At any turn, p.15
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       At Any Turn, p.15
 

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey

  A couple people laughed and I leaned back, thoroughly embarrassed, throwing a dirty look in Jordan’s direction. He grinned and shrugged.

  And then, almost without thinking, my gaze flew to the white-haired fantasy heroine sitting next to Mac. She had her eyes on me while her head was turned in another direction, as if she didn’t want to be caught looking toward me. But when my gaze locked on hers she didn’t look away. There was the distinct look of sadness in her big brown eyes. Every muscle in my body tensed and I felt my skin flush with anger. She was the one who had decided to go away. I swallowed the prickly irritation rising up in my throat.

  But looking into her eyes, my chest squeezed tight despite my anger. Who was the one who’d ended it, here? Who was the quitter? Who had walked away? How dare she feel hurt that I chose to move on with my life instead of wallowing in the devastation she so obviously expected me to be suffering?

  My resolved hardened. Fuck it. Fuck her. I pulled my eyes away and never looked at her again.

  ***

  That evening, Jordan and I met our dates at a high-end restaurant near the pier in Newport Beach. And Jordan wasn’t bullshitting. They were both very beautiful women. Jordan’s date was Marta and mine was a very effervescent redhead by the name of Carissa. They wore tight dresses and glittery heels and looked every bit like they belonged in Southern California, right down to their perfect tans—acquired, by the looks of the slightly orange tinting, in a “fake bake” salon, rather than on the sandy beaches of the south coast.

  Carissa was pleasant and not dumb as I’d expected, given Jordan’s usual taste in women. We ended up talking about graphic novels. Of the two women, I definitely felt I got the better end of the deal when it came to conversation. Jordan’s date was stunningly beautiful with what looked like Asian or Middle Eastern genes. But she did not have much to say.

  I took a sip of the same glass of wine I’d been nursing all night, gazing over it into the brilliant green eyes of my date. Since when did I give a fuck about conversation?

  I’d literally never dated before. The women I’d been with were friends with benefits—referred to cynically by Emilia as “fuck buddies. ” I had no problem at all having friendships with women and often maintained the friendships after the sexual relationships ended, as was the case with Lindsay, among others. But sitting at a restaurant, or in a movie theater, or just chatting had never even been something I’d wanted before. What had changed me?

  I smiled when Jordan proposed that we go over to his place and hang out. He wasn’t subtle. I’d already told Jordan that I wasn’t bringing a woman over to my place—especially after having just met her. Jordan had shrugged, mentioning he had a guest room in his exclusive beachfront home overlooking Newport Beach’s famed surfing spot, the Wedge.

  At one time, Jordan had fancied himself a surfer and he’d tried to teach me how a few times, but I hadn’t enjoyed it. Yeah, I lived on the harbor in Newport Beach, but that didn’t mean I had to risk my neck, literally, to get a rush from challenging the waves that crashed up against the Corona Del Mar jetty and formed the Newport Wedge.

  After arriving at Jordan’s and pouring ourselves some drinks, Carissa and I settled on the couch and talked until long past when we noticed the other two had disappeared into Jordan’s bedroom. She had kicked off her heels and tucked her long legs under her as she sat on the couch and gazed into my eyes. She nodded and laughed at everything I said, which had been flattering at first, but started to grow annoying. I craved something…a little pushback. A challenge.

  Before long, she leaned into my arm, clearly positioning herself so that her breasts rubbed up against me.

  I was turned on. Who wouldn’t be? She was hot. Ridiculously hot. She ran her perfectly manicured hand through that coppery hair and I finally leaned in to kiss her.

  She was a very eager participant. I had her lips parted and my tongue in her mouth in seconds. My eyes closed and she gave a little sigh. I pulled her toward me. And—

  I couldn’t stop picturing Emilia as I kissed this woman. Emilia’s mouth on mine, the taste of her. Emilia’s breasts pressed against me. Emilia’s soft skin underneath my hands. Emilia. Those large brown eyes watching me across the conference room today, brimming with hurt and with something else. Longing.

  I started to cough—violently so—as I sucked in a breath and pulled away from Carissa and her luscious body. She was beautiful and I was attracted to her. We could have gone at it right here—God knows my body was more than willing. I’d even brought condoms. I hadn’t carried condoms for months and months. But as I looked into Carissa’s catlike green eyes, I knew I didn’t want this. Not really.

  Page 57

  I wanted something more. Someone else. And not just physically. I wanted the woman who was my perfect match in every way. The one who challenged me, who supported me. The one who complemented my personality traits, filled in the gaps where I wasn’t whole. I swallowed a huge lump forming in my throat, trying to suppress the coughing.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

  “Sorry. ” I finished with the violent coughing, reached over and finished my glass of ice water and plunked it down next to her wineglass. “Inhaled the wrong way, I guess. ”

  She slapped me halfheartedly on the back. “Are you going to be okay?”

  “Yeah,” I said hoarsely, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.

  She smiled, parting her swollen lips. “It’s okay. Where were we? Oh yes. Right…here,” she said, laying her hand on the inside of my thigh and leaning in again. She slid her hand up and it landed right on top of my hard cock. I let out a quick breath and pulled her hand away.

  “What’s wrong?” she said, pulling back to look in my face.

  I heaved a great sigh and leaned back. “It’s too soon,” I muttered, looking up at the ceiling.

  Carissa wrinkled her nose at me. “You like taking things slow?”

  I almost laughed at that. In the past I’d had no qualms about going to bed with a woman I’d recently met. I’d never had a one-night stand, but I’d never had a romantic relationship either. Not until her. She’d changed everything. And I was beginning to fear that there was no going back to the person I’d once been. Did I even want to?

  “It’s too soon after my last relationship. I’m sorry. You are an amazingly gorgeous, sexy woman, as I’m sure you know. ”

  She laughed. “Doesn’t mean I mind hearing it, though, from a hot guy like you. ”

  I grinned. “I’m sorry. I’m still feeling a bit wounded. ”

  I expected one of two things. She would either get pissed off or offended that her magical beauty couldn’t make me forget about my issues, or she’d try harder to win me over.

  But Carissa surprised me yet again. She tilted her head to the side sympathetically. “You want to talk about it? How long were you with her?”

  “About five months. I really thought she was the one, though. ” My arms stretched along the back of the couch and Carissa sat back, watching me.

  “She didn’t feel that way, I take it?”

  I looked at her for a minute. “No. ”

  Carissa smiled. “Well,” she said, raising her brow and tilting her head at me fetchingly. “I’ve only just met you, but I think she’s pretty stupid. ”

  She leaned over and kissed my cheek. It was a pity peck—but I guess in the place of a pity fuck, I’d take it.

  We talked for another hour or so until Jordan came out of the bedroom with a towel around his waist and looked at us, obviously in shock that we were still fully clothed and not in some kind of lip-lock.

  I offered to drive Carissa home so her roommate could stay the night with Jordan. She invited me inside, but I declined. I went home alone, to a dark, empty house, but stayed away from my dark, empty bedroom. Instead I went to my office and opened up my laptop and coded on the new secret project until the sky outside started to lighten and I dozed off
, my forehead resting on my crossed arms. We programmers called that “trance coding. ” In reality, I was using the time to avoid the demons that haunted this void of a home.

  I wondered when things would start to feel normal again. When I could slip back into my old life like the last six months had never happened. But I was beginning to wonder if that was even possible. I was miserable now. Should I give it longer?

  One of two things would occur—Emilia would leave and I’d have to figure out a way to move on then or I could give in and go with her, if (and this was a big if) she’d take me back.

  And as the days stretched on with her gone, with the memory of those soulful eyes staring at me across a crowded conference table, I began to think that becoming Maryland’s newest permanent resident was a small price to pay to have her in my arms again.

  Chapter Twelve

  The next day, Saturday, I had an appointment with my friend Lindsay to show her an apartment I owned in Orange. Since I hadn’t seen her in a while and since I was feeling like I had too much time on my hands (even though I was still working seventy hours a week), I offered to show it to her myself and buy her lunch afterward. Emilia disliked Lindsay and she had good reason to. Lindsay and I had been sexually involved when we were both a lot younger—I’d been just finishing high school and she’d been a first-year law student working for my uncle’s firm. But it wasn’t our past that had put Emilia out. It was the fact that I’d once used Lindsay to make Emilia jealous. She hadn’t tolerated that at all.

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  The apartment, which I had originally purchased to offer to Emilia—and she had just as promptly refused—was still vacant. But Lindsay was thinking about buying it for her nephew, who was attending Chapman University.

  I drove north to the city of Orange on the 55 freeway, trying to ignore how I felt driving down the same roads I used to drive when I would visit Emilia at her old apartment. Trying to disregard that constant nagging feeling of loss.

  It was crazy. Only five short months ago we’d been at the beginning of this thing. Those five months now seemed like a lifetime—like I’d lived an entire existence, from birth to growth to experience. But it was a life cut short before its time. And in my soul there were mourners gathered at the funeral of what had been our relationship, our love, unwilling to forget or even believe that it was already over.

  It was still a gaping wound—sometimes a throb, sometimes a deep, deep ache. But it was something I couldn’t put out of my mind, no matter how hard I tried.

  I unlocked the door and went inside. As usual, Lindsay was late. I swear the woman would be late to her own wake. If we had ever been a couple, it would have driven me batshit insane. Fortunately, we never even attempted it because it never would have worked. We’d both been too young, but wise enough to know that we were both too similar and so polar opposite as never to see eye to eye.

  She’d hit on me recently, when she’d first started her divorce proceedings last spring. Since then, things had been awkward between us. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in person since that day she’d come to my office to have lunch—the day Emilia had seen us together. I’d made a poor decision that day to see how Emilia would react. I’d grabbed Lindsay around the waist and whispered in her ear while Emilia had watched us with wide eyes and an expression of horror.

  Lindsay wasn’t stupid and had figured it out immediately, scolding me for doing it as Emilia turned and ran out of the building. Lindsay had even told me to go after her, but like an idiot, I’d refused.

  I pulled out my phone to send Lindsay a text after waiting half an hour. Then I heard her heels echoing in the stairwell. The door had been left ajar but I went to open it for her.

  “Adam!” She grabbed my shoulders and landed a kiss on my cheek—which I returned on hers. She wore too much perfume and was fully made up, as always. She looked as if she’d just stepped out of a fashion photo shoot for Vogue, quite typical for her. At thirty-two years old, she was still a very attractive woman—always had been.

  When I’d met her, while running errands at my uncle’s office, it had been more than flattering to have a gorgeous blond law student show an interest in me. Yeah, she’d been my first. Not that it really meant anything to me now.

  I gave Lindsay the brief tour of the apartment and we ended up in the empty kitchen. “This has been vacant for a while…” she said, with a question implicit in her statement.

  I shrugged, not really wanting to go into the reason I’d bought the place. “Yeah, well, the original reason for getting it no longer exists. ”

  She gave me a long look and I avoided her gaze.

  “How are you holding up, tiger?”

  I sent her a questioning look.

  “The lawsuit. Peter tells me it’s the bane of your existence. You should just stop being your usual type A self and let the insurance guys handle it. ”

  I blew out a tight breath. “Those people are idiots. They’ll save themselves a few dollars while putting my company’s reputation on the chopping block. Fuck them. ”

  She raised her brows. “Not much you can do about it, you know. ”

  “Yeah, but now the rumors of settlement are getting out and people are blogging about it and speculating. There’s talk of a congressional hearing on the harmful addictive qualities of video games. Guess who’s first on the list for a possible subpoena for that?”

  She frowned. “Wait, what are the bloggers saying about the company? Anything libelous?”

  I shrugged. “Speculation, rumormongering. Warnings that concerned moms everywhere might get restrictions imposed on online games. They’ve already got ratings for content maturity. Who knows what’s next? Maybe a risk-of-addiction meter?”

  She snorted. “Well, I think you know—and are related to—enough lawyers that if anyone went after your reputation, you could send some scary cease-and-desist letters, at the very least. ”

  I rolled my eyes. That would solve my problems. Not.

  Lindsay scrutinized me, eyes focused on my neck. “What the hell is that? A hickey?”

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  I put my hand on my neck. “What?”

  “You’ve got a bruise—and another one there—” She came up to me and looked closely. “Not a hickey. So you weren’t getting busy with the little coed?”

  I threw her a warning look and she dropped the teasing smile. “Okay, I won’t tease. But why are you all bruised up?” She reached over and yanked the collar of my polo shirt aside, stretching it back from my left collarbone. “You’ve got like—Oh, when did you get this?” she said, getting a glimpse of the tattoo.

  I’d never minded it before, but since Emilia had mentioned Lindsay’s overly intimate behavior toward me, it now grated. I pulled back from her and readjusted my shirt.

  “Are you done? The bruises are from paintball. ”

  “Yeah, I’ve moved on from the bruises. I didn’t think they were from domestic violence. What’s with the tattoo? Of all the people in the world, I would have never imagined Adam Drake tattooing a woman’s name on his chest—especially when it’s not the woman he’s currently with. ”

  “So are you interested in the apartment or not? Because if not, I’ll get my realtor to put it up on the market. ”

  “You aren’t going to tell me who Sabrina is?”

  I shifted, giving her an irritated look. “Nope. ” I never spoke her name. It had taken everything in me to even get the tattoo, but it had been something I’d had to do at the time. I’d been afraid that I was forgetting her, letting her slip from my memory and my heart. It was a stupid notion, but at the time, it had made sense to me. It was a way to keep a piece of her with me always. I’d never spoken of Bree to anyone—not even my own family. My uncle and cousins knew, of course. But Lindsay had never been privy to what was inside my heart.

  Which made it even more remarkable that Emilia had been able to wrest that secret from me with hardly any eff
ort at all. Usually if people asked me who Sabrina was after seeing the tattoo, I evaded the question.

  While we’d been sitting in the hot tub on my yacht, Emilia had asked me, too, after having bared her soul to me about a painful experience from her past. And I’d answered her. Simply, shortly. But even that had taken every bit of strength I could muster. Emilia was the first person I could talk about it with. And only in short, vague terms, recounting the pain of my childhood as if it was someone else’s faraway tale. I shook my head to rid it of the thought.

  Lindsay looked away, flipping her blond hair over her shoulder. She was clearly annoyed by my secrecy. “I’m sorry. You must be pretty upset. ”

  “Not at all, but I am hungry and it’s two o’clock, so how about we wrap this up over lunch?”

  Lindsay turned and walked slowly to the counter to fetch her bright red purse that matched her long nails. Then, she pivoted toward me. “I talked to Jordan. He told me about—about you and Mia breaking up. ”

  I set my jaw. I did not want to discuss this with her right now. “It’s okay, Adam. I’m not going to proposition you again. I do have some pride. I’m just worried about you, that’s all. As a friend. You’ve never really been with anyone…well, that I know of, anyway,” she said with a significant gesture in the direction of my chest and the tattoo. “And from what I understand you and Mia were living together. It—well, I’m just sorry, that’s all. You seemed happier than I’ve seen you in a long time. Healthier, too. ”

  I sighed and gave a pointed jingle of my keychain, which dangled from my fingers.

  She scrutinized me with hardening eyes. “Okay, you are going to be a typical guy and refuse to talk about it. But is it really a lost cause?”

  I gritted my teeth. “Probably. ”

  She nodded. “I’m going to give you some unsolicited advice. And you’re going to have to listen until I walk out that door and follow you down to the restaurant. She’s young, Adam. She’s what—twenty-two, twenty-three? That’s the same age I was when you and I hooked up. The last thing on my mind was commitment and a future in a relationship. She wants to be a doctor. I wanted to be an attorney. It was the most important thing to me at that point and no man was going to get in the way of that. ”

 
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