ALEX AND AVA’S PROPOSAL
“Who’s featured in the exhibition again? I couldn’t find any details online.” Curiosity filled Ava’s voice as the town car wound its way through central London toward the Clarke Gallery.
I’d needed an excuse to fly us to London for the weekend, and a “special photography exhibit” seemed as good a one as any, considering Ava herself was a photographer.
“It wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you, would it?” I teased. “You’ll find out soon enough.” I wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her closer, trying to ignore the velvet box burning a hole in my pocket.
For six months, it’d sat in the back of my drawer, taunting me. Daring me to ask the most important question of my life.
If I didn’t need the damn thing because an archaic tradition had brainwashed society into thinking a diamond equaled love, I would’ve already chucked it in the Potomac for its insolence.
“True,” Ava acknowledged with a small yawn. “But still. I’m dying of curiosity.” She snuggled closer into my side and buried her face in my shoulder. I dropped a kiss on top of her head while the streets of London whizzed by outside the window.
Ava and I had visited the city at least half a dozen times together—sometimes for business, other times for pleasure. Both her job as a travel magazine photographer and my role as CEO of an international real estate development empire took us on the road often, but we tried to meet up abroad when we could.
I wasn’t a sentimental person, but I had to admit, London held a special place in my heart. It was where we’d reconciled after our breakup almost three years ago and where we lived while Ava finished her post-graduate photography fellowship. For that reason alone, it took the top spot on my preferred destinations list.
Ava released a second, bigger yawn.
“Tired?” I rubbed her arm. She was all softness and warmth to my hard, icy edges, and the sensation of her silky skin loosened some of the anxiety building in my chest.
She’ll say yes. Probably. Maybe.
“A little,” she murmured. “But I’ll be okay. I’m excited for the exhibit.”
“Hmmm.” Concern shredded the edges of my already-frayed nerves.
Had I fucked up the timing?
We’d landed in London last night and slept in that morning.
Correction: Ava slept in while I worked. My sleep had improved over the years, but insomnia still haunted me more often than not, and I rarely slept more than a few hours at a time.
But that was me. Ava had had a long week at work, and then I made her fly straight to another continent. I should’ve given her more time to adjust to the jet lag. She’d taken two weeks off from work so we could travel to France and Spain after London—our engagement celebration, if she said yes—so it wasn’t like we were in a huge rush.
I should’ve waited until tomorrow.
My free hand tightened around my knee. I rarely made strategic mistakes. Then again, I rarely felt as unsettled as I did in that moment, so it was a day of firsts all around.
I hated it.
Our chauffeured town car pulled up in front of the gallery. It was located on a quiet side street, and the interior lights blazed in the windows, bathing the modern white facade in a golden glow.
I was Alex Volkov. I didn’t get nervous.
But I’d be damned if my stomach didn’t twist into a thousand knots as we walked up the steps toward the glass-fronted entrance.
After months of planning, the moment was almost here, and I felt like a damn schoolboy working up the courage to ask his crush out for the first time.
Did other people experience these things on a regular basis? The racing pulse, the hammering heart, the uncertainty and fucking humanity of it all? If so, no wonder a majority were insufferable. Their emotions short-circuited their common sense, and now, I was one of those insufferable idiots.
Whoever invented feelings deserved to be shot.
“Are you okay?” Ava slid a glance in my direction. Concern etched tiny grooves in her brow. “You look pale. I hope it’s not the sushi we had at dinner.”
Great. Just how I wanted to look before I proposed. Like I was dying from food poisoning.
“I’m fine.” I forced a smile. It felt as unnatural as the anxiety eating away at my stomach. “It’s the lighting.”
Judging by her skeptical expression, the excuse sounded as believable to her as it did to me, which was not at all, but in true Ava fashion, she didn’t press the issue. Instead, she gave my hand a small squeeze and rubbed her thumb over the top.
Some of the tension released from my shoulders, and I squeezed her hand back.
No one could ground me quite like she could, even when she was the source of my nerves.
The front desk assistant greeted us with a knowing smile when we entered. “Good evening, Mr. Volkov, Ms. Chen. The exhibition is right this way.” She gestured to her left, playing her role perfectly. “Enjoy.”
Ava smiled. “Thank you.”
The gallery staff had spent the day setting up the space with Fiona, the proposal planner I’d hired. Until six months ago, I hadn’t even known proposal planning was a job, but Fiona was supposed to be the best of the best.
She better be, considering how much she charged. Just because I could afford her didn’t mean I liked wasting money on incompetence.
“Are we the only people here? It’s strangely quiet.” A hint of suspicion leaked into Ava’s voice and ratcheted my pulse up another notch.
“It’s a private exhibition. Invite only.” I placed a hand on the small of her back and guided her down the marble hall.
Technically, I wasn’t lying. It was private to us, and I did the inviting.
“Why am I not surprised? You’re such a snob.” Ava nudged my side. “It wouldn’t hurt you to mingle with the so-called plebeians once in a while.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. It would hurt me immensely. Mostly my patience, but also my faith in humanity.”
“You don’t have much faith in humanity.”
“Then we better not destroy the little bit I have. Don’t you think?”
My mouth tugged up at her laugh. Even when filled with exasperation, it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.
I rubbed an absentminded thumb over her silk-clad back.
I’d told Ava the exhibition was a black-tie event. I didn’t care whether she was dressed up for the proposal or not, but she would never forgive me if I sprung a ring on her while she looked anything but her best.
“Make sure her nails are done before you pop the question.” Josh, Ava’s brother and my best friend, kicked his feet up on my coffee table. “Or she’ll murder you.”
“Explain to me how you, of all people, know that.” Josh and his girlfriend Jules, who coincidentally happened to be Ava’s best friend, had no plans to get married any time soon. They were too busy working, traveling, and annoying the hell out of me.
“Easy.” Josh flashed a quick grin and popped a chip in his mouth. “Unlike you, I know what women want.”
Sometimes, I regretted mending our friendship. He was a pain in my ass half the time, though I had to admit he was probably right about the nails. He grew up with Ava, after all.
But all thoughts of Josh dissipated when Ava and I rounded the corner and entered the exhibition space. The roar of blood in my ears nearly drowned out her soft gasp at the sight before us.
The entire space had been stripped of its usual furnishings. Instead, a two-person table sat in the center, set with candles, champagne, and an elegant display of blue roses that matched the petals strewn artfully across the hardwood floors. Strings of tiny lights stretched across the walls and served as twinkling holders for the Polaroid prints of pictures Ava had taken over the years. There were dozens of other details Fiona had painstakingly arranged, but I was too busy examining Ava’s face for any hint into her thoughts to notice.
“What…I…” Her mouth opened and closed in an adorable imitation of a goldfish.
“Welcome to the Clarke Gallery’s special exhibition, featuring Ava Chen.” Another smile touched the corners of my mouth at Ava’s stunned expression.
The proposal planner was worth every fucking penny.
“Alex…” Ava walked over to the Polaroids and skimmed her fingers over one of the photos I’d selected.
I could’ve delegated the task to my assistant, but I wanted to make sure the picks were perfect, so I’d spent weeks poring through all the pictures Ava had taken of us over the years. Fortunately, she’d organized them all into neatly labeled folders on her computer. Unfortunately, there were thousands of them, which was why it took me so damn long to go through them.
In the end, I’d narrowed them down to a few of my favorites—a picture of us apple picking in Vermont, which had somehow become an annual tradition despite my protests; an up-close shot of our hands intertwined on the center console during a road trip to New York; a selfie of us kissing at the Tidal Basin with flowering cherry blossoms in the background. I despised cherry blossom season in D.C. and the hordes of tourists that accompanied it, but Ava insisted on seeing the trees in person every year, so there we were.
“Yes, Sunshine?” Despite the hot rush of apprehension in my blood, I couldn’t help teasing her a little.
Ava turned to face me again. “What is all this?” A hint of breathlessness punctuated her words.
“Like I said, it’s a photography exhibit. And a confession.”
She didn’t take her eyes off mine as I closed the distance between us. “A confession,” she repeated.
“Mmhmm.” I stopped in front of her, so close her soft floral scent filled my lungs and clouded my thoughts. So close I could count each lash framing her beautiful dark eyes and measure her heartbeats with each shallow rise and fall of her chest. “I brought you here under false pretenses.”
“I can see that. What are your true intentions, Volkov?” Despite her mock stern tone, her eyes glinted with laughter and a dozen shades of emotion.
“Some of them are too depraved to utter this early in the night, Sunshine.” Amusement softened my face at the blush staining her cheeks. “But there is one thing in particular that I…” I swallowed hard, trying to form the right words in the right order. “That I can no longer keep to myself.”
All traces of levity evaporated, leaving the air as thick and heavy as molasses.
Ava stilled. Her breaths rushed out faster while a bead of sweat trickled down my spine.
I’d negotiated multimillion-dollar deals and threatened some of the world’s richest and most powerful—subtly, of course—without breaking a sweat, but there was something about the woman standing before me that destroyed all my defenses.
At the end of the day, everyone except Ava was irrelevant.
“When I first met you, you were Josh’s sister. Nothing more, nothing less.” At the time, I’d been so bent on revenge I couldn’t see anything else. It took me seven years before I finally realized I’d been chasing after the wrong thing all along. “I didn’t understand your optimism. I didn’t trust your kindness. And I could not, for the life of me, understand your fascination with cameras.”
Cameras were useless to me unless they were used to capture incriminating evidence against my enemies, of which I had plenty. My hyperthymesia had rendered photographs obsolete in my world.
That was, until Ava swept in and turned that world upside down.
“But now I understand.”
“Understand what?” Her whisper settled in my chest like a warm weight.
“Understand why you want to capture every moment like it’s the most beautiful one you’ve ever experienced. Why you cherish every photo like you’re afraid the memory will slip through your fingers. And the reason I understand those things is because…” Another hard swallow disrupted my speech. I’d planned to keep it short and simple. I wasn’t the best at saying nice things, and the fewer words I used, the less likely I was to fuck them up. Still, getting through it was a struggle given how clammy my palms were and how fast my heart was galloping.
“That’s how I feel about you. I want to experience everything with you, Ava. From the smallest, most mundane moments to the biggest, most life-altering events. I didn’t think I was capable of a fraction of the emotions I’ve felt since I met you, and they’ve made me a better person than I ever thought I could be. You turned my life from something I was living to something worth living for, and while we’ve created many memories together over the years, I’m hoping we could create more in the future with you not as my girlfriend…but as my wife.”
I knelt on one knee and retrieved the ring box from my pocket. I blamed the small shake in my hand on the icy draft gusting from the air conditioning vent.
“Ava…” I opened the box to reveal a custom-cut diamond Delamonte ring. She clapped a hand over her mouth, muffling her gasp. “Will you marry me?”
Silence rang through the candlelit space in the wake of my question.
She stared down at me, her eyes wide and bright with unshed tears. She was so still she could’ve passed for a hyperrealistic statue.
A minute passed without any answer, followed by another.
Another bead of sweat snaked down my back. I was dimly aware of the photographer I’d hired to capture the moment from a hidden spot by the doorway. She was probably wondering what the hell was going on, but she was the least of my worries.
What if Ava didn’t want to marry me?
We’d been dating for almost three years and living together for almost as long. We had small fights now and then, but our relationship had been mostly smooth sailing since we got back together.
But what if I’d misjudged everything? Ava loved me. I knew that. But did she love me enough to spend the rest of her life with me?
Dread trickled through my veins and solidified into stone. I was two seconds away from crumbling into smithereens when she finally nodded.
A tentative balloon of hope inflated in my chest.
“Is that a yes?” I asked cautiously.
A half laugh, half sob bled through the hand covering her mouth. “Yes, you idiot.” Her muffled voice was thick with tears. “Of course I’ll marry you!”
It took a second for her words to register. Once they did, my trapped breath finally escaped my lungs in a rush of relief.
“Good.” I tried to contain the emotion in my own voice as I slid the ring on her finger. The six-carat diamond blazed like a fallen star, but most importantly, it fit perfectly. I’d known it would, considering I customized it to Ava’s measurements, but the sight of her wearing it caused a suspicious burn behind my eyes.
Plus, Josh would be relieved to hear her nails looked perfect.
I stood and cleared my throat. “Otherwise, the flight home would’ve been quite awkward,” I added, trying, and failing, to regain my composure.
She said yes.
She said yes!
A grin blossomed on my mouth as the import of what just happened hit me, and I swept Ava into my arms and off her feet.
Fuck composure. That could wait for another night when I hadn’t just gotten engaged.
Her surprised laugh bounced off the exposed brick walls and warmed my skin.
“Figures that would you be the first thing you say to me after you propose.” She looped her arms around my neck and rested her forehead against mine. Her voice still shook with emotion, but I heard a hint of her usual sass as well. “What am I going to do with you?”
I kissed away the tears dampening her cheeks before I gently brushed my mouth over hers. “Drive me crazy for the rest of our days, I presume.”
“Sounds about right.” Ava’s smile blinded me more than any diamond could. “But you love it.”
“I love you,” I corrected.
Her smile faded into something more tender. “I’ve figured out your secret, Volkov. You can be pretty sweet when you want to be.”
“Don’t tell anyone, or my reputation will be shot.” I brushed my lips over hers again. “It’ll be our secret, Mrs. Volkov.”
“Don’t rob me of my fiancée phase. I’m not your wife yet.” She laughed again when I gave her hair a gentle yank.
“Maybe not, but you’ve always been mine.” I pressed my mouth against hers in a proper kiss. Softly at first, then harder until her soft moan filled my ears and her fingers threaded through my hair. “I love you,” I whispered.
“I love you too.”
Her murmured reply melted any lingering tension in my muscles. It wasn’t the first time we’d said those words to each other, but it was our first time saying them as an engaged couple.
If someone told me five years ago I would be engaged—to Josh’s sister, no less—and happy about it, I would’ve dismissed them as delusional and banned them from all my properties. Now, I couldn’t imagine anything that would make me happier than seeing her walk down the aisle toward me.
Ava and I were the unlikeliest of couples. She was the bright sun to my cold moon, the optimist to my cynic, the rose to my thorn.
But if there was one thing she’d taught me, it was that sometimes, the most unexpected things in life were the most beautiful.