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Twisted Love: Chapter 40

Alex

TWO AND A HALF MONTHS LATER

“You look like shit.” Ralph sank into the chair opposite mine and appraised me with sharp eyes. “Haven’t ‘cha heard of a skincare routine?”

I didn’t look up from the screen. “Carolina!”

The door to my office opened, and my assistant poked her head in. “Yes, Mr. Volkov?”

“How the fuck did he get in here?” I gestured at Ralph.

“He’s on your approved list of visitors who don’t need appointments.”

“Remove him from the list.”

“Yes, sir.” Carolina hesitated. “Do you—”

“You can leave.”

She fled without a second thought. I didn’t blame her. I’d been in a foul mood for months, and she’d learned it was best to stay out of sight.

Ralph arched his eyebrows. “Someone’s in a bad mood.”

“Don’t you have a business to run?” I clicked out of the spreadsheet I’d been examining and leaned back, irritation coiling in my stomach. I didn’t have time for bullshit today. I barely had time for lunch.

Ever since I took over as CEO of Archer Group, the company’s stocks had shot sky-high. Likely because I worked nonstop, more than I ever had. I barely left my office. Work kept me busy, and busy was good.

“Ah, about that.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I wanted to tell you in person.”

“Whatever it is, make it quick. I have a phone call with the Vice-President in an hour.” I picked up my glass of whisky and drained the rest of the Macallan.

Yes, it was only noon. No, I didn’t give a fuck.

“The Vice-President of the United—” Ralph shook his head. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know. But since you asked, here it is. I’m retiring and moving to Vermont.”

“Funny.”

“I’m not joking. I’m retiring and moving to Vermont,” he repeated.

I stared at him. Ralph stared back, his face calm. “You’re shitting me.”

Ralph was one of those guys I pictured working till the day he died, simply because he loved his job. He took immense pride in the fact he’d built KMA into the city’s best training center over the years, and he hadn’t given a single indication he wanted to retire until now.

“Nah. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I love KMA, but I ain’t no spring chicken anymore, and Missy and I have saved up enough for retirement. Plus, the missus has been wanting to get out to the country for a while.” Ralph drummed his fingers on the desk. “She grew up in Vermont. Always wanted to go back.”

I needed another drink. “What the hell are you going to do in Vermont?”

“Fuck if I know. Guess I should find a hobby.” Ralph flashed a crooked smile before it dimmed. “I know it’s sudden, but I didn’t decide until yesterday. I wanted to tell you first. Don’t tell the other students, but…you’ve always been the biggest pain in my ass.”

That was as close to a sentimental statement as Ralph would get.

I snorted. “Thanks. So.” I assessed him with narrowed eyes. “What’s happening with the academy?”

“My nephew will take it over. He’ll do a good job.” Ralph laughed at my grimace. “I know you’re not his biggest fan, but he’s been running things alongside me for years. He has what it takes.”

“We’ll see.” His nephew may have what it takes, but Ralph was Ralph. “When are you moving?”

“End of August. Gives us time to put our affairs in order here, and fall in Vermont is nice as hell.” My mentor’s face softened. “You can call or visit anytime. My door is always open for you.”

“Fine.” I shuffled the papers on my desk. “We’ll grab a meal before you leave.”

“I mean it, Alex. Don’t give me that I’m-an-asshole-who-doesn’t-need-anyone shit, either. I know it’s been a tough couple o’ months with Ava—”

“Don’t.” My jaw clenched. “We’re not discussing her. Period.”

Ava had stopped taking Krav Maga lessons at KMA, which I’d expected, but Ralph hadn’t stopped bugging me about her since he found out about our breakup. I didn’t give him the nitty-gritty; I simply told him things didn’t work out.

Which didn’t stop him from prying. He was a persistent bastard.

“Never figured you one to run away from your troubles,” he said.

“I’m not running from anything.”

“Then why do you look like hell? Not to mention you’ve been in a foul mood since January. Whatever you did—”

“We’re. Not. Discussing. It.” A vein throbbed in my temple. This was why I abhorred human companionship. People couldn’t shut the hell up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

“Sir?” Carolina poked her head in again, her face pale and not a little terrified. “Uh, you have another guest.”

“If they don’t have an appointment, I don’t want to see them.”

“About that, it’s—”

“Don’t bother, I’ll announce myself.” A statuesque blonde swept in like she owned the place. The vein in my temple pulsed harder. “Princess Bridget of Eldorra, here to see Asshole—I mean, Alex Volkov.” Her smile came off both polite and menacing.

I was impressed, if not annoyed.

How hard was it to find competent staff who could keep intruders out of my office these days?

“Princess.” Ralph waved two fingers in the air.

“Ralphie.” She nodded.

Ralphie? I wasn’t going to ask.

Bridget’s bruiser of a bodyguard stood behind her with his ever-present glower. He might be the one person in the world who had a better poker face and a shittier disposition than I did.

“I’m sorry.” Carolina looked like she was on the verge of panic. “The princess—”

“Leave. I’ll take care of it.” My call with the VP was in forty minutes, and I’d already wasted enough time.

“That’s my cue.” Ralph rose. “I’ll take you up on the meal, but it looks like you have some stuff to hash out first.” He tilted his head toward Bridget but kept his eyes on me. “Think about what I said.”

“Sure.” I would rather eat rusted nails than visit Vermont. I didn’t do country life.

When the door closed behind Ralph and Carolina, I leaned back in my chair and laced my fingers over my chest. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Your Highness?” I kept my expression impassive and tried not to think of the last time I’d seen Bridget—in her car, taking Ava from me.

Even if I was the one who’d pushed Ava away, I hated Bridget a little for that. For being able to comfort Ava when I couldn’t.

The blonde looked down her nose at me. “I know what you did.”

“You’ll have to be more specific. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, as you well know.”

“Cut the bullshit.” Bridget walked up to my desk and leaned forward, pressing her hands on the table. Her eyes glinted with steely knowledge. “You’re having Ava followed.”

My shoulders stiffened before I forced them to relax. “Princesses shouldn’t say the word ‘bullshit.’ It’s terribly undiplomatic.”

“Don’t deflect. Rhys…” She angled her head toward the bodyguard, whose gunmetal glare darkened the longer he looked at me. “…caught him. It turns out it’s a small world after all because they served in the military together. In fact, Rhys saved his life, so it didn’t take much before he spilled. Now, I want you to explain why, exactly, you’re having Ava followed. Haven’t you done enough?”

That fucker.No wonder the guy I’d hired had been avoiding my calls.

Navy SEAL of honor, my ass. Incompetency and disloyalty were a worldwide scourge.

“Perhaps you should check your facts because I did no such thing,” I said coolly. “Delusional much?”

“Don’t lie, Alex. You’re not as good at it as you think you are.” Bridget pierced me with her stare. “He told us you ordered him to keep an eye on her. Not to harm her…but to protect her.”

A familiar pressure built at the base of my neck and spread until it enveloped my skull in a crushing grip. “And you believed him?” I straightened my shirt sleeve. “Doesn’t say much for your bodyguard that he would believe lies so easily. No wonder you got kidnapped.”

A low growl emitted from said bodyguard’s throat. He stepped forward, his eyes promising vengeance, but Bridget stayed him with a warning look.

“You’re deflecting again.” She relaxed, her hard expression melting into a thoughtful one that sent the hairs on the back of my neck rising. She slipped into Ralph’s vacated chair and crossed one leg over the other.

“I didn’t say you could sit.” I didn’t give a flying fuck that she was a princess. This was my office. My kingdom.

Bridget ignored me.

I’d already picked up my phone to call security when she said, “You secretly hired someone to look after Ava because you still care about her.”

Why the fuck did everyone want to talk about her? Was it Torture Alex with Ava’s Name day?

I slammed the phone down and stood. I was done with people today. The Vice-President could wait another day or week for our phone call. “I don’t have time for this. I—”

“Still care about her,” Bridget repeated.

“Take a pill for the delusion, princess. I used her. I got what I wanted. Now I’m done. I’ve been done for months.” I shrugged on my jacket. “Now fuck off.”

“For someone who’s usually so composed, you’re awfully agitated,” she said. “I wonder why.”

“How about you mind your business, I mind mine.” I flicked my eyes toward Rhys, who glared back at me with dangerous gray eyes.

Bridget tensed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what it means.”

“Fine. Stay in denial.” Bridget stood, her complexion a shade paler than before. “I guess you don’t want to know about Ava.”

“What about Ava?” The question slipped out before I could stop it.

Shit.

A small, triumphant smile spread across Bridget’s face. Between her and Jules, “annoying as hell” must be a requirement for Ava’s friends.

“Forget I said anything. You obviously don’t care,” she said.

“Just tell me,” I gritted out.

“Not unless you admit it.”

My blood pressure skyrocketed to alarming levels. I was this close to drop-kicking a princess, bodyguard be damned. “There’s nothing to tell.”

“For a supposed genius, you are dense.” Bridget somehow managed to look down her nose at me even though I was taller than her. “You didn’t hire someone to follow Ava all these months to protect her for no reason. To be clear, I despise you for what you did, and I don’t want her to forgive you. But I love her more than I hate you, and she hasn’t been the same since Philly.” A troubled expression crossed her face. “I didn’t say anything at first because I thought you didn’t care, but now that I know you do—don’t insult me by denying it again,” she said when I opened my mouth. “I may not have a MENSA-level IQ, but I’m not an idiot. I hate to admit it, but you’re the only person with any hope of getting through to her. I’ve tried, Jules and Stella have tried, Josh has tried hard as he can…but it’s not working.”

I suppressed a flinch at the mention of Josh’s name. “Ava’s fine. She’s healthy and thriving in school. She’s even swimming on her own now.”

There was no use pretending anymore. Bridget saw right through my bullshit.

“On the outside, Ava is fine,” she said. “Not on the inside. She’s…I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like she’s missing the spark that makes her her.”

I knew exactly what she meant, because I’d seen that spark die in front of my eyes.

I exhaled a ragged breath and tried to gather my swirling thoughts. They were usually crystal clear, each arranging themselves in the perfect pattern for me to analyze and strategize, but I’d barely slept over the past few months, and I hadn’t eaten in almost twenty-four hours. I was a mess.

I’d been a mess since I let Ava go.

“I don’t know if she’ll forgive you for what you did,” Bridget said. “Or if I want her to forgive you. But it’s not about me. It’s about her. Imagine how she must feel, finding out both her ‘father’ and her ‘boyfriend’ lied to her for so long—and finding these things out at practically the same time. She says she’s over it, but you don’t just ‘get over’ something like that.” She glared at me. “At least tell her your true feelings. She doesn’t trust herself right now, much less in love or other people. And an Ava who doesn’t trust or believe in love…well, that’s not really Ava, is it?”

My heart twisted into a knot that blocked the air from my lungs. “I can’t.”

“Why not? You care about her. Perhaps…” She paused, her face contemplative as she examined my tight jaw and rigid frame. “You even love her.”

“Get out.”

“You’re being a coward. I thought you weren’t afraid of anything, yet you’re afraid to tell her how you really feel—”

“Because she’s better off without me, okay?” I exploded, months of pent-up emotion bursting forth in one giant, scalding wave.

Rhys stepped forward, but Bridget waved him back, those blue eyes trained on me with fascination. I didn’t blame her. I’d never blown up like that in front of another person. Ever.

It was strangely cathartic.

“I couldn’t protect her. She was hurt because of me. My uncle kidnapped her because of me. And I couldn’t stop him.” I pressed my lips together, trying to calm my rampaging pulse.

Five months later, I still woke in the middle of the night, terrified something had happened to Ava. Envisioning all the things that could’ve happened to her had things gone sideways in my uncle’s office. That was why I’d hired the private investigator-slash-bodyguard—I couldn’t look after her myself without putting her in more danger, but I’d be damned if I left her defenseless and alone out there.

Of course, I needed to fire the guy for not keeping his mouth shut, but this was D.C. There were ex-military and ex-Secret Service types everywhere.

Bridget’s expression softened. “You saved her life.”

“I was the one who put her in that situation in the first place,” I said bitterly. “People around me always get hurt, and for all I have”—I swept my arm around my sprawling office—“I can’t guarantee their safety.” I raked a frustrated hand through my hair, glad my office was soundproof and surrounded by tinted glass. The last thing I needed was for my staff to see me lose my shit.

“Nothing in life is guaranteed, but you’re Alex Volkov. Your uncle caught you off guard because he was your uncle, but now that he’s out of the picture, do you really think anyone else can get the jump on you?” Bridget shook her head. “If you do, then maybe it is best you stay away from Ava. Like I said, I despise what you did to her, but I also believe you love her—even if you’re too stubborn or stupid to see it—”

“I have an IQ of 160,” I said, insulted.

“Intellectual intelligence doesn’t equal emotional intelligence,” she retorted. “And do not interrupt a princess. It’s terrible etiquette. As I was saying, you’re too stubborn or stupid to see it, and now it’s too late.”

I paused, letting her words sink in. Dread uncoiled at the pit of my stomach. “Explain.”

Bridget and Rhys exchanged glances before she responded in a wary tone. “Ava’s moving to London. She switched her fellowship location. Her plane leaves in”—she checked the clock—“an hour.”

London. Another city, another country, another continent. She would be thousands of miles away from me.

Fuck. That.

The dread turned into full-blown panic. “Flight info,” I snarled.

“I don’t know.”

I wanted to strangle her. I didn’t care that Rhys was packing heat and looked ready to tackle me if I so much as twitched the wrong way.

“I swear to God, Bridget—”

“Why do you want to know?” she demanded. “It’s not like you’ll go after her. You said—”

“Because I love her!” I slammed my hands on the table. “There, happy? I love her so much I would rather give her up than hurt her. But if you think I’m letting her go to another country alone, with no protection, you’ve got another think coming. Now give me her fucking flight info.”

Bridget did, a spark of triumph gleaming in her eyes.

I was well aware she’d baited me, but I didn’t care. All I cared about was getting to the airport in the next hour—fuck, the next fifty-six minutes. I would figure everything else out later—Ava’s protection, my enemies. For now, I just needed to see her. Hold her.

I brushed past Bridget and Rhys and stormed toward the elevator, ignoring Carolina’s startled jump.

“Cancel my call with the VP—send my sincerest apologies and tell him I had a last-minute emergency—and book me a ticket to Europe that leaves in the next three hours,” I commanded as I passed her. “Dulles Airport.”

“You want me to cancel the—”

“Do it.”

“Certainly, sir.” Carolina sprang into action, her fingers flying over her keyboard. “Which city would—”

“Doesn’t matter. Just do it.”

“Right away, sir.”

I only needed the ticket to get past security.

On a regular day, it took half an hour to reach the airport, but of course, today was the day every construction crew in D.C. showed up in full force. Roadblocks and closures littered the streets alongside a shitload of drivers determined to win the World’s Slowest Driver award.

“Get out of my way,” I snapped at the Lexus in front of me. Jesus, does no one in this city know how to drive?

I broke what must have been a thousand traffic laws, but I made it to the airport in thirty-five minutes. Parking, security—fortunately, Carolina had the foresight to check me in online—and I was through, racing through the terminal searching for Ava’s gate number.

I felt like the world’s worst movie cliché. Running through the airport trying to get the woman I loved to give me another chance…how original. But if it got me to Ava in time, I’d do it in front of prime-time TV.

Ava and I hadn’t spoken in months, but there remained a thread tying us together despite what happened in Philly. Something told me that if she were to get on that plane, that would change. We—or whatever was left of us—would change. And I was terrified.

Beneath the fear, though, there lay a glimmer of pride. The girl who’d been afraid to go near water a year ago—who’d dreamed of traveling the world but never thought she’d be able to—was taking an international flight for the first time. Flying over an ocean. Facing her fears. I always knew she could do it, and she didn’t need me or anyone else holding her hand.

I wondered if other people felt conflicting emotions like this every day. If so, I almost felt sorry for them. It was a pain in the fucking ass.

I dodged a mother with a stroller and a slow-moving group of students in obnoxious neon green T-shirts. The gate numbers whizzed by in a blur until I found the one I was looking for.

My stomach sank when I saw the empty seating area and closed door leading to the jetway.

“Flight 298. Did it leave?” I demanded of the attendant behind the counter.

“Yes, I’m afraid the plane took off a few minutes ago, sir,” she said apologetically. “If you would like to book another flight—”

I tuned her out, my heart beating a desperate, lonely rhythm in my chest.

The plane had left.

Ava was gone.


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