Tristan read the manual. Actually, to be precise, he read the Christopher Exploration Industries Employee Handbook for the second time as he sat in the conference room the receptionist had shown him to. The manual had a big space volcano logo on it, along with a small subheading proclaiming “home of Space Villager,” the flagship online role-playing game the company developed here at its Santa Monica headquarters.
He’d read the PDF the HR person had sent over a week ago, and now he was reading the paper copy while waiting for his orientation to begin. PDF was great, but paper meant he could use his new highlighter. He might be done with grad school, but there was something soothing about underlining the most important bits of information. It made him feel ready on a day when his muscles jangled with nervous energy. Focusing on highlighting kept his racing pulse at a manageable level. Even though he’d been through the intensive interview process and had stacks of research on the company littering his living room, he still couldn’t believe they’d picked him to work on the game the whole tech industry was buzzing about.
Even the conference room was impressively techno-hip with screens on almost every wall, including a huge one that took up almost the entire front of the room, like a movie screen. A massive oak table occupied the middle of the room, surrounded by space-age seats that looked like the progeny of a high-end movie theater and a Mercedes. The room itself was weirdly dim with track lighting glinting off all the reflective surfaces. Tristan felt a bit like he’d wandered onto a sci-fi movie set. Any minute now, a dictator would emerge through a hidden panel and start revealing the invasion plans to his minions.
Instead of some dark lord, however, the perky brunette receptionist poked her head into the room.
“And here’s our other new employee! Tristan, meet Ravi Tandel. He’s a graphic designer, and you guys will be going through orientation together.” She opened the door wider and a guy in his midtwenties sauntered in. And yes, sauntered was 100 percent the right word. The guy wore lime-green skinny jeans, a cream sweater, and a lime-and-cream scarf draped more artfully than the valances in Tristan’s mother’s living room. He had poofy Elvis-esque hair, and when he moved it was with an effortless I-own-this-room confidence and grace.
And something about him made Tristan feel about as cool and significant as yesterday’s coffee grounds.
“Hey.” Ravi held out his hand.
“Hiiii—whoa!” As Tristan tried to stand, he somehow tripped a mechanism in the chair, tipping precariously backward, almost flat, and hey, there was a screen on the ceiling too, but whoops, trying to sit up catapulted the whole contraption forward, dropping him in a heap right at Ravi’s feet. They were nice feet, but clad in ridiculous-looking purple loafers with no socks.
“You okay?” Ravi hauled him up, his grip firm and sure. He was stronger than his thin frame would suggest, and he was actually an inch or two taller than Tristan.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Tristan brushed his navy dress pants off before retreating back to a different chair, one hopefully less out to get him. He pulled his laptop case and handbook over to the new spot.
“I’ll let you guys chat while you wait for Rex, the office manager. Anyone need a coffee?” the receptionist asked. Her eyes twinkled and her tight facial muscles said she was having a hard time not laughing at Tristan.
I would be too.
“I’d love one, if it’s not too much trouble. Black, one sugar.” Ravi’s voice was just as polished as the rest of him, deep and melodic with a hint of the sort of East Coast accent Tristan associated with lawyer friends of his mother’s.
“You?” The receptionist looked expectantly at Tristan.
“Black is fine.” Or at least it would be today. In reality, he drowned coffee under gallons of cream and sugar, and on rare occasions he let himself order one of those blended things. But today he was out to fit in, not make waves, and prove that he could be a team player. And liking his coffee closer to candy was just one of the things he wasn’t sharing with his new coworkers.
“So what do you do?” Ravi took a chair across from Tristan, pushing it back from the table and reclining it to the perfect conversational angle, no thrashing like a trout on a line required from him.
“I’m going to be in the marketing department. Brand management.”
“This your first job in the software industry?” Ravi’s dark eyes swept over him as if he found Tristan’s new white shirt, dress pants and microchip tie somehow lacking. That last bit had been a touch of whimsy, a graduation gift from a friend who’d heard about his job, and a nod to the fact that the hiring manager said this was a fun office. But the way Ravi’s eyes were sparkling had Tristan reconsidering every wardrobe choice.
“No,” Tristan said, because technically it was his first job anywhere where he didn’t have intern after his name.
Ravi shrugged like he didn’t quite believe Tristan. “You’re young,” he pronounced.
“I’m twenty-four.” Tristan tried to sit up straighter without accidentally tripping the chair’s desire to hurl him toward Ravi.
Or maybe that’s just you.
And he couldn’t be that much younger than Ravi, who looked to be in his midtwenties as well, maybe a couple of years older. But Ravi simply shook his head like he couldn’t fathom Tristan being old enough to drive, let alone work here. Tristan knew it was his face—pale skin, blue eyes, blond hair, and he looked like he never needed to shave, even if he totally did.
“Man, I needed this.” Ravi smiled as the receptionist came back in with two steaming cups. “I swear I’m still fighting a hangover from New Year’s.”
Tristan felt his eyes go wide, and he looked to the receptionist to see if she was equally horrified. But she laughed like Ravi was a man in one of those campaigns for expensive whiskey—the sort of guy people couldn’t wait to have a drink with, and the sort they’d let get away with all sorts of bad behavior because he was so interesting.
Okay, that too, but hot and stupid because really, what kind of guy admitted to having a hangover on his first day at a new job? Not to mention, New Years was almost two weeks ago.
“Rex is on a call with the Austin office, but he should be right in.” The receptionist backed out of the room, eyes lingering on Ravi. And seriously, the guy wasn’t that hot, even if he did look as if he belonged on the cover of one of those romances Tristan’s old nanny used to sneak.
Okay, maybe he was, but Tristan wasn’t supposed to be noticing such things at work. He forced himself to return to his highlighting.
“Hey, that’s a great idea.” Ravi dug out a bright green pen from his pants pocket that perfectly coordinated with his outfit. He opened his handbook, only he didn’t start underlining and taking notes in the margins like Tristan. No, he used the blank inside cover to sketch an entire intergalactic war, complete with exploding meteors and futuristic ships darting between planets. Tristan found himself hypnotized as the drawing unfolded over the course of their wait. Ravi’s pen flew over the page, first doing rough outlines of elements, then adding more and more detail. Unlike Tristan, who kept glancing up at the clock, Ravi seemed totally immersed in his drawing, but he would have to hide that art fast when—
“So sorry I was delayed. I’m Rex.” A short, portly man bustled into the room. Here was the dictator Tristan had been waiting for, complete with commanding voice and thinning black hair and…dragon slippers. Tristan glanced down a second time.
Yes, the man seriously was wearing plush fire-breathing dragons on his feet.
“Ooooh! What are you drawing?” Rex stepped around him to get a closer look at Ravi’s drawing. He picked up the manual, turning it one way then another. “Oh my God. This is fucking fabulous. Wait until Robert sees what you can do. And our fans are going to love your style. I can’t wait to get you on a podcast.”
Oh. My. God. Indeed.
Tristan had woke up an hour early to iron, studied the manual like there would be a final exam on it, and this guy who was nursing a hangover while defacing the handbook got all the attention? Stop being a whiny toddler. Not their fault you’re still shocked they even picked you.
“Can’t wait.” Ravi beamed at Rex. Damn. The guy really did have a million-dollar smile. But still, Tristan clenched his fists. There was no fairness in the world.
“In fact, I think he’s in today. I want to show him. He’ll get a kick out of this.” Rex motioned for Ravi to follow him, turning back to Tristan at the last moment. “We’ll be back soon.”
Crap. Mr. Cool Jeans got to meet Robert Christopher minutes after his arrival, because of course he did. No biggie. Wasn’t like the game founder was one of Tristan’s personal idols or like he had danced around his apartment when he got the job. Wasn’t Tristan’s pulse that was galloping at the thought of getting to work with the guy responsible for some of Tristan’s favorite games. And it wasn’t like Tristan was dying to gush about how the guy had practically saved Tristan’s life as a teen. That last bit was absolutely true—Robert Christopher’s games had been his salvation at a time he desperately needed it, and he’d never confess that fact.
Heck, there was so much he wasn’t sharing with his coworkers on this job that he’d had to make a list for himself, along with his list of how to conduct himself and be indispensable.
And now he could add a new item to the list: Avoid Ravi Tandel at all costs. He was simply too attractive, too confident, and too distracting.
His plan shouldn’t be too hard, right?