REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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I exited the London Underground and joined this queue over two hours ago. I knew Club 11 was a busy attraction, but the draining, inefficient customer admission process irks me.

Forty-five minutes later, only two people in front of me, I wait for the cheerful couple to brandish identification and, in a state of scheming fortitude, I stealthily duck behind them, to avoid securities awareness. If only I were that lucky. "I need to see your I. D." One of three bouncers lands a meaty hand to my shoulder, preventing me from going further. "Charge at the door."

I adopt Chloe's flirtatiousness, fluttering my eyelashes. "Um..." My distraction was ineffective. He stares at me like I've grown two heads. "I don't have any, so can you just let me in."

"No, I.D," he folds his arms at his chest, holding his ground, "no entry."

"Oh, come on," I whine, arms sagging to my side. "I arranged a meeting with Liam—"

"No. And if the Boss wanted to see you," he jabbed a chubby finger on my nose, "he'd have given me a heads up. So, either show you're legal, or take your juvenile ass away from my step."

"Yes, Sir," I huffed, storming off in a strop. "Asshole."

Where the hell was that Gary when I needed him? Or was Jerry? I can't even remember.

Tucking my hands into my coat pockets, I strolled past the long line of people all laughing and having a "good old time" like mindless idiots. They're not even inside yet. How can they be so exultant, standing in a ridiculous queue?

Retrieve the claws, Alexa. You're only jealous.

I am seconds from crossing the road when male laughter brought me to a sudden stop. Looking over my shoulder, into the dim-lit, misty alleyway, belonging to Club 11, a group of men conversationally smoking cigarettes and marijuana, drinking from thermal flasks. Behind them, the fire exit door, wide open and alluring, summoning me.

Double-checking surroundings, I lift off my heeled shoes, balanced on soles, surreptitiously and silently skulking toward the steel, overflowing dumpsters. I duck behind one, peered over the side, eavesdropped their conversation.

"The girl sucked my dick like a fucking hoover," one man says.

"Where did you take her?"

"Prestige suite," he said. "Boss will have a fucking seizure if he found out."

"Yeah," another chimed, blowing out cigarette smoke. "No touching the merchandise," he imitated with a mocking snort. "Dick."

Are they discussing Liam? And why does the thought of him being irritated by the Suits catching a blowjob from female employees make me sick with jealousy? Seriously, Alexa? You need to get a hold of yourself. Your insane infatuation is becoming ridiculous, even for you.

"She's game," another man drawls. "I know for a fact she allowed Nate and Brad to spit roast last week. We should put our offer forward and see if she's game."

"Nah, Cherry doesn't play with us. Only the ranks."

Someone chortled. "Slut."

I scrunched up my face in disgust. Men.

"She might slurp like a hoover, but her fanny is like a fucking bucket. Not even worth the dip," another man said as the rest of them laughed uproariously. "Barbell makes me jack my load in seconds."

Shaking my head, I murmured, "Pigs."

"Yo, did you hear something?"

Raising my brows, I ease behind the bin, heart palpitating. What-the-ever-living-fuck, possess me to talk to myself when attempting to break into a building, surrounded by hell hounds?

"Nah, man. Let's get back inside, or we'll have Brad on our asses."

The sound of retrieving feet shuffling confirmed they're leaving. I slowly creep from behind the bins, oscillate until the last man enters then run like a madwoman, so I'm able to catch the door before it slams shut. I wait to ensure those pigs don't miraculously poke their heads out, hands grasped to the door, warily creaking it open. It's too dark, but I detect reverberations travelling from the dance room as I paced down the musty smelling corridor, beaming in victory.

Erratic, many-hued lights danced under another door. I hold the handle, look through the small window, noting two bouncers guarding on the other side. "Shit," I curse, gnawing my bottom lip.

How am I supposed to pull this one off now? Fuck it. I shove the door open, aiming to get past unnoticed, but he visibly spots me, hand firmly claiming my arm. "What the fuck were you doing back there?"

"I'm so sorry. I appear to have gotten lost," I said in a soft, unassuming voice. "I was looking for the ladies' room."

"It's over there." Persuaded, he released me with a toss. "Don't come by this door again. Got it?"

I scram straight into crowds, dodging the bathroom, heading to the bar. Finding a vacant stool, I slipped on it, clutch bag settled on my lap.

What can I get you?"

"Vodka. Neat. And two shots of..." I shrug, handing over money. "Vodka." While he's busy sorting my drinks, I quickly count cash and groan. I doubt thirty quid will last me the night, not in a club like this. If Liam insists on an employment refusal tonight, I'll have no choice but to job hunt tomorrow.

"Here you go." The barman sets my drinks onto the countertop then continues serving other customers.

I picked up shot one and downed it, then shot two, followed by the neat vodka, needing all the alcohol-infused courage I can muster. Club music segued imperceptibly to techno and trance, white and blue strobe lights illuminating dancing partygoers. Again, I settled my gaze above, fascinated by the oiled, glittering, half-naked women, crawling across the glass podiums, exotica, pole dancing and classic strip teasing.

They make it look so easy. It's not. Trust me. I've tried. I took one swing around the lamppost outside my flat and fell straight on my ass.

"Can I order another, please?" I swing my glass above my head.

I need to get drunk.

Two hours later, surrounded by empty glasses, not only am I swaying, but I am singing at the top of my lungs, regretting my decision on not taking Chloe's offer to go clubbing more. It's surprisingly fun. My head is a little fuzzy, and I consumed more alcohol than initially intended, but hey, who cares, right? It doesn't hurt to let myself go every once and awhile.

Someone meshed to my left. "May I buy you a drink?" He's a helluva lot older than me. I don't believe middle-aged men are unattractive. Liam is older than me, and I am bursting at the seam when he's around. This dude, though, the one grinning and bopping, doesn't appeal to me.

"Just got one thanks." I smiled meekly.

"Come on." He drapes an arm over my shoulders. "Live a little." His unwanted touch stiffened me. "Yes?"

"One vodka shot," I said. He's only trying to be friendly. "Thank you."

"Atta' girl." He calls over the barman. "Six Tequilas!"

"Six!" I squeak. "I said one shot."

The barman sets the small glasses down and pours the clear liquid into them.

"One. Six." He slips money from his wallet, pays the guy pouring our drinks. "All the same."

I reluctantly accept a glass. "It really isn't."

He grabbed a saltshaker and sliced lemons. "Where do you want it?"

"What's the question?"

"I know." Overturning his arm, he pours salt on his wrist. "Do your shit. Lick me."

My cheeks redden. "You want me to lick your wrist."

Impatient, he outstretched his arm, prompting me into action. I dipped my head, quickly swiped my tongue across his wrist, bitter salt invading my tongue. Relaying methods was futile. I acted on instinct, snatched a shot glass, knocked it back, gagged and struggled to stop the tequila from regurgitating. "Oh, God." I shuddered, and he wedged the lemon in my mouth. "That's disgusting." Sucking sharp citrus on my lips, I flung the lemon onto the beer mat. "I am shit at this."

"You're fine." He waves me off, passing me the saltshaker. "How about the shoulder?"

My shoulders aren't showing. "Where?"

Shot guy dragged his finger down my neck, almost reaching my coat zipper, but another hand intervened, impeding further advances. I didn't need to see his beautiful face for confirmation. I knew it was Liam—felt him, recognised those gold curb bracelets. "You need to leave," I heard him warn before his looming presence slipped between us, wedging there, back to me. "Now."

"What are you doing?" I peered over his shoulder. The guy's sizing up to him. "This is stupid."

Liam pays me no heed, hand clinging to the guy's shirt collar, whispering obscure words. It's frustrating. I cannot understand or hear anything over this deafening music. He's forced me to stare at his back as he whispers something to the guy.

"Whatever, man." Snarling, the guy flung me a disdainful look. "No amount of pussy is worth this shit."

My mouth hit the deck. What the hell happened to the nice dude, sharing shots with me a few seconds ago?

Liam laughed once. Then, before I could rationalise his surging anger, he snatched the guy's scraggly hair and unforeseeably smashed his face straight onto the bar top.

"Oh, my fucking God," I screamed, seizing Liam's suit jacket, pleading with him to release the poor sod. "Stop it!"

Bellowing in pain, the guy captured his shattered nose, blood rivulets trickling over his mouth and chin. "I barely touched her!" He yelled before Liam flung his body aside like deadweight, his body spearing into the crowd, knocking people down with him.

Quaking with all-encompassing fear, I clutched my bag and fled—far away from that aggressive man as humanly possible. Did I honestly believe I could leave a meeting with Liam Warren with my limbs intact? Why did he even get involved? That man is insane, too much for a woman like me to handle. I am Incapable of following this through, so I'll wait until Kathy returns. I foreshadow my premature death—landing lifelessly in a ditch. And now I am mentally prattling incomprehensible jargon because I am freaking the fuck out!

Someone snagged my shoulder, swinging me around, bringing me face-to-face with the man himself. "Where are you going?" Liam asked, far too close for my liking.

"Away from you!" Hitting his hand off my arm, I stumbled backwards, colliding into another male, nearly losing my footing, but before my backside greeted the sticky floor, Liam captured my wrists, breaking my fall.

Behind me, the inebriated gent apologises for my clumsiness, shrinking under Liam's murderous glare.

Great. Another man who'll be on the end of Liam's fist. And, for a reason unbeknownst to me, I am the catalyst. I gripped his shirt in a tight fist, urging him to look at me. "Can you stop!"

Liam unclenched his jaw, returning his attention to me. "What?"

"Just," I breathed, softening my hold on him, "stop." Telling him his vituperation is unnecessary, especially at my expense, sounds ridiculous inside my head, never mind aloud.

Is he always so inimically splenetic and aggressively combative?

Removing a white silk napkin from his inner suit pocket, he wipes blood from his cracked knuckles like it's the most normal thing to do. "That man is dangerous."

"What, man?"

His impatient eyes seared into mine. "You know who."

Why does he care? "We were only having a drink."

"A drink with a man renowned for date raping," he said calmly, discarding the blood-stained napkin.

A comeback teased the tip of my tongue, but if Liam's true to his word, arguing my case is petty. If anything, I should thank him for interceding.

"Are you drunk?"

"No." I am tipsy but fully aware of my surroundings.

"How the fuck do you keep getting in here?" Although he sounded frustrated, amusement flickered in his narrowed eyes. "I told you this club was over twenty-one."

Pride burst inside my chest. I stifled a grin. "I have my ways."

"I'm sure you do, Miss Haines." He rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets. "What do you want?"

"You already know the answer to that question, Mr Warren," I parodied patronisingly, and his brows jumped. "Looks as though we both did our homework."

He eyed my appearance. "Is there a reason you're wearing a trench coat in a nightclub?"

I flattened my lips. "I was cold."

He calls bullshit, but he doesn't push. "My answer is still no."

"Fine," I mutter, turning on my heels. Good riddance.

Liam must enjoy tormenting me. He allows me to get so far before his arm comes around my waist, drawing me back to him. I freeze, heart descending to the pit of my stomach. "I thought you'd put up a little fight," he whispered in my ear, hand firmly pressed to my stomach.

"Is that what you want?" I asked, tossing him a sidelong glance. "You want me on my hands and knees, begging."

The specious man cracked a wolfish smirk. "You're not my type." He released me with yet another shove—what is it with these cavemen manhandling women? "Follow me."

Asshole. Liam beelines the door I entered through earlier, not checking to see if I'll follow. I vacillated between leaving or chasing him. After witnessing how rashly he attacked that man, I am more frightened by his capabilities. But this is it, Alexa—a step toward finding your sister.

I chose Kathy. I darted behind Liam, avoiding the bouncer's disapproving snarl.

Returning to the hallway, Liam leads me upstairs to his office. Scouring was tempting, but I'll leave investigating until guaranteed employment.

He stopped at a steel door, punched the code and entered his office. Behind the mahogany desk, a long-stretched window, overseeing the main room. I place my bag onto the black leather sofa, which looks very comfortable and inviting and catalogue the hard-wood floors, glass unit showcasing countless vinyl cases, wall-mounted screens, laptops, monitors, en-suite bathroom and minibar.

The walls exhibit dark, depressing yet picturesque paintings which I found conflictingly beautiful. I run my fingers over thick paint grooves, admiring the London skyline, a representation of somebody standing beneath the London Tower Bridge, perched on a miry bank, surrounded by patterned polychromatic still waters. Even though automotive art intends domination, In the far corner, a man wearing a long leather coat, strumming a guitar, gazing up into the night sky; I wanted to know why he looked sad, his story.

Liam puts us shoulder-to-shoulder. "What do you see?"

I see devastation and pain. "It makes me sad."

"Why?" Liam arched an eyebrow. "Do you not appreciate fine art? Most say it is a spectacular piece. The best in London."

"It's magnificent," I agreed. "But I get the feeling it's more about him than special effect cars and the Tower Bridge."

He hands me a glass topped up with whiskey, sipping his own. "Why do you feel sorry for him?" Ambling around his desk, he becomes seated, unbuttoning his suit jacket. "Take a seat."

"He's lonely," I continue, pulling out a chair in front of the desk. "Homeless perhaps. Lonely yet content with his music, guitar and sight—the stunning views at night. I want to step into the painting, sit and accompany him."

Liam stares me down. "What makes you assume he's lonely?"

"Well," I'm unsure how he doesn't consider the man's secluded, "he's alone out there."

He continues to scrutinise me but terminates conversation about his painting. Instead, he gets back to business. "You took this hounding to a dangerous level. I presumed you heard my message the last time we spoke." He downs his drink, setting the empty glass on the desk.

"I was hoping," I knock back another gallant shot, disagreeing with its pungent taste, "I could convince you into changing your mind."

Balancing a cigarette between his lips, he sparks a flame, lighting the end. "I am not an easily swayed man, Miss Haines." He exhales a veil of smoke. "However, I am willing to entertain the idea."

His offer had been unexpected. I convinced myself he was playing mind games, bringing me in here, chastising me or threatening a restraining order. "If I can convince you that I meet requirements," I point to the window where the metal cages drape from the ceiling, "I can do that?" A woman bends at the waist, hands pressed to the glass floor, shaking her bottom, grinning coquettishly at female co-workers.

Rolling smoke from his mouth, he lazily glanced over his shoulder, eyebrows climbing to his hairline. "You think you got what it takes?" He asked, his voice laced with patronising reservation. "Are you capable, Miss Haines?"

Negative. "Yes," I said credibly as a dancer slides into a split position, and I instinctively slammed my thighs together. "I can do that."

He outed his cigarette, lip turning up at the corner. "Music taste?" He grabs his iPhone, waiting for me to pick a song. I shook my head, so he proceeds, selecting "High for This" by The Weekend. He motions to the floor. "Go ahead. Show me what you've got."

I stare at the dancer, groping her oiled breasts. "Must I impersonate her?"

"You mean, do you have to get your tits out for me?"

"Yes." I swallow, hoping it's not the case. I'm not sure how I feel about exposing my breasts for this man, or any male, for that matter. Yet, I want to be an exotic dancer. I don't think I thought this scenario through accurately, hadn't completely prepared myself for this interview.

He gives me a tight, close-lipped smile. "No, that won't be necessary." Leaning back in his chair, he strokes his bottom lips with a pointed finger, waiting. "Your underwear is fine."

I swallow to moisturise my parched throat, rising to my feet. Relocating to his desk, I begin unbuttoning my coat, looking back at the window. "Can they see me?"

He gave me an imperceptible head shake.

Fingers shaking, I popped open each button, slowly undo the belt at my waist, breath, disrobe. The coat slipped off my shoulders, to the floor, leaving me vulnerable.

Yesterday, after Liam left me standing outside the coffee shop, I ran across the road, into an adult store, and purchased new lingerie. As I feign confidence, I stand before him in black lace and suspenders, peep-toe heels, fingernails painted red, complementing my lips. Elegantly tall, posture appealing, not sloppy or tawdry, hands to my hips, hair cascading down my back.

Expressionless and unreadable, Liam deliberately scanned every inch of my body. "Turn around."

I spin on my heels, stopping to face the wall, letting him inspect my "bony" derriere before returning his gaze.

His eyes lingered on my flat stomach. "Closer," he whispers, watching me walk toward him. "Size?"

My eyebrows knitted. "Why?" I catch my breath when his hand meets my thigh, exposing goosebumps to my skin.

"Eight?" He notices the breakout over my flesh, and his eyes darken. "Six?"

"Ten," I quip, offended. "I am a size ten."

If my curtness bothered him, he doesn't show it. His hands move up my thighs, thumbs kneading my skin. I should question his interviewing process as it seems unorthodox and unprofessional, but I quite enjoy his touch, so I remained mute.

Liam withdrew, sinking back in his leather chair. "Go on."

My tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth. "I don't know what to do."

"Dance," he orders, a humorous challenge in his voice. He doesn't think I can do it.

Ears catching up to the music, I start rotating my hips. I am stiff, awkward and downright risible, but I proceed, nonetheless, considering drugs on my next job interview.

Liam abruptly claimed my underwear, hauling me close. I follow his lead, astride his thighs and, in a final, feverish moment, I trust him, coiling my arms around his neck, adopting strength, working my hips. I welcomed those calloused hands brushing over my ass cheeks until his fingers dip under my lace, and I went ramrod. He paused, tilting his back to look at me. "Why did you stop?"

The tension in the air is too thick. I cannot hear anything but my irregular pulse strumming in my ears.

His lips gently whisper along my neck, arousal pressing between my thighs. I turned him on. Alexa Haines, the seemingly unattractive kid, stirred Liam Warren. His mouth sought mine, and I recoiled, unprepared, inexperienced. He hesitated once more. "Have you ever been kissed before, Alexa?"

"Yes," I whispered.

Liam frowned at my sudden timidity. "Do you not enjoy a man touching you?"

"No, I mean..." I clambered off him, putting space between us. God, desperately want this job, and I am beyond attracted to him—it is borderline infatuation—but gaining a position based on sex and lies is uncharacteristic; I remonstrate being anyone other than myself. "I'm nervous."

He stands, and it only took two powerful strides to be near me. "Are you a virgin?"

I jerked my head away as if he slapped me. "How is that any of your business?"

"I don't understand you." He ignores my annoyance. "One minute you come across like a woman who knows what she wants and, in the next breath, coy, intimidated. You want to work alongside those women," he motions to the window, "yet someone appreciating or touching you is repulsive. You do realise touching is part of the job role."

"It's not that," I respond defensively. "I am okay with someone touching me, in consent." I sound like such an idiot. "I hate people taking from me."

"Is that what you think?" He snatched my hip, drawing me closer. "You thought I was taking something from you?"

"No. It's just you. You make me nervous." He's terrifyingly captivating, and It's indecipherable. "You're intimidating. That is all."

"Alexa, are you a virgin?"

"No," I answered honestly. "No, I'm not."

"Okay." He nodded. I wish I knew what was going through his mind. "So, you're amateurish, but understand how things work. If I brought one of my men in here, you'd be able to do what's required. As long as it's not me."

Frankly, I don't want to dance for anybody. I'm only here to find Kathy, and If I can avoid lap dances all together—bonus.

He sighed at my unresponsiveness. "You came here in your underwear and coat?"

I nod.

"Is that something you do that often?"

"No," I whisper, fumbling with my hands. "Tonight would be a first."

"Transportation?" He mused, grabbing his empty glass. "How did you get here?"

I crossed my arms, covering my chest. "I used the tube."

"The Underground," he said, forehand furrowing. "You got the job. Be here for eight—tomorrow."

"You're giving me the job." I need additional confirmation. Surely my ears deceive me. Was he not in this room while I shockingly performed? I am unworthy of this position, and he knows it.

"Yes," he confirmed, back to me while preparing another drink. "Miss Haines, wait by the bar; one of my men will escort you home."

"You don't have to do that." Grabbing my coat off the floor, I pull it back on, tighten the knot. "I'll be fine."

Liam rested his back to the unit, refilled glass in hand. "You are half-naked under there. What type of man would I be if I let you enter the underground, looking like that?" He sipped his drink, eyeing me over the glass rim. "You're asking for trouble."

He highlights a valid point, but I've been using the station for years and never encountered problems.

"I'm not asking, Miss Haines. It's an order," he added, his commanding voice, weakening my knees. "You'll accept my generosity, and I'll see you tomorrow."

"Thank you," I said, holding back joyous tears. "I promise not to let you down."

I vacated his office.

What the hell was that?

First, he attacks that man downstairs.

Then as an interview where touching was involved.

I get it, Kathy.

I actually get it.

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