I stood behind the curtain, peering out the window, marking the familiar Mercedes nestled between trees across the street. I noticed it before climbing into bed last night, and I am almost ninety-nine percent sure it's the same vehicle from opposite Liam's apartment building Christmas morning.
The driver door opens, and I hold my breath, hoping to get a glimpse of the man. He's freakishly tall, wears washed-out jeans and an unbuttoned paisley shirt over his white wife-beater. For someone who owns such an expensive car, his attire choice is oddly contrasting. He fumbles with what looks like a phone, glimpses around the barren street. As predicted, his gaze boosted to my window. He can't see me behind the drapes, but I still staggered back, grappling the front of my T-shirt.
"Happy birthday!" Chloe sings, kicking my bedroom open. "Oh, you're awake. I was preparing to jump on you..." Her liveliness plummeted. "Hey, is everything okay? You're looking a little pale." Putting a hand to my forehead, she murmurs something about temperature. "Alexa?"
"I'm fine," I lied, tucking damp hair behind my ears. "I am hungry is all."
"Well, I plan to feed you," she chimes, slapping an envelope on my hand. "Happy birthday, Hon."
"Aw, Chloe. You didn't have to get me anything," I lied. I'd have killed her. "What is it?"
"Open it and find out."
I tear through the envelope, not entirely containing my excitement. My eyes grow wide: private box tickets to The Phantom of the Opera in Her Majesty's Theatre. "Oh, God, Chloe," I squealed, practically bouncing on the spot. "These must've cost you a fortune." I am ecstatic. I've never been to the theatre before. It's something Kathy always promised we'd do together. "You shouldn't have done this."
"Listen, Hon. You have hit your twenties. Tonight, we're going out in style, so dress to impress." Revealing a pink gift bag, she wiggles her hips. "Who knows? We might even get laid."
I don't think I am ready to fall into bed with another man just yet. "Who said I wanted to get laid?"
"It's a requirement," she begins her arguing speech. "Alexa, you need to move on. I think tonight is the perfect opportunity. Once we finish at the opera house, I suggest food, champagne and then a night on the town. And don't worry," she quickly regards my pallid profile, "we're not entering Club 11. I heard there are some rival companies nearby, so we'll check them out."
"I don't need sex to move on, Chloe. Besides," I sat on the bed, unravelled my gift, "I am over Liam Warren." She bought me a burgundy long-sleeve dip-hem dress, designed in luxurious satin feel fabric. "This is beautiful."
"And very you." She grinned, proud by assessment. "Let's get the prosecco open."
I frowned. "Isn't it a bit early?"
"Nope." She ventured the kitchen, and I followed. "It's never too early for faux champers." Seizing an unopened bottle from the fridge, she unpackages a four-pack of glass flutes, pours our drinks and adds strawberries. "To birthdays and sex."
I gently clink her glass. "You're incorrigible."
"I see two of everything," I snickered, clinging to Chloe's elbow as we descended the theatre steps. "Why did we get drunk before eating again?"
"Hon," Chloe snorts, "I have no idea, but that show was epic. And that complementary champagne tasted amazeballs."
"Yeah, everything was wonderful—"
"Okay, the show was phenomenal," I aided her ego, and she smiled pompously. "A dream—or a nightmare," I point, "depending on how you want to look at it. And I'll be reciting that glorious orchestra in my sleep."
With no sense of direction, Chloe dragged us down the street, turning and taking many corners. "It wasn't romantic, though," she said, pinching a defiant curl from her face. "More akin to that of an abusive relationship."
I shrugged a noncommittal shoulder. "I need to eat before hitting any clubs, Chloe." My stomach heard and grumbled for dramatic effect. "See? Starving."
"You're always hungry. What about that place?" She gestures to the long stretched restaurant, rudely positioning before the queue, scanning indoors through the expansive windows. "Oh, it looks heavenly."
"And extortionate," I enunciated, motioning to the high-priced menu. "Twenty three quid for ravioli. I don't even know if I like ravioli."
"Reservation?" A tall male suited elegantly in a black tuxedo gathers two leather-bound menus from the stand.
"Carpenter," Chloe blurts out, and I threw her a quizzical glare. "For two."
He checked the booking number, nodding. "Okay." Opening the door, he offered us inside. "Your table awaits."
I gripped the back of her dress. "What are you doing?" I hissed, shadowing her stiff strides to our stolen reservation. "Since when were we Carpenter's?"
"Since that's the first name I saw on his computer system," she mumbled so he didn't hear. "Just roll with it."
"My name is Will, and I am your waiter this evening." He pulled our chairs aside, and we became seated with fake elegance. "May I offer suggestions?" he asked chivalrously, passing the menus. "Pinot Noir from Le Musigny vineyard. It's a favourite with our chateaubriand steak. The Veramonte Reserva Chardonnay complements the grilled butter lobster."
I pass Chloe a concerned look. "Can you give us a moment, please?" I asked, and he dipped his head. I wait for him to retract then try and kick her beneath the table. "Are you insane? Chateaubriand steak," I mocked, closing the menu. "We cannot afford this bill. Have you seen their starter prices? Fourteen pounds for six scallops."
Chloe laughed, emptying her purse onto the white silk tablecloth. "We'll be fine." She counts pound coins, adding them to the compartment note stash. "We only live once, right? And it's your birthday, Alexa."
"Are you ready to order, ladies?" Will looms beside me, impatiently tapping his parker pen against the notepad. "Did you select wine preference?"
I stumbled with the wine menu, reversed the upside-down pricelist. "You know what? I am not that thirsty, so I'll take tap water."
"I don't think so." Chloe snatched the leather-bound from me, eyes twitching at the soaring price list. "Yeah, I think I'll order water, too."
"San Pellegrino is on offer," he explains, removing the menu from Chloe. "We don't offer tap water."
"Fine," I relinquished, dabbing sweat from my brow. "And I am not overly hungry, so I'll order the salt and pepper calamari."
"I'll have the roasted fennel," said Chloe, on board with my frugal spending. "Thank you, Will." He leaves the tableside. "Do you even like calamari?"
"I don't know, but it was the cheapest dish," I retort, and she giggles. "What sane person spends sixty-three pound on garlic chicken? It's fucking stupid." At my rude statement, the guy dining with his wife to my right, cocked his head, seasoned chicken piece dangling on his fork. "I mean, what insane person doesn't like..."
"Alexa," Chloe sighed, "please be quiet."
"Yeah." I twisted in my seat, putting my back to their emitting disapproval and haughty judgements. "I am going to shut up now."
I sat back and admired the room: mullioned windows, floor-length embroidered curtains, dark walnut tables sheathed in fine silk, polished silverware and crystal chandeliers. Near the elongated bar, delicate piano music sounded from the aloft speakers, striking black floors and glass balconies above, segregating private parties and dinner guests.
Will reappeared with the bottled water, eliminated our wine glasses to pour effervesces into tall tumblers. "Enjoy."
I sipped in quiet imperturbability.
Chloe thanked the chef who set our starters onto the table, and I scrapple calamari, chewing and forking colourful garnish across my plate.
"Hon, I know it's your birthday, but I had the best birthday ever," she shouts piercingly, prompting heads to swing around and scowl at us.
"Well, I'm glad you had the best birthday," I shout in return, inspired to throw my middle finger to the brunette, turning her nose up at us. "It's been my favourite, too."
"Hell, yeah." She wiped her mouth with a napkin. "To birthdays and dick."
"Chloe," I chastise, choking on my food. "Where is your filter?" I drank down water, dislodging the lump in my windpipe. "And what is your obsession with dicks?"
"Fuck them, Hon. I don't care what these people think of me. And how could you not fixate on a dick?"
I daren't look around. I watch Chloe chew an asparagus stick, an odd query sitting on the tip on my tongue. "Chloe?" I set my fork onto the plate edge. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
She nods, reaching for her water glass.
"Who have you slept with?" Not too sure why it's never occurred before. Chloe discusses sex and the male manhood, but she's never given me any juicy gossip regarding those said men. "I don't mean to pry it's just odd that you haven't mentioned names and stuff."
"What?" Chloe snorts, cheeks speckled pink. "What type of question is that?"
Is it wrong of me to wrestle details? Chloe pries religiously, wanting to know how Liam kissed. Was he rough in bed? Was he attentive? How many orgasms did I receive?
"A serious question," I said warily. "We both know my history, yet you never share your sex life with me."
"Hon, I'm a private whore," she fires back, seemingly irritated by my meddlesomeness. "Trust me. Dick. Is. Life."
This place is too extravagant to be dealing with Chloe's gob. "Are you still seeing that Harold Stone?"
"No," she huffed, folding her arms. "Nothing's happened since the night I met him at my father's place."
The unfortunate news knotted my stomach. I am so wrapped up in my quandaries that I hadn't concerned myself with Chloe recently. "I'm sorry, Chloe." I'm the world's worst friend. "I should've known that."
"Hey, don't be upset, Alexa." She reaches across the table and gives my hand a reassuring squeeze. "I'm fine. I don't care if Harold isn't interested in more. I'm moving on to the next dick—"
"Ma'am, I'm afraid you both need to leave." Will's stentorian voice shrills through our conversation. "You are inebriated and upsetting customers with unruly profanities and impoliteness."
I don't even put up a fight as I know he's right.
"What? You're serving wine, right? And I'm a paying adult that likes to drink wine." Chloe melodramatically downs her drink, ignoring bubbled liquid trickling down her chin. "And I'm a paying customer who's only halfway through her food." Plucking up the half-eaten asparagus, she chews the roasted end, teeth crunching. "Why the hell should we leave? You're ruining the birthday!"
Heat rises to my cheeks, discomfiture glueing me to the chair. "I'm sorry—"
"Don't apologise to that stuck-up suit." Chloe pinned me with a menacing glower. "It's your birthday."
A nervous laugh fell from my lips.
"Ma'am. You need to shut up." Will directs his frustration at me. "And get out."
"William," a familiar, rough voice said, and I withered into a protective shell. "Is that any way to address my customers?"
Chloe sits taller in her seat, slack-jawed and wordless.
"Mr Warren, these two ladies are upsetting customers—and the filth."He indicated to my friend. "It is atrocious."
"Perhaps you didn't hear me correctly," Liam's hand unexpectedly curled around my shoulder somewhat protectively.
Will studied the confusing gesture, puzzlement flickering in his eyes. "I apologise, Mr Warren. I wasn't aware that the Carpenters' were special guests."
Liam's fingers twitched, and I just wanted to die. "I am offended," he said, thumb absently kneading my skin. "I want them relocated upstairs to finish their interrupted service. I then want you to cover their bill and offer a palatable menu—"
"That's not necessary," I whispered, and his hand tightened, silently cautioning me to remain silent.
Liam moves, but not before dragging his fingers down my spine. He put himself to Will, shoulder-to-shoulder, hands slipping Into his trouser pockets as he dipped his head to the man's ear. "You do not raise your voice to this woman again, or I'll kill you," he threatened quietly through gritted teeth. "Have I made myself abundantly fucking clear?"
Humiliated, Will stiffly nods his head. "Yes, Mr Warren. Ladies if you'll follow me."
Liam forcefully shouldered past him without a backwards glance, rounding the bar to enter a private hallway. While Will motivated us to stand, I fused to the seat, confounded by indeterminacy and ambivalence. Yes, I partly appreciate Liam's generosity and defensiveness, but he walked away as if I never existed. He never conversed or asked questions—never looked at me. He didn't look at me.
I stood on restless legs, nausea and melancholy waving through me. Deafness camouflaged conversationalists and curious gourmands. My hand fell to the table, fingers twisting the cloth, blood roaring in my ears.
"Alexa," Chloe whispers, hand on my lower back, "I think we should go."
"I'll be right back," I said, paying no heed to Chloe's protest as I marched to the private door.
A Suit appeared from nowhere, holding out a hand.
"If you even think about stopping me from seeing that man, I will cause such a fuss," I spat, and he muted his earpiece. "I mean it, Suit. Do I look like a woman to be messed with right now? I am seconds away from wreaking havoc, and I promise you, not even Liam Warren has the power to control my fucking motormouth! Open the door and let me see him. Now."
Complacent Suit clicks his earpiece once more, repeating my lambasting to his boss. "No," he said, and a red veil screens my eyes. "Boss doesn't want to see you, Alexa."
Tears claimed my eyes. "Is that your order or his?"
The smug Suit jerked a dismissive shoulder, unmoved by my dejection.
"You know what? Tell that coward to go and fuck himself." I forced my feet to move, returned to Chloe's side, snagged my clutch bag from the table and emptied cash onto the dinner setting.
"Ma'am, I must cover that—"
"Go to hell, William." I numbly floated outside, cold winds blowing across my face as I stared at the night sky, refusing to cry for that asshole.
"Alexa." Chloe chased me down, heels alternately clicking against the footpath. "I am so sorry, Hon. I didn't know he owned that place."
"It's not your fault," I gently brushed her off, rounding the street corner, relieved to be away from that place. I recall Josh mentioned Liam owned a restaurant, but I never paid much interest. "I feel so stupid," I muttered, pushing my back to the wall, inhaling a train of calming breaths. "Why bother defending me? He clearly doesn't give a shit."
"Maybe we should go home," she suggests, handling her handbag. "Unless you want to go somewhere else?"
Across the road, parked on the curbside, I see a black Mercedes. I stood taller, tugging down my dress hem, unease sprouting goosebumps to my skin. The passenger side window cracked ajar, but again, I couldn't visualise the person I knew stared back at me.
"What do you say?"
"Hmm?" I mumbled, eyes never veering from the merc. "What was the question?" The vehicle vibrated to life, though, it didn't drive along. "I'll be right back."
Chloe watched me saunter across the street. "Where are you going?"
I gravitated to the mysterious car, rage simmering inside my veins. "Hey, asshole," I shouted, and the door crept open. "Do you want to tell me why you're following me?" Blond hair reared as he stood, and I quickly noted there wasn't a driver behind the wheel. "Everywhere I go, I see your ugly mug. Do I need to call the police? Do I need to file a restraining order?" I stopped in front of him. "You stalking me, freak?"
He rested against the car, legs crossing at the ankles. Those molten grey eyes disrobed me, and I felt a sickening twist in my gut. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said in a thick indecipherable accent. "I have never seen you before in my life."
"Alexa," Chloe scolds, seizing my elbow, "what's wrong with you?"
"No, it's not in my head," I accused, and he gave me a low, lopsided smirk. "You're always there. Everywhere I go, I see your car—"
"And you call me the stalker," he interjects patronisingly, popping a cigarette between his lips. "I am a delivery driver. Of course, my vehicle roams London."
I didn't believe him.
"By all means." He opened the door and reached for my arm. "Come and join me. Although I must warn you, I like a woman who fights."
"Don't touch me," I shout, slapping away his advances. "I am not going anywhere with you."
"You're quite the..." His lusting gaze passed over my head, and I knew He was there because I felt him. "Warren."
I heard the click of a gun. "Arben," Liam drawls, hand claiming my hip, dragging my back to his chest. "I've been looking for you." His arm extends over my shoulder. The fireman firmly gripped in his hand. "You Albanian's tend to hide from me."
Arben breathed smoke through his nostrils. "I mean no harm." His gaze held mine, something sickly and promising in those soulless hues. "Alexa—"
Gunfire pierced my ears before the bullet speared through Arben's chest, shattering the window behind him. He yelled a recollective language, body slumping to the ground on a strangled groan.
I instinctively spun around in Liam's arms, clinging to his shirt as he fired orders to his men. His heartbeat matched mine. I knew his franticness wasn't due to fear, adrenaline rather.
"Alexa," Liam whispered in my ear, but I clamped up, breaths coming in heavy. "Breathe." I nodded against his chest, feeling his lips on my temple. "It's done."
I heard movement behind me, Brad's voice, Nate's chortle, car doors slamming.
"Drive them home," Liam orders, prying my hands off him. "Alexa?"
I held him tighter. "I miss you," I admit, and he recoiled. "I hate feeling this way, but I can't help it."
A long pause stretched between us. Liam steered me away from the others, settling my back to a wall. "Look at me."
I stubbornly kept my head down.
His finger elevated my chin, coercing me to meet his gaze. I stared up at him, devastated by his beautiful features. His blue eyes, slightly brighter under the street lights, penetrated me, so intense, so breath-taking. "Know your worth," he repeated the same words from the coffee shop that Friday. "I am a warm-blooded male, Alexa. To me, you're beautiful, irresistible, tempting." He curled hair behind my ear. "If you ask me to drive you somewhere and fuck you right now? I'd do it. And not as an obligation. I'd take you because I want to." His lips twisted into a grim line. "But you don't deserve to be used by a man like me."
It's not what I wanted to hear. "Why did you send me money?"
He chooses not to respond.
"Why did you shoot that guy for me?"
Again, Liam chooses not to explain himself.
"I hate you," I lied, shoving two hands in his chest. "I hate you, Liam!" His jaw locked, eyes narrowing in disdain. "I fucking hate you!"
A fire blazed in those determined eyes. "You wish you fucking hated me." He snatched my head between two hands, smashed his mouth to mine, bruising my lips with an all-consuming kiss. His body pressed up to my chest, tongue seeking entrance to my mouth, lazily stroking inside.
Like the fool that I am, I dropped my clutch to the floor, tangled my fingers through his hair, drawing him to me. His lips moved more urgently, and I kissed him back with abandon, body melting in his arms, needing him to claim me.
"Fuck," he groaned, ripping his swollen mouth from mine, resting his forehead to my shoulder. "Alexa, you're fucking with my head." He lifted his eyes, wiping his thumb across his lips. "You're a weakness," he said under his breath, stepping away from me. "Stay the fuck away from me."
This time, as he walked away, I didn't fight or follow. I squatted to collect scattered cosmetics from the ground and joined Chloe and Brad near his Bentley. "Sorry." I offered them an apologetic smile. "Come on, Chloe. Where's this club you were talking about?"
Her fair brows shot up to her hairline. "You still want to party?"
Brad glanced toward the other Bentleys, searching for Liam. "He won't like it, Alexa." He unlocked the car door. "Make my life easier and get in the car."
"Fine." Much to my chagrin, I fell onto the backseats beside Chloe. "But I am stopping to get food. That stupid restaurant was unsatisfactory."
"You didn't like the steak?" Brad fired the engine, tires shrieking as he slammed on the accelerator. "What about the prawns?"
I don't tell him it was above our price range. "I prefer beef noodles." Only when Brad steered past, did the other Bentleys hum to life, dispersing in the opposite direction. "Can I ask you something, Brad?"
He turned the steering wheel with one hand. "Not if it's concerning Bossman."
"Did he care?" I asked, and Chloe's fingers crushed mine, impelling me to stay stumped. "Even a little bit."
Brad's amber coloured eyes sought mine in the rearview mirror. "If only you knew, Alexa."
"Incoherent." I huffed, sinking back against the cold leather. "Why are you guys so evasive when asked a direct question?"
"I'm amazing like that." He winked, turning on the radio. "Now stop talking or I'm not getting those noodles."
I didn't want noodles. I wanted to wrap myself in Liam's arms and forget the world.