“You’re late,” a familiar voice croaked.
Mary looked up from her phone. “I know,” she sighed. “I barely got any sleep.”
Willie placed his elbows on the counter of the small coffee stand. “For a good reason, I hope,” he said teasingly. “Went on a hot date or something?”
Mary was tucking her phone away and glanced up in surprise. It took her a moment to understand what he was implying.
“No!” she blurted out, a blush creeping up her neck.
Willie laughed and straightened. “I’ll get your coffee going. The usual?”
“Yes, please,” Mary replied, narrowing her eyes at him.
“What kept you awake?” he asked, pulling out the portafilter from the espresso device.
Mary glanced left and right. There was no one in line behind her and most people hurried by, eager to get to the subway.
“I worked late,” she said. “Plus, I need to have a word with one of my team members and I kept thinking about how to handle that.”
Willie wrinkled his nose, sliding the filter with fresh grounds back into the espresso machine. “What did he do?”
Mary readjusted her wool hat so that it covered her ears fully. It was freezing cold. “He forgot to order raspberry syrup,” she said with a shy smile, fully aware it sounded silly. “For the third time.”
“I’d hire him,” Willie snorted. “That stuff doesn’t belong in anything.”
Mary blew out a breath, watching the tiny clouds float up. “Yes, yes, you’re a purist.”
Willie grabbed a cardboard cup from the shelf above his coffee maker. “How are things at the store?”
“Good, actually,” she said, bouncing on the balls of her feet to stay warm. “Busy! Especially for this time of the year.”
“So people actually order that raspberry stuff?” he quipped, handing her a small cup of espresso.
Mary accepted her drink and handed him three one dollar bills. “Yeah, the specials are really popular.”
“Huh,” Willie uttered, “People buy the weirdest things.”
“Told you, you should consider expanding your menu,” Mary replied jokingly.
He laughed. “People around here don’t like that stuff.” He pointed at Mary’s cup. “That’s as fancy as it gets.”
Mary smiled and sniffed her espresso. “Best coffee in town,” she admitted. “Don’t tell my boss I said that!”
“I thought you are the boss?” he chuckled, leaning on the counter again. His green scarf dangled from his neck.
“Not the big boss,” Mary explained after a sip of the piping hot coffee. “That would be Hannah ….”
She stopped when a man stepped next to her, asking for an espresso rather rudely.
Willie’s eyebrows shot up. “But of course,” he responded in a fake English accent. “Will get to your order straight away, sir.”
He glanced at Mary and winked. Mary rolled her eyes to let Willie know she agreed with him. This guy was an ass. Willie waved goodbye and went to work.
Mary glanced at her watch and cursed inwardly. If she wanted to get to the store in time, she would have to take the subway.
She had been looking forward to a brisk morning walk. After a long night of crushing numbers at home, Mary needed the fresh air to kickstart her brain.
“Fuck it,” she thought. “I’ll still be there before anyone else.”
She stepped up the pace, struggling to sip her espresso while walking so fast. She avoided bumping into other people, who were in an even bigger hurry, on autopilot.
Mary loved the morning hustle. She cherished her early adventures in the urban jungle of pedestrians, cyclists and honking taxies. It didn’t matter she hadn’t grown up here, this was definitely her home.
She could already see the Central Park entrance at the corner. Some runners, in bright outfits, were stretching by the gate, but fewer than usual.
She crossed the street and threw the empty espresso cup in a trash can. Mary had once seen her boss’s girlfriend walking out of the park here.
The memory kept popping up in her mind whenever she saw the gate. She blushed every time, feeling a bit guilty. She hated gossip and her boss’s love life provided plenty.
Everyone at Leroy Chocolates knew their CEO was dating an opera diva. It was hard to miss the pictures in the tabloids after all.
Mary didn’t like that some Leroy employees giggled and gossiped about it. She certainly did not put up with it at her own store.
That’s why she hadn’t told a soul about seeing Mildred North here early one morning. She didn’t want to add fuel to the office gossip fire. But the moment was hard to forget.
The dark-haired singer had walked past Mary, clearly catching her breath after a run. Her cheeks had been flushed, her forehead glistening with sweat.
The only reason Mary had recognized the diva was that, even in freakin fitness tights, she had an unmistakable air of grace around her. Mary had been a bit starstruck, to be honest.
She pushed the thought away. A grey squirrel ran in front of her over the dirt path. She hoped the little guy had a nice pile of nuts somewhere.
Thinking about piles of acorns reminded her, oddly, of the raspberry syrup problem at work. Mary really needed to address the stocking issue today.
Yesterday, the store had run out of crucial ingredients for the specials at the café again. Steven was in charge of ordering supplies and he had been failing miserably at anticipating what was needed.
She would call him into her office first thing, Mary decided. She hated having these conversations, but that didn’t mean she avoided them. Better to get it over with.
Mary hurried past the large pond. The place with the silly electronic boats for rent was still closed. The water had been frozen for weeks now.
Her own nose seemed to be heading in that direction as well. Her mind was clear, though. She was ready for another day at the chocolate store.
Once out of the park, Mary waved at the woman who unlocked the gate in front of the fancy purse store. She got a wave back, but not a very enthusiastic one.
“Someone’s grumpy today,” Mary murmured.
She started feeling around in her pocket for her store key when she remembered she no longer had it. HQ had installed a new system. She had to enter a code now.
“Alright,” Mary thought, excited to arrive at what she saw as her store. She knew it wasn’t really hers, of course. But, to Mary, the Leroy Chocolates store in New York City was her turf and her turf alone.
Two hours later, Mary knew the big boss had walked in before even laying eyes on her. She could always sense the staff getting nervous. Eyes widened, backs straightened.
She put down the list she had been inspecting with Steven. Her talk with him had gone well and they were now taking a look at the much-needed orders together.
Sitting at a table in the store’s café, Mary could see Vanessa, the girl behind the register, tuck a curl behind her ear nervously.
Mary followed Vanessa’s gaze and glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, there was Hannah Emsworth – Leroy, walking into the café.
Mary didn’t have an appointment with Hannah today, so she immediately wondered what was going on. Her boss smiled and stuck up 3 fingers in her direction, eyebrows raised quizzically.
Mary mouthed, “Okay, in 3 minutes” in response.
Hannah stuck her thumb up and walked to a table in the corner, warmly greeting someone she apparently had not expected to see here.
“How about you finish this and we’ll go over it later?” Mary suggested to Steven. He was staring at Hannah, his thin lips slightly parted.
Mary couldn’t blame him. Hannah always made a bigger than life impression. Her wavy, copper red hair alone was sufficient to make her stand out in any crowd.
For a brief moment, Mary felt extremely self-conscious. Her own run-of-the-mill, light brown hair was cut into a near shoulder-length style.
The suit Hannah was wearing was ridiculously well-fitted too, of course. Hannah’s outfits always were. Today’s color was glossy, navy blue.
Mary fidgeted with the small, silver earring in her right earlobe. She wished she had picked something else than dark jeans and a long silk, black blouse to wear today.
She pushed herself up, breaking the spell Steven seemed to be under. It annoyed Mary that he hadn’t even replied to what she had said.
“I need to talk to Hannah,” she sighed and left him sitting at the table.
Mary quickly descended the stairs, crossed the shop and pushed her badge up against an electronic lock. She entered the employees-only area. Her small office was immediately on the right.
She plopped down behind her desk and opened her laptop, intent on getting some work done until Hannah saw fit to come down here and talk to her.
Much to her surprise, she didn’t even get to the end of the first email before a confident voice broke the silence.
“Good morning,” Hannah purred.
Mary arched an eyebrow. Hannah seemed to be in a suspiciously good mood. “Hey, Hannah.”
“I know,” her boss replied, stepping into the room with her hands in the air. “You don’t like surprise visits.”
Mary shifted in her seat. “That’s not true.”
Hannah chuckled and closed the door behind her. “I can tell. Your face.” She pointed at Mary and sat down in the chair across from her.
Heat raced to Mary’s cheeks. She swallowed nervously. “I don’t know what you mean,” she stammered.
“You give me this angry stare every time I walk in unannounced,” Hannah explained, grimacing.
Mary rubbed her hands over her jeans under the desk. “I’m sorry, I …”
“No!” Hannah grinned, shaking her head. “I love it. I wish all my managers were this honest.”
Mary was gobsmacked. This was embarrassing.
“Look,” Hannah continued, moving to the edge of her seat. “I’m here with an offer.” Her blue eyes sparkled with excitement. “One I hope you cannot refuse.”
“Okay” Mary said slowly, rubbing the back of her neck.
“I want you to roll out your magic across all the stores,” Hannah stated, her hands wide in the air.
“My, eh, magic?” Mary asked, turning the ring on her finger to the left and then to the right repeatedly.
Hannah nodded feverishly.
“What do you mean?” Mary croaked.
Hannah looked around the room. Her eyes settled on something and she pushed herself up. She took two big steps and pointed at a frame on Mary’s wall.
“This! I want you to do this for all the stores.”
The frame was a Christmas gift from Mary’s team. Inside it, was an article about their shop. The headline was “NYC’s most welcoming chocolate store.”
“I want you to join me at HQ and pour all of your brilliant ideas into a program we can scale,” Hannah continued, tapping the glass in front of the newspaper clipping.
Mary was too baffled to reply. Was Hannah talking about a new job? Or was this a one-time project? She was struggling to keep up with her enthusiastic boss.
Hannah walked back and placed both of her hands on the desk.
“You have a talent, Mary,” she said, her stare intense. “You are the reason this store is doing so well. Customer satisfaction has gone through the roof since you took over.”
Mary cleared her throat. She knew the facts, but she rarely accredited the success to herself. It had all been a team effort after all.
“Thank you,” she said shyly.
Hannah sat back down, readjusting her fancy blazer. Her expression was almost apologetic now. “Look, I know you don’t like the corporate atmosphere.”
Hannah sure had her number, Mary thought. She had vastly underestimated her boss. She pursed her lips and shrugged.
“True,” she admitted.
“That’s fine,” Hannah said and crossed her legs. “I want to get rid of that old-school leadership culture. I want to make things more,” she stopped and looked up at the ceiling.
“Authentic,” she finally finished her sentence. “Like you.”
Mary didn’t know if she should be flattered or insulted. Her eyes drifted to Hannah’s suit without her even realizing it.
Hannah glanced down and burst out into laughter. “Okay, fair point.”
Shit. Mary hadn’t meant to make any point. Why was she so damned transparent?
“I wear jeans too, you know,” Hannah said conspiratorially.
“You do?” Mary snorted in disbelief before she could stop herself.
“Yeah, of course,” Hannah replied earnestly, “My girlfriend loves me in jeans.”
Oh, God. What on earth was Mary supposed to say to that?
Hannah waved dismissively as if she knew she had gone one step too far. “Will you consider it? We can talk about it more, but I’d like to know if you’re open to it at all.”
Mary suddenly realized people, in general, tended to respond enthusiastically to a promotion. And here she was, frowning.
“Who would take over this place?” she asked and realized this was what was keeping her back the most. She was worried about her store and her team.
“I have someone in mind,” Hannah said slowly. “I’d like you to focus on the job, though. I am going to give this title to someone and I’d prefer it to be you. But if you will not even consider it, I’d like to know now.”
Mary met Hannah’s gaze. This was the version of her boss that always made her team so nervous. The laser-sharp eyes, the confident charisma. The no-BS attitude.
It was tempting to respond immediately, but Mary knew she should pick her words carefully. “It does sound like an amazing job,” she thought. “And I can’t stay here forever, I guess?”
“It sounds like a fantastic challenge,” she finally said, feeling butterflies in her stomach.
Hannah clapped her hands together. “Great!”
Mary again wanted to ask about the person who would run this store if she left, but her gut told her not to.
Hannah sighed happily, getting up. “I’ll give you a night to sleep on it. I’ll ask Suzy to send you the full proposal to consider.”
“Thank you,” Mary said.
Hannah stuck her hand out. Mary accepted it, inwardly cursing her clammy skin. She was excited and terrified at the same time.
“I promise I will not drop in again tomorrow, but give me a call by the end of the day, okay?” Hannah asked with a playful smile, squeezing Mary’s hand.
Their gazes held for another second before Hannah stepped away, closing the button of her blazer.
“I’m looking forward to hearing from you,” she said and opened the door, leaving a flustered Mary behind.