Chapter 39
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Inside the staff area Scott stared down at the time-clock. Various curse words flowed through his mind as he gazed upon the slave master that owned his soul. "It's all your fault..." he whispered menacingly to the hateful device that controlled when he had to enter hell and when he could escape from its clutches.

"Whose fault?" asked a cutesy voice from nearby.

Scott involuntarily took in a deep breath as the owner of that voice registered in his head. "Hey, boss lady."

Ashton walked over to him, her clipboard in hand. Today she wore a button-up shirt and vest combo that accentuated her positives quite well. Her fashionable glasses sat smartly on her face, a sight that granted her an air of intelligence and poise. However, her slightly pouting lips betrayed her.

"Has someone caused you any concerns?" she asked seriously.

"No, not really," said Scott. "I was just letting the time-clock know its place in my life."

She blinked at him. A moment later she reached out and lightly smacked him on the arm with her clipboard. "Silly..."

An awkward pause ensued as the sorority girl turned store team leader, and the man who would be king, stood in silent contemplation of what had just transpired. The pause dragged on for nearly a minute in fact.

"So, you're working tonight?" she asked after the moment finally passed.

"Yeah, just about to clock in," said Scott. He did his best to put a little warmth in his voice.

She nodded to him then affected a playful smile of her own. "I'm just about to get off myself."

"Aw, so I won't have you leading me tonight?" he asked her, the warmth rising in his voice considerably as the implications of her words percolated inside his head.

She pouted a little, and stood up straighter. In the process of doing that, her breasts jutted forward slightly. It was a common sight from her and was the originator of her own little nickname from Scott, though he dared not mention it in front of her.

"No, sadly. But we'll be working together a few days from now," she said, her pout perking into a smile.

Scott offered her a thumbs up. "Can't wait."

She offered him a polite nod then waited for him to clock in for his shift. Scott left the room and headed off to discover what Bigness chose to do with the keys this time. Ashton was left behind to contemplate the time clock herself.

"It's almost over," she whispered. The perkiness and pouting lips disappeared from view in that moment. Instead, a tired woman waited patiently for her work shift to come to an end.

Just as she finished clocking out, her cell buzzed in her pocket. She took it out then sighed loudly. "You've got to be kidding me..." she said after reading the message her fiancé texted, "You couldn't pick me up before running off to do that? I mean it's our special day..."

Her fiancé, a man she met in college named Bradly Hamilton, typically picked her up and dropped her off at work. Some days, and with greater frequency in recent days, he would be out running errands and would not be able to arrive in a timely manner at the end of her shift.

"It's my truck, you know," she muttered to herself.

Unable to do anything about the situation, Ashton collected her things and headed out to the food court at the front of the store. Perhaps overpriced coffee and the antics of the guest services manager would cheer her up.

Scott had a way of doing that, even if he also had a terrible habit of nicknaming his fellow team members. Often those nicknames were highly inappropriate in the work place. Honestly, if he was not so useful in his role she would probably have fired him for that by now.

"At least that chubby weirdo listens to me," she remarked with a snort. A moment later Ashton took a deep breath then forced herself to smile. She smoothed her hair, and stood up straight. Since she was still at work, she needed to show a certain amount of professionalism. Much like back in her sorority, this store was her queendom. She would reign supreme.

Archers was as lively as ever that afternoon. Scott did his best to entertain people as they entered the store. He greeted them with friendly smiles and the occasional exaggerated wink. Most people were happy to be there, so he pretended to be happy to greet them. It was a reasonable trade-off for the pittance they paid him.

Roughly an hour into his shift he walked past the food court and noticed Ashton sitting alone in the corner, a cup of coffee in hand. She stared at her cell phone intently as though she expected that it would ring at any moment. No longer did she wear her work clothes. Instead, she had slipped into something far more comfortable and decidedly impressive.

"What's the deal with the boss lady?" Scott asked the hotdog woman, an older lady who wore both a hotdog shaped hat and the world's surliest smile. She had a name, they all had names, but he still thought of her as Hotdog Woman.

She leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, "Who? Tits McPouts?"

"Yeah," agreed Scott, readily. It seemed everyone liked to use his nickname for the boss nowadays. "Why's she sitting there looking like the wife of a mafia boss?"

Hotdog Woman chuckled at him then adjusted her silly hat. "Dunno. She just ordered a cup of coffee and has been living off the free refills for like an hour."

"Pumpkin spice?" he asked her candidly.

"You know damned well she ordered it," said the woman snidely.

"White girls, am I right?" he asked her lightly.

Hotdog Woman waved him off. "I'm offended by that. I used to be one, you know."

"Really? That was a thing?" asked Scott.

Her surly smile cracked and became a slightly more pleasant one. "I wasn't always in my forties."

Scott's eyes widened and he stared at her as though he were both shocked and scandalized. "The hell you say..."

She took off her hat and smacked him with it twice, and then a third time for good measure. "Someone ought to beat you."

"I thought you just did?" asked Scott flippantly. "For that matter, who beats a man with a hotdog hat? That has to be some sort of hate crime."

"It is not!" she groused.

He stopped short then tilted his head, "Well, maybe it's not a hate crime. Still definitely a crime, though... a hat crime."

His pun caused Hotdog Woman to draw back slightly, as though the terrible nature of its existence proved to be an affront to her dignity as a human being. Her surliness returned, but her smile stuck around for a little while longer. "Don't you have something to do?" she asked him curiously.

"Yeah, came to get some water for my team. Probably need to send someone out to collect the carts soon," he admitted.

"By someone, you mean you?" she asked him, her lips pursed and her eyes half-lidded.

"Absolutely," he said without a hint of humor in his tone. Oh yes, those glorious few minutes outside would be his and his alone. He would get the carts and in so doing he would receive a reprieve from his retail nightmare.

Scott stopped discussing the nature of his escape attempts with Hotdog Woman not long after that. He grabbed a tray and some cups then headed toward the drink machine to get some ice water for his front-end team.

Normally, they would find a quick moment without customers and go get their own. However, he liked to do this sort of thing early in his shift. His team stayed hydrated, and it also allowed him one other opportunity. When someone had to use the bathroom due to his generosity he could hop on a register and force his guest services team member to cover for him with the guests.

"Thirsty?" asked Ashton as Scott walked by her with his tray of cups.

"I haven't had a date in a while, but I hardly think that's any of your business boss lady," he said flippantly.

She snorted a little then laughed in spite of herself. Her glasses came off and she sighed a little.

Scott immediately looked away from her and back to the drink machine. Dark whispers began to percolate inside his mind as he worked on filling his water cups. Ashton was quite pretty with her glasses on, but she became a total fox the moment she took them off. His inner demons would never pass up the opportunity to torment him if he gazed too long into that beautiful abyss.

"Is everything going all right on the front-end?" she asked him after an awkward moment passed between them.

"So far, so good," he said. Scott continued to look away from her for a moment before he gave in to the little incessant part of his mind that still pretended to care about people. "Everything alright on your end?"

"Yeah, totally," she said with a nod of her head.

Scott eyed her briefly for a moment. "You're looking all kinds of fancy."

She sighed a little then nodded. "Yeah, it's my anniversary... Just waiting for my fiance to show up with my truck so we can go out to dinner."

"Ah, a fancy place I take it?" Scott grinned at her. They rarely spoke about anything outside of work matters. It was nice to put her on the spot for once.

Ashton grinned back at him in kind. "Yeah, we're supposed to stay overnight at that five-star hotel that just opened and eat dinner at that fancy French restaurant."

"The one with the snails?" asked Scott, lightly.

"Escargot... and no I won't be having any!" she replied with a snicker.

"Whaddya want from me? The Frenchest thing I eat is French fries." Scott offered her a wry smile as though he were sharing a secret with her.

Seemingly starved for something, anything, to entertain herself, Ashton took the bait readily. "Oh ho, quite the world traveler I see..."

Scott waved her off imperiously with one hand. "Of course. You don't get a physique like mine without serious effort and discipline."

They both shared a laugh at that. Soon, they began to chat lightly about little things. Scott occasionally glanced toward the front-end as he actually did need to work at some point. Eventually, they meandered onto a different topic altogether.

"I'm telling you, I can!" exclaimed Ashton with a bright smile.

"Pfft." Scott dismissed her with a casual noise. "There's no way you can do that."

"It's true, though!" She rose to her feet and placed her hands to her hips for emphasis.

"Right. I'm going to believe that? There's no way you have moves like that..." Scott pretended to lightly brush off his shoulder as though he were getting rid of lint and dust. Sadly, it did not take long for him to realize that there was actually a bit of dandruff there. He casually removed it without alerting anyone who might be watching.

"Oh? Are you challenging my skills? I used to be the captain of my cheer team in high school and college!" Ashton cocked one hip to the side then waggled her head back and forth in a sassy manner.

"Of course you were," he said with a grin. "Doesn't mean your moves are all that, though."

"That's it! Prepare yourself for total domination!" Ashton stalked forward, her hips swaying back and forth like a boss. She glanced back over her shoulder at him and said, "If you fall in love it's your own fault. I won't take responsibility for your weakness."

"I'll risk it," said Scott in a tone that should have bespoke his disbelief in her skills. The slight grin on his face prevented that. When she wasn't being pouty and whiny, she was actually pretty fun.

"Mhmm—" she said just before she spun around in place and flashed an epic move in Scott's direction. Its sassy cuteness could not be denied!

"That's right! Worship me, peasant!" exclaimed Ashton in high-spirits.

Scott clutched his chest and staggered back in a fit of overdramatic giddiness. "I-Impossible! Such a move... I am defeated..."

She snapped her fingers then swayed her shoulders back and forth. "Mhmm, that's right. Know your place little boy."

 Despite his best efforts he could not help but laugh. Underneath all of that pouty whininess was a genuinely fun and interesting person. Who knew?

They took turns busting epic moves while pretending that those moves were too powerful for mere mortals to witness. A few minutes later, the topic turned back to the obvious. Why exactly was Ashton sitting alone in the food court?

"Just thought I'd chill here a while..." She sighed softly then pulled out her phone at looked at it.

He started to tease her, but then noted her expression. He moved back to his long forgotten water cups and began to fill them. In a cheerful tone he said, "You need Netflix in your life."

Ashton actually laughed at that nodded, a clear sign that she still hungered for a distraction from her relationship woes... "I have it! We just don't have it here at the store..."

Scott tilted his head to the side. "Someone should take the hint, and improve morale..."

"I knew that was you!" she exclaimed, her eyes beginning to sparkle a little in the light.

Scott snickered a little, but kept a cool expression. "Whatever do you mean?"

She eyed him carefully, her lips forming into a genuine smile at last. "You're the one who stuck that suggestion in the morale improvement suggestion box every day for a month."

"Who? Me?" asked Scott before he reached over and began to put lids onto his cups of water.

"Yes, you—" she began, only to be interrupted by a deep masculine voice cutting through the air.

"You ready?" asked the newcomer.

Scott turned toward the questioner. He saw a tallish man with dirty blond hair and a manly scowl. Dressed in a muscle shirt and jacket combination, obviously to show off his muscles, he held the appearance of a man who was both physically fit and man-pretty.

He eyed Scott for a moment then wrinkled his nose and snorted. "You on break or something?"

The mannerisms of the man before him immediately set Scott's teeth on edge. His mask slipped and an icy tone leaked into his words. "Is that your business?"

"Scott?" asked Ashton, surprised by how he responded. The chubby weirdo who stood before her had always been such a happy-go-lucky sort of person, but that response was almost as rude as the one to whom he had responded.

"Seriously, Bruh?" asked the man, his eyebrows pressing inward. He took a menacing step forward.

Before he could take another step Ashton stepped between them. "Yeah, I'm ready. We can go, Bradly."

Bradly snorted at her then looked at Scott. For a moment it seemed like he wanted to say something, but then he grunted and turned away.

"See ya later," said Ashton to Scott. The moment the words left her lips, Bradly reached down, grabbed her arm, and dragged her forward.

"Hey!" she snapped. Ashton tore her arm away from him and asked, "What's gotten into you?"

He glared at her for a moment. "Whatever. I'll be in the truck when you're done fucking with that fat ass."

Scott's body tensed. It took every fiber of his being not to respond to that blatant insult. He was at work. As much as he hated his job, if he were to speak his mind right then he would have to worry about keeping a roof over his head. One self-important dude bro was not worth becoming homeless.

Bradly stalked away, and Ashton was left behind to stare incredulously at his back. "I..."

"You alright?" asked Scott tersely, far more tersely than he intended. Some of his venom had leaked into his tone and been misplaced toward Ashton.

"Yeah... Sorry, I should go," she said. However, she did not move from her spot. Her eyes lost focus and she tried to get a grasp on what happened a moment ago.

"Why would you apologize to me?" asked Scott, his tone still colder than he intended.

"For..." she shook her head, "He's never like that. I'm sorry."

Scott stared her into her eyes with the same cold murderous intent that he exuded when he thought of the men who kidnapped Saelil. His tone calm and measured, he said, "I'm sorry, too."

Ashton took an involuntary step back. The intensity of Scott's gaze was something she had not been prepared for by any stretch of the imagination. His meaning was also clear. The one he was sorry for, was not himself. He felt sorry for her.

She coughed once then clutched her purse fretfully. Who was this? It couldn't be Scott!

Sensing that his mask had slipped, Scott rubbed his eyes then took a deep breath. A smile came to his lips and he cheerfully said, "Hey, you have a good night and see you soon. Alright? We work together in a few days, right?"

"R-right," she said while nodding her head rapidly. "See you then..."

He offered her another eerily cheerful smile then turned away. She watched him carefully as he began to lightly hum a merry tune while he finished putting lids on the drinks.

"Who are you?' she asked herself in a nearly inaudible whisper. The chubby weirdo who merrily went about preparing water for his team was not the same man who just spoke in such a cold manner. Today had turned out to be quite the eye opener.