“You’re speechless.” Her eyes are wide but also bright. She lets out a laugh. “God, I’ve never seen you like this.”
“Neither have I.”
“Wow.” She brings her hand to cover her mouth, suppressing another awkward laugh. “I’m so surprised. Forgive me if I seem flustered. I’m just really, really surprised.”
“You’re not the only one.” My eyes dart back to the restroom as another woman goes in. Alayna still hasn’t emerged.
“And she’s in love with you too?” Celia calls my attention back with this question.
This I don’t hesitate to answer. “I really think she is.” I know she is. There’s not a doubt in my mind, and I want to shout it from every rooftop.
“I think you’re right. The way she looks at you…” Celia sighs. Then her eyes crinkle in distrust. “You promise you aren’t trying to pull one over on me? You really feel something for her?”
It’s funny how she’s as suspicious of me as I am of her. “I promise. This is the real thing.” Now, the most important thing. “Which is why I can’t play this game anymore.”
I brace myself for her reaction, holding my breath as I wait.
“Of course not.” Her expression says she’s appalled that I even mentioned the game. “I mean, I knew you were into her, but I thought it was just sex and that’s why I was pushing you to keep playing. I had no idea it was serious.”
I’m not sure what she’s saying. “Are you…okay…with this then?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? You mean because of the scheme? Is that why you were so distant during dinner? Did you think I’d be upset about this?”
It’s my turn to be shocked. “You’ve never been one to drop an experiment.”
“No, I haven’t. But this is a totally different situation.” She bites her lip. “I’m worried it’s too late though. We’ve already pushed her too far.”
I tense. “What do you mean?”
“In the bathroom just now. She…” She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “It’s probably nothing, but she cornered me. Verbally attacked me.”
My stomach knots. I’d thought I’d eased Alayna enough regarding me and Celia, but apparently I haven’t. “What did she say?”
She shakes her head dismissively. “It doesn’t matter what she said exactly. But she was possessive. It seemed to be a repeat of behavior straight out of her file. I think she may already be relapsing.”
I don’t believe this in the least. Alayna’s issues all stem from my own secretive relationship with Celia. It’s a natural response, not a relapse. “I’m not concerned about it.”
“You’re not concerned? But if she needs therapy—”
“If she needs therapy, I’ll get it for her. What she really needs is reassurance.” I can see that Celia is skeptical. “Look—you’re the ex-girlfriend in her eyes. Isn’t it common to have some jealousy in that arena?”
“Yes. I suppose you’re right. Forget I said anything. She loves you, and she’s protecting what’s hers.” She dabs at the corner of her eye, and it’s then I notice she’s teary. “I’m sorry; I wasn’t prepared for all this. I’m a little flustered.”
I’m equally unprepared. I’d expected lashing out and defiance. Not tears. I place a hand on her upper arm. “Celia…are you okay?”
She waves a hand at her face. “I’m fine. I’m touched. Jesus, what’s going on with this world? Hudson Pierce falling in love, and me getting touched by it. Who would have thought?” She looks down at her shoes. “This is a good thing, though. Surprising, but good.”
The relief that fills me spreads through every fiber of my body. I’d been convinced Celia would not approve of my recent emotional developments. She was as die-hard about the game as I was.
Wasn’t she? Or had I simply assumed she shared my own commitment?
I remember back to the night she told me she was still holding out for a man to sweep her off her feet. It was five years ago, possibly six. I haven’t thought about it in some time, and now I wonder if she’d been holding onto that desire all this time. And if she has been, what’s the reason that she hasn’t looked for it? Is it me? Have I been holding her back, keeping her bound to this ridiculous romance-free notion of a life?
How many times have I ruined this woman’s life? Can the mess I’ve made ever be undone? It’s small retribution, but I give her the permission that I suspect she’s waiting for. “Maybe it’s time for you to let love in as well.”
She rolls her eyes. “Pssh.” Then she considers, letting the suggestion settle over her. “Maybe,” she concedes finally. She thinks about it another few seconds before shaking her head. “But let’s not talk about me right now. Does Alayna know about…?” She looks around to make sure no one’s listening and then lowers her voice. “You haven’t told her, have you?”
I know what she’s talking about without her spelling it out. The game. The experiment that brought Alayna into my life in the first place. The weight of this secret slumps my shoulders. “No. I don’t think I can.”
“You can’t.” She’s adamant, her eyes ablaze with her insistence. “Not if you want to keep her. Trust me on this. I’ve been scammed by you before. There’s no way she’ll love you after that.”
This isn’t news. But the confirmation coming from the one person who could possibly understand Alayna’s position is jarring. I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to believe that there is anything that could make me lose Alayna’s love.
Celia steps toward me, her expression regretful. “I’m not saying that to upset you. I just—”
“I know.” I don’t need Celia to feel bad about this. “It’s the truth. I have to keep it from her. It’s only you and me that know—”
“And I won’t tell her.”
It hadn’t crossed my mind that she would, but now I have to secure that she won’t. “I hate to ask this, but do you swear that?”
“I swear, Hudson. Not only because you asked me not to, but because it’s the code. We don’t speak about the game to anyone. Even if we’re not playing anymore, old rules apply.”