Julian didn't bother to comment when Caitlynn jogged into work twenty minutes late. It wasn't on time, but it was better than it had been in the past.
For a change, Caitlynn was at least aware of her own tardiness. She trotted around the magazine rack and made an apologetic face, "Julian, I'm really sorry. I swear. I was all ready to come on time. My alarm clock didn't go off. The whole neighborhood is blacked out."
Julian looked down at Caitlynn. Her long, red hair was wet, like she had towel-dried it in a hurry, then run out. Surreptitiously, he traced his finger in a drop of water that had sluiced dripped off of her hair and landed on the counter. It was ice cold, even though it had been easily over one hundred degrees out earlier in the day.
He smiled at her, "Don't worry about it."
Caitlynn smiled back. It was a sight that would have melted Julian's heart if everything about him wasn't melted already from the heat.
"Does James totally hate me?"
Julian shook his head, "I sent James home at eleven. He had a party to go to."
Caitlynn nodded and said wistfully, "That would be Doug Draber's party down at the lake."
Julian smiled, "Work cutting into your busy social life again?"
Caitlynn frowned and gave her head a half-shake, "Nah. I wasn't going to this one anyway. What's on the schedule, boss?"
Now it was Julian's turn to frown. He didn't like being night manager, having only taken the added responsibility because he couldn't say no to the extra money. Given his druthers, he would have rather been at Doug Draber's party, too. If they were anything like his older brother Jake's, it would be a lot more fun than keeping track of a convenience store.
"Why don't you go in the back and dry your hair," he said. "After that, you can watch the register while I stock the cooler."
Caitlynn leaned across the counter and batted her eyes at Julian, "Is there any chance you could keep working the register and let me do the cooler?"
It was all Julian could do not to stare down the v-neck of Caitlynn's top when she leaned forward like that or, for that matter, when she did any one of a thousand things she seemed to do during an eight-hour shift that gave him a panoramic view of her chest. Even after more than a year of working together, he still found himself constantly tempted to look. Instead, he turned away and said, "Do you want to get out of the heat that badly? With the air conditioning, it's actually pretty pleasant in here."
"It's not that," said Caitlynn. "I'm just betting that Doug's coming here to try to buy beer and I don't want to have to tell him no."
Julian nodded, "Are you sure? Doing the cooler is a lot of heavy lifting."
Caitlynn pulled up her shirt sleeve and made a muscle, "I've got it covered. Feel that."
"All right," said Julian, laughing. "I'll take your word for it."
Caitlynn made an odd face, "Boss, when a lady asks you to feel her muscle, the polite thing is to do what you're told."
Julian laughed again, reaching out over the counter and gripping her forearm. To his surprise, she really was quite muscular--not in an unfeminine way, but there was real definition in her arms.
"Wow," he said earnestly. "You been working out?"
"Yup," said Caitlynn, pulling her arm away. "Check out my abs." She lifted her shirt up so that Julian could see everything from her waistband to the bottom of her bra. Sucking in her gut, she showed him a well-toned stomach.
Julian didn't realize he was staring until Caitlynn said, "What do you think?"
"It's ... um ... very impressive," said Julian.
"I'm glad you appreciate it," said Caitlynn. "I gave up a lot of parties to look like this."
Julian smiled gently, "I'm sure Brian appreciates it."
Caitlynn gave the frown and half-shake again, "I gave up Brian to look like this, too."
Before Julian could respond, Caitlynn pulled her shirt back down, "I'm going to go dry my hair before a customer comes in and catches me flashing you."
Once she was in the back room, Julian frowned in puzzlement. As he went back to absentmindedly wiping down the deli slicer, he let his imagination wander. He'd always liked Caitlynn, ever since she'd transferred to Kenshee High School at the beginning of his junior year. While they'd never been friends, they'd hung around with all of the same people.
After Julian had graduated, he'd come to work nights at the town's only 7-11 for a year, saving money towards college. At least, that had been the plan. He'd come to discover that, even as a night manager, he was lucky to put aside a few hundred dollars a month after paying the expenses of living alone. After two years, he'd finally managed to put away enough money to be able to attend the local community college, so long as he kept working.
Last summer, Caitlynn had started working nights with him. She was, as he remembered from their time in school together, a bit of a party girl and didn't always make it to the store by eleven o'clock like she was supposed to. It didn't bother Julian much. He only had to work with her. The people who worked the 5-11 shift got upset with her, though, because they couldn't leave until she clocked in. Julian had found himself going to bat for her almost without meaning to, promising that she would be on time. At the same time that he wondered if he was being played for a sucker, he found that he really liked working with her.
The reason he didn't believe he was being played for a sucker was that Caitlynn didn't flirt with him more than she did anyone else. In other words, she flirted with him constantly, but never in such an overt way that she lacked plausible deniability were she called to task on it. After realizing that Julian wasn't going to rise to the bait, they actually developed a friendship. Some nights, they could go three or four hours without a customer. As such, they spent a lot of time just hanging out and talking.
Now that she mentioned it, Caitlynn hadn't talked about a party since the "Spring Fling" the high school had thrown. It had been a miserable experience for her. She'd drunk too much and ended up making out with another boy other than her boyfriend Brian. She wouldn't tell Julian who the other boy had been and Julian suspected that it had gone a lot farther than "making out," but decided that what she decided not to tell him was her own business.
Julian suspected that he knew who the boy was anyway. Ryan Schwartz had started hanging around outside the store at night shortly thereafter. Caitlynn had asked Julian to be the one to empty the trash cans into the dumpster at about the same time. After about a week, Julian had decided to chase Ryan, who had now gathered a half-dozen friends to join him on his nightly vigil out of the lot. He allowed a certain amount of slack to the no loitering policy, but they were pushing their luck.
Julian would have followed that line of thought, but a customer came in carrying a half-dozen party bags full of ice. He laid them down and started picking up disposable styrofoam coolers.
"Good evening, Mr. Flattery," said Julian amiably. "Having a party?"
The customer shook his head, "No. Our power just went out about ten minutes ago. I'm trying to save all the meat I just put in the cooler."
Julian nodded as he rung up the purchase, "Oh, yeah. Caitlynn mentioned something about a blackout. It hit your neighborhood too?"
Mr. Flattery nodded again as he got his money out, "Yup. Hit my sister about two hours ago. It seems to be moving east to west."
Julian nodded absentmindedly, "I hope the ice holds out, then."
"You'd better hope it doesn't hit the store," said Mr. Flattery. "You're right in its path."
"It shouldn't," said Julian. "The blackout two years ago stopped right across the street. I think we're on a different grid or something."
Mr. Flattery looked doubtful, "Well, best of luck."
Soon, other customers began trickling in, buying ice, batteries, and other sundry supplies for a blackout. There were a half-dozen people on line when Caitlynn emerged from the back room, her hair freshly blown out and dried. Without having to be told to, she started working the second register. It took about a half hour before they were alone in the store again.
"Boy," observed Julian. "It must suck to be without air conditioning tonight."
Caitlynn nodded emphatically, "It was still like ninety-five degrees out when I left for work and the AC in my car is still busted."
Julian raised an eyebrow, "I thought you were getting that fixed."
"I was," Caitlynn sighed. "But, the stepbitch has been making it pretty damned clear that she wants me to move out now that I've graduated. So, I've been saving up for first, last, and one month's deposit."
Julian said evenly, "I bet you'll be glad to be out of there, though."
"Yeah," said Caitlynn. "I just wish she'd given me a hint like back in April when you needed a roommate."
"Actually," said Julian. "I need a roommate again. He ... didn't work out."
Julian shook his head and began counting cigarettes to restock, "I'd rather not talk about it."
Caitlynn came up behind him and placed a hand between his shoulder blades, "I think I should know. If we're going to be roommates, I want to know if you're going to go all psycho on me in a few months."
Julian crouched down to get a carton from under the desk, "Who said we were going to be roommates?"
.... There is more of this story ...