Sunny, summery, perfect.
That was all Cici Johnson thought as she walked out the front door of her building on New York’s Upper East Side. She’d been living in the City for more than five years. She’d gone into business with her two best friends, Hayley and Iona, and they were the toast of the town thanks to Valentine’s Day and their new chocolate making classes. But like Hayley said, give a girl chocolate and she’s happy for one day, teach a girl to make her own and she’ll be happy forever.
Or something like that.
But then Hayley was in the flush of new love so everything seemed so great and optimistic for her. She wasn’t on skid row with her relationship, which was the way Cici seemed to be.
Numbers were her game and always had been. For most of her life, she didn’t realize that everyone didn’t see numbers in their head the way that she did. In fact, she’d rather deal with a spreadsheet or analyze statistics any day than have to try to figure out people.
Bad ass number cruncher, she thought, as she pulled her horn-rimmed glasses from her bag and put them on. As if being a math nerd wasn’t enough, she was also pretty much blind without her glasses on.
“Looking good, Cici,” Hayley said with a wave as Cici approached Sant Ambroeus, an upscale Italian espresso bar and restaurant. When they’d been in the planning stages of the Candied Apple & Cafe they’d spent a lot of time here drinking espresso and eating cornetti, a fancy word for Italian croissants. These days, Cici was cutting back on her caffeine intake but she had found she loved the smell of it and her friends were indulging.
“Hey, girl. I guess that week in Jamaica didn’t kill you,” Cici said with a laugh.
“Not in the least. And you and Io didn’t have any problems at the Candied Apple & Cafe,” Hayley replied, pulling her close for a hug. Her friend looked tanned and completely relaxed. As much as she hated to admit it, it seemed like finding a guy and falling in love had been good for Hayley.
Hayley had cut her hair on her last birthday and decided it was time to be someone new. To stop trying to please everyone and just do what felt right to her. And it had worked. Cici wondered if she could do that too. Cut her hair and change her life?
“Running late,” Cici said. “I think she’s still trying to get a decent rent for the new place she wants to open near Town Hall.”
“She’s such a property diva. She should have her own show,” Hayley said as they went inside and were seated.
“Cappuccino,” Hayley said.
“Green tea,” Cici asked for as she eyed the espresso machine in the back longingly.
Their waiter, Alfonso, put his hand on Cici’s shoulder. “Stay strong bella.”
“Ha,” Cici said, sitting back in her chair. She put her hand on her stomach. She was ten weeks pregnant. Not a big deal. But she’d been hiding it from her friends and family since she’d…well, she’d done something dumb.
Well, it was only dumb when you factored in that she’d slept with one man to get back at another. A man she liked, in fact. A man who was very much in her life all the time, since he was the best friend of Hayley’s fiancé. Yeah, it was as awkward as you might have guessed.
“Before Io gets here…”
“What? Is something wrong?”
“No not at all. I was hoping you’d come and stay at my place while you’re pregnant. I know your folks are travelling this summer and I wanted you to have someone close. Plus, Garrett wants me to move into his place. And Dad will rent mine out.”
“I don’t know,” Cici replied. She was already in the process of moving closer to the city. She’d sublet her place in Queens and had her eye on a very ritzy Upper East Side apartment.
“The rent would be really low. It’s price-fixed since Dad owns the place and he paid it off before my mom died.”
If she moved into Hayley’s brownstone, she’d have a greater chance of running into Hoop and she’d done a good job of avoiding him for the last few weeks. Did she really want to ruin that?
“I’ll think about it. I already signed a contract to move into an apartment not too far from here. I bet Io would love to take your place. Her mom is always trying to set her up with a nice Greek guy.”
“My mom is unstoppable,” Iona remarked as she sat down at their table. “Sorry I’m late. What were you talking about? Besides my nightmare.”
“You have a Mom who loves you and only wants what is best for you,” Hayley said with a cheeky grin. “That’s not a nightmare.”
She’d have liked the close relationship that Iona had with her mom, Cici thought.
“Yeah, well, you’re not the one who’s supposed to go to the Hamptons in two weeks to meet some family friends. Uh, I know all of our family friends and so who could she possible have dragged into the mix?” Iona asked. “I’ll tell you who…some single guy from a good Greek family. I know she’s been to see the matchmaker.”
The waiter came back with their drinks and Iona ordered a double espresso before he left.
“Maybe the matchmaker will be the right thing for you,” Cici said. “I mean, if I learned anything watching reality TV…”
“It’s that your best-friend is going to torture you with the smell of coffee all day if you don’t stop trying to convince her that being set up by a matchmaker is a good idea?” Iona quipped.
Cici laughed and shook her head, holding her hands up at her shoulders. “Fine. I’ll stop.”
“That’s better. So, what were you talking about?” Iona asked as she lined up her sugar substitute packets for her espresso.
“Hayley wants me to move into her place but I just signed a lease on an apartment so I can’t,” Cici said. Thank heavens she’d signed that lease yesterday. It was the only way she was getting out of this. She knew her friends cared about her. But they were different than she was. They seemed to waltz through life making the right choices…heck, even their bad choices turned out okay.
“Wow, dodged that bullet,” Iona said.
Cici kicked her friend under the table.
“What are you talking about?” Hayley asked after taking a sip of her cappuccino.
“She’s trying to avoid Garrett’s friend Hoop.”
“You are?” Hayley asked, blushing as she did so.
“Why?” Hayley leaned in, her blonde hair swinging forward against the side of her face.
Cici looked down at her lap, her own bangs falling over her glasses and she tried to find a way to say this next part without sounding like a woman who’d done something she regretted. She decided when she’d discovered her pregnancy that she’d try to embrace it. Even though she had always assumed she’d never have a kid of her own. Cici relished the idea of herself as the cool Auntie.
“I just don’t think it’s wise to get involved with someone who’s friends with Garrett,” she said. Actually, Hoop had said it first all three months ago when they’d been at Olympus and had shared one hot kiss.
Not hot enough for him? Too hot for him? She didn’t know. All she knew was that he’d seen her to a cab and sent her home alone.
“Is this because of…” Hayley gestured to Cici’s stomach.
“My pregnancy? Yes, that’s part of it,” Cici said. “Let’s talk about something else. Something fun for the summer at the Candied Apple & Cafe.”
Cici turned the conversation to business and was happy enough when they finished breakfast and she waved her friends goodbye. She was on a week’s vacation from the Candied Apple & Cafe so didn’t have to be in the office. It was a forced vacation of sorts, since Hayley had been on one and Iona was going to be spending a week in the Hamptons. Her friends had insisted she take a break as well.
She’d decided to move into her new apartment and try adjusting to being pregnant. Cici knew her life was about to change forever.
Jason Hooper, known to everyone as Hoop, had screwed up. It wasn’t the first time. After all, he was thirty-three and had been a cop for five years before giving it up to become an attorney. Growing up in the foster system had honed his natural instincts of being a loner. He let people in but it took him a while to decide if he should let them stay. He wanted to say that was where he’d made his mistake with Cici. He’d needed time to think. To plug the facts into a pro/con list and then decide if the heat between the two of them was worth exploring.
Now, he was drinking club soda but it tasted like regret as he watched her talking with her friends and mingling in a way that kept her far away from him as she worked the room at the summer kickoff party at the Candied Apple & Cafe.
Manhattan’s trendiest new chocolate shop was on a roll and if the crowd at tonight’s event was anything to go by, they were going to continue that momentum for a long time.
Cici Johnson, with her short wavy hair, thick rimmed glasses and curvy figure was temptation incarnate. But his track record with the opposite sex wasn’t the best. He didn’t do long term and it had seemed wise to him to avoid any kind of complications that would impact his friendship with Garrett.
“Dude, you’re staring at her,” Garrett Mulligan observed, handing him a beer.
Hoop dumped his club soda on the tray of a passing waiter and took the beer from Garrett. Garrett was his best friend and a cop. They’d known each other since high school when Garrett’s parents had become his surrogate family. Garrett was the reason why he’d screwed up with Cici.
“It’s all your fault.”
“How do you figure?” Garrett asked.
“If you hadn’t been dating Hayley then I could have comfortably had my usual fling with Cici and moved on.”
“If I hadn’t been dating Hayley you never would have met her.”
Hoop took a swallow of his beer and skimmed the room, hoping that some other woman would catch his eye. But no one did. It was Cici for him. It was as if the moment he’d told her that a few hot kisses were all they’d ever share, fate had a deep chuckle at his expense and made her impossible to forget.
“Are you going to go talk to her or continue to try to stare her down from here?” Garrett asked.
The party was to celebrate the start of summer and a new menu at the Candied Apple & Cafe. The trendy Fifth Avenue confectionery that was co-owned by Garrett’s fiancée Hayley, Cici and their friend Iona.
“Possibly. She’s been avoiding me. I’ve called her a dozen times.”
“I’ve never known you to let something like that stop you,” Garrett remarked with a laugh.
Hoop thought about it, and then finished his beer with one deep swallow. He wasn’t going to let it stop him. He couldn’t. He had been dating a lot the last three months since their one date. Sad that he knew exactly how long it had been, but there it was. Every time he leaned in to kiss another woman, he compared it to Cici. Every time he made another woman laugh, he remembered how much he liked Cici’s laugh. Maybe it was that he’d put her off limits. Something that could be easily fixed if he could go out on one date with her. But she had moved on.
Now he was panting after her…well not exactly panting…but close enough.
He handed his empty bottle to a passing waiter and moved through the throng of party goers toward Cici. She wore a sundress that hugged her endless curves and ended just above her knees. It was a straight sort of A-line skirt with a fitted bodice and as he got closer he noticed that she wore a thin gold necklace and the charm had moved around to nestle at the back of her neck.
She said something he couldn’t hear and the man she was talking to responded and then she laughed. He felt a bolt of awareness go through him along with a tinge of jealousy. Another man had made her laugh.
He knew it was irrational. He’d been the one to push her away, but this weird emotion that she inspired in him wasn’t rational.
“Cici,” he said softly, coming up behind her and putting his hand on the small of her back. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen you.”
She tensed immediately and he noticed that goose pimples spread down her arm as she turned to look at him. She pushed her glasses up her nose. Her bow-shaped mouth parted and her lips seemed to beckon him, but he knew that was just his own desires and not necessarily hers.
“Hoop. I didn’t realize you were at the party,” she said. “Do you know Theo? He’s Iona’s brother.”
“I do,” Hoop said, holding his hand out toward the young Greek man. Iona’s brother looked like he should be in Hollywood, starring in the big movies. Not tending bar three nights a week at a night club and DJing in his spare time. Theo shook his hand and then moved on to talk to another group of people.
Cici delicately took a step to the left, breaking contact with the hand he’d placed on her back.
“How have you been?” she asked.
“Not bad. How about yourself?” he countered. Small talk. Really? This was what he was reduced to.
“I’m okay. Listen, I’m really embarrassed that I haven’t called you back,” she said.
“Yes. It’s awkward, right? Our best friends are engaged and I’m dodging your calls. It’s just, I was embarrassed after that night we all went out.”
Hoop was afraid it was something like that. He had been so firm in saying no to her. “Well, I’m the one who screwed up and I’d appreciate it if you’d let me make it up to you.”
“How?” she asked.
“Drinks. Nothing too heavy, just drinks.”
How about lame, how much lamer could this get? But the fact that he hadn’t been able to forget her had knocked him off balance. Made him wonder what it was his conscious mind didn’t see that his subconscious did.
“I can’t. I’m…I just can’t,” she said quickly, walking away without a backward glance.
He stood there.
Fair enough, he thought, but another part of him didn’t want to let her go.
He followed her out onto the terrace that overlooked Central Park. The sun was setting and she stood near the edge of the balcony with her face turned toward the tepid breeze that blew.
“Why?” he asked, staying where he was just on the threshold of the balcony.
“Why what?” she too asked, turning toward him. The wind blew her curly hair around her face and she reached up to push a strand back behind her ear.
“I guess I should have said why not?” he elaborated.
“Our friends are engaged now. They were just dating before,” she said. “Nothing has really changed. And I don’t want to have to start avoiding them.”
“What if things worked out between us?” he asked, taking a step closer.
“If you really believed that you wouldn’t have pushed me away that night at Olympus,” she said. “Let’s just be friends.”
“We can do that right?”
“Yes,” he said. But inside, every male instinct he had said no. He’d been friend-zoned by the one woman who he couldn’t get out of his head. She haunted him night and day. He saw her in his dreams and thought of her when a meeting at work droned on. So how was he going to be “just friends” with her now?
Cici spent the next week avoiding her friends and staying in her office. She had to file their quarterly earnings so she was kept busy. She kept the door to her office closed but she still could hear the bustle of Hayley and her staff working in the kitchen.
Carolyn, the assistant manager of the store, had been bringing her fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate and apple and seltzer water iced drinks that kept Cici cool while she worked.
“Figured you could use one of these,” Carolyn said.
The other woman was five foot, five inches tall and wore her brown hair in a high ponytail. She had an easy smile and an aggressive eye for retail space. Every time Carolyn came into her office Cici suspected the woman was going to ask for more money.
“Thanks, I am thirsty.”
“Good, got a minute?” Carolyn asked.
“I do, but your budget is fixed,” Cici said with a smile as she took a sip of her cool drink.
“Oh, it’s not about the store. I heard you were subletting your place in Queens…”
“I am. But I already found someone,” Cici replied. “I didn’t know you were looking for a place.”
“I’m not really. Just thought I’d see what the rent was. My place is smallish.”
“I’ll keep my ear out,” Cici said.
“Thanks,” Carolyn said. “I’ll let you get back to it. Do you want your door closed?”
“Yes please. I need quiet for my work.”
But it was a lie. She was hiding.
She knew it and she suspected her friends did too, but they were giving her space.
She was the first of their group to be pregnant and she suspected, just like her, they didn’t know what to expect. Her mom, who Cici still hadn’t told about the pregnancy, had been texting her every day.
For some reason her mom had never fully grasped that her adult daughter had a real job and bills. She still wanted Cici to go on every family vacation and be available for any family gathering at the drop of a hat.
That’s why when her phone buzzed she ignored it. She didn’t want to see another smiling photo of her mom, stepdad and twin half-brothers on the steps of Machu Picchu.
She finished tallying up the last column of numbers and then set it aside to take another sip of her drink.
She picked up the phone, surprised that the message was from Hoop and not her parents.
Hoop: Hello, it’s Hoop. Hayley gave me your number. I’ve got an extra ticket to the Yankees game on Friday. Heard you’re a baseball fan. Wanna go? Just friends! :)
She leaned back in her chair and looked at the ceiling in her office. It was a faux exposed beam and plaster number that made the building seem like an idealized French country farmhouse.
Baseball. She loved the game. Before the twins were born, she and her stepdad had gone to every game. Her love of numbers had served her well because she remembered all the stats of players. She might not be able to remember other things but those stats had stayed with her.
Hoop: Great. What’s your address? I’ll pick you up.
Cici: I can meet you there.
Hoop: Friends, right?
She sighed. This friend thing wasn’t as easy as she hoped. She was walking a fine line between letting him into her life and keeping him at arm’s length.
Cici: Yeah. Here’s my address.
Hoop: See you on Friday.
Cici: See ya.
She stood up and walked out of her office, determined to politely tell Hayley to stop playing go between with her and Hoop. But her friend was busy with one of the new apprentice candy makers at the marble countertops. So Cici walked into the retail shop instead.
They were busy for mid-afternoon but it was late May and some tourists whose kids were already out of school were taking a break from the heat and enjoying their famous Candied Apple & Cafe milkshakes.
She waved at the manager as she walked through the store and out onto the street. Immediately she wished she’d brought her sunglasses but she didn’t want to go back inside. Not yet.
She felt restless and she admitted to herself as she walked up Fifth Avenue, past all the shops and tourists, a little bit scared. When she got to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Cici walked up the steps and into the church.
It was cool and quiet inside and she made her way to one of the pews in the back of the church. She took a seat on the cold wooden bench and closed her eyes. In her head were images of the church from when she was younger and she heard the hymns of her youth playing in her mind. She sat there and quietly prayed as she did most days.
She had spent most of her life managing one crisis or another brought on by her impulsive behavior and she knew that she had to change. She wanted to give her child the best in life, starting with a good parent.
She didn’t think about the man she’d slept with or the fact that when she’d called him he’d said he wanted nothing to do with her or the baby.
That was in the past. She’d find a way to bring her baby up and shower him or her with so much love they’d always feel wanted.
That was all she could do.
She put the kneeler down and then said the prayers she’d learned growing up. Just the familiar words, soothing her troubled soul, and bringing her a surcease from her thoughts.
When she was done, she put some folded bills from her pocket in the collection box and went back outside.
She was going to have to figure out how to be friends with Hoop. Actual friends. Because every time she saw his name she felt a little thrill go through her and she knew that wasn’t a good idea.
In fact, going to a baseball game with him wasn’t smart either. Before she could change her mind, she pulled out her phone and texted him she couldn’t make it.
She didn’t need another complication in her life right now and it felt like Hoop could be a very big one. She went back to work, filed the taxes and then spent the rest of the day in her new apartment.
She was avoiding Hayley, who’d tried talking to her about Hoop, and Iona, who wanted to go shopping for baby clothes with her. Cici realized that before anything else, she really needed to find her own inner strength.