“How did you…?”
“I pay people to know things, Alayna.”
More tears fall. “I…I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself.”
“Please, don’t do it again.” I’m ripped apart. I want to pull her in my arms, not admonish her.
Her forehead wrinkles in confusion. “Why are you being like this?”
“Like what?” I’m as confused as she is. Was I too stern? I thought I’d been gentle. Well, as gentle as I could be without betraying us both.
But she’s sobbing now. “I’ve f**ked things up, Hudson! You should be calling your security to escort me out. I’m a mess, and you’re taking it all in stride.”
I step toward her, hating the space between us. “No.” God, how I want to touch her. “That’s what I meant about being around someone who understands. I know about compulsion. I know about having to do things you know you shouldn’t.”
Not able to help myself, I reach forward and wipe a tear from her cheek, my hand lingering there longer than necessary. “When you feel you can’t help yourself, talk to me first.”
Am I deluding myself? Thinking that somehow we could be like this together—healing each other, fixing each other? Is it really that far-fetched? If I forget about Celia and the game and only concentrate on us—on me and Alayna—it almost seems…possible.
She meets my gaze, and I think she feels the same. Where could this take us? I wonder…
But then my secretary’s voice echoes over the intercom. “Mr. Pierce, your one-thirty is here.”
Reality enters and I remember that the space between us is for her own good. I sigh and drop my hand from her face. I miss the warmth of her skin already. “I apologize for cutting this short, Alayna, but I have another meeting now. And I’m leaving again this evening.”
She doesn’t hide her disappointment, though I’m not sure which part of what I’ve said bothers her. Then she says, “I hate that you’re leaving. It makes me feel a little distraught.”
I feel like a Christmas tree the way all my nerves light up at that small admission. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” I squeeze her hand. “Join me tomorrow night for the symphony.”
I’m selfish. I’m sadistic. I’m sending her to slaughter. But I’m elated because it’s less than thirty hours and I’ll be with her again.
The euphoria follows me through the rest of the day, and when Alayna texts me later, I answer. When her message asks, “Are you thinking of me?” I don’t hesitate and answer honestly, “Always.”
My plane is delayed leaving Chicago, and I’m late for the symphony. I’m anxious as I rush through the lobby at Lincoln Center. Not only am I eager to see Alayna, but I’m going crazy imagining all the shit Celia could have stirred up in my absence. Luckily, Madge and Warren are also in attendance. Hopefully their presence will keep their daughter in check.
I enter our box just as the lights go down. Alayna’s back is to me, but even just the nape of her neck and the curve of her shoulders is enough to make my c**k twitch and my chest warm. I can tell that she’s wearing the dress I requested. Though I can’t see how she looks in it now, I know from memory how the long black gown hugs her curves, how the corset ties that lace up her back are going to be a bitch to untie when I strip her later.
Except I’m not stripping her later. I have to remember that’s not what she’s asked for.
My phone buzzes with an incoming text and I glance at it. It’s from Alayna. “Where are you?”
I slip down the steps to my chair and lean toward her to whisper in her ear as I sit. “Right beside you.”
The music begins as I nod a greeting to the Werners, but all I’m aware of is Alayna. The look of her, the warmth of her, the smell of her—it’s all consuming. She doesn’t want anything but the pretend between us, but I take her hand and justify it as a part of the show for Celia’s parents. I hold it, clinging to her touch until intermission. If this is all I have of her, I’ll soak up every last bit.
We do well with our performance as a couple. The Werners seem to buy our relationship. I’m concerned when Alayna accompanies Celia and Madge to the restroom, but I can’t do anything to prevent them from using the facilities. My eyes dart from Warren to the box entrance the entire time they’re gone.
Warren notices. “Ah, young love,” he says. “I remember when I couldn’t stand being without Madge. In fact, forget young—I still feel that way.”
I nod. Love, he said. I spin the word in my head. It has no meaning to me. The way he seems to feel about his wife is nothing I’ve ever witnessed between my parents. And, yes, I’m keen to have Alayna by my side again. But that’s not called love. Is it?
When they return from the bathroom, Alayna seems on edge. She’s needy, touching me as often as she can. She slides her hand under my suit jacket, and I’m hopeful that it means she may be willing to give us another chance.
But if she is, it’s a bad idea for me to pursue it, and an even worse idea to let Celia know. So I limit my contact with Alayna to hand-holding, even though I am just as desperate to touch her as it seems she is to touch me. As the music plays, I convince myself a million times that I will not take her back to the loft. And just as many times, I convince myself I will. Whichever will win, I don’t know, but at least Celia won’t be privy to it.
After the concert, we all walk to the parking garage together. I keep my arm around Alayna, but I can’t look at her. The touching is supposed to be show, but if she peers into my eyes, I’m afraid she’ll see how very real this all is for me. I’m afraid it will be witnessed by my partner in crime. It’s a balancing act that I manage but only barely.
At my car, I put Alayna in the passenger seat and then say goodbye to the Werners. Celia leans in to hug me. “You’ve backed off. I’m impressed,” she whispers in my ear.
“I could say the same.” I whisper back, though I doubt that she’s backed off anything and I’m not at all impressed. She laughs. My gut constricts at the sound. She takes such pleasure in this game while I’m struggling, playing both sides.
But I don’t want to think about Celia any longer. Now I get to be alone with Alayna, and I have to decide what that’s going to mean.
We’re quiet as we drive out of the garage, snippets of the symphony replaying in my mind. I use this time to let go of the tension the evening has caused. I also resume the internal war—do I take her to her home or to the loft? From what I can read of Alayna, she’s equally conflicted. Since she’s unaware of all the risks involved in our relationship, it’s up to me to make the informed decision.