"How does she do it?" Lily asked, sighing and leaning her elbows on the counter. "I mean, why are guys always stupid enough to fall for that act? And why is she even here on her day off?"
Janelle glanced at her friend and shrugged, then went back to hanging shirts. "She's not that bad," she began, cringing in anticipation of the outrage she knew would follow.
Lily didn't let her down. "Not that bad?" she half-shrieked. "How can you say that, knowing what a man-stealer she is?"
Janelle hung the last shirt and headed for the counter to see who Fiona Meyer's latest victim was. "You're just extra resentful because of Evan," she couldn't help pointing out.
Lily huffed and flipped jet-black hair over her shoulder. "I wouldn't like her even if she hadn't stolen my boyfriend," she said indignantly, her rich brown eyes blazing.
Janelle just nodded. She'd only known Lily for about a year, but she'd quickly learned when it was best just to agree with her.
Sometimes she thought it odd that she and Lily could be friends at all. They were so different – Lily, with her exotic looks and outgoing personality, most definitely belonged to the popular group at school. Janelle on the other hand was only tolerated by the group because of her connection with Lily. Janelle was too quiet, too shy around people she wasn't close to, Lily always told her. If she'd just open up a little more, people would love her.
Janelle always brushed off those comments, knowing full well that even if she were more outspoken like Lily (although she wasn't nearly the wallflower Lily painted her to be), she just wasn't pretty enough. Her hazel eyes were too plain, and her voice went a little high-pitched when she was nervous. Her boring brown hair, naturally curly on good days, could become a frizzy mess at the slightest indication of rain. Oh, she had never thought she was ugly – she even thought she might be a little pretty – but with people like Lily and Fiona around, who would even notice her?
She sighed and tried to change the subject. "Did you hear about the missing girl?"
Lily scoffed. "Missing? Hardly. I hear she just ran off with some guy."
"You don't know that. What if something horrible happened to her?" Janelle hung up a shirt then set her stack down and went back to the front of the store.
Lily gave her a long look. "Janelle, she goes to SC. College kids are always doing something crazy. Oh my God, could her skirt get any shorter?"
And... right back to Fiona. Not even a missing girl could sidetrack Lily when a boy was involved. Subconsciously tugging at one of the curls falling over her shoulder, Janelle leaned against the counter next to Lily. "All right, where am I looking?"
Without moving, Lily said, "Across the aisle, in Caps. She's been working on that guy for weeks, and I'm afraid he's about to cave."
Janelle followed Lily's gaze across the busy mall corridor. Caps, a baseball hat store, was right across from The Rack, where they worked. Between passing shoppers, Janelle caught sight of a blonde head bobbing up and down on the other side of the guy's broad shoulder. Fiona placed her hand on his shoulder and batted her eyes at him. Janelle couldn't see his face since his back was to her, but she could tell he had dark hair and a definitely toned upper torso area.
"So who is he?" Janelle turned to Lily to ask. Although it was only Janelle's second week at The Rack, Lily had been there almost since she'd moved to town and knew all the latest mall gossip.
Without taking her eyes from the window, Lily said, "Brad. His name's Brad. And he's going to be mine, not Fiona's."
Choking back a laugh, Janelle began wiping off the counter. "Did you decide that before or after Fiona went after him?"
This got Lily's attention, and she turned to Janelle. "Honestly, Janelle, what kind of person do you think I am?" She paused, biting her lip thoughtfully. "Don't answer that. But really, Brad is easily the hottest guy in the mall." She sighed wistfully. "He's such a flirt, too. But he never commits. I just think he hasn't met Miss Right yet. And Right is my middle name."
"I thought your middle name was Ann." Janelle hid her smile behind her hand as Lily fixed her with an icy glare. "Okay, good luck with that, then."
Lily narrowed her eyes at Fiona's back. "Oh yes, he will be mine."
Janelle opened her mouth to make a comment about that being Lily's goal with every attractive guy, but at that moment, a gaggle of girls entered the store, and Janelle spent the next 20 minutes helping them.
After the rush, she finally remembered to look out the window again, but both Brad and Fiona had disappeared, and an older man stood behind the counter.
* * *
Lily left work early in the evening, leaving Janelle to close the store for the first time. By 8:45, the store was completely dead, and Janelle found herself struggling to find something to do. Sighing, she stepped into the display window to adjust the models. As she fixed the rolled-up sleeve on a shirt, she glanced out the window and froze.
"Oh my," she breathed, her lips parting.
Across the aisle, Brad was standing behind the counter, facing her but looking down at something, a magazine maybe. Janelle knew she was staring, but she couldn't help it. He was absolutely gorgeous, just like Lily said. Even with his head down, she could see the strong line of his jaw, the slight curve of his mouth. His dark hair was short and spiky and strong, tan arms seemed emphasized by the almost tight black shirt he wore.
"Keep staring like that and your eyes are going to fall out," a voice said behind her, and she spun around. The movement threw her into the store model, and she almost fell to the ground trying to catch it.
"Ryan! Don't do that!" She detangled herself from the model. A glance out the window showed her that Brad had seen everything. He watched her with interest from behind the counter, and she could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. She turned away quickly, facing her friend.
She had known Ryan Ashford since elementary school, when he had pushed her down on the playground in second grade. He had immediately been sorry about it, and for some reason the event had cemented their friendship.
At that moment, Ryan stood just outside the window inside the store, leaning against the wall, a knowing grin on his face. Long, sandy hair fell into his blue eyes, and he brushed it away. Ryan was cute, in that boy next door way, but Janelle had never felt anything more than friendship toward him.
His grin widened. "Checking out the view across the hall, huh?"
Her face burning, Janelle turned her back on him to fix the dummy's now-crooked shirt. "I was just working," she muttered.
She heard Ryan move up behind her, and she turned to find him gazing out the window. "Uh huh." His eyes narrowed. "Hey, I know that guy."
Janelle couldn't help but look at the other store again. Brad was helping a customer, white teeth flashing as he smiled. Her heart picked up its pace slightly. If only… She squashed the thought before it could complete itself. Lily would kill her if she took an interest in her current target. "So who is he?" she asked, trying to sound disinterested.
When Ryan didn't answer, she glanced at him. He stood frozen, staring out the window, his jaw set, his mouth almost scowling.
He turned to her, his face softening slightly. "He's Kaylee Whitmore's older brother. I met him a couple times, back when she and I were together." His tone was light, but Janelle could hear a touch of sadness under it. If she hadn't known him for so long, she probably wouldn't have even noticed it. "Anyway, looks like you're too late."
"What?" Janelle whirled around. Brad was smiling broadly at a girl who was leaning across the counter to talk to him, her hands gesturing animatedly. The girl had jet-black hair reaching to the middle of her back and a familiar dark skirt. Janelle blinked. "Wait, is that...?"
"It is," Ryan sighed.
"I thought Lily went home," Janelle breathed. "She moves fast." Then realization hit her, and she turned slowly toward Ryan. "Oh, Ry, I'm sorry."
"For what?" Ryan shrugged, plastering a smile across his face. "Looks like you and Lily are going to have to fight over him. Let me know when it happens; I want to be there. With my camera."
Janelle shook her head, fighting to keep the smile that threatened off her face. "Ryan, if you'd just ask her out..."
He held up a hand, pinching the fingers together in an imitation of someone talking. They'd had the conversation before. "What, and have her laugh in my face?" He shook his head hard, his hair falling back in his eyes again. "I don't think so." He turned and hopped out of the window display, moving toward the store's entrance.
"Hey, where are you going?" Janelle called after him.
"Gotta get home. See ya." He threw her a wave over his shoulder.
And with that, he had disappeared into the groups of people strolling by outside.
"Boys," she muttered, rolling her eyes. She threw a quick glance out the window, sighing, then went back inside the store to get ready to close. If she was lucky, she'd be closed before Lily had a chance to stop by to gloat.
* * *
An hour later, Janelle was walking through the darkened parking garage toward her car. She'd only done this twice, but she already hated this part. She'd seen too many scary movies, and the garage always felt creepy to her, with its shadows and echoing sounds. No matter how much maintenance tried to keep up on the garage, there were always a few lights out. And as her luck would have it, she'd managed to park her car, a rusty Cavalier, under one of those dark spots.
She sighed and walked to the car as quickly as possible, trying to ignore the unease that raced up her spine. Relief flooded through her as she slid into the car seat and shut the door, immediately locking it.
"You're such a coward," she told herself as she put the keys in the ignition and turned. Nothing happened.
"Oh great!" She stared at the steering wheel in disbelief as she turned the key again. Nothing. Not even an attempt to start. What was she going to do now?
Sighing, she got out of the car and popped the hood. A lot of good that did. She stood staring down at the mass of wires and car parts, not knowing what a single one was. No, wait, she did know that was where she put the wiper fluid. "Great!" she exclaimed again and leaned against the wall behind her.
"Your battery's probably dead."
The voice came out of the darkness, and she gasped involuntarily. A figure appeared from the shadows, his dark hair seeming black in the shadows.
"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you," Brad said, holding up his hands.
She nodded, embarrassed. "I … I just didn't hear you coming."
He smiled, stepping close to her to lean over the engine. This close, Janelle could smell the cologne he wore, and she closed her eyes, her knees feeling weak.
"Yeah, your battery's dead," he repeated. "Did you leave your lights on?"
It had been rainy and dark when she'd come to work. She sighed. "Probably. I'm such a dope."
Brad closed the hood and turned to her. This close, Janelle realized his eyes were a brilliant emerald green, almost like the green that comes from colored contact lenses, but darker, more real. She stared at him, unable to tear her eyes away.
He smiled again, flashing dimples. Oh my, Janelle thought again. "Do you have another way home?" he asked.
"I …" She couldn't think. Her whole mind was in overload. Concentrate! He's just a guy, for God's sake. "I could call my friend…" Her voice trailed off uncertainly. Lily had probably left the mall by now, but she might not be home yet. Janelle fumbled to open her purse, where she kept her cell phone.
He crossed his arms across his chest. "Oh, don't do that. Come on, I'll give you a ride."
He began walking away from her car, and she hurried after him. "That's all right. My friend won't mind coming to get me. Or I could walk. I don't live that far. Just right over there." She found herself babbling at him.
"It's no problem. I'll just drop you off on my way home."
"I …" Come on, a voice inside her head urged. A hot guy wants to take you home, and you're arguing with him? What would Lily do? "All right," she conceded.
Brad stopped and turned to her. "By the way, my name's Brad."
"I know," she blurted, then held her breath, mortified. "I mean, I work across from you…" Oh God. "I mean… My name's Janelle."
His smile widened, flashing straight white teeth. He took her hand and shook it firmly. "Nice to meet you. My car's over here."
He led her to a bright yellow Mustang with black racing stripes. Her jaw dropped in surprise He must have seen her gawking, because he grinned and said, "Don't get all excited. It's not mine. It's my step-dad's. I just borrow it when he lets me."
"Oh," Janelle said weakly, still feeling vaguely dreamlike.
He unlocked the passenger door and opened it for her. For a moment, she hesitated, staring into the car, then she slid onto the cool leather seat. He shut the door behind her.
"Oh God oh God oh God," she muttered while he walked around the back of the car to the driver's side. She couldn't believe she was doing this. Why was she always such a spazz around cute guys? Why couldn't she be cool and in charge like Lily?
He slid into the seat beside her and gave her a sideways grin. She pushed at her curly hair nervously, suddenly very aware of how she must look after a day of work. As he backed out of the space, she cast her mind around in search of something to say.
"So," she finally said. "How do you like working at Caps?"
He shrugged, his eyes on the road as he wound his way down the parking garage ramps. "It's fine. Not that exciting. I mean, it's a pretty niche product. We're not usually that busy."
Janelle realized she was staring at him as if what he was saying was the most interesting thing she'd ever heard. She blinked and forced herself to look out the window instead.
Rein it in, psycho, she warned herself.
She was having trouble concentrating on what he was saying because her thoughts were spinning around in her head. She snapped to attention, though, when Brad said, "So, nice rack."
He glanced at her out of the corners of his eyes, frowning slightly. "I asked if it was nice working at The Rack."
Oh my God.
Janelle gasped in relief, a giggle rising in her throat. "Oh. I ... I thought you said..." She smothered her laughs, but she couldn't keep the smile off her face. Amazingly, her mental flub seemed to do wonders for her nerves. She relaxed against the car seat. "It's fine. You know, it's a job."
He nodded. They pulled up to the main street, and he braked. "Where to?"
"That way. Just over on Oak."
He made the turn, and they both sat in silence for a moment. "So..." Janelle finally said. "You know my friend Lily?"
He glanced at her, the passing streetlights throwing dancing shadows on his features. "Yeah, she stopped by to say hi earlier. I didn't know you were friends. She's a cool girl. We have lunch together sometimes."
"Oh." Despite her best efforts not to, Janelle still felt a stab of jealousy in her gut. "Yeah," she said weakly. "She's great."
Then they were on Janelle's street. She pointed out her house, and Brad pulled into the driveway, turning to her. The green of his eyes seemed to stand out even in the darkness, and Janelle's heart fluttered. If she were Lily... She imagined leaning over and kissing him, saying in a sultry voice, "Payment for the ride..."
Her cheeks burning, she merely said, "Thanks for the ride."
He flashed her a brilliant smile. "Anytime. It was nice to meet you."
She got out and walked slowly toward the front door as he backed out. Then, when she could no longer see his taillights, she let out a gut-wrenching groan of frustration.
"So smooth, Janelle," she swore at herself as she let herself inside. She consoled herself with the thought that Brad probably wouldn't remember anything that had happened tonight once Lily bedazzled him with her presence again.
Author's note: Okay, here's my new story (which I mentioned on my profile would be called Dead is the New Black. Yeah, finally thought of a better title. :-P). Let me know what you think! No vampires or superpowers this time.
I will warn there is no way I'll be updating this as quickly as I did The Executioners. Even though that was a major, major rewrite, it was still a rewrite, which made it go much more smoothly. So, I will simply promise that I will try to update this as quickly as is reasonably possible. :-) Hope you like!
Oh, and this story is dedicated to my best friend Danielle, who not only has been way enthusiastic about it but has also been a great idea bouncer. :-D