There's a reason I'm off both school and work on Sunday's. It is so that I have one day of rest before the bitch-on-wheels day that is my Monday. My day starts bright and early with three back to back classes from eight to eleven. The good thing is, those are all of my classes for the day. The bad thing is, I'm a poor chick that has to work her way through college. On Mondays that means heading to the bookstore at noon.

Despite the fact that I really like my job, waiting for quitting time to come around Mondays can be a super drag, and but looking forward to meeting with Alden Cortland after work made it the absolute draggiest.

The day crawled by and the cherry topping was spending the entire day working with Nikki. Usually she worked until three, then Amy came in. But it was Amy's first day at the beauty salon, and Nikki was working extra hours. Which she bitched about non-stop.

Mondays are usually a fairly busy day, but it was as slow as it had been on Friday night, but not because of snow. No, the schizophrenic East Tennessee spring weather had decided, after being in the twenties all weekend, to shoot up to a balmy 68 degrees. People were too busy enjoying the weather to be stuck inside a bookstore. Lucky them.

I, on the other hand, was stuck inside with a bitchy co-worker and nothing to do but obsess over the pending meeting with Alden. I hated to admit it, but I was nervous. I was still half expecting him to either not show up, or worse, show up with a bunch of guys to laugh at my gullibility. It wouldn't be the first time I was the butt of some guy's fat joke. Getting boobs at the age of ten and hips enough to make me look sixteen by the time I was twelve had pretty much made me the target of every mean girl and immature boy by junior high. There'd been a few incidents that had nearly broken me, but with the support of Amy and Dex, and I'd grown a pretty thick skin in the process.

But somehow, I knew that if this did turn out to be an elaborate joke, it would devastate me. Not because I was madly in love–or lust–with Alden. I wasn't that daft. It wasn't as if I were in some stupid insta-love new adult romance book. It took a lot more than the brief exchanges we'd had to even like someone as a person, much less romantically. I knew that. But Amy had been right, I had noticed Alden as he'd come into the bookstore over the past months. I'd even noticed him at school. Though he wasn't a computer major, I'd seen him talking with the head of the computer science department many times when I'd been in the computer lab working. One didn't miss a guy that looked like Alden Courtland.

Odds were the photoshoot was a joke and he was a world class jerk, guys that looked like him usually were. But I really wanted him not to be. Not just because I'd started thinking that modeling clothes would be kind of fun, but also because I thought he was smoking hot. And while I knew a guy like him would never look at me twice, despite what Amy said, I still wanted him to at least be nice. It had been a long time since I'd been attracted to a guy that wasn't a smarmy tool-bag. And by a long time, I mean ever.

So I sat, did my homework–I lied earlier, I always work on schoolwork in my down time at the bookstore–ignored Nikki, fretted, and tried not to go nuts. By the time Amy strolled in at twenty after five, I'd almost lost the fight.

“So, how did the first day go?” I asked as she came around the counter and grabbed a cup and moved towards the cappuccino machine, which Nikki promptly jumped in front of.

“So great, and so tiring,” she said to me, then she squared her shoulders and glared at Nikki. “I've had a long ass day and you are between me and coffee. That's a dangerous place to be.”

“You have to pay for that.”

Amy reached in her pocket, pulled out a roll of bills, pealed one off and tossed it on the counter. Pushing the wad of money back in her pocket she told Nikki, “Paid. Now get out of my way before I move you.”

“No. You’re not on shift, you can't be back here. I'll make your coffee.”

Amy's mouth opened, and I could tell by her expression she had a string of insults primed and ready, but before she could let them loose, Chase stepped out of the backroom.

“Nikki, let her make her coffee,” He walked over, picked the money from the counter, and handed it back to Amy. “Store policy is that all employees get free drinks.”

Nikki curled her lip and crossed her arms under her breasts. “She barely even works here anymore. It's stupid to give her free coffee. She can obviously pay for it. She's cheating you out of good money.”

Chase leaned one hip casually against the counter. “Nikki, I love you, but you are being a real bitch right now. If you don't move, I'll let her move you.”

Nikki hesitated a moment, but she moved back a couple of steps, then turned her ire on her brother. “You're a real asshole, Chase. You always take their side over mine. They run all over you, and you let them. If I didn't know better I'd think they were giving you blowjobs in your office, but not even you would stoop so low as to touch skanks like them.

For a long moment, everything was deadly still and quiet, as if all of the air had been sucked out of the store.

Chase's jaw went rigid and he stood up straight. At the same time, Amy took two steps back toward me, giving the brother and sister space.

Chase squared his shoulders and stared down at Nikki, his face contorted in a mask of fury I'd never seen before. When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet and calm with an unmistakable steel edge, “Let's get one thing straight right now. This is my store. I am the boss. You, dear sister, are an employee. I make the rules, and you will follow them. If you don't, you will be fired. And you will never speak to me or any employee with such disrespect again, or you will be fired.”

Eyes wide, but voice full of venom, Nikki shot back, “You wouldn't dare fire me. I'm your sister.”

“You are, and that will never change. But I've had it with your pettiness and nasty attitude. If you ever say anything like that again, I will fire you. And I won't hire you back, and I won't help you with your bills, and I won't let you move in with me. You will be completely on your own. Am I understood?”

Face contorted with rage, Nikki seemed poised to argue, but instead spat out. “Perfectly. I'm going on my fifteen-minute break.”

She pulled her apron off and tossed it on the counter. I stood back letter her pass, not about to remind her that she'd come back from her last break of the day a few minutes before Amy had come in. She was muttering under her breath as she stalked across the floor and out the front door.

Amy and I let out the breaths we'd been holding in tandem. Chase stood still, his eyes closed, two fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Chase, I'm sorry,” Amy said, her voice quiet and contrite.

Chase dropped his hand, and shook his head as he opened his eyes. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

We stared at him, knowing that wasn't true.

As if reading my mind, he said, “Look, I'm not saying you two don't egg her on sometimes. But I know what goes on around here, and I know you ignore her just as much as you bait her. I also know that she starts it, at least 98 percent of the time. I feel like I should apologize. What she just said was…” he trailed off, at a loss for words.

“Rude, crude, ignorant, and nothing she hasn't said before,” I supplied.


Amy shrugged. “Chase, we don't have the best history with your sister.”

He let out a frustrated breath. “I know. I really don't know why she acts like she does. I know she's had a really hard time since dad died, but…”

I cut him off. “But it started way before that. She was a mean girl in high school, and she hasn't gotten any better.”

“I'm not trying to make excuses for her, just, you know our mom left when Nikki was a baby. Dad and I did our best, but I think that kind of thing can mess with a girl's head,” he said with resigned sadness.

Damn it. I hated when I had to think of Nikki as a real human being with problems. It took away some of the joy of hating her wicked witch innards.

“Nikki can be pretty nasty to us, but she hates us more than most people. Remember, she dated our best friend.” I said, trying to be reasonable.

“Yeah, Dex. That was a disaster.”

“Don't even get me started,” Amy said.

I was with Amy, she didn't need to get started. We were both protective of Dex, but Amy was fierce. And while she might chide Dex about getting over Nikki, when it came down to it, she would never forgive Nikki for what she'd done.

I cut in, hoping to keep Amy from saying something that would get us both fired. “Bottom line is, there isn't a guy or animal in town Nikki hasn't accused us of fornicating with. We pretty much ignore it.”

Amy grinned. “I'm not going to lie, I'd say the same back to her, but Layla won't let me slut-shame. She says it's un-feminist. Mostly I agree with her, but Nikki tests my convictions sometimes.”

Chase was pinching the bridge of his nose again, but this time I suspected it was less to ward off a headache than an attempt to hide the smile I saw curving the corners of his mouth.

“I need to go down a bottle of aspirin. Holler at me when you clock out so I can come watch the front.”

“I don't know why he puts up with her,” Amy said, once Chase was out of earshot.

“What's he supposed to do? She's his family. You know, not everyone is lucky enough to have a sibling that is also a pretty decent human being. You pretty much hit the jackpot with Ava and Charlie.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. Though they can both be real pills sometimes.”

“Oh, puh-leeze! They spoil the hell out of you, always have.”

“That's because I'm the baby. There were definite perks to the thirteen and ten-year age differences. But it cuts both ways. They can also be pretty damned bossy.”

I tilted my head, giving her my best give-me-a-break look. “That is so not the same. Would you rather have Nikki? Or my sister?”

Amy shuddered and looked as if she'd sucked a lemon. “Bite your tongue. Though you hardly see your sister, so not so much to put up with.”

“And that is why I still have a small claim on sanity. I love Lana, but we mix about as well as toothpaste and orange juice.”

Amy snorted, coffee spurting out of her mouth. “Dang it, Lay, don't make me laugh while consuming caffeine. It's a crime to abuse coffee that way,” she said, wiping her chin with a napkin.

I grinned, not a bit sorry.

“So, tell me all about your day.” I said, changing the subject.

Amy went around and sat in a barstool on the customer's side of the counter while I stayed on my side, pretending to work.

“Not much to tell,” she said. “It wasn't too different than the last few weeks of school, I did hair all day. Though that in itself was different than I expected. I went in prepared to have a lot of downtime. That's what they tell you at school, that it takes time to build up a clientele. But the shop was really busy, even for a Monday. There were a lot of walk-ins. I barely had time to grab lunch, and I made enough today to pay my chair rental for the week. Which means whatever I make for the rest of the week is all mine.”

“That's really great, Ames. You may not have to keep working here on weekends for long at all.”

“That's the hope, but I don't want to quit too early. It's just been one day, after all. But I showed Lorelei my makeup portfolio and she is going to start advertising that the shop has a makeup artist. Wedding season starts soon, and with so many wedding chapels in the Smokies, she thinks I'll be getting booked up, just with makeup clients.”

“That would be great. As the only person in town offering makeup services, that could really be your money-making niche.”

“Yep. If it works out the way Lorelei thinks it will, that will put me well on my way to earning enough to go to the cinema makeup school by next summer. But enough about me, how has your day been?”

A pang of sadness shot through me as it did every time Amy talked about going to the cinema makeup school. I knew, deep down, that once she got to Los Angeles she would find her place in the world wouldn't come back to Oak Hollow. But as much as I didn't want to lose my best friend, I wanted to hold her back from her dreams even less. So, I ignored the sadness and focused on the drudgery of the day.

“It's been slow as molasses in here today, and I've spent it all with Nikki.”

Amy gave a sympathetic groan. “Ahh, so you are ready to poke your own eyeballs out.”

I nodded. “That about sums it up.”

Amy hopped off the barstool and came around the counter to make herself another cup of coffee. “Never fear, I'm here, now. I'll keep you sane for the next hour.”

“Aren't you heading home? I thought you were tired.”

“And miss your meeting with hunky photography-boy. Not on your life.”

I groaned, but it was all fake. I was actually glad Amy wanted to stay. I could use the moral support. “Okay, you can stay, but only if you swear not to call Alden ‘hunky photography-boy' within his earshot.”

Amy gave an exaggerated sigh as she re-claimed her seat. “That's an awful lot to ask, but I guess it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make just to get to ogle him for a few minutes.”

The next hour passed a lot quicker than the rest of the day had. A few customers drifted in and out, but Amy and I spent most of the time chatting. Once Amy hopped behind the counter to make cappuccinos for a couple of customers because Nikki hadn't come back from her break yet.

When the clock rolled around to fifteen minutes the end of my shift and Nikki hadn't come back yet, I was starting to get worried. “Nikki's been gone for nearly an hour and a half,” I told Amy.

“Maybe she quit, and doesn't intend to come back,” Amy said.

“Or maybe something happened to her. I'm going to go tell Chase.”

But just as I was turning to go to the back, the bell on the door jangled and Nikki strode in. With a silent sneer, she put her apron on and went to stand behind the counter as if she'd been there the whole time.

“What have you been doing while I was gone? It's a mess back here,” Nikki said.

“It's exactly as it was when you left,” I told her, knowing Amy had been careful to clean up her own messes when she'd helped out, but had left everything else as it was.

“Yeah, I know,” Nikki shot back, her tone haughty. “You've been standing around like a lazy bitch doing nothing.”

Rage bubbled in the pit of my stomach. Her fifteen-minute break had lasted an hour and a half, and I was lazy? Not to mention that it wasn't my job to clean up the cafe area. I opened my mouth to say as much, but clamped it shut again when the door jangled again and a petite, blond woman walked in followed by Alden Cortland.