I run the tips of my fingers across my forehead, contemplating the answer. I could blame my anxiety on work. There is much to be concerned with there, such as the rumblings at Plexis, one of my smaller subsidiaries, where I fear I’m losing control of the board. Before the Stern symposium, that was my major focus. After, Plexis is barely on my radar. How can I concentrate on silly business when I can’t get the thought of deep brown eyes and a silky confident voice out of my brain?
That’s what’s on my mind—her.
But what could I tell Alberts about Alayna Withers? About a student I saw for twenty minutes at a business school event? Talking with him is supposed to help sort out my emotions, but these emotions are too vague and unidentifiable. Too intense and strange.
Instead, I choose to mention the detail of my last few days that will interest him the most. “I saw Celia.”
“You did?” Alberts shows his alarm with only a slight raise of a gray eyebrow. “What were the circumstances of that encounter?”
“I’d like to say it was innocent. But it wasn’t entirely.” I run my hands through my hair while he waits for me to continue. “She called me. She’s been using my identity to play someone—an employee of my sister’s.” I cringe thinking about how close to home Celia’s game was with Stacy. And how I did nothing to stop it until the other night.
“Were you aware she was doing this?”
“Yes.” I answer his next question before he has the chance to ask. “No, I didn’t encourage it, but I was aware.” I stand, needing to pace as I talk. “Celia asked me to help her wrap up the game. I agreed. I told her where I’d be and when. She made the arrangements for the rest to happen.”
Glancing toward Alberts, I expect to see a look of disapproval. It’s not there. The man is as careful with his emotions as I am.
Next he’ll want to know why I agreed to help. It’s an easy enough answer—the game needed to end. I didn’t appreciate my name being pulled into her scheme and being available for her staged embrace was the easiest way to end it.
But that’s not what he wants to know. “How did it make you feel? Playing again, after so long?”
I pause, considering his question. There had been a certain spark, a thrill that had run through my body as I’d kissed my childhood friend. Not because of the woman I’d been kissing or even because I’d been kissing at all, but because I knew the effect I was having on Stacy—on Celia’s intended target. In the moment, I wanted to immerse myself in the feeling, wanted to grab it and hold onto it. It was feeling, for God’s sake. Feeling, where I’d been void. All I’d have to do was stop fighting the impulse, and I could have the excitement back in my life. With Celia there, egging me on as she always did, it would have been so easy to fall back into our old patterns, to resume our games.
But all it took was the look in Stacy’s eyes, the devastation she felt at my supposed rejection to remind me that my entertainment came at the price of others’ emotions.
“There was a rush,” I answer honestly. “Then it was over, and until now I hadn’t given it a second thought.” Even without the reminder of the consequences of the game, I would have abandoned any notion to play again when I went to the symposium. That brief spark with Celia had been completely obscured by the charge that jolted through me at the sight of Alayna Withers.
Alberts clears his throat and I look to find he’s studying me. He narrows his eyes. “Then you aren’t concerned that you’ll be pulled back into the game?”
I let out a huff. I’m always concerned I’ll be pulled back into the game. But am I worried that Celia will pull me back? “No, I’m not.”
“Do you plan to see her again?”
My eyes widen when, for a second, I think that “her” refers to the brunette that’s plaguing my thoughts.
But that’s not who Alberts means.
“No, I don’t plan to see Celia again.” She’d like me to. She asks me over and over. I see her enough at family events as it is. Her presence isn’t a temptation to me as my therapist believes, but seeing her is still not a good idea. She’s a painful reminder of all the wrongs I’ve done in my life. Of all the wrongs I’ve done to her.
I resume my pacing, hoping not to go down that path of conversation today, not wanting to revisit my past.
“Hudson, sit down.”
I’m surprised he hasn’t requested this before. I sit, crossing my ankle over my bouncing knee. “Sorry. I have a lot on my plate at the moment.” I take a quiet but deep breath that does nothing to relieve me.
Dr. Alberts leans back, a distinct contradiction to my own tense posture. “I don’t sense that your anxiety has to do with your meeting with Celia. Is there something else you aren’t telling me?”
It’s on the tip of my tongue to bring up my strange reaction to Alayna Withers, but I’m again lost on how I’d phrase it. “It’s nothing. Work is stressful.” Work is always stressful.
Too late I realize I’ve opened the door to an old argument.
“I hate to beat a dead horse, Hudson, but if we met in my office instead of here, you’d have a chance to escape that stress, if even for a short time.”
I throw him a glare. “If I had to meet in your office, I’d never pull myself away.”
“That’s a problem, Hudson. I’ve tolerated it for the past two years, but I feel we’re at a point in your therapy that this will no longer work. If you want to continue with your recovery, you need to make it your priority. You must decide that pulling yourself away is more important, that your mental health is more important than the work you leave behind.”
I feel my jaw twitch. I agree that my therapy is at a standstill. He’s likely right that to progress further, I’d need to rearrange my current priority list. However, that’s not going to happen. I have no desire to pull myself away. I don’t believe that I am more important than the work I leave behind. I don’t believe that I am more important than anything. And while working with Alberts has kept me from ruining other people’s lives, it hasn’t given my own life any more dimension than it had. I still haven’t found a way to fill the emptiness that resides inside. At least the game was enough to distract me from that. Now I’m ever aware of my hollowness, of my inability to feel more than a dull hum of emotion.
In the past, when the topic to meet in his office instead of mine has come up, I’ve persuaded him to leave things the way they are. Today, I sense he won’t let it go. And I’m not sure that I want to fight him any longer. I have the tools I need to continue on as I have without seeing him any longer. Could he fix me if I gave in? If I made more of the effort that he suggests I haven’t before? I don’t know. That’s what I must decide. Either I play it his way, or I don’t need him. I’m not ready to give a firm answer.
“Touché,” I say. “I concede that this arrangement is no longer working. Perhaps we should end our relationship altogether.” It’s a manipulation technique, I know. Like a child pouting. If I don’t get to play my way, I won’t play at all.
But my psychologist is too good to fall for my tricks. “If that’s what you want to do. You know this only works if you’re a willing participant.”
Part of me wants to cut him out of my life and move on, but I’m not comfortable with impulse-driven decisions. “I need to think about it.”
“Do that. If you decide you want to meet with me again—in my office—than call my secretary and make an appointment.” He stands, our session clearly over even though we still have another thirty minutes on the clock.
I suppose there’s no point in continuing if I have no real interest in progress.
I get to my feet and shake his hand. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“I hope I see you again,” he says, the twinkle in his eye more of the look a grandfather would share with his grandson than a psychologist with his patient. He’s fond of me. I wonder what he could possibly see in me to feel that way.
Maybe I haven’t given him the chance I should.
Though I’m more
concerned that if I did give him the chance, he’d still be unable to help me.
He’s almost at the door when he turns to me. “Remember, Hudson, true progress only happens with work.” With those words, he leaves me.
I shake my head in frustration. Of course I remember that. I’ve worked my ass off to get Pierce Industries to what it is today. If he thinks I don’t understand the value of hard work, then he has no understanding of what I do, of what I am. But in the back of my mind, I know that he’s talking about a different kind of work, and while I’ve already spent some time in the department of self-repair, I’m not sure that I’m willing to spend more.
At this particular moment of my life, the only thing I want to spend time on is finding out more about Alayna Withers.
The minute Alberts is gone, I pick up my phone and dial my secretary. “Were there any calls?” She knows not to interrupt me when he’s here, and I’m hoping my investigator has called.
I give a quick thank you and hang up, pausing only a moment before I’m calling him myself.
“Jordan here,” he answers on the first ring. The man used to be Special Ops and I’ve found his skills are beneficial in many situations.
“Have you found anything out yet?” I realize I’m being impatient. I’ve only given him a few hours to look, after all.
“Not much. I’m still waiting for her medical history and complete background check.”
Her medical history can’t possibly inform me of anything useful, but the background check might. “What do you know so far?”
“The basics. Her full name is Alayna Reese Withers, born and raised in Boston. Her parents died in a car accident when she was sixteen. She lives between Lexington and Third, near the Waldorf. She got her BA in business at Boston University and is set to graduate from NYU with a Masters in Business next month. Right now she’s working as an assistant manager at The Sky Launch.”
The Sky Launch? I wrack my brain trying to place the name. “The nightclub?”
She can’t possibly be planning to work at a nightclub after her graduation. She has to have another offer. “Can you tell if anyone else has pulled her information recently?” If she’s got a job waiting, they’ll have checked into her.
I hear muffled movement as if Jordan’s cradling the phone on his shoulder while he looks for the answer. “The system says there was one other pull of her credit history. Yesterday.”
“Dammit.” I wonder which of my competitors was lucky enough to earn her yes. “Find out who ordered that.” Then I’ll prepare my counter proposition.
“And call me the minute anything new comes in.”
“Yes, Mr. Pierce.”
I’ve just hung up when Patricia calls me again. I pick up the receiver to answer when my office door is flung open and Celia parades in.
“I’m sorry, sir,” my secretary says in my ear. “I was calling to announce her and she just walked in.”
“It’s okay. I’ll take care of her.” I hang up, cursing under my breath. Celia’s the last person I’m in the mood for, but Patricia isn’t any sort of bouncer.
Celia slinks in and half-sits on the far corner of my desk. “You’ll take care of me, will you?”
I ignore her suggestive tone. “Two days in one week, Celia. To what do I owe the pleasure?” I put enough bitterness in my final word that she can’t mistake that there is anything pleasant about her visit at all.
Immediately I feel a pang of guilt. It’s not Celia’s fault that I no longer want to be around her, rather it’s my fault. All of it, my fault.
She doesn’t let my tone ruffle her. “Oh, come on, Hudsy. Don’t be that way. I’m not the enemy.”
No, she’s not. I’m the enemy. She’ll never see it, though, so it’s my job to keep the distance. “Why are you here?”
There’s a gleam in her eye when she smiles. “I have something that I know is going to interest you.”
“Oh?” I sound bored, and I am.
“I’m serious. You’re going to want in on this.”
In on this? She can only be proposing a game. “Celia, I’ve told you, I don’t play anymore.” I shift my focus toward my computer screen, pretending to go back to whatever I was doing before she arrived.
She doesn’t get that I’m dismissing her—or doesn’t care. “You’ve told me, you’ve told me. Now I’m telling you, you’ll want in on this.”
I should kick her out now, pour out the bottle before I’ve even taken a sip, so to say, but I can’t help myself. Even with my attention turned, my pulse has quickened and the moisture in my mouth has increased. Her eagerness is contagious. And I’m curious. Too curious.
I can’t let her know. “I won’t want in on anything. But since you’re here,” I casually turn back to face her, “what is it you’re planning?”
Her grin kicks up a notch. “Look at you. You’re dying to know. Your eyes blazed the minute you realized what I was offering.”
I don’t try to deny it—I am interested and even with schooled features, she can see it. I hate how well I’ve taught her to read people. I hate when she uses her knowledge to read me.
It pisses me off enough that I almost send her packing.
But curiosity wins out. She hasn’t tempted me with her games in quite some time. Why now?
“Out with it, Ceeley.” I cringe inwardly at the slip of her childhood nickname. She’ll think I mean something by it that I don’t. It’s why I hate nicknames so much.
She stands and starts rummaging through her bag. “It’s a basic scenario—make the girl fall for you and then deny her, watching her fall to pieces.”
It had been our old favorite. No matter how many times we’d performed the experiment, it never failed to interest me. It was a marvelous study in the emotion called love, but somehow it never gave me any of the answers I was seeking.
I pretend the idea doesn’t pique me in the slightest. “How original. What about that did you think would interest me?”
She smiles with confidence. “The girl.”
I raise a questioning brow, but instead of answering me verbally, she retrieves a file folder from her bag and sets it on the desk in front of me. Then she waits for me to study it.
With a reluctant breath, I flip the cover open and move my eyes from Celia to the top sheet inside the file. Deep brown eyes and a warm smile meet me.
Celia’s right—it is the girl that interests me. And I know before she says anything more that I will hear her out to the end. Because if Celia has the answer to getting closer to Alayna Withers, I am in.
All the way.
There are other pictures in the file Celia gathered and I want to survey them all, want to memorize every detail of Alayna Withers’ expressions, her postures. I don’t though, because I’m very aware of Celia’s hawk-eyed stare. She’s waiting for me to read the reports included, and I want to—I want to absorb it all.
But there’s something else nagging at me to close the folder and end this now despite my overwhelming desire to act otherwise. I’m supposed to abstain from these games. That’s not what’s halting me. My hesitancy comes from a far more primal source—I don’t want to share. I’m already irritated that Celia’s learned things that I want to know. I wish I could horde the findings to myself, decide how I want to handle my fascination with Alayna on my own. Obviously it’s too late for that, but I can try to dissuade my former partner in crime from pursuing this further.
I shut the file without reading on. It’s harder than I imagine, still I manage it with as much indifference as I can muster. “Not interested.”
I slide the folder across the desk to where Celia has perched herself. My pulse quickens as my fingers let go of Alayna’s profile. I’m itching to scrutinize it with an obsessive pull that I haven’t felt in years. Jordan will find the same information, I remind myself. I can wait. Patience has always been one o
f my most admirable traits.
Celia takes the folder into her hands. I try not to focus on it any longer, but my eyes flit to it more than once.
She stands. “I guess I was wrong then.” Her tone says she doesn’t believe that for a minute. “I’ll have to keep this little prize for myself. You really are out of the game, aren’t you?”
Celia’s almost as good at manipulating as I am. It is both a blessing and a curse that I know her as well as I do—I can predict every move before she makes it. Unfortunately, she can also predict mine. She’s the greatest chess opponent I’ve ever had.
I try to discern her next move now, or, rather, the move she predicts I’ll make. She’s letting me off too easy, which means she’s not really letting me off at all. She wants me to ask her what she means to do with Alayna, and since that’s what she wants, it’s the one question I can’t ask. Yet it’s the one burning at me most.
On top of what I know she wants me to do, I have my own agenda: Whatever she has planned, I have to stop her. It’s not an altruistic motive—it goes back to the not wanting to share. I don’t want Celia to do anything to Alayna Withers because I want her all to myself. What I want her for has yet to be determined. I don’t have any urge to play the woman. But I yearn to connect with her in some way and whatever that way is, it’s not to include Celia.
So I have my work cut out for me in how I respond to my old friend. Terminate her plans without seeming to care what they are. I sit back in my chair and meet her eyes. “I’m out of the game, Celia. You know this. When will you accept that?”
I’m practiced in remaining aloof even when high stakes are on the line. I’ve often wondered if I could pass a polygraph test without being completely honest. I don’t intend to ever be in the position to find out, but it is a curiosity of mine.
Celia laughs. “I’ll never accept it, Hudson. I’d have to believe that people could change, and I don’t believe that. Not fundamentally. Sooner or later you’ll realize that it’s killing you. You thrive on your experiments. They gave you reason to live. What else could replace that?”
Hudson Page 3