I fought the urge to kick him in the shins. “Paul, this is a bad idea. A really bad idea for me.”
He stepped toward me, a finger pointed in my direction. “You owe me. You owe me this at least. Don’t you think?”
Fuck. He had me there. Didn’t I owe him a whole shit load? Sure he’d been a dick at every opportunity, but that didn’t excuse the way I’d invaded his life. And paying him back, cleaning the slate—it sounded awfully appealing.
Against every warning siren blaring in my head, I said the words I hoped I didn’t live to regret. “All right.” I swallowed and said it again. “All right. I’ll pretend we just met.”
“Fine. You’ll be working mostly with Julia anyway. We won’t see each other. It shouldn’t be an issue.”
I put my hand over my churning stomach and nodded weakly.
“Alayna, hey!” The female voice came from the opposite direction of where Julia had gone.
I squinted toward the sound and found Celia making her way toward us. Really? Could this day get any more complicated? Or filled with people I wasn’t supposed to be with?
“What—what are you doing here?” My voice was dazed.
“You never called me for coffee and I didn’t have your number so I stopped by.”
I hadn’t called her because Hudson and I had agreed not to see her without each other. I certainly hadn’t expected her to show up out of the blue. And, how had she gotten in anyway? I frowned. The door had been locked and should have stayed locked after Julia let Paul in. Maybe they hadn’t shut the door hard enough.
“How did you know I was here?” Was my head muddled or was her appearance as baffling as Paul’s?
“Jordan told me.”
Of course. Her endless connections to Hudson’s life. Why was I even surprised anymore?
“Is something wrong?” Concern laced Celia’s question.
“No…I…well.” My head hurt, my stomach hurt, my mouth was dry and I felt shaky. “Everything’s fine.”
I followed Celia’s questioning glance to Paul. Oh, yeah. Fucking Paul. “Celia this is a potential business associate, Paul Kresh.” I turned to Paul, unable to look him in the eye. “This is a friend of my boyfriend’s, Celia Werner.”
Paul’s brow rose. “As in, Warren Werner?”
“Uh-huh.” Celia straightened at the mention of her father’s name, ready to be the show pony that she was raised to be.
Paul broke into a smile. “We did an event for your mother once. I didn’t actually talk to you, but I saw you around.”
“What company did you say you worked for?”
“Party Planners Plus. My girlfriend is the owner and I recently joined on board as her partner.” Paul’s eyes traveled toward the ramp. “Here she is now.” He turned his focus to his girlfriend. “Julia, this is Celia Werner. You remember when we did that event for Madge Werner.”
Julia’s eyes brightened. “Totally. It was at the MoMA last spring.”
“Ah, that was you? How nice to meet you. It turned out lovely, no matter what my mother said.”
Julia and Paul exchanged a glance that said there must have been a story behind the matter. Frankly, though I would usually be curious about the gossip regarding Celia’s mother, at the moment I couldn’t care less. There were too many conflicting pieces of my life trying to meet up in one place—Celia, Paul, trying to land my first great business deal for the club—once again, I felt the urge to throw up.
“I hope you don’t mind, but as Paul said, we’ve got to be running.” Julia smiled brightly. “It was so awesome to meet you.”
I did my best to recapture the enthusiasm I’d had earlier when it was just Julia and me. “You, too. I’ll draw up those packages and get back to you by tomorrow.”
Paul seemed ready to leave without saying anything to me until Julia cast him a stern look. “Yes, we look forward to working with you. A joint venture would be beneficial to both of us.”
I read his subtext, the reminder that I should go along with his ridiculous plan to pretend we were strangers. “I certainly hope so,” I said, my face plastered into a businesslike grin.
I held my breath until the door shut behind Julia and the unwelcome ghost of my past. Then I let it out in one slow exhalation.
“What in the hell was that about?”
One stressor gone, the other still stood by me. At least I couldn’t get arrested for speaking to Celia.
I headed up the ramp toward the main part of the club, hoping to somehow escape my anxiety attack.
“Laynie?” Celia pressed, following after me.
I shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You could cut the tension with a knife.”
I opened my mouth to deny it but what was the point? “Was it that obvious?”
“Yeah. It was. Wanna talk about it?”
I stopped walking and paused.
“Ooh, there’s hesitation.” Her eyes twinkled with the anticipation of gossip. “Let’s talk about it. But not here. Over coffee.”
I rubbed my fingers over my brows, trying to alleviate the throbbing behind my eyes. “All right.” I didn’t have the energy to argue or make up an excuse. Besides, I needed a drink, and since it was too early for liquor, coffee would make a fine replacement.
“Great! I’m sure you need to lock up. I’ll head to the coffee shop next door and get us a table.”
Fifteen minutes later, Celia and I were seated at my favorite cafe in Columbus Circle. I’d already downed a third of my iced double espresso and was realizing that maybe caffeine was exactly the opposite of what I needed because now my shakiness had increased to full-on jitters.
Celia had so far filled the conversation with easy topics that I was able to respond to with only one- or two-word sentences. Meanwhile, my head spun, unable to concentrate on any one thing for any length of time. The one thing I was sure of was that I shouldn’t be having coffee with Celia Werner. Should. Not.
“So who was the guy?”
I rocked back and forth in my chair. “No one. A client.”
“That’s a lie and you know it. There was all that weird vibe stuff going on.”
Her eyes bore in to me, but I was unwilling to give anything except a one-shouldered shrug. What would I tell her, anyway? Hudson didn’t even want me talking to her, let alone telling her big important things. And if I did explain about Paul, what if she told Hudson?