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Twisted Love: Chapter 32

Ava

He was late.

I tapped my fingers on the table, trying not to check the time on my phone. Again.

Alex and I had agreed to meet at the Italian restaurant near campus at seven. It was now seven-thirty, and all my texts and calls had gone unanswered.

Half an hour wasn’t that long, especially when you took rush hour traffic into account, but Alex was never late. And he always, always answered my messages.

I’d called his office, but his assistant told me he’d left an hour ago, so he should be here by now.

Worry unspooled in my stomach and gnawed at my insides.

Had something happened to him? What if he’d gotten into an accident?

It was easy to think of Alex as invincible, but he bled and hurt like anyone else.

Ten more minutes. I’ll give him ten more minutes, and then I’ll…hell, I don’t know. Send out the freakin’ National Guard. If he was hurt, I wouldn’t sit here and do nothing.

“Can I get you anything, dear?” The waitress swooped by again. “Other than water,” she added pointedly.

The tips of my ears turned red. “No, thanks. I’m, um, still waiting for my friend.” That seemed slightly less pathetic than admitting I was waiting for my boyfriend.

Slightly.

She let out an aggrieved sigh and moved on to the older couple next to me.

I felt bad about hogging the table on a Friday night, but I’d barely seen Alex over the past week, and I missed him. We slept in the same bed every night, and our sex was as explosive as ever, but he seemed more distant during the day. Distracted.

“Ava?”

My head jerked up, and my chest deflated when I realized it wasn’t Alex.

“Remember me?” The guy smiled. He was cute in a geek-chic way, with black-rimmed glasses and longish brown hair. “I’m Elliott. We met at Liam’s birthday party last spring.”

“Ah, right.” I suppressed a flinch at the sound of Liam’s name. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since the charity ball, but Jules—ever tuned in to the gossip—informed me he’d gotten fired and had moved back to his parents’ house in Virginia. I couldn’t say I felt sorry for him. “Nice to see you again.”

“You, too.” Elliott ran an awkward hand through his hair. “Hey, sorry about what happened with Liam. We haven’t kept in touch since we graduated, but I heard about your breakup and, uh…what happened. He was a real jerk.”

“Thanks.” I couldn’t blame him for being Liam’s friend. Ex-friend? I was the one who’d dated the asshole, and guys usually treated their friends better than they did their girlfriends. It was a sad truth.

“Sorry to bother you during dinner—” His gaze flicked to my water glass. “But I’m looking for a photographer who can do an engagement shoot for me, and none of the ones I checked out fit what Sally, my fiancée, is looking for. But I saw you and remembered you’re a photographer, so I figured it’s a sign.” Elliott flashed a sheepish smile. “Hope this doesn’t sound creepy, but I pulled up your website and showed it to Sally, and she loves your pictures. If you’re free in the next few weeks, we’d love to hire you.”

I spotted a pretty blonde at a neighboring table watching us. She grinned and waved at me. I waved back.

“Congrats,” I said, my smile genuine this time. “I’d love to help. Give me your number, and we can sort out details later.”

While we exchanged contact information, an icy voice sliced through the din of the restaurant.

“You’re in my way.”

Alex stood behind Elliott, pinning him with a glare so dark I was surprised the poor man didn’t disintegrate into ashes.

“Oh, sorry—”

“Why are you getting my girlfriend’s number?”

Elliott shot me a nervous glance, and I clenched my jaw. Seriously? Alex was almost an hour late, and he had the nerve to act like a jealous ass the minute he showed up?

“He’s a client,” I said, struggling to remain calm. “Elliott, I’ll call you later, okay? Congratulations again on your engagement.” I emphasized the last word. Alex’s frown eased a smidge, but he didn’t fully relax until Elliott ran back to his table.

“What the hell was that?” I demanded.

“What was what?” Alex slid into his seat.

“You’re late, and you were rude to Elliott for no reason.”

He snapped his napkin open and placed it in his lap. “I had urgent business to take care of, and my phone died, so I couldn’t call you. As for Elliott, I showed up and saw some random guy flirting with my girlfriend. How did you expect me to react?”

“He. Wasn’t. Flirting. With. Me.” I exhaled a long breath. This wasn’t how I’d pictured the evening going. “Look, I don’t want to fight. This is the first time we’ve had a meal together in over a week, and I want to enjoy it.”

“Me too.” Alex’s face softened. “I’m sorry I’m late. I’ll make it up to you.”

“You better.”

His lips quirked.

We placed our orders, the waitress looking much happier after Alex ordered the most expensive white wine on the menu. I couldn’t drink red or my face would explode. I blame my Asian genes—one sip of alcohol, especially red wine, and I turn the color of a tomato.

I waited until the server brought out our entrees before I revealed my big news. “I heard back from the photography fellowship today.”

Alex’s fork paused halfway to his mouth.

“I got in.” I bit my lower lip, my chest wild with the drumbeat of excitement and nerves. “New York. I got in.”

“I knew you would.” Simple and matter of fact, like he’d never doubted me, but Alex’s eyes shone with pride. “Congratulations, Sunshine.”

He leaned across the table and pressed a kiss to my lips. I was so giddy I couldn’t stop grinning, and my earlier irritation melted away. So what if he’d been a little late? I got in!

I’d nearly dropped my phone when I received the email this morning. I’d had to reread it several times before the words sunk in.

I, Ava Chen, was going to be a World Youth Photography fellow. I would spend a year in New York, studying with the world’s best photographers. My only regret was not being able to study under Diane Lange, who taught the London cohort, because while I’d made progress with my aquaphobia, I wasn’t ready to fly over an ocean yet.

But that was okay. I’d meet her one day. In the meantime, I’d work on honing my craft and holy crap, I was going to be a WYP fellow! One of the most prestigious honors in the industry.

My heart soared before reality dragged me down.

“I’ll be in New York,” I said after Alex and I broke apart. “You’ll be in D.C.”

“No, I won’t.” His eyes gleamed at my questioning look. “Archer Group has an office in Manhattan.”

My hopeful heart flapped its wings again. “But you’ve built your base here. Your house, your friends…”

“It’s not my house; it’s Josh’s. I’m safekeeping it for him. And most of the people I know here are acquaintances, not friends.” Alex lifted his shoulder in an elegant shrug. “It’s a simple equation, Sunshine. If you’re in New York, I’m in New York.”

The last vestiges of my hesitation floated away. I grinned, so happy I could dance right here in the middle of a crowded restaurant. “You know how—”

Something buzzed. Alex stiffened, and my eyes dropped to his coat pocket, which buzzed again.

My grin faded. “You said your phone died.”

Just like that, the tension returned, simmering in the air until it became a full-on boil.

The night was an emotional rollercoaster, and I couldn’t keep up.

“I charged it in the car.” Alex sipped his wine, his shoulders tense.

“But you didn’t reply to any of my messages or calls.” I tucked my hands beneath my thighs, suddenly cold even though the heat was on. “Why were you really late, Alex?”

“I told you, I had urgent business to take care of.”

“That’s not good enough.”

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”

“The truth!” I lowered my voice when the diners at the next table shot me an alarmed look. “That’s all I want. Please. My fath—Michael lied to me my entire life, and I don’t want you to start.”

A shadow passed over Alex’s face before it disappeared. “I won’t lie unless the truth hurts you.”

My teeth clenched. “Alex—”

“Plausible deniability exists for a reason, Sunshine.” He cut into his pasta with more force than necessary.

“What did you do?” I whispered.

Alex tightened his grip on his fork. “I’m not always a good person. I don’t always do the right thing. You know that, even if you seem determined to see the good in me. I won’t—” He released a pent-up breath, looking frustrated. “Just drop it, Ava. For your own sake.”

“Sure. I’ll drop it.” I tossed my napkin on the table, my own frustration boiling over. “I’m also leaving. I’ve lost my appetite.”

“Sunshine—” He reached for me, but I shrugged him off and ran out before he could stop me.

My chest felt tight as I speed-walked home. What should’ve been one of the best nights of my life had turned into one of the worst.


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