Ashleigh’s stomach growled, and took a long swallow of water to quiet the gnawing pit and help her ignore that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. She set the bottle on the concrete next to her as she glanced at her younger sister. Kelly was still laughing and joking with her friends
Ash turned her attention back to her laptop. Since she was let go from her database administrator job two months ago, she’d been applying for every tech job she was even remotely qualified for. The problem was, her credentials were all on-the-job experience, and her last boss wasn’t a great reference.
His official reason for letting her go was that she was under-qualified. Since she did the job for a year without complaints from him, she suspected the real reason was that his son passed his MCSDBA and wanted a job.
She clicked through to another posting. The descriptions all ran together after a while. Good benefits. Fun atmosphere. Pay DOE. She wasn’t too picky about any of that, as long as it was more than the minimum wage she made cashiering.
Shouts and squeals danced around her, and she spared another glance at Kelly. Still fine. Ash was grateful her sister’s newest hobby was skateboarding. A friend had given her the board, the park was free and walking distance from home, and if Ash sat close enough to the street, she could use the WiFi signal of the nearby coffee shop.
The next job posting caught her eye. Commercial real estate firm. Small. They probably weren’t as strict with their requirements as a tech company, and may not be paying enough to entice more experienced candidates.
She didn’t have all the qualifications on the list, but she was close, she learned fast, and she’d picked up a lot of knowledge about commercial property from her father when she was younger. She clicked through to their website to poke around.
The wind gusted, whipping her hair in her face, and carrying the faint scent of rain and fresh coffee. Her stomach growled, and she ignored the gnawing as she tucked long strands of blonde behind her ear. She should have brought a hair tie.
A movement caught her attention, along with the roar of an engine, and she turned toward the parking lot. A Mercedes SUV parked in one of the distant spots. What’s a car like that doing in a neighborhood like this?
The guy who emerged was attractive from a distance. Dark hair that brushed his ears, and a few days’ worth of beard. When he looked up, she swore he met her gaze. He smiled, then turned back to his vehicle to pull a long board from the trunk.
He might be cute, but he was also probably in his mid-thirties, which made him twenty years older than Kelly, and most of the kids in the skate park, and ten years older than Ash.
Older skaters were the other reason, besides free internet, that Ash stayed here when Kelly was skating. Some of the adults were good, some were clumsy, most were friendly and harmless. The thirty- and forty-somethings tended to travel in small packs. They’d roll around the concrete for thirty minutes or so, then be on their way.
But an older guy, alone… He might just be a guy, or he might be a creeper.
He was handsome, so she hoped for the former, and she didn’t mind the excuse of keeping an eye on him on the tiny off chance he was the latter.
A pair of giggles drew Ash’s attention, and she turned back to Kelly and Emma. The girls were nodding at Mr. Mercedes, pretending to faint, and reaching for their phones.
“Kel-Bel,” Ash called. She didn’t need her little sister going gaga over some guy more than twice her age. Heck, Ash should feel a little guilty about looking.
Kelly rolled her eyes and kicked her board up to grab it. “Hang on,” she said to Emma. She sauntered toward Ash. “Could you chill, maybe stash the overbearing-guardian routine, just this once?”
“Let me be concerned.” Three years ago, when Ash took Kelly away from their father, she’d had a hard time playing the parent. She was learning.
“I promise you, the guy’s not here to perv.”
“Probably not. But keep your distance, for me?”
Kelly snorted and looked over her shoulder again. “You don’t know who he is.”
“Some old guy with too much money and time on his hands?” Now that Mr. Mercedes had reached the concrete, Ash saw he was definitely sexy. Jeans that hugged his ass and legs rather than sagging, and a T-shirt that hinted at lines of definition underneath. Ink in a rainbow of colors intertwined down his arms, and wrapped around his wrists and hands.
“He’s not old. He turned thirty-seven in March.” Kelly sounded like she was explaining this to a child.
That was oddly specific. “Has he been here before?”
“You suck at this. He’s Mischa Dozniyov.”
The name ticked off in Ash’s head, looking for an association. “You mean the guy who starred in the skater video games?”
“I mean the guy who won in several skateboarding categories, three years in a row, in the X Games.” Kelly glanced over her shoulder when Emma shouted her name. “Are we done now?”
“He could still be a creeper.” Though Ash doubted it, and was glad to hear how unlikely it was.
“So let him creep. Ciao.” Kelly dropped her board, hopped on it, and rolled back to where Emma waited.
Ash shook her head and went back to her job search. The sound of wheels on concrete became white noise, as she poked through the real estate company’s website. Someone whistled in the background, and she clicked to the Contact Us page.
It was a bare bones site, but it was clean. She navigated to Request a Viewing, and something flickered in the top left corner, before the page loaded. Odd. She refreshed, but it was gone. What had she seen?
She had her suspicions, but there was no way they had a security flaw that big. She filled out the contact form by smashing random keys, except for the email address and password fields. There she typed a specific string of letters, starting with sa, and meant to force their way into a database that wasn’t properly secured.
If the back end was set up right, she’d get an error message.
The page whirred, then a dump of gibberish spilled onto her screen. Fuck me. The site was completely vulnerable. How long until someone with less-than-swell intentions figured that out?
Whistles became cheers and applause. Ash looked up to see Mischa flowing like water over concrete. He spent more time in the air than on the ground, and each twist, turn, and jump rushed into the next. He was amazing. With his casual half-smile, he might as well be watching TV, rather than executing a series of complex moves.
Most everyone had stopped to watch, and she didn’t blame them. He was an artist. For the first time since Kelly got into this, Ash wished she’d paid more attention, so she’d know what some of those moves were called.
Watching him was a lot better than looking at jobs she couldn’t get, or wondering if she could send Kelly home with Emma for the night so her sister got a decent meal.
For Mischa, there was a Zen in boarding. The way the wind rushed over his skin, the purr of wheels and bearings, and the shift of his world around him as he flipped and turned and grinded.
He felt the eyes on him. Heard the cheers and whistles. There was a fifty-fifty chance any time he did this that someone would recognize him. It had been several years since his career touched the industry though, even in the video games, so the odds were lower than they used to be.
The audience was nice, but he was here to lose himself in the moves. He needed the release of wood under his feet, going where he ordered with the slightest shift of his weight.
As he skated, the moves ticked off in his head. He started simple, pivoting into a fakie then kicking a 360.
A few people in the park were playing Frisbee, and every few minutes, the plastic disc flew overhead. He ducked as appropriate. It was another challenge, and he liked that.
Minutes ticked away, and the tension in his neck didn’t loosen. Why isn’t this helping? Because he was too stressed. He had a ticking clock hanging over his head at the commercial real estate firm he owned with this best friend, and no approach had provided a solution yet.
He did a carrousel into an end-over, enjoying the attention he drew.
He just had to sell a building, and a gorgeous one at that. He was biased, since he’d redesigned it, but objectively it was still a good buy. The problem was, he hadn’t been able to convince anyone else of the same thing.
The tension spilling through him caused him to falter, but he caught himself and adjusted. It wasn’t likely anyone noticed.
He glanced at the small gathering watching him, and his gaze drifted to the one person who had caught his eye when he arrived. The blonde in the knit cap and over-sized T-shirt sitting on the edge of the concrete with her laptop.
She watched him now, rather than the computer. Her lips were stained bright red, and the bottom one was caught between her teeth. If skating wasn’t going to give him the distraction he needed, a random hookup—hot, heavy, and fleeting—might.
He maneuvered his board toward her in a lazy path, keeping it simple with a fan-flip and an M-80. He might be required to adopt a professional demeaner with prospective clients, but tonight he’d do things on his terms.
He kept loose track of the Frisbee game, and toned down the flash of what he was doing, to make the timing work better. One of the guys threw.
Mischa hopped his board past the lip of the ramp to grind along the rail, snagged the disc from the air, hard flipped his board so it spun twice, and grabbed it with his free hand. He landed on his feet near the cute blonde.
She applauded. Her laugh was like rain falling on chimes as it danced over his skin. Yup. He was definitely embracing a carefree-him for the evening.
“Show off.” Teasing lined her words.
“That? Just now?” He tossed the frisbee back to its owners and closed the distance between him and her. “I could do that in my sleep.”
“I don’t doubt it. But that doesn’t mean you weren’t showing off.”
He liked the challenge in her voice. That playful hint of I dare you to actually impress me. “I’m Mischa.” He extended his hand.
“I know. My sister made sure to tell me.”
He looked behind him. Most everyone had gone back to what they were doing now that he’d stopped, except a pair of teenage girls. One looked like a younger, more punk version of the woman he spoke to. A little old to need a babysitter, but what did he know? He turned back to the blonde. “That’s the part where you tell me your name.”
“I’m still deciding if I want to be coy or not.” She eyed his hand for a moment, then shook it. A tantalizing shock of heat raced over him, contrasting with the bite of threatening rain in the air. “But I’m not so good at coy. I’m Ash.”
“Can I buy you a cup of coffee, Ash?”
“As in, real coffee, or coffee Jessica Jones style?” She ducked her head. “Fuck, I can’t believe I said that.” Her hand flew to her mouth. “I mean, crap. Shit.” Pink spread across her cheeks.
He twisted his mouth to keep a laugh from slipping out. He didn’t need her to think he was laughing at her, but the combination of flustered and saying what was on her mind was alluring. He was pretty sure Jessica Jones style coffee meant sex. Good to know he wasn’t the only interested party.
“I thought we’d start with real coffee, and save the Jessica Jones style until I know more about you than a first name and that you have captivating eyes.” Storm-blue, and watching him from behind glasses that kept sliding down her freckled nose.
Her blush deepened. She shook her head. “I’d love to let you flatter me some more, but I can’t. I’m here with my sister.”
“She can join us.” He’d rather she didn’t, but it would be rude to say otherwise. He didn’t mind meeting new people; he wasn’t interested in a cock block.
“You’re sweet, but no, thanks.”
He faltered. Was he just shot down? Seconds after she made a blatant, and enticingly geeky, reference to screwing?
He was more off his game than he realized.