We were talking in circles, and it was exhausting. I’d thought for sure that seeing Celia would make me want to play again. Strangely, it hadn’t. Instead, I saw how desperate and futile the experiments were. Here we were after all of our games, and with all the data and experience we’d collected, all we had between us was the next play. It wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t—to use my own words—real.
Our relationship had to change. I saw that now. I’d said I wouldn’t quit our friendship, but I didn’t say to what extent I’d remain in contact. It would have to be limited, I realized. Family and business gatherings. Places where we couldn’t talk and scheme. It wasn’t only me I was protecting. Maybe, if we didn’t see each other very often, maybe Celia would quit too.
Okay, I wasn’t trying to save her, but wouldn’t it be admirable if I did? Stripped of my superpowers, I was grasping for something—anything—to make me special rather than just an epic ass**le.
Spending more time with Celia wasn’t going to help with that. “I have to go, Ceely.” I stood then turned to face her. “But, yes, I do want you to have what you want. I hope that someday you want something different than this.”
She followed me, getting to her feet. “How patronizing.”
I sighed. “I’m not trying to patronize. I’m trying to be honest.”
“If we’re being honest, can I ask something?”
She tapped her French-tipped nail against her chin. “Would blackmail work? To keep you playing, I mean.”
A chill ran down my spine. I was stunned by her suggestion. Shocked. More than a little pissed. “Well, that really is honest, isn’t it?” I eyed her carefully, looking for a sign that she might be bluffing. She did know my secrets, but would she really threaten to use them against me?
I saw none of her usual tells. While I felt a smidgeon of pride—oh, I’d taught her well—I mostly felt challenged. And I didn’t like to be challenged, therapy or not. “I believe I have as much on you, Celia, as you could have on me.”
A satisfactory smile slid across her lips. “Then we’re agreed—our secrets are safe?”
“As long as it’s mutual, then my lips are sealed.”
“Then mine are too.”
I left her apartment with more clarity than when I’d arrived. As much as I shouldn’t engage with Celia Werner any further, I knew now that I could never cut her completely from my life. For one, I wasn’t certain if she was actually a friend or a foe. And there was that old adage about keeping friends close and enemies closer.
But there was another thing—without the game, losing Celia would leave me entirely alone. And loneliness was one emotion I most desperately didn’t want to learn.
Simply making the decision to tell Alayna the truth takes away a good portion of my fear. I no longer have to debate and war with myself. I no longer have to hide, and I’m anxious to be with her again. So when I wrap up my business in L.A. earlier than I expected, I decide to fly back and surprise the woman I love. Yes, it means my secret will be exposed sooner than if I hadn’t pulled my weight to get my meetings scheduled on a Sunday, aka “off hours,” but I’m ready.
What I’m not ready for is the greeting that meets me when I arrive at The Sky Launch later that evening. I’d known she’d be here for David’s going away party, and, eager to see her, I headed straight over after landing. It had taken a few minutes to find her. She wasn’t with the rest of the guests who were mostly mingling by the bar and on the dance floor.
Instead, she’s tucked away in a corner. But she is dancing. Slow dancing. In David’s arms.
I watch them, mesmerized, unable to look away like is often the case when met with something horrible. Neither of them notice me, and from my vantage, I can’t see Alayna’s face. But I can see David’s. His eyes are closed, but his expression is tender and forlorn. He seems to be whispering into her ear—singing perhaps. If I ever doubted that he had feelings for her, I don’t now.
It’s simply a dance, I tell myself. Then he’s going away. It’s likely her way of saying goodbye. If I were a different man, I’d give them privacy.
But I’m not a different man. I’m this one. And I’m thoroughly possessive. So I’m still watching when they stop moving and make eye contact. And I see when he leans forward and kisses her.
It’s a moment of revelation. The first moment I feel absolute pain. There’s a wave of panic, accompanied by this crushing weight against my chest. It takes away all ability to move. All ability to breathe.
She pushes him away, and I should be grateful. But I’m still caught in the before. It replays in my head as if on constant repeat—her in his arms, his mouth against hers. Against the mouth that is mine. He doesn’t love her like I do. He can’t. It’s impossible. His feelings are small and inconsequential compared to the immense affection for her that travels through my body with one beat of my heart. He would have never let her go if he felt how I do.
And now another new emotion—I want to hurt David. I want him dead. For daring to touch the woman that doesn’t belong to him. For attempting to steal what is so very clearly mine. My hands are fists at my side, and I’m imagining the ways I want to punish him, ways that can never equate to the pain I feel inside.
The betrayal is really hers, but I don’t want to hurt her. I want to pull her into me, into my very soul, so that she can see how I feel about her, see how this rips me up. Tie her to me so completely that she can’t ever be out of my control. This was why I sent David away in the first place. This is why I hold on to her as tightly as I do. This is why I doubt her when she says she means forever. If she can wound me like this now, then how easily will she leave me when it’s warranted?
It’s a fragment of my greatest fear realized—she loves me, but she doesn’t love me enough.
I’m barely aware of when they discover my presence. I hear her say my name. Hear her tell me that it’s not what it looks like.
It doesn’t matter what it looks like. I know exactly what it is—it’s the worst moment of my life so far. And I know it’s only the beginning.
“Maybe we should discuss this in a more private setting,” I manage. She agrees, and painful minutes later, we’re alone in the employee office.