Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Dealing with the male ego was a lot like painting. Both required me to create an image, evoke an emotional response, and find the balance between indifference and trying too hard. They needed gentle strokes, the right amount of buildup.
Such fragile things.
Soft indie rock filtered out of a nearby speaker as I sat at the end of the fiberglass bar. Pixels—a pub with concrete floors, smooth white tables, and clean minimalist lines—catered to the up-and-coming tech crowd. Two women on the opposite side of the bar negotiated the sale of a search engine over martinis, while a guy at a nearby table double-checked the sales figures for ad space on a new social media platform before the rest of his party showed up. This was where people in tech came to network and make deals.
My target had big plans tonight.
I took a sip of my martini and twirled the tiny umbrella I’d requested between my finger and thumb as I went over my checklist for tonight. Chad Collinsworth, who sounded as douchey as his name suggested, had worked with my client for two years developing a dating app called Triple M (for mix, match, mingle). He’d worked in the register’s office, so he’d handled all the filing and paperwork. My client had trusted him. A mistake, since right after they gained a relative amount of success, he blocked her number and disappeared. Turned out, Chad had not only listed himself as sole creator, but he’d also tricked her into signing away any rights to the app by slipping an affidavit in with all their other paperwork.
When she couldn’t find a lawyer to take her case, she called Margo Pheffer.
I’d worked for Margo for the last two years at Heartbreak for Hire, an undercover operation that specialized in a variety of revenge schemes for jilted lovers, annoyed coworkers, and frenemies. For a price. Those in need of our services found us through word of mouth, Craigslist, and coded ads in magazines that catered to the women of Chicago. There were four of us Heartbreakers, each with her own specialty: Egos, Players, Cheaters, and Grifters. I handled the Egos, men in the workplace who needed to be taken down a notch, and I was generally hired by women who knew them on a professional level and hated them with the scorching rage of a thousand suns.
The pay couldn’t be beat, and one day I’d have saved enough to buy my own gallery where I could surround myself with art and maybe even sell my own paintings, if I ever worked up the courage to show them. Until that day came, I’d happily give my clients the retaliation they deserved.
Chad walked into the bar and ran a hand through his game-show-host hair. He had the kind of face that just begged to have a drink thrown at it. He wore a navy suit, red tie, and smarmy smile, as if he’d been personally styled by the Young Republicans Club. The idea of flirting with this guy kicked up my gag reflex, but I was nothing if not professional.
Step one: get his interest.
His gaze met mine across the bar. I dipped my head and gave him a simpering smile. The tight red dress I’d chosen for tonight pushed my boobs up to my neck. My golden curls rippled down the length of my back. According to my research, he wanted a woman with an empty head and a full wallet. I fully intended to play the part.
Chad took a seat at a nearby table and checked his teeth in the reflection of a spoon. A waitress tried handing him a menu, but he shooed her away with a swish of his well-manicured hand. He thought he’d be meeting Tom Berry, the head of a software engineering company, here to negotiate the sale of Triple M. It had taken me two weeks of monitoring his social media interactions to put this con together. Posing as the real Tom Berry’s secretary, I’d scheduled the setup. By the time Chad figured out he’d been had, my client would be well on her way to suing him for rightful ownership of the app.
After fifteen minutes Chad relaxed his posture and checked his watch as he drummed his fingers on the table. Any moment now he’d call Tom’s secretary. I ordered a scotch on the rocks, then paid the waitress twenty dollars to give Chad the martini I’d sprinkled with edible glitter.
Now the real fun could begin.
Before the confusion could set in, I made my way over to Chad’s table and set the scotch in front of him. “I think there’s been a mistake.” I let out a breathy giggle. “I’m so bad at this. I meant to send you the scotch and keep the Gold Rush for myself.”
He smirked and picked up the martini, examining the glitter floating around in the clear liquid. “What exactly is a Gold Rush?”
A drink that didn’t technically exist, but he didn’t need to know that. “It’s off-menu.” I slipped into the chair beside him and took a sip of the martini, closing my eyes as if in ecstasy. “Made with edible gold leaf. Expensive, but delicious.”
He perked up at the word expensive. Interest received.
Step two: feed his ego.
“I hope I’m not interrupting a date.” I forced a blush. “I noticed you the moment you walked through the door, and I said to myself, ‘You need to meet that guy.’?”
He laughed like I was just the cutest. Darned. Thing. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
He asked it absently, to my boobs, like he genuinely could not give less of a shit. Typical Ego behavior. In the two years I’d been working for Margo, I’d yet to meet a target who did the bare minimum of looking me in the eye when he asked my name.
I took a sip of my drink, letting my tongue sweep my bottom lip while I stared at his mouth. Egos didn’t respond well to subtlety. “My name is Anna.”
I never gave targets any personal information, including my real name. My job as a Heartbreaker was to craft an image and play whatever part necessary to reel them in. Margo gave us all three rules when we started at H4H: never trust a target, never break character with a target, and never sleep with a target. She’d created the rules to protect us from the enemy, and considering our histories, none of us had a problem following them.
“Well then, Anna. I’m here for a business meeting.” He leaned in closer, and I could feel a sneeze building from the fumes coming off his aftershave. “Not a date. How about that?”
How about that? Was he expecting applause? I thought about fuzzy kittens, long days at the beach, my ex getting swarmed by bees, anything happy to keep my expression from betraying my disgust. “That’s good news for me.”
“I’d say that’s good news for both of us.” He gave me what I’d bet he thought was his most dazzling smile. Very toothy. Like a cartoon shark. “Have you ever been to Monaco?”
I shook my head. Was that his idea of an icebreaker? Apparently, by the way he droned on about the places he’d traveled and the restaurants where he’d eaten and the people with whom he’d rubbed elbows. I did my best to look sufficiently awed.
“Wow, how exciting. It must be wonderful to have a job that lets you travel so much.” I motioned for the waitress to bring him another drink. Not enough to get him drunk, but just enough to loosen his tongue. It was time to get this show moving along. “Do you work in tech?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He glanced toward the door. Sweat beaded his upper lip as he glanced at his watch again. “What about you?”
Not bad. It had only taken him twenty minutes of puffing himself up to ask me a single question. “I won the lottery.”
He swallowed too fast and beat against his chest as he coughed. “You did what now?”
I blinked at him, careful to keep my face blank. The lottery was a little over the top, but I needed to convince him I had money while simultaneously making him think I wasn’t all that bright. This required the least amount of research.
“I won the lottery,” I repeated just as earnestly, as if he hadn’t actually heard me the first time. “My advisor said I should diversify my portfolio by getting into tech. That’s why I’m here tonight.”
“Really.” He leaned back in his chair with an amused expression. He looked me up and down, like I was nothing more than a bubble-headed woman but he’d do me the favor of humoring me. “What kind of tech are you looking to get into?”
I took another sip of my drink and shrugged. “He set me up with a Tom Berry? I’m supposed to be meeting him here any minute now, but the decorators are redoing my condo, so I showed up a little early.”
The front legs of his chair slammed to the ground as he sat forward. That had got his attention. “What business do you have with Tom Berry?”
Step three: make him chase.
“He’s going to sell me a dating app.” I picked up my drink and stood. “I should probably let you get back to your business, though. Call me sometime?”
I left a napkin with a fake number and walked to the bar with an extra sway in my hips. He’d need a good five minutes to pick his jaw up off the floor. While Chad spun that last bit of information around in his mind, I took my phone out of my beaded clutch and double-tapped the tracking app that Margo made us all install. Not only would it pinpoint my location for safety reasons if need be, but it was also a direct line to Margo. I’d informed her earlier today that I would need her to call me when she got the notification. My phone buzzed against the bar, and I answered.
“Hey, Tom.” I kicked my heels against the legs of my barstool.
“You’re ahead of schedule,” Margo said. “Nice work.”
Pride swelled in my chest as I glanced at Chad. His eyes narrowed as he watched me. “Oh no. That’s too bad.… Sure.… Tomorrow then.”
I hung up on Margo and settled my tab. Any moment now. Three, two…
Chad approached me with that humoring grin back on his face, though it was a little more strained around the corners. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear your phone conversation. Were you talking to Tom Berry?”
Step four: hold his interest.
I nodded. “It turns out he’s not buying that dating app after all. But he said he has something else that might pique my interest. We’re meeting for dinner tomorrow.”
“I see.” Chad swept a hand over his pale face. “Did he say why he’s not buying it?”
“It was designed by a man. Not what we’re looking for. I want an app that’s women-centric, and I think it takes a woman designer to really achieve that, you know?” I let my fingers graze his hand. A casual touch to draw him in. “It’s a shame. Dating apps are so big right now. I’d love to get in on the ground floor of one.”
“What if…” He took a swallow of his drink. “What if I told you that you could cut out Tom as the middleman and still have your app designed by a woman?”
Step five: finish him.
I swirled my finger around the rim of my glass. “I’m listening.”
“I own Triple M.” He gave me the dramatic pause. My cue to be impressed.
“Oh my God.” I bounced in my seat. “That’s the app I was looking to buy.”
“I know.” He managed to pull off the perfect blend of mocking and superiority. A verbal head pat. “And there was more to the development than Tom is privy to.”
This was the fuel that pushed me to do this job. Anytime I was inclined to feel guilty, I’d pull this moment out and recall the slight curl of his lip, his gaze clouded with equal parts disdain and desire. This was how he viewed women. They were either discardable or fuckable, but never worthy of respect. He was about to learn just how much his underestimation would cost him.
“Are you saying your app was designed by a woman? I have so many questions, I’m afraid I’m going to forget them before I talk to my advisor. All this techy talk goes right over my head.” I unlocked my phone screen and turned on the camera. “Is it okay if I record this?”
I held my breath as I waited for his answer. Thanks to Illinois state laws, I had to have his permission to record for this to be admissible in court. If he said no, I’d have to take a different, more unpleasant route. One that would require me to continue pretending I enjoyed his company.
“Sure thing, sweetheart.” He gave me a finger gun for good measure.
“Yay!” I clapped my hands together and held them under my chin. “Tell me everything about your company.”
Chad proceeded to give me all the dirt on Triple M. How my client had actually been the majority designer and programmer, while he handled the business end of things. Of course, he painted a grandiose picture of his administrative duties, as if they were just as vital to the business, but he made it perfectly clear my client had been the brains and the muscle behind Triple M. It was the most glorious display of self-incrimination I’d ever witnessed.
Once I’d gathered enough information to give my client a fighting chance in a lawsuit, I set up a fake date for next week to handle the sale. Unfortunately for Chad, he’d be getting served papers well before then. After he left, I uploaded the conversation to a movie player and e-mailed it to my client. Per our agreement, I’d get 5 percent of whatever she made off the sale of the app, which was expected to be around half a million dollars.
I didn’t typically make that much off an assignment, so this called for a celebration. On my way home, I picked up a chocolate cake and a bottle of Malbec. Balancing both under one arm, I unlocked my apartment and pushed open the door, losing my grip on the cake in the process. The box hit the floor facedown with a dull splat. I dumped my purse by the door and picked up the cake. Most of the frosting stuck to the lid, but after I polished off the wine, I’d probably end up licking the box clean anyway.
“I’m home.” I made kissy noises at my cat, Winnie, as she jumped on the back of the couch. Her black hair stood on end as she hissed at me in return. Her love language, or so I kept telling myself.
An evening of cake and wine with my angry cat. It didn’t get much wilder than that. I stripped off my too-tight dress and left it on the floor. On my way to the kitchen, I peeked in on my latest painting. Soon I’d have the funds to start my gallery. Soon I’d be able to reclaim my nights and weekends for myself. Soon I’d have to muster up the courage to show my work.