Miranda stopped just inside the door to the outer office. Emily looked up, flinched and rose to greet her.
“Miranda! We didn’t…I mean, Roy didn’t…”
“Never mind.” Miranda handed Emily her coat, bag, and the Book. “My manicurist was indisposed, and I don’t trust anyone else with my nails. Reschedule me for the day after tomorrow.”
“Yes, Miranda.” Emily glared at Andrea who sat with her hands folded under her chin, her eyes vacant.
Miranda walked by Andrea, fully expecting the young woman to jump off her chair and be at her beck and call. When this didn’t happen, and Andrea still was completely lost in thought, Miranda grew curious. What could Andrea be thinking of that had her so preoccupied, she didn’t even notice her much-feared boss? Deciding to test the water, in a manner of speaking, Miranda went back to stand right in front of Andrea. No reaction. She bent forward, both hands on Andrea’s desk until she could look into those chocolate-brown eyes that in turn seemed so lost in the distance.
“Andrea,” said softly and normally, this lethally soft tone would have people heading for the closest exit.
“Mm?” Andrea said, blinking a few times.
“Care to rejoin us and keep your job?” Miranda asked silkily, hard-pressed not to laugh.
“Yeah, sure.” Still sounding mostly dreamy, Andrea sighed and blinked again.
Miranda could tell the exact nanosecond when Andrea returned to the present. Her eyes grew huge, her elbows slid off the desktop, making her almost fall of the chair, and then she stood on unsteady legs. “Miranda! Oh, my God. I’m so sorry! Have you—have you been standing there long?”
“A few moments. Now, bring your notebook and a pen. If you can pull yourself together?” Miranda didn’t wait for the frantic young woman to answer but walked into her office and sat down at the desk. She had several assignments for Andrea and she rattled them off at her usual rapid flow once her assistant stood at the opposite side of the desk. Flustered, with a delightful pink spreading from her forehead to her upper chest, Andrea stared down at her pad, refusing to meet Miranda’s eyes. Interesting. Miranda allowed a small part of her to enjoy the beauty before her. Andrea had turned out to be lovely once Nigel showed her the error of her ways, fashion wise.
“Anything else, Miranda?” Andrea asked quietly, but her voice was at least steady again.
“That’s all.” Miranda feigned interest in her emails but looked up over her glasses when Andrea walked out of the office and returned to her desk. Smirking, Miranda stifled a chuckle and returned her focus onto her computer.
Two days later as Miranda returned from a particularly disappointing work-lunch, where people’s amazing ability to be incompetent had manifested itself once again, she passed the outer office and hurled her coat onto Andrea’s vacant desk. Glancing at the clock on the wall, she frowned. Andrea should have been back more than fifteen minutes ago. How long could it take a person to gulp down a bowl of corn chowder?
A hissing, clonking sound made Miranda pivot. Andrea stood by the copying machine, staring down at the growing pile of documents. Clearly, she hadn’t notice Miranda arriving as she seemed mesmerized by the copying process.
Miranda walked over to Andrea’s desk and sat down on the edge of it. From this angle she could tell that Andrea was once again somewhere else in her mind. Daydreaming, perhaps? Instead of startling the absentminded girl, she took the chance to study her. Dressed in a short, black skirt, a maroon blouse with a three-quarter sleeve, and wearing a delicate, understated gold necklace, small gold hoops in her ears, Andrea managed to look classy and sexy at the same time. Where was she in her thoughts? Was she missing the chef she used to live with? They had broken up quite a while ago, so Miranda understood from eavesdropping, albeit inadvertently, or, so she told herself. Did Andrea dream of reuniting with said chef, or was it something, or someone, else? Surely, she couldn’t be homesick for, where was she from again, yes, Cincinnati? Andrea had once claimed she couldn’t see the resemblance between her and Miranda, but Miranda could swear that Andrea had outgrown her hometown long ago.
Andrea raised her arm and dragged her fingers through her hair and then straightened her bangs with a familiar flick of her fingers. She sighed deeply and closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose. Then she squared her shoulders and gathered the papers collected in the compartment of the copy machine. Turning toward her desk she stopped so abruptly, the papers sailed toward the floor in a long river of white and text.
“Mi-Miranda. I didn’t see you there.” Andrea had the look of the proverbial deer-in-headlights, as if she feared impending doom.
“It’s truly an interesting phenomenon to watch you sometimes, Andrea,” Miranda said softly. If she had thought a gentle tone of voice would calm her second assistant, she’d made a grave error of judgement. Andrea actually clasped her hands in front of her, tugging at her fingers while her eyes grew impossibly larger.
“What can it possibly be that you are so preoccupied with that I can literally step on your feet without you noticing?” Miranda asked, watching the pink on Andrea’s cheeks turn into crimson.
“I suppose I have a lot on my mind,” Andrea said weakly. “I mean, with the Christmas edition and all.”
“Ah. Yes. The Christmas edition. You do know that it’s almost done, don’t you?” Miranda wasn’t going to let Andrea off the hook. There were far too many emotions flickering through those deep brown eyes and across her stunning face, for Miranda to buy into it being only about work.
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Andrea murmured as she knelt and began picking up the papers. “Thank god I added page numbers on these,” she muttered.
Miranda thought she could push her luck a little more and crouched next to Andrea and began picking up papers as well. Making sure she was right next to Andrea, she reached in front of her, barely gracing Andrea’s stocking clad knee while “helping”.
“Oh, shit,” she heard Andrea whisper under her breath, but didn’t let on that she heard. “You don’t have to…I mean, I’ve got this.” Andrea turned her head slowly and looked at Miranda through her eyelashes, which had to be the sexiest glance Miranda had ever received, all categories.
“Ah. You know. T’is the season, after all.” Miranda smiled and felt it was one of her genuine smiles. Andrea probably noticed it too because she damn near dropped the papers she had already picked up.
Eventually, they’d picked up all the papers, and just in the nick of time too, as Emily and Serena walked in the door. Miranda motioned wordlessly toward her coat and walked into her inner office without so much as a word. As she sat down at the desk, she saw Andrea scurry to hang her coat and then bury her face in her hands.
“What’s wrong with you?” Emily asked, not unkindly.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Andrea’s voice was breathless and tinged with…panic? Surely not?
Suddenly feeling horrible for teasing the girl, Miranda vowed to not be such a cow to anyone, let alone Andrea…at least not until after the holidays.
“There’s coffee and designer gingerbread snaps in the reception,” Serena said, sounding concerned. “Why don’t you take five and get a cup? I’ll man your desk.”
“Thank you,” Andrea gushed. She didn’t run out of the office, but she walked faster than Miranda had ever seen her do, not even when she was late with the coffee that very first day. This was indeed mysterious.
Two nights later, on the Friday, the familiar beep from the home alarm system announced that Andrea had entered through the front door. Miranda heard the equally familiar sounds of the opening of the closet, dry cleaning being hung, and the gentle thud of the thick binder containing The Book. Then there should have been the clacking sound of heels heading back over the tiled floor toward the front door—but there wasn’t.
Miranda walked over to the railing and glanced down through the stairs. She couldn’t see Andrea, but it was obvious that she hadn’t set the alarm, locked the door and left. Was something wrong with the clothes, or, god forbid, with The Book? A small voice that disturbed her more than she bargained for also feared that there was something amiss with Andrea. That just couldn’t happen.
Walking downstairs, not making a sound as she had kicked off her shoes earlier, Miranda stopped halfway up on the first set of stairs when she saw Andrea stand motionless while holding onto the foyer dresser with both hands, her head low. Miranda felt her heart give a painful twitch between beats. Something was wrong. She walked all the way downstairs and approached Andrea. Placing a hand on her shoulder, Miranda nearly yanked it back when Andrea flinched and glanced over her shoulder.
“Miranda. I—didn’t hear you.”
“I could tell. This can’t go on, Andrea.” Worried now, Miranda turned Andrea around, now with both hands on her shoulders.
“I know,” Andrea whispered. “I know it can’t.”
Frowning, Miranda was uncertain if they were talking about the same thing. “Why don’t you join me in the kitchen. You look like you need…something. Wine? Water? Juice?”
Andrea looked like she was about to step off a cliff when she sat down at the kitchen island. “Water’s fine. Thank you.”
Miranda poured a glass of Pellegrino for them each and took the seat next to Andrea. The stool was of the type that swivels, and she turned sideways as she sipped her water. “Now. What’s going on?” She held up her free hand as Andrea seemed to aim for something evading and not entirely true. “Just tell me.”
“I had thought I’d wait until after the holidays,” Andrea murmured and drew patterns on the condensation on the tall glass before her, not meeting Miranda’s gaze. “Guess, I should’ve known it’d be too hard.” She pivoted and now she looked Miranda steadily in the eyes. “You will have my letter of resignation tomorrow, Miranda.” Looking equal parts relieved and devastated, Andrea sipped her Pellegrino.
“What?” Miranda whispered. Of all the things she had thought was on Andrea’s mind, cook boy included, this wasn’t it. Unless…
“Leaving town? Got a new job? Or an old boyfriend?” Miranda pressed her lips together.
Blinking as if the proverbial headlights were on in full force again, Andrea looked confused. “No. To all of those things. What do you mean, an old boyfriend?”
Feeling caught in the most vulnerable of ways, Miranda turned the glass over between her hands. “I seem to remember your boyfriend moved to Boston.”
“Ex-boyfriend.” Andrea shook her head, looking like she was trying to sort through her thoughts. “And, unfortunately, I have no actual job in the pipeline, but I have a handful of business cards from people that’s tried to sort of headhunt me.”
Who had had the audacity to try and steal Andrea away from her? Miranda was fuming but tried to harness her ire. “I see. And why would you want to quit before you have something lined up?”
“As you said. It’s been going on long enough.” Sorrow tensed the corners of Andrea’s eyes and it was an expression Miranda could barely endure.
“Explain to me, Andrea, what “it” is, in your mind.” Miranda knew she was walking in circles with this girl, both of them passing each other and not knowing what the other one meant, exactly.
“You first. Please.” Andrea jutted her chin out, defiant and courageous. “Technically I’ve already given you verbal notice.”
“Technically?” Huffing, Miranda swung gently back and forth on her stool. “All right. You’ve been getting more and more distracted and preoccupied lately. And you seem, well, not afraid of me, exactly, but…uneasy?”
“Yes. That’s true enough. Uneasy.” Andrea swallowed hard. “And you’ve enjoyed it, haven’t you?” A faint accusatory tone tinged Andrea’s words. “I can always tell when you’re in that mood.”
Mood? Yes, she was infamous for her attitude. Miranda couldn’t argue with Andrea on that fact. She was well aware that she took her moods out on the closest individual as it gave her instant gratification to make some of the squirm. Andrea was different though. Miranda knew she shouldn’t have escalated the situation even if Andrea in a confused state was delicious to observe.
“I apologize. You’re entirely correct,” Miranda said gently. “I should have known better.”
Andrea gaped. On anyone else, the dropping of her jaw would have looked unattractive, but when it came to Andrew, she simply looked soft and sexy. “Apology accepted.”
“I don’t want you to give notice,” Miranda said. “I mean, eventually you must to further your career. This, however, feels like a kneejerk reaction—an escape. Am I really that horrible?” She made an awkward and helpless gesture, palms up.
Andrea paled. “No! Not at all. You’re not horrible, not even when you try to be. Not in my eyes.” Nearly slipping off the stool, Andrea steadied herself against Miranda’s knee. “Oh, god, I’m sorry.” She yanked her hand back. “I’m such an idiot.”
“Calm down, Andrea.” Miranda took Andrea’s hand. “You’re okay.” She rubbed her thumb on the back of Andrea’s hand. “Now tell me.”
“I can’t be around you anymore. I lose track. It…hurts.” Andrea wiped at an errant tear with her thumb. “It’s not your fault. You haven’t done anything wrong. I mean, you’re you.”
Miranda was freefalling. The floor had disappeared, and she clung to Andrea’s hand to stop herself from plummeting through to the center of the earth. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“The reason why I can’t stay. You did ask.” Starting to regain her defiance, Andrea straightened on the stool.
“You say it has nothing to do with me. It’s not my fault. And yet you cannot be around me?” Miranda pressed her lips together. Andrea wasn’t making sense and her words stabbed at Miranda, like short, choppy little nicks at her heart. “
“Yes. I can’t be around you because of me.” Pressing her hand to her midsection, Andrea balled it into a fist. “It hurts, and I can’t…I can’t hurt like this much longer. It’s destroying me, and I need some distance to sort myself out.”
“Stop. Stop, stop. We’re talking in circles around each other and I’m getting a headache trying to figure out what the hell you mean.” Miranda had not felt this turned inside out in many years. Not even during her divorces had she felt so…lost. It was as if she kept asking the wrong questions. “I don’t want you to go. That should be obvious. I know you’re my second assistant and that I can be a bitch—”
“No! Well, sometimes you can get close, but that’s not it.” Andrea leaned forward and took Miranda’s other hand. “It’s because—that’s all I’m going to be to you, an assistant, that this can’t happen anymore. It’s the way it is and I’m trying really, really hard to accept it. My feelings are my own and you’ve done nothing to make them happen. Unless you count the fact that you exist.” Andrea smiled wryly. “You breathe, walk, and talk, and I’m a complete idiot for not being able to get it through my head and heart that no matter what I feel, what I want, it can never, ever happen. So, you see, not your fault, not at all.”
Where the sinkhole had gaped under her was now some weird trampoline that sent her up, let her fall, only to bounce her way back up again. Miranda went through Andrea’s words, back to front and back again. Was this gorgeous creature saying what she thought she heard? Or would Miranda make an even bigger fool of herself if she just surmised…
“Are you telling me that you have feelings for me, Andrea?” she whispered, barely able to get the words over her lips.
Andrea winced, but kept her gazed locked with Miranda’s. “Yes.”
“In a romantic sense?”
“Yes.” Her lips trembling now, Andrea’s breath caught.
“And you think this is ground for giving notice?”
“Normally, no, if I could find a way to function despite of it, but as you’ve seen lately, I can’t. I get stuck in daydreams and it’s fucking painful. I allow myself to imagine what it might feel if you looked at me in the same light as I see you. And then I come back to reality and it’s—well, its not a good feeling. It’s as if I get lonelier every time it happens. Even Emily and Serena know something’s up and I haven’t told them a thing.”
“I would think not,” Miranda murmured. “Good thing you told me first.”
“I would never embarrass you by—”
“I mean, if I’m the object of your daydreaming and, um, your affections, then I should be the first to know, right?” Miranda felt Andrea trying to pull her hands free, but she held on.
“I suppose.” Breathing faster now, Andrea seemed to searched Miranda’s eyes for some kind of sign, some sort of truth. “What are you saying, exactly?” At the same time, Andrea didn’t appear sure if she wanted to know.
“I would argue you’ve opened your very own version of Pandora’s box, Andrea.” Miranda knew if Andrea could be brave, so could she. Oh, who was she kidding. She knew she was an emotional recluse in many ways, not counting the relationship with her children. Right now, thought, she could either let Andrea go and enter the darkness that would follow upon her departure, or…be brave. “It’s an awkward situation as I’m your employer, but it doesn’t change things.”
“Don’t do it. Don’t…do it.” Andreas raspy voice nearly broke Miranda’s heart.
“No. Listen. You’re not the only one feeling things. I’ve had a hard time the last couple of months keeping my distance and constantly remind myself that I’m your boss. I’m in a position of power and that makes, eh, this, fraught with problems.” Miranda could tell Andrea didn’t fully understand. “I think you should give notice. You will get well-deserved references from Elias-Clark, naturally.”
“Wait. Feeling things? What things?” Apprehension radiated from Andrea and Miranda wondered if the other woman really thought she was so evil that she’d lead her on and then fire her—or worse, laugh. Yes, she was well aware of her reputation when it came to assistants. Ridiculous rumors of tossing people out the window, hiding them in shallow graves, or even in one of the Elias-Clarke elevator shafts.
“Oh, god, I don’t know! This!” Miranda took Andrea by the shoulders and pressed her lips to hers. She started it in frustration and more than a little anxiety, but as soon as she found Andrea’s soft lips pressed against hers, she melted. The whimper that went from Andrea’s mouth to hers turned the kiss into something else, something that kissing should be about—certainly not frustration or anxiety.
“Mm.” Andrea stood and threw her arms around Miranda’s neck. She parted her lips and Miranda knew this invite was one she could never resist, nor did she want to. This was Andrea, her Andrea, and she was urging Miranda to respond in kind. It was so easy. Suddenly it was effortless to meet Andrea’s tongue with her own, taste her, drink her.
When they finally needed more air then what they sucked in through their noses, Andrea slid her lips along Miranda’s jawline and then down her neck. “I can’t believe this,” she murmured. “You, here, with me, it’s insane…”
Miranda understood exactly. Andrea, here, in her arms, clearly wanting her, unable to keep from touching every part of Miranda that she could reach. Still, there was no frenzy, nothing frantic, about their caresses. Perhaps it was because of shyness, or, in Miranda’s case, never having been with a woman before, or maybe it was just pure awe.
“Please don’t disappear from my life,” Miranda said, her voice breathless. “I couldn’t bear it.”
“I won’t. After this, after all this, you would have to pry me away.” Andrea pulled back a few inches and looked into Miranda’s eyes. “You realize that this is serious for me, right? That this is love?” She sucked her lower lip in between her teeth.
Miranda nearly slid off the stool. “Oh, darling.” She straightened Andrea’s bangs and then cupped her cheek. “Of course, it is. And if you think it is any less for me, well, then I have a few things to teach you about me as a private individual.”
“I look forward to that.” Smiling broadly now, Andrea lit up entire kitchen. Pulling Miranda off the stool, she held her close in a full-body embrace that made Miranda’s nipples ache and her thighs clench.
“Oh, god.” Miranda hid her face in Andrea’s hair and held on tight to the amazing woman in her arms. “Daydreaming, huh? About me?”
“About us,” Andrea said, and fine tremors reverberated over to Miranda’s body.
“Care to share what they entailed?”
“Hm.” Andrea kissed Miranda’s temple. “Perhaps. If you don’t faint easily.”
Miranda ran her nails gently down Andrea’s back. “I never faint.”
Andrea chuckled and the happiness permeating the familiar sound made Miranda smile. “Never?”
“Never,” Miranda said firmly.
“Famous last words. The first daydream was of us getting stuck in the elevator at James Holt’s studio. You know, that really tiny elevator that…”
Damn. Famous last words, indeed.