Something was wrong.
I felt it deep in my bones as I pulled into my driveway, my sixth sense blaring.
Ava stared straight ahead, her face pale, her eyes unseeing. She’d been like this since the morning after Thanksgiving, when her father found her by the lake and she’d screamed so loud she woke me up from one of my rare bouts of sleep. I’d raced outside, my mind conjuring all sorts of horrible scenarios while I cursed myself for leaving her alone. For failing her.
But I found her outside, safe and unharmed—at least physically—while her father tried to soothe her. Lines of distress had marred Michael’s face as she shook like a leaf in the wind, tears streaming down her face. She refused to tell us what was wrong, and it wasn’t until hours later that she confessed she’d freaked out about being that close to the lake. She wasn’t sure why she’d gone out there in the first place, but her aquaphobia had kicked in late.
Ava could enter the pool now without panicking, and she’d stayed calm when we visited lakes before. No, something else had terrified her to the point where she’d screamed the house down, and once I found out what it was, I would hunt it to the ends of the earth and tear it apart with my bare hands.
I guided her into my house, where I tucked her beneath a blanket on the couch and made her a hot drink. I’d turned off the heat since I’d gone away for the weekend, and until it caught up, the house was freezing.
“Hot chocolate with oat milk and three marshmallows.” I kept my tone light as I handed Ava the drink. “Just like you like it.”
“Thanks.” She wrapped her hands around the mug and stared at the marshmallows bobbing in the liquid but made no move to drink it.
Normally, she’d have downed half the mug by now. She loved hot chocolate. It was her favorite part of winter.
I grasped her chin and angled her face toward mine. “Tell me who or what I need to kill,” I growled. “What happened at your father’s house?”
“I told you, nothing. It was just the lake.” Ava eked out a wobbly smile. “You can’t kill a lake.”
“I’ll drain every fucking lake and ocean in the world if I have to.”
A tiny crystal tear slipped from her eye. “Alex…”
“I mean it.” I rubbed the tear away with my thumb. My heart raged in my chest, a snarling beast furious at the sight of her distress and the thought there was something in the world that would dare hurt her. Hypocrite, my conscience whispered. Cruel, selfish hypocrite. Look in the mirror. Think about the things you’ve done. I gritted my teeth and ignored the taunting voice in my head. “I’d do it for you.” I kissed the spot where her tear had been. “I’d do anything for you. No matter how twisted or impossible.”
A shudder rolled through her body. “I know. I trust you. More than anyone else in this world.”
If only she knew, my conscience sang. If only she knew what kind of man you are. She wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole, much less trust you.
Great. I was now having silent conversations with an imaginary voice.
How the mighty have fallen.
“I don’t know if it’s even…if it’s true,”Ava whispered. “I could have imagined it.”
My knuckles turned white around my knee. “Imagined what?”
“I—” She gulped, her eyes haunted. “My childhood memories. They came back.”
The confession hit me like a freight train, blindsiding me.
Of all the things I’d expected her to say, that had not been one of them.
Repressed memories were usually the result of a traumatic event and could resurface if the person encountered a trigger—a sound, a smell, an event. But Ava had been at home, where she’d grown up her entire life. What had happened over Thanksgiving that could’ve triggered her? The lake?
“Okay.” I kept my voice calm and even. Soothing. “What do you remember?”
Ava’s shoulders trembled. “I don’t remember everything. But I remember the day I…the day I almost died.”
My entire body flushed hot, then cold. Almost died. If she had died, if she was no longer somewhere in this world…
The invisible noose around my neck tightened; a tiny bead of sweat trickled down the back of my neck.
Her near-death experience wasn’t my fault. It’d happened long before I met her, but still…
My breath grew shallow.
“I was playing by the lake.” She licked her lips. “There used to be a dock that ran out to the middle of the water. My dad took it down after The Incident—that’s what I call what happened—but we used to go out there all the time until my parents’ divorce. My dad moved out, and my mom fell into a depression. It was a really nasty divorce, from what I gleaned over the years, and now I remember all the shouting and threats. I was too young to understand what they were mad about; all I knew was that they were angry. So angry sometimes I thought they would kill each other. Anyway, my mom stopped taking me out to the lake until one day…she did. We were playing on the dock, and we ran out of sunscreen. My mom was really big on sunscreen—said it was the most important thing we could do for our skin. I didn’t want to stop playing to go with her, so she made me promise to stay put while she ran inside. She was supposed to be gone for only a few minutes.”
Ava traced the rim of the mug with her finger, her eyes gaining that far-off quality that told me she was lost in her unearthed memories. “I did. I stayed put. Watched the fish, threw stones in the water—I loved the ripples they made. I waited for her to come back so we could play again. I’ve had nightmares about this day for as long as I could remember, so not all of this is new. I remembered her leaving, and I remembered her returning and me falling into the water. Only…” She drew in a deep breath. “I don’t think she returned. I thought I smelled her perfume, but in my nightmares—my memories—I never got a good look at the face of the person who pushed me. It all happened so quickly. But when I was by the lake a few days ago…more memories returned, and I realized I’d seen more than I’d thought. Before I fell in the water, I saw a flash of gold. A signet ring. MC.”
Dread and shock coiled at the base of my spine and flared their wings, enveloping me in their dark embrace.
“Michael Chen.” Ava shook harder. “Alex, my mom didn’t try to kill me. My dad did.”