ZERO DAY EXPLOIT (Bayou’s End #1.5)

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ZERO DAY EXPLOIT
A Bayou’s End Bonus Novella

A bad decision never felt so good.

zero day exploit (noun):
1. An attack that penetrates a previously unknown vulnerability in a computer or system.
2. The kind of infuriating, manipulative man who gets under your skin and refuses to get out.

And now, a one-night stand may turn out to be the biggest mistake of Zoraya Blackwell’s career.

In this free side story to the Bayou’s End series, Ion Blackwell’s ( A Second Chance at Paris ) younger sister Zoraya gets a rude wake-up call about her life, her programming career, and her love when a one-night stand turns out to be more than she can stand. But just when Evan James thinks he has her number, she’ll turn his world on its end, find her way into his heart…and make him realize the love he’s never wanted is everything he’s ever been missing.

GET A GLIMPSE INTO THE BLACKWELL FAMILY WITH A SIZZLING EXTRA IN THE BAYOU’S END SERIES

EXCERPT: Chapter One

Maybe, Zero thought, licking sugar from the rim of her lemon drop, maybe she should just quit her job.

Yeah. Right. And maybe she could pay her rent with butterflies and unicorn farts.

She couldn’t believe Rick had stolen her promotion. Rick. That slack-jawed idiot wouldn’t know an exploit from a botnet if a zombie computer bit him in the ass. He’d taken credit for her find. She’d uncovered a potential exploit in the company’s flagship software, the kind of backdoor security vulnerability that could wreck a business, and Rick had gone running to executive management to claim credit. Credit that got him a raise, a new title, and an office away from the cube farm.

A raise, title, and office that should have been hers.

And she hadn’t said a word about it, refusing to tattle on Rick like a five-year-old. She was better than that, she’d told herself. She didn’t need handouts, she’d told herself.

But what good was integrity if it left her stuck on the bottom rung for the rest of her career?

She was as good as doomed anyway. The IT firm she worked for had sent out a memo that afternoon; major crackdown on dress codes and employee behavior. No more jeans in the office. No more Goth Hello Kitty hoodie. The red tips in her hair had to go, and the rows of piercings in her ears. Everything that made her herself was going in the trash, to leave a faceless drone.

Sometimes, growing up really sucked.

So did the reprimand she’d found on her desk this morning, signed by none other than Rick. She already had a mark on her permanent employee record over a policy she hadn’t known she was violating because no one had been told yet. Not until lunch and a long, catered meeting about “the vision of a new globalized, harmonized future.”

We are Zero of Borg. Resistance is futile.

She ran her finger around the rim of her glass and listened to the music thumping through the crowded bar. Some kind of awful electronica; this wasn’t her usual after-work spot, but she hadn’t wanted anyone on her team to catch her sulking into her lemon drops at Tapas. They’d either make things worse by sulking with her, or tell her to get over it—and they’d be right. Changing her work M.O. wouldn’t be that bad. Other people did it all the time. She thrived best in a creative environment, just like the rest of her team, but as a junior programmer she didn’t get to call the shots. She could put her time in. Put on a frumpy pants suit. Wear—shudder—heels.

What she wasn’t sure she could do was endure a week-long, company-wide motivational “performance management” seminar.

Performance management. Motivational. Corporate code for veiled threats masked as chipper crap about empowering her workflows and carpe-ing her goddamned diem all the way into working overtime for half the pay just to catch up to jerks like Rick.

She’d need a lot more to drink by the time this week was over.

She tossed her drink back, enjoying the sweet heat of it sliding down her throat, then signaled the bartender for another. She hardly paid attention to the warmth of another human body sliding onto the stool at her side, denim hissing on vinyl, until a deep, gritty voice washed over her.

“That’s your fourth in the last hour. Bad day at work?”

Low words, casual with a slight Creole drawl, familiar from the few years she’d spent in Louisiana after her parents’ Roma wanderlust had turned her childhood into an episode of Carmen Sandiego, dragging Zero and her older brother and sister to a new city every few years. Probably a down-home mouth-breather in a Polo shirt with a popped collar. Not what she needed to deal with tonight.

“Bad enough to want to drink alone.” She fished out her wallet.

“Want to talk about it?”

Zero slid a ten across the bar, flashed the bartender a smile, then turned to face her would-be suitor. “Look, I’m sure you’re a nice g—”

The hinges on her tongue rusted. Pale green eyes studied her, reflective as jade ice, stark against the swarthy tan of sharply angular features—a forbidding face like an unfinished sculpture, edges left rough and hard-chiseled, accented by the dark crop of his close-shaven hair and tightly-trimmed beard. He slouched with casual ease against the bar, wearing frayed don’t-give-a-fuck jeans and a battered brown leather jacket. Not a popped-collar mouth-breather. Not what she was expecting at all.

He arched a brow. A lazy, amused smile softened the harsh planes of his face. “Something wrong?”

“No.” She found her voice—barely—and turned away, curling both hands around the stem of her martini glass. Her face felt molten, her ears burning. “Um. No.”

“That’s interesting,” he drawled softly. “You were ready to brush me off. But one look, and suddenly you’re blushing. So if I was plainer, I wouldn’t have had a chance.”

Her head came up sharply; she glared at him. “Are you calling me shallow?” So he’d caught her off guard. Didn’t mean she was suddenly interested just because he was too hot for a slummy New York corner bar. “And who said you have a chance?”

His gaze lingered on her cheeks. “That blush.”

“You’re an asshole.”

“That may be.” He chuckled, deep and rolling off his tongue like liquid chocolate. “You’re still blushing. So either you’re shallow and you like my pretty face, or you need someone to talk to more than you want to admit. Which is it?”

“Which answer will get you to go away?”

“Neither.” He signaled the bartender. “But I get it. Sometimes a girl just wants to drink alone. Just tell me to get lost.”

She eyed him sidelong. “Who wants to listen to a girl bitch about a bad day?”

“Me.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “The longer I keep you talking, the more time you have to sober up.”

“I’m not driving.”

“Because being drunk and alone on a New York subway is so much better?”

He leaned against the bar to request a Crown and Seven, slipping a few folded bills to the bartender with a subtlety that made him look like he was handling a drug deal. Or maybe she was projecting, since he’d already pissed her off. Presumptuous asshole, strutting over here like he had any right to police how much she drank. Next he’d be telling her to smile, you’d be so much prettier if you smile just like every other jerk out there. Or he’d try to reverse-psychology her into opening her legs.

“Who are you, my nanny?” she muttered against the rim of her drink.

He returned his gaze to her, studying her for long moments. “No. Just a guy who doesn’t like to be the drunken decision you regret in the morning.”

She stared at him. Why that overconfident, arrogant— “If that’s your way of asking if I’ll sleep with you,” she bit off, “you’re out of your mind.”

“It’s my way of saying I’m interested.” Once the bartender set his drink down, he lifted it to his lips, watching her over the rim with a steady gaze. “But we can just talk, too.”

Zero covered her glass with one hand and edged away. “…do I need to watch my drink around you?”

A deep, rolling laugh suddenly lit his face, transforming severe brows and chilling eyes into inviting warmth; faint lines creased the corners of his eyes. He ran a hand over the soft burr of hair clinging to his scalp. “Do I really give off that kind of vibe? Man, I need to work on my game.”

“Yeah, you do.” But the sound of his laughter relaxed her shoulders from where they’d bunched around her ears, and she offered a half-smile. “The suave thing really isn’t working for you.”

“Maybe not. How about dorky yet charming?” He extended a hand—broad, weathered, fingers square and angular. Definitely a down-home Southern boy’s hand. “Evan James.”

She hesitated, but he had distracted her from her little funk. After a moment, she slid her hand into his. “Zero Blackwell.”

His fingers folded around hers, hot and coarse. Just a brief squeeze, but it was long enough for the pad of his thumb to graze the back of her hand, a shiver of friction that left her face too warm again. “Zero?” he asked.

“Short for Zoraya.” She reclaimed her hand and pushed the sleeve of her hoodie back to bare the tattoo encircling her wrist. A bracelet of binary code, ones and zeros looped around, black against her tanned skin. “Code monkey. It’s a thing. You know—binary, Zero.”

“Ah.” He peered at her wrist. “I have no idea what that says other than one zero one one zero…”

“It’s okay. Most people don’t.” She pulled her sleeve down and took a sip of her drink. “So is that what you do? Just dive in face-first like every other neckbeard out there and hope you don’t get slapped?”

“Who says I don’t want to get slapped?”

Biting back a laugh, she gave him a flat look. “Evan.”

He grinned and idly swirled his glass. Ice cubes clinked against the sides, soft underscore to the tinny bass from the speakers. “I go where instinct takes me. Instinct told me you’d had a rotten day, and you could use an ear.”

“So you decided to act like an overconfident, skeevy creep?”

He snorted. “I’m not overconfident.”

“But you won’t deny skeevy creep?”

“Own what you are, I always say. I think I wear my creep crown quite handsomely.”

“That’s awful.” She chuckled, shaking her head. “You’re weird, you know. Watching me for an hour. Counting my drinks.”

Evan leaned on the bar and tilted his head back thoughtfully. “I’m not that much of a stalker. The drinks were a lucky guess. The rest was just working up the nerve to talk to you.”

“So you’re trying to tell me you’re shy now?”

“Would you believe me?”

Zero shook her head with a quick burst of laughter. Who was he fooling? The man had arrogant written all over him. “Not in the slightest.”

“Made you laugh,” he pointed out, a slow, contemplative smile curling his lips. He really had the most distracting mouth, full and lush and desperately in need of biting. “It’s like low, quiet bells when you laugh. I like it.”

Clearing her throat, Zero jerked her gaze from his lips. “Bells?”

“I’m bad at witty compliments.”

“Extremely.”

“You’re still smiling.”

“Okay,” she groaned, then laughed and held both hands up. “Okay. I’m in a shitty mood, and your weirdness might just be cheering me up.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere.” He grinned. “You going to tell me why you’re sucking down lemon drops like it’s the zombie apocalypse and you’re out of chainsaws?”

She couldn’t help laughing again, before trailing into a sigh. “It’s bullshit, really. The company I work for used to be great. Huge, creative team culture. It wasn’t polished, but we got shit done. But there was a huge IPO, and then a merger. Now it’s all about corporate policy. People get screwed.” I got screwed. “Everything gets buried in corporate bureaucracy until we’re hopelessly behind the competition. Plus? I got written up for a dress code violation this morning by my underqualified jerk of a team lead.”

His gaze dipped to her half-zipped hoodie, and the plunging V neck of the t-shirt underneath. “Was that the shirt you were wearing?”

“Yeah.” She glanced down. Invader Zim looked back up at her, middle finger in the air.

He hid a smile behind his tumbler. “I can see how it would be distracting.”

“If you want to cheer me up, you’re not supposed to take their side,” she muttered. “Rules didn’t roll out until this afternoon. Writing me up was bullshit. Plus we all have to go to a mandatory seminar with a motivational speaker, or we’re fired.”

“Sounds pretty rough,” he said mildly.

“Shut up, smartass.” She groaned and dragged a hand through her hair, then pulled a lock forward. Black faded down to a deep, bloody red. She should pick up some black dye in the morning. “I know—I know it’s not much. I just…don’t do well in corporate environments. Maybe I’m being childish.”

“Maybe.” He looked into his tumbler. “Some people are just too independent to work under someone else’s thumb. Human nature is different for everyone. That’s what it means to be human.”

“Yeah. Guess so. But in this economy, I’m lucky to have a job. So…” She raised her drink in a toast. “Ugly pants suits, here I come.”

“Hear hear.” He clinked his drink against hers, before they both tossed theirs back. Zero was tempted to order another, but four was enough. She still had to work in the morning—and bizarrely entertaining as he might be, she was too smart to get wasted in a bar with a strange guy.

The bartender swung by, and she raised her hand. “Coffee, please? Mocha, no cream, two sugars.”

“Same for me, no sugar,” Evan said.

The bartender stalked away, muttering this isn’t a fucking Starbucks. Zero glanced up to find Evan watching her, his pale green eyes shrewd.

“Ever thought of striking out on your own?” he asked. “You’re a programmer, right? I’ve heard every corporate programmer is the legacy of a failed dot-com.”

“I think about it every day, but I have rent to pay. Ideas don’t pay rent.” She shrugged. “Never had a dot-com. Just finished grad school two years ago. Wasn’t even in the market when the bubble burst.”

“And that would make you…how old?”

“Twenty-six.”

He whistled softly with a wicked smile. “Barely legal.”

“You say that like it’s a selling point. How old are you?”

“Thirty-four.”

“Perv,” she teased. “Creeping on barely-legal girls in bars.” Thirty-four shouldn’t look so damned good, but she liked it on him. Made him look more settled than most of the twenty-something recovering frat boys who usually hit on her, or the metro-geek guys who were sweet enough until they called her a bitch for friend-zoning them.

“You don’t have to be in your thirties to be sexy and smart.” A lingering gaze swept over her. “Both of which I’d say you are.”

A slow smile crept across her lips. “More selling points?”

“Definitely,” he murmured, holding her eyes, his own dark and heated. Something about the way he looked at her—the confidence in it, the promise, the easy, casual certainty in himself—made her shiver. Definitely not her usual. And if he kept looking at her that way, she’d probably do something reckless she’d definitely never tell her friends about. She didn’t need to listen to pointless slut-shaming over a little harmless fun.

…she wasn’t actually considering this, was she?

Thank God, the bartender was back with her coffee. She didn’t need to be thinking about making those kinds of mistakes with some overconfident weirdo she’d barely met.

She turned away from him and toyed with the handle of her coffee mug; its warmth soaked into her fingers. “You,” she said, “are definitely doing a better job of distracting me.”

“How about flirting?” he asked. His jeans rasped against the barstool’s cracked vinyl as he shifted closer. The scent of his leather jacket blended with a crisp hint of aftershave and a certain primal male musk. “How am I doing at that?”

Deep breaths. “I’ll let you know after you buy me my next coffee.”

“So flattery and a mocha latte are the way to a woman’s heart.”

“Not necessarily my heart, but you’re talking your way into my good graces.”

He laughed, picked up his mug, and slid off the stool. “C’mon.” He tossed his head toward a booth. “I don’t know about you, but these barstools are chapping my ass.”

Zero rolled her eyes, but rose and followed him to the booth. Still an asshole, she thought. He draped his coat over the back of the seat; she tucked her hoodie and messenger bag into the booth and slid in across from him. “So what do you do, hm?”

“The usual. Suit and tie. I’m more interested in honing my flirting skills than talking about work.”

“Great. Now I’m practice.” She snorted, trailing into a laugh.

She was still laughing hours later, when she glanced down at her watch. Her stomach dropped out. She couldn’t believe how late it had gotten; Evan had completely distracted her. She’d thought he’d stop being funny once the lemon drops were out of her system, but three hours and five coffees later, here she was. He’d teased. She’d rebuffed. He’d flirted. She’d avoided. But she kept finding her gaze returning to that sinful mouth, her thoughts drifting until he dragged them back with another question or smartass comment.

But smartass comments wouldn’t keep her going in the morning. She slid to her feet and into her hoodie. “It’s midnight. I should be in bed. I still have to go listen to that douchenozzle tomorrow.”

“Douchenozzle? Creative.” He rose with her, shrugging broad, powerful shoulders into his leather jacket. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.” At her skeptical look, he laughed. “Seriously, I just want to make sure you get home safe.”

“I stopped being tipsy four coffees ago.”

“I know. But it’s after midnight, and this is New York.”

“For all you know, I live a two-hour train ride away.”

“Then we’d better find something to talk about,” he said, and gestured toward the door with a bow. “After you.”

Zero eyed him, then groaned, shouldered her bag, and headed for the door. “You’re not getting off the train with me,” she said.

“Of course not.”

He got off the train with her.

They took the twenty-minute ride in easy silence, pressed close on the narrow subway seats, the hard heat of his thigh sandwiched against hers, their bodies brushing together each time the train jolted. God, he smelled good. She was way too sober for what she was thinking right now. Especially when every time he caught her eye—caught her watching him—he gave her that slow, sensuous smile that said he knew exactly what was on her mind.

When the train let off at her stop he rose with her, but stopped at the door of the subway car, looking down at her. She had fifteen seconds to make up her mind before the train whisked him off and she never saw him again. She looked up into pale green eyes, dark with the question he wouldn’t ask.

She took a deep breath. To hell with it. Not like she hadn’t done the walk of shame before.

“Walk me to my door?” she asked, and he smiled with those sinful damned lips that made something so simple look so dirty.

“Of course,” he said, and stepped off the train. The door whooshed shut behind him. “I’d hate for anything to happen to you.”

In the twenty steps from the transit exit to my front door, she thought, but said nothing.

They stepped out into the crunch of snow on the sidewalk, breaths tasting of the crisp, clean scent of fresh snowfall on each cold bright inhalation, pluming into smoke as they rushed out. Street lights gleamed golden, stars bottled in glass, lighting their way as she led him up the sidewalk to her building, their arms brushing with every step. She dug out her keys, then glanced at him, biting her lip.

“This is me.”

“I had guessed.” He reached up to coil a lock of her hair around his finger, then brushed its tip against her cheek in a ticklish trail as he stepped closer. Deliciously close, oppressively close, the tall bulk of him caging her against the door of the building. “I won’t ask, Zero. It’s your choice.”

“Okay,” she said with a shaky breath. “Okay. Well you can come up if you want. Or not.”

“You have to unlock the door first.”

“That too.”

Somehow she fumbled her key into the lock, and nearly ran up the stairs. He was a dark shadow on her heels, stalking her to the front door of her third-floor shoebox studio. She felt hunted, and a delicious shiver went through her when, as she unlocked her door, his hands curled against her waist, burning hot and rough through her hoodie and shirt. He leaned into her, his body hard against her back, and dipped his head. His lips hovered over her throat, and with a husky sound he simply inhaled.

“You smell like green apples,” he whispered, and caught her earlobe between his teeth. The sharp pleasurable sting of a bite bolted straight to every pleasure point in her body before he soothed it with the soft tracery of his tongue. She trembled, and made herself pull away long enough to step inside and drag him through the door.

He backed her up against the wall just past the entryway, trapping her against the hard brick. She wasn’t that short—five foot five—but he towered over her, until he nearly enveloped her. His knuckles grazed down her throat, rough callused texture teasing her skin into prickles as he traced a path down to the zipper of her hoodie.

“Changing your mind?” he breathed, eyes simmering hot as he slowly dragged the zipper down, teeth popping apart with a loud rasp.

“No,” she whispered, and swallowed hard. “But let’s get one thing straight. You are definitely the mistake I’ll regret in the morning. You won’t call me, I won’t call you.”

“I can deal with that,” he said, then drew her close and kissed her.

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