I unlocked the door and turned the sign around so that it read “Open,” feeling as I did so the same thrill I experienced every morning. Having my own shop after working for Tracie for four years, as much as I’d loved working with her, was an indescribable high. Now it was all on me. I did the buying, the layout, the planning for sales and special events. And here I was in the big town after helping Tracie grow her business back home. I’d always felt I was meant to come here, and it was going well.
The boutique was exceptional–the business reporters and the people from the Chamber of Commerce had seen that right away. With my gift for choosing just the right Fair Trade goodies and imports and my fashion sense, I was creating something that was drawing customers from all over. It was a huge relief every time somebody actually made a purchase. I was still a little freaked out by my own boldness, but little by little, I was starting to accept the possibility that I was, in fact, damn good at this.
I knew that insecure feeling was a ghost from the past, and it was something I’d learned to deal with in therapy. I knew that a great many people who go on to do quite well later in life were bullied in middle school. Most of my best friends these days hadn’t fit in perfectly back then. We were the square pegs being forced into round holes, the ones who walked around with targets on our backs: the poets and artists and entrepreneurs.
Not everyone had been as lucky as I’d been. In seventh grade, my parents had realized that all the advice they gave me about being myself and holding my head up wasn’t really going to solve the problem. But the problem wasn’t really me–it was them.
It had escalated quickly. Raven-haired Chelsea Britton had invited me to sit with her at lunch, and I had said no thanks. I hadn’t meant anything wrong by it. I had a project I was working on, and I intended to keep reading through lunch period, that was all. It wasn’t until I happened to glance up from my library book on fashion design and happened to see Chelsea pointing at me that I realized there might be more to it.
Chelsea was plainly talking about me. As I watched, she said something to her number one sidekick, Jen Woodleigh, and Jen responded–I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the whole table of girls burst into giggles. I’d seen enough of how this crew operated that I was pretty sure them pointing and giggling wasn’t a good thing. Somewhere in the pit of my stomach a knot began to grow.
But I had been sadly unprepared for their next move. I shouldn’t have been, I guess. But for those of us who don’t possess a Mean Girl attitude, their logic isn’t anything like logical. So when Ted Westlawn had come up to me in the hall two days later, I hadn’t connected it to the fact that Chelsea and her crew had been giving me weird looks ever since I’d declined the invite to lunch.
“Heya, Nikki.” He’d been plausibly casual. “What’s doin?”
I might have been somewhat lost in my own geeky little world, but I had certainly noticed Ted. You couldn’t avoid him. He was the co-captain of the eighth grade football squad and the head of the debating club, and the adults seemed to be constantly showering praises on him like he was some classic ideal scholar-athlete destined to save the Republic from Doom.
Which under normal circumstances would have been a turn off. But in Ted’s case it was mitigated by the fact that he was just simply too smokin’ hot to ignore. Just because I didn’t want to play the normally accepted social games didn’t mean I was blind–or that I hadn’t begun, at twelve and a half, to wonder what it might feel like to be alone with a guy.
And Ted, I will admit, had his place in my wonderings. He had jet black hair and blue eyes and a sleek body, ripped but not bulky.
So when he asked me what was doin’, I stumbled through an answer. And when he asked me to meet him outside the MobilMart that night, my heart jumped.
I was hooked. All they had to do after that was jerk the line. I showed up at the MobilMart in my best Levis and what I thought was a cute top. Ted was five minutes late, but when he got there–we were sitting on a picnic table outside the store–I was tongue tied and overly impressed. After all, it was the first time a guy had invited me anywhere.
“So,” he said, “are you interested in history?”
“Yeah,” I said, “Why?”
“Because I think we’re making history right now.”
“What- um- I don’t think we’re the first people in history to meet at the MobilMart.”
“No,” he said. “You’re right. But it’s definitely the first time in the history of Mallotville that an ugly slut like you has been invited out. Anywhere.”
It took me a few seconds to actually absorb his words, to comprehend what was going on. The whole Chelsea/Jen lunch table crowd materialized out of nowhere and burst into insane giggling. Part of my brain was just going Really? REALLY? But my heart was reeling.
“You…You. You completely fucking suck,” I said to Pretty Boy Ted. But it might have been less than impressive because I did start to cry. They had their moment, and it was the end of my social life in middle school. When middle school finally ended about a thousand centuries later, my parents had arranged my admission to White Dove Parochial, and I wasn’t fool enough to object, even if it was all girls.
At WDP, I had thrived. And while I’d been winning a scholarship to the Design Consortium, I’d gotten a little help from Mama Nature. My breasts had developed a C-cup heft and my naturally long legs had firmed up nicely. Even without boys around in school, I had become pretty sure I wasn’t some ugly anything, let alone slut.
I brewed a pot of coffee and sat down at the desk next to the display case to do some accounting. But before I could get too deep into the math–never my favorite part anyway–the chimes on the door tinkled and a customer entered.
He’d aged well, damn him, filled out in all the right places. A leather jacket over a silk shirt and tie suggested prosperity. Our eyes met, and I expected to see a shock of recognition there but none came.
“Morning,” I said, biting my tongue hard against the sudden anger that rose up bright and hard in my throat. Twelve years had passed, but for a moment, I was back in that convenient store parking lot. I wanted to hit him. Wanted to throw him out of my shop. But the fact that he had no idea whose tits he was ogling was just too priceless. I decided to bide my time and see what happened.
“Morning,” he said with a grin. “I’m looking for a gift for somebody who loves all this kind of hippie crap. Maybe you could help me out.”
His shoulders and chest might have filled out nicely, but his manners clearly hadn’t kept pace. Hippie crap was as inaccurate as it was unkind; the local jewelers and candle-makers and weavers whose work I displayed among the racks of silk and cotton imports were highly regarded, and I was lucky to be able to offer their work at good prices.
“If you’re looking for crap, the mall’s about six miles north of here,” I shot back.
“Geez, did I say that? I’m inexcusable. No, seriously, I need a present that’ll make a really great impression on my boss’s wife. She’s not the mall type. They asked me to dinner, and I can’t bring wine–he’s straight edge or an alike or something.”
“So you need a hostess gift.”
“Exactly. How much are these?” He gestured to a display of candles in rich jewel tones.
“Those are $7 for a pair. They’re hand-dipped.”
“They smell funny. And if I only spent seven bucks I’m not sure it’d make the right impression.”
“Well, over here I have some fancier ones. These run from twelve to twenty.”
Without seeming to consider much besides the price, he picked out a candle molded in the shape of a bear. As I wrapped it, his eyes were on my breasts.
“So,” he said suddenly, “if I took you to lunch, would you forgive me for my tasteless remark when I came in here?”
I looked him up and down, a frank appraisal like the one he’d given me. Damn, but he was still hot. Hotter, if anything. And he had no idea of how much I despised him. The possibilities were mind blowing.
“Nope,” I said. “But dinner might do it.”
Two days later, I was in the tub, shaving my legs with care, soaking in scented moisturizing soap. My plan was still evolving, but I knew I wanted to be the sexiest woman he’d ever had a dinner date with. The thought had been generating a heat between my legs ever since he’d left the shop.