Stronger Ever After – Part II

Part II of the Stronger Ever After novella presented here. Enjoy!

Mimi changed the designer display red cardigan to the orchid, added a chunky necklace and stepped back to view the effect. Styling outfits, mixing and matching items, engaged her. Seen by friends as a special gift, styling came naturally to her, maybe even something of a mixed blessing. In order to relax, to be content, colors and lines had to come together just so. If only she could do more styling and less corporate busy work.

Her hands patted down the finished coordinated outfit. Afternoon shoppers eyed the display and nodded approval.

“Wow,” one shopper said as she stopped to feel the softness of the cardigan, and fingered the necklace.

While Mimi acknowledged the satisfaction with a professional smile, her head continued to replay the home situation.

Once again, Willow couldn’t offer any exact complaints for her discomfort. She did look pale, though this could be physiological, her body chemistry moving toward becoming a woman. Earlier, when Willow walked toward her from the school nurse’s office, the box top sweater with the vintage-like bohemian skirt she wore all too often, seemed tight. Perhaps because of hormonal weight redistribution. Different too, was the emotional hesitation. Her brows gathered in. And there were her eyes, too. Puffy.

Mimi collected her fitting supplies, and surveyed the look she created. It worked. She shook herself from Willow for the moment. Barb wanted to see her.

She approached  Barb’s office door and tapped the door frame. Her boss sat at the keyboard with her back to the door, studying the monitor.

“You wanted to talk?”

Barb pivoted and nodded, pushed her desk chair back from the computer and turned her attention to her desk where she shuffled a paper stack.

“Take a seat.” Barb pulled a sheet from the pile. “The shop’s recovering nicely. I think we all see higher sales and increased traffic.”

Mimi nodded.

“The latest numbers for the quarter confirm it, I’m happy to report.” Barb bestowed on her an infrequent smile.

Mimi nodded again. This sounded better than anticipated. She worked hard on merchandise selection and maybe this was recognition for her contribution. Maybe a bonus? It was tight now with the financial arrangement struck with undependable, irresponsible Jeff. She leaned back more at ease than when she’d entered.

Barb cleared her throat. “Corporate wants an aggressive quarter to slam year-end profits.” Barb turned back to her monitor and pulled a complicated looking spreadsheet file to the screen. “To make that happen, we’ll stay open later on weekends starting now, and add additional staffing to the schedule. We want all hands available, not only sales associates. It’s got to be a broad-based effort.”

Mimi’s back straightened as she scanned the busy document displayed over Barb’s shoulder on the monitor. This wasn’t about recognition at all. It was the wrong direction. She worked alternating weekends, this upcoming one she was scheduled off. She rotated weekends with Jeff for Willow, and this one was hers. In recent weekends, Mimi had come in on her own time. She worked it out with a co-worker and successfully arranged time to be with her daughter. That was rough enough. This would be more complicated.

Her hands clutched and she shifted, unable to get comfortable. Barb’s back remained to her. What to say, what to do?

Barb had no kids. Should she chance a conversation about Willow and why she needed to spend more time with her?

Barb swung her chair back around and met Mimi’s gaze. “I’ll post the schedule in the usual folder.”

Mimi dropped her head. She pretended to lift a thread off her black leggings. The proposed schedule would take them through the holidays and into the new year. Right now there wasn’t an option to Barb’s surprise announcement. Better to see the actual schedule first, than to overreact.

She nodded slowly and met Barb’s gaze.

“Thanks, Mimi.” Barb returned to the monitor, their chat over.

Mimi marched from Barb’s office up the single aisle that formed a curved basic spine from the back of the shop to the front entrance. The aisle was cleverly color-coded, designed to transport shoppers through a collection of designer boutiques on either side and circulate customers throughout the expensive shop. Charcoal, cream, black, smoke, she counted the alternating color blocks that led up to the front purchase counter where two sales associates huddled over the terminal.

Their quiet conversation ended abruptly. Had they been talking about her? About the new schedule? She looked away, out past the front glass windows, then back.

The shop was empty. Few fashionistas ventured in just before closing time. No doubt that would change with the extended hours and alter the day’s sales flow. The chrome light pendants placed over the wrap desk reflected her mouth’s grim straight line. She bit her lip, took a breath. The shop’s contemporary interior seemed even colder than usual.

Both associates changed their casual postures, standing taller as they exchanged a glance and turned toward her. Their faces softened.

“So, Mimi, you’re the stylist. What do you know about a hot date outfit?”

What was that supposed to mean? She shared little about her life outside the shop and nothing about Jeff and the separation. They were work acquaintances, maybe a little younger, not friends. Did they know her situation? She took a deep breath and held it momentarily while she considered an answer.

“Hmmm, hot date.” She’d take the high road, but her stomach felt queasy. “For someone we know?”

“For me, an internet date,” she paused, “It’s possible I may have led him on to think I was well, more sophisticated than I actually am.” She laughed and the other associate joined in.

Mimi glanced at her watch. There wasn’t much time left and she wanted to get home for Willow, especially tonight. That’s why a good stylist kept three go-to outfits in mind at the ready. She always had a casual, office, and weekend look, curated from garments available in the shop for a quick on-demand look.

Okay. One hot date look coming up.

“I have something in mind, take a look over here.” She turned and they followed.

From one of the designer boutique racks, Mimi selected a sleek, sleeveless plunging V-neck gray jersey dress and placed it into the lavish fitting room.

“Your dark hair against this gray will be amazing. The cut can only flatter your curves and the fabric has the softest touch of sheen.”

The gal touched the ruching on the bodice and waist and stood back. She looked at the other associate who gave a soft I-agree-nod of her head.

Mimi continued, “Pair this with black stilettos and you ooze sophistication.”

The associate ran her hand through her hair. “I’d never even give this dress a second look, but I see what you mean.”

“Try it on,” Mimi said.

A moment later, the brunette stood before the three-way fitting mirror in the dress that could have been made for her.

“It’s perfect. I really didn’t know what I was going to do.” She turned to get the full effect.“ I can’t wait for the weekend to meet him.”

“The weekend?” Mimi asked. “This weekend?”

“Yep. Tomorrow.”

Mimi’s mouth went dry. “Won’t you be working. Tomorrow?” She had to add, “Here?”

The associate twirled in the dress, “No, not scheduled.” She took one more look, “This will do it.”

While the associate purchased the dress and applied employee discounts, Mimi flew to the Stressback office and pulled up the revised schedule. There it was, the next three weekends solid, one weekend after that free, followed by three more consecutive weekends. She ground her teeth. She followed the other names on the spreadsheet. They were scheduled in an every other weekend pattern.

Barb had already left. The shop was closed. Barb would put on that disgusting half smile and tell her how sales were driven by a good stylist and in-store marketer.

She rubbed her forehead. Right now, she needed the job.

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