I was pushing a book into place when a shriek sounded in my ear. I jumped and whirled around, books tumbling from my arms, to find a waifish girl bouncing up and down.
“It’s here,” she squealed, making my ears ring.
I often wondered how someone so small could emit such sounds.
“For crap's sake, Amy, have a little decorum,” I groused at my best friend as I bent to pick up the books sprawled haphazardly at my feet.
“Oh lighten up, Layla. It's a book store not a library. Besides, there aren't any customers. Leave those for a minute. You can shelve them later. Look what I got!” She sang, waving a piece of paper in front of my face.
The book I had just picked up slid back to the floor as I jumped up. “Your license?”
“Yes! Can you believe it? I'm officially a cosmetologist!” She squeaked and hopped up and down, her pink and purple tipped hair bobbing around her shoulders.
I grabbed her into a hug and we hopped up and down together for a solid minute, until we were both winded. We broke apart, puffing for breath and laughing.
“If you two are finished acting like idiots do you think you can clock in, Amy? I'd like to get out of here,” a snide voice called across the room from the café section of the bookstore.
Amy pulled her phone out of her pocket, checked it, and then turned to the girl standing behind the counter glaring at us. “Hold your water, Nikki. I've got fifteen minutes until my shift starts.” She turned back to me. “Oh God, have you been here alone with Miss Bitchy-Bottom all day?”
I stifled a giggle. “No, Chase is in the back. He's been manning the register today while I logged in and shelved the new inventory.”
“No wonder she's so bitchy. She is always so sugar and spice around the boss man, her bitch level goes up to toxic levels if she doesn't vent some nastiness throughout the day.”
This time my attempt to stifle my laughter went horribly wrong and I snorted. Loudly. We both dissolved into giggles again and Nikki shot us a dagger glare.
“So, you start at the beauty shop on Monday?” I asked when I could speak again without snorting.
“Yep. I stopped by the shop on my way here and gave Lorelei a copy of my license. She said my station was ready and waiting for me,” she sighed. “But for now, and until I build up a clientele at the salon, I'm still a part-time coffee slinger. I'd better go get clocked in and get over there before Nikki starts whining to Chase.”
“Too late,” a deep voice sounded behind us.
Amy and I turned simultaneously to see our boss, Chase Stockton casually leaning against the end of a bookcase, his arms crossed and a grin on his handsome face.
“Are we fired?” I quipped, not even a little concerned.
“For pissing off, Nikki? For that I'll buy you a cookie.”
“Seriously, I don't know why you don't just fire her. I'll bet you twenty bucks that she has left the kitchen in a mess that I'll be cleaning all evening,” Amy groused, and with good reason. Nikki tended to do the minimum of work, preferring to flirt with customers or glued to her phone, sexting her boyfriend du jour. She often left the kitchen area in the back a mess for the second shift person to clean up. Since the evening shift was the busiest, it meant a lot of extra work at closing time.
I shook my head and bent to pile the abandoned books back into my arms. This conversation took place on a daily basis. “He can't fire her, Amy, she's his sister. Where is your sense of family loyalty?”
Chase let out a short laugh. “Yeah, family loyalty, that's it. If I fire her and she can't pay her bills, I'd have to. And since I can't afford to do that, I'd have to let her move in with me. I mean she is my sister, after all. I'd rather put up with her a few hours a week here than in my apartment all the time. But don't tell her that. The only reason she isn't as nasty to me as she is to you guys is because she's afraid of getting fired. I don't want to lose the upper hand.”
“Devious,” I accused as I slid a travel guide into its spot on the shelf, though I didn't blame him. When their father had died last year, Chase had inherited the bookstore and Nikki had inherited the house they'd grown up in and a bit of farmland. Chase, who had already taken over day to day management of Stockton Books five years before, had moved into the apartment on the third floor above the store.
“You know it,” Chase winked. “Besides, my best barista is going to be quitting soon. I have to have someone to serve coffee and tea to our customers.”
“And I'm certainly not going to do it,” I said, moving down the aisle away from them as I resumed my stocking duties.
“Cripes, no one wants that!” Amy exclaimed in mock horror. “You'd be worse than Nikki. If you had to deal with the customers that much you'd be putting rat poison in the sugar jars.”
Chase nodded. “She's right. There is a reason you do the stocking and deal with Internet orders.”
I rolled my eyes and stuck my tongue out at them, then turned and went on to the next aisle of books, leaving them snickering behind me. They weren't really wrong. No one would ever call me a “people person”. But no way was I as bad as Nikki. I preferred to work with computers, they were easier to understand than people and they never had ulterior motives. Nikki, on the other hand, thrived on the attention of others. Yet she treated everyone she thought was lower than her like snot–and Nikki thought everyone was beneath her. It seemed impossible to me that she and Chase shared any kind of genetic link. But then, I knew all too well the tricks genetics could play on siblings. No one in their right minds would guess there was any kind of blood link between my sister and I, much less that we had shared a womb for thirty-seven weeks.
Not wanting to hop on that train of thought I put the last book into its place then went to the storeroom to work on Internet orders.
The back wall in the storeroom had a built-in shelving unit full of new and used books and Smoky Mountain memorabilia listed on the on-line store. In the corner in front of the shelf, hidden from the rest of the room by a smaller shelving unit and a couple of well-placed boxes, was a small computer desk and chair. Besides Chase, only I had access to the semi-ancient PC. I usually worked there to log books into the inventory system or deal with Internet orders, but Chase found me an hour later, my laptop open and so engrossed in coding that I didn't hear him approach.
“How's it coming along?”
I jumped, squealing like a preteen at a Bieber concert. “Geezus, Chase. Wear a bell or something.”
His laugh was rich and throaty as he peered over my shoulder at the computer screen. “I couldn't help it, you were so intent on what you were doing. Is that the website project?”
Normally I wouldn't dream of doing school work during my working hours, but this project was a little different. Every semester Oak Hollow College of Art and Technology students were assigned a major project that related to their core curriculum. Projects on the junior level and above were also internships. Students were paired with businesses, usually local but sometimes as far away as Nashville or Knoxville, and their projects would benefit that business in some way. They were supervised by the business owner or manager. The projects were graded by the department heads on both the project work and the feedback from the project supervisor. It was a good way for businesses to get free labor and for students to get real, hands on experience in their chosen fields.
I was lucky that since I’d already been working at the bookstore for almost four years Chase had signed up with the college to supervise my projects for the past two semesters. Last semester I had created a unique inventory and point-of-sale system for the bookstore. This semester I was building him a whole new website and online shopping cart.
“Yes. Well, part of it, at least. The website itself won't take more than a day or so to whip up,” I told him.
“So, what are you working on now?” he asked, curious.
“Right now I'm writing the code for the shopping cart. It isn't too hard and I'm further along than I thought. I should have this done way ahead of schedule. The tricky part is going to be integrating the website's database with the current inventory so that any book we have in the store is also available online.”
His eyebrows knit together. “Can you do really that?”
I held back the snort of laughter that bubbled up at his puzzled look. It wasn't his fault he was technologically challenged. “I'm brilliant and I wrote the code for the inventory system so yes, I should be able to. Then you can move all of these to the front of the store.” I motioned to the wall of books.
“That's awesome. I almost hate to drag Your Geniusness away from your work, but I'm headed out to practice and I need you to cover the front.”
I rolled my neck, just realizing how stiff it was from sitting over the computer for so long. “No problem, I need a break anyway.”
Saving my work, I shut down my laptop, then grabbed a rolling cart of used books that needed to be sorted and shelved and went out front.
The store had a large L-shaped counter that separated the employee areas from the public areas. One side of the L was dedicated to the cafe section where coffee and tea were served along with a selection of baked goods from a local bakery. Amy was in the cafe area making some sort of hot drink for a customer. I pulled the rickety little cart over to a narrow table against the wall behind the counter and started sorting the used books according to subject and author.
Chase came out of his office wearing jogging pants and a gray sweatshirt that proclaimed him “coach” in big block letters, gym bag and coat in hand. “It's just a practice tonight so I'll only be gone a couple of hours. I'll be back in plenty of time to help close up.” He put the gym bag down on the counter and started putting on his coat.
I glanced up at the large calendar behind the cash register. The date was clear, no book clubs, writer's groups, or gaming groups on the schedule. “No worries, it will probably be a pretty slow night.” I looked out the huge picture windows to see light dusting of snowflakes starting to fly in the early evening twilight. ” If that keeps it up it will be a very slow night.”
“Shit,” Chase said the word through gritted teeth so it was barely audible. He ducked into the back again and reemerged with an orange and white Tennessee Volunteers knit cap pulled down around his ears and a matching scarf thrown around his shoulders. I couldn't help but laugh.
“The hat I can see, but don't you think that scarf is taking alma-mater pride a little far?” I snickered.
My boss rolled his eyes, his cheeks pinking up just a bit. “Nikki got it for me for Christmas. I kind of have to wear it, at least for the rest of the winter. I'm pretty sure it will tragically be lost before it gets cold again.”
“Just give it to one of the kids at the community center,” Amy put in, joining us. “Not even Nikki could get offended by that. I'm sure there's a nine-year-old die-hard fan that would love a bright orange scarf.”
“That may be the way to go,” Chase said, pulling his keys from his pockets and heading for the door. “Okay, ladies, I'm out of here. Amy, don't burn the building down and Layla, don't throw books at annoying customers.”
“No promises,” we called after him in perfect unison.
I went back to sorting books, and Amy, with nothing better to do, hopped up on the table to keep me company. “Your boyfriend's here.”
I didn't even glance up from the pile of paperbacks. “Last I checked I didn't have a boyfriend. I think that is something I would notice.”
Amy was undeterred. “Your super-hottie-boyfriend-wannabe is here.”
This time I couldn't help but look in the direction she was so pointedly staring. I recognized the guy sitting at a table in the corner peering at a tablet, headphones in his ears and a large paper cup of something hot on the table. I'd seen him around campus quite a few times and he'd become quite a regular in the store since the beginning of the semester. “While I agree that he definitely fits into the super-hottie category, he is not, never has been, and never will be my boyfriend. Nor do I want him to be. So, I think you need to find a new title for him.” I laughed, going back to my sorting.
“Ha! You might not want him to be your boyfriend, but he does,” Amy leaned back and kicked her feet out in front of her.
I almost took the bait. I almost asked “Why, what did he say?” but I caught myself. No way did tall dark and drop-dead want to date me and I wasn't about to indulge Amy's ever-misguided match making attempts. I knew better. “No offense Amy, but you don't have the greatest matchmaker track record. Dex still hasn't recovered from getting his heart crushed under Nikki's tacky, hooker stilettos.”
She looked genuinely offended. “I will not take responsibility for that monumental cock-up. All I did was suggest the guy hire himself out as her science tutor. It's not my fault he fell for her she-demon charms. Besides, that was high school, Dex needs to get over it already and stop moping around the house.”
I shrugged a nod. I couldn't disagree with her there. Three years was long enough to be depressed over finding out your first love was a manipulative twat. But before I could steer the conversation to how we could help our best guy buddy and roommate find a new girl, Amy went on.
“Don't think I don't see what you are doing, Chicky. Trying to distract me will do you no good. Because I am not trying to match make, I'm just calling it as I see it. That guy has nothing but the google-eyes for you every time he comes in.”
I rolled my eyes. “Maybe he's never seen an ass as fat as mine and he can't believe his eyes.”
This time Amy looked pissed. Her words came out in a whispered growl, “Shut the hell up. That's my best friend you are talking about.”
I shook my head, “It was a joke, Ames, don't flip out.”
“I just hate it when you say crap like that.”
And that's why I loved her. She was fiercely loyal and wouldn't let anyone put me down, even me. “Fat isn't a bad word or an insult, Amy. It is what it is. I weigh just shy of 200 pounds. I'm fat. Those are just the facts. And you know as well as I do that mouthwatering male specimens like that one over there are not interested in girls that look like I do.” I paused a moment, knowing that what I said wasn't completely true. “Or the ones that do pretend interest are only interested in how quick they can get the fat girl with low self-esteem into bed. In any case, not my cup of tea.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “You know, you really sell yourself short. You are beautiful.”
“Yeah, I know you think so. That's why I love you so much,” I gave her a quick hug. I put the last book back on the cart. “Can you keep an eye on the front for me while I shelve these? Just holler at me if anyone needs checked out.”
Amy sighed, giving up the argument. “Okay.”
She went back to the cafe side of the store and I pulled my cart out to the small room in the back that held the used books, glad as hell that the sexy guy in the corner had been too preoccupied by his tablet to notice Amy and me ogling him.