?”
She watched him fumble in his pocket, then look at the drive in his hand.
“I’m sorry.” The play in his voice had gone. “What do you want me to do?” He looked her way.
She thought. Elevators would take too long. Sprinting down the stairs in heels would be risky in more than a few ways. “Unless you have a high-powered slingshot, I suggest you stick that drive in the nearest computer and send me the file called Grace and Chocolate.” She’d like to tell him where else he could stick it, but hung on to what was left of her composure.
“Yes, Scott, I am. So serious, my fingers are hovering over the number for the downtown Portland Police Bureau.”
He disappeared from the window. “I’m uploading the file right now. Where do I send it?”
“jparish at brasherbooks dot com.” She shook her head at the ceiling and made her way back to her cubicle. “What were you thinking?”
“Is this a book?”
“Yes, and you are to delete the file as soon as I receive it, got that?”
“Hey, this is you. So, you’re a writer.”
“Aren’t most of us?” She could name at least a dozen aspiring authors on her floor alone.
“There, it’s sent.”
She breathed a silent sigh of relief as she watched her inbox. “I hope it prints in time,” she mumbled.
Marci leaned over her back. “Does somebody want it?”
“Maybe. Rowena Martin.”
Jill found herself annoyed Scott Gentry was still on the phone. “Yes, Scott, Rowena Martin, Managing Editor of Brasher Books. She gave me until two. O’clock.” His silence reminded her of her previous question. “Well, what were you thinking?”
“I . . . well it’s pretty lame, now . . .”
“I’m thinking it was pretty lame before.”
“I asked about you. I heard you were . . . well, that you were . . .”
“That I was what?”
“That you were difficult to . . . distract.”
“Distract from what?”
“From your busy life.”
She felt a small lurch in her stomach. “Well, Scott, you’ve certainly succeeded in distracting me for several infuriating minutes, but now I have to get back to that busy life and see if I can make something of it. I have the file. You can pick up your phone at our front desk. I’ll expect to find mine there, too. And my keys. Goodbye.”
She handed the phone to Marci. “Could you please take that down for me? Scott Gentry.”
“Sure.” Marci took the phone. “Mind if I wait around, have a peek when he brings yours in?”
“If you do I don’t want to hear about it.”
Marci gave her a pout, turned her petite frame, and pranced away to the elevators. Jill sent the file to the high-speed printer in the copy room, and only then did she fold her arms over her messy desk and drop her head on top of them.
Difficult to distract? Difficult to distract? Compelling a man to theft? Whatever happened to a rose and a telegram, like in the old movies? Or a chance encounter . . . briefcases colliding and eyes meeting over the mess of papers. That is a distraction. Finding each other at sunset along a tropical shore . . . But, theft? Who had he been talking to? And he certainly did not remember . . . it was a long time ago. A lifetime.
Jill groaned into her arms. “I have a busy life.”
Her eyes lifted to the computer screen. Printing: 85% complete.
She jumped out of her chair, stuffed her purse into the cabinet and locked it with the key from the drawer. She hurried to the copy room, only then remembering the phone call she had been assigned to make as the meeting let out. Jill reached for her cell phone, then pulled her hand back from her empty pocket. The call would have to wait.
Jill strode toward the desk in front of Robert Brasher’s corner office, the manuscript feeling warm, thick, and new in her arm. She had almost slipped it into one of the large copy envelopes, but decided against it, using only a big jaw clip on the top edge. Out of sight, out of mind. She looked down again at the title page. Right out in the open.
Saved By Grace and Chocolate
“Whoa—” Something heavy slammed against the book and her arms. She felt the pages fan out and her fingers grappled to keep them together in that thickness she loved, but the clip had other ideas, slipping away and flinging to the floor, followed by the gentle fluttering of three hundred and twenty-eight newly printed pages of a faith-based fiction romance.
“Oh no,” she heard him say.
She dropped to her knees as her eyes were drawn to the origin of that voice. Scott Gentry was dropping down with her, tossing his own things aside, scrambling to pick up page after page after page . . .