Author: Misha Bell
Publication date: January 12, 2021
Romance, Adult Contemporary Romance, Comedy
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.”
I love writing humor (often the inappropriate kind), happy endings (both kinds), and characters quirky enough to be called oddballs (because… balls). If you love your romance heavy on the comedy and feel-good vibes, visit mishabell.com and sign up for my newsletter.