REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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Raucous and obnoxious clamour roused me from slumber. Head rested to a pillow, I peeled an eye open, immersed with ever-present dimness and London's kaleidoscopic nightlife patterns sifting through the panoramic windows. I hear a gregarious Brad barking unamusing jokes in the kitchen as Nate sings to maddingly loud music.

Stretching and groaning, I rolled onto my back, kicked the satin coverlet from my body and studied an unfamiliar face in the ceiling mirror. The woman glaring back at me, nauseatingly pallid and unattractively dishevelled, taunted and humiliated me.

I crawled off the bed, made a pitstop to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and then wandered down the marble and panelled wood hallway adjoining the living quarters.

Tailored handsomely, Nate sits on the U-shaped leather sofa, tucking into a takeaway container. He spots me, chopsticks pausing near his mouth. "Alexa," he said, arching a pierced eyebrow. "You gonna join us?"

I hesitated, nervously fumbling with my hands. "I was hungry."

Brad appears from the kitchen, white shirt unbuttoned. "You like Thai food, Alexa?"

I nodded, although I've never tried it. "Sure."

He hands me a plastic tub and a fork.

I quietly thanked him, became seated opposite Nate, delved into noodles hungrily. I felt their watchfulness but feigned obliviousness, chewing silently, observing London through the balcony windows. "Is Chloe about?"

"She went clubbing with colleagues," said Nate, jotting down cryptic passages in a leather notepad.

I glance to the main door, smiling meekly at the vacant Suit. "Where's Liam?" I wondered, setting my half-eaten food onto the high gloss coffee table.

Brad slumped onto the sofa, Jameson bottle in hand. "Taking a shower in his bedroom."

It was an innocuous response, yet my heart squeezed. I assumed Liam rarely returned. He does come home but separates himself from me. He doesn't join the bed because I am there. I should be unperturbed and thick-skinned. Liam owes me nothing. In fact, the man kindly gave up his privacy to provide accommodation.

"Okay," I respond, hoping my dissatisfactions are overlooked by the Suits.

Retaking the container, I chewed a few more mouthfuls and then beelined the bin. While in the kitchen, I grab milk from the fridge-freezer to prepare a cup of tea. I pop the kettle on the boil, concealing frustration.

Why did Liam fuck me?

I appreciate he wanted me to forget, but it gave me the wrong impression. I thought there was a small chance it meant something...

"I think we should inform Reginald about the shackles," Brad said, hunched forward, preparing what looks like a deck on the coffee table. "We know that twisted bitch is into slave labour and human trafficking..."

I drown out their deep conversation, adding sugar to the mug.

"...It might mean something," Brad continues, dragging his tongue across rolling papers. "If we get entail on his extracurricular activities..."

I heard footsteps advancing, and my spine straightened. Bare-chested and wearing low hanging jogging bottoms, Liam ascends the marble stairs into the open-plan room, hair still wet from showering, military chain glimmering around his neck. On his upper arm, a tightly swathed bandage, light blood submerging. I almost asked how it happened, but then I remembered my place and fused my lips.

"Save me some." Liam jerked his chin at the rolled joint in Brad's hand, snags an unopened food container. "And I already messaged Reginald. I got him and a small team looking into Bajramovic's whereabouts—" I dropped the mug, shattering ceramic across the tiled floor. Three pairs of eyes curiously met mine. Liam's eyebrows climbed in surprise. "Alexa," he said, shooting his men an unappeased look. "I didn't know you journeyed passed the bedroom."

Asshole. I began gathering broken pieces, heart beating double time in my chest.

"Stop," Liam ordered, and I flinched. "You," he points to the Suit guarding the door, "pick that up."

The Suit kicked himself away from the wall.

"No, it's fine—"

"Immediately," Liam clipped, shovelling rice into his mouth.

Great. Now I feel bad for the guy. I put my back to everyone, prepared another mug, the poor Suit cleaning my mess while I just stand here.

"Good call," Brad keenly agrees, returning to their conversation. "Reginald can shine some light—put us in the right direction."

"Flamur crawled underground right after the gala," Nate adds, adjusting his titanium nose ring. "He'll stay low, wait for an opportunity to take you out."

Anxiety and distressing flashbacks seized my body, hands tightening around the mug. I don't want Flamur getting to Liam or damaging his establishments. "I might be able to help," I whispered, and the men prattled on, oblivious. "Liam..."

Listening to Brad drone on, Liam pulled a drag from the joint, clouding himself in thick smog.

"Liam," I said, firmer, and his eyes lifted. "I might be able to help."

"Help?" He looked inscrutable, sinking onto the leather.. "How the fuck can you be any help?"

I ignored the unnecessary scornfulness in his condescending tone. "I remember him," I said, and his eyebrows crept in. "I mean, it's historical information..."

"Come on, Kathy" I churlishly scold, dropping apples into the bucket. "Mummy said we must fill the entire bucket, or we don't get any apple pie." I collect fallen apples from the grass, rub the waxy layers on my dress, removing mud.

Kathy lays like an angel on the floor, staring up at the summer sky. "Alexa, I don't want to make no pie with mamma. I want to go down the river with all my friends." She huffed out a bored sigh, throwing a tennis ball in the air, catching it. "Plus, Ben is down there." Lips puckered, she sulked. "I wanted to see him."

"Who's Ben, Kathy?" I drop another apple in the bucket. Kathy hasn't mentioned Ben before, though, she rarely shares information about her new friends. "Do you like him?"

She rolled onto her stomach, chin balancing on a clenched fist. "Ben is my boyfriend," she admits, cheeks turning a dark shade of pink. "And he's super cute, Alexa. Last week, before daddy grounded me, Ben took me to the movies and paid for popcorn. It was the best date ever. And," she gnawed the corner of her lip, "we kissed."

I gasped. "You kissed a boy!"

She pulled an ugly face. "Well, I don't want to kiss girls, Alexa."

"I am never doing that." My nose wrinkled in disgust. "Kissing is gross."

"I am sure you'll think differently," she adds mischievously, grinning from ear to ear, "when you meet your Ben."

"If I meet a boy called Ben, I am running far, far away from here." Tossing one more apple in the bucket, I quickly counted to be sure there's enough. "Plus, you can't have a boyfriend. Daddy won't like it."

Compulsion etched across her twisted features. "Don't you worry too much about what daddy likes and wants, Alexa." Rising to her feet, she peered over her shoulder. "Anyway, the last one to the house," she bolted ahead, "is a rotten egg!"

"That's not fair, Kathy!" Hauling the bucket, I dashed behind her. "You cheated!"

I don't know why I still play this game.

Kathy always wins.

Reaching the house, I push open the back door, kicking off my shoes. "Mummy, I got the apples." My feet slap against the wooden floor. "Kathy didn't help me pick one." Entering the kitchen, I glance around while calling my sister, foot suddenly slipping on something wet, bringing me crashing to the ground. Apples thudded around me, bucket empty under the wooden table. "Ow," I cried, touching the back of my head. "Mummy."

Turning onto my side, I reached for an apple, noticing red splatters on its skin. "Mummy?" I called again, sitting upright, palms soaked in red—dress covered red.

I follow the crimson trail and drop the apple to the ground.

I heard the thud.

I didn't watch it roll away.

I see her then, lying on the kitchen floor, arms relaxed beside her head, floral skirt hiked to her waist. "Mummy," I whispered, crawling to her side. "Are you sleeping?" Purple marks wrapped her wrists, and there's a bump on her forehead. "What happened?"

Prying one of her eyes open, I study her pupil. "Talk to me," I whimper, seeing red gushing behind her head. "Are you hurt? You can't be hurt, mummy. I got you apples," I snatched one, showing her, "see?"

"I was too young to understand," I said, feeling the intensity of their stares, "but I knew something terrible had happened."

"Please wake up," I cried, fussing with her dress, covering her underwear. "I am scared."

"She had dark bruising on her neck." My fingers traced my chest, recalling those angry-looking marks. "And her clothes..." A tear rolled down my cheek. "They weren't intact. Somebody raped her."

"Don't leave me." Burying my head on my mother's chest, I cried, clinging to her lifeless body. "I am staying with you, mummy. I promise."

"I promised to hold her," I whisper, temporarily immobilised by vivid flashbacks. "I broke my promise."

"Mummy isn't going to wake up." A man's voice echoed behind me. "Don't be frightened."

"Who are you?" I clung to her, eyeing the tall man beneath furrowed brows. "I don't remember your name."

"Oh, don't you worry about that." He squats beside me, meaty hands clasping together. "Come with me. Kathy is waiting for you."

I nuzzled closer to her. "But I don't want to leave without mummy."

"She'll be with us, but she must sleep first." He offered me a hand. "You don't want mummy to be tired, do you?"

My chest ached. "No."

"Well, come on," he encouraged, lacing our fingers. "Your sister is waiting for you."

"The senseless child inside me," I explain, wishing I'd run that day, "believed him."

The man leads me outside to where a white vehicle awaited.

"I kept looking back," I said, stifling a sob, "waiting for my mother."

Another male rounded the van, unlocking the backdoors. "Who is that man?" I asked, withering on the spot. "He looks scary."

"No one you need to worry about, little Lexi."

I don't know why I suddenly felt fear, but something told me this was very wrong.

"When I reached the transit back, I saw my sister on the floor, tied up," I continued, and Liam leant forward, elbows relaxed to his thighs. "They hit her over the head with something because there was a cut..."

"Alexa!" Tears bleeding from her eyes, Kathy screamed, lashing against metal restraints. "Run!"

"I don't know what happened after that. I just remember darkness. I do recall, however, waking up in an unknown place." Quickly jogging my memory, I avert my gaze to the floor. "A lot happened there. Kathy and I weren't his only victims, but, for some reason, unbeknownst to me, he kept us around."

"Where is this place, Alexa?" Brad shifted beside me, draping an arm onto the sofa rear. "Do you think it's possible that Bajramovic hides there?"

"Without a shadow of a doubt." I accept a refilled mug of tea from Nate. "That place is his haven. It's where he can be true to his vile self, but I can't tell you the location."

Liam watched me carefully, scratching his jaw. "Why not?"

"I don't know where it is—"

His lips curved into a deriding smile. "Impossible."

"Really?" I asked, shoulders squaring. "Someone told me nothing was impossible."

"Touché." He knew he lost the self-contradictory argument. "Then enlighten me, Alexa. How can you forget such heinousness?"

"Sod's law." I laughed at the insanity. "A therapist mentioned traumatism. She believed I subconsciously blocked out certain aspects to protect myself. It makes sense. All I know is Kathy, and I ran away and never looked back."

Nate stared me down. "Why didn't you press charges?"

"I told the detectives on my case everything." Against Kathy's orders, I thought. "I didn't know his name, though. Based on my statement, they tried to pin him down..." They never found him. "And then after the charity dinner, when realising who he was, I pondered going to the station to tell them what I knew..." I felt a flush on my cheeks. "But I thought..."

"You wanted me to deal with him," Liam filled in the gaps, and I nodded. "Then, why has it taken you so long to confide in me?"

Now isn't the right time to discuss our argumentative, messed-up arrangement. "Foolish, I guess." I stood, needing to be alone. "I'm sorry, I thought I could be helpful..." I walked away, wishing I'd kept my stupid mouth shut.

I almost closed the bedroom door behind me when Liam barged into the room, slamming it on my behalf. He stationed himself, chest heaving up and down as he grappled a calming breath. "I already know what happened to you," he said, his voice rough. "As you're aware, I read your case file."

Yes, and the thought sickens me.

"It's a gruesome image," he goes on, absently rotating his thumb ring, "the thought of someone doing that to you."

"Please don't," I whispered, tearing up, "If you keep talking like that, I might believe you care."

The muscles in his jaw throbbed. "I care," he said angrily, hands grasping my head. "If anything, I care too fucking much."

I sensed his reservations. "But?"

His eyes spoke volumes. "I am not the right guy for you, Alexa. You deserve so much more than I could ever give you—"

Every man's go-to phrase. "That's not for you to decide," I interject, holding onto his waist. "I am a big girl, Liam. I am capable of making decisions."

"I am angry. What you just told me, it's already eating me up, Alexa. I am going to fucking kill him." An annoyed groan vibrated in his chest. He dipped his head, kissed the hollow spot beneath my ear. "Tell me to leave," he breathes, fingers tangling in my hair, his heart thumping against my chest. "I am too selfish to walk away, Alexa."

Turning my head, I brushed his lips with mine. "I don't want you to walk away."

"I will disappoint you," he tries convincing me, backing me toward the bed. "Fuck." Hands lowering to my backside, he lifted me into his arms, and I instinctively wrapped my legs around him. "Hear me out."

I nod, stealing a kiss from him.

"I'll never want a relationship," he begins, and my lungs deflate. "I'll never agree to sole commitment, fidelity or love." The mattress greeted my back. "It's too dangerous," he whispers into my mouth, snapping the bobble from my hair, combing his fingers through untamed locks. "Having a weakness is too dangerous."

"You don't want me to become a liability," I said assuredly as he stroked his knuckles along my jawline. "Is there anything other than a sexual connection with me?"

"I am starting to feel things that I've never felt before," he gazed deep into my eyes, "and I don't know what to do about it."

My heart skipped a beat. "You don't have to do anything about it, Liam," I reassured him, knowing it'll be me coming out of this situation hurt and scathed.

His thumb parted my lips. "I don't think you can handle any more disappointment." He kissed me regardless, lazily sweeping his tongue into my mouth.

Liam is right. I shouldn't invest nor trust his conflicted intentions, but I'd much rather live in the moment. I can worry about heartbreak later. "What are you proposing?"

"I just want you," he said without hesitation, eliminating my oversized T-shirt and underwear. "Stay here for a while longer, come back to work and be available to me."

He's offering me sex. "What happens when you tire of me?"

"We're both adults, Alexa." He tugged down his slacks slightly, letting his hard arousal fall between us. "We fuck and part ways amicably." Lining up at my entrance, he nudged his way inside, a strangled groan humming in his throat. "What do you say?"

"Yes," I agreed, meeting his slow thrusts. "I can do that."

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