Tech Guy (unedited)

Prologue

~ Clay

 

“Love you.”

“Love you, too,” I whisper after giving a quick look around the workshop, finding only Rick who has his huge headphones on, moving his head to the music as he puts the screws back into the CPU he is about to finish assembling.

A second later, I hang up, putting the phone on my desk so I can finish reformatting the laptop in front of me.

It’s not that I’m not proud of my girlfriend. I am. Totally. Andrea is the most amazing girl in the world – beautiful, smart, sweet. She was my best friend for two years and now, she’s the best girlfriend an eighteen year-old, somewhat ordinary guy like me, could ever ask for.

I just don’t want the other guys I work with to feel worse about not having a girlfriend – a living, breathing 3D one that is.

Liar.

Oh, alright. I’ll admit it. I feel shy telling Andrea I love her in front of other people. Not ashamed of her. Just shy. I’ve never been in love before, after all.

I never thought I’d fall in love with Andrea, either. She’s a complete opposite of me – sure of herself, carefree, from a perfect family that loves her no matter what. Yet, that contrast was what made her even more fascinating to me and me to her, laying the groundwork for a friendship that eventually, some say inevitably, led to something deeper, stronger.

We’ve been together for a year now. It’s not that long, I know. It only seems long because we’re in high school and most relationships fall apart after a few weeks. Some don’t even last a week. I’m well aware, too, that things will be harder once I leave for college in a few weeks. I’ve already heard rumors of people betting on me leaving Andrea for an older girl or on Andrea dumping me for one of those guys lurking around her.

That’s not happening. I love Andrea and I trust her. I trust us.

We’ve already made our plans. I’m going to Cornell University in New York ahead on a scholarship provided by a local non-profit organization. In two years, Andrea will follow to study Psychology. I’ll move out of the dorm and she’ll find her own apartment. We’ll be living as close as we can to each other. Then after I graduate, I’ll look for a job and after a few months, we’ll move in together. I’ll keep working. She’ll keep studying and when she graduates, I’ll propose. That’s the plan.

I know, I know. We might be planning too far ahead, getting ahead of ourselves. But I really think we can make it.

“Hey,” Rick’s voice interrupts my thoughts.

“Yup?” I look at him.

“I thought I was the only one with headphones on,” he says, getting up from his seat.

“Sorry.”

“I’m just going for a break.” He stretches his arms. “How much longer do you think it will take you to finish that?”

“Half an hour. An hour at most.”

Shortly after I moved in with my grandparents here in Coldwater, Michigan, I started working part-time at Rick’s computer repair shop. The work isn’t hard. Mostly, I have to install stuff or deal with simple hardware problems, which I’ve learned how to do online. Rick’s good, too. A real geek but he’s kind. And the pay’s not bad. In fact, I’ve managed to save quite a bit to help me through college. All in all, I can’t say I’m glad to leave the place behind, but I can’t stay here.

“If you say so.” Rick squeezes my shoulder. “What will I do without you?”

“Fix more computers. Play more MMORPGs.”

He chuckles. “Man, I’ll really miss you.”

I just grin. After he leaves, I get back to my work, my fingers dancing across the keyboard. I’ve barely managed to get any more work done, though, before my phone rings again.

I look at the screen. It’s not Andrea.

It’s my Grandma.

I answer the call quickly. “Hello.”

“Clay.” I hear my grandmother’s soft voice on the line. “Clay, are you there?”

“Yes,” I speak louder, remembering she can’t hear as well as she used to. “It’s Clay, Grandma. Is something wrong?”

“I need you to come home right away. I have to tell you something.”

***

“You had me come home from work just to tell me that my mother called?”

I look at my grandmother with raised eyebrows. And to think I rushed home, too, thinking there might be an emergency.

As it turns out, my mother just called. So what? She hasn’t called me in years, having forgotten all about me after dumping me with her parents. I no longer care about her. I even told myself she was dead. If she’s come back to life, it’s probably only because she needs something.

Bad.

“She’s dying, Clay,” Grandma tells me. “She was diagnosed with cancer. It’s in a bad stage and she doesn’t know how long she has left to live.”

I sit down on the couch. “How do you know she’s not lying? She’s never been good at telling the truth.”

“Mary Ann wouldn’t lie about this.”

Unfortunately, I have the same feeling. My mother hates me. She’s always blamed me for the fact that my father left her. She wouldn’t want to see me again unless she’s really dying.

“Fuck.”

“Language,” Grandpa scolds.

“Sorry,” I mutter, running my hands through my hair. “What does she want me to do?”

“Go to her,” Grandma answers, sitting beside me. “I believe there’s a lot the two of you need to talk about.”

“There’s nothing we need to talk about.”

“Maybe there isn’t anything you want to hear from her,” Grandpa says. “And I don’t blame you. God knows my daughter has made a lot of mistakes. But there are things she’d like to say to you and I think you should give her a chance.”

“Why?” I ask. “She’s always hated me.”

“That’s not true.” Grandma places her wrinkled hand over mine. “She may not have been the best mother but no mother can hate her child. If anything, I think it’s herself she detests.”

“But I was the one who suffered,” I point out.

“I know. I know. But that’s in the past. She’s dying, Clay.”

“So I’m supposed to forgive her just because she’s dying?” I scoff.

“If you don’t want to do it for her, that’s fine.” Grandpa sits across me. “Do it for yourself. Do it so you won’t have regrets.”

Grandma squeezes my hand. “She’s your mother, Clay.”

I say nothing. She’s never been a mother to me, just a selfish woman who did nothing but complain and pine for the things that could’ve been, for the things that can’t be. Grandma’s right, though. In spite of everything, she still is my mother. Grandpa’s right, too. If I don’t go to her now and talk to her, it might come back to haunt me one day. I don’t want that possibility.

“Please, Clay?” Grandma begs.

I look into her eyes, tender and brimming with tears. Oh, if only my mother was even an ounce the mother hers is.

“Fine.” I place my other hand over hers. “I’ll go.”

I’ll go so that I can ask my mother all the questions I’ve always wanted to ask and tell her all the things I wanted to say then move on and never look back. That’s all.

“Here’s her address.”

Grandma hands me the notepad and I tear off the top sheet on which she’s scribbled an address in San Diego, California.

On the West Coast, huh?

Suddenly, I remember something.

Andrea.

Right now, she’s on vacation with her family in Washington but she’ll be back soon. What if I don’t make it back before her?

I think of calling her but decide against it. What do I tell her? That my mother’s dying and I have to go to her side? That’s perfectly acceptable, of course. She’d understand. Except I’ve already told her my mother’s dead. That’s one of the first things I told her, back when I despised my mother so much for leaving me in Coldwater.

What? I’ll tell her I lied?

No. I can’t break her trust.

You already have.

Fine. I’ll tell her but not on the phone. I’ll tell her when I’ve returned. For now, I’ll just write a note.

Getting up, I head to the shelf where the mug of pens are, grabbing one and scribbling my own note. Then I fold it and hand it to Grandma.

“Just in case I don’t get back soon, please give this to Andrea.”

Grandma nods.

I head up to my room to pack. The sooner I leave, the sooner I can return. Who knows? I might make it back before Andrea. Grandma will never have to give her the note and she’ll never have to know I was gone or why.

And everything will be alright. Andrea and I can leave for New York and then we can both take a step closer to our happy ending just as we’ve planned.

I take her framed picture on top of my bedside table, running my fingers over it.

Just give me a few days, Andrea.


Chapter 1

~ Andrea

 

Thirteen years later…

 

“That’s the last book, Andrea,” Jo announces as the woman in front of me leaves the Avenues Ballroom of The Peninsula Chicago with her signed copy.

“Thank goodness.” I drop the pen in my hand and massage my fingers. “I don’t think I can sign another book.”

For the past two months, I’ve been promoting my latest book series on child behavior and frankly, I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve signed. I’ve done interviews for newspapers and magazines, too, and even ended up on Ellen. So far, all my efforts have paid off, my books ending up on the bestseller list and raves flooding my Twitter and Facebook pages. I’m happy, of course, though I have to admit I’m getting tired, which is why it’s a good thing that after tonight’s book signing, I only have one left.

Sighing, I sit back in my chair. “I can’t wait to take a break.”

“Well, you can tick this one off your list.”

Just then, a plump woman in a yellow dress who looks like she’s in her mid-thirties enters the ballroom, panting. At first, she frowns as she realizes the room is now empty. Then her face lights up as her gaze rests on me.

Jo picks up the pen on the table and hands it to me. “Guess I spoke too soon.”

“Miss Simmons!” The woman rushes towards me. “Thank goodness I caught you.”

“It seems like you did.” I straighten up in my chair as I force a smile.

As much as I’d like to bolt right now, I just can’t turn my back on a fan, not only because I promised Jo I’d try to sell as many books as I can, but also because my readers mean a lot to me. They’re the reason I write, the people I want to help.

Besides, it’s just one more book.

At least, I think so until the woman takes seven books out of her bag.

“I’m a big, big fan,” she says as she places the books in front of me. “I’ve read all your books.”

I look at a few. “Wow.”

“They’ve helped me so much in understanding my four children,” she goes on. “Which is why I admire you so much. I even taped that Ellen episode you were in.”

“I’m glad I was able to help.” I open one of the books to the title page. “So, whom do I sign these books to?”

“Mary,” she informs. “I’m Mary Lewis.”

I nod, scribbling a quick message on the page.

 

Mary,

Keep being an awesome mother!

Love and light,

Andrea

 

Then I sign my name on the title pages of the other books, giving them all back to her when I’m done.

“Oh, thank you!” Mary stuffs them back into the bag. “Thank you so much! I’m so glad I was able to see you in person. You are so beautiful.”

“Thank you.” I try not to blush, still not used to compliments about my looks. “I…”

“Do you think we could take a selfie?” Mary starts going through the contents of her purse with her bag of books dangling off her arm.

Now, this I’ve gotten used to. “Yeah, sure.”

I go around the table, standing beside her. She puts the bag of books down on the floor so she can place one arm around me, her other arm holding her phone as she snaps a quick photo. Then she gives me a quick hug.

“I can’t wait to tell all my friends. Thank you.”

“Send my warm regards to all your friends,” I tell her. “And thank you. Take care.”

She picks up her bag and heads towards the exit, pausing in the doorway to glance back and give me a wave and one last huge smile before disappearing.

“Well, it looks like you’ve got another big fan,” Jo says.

“The biggest one yet,” I say, gathering my things quickly before someone else bursts through the door.

She helps me, grabbing my water bottle and my coat. “I can’t believe you’re such a celebrity now.”

“And whose fault is that, I wonder.”

Jo isn’t just my best friend. She’s also my book agent and publicist. In other words, she’s half the reason why I’m so successful right now.

She sighs. “I just wish some of them were male.”

“I do have some male fans.” I sling my laptop bag over my shoulder. “Only, they’re with their wives.”

“Well, those don’t count.” She gives another sigh as we leave the room. “If someone as hot, smart and successful as you can’t get a man, the rest of us don’t have much hope.”

“Hot?” I bunch up my eyebrows at her. “As for smart and successful, that may be the problem. Those aren’t exactly the things men look for in a woman, you know. Most men prefer women who think only of them, whose worlds revolve around them.”

“Well, most men are jerks. But I’m sure there’s at least one man out there who can appreciate you.”

“Thanks, Jo, but I’m not that desperate.” I press the UP button on the elevator. “In fact, I’m not desperate at all.”

“And I’m not saying you are. I’m just saying you should look.”

“I am looking.”

I’m just not…hunting. I’m more of like a sit-and-wait person when it comes to romance, more like a kingfisher than a hawk. If someone comes along and decides to stay, then good. If not, I’m not giving chase. And I’m definitely not going to broadcast my availability or put myself out there like a piece of bait.

“Not hard enough.” Jo runs a hand through her short, brown hair that’s streaked with black – or is it black hair that’s streaked with brown? I’ve forgotten.

“Well, I’ve been busy.”

The elevator door opens and we step in.

“Then maybe when you’re done with that book signing in Minneapolis, you can set aside some time?” Jo suggests.

I don’t answer. I haven’t really decided on what I’m going to do once my time in the spotlight is over. I’ve thought about starting to write another book but I’m not sure if I’m ready for that. Travel? But it seems like I’ve been traveling so much lately. I’d rather take a break from the suitcases, plane rides and hotels. What then? Just coop myself up in my apartment in San Diego, watching TV in bed and ordering dinner? Sounds good, at least for a few days. I get bored easily, so I’m sure that I’ll get an itch to leave the house and do something. But what? As much as I’d love to take patients and see children again, I’m not really eager to get back to all that stressful work.

It’s ironic, I know.

What then am I going to do? If I were to be completely honest with myself, I’d say, “I don’t know.” All I ever wanted was to be a child psychologist so I could help children feel less lonely, and fulfill my mother’s dream, do what she wasn’t able to do. Now that I’ve done that, I don’t really know what else I want to do or what else there is for me to do. What else is there? Besides men, that is.

“You’re already 28, Andrea,” Jo reminds, stepping closer to me. “How long are you going to stay a virgin?”

I hold a finger to my lips as I look at her in shock then quickly glance around the elevator.

Thankfully, there aren’t too many people – just a teenage boy with earphones, a woman who’s busy doing something on her phone and an old couple who hopefully are hard of hearing. I give them a smile before turning back to Jo with a glare.

“What?” She puts one hand up in the air. “I’m just saying you should be more interested in men. Honestly, I can’t believe there hasn’t been a guy who’s sent shivers up your spine, made your knees melt and turned your guts inside out.”

I don’t answer. There has been, actually. Just one guy. Well, not the gut-turning kind but the knee-melting, shiver-sending kind. The first time I saw him on a magazine cover a few years ago, my heart still skipped a beat but I scolded it, reminding it of how it got broken long ago – thirteen years ago to be exact. Whatever feelings I had for him are long extinct now, only the pain remaining like a fossil buried in my heart. That’s why I haven’t told Jo about it.

“What about Paul?” Jo asks.

I shake my head. “That’s why that didn’t work.”

“So you’re saying there hasn’t been a guy who’s made your heart skip a beat?”

I shrug.

“Then you clearly haven’t been looking,” Jo says. “Don’t you want to get married, Andrea? Have kids? You love kids, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

The reason why I quit working with children is because of the work, the schedule, and not the children themselves. I love children. I love how carefree and optimistic they are. I love how curious they are, how they learn so fast, how easily they are amazed by everything. I love how funny they are, their crazy ideas and the silly things they say. Actually, I have dreamed of having my own.

If only that didn’t have to require a man.

Alright, I’ll admit it. I’m scared. Not of men really. But of being with men. Ever since that incident thirteen years ago, I haven’t been in a relationship, scared that I might get left behind again, left hanging. Worse, I’m scared of being made a fool of again, which I think is one of the worst feelings in the world. You think you’re so smart, so sure of knowing what you want and thinking that everything in your life is falling into place then you wake up and realize you didn’t know anything at all, that the pieces have been scattered, some lost. And you want to hit your head on the wall because you should have known better. You should have been better.

Yes, it sucks.

I don’t want to go through that again. I don’t want to make the same mistake again.

“You know what?” I tell Jo as we step out of the elevator. “Instead of trying to convince me to find myself a man, why don’t you do it yourself? You’re just as smart, pretty and successful as I am.”

“Finally, she admits she’s pretty,” Jo mutters.

Oops.

Jo places her hand on my shoulder. “I have a better idea. Why don’t we both go to the bar after we’ve changed and taken a shower, huh?”

I look at her. Shit, she’s serious.

“Sorry, Jo.” I stop in front of the door to my room. “I’m tired.”

I slip my keycard into the slot and then push the door open after the dots turn from red to green.

“I know.” She follows me inside the room. “That’s why you need to relax.”

I put my things down on the bed before sitting on the edge of it to take off my shoes. “I can think of a hundred better ways to relax.”

Like soaking in a warm bath, taking a dip in the pool, reading a book or simply lying beneath the comforters listening to music.

“Come on.” Jo sits beside me. “It will be fun.”

“No, it won’t.”

“Yes, it will,” Jo insists. “We’re going to have drinks, maybe have a man buy us a round, talk to a few, flirt a little, have fun.”

I shake my head as I toss my shoe off. “It sounds more like trouble than fun.”

“What’s wrong with getting into a little trouble? Why do you always have to go the safe and easy way?”

I pause. I must confess that hurt a bit.

Jo must have noticed it, too, because she puts her hand over mine. “Hey. You don’t have to protect yourself all the time. You have me. I’ll protect you. I promise you’re not going to get hurt.”

“You can’t promise that, Jo.”

“I’m promising it anyway.” She lifts my hand and places it between hers. “So, please, come to the bar with me? If not for yourself, then do it for me.”

I look into her eyes. I shouldn’t have. Seeing those black eyes pleading with me and shimmering with hope, I feel my resistance crumbling. Jo isn’t just my best friend. I’m hers and there’s not much I wouldn’t do for her.

Unfortunately, she knows it.

“Fine,” I give in, pulling my hand away. “I need a drink anyway.”

“Yes!” Jo jumps up and down like a child on Christmas morning.

“But we’re only staying for a little while,” I tell her, lifting a finger.

“Just two hours,” Jo promises. “And if we run into a jerk, we can leave at once.”

“Good.”

That makes me feel a lot better.

“But if we meet a great guy, promise you’ll at least talk to him,” Jo tells me, sitting back down. “Promise you won’t run away.”

I frown.

“Please?” Jo begs, sticking out her lower, ruby-colored lip.

She’s really pushing it.

I exhale. “Fine.”

Knowing Jo, she won’t take no for an answer. Well, at least, she said ‘great guy’. I may not have been to a lot of a bars but I know it isn’t easy to meet a nice guy at one, or anywhere for that matter.

What are the chances I’ll run into a great guy?


Chapter 2

~ Clay

 

“I want the bugs on the Instinct AV software fixed tonight so we can have Version 1.6 released by tomorrow noon and I need the UI for the Mix-n-Max Player updated so it doesn’t look like something from my Grandpa’s attic. Understood?”

I clasp my hands on top of my belt buckle as I sit back in my leather chair, waiting for my orders to register in the mind of the man standing in front of my mahogany desk.

Alex Harper. 25. One of my senior programmers who right now looks like shit with his lopsided Squirtle necktie trimmed with powder from a recently opened bag of Cheetos and his pale blue shirt stained from one Caffe Americano too many. My guess is he hasn’t slept or had a good meal for 72 hours.

In a way, he reminds me of how I was seven years ago – bright, tenacious, sleep-deprived and eager to prove one’s worth. Except I was neater and I never took shit from anyone, which is probably why I’m on the other side of the desk now.

“Yeah, yeah.” Alex nods, fidgeting with his tie as my words finally sink in. “I completely agree. And sure, I think we can get it done.”

“Good.” I lean forward. “Get it done.”

He turns and heads towards the door, leaving more anxious than when he arrived.

I glance at my Breguet as I turn my chair around, facing the window.

7:06 PM.

Not bad. In the past ten hours, I’ve had three meetings, closed one new deal, tested four programs and approved the release of two and made another fifty grand. I’d say it’s been a fairly productive day, one well worth drinking to, which is exactly what I’m going to do when I meet Gavin at The Bar at The Peninsula Chicago in a little less than half an hour.

I sit back, gazing beyond the glass at the other buildings that comprise the peaks and valleys of the Chicago skyline, some of them bearing the names of their owners just like mine.

In the past ten years, I’ve made billions from creating software. I’ve always had a thing for computers. They spoke to me in ones, zeroes, hyphens and brackets and I understood them. They’re simple, really. Speak their language, decipher the code and you can make them do whatever you want them to. That’s what I used to do – program day and night, stare at multiple lines of code as the keys erode beneath my fingertips. Now, people like Alex do the gritty work. As for me, I make sure every piece of software my company makes is good enough to sell and that it’s sold for the highest profit.

That’s my job as the CEO of Maxwell Modern Solutions.

“Mr. Maxwell.” I hear the voice of Christa, my secretary, as she enters my office. “I’ve just sent you the latest numbers from the stock market and the financial report from that startup company you were thinking of acquiring. Here are the hard copies.”

I turn around just as she puts the papers on my desk. “And I’ve also sent your lawyer, Mr. Beckett, an updated copy of the company’s software license as you requested.”

“Thank you, Christa. I’ll mention it when I see him later.”

As usual, she’s working like a well-programmed machine.

“And, um, Mr. Maxwell, I’d just like to remind you that I’m not going to be here for two days starting tomorrow. It’s my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.”

I’d forgotten about that.

“I’ve already told Jackie from Human Resources to fill in for me,” she adds.

I glance at her. “Sure.”

God knows Christa deserves a break for all the shit she handles for me.

“Don’t worry about it. Give your parents my regards and buy them a nice present with that card I gave you – whatever you think they’ll love.”

She smiles. “Thank you, Mr. Maxwell.”

After she leaves, I turn off my computer. It’s about time I leave as well.

Grabbing my things, I head to the elevator, the door sliding open after a few seconds. I press the button for the lobby and stand in the corner, listening to the faint instrumental music drifting from the speakers on the ceiling.

The Girl from Ipanema.

I’ve heard what my employees have said about the elevator music. Some say it’s the same as the music in Starbucks around the corner, designed to make a person sleepy so he or she can order more coffee. Others say HR chose instrumental tracks on purpose so the elevator occupants could challenge themselves with naming the tunes, either creating a competitive atmosphere or starting a discussion, even sparking a friendship, any of which was good for productivity. Others simply call it fuck music.

Bullshit. Who needs to listen to music while fucking? Not me. There’s only one way I fuck – hard and fast. And the moans, all those garbled pleas and sharp gasps of the woman beneath me are all the sounds I need to hear.

Just then, the elevator stops and the door opens, a blonde in a green blouse and grey skirt grinning as she enters.

“Good evening, Mr. Maxwell.”

“Good evening.”

She faces the mirror on the wall, applying her lipstick. At least, that’s what she’s pretending to be doing. Glancing at her, I can tell she’s appraising me just as I’m appraising her.

I’ve never seen her before. Then again, I have close to four hundred employees so I don’t really get to see them all, even though I’ve refused to have my own private elevator, just to keep in touch with them.

“What department are you from?” I ask her.

No point sharing an elevator with my employees if I don’t chat with them whenever I have the chance.

“Accounting,” she answers, turning around. “I’ve been here for three months.”

“I see.”

It makes sense. The best-dressed people in my company usually come from accounting or HR, the worst from Programming and Networking. Then there are those from Marketing, a creative bunch of people who have their own dress code. Frankly, I don’t mind how my employees look as long as they get their jobs done.

It’s not just how she’s dressed that impresses, me though. It’s how she looks overall. Pretty face. Gorgeous hair. Excellent figure. And she smells good, too. One of those Victoria’s Secret perfumes, probably. If she was any other woman, I’d probably be flirting with her right now, having her pinned against the wall in a minute with her slender legs around me. But she’s one of my employees.

And I don’t sleep with my employees.

The door slides open and I step out. “Good night. Drive safely.”

“Thank you, sir. Good night.”

 I tuck one hand inside my pocket as I cross the lobby, nodding at the security personnel on night shift before heading down the stairs to the glass doors.

My sleek Rolls Royce Phantom is waiting on the other side, Danny holding the door to the backseat open. I unbutton my jacket before slipping in.

“To the Pen, sir?” Danny asks once he’s in front, his hands on the wheel.

He’s been with me for three years so, by now, he knows my routine well. After work, he drives me straight to my penthouse apartment on New Burling Street from Monday to Wednesday and every Thursday and Friday to The Peninsula Chicago where I have the Lake Suite booked. On Fridays, I sometimes bring a woman up but Thursdays are men’s nights at The Bar. In the past, those meant drinks with John Abbott, my mentor and business partner and Gavin Beckett, my lawyer. Now, it’s just Gavin and me.

“You know it, Danny,” I confirm. “Best not to keep Gavin waiting.”

If I do, I won’t only have to pay for his drinks but I won’t hear the end of it. The problem with lawyers is they talk too much sometimes.

“Yes, sir.”

As the car starts, I take off my jacket and my tie, tossing them beside me before relaxing against the black leather seat.

I have a good feeling I’ll be at The Bar before Gavin this time. I just hope he doesn’t keep me waiting. Then again, if he does, I might just buy a woman or two a drink. I know I’m not supposed to pick anyone up but there’s no rule against looking or having a conversation.

Who knows? I might just meet an interesting woman tonight.

***

Tech Guy is coming on Sep 20th to push the right button...