So I don’t mention the symphony to Alayna. “I’m not sure. I have to fly to Cincinnati tonight.” I frown. “And I am not your boss.”
“Cincinnati? Tonight?” She sounds disappointed.
“Yes, tonight. I have a meeting first thing in the morning. My jet’s leaving early evening.” My mother has invited us to the beach house later that week. That I’ll be unable to get out of. “I’ll text you later to arrange the Hamptons. We’ll leave Friday afternoon.”
“So you’ll be gone all week?”
“I’m not sure yet.” I’m supposed to be back by Wednesday, but I don’t tell her that. It’s best for both of us if she thinks I’m not in town.
“Oh.” She sounds disappointed. But I’ve turned everything off now. Years of not feeling and it’s old hat to return to numb. So it doesn’t hurt when we arrive at her place and she gets out of the car.
Or maybe it does hurt, but it’s so deep inside, buried so far, that I find a way to ignore it.
I can’t ignore her pain though. It’s written all over her face, all over her carriage. I call her back before she’s gone too far. “Thank you for today. I think you’ve truly made an impression on my mother. Good work.” It’s nothing of what I want to say, but it’s all I allow myself.
Then Jordan drives away, and instead of thinking about all that I’m leaving behind, I concentrate on what is waiting before me until all my emotion—all my rage and anger and bitterness—is focused on Celia.
The fashion show has started when I return to the Manhattan Center. I know where Celia’s sitting, thank God, and I’m grateful that it’s near the back of the room. When I reach her, I tap her on the shoulder to get her attention then not so gently assist her up from her chair. She doesn’t fight me as I escort her to the lobby and to the coatroom. It’s summer, so it’s not in use.
I can’t help but think of the last coatroom I was in. It was with Alayna at The Sky Launch—I’d barely been able to control my passion with her. Now it’s my temper that’s barely controlled.
After locating the light and shutting the door behind us, I turn on Celia. “What the f**k did you do?” My tone is threatening and wild.
She rolls her eyes at me. “Oh, chill out. I hadn’t had a chance to get to know our subject. I was simply feeling her out.” She takes a seat on the bench in the middle of the room.
“You told her my secrets.” Her lack of concern, her docile temperament, fuels me. She’s f**ked me over and isn’t at all afraid of my retaliation. I search for something she’ll find meaningful. “You practically ruined your own scheme by telling her something that we aren’t even supposed to talk about. Ever!” I’m yelling. It’s very unlike me. As if I’m not only feeling new emotions because of Alayna, but feeling old ones deeper and with less inhibition.
With only a mildly surprised look on her face, Celia starts a slow, exaggerated clapping. “Wow, Hudson. You’re angry. I’m impressed.”
She’s pushing my fury. But her recognition of my temper puts me in check. Emotions, I remember, make people weak. I’m extremely vulnerable in this situation, and Celia is not the person who should witness this.
I throw a hand through my hair and rein in my rage. “I get angry. This isn’t new.” I’m noticeably calmer, playing off my outburst.
“You never get this angry. If you do, you don’t let it show.” She places her palms on either side of her and leans back to study me. “Did that therapist of yours finally teach you how to feel?”
She’s poking at me, needling me, and in a flash of clarity, I understand what it’s like to be on the other end of a manipulative attack. The realization weakens me, and I have to sit. I fall on the bench next to Celia.
I have to get myself together. Get myself in the dominating position. I take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I’m just…out of practice at this. And you’re changing the rules without consulting me. I’m frustrated.” Another breath in and out.
“Understandable, I suppose.” She’s watching me with eagle eyes. “But I didn’t change the rules. I saw a flaw in our scenario and I improvised. Same as we always do.”
I’m cautious, but this piques my interest. “What flaw?”
She shifts so she’s angled toward me. “The girl is doe-eyed about you, Hudson. It’s obvious she’s going to fall apart over you, and while that’s the expectation, this was going to be entirely too easy.” She runs a finger between her brows. “So I injected a little challenge. That’s all.”
Another rush of emotion washes over me. I’m angry again. Angry that Celia is playing with Alayna like this, molding her, bouncing her back and forth. “Making the experiment more challenging? Since when was that something we’d aspired to?”
She shrugs. “This is your first game in a long time. I wanted to make it good for you.”
It’s plausible. Her motives could very well be to keep me interested. God knows she’s been trying to reel me back in for years.
But I know Celia better than that. The challenge is for her. And I’m still not entirely sure that was the reason for exposing me to Alayna. I just can’t determine her true aim.
More composed now, I attempt to figure it out. “That was quite a risk you took. She almost quit the whole thing.”
Celia delivers a confident smirk. “But she didn’t. Did she?”
“Only because I convinced her not to. If it hadn’t been for me, she would be gone.” A tug of guilt—I should have let her walk away. Whatever happens now between Celia and Alayna is my fault.
But wasn’t it always?
Celia crosses a leg over the other and clasps her hands at her knee. “If it hadn’t been for you, she wouldn’t be so enamored in the first place.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that the scheme would have worked more objectively if you hadn’t f**ked her.”
There it is—her true motive. She’s not happy about my personal relationship with Alayna. Is it jealousy? Or just pure spite? “You’ve never cared if I f**ked them before.”
“And I still don’t. Except when it messes with the hypothesis.” She stands, straightening her skirt as she does. Then she turns to face me. “Your extracurricular activities are your own business. Keep up your fun if you prefer. But realize that what you do with Alayna Withers outside our plan has the power to affect the outcome.”