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Twisted Love: Chapter 6

Ava

“…Thensaid, never ask Ava to do something like this again, or I will murder you and your entire family,” Jules finished dramatically before taking a sip of her caramel mocha.

“Shut up.” Stella leaned forward, her eyes wide. “He did not say that.”

“No, he didn’t.” I shot Jules a disapproving look. “Stop exaggerating.”

“How would you know? You were in the bathroom,” she countered. When my frown deepened, she sighed. “Fine. He didn’t say those exact words—at least, not the last part—but the general idea was the same. He did warn Owen away from you though.” Jules ripped off a piece of her cranberry scone and popped it in her mouth.

“Poor Owen.” Guilt niggled at me as I traced absentminded patterns on the table. Jules, Stella, Bridget, and I were at The Morning Roast for our weekly Tuesday coffee catch-up, and Jules had been regaling the other girls with a hyperbolized account of what happened at Owen’s house on Saturday. “I wish he hadn’t gotten dragged into this. All those hours of shooting, gone.”

I worked with Owen at the McCann Gallery, where I’d served as a gallery assistant for the past year and a half. My father had never said outright he disapproved of me pursuing a photography career, but he’d made it clear that he wouldn’t fund any of my equipment. He paid for my tuition and other school-related expenses, but if I wanted a new lens, camera, or even a tripod? That was all me.

I tried not to let his unspoken disapproval bother me. I was beyond lucky I’d graduate with no student loan debt, and I wasn’t afraid of hard work. The fact I’d shelled out my own money for every piece of equipment made me cherish them a little more, and I enjoyed my job at McCann. It was one of the most prestigious photography galleries in the Northeast, and I loved my coworkers, though I wasn’t sure whether Owen would want anything more to do with me after what Alex had done.

Even now, my skin heated with anger at the memory of his overbearing attitude.

I couldn’t believe he’d had the gall to show up and boss me around like that. To threaten my friend. To act like I was a…a servant or his employee. Even Josh had never gone that far.

I stabbed at my yogurt with my fork, furious.

“Sounds like I missed an interesting time.” Bridget sighed. “All the fun stuff happens while I’m away.”

Bridget had been attending an event at Eldorra’s New York consulate, as was required of the Princess of Eldorra.

That’s right. She was an honest-to-God, real-life princess, second in line to the throne of a small but wealthy European country. She looked the part, too. With her golden hair, deep blue eyes, and elegant bone structure, she could’ve passed for a young Grace Kelly.

I hadn’t known who Bridget was when she, Jules, Stella, and I found ourselves assigned to the same suite freshman year. Besides, I would’ve expected a freakin’ princess to have a private room.

But that was the great thing about Bridget. Despite her insane upbringing, she was one of the most down-to-earth people I’d ever met. She never pulled rank, and she insisted on living life as a normal college student whenever she could. In that sense, Thayer was the best fit for her. Thanks to its proximity to D.C. and its world-class international politics program, the campus swarmed with political offspring and international royalty. Just the other day, I’d overheard the son of the Speaker of the House and the crown prince of a controversial oil kingdom arguing over video games.

You can’t make that stuff up.

“Trust me, it was not fun,” I grumbled. “It was humiliating. And I owe Owen a dinner, at least.”

My phone flashed with a new text. Liam. Again.

I swiped away the notification before any of my friends saw it. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with him or his excuses right now.

“Au contraire, I thought it was hilarious.” Jules finished the rest of her scone. “You should’ve seen Alex’s face. He was pissed.”

“How is that hilarious?” Stella snapped a photo of her latte art before joining the conversation.

She was a big fashion and lifestyle blogger with over 400,000 Instagram followers, and we were used to her capturing everything for the ‘Gram. Ironically, for someone with such a big social presence, she was the shyest in the group, but she said the “anonymity” of the Internet made it easier to be herself online.

“Did you hear me? He was pissed.” Jules placed extra emphasis on the last word like it was supposed to mean something.

Bridget, Stella, and I stared at her blankly.

She sighed, obviously exasperated by our lack of comprehension. “When was the last time any of us saw Alex Volkov pissed? Or happy? Or sad? The man doesn’t show emotion. It’s like God gave him extra helpings of gorgeousness and zero doses of human feeling.”

“I think he’s a psychopath,” Stella said. She blushed. “No normal person is that controlled all the time.”

I was still upset with Alex, but a strange part of me felt compelled to defend him. “You’ve only met him a few times. He’s not so bad when he’s not…”

“Being bad?” Bridget finished.

“All I’m saying is, he’s Josh’s best friend, and I trust my brother’s judgment.”

Jules snorted. “This the same brother who wore that hideous rat costume to last year’s Halloween party?”

I wrinkled my nose while Bridget and Stella burst into laughter. “I said judgment, not taste.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Stella tilted her head until her glossy dark curls cascaded over her shoulder. We always joked that she was the United Nations of humans because of her multicultural background—German and Japanese on her mother’s side; Black and Puerto Rican on her father’s side. The result was five foot eleven inches of leggy limbs, deep olive skin, and catlike green eyes. Supermodel material, if she had any interest in being a supermodel, which she didn’t. “It was just an observation, but you’re right. I don’t know him well enough to judge. Statement retracted.”

“I’m not upset. I’m…” I faltered. What the hell was I doing? Alex didn’t need me defending him. It wasn’t like he was here, listening to us. Even if he were, he wouldn’t care.

If there was one person in the world who didn’t give a shit what others thought of him, it was Alex Volkov.

“Guys, you’re missing the point.” Jules waved a hand in the air. “The point is, Alex did show emotion. Over Ava. We could have fun with this.”

Oh, no. Jules’s idea of “fun” usually involved a heap of trouble and a potential dose of embarrassment on my part.

“What kind of fun?” Bridget looked intrigued.

“Bridge!” I kicked her under the table. “Don’t encourage her.”

“Sorry.” The blonde made a face. “But all I have going on lately are…” She glanced around to make sure no one was listening. They weren’t, except for her bodyguard Booth, who sat at the table behind us and pretended to read the paper while actually keeping a sharp eye on the surroundings. “Diplomatic events and ceremonial duties. It’s terribly boring. Meanwhile, my grandfather’s sick, my brother’s acting weird, and I need something to take my mind off it all.”

Her grandfather and brother, AKA King Edvard and Crown Prince Nikolai of Eldorra. I had to remind myself they were human beings like everyone else, but even after years of friendship with Bridget, I wasn’t used to her speaking so casually about her family. Like they weren’t literal royalty.

“I have a theory.” Jules leaned forward, and the rest of us, even me, leaned in, eager to hear what she had to say. Call it morbid curiosity, because I was sure I wouldn’t like what was about to come out of her mouth.

I was right.

“Ava somehow gets under Alex’s skin,” Jules said. “We should see how far it goes. How much can she make him feel?”

I rolled my eyes. “All those long hours you put in at your internship must’ve scrambled your brain, because you’re not making any sense.”

She ignored me. “I call it…” Dramatic pause. “Operation Emotion.” She looked up and drew an arc with her hand like the words would magically appear in the air.

“Creative,” Stella teased.

“Hear me out. We all think Alex is a robot, right? Well, what if she …” Jules pointed at me. “…can prove he isn’t? Don’t tell me you guys don’t want to see him act like an actual human being for once.”

“No.” I tossed my empty coffee cup into the nearest trash can and almost beaned a passing student in a Thayer sweatshirt. I winced and mouthed “sorry” before returning to the ridiculous proposition at hand. “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” my so-called best friend sang.

“What would be the point?” I threw my hands in the air. “How would it even work?”

“Simple.” Jules pulled a pen and notepad out of her bag and started scribbling. “We come up with a list of emotions, and you try to make him feel each one. It’ll be a test of sorts. Like giving him an annual physical to make sure he’s functioning properly.”

“Sometimes,” Bridget said. “The way your mind works scares me.”

“No,” I repeated. “Not happening.”

“It does seem kind of…mean.” Stella tapped her gold-polished nails on the table. “What emotions did you have in mind?”

“Stel!”

“What?” She cast a guilty look in my direction. “I’m curious.”

“Off the top of my head? We’ve already seen him angry, so happiness, sadness, fear, disgust…” A wicked smile slashed across Jules’s face. “Jealousy.”

I snorted. “Please. He’d never be jealous of me.”

He was a multimillionaire executive with a genius-level IQ; I was a college student who worked two jobs and ate cereal for dinner.

No contest.

“Not jealous of you. Jealous over you.”

Bridget perked up. “You think he likes Ava?”

“No.” I was tired of saying that word. “He’s my brother’s best friend, and I’m not his type. He told me so.”

“Psshh.” Jules waved away my protest like she would a mosquito. “Men don’t know what they want. Besides, don’t you want to get back at him for what he did to Owen?”

“I don’t,” I said firmly. “And I’m not going along with this crazy idea.”

Forty-five minutes later, we decided Phase One of Operation Emotion would commence in three days.

* * *

I hated myself for caving.

Somehow, Jules always convinced me to do things against my better instincts, like that time we drove four hours to Brooklyn to watch some band perform because she thought the lead singer was hot, and we ended up stranded in the middle of the highway when our rental car broke down. Or that time she convinced me to write a love poem to the cute guy in my English lit class, only for his girlfriend—who I hadn’t known existed—to find it and hunt me down in my dorm.

Jules was the most persuasive person I’d ever met. A good quality for an aspiring lawyer, but not so much for an innocent friend, i.e. me, who wanted to stay out of trouble.

That night, I climbed into bed and closed my eyes, trying to sort through my racing thoughts. Operation Emotion was supposed to be a fun, lighthearted experiment, but it made me nervous, and not just because it erred on the side of mean-spirited. Everything about Alex made me nervous.

I shuddered, thinking of how he’d retaliate if he found out what we were up to, and thoughts of being flayed alive consumed me until I fell into a light, fitful sleep.

“Help! Mommy, help me!”

I tried to scream those words, but I couldn’t. I shouldn’t. Because I was underwater, and if I opened my mouth, all the water would rush in, and I would never see Mommy and Daddy and Josh again. That was what they told me.

They also told me not to go near the lake by myself, but I wanted to make pretty ripples in the water. I liked those ripples, liked how throwing one little stone could cause such a big effect.

Only those ripples were suffocating me now. Thousands and thousands of them, dragging me further and further from the light above my head.

Tears trickled from my eyes, but the lake swallowed them and buried my panic until it was just me and my silent pleas.

I’m never getting out never getting out never getting out.

“Mommy, help!” I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I screamed, screamed as loud as my little lungs allowed. Screamed until my throat was raw and I felt like I would pass out, or maybe that was the water rushing in, filling my chest.

So much water. Everywhere. And no air. Not enough air.

I thrashed my arms and legs in hopes it would help, but it didn’t. It made me sink faster.

I cried harder—not physically, because I couldn’t tell the difference between crying and existing anymore—but in my heart.

Where was Mommy? She was supposed to be here. Mommies were always supposed to be with their daughters.

And she had been there with me on the deck, watching me…until she hadn’t. Had she returned? What if she was sinking beneath the water too?

The blackness was coming. I saw it, felt it. My brain went fuzzy, and my eyes drooped.

I didn’t have the energy to scream anymore, so I mouthed the words. “Mommy, please…”

I jerked upright, my heart beating a million drums of warning while my faded screams soaked into the walls. My covers twisted around my legs, and I threw them off, my skin crawling at the sensation of being entangled—of being trapped with no way to free myself.

The glowing red letters of my alarm clock told me it was four forty-four a.m.

A pinprick of dread blossomed at the base of my neck and slithered down my spine. In Chinese culture, the number four is considered unlucky because the word for it sounds like the word “death.” Sì, four; si, death. The only difference between their pronunciation is a tone inflection.

I’ve never been a superstitious person, but chills swamped me every time I awoke from one of my nightmares during the four a.m. hour, which was almost always. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d awoken during a different hour. Sometimes I woke up not remembering I had a nightmare, but those blessed occasions were far and few in between.

I heard the soft patter of footsteps in the hall and schooled my features into something other than stark terror before the door opened and Jules slipped inside. She flicked on the lamp, and guilt swirled through me when I saw her rumpled hair and exhausted face. She worked long hours and needed sleep, but she always checked on me even after I insisted she stay in bed.

“How bad was it?” she asked softly. My bed sank beneath her weight as she sat next to me and handed me a mug of thyme tea. She’d read online that it helped with nightmares and started making it for me a few months ago. It helped—I hadn’t had a nightmare in over two weeks, which was a record, but I guess my good luck ran out.

“Nothing out of the ordinary.” My hands trembled so much liquid spilled over the side of the mug and dripped onto my favorite Bugs Bunny shirt from high school. “Go back to sleep, J. You have a presentation today.”

“Fuck that.” Jules raked a hand through her tangled red hair. “I’m already up. Besides, it’s almost five. I bet there are dozens of overambitious, Lululemon-wearing fitness junkies jogging outside right now.”

I mustered a weak smile. “I’m sorry. I swear, we can soundproof my room.” I wasn’t sure how much that would cost, but I’d deal with it. I didn’t want to keep waking her up.

“How about no? That’s totally unnecessary. You’re my best friend.” Jules wrapped me into a tight hug, and I allowed myself to sink into her comforting embrace. Sure, she led me into dubious situations sometimes, but she’d been my ride or die since freshman year, and I wouldn’t have anyone else by my side. “Everyone has nightmares.”

“Not like me.”

I’d had these nightmares—these awful, vivid nightmares that I feared weren’t nightmares at all, but actual memories—for as long as I could remember. For me, that was the age of nine. Everything before that was a haze, a canvas peppered with faint shadows of my life before The Blackout, as I called the divide between my forgotten childhood and my later years.

“Stop. It’s not your fault, and I don’t mind. Seriously.” Jules pulled back and smiled. “You know me. I’d never say something was okay if I wasn’t actually okay with it.”

I let out a soft laugh and set the now-empty mug on my nightstand. “True.” I squeezed her hand. “I’m fine. Go back to sleep, jog, or make yourself a caramel mocha or something.”

She scrunched up her nose. “Me, jog? I don’t think so. Cardio and I parted ways a long time ago. Plus, you know I can’t work a coffee machine. That’s why I blow all my paychecks at The Morning Roast.” She examined me, a tiny crease marring her smooth brow. “Give me a holler if you need anything, okay? I’m right down the hall, and I don’t leave for work until seven.”

“‘Kay. Love you.”

“Love you, babe.” Jules gave me one last hug before she left and closed the door behind her with a soft click.

I sank back into bed and pulled the covers up to my chin, trying to fall asleep again even though I knew it was a futile exercise. But even though I was tucked beneath my comforter in a well-insulated room in the middle of summer, the chill remained—a ghostly specter warning me that the past is never past, and the future never unfolds the way we want it to.


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