Hudson (Page 101)

Hudson (Fixed #4)(101)
Author: Laurelin Paige

“I imagine he’d be devastated just to learn he no longer holds controlling interest. For now, the fact is still hidden. He has no idea that he’s no longer in charge. Would you like that to change?”

“No,” she says.

“Do you plan on doing anything that might cause me to alter my current business plan?”

Her shoulders sag. “No.”

“Then yes, it’s checkmate.”

We sit silently for several minutes. It’s been a long battle. And this is the official end of our friendship. It deserves some mourning. Memories flip through my mind like a bunch of stills in a photo slideshow. Some are from so long ago, I can’t date them accurately. Others so imprinted in my soul I’ll never forget the details. Her winning backhand stroke in a game of tennis that had been so close. The bottle of champagne we opened at the end of our first successful play. Her hand on my back, and her soft, sincere confession—I love you.

This is all the time I’ll spend grieving for what we once were. It’s brief, but I let myself feel it.

Eventually, she stands. “I guess it’s time for me to go.”

“It is. I’ll walk you out.”

I check my watch as we cross the floor together. I need to leave for my parents’ in half an hour or so. Today is Mirabelle’s planned intervention. A day of hard words, I think. And hard emotions. It’s as if I can make up for a lifetime of non-feeling in just a few days’ time. It’s something I hope to never have to do again.

I open the door for Celia and hold it wide for her to cross past me. She doesn’t look at me as she does. Or I don’t look at her. I’m not sure which. I start to shut it behind her when my gaze hits something unexpected—a duffel bag on the floor. It’s Alayna’s. I’m sure of it.

Or is that wishful thinking?

No, it’s hers. I packed it for her on our trip to the Poconos. But what is it doing here?

A sudden burst of anticipation shoots through me, and I scan the room, hoping against all hopes that I’ll see what I so want to see.

I do.

My eyes lock on hers. She’s kneeling on the floor at the threshold to the bedroom. Her posture suggests that she’s not here to stay, that she didn’t want me to know she was even here at all—the duffel is misleading. Still, I’m elated. I’ve missed seeing her face, missed connecting with her even on such a base level.

I’m desperate to stay and talk to her. Eager to find out why she’s here. And, I realize suddenly, she’s seen the ending of me and Celia. I couldn’t have wished for her to witness anything else that might better prove my love for her.

But though I’m desperate and eager and so yearning to stay, I know that if I do, I’ll never get out of here in time for my mother. It’s an obligation I can’t ignore. Something I need to do before I can say my demons are slayed, and I’m able to be the man that Alayna might be able to call hers again.

I’m not the only one who’s not ready—she’s not ready either. I feel it deep in my soul. She needs more time to process, and rushing it will do me no good for the long-term.

So I have to hold on to this moment to get me through. Hold on to the love that still shines so clearly in her eyes and hope that it can eventually be enough.

“Hold the elevator,” I call after Celia without looking away from my precious Alayna. It’s always so hard to leave her. But right now, I’m feeling strong, and I shut the door behind me.

Celia’s waiting in the elevator holding the door open button. I step inside, and the door closes. We travel silently for several seconds before she says, “Well, this is awkward.”

Honestly, I’ve forgotten she is even there. I’m still back in the loft, my heart and my mind fixed on Alayna. I pull myself from there to the present. “Is it really? I haven’t ever lost this big. I wouldn’t know.” I blame my condescension on the rush from discovering our eavesdropper. But I may have been just as cocky had Alayna gone unseen.

Celia does not seem to appreciate it. “You’re an ass**le.”

“It’s a fraction of what you deserve.” The smallest fraction, though, and I try not to dwell on the list of myriad worse things I could do to her. It’s satisfying to contemplate but more focused on the negative than I’d like to be.

Celia crosses her arms over her chest and eyes me. “You know, my father is going to retire someday. What will you have over me then?”

I roll my eyes. “Please. Your father’s going to work until he dies. I give him another twenty years, at least. If you’re still holding on to a revenge plot at that time…well, I don’t think you could call anything you do a win then. You aren’t that pathetic.”

A sideways glance at her says that maybe she is that pathetic. The idea of her still perpetuating this scheme against us years from now enrages me. I level my gaze at her and steel my voice. “But if you need further reason to drop this game, let me give one to you. I tied your hands legally. I’d prefer not to use other methods to stop you, but hear this—I’d kill for Alayna if it came down to it. Please don’t test me on that.”

She shrugs dismissively. “It was only a question. I didn’t mean anything by it. The game is over, and I’m bored with you both.” She purses her lips. “I certainly hypothesized incorrectly on this one, didn’t I? I’d never have pegged you for a hero.”

It’s a backhanded compliment, and it makes me smile inwardly. She’s not alone. I certainly never would have bet on me to fall in love.

But wait—why was she pegging me at all? “Who exactly was your subject on this experiment, Celia?”

The doors open, and she exits without answering. Stunned by my realization, I’m a few steps behind her. I’m not about to run her down, but I call after her again. “Celia?”

Surprisingly, she turns back. “What?”

I close the distance between us, my heart that had skipped a beat a moment before now racing. “You were never really playing Alayna, were you? It was me. You were playing me.”

The spark in her eyes say I’ve hit the nail on the head.

The pieces fit together suddenly: the reason why she was so reluctant to let this one go—Alayna was only the pawn. All along, Celia had been studying my emotions, my behavior. It was me that was the subject of her scheme.

It’s ridiculous that I haven’t seen this before, that I never expected it. Didn’t she owe this to me all along? I deserved her retaliation. Sleeping with my father was punishment, but it never equated to the kind of manipulation I’d put her through. This though—this does. Questions race through my mind. How many years has she planned this? Did she want me to fall in love? Or was her goal to prove I actually couldn’t? Did she want me to hurt, or just know how it felt to be deceived? Would she have played me if I hadn’t quit? Was this always her goal? Was our entire friendship really just a long game?