Champagne Kisses
Author:Krista Lakes
Synopsis:

Chapter 1

    Chapter 1

    Present Day

    The cursor blinked steadily on the laptop screen in front of me, but I barely saw the dark pixels repeatedly dimming against the stark whiteness. I couldn't focus on writing the memo Jack requested, or even the website I had up in the background. My thoughts weren't even organized or even actual thoughts; I was just letting nothingness sit in my brain. The blank thoughts were a pleasant respite from the emotions running through the house.

    A hand settling on my shoulder roused me from my silent thoughts. Jack Saunders, my boss and friend, gave me a small smile.

    "How's that memo coming, Rachel?" he asked.

    I sighed. "It's not. What did the doctor say?"

    Jack's face fell a little. He sat down at the kitchen table next to me and played with the edge of the big wooden table. I could have worked anywhere in the Saunders' mansion, but I preferred the kitchen's warmth and sunny feeling in the mornings. The big country-style table was comfortable and I could hear the sounds of the house without being disturbed. Big bay windows let in the morning sun, the leaves outside were just starting to turn orange and rust. I loved being in upstate New York in the fall.

    "It's not looking good. He says it's probably only a matter of days at this point." His voice stayed even, but the sharp lines of his tightened jaw betrayed his anguish. I reached over and put my hand on top of his, sharing his pain. His hazel eyes stared out the window, but I knew he wasn't looking at the trees. Jack and his father had played football under those trees. I could almost see them now, the older Saunders man chasing his eldest son around, the two of them laughing in the orange light.

    "Does Robbie know?" In my mind's eye, the younger brother joined Jack and his father. The two boys tackled the bigger man and all three of them rolled around in the leaves as their laughter echoed through the years. Although I was Jack's senior by sixteen years, they had occasionally let me join them. Jack and Robbie ran the ball against Daniel and I. Somehow, the boys always managed to win.

    "He knows it's bad," Jack said. "I tried to call him, but he won't answer and he ditched his security again. Probably out on his boat." Jack tried to keep the anger out of his voice. Even though the two brothers looked similar, tall with sandy brown hair and strong features, they couldn't be more different. Jack's devotion to the company his father had started was in sharp contract to Robbie, who wanted nothing to do with being responsible for anything more than his boat.

    "Don't be mad at him, Jack," I said. "This is hard for him, too," I said.

    Jack mumbled something about Robbie really needing to grow up. I sighed. This was a common source of tension between the two brothers. Jack had been groomed for responsibility from the day he was born, whereas Robbie had been mostly left to his own devices. I always got the feeling that Mr. and Mrs. Saunders just never knew what to do with Robbie. Now the owner and CEO of DS Oil and Gas, Jack ran it with a sure hand, while the tabloids portrayed Robbie as a drunken playboy who spent all his time sailing. I knew the two brothers loved one another, but their different priorities made it difficult for them to agree on anything.

    "Jack?" Emma's voice called from down the hallway. Jack straightened in his seat and turned as his beautiful wife entered the kitchen. "Jack, you left your phone in the study. It rang, so I answered for you. You're needed at the office."

    Jack's shoulders sagged. I knew the last place he wanted to be was at the office, but the company was his responsibility. Emma came behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, gently kissing his cheek. Her long, dark hair spilled across his shoulder as she loved on him. His lip twitched into a small smile after she whispered something in his ear. I honestly enjoyed watching them; I had witnessed their courtship from the day Jack had brought her to New York after meeting her on vacation.

    Emma and Jack had met on a tropical beach vacation a little over a year and a half before. Unknown to everyone in the Saunders' family, they had decided to get married on a beach just for fun. It was out of character for my usually pragmatic and responsible Jack, but he kept telling me it was an act of rebellion that wasn't supposed to have consequences. Since it wasn't a legal ceremony, it would have ended there, except the tabloids were given pictures. I had been up to my eyeballs trying to keep that from exploding into a PR nightmare.

    I hadn't been sure of Emma's motives when I flew out to Iowa to pick her up and bring her to New York for damage control, but she turned out to be genuinely warm and full of integrity. It was easy to love Emma. She was undemanding, and fell in love with Jack for Jack. She loved him for him, and not for his money. I couldn't have asked for someone better to be with the man I considered a little brother. I had cried tears of joy at their wedding, knowing their love story was one for the ages.

    "Do you need me to go with you?" I asked, mentally prepping the things I would need to get together for a trip into the city. I was Jack's personal as**sistant. His right hand man, so to speak. If he needed something done, I was the one he turned to. I had been looking after his interests since he was a boy.

    He shook his head. "No, we've been waiting on the new contracts from Dubai to come in. I just need to sign them and make sure they are correct. I would rather have you here, with Dad. If anything happens..."

    "Then Rachel and I will take care of things," Emma said. She kissed the top of his head, and he seemed to draw strength from her.

    "I'll make sure Raoul keeps the helicopter on standby for you," I said, pulling out my phone and typing messages that would alert his helicopter pilot and Jack's secretary to be readily available. If he needed to come home quickly, I wanted everything in place.

    "Thanks Rach." Jack took a deep breath and Emma untangled him from her arms as he stood. The world seemed to rest on Jack's shoulders as he looked out the window. Daniel Saunders' health had been failing for a long time. The speed at which the cancer spread had caught us all by surprise, and had caused the business to go into Jack's keeping earlier than expected. Despite having almost two years to prepare for his impending death, none of the Saunders family or staff was dealing with it well.

    Jack gave his shoulders a shake, settling the weight across them evenly and standing taller. He kissed Emma on the cheek and gave me a smile before heading to the helicopter pad on the far side of the house. Emma watched him walk away, her lips pressed together as he rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.

    "How are you doing?" Emma asked. She stood behind me, looking out the window, with her hands on my shoulders. "I know you and Daniel are close."

    I pressed my palms into my cheeks and placed my elbows on the table. I was trying to ignore the horrible ache in my chest. Daniel Saunders was the closest thing to a father I ever had. He was the man I gave a card to on Father's Day. He was the one who listened to my worries and ideas. He wasn't just the father of my boss; he was my friend. The thought that I was going to lose him terrified me.

    Emma rubbed my back gently, small soothing circles as I swallowed down a sob. She didn't say anything, just kept the comforting circles going on my back. I didn't want to cry. Crying meant it was real and I didn't want that. Emma gave me a small squeeze.

    "Never mind, then," she said. I could feel her bright green eyes studying me for a moment. "Would you like some good news to cheer you up? I've felt strange telling anyone with everything going on, but I think it might make you feel better."

    I nodded, concentrating on her voice. An uneasy tension permeated the house since Daniel took to his bed. It took an incredible amount of energy to keep walking on the invisible eggshells, and despite Daniel's pleas to lighten up, it felt sacrilegious to laugh or do anything normal with the death of a man we all loved looming over us. I decided I could use a little good news.

    Emma's joyful grin infused her voice as she spoke. "Kaylee's pregnant."

    My face split into a grin. Kaylee, Emma's older sister, had recently found love. Owen had been Jack's vice president of fuel marketing until he quit to be with Kaylee. I hadn't spent much time with Kaylee, other than at Emma's wedding and a shopping trip, but I had a gut feeling that she would be be a wonderful mother. I was more excited for Emma, enjoying her joyfulness at being an aunt.

    "How is she handling it? Especially since she and Owen are running that bed and breakfast." It felt good to talk about something that didn't affect me.

    Emma laughed. "Like she handles everything. Perfectly. She says the nausea isn't so bad, and Owen has been taking care of the bed and breakfast side of things. They are pretty much perfectly happy."

    "Good. I like knowing someone is happy." I really liked the warm, fuzzy feeling knowing someone's world was working out the way it should. "When is she due?"

    "Late April. They've known for a little while, but they wanted to make sure before they told anyone. My parents are so crazy excited. It's all they talk about now. I'm just nervous they are going to start asking me when I'm going to give the little bean some cousins." Emma's nervous expression at the future question made me smile.

    "Yeah, when are you going to get knocked up? I want to be Aunt Rachel." I gave her an evil grin. I knew Jack and Emma wanted to wait a little while to have kids, but it was too easy a target not to tease her.

    Emma gave me a playful push, and we both giggled softly in the kitchen. It felt good to smile, if just for a moment. A new life was always something to smile about.

    Footsteps entered the kitchen, and both our faces quickly schooled to reserved dignity. Emma turned and gave the source of the footsteps a welcoming smile, her shoulders relaxing as she recognized the intruder. I turned, and my shoulders tightened, butterflies suddenly dancing the mambo in my stomach. Seeing Dean always made my insides quiver like a teenage girl with a crush.

    Dean stood nonchalantly in the doorway. His worn leather jacket hung casually across comfortable jeans, his lithe muscled body giving the fabric beautiful contours. He looked relaxed, but I knew he was always working. His light blue eyes were always active, his muscles ready for anything. He took his job as Emma's bodyguard very seriously. He gave us both a smile as greeting.

    "Emma, will you be staying on the grounds for the rest of the evening? I saw the helicopter prepping and wanted to check with you." Dean gave his full attention to Emma. Since I was with Emma much of the time, it was often the three of us.

    "I'll be staying here." Her eyes grew big for a moment as she realized something. "Has Jack left yet? I wanted him to drop something important off at the office."

    Dean glanced at his watch. "If you hurry, you'll catch them. They're just finishing the flight plan and takeoff checklist."

    "Thanks, Dean. I'll be back in a bit, Rachel," Emma said. She touched my shoulder as she stood to go catch her husband. I hadn't expected her to become such a close friend, but I loved having her around. She kept herself busy managing a wildlife rehabilitation fund, but she loved it and it allowed her to work on a regular basis with Jack.

    Dean stepped out of the hallway to allow Emma to leave. She gave him a quick smile as she passed, hurrying up the stairs to fetch whatever it was she needed. I felt a quiver start in my stomach at the thought of being alone in a room with Dean.

    "I heard about Daniel," he said, stepping back into the kitchen. "How are you doing?"

    His blue eyes held genuine concern. I wished that he could just wrap me up in his strong arms and tell me everything was going to be okay. I wished that we could have a chance at being together, but I knew that just wasn't going to happen. For one moment, I just wanted my heart not to feel torn.

    "I'm okay. It doesn't feel real. I keep expecting him to bounce down the stairs with a naughty grin and tell us all that it was just an elaborate, horrible prank." I gave him a weak smile.

    I could see the hesitation in his body language. He wanted to come and comfort me, but we both knew that would be a bad idea. There was too much potential energy between us.

    "Did Emma tell you about Kaylee?" Dean asked. I wanted him to leave so that I didn't have to think about him, but I also really just wanted him to stay. He took a step closer to the table, leaning his tall frame against the empty chair Emma had been sitting in. I could barely smell his cologne, masculine and clean, from here. My heart started speeding up in my chest.

    "She did. You know Kaylee better than I do, but she seems like she will make a great mother." It still surprised me at how easy it was to talk to him. The few times we had been left alone together, Dean always outmaneuvered my initial awkwardness and made it easy to talk to him. The last time we had started talking like this, we ended up picking Emma up late because we lost track of time.

    He gave me one of his notorious smiles and nodded. "She is going to be great. Owen too."

    I brushed a strand of hair off of my cheek, suddenly feeling self-conscious about my appearances. I knew I shouldn't care, but I did. I wanted to say something incredibly witty and funny, something that would make him laugh and make his blue eyes sparkle. Just as I was about to speak, Dean's phone beeped.

    "Excuse me," he said, clicking the headset in his ear. He stepped out toward the hall, leaving me with my thoughts. I may have watched his as**s as he walked out, though.

    I could hear him in the hallway as Emma came back into the kitchen.

    "You should go talk to him," she said, sitting back down in her chair.

    "Daniel's awake? I didn't want to disturb him."

    Emma gave me an exasperated look. "Not Daniel. Dean."

    "Why would I want to do that?" I tried my best to sound aloof, but I could feel a blush starting to warm my skin.

    "Because, Ms. Blushy-Face, I see the way the two of you look at one another. I see the way his eyes gravitate to you when you walk in a room, the way you suddenly start blushing and fixing your hair whenever he's close. Anyone who knows you could see there is something between the two of you." She crossed her arms and gave me a look that dared me to deny it.

    "Emma, it can't happen. The Saunders have a strict no-dating policy between employees. It's a clause in our contracts." A clause Daniel made very clear to me when Dean was hired, I thought to myself. I crossed my arms and gave her a equally stubborn look. She rolled her eyes.

    "I'm sure Jack would give you an exemption from the policy if you asked," Emma answered.

    "It's in every employee's mandated contract. That's not something that Jack can change without approval from the board of directors. Even if he wanted to, Jack would have to jump through some serious hoops to do it, with no guarantee that the board will even allow it." I fiddled with the pad of paper on the desk next to my computer.

    Emma made an exasperated noise. "Rachel, it's obvious that the you two have feelings for one another. Screw the policy and follow your heart."

    I turned slowly and gave Emma my full attention. "That is a sweet and romantic notion, but it isn't a feasible one. We breach our contracts, and we'd never be hired in this town again. My non-disclosure agreement would make it impossible for me to switch clients, and Dean's considered a 'loose cannon', especially after the incident protecting your sister in Dubai. If he was fired for messing around with the boss's personal as**sistant, he would be un-hireable, regardless of the reason. That's not a risk that either one of us is willing to take."

    Emma pouted her lips. I knew she would be contemplating a way around our employee contracts, but I wasn't going to try and stop her. I hoped she would just forget the whole thing and let Dean and me handle this ourselves. Despite our "obvious attraction", what we were doing was working. It involved a lot of ignoring one another and simply making sure we didn't put ourselves in tempting positions. It had worked so far.

    "Fine. I get it. You signed a contract, and losing your job is a bad thing." Emma glared at me, but I held firm. This wasn't something she could change. It was how it was.

    "Thank you. I know you mean well, but just leave it alone, please." I gave her a serious look. She sighed and nodded.

    "I won't press it again. I'll let you get back to work. I'll see you at dinner, though, right?" Emma gave me a hopeful smile. I nodded. Everything was back to normal.

    Emma wandered out of the kitchen, and I could hear the stairs creak as she made her way up to the guest room she used as an office when she stayed out here. I turned back to the computer screen, the blank page still mocking me. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and then tried to dive into my work and forget the way Dean's eyes crinkled when he smiled.