At any turn, p.12
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       At Any Turn, p.12

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
 
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  “Nice hat,” I said.

  She gave me a tired smile, looking like she hadn’t slept since the last time I’d seen her on Sunday. I frowned. “You okay?”

  She blinked. “Do I look that bad?”

  I got up and moved to sit beside her. “You look really tired. I thought you said you were feeling better yesterday. How was your day with your mom?”

  She looked away from me, caught the end of her ponytail and swirled it around her finger. I watched it, my eyes darting between her flitting eyes and the agitated movements of her hand. “Oh. I started feeling pretty crappy after I texted you, so I ended up canceling that. ”

  I scrutinized her, now under the assumption that everything she’d tell me would be an evasion or even a lie.

  “You feeling better now?” She sure didn’t look it. Her eyes looked puffy. I wanted to corner her, pin her down, but I had to forcibly remind myself that I wasn’t taking that approach anymore. I leaned back and just watched her.

  She darted me a quick look and bent forward to kiss me on the cheek, throwing her arms around my neck.

  “Hey,” I said, pulling her close to me. I buried my nose in the side of her neck, inhaling her. She stayed clasped to me for a long moment without moving, so I held her.

  “Emilia, what’s going on?”

  She pulled back from me and planted a long kiss on my lips, then tilted her head away. “Nothing. I just missed you. ”

  I refrained from pointing out the obvious, that if she’d just move back into the house, she wouldn’t have to miss me. I glanced at her backpack, hoping she’d packed for overnight, but even if she hadn’t, I’d had an assistant grab a few things at the local store, just in case. I couldn’t wait to spring my little surprise on her. I’d procured an early digital preview copy of the latest Hobbit movie that wouldn’t be out in the theaters until next month. Strings had been pulled and favors called in for that one. We’d watch it in the audiovisual room after dinner. I couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when the credits came up.

  She glanced at my laptop. “What are you working on?”

  “Hmm. I was going to say ‘top secret’ because I know how much you love that. ” I chucked her under the chin when she rolled her eyes. “But I actually need your help with it. It’s a new app we’ll be unveiling at the Con and I need to do the last bit of testing on it. ”

  Her eyes brightened “A phone app? Like a brand new game or…?”

  “It’s a companion app to go along with DE. You can interact with the game even when you aren’t logged in and playing. ”

  She frowned at me. “From your phone? This is a finished product and I’m only finding out about it now?”

  “Fear not, little blogger. I’ll give you first scoop on it. In fact, I’ll tell Mac to give you the job of doing the write-up on it for the Con. ”

  “What does it do? Does it let you chat with your friends in the game?”

  I pulled out my phone and opened up the app. “Yeah, there’s a chat feature, but that’s the least of what you can do. You can set offline commands for your character to do things, like work on their noncombat skills or—”

  “Oooh, Eloisa can finally become an expert weaver! I have no patience for that crap in the game. I’d rather go hack orcs than do skills. No offense. ”

  I laughed. “I didn’t develop the noncombat skills in the game. None taken. ”

  I demonstrated the app and she was immediately immersed, a huge grin on her face. “Oh, this is so cool! I can sell stuff to other players at the auction house. ”

  “Yep, you can trade or sell equipment in-game even when you aren’t logged in. ”

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  Her brows rose. “What about security issues, like what happened with that kid in New Jersey?”

  “You have to register your phone when you create your account before you use this app. There are classified ads so you can advertise for stuff you want to buy. Also, you can send out push notices, so if you want to get your friends to log on to do a raid, you can have the app send text messages to their cell phones. ”

  “Badass. You’re a fucking genius. ” She started pressing commands. “Quick, log on to FallenOne, I want to see if I can make him do stuff from the phone. ”

  I turned to my laptop and logged in. We spent the next half hour running the app through the gamut of commands. Emilia was thrilled, asking me a million questions. “Shit, I can’t believe I slept with you every night for months and you were hiding this from me. ”

  “Business is business,” I said. “You bat for the other team. ”

  “Ha!” she said, but as she continued to press buttons, a frown crossed her face. She looked distracted, deep in thought.

  “What’s wrong?”

  She looked up at me with almost fearful eyes. “Um. Well…”

  I frowned at her. “Is it the app?”

  “No. The app is awesome. ” She straightened, handing the phone back to me. I set it next to the laptop. Maybe now she’d come clean?

  But as I watched her, I noticed that she’d suddenly gone very pale. She cleared her throat and then coughed. “I came over because I wanted to hang out with you. But also because we need to talk. ”

  I stiffened. The “we need to talk” phrase never ended well. My breathing froze. Had she come over to break up? Was this what all the evasive behavior was about? Shit. I needed a minute to gather my thoughts, formulate a plan. “Can I get you a glass of water?”

  She cleared her throat again. “Um. Yeah. Please? And—umm, maybe some wine?”

  Water and wine? I got up and went into the kitchen, grabbing a cup and filling it from the cold water dispenser on the fridge. My mind raced. Change the subject? That wouldn’t work. Why would she want to break up? That nagging fear that there was someone else reared its ugly head. But she hadn’t come in to work for two days and had been very clearly under the weather this weekend

  I had no information and wouldn’t have any until the PI got back to me. She had the upper hand and I had to find a way to avoid a confrontation right now. My mind raced. In war, the way is to avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak.

  I removed a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the fridge and uncorked it. The wine hadn’t been touched since she’d moved out. I came back into the room, a glass in each hand, and set them down on the coffee table in front of her. She didn’t look up, having taken up the phone again, messing with the app.

  She reached out for the glass of wine and downed the entire thing in one gulp without taking her eyes off the phone. What the hell? “I’m glad the app is such a hit,” I said.

  She didn’t say anything for a long moment. She cleared her throat again and glanced up at me with a strange look on her face. “You got a text just now. From someone named Miguel. ”

  My blood ran cold. Swallowing, I tried my hardest to hide my fear. I held out a hand for my phone, but she didn’t give it to me. I clenched my jaw and lowered my hand.

  There was a definite chance that his text was innocuous. She might not even realize that Miguel was the PI I’d hired to dig up information on her. It could be a very unfounded fear. But if that was the case, why was I hardly breathing?

  She frowned, glancing at the phone again. “Yeah, so Miguel wants to know if it’s okay to attach a GPS tracker to my car even though you don’t want me actively followed. ”

  She set the phone down and stood up, glaring at me. Bending to grab her backpack, she turned, but she never made it more than a few steps to the door. I intercepted her, taking her arm.

  “I can explain. ”

  She pulled away from me. “What the fuck, Adam?”

  “I was worried about you—”

  “Says every other creepy stalker on the planet. I need to go,” she said in stiff, clipped tones.

  “You said we needed to talk,” I said, moving in front of her again.

  “Why do we have to t
alk?” she ground out. “You can just have your private dick follow me around. ”

  “Emilia—”

  She pushed back from me. “Back the fuck off! Are you really that mystified because I turned down your proposal and moved out? Like every other woman in the galaxy wouldn’t fall all over herself to stand in line to marry the hot young gazillionaire. You can’t wrap your mind around the fact that I’m not groveling with gratitude at your feet to become probably the first in a long line of Mrs. Adam Drakes? Is that the big mystery you need solved? Because I’ll tell you why right now. And you don’t need to waste money on stalking me. ”

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  I drew back from her and folded my arms across my chest. I called out to the housekeeper, who I knew was in the next room hearing every word. Cora was a wise woman. After I told her she was good for the day, she emerged about two minutes later with her purse over her arm and didn’t look at either one of us as she made her way out the door.

  Emilia fumed and—weirdly—she had tears in her eyes. She never cried. I was in full panic mode, my mind racing to figure out what the fuck to do. There was no nice quip from The Art of War about what to do when the other side found out about your spies and were pissed as hell about it. And, from the looks of her, this was about to turn into an all-out war.

  I shifted my stance. “I fucked up. ”

  “At least I can agree with you there. ”

  “Can we sit down and talk about this?”

  She clenched her jaw and wiped a tear with a brusque swipe of her hand. Then she shook her head. “I’m too pissed off at you right now. ”

  I let out a long breath. I wasn’t going to make the mistake of backing her into a corner again but goddamn if I was going to allow her to leave like this, either. “You have a right to be pissed off. But I did it—”

  “Don’t say you did it out of love! Don’t you dare say that. You didn’t have a right. ”

  “I don’t have a right to know what’s going on with you, why you are acting so weird?”

  Her eyes widened and she dropped her backpack on the floor next to where she stood. “You could have, I don’t know, done what normal people do and ask. ”

  “I did ask. Over and over again. At the restaurant, at Heath’s place. Here. An hour ago. You wouldn’t tell me. And you wouldn’t tell your mom. And I have a sneaking suspicion that you were avoiding both of us on Sunday and you never had plans to go out with her last night. ”

  “This has nothing to do with you being worried about me and everything to do with your need to control me and my entire life. If you can’t even acknowledge that, then we are done. ”

  “I’m not some kind of control freak—”

  She huffed in disbelief. “That is absolutely what you are! Ever since before we even met in person, you’ve tried to control me. You took control of the auction, you strung me along, you held that money over my head. But that was okay, right? Because you were saving me. And I tolerated it because I fell in love with you in spite of it all. ”

  “I fell in love with you, too. I never planned that. ”

  “And you used it as your excuse to keep on controlling me. This is how it’s been between us since the beginning and I never should have allowed it. It’s how you treat everyone in your life. We all move according to your carefully orchestrated plans, like part of one of your codes, and if anyone deviates from what you want, you try to reprogram us. So Mia wants to go off to med school in Maryland? I’ll program her to become Mrs. Adam Drake and she’ll stay here instead. ”

  Fuck. I combed my hand through my hair, struggling for something to say. But what I should not have said is exactly what came out of my mouth at that moment. “You’re going over the top with this, don’t you think? Projecting anything you can because you don’t want to feel guilty over leaving me to go through with plans you had before you even met me. ”

  Her jaw dropped. “Oh my God. Oh. My. God. Really, Adam, you are the most brilliant person I’ve ever met, but sometimes you just don’t get it. You are this massive force of nature that blows in and overwhelms me, yanking me around like a helpless ragdoll. And I let you. ”

  “That’s the problem—you see me as the storm. The storm is life. The storm is the bullshit you find yourself in and I’m the anchor that holds you down and keeps you safe, from getting blown away. ”’

  She started to shake, her eyes filling again with tears. Her fists balled at her sides. I took a step toward her, my hand outstretched, but she backed away. “I wish I could trust you enough to be my anchor when I need you. But I can’t. You can’t be in control of everything. ” Then the most stunning thing happened—she erupted into tears. A loud, messy sort of sobbing that I’d only seen from her one other time—also brought about because of me in a very similar circumstance.

  I froze. I wanted to go to her, pull her into my arms, but she was unbelievably pissed at me and I knew that was a bad idea. So in my panic I did the lamest thing possible. I grabbed a nearby box of tissues and held it out to her.

  Without a word, she grabbed handfuls of the stuff and buried her face in it.

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  “Come here. Sit down, please?”

  She let me steer her back to the couch while she continued to sob. I sat next to her, stupidly handing her more tissues as she made her way through the box at hand.

  “Emilia. Talk to me,” I finally said when it looked like she was getting control of herself. “I’m sorry I fucked up. But I want to be here for you. ”

  She shook her head, wiping her face repeatedly. “You did fuck up. Big. Big time. ”

  I said nothing for a long time and she turned to me, as if waiting for some slick explanation to come out of my mouth, but I couldn’t give it to her. Instead my heart was pounding like I’d just run sprints and there was a chunk of ice at the pit of my stomach. I wanted to tell her how afraid I was. I was losing her and the more I sensed that she was slipping away the more I reflexively tightened my grip. She was right. I needed that control. Not having it froze my entrails with terror.

  “What can I do to make it up to you?” I finally asked in a quiet voice.

  She thought about that for a long time. “You need to back off. ”

  I did not tear my eyes from hers; they were attached, as if we were fused together, some invisible soul-tether holding us locked in each other’s gaze. “I can’t do that. ”

  Her jaw set. “You have to. ”

  “Tell me why. ”

  “Because you need to prove to me that you can deal and not be a complete nut job stalker when you don’t have the control. ” She hesitated and looked away. “We need time away from each other. Time for you to give me space and show me that you don’t need to control or manipulate me. Because if you can’t prove that to me, I will never trust you and this will never work. ”

  We said nothing for long minutes. I rubbed my forehead. I hated this and wanted to rail against it. Already there were clever replies in my head, responses I could design to try and get a certain reaction from her. Now that she was pointing this out to me, it was almost scary how automatic that way of thinking was for me. I was always thinking my way around every situation, like it was a puzzle to solve, a challenge to overcome. Even with her.

  But if I couldn’t stop this—if I didn’t stop it—I’d lose her forever. I tried to envision my life without her. I’d be lost, adrift. Free-falling through space. I squeezed my eyes shut.

  “I just want to take care of you. ”

  Her voice was quiet but firm beside me. “Your idea of taking care means dominating every situation. ”

  Of course it did. Why was that a bad thing? Be the driver, not the driven. But I couldn’t drive her.

  “How do I know you’ll be all right? That you’ll be safe?”

  She still wasn’t looking at me. “I’ll take care of myself. ”

  My hands clenched into fists. “So we’re broken up then?”

/>   “For now. ”

  My stomach dropped. “What does that mean?”

  “It means we have to learn to trust each other. You have to trust me enough that you can back off and let me handle my life and I have to trust that you won’t be breathing down my neck and watching everything I do. ”

  I stayed silent. She watched me closely. I didn’t bat an eye—didn’t look at her. I had no idea what to say.

  “Also, um. We need to draw a clear line. I can’t work at Draco—”

  “What? Why?”

  She looked away. “I shouldn’t work for you…”

  I stiffened. But when the hell would I see her, then? We had some friends in common, but that was it. If she didn’t work for me, I wouldn’t know where she was all day. My fist closed. I couldn’t allow that, control issues or no. At least during the work hours of the day, Monday through Friday for the next three months, I’d know exactly where she’d be. It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

  “What about your commitments? The Con. I—we need you. ”

  She hesitated, so I pushed it. “What about Liam? How do you think he’d handle it if you just stopped working?”

  She rubbed her brow. “That’s not fair. ”

  “Please, at least promise me you’ll stay until after the New Year. ” And hopefully by then we’d have this figured out. God, I hoped so.

  “I need some time to think about it. Give me a week. ”

  I took a breath and released it slowly. I really wanted that commitment from her now, but if I pushed it, then I was that much more of an idiot for not having learned my lesson. “Okay. Take as long as you need, but—Please come back. ”

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  She rocked in her seat, appearing deep in thought. Tears started to leak from her eyes again, streaking her pale cheeks. My throat tightened and God if I didn’t feel the tears prickling my own eyes. Fuck. This hurt. This hurt so goddamned badly. I sniffed and looked away, blinking. No, I wouldn’t shed tears, not here, not in front of her. I hadn’t cried since—God, I couldn’t even remember. When I found out Bree had died—months after the fact? Not even then.

 
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