"Don't leave," Brad orders, exiting the office. "Boss will be here soon."
Feeling uncomfortably out of place, I stand beside the large mahogany desk, observing the bodacious women dancing through the floor-to-ceiling window. I mouthed along to the music, picking up a solid gold paperweight, stimulating nervous tension.
Liam's desk is spotless. In actuality, the entire office is immaculate, nothing out of place and it smells clean and fresh, quite masculine. His lingering cologne, perhaps. I can't envisage him cleaning or doing something so mundanely normal like hoovering and polishing those wooden shelving units. I doubt he's authorised cleaners to come in here. Nobody enters this office without Liam or Brad present; expressly prohibited.
The thought had a pleased smile dancing on my lips. Brad left me unattended, which means Liam trusts me, or so I foolishly presumed until the corner camera rotated, reminding me how they captured Kathy's betrayal.
What if Liam is testing me?
I almost lobed the paperweight, setting it back on the printed email, carefully withdrawing my hands. I had no malicious intent or villainous scheme, so why those men mislead me into this indisputable test is unaccountably indigestible. Liam's assured prognosis peeved me. I am not Kathy. I am not a thieving opportunist.
Suppressing sullen vexation, I ambled around the desk, attention drifting toward the Tower Bridge painting, striving to cognise why it's so unique and sentimental to Liam. And then, belatedly, something that I hadn't noticed previous, shone beneath those dark skies and colour effect cars. I stopped to investigate further, contouring thick paint with the pads of my fingers. Hunkered low into the miry embarkment sits a young boy.
Why hadn't I noticed him before?
Hand resting on the guitarist's shoulder, the little boy stargazes while seemingly listening to his friend strum melodic music. It's an oddly sad yet picturesque image. They study the dark sky as if it's the only thing in life that sees them.
When I'd said the man was lonely, Liam scrutinised and challenged my assessment, and I couldn't understand why. Now, though, it is remarkably coherent. He knew the little boy was there and found it incomprehensible that I did not.
More than ever, I'd love to know the story behind this canvas.
I checked the time and huffed out a bored sigh. Twenty minutes passed and still no sign of Liam. While waiting for his tardy self, I ventured into the en-suit to freshen up. It is a luxuriously beautiful marble bathroom with a spacious glass shower cubicle and twin hand basins.
I stand before the stonework vanity unit, check my reflection in the mirror and spot a cologne collection and a glass frame jewellery and watch box—opened, exhibiting and beguiling.
Once more, I believe those expensive watches were put there as a test. I closed the lid, shoved the box aside and fumbled with my clutch purse, adding another mascara layer to my eyelashes.
Chloe had fun tonight, beautifying and glamorising me ready for this undetermined date with Liam. She styled my long hair into a tight ponytail and applied just the right amount of contour to my face. I finally ripped the price tag from the red dress I purchased the day she and I went shopping. It's nothing spectacular—a spaghetti strap bodycon slit dress; however, the satin fabric hugs my figure, and the plunge bra gives excellent cleavage.
For the first time, in a long time, I like what I see. I feel sophisticated, sexy and confident.
I pause with a lipstick near my lips, blinking a few times to eliminate the woman staring back at me. I look like Kathy and always loved that about us. How parallel we were. Now I felt bilious by our resemblance. I don't want to mirror my sister, or people to associate me with her, not after everything she's done.
"Put it away, Alexa," I mumble to myself, shaking off negative thoughts.
I espied movement behind me and lifted my gaze in the mirror, finding Liam leaning against the doorframe. He looked breath-taking, dressed handsomely in a sensuous black tuxedo with tie and gold cufflinks complementing his ever-present chains and curb bracelets.
As predicted, Liam candidly glanced at the watch box before his eyes returned to mine.
"I closed it," I blurted defensively.
He joins me at the vanity table, hand hovering above his precious jewellery, the steel pave diamond watch attached to his wrist sparkling beneath ceiling spotlights. Almost reflectively, he taps the box with a pointed finger, deciding against unease.
Wrapping his strong arms around my waist, he pulled my back to his muscular chest, the gesture causing my stomach to drop. "I read a quote once," he said throatily, trailing kisses down the column of my neck. "Give a woman the right lipstick, and she can conquer the world." He stops kissing me, lip curling in the corner as he stares at me in the mirror. "You look beautiful." Turning me in his arms, he unexpectedly hoisted me onto the counter, settling between my thighs. "What were you doing in here?"
We're back to the watches. I knew this was a test.
"Alexa, I don't like asking more than once," he prompts, his voice low. "Do I need to repeat myself?"
Hiding frustration was futile. "I'm not her."
"Kathy," I'm eager to clarify. "I'm not Kathy. So, if you're testing me in your office—around your precious watches... You're a fool. I don't care for superfluous bullshit, Mr Warren." I didn't recognise the fierceness in my tone. "I am sorry to disappoint you."
Beneath my dress slits, his hands roamed my thighs. "I didn't know you read minds."
"Don't patronise me," I snapped, wishing he'd stop touching me. I cannot think clearly with his rough palms claiming my hips. "I know exactly what you're doing, Mr Warren. You instructed Brad to leave me unattended because you thought I was going to steal from you, or empty your stupid safe just like my stupid sister—"
He ended my acrimonious lecture, slamming his mouth on mine. I hesitated at first, lips irresolute, body rigid all over. And then, irrationally enthralled by him, I parted my lips, welcoming his tongue and wandering hands.
I instinctively wrapped my legs around his waist, hands curling around this neck, bringing his body flush to mine. His stubbled jaw caressed my cheek, mouth devouring mine like a starved man. I was no match for his artistry lasciviousness.
"Alexa," he moaned into my mouth, burning my lips with fervent kisses. "Fuck." His tongue stroked mine, hand claiming my throat, adding pressure. "I want to fuck you."
And that was all it took for me to snap out of it. Breathless, I jerked back, hands laid on the marble countertop. He's aroused, eyes dilated, filled with insatiable need and desire. "What if I don't want that?" That's a complete lie; I want nothing more.
"You want me to fuck you, Alexa," the conceited asshole confidently assured, thumb pressing down on my throat. "I'm not sure why you're fighting me. It'll happen eventually."
"Not necessarily," I said unconvincingly, and he gave me a low, wolfish smirk. "What?"
"Turn for me," he orders, and I obsequiously slipped off the counter, turning to his command.
Our reflection collided as he grasped the nape of my neck, other hand fixing perfect pear-shaped diamond drops to my ear. "Mr Warren," I said, cheeks reddening, bashed. "I can't wear these."
"Nonsense," he whispers, adding the symmetrical cut to the opposite lobe. "They finish off your outfit, do they not?"
He rendered me speechless. Again. "It's too much." I touched the flawless clarity of diamonds. "I—"
"Thank me, Alexa," he interjects, dragging my ponytail across one shoulder, lips waiting on my upper back.
"Thank you," I said humbly, all sense of sensibility lost in his touch. "Mr Warren,"
"Come," Liam gestures to the door. "The cars are waiting."
I followed him out of the office.
What are you doing, Alexa?
I am playing with fire.
A woman should never fall for a man like Liam Warren.
No, a woman should avoid men like him.
What if he breaks my heart?
What if he is worth the risk?
This is going to be a long night.
I shadow behind him, past patrolling security, toward Club 11's back entrance.
Cold winds swept my dress tail as I stepped into the alleyway.
Liam halts, briefly conversing with one of his men while I apprehensively loitered.
Further down, a crescendo of snickering men, smoke and converse in hush tones. I sense their curiosity as they side-eyed their boss who's now gripped my elbow, encouraging me to walk.
A black stretch limousine awaits our arrival, mounted on the curbside. I don't recognise the driver, but I notice Brad and Nate slipping into a Bentley, both tailored fashionably.
The driver dipped his head to Liam, chivalrously opening the back door. I ducked inside and sank onto the cold leather, stationing near the tinted window.
Liam collapses beside me, engrossed with his phone. He sends somebody a text message, peering up when perceiving my unfaltering gaze.
Limousine vibrating to life, the driver steers us away from the alley, journeying to the function venue.
Tucking his phone into his inner suit jacket pocket, Liam drapes an arm behind my shoulders, and I straighten, hadn't anticipated his closeness. He stares out the window, fingers absently kneading my neck, having far too much effect on my confused state of mind.
Not a word passed between us until transportation reached our destination. Liam ordered me to compose, and I heard a car door slam before the driver appeared. I extended a leg, heel connecting with rolled-out red carpet, not missing Liam's approving eyes ascending my body as I straightened out my dress.
Many people, sartorially fitted or modelling exquisite designer cocktail dresses, perambulate near the venue's entrance.
Hands tucked into his trouser pockets, Liam progressively reaches the main doors, frequently impeded by connections.
Yet again, I stand back, unsure what to do with myself or whether it's impolite to overlook becoming acquainted.
"Mr Warren," an overly doting Junoesque blonde extends her hand to Liam. She's captivatingly stunning in that skin-tight black dress, blue eyes flipping me a glance beneath elevated, derision eyebrows. "I hope you are well."
"Indeed," Liam drawls, hand tight around hers. "No date?"
"Of course," she said sanctimoniously, motioning to the older gentleman who's engaged with another male. Her licentious smirk uncaged a demonic entity inside me. "Where are you seated?"
"With me," I intervened, irked by my uncontrollable possessive need to claim him. "Now, if you'll excuse us." I prayed Liam didn't lampoon me for rudeness. Slipping my arm around his elbow, I goaded him with defiant eyes.
Maddeningly emotionless and nonchalant, Liam disregarded my unforeseen insolence and led me indoors.
Surrounded by towering marble columns and stunning art décor, complemented with astonishing crystal chandeliers, ornate walls, majestic mirrors and unparalleled elegance, I hesitated in the cavernous foyer, cataloguing such striking magnificence.
"Alexa?" Liam called from the vestibule, urging me along. "We're gonna be late."
At a loss for words, I nodded, returning to his side, admiring the hand-painted ceiling, which I imagine is what heaven looks like with those baby cherubs swinging from clouds.
"Stop fidgeting with your dress," Liam said quietly, holding out his elbow. "Relax."
"Mr Warren, I'm nervous." I gesticulated toward the mass of people, conversationally laughing and imbibing champagne. "I have never attended any of these... things."
We waded through the dinner setting and splendid banquet: all-white tablecloths, floral centrepieces, fine china and crystal flutes. Dressed formally in all-black, waiters deliver appetisers and champagne, and the instrumentalists entertain guests with their melodious jazz music and euphonious vocals.
Someone like me doesn't belong in this world.
My boss dipped his head, lips tickling the shell of my ear. "Call me, Liam."
I fight the impulse to roll my eyes at him.
As aforementioned, this man gives me a severe case of whiplash.
Call me, Liam.
Call me, Mr Warren.
Liam accepts two flutes from the waitress and slipped the delicate stem in my hand.
I down it in one and hand it back to him.
He bowed an eyebrow, chuckling under his breath. "One of these things," he repeated, sipping champagne. "Alexa, it's dinner and a dance."
Easy for him to say. Liam's accustomed to inexhaustible extravagance. Familiarity for me is sitting on the sofa with a pot noodle and ice cream.
On the stage, a male impressionist sings "Something Stupid" by Frank Sinatra.
Liam's attention veered to the ball area. "Would you like to dance before we're seated?"
I open my mouth to answer, but we're already advancing.
Witnessing throngs of people cagily part for Liam hadn't gone unnoticed. Noting their apprehensions, I smiled in his wake, providing false assurance, I am sure.
Liam blindly reached for my hand, lacing our fingers together, dragging me close. The pressure of his warm palm on my lower back as he glided our movements increased my shallow breathing. It was surreal, him lowering his guard, allowing himself one moment to enjoy the company of another.
He unexpectedly spun me away from him, fetching me back just as quickly. My hands crashed into his chest, and genuine laughter exchanged between us. "There are a lot of women here tonight," he whispers, chin sitting atop my head. "Yet my eyes found you." Lowering my body downward, he held me in his arms and kissed my neck. "You're beautiful."
The music transitioned seamlessly, but Liam no longer required a dance partner. For the third time this evening, I am left to listen while he holds a conversation with a group of ungracious acquaintances. Well, not toward Liam. People fall over themselves to gain his attention and approval. However, in regard to me, people care not for introductions or politeness. I am still pondering between deliberate discourtesy or just absentmindedness.
This time, when a female admirer works her charm on Liam, I suffocate predatory, embedded feelings by polishing off champagne.
"Come," Liam said, remembering my existence. "I found our table."
I stroll behind his long strides. He locates our table, politely pulls out a chair and gestures for me to become seated beside a friendly-looking gentleman, inhaling his main dish.
Liam gives a firm nod to our unidentifiable dinner guests before claiming the chair next to mine. He jumps straight into chitchat with the man to his right, infrequently glimpsing in my direction to ensure I haven't fled.
Across the round table, a slightly overweight man studies me while silently chewing his food. His salt and pepper hair could do with a comb. It's a little unruly for such a formal event. "Mr Warren," he said, eyes undeviating from mine. "I didn't see your name on the guest list. What do we owe this great pleasure?"
A waitress parked a flute in front of me. I swiped and downed effervesces thirstily, ready to snag another. Liam seized my wrist and dragged my arm across his lap, lacing his fingers through mine.
I glare at our joint hands and swallow.
Liam is holding my hand. In public.
"Mr Bajramovic," Liam said in that rough, dictatorial voice that dusts my skin in all-responsive goosebumps. "I am on every guest list. Besides, this is a great event." He sipped champagne. "I wouldn't miss such a great cause."
Aloof, he set the glass down, swept the pad of his thumb across his mouth as he conversed with the seemingly rude man. I, however, hear and see nothing but my unofficial date.
Those lips that were on mine...
That tongue that was in my mouth...
I snatched my eyes away and tossed a grape into my mouth, distracting myself from being a pervert.
Bajramovic openly assessed me. "And who is this beautiful young lady?"
Liam responded on my behalf, "This is my date, Alexa." He lifted my hand to his lips and skimmed a soft kiss to my fingertips. "Alexa, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. Flamur Bajramovic."
Flamur extends his arm for me to shake his hand. I reach forward and accept his gesture, but he doesn't release me straight away. "She is extraordinary." He crushes my fingers in his iron grip, thumb gliding my knuckles.
Liam tensed in his seat, the muscles in his jaw throbbing.
I withdrew for Flamur, setting my palm on Liam's knee, fingernails stroking his inner thigh, reassuring.
He watches the place where I caress him, and I half expected him to admonish me. He doesn't, though. If anything, his coiled-up body relaxes,
"I met a girl like you once. Not as beautiful. But your eyes," Flamur swings his fork back and forth, "are exactly the same." He stabs his fork into a piece of steak, stuffing the rear cut straight into his mouth. "Like orbs," he murmured over a mouthful of food.
I had to refrain from sneering. The man chews like a gluttonous pig. "Great." I shrugged. How else do I respond to him talking about knowing someone like me and orbs?
Flamur stares at me again, quite discriminating, deliberately licking his lips.
What is that assured look in his knowing eyes?
Surely this is in my head?
And why does this man look familiar?
He flashed me a vacuous smile, eyes focusing on my chest.
I turned my head, cheeks burning in humiliation. I will not watch him openly examine me in front of all these people. I don't want to react and cause a scene, but his blatant lecherousness maddened me.
Drowning out Liam's discussion with Flamur, I scour the room to keep myself occupied, spotting a blond Suit wade through crowds, sneaking into a dark alcove.
I didn't know Liam promulgated security measures just for a charity dinner.
Those men blend into the room like camouflage in their all-black attire and discreet earpieces. People here are none the wiser, but I work around these men; I understand how they operate.
It's when I locate Brad and Nate at the bar, both lingering silently, observing our table. I find it odd that neither drink nor join these tediously bogus introductions. In particular, Brad. That man makes up any excuse to get intoxicated.
What am I missing here?
My blank stare settled on Liam's plate. He hasn't touched his food.
We're not here for dinner and a dance.
No, this is business.
I am fundamentally his fucking escort for the night.
I shoot him a murderous glare and, although he doesn't turn his head, I know he feels my eyes drilling into him. "I shouldn't be questioning you, Mr Warren," I whispered in his ear, "but I didn't agree to be your fucking hooker this evening."
He scratched his jaw. "Not now."
I fumed. Asshole.
Against the boss' orders, I snatched another champagne flute and consumed it. He can piss right off. If I am here in a possible business exchange, in which I recognise will not go accordingly, I am getting drunk.
"So," the lady beside Flamur quips, "how much will you both be donating tonight?"
"Let's get straight to business, shall we?" Liam disrespectfully interrupted. "You've taken something that belongs to me, Bajramovic. I want it back."
Here we bloody go.
I clicked down a waiter and requested another champagne. Alternating between glasses, I ignored the judgmental stares around the table.
"Shouldn't a little thing like you," Flamur piped up in a cynical voice, "pace yourself?"
"No," I answered curtly, tasting fine tasting flavours on my tongue. "Neither did I ask for your opinion."
A few of the females dramatically gasped their horror.
I returned with an eye roll.
Liam snatched the back of my neck, digging his fingers in my flesh. "Alexa," he warned, impatience emitting off his stiff posture. "Enough."
"That is not how your date should behave," one of the females chides.
"Well," I flung a napkin onto my untouched food, "then it's a good job that I'm not his date."
"What the fuck are you doing?" Liam seethed, gripping my jaw, forcing me to look at him. "Don't make me put you over my knee, Alexa."
"Go ahead." I laughed at the stuck-up asshole. "I am here at your service. Mr Warren. Might as well get your money's worth."
"You're an escort?" another man asked incredulously.
I nodded enthusiastically. "Apparently."
Brad suddenly squats beside me. "Come with me."
"Glady." I rise to my feet, the chair legs scraping against the floor.
"Liam. You don't mind if I call you Liam, do you? I am afraid that I don't know what you're talking about." Flamur matched my stance, hauling his date with him. "Moreover, the city is big enough for both of us." He simpers, bearing his tobacco-stained teeth. "Don't you think?"
Brad stepped in front of me, preventing me from walking off; I guess I am staying for the show after all.
Liam soared to his full height, adjusting a cufflink. And I knew. I felt the air dangerously shift before the man furiously overturned the table, shattering dinnerware, glasses and ornate centrepieces. "You don't fucking take what doesn't belong to you, Bajramovic!" Liam barked, unheeding shrieking dinner guests, kicking a spinning champagne bottle toward his apparent nemesis.
Fuck this shit. I'm leaving. I shouldered past Brad only to collide into Nate's impenetrable wall of muscle.
"Zamira, my dear wife," Flamur helped her dodge the broken carnage, "I think it's time that we left."
Dear God. Poor Zamira, having to kiss him with those teeth.
"Three days," Liam cautioned, and I wished I hadn't agreed to this evening. "Three days to return what's rightfully mine, or I'll fucking end you, Bajramovic."
"Mr Warren, it was a pleasure to meet you." Flamur warily sidestepped Liam, shielding his wife. "I look forward to our next encounter."
Liam towers over Flamur's bulky frame, intimidating to all that's watching. "You will return what's rightfully mine at once," he said, lowering his voice, "or I won't be held accountable for what's coming for you."
I see the manager darting through the tables alongside security.
Flamur doesn't back down. He thrust his wife to the side, stepping up to Liam. "Your title means nothing to me. You might think you own every part of London, Warren, but you don't own me. And I'll be keeping it that way."
Liam abruptly gripped Flamur's throat, lips twisting into a snarl. "Would you bet your life on it, Bajramovic?" He's seconds away from losing it before witnesses. I'm angry he dragged me here under false pretences, but I don't want him doing something he'll regret.
I rushed over in line with the manager. "Sir," he said, attempting to separate the hostility. "I've called the police. You are to release him at once and leave the premises."
Flamur's hand latches onto Liam's wrist, his face turning purple as he gargles for breath. "Liam, stop." I wedged myself between the two men, setting a hand on Liam's chest, but he doesn't see me. He heaves Flamur into a roman collum, and I am bastard sandwiched between them. "Brad, stop this!"
Those infuriating Suits stand down, leaving their boss to finish business.
Liam doesn't hear me. He sees nothing but the man behind me, eyes threatening and promising, the hand around Flamur's throat unyielding, tightening.
Acting on instinct, I delved two hands under Liam's shirt, flattened my palms over his chest and sank my fingernails into his skin.
Liam hisses, deadly eyes colliding with mine.
"Stop," I whisper, and after one long minute, he released Flamur with a forceful shove, sending the old man into the fragile wife.
Flamur coughed, wheezing for breath. "You'll pay for that, Warren," he spat, dabbing his lips with a napkin. "Mark my words."
Liam's devious smirk vexed Flamur. "I am counting on it."
I put my back to Liam's chest, installing an obstacle as Flamur passed. He stopped then, looked deep into my eyes. "Zonja ime e bukur," he breathes, dragging his knuckles across my jaw. "Me mungoi."
"Don't fucking touch her," Liam shouts, knocking me aside, lunging for the man, but Nate seized his boss, endeavouring him to calm down.
Silence and eerie darkness blanketed the room.
Flamur grins at me almost triumphantly before he shoves past me.
I don't watch as he and his wife walk away.
I don't watch as Liam gets pinned down in the corner.
Time stood still.
I stood still.
It's always freezing down here. Why didn't they let me keep my socks? My feet are cold. Mummy always told me to keep my socks on, so Jack Frost doesn't get my toes. I wonder what Jack Frost looks like. I reckon he's blue, with sparkly lips and white hair.
I pick up a black pebble that I found on the floor and begin to draw on the bricks. I like to make the wall pretty, flowers and stars.
Drawings cover my walls, but they're all the same dull colour—grey. I don't get chalks like I used to.
Not since Kathy stopped coming down to see me.
Not since they confiscated my crafts and coloured pencils.
I hear the basement door unlock.
I drop the pebble and shut my eyes.
Covering my ears, I begin to sing, "Someday I'll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, that's where you'll find me,"
"Zonja ime e bukur." His hand rested on my head. "Such a sweet little girl, Lexi."
"Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly, Birds fly over the rainbow—"
He reached for my hand. "Time to go up, Lexi."
I step away from him. "I don't want to go with you," I cried. "I want to go home to my mummy."
He charges forward—I run. I didn't get far before he snatched my hair, yanking me backwards. My butt hits the floor, sending shooting pain up my back. I kick and scream, twisting my body, trying to get away from him. "Please, please, please," I sobbed, tears burning my eyes. "I want to go home. I miss my mummy. Please let me see my mummy."
"No, you're coming with me," he shouts, "now be quiet." His palm connected with my cheek, the pain-causing light-headedness. "Lexi."
"My name is Alexa," I whimpered, curling up into a ball on the floor. "I know my name is Alexa."
"If happy little bluebirds fly, beyond the rainbow," I whispered, tears streaming down my cheeks.
The champagne glass shattered in my tight grip, blood trickles between my fingers.
I just walked back into my nightmare.