Twisted love by ANA HUANG ,chapter 31,ALEX

THE IRON GATES SLID OPEN, REVEALING A LONG DRIVEWAY LINED WITH northern red oak trees, their branches bare and brown in the harsh cold of winter, and the large brick mansion looming in the distance. My uncle’s house—my house as well, before I’d moved to D.C.—stood behind a virtual fortress on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and that was the way he liked it. I hadn’t wanted to leave Ava so soon after the shitshow with Michael, but I’d put off this meeting with my uncle long enough. I found him in his office, smoking and watching a Russian drama on the flat-screen TV hanging in the corner. I never understood why he insisted on watching TV in here when he had a perfectly good den. “Alex.” He blew a smoke ring in the air. A half-empty cup of green tea sat before him. He’d been obsessed with the drink ever since he read an article that said it helped with weight loss. “To what do I owe this surprise?” “You know why I’m here.” I sank into the overstuffed chair opposite Ivan and picked up the ugly gold paperweight on his desk. It looked like a deformed monkey. “Ah, yes. I heard. Checkmate.” My uncle smiled. “Congratulations. Though I have to admit, it was a bit anticlimactic. I’d expected your final move to go off with more of a…bang.” My jaw tightened. “The situation changed, and I had to adapt.” Ivan’s gaze turned knowing. “And what about the situation changed?” I stayed silent. I’d labored over my revenge plan for more than a decade, moving and manipulating every piece until I had them where I wanted them. Always play
the long game. But even I had to admit I’d gotten…distracted these past few months. Ava had swept into my life like a sunrise after dark, awakening creatures within my soul that I thought had died a long time ago: guilt. Conscience. Remorse. Making me question whether the ends justified the means. Around her, my thirst for vengeance slaked, and I almost—almost—gave it up, if only so I could pretend to be the man she thought I was. You have a multilayered heart, Alex. A heart of gold encased in a heart of ice. The sharp edges of the paperweight dug into my palm. Ava knew I’d committed my fair share of unsavory deeds for Archer Group, but that was business. She didn’t condone it or endorse it, but she wasn’t naïve, either. For all her romantic notions and soft heart, she’d grown up near the D.C. viper pit and understood that in certain situations—whether it be business or politics—it was eat or be eaten. But if she found out the lengths to which I’d gone in order to wreak havoc on those responsible for my family’s death—no matter how much they deserved it—she would never forgive me. There are some lines you never cross. A tiny well of blood blossomed on my hand. I released the paperweight, wiped the blood off on my conveniently dark pants, and set it back on the table. “Don’t worry about it, Uncle.” I kept my face and posture relaxed. I didn’t want him finding out how much Ava had burrowed inside my heart. My uncle had never been in love, had never married or fathered children of his own, and he wouldn’t understand my dilemma. For him, wealth, power, and status were all that mattered. “Ah, but I do worry.” Ivan puffed on his cigarette with a small frown. He’d slicked his hair back and wore a suit and tie even though he was alone in his office, watching a stupid drama about Cold War spies. He was always conscious of his appearance, even when there was no one else around. He switched from English to Ukrainian for the next part of our conversation. “You have not been acting like yourself. You’ve been distracted. Unfocused. Carolina mentioned you only go into the office a few days a week, and you leave before seven each time.” I tamped down my flare of irritation. “My assistant shouldn’t be blabbing about my schedule to others.”
“I’m the CEO, so she didn’t have much choice.” Ivan stubbed out his cigarette and leaned forward, his eyes intense. “Tell me about Ava.” Tension rocketed down my spine at the sound of her name on his lips. I didn’t have to ask how he knew about her—I wasn’t the only one with spies everywhere. “There’s nothing to tell. She’s a good lay,” I said, the words poison on my tongue. “That’s it.” “Hmm.” My uncle looked skeptical. “So, your revenge. That’s it?” He switched topics so abruptly it took me half a second longer than usual to respond. “No.” I wasn’t done with the man I’d destroyed. Not yet. “There’s more.” I had one final ace up my sleeve. I wanted to take everything from the man who’d taken everything from me. His business, his family, his life. And I did. I would. But was it worth it? “Good. I thought you’d gone soft.” Ivan sighed and stared at the framed picture on his desk of him and my father when they were young. They’d just moved to the U.S., and they both wore cheap, happy suits and matching hats. While my uncle looked stern and serious, my father’s eyes twinkled like he was in on a grand secret no one else knew. My throat squeezed at the sight. “Never forget what happened to your parents and poor little Nina. They deserve all the justice in the world.” As if I would ever forget. Even if I didn’t have HSAM, the scene would forever be engraved in my mind. “Don’t cheat!” I yelled over my shoulder as I ran to the bathroom. I’d had two apple juices this morning, and I was about to burst. “I’ll know.” “You’re losing, anyway!” my little sister Nina yelled back, causing my parents to chuckle. I stuck my tongue out at her before slamming the bathroom door behind me. I was annoyed I’d never beaten Nina at Scrabble for Kids, even though she was two years younger than me and I had a “genius” IQ, according to my teachers and parents. She’d always been good at words. Mama said she’d probably grow up to be a writer. I used the toilet and washed my hands. I was supposed to be at a special camp for gifted children this summer, but camp was so boring. All the activities were too easy; the only one I’d liked was chess, but I could play that anywhere. I complained to my parents,
who pulled me out yesterday and brought me home. I was drying my hands when I heard a loud bang in the distance, followed by shouts. I ran back to the living room, where I found my parents ushering Nina toward the secret passageway behind the fireplace. That was one thing I loved about our house—it was full of secret passageways and hidden corners. Nina and I had spent countless hours exploring every nook and cranny; it made hide and seek more exciting, that was for sure. “Alex, get in there. Quick!” Mama’s face was tight with panic. She grabbed my arm, more roughly than she ever had before, and pushed me into the darkness. “What’s going on? Who’s here?” My heart beat a fast rhythm. I heard strange voices, and they were getting closer. Nina cowered in the passageway, clutching her beloved cat, Smudges, to her chest. We’d stumbled on the stray one day during a family picnic in the park, and she cried and begged until my parents agreed to let her keep it as a pet. “It’ll be okay.” Papa had a gun in his hand. He always kept one in the house, but I’d never seen him use it. The sight of that shiny black metal glinting beneath the lights made my blood run cold. “Get in there with your sister and mother, and don’t make a sound. Everything will be fine—Lucia, what are you doing?” Mama swung the passageway shut while Nina and I stared with wide eyes. “I’m not leaving you out here alone,” she said fiercely. “Dammit, Lucy. You have to—” The sound of a vase crashing to the floor interrupted Papa and startled Smudges, who yowled and broke free of Nina’s arms. He darted through the narrowing gap between the wall and passageway door. “Smudges!” Nina yelled, scrambling after him. I tried to grab her, but she wriggled out of my grasp and chased after him. “Nina, no,” I whisper-yelled, but it was too late. She was gone, and the door shut, enveloping me in darkness. I sat there, my blood roaring in my ears while my eyes tried to adjust to the dark. Mama and Papa put me in here for a reason, and I didn’t want to worry them by leaving. But I also needed to know what was going on, even though
something screamed at me to turn away, to cover my eyes and hide. I was hiding, but I wouldn’t cover my eyes. The fireplace passageway had a peephole disguised as the eyes in a painting that hung above the mantel. I was a little too short, but if I stood on tiptoes and really stretched, I could look out into the living room. What I saw made my blood run cold. There were two strange men in the living room. They wore ski masks and carried guns—bigger than the one Papa had, which now lay at his feet. One of those guns pointed at Papa, the other at Mama and Nina. Mama covered Nina protectively while my sister cried and hugged Smudges tight. The cat was freaking out and yowling at the top of its lungs. “Shut that damn thing up,” one of the men growled. “Or I’ll do it for you.” Nina cried harder. “Take whatever you want,” Papa said, his face pale. “Just don’t hurt my family.” “Oh, we’ll take whatever we want,” the second man. “Unfortunately, I can’t guarantee the second part. In fact, let’s make this quick, shall we? No use dragging out the inevitable. We don’t get paid by the hour, y’know.” A gunshot rang out. Somewhere, Mama and Nina screamed. I should’ve screamed too, but I didn’t. I could only watch, eyes wide and frozen, legs burning from how long and hard I stood on tiptoes, as a bright red stain blossomed on Papa’s chest. He staggered, his mouth moving but forming no words. Perhaps he would’ve survived one shot, but then another gunshot rang out, and another, and another, until Papa’s big, strong body thudded to the ground. It lay there, still and unmoving. “It,” not “he.” Because the corpse wasn’t my Papa. It had his face and hair and skin, but Papa was gone. I’d seen him leave, the light fading from his eyes. “No!” Mama wailed. She crawled toward Papa, but she only made it halfway before her body jerked and her mouth fell open. She, too, collapsed, her blood staining the floors. “Damn, what d’you do that for?” the first man complained. “I wanted to have some fun with her first.” “Bitch was getting on my nerves. Can’t stand all the wailing, and we’re here for a job, not your dick,” the second man growled. The first man scowled but didn’t argue.
The pair stared at Nina, who cried so hard her face turned bright red and her body shook from the force of her sobs. Smudges hissed at the men, its eyes glowing ferociously in its tiny face. It was a kitten, but in that moment, it had all the trappings of a lion. “Too young,” the first man said in disgust. The second man ignored him. “Sorry, kiddo,” he told Nina. “Nothing personal. Your bad luck for being born into this family.” My blood roared and roared. Liquid dripped down my wrist, and I realized I’d dug my nails into my palms so hard I was bleeding. Drip. Drip. Drip. Each drip sounded like a sonic boom in the dark, cramped space. Could they hear it? Could they hear me, crouched behind the fireplace like a coward while they murdered my family? I wanted to run out. I wanted to jump on the men and kick and claw. I wanted to bash their heads in with the heavy sculpture on the fireplace mantel and strip the flesh from their bones piece by piece until they begged for death. It was the first time I’d had such violent thoughts. Mama was sweet and loving, and Papa was tough but fair. Honorable. They had raised Nina and me to be the same. But after seeing what those men did, I wanted to torture them slowly. Endlessly. Except I couldn’t. If I went out there, they would kill me too, and there would be no vengeance. No justice. Drip. Drip. Dripdripdrip. I bled faster. I couldn’t look away as the second man raised his gun again and fired. One shot. That was all it took. Smudges went berserk. He flew at the men, hissing and clawing. One of them cursed and tried to kick him, but he dodged just in time. “Forget about the damn cat,” the second man snapped. “Let’s finish the job and get outta here.” “I fucking hate animals,” the first man muttered in disgust. “Hey, didn’t he say there was another kid? Where’s the little snot?” “Not here.” His partner glanced around, his eyes flickering past the fireplace and settling on the small, fancy jade statue on a side table. “At camp or something.”
“Shit, I’ve never been to camp. You ever been to camp? I’ve always wanted—” “Shut. Up.” They swept through the living room, pilfering the most valuable items and putting their filthy hands all over my family belongings before they finally left and silence fell. My breath rasped in the quiet. I waited and waited. When I was sure they wouldn’t come back, I pushed open the heavy passageway door, my face reddening from the effort, and stumbled toward the bodies in the living room. Mama. Papa. Nina. I should call the police. I also knew I shouldn’t disturb the crime scene, but this was my family. This was the last chance I’d ever have to hold them. So I did. My breathing slowed, my head cleared. I should feel angry. I should feel sad. I should feel something. But I didn’t. I didn’t feel anything at all. The clawing pressure around my neck tightened. I couldn’t protect them. The people I’d loved most in the world, and I’d been useless. Helpless. A coward. I could take revenge all I wanted, but it wouldn’t change the fact that they were gone and I was here. Me, the most fucked-up one. If there was ever proof that the universe had a sick sense of humor, this was it. “I have to go,” my uncle said, smoothing his hand over his tie. “I’m meeting an old friend. Are you staying for the weekend?” I blinked away my memories and nodded. “Excellent. We’ll play chess when I get back, hmm?” My uncle was the only person who could hold his own against me in chess. “Of course.” I rubbed my thumb over the wound on my hand. “Looking forward to it.”
AFTER MY UNCLE LEFT, I spent an hour in the home gym working off
my frustrations, but something niggled at me. Something Ivan said and the way he’d said it… I’m the CEO, so she didn’t have much choice. Why the hell was my uncle checking in on me, and why did he want to know my schedule so bad he’d threaten Carolina for the information? She was a good assistant, and she wouldn’t divulge the information unless she had to. I turned off the shower and dried myself, my mind running through the possibilities. I hadn’t gotten this far in life without listening to my instincts, so I got dressed, pulled on a pair of leather gloves, and returned to my uncle’s office. He had hidden security cameras in there, but the top-of-the-line jammer I’d bought off the black market took care of them in no time. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but after an hour of searching— including for false drawers and secret compartments—I didn’t find it. Same went for his bedroom. Perhaps I was being paranoid. My stomach growled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since my coffee and bagel at breakfast. It was now near sunset. I gave up on my uncle’s private quarters and walked toward the kitchen. Ivan had hired a housekeeper who came by twice a week to clean up, but otherwise, he had no staff; he was too paranoid about corporate spies, whom he claimed could pop up anywhere. Don’t trust anyone, Alex. It’s always the people you least expect who’ll stab you in the back. At the last minute, I veered toward the library, my uncle’s favorite room in the house. The soaring, two-story room looked like something out of an English manor, with its Tiffany stained glass lamps and wall of mahogany shelves groaning beneath the weight of leather-bound tomes. Soft Oriental rugs muffled the sound of my footsteps as I walked around the room, examining the shelves. I hoped whatever I was looking for wasn’t hidden in a fake book—there were thousands of books in here. Knowing my uncle, though, he wouldn’t choose any book. He’d choose something with significance. I checked the sections for his favorite authors. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Taras Shevchenko, Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Dovzhenko…he had a soft spot for Russian and Ukrainian classics. Said they grounded him in his roots. But no, all the books were real.
My eyes flitted over the rest of the library and landed on the limitededition chess set in the corner. The pieces were still arranged in the same pattern from our last game. While I examined the set and the surrounding area for anything that could give credence to my suspicions, I knocked against the table, and a pawn tumbled to the floor. I cursed under my breath and bent to pick it up. As I did, my eyes snagged on the outlet beneath the table. It was a simple, ordinary outlet, except… My gaze traveled to the left. There was another outlet, less than a foot away. The U.S. National Electrical Code stipulated outlets must be positioned no more than six feet apart measured along the floor line, but it was rare to see two so close together. I paused, listening for any noises—the purr of my uncle’s Mercedes pulling into the driveway, the thud of his footsteps against the parquet floors. Nothing. I fished a heavy-duty paper clip from the library’s writing desk and crawled under the chess table, bending the clip until it was straight. I jiggled the screw in the middle of the outlet, feeling ridiculous, but my instincts screamed at me to continue. Just when I was about to give up, the outlet popped open, revealing a stash of papers in the wall. Fake outlet. Of course. My heart thudded as I reached for the papers—right as an engine roared in the distance. My uncle was home. I unfolded the documents—letters, written in two familiar sets of handwriting. I speed-read them, unable to believe my eyes. I’d expected corporate politics. Boardroom foul play. I wouldn’t have been surprised if my uncle tried to hold on to his CEO position, even though I was supposed to take over soon. But this? This, I never saw coming. The puzzle pieces in my brain clicked into place, and a strange cocktail of betrayal, fury, and relief knotted in my gut. Betrayal and fury over the revelation; relief that— The front door banged open. Footsteps, coming closer.
I shoved the letters into the wall, folding them the way I’d found them, and screwed the outlet cover back on. I crawled out from beneath the table, placed the pawn in the same position it’d been in before I knocked it over, and pocketed both the paper clip and my gloves, which were sleek enough that they didn’t create a visible bulge in my pants. I plucked The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas—one of my favorite books—off the shelf on my way to the door. “Alex,” my uncle said when he saw me in the hall. He chuckled. “Dumas again? You can’t get enough of that book.” I smiled. “No, I can’t.” All the while, my blood raged.

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