REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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CHAPTER ONE

Present Day

Alexa

How do you face the outside world when you’ve been concealed away from it for so long?

It should be an easy question for me to answer, but it’s not that simple. Then again, is anything in life truly that simple? I guess not. Kathy often told me to “stay positive”, and then the classic line “there are always people worse off than you, Alexa.” She was right, I suppose. I have read stories akin to mine, watched the news. Most abducted children rarely ever return, so I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

The detective, who once worked on our case, handed us keys to a two-bedroom flat and helped Kathy obtain a part-time job at a cinema while I started education at a local high school. We received compensation which Kathy spent thriftily to decorate and furnish our home; the rest of the funds into savings. Our private space was nothing exceptional but liveable, homely, warm and inviting—a place to finally call our own.

For a comfortable existence, amid employment hopping, my sister worked hard, long hours—graveyard shifts came to mind—paid the bills and put food in our stomachs.

I wanted to get a job so that I could contribute financially, but Kathy always refused. She said I needed to concentrate on schooling and continue my education by attending college, which never came to fruition.

Kathy had to grow up quicker than expected. I guess we both did on some level. With her being the eldest, she embraced all responsibilities and encouraged me to live the life of a typical teenager.

I looked up at my sister. She’s a gorgeous woman: long ebony hair, beautiful hazel-coloured eyes, a curvy, toned and muscled physique. Whereas me, I’m not curvaceous but more on the thinner side of life with minimal assets. We’re alike yet different. I’m quiet and reserved. She’s loud, abruptly frank, and tells people exactly what she thinks of them. I enjoy pyjama days cooped up on the sofa and wear clothing that doesn’t draw much attention, while she loves the big hair, makeup and skimpy outfits.

Over the years, I’d often complain about what happened to us in the past. I was terrified that our abductor would find us again. This fear persistently hung over my head while I attempted to overcome constant nightmares, panic attacks and being frightened of my own shadow; a guy who stood too close to me made me uneasy, and I was unable to relax without travelling back into my horror. I was forever screaming in my sleep, and Kathy would need to wake me up and calm me down.

Kathy, however, seemed unaffected by our past. I think her strong persona was a coping mechanism. Her way of showing me strength. She’s also a lot stronger than me, both physically and mentally. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am the more delicate sibling.

Although Kathy seemingly moved forward in life, over the years, my troubling behaviour frustrated her. She’d done everything in her power to help me conquer my demons. Awakening me at night and talking me through those distressing dreams, reassuring me that not every man was like him and for me to let go of what happened otherwise, it’d control me for the rest of my life—that He would control me for the rest of my life. Hearing those words was enough to snap me out of it. I didn’t want him to have power over me, to win or consume my future like he’d stolen my childhood.

Months after that late-night conversation, Kathy came to me once and said: My struggles are unavoidable. It was time to address it.

The topic of conversation had confused me. I explained it was no longer necessary as I’d taken my sister’s previous motivational words on-board and put them into action. Yes, I’d battled for many years, but I do believe I’ve come a long way.

Nowadays, my problems have diminished. I infrequently become distressed when sleeping, and give myself mental pep talks when anxious. Self-discipline aided my calmness around males, as long as I don’t feel threatened by them.

"No, Alexa. I don’t care if you’ve prevailed certain problems. It’s not enough; it’ll never be enough.”

Naturally, I blame myself. If I hadn’t complained so much over the years, she wouldn’t have come up with this approach in the first place. Nonetheless, irrelevant to my progress and assurances, she remained unconvinced.

"Kathy, since the last time we spoke, things have changed. My nightmares are far and few between. I don’t judge every man that stumbles into my path, and I don’t need help if that’s where this conversation is going.”

My sister took a seat on the edge of the coffee table, lacing our fingers together. ”I know you’re getting better, Alexa. That’s not what this is about.”

Nonplussed, I asked, “Then what do we need to address?”

"Justice.” Her wicked smile alarmed me. ”We deserve justice.”

I blinked. “I’m not following.”

“The police department failed us, Alexa. Our case remains unsolved. If they can’t help us, then we have to help ourselves.”

Did she forget that night? ”That’s because you refused to meet them halfway.”

She flinched, dropping my hands. “You’re blaming me?

“It’s not that I blame you, Kathy." I consider my words carefully. “I’m just saying that you were older, probably remembered more than me. Perhaps if you went back to the police and gave them a thorough statement, they might find something. Your memory is better than mine—”

"No. I’m not asking those officers for help. This is on us—only us, Alexa.”

"And how do we do that?”

“I think I know someone that can help.” She swigged coffee. “There’s this guy, although I must play my cards right. He isn’t someone you can walk up to and plead for assistance, but I’ve heard when he wants something done, he accomplishes.”

As you can imagine, I was profoundly sceptical. How can a young woman haul our monster behind bars if an entire police department couldn’t?

Half of me wanted him locked away for what he’d done to us, but the other part of me considered it best to let sleeping dogs lie—leave things alone, concentrate on moving forward in life. ”You think this man can help find our abductor?”

"I believe this man could wipe our captor off the face of the earth,” she replied grimly.

At that time, I didn’t know what Kathy meant by that statement. I found myself nodding and entertaining the idea for her benefit as I’d assumed her ludicrousness would blow over eventually. It didn’t take long for me to realise Kathy was serious when she started brainstorming ridiculous plans of luring our monster straight to our lair.

Idiotic. That’s what I’d called her. The woman had lost her marbles because no one in their right mind seeks out the person who’d ruined our lives.

I mean, was I nervous he’d come back for us at some point? Of course. It was my biggest fear. I didn’t want to look for him, though. In saying that, it didn’t matter how much I opposed her proposition, she’d made a decision, and she was standing by it.

Kathy was to locate our childhood monster and give us the closure we deserved.

Presently, this is where He comes into play.

Liam Warren.

That’s the man I’m watching right now. He enters this coffee shop every Friday, suited to the nines, orders a black coffee, begins his flirtatious advances on the redhead for around five minutes, then he leaves.

Liam consistently has an army of staunch Suits protecting him. The blond Suit is utterly gorgeous and should be on the front cover of Vogue for men. He models expensive attire and a striking jawline. Beautiful whiskey-coloured eyes aid his amorous mannerism and a teasing grin that has women losing their knickers at the drop of a hat.

The number of times I’ve witnessed that man entice a woman for a morning session in the male bathroom is shocking.

I’ve noticed the blond Suit can’t help but wink at any lady who captures his attention. He appreciates in all women, shapes and sizes. As long as he has the awareness of the female population, he’s easily pleased.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Then the bald-headed Suit. He routinely zones into space, never smiles and gives off the vibe that says, “speak to me, and I’ll eat your face.”

I swallow my chilled coffee. The guy scares the shit out of me.

Next up, we have the mixed-race guy. He stops beside Liam and murmurs something into his ear, both exchanging an inside joke. He’s handsome, muscled with outstanding features and what I’d like to call a prime model of maleness. His forest green eyes stand out like beacons: his sharp jaw and full thick lips, transfixing. From jawline to knuckles, tattoos artistically decorate his light brown skin. Fingers finished off by chunky gold statement rings.

Inked Suit appears to be one of Liam’s closest men alongside the blond. I’ve observed enough to notice those two men are more than colleagues to their boss, particularly the guy who should cover Vogue. He is unquestionably Liam’s right-hand man.

There are more Suits, but they usually stand out front, leaning against black Bentleys, smoking cigarettes or the occasional joint. Those men never involve themselves with Liam and his routine. They stand back, observant, ensuring their boss’ safety at all times.

I never allow these men to catch me surveying. I keep my eyes lowered, pretending to type on my laptop that doesn’t even work, listening to music spilling from speakers above my head.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

In their eyes, I’m a typical nineteen-year-old college girl that enjoys working in an aroma filled environment, drinking an abundance of beverages.

I don’t stand out. I tap away, drinking too much caffeine and feigning to be none the wiser to the Suits hanging around here.

So, now you wonder why I’ve been watching Liam Warren on Fridays. He was the man sleeping with my sister. In fact, I’d confidently state she was pretty much infatuated with him.

Liam gave Kathy a job at his famous nightclub, Club 11, or some might call it a “hooker house.” Although the preferred term is strip club—yeah, right. And she didn’t labour for the generous cash as she’d told him. The extra money had helped, but my sister’s reasoning for being an exotic dancer was for an entirely different reason: Liam Warren’s the man that could help us.

Kathy’s strategic plan was a no-brainer, or so I thought. When she first started working for Liam, she’d come home after a night shift, and I wouldn’t even give her a chance to kick off her shoes before demanding juicy updates.

Have you managed to ask for his help?

Do you think this is a waste of time?

What’s your boss like, anyway?

Unfortunately, Kathy never returned with any positive news.

Not yet, Alexa.

It’s too early to ask, Alexa.

We need to be patient, Alexa.

I stopped requesting updates.

After a few months, I noticed a change in my sister’s demeanour. Working for Liam started as a chore for Kathy, but as time passed, she was eager to be at work before a shift, smiling and singing as she glamorised. She even purchased expensive lingerie sets and new heels.

And then, she never came home and rarely had time off. I was mostly alone in our flat, twiddling my thumbs, eating my weight in ice cream, cleaning to the point bleach burnt my skin and stung my eyes and talked to myself more often than not.

One morning, Kathy tumbled into our flat with the world’s largest hickey on her neck. It was then, I realised she was sleeping with someone, and that was the reason behind her lack of home visits. Not needing any confirmation, I knew she was sleeping with the man deemed to help us.

Though sexual involvement with Liam wasn’t part of the plan, I hadn’t questioned her on the matter.

I simply ate more ice cream instead.

Kathy soon sensed my inquisitiveness and sat me down to tell me she was sleeping with her boss. She’d expected her admittance to surprise me, in which, I’d confirmed, I already knew.

As the cat was officially out of the bag, Kathy opened up more when it came to her relationship with Liam. Against my will, she’d park her ass on my bed in the morning and tell me how he’d fuck her into oblivion with his monster cock—apparently, I needed to know that—and those vulgar declarations nauseated me. Why, in God’s name, would I be interested in hearing about my sister’s sex life?

Knowing Kathy was in an excellent position to ask Liam for help, I proceeded to push her on our initial reasonings, yet, insistently, she was still unable to request her boss’ assistance. I found it hard to believe, considering she was having sex with the guy. But, Hey. What do I know, right?

For months, I listened to my sister sing about her fantastic, compassionate and attentive lover, who escorted her on dates, wined and dined, treated her as if she were a queen. I’d digest every unnecessary detail, feeling somewhat jealous she had met someone and overcome her past.

As Kathy spent most of her spare time with Liam, I was grateful that my friend, Chloe, started staying over to keep me company.

Even though I’d grown accustomed to living by myself, there was no denying I’d started feeling lonely and talking to my reflection in the bathroom mirror had me doubting my sanity.

Then the shift happened. It all started when my sister didn’t return from work for five nights. I had tossed and turned in bed, uneasiness rolling in the pit of my stomach.

To this day, I’ll never understand why I’d started worrying about Kathy. It’s not like her being uncommunicative and withdrawn was uncharacteristic. Call it a woman’s intuition, but her absence didn’t sit well with me.

Relinquishing trying to sleep, standing in front of my window and gazing into the winter’s night, I picked up my phone, called and sent her endless text messages.

“What’s wrong?” Chloe sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes.

“Kathy hasn’t come home,” I replied.

Groaning, she fell back onto the mattress and snuggled under the duvet. ”Kathy never comes home, so what’s the problem?”

"I don’t know,” I said, climbing back into bed. ”Something feels off.”

The following morning, Kathy still hadn’t returned. I told myself that she was Romancing the Stone and fobbed off unsettling agitation.

The weekend came and went and nothing. I continued calling her phone—which was off more often than not, forwarding me to her answer-phone.

My uneasiness evolved into a full-blown panic, so I took myself over to the station, but that got me nowhere. Kathy was an adult. The police department wouldn’t entertain the idea of her missing, suspicious or questionable.

My sister vanished without a trace.

The initial months following my sister’s disappearance, I’d spent curled up in bed, crying into my pillow, fearing our monster had found her and I’d never see her again.

My martyrdom came to an end when Chloe compelled me to leave the bed to show me a game plan she had orchestrated. We sat together, ingesting coffee while brainstorming and finalised our conversation by agreeing to find Kathy ourselves.

I had one lead.

Liam Warren.

My sister’s former lover.

Now that you’re up to speed, I can tell you that I’ve been watching him from this booth every Friday for the last five months.

Stalker much! No, I am not a stalker. Every Friday, I told myself that I’d approach him but always lost my courageous balls and watched him leave, deciding it was not the right time—snort, that’s a complete lie. I never approached him because inaugurating our introduction terrified me.

My plan of action was simple: walk over and ask him for a job at Club 11.

As you’d expect, leading up to this moment, I’d done my homework. I’ve had time to absorb the stories and speculations. This man is a cold-hearted, unprincipled, merciless, corrupt and dangerous individual, an unapproachable murderer, who I should keep at a distance.

I collected this beneficial knowledge from random people I’d met while doing what I like to call “The Warren Exploration.”

Spending many nights rushing through the streets of London, I’d lurk for innocent prospects. Many refused to enlighten me. I’ve lost count of how many times I’d ask a simple question, and they’d return with a horrified gasp or a grim warning to never speak of the man. However, on rare occasion, I managed to obtain helpful information from drunks. Imbibing alcohol and drugs gave them the courage to educate me.

Liam Warren was allegedly ten feet tall and could kill a man with his bare hands. He had numerous marriages, a bigamist with children scattered all around the East Ends.

One friendly yet concerning male told me Liam’s into cannibalism.

He had discombobulated me.

Scrutinising Liam for as long as I have, told me these stories were a load of bullshit. Yes, the man was tall, but not on a drastic scale. So, he has a taste for blood, not that crazy, right? That doesn’t mean he’s into vampirism. And his hands were pretty big, but seriously? He’s only human!

The streets fabricated stories for dramatic effect.

I formulated assumptions and possibilities: he was not married because there’s no wedding band on his finger. Then again, if this man is the womaniser people claim him to be, he might hide the ring to save himself from complications during his conquests. I’m quite confident that he doesn’t have children, but I still question it sometimes. Maybe he is a father but never spends any time with his offspring. I can admit he’s intimidating, and his men fear him. Perhaps the rumours are genuine. He’s a psychotic killer who needs handling with caution, right?

The alarming information had me querying why Kathy turned their platonic relationship into a sexual one, to begin with. According to my sister, Liam was, in some way, a friendly giant.

If her evaluation was correct, why do the people of London speak of him as if he were the devil himself?

How is it possible for this man to be two different people? Or had my sister kept that spine-tingling information to herself as she didn’t want to frighten me?

Recognising that this man was not your average person, I knew my plan was going to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated.

My first agenda was to find Liam and ask him outright about my sister’s disappearance. But, following what I’ve discovered about that man, questioning him is no longer an alternative. I’ll more than likely end up in a ditch, according to my drunken source.

Liam wasn’t the sort of man I could demand answers from and trust without reservations.

No. To gain Liam Warren’s trust, you had to earn it. And that’s what I intend to do. Get him to trust me—possibly even like me. Then ask my new devoted friend to help me find my sister.

Inner self—wish me luck.

I peered over the rim of my laptop and observed. Back facing me, Liam stands abreast the counter, staring down at his phone, his thumbs tapping away at the screen.

The flustered redhead stumbles to make his order, offering various pastries. Her coquettish behaviour is purportedly going unnoticed this morning.

I rolled my eyes.

Could she be any more obvious?

As soon as she hands Liam the beverage, I’m out of my seat. Shoving my laptop into my backpack and pacing towards the entrance, I approached the doors in time to “accidentally” bump into him and spilling coffee all over the two of us. Tick!

“Fuck. You need to watch where you’re going,” he snapped, seizing a napkin from the counter and wiping brown mess from his crisp white shirt.

I fussed with a napkin to dab my soiled jumper. “I’m sorry. I was in a rush and...” Looking up to face Liam, for the first time since studying him, I caught my breath. Those beautiful, penetrating ice blues, emphasised with thick eyelashes, captivated me. His inky black hair had fallen strands irritating his eyebrow and his strong, chiselled jaw, set tight and shadowed in stubble. I let my gaze fall to his mouth: his bottom lip, plumper than the top one.

This man is insanely gorgeous. Not that I wasn’t already aware of this—I’ve gawked long enough to discern his handsomeness, but standing close to him intensifies his powerful image. He’s fascinating yet intimidating. He embodies perfect and unfaltering masculinity, and as he leans past me to discard the dirty napkin, I detect the scent of soft spice from his cologne and quiver.

Holy shit.

We locked eyes and, although he’s scowling at me, waiting for an explanation, I am intoxicated by the intenseness of his proximity. Even with his unapproachable, hardened expression, I find the man breath-taking. It’s no wonder Kathy was so besotted. He’s magnificent.

His eyebrow arched, and his lip curled at the corner. I’ve never been one of those girls. The one who stares at a man and imagines all the beautiful things he could do with his hands and mouth. I never fantasised about how a man could invigorate me with one look. Still, as I stand here, feeling him everywhere, various thoughts filter inside my head, and those amatory scenarios had me breathless.

“I didn’t mean to do that,” I muttered to regain myself, placing my hands over his shirt in an attempt to remove the mess I caused.

He recoiled at the sudden contact. “What are you doing?”

I sharply withdraw my hands, unsure why I put them there to begin with.

“Do I know you?” His brows curled into a scowl as he stepped closer. I was feeble and small as I gazed up at his towering presence. “I feel like I’ve seen you before.”

My heart palpitates. My first thoughts are that of my sister. Though Kathy and I are different in many ways, we have similar facial features. Of course, he’d assume he’d seen me before as we resemble.

I shake my head. “No. And I’m sorry about that.” Pointing to his stained shirt. “I know your clothes are expensive.”

“Are they?” he challenged, his guarded glare becoming darker. “And you’d know that how?”

The designer emblems are a prominent giveaway. “Well, it’s an Armani three-piece, and you often wear Saint Laurent shirts...” I refuse to finish that sentence if I want to hold onto my dignity. I bet he’s wondering how I am knowledgeable about his quotidian designer preference. I’ve only been standing here for a lousy few seconds, claiming unacquaintance, yet reeled off his choice of attire without a beat of hesitation. Talk about foot-in-mouth, Alexa.

“Can you get him another coffee?” I asked the redhead, diverting this painful conversation. “I’m paying.”

Liam’s eyes never left my face. “That’s not necessary.”

The waitress wanders over with a new beverage, ready to hand it to him, but I step forward and take it, wondering where this state of jealousy has come from. “Here.” Holding it out to him with a smile. “Peace offering.”

Liam stares at the cardboard cup and accepts my offering. His finger grazed mine with an intentional brush, and I almost dropped the coffee when an unfamiliar spark travelled between our touch. “You didn’t need to do that,” he said in a rough voice, masking himself while reading me.

I, however, continue to stare at him like a love-sick-teenager.

He side-eyed blond Suit and then asked, “Are you alright in the head?”

That insulting question was the slap in the face that I needed.

A dreadful flush attacked my cheeks and neck. I blinked to clear this impossible infatuation.

He scratched his jaw, his hand exhibiting expensive gold rings, accompanied by heavy, yellow gold curb bracelets.

I’m not envious of what they have. If anything, these men entranced me, particularly the one standing in front of me.

Liam clears his throat, reminding me that I’m still gawking.

I glanced away in an attempt to regroup, and, without another word, he tossed the cup into the bin, shouldered past me and stormed out of the coffee shop.

Oh, hell no. I’ve waited far too long for this opportunity and cannot leave our weird encounter like this. I rushed behind him, pushing good old blond Suit aside in the process. “Sir—” Before getting close to Liam, someone forcefully gripped me around the waist with unnecessary force and hauled my stiff body into their chest. It all happened too fast. “What the hell?” I panicked, squirming in his firm hold. “Let go of me!”

Liam heard the commotion. Glimpsing over his shoulder, he came to a stop on seeing one of his men manhandling me.

My pathetic freeing attempt is a dud, so I bring an arm up and claw my fingernails over my handler’s face.

“You bitch! he hissed,” he bellowed, shoving me away.

I quickly recover my footing and spin around to gauge his eyes out; the blood left my body. It’s the bald guy. Of all the Suits to grab me, it had to be him? Not wanting an altercation with a man like that, I stepped back, forgetting my initial reasoning for being here, and built an imaginative wall between us.

Bald Suit snagged the front of my hoodie.

“Please stop,” I whimpered, curling my hands around his wrist to free myself. “Im sorry.” I try to slap his hands off me, my heart thrashing against my breastbone, sweat dripping down my spine while tears danced along my lashes. “Please.” I cannot afford to lose my sanity in front of these men.

Snarling his ugly, clouded-stained teeth, he fanned his warm breath to my cheek. “You put your hand on my face, little girl!”

I pressed my back against the wall, refusing to remove my eyes from the monster prowling before me.

I’m too scared to move. I’m hoping if I defy him long enough, he’ll get bored and leave, return to his room, lock the door behind him and forget that I exist.

“Such a sweet little girl you are, Lexi, ” he whispers, stepping out of the darkness. “Lay down for me.”

I scowl at him.

He takes another step, making me move across the room. I don’t know why I misbehaved for him. He always catches me.

I often think he enjoys this part of our game. He lets me run around, laughs at my expense, giving me an inch, only to snatch it away from me.

His dark, promising eyes following my every move. “Where are you going, Lexi?

Managing to reach the stairs, I place one foot on the bottom step before my body smashes onto the concrete. His hands tighten around my ankles, yanking me away from the only place leading to my freedom.

“Please stop! I don’t want to be here!” I clawed the floor, my fingernails snapping, causing the excruciating pain to rip a scream from my heaving chest.

He saw the blood and let go of me.

My body automatically curls up to soothe through the pain I caused myself. Lifting my trembling hand to my face, I swallow the bile burning the back of my throat on watching blood dripping down my fingers.

“Why must you disobey me, sweet little Lexi? “He sighs, squatting next to me. “Give me your hand.”

Hissing like a feral animal, I snatch my arm away from him. I don’t want this monster to touch me. Instead, I’d mend myself rather than let him show compassion. “Get away from me!”

“I’m quite disappointed with this evenings turn of events.” His eyes hold mine, giving me a warning without saying any words. “It’s a special day, Lexi. It’s your tenth birthday.”

I never remember the days anymore. I don’t care to remind myself of such dates—they mean nothing to me. Instead, I ignore the long hours and dreaded weeks, hoping that one day—praying someone will find me.

“I bought you a present,” he informs me, brandishing a colouring book from a carrier bag, along with some new felt-tips.

I’m too old for such a pointless gift, but being down here, day in and day out means simplicity gives me much joy and satisfaction.

“Now, if you want these, I’ll need you to do as instructed, Lexi.”

Sitting up, I wipe tears from my cheeks. “Okay.”

“That’s a good little girl.” He smiles, showing me his smoke-stained teeth. “What picture will you colour first?”

Accepting the pad, I flick through the pages until finding the one: two little girls playing on the beach. I can colour the sand yellow and the ocean blue, add bright colours to the shells and starfish. I’ll harmonise the girls with matching bathing suits and dark hair. I like this one, telling him with a genuine smile, I think of colouring this for Kathy even though I haven’t seen my sister for so long.

If I create a picture, she’ll see it and finally visit me.

“Why that one?” he inquired, taking the image out of my hands. He stares down at the piece I’ve chosen.

“It reminds me of Kathy,” I admitted, bringing my knees to my chest, wrapping my arms around my legs protectively.

“Hm,” he extends, his jaw locked. “Do you miss, Kathy?”

My nod was eager. “Very much.”

He cocked his head. “Would you like to visit your sister?”

“Yes,” I whisper, though I can already sense by the tone in his voice it’s not going to happen. I miss her.

“Well,” he drawls, hand clutching the paper. “You should’ve been good for me.”

He tears the paper in half before ripping the rest from the colouring pad.

I don’t flinch, nor do I speak a word as he destroys the only birthday present I’ve received in years. I’ve learnt to be evasive when he behaves like this and grown to understand that everything with my monster comes at a price.

He shreds the papers until there’s nothing but specks of confetti, then he moves onto the pens, snapping and lunging them across the room.

His face becomes murderous when he sees I am unaffected by his theatrical display. He was hoping I’d protest. “Get on the bed, “he commands.

I shut my eyes, fresh tears sliding down my cheeks. “It’s my birthday,” I remind him, hoping hell be compassionate. “Please.”

“Get on the bed. Now.” When I stubbornly refused to move, he seized my hair, yanking me to my feet. “Lexi!”

This time, unlike the others, I fight. Shoving his chest, I slap his arms away, kick and shove. “Don’t touch me!” He pushed me to the bricked wall, fingers tangled in my hair as he attempted to put his disgusting lips on mine. “Get off me!”

The taste of his tongue slicing through my mouth urged me to retch. Turning my head with an urging need to vomit and I managed to drag my fingernails down his face, drawing blood.

You ugly cunt! He hits me with the back of his hand, and my head snaps to the side, spots dancing in front of my eyes, sending my boneless body across the mattress. I blinked to regain some level of consciousness.

His body slumped on top of mine, his hands tugging my nightgown to my waist in a frenzy. “Lexi, stop fighting me!”

“You’re hurting me,” I cried, wishing for death already.

“Such a sweet little girl, Lexi.” He dragged his tongue over my cheek, licking away my tears. “Unë të dua.”

“Hey, kid, you need to calm down.” An agitated yet concerned voice dragged me back from hell. “I think you might be having a fucking panic attack.”

Inhaling a stuttered breath, I bring myself back to consciousness.

Liam squats before me, his hands on either side of my arms. Dipping his head, he searched my eyes. “What the fuck happened?

I am sitting on the cold pavement.

Slapping his hands off me, I scrambled to my feet and glued myself to the wall.

At his full, imperial height, Liam took a cautious step away from me and raised his palms, letting me know he meant no harm.

I can’t believe this happened. I haven’t had a panic attack in months. If my legs were working correctly, I’d kick the bald Suit in the nuts.

Awkward and humiliating is not how I planned my first encounter with Liam Warren. I wanted to impress him, not show him that I’m a mental case requiring psychiatric assistance.

“Stop referencing me as a child. I’m not a fucking kid.” I hadn’t meant to sound harsh or use profanity, but Liam has to consider me a woman, not a sheepish youth with a sweet mouth who’s incapable of working beside his erotic dancers.

Arms folded at his chest, Blond Suit flicks a toothpick to the corner of his mouth, giving me one of his signature winks. “You sure about that?” He dips his head. “Jumper says otherwise.”

Jumper says otherwise, I mentally repeated. Confused by that statement, as it’s merely a black hoodie, I glanced down and, if I wasn’t embarrassed before, mortification engulfs me now: two green turtles hugging with “Let’s cuddle” plastered all over the front.

What has my depressing life amounted to?

How did I not notice the ostentatiousness of this ridiculous piece of clothing while leaving the flat this morning?

Seriously, I need to start checking what I’m pinching from Chloe’s wardrobe.

Eliminating the hoodie with frantic hands, I buried it at the bottom of my bag. “It’s not mine.” Well, that sounded convincing. “I borrowed it from a friend.”

“Don’t worry about what’s on her jumper, lads. Her tits tell a different story.” The new Suit to my left decided to throw that comment out there. Reputedly, I wasn’t shamefaced enough.

Plus, my tits tell a different story—next joke. I am not the proud owner of breasts. I positively lack in that department.

I chance to look at Liam. Judging by his condemnatory countenance, I know I have messed up. There is no way I’ll land a job at his club after this disgraceful stunt.

My simple plan of gaining his attention failed. I ruined his shirt, underwent a panic attack, gauged one of his pig-headed Suits, wore a disgraceful jumper, flaunted my non-existent boobs and my traitorous nipples as I was foolish enough to leave the flat this morning sans bra.

“That’s enough,” Liam admonished his men into eerie silence. Interesting. “Were leaving.”

Liam remains opposite as the Suits piled into the cars. He studied me, curious eyes determined as he moves in, dominating my breathing space. Head held high, he assesses me further—what’s he looking for?

“I feel like an idiot,” I muttered, wishing I’d learn to shut my untamed trap.

“You banged your head when you fell,” he said roughly, startling me by cupping my jaw. He moved my head to the side to examine my cheek. “You might want to get that checked.”

“Is it serious?” I asked.

He doesn’t need to keep a hold on me, yet his hand lingered on my jaw. “I’m sure you’ll survive,” he says, his thumb sweeping over my cheek. His eyes honed in on my features. And then, as if realising our inappropriate nearness, he dropped back, his eyebrows tugging inward.

I wanted him to hang around, but as he turned his back and climbed into the Bentley, I knew I’d missed my chance.

I’m sorry, Kathy.

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