I hope you enjoy the first chapter. I will be releasing a chapter each day until release, so check back for the next installment. And of course, feel free to pre-order the book on amazon!
(Content warning: contains graphic language and situations, may be triggering for some.)
Ten miles outside the city limits, the town faded away and pastures took the place of buildings. He loved it here. The rush of the modern world faded into the endless horizon. Chance slowed the truck and turned into a gravel lot, driving to the side of a massive brick building. He parked next to a small, green metal door and turned the truck off.
“Welcome to Deviant Games’ future headquarters.”
Dez slipped out of the truck, her eyes taking everything in even through the haze that clouded them. He knew she was high. He knew she was a complete mess. The problem was that he also knew what she’d done in the past. When he’d started the idea for Silk, he’d been an avid reader of her blog, among others. He’d kept up on her advances in development tools and loved her posts about the challenges of inspiring competent developers in a corporate setting. He had no idea she was so young, though.
She couldn’t be more than early twenties. He’d expected her to be in her thirties, but the network admin, Ian Black, had assured him it was the same person. He said something pretty traumatic had kicked her out of the technical world, but she was still the best he’d ever seen. Everything Ian knew, he’d learned from Dez, and he hadn’t even scratched the surface of what lingered in her mind. He was also very clear about the fact that she was a complete and total mess.
“Don’t touch her,” the guy had said. “No matter what you do, don’t fucking touch her. No skin to skin. She’ll lose it.”
Chance had asked, but Ian swore he didn’t know. Something happened a few years back, and she wouldn’t talk about it. That’s when she started using, and that’s when she left the scene. If Chance could work with that, he was sitting on a gold mine, and she’d work for a damned place to crash and enough money to support her habit. It didn’t get better than that, and god knew, Chance wasn’t exactly in a position to judge.
“What kinda connection do you get out here?” she asked, looking at the power lines strung above the building.
He pointed to a new rut in the gravel. “Dedicated line. We’re wide open. Had them run it special for us.”
Picking at her lower lip, she nodded, looking at the exterior of the building. He was almost worried she’d blow away. Not that it was overly windy, but she was just a slip of a thing. Her long-sleeve shirt hung on her frame, dark marks peeking out at every opening. Dangerously loose on her hips, not even the studded belt could keep her jeans from sliding precariously low.
She was a punk, just like so many geeks, covering up her lack of social skills with piercings, tattoos, and freakish hair. Although he wondered if the black hair was natural or if she dyed it like that. Not that it was any of his business, but he swore she used to have warm brown hair that matched her chocolate eyes. What shocked him the most was the lack of excessive make-up. Granted, she’d also just gotten off work at Home Depot. Who knew what she’d look like tomorrow.
He tried to remind himself that he didn’t care, but he did. The girl was nothing but long legs and lean arms. Chance held his face stoic as he moved to unlock the door, but he noticed every line of her. It’s what he did. He usually preferred girls with a bit of curve to them, but he wasn’t picky. Not like he’d be getting lucky with someone that didn’t touch people, but hey, he could look.
“The good stuff is inside,” he said, walking into the building.
He knew she’d follow. She was interested in the job, so she’d want to see what she had to work with. He just hoped that she wouldn’t turn around and run out screaming.
One by one, he turned on the lights, illuminating what would be the center of his game empire. He had no idea what the building had started life as, but after many iterations, it was perfect for his needs. The main room was wide open, with two stories of clearance over the work area. Windows surrounded three sides at the top, giving natural light. The fourth was his loft. Beneath that, the back part of the building held four apartments, although he used the term loosely. They were little more than hotel rooms with a kitchenette.
“What’s the goal?” she asked.
Chance leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms. “I have seven programmers. I want to set this up for at least twice as many computers, hopefully more.” He lifted his chin at the space before them. “Raised floor, basement access, and I’m willing to renovate for whatever we need.”
“I’ll need a key.”
“Among other things.” He motioned her to follow, taking her on the grand tour. “Up here is the reception area.” He kept going. “This is the conference room, and I’d like this to be a demonstration area. Over here is an employee break area.” Then he turned toward the back. “And those stairs go to the basement where we’ll house the servers. This one…”
He stepped into a long narrow hall. Behind him, Dez’s feet paused, but he kept going, opening each door as he passed. He could hear her lagging well behind, but pretended like he didn’t notice. What the hell had happened to this girl? She was ready to bolt and all they’d done was enter a hallway! He remembered her as sweet and charming.
“Apartments?” she asked.
He paused, then slowly turned, giving her time to prepare for it. “Yeah. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with them, but you’re welcome to one.”
“My place. I kinda sold everything to make this happen, so I’m living at work.”
She stared at him. He waited for an angry outburst about the impossibility of it all, but it never came. Instead, she stepped into the closest apartment. He followed behind her, making sure to step loud enough for the girl to hear him coming. The place was a mess. He hadn’t cleaned out the rooms yet, mainly because he had no idea what to do with them, but Dez seemed pleased. She turned in a circle, her eyes on the dropped tile ceiling, then moved to the far door, finding a second exit that led outside.
“I’ll need a modern laptop. Mine’s out of date. You’ll be responsible for all of my tools, and I want full access to the network. That means I’ll be able to see your cloud and everything else.”
“Kinda goes with the job,” he agreed.
She nodded. “Clean sheets, too.”
That, he hadn’t expected. “You are not sleeping on that bed.”
She blew that off. “Better than what I got now. You’ll have to help me move – “
“No,” Chance cut her off. “You’re not sleeping on that. What kind of furniture do you have?”
Dez closed her eyes and leaned against an ancient dresser that lined the wall. “Why the fuck do you care?”
He matched her pose, just out of reach. “’The mind of a game developer does not work on a set schedule. When the idea hits, it hits hard. The smart boss would give his employees access to the system at all hours, but concerns about company secrets and unintended leaks make this a struggle. Working a traditional eight to five schedule often ends up detrimental as tired developers try to remember what slipped through their exhaustion and dreams.’”
“That was three years ago.” She pushed past him.
They almost touched. Her shoulder was just inches from his chest as she headed back into the hall. Chance was just glad to know she remembered what she’d written. He was broke, but he wasn’t that broke, and if he could make Silk into the game he planned, his core team would end up very wealthy. He’d love to be able to put Destiny Pierce on the list of credits.
Like a miniature tornado, the dark haired ghost headed through the building on a mission. Chance just followed behind her, a smile playing on his lips. He’d already convinced her. He wasn’t sure what had done it, but he could tell. She was going to take the job. When she headed up to his loft, he couldn’t help but laugh.
“Dez.” She looked back, and he tossed her a set of keys. Unlocking the door, she stepped in, pausing just beyond. “I’m behind you,” he murmured.
Her shoulders relaxed, and she took a deep breath. “It’s so bright in here.”
He’d already had his loft remodeled. The floors were covered in laminate and soft rugs. The kitchen was modern and, while not top of the line, it was more than sufficient. The bathroom was massive and had plenty of room for two, even though he lived alone. The best part was the light. Skylights and high windows kept it feeling airy, not like an old office over an abandoned warehouse.
“Got any beer?” She was clearly changing the subject.
He let her. “How old are you, Dez?”
“Twenty-seven. Do you really think I’m going to give you alcohol?”
She adjusted the piercing through her septum, then shoved her hand into her pocket. Pulling out a brownish-orange bottle, she dropped into a well-padded chair without asking. Tilting her head, daring him to say a damned thing, she opened the top and tossed back two pills before rolling the plastic container between her fingers.
“I need enough money to keep Vicodin on hand. If I’m busted, you don’t know shit about it; I get that. Can’t take the risk to your rep and all. Thing is, I’m gonna get drunk, too. I’m gonna get fucked up in just about any way I can, but your damned network will sing.” She pulled her eyes from the bottle and onto him, a shocking clarity in the brown depths considering how many drugs she’d probably eaten already. “So, you get me the money and I figure out a way to make it happen – which is illegal and will be done on your network – or you just buy the fucking whiskey and let me steal it.”
He leaned over and snatched the pill bottle from her hands, careful not to touch her. Slowly, he read the label, surprised to see that it was actually prescribed under her name. “Oh, I don’t care how fucked up you get, little girl. What I care about is you dying before I get my shit working.”
“I could only be so lucky.” The words were under her breath, but he heard.
“What happened, Dez?”
She thrust out her hand, demanding the bottle back. “I decided to try something new. Time for a change of pace.”
“Home Depot?” Chance tossed the pills at her then headed to his fridge, pulling out a pair of beers. Twisting the top off one, he passed it over. “I just want enough information to not make your life any harder, ok?”
“I quit the scene three years ago.” She shrugged. “I don’t want my name on anything. I just want a damned place to stay and get high.”
He tilted the bottle, taking a sip. “K. I’ll give you the right to change your mind about that later, but I’ll respect it. What else?”
“Don’t touch me.”
Slowly, she was starting to relax. Like a wild animal trapped in a cage, knowing she had a way out was all she needed. She wasn’t ready to run past him yet, but he could see her eyes soften. They were so large, like a deer’s. He just hoped the light never faded out completely. It was already too damned close.
Dez took a long gulp of the beer, then belched, not even trying to hide it. “Until it’s done, you get me anything I need. I promise it will be below your budget.”
“Already figured that.” He dropped his head slightly. “I’m not talking work. I’m talking about you. We’re about to be roommates.”
“No dress code?”
“None,” he agreed.
She took another long drink, her eyes turning to the pills in her hand. “Just don’t touch me.” Her voice quavered on the last word.
“I’ll fire anyone who does.”
She looked up, a glimmer of trust hiding behind her lashes. “Sometimes I scream in my sleep.”
“Should I ignore it or wake you?” He tried to keep it bland, but he couldn’t help but wonder what happened to make her so timid. This wasn’t the same person who’d written the blogs that had shaped his career.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “No one’s ever been around when it happens.”
“Then we’ll wing it. What else?”
“I don’t want anyone to know I’m here. That’s how they found me, by knowing what game I was working on.”
They. He had no idea who they were, but she’d just told him more than anyone else knew. Chance nodded, accepting that. “Which is why your name tag said Candice?”
“Yeah. I hated that name, but it was one they had lying around.” She tipped the bottle and drained the last of her beer, oddly coherent for someone on as many chemicals as he knew were in her system.
“I’m guessing that means Bambi’s out?” He stood, holding a hand out for the bottle. She gave him a confused look, then tilted the bottom toward him, almost smiling when he avoided her fingers. “Want another?”
“Not worried about my Vicodin?”
“Not today. Just finish the damned network before you off yourself?”
“So.” He tossed the empty bottles and grabbed two more, passing her one before returning to his chair. “You need a phone, I assume?”
“I own exactly seven shirts, three pairs of jeans, two bras, a single pair of panties, and five blankets. Well, and my laptop, but like I said, that’s a piece of shit. All of that is locked in my storage unit.”
And he realized how she’d fallen off the radar so completely. “Which is where you live, right?”
He leaned toward her. “Look at me.” She tried, her gaze flinching from the intensity of his. He nodded, seeing exactly what he’d expected. She could focus when they talked tech, but interacting with people was out. “Pick a name. I’d suggest a game name since the devs won’t bat an eye at that. I also need to know your favorite color.”
“Does black count?”
“No. Pick another.”
She smiled. “White?”
“Then you’re leaving it up to me. Give me the keys and address to your unit and go crawl in my bed.”
That was not at all what she’d expected. Dez’s eyes snapped to him, and she shook her head as if to clear her ears. “What?”
“Pass the fuck out, take a hot bath – I don’t care. I’m gonna get your shit and start settling you in. Until we get you a real bed, you’re welcome to mine.” He pointed at the sofa. “I’ll last for a day.”
“You’re leaving me here?”
“Have some place you’d rather be?”
She twisted in the chair, looking at his apartment. “I mean… with your shit?”
Chance decided to go out on a limb. “I had no idea you were just a kid, ok? I used to read your blog religiously. I believed in everything you said, creating these grandiose dreams while I worked for my degree. It shaped Silk. Blending the genres, making perfection, and finding a work environment that allowed the developers and the community to work in synergy? Yeah, that’s all you. Now that I have you on the team, I’ll play by your rules.” Chance gestured in a circle over his head, the bottle of beer still in his hands. “It’s kinda all yours. Just don’t puke on the bed?”
“I’m not a puker.” She dug in her pocket for her keys, bending her body awkwardly in the chair to reach them.
He caught them when she tossed them over. “Fridge should have something in it you can eat. If you can find any clothes that fit, you’re welcome to them.”
She nodded, then changed the subject. “I want a whiteboard. A really big one on the wall.” She pointed in the general direction of where she wanted it.
“Sharpie markers are at the front desk. Use the wall until I get one put up.”
A smile lit her face, the first real one he’d seen, and it changed everything about her. Stoned, avoiding reality, he’d just given her the one thing she needed to keep going. She had a goal and the power to make it happen. Destiny Pierce, the most influential gamer of his youth, had just decided she was going to keep playing for a few more days.
Chance turned for the door before he said anything to fuck it up. He was no savior. He certainly wasn’t the person to put her life back on track, but damned if he didn’t want to. Something about the wretch in his apartment made him want to kill whoever had hurt her so bad. He owed her everything, even if she didn’t know it.
They’d found her through the game she’d been working on.
Those words haunted him. Who had found her, why, and when? What the fuck had they done to her? He made it to his truck before his composure broke. Sitting behind the wheel, he shoved his hands into his hair. He’d always thought being harassed for being a ginger had been bad. The redheaded stepchild jokes had nothing on the pain that poor thing had suffered. He still couldn’t believe she was living in a damned storage unit!
Was. He’d be damned if she went back there. Hell, if the bitch wanted to kill herself, at least she could do it in comfort, right? She’d been a child prodigy and none of them had known it. She’d changed the entire gaming scene, and none of them had known a thing about her. He’d always assumed she was a few years older than him, not a desperate teenager wasting her youth away behind a monitor until it was all gone.
The upside to all of this was that she wouldn’t be spreading rumors about his habits. Dez might not realize it yet, but they’d just reached a very good understanding. He’d be happy to keep her secrets if she kept his. He was pretty sure she’d be willing to agree.