REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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"You see, Arben, I can do this all night." I dragged on the cigarette, respired smoke over his battered and bruised face. "I am not going anywhere."

Previously, Nate extracted the bullet from Arben's chest, staunch the bleeding and then roughed him up some. I tilt my illusory hat to the Albanian. No matter what methodical torture methods he suffers, he rebuffs ratting on his boss.

The hunt for Flamur Bajramovic is becoming taxing. Their thirst for Alexa Haines is gruesomely infuriating.

"You're running out of lifelines," I warned, removing my suit jacket, rolling up my shirt sleeves. "And for what? You think that boss of yours gives a flying fuck?" I hold out my palm, and Nate hands me an axe. "You think Bajramovic is losing sleep?" Before he responds with a pathetic excuse, I banged the honed blade across his foot, tearing an agonising scream from him. I kicked away the hatched flesh, witnessing urine trickle between his hairy thighs. "I am impressed," I said, and the men chuckled. "It only took him fifteen minutes to piss himself."

Brad adjusted Arben's shackles, stretching his arms above, fixing him to the low ceiling. "It stinks," he complains, nudging Arben's naked backside with his shoe. "What the fuck have you been drinking?"

Balanced on one foot, Arben lethargically dangles, his sweat-slicked body torn to shreds, raw, serrated lacerations inflamed with crimson rivulets. "Pack them," I command, and Nate snaps on a pair of latex gloves. "I don't want him to bleed out just yet."

Nate unscrews a blue bottle, dousing Arben's head and body. The Albanian energised himself, wailing, thrashing, acid dissolving, blistering his ruptured skin-melting flesh.

"Please," Arben cried, head lolling, bopping, scraggly hair framing his unrecognisable face. "I beg you."

I stretched leather gloves over my hands. "Begging is for cowards."

"You're looking a little fucked-up, Arman," Brad taunts, booting the guy in his stomach. "Might want to start talking."

"Fuck you!" The Albanian roars, thwarting against his chains, adrenaline overriding excruciating discomfort. "Suck on a fucking dick—"

"Arben," I interject, flipping open a switchblade, "I don't appreciate your disrespect toward my men."

Defeat consumed his pained features. "As I said," he chokes, chest heaving as he battles for breath, "suck my fucking dick."

"You know, when I bring traitors down here, I don't torture them to get answers instantaneously because like you," I point the blade at him, "they procrastinate, evade questioning and foolishly waste my time. All this?" I gestured around the room, indicating to the men. "Live torture—for our benefit and entertainment. It's fun, pleasurable, quite sadistic yet thrilling." I nicked his thigh with the sharpest point, his muscles bunching together. "I don't hurt, Arben. I make people hurt."

I seized his puny cock in a tight fist, and he squealed. "Please wait! I can help you; I know where he is, or where he might be. I can even work for you," he suggested, hopeful. "Yes. That's it. I can get you information—anything you want."

My hand softened slightly. "Go on."

"Flamur, he is out of the country, and he won't be back yet," he stutters, licking his cracked lips. "But he will be back. Yeah, from Tirana, Albania? Umm, two weeks. He will be collecting girls. Do you know? For auction."

"That's not what I want to hear, Arben. I want you to tell me about his hideouts. I want you to point me in the right direction. It's not demanding," I add, eyeing my men. "Is it too much to ask?"

The foot soldiers murmured agreements.

"He is, he is storing them down in Brixton. So, he will—yes. He will be collecting them from Cainsbury high. Do you know? The caretaker's house. He's storing them in the basement."

"You see," I released his pecker, and he swallowed a lungful of oxygen, "all I am getting from this is that Bajramovic is a twisted motherfucker who has a liking for young girls, which, in all honesty, I am already privy to his predilections, so your admittance doesn't help."

Saliva and red-stained spittle dangle from his swollen lips. "You can free those teenagers. I can help you—"

"We're a brotherhood," I explained, and his tired eyes rolled back. "What does The Brotherhood entail, Brad?"

"Loyalty," he recites, standing beside me, "blood ties and bonds. You swear fealty to Warren and the syndicate."

"You're disloyal," I add, carefully dragging the blade along his enticing jawline. "You lack acquiescence and reliability. Why the fuck would I want someone who isn't any of those working for me?"

Arben hacked phlegm in my face.

I closed my eyes and counted to three. "You shouldn't have done that." I fisted his member and rammed the blade through his flaccid muscle.

His screams reverberated throughout the cellar, blood spilling onto my hand.

I seized his jaw, squeezed his mouth open, and lodged his amputated cock down his throat.

Arben heaved, choked, eyes watering by invasion.

I held my leather-clad hand over his lips, vomit and blood splurging through my fingers. And then I wait, calmly whistling the tune erupting from the club. "He's a fighter."

"I guess he got to suck his own dick in the end." Brad deadpans, utilising a damp cloth to wipe the spit from my face. "I think he's dead."

I released my hold on Arben, yanking the gloves from my hands. "Amputate," I order, stepping back to watch Nate lower the man's boneless body to the ground. "Get rid of him."

That man was a waste of my time.

I left the cellar, appeared behind the bar and headed straight to my office. Inside the en-suite, I wash my hands and gloves, setting the old tattered leather aside to dry.

While preparing a whiskey, the door knocked, and I espied Natalie on surveillance. "Come in."

She bent her head inside, a suggestive glimmer in her resolute eyes. "I finished for the night, Mr Warren," she reminds me, nervously wavering at the threshold. "I wanted to ask if you needed anything before I went home."

I sank onto the leather chair behind my desk, taking in her minimal attire and sleek blonde hair. "Lock the door."

A delighted grin danced on her lips. She barricaded us into privacy, deliberately swaying her hips, dropping a hand to my shoulder. "Where do you want me?"

Twisting in my seat, I craned my neck to look into those blue eyes. "Get on your knees."

Falling to the floor with eager despair, she attained my belt, fingers working on the zipper to get my cock out.

I steer my gaze toward the monitors, lift the glass to my lips, ready to knock back a shot, craving the burn.

I see Her intoxicating eyes.

I see Her beautiful face.

I only want Her.

"No," I said harshly, snatching her wrist. "I'm not feeling it."

Natalie's lips parted in shock, eyes studying my boxer briefs. "If you let me try—"

"I don't like repeating myself." I buttoned up, redid my buckle. "Get out."

"Mr Warren—"

"I said," snatching her throat in an iron grip, I put us nose-to-nose, "get out." I shoved her with intentional force, and her backside slapped onto the floor. She scampered to her feet, bewildered, hurt, humiliated, absconding the room.

I stare into the crystal glass, swirled amber liquid at the bottom—and then lunged it across the room, shattering it into fragments. "Fuck."

Thumb resting on my lower lip, I stare at one of the monitors, consumed with thoughts of Alexa. I miss her, I thought, loading the screen. I miss seeing her face, hearing her laugh, witnessing her beautiful smile.

Double-checking nobodies at the door, I leaned forward, opened her surveillance and clicked through angles. I locate her in the bedroom, sitting cross-legged on the bed.

I fall back in my chair with an ache in my chest. It's wrong—what I feel for Alexa is wrong and selfish.

On the screen, Alexa abruptly jumped off the bed and fled the room.

Worry lines dragged my brows in an intense scowl. I clicked the mouse, followed Alexa into the hallway, watching her fling open the bathroom door, concealing herself inside.

Nate installed cameras throughout; however, the hidden contrivance inside that private room is one I don't touch upon. It's tempting, though. "Fucking hell," I groaned, rubbing a hand down my exasperated features.

Tonight wouldn't be the first time I scoured Alexa's home. I often check-in, watch her eating takeout with her friend, Chloe, both cuddled up on the sofa, binging mundane television series. Sometimes I watch her sleep with an urge to join her, but I never invade the bathroom.

"Fuck it." I clicked open the tab, finding her vomiting in the toilet. With the amount of sugar she indulges, it doesn't surprise me.

She pulls the flush and stands on trembling limbs and, even though I can't hear what she's saying, I recognise the fear in those hollow eyes—her body's aquiver from head-to-toe, sweat-slicken hair clinging to the nape of her neck. "Breathe," I said, inching closer, examining how quick her chest rises and falls.

Grappling the basin edge, she studies her reflection in the mirror, an eerie ambience submerging the constricted space. For too long, she scrutinises herself, uncurls her spine, snaps the band from her hair. She reached into the bath and plugged it, turning on the cold tap, forgoing the hot water—why is she running cold water?

My animal instinct kicked in. "Fuck." I lunged out of my chair and ran, hearing Brad call as I bolted the stairs, exiting the club through the fire exit. I stumbled into the alleyway belly, shoes crashing against the floor. As I reach the parked Bentley, I abstract my phone, dial security, collapse behind the steering wheel. "Come on," I growled, forwarded to his voicemail. "Fuck."

I roared the vehicle to life, accelerated from behind the club and sped down the street, gears shifting from one to five with seconds, surroundings fading into a multicoloured blur.

Ten minutes slowly passed before the Bentley shrieked outside Alexa's building. I soared from the car, head darting around, searching for tonight's security detail—there's no time, I thought, rushing inside, rounding the concrete stairs, frantic footsteps echoing heavenward.

I fall against her door, slamming my palm down. "Alexa!" I yelled, jerking the handle. "Open the fucking door." I knew; I knew; I knew—I booted the lock, repeated, booted again. The door cracked, splintered open, wood shards scattering across the floor.

Dodging debris strewn in the hallway, I gripped the bathroom door handle and thrust the door with my shoulder, unwavering force snapping the hinges. It crashes into the tiles on impact, and that's when I see her lifeless body in the bath.

I moved into innate overdrive, plunged my arms into the ice-cold water, hauled her body onto the floor, heart collapsing in my chest. "Alexa." Shaking her shoulders, I put my ear to her mouth, listened for breathing—nothing. "Fuck." Pinching her nose, I slanted my mouth over hers and blew. "Come on." I repeated the process, compressing her chest with two hands—repeated. "Open your fucking eyes."

I gripped her nose once more, covered her mouth with mine, heard a gargled sound in her throat. I ripped away, and she heaved, water splurging from her mouth, spine anchoring off the floor. "Good girl," I whispered, tilting her body to the side, water splashing against the tiles.

Alexa splayed her fingers onto discarded clothes, belatedly sobbing, forehead touching the floor in defeat. "Liam," she whimpered, and something inside me snapped. "I didn't mean—"

"Come here." Wrapping my arms around her waist, I fell onto my backside, dragged her body onto my lap. "Don't fucking do that." Taking her head in my hands, I urged her to face me head-on. Watery doe eyes gazed into mine, tight fists clinging to my shirt. "Baby—"

"You don't get to call me that," she whimpered, striving to get away from me. "I don't want you here; I don't want you to see me like this."

"I am not leaving." My hold on her strengthens, arms coiling around her body. "Alexa," I warned as she wriggled against me, her soaked body, dousing my clothes, "stop fighting me!"

Her head jerked back in fear, a single tear trickling down her flushed cheek. "Why do you enjoy hurting me so much?"

The pain in her voice felt like a knife to the throat. I dipped my head and inhaled a deep breath, held it, eyes wide, unsure. "Alexa," I whispered, placing a soft kiss to the corner of her mouth.

"I'm weak," she cried against my lips, body trembling in my arms. "I'm broken, Liam."

I put our foreheads together, cupped the back of her neck in my hand. "You are not that little girl anymore," I said throatily, brushing my lips over hers. "You are not broken. You are not weak. You. Do. Not. Hide." She tried to turn her head, disbelieving my words. "You are an empowered woman. You do not need fixing. You are a ruthless survivor who will take on anyone that stands in your way." I kissed her, our lips firm together. "Baby, I need you to say it." She shook her head, and my fingers twisted through her hair. "Say it."

"I am not broken," she whispers, avoiding my eyes. "I am not weak..."

"Good girl," I coaxed, carefully wrapping a towel around her body.

"I do not hide. I am an empowered woman that doesn't need fixing," she breathes, hands grappling my shoulders. "And I am a ruthless survivor who will take on anyone that stands in my way."

I gave her a low smirk. "It's okay to hurt sometimes," I said, and she blinked back undesired tears. "It's okay not to be okay, Alexa, but you don't look for a way out. You fight back every fucking time." I let those words sink in for a second. "Sleep with me."

She flinched, cowering back. "I am not fucking you, Liam."

"I don't want sex," I corrected, helping her stand. "I want to hold you."

Her blue-tinted lips parted, eyes flickering past my shoulder. "You're staying here?" I am uncertain if it's a question or statement. "You want to spend the night in my bed?"

I didn't want to be anywhere else. "Come on." I lead her to the bedroom. "I—"

"Give me a second," she said in a panic-stricken voice, opening her room door. "I just need to fix the sheets."

"I don't give a fuck about your sheets—" She slammed the door in my face. I detect frantic movements on the other side. "Alexa?"

The door flew open. Alexa stepped aside, meekly offering me inside. I narrowed my eyes, brushed past her, quickly scanned the room. "What, you hid to put a T-shirt on?"

Shrugging, she closed the door, looking anywhere but at me. "I am freezing, Liam."

"Get into bed." I hit the lights off, eliminated my clothes, leaving myself in boxer briefs. Crawling under the duvet beside her, I pressed my chest to her back, draped an arm around her waist, kissed the spot beneath her ear. "I hate that you fear me."

She didn't respond straight away. "Why do you assume it's fear?"

"I sense it." Apprehension radiates off her body. "I am not a good man, Alexa, but I'd never hurt you."

"You hurt me all the time," she said, turning to face me. "You broke my heart, Liam."

I rested my head to the pillow, mesmerised by those beautiful eyes. "Do you want to know a secret?"

Against tonight's devastatingly traumatic events, Alexa's lips stretched into a pleased smile. "Yes."

"Nothing that roams this earth scares me," I whispered, lifting her hand to my mouth, kissing her fingertips, "except for you."

Her features became sombre. "Don't lie to me."

"I never lie," I said firmly, lingering a kiss above her brow. "Go to sleep, baby."

Alexa relented in my arms.

I laid awake all night considering us.

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