At any turn, p.23
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       At Any Turn, p.23

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey

  When I pulled it out of the drawer, she blinked, nonplussed, and then slowly reached for the suit. I watched her for a long moment. Her eyes flew to mine and she paled.

  “I…I think I’ll just dip my toes in. I don’t need a suit,” she said, a strange sort of hollow echo in her words. It sounded like the voice of sadness.

  I watched her, waiting for clarification while I unbuttoned my pants to change into my trunks.

  She turned away, seemingly uncomfortable. I scrutinized her, the strange stiffness in her shoulders, the way her hands worked at her sides. Why the sudden shyness, I wondered? She’d seen me naked hundreds of times before. We’d fucked—mostly naked—in the past twenty-four hours.

  I finished changing while she took an interest in the articles on my desk—as if she’d never seen them before—the framed photos and other stuff. She looked everywhere but directly at me. She was tense and almost vibrating with it.

  Once in my trunks, I came up behind her and laid a light hand on her shoulder. She didn’t move. Her attention was fixated on a photograph. The photograph. The one of me and my sister as children. I glanced at it over her shoulder. I remembered the day it had been taken. Seemed like a lifetime ago, really. My sixth birthday.

  Mom had forgotten again. Bree had saved up some babysitting money that she’d kept hidden in one of my stuffed animals—to prevent our wonderful mother from swiping it for booze money. She’d pulled the crumpled dollar bills tucked in a pocket of my favorite stuffed bear and gone to the bakery. We’d celebrated at her friend Christina’s house, avoiding home completely until it was dark. That picture had been snapped by Christina’s mother and proudly handed to me a week later on my way to school. I’d tucked that picture in my school notebook and kept it with me every day.

  Two years later, Bree would be a runaway. And that picture would be the last physical reminder I had of her until I saw her again, a frail shadow of herself. My chest tightened with the same dark feeling whenever I allowed myself to remember how much I missed her. I blinked.

  Emilia’s thumb slid across the frame as she studied the picture.

  “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go. ”

  She nodded, but she wasn’t listening, her eyes still glued to that photo. I could almost see the gears turning in her mind. She was deeply absorbed by some terrifying, profound thought and those emotions were easily detectable on her face. My hand cupped her shoulder and I squeezed it. “Emilia. ”

  She shook herself as if to wake from a daydream, turning back to me. We stood close and I was half-naked and could feel the heat from her body so near. I wanted to pull her against my bare chest, caress her back, feel her hands and her mouth move over me. Damn, this was hard. We were standing in a room where I’d slept with her all night in my arms, made sweet, slow love to her over just about every piece of furniture in here—and in the bathroom, the counter, the bathtub, the shower.

  It sucked being in here with her now. Feeling this distance, like a canyon between us—like one of those epic mega canyons you see in pictures of Mars from the rover—a canyon so huge and remote that the topography on Earth pales in comparison. We weren’t on Earth anymore. We were on Mars, where the mountains we needed to overcome were so much higher and the valleys so much lower, the ravines so much deeper. Where the sky was burning red. We were in alien, distant territory now and I had no idea how we’d find our way back home. Back into each other’s arms. Not until all the secrets were cleared between us.

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  And wasn’t that ironic, when our whole relationship had been founded on secrets—huge secrets—all by my own doing? I didn’t believe in karma, but if I did, this would be one of those moments where I’d be cursing it, because it was now biting me on the ass.

  She was staring at my shoulder now. Her eyes fixed on my tattoo. And she’d transferred whatever morbid thoughts she’d been entertaining from the twenty-year-old snapshot to the name inked across my left collarbone.

  I backed off and turned to lead her out of the room. It had been a shitty idea to bring her up there anyway.

  On the side of my house opposite the beach, there was a covered pool that was entirely private, complete with retractable roof and walls. I chose to keep it enclosed and swam laps for about thirty minutes while she sat on the edge of the pool with her feet in the water, kicking up splashes every so often—usually as I swam by.

  After she made at least a dozen attempts to splash me, I finally decided to get playful and grab her leg. She promptly gasped and tried to kick her leg free, but by then I had my arms wrapped around both of her legs. When I gave her a tug, like I meant to pull her in, she finally stopped laughing and firmly told me to stop, so I let go.

  I trod water in front of her. She bent down and pushed my hair back from my face, scrutinizing me. “I made marks on your neck,” she said. “I’m gonna guess that Jordan gave you a lot of crap about that. ”

  A lazy smile spread across my face. If I had my way, we’d be making marks on each other’s necks again very soon. “I made more marks on your neck. ” I hooked an arm over the side of the pool right beside her leg. I reached out with one hand and cupped her supple, muscular calf. Her legs drove me insane. They were long, curvy, firm. And the silky feel of the skin inside her thighs was enough to make me go hard at the thought of it. In fact I was sporting a semi at this very moment and it would be graduating to full hard-on pretty soon.

  We’d fucked in this pool once. It had been quite fun. But today I could have just as easily spread her across my bed. Or bent her over a chair. God, my mind was wandering in all sorts of directions I couldn’t afford for it to go.

  But more than anything, I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to know what her worries were. I wanted to define what this was between us, secure it for the future. I wanted her back with me as soon as possible and I’d do whatever it took to get it.

  So tonight… No sex. We’d talk.

  I pulled myself out of the pool at the lip and landed next to her, reaching behind us to pull a clean towel off the rack where they lay. I toweled my hair and wiped my face.

  Emilia grabbed another towel and started drying off my chest. I jerked toward her, making a feint as if I was going to pull her into a soaking wet bear hug. She smacked me and pulled away. I hooked my hand around the back of her neck and pulled her head to mine, landing a long, firm kiss on her mouth.

  We kissed for a long moment, my mouth on hers. I didn’t press her for more. I wanted more, but it would have been too easy for us to get distracted. With the energy crackling between us, I knew it wouldn’t be long before we were in bed again.

  And now was as good a time as any to broach the subject. “So,” I said, after we’d pulled apart and she took a long breath, cold air hissing past my lips. I caught her golden-brown eyes with mine.

  “So,” she said, bringing her feet out of the pool and pulling her knees up to her chin. She watched me for a long moment.

  “We should probably talk…”

  She promptly stopped breathing.

  I mean—it looked like it, anyway. She sat so still, frozen like a statue, as if in sheer terror. I wondered for a split second if even her heart had stopped beating. And she was definitely paler and chewing on her lip.

  There was a long stretch of silence between us. I was tempted to let her off the hook. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t. There was a delicate line here, I knew. Between pushing her to tell me what was going on and pushing her too hard. I had to find that line and tread it carefully.

  She took in a deep breath and lifted her head from her knees, her eyes settling on my tattoo again. “Why don’t you ever talk about her?”

  I froze. “I don’t have a reason to talk about her. ”

  She frowned. “You don’t miss her?”

  A strange feeling tightened at the back of my throat. My heart felt—lopsided. Every beat was like stab of accusation in my chest. You don’t miss her?
Every day. Every goddamn day.


  “Why do you keep her so secret?” Her forehead creased as if she was trying to puzzle out something impossible. Then she reached out and traced a single finger over the script of my sister’s name.

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  “You’ve never even said her name out loud. You write it on your body in indelible ink, but you won’t speak of her. ”

  I captured her wrist and pulled her hand away from the tattoo. “Because. There is nothing. To. Say,” I repeated between clenched teeth. What I didn’t tell her was that it hurt too much to talk about her, to think of her. The only times I did were when my subconscious mind took me to that unpleasant place, that land of loss and loneliness.

  Her brown eyes found mine. “You don’t think it would help to talk about her? You’d rather just bury her in your heart, keep her secret? Even from me?”

  I shrugged. “What are you to me right now that I should tell you? Are you my girlfriend or are you just the woman I hooked up with last night?”

  Her lip trembled again and she caught it between her teeth. “I don’t know. ”

  We stared at each other through a long, tense silence and her eyes slipped back to the tattoo.

  “You can’t even tell me what she was like?”

  “Why do you want to know?”

  “Because…I think”—she glanced at me before continuing—“I think losing her has defined you. In a lot of ways. ”

  I grimaced and went back to toweling off to give myself something to do. “I think your degree was in biology and not psychology,” I said bluntly.

  Her features clouded and I could tell she was getting upset, but I didn’t know what to say. This was so frustrating and I felt she was using this line of questioning as a diversion tactic. I ran a hand through my dripping hair. “This isn’t something I want to talk about or, really, even can talk about. ”

  She stared at me for a long moment, no expression on her face, then leaned forward and pushed to her feet. “I’m really hungry,” she said.

  Now that I thought about it, so was I. And I was hopeful that some wine with dinner would help relax her, get her talking. So after I showered off and dressed, we had dinner down in the glassed-in breakfast nook that looked out over the dock. It was too chilly to eat outside. The sun had gone down, so we ate by candlelight. It might have been romantic if I believed in that sort of crap. Making romantic gestures toward her right now seemed phony and hollow.

  It occurred to me that that thought was rather ridiculous, because here we were, eating together after having spent most of the day together. After having spent the night in each other’s company, having had some mind-blowingly good sex. In the past twenty-four hours we had been playacting at being a couple again.

  But we weren’t. There was still a wall that separated us, kept us from talking. I poured her a second glass of wine, watched while she sipped at it, and hoped it would do its magic soon. Wine worked like truth serum on Emilia, I had noticed. So I was hoping this might ease our discussion along.

  “Hmm. Daffodils,” she said, chewing on a small piece of bread and focusing on the centerpiece, the fresh flowers that I’d requested that Chef order for the table.

  I said nothing, but continued to eat and keep close track of her wine consumption.

  “Is that a coincidence?”

  My fork slowed on the way to my mouth. “What?”

  She nodded toward the centerpiece. “The flowers. Last night, the General SylvanWood costume. And now daffodils. ”

  I eyed her for a moment before looking away, shrugging. “Ah, don’t know. Guess that’s probably what they had at the florist. And Chef just got those. ”

  I didn’t look at her as she watched me closely. Maybe she was adding up the hints. And this hint was only for her. No one else. The costume had been a hint for everyone.

  She set aside her wineglass and got up to use the bathroom. She asked for her bag and took it with her, which I found unusual, but thought little of it. I got up from the table and figured we could talk in the living room, so I waited for her on the couch, fiddling with my tablet. She took a while but finally came out, dumped her bag by the stairs and walked up to where I sat and stood in front of me.

  “So…should I get going?” she asked hesitantly.

  I made no move to stand up. “I don’t know. Should you?”

  “Well, Scotty’s not going to beam me there…”

  I patted the cushion next to me. “Emilia, can we talk, please? Or do you just want us to stay in this…limbo?”

  She sank down beside me, but as she did, she wobbled a little, as if she was a little tipsy. She’d only had one full glass of wine and a few sips from the second one. She sighed and rubbed her brow. “Do you think one conversation is going to fix what’s screwed up between us?”

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  I set my jaw. “I think it’s a start. ”

  She settled back against the couch and looked up at the ceiling, giving a long sigh. “But where do we even start?”

  “Let’s start by saying what we want. I know what I want. Do you?”

  She turned her head and gave me a long look from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, then took a deep breath. “I don’t know what I want. ”

  “You want to be a doctor,” I supplied, trying to be helpful.

  She rolled her head away from me and looked up at the ceiling, blinking. “Yeah…maybe. ”

  “Emilia, what’s going on? We broke up because you wanted to go to Maryland—now you’re not going to Maryland and—”

  She frowned, but her voice was still quiet when she spoke. “We broke up because you violated my trust and hired some jackass to stick a tracker on my car. Because you don’t trust me. ”

  I bit my tongue. It had absolutely nothing to do with not trusting her and everything to do with this constant fear inside.

  I reached out and smoothed her cheek. “Can I ask you to move past that? To forgive me?”

  Her eyes fluttered closed under my touch and she swallowed. “I’ve already forgiven you. But I still don’t trust you. We’ve got big trust issues, you and I. ”

  I smoothed her hair. “We’re not perfect. But I think we’re worth fighting for. ”

  Her eyes closed lazily and opened. “I think your hugs are worth fighting for…” she murmured in a sleepy voice.

  “Only my hugs?” I asked, mildly amused.

  “It’s a good start. ” She leaned in to me, nestling against my chest. My arms wrapped around her almost automatically.

  “Mmm,” she said. “Tighter. ” And I complied.

  So I held her until she dozed off in my arms. I kissed her hair, glancing at the clock. It was just after 9 p. m. and I began to wonder about her weird drowsiness. She’d had a glass of wine, so that might have done it. And—thanks to me—she hadn’t slept much the previous night. But it didn’t add up.

  I adjusted her against me and that’s when I noticed two small bruises on her left arm. I held it up, at first thinking that our rough sex from the night before had caused them, but these looked like fresh bruises. I took a closer look and—sure enough I saw puncture marks at the site of the bruises.

  I stiffened in shock, remembering that she’d taken her bag into the bathroom with her—and had been in there for a while. When she’d come out, she’d been acting more inebriated than she would have gotten from one glass of wine. My heart raced. Fuck.

  I stared at her white-blond head that was tucked against my chest and thought about that weird request last night to keep her shirt on—the reluctance to put on the bathing suit. I adjusted her against me and with cold fear creeping down my throat I pulled up the hem of her shirt enough to look at her stomach.

  It was covered with older bruises. Some were yellow, indicating they had been there for weeks. Injection sites. I thought about her fixation on Sabrina today—her desire to pry for more about my sister.
Emilia was clearly injecting something. Was she an addict? What the hell? When had this happened?

  With a dark, cold feeling inside my throat, I gently laid her aside so I could stand up. Then I bent and scooped her into my arms. I wouldn’t let her sleep on the couch all alone. I carried her up the stairs to my room. Laying her down gently, I pulled off her shoes, pulled her phone out of her pocket and put it on the nightstand next to mine. She turned over on her side and I put a throw blanket over her. We’d talk this through in the morning.

  But before we had that talk, I needed information and I was desperate. I went to her bag and stared at it for a long moment, hesitating before I opened it. If she was using, then she needed help. If I could help her, then I had to. I took a deep breath and unzipped the bag, vaguely realizing that she had just mentioned in the previous hour that she had issues trusting me.

  And yet here I was again, digging through her bag. My hands shook and I couldn’t get that vision of Bree out of my head…I was that boy again, watching my dying sister teeter on the curb. I knew I’d never see her again as I stared out the bus window. I was powerless, unable to help her no matter how much I begged to.

  That wouldn’t happen again, goddamn it. It wouldn’t. Not to Emilia. I couldn’t breathe when my hand closed around a plastic container, a portable sharps container. I pulled it from the bag, my jaw dropping in disbelief. It had empty syringes inside.

  Fucking fuck. My hand shook as I took the syringes to my office to run a check on Google based on the labeling. Oxycodone—a powerful opioid prescribed as a painkiller but also one of the most commonly abused prescription medications around. That’s how Bree had started—she’d swiped a bottle of painkillers from Christina’s mother’s medicine cabinet. She’d stored those in my stuffed animals, too.

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  “Special medicine, just for me,” she’d say. “Adam, you don’t touch this, okay? It will make you sick. It’s just for me. ”

  And then she’d found a way to get more—at the time I’d been too young to realize. She’d refilled that prescription at the drugstore, over and over again, claiming it was for her sick aunt. And when there were no more refills and no more bottles to steal, she’d started hanging out with the rough kids in the neighborhood. She warned me not to come near her when she was with them. She’d flirt and laugh and they’d hand her packets of stuff. She’d hide those, too.

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