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Zoey Archer was three steps away from her desk when the phone rang. Three steps toward her first weekend off in months. And she hadn't even left early, unlike all but one of her colleaguesthe weird girl who spoke to people in a variety of accents and dressed in monotone outfits that didn't quite match under the greenish fluorescent light of the Loring Industries customer-service call center, deep in the heart of Texas.
The phone chirped again. Weird Girl shot a look at Zoey, grabbed a pinkish red jacket and ran out the door before the call could roll over to her section. Zoey wondered what life Weird Girl was running to because nobody chose working in a megacorporation's customer-service call center as a career. This was a survival job, one people kept to pay a few bills until they became successful in their real lives.
Zoey's real life, however, was complicated, meaning she'd taken a few wrong turns on the road to success. She wanted a career where she could help people, but, to be honest, many people no longer wanted her helpspecifically, those she'd encountered in the health-care and teaching professions, the food-service and travel industries and anyone who ran a children's summer camp. People loved her, at least in the beginning. She was described as sincere, enthusiastic and full of great ideas. She'd also been called impulsive, but Zoey considered herself proactive. She took charge and made things happen.
Unfortunately, some of those proactive things had been mistakes. Huge mistakes. Expensive mistakes. Her intentions had been good, but the execution was f lawed, as they say.
But she was always a big girl about it. When she messed up, she accepted responsibility, apologized, tried to fix whatever she'd gotten wrong and paid for any damage, even when she couldn't afford it. Did she learn from her mistakes? Sure. Did she get a chance to prove it to those she'd wronged? No.
She understood why people were reluctant to give her a second chance. Money couldn't fix everything and some opportunities were lost forever.
However, recommending a competitor's product because Loring's cream caused a rash had not been a mistake even though going off script had landed her on the night and weekend shift in the shipping center to prevent her from talking to actual customers. And it had cost her a boyfriend, who hadn't liked the fact that she worked every night. But even that hadn't been a mistake.
Management had meant the suspension as a punishment, but Zoey had become inspired while filling thousands of orders during the Christmas season. She happened to know a thing or two about skin care. For years, she'd mixed her own organic moisturizers and soaps. The complaints she'd fielded in the customer-service call center had shown her that the world needed her products. That's how she could help peopleby offering them a better alternative. Nobody would get a rash from her creams and lotions, unlike the cheap chemical cocktail Loring put out.
Not that the Loring Quality Control Department had appreciated her input. Well, they'd had their chance. They'd pay attention to her when she started selling her Skin Garden products online, and word of mouth created a huge demand. In fact, she was going to go home right now and mix up a new batch of lemon-olive oil balm.
Never mind that it was Friday night, party night. Zoey didn't have anyone special to party with, anyway. And honestly? She wasn't all that torn up about it. She hadn't had a date since Justinwait, Jared or was it Josh? Whoever it had been didn't matter. All her ex-boyfriends had been fixer-uppers who she'd tried to fixer, help. Ultimately, they hadn't wanted her help, either.
So no more wasting her life on time-consuming, energy-zapping relationships. No more distracting boyfriends. From now on, it was going to be all about Zoey.
The whole weekend stretched ahead of her. Zoey hung up her headpiece, slung her purse over her shoulder and headed for the door. Now that it was January, Loring no longer offered twenty-four-hour live customer service, as though people magically stopped having problems on nights and weekends. Zoey vowed that Skin Garden would offer full-time customer service, even if she had to answer the phone herself.
Speaking of The phone warbled again and guilted Zoey into stopping. A person who called after hoursand seven minutes after five counted as after hourswould have to wait until Monday morning to talk to an actual customer-service agent about whatever issue they were having with whichever one of the thousands of products Loring Industries manufactured for their dozens of brands.
Someone probably had a rash.
Zoey could see the blinking light at her station out of the corner of her eye. It wasn't as though she was abandoning someone in their hour of need. The customer could talk to a company rep through a live chat on their computer. Unless she was a "legacy customer," Loring's term for those who didn't use computers. Zoey swallowed. What if the caller was some poor, elderly widow with a bad rash who could barely read the contact number on the label because her eyes were swelling shut? She wouldn't have a computer, and even if she did, she certainly wouldn't know how to do a live chat. Besides, the live part was likely another computer, anyway, at least for the first few levels .
Damn her work ethic, anyway. Zoey hurried back to her station and snatched up her earpiece.
"Loring Industries. How may I help you today?" Technically, the extent of Zoey's help was routing the call to someone else who could do the actual helping, registering complaints or sending out coupons. Lots and lots of coupons. She was very generous with coupons. She was the coupon fairy.
"Zoey Archer, please."
It was so unusual to hear herself asked for by name that it took Zoey a few beats to recognize her sister's voice. "Kate? Is that you?" No wonder the call hadn't rolled over. Her sister had dialed Zoey's extension.
"Oh, Zoey. Thank goodness!" Kate exhaled in relief. "I tried calling your cell, but you didn't answer."
That's because Zoey kept her phone on vibrate and hadn't checked it yet today. Call-center operators weren't allowed to make personal calls while at their station. Only during breaks. Or emergencies. Kate knew that.
Which meant. A sick feeling settled in Zoey's stomach. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong "
Alarmed, Zoey had been smashing the earpiece into her head. Taking a calming breath she adjusted the rest of the headset as Kate continued, "It's just "
Clearly Zoey was going to have to coax it out of her. "Just what?"
"Alexandra of Thebes has gone into heat."
These were not words Zoey had expected to hear at her customer-service call station at Loring Industries. And Zoey had heard lots of strange words in the Loring Industries customer-service call center. "Uh okay."
"Ryan and I are in Costa Rica! Remember, Zoey?"
"Rightthe wedding is this weekend." Friends of Kate's were having a fancy destination extravaganza. Kate and her husband, Ryan, had introduced the couple and both were in the wedding party. "Are you having a good time?"
"Zoey." Her sister sighed and there was a whooshing sound as she partially covered the mouthpiece. "I told you this was a bad idea," she said to someone in the background.
"I heard that." Zoey steeled herself against the automatic guilt that flooded her every time she heard her name spoken in that tone of resigned disappointment accompanied by a faint sigh the speaker didn't bother to hide.
Some people were late bloomers, and others bloomed early and withered fast, she reminded herself. Except Kate. Kate had bloomed early and perfectly and showed no signs of withering. "Kate, so far all you've told me is that one of your dogs is in heat and you two are in Costa Rica. I haven't heard an idea yet."
"Zoey! You know Alexandra's not our dog."
Actually, she didn't. "You have a bunch of dogs. I don't remember all their names." Her sister and brother-in-law owned a kennel and bred dogs. Big, hairy ones.
"We're talking about Alexandra of Thebes"
"The Alexandra of Thebes."
It was clear that she should be impressed by the name, but show dogs weren't Zoey's thingthat would be her sister and Ryan's thing. "I don't really keep up with the dog world," she said carefully. Not since she'd temporarily lived with Kate and Ryan and had tried helping at the kennel. It hadn't gone well.
"Obviously not, or you would know she's not only won every breed title for the past two years, she's also been named Best in Show at every national competition worth winning"
"Okay! I get it. Is she one of those big hairy white dogs like Casper?" Kate and Ryan had been talking about Casper for the past year and a half. Their lives revolved around the dog. Zoey couldn't avoid hearing about Casper and his shows and his ribbons and his trophies and his diet and his hair-grooming routines even if she tried. And she had tried. Oh, how she'd tried. Kate spent more time grooming that neurotic dog than she did herself.
"An Afghan hound, yes," her sister confirmed. "But not all Afghans are white."
Kate wouldn't have called her at work unless she needed something. And she wouldn't have called Zoey unless she was desperate.
"Alexandra's puppies will be very valuable, even more valuable if the sire is also a Grand Champion. It's been our dream to get one of her puppies, but we never imagined Marthashe's Alexandra's ownerwould invite Casper to breed with her!"
Misplaced pronouns gave Zoey a highly inappropriate visual. "Uh congratulations."
"It's an unbelievable honor. Especially since Casper isn't a Grand Champion. At least not yet. He needs a lot more points." Kate sounded as though she was hyperventilating. "The Moorefield show isn't until the week after next. Martha must think Casper's chances are really goodat least Best in Breed, if not Best in Show! Alexandra has always been his main competition, but Martha pulled her out of the show because she thought she'd be in heat then and she wants to breed her. Only it seems she's early."
"It's happened to all of us at one time or another," Zoey murmured.
Her comment went right over Kate's head. "Oh, my gosh, we've never had a Best in Show!"
In the background, Zoey heard Ryan telling Kate to calm down. Her older sister had always been tightly wound.
While Kate breathlessly babbled on about possible fame and fortune, the massive LED clock over the doorway helpfully flashed the passing seconds. The overhead fans slowed and automatic timers clicked half the lights off in preparation for the weekend. Zoey was alone in a huge room with empty cubicles and no windows. She couldn't even see if it was raining or not. But she did know Kate wanted a favor and that she was stalling.
"I can't believe this is all happening now!" her sister gasped.
Zoey could. Crazy stuff always happened to her, why not Kate for once? "Kate, do you need me to take Casper to his booty call? Is that what this is about? Because I'll do it. You know I will."
Kate inhaled. "I."
The silence stretched and Zoey understood why. Unfortunately, her reputation as the family screwup was well deserved. She always had great intentions and great plans, if she did say so herself. It's just that the execution rarely went according to Zoey's plans, and after things fell apart, she'd had to call on the safety net of her family and friendsand credit-card companiesmore than once.
She owed Kate and Ryan big time for letting her live with them for a few months when she'd run out of money a couple of years ago. She'd promised them that she'd earn her keep by helping as they established Ryka Kennels.
A memory flashed of a hot day, a fresh asphalt drive and tar embedded in dog hair. Never again would Zoey make the mistake of underestimating the wily intelligence of the Afghan hound. Could it be that Kate was about to give her a chance to prove it?
"It's asking a lot," Kate hedged, and Zoey knew she was trying to think of any other person she could ask. All of her friends were probably at the wedding in Costa Rica, too. "You'd have to fly to Virginia to get Casper and then take him to Merriweather Kennels, which is outside of Seattle."
"I'll do it. Gladly. Just tell me where and when."
"I appreciate that, but you might have to take off as much as a week of work."
"That's okay. I can get someone to cover for me." Zoey would have to pay someone on Loring's temp list, but it would be worth it to rescue her sister for once.
"You know, maybe it would be better if Ryan came back What? Ryan! All right, fine! I'll go home and you can tell Lindsey why she's short a bridesmaid!"
The next voice Zoey heard was her brother-in-law's as he took the phone. "Hey, Zoey, thanks for helping us out. I really appreciate it. I'll book the tickets, but I have no idea what kind of flights I'll be able to get. I'll try to get one out of Austin, but you may have to drive to Houston."
"It doesn't matter." She meant it. For once, Kate-the-perfect needed Zoey's help. "However it works out."
"Thanks. Uh Kate is going to talk to Phyllisshe's the woman who's running the kennel while we're goneand she'll have all the instructions ready when you get there."
"And promise me you'll follow them exactly!" Kate yelled from the background. "Even if you think they're stupid. Even if you think you know a better way. In fact, don't think at all. We'll do all the thinking."
Her sister didn't trust Zoey's judgment. "Tell Kate to relax. I can do this." She had to.
The truth was that Kate wasn't the only one who doubted Zoey. Lately, Zoey had been doubting herself. She tried not to, tried to shake off her mistakes, tried to look at them as learning experiences, but her inner pep talks weren't working anymore.
She had to do this for herself, not just for Kate. Zoey had to succeed at something. Once she tasted success, she could start her skin care business with confidence.
"It'll be a pain," Ryan warned. "Since it's close to the date of the next show, you'll have to maintain Casper's daily routine. It's all about the coat. You might even have to"
"Don't talk her out of it!" Kate's voice was panicked.
"She has to understand what she's getting into." Ryan's voice was filled with calm reasonableness.
Guess which made Zoey nervous? "Hey!" she said to get their attention. "I'm on my way home. Why don't you call me in a couple of hours after you've worked out all this stuff."
They were still arguing as the call disconnected.
Although she knew she shouldn't, as she walked to the parking garage, Zoey compared her life to her sister's. Yeah, Kate was only two years older, but she had a husband and a house and a car that was less than ten years old and had a heater that worked. Although having a working heater in this part of Texas wasn't that big of a deal.
Kate also owned a successful business that was about to hit the big time.
Her sister deserved the success. Really. She and Ryan worked hard.
I work hard, too, Zoey thought. Except everything Kate touched turned to gold and everything Zoey touched turned to poo. It had always been that way. Her parents had expected another Kateand got Zoey. In school, teachers expected another Kateand got Zoey. So Zoey learned to avoid following in Kate's footsteps while she tried to find her own success.
So far, all she'd found was failure.
But not this time. Zoey gripped the steering wheel on her fourteen-year-old Honda Civic. Here was the perfect opportunity to figure out where she'd been going wrong. Kate and Ryan were making all the plans, all the arrangements. Kate would leave incredibly detailed, nitpicky instructions telling Zoey exactly what to do and how to do it. She'd have a blueprint for success. All Zoey had to do was follow it.
Success breeds success. Zoey grinned as she backed out of her parking space. Or in this case, Afghan puppies.