Alyss turned back to her dusting when Clara moved toward the front door of Land of Wonders to greet the customer who had just walked in. Hart had told her she'd be doing lots of dusting in the antique shop because Clara and Jamie were both clumsy, but she hadn't thought much about how much dusting the items in the shop would need. She'd come to really love her job though, and she'd learned more about furniture, pottery and paintings than she'd ever thought she might need to know. Jamie, who had quickly become one of her best friends, sat behind the counter texting his girlfriend. He finished and moved to look at the ledger they wrote sales down in, as if he really thought something might have changed in the past few minutes, which made Alyss smile. He frowned down at the solo entry before reaching under the counter for a stack of invoices. She shifted her ladder a little and then climbed back up it to reach the top shelf.
Alyss finished the vases on the top shelf, put the duster aside, and used a cloth to wipe down the candlesticks. She then climbed down off the ladder carefully while peeking back toward Hart's office. Clara had been in the middle of a sentence about their employer when the customer had entered. Jamie smiled and put aside the invoices he'd been examining as he watched her move the ladder over to the next set of shelves.
"So do you want to know what it is?" Jamie asked.
"Hmmm?" Alyss said, pushing her blonde hair out of her eyes.
"His first name," Jamie whispered.
Alyss had remarked that Hart was an interesting name as she'd filed a receipt she'd asked him to sign that morning. Clara had smiled with glee and asked if she wanted to know his first name, which she claimed was even better.
"Is it that interesting?" She hadn't wanted to say "that bad" because she didn't want to be rude, even though Hart would probably never know. She couldn't even begin to guess what it might be, given how funny Clara seemed to find it. Clara's little "tidbits" about Hart didn't always ring true, and Alyss never gave them much credence anymore.
Alyss tried not to smile, but soon she had no choice. "Really? Knave Hart?" She paused. "As in the knave of hearts?"
Jamie nodded. "Yeah. His parents are actors and met while they were both in London staging a production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. They thought it was cute, I guess. Add a last name like Lewis..." Jamie shrugged. "It doesn't seem to matter to him though. We've known each other since before he owned this place, and I've never seen him do anything to indicate it bothers him. I think he went by his first name in college, actually."
"Parents should avoid being cute and creative. People call me 'alleys' all the time."
Jamie raised his eyebrows and looked confused. "What? Why?"
"My name is spelled A-l-y-s-s. Hadn't you ever noticed when you were doing payroll?"
"Oh yeah. Sorry. Didn't make that connection right off."
She shrugged. "Doesn't bother me much either. It's just a pain."
"I think Knave's kind of a cool name. It's like being born with a nickname already," Jamie said as he turned to check his vibrating phone.
"It must have been awful as a kid though. The teacher always says your whole name the first day. I bet they teased him terribly!"
"Hmmm. That probably did suck." Jamie straightened up to look at her, and then his face froze.
Alyss knew Hart had walked up behind her. He walked so quietly, just as he did everything else. She turned and tried to look casual, but her face burned when their eyes met. Hart was pale with brown eyes and dark brown hair. Nothing about him, except his name, was anything but ordinary, yet Alyss found him very attractive. She'd dismissed it after he'd offered her the job in his antique shop because she knew it was a bad idea to be attracted to her boss, but now she felt self-conscious about this attraction again.
After a moment, she realized Hart held a large ginger jar in his hands. "Could you help me with this, Alyss?" He tilted his head and gestured toward the deep shelves on the far wall. The top shelf had an empty space that looked like it would accommodate the ginger jar.
"Sure," she said as she moved toward the ladder, glad of the chance to turn away from him. She carefully folded the ladder up and carried it over to the wall. She set it up and turned back to Hart, who stared at her for a moment before handing her the jar. Had she seen a hint of a smile? He couldn't have been laughing at her, could he? She had a hard time imagining him becoming angry about it, but she thought it almost as unlikely he'd be amused by her comments.
He reached the top of the ladder and turned back toward her. "Can you come up a step or two if I steady the top part?" he asked after he'd removed the lid and set it on the second shelf.
She nodded and lifted it a few inches so he could grab it, and then she slowly stepped up onto the first rung of the ladder. She stepped up one more rung so he could get hold of the base and lift it up. He set it on the shelf and then replaced the lid. He looked down at her, and after a moment she realized he was waiting for her to get off the ladder so he could come down. She moved off of it quickly without speaking and watched him come down.
"Thanks," he said before she could make any kind of apology for her hesitation. He folded the ladder up and leaned it against the wall before going back to his office.
Had he been trying to hide a smile again? His smiles tended to be friendly but detached. The expression in his eyes just now had suggested amusement. Was she being paranoid? Had he really heard her talking about him? Had he even known it was about him at all? Jamie's reaction and her own blushing hadn't helped. He had to have known. Did he simply not care anymore? He appeared to be in his mid-thirties so maybe he'd learned to live with it.
Jamie smiled at her when she came back to the counter. "Sorry," he said softly. "I don't think he cared. I knew his name because I do the prep work for the taxes too, and I've met his parents. His mom calls him Knave most of the time. Like I said, he never did anything to indicate he was bothered by it. I let it slip to Clara though. That was a mistake. She developed a thing for him for a few months. Kind of awkward."
"Just because of his name?" Alyss asked.
Clara went for flashy guys, rich guys, guys with very expensive cars. Had she really had a crush on Hart because he had an intriguing name? Alyss thought he was handsome, and she guessed his financial standing was good, but they didn't seem quite up to Clara's standards.
Jamie nodded and kept his voice low. "Nothing came of it. He completely ignored her, and she lost interest soon enough so it wasn't that bad. She acted standoffish for a few weeks, but then she settled down and seemed to forget about the whole thing. At least, she stopped the open flirting and pumping me for information."
Alyss didn't like knowing Clara had tried to date Hart. Or had she just tried to seduce him? Clara was blonde and petite with large, real breasts. She had pouting lips that seemed more questionable to Alyss and big purple eyes, thanks to her colored contacts. She giggled and smiled a lot, and men always flocked around her. Most of them wanted to fuck her. Quite a few of them got to. Alyss smiled as she thought of Hart ignoring Clara. Was that why she always acted like everything he did was so strange? Was she offended he hadn't wanted her? She could be very nice, but Alyss wouldn't doubt she might act bitchy if rejected or spurned in any way. Clara had told her lots of off-the-wall stories about Hart and his odd habits her first week in the store, but Alyss hadn't yet seen anything to give them much credit. She tried to push the twinge of jealousy aside. Nothing had happened, so why should she care at all? She told herself yet again that dating the boss was a bad idea.
Clara returned to the counter, and the customer she'd been talking to left. She smiled at Alyss. "Did I miss anything?"
Alyss kept her expression neutral and said, "Not really. Hart and I put a ginger jar on a shelf."
Clara looked at Jamie. "Didn't you tell her? I heard you guys talking."
"Yes, but she didn't burst into fits of giggles the way you did."
She glared at him, and then rolled her eyes and smiled at Alyss. "Don't you think it's funny?" she asked Alyss. "He hardly ever looks at a girl, but his name is Knave. It's funny!"
"I suppose it is an unusual name, but I'm not going to laugh about it. Why would I laugh at someone I like?"
"So you do like him?" Clara asked a little too loudly.
Alyss hesitated. She felt the floorboards bouncing slightly beneath her feet, even though she heard nothing. She'd have guessed Hart was coming up behind her again even if Clara's eyes hadn't flickered suggestively over her shoulder. Alyss said, "Of course I like Hart. Why would I work for someone I don't like?"
"Oh, hi, Hart," Clara said. "We were just talking about you!"
Alyss wanted to laugh, but she also wanted to roll her eyes. She turned to face Hart. Clara's response had come out so contrived. She'd come off sounding like a teenager just now, so Alyss saw no reason to react to the remark or her behavior. Thus far, she and Clara had gotten along fine, but Alyss thought she was finally seeing why Clara didn't have many female friends.
When Alyss didn't say anything, Hart looked at Clara for a moment. "Did you have a question?"
Clara's smile faded. Since Hart appeared unfazed, and Alyss hadn't sighed and said she was helplessly in love with him or blushed and run away, Clara had little to work with. She shook her head. "Nothing. Nothing at all." She turned on her heels and walked toward the door. She bumped into a table and knocked over two picture frames. She stopped where she was and looked down. "Oops."
Jamie had already reached under the cash register and retrieved the piece of paper that documented his and Clara's "accidents." Since Jamie had a trust fund and only worked in the shop because he loved antiques and had a background in accounting, the money mattered little to him. Also, since he genuinely valued antiques, he was as careful as possible since there was no denying his clumsiness. He moved slowly and always practiced extra care when he was alone in the shop. His column was short. Clara definitely needed every cent of her paycheck, and most of her accidents occurred when she was talking to men. Her desire to seem casual and unaffected in front of Hart had inspired her, it seemed to Alyss, to turn quickly so her skirt would bounce nicely around her as she did so. Her "accidents" column reached the bottom of the page, and a month ago she'd had to start paying Hart back in installments in order to get a paycheck at all.
Hart put his hand over Jamie's. "Don't bother. I think only the glass broke. Don't move, Clara. You've got sandals on."
She gasped as though she hadn't thought about that yet. She peered down at her feet and inspected each one. Alyss picked up the picture frames and looked at them. The frames themselves were unharmed, but glass had shattered all over the floor. Hart came back with a small broom and dustpan. He looked at Clara's feet. "I think you're fine. Step onto that rug slowly and shake your feet off. We'll dump anything that falls on the rug in a minute."
Clara, for once, only nodded and did what she was told.
Alyss held the dustpan as Hart slowly swept up the glass. He took the dustpan from her, and they stood as Jamie moved in with the industrial vacuum cleaner. Alyss took the rug out the back door and shook it out. She returned the rug to its place and for two minutes no one said anything because they wouldn't have been able to hear each other anyway.
"I guess we need to talk?" Clara asked when Jamie was done and moved away with the vacuum.
Hart nodded. "I suppose so. This isn't exactly working out, especially not for you."
Clara picked up her purse before following Hart to his office. She never came back out, but they did hear the back door close after a few minutes.
Alyss felt bad for Clara, but she thought it best Clara find another job or pick up more hours at her night job. In the six weeks Alyss had worked in Land of Wonders, Clara had broken five items in the shop. She looked over at Jamie as a thought struck her. "Land of Wonders?" She smiled. "Wonderland?"
Jamie smiled too. "Yep. I like it. Hart does have a sense of humor, only most people don't get it. His mom loves it."
"Does she ever come in?"
"When she's in town. She's really sweet, though she and Clara didn't get along very well." He paused. "You know, Clara was a bit of a pain the day Hart interviewed you. She kept teasing him about how perfect it would be to have a girl named Alyss working here. I think Hart didn't fire her before because he couldn't figure out if her being pissed about getting fired would be a bigger problem than her in the shop breaking things."
"Why did she ever want to work here? She's so clumsy."
"You want to know?"
"To meet rich guys who have money to spend on things like antiques. I'm dead serious. I asked her, and that's the answer I got. Basically the same reason she tends bar at the country club. She's more careful there because they'd have fired her right off if she kept breaking things, but as long as she stands in roughly the same spot, she's not quite as klutzy. I think the guy who works the bar with her at night helps her too."
"So maybe she should date him instead of trying to hunt down a rich guy."
Jamie laughed. "Don't tell her that. She'd just roll her eyes and toss her hair."
"Why didn't she try to snag you, Mr. Trust Fund?"
He slapped his thigh twice. "She was trying when I was single, but this creeped her out."
Jamie had an artificial leg because he'd been in a car accident as a child. He only walked with a slight limp, and Alyss thought he was very handsome. His stunning girlfriend obviously didn't mind it, given her adoring looks and the fact she couldn't keep her hands off him.
"That's so silly." She sighed. "I don't understand some women."
He shrugged. "Didn't offend me. I have more important things to worry about."
Alyss looked up at Hart's office again and saw him through the doorway looking at one of his bookshelves. She jumped guiltily when Jamie poked her arm. "You do know he likes you, right? This isn't a big corporation. We now have a grand total of three employees. There's no rule against it."
"Dating your boss is a terrible idea."
"So you like him too?"
Alyss realized she hadn't responded to Jamie's first statement. Was he only teasing her? Did Hart like her? Had he hired her because he thought she was attractive? She doubted that since she knew he'd checked all three of her references and done a background check. Of course, that didn't mean it was impossible he liked her. It was just good business, especially when antiques and large sums of money were involved on a daily basis. She simply didn't think it very likely he felt that way. "I like him the same way I like you. That's all."
"Okay. Just thought I'd throw it out there. He's a really nice guy."
"I know that. I don't think it's a good idea though."
"Maybe not, but you never know."
Alyss could admit he was right to herself, but she wasn't going to do so out loud, let alone admit she'd say yes if Hart did ask her out. End excerpt