Carly Milner steered her tired old Honda Civic into the staff parking lot of Ocean View Community College. She pushed it into Park and gave the accelerator a few "vroom-vrooms" with her foot. The engine roared to life … for a few seconds. Then, it conked out.
Carly sighed. She looked around, wondering if any of her new co-workers were watching. Then she remembered, of course, that it was her first day, and she had no idea who her co-workers were. A young man in a shirt and tie peered in her direction from about ten feet away, and she waved, giving him a friendly grin.
She murmured to the Civic, "Thank you for getting me here. Now, get a rest, and make sure you get me back home, too, you hear?"
She opened the door and stepped out, giving the blue exterior a pat. She and the vehicle had an understanding: it would continue to deliver her safely to where she and Grace needed to go, and when she finally had a little money socked away, she'd dole some out for engine repairs. Now that she had a decent job, maybe that would come sooner rather than later.
But first things first. She followed a small line of people into the side door of the college, located the Admissions Department, and walked in. Seeing no familiar faces, she stepped to a chest-high counter. The young woman standing behind it tapped away at a keyboard.
"Good morning. I'm Carly Milner. Today's my first day of work."
The young woman looked up. "Oh yes! Dave told us to expect you. He's in a meeting till nine, but I'm supposed to show you to your desk and get you logged into your email. You can go see him in his office when he's free."
A rush of pure adrenaline circulated through Carly's upper body. A real office job. A desk. A computer! Gone were the days of wearing a polyester uniform to work, apron and orthopedic shoes. No carrying trays burdened with food and trying to remember who ordered what. And … no hairnets in sight!
She smiled at her co-worker and held her hand out. "Well, I'm thrilled to be here, and thrilled to meet you … um?"
"No problem, Haley. You show me what to do and where to go and I'll get out of your hair."
Haley led her into the depths of the big room, past several rows of desks until she reached an empty one. A plastic tag hung, Velcro’d to the fabric wall of the cubicle: Carly Milner. Carly ran her fingers over it and had to remind herself to release her breath. She sat in the desk chair and twirled it excitedly, stopping abruptly when she noticed Haley's amused expression.
Carly considered, restraining a grin. "You could say that, I guess. Not first job ever, but certainly my most professional job, the one that's going to lead me to a bright and successful future."
Haley nodded, an impressed look on her face.
Fifteen minutes later, Carly was exploring the Admissions guidelines manual on the college's intranet. She was so absorbed that she didn't notice Haley standing in front of her desk until she heard, "Earth to Carly."
Carly looked up, eyes wide. "Sorry. Were you speaking to me?"
"Yes, I was. Only to tell you that a super cute hunk is here asking for you."
"For me? You must be mistaken," Carly said, eyebrows crunched in confusion.
"You're the only Carly Milner who works here." Haley subtly gestured with her index finger, across the room in the direction of the Admissions Office door. Carly let her gaze follow.
"Do you know him?"
Did she know him! Did she ever. Although what on earth he was doing here, she had no idea.
He happened to glance in their direction and he raised a hand, a gorgeous smile suddenly covering his face. "Oh hey, Carly!"
Carly groaned discernibly. Those longish chestnut locks, cocoa-brown eyes and white smile. That voice, with the cute accent. It was why she'd fallen for him so deeply when she was just sixteen.
And as much as she didn't want to admit it, it was why they now shared a two-year-old daughter.
"You can bring him to your desk if he wants to talk about taking classes."
"Oh, no, that's all right. Can I take a quick five-minute break to go talk to him?"
"Fine with me. Dave isn't ready for you yet anyway."
Carly tucked her chin into her chest and marched to the front of the office. When she reached Ryan, and he looked like he was about to give her an enthusiastic greeting, she grabbed his arm and dragged him to the front door, opened it and manhandled him through. On the other side of the closed door, she hissed, "What are you doing here?"
"Came to see ya!"
She sputtered, not even sure where to start with that one. How about the most obvious question? "How did you know I was here?"
He had the decency to blush, which always meant that he'd done something sneaky and was embarrassed by it. "Ahh well, I followed you."
"You did what?"
"I mean … I was coming to your apartment this morning to visit you and Grace, and you were just pulling out. I decided to see where you were going, and you ended up here."
She huffed out a frustrated breath.
"You're working here now?"
"Ryan, I'm giving you two minutes to tell me what it is you're here for and then get out. Yes, I'm working here now. It's my first day and I need to make a good impression. I don't need you to get me in trouble, you hear?"
"Oh. In that case, I guess I need to hurry up and tell you what I came here to say. Even though this isn’t how I planned it. No, not at all." He cleared his throat, looked closely into her eyes and lowered his voice to a murmur. "I miss you, Carly. I miss what we could've had all along. I messed up when I put my own needs ahead of yours and our daughter’s. Messed up big time. But I'm ready for it now. I want to be a family with you and Grace."
Her eyes popped open wide, and then the rushed morning, the skipped breakfast, the super-caffeinated coffee and Ryan's surprise confession all rushed to her head simultaneously. Bees buzzed in her ears, dark swirls filled her eyes, and she fell … right into his arms.