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Hard Code
Author: Misha Bell


Chapter One



“You hired a hooker to test a bunch of sex toys?”

“Use your inside voice!” I hiss at Ava, my face burning as I scan the other Starbucks patrons waiting in line with us. Most have headphones plugged into their ears and are lost inside their phones, but still. What if someone overhears?

She grins mischievously and lowers her voice to the closest thing to a whisper she’s capable of. “Only if you spill all the gory details.”

“Fine. First and foremost, Dominika is not a hooker. She’s a showgirl.”

“Wait.” Ava’s amber eyes glint impishly. “Is this the ‘showgirl’ from the strip club Voldemort dragged you to in Prague? The one who violated the nuns on stage?”

“She was playing the role of a succubus. They weren’t real nuns.”

Her reminder of He Who Must Not Be Named—a.k.a. my ex—only increases my discomfort. I went to that club to prove to Bob that I wasn’t a prude, but he broke up with me anyway.

Ava knows me well, which is why she launches into something guaranteed to distract me. Raising her voice an octave, she says, “I’m surprised the Rockettes aren’t putting on a show like that for Christmas. One of them could penetrate a faux nun with a strap-on, another with a fist—”

“Hush!” My cheeks are hot enough to make an omelet on them. “I needed someone with experience using sex toys, so I hired her, okay?”

“Uh-huh.” Ava steps forward as the line moves. “For your new QA project.”

I cast another furtive glance around us. “Like I said, I’m testing an app for a teledildonics company.”

“Teledildonics,” she repeats, savoring the word. “The prefix tele refers to long distance; the suffix onics means pertaining to, and the root is dildo… as in the thing I’ve been convincing you to try.” Her voice grows louder. “Are we talking about long-distance dildos?”

As I cringe, I make a mental vow: I will get her back for this. She will rue this day.

“Precisely.” I’m proud of how even my voice is. “The app I’ll be testing lets one user control a device being utilized by another user over the internet.”

“Sure. Sure.” She makes her face look serious. “To put that in layman’s terms: a dildo will go into Dominika in Prague, and you will make her come with the app from New York.”

At this point, it’s not just my treacherous cheeks that are red—my ears are too. “It’s called end-to-end testing. It needs to be as close to the way the product is going to be used in the real world as possible.”

“Or rear-end testing.” She waggles her eyebrows suggestively. When I pointedly turn my back to her, she laughs and says, “Isn’t that basically having sex with Dominika? After paying her? How is she not a hooker then?”

The reality is actually worse. Dominika and her boyfriend will be participating in the testing, but I’m not telling Ava this now. Or maybe ever. “Fine. She’s not just a showgirl. Happy now?”

“Hey.” She finally lowers her voice. “I have nothing against the world’s oldest profession. If I hadn’t already wasted years on medical school, and if all the johns were hot and STDs didn’t exist, I’d sign up. At least if it paid well and I wasn’t dating anyone. Especially if I was as orgasm-deprived as you. Come to think of it—”

Thankfully, it’s our turn to order now. She gets enough caffeine to send a rhino bouncing off the walls, and I request my venti chamomile tea in the hopes of calming down before the meeting I’ve been dreading.

We step aside to wait for our drinks, and Ava grins like the Grinch. “So, back to teledildonics.”

Before I can shush her again, he comes in.

I forget what I was about to say. I forget to breathe.

Carved features that remind me equally of Greek gods and angels, eyes the deep blue hue of a lapis lazuli stone, framed by stylish horn-rimmed glasses. Lips that beg to be kissed. Shaggy jet-black hair, with a stray strand that falls in the middle of his face and just begs me to walk over and brush it back—which I’d have to reach high to do because he’s at least a foot taller than me. Despite the warm weather, he’s dressed in a black trench coat with a black shirt underneath, an outfit that accentuates the powerful breadth of his shoulders and—

“Earth to Fanny.” Ava’s voice intrudes into my oxytocin-addled brain.

I spin around before she realizes I was checking out Hottie McDark. Knowing her, she’d push me at him, or nag me into starting a conversation, or do a million other things that would embarrass me straight into a panic attack.

Someone like me and a guy that hot do not mix.

Before she can resume pestering me about teledildonics within possible earshot of Hottie McDark, I preemptively jam my hand into my pocket and pull out one of my most treasured possessions—my phone, a.k.a. Precious. “You have to see the app I created,” I tell Ava and steal a glance behind me.

Did Hottie McDark’s eyebrows lift at the mention of an app?

Nah. Nor, despite appearances, is he looking at me right now. He’s probably studying the menu board directly behind me.

“Okay…” Ava sounds as enthusiastic as I do when she shares a horribly gross story about her residency in the ER. “It lets you cartoon yourself, right?”

“Nope.” I bring up the app and stare proudly at the crisp user interface that I toiled over for months. “It tells you which cartoon character you most resemble.”

“Potato potahto. But I’ll bite. Who do I look like?”

Feeling a little naughty, I position her just right and snap an image with the app. Except I aim the camera at Hottie McDark instead of Ava—and the app promptly brings up a cartoon character: Clark Kent from Superman, the animated series.

I can see that. That strand of hair, the glasses, and the chiseled features do match. The evil genius of this move is that the app also stores the original photo, so I could, should I wish, backward search from the image to, say, his social media profile.

Assuming I wanted to become a stalker, that is.

Before Ava catches on, I aim the camera at her and snap another pic.

“You’re Belle.” I show her the doe-eyed, brown-haired image on the phone. “From Beauty and the Beast.”

“Tale as old as time,” she singsongs. “I guess that’s a compliment. Can I do you?”

“Be our guest.” I thrust the phone into her hands, mostly because I want to see if she can figure out how to use the app without my help.

To my great relief, she figures it out on the fly. This isn’t as good as a grandmother test, but close. I had to teach Ava how to program her universal remote control.

When the app gives her the result, she chuckles. “Snow White. Is it always a Disney Princess?”

“Not always.”

“I bet it’s your easy-to-blush pale cheeks.” She examines me closely. “Or the round face.”

I sneak another peek at Hottie McDark. “I’m just glad it’s not one of the seven dwarves.”

“Oh yeah, put a beard on you, and you’d be a dead ringer for Bashful.”

I cringe. Her voice is the loudest it’s been yet; the guy would have to be deaf not to notice us at this point. “Please keep it down.”

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