Belle French pulled her blue Prius into her assigned spot in the parking garage at exactly five minutes to eight. She saw the black Cadillac parked next to hers, as it had been every day since she started her editing job at Jefferson Media two years earlier.
Jefferson Media was one of many companies housed in Blanchard Towers, a thirteen-story office building that dwarfed the rest of downtown Storybrooke. The U-shaped building was the tallest in the city by at least six stories. Her small office was on the 9th floor of the east wing, overlooking the garden in the plaza between the three inner sides of the building.
The owner of the Cadillac, or at least the person she had long suspected of owning it, had an office on the 10th floor on the west wing. Because of the way the building was designed, she had a perfect view of his window from her desk. Though his own desk faced away from his window, she could still see him as he went about his work. He was already typing furiously away at his computer when she came in each morning and he was still hard at work when she left each afternoon at 4:30 pm. The man was relentless, never seeming to vary or slow his work routine, even during the holidays.
She had noticed fairly quickly that the Cadillac was just as predictable. It too was always there when she arrived and when she went home every night. After the first six months, she began to wonder if it was more than coincidence. He did seem like he’d be the Cadillac type.
Belle made her way through the front doors, waving at Marco, the head security guard for Blanchard Towers. He was an older man with a white beard and an Italian accent. He was a sweet man though, and always had a smile for Belle as she walked past the security desk.
She saw one of the elevator doors about to close and she called out for someone to hold the door for her. A hand grabbed the door and she raced in quickly. The others made room for her and she smiled as she saw who held the door.
“Morning, boss,” she said.
David Nolan withdrew his hand and the elevator door slid closed. “Morning, Belle.” He glanced at her head, where she wore a velvet headband with reindeer antlers. Little bells hung off the antlers, swaying back and forth as she moved. “Nice holiday spirit.”
Belle grinned. The office’s Christmas party was that night and she was never one to miss a chance to dress for the occasion. Thankfully, her boss – both of her bosses actually – approved wholeheartedly.
Though Jefferson Hatter was the founder and CEO, David ran the day-to-day operations of Jefferson Media. He kept the office running smoothly when Jefferson was away and, more importantly, when their CEO actually showed up on site.
Jefferson had a habit of starting office fires. And no, that wasn’t a metaphor.
The two made small talk about their weekend plans in the elevator and on their way down the hall to Jefferson Media, going their separate ways once they reached the office.
Belle opened the door to her small, cubicle-sized office and laid her briefcase down on her desk. She switched her computer on, glancing out the window as she waited for it to start.
He was there of course, talking away into his phone, running a hand through his shaggy gray hair with his free hand.
Belle began her workday, but stole the occasional glance at him from time to time. It had become a subconscious habit at this point.
Though she didn’t know much about him for certain, she was fairly confident in her ideas. The hours he worked indicated that he was clearly a workaholic. The west wing of his floor was mostly taken up by a single law firm – Mills & Gold – so it seemed safe to assume that he could be a lawyer. It would explain how he could afford such a nice car, providing it really was his. He was always impeccably dressed in expensive looking suits when she saw him. Though she could only see his top half from her window, she figured his bottom half would be just as well dressed. She doubted he walked around in boxers.
The day she had started imagining what it would look like if he only wore boxers was the day she knew she was in trouble.
She had never meant to develop a crush on him. In the beginning, he had only been a curiosity, a way to pass the time when work became tedious. Belle’s favorite past time was to make up stories about people she saw in public, dining out at restaurants or strolling through the park with their significant others. He was just another stranger she could write a life story for.
At least, that’s how it started. It wasn’t as though he was one of those young, chiseled, butt-chinned men that women usually fell for. He was a smaller built man, with shoulder-length gray hair and a thin nose. She wasn’t sure how old he was, but she suspected he was much closer to her father’s age than her own. She had always had a thing for older men though – in theory, if not in practice. Her favorite film growing up was “Sound of Music” with the slightly brooding Captain Von Trapp and her favorite book as a teenager was “Jane Eyre” with the even more brooding Mr. Rochester.
Belle knew she spent way too much time daydreaming about the man, but there was just something so compelling about him. Apart from the occasional fantasies involving locations ranging from his desk to the supply closet, she loved to invent detailed stories about his life and his past. He seemed such a sad person. In the whole two years she had watched him, she had never seen him smile once. Belle, of course, took this to mean he had endured great personal tragedy, and she ended up inventing a tragic backstory for him, which she tweaked over time.
At first, it involved a terrible accident which took away his true love. Once she began to develop feelings for him however, the story quickly shifted to a failed marriage and the accident involved someone else he loved dearly, like a sister or a son. She imagined that he worked such long hours because keeping busy helped him to forget. Over the course of the two years, she also gave him a drinking problem, a rather ostentatious gold-handled black cane, and a rather deep, sensual voice that may or may not have sounded like Alan Rickman’s on certain days.
Belle was focused on that last thought in more detail when a knock at the door jerked her out of her thoughts, making her jump in her chair.
“Come in,” she said. She swung around in her chair and saw her officemate and close friend, Ruby Lucas, saunter into her office.
“Excited for tonight, French?” Ruby asked. “It’s gonna be crazy!”
Belle snorted. Jefferson Media’s annual Christmas party was quickly becoming legendary around the halls of Blanchard Towers. Most of it could be attributed to Jefferson himself, who always supplied his employees with more than enough alcohol for everyone to kill themselves. Twice.
“So I take it you haven’t invited anyone this year?” Ruby asked, reaching over to bat the bells on Belle’s headband, which let out a happy little jingle.
When Belle shook her head no, Ruby began to whine.
“Girl, it’s been well over a year since you broke up with Gaston. You need to get your groove thing on before it falls off!”
Belle shrugged. “Maybe I’m just not interested in dating right now.” Her traitor eyes flickered up to the 10th floor. She quickly looked down again when she saw that he had been standing at the window, practically gazing right at her.
She tried to turn away so that Ruby wouldn’t see the blush that was spreading like one of Jefferson’s wildfires across her face. As she began to spin her chair back to her desk, Ruby grabbed her firmly by the shoulders and spun her back around to face her.
“Don’t think I didn’t see that blush, missy! Who is he?” Ruby asked, her green eyes searching Belle’s blue ones. “And don’t play all coy with me. We’ve known each other too long for that.”
Belle sighed. She wanted to argue, but she knew the fastest way to get rid of Ruby was to tell her the truth. If she held out, her friend would only badger her until she broke.
“We’ve never actually met,” she said.
Ruby’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Is it like an online thing?” She plunked herself down on the edge of Belle’s desk.
Belle shook her head. Her expression was rueful. “No, it’s actually more of an ‘inbuilding’ thing.”
She glanced back out the window and saw that he had gone back to his desk. She gestured towards his office window. Ruby followed her gesture and frowned.
“What, the old guy?” Ruby asked.
Belle made a whining noise and, crossing her arms on her desk, let her head sink down upon them in defeat. The motion muffled the next words she said and Ruby had to ask her to repeat them. Belle turned her head and repeated it.
“I have a sort of ‘50 Shades’ scenario playing in my head,” she admitted.
Ruby glanced back at the man in the office. “Is he into kinky stuff?” Her voice sounded almost hopeful. Belle chose to ignore that TMI moment from her co-worker.
“I don’t know!” She threw her hands up in the air. “That’s the problem! I’ve tried to meet him a dozen times and he simply vanishes the moment he leaves his office. Like magic!” She glared at the back of his head. “It’s like he’s the Invisible Man of Blanchard Towers.”
Ruby made a face. “I hope that’s not what you call him when you masturbate.” Ignoring the outraged look on Belle’s face, Ruby continued. “Why don’t you just show up at his door sometime? You could walk in and be like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry’,” Ruby mimicked a high, syrupy sweet voice, “ ‘I must have exited the elevator on the wrong floor. Could you show me where to get off?’ ”
She turned to gauge Belle’s reaction. Belle glared at her.
“I really wish I could fire you right now.”
Ruby laughed and lightly slapped Belle on the arm. “You’re a hoot!” She got up off of Belle’s desk to walk out before spinning around again dramatically. “But don’t worry, Belle. I’ll come up with some reason for you to show up at his office. I’ll be your cupid.” She smiled mischievously. “And better yet, I’ll come up with the perfect outfit for you to wear when you decide to seduce him. Just call me your fairy godmother!”
Ruby laughed and practically skipped out of the office. Belle got up and shut the door behind her. Glancing at the lock, she waited only a second before turning it.
She sat back at her desk and looked up at her mystery man. She sighed. Perhaps telling Ruby had not been the best move then.
Belle tried to get her head back into work, but her thoughts kept drifting back to her and Ruby’s conversation. She had been telling Ruby the truth – she had tried to meet him several times.
Early on, it had become a game of sorts to try and run in to him. She tried coming in up to an hour and a half earlier to work – but the Cadillac had been one of a handful of cars already parked in the garage and he had been in his office. She had tried to work later, making it as late as 6:45 pm one night until she told herself in a strict voice that she was a very, very sad and pathetic woman indeed. She went home after that, popped in “Pride and Prejudice” and ate a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
She also tried catching him during his lunch break, but the man was impossible to accidentally stumble upon. For a full week she tried casually running into him in the lunch line or in the cafeteria itself. She would leave the moment she thought he left his office, power walking so that she could reach the cafeteria first. The elevator would always seem to be at its slowest at those times, stopping at every floor on the way to the basement level. She would weave her way through the crowd of people who had gotten in front of her in the elevator and make it to the cafeteria first. But even though she kept her eyes peeled and allowed others to cut in line in front of her, she never saw him.
She would sit at her favorite table, which looked out on the garden in the plaza area outside. The spot was near the front, so she had a perfect view of anyone who came through for lunch.
But he never did.
She once toyed with the idea of trying to make it to his elevator before it passed her floor, but she quickly discarded it. Even if she raced breakneck speed down the hallway that led to the other wing’s elevators, it was unlikely that she would be able to make it. What was much more likely was that she would break her neck, given her completely inappropriate, but completely necessary high heels that she wore to work every day.
She knew they were bad for her feet and her back. But she couldn’t give up the few extra inches that they gave her. Even with her shoes, she was the shortest person in the office by half a foot.
Her shoes today were extra pointy. Though she was hardly as excited about the Christmas party as Ruby, she had definitely dressed the part. Apart from the reindeer antlers, she wore a 1940s-style tartan dress, which was red, green, and white plaid. Her necklace and earrings were matching silver snowflakes and on her feet were classic red stilettos.
She would never win the award for Most Outgoing at the office, but at least she knew she looked darn good.
Glancing back up at his window again, she sighed. Even though she enjoyed looking nice, it was always more fun to be able to dress up for someone. But perhaps it was time that she listened to Ruby and started dating again, recognizing her mystery man for what he really was – a fantasy that would never come true.
Later that evening, when the party was finally winding down, Belle was regretting her choice of footwear. The party had run rather later than planned and she had been one of the few who stayed behind to clean up. It wasn’t until close to 8 pm that she made it back to her small office to pack up. She glanced out her window and was unsurprised to see a single office on the 10th floor with lights on. She couldn’t see him, but she knew he was there somewhere.
All of the sudden she had a new and unwelcome thought. What if the reason for the late nights at the office was that he was having an affair? He could have a woman – or a man for all she knew – in there at this moment. Even now, they might be about to play out her favorite office fantasy on top of his desk.
She sniffed and wiped away some moisture from her eyes.
“Damn wine,” she mumbled, though she had stopped drinking long ago.
She started angrily stuffing her things in her briefcase and yanked her reindeer headband off her head, shoving it in her bag. She was stupid to put so much energy into a ridiculous fantasy involving a man who was most likely married and just as likely to be having some hot, steamy affair with his blonde bimbo of a secretary.
She hated lawyers, she told herself. They were all scum.
Grabbing one of her notebooks, she was almost all packed up when she noticed a movement out the window. She looked up and gasped.
He was standing at his window, staring straight at her.
He looked surprised to see her. Though she didn’t consciously mean to raise her hand, she found herself meekly waving at him. Her eyes widened when he waved back. Judging by the look on his face, he was just as surprised as she was by the action, if not more so. He quickly dropped his hand and turned away abruptly.
Belle felt the small thrill that had raced through her at his wave diminish. “He probably mistook me for someone else,” she thought. “Or he’s just too polite to not wave back at the freak stalking him every day.”
Despite her embarrassment, she stood there a little longer, slowly putting the last few of her things away and straightening some papers that didn’t really need to be straightened. She kept glancing up to see if he returned, but she didn’t see him. She was about to give up and go home when his office light turned off.
She squealed – forgetting her embarrassment from only a few moments ago – and raced out the door, barely remembering to grab her keys and her coat on her way out. For once, the elevator didn’t stop on every floor, thanks to the fact that no one who wasn’t getting free liquor at a Christmas party or a six figure salary would be caught dead at work that late at night. The doors opened and the click clack of her heels on the black marble floor echoed throughout the lobby.
“Night, Marco!” she yelled as she flew past the security guard and out the front door. She briefly realized it probably hadn’t been him at the front desk as she ran towards the parking garage, but she had more important things to worry about at the moment, including staying upright in her heels.
The ground level of the parking garage was empty save for her car, the Cadillac, and a beat up white van which she felt confident that her mystery man would rather set fire to than drive. There was always a chance that his vehicle was on one of the upper levels of the parking garage, but she didn’t want to think about that possibility. She had to believe that the Cadillac was his.
Because she sure as hell hadn’t ruined a good pair of heels to miss him this time.
Belle was panting when she reached her car, leaning against it for support. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. She didn’t want to be gasping for breath in front of him when he showed up.
At least, not in the extremely unattractive, non-sexual way that she was now.
He probably already thought she was crazy. She didn’t need to give him any more reasons to support that theory.
“Especially when I officially am a nutcase after this,” she thought.
She turned around, keeping her back pressed against the car. She nearly slipped when she saw that he was standing less than 10 feet from her.
Her breath was finally under control for the most part, but her heart had now decided to take up the ragged beat instead.
He stood staring at her, his mouth hanging open in an almost comical way. He held his keys out, as if he had paused midway through the motion of using the unlock button. He probably had, she realized. It wasn’t every day he got to watch some crazy woman dart across the parking lot in four-inch heels.
They continued to stare at each other, the silence between them growing awkward. He finally seemed able to close his mouth, but Belle noticed a muscle in his jaw that began to twitch. She suddenly realized for the first time how little she truly knew about the man standing before her.
For all Belle knew, he could be a serial killer. He stayed late at the office so he could plot horrific murders. The beat up mini-van was actually his and he used it to drop the dismembered bodies off in the nearby river.
She finally managed to squeak out a high-pitched “hello” and raised her hand in greeting like they had less than 10 minutes ago.
“Hello,” he said, still looking for all the world like he was waiting for her to spontaneously burst into flame.
She took a step closer, still nervous but encouraged by the idea that he seemed just as nervous – if not more – than her. She had to believe that serial killers were more confident. It was the only thing that kept her from hopping in the car and gunning it away from this ever-devolving mess of embarrassment.
He looked at her, the mystified expression remaining on his face even as he spoke. “I know.”
The day had started off like any other day in Mr. Gold’s life. He came into work at 5:30 am, parking his Cadillac in its regular spot. He was always one of the first people into the office every morning, and he was there well after most of his employees went home every night.
The occasional client threw some variety into his day, but for the most part, every day was pretty much the same as the one before it and so on, until the years seemed to blend together in his memory.
The first thing he did every morning was make the first pot of coffee for the day. Many of the others in the office preferred to have their interns bring them Starbucks, but he hated the overly sugared vile they were calling coffee these days. He figured it was probably cliché of him, but he liked his coffee black.
While nursing his coffee, he checked his emails and looked over his schedule for the day. Slowly the other employees would start coming into the office. His air-headed secretary, Ariel Delmar, was usually among the last, tripping in at the last minute as if she still hadn’t quite learned how to put one foot in front of the other. If she wasn’t the stepdaughter of one of the company’s most wealthy clients, he doubted he would have put up with her this long. But Ursula took it as a personal favor that they kept her stepdaughter out of her hair.
He sighed. His life was pretty much just that – keeping clients happy so their money kept his law firm a success. It was a fairly good strategy that had kept Mills & Gold successful over the years, even with the death of his former business partner, Cora. Her daughter, Regina, had taken over her spot though and business – as well as his life – had continued as usual.
At least, it had until about two years ago. That was the day the tiny brunette had walked into the office on the 9th floor and into his life.
He saw her through his office window every single day. He looked forward to the small glimpses he was able to catch of her, breaking up his otherwise monotonous day.
As a partner at Mills & Gold, his work schedule was demanding at the best of times, grueling at the worst. One of the few pleasures he allowed himself each day was a 15 minute break at precisely 2:30. He would sip his cup of tea and sneak covert glances at her through his window. It was the perfect time to indulge in what he considered his rather pathetic crush, as it seemed to be her busiest time of the day.
Often, she would be tied up on long phone calls around that time, allowing him to observe her uninterrupted as she worked. He was fascinated by the smallest action, from the way she curled the phone line around her fingers to her habit of painting her nails if she became stuck on a particularly long call. At these times, he became oblivious to anything else around him. He had even spilled tea on himself more than once.
The most embarrassing moment came when his partner in the firm, Regina Mills, snuck up on him while he was enjoying his daily ritual.
“Who’s she?” Regina asked.
His teacup rattled on its plate as his hands shook. “What? Who?”
He tried to feign innocence, but Regina knew him better than most. She smirked and laid down the folders she was carrying onto his desk.
“Just make sure she’s not some sort of gold digger,” she said as she walked back towards the door. “I don’t want my company winding up in the control of some secretary you’re screwing.”
“Th-th-that’s not what’s going on,” he sputtered. “And it’s only half your company!"
She shot him a parting smug glance over her shoulder before she left his office. He had the feeling that she wouldn’t be forgetting this particular moment anytime soon.
Currently though, Regina was too busy to waste any time baiting him. Both he and Regina were swamped as the holiday season kicked off. People were particularly vindictive when it came to this time of year.
“’Tis the season to sue loved ones,” he thought, glancing at the growing pile of paperwork on his desk.
However, he really didn’t have any obligations that got in the way of work. Apart from his son, who lived with his family halfway across the country, Gold had no loved ones nearby to spend the holiday with. Apart from the obligatory and impersonal workplace gifts that were exchanged each year, there was really only one person he wouldn’t mind giving a gift to.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t know her name. It had been easy enough to find out who she was from the building’s records. The security guards were ridiculously easy to bribe. It worried him a bit in respect to the building’s safety, but in this case he’d been grateful. He had gotten a veritable biography on her.
Belle French. The name still rolled off his tongue in a delightfully pleasant way. It also made him think of highly inappropriate, French maid fantasies. However, his favorite reoccurring daydream – when he wasn’t imagining taking her on her desk or against the window that he saw her through every day – was oddly enough in a library. He saw her read too many books at her desk to not recognize her for the bookworm that she was. Practically every time he saw her, she had a new book sitting on the corner of her desk. She could usually hold off until mid-morning until she seemed to need a small reading break. Not that he noticed, of course; his official Belle viewing time wasn’t until the afternoon when her work schedule picked up.
He saw her around the building as well. She often sat at the same little table right near the big front window of the cafeteria. He never went through the front door. There was a small dining room reserved for executives on the floor above the cafeteria, which is where he took many of his lunches, especially when he was meeting with important clients or other bigwigs in the building. He would often walk by and pause on top of the landing and look down to see if she was there that day. She often seemed to be searching for someone. He sometimes saw her eat with a tall brunette that she seemed chummy with. He supposed she anxiously awaited the arrival of her friend for lunch. Probably so she could talk about her hunky, six-packed boyfriend. Or perhaps she was awaiting said hunky, six-packed stud and he just hadn’t been unlucky enough to see the prat.
On busier days, like today, he would order something to be delivered to his office for lunch. He was on his best behavior today, sticking to work and refraining from sneaking glances at her throughout the morning. He congratulated himself on his restraint.
But shortly after mid-morning, he felt his resolve crumbling. He needed a stretch anyway, he told himself. He was fairly sure he hadn’t moved from his desk since he came in that morning.
He walked to the window, stretching his arms as he casually turned his head to catch a glimpse of her. A small chuckle escaped him. She was all decked out for the holidays, a habit of hers he had noticed quite some time ago. She was wearing a Christmas colored dress and on her head was the most ridiculous headband he’d ever seen. Her tall brunette friend was in her office with her and they were talking animatedly about something.
He grimaced. No doubt the topic was that prick of a boyfriend again, he thought.
Though the security guards had no records on her love life, he couldn’t believe that such a pretty young thing like her was single.
For a moment, he thought she caught his eye, but she turned away before he could be sure. His phone rang a moment after and he walked off to answer it, torn between being thankful and annoyed for the interruption.
As the day wore on, he kept his attention focused on work, even having to forgo his usual tea break as a client of his had a severe meltdown and kept him on the phone for a good chunk of the afternoon.
By the time he was able to take a break, it was late and he saw that the lights were off in her office. She must have gone home early, he figured.
For not the first time, he considered arranging an accidental meeting between her and himself. It wouldn’t be impossible for a man with his clout to pull off. No, what was impossible was the chance that she would give him the time of day. He didn’t expect a beautiful young woman like her to be interested in a gray-haired, middle-aged lawyer. He had three strikes against him and that was before he even opened his mouth. His sharp tongue and quick wit had brought him success in his profession, but it had also given him an equal amount of enemies both in the corporate world and in real life.
It was best he keep her as his personal Venus – his deity to worship in his thoughts and in the occasional dream when he was lucky.
No, he definitely didn’t want to find out what she would really think of him.
Mr. Gold was just beginning to pack up for the night when he saw her light come on out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see Belle at her desk, packing up for the night. He had never seen her at the office this late at night before and he found himself staring, wondering what had kept her. Thoughts of her engaging in some passionate office romance made him see red. It wasn’t until she reached up to remove the reindeer headband from her head that he put it all together.
Belle worked for that lunatic Jefferson Hatter, who was known to throw a lavish Christmas party for his employees every year. He felt the jealousy drain out of him and his cheeks burned with embarrassment. It was of course at this moment that she chose to glance up at him.
Their eyes locked. Equal amounts of elation and fear coursed through him. He wanted to run, but his legs were frozen to the ground.
She lifted a hand and waved at him.
He managed to wave back, though he couldn’t think of one single reason why she would be waving at him.
Which meant she probably wasn’t, he realized. He turned away from the window, embarrassed. Of course, she hadn’t been waving at him. She probably had a friend in a nearby window.
Mr. Gold was mortified. He quickly gathered his things and left, briefly wondering how much trouble it would be to change offices.
So when he walked out to the parking lot, still reeling from their brief encounter at the window, he was completely terrified to find himself face to face with her.
He felt his jaw flop open in surprise and for the life of him, he didn’t think he’d ever be able to close it again.
She looked just as awkward as he felt. He thought it was all some sort of cruel joke the world was playing on him, throwing her in his path only for him to become completely tongue tied. He kept waiting for her to get into her car. Instead, she began trying to engage him in conversation.
He couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Not ten minutes before, he had been convinced she couldn’t possibly have been waving at him.
But now that she was before him, introducing herself, he wasn’t so sure that it had been a mistake. But of course, he wasn’t able to play it cool. Silver-tongued Rumbold – a nickname which he hated but had spread along with his reputation –all but blurted out that he was a creepy old man.
He was a stalker. He had stalked her. He might as well hop into that white van parked a few spaces away and have done with it.
Her face crinkled up adorably in confusion. “You know my name?”
He ran a hand through his hair. He always fidgeted when he was nervous. Even the muscles in his jaw had been beating out a samba a moment ago.
“Yes.” He closed his eyes in frustration. There was no way this was going to end well.
He heard her small steps echo off the walls. He knew she would be off like a shot now that she realized what kind of man he was. He opened his eyes and was shocked to see that she had actually moved closer.
“May I ask your name then?” she asked.
He was so surprised he would have probably given her his social security number if she had asked for it.
“Mr. Gold,” he said.
Well, perhaps not shocked enough to give her his full name, he thought. He didn’t want this conversation to get anymore awkward than it already was. Introducing oneself as “Rumbold Gold” tended to have that effect on conversations.
“Mr. Gold.” She rolled the name around on her tongue. It was the most erotic thing he’d ever heard.
She looked like she was making her mind up about something. She gave a short nod, as if resolved in her course of action, and started walking towards him purposefully. She closed the distance between them and offered her hand up in greeting.
“I think our meeting is long overdue.” Her smile shined brighter than he could have thought possible in the dim car garage. “But it’s nice to finally meet you, Mr. Gold.”