Chapter One ~ Cinderella and the Geek

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Alice

How can it be so hard to create messily sexy hair that looks like you’ve just tumbled out of bed, but still make every guy give you a second glance? I survey my latest effort in back combing to give my flyaway so-called crowning glory some body, but my hair’s tangled worse than a bird’s nest, and it takes another ten minutes just to undo the damage and pull it back into my usual ponytail.

This is ridiculous. I can reorganize an entire office, but when it comes to giving myself a makeover so my boss actually sees me I’m hopeless.

Right on cue my best friend, Hannah, rings. She’s the opposite of me, funny and gregarious, and I sometimes think if it wasn’t for her I’d be a total hermit.

“This is your friendly Monday morning wake-up call.” She sounds disgustingly cheerful. “You haven’t changed your mind since last night, have you?”

Last night, after knocking back a couple of glasses of wine at the pub down the road, it’d seemed the best idea in the world to get proactive and let my boss, Harry, know how much I like him. Well, when I say like, what I really mean is I fell for him the day I started work at his new company, Blitz, eight months ago, dream about him every night, and have this wild fantasy that if he could just see me as more than Alice-the-miracle-maker, he’d realize I’m his perfect girl.

“There’s no way I can pull this off.”

“Don’t you dare back out. You’ve fancied him for eight bloody months, Alice. You’ve only got one more month before you leave Blitz forever. The clock’s ticking.”

Like she has to remind me. In five weeks, I start my first year at Durham University, five hours away from London—or, more specifically, from Harry—and once I leave Blitz we’ll never see each other again.

“I think I’d rather just leave with us still friends than risk screwing it up.”

“You won’t screw it up. You’ll be screwing your drop-dead, gorgeous boss.”

“I think the fantasy’s better. At least I don’t have to risk rejection.” Not that I’m a hopeless romantic who believes in eternal love and all that rubbish, but this is Harry and I really don’t want my final memory of us to be one of abject mortification.

“If he rejects you, I’ll deck him.”

Before I can respond to that, there’s a tap on the door. “Alice, breakfast.”

Shit. Did Mum hear any of the conversation? Although I share most things with her, she doesn’t have a clue how I feel about Harry. The last thing I want is for her to worry I’m about to give everything up for a guy. “I’ll be right out.”

I usually just grab some cereal first thing in the morning, but on the days Mum has a late shift at the medical center, she always does a cooked breakfast for us both.

She’s already served up two plates in the tiny galley kitchen, and I follow her into the dining room that looks out over the small back garden. Goldie, my gorgeous long-haired calico, leaps up onto my lap, and her sister, Bambi, launches herself onto her usual place draped over my shoulder.

Just as well I wasn’t going for the sexy look today.

Mum smiles at me, before she lets out a long sigh. “The only positive about Gorman, Rutledge, and Carpenter is they had a dress code. You always looked so professional when you were working for them.”

I’d hated my previous job at that law firm in Chancery Lane. Self-consciously I rub my fingers over my denim-clad thighs. Wearing jeans and Doc Martens for work is one of the few things we’ve never agreed on, and she brings it up every few weeks, which is a bit annoying. “No, I didn’t.”

“Tailored clothes suit us, darling. We need to work with what we’ve got.”

And I don’t have a lot. It shouldn’t sting, not when I’ve lived with my limitations for nineteen years, but it still does. Mum’s only trying to help, because I’m like her mini-me, and even if she just pops to the shops she always looks immaculate.

“Everyone dresses like this at Blitz. I’ve told you. Anyway, just remember I earn almost three times more there than I did at GRC.” Not to mention it took me forever traveling by train into the heart of London during the rush hour from Kent, whereas the Blitz HQ is a fifteen-minute bus ride to the other side of town.

“Well, yes.” Mum freaked out when I left my lowly rank at the prestigious law firm to move to an unknown entity. But she was the first to admit she’d been doubly wrong when Blitz not only didn’t crash and burn within a month but also honored the generous salary package I’d been offered.

“Definitely, yes. I don’t need to work tables for my first year, now.”

She scoffs. “As if I would’ve let you do that.”

As if I would’ve let you keep working two jobs, just so I didn’t have to work one? I don’t say it though, because we’ve had this conversation before, and no matter how I phrase it, she always ends up feeling guilty.

“Anyway, I need to go.” I stand up, dislodging the cats.

“Okay. I’ll be home just after eight, but I’ll leave something in the fridge if you want to eat earlier.”

I have the mad urge to tell her I won’t be back tonight, as I’ll be too busy banging my boss. But since the likelihood of me doing that is zero, I just give her a hug instead. “Thanks, Mum.”

###

I hop off the bus near the newly renovated shopping center and cross the high street. I can’t wait until I pass my driving test in a couple of weeks. It doesn’t matter how nauseous I am at the thought of my lessons. Getting my license has always been a top priority, since there’s no way I want to rely on public transport or lifts from other people forever. And paying for the lessons is the reason why I still haven’t upgraded my old laptop yet.

Blitz is just a couple of minutes’ stroll from the town center, and as I turn onto the quiet back street, my gaze fixes on the red-bricked Victorian warehouse halfway down the road.

Flanked by two-up, two-down Victorian terraces, the warehouse should look out of place, but instead it has a charm that’s all its own, which somehow gives the whole road a kind of friendly vibe.

No one would guess what’s beyond that steel, reinforced, mega-alarmed, timber front door. It’s the place where magic happens, where the fantasy world of the phenomenally successful online RPG, The Plains of Exitium, is housed.

“Hey, Alice.” Roger, the security guard on duty today, grins at me as he approaches. “Good weekend?”

We chat for a minute, the same as we do every morning. For a guy who’s almost knocking thirty, he’s pretty cool.

I key in my unique code before unlocking the door. No one walks in off the street, and nothing is delivered to the building unless it’s been expressly authorized. Both Harry and his partner, Caleb, are paranoid about security, which is no surprise, but they always use both high tech and traditional, which is kind of adorable. At least that’s what I originally thought until I discovered the reason behind it.

If there’s a zombie apocalypse when all technology dies, then good old-fashioned iron locks and keys will be the only defense against being overrun by survivors driven insane by bloodlust.

Comforting, right?

The small entry area leads into the cavernous ground floor that is divided into smaller work areas. Even though it’s only seven thirty, most of the programmers are already at work when I arrive.

I make my way to the industrial-looking staircase in the middle of the building, greeting those who aren’t fully immersed in their coding. When I first started work here, there were only eight guys and four girls and within a week we were all great mates. The crowd funding the guys had set up, as a way to move them out of Caleb’s parents’ basement, was mind-bogglingly successful, resulting in the rapid growth that surpassed everyone’s expectations.

Now, Harry and Caleb have forty-three programmers and developers in-house, outsource jobs to another half a dozen, and I can’t help the pride that glows inside me at the knowledge that I helped shaped the way Blitz is today.

Upstairs is the staff kitchen and time-out space, the Dev Testing Area, and Harry and Caleb’s offices. It’s also where my office is, right next to Harry’s and way bigger than it needs to be. Not that I’m complaining. After I graduate, it’ll probably take me ten years before I manage to score such a cool office again.

The top two floors house the servers, and are totally off-limits. Even Harry and Caleb have to jump through retinal-eye-scan hoops before those doors unlock. The closest I’ve got to them is when Caleb gave me a tour at the end of my interview, and even then, all I did was peer through the two-inch glass panel in the door.

I drop my bag into my desk drawer and boot up the laptop. Last week I posted an ad for my replacement, and by Friday afternoon the applications flooded in. I’m not looking forward to going through them, but it’s a necessary evil. And if I don’t do it, then it won’t get done.

Harry strolls into the office and gives me his usual smile that does unspeakable things to the pit of my stomach. As always, his shirt is rumpled and sleeves rolled up, displaying his breathtaking forearms to their best advantage. His glasses are perched on top of his gorgeous brown hair, and his worn black jeans hug his muscled thighs like a second skin. He has the just tumbled out of bed look down to a fine art and doesn’t even need to try.

“Morning, Alice.” Caleb drops onto one of the chairs, and I shoot him a smile. I hadn’t even noticed him behind Harry, who sits on the edge of my desk and dazzles me with his Mediterranean-blue eyes.

“Ten o’clock appointment to go see the property in Camden Town, and two this afternoon for the one in Richmond,” Harry says, continuing our last conversation from Friday as though there’s been no interruption of the weekend. “Guess we’ll make a day of it and have lunch out.”

If Hannah could hear him, she’d jump to the conclusion Harry had just asked me out on a lunch date and declare it was a sign we were destined to hook up. Unfortunately, I know better, and not just because Caleb’s also looking at the properties with us. We need more office space, and I’d emailed the details to the guys to see what they thought of them.

“You followed up with the estate agents?” That was on my agenda today. Harry and Caleb are brilliant, but when it comes to normal, everyday stuff they’re pretty hopeless.

“They emailed me.”

That sounds more like it, although why didn’t the agents respond to me? I was the one who initially contacted them. “Okay. And you emailed back to confirm?”

“I did. Hope you’re impressed.” His dimples flash, and it takes all my willpower not to sigh out loud. “In fact, the agent said she can’t wait to meet us and give us a personal tour.”

“But we’re not taking her to lunch,” Caleb adds, as though that possibility might’ve crossed my mind.

“What time are we leaving?” Bang goes my plan of sifting through all the applicants today. Not that I’m sorry, since a day out with Harry, even if it’s purely business, isn’t something I’d ever pass up.

Harry frowns at Caleb, who looks equally bemused by my question. I sigh loudly and within seconds have transport options displayed on the screen. “Driving would be a nightmare. I suggest we go by train and Tube.”

“Sounds good.” Harry stands. “We’ll leave in an hour then.”

They saunter out and I resist the urge to slump back in my chair. Looks like the universe is sending me a message, since even if I had planned on going through with the Seduction of Harry—totally deserving of capitals, there—obviously, there’s no way I could go ahead when Caleb’s around.

There’s always tomorrow.

I chew my lip as I memorize the journey we’re taking today. Despite all the potential pitfalls, the main one being Harry running for the hills as soon as he realizes I want to be more than just his friend, if I don’t at least try I’ll regret it for as long as I live.

Maybe I should wait until my very last night? That way, if he says no, I won’t have to face him the next day. And if he says yes…

I still won’t have to face him the next day.

The more I think about this the better it looks. Plus, it gives me another few weeks’ planning time. In fact, I could start planning it now. A leaving party wouldn’t raise any suspicions about ulterior motives, and once everyone’s loosened up with plenty of alcohol—me, mainly—I’ll find a way to spirit him away from everyone else.

A guy like Harry only comes along once in a girl’s life, and I don’t want him to be “the one that got away” because I was too afraid to even ask. I won’t have time for romance once I start university, and I sure as hell don’t want to still be a virgin when I graduate in three years’ time.

One of our developers, Diane, is amazing when it comes to organizing parties, and as I read through some of the emailed applications, I call Di’s mobile. Ten minutes later, I’ve eliminated twelve applicants, put three into a file to look at more closely, and have Di’s assurance she’ll arrange a killer leaving bash for me.

I’ll have to get Harry or Caleb to okay the expenditure, but I’m not worried about that. They might not be great on social skills when it comes to the general public, but they’re always ready to make sure the people who work for them know they’re appreciated. When two of our programmers got married in July, they even paid for them to go on a honeymoon to Hawaii. Can’t see many bosses doing that.

Harry reappears at my ever-open door, holding two takeaway cups from the local coffee shop.

“One Java chip frap.” He hands it to me and the tips of our fingers brush. It shouldn’t be possible that such a brief touch has the power to suck the air from my lungs, but I’ve become an expert in hiding it.

“Great, thanks.” I favor him with a smile, which would knock his socks off if I was Hannah, but obviously doesn’t affect him at all since it’s me.

Yep, definitely need some party magic.

He pulls the lid off his cup, and the rich aroma of his Americano wafts in the air as we both sip our drinks. I’ve never been a great coffee drinker, until eight months ago, but now whenever I smell roasting coffee beans I always think of Harry.

God, I’m going to miss working here.

 

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