Page 14 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

To avoid further inquisition, I pulled Alli back into the living room and we chatted away the rest of the evening with the guys. I relaxed into Blake’s side, grateful, in love, and determined to make the most of the last few hours of our break away from the world.

* * *

The office had been quiet this week, save the quiet hum of machines and tapping of keyboards as people worked. I was doing some quick math when my phone rang. Daniel’s number lit up the screen. For the first time in weeks I considered answering. As soon as I reestablished contact with him, the battle to maintain a healthy separation between our lives and business affairs would begin. I hadn’t felt up to it, and after learning that two more advertisers would be closing their accounts with us since PinDeelz launched, I wasn’t sure why I would be now. Perhaps out of sheer desperation to occupy my mind with something other than the downward spiral of my business, I answered.

“Daniel, hi.”

“Hi. I wasn’t sure you’d answer.”

I wanted to be honest in my response, but I also didn’t want to piss him off. I’d really hoped this next chapter of our relationship wouldn’t be so contentious. I wasn’t sure if I could survive it if it was. Daniel Fitzgerald had proven himself to be both violent and dangerous, but I forced myself to believe I could harness the man behind the political machine, behind the layers of societal pressure to be all that he’d become. Despite all my misgivings, something inside me was committed to salvage what I could from our warped father-daughter relationship.

“I’ve been out of town,” I said, offering a half-truth. “How are you?”

“The campaign has been doing well, so I can’t complain. How about you?”

“Um, good.”

His silence extended over the next few seconds, and I felt an odd pressure to fill it.

“Blake and I are engaged.”

He paused. “I suppose congratulations are in order.”

“Thanks.” My voice was small. I had hard time believing he was genuinely happy for me, when he was the reason why Blake and I had spent the most agonizing weeks of my life apart. The separation had almost ruined us.

“Assuming you haven’t forgotten about the campaign work we discussed,” he said.

I inhaled, steeling myself to hold my ground.

“I needed some time, Daniel, after everything. But no, I haven’t forgotten.”

“Have you had enough time then? Can we meet to discuss? Time is running down on the clock, and your contribution is still important. I’m not taking anything for granted with this race.”

I tapped my pen, my thoughts swirling around my own business problems. “Maybe. When did you want to meet?” The last thing I wanted to admit was the state of the business. That could open a door to him pushing me to work for him permanently. I couldn’t imagine any worse punishment for failing at entrepreneurship than being forced into that arrangement.

“Maybe next week we can get lunch and meet at the headquarters after. Will has some things to update you on.”

“That’s fine.”

“See you then. And congratulations again, Erica. I’m happy for you.”

I frowned, words catching in my throat. “Thank you,” I finally managed.

I hung up and stared at my phone. Perhaps I’d never be able to figure Daniel out. Or perhaps this was the beginning of having his trust, and maybe of him earning mine.

The rest of the day whittled away in a flurry of tasks, large and small, until my energy was thoroughly battered. I glanced at the clock and considered packing up so I could have a few extra minutes to get ready for dinner with Marie, my mother’s best friend, and her boyfriend Richard later. Sid stepped into my office and interrupted the thought.

“What’s up?” I craned my neck to look up at him.

He folded his thin frame into a seat across from my desk. “I was wondering if you had a few minutes to talk.”

I tensed, imagining the worst. The site was wrecked, or he’d found another job and given up on Clozpin. “Is everything okay?”

He shrugged. “Other than the fact that we’re losing advertisers and user engagement is slowing. Are we going to sit by and watch this happen?”

I relaxed slightly, but the tone of his question put me on the defensive. “What do you want me to do, Sid? I have no control over Risa’s site or the lengths they go to undermine us.”

“Exactly.” He regarded me quietly with his big brown eyes.


“Well, why don’t you focus on things that you can control instead of obsessing over what they’re doing? They aren’t going away any time soon, and if your strategy is to sit idly by hoping they do, we’re not going to last long. Sites like ours come and go every day.”

“We’re maintaining, Sid. All hope is not lost.” I worked to believe the words.

“I didn’t sign on to maintain. There’s no reason why we can’t grow. Diversify.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean we should up the ante. They’ve duplicated our concept, and if that’s all they know how to do, they’ll be the ones who falter. I think we need to start thinking outside the box. What can we do to make the site better?”

I threw my hands up. “I’ve thought of little else for days, believe me. I mean, I have some ideas but nothing revolutionary.”

“Maybe you’re thinking too small. You have all these connections now, right? What about a partnership? Maybe we need to take another look at those kinds of opportunities.”

“We don’t need money. Blake invested.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about broadening our target market. Take your brain out of the small service that we’re providing and consider what we could do on a larger scale.”

I nodded, humbled by the suggestion. “You could be onto something. Do you have any ideas?”

He shrugged. “I’m not really a twenty something female. I just feel like we’re looking at the problem from the wrong angle. You’re the one who came up with this concept, and I think if you can get past the panic and forget about what PinDeelz is doing, you can take us to the next level. Put them in the rearview.”

“Thanks, Sid. I’ll think about it, okay?”

“Sure. Let me know if I can help.”

“Of course.” I leaned back into my chair. “How is Cady?”