“Thank you.” I look again toward the restrooms, but my thoughts are on Celia. She has a streak of darkness in her that I can’t deny. She’s a sadist. While my experiments were always a sterile study of human behavior and emotion, she repeatedly felt glee at the expense of others. It’s made me wary of her.
Yet, even though I’m the one who taught and nurtured her perverse nature, she’s never turned it back on me. Time and time again, she’s stood by me, been my only confidant, shared the deepest bond in the keeping of our ruthless secrets.
And now, she’s supporting me in a way that I’d never expected. Letting me move on when I always held her back. “You’ve been a better friend than I’ve given you credit for.”
“Back at you.” She squeezes my hand. “A really good friend, Hudson. You saved me, you know.”
I meet her eyes. They’re still watery, and she blinks several times, probably trying to keep her tears from spilling. It occurs to me that I owe Celia the same acknowledgment. If not for her pushing me to the game, I wouldn’t have Alayna now. I don’t have the time or the words to explain the extent of my gratitude, so I simply say, “You saved me too.”
She squeezes my hand once more before letting it go. “I have to go back. Good luck, Hudson. I mean that.” Then she leaves.
Alayna and Mirabelle appear with impeccable timing. The ache that always fills me when Alayna’s not with me eases at the sight of her. But my mind is tied up in the encounter with Celia. Long after we’ve left the restaurant and are buckled in the back of the limo, I’m replaying phrases, coming to a fuller understanding of truths that were exposed in our brief conversation.
I dwell most on what I’ve done to Celia throughout our friendship. And also on what I’ve done to Alayna, what I’m still keeping from her. These thoughts send me into a spiral of self-loathing and deprecation that I haven’t ever experienced. Not at this level.
When we arrive at the penthouse, I’m so consumed in myself that I send Alayna away, telling her I have work to do. I can’t be with her when I’m like this. She doesn’t deserve this. I don’t deserve her. Still I won’t let her go. I can never let her go, no matter how unworthy I am.
But how long before she discovers the worst of me and leaves? More and more, I feel the inevitability of that day. And then will it destroy her like it destroyed Celia? I can’t bear the thought.
The cursor blinks on the empty document open on my computer screen, keeping me locked in my pitiful trance as the night passes. I’m aware of Alayna in the background—always aware of her. She runs on the treadmill, her music blaring through the house stereo as she does. She showers. Then the house quiets, and I assume she’s gone to bed.
Lyrics from one of the songs she played stays with me—a woman’s voice singing about her darkness, wondering if her lover could love her dark side. It’s apropos, and I wonder if Alayna realizes it. I wonder if my distance tonight has pushed her away already. I don’t want to push her away; I want to pull her in.
Then what the f**k am I doing sitting alone at my desk?
I shake my head at my stupidity. I’d told her earlier that I was with her. Always with her. It was a promise that I’ve already broken because here I am wrapped in my self-hate, and that’s miles away from her and her love.
I turn off my computer and go to her. Undressing quickly, I slip into the covers and spoon behind her. She’s naked, and I know that it’s an invitation. So, though she’s sleeping, I wrap my hands around her torso and kiss along the angles of her body.
She sighs into me, opening her legs for me so I can slip my c**k into her warmth. We make love like this, quietly, intently. In this silent act of passion, she brings me back—back to the man that can be trusted and loved and present.
Afterward, when we’ve found our breathing, when we’ve found each other, she asks, “Where did you go? Earlier.”
I nuzzle against her. “Does it matter? I’m here now.”
She wants more, words that I can’t give, promises that she’s not ready to hear, walls to crumble that are too strongly built. There are things I can’t tell her—not yet, not ever—but there are also things I can say. I pull her underneath me, stretching my body on top of her so she can feel the weight of my company. So that everywhere our skin meets, she can feel I’m with her.
I rock into her and begin whispering in the language of love. “Mon amour. Mon précieux,” I say at her ear. “Mon chéri. Mon bien-aimé.” My love. My precious. My cherished. My beloved.
I tell her this over and over in between kisses as I roll in and out of her. I tell her that I’m with her. Always with her. With all that I can give her. With every part of me that matters—the places that she’s awakened, the dark corners that she’s lit with her love.
I can’t give her all of me, but I can do this. I pray that it’s enough.
Celia’s voice on the other end of my office line surprises me. I haven’t spoken to her since my mother’s birthday four days before, but it isn’t the length of time between then and now that throws me. It’s the tone in her voice. There’s something I can’t identify beneath that one word. Something…off.
My body tenses immediately. “What’s wrong?”
“I need to see you. Now.”
I have a business meeting and two phone calls left before my day is over. Then I hope to convince Alayna to join me on my trip to Japan to try to win back Plexis. “Now’s not good, Celia. Can I call you tonight?”
“No. It’s urgent.” Her voice is tight with emotion. “It’s Alayna.”
She won’t tell me more than that, insisting that she has to see me face-to-face. There have been many times that Celia has snapped her fingers expecting me to jump. I rarely obeyed. This time, I do. Not only because she’s said the magic word—Alayna—but because her demeanor is so completely foreign. It’s fragile and fearful. These are traits I haven’t seen from my old friend since she lost her baby ten years ago.
I ask my secretary to cancel my afternoon and am out of the office within seven minutes. My mind wants to jump to conclusions, wants to settle on the worst possible reasons for this impromptu meeting, but I don’t allow myself to think about anything but getting to The Bowery. Celia’s riled me up so completely that I didn’t even argue when she declared the meeting place as my penthouse. Though, as I take the elevator up, I remind myself once again that I need to take away her key.