If there was one thing she hated more than anything, it was the parents who let their kids run rampant in the store. It happened more often than she thought it would, parents dropping off their kids while they went shopping in other places. It was a toy store, not a daycare, and Kate wished that parents would learn the difference.
Coming back from California, the job at The Play Room had been just what she needed. Storytime and crafts with young children always forced her to smile, and sometimes the children just warmed her heart. Janet, the owner, never batted an eyelash if Kate told her she needed a day. In fact, the only person who seemed to care was Sarah, the owner's daughter. "You know, we hired you to free up some time so I could spend it with my kids." Sarah had sneered one day, after Kate had spent all night cleaning up after her father, and fighting with him about the bottle she'd found hidden in with the loaves of bread.
"Sorry, family emergency." Kate had answered, gathering returned toys in a basket to reshelf.
"That always seems to be the issue with you."
"Well, I'm not lying." At the older woman's shrug and disapproving glance, Kate had scurried away, fighting back rage. God forbid she call out one day, and force Sarah to do actual work. Why she even wanted to inherit the store, Kate didn't know. It was always, "Kate, someone spilled glitter in the arts and crafts section," or "Kate, can you put all those action figures back?" Just so she could sit at the register and file her nails.
So when two boys decided to have a lightsaber battle of epic proportions down five aisles of the store and left with their parents without cleaning a thing, Kate left Sarah alone at the register to start cleaning up their mess before the blonde could ask her to. After about three aisles, Kate was cursing those parents, muttering to herself about whether or not they would be that reckless if they had to clean up their own messes. Her mind drifted, as it often did, to her Mother. Johanna wouldn't have stood for this. The one time Kate had worked her way away from her mother at a store, she'd pulled down every Beanie Baby she could find and was playing with them on the floor. Johanna didn't let her leave until she had picked them all up, placing them on the shelf neatly, all facing forward. And then, just to make sure the message sunk in, Johanna had put back every toy that Kate had picked out. It sent the message loud and clear though. Bad behavior would not be rewarded. If only these parents would employ the same methods.
Her face stretched into a smile as she made it halfway down the aisle, her favorite toy in the store on a middle shelf, begging for her to press the button. It was a stuffed dinosaur, with buttons on its leg. The top one, you could press and hold to record a message, and the bottom one played it back in a deeper, dinosaur voice. Whenever she'd had a bad day, she would press the play button and listen to what was last said to the dinosaur. Usually it was kids giggling, or a toddler speaking nonsense. Once it had been a child saying, I love you, Daddy, that had both melted her heart from the inside out, and made her wish that she could have that time back with her own father.
This time, she was surprised to hear a deeper voice than any of the children she was accustomed to hearing, I really hope the cute cashier hears this. She found herself rolling her eyes, a real smile on her face for the first time in weeks. And before she could stop herself, she was pressing the record button, a smirk on her face as she answered. "Depends, which one of us do you think is the cute one?"
She almost hit the record button again, erasing her response, but Sarah's call for help made her leave it and rush to the front. By the time her shift was over in the late afternoon, she'd forgotten all about the tyrannosaurus with her cheeky message.
She had a morning shift the next day. First day of school vacation. It was supposed to be swamped, but Sarah wasn't coming in until Kate had to leave for class, meaning Kate would be all alone during the rush.
And there was a rush. She'd never thought of herself as a particularly good multitasker, but somehow that day she was able to ring people out, talk on the phone, and point people in the correct directions, all while praying that Janet would hire someone else soon. Sure, the store was small, but sometimes they could use the extra manpower. After two hours of fast paced work and forced smiles, she considered skipping class, and curling up with one of her murder mysteries until she fell asleep. Except she was almost at her skip limit. She was saving those days for times when she needed them, times that her Dad fell off the wagon. A bad day at work wasn't a reason to skip.
When Sarah came in, just before two, her face fell at the mess that awaited her. Three baskets of returns and things people decided they didn't want were piled behind Kate, the baskets stuffed over their capacity. There were two people in line, each with carts filled with children's activities, things to keep kids busy for the week without school. She scoffed as she opened the second register and began to count. "How late can you stay?" She tucked her long blonde hair behind her ears as she counted, keeping it out of her eyes.
"I can't, I have class." Kate didn't have to look at her coworker to know she was rolling her eyes.
"You can't skip it this once?"
Kate sighed as she directed people over to Sarah's line. "I'd rather not. I'll put the returns away before I leave though." Kate ignored her sighing coworker, grabbed two of the three baskets, and made a beeline to the back of the store. It was a small store, with a good amount of organization, so putting away the returns never took long. As she went she straightened things on shelves, taking things down from where they didn't belong and adding them to her baskets.
When she came to the aisle with the tyrannosaurus, a smile stretched across her face. Of course it had been busy, so chances were, any response the man would have left was probably recorded over by a bunch of kids, but the thought of any response made her body thrum with an excitement she hadn't felt in weeks.
She found it on a higher shelf than it belonged on, right below the top where the overstock was held, just out of reach of the older kids, and pushed back enough so that younger kids might not see it when they looked up. Pulling it down, she was careful not to hit the record/erase button prematurely. She dropped her basket and cradled the box in her arm, her thumb pressing down on the play button. The gorgeous brunette with the pretty green eyes.
At this, her heart stopped. What had started out as a general flirtation had quickly set its attention on her. She stayed in the aisle for a minute, trying to figure out her next move. She didn't have time for a relationship. Between school, and trying to get her Father into rehab, she barely had time to show up here. But she was getting ahead of herself. Flirtation via dinosaur toy was just a bit of fun. It didn't have to turn into anything, did it? She pressed play once more, listening to the message and allowing her grin to dominate her face. And once more, she pressed and held the record button, leaving a message and putting the dinosaur back, turning the box so he faced the back of the shelf. With that, she brought her empty returns baskets to the front of the store and clocked out, joining the traffic outside as she made her way to class.
"Dad, why do we need to go to the toy store again?" The look of disapproval on his seven year old's face as she slipped her arms into her jacket made him laugh. Most kids would be overjoyed. But she took after him in some ways, and would rather spend her vacation curled up on the couch with a good book, than waste it away going shopping.
"I heard from a very reliable source that they are getting in a shipment. I need Yakface to finish my collection." It wasn't the truth, but how does one tell their daughter that they need to see if the pretty lady responded? He could grab some Star Wars figurines there, and at least make it worth his while.
Alexis rolled her eyes, pulling her long red hair out of the collar of her jacket. "No one has Yakface, Dad. It's not worth it."
"Well, you need some fresh air." He countered, ushering her out the door.
"In a store?"
"On our walk to the store. Let's go!" Her answering sigh as she walked through the halls told him he would have to make it worth her while.
He hadn't expected a response when he first left that message. The toy was cool, and he half expected his message to be recorded over. So when he'd heard her response, Depends, which one of us do you think is the cute one? he'd started to laugh. It had to be her, the brunette. The owner seemed to be too busy with other things to worry about leaving a message back, and the older blonde always seemed so unpleasant. That only left one worker inside that small toy store, unless they were hiding someone in the back.
When they entered The Play Room, Alexis made a beeline for the back wall, where the children's books lined the perimeter from top to bottom. And Rick looked at Star Wars figurines first, keeping up the charade. Of course, there wasn't a Yakface. It would have surprised him more if there was. So he grabbed a random Obi Wan and made his way instead down the aisle with his favorite dinosaur.
The tyrannosaurus was still on the higher shelf he'd placed it on the day before, but tuned backward. The small change let him know that there might be a message for him, and he giggled with glee as he reached for it. He handled it with care, pulling it down and pressing the play button. This is the owner. My hair used to be brown. Does that count?
At this he laughed, not caring who saw. The store was less crowded than it had been yesterday, and he didn't find himself worried that anyone would walk down the aisle and see him trying to hide the dinosaur. He pressed the record button and waited for the two high-pitched beeps. "Nice try. The old lady has blue eyes, like mine." He pressed play once, listening to make sure he didn't get cut off, and then placed the tyrannosaurus back on the high shelf, facing the correct direction so she would know he saw it. He then went to the back wall, where Alexis was debating two books. "No Yakface. Would you believe it, Pumpkin?"
"I told you. No one has him." She put the Beezus and Ramona book back, and turned to him with the new Junie B. "Can we take this home please?"
He pressed a kiss to her head. "Yeah. Thanks for humoring me."
"I'll do it every day if I get to keep taking books home." He filed that information in the back of his head as they headed toward the register.
Kate, the brunette he'd been pining over, was the one to cash them out. She met them at the register with a brilliant smile. "How are you enjoying school vacation?"
Alexis put her arms on the counter and laid her head on top of them to answer. "It's great. Except Dad keeps pulling me all around town to look for his action figures."
Kate bit her lip to stifle her laugh, and he wanted to ask her out for coffee right there. But he didn't want to overstep anything with her, and he would never do it in front of his daughter, so he held his tongue and planned when he would return to the dinosaur on the top shelf.
"My Mom used to drag me out of the house during school vacation week." The woman was smiling, despite the forlorn, faraway look in her beautiful eyes. "She would take me shopping at flea markets and discount sales. I hated it at first, but grew to enjoy it." She locked eyes with his daughter. "Maybe someday you'll look forward to action figure shopping."
Alexis shrugged. "Maybe. Especially if I get books out of the deal." The woman only laughed, bagging the book and handing it down to the young redhead, who carried the package with pride. As they left, Alexis waved back at the woman he was transfixed by. "Have a nice day!"
The next afternoon, he didn't even pretend to be interested in action figures he would never find. While Alexis made a beeline for the new Polly Pocket display, he headed right for the dinosaur. He found it like he did the day before, facing backwards on the shelf, telling him that she had recorded something new. His body thrummed with excitement as he pressed play. Observant, aren't we? He chuckled to himself as he hit record, leaving her a new message, and replacing the toy.
When Kate found out her mystery admirer had blue eyes, she found herself paying extra close attention to all the blue eyed men. She tried to hear the hint of a smile she always detected when the dinosaur flirted with her. She tried to gauge whether their sense of humor seemed to match what she heard each time she pressed play. Silently, she cursed the voice changer that made it impossible for her to have that moment when everything clicked. She studied thee blue eyed men to see if they were watching her more, figuring out that she was catching on. Of course that only seemed to make people uncomfortable, the men looking away, or talking less, reminding her that she had an actual job to do.
She pressed the play button at the end of her shift on the second day of vacation, the moment she had been most looking forward to. I can't help it. Occupational hazard. Her mind started going through every job she could think of where a person needed to be observant. He could be a scientist, making life changing discoveries. Or maybe he was a doctor, keeping track of symptoms in patients. He could be a psychologist, but she shoved that thought away, she saw enough of hers. Maybe he was a police officer. She was still learning, but she knew they were expected to see the smaller details. Or maybe it was just part of being a father.
At that last option, her eyes grew wide. Because this was a store for toys, and some of their patrons were teenagers. What if she'd been giving someone young the wrong idea? So she pressed record, waited for the beeps, and spoke. "Please, for the love of God, tell me you are at least eighteen."
At the end of the following day, she had her answer. Usually my daughter drags me here. I'm running out of excuses to explain why we come every day. At this she breathed out a sigh of relief. "Sure, blame it on your kid." She responded, turning the dinosaur the other way so he'd know she answered.
This odd flirtation continued for days. It became a ritual of sorts, to check the dinosaur for a message as she finished her shift, the strange man always bringing a smile to her face.
It's easy to blame her right now, she can't defend herself.
"Can you imagine what she'd think if she knew? She'd think it was silly."
It is a little silly. I wouldn't blame her.
"I'm Kate, by the way."
I know, you do wear a name tag.
"Well, do I get to know your name?"
And then she was gone for three days. Those three days were spent doing laundry, cleaning, studying, and going to class, and far away from a store called The Play Room. Sarah had tried to call her in, but gave up when Kate mentioned the two papers and exam that she needed to study for, the irritation clear in her voice. So when she returned after her time away, she wasn't surprised to find the toy back in its original spot on the shelf. And when she hit play, all she heard was the sound of children giggling. There wasn't a memory, once the message was recorded over, it was gone. His name had been replaced by a group of laughing children, as it was supposed to be.
She spent her entire shift in a funk. Maybe this would stop. Maybe he would lose interest in sending messages through a toy meant for seven-year-olds. Maybe he would think she wasn't interested. But maybe it was all for the best. She didn't want to drag another person and his child into the mess of her life. But the rationalization did nothing to stop the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she laid that short relationship to rest.
Janet came in to relieve her around two, just in time for her to jet off to class. But on her way back from the break room, as she traveled down that familiar aisle, she saw the dinosaur again on that high shelf, turned backwards. She had a message. The sinking feeling turned into butterflies as she lowered it down, her thumb depressing the play button. Someone moved it on us! Do you like coffee, Kate? Her response was quick. "I'm in college. My friends call it the life juice."
By morning, she had a response. How does Jo's sound? Two blocks away. Sunday at eleven? Her favorite coffee shop, where the barista knew her order by heart, and the pastries were always baked fresh. She spent many mornings there, getting ready for early classes, or just waking up enough to open the store. She pressed record, waiting for the two beeps. "I'll be there." She placed it back up on its high shelf, a smile stretching across her face. Tomorrow she would put it on the shelf it belonged on, now that it had served it's purpose. This dinosaur was the only thing that made her genuinely smile. She could plaster on fake ones all day for the children, but she had missed the genuine ones. She wondered if she'd ever be able to articulate just how important those small sentences had been.
Saturday passed without any issues. And Sunday was there before she knew it. The whole walk down to Jo's, she worried. Her expectations were high, and she hated the thought of being let down. What if he felt underwhelmed? Maybe their flirtations were better when their voices were disguised.
Once inside, she ordered her latte and sat at a table in the corner, facing away from the door. She didn't want to stare down every person as they entered. Each time that bell rung over the front door, signifying a new customer, her heart rate increased. Her palms sweat each time she heard footsteps behind her. And as someone walked around her, and sat across from her, her throat dried up. He had the kindest blue eyes, and a warm smile, his face familiar, and he looked about as nervous as she felt. And after a moment, when the shock had worn off, her smile stretched across her own face as she raised a hand to point at him. "You're the Dad who likes the action figures!"
His eyebrows raised and his shoulders fell as he sat back in his seat. "That's what you remember? Nothing else?"
"I remember people by their collections. Occupational hazard." She grinned, remembering his words. "Your daughter collects Polly Pockets, right?"
"I don't know what she does with them. I feel like she loses them or rips the clothing faster than I can buy new ones."
Kate laughed, listening to the same complaints many customers had lodged at her, and nodding in agreement. She pushed her hair out of her face, studying the man who had single-handedly brought her joy for the past two weeks. "I'm sorry, but they moved the dinosaur, and some kids recorded over the message with your name."
"Don't be sorry. I'm surprised we didn't get recorded over more often." He held out his hand, and she took it, shaking a few times. "I'm Rick Castle."
As it clicked, she pulled his hand away. "Rick Castle. As in, the writer of the books I read, Rick Castle?"
"You read my books?"
She shrugged. "I'm starting to." She'd read two. One was her mother's, and took her a while to go through. Each dog-eared corner reminded her of her loss, and it had been harder to deal with. "Reading your stories is just one of the reasons I started to consider joining the police academy."
His jaw dropped. "That's incredible." She wondered if he had ever thought of the positive impacts his books have had on the lives of his audience. "You should tell me all about it."
"Maybe I will." The conversation stayed easy, without pressuring her to go any further than she wanted to. He told her stories about his daughter, who brought him joy and gave him an excuse to stay young at heart. She talked about her favorite classes, and that one crazy professor who always managed to lead the conversations back to milkshakes. She complained about work with Sarah, and how she always complained, and he promised to have a lightsaber battle with Alexis at the end of one of Sarah's shifts. By the end of their lunch date, she'd made up her mind that he needed to be in her life, in some capacity, just to help her remember to smile. She gave him her number, ready to see how their relationship progressed, and agreed to meet him for a real dinner sometime when her finals were over.
He assigned her a personal ringtone. Jurassic Park. And at that moment she realized, her life would never be dull as long as Richard Castle was in it.