REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Alexa

I am hungover.

I can feel my brain shaking.

I have a headache.

"Next," I croaked, barely keeping my eyes open, empty coffee cup and pen in hand. "Welcome to the Coffee House. What can I get you this morning?"

"Alexa," Gray murmurs in my ear, hand to my shoulder. "It's two in the afternoon."

Through bloodshot eyes, I stared at the customer with a temporary deadpan glint. "Welcome to the Coffee House. What can I get you this evening?"

"Espresso," she said, eyes darting between Gray and me. "Maybe you need one, too."

I gave her a toothy smile. "I think I'm still drunk—"

"Alexa," Gray scolds, snatching the goods from my hands. "Go to my office and swallow some paracetamol. You're making me tired."

I obeyed.

Inside Grayson's office, I rest on his tattered leather chair, drawing the apron skirt over my face.

Last night I returned home with Chloe and ingested inexpensive vodka until sunrise. Senseless intoxication was obligatory after the serendipitous encounter with Liam Warren.

I am miserable.

I am heartbroken.

I am ridiculous for caring.

The-heart-wants-what-the-heart-wants-and-that-is-him.

"Alexa." Gray unveils my face, looming over me, concern in his sliced eyes. "Are you crying?"

"No." I took umbrage at his assessment. "I just have a sore head."

He parked his backside onto the desk, fingers weaving together. "They won't tell you fairy tales of how girls can be dangerous and still win. They will only tell you stories where girls are sweet and kind and reject all sin. I guess to them it's a terrifying thought, a red riding hood who knew exactly what she was doing when she invited the wild in."

I blinked at him. "That's quite philosophical."

"Nikita Gill," he confirmed, scratching his chin. "I'm a self-proclaimed logophile." His worried eyes lingered on my face. "Who was he?"

"Aren't you perspicacious?" It isn't a question, a statement, rather.

He beamed. "Ever so."

I lowered my feet to the floor, ruffling the messy knot on my head. "Are you familiar with the name Liam Warren?"

His face turned three shades of pallid grey. "Why?"

The panic-stricken undercurrent in his voice was alarming. "It doesn't matter—"

"Alexa." Gripping my wrist, he leans closer. "Are you in trouble? You need to stay far away from that man, girl. He's not somebody you should be aligning yourself with."

Solicitous possessiveness ignited me. "Do you know him personally, Gray?"

"I don't need to know Warren personally," he retorts, forehead furrowing. "Everybody knows what that corrupt prick is all about."

"Defaming someone based on falsehood and rumours is wrong, Grayson." I stood then, peeved by his judgments. "Liam might have a depraved reputation, but you don't know him the same way I do. He's more than nefarious speculation and unfounded hearsay. Your opinion of him might be apocryphal to many; however, your unsubstantiated argument is unsolicited and offensive—"

"Why are you defending him?" he asked, looking at me in a darker light. "Oh, I get it. He's the guy who broke your heart, huh?"

I pulled an ugly face. "Nobody broke my heart—"

"You wear your pain on your sleeve," he said affirmatively, folding his arms at his chest. "Warren's not worth it, Alexa. You're worth more than some depraved criminal."

"I..." I know he's only trying to defend me—be a friend and offer unwanted yet friendly advice. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."

His curious gaze withstands for a minute. "Fine." Opening the desk drawer, he pulled out bottled water, passed it to me. "Get some H2o down you and help the new guy out front. I never thought I'd say this, but that man is possibly the clumsiest employee to date."

"Which man?" I asked, exiting his office. "And who else are you referring to? Me?"

"You were the gawkiest before he came along." He winked, dishevelling my hair. "Jace stayed on until three o'clock this morning to learn fundamentals. He drops more than he pours."

I came to an abrupt stop, the colour draining from my body. "Did you say his name was Jace?"

"Yeah." Gray nods, pointing to the cash register. "He came back last night, asked if I was interested in hiring new staff. I'm not stumped for employees, but I couldn't say no. It's his eyes." He groans, puckering his lips. "They kill me."

Wearing all-black attire, fitted T-shirt, ripped jeans and heavy-duty boots, Jace, tightening the apron knot behind his back, playfully barters with a bodacious female customer, winning her over with his flirtatious smile and effortless magnetism.

"Help him finish up," Gray orders, tossing a rag cloth and cleaning spray in my idle hands. "Then show him how to arrange the floor, ready for the morning."

I need to die.

"Mmhmm," I mumbled, unable to blink, breathe, think. "Yeah, I am not the best candidate for this—"

"Why not?" He unlocks the till, adding pound coins.

I sneakily eyed the glorious man over Gray's shoulder. "He's intimidating."

"You boned Warren," he rudely chirped, and my mouth slackened. "Don't be telling me anything scares you after than monstrosity."

I wanted to kick him. "Fine," I spewed through clenched teeth. "I'll help the dude."

Jace sensed my advance before I stumbled at his side. "Alexa," he said, smiling fondly. "I assumed it was your day off."

"I took a little break," I explained, worrying my bottom lip. "So, you needed a job?" I don't know where the inquisition came from; call me curious. "You didn't mention that last night."

"Why would I?" He scowled, dusting off his hands. "You're not the manager—and we're not friends."

He highlights a valid point. "Gray said for us to clear the floor." I passed him an extra spray, rounding the countertop. "It's pretty simple. I prefer busing tables than making coffee."

Over the next three hours, Jace helped me organise the floor, arranging and clearing tables, spraying laminate menus and arguing over music preference. In actuality, Jace is an incredibly nice guy. His playfulness and cheeky banter made me bypass recent predicaments, and it helped he was easy on the eye.

The Coffee House closed at eight p.m., and Gray locked up, chewing our ears off as we strode down the street. When Gray reached his apartment building, Jace offered to walk me home, but, as much as I liked my new co-worker, I wasn't sure I trusted him enough to uncover my tenanted-building. "I'm good," I said, lingering outside the London Underground.

Jace put his back to the wall, propping one foot behind him. "I don't bite, Alexa."

Heat soared to my cheeks. "Your suggestiveness says otherwise."

He dragged the titanium barbell between his teeth. "Fine." Ebbing away from me, he jerked his chin toward the tube station. "Get home safe. I'll see you tomorrow."

I thought about him the entire journey home.

***

Loud clattering urged my tired eyes to creep open. Shrouded by all-encompassing darkness, I laid face down on the bed, listening to distant conversations and heavy footsteps.

I rolled onto my back, rubbing sleep from my eyes. "Chloe?" When she doesn't respond, I drag my legs over the mattress, feet sinking into the carpet, legs scarcely carrying me to the hallway. "Are you awake?" I knocked on her bedroom door before peering into the room. Her bed was immaculate, not a crease on the coverlet. Strewn cosmetics, copious shoes and discarded clothes indicated she'd glamorised for a night out, though. Perhaps she brought someone back with her.

I walked to the living room, expecting to see her drinking alcohol with a guy she might've picked up at a bar, but again, nothing but eerie darkness—the front door thumped, and I jerked, back slamming into the wall. "Chloe?" I called quietly, eyes zeroing down the hallway. "Is that you?"

Nothing.

Blowing out a calming breath, I pattered across the carpet and stared through the peephole.

Am I going to be one of those girls in the movies that decides it's a good idea to open the door and find Sweeney Todd on the other side?

Hands shaking, I turned the key, removed the chain and glimpsed into the all-concrete foyer, heart wedged in my throat. I shut the front door, relock it, but only achieved three steps when it happened again.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

My body freezes on the spot, blood running cold. I am going to be one of those girls in the movies because there is one hundred percent a psychotic killer on the beyond that door.

I rushed into the kitchen, rummaged through the cutlery drawer and selected a steak knife. I hold it tightly, fingers twitching on the wooden handle. I'd like to believe I am capable of using a weapon, but as I return to the door, licking sweaty salt from my lips, I drown myself with defeatism.

"Hello?" Once more, I creaked the door open and peered into the empty foyer.

What the hell? Maybe those teens decided to play rat-a-tat-ginger on my door due to boredom, or so I foolishly assumed, until I spotted the parcel positioned on the floor.

I grabbed the box, shut the front door, double-checked the locks and hid inside my bedroom.

Leaning over the bed, I turn on the bedside lamp, cross my arms and study the mystifying object. I pick it up and wiggle, listening for moving objects. My inquisitiveness overrules unease. I tear through the tape, turn the box upside down and find a white envelope inside.

Tapping the seal with my fingernails, I checked to see if there was an addressee first, and then polaroid prints fell onto my palm. I overturned, gazed at the naked little girl, cowering in a corner, knees hiked to her chest, hair curtaining those dead eyes.

My initial reservations were replaced with a gut-wrenching combination of nausea, devastation and anger. "Why?" I whispered into nothingness, examining image after image, pornographic keepsakes that belonged to a monster.

The final shot brought tears to my eyes. I stare back at my younger self, merely eight years old, pleasuring a man in ways I hate to admit and relive.

Chucking everything aside, I stumbled off the bed, hand clasped to my mouth as I dash to the bathroom. My knees hit the floor in time for me to empty my stomach, body heaving forward, sobbing through violent vomiting intervals.

I turn on the cold tap, cup water in my hands, douse my neck and face. In the mirror, I study my reflection, the sadness in my eyes evoking unpleasant memories.

I don't cry anymore.

He doesn't care; nobody does.

Why did mummy forget about me?

Did my father love me?

No, daddy was never around.

Mummy was bleeding.

Why did Monster lie?

Mummy didn't wake up—she wasn't dreaming.

Red. Everything was red.

I am alone.

Always alone.

Nobody wants me.

Nobody loves me.

Everybody forgot about me.

No, my mother loved me.

I know she loved me.

Why hasn't she saved me?

Mummy wanted to save me.

Mummy died.

Red. She was red.

I remember when I found her.

I thought she was asleep.

I believed she was going to wake up.

I held on to the concept that she'd follow me.

I didn't get to say goodbye.

If I could have that moment again, I'd say goodbye.

I'd tell her I loved her and that I'm sorry she had to leave us.

I'd whisper a million promises in her ear.

I'd hold her hand and beg her to stay.

I stare at the woodlice crawling past my bare feet, wondering where he plans to venture. I imagine he'll find a way outside of these four walls to locate summer. That's what I often envision. If I were able to leave this place, I'd run my hands through grass spears, feeling the warmth on my face, pick flowers, inhale their sweet fragrance and follow the sun.

This insufferable experience was bearable when I had Kathy. Sure, we didn't sleep in the same room, and our visits were far and few, but those minutes together were treasured.

I don't see Kathy anymore.

Kathy doesn't visit.

Kathy doesn't whisper in my ear.

Kathy stopped singing.

Kathy didn't care.

I shook my head vigorously, refusing to believe that my sister was gone.

"Are we friends, Kathy?" I used to ask, following her into the woodland, twigs snapping under our weight.

"We're sisters silly," she'd tease, dodging nestled boulders. "We're more than friends."

"Does that mean you love me?"

Kathy found my hand, lacing our fingers together. "Always."

"Forever and ever?"

She kissed my cheek. "Forever and ever."

A tear fell down my cheek.

My sister forgot about me.

My sister broke her promise.

"Unë të dua," Monster hums, stroking my hair. "Lexi?"

I bury my face on the cold floor, pretending he can't see me.

"A me do ti, Lexi?" he asked, dragging a brush through my matted stands. "I asked you a question." Lifting my hair to his nose, he inhales, groaning his approval.

"I don't understand you," I whine, blinking tears from my weary eyes. "I don't know what you're saying."

I hate his touch.

I hate his scent.

I hate him.

"It means I love you, Lexi," he breathes in my ear, hand roaming my body. "Do you love me?"

"I know my name is Alexa," I whispered, smiling at the woodlice burrowing beneath the skirting board. "My mummy named me Alexa."

"No," he admonished, fingers digging into my hip. "Your name is Lexi. And we don't talk about that woman."

"My mummy loves me."

"Your mother fucking hated you. It's me who loves you."

"She loves me," I screamed, bolting upright, hands to my ears. "You don't love me! You hurt me! You always hurt me!"

"I'm sorry, Lexi." His dark, evil eyes bore into mine. "It's unfair that I keep you here, but I can't lose you. When you're older, we can do this correctly. I'll let you out, and we'll be happy together."

I closed my eyes.

His hand touched my face.

"I don't love you; I love my mummy; I want to go home; I'll never love you; I hate you," I cried, his wandering touch burning me up inside. "Please let me be free."

His face turned the darkest speck of red. "Lexi, you're not to scream at me. You know I don't like it." He backhanded me, the pain vibrated my cheek, spurted dark spots behind my eyes. "You will never learn, Lexi. How many times must I punish you?"

"It hurts," I sobbed, holding my jaw. "Somewhere over the rainbow—"

"I try hard with you, little one, but you make it difficult for me." He wrapped my hair around his fist, yanking my body to the basement steps. "How many times have I asked you not to sing that fucking song? You do it anyway. Don't raise your voice, Lexi. Yet you still yell at me."

Another sharp pain belted across my face. "Please," I whimper, legs thrashing against the steps. "I want to die." Death would be my only solace—my freedom, a chance to unclip my wings and fly. "I just want to die."

"Now I am going to take you to my bedroom. I want to capture some pictures today, Lexi. Can you do that for me? Be a good girl and listen to daddy."

"No. I don't want to go. I'll be good," I begged, fingernails clawing his forearm. "I promise. I won't sing anymore. I promise—I never break my promise."

He dragged me down the hallway.

He unlocked the bedroom door.

He bolted it behind him.

He tore through my clothes.

He flung me on the bed.

I curled into a ball.

I laid bare for him.

I felt sick—always sick.

I cried. I wish I didn't cry.

"Good girl."

He removed his clothes.

His belt buckle hit the floor.

His boots followed.

"Please don't hurt me," I pleaded, a mixture of salt and blood on my tongue. "I don't want to hurt anymore."

"You're older now, Lexi. I think you're ready." Monster's a big man. He's overweight, never shaves, smells like stale cigarettes and cheap beer.

He reveals himself to me, and I shut my eyes, listening to his husky grunts as he pleasures himself.

I know it's wrong.

Him touching me is wrong.

Him forcing me to touch him is wrong.

"Are you ready?"

I swallowed scorching bile down my throat. I can't believe this day has come. He's talked me through it on many occasions—that it'll be him claiming my virtue.

For a long time, I didn't know what that meant until he sat me down and explained what would happen between us.

I'm terrified. I've dreaded this moment ever since.

He's strived in the past but was unsuccessful. I don't know why. I passed out on both attempts.

It's my fault, he'd said.

You're undeveloped, he'd told me.

I prayed and hoped until realising there was no such thing.

Flash. Flash. Flash.

I blinked rapidly from sporadic lights as he captured photos of me.

I leant over and retched, dry heaving against the mattress.

He slapped me, the harsh sting rippling through my backside. "Well, that's disappointing, Lexi. I wanted to watch your face when I fucked you, but I can't be inhaling all that vomit on your breath, now, can I?"

My shoulders sagged in relief.

You should never believe in hope.

He pinned my face to the stained sheets.

His body rested atop mine.

He doesn't hold back.

He forces himself inside me just as the tears drop from my eyes.

I gasped at the invasion.

I feel everything.

The pain.

The burning.

The force.

The roughness.

I feel dirty.

I feel disgusting.

I want to be free.

I want to die.

And then I see the creation on the wall.

He kept my painting.

I smile to myself, ignoring his force and grunts.

I allowed myself to see her.

"Alexa," Mother called from the garden, adding washing to the line. "I hope you're not down that hill."

How does she know?

"I never did it, mummy," I lied, separating two flowing sheets to look at her. "I don't know what you're talking about."

My mother smiled at me, her lustrous hair blowing in the wind. "You didn't visit the forest."

There was an accusation in her calm tone. "I don't know."

She squats in front of me, slipping hair behind my ears. "Are you sad?"

"I don't want you to be mad at me."

"Why would I be mad?"

"Because I didn't listen to you."

"Baby," she whispers, lifting her sunglasses atop her head. "Do you know why mummy tells you to stay close where she can see you?"

I pucker my lips, shaking my head.

"So that I can protect you," she said, kissing my forehead. "How can I look after my little girl if she's always hiding from me?" She suddenly tickled me, laughing at how much I laughed.

"Mummy!" I giggled, wriggling in her arms. "I can't breathe."

She held me to her chest, and we watched the birds fly. "I love you, baby."

My mother found me.

I can forget about him for a moment.

I can run in the garden.

I can sing with her.

I lost myself in my memory.

I lost myself in my happiness.

He finished with a growl in my ear, tensing on top of me.

He didn't wait around.

He clambered off the bed.

I heard him scuffling around his room.

I heard the camera flash.

I didn't move.

I didn't look away.

Every time he brought me back, I went home to my mother.

I stare at my reflection and watch the single tear slide down my cheek.

"Impossible." No matter how hard I try to move on, he will forever haunt me.

You can't forget when someone steals your innocence. It's ingrained, tarnishing your body, mind and soul, a gruesome reminder that, although you survived, you'll never outlive what happened to you.

You can take a shower and wash it away.

You can swallow medication and fall asleep.

You can smile before others and pretend.

But you can't erase or evade the demons inside your head.

I removed the bobble from my hair.

I eliminated my clothes.

I filled the bath with warm water.

I laid back and watched the tap flow.

I shut my eyes and sank beneath the surface.

That Monster can't have me anymore.

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