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Twisted Love: Chapter 14

Ava

He was furious.

He was alive with it, pulsing with it. One hand clutched the steering wheel, knuckles white, while the other rested on the gearshift, flexing and unflexing like he wanted to strangle someone. The glow from passing streetlights illuminated the beautifully carved planes of his face as we sped down the dark streets, throwing into sharp relief the tense set of his mouth and the way his brows bunched over his eyes.

When I told him about the incident with Liam outside The Crypt, I almost disintegrated from the force of his fury.

“I’m okay,” I said, wrapping my arms around my torso. My voice sounded scratchy and unsure. “Really.”

That only made him more furious.

“If you’d attended Krav Maga lessons like I’d asked, he wouldn’t have been able to corner you like that.” Alex’s voice was soft. Deadly. I remembered his face when he’d pounded Liam’s face into a pulp, and a shiver skated down my spine. I wasn’t scared of Alex hurting me, but the sight of all that coiled strength unleashed was unnerving. “You have to learn to protect yourself. If anything had happened to you…”

“I defended myself fine.” I pressed my lips together. I hadn’t seen Liam at the gala, but there had been so many people it would’ve been impossible for me to pick him out in the crowd. Bridget had finagled me an invite to the ball so I could connect with an alumnus who’d been a WYP fellow a few years ago. We’d had a great conversation, but I tired of the small talk with the rest of the gala’s guests and had been on my way out when Liam cornered me in the coatroom.

He’d been high tonight, too. I’d seen it in his dilated pupils and manic energy. He never used drugs when we were together, at least not that I knew of, but whatever he was on, it made him swing between bouts of rage and sadness.

Despite what he did and things he’d said, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

“This time.” Alex’s jaw flexed. “Who knows what might happen the next time you’re alone?”

I opened my mouth to respond, but before I could get the words out, images and sounds slammed into my brain, rendering me mute.

I threw a stone into the lake and giggled at the ripples that spread over the smooth surface.

The lake was my favorite part of our backyard. We had a dock that ran out to the middle of the water, and during the summers, Josh would cannonball off it while Daddy fished and Mommy read magazines and I skipped stones. Josh always teased me about not being able to swim, much less cannonball.

I would, though. Mommy signed me up for swimming lessons, and I would be the best swimmer in the world. Better than Josh, who thought he was the best at everything.

I’d show him.

My mouth turned down at the corners. There would be no more summers by the lakeside with all of us, though. Not since Daddy moved out and took Josh with him.

I missed them. It got lonely sometimes, especially since Mommy didn’t play with me like she used to. All she did now was yell into the phone and cry. Sometimes, she sat in the kitchen and just stared into space.

It made me sad. I tried to cheer her up—I drew her pictures and even gave her Bethany, my nicest, bestest doll to play with, but it didn’t work. She still cried.

Today was a better day, though. It was our first time playing by the lake since Daddy moved out, so maybe it meant she felt better. She’d gone into the house for more sunscreen—she always worried about freckles and stuff like that—but when she got back, I planned to ask her to play with me like we used to.

I picked up another stone from the ground. It was smooth and flat, the type that would make really pretty ripples. I drew my arm back to throw it, but I smelled something flowery—Mommy’s perfume—that distracted me.

My aim veered and the stone thudded onto the ground, but I didn’t mind. Mommy was back! We could play now.

I turned, smiling a big gap-toothed smile—my front tooth fell out last week, and I found five dollars from the Tooth Fairy under my pillow after, which was super cool—but I only made it halfway before she pushed me. I pitched forward—down, down, off the edge of the deck, my scream swallowed up by the water rushing toward my face.

Reality yanked me back into the present with jarring force. I bent over double, chest heaving, tears streaming down my face. When had I started crying?

It didn’t matter. All that mattered was I was crying. Huge, heaving sobs, the kind that made my nose all snotty and my stomach hurt. Thick, salty rivulets ran down my cheeks and dripped off my chin onto the floor.

Maybe I’d finally broken, split apart for the world to see. I’d always known I wasn’t normal, me with my forgotten childhood and fragmented nightmares, but I’d been able to hide it behind smiles and laughter. Until now.

My nightmares were usually confined to when I was sleeping. They had never consumed me when I was awake.

Maybe the adrenaline rush from what happened with Liam triggered something in my brain. If I had to worry about my waking hours and my sleeping ones…

I pressed the heels of my palms to my eyes. I was losing it.

A cool, strong hand touched my shoulder.

I jerked, remembering in a rush that I wasn’t alone. That someone bore witness to my sudden, humiliating breakdown. I also hadn’t noticed that Alex had pulled over to the side of the road until now.

If he’d been furious before, he was crazed now. Not in a psycho, angry way—well, maybe a little—but more in a panicked way. His eyes were wild, that muscle in his jaw jumping so fast it had a life of his own. I’d never seen him like that. Pissed, yes. Annoyed, definitely. But not like that.

Like he wanted to burn the world down at seeing me hurt.

My naïve heart sang, cutting a swath of hope through my lingering panic. Because no one looks at someone like that unless they care, and I realized that I wanted Alex Volkov to care. Very much.

I wanted him to care because of me, not because of a promise he’d made to my brother.

Talk about a terrible time to come to such a realization. I was a freaking mess, and he’d just beat the living daylights out of my ex-boyfriend.

I sucked in a shaky breath and wiped the tears from my face with the backs of my hands.

“I will destroy him.” Alex’s words sliced through the air like lethal blades of ice. Goosebumps blossomed on my skin and I shivered, my teeth chattering from the cold. “Everything he has ever touched, everyone he has ever loved. I will ruin them until they’re nothing more than a pile of ashes at your feet.”

I should’ve been terrified by the leashed violence flickering in the car, but I felt oddly safe. I always felt safe around him.

“I’m not crying because of Liam.” I took a deep breath. “Let’s not talk or think about him anymore, okay? Let’s salvage the rest of the night. Please.”

I needed to take my mind off everything that happened tonight, or I’d scream.

A few beats passed before Alex relaxed his shoulders, though his face remained tight. “What do you have in mind?”

“Food would be good.” I’d been too nervous to eat at the gala, and I was starving. “Something greasy and bad for you. You’re not one of those health nuts, are you?”

His body was so cut he looked like he subsisted on lean protein and green shakes.

Disbelief shadowed his eyes before he let out a short laugh. “No, Sunshine, I’m not one of those health nuts.”

Ten minutes later, we pulled up in front of a diner that looked like it served nothing but food that was bad for you.

Perfect.

Heads swiveled in our direction when we walked into the diner. I couldn’t blame them. It isn’t every day you see a duo in black-tie enter a roadside diner. I’d tried my best to fix myself so I was presentable before I left the car, but there’s only so much a girl can do without her makeup bag.

Something warm and silky enveloped me, and I realized Alex had taken off his jacket and draped it over my shoulders.

“It’s cold,” he said when I shot him a questioning look. He glared at a group of guys who were ogling me—or rather, my breasts—from a nearby table.

I didn’t protest. It was cold, and my gown didn’t cover much.

I also didn’t protest when Alex insisted we sit in the back and positioned me in the booth facing the wall, so I was out of the other diners’ sight.

We placed our orders, and I shifted beneath the weight of his stare.

“Tell me what happened in the car.” For once, his tone was gentle, not commanding. “If not Liam, what made you…”

“Freak out?” I fiddled with a loose strand of hair. No one knew about my lost memories or nightmares except my family and closest friends, but I had a strange urge to spill the truth to Alex. “I had a…flashback. Of something that happened when I was young.” I’d been in denial all these years, telling myself they were fictional nightmares instead of fragmented flashbacks, but I couldn’t lie any longer.

I swallowed hard before I told Alex, in halting sentences, about my past—or what I remembered of it. It wasn’t the lighthearted conversation I’d envisioned when I’d suggested we “salvage the rest of the night,” but I felt ten times lighter by the time I finished.

“They told me it was my mom,” I said. “My parents were going through a nasty divorce, and apparently, my mom had some sort of breakdown and pushed me into the lake, knowing I couldn’t swim. I would’ve drowned had my dad not come by to drop off some papers and seen what happened. He saved me, and my mom’s condition deteriorated further until she killed herself. They told me I was lucky to be alive but…” I drew in a shuddering breath. “Sometimes, I don’t feel lucky.”

Alex had listened patiently the entire time, but his eyes flickered dangerously at my last statement. “Don’t say that.”

“I know. It’s super self-pitying, which is not what I want. But what you said at the gala earlier? About me craving love? You’re right.” My chin wobbled. Call me crazy, but something about being tucked away this corner of a random diner, sitting across from a man who I thought didn’t even like me until a few hours ago, made me voice my most insidious thoughts. “My mom tried to kill me. My dad barely pays attention to me. Parents are supposed to be the most loving forces in their children’s lives, but…” A tear slipped down my cheek, and my voice broke. “I don’t know what I did wrong. Maybe if I tried harder to be a good daughter—”

“Stop.” Alex’s hand curled around mine on the table. “Don’t blame yourself for fucked-up things other people do.”

“I try not to, but…” Another shaky breath. “That’s why Liam cheating on me hurt so much. I wasn’t really in love with him, so I wasn’t heartbroken per se, but he’s yet another person who was supposed to love me but didn’t.” My chest ached. If I wasn’t the problem, why did this keep happening to me? I tried to be a good person. A good daughter, good girlfriend…but no matter how hard I tried, I always ended up hurt.

I had Josh and my friends, but there was a difference between platonic love and the deep bonds that bound a person to their parents and significant other. At least, there was supposed to be.

“Liam is an idiot and an asshole,” Alex said flatly. “If you let lesser people determine your self-worth, you’ll never reach higher than their limited imagination.” He leaned forward, his expression intense. “You don’t have to work overtime to get people to love you, Ava. Love isn’t earned, it’s given.”

My heart rattled in my chest. “I thought you didn’t believe in love.”

“Personally? No. But love is like money. Its worth is determined by those who believe in it. And you obviously do.”

Such a cynical, Alex way to look at it, but I appreciated his straightforwardness.

“Thank you,” I said. “For listening to me and…everything.”

He released my hand, and I curled it into a light fist, mourning his warmth.

“If you really want to thank me, you’ll take Krav Maga lessons.” Alex arched an eyebrow, and I laughed softly, grateful for the small break. It’d been a heavy night.

“Okay, but you have to sit for a portrait with me.”

The idea came to me on a whim, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d never wanted to photograph someone as much as I wanted to photograph Alex. I wanted to peel back those layers and reveal the fire I knew beat within that cold, beautiful chest.

Alex’s nostrils flared. “You’re negotiating with me.”

“Yes.” I held my breath, hoping, praying…

“Fine. One session.”

I couldn’t hold back my smile.

I was right. Alex Volkov did have a multilayered heart.


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