Page 16 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

She shook her head and patted my cheek. “My little girl. I can’t believe it. You’re going to beat me to the altar. If I didn’t love you so damn much, I might hate you a little.”

I laughed. “Blake’s the one who seems to be in a rush, otherwise I’d be happy to give you a head start.”

She cocked her head slightly. “You sure about this? Blake seems wonderful, but you know you don’t have to do this if you’re not ready. I don’t want you to be an old maid like me, but you have plenty of time.”

I looked down, my fingers twisting around the beautiful ring. I couldn’t imagine anything, any doubt or reservation, threatening to come between me and keeping this ring on my finger.

“I’m not sure if marriage is something anyone is ever ready for, right? Plus I already said yes, so I’m a little committed already.” I laughed nervously.

She brought her hand up, brushing my cheek softly. “Listen to your heart, Erica. There’s nothing but noise in this world, and that’s got to be the one steady voice in our lives. If your heart says yes, nothing else matters.”

I reached for her, holding her in a hug for a long time. I thought about all the times she’d comforted me, given me advice and solace.

“Thank you, Marie, for everything. Also, you’re not an old maid.”

She laughed softly and released me, blinking away the wetness in her eyes.

“All right, enough of that. I’m going to wreck my makeup. Let’s get back to our men.”

The rest of the evening went well. We chatted, and Marie shared stories of our summers together when I was back in school. Any embarrassment that came with her honesty was quickly replaced with gratitude that she was the one person who could represent my otherwise absent family. Blake squeezed my hand under the table, occasionally shooting me a knowing look, as if he too appreciated her little insights into my past. It was the closest to embarrassing baby pictures he was likely to experience in my world.

We finished a decadent dessert, and Richard picked up the check just as my phone rang. I fished it out of my purse and recognized the number.

“Excuse me, I have to take this.”

Blake’s brow wrinkled, but I slipped away from the table before he could question me.


“Erica, it’s Alex Hannon.”

“Alex, hi. Thanks for getting back to me. Um, I’m not sure if you remember me.”

“Of course. Landon introduced us at the Vegas event. Took a minute to jog my memory, but you’ve got the fashion site, right?”

“Right. Clozpin.”

“So how’s it been going?”

“Overall really well. I’m actually brainstorming options for expanding the site, possibly incorporating some e-commerce. You came to mind, of course, which is why I’m calling. I’m not sure if there are any partnership opportunities, but if nothing else, I’d love to just get your advice. I know you must be busy.”

“No worries. It’d be easier to talk in person though, I think. Any chance you’re coming out for the Tech Awards this weekend?”

“Uh, no,” I said, not wanting to admit that the event wasn’t on my radar at all.

“I could scrounge up a couple tickets if you can make the trip. We could discuss any opportunities for working together while you’re out. And you could write it off as a business expense, of course.”

I laughed. “I think I could probably work something out. Let me check my schedule and shoot you an email to confirm, but I’d love to come.”

“Great, let me know. If you can’t make it for some reason, I’m planning to be out your way in a couple weeks to see some family, so we could always meet up then.”

“Sounds good. Thanks again, Alex.”

We hung up, and I couldn’t hide the smile on my face when Blake approached me in the entryway.

“Who’s got you smiling like that?”

“That was Alex Hannon.”

“Why are you talking to him?”

The furrow in his brow deepened and quickly released when Marie and Richard joined us. We hugged our goodbyes, and Marie made me promise to call her for dress shopping.

My mind spun as Blake led me outside. The valet drove the Tesla up to the curb and Blake opened the door for me to get in. Settled behind the wheel, Blake pulled into the steady flow of evening traffic. After a few minutes of silence he finally spoke.

“So what’s going on with Alex?”

“I was talking to Sid about maybe taking Clozpin in a different direction, trying to think outside the box a little, and it occurred to me that Alex had offered to be a resource when we met. I’m not sure if he’d be interested in any partnership—”

“What kind of partnership?”

My excitement over the call waned quickly at the skepticism in his voice. “I don’t know if that’s something he would consider. His site is huge, and he’s obviously doing really well on his own. But Max and Risa are in business competing with us now. I’ve lost a handful more advertisers, and my revenue is going to take a hit. I just thought—”

“I get it, but you’re considering a partnership with Alex Hannon and you didn’t run this by me?”

I shifted in my seat. “I didn’t realize I had to. Is there something with Alex that I need to know about? If it’s anything like what you kept from me about Max, I’d like to know before I fly out to San Francisco to see him.”

He exhaled audibly, betraying his growing frustration. He parked abruptly down the street from the apartment and stared off a moment. “He’s nothing like Max. I’m a little shocked you didn’t talk to me about any of this though. I’m the investor in your company.”

“I’m grateful for what you’ve done, Blake. I have every intention of paying you back, but if I have any chance of doing that, I need to get us back on track. Otherwise this is going to be an epic failure and your investment will be lost.”

“I don’t give a shit about the money, Erica. Four million dollars would be worth losing if it brought you into my life. Every penny I have would be.”

My heart twisted at the proclamation. “Thank you, Blake. But this is about me making this business work. I reached out to Alex on a whim, and I honestly didn’t think he’d get back to me so quickly. I definitely wasn’t expecting him to be receptive to discussing this further, but it seems like an opportunity I should pursue. I’m telling you about it now, literally minutes after it’s happened. I’m sorry if you felt I was keeping anything from you, because that wasn’t my intention.”