Her cheeks went scarlet. Interesting. “Yes. You did know, then.”
I laughed. “Everyone knew, Celia.”
She shook her head as if reconciling herself with the idea. “Okay, everyone knew. But it was a silly schoolgirl crush. I’m over it now. I have Dirk, and—”
“Dirk? That’s his name?” Immediately I pictured a long-haired hippy, though Celia would never be serious about anyone not in her social class. It wasn’t in her. He was likely proper and well-mannered and from lots of money, just as she was.
“Be nice, Hudson.” But her admonishment came with a smile. “Anyway. I have Dirk and I’m really in love with him. I think he might be the one.” She blushed again, and this time I could see that she was indeed over me.
“That’s…great.” This time, I wasn’t really sure what else to say. Wasn’t certain what Celia wanted me to say.
She seemed to sense I needed more. “So you and I can go back to being friends. No more weird puppy dog eyes from me. And it shouldn’t be a big deal. Okay?” She smiled hesitantly, hopefully, as if my answer were important to her. As if my friendship were something she thought was important.
I licked my lips, salty from my earlier exertion. There was no reason to say no. And I did enjoy Celia’s company. “Sure.”
“Awesome!” Her relief was tangible. “I’ll call you. Maybe we can play tennis later this week? Or take the Jet Skis out or something?”
“Sounds good.” It also sounded dull. But she was proposing a routine summer in the Hamptons. It was what we always did and doing it again made sense. I’d find something else to occupy my boredom.
A moment of silence passed between us until it extended past comfortable to awkward. “Well, then,” Celia said, shielding her eyes from the midday sun, “I’d better be going.”
Chivalry returned to me. “I’ll walk you out.” I draped the towel around my neck and gathered my racket cover. Then we started up the path to the main house.
We were quiet as we traveled. I escorted her all the way to the circle drive where she’d left her car parked. After opening her door for her, I leaned in to give her a peck on the cheek. This was standard for us. She was, after all, practically my sibling.
She placed a hand on my arm, her expression melancholy. “Thank you, Hudson. See you soon.”
I watched after her as she drove off, wondering about the change in the dynamics of our relationship. Our mothers had been best friends since we were toddlers. Every major holiday and family function had been spent with the Werners. Our parents had even enrolled us in the same elite private high school. We knew each other well, though I seriously doubted that we’d have become more than acquaintances had we not been thrown together as we were.
She should have been the perfect pairing for me. A match made in heaven. We both came from money, were already close. Yet, I had never had the slightest inclination toward her. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t feel anything for her? For anyone?
“Do you like her?” Mirabelle’s small voice questioned from behind me.
I turned to find her sitting on the front steps, her arms wrapped around her knees.
My jaw tensed with irritation. I didn’t share the emptiness of my emotions with anyone. “It’s really none of your business if I do.” I strode past her, into the house.
Mirabelle jumped up and followed close at my heels. “She’s not for you, Hudson. She’s petty and shallow and not good for you at all.”
I kept walking, heading to the main staircase.
Mirabelle continued after me. “And you don’t like her. I can see it in your eyes. You have no interest in her at all.”
That was true, but it intrigued me to think my sister had noticed. What else did she see? What did she know about me? I stopped mid-step and turned to her. “If you already know I don’t like her, then why did you ask?”
“I wanted to be sure you knew too.”
Well, I do. I didn’t say it aloud. I turned away from her and jogged the remaining steps to the upper floor, then disappeared into my room.
For the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about Celia and her supposed boyfriend. My chest knotted tighter and tighter as I spun the information in my mind. It wasn’t jealousy—honestly I didn’t care one way or another about her love life. It was intrigue. Obsessive intrigue. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt it, nor, I was certain, would it be the last.
The idea of love and affection consumed me. I studied it on every occasion that I could. I didn’t understand it. I’d never been in love. I didn’t believe it was even a real thing. I wasn’t virtuous in any way, nor was I inexperienced. I’d dated a few girls. Or rather, I’d taken girls out to dinner and a movie with the sole intent of fucking them afterward. Sometimes I skipped the dinner and the movie and simply fucked. But I’d never had any inclination to spend any real time with anyone. I’d never had feelings for them.
And even though Celia had set her sights on me the year before, I’d never assumed that she felt anything deeper than the silly crush she spoke of. We’d both been cut from the same cloth. We knew the ridiculousness behind romantic notions.
Or so I’d thought.
Now, she said she’d found the one. The idea boggled me.
It also challenged me.
What was it that made someone think they loved another? Could the emotion be manipulated? Forced? I decided an experiment was in order.
It was unfortunate that the results might not be too favorable for Celia. But on the other hand, if love was truly a myth as I believed, maybe I was simply saving her from a lie.
I was sunning with my laptop by the pool when Celia phoned me the next day to set up a date to get together. Feigning previous plans, I pushed our meeting off until the next week. I needed time to plan before I saw her. I was meticulous with my experiments, and this time would be no different.
I tapped my fingers rhythmically on the keyboard as I schemed. After the failure of my last study, I was eager to find success. Perhaps failure was too harsh of a word. My results hadn’t met my hypothesis, but I’d still gained information from the experiment, inconclusive as it was. I’d gotten the idea for the study after two classmates, Andrew and Jane, became engaged. They seemed to be lost for each other, dizzy in their haze of lust which they’d most likely mistaken for something more. I wondered—if they believed they were close enough that they should marry, did it mean their bond was unbreakable?
I set out to find the answer.
The three of us shared enough classes that it was easy to flirt with Jane in front of her fiancé. I did so casually at first, expecting some sort of reaction from Andrew. When none came, I upped my game. I touched Jane when we spoke, brushed my fingers against hers, played with her hair. I invaded her space. I whispered suggestive things to her—hell, dirty-as-fuck things that made her blush and her nipples stand at attention. A whole semester of this behavior and neither Jane nor Andrew had told me to stop. Shouldn’t there have been accusations? If not at me, then at each other? Were they spoken behind my back, unbeknownst to me?
Or did the couple truly have enough trust and affection for each other to withstand jealousy?
Or maybe they were looking for a threesome.
The lack of a conclusive answer was why I’d considered the experiment a bust. This time I wouldn’t settle for ambiguous results. Which meant I better start with a solid hypothesis.
I opened up my digital journal and started a new section which I titled The Rebound. It was a perfect follow-up to The Engagement. That study had tried to break up a couple without any prior history on my part. This time, the subject, Celia, had a prior infatuation with me. The question was, and I typed it in as I constructed it, Could a prior infatuation affect the status of a new relationship, if the previous object of affection suddenly returned the emotion?
Next, I entered in my hypothesis: If the subject truly believes the affection is returned, th
How would I be able to tell if I’d succeeded? I paused to watch my younger brother, Chandler, do a flip off the side of the pool as I considered. If Celia believed I was interested in her she’d likely either a) tell me to back off, b) consent to a summer affair, or c) break up with Dirk.
I would not sleep with Celia—that was non-negotiable. I couldn’t have sex with women that didn’t attract me, and I most certainly wouldn’t have sex with a woman that knew me personally. That would mean letting her get close. And I never let anyone get close.
The only success, I decided, would be a break-up in the relationship.
I entered that into my document and sat back.
Now, I simply had to figure out my intended process. This was my favorite part—coming up with the plan. My heart rate kicked up a notch with the thrill. I’d have to put some study into it. Casual flirting would not cut it with this subject—she was only The Subject in my eyes now; to think of her as anything else would weaken my objectivity. I’d have to make a real attempt to show affection. It would be a challenge, but with true effort, I was sure I could win the subject over. Perhaps I could watch a few romance movies. Or ask Mirabelle—she seemed to think she was an expert on romance.
As if summoned by my thoughts, Mirabelle plopped on a deck chair next to me, her pink and black bikini seeming very mature for a girl her age. At least we were in the privacy of our own backyard. Were we to have company, she’d be wearing a cover-up, if I had any say in the matter. And I always had a say in the matter.
“Whatcha doing?” She peered toward my computer.
I swiveled slightly so that my screen was out of her view. “Nothing of importance,” I said. Then I changed my tune. “Actually, I’m working on a project. For a friend. Perhaps you could help?”
“Sure.” She grabbed the bottle of sunscreen that I’d brought out earlier and began slathering it over her petite body. “What is it?”
While I was sure she meant to sound aloof, I noticed the hint of excitement in her few words. If there were any reason in the world to learn how to love, it would be for Mirabelle. She adored me, as many younger sisters adored their older siblings. But unlike other big brothers, I did not deserve it. Yet she still persevered in her faith and affection. For that alone, I endeavored to try with her in ways I refused to try with anyone else. I went out of my way to give her attention—played tennis with her, took her for rides when the chauffer wasn’t available, protected her from our mother’s drunken ridicule. Asking her advice was just as much about boosting her as it was about helping me.
“Well,” I began, “he wants to know the best way to woo a girl—”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “And he asked you? Anyone with half a brain knows you know nothing about wooing anyone.”
I bit back the sting of her statement. It was true after all. “Exactly. So I’m asking you.”
“This isn’t really for you, is it? You aren’t interested in someone, are you?” She stopped rubbing the lotion into her arm and stared at me point blank. “You aren’t trying to woo Celia, are you?”
I made it a point to never lie. Even in my experiments, I had vowed to remain truthful. It was the way I maintained a bit of dignity despite my manipulative actions. So I spun my answer. “Now why would I try to woo Celia? You said yourself she wasn’t for me.”
“Just making sure.” She returned to massaging her skin. “Let’s see, women love the artsy, creative types of attention. Like write her a poem or draw her portrait.”
I blinked. I wasn’t artsy in the least. “Go on.”
“Then there’s the easy stuff—sending flowers, buying jewelry, giving gifts—”
I typed as she talked.
“But those are really lame if you don’t personalize them.”
I looked up from my screen. “What do you mean by personalize?”
“Don’t just give roses. Those are boring. Give flowers that you know she’ll like or that mean something to her. The jewelry should be unique to her or something she’s admired.”
God, it sounded like romanticizing was going to require more detailed investigation than I’d expected.
“Basically, all a woman wants is for you to spend time getting to know her,” Mirabelle said, confirming my thoughts.
I chuckled. “As if you know what it’s like to be a woman.”
“Shut up. A girl, then.” She smirked at me, an expression she had down to a T. “You know girls are just miniature women, don’t you?”
“I’ve heard that somewhere.” I scratched the back of my neck, noticing sweat had gathered while I’d been sitting in the sun. “Then all I—” I caught myself and started again. “All my friend has to do is spend time with this girl?”
“And then show that he’s noticed who she is.” She frowned. “Does that make any sense?”
“It does.” Actually, noticing people was one of my talents. While trying to understand basic human emotion and behavior, I’d learned to study people with a fine eye. The application of my finds was what needed work. “I’m sure my friend will appreciate this advice.”
Mirabelle put on her sunglasses and settled back into her chair. “I wish it were for you though. You’d make an awesome boyfriend.”
I forced a smile, swallowing the nasty taste in my mouth. “Tell you what—I’ll save the notes for when I need them.”
I needed them now, but not the way Mirabelle assumed. I’d never need them that way. She was a bright kid, but she was absolutely wrong about one thing—I wouldn’t make an awesome boyfriend.
But she’d never know that. I never planned to get close enough to a woman for her to find out.
It’s been two days since the symposium at Stern, and I’m still thinking of the brunette beauty who entranced me that night. I’ve returned to the portfolio over and over to read her bio and stare at her picture. Her face is ingrained in my mind and I’ve not even seen her close up in real life.
I had tried to see her, of course. After ditching Celia, I’d rushed to the meet and greet, eager to find Alayna Withers. I intended to offer her a job on the spot. Whatever position she wanted, I’d give it to her. It was completely crazy and like nothing I’d ever done before, but there was something about her. I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t lose the desire to know her.
Then she didn’t show for the meet and greet. To say I was disappointed was putting it mildly. I was also enraged and confused. Enraged because she’d wasted our time. My time. Who didn’t show to meet with the top professionals in the business? There were six candidates and ten execs. She would have received an offer. Hell, she would have received five offers. Ten, even. And I would have topped each and every one to make her mine.
There was where my confusion lay—why did I give a shit? I’m not a completely emotionless man, but nearly. The feelings I do have are tame, controllable. Practical. This irrational desperation for someone I don’t even know—it rattled me. It rattles me now, these days later when my desperation has increased.
Never in my life have I felt this way about someone.
Is it sexual? An overwhelming need to get laid? It has been a few weeks since I’ve had a woman in my bed. Maybe longer. I haven’t had the interest lately.
But now, as I study her picture and remember her assuredness, her vivaciousness, my cock stirs.
I try to convince myself that’s what my interest is—physical. Or that it’s her mind. Maybe that’s it—I’m intrigued by her ideas, her innovative way of thinking, so much so that it arouses me. Because what else can explain her effect on me?
I’m so consumed with figuring out the answer, so in need of exploring my fascination, that I called my investigator earlier in the day to look into her further. I told myself it was about business. Perhaps she didn’t show up at the meet and greet because she’d already been offered a job. If I find her, I can counter.
But I know it’s more than that because if she does
n’t accept a job, I’ll have to find another way to get close to her. I need to know if this preoccupation has staying power. It fleetingly occurs to me that the intensity of my fixation is very similar to the way I used to feel when starting a new experiment. I dismiss that notion immediately. This is different because for once I’m not interested in another person’s emotions, but rather my own.
It’s about damn time.
Though I’m not sure I like it.
Pinching the bridge of my nose, I lean forward at my desk and try to erase Alayna from my thoughts. My efforts are interrupted by the buzz of my secretary. “Yes, Patricia?” Maybe it’s my investigator now.
“Your two o’clock is here. Dr. Alberts.”
“Fuck.” I hadn’t meant to say that aloud. “Fine. Thank you. Send him in.” I’ve forgotten about my appointment with Alberts, even though I’ve been seeing him regularly for over two years now. The truth is I don’t want to remember my appointment. He’s helped—I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptations that I do if it weren’t for him—but lately I’m restless. I miss the excitement of my old life. My days now are drab and endlessly the same. Perhaps it’s why I’m so intrigued with Alayna Withers. Seeing her that night, I felt something for the first time in years. For the first time since I quit playing the game.
I stand and circle my desk to greet Dr. Alberts when he walks in. Though I don’t need to, I gesture to the sitting area then take a seat on the edge of the leather couch, crossing a leg over the other. Alberts sits in the armchair as usual. This is our routine. He’ll suggest I lie down, I’ll politely decline. He’ll pull out his electronic notepad and jot notes when I answer his prompts—the same prompts he gives me week after week. How are you feeling? Are there any new life stressors? How will you deal with those? Have you had any inclinations to play?
I’m bored before he’s even begun, and I can’t bear to go through the moves yet again.
He must sense my mood—or my constant shifting gives my anxiousness away—because he varies from the ritual immediately.
“What’s on your mind, Hudson?” he asks.
Hudson Page 2