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Twisted Love: Chapter 8

Ava

OPERATION EMOTION:PHASE SADNESS

I came armed for battle.

I applied makeup, brushed my hair, and wore my favorite white cotton sundress with yellow daisies at the bottom. It was both pretty and comfortable, and it showed off just enough cleavage to intrigue. Liam had loved it. Whenever I wore it, we ended up at his place and my dress ended up on the floor.

I’d considered throwing the outfit away after we broke up because he’d loved it, but I thought better of it. I refused to let him ruin the good things for me, whether it was a dress or mint chocolate ice cream, which he used to buy me whenever I had my period cravings.

I figured looking good couldn’t hurt if I was angling for an unannounced evening moviethon with Alex.

I couldn’t think of any good ideas to make him sad without being a total bitch, so I’d chosen the neutral option of sad movies. They worked on everyone. Yes, even men.

I saw Josh cry once at the end of Titanic, though he claimed it was allergies and threatened to toss my camera from the top of the Washington Monument if I told anyone.

Yeah, right. A decade later, and he still couldn’t shut up about how there’d been room for Jack on the door. I agreed with him, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make fun of him.

Since Alex was a teensy bit more reserved than Josh, I skipped Titanic and brought out the big guns: A Walk to Remember (sadder than The Notebook) and Marley and Me.

I knocked on the door to Alex’s house. To my surprise, it opened less than two seconds later.

“Hey, I—” I stopped. Stared.

I’d expected to see Alex in a suit from the office or casual loungewear, though nothing he owned was really casual. Even his T-shirts cost hundreds of dollars. Instead, he wore a deep gray shirt tucked into dark denim jeans and a tailored black Hugo Boss blazer.

Awfully dressy for a Thursday night.

“Did I catch you on your way out?” I tried to peer behind him and see if he had company, but Alex’s frame blocked most of the doorway.

“Should I move so you have a clearer view of my living room?” he asked sardonically.

Heat scorched my cheeks. Busted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Your living room isn’t that interesting,” I fibbed. “Lack of color. No personal effects.” What am I saying? Someone stop me. “The painting’s ugly too.” Stop me now. “Could use a woman’s touch.” Fuck. Me. Sideways.

I did not just say that.

Alex’s lips pressed together. Had he been anyone else, I could’ve sworn he was trying not to laugh. “I see. The painting technically belongs to Josh, you know.”

“Which should’ve been the first red flag.”

This time, a tiny smirk did touch Alex’s mouth. “To answer your question, I was on the way out. I have a date.”

I blinked. Alex on a date. Did not compute.

Because of course the guy dated. Look at him. But I’d never heard or seen evidence of activity in his love life, unless you counted the women throwing themselves at him wherever he went, so I’d assumed he was one of those workaholics who had an exclusive relationship with his job.

I mean, we’d been neighbors for over a month, and I hadn’t seen him bring a single woman home—though admittedly, I wasn’t watching his house twenty-four-seven like a total creep.

The thought of Alex dating was…strange.

That was the only word I could use to describe the niggling feeling in my stomach, the one that made my skin itch and my pulse beat double time.

“Ah, don’t want to hold you up then.” I stepped back and tripped over nothing, because of course I did. He reached out to steady me, and my heart jumped. It wasn’t a big, cheerleading competition worthy jump. It was just a tiny skip, really. But it was enough to fluster me further. “I’ll see you later.”

“Since you’re already here, might as well tell me why.” Alex was still holding my arm, and the heat from his touch seared me to the bone. “I assume this means the cold shoulder treatment is over.”

I’d been ignoring him for days since he stormed into Owen’s house like an overbearing, green-eyed tornado. It was the longest I’d ever held onto my anger. Being upset was exhausting, and I had better things to do with my time, but I’d wanted to make a point, which was that he couldn’t barge in and try to take over my life without consequences.

“For the most part.” I narrowed my eyes. “Don’t do that again.”

“Don’t parade in front of other men half-naked, and I won’t have to.”

“I was not parading—” His words clicked into place. “Other men?”

Alex dropped my arm, his eyes growing even more glacial. “Tell me why you’re here, Ava. Is someone bothering you?” His gaze sharpened. “Liam?”

An obvious attempt to change the subject, but my head spun too much for me to call him out on it. “No. It was nothing. Jules is on a date and I’m bored, so I thought I’d see if you wanted to hang out.”

I realized I should’ve come up with a less pathetic, more convincing excuse for why I’d shown up to his house unannounced on a Thursday night, especially since we weren’t friends per se, but it was too late.

See, this was why I’d never make it as a spy or lawyer. Jules would be so disappointed in me.

“You’re a terrible liar.” Alex looked unimpressed. “Tell me the real reason you’re here.”

Crap. I had to come up with another excuse? It wasn’t like I could let him know about Operation Emotion.

“I figured you could use the company now that Josh isn’t here,” I said. “I haven’t seen you hang out with anyone else since he left, so I thought you might be lonely?” The sentence morphed into a question when I realized how dumb that logic was, because duh, Alex’s life didn’t revolve around his house. He may not throw house parties every week like Josh, but he probably ate out with friends and attended sports games like everyone else. “Which obviously isn’t the case, since you’re going on a date,” I added quickly. “So, I’ll hop on back to my place, and you can forget this ever happened. Enjoy your date!”

“Stop.”

I froze, my heart thundering against my chest as I wondered how this encounter had gone so off the rails. The funny thing was, it wasn’t actually off the rails; it just felt like it.

Alex widened the door and stepped aside. “Come in.”

What? “But your date.”

“Let me worry about her. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but since you broke your silent treatment to come over and ‘hang out,’ something must be wrong.”

The seed of guilt blossomed into a full-blown tree, trunk and all, in my stomach. This was supposed to be a harmless experiment. I didn’t want him to cancel his scheduled plans for me.

But as I followed Alex into the living room, the thought that he was no longer going to dinner or whatever he’d had planned with some beautiful, mysterious woman pleased me more than it should have.

I stifled a laugh at Alex’s expression when he caught sight of the movies I’d brought over.

“Not a Mandy Moore fan?” I teased, popping the DVD into the player and curling up on the couch while the pre-movie credits played. I still owned DVDs the way I still owned paperback books. There was just something so magical about holding your favorite items rather than seeing them onscreen.

“I don’t have anything against Mandy Moore, but I’m not a fan of maudlin or melodrama.” Alex shrugged off his blazer and draped it over the back of the couch. His shirt stretched across his broad shoulders, and the top two buttons were undone, revealing a sliver of his chest and sexy collarbones.

I hadn’t thought collarbones could be sexy, but here we were.

I swallowed hard. “It is not maudlin or melodrama. It’s romantic.”

“Doesn’t she die in the end?”

“Way to spoil it,” I grumbled.

He shot me a disbelieving look. “You’ve already watched it.”

“But have you?”

“I know what happens. People wouldn’t shut up about it when it first came out.”

“Shh.” I nudged his leg with my foot. “Movie’s starting.”

He sighed.

I loved A Walk to Remember, but I snuck peeks at Alex throughout the film, hoping to catch some sort of reaction.

None. Nada. Zilch, even during Jamie and Landon’s wedding.

“How are you not crying?” I demanded, brushing away my tears with the back of my hand after the end credits rolled. “This movie is so sad.”

“It’s fiction.” Alex grimaced. “Stop crying.”

“I can’t stop when I feel like it. It’s a biological reaction.”

“Biological reactions can be mastered.”

I couldn’t resist—I scooted closer to him on the couch and pushed his shoulders forward so I could run my palm down his back.

His muscles bunched beneath my touch. “What,” he said in a tight, controlled voice. “Are you doing?”

“I’m searching for your control panel.” I patted his back, trying—and failing—not to notice the sculpted contours of his muscles. I’d never seen Alex shirtless, but I imagined it was glorious. “You must be a robot.”

I received a stony glare in response. See? Robot.

“Do you have to swap out your batteries, or are you rechargeable?” I teased. “Should I call you R2-D—”

I yelped when he grabbed my arm and spun me around until I straddled one of his legs. My blood roared in my ears as he tightened his grip on my wrist—not enough to hurt, but enough to warn me he could easily break me if he wanted.

Our eyes locked, and the roaring intensified. Beneath those jade pools of ice, I glimpsed a spark of something that sent heat curling through my stomach.

“I’m not a toy, Ava,” Alex said, his voice lethally soft. “Don’t play with me unless you want to get hurt.”

I swallowed my fear. “You wouldn’t hurt me.”

That mysterious spark crystallized into anger. “This is why Josh was so worried about you. You are trusting to a fault.” He leaned forward a fraction of an inch, and it was all I could do not to lean back. Alex’s presence crackled with coiled energy, and I had the unnerving sense that beneath all that ice lay a volcano waiting to erupt—and God help whoever was around when that happened. “Don’t try to humanize me. I’m not a tortured hero from one of your romantic fantasies. You have no idea what I’m capable of, and just because I promised Josh I’d look after you doesn’t mean I can protect you from yourself and your bleeding heart.”

Pink blossomed on my face and chest. I was torn between fear and fury—fear of that hard, unyielding look in his eyes; fury over how he spoke to me like I was a naïve child who couldn’t tie her shoelaces without hurting herself. “This seems like an overreaction to a simple joke,” I said, my jaw tight. “I’m sorry I touched you without permission, but you could’ve told me to stop instead of giving me an entire speech about how you think I’m a helpless idiot.”

His nostrils flared. “I don’t think you’re a helpless idiot.”

My anger edged out my fear. “Yes, you do. You and Josh both. You always say you want to ‘protect’ me like I’m not a grown woman who’s perfectly capable of handling herself. Just because I see the good in people doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. I think optimism is a good trait, and I feel sorry for people who go through life believing the worst of others.”

“That’s because they’ve seen the worst.”

“People see what they want to see,” I countered. “Are there awful people in the world? Yes. Do awful things happen? Yes. But wonderful people exist and wonderful things happen too, and if you focus too much on the negative, you miss all the positive.”

Utter silence, made all the more awkward by the fact that I was still straddling Alex’s leg.

I was sure he would yell at me, but to my shock, Alex’s face relaxed into a hint of a smile. His fingers grazed the small of my back, and I almost jumped out of my skin.

“Those rose-tinted glasses look good on you, Sunshine.”

Sunshine? I was sure he meant that mockingly, but the butterflies in my stomach stirred to life anyway, fanning away my anger. Traitors.

“Thanks. You can borrow them. You need them more than I do,” I said pointedly.

A low chuckle slipped from his throat, and I almost fell to the floor in shock. Tonight was turning out to be a night of firsts.

Alex’s hand trailed up my spine until it rested on the back of my neck, leaving a cascade of tingles in their wake. “I feel it dripping all over me.”

He did not—what? An inferno consumed my body.

“You’re—you—no, I’m not!” I sputtered, pushing him away and scrambling off him. My core pulsed. Oh my God, what if I was? I couldn’t look, afraid I’d see a telltale wet spot on his jeans.

I’d have to move to Antarctica. Build myself an ice cave and learn to speak penguin because I could never show my face in Hazelburg, D.C., or any city where I could run into Alex Volkov again.

His chuckle blossomed into a full-blown laugh. The effect of his real smile was so devastating, even amid my mortification, that all I could do was stare at the way his face lit up and the sparkle that transformed his eyes from beautiful to downright breathtaking.

Holy crap. Perhaps I should be grateful he never smiled, because if that was what he looked like while doing it…womankind didn’t stand a chance.

“I’m talking about your bleeding heart,” he drawled. “What did you think I was talking about?”

“I—you—” Forget Antarctica. I had to move to Mars.

Alex’s laughter subsided, but the twinkle in his eyes remained. “What’s the next movie?”

“Excuse me?”

He angled his chin toward the DVD on the table. “You brought two movies. What’s the second one?”

The sudden subject change gave me whiplash, but I wasn’t complaining. I didn’t want to speak about my dripping anything with Alex. Ever.

My thighs clenched, and I gritted out, “Marley & Me.”

“Put it in.”

Put it—oh, the DVD.

I needed to get my mind out of the gutter.

While the opening credits played, I sat as far away from Alex as possible and “casually” placed two throw pillows between us for good measure. He didn’t say anything, but I saw his smirk out of the corner of my eye.

I was so focused on not looking at him I barely paid attention to the movie, but an hour later, when my eyes drooped and sleep beckoned, I was still thinking about his smile.


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