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Authors: Laurelin Paige

Hudson

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HUDSON

A Fixed Trilogy companion book

by Laurelin Paige

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

© 2014 by Laurelin Paige

ISBN: 978-0-9913796-2-0

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

First edition July, 2014.

The following story contains mature themes, strong language, and sexual situations. It is intended for adult readers.

“I can easily divide my life into two parts—before her and after.”

Chapter One

I sign in on the form and hand the clipboard back to the volunteer manning the desk.

The young man’s brows rise in recognition of my name. “Mr. Pierce!” He stands from his seat and sticks out his hand to shake mine. “I didn’t expect it would be you representing Pierce Industries. I thought you’d send someone.”

I shake his hand, out of politeness, then force a stiff smile. “Surprise.” God, I hate small talk. Especially from this twenty-two year old ass-kisser who likely hopes this interaction will earn him employment at my company. I’m afraid it’s not that easy to even get an interview.

He lowers his focus to the nametags on the table, searching for the one with the Pierce Industries logo. He hands it to me, and I pocket it. I refuse to wear it. I’m easily enough recognized without advertising it.

The man—nothing more than a boy, really—seems disappointed. Whether it’s because I’m not as charismatic or charming as he’d imagined or because I dismissed the damn nametag, I can’t be certain. Frankly, I don’t give a shit. Once upon a time, his emotions would have elicited more interest from me. Now, they’re barely a blip on my radar. I’ll never understand them. No point in wasting my time trying.

His smile is professional as he gives me the portfolio for the evening’s presentation. At the same time, I feel a small hand press into my back. I tense. I know that hand.

I glance behind me, confirming my suspicion as I start toward the lecture hall. “What are you still doing here? I gave you what you wanted.”

“I’m already here. I thought I’d stay.” As she trots to keep up with me, Celia’s heels echo on the marble floor of the Kauffman Management Center, the house of NYU’s Stern School of Business.

I stop at the door to the hall and turn to her. “You weren’t invited.”

Her lids flutter ever so slightly, and I know my words have stung. “Youcould invite me. We rarely see each other anymore.” She lowers her voice. “I miss you.”

My jaw ticks, and I let out a slow breath. Celia is the one person I’ve been advised not to spend time with. She’s also the one person who understands me better than anyone else. It’s a war I wage daily—being with her is akin to being a drunk in a liquor store. She tempts me to indulge in wicked ways, even if she doesn’t intend to. And I’m certain that she usuallydoesintend to.

But she’s my only friend, if that’s what you would call our relationship. Without her, I’m all alone.

“Fine; you’re invited,” I resign. I open the door and hold it for her to walk through. “I don’t know why you want to be here. These things are boring as hell.”

I follow her down a row toward the back of the room and take two seats in the middle. The hall is small, and there are less than ten other corporate representatives currently seated. We could easily move closer, but Celia knows me well enough to understand that I prefer to be removed from situations such as these.

She leans toward me, the scent of her too-strong designer perfume pervading my space. “If it’s boring, why do you even come? You could send someone who’s twenty rungs down the ladder from you.”

I pause, deciding if I want to explain. The annual Stern Symposium is the only event of its type that I attend. While the majority of the presentations are dull, I’ve found a handful of stellar students in the mix. A good find is rare and not worth the two hours I spend here every year, but that isn’t the reason I continue to show up. Any of my execs could come in my place and be a better use of time management.

Still, I insist on coming myself. Partly, I’m curious. I want to know the ideas and trends emerging from the top schools. It’s an attempt to stay in touch, to remind myself how to be fresh and innovative like the MBA graduates that will present tonight.

There’s also another reason I attend, a reason that’s less tangible and harder to put into words. It’s been eight years since I finished my own business degree. Then I went straight to managing my father’s company. I’ve become known for my cutting edge corporate decisions, my contemporary workplace vision. But the truth of the matter is that everything was handed to me. I never had to fight for it or earn it like the students we will soon see. I’m ambitious and intelligent, but they have a passion and a fortitude that is intriguing. It inspires me. Most of them will do anything to make it to the top. They want to be me, to have what I have. They look up to me to show them how to get there.

And I look up to them.

Celia would never understand, so I simply say, “You never know what gems you might find.” I pick up the portfolio from my lap and flip through it absently as I speak. “Don’t blame me, though, when you have to fight to stay awake. And don’t even think of trying to get me to leave.”

“I won’t do either. I’ll be a good girl.”

My eyes dart to her legs as she crosses one over the other. They’re attractive, I’ll admit. She’s attractive. I’d be a liar if I said otherwise. But I am not attracted to her in that way. Not at all. It’s likely a symptom of my inability to love, though I do take interest in other women. Women I don’t know. I fuck them and have a good time, but that’s all. Celia is the only woman besides my mother and sister that I know on any sort of intimate level. And as if she were a family member, I have not a speck of desire for her.

“I’m only here to be with you, anyway,” she says now, wrapping her hand around my arm.

I flick my gaze toward her grasp, but don’t shrug her away. “Stop saying things like that, Celia.” As well as I know her, I’ve yet to understand her intentions by making statements such as this. She’s smart enough to realize that I will never return any affection, and strangely, I don’t think that’s what she’s after. She simply wants that same connection that I do—a kinship with someone who understands the dark fascinations that live inside her.

And I do understand her darkness. In fact, I’m fairly certain I birthed it in Celia. Time and again I try to remember if I saw it residing there before I subjected her to my cruel experiment. I can never be sure of the answer. How could I be expected to identify light when I dwell in total darkness myself? Now, even though I’mbetter, though I’ve resigned from the game, there is only black everywhere around me.

Still pretending to focus on the portfolio, I feel rather than see her look away.

“I’m sorry,” she says in a low voice. “I just…I don’t know.”

A moment of pity grips me. “You don’t have to explain. I understand.”

The lights dim, and the president of the business program takes the stage. I drop the folder onto my lap, having garnered very little information about the night’s presentations. I won’t learn anything from that, anyway. If there’s someone worth my time, I won’t know until I hear him or her speak.

After the president speaks, the first presentation begins. I know there will be six students in all. That doesn’t vary from year to year. Only the top students of the graduating class are invited to present. They are the cream of the crop. Stern isn’t Harvard, but it’s a Top Ten business school. These students are some of the nation’s best.

As I promised, though, the evening is a bore. Also true to her word, Celia doesn’t complain. She appears to be deep in thought, most likely concocting her next scam. The temptation to join her in scheming is great, but I push against the pull and focus my attention on the event. International trade seems to be the topic of the night, but there are a few differentiations—one talk is about the newest tax codes and how they can better benefit corporations. Snore. Another presents a variation on an old business model. It’s an original idea, but not practical.

By the time the fifth student finishes, I’ve met my limit. I nudge Celia out of her reverie. “I’m ready to go,” I begin to say, but stop myself before I get the words out. The woman ascending the stairs to the stage has caught my eye, and all thoughts of leaving disappear. Something about the way she moves is captivating—the wiggle of her hips suggests an undercurrent of sexuality, and her back is straight with confidence.

Then she turns toward the audience, and my breathe catches. Even here, twelve rows away, I can tell she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Her dark brown hair falls just so around her face, accentuating sharp cheekbones. Her eyes are dark. Her short dress reveals long, lean legs. The modest cleavage of her outfit can’t hide perfectly plump tits.

There’s something else—something about her carriage that makes me sit up and take notice. And she hasn’t even spoken yet.

“What?” Celia whispers, responding to the jab I’d given her. Or perhaps to the way I gasped at the sight of the angel before us.

“Nothing. Never mind.” Our conversation was in conjunction with the introduction and I missed what the presenter’s name is or what she’s meant to talk about. I can’t move my eyes for even a moment to check the program.

I’m mesmerized. Truly mesmerized.

She takes her place at the podium and begins her presentation, and I half expect my attraction to her to fade the minute her mouth opens. The opposite occurs. The sound of her voice sends a jolt through me, and I straighten in my seat. Her tone and demeanor ooze passion and authority, and also a touch of caution. For several minutes, I barely focus on her words. I’m too beguiled by her mere presence—by her smile, by her body language, by the way she furrows her brow when she refers to her notes.

And there’s an air about her that I’m drawn to immediately. I sense that she’s been downtrodden, but not broken. That she’s known pain but emerged whole and strong. I scoff at myself—how can I know that from a few minutes of business talk? I can’t. But I also can’t shake the feeling that it’s true. It attracts me more than anything else about her.

When I finally do catch her speech, I’m further impressed. Her topic is simple—print marketing in a digital age—but she’s approached it with brilliant practicality, and I’m sure that every exec in the room is going to pursue her at the meet and greet after.

I make it a point to find her first. This, precious, precious, gem.

“Alayna Withers,” Celia says quietly at my side.

“What?” I shake myself from the presenter long enough to see Celia reading from the portfolio folder.

She nods toward the stage. “Her name is Alayna Withers.”

I bristle, irritated that Celia has noticed my interest. At the same time, a surge of gratification spreads across my chest.I have her name!It’s a small thing and unfortunately everyone in the room has it as well. But I cling to it, this one bit of information I have about her. I say it quietly to myself. Let the sound of it settle in my ears. Let the texture of it swirl on my tongue.

The room is still dim, the stage the only place illuminated, but I feel the cloak of darkness around me start to dissipate.

Suddenly, I see light.

Chapter Two

Before

“Your serve is terrible,” I shouted to Mirabelle. Overall, my sister had gotten better since last summer. The private lessons she’d had throughout the year had strengthened both her backhand and her volley. Not that I planned on giving her the satisfaction of telling her I’d noticed.

Mirabelle’s eyes sparkled as she bounced the tennis ball in front of her. “My serve is fine. I’m winning, aren’t I?”

She’d won the first match because I’d gone easy on her. I hadn’t expected her to be as good as she was. “Only because I’m paying more attention to your god-awful posture than to the ball.”

Her lips curved up. “That’s your problem. You’re easily distracted.” She tossed the ball up, but instead of swinging at it, she let her racket fall to her side and her attention shot elsewhere. “Oh, hey. I didn’t see you there.”

I followed Mirabelle’s gaze and found Celia leaning against the side wall of our private court.

Well, what do you know?

I wasn’t sure yet if I was glad to see her or not, but when she grinned, I returned her smile easily. I hadn’t known she was in the Hamptons, but I wasn’t surprised to see her. Of course, she’d stop by. Even if our mothers weren’t the best of friends, Celia would find a reason to see me.

“I was enjoying your game,” she said to my little sister, but her eyes never left me. “Hope you don’t mind.”

“Yeah, well, it’s over now. Huds, we can play later.” Mirabelle stomped to my side of the court where she left her racket cover and began packing up.

“Mirabelle,” I said, low, with a hint of warning. I knew she didn’t care for Celia, but she didn’t need to be nasty.

She ignored me. Giving me a final scowl, she said, “Enjoy the rest of the day with your girlfriend.” Then she took off through the opening in the hedges toward the main house.

“I’m not his girlfriend,” Celia shouted after her. Then she turned to me, a fist on her hips. “Why didn’t you correct her?”

I tilted my head to the side, waiting for my neck to pop. Honestly, I was surprised that Celiahadcorrected Mirabelle. I would have thought she’d be happy about the title. As for me, I preferred to let people believe what they wanted to believe. It made life far more interesting.

But my fascination with human behavior was one I kept to myself, so instead I said, “Mirabelle’s a hopeless romantic. She’ll form her own opinion no matter what I say.”

Celia looked back after Mirabelle for a moment then walked toward me as I wiped sweat off my forehead with a towel. “She still doesn’t like me.” Disappointment was evident in her voice.

“Sorry,” I said. I suspected that only-child Celia had always sought after Mirabelle as a surrogate sister. Our families were certainly entwined enough to make a bond between them seem inevitable. For some reason, it hadn’t happened. Why was that? Curiosity tugged at my subconscious, but I forced it away. I would ponder that further at another time.

Celia didn’t appear to think there was anything worth pondering. “She’s fourteen. I get it. I wish it were different, but I understand.”

“She needs to learn some manners.”

“And you need to learn to relax. I’m fine. I don’t have to be her friend. I’m your friend.” She peered up at me with doubt in her eyes. “At least, I think we’re still friends. It’s been nine months since I left for San Francisco and not a single peep from you. What’s up with that?”

I shrugged as if my neglect had been accidental. It wasn’t in the least. Before Celia left for college, she’d made it clear that she was interested in more than friendship. I was not. I’d decided it was best not to lead her on. Not because I cared about how she felt, but because her infatuation was a hassle. I’d ignored her phone calls and deleted her few emails without so much as skimming them.

Yes, I was an asshole. This wasn’t news to me.

Now, though, I was surprised at how good it felt to see her. Not in any romantic way, but in a familiar way. She was family. She was home.

I scratched along my jaw, deciding not to answer her question outright. Against my better judgment, I extended an invitation instead. “Millie should have lunch ready soon. I can grab a shower and then we can catch up over sandwiches.”

Celia frowned. “Actually, I can’t today. I only got away for a few minutes.”

I raised an inquisitive brow. Why would she stop by if she couldn’t stay?

She didn’t expound. Instead, she asked, “Will you be here all summer?”

For as long as I could remember, both of our families spent the summer in the Hamptons. It seemed strange to think she’d assume differently. But I supposed, being older, things changed. I had already been thinking it was time to get a place of my own. I didn’t need to spend all my time off from school with my parents. This would likely be my last season at Mabel Shores.

“Yes,” I answered. “Will you?”

“I will. And I’d like to see you.” She cleared her throat and moved her focus to her shoes. “I came by today to tell you something. Um, something that I thought might make it easier for you to want to see me again.”

I folded my arms across my chest. She had me intrigued. “What is it?”

She forced her eyes up to mine. “I thought you should know that I’m seeing someone. I have been all year. We’re quite serious.” She fidgeted, obviously nervous. Did she think I’d be jealous?

“All right,” I said. “Congratulations.” I was schooled in how to respond in situations such as these though I didn’t feel congratulatory. I felt nothing.

She took a deep breath. “I thought that might be the reason you hadn’t returned any of my messages. Because you were worried that I…that I still…”

I cocked my head, fascinated with how she’d finish the sentence or if she’d finish it at all.

She didn’t, and after a moment of awkward silence, I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to push her, wanted to see what she’d say, what she’d do. “That you still liked me?”

Her cheeks went scarlet.Interesting.“Yes. You did know, then.”

I laughed. “Everyone knew, Celia.”

She shook her head as if reconciling herself with the idea. “Okay, everyone knew. But it was a silly schoolgirl crush. I’m over it now. I have Dirk, and—”

“Dirk? That’s his name?” Immediately I pictured a long-haired hippy, though Celia would never be serious about anyone not in her social class. It wasn’t in her. He was likely proper and well-mannered and from lots of money, just as she was.

“Be nice, Hudson.” But her admonishment came with a smile. “Anyway. I have Dirk and I’m really in love with him. I think he might be the one.” She blushed again, and this time I could see that she was indeed over me.

Fascinating.

“That’s…great.” This time, I wasn’t really sure what else to say. Wasn’t certain what Celia wanted me to say.

She seemed to sense I needed more. “So you and I can go back to being friends. No more weird puppy dog eyes from me. And it shouldn’t be a big deal. Okay?” She smiled hesitantly, hopefully, as if my answer were important to her. As if myfriendshipwere something she thought was important.

I licked my lips, salty from my earlier exertion. There was no reason to say no. And I did enjoy Celia’s company. “Sure.”

“Awesome!” Her relief was tangible. “I’ll call you. Maybe we can play tennis later this week? Or take the Jet Skis out or something?”

“Sounds good.” It also sounded dull. But she was proposing a routine summer in the Hamptons. It was what we always did and doing it again made sense. I’d find something else to occupy my boredom.

A moment of silence passed between us until it extended past comfortable to awkward. “Well, then,” Celia said, shielding her eyes from the midday sun, “I’d better be going.”

Chivalry returned to me. “I’ll walk you out.” I draped the towel around my neck and gathered my racket cover. Then we started up the path to the main house.

We were quiet as we traveled. I escorted her all the way to the circle drive where she’d left her car parked. After opening her door for her, I leaned in to give her a peck on the cheek. This was standard for us. She was, after all, practically my sibling.

She placed a hand on my arm, her expression melancholy. “Thank you, Hudson. See you soon.”

I watched after her as she drove off, wondering about the change in the dynamics of our relationship. Our mothers had been best friends since we were toddlers. Every major holiday and family function had been spent with the Werners. Our parents had even enrolled us in the same elite private high school. We knew each other well, though I seriously doubted that we’d have become more than acquaintances had we not been thrown together as we were.

She should have been the perfect pairing for me. A match made in heaven. We both came from money, were already close. Yet, I had never had the slightest inclination toward her. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t feel anything for her? For anyone?

“Do you like her?” Mirabelle’s small voice questioned from behind me.

I turned to find her sitting on the front steps, her arms wrapped around her knees.

My jaw tensed with irritation. I didn’t share the emptiness of my emotions with anyone. “It’s really none of your business if I do.” I strode past her, into the house.

Mirabelle jumped up and followed close at my heels. “She’s not for you, Hudson. She’s petty and shallow and not good for you at all.”

I kept walking, heading to the main staircase.

Mirabelle continued after me. “And you don’t like her. I can see it in your eyes. You have no interest in her at all.”

That was true, but it intrigued me to think my sister had noticed. What else did she see? What did she know about me? I stopped mid-step and turned to her. “If you already know I don’t like her, then why did you ask?”

“I wanted to be sure you knew too.”

Well, I do.I didn’t say it aloud. I turned away from her and jogged the remaining steps to the upper floor, then disappeared into my room.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about Celia and her supposed boyfriend. My chest knotted tighter and tighter as I spun the information in my mind. It wasn’t jealousy—honestly I didn’t care one way or another about her love life. It was intrigue. Obsessive intrigue. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt it, nor, I was certain, would it be the last.

The idea of love and affection consumed me. I studied it on every occasion that I could. I didn’t understand it. I’d never beenin love. I didn’t believe it was even a real thing. I wasn’t virtuous in any way, nor was I inexperienced. I’d dated a few girls. Or rather, I’d taken girls out to dinner and a movie with the sole intent of fucking them afterward. Sometimes I skipped the dinner and the movie and simply fucked. But I’d never had any inclination to spend any real time with anyone. I’d never hadfeelingsfor them.

And even though Celia had set her sights on me the year before, I’d never assumed that she felt anything deeper than the silly crush she spoke of. We’d both been cut from the same cloth. We knew the ridiculousness behind romantic notions.

Or so I’d thought.

Now, she said she’d found the one. The idea boggled me.

It also challenged me.

What was it that made someone think they loved another? Could the emotion be manipulated? Forced? I decided an experiment was in order.

It was unfortunate that the results might not be too favorable for Celia. But on the other hand, if love was truly a myth as I believed, maybe I was simply saving her from a lie.

***

I was sunning with my laptop by the pool when Celia phoned me the next day to set up a date to get together. Feigning previous plans, I pushed our meeting off until the next week. I needed time to plan before I saw her. I was meticulous with my experiments, and this time would be no different.

I tapped my fingers rhythmically on the keyboard as I schemed. After the failure of my last study, I was eager to find success. Perhapsfailurewas too harsh of a word. My results hadn’t met my hypothesis, but I’d still gained information from the experiment, inconclusive as it was. I’d gotten the idea for the study after two classmates, Andrew and Jane, became engaged. They seemed to be lost for each other, dizzy in their haze of lust which they’d most likely mistaken for something more. I wondered—if they believed they were close enough that they should marry, did it mean their bond was unbreakable?

I set out to find the answer.

The three of us shared enough classes that it was easy to flirt with Jane in front of her fiancé. I did so casually at first, expecting some sort of reaction from Andrew. When none came, I upped my game. I touched Jane when we spoke, brushed my fingers against hers, played with her hair. I invaded her space. I whispered suggestive things to her—hell, dirty-as-fuck things that made her blush and her nipples stand at attention. A whole semester of this behavior and neither Jane nor Andrew had told me to stop. Shouldn’t there have been accusations? If not at me, then at each other? Were they spoken behind my back, unbeknownst to me?

Or did the couple truly have enough trust and affection for each other to withstand jealousy?

Or maybe they were looking for a threesome.

The lack of a conclusive answer was why I’d considered the experiment a bust. This time I wouldn’t settle for ambiguous results. Which meant I better start with a solid hypothesis.

I opened up my digital journal and started a new section which I titledThe Rebound. It was a perfect follow-up toThe Engagement. That study had tried to break up a couple without any prior history on my part. This time, the subject, Celia, had a prior infatuation with me. The question was, and I typed it in as I constructed it,Could a prior infatuation affect the status of a new relationship, if the previous object of affection suddenly returned the emotion?

Next, I entered in my hypothesis:If the subject truly believes the affection is returned, then yes.

How would I be able to tell if I’d succeeded? I paused to watch my younger brother, Chandler, do a flip off the side of the pool as I considered. If Celia believed I was interested in her she’d likely either a) tell me to back off, b) consent to a summer affair, or c) break up with Dirk.

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