Home > Love Her or Lose Her (Hot & Hammered #2)

Love Her or Lose Her (Hot & Hammered #2)
Author: Tessa Bailey

 Chapter One

Rosie Vega: a department store shopper’s worst nightmare.

Really, that’s what her name tag should have read, instead of COSMETICS CONSULTANT. In order to fulfill that title, someone would be required to consult her first, right? Problem was, no one ever asked to be spritzed with perfume. And really, that’s all it was. Just a little spritz. Why wouldn’t customers let her make them smell good? Was it so much to ask?

Rosie hobbled over to the Clinique counter in her high heels, watching out for her supervisor, Martha, before performing a casual lean against the glass, groaning as the pressure on her toes and ankles lessened. One might surmise that Rosie was in the military, instead of a perfume girl at the mall. If Rosie was caught taking an unscheduled break, she wouldn’t be docked pay or anything so serious. She would just get the shittier-smelling perfume to demonstrate tomorrow. Martha worked her evil in backhanded ways.

Rosie leaned over the counter and checked the clock on the register: 9:29. A little over half an hour to go and she was exhausted from standing on her feet since three o’clock. The only customers left in Haskel’s were buying last-minute birthday presents or shopping for impromptu job-interview clothes. There were no pleasure cruisers at the mall this late, but she was required to stay until the very end. On the off chance someone wanted to smell like begonias and sandalwood right before bed.

A squeal rent the air and two children holding giant mall pretzels came tearing through her aisle, their mother sprinting after them with no fewer than three bags on each arm. Rosie managed to lunge out of their way, but one kid’s legs got tangled in the other’s and they went sprawling, both pretzels turning end over end like tumbleweeds into a Dior display, which tilted, wobbled, and crashed onto its side. Perfume bottles hit the floor with a cringe-inducing smash, the scents of several fragrances pooling and combining in what could only be referred to as too much of a good thing.

“Kill me now,” the mother wailed at the ceiling, turning bloodshot eyes on Rosie. “Help us. Please.”

Feedback screeched over the department store PA system. “Janitorial services to cosmetics.”

Both kids burst into noisy tears, neither one of them making a move to get up off the floor.

The PA system sent a ripple of static into the atmosphere, forcing everyone to plug their ears, which Rosie could only accomplish with one finger since she was still holding a perfume bottle. “Bring a mop,” the man on the speaker finished sleepily.

Rosie chewed her bottom lip for a moment, then set down her fragrance, thus committing a cardinal sin in the eyes of her supervisor. Don’t dawdle, always have a bottle. Those words were on a plaque in the employee break room in size 72 font. Desperate times called for desperate measures, however, and with her hands free, Rosie could stoop down to help the children to their feet, while their mother lamented the fact that she no longer smoked.

A teenager appeared on the scene dragging a mop behind him, music blaring in his earbuds, and Rosie ushered the kids over to their mother, waving off her gratitude, knowing she needed to find her bottle before—

“No perfume, I see,” Martha drawled, rising from behind the glass counter like a vampire at sundown. “How are we to entice the customer?” She pretended to search the immediate area. “Perhaps our commission will appear out of thin air.”

Smile in place, Rosie picked her bottle back up and gave it a shake. “Armed and prepared, Martha.”

“Oh! There it is.” Martha sauntered off to go terrorize someone else. But not before calling to Rosie over her shoulder, “You’re sampling the Le Squirt Bon Bon tomorrow.”

Rosie ground her molars together and threw a thumbs-up at her supervisor. “Can’t wait!” No one had ever sold a bottle of Le Squirt. It smelled like someone woke up with a hangover, stumbled into their kitchen without brushing their teeth, and housed a cupcake—then breathed into a bottle and put it on shelves.

She was debating the wisdom of paying the janitor to hide every bottle of Le Squirt—an inside job!—when the sound of footfalls coming in Rosie’s direction forced her spine straight, as if on command. She pushed off the glass and held her perfume bottle at the ready, a smile spreading her mouth and punishing her sore cheeks. A man turned the corner, and her smile eased somewhat, her hands lowering. Even if he were to buy the scent as a gift for his wife, the dude definitely wouldn’t want to go home reeking of women’s perfume.

Rosie assumed the man would pass on by, but he stopped at the counter across the aisle, peering into the glass case for a moment. Then he straightened and sent her a warm grin.

“Hi.” He shoved his hands into his pockets, and Rosie performed her usual customer checklist. Nice watch. Tailored suit. Potential for an upsell if she could convince an obvious businessman that the three-scent gift box was a must-have for his lady. “Shouldn’t they have sent you home by now?”

Was he talking to her? Weird. On the cosmetics department floor, most people passed by Rosie as if she were an inanimate object. A minor annoyance they had to successfully avoid for 3.7 seconds, unless they needed directions or help wrangling their kids. She had an urge to glance over her shoulder to confirm the man wasn’t addressing someone behind her. Maybe Martha had doubled back to make sure she was spray-ready.

“Um.” Rosie tried not to be obvious about shifting in her heels, transferring the ache between feet. “No rest for the weary, I guess. The mall closes at ten, so . . .”

Speaking to a man felt strange. Foreign. She hadn’t even talked to her husband, Dominic, about anything of real importance for years. And, God help her, someone giving enough of a damn to ask why she was terrorizing people with a perfume bottle at nine-thirty did feel important. Someone asking about her, noticing her, felt important.

For a split second, Rosie let herself notice the man back. In a purely objective way. He was cute. Had some dad bod going on, but she wasn’t judging. With both hands in his pockets, she couldn’t look for a wedding ring. Some intuition told her he was divorced, though. Maybe even recently. There was something about how he’d approached as if intending to go straight for the exit that told Rosie he was only pretending to be interested in the jewelry case now. His tense shoulders and stilted small talk suggested he’d actually stopped to speak to her and wasn’t overly comfortable doing it.

“Have you been working here long?”

This man was interested in her. In the space it took Rosie to have that realization, she noticed her own wedding ring was hidden behind the perfume bottle. Without being obvious, she curled the bottle into her chest and let the gold band wink at him from across the aisle. The light in his eyes dimmed almost immediately.

Rosie had been faithful to Dominic since middle school and that wouldn’t be changing anytime soon, but she allowed herself the feminine satisfaction of knowing a man had found her attractive. Had she even allowed that simple pleasure for anyone but Dominic? No. No, she didn’t think so. And in the years since Dominic had returned from active duty, she hadn’t gotten that light, bubbly lift from him, either.

Everything between them was dark, lustful, confusing, and . . . so far off course, she wasn’t sure their marriage would ever point in the right direction again.

Maybe it was silly, allowing this stranger’s attempts at flirting to bring everything screaming into perspective, but that was exactly what happened. On a boring Tuesday night that should have been like any other. Suddenly, Rosie wasn’t just standing in her usual spot beneath the fake crystal chandelier while boring piano music was piped in over the speakers. She was standing in purgatory. Whose life was this?

Not hers.

Once upon a time, she’d been a straight-A student. A member of the Port Jefferson High School volleyball team—B squad, but whatever. She’d been an aspiring chef.

Wait. Wrong. Rosie was an aspiring chef. She needed to stop thinking of that dream in the past tense. Something that faded with a long-ago wish upon a star.

Rosie set the perfume bottle down on the Clinique counter and sent the man a wobbly smile. “How long have I been working here?” She laughed under her breath. “Too long.”

The man laughed, seeming grateful that she’d broken the wedding-ring tension. “Yeah, I can relate.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “Well, I guess I should get going . . .”

He trailed off but made no move to leave. It took Rosie a tick to realize he was gauging her interest level, even though she was married. With a quick intake of breath, she nodded. “Have a nice night.”

Rosie stood there long after the man left, still trapped in that out-of-body feeling. Whose life was this, indeed? In a few minutes, she would clock out from a job she hated and go home to a too-quiet house. A horribly, painfully quiet house where she would orbit around Dominic as if they might catch fire if they made eye contact. Where had everything gone wrong?

She didn’t know. But twenty-seven was too young to settle for unhappiness. Discontent.

Any age was too young for that.

Yet that was exactly what she’d done. Professionally and personally.

“I think I’m done,” she whispered, the words swallowed up by elevator music, the sounds of cash drawers being removed from registers and gates being pulled down at the entrances to Haskel’s. Likewise, gates were coming down around a heart that was broken every time she passed through the living room and didn’t receive so much as a hello, how are you.

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