The iron gates slid open,revealing a long driveway lined with northern red oak trees, their branches bare and brown in the harsh cold of winter, and the large brick mansion looming in the distance.
My uncle’s house—my house as well, before I’d moved to D.C.—stood behind a virtual fortress on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and that was the way he liked it.
I hadn’t wanted to leave Ava so soon after the shitshow with Michael, but I’d put off this meeting with my uncle long enough.
I found him in his office, smoking and watching a Russian drama on the flat-screen TV hanging in the corner. I never understood why he insisted on watching TV in here when he had a perfectly good den.
“Alex.” He blew a smoke ring in the air. A half-empty cup of green tea sat before him. He’d been obsessed with the drink ever since he read an article that said it helped with weight loss. “To what do I owe this surprise?”
“You know why I’m here.” I sank into the overstuffed chair opposite Ivan and picked up the ugly gold paperweight on his desk. It looked like a deformed monkey.
“Ah, yes. I heard. Checkmate.” My uncle smiled. “Congratulations. Though I have to admit, it was a bit anticlimactic. I’d expected your final move to go off with more of a…bang.”
My jaw tightened. “The situation changed, and I had to adapt.”
Ivan’s gaze turned knowing. “And what about the situation changed?”
I stayed silent.
I’d labored over my revenge plan for more than a decade, moving and manipulating every piece until I had them where I wanted them. Always play the long game.
But even I had to admit I’d gotten…distracted these past few months. Ava had swept into my life like a sunrise after dark, awakening creatures within my soul that I thought had died a long time ago: guilt. Conscience. Remorse.
Making me question whether the ends justified the means.
Around her, my thirst for vengeance slaked, and I almost—almost—gave it up, if only so I could pretend to be the man she thought I was. You have a multilayered heart, Alex. A heart of gold encased in a heart of ice.
The sharp edges of the paperweight dug into my palm.
Ava knew I’d committed my fair share of unsavory deeds for Archer Group, but that was business. She didn’t condone it or endorse it, but she wasn’t naïve, either. For all her romantic notions and soft heart, she’d grown up near the D.C. viper pit and understood that in certain situations—whether it be business or politics—it was eat or be eaten.
But if she found out the lengths to which I’d gone in order to wreak havoc on those responsible for my family’s death—no matter how much they deserved it—she would never forgive me.
There are some lines you never cross.
A tiny well of blood blossomed on my hand. I released the paperweight, wiped the blood off on my conveniently dark pants, and set it back on the table.
“Don’t worry about it, Uncle.” I kept my face and posture relaxed. I didn’t want him finding out how much Ava had burrowed inside my heart.
My uncle had never been in love, had never married or fathered children of his own, and he wouldn’t understand my dilemma. For him, wealth, power, and status were all that mattered.
“Ah, but I do worry.” Ivan puffed on his cigarette with a small frown. He’d slicked his hair back and wore a suit and tie even though he was alone in his office, watching a stupid drama about Cold War spies. He was always conscious of his appearance, even when there was no one else around. He switched from English to Ukrainian for the next part of our conversation. “You have not been acting like yourself. You’ve been distracted. Unfocused. Carolina mentioned you only go into the office a few days a week, and you leave before seven each time.”
I tamped down my flare of irritation. “My assistant shouldn’t be blabbing about my schedule to others.”
“I’m the CEO, so she didn’t have much choice.” Ivan stubbed out his cigarette and leaned forward, his eyes intense. “Tell me about Ava.”
Tension rocketed down my spine at the sound of her name on his lips. I didn’t have to ask how he knew about her—I wasn’t the only one with spies everywhere. “There’s nothing to tell. She’s a good lay,” I said, the words poison on my tongue. “That’s it.”
“Hmm.” My uncle looked skeptical. “So, your revenge. That’s it?” He switched topics so abruptly it took me half a second longer than usual to respond.
“No.” I wasn’t done with the man I’d destroyed. Not yet. “There’s more.”
I had one final ace up my sleeve.
I wanted to take everything from the man who’d taken everything from me. His business, his family, his life.
And I did. I would.
But was it worth it?
“Good. I thought you’d gone soft.” Ivan sighed and stared at the framed picture on his desk of him and my father when they were young. They’d just moved to the U.S., and they both wore cheap, happy suits and matching hats. While my uncle looked stern and serious, my father’s eyes twinkled like he was in on a grand secret no one else knew. My throat squeezed at the sight. “Never forget what happened to your parents and poor little Nina. They deserve all the justice in the world.”
As if I would ever forget. Even if I didn’t have HSAM, the scene would forever be engraved in my mind.
“Don’t cheat!” I yelled over my shoulder as I ran to the bathroom. I’d had two apple juices this morning, and I was about to burst. “I’ll know.”
“You’re losing, anyway!” my little sister Nina yelled back, causing my parents to chuckle.
I stuck my tongue out at her before slamming the bathroom door behind me. I was annoyed I’d never beaten Nina at Scrabble for Kids, even though she was two years younger than me and I had a “genius” IQ, according to my teachers and parents. She’d always been good at words. Mama said she’d probably grow up to be a writer.