It’s a gamble, I suppose, but it’s the best chance she has. Her credit cards and student loans have already been paid for, and the confirmations will be sent tomorrow. It’s the perfect time to end the charade, and then I won’t see her again. I’ll let our private affair seemingly fade away. Perhaps I can spend some time working at our overseas headquarters. It will be a good excuse to be gone from her life. Then I’ll hope—pray, even, and I’m not a praying man—that she doesn’t fall into past behaviors.
And if she does, I’ll offer whatever support I can anonymously. Celia will win her experiment, but I won’t let Alayna be damaged permanently. She’ll recover. I’ll merely be a bump in her road.
Celia stares at me. She’s trying to read me, trying to identify my angle. Finally, she asks, “Are you su—”
I cut her off. “Do you doubt my experience in these matters?” It’s hard enough as it is to stick to this plan. I don’t have the conviction to convince Celia too.
Fortunately, she backs down. “No. I don’t doubt you. It’s just so soon. I had expected we’d need more time.”
She’s almost there. Just one more push from me ought to do it.
So I push. “It is soon. Alayna gives her heart easily, it seems.” I have to look out the passenger window at this. It’s a lie, and I know it. Alayna doesn’t give her heart easily—she gives it fully. She doesn’t fall for just anyone. When she does, it’s her everything. That’s the reason behind her obsessive tendencies. I’ve learned that about her.
I won’t let Celia know that though. I’ve betrayed Alayna enough.
“And you?” Celia’s question hits the back of my head, but I feel its blunt force.
I’ve given my heart as well, though Alayna can’t possibly know. She owns it, fully and completely. Each beat that it spends away from her is the cadence of a death march. If there was anything to my life before her, its substance has faded in my memory. This—leaving her—this is a darkness that I’ve never witnessed.
But why did Celia even ask? She’s always been fully aware that I lacked heart. Does she sense something’s changed? Does she know I’m no longer the man she used to play with?
Or is it simply another one of her tricks?
I pull out my phone and busy myself with flipping through my screens as I answer her. “I’m not sure what you’re implying. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t have time for this charade anymore. I have a business I’m trying to run and a subsidiary company that I’m on the verge of losing. If you don’t mind, I need to focus my attention on that right now and not this silly game.”
Knowing Celia will assume I’m doing something for work, I type out a text message to Alayna. It’s painfully brief—Plexis crisis. I’ll call as soon as I can.
I won’t call. I’ll see her again to end things more formally, but it won’t be by phone.
We ride in silence for several minutes before Celia says quietly, “Maybe I was wrong about you.”
Her cryptic statement pulls my attention from my morose thoughts. I spend a few seconds trying to track the source of her remark and come up empty-handed. “What does that mean?”
She shrugs. “You’re too grown-up to play, I guess.”
I don’t believe that’s what she meant, but I don’t push her. I’d rather capitalize on the opening she’s just given me. “Too grown-up because I have a life and responsibilities? Yes, I am too grown-up. These experiments don’t have a place in my life any longer.”
“I don’t know about that,” she says as we turn into the airport. “We’ll see.”
Her words are ominous, but I don’t let them in. I’m cold. I’m steel. I’ve put on my mask now, the one I’ve worn for as long as I can remember. I used to wear it to hide that I don’t feel. Now I wear it to hide that I do.
I throw all my energy into saving Plexis, and it isn’t enough. The company is sold out from under me. I’m not surprised. My proposals were spot on, but my presentation was mediocre. I’m off my game, my attention divided. I wonder how long I’ll be split like this—half of me in the current moment, half of me always with her. While all of this is unfamiliar to me, I’ve studied enough breakups to see that there is recovery for most individuals.
I’m certain that I am not most individuals.
I linger in Cincinnati for most of Tuesday, not wanting to go home to Manhattan. Eventually, I have no more reason to stall, and I head home. I land in the evening. I’m disheveled and exhausted, but instead of heading home, I ask my driver to take me to The Sky Launch. There’s no use delaying seeing Alayna. I need to get our dissolution over with so I can move on.
I note the time when I arrive. It’s a little early for Alayna to be at work, but that’s better. If I’m already here when she arrives—going over business with David, perhaps—then my visit will appear casual. It will seem like my meeting with her is an afterthought. It should help her see that I believe anything that exists between us is mundane. Ordinary.
I’m not sure she’ll buy it. Honestly, I’m not sure I want her to.
But she has to. Because this is how things are now. This is how things have to be.
The club is dark as I enter. I head for the office—if David is here, that’s where he’ll be. The door is open when I approach, but as I enter the frame, I’m not prepared for the sight that meets me. David is here, but in his arms—Alayna.
They’re embracing, and it’s far too intimate to be a hug between friends. I can’t see her face, but the expression on his is one I can relate to. It’s adoration. It’s affection. It’s maybe even love.
Emotion shoots through my body at the sight. Jealousy, astonishment, scorn—the emotions mix into a toxic cocktail of rage. I’ve never been this worked up, this livid. My blood is boiling, my skin itching, and my gut feels like it’s been punched.
But I wear my mask. So David sees none of it when he sees me. Instead he sees cold and steel, which can be very intimidating, I’ve found.
Instantly, he lets Alayna go and backs away. “Hey, Pierce.”
Alayna spins, and her eyes meet mine. Hers are sparked with worry, with fear, and the blood drains from her face. Her concern softens the slightest bit. Not enough, though. I’m still consumed with my fury.