At any turn, p.14
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       At Any Turn, p.14

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
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  Jenna looked at her. “When did you join the conversation? I thought I was the one talking to her. ”

  Alex scrunched her brow. “I can talk to her, too. We’re going to end up forming a search party to gather all the friends, anyway, so might as well get it out of the way. ”

  “I gotta go,” Heath said grabbing his dice bag and standing up.

  “You just got here,” said Jenna.

  “I suddenly remembered I have to do something. ”

  “Bullshit,” said Alex. “You’ve been grumpy since you got here. ”

  Heath shot another look at me. “Yeah, well, if I don’t take off, I’m going to get grumpier. ”

  “What the—why?” Alex asked.

  “Let’s see…the woman is looking for her daughter Emma, who wants to leave her friends and her ‘beau’ and go away to a far distant land to study. What’s the old woman’s name, by the way?” Heath turned back to me.

  We held each other’s stare for a long, tense moment. I shrugged. “Are you asking her that?”

  “I’m going to guess it’s Kimma or Kendra or something like that. And her beau’s name is Adrian or Adolfo or something like that. ”

  Alex snorted. “And her best friend is Howard or Heathen or something like that. ”

  I looked down, put my hands on my hips. Okay, so it had been even lamer and more transparent than I had originally thought. And Heath must have thought I was a major dick for pulling this stunt. But maybe we would get somewhere, now, draw together and approach Emilia as a group of friends.

  I met Heath’s blazing green gaze again and shook my head. “Yeah, Howard is going to be the key player, here. He’ll probably be the last one to join the quest with all Emma’s other friends. ”

  Heath shook his head, his jaw tensing.

  Liam turned to me. “So what’s happening? What’s the old woman saying? Why aren’t we playing the game?”

  Alex spun on Heath. “Why are you so hip on her leaving everything behind to go so far away, anyway?” I didn’t smile, though I felt like it. Alex was acting just as I’d hoped.

  Heath jerked his head in her direction. “Because I care about what she wants. ”

  Jenna’s brows shot up. “But we’re her support system. Who does she have in Maryland? No one. She’d be all alone there. ”

  Heath clenched his teeth and shot me a look of pure venom, then raised his chin. “She doesn’t have to be all alone there. ” Then he shook his head. “I’m not doing this. Not today. ”

  “We should stage an intervention,” Alex said

  Heath looked at her like she was an alien. “You should stay the hell out of it. ”

  Jenna was looking down, arranging all her dice into neat rows on the table in front of her. “You’re not the only one here who loves her, Heath. We feel this way because we care. ”

  Liam looked up, puzzled. “Are we still talking about Emma?”

  Heath clenched his jaw. “We were never talking about Emma, William. ” He turned back to me. “I’m out of here. ”

  I followed him to the door and into the hallway outside the apartment. He turned before leaving, looking almost like he would take a swing at me.

  “Dickish thing to do, man. I don’t appreciate it. ”

  I angled my head at him, taking in his tense body language, his closed fists. “Do you blame me?”

  “You’re the one who promised to back off and trust her. Now you pull this shit? Uh-uh. You’re so clueless. ”

  I shifted my stance. “I’m just trying to make a point. It’s not just about her. Or even just about me. ”

  “It’s not the message you convey, but the way you do it. This whole night was a pretense. It’s you playing your games again. And keeping your coy secrets. You’re all about your hidden plots and secrets, aren’t you? I seriously think you get off on that shit. ”

  I clenched my jaw and bit back the harsh reply on my lips. I wasn’t stupid enough to want to escalate this. That wouldn’t accomplish anything. And Heath could still be useful to me as an insight to the other side. So I said nothing and let him continue ranting.

  Page 53

  His face flushed as he held up his thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. “You’re treading a fine line, man. You are this close to losing her for good. So if that’s what you are trying to accomplish, then keep doing exactly what you are doing. ” He turned redder and redder as he spoke. “I’m fucking exhausted as it is. I’ve been up since the asscrack of dawn to drive her—” He abruptly cut himself off.

  I opened my mouth to reply hotly, but I couldn’t say a damn word because he was right. I was being an asshole. I slumped back against the wall behind me in the hallway. A few doors down, some students slammed the door and were hotly discussing the latest episode of True Blood as they stormed down the stairwell. I blinked.

  “I’m sorry. I’m panicking. There, I said it. And apparently I’m digging myself into an even deeper hole. ”

  He shook his head. “I’m not in the mood to talk you down from a ledge when I’ve been doing it for her all week. ”

  I folded my arms across my chest. “She’s okay? You drove her somewhere?” I said, picking up on his slip.

  He scowled, hesitating. He seemed to be gauging what my reaction might be. Then he inhaled and blew out a long breath. “To LAX. ”

  I stiffened. “What? Why?”

  He held up a hand. “Down boy, it’s just for six days. ”

  “Where’d she go?”

  He glanced out of the corner of his eye down the hallway, then shifted his stance. “I’m only telling you so you don’t try to stalk her. She flew to Baltimore. ”

  I was glad I had the wall to hold me up. I felt myself go pale. This was clearly a sign that I already had lost her. She was going to make arrangements to attend Hopkins.

  I barely croaked out a thank-you before feebly reaching for the doorknob.

  Heath reached out and stopped me. “Adam. I know you mean well. I know you love her. But you are fucking it up, man. And now with stunts like this, you threaten to push me away, too. We’re friends, but I can’t do this. I can’t be in the middle of you two. ”

  “I’m feeling kind of lost at the moment. ” It took everything in me to admit that.

  “You need to be here for her. Be what she needs. I know her and I know how she feels about you and—just trust me on this, all right? If you don’t want to completely fuck this up, then you need to back off. Don’t just say you are going to back off. Actually do it. ”

  It wasn’t easy to hear and there were few people I’d even stand to hear it from. Fortunately, Heath was one of them. I thanked him quietly, suggested he give Connor a call to go have drinks, and then apologized.

  Heath nodded, giving me a smile and a reassurance that we were still on for our regular Saturday paintball. I watched him descend the stairs as I took a deep breath to collect myself. I tried to assimilate this news about Emilia going to Maryland, probably in preparation for med school in the fall. Shit.

  When I got back inside, three sets of eyes stared at me with the unspoken question of what had gone on. Alex tilted her head to the side, studying me. “I don’t see any bruises. I was afraid Heath was going to beat you up!”

  I made a face at her. “What made you think he’d win?”

  Jenna looked up from her careful dice arrangement. “He talk to you about what’s going on with Mia?”

  I rubbed my jaw. “Hmm. Not really in the mood to talk about it. How ’bout some pizza and beer? On me. ”

  Alex snorted. “Well of course it will be on you. ”

  We scrapped the game early and I ordered the food, hoping to make up for the failed D&D game. We sat around talking about our favorite episodes of Stargate for the next few hours, much to Liam’s irritation, in between him stealing glances at Jenna. I do believe he had a crush.

  She pretended not to notice and I made a mental n
ote to explain to her about the eye contact thing later, when Liam wasn’t around. Maybe some small good would come out of this disaster that my life seemed to be crumbling into.

  I couldn’t get my mind off this new information about Emilia going to Maryland. That was likely what she had come over to talk to me about on Tuesday before getting pissed off at me. I went home from that evening feeling darker and more hopeless than I’d felt at any moment until that point. I had no idea what to do from here and the only advice I’d gotten, from Heath and Emilia herself, was to back off and do nothing.

  This was so against my nature. I had to fight those impulses constantly. So I turned to my old comfort, even though I knew better. There was more than enough work to do—between the lawsuit, the Con and the new expansion we were beginning to develop. And when I wasn’t working, I was digging into my secret project—which was my way of working without calling it work.

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  Not long before, I’d been vowing to avoid this very thing—confident that Emilia would keep me on the straight and narrow. Now she was gone and I was getting pulled into the same old sinkhole, threatening to be sucked in more than ever before. And with no idea how I’d ever be able to get myself back out again.

  Chapter Eleven

  The next Saturday brought more paintball practice and strategy training. This time Heath and I carpooled with Jordan, who drove his Range Rover. We spent a long day on the actual course that would be the site of our war, mapping it out and designing strategy with the other department heads who would act as captains of their own platoons. We’d planned the war to be a series of different scenarios involving the Blizzard crew. Capture the Flag, King of the Hill and a sort of treasure hunt. We worked on movement, strategy, tactics and communication.

  The war was just two short weeks away and soon after that, Draco’s first annual DracoCon convention in Vegas. These would have been exciting and fun times had it not been for other things on my mind—the daily worries of the fallout from the lawsuit and, of course, my preoccupation with Emilia.

  After we dropped Heath off, Jordan drove me to my house. I cleaned up and we went for dinner at a little café we both liked in Corona del Mar.

  We had vowed not to discuss work that evening, so instead he told me about his planned trip to Paris early in the New Year, once all the lawsuit and Con business had blown over. He wasn’t sure which of his latest ladyloves he wanted to bring with him. Yes, my good friend had deep and complex issues that sprang from his playboy millionaire lifestyle.

  “I’m going all-out—we’ll charter a private jet and I have reservations at one of the most amazing hotels with a penthouse view of the Eiffel Tower. ”

  I scoffed—charter a jet? Even I didn’t do that. Jordan was wealthy, but not so much that chartering a jet wasn’t an extravagance. I, on the other hand, refrained from things like that not because of cost, but out of concern for my impact on the environment. One person just should not have that kind of an environmental footprint, in my opinion. Yes, some would say I’d gone to the ISS and left an even bigger footprint doing it. But that rocket would have gone up with or without me. The trip had been necessary to carry a fresh set of cosmonauts to the station and bring the ones who’d been up there for six months back home. In that case, I’d just been along for the ride.

  I shook my head at him. “Why take a previous liaison with you? Why not just pick up someone when you’re there—a French model or something?”

  He grinned at me, scratching at his goatee. “Because then I don’t get to enjoy the perks of the private jet and put another notch in my mile-high-club card. ”

  I rolled my eyes. “I should have known it was for an important reason that you’d want to take someone with you. ”

  “Hey, never turn down an opportunity for in-flight entertainment on a twelve-hour flight. ” Then he paused. “You and I could always go together. ”

  I made a face at him. “I love you man, but not like that. ”

  He laughed for a moment and then sobered. “So, uh, how are you holding up? I, um, heard she quit her job at Draco. Mac was whining about it. ”

  I picked at my fish and chips, not feeling the appetite tonight that I usually did after a day of paintball. “She’s on a short leave before she decides what she wants to do. She’ll be back. ”

  Jordan’s mouth thinned. “And you’re, uh, okay with that?”

  I shrugged, but didn’t say anything. This wasn’t a topic I wanted to discuss with him.

  “So are you to going to…move on?”

  I stopped chewing my French fry. “What do you mean?”

  “Well…I mean that her flying out to spend a week on the East Coast means she clearly wants to get on with her life…without you. ” I clenched my teeth, irritated at how his thoughts echoed my own. How could I do anything, when I had vowed to back off?

  He forked in some rice pilaf and watched me with his pale blue eyes, as if I were a bomb about to explode, or something. “Maybe you should start looking around,” he said with a casual shrug and a cautious glance.

  I stared at him over my plate. “I don’t date. That hasn’t changed. ”

  Jordan shook his head. “I don’t understand how you ever got any tail before. ”

  I laughed. “When you got it, you got it. ”

  “So this Friday night I’m going out with that swimsuit model, Marta? Remember her?”

  “The blonde?”

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  He waved his hand dismissively. “Naw, she was last month. This one is dark-haired, exotic eyes. Mocha skin…definite candidate for the Paris trip—”

  “And the Jordan Fawkes Mile High Club. ”

  He licked his lips. I shook my head. He was unbelievable.

  A devilish look crossed his face. “Her roommate was in the latest SI swimsuit issue…”

  “Then why aren’t you dating the roommate?”

  “Adam, they’re both hot. I can set it up. A foursome—ha-ha, no, I didn’t mean it that way,” he said at the strange look that crossed my face. “A ‘double date’ if you want to use high school terms. Marta can help arrange things. ”

  I sipped at my beer, shoving the untouched portion of my dinner aside and shook my head. “I can’t believe you still need a wingman. ”

  “Bite me. I don’t need one. I’m doing you a favor. I’ve seen this girl. Red hair and she’s…” He curled his hands in front of him to indicate a large chest. God, he was such a pig.

  “What are the odds they’re real?” I couldn’t resist. I had to mess with him. Him and his stupid obsession with models.

  Jordan’s face grew serious. “C’mon, man. You owe it to yourself. She’s moved on. Don’t you think it’s time you did, too?”

  That irked me, and a shot of heated irritation burned through me. I shifted in my chair and looked away. Anger at Emilia’s almost secretive departure stirred deep in my gut. But I couldn’t tell which I hated more—her decision to go or my utter inability to prevent it.

  She wanted to move away? Fine. Time for her to see the consequences. We were, after all, broken up “for now. ” I clenched my fist. “Fine. I’ll go. ”

  What the hell. Why not? At the very least it might end up being a pretty good lay. Sex had never meant much to me before. It was time to get back to normal. My time with Emilia had been the aberration from that norm. This fucked-up situation was more than proving that that aberration wasn’t for me. She wanted to move on? Then I would, too.


  “This woman isn’t high-maintenance, is she? I don’t do high-maintenance. ”

  “They’re models. They’re all high-maintenance. But hey, nobody said you had to have a prolonged relationship with her. Maybe you’ll get lucky and end up with one of your fun little ‘arrangements. ’”

  I eyed him. I didn’t mind the thought of sex again. It had been over a month. That last week we were together, Emilia had been distra
cted and the few times we did anything, it was clear she wasn’t into it. And since then, there’d been no one. So yeah, sex again would be nice. I could go for that.

  And maybe it would help me finally get her out of my mind. Or at least it could be the beginning of actively trying.


  Two days after she returned from Baltimore, Emilia e-mailed me with the message that she would like to return to work until the end of January. I wondered if that meant she was going to move out there early in the spring. She gave me absolutely no details at all about her trip besides acknowledging the fact that she knew that Heath had told me that she’d gone.

  It was an amicable, if brief, note. I read very little into the tone. I’d checked her social media while she’d been gone and she’d been on complete radio silence. Even the blog was sparse, with a few posts that I figured must have been written and scheduled before she’d left.

  But I was sick of wracking my brains to figure out what was going on inside hers. And I was tired of obsessing over her. So, toward the end of that week I found myself almost looking forward to Jordan’s blind date.

  On the Friday afternoon after she’d returned to work, we had a prolonged meeting about the convention. All the relevant personnel were there, filing into the meeting room—twenty or thirty at least. I couldn’t help but scan the crowd for Emilia. She was supposed to be there, but I didn’t see her.

  We heard from the department heads and when Mac got up to do his report, he turned to the person sitting next to him and I leaned over to get a closer look. He turned to a willowy young woman with white-blond hair. I almost fell out of my chair when I realized it was Emilia. She’d changed her look. Radically. Now, I expected her to stand up and start summoning dragons to her because she looked exactly like Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones. Minus the skimpy costume.

  I covered my shock by burying my chin in my hand, watching Mac drone on while he asked Emilia questions. Other than when she was answering him, she never spoke and rarely looked up. I checked my watch. The day was dragging on and this meeting was getting ridiculously long.

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  Finally Jordan leaned forward when Sarkowitz was about to go into his projected expense report and said, “Guys, the boss keeps looking at his watch because he’s got a hot date in a couple hours. Can we hurry this up?”

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