* * *
I walked into the office the next morning ready to face the day. Ready to face my life. Alli rose to meet me as I drew near her desk. “You’re not going to believe this.”
My eyes went wide. There was a whole range of possibilities for things I might not believe. “What?”
PinDeelz is down. Sid said it’s been down since last night.”
“Do we know why? It could be anything. Server issues or a surge in traffic.”
“I don’t think that’s why.”
She hauled me over to her workstation, and pulled up the site. As it did, a bold black and white image branded the screen. I’d seen it before, on our own site. M89. The hacker group’s logo had replaced the competing site’s home page, but now I was more confused than ever.
“I don’t understand. If Trevor and Max have been in cahoots to build this thing, why would Trevor hack it? Moreover, how would he hack his own site?”
Alli twisted a strand of hair between her fingertips. “I don’t either. Unless somehow things went sour with Trevor, and this is payback. Like he’s making a statement or something.”
“Just when I thought things couldn’t get any stranger.”
“The good news is that at least one of their advertisers got back in touch about renewing their ad contract with us. Never mentioned PinDeelz of course, but I’d say we can expect to hear from more of them now.”
I chuckled softly. “Unbelievable. We’ll see how many come crawling back, I suppose. Or how long the site stays this way.”
“Speaking of crawling back, what did you decide about Perry?”
“He seems sorry, but it’s not enough. Blake’s right. It’s a bad idea to get involved with him.”
“I’d have to agree.” James’s deeper voice interrupted us. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.
“James, hey,” I said, confused about his presence in the office.
“Alli thought it’d be a good idea for me to be in while you were out.”
“Right.” I nodded quickly, not wanting to think about Blake’s potential reaction to this.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here. Can we catch up for a second?”
I left Alli for the small privacy of my office. James followed me and sank into the chair across from me.
“What’s going on? What did I miss, other than an entire week?”
“I talked to your fiancé. That was pretty interesting, but I’m going to stay on in-house for now.”
I dropped my jaw and the shock settled over me. Already I was more overwhelmed than I expected to be in my first fifteen minutes back at work. Fear rooted in my stomach. “Are you kidding me?”
He laughed. “It’s nothing to worry about. You should probably talk to Landon about it though.”
“Okay, fine. In that case, you want to give me an update. I’m behind on everything.”
I spent the rest of the morning getting up to speed. After a week away from watching the pot boil, I could fully appreciate the progress that had been made in my absence. We were close to rolling out the changes that would have put us light years ahead of Max’s site. While the threat of competition might be in the past, I could see clearly now that the competition had been important motivation to push us forward in an entirely new way.
As lunch approached my phone rang. My heart nearly stopped when I saw Risa’s face light up the screen.
I answered, hesitating a moment. “Hello?”
“Erica, it’s Risa.”
“Yes.” Obviously. What the hell do you want?
“Listen, I know I’m probably the last person you want to talk to. I just…I really need to talk to you.”
“Could we meet for lunch?”
An anxious feeling rolled through me. Risa was associated with Max, and nothing good came of meeting with him to discuss business.
“I have nothing to say to you.”
“Please, I’m begging you. Please. I know you hate me. And you have every right to. If you don’t want to ever see or talk to me again after today, I’ll stay out of your life completely.”
I stared at the white partition in front of me. She sounded different. She sounded...desperate. I wasn’t supposed to care, but I did. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to imagine how I was going to possibly handle this on my own. Then an idea occurred to me.
“I’ll meet you at the corner deli near the office at noon.”
“Perfect, thank you.”
I hung up before she could say anything else and Skyped Alli to come talk to me.
She popped in a few seconds later. “What’s up?”
“By any chance, are you interested in meeting with Risa for lunch? She wants to talk to me. I don’t trust her, and I don’t trust myself not to strangle her if I go alone.”
“Sure. I’ve got a few words for her myself.”
“It’s a date.”
“Thank you again for meeting me.”
Risa looked like a stray puppy sitting across from us. Alli sat back with her arms crossed, giving Risa her best stare down. I didn’t think Alli was capable of hating anyone, but she looked pretty convincing right now. Even as pathetic as Risa looked, I struggled to pity her. Her normally pin-straight glossy hair was tossed into a messy bun. Dressed in jeans and a simple black button-up, her face made up, she looked tired and worn. The shrewd and energetic girl who’d left Clozpin and taken my user database with her seemed to have aged in the short time since she’d left. I wanted to tell her she looked like hell, but figured I’d save it.
“I’m still not convinced I should be wasting my time with you, so if you have something to say, say it.”
Her eyes glistened as they darted between us. “I’m sorry. I want you to know that.”
“It’s a little late to be sorry,” Alli snapped, taking the words from my mouth.
“I know, and I don’t expect forgiveness. I made a mistake. Max…he made me believe leaving was the right choice, the only choice if I wanted to make something of myself and push my career forward. He’s not who I thought he was.”
I clenched my jaw, keeping the words down. He wasn’t who I thought he was either. He was so much worse.
“He used me to get to you,” she continued, her wounded eyes pleading with me. “He played on all my emotions, my own jealousy and insecurities to get me to leave. But now, I don’t even know who he is. He’s in trouble, I think, and he’s so obsessed with destroying Blake. It has nothing to do with the business I thought we were going to build together. It goes so much deeper than I ever realized.”