At any turn, p.6
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       At Any Turn, p.6

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey

  Chapter Four

  The following Friday night I took Emilia out to dinner under the pretext of celebrating her acceptance to now three different medical schools—Hopkins, UCLA and San Diego. UCI had yet to weigh in and I knew that even though it was the closest of her choices, it didn’t interest her the way the others did.

  This was no ordinary Friday night. It was the night we celebrated her wonderful accomplishments—for which I was very proud of her. But it would also be the night she’d agree to be my wife. And I’d planned out the details, with some help from my friends—even the reluctant Heath, who had not hesitated to tell me he thought this was a bad idea.

  But I’d ignored him because I was sure of how I felt about her and how she felt about me and I knew she’d see that this was the logical next step for us. A ring box weighed down my jacket pocket. I was nervous as hell, but also in no doubt that this was a necessary move in my plan of attack.

  The restaurant was on the waterfront in Newport with a great view of the bay, just a few miles from the house. I wasn’t the romantic type of guy and I wasn’t inclined toward the grandiose. Emilia wouldn’t expect a huge gesture from me anyhow. But I still wanted to make this night special—one that we could look back on when we were old farts together. It was difficult to contain my excitement, really. My heart thumped, my hand might have even been a little clammy as it closed and reclosed around that tiny velvet box. It was amazing that I could even entertain thoughts like these without scaring the shit out of myself.

  We were seated along the railing right over the crashing surf. As was typical for early October in Southern California, it was hot and dry. The Santa Ana winds were blowing, as they did every autumn. Things started awkwardly, with long drawn-out silences interrupted by brief spurts of conversation. I was certain a lot of it was due to my nervousness.

  “Any news from the suit?” she asked.

  I frowned, surprised she’d bring it up on a night like this, then brushed it off. “Not really something I want to discuss tonight. ”

  She shrugged and looked away. “Sorry. ”

  I cleared my throat. “No worries. ”

  She was wearing a new dress, this one a vibrant blue, her long, dark hair draped over her shoulder. When we’d walked in, she had turned heads. She really was a beautiful woman and I never got sick of noticing it. But she seemed distant, distracted, tonight as she had every other night this week.

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  I leaned forward and cleared my throat. “Have you had a chance to look into that program at UCLA?”

  She drew back, fiddling with her menu. “We probably shouldn’t talk about that either. Let’s find something neutral to discuss. Like, say, what movie we are going to go see after this. ”

  I studied her for a long moment, searching for some small clue as to what was going on inside her head, feeling that cold fear prickle up my spine again. We said nothing more to one another until after the waiter took our orders and our menus.

  She fiddled with the moisture on the outside of her glass of ice water.

  “What’s up?” I said.

  She darted a cautious look at me before returning to focus on the glass. She shook her head. “Sorry. Don’t know where my head is. ”

  I studied her, knowing exactly where her head was. Still thinking about Hopkins.

  The evening continued like that, in awkward fits and starts. She picked at her meal. Sometimes we got a conversation going. She told me a funny story about Mac chewing out an intern for getting too flirty with subscribers on Reddit. com. But between these stretches, we lapsed into silence. A few times I caught her giving me troubled looks and while these should have deflected me off that night’s chosen path, instead they made me all the more determined.

  Because sometimes I’m a fool. A stubborn fucking fool. So along with dessert, I ordered champagne. The minute it was poured into her flute, she quickly downed its contents, signaling for a refill. Two glasses of wine at dinner and now she was sucking the champagne down like she was dying of thirst.

  “What’s going on?” I blurted. “That was your third glass. ”

  Her eyes widened. “You’re counting?”

  “I’m just wondering…you seem on edge. ”

  She grimaced. “So do you. ”

  I couldn’t deny that. I was on edge. For obvious reasons—obvious to me anyway.

  She sighed and pushed her dessert dish forward, lacing her fingers and resting her folded hands on the table. “We should talk,” she started in a tight voice.

  That cold, prickly fear in my chest intensified. “Yes, I agree. There’s been something I’ve been meaning to ask you. ”

  She opened her mouth as if to continue her thought, then changed directions. “Oh. What did you need to ask me?”

  I froze, for just a split second. The beads of sweat gathering on my forehead were swept away just as quickly by the hot dry breeze. I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the box. One hand closed around it while I took her left hand in mine.

  “I love you,” I said.

  She took a shaky breath, and squeezed my hand. “I love you, too. ”

  “I want to give you something. ” I reached out and pressed the small black velvet box into the hand I held.

  She stared at it like I’d just given her a dead cockroach. Time seemed to warp and slow around us. I’d just stepped into my own TARDIS, but there was no going back. My stomach dropped. This was not a good sign. Not a good sign at all.

  Her hand trembled just a little but her voice shook noticeably. “You got me jewelry?”

  I took a deep breath, held it. “Open it. ”

  In spite of the inauspicious start, I was starting to feel eager for her to open it, for her to realize what I was asking her. She fingered the box tentatively, swallowing.

  “Open it, Emilia,” I prompted.

  She blinked and then complied. Her mouth dropped first and she didn’t appear to be breathing.

  “It’s a—” She gasped, her eyes widening in shock.

  “An engagement ring, yes. ”

  I knew hardly anything about jewelry, but Kim had helped me pick it out. It was a low-set, square-cut two-carat diamond surrounded by bezel-set stones (so the jeweler had informed me, anyway). Emilia stared at it for a few moments, not moving or saying anything. Well, hell, I’d already committed to this endeavor and she’d get used to the idea once she saw the damn thing on her finger. While trying to calm my own racing heart, I took the box from her and pulled out the ring. I coughed and braced myself, squaring my shoulders. “I love you, Emilia. I see no reason why we shouldn’t start planning our future together now. Will you marry me?”

  Her hand was like ice in mine and she had grown dangerously pale, her big eyes looking even bigger and darker in her face. Then she started to tremble. All over.

  I froze. She hadn’t said anything. Was I supposed to slip the ring on her finger anyway? Or was I supposed to wait until she gave me some indication? In the movies, the man always asked the question as he was slipping the ring on the woman’s finger. So, since I was holding the ring anyway, I decided to slip it on. She’d be more inclined to say yes once she saw it twinkling on her hand.

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  I never got it past the first knuckle before she jerked her hand back with a violent tug. The ring dropped on the table, wobbling like a penny between us. We both stared at it, as if we were two lovers watching our future evaporate in front of us. Because we were.

  Every breath I took in brought a stabbing pain to my rib cage. The waiter collected our dessert plates, carefully ignoring the ring sitting on the table between us.

  We both looked down vaguely toward our own place settings. For lack of anything else to do, I reached into my wallet, pulled out my credit card and gave it to the waiter. Hopefully it would keep the bastard away for a little while, anyway.

  I finally geared up the courage to look at
her. She still stared wide-eyed at the abandoned ring, which sparked from the flames of the nearby candle. Slowly she shook her head and finally spoke. “What—what was that?”

  Silence hung in the air around us, thickened like an opaque curtain of mistrust.

  “You tell me,” I answered tightly. Would I get no explanation from her? My mind flipped through jumbled thoughts, and I wondered if I should press her to find out what she was thinking. Or if this was even an appropriate place to do so.

  And how could I even think straight when I felt like I’d just been slammed in the nuts with a two-by-four?

  “Adam,” she said and her voice trembled. With reluctance, I looked at her again. “There’s no way—”

  “Not now or not ever?” God, I sounded like such a loser when I asked it, too. Like that whiny weakling lying in a pool of his own blood in the locker room one night, staring up at the four guys who’d just handed him his ass.

  She shook her head. “I don’t even know—” Shit. It was worse than I thought.

  “Excuse me. I’ll call for the car. ” I stood.

  I went to the bathroom instead, took a minute to decompress. Actually tried splashing cold water on my face. It didn’t do a shit-worth of good. That pain in my side was back again. What did this mean? Not now—not ever?

  When I got back to the table, the check was there for me to sign. I pocketed the credit card and added the tip. I looked down, noticing the ring was no longer sitting on the table, but had been closed back inside the little black box. As if, with the reminder gone, we could go back to acting like—well, not like normal, because that wasn’t what we’d been acting like all night. Or for days, for that matter.

  I left the box on the table with no desire to touch the fucking thing again. But out of the corner of my eye, as I turned to leave, I saw her scoop it up and drop it in her purse. Not the way I’d envisioned her coming home with it.

  Ah, shit. I remembered the gathering of people that I’d asked Kim to invite over to surprise her. It was under the pretense of celebrating her med school acceptance, of course, but I’d also planned for it to be a celebration of our new engagement. My mind raced. I could take Emilia to a movie and text Kim to let her know, but everyone thought they were there to congratulate her on her success—and they were. I was obligated to go through with it.

  We’d have to plaster on fake smiles and pretend this hadn’t just happened. I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. Her head was bowed as she waited next to me for the car to be brought up. She looked puzzled and a little angry.

  Nevertheless, I wasn’t ready to give up. A small battle lost, though I didn’t know why, did not mean that all was lost. And I was a person who didn’t give up easily. I never was. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

  I’d seethe in silence, but I would plan and I’d be ready for when her defenses were weak.

  We drove in silence. She had her arms folded tightly across her chest, but we never once spoke to each other.

  Hell yeah, I was pissed. What the fuck was this all about, anyway? Did she think I went around proposing to women all the time? Like this was just another night for me? I’d never even wanted to think about marriage. Had no desire whatsoever. Not until her.

  And sure, maybe it was motivated a little bit by fear, but what better motivator was there? Many a great feat had been motivated by fear. So I’d secured this as a way to keep her. I’d had it all planned out. We’d have the wedding before she started medical school. She’d walk into her first class a married woman and she’d be here with me.

  Though I was dreading the thought of the party, I was actually relieved at the prospect of people surrounding us, so that we wouldn’t have to be alone. So that we wouldn’t be drowning in this silence that was a thick as the fog that clung to the Newport coast almost every morning.

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  I parked the car in the garage and we walked across the bridge and the greater part of Bay Island, where we lived, still in silence. My house loomed up ahead, with only a few lights on and just the garden lamps outside to illuminate our way. The Back Bay water lapped on the beach around us.

  Emilia cleared her throat and hesitated on the front porch, but I ignored her. My mind was already racing ahead. What would come next? My mental flowchart hadn’t accounted for this. This rejection. This silence.

  “Adam,” she said, as I pressed my thumb to the biometric lock on the front door.

  “We can talk later. Now isn’t the time. ”


  “Go inside and turn on the light,” I said between clenched teeth.

  And she did. I hung back on the porch for a moment, taking a deep breath. The light came on to loud shouts of “SURPRISE!”

  Emilia backed into me, obviously terrified before putting her hands to her face. I couldn’t tell whether she was laughing or crying. To be honest, at that moment, I didn’t care.

  In the huge entry hall to my home, people swarmed around—dozens of them. What the hell? This was supposed to be a small gathering for drinks and congratulations. A banner was spread across the back wall, complete with pictures of champagne glasses and confetti.

  Loud music came up on the sound system and a crowd of people surrounded Emilia, asking her if she was surprised. She sent some furtive glances my way and faked a smile, but I could tell that she was nervous, possibly annoyed.

  And I had no desire whatsoever to stand next to her.

  Someone shoved glasses of champagne into our hands. There was confetti everywhere—on the floor, in our hair. Some of it had even been flipped down Emilia’s dress, sticking to the dampness on her cleavage. That was when I noticed that she was sweating. Her entire face glowed with it. She was flushed and nervous and perspiring like it was a hundred degrees out.

  Almost in unison, we downed our glasses of champagne in a single gulp. I felt a clap on my shoulder and turned toward Heath. “Everything okay?” he muttered.

  I shook my head and turned from him. I was not in the mood for an “I told you so. ”

  I threw another glance around the room, cataloging the attendees. Emilia’s mom, Kim, stood beside my Uncle Peter. My cousin Liam lurked toward the back of the crowd, his hands cupped over his ears in irritation. He absolutely hated things like this, especially when it involved loud music. Liam’s sister, Britt, and her husband Rik had gotten a babysitter to watch the boys. And of course, there were Alex and Jenna along with various other friends.

  There were the repeated questions of “Were you surprised?” and Emilia claiming she had “No idea!” She giggled in a high-pitched panicky sort of way—the way that meant she clearly was not amused, but was trying to put on a brave face.

  I tried to keep the scowl off mine, but it wasn’t working. From across the room, Peter frowned at me, mouthing, “What’s wrong?” Instead of acknowledging him, I looked away.

  Then, it happened. After all the excitement of the initial surprise calmed down, Alex made a beeline for Emilia in her usual frenetic way. Her hands waved through the air, shouting at the top of her lungs, “Let me see your hand, Mia!”

  Emilia froze. I shifted but I wasn’t fast enough. Alex already had Emilia’s left hand in hers, frowning in confusion that the ring was clearly not there. Goddamn it. Who had told her?

  Only two people knew: Heath and Kim. I looked at Emilia’s mother but her attention was focused solely on her daughter, her forehead puckered in confusion. The entire group around us went silent and they were all staring.

  Emilia shot me a look of pure terror, her eyes wide, and I stepped up to her side, gently pulling her hand out of Alex’s. I towed Emilia away from her gap-jawed friend and into the crowd around us, moving like I had a ton of bricks tied to each foot.

  “I believe a toast to our future doctor is in order. Let’s get her some more champagne!” And spik
e mine with vodka, please. Goddamn it. Goddamn it all to hell. This night needed to be over. As soon as fucking possible.

  Christ, just get me through this night. I hated this shit under ordinary circumstances. I never had more than a few people over at once. It was all I could tolerate. But Kim and Heath had planned this and I’d let them do whatever they wanted. I was too busy worrying about the marriage proposal to pay any attention to the guest list. At least there was no one from work—aside from Liam and Jordan—to witness my moment of humiliation.

  The party fizzled out quickly. Which mostly had to do with Emilia excusing herself and disappearing for almost an hour. She spent a lot of that time talking to Heath and I was stuck trying to see to guests. Fortunately Kim was perceptive, knew that something was wrong and helped diffuse the dud of a party before it could build on itself.

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  For me, well, I was still smoldering inside. From the abrupt rejection with no explanation, the public humiliation and, now, the fact that she was somewhere in the house, tucked away, confiding in Heath instead of me.

  A sudden burst of hot anger rose inside me. I wanted to punch someone. Before the last cluster of guests dissipated, I was up the stairs and in the bedroom looking for a clean T-shirt and running shorts. It was too late to go for a run along the Back Bay, but there was the treadmill in the exercise room downstairs. I needed to burn off my excess energy somehow.

  When I emerged from the closet, she was in the bedroom sitting on the end of the bed, her head in her hands. She looked like shit.

  She’d obviously seen some emotional turmoil. But she’d cried on Heath’s shoulder instead of mine. I suddenly decided that he was who I wanted to punch. He might be gay and never want her in a romantic way, but he would always be the first man she’d turn to in a crisis, not me. And for that, I hated him. Even if he was a nice guy and even if he did have her back.

  I paused for a long moment before moving past her to the door without a word.

  “Adam,” she said.

  “What?” I stopped, but didn’t turn toward her.

  “We should talk. ”

  “What’s there to talk about?” I turned stiffly. “No more surprise parties? You got it. ”

  She slowly stood and walked toward me. I didn’t move. “Please, Adam…” She stretched her hand out as if to touch me, but I drew back.

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