REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Liam

I unlocked the office door, entering with Alexa behind. It's half six in the morning, and the club will open to customers in three hours, so I won't be getting any sleep, which I am accustomed to; however, Alexa looks exhausted, becoming seated on the leather sofa, nervously chewing her lower lip. "Get some sleep," I said, dropping my keys onto the desk, pouring myself a bourbon.

She removed the hoodie, pulled her hair into a messy knot, avoiding my gaze as I ventured around the office. I lose my suit jacket and text Brad, ordering him to send clean-up to her flat to sort the mess and cover any damages.

I grab a quick shower, snag a spare suit, linger at the marble dresser and ready my appearance for another day. When I exit the en-suite, I find Alexa curled up on the sofa, sleeping, rested, breathing steady.

Young and vulnerable, I thought, draping the hoodie over her. I think about what almost happened between us tonight and spat out a curse. I made a counterintuitive decision, gave into temptation, galvanised by intense fascination and desire. I'd intended to ward her off, threaten and put the fear of God into her. Instead, she stumbled into the bedroom, rattled, disconcerted—It was the way she looked at me, those glassy eyes, horror-filled yet accepting—and I caved.

Her mouth was soft, kiss hesitant. Her nervousness only magnified the need to go further. I knew she was innocent, but her trembling at my subtle touches invigorated me.

Alexa admitted sexual inexperience; however, voicing her concerns were fruitless. I knew as much the night of her interview. Tonight, though, unlike her prior protest, she had allowed my investigatory hands to roam her body. She let me kiss and see her exposed. For an odd reason unbeknownst to me, Alexa Haines trusts me, and that means something.

Inclining the leather chair, I nurse a bourbon glass, feet kicked onto the desk, admiring the beauty sleeping across the room. I am dangerously weak for the girl. I have an unexplainable, possessive urge to protect and take her under my wing. Contrariwise, omitting this intense, burning need to avenge and take care of her, I am not—nor will I ever be—ready or willing to be her favourite pastime. Sure, I want to fuck her, claim her in way that's absurdly preposterous and unrealistically unfathomable, but Alexa, like most women, will expect more from me—time and affection that I cannot promise nor commit. Not with my perilous lifestyle, especially for some young girl with a shit ton of baggage and an atrocious past that'll complicate and impede the syndicate.

I read Alexa's casefile before our meeting. It somewhat puts her occasionally odd behaviour into perspective. I had wondered why she lost it so quickly that morning with Darren. The demonic display in her flat also struck me with all-confusing astonishment and innate inquisitiveness.

Alexa and Kathy Haines vanished from their family home in Newquay, Cornwall. Their mother, Adaline Haines, was found dead at the crime scene. Cause of death: asphyxiation. Her father, I thought, opening the desk drawer, retrieving the cold case file. I don't recall reading about him. Opening the documents, I briefly scoured homicide notes, but nothing clarifies his whereabouts or potential death. I made a mental note to look into it.

Six months after their abduction, criminology determined the likelihood of their return was improbable, resulting in an unsolved, cold case, so It was a shocking revelation for the metropolitan police department the night the missing girls appeared in London.

As I don't care for Kathy, I set her record aside and continue with Alexa's. She suffered violence daily but rebuffed any sexual abuse which detectives emphasis either denial or Stockholm syndrome.

I glance back to the woman sleeping, speculating why she'd withhold information from the men leading her case. Judging recent behaviour, I struggle to believe she developed positive feelings toward her captor. No, I've witnessed the hate in those bottomless eyes when she gets lost in those dark thoughts. However, lying and obfuscating, in order to derail or mislead the investigation, is questioningly confusing.

Overturning the page, I skim over medical records and pick up images. Underweight and evidently unwell, a younger version of Alexa stares back at me, dark, purple bruising mar her delicate throat, hollow and ashen cheekbones, sickly gaunt. Battered and blue, I thought, eyeing the blemishes between her thighs and sores around her wrists and ankles.

Her frail posture and sad eyes awaken something gravely proprietorial inside me. No child deserves to suffer the way she did. I have many sick, twisted personalities, but I do not condone child abuse. It makes my skin crawl, how sexual predators can harm someone so friable, so defenceless and still sleep peacefully at night.

I can't stomach reading further. I clenched the papers, shoved everything back into the drawer and knocked back another shot.

Yes, it is palpable Alexa's harbouring dark secrets, but you'd never believe she endured such heinousness. She has learnt and adapted to normalcy, masquerades her innermost fears and reservations, feigns a beautiful smile even when at her lowest. I like that about her. The way she enters a room and brightens its murky ambience with that self-effacing aura, unknowingly gaining the attention of many. My men idolise Alexa. Brad and Josh, in particular, have grown rather fond of our newly hired.

"Liam Warren. Do you want to tell me why dead bodies are floating in the fucking Thames wearing dog collars that belong to you? Not to mention the head that's become a goddamn centrepiece on the London fucking Bridge!"

The man who uninvitedly barges into my office, Chief, Superintendent, Reginald Burton. He proceeds to raise hell, arms gesticulating angrily between us. The man is like a fucking pig. He's beet red, practically hacking up his lungs—his short walk to my office seemingly laborious and taxing.

"He refused to come back, Bossman. Had to see you now." Unbuttoning his suit jacket, Brad sags onto the sofa, startling a sleeping Alexa. "His words."

She rolled onto her back, glaring at him beneath hooded eyes.

He grinned wickedly at her. "What's happening, boo?"

Alexa's gaze sought mine, then returned to Brad. "You're crushing my foot," she groaned, and he elevated his hips so that she can curl up, back facing the room. "Yes, why?"

Hiking an eyebrow, Brad shot me a puzzled look. "Is she drunk?"

"No," I said, lighting a cigarette. "Half asleep." I stared at the superintendent blankly. "Reginald, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Warren," he huffed, glowering at me with evident dismay. He knows that I am lying. "You know carelessness makes the job challenging for me—"

"It's your problem." I offered an insouciant shrug. "You fucking fix it."

"Like hell, it's my problem, Warren. You know exactly what I'm talking about." He flattened a hand over his head, nostrils broadening in exasperation. "How many times do you think I can cover for your sorry ass? If you don't keep a lid on your damn mess, I cannot protect you."

I mightn't show it, but I appreciate all Reginald does for me. He's been in my back pocket, receiving hush and bribe money since the organisation commenced. "I don't think you understand me correctly, Reginald. I pay you a helluva lot of money. I keep your wife happy, do I not? Is she not on a cruise as we speak?" I paused for effect. "While you're banging hookers."

Reginald flinched, cheeks burning up.

He didn't think anyone knew about that. "And your daughter, how is she enjoying the private all-girls school?" I respire smoke halos, a grin teasing my lips. "I hear she wants to be an actress."

"Warren, this must stop. I can do my best, but the office is already keeping tabs on you. There is only so much evidence I can make disappear."

"Nonsense, Reginald." I open my wallet and slip an additional payment onto the desk. "Make it go away."

"Fine," he grunts, snagging the fifty-pound notes and stuffing them in his trouser pocket. "I'll see what I can do. You owe me, Warren."

I don't answer. I wait until Reginald storms out of the office, barking at the security line up as he retreats. "You put his head on the London fucking Bridge?" I finally asked, eyes skimming to my right-hand man.

"Great, isn't it?" Arms stretching above his head, Brad yawned. "Good old Darren's mugshot is plastered all over the news. Our Albanian friends will have heard your message." His grin virtually touched his ears. "Loud and clear."

Sometimes, I think he's almost as sinister as me.

Almost.

***

"Nate, I am starving. Bring some breakfast in with you. I want the works, full English: black pudding, hash browns and get extra coffees." I end the call before he responds.

I squat in front of Alexa, who is still dead to the world, face scrunched up, a sweat dew beading above her brow. "Alexa, wake up." Her chest heaves, eyebrows furrowing, head twisting from side-to-side. "Alexa—"

Her eyes opened fully and, in a terse, frightened manner, she bolted upright, scampering back and generating space between us.

I stared pointedly at her, gradually rising to my feet.

"Sorry," she whispers, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. "I forgot where I was for a moment." I thought as much. "I need my phone. Chloe must be worried sick."

Affirmative. That damn roommate has been blowing up this phone all morning. I grabbed it from my trouser pocket, tossed it into Alexa's awaiting hand. "Nightmare?" I asked, and she peered up from the screen. "Do you get those often?"

Fostering yet another bogus smile, she tapped a message to Chloe. "No," she lies, pretending to be unaffected by her past and those unwelcomingly forbidding evocations invading her dreams.

Slipping her phone away, she rose from the sofa and awkwardness settled over us. Even with untamed hair and smudged mascara beneath those eyes, I found her sublime beauty fascinating. This bullshit is starting to piss me off. I am never this affected by a woman. I fuck and move on. No ties. No expectancies. No relationship drama. I need to either fuck the girl and be done with her, or get over this sexual chemistry and forget about her.

"I, um..." Her eyes skimmed over my face. "I need to leave. Thanks for letting me stay here last night."

The fucking irony of that statement. Alexa's thanking me for accommodation, overlooking the fact I ordered a ransack on her place last night. "Are you going to be...?" I want to know if she's okay, but, at the same time, too much interest will exemplify false hope. After our almost moment yesterday, I need to remain apathetic—move forward, forget.

Subdued, Alexa nodded, grazing my arm as she passed to leave. I didn't turn, but I heard her laughter echoing in the corridor, which means my men have arrived.

I park behind my desk. Merely seconds later, Nate walks into my office, grinning to himself. "Breakfast is served." He drops a brown paper in front of me. "Your Royal Highness."

Swigging my coffee and pulling out containers, I delved into the food with gusto—hadn't realised how hungry I was. "Breakfast is great." I chewed, bacon and egg melting on my tongue; you can't beat a traditional British breakfast. "What do you have for me this morning?"

"Flamur Bajramovic." Brad appears next, tossing an envelope on my desk. "He and his wife are attending a gala dinner this evening at the Royal Hotel." Downing half a bottle of orange juice thirstily, he licked his lips. "I managed to pull a few strings and get your name on the guest list."

"Well, it's time to pay my dear friend Flamur a visit. Don't you think? Get ready for seven-thirty..." I considered a date and loaded surveillance, watching Natalie slip behind the bar. "Brad, arrange for Alexa to accompany me—and to wear a dress."

"Glad you both kissed and made up." He mockingly pouts. "I like Alexa. I'd hate throwing her body into the Thames."

And that comment right there is how I know she's different. The thought of getting rid of Alexa like she's nothing—It can't happen.

It will never happen.

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