Twisted love by ANA HUANG ,chapter 29,AVA

I COULDN’T STOP THROWING UP. I heaved into the toilet, my stomach roiling, my skin drenched with sweat as Alex held my hair back and rubbed circles on my back. He was livid. Not at me, but at my father, my past, the entire situation. I could feel it in the tenseness of his hands and the aura of barely leashed violence that’d swirled around him since I confessed my memories. The day at the lake had only been the tip of the iceberg. I’d remembered something else—something that cemented my father’s guilt. “Daddy, look!” I ran into his office, brandishing the paper in my hands with pride. It was an essay I wrote for class on who we admired most. I wrote about Daddy. Mrs. James gave me an A plus on it, and I couldn’t wait to show him. “What is it, Ava?” He raised his eyebrows. “I got an A plus! Look!” He took the paper from me and skimmed it, but he didn’t look happy like I’d expected. My smile dimmed. Why was he frowning? Weren’t A’s good? He always praised Josh when he brought home A’s. “What’s this?” “It’s a paper about who I admire most?” I twisted my hands, growing more nervous. I wished Josh was here, but he was at his friend’s house. “I said you, because you saved me.” I didn’t remember him saving me, but that was what everyone told me. They said I fell into a lake a few years ago and would’ve died if Daddy
hadn’t jumped in after me. “I did, didn’t I?” He finally smiled, but it wasn’t a nice smile. I suddenly didn’t want to be here anymore. “You look so much like your mother,” Daddy said. “A carbon copy of when she was your age.” I didn’t know what a carbon copy was, but based on his tone, it probably wasn’t a good thing. He stood, and I instinctively stepped back until my legs hit the couch. “Do you remember what happened at the lake when you were five, darling Ava?” He brushed his fingers over my cheek, and I flinched. I shook my head, too scared to speak. “That’s for the best. Makes things easier.” Daddy smiled another ugly smile. “I wonder if you’ll forget this too?” He picked up a throw pillow and pushed me onto the couch. I didn’t have time to respond before I lost the ability to breathe. The pillow pressed into my face, cutting off my oxygen supply. I tried to push it off, but I wasn’t strong enough. A strong hand locked my wrists together until I couldn’t struggle anymore. My chest tightened, and my vision flickered. No air. Noairnoairnoair— Not only had my father tried to drown me, he’d also tried to suffocate me. I retched again, and again, and again. I’d managed to stay calm for most of Thanksgiving weekend, but saying the words out loud—my father tried to kill me—must’ve triggered a delayed physical response. After I’d thrown up what must’ve been all the contents in my stomach, I sank onto the floor. Alex handed me a glass of water, and I downed it with long, grateful gulps. “I’m sorry,” I rasped. “This is so embarrassing. I’ll clean up—” “Don’t worry about it.” He ran a gentle hand over my hair, but an inferno raged in his eyes. “We’ll figure everything out. Leave it to me.”
A WEEK LATER, Alex and I waited for my father to arrive in one of Archer Group’s conference rooms. It was my first time seeing Alex’s workplace, and the building was exactly how I’d pictured it: sleek, modern, and beautiful, all
glass and white marble. I couldn’t appreciate it, though. I was too nervous. The clock ticked on the wall, deafening in the silence. I drummed my fingers on the polished wood table and stared through the tinted glass windows, both willing and dreading my father’s appearance. “Security here is top-notch,” Alex reassured me. “And I’ll be by your side the entire time.” “That’s not what I’m worried about.” I had to press my other hand against my knee to keep it from bouncing. “I don’t think he would…” Physically hurt me? But he had. Or at least, he’d tried. The day he pushed me into the lake, and the day he suffocated me. And those were only the instances I remembered. I flashed back over the years, trying to remember anything else amiss. I thought he’d been a decent father during my teenage years. Not the most present or affectionate, but he hadn’t tried to kill me, which begged the question: why hadn’t he? There’d been plenty of opportunities, plenty of times when he could’ve made my death look like an accident. But that question paled in comparison to the biggest one of all, which was why he wanted to kill me in the first place. I was his daughter. A single broken sob erupted from my throat. Alex squeezed my hand, his brows drawn tight over his eyes, but I shook my head. “I’m okay,” I said, gathering the strength to pull myself together. I could do this. I wouldn’t break down. I wouldn’t. Even if my heart hurt so much I might combust. “I—” The door opened, and my words died in my throat. My father—Michael; I couldn’t think of him as my father anymore— walked in, looking confused and a little annoyed. He wore his favorite striped polo and jeans again, as well as that damn signet ring. I choked back bile. Beside me, Alex tensed, wrath radiating from him in dark, dangerous waves. “What’s going on?” Michael frowned. “Ava? Why did you ask me to come here?” “Mr. Chen.” Alex’s voice seemed pleasant enough; only those who knew him could detect the lethal blade beneath his words, waiting to strike. “Please, take a seat.” He gestured at the leather chair on the other side of the table. Michael did, his expression growing more irritated. “I have work to do,
and you made me come all the way to D.C. for a supposed emergency.” “I sent a car,” Alex said, still in that deceptively pleasant tone. “Your car or mine, it takes the same amount of time.” Michael’s eyes flicked between Alex and me before settling on me. “Don’t tell me you’re pregnant.” Confirmation he knew Alex and I had been an item at Thanksgiving. Not that I cared what he thought anymore. “No.” I raised my voice so I could hear it over my pounding pulse. “I’m not.” “Then what’s the emergency?” “I—” I faltered. Alex squeezed my hand again. “I—” I couldn’t say it. Not with an audience. Alex already knew everything, but what Michael and I had to discuss seemed too personal to air out in front of other people. It was between us. Father and daughter. Pinpricks of light danced before my vision. I dug the nails of my free hand into my thigh so hard I would’ve drawn blood had I not been wearing jeans. “Alex, can you let us have a moment alone, please?” His head whipped toward me, his expression thunderous. Please, I begged with my eyes. I need to do this on my own. Knowing how protective he was, I expected more resistance, but he must’ve seen something in my face—my unshakeable belief that I had to fight my own battles—because he released my hand and stood. Reluctantly, but he did it. “I’ll be right outside,” he said. A promise and a warning. Alex shot a dark look at Michael before he exited. And then there were two. “Ava?” Michael raised his eyebrows. “Are you in trouble?” Yes. I’d run through this conversation in my mind hundreds, if not thousands, of times before I stepped foot in this room. I’d labored over how to bring up the topic and how I’d react to his response, whatever it may be. Oh hey, Dad, nice to see you. By the way, did you try to murder me? Yes? Oh damn, okay. But I couldn’t drag it out any longer. I needed answers before the questions killed me. “I’m not in trouble,” I said, proud of how steady I sounded. “But I have
something to tell you about what happened over Thanksgiving weekend.” Wariness crept into his eyes. “Okay…” “I remembered.” “Remembered what?” “Everything.” I watched him closely for a reaction. “My childhood. The day I almost drowned.” Wariness morphed into shock and a faint tinge of panic. Deep grooves appeared in his forehead. My stomach dropped. I’d hoped I’d been wrong, but the wild look in Michael’s eyes told me all I needed to know—I wasn’t wrong. He really had tried to kill me. “Really?” His chuckle sounded forced. “Are you sure? You’ve been having nightmares for years—” “I’m sure.” I straightened my shoulders and looked him straight in the eye, trying to keep my trembles under control. “Were you the one who pushed me into the lake that day?” Michael’s face collapsed, the shock in his eyes tripling. “What?” he whispered. “You heard me.” “No, of course not!” He raked a hand through his graying hair, agitated. “How could you think that? I’m your father. I would never do anything to hurt you.” Hope whispered through my heart even as my brain shook its head in skepticism. “That’s what I remember.” “Memories can deceive. We remember things that didn’t actually happen.” Michael leaned forward, his face softening. “What exactly do you think happened?” I gnawed on my bottom lip. “I was playing by the lake. Someone came up behind me and pushed me. I remembered turning around and seeing a flash of gold. A signet ring. Your signet ring.” My gaze dropped to said ring on his finger. He glanced down and rubbed it. “Ava.” He sounded pained. “I was the one who saved you from drowning.” That was the part that didn’t make sense. I’d passed out, so I hadn’t seen who’d saved me, but the paramedics and police said Michael had been the one who called them. Why would he do that if he was the one who pushed me in?
“I came over to speak with your mother about the divorce, and no one answered the door even though her car was in the driveway. I went around back to see if she was out there, and I saw—” Michael swallowed hard. “It was the worst few minutes of my life, thinking you were dead. I jumped in and saved you, and all the while your mother…she just stood there in shock. Like she couldn’t believe what had happened.” His voice dropped. “Your mother wasn’t well, Ava. She didn’t mean to harm you, but sometimes she did things out of her control. She felt so guilty afterward, and between the divorce and criminal charges…that’s why she overdosed.” Pain ripped through my head. I pressed my fingers to my temples, trying to sort through my father’s words and my own memories. What was real? What wasn’t? Memories were unreliable. I knew that. And Michael sounded sincere. But had I really been that off base? Where did those visions come from, if not my memories? “There’s another instance,” I said shakily. “Third grade. I brought home an essay from Mrs. James’s class and showed you. We were in your office. You looked at me and said I was a carbon copy of Mom and you…you pushed a pillow into my face and tried to suffocate me. I couldn’t breathe. I would’ve died, but Josh came home and called for you, and you stopped.” The story sounded ridiculous beneath the bright lights of the conference room. My head pounded harder. Alarm spread across Michael’s features. “Ava,” he said softly, calmly, like he didn’t want to spook me. “You never had a teacher named Mrs. James.” My heart crashed against my chest. “I did! She had blonde hair and glasses, and she gave us sugar cookies on our birthdays…” Tears prickled my eyes. “I swear, Mrs. James was real.” She had to be real. But what if she wasn’t? What if I’d made everything up and thought they were memories? What was wrong with me? Why was my brain so messed up? I couldn’t breathe. I felt crazy, like nothing in my life was real and I’d dreamed it all up. I pressed my palms into the table, half-expecting it to dissolve in a shower of dust. “Honey…” He reached for me, but before he could touch me, the door banged open. “That’s enough. Stop lying.” Alex strode in, his face like thunder. Of
course he had this place wired. “I had my people investigate after Ava told me what she remembered,” he said coldly. He did? He never told me that. “You’d be surprised how much—and how quickly—one can find out with the right amount of money. She did have a third-grade teacher named Mrs. James —one who reported suspicious bruising on Ava’s wrists when she came into class the next day. You claimed it was a playground injury, and they believed you.” Alex’s eyes burned with disgust. “You’re a good actor, but drop the mask. We’re onto you.” I stared at Michael. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. “Is that true? You were gaslighting me this whole time?” “Ava, I’m your father.” Michael rubbed a hand over his face, his eyes bright. “I would never lie to you.” I looked between him and Alex. My head pounded harder. There was too much going on, too many secrets to reveal. But in the end, I had to trust myself. “I think you would,” I said. “I think you’ve been lying to me my entire life.” Michael’s face remained anguished for several more seconds before it twisted and morphed into a hideous mask. His eyes gleamed with delighted malice, and his mouth spread into a mocking smile. He didn’t look like my father anymore. He didn’t look human at all. He looked like a monster straight from my nightmares. “Bravo.” He slow-clapped. “I almost had you,” he told me. “You should’ve seen yourself. I swear, Mrs. James was real,” he mimicked, laughing. The ugly sound raised every hair on my body. “Classic. You really thought you were crazy.” I gave a subtle shake of my head when Alex moved toward Michael. I wanted to run and hide, but adrenaline pushed the words out of my mouth. “Why? I was a kid.” My chin wobbled. “I’m your daughter. Why would you do those things to me? Tell me the truth.” I tightened my jaw. “No. More. Lies.” “The truth is subjective.” Michael leaned back in his chair. “But you want to know so bad? Here’s my truth—you’re not really my daughter.” He flashed a humorless smile at my sharp intake of breath. “That’s right. Your bitch of a mom cheated on me. Must’ve been one of those times I was away for business. She always complained I wasn’t around enough, like it wasn’t my fucking business that put the roof over her head and kept her nice and
warm in designer clothes. I’d always suspected you weren’t mine—you look nothing like me, but I figured, hey, maybe you just have a strong resemblance to Wendy. I took a secret paternity test and lo-and-behold, you really aren’t mine. Your mother tried to deny it, but there wasn’t much she could do with the evidence staring her in the face.” His expression darkened. “Of course, we couldn’t mention that in the divorce proceedings. Those things always leak, and we would’ve both lost face.” There were few things worse than losing face in Chinese culture. Except, of course, trying to murder your daughter. “If I’m not your daughter, why did you fight so hard for custody?” I demanded, my tongue thick in my mouth. Michael’s lips curled into a sneer. “I didn’t fight for custody for you. I did it for Josh. He’s actually my son. Test confirmed it. My legacy, my heir. But since no one other than your mother and I knew you weren’t mine, you and Josh were a package deal. Unfortunately, courts almost always side with the mother except in extraordinary circumstances, so…” He shrugged. “I had to engineer an extraordinary circumstance.” I felt sick, but I stayed frozen while Michael unraveled the tangled web of our past. “I was lucky your mom was stupid enough to leave you alone. Honestly, that was negligence on its own. But I snuck into the house, intending to plant evidence of her ‘drug addiction’, and I found you playing by the lake instead. It was like God dropped the opportunity into my lap. Sometimes, courts side with the mother even if she’s a drug addict, but trying to drown her child? Guaranteed win for me. Not to mention, it’d be punishment for her. So I pushed you in. I was tempted to let you drown for real.” Another flash of teeth. “But I wasn’t that cold-hearted. You were just a kid. So I fished you out, told authorities I saw Wendy push you in. She kept screaming she didn’t do it, but you wanna know the real genius of my plan?” He leaned forward, his eyes sparkling. “You were the one who implicated your mother.” “No.” I shook my head. “I didn’t. I didn’t even see—I didn’t remember —” “Not after. But in the moment?” He smirked. “It’s quite easy to implant false memories, especially in the mind of a confused, traumatized child. A few suggestions and leading questions from me, and you were convinced it was your mom. Said you smelled her perfume, plus she was the only person there. Either way, authorities had to investigate, and they gave me custody of
you and Josh while they gathered evidence. Your mom became depressed and, well, you know what happened with the pills. It’s pretty poetic, actually. She died of the very thing I’d wanted to frame her for—at 4:44 a.m., no less. The unluckiest time.” My stomach lurched. 4:44 a.m. The time I awoke from my nightmares. I’ve never been a superstitious person, but I couldn’t help wondering if that had been my mom screaming at me from the other side, urging me to remember. To leave the sociopath whose house I’d been living in all these years. “What about that day in your office?” I asked, determined to see this through even though I wanted to throw up. Michael snorted. “Right. That stupid essay about how I ‘saved’ you. You know, I did a pretty good job of hiding how much I resented having to raise you, the ‘daughter’ who’s not even my own, all those years. I played the role of the quiet, awkward, grief-stricken father to a tee.” His ugly smile reappeared. “But sometimes, you push my limits, especially since you look so much like her. A living reminder of her infidelity. It would’ve been so easy if you were out of the picture, but Josh chose that moment to come home. Alas.” He lifted his shoulder in a shrug. “Can’t have it all. To be fair, the office incident was a moment of weakness on my part—you were very much aware of what was going on, and I would’ve had a helluva time explaining what happened, though I’m sure I would’ve come up with something. But imagine my pleasant surprise when you woke up with not only no recollection of the office, but no recollection of your entire childhood up to that point. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was you forgot.” He smiled. “God really does smile on me, doesn’t he?” I felt Alex’s hands on my back. I hadn’t even noticed him approach. I leaned into the comfort of his touch while my mind spun. I remembered running to my room and locking the door after Michael released me and greeted Josh like nothing had happened. I stayed there all night, refusing to eat dinner no matter how much Josh tried to persuade me to come out. He’d only been thirteen at the time—too young to help me—and I had no one else to turn to. I wondered if I’d been so panicked and traumatized that I’d blacked out all of my experiences with Michael, which was basically my entire childhood.
“I couldn’t be sure I’d be as lucky again, though,” Michael continued. “So I left you alone after that. Even sent you to therapy because I had to play the part of the concerned father, but it was a good thing those incompetent idiots didn’t know what they were doing.” No wonder he’d been so adamant about stopping my therapy sessions. He must’ve been terrified I would remember and implicate him. Which begged the question…why the hell was he so willing to tell me all of this now? It was like Alex read my mind. “There’s no statute of limitations for attempted murder, and this entire conversation is recorded,” he said. “D.C. has a one-party consent law for recordings, and Ava—” He gestured at me. “Consented beforehand. You’re going to jail for a long, long time.” Michael’s mask of malice melted, leaving behind the “father” who took me on college visits and planned my birthday parties again. It was terrifying how easily he switched between the two. “If I have to go to jail to save her, I will,” he whispered. He turned to me, his eyes shining with actual tears. “Ava, honey, Alex is not who you think he is. His driver picked me up, and on the way here, he threatened me—” “Enough,” Alex hissed. “No more gaslighting her. You’re done, and my friends would agree.” I watched in shock as two FBI agents burst into the room and hauled Michael out of his chair. Alex hadn’t mentioned the FBI when we’d planned this. “This won’t hold up in court,” Michael said, sounding quite calm for someone entering federal custody. “I’ll fight it. You won’t win.” “With what money?” Alex raised his eyebrows. “You see, my people found some interesting things about your business during their digging as well. Interesting, illegal things. Tax evasion. Corporate fraud. Ring any bells?” For the first time since he arrived, Michael’s composure slipped. “You’re lying,” he hissed. “You had no authority—” “Au contraire, I worked with the FBI on that part. My friends at the agency were quite interested in what I had to say, and what they found.” Alex smiled. “You can use your untainted assets to hire an attorney, but most of your assets are tainted and will be frozen before your trial. You’ll receive the official notice before the end of today.” “Josh will never forgive you for this.” Michael’s eyes burned. “He worships me. Who do you think he’ll believe? Me, his father, or you, a punk
he met a few years ago?” “In this case, Father—” Josh walked in, his face darker than I’d ever seen it. “I think I’ll believe ‘the punk’.” He slammed his fist into Michael’s face, and all hell broke loose.

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