Authors: Cole McCade
Tags: #Contemporary Romance, #Romance Novel, #Bayou’s End
BAYOU’S END #1.5
Copyright © 2015 by Cole McCade
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher / author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the author at the address below.
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PO Box 29226
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:
Louis Vuitton, Orion, Coke / Coca-Cola, Bic, Facebook, Mini Cooper, Fringe, Stargate Universe, Jolly Green Giant, Keds, Magic Marker, Lisa Frank, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, SAIC, CERN, Devil’s Cut, Bluetooth, NYU, the New York Times, Barbie, Jimmy Choo, Tylenol, Visa, The Wizard of Oz, Les Miserables, Punk’d, Manic Panic, NASA, Virgin Airlines, Casablanca, Namenda, Donepezil, HTC, Xanax, Google, Amazon.com, Spiderwoman, Wikipedia, J.C. Penney, Swype, Bookscan, Star Wars, Firefly, Snuggie, Gmail, Thales, Airbus, Dassault, Jip’s Cafe, Samsung, Expedia, The Twilight Zone, Trapper Keeper, Day-Glo, LinkedIn, Skittles, Sharpie, Hello Kitty, Carmen Sandiego, Polo, Crown Royal, 7-Up, Invader Zim, Starbucks, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Up in the Air, Smirnoff Ice, Bratz, My Little Pony, Franklin-Covey, Pitch Perfect, Rihanna, Twitter, Peter Gabriel, Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, Night of the Living Dead, Sanrio, The Walking Dead, George Romero, James Bond, Styrofoam, Dungeons and Dragons, The X-Files, The Phantom of the Opera.
ERO THOUGHT, LICKING SUGAR
from the rim of her lemon drop, she should just quit her job.
Yeah. Right. And maybe she could pay her rent with butterflies and unicorn farts.
She couldn’t believe Rick had stolen her promotion.
. That slack-jawed idiot wouldn’t know an exploit from a botnet if a zombie computer bit him in the ass. He’d taken credit for
find. She’d uncovered a potential exploit in the company’s flagship software, the kind of backdoor security vulnerability that could wreck a business, and Rick had gone running to executive management to claim credit. Credit that got him a raise, a new title, and an office away from the cube farm.
A raise, title, and office that should have been hers.
And she hadn’t said a word about it, refusing to tattle on Rick like a five-year-old. She was better than that, she’d told herself. She didn’t need handouts, she’d told herself.
But what good was integrity if it left her stuck on the bottom rung for the rest of her career?
She was as good as doomed anyway. The IT firm she worked for had sent out a memo that afternoon; major crackdown on dress codes and employee behavior. No more jeans in the office. No more Goth Hello Kitty hoodie. The red tips in her hair had to go, and the rows of piercings in her ears. Everything that made her herself was going in the trash, to leave a faceless drone.
Sometimes, growing up really sucked.
So did the reprimand she’d found on her desk this morning, signed by none other than
. She already had a mark on her permanent employee record over a policy she hadn’t known she was violating because
no one had been told yet
. Not until lunch and a long, catered meeting about “the vision of a new globalized, harmonized future.”
We are Zero of Borg
Resistance is futile
She ran her finger around the rim of her glass and listened to the music thumping through the crowded bar. Some kind of awful electronica; this wasn’t her usual after-work spot, but she hadn’t wanted anyone on her team to catch her sulking into her lemon drops at
. They’d either make things worse by sulking with her, or tell her to get over it—and they’d be right. Changing her work M.O. wouldn’t be that bad. Other people did it all the time. She thrived best in a creative environment, just like the rest of her team, but as a junior programmer she didn’t get to call the shots. She could put her time in. Put on a frumpy pants suit. Wear—shudder—
What she wasn’t sure she could do was endure a week-long, company-wide motivational “performance management” seminar.
Performance management. Motivational
. Corporate code for veiled threats masked as chipper crap about empowering her workflows and carpe-ing her goddamned diem all the way into working overtime for half the pay just to catch up to jerks like
She’d need a lot more to drink by the time this week was over.
She tossed her drink back, enjoying the sweet heat of it sliding down her throat, then signaled the bartender for another. She hardly paid attention to the warmth of another human body sliding onto the stool at her side, denim hissing on vinyl, until a deep, gritty voice washed over her.
“That’s your fourth in the last hour. Bad day at work?”
Low words, casual with a slight Creole drawl, familiar from the few years she’d spent in Louisiana after her parents’ Roma wanderlust had turned her childhood into an episode of Carmen Sandiego, dragging Zero and her older brother and sister to a new city every few years. Probably a down-home mouth-breather in a Polo shirt with a popped collar. Not what she needed to deal with tonight.
“Bad enough to want to drink alone.” She fished out her wallet.
“Want to talk about it?”
Zero slid a ten across the bar, flashed the bartender a smile, then turned to face her would-be suitor. “Look, I’m sure you’re a nice g—”
The hinges on her tongue rusted. Pale green eyes studied her, reflective as jade ice, stark against the swarthy tan of sharply angular features—a forbidding face like an unfinished sculpture, edges left rough and hard-chiseled, accented by the dark crop of his close-shaven hair and tightly-trimmed beard. He slouched with casual ease against the bar, wearing frayed don’t-give-a-fuck jeans and a battered brown leather jacket. Not a popped-collar mouth-breather. Not what she was expecting at all.
He arched a brow. A lazy, amused smile softened the harsh planes of his face. “Something wrong?”
“No.” She found her voice—barely—and turned away, curling both hands around the stem of her martini glass. Her face felt molten, her ears burning. “Um. No.”
“That’s interesting,” he drawled softly. “You were ready to brush me off. But one look, and suddenly you’re blushing. So if I was plainer, I wouldn’t have had a chance.”
Her head came up sharply; she glared at him. “Are you calling me shallow?” So he’d caught her off guard. Didn’t mean she was suddenly interested just because he was too hot for a slummy New York corner bar. “And who said you have a chance?”
His gaze lingered on her cheeks. “That blush.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“That may be.” He chuckled, deep and rolling off his tongue like liquid chocolate. “You’re still blushing. So either you’re shallow and you like my pretty face, or you need someone to talk to more than you want to admit. Which is it?”
“Which answer will get you to go away?”
“Neither.” He signaled the bartender. “But I get it. Sometimes a girl just wants to drink alone. Just tell me to get lost.”
She eyed him sidelong. “Who wants to listen to a girl bitch about a bad day?”
He shrugged. “The longer I keep you talking, the more time you have to sober up.”
“I’m not driving.”
“Because being drunk and alone on a New York subway is so much better?”
He leaned against the bar to request a Crown and Seven, slipping a few folded bills to the bartender with a subtlety that made him look like he was handling a drug deal. Or maybe she was projecting, since he’d already pissed her off. Presumptuous asshole, strutting over here like he had any right to police how much she drank. Next he’d be telling her to
, you’d be so much prettier if you smile
just like every other jerk out there. Or he’d try to reverse-psychology her into opening her legs.
“Who are you, my nanny?” she muttered against the rim of her drink.
He returned his gaze to her, studying her for long moments. “No. Just a guy who doesn’t like to be the drunken decision you regret in the morning.”
She stared at him. Why that overconfident, arrogant—“If that’s your way of asking if I’ll sleep with you,” she bit off, “you’re out of your mind.”
“It’s my way of saying I’m interested.” Once the bartender set his drink down, he lifted it to his lips, watching her over the rim with a steady gaze. “But we can just talk, too.”
Zero covered her glass with one hand and edged away. “…do I need to watch my drink around you?”
A deep, rolling laugh suddenly lit his face, transforming severe brows and chilling eyes into inviting warmth; faint lines creased the corners of his eyes. He ran a hand over the soft burr of hair clinging to his scalp. “Do I really give off that kind of vibe? Man, I need to work on my game.”
“Yeah, you do.” But the sound of his laughter relaxed her shoulders from where they’d bunched around her ears, and she offered a half-smile. “The suave thing really isn’t working for you.”
“Maybe not. How about dorky yet charming?” He extended a hand—broad, weathered, fingers square and angular. Definitely a down-home Southern boy’s hand. “Evan James.”
She hesitated, but he
distracted her from her little funk. After a moment, she slid her hand into his. “Zero Blackwell.”
His fingers folded around hers, hot and coarse. Just a brief squeeze, but it was long enough for the pad of his thumb to graze the back of her hand, a shiver of friction that left her face too warm again. “Zero?” he asked.
“Short for Zoraya.” She reclaimed her hand and pushed the sleeve of her hoodie back to bare the tattoo encircling her wrist. A bracelet of binary code, ones and zeros looped around, black against her tanned skin. “Code monkey. It’s a thing. You know—binary, Zero.”
“Ah.” He peered at her wrist. “I have no idea what that says other than one zero one one zero…”
“It’s okay. Most people don’t.” She pulled her sleeve down and took a sip of her drink. “So is that what you do? Just dive in face-first like every other neckbeard out there and hope you don’t get slapped?”
“Who says I don’t want to get slapped?”
Biting back a laugh, she gave him a flat look. “
He grinned and idly swirled his glass. Ice cubes clinked against the sides, soft underscore to the tinny bass from the speakers. “I go where instinct takes me. Instinct told me you’d had a rotten day, and you could use an ear.”
“So you decided to act like an overconfident, skeevy creep?”
He snorted. “I’m not overconfident.”
“But you won’t deny skeevy creep?”
“Own what you are, I always say. I think I wear my creep crown quite handsomely.”
“That’s awful.” She chuckled, shaking her head. “You’re weird, you know. Watching me for an hour. Counting my drinks.”
Evan leaned on the bar and tilted his head back thoughtfully. “I’m not that much of a stalker. The drinks were a lucky guess. The rest was just working up the nerve to talk to you.”
“So you’re trying to tell me you’re shy now?”
“Would you believe me?”
Zero shook her head with a quick burst of laughter. Who was he fooling? The man had
written all over him. “Not in the slightest.”
“Made you laugh,” he pointed out, a slow, contemplative smile curling his lips. He really had the most distracting mouth, full and lush and desperately in need of biting. “It’s like low, quiet bells when you laugh. I like it.”
Clearing her throat, Zero jerked her gaze from his lips. “Bells?”
“I’m bad at witty compliments.”
“You’re still smiling.”
“Okay,” she groaned, then laughed and held both hands up. “
. I’m in a shitty mood, and your weirdness might just be cheering me up.”