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"Tessa, while I realize sorting scarves has a certain je ne sais quoi, time is of the essence. We have appointments scheduled all afternoon. Did you unpack the shipment from Hermes yet?"
Tessa McGuiry winced at her boss's butchered pronunciation of the French expression. Though Sylvia kept her Cincinnati boutique stocked with all the latest designer accessories from Europe and beyond, she certainly had no talent when it came to foreign languages.
"The Hermes bags are on the shelves," Tessa said. "I also inventoried the Michael Kors belts and took three orders from customers." She hated when Sylvia made it seem as though she'd been slacking. She was the hardest worker there.
"Oh. Well, it's the fall rush, darlin'. Just be sure you keep up." Sylvia snapped her fingers for emphasis.
Repressing a groan, Tessa nodded. "I'll do my best," she said, thinking to herself what an unlikely pair they made. Sylvia owned S.Y.D., Sylvia York Designs, but Tessa managed it. Sylvia flitted through the high-end boutique on spiky heels, while Tessa strove to make the place run like clockwork.
Sylvia was given awards and accolades for her boutique and her original designssome of which she'd asked for Tessa's input on. Meanwhile, Tessa was given silly to-do lists for things she'd already done.
"I thought I'd work on the window display," Tessa said. "The samples for our spring line just came in."
Sylvia shrugged. "You know I don't have time to do it myself. But check on the new shipment from FedEx first, then set up a display for our cashmere accessories. If we don't push them, we're going to have three boxes of gloves and scarves in the back room."
She'd already done that, too. Of course she had. Sylvia was standing right in front of the display. Didn't she notice anything?
Sometimes Tessa felt as though S.Y.D. meant more to her than it did to Sylvia. It was going to be hard to leave here eventually, but someday Someday she hoped her reputation at S.Y.D. would propel her to a better joband her dream of owning a boutique and selling her own designs.
But there was no reason to tell Sylvia any of that. "All right."
"And call Mrs. Hockmann and offer our services," Sylvia added, looking up from her BlackBerry. "She's getting married. Again."
Sylvia York Designs had helped with Mrs. Hockmann's last two weddings. "Will do," Tessa said, biting her lip in order to hold her tongue. "I'll call her as soon as I finish sorting these scarves."
But her promise fell on deaf ears. Sylvia had already opened the front door. "Bye!" She waved and Tessa waved back. Gladly.
Sylvia tended to waltz in and out of the shop as if she didn't have a care in the worldshe was lucky that Tessa cared enough for both of them.
As the antique door closed with a dignified whoosh, Tessa threw her head back in frustration. Would Sylvia ever acknowledge all the things she did for her? Was it too much to ask for a little recognition?
"Is the coast clear?" Jillian asked, emerging from one of the velvet-curtained dressing rooms with a bemused smile.
Tessa arched an eyebrow in her direction. "Just barely. You know, you could've come out and given me some support."
"I probably could have, but I decided against it. You're the manager. I'm only a lowly employee."
Tessa was pretty sure Jillian Lane had never been an only anything. When she'd come to S.Y.D., she'd infused the place with a much-needed burst of energy. In many ways, Jillian was the exact opposite of Tessa. She went to church regularly, had a steady boyfriend and even owned a dog. In short, Jillian had a relatively normal, stable life, whereas Tessa was still trying to figure out what to do with hers. Yet, as different as they were, the two of them had become fast friends. "Tell me again why you're working here."
Jillian frowned. "The great pay and benefits?"
Tessa laughed at the obvious joke and added, "Don't forget the discount."
"I'd never forget the discount. It really is good."
Pointing to the piece of paper Sylvia had handed her, Tessa said, "We've just been given a to-do list about a mile long."
"Sylvia actually came up with things we haven't done yet?"
"Believe it or not, she did."
Jillian grabbed the sheet and whistled. "This should only take us a couple of hours. I can't wait until the day I work for somebody else. I hear people love her former employees."
"That's because when we get regular hours and real pay we're grateful."
She, Jillian and Ryantheir other coworkerwere constantly on their feet, designing window displays, dressing mannequins and helping demanding customers. Tessa felt the burden of being in charge without having complete authority. If she wasn't so afraid of failing, she would've started her own shop a long time ago.
Tessa glanced at the list again. "I'll go call Mrs. Hockmann. Will you clean up and begin unboxing the jewelry from Neveux?" As Tessa took in all the work that needed to be done, she asked, "Where is Ryan, anyway?"
"At night school."
"Oh, right." Ryan was finishing up a degree in business and fashion merchandising, clearly hoping to be the manager at S.Y.D. one day. It was yet another reason to think about opening her own boutique soon.
For the next few hours, Tessa and Jillian were kept busy with customers. Each person who walked through the door was treated to the boutique's trademark service.
But today, Tessa was really struggling with how much longer she could put on such a facade. Everything in S.Y.D. was too extravagant, too expensive, too everything.
She knew her parents would be appalled at her daily priorities. Her father was a doctor, and her mother was actively involved in several charities. They'd raised her to remember that there was more to a person than her looks, more to life than money and material things. In fact, she purposely hadn't shared many details of her job with them because she knew they'd wonder how she could feel fulfilled helping rich ladies look good.
And every so often, especially when she had a bad day, Tessa would wonder the same thing.
The front door chimed again, and in strode Mrs. Edwards, a charming older woman with a penchant for faux-fur-lined accessories. "You have anything new, Tessa, dear?"
"As a matter of fact, we do." Part of the reason everyone liked S.Y.D. was that there was always something new. "If you'll have a seat, I'll bring over some silk scarves we just got in from Italy."
"I'd like tea, too. With lemon. No cream," she said, perching on one of the citron-colored chairs near a glass etagere.
"And a cookie. Shortbread, if you have it."
"Tea and a cookie. I'll be right back," Tessa said over her shoulder, as she headed toward the rear of the store.
"Maybe you could perform circus tricks, too," Jillian whispered to Tessa when she walked into the back room. "Or vacuum her car."
Tessa wouldn't put it past any of her customers to demand anything. "At least Mrs. Edwards is pleasant," she said. "And she does always appreciate everything we do for her."
"Plus she's a fan of yours, Tessa. I've overheard her singing your praises to other customers."
"That's good to hear." Tessa genuinely liked working with the customers. She enjoyed helping them with their outfits, especially when they were shopping for a special occasion. Sometimes, she just wished her job had more pur pose.
"Oh, Tessa, I'd like to try on one of the new suits, too," Mrs. Edwards called out. Tessa peered into the showroom to see the older woman motioning toward a mannequin modeling a thousand-dollar wool outfit that Tessa had helped Sylvia design. The request brought her a feeling of satisfaction.
"Absolutely. I'll be there in a second," she answered, quickly pouring hot water into a china cup. "Could you find some cookies?" she asked Jillian, before gracefully walking back into the salon.
An hour later, Tessa felt as if she was about to collapse. Mrs. Edwards had left, but not before ordering a suit and buying several hundred dollars' worth of silk scarves.
"The time is 9:05," Jillian announced, mimicking the automated voice in the Cincinnati airport trains. "Our front door is now closing."
As Jillian clicked the bolt in place, Tessa clapped. "We made it through another day."
"Yep. Now we've just got to get this place ready for tomorrow's fashion show."
"Let me go out back and toss these empty boxes in the recycling," Tessa said. "There are so many, we can hardly move in the storage area."
"Good luck, it's freezing out there."
After flattening four boxes, Tessa opened the back door and was assaulted by a blast of frigid air. "Well, tomorrow is the beginning of October," she muttered to herself as she propped open the door and made her way to the Dumpster.
The alley behind the strip mall was cramped and poorly lit. Large brown Dumpsters lined the south side, casting ominous shadows. Being in the alley always made her a bit nervous. Especially in the evening. Especially in the rain.
Seeking to calm her nerves, she resorted to her favorite activity, imagining all the junk food she'd have when she got home. "Tonight I'm going to take a hot bath and put my feet up," she said out loud. "Then I'm going to eat pizza, and maybe even an entire carton of chocolate chip ice cream for dessert."
She shifted the bulky cardboard under her arm, teetering on her high heels as she did so. "And I'm going to put on old sweats. And slippers. Cozy ones."
Her breath made little white clouds in the air. "Then I'm going to sleep for six whole hours," she finished, to no one but herself.
Except she wasn't alone.
There was a scurry of motion, and she noticed a faint shadow in the distance. Her heart began to palpitate. "Hello?" she asked, shielding her body with the four boxes.
No answer. Just shuffling.
Something clinked to the ground.
Tessa inhaled sharply, coughing as cold air raced through her lungs. There really was someone out there, but that person was a lot smaller than she'd first thought. In fact, the shadow seemed to be about half her size. Almost childlike.
Concern reverberated through her at the thought. No child should be anywhere near a vacant alley.
Raising her voice, she called out, "Hello?"
Still no answer, although the shadow moved slightly closer.
Summoning her courage, Tessa stepped closer, as well. Now she was definitely curious. The puddles on the ground were beginning to turn to ice. No one who could be anywhere else would be outside tonight. "Is anyone here?" she asked again.
Tessa's body tensed. She was painfully aware that she was being watched by a stranger. Just as she raised her arms to hurl the boxes in the Dumpster, the shadow shifted. In the dim light flowing from the open doorway, a small face appeared.
A boy's. He probably wasn't more than ten or eleven years old. He had dirty blond hair and was staring at her with scared-looking eyes.
What was he doing in the alley?
Quickly, Tessa got rid of the boxes and walked over to him.
His eyes widened as she approached, but he didn't say anything, only breathed hard.
"What are you doing out here?" Tessa asked gently. "Did you need something?"
"No? Are you sure?"
He lowered his head before mumbling,
She had no idea what he was talking about. "Cans? Are you thirsty?"
As if surprised that she could be so dense, he said, "No. I'm looking for old cans. For cash."
"Yeah," he muttered, seeming to favor one-word explanations.
"Oh." She glanced behind him down the alley. "Where are your parents?"
"My mom's down the street."
Tessa craned her neck but didn't see anyone.