Twisted love by ANA HUANG ,chapter 43,AVA

THE FELLOWSHIP ENDED WITH A GRAND EXHIBITION ATTENDED BY THE MOVERS and shakers of London’s art world. The exhibition took place in Shoreditch, and every fellow had their own section in the pop-up gallery. It was exhilarating, nerve-wracking, and utterly surreal. I stared at my little slice of heaven and the people passing through it, dressed to the nines and examining each piece with what I hoped were admiring eyes. I’d grown by leaps and bounds as a photographer over the past year, and while I still had a lot to learn, I was damn proud of my work. I specialized in travel portraits like Diane Lange, but I put my personal spin on it. As much as I admired her, I didn’t want to be her; I wanted to be my own person, with my own vision and creative ideas. I took most of my shots in London, but the good thing about Europe was how easy it was to travel to other countries. On the weekends, I took the Eurostar to Paris or day trips to the Cotswolds. I even booked short flights to neighboring countries like Ireland and the Netherlands and didn’t freak out on the plane. My favorite piece was a portrait of two old men playing chess at a park in Paris. One had his head tossed back in laughter with a cigarette in hand while the other examined the board with a furrowed brow. The emotions from both jumped out from the photo, and I’d never been prouder. “How do you feel?” Diane came up beside me. Her pale blonde hair brushed her shoulders, and her black-rimmed glasses matched her black jacket and pants combo. She’d been the best mentor I could ask for during the fellowship, and now I considered her both a friend and role model.
Me, friends with Diane Lange. Surreal. “I feel…everything,” I admitted. “Warning though, I might also throw up.” She threw her head back and laughed, not unlike the man in the photo. That was one of my favorite things about Diane. Whether it was joy, sadness, or anger, she expressed her emotions fully and without reserve. She poured herself into the world with the confidence of someone who refused to hold herself back to make others comfortable, and she shone all the brighter for it. “That’s normal,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “I actually did throw up during my first exhibition. Puked all over a server and a guest who happened to be one of Paris’s premier art collectors. I was mortified, but he was a good sport about it. Ended up buying two of my pieces that night.” I chewed on my bottom lip. That was another thing. All the fellows’ photos were up for sale tonight. My cohort had turned it into a competition to see who could sell the most and therefore boast they were “the best,” but I would be happy if I sold one. Knowing that someone, anyone, liked my work enough to pay for it sent a swarm of happy jitters through my stomach. “I hope I’ll have as good a night,” I said, because I hadn’t sold anything yet. The twinkle in Diane’s eyes intensified. “You already have. Better, in fact.” I tilted my head in confusion. “Someone bought all your pieces. Every single one.” I almost choked on my champagne. “Wh-what?” The exhibition started an hour ago. How was that possible? “Seems like you have an admirer.” She winked. “Don’t look so surprised. Your work is good. Really good.” I didn’t care how good my work was; I was an unknown name. A newbie. Newbies don’t sell out of their entire collection that fast unless… My heart thumped—in warning or excitement, I wasn’t sure. I glanced frantically around the gallery, searching for thick brown hair and cool green eyes. Nothing. But he was here. He was my anonymous buyer. I felt it in my gut. Alex and I had developed a new…well, I wasn’t sure if I could call it a
friendship, but it was a step up from whatever we had when he arrived in London a year ago. He still waited for me in front of my flat every morning and walked me home after my workshops every afternoon. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we didn’t. He helped me practice my self-defense moves, assembled my new dining table after my old one broke, and served as a de facto assistant on some of my photoshoots. It had taken a long time before we reached that point, but we’d gotten there. He was trying. More than trying. And while I’d regained a modicum of trust in him, something held me back from fully forgiving him. I could see how much it hurt him every time I pushed him away, but the wounds from his and Michael’s betrayals—while they were healing—ran deep, and I was still learning to trust myself, much less other people. Josh, who’d graduated med school last month, had visited a few times, and I made Alex stay out of sight while he was in town. Josh was still furious with Alex, and I didn’t need them getting into a fistfight in the middle of London. Jules, Bridget, and Stella had visited too. I hadn’t told them about Alex, but I had a hunch Bridget knew something was up—she’d kept looking at me with a knowing glint in her eyes. Microphone feedback rippled through the air, and the crowd quieted. The fellowship director walked on stage and thanked everyone for attending, she hoped they were having a good time, blah blah blah. I tuned her out, too intent on my search to pay attention. Where was he? Alex wasn’t one to hide in the shadows unless he didn’t want to be seen, and I couldn’t think of any reason he’d want to lie low tonight. “…special performance. Please put your hands together for Alex Volkov!” This was maddening. Had something—wait, what? My head snapped up, and my stomach tumbled into freefall. There he was. Black tuxedo, unreadable expression, his hair gleaming golden brown beneath the lights. There were almost two hundred people in the room, but his eyes found mine immediately. My pulse thumped with anticipation. What was he doing onstage? I got my answer a minute later. “I realize this is quite a surprise, as a live performance wasn’t in the program tonight,” Alex said. “And if you know me, you know I’m not
famous for my patronage of the arts—or my singing skills.” Soft laughter rippled through the crowd, along with a few knowing looks. Alex waited for the chuckles to die down before he continued, his gaze burning into mine. “Whether it’s music, photography, film, or painting, the arts reflect the world around us, and for too long, I only saw the dark side. The seedy underbellies, the ugly truths. Photographs reminded me of moments in time that never lasted. Songs reminded me that words have the power to rip one’s heart out. Why, then, would I care about art when it was so terrible and destructive?” It was a bold statement to make in front of London’s art world, but no one heckled. No one so much as breathed. Alex had us all under the spell of his words. “Then someone came into my life and upended everything I thought I knew. She was everything I wasn’t—pure-hearted, trusting, optimistic. She showed me the beauty that existed in this world, and through her, I learned the power of faith. Joy. Love. But I’m afraid I’ve tainted her with my untruths, and I’m hoping, with all of my heart, that one day she’ll find her way out of the darkness and into the light again.” The room rang with breathless silence at the end of Alex’s speech. My heart was pounding, pounding so hard I felt it in my throat. My stomach. My toes. I felt it in every inch of me. Then he opened his mouth again, and my heart stopped altogether. Because the voice that came out and filled the room? It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. It wasn’t just me, either—everyone stared at Alex with rapt fascination, and I was pretty sure a few of the women straight-up swooned. I pressed my fist to my mouth as the lyrics flowed over me. It was a song about love and heartbreak. Betrayal and redemption. Regret and forgiveness. Each word tore me apart, as did the fact that Alex sang at all. No matter how much I’d cajoled or begged in the past, it was the one thing he’d refused to do. Until now. I understood why he’d refused. Alex didn’t just sing, he sang. With emotion, with beauty, with so much rawness it took my breath away. He bared his soul with each note, and for a man who thought his soul was irrevocably damned, the thought of doing that in front of an audience must’ve been unbearable. Alex finished to thunderous applause. His gaze lingered on mine for one long moment before he disappeared offstage, and the crowd broke up into
excited chatter and gasps. My feet moved before I could think, but I only made it two steps before Diane stopped me. “Ava, before you leave, there’s someone I want you to meet,” she said. “The editor of World Geographic is here, and they’re always looking for talented young photographers.” “I—okay.” I looked around, but I didn’t see Alex anywhere. “Is everything all right? You seem distracted.” Diane examined me with concern. “You’ve been talking about World Geographic all year. I thought you’d be more excited.” “Yes, I’m fine. Sorry, I’m just a little overwhelmed.” Normally, I would’ve fangirled at the thought of meeting the editor of World Geographic, a travel and culture magazine famous for its stunning photographs and storytelling, but all I could think about was Alex. “That was quite a performance, huh?” Diane grinned as she led me toward an older man with silver-streaked hair and a thick beard. Laurent Boucher. I recognized him immediately. “If I were twenty years younger…” I forced a weak laugh. “Not that it would do me much good. He seemed to only have eyes for you.” She winked at me. Heat rose on my face, and I mumbled an incoherent response before we reached Laurent. “Diane, good to see you again.” Laurent’s deep voice rumbled with a charming French accent as he air-kissed her. “You look lovely as always.” “You’re always such a charmer.” Diane inclined her head toward me. “Laurent, I want you to meet Ava. She’s the fellow I was telling you about.” “Ah, of course.” Laurent turned his piercing dark eyes on me. “I was talking to Diane about your exhibit earlier this evening. You’re quite talented —young still, and your work could use a little more refinement, but you have extraordinary potential.” “Thank you, sir.” Between Alex’s performance and praise from Laurent freakin’ Boucher, this whole evening was surreal. “Please, call me Laurent.” We chatted for another fifteen minutes, during which Diane excused herself to speak with the fellowship director. At the end of our conversation, Laurent handed me his card and told me to be in touch if I was interested in freelancing for a junior role at World Geographic. Um, yes. I was over the
moon about the opportunity, but I couldn’t help breathing a sigh of relief when Laurent got distracted by another acquaintance. I thanked him and left to search for Alex, but I was interrupted again by a group of fellows who heard I’d already sold my entire collection and wanted to know who the buyer was. I told them I didn’t know, which was technically true. That kept happening the entire evening. I’d end one conversation only to get drawn into another. I was grateful for all the people who wanted to connect and congratulate me, but dammit, Alex was the only person I wanted to talk to. By the end of the night, I hadn’t caught a single glimpse of him since his performance. My feet hurt, my cheeks ached from constant smiling, and my stomach growled from the lack of food. I was always too nervous to eat at events. Guests trickled out until I was one of only a handful of people left in the gallery, including the cleanup crew. I couldn’t believe Alex would leave without a word after what he did, but there was no denying it—he wasn’t here. “Hey, Ava.” I perked up, but disappointment slammed into me a second later when I saw who the speaker was. “Hey, Jack.” I fixed another smile on my face. “I thought you left.” “Nah. Seems I’m a straggler, just like you.” His blue eyes twinkled. “You wanna grab a bite? I couldn’t eat a thing all night. Nerves,” he explained. “I feel that.” “Nerves? C’mon, you sold your entire collection. That’s incredible! Unheard of in WFP history.” Jack hugged me. “We should celebrate. Maybe with a proper dinner and drinks? Doesn’t have to be tonight if you’re too tired,” he added. I blinked, sure I’d read his tone wrong. “Are you…asking me out?” Jack had become a good friend over the past year, and I enjoyed hanging out with him. He wasn’t unattractive either, with his longish blond hair, Australian accent, and sun-kissed surfer vibes. But when I looked at him, my stomach didn’t flutter and my heart didn’t skip a beat. Only one person in the world could make me feel that way, and he wasn’t here. Jack blushed. “Yeah.” He flashed a sheepish smile. “I’ve wanted to ask
you out for a while, but I didn’t want to make things awkward during the fellowship. Since the program is over now, I figured, why not? You’re beautiful, funny, talented, and we get along well.” He paused. “I think.” “We do.” I placed a hand on his arm. “You’re one of my closest friends here, and I’m so glad I met you. You’re a great guy—” “Ouch.” Jack winced. “I feel like that’s not a good thing when used in this context.” I laughed. “No, trust me, it’s a good thing. You’re cute and funny and talented too, and any girl would be lucky to date you.” “I sense a but coming,” he said wryly. “But—” “But she’s busy,” a smooth voice interrupted. “From tonight through the foreseeable future.” I turned, my pulse accelerating when I saw Alex standing less than five feet away. His gaze zeroed in on where I was still touching Jack’s arm. I pulled away, but it was too late. I could practically taste the danger pulsing in the air. Gone was the man who’d bared his soul onstage; in his place was the ruthless CEO who wouldn’t hesitate to crush his enemies into dust. “You’re the guy who performed tonight and is always waiting for Ava outside WYP.” Jack narrowed his eyes. “Who are you again?” “Someone who will rip your entrails out and strangle you with them if you don’t take your hands off her,” Alex said in a deceptively calm voice. It was only then that I realized Jack still had his hand on the small of my back from when he’d hugged me earlier. “You’re psycho.” Jack tightened his hold on me, and I suddenly feared for his life. “I’m calling security—” “No, it’s fine. I know him,” I blurted before Jack could get himself into more trouble. “He’s, uh, prone to hyperbole.” I took a step back, forcing Jack to release me. “I need to talk to him, but I’ll see you later, okay?” He shot me a disbelieving look. “Ava, he’s—” “I’ll be fine,” I said, my tone firm. “I promise. He’s an old, um, acquaintance from D.C.” Displeasure radiated from Alex in waves. His gaze bore into me with laser intensity, but I ignored it the best I could. “Okay.” Jack relented. “Text me when you’re home safe.” He kissed my cheek, and a low growl filled the room.
Jack flinched and cast another suspicious glance toward Alex before leaving. I waited until he was out of earshot before I pinned Alex with my own warning stare. “Don’t even think about it.” “Think about what?” “Doing anything to Jack. Or hiring anyone to do anything to him,” I added, because one always needed to cover one’s bases with Alex. He was the king of loopholes. “I didn’t realize you cared so much about him,” Alex said, his voice cold. I clenched my teeth. “How is it possible you’re the same guy who sang earlier tonight? One is an asshole, the other is…” “Is what?” Alex walked toward me, and my mouth dried. “Is what, Ava?” “You know what.” “I don’t.” I exhaled a shaky sigh. “You sang. In public.” “Yes.” “Why?” “Why do I do anything these days?” He brushed his fingers over my cheek, and shivers of pleasure skated down my spine. “I—” He paused, his jaw working before he said carefully, “I’m not the best at expressing my emotions. That’s why I’ve never liked singing. It’s all emotion, and it feels too vulnerable. I can’t stand it. But I said I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win you back, and I meant it, just as I meant every word in that song. That song was for you. But I’m running out of ideas, sweetheart.” Alex rubbed his thumb over the curve of my jaw and gave me a sad smile. “Do you know this is the first time you’ve let me touch you in over a year?” I opened my mouth to argue because that couldn’t possibly be true… except it was. A montage of images flashed through my mind of me shrinking back or turning away every time Alex reached for me over the past twelve months. Not because I didn’t want him to touch me, but because I didn’t trust myself not to cave if he got that close again. He never said anything, but I’d caught the hurt and pain in his eyes. “I looked for you after,” I said, my chin wobbling. “I couldn’t find you. You disappeared.” “It’s your big night. I didn’t want to take that away from you.” “I thought you left.” I didn’t know why, but I started crying. The tears dripped down my cheeks, and my sniffles echoed in the empty gallery. I was
mortified, but at least we were the only people there. There had to be staff somewhere in the building or they would’ve kicked us out, but I couldn’t see them. “I would never leave you.” Alex drew me into his chest, and I sank into his embrace for the first time in what felt like forever. It was like returning home after a long, lonely trip abroad. I’d forgotten how safe I felt in his arms, like nothing and no one could hurt me. That I felt this way even after what he did spoke volumes. “Do you want me to leave?” he asked gruffly. I buried my face in his chest and shook my head. He smelled like warmth and spice, and it was so familiar it made my heart hurt. I missed it. I missed him. Even though I’d seen Alex every day for the past year, it wasn’t the same as touching him and actually being with him. “Do you miss me, sweetheart?” His voice gentled. I nodded, my face still buried in his chest. All this time, I’d been afraid to let him back in, partly because I didn’t trust him, but mostly because I didn’t trust myself. After being lied to for so long by two people I’d loved, I’d begun to think of my heart as my enemy and not my friend. How could I trust my instincts when they’d led me so astray in the past? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I hadn’t been wrong. I’d thought Michael was my real father and that he’d saved my life, but I’d always felt uncomfortable around him. I never bonded with him the way a daughter should with her father. I figured it was because he’d been uncomfortable around me, and while that may have played a part, it had mostly been a sixth sense that warned me not to get too close. As for Alex, he’d pulled the wool over both my and Josh’s eyes. But in my heart of hearts, I believed him when he said our relationship and his feelings were real. Was there a chance I was wrong, and this was yet another fucked-up long game? Yes, though I didn’t see what else he could want from me. He’d targeted Michael based on false information, and even if he hadn’t, Michael was already out of the picture—he’d been found guilty of multiple charges of attempted murder and corporate fraud, and he faced life in prison. But I’d rather take a leap of faith than spend the rest of my life living in fear of something that might happen. I was sick and tired of letting my fears hold me back, whether it was over water, heartbreak, or something else. The only way to live life was to live it. No fears, regrets.
Alex pulled back but kept one arm around my waist. He tilted my chin up, his eyes boring into mine. “Do you want me to stay?” He wasn’t talking about the gallery, and we both knew it. I swallowed hard and nodded again. “Yes,” I whispered. The word had barely left my mouth before Alex yanked me toward him and crushed his lips to mine. It wasn’t a sweet, leisurely kiss. It was fierce and desperate and everything I needed. A shudder of relief rippled through him beneath my palms, and I hadn’t realized how tense he’d been until now. “You know there’s no getting rid of me now,” he warned, his touch hot and possessive as he gripped my hands. “That wouldn’t have happened, anyway.” He let out a soft chuckle. “Now you’re getting it.” His mouth claimed mine once more, and I was so lost in his kiss, his scent, his touch that I didn’t notice we’d moved until my back hit the wall. “Alex?” “Hmm?” He pulled my bottom lip between his teeth and bit lightly before chasing away the sting with his tongue. Full-on tingles spread from my scalp all the way down to my toes. “Don’t break my heart again.” Alex’s face softened. “I won’t. Trust me, sweetheart.” “I do.” It was the truth. I’d seen the real Alex tonight, stripped of all his masks, and I trusted him with all my heart. He gave me one of his real smiles then, the kind that could start a nuclear reaction and destroy the entire female population in one fell swoop. “Also, I…” I blushed. “I miss when you call me Sunshine.” Alex’s eyes flared with heat. “Yeah?” He slid my skirt up, inch by inch, until the cool air hit my ass and upper thighs. “What else do you miss?” He dipped his hand inside my already-drenched panties and brushed the sensitive nub between my legs. “Do you miss this?” A whimper escaped. “Yes.” “What about this?” He pressed his body against mine until I felt his rockhard erection against my thigh. Heat sizzled through my veins. I hadn’t had sex in a year and a half, and my sexual frustration was a volcano waiting to explode. “Yes. Please,” I moaned. “I told the rest of the staff to leave before I came to see you. It’s just you and me, Sunshine.” His breath tickled my skin as he dragged his mouth down
my neck until he reached the pulse fluttering wildly at the base of my throat. “I’m going to fuck you against this wall until you can’t remember your own name, but before I do—” He grabbed my throat, his voice dropping to a soft snarl. My core spasmed in response. “Tell me about the blond fucker who asked you out. Did you let him touch you, Sunshine? Did you let him touch what was mine?” I shook my head, practically panting from arousal. Alex’s grip tightened. “Are you lying to save him?” “No,” I moaned. “I swear. I don’t think of him that way.” I gasped when he spun me around and pressed my cheek against the wall. The icy concrete dug into my heated skin, and my nipples hardened into painful points. Alex yanked up my skirt and shoved aside my panties with his free hand. “You don’t think about him ever,” he growled. I heard his belt unbuckling and his pants unzipping. “I’m the only man in your mind. In your mouth. In your tight little pussy. Do you understand?” “Yes!” I was so delirious with lust I would’ve said yes to anything at this point. “Tell me who you belong to.” He slid his cock against my drenched folds, and I almost had a mini-orgasm from that simple action alone. “I belong to you.” Alex hissed out a breath, and that was the only warning I received before he slammed into me. He clapped a hand over my mouth, muffling my screams, but I was so far gone I barely noticed. I could only focus on the sensation of his cock pounding into me and the pleasure crashing over me in waves. The framed photos from the exhibition banged against the wall with each thrust, and I dimly heard something crashing to the ground. I was about to come when Alex spun me around again so we faced each other. His skin was flushed with exertion, his eyes dark with lust. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. He crushed his lips to mine, hard and demanding. I yielded with no resistance, letting him into every part of me—my heart, my soul, my life. And you know what? Alex and I, we fit perfectly.

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