“Where the fuck has your author gone?”
Michelle sighed as she looked up from the manuscript she’d been trying to edit since she got in that morning. All she wanted to do was get this one manuscript completed before she got home, for a change, instead of staying up until midnight. It was heading toward lunch, and she’d barely made a dent. She glanced at the desk clock, half hidden by stacks of manuscripts, galleys, and review copies.
Senior editor at Faraday Publishing might be her dream job, but the actual work was a slog.
She took a deep breath, focusing on the current emergency. “How can I help you, Pam?”
Pam the Publicist stood over her. In the year that they’d worked together, Michelle had noticed that the woman was often pissed, or at least irritated. But now Pam was so angry, she was shaking. Her short, red-tipped gold hair stuck straight up, like she’d been tearing at it with both hands.
“You can help me by getting your special snowflake in line,” Pam snarled.
“Which snowflake?” Michelle responded, thinking of her current list of authors. Sterling Knight was an old-school, hard-core sci-fi writer who was generally a pain in the ass about publicity. Phil Geunther was an up-and-coming epic fantasy writer who needed equally epic amounts of hand-holding and ego-stroking. There were plenty of options.
Before Pam could answer, Michelle’s phone buzzed, signaling an incoming call from Ted, one of the best literary agents in the business. He’d been hounding her for feedback on a controversial proposal he wanted to start shopping for the past few weeks. He’d been nudging her with texts and calls more often, since he wanted it out by the end of the week.
Ted also happened to be her husband. But since he never called her during work hours in his spousal capacity, she didn’t feel too guilty hitting “ignore.” She pushed a wayward strand of black hair out of her eyes—stick straight, a legacy from her Filipina mother—and frowned, realizing that she’d forgotten to put any product in this morning. She’d been in a hurry to get to the office, and honestly, to avoid Ted, who had seemed more and more irritated with her lately. She just didn’t have the time for it. She’d have to wait until Pam was finished with her rant before straightening her ponytail and getting herself organized.
But damn, she hated looking disheveled. It seemed to spill over into everything else in her life. And her life was disheveled enough right now, thanks.
Pam crossed her arms. “Aditi Sodhi. You want her book to hit the list, remember? So does Gwen, after all the money we spent on it.”
Now Michelle focused like a laser. “What’s going on with Aditi’s book? I thought things were going well! What happened?” She mentally scrolled through the strategy marketing had presented to her, the one she’d greenlit. “We should be getting the starred review in PW, and a good write-up in Library Journal. I thought all those ARCs got sent out. The damn thing launches in June! Did the . . .”
“Would I be bugging you if I fucked up?” Pam interrupted. No, this is all on your girl.”
Michelle winced. Everybody knew Aditi’s book was Michelle’s baby. It was her biggest acquisition, and the series was one of the biggest buys in the publisher’s history. There was a lot riding on this—for her, for the marketing team, and for the publisher. “Okay, what is she doing?”
“It’s what she’s not doing,” Pam said. “I got her into the diversity special week of io9, I got her personal essays on Jezebel and Bustle, and a bunch of guest posts for some great sci-fi sites. Fucking Den of Geek stuff. Maybe even a book pick from Felicia Day’s Vaginal Fantasy book club. That means Aditi needs to give me content. She’s delivered nothing, and she is totally MIA!”
Michelle felt her stomach knot with tension, but kept her face impassive. Good thing she’d worn her “stay Zen” pale jade twinset today. Hopefully it projected calm. “She’ll get you something. I’ll talk to her.”
“I can’t have her vanish on me! You know that.” Pam’s eyes flashed behind her gunmetal-gray glasses, glinting with a promise of retribution if she were dicked around. “I need it by the end of the week, latest. And that isn’t one of my usual padding-for-lollygagging deadlines. That’s a drop-dead-latest-or-they-tell-me-to-fuck-off deadline.”
Pam leaned her knuckles on the desk, close enough that Michelle could see her tiny nose ring. “When it comes to this book, we’re all in, you know that. But if she doesn’t hit it big with this, my head’s going to roll, not yours. Not at first, anyway. Make sure Aditi fucking plays ball.”
“No one’s more aware of the stakes than I am,” Michelle said coldly, hiding her anxiety behind her carefully cultivated “corporate bitch” shield. Seeing Pam’s sharp look of hurt at her arctic tone, Michelle softened. “I’m not going to screw you over, Pam. She’ll get it done. If I have to fly to Wisconsin myself, I promise, she’ll get you the posts.”
Pam nodded, still grumbling as she stalked out the door.
Michelle pulled out her cell phone, texting Aditi. “YT?” After a minute, she realized if Aditi was dodging Pam, she probably had her cell phone off, or buried under a pile of laundry or something. If Michelle was lucky, it was because Aditi was busy writing the sequel.
The sinking feeling in her stomach, however, suggested she knew that kind of optimism was misplaced.
She quickly straightened and re-tied her hair, then opened up Chrome and clicked on the bookmark for Rebel Scum, the Slack channel her sister Christina had set up for Michelle and their friends. She could imagine Christina making fun of her for not just using the app on her phone, but there was a certain comfort in seeing it on her computer.
Also, she hated using her phone’s keyboard.
Michelle glanced through the thread and saw that they were all on. Including Aditi, thankfully.
She’d been friends with Aditi for . . . God, was it five years now? And she knew Aditi well enough to know that she couldn’t just dive in and confront her. It was going to take some finesse.
She read the comments in the thread:
Elli:Who’s here? Anybody? Everybody? Nobody at the coffee shop, and I am borrrred.
Elli and Aditi had met at the University of Wisconsin, where Aditi was studying psychology, and Elli was studying dramaturgical psych. Or possibly Latin—Elli went through a wide variety of majors at the time. They’d met at an anime club freshman year, and had been fast friends ever since. Elli was currently employed as a barista in Toronto, her hometown. Michelle smiled, wondering how long that would last.
Taneesha: I’m here. But I gotta go soon. Brogrammer meeting this afternoon, gah.
Taneesha was a video game programmer in Austin, Texas. She and Christina had been part of the same Warcraft guild, back in the day. Michelle often felt the closest to Taneesha, since they had the same sense of ambition and had both worked their asses off to get where they were—no small task for Taneesha, being a black woman in an often male-asshole-dominated field.
Aditi: You’re going to tell us what all happened, right? Love your Brogrammer stories.
There she is. Michelle leaned towards her monitor, already starting to try to frame her request—and figure out how she was going to apply some pressure to her recalcitrant author/friend.
Taneesha: It’d be funny if it weren’t so damned pathetic. Seriously. If I have to hear one more guy call another guy a pussy or laugh about how we should “make the tits bigger” on our Valkyries, I am going to punch somebody in the throat.
Christina: I’d be okay with bigger tits if it meant more hit points. Like, if you’ve got a D cup, you then get 50 added to every strike, no matter what weapon.
Michelle did a quick face-palm, grateful they couldn’t see her reaction. Christina was her half-sister—Filipina from their mother, white from Christina’s father (their mother’s second husband) and the opposite of “ambitious.” And “demure.” And, often, the opposite of “sober.”
Elli: *snicker* So if you’ve got breasts big enough to trip over, you’re what? Invincible?
Christina: Yet again, women “using sexuality as an unfair advantage.” Amirite?
Taneesha: I should suggest that feature, just to see all these hardcore gamers choose female characters or else they get pwned. Except plenty of guys already choose women because—not even kidding—they figure if they’ve got to watch the back of a character, they want a nice ass to look at.
Aditi: Maybe you could change it to the less clothes, the more hit points you get. I could be happy watching some nekkid warriors strutting around for a change, instead of bikini-chicks.
Michelle decided to wade into the conversation, keeping the tone light.
Michelle: Nekkid hot guys. There’s a thought.
Christina: To a point. I don’t want to see junk flopping about just so guys can get bigger swords, if you know what I mean.
Elli: Speaking of gaming, tho, I never see you guys on Warcraft anymore. I’m trying to build my rep with the Saberstalkers and getting my ass kicked by elites.
Aditi: Sorry, sweetie. I’ve been getting my ass handed to me trying to write this sequel. SO stressed.
And there was her opening. Michelle started to type a long question about the sequel, and where Aditi was stuck, and how they could set up a schedule. But that was too much, too soon. She decided to keep it casual, and then move in for the kill, bringing up the posts.
Michelle: How’s the writing going?
Aditi: Don’t worry, boss. I’m working hard!
Michelle: Hey, I’m asking as your friend, not your editor.
She only felt a little twinge of guilt at that one. She was both, though.
Aditi: It’s tough. But I’m still plugging away. Just a little stuck.
Michelle: Maybe you could take a break. There are some posts you could work on. They’re really important. I could help you with them, if you want.
Michelle tried not to think about how much time that was going to take.
Christina: What, they’re not keeping you busy enough over there, sis? You’ve been on the job for what, six months . . . you got it locked down already?
Michelle bristled. Of all the times for Christina to get aggressive about work, this was the last thing Michelle needed.
Michelle: Hardly. And it’s been more than a year, actually. I just want to help Aditi out.
Christina: Mom still thinks you’re nuts for working at a little sci-fi publisher instead of the other big one, with all the swanky lit fic.
Just like that, Michelle’s buttons were pushed. More like slammed. She typed back so fast that her keys tapping away sounded like machine-gun fire.
Michelle: I’ve told Mom Faraday is not a little publisher! They’re a major publisher. Like Big Five major.
Christina: Hey, don’t jump up my ass. I barely care about my job. I’m just glad you’re working with books I actually like reading.
Elli: You sound stressed too, Miche. Anything I can do? Want a call? Or a visit? I mean, New York isn’t that far from Toronto.
Michelle forced herself to pull it back. Focus on Aditi. That was the point.
Michelle: Thanks, Elli. Things have just been a little hectic, though, no big deal. I’m good.
Christina: You’re always good. How do you do that without drugs? I would need a bag of weed the size of my head to stay as even as you.
Taneesha: You DO have a bag of weed the size of your head.
Christina: And look how calm I am! ;)
Another face-palm. Jesus, this was going nowhere.
Michelle: I have to get back to work. Aditi, can you keep your phone on? Calling you about something important. Talk to you in a few minutes, okay?
Michelle reached for her phone, quickly hitting “ignore” again as Ted called for the fourth time. It was probably what made him a great agent, but right now, his persistence was just annoying the shit out of her. But before she could call Aditi, though, her publisher Gwen entered in a cloud of patchouli scent, wearing a floaty dark blue dress, her abundance of curly hair bouncing like a frizzy halo around her head. “Like my shoes?”
If Michelle had been drilled throughout her childhood to dress to impress, Gwen seemed to dress to amuse. Michelle’s pencil skirts, silk tanks, and tailored suits would fit in in any boardroom in New York. Gwen, on the other hand, would fit in at any ComicCon.
Michelle grimaced at Gwen’s question, but duly looked down, barely noticing the shoes. “Cute.”
Gwen actually put her foot up on the desk, showing off what looked like hand-painted Keds. “They’re Doctor Who shoes! See? This one’s got brown pinstripes and a tie. That’s Ten! And this one’s got a brown jacket and a bow tie. That’s Eleven!”
Michelle suppressed a groan. Christina and Taneesha adored, and had tried to force her to watch, Doctor Who. She couldn’t get past the plastic, awful-looking aliens and cheesy special effects. And their bad guys looked like giant pepper shakers with a whisk and a toilet plunger. Just how frightening was that supposed to be?
“Awesome,” she said, trying to muster up enthusiasm. The thing was, Gwen was the publisher—the big deal here, her boss. She liked to let her geek flag fly, and as boss, she expected everybody to salute it.
“Thanks.” Gwen preened, then she sighed, taking her foot off the edge of the desk. “Listen, I got a call today. From Sterling.”
Michelle stifled another groan. “Oh?”
“He said he had some serious concerns about your last revision letter.”
“He said you were getting too caught up on things that weren’t really important.”
“His characters are flat and misogynistic,” Michelle said, a little more bluntly than she ordinarily would have.
“I know, I know,” Gwen said. “But he’s also a bestseller, and he has a, ahem, rabid following.”
Michelle didn’t roll her eyes, afraid that if she started, they’d roll right out of her head. The man was practically a poster child for the MRA—Men’s Rights Activists. His sci-fi was straight out of the Dark Ages, when men brandished ray guns and women knelt at their feet, clutching their calves and looking up in wonder. Knight made it quite clear that he thought women should be in tin foil bikinis—not in sci-fi publishing.
“I know he can be difficult,” Gwen said, “but can we please just go easy on him editorially?”
Michelle bit the inside of her cheek, pausing. “Sure,” she said, when she was fairly certain she could say it without snarling.
“Oh, thanks. I knew you’d understand.” With that, Gwen practically skipped out of the office.
Michelle groaned, putting her head down on the desk. “ Fuck me sideways,” she muttered, then quickly dialed Aditi’s number.
Aditi leaned back in her rickety office chair, rubbing the heels of her hands against her eyes.
Busted. That bitchy publicist probably ratted me out, she thought, getting up and heading to the kitchen, where her cell phone was charging. Sunshine poured in through the kitchen window, making their large backyard look like a soggy postcard. Spring in Wisconsin. If she were the outdoorsy type, she’d probably be out there on the back deck, drinking chai and planning a garden. Maybe I should try that, she thought. I could totally plant a garden. At least flowers. Or maybe vegetables? Cooking with fresh vegetables could be good . . .
Then she shook her head, recognizing the thought for what it was. When Michelle had given her a deadline to finish the first book, she’d decided to take up knitting. She still had four bags of half-started sweaters stuffed in her office closet.
She should have expected Michelle to start nudging a little harder. Hell, she probably shouldn’t have gone on the Slack channel at all. But after a week of isolating herself in the house, working on the damned sequel, she had been stir crazy and climbing the walls. Ordinarily, she’d just work a few intermittent hours, with plenty of daydreaming, playlist-building, and cooking peppered in for good measure. Or going out shopping, grabbing coffee, and the like.
She grabbed a thepla off of a glass plate on the counter, munching on it as she picked up her phone. She was stress eating—she had to be up another five pounds, she thought—probably at around 215, not that she paid much attention to that. Still, it was something her mother would no doubt notice and comment on the next time she saw her.
The phone rang, startling her and almost making her choke. She grimaced, took a deep breath, then answered.
“Hey, Michelle,” she said. “How are you?”
“How are you?” Michelle replied. “I’ve been a little concerned.”
“Oh, you know. Writing away.” Nervous, guilty, Aditi tucked her phone to her chin, then grabbed her heavy braid, undoing the end and unplaiting it, letting the waves ripple out from her hands.
“Really?” Michelle sounded excited. “I’m so glad. When Pam mentioned that you’d had some trouble . . . Well, how’s it going?”
“It’s . . . going,” Aditi said, wandering back down the hall to her office. “I’m chugging along.”
“You said you were stuck,” Michelle pointed out. “So what’s really going on?”
Aditi suppressed a low growl of frustration, looking at the ceiling. “Not stuck, exactly. Just not quite sure of where things are headed.”
The whole damn story, Aditi thought, gripping the phone tighter. “I just . . . I’d really thought the first book would end, you know, sort of ambiguously.”
As opposed to the way you and Gwen nudged me to change it.
“I know,” Michelle enthused. “It still does. That’s what made it perfect, and opened it up to a series.”
But I didn’t want it to be a series!
Still, she’d agreed to making it a series. Michelle had made clear that without the guarantee of a series, the publisher wasn’t going to buy the book, and Aditi knew Michelle was right. So her “ambiguous, open” ending had become a gnarly cliffhanger that she hadn’t anticipated.
“Um, yeah, but I hadn’t really . . .”
“Readers love series—it means more sales, and a bigger audience,” Michelle said, reading her mind again. “That’s what helped seal the deal.”
“I know,” Aditi said, hoping she didn’t sound as ungrateful as she felt. “I just don’t quite know where to go from here.”
“Why don’t we brainstorm?”
“No. You know me,” Aditi added quickly. More importantly, she knew Michelle: She was a savvy editor, but she actually sucked at brainstorming. Maybe after she hung up with Michelle, she’d call Christina. Even though Christina said she’d never want to be a writer, she was really creative—probably from working on all those movies as a production assistant. “I’ll get there, Miche. I just need some time to bang my head against the wall. I’ll figure it out eventually.”
Another pause. “You’re going to make the deadline though, right?”
Aditi swallowed. “Probably. We’ll see.”
“Aditi.” Michelle’s voice spoke volumes. She wasn’t angry, much like Aditi’s mother didn’t get “angry.” She wasn’t even simply “disappointed.” She was distressed and yet unsurprised, with a side of determined and a small twist of judgment. She was also probably prepping some sort of counterstrike.
Aditi braced herself.
“I know you can do it,” Michelle said. “This sequel will be brilliant. I’ve always believed in it.”
Which was true. Michelle had been unshakable—she’d believed in the story, even when Aditi hadn’t. Guilt started to curl around the edges of her consciousness. “Thanks, Miche.”
“You always dreamed of your stories being published,” Michelle said softly. “Remember? Remember how you cried, when that one asshole guy from your creative writing class savaged your book?”
A sharp stab. Sure, she remembered it. How could she forget someone calling her a “fan-fic fame whore with aspirations toward social justice warrior-hood?”
“You wanted to throw it out. Or shove it in a drawer,” Michelle said, and Aditi could hear the smile in her voice. “But I knew it was fantastic, just needed some polish. You’d lost perspective, that was all.”
“You helped me out of that,” Aditi admitted. “But this is different.”
“No, it really isn’t,” Michelle said, her voice low and comforting. “I know it’s scary. But you’ve got this. I believe in you. You’re capable of so much more than you think you are.”
A flashback of her mother came to mind: You’re majoring in creative writing? But you’re so smart! You could be a doctor, or an engineer. Or you could start your own business—something in computers, maybe. Or you could be a world-class chef. Why the stories, Aditi?
Aditi closed her eyes, feeling pressure, like a coat of cement, weighing down on her chest.
“And just like back then, I’ll hound you mercilessly until you submit,” Michelle said.
Aditi forced a laugh. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“Count on it.”
The thing was, she knew Michelle wasn’t kidding. That in and of itself was terrifying.
“Tell you what: I’ll make you a deal,” Michelle said. “I’ll give you some space and stop nudging you about the story if you write those blog posts for Pam. She was in here, on my ass, just a little while ago.”
Now Aditi rolled her eyes. “Do I have to? C’mon, Michelle. That’s why you guys are my publishers. Isn’t that, you know, your job?”
“You’re adorable,” Michelle said drily. “This is part of the unpleasant realities of publishing I warned you about.”
“You didn’t tell me I’d be writing puff pieces about myself,” Aditi mumbled.
“You want hard-hitting? Go nuts. But get them written, okay?”
This was the toughest part. When your friend was, essentially, your boss.
“Okay,” Aditi said. “I’ll write the blog posts.”
“Send them to me. I’ll look them over and then hand them to Pam, okay? I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Michelle quickly added. “But if you want to go fast, I’ll fill in the gaps where I need to, if you’re good with that.”
Aditi knew she should feel grateful, but she couldn’t help but feel a little surly. “Fine.”
“All right. See you on Slack. And please, please make sure you answer the phone for me, at least?”
“Okay! Bye.” Aditi hung up, then sat on the daybed, staring at the phone.
The writing wasn’t happening. She’d been given a high six-figure deal to sell her “trilogy” even though she’d only conceived of one book. She’d worked on that book for nearly three years, with Michelle pushing her the last twelve months. Now, she was supposed to somehow repeat the performance in twelve months. And she was scared out of her mind.
She needed to blow off steam. She needed to get in a better frame of mind.
She glanced down at herself. She was in writing mode, which meant wearing her Lululemon-knockoff yoga pants ( until the damn people make a size eighteen, she thought with a frown) and a stained University of Wisconsin sweatshirt. She wasn’t even wearing makeup.
No wonder I feel like shit.
She headed for the bedroom, stripping down completely. She pulled on a sexy matched set of underwear, classic black lace panties and bra. Then she put on her favorite dress, a deep plum ponte knit that clung to her curves in just the right way, suggestive—not sausage casing. It was cut deep in the front, showing off the girls to their best advantage. Nodding, she wandered barefoot to the bathroom and played with her makeup, giving herself a subtly smoky eye and matching deep plum lips. The color went perfectly with her amber skin, and made her brown eyes look almost black. Super dramatic.
Sexy as fuck, she thought with a nod.
Now she was looking fine, and feeling a little better. It really did make a difference. Unfortunately, she didn’t want to waste all this energy on writing stupid blog posts. She needed a distraction.
She called her husband, Druv.
“Hey there,” Druv said. “You okay?”
“I can’t write, I hate my life, I want to die,” she said dramatically, then smiled, throwing herself on the bed, phone cradled to her ear like a teenage girl. “You busy?
He laughed. “One of those writing days, huh?”
“Seriously. I’m supposed to work with this publicist . . .”
“Sweetie, I am right in the middle of pulling together the GreenWave merger,” he said. “I promise, I will listen to you in full, cursing detail, and get you a pint of the best mango sorbet you have ever tasted in your life. But I can’t today. Okay?”
She wanted to kick something. “You going to be home tonight?”
“Late,” he said, and to his credit, he did sound regretful. “But this weekend, it’ll be all about you, I promise.”
“It’d better be,” she grumped, then sighed. “I’ll leave your dinner in the oven, and we have plenty of snacks left over.”
“Best of wives, best of women,” he said, before hanging up. She started to shut off the phone, then bit her lip.
Wandering back to the kitchen, she opened up Tinder. It’d been a solid week since she’d so much as peeked at it; she frankly hadn’t had the time. But she was nervous, and stressed. And all dressed up, at this point.
What she really, really needed was something to get her mind off things. Something to help ground her, calm her down.
Picking up another thepla and taking a bite, she started swiping.
Taneesha sat down at the conference room table with the rest of her team from Maniac Games. They’d finished the move from their small, janky offices in a nondescript office park, and now that they were at Starwisp, the difference was noticeable. The walls were cream-colored, and every single chair was a high-priced ergonomic wonder. The tables were all nice, dark wood, not scuffed Formica-tops they’d grabbed at garage sales. There were poster-sized screen captures and promotional pieces from Starwisp’s most popular games: Cthulhu Legend, Plague Battalion, Neuromancer.
She was a little intimidated, admittedly. But more than that, she was excited. This was the big time.
The “Maniacs” were all in the “uniform”—mocking graphic T-shirts, shorts or jeans, sneakers. They were hardly what anyone would consider “groomed,” instead living up to the geek stereotypes—unkempt, ragged hair, scruffy beards, clothes with holes in them.
She had thought about her clothes carefully today. She’d always dressed to fit in with the Maniacs—it was a defense mechanism rather than a style choice—and today wasn’t going to be much different. Her T-shirt had a picture of an elopus, the Gishwhes mascot, which Elli had convinced her to participate in a while ago. But she’d chosen jeans without holes in them, crisp and pressed-looking, a calculated departure from her colleagues. She’d also worn her natural hair pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck, with her side part slicked back into submission. She wanted it to look a little more professional, or at least what she assumed Starwisp would consider “professional.” The last time she’d worn full braids, the Maniacs had either asked if they could touch it, or asked if she was interviewing because she’d gotten so “fancy.” And the last time she’d worn a weave—well, that wasn’t the guys’ fault, she remembered. She’d gone to a new stylist who hadn’t used enough protectant and beeswax, and that shit had stuck.
Hair glue was the devil, and she wasn’t that interested in making a “good impression” at Starwisp, she thought, her expression grim.
Besides, she didn’t want to scare them, impress them, or stand out too much. She wanted to blend in—and study. She wanted to see what they would do.
Two guys from Starwisp stepped in. They were in what normal people would have considered business casual: khakis, short-sleeved polo shirts. They looked like golfers, or Verizon salesmen. Taneesha could sense the derision from some of the Maniacs.
Welcome to corporate coding, she could all but hear them thinking. You will be assimilated.
“I’m Brad Tailor, and this is Frank Miller,” the man on the left said, gesturing to his partner.
“No relation to the comic guy,” the second guy said. There was a tentative pity chuckle from the audience. Judging by his stern expression, he might have simply been stating a fact, as if he were mistaken for the other Frank Miller all the time.
“We just wanted to say how pleased we are that you are a part of the Starwisp family,” Brad said. He looked earnest, like he was more management than coder. He had short blond hair, and he was clean-shaven. He looked like he was twelve. The other guy had black hair and a somber expression, and what must’ve been his attempt at a goatee. Considering some of the guys in here had beards that were older than the blond guy, she doubted that goatee guy was going to make a good impression.
First guy, Brad, kept on talking. He seemed like the good cop, talkative and amiable, while Frank stood silent and stone-faced in the background, having spent his small store of jocularity on the “comic guy” remark, to poor response. “You guys have done amazing work with Galactic Assassin. I want you to know that we took you on as a team because we know how well you work together. We don’t want to jeopardize that.”
Come on, buddy. You took us on as a team because we’re cheaper that way .
Maniac Games had been a small company, and they’d all been close. Taneesha had talked shop with Paul in finance as much as any of the other engineers—maybe more so, as a senior programmer. She knew just how expensive it was to replace an engineer. It was actually cheaper to buy the whole company than try to recreate it piecemeal.
“Also know that we recognize and respect your culture, and we want you to feel like you can still maintain that.”
Somebody to Taneesha’s left snorted, and she hid a grin. To Brad’s credit, he looked sincere as hell—he probably meant it. But everybody knew what it was like. They were at corporate headquarters, for God’s sake. There were rules. She sincerely doubted they’d allow a kegerator in the break room, or Clothing-Optional Thursdays once a month, for example. Although honestly, she was glad to be rid of that tradition. She glanced quickly over at Bailey, a rotund guy with a graying beard and Birkenstocks, who was one of the most ardent followers of C-O Thursday. She shuddered.
The thing was, corporate culture was insidious. It would start with a few memos, and it’d slowly take over. The loose cannon days of being a start-up would get slowly but inevitably crushed into the ground.
“That said, I hope you’ll find that working at our corporate facility will help you feel more at home. We have plenty of perks for our employees, including a fully stocked free break room, a pool table, and of course, plenty of video games.”
She squirmed, impatient.
Tell me where I am on the team.
Unlike most of her old team, she’d been excited when Starwisp had taken over Maniac Games. She’d felt ready to move on. She’d learned a lot working there, and with that small a team, she’d been able to slowly establish herself as a respected engineer in her own right, even if some of the guys still thought of her as “just a girl.”
Now, she was joining a globally recognized company. It wasn’t Seattle or Silicon Valley, sure. But this was better. She could stay close to her family and still work her way up. She was a senior programmer, after all. Given their resources, the projects they were working on . . . her heart beat faster, just thinking about it.
This was her chance to show them, and the rest of the industry, just how good she really was.
“We’ve got team assignments for you. Since we’ve just recently launched a new version, we’ll be working on the next iteration.”
Taneesha cleared her throat. “We’ve already done some work on that. We’ve got . . .”
Brad held up a hand, and she stopped, surprised.
“I’m sorry. Your name is?”
She blinked. “Taneesha Adams.”
“Ah, yes. Taisha.”
“Taneesha,” she repeated, trying not to growl it.
“I’m so sorry! Taneesha, of course,” he said, looking flustered. “I’m sure you guys have done . . . well, I’m sure you’ve laid some great groundwork. We just want it to, well, match what we’ve got as far as process. We’ve systematized DevOps quite successfully . . .”
Bailey snickered. “But we’re keeping our culture,” he muttered. “Yeah, right.”
The black-haired guy, Frank, had been leaning against the wall this whole time. He stood up now, glaring a bit.
“We’re just integrating the team into our workflow,” he said. “Which is how we’re able to release games on time and on budget.”
Now the rest of the Maniac Games guys started grumbling, since this was a direct jab. “No point in putting it out on time if it’s buggy,” Bailey said.
“Or lame,” one of the guys to her right said in a stage whisper, hitting right back.
Taneesha sighed. This was getting out of hand.
“I’m sure we’d be happy to see what kind of, ah, system you guys have in place. We’re ready to go to the next level,” she said, ignoring the eye-rolls and kissy-kissy noises.
“Hell, yeah,” somebody across the room said, and she grinned.
“Now, that’s the attitude I like to see,” Brad said, smiling at her. “Teesha . . .”
“Taneesha,” she corrected.
“I appreciate your candor, and I’m glad you’re on board. We’re going to be integrating a few senior people into your team, just to act as go-betweens for your team and upper management. We’ll also have a few senior programmers joining your team, again, mostly to get you up to speed with our system . . . basically, our way of doing things.”
“Here we go,” Bailey said.
He went over a few other perks, but she could sense the mutinous energy of the guys. She bet that several of them would be leaving by the end of the day—which was really too bad. Still, expensive or not, she was sure they could replace the engineers they needed to. Hell, most of the programming talent in Austin worked at Starwisp—or wanted to. She imagined the positions wouldn’t be vacant for long.
“Taneesha,” Frank Miller said, motioning to her before she could file out with the others. “Could you stay behind for a minute?”
She felt nervous, although she knew she didn’t really have any reason to. And at least this guy had gotten her name right, unlike Blond Brad.
Frank waited until the others left, then shut the door behind them. Now they’d get down to brass tacks, she thought. Time to show your stuff, girl.
“Are you happy with the acquisition? Glad to be a part of Starwisp?”
She nodded. “Yes. I’ve loved working for Maniac Games, don’t get me wrong. But I’d like the opportunity to grow, and be more challenged.”
Frank looked at Brad, then gestured to Taneesha to sit back down at the conference room table. She did, sitting near Brad. Frank continued to pace.
“We are very, very happy that you’ve joined the team,” Frank said, and she felt her chest warm with pride. “You graduated with honors, and you can work system side and platform side. That’s impressive.”
“Thank you.” She struggled not to smile, but did anyway.
“We’d like to make sure that you stay on the team, and that you know just how much Starwisp values you,” he said. “You’ve obviously done a lot of work, and we feel that you’re crucial to our objectives moving forward.”
“Thank you,” she repeated, feeling an almost surreal sense of lightness.
“In fact—we wanted to make sure that you realized it.” He smiled, but it looked odd—like he wasn’t used to the expression. It was a little creepy, actually.
Brad piped up. “What Frank is trying to say is, we’ve authorized a six percent raise for you.”
Her eyes popped. “Wait, what?”
“We value your contributions. And here at Starwisp, we realize that . . . well, money talks, and bullshit walks.” Brad looked a little sheepish.
“I can’t . . . I don’t know what to say. Other than thank you,” she said, flabbergasted.
“No. Thank you, for choosing to stay,” Frank said.
“Well, since you’re here, maybe we can talk about the integration,” she said. “I had some ideas on how we could . . .”
“Oh. Oh, no,” Brad said, pushing back from the table and putting his hands up. “We’re more . . . upper management. You’ll be getting a senior programmer, and an architect who will be overseeing Galactic Assassin.”
“We don’t want to get in the way of his plans,” Frank added.
Hold up. His plans? Taneesha narrowed her eyes, and the feeling of lightness and pride and happiness slowly started to plummet.
“But I’m a senior programmer on this project,” she said.
Brad looked uncomfortable. “Ah . . . from an HR standpoint, the titles you had at Maniac Games don’t quite line up accurately to our org chart,” he said slowly.
“What do you mean?” She had a sinking feeling in her stomach, and she knew, she goddamn knew what he was trying to say. But she wanted to hear him say it out loud.
“You’ll be a programmer, of course. But you will be working with another senior programmer who will be taking the lead for the time being,” Frank said firmly.
“Of course, you’ll still be ahead of most of the other programmers,” Brad added quickly. “We’ll have another title for you. A commensurate title.”
“But not senior programmer,” Frank emphasized.
Of course not, she thought, the grip on her pen tightening. She thought about asking what the title would be, but honestly, it didn’t matter. They’d come up with something that sounded impressive—“Executive Engineering Anomaly” or some shit—but she knew the score.
“But you’ll still get the raise. Above your current pay,” Brad said. “And think, you won’t have to work quite as hard . . .”
He shut up when Frank glared at him.
“We do hope that you’re happy with the arrangement,” Frank said. “And if there’s anything you need, or if you have any questions, my door’s always open to you.”
“Oh, you’re here in Austin?”
Frank blanched. “I meant more figuratively,” he admitted. “I’m out of Seattle.”
“But we’re only a phone call away, is what Frank meant,” Brad chirped. “So . . . was that all clear?”
She smiled, a paper-thin smile.
I’m a black woman coder. I’m a goddamn unicorn. You want me to stay on because I make your company look good. But God forbid I do any fucking coding. You’re going to have an overseer coming in to do the “real work.” But you want to keep me happy, so you’re going to throw money at me, hoping that I’ll stay—but stay out of the way. You’re going to make the junior programmers pissy when they find out I’m getting paid more for doing their work. You’re going to make the senior programmers pissy that I have a special title but I’m doing less work. And you’re going to give me the mushroom treatment: Keep me in the dark, feed me lots of shit.
You “value” the hell out of me. You just don’t remember my fucking name.
“Oh yeah,” she said tightly. “I understand completely.”
All she wanted to do was eat some pho. Was that really so much to ask?
“Michelle,” Phil Geunther crooned plaintively in her ear. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know you said not to call. But when you didn’t answer my email, I sort of . . . panicked.”
She didn’t sigh, even though she desperately wanted to. She toyed with the rice noodles and bits of flank steak floating in what smelled like really delicious broth. “You only emailed me this morning, Phil.”
“And yesterday,” he quickly added. “And the day before. I really needed to hear from you. What did you think of my new idea?”
Now she did sigh. “The one about the zombies?”
“Zombies are still pretty hot, aren’t they?” he asked. “I mean, this is a new twist, anyway. Think about it: Christ as a zombie. And Catholicism as actual cannibalism!”
She winced. She thought it was as stupid and cliché and mock-worthy as she did when he’d first emailed her. But he sounded so hopeful.
“You know what I think, Phil?”
“Yes,” he said. “I really want to know.”
“I think you’re on chapter eight of your novel,” she said, as gently as possible. “And you’re stuck, and you’re scared. And right now, you’re grasping at any shiny new idea that comes by, because that’s a fun distraction.”
He was silent for a moment. She took advantage of that pause to hit her mute button and gulp down a few quick spoonfuls of broth. It made her stomach yowl. Had she forgotten breakfast? What the hell time was it, anyway?
In her haste, she spilled some soup on her pale green sweater. She cursed silently and quickly patted it with the paltry paper napkins from the pho place. First her hair, now a stain? What next? A broken heel?
“You’re right,” Phil said finally, with an embarrassed laugh. “I know you’re right. Is it that obvious?”
“Only because I know you so well.” And she did. After Aditi, Phil had been her next acquisition. She’d worked with him when she was at her old job, since his work was so much more literary, like Margaret Atwood sci-fi as opposed to Robert Heinlein. He was a great asset for Faraday, which was why she let herself play armchair psychologist and professional nanny in addition to being his marketing champion and, of course, editor.
Editing. That is what they pay me for, she thought, as Phil continued babbling apologies. Wonder when I’ll get to do that this week?
“Well, I won’t keep you,” Phil said, then waited.
“Do you want a homework assignment?” she said, knowing the game and playing it.
“God, yes. Please.”
“All right. How about you plow through to chapter ten, and then send that to me?” Not that she’d read it. But she knew he did better with accountability.
“Can I? That’d be awesome. Thanks!”
“No problem, Phil.”
“I’ll talk to you soon!”
“Not that soon, please God,” she muttered after he hung up. She dug into her soup. Of course, she had a big mouthful when Pam knocked on her doorframe.
“Tell me you talked to her.”
Michelle swallowed. “Yes, I talked to Aditi. She’s promised that she’s going to get the articles in.”
“I need at least one by end of day today,” Pam said sharply.
What? “I thought you said you didn’t need anything until end of the week,” Michelle said carefully, clamping down on anger.
“I said that would be drop dead latest,” Pam said with a scowl. “And now io9 is saying they need it ASAP.”
Goddamnit. After all her careful groundwork with Aditi . . . but the book needed the push. She’d just have to nudge her again, and make it up later. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”
Pam disappeared. Michelle grabbed another swallow of soup—letting it cool first this time—then dug her cell phone out of the mire of papers that drifted over it like a blizzard. Ordinarily, she liked her desk pristine, her stacks organized. She’d been so slammed for the past few weeks, her whole world felt . . . chaotic. She really needed to come in over the weekend, see if she could get things straightened out.
She started to text Aditi. Hey. Pam needs one blog post today. Just a short one. Can you swing it?
She frowned, then deleted the last question.
Just one. I know you can do it, she typed instead. If she posed it as a question, the answer could be no. She couldn’t afford that right now.
“Say, Jamie?” she called out.
Before she could even finish the upraised inflection on the question, her assistant was there. Jamie was a godsend, everything she could’ve wanted in an admin. “Sorry! Is everything okay? Lunch okay?”
“Perfect.” And Jamie was even more awesome for knowing all the best spots for delivery in a three-block radius. She would totally go to bat for Jamie’s raise this year. “When’s Aditi’s next conference appearance? And where?”
Jamie whipped out her phone and scrolled. “Sorry, give me a second . . . Aditi Sodhi. She’s scheduled at the Booklovers Con in New Orleans this weekend.”
Michelle called up her calendar on her computer, double-checking the date. She had stuff going on Friday, but she could probably switch them to conference calls and do them remotely. And she could shift some things around, like lunch with the agents from Trestle. The conference was only a few days out of her schedule, after all, and Aditi was one of her best friends. When was the last time she’d spent time with any of her girls?
Loneliness, unbidden and sharp, stabbed at her. She shook off the feeling, ignoring the residual pangs.
“Do me a favor and see if you can get me into that,” she said. “And book me a flight and hotel room, please. Use my card, though, not the expense account.”
“Sure! I’ll get right on it.” Jamie vanished in a whirl of industriousness.
New Orleans. She’d never been to New Orleans. It wasn’t like she and Ted had had a vacation in . . . well, since they were married, she realized.. They’d honeymooned in Florence. That counted for something, right?
Maybe she should see if he wanted to go. She felt a little guilt nudge at her. Of course, he hadn’t invited her when he’d gone to that writers’ conference in Vancouver. She would have liked that. Then she frowned. No, she wouldn’t have been able to—that would’ve lined up with sales conference, and there was no way she’d have missed that.
Still . . . it would’ve been nice to have been asked, she mulled. Maybe he’d like to be asked, too. And he probably wouldn’t be able to go, either, so she’d still have plenty of time to hang out with Aditi.
She crunched into an imperial roll, chewing thoughtfully, then wiped her hands and reached for her phone. He’d stopped calling, so whatever he wanted was probably taken care of. She should probably just text him. Just as she was about to, though, her computer pinged. Direct message from Gwen.
Really need you to redo that Sterling Knight revision letter. He’s really upset.
She gritted her teeth, then bit into the rest of the roll violently. Fucking Sterling Knight—who was really Jerome Osterhaut, at least at birth—was the bane of her existence at the moment. It had taken her weeks to get that edit done, mostly because she’d had to pause every fifteen minutes to squelch the urge to punch someone.
Yeah, he was hard-core sci-fi. But a working knowledge of physics, some biological terms, and rampant sexism by guys who used women like fast food didn’t exactly make a riveting story. Worse, the character arc had problems.
All right, she thought, opening up the revision letter. He was going to be a sexist, racist asshat, she got that. Gwen wanted her to overlook it. But she was damned well not going to be associated with a story that fell utterly flat, with two-dimensional characters, weak conflict, and an antagonist who was too stupid to live.
She’d strip any political criticisms from the letter—try to keep his Men’s Rights Activist side appeased, not to mention any lingering race issues that cropped up, like the fact that all the humans in his world were white as the paper the books were printed on. But she wasn’t going to let him slide on the story structure itself. He was going to respect her as an editor, damn it.
With that, she let her soup go cold. She’d talk to Ted later, she figured. She had some editing to dish out.
Bored. Bored. Borrrrrrrrred.
Elli tapped on the countertop of the coffee shop she worked in, her feet bouncing with nervous energy. It was spring in Toronto, which meant that winter was giving way to the other season—road repair. She could see the guys working on the street out front. It might account for some of the lack of customers, she figured, although some of it might be the fact that there was a new Tim Hortons just a few blocks away.
She wished she’d called in sick. But she needed the money, and her boss and the owner of the shop, Mr. Pasternak, was supposed to give her a paycheck today. That was the only thing that would get her in the same neighborhood as “enthusiastic” about showing up.
She wiped down the counter for the fourth time that morning, then surreptitiously looked at the customers. There was a hipster guy with a high man bun, typing away on his laptop—probably working on a book or something, based on the number of times he leaned back, stared at the ceiling, stroked his full lumbersexual beard, and sighed. There was a group of three moms, all talking and sipping lattes as their toddlers slammed toys on the wood floor and yelped at each other in tongues. And there was a woman who seemed to be interviewing a man, both in business attire. The woman glared at the moms and kids as she pitched her voice higher to be heard.
Elli caught a glimpse of herself in the mirrored wall that Mr. P. had installed to make the space look larger. In the midst of these people, she looked . . . well, like a tall weed, she thought with a grin. Her pixie-cut hair was starting to fall into her eyes—she’d probably need a haircut before the next convention. She was wearing an oversized sweater, the kind with holes in the sleeves for her thumbs, and a pair of corduroy pants. Her mother said she looked like Twiggy. She’d had to look up the name on Google—she’d thought it sounded like a cartoon character. Unfortunately, Twiggy was a model, something her mother always swore Elli “could do in a heartbeat.”
Ha. Elli grinned at her reflection. Only if she was modeling cosplay.
She pulled her iPhone out from under the counter, doing a quick sweep for Pokémon. She’d used her Pokémon incense about ten minutes before, but had only caught one so far. Taking care of the occasional customer and daydreaming had kept her occupied.
Outside of idle moments behind the counter, she hadn’t had time for catching Pokémon because she was way behind on making the costume for Fairy Con in a few weeks, and she had to work to pay for her flight to that con. Before that, though, she was tagging along with Aditi, who was going for the Booklovers Convention in New Orleans this weekend.
For Elli, cosplay was crucial to the trip. For Fairy Con, she was dressing up as Princess Vivian from Dragon’s Crown, one of the most elaborate costumes a cosplayer could try. In the meantime, she’d stick with simpler cosplay for Booklovers. She’d do Galadriel, Celaena Sardothien, and Selene from Underworld for Sunday; she already had those finished. Still, she could finish up her Disney Princess Rey mash-up if she could just get the staff fabricated, and that would be so cool for the Super Soiree. She still needed to get the cash for the rest of that outfit and for her portion of the New Orleans hotel room, though Aditi had been good in the past about floating her when she was short.
Just as Elli’s phone vibrated in her hand and showed a wild Pidgey appearing on the screen, a man’s stubble-covered jaw dropped into her line of sight. She yelped and dropped her phone on the counter. Another Pokémon chance delayed.
The man grinned. “Hey? Got a minute? I’m dying for some coffee.”
The man attached to the jaw was one of the road workers, she noticed immediately. If the bright yellow hard hat hadn’t tipped her off, the neon vest would have. He was smiling at her widely.
“I sure could use something hot right now,” he said, staring at her.
Oh, blergh. Flirty construction guy. “It has been cold,” she agreed. “But hey, at least the snow’s mostly melted, right? Spring’s right around the corner.”
She waited for him to make some kind of friendly, season-related comment, but instead he just leaned on the counter, looking at her expectantly.
She hated expectations.
She cleared her throat. “So, drip coffee, or a latte or something?”
“I’d love something hot . . . and sweet.” His smile broadened.
Damn it. That had definitely been a come-on. Act normal. Deflect.
“So, maybe a mocha?” She glanced at the cell phone on the counter, wondering how long that Pidgey would wait before it disappeared. “Or a salted caramel latte? I could do a peppermint or cinnamon mocha, too. What do you think?”
The man stared at Elli for a long minute. “You got a boyfriend?”
At this rate, she’d never get rid of him in time to catch that Pokémon. “Um, no.”
“Nope!” Would he notice if she just sort of . . . peeked at the phone? She smiled extra bright, keeping eye contact with him as she tipped the screen upward and tried to look down without looking like she was doing so. “So, about that coffee . . . ?”
“How about dinner?”
“No.” She pointed to the case, deliberately. “See? Breakfast sandwiches, some wraps, cookies, pastries. I could heat up a Danish, if you want. That ought to take care of that hot-and-sweet thing.”
He stared a long minute. “You know,” he said, sounding vaguely pissed off, “you could just say you weren’t interested.”
He was still muttering as he walked out of the shop. That could’ve been worse. It had only taken her a few minutes to get rid of him. Sometimes it took fifteen minutes and a screwed-up food order to shake these guys loose.
Well, the important part was that he was gone. Elli picked up her phone. Pidgey was gone too. She swiped around the map to make sure and then checked her inventory. She was starting to run low on Poké Balls, but on her break she could walk around the block and resupply from all the PokéStops in the neighborhood. It was the best thing about taking this job at the coffee shop. There weren’t a lot of PokéStops near her house but there were six or seven right on this block.
Her phone buzzed and a purplish flying creature popped up on the map.
Was that . . . Aerodactyl? Only one of the rarest characters in Pokémon GO!
“What are you doing?” a voice said behind her.
Elli recognized it immediately as belonging to her boss. Of all the times for him to show up! She shoved her phone in her apron pocket. “Um, hi, Mr. Pasternak,” she stammered.
“Hello, Elli, how has it been this morning? Busy?”
She shrugged. “It’s been okay, Mr. P.”
“How many times must I tell you? Please, call me Aaron.” He patted her shoulder.
“Um . . . Aaron.” It felt weird, but then, she’d felt a little weird around Mr. P. since he’d hired her. His black hair was going seriously gray at the temples, and he was a little pudgy, wearing sweaters that were a touch too snug and khaki pants that were a little too loose. She knew he was maybe forty-five, but he seemed so much older, especially since he went to synagogue with her parents. They were in their early sixties, having had her later in life, the surprise baby after her brother and sister. They loved Mr. Pasternak, though. Possibly because he took in their luftmensch daughter and gave her a job.
“I think it’s all the construction,” he said, scowling at the workers through the front windows and leaning against the counter.
If she thought the conversation with the road guy was bad, this was much, much worse. Mr. P. could talk for hours. Sometimes she thought he only came in so he could talk to her. He wasn’t married, his life was the shop. He was probably pretty lonely.
She wondered if he’d ever tried playing World of Warcraft. There was always somebody online.
“So . . . were you texting a friend?” he asked, gesturing to her pocket. “A boyfriend, maybe?”
“I was just playing Pokémon GO.” She pulled out her phone, shifted it around. Where was it? If she’d lost that Aerodactyl . . .
“Oh. I saw that tsutcheppenish on the news. You’re not one of those crazy people, are you?”
“I’m . . . um, not familiar with that word,” she said.
“It’s like . . . an obsession. An irritating . . .” He must have seen or sensed her feeling of offense, because he quickly stopped. “Never mind. Not a big deal,” he said, waving his hand. “I have your paycheck.”
She reluctantly put her phone away, but she eagerly took the check. “Thank you so much, Mr. Pasternak!”
“Aaron,” he said. “After all, I’m not so much older than you, nu? I’m only forty. You make me feel like an old man!”
“You’re only forty?” she asked, then winced, because the surprise in her voice was obvious.
“I look much older, then?”
“Oh, no . . . not at all,” she hedged. To distract herself more than anything, she opened up the check right there, so she wouldn’t have to look at his face. Then she frowned. There was something wrong.
“Um . . . has there been some mistake?” she asked. “This is too much.”
“A little bonus,” he said, and his grin was wide and a little bit smug. “Think of it as . . . as a late Purim treat, if you like.”
Funny, all she’d ever gotten for Purim before was hamantaschen cookies. An extra two hundred bucks? Way better! She now had enough money to buy the craft paint for Princess Vivian’s jewelry and chain belt, and the satin and velvet for the sleeves. And she could spend all the rest of the time between now and the con focused on making the dress perfect!
Best Purim ever!
“That’s so awesome!” she said, giving him a quick hug. She quickly regretted the impulse when he hung on a little too tight, a little too long. “Um . . . so, thank you! I really appreciate all that you’ve done for me. This is wonderful!”
“I’m so glad you’re happy, dear,” he said, positively beaming, keeping a hand on her shoulder.
She scooted a step back, then took off her apron, tucking her phone in her pocket. “I hope I’ll see you again sometime. I mean, I’m sure I will,” she said, when she saw his face cloud. “This has been a wonderful opportunity. I really can’t thank you enough!”
“What are you talking about?”
She put the apron on the counter. “Well, now I have enough money,” she said. “This job was just temporary, until I could save up enough to go to New Orleans with my friend.”
His eyes bulged. “What?”
“This was always just temporary,” she said. “Didn’t my parents mention that, when you told them about the job?”
“No, they most certainly did not,” he said, his voice frosty. “They said nothing of the sort.”
“Oh. That’s . . . awkward. Well, I really do thank you.”
“You’re just going to leave? Right now?” He was turning red. “Just like that? It’s not even the end of your shift!”
“Yes, but you’re here,” she said. “Really, the shop is hardly ever busy, and between you and Alec and Kendra, you really don’t need me at all.” Kendra, an older woman, had even complained that she’d lost hours because they’d brought on Elli. She’d felt vaguely guilty about that.
He looked grim. “You are how old, Elli?”
God, this was excruciating. Maybe she should just make a run for it?
“You act so much younger.”
“Um . . . thanks?” She glanced longingly at the door. “So, I guess I’ll see you around. Bye!”
“Tell your parents that you did not work out!” he called after her. “Tell them that you were not who I thought you were!”
She winced. That would come as no surprise, unfortunately. She’d disappointed them more than she’d disappointed all her previous employers put together . . . and there was quite an assortment of past employers.
Safely on the sidewalk, she pulled out her phone. Of course, the Aerodactyl was gone.
It was the end of the day—finally—when Pam stopped in her office. “Still nothing from Aditi,” she growled. “And too late for it, anyway.”
“I’m sorry.” Michelle pushed her hair out of her face. The ponytail had only amplified her headache. She’d taken out her contacts and put on her old glasses. Her sweater had a soup stain and now a matching coffee stain at her wrist. She looked, and felt, like a complete disaster.
Pam glowered. “It’s going to have to get done as soon as possible tomorrow. I figured she’d flake. I was able to get a little breathing room from most of them, except for io9. I’ll see if I can beg them to squeeze her in somewhere.”
“I’d really appreciate it.” Michelle took off her glasses, rubbing at her eyes with the heels of her palms. She was probably wrecking what was left of her makeup, but . . . fuck it. At this point, she already looked more like a hobo than a professional. Raccoon makeup couldn’t worsen the situation at this point.
Andrew, another editor, peeked his head into the office at the two of them. “We’re going for drinks. Michelle, no offense, but you look like you could use one. Up for it? How about you, Pam?”
“Yeah. Today’s sucked, I could use a few,” Pam said, then studied Michelle. “He’s not wrong. You kinda look like shit.”
“Thanks for that,” Michelle muttered.
“I don’t . . . you know what I mean,” Pam said, with a small grin at Andrew. “You normally look like you stepped out of a Vogue ad. Now, you look like . . .” She laughed. “Well, like one of us.”
Michelle found herself grinning ruefully. “I had to edit Sterling Knight.”
Andrew hissed, drawing back and making the sign of the cross with his fingers. Pam hooted.
“No wonder . . . shit. I’d have a bad day too, dealing with that dickhead,” Pam said, with even more than her usual venom. “Do you know he ensured that I wouldn’t work on his publicity? Said he didn’t want to work with a dyke, basically.”
Michelle’s jaw dropped open. “He said that? To your face?”
Her phone rang—Ted again. She’d had a hard time getting into the culture at Faraday, and now, for the first time, she felt like she was fitting in. Maybe she should have drinks with them. She hit ignore, swearing she’d call him right back, maybe see if he could meet them out somewhere.
“Nah. Told Gwen, to her face. That’s his MO,” Pam said. “But he did lord it over me and yelled when he came in and I was stuffing envelopes with the publicist who was organizing his book tour. Got all up in my business.” Pam’s face turned red. “I wanted to kick his ass so badly.”
“Everybody who works with him feels that way,” Andrew said. “He’s been published by Faraday forever, but he goes through editors like chewing gum. If he wasn’t so tight with major players at the WSFS and that stupid bloc . . .” He shook his head. “God, I hope they just take a seat this year. Nobody wants to see their slate of meninists flaunting pulp, and I’m tired of wading through all the controversy and rants that inevitably spring up.”
“Like that’ll ever happen.” Pam shook her head. “I swear, they get worse every year.”
Michelle’s phone buzzed again. Another text from Ted. PICK UP THE PHONE, DAMN IT.
“Did you hear what he posted about on that blog of his? The Knight Rants?” Andrew rolled his eyes. “Seriously. If you thought his fiction writing was bad . . .”
Michelle tried to surreptitiously text Ted back. IN A MEETING. IS THIS AN EMERGENCY? She tried to keep looking at Andrew, nodding, chuckling as he retold the story of Sterling’s latest skewering of Social Justice Warriors and Vegan Lesbian Anarchists.
“And he’s not being the least bit . . . I don’t know, ironic?” Michelle chimed in. “Even after editing him, I keep expecting it to be some sort of massive troll.”
“I thought he was doing a really big meta-parody at first, too,” Pam said. “Then I met the guy, and realized—nope, just a pure asshole!”
They all started laughing. Some of the stress released from between Michelle’s shoulder blades, although her neck still felt tight. Ted was pissed she’d blown him off today. Well, there had been plenty of times when he hadn’t answered her calls about contracts, too, she thought defensively. They’d have to talk about it when she got home.
God, she wasn’t looking forward to that.
“Where are we having drinks . . .” Michelle started, but Jamie walked into the room, looking paler than usual.
“Michelle,” she said, “Um . . . Ted just called.”
“I haven’t decided,” Andrew continued. “What are you guys in the mood for?”
“Martinis. Or are they lame now?” Pam said. “Fuck it. Whiskey.”
Michelle stood up. “I’ll call him back,” she told Jamie, starting to grab her purse and coat. She’d call on the way down to the subway, maybe. “Did he say what it was about?”
Jamie looked nauseous. “He says . . .” She cleared her throat, glancing at Pam and Andrew. “He says he’s moving out, and thought you should know.”
Pam and Andrew immediately fell silent, looking at Michelle awkwardly.
“Oh, God, Michelle,” Andrew murmured. “I’m so sorry.”
Pam quickly shuffled toward the door. “You should probably take that call, then,” she said. “And don’t worry about drinks. You’ll, um, probably be busy?”
For a publicist, she was horrible at personal interactions, Michelle thought absently, feeling numbness at the sheer sucker punch of humiliation hitting her. “Ah . . . all right. Thank you, Jamie.”
They all fled, closing the door behind them. She picked up the phone, hitting Ted’s contact with enough force she was surprised her screen didn’t crack. “The FUCK, Ted?” she asked.
“Oh, now you answer me?” he said. She could hear traffic around him, noise—he was outside. “I’m spending the night at a hotel. Not that you’d notice. And I found a divorce lawyer.”
She blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“It isn’t working. We aren’t working,” he said. “I haven’t been happy with you for some time now. I’ve told you repeatedly, and you just don’t seem to listen. I’m starting to realize that you just don’t care.”
She clenched her teeth so she wouldn’t scream. “Are you kidding me with this?” she hissed. “I’ve bent over backward to accommodate you! It just never was enough!”
“I think we both knew this wouldn’t work out,” he said, in that pseudo-calm voice that made her even more angry.
“And you had to drop this on me at work? You couldn’t just wait until I got home to face me?”
“I figured this would be easier for both of us.”
You figured it would be easier for you , she thought viciously.
“And besides,” he said, “if you’d only picked up the phone earlier, when I called, we wouldn’t have had to go through all this drama. I’ll be in touch, Michelle.”
With that, he hung up. She stared at the phone in shock before slamming it down on the desk.
“ASSHOLE,” she shouted, then remembered she was still at work. She closed her eyes.
Lock it down, she told herself. Wait until you get home—to your now-empty apartment. Then let it out. She’d made enough of a fool of herself today. Ted might’ve fucked up their marriage, but she’d be damned if he screwed up her job as well.
It was one o’clock in the morning when Aditi finally made an effort to get some clothes on and make her escape.
She’d meant to text Druv, but frankly, she’d gotten distracted. Said distraction was currently stretched out on the plush king-sized bed, making the soft whooshing noises that she hoped meant he was sleeping.
Filtering through Tinder had been tedious, as always, but the way she was now feeling, it was worth it.
Not that it was hard to find guys who wanted to hook up on Tinder. That was simple. Just say “I want to get laid” fairly early on, and most of them would snap to attention. But it was tough to find guys who weren’t shallow and hung up on the fact that 1) she was Indian, and 2) she was overweight. Even guys who were ugly, totally out of shape, and living in their moms’ basements seemed willing to call her out when she’d send the first picture. That’s why she did it early on. She didn’t have her face on any Tinder pics—she sure as hell didn’t want anyone she knew to find out. But even as a “big girl,” her body pics were sexy AF and she knew that they communicated just what she was interested in. Once contact was initiated (and the guy didn’t seem like a complete troglodyte) she’d go ahead and send a selfie with her face.
If a guy was turned off—or worse, if they said some stupid shit like “you’re pretty for a fat chick”—she was over it, no harm no foul. They didn’t know what they were missing. She did. And she wasn’t going to waste it on an asshole.
When she found guys who were into her, the next step was to weed out the desperate and cluelessly horny, and the dangerous. It took time, unfortunately. Some quick sexting and gauging how they responded (and how often they responded) was the next order of business. She’d sexted with three guys this afternoon before settling on this guy . . . what the hell was his name? Chet? Chad? Something like that. He’d won the toss because the first guy was woefully unimaginative, and his dick pic, when it finally arrived, showed a curving twig. The second guy had been a little too needy, saying he wanted to meet, meet immediately, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, please could he call her, he thought they had a connection. The guy was one step away from boiling bunnies—pass.
But Chet/Chad/Whatever had been witty, with a filthy mouth, something she liked in sex talk. And when he’d sent her the requested dick pic (and waited for the request, good for him)—well, unless he had tiny hands . . .
Oh, yeah. She could definitely work with that.
The fact that he’d arranged a relatively swank hotel room had been another plus. Better for safety (for her), but it also showed that the guy wasn’t desperate. A guy who could afford a room like this could no doubt afford companionship, either the paid kind or the women who simply liked a guy who could pay.
Then she’d met him. His face was nice: dark hair with a slight wave, square jawline, piercing eyes. But his body . . . Holy. Shit. The guy was chiseled out of granite, a Grecian statue crossed with a spank-me wet dream.
And when they’d actually had sex . . . yeah, baby. He knew how to work with what he had—and what he had was impressive.
She came three times in their first interaction: first when he finger-banged her, “getting her ready.” (Seriously? Who outside of romance novels did that?) Then missionary. Then when he turned her over, grabbing her braid like the reins of a horse and tugging as he plowed into her, until he had her coming so hard she was practically sobbing. Oh my God, the guy had moves.
She’d been ready to thank him and head home right then, but he said he wasn’t done. He’d ordered up room service, and she’d gotten a wonderful vegetarian meal, and even had a pleasant conversation with him. Which was in and of itself a rarity, although it made her uncomfortable. She wasn’t there to date; she was there to fuck. Thankfully, as soon as he’d refueled, he had her on the dresser.
Her pussy felt bruised, but in the best possible way. She shivered as she pulled her panties on. Her skin tingled. This would be one she remembered. In fact, this was one that other guys would fall woefully short of, which made her sad.
To her surprise, he rolled over with a soft grunt, then hooked his arm around her waist, tugging her back to the bed with a startled squeak. She giggled as he wrestled her gently to the bed, burying his face in her chest. “Mmmm. Man, I love these tits,” he said, kissing one, then the other—then giving her a quick motorboat. She snickered at the sheer goofiness of it.
“You cannot be serious,” she said around a chuckle. “What the hell did you eat for breakfast today? Viagra flakes?”
“With tits like these in front of me, I don’t need ’em,” he answered, tugging off her panties and tossing them back on her pile of clothing. She was about to protest, but he took her mouth roughly, weaving his fingers in her wavy hair. He pressed her into the mattress, and she felt the thick rod of flesh against her stomach.
She should say no. She should’ve been home hours ago. That said—it was there, all deliciously solid and insistent. It would be such a waste to just leave it. Like throwing away perfectly good food.
There are poor, horny, crazy cat women who would just love this, and you’re going to refuse it?
She kissed back, hard, gripping his broad shoulders, reveling in the feel of his fingers digging into her ass as he suckled hard while nudging at her opening. She moaned, angling her hips . . .
“Whoa. Condom . . .” she muttered, quickly yanking away.
She reached down, ensuring it. Not that she didn’t trust him, but . . . well, no. She didn’t trust him, or any man she hooked up with. Wasn’t worth it.
As long as she had him in hand, she stroked, then squeezed until he was groaning against her skin, biting her shoulder. He pulled her hips up off the mattress, and they both let out animal growls of pleasure as he pressed his not-inconsiderable length all the way in, until his hips met flush with her widened thighs. “So . . . good . . .” she breathed.
He nipped at her breasts, pulling one nipple in his mouth as he kept pressing up. Her ankles hooked around his legs. The guy had amazing muscle tone, and stamina for frickin’ days, she thought, before he hit her G-spot, and all thought fled. She was gasping, writhing with all the force she could muster.
She came first, on a low shriek. He shook slightly in response, but clenched his jaw. Then he slowly let her slide down, withdrawing.
She was out of breath, still quivering from her orgasm. But he hadn’t come, or at least, she didn’t think he had. “Didn’t you . . .”
Before she could finish the question, he turned her over, piercing her from behind, holding onto her hips, kneading them as he slowly, deeply penetrated her. He was grunting, sexy animalistic sounds that, impossibly, revved her engine back to life. She didn’t think she could come again so soon, but she felt so hot as his rhythm went uneven, his grip got tighter, his thrusts harder until she was pressing back, her palms flat on the headboard.
“Christ!” He shuddered, and she could feel his cock tickling inside her as it jerked and spasmed. They stayed there for a minute, the only sound the quiet hum of the hotel heater. Then he pulled out, cleaning himself off.
When she finally got herself together, she rolled over, retrieving the panties he’d discarded.
Late. She was soooo late. She really had to move it.
“What’s your rush?” he said, sneaking up behind her and nibbling her skin, toying with her nipples before she pulled her bra on. She stepped away and tugged her dress over her head.
“Fun’s fun,” she murmured. “But I have to get home. How are you not exhausted?”
“I’m not quite ready to go again, but I don’t want you to leave,” he said against her skin, making her shiver a little. “Stay. Sleep here with me.”
“Tempting, but no.” She nudged him, sitting on the edge of the bed and putting on her shoes. He was getting a little clingy. Yeah, the sex was amazing, but good grief. Really?
“Come on,” he said, wrapping his arms around her.
“I never thought I’d say this,” she said, with a rueful chuckle, “but I am all sexed out. I am going to need to get some Vitamin E shots before I get back in bed with you . . .”
Chad? Chet? Shit. She still couldn’t remember his name.
“Stay,” he repeated, stroking her neck, kissing behind her ear. “We could just cuddle.”
What the fuck?
“What? I like cuddling,” he said, noticing the look on her face. He tugged at her waist, stroking her breasts, her hips. Kissing her softly.
She looked over at him. His eyes were low-lidded, sleepy, not surprising considering their exercises and the time. But there was something else there. Fondness? Affection?
More than that? God, how would that be possible? She’d known the guy for, what, a few hours?
That made her skin shiver in a more unpleasant way. She moved a little, putting some inches of space between them. “I can’t. I have to go home.”
“You live with your parents?” He said it like it was a foregone conclusion.
What exactly did he think was going on here? She frowned.
“No.” She stood up, getting her purse. “My husband.”
She saw that little bombshell register.
“It’s been great. Thanks for everything. And I do mean everything . . . Cuddlebug,” she said, smiling.
She left him sitting there, staring at her in shock.
She was still grinning when she pulled into her driveway, twenty minutes later. She crept into her house. She was pretty sure Druv had a deal closing in the morning, so he’d probably been asleep for hours. Still . . .
“You didn’t text.”
She froze, hearing the censure in his voice. Druv came out of the kitchen, snacking on leftover dosas. “Sorry, babe. I meant to.”
“I was starting to really worry,” he said. “I thought you’d been kidnapped or murdered!”
“I just had to blow off some steam,” she said, knowing it was a poor excuse. “I didn’t mean to be out this late.”
“So where were you?”
She put down her purse and kicked off her shoes. Took a deep breath. “The Edgewater Hotel.”
His eyes widened, and he let out a low whistle. “The swanky one?”
“Yup. And you would not believe the guy I fucked. He was like a sexual triathlete. That’s why I didn’t call.”
He grinned. “How many orgasms?”
“I lost count...”
“Well, shit. I suppose you’re excused for not texting,” he said. “C’mon. Have a snack, tell me all about it.”
She laughed, hugging him. “Then he wanted me to stay and cuddle. Can you believe it?”
“Ugh, one of those,” Druv said, rolling his eyes. “A clinger. You’ll want to steer clear of that.”
“Probably,” she said. “But the sex was so good. Mind-blowing good.”
“Yes, but is it worth the drama?”
She pouted. Did she really want a Cuddlebug in her life? No. But the sex. Holy mice, the sex was the sort of thing people wrote songs about.
“You’re right,” she admitted, giving Druv a half hug and walking up the stairs. “It’d probably be really stupid to see him again.”