At any turn, p.9
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       At Any Turn, p.9

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey

  “Headache,” I said, downplaying it.

  “I’m sorry. ” She reached up and touched my forehead. I turned and looked at her; her face was very close to mine. I tipped my head forward and landed a kiss on her mouth. She kissed me back for about ten seconds before pulling away. In the dim booth in close quarters, a strange sort of tension grew between us. Of unspoken declarations, of unrealized actions. I wanted to pull her to me, hold her close forever. Instead, I drew back.

  “Let’s go eat. I’m starving,” I said.

  We sat in a booth in the bar section to get seats faster. It was actually quieter except for the television, which we were far enough away from to comfortably ignore. We ordered drinks and our food—she ordered her usual tuna melt and I loaded up on a bleu cheese bacon burger. She gasped when it showed up, at least three times as tall as her sandwich.

  “I’m so betting you can’t get that in your mouth. ”

  “Sure I can. ”

  She snorted. “So you can unhinge your jaw like a snake? Why didn’t you tell me? That’s a useful skill. ”

  I looked at her like she was a Martian. “In what way? That would be a more useful skill for you to have, if you know what I mean. ” I leered at her suggestively.

  “In your dreams. ”

  Apparently that would be the case for now. I wanted to ask her, actually. What about sex? Would we be sleeping together again soon? Because I sure wouldn’t mind that. It seemed blunt to ask her now. I planned to save it for a heated make-out session later. I could touch her in all the right places, get her all riled up and pop the question on her. A week and a half was a pretty long drought these days, when we’d been going at it so regularly. Maybe I’d gotten spoiled.

  She was halfway through her sandwich when she paused to wipe her mouth, watching me devour my burger with open amusement. She lowered her voice for a moment and laughed in the deepest baritone she could manage. “Solo bantha poodoo!”

  I swallowed my bite, laughing. “That’s my line. You’re just supposed to suit up in a gold bikini with a chain around your neck looking gorgeous, slave girl. ”

  She grinned. “Have you been indulging in your Princess Leia fantasies again?”

  Thanks to the dry spell, I’d probably have to resort to fantasies soon. Going without sex sucked and she looked so damn mouthwatering in that tight T-shirt. I wanted to suck her nipples right through the cloth. Damn it. Everything went hard just with that one thought. It was like the goddamned tenth grade all over again.

  “Speaking of gold bikinis, have you got your costume for the employee party at the Con put together?” I asked

  “I’m going as a bright fairy. ”

  I grinned. “In the skimpiest costume possible, I hope. ” I licked my lips like a perv.

  “And you? What are you going to dress up as?”

  I gloated. “Top secret. ”

  “Because of course it is,” she huffed. “You love keeping your secrets, don’t you?”

  “It’s what I’m known for…”

  “And what bloggers love to rant about. ”

  I smiled at her allusion to the now-infamous hidden quest chain in Dragon Epoch. “All in good time, young padawan. ”

  “What time will that be? 2023? I think people will have moved on to a new game by then. ”

  I shrugged. “I have a good feeling it may happen sometime next year. ”

  She snorted. “Come on…give me another hint. ‘Yellow’ isn’t going to cut it. I don’t even know if that’s a real clue, anyway!”

  I sent her a look of mock hurt. “I didn’t lie to you. ”

  “Yellow is a totally lame clue. ”

  I gave her the once-over. “Hmm; maybe I can think up a way for you to earn another clue. ”

  Page 33

  She made a face. “Yeah, well, I’d have to be assured of the quality of said clue before I’d commit to that deal. ”

  I shrugged, grabbed an onion ring and munched on it. “Have it your way. ”

  We went silent again and I looked around the bar. It wasn’t too crowded, now that the dinner rush was dying down. Several television screens were blaring the seven o’clock news.

  I looked back at her when her hand folded over mine where it rested on the tabletop. Her face had grown completely serious. I turned my hand palm up so I could clamp it around hers.

  “Everything okay?” Now it was my turn to ask it.

  She shook her head, “Actually, there was something—”

  I turned from her, distracted by the volume of the TV in the bar, which had just gone up a few notches. When I saw the screen, I froze.

  “What is it?” she asked and I held my hand up to silence her. I recognized the woman being interviewed by the Channel Seven news. I’d seen numerous clips of her on other shows. She was the one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against my company. And the mother of the suicidal kid who had blown away his girlfriend and then himself. She clutched a note card from which she read a statement while sobbing about her terrible loss. She described how, toward the end, her son Tom’s debilitating addiction to a video game had been his downfall.

  After this brief clip, there was a cut to an outside shot of Draco headquarters and then another taken of a reporter stalking me in the company parking lot on the way to my car while I refused to stop to give him a comment.

  Our waitress was watching at the bar and as soon as the shot of me faded, she turned and looked straight at our table, her mouth open.

  “Adam,” Emilia said, her voice tense. “Relax. Every muscle in your body is stiff and your veins are popping out on your forehead. ”

  “You just saw that, right? You saw that shit?” I turned to her, muttering under my breath, hoping no one else in the damn restaurant recognized me from that. And knowing the news, it had probably been shown at five and six and would be replayed again at eleven, and likely for days to come, in some variation or another. I rubbed my temples.

  “Fuck me,” I breathed, my headache suddenly pounding down on me again. I buried my face in my hand.

  Emilia had scooted beside me in the booth and she was rubbing my back between my shoulder blades. “Do you want to talk about it?”

  “No. I’ve been talking about it. ”

  “I never understood why the guy shot his girlfriend. ”

  I sighed. “He was a hardcore player. I pulled his logs myself. He logged at least sixty to seventy hours a week. He belonged to a power guild, went on raids practically every other day. ” Raids were quests taken on by large gatherings of players who tried to take down an epic monster like a huge dragon or a powerful wizard. I shrugged. “One day the girlfriend got pissed at him so she used his log-in information to get on his character and promptly gave all his rare loot away. When he logged in, his character was stripped. ”

  “Oh shit. And CS said they wouldn’t restore. ”

  “Exactly. So he locked and loaded and went over to her house. ” I pushed the plate with my half-eaten hamburger away and sat back with a disgusted sigh.

  “I’m not hungry anymore. ” I sat staring into nothing for a long moment before I turned to her.

  “I’m sorry,” she said.

  I shook my head and stared at her for a minute. She had worry all over her face. “What did you want to tell me?”

  She shook her head. “It wasn’t anything big—I’m staying with Heath, in case you were wondering. In his guest room. ”

  I was about to reply when the waitress came up, laid the check tray on the table and left without asking if we wanted dessert.

  Emilia had caught a strand of her hair and was weaving it around her forefinger. “Tell me,” I said, taking her free hand and pressing her palm to my lips. She curled her fingers around my jaw.

  “It’s nothing. Nothing like what you’re going through. ”

  “You know you can talk to me, right? If you need anything. ”

  She smile
d and nodded.

  “So are you going back to Heath’s right now? You don’t want to come back to our—my house?”

  She hesitated. “I want to, but not tonight. I’m exhausted and there’s work tomorrow. ”

  I fought the urge to push her on it. I had to force myself to remember my new stance. She’d come to me. I’d retreat and she would pursue. Just like the strategy dictated. I really wanted to push it, though.

  Page 34

  “So when do we…figure things out?” I asked.

  “I don’t know, but I don’t think it will take long. We will figure it out. I believe in us. ” She smiled.

  I walked her to her car and left her with a long, tasty kiss that lingered on my lips the entire ride home. The thought of that bed being empty all night really didn’t make me happy, but at least things were better off between us than I thought they’d be when I started out the day. I could only hope they’d continue to improve.


  Now that I was committed to following the teachings to the letter, I began to wonder about other ways in which I could plan and win her back. I’d screwed up about the school thing and I was still determined to bring her around to my way of thinking, but the direct, confrontational approach had blown up in my face.

  So now it was time to gather information.

  What enables one to strike and conquer is foreknowledge. Hire spies, Sun Tzu had said. And Heath was now her roommate and saw her every day. And as much as I hated the fact that it was him and not me, I knew the key to finding out what was going on with her was through him.

  And we were due to go out and spend all day Saturday together at the paintball park. Heath had been invited to join the Draco Multimedia paintball team in preparation for next month’s big war against the guys at Blizzard, our rival company. We were due for a rematch this year, and Draco would take no prisoners. And since each side was allowed to “hire” five nonprofessional “mercenaries,” I had asked Heath.

  So the following Saturday, despite it being late October, was a hot day in the dry hills of the Inland Empire east of Riverside. We got quite the workout, fumbling around in our pseudo-military gear and protective facemasks, working on strategy and tactics for the big war in November. A hardcore group of about a dozen of us had agreed to get together every Saturday to work it out. For the war against Blizzard, each of us would act as squad leaders for the rest of the employees.

  We maneuvered around old ruins created to look like the remains of an ancient city. Appropriate, given the fantasy nature of Dragon Epoch and, of course, Blizzard’s world-famous creation, World of Warcraft. The only thing that could have made the idea more amusing, many employees said, was the thought of fighting in costume as our characters. That idea had been vetoed by both CEOs.

  After saying good-bye to the rest of the group, Heath and I ended up going to a nearby pub for an early dinner, reliving the main events of the day, swapping strategy ideas. Heath, having grown up in the high desert, had become an expert marksman and survivalist. He’d told me that his father was a paranoid gun nut who had been prepping for World War III since the eighties. As a consequence, Heath was a sharpshooter with a rifle, having had one in his hands since he was a toddler, apparently. I’d appointed him captain of our sniper squad.

  At the pub, I ordered a roast beef sandwich and a beer. And we compared welts—paintballs were not for wimps. They left marks unless you chose to wear body armor. In the heat of the day, we’d forgone that to be “manly men” instead. Like war buddies we swapped stories and teased each other and it was easy between us—like the old friends we actually were, even though Heath hadn’t known when we’d first met in person that we were already friends.

  We’d gamed together for over a year at that point and when we met in person, we naturally clicked. I’d counted on that, when it became clear that he would be acting as Emilia’s “screener” for the auction. And I’d known how to answer the questions he’d asked. I’d gamed the system, so to speak.

  Heath seemed distracted as we talked about the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. He kept glancing over my shoulder and then looking away, bouncing his knee and acting nervous. Finally I frowned at him.

  “What’s up, man?”

  “Sorry, hot guy at twelve o’clock, that’s all. ”

  I knew he wasn’t talking about me but had to tease him anyway. “I didn’t know you cared. ”

  He glared at me. “Besides you. ”

  I resisted the urge to turn around and check out the object of his attention. Heath was clearly embarrassed. But I took a minute to look around at the rest of the clientele. Almost all were men and most of them were paired up or talking in larger groups. I scanned the rest of the room. “Wait…are we in a gay bar?”

  Heath snorted. “You know, for a boy genius you sure can be slow sometimes. ”

  “You brought me to a gay bar?”

  “Yeah, so what? The food here is good. ”

  “True. Best sandwich I’ve had in a long time. ”

  Page 35

  Heath threw me an annoyed glance. “Yeah, it’s not a mistake I’m going to make again, though, don’t worry. ”

  I shrugged. “I don’t mind. As long as no one asks me to dance. ”

  A weird look crossed his face. “Do you see anyone dancing? There’s no dancing. There are lots of people hooking up, though, and it was a huge-ass mistake to bring you here. ”


  “Because every guy in this room has checked you out like five times already. ”

  I laughed. This conversation with Heath was reminding me of that strange chat with Jordan at the hotel in New York. “Don’t worry, I’m spoken for. I won’t be going home with any phone numbers. ”

  I dropped my butter knife on the floor and reached to pick it up, turning to glance at a group of men sitting at the table behind us. There were three of them. One of them met my gaze and nodded, smiling. I straightened, turning back to Heath.

  “So which one is it?” I asked.

  “Guy with his back to you,” Heath muttered, looking away, his knee bobbing up and down even faster.

  “Why don’t you go talk to him?”

  He looked back at me, even more annoyed. “Because one of two things is going on. They either think we’re a couple and I’m the lucky idiot who ended up with the dark-haired hottie, or they are looking at you and I might as well be a Klingon for all they give a shit about me. ”

  I frowned at him. Not that I normally assessed another guy’s looks, but Heath was not a bad-looking guy at all. He was tall, very well built—imposingly so—with dark blond hair and vivid green eyes. Not someone who, I thought, should be self-conscious about his looks.

  “Didn’t mean to cramp your style, man. ” I shot him a grin. “I can’t figure out a way to broadcast my sexual orientation. ”

  Heath’s eyes narrowed for a minute, but then his gaze brightened. He pulled a pen from his pocket and scribbled something on a napkin. “Do me a favor and stick this on your forehead, will you?”

  He handed me the napkin and I read it. In three capital letters, underlined, HET, for heterosexual. I laughed and crumpled the napkin. “Nice try. Maybe I’ll cramp your style after all. ”

  I glanced over my shoulder again to see where the guy was sitting behind me. Then I tossed the ball of crumpled napkin so it hit the guy square in the back of the head. Then I ducked to the side as if Heath had thrown the napkin at me and I’d bent out of the way. The mortification on Heath’s face almost made me bust a gut laughing.

  I immediately turned around and met the gaze of the guy sitting behind me. He had reddish blond hair and was glaring at me with bright blue eyes. He turned and grabbed the napkin, then read it, looking at me with a raised brow. I scooted my chair around and put out a placating hand. “I’m sorry about that. My buddy over here meant that for me but I was too quick for him and he got you instead. He’s just harassing me abo
ut my sexual orientation. ”

  The guy threw a quizzical glance at Heath, who turned beet red. I held out a hand. “I’m Adam. That’s my friend Heath. I believe he owes you an apology. What’s your name?”

  The guy now had an unsure smile as he reached to shake my hand. Then he looked at Heath, his smile growing wider. “My name’s Connor,” he said in a very distinctive Irish accent. “And these are my friends Jess and Xander. ”

  I nodded to them. “Good to meet you. ”

  “Sorry about the bad aim,” Heath said, glancing at me without accusation.

  Connor turned back to Heath and his smile grew. Clearly he liked what he saw. “No problem. But if it happens again I’ll have to take you out. ”

  “How about a round of drinks?” I said. “What are you all drinking? It’s on me since, for once, I’m the one in the minority here. ” They all laughed. We ended up pushing the tables together and having a nice long conversation about war games—apparently Connor had served in the army and was amused by our trophy paintball welts. It gave Heath a chance to flash his biceps, too, which I’m sure he appreciated.

  When we left a few hours later, Heath and Connor had entered numbers into each other’s phones and I was satisfied.

  On the way out to the parking lot, Heath was still in raptures about his new acquaintance. “That accent…my God, when I heard him talk I almost died. ”

  “Kinda sounded like a leprechaun to me,” I said.

  “It’s a good thing you’re straight and have excellent taste in women because you have no taste in men. ”

  Page 36

  I laughed. “Sorry if I embarrassed you back there. ”

  “If he goes out with me, you are forgiven. ”

  I paused. “So…I was going to duck my head in and say hi to her when I drop you off, if that’s okay. I texted her, but she hasn’t gotten back to me. ”

  “Sure…she’s probably taking a bath or something. ”

  When we got to my car, I threw him the keys. “Wanna drive it?”

  Heath’s jaw dropped and he looked almost as perplexed as he had when I’d tossed that napkin at Connor. “Fuck, yeah. ”

  My 1953 midnight blue Porsche 356 Cabriolet was my pride and joy. The license plate was the finishing touch: UBR L00T, translated from gamer language to mean “uber loot. ” The very best kind of loot you could get in game was referred to as “uber,” and was lusted after by gamers everywhere. I loved that car like a cherished pet. Emilia had driven it a few times but then declared the clutch “impossible” and refused after that. I think she was more afraid she was going to scratch it. It came with a price tag that made most people squeamish. And the way Heath was looking at it now, with lust in his eyes, I could see he was thinking the same thing.

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