“Excuse me,” a deep voice sounded softly just behind my left shoulder.
I slid the romance paperback in my hand into place.
“Can I help you?” I asked as I turned toward the owner of the voice. My voice trailed off as I met the chocolate eyes of the guy Amy and I had been discussing only a few minutes before.
He flashed a wide, toothy, movie star smile. “Hi. I'm Alden Cortland.”
Um. Okay. “I'm Layla,” I said, baffled. Since when were official introductions needed to find a book?
“Nice to meet you Layla.” He held out a hand.
Was this guy for real? Who shook hands with a bookstore clerk before asking for help? I slid my gaze over him, from his worn Chuck Taylors to the slightly messy, over-gelled boy-band style of his dark brown hair, his perpetual five o'clock shadow, and all of the bronze skinned, hard muscled goodness in between. That didn't help convince me. He looked more like a Greek God in the guise of a college student than a real boy. I stuck out my hand and nearly gasped as his closed around it. Warmth spread through my body at the touch and I pulled my hand back quickly. What the hell was wrong with me? I mean yeah, the guy was hot and I'd been ogling him for months when he came in the store, but still, one touch shouldn't have me all hot and bothered. It had obviously been way too long since I'd been laid.
“How can I help you, Alden?” I asked, in an attempt to shorten this encounter.
There was that politician-running-for-office-smile again. “You can let me take your picture.”
Was I being punked? “Did Amy put you up to this?” I looked past Alden to see if Amy was peeking around the wall. She wasn't.
Alden laughed, the sound rich and sexy. “No, sorry. I should have explained first. I'm an art major at Oak Hollow College. My specialization is in photography.”
“Yeah, I've seen you around campus,” I said.
“I've seen you around, too. Anyway, I'd like for you to model for me for my semester project.”
Yeah, I was being punked. Or this guy was a pervert who ran a fat girl porn fetish website and he needed new material. But I’d been approached by fetish perverts before—though they’d never outright asked for pictures—and this guy just didn’t fit the profile. He wasn’t staring at my chest, for one.
The third option was this guy's brain was scrambled. That would be too bad, he was awfully pretty. “You want me to model? For you? In pictures?” “Yes, I'm doing a shoot for an on-line catalog for a boutique in Nashville. It will just be a couple of hours, and since they are getting all of the labor for free, the models will each get to keep a piece or two of clothing.”
Had he just said he wanted me to model clothes for him? Self-consciously I glanced down at myself. Sure, my boobs looked pretty good under my bright orange “Stockton Books” t-shirt, but they would only be model worthy on a body 14 sizes smaller than mine. I hooked my thumb into the pocket of my faded, size eighteen jeans.
“No offense, but I think you're cracked. Fashion models do not look like me. Are you trying to fail your class?”
“You are right. Fashion models don't look like you. And I consider that a damned shame,” he replied with a sexy grin and a wink. “Look, the boutique I'm working with has a new line of plus sized clothing. Both the designer and boutique owner want the clothes represented by someone they are actually meant for. Your body is perfect.”
“Really?” I pursed my lips and arched an eyebrow in an effort to look cynical. I couldn't help the thrill that had ran down my spine when he'd said it. Nor could I suppress the grin that spread across my face when he realized what he said. I didn't know anyone could actually turn that shade of mauve.
“Um, I mean, your size is perfect. For the clothes and the catalog, I mean. Your body size and shape is representative of the average American female.” Then, almost as if a switch had been flipped, the pink faded from his cheeks as he slid his eyes over my body. The cocky, self-assured twinkle was back in his gaze when he said, “Not that you are average in any way. You are beautiful. I'm surprised no one has approached you to model for them before.”
A flock of condors took flight in my belly. He thought I was beautiful. Then the condors died. Yeah, sure he did. As if I hadn't heard that line before. “Oh, they have, but I'm immune to charms of slimy douche-canoes that want to shoot amateur porn.”
His grin didn't waver as he fished in his back pocket and pulled out a card. He held it out. “Look, the designer is local and she's also my project supervisor. She has worked with the boutique owner for years and is making all of the decisions for the catalog shoot. I can have her come by and talk to you if it makes you more comfortable.”
I took the proffered card and turned it over in my hands. It was pink with the name “Jenna McAllister” emblazoned across the top and “Creative Director/Designer, Goddess Chic Fashions” directly below the name. I had never met the woman but I knew the name. She was married to one of the McAllister brothers, but I wasn't sure which one. She was also the sister-in-law of Amy's new boss, Lorelei McAllister. I couldn't imagine she'd be involved in anything weird, but I still couldn't wrap my head around this guy wanting me to model clothes. It had to be a joke of some sort, and I wasn't eager to be the punchline. I turned the card over and over between my fingers trying to decide what to say.
“Hey, Layla, you have a couple of customers,” Amy called, sticking her head around the corner.
Phew. Saved. “Look, I'm afraid you've got the wrong girl. I've got to get back to work.” I pushed the card into my pocket and rushed past him. I met Amy's curious gaze. “Don't ask,” I muttered as I slid into place behind the cash register and began ringing up customers.
Within twenty minutes the short rush was over and the store was completely empty again. Sometime while I was dealing with customers Alden had slipped out and Chase and gotten back from the community center where he coached a basketball team for first and second graders. The flurry of snow had turned into a whiteout and a thick blanket covered every flat surface outside. The usually busy main street was practically deserted, with only the occasional passing car. We didn't close for another two hours, but we all knew from experience that the store would be empty for the rest of the night. Citing our safety driving home as an excuse, Chase decided to close up shop an hour early.
“Spill,” Amy ordered as she handed me a steaming cup of hot chocolate and sat across from me. With half an hour to burn until we could cash out the registers and leave, Amy and I were lounging at a table in the cafe area while Chase worked on whatever managery-type-stuff he did in his office.
“Okay, but you're cleaning it up.” I tipped my cup slightly to the side over the gleaming table top, my smartass kicking into high gear.
Amy glared. “Before you drip chocolate onto the table just cleaned, I should remind you of a couple of things. One, I know where you sleep. Two, your bedroom door doesn't lock, and I have access to hair color, scissors, and a butt load of snow.”
“You forgot to add that you are a vindictive bitch,” I said dryly as I diverted the cup to my lips before any of the liquid flowed out.
“It was implied,” she said, a smirk lifting one corner of her mouth. “Now, spill your guts. What did the hottie want? It sure didn't look like you guys were talking about books.”
I waited until she put her cup to her lips before I replied. “He wants me to be a model.”
I leaned back as hot chocolate spewed across the table. “What?”
“Yep, that's the reaction I had.”
“Shit,” she mumbled, getting up to grab a rag to wipe up the mess she'd just made. “What kind of model? What are you talking about?”
“He's a photography major or something like that. Apparently, his semester project is to shoot an online catalog for a boutique that has a plus size line.”
“Oh, yeah, I've seen him around campus and town with a camera. So, he wants you to be a clothes model? What did you say?”
“I said no. It had to be some sort of joke. It's a pretty stupid idea, don't you think?”
She tossed the rag onto the counter and resumed sipping her drink. “I don't think it's horrible at all. I actually think it's a fabulous idea.”
“Seriously, Ames? Me? A model? Look at me,” I waved my hand at my body.
“Other than the fact that all you did to your hair this morning was throw it up in a bun with a scrunchy and your makeup has already faded, I don't see a damned thing wrong with you. Besides, you model for me all the time.”
“There is a difference between being a guinea pig for your hair and makeup tutorials on YouTube and modeling clothes. You focus only on my hair or small portions of my face. I have a pretty face.”
“But the rest of you is hideous?”
“Well, maybe not hideous, but it is fat.”
“Seriously, I'm going to smack the hell out of you,” She says through gritted teeth, her face starting to redden. She peers over my shoulder, “Hey, Chase, do you think Layla would be a good choice to model plus-sized clothes?”
I turned to see Chase standing near the cash register with a puzzled look on his face. “I'm not sure I know the difference between plus sized and regular sized clothes, but sure. Why are we talking about modeling?”
“A photography student asked Layla to be a model for his semester project. But she thinks he was pulling a practical joke on her,” Amy told him.
Chase shook his head. “I don't see the joke. You're pretty, Layla. You'd make a great model.”
“See, I told you.” Amy's grin was triumphant. “You won't believe me, though I really don't know why. I do know a thing or two about pretty girls.” She rolled her eyes. “But at least listen to a hot guy.”
Chase grinned. “You think I'm hot? When did this happen?”
Amy groaned. “Ugh! Chase, you sound just like Rita. You know, I can appreciate the sexiness of a male body without wanting to jump it. Being bisexual doesn't mean I screw everything with a pulse. I do understand the meaning of being in a relationship. Just because I find someone attractive doesn't mean I'm going to act on it.”
Chase was suddenly the picture of a dude who just poked a sleeping bear. He threw his hands up in front of his face. “Whoa, I didn't mean…”
He was cut off by Amy's head hitting the table with an audible thud.
“I know you didn't,” she said, her voice muffled by the table top. “I'm sorry.”
I reached over and put my arms around my best friend's shoulders, a tiny, perverse part of me glad for an excuse to divert the conversation. “Is Rita being jealous again?”
Keeping in contact with the table, Amy turned her face towards me. “Among other things. She's driving me nuts.”
“Girls suck,” Chase said in solidarity. Once he realized the issue, he recovered quickly from Amy's outburst. Since she'd started dating Rita a little over a year ago she had a drama queen moment at least twice a month. We were both used to it. “I came out to tell you guys I'll finish closing up on my own so you can head out. But if you want to stick around and have some more hot chocolate, that would be cool.”
I shot him a grateful smile. He was such a sweet guy. And Amy was right, he was hot. If he weren't six years older than me, saddled with a nasty-bitch sister, and like the older brother I'd never had, I'd totally be crushing on him right now.
Amy raised her head, rubbing the red spot where her forehead met the table. “No more hot chocolate for me. I've had like six cups of coffee today and I think the caffeine has raised my drama level to new heights.”
“No arguments here,” I said, laughing.
She narrowed her eyes at me. “I still think you should model for that hottie.”
I rolled my eyes. “And I think you gave yourself a concussion. Besides, it's too late. I already told him no. Come on, let's go home. Want me to call our house-geek and tell him to have dinner on the table when we get home?” Our roommate, Dex was a computer-geek-extraordinaire on levels that made me look like an eighty-year-old looking for the “on button”. He went to Oak Hollow College like I did, but half of his classes were online. He worked online doing tech support and game testing also, which meant he was home most of the time and did most of the cooking. That meant we ate a lot of frozen pizza and canned chili.
Amy wrinkled her nose. “Let's stop and get burgers on the way home.”