I have a huge announcement for you today: I’m launching a romcom pen name, Misha Bell! Or rather, my wife and I are launching it together, as her input has been invaluable in the writing of the first Misha Bell title, HARD CODE—a standalone, geeky, raunchy, laugh-out-loud, slow-burn office romance for fans of Jana Aston, Julia Kent, and Penny Reid. The book features a quirky coder tasked with testing out sex toys and the alpha male boss who comes to her rescue when (spoiler alert!) things go awry and a certain toy gets, umm, stuck. If you enjoyed the humorous aspects of the Sasha Urban series and my other books, and don’t mind some steamy scenes on top of that, you will love this story.
Why did I write a romantic comedy? Short answer: 2020. Longer answer: Anna and I have been gravitating toward funny, feel-good shows and books this year, and I wanted to write something in that vein. Of course, my books were never heavy to begin with, so you might be wondering about the romcom part. Well, this is a bit trickier. The main reason is that I can get a lot funnier and raunchier in this genre (think unleashing Kit from the Sasha Urban series.) Also, it seemed like a fun challenge. There are few men writing romance, and I was curious if I could do it with minimal supervision from Anna. Having tried it, I really like it, so there will be more. Funny enough, I’ve been urging Anna to write romcoms for ages—I’m a huge fan of her latest duet, Wall Street Titan. Now I can just write them for myself.
HARD CODE is coming January 12th, but you can already pre-order it everywhere. Can’t wait? Neither could we! You can read the first two chapters right now. Scroll down to read the exclusive excerpt and to pre-order your copy.
Anna and I had so much fun writing Hard Code, and I hope reading it will bring you just as much joy in these difficult times.
- Amazon: https://bit.ly/HardCodeAmazon
- Apple: https://bit.ly/HardCodeApple
- Kobo: https://bit.ly/HardCodeKobo
- Google Play: https://bit.ly/HardCodeGooglePlay
- Nook: https://bit.ly/HardCodeNook
My new assignment at work: test out toys. Yup, that kind.
Well, technically, it’s to test the app that controls the toys remotely.
One problem? The showgirl who’s supposed to test the hardware (as in, the actual toys) joins a nunnery.
Another problem? This project is important to my Russian boss, the broody, mouthwateringly sexy Vlad, a.k.a. The Impaler. There’s only one solution: test both the software and the hardware myself… with his help.
“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 ofHottie 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?”
“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.”
“Sorry.” She hands me my phone back. “Are you going to make any money on this app?”
I glance at the time to make sure I’m not running late before I pocket Precious. “The app is free. I even made it opensource, so anyone can take and use my code however they wish.”
“Is it for that promotion you want, then?”
I shrug. “Not a promotion, a lateral move. The app was to prove to myself that I have what it takes to be a developer. Now I just need to make the people at work believe in me too, or at least value me enough to give me a chance to switch departments.”
In the corner of my eye, I see Hottie McDark placing his order, which means if we don’t get our drinks soon, he’ll be standing close enough for me to smell him.
“And this smart sex toys project will help?” Ava asks, again speaking too loudly for my comfort.
“Our company owner himself wrote the app. That makes the testing as high profile as it gets.” I strain to hear what the guy is ordering but only make out the word tea—and it’s nice to know there’s another sucker out there willing to pay a huge premium for a bag of dried leaves.
“And said owner is the infamous Vlad the Impaler, right?” She says the name with relish.
“That’s what the rumor mill at the office calls him. I’m sure he’s Mr. Vladimir Chortsky to his face.”
“Or Master,” she says in her best Renfield voice. “And you’re meeting him today? Shouldn’t there be garlic around your neck, or a cross inside your panties?”
I chuckle nervously. “They do say he never sleeps. Or at least he answers emails at any time, day or night.”
Ava makes a swoony face. “Does he glitter?”
“I’ll find out today.” Hottie McDark is now walking our way, so it takes everything I have to keep my cool. “I checked out his code for this app, and it was very elegant and inventive—appropriate for a centuries-old creature of the night. My boss, Sandra, also told me that when he writes something, he doesn’t work with the development team, yet the resulting apps never have any bugs—”
“How not thrilling.” Ava exaggeratingly yawns. “What I want to know is: Has he impaled any female employees?”
Sensual notes of tangerine and bergamot waft into my nostrils.
Someone’s tea or Hottie McDark’s cologne? He’s now right next to me, so close that I don’t dare look at him lest I melt into a puddle. My heart hammers unevenly, and I can feel a new wave of hot color washing into my cheeks.
“Fanny. Ava.” The barista slams our drinks on the counter.
Perfect. Before Ava can further embarrass me in front of Hottie McDark, I snatch my drink, thrust hers into her hand, and drag her out of the Starbucks by her elbow.
“I have to go to work,” I say when we get outside. Right away, the deafening honking of taxis fills my ears. We’re across the street from Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty visible in the distance.
Ava pecks me on the cheek. “Good luck. And if the Impaler turns you into a vampire, you must do the same to me as soon as you can. I can steal us blood bags from the hospital.”
I sneak a final longing glance at Hottie McDark through the tinted glass. “You better be on your best behavior, or I’ll just make you my blood whore instead.”
She laughs as she walks away, and I sprint to the nearby skyscraper and ride the elevator to my company’s floor.
Exiting, I survey my surroundings. Binary Birch, the plaque on the wall states in a very serious-looking font. The cold utilitarian nature of the modern décor hasn’t changed since I was here for my in-person interviews a few months back. No game rooms or sleeping nooks like they might have at other, hipper software companies—not with the Impaler at the helm.
The people around me are mostly strangers. The company policy is that everyone has the option of working remotely if they wish, so I’ve been working from home and communicating with the office via email, instant messenger, and occasionally, a teleconferencing app.
I pull out Precious and check the time. Ten minutes until I have to brave the Impaler’s office.
Sipping my tea, I jump on the Wi-Fi and check my messages.
Sandra, the QA manager and my direct boss, wants to see me if I have the time.
I head into the maze of cubicles. Since she’s one of the few people I know by sight, I locate her quickly and knock on the glass wall of her cube.
“Hi, Sandra,” I say when she tears her gaze from her screen.
“Oh, hey, Fanny. There you are.” With a prim smile, she stands up and leads us to a small meeting room.
“So,” she says, not meeting my gaze as we sit down across from each other. “I just wanted to double check… You’re okay with the eccentric testing project you’re about to undertake, right?”
“I am,” I state as confidently as I can fake it.
I know why she keeps asking. The last thing the company wants is for me to file a sexual harassment suit over this, or for me to say that I’m not cool with it when I speak to the Impaler, thus making her, my manager, look like an idiot.
“I’m glad,” she says, and we quickly go over the project I’ve just finished testing, an app that works with a wristband fitness tracker.
She smiles when I tell her that I even lost a few pounds thanks to all the walking to test the pedometer functionality.
Then it’s time for the meeting I’ve been dreading, and Sandra leads me to the only non-glass-walled office on the floor.
According to some jokes, the Impaler doesn’t like the light, and according to others, he needs the privacy to make his kills in peace.
“Want me to take that?” Sandra asks, worriedly eyeing my almost empty cup.
“No drinks allowed in there?” I ask.
She darts a nervous glance at the door. “I better take it.”
As I hand her the cup, my previously steady hand begins to tremble.
How scary can our glorious leader be?
“Keep me in the loop.” Sandra opens the door for me.
Feeling like a lamb going to the proverbial slaughter, I shuffle into the Impaler’s lair—and before I can catch sight of the man himself, my manager helpfully closes the door behind me, like a vampire’s minion springing a trap.
Soft music is vibrating the airwaves in here. In the Hall of the Mountain King byEdvard Grieg—a fitting melody to get exsanguinated to.
I catch a whiff of tangerine and bergamot, and my stomach drops.
I turn around.
Illuminated by the bluish light of a large monitor is the gorgeous face of the stranger I was just drooling over at Starbucks.
Even his tea is here, on his spotlessly clean desk.
“Hello, Ms. Pack,” Vlad the Impaler says with a slight Transylvanian accent. “Good to finally meet you.”
The accent is actually Russian—everyone knows that much about our reclusive CEO. And his place of birth might be why he addressed me so formally; I’ve read that in Russia, they often use the plural you and patronymics, both as a sign of respect and to separate close friends from strangers.
Ms. Pack is a decent English equivalent, except that it makes me sound like Ms. Pac-Man: round and starving for doughnut holes. And sidebar—shouldn’t that game have been called Pac-Woman, or Ms. Pac? Actually, thank god it wasn’t Ms. Pac; that’s too close to home and I was teased enough being Fanny Pack as it is.
Then blood leaves my face.
He could’ve overheard me and Ava. What was the last—
I realize he’s suddenly looming over me, hand outstretched, like Nosferatu.
Must’ve used his preternatural vampire speed to leap out from behind his desk and dash toward me before my brain could process it.
Crap. How long have I been standing here, ignoring that hand? And how the hell did this happen? How is Vlad the Impaler Hottie McDark? All the rumors about this man skipped a critical detail: how mouthwateringly attractive he is.
“Are you okay?” the Impaler asks, his accent thickening.
Ugh, now I’m ogling him. And still ignoring that hand. Gathering my courage, I stick out my arm and clasp his much, much bigger palm.
My heart rate spikes, and a jolt of orgasmic energy spreads through my body, electrocuting a nest of angry butterflies in my stomach before settling somewhere low in my core.
How many hours is it socially appropriate to hold a hand like this?
Reluctantly, I peel my fingers away from his.
He looks down at me, his expression completely unreadable. He’s either an amazing poker player or this handshake didn’t affect him at all.
“Take a seat.” He gestures at the chair in front of his desk, and by the time I plop into it, he’s already in his. It’s Embody by Herman Miller, the very chair I have at home, only mine is blue while his is black.
He lowers the music volume with a small remote. “You have a great reputation at Binary Birch, Ms. Pack.”
I do? That’s news. Even if that were true, how would he know that?
I don’t dare ask as that might be as suicidal as reciprocating by telling him his reputation isn’t so stellar.
“Thank you,” I stammer before the silence veers into uncomfortable territory. “I love working here.” And by love, I mean tolerate. But what’s a little white lie between a monster and his prey?
He stares at me, and I feel like I might drown in the lapis depths of his eyes. “The project I’m trusting you with is extremely important.”
I bob my head up and down so vigorously, I nearly give myself whiplash.
“The client—Belka—will get a chance to demonstrate the final product to the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine in two weeks.” He peers at me as though to verify that I know what Cosmo is, so I blush and nod, just in case. “That is a huge opportunity.” His dark eyebrows furrow minutely as he finishes with, “We can’t let Belka down.”
“Yes, sir.” I give him a crisp military salute.
Wait, what? Why did I do that?
There’s no hint of amusement on his face. He must be used to such gestures from back when he participated in Napoleonic wars and what-not.
He steeples his fingers. “I realize you must have the most thorough testing plan in mind.”
Actually, I have the desire to suck on those long, masculine fingers in mind at the moment, but I keep that to myself.
“I hope you will let me enrich your plan with some extra test cases—which may already overlap with yours.” He reaches into his desk and takes out a couple of stapled sheets of paper.
Only now do I realize that he’s basically telling me how to do my job—which would be like me teaching him how to properly drink blood. Control freak much?
As I snatch the papers, our fingers brush for a second, sending another dozen joules of electricity into my lower regions.
Flushing, I glance at what I’m holding.
Hmm. Pink paper. A faint smell of perfume. Pretty cursive with hearts dotting the occasional “i.” A woman must’ve put this together for him, and not Sandra, whose scent is more evocative of boiled cabbage. Besides, Sandra is obsessed with electronic communication, judging by all the constant “Save a Tree” propaganda in her email signature.
The pang of jealously I suddenly experience is as inappropriate as it is insane.
To avoid dwelling on it, I skim the content of the paper—and as I do, I feel the flush spread to my ears and chest, turning them beet red.
There are items like “was orgasm achieved?” and “how many times?”
I have the former in my testing plan already, but not the latter—which, of course, isn’t the source of my discombobulation.
It’s just that reading the word orgasm in his presence feels wrong.
And somehow hot all at the same time.
I better get out of here with what passes for my remaining dignity.
“I will make sure to, um… utilize this”—I fan myself with the papers—“in my testing.”
He reaches under the desk, yanks something out, and places it on the desk between us.
I gape at it.
Strictly speaking, it’s a carry-on suitcase—but only in the same sense as a disco ball is a globe. It’s covered in frilly polka dots and bejeweled with so many differently colored stones, you’d think a rainbow-farting unicorn had ejaculated on it.
As I look closer, I realize most of the designs are not polka dots but tiny multicolored penises and vaginas that someone painstakingly drew by hand.
At least I hope it was by hand.
My cheeks veer off the red end of the visible spectrum, radiating as much infrared as a welding torch.
Annoyingly, Vlad’s face only shows the neutral professionalism he’s been displaying throughout this whole encounter. Maybe he’s one of Anne Rice’s vampires—her older ones become as if made of stone over time.
“The hardware is inside,” he says.
A hybrid between a hiccup and a giggle escapes my throat.
He just called a collection of dildos hardware, and probably not as a joke.
“Got it.” I leap to my feet and reach for the suitcase just as he slides it forward.
Our fingers brush, generating enough of that electric jolt to power the toys for a week. I swallow and yank the suitcase off the desk.
It’s heavy. There must be more than a few dildos, and who knows what else.
I hope Dominika’s vagina can handle it all. Not to mention, shipping this “hardware” to the Czech Republic will cost a small fortune. I really hope no one at the DHL office asks me what’s inside. For that matter, I pray no one here at the office asks me “What’s with the suitcase?” as I sprint to the elevator.
“It was good to meet you,” I tell Vlad and prepare to make the sprint.
“Will I see you at the monthly meeting in five minutes?” he asks.
I nearly drop my genital-inscribed luggage.
In theory, everyone is supposed to attend the monthly meeting. Its purpose is for us to have an idea of what the rest of Binary Birch is working on, find opportunities for synergy, and other corporate speak gobbledygook. In practice, since I’ve been working from home, I typically dial into this meeting on the phone, then promptly tune most of it out as I do my actual job of testing.
I do know one thing: the Impaler is famous for never joining this meeting in person either—and he doesn’t have the work-from-home excuse. He just dials in and never says a word, though people claim to get emails about some things discussed at the meeting, hinting that he actually listens—which is why everyone is always on their best behavior during it.
Yet he said “see you,” not “hear you,” so tradition is about to be broken for some reason.
Of course, now I have to attend the meeting.
With this suitcase.
Shoot me now.
“Affirmative,” I reply belatedly and fight another urge to salute. “See you soon.”
Gracelessly, I spin around and head for the door, eager to escape the lair and its vampiric occupant.
His voice stops me as I’m reaching for the door handle. “By the way, Ms. Pack…” he says to my back, and for the first time, I detect a hint of emotion in his tone. “You should know something. I don’t impale my employees.”