Two days later,Josh was in Central America and Alex was all moved in. I’d watched the movers carry a giant flat-screen TV and boxes of varying sizes into the house next door, and Alex’s Aston Martin was now a daily sight.
Since stewing over my situation wouldn’t do me much good, I decided to make lemonade out of my lemons.
The gallery closed on Tuesdays during the summer and I didn’t have any shoots scheduled, so I spent the afternoon baking my signature red velvet cookies.
I’d just finished packaging them in a cute little basket when I heard the unmistakable roar of Alex’s car pulling in the driveway, followed by a door slam.
Shit. Okay, I was ready. I was.
I wiped my sweaty palms against the sides of my thighs. I shouldn’t be nervous about bringing the man cookies, for Pete’s sake. Alex had sat at our Thanksgiving table every year for the past eight years, and for all his money and good looks, he was human. An intimidating one, but a human nonetheless.
Plus, he was supposed to look after me, and he couldn’t do that if he bit my head off, could he?
With that reassurance in mind, I grabbed the basket, my keys, and my phone and made my way to his house. Thank God Jules was at her law internship. If I had to hear her talk about how hot Alex was one more time, I’d scream.
Part of me thought she did it to annoy me, but another part worried she was actually interested in him. My best friend hooking up with my brother’s best friend would open up a can of worms I had no interest in dealing with.
I rang the doorbell, trying to still my rampaging heart while I waited for Alex to answer. I wanted to chuck the basket on the front step and run home, but that was the coward’s way out, and I was no coward. Most of the time, anyway.
A minute passed.
I rang the doorbell again.
Finally, I heard the faint sound of footsteps, which grew louder until the door swung open and I found myself face-to-face with Alex. He’d taken off his jacket, but otherwise, he still wore his work outfit—white Thomas Pink shirt, Armani pants and shoes, blue Brioni tie.
His eyes roved over my hair (tossed up into a bun), my face (hot as sun-scorched sand for no discernible reason), and my clothes (my favorite tank and shorts set) before settling on the basket. His expression remained unreadable the entire time.
“They’re for you.” I shoved the basket toward him. “They’re cookies,” I added unnecessarily, because duh, he had eyes and could see for himself that they were cookies. “It’s a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift.”
“A welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift,” he repeated.
“Yep. Since you’re…new. To the neighborhood.” I sounded like an idiot. “I know you don’t want to be here any more than I want you here—” Crap, that came out wrong. “But since we are neighbors, we should call a truce.”
Alex arched an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware a truce was necessary. We’re not in a war.”
“No, but—” I blew out a frustrated breath. He had to make this difficult. “I’m trying to be nice, okay? We’re stuck with each other for the next year, so I want to make our lives easier. Just take the damn cookies. You can eat them, throw them out, feed them to your pet snake Nagini, whatever.”
His mouth twitched. “Did you just compare me to Voldemort?”
“What? No!” Maybe. “I used the snake as an example. You don’t seem like the type who’d have a furry pet.”
“You’re right on that account. But I don’t have a snake, either.” He took the basket off my hands. “Thank you.”
I blinked. Blinked again. Did Alex Volkov thank me? I’d expected him to take the cookies and shut the door in my face. He’d never thanked me for anything in my life.
Except maybe that one time I passed him the mashed potatoes at dinner, but I’d been drunk, so my recollection was hazy.
I was still frozen in shock when he added, “Do you want to come in?”
This was a dream. It had to be. Because the chances of Alex inviting me inside his house in real life were lower than me solving a quadratic equation in my head.
I pinched myself. Ow. Okay, not a dream. Just an incredibly surreal encounter.
I wondered if aliens had abducted the real Alex on his way home and replaced him with a nicer, more civil imposter.
“Sure,” I managed, because hell, I was curious. I’d never been inside Alex’s home before, and I was curious to see what he’d done with Josh’s place.
He’d moved in two days ago, so I expected to see stray boxes lying about, but everything was so polished and put together it looked like he’d been living here for years. A sleek gray couch and eighty-inch flat-screen TV dominated the living room, accented with a low, white lacquered coffee table, industrial-chic lamps, and Josh’s abstract painting. I glimpsed an espresso machine in the kitchen and a glass-topped table with white-cushioned chairs in the dining room, but otherwise, there wasn’t much furniture to speak of. It was a drastic difference from Josh’s messy but cozy collection of random books, sports equipment, and items he’d collected from his travels.
“You’re a minimalist, huh?” I examined a strange metal sculpture that looked like an exploding brain but probably cost more than my monthly rent.
“I don’t see a point in collecting items I don’t use and don’t enjoy.” Alex placed the cookies on the coffee table and walked to the bar cart in the corner. “Drink?”
“No, thanks.” I sat on the couch, unsure of what to do or say.
He poured himself a glass of whiskey and sat opposite me, but it wasn’t far enough. I caught a whiff of his cologne—something woodsy and expensive-smelling, with a hint of spice. It was so delicious I wanted to bury my face in his neck, but I didn’t think he’d take too kindly to that.
“Relax,” he said dryly. “I don’t bite.”
“Your knuckles are white.”
I glanced down and realized I was clutching the edges of the couch so tightly my knuckles were, indeed, white.
“I like what you’ve done with the place.” I winced. Talk about a cliché line. “No photos though.” In fact, I didn’t see any personal effects—nothing that showed I was in an actual home and not a model showroom.
“Why would I need photos?”
I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. Probably not. Alex didn’t joke, except for that one blip in his car a few days ago.
“For the memories,” I said, like I was explaining a simple concept to a toddler. “To remember people and events?”
“I don’t need photos for that. The memories are here.” Alex tapped the side of his forehead.
“Everyone’s memories fade. Photos don’t.” At least, not digital ones.
“Not mine.” He set his empty glass on the coffee table, his eyes dark. “I have a superior memory.”
My snort slipped out before I could stop it. “Someone has a high opinion of himself.”
That earned me a shadow of a smirk. “I’m not bragging. I have hyperthymesia, or HSAM. Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. Look it up.”
I paused. That, I hadn’t expected. “You have a photographic memory?”
“No, they’re different. People with photographic memory recall details from a scene they’ve observed for a short time. People with HSAM remember almost everything about their life. Every conversation, every detail, every emotion.” Alex’s jade eyes morphed into emeralds, dark and haunted. “Whether or not they want to.”
“Josh never mentioned this.” Not once, not a hint, and they’d been friends for close to a decade.
“Josh doesn’t tell you everything.”
I’d never heard of hyperthymesia. It sounded fantastical, like something out of a science fiction movie, but I heard the truth in Alex’s voice. What would it be like to remember everything?
My heart rate picked up.
It would be wonderful. And terrible. Because while there were memories I wanted to keep close to my heart, as vivid as if they were happening right before my eyes, there were others I’d rather let fade into oblivion. I couldn’t imagine not having the safety net of knowing horrible events would eventually recede until they were only faint whispers from the past. Then again, my memories were so twisted I remembered nothing before the age of nine, when the most horrible events of my life had occurred.
“What’s it like?” I whispered.
How ironic the two of us were sitting here: me, the girl who remembered almost nothing, and Alex, the man who remembered everything.
Alex leaned toward me, and it was all I could do not to back away. He was too close, too overwhelming, too much.
“It’s like watching a movie of your life play out before your eyes,” he said quietly. “Sometimes it’s a drama. Sometimes it’s horror.”
The air pulsed with tension. I was sweating so hard my top stuck to my skin. “No comedy or romance?” I tried to joke, but the question came out so breathless it sounded like a come-on.
Alex’s eyes flared. Somewhere in the distance, a car horn honked. A bead of sweat trickled between my breasts, and I saw his gaze dip to it briefly before a humorless smile touched his lips. “Go home, Ava. Stay out of trouble.”
It took me a minute to gather my wits and peel myself off the couch. Once I did, I all but fled, my heart pounding and knees shaking. Every encounter with Alex, no matter how small, left me on edge.
I was nervous, yes, and a bit terrified.
But I’d also never felt more alive.