Chapter One

A disheveled man collected a folded Pepsi can from the curb and added it to the collection already spilling out of his coopted shopping cart. The continuing swell of the homeless population wasn’t lost on Jess Ivan as she ran by with a polite smile and a wave.

She took in the soaring uprights of the Bay Bridge in stark contrast to the plight of city residents who could no longer afford so much as a room in San Francisco. She recently saw a real estate flyer advertising a minuscule apartment for $5,000 a month. Affordable housing was only part of the problem, since untreated mental illness was at epidemic levels. She chafed at the thought of the huge abandoned military bases less than ten miles from where she ended the final mile of her morning run. Their housing capacity could single-handedly eradicate the homeless population in the city and probably a good portion of the East Bay. Jess wasn’t naïve enough to think it was that simple a solution, but she couldn’t help feeling sad at the dichotomy.

She gazed down the Embarcadero, her favorite route. Being near the water usually cleared her head before what was typically a long day at the office. She used the bay as a reset point before she drove across the bridge into Oakland. It wasn’t as common to leave the city and cross into the East Bay; most of the world was either coming into the city or headed south to Silicon Valley. She actually enjoyed the counter-commute.

She supposed she might have done the smart thing and moved closer to work, but the house was a family legacy she loved too much to abandon for convenience. She rounded the corner onto Francisco Street and appraised the Italianate façade of her home decorated in subtle beiges and greens. Her father had bought the three-story home during a dip in the market many years ago. Despite her successful business, she couldn’t begin to afford to buy the house now, and she felt lucky to wake up there every morning with her own private view of the city and narrow glimpse of the water.

Her ex, Samantha “Dino” Paladino, had often called the house an “homage to Daddy” but she had also admittedly been jealous of anything that wasn’t soundly and completely about her.

Of course, the proximity to the SFPD station Dino worked out of was the reason she still occupied the ground-floor flat, not to mention the extremely reasonable rent, by city standards. After eight years together and just as many as exes after, Jess thought about their relatively amicable breakup and was grateful for the friendly and peaceful coexistence they managed. She jogged up the steep stairs to her front door and collected the green and white paper cup she had come to expect to be on the top step.

“Wow, third cup of coffee this week?” Dino walked slowly up the sweeping expanse of staircase, systematically looping and snapping leather keepers over her gun belt.

“Getting ready for work and you had nothing better to do than harass me?” Jess offered a genuine smile as she folded onto the step next to her.

Dino seemed to be appraising her features. “Even after sixteen years, I still think you’re gorgeous.”

Jess’s uncommon coloring courtesy of her Italian father and her French mother often garnered her compliments, though she had a difficult time accepting them. “You go from harassment to unfounded accolades?” Jess smirked at Dino, who she would always have deep affection for. “You need a vacation.”

“It wasn’t harassment and you are gorgeous. I’m assuming things must be getting serious.” She gestured to the cup with the name Whitney emblazoned in black Sharpie.

“I hardly think coffee indicates any degree of seriousness.” She studied the cup as if it would bolster her defense position but came up with nothing.

“Seven-dollar coffee with some other woman’s name on it every morning before 0630 indicates serious to me.” Dino had always enjoyed needling her about her potential relationships.

“Good to know, Dino. Remind me not to buy you coffee.” Jess swiped her arm over her clammy forehead and reclined on the top step.

“So, is Whitney officially your girlfriend or not?” Dino had stopped fiddling with her uniform and clasped her hands over her knees, looking over at Jess seriously.

Jess thought for a minute and placed the coffee on the step between her feet. “I suppose it depends on who you ask.”

“Wow, Jess Ivan, habitual committer, is actually hedging on a relationship?” She sounded incredulous.

“I’m not hedging on anything, I’m just saying it’s a little too early to tell.” Jess forced herself to sound casual despite the mild panic she felt forming in her gut. Commitment had, indeed, never been a problem for her, but for some reason she was applying the brakes to whatever this was.

“I’ve seen her over here at least once a week since you met. And I’m even fairly certain I’ve heard carnal noises coming through the vents in my living room. That’s usually all it takes for you to start planning the rest of your life with someone.”

“First of all, I should be the one complaining about carnal noises from the vents. And second, again, it doesn’t automatically mean we’re in a committed relationship, or should be, for that matter.”

“I’m very impressed. You’ve usually bought them a new car and a diamond ring by now.”

Jess punched the side of Dino’s calf soundly and ignored her feigned agony. “As you well know, it’s been a long time since I bought any sort of diamond for any sort of woman.”

“I do know. I also know that this particular woman is built like a rock star and you could probably bounce a quarter off her ass.”

“Very classy, and thank you very much for that visual. I am well aware of the fact that she’s attractive.” Jess tried again to sound casual.

“She’s freaking stunning, Ivan. I don’t think you’re going to be tripping over another one of those willing to put up with you anytime soon.” She pulled herself up by the railing and dusted off her uniform trousers.

“I wasn’t looking when I found her, now was I?” She squinted into the strengthening sun creating a halo around Dino’s shiny black hair that she had yet to pull into a regulation ponytail.

“Nope. But the older you get, the bigger the ring you have to buy to keep ’em.”

“I seem to remember yours not being a chip.” Jess raised an indignant eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest.

“True. Now that we’re on the topic, don’t forget to leave it to me in your will. It would make a nice pendant.” Dino scraped her hair into an elastic band and smoothed her palms over the escaped strands near her ears.

“Careful, I might just reset it and hang it from the rearview mirror in the next car I buy for the next random woman.” Jess smirked.

“Ouch. What did I ever do to you?” Dino grasped her chest like she was in pain.

“I think it was the fact that you couldn’t pass another woman on the street without sleeping with her.” Jess stretched her legs to keep from stiffening up.

“That might have been because your mistress was daddy’s company, remember?” Dino replied with only a hint of the edge that used to fill the room many years ago.

Jess held up her palms defensively. “Okay, let’s agree not to have a ten-year-old argument again, fair?”

“Fair,” Dino said.

“Don’t you have to go protect and serve or something?” Jess grinned, letting the moment pass, noting that the legacy of their once-painful breakup was gone as soon as it had arrived this time.

“I do indeed. And because the city would miss my presence. I’m on the way.”

“Be good and don’t do anything stupid.” Jess meant “come home in one piece” but left it unsaid.

“Of course. And if you do cut Whitney loose, make sure I’m home so that I can take her in and dry her tears.”

“Wow, an opportunist and an ass.” Jess called as she retrieved the coffee and turned toward her door, “Have a good day, Ass. Love you.”

“Love you, too.” Dino’s keys slapped against the patent leather of her duty belt as she walked away, adjusting her ponytail several times and then giving up only to start over.

Jess watched, amused. She stepped into the quiet of her hallway and glanced at the clock on the microwave. The unplanned conversation had cost her valuable time that might make the difference between twenty-five minutes on the road and an hour. Reverse commute or not, the earlier she was, the less chance she had of being trapped behind some accident. She quickly styled her hair and wrestled a wave until it fell in line with the rest, skimming just above her starched collar as she appraised the sprinkling of grays sprouting up between browns. Her mind wandered to the woman she knew she should be so much more enamored with.

Whitney Fields was indeed an extraordinarily attractive woman. Dino was right, she very much looked like a platinum-blond rock star—like Lita Ford meets Gwen Steffani. Always dressed to the nines and always in the highest of heels, betraying her true five-foot-two stature.

When they had met several months ago at an HRC banquet, everyone had kept remarking that they looked perfect together. Her company’s vice president had practically married them off before the evening was half over. After quite a few dates, including several nights in Jess’s bed, they were certainly compatible. She idly wondered how much they had in common outside the bedroom. Whitney understood her work; after all, they were both in real estate in some form, but she didn’t share the same passion for it. The morning coffees were a sweet gesture and it went a long way to prolonging what Jess thought might be just a temporary entanglement.

Jess dropped into the bucket seat of her old sports car and backed into the narrow street. If she was honest with herself, her dream was to come home every day to this house and know that her wife would be there, too. She often wondered if that would ever actually happen. Her failed eight-year partnership with Dino was the last relationship she’d ever considered permanent.

She held the garage remote button and watched the door creak to a close. The aging Mercedes two-seater, once her father’s, felt like putting on a favorite glove. She supposed she could afford a newer car, but it certainly couldn’t be bigger. Nineteenth-century garages barely allowed a subcompact to fit inside, let alone some over-the-top luxury car. Truth be told, she wouldn’t want one anyway. Two-seaters made for fewer riding companions, and driving was her guilty, usually solo, pleasure.

“Hey, babe.” Whitney’s voice sang over the Bluetooth speaker on Jess’s visor when she answered their now-customary morning call. “Did you enjoy your treat this morning?”

“Of course I did. It was very kind of you, but you know you don’t have to go out of your way.” Jess considered why the gesture felt just a little like passive pressure but couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I know I don’t have to, but I’m there anyway and I get to think that one morning, I’ll be just in time to see you run down the street and give me more than just a phone call.”

“You never know, but I tend to be a creature of habit.” Jess wanted to dissuade some spontaneous morning rendezvous that would disrupt her routine. She hoped her choice of words or tone didn’t give away that it would also be unwelcome.

“Don’t I know that. Payroll on Monday night, project review on Wednesdays, and accounts payable on Friday night.”

“No one can say I’m not predictable.” Jess knew it was true and was mildly struck by the fact that Whitney already knew her routine.

“And speaking of, how about a school-night date? I know it’s Monday, but I thought maybe we could have dinner at Largo early and you can get back to work or whatever other secret stuff you do at night.”

“Well, it’s hardly a secret since you practically recited my schedule just now. Let me see how the day goes, though, if you don’t mind. We’re starting fiscal year planning today and I have a ton of meetings to handle with Brett on the new project. I honestly can’t commit to a time and I don’t want to have to cancel on you.”

“Well, I certainly don’t want that either,” Whitney said quickly.

“How about I call you after lunch and let you know how it’s going?” Jess slowed to a crawl behind a delivery truck and wondered if she would even see her office before her all-staff meeting, thanks to the line of traffic snaking at a crawl ahead of her.

“Okay, gorgeous. Kisses.” Whitney had a way of purring into the phone that left goose bumps over the arms of the listener.

Jess dragged her palms along her forearms and wondered if that was enough.

She filed away the phone call and concentrated on her talking points for the meeting. She scanned the water from the Bay Bridge and used the time to shuffle through the mental files of her day.

Eventually, Jess breezed through the double glass office doors that bore her family name. The office parking lot was already full, and she scanned the cars belonging to the jackpot of employees Ivan Associates had.

The chill in the outside air was courtesy of what Bay Area residents habitually called “June Gloom.” It rarely hit seventy degrees in the city and hovered around seventy-five on the east side of the bay. Jess was perfectly fine with that. Having spent many a holiday in the Northeast, she didn’t miss the punishing heat or humidity.

She jogged up a flight of polished concrete steps to the hallway where her office overlooked the bullpen and, at a distance, the bay. This wasn’t an indulgent space or even particularly luxurious. She had rescued the dilapidated warehouse building from impending ruin at the hands of a greedy real estate collector. Jack London Square was gentrifying rapidly, but it would be a while before the streets around it caught up. Jess glanced at Yolanda’s office just across the hall from hers. It was dark, but she could hear her animated voice and other spirited conversations from the bullpen area on the ground floor. She dumped her keys on her desk and walked toward the melee.

 

Chapter Two

Skylar Addison sat in her desk chair she’d pushed into the center hall area. Kyle fidgeted next to her.

“Are you nervous or something?” She smiled as he shifted his weight repeatedly from left to right. She thought his wiry stature coupled with the frenzied motion made him look remarkably like a pogo stick.

“No. Why?”

“Because you’re hopping around like you’ve had too much coffee.”

Kyle folded his arms and crossed his ankles, stanching the movement. “I just hate meetings. There are a hundred things I need to do and ten places I need to be.” He brushed a hand across his meticulously coiffed hair and checked his reflection in an office window.

Skylar watched him adjust a strand that wasn’t out of place.

“I heard Jess’s meetings are short and sweet. Since this will be my first, you need to not get me in trouble.” She jabbed him playfully. Kyle had quickly become her best work friend, and luckily, he was also an office star, so he made learning the business easy.

“Don’t fret, Worried Wanda. And her meetings are short. Only better if they were nonexistent and I was out being busy.”

Skylar had watched Kyle, as the lead project manager, take up to forty calls a day between coordinating vendors, contractors, and real estate regulators from various city departments. She could tell he was much happier doing that than standing around listening to someone talk, even if it was the boss everyone adored.

“Calm down. You’re going to die of a heart attack before lunch.” Skylar jerked at his sleeve as thirty-five other employees assembled around the cubicles and conference tables known as the bullpen.

Skylar watched Jess Ivan breeze down into the space and stand on the lowest step, as if to claim it as her makeshift pulpit. Skylar studied the way she moved and how she looked. The CEO of Ivan Associates was the kind of professional Skylar aspired to be one day. She was calm, self-assured, and successful. It didn’t hurt that she was very confident and uniquely attractive, but Skylar was laser focused on building a career at IA, not on developing some inappropriate crush. She might not have had her MBA like many of the others on staff, but she was smart, and she planned to prove it.

Skylar thought back to the hours she had spent studying Ivan Associates. The company had a durable reputation of taking hypercapitalist market assets, which more than sustained the bottom line of the company, and using them for the benefit of people who could use a break. Those people were plentiful in the Bay Area. Despite being the driver of all that success, Jess seemed as down-to-earth as anyone she had ever met. Brief conversations had left Skylar more than a little impressed with her mentor.

Skylar mentally reviewed her deliverables for her boss. She felt sufficiently prepared to take on the challenge of running the finance department. She had applied to IA three times, landing an interview twice. When she was finally offered the position just over a month ago, she was determined to become indispensable.

She continued to observe Jess, assessing how she moved even before she spoke. She wasn’t the least bit unnerved, nor was she at all formal, but she instantly commanded attention from the room. Skylar wanted that. She admired Jess’s ability to easily manage a crowd. Skylar hoped to accomplish that one day, without the challenge of her ever-present nerves coloring her every interaction.

Aside from Kyle, she had kept to herself since joining the company. She didn’t trust easily, and the world had repeatedly reminded her why staying out of others’ lives and out of relationships was a prudent life choice. Work was safe, but people were rarely so.

She shuffled her legal pad to her other leg and prepared to write quick notes on every topic her new boss covered in the meeting. She would know Jess’s job, and her colleagues’ jobs, just as well as her own one day. She traced over her inspiration words “relevant” and “essential” in the margin of the page and listened carefully. Ivan Associates was the company she intended to be with long term.

“Now,” Jess continued, “to the fun part—for most of you, that is. The Bay Housing Outreach 5k is in two weeks. We are a gold sponsor, and it is extremely important that we continue to forge strong alliances and help raise money for the people in our community who could use a hand. After all, they are part of our mission statement. We’ll be meeting bright and early for registration on Saturday morning, so please don’t be late.”

Skylar thought working for the corporation was more than a job and was sure it felt like a privilege to everyone who showed up every day. So far, Jess seemed to be a breeze to work for as long as you shared her passion. As far as Skylar could tell, everybody did, working diligently and often long hours. She had heard the term overachiever many times in her life, but to her, it was much better than the alternative.

“Feel free to bring anyone who would like to be part of our team. I would love to see an ocean of black IA T-shirts out there.”

Jess pushed the hem of her tailored gray jacket behind her hip and locked her fingers inside the slash pocket of her narrow slacks. She dropped off the step and began pacing slowly in front of the small crowd, most of whom watched her as she moved. Her gait was relaxed as she seemed to meet the eye of every employee she passed.

“I know today will be long for a lot of you, with department meetings and budget planning, but I count on you to get the next fiscal year started out right. If anyone ever needs to level set with me, just tell Yolanda, and we will make it happen. Let’s keep at the top of our game because, let’s face it, nobody does what we do.” She smiled proudly.

“There are plenty of real estate acquisition companies in the Bay Area and more than our share of housing developers. On the other side, there are plenty of organizations doing social assistance work, too, but none of them do it like IA, and I am really proud of what we’ve built. The most important part is taking our resources and making them work to support the community. We couldn’t have done this without you. Anyone who lives in this area knows how hard it is to make ends meet, and it’s all of our jobs to make sure that we can make a difference.”

Skylar shifted in her chair. The impact of what the company stood for made her once again thoroughly impressed by her dynamic boss.

“Lastly, I want to talk about our newest project. Kyle Poston will be heading this one up.” She gestured at Kyle, who nodded and smiled as she continued.

“As most of you know, we were able to acquire a one hundred percent interest in a twelve-unit building in the Mission. Darren Sanders was a longtime friend of Billy’s.”

Skylar had heard Jess regularly refer to her father and the founder of the company by his first name.

“Sadly, Darren passed away in December. His foundation endowed Ivan Associates with the clear title to this building on Mission Street, which will become what we’re calling Navigation House.”

Skylar watched Jess’s intense eyes flash as she spoke and absently tucked an escaped wave of hair behind her ear.

“The goal of Navigation House is to help young victims of the system. These are older teens or young adults who may have come from abuse situations, were abandoned by a parent, or maybe just aged out of state custody. Darren adopted two children out of foster care and learned a great deal about how that system could have done better. These kids lack resources once they leave or age out, as they call it. Darren wanted to make sure that young adults had a place to go before they faced life ill-equipped.

“We hope, when we are successful, that we can replicate the concept across the state and, with the right partners, even the country. The street-level offices will continue to be rented by a law firm, helping subsidize what we do with Navigation House when the renovation is complete. I feel like this could be one of the best projects we have ever done. Explain to anyone who will listen that our community needs to pay attention to people who are being underserved in our community, especially our youth who are being asked to raise themselves without adequate resources.

“If any of you have any ideas or would like to be part of the steering committee as we go forward with the structure and planning, please see Yolanda so that she can include you on the committee emails. Does anyone have any questions?”

Skylar raised her hand before she had thought it all the way through and instantly wished she could fade into the background.

“Yes, Skylar?” Jess’s eyes fell on her and Skylar struggled to look determined instead of ridiculously uncomfortable, which was the only way to describe it.

“Um, Yes, ma’am.” Skylar managed the few syllables that she was sure sounded squeaky and terrified.

“Jess, please. And by the way, awesome job so far, everyone says great things about you. I know we haven’t done a formal welcome, so please consider this as one now.”

When the room joined in applause, Skylar felt heat and no doubt a deepening crimson color rising in her face.

“Thank you.” The words rushed out and she prayed the spotlight would move away from her quickly. “I just wondered if I could talk to you about the committee.” She knew pink splotches were now covering her neck, as they always did when she was nervous.

“Sure, right after? Anyone else?” Jess scanned the room and checked her watch.

The thirty-minute meeting had been just long enough for the masses to begin multitasking in order to keep up with their busy schedules. Skylar wondered if that was intuition or acumen.

“Okay then. If anyone else is interested in being part of this project, just see Yolanda. Kyle, thank you for a great start.”

Kyle bowed as if it was his turn to conduct the orchestra. He scanned the room and turned to bow behind him, grinning at his coworkers. Most of them looked amused by his theatrics. Skylar appreciated that he seemed to have the same level of enthusiasm for everything. She thought that was likely what made him so good at his job. He had a reputation for bringing home projects on a tight deadline and even tighter budget.

“Let’s go make it happen, everyone. Have a great day.”

Skylar watched Jess drop a few personalized good mornings as employees washed by her. She motioned for Skylar to lead the way, and Skylar heard her follow into the small office she had yet to personalize.

She took a deep breath before facing Jess, who was now standing very close to her, owing to the cramped quarters hosting a too-large L-shaped desk covered in file folders and accounting reports. She was only slightly shorter than her boss, but she thought Jess Ivan might tower over any space.

“I just wondered,” Skylar dove in to the conversation, her hands trembling a bit, “if I needed any special skills to be part of that committee, or if I could act in sort of an advisory capacity.”

“Absolutely, we would be happy to have you, but we’re all advisory, so to speak. I’ll be chairing the committee and I would love to hear some of your ideas. What has piqued your interest about Navigation House?”

“I just knew some people in the system, and I thought that perspective might be useful.” She shifted nervously and stared at the carpet before willing her eyes to focus back on Jess, who smelled like expensive cologne and eucalyptus shampoo.

“Absolutely. I’m interested in talking about that more in depth.”

Jess was staring at her. Why was she staring at her? Okay, not staring. Perhaps she just had this intense way about her. Skylar decided she was absolutely going to have to get ahold of her nerves if she was going to present as a competent business person and not some twitchy preteen.

Skylar fiddled with the haphazard ponytail resting on her shoulder and tried to stop fidgeting. “Thank you,” she finally managed to say, wishing she could fade into the wall. She felt the prickles of the red heat again rise along her neck. Jess was still smiling in her direction when she looked back to her notebook.

“My pleasure.” She turned toward the door abruptly. “I’ll see you this afternoon, right?”

Skylar hoped Jess’s quick departure was because she was busy and not just uncomfortable because of her awkwardness.

“Yes, ma’—um, Jess. One o’clock.”

“Okay.” Jess held out her hand and Skylar returned the handshake.

“Really glad you’re with us, Skylar.” She seemed to subtly inventory Skylar before turning to leave. She noted that the appraisal didn’t seem creepy, just as if she must be creating a mental file.

“Me too.” Skylar sat heavily in her chair, relieved by the distance. She watched Jess sail across the floor and up the stairs, greeting everyone again as she went.

“You look like you’re going to pass out.” Kyle appeared at her door seconds after Jess had created the vacancy.

“It’s hot in here.” She wiped at her forehead with the palms of both her hands and then skidded them along her thighs.

“No, it’s not.” Kyle sang the words and grinned. “I’d say you’ve got the Ivan Flush.”

“The what?” She looked at him skeptically.

“It’s the thing that all the girls get when Jess does her thing.” He crossed his arms and cocked an eyebrow.

“What thing?” She knew she sounded impatient, but she was breathing heavily for some reason.

“The ‘I couldn’t find anyone more fascinating than you at this moment’ thing.” He leaned farther into her office as he spoke just above a whisper, and Skylar fanned her face with a red folder. “She even makes me a little warm sometimes, and I’ve been gay since the womb.”

“I can tell you that I would have no such reaction with someone who is my boss. Definitely not my style. Didn’t you say you had a hundred places to be?” She was anxious for his attention, and the subject, to be somewhere else entirely.

“And I am on my way. Go stand by the window and cool off before you have a stroke, honey.” He winked and hustled over to collect his things from his own office, waving behind him as he took long strides toward the front doors.

Skylar shook off both encounters and tapped into her computer. She was happy for the distance from the woman who supposedly gave people some sort of flush. What a ridiculous term. She forced herself to concentrate on her work. Nothing was going to keep her from her goals. Certainly not some crazy physical reaction to one of the most attractive women she’d ever seen. Definitely not.

 

Chapter Three

Jess jumped when her office door swung open suddenly. She had managed to wade through four meetings and a lengthy budget review with Yolanda, so it was no wonder she’d lost track of the time. Skylar carried an armload of papers balanced precariously on her laptop. Jess stood and watched in amusement as she looked expectantly and then nervously at Jess.

“Is it not okay to come in?” Skylar froze and then took a step back toward the entryway, clearly anticipating some direction.

“It’s absolutely okay. Pick a spot.” She gestured to the conference table and waited for her to take one of the seats. Before Jess could make space for her, Skylar had already chosen one of the guest chairs in front of her desk and was arranging her files on the opposite side of Jess’s meticulously organized desktop. This was a very different woman from the Skylar she’d spoken to downstairs. Focused, confident, and not the least bit nervous.

“We could use the conference table, you know.” Jess watched her deliberate movements, mildly entertained.

“No, I’m fine here. I read that people are supposed to absorb information better across a desk; less casual but more productive.”

Jess fought the tug of a smile pulling against the corners of her mouth. She again took her seat and studied the woman in front of her. She idly considered that she seemed remarkably efficient and ragingly haphazard simultaneously.

Suddenly Skylar launched into what sounded like a prepared address without preamble. Her delivery was slightly nervous, but she was decidedly prepared.

“I have found a lot of areas that need improvement.” Her words were rushed and clipped. “Anyway, I thought it best to bring them to your attention as soon as possible so you can make the necessary adjustments.”

“I’m never going to have to wonder what you’re thinking, am I?” Jess smiled at her, trying to compel her to relax. Skylar offered a thin smile but immediately returned her eyes to the documents she was pushing in front of her.

“Sorry, one of my flaws, I guess.” Skylar didn’t look at her.

“Not a flaw. Refreshing, actually.” Jess took in the way Skylar scraped her teeth over her thin lips between sentences, an apparent nervous habit.

“Okay. Then let’s get right to it. I assume you’ve reviewed my analysis and projections for next year?” Skylar didn’t bother to wait for a response. “If so, I’m sure you saw the savings we could expect in just the first quarter with my proposed plan.” Skylar plucked at her shirt collar as she spoke.

When Jess didn’t respond right away, Skylar looked up and stared at her as if she had said too much or done something wrong. “I just assumed you would want an explanation of how I arrived at that conclusion.”

“I did. And I do. I know I’m bleeding operational costs and I need to bring my bottom line into the realm of normalcy. I’m hoping your fresh eyes might do that.” Jess watched Skylar rush to rearrange her reports and perhaps her thoughts. She saw a mottled color assault the pale skin at her throat. She looked like she was at ease when she consulted documents, but her constitution changed when Jess made any eye contact. Why did mountains of complicated figures she’d only worked with for weeks seem to come so easily to her and their simple personal exchange seem to unnerve her? It was intriguing, to say the least.

Skylar whipped out a chart and handed Jess a color copy, pointing at the first column with her pencil.

“To begin with, you were ridiculously heavy on operations staff and irresponsibly understaffed in Human Resources. From what I understand,” she pointed the lead at another wedge on the chart, “HR was using two or three temps a week, just to meet the demands here, let alone the operations elsewhere, like the print shop and in the field.”

“Okay.” Jess listened carefully as Skylar rapidly fired off issues and subsequent solutions, twisting her thick blond waves into fat columns as she spoke.

“Any accounting professional worth her salt should have seen that before I came here and reallocated those resources.”

“I agree.” Jess laid the papers she had been handed back on her desk. “We had some difficulty filling this position before you came.” Her intent was to be vague. The whole situation had tilted the balance Ivan Associates had enjoyed for years. People left the company because they were ready for retirement or they passed on, never because they were fired for subversive behavior or dishonesty.

“Yes. The last placement beat me out for this job, as I understand.” Skylar looked up and met Jess’s eyes. “If that sounded like sour grapes, it wasn’t meant to.”

“Clearly, we made a mistake. And by the way, I’m blaming Brett for that one. He made the final call.” Jess winced internally at pushing the blame onto someone else. Brett was a loyal employee and had been her father’s right hand for years. She was ultimately responsible for the employees she let in on her watch. Besides, she knew that Brett could have left long ago to start his own firm, and she was more than grateful for his loyalty.

Skylar seemed to relax, an amused grin playing on her lips. “It’s okay. You won’t regret this choice. I’m glad to be here.”

The declaration made Jess smile. “And we are happy to have you.” Jess leaned back against the chair. “So, what’s your plan?”

“Well, it’s more than a plan. I’m confident in my decisions, but I probably should have waited for permission to do what I’ve already done. I mean, I made some minor operational changes.” She bit at her bottom lip once again.

Jess studied the dark ring circling her watery green irises. She wondered if Sky’s mother had green eyes like that. Maybe her dad? Did she have equally attractive siblings? Why was she thinking about it? Why did she care, even remotely? Maybe she was tired. Really tired. She straightened and shook her head as if the action might clear it.

“Good. I like initiative. I love initiative that saves me money.” She pushed against the back of her chair again, and it reclined very slightly. Skylar looked somehow grateful for the increased distance and seemed to relax, if only slightly. Jess made a mental note to manage away the fear in Skylar’s demeanor until it was nonexistent.

Skylar took a deep breath and launched again. “So, I relocated some of the operations staff and I’m adding duties for Toni Starr because, quite frankly, project data entry may not be her forte. I also want to start entering some invoices myself for a few cycles just to see how long it takes. Then we can decide if we actually need to dedicate someone solely to that position again. We ended the contract term with the temp agency, so we can see where we actually need resources.

“This way, I, um, estimate savings over the next month or so at $25,000.” She began to rattle off other changes and tied each to a dollar savings at the end.

“Wow, I’m impressed.” Jess straightened and locked her fingers across her knee.

“Don’t be. It’s my job.” Skylar’s reply sounded curt and she rushed to soften it. “I mean, I think we can do more, and I’m glad that I get the opportunity. I’m just happy Pam Landry wasn’t here long enough to do too much damage.”

“Me too, frankly.” Jess continued, “You don’t have any reason to be nervous about making changes without permission. And if it makes you feel any better, they look like decisions I would have made in your shoes.” Jess pushed back from her desk again, acutely aware of the intense energy still spilling off Skylar. “So, tell me why you wanted to work here. You applied twice, right?”

“Three times, actually. Then I read about Navigation House and I knew even more that I wanted to be part of a company that would be part of that. That’s all.” She pointed at a project Gantt chart, obviously trying to steer Jess’s attention back to her facts and figures.

“I’m glad you’re here. From what I hear, everyone else is, too.” Jess pulled the page toward her and began to scan it.

Skylar took a second and seemed to try to suppress a laugh. “Well, except for Toni Starr. Toni is very definitely nothappy. She told me you would be hearing from her personally.”

“Something to look forward to.” Jess smirked and raised an eyebrow casually at Skylar. “I don’t second-guess. If this is the right move, so be it.”

“Thanks for the backup. She’s one of our weakest players. To be honest, I’m not sure she’ll make it here much longer anyway. Regardless, I thought we should give her one last shot.”

“Your predecessor was responsible for that hire. Let’s hope she got one right.”

Skylar nodded and began collecting her things. She stacked files onto her notepad and dropped it all inside the worn lid of a copy paper box.

“We can get you a file bag or a cart if you want.” Jess nodded at the improvised file transportation device that was now wedged against Skylar’s hip.

Skylar shifted the box top and peered around the edges as if assessing the job it was doing.

“As you can imagine, I’m particularly careful about spending money unnecessarily. And this works just fine, thank you.”

Jess wondered if Skylar might have borrowed her dull brown suit from her older, heavier sister. Despite its unflattering fit, Jess could see a trim figure under the extra fabric and silently scolded herself for noticing.

As she pulled the door open to leave, Skylar turned and looked behind her. “Thanks for the opportunity. Truly.”

The door closed before she could respond, and she saw Skylar stride quickly across the bullpen to her office. She drained a few remaining sips from her mug and headed for the coffee machine in the hall. As she walked back to her desk, Toni Starr marched quickly into her office behind her, not waiting for an invitation.

“Hi, Toni,” Jess said, watching her warily.

Toni planted her hands firmly on her hips. Since Jess had been forewarned the encounter was coming, her demeanor wasn’t unexpected.

“What can I do for you, Toni?” Jess spoke with a brisk tone she hoped would encourage a succinct conversation.

“Actually, I think I may be able to do something for you.” She swung her long auburn hair in a way that was meant to look natural, but instead looked rehearsed.

“Yeah? And what would that be?” Jess moved casually to stand near the open door and a more comfortable distance from the twenty-two-year-old in painted-on black pants and a hot pink knit top that clashed gaudily with her hair.

“You know how much I love it here, right?”

Jess studied her. She had probably had no more than two conversations of any length with her in the six months she’d been there, yet she was talking like they had intimate knowledge of one another.

“Glad you do. We’re happy to have you.” Jess fibbed just a bit.

“So, I think there might be someone here now who is changing too much of, well…who we are.” She clearly expected Jess to inquire about the identity of such a person.

“Can you be more specific?” She didn’t really need her to, but Jess was mildly entertained. She endeavored to straighten the cuffs of her shirt beneath her jacket sleeves instead of watching the woman formulate her story. She relied heavily on her intuition and she didn’t trust her.

Toni pushed her chest out and smoothed the low-cut shirt slightly lower as she walked toward her. Jess took a step back.

“Well, I’ve been doing the data entry for the projects since I got here, and I really know what I’m doing, y’know? Pam trained me how to make sure that all the expenses and invoicing get put in correctly.” Toni placed her hand on Jess’s arm briefly for emphasis. “I know that everything needs a project code or the totals for the job won’t be right. But now that new woman is changing everything, and everyone’s a little pissed. We were finally getting back to normal from Pam leaving, and now this. I’m afraid there might be a mutiny coming.”

Jess moved out of touching range and stepped back toward the door when she heard Yolanda tapping up the steps. Jess was growing slightly uncomfortable and briefly considered needing a witness.

She sent a silent message to Yolanda, who glanced in as she was about to pass, and she simply nodded knowingly and busied herself at the coffee station. Jess turned back to Toni.

“Hmm. I have to say that this is the first negative word I’ve heard about Skylar. Are you sure everyone is as upset as you are?”

“Absolutely. They might not be as frank about it as I am, but I thought you needed to know.” Her wide-eyed attempt to appear the innocent messenger was almost comical.

Jess thought “frank” and “mutiny” seemed unlikely to be part of her daily vocabulary and wondered briefly if she’d planned the conversation ahead of time or had some coaching.

“Yes, of course I do. And I’ll look into it.” Jess leaned against the doorframe, hands firmly in both pockets.

“Do you think you could tell her to leave my responsibilities as they are? Please?” She dragged out the “please” to dramatic lengths and walked again toward Jess. “You won’t regret it.”

Jess wasn’t good at detecting flirting, but she was fairly sure that this wasn’t anything to do with her and everything to do with Toni getting what she wanted.

Jess adeptly walked backward and into the hallway, compelling the young woman to follow. “I’ll look into it, as I said. Who do you think I should I talk to first?”

“I don’t know, any of the people she’s been jerking around, I guess.” Her voice turned dramatically cooler. Jess assumed it was because she hadn’t reacted to her earlier ploys, but Toni seemed to catch herself, possibly since Yolanda had turned from the coffeepot and was looking directly at her, eyebrows raised. “I mean, I’m sure everyone is pissed off. I really am good with my job as it is.”

“Duly noted, Toni. Thanks for stopping by.” Jess soundly disengaged while she walked away and directly toward Yolanda’s guest chair. She could hear the click of Toni’s boots on the cement stairs as she retreated.

Yolanda, now seated behind her desk, held up a finger indicating that Jess shouldn’t break her current train of thought as she made a note on a pile of invoices. After a few final scribbles on the bright yellow squares, she sat heavily and spun her chair to face Jess.

“Yes, dear?” She batted her dark eyes at her boss with comic emphasis.

Jess laughed.

“So, what do you think about how Skylar is doing?” Jess started to place her cup on the desk just as Yolanda managed to whip a coaster between the cup and the wood. She shot her a scolding glance that Jess pretended to ignore.

“The whole office loves her. Kyle wants her nominated for some sort of medal, and even I’ve wanted to buy her lunch a few times.”

Jess smiled. “She seems to be making some pretty sound decisions from a numbers perspective.”

“Please tell me you aren’t entertaining one word No Talent Nancy has to say.” Yolanda tapped a pen against her cheek while she spoke.

“Let’s just say it was a not-so-complimentary visit.”

Yolanda rolled her eyes. “I heard.” She scowled as she spoke. “She’s just pissed she can’t make a pass at Skylar to get her way.”

“She makes passes at people?” Jess caught her voice rising in surprise.

“Well, she certainly tries to flirt. Brett’s always easy and must not know how dumb he looks. Pam even fell for it a couple of times, and I’m pretty sure she was straight.”

“As a representative from the non-straight side of things, we certainly hope she’s one of yours.” Jess hated the culture that gave women any sort of leg up for, well, putting a leg up. The world of business was seedy enough.

Yolanda chuckled. “Just so you know, we aren’t so happy having her over on our side either. Regardless, I think Skylar is the shot in the arm we all needed around here. Toni has no idea what she’s talking about.” She waved her hand dismissively.

“Give it to me straight next time, ’Landa. You’re so indirect.” Jess laughed, and Yolanda flashed her trademark grin, which made her dimples even deeper in her smooth ebony skin. She held out a stack of manila folders with instructional tape flags attached to each one indicating where Jess should put her signature or just her initials.

“Funny. Now go sign those papers so I can get out of here on time tonight. Frank is making homemade pasta, and he even promised to do the dishes afterward.”

“Nice.” Jess took the stack from her hands. “I know you could probably run this place without me, but I’d rather think you need me just a little.”

“Of course I do. Billy Ivan built this company, but his daughter makes it sing. Remember that, Jess.” She glowed when she offered a genuine smile. Her dimples showed themselves once again.

“I love you for that, Yo.” She looked affectionately at her longtime employee she now considered a close friend as well.

“Back at you, Ivan.”

The genuine fondness between them was grounding and had been obvious since the day they met. Ever since her father died, Jess had gratefully journeyed down the rocky road of California commercial real estate with Yolanda at her side. Brett was a business guru who made decisions with his brain. Yolanda allowed Jess to think with her heart.

Jess saluted and tucked the files under her arm on the way back to her office. She glanced down at the bullpen and saw Skylar arranging her own files into tidy piles on her desk. She stared at Skylar for a moment and thought she might just be the one to get Ivan Associates firmly back on a profitable track.

 

v

 

At five p.m. Jess began to assemble her agenda for the morning when Yolanda slipped inside her office.

“Hey, boss? I think I’m going to take off a tiny bit early. It looks like dinner is off. Macy hasn’t healed from her surgery as well as she should have, so we’re going to take her back to the vet.”

“Just so you know, five p.m. isn’t early, Yolanda. How old is that cat, anyway?”

“Twenty-two and a half.”

“That is really old for a cat, ’Landa.” Jess knew the family worshipped the ancient gray feline.

“Don’t talk about Mace that way. She doesn’t believe that she has left kittenhood, and I’m not about to be the one to tell her.”

Jess laughed and considered the family they had built there, mostly together. She thought her father would be proud of where his company was now.

“Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you, Whitney called and said she had tried you on your cell three or four times this afternoon, but you weren’t answering.”

“Damn it.” Jess opened her top drawer and palmed her phone. “I left it on vibrate from the meeting this morning. Thanks for the heads-up. I appreciate it. Sorry about the interruption.”

“No worries. She’s always nice.” The door shut again.

Jess hit Return Call and started talking from the moment Whitney picked up. “I know, I know. I’m sorry. The day got away from me.” Jess pushed work into her laptop case. “Can I take a rain check? I really need to finish up here, and I’m honestly exhausted from today. I don’t think I would be very good dinner company.”

“I think you’re always good company, babe.” Whitney sighed into Jess’s ear.

“Thanks, but I’ll make it up to you. Let’s do it tomorrow?” Jess had no intention of going out to dinner this late.

“Sure, no problem.” Whitney sounded disappointed, but Jess would never apologize for doing her job to the best of her ability, even if it meant someone else had to take a back seat occasionally. She owed it to her father and the forty people who counted on IA paychecks to survive.

She dragged herself out of her chair an hour later and glanced down at the bullpen where a solo light was shining from the finance manager’s office. She locked her door and was two steps from the parking lot when she turned around and found herself moving toward Skylar’s office.

 

v

 

Skylar rubbed her eyes and saw Jess jogging down the steps across the bullpen. Skylar thought she still looked pressed and polished considering the late hour, a stark contrast to what she was sure was her own wilted and weary presentation.

Everyone talked about the CEO’s penchant for fast living and beautiful women, but she had seen Jess here at all hours and decided it was all misguided conjecture and perhaps a little envy. Although, given the way Jess looked even after a brutally long day, Skylar wouldn’t be surprised to know that women were attracted to her. She forced herself to stop staring and at least pretend to concentrate on her spreadsheets.

“Don’t burn out before your probation is up, Skylar.”

Jess’s smile was a welcome interruption, but Skylar could finally see a little crack in her normally polished persona. She could tell her boss was also trying to fight the exhaustion of a long day.

Skylar smiled and stifled a yawn. “I think I’m about at capacity, truth be told. I’m headed out myself.”

“I’ll wait, and we can walk out together.”

Skylar nodded and powered off her monitors, searching in vain for business-relevant topics she could manage in the two-minute walk to the car. She grabbed her satchel from the floor and followed Jess.

Skylar was grateful that Jess didn’t speak or seem to expect her to, as they walked to the only two remaining cars in the dark parking lot.

“See you in the morning?” Skylar asked.

“Actually, I have a meeting in the city, but after that, I’ll be in. Let’s get together in a couple of days and check in?”

“Afraid I’m going to piss off Toni again?” Skylar offered in an uncharacteristically playful way and noticed that Jess seemed grateful for a relaxed rapport with her.

“Oh, I’m positive that’s going to happen.” Jess sent her a sarcastic smile and made Skylar laugh, breaking through her haze of exhaustion.

“Fair enough. See you tomorrow.”

Jess clicked the unlock button and fell into the driver seat, sitting still until Skylar was safely in her own car. She waved and pointed her little gray Mercedes toward the city.

Skylar tapped the steering wheel of her choking Honda Accord, praying it wouldn’t pick today to act up, not in front of her new boss. “Come on, Betty, it’s not that far. You can do it.” Betty sputtered to life and, she was afraid, polluted most of Alameda County in the process.