Twisted love by ANA HUANG ,EPILOGUE

AVA “I kicked your ass.” “You did not kick my ass,” Ralph grumbled. “You got lucky with that last punch.” “It’s all right.” Alex adjusted his shirt sleeves, his eyes gleaming with a mixture of triumph and amusement. “Every student eventually becomes the teacher.” “Boy, I’ll knock you upside the head if you don’t stop talking nonsense.” Despite his gruff words, Ralph was smiling. “What did I say about arguing at the table?” Ralph’s wife, Missy, raised her eyebrows. “Stop quibbling so we can all enjoy dinner.” I hid a smile when Alex and Ralph muttered under their breaths but complied. “What was that?” Her brows rose higher. “Nothing,” they chorused. “Teach me your ways,” I whispered to Missy while the guys busied themselves with the roast chicken and garlic mashed potatoes. “How do you do it?” She laughed. “When you’ve been married for thirty-plus years, you learn a few things. Besides…” Her eyes twinkled with mischief. “Judging by the way Alex looks at you, I don’t think you have to worry about keeping him in line.” Alex looked up at the same moment I glanced at him. He winked, his mouth curving into a devilish smirk that had my toes curling in my boots. I knew what that smirk foreshadowed.
Heat rose on my cheeks, and I pretended to be fascinated with my plate while Alex’s low chuckle rumbled across the table. Missy didn’t miss a second of it. “Oh, to be young and in love.” She sighed. “Ralph and I married when we were in our early twenties. I’ve enjoyed every minute—except when he leaves his dirty clothes everywhere and refuses to see the doctor—but there’s nothing like the passion that comes with youth. Everything’s so fresh and new. And the stamina. Whew!” She fanned herself. “We were like bunnies, let me tell you.” By now, my cheeks were the color of the cranberry sauce on the table. I adored Missy. I met her a week ago, when Alex and I arrived at her and Ralph’s Vermont farm for an extended Thanksgiving weekend, but I immediately took a shine to her. Warm, friendly, and down-to-earth, she baked a mean pumpkin pie and had a penchant for raunchy jokes—and raunchy personal stories. This morning, out of the blue, she asked whether I’d ever had a threesome —I hadn’t—and I’d nearly sprayed orange juice all over her cherrywood table. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” Missy patted my arm, but the spark of mischief remained in her eyes. “I’m just so thrilled Alex is dating. I’ve known that boy for years, and I’ve never seen him look at someone the way he does you. I’ve always said he just needs the right woman to open him up. He was wound tighter than a Victorian corset.” I leaned toward her and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Honestly, not much has changed.” “You know I can hear everything you’re saying,” Alex said dryly. “Good. I was afraid l wasn’t loud enough.” His eyes narrowed while Missy burst into laughter. Even Ralph chuckled as I flashed a cheeky smile. “Sunshine, you being loud has never been an issue,” Alex said in silky voice. My mashed potatoes went down the wrong pipe, and I erupted into a fit of coughs. Missy’s laughter morphed into outright cackling. Poor Ralph turned bright red, muttered something about the restroom, and fled. Once I got my coughs under control, I glared at Alex, who remained unfazed. “I’m talking about the volume of your voice during conversations, of course.” He raised his wineglass to his lips. “What did you think I meant?” “I have a feeling you won’t be hearing my voice during conversations for
a while,” I huffed. “We’ll see.” He sounded infuriatingly smug. “I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone while I fetch Ralph.” Missy chuckled. “Poor thing is a lion in the bedroom but a blushing kitten when it comes to talking about sex in public—directly or indirectly.” That was something I could’ve lived the rest of my life without knowing. After she left, I glared at Alex. “See what you did? You drove our hosts away during their own dinner.” “Did I?” He gave an elegant shrug. “Might as well take advantage of the situation. Come here, Sunshine.” “I don’t think so.” “That wasn’t a request.” “I’m not a dog.” I took a defiant sip of my water. “If you’re not in my lap in the next five seconds,” Alex said in the same calm voice. “I’ll bend you over the table, rip off your skirt, and fuck you so hard Ralph will have a heart attack from your screams.” The bastard was crazy enough to do it, too. And I must be equally crazy, because my panties dampened at his words, and all I could think about was doing the exact thing he’d just threatened. Alex watched, eyes heated, as I pushed my chair back, walked over to him, and climbed into his lap. “Good girl,” he purred, wrapping an arm around my waist and pulling me toward him until my back pressed against his chest. His arousal nestled against my ass, and my mouth turned bone-dry. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” “I hate you.” I would’ve been more convincing had the words not come out so breathless. “Hate is just another word for love.” He slipped a hand beneath my sweater and cupped my breast while trailing a string of fiery kisses down my neck. “I don’t think that’s right,” I said, caught between laughing and moaning. God, his hands and mouth were magic. I shot a furtive glance at the doorway to the dining room. Missy and Ralph were nowhere in sight…yet. But the possibility of getting caught made the whole thing hotter—I was so wet I was afraid I’d leave a noticeable spot on Alex’s pants when I stood. “No? Ah, well.” Alex nipped my earlobe. “Close enough.” He cupped my
chin with his other hand and turned my face so I looked back at him. “Did you enjoy this week?” “Yeah. It was the best Thanksgiving I’ve had in a while,” I said softly. I felt guilty because while all my Thanksgivings with Michael were tainted, I’d spent the holiday with Josh last year. He’d flown to London, and we had a blast stuffing ourselves with food—restaurant-bought because we didn’t know how to cook a turkey—while binge-watching British dramas. But I’d been unsure about my feelings for Alex, and Josh had been pissed at his ex-best friend. He still was. When he found out Alex and I were back together, he lost his shit. He wouldn’t talk to me for weeks, and even now, our conversations were strained. Josh stayed in D.C. for his residency, so we still lived in the same city, but he refused to see me if Alex was there. He’d ignored all of Alex’s outreach and seen through my schemes to help them patch things up. I’d invited him to celebrate Thanksgiving with us, but as I’d expected, he’d declined. “I do wish Josh could’ve made it,” I admitted. I missed my brother. “Me too. But he’ll come around.” Despite his confident words, a small furrow creased Alex’s brow. He didn’t say it, but I knew he missed Josh too. They’d been as close as brothers. Unfortunately, Josh was stubborn as a bull. The more you pushed him, the more he dug his heels in. The only thing we could do was give him time and wait. “He will.” I sighed and looped my arms around Alex’s neck. “Other than that, though, this week was perfect.” We’d been in Vermont for six days, and the whole getaway had been a Pinterest-worthy autumn dream. Artisan fairs, a turkey trot, the best hot apple cider I’ve ever tasted…even Alex enjoyed being here, though he refused to admit it. I’d overheard his conversation with Ralph when his old Krav Maga instructor called and invited him up here for Thanksgiving, and it took me forever to convince him to accept. “Good.” Alex dropped both his hands to my waist and kissed me on the lips. “Be glad I rented us our own cabin instead of staying here with Ralph and Missy,” he whispered. “Because you’re going to pay for your sass earlier.” My heart skipped with excitement. Before I could respond, Missy and
Ralph’s voices drifted through the doorway, and I jumped up so fast I banged my knee on the underside of the table. I lunged into my chair, my face beet-red, right as our hosts reentered the room. “Sorry we took so long,” Missy chirped. “Hope we’re not interrupting anything.” “Nope,” I squeaked. “I was just enjoying your delicious chicken.” I munched on the now-cold meat. “Yum.” Alex snorted out a laugh, which earned him another glare from me. “Most of the food is cold, dear.” Missy clucked in disappointment. “Do you want me to heat ‘em up or skip straight to dessert? I made pecan pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie—” “Dessert!” Ralph and I shouted at the same time. “Alex?” Missy raised her eyebrows. “One slice of pecan pie is fine, thank you.” “Nonsense. You’re getting a slice of all three,” she said firmly. “I made ‘em for a reason, didn’t I?” What Missy wanted, Missy got. By the time we left her and Ralph’s house, I was full to the point of bursting. I leaned into Alex for support as we made our way back to our rental cabin, which was a fifteen-minute walk away. “We should come here for Thanksgiving every year,” I said. “If we’re invited, that is.” He cast an incredulous glance in my direction. “No.” “You had fun!” “I did not. I hate small towns.” Alex placed a hand on the small of my back and steered me around a small puddle I hadn’t noticed. I pouted. “Then why did you come this year?” “Because you’ve never been to Vermont, and you wouldn’t shut up about it. Now you’ve been, so we don’t have to come back.” “Don’t try to act all tough. I saw you buy that little porcelain puppy at the artisan fair when you thought I wasn’t looking. And you drag me to that hot cider shop down the road every afternoon.” Crimson stained Alex’s cheeks. “It’s called making lemonade out of lemons,” he growled. “You are asking for it tonight.” “Maybe I am.” I squealed and broke out into a run when Alex reached for
me. He caught me in, oh, five-point-two seconds, but I wasn’t trying that hard to escape, and I wasn’t exactly Usain Bolt after all the carbs I’d ingested. “You’ll be the death of me,” he said, swinging me around until I faced him. The moonlight cast his features in sharp relief, making the pale lines of his cheekbones slash like blades through the darkness. Beautiful. Perfect. Cold—except for the warmth of his embrace and the teasing glint in his eyes. I wrapped my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist. “So we’re coming back for Thanksgiving next year, right?” Alex sighed. “Maybe.” In other words, yes. I beamed. “Maybe we could come up early and go apple pick—” “Don’t push your luck.” Fair enough. We’d go apple picking the year after next. Seven hundredodd days should be enough time to convince him. “Alex?” “Yes, Sunshine?” “I love you.” His face softened. “I love you, too.” His lips brushed over mine before he whispered, “But don’t think that’ll save you from the spanking you’re getting once we’re back in the cabin.” A shiver of anticipation rippled through me. I couldn’t wait.
ALEX Contrary to what Ava said, I hated Vermont. There were some notterrible parts, like the food and the fresh air, but me enjoying the countryside? I didn’t know what she was talking about. At all. I did, however, miss all the time I’d gotten to spend with Ava over Thanksgiving after I returned to work. It was almost embarrassing how fast Archer Group took me back as CEO when I returned from London. I wasn’t surprised—I was the best. The guy who replaced me was fine as a placeholder, but even he knew his tenure at Archer had reached the end of the road when I walked into my office four
months ago. That office had always been mine, no matter who occupied the chair. The board had been all too happy to have me back, and Archer’s stock jumped twenty-four percent when my reinstatement as CEO hit the papers. I did have a better work-life balance now that Ava had moved into my Logan Circle penthouse, mainly because I’d much rather be eating her out on our bed than eating takeout at my desk. I left the office around six these days, much to the relief of my staff. “Sunshine?” I called out, kicking the front door closed behind me. I hung my coat on the rack and waited for a response. Nothing. Ava, who worked as a junior freelance photographer for World Geographic and a few other magazines, was usually home by this time. Worry flickered in my stomach before I heard the squeak of the faucet turning and the faint but unmistakable sound of the shower running. My shoulders relaxed. I was still paranoid about her safety and had hired a permanent bodyguard to look after her, much to her dismay. We’d had an all-out, knockdown fight over it, followed by equally all-out, knockdown makeup sex, but we’d eventually compromised—we’d keep the bodyguard, but she would stay out of sight and not interfere unless Ava was in physical danger. I’d taken other precautions to ensure my enemies would think twice about going after her as well…including seeding detailed “rumors” about what happened to the last guy who’d dared touch her. Rest in hell, Camo. The rumors worked. Some people were scared so shitless they couldn’t look me in the eye anymore. Hauss Industries was also toast, thanks to Madeline’s unwise decision to be in cahoots with my uncle. I’d had plenty of blackmail on Madeline’s father. Embezzling, money laundering, deals with unsavory characters…he’d been a busy man. All I’d had to do was slip an anonymous tip and select pieces of information to Hauss’s competitor, and they took care of the dirty work for me. Last I heard, Madeline’s father was facing years in prison, and Madeline was working at a skeezy diner in Maryland after the government froze all of her family’s assets. The only person I was worried about was Michael, who Ava said kept
sending Josh letters asking to see him. Josh had so far refused. In an effort not to stain my hands with more blood, I’d dropped my plan to send Michael to an early grave in prison, but I had people on the inside monitoring him—and making his life more than a little uncomfortable. If he so much as uttered Ava’s name, I’d know about it—and make sure he never did it again. Out of habit, I turned on the flat-screen TV in our room and half-listened to the evening news as I peeled off my work clothes. I should join Ava in the shower. What was the point of having a massive rainfall shower with a handy bench seat if we didn’t fuck in it at least once a week? My penthouse was huge but had had minimal furnishings until Ava spruced it up after she moved in. And by “spruced up,” I mean art and flowers and framed pictures of us and her friends everywhere. Both Jules and Stella stayed in D.C. after graduation, while Bridget split her time between Eldorra, D.C., and New York. Her friends were more accepting of our rekindled relationship than Josh, but that didn’t mean I wanted their faces staring at me twenty-four seven in my own damn house. I’d only agreed to display the photos because Ava wouldn’t stop giving me sad puppy-dog eyes until I relented. “You should’ve said no,” I muttered at a picture of myself and Ava at a Nats baseball game over the summer. It hung next to a more formal gallery of her work from London—the ones I bought in bulk at the WYP exhibition. She had me doing all sorts of crazy things these days, like giving up coffee and sticking to a sleep schedule. She said it would help with my insomnia, and yeah, I slept more hours than I used to, but that had more to do with having Ava by my side than anything else. Besides, I still sneak the occasional cup of coffee at the office. I was about to enter the bathroom when something the newscaster said caught my attention. I stopped short, sure I’d heard wrong, but the scrolling chyron across the bottom of the screen confirmed what I’d heard. The sound of the running shower switched off, and the rumble of the stall door sliding open filtered into the bedroom. “Ava?” There was a brief pause and a faint rustle. “You’re home early!” Ava stepped out of the bathroom in a swirl of steam, hair and skin damp, with nothing but a towel wrapped around her slender frame. She beamed when she saw me, and my face softened.
“Slow day in the office.” I dropped a kiss on her mouth. My cock stirred with interest, and I was tempted to rip off her towel and take her right there against the wall, but there was something she needed to know before we started one of our all-nighters. “Did you hear from Bridget today?” “No.” Ava’s brow furrowed. “Why?” “Check out the news.” I angled my head toward the TV, where the newscaster spoke a mile a minute. Ava paused, listening to the update before her jaw dropped. I didn’t blame her. Because what just happened? It hadn’t happened in over 200 years of Eldorran history. The newscaster’s high-pitched voice filled the room, so excited it trembled. “…Crown Prince Nikolai has abdicated the throne of Eldorra to marry Sabrina Philips, the American flight attendant he met last year during a diplomatic trip to New York. Eldorran law stipulates the country’s monarchs must marry someone of noble birth. His sister, Princess Bridget, is now first in line to the throne. When she becomes Queen, she will be Eldorra’s first female monarch in more than a century…” Footage of an expressionless Bridget exiting the Plaza Hotel in New York, trailed by her grim-faced bodyguard and surrounded by shouting reporters, flashed onscreen. “Holy shit,” Ava said. Holy shit was right. From what I remembered—which was everything— Bridget had chafed at the restrictions that came with being a regular princess. Now that she was first in line for the crown? She must be flipping out. On TV, Rhys steered Bridget into a waiting car and leveled the reporters with a glare so menacing they backed up en masse. Most people would’ve missed it, but I caught the heat in Bridget’s eyes when she looked at Rhys and the way his hand brushed hers for a second longer than it should’ve before he closed the door. I filed that piece of information away for the future. Bridget was Ava’s friend, so she was safe, but it never hurt to have blackmail material on a future queen. Based on what I just witnessed, Bridget’s feelings about her impending rule were the least of her problems.

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