Discover the first chapters of Beating Ruby by Camilla Monk. 🙂
A Prologue of sorts
“Destiny feverishly pressed her perfectly sculpted body to Colt’s. He growled, the evidence of his untamable desire a heat-seeking missile against her panties. ‘I love you, baby. I got you under my skin! I’ll fight them all for you, honeypots, even your father!’”
—Natasha Onyx, Muscled Passion of the SEAL #2: Blitzlove
I used to be very critical of this particular volume of MPOTS, on the grounds that I didn’t think they should be going at it in the helicopter while those FBI guys from the CIA—I keep confusing them—are still chasing after them. That’s being an engineer for you: safety first! I’ve since come to revise my opinion, because I realize I can relate to almost everything Destiny experiences, save for the bra-ripping heat-seeking-missile part.
For one, she has a wavy auburn bob, just like me, and hazel eyes. We’re both tall—yes, five foot three is tall, shut up—and we both have a sculpted body, albeit mine is in the shape of a stick. My name is Island Chaptal, which is just as stylish as Destiny Heartwind, and I too ended up being consumed by the blazing flames of passion in the arms of a dangerous man. Thank God he had an extinguisher and didn’t let things go too far . . .
Indeed, my own Colt Brannigan was too much of a gentleman to rip the panties off a twenty-five-year-old virgin after kidnapping her. We spent five days racing from Paris to Tokyo in search of a two-billion-dollar diamond . . . and I got abandoned in a hotel room with my underwear still intact and my heart broken in a zillion pieces.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: six months spent eating Ben & Jerry’s, a mountain of tissues, increasingly gloomy Facebook posts, all leading to a botched suicide attempt with cough syrup. I’m better than that. I did spend a week surviving solely on Mounds bars, I nearly overdosed on romance books, and there were, indeed, tears and sad J-pop for a while, but my descent stopped there. The cough syrup thing is just a story my new boyfriend told me—happened to one of his little sister’s schoolmates after some punk dumped her on Twitter. High school, these days . . .
In any case, that poor girl survived a scathing “#UJustAKid #WerInDifrntPlces” and half a bottle of Theraflu, just as I survived falling hard for an OCD-ridden hit man whose real name I didn’t even know. March, most of the time, but also Mr. April, May, June, July . . . You get the idea.
By the way, if March had actually possessed a Twitter account, I suspect he’d have sent me the same message, only with more vowels.
Oh well, like the Beatles said: life goes on . . .
Sort of. If you paused on the words “hit man” in the above sentence, by now you’ve guessed that said life was a little more complicated than your average computer engineer’s. Well, to quote one of the most goal-oriented assholes I ever met in my life, “We’re only getting started.”
1 – Countdown
Sexy billionaire, philanthropist, genius hacker: How many faces did Drake possess?
—Jennie Kyler, Black Hack #1: Pulled
I looked up from the thousands of lines of code scrolling on my laptop’s screen. The last of my colleagues had just left, leaving me alone in the darkened open space of EM Tech’s R&D department. My hands slid away from the keyboard, and I leaned back in my chair, gazing at the skyscrapers surrounding our building, sparkling checkerboards illuminating a mild night in April. It was eight thirty, and Alex’s plane had landed in JFK half an hour ago, after a weeklong business trip in Cambodia, punctuated by increasingly longing text messages.
I grabbed the smartphone resting on my desk, opening the messages app with a swipe of my thumb. A youthful face framed by messy brown locks and sculpted by a week’s worth of stubble appeared on screen. Under a picture of Alex, grinning at my phone’s camera during our second date two months prior, were the last messages he had sent before leaving Phnom Penh: a pic of skewered, roasted cockroaches surrounded by plates of other miscellaneous entomological nopes, a mention that he hadn’t slept much last night . . . that he thought of me.
My hand let go of the phone to bunch the cotton of my dress. I stared down at my lap, as if the navy paisley might hold the answers I was looking for. Maybe not . . . I eventually slammed my laptop shut, shoved it inside my black tote, and left my desk. Once in the silent hallway, I scanned the long row of perfectly similar frosted glass doors.
Through one of them, a dim light still shone.
Even though he was EM Tech’s director of R&D, and therefore my boss, I never needed to announce myself before entering Thomas Roth’s office, because no one else knocked the beat of “The Imperial March” at his door.
“You should be home. Come in.”
A smile stirred the corners of my lips at his laconic greeting. I pushed the door open and went to plop myself in one of the chairs across from him, taking in the piles of papers, scientific magazines, and odd gadgets cluttering his desk—few of my acquaintances could boast of possessing a last-generation NAO robot or an accurate LEGO model of the Millennium Falcon.
He seemed to ignore me at first. His entire attention was focused on the dual screen in front of him, long fingers scratching sparse and short blond hair, when they weren’t busy constantly readjusting his small round glasses over and over. I didn’t mind; I knew he meant no contempt. Many at EM Tech regarded Thom as this secretive, Gollum-like figure who spent most of his time curled up in his office, hiding behind the piles of résumés he received from young engineers desperate to join his team. As his Dotar Sojat, though, I was allowed past the curtain of his introversion and therefore enjoyed a different perspective of the man behind the LEGOs.
Thom had handpicked me two years prior, freshly out of Columbia Engineering. Back then, I’d been—and still was, to some extent—a machine: few friends, no life, and the winning (gap-toothed) smile of an overachiever who craved validation from teachers and superiors. I would work up to fourteen hours a day if fed enough doughnuts, and show up even for the meetings no one wanted to show up to—which eventually led me to conduct an entire keynote alone in front of ten empty chairs.
That was in early November, by the way, a few weeks after my adventure with March. I had seen my entire existence unravel in less than a week, and I had yet to fully recover from the ordeal. Physically, of course, but also emotionally, since I still thought of him 24-7. Took me fifteen minutes to realize there was no one in the room, and I finished my presentation anyway . . .
I know it sounds bad when I put it like this, but the truth is, those months spent working like a zombie to better forget March paid off. Thom progressively entrusted me with all critical algorithmic kernels in EM Tech’s most ambitious project: Ruby, a new program designed to put online banking systems’ security to the test. From breaking into dummy accounts to simulating complex data-hacking scenarios, Ruby was to become the end-all of financial software security testing. Once we had a functional beta, anyway. Said beta was to be presented a week from now, during a public demo in front of EMT’s entire board and a measly couple hundred journalists. Needless to say Ruby had better impress, because the solution had been sold to half a dozen major banks already.
So yeah, R&D had been working under some modicum of pressure lately. That being said, if we managed to pull it off, this demo would become the pinnacle of Thom’s entire career so far—and incidentally, mine as well.
Thom’s eyes never left the screens as I leaned to rest my elbows on the cool glass of his desk. “You should be home too, playing with your son.”
On the keyboard, his fingers faltered, and I saw him punch the Back key several times to correct something. Once he was done, he massaged his forehead with his palm for several seconds. “Tobias is asleep. He went to sleep seven minutes ago. It’s because Emma took him to the park after five. Playing outside after five will cause him to fall asleep thirty-two minutes earlier on average . . . I have data . . . I—”
I shook my head. “You’re ranting. You really need to take your mind off Ruby and get some rest.”
His fine, ever-anxious features pinched, creating deep wrinkles around his mouth, pale blue eyes narrowing behind his glasses. “I’m not sure I can do that. Not tonight.”
“What’s so urgent that it can’t wait for tomorrow morning? We still have bugs—you know that, I know that, and they’ll be fixed on time for Ruby’s demo,” I said with an encouraging smile.
At last, he unfolded his tall frame to look past the bright glow of his screens and directly at me. “I hope so.”
He sounded remote, like he didn’t believe it himself. And yet I knew that this was the most enthusiasm he’d voice about our project. Even once we were done and the execs showered him with champagne, Thom would probably just readjust his glasses and soberly comment that things were headed in the right direction.
I flicked my head toward the screens. “How about I help you wrap up whatever you’re onto and we leave together?”
Thom usually didn’t mind discussing his code with me, even more so since we shared the same quiet, nerdy nature. So I was a little unsettled to see him shake his head in response to my offer. “No need for that.”
“It’s okay, I can stay a little longer and help you.”
That next try was met with several seconds of silence—something frequent with Thom. His brain would sometimes take wild tangents, causing him to space out and stare at people until the gears were done rotating. Then his hands gripped the keyboard almost protectively. “It’s just . . . administrative tasks. I won’t keep you up all night checking expense requests.” His eyes hardened. “It’s not your job.”
I raised my hands in surrender. “Okay, you’re the boss.”
“Weren’t you supposed to see your boyfriend tonight?” he asked, rearranging pens I knew he didn’t need.
My lips twisted sideways; I sighed. You’re stressed out of your mind, grumpy, and you want me out. Reading you, five . . . over. “Alex is probably on his way here from JFK. I guess I’ll just go.”
A series of muffled chiming sounds rose from my bag as if to confirm this statement. I dug up my smartphone. Alex was on Broadway, asking me if I was still at work, and if I wanted him to pick me up.
I felt Thom’s gaze on me. In those pale blue irises shone the understanding of a fellow nerd who had successfully made it out of the virgin zone and unlocked the wife achievement with a history teacher a few years ago. He knew that there was, in fact, a life beyond our screens. “Go.”
I glanced down at my phone, then back up at Thom. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
There was something I couldn’t fully decipher in
his expression as he answered—not so much raw exhaustion as a form of tender