"Then you get out, and that's it. He's gone. Aren't you terrified, Alexa? I don't think you should be going to work tonight. We need to pack up and leave London. Maybe jump on a train and head to Wales. Get a job on a farm or something—milk cows." Chloe flings open the wardrobe doors, clutching heaps of clothes and tossing them into a case. "What do you think?"
I argued with myself in the shower last night, dithering between confronting Liam head-on and fleeing for my life. Hiding from him is pointless. It's in my best interest to face the man and my lies even if I don't like the consequences. I mustered enough courage and strength to emerge, but Liam wasn't where I left him. I didn't need to search the flat—I knew he was gone because I couldn't feel him. I am not sure what his departure meant. Terrified or not, he and I had unfinished business.
I touch my sore throat, recalling how he handled me last night. He bruised my tender neck, lodged glass in my back and thighs. Chloe spent three hours tending to my minor injuries, tweezing out shards from my skin while futilely convincing me to emigrate.
Chloe studied the blemishes on my neck. Her furious features softened. "I can't believe Liam did that to you. What type of man puts his hand on a woman? He's a lunatic, Alexa. If I weren't such a pussy, I'd kill him myself."
"It looks worse than it feels." I sink onto the cuddle chair, drag my cosmetic bag onto my lap and apply concealer to the marks. She's still hauling my clothes into a suitcase. "Chloe, please stop. It means a lot to me that you'd pack up and leave your life behind to run away with me. But I'd never expect you to start again because of the mess I've created."
"Alexa," she whines, slumping onto the bed in a huff. "I am scared. You're taking on too much with Warren. He's going to kill you. I can't lose you, Hon. I'll never survive it."
"That's not going to happen," I stated unconfidently. "If Liam wanted me dead? I'd already in an unmarked grave somewhere with wild animals feasting on my rotten flesh." At least that's what I keep telling myself. "Besides, there is no point in running. If Liam wanted to find—he'd find me."
Chloe doesn't respond, hands wrestling with Kathy's old scarf.
"Anyway, do you really want to sit on the floor milking cows?" I raise my brows, adding a little humour to this dire situation. "I sure as hell don't."
"No." She pouts, forehead wrinkling. "But I'd rather milk cows than lose you."
My chest tightens, hearing her voice break. "Chloe?" I walk sat onto the bed beside her. "I'm not going anywhere." I nudged her shoulder with mine. "You couldn't get rid of me that easily."
"He likes you, right?" she asked, voice filled with hope. "I saw the way he looked at you that night in the club, Hon."
I've no idea what she's talking about. If anything, Liam gets off on tormenting me. "I'm not sure about that."
"Are you series?" She blinked twice. "Alexa, that man wanted you. Anyone with a pair of eyes could see the desire in his gaze. I honestly believe if that room were empty, he'd have pounced on you."
"Pounced?" I snorted. "Liam's not into me, Chloe. If you'd have seen the way he kicked off last night...He hurt me without a second's thought. All those months, I was attempting to gain his friendship—wasteful. It meant nothing. That man cares about nobody but himself."
"I don't know." Chloe fell onto her elbows, legs dangling off the bed. "Listen, I am just as scared as you, but he held back, Hon. That means something. Why didn't he kill you there and then? What exactly pissed him off?" She prattled question after question. "Why was he so quick to attack you? Did you at least explain your reasoning for keeping Kathy a secret?"
"Everything was fine until he found Kathy's photo. Chloe, that man freaked out." I omit the part where he brandished a gun. "His eyes," I whispered, remembering how belligerent yet lugubrious he'd seemed. "Liam wasn't just angry. He was hurt—betrayed. I think he expected more from me and I disappointed him."
Chloe touched my hand, lacing our fingers.
"I am so confused," I admit, rubbing my forehead. "Kathy claimed they were in love...I think she lied to me, Chloe."
"I don't get it." She chewed her thumbnail. "Why fabricate their relationship? None of this makes an iota of sense."
"Liam's behaviour was not of a man who is in love. Perhaps Kathy thought what they had was real," I added with a glum shrug. "She's not here, so I can't ask her." A tear fell down my cheek. I wiped it away with my knuckle. "God, I miss her," I cried into the back of my hand. "I miss her so much."
"Hey," Chloe cooed, pulling me in for a hug. "Don't cry, Alexa. I hate it when you cry."
"I'm sorry," I whisper, fresh tears burning my eyes. "I just want her to come home. I feel empty without her." I spent too long segregated from my sister. "We made a promise." It was us against the world. "Her and me. Forever." Maybe Chloe's right. Leaving London might be for the best. "I can't give up, not until I find her." Kathy's still out there. I refuse to believe otherwise. "I am going back to the club tonight and facing Liam Warren."
"Alexa," she said. "His dislike for Kathy might work in your favour."
I watched the rain patter against the window. "How so?"
"You resemble each other, but your personalities clash. You think Liam hates Kathy. I think he likes you..."
"You don't think we're alike?"
Chloe watched me subtly. "Not even a little bit."
"Just a little bit," I sing in a monotone voice, diverting our depressing conversation. "Just a little bit."
"What you want. Baby, I got it. What you need." She pointed at me. "Do you know I got it."
Rubbing tears from my cheeks, I clambered onto my feet, bounced on the mattress. "R.E.S.P.E.C.T."
Chloe snagged a hairbrush, utilised it as a mic. "Find out what it is to me—oh," she sings, jumping on the bed, "sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me." She shoved my hip, thrusting me off the bed. "A little respect. Oh, yeah."
"Chloe!" I land on the floor in a heap, balling into hysteria. "God, I love you so much. You know that, right?"
She fell onto the bed, rolling over and gazing down at me. "Sisters are doing it for themselves."
I snagged the pillow from beneath her crossed arms and thumped her over the head. "Oh, fuck off."
"I love you, too." She stuffs the pillow under her chest, legs kicking behind her. "Now, what's your next move?"
"I will be honest with him," I said, bracing my feet on the wall. "There is no hiding from this Chloe." I plaited the end of my hair. "I need to be real with him."
Liam is nowhere in sight, and that suited me fine. I went to the staff room, changed into my work gear and started my shift.
Every time Nate or Brad wandered past the bar, I held my breath, waited for commands or a lambasting. To my relief, neither Nate nor Brad paid me any attention while working tonight.
Another hour into my shift and not one Suit approached me. It was both a relief and concern. In particular, Brad, who revels in pestering me. His dismissiveness tonight meant something big was brewing and that heightened masked trepidations.
Around three hours into the night, I see a pale Josh zoning toward the bar. I was beyond happy to see one friendly face. "You're late," I tease with a smile, handing a customer two shots.
"I'm formally unfriending you," he half-jokes, using his fob to log onto the till. "Kat?"
I put my back to the bar. "You need to be a bit more precise, Josh."
"You remember," he mumbled, checking himself out in the long-stretched mirror. "The lady with the pink hair." I blinked, jogging my memory. "The one you so kindly offered my services to."
"Oh?" I didn't think Josh would actually go through with that date. "So, what's the problem?" I suck my top teeth, curbing my amusement.
"Alexa, I took her to lunch and surprisingly, I had a good time. Kat seemed nice enough—had me chuckling a few times. Anyway, she suggested I go back to her place before I started work. I mean, she had a nice smile. I was intrigued, so why not, huh? Figured I would take one for the team." He closed his eyes, lips flattening into a grim line. "She was kinky."
I burst out laughing. "What's wrong with kinky? I thought men prefer their women confident in the bedroom."
Josh's eyes snapped wide, horror-filled. "There is a difference between kinky and kinky... if you catch my drift."
I stare at him wordlessly. I don't know the difference. My experience in the bedroom is fundamentally zero.
"She tied me up, Alexa. Then she gagged me. Who the fuck wants some aspiring dominatrix thrusting a ball-gag in their mouth? To top it off, she kept spanking me, like, hard." He lets out a strange chuckle, motioning to his backside. "My ass is raw. Real fucking raw. Spanking is a man's role, not a woman's—or should I say, the she-devil that likes to call me daddy."
"That's so sexist, Josh." I smacked his arm with the back of my hand. "Who says a woman can't be a dominator?"
"Says me." He rubbed his butt. "I don't want my ass spanked."
I genuinely love this guy. "So, I'm guessing you won't be going on another date with kat."
"Hell. Fucking. No." He punctuates each word. At least he's beginning to see the funny side of his new experience. "I'll stick with my fist." His eyes park on Natalie. "She will do the trick."
My lip twisted in revulsion. I open my mouth to stray Josh when Brad's deadpan face comes into my peripheral vision. "Alexa?" He pressed his palms onto the bar top. "Got a minute?"
Josh tossed me a querying, sideward glance.
"Hey," I said meekly, blood running cold. "What's up?"
Brad flung a thumb over his shoulder. "Boss wants to see you."
Oh, God. Back to reality. Do not faint, Alexa. At least Josh kept my mind occupied for a while—helped me forget. Now it's time to face the music.
"Are you okay?" Josh asked, concerned eyes roaming over my face.
"I'm fine," I fibbed, running my sweaty hands over my shorts.
"You're visibly shaking." He grabs my wrist, drawing me close. "Are you in trouble with Warren?"
"No. I'm cold," I proceed to lie, not wanting to drag Josh into this mess. "I need to go. You know how impatient Liam can get."
Josh released me, and I sensed his worries drilling into my back.
I wedged through dancing hordes. My thumping heart louder than the vibrating music. Down the hallway, past security, I hesitated outside Liam's office, glanced at the bouncer. "Fun night?"
Again, he side-eyed me without uttering a word.
I count to five, inhale a deep, calming breath and knock the door.
Two seconds later. "Come in."
Burying anxieties, I opened the door and peered inside. "You wanted to see me?"
Liam doesn't look up from his position behind his desk. "Take a seat."
Shutting the door behind me, I cagily walked across the room and became seated on the leather sofa.
After about ten minutes of eerie silence, the tension in the air becomes suffocating. He's still skimming paperwork on the desk, ignoring my presence. "Liam, please let me explain."
He tsked me, lip curling up in disgust. "Rule number one, Miss Haines. Don't ever address me informally. You're an employee. You're not above me. I am your Boss," he emphasised, lifting his rage-filled eyes. "You'll address me as Mr Warren. Do I make myself abundantly fucking clear?"
Well, that shut me up.
He walked towards me, tossed a brown envelope in my hands, and then relocated to the bar, fixing himself a drink. He keeps his back to me when he says, "I don't need you to explain anything to me, Miss Haines. Everything I need to know about you is in that folder. Feel free to scan."
Without delay, I opened the binder and flipped through pages. Liam was right. Everything about my life is here—newspaper articles about mine and Kathy's abduction, past police reports, copies of birth certificates.
How did he obtain all this?
A picture of my old family home falls into my hand. My lip twitched as I ran my finger over the image, evoked by pleasant memories. We had a great home, almost cottage-like: whitewashed exterior, wooden decking encircling the house, a makeshift swing that dangled from a giant tree.
I pushed my feet forward.
I pushed my feet backwards.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
"You can do it, Alexa!" Kathy thrust her hands in my back, surging me heavenward. "I know you can!"
I dropped my head back, felt the wind blowing through my hair, fingers clinging to the ropes. "I don't want to fall!"
"If you fall," she dashed in front of me, outstretching her arms, "I'll catch you."
Hair swept across my face. "You promise?"
"I promise," I whisper, dropping the image on the floor. How can I remember such pointless details yet forget the most significant part of my childhood?
Forcing my tears back, I keep overturning pages. I see a medical report and swallow thickly, dislodging vomit. Liam read these, and the thought nauseates me. Malnourished. Infections. Broken bones. Mentally unstable. Contraception abstraction. Frowning, I turned my arm, recalling the time a doctor removed something from my skin. On the police report, the detective outlined rape-victim and child molestation. They labelled me a victim.
"Just for clarification," he probed, scribbling notes, "you're stating that no sexual assault or penetration took place?"
Odious flashbacks sprung tears to my eyes. "No."
He didn't believe me.
I turn the page and study the black and white print out. I bring the image closer to get a more precise look—and I fling away the evidence as if it burnt me. Immediately seeking the London Skyline painting on the wall, I replay the scenario as if occurring. Kathy took that canvas down, broke into the safe, extracted folders and cash, hurled everything into a gym bag. My sister is a thief. She stole from Liam Warren.
What was she thinking?
I feel cold metal placed onto my temple. Liam is going to kill me. "I must say your acting skills are impeccable, Miss Haines. I almost believed you were astounded at what you just saw. Is that why you came here?" he asked, but I was too numb—dead inside. "Are you working together? Was it more money you wanted?" He thrusts that barrel down harder. I closed my eyes. "Tell me!"
I am momentarily speechless.
My sister didn't disappear.
My sister left me.
"My sister is missing," I whispered, my voice breaking. "This was never supposed to be about you..." A tear trickled down my cheek. "This was about Him."
The noises and screams—terrifying screams lasted a few minutes, other times, those cries were omnipresent for hours. This place sounds like a slaughterhouse, gut-wrenching and side-splitting.
I often watch the ceiling when I hear loud thumps and scraping sounds, indicating a scuffle, almost like a game of hide-and-seek. Those children run, crying for their mothers, pleading with those monsters not to hurt them.
At first, I presumed it was only Kathy and myself in this place. I was wrong. There are more. Sometimes they let kids sleep down here with me. It's nice to have company. It's never for more than two nights before the guards return and take them away from me, though.
Early one morning, guttural screams had me jumping in my sleep. I turned to the side, watching a man drag a kicking girl by her hair down those stairs.
"Please let go of me!" she cried, and he hurled her into the wall before stomping back up the stairs.
I laid inaudibly, waiting for him to leave so that I can approach and console her.
When the door sealed shut, I rolled off the mattress and crawled to the girl. She scanned me warily as I advanced, eyes wide, tears streaming down her pink cheeks. She was really pretty, bobbed black hair and blue eyes.
I lifted my hand to her face, and she flinched, taking in a choppy breath. I paused, then tucked some loose hair behind her ear. "I won't hurt you."
"How long have you lived here?" she whispered, eyes going back to the door that I loathed. "I don't want to be here."
"I don't remember." I drop my hand and toy with my fingers. "I don't remember much anymore."
She sobbed, head burying in her hands. "I want to go home."
My eyes filled with fresh tears. I can't tell my new friend that home doesn't exist anymore. I put on a brave face and smile. "You'll be home real soon."
Peering at me through dirty fingers, she asked, "How do you know?"
"Well, we gotta go home sometimes I guess."
Snivelling, she rubbed her nose. "I don't like those men."
Neither did I. One in particular. "Do you want to sleep in my bed?"
She stared at my mattress. I expected her to say no, but she took one look at my comforters and pillow, deciding it's better than resting on the cold floor.
On shaky legs, I helped her across the room, and we laid together, staring at the cracked ceiling. "How did you get here?"
I've accepted why I'm here. I understand my mother was murdered. I know my monster took my sister and me to do things he shouldn't. It's wrong what he makes me do to him because it makes me feel dirty, and I hate it. Why else would he hide me away from the rest of the world?
I contemplated telling her the truth, but she's so frightened. "I ran away."
"You ran from your mummy?" she asked, her voice shocked. "Did these men take you? Are they going to hurt us?"
Her overwhelmed emotions hurt my chest. "They're not so bad," I lied, swallowing bitter-tasting bile. "You get used to this place."
"I don't want to be here." Her bruised lips wobbled. "I want to go home."
We didn't speak much after that. Instead, we fell asleep, holding hands.
When I woke up the following morning, my friend was gone. I stared at her space, knowing she's more than likely dead. My friends never come back.
Why didn't he take me upstairs like the others?
Why couldn't I leave the basement?
Why won't he kill me?
Screams pierce my ears, and I place my hands over my ears and sing quietly to myself. That's how my mummy used to get me to sleep. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby."
I heard the door unlock before it slammed against the wall. The light above me flickers from the harsh impact. I cover my eyes. Maybe if I can't see him, he won't see me.
"Lexi," he whispers.
His voice scares me.
I don't like his voice.
I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true."
"Stop that singing." A sharp pain spears through my head as he snatched my hair. "How many times must I tell you? You disobedient cunt!" He drags my kicking body off the mattress, lunging me across the floor. "You'll learn to obey me, Lexi!"
I twisted onto my stomach. "Please," I cried, quivering on my hands and knees to crawl away from him.
What's the point in running? He always catches me.
Seizing my hair, he drags me onto my feet, his hot breath tickling the back of my neck. "No, we do not run away from me, sweet little Lexi." His hand tightens. "You must be good for your daddy. Your fear only makes me want you more."
"I'm not going with you!" I thwarted his hold, wriggling free. "I don't want to go, please. You're hurting me!"
Pinning me to the cold wall, he tore through my nightgown with frantic hands, stripping me bare. I crumble into a heap on the mattress, curled up into a ball, covering and hiding from the monster.
He clicks his fingers. "Lie down and be a good girl, Lexi."
I would rather die.
"Alexa focus on me. Breathing—remember the breathing." I can hear his voice. That gravelly sound that I've grown to love. The one that always brings me back—Liam's voice.
I opened my eyes, and there he is, kneeling before me. His hands clasped on either side of my head, forcing me to look at him. He briefly shuts his eyes, relief washing over his concerned features.
Why is Liam tolerating me?
Why hasn't he killed me already?
"I don't know why I haven't killed you," he said as if reading my mind. "If you were Kathy," he released me, soaring to his feet, "you'd already be dead."
Liam's undoubtedly conflicted with his subconscious mind. He looked at me through questioning eyes, and it's then I noticed his unsteady breathing.
"Please don't kill my sister. I don't know why she's done that," I point to the folder scattered across the floor, "but there must be an explanation. Kathy wouldn't leave me, Liam—I mean, Mr Warren."
Hand clasped to his jaw, he settled beside me on the sofa, eyes searching mine. "Did you know?"
He steeled his jaw. "Did you know what Kathy's intentions were?"
As far as I was concerned, Kathy came here for one purpose and one purpose only: for Liam to help find our monster.
Kathy left me behind, along with the carnage she caused.
What if I hadn't come here and Liam came looking for me as leverage—payment for what Kathy had done to him? She didn't care about the consequences of her actions. "I had no idea, Mr Warren. None whatsoever. Kathy," I said, immobilised with devastation. "I don't know anymore."
"You assumed I knew something?"
"I was too scared to ask if you knew what happened to Kathy. Instead, I requested a job, hoping to get answers myself," I admitted. "I miss her. I miss my sister. I'm terrified something bad has happened to her." Liam didn't deserve any of this. "I'm sorry."
Liam shifted forward, arms resting on his thighs. "I don't need to tell you this, especially because of your approach, but I can see the unknown is miserable for you," he said, and I looked away. "I want to put you out of that misery, Alexa. I've no idea what happened to Kathy Pearl. Her disappearance isn't on me."
"I don't understand." Is it downright crazy that I believed him? "We were close. Why would she leave me? And to steal someone else's money. That's not my sister. We don't do things like that. That's not how we were..." Raised, I thought. Almost laughing at the stupid philosophy. "None of this makes any sense."
"Perhaps you didn't know Kathy as well as you thought."
His stern words offended me. I flinched, looked deep into his eyes. He doesn't elaborate, but his conceited assurance struck my dying heart. He knew a side to her that I didn't.
"I read the articles. I can see how much your past affects you." He tapped his knee with a tight fist. "I'll help you—rephrase. I want to help you. I'll get my men on it. I can't promise anything, but I'll do my best."
"Help me?" My eyebrows pinched together. "With what?"
"It's a cold case, is it not?" He stared callously at me. "I'll help find the cunt that took you."
My lips parted in shock. "Kathy said..." I wired my mouth shut, unable to give credence to her previous statements. "When my sister started working for you, she informed me that you were a man of connections. We both wanted justice for what happened to us, and she truly believed you were the man to avenge us. After months of working for you, she claimed there was never an opportunity to ask for your help. I guess, I assumed you still abided by that."
Liam continues to hold my gaze. "She was right."
I frowned at that. "So why are you helping me?"
He never hesitated. "You're not her."
My stomach dipped. "But I lied to you." His actions confuse me. Why would Liam help me after everything that has happened?
Nevertheless, do I still require help to find my monster? It was Kathy's plan; I only rolled with it for her benefit. "Why?" I whispered, needing to understand why he's still tolerating me.
"Does it matter, Alexa? The fact is that I'm willing to do it." He exhales cigarette smoke, running a hand over his jaw. "Stop asking questions and get to work. Your shift started half an hour ago."
I flung him a double-take. "I still have my job?"
His cheeks sank in frustration. "Do you want to continue working for me?"
Chloe's words repeated inside my head, I believe Liam has a soft spot for you, Alexa.
I hadn't considered continuing my position here. I guess I'd like to stay if Liam was cool with it. Sure, I don't get along with the female workers, but I love the Suits.
This job gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to smile, to laugh and breathe again. Most of all, it gave me an opportunity to meet him. "I'd love to stay."
Liam draped his arms on the back of the sofa. "Then stay." He rested his head against the leather, fingers curling a strand of hair behind my ear. It was an innocuous touch, but I felt it to the bone.
I turned my head to look at those penetrating blues, not quite stifling my smile. "Thank you."