At any turn, p.8
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       At Any Turn, p.8

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey

  I checked my phone for any text messages that might have come while I was in the meeting and found it still empty of texts. Jordan darted a look at me, then at the phone. “What say we go out and have some fun tonight? Like the old days. ”

  I snorted. The old days. I could never keep up with him then. Jordan was a drinker. I, most decidedly, was not. Jordan was a womanizer and while I’d never lacked for female companionship when I wanted it, I’d never had the same tastes he did.

  Jordan liked his women flawless, gorgeous and empty-headed. “Come on, we could go take in a club, maybe meet a few lovely ladies who are really into California guys. ”

  “It’s New York, no one’s into California guys here. ”

  Jordan looked at my phone again. I tucked it into the pocket of my jacket. “So, uh, you still hanging out with Mia or…”

  I glanced out the window. We hadn’t discussed the surprise party since it had happened. No one besides Heath—with whom I assumed she was staying—knew that she’d left the previous weekend.

  I shifted, uncomfortable and trying to ignore that slice of dread whenever I thought about Emilia and our relationship since she had walked out. I estimated that by now she had come back to the house, probably figuring this would be a good time to let the fallout from our confrontation blow over. That thought relieved me a little. I cleared my throat. “There are bumps in the road. We’ll be okay. ”

  Jordan raised his brows, pleasantly surprised. “So you’re still a ‘we’…good. ”

  “Glad I’m off the market and not in competition with you anymore?”

  Jordan laughed. “At least let me buy you a drink at the bar. ”

  I nursed a beer in the hotel bar while Jordan knocked back a couple rum and cokes. We talked about all kinds of things—old times, the company, ideas for the storyline for the next expansion of Dragon Epoch.

  As he finished up his third drink, Jordan jerked his chin at me, casting a glance behind me. “That blonde at the end of the bar has not stopped staring at you. ”

  I smirked. “Jealous much?”

  He gave me a crafty smile. “I bet I could get her number for you. ”

  “I don’t want her number. Get it for yourself. ”

  “You’re not even going to look to see how hot she is?”

  I took another sip of my beer. “Nope. Not interested. ”

  Jordan looked at me as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. “Of all people—of all my friends—you were the last one I would have pegged for getting infected by the love virus. ”

  “Wow, when you put it that way, it sounds so pleasant. ”

  “It’s shocking, really, considering that you’re you. And, of course, how you even met her. ”

  I frowned. “What, you mean in the game?”

  “No, I mean how you really met her. That whole Pretty Woman thing. ”

  Suddenly uncomfortable, I put the beer down but didn’t look at Jordan. Jordan had known from the beginning about the original arrangement between Emilia and me. But he’d never once made reference to it, until now. And the allusion to the movie did not amuse me. In essence, he was calling Emilia my prostitute and that didn’t sit well with me. I shot him a warning look and he raised a placating hand.

  It was odd that he’d do this now, half-soused or not. “So, at least you know she’s not a gold digger, since she turned down your proposal. Unless she turned you down because she thought you’d think that…”

  Page 29

  I blinked. “Shut up, Jordan,” I said, downing the rest of my beer. “You never could hold your liquor. You need something to eat. ” I waved the waiter over and ordered three different appetizers while Jordan watched me with a completely baffled look on his face.

  After a stretch of silence while we each checked our phones, he finally looked up. “Hey man, I’m sorry. Actually I think she’s a nice girl. She’s just young, you know? What’s she, like, nineteen?”

  “Twenty-two. ”

  “That’s pretty damn young. ”

  I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. “It’s only four years younger than me. ”

  “You’ve got the brain and experience of a thirty-five-year-old on the inside, though, man. ”

  I shrugged. The waiter came with our appetizers and asked if I wanted another drink. I ordered a mineral water. Jordan rolled his eyes, but said nothing. He knew better than to get me to drink anything hard.

  In spite of declaring he wasn’t hungry, Jordan began to devour a plate of hot barbecue wings. I sampled the sashimi.

  “So what do you make of all this?” he asked after a long silence.

  “The insurance bullshit?”

  “Yeah. All the talk of possibly settling. ”

  “I’m going to fight that. I don’t want to settle. ”

  Jordan raised his eyebrows. “People do it all the time, bro. And the public realizes why that is. It’s not an admission of guilt. ”

  “That’s how it appears, though. Appearances are very important. I have a feeling the fallout from this is going to get pretty unpleasant. ”

  “The news has moved on to all that stuff going on in the Middle East. ”

  “Hmm,” I said as I finished up a bit of Brie cheese spread on crusty bread. “Tell that to the news magazine van that stalks me in the campus parking lot, trying to squeeze a statement out of me. ”

  Jordan’s brow furrowed. “Maybe we need to hire you a bodyguard or something—just for the next little while,” he added when he detected my protest. “Don’t take chances, Adam. We don’t know what the repercussions from this are going to be. That outside PR firm I hired—”

  “Has been pretty useless so far. They want me to do interviews. I don’t have time for that shit. I have the Con to get ready for. That has the potential to help PR more than just about anything they can do. ”

  I sat back, not having eaten much. I was no longer hungry. I checked my phone again.

  “Everything okay? You’re checking your phone more often than my little sister who’s still in high school. ”

  “I’m fine. I think a workout and then an early night might be a good idea. ”

  “The night’s still young and that blonde is still undressing you with her eyes. ”

  “Enough already with the blonde. Jesus Christ, you are the horniest geek in Manhattan. ”

  “Better the horniest than the most boring,” he said and I flipped him the bird while I

  signed off on the bill.

  I was halfway through my workout and had the treadmill going at near full speed. With my headphones on, I was running to the backbeat of eighties alternative band Erasure when my phone chimed with a text message.

  I picked it up and looked at it, expecting some smartass remark from Jordan or maybe even a snapshot of the mythical blonde he’d been going on about. I almost stumbled when I saw it was from Emilia.

  Fucking finally. I clicked on my chat app to read it, powering down the treadmill to a slow walk.

  Just wanted to let you know I moved my stuff out today. We’ll talk when you get home from NYC.

  I did stumble then and almost fell off the fucking contraption, reading it over and over again. Soon as I caught my breath, I called her.

  It went straight to voicemail. Fucking bullshit.

  My fingers were stiff with anger as I tapped out the reply.

  Answer the goddamn phone.

  She responded two minutes later as I was wiping off my face and the equipment.

  I’m not going to talk about this on the phone. Text me when you get back & we can talk then.

  My hand closed around the damn thing. I took a deep breath, downed an entire bottle of water and walked back to my room before I called her again.

  No answer.

  “Texting me that you moved out is a really fucking shitty thing to do, Emilia. Now put on your big girl panties and talk to me,” I snarled to her voicemail.
She never called back.

  I was panicking now, big time. This was no longer a game of chicken. This shit was getting real. And I couldn’t find one scrap of ancient Chinese war wisdom to support me in how I’d behaved. In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.

  Page 30

  It was true, I’d been too direct with her—so against the norm of how I typically behaved. I’d forced the confrontation, tried to push her decision right then and there. My fear had driven me to it. I’d wanted her to commit to a decision so I wouldn’t have to worry about our future. I’d wanted to be secure in the knowledge that she would stay and be with me and her feelings and emotions had not entered into the matter.

  In short, I’d cornered her and left her no way out but to leave. A direct contradiction to Sun Tzu’s advice. When you surround an army, allow them an outlet to flee.

  I’d been a moron and my brain was now scrambling to find a way to rectify this.

  Two days later when I got home, it was just as she’d told me. Everything was gone. Her closet was empty. The drawers were bare except for a few random clothing items from a drawer it looked like she’d missed. No books on her shelves. Everything. Was. Gone. Everything.

  She left the laptop I’d given her, (yet again). This was starting to become some sort of sick, weird pattern with us. With a howl of burning rage, I grabbed the fucking thing and almost smashed it against the wall before I stopped myself.

  That would have been the most expensive temper tantrum I’d ever had. I never threw shit at the walls. I was one ragingly pissed-off dude who couldn’t think beyond the next minute of his own fury.

  And in some ways, I did feel like I was losing my mind.

  Chapter Seven

  Text me when you get home, please, so we can talk.

  Thankfully I’d had a couple hours to calm down when that showed up on my cell phone. It was midafternoon and I’d resisted the urge to go to work only because my head was killing me. I rubbed at the back of my neck. The impending migraine was definitely starting there. I hadn’t had one in weeks, goddamn it.

  For a while they’d been an almost daily curse. In the past year they’d eased up a lot and in the past few months I could remember having only a few. But today it was almost certain that this one was going to floor me. I could already detect the telltale distortion at the edge of my vision. I snatched up my phone and replied.

  Been home for hours. Come here after work?

  Her reply came back to me almost immediately. How about we grab something to eat?

  I almost retorted that we could eat here. Chef could have something ready, easily. The significance of her not wanting to come back here was not lost on me and I began to sweat, wondering if her choice of a public place meant she wanted to have the breakup talk. I sighed, deciding to let her have her way. What other choice did I have?

  Just tell me where & when.

  She answered, Dale & Boomer’s 6 p. m. ? You still owe me a rematch on Dark Escape.

  This was a good sign. She wanted to get together at an entertainment restaurant over at the outdoor mall in Orange. They had games of all kinds and a full-service restaurant and bar. Her suggestion of the game rematch made the entire thing seem positive.

  I tried to put up with the headache pain for about an hour without taking anything, but it was a turning into a bad one and since I couldn’t resort to the normal heavy-hitting pain meds (which wouldn’t allow me to drive), I popped some milder pills, knowing that it would only take the edge off and do nothing for the visual aura that accompanied the pain. I normally didn’t like to resort to medications for my headaches, but I didn’t want to end up biting her head off because I was in pain, either.

  I was already pissed enough at her as it was. But I vowed I wasn’t going to lose my temper and drive her further away. I wasn’t going to screw up on my all-important strategy again.

  In the end, I popped the stronger pill and called for a car to take me over. She was there when I arrived, sitting on the leather bench in the waiting area, looking into her phone. Her long dark hair was clipped back away from her face, but she had changed out of her work clothes into jeans and a long-sleeved hooded T-shirt, which stretched across her breasts in the most delicious way. When she glanced up and saw me, she tucked her phone into her back pocket as she stood.

  “Hi,” she said, standing in front of me awkwardly.

  I hesitated, shifting the weight on my legs, just as awkward. “Hey. ”

  “Can we maybe go for a walk?”

  “Out in the parking lot?”

  “Well…yeah…just to talk for a minute?”

  I shrugged. It was six o’clock, already dark, but not very chilly. I held the door open for her and we exited the restaurant to walk along the sidewalk that lined the outside perimeter of the mall.

  “How was your trip?”

  “Craptastic. ”

  Page 31

  “I’m sorry. Things not going well?”

  “It was boring and Jordan was annoying and—” I cut myself off, took a deep breath and then, without looking at her, finished my original thought, though it wasn’t easy. “You weren’t there. ”

  She didn’t say anything for a long moment, but I felt her hand slip into mine. I tightened my hold around it. “I missed you, too. ” She stopped and I turned to face her in the dim light. “This is hard. I don’t want to fight anymore,” she said.

  I clenched my teeth and prevented myself from releasing the heated words at the tip of my tongue. Then why did you leave me?

  “Me neither. ”

  She fixed her gaze on mine, her mouth turned up in a small smile, her eyes questioning. I kept my face as blank as I could, refusing to give away any of the inner turmoil. I was thrilled to see her, but I also ached inside, too.

  And I’d determined that since I’d ignored the strategy of Sun Tzu by offering her no way out and cornering her, I was going to stick exclusively to the strategy guide now. Retreat, thus enticing the enemy at his turn. I’d stand back. I’d let her come to me. Hold out baits to entice the enemy.

  She sighed and moved toward me so quickly I didn’t realize what she was doing until she pulled me into a hug. Slowly, stiffly, my arms went around her. I caught a whiff of that vanilla scent of her hair and it hurt—it physically hurt. I backed off before she was finished.

  A brief frown crossed her face and then vanished.

  “You’re pissed off that I moved out. ”

  Well, that was leading. How to answer that without getting my head bitten off? “Does that surprise you?”

  She shook her head. “It’s just that this is so hard for both of us. Things were moving quickly and—I thought this would be a good chance for us to take the pressure off a little. ”

  “So I take it you aren’t planning to come back soon. ”

  Now she gave me a look indicating that she, too, was afraid to say the wrong thing. “Not for now. The whole living together thing, and then…” She let her voice die out before mentioning the doomed marriage proposal.

  That fear was back again, gripping me at the base of my throat.

  “So where are we?”

  She reached out for my hands and took them in hers, looking down. “I don’t want to lose you. ”

  “You haven’t lost me. ” Yet.

  And I guessed we were going to let this whole medical school question hang in the air between us like an executioner’s axe because I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up now. I wasn’t that stupid.

  I cleared my throat. “I’m going to be honest with you. I want you at the house. I want you to come back. I won’t tolerate this separation over an extended period of time. ”

  She squeezed my hands. “It’s not a separation. Adam, let’s take it slow. Please. I’m not expert at this relationship thing, but you aren’t either. We both get to
steer. ”

  “Okay,” I said in a flat voice.

  She raised her brows at me. “Okay?”

  “I’ll let you handle this. You can steer for now. But I’m not going to hold back on what I want. And what I want is you. ” My hands tightened around hers and I pulled her toward me until her body was flush against mine. My arms wrapped around her, tight.

  I turned my head and laid my mouth on hers, coaxed her to open to me. My tongue slid into her mouth, declaring my wishes with my body to echo my words. I could feel the thready beat of her heart on her lips as they moved against mine, fluttering like a butterfly wings. My breath caught.

  Her sweet, soft lips. Her unique taste. I wanted what was best for me. What was best for me was her. And this was a setback, but I wasn’t going to give this up. Not for anything. Emilia was strong-willed and stubborn, but she’d met her match in me. And deep down she knew that damn well.

  I finally let her pull back, relaxing my hold on her and we stared at each other for a long, tense moment. She seemed to be holding her breath.

  “I—um—I still need to wipe the floor with you on Dark Escape. ”

  I relaxed, stepped back, shrugged. “Not gonna happen. ”

  She raised her brow. “It’s on like Donkey Kong. Come on. ” She grabbed my elbow and led me back toward the restaurant entrance. On the way through the arcade toward the machine, she handed me a game card, mentioning that she had recharged with money herself.

  I gave her a sharp look and she shrugged. “Just wanted to make sure you didn’t have any excuses, like you had forgotten your Dale and Boomer’s uber express triple platinum card. ”

  Page 32

  We slid into the dim booth that housed the game Dark Escape. Donning 3-D glasses and grasping our mounted rifles, we began our war against the zombies—and each other. After almost forty-five minutes, she finally emerged victorious. Because of the headache and the medicine I’d taken, my accuracy was off. However, another way to get points was to maintain a low heart rate, because the game measured fear. And mine stayed much lower than hers as we wasted zombies left and right. Only when I yanked off my 3-D glasses did I realize that it had been a big mistake for me to play the game. My head was pounding again.

  “You okay?” she asked, tucking her 3-D glasses where they belonged. She sat, pressed closely to me inside the small, dark game booth. I could smell her hair, her skin, and I was reminded of the fact that I hadn’t had her in over a week.

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