At any turn, p.11
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       At Any Turn, p.11

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
 
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  “No. ”

  She was visibly relieved. “Oh, good. ”

  Well, that was reassuring at least, to know I had the mom’s approval. Hopefully more of that would rub off on the daughter.

  “Can I ask you a favor?”

  “Sure,” I said.

  “Can you—would you please tell her that I’d like to hear from her?”

  I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’d like to hear from her, too. “I will, Kim. I’m sure she’s fine. It’s a difficult time for her. Tough choices and all that. ”

  I reached for the car door handle and she put her hand over mine. “I know it’s hard, but stick with her, okay? She’s fiercely independent, but she has a loyal heart. She’s just confused right now. ”

  What to say to that? I knew all of that and I was trying my hardest to understand. I nodded. “Thanks. ”

  It was a quick five minutes from Peter’s house to Heath’s. As I drove, I puzzled through all of this. Emilia clearly wasn’t feeling well. Maybe she was depressed? It would explain her strange behavior and her secrecy toward her mom. Well, that was not as unusual as Kim thought it was. Emilia had never told her mother the true circumstances under which we had met in person, nor a thing about the virginity auction—quite understandably. But after we’d started our real relationship, Emilia had told me that her secrecy about the auction and subsequent events had caused a bit of a strain between her and her mother. Was she keeping secrets again?

  Minutes later, the unsurprised expression on Heath’s face when he opened the door and saw me standing there showed that he’d been expecting me. Emilia was in the sitting room wearing the T-shirt she usually slept in and some yoga pants, watching a Doctor Who rerun and eating a bowl of cereal. She looked up at me with wide, guilty eyes.

  “So…is your phone broken?” I asked tightly.

  She put her bowl down and looked at Heath, who threw his hands up and walked out of the room.

  “It’s out here and I didn’t check it. I just woke up. ”

  I hesitated. “From a nap?” I checked my watch. Almost 6:30 p. m.

  “More or less. ”

  I sat down on the couch next to her and she pointed the remote at the TV to mute it. “Have you been in bed all day? Why didn’t you let me know?”

  She took a deep breath and glanced away. “Am I supposed to send you hourly health reports?”

  “Well, you could have at least told me you weren’t going to family dinner. ”

  She nervously grabbed a strand of her glossy brown hair and twirled it around her finger. I zeroed in on it. Uh-oh. My eyes narrowed.

  “I thought I was going to go. I set an alarm to get myself up, but it didn’t go off. ”

  I stared at her for a long minute and she fidgeted. Her clothes were rumpled, her hair uncombed and she had circles under her eyes. And she was clearly hiding something. She was sending me her usual signals.

  Finally she raised her brows at me. “What?”

  “Something’s going on and you aren’t telling me. ”

  “I’m just not feeling very well. ”

  “Like…physically or mentally or what?”

  She fluttered her eyes, taking a deep breath, clearly irritated. “I’m allowed to have down days once in a while. ”

  “What are you down about?”

  She shrugged and looked away. “I’m okay. It’s been a crappy few weeks—for both of us. I just need a day to hang out and do nothing. ”

  I rubbed my forehead. We hadn’t lived together long, but I’d never seen her express the need to have a day like this. Emilia was typically very energetic. And usually when she was feeling angry or down she played on the game. I flicked a quick glance at the alcove that held her desktop computer. It was powered down, probably since Heath had shut it off the night before. Maybe she was having a bad period? I knew better than to ask if that was it, though. No need to get my head bitten off needlessly. But if that was it, why the evasion? She would have just told me.

  Page 41

  “Want me to stay with you?”

  She hesitated and my phone chimed. I pulled it out and looked at it. Jordan again.

  Dude, where the hell are you? We have some business to go over.

  I clicked the phone off and tucked it back into my pocket.

  She watched me carefully. “Who was that?”

  “Just Jordan, riding my ass as usual. ”

  “Hmm. ” She frowned. “I remember when you were the one riding his ass all the time. ”

  “Talk to me,” I said, reaching out for her hand. “What’s going on?”

  “I’m just not feeling a hundred percent. I probably have a bug. ”

  My cell phone started ringing.

  “You should get that,” she said. I threw her a look. Not so many months ago, she would have told me the complete opposite.

  I yanked the phone out of my pocket and answered. “Yes, what?”

  “Where the hell are you? We need to go over some paperwork and you are ignoring my texts. ”

  “Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

  A pause. “Um. No. The meeting is first thing in the morning. Where are you?”

  “I’m in Orange. ” I flicked a glance at Emilia who was staring out the window, distracted. “Where do you want to meet?”

  “Your house. Thirty minutes. ”

  “Fine. ” Shit. I did not want to leave Emilia. Even if it was clear that she didn’t want me here.

  She turned to me when I finished the phone call, scooted across the couch and wrapped her arms around my torso, resting her head on my shoulder. My heart swelled in my chest and I stole a kiss in her vanilla-scented hair. Smelling her hair, I felt a rush to my senses. “I’ll be okay. Go take care of your company. Stop worrying. ”

  “You know what would make me worry less?” I asked, stroking her hair. “If you were living at my house so I could take care of you. ”

  “How did I know you were going to say that?” She landed a kiss on my cheek. “I’m a big girl. I took care of myself for years before we met. ”

  “I think you should take a day off work tomorrow,” I said.

  “I’ll think about it,” she answered. “Now go appease Jordan. I’m going to finish this episode, then probably go lie down again. ”

  “You should call your mom, too. She’s worried about you. ”

  “Mom was at Peter’s?”

  I took a deep breath. “Yeah…apparently they wanted to tell us that they are dating. ”

  A brief look of horror crossed her face. “That’s…umm. A little squicky. ”

  I laughed. “Glad to know I’m not the only one weirded out by that. Why aren’t you getting back to her? She really seemed upset. ”

  Emilia pulled away from me and sat back. “I will. I’ll call her before I go lie down. ”

  I leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “I’m gonna go. I’ll call you tomorrow. And I’ll tell Mac you’re staying home. ”

  She opened her mouth to protest, but I held up a finger. “I’m not arguing with you. Take a day off, so says the boss. I’ll come check in on you tomorrow. ”

  I kissed her good-bye and left.

  ***

  Jordan was waiting for me when I got there. My housekeeper had let him in and fixed him a drink and a snack plate while he sat at my kitchen bar. I grabbed some canapés and loaded up an empty plate, which she noticed immediately and offered to make me some dinner.

  I turned her down, thanking her, but I grabbed the snack plate and Jordan and I went up to my office.

  “What’s so important it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?” I said, settling down at my desk across from Jordan.

  “The insurance company sent us papers that we need to review and send back with our corrections as soon as possible. ”

  I rubbed my brow with my thumb. “And this couldn’t wait?”

  Jordan looked at me
like I’d sprouted a third eye. “What the hell, Adam? We need to stay on top of this shit. This is our company. And these insurance guys have our necks in a noose. One wrong move and we start strangling. No, it couldn’t wait. ”

  Nice image. I grabbed the stack of papers, scanned the first page. “This is all shit about settling. We are not going to settle. ”

  Jordan stared at me for a long, hard minute. “We may not have a choice. ”

  “Bullshit. It’s not their call. ”

  “Joseph’s been looking over the policy because I knew you’d say all this. He hasn’t found anything yet. Unless you as CEO are named in the suit, then you have no say over whether or not the insurance company settles the case or takes it to court. ”

  Page 42

  I hissed out a breath and threw the stack of papers back on the desk. I did not want to deal with this now. I couldn’t get my worry about Emilia out of my head. I gazed out the window for a long moment, wondering why I couldn’t focus on anything else tonight.

  “Adam. Get your head in the game, man. Where are you right now?”

  “I was attempting to spend some time with my family—”

  “And mooning after your girlfriend who has moved out. What the hell has happened to you? I need the shark CEO who never batted an eye over pulling a twelve-hour Sunday at work and not the hippy who went off to hike the trails and contemplate his navel. ”

  I shot out of my chair and moved over to the window, folding my arms against my chest. “Enough, Jordan, all right?”

  His chair squeaked as he shifted in it. “Christ, I’m sorry, but—I need you here. Where are you?”

  I ran a hand through my hair. “I’m worried about her. Something’s not right—it’s just a gut feeling. There’s something she’s not telling me. But I know better than to ask you for advice regarding women. ”

  “Well, at least that’s smart of you. What’s wrong with her?”

  “I don’t know. She’s not feeling well, I guess. She’s not talking to me and she’s not talking to her mom. ”

  He scratched at his stylish goatee and threw me a sly look. “Well, there are ways you can find out, you know. If I take care of it for you, maybe you can concentrate on this shit. ”

  I frowned at him. “What, like hire an army interrogator or something?”

  He swiveled in his chair. “I know a guy—like before, when you had me look into the mom’s finances. He could tail Mia for a week—tell you everything you need to know. ”

  I turned back to the window. “No. ”

  “Adam, you are going to be fucking useless to me and this company unless you snap out of this shit. What harm would it do you? She’d never know. This guy is good. You’d have peace of mind and your company gets its fully-functioning CEO back. ”

  Hire spies, Sun Tzu said. And connecting with Heath was going to lead me nowhere because he was loyal to a fault. He’d never betray her. But a pro could find out quickly. He’d dig up whatever I paid him to. But was there anything to dig up? Was she really keeping something from me?

  “We’ll see. ” I cleared my throat and squared my shoulders. “Let’s go over this thing page by page, then. You need some more food or anything?”

  Jordan watched me with open puzzlement on his face. Finally he shrugged. “I’m good. ”

  We went over the paperwork in detail until well after midnight. By the time I got to bed, I could hardly see straight from exhaustion. And I was already dreading Monday morning, which had arrived before I even closed my eyes. A few hours of shuteye and a whole lot of coffee would be the only way I’d get through the next day.

  ***

  A graveyard. All full of bright light. It was just before midday. A dry breeze blew, a mournful sound wailing through the trees. Crows cawed in the distance. I held a handful of roses in my hand, squeezing the stems inside my fist, the thorns stinging, prickling into my palm. I’d scanned every headstone. Every damn one. I’d been there for hours. Days. Weeks. And not a one of them was what I was looking for.

  I turned, making tracks over the graves I’d seen before. Reading names over and over again. I’d retraced my steps over and over again, knowing I was lost, getting nowhere. “Bree? Where are you?” I called, and the voice was not mine, but a child’s. The boy I’d been. “Bree. Come back to me!”

  I started awake, unable to breathe, heart racing. Mind scattered. My T-shirt soaked with sweat and the wavy lines of the beginning of a migraine aura at the edge of my vision. Bree…That desperate cry echoed over and over in my head. She’s gone. Forever, a dry, cynical voice—the voice of my adult self—answered.

  I fell back against my damp pillow, weak with panic. Yes, it was a dream, but the reality was all too terrifying. I couldn’t lose Emilia as I’d lost Bree.

  My hunger to know what was going on was even more intense this morning than it had been the previous night when I’d spoken to Jordan. I thought about his offer, about every possibility that would spring from hiring a PI. I weighed the pros and cons.

  Inevitably, an hour later, I called Jordan. It was five a. m.

  “What’s up?” he croaked into the phone. I’d obviously awakened him.

  “Call your guy. Tell him to touch base with me and I’ll give him the information he needs. I want this low-key, okay? No tailing her, just looking into things. ”

  Page 43

  “What’s the point of that? It would take a lot longer. ”

  I shrugged. It really didn’t make much sense. Violating her privacy was violating her privacy whichever way I looked at it. I gave a deep sigh. “Just give him my number and let me talk to him, okay?”

  “Sure…thanks for the wakeup call. ”

  I clicked off and tried to muster the energy to get up and go shower and get ready for another day. We had a conference call with the insurance company at eight. Since they were on East Coast time, we had to start early.

  Like a zombie that had stepped right out of my game, I fumbled through my morning and was on my third cup of coffee by the time the call started.

  Sure enough, they wanted to settle and according to my lawyer, there was not one goddamn thing I could do about it. A settlement package was being prepared even as we spoke.

  By ten o’clock, the New York guys had to go to lunch and I sat in my office, face in my hands, trying to figure out where to go from here. They basically had my balls in a vise and if I deviated from their plan, they’d pull their coverage and I’d be fully liable for the amount of the lawsuit and all legal fees associated with it. And even though I stood a good chance to ultimately win a court case, I’d still lose because the costs involved would be very steep.

  I’d called over to marketing to make sure Emilia hadn’t come in to work and was assured that she’d stayed home. I texted her a quick note asking if she was okay.

  She answered that she was feeling better and was going to spend the evening with her mom. She asked if she could come over to my place tomorrow.

  I curbed the ever-present irritation at the thought of not being able to see her every day, and I agreed.

  During the early afternoon, I got a call on the cell from a number I didn’t recognize. I answered on the chance that it was Jordan’s man. When he introduced himself, I asked him about his experience and told him what I wanted him to accomplish.

  He asked me basics about her—name, age, address, physical description, what type of car she drove. With each detail I divulged, I felt dirty. I felt like a stalker, like I was betraying her privacy on so many levels.

  But those questions just kept nagging at me. What was going on with her? Why was she acting so weird? Why had she really moved out? Was it only because of our game of chicken or was there something else? Was there someone else?

  God, there’d better not be someone else or I wouldn’t be responsible for my actions. The thought of some other man with her made me so crazy with rage that I couldn’t even allow myself to
contemplate it.

  “I want low-level surveillance. No shadowing her. ” I couldn’t chance that she’d somehow find out and though Jordan had assured me that this guy was good, I wasn’t going to risk it.

  “You say she’s in a condo? How many units in the complex? And is she living alone or with someone?”

  “Uh, at least a hundred units. She has a roommate. ”

  “So some of the normal low-level surveillance techniques probably won’t be effective, like looking through mail or garbage and the like. It’s going to take some time if you don’t want her followed. ”

  I paused, stared at the wall. “Can you look into phone records, bank payments, that sort of thing?”

  “There’s also other online stuff—social media, for example. ”

  I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I’ve got that covered myself. Dig around and see what you can find out. If it ends up taking too long, I’ll make the call on whether to start having her followed. ”

  “Sounds good. I’ll keep you posted with updates on what I find. Text messages okay or would you prefer e-mail?”

  “Text is fine. ”

  I ended the call and stared into space for a long moment. I’d been glued to her blog and every comment for days. There was nothing there. And her Twitter account and Facebook page were equally devoid of personal information—even the usual tiny tidbits she was comfortable giving, like complaining about having a cold or moaning about the weather—not that we had weather to moan about in Southern California. But it was almost meticulously devoid of anything personal. As if she was hiding something.

  She’d found out long ago that I was a regular reader of her blog. It hadn’t affected how she wrote—even about Draco games—until now. Now it was sterilized of anything personal. There was no longer much Girl Geek in the Girl Geek blog.

  With each question that came up, that old fear grew stronger. I couldn’t lose her. I wouldn’t.

  Chapter Nine

  Page 44

  I left work early on Tuesday because she hadn’t come in and I texted her to see if she was okay. She said she still wanted to meet me and I told her to come over to my house midafternoon. I’d finish my workday from there. Besides, all I really had to do was test out a new app that was going to be unveiled at DracoCon, so I decided to do it from home. In fact, Emilia could help me.

  I was in the middle of my initial testing when she arrived. Cora, my housekeeper, fawned all over her, giving her kisses on the cheek. Emilia came in and plopped down on the sofa across from me in the front sitting room. She wore jeans, a brown T-shirt that read, in big gold letters, BROWNCOAT, accentuated by five-pointed stars that declared her an undying fan of the beloved but short-lived sci-fi TV show Firefly. And on her head, a black baseball cap with the Dragon Epoch logo on it.

 
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