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Twisted Love: Chapter 39

Ava

TWO MONTHS LATER

Bridget convinced Rhys not to tell the palace what happened in Philadelphia. I didn’t know how, because Rhys was such a stickler for the rules—even if telling the truth meant getting himself in trouble, since Bridget had been kidnapped on his watch—but she did.

The press also never picked up on the real story. Other than a small item about an “accidental house fire that resulted in the death of former Archer Group CEO Ivan Volkov,” it was like the worst six hours of my life hadn’t happened.

I suspected Alex had a hand in both the fire and the lack of media coverage, but I tried not to think of him these days.

Once or twice, I succeeded.

“I brought cake.” Jules slid a red velvet cupcake in my direction. “Your fave.” Her face glowed with hope as she waited for my response.

My friends tried their best to put on happy faces around me, but I heard their whispers and saw their sidelong glances—they were worried. Really worried. So was Josh, who quit his volunteer program and moved back to Hazelburg for “moral support.” He’d landed a few days after the Philly incident for his belated holiday break, and when he found out what happened, he went berserk. That’d been almost two months ago.

I was grateful for my friends’ support, but I needed more time. Space. They meant well, but I couldn’t breathe with them hovering all the time.

“I don’t want it.” I pushed the cupcake away from me. Red velvet. Like the cookies I’d baked for Alex as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift a lifetime ago.

I couldn’t stand anything red velvet these days.

“You haven’t eaten yet, and it’s already late afternoon.” For once, Stella wasn’t glued to her phone. Instead, she stared at me with concern scrawled all over her face.

“I’m not hungry.”

Jules, Bridget, and Stella exchanged glances. I’d moved in with Bridget because I couldn’t stand living near Alex anymore. Even though he’d moved out soon after I did, I couldn’t look at that house without thinking of him, and every time I thought of him, I felt like I was drowning.

Helpless. Unmoored. Unable to breathe.

“Your birthday’s coming up. We should celebrate.” Bridget switched topics. “How about a spa day? You love massages, and it’ll be on me.”

I shook my head.

“Or maybe something simple like a movie night?” Stella suggested. “PJs, junk food, junk movies.”

“Movies so bad they’re almost good,” Jules added.

“Okay.” I didn’t feel like celebrating, but I also didn’t feel like arguing, and they would bug me until I agreed to something. “I’m going to take a nap.”

I didn’t wait for them to answer before I pushed my chair back and went upstairs to my room. I locked the door and climbed into bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I’d stopped having so many nightmares after I regained my memories, but it was now my waking hours that I dreaded.

I lay in the dark, listening to the rain outside and watching the shadows dance across my ceiling. The past two months had both flown by and dragged on, with each day bleeding into the next in an endless sludge of numbness. Yet I woke up every morning, surprised I’d survived another day. Between Michael’s and Alex’s betrayals, I had depleted my capacity to cry.

I hadn’t shed a single tear since I returned from Philadelphia.

My phone pinged with a new email notification on the nightstand. I ignored it. It was probably a stupid ten percent off coupon for something I didn’t need.

Then again, it wasn’t like I could sleep, and the sound lingered in the silence.

I sighed and grabbed my cell, opening the new email with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner on their way to Death Row. It was the orientation package for the WYP fellowship, complete with a calendar of classes and activities for the year, a list of housing suggestions, and a mini travel guide to New York City.

I was graduating and moving to Manhattan in May. It’d been my dream since I was thirteen, but I couldn’t summon a flicker of excitement at the prospect. New York was too close to D.C. for comfort, and to be honest, I hadn’t picked up my camera in weeks. I even canceled my engagement shoot with Elliott and his fiancée because I didn’t think I could do them justice. He’d been disappointed, but I’d steered them toward another photographer who could help. My clients deserved better than what I could give them because at this point, I had zero inspiration or motivation to shoot.

I was entering the world’s most prestigious fellowship in two-and-a-half months, and my creative well was drier than the Kalahari Desert. One more beautiful thing in my life, ruined.

Out of nowhere, fury blasted through me, shocking me out of my stupor.

This should’ve been the best, most exciting time of my life. It was my senior year, and my dream program had accepted me. Instead of celebrating, I was moping like a…well, a heartbroken teenager. And even though that was half correct, I was sick of it. Sick of letting men who didn’t give two shits about me have this hold over me. Sick of being the object of pitying looks and worried whispers.

Maybe I was that person in the past, but not anymore.

Anger and indignation rushed through my veins, compelling me to get out of bed and rifle through my drawers until I found what I was looking for. I put it on, covered it up with a hoodie and jeans, and shoved my feet into boots. I walked down the stairs and found my friends huddled in the living room. Rhys stood in the corner, stone-faced and watchful.

“Do you want a ride somewhere?” Bridget asked when she saw my outfit. “It’s pouring outside.”

“No, I have an umbrella.”

“Where are you going?” Stella asked. “I’ll go—”

“It’s okay. I have something I need to do—alone.”

A small frown took over her face. “I don’t think—”

“I mean it.” I took a deep breath. “I appreciate all you guys have done, I really do, but I need to do this for me. I won’t hurt myself or do anything crazy. I just need you to trust me.”

There was a long silence before Jules finally broke it. “Of course we trust you,” she said softly. “You’re our best friend.”

“But if you need us, we’re here.” Bridget’s warm, sympathetic gaze caused a messy knot of emotion to form in my throat. “You don’t have to do anything alone if you don’t want to.”

“Just send a text, call, carrier pigeon, whatever,” Stella added. “My Instagram inbox gets crazy sometimes, but that works too.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat and huffed out a small laugh. “Thank you. I’ll be back soon. Promise.”

I grabbed the umbrella by the front door, feeling the heat of my friends’ worried gazes on my back, and stepped out into the storm. My boots squeaked on the wet sidewalks as I walked toward a campus building I’d never visited in all my years at Thayer. One, because I was lazy, and two, because I was afraid…of a certain room, anyway.

I swiped my student ID at the front desk and consulted the map before winding my way to the back. It was a rainy Sunday in March, so there weren’t many people here. The New Year’s Resolution people, the ones who’d vowed to exercise more in the new year, had given up by now, and the gym rats were apparently taking the day off.

I pushed open the door to the pool room, breathing a sigh of relief when I saw that it too, was empty. It was a gorgeous space, with pale tile floors and a giant skylight over the pool.

I kicked off my boots and shrugged off my clothes until I had on only my swimsuit.

The smell of chlorine didn’t nauseate me as much as it used to. I’d gotten used to it after all my swim lessons with Al—after all my swim lessons. Still, my skin prickled with unease at the undulations in the pale turquoise water, which seemed to stretch forever in its Olympic-sized concrete container.

I hadn’t had a swim lesson in months. I thought I remembered the basics, but what if I didn’t?

My chest tightened, and it took more effort than it should’ve to draw enough oxygen into my lungs.

It was worse when Al—when I was alone. If I drowned, no one would find me until later. There’d be no one to save me.

But that was the point of this exercise, wasn’t it? To do this alone.

Breathe, Ava. You won’t drown. You know how to swim.

I opened my eyes and took a few shaky steps toward the edge of the pool. It seemed bottomless, even though the markers indicated it was eight feet deep at its deepest.

Before I lost my nerve, I stepped in, trying not to flinch at the sensation of cold water lapping at my ankles. My knees. My thighs. My chest. My shoulders.

Okay. This wasn’t so bad. I’d been in a pool dozens of times before. I could do this.

Not alone, a taunting voice in my head sang. What makes you think you can do this alone?

“Shut. Up,” I gritted out, my voice echoing in the empty space.

I held my breath and, after saying a quick prayer, ducked my head beneath the water. I fought the immediate urge to panic. You’re fine, you’re fine. I was still in the shallow end of the pool, and I could lift my head at any time.

I closed my eyes, the events of the past six months flashing through my mind.

Josh announcing he was leaving for Central America. Me getting stranded in a rainstorm in the middle of nowhere. Alex—there, I said his full name—picking me up. Alex moving in next door. Alex—

My head broke above the water, and I gasped for air. I allowed myself a minute break before I dove again.

Alex’s birthday. Our first kiss. Our weekend at the hotel. Thanksgiving. My father. My kidnapping.

Sweet, trusting Ava, so eager to fix broken things.

Was any of it real?

Again and again. Head in, head out. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to dwell on Alex and our time together since Philadelphia. Razor blades pierced my chest at the memory of his voice, his eyes, his touch…but I was still here. I was alive. And, for once, the water didn’t seem like an enemy. It seemed like a friend, swallowing my tears and cleansing me of the past.

I couldn’t change what happened to me or control what other people did, but I could control what I did. I could shape the future I wanted to have.

When the restless energy became too much, I stopped holding my breath underwater and started swimming. I wouldn’t win an Olympic medal anytime soon, but I could move my body from one point to the other in the pool, which was more than I could say for myself this time last year.

All my life, people had coddled me. Josh. My friends. Alex. Or at least, he’d pretended to care about me. I’d let them, because it was easier to lean on others than myself. I’d thought myself free because I didn’t have a physical cage when in fact I’d been trapped by my own mind, by the fears that haunted my days and the nightmares that haunted my nights. I stuck with the safe choices because I thought I wasn’t strong enough for anything else.

But I’d survived not one, not two, but three near-death experiences. I’d had my heart broken and smashed, but I was still breathing. I’d lived with my nightmares almost my whole life and still found the courage to dream.

I swam until my limbs ached.

After that, I stayed in the pool for a while longer, reveling in my accomplishment. Me, swimming alone, for—I snuck a peek at the clock—an hour without a panic attack. More than an hour.

I tilted my head up, my first real smile in months spreading across my face. It was small, but it was there.

Baby steps.

Above me, the storm had abated, the angry gray clouds giving way to blue skies. And through the domed glass, I saw, quite clearly, the pale glimmers of a rainbow.


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