At any turn, p.10
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       At Any Turn, p.10

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
 
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  “Go easy on her,” I said and plopped into the passenger seat.

  Heath slid in behind the wheel and shot me the ecstatic grin of a ten-year-old, reminding me of when my nephews liked to jump in the car and pretend they were driving. He gingerly turned the key in the ignition and when the engine roared to life, he sank back in the seat with a sigh. “I think I just creamed my pants. ”

  He kicked it into gear and we took the long way back to his house, through the twisting roads of the Orange hills, a few miles east of downtown. He lived in an upper-end condo up there, which he was now sharing with Emilia.

  I sobered and allowed my thoughts to drift from Heath’s enjoyment of the car. He tossed me a few speculative glances as he downshifted, then cleared his throat. “How are you holding up, dude?”

  I grimaced. He’d been reading my mind, apparently, or more likely, my face. “I’ll live,” I said, trying to forget how much I hated not seeing her every day, not holding her when we were sleeping. We hadn’t lived together long, but I’d grown accustomed to it quickly and it had felt normal. Poor five-years-ago me. He was a distant shadow of a memory now.

  Heath’s features grew troubled, pensive.

  “How is she?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “She’s okay. ”

  That stab of jealousy again. Heath was a great guy. A good friend. I was glad Emilia had him in her life, especially when she needed someone who wasn’t me. But fuck if I didn’t want to pummel him every time I thought about her crying on his shoulder instead of mine.

  I cleared my throat and willed the dark emotions away.

  “I was wondering if I could ask you a favor…” I said after a long silence while we climbed the big hill up Chapman Avenue.

  “If I can do it, I will. ”

  “Call me…or text me or let me know if—if she needs help and she’s too stubborn to ask me. If it’s money or—anything. ”

  His jaw bulged where he clenched it. “Is she acting that skittish around you?”

  I stared straight ahead. “Things are…delicate. ”

  Heath frowned. “I’ll take good care of her for you, man. She needs to do what she needs to do, but—this isn’t going to be permanent. Be patient and try not to pull another stunt like that proposal, okay? She’ll come to you when she’s ready. She’s strong and she can take care of herself, but she has to learn that she doesn’t have to do it all herself. I’m proud of her and I know you are, too. She’s basically my sister, you know? My sister from another mister…”

  I threw a dark look out the side window as he peeled one out in a high-speed right turn with a whoop and a holler, apparently uncaring of a possible reckless driving ticket. Those were pricey and too many points on the driver’s license. I knew from personal experience.

  When we got out of the car and I took the keys from him, he thanked me, clapping a hand on my shoulder. I winced, as he landed right on top of a particularly large bruise that he had put there with a paintball.

  I followed him into the apartment, but the place was dark. I checked my watch. It was only ten o’clock. Had Emilia gone out?

  Heath echoed my thought as he threw his keys and wallet down on a table near the entrance. “Hmm. Maybe she went out with Alex and Jenna?”

  I glanced over at the glow of the computer screen coming from the alcove in his den, recognizing the low-level music playing in the background—the main theme music to Dragon Epoch. She’d left her computer on at the log-in screen. “Looks like she forgot to exit the game,” I said.

  Page 37

  Heath rolled his eyes and went over to her rig and closed out the program, shutting the computer down. I noticed the spiral notebook she always kept near her computer, full of notes on the hidden quest from the Golden Mountains. I resisted the urge to flip through it, curious to see if she was getting close.

  Heath sighed. “She always leaves it at the log-in screen. Drives me batty, this music playing constantly. ” He straightened. “No offense. ”

  I laughed. “None taken. I didn’t write the music. ”

  “You want to leave her a note or something?”

  I pondered that suggestion, pulled out my phone; still no answer to my text. I tapped out another one.

  Over at Heath’s. Dropped by to say hi and you weren’t here.

  A few seconds after I hit the send button, I heard a chime from beside her computer. Heath’s head craned around. “Her phone is here. Looks like her bag, too. She must be in her room. ”

  I went over to her door and tapped lightly. After a long pause, I heard her voice on the other side. But when I opened the door, she was in the dark.

  “Heath, I’m sleeping. Who are you talking to out there?” she muttered.

  “Adam,” I answered. “I mean, it’s Adam. Can I come in?”

  She rustled in her bed, sitting up. I peered into the darkness, just catching her outline. She rubbed her eyes. “Yeah. How was paintball?”

  “Good,” I said, stepping into the room.

  She scooted aside on her narrow bed and patted the space next to her. “Sit down. ”

  “Sorry I woke you up. Why are you in bed so early?” I’d never known her to go to bed before eleven. Yet here it was, barely ten and she had been sound asleep for a while.

  “Just really tired,” she said, yawning.

  I sat next to her and bent to kiss her forehead. She locked her arms around my neck in a tight hug.

  “Careful,” I said. “Your roommate shot the hell out of me. ”

  “Bastard,” she snorted. “I’ll rough him up for you. ”

  She felt warm. I put my hand on her forehead. “You feeling okay?”

  “I’m just so tired,” she repeated.

  “Then I won’t keep you…” I said, my voice dying out. But the last thing I wanted to do was leave, goddamn it.

  She fell back against the bed, looking up at me. Her dark hair splayed across her pillow. I went to stand up and she clamped her hand around my arm. I hesitated, sitting back down.

  With her heavy-lidded eyes and her lazy smile, she was so goddamn beautiful. “Will you sit with me for a little bit? Until I fall back asleep?”

  I wrapped my hand around hers. “Sure. ”

  She rolled on her side, facing away from me to make room for me to lie beside her. I kicked off my shoes and did just that, locking my arms around her.

  The smell of vanilla and fresh peaches—that was the smell of Emilia and that longing returned. How much I missed her. “Emilia…” I whispered.

  “Yeah?”

  I opened my mouth. I miss you. Like I’d miss my right arm. Like I’d miss my own beating heart. Like I’d miss my next breath. “You’d tell me if anything was wrong, wouldn’t you? So I could help?”

  She was silent for a long moment. “What makes you think anything is wrong?”

  “I don’t, but…just in case. ”

  She settled herself deeper into my arms. “I’ll tell you exactly what I need right now. Your arms. Right where they are. Holding me tight. The prescription for all that ails me. ”

  “What ails you?”

  A pause. “I told you. I’m fine. Just tired. ”

  I pulled her against me, mentally beating myself down with a bat to resist kissing her. My body sure wanted to start something—her smell and warmth were too near, too inviting. I reminded myself that I was here to give her what she needed. I wanted her back with me for good and I was willing to bide my time. Sun Tzu might have been proud of my patience.

  She was asleep again in less than ten minutes. I held her for another thirty before I got up from the small bed, gently kissing her on the cheek and settling the blankets over her.

  When I returned to the living room, Heath was sitting on the couch playing a game on his iPad.

  He looked up. “Everything okay?”

  “She was really tired. ”

  He flicked a glance at her cl
osed door and nodded, his face strangely blank. “She had a long week. ”

  “But she’s okay, right?”

  Heath frowned at me. “Did she seem okay?”

  Page 38

  “Yeah. It’s just…” I shook my head. How could I explain this weird feeling that wasn’t based on anything concrete? Just my gut?

  “I told you I’d take care of her. Trust me, okay?”

  I gritted my teeth. Did I have a choice? I was supposed to be the one taking care of her. “I’m gonna take off. ”

  Heath stood and walked me to the door, opening it for me. “Thanks, man. Great day. Now go put some ice on those welts, ya pussy. ”

  “Fuck you,” I said and laughed.

  “See you next weekend? Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel?”

  “Yeah. See ya then. ”

  Out in the parking lot, I hesitated before sliding behind the wheel of my car, unable to shake that dark feeling that grew from Emilia’s unusual behavior. I braced myself, told myself I was being paranoid, and started the car, trying to dispel these new dark feelings. Unfortunately that Zen I was seeking eluded me. I found myself constantly questioning, constantly mulling over the questions in my mind. One thing was for certain, she was stuck in my brain, on my skin, indelible and permanent, like a tattoo. Even while I slept.

  Chapter Eight

  The next morning, Sunday, I woke up with a raging hard-on after having dreamt of Emilia pretty much the whole night and reaching for her while still mostly asleep. When my arms turned up empty, I rolled flat on my back, thinking of all the ways I’d done her while in dreamland. Without the regular sex, my subconscious was having a field day, fueled by the starving libido.

  As I’d done too often of late, I found it necessary to rub one out in the shower that morning. It took the edge off, but I topped it with a rigorous workout. By noon, I wanted to call her, but knew she’d be at family dinner that evening. Peter had invited us both and—weirdly—Kim, too. So going with my new philosophy of waiting for her to come to me, I decided I wouldn’t call or text her before I saw her that night.

  Instead I sat down to work on a new project—because I now refused to do job stuff on the weekend unless I was dealing with impossible lawsuits or the Con preparations. And in my mind I justified it as a hobby, not real work. It was an exciting idea to develop a science fiction game set in space, which interconnected across different social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr, possibly others—I hadn’t gotten that far yet. As it was in its embryonic stage, I hadn’t spoken about it to anyone, not even Emilia.

  I burned the whole afternoon working on it, until it was time to go to my uncle’s. I dressed in my best casual attire, including a red shirt, not a color I particularly liked (even aside from the double meaning of redshirt as a doomed Star Trek extra). I only chose it because Emilia had once said she loved the shirt. So I made sure to look my best. Bait and all that.

  When I got to Peter’s, he was preparing dinner in the kitchen with Kim. I brought my customary bottle of wine and a box of pastries from the bakery for dessert. When I walked through the door, Kim brightened, looking expectantly over my shoulder.

  “Hey Adam! How’s…” When she didn’t see what she was looking for, she frowned. “Where’s Mia? She not coming?”

  I set down the wine and the bakery box. “I’m pretty sure she’s coming. ”

  Kim looked baffled. Peter glanced at her and turned to me. “But…wouldn’t she have come with you? Or did you have to work today?”

  I froze. I’d assumed they knew about Emilia moving out. Oh shit. Well, this sucked. “I came from home, but…she’s staying with Heath for a little while. ”

  Kim frowned and shook her head, turned to walk out of the room muttering something about finding her phone. Peter never took his eyes off me. We shared a long, tense moment.

  “Want to talk about it?” he asked quietly.

  I took a deep breath. “Not really. ”

  He nodded. “Okay. ” He glanced at the doorway where Kim had disappeared, concern etched on his features. “She’s worried about Mia. ”

  I tensed. “Why’s that?”

  “She hasn’t answered Kim’s calls or texts for a while. ”

  It wasn’t like Emilia to shut out her mother. In fact, it was downright bizarre. I covered my shock by scratching my jaw. “Hmm. Weird. ”

  “Did you guys…break up?”

  “No. We’re just…taking a break from living together. ”

  He nodded.

  I pulled out my phone and checked for texts. Nothing. I tapped out a message.

  Did you remember about family dinner? People are wondering where you are.

  Page 39

  Then I texted Heath.

  Where’s Mia at?

  His answer came back almost immediately. She’s not feeling very well. Stayed home.

  I replied, Is she asleep? Are you there with her? I’m coming over.

  Heath answered, She’s fine. She just needs to rest. Please don’t come.

  I blew out a breath and shifted my weight, trying to rein in that almost overarching need to go over there and see for myself, make sure she was okay. My hand fisted at my side as I tucked my phone back into my shirt pocket.

  Peter was chopping potatoes and looking up at me occasionally.

  “Britt and the kids should be here any minute now. I hope you decide to stay. ”

  He knew me well. Had read in my body language that I was about to bolt. “Kim’s not the only one who’s worried about her,” I muttered.

  “She’s definitely not coming? And you’re going to take off?”

  “I’ll wait until the boys get here. I have something for them. ”

  Peter cast a glance out the doorway again. “Well, we were going to sit the two of you down after dinner to talk about this but…since she’s not coming and you two are having your issues, maybe I should just let you know now that Kim and I are dating. ”

  Something heavy dropped in my stomach at that news and I couldn’t explain why. Because somehow I didn’t see this turning out well if things between Emilia and me didn’t work out. This could get awkward as hell.

  “I’m happy for you,” I intoned because it was expected of me. Happy for him, annoyed for me.

  Britt and the boys showed up at that minute and I was relieved to not have to continue the conversation with Peter. I stooped and gave them each a hug—I hadn’t seen them in months—then landed a kiss on their mom’s cheek.

  “Hey there,” Britt said, casting a glance around. “Where’s your better half?”

  So no one here was happy to see just me? Great.

  “She’s not feeling so great. Home sleeping. ” Just not at my home, sleeping in my bed where she should’ve been.

  “Ah man, Mia’s not here?” said DJ.

  “Hey buddy, I missed your birthday so I wanted to give you your present, okay? And I got Gareth something, too, for his birthday next month. ”

  The boys, suddenly, were interested in me and had forgotten that Emilia wasn’t coming. I reached into my wallet and pulled out two cards and handed one to each of them. Britt watched closely and when she saw what I’d given them, looked at me with long-suffering in her eyes.

  I shrugged at her.

  The boys each took their presents and Gareth pumped his fist in the air. “Yes!” he shouted. “Told you he was giving us Disneyland passes, DJ!”

  “Is he hiring someone to take you, too?” Britt asked between clenched teeth.

  “Mom and Dad get their own passes, and a membership to Club 33, the club for grown-ups. ” I said, handing her two more cards, at which point she grinned and thanked me.

  “They’re good for the whole year. ” I turned back to the boys, putting an arm on each of their heads. “I promise I’ll take you when I can. You guys are getting almost tall enough to be my armrests. I’ll just walk around t
he park with one arm on each head. ” I demonstrated by settling my forearms on each of their heads like I was sitting in a big recliner.

  DJ darted out from under my hold. “Mia is coming to Disneyland with us, right? She promised to take me on Thunder Mountain. ”

  Gareth grabbed my arm and tried to wrestle with me. I pulled my arm up, and since his hands were clamped around my forearm, he came up with me. “Maybe I’ll walk over to the pool and hold you over the water. ” I laughed. Gareth promptly dropped his hold and ran off. I knew where they were headed.

  “Buddies, not the car. I gotta take off in a minute. ”

  They both turned around, disappointment clear on their faces. They quickly redirected to the backyard instead.

  “Not inside the pool gate, guys!” Peter called.

  “Yeah, Papa,” DJ answered before the door slammed.

  “So is Mia okay?” Britt asked.

  I opened my mouth to answer that I had no idea when my phone chimed. Shit, that was probably her. I pulled it out and looked at the text message. My hopes fell.

  Jordan.

  Need to meet up with you ASAP about the insurance meeting tomorrow. You at home?

  I tucked my phone back into my pocket, ignoring the text. I replied to Britt’s question, “That’s what I’m going to go find out. I’ll see you. I’m sorry. ”

  Page 40

  I picked up my keys. On the way out, Kim met up with me and we walked out to the car. She looked upset. “I just tried to text her. No answer. Heath says she’s not feeling well. ”

  “Yeah that’s what he told me, too,” I said in a flat voice.

  “Adam, what’s going on?”

  I suddenly wished I could just jump in the car and drive off rather than have this conversation. I hesitated. What on earth could I say?

  “Was it about you proposing? Is that why she’s mad?”

  How to simplify this so I could get out of having to rehash everything? I avoided her gaze. “More or less. She’s having a difficult time deciding what she wants. ”

  “You mean about medical school?”

  I clenched my teeth. “Yeah. ”

  “She’s acting so weird. This isn’t like her. Did she—are you two broken up?”

 
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