Where can you turn when the world turns against you? When Elizabeth Barnes’ life fell apart she never imagined that she’d be rescued by a new friend on four paws.
The plan was simple: Elizabeth would ignore the fact that she was unjustly fired from her dream job, fly across the pond to settle an unexpected inheritance in her father’s home country and quickly return to reclaim her position among the Silicon Valley elite.
But when Elizabeth stumbles upon an abandoned puppy, she’s shocked to realize that her brief trip to England might turn into an extended stay. Her strict itinerary is upended completely by the pup’s dogged devotion, and soon the loveable puppy helps her to connect with a tight-knit community of new friends on two legs and four, from the aunt and uncle she didn’t know existed, to a grumpy coffee shop owner to two very opinionated sheep. Along the way Elizabeth is confronted by long-kept family secrets, hard truths about her former life and a new romance that might lead her to question everything she knows about love. Because sometimes rescue magic happens on both ends of the leash.
Elizabeth Barnes repeated the words back as if she were fumbling with a new language.
The human resources manager at Duchess Games pressed her perfect matte lips together in a tight smile and nodded. "That joke you made during the interview at Mobile Expo is still impacting our metrics. You've seen what they're saying about you on Twitter, right? 'Duchess CMO and the social network sex show.'" Gwen paused. "There's no way we can spin it to make it fit our narrative. This is our only choice."
Elizabeth coughed but her throat felt like it was lined with fleece. She glanced at her friend, mentor, and boss Cecelia Wright, who was inspecting a strand of her blond hair for split ends. Cecelia wouldn't meet her eyes, so focused on her grooming that she couldn't offer her most devoted employee a comforting smile as she fitted the noose.
The cuffs of Elizabeth's blouse suddenly felt too tight. Were her wrists sweating? How was that even possible? She wanted to roll up her sleeves, but that might suggest that she was ready to efficiently hash out next steps. And she was anything but ready to face the fact that her entire world was imploding.
"I'm disappointed it came to this," Cecelia finally said, still not looking up from her hair. "Some of your contributions were impactful."
The comment landed like a dropkick. Everyone in the company knew that Elizabeth's work had helped propel Duchess Games from plucky start-up to an innovator in the mobile gaming world. She'd started in coding and worked her way up to chief marketing officer thanks to her annual vision boards and a work ethic that had made her hair fall out every time they released a new game.
Elizabeth finally spoke up. "I don't know how many more times I can say I'm sorry, but I'll try it again: I'm so sorry. I was exhausted. The reporter wouldn't stop asking about Entomon and I was trying to change his focus. I got flustered and said the wrong thing. I thought it would be funny and he'd change the subject." She put her elbows on the table and cupped her forehead. The second after she'd made the joke she'd envisioned the Cecelia rage-storm to come, but she'd never imagined she'd end up in front of a literal firing squad.
"Your job isn't to be funny, it's to shut down rumors before they get out of hand," Cecelia replied. "You didn't even preempt with our talking points."
Elizabeth stopped herself from mentioning that there were no talking points because according to Cecelia, Entomon didn't exist. "But . . . what he said . . . it was pretty compelling. He had documentation about Entomon and I wasn't sure how to respond."
"Stop saying the E-word," Cecelia hissed, suddenly locked on Elizabeth. "I don't want to hear that word in my office again, okay? Or anywhere else. Don't get any ideas, Elizabeth. We're lawyered up and ready. Don't make me use them."
So now she was threatening.
Elizabeth met Cecelia's furious gaze and barely recognized the woman she'd spent so many late nights with. Cecelia's face was under the influence of a variety of fillers, so she couldn't make a truly angry expression, but the way her nostrils flared telegraphed rage. And something else.
The three women sat in silence until a familiar, rhythmic wheezing filled the vacuum.
"Win, baby, are you okay?" Cecelia looked over her shoulder at the beloved Duchess mascot, Winston the English bulldog, her tone so maternal that it was hard to believe that she'd been spitting venom just a few seconds before. Winston snorted and licked his nose, then settled back to a snoring slumber.
Gwen cleared her throat and continued carefully. "We're reclaiming your options, of course."
The nausea hit so fast and hard that Elizabeth slapped her hand over her mouth to keep from spewing her feelings all over the artisanal, hand-distressed, reclaimed-wood conference table. Every middle-of-the-night text, endless road show, and stolen idea had been in service of the options she accrued every year. She loved the work, but the security that came with the options was her happily-ever-after.
"Wait, but how . . ." Elizabeth trailed off, unable to put her shock into words.
"'Unexercised options forfeit upon termination with cause,'" Gwen read from the employee handbook. "And if you refer to page four of the handbook, your initials next to the behavioral agreement and your recent performance very clearly indicate that we have cause for termination."
The "company reputation" provision. The one that seemed like a punch line, until it wasn't.
"Cecelia, do you have anything you'd like to add?" Gwen asked.
Cecelia had moved on to studying her manicure, ten tiny red daggers that no one had the courage to tell her didn't mesh with her crystals-and-daily-affirmations personal brand. She shook her head.
"We've got an exit package for you . . ." Gwen rifled through the stack of papers in front of her. "We need a signature and then Frank will escort you out."
Not only was she getting fired, she was being forced to do a perp walk in front of her colleagues. Or, her former colleagues.
Elizabeth blinked hard when her vision started to swim. She gnawed on the inside of her cheek to derail the tears. "This is insane, Cecelia. And there's no way I'm going to sign anything now. I need someone to read through it all. You're taking away my options, that can't be legal."
"Trust me, it's legal." Cecelia glared at her.
"We need you to sign the termination letter today," Gwen said, quickly de-escalating the situation. "It outlines the conditions of our separation. You can have your attorney review the rest and get them back to us by the end of the week."
Elizabeth nodded and stared at the pile of papers on the table, worried that if she looked at Cecelia or Gwen she'd burst into tears. And there was no way she was going to break in front of them.
"Frank?" Cecelia called out when the silence got awkward. "We're ready."
The head of building security peeked into the room, evaluating Elizabeth with a head-to-toe sweep that made it clear he was assessing her threat level. She was now a potential criminal in their midst, capable of stealing anything from staplers to corporate secrets.
"I hope you manifest a better fit in your next position," Cecelia said. Winston barked at Elizabeth as she walked by, cementing the fact that she was now the most hated person at Duchess.
Cecelia's Zen-inspired open-plan office meant that all of her colleagues could see her walk of shame. She was now a cautionary tale, so of course people would steal glances at her as she left. She straightened her back, happy that she'd worn the wrist-strangling Theory blouse with epaulets on the shoulders, the one that made her look like she was part of an all-girl army. At least she was on-brand.
"I'll wait out here, okay? You've got about five minutes," Frank said softly, gesturing to the area right outside her office door. He was a buff former Navy SEAL who took his post in Duchess as seriously as his military service. They'd always had a polite head-nodding relationship, and Elizabeth could tell he was trying to be kind despite Cecelia's directive to get her off the premises ASAP. He handed her an empty box.
She fought through the fog of shame so she could focus on the work of cleaning out her office. She threw everything on her desk into the box: the stress balls from various vendors that she actually used, a hunk of expensive rose quartz from Cecelia, her diffuser, and the hundreds of packets of wellness dusts she poured in her daily kale smoothies. She sifted through her drawers and paused when she found what looked like a collection of flower petals in a back corner. When was the last time someone had sent her flowers?
She looked closer. It was a Pepto-Bismol wrapper.
Frank cleared his throat to signal that her time was almost up.
"I'm ready," she called out to him.
Elizabeth met Frank at the door with just her purse slung over her shoulder.
"But where's your stuff?"
"I don't need any of it. Let's go."
Elizabeth Barnes knew that she was only the second person to be escorted out of Duchess, and she wasn't going to make the scene any more attention-grabbing than it needed to be. Instead of carting out a box of junk like a homeless person, she pretended she was on a runway in Paris as her heels clacked through the building, shoulders back and head high. Anyone watching might think she was doing a site survey with Frank. She radiated serenity and acceptance, keeping her eyes fixed on a distant point in front of her.
Elizabeth focused on how she was going to frame what had happened on her social media accounts as she paraded through the building, past hundreds of wide eyes. Perhaps an inspirational quote about the future in a vintage typewriter font, overlaid on an image of a wave? Or a single word, like beginning, next to a flower bud? She had nothing but time to figure it out.
None of her devoted followers or former colleagues would have a clue that the second the Duchess campus vanished from her rearview mirror, she pulled over on the side of the highway and cried until her perfectly lined eyes left black tracks on the palms of her hands.
“Exhale stress, inhale serenity," Elizabeth chanted as she waited for Whitney to pick up. The mantra did nothing to calm her, but she repeated it to keep from thinking too much about what she was doing. She crossed and uncrossed her legs and tried to find a comfortable position on the couch before her friend answered. Whitney Brinkman was the closest thing she had to a bestie, even though their time together was confined to office hours and the rare networking cocktail party.
No one at Duchess used their phone to call unless it was a servers-are-down emergency. Elizabeth tried to imagine what Whitney was thinking as her name flashed on her screen. She straightened her posture and took another not-calming breath.
"Elizabeth? What's wrong?"
"Whit, hey, nothing's wrong." She forced cheer into her voice. "I was just thinking about you and I thought I'd call. I, uh, I miss you."
"Oh, how cute. That's adorable! I miss you too, girl." Whitney's voice was a roller coaster of inflection and added syllables, so that the word girl almost sounded like gorilla."
"How are . . . things? I mean, can you talk?"
"Actually, I can't. You know how it is, ugh, annoying." Elizabeth could almost hear the eye roll. "So, what's up?"
"I was actually hoping we could hang soon. I could use a friendly face, you know? I'm feeling sort of bleak these days." She sniffled. "I'm going to Black's tomorrow and I thought maybe you could meet me for a quick coffee?" Her voice trembled like she was a fifth-grader talking to a crush. "Just to catch up, I promise we won't talk about Duchess."
Elizabeth waited for an actual yes or no during an awkward silence.
"Do, uh, do you think you can? I'm flexible, I can be there any time." She squeezed her eyes shut as she realized how desperate she sounded. "I've got something in the morning but any time after ten works for me."
Whitney paused. "Hey, can I call you right back? In like two minutes?"
"Sure, I'm around."
"Cool, byeeeeee." Whitney was still saying the word when the call disconnected.
Elizabeth threw her phone on the couch and imagined sitting across from Whitney at Black's Coffee. It didn't matter that Whitney was a monologist who forgot that Elizabeth also had a life. She just wanted a hug and a single comforting word. In the three weeks since her sacking she'd come to understand why shunning was a weapon.
Her new phone's unfamiliar ring tone jolted Elizabeth out of her trance. Maybe Whitney would also want to have dinner with her over the weekend? She was excited to firm up their coffee date, but when she flipped her phone over there was a strange number instead of Whitney's smiling profile photo. She'd trained herself to pick up all calls, hoping that a headhunter with an unlisted number might remember that she was a star with just one black mark on her record. One giant, career-ending black mark.
"Have I reached Elizabeth Barnes?" The British-accented voice didn't sound like yet another reporter or blogger trying to get a sound bite out of her.
"Finally, it's you." The man exhaled and sounded relieved. "I've been trying to reach you for quite some time. I've sent several emails as well. Have you received them?"
"I'm sorry, I'm not sure who I'm speaking with." She smiled as she spoke, hoping she sounded welcoming in case the man was calling about a job. Would a headhunter have that much trouble finding her? Did she need to revisit her LinkedIn page? "May I ask who's calling?"
"My apologies, I'm getting ahead of myself. There's so much to say. This is going to come as some surprise, I'm sure." The man paused for so long that she thought the call had dropped. "Elizabeth, I'm your father's brother, Rowan Barnes. I'm your uncle."
It was as if he'd told her he was the tooth fairy. "Oh, I think you've got the wrong person; my father didn't have a brother. You must have me confused with someone else." She flipped her phone away from her face to see if Whitney had texted while she was talking with the stranger.
"Of course, he didn't tell you about me." The man sounded like he was talking to himself. "Well, we'll get to that eventually."
Elizabeth's internal alarm pinged. She'd heard about post funeral scams, where "missing" relatives came forward to claim their part of the deceased's inheritance. Most people probably fell for the accent, but having grown up with British-accented parents, she was immune to it. Her father's estate was a modest one, and there was barely anything for her let alone any long-lost family members. And six months was a long time to wait to come forward.
"I don't think I'm who you're looking for. I know my father was an only child."
"Did he tell you that?"
"Oh, Elizabeth, there is so much to say," the man said with a sigh. "First, let me begin by telling you how sorry I am for your loss, and how deeply I regret waiting this long to get in touch with you. I have been trying, but technology is beyond my reach, I'm afraid. I've only just tracked down your mobile. But let me get to the reason for my call, and then we can determine what to do next. Clive, I mean, your father, was in line to inherit a parcel of land, even after he'd left. He chose not to respond when it came time to claim it, so it passed to me. But I've always known in my heart that the land by the river is not mine. My wife, Trudy, and I agree that it was always meant for your father. And now that he's gone, this bit of Fargrove is yours, Elizabeth."
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