Hleo

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Chapter 15

Six days had passed since I’d met with Mazy, and during that time I’d managed to avoid both Dad and Ethan. Dad was so busy getting ready for his trip I was pretty sure he hadn’t even noticed that I was hiding from him. Ethan seemed to have noticed, but was respecting the distance. He’d simply gone back to saying hello to me in the hallway, but didn’t walk with me to class, or wait around my locker anymore. Maybe he knew I’d seen him the other day with potentially his girlfriend and decided that he might as well back off.

I was at work, and even though it was the middle of October, it was an ultra-busy Saturday at the store, with the sort of crowd that would normally only be in on a summer afternoon. Carmen had decided to have a big fall sale, and that was bringing in all kinds of people looking to grab a new sweater or pair of jeans to help combat the cold that had crept into the air. I was handling everything by myself. Adrienne, the other part-time girl, had called in sick, and no one else was available to take the shift. Carmen had taken the day off, but she had said if I thought I couldn’t handle it, she would be there in a flash. I probably should have called her, but I wanted to give her the day if I could, so I was running off my feet, trying to ring people through the cash register while keeping an eye on the change area and tidying the store as much as I could.

“Excuse me.” Someone tapped me lightly on my shoulder. I turned from the table where I was refolding a pair of jeans to see a petite blond girl I recognized as a freshman from school.

“I was in a few days ago, and I saw this sweater in dark blue.” She held up an olive-green hoodie. “I totally should have bought it then, but I didn’t. Do you think you might have one in the back, size small?”

I looked around; eight other customers were milling about. I didn’t want to leave the sales floor, but decided it would be okay if it was only for a minute.

“I can run back and check.” I looked at the sweater tag, checking for the brand name, and dashed into the stockroom.

It took me a minute to locate the box I knew we had stored back there. I grabbed it off the shelf and pulled the cardboard flaps open to see that it was full of the sweaters the girl was looking for in dark blue, pink, burgundy, grey and brown. The display of them looked a little sparse; I might as well take the box out to restock the shelves.

As I maneuvered the large, awkward cardboard box through the narrow back storage area, the front doorbell clanged. Please don’t be someone walking away with an armload of stolen merchandise. I quickened my pace.

The box impeded my vision, and the old uneven wooden floors caused me to stumble as I got to the sales floor. Just before the box went flying, with me landing on top of it, someone grabbed the cardboard container from the other side and steadied it.

“Here, let me help you with that,” a guy offered.

“Thank you so much.” I felt the box being pulled from my arms. He set it down on the floor, and I was able to see my rescuer.

I didn’t recognize him; he looked older than me by a few years, probably college-age, and he had short, dirty-blond hair. His trim athletic build suggested that he must play some type of sport, and he had a confident air about him.

“So, what is a beautiful girl like you doing lugging around heavy boxes?” He cocked his head and studied me with dark brown eyes.

I crossed my arms, not particularly in the mood to be messed with. “Does that sort of line ever work for you?”

“Sometimes.” He grinned, apparently not deterred by my brush-off.

“I’m the only one here today, so I get to do whatever needs to be done, including lugging heavy boxes.” I bent down and pulled a dark blue sweater, size small, from the box.

“You’re by yourself?” The guy raised an eyebrow as he looked around the busy sales floor.

“Yeah, the other girl called in sick, and no one else could come in.” Why am I giving this guy so much information?

He turned back to me. “You know, it’s pretty busy in here, and helping lovely salesclerks in distress just happens to be a specialty of mine. I have years of retail experience; if you want, I could help you out for a bit.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that; you’re a complete stranger!” I was caught off guard by his proposal. I scanned the store for the blue sweater girl. She was over in the far corner, thumbing through a selection of low-rise corduroy pants that had just come in. Three customers waited at the cash, and they were starting to look annoyed.

“Excuse me.” I left the guy standing by the box and started back over to the counter. Blue sweater girl would just have to come get the hoodie from me if she wanted it.

“I’m Adam.” The guy followed me to the counter and when I came around behind it, stuck out his hand for me to shake. “Now we’re not strangers, or we won’t be if you tell me your name.”

I stopped and looked at him, not sure whether to laugh or be put off by his forwardness. Just then the bell clanged again, and I looked up to see another group of five girls from school entering the store.

“Hannah.” I took his hand. He had a firm grip, and held my fingers in his a little longer than necessary. “I couldn’t pay you. I mean, I’m not in charge of those sorts of things.”

“You can owe me one.” Adam flashed me a charming grin. I tried to convince myself he likely wasn’t harmful, that the worst he could do was steal from the store. At this point, I would be okay with that if he helped me first.

“Okay Hannah, who should this go to?” He took the sweater out of my hands and scanned the crowd for the potential buyer.

“That girl over there.” I pointed across the store. “And when you’re done with her, maybe you could clean up the display of vintage purses; someone’s knocked a bunch of them onto the floor.” It felt strange to give orders to a customer, but if he was willing, I really did need help, and this way I wouldn’t have to call Carmen.

“Your wish is my command.” He gave me a slight bow. Then, to my surprise, instead of getting to work, he came around behind the counter and thumbed through Carmen’s wall of records. I watched him while I worked the register, as he slipped an old Frank Sinatra album off the shelf and stuck it on the turntable. Once the music was playing he pushed up the sleeves of his maroon colored shirt, winked at me, and walked off towards the girl. I rolled my eyes at his dramatic gesture before continuing to cash out the line of waiting customers.

The next hour went by quickly, and business finally started to slow down. Adam moved around folding clothes, straightening displays, and helping customers, while I manned the register. Every time I glanced over at him, he met my gaze and flashed that same Cheshire grin, and every time my cheeks grew warm.

Twenty minutes before closing time, the two of us were finally alone in the store.

“It looks like we’re done.” Adam came over to lean on the counter, resting his elbows on it and looking at me.

“Yeah, finally. What a busy day. My boss Carmen will be really pleased with the sales. Thank you so much for your help. I would’ve been here at least another hour after closing cleaning up if you hadn’t pitched in.” I offered him a grateful smile.

“It is always a gentleman’s duty to help a lady in need.” He stood up straight and put on a thick southern drawl. “But really, it was no problem. You actually helped me out by giving me something to do tonight.” He reverted back to his normal voice as he leaned on the counter again.

“Really? Why’s that?” I arched an eyebrow.

“I go to Hartford University and my roommate invited me to come here and check out his hometown. We met up with his girlfriend, who’s still in high school here. The two of them wanted some alone time, if you get what I mean, so I shoved off. Coming here helped keep me occupied, and introduced me to something I can truly appreciate about this place.” I met Adam’s eyes; they held a mischievous gleam.

“Well, I’m glad I could help you out.” I laughed, suddenly aware that we were by ourselves in the store. Hopefully his flirtatiousness was as innocent as it seemed.

“Is there anything else you’d like help with?” His tone suggested he wasn’t referring to stocking shelves.

The box I’d brought out earlier still sat in the same place on the floor. “I should really put those away.” I pointed at it, ignoring his insinuation.

He looked to where I was pointing. “I wasn’t sure where you wanted them, so I just left it.” He straightened up again.

I quickly checked my watch. Did I have enough time to organize the sweaters on the shelf? I didn’t want to lug the box back into the storeroom and I didn’t feel comfortable letting Adam go back there, just in case.

“I think we could get these away before closing. They go over there.” I gestured as I walked towards the box, planning to kick it over to the wall shelf.

“Allow me.” Adam picked up the box and carried it over to where I’d pointed. The sweaters would have to go on the top two shelves that were sitting empty. Luckily the ladder was leaning against the next shelf over, and it only took me a moment to slide it to the empty shelves.

“I can do that,” Adam said as I positioned the ladder in the right spot.

“It’s okay, you can hand me sweaters.” I grabbed two and headed up the ladder.

“I’ll just make sure you don’t fall.” Adam braced the ladder by holding onto each railing so that I was now inside his arm span but a few feet up on the ladder.

This is completely innocent, just two people stocking shelves. I set the first stack of sweaters down, trying to act as though our close physical proximity was nothing.

“So, you go to Hartford University; my dad, Richard Reed, teaches history there. Do you know him?” I reached down as Adam handed me more sweaters.

“I’ve heard his name, but I’m not taking any of his classes.”

“Are you originally from around here?”

“No, I’m not really familiar with this area. I’m from the west coast, Washington.”

“What made you come to Hartford?”

“They have a great international affairs program, and since that’s an area I’m interested in, I figured, why not move across the country to the booming metropolis of Hartford?” Adam slid his hands along the ladder railings.

“I’ve heard they do have stores open past eight o’clock now,” I shot back.

“Yeah and all the Mark Twain paraphernalia you could ever want.”

“And who doesn’t love a good Mark Twain mug?”

“I’ve started a collection back at my dorm.” Adam grinned. “So, now that you know about my Mark Twain obsession, tell me, what sorts of things are you’re into?”

“Well, I’m not totally sure what I want to do once I’ve finished high school.” It might be a good idea to let him know how young I was. I turned to grab another stack of sweaters from him.

“High school, ah.” Adam nodded slowly but kept the same contented smile on his face.

I lifted my chin. “Yes, high school. I’m a senior.”

“So no grand plans for after high school then?” I didn’t detect disappointment in his voice over learning my age.

I shrugged. “No grand plans.” I didn’t know Adam. I wasn’t about to share personal details about myself with him. The shelves were full and I turned around to come back down the ladder. “I think we’re done. Thanks again for your help.” I took a step down but my foot missed and I slid down two rungs of the ladder right into Adam’s arms.

“Falling for me huh?” Adam arched an eyebrow.

“In your dreams.” I rolled my eyes, but my heart started to pound when he kept his hold on me even though I’d regained my balance. His eyes locked with mine and he leaned toward me. The door clanged, and I jumped. Adam straightened quickly, dropping his arms to his sides.

My head whipped toward the doorway as Carmen stepped into the store. She stopped when she saw us, and her eyebrows shot up. “Hello?”

“Hey, what are you doing here?” I climbed down off the ladder as Adam stepped back.

“I thought maybe you could use some help closing up.” She glanced back and forth from Adam to me as she walked over to the counter and set her bag down.

“I’m good,” I assured her.

“Apparently.” Carmen pursed her lips together.

“This is Adam.” I waved my hand in his direction. “He came into the store today and saw that I was swamped, since Adrienne called in sick. He has retail experience so he offered to stay and help. I wanted to let you have a day off, so I took him up on his offer, otherwise I would’ve had to call you in.” I felt like I was talking very fast.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Adam walked over and shook Carmen’s hand.

“Likewise. I’m Carmen, the owner. Thank you for helping Hannah today. If you want, you can grab a couple of shirts or something as payment,” she offered. I couldn’t tell from the way she kept looking back and forth between us if she was amused or concerned by the situation.

“Thanks, that’s okay though, you don’t owe me anything. I had a good time, but I should probably get going. It was nice to meet you Carmen. Hannah, I’m sure I’ll see you around.” He glanced over at me with that disarming grin as he spoke.

“Thanks again for your help.”

“You’re welcome,” Adam replied, and then he was gone.

I pushed back my shoulders as I walked over to join Carmen at the counter; bracing myself for the inquisition I knew was coming. “Carmen, please, just please, don’t say anything.”

“Well, that’s not happening.” Carmen shook her head. “What was that all about?”

“It’s like I said, he just came into the store, saw that it was crazy busy, and offered to help.” I straightened a group of old alarm clocks Carmen had displayed on the counter, avoiding her gaze.

“Right. And ogling you is what? Just part of his excellent customer service?”

I lifted my head to glare at her. “He wasn’t ogling.”

“The ladder?” Her eyebrows rose.

“Okay, so he was getting a little close, but he was handing me sweaters to stock, and then I slipped down the ladder …” I winced, realizing when I heard the words out loud they were a pathetic attempt to rationalize what had been developing between Adam and me.

“Whatever you say, Hannah, but that guy had it for you bad.” Carmen strolled behind the counter to start balancing the register.

I walked to the door and flipped the open sign to closed, and turned the lock.

We were silent for a few minutes while she counted money, and I tidied the areas that Adam had missed.

“You know, I am really impressed,” Carmen declared after a bit, looking up from her paperwork.

“With what?” I asked warily.

“It looks like you have a guy on both arms now.” She grinned and turned back to her work.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“That guy was completely into you, and then of course there’s Ethan,” she said. I could feel her eyes on me, watching for my reaction to her words. I stopped straightening a pair of boots on the display shelf and stared at her. Why had I ever told her the guy I’d intruded on in the change room had ended up at my school?

“What? You’re crazy. Adam was just flirting because he’s that kind of guy, and Ethan, well there’s nothing there. In fact, I’m pretty sure he has a girlfriend.” I worked to keep the disappointment out of my voice.

Carmen put a hand on her hip. “Hannah, a guy does not offer free labor to a girl just for kicks, and are you absolutely sure that Ethan has a girlfriend?”

“I saw them together.” I shrugged, picturing the elegant blonde again.

“And you’re sure she was his girlfriend?”

I thought about it for second. I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t seen them kiss or even touch, but from the way they were fighting, it was clearly a close relationship. She could’ve been his sister, but for some reason I didn’t think she was.

“I don’t know for sure, but either way, Ethan and I are just friends.”

“So, all your friends come to pick you up from work?” She nodded towards the door.

I whirled around to see Ethan standing on the deck in the glow of the yard’s white lights, his hand raised to knock on the glass of the door. He looked gorgeous in a dark, fitted, long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, and I tried to hide a smile as I turned back to Carmen.

“Don’t say a word,” I begged quietly, in case he could hear through the glass. I walked over to the door and unlocked it.

Carmen just laughed and went back to counting.

“Hi, come in. What are you doing here?” I held the door open as he walked past me, then shut and locked it again. I’d been sure from the way I’d acted towards him at school that it would only be a little while before he stopped acknowledging me altogether. I was surprised that I was wrong, and also a little pleased.

“I needed to ask you about something. I hope it’s okay that I’m here.” He looked over at Carmen.

“It’s okay, right?” I turned to my boss.

“Yeah, it’s no problem. Actually Hannah, I can finish up here if you want to go.” She waved a hand towards the exit.

“Really? Are you sure?” The store was pretty much cleaned up, and I could see that she had finished with the totaling, but I didn’t want it to seem like I was rushing out the door.

“Of course. I’m sorry I couldn’t be here today to help you with the crowd, but I’m glad you were able to scrounge up some assistance.”

I shot her a look with daggers. “I just have to grab my coat and bag,” I told Ethan, then walked to the counter and reached over to grab them. As I did, I flicked Carmen hard, just above her elbow.

“Ow!” she exclaimed, rubbing her arm. I gave her one more look before Ethan and I left. If he’d noticed my exchange with Carmen he was pretending he hadn’t.

“Have a good night, you two,” she called out as we exited the building.

I ignored the teasing in her voice as Ethan and I crossed the yard and walked towards the parking lot around back.

Ethan’s Jeep and my car were the only two vehicles in the lot. The sun had set, but we stopped in front of the Jeep, under the overhead lamppost’s illumination.

“So, what’s up?” I looked up at him as I shoved my hands in the pockets of my red twill coat to keep them warm.

“I wondered if I could borrow your English notes. I guess I was distracted during class yesterday and I missed some of what Mr. Gunderson was saying.” Ethan leaned against the Jeep’s front grill casually.

“Oh sure, of course. They’re in my backpack in the backseat of my car; let me grab them for you.” I unlocked the car door. School related, I should have known.

“Thanks. I knew you were working, so I thought I’d try to catch you before you left. Was it a busy night? It sounded like it, from what Carmen said.”

I grabbed my book bag and skimmed through my English binder. “It was busy for October, because we’re having a big sale.” I could have told Ethan about Adam, but I didn’t want to. He hadn’t told me about his mystery girl, so I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to explain anything to him.

I pulled out the newest set of notes and handed them to him, but as I went to clip the binder closed I caught my index finger, pinching it hard between the metal prongs. “Ouch!” I yanked it free, dropping everything to the ground.

Smooth Hannah. Instinctively, I stuck my finger in my mouth, and the metallic taste of blood swept across my tongue.

“Are you okay?” Ethan stooped down and picked up my binder and set it on the hood of his Jeep.

I pulled my injured digit out of my mouth. “Yeah, just clumsy.”

“Here, let me see.” He held out his hand. Flashbacks of my demand to tend to him at the library ran through my mind.

I placed my hand in his and he held up my throbbing appendage close to his face, the glow of the streetlight shining down on him. He reached for the hem of his shirt, pulling it up and wrapping the edge of it around my bleeding finger, exposing a good portion of his firm abdominal muscles.

“I guess you can’t protect me from everything, huh?” My tone was light, but inside I was dying. We were so close, and I fought the urge to press against him.

“It has been a challenge.” He pulled the material of his shirt away, but continued to inspect my hand.

“Well, I’ll take pinched by a binder clip over decapitated by a helium tank or crushed by a dump truck any day.” I pursed my lips together.

“Me too,” he murmured. “It doesn’t look too deep.” His thumb slid gently up and down my index finger, sending shivers coursing through me.

“Okay.” I worked on keeping my breathing even as I studied him, our faces inches from each other.

He opened his mouth then closed it again and dropped my hand. “I should get going. Thanks for these.” He handed me my binder, but held on to the notes. “I don’t want to interrupt your evening, so I’ll let you go. Is it okay if I give them back to you in English on Monday?”

“Sure, no problem. I guess I’ll see you Monday then,” I replied, my heart still racing.

“Enjoy the rest of your weekend, Hannah.” Ethan flashed me a smile.

“You too.” I nodded. Ethan waited, as he always did, until I was in my car before he climbed in his Jeep. We drove out of the parking lot and turned in opposite directions.

My mind was spinning as I drove home. My afternoon with Adam made me blush just thinking about it. No guy had ever flirted with me so intensely before. Had he been truly interested in me, like Carmen said, or had he just been killing time?

And then there was Ethan and his tending to my injured hand. What had been going on between us? I couldn’t have been the only one to feel it? Could I?

I thought we had a silent understanding between us when I’d been avoiding him. If he had a girlfriend, I had no interest in him.

Ethan and Adam, so different from each other, both in looks and personality. Adam’s confidence, almost arrogance, was a stark contrast to Ethan’s quiet sincerity and reserved character. Was it possible that two such different guys could both have some sort of interest in me? It seemed unbelievable, but maybe. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel as I pulled into my driveway. One thing was for sure: my last year in high school was getting more interesting by the day.

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