REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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Revitalisation was imperative for my first shift working alongside Liam, but my nerves kept me awake for most of the night. I tossed and turned in bed until the sun veiled through my window and birds chirped outside, somewhat tormenting my unrested sleep with their irritating onomatopoeias.

Eventually, amidst my weariness, I'd climbed out of bed, drank three coffees and spent my free time scrubbing the flat. I'd concluded keeping myself occupied couldn't hurt. If nothing else, it kept my worries at bay until it was time to put the glad rags on.

I have wanted to get my foot in the door with Club 11 for so long, but now the opportunity has arisen, I'm a nervous wreck. It's not just the fact Liam and I will see each other regularly that has my stomach twisting in nauseating knots, it's the job requirement itself. I must dance half-naked in front of libidinous men. Immaterial to reservations, repudiating isn't an option. I've no idea what my next step is, not considered thus far ahead, but Kathy spent a lot of time in that building, so I'm sure to get some answers.

After learning Liam Warren has many conflictingly certifiable physiognomies, I know he's not going to share any details with me, not that I'm brave enough to interrogate him, but, surely, a dancer, barmaid, cleaner or bouncer will remember something—anything that'll help me uncover the truth behind my sister's disappearance.

I am not docile enough to probe Liam's loyal subjects straight away. It's going to take some time to befriend them, earn their trust. I'm hoping they'll intuitively mention Kathy without my querying or investigating. Well, that's the best-case scenario...

I arrived at work earlier than expected. I'm not overly eager about strutting around in my underwear, but I wanted to make a good impression. Although Liam reconsidered his uncertainties concerning me, I know the hardest part isn't over—an impermeant role to show my worth.

Realistically speaking, Liam knows I'm incapable of exotic dancing. My performance in his office was not only embarrassing but downright painful for any spectator. I lack confidence. I'm nowhere near as glamorous as the other hired women.

I'm still unsure how I managed to pull this off, but I'm going to assume my ass in his hands clouded his normal level-headedness and sagacious perspective. He's a hot-blooded male, and I presented myself in lace underwear and straddled his lap, so it's evident he was confused—only thinking of the blood running south. I mean, it wasn't a typical interview—I don't think? There I go with those assumptions again. He was more concerned with touching me. I don't mean to sound conceited, but his advances would've gone further, had I been willing, confident—acted on the gravitational pull that enchanted the sexual air between us.

Tonight, on arrival, It was a surreal moment for me, omitting the queue, speaking directly to security. I didn't need to explain myself. The bouncers were expecting me, had me sign a few forms, gave me an employee identification card. One was kind enough to show me around before shift. It wasn't much of a tour. He unenthusiastically pointed out the locker room designated for employees, showed me the bar and toilet facilities and instructed the suites upstairs were off-limits without prior permission from the boss.

I still had fifteen minutes before my shift started, so I spent time surveying the dancers in the main room, flawlessly and acrobatically working those poles, gaining male attention without any effort.

I'd studied YouTube videos this afternoon, but no amount of studiousness prepared for such venereal finesse.

Inhaling deeply, I returned to the staff room, dropped my handbag on the wooden bench and did a few breathing exercises. The locker in the corner had my name on it. I stripped my clothes, hiding belongings above the cabinet instead.

I look to the door, ears perked up, listening for any advancing footsteps. Assured nobody is near, I stood on the bench, blindly swipe my arm above the lockers, tossing old clothes and dusty cosmetics aside. Before I can check inside the unlocked cranes, I overheard feet scuffing and quickly sink onto my backside as the door opens and a male barman strolls past, entering the small bathroom cubicle, barricading himself inside.

Puzzled, I blinked at his closed door, belatedly discerning our unisex surroundings. "Oh, great." I stand in front of the tall mirror, rechecking my appearance before heading back out front. I'd opted for a red lingerie set with black lace trim and a pair of peep-toe heels that used to belong to Kathy.

Cupping my breasts, I test the weight in my hands, wishing they were bigger. If it weren't a mandatory requirement to remove my bra, I'd be stuffing the cups tissues for developed cleavage. I shake away negative thoughts. "You can do it."

I exit the staff room, heading down the narrow hallway, only to be stopped by one of the dancers and, of course, she is gorgeous, choppy, vibrant red hair, dazzling blue eyes, and designer shoes that I want to pilfer from her feet. Her animal print corset sticks to her curvaceous figure like a glove—and I inwardly scold myself for not buying something as fiercely sexy.

She tucked her phone into her cleavage. "Come with me."

Her radiant confidence had my nerves skyrocketing. Suddenly aware of my unprepossessing image, I pinch my cheeks to add colouring, smooth a hand across my stomach, assuaging ever-present concerns and sickness.

"I'm Cherry," she said, eyeing me over her shoulder. "And you are...?"

Cherry's the name I'd overheard those men discussing last night. Although I disagree with their chauvinistic behaviour, Cherry's unfriendly and unapproachable, so I'm going to keep my guard up around her. "Alexa." She stops next to a private labelled door. "Where are we going?"

"It appears you already have a fan." She pushed the door open, motioning for me to enter. "He's paid for thirty minutes. A hefty payment, I might add, so don't mess this up, or you'll have me to contend with."

I warily looked into the room. An older man sits on the leather sofa, one arm curled behind his head, a drink in his other hand, beer belly resting on his thighs.

Straddling a man wasn't part of my job description. I'm supposed to be out front, stripping to music, not back here with a client. "Mr Warren said I'd be working the cages tonight." Her wicked smirk confirmed my doubts—unfriendly and misleading. "I wasn't made aware that I'd be giving private dances on the first shift."

She gave me a flippant wave of the hand. "Get over it, Alanna."

"Alexa," I correct, crossing my arms. "My name's Alexa."

"Whatever." Her hand curled around my elbow, and she forced me into the room. "Do not mess up. The boss is already looking for an excuse to fire your useless ass." Her harshness boiled my blood. "I give you a week," were her last words before shutting the door in my face.

For a moment, I just stand there, looking at the closed door.

How the hell did I manage to irritate someone on my first shift?

"About time, Missy," the client growled behind me. "Come over here and give me that dance."

Dear fucking God. I'm not sure I could stomach this.

Composed yet perspiring, I turned to face the guy, disgust rooting me on the spot. I watch him unbutton his shirt, displaying wild, grey chest hair and faded ink.

"Well," he said, my procrastination annoying him, "what are you waiting for?" He tapped his thigh as if encouraging a dog to mount him. "Get on."

Curling hair strands behind my ears, I lowered my eyes to the floor and moved towards him. His large hand came to my thigh, and I held my breath, counting inside my head. It's okay. He's not going to hurt me. It's all part of the job.

He helped me straddle him, positioning his folded arms behind his head, eyes heavy-lidded as he deliberately licks his top lip. He used cheap cologne to conceal his sweaty odour, but the rancid stench watered my eyes. I raised my chin, studied the wall behind him, rigidly rolling my hips.

His eyes fixated to my non-existent breasts, and a strained growl rattled in the back of his throat. His manhood hardened under me and, athough I should imagine it's against the rules, he bucked his hips, prodding my inner thigh. "Stop teasing and get me off."

Oh, the disgusting human. Orgasms and sleazy touching is beneath my paygrade. His hands clasped onto my ass. I ground down on my teeth, ready to climb off, protesting. "I am not—"

To my relief, the door unexpectedly opened, and the blond Suit I recognised from the coffee shop appeared.

"Get out," the client yelled, cheeks flaring crimson. "I paid for a private session."

The blond Suit briefly assessed the situation before saying, "Alexa, you're needed in Warren's office." He diverts his attention to the guy. "Two hundred extra for touching our merchandise. You know the rules, Hank. Additional trimmings come with the higher paid women, not our newbies."

Higher paid women?

Additional trimmings?

Is that why Cherry shoved me in here? She wanted me to give this man sexual favours in exchange for money? I paled at the thought. I've heard many rumours that Club 11 was a misinterpretation for Liam's businesses, a prostitution ring is allegedly one of many illegitimacies.

Hank's face turned beet red. "I barely touched her!"

Blond Suit grins, showing his perfect white teeth. "Pay the piper motherfucker."

I staggered off the guy's lap, legs almost buckling, converted to jelly. I'm glad the blond Suit intervened. I didn't want to be in this room, let alone dance for that man.

The Suit extended his hand to the guy. "Give me your wallet."

"No." Hanks jowls jiggled as he shook his head. "I already paid."

My eyes dash between both men. Blond Suit shoves the man's chest, steals the wallet from inside his suit jacket and begins ripping out wads of notes.

I'd expected an altercation or protest, but the guy just sits there, outraged as he watched the Suit help himself to cash.

"For you," the blond said roughly, placing a stack of notes in my hand.

"This is a joke," the guy muttered under his breath.

"Thank you." I stuffed the money into my bra.

The Suit set his hand on my lower back, leading me back into the hallway. "Nice rack."

I quickly covered my breasts.

"Why are you hiding them from me?" He stood over me, hiking a brow, toothpick balanced between his lips. "You do realise that bra must come off tonight in a room full of people, yet you're nervous about me seeing them hidden beneath lace."

The blond Suit made a valid point, so I lowered my arms. "Does he need to see me right this very moment?"

"Yes," he said, coercing me to follow. "By the way, the name is Bradley Jones, but nobody calls me that, got it? Brad works, or handsome, or gorgeous..." He pursed his full lips. "I can live with sexy."

I smiled. "Good to know."

"It's refreshing having someone new work here," he mused, tongue aligning the toothpick. "Boss hasn't hired anyone for months." He put a shoulder against Liam's door. Even with a lowered posture, his intimidating and towering presence had me squirming, wilting. "I'm still trying to work out why he hired you."

I lift a noncommittal shoulder.

"He was adamant after your little deranged meltdown at the coffee shop that he wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot barge-pole." He swept his gaze over me. "What changed?"

Did he find it necessary to remind me of my shameful episode? "I guess he changed his mind." Lifting my pride-filled eyes, I placed my hand on my hips. "I can be quite persuasive."

"Yeah?" He rolled his lower lip between his teeth, smirking down at me. "I can only imagine."

His suggestive tone burnt my cheeks. "Can you stop looking at me like that."

"Like what?" he challenges, taking a step closer, forcing me to put a hand on his chest, warning him with my eyes to step back. His muscles tightened under my touch, but he doesn't budge. "You talking about all the 'naughties' going through my head and all that malarkey."

I burst out laughing. "Naughties?" I thought he was making an inexorable advance, but his teasing smile confirms he sensed my edginess and used mischievousness to prevent hyperventilation.

His knuckles nudged my chin before he opened the office door and headed straight for the minibar. "I found her giving a private dance, working those hips and all that." He winks at me, pouring himself a drink. "She's a timid little thing, isn't she?"

Brad and I both know I wasn't working shit. I'm probably the worst employee Liam's hired to date. "You wanted to see me."

"What private dance?" Liam ignored me, awaiting Brad's response.

"Cherry chucked Alexa into a private room with Hank."

Liam glanced between us. "I never hired Alexa for exclusive clientele." He knocked back a shot of whisky, slamming the glass down on the desk. "Get Cherry in my office."

Oh, shit. Liam's pissed. If Cherry weren't such a bitch to me, I'd feel bad for her, but why should I? She'd lied to me. I work for one person, and that's the man standing in front of me. I'll remember that the next time someone who isn't him orders me to do something.

"Alexa." Liam breathes, eyes briefly taking in my choice of underwear this evening. "I've had time to rethink. You don't fit the criteria. No cages."

"What?" This cannot be happening. "That's not fair. I made three hundred pounds shaking my ass. I fit the standards on some level." Okay, so that's a bit of an overstatement. If Brad hadn't entered the room, I wouldn't have made a penny.

Brad chuckles into his glass but doesn't rat me out.

"I didn't say life was fair. Besides, you shouldn't have been in that fucking room, to begin with."

"I'm sorry." I don't know why I'm apologising. His employee instructed me to go into that room. "Mr Warren, please?"

"No." He stands his ground, perched on his desk.

Against my better judgment, I sniffled, blinking away unwanted tears. This man is doing a number on my confidence. I've never once claimed to be beautiful, but I didn't think I was ugly, either. What do those other women have that I don't? I'd made a massive effort with my look last night, and I purchased new lingerie for this evening. Nothing pleases this man.

"What doesn't fit?" Brad frowned, eyeing me from head to toe. "She has a banging body, and she's gorgeous. I reckon she'll adapt." He nodded his approval. "The men are going to love the whole young-and-innocent look."

Thank you, Brad. I'm glad someone sees potential in me.

Liam glared at him, the muscles in his jaw ticking. "Her lack of expertise means she's unprofitable. How is she to make me money if she can't entice customers?"

Even with big hair, full makeup, lace and killer heels, Liam still doesn't think I'm sexy enough. I rest my hands on my hips, shaking my head. Talk about being a fucking asshole. Why is he beating around the bush? He obviously thinks I'm unattractive, so just say the word, Warren.

I've learnt to deal with negativity, thanks to high school, but any antagonism or disapproval from Liam bothers me. I want him to like me. "Mr Warren, please?" I'm back to begging. "I need this job."

Both men look at me, but Liam speaks, "You're not doing the fucking cages—end of."

There's no more I can do to persuade him. I've done everything in my power to convince him that I'm capable, and he still sees me as a naive kid who's incompetent of tempting the male species.

"I've assigned you to the main bar instead."

"What?" I stared at him perplexed. "The bar? As in pouring alcohol and serving customers?"

He gives me a stiff nod.

I remain expressionless, speechless, but I'm secretly thrilled. I assumed he was letting me go. If anything, working behind the bar is better for me. It means I still have my foot in the door without the obligations of stripteases, dancing and old men orgasms. "So, I have a job?"

He became frustrated, eyes rolling heavenward. "You still have a job."

Alexa, why didn't you request a bar position, to begin with?

A sigh of relief escaped my lips. "Great!" I said a little too enthusiastically. "Thank you."

"Great!" he repeated sarcastically. "Natalie is expecting you." He nods to the door. "Leave."

Well, that's my cue to fuck off.

I hesitated by the threshold, held his eyes for a moment and whispered, "Thank you."

Closing the door in my departure, I swept bangs from my face just as Cherry ambled around the corner. "Hey, Alanna." Her smile was bogus. "In the boss' office, already? That's not good." She raised her chin, eyes gleeful. "So, I won't be seeing you again, huh?"

Is that why she put me in the room with Hank? She wanted Liam to fire me. "Why did you lie to me?"

She took her time to respond. "You don't belong here. You're out of your depth. It'll be like flogging a head horse trying to motivate you, Alanna. I don't have time to cater to your needs."

"Well, you're out of luck." I faced her head-on. "Mr Warren happens to see potential in me. Now, I didn't want to start working here under a cloud. I have no intentions of making enemies. However, I'm not here to make friends, either. So, if you don't like me, that's fine. Let's stay out of each other's way."

"You won't last here," she said, lip curling in disgust. "You're too weak."

I didn't respond, nor did I watch her enter Liam's office. I did, however, overhear him shouting, and even though it's childish, I couldn't help but smile. I don't want to fall out with co-workers; I can't afford to deal with scornful women, but I'm not here to put up with affronting people and their shit either.

The second I stepped behind the bar, a blond, Junoesque woman approached me. "You must be the new girl. I'm Natalie. You are to wear black shorts, white vest, and your heels will do fine." She scrutinised my shoes. "For now. Hair is always down and styled. The boss doesn't like his girls out front looking greased-up from the kitchen." Theatrically, she flung blonde hair over one shoulder, chucked a uniform at me. "You need to be on your best performance."

I held my new clothing at my chest. "Okay."

"We've had girls like you working here before," she said, bearing her disdain, "dipping into tills for rent money."

"Excuse me? I am not a thief!" Where the hell is this conversation going? And what is with the bitchiness in this place? Is everyone who works here so judgmental and hostile?

"There are cameras everywhere." She points to the one in the corner, directly in line with the bar. "Liam can see everything from his office. ."

Natalie regarded him on first name terms, not "boss" like his other employees, and there's a territorial flare in those condemning eyes. "Oh," is all I mustered, realising she must be special to Liam and, according to those men in the alleyway, so was Cherry. Does he sleep with all his female employees?

"Move it," Natalie ordered, returning to the customers.

Inside the staff room, I keenly slipped into my new uniform, checked my hair in the mirror, topped up my makeup.

I've never poured a pint in my life, but I use my key fob to log onto the till glanced at the never-ending customers, and yelled, "Next."

Over the next few hours, it's evident I am new at this. I take far too long to make drinks, spilt more draught beer than I supplied, and I've already smashed about seven glasses.

I tried not to notice the camera recording us, though, I couldn't help but wonder if Liam was sitting in his office, watching my every move. The concept had made me feel uncomfortable and certainly didn't help my progression tonight.

"Move over!"

"You're not serving quick enough!"

"Seriously! You're not going to last two minutes in this place if you don't move your ass!"

"I've no idea why he would hire someone like you. It's pathetic. He feels sorry for you."

The last statement had my eyes rolling.

What is Natalie's problem? She spent the entire night biting off my head like a rabid dog. Did I expect to walk in and make friends instantly? No. However, I hadn't considered acquainting to be this difficult.

These women haven't given me a chance. They've prejudged me the second I walked into the building, and decided I'm not worth getting to know. And I swear they're determined to force Liam's hand, hoping he'll see sense and fire me.

"Two beers," a customer orders.

I grabbed two-pint glasses, and lost one straight to the floor. I inhale a deep breath to calm myself down before retrieving another glass.

"Anything else?" I finished pouring them, grimacing when seeing more foam in those glasses than alcohol. I'm shockingly shit at this.

The guy stares at them in distaste, hesitating with his wallet.

"I'll cover those," I was quick to assure him. He shouldn't have to pay for such unworthy drinks.

"No. Don't be soft. I can see you're new." He gives me a warm smile, handing me a twenty-pound note. "Keep the change."

Why can't my co-workers be as friendly as the customers?

"Liam said you can leave now," Natalie informs me as she saunters past with a wine crate.

"Seriously?" I instinctively look at the camera, unsure. "I have another three hours left. Are you sure?"

"Yes, new girl." Opening a chiller, she stockpiled unopened bottles. "Why else would I say it? Fuck off."

"Peace out, bitch," I muttered, thrusting the door open, leaving the bar.

In the staff room, I change back into my clothes, collect my bag and head out front, grateful for the fresh, cold air as I head to the Underground. I was exhausted on my journey but managed to keep my eyes open until it was my stop.

As I leave the train and take my short walk home, I mull over tonight's antics. It was too busy to even converse with any employees. I hope it's not going to be like that every shift. I don't mind the hustle and bustle, but how am I supposed to find out about Kathy if holding a conversation in that place is almost impossible?

Did I even take a break?

Will those women ever like me?

Quit moaning, Alexa. You wanted this job, well, now you have it.

I reached my flat, unlocked my front door, slammed it behind me.

This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.

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