I hope you enjoy the first chapters. 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.)
Who knew a wifi password would be such a good bribe. Dez sucked back a whole pint of rocky road ice cream and fell asleep on the couch with a sucker in her hand. She held onto it for almost an hour, too, before she dropped it on the floor. Chance picked it up and tossed it, then returned to his laptop.
With the demon pixie on his sofa, curled around the gargoyle, he’d lost both his couch and his blanket, but she looked like she was truly resting. Damn, it felt good to make her life a little easier. He tugged the coffee table closer and looked back at the code. Resting his back against the chair, he was just being productive, he told himself, not keeping an eye on her.
Nah, he was full of it. He could be anywhere he wanted, but he was sitting right here making sure that she just kept breathing. He’d never seen anyone panic like that, and it shook him more than he wanted to admit. It reminded him of his childhood, screaming as hard as he could, wishing someone would just hear him. The difference was that while he still struggled to feel real, she fought as hard as she could to vanish. He understood the urge to stop suffering but didn’t want her to go. Not yet.
He’d tell her it was the LAN if she’d buy it, but that was a lie. It was the look in her eyes. He’d seen that look before, on a deer just before he’d broadsided the thing in the road. It should’ve run, but it had just stared right at him, too terrified to move until it was dead. He’d never forget the scream the beast made. It sounded just like the one Dez had let out downstairs: pain, anguish, and complete despair. He looked over at her again.
She looked nothing like the girl who’d changed the game scene. Dark circles hung under her eyes, her skin was sallow and blanched, her hair was cut in almost the same style as his, but she was still beautiful. Nothing could change that, not even her weak attempt at a mask. She was hiding in her own skin, but asleep, he could see it. She looked like a nymph designed specifically to lure him to his death, or maybe to life.
She also wasn’t making it easier to figure out why Silk wouldn’t load. Stop looking at the babe on your couch, he chided himself, and start looking at the program. It was almost dawn and he hadn’t made any progress. The lines were fine on their own, so something had to be in conflict. He needed the desktops up and running. There were too many variables to just find it by reading. He needed to get the damned thing running so he could test for the error.
“Please don’t,” Dez whispered, tossing in her sleep. Her voice was jumbled, the words coming from lax lips, but one look at her face proved the dream was bad. “I’ll be good. I swear it. I’ll never do it again, just don’t touch me. Please. Please don’t touch me. It hurts, don’t touch me.”
“Dez,” he said gently, hoping to pull her from it.
“No, it hurts. I won’t. I won’t, it hurts. No, please, please, please please…”
“Dez.” This time, he said it louder. Fuck, she didn’t need that dream. It had been three years since her abduction – yeah, he knew about that – and she still had the dreams? “Dez!”
“Please! I’ve been so good. I’ve never done anything bad. I just like games. I didn’t mean to. Don’t, no, no, no, no, no, no, please, no! Please, please! Oh god, no!”
The last word turned into a full-throated scream. First it was terror, then pain, then the kind of soul-wrenching sound that no human should ever make. She screamed with her entire body, twisting with the cries, but still she slept. Chance shoved back the table and rushed to her side. Damn it, he couldn’t fucking touch her, but she couldn’t have that dream.
All he could do was yell. “Dez!”
She sat up and opened her eyes, but the sound came out for another heartbeat before she was awake enough to close her mouth. She blinked once, just once, her eyes locked on the blanket over her feet. After a long, eerie pause, she took a deep breath. That was the hurdle. He knew all too well what that breath felt like.
“Grab the gargoyle,” he said gently, kneeling beside her.
She did, then took another deep breath, letting herself remember where she was. Her head nodded, an easy way to assure people that she was coherent, but from the look on her face, her mind wasn’t all the way back yet.
“It was a dream,” Chance told her. “You need the pills or something else?”
“I know, kid. What do you want?”
She licked her lips, then finally looked up at him. “How long was I out?”
“Four hours.” He moved back to his laptop and lowered himself to the floor.
With a completely normal groan, she flopped back into the cushions. “This thing is comfortable. Where did I get the blanket?” She’d just changed the subject, but he let her.
“It was on the back. You must have pulled it over you.”
Those rich brown eyes turned on him. For once, they were warm and kind. “Bullshit.”
Busted. He couldn’t stop the damned smile from admitting it. “Maybe. Just don’t let anyone find out I’m not always a dick, ok?”
Then he saw something so beautiful he’d never forget it. Rolling onto her side, Dez smiled at him. Not a generic smile, but one aimed right at him, filled with appreciation and hope. For the first time in his adult life, Chance didn’t know how to react. All he could do was look back to his screen. He was supposed to be the one controlling the glances, but the hundred pound addict on his sofa had just changed every rule he’d ever known. She made him feel like a sweet, innocent boy.
“Silk?” Dez asked, looking at his computer, giving him an out.
“Yeah. It won’t load.”
She dragged the back of her arm over her eyes, doing her best to regain her composure. “Why not?”
“If I knew that, I could make it load.”
“What’s the error?”
“Nothing. Just hangs. Tried letting it work it out, but it just hung for two days.”
With a sigh she pulled herself up, petting the gargoyle gently. “You got any alcohol in here?”
“Yep. You still high?”
“Always. I’m about to get more high, too.” She pulled the bottle from her pocket and opened the lid.
“Why don’t you not make a habit of that.” He looked at her, daring her to call him out. “Alcohol and opiates aren’t a good combination.”
“I can fucking handle it, ok, Dad?”
“Sure, kid.” He stood and made his way into the kitchen, grabbing the bottle of whiskey he’d bought for her. Two glasses came next. One he filled half full, the other just got a couple of splashes.
Dez looked at the bottle in her hands, then slowly closed it without taking a pill. “Fill that up?”
“So, you’re months from alpha and the game doesn’t work?” Dez nodded to herself. “That’s pretty high up there on the scale of bad. You know that, right?”
“Yeah.” His answer was barely a whisper. He knew it better than she did.
“You fund all this yourself?”
He nodded slowly, then took a healthy sip of whiskey. “Cashed out all my investments, took a few loans, and basically, I bought myself four years of a dream. Either it works and we get enough money to keep going, or I crash and burn so damned hard.” He sighed. “I can’t even get serious investors because I’ve got nothing to show for it.”
“Don’t.” She accepted the glass but avoided his fingers. “Investors are the bane of all game companies. They’ll push you to make another WoW clone, and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do to convince them otherwise.”
“May not have a choice, Dez. It’ll be shelve the game or hand over control.” If anyone could understand his problem, it’d be her. She knew the industry inside and out.
“The engine works, though?”
She thought about that. “Has Silk ever worked?”
“Fuck,” she breathed, her eyes on the liquor in her glass. “This isn’t cheap shit.” She swirled it, refusing to look up. “You know I haven’t signed an NDA, right?”
He smiled, impressed that she’d even noticed the quality of the whiskey. “Yeah, I know. I also know that your name hasn’t been seen online in three years. I feel pretty safe about this.”
“Peel back the layers. Start with the engine, add the map, then bring in mechanics one by one. When it stops working, you know you have your problem.”
Chance sighed and leaned back. “That’s why I needed a new network admin. Backups got lost. All we have is all we have. I had two copies on the cloud, but both are intertwined already. The old server went with the old network guy. Thankfully the bastard can’t get shit from it.”
She took another long drink. “Then you need to clean up the engine. Get it stable. I’ll get you a usable network by tomorrow. We’ll make it work.”
“I hope so, Dez. I played FoxFlight. Both before and after they trusted you.” His brow wrinkled for a moment. “God, you were like sixteen back then?”
“Yeah. They contacted me on the forums, we got talking, they offered me a contract, and then found out how old I was.” A twisted smile teased her lips. “Guess I was supposed to be into boys or something, but I like games better.”
He couldn’t help himself; he had to know. “Did you touch people back then?”
She slowly licked her lips. “Yeah. Guess I didn’t know any better.” Taking a deep breath, she shifted the glass in her hands. “I was gonna go to the University of Southern California on a full scholarship or take a full-time position with Electronic Arts. Couldn’t decide, but fate took it out of my hands. Now I get high.”
“So I don’t have to think about it.” One last gulp finished the glass of whiskey. Anyone else would be staggering. “Because no one seems to like it when I wake up screaming?”
“Wasn’t the waking up part that got me.” He looked at her with no judgment on his face, just pure, honest truth. “Was the sleeping while screaming that I didn’t expect. I’ll be fine next time.”
“Why the fuck did you bring me back here? Why didn’t you just give me hours?”
“And what, watch you try to walk to work? Sure as fuck not letting you drive, and considering that you lived in a storage unit? Fuck no. You’ll get bored and make the LAN work.”
“So I’m a damned pity case?”
He shook his head, but his eyes never left. “You don’t keep up with the communities anymore, or you’d know that when a game goes bad, people say they need Destiny Pierce to come save it. People joke about how if she ever comes back, the game that gets her will be the next big thing.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll take the shadow of Destiny Pierce if it’ll give Silk hope. I’ll take you screaming, not touching, getting high, and whatever other fetishes you have, if Silk will be smooth.”
“I have a few.”
“Me too.” He let that sink in, daring her to say anything, then smiled. “And I figure you’re not gonna start spreading any rumors that will cause Deviant Games a problem.”
His point was valid. No one was perfect, but the owner of the company was always held to a higher standard. If he did anything wrong, which often included being a typical single male, the game would take a hit for it. That’s why he wasn’t worried about her living in the building. He knew she didn’t have a leg to stand on. She couldn’t ruin him, which left him in control.
She chewed on her lower lip. “And when I’m done with the LAN?”
“Network admin. When Silk is running, you’ll make a damned good community coordinator. They won’t care that you’re stoned, and I won’t ask you to piss in a cup. I’ll keep my liquor cabinet stocked, and you can stay high. Help the game and I’ll make sure you have a job. I’m not paying you shit, because I don’t have the money, but I’m pretty sure you don’t care.”
“Good. You take care of Silk and I’ll take care of you. I’ll have to take your word, though, because you can’t shake on it.” He grinned and grabbed the empty glasses, then headed back to the kitchen. “More?”
Dez thought about that for a moment. “No. I need to let the buzz wear off before I dose up.”
He shrugged. “For making an effort. I really did love your blog.”
“I can’t believe you gave me credit on TGC.”
“It was your idea.”
She nodded, accepting the truth of that without shame. “I did like talking to you. Was nice to have someone who didn’t either hate me or believe that I could change the entire world with a stupid blog.”
He scratched at his jaw, feeling the late night stubble, but it kept his lips from curling up like an idiot. “I fooled you, then. I still think you changed the world with that damned blog. I plan to prove it, once Silk is running. I guess that’s why I want you on the team so bad, you know? Validation.”
Her hands picked at the nap of the blanket and she sighed, but it was sadness, not frustration. Dez nodded her head, coming to terms with something, and Chance watched, refusing to interrupt her. She had no idea how well he understood. He wasn’t about to share his deepest darkest secrets with her until she was willing to let him in, but at least he wasn’t alone anymore.
“Why don’t you scare me?”
It was a crack. A very tiny crack, but he’d take it. “Because I respect you, and that includes your space.”
Her eyes said thank you, but her words changed the subject again. “I need a smoke.”
Chance smiled. “What don’t you do?”
“Typically? Eat. Want one?”
“Kid, you and I? I think we’re gonna get along just fine.” Since she put the pills away, he headed to the kitchen to pour a bit more whiskey in their glasses.
Dez grabbed a pack of smokes, and he got the drinks. Without a word, they both headed downstairs and toward the back of the building. Once outside, he pointed at a park bench. She took a corner, and he handed her the glass. The seat wasn’t a very big thing, but she squished to the side and tilted her head, inviting him to take the place beside her.
“Can’t promise we’ll both fit.”
“Shut up and smoke,” she told him, holding out a lit cigarette.
That was all it took. Chance claimed the space, well aware that his leg was just brushing hers, but Dez wasn’t losing her mind. He took a long drag and leaned against the wood back, his glass resting easily on his thigh, steadied with his fingers.
She slouched down until her hip grazed his leg, and sucked back the nicotine. “Twitch or tab targeting?” she asked.
“How the fuck does that work?”
“Mechanized combat is with tab. Infantry is over the shoulder shooter style. Combat system is broken up so that players can do both, but don’t have to, and can earn equal rewards.”
He smiled. “Exactly the one you think.” He lifted his glass and took a sip. “Concept art’s all over the loft.”
“Just like Wonderland.”
“I’m a dick. You know that, right?”
“Yeah.” She took another long drink. “You stole half the engine, which is probably why it’s not running well.”
“I stole all of the engine. Both of them, then forced them together.” He turned to look at her. “I’m not any better than you, kid.”
“Yeah? What’s your addiction?”
He took a drag, deciding if he wanted to answer. Then again, he really had nothing to lose. “Women.”
“Nah. But the rush of having someone say yes? I can’t get enough of it. I don’t even care if I like them half the time. I just want the notch.”
“Kill count.” She shrugged it off. “Keep the whiskey stocked and I never saw shit.”
“Can do. You really think this is going to work?”
She laughed, another one of those rare honest moments of joy on her face, but her eyes were a bit too large, a little too glassy. “No. I think I’m the biggest mistake you’ve ever made.”
“Not by a long shot,” he promised. “I do have one question. It’s been killing me since I saw you in that tank.”
She looked up at him and jerked her chin, daring him to ask. “Shoot.”
“How’d you get the tats if you can’t be touched?”
“It’s just skin. Fucking hate human skin, you know?” She paused, then pointed a finger at him, a grin on her face. “And a condom isn’t nearly enough so don’t even think it.”
“C’mon, we could make it work.”
“Fuck no.” She giggled and shook her head. “That’s just fucking gross. Never mind that you’re my damned boss.”
“Yeah, I’m not ready to fire you yet. Gotta get Silk working or I’m going to lose everything.”
She bumped her knee against his. “I’ll get the devs hooked up by the end of the week. We’ll make sure it’s good.”
“We, huh? You one of us, now?”
He didn’t know what he’d said, but the smile vanished between one breath and the next. Dez leaned forward, sucking on her cigarette, and stared out at the open grass beyond. She slowly let the smoke slide through her lips, the predawn light turning them dark. She swallowed a mouthful of whiskey like it was water, then took another drag.
“The announcement that you were actually doing Silk?” She exhaled the smoke through clenched teeth. “It’s the last happy memory I have.”
“Was,” he corrected gently. “The release will be the next.”
“Might be worth sticking around for.”
He followed her eyes, finding nothing but silvered grass and the last golden stars. “I’d kinda like that. Be nice to have a friend around.”
“Chance?” She licked her lips but didn’t wait for him to answer. “Can you make sure I keep the gargoyle?”
He tilted his glass again, but this time he needed more than a sip. She wasn’t asking about taking it home. She wasn’t asking about curling up with it at night. She’d just asked him to make sure it got into her coffin.
“On one condition. I finally get to touch you.”
“Pretty sure I won’t care by then.” Her voice was flat, not even sad, as if she’d already come to terms with it.
He nodded slowly. “Know how you’re gonna do it?”
“You gonna stop me?” She flicked her eyes to him but didn’t turn her head.
“No. Pretty sure it wouldn’t help.”
“I wanna OD. I’m pretty shit at it, though. Prolly gonna need something harder than Vicodin. I wanna be looking at the sky. So I can see the world.”
“It’s a long, slow way to go.” He shifted the glass, hoping she couldn’t see how his fingers trembled.
Dez shrugged. “It’s been a long, slow wait.”
“Gonna hold off for the release?” He refused to look at her.
“Might as well.”
“Gonna tell me what happened before you go?”
He heard the flutter in her breath. “You gonna tell anyone else?”
“No. I’m thinking you and I? We already have a few secrets building up between us. No one needs to know our shit.”
She sucked the last breath out of her smoke then dropped it by her foot, grinding it into oblivion. “Well, when you sell the story, just make sure you get a good profit, ok?”
“Yeah,” he whispered. “I’ll buy a big fuckin’ bottle of whiskey.”