At any turn, p.5
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       At Any Turn, p.5

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey

  Emilia’s head clunked the table. “You guys are killing me. Play a card already!”

  I fought a chuckle. “But if you’re comparing sheer firepower—”

  “The Battlestar Galactica jumps in and blows them both away. The end. ” Emilia waved her arms in a cutting motion to emphasize her point.

  “Are we being too geeky for you, Mia? You poor baby. ”

  She rolled her eyes. “Gawd, you might as well be discussing who could take who in a fight, Captain Kirk or Darth Vader!”

  “Darth Vader,” Heath and I both said in unison and shared a grin.

  “He’s got elite force power, yo,” Heath added. “He can choke a dude on the other side of the galaxy through a hologram. ”

  I held up a finger. “Yeah, that’s not an argument,” I said, then threw a playful glance at Emilia. “Now, Darth Vader versus Gandalf, on the other hand…”

  Heath’s eyes lit up. “Oooh, epic!”

  Emilia sighed. “Gandalf wins. He’s the wizard who killed a Balrog by himself. End of discussion. Now…is this game over? I don’t even remember whose turn it is. ”

  “Yours,” I said. “Heath laid down a land and summoned a goblin lord. ” I pointed to the cards lying face up in front of him.

  “This game sucks with three players, anyway,” she sighed, plunking down an island card.

  “That’s ’cause you’re losing,” Heath said.

  “Either that or she’s calling you a third wheel. And not too subtly, either,” I said giving her a wink.

  “That’s okay. I’m about ready to send over my horde of goblins to kick her ass anyway. ” Heath waggled his eyebrows at Emilia. “All your base are belong to me,” he said, quoting the famously ill-translated script from a foreign video game. Emilia replied by making a face at him.

  She only lasted one more round, then Heath and I ended up battling it out for half an hour after that. Emilia had long since wandered off. I was vaguely aware that she had been acting off all day. Even inviting Heath over to “celebrate” her acceptance to med school and to try easing the tension between us hadn’t worked.

  Page 17

  After our game, Heath decided to call it a night. I watched Emilia, trying to determine if she was still irritated with me. It was deserved, I guess. The one time she’d tried to bring up the med school discussion since getting the news yesterday, I’d put her off. I hadn’t been ready then. I hadn’t devised my line of attack. I’d needed to prepare.

  I opened a bottle of beer for each of us and took a long drink while she picked up her cards and tidied up at the table from our game, studiously avoiding my scrutiny. I watched every move she made, every expression that crossed her face.

  So she wanted to talk about this? I was ready now. I had strategized, because games were all about strategy and I had learned, seemingly, at the knees of a master. Sun Tzu’s words from The Art of War now whispered to me across a thousand years.

  Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

  We wouldn’t fight. I’d start this out casually, nonthreateningly. And then I’d show her reason. Emilia was a rational woman, almost too rational, sometimes. She lived in fear of letting her emotions rule her. That fear had almost prevented us from beginning our relationship in the first place. So I’d treat this like two war leaders sitting at the table for a calm negotiation, a division of spoils.

  Damn if I hadn’t even mentally sketched a flowchart for this as well. “That’s not a bad deck,” I started, nodding to her cards. “You could have beaten Heath if you’d gotten the right cards out in time. ”

  She raised a brow at me. “But not you, of course. You know, if you win every single game, no one’s going to want to play with you anymore. ”

  I took another sip of beer and watched as she slipped her deck of cards into a box and scooped up some dice, tucking them inside a leather pouch. It was Sunday night, the end of the weekend and I wasn’t looking forward to getting up and going in to work tomorrow. There was something sobering in that realization. I couldn’t remember ever dreading Monday morning before. I used to thrive on Monday mornings, excited to start a new workweek even as the old one had barely ended.

  Emilia went to stand up from the table when I waved to her untouched bottle of beer and she shrugged, saying she wasn’t thirsty. I reached out and pressed my hand on top of hers, preventing her from getting up to leave. “You want to talk now?”

  She froze for a split second, then let out a long breath and leaned back, grabbing the beer and taking a long pull from the bottle. Suddenly she was thirsty—and very visibly nervous. I felt a slight rise in my blood pressure at this realization. What would she have to be nervous about unless she’d made a decision she knew I wouldn’t like?

  I swallowed, tried to remember scraps of ancient Chinese military wisdom to help me through this. There would be no emotions. It would be a calm, rational negotiation. One that I would win, of course. One way or the other.

  I smiled, hiding my own sudden nervousness. “Thanks for being patient with me,” I began. “I just had to think things through for a little bit. ”

  She nodded, watching me warily with her eyes the color of autumn leaves. What was that color, anyway? If I were a chick, I’d be able to name it. They were lovely, golden with darker flecks around the pupils. I waited for her to speak first.

  “I can’t stop thinking about going to Hopkins,” she said quietly, a slight tremor in her voice. Good. She’d started out sounding unsure. Something I might be able to exploit. She was unsure about going despite what she said.

  I rubbed my jaw, hesitating. “So as I understand it, you’ve chosen this school because of its oncology program. ”

  Emilia looked at me and then quickly away. “They’re doing some fascinating work with stem cells. ”

  “They’re not the only ones. And no state has more supportive laws concerning stem cell research than California. ” I was about to add some facts about Proposition 71 that I had found in my research, but cut myself off, judging that it might be over the top. I didn’t want her getting defensive.

  “Umm. Okay. That’s true, but Hopkins has its own stem cell research fund from the state. And their research in epigenetics is foremost in the world. ”

  I’d run across that word during my own research—remembered it eidetically, as I remembered everything I’d ever read. Epigenetics was the study of change in inheritance not caused by DNA. It was directly related to how some cells become cancerous over time. And she was right, Hopkins had the top physician studying in the field. But I wasn’t completely unarmed to battle that fact.

  Page 18

  “Dr. Philippa Nguyen studied under that physician at Hopkins—the one leading that team. And she’s got her own project going on at UCLA. Her program is fully funded for another seven years at least. ”

  Emilia’s face grew serious as she digested this. Perhaps she wouldn’t have anything to rebut against that. “You’ve been doing some research, I see. ”

  I shrugged with one shoulder. “I assumed you already knew that. And I like to have all the facts. Dr. Nguyen’s team seems comparable to the team at Hopkins. And the two are coordinating their research and studies with each other. ”

  Emilia’s eyes dropped to the table in front of my casually folded hands. I tried to break the tension of her sudden silence by grabbing my bottle and taking a sip of beer.

  “You want me to go to UCLA. ”

  I opened my mouth ready to answer that without another thought, but closed it just as quickly. Careful, Drake. This might be an ambush. I had a tiny image in the back of my brain of Admiral Ackbar, the fish-like commander from Return of the Jedi, yelling, “It’s a trap! It’s a trap!” So I took a deep breath and considered how to best—and carefully—answer that question.

  “It would be easier for us if you could stay. ”

  She blinked. “If I went there,
I’d have to live in Los Angeles. UCLA is in Westwood and that’s a ridiculous commute from here. ”

  I looked down, fiddling with the table pretending to think that through—as if I hadn’t considered every possible objection from her and prepared for each and every one already. I had to make this sound casual, off the cuff. All warfare is based on deception. I had no wish to deceive her. But I had no wish to give her cause to be angry. The less premeditated this appeared, the less she would think I was manipulating her.

  “Well, I could have a driver take you. You could use the commute time to study. On top of that, if you lived here, you wouldn’t have to worry about other things like housekeeping tasks, laundry, cooking. All of that is taken care of, whereas if you lived in Maryland—”

  “You could live with me there,” she said.

  Yeah, I was prepared for that answer, too. I tilted my head, trying to appear as if considering how to answer that. “I could. Under normal circumstances, I could attempt to run the company from there and fly out monthly to spend a week or two here. ” Was she adding this up yet? More time away from each other if she left. Even if I went with her.

  “But…I’m not sure how this case is going to progress. If it goes to suit, I will be dealing with that and I can’t leave. ” That wasn’t entirely true, though, and I knew it. Maybe I could make that work, but it just didn’t make sense to me when she could attend a school just as good out here.

  Her eyes dropped and she considered her thumbs, which traveled in quick, jerky circles around each other. She was silent for a long moment, so I took another long pull of beer to let her think. Without looking up, she took a deep breath and spoke in a quiet, but unwavering voice. “When I first started my premed program, I had no idea what my specialty would be. I’ve known since the seventh grade that I would be a doctor. I didn’t care what kind of doctor. I just wanted to help people. To be a healer. ”

  I licked my bottom lip, not liking the firm tone of her voice as it grew in certainty.

  Then she looked up and captured my eyes with hers, and they were luminescent. I couldn’t look away. They glistened with some inner fire, a passion. “But when my mom got sick—and God, she got so sick—she almost died and she was my everything. I—” Her voice trembled. She shook her head and looked away, swallowing. “I vowed that I was going to do whatever it took—that I’d fight it in the only way I knew I could. I promised Mom that if she kicked cancer’s ass, then I would, too. I’d go to the best school. I’d learn from the best and I’d never give up. And when I failed that goddamn test I thought that dream was out the window. ”

  I was barely breathing at this point, simultaneously rapt by the passion in her recitation and terrified by it. This decision wouldn’t be based on just facts and cold hard rationality—things well within my comfort zone. She was emotionally attached to this decision. I was fucked. I went cold inside. Because how could I fight this?

  I swallowed. “Have you even looked into the possibility of UCLA?”

  She clenched her jaw and hesitated, looking down. “I applied. But I could be rejected, just like with Davis. ”

  “You weren’t rejected. You’re in. ”

  Page 19

  Her head shot up. “What? How do you know that?”

  I smiled, happy to deliver the good news to her. “I made a few phone calls. I know a guy who’s on the fundraising committee who knows the dean—”

  She squinted at me. “You called the Dean of Admissions on a Sunday morning—”

  “No, I called my friend who knows the Dean of Admissions. ”

  “Because your friend is on the fundraising committee. ”

  I paused, studying her body language. Her hands were curled into fists, her back ramrod straight. At the back of my head, I thought I could see a flashing red alert sign and hear the words Danger, Adam Drake! Abort! Abort! Abort!

  But like an idiot I had to push it. “I just called because I figured you’d want to know—”

  “No. You figured you’d want to know. ”

  I shrugged. “Well, yeah. I did want to know. It’s a logical choice for you. Comparable program. You’re definitely in. And it’s here—”

  Her forehead wrinkled. “How much did you promise your fundraiser ‘friend’?”

  I opened my mouth and then closed it. “I didn’t promise him anything. ”

  She laced her hands together and fidgeted, clearly trying to force herself to remain calm. “Okay, how much would you have promised him if I hadn’t gotten in?”

  “I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t need to. You were already short-listed. I just wanted to know. I figured you would, too. So you could make the most informed decision. ”

  She massaged her forehead, her eyes closing. “I don’t believe this. ”

  “What? That I’d try to get all the information I possibly could? This is important. This is our future. ”

  She blew out an exasperated sigh. “This is my decision and you can’t make it for me. ”

  My fist closed on the table top between us. “You and I are an ‘us. ’ And that means work and compromise. ”

  She scoffed—almost laughed, laughed. A flame of irritation burned in my chest. “Adam, I swear to God that word does not mean what you think it means. ”

  I arched my brow, unamused by her paraphrase of the famous quote from The Princess Bride. “Oh? What do I think it means?”

  She looked right through me, her eyes darting into mine like arrows. “It means you get your way and I deal with it. ”

  I rubbed my forehead, blowing out a tight breath. “I don’t have time to deal with bullshit, Emilia. I’ve got a serious threat to my company, my dream. I can’t be away from work, I told you that. I’ve done the best I can to control that need to be there all the time. But right now I can’t compromise in the way that you want me to. ”

  She shrugged, threw up her hands. “How can this even be possible, then?”

  “How can what be possible?” I said between clenched teeth, not liking the direction she seemed to be headed in.

  “Us. This. Our relationship. What we want and need out of this isn’t even compatible if we can’t learn to give and take. ”

  “This isn’t a ‘should we have red wine with dinner or white?’ type of decision. We’re both new to this and this is a major decision that will affect our lives for a very long time. ”

  “So I need to change what I want if I want to be with you?”

  I didn’t have an answer for that. Not one that she would like. So I didn’t say anything.

  After a few more minutes of massaging her forehead and waiting for me to answer, she finally shook her head. “I’m so tired I can’t even think straight right now. I need to go to bed. ”

  “So what happens tomorrow when we wake up?”

  She shrugged, standing up. “I guess we figure that out then. We’re smart people. We should be able to figure it out. ”

  That cold fear was back. My mind raced through all the possibilities, attempting and failing to find a quick answer.

  I knew what I wanted. I wanted her. And I wanted to stay here—with my family, my friends, my company, my entire life, including her. I swallowed and decided I’d have to dedicate more thinking to the task. Sun Tzu’s wisdom had to be worth something in cases like these. I wished to God that someone had written a book called The Art of Love that I could file in the back of my brain and draw inspiration from instead.


  Throughout the next week, we were like ships passing in the night. We drove to work separately because she didn’t know when I’d be coming home and she had various appointments in the morning, doctor or dentist or something. At work, I was preoccupied by the potential legal mess and all the red tape we needed to navigate in order to try and head off the inevitable. And, of course, the impending doom of this decision weighing over us.

  Page 20

  I did manage to make it home every night
—though I was late. We didn’t talk any further about medical school, even when her acceptance letter from UCLA arrived in the mail. But there was no giddy excitement on her face like she’d had for the Hopkins letter. Just a quiet, “I got it. ”

  I decided then that it was necessary to formulate a new plan of attack—all while trying to not make it appear like a plan of attack.

  The one thing I did know was that I wouldn’t stand back and do nothing. I hated not having control of one of the—scratch that—the most important aspect of my life. My thought processes were working constantly on the back burner even when the front burner was preoccupied with this legal issue and the normal work things.

  But I could tell it was bothering her because even in the short hours before bed that we spent together, usually over a late dinner or maybe watching TV or a movie together, she was distant, quiet.

  And she wasn’t very interested in sex, either, which sucked. Even more so than normally, because sex would have been a great stress release. The times I initiated, she either made up a ridiculous excuse to avoid it or lay there, distracted.

  I started to do something I never do—panic.

  Was she trying to distance herself in preparation for leaving for Maryland? Did she resent me because our relationship was holding her back from her dream?

  Was it time to show her a new dream to replace the old one? The art of war…is a matter of life or death, a road to either safety or ruin. I wasn’t waging a war with Emilia. But I was waging a war on her goal to go live on the other side of the country without me, so I could gain control of what was mine.

  As the days progressed during that week, a new plan began to form. So she was emotionally attached to this decision she’d made to go to Hopkins long before she’d met me. But we were in a relationship now and this changed things. Things that I’d make her see. She had a new emotional attachment and that one, I hoped, was far stronger than this distant idea of going to a school in Maryland. She was attached to me. And I wouldn’t give her up.

  I’d offer her a new dream. I’d find a way to make it impossible for her to go. I hoped that it already was a difficult choice, but I was not above hedging my bets.

  When I called Kim Strong, a few nights later, it was not just to ask for her help with my new plan, but to also ask for her daughter’s hand in marriage.

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