REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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I am a naughty woman.

Liam cautioned me about his birthday, strictly prohibiting undesirable celebrations and thoughtful presents. I didn’t ask nor understand his reasoning and, although I had vowed to respect his wishes, I hunted down Brad Jones the following afternoon and demanded his secret service.

Four days before Liam’s thirtieth, Brad visited the Coffee House, ordered an espresso and waited for me to finish my shift.

I had previously conversed with Grayson, asking for some time off work to organise a surprise party at Club 11. Gray complied with stipulations—a personal invite for him and employees. I agreed before speaking to Jace, the problematic co-worker.

Jace apologised for his indelicateness the night we dined together. In fact, the man quite literally floored me when explaining he might’ve been quick to jump to conclusions about Liam. Apparently, he’d overheard whispers that Liam Warren was the man responsible for his parent’s death, but never had solid proof or concrete evidence.

I mean, yes, I was somewhat sceptical by his nonchalance. How can a man so vehemently defame someone one night, and then act calm and unbothered merely days later? In saying that, I was simply relieved that Jace dropped the matter. He even asked if the open invite included himself.

After thanking Grayson for granting mandatory time off, I spent the rest of the afternoon shopping with my favourite Suit.

Optimistic and assuring, Brad claimed Liam would be thrilled with planned festivities once initial shock subsided.

Since then, I have avoided Liam Warren as though my life depends on it. His incuriousness and lack of suspiciousness mollify me.

Liam continues to send text messages, asking about my days or sleep patterns, wondering if I’ll return to work so that we can spend more time together.

I coolly played off Liam’s innocuous questioning, feigned hecticness at the Coffee House and promised to consider his unrelenting job proposals.

Presently, I stand in the middle of Club 11′s main function room, watching the scene unfold around me. Long gone are the half-naked dancers, vociferous conversationalists and clamorous clubland music and sporadic strobe lights. Alternatively, sophisticated and glamorous waitresses deliver champagne to guests, pleasant-sounding extended segue music and hors d’oeuvre and repartee for entremets.

Under Brad’s stern advice, I omitted the three-tiered cake, celebratory embellishments and ostentatious décor.

Luckily, Nate escorted Liam to the Grape and Vine, beguiling him into believing the restaurant had a problem that needed immediate addressing. According to Brad, Liam hadn’t suspected the lie, nor discerned their dishonest behaviour; their boss’ absence granted time to commence the surprise gathering.

Slipping behind the bar, I settle my clutch bag onto the counter, grinning at a prowling Josh. “Hey, stranger,” I chime a little too excitedly. “How’s life?”

“Alexa,” he groaned, bringing me in for a bear hug, chest smothering my airwaves. “I miss you.” He tapped my backside, releasing me. “You look hot as fuck. The boss will go ballistic when he sees you.”

I selected a red spaghetti strap dress with a drape neck, open back and side slit. Josh is correct. Liam’s going to hit the roof when he sees me. It’s too brazen and revealing, but once he’s over the astonishment, I am sure he’ll be thrilled by my attire choice—or he’ll tear it off and fuck me senseless. “Can I get a drink?”

Josh snags and twists a tall glass, adds two vodka shots, topped with lemonade. “For you,” he said, playfully winking. “Am I allowed to drink tonight? Brad hasn’t specified.”

“I don’t see why not,” I mused, resting an elbow to the bar top. “It’s a private function, Josh. Knock yourself out.”

Pouring himself a whiskey, Josh adds a splash of coke. “Damn,” he hoots, and I follow his line of vision, lips twisting into a disapproving sneer. “Looking good, Nat.”

My blonde nemesis, modelling a skin-tight dress, impressive rack unmissable, perched onto a padded stool. “Hey, Josh.” Rudely snubbing me, she orders champagne, continuously scouring our surroundings. “Where’s the boss?”

I hate her so much. I will not stand here and listen to her fawning over Liam. Without wreaking havoc, I grab my glass and purse, leave the bar and probe for my friends.

Tailored in a navy three-piece, Brad holds out his hand, halting me from going further. “Just a heads up,” he said, jerking his chin toward the entrance, “Warren’s on his way over.” Scouring the dancefloor, he rubbed his palms together, gold curb bracelets clanking together. “Make yourself scarce.”

My chin hit the floor. “Why?”

“In case he freaks out,” he states, and I resisted the urge to kneecap him. “What? You knew hostility was a possibility.”

His rhyming lingo almost had me smiling. “You assured me he’d get over it,” I retorted, and he grinned mischievously. “Brad!”

Chuckling dryly, he gently probed me toward the velour cushioned booths. “Your crazy friends are over there,” he confirms, fingers combing through growing blond locks. “Hide until he calms down.”

Fuck my life. “Okay,” I whisper, hand to my stomach, easing intense nausea. “Oh, God. What if he finishes with me? This is a terrible idea. Let’s call it off while there’s time—”

“No,” he chides, lifting the glass to my lips. “Get wasted. Be quiet. I’ll find you later.”

Brad disappeared before I protested. As instructed, I down the vodka for crucial courage, found Chloe, Grayson, co-workers—and Jace. Great. “Hey,” I sang, wiggling past partygoers in their glamorous cocktail dresses and black tuxedos. “I hope you weren’t waiting long.” I eyed the only space beside the man in leather, contemplating standing. “What are you drinking?” I plopped onto the seat, albeit my back turned, crossing my legs.

“Hon, I love him,” Chloe exclaims, tossing a thumb toward Grayson. “He’s adorable.”

Affronted, Gray spluttered mid-drink, eyes drilling into her with a sidelong glare. “Adorable,” he repeated, gesturing to his silk cream and gold embroidered shirt. “Not cool, Goldie Locks. Since when did Versace scream adorable?”

“I meant your personality, dick,” she said, sucking champagne through a straw. “Why can’t you accept compliments, Grayson? Just be quiet and do shots with me.”

I shook my head, not understanding their newfound friendship.

“What are you drinking?” Jace asked, investigating my glass. “Ah, vodka—the good stuff.”

I scanned his neat vodka on the table. “I found a fellow vodka aficionado.” Okay, I’m impressed. “Nice.”

Amid the throngs of people, I spot Liam and Brad appearing at the entrance, and I sink in my seat. I know he’s angry—can feel his rising tension radiating from here. Liam thrust a hand through his hair, feigns smiles for passing guests, mouth angrily moving as he scolds Brad.

I snickered into my glass, head falling against the booths padded rear.

“Why are you laughing?” Jace inquired, eyebrow hiking dramatically. “You’re so strange, Alexa.”

“I know,” I agreed, unfazed by his light-hearted judgments.

As a unit, Liam and Brad descend the glass staircase, but the blond Suit leaves his boss unattended, dispersing through the crowd. Liam gaits toward the bar, palms to the counter, yelling something to Josh.

Josh nods, lifts a glass, pours a drink.

Dipping his head, Liam accepts a neat whiskey, brings the glass to his lips, sips, eyes combing his proximity. I know he’s looking for me, and I almost stand—until I see Natalie slip beside him, hand on her hip, slick blonde hair falling down her back.

Liam downs his drink in one hit, and sets the glass onto the countertop, tucks his hands in his trouser pockets.

I want him to look away.

I want him to walk away.

His lips broke into a genuine smirk, eyes naturally falling to her chest, briefly admiring, before returning to her victorious face.

I crushed the empty glass, slammed it on the table, blew bangs from my face.

“Uh, someone’s stroppy,” Gray announced, swinging an arm behind Chloe. “Shot?”

“Please.” Rubbing the chill from my arms, I watched him pour neat Grey Goose into a neon shot glass. “Thank you.” Bringing it to my lips, I tilt my head back, relishing the burn sauntering down my throat. “I could use another.”

Naturally, I returned my gaze to Liam, who’s still entertaining the blonde heathen.

I am furious, jealous.

How dare he berate me about other men, and then play into Natalie’s hands, knowing how much we dislike each other?

Natalie sets her ravenous palm on his chest, face inching in, murmuring in his ear. He delivered another smirk, mouthing something—I turned away. I worked too damn hard to make tonight special for him. I will not punish myself with their visible display.

Jace engages in conversation with an identifiable man. He’s smartly dressed, attractive on the eye. I openly nosed, half-listened to them discussing football teams, pondered whether Jace was interested in his new friend.

I poured vodka into a glass, nursed it, and contemplated leaving.

Maybe Liam knows I am over here, but he’s punishing me for ignoring inflexible demands. “Whatever,” I moaned, scratching my eyebrow, inwardly miming lyrics to the music.

Jace’s friend excuses himself to use the male bathroom. In the meantime, Jace folds his arms, leather jacket stretching, unaccommodating his muscles. “What do you think?” He licked his lower lip, waiting for my approval. “He mentioned going back to his place.”

I hadn’t pegged him as shy. “I mean, if you’re interested then why not?”

Humming throatily, he rubbed a palm against his chin. “I don’t know. He’s coming across a little clingy.”

My nose wrinkled. “What’s the definition of clingy?”

“Someone who obsessively blunders over another.”

I hollow my cheeks, swishing clear liquid at the base of my glass. “Oh, God. I am a clingy blunder.”

Jace tossed me a double-take. “A what?”

“I am a possessive, jealous, blundering girlfriend,” I explained, and his eyes rounded. “Do you know what terrifies me, Jace? How much I need him. It’s almost as if I willingly made him my lifeline. If he cuts me off? I couldn’t survive it.” He was understandably nonplussed. “I am worth nothing without him,” I whispered the last part, and he steered his intense gaze from me, looking oddly conflicted. “I know he’ll break my heart again, yet I am still sitting here,” I knocked back another shot, “waiting for him like a lovesick fool.”

Jace annoyingly clicked his tongue, swivelling at the waist to face me. “Alexa,” he said, an indescribable emotion dancing in his eyes. “Listen, I am probably not the best person to share your problems with. Not only am I shit at giving advice, but I am not overly fond of the guy you choose to lay down with at night. If I were to give my opinion, which you’ve stressed is unsolicited, I’d say, you deserve so much better than Liam Warren.”

I settled my gaze to his chest, not able to withstand his concerned expression. “Maybe.”

His fingers grazed my cheek, and I uncurled my spine. “You probably won’t care, but there’s a guy near the bar who’s been checking you out for almost twenty minutes.”

I faked a smile. “He might have eyes for you,” I teased, unfazed by the appreciation of other men. “Perhaps we should test the theory...” I witnessed his eyes enlarging before the familiar sound of a gun clicking.

“Alexa.” Liam’s terrifying, authoritative voice shrills my bones. “Do you want to tell me why this man is touching you?”

I belatedly recognised Jace’s palm on my knee and paled. “Liam...”

“Hey, listen,” Jace tried reasoning, carefully raising his hands in surrender, “It’s not what you think—”

“No?” Liam quipped, the lower part of his body, pressed up to my back. “So, you’re saying it’s in my head, huh?”

Before Jace could respond, I abruptly stood, assigning myself to the firing line. Liam’s infuriated, his anger soaring to a feverish pace. Without making eye contact, he fisted my dress, dragged me close, gun aimed at Jace’s head, decisiveness in his cold, unblinking eyes.

“Stop,” I ordered, regarding curious onlookers, some distressed, others unruffled. “Liam, I mean it.” I felt his erratic heartbeat under my palm, knowing he was seconds from losing composure. “I already told you that he’s gay,” I whispered for only him to hear, blindly reaching for his hand, curling my fingers around the gun. “Please.”

I had no concept of my friends’ reactions—had no idea if Jace remained seated.

Liam stubbornly persisted antagonistic bellicose to defy me. “I want that man out of my fucking club,” he spat, and I espied Brad moving into action. “You.” His eyes aligned with mine. “My office. Now.”

With unwarranted vigour, he thrust me away from the table. Cheeks impossibly hot, I caught my footing, straightening my dress and beelined the privately marked door. I felt him on my heels, but remained steadfast, smiling apologetically at security.

I entered the next floor, waited for him by the office door like a naughty teenager.

Liam ambled around the corner sans gun, punched the code to his door, jostled me inside his office. “A fucking party,” he barked, storming across the room, snatching a whiskey bottle from the minibar, unscrewing the cap. “What am I, Alexa? Sixteen? You,” he points at me, a hand gripped around the bottleneck, “might want to prance around like a teenager, but that doesn’t mean I want to parade around like one with you.”

His offensive remark hit me hard in the chest. “I hate when you refer to me as a child, Liam,” I said calmly, closing the door behind me. “I appreciate you’re upset, but please refrain from insulting me.”

“And don’t even fucking start me on the alleged gay fucker downstairs,” he snapped, steeling his jaw. “Anyone with a pair of eyes can see how much he wants to fuck your cunt.”

“Liam,” I shouted, anger coursing through my veins. “How dare you speak to me like that? It’s vulgar, offensive and downright disgusting. Yes, Jace is gay.” Please for the love of God, Jace, I hope you’re not lying to me. “And yes. I threw you a party, but that doesn’t mean I am childish or juvenile. I wanted to do something nice for you.” I curled my hands into fists, preventing my anxious shakes. “While we’re on the subject of jealous partners,” I counter, sweeping hair from my face. “You got no right to stand there and judge me. You got no right threatening an innocent person or brandishing your stupid weapons—not after tonight. Not after I saw you with Natalie.”

Liam stares at me in silent fortitude, watching a lone tear roll down my cheek. Resting his backside to the desk, he swept a hand down his angered features, brusquely lunged the bottle at the wall, fragmenting it into tiny shards. “You had no right.”

Fury bubbled inside me. “Why are you acting like this?”

“Alexa,” he berates, holding up a hand. “Shut up.”

“Do not tell me to be quiet,” I argued, forcing myself into his personal space. “I am supposed to be your...” Girlfriend, I thought, despising how immature it sounded. “I deserve respect.” Resigned, he dropped his head back, bored eyes to the ceiling. “Liam,” I whispered, capturing his cheeks in my hands, urging him to look at me. “Talk to me.”

He rolled his lower lip between clenched teeth, gaze touring my face in pensive reluctance. “I haven’t had this before,” he said, and I frowned. “I don’t normally celebrate my birthday; it’s not me.”

“Okay, I’m sorry,” I whispered, tears burning my eyes. “It’s my fault. You told me, and I didn’t listen.” I blinked wet dews from my eyelashes, timidly palming his shoulders. “Please don’t hate me.”

“Alexa, fuck,” he growled, jaw tightening. “I could never hate you.” He grasped a handful of my ass, fingers denting. “What are you wearing? Are you trying to kill me?”

I put our foreheads together. “I love you.”

He closed his eyes, mildly shaking his head. “I wish you’d stop saying that.”

“Why? Because you refuse to say it back?” I goaded him, and he bristled me with a sharp glare. “If you believe committing yourself to me wholeheartedly guarantees my demise, then you’re more senile than I thought. It doesn’t matter, Liam,” I add, and he pried me away from him. “People see us together. Your enemies will learn who I am either way—”

“Stop.” His harsh snide sliced through me. “Enough. Don’t complicate what we have. Don’t put bad concepts inside my head, Alexa. Quit while you’re ahead.” I relented, casting my gaze to the hardwood floor. “I got shit to do. You should go home.” He noticed my tears and spat out another curse. “Don’t do that. You know I hate seeing you like that.”

“Then stop hurting me,” I screamed, spearing two hands through my hair, chest heaving as I grasped for composure. “Go ahead—shut me out. I am accustomed to your bullshit, Liam—”

He furiously stepped up to me. “What do you want from me?”

“For you to love me back,” I cried, slapping a hand over my mouth, regretting my devastated admittance. “I can’t do this anymore.” I fumed past, and he seized the back of my neck, hauling me to his chest. “Get off me!” I wrestled in his arms. “Liam!”

“Enough!” His strong arms locked around me, hindering my movements. “I can’t look at another woman without comparing her to you,” he admits in a low, gravelly voice, lips inches from my nose. “I can’t think straight when you’re not with me. I can’t breathe properly when you enter a room. I can’t sleep without you by my side at night. I can’t picture a future when you’re not in it.”

My back hit the wall, causing my breath to hitch. “Liam—”

His mouth crushed mine, stealing the oxygen I breathe. It’s neither firm nor soft, determined, adamant, sealed with an unspoken promise. I tore my swollen lips away, gasping for breath, head turned to the side.

Hands descending my body, holding my waist, Liam lowers his head to my shoulder, his warm breath to my ear. “That is how much I care.” His fingers gripped mine, slamming my palm over his thudding heart. I stopped breathing, his words repeating inside my head. “That is how much I love you.”

An unrecognisable sound escaped my lips. I fisted his shirt, unable to look at him. “You can’t take it back.”

“I don’t plan to,” he said roughly, kissing the spot beneath my ear.

We breathed in each others air, settled in our quiet ambience. I blinked back happy tears, teeth piercing my lower lip, stifling my merriment.

Liam Warren fell in love with me, I thought, embosomed in his powerful hold. “I love you, too.”

He swept his thumb across my parted lip. “I am taking the weekend off—spending it with you.” He neatened my dress strap, knuckles brushing across my collarbone. “What do you say? Nobody else. Just you and me. If you behave, I might even cook for you.”

I pretend to consider, tapping my chin with a pointer finger. “Will there be lots of sex?”

His infectious smirk palpitated my heart. “Of course.”

Resting my head against the door, I unclasped the emblem from my necklace, held it between us. “For you.”

Liam’s forehead creased, fingers curled around mine, accepting his gift. “You got me a present.” He studied the white gold military-style tag, lip twitching as he read the engraving. “You branding me, baby?”

I respond with a gleeful smile. “You bet I am.” He leaned in to place a soft kiss to the corner of my mouth. “I mean, it’s only my name. I stopped myself from being too possessive and, I don’t know, claiming you as my property.”

“I’ll wear it proudly.” He chuckled wryly, fastening the link to his chain. “I’ll get one of my men to drive you home to collect your bag.”

“That’s not necessary, Liam,” I barter, opening the door. “I promised Chloe late-night noodles. And before you protest,” I lift my leg, pointing to my shoe, “I’ll remind you that Brad bugged my favourite footwear, so I’ll be fine. Let me stuff my face, and then I’ll meet you back at the penthouse.”

He struggled not to argue with me. “Fine.”

“And Liam?” I lingered in the hallway, under securities scrutiny. “What you said earlier...I feel the same way.” Before he responded, I walked away, giddy, slightly nauseated, uncontrollable flutters in my chest. “Oh, shit.”

Gathering my scattered thoughts, I opened the dance room door, immediately searched for the others. I returned to our booth, found empty seats, relieved to see an untouched clutch bag.

Recalling Gray’s predilection for social smoking, I squeezed through dancing crowds, ascended the staircase and exited through the main entrance.

Cold winds blew under my dress, and I gripped the hem, stepping onto the main road, searching, head darting back and forth to locate my friends. I don’t see the others, but I spot Jace resting on a wall. “Hey, Jace,” I called, and his drowsy eyes opened. “Oh, God. How much did you drink?”

He briefly took in his surroundings, licking his dry lips. “I was waiting for a bus,” he slurred, staggering to keep himself upright. “Actually, I might flag a taxi.”

“Come here.” Wrapping an arm around his waist, I implored him to latch onto my shoulders, and we both zigzagged down the street like drunken idiots. “Why are you heavy?” I complained, back straining. “Jesus, Jace.” We stumbled around the corner, and I slapped my hand against a shop window, almost toppling. “You need to lay off that damn sugar.”

“I hope you’re not calling me fat,” he mumbled, and I snorted. “Don’t make fun of me.”

I couldn’t help it. Drunk Jace was comical. “No, but you’re sizable.”

“In more ways than one,” he felt the need to tell me, gesturing to a parked vehicle. “That’s my car.” He withdrew his arm from my shoulder, patted himself down, finding his keys. “You’re a diamond, Alexa.”

“Jace, you’re not seriously considering driving in your state?” I asked, ready to steal his keys. “You’re too drunk; it’s not safe.”

Aiming the keys at his rusted wheels, he unlocked the boot, removed his leather jacket, tossed it inside. “I get it,” he said, clicking his neck to the side. “Why Warren’s so protective over you.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry about what happened tonight—”

“I’d be the same,” he interjects, his green eyes colliding with mine. “You’re fucking sinful, Alexa.”

I stiffened, sudden trepidation sheathing my body. “Maybe I should call that cab—”

“You know, I am not really gay, right?” He stepped forward. I stepped back. “I am still trying to fathom how you fell for that.”

“Touch me,” I warned, preparing myself to run, “and I will fucking scream.”

A sinister smile wounded on his lips. His once-friendly eyes, burning into me with a promising threat. “You can try,” he said, gaze flickering over my head, “but you won’t get far.”

A body slammed into my back. I screamed, chucked my bag, reached for the leather-clad hand that captures my mouth, muffling my cries. Through water eyes, I begged Jace to stop this, thrashed in my handlers arm, body vibrating, numbing, something unexplainable deadening my senses. I smelt chemicals, inhaled them, sagged against the man’s chest, eyes fighting to stay open.

“We will contact you,” the man drawled, his recognisable accent mulling me to sleep. “Get her out of here.”

Jace lifted me into his arms. I inwardly cried for Liam, my lifeless body drooped in his hold, head lolling to the side. Darkness crept in, invaded my dreams, dragged me back to hell.

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