On Friday, the mall was packed after school and it seemed like everyone needed their hair cut. Andrea smoothed her apron over her jeans and grabbed a scrunchie from behind the reception counter, pulling her shoulder length hair into a ponytail high on the back of her head.
The skin on her fingertips puckered from the amount of shampoos she’d done on tonight’s shift. Leslie was her partner tonight and that left Andrea picking up the slack—again.
“Gah, my hands will be pruned forever,” Andrea told Judy who stood at the desk. “Where the hell is Leslie? Every time a customer comes in, she has something to do for a sec.”
Judy laughed. “At least you’re getting the tips for it.”
“Yeah, I’ll need them to buy an industrial sized bottle of lotion.”
“We have a bit of a lull right now. Maybe you’ll dry out.”
“And I’ll use the time to find Leslie and tell her to get her ass to work.” Andrea smiled at Judy’s groan. “I know, I know. No fighting in front of the customers. But there’s always the back room.”
“How about you go sweep up some clippings and stay out of trouble,” Judy said.
Andrea gave her a mock salute and crossed the salon to grab the broom. The mindless task gave her time to think—something she didn’t want to do. Deciding on a major, figuring out financial aid, her asshole dad refusing to give her the info she needed or to help her fill out the forms… it all converged on her if she wasn’t distracted enough.
But even those things blew through her head when Gio decided to move into it.
Andrea moved from station to station sweeping around the base of the hydraulic chairs. The stylists smiled their thanks, adding to the clippings while they chatted up their clients. She checked the clock then glanced out into the mall. He’d be by soon. His shift started in ten minutes. All week he’d been coming to work at the same time, and each time he tried to talk to her.
Her cheeks heated as she pictured his face. So damn hot. The thought of going out with him had her insides a gooey mess, but she couldn’t. If he knew what she was really like, where she came from, he’d reconsider. Put the trash out just like everybody else.
Sweeping the rest of the clippings into the dustpan, Andrea caught sight of Gio from the corner of her eye.
“Shit.” Ignoring the pounding of her heart in her ears, she grabbed the dustpan and fled toward the back room. Waving at Judy’s frowning face as she went.
She emptied the dustpan into the trash and opened the dryer door. Grabbing a warm, brown towel, she took a deep breath to steady her heart, jumping as the door opened.
Judy leaned her head in and smiled. “You have someone here to see you.”
Damn he’s persistent.
“I have to get these towels folded. The girls were asking for them. Tell him I’m busy.”
Judy stepped into the room and crossed her arms over her chest. “What’s going on with you? I thought you liked that little hottie working for Stanley.”
Andrea shrugged and grabbed another towel. “He’s cute. Not my type I guess.”
“Right. I get it.” Judy waved a hand. “Tall, dark, and handsome. Yeah. I see why he isn’t your type.”
Judy chuckled and heat filled Andrea’s face. Her boss knew her too well. But that meant she should know the real reason Andrea avoided Gio.
“I don’t think I’m his type. He goes to a private school. Probably has an ivy league college lined up. I’m not…” Before the good enough could slip out, she grabbed another towel and shook it with a snap. “I’m not looking for a guy right now.”
“You listen to me.” Judy laid her hands on Andrea’s shoulders to stop her from folding. “You are a strong, beautiful girl with lots of potential. Any guy would be lucky to have you for a girlfriend. Got it?”
“Thanks.” Andrea twisted the towel between her hands, her stomach copying the motion.
“Your visitor isn’t him, by the way.” Judy smiled. “It’s your friends, Molly and Cindy.”
Andrea raised her head. “Really?”
“Yeah, they’re waiting in the front. Why don’t you take a break and go visit for a bit?” Judy winked. “I’m sure Leslie can handle the washes for a few minutes.”
Smiling, Andrea tossed the towel back into the dryer and rushed toward the front of the store. Molly and Cindy sat in the chairs with the other customers who waited, flipping through the style magazines.
“Hey, girl!” Cindy said, standing as Andrea came toward them. She pulled Andrea into a hug.
Awkwardly patting Cindy’s back Andrea said, “Hi.”
“Hi, Andrea.” Molly giggled, giving her a brief hug after Cindy let her go. “We were here shopping and thought we’d say hello.”
“When did you guys get into town?” Andrea asked as they sat together in the chairs. “Are the guys with you?”
“No,” Cindy said, rolling her eyes. “Mike stayed at school. He’s rushing a frat and they had stuff to do this weekend.”
“C’mon, Cindy.” Molly nudged her with her shoulder. “You know he needs to join for the networking. It’ll pay off in the long run to help him with his law school.”
“Right. And in the meantime, he’ll get to party on the weekends.” She glanced at Andrea and raised her eyebrows. “He’s lucky I’ll be there to keep him from getting in trouble.”
Andrea laughed. Mike probably did need her for that. His parties were always pretty crazy. She looked at Molly. “What about Hayden? How’s he doing?”
“Still the little old man in a hottie dude’s body,” Cindy said. “He dotes on his girlfriend like a mama cat with her kitten.”
“Shut up,” Molly said with a laugh. “He’s at school, working on a group project for one of his business classes. Our cross country season finally ended, and practices are only once a day now. Coach let me take the weekend to come home and visit.”
Only once a day?” Andrea raised her eyebrows. “How many times did you practice during the season?”
“We had three-a-day workouts. Running, weightlifting, and swimming.” Molly nodded at Andrea’s open mouth. “It’s intense.”
“Wow. Sounds like it.” The twisting returned to her stomach. “When do you have time to study?”
“It’s a balancing act for sure.” Molly smiled. “But I love it. And having Hayden there makes everything better.”
“I don’t have the sports, but my double major makes up for it.” Cindy swiped a strand of her curly black hair behind her ear. “The classes are more challenging than high school.”
Her heart slammed against her ribs. School wasn’t Andrea’s thing, and college was the only way out. But if Molly and Cindy thought it was hard, what hope did Andrea have?
“How are you doing?” Cindy asked. “Any plans for school yet?”
“Uh, well, Northeast Missouri’s coach came to the last couple meets this fall. He says I can get a scholarship if I shave some time off my mile.”
“That’s great,” Molly said grabbing Andrea’s hands. “How much time?”
“Thirty seconds off my five-forty-five.”
“That’s tough.” Molly squeezed her hands. “You can do it though. You’re a great runner.”
“Yeah, you got this, girl,” Cindy said, nodding.
Andrea smiled and swallowed the lump from her throat. She wasn’t a crier, tears usually earned more abuse, but having them say nice things about her—despite the trouble she’d caused them last year—unplugged the ducts in her eyes.
Judy waved at the line of people and mouthed, “Sorry.”
Andrea nodded. “Hey, I have to get back to work. Thanks for coming to see me.”
They all stood and after goodbyes, Molly and Cindy left, promising to visit again when they could. Before Andrea could walk back to the desk to check the next client on the list, a hand wrapped around her elbow. She glanced into the owner’s brown eyes.
“Hola,” Gio said, smiling. “You’re a hard one to get a hold of. I finally caught you.” He squeezed her arm for a second but then let go and held out a small white paper bag.
“Uh, hi.” Andrea pointed with her chin. “What’s that?”
“I brought you something.” He pressed the bag toward her. “I hope you like chocolate chip.”
“That’s… that’s sweet of you.” Butterflies filled her stomach and she took the bag.
“I see what you did there,” he said with a laugh. Then he rubbed his nose and glanced down at his white high-tops. “Actually, I had an ulterior motive. I thought if you could take a break for a minute, you could eat, and I could talk.”
Andrea looked back at Judy. She smiled from ear to ear, waving her hands like she was pushing Andrea out of the shop.
Thought she needed me to help?
“So, can we talk for a minute?”
Andrea shook her head. “I can’t. It’s busy right now.”
“Okay, how about after work?” The dimple imploded on his cheek again.
“I’m, uh. I have to get home and do my homework.”
“Tomorrow?” His silky voice rumbled in her ears. “I’m off all day. We could hang out.”
“I have to work a double shift.” The bag crinkled as she rolled the top into a tight tube.
Gio sighed, his dimple filling in as his smile faded. “I really want a chance to know you, Andrea. Please?”
His last whispered word almost broke down the wall she’d been building to hide herself from him. Would it really be so bad to try?
She opened her mouth to answer him, but Leslie stepped up beside him and patted his shoulder.
“Hi, Gio! Congratulations.”
Gio looked from Andrea to Leslie. “Okay, thanks? For what?”
“My cousin, Lori said you won first place in the robotics contest at your school.” Leslie placed her hand on Gio’s bicep and shook her blond ponytail with a twist of her head. “She said you’re very good with your hands.”
Andrea raised one eyebrow. Really?
“Oh, sì, sì. I did win.” He raised his arm to scratch his head, pulling it away from Leslie’s touch. He smiled at Andrea. “My robot is a vehicle that can carry things over rocky terrain. It has thick tires, so it doesn’t get stuck. I can show you sometime.”
Robotics? Yeah. He was so far out of her league he was on the moon. And by the sound of it, he or something he makes might actually go there some day.
Leslie glared at her, but Andrea stepped back, her fingers clutching the top of the cookie bag. “Uh, maybe some other time. I have to get back to work. Thanks for the cookie.”
She turned away and raced for the back room. The lump returned to her throat but not because of happy tears. Afraid to see what she could never deserve she didn’t even look back.
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