Leveling The Field (Gamers #4) (6 page)

BOOK: Leveling The Field (Gamers #4)
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She frowned at that and then turned fully with her hand on her hip. “Why are
you
okay with it?”

“Because…I get to have sex with you.”

Her top teeth poked out to nibble on her bottom lip. “Okay, well I get to have sex with you. Why do I have to have another reason?”

She wasn’t cooperating, and this was frustrating him. Was she hiding something? “Because you have to!”

Her eyebrows flew up. “What?”

“Look, even if you did just want sex, you can’t possibly be content with me when there are dozens of other men with fewer…issues.”

“Even if?” she countered. “Do you ever listen to a word that comes out of my mouth? You’re always searching for ulterior motives and there are none. I want to have sex with you. I don’t want a relationship right now. I’m busy with my job, and since you’re on the same page, it’s a win-win. Why do you have to look deeper?”

He ran a hand through his hair and turned away, trying to sort out why exactly he was bothered by this. But his thoughts were a jumble, especially because his brain was orgasm-addled. He shook his head. “Okay.”

She stepped toward him. “Okay what?”

“Okay, you’re right. I don’t know what got into me.”

“Look, Ethan—”

He tugged her to him with a yank on her wrist, and she smashed into his chest. With her wrist clasped behind her back, he pressed a quick kiss to her lips. When he leaned back, her eyes were closed, and he spotted some glitter left over on her eyelids. Before he did something crazy—like kiss her eyelids, or wipe away the glitter, or anything else that could be misconstrued as something more affectionate—he released her and stepped back.

Her eyes popped open, and she must have sensed the change in his behavior, because she swallowed and nodded, a strained smile on her lips.

This would have to be it. He was getting too caught up in her, too worried about her feelings and his feelings and if they meshed and…he couldn’t do this. The complications and everything that went along with giving someone else a piece of him.

He stepped back, and her body drifted forward, as if she planned to follow, but her feet stayed in place. He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked everywhere but at her. “Do you need me to stay and clean up? Or…”

They both knew that was an empty question. He was planning to leave.

She shook her head. “It’s fine. I’ll handle it.”

He glanced around the studio, at the floor and walls and all the places that weren’t the glitter-covered Lissa in front of him. He cleared his throat. “Right. So, uh, thanks for letting me in.”

“Thanks for stopping by,” she said.

Fucking awkward. This was it. He was done after this. He might not show his face at his office for a week. Finally, he met her warm brown gaze. “You take care, Lissa.”

She opened her mouth, as if to say something, but then she shut her lips with a shake of her head. When she opened her mouth again, all she said was, “You, too, Ethan. You, too.”

And then he was out the door, wondering how long he could deal with this glitter on his skin, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to wash off the last scent of Lissa any time soon.

Chapter Seven

She’d chickened out.

She could have asked him right then. Right there. But his posture had screamed, “Back off,” his expression more vulnerable than she’d seen him before. So she’d kept her mouth shut out of fear of offending him or hurting him or…

Fuck.

She told herself it had nothing to do with the fact that they’d slept together. Twice. She cared about him as much as anyone else off the street. He wasn’t different. He wasn’t special.

She gripped the broom tighter as she swept up the piles of glitter off the floor. That hadn’t been the smartest idea she’d ever had, but it’d sure been fun. Biting her lip, she glanced at the bearskin rug. That was…going to need to be cleaned.

She laughed to herself and continued to sweep. When her studio was in some sort of order again, she sat down at her desk so she could determine whether she had enough energy to cook dinner at home or call out. She shared her apartment with her brother, and while it was nice to have help on rent, it wasn’t so nice to be home when he was experimenting with different foods or when he had girls over.

Especially when he had girls over.

She blew out a breath and was about to pick up the phone to order a pizza when there was a knock at the door.

She froze, as if the person knocking could see her, even though the door wasn’t even visible from where she sat. If it was Ethan again…well, she didn’t have the energy to deal with him right now.

Her phone chimed and she glanced at it, then smiled.

Come get your door before I eat all this sushi myself

Her brother could be so thoughtful sometimes. Although, thank God he hadn’t come about a half hour earlier. She’d already slipped off her shoes, so she trotted to the door in her bare feet and flung open the door. Angel brushed past her, two large paper bags in his hands. He shot her a grin—Rona’s grin—and Lissa’s heart clenched, like it always did.

“Hey, L.” He leaned in and brushed his lips across her forehead. “Hungry?”

“How’d you know?” She followed him as he walked down her hallway and dropped the bags on a table beside her desk. He pulled up a chair, and she sank down in hers. His hands were in the open bags before she could blink. “You hungry, too?”

“Starved.” He handed her some California rolls while he dug into his spicy eel ones. “Work was insane today. I’m exhausted.”

“Busy?”

He stuck a roll in his mouth and talked around it. “Full moon or something? People were nuts.” He leaned back in his chair and glanced at her studio behind them then jerked a thumb at the bearskin rug still on the floor. “You shooting porn in here now? Told you I could hire you at Foot Locker if you need money.”

She laughed and shoved his shoulder. “Shut up, I was doing boudoir shoots.”
And a non-filmed porno.

He raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? Any honeys?”

“All the honeys had significant others.”

“Damn,” he muttered. Angel was always
between
girls since he changed them out so often. Little less often than his shoes.

“Hey,” she said, swirling her roll in soy sauce so she didn’t have to look Angel in the eye. Now that there’d been another
incident
, she couldn’t keep her discovery to herself anymore. “You remember E-Rad?”

Angel didn’t say anything for a minute, and his chair squeaked. “E-Rad! Oh yeah, the video game dude. Man, he was the shit. Haven’t thought about him for years. He disappeared. What, they find his body in a river somewhere?”

Oh, she’d found his body all right, alive and well. She glanced up at her brother. “So I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone, okay?”

His eyes widened. “Did you kill E-Rad?”

“Will you shut up? No one killed him, you doofus.”

He grinned. “I know, I was just kidding you.”

“I’m serious, though. Look at me. You can’t tell anyone what I’m going to tell you.”

Angel nodded soberly. “Okay, okay.”

She blew out a breath. She needed to tell someone, and she trusted her brother more than anyone in the world. “I think I met him. Or, I know I met him, I mean, I’m almost positive the guy I met is him.”

Angel pushed his container of sushi aside and leaned forward on her desk, hands clasped together. She had his full attention now. “Start from the beginning.”

So she did, from meeting him at
Gamers
to his scars. She didn’t mention that they’d now had sex twice, because her brother really didn’t need to know that. “I’d recognize that voice anywhere. But he’s definitely not the same person.”

“It’s been, what? Close to ten years? Of course he isn’t the same person.”

“Yeah, I know that. This doesn’t seem like regular growing pains, though. And clearly something happened to give him those scars.”

Angel chewed his lip. “Damn, that guy was the shit. Can’t believe you found him.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t know I know who he is. And…something tells me he left that life behind.”

“But he owns a gaming magazine now.”

“I saw the interview. Nowhere is he mentioned as being the former E-Rad. Wouldn’t that be something you’d tell a reporter?”

Angel nodded thoughtfully. “Hm, yeah, I guess so.”

Lissa chewed her last roll and swallowed. There were so many questions, and while she wanted answers, part of her wasn’t sure she was ready for the truth. There were so many secrets, so many dark shadows in Ethan’s eyes and…maybe they were better left there.

“You’re thinking of asking him to be in your project, aren’t you?” Angel asked.

She sighed. “I was…or, I still am, I guess. I don’t know. I think he’d be a great draw but…” She’d screwed him. Twice. And couldn’t seem to help herself whenever he was around.

“Why are your cheeks red?” Angel demanded.

She jerked her head up. “What?”

He pointed at her face. “There was a definite flush there.”

She fidgeted her hands in her lap and gritted her teeth. “You’re making stuff up.”

“Do you have a crush on this guy? You’re making that face you always do before you nudge me and tell me some dude’s hot.”

“I am not,” she huffed.

“You are too.”

“Fine! Yes, he’s hot, now drop it.”

Angel didn’t look like he wanted to drop it, but she glared at him until he sighed and ate the rest of his sushi.

After cleaning up dinner, Angel headed out while Lissa shut down the studio for the night. She took one more glance at the photo of Ethan in her secret folder. “What are your secrets, baby?” she whispered to herself.

If the look on Ethan’s face when he left earlier was any indication, it was going to be an uphill battle to get him to talk to her again. She told herself this was all for Rona, but part of her knew this craving for his company had nothing to do with her project. And everything to do with how he made her feel.


Chloe sat cross-legged on his floor while he stretched out on the couch behind her. She cursed as the lizard-like creature she was directin
g on the TV screen fell down a hole.

Ethan snorted and pulled her out with his lizard tail.

“Tails are so handy,” she said. “I want a tail in real life.”

“Evolution had other ideas,” he muttered.

Chloe had brought him soup for dinner. Even though he was perfectly capable of feeding himself, Chloe’s soup was incredible and he would never turn it down. And then, like always, she stayed to play video games.

This game was called
Lizard Master
, and it was a PG-13 game that
Gamers
had been sent to review. Ethan rather liked it. It was no
Aric’s Revenge
, but there was a lot to do and it was completely appropriate for preteens. “You want to give this to Sydney to try?” he asked.

Chloe’s head nodded from her seat on the floor. “Sure.”

“Graphics are good. I could probably count the scales on my guy’s back—Oh!” He winced as the tip of his tail was severed by an enemy’s sword. “Shit! Oh well, that’s not going to leave a mark because…” He paused as his tail regenerated, and he grinned. “Ta-da! I’m basically a fucking starfish. You can’t kill me by severing limbs!” He snorted. “Amateur.”

He stopped when he realized Chloe wasn’t playing anymore. She had twisted at the waist and was watching him with an amused glint in her eyes.

“What’s that look for?”

“Because you can take the E-Rad out from in front of the camera, but you can’t keep the vocal gamer out of E-Rad.”

He didn’t like where this was going, and his palms began to sweat. “I was just making conversation.”

“No, you weren’t. You were commentating as if I wasn’t even here. If I closed my eyes, it would be like it was—” She stopped talking when he abruptly shut down everything with one click from his master control. Chloe’s face dropped. “Ethan—”

He met her gaze, and he knew his expression was blank, because if he dropped an ounce of control, he’d sneer at her. And his sister didn’t deserve that. So with every muscle tight in order to focus on neutrality, he said, “As soon as you open your eyes, you’ll see nothing is like it was. Nothing.”

He stood up, hating to see the devastated look on his sister’s face, but not wanting to talk about this. He made his way to the kitchen and pulled a beer out of the fridge. “Want one?” He held one out to Chloe, who had followed him into the kitchen.

She shook her head. “My eyes are open, Ethan. You’re the one who refuses to see anything but your own misery.”

He whirled to face her. “Why am I not allowed to be like this? Can’t I handle everything the way I want to? On my own terms?”

She pursed her lips and dropped her eyes, shuffling her feet in her leopard print flats. “I’m sorry I brought it up, but I worry about you.”

“You don’t need to worry.”

She glanced up and braced herself on the counter. “You can’t just say that and expect me to go, ‘oh, okay, well then, everything’s peachy.’ Not while you hole yourself up in this house, work your ass off, and don’t date.”

“I don’t need a wife to be happy.”

She threw up her hands. “I never said you did. But you used to love to socialize. You loved women and dating and…” She let her voice trail off then bit her lip. “You used to love it all. And now, I’m not sure what you love anymore.”

Her words were slicing and dicing, when he hadn’t thought there was much left to hurt. He gulped his beer. After he swallowed, he said. “I love
you
.”

She took a step closer. “I know you do. It’s who you
don’t
love that worries me.” He didn’t meet her eyes, choosing to focus on peeling the label off his beer bottle. She sighed. “You don’t love yourself, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.”

He didn’t know what to say to that, because they both knew she was right. There was no point in confirming.

When he didn’t respond, she grabbed her purse. “I have to go.”

He nodded.

She stood in front of him until he finally looked up. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes a little wet. She smiled sadly. “I love you, and I think I’m a pretty good judge of character, don’t you think?”

When the only answer was his silence, she squeezed his arm and left.

He stood there for a long moment, until the rest of his beer was lukewarm and he had to pour it down the drain. He had a lot of issues, but drinking too heavily was not one of them, thank God.

Chloe had been right—he used to love to date. He loved women and they loved him. Before the accident, he’d managed to stay friends with a lot of his exes too. After the accident…well, he stopped returning their calls and emails until they moved on with their lives.

He was so out of practice that this thing with Lissa was throwing him off balance.
This thing.
Yeah, he didn’t know how else to describe it, because he didn’t know what it was. It’d been two weeks since he’d visited her at her studio, and the distance had done nothing to curb his interest in her.

His body heated when he remembered the tickle of the glitter and the soft brush of that bearskin rug on his skin. Her fingers and her lips and her soft moans.

That mouth.

And that fucking glitter, which he was still finding in odd places on his body at odd times. Just the other day, he’d been in his office and a piece fell out of his hair. He’d showered many times since the afternoon in her studio. That fucking glitter was like herpes.

He shook his head and glanced at the dark TV. It’d been a long time since he’d thought about E-Rad. Today’s streaming services had changed the game of video game commentating a little bit, but at the time, he’d been king of the YouTube gaming community. Software companies sent him games by the truckloads. He had advertisers paying top dollar for a thirty second spot on his videos.

All he had to do was videotape himself playing video games and…talk. He’d been good at talking once. Charming, even. He snorted to himself. That was another life. Chloe didn’t know what she was talking about. He didn’t have it in him anymore. Hell, he barely remembered what he’d done. It’d been so long since he’d seen one of his videos. Because of the speed at which the community moved, he was forgotten. And he liked it that way. No questions. He was only Ethan Talley, co-owner of
Gamers
magazine and local shut-in.

His iPad sat on the counter, and with one finger, he slid it over in front of him. His videos were still there. He didn’t bother taking them down when he still got advertising money from them. Nothing huge, because he wasn’t a household name anymore.

He pulled up his channel. His most popular videos were for
World of Warcraft
. His finger hovered over the play button for a video as he stared into the small thumbnail of his face in the lower left corner. In the screenshot, he was smiling, all white teeth and blue eyes and dark hair. He had stubble, but that didn’t hide the fact that his face was unblemished.

That was back when he hadn’t known how much he could fuck up.

That kid had no fucking clue.

With a stab, Ethan closed out the browser and shoved the iPad away. It nearly went skittering off the counter, and he had to catch it before it fell. Placing it down gently with a calmness he didn’t feel, he walked away.

BOOK: Leveling The Field (Gamers #4)
3.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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