Twisted love by ANA HUANG ,chapter 30,AVA

SEVERAL HOURS LATER, JOSH AND I SAT IN THE BACK BOOTH OF A restaurant near The Archer Group. Alex had booked the entire place and dismissed most of the staff. Other than a waiter who hovered by the entrance, out of earshot, we were the only ones here. Alex, too, had retreated to his office to give us more privacy. “I’m so sorry, Ave.” Josh looked terrible. Lackluster complexion, huge bags beneath his eyes. Stress and worry carved deep grooves in his face, and his usual cocky, charming grin was nowhere to be seen. “I should’ve known. I should’ve—” “It’s not your fault. Dad—Michael—fooled all of us.” I shuddered, thinking about how well Michael had played his role. “Besides, he loved you. He treated you perfectly. You wouldn’t have noticed anything.” Josh’s lips thinned. “He didn’t love me. People like him can’t love. He saw me as a…vessel to continue his legacy. Nothing else.” Alex and I had contacted Josh and told him what I remembered a few days ago. He’d been shocked, but he’d believed me. He’d also insisted on flying back for the confrontation and received emergency leave from his program to do so. He’d watched and listened to the conversation via the conference room’s secret cameras the entire time, and Alex’s security team had had to restrain him so he didn’t burst in too early. I could only imagine. Josh was nothing if not hot-tempered. After he punched Michael, the situation had devolved into chaos, with the FBI agents, Josh, Michael, and various security guards grappling with each other. Josh would have beaten the hell out of our—his—father, had Alex not finally pulled him back. The FBI agents hauled a bruised and bleeding
Michael into custody, and now we awaited his trial. Thanks to Alex, whose friend’s father was apparently high up in the FBI, Josh didn’t get charged with assault for attacking Michael. The entire situation felt surreal. “Either way, it wasn’t your fault,” I repeated. “You were just a kid too.” “If I’d been there that day in his office…” “Stop it. Do you hear me, Josh Chen?” I said sternly. “I will not let you blame yourself. Mom and Michael were adults. They made their own choices.” I swallowed, feeling guilty about my suppressed rage toward my mother over the years when, in fact, she’d been a victim too. “You’ve always been there when I needed you, and you are an amazing brother. I’ll only say that once, so don’t ask me to repeat it. Your ego doesn’t need more inflation.” He cracked a small smile. “Are you going to be okay?” I took a deep breath. The past two weeks had been…a lot. The revelations, the mind fucks, the sinking realization that I was practically an orphan. My mother was dead, my father wasn’t my real father—and would probably be locked up for a long time—and I had no clue who my actual father was. But at least I knew the truth, and I had Josh, Alex, and my friends. Maybe the import of what happened would hit me later, but for now, all I felt was relief mingled with sadness and lingering shock. “Yeah,” I said. “I will.” Josh must’ve heard my conviction, because his shoulders relaxed the tiniest bit. “If you need to talk or anything, I’m here. Can’t guarantee I’ll give good advice, but I’ll be a sounding board or whatever.” I smiled. “Thanks, Joshy.” He made a face at his hated nickname. “How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t call me that.” We spent the next half hour talking about lighter topics—his time in Central America, what D.C. luxuries he’d indulge in before he returned to his volunteer program, and his now-dead relationship with the girl he’d told me about. Apparently, he’d ended things immediately after she brought up marriage. Typical Josh. As annoying as he was, I had missed him, and I would be sad to see him leave. He was coming home for Christmas, but he couldn’t take the entire period between now and then off, so he was leaving tomorrow and flying back in two weeks. However, we still had one elephant in the room we needed to discuss.
“Now that we got all the small stuff out of the way…” A scowl overtook Josh’s face. “You and Alex. What. The. Fuck?” I cringed. “We didn’t plan it, I promise. It just sort of…happened.” “You just ‘happened’ to fall into bed with my best friend?” “Don’t be mad.” “I’m not mad at you,” Josh snapped. “I’m mad at him. He should’ve known better!” “And I don’t know better?” “You know what I mean. You’re a romantic. I can see you falling for that broody asshole thing he has going on. But Alex…Jesus Christ, Ave.” Josh rubbed a hand over his face. “He’s my best friend, but even I shudder at the things he does. In all the years I’ve known him, he’s never once been in a relationship. Never shown an interest in it. He cares about work, and that’s it.” “Yes, he can be an asshole sometimes, but he’s still human. He needs love and care like anyone else,” I said, feeling protective of Alex even though he was the last person on earth who needed protection. “As for the relationship part, there’s a first time for everything. He’s been…” I swallowed hard. “You have no idea how much he’s helped me these past few months. He was there for everything. The nightmares, the panic attacks…he taught me how to swim. Swim, Josh. He helped me get over my fear of water, at least a little bit, and he was so patient the entire time. But beyond how much he’s helped me, he’s smart and funny and wonderful. He makes me laugh and believe in myself, more than anyone else ever has. And he may not show it to the world, but he does have a heart. A beautiful one.” I cut myself off before I rambled further, my cheeks a deep, bright red. Josh stared at me, shock stamped on every inch of his face. “Ava,” he said. “Do you…love him?” A lot of things in my life had been hazy up to this point, but my feelings about this were clear. I didn’t hesitate before answering. “Yes.” I may not know what was in my mind, but I knew what was in my heart. “I do.”
JOSH LEFT the next morning after threatening to kill Alex if he ever broke
my heart. He was still uncomfortable with our relationship, but he’d grudgingly accepted it after he saw how much I cared about Alex. Alex had urgent business to take care of after he dropped Josh off at the airport, so I spent the rest of the day with my girls. Since it was drizzling and I wasn’t up for going out, we had an at-home spa day, complete with DIY facials, mani-pedis, and a marathon of feel-good movies. I’d told them what had happened with Michael. They’d been stunned, but none of them pressed me on it, for which I was grateful. It had been a heavy twenty-four hours, and I needed lighthearted downtime. Stella checked her phone before pushing it away with an uncharacteristic frown. “Is it that creep again?” Jules asked, blowing on her freshly polished gold nails. Some random guy had been messaging Stella nonstop for the past two weeks, and it was making her nervous. As an influencer, she received her fair share of unsolicited DMs from creepy guys, but this one put her on edge more than normal. “Yeah. I blocked him, but he keeps making new accounts.” Stella sighed. “That’s the sucky part about being a semi-public figure.” “Be careful.” A shadow of worry crossed Bridget’s face. “There are crazy people out there.” Rhys, who kept watch from the armchair, snorted, no doubt because that was what he always told her—and she always ignored him, like she did now. Bridget refused to look at him as she lowered the volume on Mean Girls. That must’ve been the thousandth time we’d watched it, but it never got old. Regina George was iconic. “I will. He’s likely another Internet weirdo.” Stella made a face. “That’s why I never post my Stories until after I’ve left a place.” I couldn’t imagine documenting my life online the way Stella did. I worried for both her physical safety and mental health sometimes, but she’d handled it well so far. Maybe I was just being a worrywart. Someone knocked on the door. “I’ll get it.” Rhys unfolded himself to his full six feet, five inches. Seriously, the man was enormous. He probably wore custom-made clothes because no way would an off-the-rack shirt fit those big shoulders and broad chest. “Look at that ass.” Jules sighed. “Talk about a tight end.”
“Stop objectifying him. That’s Bridget’s bodyguard,” I said, nudging her in the ribs. “Exactly. Bodyguards are hot. Don’t you think so, Bridge?” “No,” Bridget said flatly. “You guys are no fun.” Jules twisted her red hair into a messy topknot. “Ooh, look who comes bearing gifts.” My stomach fluttered when Alex walked in with Rhys on his heels. He carried a distinctive black-and-white striped box. “Cake?” Stella perked up. She’d warmed up to Alex over the past month after seeing he was “capable of human emotion after all.” “Cupcakes,” Alex confirmed, setting the goodies on the table. My friends dove for the box like treasure hunters diving for gold. I smiled and tilted my head up so I could kiss him. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.” “It’s just cupcakes.” He returned my kiss before sitting next to me and curling a protective arm around my waist. “Figured you could use the sugar rush.” I peeled the wrapper away from my red velvet cupcake with a small frown. It would take a long time to get over what Michael did. I wasn’t sure I would ever get over what Michael did. My entire life was a lie. Sometimes, I’d lie awake at night, so anxious I couldn’t sleep or think straight. Other times, like now, I’d look around me and comfort myself with the knowledge that I would be all right. That old saying was true: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’d almost died twice in my life—that I knew of—and I was still standing. I’d continue to stand tall, long after Michael rotted in jail. Thanks to a nudge from Alex, who knew half the judges in this town, Michael was locked up with no bail until his court date. He’d sent a message asking me to see him, but I refused. I had nothing left to say to him. He’d shown me his real face, and I would be happy if I never saw it again for the rest of my life. But yeah, sometimes a girl needed a cupcake or two to get her through the rainy days. Part of me was grateful Michael and I had never been close. If we had, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take the heartbreak. That was why I worried about Josh, who was his real son and who’d had a much closer relationship with him. But Josh insisted he was fine, and there was no arguing with him. He was even more stubborn than me.
We ate in silence for a while before Stella cleared her throat. “Um, thanks for the treat, but I should head out. I have a brand collab I need to shoot.” “Me, too,” Bridget added, picking up on Stella’s cue. “I have a political theory paper to write.” After Stella, Bridget, and Rhys beat a hasty retreat, Jules announced she had a date tonight and needed to get ready. She swept up the stairs, taking half the remaining cupcakes with her. “You know how to clear a room,” I teased, running an absentminded hand down Alex’s arm. What would I do without him? Not only had he helped me confront my father—I mean, Michael—but he was helping me deal with the aftermath, including all the financial and legal webs I was now tangled up in. Most of Michael’s assets had been frozen, but luckily, he’d already paid my tuition for the year, and I had a steady income from my job and side gig. The commission I received for selling the Richard Argus piece to Alex helped too. Josh, who’d received a full-ride scholarship plus living stipend for the duration of med school, was also set money-wise. At least that was one less thing we had to worry about. “It’s one of my many talents.” Alex captured my mouth in a searing kiss, and I melted into him, letting his tongue and taste and touch carry me away to a land where my troubles didn’t exist. God, I loved this man, and he didn’t even know it. Not yet. My pulse thundered in my ears when we pulled apart. “Alex…” “Hmm?” He brushed his fingers over my skin, his gaze still locked on my mouth. “I have something to tell you. I—” Tell him. It’s now or never. “I love you,” I whispered, my heart beating fast, my confession a breathless rush. A beat passed, followed by a second. Third. Alex’s hand stilled, his expression fierce and strangely haunted. A wisp of unease niggled at my stomach. “You don’t mean that.” “Yes, I do,” I said, hurt and a little angry at his reaction. “I know what I feel.” “I’m not an easy person to love.” “Good thing I never cared much about taking the easy road.” I sat up straight and looked him straight in the eyes. “You are cold and infuriating and, I admit, a little scary. But you are also patient and supportive and brilliant. You inspire me to chase my dreams and drive away my nightmares.
You are everything I didn’t know I needed, and you make me feel safer than anyone else on the planet.” I took a deep breath. “What I’m trying to say— again—is, I love you, Alex Volkov. Every part of you, even the parts I want to slap.” A smile ghosted his mouth. “That was quite the speech.” The smile faded as quickly as it had come, and he dropped his forehead to mine, his breath ragged. “You are the light to my dark, Sunshine,” he said in a raw voice. His lips brushed against mine as he spoke. “Without you, I’m lost.” Our kiss was even deeper this time, more urgent, but his response played on a loop in the back of my mind. You are the light to my dark. Without you, I’m lost. Beautiful words that made my heart pound…but I couldn’t help noticing none of them were “I love you too.”

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