“Layla, this is Jenna McAllister, the clothing designer and adviser for my photo shoot project,” Alden said, introducing the blond woman.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, taking her proffered hand. Amy cleared her throat next to me. “This is Amy.”

“Her best friend, and moral support,” Amy chimed in as she shook Jenna’s hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet both of you,” Jenna said, her smile warm and cheery.

I glanced at the clock on the wall above the cappuccino machine. “I don’t get off for another fifteen minutes.”

“No worries,” Amy said. “I’ll get them some coffee and keep them entertained while they wait.”

Jenna’s smile widened. “Sounds great. I love the coffee here.”

Alden flashed me a grin and a wink over his shoulder as the three moved over to the coffee counter to order from Nikki before settling in at a table in the far corner close to the small raised platform used for poetry nights and author events.

I tried to ignore them as I went about my business doing my end of shift duties and preparing everything so that Chase didn’t have to do much when he closed up in an hour, but I couldn’t help sneaking occasional glances. Amy was, true to her word, entertaining them both. The three seemed to be having a spirited conversation and at one point the three of them were all peering at a tablet computer Alden had pulled out of his backpack.

I finished up, clocked out, and stepped just inside Chase’s open office door.

“I got all of the closing duties done so you shouldn’t have to do anything but close out the register,” I said.

He looked up from his computer monitor. “So you’re out?”

“I’m clocked out, but I’ll be here a little while longer. I’ve got a meeting.”

“Oh yeah, with the photographer and designer. Good luck with that, coffees on the house.”

I grinned. “Thanks.”

I turned to go, but he called me back.

“Hey, Layla?”

“What’s up?” I asked, turning back to him.

“Were you going to tell me Nikki’s fifteen went over by more than an hour?”

Crap. How did he know that?

My unspoken question must have shown on my face because Chase rolled his eyes and pointed to the second monitor on his desk that streamed the surveillance video footage from the front of the store.

Duh!

I shrugged and tried to look as if I weren’t an idiot. “I figured you were the all-seeing Oz back here, so you didn’t need me to tattle-tell like a five-year-old.”

He didn’t buy it. “Look, I start interviews tomorrow to get someone in here to replace Amy for the shifts she worked during the week. When I hire someone, I’ll get the schedule worked out so you don’t have to work with Nikki much, but until then, I need you to bear with me. And let me know if she’s shirking her duties.”

I shrugged, this time meaning the gesture and the sentiment behind it. “Chase, it’s really no big deal. I’m used to her, and I promise, I’ll stop purposefully antagonizing her.”

“No, it is a big deal. What happened earlier is a big deal. If any other person had said that I would have fired them on the spot.”

This was true. Chase was a great boss, super lenient, and he pretty much let us do whatever we wanted as long as the customers were taken care of and our work got done. But Nikki had crossed a line that no one else could have crossed and still have a job. And by walking out and staying gone for so long she’d kept crossing it. But I couldn’t blame Chase for letting her off with a warning. She was family, after all.

Still, I had a feeling something bad was about to go down between the siblings. Whatever Nikki’s malfunction was, her meltdown was going to damage her relationship with her brother if she wasn’t careful. But I wasn’t about to be the one to tell her. I didn’t want to be anywhere near the blast radius when she finally self-destructed.

“True, but then you probably should have fired me and Amy a few times, too. I’m eternally grateful for your Deity-like forgiveness quotient.”

Chase laughed, “Suck-up.”

“Yes. Yes, I am. I feel like we should all go with our strengths.”

“Ok, get out of here. Have fun with your hunky photography-guy.”

Apparently, he was also Oz-the-all-hearing. I groaned, stuck my tongue out at him in an extremely mature way, and then went back out front.

The three people at the table still had their heads together over the tablet and as I neared the table I heard Jenna McCallister speaking.

“Amy, these are wonderful. You are a truly talented makeup artist,” she said.

“Thank you,” Amy said, her voice pleased. “But do you see what I’m saying, Layla is very photogenic, even at the hands of an unskilled photographer like me with a camera phone.”

“Yes, she is. I knew she would be,” Alden said.

I could feel my cheeks heat at his words. They were obviously looking at Amy’s blog. She did makeup and hair tutorials and had an online portfolio of her makeup skills. I was the star of most of the videos and photos, as she often practiced on me.

“Layla, all done?” Amy said, as she saw me coming towards the table.

“Yep.” I sat.

“Amy was just showing us some of her makeup tutorial pictures.”

“She does great work.” I said, truthfully. “My favorite are the monster and character faces. They took hours, but they look so good.”

“I like those too. And you are a great subject. We were just discussing how photogenic you are,” Alden said. “I really am hoping you’ll agree to model for me.”

I didn’t know what to say.

Jenna seemed to pick up on my awkwardness. “I agree with Alden. I think you would be perfect for this project.”

“But I’m not a model. I mean, besides the fact that I’m not really model sized, I don’t have any modeling experience,” I said.

Alden held up the tablet. “Yes, you do.”

“But those are just my face. Besides, most of those shots are when we were goofing around,” I told him, shaking my head. The videos on Amy’s website consisted of me staring straight ahead while she demonstrated makeup techniques, but most of the pictures were taken after the makeup was completely on and I made silly faces.

“Yes, those pictures show me you have an expressive face and that’s important. The rest, well, that’s actually my job. Part of this assignment is about whether or not I can direct models to get the shots I need for the project.”

That sounded plausible.

Jenna nodded and smiled. “As for the size part, you are perfect in that aspect as well. We have two other models that will be modeling most of the clothes offered by the boutique, but I’ve just designed a new plus-size line, exclusive to the boutique, that I’d love for you to model. You have the perfect body type to show the clothes off to their intended audience.”

“No offense,” I said, sweeping my eyes over her tiny frame, “but you are not plus sized in any stretch of the imagination. Why would you design for fat girls?”

“Layla, don’t be rude,” Amy admonished.

“No, it’s okay,” the designer laughed. “It’s a good question. Being as short as I am and a size eight I would be considered on the fat side in the fashion industry. But I’m not a model, so I’ve never worried about it. But you’re right. Up until a couple of years ago I had never designed anything over a size ten. But then I designed wedding dresses for two of my sister in-laws. Ellie, who is about your size, and Lorelei who is a size sixteen. I enjoyed it. And the boutique owner I design for has long lamented the lack of choice for her plus sized customers. So, the “Goddess” line was born.”

“I saw Lorelei’s dress, it was magnificent,” Amy said.

Jenna’s smile widened. “Thank you. You know Lorelei?”

Amy nodded. “My sister Ava is one of her best friends, and I just started working at Lorelei’s salon. Today was my first day, actually.”

“I know Ava, she’s very sweet,” Jenna replied.

Amy laughed. “Ha. You must not know her well.”

Jenna returned the laughter. “She’s sweet, and sassy. Family trait?”

“You have no idea,” I said, joining in on the laughter. Then, I sad. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m just nervous about this whole thing.”

“I understand. But I promise, if you are worried about body size, please don’t be. When we started discussing this project Alden and I agreed that we didn’t want to put the Goddess Line clothes on women that wouldn’t normally wear the clothes.”

Alden spoke for the first time in a while, oozing charm and confidence. “It’s exactly what I said the other day. Your body is perfect for this. I know it sounded like a cheesy line, but it wasn’t. This project is very important to my grade. It’s also very important to Jenna and to Athena, the owner of Athena’s Boutique. I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t think you were perfect for the job.”

Yeah, that sent all kinds of sizzles up and down my spine.

“No pressure, though,” I gave a nervous giggle snort.

“No pressure, at all. So, what do you say? Will you do it?” He flashed his pearly whites and my brain went numb.

This guy’s smile was a weapon of mass destruction. I was suddenly pretty sure I knew exactly how Superman felt in the presence of Kryptonite. Had any woman alive ever said no to that charming grin? I doubted it. And I was certainly no trend setter.

“Yes, I’ll do it. But on one condition.”

His eyes went bright and his grin widened, and my spine sizzles spread out into my entire body.

I struggled to keep my thoughts on track. “I’ll do it if Amy can do my hair and makeup. What you see in those pictures isn’t me, so much as me behind her makeup. I think that would help me.”

“I don’t see any problem with that,” Alden said, turning to Jenna with a questioning look.

Jenna looked thoughtful. “Lorelei offered to donate her time to do the hair and makeup for the shoots, but I also know she was going to ask one of the girls at the shop to help out since there are three different shoots. I have no problem with you doing it for Layla’s shoot. Or any of the others for that matter. If you want to do it and can work it out with Lorelei, that would be great.”

Excitement bloomed in Amy’s face, as I knew it would. “I’d love to help out. Would I be able to use some of the photos for my portfolio?”

Alden nodded. “After my assignment is graded, I can give you whatever you need as long as it’s okay with Jenna and Athena.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Jenna chimed in. “You’ll also receive hair and makeup credit on our website catalog.”

And that settled that. I was going to be a model. How freaking weird was that?

We talked for a few more minutes, hammering out details of when and where the photoshoot would take place, and setting up a day several days before the shoot to meet with Jenna and get measured and fitted for the clothes I’d be modeling.

A few minutes before the store officially closed Jenna and Alden left, and Amy waited for me while I went to the backroom and gathered my things. After saying our goodbyes to Chase, we went outside, and found Alden waiting for us on the sidewalk near the corner of the building, in the exact direction we had to go in to get to our cars.

He smiled as we approached. “I was going to go grab a burger, want to join me?”

“Sorry, I can’t. I’ve got a lot of studying to do before bed.” I said, doing my best to resist the pull of that devastating grin.

He actually looked disappointed. “Maybe some other time, then?”

My eyes narrowed. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

His smile broadened into a grin. “I am. I’d hoped that now that you know the photo shoot was real and I wasn’t some creeper, you’d be willing to go out with me.”

Cripes, he was charming. But I’d dated charming guys before, and it had never turned out well. He seemed sincere. But then, didn’t they all when they were trying to get into your pants?

“Since you will technically be my boss for the photo shoot, perhaps we should keep things strictly professional for now,” I said. “See you.”

I turned and walked towards my car.

“I heard that. You said for now,” Alden called after me. “That gives me hope.”

I couldn’t help the grin that spread across my face. That was the second time he’d used the word ‘hope’.

“Your pants should be in flames, you’re such a liar,” Amy said when we were well away from Alden.

“What?” I fained innocence.

“You told Alden you had to study. I happen to know you spent all afternoon studying because the store was slow. Why didn’t you go out with him? He’s hella hot. You know you like him.”

I couldn’t disagree. He was definitely hella hot. “I don’t really know him well enough to like him.”

She stared at me, blank faced. “Um, fucking, duh. That’s why you go on dates with people. To get to know them.”

“Don’t be a smartass,” I said, though I might as well have told the sun not to be bright. “You know my dating history. I can’t ignore the fact that he is more likely than not a player who thinks I’m an insecure fat girl who he can charm into bed, use until he’s done, then throw away.”

Amy groaned as we arrived at our cars, parked side by side. “Not all guys are like that buttmunch, Bobby. Besides, if you thought he was like that why didn’t you just tell him flat out no. I heard the “for now” too, and it sounded a lot like you were implying there would be another time.”

“I figure if he is a jerk just trying to get into my pants I’d let him work for it a while before setting him straight.”

“Hmm, okay. And what if he’s for real and he truly likes and wants to date you?” Amy asked.

I grinned. “Then don’t you think he’ll appreciate me more if he has to work for me, rather than me falling at his feet screaming “take me, take me now”?”

“You are a devious one.” She grinned approvingly.

“I learned it from you.”

“And I’ve taught you well, Grasshopper. Just promise me one thing,” she said, her tone growing serious.

“What?”

“If you decide to throw yourself on the ground at Alden Cortland’s feet and scream ‘take me, take me now’, for the love of all that is blessed and holy, get it on video.”