I silently cursedJosh as I carried Ava upstairs. That asshole always put me in situations I didn’t want to be in.
Case in point: sleeping in the same room as his sister.
I’m sure he would be even less happy about it than I was, but I hadn’t set up the guest room—I never had guests, not if I could help it—and it was pouring outside, so I couldn’t bring her home without both of us getting drenched. I could’ve left her on the couch, but she would’ve been damn uncomfortable.
I kicked open the door to my room and set her on the bed. She didn’t stir.
My eyes lingered on her form, noticing details I had no business noticing. Her dark hair fanned out beneath her like a blanket of black silk long enough for me to wrap my fist around, and her skirt rode up, baring an inch more thigh than modest. Her skin looked smoother than silk, and I had to clench my hands to refrain from touching her.
My mind flashed back to earlier in the night. Her skin had turned the prettiest shade of red when I made my “dripping” comment, and while I’d joked about her bleeding heart, a part of me—a very large part—had wanted to bend her over my knee, yank up her skirt, and find out just how wet she was. Because I’d seen the lust in those big, brown eyes—she’d been turned on. And if she hadn’t moved away when she did…
I tore my gaze away, my jaw clenching at the unwelcome thoughts crowding my brain.
I shouldn’t have been thinking about my best friend’s sister this way, but something had shifted. I wasn’t sure when or how, but I’d started seeing Ava less as Josh’s baby sister and more as a woman. A beautiful, pure-hearted but feisty woman who might be the death of me one of these days.
I never should’ve invited her in earlier. I should’ve gone on my date with Madeline like I’d planned, but truth be told, I couldn’t stand Madeline’s company outside the bedroom. She was gorgeous, rich, sophisticated, and understood she’d get nothing more than a physical relationship out of me, but she insisted on being wined and dined before each of our sex sessions. I only obliged because the woman fucked like a porn star.
A night in with Ava, as bad of an idea as it had turned out to be, had sounded far more appealing than another tiresome meal at a generic fancy restaurant where Madeline preened and pretended we were a couple in front of D.C.’s movers and shakers.
She didn’t expect any strings from our arrangement, but she liked status symbols, and I—as one of the richest, most eligible bachelors in the DMV area, according to Mode de Vie’s latest Power Issue—was a status symbol.
I didn’t care. I used her; she used me. We got orgasms out of it. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, but my arrangement with Madeline had run its course. Her less-than-pleased reaction when I called to tell her I couldn’t make it tonight had cemented my decision.
Madeline had no claim over me, and if she thought a few dinners and blowjobs would change my mind, she was sorely mistaken.
I lifted Ava so I could tuck her beneath the covers. I’d expected her to sleep with a dreamy smile like the one she always wore when she was awake. Instead, her brows were drawn, her mouth tight, her breathing shallow.
I almost smoothed a hand over her brow before I caught myself.
Instead, I changed into a pair of black sweats, flicked off the light, and climbed into the other side of bed. A gentleman would sleep on the couch or the floor, but of all the insults people had thrown my way over the years, “gentleman” wasn’t one of them.
I laced my hands behind my head, trying to ignore the soft female presence beside me. Sleep wasn’t forthcoming, per usual, but instead of flipping to a specific day in my mental scrapbook, I let my mind wander as it pleased.
November 27, 2013.
“Trust me, dude, my dad will be thrilled he has someone to talk football with.” Josh hopped out of the car. “Me being an NBA instead of NFL guy is his biggest disappointment.”
I smirked, following him up the driveway toward his family’s imposing brick house in the Maryland suburbs. It wasn’t as large as my mansion on the outskirts of Philadelphia where I lived with my uncle, but it must’ve cost at least a million or two. Thick hedges lined the stone path leading up to the massive mahogany front door, and a fall-themed wreath of flowers accented with a silky bow hung over the brass door knocker.
“My sister’s doing, most likely,” Josh said, noticing my gaze. “My dad hates all that shit, but Ava loves it.”
I knew little about his sister other than that she was a few years younger than us, and she liked photography. Josh had bought her a secondhand DSLR camera from eBay for Christmas because she kept dropping “hints” about it whenever they spoke on the phone.
I met Josh’s father first. He sat in the living room, watching the Cowboys versus Lions game like Josh had predicted. Michael was shorter than his son, but his chiseled face and sharp eyes made him appear taller than his five-foot-eight inches.
“Nice to meet you, sir.” I held his gaze, unflinching, when I shook his head.
Michael grunted a response.
Josh was a third-generation Chinese-American, which meant his father had been born in the U.S. Michael had been the model son, a straight-A student who’d attended top-tier schools and founded a successful company despite the fact his own parents never finished high school. Similar to my father, except mine had been born in Ukraine and immigrated to the U.S. in his teens.
My chest tightened. When Josh found out I had no family to celebrate Thanksgiving with other than my uncle, who couldn’t care less about the holiday, he’d invited me to celebrate with the Chens. I was both grateful and somewhat irritated. I hated being the object of anyone’s pity.
“Josh, have you—oh.” The female voice behind me halted.
I turned, my cool gaze assessing the petite brunette in front of me. She wasn’t actually that short—probably five foot five, but compared to my six-three, she was miniature-sized. With her rosebud lips and delicate face, she resembled a doll.
She beamed, and I fought a grimace. It wasn’t normal for smiles to be that bright.
“Hi! I’m Ava, Josh’s sister. You must be Alex.” She held out her hand.
I stared at it long enough that her smile faded, replaced with an uncomfortable expression, and Josh nudged me in the ribs.
“Dude,” he coughed out the side of his mouth.
I finally shook her hand. It was tiny and delicate, and I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be to crush it.
This girl and her sunshiney smile wouldn’t last a day in the real world, where monsters lurked around every corner and people hid their dark intentions behind masks. I was sure of it.
A scream yanked me out of my memories and into real life again, where the shadows grew long and the body next to mine writhed with distress.
“Stop!” Stark terror drenched Ava’s voice. “No! Help!”
Five seconds later, I’d turned on the bedside lamp and was out of bed, gun in hand. I always kept a firearm by my side, and I’d installed a new, top-of-the-line security system right after I moved in. I didn’t know how an intruder got past all the defenses without triggering an alarm, but they picked the wrong house to break into.
When I looked around though, I didn’t see anyone else in the room.
“Please, stop!” Ava twisted on the bed, her face pale. Her eyes were wide open but unseeing. “He—” She choked like she couldn’t get enough air in her lungs.
My shoulders relaxed before tensing again.
She wasn’t having a nightmare; she was having night terrors. Powerful ones, if her reaction was anything to go by.
Ava screamed again, and my heart tripped. I almost wished there were an intruder so I had something physical to fight.
I couldn’t wake or restrain her; that was the worst thing you could do when someone had night terrors. All I could do was wait for the episode to pass.
I left the bedside lamp on and kept an eye on her in case she hurt herself with all the thrashing. I hated feeling helpless, but I knew better than anyone that no one can fight our mental battles for us.
Half an hour later, Ava’s screams had quieted, but I continued my vigil. It wasn’t like I could sleep. My insomnia meant I only slept two or three hours a night, though I often crashed for naps in the middle of the day when I could.
I opened my laptop and was reviewing new business documents when my phone pinged.
Josh: Yo, I’m bored.
Guess I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t sleep tonight.
Me: What do you want me to do about it?