Hard Act Excerpt



Harvey Prince goes by many names. Each group he deals with calls him by something else, whether it’s Harvey, Mr. Prince, or Boss. Which is a pretty ingenious way of identifying where he’s met the person who’s talking to him.

To me and the other kids from Thornbridge Orphanage, he’s always been King. As in, “Hell, I’m not a prince. I’m a fucking king.”

Now, I’m sitting in King’s stately brick mansion, working on a computer in his study. I can work without distraction, since the window’s thick curtains are drawn completely closed, blocking any sunlight. King’s got his large wooden desk in front of that window, while my computer has been set up in a little armoire-styled wall recess nearby.

I’m busily working in the network’s mainframe, entering code to reroute lines of information, when something rustles behind me.

“Who are you?” a sweetly feminine and curious voice asks.

My body goes stiff, and my face goes blank. I wasn’t doing anything.

I quickly minimize the window where I was working. Then I slowly spin around in my chair to see who asked the question.

She’s a gorgeous blond-haired, blue-eyed doll, about my age, dressed in a long light-blue sundress. She looks like she should be sitting up on a shelf, not walking around the house talking to strangers. But there she is, standing in the doorway to King’s study.

“Are you from Thornbridge?”

She starts walking toward me. I want to answer her. I really do. It’s not every day—it’s not any day, really—that a beautiful girl acts interested in sick, nerdy, frail me. But I can’t find the words. Luckily, she has a much better command of the English language than I do.

“You must be Davis,” she says. “Dad’s told me about you.”

He has? I knew King had a daughter, but I never thought he’d waste time telling her about me.

She places a firm hand on my shoulder. It’s not the touch of the porcelain doll she resembles, but of someone with the same forceful nature as King. I snap out of my trance and find my voice.

“So, your dad told you about Davis the Computer Geek, huh?”

To a lot of the guys, that’s all I am—just a computer geek. But while the others are running the streets for King, I stay at the orphanage and study. The streets are no place for a kid plagued by allergies, asthma, and a poor immune system. Behind a computer screen, however, my isolation pays off.

She tilts her head thoughtfully. “Dad says you’re great with computers, but that’s not how I knew you.”

“Really? Then how?”

“You’re the only one from Thornbridge Dad would trust in his house.”

I can’t help but feel honored. I sit up a little straighter.

“What are you working on?” she asks.

“Just reorganizing his network so everything comes through here. He wants this computer to be his main access point, so I’m installing software and running code to create new network controls.”

I turn around and open up my computer files so she can see.

“That’s so cool. I’m learning about computers in school, but I’ve never seen anything like what you’re doing.”

She grabs a chair and pulls it beside me.

“What are you doing?” I ask nervously.

“Do you mind if I watch?”

She sits down next to me and leans forward. I hesitate, but it’s not like I can kick her out of her dad’s study. After clearing my throat, I point to the screen.

“This is a DOS application. It allows me to gain access to the network mainframe. I could use any number of applications to simulate this, but then I could only do what those programs allow. Doing it this way, my only limitation is myself.”

Yeah, I know I’m showing off my knowledge, but I don’t get to do that a lot. The other guys at Thornbridge aren’t interested in what I do, though my close friends seem impressed by my skill.

“So, you’re basically writing your own program,” she clarifies.

“That’s right.”

“Why aren’t they teaching us this in school?”

“Because there are enough programs out there that do most of this for you,” I automatically answer, then realize how arrogant that sounds. “Of course, I don’t mean to imply most people can’t do this. Anyone can. They just don’t feel the need to teach it.”

She laughs and nods. “Yeah, sure.”

“I hope everything’s going well in here!”

King’s voice booms as he walks into the room. His eyes widen when he sees me sitting with his daughter.

“Oh, Davis. I see you’ve met Bella.”

Bella. I repeat her name in my head. It’s as beautiful as she is.

“Yes, sir,” I tell him. “I was just explaining to her what I’m doing.”

“Good. She could use some help in school. Once you finish here, I’ll have you come by once a week to tutor her.”

What? “I . . . I’m sorry, sir. Just, um . . . just in computer science, or w—what?”

Again, I’m struggling to get my words out. It’s got to be painfully obvious to both of them how nervous I am.

“Whatever she needs, Davis. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” He places a hand on my shoulder and pats me, something he’s never done before. Then he leaves the room. I look at Bella, and she looks just as confused as me.

“W-well. I, uh . . . I guess I’m t-tutoring you.”

She laughs, then covers her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry. It’s just adorable when you do that.”

My fucking stutter, which I’ve hated my whole life, is adorable? I study her for a moment, but she doesn’t appear to be lying. I shrug.

“It happens when I’m nervous,” I confess.

My honesty kind of stuns me. But there’s just something about Bella that makes me feel comfortable. Like, I don’t have to hide all that is the real me.

“Well, as much as I like your stutter, I hope you won’t be doing it for long around me.”

She smiles, and I smile back, and I can’t help feeling that somehow, in some way, my life has just irrevocably changed.


* * *


A week later, King’s Rolls Royce picks me up at the orphanage and drives me back to his house for my first computer tutoring lesson with Bella.

As usual, King’s butler answers the door and ushers me inside where Bella is waiting. This time, she’s wearing shorts and a tank top. She’s showing a lot of skin, her top exposing her midriff and her thin waist. I suddenly want to kiss her and touch her soft, smooth skin.

“Davis,” she greets me.

“Yeah, hey.”

Between the shock of seeing so much of her beauty and the steep stone steps up to the door, I’m pretty winded and that’s the best greeting I can manage.

She doesn’t seem to mind. Then again, thanks to her father, she probably knows all about my numerous ailments.

“It’s good to see you again. Come with me.”

She turns and leads me upstairs. I start to follow, freezing when she suddenly stops and turns.

“You can wait here, Phil.”

Startled, I turn around, spotting the bulky guy in a suit. He came out of nowhere, but I’ve seen him before. He’s one of King’s bodyguards. Only now, I realize, he’s not protecting King. Instead, King has assigned him to protect Bella.

“Sorry, Miss Prince,” Phil says. “You know I can’t leave you alone with anyone.”

“This isn’t just anyone. This is Davis, and my father trusts him. If you don’t believe me, call him right now.”

Expression blank, Phil pulls his cell phone out of his pocket and dials a number. I can hear his half of the conversation.

“Miss Prince has asked me to leave her alone with her visitor, Davis.” After a few seconds, he says, “Very well, sir.”

Then he disconnects the call, replaces his phone, and looks at me.

“You can go up. I’ll be waiting right here.”

I am not imagining the veiled threat in his voice.

“Thank you, Phil,” Bella says with a grin.

She grabs my hand and tugs. I swallow hard.

“O-okay. S-s-sounds, um, sounds good.”

Great, I sound like an imbecile. I blush, because I know she can tell how nervous I am.

As I follow behind her, her shorts tease me with the promise of getting a peek inside them. They barely cover her. I imagine stripping them off her, then stroking her through a lacy pair of panties.

Down boy. She’s off limits and Phil’s just waiting for a reason to break your legs.

“We’re going to be working in my room, so we have some . . . privacy.”

We get to her room, and it’s not what I expected. I expected pink walls plastered with posters of teen heartthrobs I wouldn’t recognize, magazine pages, pictures of her friends. A typical girl bedroom.

Instead, the room is immaculate. Her furniture matches the dark wood in the rest of the house. There are only a few pictures, which are tucked in the side of the mirror above her dresser. She pulls a chair out from the desk where she keeps her computer.

“You can sit on my bed.”

I pull my laptop and tablet out of my backpack, and sit down on her bed.

“So, what grade are you in?” I ask.

“Tenth,” she answers.

I look at her for a moment. I’ve already graduated high school through an expedited homeschool program.

“In case you’re wondering, I’m sixteen,” she tells me.

We’re the same age but instead of telling her that, I just nod. “I’m, uh, just trying to figure out where we need to start.”

I pull up the computer science lessons I planned out for her. If she wants to do more than the basic things she’s learning in school, I’ve got her ready to go.

“Well, I was thinking we could start by getting to know each other a little better.”

She walks over to the bed, moves my backpack, and sits down on the other side of my laptop.

My breath catches in my throat. “I don’t see why we can’t get to know each other while we work.”

While she leans over the laptop, I try to keep my eyes focused on the screen. She stares at me so long that my face flames.

“You’re cute,” she finally says.

I feel the bed shift as she gets back up. She returns to her computer and sits straight in her chair.

“Okay, I’m ready. I’ll be good this time,” she teases.

I get up and walk over to stand behind her. I take a deep breath, forcing myself to focus on the lesson instead of on her beautiful head of blond hair sitting about level with my chest. I could take half a step forward, and she’d be resting her head against me.

“First, do you have a wireless mouse?”


“Hand it to me.” I hold my right hand out for it.


“Just hand it to me. We’re going to go over some basic keyboard commands that work with just about every program you’ll ever use. I’m going to teach you how to use your computer without a mouse. It’s a pain at first, but once you learn these commands, you’ll already be ahead of everyone in your class.”

She hands me the mouse and we get started. She picks up what I’m showing her fairly quickly, and by the end of our first session, I’ve got her rebooting her computer and going into the operating system itself. She smiles and looks up at me. Unable to resist, I place my hands lightly on her shoulders.

“Great job, Bella. You’re a—”

There is a sudden knock at the door, then bodyguard Phil opens it and peeks in.

“Time to go back to Thornbridge,” he says.

Startled, I pull my hands away from Bella’s shoulders.

“Ye-yes, sir. Let m-me get my things t-together.”

I stuff my laptop back in my backpack. Bella and I say our good-byes, and I head downstairs with King’s armed guard.

Over the next few weeks, Bella and I continue to work on different programs, moving from simple keyboard and system commands to specific program functions she’ll need to know. I catch myself eagerly anticipating each visit as it approaches, planning out what we’re going to work on from week to week.

Each time we’re together, it gets harder to hide the fact that I’m attracted to her. But she doesn’t seem to care, because she keeps flirting with me. I try not to react because of two major reasons: One, there’s a part of me that can’t quite believe she’s not playing me. Two, she is King’s daughter. While he apparently doesn’t mind me teaching her computers, I doubt he’d be happy if I made things more personal.

Getting on King’s bad side is not something I want to do.

However, the next time we meet, Bella makes it plain she’s determined to get some kind of response from me. She sits next to me on the bed, our shoulders touching.

“Keyboard commands and simple abbreviations for system commands are easy. But I’m a little unsure about formulas and things like that. Can you show me?”

No funny business, I remind myself. But every time she moves, she rubs against me, and she might as well be sitting with her hand down my pants rather than just with her shoulder against mine. I manually plug a formula into one of the fields.

“Now, how did you do that?” she asks me, pointing at the screen.

“Well, um, I—umph.”

Without a warning, she kisses me. She’s not my first kiss, but right now, none of the others matter. My hands clench the sides of my laptop while she grabs the back of my head and holds me in place against her mouth.

Her breath is warm and exotic. Our tongues meet and tangle. I worry I’m a little too forceful against her small, submissive tongue that seems to shy away from me. I break the kiss first and stare into her blue eyes, dumbfounded.

Her hand slides over my shoulder and slowly down my arm. “I’ve been wanting to do that forever.”

Me, too, but I don’t say anything. I just blink.

She gently brushes my cheek with her soft fingers. “Don’t be so nervous,” she says patiently. “You’re fine.”

Um, I don’t feel fine. My heart is pounding in my chest like it’s about to give out on me. My lungs feel like they’re squeezing all of my breath out. As beautiful and surprising as she’d been that first time I saw her, this is not what I expected. My body shakes as I try to make myself breathe normally.

With a final smile, she asks me a computer question, and it’s as if nothing unusual happened.

As our study session progress, however, Bella continues to pull me deeper towards an intimacy I’m longing for. Our sessions become less and less about computers, and more and more about making out.

When I’m finally comfortable enough, I decide to let go of my laptop and hold onto her instead. I bury my hand in her hair, and I feel her smile against my face.

“Now, that’s much better,” she says against my lips.

The feel of her mouth moving against mine as she talks sends waves of desire through my body. When a knock comes at her door, we quickly separate, trying not to get caught with our lips locked.

“On my way!” I call out.

I grab my computer and shut it down, then stuff it in my bag. She’s looking at me with an eyebrow raised.

“What?” I ask, a smile spreading across my face as soon as we make eye contact.

“You didn’t stutter,” she says quietly.

My smile gets wider. “No, I didn’t, did I?”

She throws her arms around my neck and hugs me. “We’ll have to continue this next week,” she whispers in my ear.

But when the time for our next session rolls around, I’m laid up in bed, sick as a dog. Something has knocked me flat on my back. Allergies, exertion, who knows, but I have to cancel on her. As I lay in bed, staring at the computer equipment and books I’ve spent most of my time with over the last few years of my life, all I can think about is Bella. I have to go see her. Even if it’s not tutoring, I have to see my beautiful Bella.

I manage to climb out of bed and get myself together. I arrange for a cab to pick me up, and the driver drops me off outside the gate to King’s property. Lucky for me, it happens to be open. I vaguely wonder if Phil will shoot first and ask questions later, but I decide to take my chances.

I approach the house on foot, walking along the driveway until Bella’s window comes into view. I can see her sitting on her bed, but she’s not alone. Someone’s arm is around her shoulder. As I move a little further along the drive, I can see she’s with some guy. He’s broad, with massive shoulders and thick arms. One of her thin, delicate hands in on his chest, which bulges out of his shirt. She’s looking up into his face, and he leans in to kiss her.

Now, I really feel sick.

I should have known she would never really be interested in me. She was probably just buttering me up, so I’d show her how to do the same things I did for King. I hurry back to the road and call another cab from my cell phone.

A few days later, King comes to see me about the tutoring sessions.

“How are things going?”

I can see in his face that he’s not asking about our lessons. He’s curious what else has been happening between us. I sigh, preparing myself for what I’m about to say to him.

“Bella is extremely smart,” I tell him. “She catches on pretty quickly, but I don’t think I can continue to tutor her.”

Hoping he doesn’t ask for a reason, I brace myself. Though I’m sure I can use my health as an excuse without any problems.

He just nods. “Okay.”

But the look in his eyes tells me he understands why I can’t keep tutoring her. We’ve gotten too close, and things are going south. I can’t describe how awful I feel, knowing I’ve disappointed him. He drops the subject and leaves my room.

Soon after King leaves, my phone rings. It’s Bella. I mute the ringer and let it go to voicemail.

I quickly lose count of how many voicemails and text messages I get from her, until she finally stops trying to reach me.