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Missing Piece

Book 1

By Jillyan Leigh

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Jillyan Leigh

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

*Chapter 1*

I hate Tuesdays. I glanced at my watch and was disappointed to see that it was only 1:28. I laughed as I caught myself thinking that Leslie could have been considerate enough to have her baby on a busier day. I don’t mind covering for her at all, but it does seem like time stands still on a Tuesday. The store is so dead that keeping busy with customers isn’t an option. The lack of customers and the fact that I don’t really enjoy working in the men’s department has made this day drag by like no other.

Thank goodness the worst is over and I only have to make it until two o’clock. Now, I just have to find something to keep me busy for thirty-two minutes. I’ve already steamed the wrinkles out of all the shirts in the back room and wiped down all the racks on the sales floor. I guess it’s time to clean behind the sales counter.

I started walking towards the sales counter and a pale blue dress shirt caught my eye. I guess that’s why I don’t like working in the men’s department. I see things that I like and it reminds me that I don’t have anyone to buy them for. It doesn’t bother me at all that I’m not romantically involved with a man, but it hurts badly when I see items that would have been perfect for my dad.

I removed the pale blue shirt from the rack and held it up. The color of the shirt would have complimented my dad’s eyes perfectly. He was a handsome man and I knew he would have looked amazing in that shirt. Mom had always made it a point to buy him shirts that accented his eyes and I knew she would have loved to have seen him in that shirt. The thought of them made my eyes fill with tears and I quickly hung the shirt back on the rack.

“Are you okay, honey?”

Libby’s voice startled me and I flinched.

I turned to face Libby and replied, “I’ve just been thinking of Mom and Dad a lot today.”

Libby smiled lovingly and I could see the compassion in her dark brown eyes. She hugged me gently and I instantly felt better.

“Libby, I love you. You’re the best second mother a girl could ever have.”

She softly kissed my cheek and said, “You’re the best daughter a second mother could ever have. Just be thankful that you don’t look a thing like me.”

I giggled and replied, “You know I’d be beautiful if I had inherited your looks.”

Libby laughed and looked me up and down before saying, “Kennedy, you came out much better with the looks you inherited from your parents. Contrary to what you may think, you’re a bombshell. If you don’t believe me, just pay closer attention to how all the men’s eyes pop out of their heads when they see you.”

I laughed and said, “Congratulations, Libby. That was spoken like a true mother.”

Libby giggled and said, “I only speak the truth, Boss Lady.”

I eyed her suspiciously and asked, “Are you really trying to compliment me or is this just an attempt to suck up to the boss?”

Libby’s eyes had a mischievous twinkle as she replied, “Both.”

I laughed and said, “You have succeeded at both. I know you didn’t just come over here to flatter me, although I don’t mind if you want to make it a habit. I strongly suspect you came over to make sure I haven’t died from boredom. Well, I’m not quite dead yet. Give me another couple of minutes.”

Libby glanced at her watch and giggled and said, “Quit being dramatic, Kennedy. You’ve almost completed your time in men’s department hell. By the way, I must say that I have never seen the clothing racks over here sparkle so brightly. The five wipe downs you gave them today really did the trick. I guess that’s why you’re paid the big bucks.”

I shook my head and said, “Very funny, Libby. For your information, I only wiped them down three times. I will admit that it would have been a bit more rewarding if they had actually been dusty.”

Libby closed her eyes and shook her head before asking, “Are you admitting that your rack wiping was an elaborate scheme to kill time?”

I giggled softly and said, “I will admit that it helped make the time go by faster, but I’ll admit to nothing else. Why don’t you tell me the real reason you came over here instead of interrogating me?”

Libby smiled broadly and said, “I was getting ready to head over to the purses. I was wondering if you wanted me to go ahead and mark down those purses we were talking about yesterday.”

I thought about it for a moment and then said, “Yeah, go ahead and mark them down fifty percent instead of twenty-five. We need to get them out of here. We’ll get one of those bunkers out of the back to put them in when I get back from lunch. Go ahead and make up some signs for them.”

Libby playfully saluted me and announced, “Consider it done. I’ve got to get back to work now. My boss lady yells at me when she catches me wasting time. She can be a real witch about it.”

I laughed hard as Libby quickly turned on her heels to walk away. I love Libby so much. She can always cheer me up when I’m in a funk. She’s much more than my assistant manager. She is my friend and I really do look at her as a mother figure. I can honestly talk to her about anything.

I looked down at my watch. It was now 1:32. I felt like banging my head against a wall. Time is creeping by so slowly and my stomach is starting to growl. I am really regretting my decision to skip breakfast right now. If I don’t die from boredom, I may just starve to death before two o’clock rolls around.

I walked to the front of the department, stepped behind the counter, picked up a bottle of cleaner and a roll of paper towels, and went to work. I walked to the outside of the register area and started spraying and wiping down the sides and front. Once I was finished with the outside, I walked back behind the counter and started spraying and wiping down the countertops.

I paused long enough to throw away the dirty paper towels I had bunched in my hand. I tore off a few clean paper towels and sprayed them with cleaner. I walked over to the register and wiped the screen and dusted off the top and sides. I lightly sprayed another paper towel and wiped it across the register’s keyboard.

The cleaner’s fresh scent was strong and I couldn’t help but think that the place smells better, even if it pretty much looks the same. I’m very proud of my sales associates because they all do a good job with housekeeping in their departments. I can honestly say that I never have to remind them to keep their areas clean. I’m very fortunate because my employees have never made it necessary for me to micromanage them. They know their job and they do their best at it. I always make it a point to let them know how much I appreciate them.

I knelt down to the shelf below the register. I sprayed some paper towels and started wiping around the equipment attached to the register. I wiped around each piece, lifted each piece up to wipe underneath, and then dusted off the equipment itself. Then I moved on to the shelves under the side counters.

I stood up to stretch and then focused on the shelf under the counter directly behind the register. It is deeper than the other shelves to accommodate our hanger bin. I pulled the bin off the shelf and scooted it out of the way. I knelt down and sprayed the shelf. I had to get on all fours and partially crawl under the counter to be able to reach all the way to the back of the shelf.

The shelf actually had dust on it. I felt compelled to wipe it down again to ensure I got all the dust. I set the soiled paper towels aside and sprayed the shelf again. I took clean paper towels and started wiping the shelf again. I crawled a little further under the counter as I worked my way across the shelf.

I heard a man’s voice say, “Excuse me.”

The voice had come from the register area behind me. I quickly turned my head around and looked up. My mouth flew open as our eyes met. I was in complete shock. He was, by far, the hottest man I had ever laid eyes on.

His dark hair was trimmed close. His eyes were absolutely amazing. They were the purest emerald green I had ever seen. He smiled as he looked down at me and I could see his dimples. My God, those dimples were amazing. To be clear, everything about him was amazing- his smile, his eyes, his dimples, his broad chest, his muscular arms- everything. I was thoroughly convinced the parts of him that were hidden behind the counter were amazing, too. They just had to be.

I notice handsome men like any other woman, but I have never been guilty of gawking at a man. This man made me gawk. I realized I was staring at him too hard and quickly looked down. It hit me that I had the most gorgeous man on this planet behind me and my butt was straight up in the air pointing at him. I was horrified.

I tried to get to my feet as quickly as possible, momentarily forgetting that my head was under the counter. The loud bang as my head cracked against the counter and the searing pain that simultaneously shot through my skull served as a reminder. My body rolled to the side and I was left sitting on my rear rubbing my sore head. Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes and I was so stunned I couldn’t move.

The handsome customer ran around the counter and squatted down in front of me.

“Are you okay?”

It was official. I wanted to die right then and there. I see a drop-dead gorgeous man and my first reaction was to nearly knock myself out. I dropped my eyes and stared at the floor. I could not even bring myself to look at him.

“If you’re talking about my pride, I’m certain it will never heal. If you’re talking about my head, it’ll probably be fine. I’m quite hard headed.”

I heard him softly chuckle.

“Ma’am, I don’t believe that at all. I’ve known a lot of hard headed people in my lifetime and none of them were ever so quick to admit it. You’ve banged your noggin pretty hard. Can you look up at me for a second?”

I found it somewhat ironic that he was asking me to look at him. After all, that’s what got me in trouble to begin with. I couldn’t remember a time when I had been so embarrassed and I didn’t want to look at him, but he was trying so hard to help me. I couldn’t very well refuse.

I tilted my head upwards and looked at him. The magnificent smile I had witnessed a moment ago was replaced by a look of genuine concern. His green eyes were even more beautiful up close and they were staring intently at my face.

He asked, “Have you stopped seeing stars yet?”

I managed a weak smile and replied, “I think so. You can go ahead and laugh. I know that had to be a funny thing to witness.”

He smiled warmly at me and said, “Trust me, I would never find that funny. I’ve banged my head plenty of times and I know it hurts.”

He pointed to his head and added, “Look at this big head. A head this big is always colliding with something. I hit my head so hard in my garage about a month ago that it’s a wonder I don’t try to put my pants on backwards every morning.”

I started laughing and his smile broadened.

“Thank you for trying to make me feel better about doing something that stupid, but you could have left out the part about putting pants on backwards. I don’t ever remember banging my head that hard and now I have the funny feeling that I should start wearing dresses from here on out. Also, for the record, you don’t have a big head.”

His eyes sparkled as he laughed. I was focusing hard to not stare. He was simply magnificent. Aside from his stellar looks, his demeanor seemed so kind and genuine.

He asked, “Do you feel like standing up yet?”

I nodded my head and he said, “Okay, let me help you up.”

He stood up and reached his hands out to me. I couldn’t believe it. This gorgeous man was going out of his way to prove that chivalry wasn’t dead. I reached up for his hands and he pulled me to my feet in one swift motion. Once I was on my feet and he was convinced I was steady, he released my hands.

I smiled at him and said, “Thank you so very much. You may have accidentally been born long after your time. Considering your chivalrous actions, you would have made a marvelous knight. The damsels in distress back then didn’t usually try to bash in their own skulls either. I’m sure they were far less embarrassed than me upon rescue as well. Being kidnapped by a dark knight is much more honorable than forgetting your head is under a counter.”

He burst out laughing about the time I realized that I had just babbled absolute nonsense to him. I felt my face redden. I was suddenly glad that I didn’t encounter men like him on a daily basis. I would probably be dead by now if I did.

He started to speak, but he was still laughing too hard. That seemed to make him laugh even harder. I could only imagine how crazy he thought I was. Finally, he was able to compose himself enough to speak.

“Are you always this funny?”

His face had a look of curiosity on it as he waited for my reply.

I said, “Not on purpose. It just ends up that way sometimes.”

He smiled and shook his head. As much as I was enjoying spending time with him, I knew he hadn’t come to the store to talk to me.

I looked him in the eye and said, “I really can’t thank you enough for being such a gentleman and helping me. However, I’m supposed to be the one helping you and I’m failing miserably at it. I apologize for the distraction. What were you needing help with?”

He grinned and said, “I had almost forgotten about that. Plus, I probably need to get back on my side of the counter anyway.”

He walked around to the counter by the register, picked up a burgundy dress shirt, and held it up to me before asking, “Do you happen to have this in a bigger size?”

I walked over to face him and reached for the shirt. I glanced at the label and was disappointed.

“I’m sorry, but we sure don’t. We already have all the shirts from that line out on the sales floor. However, if you’re open to suggestions, we have some really nice shirts on clearance for eighteen dollars. I don’t mean anything weird by saying this, but you have amazing eyes and I noticed a shirt this morning that would really showcase them.”

A look of amusement crossed his face and he said, “Truthfully, I’m not much of a shopper. This was just the first shirt I saw that I liked. I’m open to any recommendations you have.”

I smiled and said, “Follow me.”

The sale racks at the back of the men’s department were spaced more closely together than the ones at the front. I remembered the shirts were on the very back row and we had to wind around some racks to get to them. Finally, we got to the rack.

He looked at me with that amazing smile on his face and said, “I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I would’ve never walked all the way back here. It’s a good thing you’re with me as a guide. I would probably never find my way back out again on my own.”

I giggled and said, “I hate to admit it, but customers like you are the reason all the good sales are in the back. Believe me, this setup is deliberate. Look at how many full priced items you had to pass to get here. Always remember that any time you’re shopping at Pillman’s you should start at the back and work your way to the front, not the other way around. All our really good sales are in the back of the departments.”

He eyed me suspiciously and said, “You’ve sure got me worried now.”

His voice was very serious. I wasn’t expecting that response from him and his words legitimately surprised me.

I asked, “Why would a shopping tip from me worry you?”

He kept a somewhat stern look on his face as he answered, “Well, you just let me in on a major conspiracy that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to know about. That alone can’t be good. Couple that with the fact that I’m now in an isolated area with no visible witnesses and my escape route is a complex maze and you should understand why I’m a bit concerned. For all I know, this is where you lead the customers you plan on sacrificing.”

I burst out laughing. God, this man is amazing. He has it all- good looks, a good sense of humor, and the manners of a gentleman. He is just too good to not have a significant other. She is the luckiest woman on the planet. I hope she appreciates the national treasure she has.

I looked at him and said, “I can put your mind at ease. I always try to get the sacrifices out of the way early in the day. Plus, you’re too physically fit for me. I usually try to pick older, more decrepit people that I am certain I can outrun. That cuts down on the risk of escape.”

He threw his head back in laughter. It occurred to me that even his laugh was amazing. Amazing, amazing, amazing- that is all I can say. How many times can one man make you use the word ‘amazing’ to describe him? Then again, how many men are actually that amazing? I can speak from personal experience that I’ve never met one before.

He gave me a mischievous smile and said, “I’m not sure that really put my mind at ease, but I’ll go with it.”

I pulled a pale green checked shirt off the rack and held it up before saying, “This is the shirt I was talking about. You can be honest if you don’t like it, but it will make your already amazing green eyes stand out even more. In fact, come over here a second and I’ll show you what I mean.”

He followed me as I led him to the mirror at the back wall. I motioned for him to stand in front of the mirror.

I handed him the shirt and said, “Now, hold this up to you.”

I watched him intently in the mirror as he held the shirt up in front of him. I couldn’t really tell if he liked the shirt or not by his expression, but I was certainly enjoying the view.

I asked, “Do you see what I mean?”

He had a look of concentration on his face and replied, “I actually do. I can honestly say that I can’t remember ever owning a shirt this color.”

I smiled at him in the mirror and he returned the smile.

I said, “Now, please be honest if you don’t really like it. I promise it won’t hurt my feelings, but I can honestly tell you that it will look amazing on you.”

He turned to face me and his smile widened and he said, “Your approval is certainly good enough for me. I’ll take it.”

He glanced down at the tag and said, “This one’s even the right size. How did you know?”

I giggled and said, “Luck of the draw. I just picked one up for you to see.”

He smiled and I held out my hand and said, “Please let me hold that shirt for you so you can look around.”

That wonderful smile of his broadened and he said, “Nope. I refuse to have a woman carrying stuff for me. I was raised better than that.”

I giggled and said, “Well, at least let me look at the tag so I know your size.”

He extended his arm out for me to examine the tag. He looked thoughtful for a moment and then said, “Since these shirts are on sale, I ought to buy one for my brother. Maybe he’ll take it as a hint to stay out of my closet. He’s the reason I’m shirt shopping today. He borrowed one of my good shirts and brought it back with a barbeque stain on it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I asked him about the stain and he actually asked me if it looked like barbeque. I said it did and he proceeded to say that he didn’t know a thing about it.”

I started giggling and asked, “Did he not understand how incriminating it was to identify the stain?”

He laughed and said, “He knew exactly what he was doing. That was his funny way of admitting guilt without actually admitting guilt. He’s quite the master at it.”

I started laughing and told him, “At least you have a brother that does such things. I’m an only child and I have always wished that I had a sibling. I used to love watching those silly sitcoms that had siblings doing crazy things to one another. I know that sounds pathetic, but it’s true.”

He chuckled and said, “I’ll gladly loan you Jimmy for a week or so and that will break you out of that mentality. You’ll be begging me to take him back.”

I giggled and asked, “Does he have any other annoying habits around the house?”

He looked at me and said, “Jimmy is one big annoying habit. I know you’re thinking we live together because he takes my clothes, but we don’t. He actually travels seven miles to raid my closet. What’s more, he has a great wife that buys him really nice stuff. His stuff is probably much better than mine, but he still cannot resist the temptation of borrowing my stuff. I honestly think it’s one of those cases where the grass always looks greener at my house.”

I smiled and said, “He sounds like everything a brother should be. I bet he’s absolutely delightful.”

He laughed and shook his head before saying, “Let me explain something. Along with being my brother, Jimmy is my best friend. I love him to death, but never, and I mean never, would I categorize him as delightful. I think it would be much more accurate to compare him to a bad habit that you’ve lived with for so long that you have to admit it has become part of who you are.”

His tone was playful and I could tell that, despite what he was saying, he was extremely close to his brother.

I couldn’t suppress my giggling as I said, “I’m just going to interpret that last statement as you saying that you couldn’t imagine life without your brother.”

He grinned widely and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant, but I would never tell him that. His head is big enough. I don’t need to add to it.”

We both laughed and I found myself wishing that I could talk to him all day. Sadly, I knew that wasn’t a possibility. I figured I should get the conversation back to shopping.

I asked, “Do you want to get Jimmy a shirt?”

He nodded his head and said, “Since you picked out a shirt to match my eyes, can you pick out a shirt to match his? He has blue eyes. I’d like to use that as an angle for why he needs to leave my shirt alone and wear his.”

I smiled warmly at him and asked, “What shade of blue would you use to describe his eyes? Are they the same color as mine or a different shade?”

He looked at me with a subtle smile and said, “His are a different color of blue than yours. To be honest with you, I’ve never seen eyes the color of yours. No offense, but I’ve been trying to decide if it was even possible for a person to naturally have eyes as blue as yours.”

I started giggling and said, “I assure you that you’ve encountered someone with the same eye color as mine. My dark hair makes them look much more intense than they actually are. Many people have asked me if I wear colored lenses, but I promise you that my eyes and hair were both gifts from my dad.”

A look of contentment came over his face and I could tell he was pleased with my revelation. He pulled his phone out of his back pocket. He wasn’t looking at me so I couldn’t help looking at him. He stared intently at the screen of his phone and I smiled as I watched him scrolling and swiping. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, but I knew I enjoyed watching him do it.

He looked up and turned his phone towards me and said, “That’s my crazy brother and his lovely wife, Melinda. I thought maybe you could get a better idea what his eyes are like by looking at a picture.”

I couldn’t help but smile as I looked at the picture. I could tell by Jimmy’s devilish grin that he was probably quite a bit of fun to be around. Jimmy is handsome like his brother, but they certainly have different characteristics. Jimmy’s hair is light brown and his eyes are a bright blue.

I looked at Melinda and was stunned by her beauty. Her delicate features were framed by blonde hair and her lovely brown eyes immediately caught my eye. Melinda’s smile was stunning. They are definitely a beautiful couple and I could tell by the way they held on to one another that they are deeply in love.

I looked up from the screen and said, “They are a beautiful couple. Jimmy is quite handsome and I can honestly say that I’m so jealous of Melinda I can taste it. She is absolutely beautiful. She’s one of those women that could look amazing dressed in a burlap sack. I would bump off two old ladies and a homeless man to be that pretty.”

A look of shock registered across his face and resounded in his tone as he said, “You cannot be serious.”

I could tell that I had offended him and was immediately embarrassed. I realized that I probably shouldn’t have joked about bumping people off, but I really had meant no harm. The last thing I wanted to do was make him think I was too crude.

I looked at him and said, “I’m very sorry. I’ve obviously offended you without meaning to. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure you must know I meant it as a joke. I realize now how it must have sounded for me to act as if I would be willing to harm someone in exchange for beauty. Please forgive me. I honestly meant no harm.”

A serious look remained on his face as he said, “Please don’t apologize. There was nothing wrong with what you said. I just couldn’t believe you said it.”

His reaction puzzled me. He was saying that nothing was wrong with my comment, but his body language said otherwise. There was no doubt that I had said something to offend him and I strongly suspected that he was just too much of a gentleman to admit it.

I studied his face and noticed that he seemed to be thinking deeply. I wasn’t sure what to do. I know it would’ve probably been better to let it go and change the subject, but I couldn’t bear the idea of him thinking less of me. We had been having so much fun talking until I made that stupid comment.

I looked him in the eye and said, “Despite what you say, I can tell that I said something wrong. Please let me know what it was so I can apologize properly for it. I have enjoyed talking to you so much and I don’t want you to think I’m a bad person. Please let me fix it.”

His brow wrinkled as he bit at the side of his lip. At one point he looked as if he was about to say something, but he stopped himself. I could tell that he was considering his words carefully and I found that a bit scary. I knew it could only mean that he was trying to figure out a way to tell me what he was feeling without offending me. I honestly didn’t think my comment was that bad, but he obviously thought so.

I finally said, “Listen, I want you to be honest with me. I promise you won’t offend me or hurt my feelings. Please just tell me what’s wrong.”

He eyed me carefully before saying, “You really didn’t offend me. You actually shocked me. You see, I know Melinda is a beautiful girl and, believe me, she’s just as sweet as she is beautiful. I love her to death and consider her my sister. It just shocked me to hear you say how jealous you were of her because of her beauty.”

His words did nothing to alleviate my confusion so I said, “I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t understand what you mean. If you’re thinking I was being insincere, I can assure you I wasn’t. I meant everything I said about your sister-in-law. I think she’s absolutely gorgeous.”

For the first time in our encounter, his gaze was making me uncomfortable. Finally, he broke the awkward silence.

His voice was soft and careful as he said, “I never doubted your sincerity for a moment. I knew you meant what you said with all your heart. It was just a shock for me to hear you say it. You want me to be honest, so I’m going to just be honest and hope you don’t think I’m being creepy. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid eyes on and it’s impossible for me to believe that you don’t realize just how beautiful you are, but you obviously don’t.”

I certainly wasn’t expecting that response. His words shocked and flattered me simultaneously. I could tell he was being completely honest and I felt myself blush deeply. I glanced at him and noticed he had lowered his eyes and his face was a deep shade of red.

I suddenly understood his initial reaction. His reluctance to explain himself wasn’t caused by a fear of offending me. He was actually afraid of embarrassing himself. There was no way I could let him be embarrassed for paying me such a compliment. He had gone out of his way to make me feel less embarrassed about hitting my head. I knew it was my turn to return the favor.

I smiled and gently touched his arm. He reluctantly raised his eyes to look at me and I said, “Thank you for the compliment. It meant the world to me, especially coming from you. Since you were honest with me, I’ll be honest with you. You’re the reason I banged my head.”

His eyes widened at first, but then he managed a smile and said, “How on earth did I make you bang your head? I was on the other side of the counter. I know I didn’t scare you because you looked at me before you tried to get up.”

I started giggling and replied, “Looking at you was where it all went wrong. I wasn’t expecting the most handsome man I had ever laid eyes on to be looking back at me. Then I realized that I was basically waving my butt in the face of the most handsome man I’d ever laid eyes on and I tried to jump up as quickly as possible. Somewhere during that process I forgot my head was under the counter.”

I could see laughter building in his face as he said, “Please tell me you’re joking.”

I felt my face burning with embarrassment as I shook my head. His laughter erupted and literally doubled him over. I was definitely second guessing my decision to admit that to him. As much as he tried to get his laughter under control, he just couldn’t seem to do it. Meanwhile, I was dying of embarrassment.

I watched as he wiped tears from his eyes as he was laughing. At one point he seemed to get himself together, but he exploded with laughter again as soon as he looked at me. After what seemed like an eternity, his laughter finally trailed off.

He had laughed so hard that he was breathless. He touched my arm and said, “I’m sorry. Please know I wasn’t laughing at you for hitting your head. It was just so hilarious how you explained it.”

He smiled at me and added, “I’m not trying to be weird, but can I give you a hug?”

I smiled and nodded. He reached out to me and took me in his arms. He held me close to his chest and whispered, “Thank you for giving me the most amazing compliment I’ve ever gotten. You will never know how much it meant to me.”

I wanted to stay in his arms forever. It was the best hug ever. His arms made me feel so safe and warm. Sadly, I felt him pull away from me. I really had to resist the urge to hold on to him. I knew it was time to quit daydreaming and get back to the task at hand. I walked around to the back side of the clothing rack, removed a blue checked shirt, and held it up for his inspection.

I asked, “Do you think Jimmy will like this one? It would match his eyes perfectly.”

He said, “I’m sure he’ll love it.”

I smiled and asked, “Are you two the same size or does Jimmy borrow clothes that don’t fit?”

He chuckled and said, “We’re the same size.”

I selected the proper size and handed it to him. He hadn’t looked at anything the whole time we had been back there, so I thought I would see if I could encourage him to look around. Actually, I was trying to extend our encounter as much as possible.

I said, “Do you see anything else that catches your eye? Look around and you might find something you like better than what I picked out.”

He grinned at me and said. “Nope, I would never doubt the master.”

I giggled and asked, “The master? Where on earth did that come from?”

His smile was mischievous as he said, “Any person that can match shirts to eyeballs is a master in my book.”

I giggled and shook my head. A red checked shirt caught my eye and I took it off the shelf and showed it to him before saying, “This shirt would look nice on you and Jimmy both. It wouldn’t necessarily make your eyes pop as much, but it would look nice on both of you. Do you like it better or think Jimmy would like it better?”

He studied the shirt a moment and said, “Red is Jimmy’s favorite color. I like that shirt, too. Do you have two of them in our size?”

I nodded and he added, “Good. I’ll get those, too. That may be the key to keeping him out of my good shirts for awhile. We’ll each have one of the red ones and we’ll each have one that matches our eyes. If he tries to borrow my green one, I’ll remind him it doesn’t match his eyes like the blue one does. It might work, but, knowing Jimmy, he’ll figure out a way around it. He’s annoying like that. The saddest part is the first five years of my life were Jimmy-free and it appears that I’ve blocked out that part of my life completely. I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when Jimmy wasn’t bugging me.”

I giggled and said, “Well, he has a right to annoy you. From my understanding, that’s the official job of younger brothers.”

He laughed and said, “That may be true, but Jimmy is actually nine days older than me.”

He caught me off guard when he said that. Based on what he had said, I just assumed he was five years older than Jimmy. It took a second for it to sink in how Jimmy could be nine days older than him, but it finally clicked.

I giggled and said, “You just blew my mind. I actually had to think how that was possible. I had not even considered that Jimmy is your adopted brother.”

An odd look came across his face. It was a thoughtful look, but very odd. His brow wrinkled and his eyes went distant for a moment. At one point he turned his head to the side.

I lightly tapped his arm and asked, “Are you okay? Did I say something wrong?”

My words snapped him back to reality. His face immediately turned red from embarrassment.

I was very confused until he looked at me and said, “I have always known Jimmy was adopted, but, honest to God, I have never thought about it like that. He’s just always been my brother. That was the weirdest feeling in the world to hear you call him my adopted brother.”

He made eye contact with me and his face turned a deeper shade of red as he said, “My God, you must think I’m crazy.”

I smiled, patted his arm, and said, “I think that was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. It really doesn’t matter how he came to be your brother. He’s your brother, plain and simple.”

A soft smile crossed his lips as he looked at me and he said, “I don’t normally do this and I know it’s probably one heck of a long shot because you’re such an amazing girl, but, if you aren’t seeing anyone, can I call you sometime?”

It took every bit of self restraint I had to not start jumping up and down and screaming. I could not believe it. The most amazing man in the world just asked if he could call me sometime and I had to try to remain calm when I answered him. I literally had to remind myself to breathe.

I managed to smile at him and say, “I’m not seeing anyone and I would absolutely love for you to call me sometime.”

He grinned as he pulled out his phone and said, “I’m going to get your number right now before you have a chance to change your mind.”

I giggled and said, “I honestly don’t think that’s a possibility.”

He started navigating to the contacts on his phone when his smile suddenly faded. He looked up at me and said in a tone of total disbelief, “I’m batting a thousand today. I’m so embarrassed. I’ve somehow managed to ask you for your number before I even asked you your name.”

I laughed and said, “Don’t feel bad. I agreed to give you my number without asking your name first. I have the luxury of being able to blame my slip up on a recent traumatic brain injury. What’s your excuse?”

He gave me a devilish grin and said, “For your information, I wasn’t lying about banging my head really hard last month. This may very well be a side effect I never noticed before.”

I giggled and said, “I’ll humor you and act like I buy that excuse. By the way, I’m Kennedy Chandler.”

He smiled and said, “Thank you, Kennedy. I appreciate that. I’m Mason Barnham.”

He started entering my name and then looked up and asked, “Do you spell your name like JFK?”

I nodded and said, “He was assassinated on my mom’s birthday and she became pretty obsessed with his life. She actually named me after him. I guess I was lucky she went with the last name. I would’ve been really self-conscious if she had named me John Fitzgerald.”

He chuckled and said, “I really like your name. If it’s any consolation, you certainly don’t remind me of a dead president.”

I giggled and said, “Thanks, Mason. That means a lot to me.”

He laughed and replied, “Anytime.”

He looked up from his screen with a serious look on his face and said, “I guess I really should’ve mentioned this before now, but I honestly didn’t think about it. I’m a police officer. Are you okay with that? I know some people aren’t and I’ll understand if you aren’t.”

I laughed and said, “I should’ve been able to guess that by your haircut.”

Mason blushed and said, “I just got it cut on the way here so it’s really close. It does grow quickly though and I do let it get a little longer at times. There isn’t a rule that says it has to be cut this close.”

I could tell that Mason thought I didn’t like his haircut. I touched his arm and said, “Mason, I know you think I don’t like your haircut, but I absolutely love it. My dad was an officer for almost fifteen years and he always wore his hair just like yours, even after he quit the force.”

I smiled up at him and continued, “Your haircut brings back wonderful memories. I loved running my hand over my dad’s hair. It was so soft and how it tickled my hand always made me giggle. When I was little, my dad would take me with him to the barber shop. After his barber was done, he would look at him and say, ‘Jerry, I’m going to see if you earned a tip.’ I knew exactly what that meant. He would come and sit beside me and I would feel his hair. As soon as I would giggle, Dad would stand up and give Jerry his tip. Even after I became too old to go to the barber shop with him, I could never resist feeling his hair. No matter how old I got, it always made me giggle. My dad got such a big kick out of it. It always made him laugh every time I did it.”

Mason’s eyes had a real softness to them as he looked at me and a gentle smile was on his lips. I smiled at him and said, “I guess I got a little carried away. All I really needed to say was that I like your haircut and your profession doesn’t bother me. I’m sorry I drew it out like that.”

Mason still had a soft, gentle look on his face as he said, “Kennedy, I promise you that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the long version of that story for anything in this world.”

My heart melted at Mason’s words and I said, “You’re pretty wonderful. Do you know that?”

He chuckled and said, “I don’t know about all that, but I do think my image has significantly improved since I met you.”

I giggled and said, “Are you ready for my number yet? At the rate we’re going, I’m afraid we’ll end up forgetting about it.”

Mason’s devilish grin returned and he said, “You may have a point. What’s your number?”

I gave Mason my number and he repeated it back to me. After I confirmed it, he saved it to his phone, but, before he put his phone away, I saw him tapping the screen and scrolling. He smiled at the screen and then put his phone away.

He gave me a wide smile and said, “I had to double check it was saved. I was paranoid that I would get home and your number wouldn’t be in there. I would’ve cried.”

I asked, “You aren’t exaggerating just a bit, are you?”

He chuckled and replied, “Actually, I’m not. My heart would’ve shattered.”

I laughed and he added, “Now, there’s something that I feel we need to get out of the way before I leave. Will you follow me a second?”

I nodded my head and followed him, but I was more than a little curious as to where he was going. He walked past the mirror on the back wall and stopped at the small bench beside it.

He gestured toward the bench and asked, “Will you please sit down?”

I had no clue what he was up to, but his actions thus far had made me trust him. I sat down on the bench and he took a seat beside me and turned towards me. I turned to face him.

He held out his hands to me with his palms upward and said, “Let me see your hands.”

I will admit that I thought he was behaving strangely, but the smile on his face gave me comfort and I placed my hands on top of his. He lifted my hands up and placed them on his head. I couldn’t believe it. It was as if he had read my mind.

I looked in his eyes and asked, “How did you know?”

He smiled softly and said, “You kept looking at my hair while you were talking about your dad’s hair. I got the impression that you wanted to know if it felt like your dad’s hair, but didn’t want to ask to feel it.”

His sweet gesture made my eyes fill with tears. Our eyes were locked as I moved my left hand to caress the side of his head and slowly moved my right hand from the front of his head to the back. I could feel the softness of his hair immediately and I giggled as it tickled my palm.

It was like feeling my dad’s hair again and I was overcome with emotion. Tears started flowing down my cheeks and Mason used his hand to wipe them away, never breaking eye contact with me. I looked deep into his eyes and I never felt as close to someone as I did to him at that moment. A strange sensation washed over me and, although I barely knew him, I knew I could not stand to part from him. It was the oddest feeling I had ever had, but it was also wonderful. His eyes told me that he understood me better than anyone ever had. It was an incredible feeling.

I could see tears forming in Mason’s eyes and his voice cracked as he whispered, “You just made me realize that I didn’t tip my barber near enough today.”

His sweet words made my tears fall quicker and, once again, he wiped them away. I could not deny my feelings. I knew that I had fallen in love with him. As irrational as it may seem to profess love for someone you just met, I knew I would never feel a connection with anyone else as strong as the connection I was feeling with Mason. I was in awe of him and I knew he was what my life had always been missing.

I moved my hands to gently caress his face and whispered, “Mason, I’ve never in my life felt like someone understood me as much as I feel like you understand me right now. Thank you.”

Mason smiled sweetly and said softly, “Kennedy, I do understand how you feel. I sometimes see my dad’s brand of cologne when I go to buy mine. Even though I know exactly how it smells, I can’t resist smelling it. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and Mom. I miss them both so much.”

A single tear rolled down Mason’s cheek and I quickly wiped it away and said, “No matter how long it’s been, we never get used to the fact they’re really gone. I guess we should be thankful for the things that can make us feel closer to them.”

Mason nodded his head in agreement. He reached for my hands and held them in his. Neither of us spoke a word as we sat there for a moment just staring into one another’s eyes. We didn’t need to speak because we were feeling much more than words could ever explain.

Mason finally raised my hands to his lips, kissed them, and said, “Kennedy, I promise you that I would gladly stay right here with you all day, but, unfortunately, you’re at work. I’ve taken up a lot of your time and I’m afraid that I’ll end up getting you in trouble with your boss.”

I smiled and said, “I’m not worried about that.”

Mason smiled and replied, “Well, I am. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if you got in trouble because of me. Now, I don’t date much so I don’t really know the rules that well. I know there is supposed to be a waiting period before I call you, but I really don’t want to wait. Would you label me as desperate if I called you tonight?”

I giggled and said, “I would label you as mean if you didn’t.”

Mason laughed and squeezed my hands. He got up without releasing my hands and gently pulled me up to face him. He pulled me close to him and hugged me tight.

I raised my face to look at him and he smiled and said, “I thought I’d better get a hug in before I pay for my shirts. Since you’re at work, I didn’t figure you’d want me hugging you up where everyone could see.”

I giggled and said, “I honestly wouldn’t have minded.”

He had a mischievous smile as he said, “That’s a good piece of information for me to have. I might want to be greedy and hug you again before I leave.”

That’s when it hit me that Mason would be leaving as soon as he paid for his shirts. I wasn’t ready for him to go yet. I knew I had to do something quick. I glanced down at my watch and it was 1:58.

I smiled and said, “It’s time for my lunch break. I just go to the food court and grab something, but, if you don’t have anything else to do, you’re welcome to join me.”

Mason could not hide his joy. His entire face lit up and he said, “There’s no way I could ever turn down an invitation like that.”

To say I was overjoyed would be the understatement of the century. I could barely contain my excitement as I said, “Let’s go.”

We started walking back towards the register. As we got closer, I saw Amy behind the counter. She smiled when she saw us walk up. I walked behind the counter and Mason walked around to the counter by the register and laid his shirts down.

Amy smiled at him and said to me, “I saw that you didn’t have any cash sales, so I went ahead and switched over.”

She walked over to Mason, smiled, and said, “I trust that Kennedy helped you find everything you needed.”

Mason laughed and said, “I should say so. I actually came in for one shirt. Do you notice that I’m leaving with four?”

Amy threw her head back laughing and said, “She has a knack for making you realize you need things that you didn’t realize you needed.”

Mason laughed harder and said, “Are you telling me that she has a history of that? If so, I really think some warning signs would be appropriate.”

Amy and I both laughed as she started scanning Mason’s shirts. I reached under the counter and got my lanyard with my store keys and employee ID card on it. I walked over to the register and scanned my ID card. I watched as Mason pulled out his wallet and removed his debit card.

Amy looked at Mason and said, “Your total is $38.52. You can go ahead and swipe.”

Mason said, “That can’t be right. I have four shirts.”

Amy giggled and said, “It’s right. Kennedy is letting you use her employee discount.”

Mason looked concerned as he said, “I don’t want her to do that. That discount is for her and I don’t want to get her in any trouble.”

Amy and I started laughing and Mason gave us the strangest look.

Amy looked up at Mason and said, “I can tell you don’t know our Kennedy very well. If you did, you’d know that she would never bend a rule, let alone break one.”

Mason shifted nervously and I said, “Amy, please explain to Mason how our employee discounts work.”

Amy smiled at Mason and said, “All employees get a discount. The other peasants and I get twenty-five percent off of everything we buy. Kennedy, on the other hand, is the queen of this palace. As our queen, she gets fifty percent off. We’re allowed to use our employee discounts ourselves as much as we want, but we can only let friends and family use them a maximum of six times a year.”

Mason laughed and shook his head. Then he stepped back, bowed deeply, and said, “Please forgive me for not bowing to Her Majesty. Please grant mercy to a lowly peasant that knew not better.”

Amy and I burst out laughing and Mason remained bowed at the waist. Amy looked at me and said, “Queen Kennedy, I think your loyal subject is waiting for permission to rise.”

I was laughing hard at Mason’s silliness as I said, “Peasant, you may rise.”

Mason stood back up straight and we all laughed.

I said, “Aside from the queen and peasant nonsense, everything Amy said was true. Please know that it’s okay for you to get my discount. I’ve worked here nine years and nobody has ever used my discount but me.”

Amy quickly said, “I know you didn’t mean to, but you just told a lie, Boss Lady. You let a very appreciative friend use your discount a few years back.”

I thought about it a moment and then I remembered. I looked at Amy and said, “I had forgotten all about that.”

Amy smiled at me and said, “Boss Lady, there is no way I could ever forget that.”

She looked back at Mason and said, “She helped me so much that day. My husband had gotten hurt and was out of work for months. Our money situation had gotten really bad and it was time for our daughter, Chelsey, to go back to school. I had set aside a small amount of money for Chelsey’s back to school stuff. The stuff for her classes had cost more than I had expected so funds were really limited for her clothes and shoes.”

Mason was a very good listener and he held on to every word she said. She continued, “I decided to buy her clothes here because a lot of items were marked down and, with my discount, I could get them cheaper here than I could elsewhere. Kennedy let me open up a register to scan her clothes as she picked them out so I could keep track of how much I was spending. Well, after she had picked out all her clothes, we needed to find her some shoes.”

Amy took a deep breath and I could tell she was getting a little emotional. I rubbed her shoulder and she turned and smiled at me. She looked back at Mason and continued her story.

“Well, Chelsey is really hard on shoes so we always have to buy her more expensive shoes. She literally tears up cheap shoes in a week’s time. After her clothes were totaled, I saw that I could afford to spend about fifty-five dollars on her shoes. We went over to the shoe department and a pair of shoes instantly caught her eye. She had gotten to the age where stuff like that mattered to her and she wanted those shoes more than anything.”

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