At any turn, p.7
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       At Any Turn, p.7

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
 

  She frowned. “Why are you pulling away from me?”

  I shook my head. “Who pulled away from who first?”

  “Can we talk about tonight?”

  I took a deep breath and then exhaled. “I’m too pissed off right now. Let’s talk tomorrow. ”

  “But—”

  I was already turning and walking away. The last thing I wanted was for emotions to take over. To say something I would regret. Right now I was burning with anger, frustration and, most prominently, fear.

  What the fuck was happening to us? And how had it happened so quickly? That cold fear was back again but this time I wouldn’t be a slave to it. I’d shore up my defenses, dig in deep. And I’d draw comfort from the ancient wisdom, hoping to make it my beacon.

  A few hours later, when I’d worked myself through to exhaustion, I came up to the room, and she was in bed with the lights off. I took a shower and slipped into bed beside her, but we didn’t touch. There might as well have been a mile of bed between us. I knew she wasn’t sleeping because she wasn’t breathing like she was asleep. I turned my back to her and lay for hours on my side, just like her, awake, running through the events of the night in slow motion, over and over again.

  I had to come up with a new plan, but I couldn’t think, my mind cluttered with hopelessness. I had no idea what time it was when I finally fell asleep.

  Chapter Five

  I only slept a few hours, starting awake after a disturbing dream about my sister, Bree. I hadn’t dreamt about her in years. She was crying—trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t see her face. It was in shadow. I heard again some of the last words she ever said to me when I was twelve, when she put me on the bus headed out of Seattle and back home to Mt. Vernon. “I promise, Adam, I’ll come back and see you soon. Just be a good boy and go home now. ”

  I sat up in a cold sweat, burying my face in my hands, trying to dam a fresh deluge of pain—as raw as if the entire scene had taken place yesterday. Sabrina, my sweet sister. She never came back to me despite the promise. I never saw her again. I didn’t even know where she was buried. My poor Bree. I fought a rush of nausea and stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom to wash my face.

  It was early and when I came out, I saw that Emilia was still sleeping, her burnished brown hair splayed across the snowy pillow. I fought the urge to crawl back into bed and pull her to me, press her soft skin against mine. Right now I wanted her so badly I ached with it, but after yesterday—everything that had happened yesterday—I couldn’t. Her rejection was still a raw wound. Instead I pulled on some clothes and padded out of the room and down the hall into my office. I’d only slept a few hours and the sun was just barely illuminating the sky with a watery gray light.

  I couldn’t shake the dark feelings the dream had left me with. That sore emptiness that reminded me how much I missed Bree. It had been fourteen years since I’d laid eyes on her. I could hardly remember what she looked like, the sound of her voice, the feel of her arms when she comforted me.

  When I was still a kid, after she’d died, I used to imagine her as an angel, watching out for me. I’d never felt her presence more strongly than I had that night I’d had the shit beaten out of me, trapped inside a gym locker overnight, certain it was the end. I’d called out to her in my mind, told her I was going to die, be with her soon. But she said I wouldn’t. I’d survive, because I was strong.

  Page 25

  My life was so out of my control then—I was a victim, a leaf blown on the wind. That night had changed me in more ways than I could ever name. One thing that it taught me was to seize control of my life—to be the driver instead of the driven.

  As I sat at my desk staring blankly out the window at the tea-colored water lapping up on the shore of the tiny beach, I ran a hand through my hair. My mind wandered to this situation with Emilia. Be the driver, not the driven…

  My thoughts were interrupted by a sound at the doorway. I turned to see Emilia standing there watching me with wide, questioning eyes. Our gazes held for a long, tense moment and I was suddenly reminded of that instant, last spring, when I’d first laid eyes on her in that hotel conference room.

  I’d had no idea what to expect—I’d formed a lot of preconceived notions about her and had even seen photos from the auction, knew that she was a lovely woman. But something so powerful hit me the moment I entered the room. It was more than just her physical beauty and presence. Yes, I found her mesmerizingly beautiful. But it was more than that. It was the presence of something else there between us, something electric, almost alive. A connection I’d never felt before that was immediate and more than a little intimidating.

  I’d almost wavered in my decision to go “full asshole” for that meeting in order to scare her out of the auction plan altogether. But I’d managed to pull it off despite the fact that I’d fought myself the entire time. Part of me just wanted to lose myself in those mysterious golden brown eyes.

  And since that moment, that thing had only grown, mutated into this pull that locked me into her orbit. I was frozen, forever facing her like the Moon, unable to turn away, even for one second, from the stunning beauty that was the Earth. In those moments when I allowed myself to just feel, I felt as helpless as that poor hunk of rock forever entrapped by her, that luscious blue planet at the center of my entire existence.

  “Hey,” she said after a long moment, sending me a tremulous smile.

  “Good morning,” I said in a flat voice.

  “You hungry? I can make pancakes. ”

  Chef had the week off and had prepared a bunch of meals ahead of time, but Emilia liked to make something now and then. “I think I’m just in the mood for some cold cereal. ” That’s about how I felt—wet, cold, soggy, flat.

  She frowned. “Okay. Can we talk over breakfast then?”

  I closed my notebook computer, stood and followed her out, sending her a half shrug. “Sure. ”

  Despite having proposed pancakes, Emilia only nibbled on the piece of toast she’d prepared for herself, watching me as I shoveled in my Cheerios as fast as I could. She did, however, manage to down more than her fair share of coffee. She was on her second big cup when I sucked down the last of the milk in my bowl and sat back with a satisfied belch.

  She made a face at me. “Gross. ”

  I got up and moved to the sink to rinse out the bowl and she followed me. She seemed determined to corner me this morning and I didn’t feel much like being cornered. “We need to have that talk. ”

  I turned to her, putting my hands on the counter behind me, leaning back. “What do you want to talk about?”

  She took a deep breath, exasperated. “Last night. ”

  “Okay. What do you want to say?”

  “I want to know why you asked me to marry you. ”

  My jaw tightened. “I thought I explained myself adequately last night. ”

  She blew out a weary sigh. “I don’t want to start a fight, but that’s not what I think. ”

  “So I’m lying to you?”

  She frowned and looked down. “You’re not telling the entire truth. It’s kind of your MO. ”

  I stiffened. She referred, of course, to my delay in telling her that we already knew each other through our online personas. When we’d met in person, she’d thought that we were total strangers to each other. But we weren’t, and throughout the next month I had let her believe otherwise until I’d finally confessed that we’d been online friends for over a year. She still hadn’t quite let it go. Apparently, she hadn’t forgiven me for it, either.

  “I don’t know what to say to that. I told you I loved you and I wanted to start planning our future—”

  “One week after I got an acceptance letter to a school you don’t want me to attend. ”

  I let out a long breath, folded my arms in front of my chest. “If you’re going to doubt everything that comes out of my mouth, then why should we even talk about
this?”

  Page 26

  She looked away, appearing distracted, unsure, rubbing her palm repeatedly over the edge of the counter. “I don’t doubt you love me, but I don’t think you want to get married for the right reasons. We’ve barely had a chance to be together—”

  “Yeah,” I said. “And you want to up and move to the other side of the continent. ”

  She swallowed. “I thought I explained why this meant so much to me. ”

  “Maybe you should explain how much I mean to you. ”

  Her gaze sharpened and her cheeks flushed. “Maybe we don’t mean enough to each other if neither one of us is willing to move. ”

  A weight dropped in my stomach. “I asked you to marry me. Doesn’t that prove I’m ready to do whatever—”

  Her hand tightened into a fist. “That wasn’t a proposal of marriage. That was an ultimatum. ”

  “I never said, ‘Marry me or else,’” I hissed.

  “No, you didn’t. Did you need to? You were trying to seize control of this situation, like you always do. ”

  I shook my head, trying to deny what we both knew was true. It had been my power play and she’d seen right through it. “Emilia—”

  “Stop the bullshit, Adam. You called your fundraising buddy to make sure I’d be going to UCLA. First, you’re prepared to buy my way in to medical school if necessary and then you hedge your bets with a wedding ring. ”

  My mouth opened to shoot out a hot reply, but I didn’t have one because she was mostly right. But hell if I was going to tell her that. Instead, I said nothing.

  She blinked, looked away. “I think we jumped into this”—she motioned between us—“too quickly. ”

  I was on alert now, every muscle in my body tensing. I moved up to her, put an arm on the counter on either side of her, trapping her. Our faces were inches from each other. She drew back far enough to look in my face, but that’s as far as she could go. “You don’t get to run away, Emilia,” I said in a quiet, firm voice.

  She closed her eyes and then opened them again, swallowing. Her hands pressed flat on my chest but didn’t push me away. Even that simple touch sent jolts of need right through me. “I’m not running away,” she whispered.

  My mouth sank to hers and my hands went to the back of her head, holding it to mine as my body commanded her surrender. She slumped against me, falling into that kiss, and her mouth opened to mine. She tasted like coffee and chocolate and roses. Mine—everything in my body imprinted it on hers. The declaration was in my hands as my thumbs splayed to rest against her temples, in my kiss, in my hips as they pressed to hers. I got hard immediately and could have taken her right here. This desire was a gravity well and I was falling, endlessly falling.

  She separated from me with an abrupt jerk, gasping as if coming up from underwater. “Stop it,” she breathed. “Stop overwhelming me. ”

  I stared into her eyes for a long moment. Who was overwhelming who, really? She opened her mouth to speak again and I waited, tense, coiled.

  She pushed me back and I relented—one step, anyway. My arms fell away from her, fists knotting at my sides.

  “What do you want?” I asked.

  She took a deep breath. “I don’t know. Especially if you are going to make me choose right now. I don’t know. ”

  I clenched my teeth, burning with anger. “Then maybe we are wasting our time, here. ”

  Her jaw dropped for a moment and the color drained from her face. It was time for the moment of truth. It was time for her to figure out how badly she wanted this. She sucked in a deep breath. “Maybe we are. ”

  I swallowed, a vise around my throat. “So you are going to let this break us up?”

  “No. You are going to let this break us up. ”

  I’d never really liked the idea of playing chicken, but I would do it if necessary. If she yielded first, then it would be worth it.

  “I’m not the one who won’t commit to us, who’s actually seriously contemplating moving away. I’m not going to put up with half a relationship and that’s exactly what we’d have. If you go away, we go back to being gamer friends—FallenOne and Eloisa talking in game chats, if you even have time for that with all your studies. Do you want that?”

  She watched me with big eyes as she slowly shook her head.

  “Then you need to decide. ”

  “Now?” Her voice trembled.

  “What’s the point in putting it off? You have the choices before you now. Stay here, go to UCLA and we stay together and maybe even get married. Or go to Baltimore and—”

  Page 27

  “And lose you?” She flushed, glaring. “Is this some kind of test of worthiness? I’m required to demonstrate what I’m willing to sacrifice in order to stay with you? We’re not in your fucking game, Adam. This is life. If I don’t choose wisely, then I lose you? Well, it goes both ways. If you don’t choose wisely in how you deal with this situation, you lose me, too. ”

  That red alert Klaxon was sounding at the back of my head again. My palms started to get sweaty, where they rested on the kitchen counter. I decided this game was more like poker than chicken. And it was time to keep a straight face and call her bluff.

  “Whatever the case, this hinges on you. So what is it?”

  Her hands balled into fists and without another word she pivoted and left the room.

  I waited for a minute before realizing it might be a fatal error to let her out of my sight. When I found her up in our bedroom, she’d grabbed her purse and keys and was looking for her shoes.

  “What are you doing?”

  “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m leaving. ”

  “You can’t just run away. You need to make a decision. ”

  She straightened from slipping on her shoes and her features were like ice. But she had tears in her eyes, furiously trying to blink them away. “I made the decision. I just told you. I’m leaving. I don’t do ultimatums. ”

  She moved around me to exit the bedroom when I took her arm in my hand. She yanked it free, rounding on me. “I can’t believe you’d do this. ” She cleared her throat, blinked a few more times and squared her shoulders. “No, that’s not the truth. I can believe you’d do this. That’s the worst part of all. ” She turned and walked out the door.

  I ran my hand over my face, resisting the almost overpowering urge to go after her. She’d be gone one night, tops. Maybe two. The door downstairs slammed and I closed my eyes. She hadn’t even taken clothes with her. This was just her way of exerting her independence—the famous Mia Strong “balls of steel” Geek Girl independence that made her who she was. And in many ways, that made me love her so much.

  She’d realize what losing this—what losing us—really meant after a night or two sleeping in bed alone and she’d be back. I paced the floor for a good half hour before deciding I might drive myself insane. I was still sore from last night’s late workout, but the restless energy could not be pent up.

  I changed clothes and decided to take out my frustrations on a punching bag.

  She’d be back—I was certain of it—when she saw what she’d be losing. With each passing hour of that day and with every new activity, I determined to get my mind off of our showdown. But I grew less and less certain.

  Chapter Six

  She came to the office the next morning. She was on time—I’d checked. I kept tabs on her throughout the day, wondering when she’d call Maggie to make an appointment to see me. Or maybe she’d send a text message asking to talk after work.

  Jordan, who had attended the surprise party, gave me a wide berth, avoiding eye contact. Sometimes I caught him looking at me with pity eyes. My cousin Liam just flat-out wasn’t talking to me. Seems in the short time that Emilia had been working here, they’d become fast friends, eating lunch together most days. Somehow, in my cousin’s worldview, it appeared that the problems between Emilia and me were my fault.

&n
bsp; She never called me on Monday and in my most panicky moments, wondering how long this would last, I remembered that she was incredibly stubborn. Our game of chicken was still playing out. If I turned off the road first, I’d be giving in and this time next year I’d be an East Coaster preparing for a winter that would freeze my ass off while scraping ten pounds of snow off my windshield every morning.

  So even though I slept like crap during those two nights away, I told myself that she’d be back before the week was out.

  On Tuesday, the insurance company notified us that we were required to show up for on-site depositions. There was also talk of preparing terms of settlement, but I was firmly against settling a lawsuit. To do so would be to admit guilt or responsibility, which I firmly denied.

  I trusted Joe, my lawyer, when he said that we basically had to do whatever the insurance company required of us. So we were off to New York City for the next week. It all happened so fast that I was booked on a flight within hours, along with Jordan and Joe. I messaged my housekeeper, who packed my suitcase and had it delivered to the office. We’d be leaving straight from the office, since it was close to John Wayne Airport, on a dinner flight that night, to arrive sometime after midnight local time.

  Page 28

  I texted Emilia to let her know and her reply was short and neutral in tone.

  See you when you get back. Travel safe.

  ***

  Time dragged in New York. We met with the insurance people in their Manhattan offices and it wasn’t an easy week. Long meetings, depositions, discussions, strategy. Days were stress-filled and nights were empty. I picked up the phone at least twice every night to call Emilia, but I resisted.

  She hadn’t even texted me.

  I’d traveled a lot for my job in the past but now everything felt more raw, more poignant and whether it was this bullshit with Emilia, the nature of the suit we were facing against the company or a combination of both, I couldn’t say.

  I stared out the window from the back of a town car, watching as we passed the crowded sidewalks of Manhattan while Jordan shifted in the seat beside me.

  “Damn, that was so annoying,” Jordan said as the driver took us back to the hotel. He closed his eyes, rubbing them through his lids. “If I have to do another depo, I’m going to lose it. ”

 
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