Authors: Aubrey Parker
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College, #Romantic Suspense, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
The big screen in the mansion’s third-floor conference room comes alight, avatar replaced with streaming video. Suddenly, I’m looking at the hard blue stare of a man who resembles a Norse god. Our technology is top end, but Caspian White has pulled off something special back at GameStorming HQ. Normally, when people chat, they look at the screen and are captured by the camera above. Not so with Caspian’s setup. He’s somehow eye to eye, and the effect is unnerving. Exactly as I’m sure he intended.
“Hello, Daniel,” he says.
“Always a pleasure. What can I help you with?”
Caspian pauses. The shot is chest-up, and of course he’s wearing a suit. A fine, dark, tailored suit with a lightning-blue tie. I just finished a workout; he’s lucky I got formal enough to put on a shirt. But this is how Caspian is. You get used to it working with him. He has to dominate everything. If you want to know if he’s visited his local Starbucks, go in and look at the baristas’ trousers.
“How are you, Daniel?”
. When he’s looking right at me. But Caspian always uses names. Always. With men, anyway. It’s either false familiarity (because nobody knows this man, probably including what’s left of his family) or some sort of domination tactic, like the constant game of dress-up — a dog humping another dog, just to show who’s boss.
“Where is Trevor, Daniel?”
“Would you like to talk to Trevor …
A small smile. If I were a woman, this is where I’d have my orgasm.
“No, that’s fine. But thank you for offering.”
Jesus Christ. The way he’s acting, swiveling slightly in his big expensive office chair, he might as well be petting a white cat and telling me about his latest plan to take over the world. Although ironically, that last part isn’t terribly far off.
Another long pause. I wish he’d just get to the point, but there are legs to hump, guys to show who’s boss. He knows I don’t have time. He knows Trevor doesn’t have time. I have a harem downstairs to supervise and observe, and Trevor … well, I guess he’s got a dick that needs sucking. In theory, Trevor should be taking notes almost as studiously as I am, since the girls all know it’s his wife we’re supposed to be choosing. But they also know that it’s best to curry a man’s favor directly, not secondhand while he watches. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But really, it’s through his cock.
“What can I help you with?”
“I got the board’s report,” Caspian tells me.
“The board of directors?”
“The other board.”
“Hmm. Glad to hear it.”
“It troubles me, to be honest.”
“Ah. And why is that?” As if I don’t know. As if I haven’t already finished this conversation in my head so I can get back to work. Back to observing the competition, both seen and unseen.
“Your twelfth contestant. Your recent disqualification.”
“It’s handled,” I tell him.
“It’s handled, and frankly none of your concern.”
Caspian gives me a well-bred frown. His blond hair is two inches short of shoulder length, but he wears it slicked back. A strand falls out of its perfect place as he tips his head thoughtfully.
“I could argue that anything that impacts data is my concern.”
“We’re plugging into your demographics and data, not the other way around.”
to,” he corrects me. “But all interfaces go both ways. Nothing should be more obvious, considering the fleshy nature of your little competition.”
“It’s personal, not professional. How Trevor chooses to indulge himself isn’t your concern, either.”
“Everything is professional. And everything is personal. If it’s just a bunch of people fucking, Daniel, then why is it being overseen by the board?”
“Objectivity. Another thing that’s none of your concern.”
“Then why did I receive the board’s report?”
“Disclosure?” I shrug, the shirt still sticking to my skin from the sweat. “It wasn’t my call.”
“Ah. But I do know what
your call. That twelfth contestant. That disqualification. Or, I suppose, its reversal.”
“I can’t possibly see how — ”
Caspian cuts me off, his manner shifting, becoming almost grave. We’re through sniffing around the edges. The true reason for this call is coming.
“Listen closely, Mr. Rice. Right now, your company needs mine more than mine needs yours. You’re paying, of course, but LiveLyfe has already delivered me a king’s ransom, and I had more than I’d ever need even before that. Money means little to me. What interests me is your ambition.”
“You mean Alexa’s ambition.”
“Not officially, considering she isn’t affiliated. But unofficially, in light of the actual truth, yes. Her vision reflects mine. Trevor’s? Not nearly as much.”
“I still don’t understand why — ”
“People think GameStorming is just about research. You know better. You all do. Alexa most of all. That’s why we’re talking now. I don’t need any more money. I only work with those who intrigue me and expand the vision. So far, I’m intrigued. I have reams of information on human behavior, garnered by use habits on the surface and scores of other things I won’t admit. Just as Alexa has gathered behavioral data that, strictly speaking, she shouldn’t have. Both companies hold hidden aces. I’m trying to figure out whether yours is a fake.”
I sigh. He’s such an asshole. All pretense. All hot air. I can’t see his fingers, but I’ll bet they’re tented.
“I know you’re ‘choosing a bride,’” he continues, his condescending air quotes somehow audible. “But even you, Daniel, know all about the methods that went into choosing each of your contestants. Personal? Yes. But with professional research and data behind it. You’ve repurposed assets, like when someone wants the best possible hard copy of a poster in their home, so they use the company printer to make it. And in turn, I can only imagine the kinds of games you’re planning at your little playground in the coming weeks, to separate wheat from chaff. I know you’d be a fool not to loop what you learn back into the general pool. It’s not often that you get to conduct experiments like this, to see where lines lie, where human becomes animal with her social masks removed.”
That stops me. Of course he’s right. The amount of data our group parsed to choose these women could choke a Cray. We’re recording it all, running it through a few types of shitty AI filters, sending what’s left to a team of eggheads. I could argue that this experiment isn’t meant to blur the lines — sex and business, recreational and professional — but he knows we went out of our way to include a few archetypes, including one girl who’s practically a databank in herself. I won’t argue. Caspian isn’t stupid.
“Unless I’m reading wrong, you have an unscreened contestant.”
“Not unscreened. Just screened differently.” Meaning she was screened by me, without more than rudimentary research and reconnaissance. Using my personal prejudices and preferences — first negative, now regrettably positive.
“And yet on the first night, she was disqualified for fighting.”
“She was provoked.”
Caspian laughs. “If that’s the only time one of your contestants is ‘provoked,’ you’re wasting your time.”
“Is it? The board’s reinstatement seems so reluctant. Seems you pulled a few strings to make it happen.”
“It wasn’t fair. She didn’t earn the DQ.”
is a concept he understands intellectually, but has little experience with in life.
“Are we finished here?”
Caspian watches me then slowly nods. “I suppose it’s your party.”
Yes. Yes, it is. I can only say it so many times in so many less-overt ways, but none of this is any of Caspian White’s fucking business. At all. Just because we’re negotiating for his data doesn’t give him the right to question what Eros does. He can bark all he wants about intermingling polluted information, but this is his need for control rearing its head. His famous desire to dominate all he meets. Trevor might bend to that. I won’t. I’ll be civil and professional, but I’m nobody’s stooge. I just don’t give enough of a shit for the rules, for decorum, or even for my position. Take it all; go ahead. No one orders me around.
“We’ll be in touch about your visit. Me, Trevor, or one of the others.”
His tone shifts back to casual. “Perfect. I look forward to it.”
“I need to be getting back.”
“Of course. Go to your whores.” He laughs to show it’s a joke. Which, coming from Caspian White, it definitely isn’t.
I reach for the disconnect button. But before I touch it, Caspian says, “The money you wired out this morning. Where did you send it?”
He’s only half asking. Really, he’s displaying his giant balls. Pointing out that he knows a wire was sent — something even Trevor doesn’t know, because I did it privately, off the network, using my phone. Maybe Caspian even knows where that money was sent and what it means: Bridget’s birth mother getting her second chance at life after the thousandth beating from her brutalizing husband. But I won’t poke this wound. If the contest is none of his business, my stepping in to help Bridget when she lost her contest stipend definitely isn’t.
“I have to go,” I tell him.
He nods again as I reach to disconnect. He seems to wait until it’s too late then rolls off a single short sentence before the connection breaks.
“I hope she’s worth it,” he says.
There’s a knock at my door. Maybe it’s Daniel. I hope so, though I probably shouldn’t; his latest interlude of humanity was as short as the one we had in the arboretum yesterday. He seems, in the hours since my return, to have become a distant asshole all over again. But the broken part of me is sure that’s only camouflage — bad behavior to deflect accusations of special treatment after he stepped in as my White Knight. I try to forget that good/bad isn’t either/or. I’ve had plenty of boyfriends who were brilliantly sweet to me one day and abusively cruel the next.