“But she’s busy,” a smooth voice interrupted. “From tonight through the foreseeable future.”
I turned, my pulse accelerating when I saw Alex standing less than five feet away. His gaze zeroed in on where I was still touching Jack’s arm. I pulled away, but it was too late. I could practically taste the danger pulsing in the air.
Gone was the man who’d bared his soul onstage; in his place was the ruthless CEO who wouldn’t hesitate to crush his enemies into dust.
“You’re the guy who performed tonight and is always waiting for Ava outside WYP.” Jack narrowed his eyes. “Who are you again?”
“Someone who will rip your entrails out and strangle you with them if you don’t take your hands off her,” Alex said in a deceptively calm voice.
It was only then that I realized Jack still had his hand on the small of my back from when he’d hugged me earlier.
“You’re psycho.” Jack tightened his hold on me, and I suddenly feared for his life. “I’m calling security—”
“No, it’s fine. I know him,” I blurted before Jack could get himself into more trouble. “He’s, uh, prone to hyperbole.” I took a step back, forcing Jack to release me. “I need to talk to him, but I’ll see you later, okay?”
He shot me a disbelieving look. “Ava, he’s—”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, my tone firm. “I promise. He’s an old, um, acquaintance from D.C.”
Displeasure radiated from Alex in waves. His gaze bore into me with laser intensity, but I ignored it the best I could.
“Okay.” Jack relented. “Text me when you’re home safe.” He kissed my cheek, and a low growl filled the room.
Jack flinched and cast another suspicious glance toward Alex before leaving.
I waited until he was out of earshot before I pinned Alex with my own warning stare. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Think about what?”
“Doing anything to Jack. Or hiring anyone to do anything to him,” I added, because one always needed to cover one’s bases with Alex. He was the king of loopholes.
“I didn’t realize you cared so much about him,” Alex said, his voice cold.
I clenched my teeth. “How is it possible you’re the same guy who sang earlier tonight? One is an asshole, the other is…”
“Is what?” Alex walked toward me, and my mouth dried. “Is what, Ava?”
“You know what.”
I exhaled a shaky sigh. “You sang. In public.”
“Why do I do anything these days?” He brushed his fingers over my cheek, and shivers of pleasure skated down my spine. “I—” He paused, his jaw working before he said carefully, “I’m not the best at expressing my emotions. That’s why I’ve never liked singing. It’s all emotion, and it feels too vulnerable. I can’t stand it. But I said I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win you back, and I meant it, just as I meant every word in that song. That song was for you. But I’m running out of ideas, sweetheart.” Alex rubbed his thumb over the curve of my jaw and gave me a sad smile. “Do you know this is the first time you’ve let me touch you in over a year?”
I opened my mouth to argue because that couldn’t possibly be true…except it was. A montage of images flashed through my mind of me shrinking back or turning away every time Alex reached for me over the past twelve months. Not because I didn’t want him to touch me, but because I didn’t trust myself not to cave if he got that close again. He never said anything, but I’d caught the hurt and pain in his eyes.
“I looked for you after,” I said, my chin wobbling. “I couldn’t find you. You disappeared.”
“It’s your big night. I didn’t want to take that away from you.”
“I thought you left.” I didn’t know why, but I started crying. The tears dripped down my cheeks, and my sniffles echoed in the empty gallery. I was mortified, but at least we were the only people there. There had to be staff somewhere in the building or they would’ve kicked us out, but I couldn’t see them.
“I would never leave you.” Alex drew me into his chest, and I sank into his embrace for the first time in what felt like forever. It was like returning home after a long, lonely trip abroad. I’d forgotten how safe I felt in his arms, like nothing and no one could hurt me. That I felt this way even after what he did spoke volumes. “Do you want me to leave?” he asked gruffly.
I buried my face in his chest and shook my head. He smelled like warmth and spice, and it was so familiar it made my heart hurt.
I missed it. I missed him. Even though I’d seen Alex every day for the past year, it wasn’t the same as touching him and actually being with him.
“Do you miss me, sweetheart?” His voice gentled.
I nodded, my face still buried in his chest.
All this time, I’d been afraid to let him back in, partly because I didn’t trust him, but mostly because I didn’t trust myself. After being lied to for so long by two people I’d loved, I’d begun to think of my heart as my enemy and not my friend. How could I trust my instincts when they’d led me so astray in the past?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I hadn’t been wrong. I’d thought Michael was my real father and that he’d saved my life, but I’d always felt uncomfortable around him. I never bonded with him the way a daughter should with her father. I figured it was because he’d been uncomfortable around me, and while that may have played a part, it had mostly been a sixth sense that warned me not to get too close.
As for Alex, he’d pulled the wool over both my and Josh’s eyes. But in my heart of hearts, I believed him when he said our relationship and his feelings were real.
Was there a chance I was wrong, and this was yet another fucked-up long game? Yes, though I didn’t see what else he could want from me. He’d targeted Michael based on false information, and even if he hadn’t, Michael was already out of the picture—he’d been found guilty of multiple charges of attempted murder and corporate fraud, and he faced life in prison.
But I’d rather take a leap of faith than spend the rest of my life living in fear of something that might happen. I was sick and tired of letting my fears hold me back, whether it was over water, heartbreak, or something else.
The only way to live life was to live it. No fears, regrets.
Alex pulled back but kept one arm around my waist. He tilted my chin up, his eyes boring into mine. “Do you want me to stay?”
He wasn’t talking about the gallery, and we both knew it.
I swallowed hard and nodded again. “Yes,” I whispered.
The word had barely left my mouth before Alex yanked me toward him and crushed his lips to mine. It wasn’t a sweet, leisurely kiss. It was fierce and desperate and everything I needed. A shudder of relief rippled through him beneath my palms, and I hadn’t realized how tense he’d been until now.
“You know there’s no getting rid of me now,” he warned, his touch hot and possessive as he gripped my hands.
“That wouldn’t have happened, anyway.”
He let out a soft chuckle. “Now you’re getting it.”
His mouth claimed mine once more, and I was so lost in his kiss, his scent, his touch that I didn’t notice we’d moved until my back hit the wall.