Olivia Randle rushed into her favorite coffee shop, slipping into line beside her best friend.
“You’re late.” Amber stated the obvious. There was only one person ahead of them and not the usual six or eight when Olivia took cuts with Amber.
“I overslept. The Taylor party went on till midnight and then I had to finish washing the dishes before I could go to bed.” Olivia hated being late for anything, but she especially hated being late to the coffee shop. Over the last two weeks, there had been a newcomer who winked at her after he picked up his coffee and turned to leave. He had curly blond hair, long lashes, and deep blue eyes. Just the sight of him set her heart racing in her chest, but when he winked, her whole body shivered with delight.
Being late today meant she’d missed one of her cheerful moments in an otherwise dismal life.
“Cheer up. I heard the new pet store is looking for clerks for the holidays. You’re good with animals, go put in an application. It has to be better than washing dishes at your dad’s diner.” Amber stepped up to the counter. “Two hot chocolates with peppermint, please.”
Olivia, dug in her coat pocket for the three dollars for her cup.
“Put it away, this is on me.” Amber picked up the two cups and led Olivia to their favorite spot. The long, narrow counter looking out onto the main street of their hometown, Promise.
“Here take my money. You can’t keep picking up the tab for me.” Olivia shoved the money in her best friend’s pocket. They became besties in first grade and even through family dysfunction, boyfriend jealousies, and scholarship competitions, they remained friends.
“I should have went to nursing school with you. Then I’d have a real job instead of filling in at Dad’s diner and taking odd jobs.” Olivia sipped her chocolate and watched old man Wheeler, the town grouch, wave the broom he swept leaves off the sidewalk with at the Mason boys.
“You would have been miserable in nursing school and you’d still be miserable.” Amber peered at Olivia over her cup as she blew on the steam. “But you really should have picked an occupation that you could use in Promise. You knew you would move back here after school.”
This wasn’t the first time she’d heard this. Her parents, uncles, aunts, and even the mailman repeated the same words to her every chance they had.
“But advertising is what I was, and still am, most interested in.” Olivia, pointed to the banner across the arts and crafts store across the street. “If Mable would listen to me, I know how to make that sign pop and get more attention. But she just shoos me away and says it’s worked for fifteen years.”
“I know. You tell me that every day.” Amber smiled and took a sip.
“It gets old doesn’t it? Just like everyone telling me I wasted my money on college.” The problem? Olivia was starting to think the same thing. If I hadn’t received so many scholarships to help pay for school, I’d really be in a world of hurt.
“Go check out the pet store. Maybe they need help with advertising along with clerking?” Amber stood and swung her purse over her shoulder. “See you tonight at Big Al’s.”
Olivia watched her friend head off to a career she loved.
“Yeah, Big Al’s, where every drunk in the place will hit on me.” Olivia finished her hot chocolate wishing she had a decent job to head off to like Amber. She sauntered out of the coffee shop. The good thing about not having a regular job, she had free time to wander the streets of her hometown and conjure up childhood memories.
She turned right on Main Street. Might as well fill out an application at the pet store. Chances are they are new to the area and I could help them cozy up to the locals.
Zach Crenshaw heard the buzzer on his door echo through the building. Probably just one more local coming to tell me a high-falutin’ pet store won’t work in this town. He took his time flattening the cardboard box before he made his way to the front of the store. His steps faltered when a red, orange, and lime-green scarf came into view. He only knew one person who wore a scarf like that. The pretty brunette he winked at every day in the coffee shop.
What is she doing here?
She must have heard his approach because she spun around. Her eyes widened and her lips slipped into an inviting smiled.
“Hello! I’m Olivia Randle. My friend said you might be hiring for the holidays?”
At a loss for words, Zach stared at her twinkling eyes and warm smile.
She glanced down at her outstretched hand.
He gathered his senses.
“I’m Zach Crenshaw.” He held out his hand, but wasn’t prepared for the heat that sizzled up his arm at the feel of their clasped fingers.
“Zach.” She cleared her throat and drew her hand back slowly. “Are you hiring?”
“What are your credentials?” He leaned a hip against the front counter and studied her face. This close, he noticed a spattering of faint freckles across the bridge of her cute up-turned nose.
“I’m a local girl…”
“That’s a bonus,” he said, interrupting her.
Olivia smiled. “I went to college and majored in advertising…”
“Did you expect to come back here and get a job in that?” Even being new to the town, he didn’t see any business that could use her talents, except his.
She blushed. “Yeah, not a smooth move on my part. But I learned while in college I’m a country girl at heart. I can’t find a job in my occupation, so I’m looking for anything besides washing dishes at my dad’s diner…”
“Yeah, that business has put my siblings and I through college. The only other opening is a cocktail waitress at Big Al’s.” She scrunched her cute nose. “Drunks and I don’t get along well.”
“You’re over qualified, but I really need a local presence in the store. There’s been two old ladies come in here every day and tell me I’ll never make it here.”
Olivia laughed. “That would be Thelma and Therese. Around here we call them 'the twins' even though they are closing in on ninety. They’re probably afraid you’re going to sell cats. They are the local breeders of barn cats.”
Zach stared at her to see if she was telling the truth or trying to pull one over on him. “Breeders of barn cats?”
She burst out laughing. “They are two crazy ladies who feed dozens of cats and when the cats get to be a nuisance, Sheriff Timble, puts out a notice and the locals go to the twins’ house and buy cats to put in their barns, sheds, garages, wherever there’s been a sighting of a mouse. The local veterinarian neuters and spays them for free. Eventually, some of the cats and new ones end up back at the twins’, and we buy them all over again.”
Zach scratched his head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Welcome to a small community.” Olivia’s smile threw a blanket of warmth over him.
“When can you start?” Not only was he anxious to get to know Olivia better but the sooner he integrated into the community, the sooner his business would take off.
“I can start right now, if you don’t mind casual attire. I thought I’d be heading back to the diner to wash more dishes.” Olivia unbuckled her coat.
He didn’t see anything wrong with the tight-fitting T-shirt and jeans.
“We’ll be dealing with animals, so you don’t want to wear good clothes, just start the day in clean clothes.”
He halted his gaze from roaming over her like a man who’d been in prison. His social life was put on hold the day his grandfather gave him the contents of this pet store and said, “If you can make this work in a small town, I’ll leave my money to you and your mom.” Zach didn’t need the money for himself, but he couldn’t live and help pay his mother’s medical expenses. She had medical issues that insurance wasn’t covering and she couldn’t work.
“I’ll call my dad and tell him I won’t be in.” She pulled out a cell phone and tapped the screen twice.
Zach walked down an aisle, pretending to move merchandise to give her space, but he couldn’t help but hear her side of the conversation.
“Hey Dad, I won’t be in to work anymore.” Her nose scrunched. “No, I didn’t take the job at Big Al’s. I got a job at the new pet store.” She rolled her eyes. “Yes, pet store.”
She laughed and Zach’s lips tipped into a smile. Her laughter made him want to laugh right along with her.
“I don’t know if the owner would want any scraps. I’m pretty sure Charlie would be put out to know you offered his pig scraps to the pet store.”
Zach couldn’t stop the guffaw that burst from his belly.
Olivia’s eyes crinkled with merriment. “Dad, I have to go. First day on the job and all. Right. Yes, I’ll be by the diner for supper. Bye.”
Olivia slipped her phone in her back pocket. How it fit in pants that appeared painted on her long, lean legs was a mystery to Zach.
She scanned the interior of the store. Where do I put my things and what do you want me to do?”
“Put your coat in the back room, there’s hooks just inside the door. I’ll show you the departments and then you can help me finish stocking the shelves.” Zach followed her to the back of the store.
“Am I the only employee?” Olivia asked, hanging her coat on one of four hooks.
“So far.” Zach didn’t have the guts to tell her she’d be the only one, since he was going to have to skim into his savings to pay her until the store took off.
He gave her a quick tour of the fifteen-hundred-square-foot building.
“I don’t remember this building being this big when Mrs. Archer had a clothing store in here,” Olivia said, opening a box of dog chew toys and hanging them on pegs.
“That would explain the pins, buttons, and lace I found in here while cleaning it up.” Zach smiled. Yes, having Olivia in the store would definitely help business and make his days not nearly so dreary.
Olivia couldn’t wait to tell Amber she not only landed the job but her boss was the good-looking guy who winked at her in the coffee shop every morning. Olivia usually didn’t dress to entice the drunks at Big Al’s. She wasn’t interested in the locals and drunks who frequented the bar, but tonight she felt like celebrating and that meant pulling on her sassy, high-heeled boots over her russet-colored skinny jeans and topping that off with a swingy, sunset-colored top that was beaded around the low neckline.
Sure enough, as soon as she took off her coat, Amber’s brows raised and her boyfriend, Stan whistled.
“Look at you.” Stan said, loud enough that half-a-dozen heads turned and that many sets of eyes widened.
“What are you all dolled up for?” Amber’s eyes narrowed as she studied Olivia. “Oh! You got the job!” Amber jumped off her stool and hugged Olivia.
“Wow, I didn’t know me getting a job would make you this happy.” Olivia waved at Cheryl, the waitress.
Olivia stared at her friend. She’d witnessed that expression on her friend’s face before. “You didn’t hear the pet store was hiring—you found out Zach owned the store!”
Amber’s cheeks darkened in color. “Yes, I did a little digging and discovered the guy winking at you every day owned the pet store.”
“I don’t know whether to hug you or slug you. No wonder he looked dumbfounded when I walked in saying I heard he was hiring.” Olivia groaned. “I must have looked desperate. Or completely stupid.” Knowing this took some steam out of her excitement. Did he feel pity and that’s why he hired me?
“But he hired you. You have a job, and you have eye candy to look at every day.” Amber winked.
“Hey! I think I need to check this guy out.” Stan said, picking up his beer and taking a swig.
Cheryl arrived with Olivia’s standard diet drink.
“Thanks.” Olivia took a sip.
The waitress pointed to a booth. “That guy over there said he’s paying for your drink.”
Olivia groaned. She didn’t want to deal with telling some drunk she didn’t want his generosity. She turned to see who she had to deal with.
Her heart sped up and she smiled. Zach sat in a booth, a basket with a burger in front of him.
“Go talk to him,” Amber said.
“Thanks, Cheryl.” Olivia slid off the chair and sauntered over to the booth. “Is this bench taken?”
Zach had watched her walk over to the booth. The interest in his eyes had her heart fluttering like the courthouse flag on a windy day.
“I reserved it for you the minute you walked in the door.” His deep rich voice was easy on her ears.
“You saw me walk in? Were you watching the door for a reason?” She couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to watch who entered the dark, stinky establishment.
He nodded toward Amber and Stan. “Your friend said you’d be coming.” He took a sip of iced tea. “She the one that told you I was hiring?”
Olivia leaned across the table. “Yes! She just told me she made it up.”
Zach laughed. His rich baritone filled the booth and seeped into her.
“She stopped me this morning at the coffee shop and asked me what I was doing in town.” He winked. “I think we’ve been set up.”
An inkling of fear stuttered through her heart. “Are you upset?”
His blue eyes gazed deep into hers. “No, I think I found exactly what I need.”
Copyright © 2013 Paty Jager