REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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"So, let me get this straight. You made the man drop his coffee, drew blood from his bald colleague, broke into a loony bin frenzy, and then showed all the perverts your knockers."

I lowered myself into the bath, covering my lady bits. "Chloe, firstly, they were not perverts, neither did I exploit my boobs—you have taken my story beyond context. Secondly, must you make me feel worse? You're supposed to be comforting me—saying it's not as bad as I think it is. You know, being my friend and all that other bullshit."

She sits on the edge of the tub, dipping her legs into the water. I find myself sitting upright to create space for her. "I'm sorry. I know I'm acting insensitively. Sometimes, I forget how much this means to you, Alexa. But on a serious note, I don't think you can give up, Hon."

I've been stropping around like a moody mare since returning home, preaching the fact, I'll never approach Liam or his terrifying men again. "What else can I do? I flunked miserably today, and he kept referring to me as a kid. How am I supposed to get a job as a sexy dancer if Liam doesn't see me as if I were a woman?"

She gave me a sad smile. "Okay, today didn't go as planned, so you'll go back and try again."

"I don't think it'll be that simple." After shampooing, I apply conditioner to my hair, fingers running through the ends. "I only want to find out what happened to my sister, but it's like slamming my head against a brick wall."

Claiming the loofah from my hands, she begins foaming her legs, studying the pink nail varnish on her toes.

Is it normal we're this close? She may as well jump into the bath with me.

"Maybe, he won't remember you the next time you approach him."

Highly unlikely. No sane person forgets the stunt I dramatised this morning.

"What if you don't achieve the answers you are looking for, Alexa? I mean, I know this secret investigator absurdity was my idea, but we need to consider that Kathy doesn't wish to be found. If that's the case—just hear me out. Are you going to continue scouring for the guy who abducted you?"

I am out of the bath within seconds, wrapping a towel around my body. "Don't ever say that shit to me again. I don't want to talk about it—Him. As far as I'm concerned, that fraction of my life is over. I'm moving on." My hand fastens on the towel. "Besides, it's Kathy's stupid revenge that got her in this mess, to begin with."

Chloe visibly paled. "You're right. My insensitiveness is showing again." She lifts her legs out of the water, half-heartedly drying them with a towel. "I'm such a shit friend tonight."

My stiff shoulders relaxed, and I immediately felt like shit. Chloe is not a bad friend. She's my best friend.

When Kathy initially sent me to high school, I'd struggled to adjust. Everybody knew who I was: the missing Haines sister. Teenagers cruelly stared at me like I was a sexually transmitted disease. Daily I'd discover notes in my locker saying, "I bet you miss daddy" and "you secretly loved it."

Making friends was literally impossible. I'd plead with Kathy to hire me a tutor, so I didn't need to attend school. She rebuffed, telling me not to be a "little bitch" and to start fighting back.

One lunch break, I'd made my way to the cafeteria, ordered some fries and a carton of orange juice, and took a seat at an empty table. I was used to eating by myself. I hadn't cared for friendships. I'd gone so long through my childhood with only myself to contend with that I'd become accustomed to lonesomeness.

A scrunched-up ball of paper hit my head as I sipped my juice, landing onto the table in front of me. I didn't pick it up and read the twisted words I'd instinctively known what it said; I ignored those unkind notes like I did every other day when someone hurled something hurtful at me. When I'd first enrolled there, I used to open them, but discerned my pained expression was providing fellow students sick entertainment.

"What are you eating?" Jessica asked, perching onto a chair opposite me. She was part of the popular crowd, and made it clear, on many occasions, she didn't like me.

"Fries," I said in a terse, warranted voice. She only settled here to torment me, so I had no intention of being kind to the girl.

"Don't you think you should be avoiding carbs." Her mocking sympathy peeved me. "Being chubby and all."

Female giggling chimed from the table to the right of me. They were Jess' friends. They sat back, amused by their friend, who made me squirm in my seat. "Why would I need to avoid carbs, Jess?" This girl is ludicrous. If anything, I am underweight. "Just because you carry heavy on the hips, doesn't mean I do, so don't be jealous that I can eat chips," I made a theatrical show of tossing three fries in my mouth, "and you can't."

Kathy would've been so impressed with me.

Jess' eyes enlarged, face turning purple with humiliation. "No need to show off, with how much you can fit into that mouth, Alexa." She pointed a finger in my face. "We already know that you're a pro with that gob."

Uncontrollable chortling echoed throughout the cafeteria. I'd never told anyone my past, but people are not stupid. They came up with their assumptions of what a sexual predator would do to a child. I couldn't believe she'd gotten a triumphant kick out of saying something so hurtful to me, though, it confirmed who was leaving vulgar notes inside my locker.

Why did I listen to Kathy? Fighting back caused me nothing but further distress. I never wanted to go back to school again. The entire room ricocheted with laughter, and it took all my strength not to burst into tears and show they'd accomplished upsetting me.

Twisting to the side, I grabbed my bag from off the floor and climbed to my feet, but before I cowardly ran, a blonde girl pushed in front of me like a frightening force to be reckoned with. "Why are you such a bitch, Jess? Don't you think Alexa has been through enough without you and your skanks," she motioned to the other table, "adding to it?"

Jess stood to confront the unknown girl, mouth dropping open. "Fuck you, Chloe. It's none of your business. So why don't you—"

Chloe unexpectedly slapped Jess across the face, the sharp clip silencing the entire cafeteria. "Well, I'm making it my business!" Horrified, Jess cupped her jaw. "If I find out that you're bullying Alexa, one more time," she stepped up to her, hands curling into fists, "you'll be catching more than a slap off me."

Surprised that somebody defended me, I blinked owlishly, star-struck.

Chloe seized my wrist, pulling me behind her, vacating the voiceless cafeteria. "Are you okay?" she asked, kneading my wrist with her thumb. "You're looking a little pale."

"Thank you," I said, adjusting my bag strap over my shoulder. "You didn't have to do that."

"I did." Her green eyes pierced mine. "I'm only sorry that I hadn't done it sooner."

"Well..." I cleared my throat and stepped away, ready to leave for my next lesson. "Thanks again."

Turning around, I walked for a few seconds when she called me, "Hey, Alexa?"

"Yeah?" I responded, glancing over my shoulder.

She closed the small gap between us. "Would you like to meet up tonight? We could rent a movie and order some food?" Her brows danced. "What do you say?"

"Why?" I asked guardedly, unsure why she'd want to spend time with me.

"You look as if you could use a friend," she breathed, genuinely compassionate by what I was going through. "I'd love to be that friend."

If I hadn't been so shocked, I would've cried. "I'd like that."

"Cool!" She beamed, clapping her hands. "It's a date."

After that day, I'd made a new friend. Her name was Chloe. I no longer dreaded life. From that moment in the cafeteria, I enjoyed getting up in the morning and attending high school. We'd meet at our halfway spot and talk for the entire journey, and we were lucky to participate in some lessons together. If we'd separated, it wouldn't be long before reuniting again for lunch or walking home.

Life had transformed for me. I didn't sit alone in class; I didn't eat alone at lunch. Chloe became a permanent part of my life. After everyone witnessed her confrontation with Jess, the spiteful notes ceased, and the wild whispering rumours ended.

Over the years, our friendship strengthened. Chloe confided in me that she didn't get along with her father and stepmother. Her birth mother passed away to cancer which meant she was in a place she felt unloved.

Chloe admitted one night that she envied me. I was able to come and go as I pleased and didn't have to abide by rules, whereas her father was remarkably strict and authoritative. He'd confiscate her phone if he weren't happy with her performance. Made her stay in for most nights and even disconnected her bedroom door from the hinges to keep an eye on her when she was grounded, which was more often than not.

I felt sorry for Chloe. My friend was miserable at home, frustrated and somewhat resentful that I lived with Kathy. My sister and I were like passing ships in the night, so I was practically living by myself, creating curfews and rules for the sake of it. Chloe would've given anything to have my lifestyle. She had a very shaky relationship with her father, convinced her stepmother only tolerated her for marriage purposes.

Chloe often turned up at my place in the early hours, asking if she could spend the night. She'd cry about her dreadful home life, and originally, I didn't understand why she hated living there so much, but I never shut her anger down. I guess when you've missed out on a loving family for so long, you'll take it in any way, shape and form just to belong. I'd give anything to have a father even if he was overbearing. Though I secretly craved what Chloe loathed, I never disputed her on how she truly felt or snubbed her despondency.

With Kathy forever at work, I liked that my friend came over to keep me company. It wasn't long before Chloe dwelled every night of the week.

At first, her father protested and turned up here, demanding to speak to my parents, in my case, guardian. He was further disgruntled that his daughter wasted so much time with another teenager—displeased to hear Kathy, still young herself, was supervising us.

I remember Kathy and Chloe's father arguing for over an hour on that doorstep. It was then that I learnt how volatile the man was. He spoke to my sister like she was dirt under his shoe, and she demonstrated great restraint by not landing him with a right hook—she was more than capable of losing her temper. Composed, she re-entered the flat and informed Chloe, who was still fifteen, she had no choice but to go home with her father.

Nevertheless, it wasn't long after the incident that Chloe reached the required age limit to move out. He could no longer control his daughter, so, on her sixteenth birthday, she appeared at my home with only a black sack filled with very few belongings, asking to live with me.

We have been inseparable ever since. Chloe and I are more than friends. We're sisters. Lately, though, our relationship is touch and go, and I'm taking full accountability.

As Chloe's the closest person to me, I do what everyone naturally does when backed into a corner: I wrongfully take my frustration out on her. Of all people, she doesn't deserve my harshness and coldness. "You're the best. You are like a sister to me. You know that, right?" I am an awful human. Today hasn't gone the way I'd mapped out inside my head, but it doesn't give me the right to chastise her for helping. "I'm having a bad day is all."

"Well, dropping that subject." Chloe smiled, letting my snappishness slide. "I don't think it's too late, Alexa. Come on." She motions for me to follow her into my bedroom. "I have an idea."

Keeping the towel securely around myself, I attempted sitting on the cuddle chair, but it's piled high with folded clean clothes. I stand instead, waiting patiently to find out what my mischievous friend is scheming.

"Let's get you ready, Hon. And wear this." She flung a black dress at me, or maybe even a shirt because there isn't enough material for it to be a bastard dress! "You and I are hitting the town tonight."

"Chloe, what the hell are you talking about? What happened to a Chinese takeaway, wine and a chick flick?" I am seriously in no mood to go out shaking my ass tonight. "And I am not wearing this." Tossing the dress onto the bed, I search through clothes, selecting comfortable sleepwear. "That flimsy thing you dared to call a dress wouldn't even cover my ass."

"Sexy and revealing is kinda the point." Plugging in straightening irons and a curling wand, she opened a makeup container, choosing blusher shades and lipsticks. "We are going out, Alexa." Pointing to the bed, she adds, "Now get comfy so I can work my magic."

"I don't want you to work your magic, Chloe." What I really fancied was stuffing my face with Chinese noodles. "Look, I appreciate that you're only trying to help, but I am in a horrendous, crabby mood—"

"You don't have a choice," she reprimands, pulling a skin-tight pink dress over her head, shimmying it down her body. "Hon, get your backside over here, so I can beautify you. We're about to go into stage two of your master plan."

I am confused. "There's a stage two?"

She grinned at me like a Cheshire cat. "There is now."


"I cannot believe I let you persuade me into wearing this. It's not even a dress." I pulled the hem down, but the moment I let go, it springs straight back up, barely covering my ass. "Well, at least I fit the profile of a stripper now."

Chloe rolled her eyes. "Listen, I know this isn't you, and you like to wear your boy pants."

"What boy pants?" I grimaced. "They're called leggings."

She clicked her fingers. "Back to the point, Alexa. For this to work, you must act the part. Starting with this cute little black dress." She blows me an air kiss, trotting ahead in her heels. "Let's see if Warren still looks at you as a child when he sees you in that bad boy!"

That drunken idiot couldn't have screamed that any louder. I slide bystanders a grim smile, envisioning all the ways I'd love to strangle my friend as I chased behind her.

Chloe dismisses the mile-long queue and the scowling customers sending bolts of lightning in our direction, strutting straight toward the bouncers guarding the Club 11 main doors. "Hey, Gav!" she sings, giving a little hip shake. "Fancy seeing you here."

Oh, she's acquainted with the deadpan looking security guy. They converse while his co-worker checks identification, permitting anxious customers indoors.

"Come on, Gav," Chloe pleaded in an unrecognisable voice. "Please don't make me stand in that long queue—pretty please?"

"I don't know, Chloe." Contemplating, Gavin crossed his beefy arms. "How many?"

"It's me," she yanked me to her side, "and her. See?" She wiggled her eyebrows. "No one will even notice us."

He swept his gaze over me to see if I fit the bill, dipping his head in approval. "Okay. This is the only time I'm doing it, sweetheart. Boss doesn't appreciate us letting in jumpers. You got that?"

"Absolutely," she assures. "And I promise to make it up to you."

"I'll hold you to it." He unclips the red rope, stepping aside to let us pass. "Enjoy ladies."

The second he's out of earshot, I whisper-shout, "I can't believe it worked, Chloe." I grip her hand, eagerly dragging her down the dark hallway. "You never cease to amaze me." I've no idea how she managed to pull off an unpaid entry, or how she knows that Gav. I don't care to ask. I'm impressed that she'd gotten us in without payment or wielding identification. Though legalised to drink alcohol, I heard Club 11 is strict on over twenty-one-year-olds. Technically, we shouldn't be in here.

"Hon, this club is above our pay grade. If Gavin weren't at the door, we'd have to sneak in around the back, and I didn't fancy running in these heels."

Reaching the end of the hallway, I pushed through the double doors and stopped mid-step. From outside, the bricked building and soundproof walls conceal the glorious enormity and vivacious appeal—a long-stretched bar surpasses the left side of the room with approximately fifteen people labouring tirelessly, adjoining the large dance floor occupied with feverish dancers. The DJ booth, elevated on a glass platform, complete with fog and strobe lights, fulfilling that nightclub experience. Tables and booths tucked to the sides and corners, neither barren.

Surprisingly, there are countless women, too, which I hadn't contemplated. Then again, I don't know what I'd expected. This is my first clubbing occurrence, but presumed, with it being a strip club, males would overpower it.

I walk passed the glass platforms, giving you perfect views of the exotic dancers, swinging on metal poles like weightless contortionists, some inside cages, wearing lace lingerie and glass stiletto heels, disrobing, enticing even myself to stand there and ogle those flawless breasts and floor-dropping movements.

"Shall we get a drink?" Chloe led me to the bar, sneakily slipping between customers for quick service. "May as well enjoy ourselves while we're here, right?"

Placing my bag onto the countertop, I tugged my dress down again, hating how out of place I feel.

"Hey, hot stuff!" Chloe hollered over the music, gaining the barman's attention. "Can we get some service?"

He's cute, brown tousled hair and eyes the colour of dark chocolate. "What can I get you, ladies?"

Chloe counted up loose change in her purse. "Can I get two bottled beers and four Sambucas?"

The guy wandered off to prepare our drinks, and Chloe handed me a lipstick. "Paint your lips, Hon."

I love the colour red. It's not often I wear a full face of makeup, though. Once I'm happy with my look, I go to hand it back. "Keep it," she says, giving me a flippant wave. "I know it's your favourite."

Without argument, I slipped it in my bag just as the barman returned with our drinks. "Enjoy!" he shouted over his shoulder, proceeding to serve customers.

"Oh, come to momma." Chloe put a shot glass in my hand. "Bottoms up, Hon."

I downed one, relishing the burn pouring down my throat. It tastes good, and it's the courage needed to go through with my plans tonight.

"Woo, that tasted good," Chloe shouts out as "You Want Me" by Tom Zanetti starts blaring through the room. "I love this song!" Before I could knock back another shot, she snagged my forearm, dragging me toward the dance floor. "I need to dance!"

No protests from me. My entire year has been all about my mission impossible—lacking any sense of normalcy and fun. Although tonight is about gaining Liam's attention, a good time doesn't damage the process.

Cavorting throngs obscured me from audiences. I never claimed to be good at dancing, but that doesn't mean I enjoy it less than professionals. I begin to sway my hips, my body flowing to the beat. Chloe stands in front of me, head and sleek hair whipping from side to side as she sings lyrics. It started well until a guy attached to my friend's behind, leaving me companionless.

Okay, lone-ranger. Closing my eyes, I forget that I'm dancing by myself and continue to sway to the beat. I lift my wild curls, letting air to the nape of my neck.

I can't describe how I feel right now as it sounds ridiculous, but I'm exhilarated, beyond happy, buzzed up for a good time. I guess, in some way, carefree, unbothered and unburdened.

A small smile teases my lips. I open my eyes, but as quickly, my jubilance plummets. On arrival, I hadn't spotted the private balconies encompassing the room. Furthermore, Liam's Suits conquer one of them. I recognise the blond, relaxing on a black leather chair, deep in conversation with another Suit, both watching a dancer kill it on the pole.

Vigilant, I stopped dancing, admiring the Suits, partying among themselves, some with gorgeous women on their laps, others drinking champagne and smoking cigars.

How the other half lives, I muse to myself.

I imagined what it'd be like to live the way they do, not worrying about bills and food or living on the rough side of town in a shoddy council flat.

What would I do If I were lucky enough to be part of that lifestyle? I guess changing properties is a dead cert. I'd upgrade my unflattering wardrobe and purchase new shoes.

Would I waste money on expensive attire or drink exquisite wines and champagne? That's an easy question to answer—yes.

Making a mental note, I decide to ask Chloe if she wants to rob a bank tomorrow.

I am still gazing when a familiar face walks onto the balcony. The air in the room shifts, oxygen leaving my lungs. Liam jerks his chin to the blond but doesn't join him. Instead, he casually leans onto the railing, a drink in hand, overseeing his successful enterprise.

The Suit with tattoos moves close to his boss, hand clasped to the balustrade, murmuring something in his ear.

I blurred out the Suit, eyes solely focusing on Liam. He's painfully gorgeous, hair styled to perfection, the top of his grey shirt unbuttoned, sporadic flashing lights highlighting his long chain.

Tattoo Suit continues murmuring, and Liam smirks over the rim of his glass, gaze settling on the crowd.

The guy next to him throws his head back in a fit of laughter, clapping his hands, amused by his joke.

A half-smile appeared on Liam's lips, and I sighed like a strange person, watching his mouth move as he responded, desiring to hear their conversation. I'm in complete awe of him, all-consumed and spellbound in a fascinating way.

"Wanna dance?" a random guy asked, settling his hand on my lower back.

My body stiffened from the quick contact. He's handsome, accepting distraction doesn't hurt. I nod, and he immediately wraps his arm around my waist, pulling my back to his chest, encouraging me to sway with him.

I force my coiled-up muscles to relax. He is not taking from me. He asked me.

Our bodies synchronised to the music, his roaming hands smoothing to my thighs. I shut my eyes, dropped my head to his chest, losing myself in his innocuous contact.

His mouth brushes behind my ear, gently nibbling on my lobe, trailing kisses to the side of my neck—I didn't like it. My eyes flutter open, and I dismiss what's going on behind me, too busy scanning for the club owner again.

Liam hasn't left his position on the balcony. Even though it looks as though he's still listening to the Suit, I can tell he's not paying attention. It's his narrowed eyes and the way his spine uncurls as he straightens his posture, shoulders squaring as if preparing for a fight. Those curious-looking eyes darkened, head slowly tilting to the side.

My eyes sliced back at him.

Why does it feel like he's watching me?

I glanced around, wondering if perhaps he's staring at someone else, but when Liam shakes his head, confirming unspoken reservations, my blood runs cold. "I'm sorry." I tapped the guy's hand, needing him to release me. "I have to leave."

He reluctantly lowered his hands. "Want me to come—"

"No, it's fine," I reply hastily. "I'm with a friend."

He's disappointed, but shrugs off my dismissiveness, walking away, more than likely prowling for the next chick he's banking on escorting home tonight.

I scramble through the crowd, head snapping in every direction, looking for Chloe. When I come unstuck, I head towards the bathroom, hoping she went for a toilet break.

In the dimmed corridor, I squeezed through intoxicated hordes of women, pushed the bathroom door open, poked my head inside. "Chloe?"

The few ladies sitting on the sinks look at me and then continue with their drunken gossiping.

I sighed in defeat, stood at the sinks, hit on the tap, filled my hands with cold water and cooled down my flushed skin. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I mentally ask myself why I'm here. I am supposed to be looking for Kathy and, as much as I want to find out what happened, am I confident I can handle gaining the attention of a man like Liam Warren? What if Chloe was right? Maybe Kathy left and didn't wish to be found. I am playing a dangerous game. Breathing in the same propinquity of that man is like a game of Russian roulette. Yet here I am, pretending to love myself, hoping he notices me.

I towel dry my hands before exiting the bathroom. I need to get the hell out of here. I'll find Chloe, tell her I'm done with this charade and hope to God my sister returns eventually and— "What the hell?" I shriek, a strong-arm snaking around my waist. "Get off me!" Lightning fast, the person hauled me into a dark room like I weighed virtually nothing, flinging my body into a wall.

My mouth snapped open, ready to scream for help, but when I saw a recognisable pair of blue eyes, I swallowed my fright. "Let me leave," I whisper, and Liam invades my personal space, positioning his hands on either side of my head. "Please."

"Do I know you?" he asked me the same question as before, thumb and forefinger claiming a strand of my hair.

"No," I breathe, hoping he doesn't notice my trembling body.

Strong chemical smells attacked my nose, confirming a cleaning cupboard. The thought had my heart rate doing double time. I don't want to be in this small space with an alleged serial killer.

Why has he dragged me here, anyway? This man is already suspicious of my motives, and I haven't even managed to land a job here yet.

As if reading my thoughts, his eyes jerked up, colliding with mine. Oh, God, don't look at me like that. What is it about him that has my stomach in knots? How am I going to pull off my master plan if I can't think clearly around him? Instead of worrying about what happened to my sister, I find myself distracted by merely looking at him.

His tongue gradually swept across his lower lip. "Have I met you before?"

I don't know why he's pretending he doesn't know me. He recognised me the moment our eyes locked in the main room, so why is he toying with me? Or perhaps he's not fucking with me. Maybe, I'm looking into every unnecessary detail when I shouldn't be. My perception of Liam Warren's based on anecdotal hearsay. How can I understand how he thinks and operates?

"Yes." I tried moving past him, but he grasped my elbow. "I'd like to leave."

His powerful form backed me up against the wall, tightening his hold on me. "What do you want?"

My sister.


Dear God, what is wrong with me?

"Nothing." I shrugged, wishing he'd take his hand back. "I'm out with friends."

A friend.

Did I mention I was a bit of a loner?

"The guy you were dancing with," he said in a hoarse voice, eyes blatantly dipping to my chest. "Is he your boyfriend?"

"I don't do 'boyfriends,'" I stated so matter-of-factly.

I stifled a whimper when he abruptly gripped my jaw, fingers agonisingly piercing my hollow cheeks. "What do you do?"

"Nothing that would appeal to you," I respond in a somewhat inviting voice that's unfathomable to my ears.

"How would you know what appeals to me," he mused, a touch suggestive, but I don't over-analyse his admiring eyes and strained voice. "You don't know me." His other hand slides around my thigh, goosebumps scattering over my flesh. "Remember?"

My chest rises unsteadily. "I need to leave."

"Why?" he asked, amused. His hand proceeds to glide across my skin, skimming over the curve of my ass cheek. "You came here tonight seeking something." His finger dips under the thin lace of my thong, and I swear I detected a low growl fall from those tight lips. "Perhaps, I can help you find it."

Though my heart is determined to break through my constricted chest, I am still astonished that him touching me like this has yet to startle me. I'm stunned while simultaneously intrigued. The sane part of my brain hopes he stops; however, the traitorous nymphomaniac who's invaded my rational thoughts, screams to let him persist. "I'm not like that."

"Like what?" He repositioned an arm above my head, hand dangerously hiking my dress, a goading challenge in those ice blues.

"I'm not the type of girl who fucks random men in cleaning cupboards," I word vomit.

He gave a short, caustic laugh. "Such a presumptuous affirmation."

I ignored him.

"In less than twenty-four hours, you have stumbled into me twice. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were following me." His heavy-lidded gaze dipped to my lips, the pads of his fingers furthering their investigatory strokes to the apex of my thigh. "So, it's a good fucking, you require?"

"Don't flatter yourself." I scoffed at the audacity. "I wouldn't fuck you with someone else's."

"Someone else's," he repeated, his thumb sweeping over my lips, smearing my lipstick. "That mouth could get you in trouble. Are you always this feisty?"

I'm quite the opposite. "Trust me. I am not feisty—feeble, rather." He paused his hand on my thigh, expression unreadable as he stared back at me. "Your assumptions regarding me are wrong."

His face lowers again, lips nearly meeting mine. "I'll be the judge of that," he rasps, and I am breathlessly anticipating his touch. He's close now—too close. I can smell his cologne, alcohol on his breath. "You're underage," he reminds me, and when he steps away, I instantly miss his nearness, the imminence of his passionate kiss. "You're nineteen. This is an over twenty-one."

How does he know how old I am?

"You and your friends need to leave." He turned his head, his jaw, granite. "Expeditiously."

Relieved and deflated, I slipped past him, shook the handle, pushing open the door. I hasten down the hallway, only to pause at the corner, glancing back.

Liam's left the cupboard open, but he's no longer there. I shouldn't feel this way; I don't even know him, yet I have a strong urge to go back and find him. "Get a grip, Alexa." Exiting the hall into the main dance room, I spend ten minutes searching for Chloe, locating her at the bar where she's eating a guy's face. "We need to leave," I interrupt their snogging session. "Pronto."

"Why?" She sneakily tilted her head toward her male friend. "I was having fun."

"I bumped into Liam," I murmur in her ear, putting my back to the guy. "He knows how old I am—told me to leave."

"Oh, shit," she mutters, grabbing her bag without second thoughts, following me outside. "I told you that dress would work."

"Yeah," I said, leaving out mind-boggling details. "I certainly gained his awareness." We stepped outside, and I waited for Chloe to say goodbye to the bouncer. "I am starving."

"I can eat." Falling into step beside me, we walk down the street, on the hunt for takeout. "So, how did he know you were underage? What did he say to you? We must go back there sometime, Hon. That place is awesome," she sings, nearly toppling over in those heels. "Shit. I am drunk. And that lad was so..."

I'm unable to process any more words.

All I can think about is what just happened, and why the hell I wanted it.

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