Now and Then – Chapter 1
The color blue had a bad rap, Emma Carson decided as she pulled her paintbrush away from the canvas, studying it. Sure, blue symbolized feeling, well … blue, but painting with it always reminded her of a clear summer sky, full of promise. Few colors could convey such a wide range of emotions just based on shade. Pale blue felt light and serene. Bright blue was bold and striking.
The insistent blare of a car horn outside snatched her back to reality, and Emma turned toward the clock, groaning when she saw how late it was.
Shit. Painting before work isn’t a good idea.
She slipped into her shoes and grabbed her bags, cursing the deadbolt that only stuck when she was trying to open it in a hurry.
Halfway down the final flight of stairs from her third floor apartment, she realized she’d forgotten her phone. She glanced at her watch, swore under her breath, and raced back up.
Her heels pounded loudly on the wood stairs while she fished through her purse for her keys. Lipstick, beaten-up paperback, the paintbrush she’d lost … a spoon? And finally, the keys.
“Vincent, move!” she ordered the gray cat that headed for her ankles when she pushed the door open. He gave her a look of feline indignation and stalked away. Emma dug through a scattered pile of paperwork on her kitchen counter, pushing aside a stack of folded laundry and vowing to clean her apartment that night.
No phone. She shook her head with frustration at how utterly and completely reliant she was on the thing. Her train left in seven minutes, and running — in heels — was the only way she’d make it. If she didn’t fall and break any bones on the way.
“The charger!” she cried, running to her bedroom and sighing with relief when she saw her phone at the end of its plug on her bedside table. She swiped it and ran for the door.
By the time she made it down all three flights of stairs for the second time, a layer of sweat coated her skin. She held her bag against her body, preparing to break into a run, when her phone sang out the melody that signified a call from her sister. She rolled her eyes as she pressed it to her ear.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Why didn’t you answer the first time I called?” Layla demanded.
“I don’t know. I might have been asleep, or maybe because I forgot my phone and had to go back for it.”
“Are you running? You sound out of breath.”
“Yes, I’m running,” Emma clipped. “I’m super late and I’m about to miss my train.”
“Em, you need a fucking car. I don’t know how you survive in this city without one.”
“Well, graphic designers make less money than attorneys, Layla. I can’t afford a car.”
“Did you oversleep again?”
“Kind of. I meant to get up earlier, and then I started painting and I lost track of time … excuse me!” Emma called to a cluster of people blocking the sidewalk as she dashed past.
“I’ve been up for four hours. I did a spin class at five and got to the office at seven.”
“That’s great, Layla. Is that what you called to tell me?”
“No. I was going to tell you about my date last night, since your love life exists vicariously through mine these days.”
“Can I … sorry. I’m sorry. Can I get by you?” Emma asked a couple in her path. “Shit, I’m gonna miss the train!”
“So I went out with Paul again, the guy I met at my gym. And it was okay, I guess. He’s not that deep, but he has an amazing body. I didn’t plan on sleeping with him, but we reached that point in the night where there was nothing left to talk about, and he gave me one of those expectant looks, so I said fuck it and slept with him–”
“Agh! No!” Emma cried, sprinting toward the closing train doors. She dove inside, pulling her laptop bag in behind her in the nick of time.
“You okay?” a silver-haired man asked, steadying her by the arm as she panted.
“Yeah…thanks,” she said.
“—sleeping together really implies exclusivity anymore, do you?” Layla continued. “I mean, it’s okay for me to still be seeing other people, right?”
“I think so,” Emma said, sinking into a train seat and pushing her long, dark hair out of her face. “But what’s the point? If you’re into him enough to sleep with him, why would you want to see anyone else?”
“You know why, baby sister. I’m not just dating, I’m interviewing. I will be married within the next two years and I haven’t met my husband yet.”
“Why does it matter if it happens within two years?” Emma asked, exasperated.
“Because of my list. I’m 26, and the list says I’ll be married by 28.”
The list. Emma rolled her eyes skyward at her sister’s mention of it. She had immortalized her life goals on a piece of Hello Kitty paper at the age of 16, and the tattered sheet was still stashed in her wallet.
“You just finished law school and started working. Give yourself time to settle in,” Emma said.
“The list hasn’t failed me yet. I have to go, I’ve got a meeting. Are we meeting for drinks tonight?”
“Have a good day, Em. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
She hurried off the train when the doors whooshed open, running the short distance to Wright Design. Just as she reached the front door of the tall downtown office building, her phone rang. Emma cringed when she saw her boss’ name, Aaron Wright, on the screen of her phone.
“Good morning, Emmaline.” His deep voice always sounded smug and a little too smooth.
“I can’t stand the thought of drinking the road sludge from that coffee machine in the break room. Can you stop by the place across the street and get me a large black coffee?”
“Sure,” Emma said, turning around.
“Make it snappy and I won’t even notice you’re late,” Aaron said. Emma didn’t have to see his face to know he was smirking. He often smirked from the oversize leather chair in his office while staring through the large glass wall that overlooked the open work area.
Emma forced a laugh as she ended the conversation, hurrying across the street to the chain coffee shop. It was a late summer day in downtown Chicago, still muggy but holding a promise of relief soon.
The coffee shop’s line of customers was long but moving quickly. Emma checked out news headlines on her phone while she waited, ordering her coffees when she reached the counter. She took in the deep aroma of the shop, intoxicated. While going to school in Paris, she’d become hopelessly addicted to good coffee. Good pastries were now a weakness too, but she was trying to resist them so she could lose the five pounds she’d put on in the past couple months.
“There you go,” a baseball-cap clad young woman said, pushing a carrying tray of two drinks over the counter.
“Thanks,” Emma said, sliding a bill into her tip jar. She balanced the drink tray in one hand while taking a sip of her latte.
She wove her way back through the long line of fellow caffeine addicts, her mind on the design samples she needed to finish. As she reached for the door, a hard shove in her back sent her lurching sideways, and with her hands full, she had no way to steady herself.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you,” a large man muttered as he exited the shop.
It happened in slow motion in her mind, but there was nothing she could do to stop it. The tray of coffee launched into the air before smacking into a bystander standing in line. Emma fell against him, squishing the tray of scalding brews between them.
She pulled her hot, wet shirt away from her chest, too embarrassed to look at the man she’d spilled into.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. God, I’m so sorry,” she said, wishing she could crawl into a hole as other patrons stared at them.
“It’s okay … Em?” he asked, disbelief etched on his face. Equally shocked, she stared into the gray-blue eyes that still captivated her, though she hadn’t seen them in years.