Eight years ago, he fell in love with a stranger he couldn’t have—today, she’s back in his life and the sparks between them threaten to set her career on fire.
Pearl Harris has learned the hard way to be careful in work and in love. She has the chance to make lasting change at OurCode—a nonprofit aimed at inspiring high schoolers to code—but a recent scandal puts its reputation at risk. Further complicating things, Pearl didn't expect the one man she never stopped thinking about to join as the newest member of her board of directors.
Cord Matthews fell for Pearl when they met in an elevator eight years ago. She’s just his type: smart, capable, and makes him laugh, but when she broke his heart, he decided love wasn't for him. When they reconnect after years with no contact, Cord is tempted to consider breaking his ban on serious relationships. But going public with a romance between them might derail Pearl’s career and the progress she’s made at OurCode.
While Pearl and Cord are both hesitant to trust their feelings and take a risk, it soon becomes impossible to keep ignoring the electricity between them. Cord is a skilled programmer, but a workplace romance might spell disaster for both of themand love isn’t easily debugged.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Five Years Earlier
When she walked out the door, the scent of her lingered in the air like a reminder of the what-ifs burrowing into my head, and I stared at the set of house keys on my desk. The two identical cuts sat side by side, the light reflecting on the surface of the metal. Since Pearl had made her choice, I needed to let her walk away and set off on the path she'd chosen. I needed to give up on all the nights under the stars, and the feel of her skin dusted with sand, and my pathetic heart. I knew that, but I was still on my feet and halfway to the door before the sound of her heels on the tile had faded.
"Wait," I called out. The overhead lighting against the dark sky outside the office windows was like a muted spotlight making the white of her shirt that much brighter against her skin. Her gaze had traveled back down the hall toward my door, and our eyes met for an instant. "Pearl. Wait."
At my approach, she turned, giving me her back and a view of the nape of her neck, the soft and supple skin I'd wanted to kiss a hundred times. "I don't think we have anything else to say to each other."
My instinct was to step back, to walk away and let her go. But damnit, this was Pearl. I shifted so I was close enough to feel the warmth of her body and waited for her to pull away. I was basically asking for the pain of more rejection, but then she shifted toward me, one tiny, incremental movement, and I slid my fingertips down her biceps, the contact between us like a thousand micro shock waves on my skin. "Will you look at me?" I didn't stop the slide of my fingertips over her arms. "Please."
Her eyes met mine and held when she turned to face me, resignation in her voice. "What's left to say?"
"I just want to know one thing," I said. A crease settled between her brows and I gently wrapped my hand around her wrist, raising it so we could both see her tattoo. "Your heart." I grazed my thumb across her wrist, pausing on the third star inked there. "If it spoke louder than your head, what would it say right now?"
"Cord, what does it matter?"
I lifted her wrist higher in response, breaking eye contact with her to examine the stars I'd memorized while hoping for something more between us. "It matters to me." I spoke against the tattoo, my lips brushing over her skin, and I could feel the hitch of her breath.
"It doesn't matter what my heart would say, because . . ." Pearl brushed hair off my forehead, the contact making me close my eyes for a second. This was the moment. This was our moment, and I didn't want to lose it. Behind her, the doors to the elevator opened, but she didn't move as we continued to search each other's faces. The words hung between us, unfinished, while she brushed the same spot again and then slid her fingers into my hair. "Because my heart is unreliable."
Our lips were a breath apart in the empty lobby, but the whole space felt full, full of everything I knew we both wanted, everything we could be. My voice was low when I spoke. "Nothing about you is unreliable." I drew her closer, and the soft way she leaned into me felt both familiar and brand-new.
"I should listen to my head." She stepped back, not letting go. "I need to listen to my head."
With her back against the wall, I inched closer, my hand now firmly at her waist. "But what would your heart say?" Pearl wore delicate diamond studs that gently scratched my lip when I spoke near her ear. "Because it should get a say."
"Cord . . ." She let my name hang there. I don't know if she moved first or I did, but then our mouths met, lips and tongues melding in the way I'd imagined for so long. The kiss deepened, and my whole body reacted to every move of her soft lips. The way she held me, fingers digging in, made me feel claimed in the best way.
"Don't go," I panted, breaking the kiss and then taking her mouth again, holding her lower back to pull her flush against me. When she rocked her hips, soft meeting hard, I groaned, needing more. "Stay with me." I trailed my lips down her jaw before finding her lips again, my palm at her neck to hold her to me.
Pearl deepened the kiss, her fingers in my hair like an answer, but then she stepped back, eyes wide and the pulse in her neck throbbing. "It's too risky." She fumbled behind her and pushed the down button as I regained my senses.
"What? No. I don't understand." My heart pounded, and I shook my head as if rebooting this moment.
When the doors opened behind her, I thought about reaching out, of pulling her back into the kiss, but she'd stepped out of reach on purpose. "If I could put heart first for anyone, Cord, it would have been you." She took two steps backward into the waiting car.
"But . . . but it can be me." I wished I had more practice fighting, because I wanted to fight for her, get her footsteps to move toward me and not away, but my head still spun from that kiss. "You can put your heart first with me right now."
"It's not what I need. I don't want . . . I can't want this. You know I can't." Pearl shook her head as the doors began to close. "But I wish I could."
By the time I lunged forward, my brain connecting with my body, the doors had shut and I was left in the empty lobby, with the imprint of her kiss on my lips and every muscle in my body poised to follow her and fight for this. But she didn't want to fight, and she was already gone. Still, I waited for the doors to open, holding my breath in hopes she'd change her mind.
I waited a long time, staring at my warped reflection in the elevator doors before deciding I would never wait like that again and never put myself in a situation where I wanted to.
As I flipped over my phone, the thin gold bracelet on my wrist caught the light, the chain cutting through the four small stars tattooed on my wrist.
Shea: Show me the dress.
Pearl: I'm not taking a selfie. I'm in the middle of the first big social event of my career.
Shea: I know you look bangable.
Pearl: Bangable isn't my aim. I'm working right now.
Shea: Your aim lacks creativity. This is why I'm the fun sister.
I brushed my fingers against the smooth satin of the gold floor-length gown before slipping my phone into my clutch and closing it with a gentle, satisfying snap. The wash of the cool breeze from the air-conditioning swept over the exposed skin at my back, and I straightened at the prickling sensation. The room swirled with people, and before I stepped back into the hall, I surveyed the countless donors and supporters in formal wear.
On the far side of the room, Ellie Dawson laughed with a trio of people in their seventies. The two of us had started in our new roles a few weeks earlier, and I knew in the coming years we'd compete to secure a promotion to director when the current director retired. After five years in California, I'd come back to Chicago for the right job and to leave the wrong man. Ironic, since what I thought was the right job took me to the West Coast in the first place, even though it had been impossibly hard to leave. Now I was focused on OurCode. Taking another deep breath, I reminded myself that this was the job. After everything I'd gone through to get to this point, this room and these new faces were an essential part of my next steps, and I couldn't afford for anything to distract me.
I stepped inside and reviewed my game plan for the evening, particularly who I was supposed to connect with based on our pre-gala preparations. OurCode, like other programs designed to encourage kids with traditionally marginalized identities to take an interest in coding and careers in tech, had support across the industry and a solid reputation. The assembled crowd had paid a thousand dollars a head to attend and would donate more to support the program's expansion to serve more kids in more ways. That expansion was a priority for the board and my boss, Kendra, and the gala was going to be the launching pad for our new plans. I scanned the room for Kendra again. It was odd that she hadn't arrived yet.
"Pearl, a minute?" The chairperson of the OurCode board touched my elbow. Kevin wore a tux, his entire look put together, except for a deep crease between his brows. He was also the CEO of Kaleidescape, a cybersecurity company whose stock had risen fast, and he wore a harried expression on his face.
He waved Ellie over as well, and we walked toward a corner of the ballroom, where he waved off any pleasantries. "Kendra isn't coming tonight."
To my right, Ellie stilled, her shock seeming to register along with mine. "What?" and "Why?" came from us at the same time.
"I can't get into the details for legal reasons, but she has resigned from OurCode, effective immediately." Kevin's tone was hushed, and both of us leaned forward.
"She quit?" Ellie's voice was a hiss, and she shook her head as if trying to slot the new information into existing grooves in her brain.
The impatience that bled into his tone made it clear he wasn't planning to give us any further information. "She is no longer affiliated with the program."
I intentionally took a slow breath before speaking, the combined weight of the bodies behind us suddenly making me feel claustrophobic. "There are hundreds of people here expecting to learn about the future of the program. We arranged everything around Kendra making those announcements. What are we going to do?" In my head, I pictured the detailed plans we'd spent weeks on, the speech we'd crafted, the hours spent toiling over the right wording and how to frame the strategic goals.
"One of you will have to give the speech." He still looked like he'd rather be anywhere else.
"That will raise red flags," Ellie said. "Can you do it as chair?"
Kevin ignored her question. "Neither of you knows the speech?"
My stomach dropped, and I pulled my sweaty palms away from the fabric of my dress. "I know the speech, but . . ."
"Okay, well, Pearl, you do it. Come Monday, we'll figure the rest out. You can do it, right?"
I glanced to my left, expecting Ellie to step in, to take the spotlight, but she'd literally taken a step back, so I returned my gaze to Kevin. "I could, but wouldn't it be better coming from you or another board member?" Or someone who isn't petrified by the idea of standing on a stage.
He glanced over my shoulder, a polished expression returning to his features when he made eye contact with someone else. "I'm sure you'll be fine." He held up a hand to whoever had caught his eye. "We'll touch base afterward. Excuse me."
He left us standing in unsteady silence, and Ellie turned to me. "What the hell just happened?"
Just me volunteering to speak in front of three hundred people because our boss is mysteriously gone. I took another quick breath, knowing I didn't get to lose it, not in this space and not in this room.
Ellie's tone was doubtful, and I realized our moment of shared uncertainty was already over. "Are you sure you can give the speech?"
Even though I wasn't, her tone irked me. "I don't have a choice." And it's not like you stepped up. I gave her a slight smile and searched the stage for the notebook containing a printout of the speech along with reference materials. That notebook contained everything I'd need to cram before getting onstage and coming face-to-face with my fear of public speaking, and I reluctantly left Ellie to mingle with donors while I prepared.
Once I sat backstage with the binder, I let myself freak out, now that there was no one around I needed to think I was bulletproof. I'd never been one to let my guard down at work, certainly not in this new position. The only time I had was when I worked at FitMi, and even then, it was really just with one person.
Cord's face filled my mind. His sable-brown eyes and long lashes-lashes many people would kill for-and his hair that was always a little too long, falling over his face and tempting me to brush it back, the wayward strands begging for my fingers. He could have been the right man for me in a different universe. Cord told me once that he'd give me a sign if he was in the room and I had to do something hard. He'd met my eyes and told me I could speak directly to him, and he'd be smiling. I sipped from my glass of wine and grinned at the memory. He'd been so sure that if I ever had to be on a stage, he'd be there to support me. That was when the idea of us as a couple was a fantasy I only allowed myself to entertain when there was time to wrestle my heart and imagination back under control. That was before there was a real chance and then a real choice. And it was before I made that choice.
He'd been my boss, then we'd been friends, and one night, I'd given in to the urge to brush the hair off his face, and we'd almost been so much more. Now he was nothing, and we hadn't spoken in years. I let my eyes fall closed, the sounds of the hum of conversation and smatterings of laughter rising over the din of the bustling hall. They were all going to be staring at me. My neck heated, and the dress felt too small, but there was no choice-I couldn't go back to Kevin and tell him I couldn't do it or that I was scared.
I opened my eyes and read through the speech again, even though I didn't need to. I'd written it and practically had it memorized. I did not know what would happen in the organization without Kendra, but three weeks into a new job, I didn't intend to be the weak link. Ellie was hoping I'd at least stumble, giving her the upper hand.