Talking Dirty with the CEO
Author:Jackie Ashenden

Chapter One


Joseph Ashton sat at Karl’s desk and looked idly around the office, tapping his pen on the desktop. Christ, he hated waiting. Especially when he was working late and there was a lot of work to be done. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the work, he just wasn’t a fan of sitting still.

It bored him. Just like he was bored now.

Dropping the pen with a restless movement, he stretched out his legs and put his hands behind his head, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling. He’d been up until 2:00 a.m. most nights working on fine-tuning Ashton Tech’s upcoming E-Slate launch and he was exhausted. If he didn’t find something to keep him occupied while he waited, he’d crash right here on the damn desk.

Joseph blew out a breath. What he really needed was something new. Something challenging. Ashton Tech’s E-Slate was already the talk of the tech world, but given how fast the market was growing, he was going to need a follow-up to keep the momentum going. Some kind of product that would be the Next Big Thing.

A pity his friend Caleb was playing rugby overseas—he was great for bouncing ideas off of.

But maybe this required a feminine touch. Perhaps he should call Alicia after he’d finished here. Work out the restlessness with a bit of fun in bed… No, on second thought, not Alicia. He’d been there, done that. Two nights with her was plenty.

He looked around Karl’s untidy desk, scanning for something else to fiddle with, when a soft chiming noise came from his employee’s computer. Joseph glanced at the instant message chat window that popped up.

Bloody Karl and his online games. Clearly Joseph needed to send out a memo regarding company Internet policy. Either that or block the site, because this was happening way too often.

A line of text blinked and he couldn’t help but read it.

Naughtygirl25: What am I wearing? A bra, garter belt, sheer black stockings, and…

Joseph sighed. God. What the hell was Karl doing? Picking up women in a gaming forum was hardly a work-related activity. He reached for the mouse, intending to close down the IM window, when another line of text appeared.

…and some Ugg boots.

His hand paused on the mouse, his attention caught. Ugg boots? Surely not. Black stilettos or thigh-high bondage boots, maybe. Sheepskin slippers? No. The contrast with the garter belt and stockings was…interesting to say the least.

He glanced at the username. Naughtygirl25. Unusual handle, especially considering the Ugg boots. Did naughty girls even wear slippers? The ones he knew didn’t.

The IM window pinged and more text appeared.

Naughtygirl25: What? You think the boots are too much? ;)

Funny girl. Joseph felt a grin coming on. Before he knew what he was doing he’d typed a response.

Studman500: Ugg boots are never too much. I love sheepskin on a woman. Or should I say, a woman on a sheepskin.

He winced at the Studman handle. That was Karl. Subtle.

There was no response for a long moment. Then:

Naughtygirl25: Who says I’m a woman?

Joseph’s grin widened. Whoever Naughtygirl25 was, he/she/it was amusing. He thought for a minute and then responded:

Studman500: If you’re not then you’re going to look bloody funny in a bra and garter belt. Either that or you’re going for the sexy transvestite look.

The chat window remained empty for a second or two and then another smiley face popped up.

Naughtygirl25: Ha. Ha. I could be a sexy transvestite for all you know.

Well, Naughtygirl could be but he didn’t think so.

He stared at the screen, wondering if he should call a halt to it. Online chatting with strangers wasn’t really his thing, but he couldn’t deny that this was momentarily diverting. And he wasn’t bored now, was he?

He looked up from the computer, checking Karl’s position through the glass walls of the meeting room. The guy was over by the water cooler, talking on his cell phone. Well, if Karl could interrupt their meeting to chat on his bloody phone, Joseph could answer an IM. Besides, wasn’t it his job to see exactly what his employees were up to when he wasn’t around?

Returning his hands to the keys, he typed in a reply.

Studman500: And here I was thinking you were a naughty girl. What a disappointment.

The reply came back quickly this time:

Naughtygirl25: No need for disappointment. You were right. I am a naughty girl. Emphasis on the girl.

Interesting. Very interesting. And a comeback that could be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways. Best to be certain, though.

Studman500: Oh really? I was hoping the emphasis would be on the naughty.

There was a long pause, as if she was thinking about her answer. Then, much to his disappointment, another couple of people entered the chat room. Joseph shifted in his chair, unaccountably annoyed. Dammit. He’d been enjoying himself.

Naughtygirl25: Hey, looks like the game’s starting. See you on the map?

That would be a no. He wasn’t a gamer.

Studman500: Nah. I’ll sit this one out. And think about naughty girls instead.

Another pause. The chat room—where everyone gathered before the map loaded—cleared out as all the participants entered the game. All except Naughtygirl25. Now why was that?

Studman500: What’s happening, Naughtygirl? I thought you wanted to play?

There was no response for a minute. What was she doing? Had he taken the “naughty” a bit too far? A few moments later Naughtygirl’s reply appeared:

Naughtygirl25: I do want to play. How about this for a game? Me: bra, garter belt, stockings, and Ugg boots. You: leopard-print thong, baby oil, and…

The cursor blinked, annoyingly still. Then:

Naughtygirl25: …and a smile.

He laughed. So she wanted to stay and chat, did she? He was all for that. Because this was way better than staring aimlessly at the ceiling while he waited for Karl to wrap up his office gossip, that was for sure. Hell, this was better than any of the last few face-to-face flirtations he’d indulged in. He reached for the keyboard again:

Studman500: I like your game, Naughtygirl. But can you make it naughtier?

Another smiley face popped up.

Naughtygirl25: Add a lava lamp, a sheepskin rug, a mirror on the ceiling, and some etchings I can come up and see. Naughty enough now?

Dammit, now he couldn’t stop grinning. They’d bypassed the naughty and were now heading into cheesy territory. That was okay, though. He liked cheesy. After a quick check to make sure Karl was still talking, he typed in another response.

Studman500: Not quite. We need music. How about a bit of Neil Diamond to set the mood? Though, if you prefer Barry White, then I have that, too.

Naughtygirl25: Nope, I’m a Neil Diamond girl all the way. Are we having drinks?

She really had to ask?

Studman500: How does a Bloody Mary suit you? On the rocks, naturally.

More laughing emoticons:

Naughtygirl25: Naturally. So drinks are sorted. What other naughtiness can we get up to?

He could think of several things. But really, how far should he take this? Sexy online chat wasn’t something he’d ever done, especially at work. And although he was enjoying himself, he supposed he needed to get rid of her and not actively encourage her.

The cursor blinked and more text scrolled past:

Naughtygirl25: Don’t leave me hanging here, Studman. I’m coming to the end of my Bloody Mary. Bring on the naughtiness!

Then again, he was the boss, wasn’t he? And what was the point of being in charge if you couldn’t break the rules now and then? Hell, if he wanted to engage in some flirtatious sexy chat with a faceless stranger then he damn well would.

Naughtygirl25: Helllloooo…Studman?

He flexed his fingers and typed:

Studman500: How naughty do you want me to be?

Naughtygirl25: I don’t know, how naughty can you get?

Oh. Very.

Studman500: Okay, how’s this? First, I’ll be laying you down on my sheepskin rug and next I’ll be taking all your clothes off, revealing you inch by delicious inch. Leaving the Ugg boots till last.

There was a long pause.

Joseph sat back and stared at the screen. Had he scared her off? Perhaps he’d been too full-on with the sexual innuendo. He did sometimes get carried away when he got very focused on a particular thing, though not usually to that extent.

Annoyed with himself and too impatient to wait for a response, he quickly typed another message:

Studman500: Well, I guess that’s inappropriate. Sorry.

There was nothing for a moment. Then:

Naughtygirl25: Hey, no worries. And you weren’t too inappropriate. At least up to the point where the clothes came off. LOL! Are you always this forward with strange women?

A weird kind of relief went through him.

Studman500: I blame the Ugg boots. One look at them and I completely lost my head.

Naughtygirl25: In that case, wanna know a secret? *whispers* Men in thongs drive me wild.

Joseph laughed. Like thongs were ever a good look for men. At least he’d never be caught dead in one. Whoever this woman was, he was starting to like her. Very much.

Studman500: Oh, don’t tease. I’m hard for those Ugg boots already.

Another pause, and then she shot back:

Naughtygirl25: Okay, since we’re not being prudish here, why don’t I ditch all my clothes and just keep the Ugg boots on?

Nice. If this was an example of her dirty talk, then he wanted more. Discovering something new and different was always a turn-on. Shifting in his seat again, he answered:

Studman500: A naked woman in Uggs. This is getting better and better. Though I want you to turn down the tops of your boots so that when you wrap your legs around me, I can feel the sheepskin lining against my back.

Would she like that? Would she find it as much of a turn-on as he did? Oh, he hoped so.

Naughtygirl25: Phew *fans self* I can go you one better, though…

The cursor blinked for a long moment. Then the text came back fast, as if she had to get it down in a hurry:

Naughtygirl25: …if I’m on top, you could lie down on the sheepskin rug and have the whole thing against your back.

Hot. Extremely hot. He couldn’t wait to hear more:

Studman500: Now you’re getting into the spirit of it. Perhaps we could

“Sorry about that, boss.”

Joseph cursed under his breath. Quickly he erased the chat history and closed the chat window as Karl came back to his desk.

Jesus, the guy’s timing sucked. Especially when things were just getting interesting with Naughtygirl. Couldn’t he have continued his bloody phone call for another five minutes?

It was crazy but for the rest of the meeting, Joseph hardly paid attention. He was too busy thinking about the mini-flirtation with Naughtygirl25. E-mail and chat were part and parcel of his business but he’d never gotten into anything like that before. Although he’d never needed to. He had women coming out of his ears. And he didn’t need to go to the Internet to find them.

But there was something about that Naughtygirl25. Witty, flirtatious, with the quirkiest sense of humor. Man, he’d never had such an off-the-wall conversation with a woman before.

Joseph sat there, listening but not really taking in what Karl was saying. All he could think about was how he could possibly get the other man to leave again. At least long enough so he could find out more about Naughtygirl25.



He’d gone. Just like that. At least she thought he was gone. The cursor had been motionless, blinking steadily in the middle of the last sentence for a while now.

Christie St. John leaned back from her laptop, her hands shaking, unable to repress the genuine stab of disappointment at Studman500’s no-show. God, that chat had been something else. Possibly flirty. Definitely naughty. And yeah, go on, downright sexy, too. Except that sexy flirting wasn’t something she did often—correction—at all. Ever. It had been as if someone else had been typing those things for her. A vampish part of her she’d never known she’d possessed.

Christie stared at the screen, willing Studman500 to keep going. But the chat window remained stubbornly blank. And then a notification popped up saying Studman500 was offline.

Damn.

She sat back on the couch and took a sip of her wine, her hands trembling. What on earth had gotten into her? She’d logged on to the New Zealand site of Zombie Force Online for a quick game. A game she’d then ditched just to talk to him about sex in Ugg boots.

Her cheeks felt hot. What an idiot to mention those. But the group she’d been with in the chat room had started a jokey conversation about what clothing they gamed in, and she’d gotten a tad stupid with the whole garter belt/Ugg boot thing. Yet he’d seemed to get it, hadn’t he?

A small grin crept up on her. She was no stranger to online forums or chat rooms but that was the first time ever she’d actually flirted in one. It was kind of a rush.

Letting out a breath and fighting feelings of disappointment at the lack of response from Studman500, she minimized the chat window and brought up her e-mail program. There was a new e-mail from Marisa, her boss’s PA.

The e-mail only had one line: “Have you set up any dates yet?”

Ben, her boss and editor at Total Tech, the gadget/computer magazine she wrote for, had given Christie the unenviable assignment of writing an Internet dating piece in a bid to gain a few more readers for the magazine. Marisa, self-acknowledged dating expert and Christie’s friend, had volunteered to “help” with setting up the dates. Help meaning nag.

Christie made an irritable noise. She liked Marisa, but the other woman had an annoying habit of trying to get her to come out of her shell. Annoying because Christie was perfectly happy inside her shell.

She leaned forward to type in a reply but right on cue, her phone rang. She didn’t need to check the caller ID to know who it was.

“I was just replying to your e-mail, Marisa.”

“Damn technology,” Marisa replied. “I thought I’d actually talk to you.”

“Fine. What do you want to know?”

“The date and how’s it going?”

Christie pursed her lips. “It’s going.”

“You haven’t set any up at all, have you? God, St. John, it’s only a couple of dates. Not open-heart surgery.”

“I know.” Christie sank into the couch. “I’m getting myself in the zone.”

“Yeah, right. And how, exactly, are you doing that? Pictures of naked men? Internet porn?”

Christie toyed with her wineglass. A sneaky online game of Zombie Force didn’t fall into either of those categories. More like the procrastination category. But Marisa didn’t need to know that. “No, of course not. I’ve been checking out…um…stuff.”

“‘Stuff’. Uh-huh. Well, do you want help with that ‘stuff’? I’ve got a few profiles set up on some dating sites. You can use them if you want.”

She knew Marisa had a few profiles. Just like she knew the photo that went along with them.

Long, blond tumbling locks. Curves that would’ve made Marilyn Monroe jealous. Wide, crystalline blue eyes. None of which Christie had. Oh no. She didn’t have curves, she had bones. And frizzy chestnut hair. And eyes an indeterminate shade between green and gray.

But hey, that was fine. After a lifetime of having her appearance picked over by her mother, she’d gotten to the point where she just didn’t care anymore. Bones and frizz were A-okay with her. They went with the jeans and the Doc Martens boots quite nicely, thank you very much.

“Uh, thanks for the offer, Mar. But no.”

“Why do I get the feeling you don’t want to do this?”

“Maybe because I don’t?” And she didn’t. In fact, she hated dating. With a passion. “I don’t even know why Ben gave me this stupid assignment. Probably because I’m the only woman on the team.”

“Ahem.”

“Sorry. The only female writer on the team.”

“Oh, come on. He chose you because you write extremely well and you know it.”

“Yeah, but face it, I’m the world’s worst choice to write an article on dating.” Christie bit her lip, trying not to dwell on the unfairness of it and failing. “I suck at that face-to-face, man-woman stuff.” At least she did when it came to stepping outside the gaming/tech world. Not that it bothered her. Most of her friends were guys, and being friends with them was cool. She wasn’t after anything more.

Marisa huffed. “So what was Greg? Chopped liver?”

“Greg was different. Greg was—”

“Greg was barely a man. You need to get over that loser.”

Christie’s grip tightened on her wineglass. “This has got nothing to do with G—”

“Bull. It’s been a year since you two broke up and you’re still single. What’s the holdup?”

With a conscious effort, Christie eased the stranglehold on her glass. “There’s no holdup. I’m happy being by myself.”

“Yeah, and I’m Elvis Presley reincarnated. Come on, sitting around at home IM’ing your friends and playing online games does not constitute a social life. Or any life, for that matter.”

Christie pulled a face. What was so wrong with it? She liked upgrading her computers and IM’ing people. She liked playing online games. Okay, so she didn’t get out much, but she hated bars and nightclubs. Being at home watching TV or reading a good book was much more interesting than the endless round of socializing Marisa seemed to do.

“Mar,” she said, trying for patience, “this dating thing isn’t about me being single or otherwise. It’s to do with Ben’s assignment.”

“But you can’t deny it’s a great excuse to get yourself a hot man.”

“I don’t want a hot man. Or a cold man. Or any man for that matter. Like I said, I’m happy as I am.”

Marisa made an exasperated sound. “Well, okay, fine. Ignore me then.”

Christie sighed. She kicked her feet up onto the coffee table and examined the steel-capped toes of her new cherry-red Doc Martens boots. “I guess you could help me sort out the weirdos,” she offered after a moment.

There was a small silence on the other end of the phone. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’ll set up a few profiles on those dating sites you told me about. Hopefully I’ll get a couple of bites. Then when it’s date time, you can come along with me, check out the guy to make sure he’s not an ax murderer or something, and then come and rescue me if things go bad.”

Which they would. Because they usually did. Not bad in a weird way, just bad in a hideously awkward “I can’t think of anything to say to you” way. Talking to complete strangers had never been something she’d enjoyed. Face to face, at least. Online was entirely different.

“Be your wing-woman?” Marisa asked.

“Yeah. What do you think?” If she were completely honest with herself, having the moral support would be good. God knew she needed it.

Marisa made a soft humming sound, as if weighing the scenario. “You do know I’ve been trying to be your wing-woman ever since you and Greg broke up.”

“Er…have you?”

“Uh-huh. And don’t pretend you don’t know that.”

Christie could feel herself blushing. Yeah, okay, so she may have been avoiding Marisa’s setups. But that had nothing to do with Greg. Less than nothing. Yes, he’d cheated on her with a blonde go-getter who worked in an ad agency. Yes, it had hurt. But she was over it. In fact, she was glad the loser had ditched her. Because when it got to the point where your family seemed to like your boyfriend more than they liked you, then clearly it was time to be single.

Christie took a steadying sip of her wine. “Is that a yes then?”

“Are you kidding me? Of course it’s a yes.”

Five minutes later, a plan in place, Christie was in the process of mentally girding her loins in preparation for the date-finding when her phone rang again.

Reflexively she answered it. Probably Marisa with a whole raft of date wardrobe suggestions.

“Christie?”

A small, hard stone settled in the middle of her chest. Oh joy. She did love talking to her mother. Not.

“Mum. This is a surprise.” She hadn’t spoken to Helene St. John for at least a couple of months. Not since the last call about how Andrew, her brother, had made partner and what a wonderful son he was and how she was so proud. She hadn’t asked Christie a single question about how she was doing. Not one.

“Oh darling,” her mother said, her warm endearments as fake as her eyelashes, “don’t be like that. Not when I have such wonderful news.”

Hating herself for the need that opened up inside her every time she heard her mother’s voice, Christie bit down hard on her lip. “What is it? I’m kind of busy.”

“Not playing one of those silly computer games again?” Her mother gave a musical laugh. “Aren’t you a bit old for those?”

A sharp, metallic taste filled Christie’s mouth. “They’re not silly.” Same old broken record.

“Yes, well. You know my thoughts on the subject. Anyway, that’s not what I called about. Andrew and Emily have just gotten engaged!”

“How lovely,” Christie said in a mechanical voice. So her gorgeous, highly successful brother had just got engaged to the beautiful daughter of one of Auckland’s richest families. Her mother must be over the moon that at least one of her children was doing well.

“Try to sound excited, darling,” Helene chided. “In a couple of weeks we’re going to be throwing the most fabulous party for them and Andrew will be heartbroken if you don’t come.”

Andrew wouldn’t be heartbroken. A few years older than she was, he tended to view her with either mild scorn or complete indifference. Like her father. Both of them were too involved in their careers to pay much more than fleeting attention to her.

Not that she cared. She’d gotten over trying to fit into her family years ago. She had a good job, a nice apartment—at least when she bothered to tidy it—and a whole lot of cool friends. She didn’t need them.

“Thanks, Mum, but I’ve got a…” She tried to think of a decent enough excuse that wouldn’t send her mother into one of her usual pouting fits. “A work deadline. I really can’t miss it.”

There was a pause. “Oh, Christie.” Her mother sounded wounded. “Surely work isn’t that important? Please come. I haven’t seen you for months. You know I miss you.”

Christie’s hand tightened on her handset. A lie, her brain knew it. Her experience backed it up. Helene didn’t miss her. She’d only said that so Christie would do as she was told. So Helene could show off her “perfect” family, prove what a fantastic mother she was.

Oh yes, Christie’s brain knew those things. But her heart didn’t. Her heart refused to believe it. Her heart was a doormat that wanted Helene to be a real mother. A mother who would be proud of her only daughter.

“You don’t miss me.”

“Of course I do. And I’m hurt you’d even think otherwise.” Helene in full-on aggrieved mode. “Please, darling. Do come. For me?”

And of course her stupid heart ached. Wanting to believe her. Telling Christie that perhaps this time, on this occasion, her mother meant it.

“Mum—”

“Darling.” Helene’s voice was very soft. “We could have some together time perhaps? Just you and me?”

Lies. Such lies. Hot, angry words flooded into her head. Words that she could never say because somehow whenever she tried to speak the truth to her mother, the words always tangled themselves up and she couldn’t get them out. “M-m-mum…”

“Oh don’t stutter, dear. It’s a dreadful habit.”

Christie shut her mouth. Bit back the words, just as she always did. Hated herself for doing so, just as she always did. Hated her poor, deluded doormat heart for wanting something it was never going to get. Hated herself for giving in.

“Yes, okay,” she said, tiredly. “I’ll come to the party.”

“Wonderful.” The wounded tone vanished as if it had never been. “I’ll send the invite to you as soon as I’ve approved the mock-up. Oh,” a small pause. “I don’t suppose you patched things up with Greg, did you? We’d just love to see him again.”

Of course they would. Her family had thought the sun shone out of Greg’s proverbial. Even when Christie had told them about their breakup and his cheating, they’d been all “poor Greg,” making her feel as if she was to blame somehow.

Christie stared straight ahead, her jaw tight. “Patch things up? You do remember the whole cheating thing, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course I do. But men are like that. You really have to make an effort to hold on to them.” Her mother sighed. “So you’re not going to try and get him back then? He was such a wonderful man. Very much our kind of people, darling.”

“No, I’m not,” Christie said stonily. Really, the amount of wine left in the bottle wasn’t going to be enough after this conversation. She’d need the whole bloody vineyard. “I think I’d rather poke my own eyes out with matchsticks.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Christie. There’s no need for that kind of thing.” Helene sighed again, sounding long-suffering. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything different from you. All right, come by yourself. I’m sure we can find someone nice for you.”

Oh yeah, like the last family party. Where her mother “just happened” to have invited one of the younger tax lawyers from her father’s corporate law firm to “keep Christie company.” The guy had spent a whole hour talking about himself and his boat, then asked her about her stock portfolio. And since Christie knew nothing about stocks, still less about portfolios, the conversation had gone downhill from there.

Her mother’s version of “someone nice” was Christie’s version of “someone who liked to talk about himself and nothing else for hours,” in other words.

Christie swallowed. “I have a boyfriend already, okay?”

A complete and utter lie but it was the only way to get her mother off her back.

“You do?” Genuine surprise this time. “Anyone I know?”

Oh crap. Her and her stupid mouth. “No, no one. Sorry, Mum. I’ve got to go.”

“Make sure you bring him—”

Christie hung up before her mother could finish, her hand shaking as she stabbed the disconnect button.

Great. So now not only had she agreed to go to her perfect brother’s perfect engagement party, she’d totally made up a boyfriend to bring along as well.

Good going, St. John. Perhaps you could make up an imaginary guy for an imaginary date for Ben’s article, too?

Christie picked up her wine and swallowed the rest of it, choking only slightly. The alcohol sat in her stomach, lighting up a fire, her anger beginning to burn.

No, dammit, she wasn’t going to let her mother get to her like this. The days of trying to please her, trying to get just one word of praise from her, were over.

O-V-E-R.

She wasn’t hopeless with men. She hadn’t been with Studman, had she? Oh no, she’d had a sexy conversation. Involving garters and Bloody Marys and sheepskin rugs.

Christie set her jaw and glared at her laptop, determination hardening inside her.

She was going to get her date for her article and the date would be great. No, scrub that—the date would be amazing. She’d show her mother just how damn good she was with men.

And she knew just where to go and who to ask to prove her point.

Christie logged back in to the Zombie Force chat room. Empty. So maybe Studman wouldn’t show, but it didn’t hurt to check. Maybe she’d get lucky. And if he wasn’t around then there would be others. Plenty of others. She’d find someone. She wasn’t totally lame.

Five minutes later, the chat room remained empty and Christie was feeling more disappointed than she cared to admit. Perhaps it was time to call it quits and find someone else. Clearly he wasn’t going to show.

She was on the point of logging off when a chat window popped up again.

Studman500: Hello Naughtygirl, I was wondering if you’d visit again.

A fierce dart of exhilaration arrowed through her. He was here. Now all she had to do was find a bit of courage, ask him if he wanted a date, and she was set. Easy. Yeah, right.

Naughtygirl25: Just passing through. Where did you go?

He seemed to ignore her question.

Studman500: Liar. You were checking to see if I was online, weren’t you?

Even here, sitting in her apartment by herself, she blushed.

Naughtygirl25: Maybe.

Another pause.

Studman500: Tell me what you’re doing right now. Lounging on the sheepskin rug?

Oh boy, she’d love to do more dirty talk with him, but she was on a mission now. An important mission. One that had nothing to do with killing zombies for a change.

Before she could lose her nerve, Christie opened a private message and typed quickly:

Naughtygirl25: Do you want to meet? For a date?

God, the guy probably thought she was a complete and utter freak. She’d only talked to him for the equivalent of ten minutes before the game had started and then in the chat room by themselves. But they’d had…something in those moments, hadn’t they?

Studman500: A date? IRL?

In real life.

Naughtygirl25: Yes.

Christie stared at her screen until it blurred, her heart thumping, caught on the fine edge between disappointment and relief that he’d say no.

Then his reply came up:

Studman500: As a rule, I don’t date women I meet in chat rooms. But I’ll make a special exception for you. Especially if you bring the sheepskin rug.

He was into it. He really was. Oh bloody hell.

Christie reached for her wine bottle and poured herself another large glass to calm the sudden, spiraling doubt. Perhaps this was sleazy. Perhaps he was a serial killer. Perhaps he was a sweaty, pimply teenage boy. Or, worse, eighty-five and into little girls.

But it didn’t feel sleazy. The gut feeling she got from Studman500 was anything but.

And Marisa would be there as her wing-woman. In retrospect that had been a great move. There was no risk involved.

Christie took a deep breath and typed:

Naughtygirl25: Okay. Where and when to meet?

His reply came back without hesitation.

Studman500: Tomorrow night. At Blue. 7 p.m.

Blue was a bar in the Viaduct Basin on Auckland’s harbor, the restaurant district. It was popular, crowded, and just the kind of place that Christie hated. Crap.

Studman500: Oh, and wear the Ugg boots.

Christie groaned.

Naughtygirl25: IN the pub? I don’t think so. I’ll wear…a sheep brooch. How does that sound?

Studman500: Bizarre. But distinctive. See you there, Naughtygirl.

Christie sat back from the computer, her heart thumping.

Had she really done it?

Had she, the geeky girl who hated dating, really set up an Internet date? With a total stranger?

Oh yes, she bloody well had.

Christie raised her glass toward the computer screen and drained the rest of her wine. “In your face, Mum.”