At any turn, p.19
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       At Any Turn, p.19
 

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey

  I waited, suddenly finding it hard to breathe. I wanted to reach for her, to pull her against me, smell her scent, kiss her neck. But this had to come from her.

  She reached out and fiddled with one of the buttons on the middle of my shirt, scooting a little closer to me. “Am I confusing you?”

  Not only was it hard to breathe, it was hard to speak. “Yes. ”

  She swallowed. “I’m confusing myself, too. ”

  I wanted to lean in and kiss her, wanted to take over, take the indecision from her, make this my decision, my action. I knew what I wanted. I wanted her. But she had to know what she wanted. If I took over, she’d just complain about me being a control freak again.

  She laid her head lightly on my shoulder. I resisted the urge to wrap my arm around her, to lean in and smell her hair. I’d tensed briefly from the contact of her against me, but I forced myself to relax. “I miss you,” she whispered again.

  Pain lanced through me. I ignored it. “I’m right here,” I said. “You don’t have to miss me. ”

  She brought a hand up and laid it on my chest, right in the middle. I was aware of everything that hand did, every square millimeter of contact against me, the spread of her fingers as she laid them over my heart, the throb of my heartbeats under her hand. I closed my eyes, savoring the feel of her.

  “I know,” she said, her voice trembling. Then she tilted her head to look at me and began to kiss me along the line of my jaw. My only response was to curl my arm more tightly around her waist. I closed my eyes and let her kiss me. She was in control and I wouldn’t do a thing to change her perception of that.

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  Her mouth was on mine and she shifted slowly to straddle my lap, careful to avoid my sore crotch. I kept my hands on her hips while hers moved across my chest. Her mouth slid across mine, opening, her tongue entering my mouth. I almost lost it then. Despite my previous injury, I wasn’t so maimed that I wasn’t hard as a rock in seconds and ready to do all sorts of naughty things to her. Every single one of them flicked through my mind like a slideshow and each successive image made me more and more eager to take her. Pulling her on top of me, pushing her against a wall, cinching her hands behind her back while I fucked her, biting her, tasting the insides of her thighs, riding her until I was exhausted and spent. A hot surge of lust threatened to rise up and drown me. But I struggled against it. I slammed the dam valves shut tight on that raging force of sexual need. I couldn’t control her or the course of this, but I could control myself.

  Her arms locked around my neck and I concentrated on keeping my hands where they were instead of roaming up her shirt, like I wanted to do. She was kissing me with a wild abandon, making those delicious noises in the back of her throat, those noises that made me want to listen to her while I made her come, all night, over and over again.

  When her mouth left mine, it was to make a frenzied rush to kiss her way down my throat while her fingers fumbled with my buttons. “Heath’s spending the night with Connor,” she breathed and I almost lost all control at the implication. She wanted me to stay. She wanted us to sleep together. And God, I wanted it too. I’d never needed to have a woman as badly as I did at that moment. To bury myself inside her, move against her and listen to her moan in ecstasy.

  I let her unbutton my shirt, run her hands across my chest—they were white-hot against my skin. It felt so incredibly fucking good to have her in my arms again. “Emilia,” I whispered into her hair. “I want you—I need you to come back—”

  “Shh,” she said, pressing her thin fingers to my lips while she continued to drag her mouth across my neck, sending bolts of pleasure across my skin.

  My hands went from her hips to her back. I had a choice, here. Sit back, enjoy this, have a nice, pleasant fuck and walk away. Use her for my own needs and let her use me for hers. Make this nothing more than our own little game of Call of Booty.

  Or make this a meaningful moment. A turning point. A chance for us to turn this whole goddamn mess around. “Emilia,” I repeated and she brought her head up and sealed her mouth over mine in a hot, voracious kiss. Her lips enveloping mine, the blade of her tongue outlining my lips. Her warm breath against my mouth. Her breasts pressed into my chest.

  I put a hand on either side of her head and pulled her back from me. When we separated, our breath came fast. Lust was burning a hole right through me and I felt empty with it, incomplete.

  “I’ll go there with you. ”

  She froze for a moment. “What?”

  “To Maryland. I’ll move there. We can be together…”

  She leaned forward and kissed me again, her tongue plunging into my mouth, her hands slipping through my hair. Then she was kissing my neck again.

  “I need you to fuck me,” she breathed against my ear.

  “Emilia…”

  But she wasn’t listening. Her mouth was on my chest, her tongue and lips searing my skin. My hands slid up her back. I wanted nothing more than to sit back and follow where she was leading us. But would this just screw up things between us even more? Make it more confused? That organized part of my brain, where the programmer’s mind lived, wanted this sorted out now. I’d make up for the lack of sex later—and I’d make sure we both enjoyed it, a lot.

  “I want you back,” I hissed. My crotch was sore and aching with the tension of unreleased desire. Oh God, I wanted her.

  “I want your cock inside me,” she replied.

  “What about the rest of me?”

  She shushed me again, returning her mouth to mine, but I put my hands on her shoulders and pulled her away.

  “Emilia. Say you’re mine. Say we’ll be together. I’ll go with you. ”

  She hesitated, staring at me with wide eyes, almost as if she was afraid.

  “Let’s—” she cleared her throat and looked away. “Let’s not talk about that. ” She backed off and stood up, reaching out for my hand. “Come on,” she said.

  I wasn’t an idiot. No way was I going to pass up this opportunity. I followed her into her dark bedroom. She had a twin bed, for God’s sake. I couldn’t sleep with her here, but I could fuck her just about anywhere. But here, I couldn’t lie beside her, sleep next to her in someone else’s bed under someone else’s goddamn roof. I wanted her where she belonged, under mine. She turned and pulled me down to her again, hooking her arms around my neck.

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  “Grab some of your things and let’s go to my house. You can stay with me. ”

  Her hands came up to my chest and pushed me away. “Goddamn it. Can you not try to take over once in a while? Is it really that hard?”

  “Emilia, I want this to be over. I want us to move past this. I’ll give you what you want. You can go to med school in Maryland. I’ll move for you. We’ll be together—”

  She sucked in a quick breath and jerked her face away, turning her back on me.

  I wanted to go to her, pull her back into my arms, but I realized then that I might have already screwed up too badly.

  Instead I raked my hand through my hair and waited. And waited. She was saying nothing, but her shoulders were shaking. She looked like—

  She sniffed loudly. Like she was crying. Her hands went to her face.

  I swallowed. “What’s wrong?”

  She shook her head.

  I went to her, put my hands on her shoulders. She tensed, shook her head again, this time violently. “You should go,” she choked out.

  Shit. I’d fucked up again. “I can’t leave when you’re like this. ”

  She turned on me, her face flushed in the dim light, tears on her cheeks. I expected her to yell, to shake her fist at me, to stomp around or even just storm out of the room.

  What she actually did, I did not see coming. She came forward and hugged me, pulled herself tightly to me, her wet face pressed to my bared chest, her arms cinching around my waist. It happened so quickly, it almost knocked the breat
h right from me.

  “Emilia, what the hell is going on?”

  “I need you to hold me,” she sniffed.

  So I did. She wasn’t crying anymore—she wasn’t moving at all. Hardly breathing. The pure helplessness I felt in that moment almost crippled me.

  I backed us toward her bed. “Come here. ” I laid her down on the bed, then closed the door before joining her. She turned away from me, but pressed her back up against me immediately and I wrapped my arms around her.

  “Tighter,” she said.

  So I tightened my hold and she relaxed against me, fitting her head underneath my chin.

  “Emilia…I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ll call my realtor. Have her look into some places where we can live. I can run the business from there. I can’t lose you. ”

  She shook her head. “Don’t…I’m not moving to Maryland. ”

  I hesitated, completely confused. Had she not just flown out and spent a week there?

  “But…does that mean you’re staying here for med school?”

  She said nothing for a long moment, then took a deep breath. “Med school’s on hold for now. ”

  What the hell? I opened my mouth to ask her, but she spoke, cutting me off, her voice trembling again. “I don’t want to talk about it. Please, Adam. I need you to hold me tonight. Just hold me, please?”

  How could I refuse that simple request? I laid my face beside hers, my cheek pressing against hers and I pulled her to me as tightly as I could while still allowing her the ability to breathe. There was a whirlwind of confused emotions blowing inside me. Relief—she was staying here. Concern—she obviously wasn’t happy about it. And medical school was on hold? Why the hell? She’d already put it off for a year because of the test. Now she was pushing it back another year? Or maybe she was pushing it back indefinitely.

  Not fifteen minutes later, she was sleeping and I was still reeling from this new development—and yeah I had a spectacular case of blue balls to go along with that frustration. Would she tell me any more later? There were ways I could find out—but I wasn’t that much of an idiot. I wasn’t going to use them—and not only because of the risk of her discovering it again. But also because it was just wrong—a violation of her privacy that I never, ever should have considered and, quite frankly, was now heartily ashamed of.

  I’d wait for her to tell me. God, I just hoped it wouldn’t take her long.

  I got up, kissing her cheek, when I heard Heath come in the front door. I buttoned my shirt, covered her with a blanket and walked out into the main room. He stopped, startled when he saw me, throwing a long look at Emilia’s closed door.

  “What are you—? Well, I guess that’s none of my business. ”

  I took a deep breath. “We were just talking. She got upset. ”

  He frowned. “Is she okay?”

  I rubbed my jaw, shrugging. “She said—she said she’s not going to med school anymore…”

  Heath’s brows shot up. “Did she say why?”

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  I shook my head, staring at him expectantly. He had to know more than I did. If Emilia wouldn’t tell me, maybe Heath would.

  Heath threw another concerned glance at the door, a distinct look of worry crossing his features. Then he turned away to lay his stuff down with a long sigh.

  “So…can you fill me in as to what’s going on with her?”

  He straightened and looked at me. “Adam,” he said reproachfully. “You know me better than that, man. I’m not going to betray her confidence. ”

  “But there is something going on…”

  Heath’s mouth thinned, but he didn’t say anything. After a moment he only nodded.

  I tensed. “But you’re not going to tell me—”

  Heath looked at the door again. “She’ll tell you. I’m sure of it. Just…be there for her man. You have the chance to make up for your past fuckups. I know you mean well, but you have to play this very carefully or this will be it. I don’t mean to be a prick about this because I do like you and I think the two of you…” His voice faded, then he shifted his weight and ran a hand through his hair, making an awkward face. “This makes me sound like a sentimental pussy, but I think the two of you belong together. ”

  I focused every bit of my attention on him, never taking my eyes off of him. My hands were on my hips. “But…you’re not going to tell me what’s wrong with her. ”

  Heath’s features grew stern. “No. I’m not. But I’ll tell you what she needs from you, okay? And if you are half as intelligent with this sort of thing as you are with your coding stuff, then you won’t screw it up. She needs you, clearly. You were here for her tonight. Keep being there for her. Be the man she’ll turn to when she needs a shoulder. Be her friend, all right? Just her friend. Like you were for a year before the two of you ever met. ”

  I took a deep breath and let it out. Back to being FallenOne and Eloisa. Inside I was cold and shaking with worry, but I knew he was right. I nodded.

  “She’ll talk to you, man. I promise. But…you can’t push it with her. You can’t pull another stunt like you did with the PI. Wait. She will come to you. Trust me on this. And, most importantly, trust her. ”

  I told him good night. It was 2 a. m. as I left and I spent the short drive home switching through my playlist in frustration. First it was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. Yeah, thanks for that reminder, assholes. I punched the next song on the playlist. “The Night You Murdered Love” by ABC. What the hell? Didn’t anyone record a happy, mellow song in the eighties? I stopped when I got to Sinéad O’Connor’s mournful wailing of “Nothing Compares 2 U. ” How appropriate. I listened, each word of the lyrics cutting into my skin like a tiny shard of glass. It kept me awake as I drove and it kept me thinking.

  Nothing compared to Emilia. But also, nothing compared to this pain inside. And they were two sides of the same coin. I wondered how much more of this I could take. And I wondered when she would come to me. Everyone had assured me that she would—even Sun Tzu. But I was full of that same old doubt and fear. The challenge was in not letting it consume me.

  Chapter Fifteen

  The next day after breakfast, I was about to grab my phone to call her when it chimed with a text message.

  Thank you for staying with me last night. Thanks for everything.

  My grip tightened around my cell phone and I had to rein in my need to know, that ever-present need for control.

  Are you ok? I’m worried.

  Don’t worry. I’m fine. See you at work tomorrow.

  I hesitated, staring at that last text. Clearly a message to prevent me from going over and seeing her today. I took a deep breath and quelled that first instinct in me to find out what the hell what was going on, or demand answers from her. Obviously my first instincts had gotten me into deep shit with her recently so I was going to ignore them, as ridiculously difficult as that felt.

  Instead, I spent the entire day at the office. I was aware of what I was doing but told myself it was specifically for the convention. We needed the convention to go off well, especially in the face of this lawsuit coming down the pipeline. I did not want my game associated with such negative events rather than seen as a form of entertainment that millions of people enjoyed.

  And fortunately, that positive aspect of the game was what the Con was about.

  Several days before the beginning of the convention, Draco employees relocated to nearby Las Vegas in preparation for the first annual DracoCon. The event would take place the weekend before Thanksgiving, just before the last week of November. And because preparations were crazy, I put in a few eighteen-hour days and got little sleep. And I saw very little of Emilia, unfortunately.

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  But she seemed to be hard at work and exhausted with it. We were able to greet each other in passing, stop and have a short conversation. She seemed to want to avoid talking about what had happened betw
een us the night after paintball. And I kept remembering to control my instinct to dig for information. We still needed to sit down, talk things through. Figure out a way in which we could be together, be happy.

  I hoped that we’d get that chance after the Con in Vegas.

  I remembered the first time I’d visited Sin City—during the last year of high school as an independent study student. I’d had a lot of free time between minimal schoolwork and coding the game that would become Mission Accomplished, my first great success. Lindsay had invited me to spend the weekend up there with her and I felt like I’d stepped into another world.

  I’d been a totally oblivious innocent, really, too young to drink (not that I did much of that now anyway) or to gamble. I’d followed her as she took me around to the various casinos. We’d seen a couple shows. It’d been my first trip outside of my little world since leaving Washington and moving to California.

  Bright lights of every color burned up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as “The Strip,” from sundown until dawn. Our convention would take place at the Arthurian-themed Excalibur Hotel, built to look like a massive fairy-tale castle. It seemed an appropriate venue, given our game’s fantasy theme.

  I made the rounds, personally inspecting and okaying each display before the Con started. Jordan was at my side for a lot of it, rolling his eyes and muttering about my control issues.

  “Don’t you have something you need to do?” I finally said.

  “Well, there is the warm-up for the cosplay competition. Some of those girls are going to be in skimpy chainmail bikinis. I’ve appointed myself as a judge. ”

  I sighed, checking off boxes on a checklist on my tablet as I moved to the next exhibit. “Of course you have. ”

  “What about you? Everyone would get a kick out of you being a judge. ”

  “I’m sure I’ll be busy. ”

  Jordan put a hand up to his ear. “Did you say you’ll be busy or you’ll be getting busy?”

  I shook my head and tried to reply in as stern a voice as I could muster. “Sometimes I’m astonished that you are the CFO of my company. ”

  “C’mon…those interns—”

  “Work for me. And so they are off-limits. For me and you. One lawsuit at a time is enough. ”

  After fixing some details at a nearby display, Jordan swept up to my side again. “You’re so uptight these days. How long has it been, anyway? Aren’t you due for a little…stress release?”

 
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