Twisted love by ANA HUANG ,chapter 41,AVA

I LOVED LONDON. I loved its energy, the posh accents, and the anticipation that I might sight one of the royals any day. I didn’t, but I could, though I reassured Bridget she’d always be my favorite royal. Most of all, I loved that it was a fresh start. No one knew me here. I could be whoever I wanted, and the creative spark I’d lost in those dark weeks after Philadelphia came rushing back. I’d been nervous, moving to a city where I had zero connections, but the rest of the WYP fellows and instructors were great. After two weeks of living in London and attending workshops, I’d already formed a small group of friends. We celebrated happy hour at pubs, went on photoshoots together on the weekends, and did touristy stuff like ride the London Eye and cruise on the Thames. I missed my friends and Josh, but we video-called often, and Bridget promised to visit me on her way back to Eldorra later this summer. Plus, all the WYP workshops and activities and the excitement of exploring a new city kept me busy. I didn’t have time to be in my head, thank God. I’d been in my head for months, and it wasn’t a great place to be. I needed a change of scenery. I also needed to send a big thank-you gift basket to the original London fellow who’d agreed to swap places with me—she went to New York while I came here. It was the only way the program would let me change my location so late in the process, but it worked out. “You sure you can’t join us?” Jack, an Australian wildlife photographer who was also in this year’s fellowship cohort, asked. “Half-off drinks at The Black Boar today.”
The Black Boar, located a few minutes’ walk away from the WYP building, was one of the fellows’ favorite pubs. I shook my head with a regretful smile. “Next time. I’m behind on editing photos.” I wanted to make sure the final products were top-notch because they weren’t for any ol’ workshop—they were for Diane Lange’s. The Diane Lange. I’d nearly had a heart attack when I first met her in person. She was everything I’d imagined her to be and more. She was smart, incisive, and talented beyond belief. Tough, but fair. Her passion for her art radiated from every inch of her, and I could tell she cared about us. She wanted us to succeed and be the best we could be. In a cutthroat industry rife with backstabbing and undermining other creators, her dedication to helping us perfect our craft with no ego said a lot about her character. “Fair enough.” Jack chuckled. “See ya tomorrow then.” “See you.” I waved goodbye and rummaged through my bag for my headphones while walking down the steps. That was the downside of carrying a large bag—it was impossible to find anything smaller than a fullsized laptop. My fingers closed around the thin white wires right when I felt a prickle of heat on my neck. An electric awareness I hadn’t felt in months. No. I was afraid to look up, but my curiosity got the better of me. My pulse quickened as I lifted my eyes slowly. Higher…higher…and there he was, standing less than three feet away in a black shirt and pants, looking like a god descended from the heavens to wreak havoc on my still-fragile heart. I swore the poor thing stopped beating. I hadn’t seen him in person since Philadelphia, and the sight was too much. Too vivid, too overwhelming, too beautiful and horrifying. Those eyes, that face, the way I instinctively stepped toward him before I caught myself… Oxygen grew scarce. My chest tightened the way it used to when I was near water. I could feel a panic attack coming on, and I needed to leave before I collapsed right there on the sidewalk, but my feet wouldn’t move. This is a hallucination. It has to be. That was the only explanation that made sense. Why else would Alex show up in London in front of my fellowship headquarters after half a year of silence?
I squeezed my eyes shut, counted to ten, and opened them again. He was still here. In London. In front of me. The panic intensified. “Hi,” he said softly. I flinched at the sound of his voice. If looking at him was a punch in the gut, hearing him was like getting steamrolled by a Mack truck. “You can’t be here.” It was a stupid thing to say since we were on a public sidewalk and it wasn’t like I could ban him from the city of London, but oh, how I wished I could. I was already drowning in him, and it’d been less than five minutes. “Why are you here?” Alex stuffed his hands in his pockets, his throat flexing with a hard swallow. His eyes flickered with uncertainty as they searched my face for something I wasn’t ready to give. In all the years I’d known him, I’d never seen him look so nervous. “I’m here for you.” “You don’t need me anymore.” I almost couldn’t hear myself over the thunderous roar of my pulse. I regretted the falafel sandwich I ate for lunch, which threatened to make a messy reappearance. “You got your revenge, and I’m not interested in whatever new game you’re playing. So leave. Me. Alone.” Pain slashed across his face. “This isn’t a game, I promise. This is just me, asking you for…not forgiveness, not right now. But hope that one day, you won’t hate me and we might get a second chance.” He swallowed hard. “I’ll always need you, Sunshine.” Sunshine. The word tore at me, ripped off the scabs on my wounds until I bled once again. Stop calling me Sunshine. Why? Because it’s not my name. I’m aware. It’s a nickname. “Your promises mean nothing to me.” I wrapped my arms around myself, chilled to the bone even though the sun shone high in the sky. “Even if they did, they’re six months too late.” I’d lived less than a half-hour’s drive from Alex all those months, and he never once reached out. Now, he showed up in another country asking for a second chance? Unbelievable. Almost as unbelievable as the small, shameful part of me that wanted to give him that second chance.
Stay strong. I’d survived multiple murder attempts. I conquered my aquaphobia. I could talk to the man who broke my heart without falling apart. Hopefully. “I know.” Alex exhaled a shaky breath, his brows drawn tight over his eyes. He looked less polished than usual, with his rumpled hair and faint purple smudges beneath his eyes. I wondered if he’d been getting enough sleep, then mentally kicked myself for caring. His sleeping habits weren’t my business anymore. “I thought I was protecting you. That you were better off without me. After what happened with my uncle, I couldn’t risk you getting hurt again because of your association with me. But I never left you alone. I had someone keeping an eye on you—” “Wait.” I held up one hand. “You had me followed?” “For your protection.” I couldn’t believe it. “How is that okay? That’s—that’s crazy! How long…oh my God.” My eyes widened. “Do you have someone following me in London, too?” He stared at me, his face stony. “Unreal,” I breathed. “You are truly psycho. Where is he?” I looked around frantically. I didn’t see anyone suspect, but the most dangerous people were those who looked anything but. “Call him off. Right now.” “I already did.” I narrowed my eyes. That was too easy. “You did?” “Yes, because I’m taking over his duties. That’s why it took me so long. I had to make…arrangements for my absence in D.C.” Alex’s mouth twitched at my stunned expression. “You’ll be seeing a lot more of me from now on.” “The hell I will.” The thought of seeing him every day sent me into a tailspin of panic. “I’ll file a restraining order against you. Have you arrested for stalking.” “You can try, but I can’t guarantee my friends in the British government will comply.” His face darkened. “And if you think I’m leaving you alone and unprotected anywhere, you don’t know me at all.” “I don’t know you. I have no idea who are you are. I only know the person you showed me, and he was an illusion. A fantasy.” Emotion clogged my throat. “I asked you that day if any of it had been real. You looked me in the eye and told me it was a lesson for the future. So, consider the lesson learned.” Alex flinched. “It was real,” he said hoarsely. “All of it.”
I shook my head, my chest aching so hard it hurt to breathe. “I realize you’re powerful enough that I can’t stop you from doing what you want, but you’re wasting your time if you think I’ll fall for your lies again.” “They’re not lies. Sunshine—” “Don’t call me that!” I couldn’t stem the tide of tears gathering in my eyes. I’d been doing so well, but every second in Alex’s presence eroded the defenses I’d built around my heart until it lay naked and vulnerable once more. “You’ve ruined everything I once thought was beautiful. Sunshine. Love. Even freakin’ red velvet cake, because it reminds me of you. And when I think of you—” A sob ripped from my throat. “I think of every good memory we had and how they’re now tainted by the fact you were using me the whole time. I think of how stupid I was for falling for you and how you must’ve laughed at me when I told you I loved you. And I think of all those times you warned me about being too soft-hearted, but I ignored you because I believed the world was an inherently good place. Well, congratulations.” I brushed the tears from my cheeks, but they fell too fast for me to make much of a dent. Thank God most of my classmates had already left and the surrounding street was empty. “That was the one truth you spoke. I was too soft-hearted, and the world is not the place I thought it was. It’s cruel and it’s vicious, and there’s no place for soft hearts.” “Sun—Ava, no.” Alex reached for me, but I instinctively recoiled. Hurt filled his face. His hand curled into a fist that he stuffed back in his pocket, and the tendons in his neck stretched taut. I detected a tiny tremble in his shoulders as he spoke. “That was what I believed because I’d never known anything else, but you showed me there is beauty in the world. I see it every time I look at you, or see you smile, or hear you laugh. You believe the best of people and that’s a strength, not a weakness. Don’t let anyone, least of all me, take that away from you.” His eyes burned into mine, bright with pain. “You told me once there was something beautiful waiting for me, something that’ll restore my faith in life. I’ve found it. It’s you.” I wanted to sink into his words until they became my reality, but I’d been burned before. Who knew what he wanted from me this time around? “You keep talking about protecting me,” I said. “But you hurt me more than anyone else in my life, even Michael. Even when I thought you were an ass, I trusted you to tell the truth, and you turned out to be the biggest liar of all. Just…” I sucked in a deep breath, unable to look at him, it hurt so much. “Leave me alone.”
Alex’s chest heaved like he couldn’t get enough air into his lungs. “I can’t do that, sweetheart. I’ll wait however long it takes, but I’ll never be okay with a world in which you’re alone.” “Who says I will be? Maybe I’ll find someone else.” His eyes darkened into a furious shade of emerald, and his shoulders tensed even more. Somewhere, thunder boomed. I hadn’t noticed the weather morph from sunny to its current gray, gloomy state, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex had the power to control it with his emotions. “The hell you will,” he snarled. “I’ll kill any man that touches you.” “You have no right,” I hissed back. “I don’t belong to you.” The muscles in his jaw popped. “That’s where you’re wrong. I fucked up. Massively. But I will earn your forgiveness one day, and you are mine. Always. No matter how much time or distance separate us.” Do you know what it means to be taken by me? It means you’re mine. I shoved aside the unbidden memory. “I’m not arguing with you any longer.” There was no way I could focus on editing tonight, but at least I could go home and cry myself to sleep like a pathetic moron. Yay me. “You can waste your time in London, but it won’t matter. We’re done.” I walked away before Alex could respond. Undeterred, he followed me, his every step matching two of mine. Dammit. Why couldn’t I have been born tall like Bridget or Stella? I ducked my head and picked up my pace, trying to ignore the man beside me as drops of rain splashed on my face and dampened my hair. “Ava, please.” I clutched my bag to my chest, using it as armor while I bulldozed my way down the sidewalk. “At least let me drive you home,” Alex pleaded. “It’s not safe, walking in the dark.” I’d been walking home for the past two weeks and had no issues. I didn’t live in the best neighborhood, but it wasn’t a war zone. I just had to keep my wits about me. Plus, I had pepper spray, and I’d restarted self-defense lessons at a local martial arts center. I didn’t say any of that to Alex though. “It’s cold and raining, and you’re wearing a dress.” No matter how fast I walked, I couldn’t shake him. “Sweetheart, please, you’ll get sick.” His voice broke on the last word. I clenched my teeth so hard my jaw hurt. I kept my head low, desperate to
reach the warm safety of my flat. Eventually, Alex stopped talking and simply walked beside me, a glowering presence who ensured everyone else gave me a wide berth. After what felt like an eternity, we reached my building. I didn’t look at him as I fished my key out of my bag and jammed it into the lock. Water streaked my face—from the rain or my tears, I couldn’t tell. Alex didn’t follow me inside the building, but I could feel the heat of his gaze as I slipped inside. Don’t look. Don’t look. I made it halfway up the stairs before I caved. The glass pane above the door provided a clear view of the sidewalk, and although I was already in the building, Alex remained outside, soaked to the bone. His shirt clung to his sculpted torso, and his hair plastered to his forehead, the light brown color almost black from the rain. He lifted his eyes until they met mine through the glass, his face stamped with equal parts anguish and determination. And even though concrete, metal, and a good dozen feet separated us, he exerted a magnetic pull that almost convinced me to fling open the door and pull him in from the cold. Almost. I forced myself to turn away and run up the rest of the stairs to my flat before my stupid, soft heart got me in trouble again. Even after I changed and stepped into the shower, shivering, its seductive whispers caressed my ears and urged me to give in. Ask him to come in. It’s dark and cold outside…What if he gets sick? Robbed? Hurt? “He won’t,” I said out loud, scrubbing my skin so hard it turned red. “Alex Volkov doesn’t get hurt. He does the hurting.” The image of him standing miserably in the rain flashed through my mind, and I faltered before scrubbing harder. I didn’t make him follow me or stand out there. If he caught a cold or…or hypothermia, that was on him. I switched off the water with shaky hands. I spent the next few hours eating instant ramen and attempting to edit photos, but I eventually gave up. I couldn’t focus, and my eyes ached from crying. I just wanted to pretend this afternoon never happened. I called it an early night and climbed into bed, resisting the urge to look out the window. It’d been hours. It wasn’t like Alex would still be out there.

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