"I personally hate Cherry," said Nate, killing the Bentley engine, twisting in the driver's seat to antagonise Brad who's idly relaxed in the backseats. "She's a leach, man." My right-hand man has grown rather fond of the redhead back at Club 11 and Nate's fiercely protesting the idea. "You could not pay me to tap that gold digger. Is that what you want, Brad? Some club-bitch profiting off yours," he enunciated, cinching a pierced eyebrow. "Dirty goods. Toss her in the trash, where she belongs."
"Hey, I never said I was going to marry the bird," Brad rebukes as we all soared from the vehicle. "What do you think, Darren? You'd bone the bitch, right?"
Darren grunts, rubbing a hand over his bald head, half-heartedly disagreeing. "I ain't interested in those women. Grow up, Brad. Nobody cares about your limp dick."
Brad fumed, lips twisting in disgust. "Have you seen the size of my cock?" He gestures to his trouser-clad groin. "There's nothing limp about my manhood, thank you very much. And what? Are you too good for club whores all of a sudden? I'm pretty sure you begged Natalie to blow your pecker last night. What was it she said again?" Brad held a hand up behind his ear. "Oh, yeah. That's right. I'd rather fuck my dog, Darren."
Nate busted out laughing, clapping his hands.
"Screw you, Brad," Darren spat. "If everyone was like you? Club 11 would be crawling with sexually transmitted diseases."
Brad stepped up to him, his humorous expression diminishing. "I am three seconds away from ripping out your voice box—"
"Enough," I ordered, opening the coffee shop door, retrieving my wallet. "Save animosities for the enemy."
I wait in the queue, checking a message on my phone. Darren argues with another team member outside. Brad's unnecessary need to get under everyone's skin this morning has left him in a ruffled state.
"Howdy, pretty lady." Brad lifts his aviators, sending a bodacious blonde woman a lascivious wink. "Christ, get a fucking look at that ass."
I watched his female interest strut toward the exit, appreciating those thick, swaying hips. "You scared her off," I joked, feeling a familiar tingle clamber my neck. "Behave yourself." While he prattles one, I furtively glance around the coffee shop, sensing someone's scrutiny. Like every Friday, nothing was out of the ordinary, but it was there, that intense unease and horripilation sheathing my skin.
"Mr Warren," Audrey, the barista, sings. "Same as last week?" Deliberately lifting her voluminous chest, exhibiting ample cleavage, she taunts me with those striking grey eyes, tongue caressing her lower lip. "Black coffee?"
I dipped my head, handed over my debit card, paid for my purchase.
"Now that," Nate murmurs in my ear, "I would make time for." His gaze set on Audrey's figure-hugging dress. "Damn."
"Audrey is Cherry's doppelganger," Brad highlights the obvious. "Honestly, Nate. You need..."
I tuned their umpteenth debate down, tilted my head, listened to my surroundings. I hear a woman arguing with her husband on the phone, snivelling about divorce while ingesting coffee. Near the restrooms, two co-workers complain about their boss. That guy maundering to his mistress needs to work on his technique—those flirtatious promises had my lip twitching in distaste.
"Cherry sports a tongue piercing," Brad continues to try and convert Nate to the dark side. "It is a standard procedure. Everyone pegs Cherry at some point. Who knows? You might actually like her, Nate."
Why is he so obsessed with Cherry?
"Been there. Done that." Nate pursed his lips, eyebrows merging in a tight-knit frown. "Almost lost my balls in the process. And why are you so obsessed, anyhow? If you're so smitten with the girl, stake your claim."
Brad's chin hit the deck. "One woman isn't enough to quench thirst..."
I glimpsed over my shoulder, openly scanned our proximity. Normal, I thought, recognising some faces from last week, yet I can't shake the feeling of being watched.
Audrey extends an arm over the counter. "Here you go, Mr Warren." Her finger deliberately dragged across mine in our exchange. "Enjoy your day."
Brad and Nate move ahead, opening the shop door. I merely achieved five steps when someone collided into my chest, knocking oxygen from my lungs. Boiling coffee doused my shirt, clinging to my skin. Christ. It burns like a motherfucker. "Fuck. You need to watch where you're going," I barked, seizing a napkin from the counter, vehemently wiping my suit jacket. "Fucking hell."
"I'm sorry," a soft, breathless voice said. "I was in a rush and..." Her sentence stumbled off, and I looked up, our eyes aligning. "I was..."
I was momentarily flummoxed. She was stunning. Attractively tall but too slender, heart-shaped face, full, kissable lips, cute button nose—and those eyes. Christ, she had the most intense eyes, hazel-coloured enriched in speckled green and gold, adorned in long, thick eyelashes.
Clearing my dry throat, I consciously put my chest to hers, inhaling her sweet perfume as I discarded the coffee-stained napkin to the trash. Again, with our noses virtually touching, we locked eyes, and I waited for her to finish that sentence.
Panic flickered in her owlish gaze, surprising me when her sole focus became my mouth. I had to stop myself from smiling, sinking my teeth into my lower lip.
"I didn't mean to do that." She placed her hands over my shirt in an attempt to remove the mess she'd caused.
My muscles bunched together, body searing under her innocent touch. "What are you doing?"
She abruptly withdrew her hands, oddly studying her palms.
Familiar, I thought, lost in those transfixing, mesmerising eyes. "Do I know you?" My brows curled into a scowl. I stepped closer, and she craned her neck to meet my towering presence. "I feel like I've seen you before." No, it's impossible. I'd remember someone who looked like her, but it's the gravitation, compelling us closer, confusing me.
"No. I am sorry about that," she whispered, pointing to my ruined shirt. "I know your clothes are expensive."
It seems I have an admirer. "Are they?" I asked, voice huskier than I'd like. "And you'd know that how?"
"Well, it's an Armani three-piece, and you often wear Saint Laurent shirts..." She refused to finish her analysis, maintaining some level of dignity. "Can you get him another coffee?" she asked Audrey, diverting our outlandish conversation. "I'm paying."
Not on my watch. "That's not necessary."
Audrey keenly fixed me another coffee, rounds the counter to hand it to me—only the girl leaps ahead, an odd possessiveness radiating off her flushed skin. "Here." She holds out the cardboard cup with an infectious smile. "Peace offering."
I accept her offering, intentionally grazing my finger across her knuckles. "Thank you," I said, unable to take my eyes off her. It dawned on me that I was staring, so I adopted nonchalance, pretending her innocuousness bothered me. "Are you alright in the head?" I rudely asked, and her jaw slackened, horror-filled eyes widening.
Fuck. I affronted her. That was a dickhead move, Warren.
Why am I silently chastising myself? She's just some kid. Leave the shop and get a fucking grip. I did precisely that, shouldering past her, tossing the coffee, ignoring Brad's questioning eyes as I stepped back out front.
"Bossman—hey," Brad scolds behind me. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
The coffee girl dashed towards me, but Darren intervened, snatching her by the jumper. "What the hell?" she yelled, lashing about in his unyielding grip. "Let go of me!"
"Darren," I warned, but he didn't hear me. He handles the thrashing girl, snickering in amusement. "Darren."
She unexpectedly claws her fingernails across his face.
"You bitch," he hissed, shoving her forward.
"Please stop," she whimpered, curling her hands around his wrist, striving to free herself. "I'm sorry."
Darren snarls. "You put your hand on my face, little girl." He forcefully shoved her to the wall. I jogged back, seeing her aquiver all over. "Docile bint."
The girl spun to face everyone, but her eyes were gone. I acted on instinct, ran to her side, catching her boneless body in my grip. "Fuck's sake, Darren," I berated, shaking her shoulders. "She's only a fucking kid."
"She dragged her talons across my face." He dabs blood off his lips. "Crazy bitch. I say you bin the rat."
"Who is she?" Nate asked, crouching beside me, pressing two fingers on her neck, checking her pulse. "She fainted."
Brad chortled. "Darren, your ugliness drops bitches like shit drops flies."
Darren glowered, crimson jowls jiggling. "Piss off, Brad."
"Hey," I murmured, tapping her pink-stained cheek. "Wake up." Hair curtaining her face, chest rising and falling in an irregular rhythm, lips parting on a choked sob, closed eyelids twitching. "What's wrong with her?"
Nate tilts his head, eyes squinted. "Strange," he rasps, checking her pulse once more. "Holy fuck. Surely that's not normal."
"What?" I rest her back on my thigh. Her hoodie raises at the waist, exposing her creamy-looking stomach. "Nate?"
"She needs to wake up before she has a damn heart attack," he drawled, rising to his feet. "I don't know what kinda nightmare that chick is having, but it sure as hell puts satanic fear into her."
Her throat hollows, and she sporadically fights for breath. "Wake up." I shake her shoulders, add sharper slaps to her face. "Hey kid, you need to calm down. I think you might be having a fucking panic attack."
Inhaling a sharp breath, she snapped her eyes wide, scampered away from me, cowering against the bricked wall.
I gingerly touch her arms, head dipped, urging her to look at me. "What the fuck just happened?"
Her worried eyes dart around, conceptualising her situation. She slapped my hands away, clambered to her feet.
I soared to my full height, stepped back, assuring her I meant no harm.
"Stop referencing me as a child. I'm not a fucking kid," she spat, and her feigned fierceness inwardly amused me.
Brad tongues a toothpick to the corner of his mouth. "You sure about that? Jumper says otherwise."
Frowning, she tugged her jumper hem, cheeks darkened by the second, humiliated by her wardrobe malfunction. Flustered, she ripped the ridiculous turtles from her body and stuffed it in a tattered backpack. "It's not mine," she tried saving her ostentatiousness. "I borrowed it from a friend."
"Don't worry about what's on her jumper lads," Gavin, another one of my men said. "Her tits tell a different story."
My eyes automatically lowered to her chest. She wears no bra under that fitted cotton T-shirt—small, perked mounds, hard nipples. Again, why am I wasting my Friday morning checking out some girl? She's not even my type. I like women—curvaceous women, flawless, generous assets and tantalising confidence. Not some young, averred coy and unattractively slim loose wire that passes out for no apparent reason.
As if sensing my deriding thoughts, she glanced at me, morose and humiliated.
My heart skipped a beat. No, she is hardly unattractive. This girl is dangerously beautiful. "That's enough," I admonished my laughing men into silence. "We're leaving."
The men dispersed, loading the Bentleys.
I remained rooted on the spot until I found myself magnetising toward her. I wanted to see those eyes up close and personal again.
"I feel like an idiot," she whispers, rubbing the chill from her arms.
"You banged your head when you fell," I lied, seized her chin, pretending to examine her cheek, startling her. "You might want to get that checked."
Her forehead creased. "Is it bad?"
"I'm sure you'll survive," I whisper, pressing my thumb to her jaw, eyes landing on her lips.
Her chest rose, fixating me to those breasts and slender neck. Wisps of hair blew across her angelic features, and I listened to her shallow breaths somewhat fascinated.
I lowered my arm, retreated, puzzled by this unnatural gravitational connection.
Walk away, Warren.
I listened to the guy in my ear, hands stuffed in my trouser pockets, sensing her curious eyes on me the entire time. I hesitated by the Bentley, almost looked back, opened the door and climbed inside. "Drive," I ordered, and Nate fires the engine. Through the wing mirror, I study the girl whose yet to leave, her despondent gaze cast downward.
"Who the fuck was that?" Brad asked, shooting a text message on his phone. "She had a great ass."
"She's nobody," I said, my aching heart beating double time. "Forget about it."
People mourn their loved ones, bleed painful tears and whimper harrowing guilt throughout. Our dark, depressing skies complained, thunder rolling in the distance, rain splattering against the memorialised grounds that once offered accommodation to over four hundred people. Few survived that catastrophic, fateful night, ones who hadn't been home, or lucky enough to escape before the fire commenced.
Previously, Law enforcement restrained me, filed charges for assaulting an officer and possessing a firearm. Those do-gooders confiscated my Desert Eagle. Yeah, I was pretty fucking pissed about that. I have access to weaponry, but that personalised gun holds sentimental value. It's customised solid-gold exterior, and Warren engraving has been in my ownership since the day I started building my empire.
Fortunately for me, Chief Superintendent Reginald Burton returned such belongings and unlawfully handed Brad buried evidence regarding the judge who pre-decided my prison sentence—I'll touch upon his situation later.
As asserted, I am a free man—a numb, grieving, devastated man—who stands before Alexa's graveside. Like all the victims, her wooden cross and plot number remain at the burial ground where a tenanted building once soared.
I am numb, dead inside. I haven't slept properly in over two weeks. Every night, when lying in bed at the penthouse, I call her phone, hoping that by some miracle, she'll answer, or I stare at the screen, reading through old text messages. I miss her. It is painful and cumbersome to breathe without her near.
I would quite literally sell my soul to the devil to have Alexa back in my arms.
People don't want me here. Their resentment and disdain, emitting from their quivering bodies, anger palpable and unwarranted. I don't know these mourners, yet they know me. I stepped into uncharted territory to pay my respects, to say goodbye to Alexa. I appreciate their animosity and dislike. In fact, I am accustomed to the abhorrence of others, but I have every right to be here.
Brad squeezed my shoulder, murmuring Chloe's arrival in my ear.
I adjusted my black aviators, tucked my hands into my trouser pockets, prepared myself for a lambasting.
Blundering on high heels, concealed in all-black attire, Chloe wades through sobbing throngs, handbag to her chest, blonde hair dragged into a tight ponytail. "You shouldn't be here," she cries, ignoring the familiar yet unnamed blond male urging her to calm down. "You're not welcome, Warren!"
Around us, people hushed into silence, eavesdropping.
I disregarded her with arrogant contempt, turning to face Brad.
"Don't put your back to me," she shrieked, shoving me in the shoulder. "Face me like a man, Warren—"
"Like a man," I barked, putting us nose-to-nose, deliberately intimidating her under my disparaging scowl. "You don't want me at my worst, Chloe," I warned, abruptly snatching her throat, detecting sharp gasps from onlookers. "You couldn't handle it."
Bug-eyed and lachrymose, her fingers coiled around my wrist. "I hate you," she whimpered, tears streaming down her blotchy cheeks. "If it weren't for you? Alexa would still be alive—"
"Watch your mouth," I spat through gritted teeth, failing to compose myself. "You know absolutely nothing about my relationship with Alexa. I tried to protect her."
Her nostrils flared. "Your protection put her in a box—"
I slapped her, hard, the blow resounding in our distressing propinquity.
If Alexa were here, she would undoubtedly attack me for that harsh display. That woman loved her best friend. They were closer than most sisters, lived, laughed and cried together. Only she is not here today and never will be. I got no reason to accept anything but respect from my inferiors. And that troublesome blonde needs to learn her place.
Brad groaned to my side, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Chloe's knees landed in the mud, a pained whimper falling from her lips. The blond male spits curses, hands slipping under her arms, helping her stand.
Dabbing her cheeks with a bunched-up tissue, she slips off a bangle from her wrist, draped it on the staked cross and buried her head on the guy's chest. He kissed the tip of her nose, wrapped her in his supportive arms, averting his gaze to the sky, blinked back tears.
"Get her the fuck away from me," I said hoarsely, the knot in my throat shifting. "Now."
I don't watch them leave.
I don't listen to the surrounding scorn.
I wait for Brad to drop back, give me a moment.
Positioning one knee to the ground, I smooth my palm across the wooden plaque, thumb outlining the engraving—Alexa Haines.
Leading officers pronounced my woman dead.
Gone. Never coming back.
"I'm sorry," I whispered a kiss onto a red rose, arranged it on the uneven mound. "I failed you."
With a thumb and pointer finger, I rubbed my eyes beneath the aviators, anger and revenge replacing endless grief.
"I love you. In this life or the next, I will always be yours. When death knocks on my door," I cracked a sad smile, feeling a loan tear slip down my cheek, "you better be the one that comes for me."