Hey you, was wondering if you’re DTF tonight or sometime soon?
I smirked at the text message from Darlene, then tucked it away in my pocket without a reply. This would take some consideration, after all.
It had been a while since we’d hooked up but in the interim, she’d been working hard in her new position at Sony and was now ready to come on board our new venture. She’d tentatively agreed to take a side gig helping us. Our new demo-version of the game, recently dubbed Epoch of the Dragons was in need of help to get it up and running. I could do a lot but I was just one man and projects as huge as creating a brand new MMO game from scratch needed many hands to get it up and running.
Was it a good idea to sleep with someone I was paying to help me with a job? We’d hooked up often enough as co-workers and that hadn’t been a problem for either of us. But as her “boss,” things might be different.
There was a time or two that she’d called me bossy in bed, but had seemed rather turned on by said bossiness.
As I set down my phone, Jordan flicked me a glance. “Booty call?”
We sat in a coffee shop, both of us cleaned up for once, waiting on a meeting he’d set up. I pulled at the stiff collar of my button-down, eyeing Jordan’s full suit. He might be overdressed but I’d been wearing nothing but t-shirts for months and barely leaving my room at my uncle’s house. No way was I suiting up for whatever this was.
I frowned. How the fuck did he know that? It’s like he had a sixth sense about anything to do with women and especially sex.
Jordan responded to my non-reply with a nonchalant shrug. “Probably just letting my own dirty imagination wander.”
I raised a brow. “Dry spell, eh?”
He shook his head. “Never. In fact, things are rather overflooded at the moment. Dating three women but have my eye on someone in particular who’s looking like she’ll be quite a challenge.”
“Christ. Your love life makes my head spin. How do you keep them all straight? If you didn’t work so many damn hours I’d accuse you of slacking off in order to get off. I have no ideas where you get all that energy to say nothing of the time. There aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Jordan brought a coffee cup to his mouth with a smirk. “I’d rather fuck than sleep any day of the week.”
I studied my own half empty cup across the table from him. He had a point. It had been a while and I was seriously considering that offer from Darlene. It wasn’t like sitting in a closed room at your uncle’s house wired-in all the time trying to hit self-imposed deadlines was doing much for meeting women.
“Would you ever sleep with someone who’s working for you?” I asked.
Jordan cocked his head to the side and considered the question. “Depends on how hot she is.”
I grimaced and he laughed. “Kidding. Probably not. Never a good idea to shit where you eat.”
“Speaking of shitting and eating, where is this guy? I gotta say this ‘investor’ of yours sounds a little shady.”
He smirked. “Probably. But we’re almost out of money. Which means we need to keep an open mind and… whatever you do, don’t let him smell our desperation.”
“We’re not completely out of money,” I corrected.
“You want to bring in more people to help with the work—and that’s fine—but it also means we need more money so we can pay them. IOUs aren’t going to be sufficient to get quality work done.”
I checked my phone. “This guy is over half an hour late now… are you sure he’s coming?”
Jordan frowned, checking his own phone. “Really? That late?”
“This isn’t some bullshit power move, is it? He swoops in after we’ve been stewing and nervous for an hour only to make us some ridiculous offer to buy out twenty-five percent of the company for 100k or something right?”
He shook his head. “Dude, you’ve been watching too much Shark Tank.”
I sighed. “I’ve been in this business since I was in my teens. I live in the shark tank.”
Turns out, it ended up being just that. Nothing came of the mysterious—and undeniably shady—would-be benefactor. Ten minutes after he walked in, sat down and oozed out his flashy plans for us, I walked out with my coat in hand.
I’d find the money somehow, someway and I’d do it in a respectable way. Hopefully without having to sell my soul to some Sean Parker type. But if it came to that, the soul might just go also.
“So, you never got back to me the other day.” Darlene flicked a neutral glance at me over lunch a few days later.
I bit into my sandwich and kept my eyes fixed on the table between us. “Yeah. Let’s just say I was of two minds.”
Darlene set her phone down after checking a text that flashed up. “She’s about five minutes away, by the way, which gives us a chance to wrap up this issue and make plans to get together.” She cracked a smile.
I tightened my jaw and then released it. I really didn’t want to say no to her. We’d had a lot of fun in the past. Darlene was smart and competent and for the small amount of non-work time that we hung out together, we got along.
But… circumstances had changed.
“Oh come on, please don’t tell me you’re seeing someone. Besides the fact that you have never dated in the entire time that I’ve known you, you have zero time to have a social life, just like me. Our little arrangement is so nice. Why change things?”
I put down the uneaten bit of my sandwich, swallowed and washed it down with some iced tea. Clearing my throat, I wiped my hands.
“It’s not that…” I trailed off when she raised her brows at me, genuinely surprised. Darlene had curly light brown hair and blue eyes. She was attractive and had a great body. And yes, I enjoyed fucking her and she enjoyed it too. But we both knew it would never go beyond that. Might as well consider these new circumstances between us a clear stopping point.
“Oh my god, you are seeing someone?”
I made a face like I’d just bitten into something that tasted like ass. “I don’t date. And no, that’s not it. I’m not seeing anyone. But with you working for me…”
She blinked like I’d spoken to her in forbidden code or something. Her brows knitting in sheer confusion. “We worked together before, Adam. You had no qualms about knocking boots then.”
I nodded. “Sure. But this is different. This time you’re taking orders directly from me.”
Her frown dissolved into a sly smile. “We never tried that but it sounds fun to me.”
I laughed. “I mean for work, not… play.”
She heaved a long sigh and rolled her eyes to the sky. I braced myself for the counterargument. Honestly, I didn’t want to say no. But if I was going to start something new and amazing, I was going to start it off right. And that meant not sleeping with women who worked for me. Darlene was talented as hell and though we’d never had the problems of getting emotionally involved, I wasn’t going to chance it.
Besides, until next month I was still living with my uncle and that made bringing a girl home for a sleepover beyond awkward.
And just then, the front doors of the café swung open and in walked a short woman with auburn hair and thick rectangular glasses. She reminded me of Velma from Scooby Doo. Darlene cut off what she was going to say in favor of waving over her new friend and muttering to me under her breath. “We can talk about this later.”
“Or…we can drop it.” I slid in just before her friend arrived at our table and I stood up to shake her hand.
Darlene shot me some side-eye, clearly not happy. Perhaps I’d send her a sex toy as a consolation gift to smooth it over. She could get off whenever she wanted and thus, wouldn’t need me around for any future orgasms. But damn, I’d miss our easy, no-strings agreement. Maybe I needed a damn sex toy.
Well fuck. They did say being a CEO wasn’t easy and I knew that I’d have to make sacrifices for the good of my company and my future. I could go without some sex. Or find it elsewhere. If I ever took a minute off to just breathe and have a social life, that was.
Good thing actually dating was out of the question.
“Adam Drake, this is my friend Cheryl Waltman. Cheryl, this is Adam—”
The grin on the newcomer’s face was huge. “Mission Accomplished. Yes, I know all about the boy wonder. Your game almost caused me to fail my last semester in business school. Thanks a lot for that.”
I returned the grin. “Sorry—not sorry.” I held out a hand toward one of the empty chairs at our table. “Have a seat, Cheryl. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Dessert? Or lunch if you haven’t eaten.”
“Oh, some tea would be great and please, call me Walt. Only my mom and sisters call me Cheryl.”
Walt immediately set down a leather case and unzipped it with efficient jerks. I studied her. Darlene had been singing her praises for a while, actually. They’d been roommates in undergraduate school at UC San Diego. Walt had studied programming and worked in the industry for a while before changing track and going back to school to earn her MBA.
I laced my fingers together and wondered how I could afford a business school graduate at this stage. But having someone take on operations would be an incredible help. I just tried not to think of the ass-chewing Jordan would give me for hiring on a new person when our money was starting to run low.
Damn this shit was stressful.
I pulled out a standard non-disclosure agreement for her to fill out and sign before we got down to business.
The first thing that impressed me about her was her business acumen and her discretion—the way she kept her voice low and scanned the room for any possibility of being overheard.
“So you’ve got a new MMORPG in the works. How do you plan on taking down the World of Warcrack beast?”
I smile and shake my head. “I don’t plan to take them down. I do plan to get my grubby hands on many of their player base. But this is going to be a much more sophisticated game. Hopefully for more sophisticated players.”
Her brows rose. “As in hardcore gamers or… ?”
“Hardcore gamers and also casual gamers. But older. Hopefully less trolling. More sophisticated graphics, art design, player experience and quest content. And high customization.”
Her brows rose as her chin sank to her hands. “Go on. I’m very intrigued.”
And so I babbled on for another forty-five minutes or so until Darlene had to leave us—throwing me a meaningful look that meant she wasn’t going to give up on trying to get me into the sack with her again. That only served to strengthen my resolve that it would be a bad idea. Good. I needed strengthened resolve at this point. I was a twenty-three year-old guy, after all.
I couldn’t promise Walt a job on the spot but I told her I’d have a long talk with my CFO to see when we could bring someone on in operations. But I told her—the sooner the better. I had a good feeling about Walt. She was smart and knew her stuff and was over the top excited about the project.
All good things.
“No fuckin’ way.” Jordan shook his head vigorously that night when I told him about Walt. “We have zero funds to be talking about bringing on someone else.”
I nodded. “I’m aware. I didn’t promise her anything. But if we don’t snatch her up soon—And we are already at a point in development where we need someone overseeing everything. She’s got a strong project management background.”
Jordan’s eyes narrowed. “She’s got an MBA. She’s not going to tolerate being hired on for Project Manager starting salary to say nothing of the fact that we. Don’t. Have. The. Money.”
“But we’re in the process of getting some. I’ve… I’ve got a call into my old boss at Sony. When we parted ways he hinted that he wouldn’t mind laying down some seed money. I’m going to hit him up as soon as I can.”
Jordan rubbed his jaw, his finger gliding across two days’ worth of unshaven stubble. “Okay. But how much does that mean? Is this guy loaded?”
“Well I have zero idea what his net worth is, if that’s what you’re asking but I think he’ll be able to buy in with enough to help us. At least for the moment.”
Jordan looked off to the distance and muttered something to himself. I only picked up enough to figure out he was making a note to himself to call his lawyer. Lindsay.
“What? What did she say?”
He tossed me a glance. “No, it’s nothing to do with you. Just a personal matter I’m dealing with.”
He’d been cryptic about all that and I hadn’t pried but it was starting to get more than just a little curious about it. My gut told me it had something to do with the business but once again I decided to leave him alone and let him come to me when he was ready.
He nodded. “Okay, tell you what. If David buys in with a decent amount of money and we get him nailed down for it, I’ll let you hire this woman as a project manager—what was her name again? Wes?”
So that determined my next stop. Honestly, this was exhausting. Business meetings, video conferences, scrums and interviews by day. Hard-core wired-in coding by night. I was barely scraping four hours a night sleep and surviving off caffeine and carbs. Which was going to take a hard hit on my body.
Not like I had the energy to maintain an exercise regimen. I’d catch up on my sleep and health routine next month, I vowed.
I met David Weiss at yet another non-descript eatery in San Diego for a late lunch. This was the first time I’d seen or talked to him in almost two years. And we’d come a long way since he’d hinted that he might be interested in a piece of the action.
He didn’t’ seem in as much of a hurry to get back on the clock as he had been in the past so our meeting went longer than expected.
I gave David my honest pitch across the table, explaining that we’d been alpha-testing and reimplementing, adding new content as we went along.
“Closed beta. Tell me when that’s on the docket.”
I took a deep breath and let it go. “I don’t’ have anything nailed down right now. I’m bringing on a new project manager to get everything squared away with the scheduling.”
He frowned so hard that his entire forehead puckered up like a prune. “Adam, you gotta get your shit together better than this if you’re going to go around with your cap in your hand asking for VC money.”
I bit back a sigh. “I’ve got VC money and it’s gone a long way. But—you know—it takes tons of time to develop a complex game like this and we are a startup studio.”
His eyes narrowed at me. “You’ve got some of my people doing side gigs for you, don’t you?”
I blinked. How the fuck did he know that?
He shook his head with a shrewd smile on his lips. “Don’t shit yourself, kid. I’m only guessing. Nobody’s said a word.”
I cleared my throat and tried to segue back to the topic. “Darlene’s got a friend…”
“I know. I almost brought her onto our team. Before the hiring freeze.”
I twitched my brow at that news. No one I was “borrowing” from Sony Online had mentioned a hiring freeze. So the secrets were kept in both directions, it seemed. Now David was letting it slip almost casually. But I knew him better. This was calculated. He wanted me to have this info. Sony was in trouble. And with its ageing flagship game, Everquest and the not-nearly-as-successful follow-up, Everquest II now bleeding players to other games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, it was no mystery as to the reason.
But a hiring freeze was serious business. The company was in trouble. And despite bearing the mega-corporate name of Sony, the online spin-off company was not invulnerable to the slings and arrows of gaming market trend. Not in the least.
The bigger they were, the harder they fell and Everquest had been inarguably the first and most world-changing of the MMORPGs in its day. I blinked… big news indeed. Sad news for any gamer who’d love that game, like me. But good news for my business plans.
Before I could respond to this momentous news, David was talking again. “Of course I can’t tell you how to run your business, but I do have some experience working with startups and other brand new CEOs. Not a single one of them had half your talent, by the way. Regardless, you’d be smart to bring in business and operations people. You should snatch up Darlene’s friend. Industry experience, business acumen. She’d be good for you.”
“So that would be great if—”
He shook his head decisively, heading me off. “I’m not ready to buy into this venture yet. I’d need a good solid—and tested—demo first.”
My hopes—and my gut—fell. Well, shit. David had been my ace-in-the-hole. And it hadn’t been fuckin’ easy to suck up the courage to come crawling back to him after having begged him to let me go from Sony in the first place.
“But, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. You need a project manager—and later, an operations director. I’ll pay her salary personally and lend her out to you. We’ll draw up an agreement. I don’t want to buy into the company yet but I’m quite certain you’ll pay me back with interest even if all of this crumbles into nothing. And you know that the odds are against you, kid, right? Your first venture?” He shook his head.
Not pessimistically. Not in an asshole way. I knew David better than that. He shot straight from the hip, always. He was honest and I needed that and preferred it to the unctuous oily type that Jordan had made me pitch to the week before.
I needed honesty over ass-kissing every day of the week.
I nodded. “Okay. I appreciate your concerns and your confidence. And you’re right, if it comes to that, I will pay you back. At this point I’m going to take what I can get. And no offense, but I also plan to prove you so damn wrong that you’ll be eating all those words—
with ketchup and mustard for flavoring.”
David’s face split into a grin. “That’s the Adam I know. Young and hungry. Stay that way. Don’t get complacent and you’re going to kick ass and dominate this industry for a long time.”
Then he pulled a pen out of his suit jacket and began writing on the back of the receipt for lunch. “This is how much I’ll give you now. A pittance, really. Enough to hire her on. But if you can give me concrete results by this date…” He scratched down a date eight months in the future. “I’ll buy in with this much, depending on if I like what I see.” He scratched another number—a seven figure one—and pushed the slip of paper across the table to me.
Well this wasn’t what Jordan had asked for but it was a definite compromise that allowed us to take Walt on and pay for her and get her cracking the whip on all the moving parts that had to go into making this game ready for prime time.
And if I was to make David’s imposed deadline, we needed to bust our asses for the next eight months. And we needed a project manager.
So my next phone call was to Walt to offer her a job on the spot. Yeah it wasn’t what he’d asked for, but Jordan would just have to suck it up. This was my company and thus, all the decisions were ultimately mine, anyway.
Later that day, we waited in line for our coffees at Starbucks. We were on our way back to the industrial park where we’d rented a small space to run the business because, as David had said, running it out of the garage was a thing of the past.
To say nothing of the fact that Peter wouldn’t have tolerated that anyway. We had upwards of a half dozen people in and out of there on any given day and about twice as many more working from home most of the time, since we couldn’t fit them in our modest work space.
We’d chosen an industrial park on the border of Irvine and Santa Ana right near the airport. It was noisy, but it was cheap. We had second hand furniture and sufficient hardware to support our needs, but we were getting shit done. If all went well, we’d be setting up a fancy campus to call our corporate home someday. Sooner rather than later, hopefully.
As we waited for our coffees, I finally decided to call Jordan on the stupid grin he seemed to have been wearing all day. “What’s with the cheezy grin on your face? Please explain yourself.”
Jordan shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and hunched his shoulders sheepishly. “Whatever are you talking about?”
“Oh so you want to keep it secret still. I’m just saying it better not be whatever it is going on between you and Lindsay.”
His brow crunched and he looked genuinely injured by my implication. “I told you I’d never go there. Bro code. It’s business. Lindsay’s doing work for me and she’s come through big time. But…”
“But you’re going to be coy.” I gritted my teeth and relaxed my jaw, checking my watch. We were going to be a little late to this update meeting, damn it. I hated being late to my own meetings. I hadn’t counted on the traffic back from San Diego being so horrible around the El Toro Y. But damn I needed a decent cup of coffee after three hours sleep, a three-hour long drive and back from San Diego and a more stressful than average conversation with my former mentor.
And now whatever this was with Jordan’s little secret behind that shit-eating grin of his. I needed more goddamn sleep. But I’d settle for more caffeine, which for some reason was taking way too long.
“Adam?” a barista calls, setting down a cup of coffee. “And Gordon.” I snickered, throwing my friend side-eye as he grimaced.
I moved up and grabbed my drink, picked up his and handed it to him. Jordan nodded his thanks. “Fine, I’ll tell you—”
“I went to school with an Adam. You look a little like him.” I glanced up at our barista who was still standing at the coffee bar, staring straight at me. I recognized her instantly.
“Just a little?” I said with a lopsided grin.
She blinked a couple times, then blushed. “Adam Drake?
Candi Denton. Unlike me, she hadn’t changed much at all. All curvy and dark blonde curls tied up in a cute pink ribbon with matching shiny lipstick. She flashed me a smile that seemed to light up the air around her. Yeah I remembered her, bubbly, cute. Not the smartest but mostly kind.
We were in the same homeroom in junior high school. Had a few classes in common in high school and our lockers were near to each other for much of that time. If I recalled correctly, she’d hung out regularly with the popular kids. To be honest I was a little stunned she even remembered my name, given that I’d only attended at the high school until early into my Junior year. Add that to the fact that we moved in very different circles and… Well it was just a huge shock that she’d remember.
“Good to see you again, Candi,” I said, holding up my coffee. “Thanks for making my drink.”
She blushed even deeper. “I, um. I go by Candace now. It’s just so… wow…” her eyes flicked from my face down my neck, across my chest. She wasn’t even being a little subtle. Awkward. I get it—I was no longer the skinny runner who barely said a word in school and had like two friends. And now here she was, all chatty. High school ended more than four years ago and I doubt we’d spoken more than a few times beyond saying hello in passing.
I waved. “Well, I’d better get going. But—”
“Wait!” She held up her hand. “Uh, you don’t have a sleeve to carry that cup. You’ll burn your hand.” She scooped up a cardboard sleeve—I never took them because I didn’t like adding more waste to the recycling pile than I already did. Besides the cup wasn’t that hot. I was going to stop her when I noticed she picked up a Sharpie and wrote something on the sleeve.
“We, uh, I’d love to catch up sometime. Are you interested in coming over for dinner? I cook a mean pasta and garlic bread.”
I blinked. Well this was unexpected. Unexpected but not unwelcome. I took the sleeve from her. “I’d love that. Are you free Saturday?”
It was her turn to look shocked at my immediate follow through. “I work early on Saturdays, so sure. Text me.”
The line was backing up and one of the other baristas was barking at her for help so I nodded and waved goodbye.
Soon as we were out the door, Jordan had to chime in his unwanted two cents.
“Well…lucky you. Little Miss Candi wants to climb you like a tree.”
I smirked. “That obvious, huh?”
He snorted. “Yeah it doesn’t take my special sixth sense to know that. Maybe she had fantasies about banging the weakling nerd in high school.”
We reached my car—a vintage Mustang I’d bought with my very first gaming money from Mission Accomplished—and I stepped off the curb to unlock the driver’s side. “Fuck you. I work very hard on this body.”
“But not as hard as she wants to work it.”
I shook my head and rolled my eyes. “You have a one track mind.” Nevertheless, I tucked Candace’s number into my back pocket and Jordan followed my action with a wolfish grin. Yeah, we both knew that invitation to dinner might lead to a lot more.
“I have a multi-track mind but always running on the front and center is all sex all the time. Now I’m regretting not having attended traditional high school.”
I sank into my seat and unlocked the car for him and he sat beside me. Sipping at my coffee, I instantly relished the much-needed caffeine hit. “So what are you going to tell me?”
That enigmatic smile again. “I have acquired some seed money and I want to buy in.”
I sipped again, absorbing that with a frown. “Um, legally?”
Jordan’s cup halted in midair and he gave me a look. “No, I knocked off a bank downtown. Of course legally.”
“How much? I mean…”
“Enough.” He rattled off the number. A big number. Several million dollars.
My jaw hung open. “You’re not joking, right? How?”
Jordan blew on his cup of coffee. “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you. It’s all good. Just trust me. And it comes from me, no one else.”
“So you’re going to hand over seven figures to me while you’re still technically homeless?”
He scowled as he settled in beside me. “I’m not handing you anything, asshole. I’m buying in. And I expect a high return on my money.”
I raised my brows at him. “Well that depends on whether or not my CFO is good at his job.”
“Sexy, brilliant genius that he is.” Jordan sipped his own coffee with a devilish grin.
“And humble. Very humble.” I shoved my coffee into the cup holder and turned the ignition on the car.
“Let’s just say there’s a whole lot of genius in this car right now but not one ounce of false humility.”
I craned my neck as I backed out of the parking space, then glanced at him with a wide grin. “Watch out, world.”
Chapter 4 | Chapter 6