Fixed - 4

Laurelin Paige

“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. “You could 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 usually does intend 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’m better, 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.