REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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"Do you want some?" Josh thrusts a tray of cheesy chips in my face. "It's good."

I wrinkled my nose. "No, thanks." A light breeze blew through tousled hair, the morning sun sprinkled between multi-tenanted office buildings, early morning light chasing away shadows.

It's six o'clock in the morning, and Josh ingests odoriferous sludge from a nearby twenty-four-hour takeout in addition to my sliced fruit and coffee. I don't know where the man puts all that crap he eats. His body's insanely sculpted and muscled with minimal effort. "How do you work it off?" I asked, sucking pineapple juice from my thumb.

He sliced his eyes. "What?"

"All those carbs and fatty foods." Stopping on the curbside, I checked for oncoming traffic and jogged across the road. "You never eat healthily, yet you look like a gym junkie."

"High metabolism," he said without a degree of medical validation, sinking into the London Underground with me. "I do work-out, though. I'll hit the gym now then head home and get some shut-eye, ready for work tonight. If you consider our dysfunctional sleep pattern, I don't eat much at all—not the required amount, anyhow."

I suppose he has a point. It's a good day if two meals pass my lips. "You don't need to walk me to the train, Josh." Unclipping my bag, I retrieve my purse. "Go and catch yours, and I'll see you later."

"Are you sure?" He dumped his food into the trash bin. "I don't mind waiting."

We do this after every shift. Josh talks my ear off until we stop at the halfway point, argue about safety procedures and then separate. "I'll be fine." I trudged backwards, finishing my coffee remainder. "And do not be late tonight. I hate working when you're not with me."

He mirrored my movements, parting ways, hand theatrically slapped against his chest. "Oh, I could never let you suffer so wickedly."

I giggled, cheeks pinkening in colour. "Promise you will never leave me."

Outstretching his arms, he accidentally strikes a commuter in the face and winces an insincere apology. "I promise never to leave you!" he yelled, gaining the awareness of everyone passing. "Just as long as you keep swallowing!"

The majority of straphangers toured me with critical eyes.

My mouth fell open, heat coursing its way to my cheeks. "Too far, Josh!"

"Not far enough," he uncouthly retorts, flinging his gym bag over one shoulder. "Anyway, go home. Get some sleep," he yells over his shoulder. "You're looking fugly."

I shook my head at the senile human, wait until he rounds the corner and then fossicked through compartments, searching for my oyster card, coming unstuck. "Shit," I breathe, jerking loose coins in the zipper side. "Idiot."

How could I forget my transportation card? I don't recall leaving it at the club, though—unless I lost it last night on the way to work.

I contemplated asking strollers for a few quid, but my pride wouldn't allow it.

After a long night on my feet, footing it home seemed impossible.

What choice do I have?

Stuffing my purse back into my bag, I hiked the strap over my shoulder and ascended the concrete staircase.

Had I known I clumsily lost the only means of getting home safely, I would've forgone coffee.

Growling in exasperation, I paced along the footpath, dreading this trek home. Fortunately, the warm temperatures and soaring sun dwarfed daybreaks haze.

Fifteen minutes later and nowhere close to home. "Oh, kill me now." Unlocking my phone, I browsed the app store and debated social media.

As I needed something to occupy my brain, I downloaded Instagram and created a profile—a blank, boring, unproductive account sans images.

Phone clasped between two hands, I extended my arms, snapped a selfie and uploaded. Okay, so I am friendless, but it's a start in the right direction.

I clicked open the safari and browsed the internet. Greeted by google, my thumb hovered over the search bar as I pondered who to stalk and, of course, Liam's face flashed in my mind. I thumbed his name, flicked through unofficial websites and found it odd that considering his indisputable corruptness that nothing flagged up online.

Liam hasn't uttered a word to me until earlier when breaking through the strained tension between us. It was a short-lived moment, but his closeness and rough voice wrenched my heartstrings.

Due to the enthrallingly overwhelming effect that Liam has on me, I think I handled his intoxicating nearness rather well. Although deferential, I faked innocent emotionlessness and belied discomfiture. He came behind the bar to grab Jameson. I didn't impugn his reasoning; however, it's questioning seeing as there's a fully stocked mini-bar in his office. For a foolish second, I thought it was an excuse for us to talk, but then I remembered the way he looked at me that night, and how his body recoiled when enlightening me on our never-going-to-happen future.

"Asshole." I turned the corner and smashed straight into someone's chest. "I am so sorry," I blurted out, clumsily dropping to the floor to pick up my phone. "I..." I narrowed my eyes, searching for the person. The street was virtually a ghost town, quite spine-chilling. Maybe the strange collision was a figment of my imagination or an idiosyncratic belief due to tiredness. No, it was too realistic; I felt the blow to my chest.

In the spitting distance, a morning jogger emerged from a narrow gully, his Labrador retriever scuttling behind. Despite the fact we're unacquainted, which shall remain, I had felt a sense of relief that I was no longer alone.

Enshrouding nonsensical uneasiness, I rode away at a brisk walk, frequently scouring surroundings. I had a warped delusion that somebody's watching me and abruptly stopped, head whipping from side-to-side, the horror-arousing fear causing horripilation and goosebumps. Slowly, a ghostly silhouette rose like an apparition beside a parked vehicle. I closed my eyes, opened them once more. The figure stands still—closer, hoodie shielding its face.

I stumbled back, eyes never wavering, fear clawing my chest and insides—I broke into a panicked sprint, eerie silence rushing past my body as I bolted at breakneck speed. And the noise, frantic footsteps boomed behind as it chased me down.

Whipping around another street corner, I dared to glance behind me and felt the blood drain from my body. Amidst whispering winds and the sound of roaring blood in my ears, the sharp glint in its hand promisingly taunted. "Somebody help me!" I screamed into nothingness, palm slapping the phone screen. "Come on." It's either dead or damaged from my fall. Fucking useless. "Somebody!"

My breath came in small spurts, the heels on my feet on the verge to snap. Terror grew until my body shook, and parchedness clogged my tight throat.

I dash across the road on jittery legs, knees clipping a parked car bonnet, body almost toppling as I strived to regain footing— "Whoa!" someone bellowed, catching my fall. "Alexa?"

My head snapped back, and I physically melted onto Brad's chest. "Oh, my God," I puffed out a relieved breath, sagging against him. "Brad—someone chased me down." I gestured animatedly, and the colour drained from my body, eyebrows curving into a puzzled scowl. "And they had a knife—"

"Calm down." His hands clung to my elbows, prompting me to stand. "Who's chasing you, Alexa? Did he say anything?" He peered over my head. "Do you know which direction he ran?"

I was dumbfounded, watching fallen leaves roll across the footpath. "I saw someone," I whispered, my heart thudding painfully against my breastbone. "He came after me and...and he had a knife in his hand—"

"Alexa," Brad breathes, hands cupping my head, pacifying me with his soft gaze. "Did he say anything? Did you hear his voice?"

"No." I cut our odd stare short, eyeing my scuffed shoes. "He said nothing. And I couldn't see his face because he pulled his hood right down..." Had I imagined it? "I mean..." I scratched my head, double-checking the empty street. "What are you doing here?" I asked suspiciously. "You're a bit way off the club, Brad."

He points to the Bentley parked opposite the brownstone flat building I reside. "Did you walk home?" he questioned, changing the subject.

"I lost my oyster card..." My frown held. "Seriously, Brad. I am grateful you showed up, but that doesn't explain why you're here."

Uprooting his leather wallet, he skimmed over debit cards and slid out a blue oyster. "You left this in the staff room," he tells me, and I curled my fingers around it. "You'll need it for work later and, as I was on the job over at Croydon, I thought I'd be a gent and drop it off."

Again, I was at a loss for words. "Thank you," I whisper, card clenched between rigid fingers. "I appreciate it, Brad."

Gesturing toward the tenanted flats, he offered to walk me to the communal doors while messaging someone on his phone. "You don't have any enemies I need to worry about, right?" he half-joked, but I sensed my response had the potential to cause obstreperous carnage. "No stalker boyfriends or serial killers...?"

The audacity of this man. "No," I assured the said serial killer, opening the garden gate. "This is me."

He lingered for a few seconds, stroking his stubbled jaw. "Get inside."

Smiling meekly, I dragged my feet indoors, hearing the car revving as I ascended the stairs. I unlock my front door while kicking off my heels, tiredly floating to bed. My face smashed into the mattress on a euphoric moan while simultaneously eliminating my work shorts.

Rolling onto my back, I tapped the oyster card with my fingernails—it's two years out of date. I bolted straight as an arrow, scrammed to the window and popped my head out to see if Brad was still outside.

He lied to me—this card isn't mine, so why was that man prowling outside my home?

I flung it in the bin, lost my T-shirt and collapsed face down on the soft comforters.

On the bedside table sits an old wooden photo frame. Once more, I sat up, blinking owlishly. Kathy's beautiful face glows beside mine, her arms wrapped around my waist as we both puckered for the camera.

"What the hell are you doing out of the box?" I snatched the frame, swung the door open and marched straight into my friend's bedroom. "Chloe?"

Mouth agape and positionally starfish, Chloe snores lightly, watermelon sleep mask covering her eyes. She wears a short pink skirt and lace bralette, one stiletto and glow-in-the-dark bracelets.

"Chloe?" I shook her leg, eliciting her from heavy slumber. "Wake up," I hiss, knees sinking onto the bed, annoyingly bouncing her to life. "Hey, pisshead! Open your damn eyes!"

Gasping a snort, she wet her dry lips with a wet tongue, tugging up the mask. "What?" she croaked. Fuchsia lipstick smudged across her cheek. "Alexa?" She squints. "Is that you?"

"Who else would it be?" I probed, seeing a discarded thong on the floor. "Was someone here?"

Blonde hair sticking out beneath the mask, she propped on her elbows. "Why do you ask?"

An unanticipated response. "Chloe...?" I eyed the underwear, and she followed my line of vision. "You look well and truly fucked."

She scoffed. "I wish." Slumping back, she snagged a pillow and covered her face. "I masturbated before you got home—sue me."

I laughed, raking hair from my face. "I had a weird night."

"Can this weird night wait?" Peering at me under the pillow, she grumbled foggily. "I need to sleep."

I nodded, sprawling out beside her. "Do you mind if I sleep with you?"

"I love a cuddle partner." She cocked a leg over my hip, snuggling close. "Why is Kathy staring at me?"

"What?" I jumped, and she tore the frame from my hand. "Oh, Kathy. I came in here to ask you the same question."

Quietness extended. "Am I supposed to understand your vagueness?"

"Dick," I scold, setting the frame on the floor. "I found it in my bedroom. I mean, I appreciate that you're probably trying to make me feel better after the whole diary fiasco—"

"Alexa," she cuts in, unseeingly rifling for another face mask and yanking it over my head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Black silk concealed my vision. "You didn't leave it there?"

"No," she mumbled, hugging my waist. "You probably left it out when you spruced the flat last week."

"Chloe?" An unnerving feeling sank in my stomach. "Do you believe in ghosts?"

"What?" Her hysterical laughter pierced through the thick air. "Are you high?" She tersely raised the mask from my face, and morning light burnt my eyes. "Those hotties got you smoking something, huh?"

"No, I am deadly serious, Chloe. I got chased tonight—or so I thought..." I am losing my mind. "And then Brad showed up—"

"Brad." Leaping up, she lunged the pillow over me, mascara-blotted eyes straining down at me. "He came here?"

"Well, not here..." I rein in a smile. I swear this girl has a secret crush on him. "Outside—"

"Our flat?" She sat cross-legged, her tired eyes brightening. "Why?"

"Okay, let me start from the beginning." I synchronised her position, elbows to my thighs. "I got to the Underground and realised I lost my transportation card." She nodded, engrossed in conversation. "As I had insufficient funds, I recklessly decided to walk home. While footing along, minding my own business, I rounded a corner and crashed straight into someone, but when I turned to apologise...I was alone..."

Her head slowly moves. "And?"

"And...Who the fuck took me off my feet?"

"Yeah." She harrumphed a bit. "That's kinda weird."

"Exactly." Glad we're on the same page. "So, I brushed it off but still felt a little uneasy, and that's when I spotted a figure, watching me from across the street. Chloe, I quite literally ran for my life."

Her amused expression became grave. "I don't like the sound of that, Hon."

"Yeah I don't really think it was a ghost," I whispered, blinking back tears. "I guess I am trying to simplify somebody trying to attack me—"

"Oh, Alexa." She waddled in, enveloping her arms over my shoulders. "Why would you put yourself in such a dangerous predicament, Hon? You should have called me, and I'd have sorted you a cab. I think we should call the police and file a report." Her eyes loomed on the window. "Did the person see you come in here?"

"No," I said, a touch unsure. "No, I don't think so. Brad appeared, and the guy vanished." Kneading the blurred stamp on her fist, I asked, "Where did you go last night?"

"Clubbing with a few work friends." Fishing out her phone from the pillowcase, she checked the time. "I still think we should call the police."

"No." Brad's stern face came to mind, an unspoken promise in his eyes. "I want to forget about it and move on."

Her forehead creased into a harsh frown. "You joined Instagram."

"Oh, yeah." I beamed. "I sent you a friend request."

Licking her fingertips, she wiped the black from under her eyes. "Pose with me, Hon." Putting her temple to mine, she stretched out her arm, angling the phone. "I will tag and find you a boyfriend."

"Absolutely not." My eyes widened. "You're not setting me up with guys online."

"Come on, Hon." She tossed her phone onto the duvet. "It'll be fun."

I immediately thought of Liam. He's made it quite clear where we stand, but I struggle to switch it off. I like him—much more than I should. "I don't know, Chloe," I sighed, picking lint on the sheet. "I slept with Liam."

"What?" She recoiled, jaw slackening. "When? Tonight?"

"The night I called you," I vaguely hinted, chewing my inner cheek. "After the gala, I went back to his place, and it kinda happened..." Oh, fuck, it happened. I felt that man inside me for nearly two days. I might faux hate him right now, but there's no denying Liam Warren knows how to pleasure a woman.

"And you're only just telling me." Her green eyes stared at me without a twitch. "Alexa when you called me, you said it was a grand night and that you were flagging down a cab. Not once did you mention fucking your boss."

Heat clung to my cheeks. "I was embarrassed—"

"Why?" she asked. "Alexa, I am hardly going to judge you for getting laid."

"Liam told me it was nothing but sex," I admit, heart-clenching. "I was—still am humiliated, Chloe. I am not mad, though. He owes me nothing, but I'm irritated with myself for being so hung up on a bastard womanising player."

Her sympathetic smile failed to mollify me. "You got it bad, Alexa."

"Yeah," I whisper, head sinking onto the pillow. "I do."

"Do you want to talk about it?" She laid beside me, our knees touching. "I am a good listener."

No, I need to stop obsessing over my boss, no matter how impossible. "Promise you'll meet me in my dreams, Chloe," I murmur into the nook over her neck.

Her breathing evens out in my ear. "I promise."

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