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"The girl voted most likely to die a virgin." "So unpopular, she attended her prom alone." "The queen of geek chic."
Zoe Gaston sneered at the labels people had scribbled under her senior picture. She hated labels. Although, she sighed as she glanced at the photo, sometimes it was hard to deny them. An ode to the dark side, she'd called her teen years. Black spiked hair, black-lined eyes, black glossy lips. She'd been a pudgy-cheeked brainy Goth-girl.
In other words, a total misfit.
"You think I should attend my ten-year reunion why?" she asked Meghan with a grimace.
"To relive happy high-school memories and reconnect with all your friends, of course."
Zoe's sister-in-law actually believed that. She was the kind of gal who'd liked school. Plenty of friends, good times, general acceptance. The total opposite of Zoe's experience. Other than one brief weekend when the hottie football star she'd crushed on had seemed to return her interest, she'd spent her high-school years as persona non grata.
"Oh, yeah, the good ol' days." Zoe squinted at Meghan and nodded sagely. "That would be when the cheerleaders hated me, the jocks were terrified of me and the teachers, ah, yes,
the teachers. They were just as happy when I cut class as when I showed up."
Meghan shrugged and snatched the yearbook away, obviously sensing the trip down memory lane wasn't helping her argument any. She tossed it on Zoe's electric-blue couch, the glossy cover swooshing across the slick leather.
"You publicly mocked the cheerleaders," she pointed out with a dirty look.
Oops. Zoe bit her lip to hold back a laugh as sherealized perky Meghan probably had a pair of bronzed pom-poms hidden away somewhere.
"Zach told me you kicked the quarterback in the balls," Meghan continued, sounding shocked and irritated. Zoe raised her brow as if to ask what was wrong with that, but managed to keep her mouth shut as the other woman continued. "And he said you regularly argued with the teachers."
A quick grin escaped. Okay, so her school days hadn't totally sucked. "Exactly. I didn't fit in. I didn't want to fit in. And nobody wanted me to try to fit in. So why on earth would I go back?"
"To show them all how hot you are, how successful you are and how wrong they were about you."
"Sure. Because I still don't look like a Kewpie doll, I change jobs more often than most people change hairstyles and it's been so long since I had sex that I might as well be the lifelong virgin they dubbed me."
"So what? Those things don't mean they were right about you, do they? And it's not like you have to fill out some sexual-activity roster if you attend."
Zoe smirked, then picked up her margarita glass and took a sip. Before she could come up with a clever response, Meghan puffed up her cheeks so she looked like an angry blond chipmunk, then blew out a gust of air. "If you don't go, they're all going to think they were right. Are you going to let them win?"
Zoe opened her mouth to say she didn't care if they won or not. Then she sighed and shut it again. She couldn't deny it. She did love to win. It was almost an irresistible need in her, that inability to step away from a competition, the compulsion to try to get the last word, to fight to the often-bitter end. It'd been the only thing that'd kept her in school after her parents' deathsthat need to prove all the gossips wrong.
Of course, as soon as the challenge was met and she'd won, she lost all interest. Boredom was Zoe's major downfall.
"I can overcome my need to win if I don't step up to play," she muttered, adding a silent maybe. She picked up the flashy neon invitation to the weeklong reunion and grimaced. "And returning to Central High's school of torture is good incentive to stay out of the game."
"And a rotten excuse for being afraid they might be right."
Zoe glared, but didn't respond to the direct hit.
"Why are you pushing this, really?" she asked, turning the tables. Zoe pointed to the bright reunion invitation that Meghan had brought over with an explanation that it'd been mailed to Zoe's brother when the committee hadn't been able to track her down. "You don't care if I relive my teen years or not, so what's behind it? The truth this time."
Meghan picked up a fuchsia pillow and ran her fingers through the fringe, her diamond wedding band sparkling. Finally, she looked up at Zoe with puppy-dog eyes and said, "Zach's in trouble."
Zoe sat upright so fast, her margarita sloshed over the edge of her glass. She ignored the icy stickiness trickling down her fingers and grabbed Meghan's arm. "What's wrong? What happened to Zach? Is he sick?"
"Nothing like that," Meghan hastened to assure her, her blue eyes wide and shocked at the vehement response. Zoe realized she might have overreacted a smidge, but Zach was all she had. "He's fine. Overworked and overstressed, as usual. It's not his health that's the problem. It's his business."
The fear slowly released its hold on her muscles. Zoe forced herself to breathe. Once, twice, then a deep, relieved sigh.
"Z-Tech?" she asked, referring to Zach's company. When the dot-com boom had gone belly-up, Zach had struck out on his own, creating a video-game company that catered to niche markets. Since she specialized in business consulting, Zoe had advised him more than once to expand his horizons, but Zach had always claimed he liked the cozy feel of specializing. He had decided last year to risk it all on his own platform. To compete with the likes of Sony and Microsoft, he'd gone with the concept of cheap, functional and expandable.
"Is his new system having problems?"
Meghan nodded. "He'd be furious if he knew I was telling you, but yeah. He sank everything, all our money, into this idea and now nobody is interested in the system. Not without something extra. If it doesn't take off, Z-Tech won't survive through the end of the year."
"Damn," Zoe breathed, sinking back in her chair.
Z-Tech was everything to Zach. Oh, sure, he adored his wife. But he'd loved that company first. He'd talked about starting it, had planned it way back when they were kids. Their parents had moved to Bradford, Idaho, when Zoe was fifteen. Zach, at eighteen, had stayed behind to try his luck in Silicon Valley. When their parents had died, he'd set aside his dreams, moved to the small Idaho town to let Zoe finish high school and gone to work in the dot-com industry to support his sister.
Zach had given up everything for her. Zoe never forgot that. She owed him. Owed him for keeping her in school, for pushing her to excel instead of curling up in a ball of misery. Owed him for reminding her what family was, and what it meant to be loved when the whole world as she'd known it had turned into an upside-down hell. Not that he saw it that way. The few times she'd tried to express gratitude, he'd rolled his eyes and changed the subject.
Three years ago, after she'd quit yet another job, it'd been Zach who'd suggested Zoe pile all her qualifications into a portfolio and call herself a consultant. She could step in, boss people around, fix their problems, then leave before she got bored. Specializing in startups with growing pains, she evaluated, assessed and created business plans to help companies move to the next level. Or, a lot of times, to realize that they'd tapped out their market, in which case she pointed out options to reinvent themselves. It'd turned into the perfectand very successfulsolution to all of Zoe's career woes.
And now her brother, who'd essentially given her her career, was losing his own company. She set her glass on the side table with a frown. Nothing like the heavy taste of debt to ruin a perfectly good margarita.
"He had this idea, though," Meghan said, her tone hushed as though she was sharing secrets. "Zach was saying if he could get a hook, something special, he'd be able to make it work."
"Something to convince buyers to try his system? That they could only get with it?" Zoe clarified.
"That's a great idea." Something Zoe had actually tried to suggest a few months back, but Zach had been in a weird macho I-can-succeed-myself-and-prove-I'm-not-a-loser mood so it hadn't sunk in. If his business was in this bad shape, that probably accounted for his attitude, she realized now. What boredom was to her, failure was to her brother pure hell. "What's the problem?"
"Zach figures he needs one killer game. An exclusive attached to his system. And there's only one game designer out there who's really exclusive, you know? Who everyone's heard of but who's never worked for one of the big companies."
Starting to see how this would circle back to her high-school reunion, Zoe waited.
"Apparently there's this guy. He goes by Gandalf the Gaming Wizard. He's the hottest video-game designer in the industry and he's a total mystery. Nobody knows who he really is. Zach's tried to reach him through Leeton, the company he works for, but no luck." Meghan got up with a bad-tempered "huff and stalked to the large plate-glass window to stare out over the San Francisco skyline. "I tried to help Zach research him, but it's like digging in the dark. Nothing to go on but a few rumors."
Which was where the reunion issue came in. Zoe reached for her margarita glass and downed the rest of the watery contents. Oh, yeah, she'd heard plenty of rumors about Gandalf.
Meghan turned and, apparently seeing the recognition on Zoe's face, pointed in triumph. "You know him, don't you?"
"No." Not a lie. She had no idea who Gandalf was.
"But he knows you. He's got the hots for you. Even Zach admits it, although he growled a little bit when he did. It's obvious based on his launch gameClass Warfare."
"Circumstantial," Zoe dismissed, even though she knew Meghan was probably right. Five years ago, after hearing Zach rant about it, she'd checked the game out herself. The designer had obviously lived in Bradford at some point. The similarities were glaring: landmarks, sayings, class slogans. Her.
She gave a little shiver. She'd never been able to pinpoint if she was flattered or freaked that the main character, a busty heroine named SweetCheeks, had been based on her. Not so much in looksor bra sizebut in attitude. Some of her catchphrases, her habit of tapping her lip when she was thinking. The purple-tipped, spiked black hair she'd sported in school. And more specifically, the one-of-a-kind tribal wings tattoo on her shoulder blades Zoe had gotten at sixteen in memory of her mother.
It was like a strange homage to her teenage self. A nice antidote to the ignominy of being voted most likely to die a virgin. The guy obviously knew her. But him? As far as she knew, nobody had a clue who he was.
"Circumstantial my ass," Meghan returned, slapping her hands on her denim-clad hips and glaring. "The answer to Zach's prayers, the hottest video-game designer in the country, is from your town. And chances are, given that he knew you in school well enough to see your naked back, he's likely your age. So he'd be at this reunion. Doh it's a connect-the-dots win. Even you can focus long enough to connect dots, can't you?"
"Nobody likes a smart-ass," Zoe muttered, her lips twitching as she uttered the lie.
"Sure they do," Meghan claimed, sensing Zoe wasn't going to slam the door on the discussion. "Zach and I love you."
The trickle of guilt intensified.
Needing to move, Zoe got up and crossed the apartment to the kitchen. A push of the button on the blender whirred a nice loud distraction, as well as mixing up another batch of margaritas.
Central High. Cliquish, snotty and judgmental. Zoe had never fitted in. She'd been an odd dichotomy. A moody fifteen-year-old Goth-girl brainiac with a chip on her shoulder. She'd taken to the exclusive small town and its high school like a cat to water. Thankfully she'd had Dex. Because of him, her one friend, she'd been able to ignore how poorly she'd been accepted. Until she was sixteen and her parents had died in a car accident and she'dhadto deal with another nasty small-town reality. Gossip. While she'd been trying to deal with her shock and grief, the gossip mill had gone into overtime, whispering on every corner rumors of her parents' pending divorce and claiming it was over her mom having an affair with the school principal.
Zoe had wanted to drop out, go anywhere and hide. But Zach had insisted she graduate. He'd set aside his dreams to be responsible. Despite the rotten high-school experience, she was grateful that he hadn't let her wienie out. Wasn't it her job, now, to set aside her irritation with the past to give his dreams a chance? After all, she wanted him to succeed, And even more, she wanted to prove herself. To him. And to herself.
Zoe sighed. Talk about pressure. She carried the pitcher into the living room and refilled both glasses.
"You know he'd be pissed if he found out you were doing this," she muttered to her sister-in-law as she sat back down. But she still picked up the invitation. "Nobody's even sure if Gandalf is from Bradford. You know that, right? He could have just passed through. There's no real reason to believe he's going to be at the reunion."
"Zach thinks he will be. Anyone that sentimental about his hometown would go to his reunion. The timing, a bunch of things in the game, suggest he's your age. Zach's been racking his brain to figure out a way to find the guy."
The guilt was a waterfall now.
Seeing the crack in Zoe's armor, Meghan moved in for the kill. She gave a perky smile and tugged a fat envelope out of her purse. "Look, here's more information on the reunion. I found the link when I used that Web site, you know? The Classmates one? When I saw your class was having a reunion, I e-mailed them to send me the invitation package."
Zoe's eyebrow arched. So that's how they'd really found her. She'd wondered. It wasn't like she'd left a trail of breadcrumbs for her ex-schoolmates to track her down.
"There was even speculation about Gandalf there on the message boards," Meghan continued, once she was sure Zoe wasn't going to chide her for the behind-the-back maneuvering. "People wondering if he's really from your school. What class he was in. If he'll come to the reunion. That kind of thing."
Figured. More gossip, this time cyber-style. Zoe just rolled her eyes.
"Even if he is there, it's not like he's going to be wearing a sign. The guy's managed to keep his identity a secret from major competitors for five years. He won't show up wearing a pointed hat and carrying a game controller." Seeing the stubborn look on Meghan's face, Zoe sighed. Then, as she did when faced with any impossible business challenge, she started breaking it down into smaller tasks to research, areas to consider, things to do. In other words, her brain had gone into strategy mode.
While she mulled all the angles, she absently took the reunion booklet Meghan held out. When she flipped the neon cover open, all thoughts of strategy fled; Zoe's stomach knotted. With narrowed eyes, she looked at the grainy black-and-white picture of the king and queen. Brad Young and Candice Love. Her crush and the girl who'd stolen him away from her.
She gave a low growl. Candice was the mean, snotty bitch behind making Zoe's high-school life a living hell. Galaxies apart socially, the two girls had been in direct competition in most things academic. Zoe snickered, remembering that four out of five times, she'd beaten Candice.
But Candice had had her revenge. Her whispers had taken Zoe's one spark of happiness and turned it into a worthless misery. Buzz of Zoe's parents and the affair had surfaced the same week she'd won the Governors' Award for Excellence. Candice had been the one whispering loudest, saying that since Zoe's mom had been fooling around with the principal, his recommendation and support of Zoe were based on her mother's bedroom skills. Zoe hadn't believed the gossip. She knew her parents were having problems, but cheating wasn't one of them. But she'd never forgiven Candice for starting the ugly rumor. Or for planting those doubts in Zoe's head.
Which meant helping out her brother was also her chance to go back, show the stuck-up cheerleader and her gang of friends that she was all those things Meghan tried to convince her she was. Hot and successful.
"Okay, fine," she decided with a determined thrust of her chin. "I'll go."
"Thanks, Zoe." Meghan's gratitude, apparent in her blue eyes and huge, relieved smile, gave Zoe a warm feeling. Helping was good. Meghan picked up the reunion folder and flipped through the pages. "You need a costume. And you're late sending an RSVP, so it might be hard to get a room at the reunion hotel."