My impermanent cell epitomises scant and unsatisfactorily incommodious living. I detest those sewage-dripping concrete walls, despise the partially barricaded enclosure and spring-protruding mattress.
Present distressing circumstances are akin to the foetid basement from my childhood, the most poignantly upsetting memory of lonesomeness, trepidation and all-consuming anxieties.
Pulling myself off the makeshift bed, I trudged across the floor, palmed chalk-like debris and sat cross-legged before the metal gate.
I stopped tallying days; I no longer care.
Dragging the stone across the ground, I sketch improbabilities and representations to keep myself occupied. I stare at the unprofessional imagery with a humoured grin on my face. I am no Paul Cadden, but the black chalked flower garden certainly added juvenile yet divine décor to this squalid dump.
Dusting off my dirty hands, I stood and went for a walk—ten steps forward and ten steps back—skirting around the short-lived circumference.
I stared at the cracked wall and repeated the journey once more. "God," I groaned, shuffling through strewn rubble. "I am wasting away."
Picking encrusted begrime from my fingernails, I marched around the small square until sweat clung to the nape of my neck. "Bored."
Elongating my body across the floor, I yawned, stretching my arms overhead.
My stomach ached and knotted from hunger pangs. I need nourishment, water at best. Illusory strawberries melted on my tongue, and I tasted my dry, chapped lips.
Intense sorrow weighed heavily on my shoulders, and unendurable bereavement caved my chest. "I want to go home," I whispered, feeling a loan tear tickle from my eye, wading over the bridge of my nose.
I missed the flat, rousing to the sound of Chloe's honeyed voice and the smell of brewing coffee.
I missed the Coffee House, humoured and entertained by Gray's genuine earnestness and side-splitting jester qualities. His whimsical sense of humour.
I missed Club 11. Josh, Brad and Nate.
Most of all, I missed Him. Liam Warren. I missed him to the point of sleep deprivation and all-consuming nostalgia. I missed him so much that it hurt to breathe. "Please don't stop loving me."
Surely, Liam has the resources and contacts to find me.
What's taking him so long?
I foolishly believed he'd have rescued me by now.
It doesn't make any sense.
Snagging my duvet, I tore the floral coverlet off, gathered shattered, random-shaped stones and stuffed them into the foul-smelling material. "Bored."
What am I doing?
I am losing my damn mind.
Troubling considerations withered me on the spot.
What if Liam has forgotten me?
No, I refuse to believe he'd give up on me—on us.
"Fucking bored," I yelled, hurling the sack-pilled rocks aside. "Jace!" Grasping the metal bars, I twisted my head to the side and glared at the stairway. "Jace, I know you can hear me, you fucking asshole. I need to use that bathroom—I need to eat."
Three days, I thought, sliding down the partition. It's been three days since he visited.
I smell worse than a rabid skunk.
I am ravenous, thirsty and humiliatingly enduring menstruation. "Please," I whispered, locking my thighs together, hiding dry, caked blood. "Please, Jace. You're killing me."
Heavy footsteps echoed above. I looked up, blinking against almost invisible dust particles, hearing his frantic movements. The door unlocked and sharply swings open before he descended the steps.
Repositioning to my knees, I held onto the poles and watched him with intent interest.
He tossed his leather jacket onto the sofa, rolled up his jumper sleeves and unzipped a black gym bag. "Stand up," he orders, and I acquiesced. "No talking."
I nod, waiting for him to unlock the gate.
Whipping a towel over his shoulder, he avoided my seeking gaze, snatched my elbow and dragged me toward the bathroom. "Can I trust you not to run again?" he asked with a mocking undertone, slamming the door behind us. "Get in."
Nodding numbly, I lifted the hoodie from my body, slipping it to the ground.
"I restocked the cabinet." He closed the toilet lid and became seated. "Go ahead."
I gingerly selected rose-scented shampoo and conditioner, rummaging for tampons or pads. "I am on my period, Jace."
His gaze lowered to my blood-stained thighs and his lips parted. "Shit." Adam's apple shifting, he rubbed his pinched eyes. "I'll go..." He cut himself off. "I think I purchased some. I'll be right back."
He locked the door behind him, leaving me unattended.
Ripping the stained plastic curtain aside, I stood under the showerhead and turned on the water. For a short while, I do nothing but relish under cascading warmth, eliminating sweat and other bodily odours.
Squirting shampoo into my palm, I lather my hair, comb through with my fingers and repeat with conditioning. Scrubbed raw and smelling pleasant, I wait for Jace's return, flinching when scolding temperatures pierce my skin. "Shit." I snag a towel and wrap it around me, lingering by the basin.
What the hell is taking him so long?
Puffing out my cheeks, I whistle melodious tunes and study my long, dirty fingernails. I'd give anything for a manicure right now. I swear, if I am lucky enough to outlive Jace's hideaway, I will devotedly preserve red-painted talons and well-deserved pedicures.
Opening the cabinet, I search for something sharp, opt for a cotton bud and remove embedded filth. Pleased with the end result, I rewash my hands and sit on the closed toilet seat.
Jace doesn't return for fifteen minutes.
"Here," he said, relatively breathless. "I got you a selection."
An array of feminine hygiene items land on my lap.
He wears a jacket and rain droplets dance on his brown, dishevelled hair. I inhale his emitting scent, leather, sandalwood and pine. Earthy, I thought, selecting a tampon box. He left the building to purchase sanitary products, which means there's a small shop or convenience store nearby.
Hope inflated my lungs. I idiotically presumed the coastal views and barren perimeters exemplified uninhabitable bleak emptiness. "Thank you."
Lips pressing into a flat, grim line, he gave me a moment's privacy, closing the door behind him.
I went about my business, washed my hands for the third time and exited the bathroom.
Jace rummages through a black holdall on the sofa. "Get dressed."
I catch a grey tracksuit and change, lingering with the damp towel between clenched fists.
Tearing a porridge wrapper with his teeth, he empties oats into a mug, adds a splash of milk and sets unappetising fodder in the microwave. "Sit."
Drawing back a wooden chair, I become seated at the small, round table.
The microwave chimed.
Extracting the mug, he adds extra milk, stirs with a plastic spoon and then sets it on the table. Sweet honey flavours greet my senses. I inhaled and moaned in a euphoric haze, salivating and devouring splodge with gusto. God, you'd think I was consuming a three-course meal, steak or salmon, herby potatoes or pungent ravioli.
"Same," said Jace, sitting opposite me, stirring his unpalatable gruel.
Licking starch from my lips, I stared at him beneath hooded brows. "What?"
"Steak and herby potatoes?" He spooned oats into his mouth. "I could eat that right now."
His unwelcome, rude empath gift needs to back off. "How did you know what I was thinking?"
He stared at me, dumbfounded. "Thinking?"
I decided to test his paranormal aptitudes. "What else did I think, huh?"
Jace tapped the spoon against the mug edge. "Ravioli."
My lips parted in utter disbelief. "How are you doing that?"
"You are so fucking strange," he rudely grated, cracking open a can of beer. "You talk to yourself, Alexa. I am not a medium or clairvoyant or whatever." He scratched his stubble jaw, highlighting the fact he hasn't shaved for a while. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
He's right. I do converse with myself—I need to work on that. "You're starving me," I point out the obvious, hugging myself. "I understand that I am in no position to demand or make orders, but feeding me every couple of days is going to result in premature death, Jace. Look at me." Lifting the hoodie, I exhibited my slender waist and protruding ribcage. "I am wasting away down here. I'll either die of starvation or represent a corpse-like skeleton." He only stares, emotionless and infuriatingly aloof. "Flamur will kill you for callous neglect."
I detest the Albanian. His obsession regarding me knows no bounds. I can, however, mislead Jace by using Flamur's fascination against him. "He wouldn't want me to starve."
Jace tossed the spoon down and raked a hand through his hair. "Nice try, Alexa. Bajramovic's first request was your vulnerability and weakness. I am obeying direct orders."
Of course, the monster wants to weaken my body, mind and soul. He plans to control and possess everything about me. "Why are you doing this to me, Jace? I was kind to you—"
"Don't do that," he cuts my off, casting his eyes to the floor. "I don't want to hear it."
"You're sending me to my death," I grated, slamming my palms onto the table in maddening rage. "I offered to pay you—"
"It's not about money," he retorts, glaring at me through wide, murderous eyes. "Not everything in life revolves around affluence and meaningless grandiloquence, Alexa. Do I look like a man who cares for gratuitous bullshit." He madly gesticulates to himself. "I am not a pompous fucking tycoon who thinks the world owes him something. You're getting me confused with your beloved Warren." He scoffed in disapproval. "Fucking ridiculous."
I sliced my eyes at him. "You're just jealous," I said, unperturbed yet deceptively nonchalant. "Liam didn't murder your parents, Jace. In fact, I don't believe the man warrants your judgemental, unsolicited opinions—"
"Did you forget that he put a gun to my head?" Elbows positioning onto the table, he laced his fingers together. "If it weren't for you? I'd be swimming with the goddamn fishes!"
"And I defended you," I argued, questioning his unhinged characteristics. "What an imprudent decision that was."
He laughed with a sincere, unexpected smile. "Yeah, I guess."
I gave him a prolonged, immerse look.
"Don't judge me," he bantered, checking a message on his phone. "You don't know what the fuck I've been through."
I didn't care for knowledge, either. "Yet you know everything about me," I said, jutting my chin forward. "And still, you'd send me back to that vile, monstrous man."
Jace peered up from his phone but masqueraded his features.
"My sister is dead," I continued, and his eyebrows furrowed. "Kathy, I mean. She's dead. My mother also. I loved them both very much." I curled hair behind my ears, twisting at the waist to look at the blanked-screen television. "I don't remember my father. I think he was around, but not often. I get flashbacks of his loud voice, hurtful words and obstreperous upheaval. Well, they're either flashbacks, nightmares or figments of my imagination."
He sets his phone onto the table, listening with piqued interest.
"Flamur raped and murdered my mother."
I recall Liam stressing otherwise attempting to shield and leave my memory untainted.
"Before he kidnapped Kathy," I said, blinking rapidly to cloak vivid evocations. "And then, me."
"Why are you telling me this?" He eased back in his chair, folding his arms. "Quit trying to fuck with my head. Your sob story falls on deaf ears." Pulling his barbell between gnarled teeth, he penetrated me with a cold, derisive glare. "Nothing you do or say will impact or deride my decision." He slid the phone toward me. "Just accept fate and get over it."
I glanced at the screen.
I kept my evasive mask in place. "You're all disgusting monsters."
He smiled flatly. "Exclaims the woman who opens her legs for London's most notorious crime lord."
"Fuck you," I spat, lobbing the phone at his chest, earning myself a vexing snicker. "Oh, I am glad my anguish enlivens you, asshole. Don't you ever, ever, compare Liam to that sick son of a bitch. He might be dangerous, but he'd never harm a child!"
Jace wore a frozen, angry expression. "Let's prepare you for—"
"No." I stood, the chair legs scraping against the floor. "I am not going away with the twisted, demonic monster. I'd rather die than let him touch me again." Without orders, I returned to the enclosure and parked on the mattress.
Through the railing gaps, I watch Jace stand and clear the table.
How can he be so calm?
How can he pretend everything about this ordeal is normal?
Jace didn't lock the gate. I suppose my departure tomorrow alleviated such needless limitation measures.
Opening the mini-fridge, he grabbed another beer, swigged thirstily, turned on the television and selected a melodious radio station.
I laid on my side, resting my head on flatted hands.
We watched each other with equal interest.
Breaking away from our unexplainable exchange, Jace lifted a cardboard box onto the table, flipped open a switchblade and tore through the seal. Forehead wrinkled, he thumbs through contents and downed further alcohol. "Can you return to the table, Alexa?"
Is he on drugs? "No."
He tampered down irritation, setting an additional beer beside the box. "I'll let you have some alcohol."
"Is it open?" Okay, I might bend for mind-numbing substance. "I don't trust you, Jace. You likely poisoned it."
"It's an unopened bottle," he assures, tapping the chair. "Come on."
It's not as though I had anything better to do.
Clambering off the mattress, I returned to my seat, crossed my legs and popped open the bottle. I sipped, effervescing apple flavours sloping down my throat. "Cider?"
Jace dipped his head, scribbling unreadable sentences into a small, leather-bound book.
"If I behave," I said, and he flung me a sideward glance. "If I do as I am told and not fight you, can I make one request?"
Poised and modulated, he tossed the book into the box. "What's the request?"
"A friendly conversation, omnipresent music and perhaps a movie later."
"Your mathematical skills are atrocious," he joked, slumping onto a chair. "That's three demands, Alexa."
My smile widened a fraction. "I held back on food," I half-heartedly teased, picking the paper emblem from the cider bottle.
Setting his jaw in place, Jace nods.
"What do you do?" I asked, and he frowned in puzzlement. "I mean, before the Coffee House."
He eyed me with a distrustful glimmer in his specious, enchanting green eyes. "I am a tattoo artist. I worked at a parlour for over four years. It didn't pay much, but I enjoyed it nonetheless."
"Will you return to the Coffee House once I am gone?"
He shook his head.
"You'll reclaim your old job roll?"
Once more, he shook his head.
"What will you do?" God, it's like drawing blood from an impenetrable stone. "Where will you go? I mean, I guess you have this place." I swept disapproving eyes over the peeling wallpaper and old-fashioned, scarce furnishings. "A lick of bright paint and contemporary upgrades ought to do the trick, right?"
"You didn't shave," he said, changing the subject. "You'll need to sort that tomorrow." Digging inside the box, he presented lace underwear on the table. "Here are a few choices for you."
I stared at the designer labels and white lace. "Did you buy these?"
"No," he exclaims, unable to meet my gaze. "Bajramovic sent them."
Setting the bottle down, I picked up a padded bra. "It's not my size."
"I know," he whispered, chewing his thumbnail. "We'll make it work."
"An underwire bra is ineffective. I lack breasts despite bust support and accentuated cleavage. And this," I lifted the French lace underwear, "will fall off. I think he's confusing my physique with my sisters."
Jace ceded in his seat, wiping sweat from his temples. "How did she die?"
I am not prepared to throw Liam into the firing line. "She killed herself—couldn't live with her demons."
He wanted elaborateness but refrained from asking. "Was she pretty?"
It was an odd question. It made me wonder if Jace considered our resemblances. "Yes," I admit, fumbling with the underwear. We had similar features. The same eye colour, noses and we both had our mother's horrendous laugh. "Kathy inherited such raw beauty. Sure, we're alike, but she was something else. Her hair was so black it was blue, and her infectious smile gained awareness wherever we ventured. Unlike me, she had a flawless, curvaceous body, assets and a magnetising face that most men appreciated. I lived in her shadow, but I never resented her. I looked up to Kathy, admired and adored everything about her."
Jace's eyebrows met as he listened.
"Kathy was beautiful, Jace." I smiled impishly at him. "Beautiful, fun, smart and..." Deceiving, I thought, swallowing a painful lump. "Anyway..."
"Your hair is dark, not almost blue, but has a brown shimmer," he said, tapping his knuckles on his thigh. "Your eyes are incredible. At a glance, they look hazel, sometimes brown, but if you look closely," he inched in, forearms resting on the table, "green speckles overshadow. Your gaze is most definitely your best feature. However, immaterial to how you perceive yourself, you're beautiful, Alexa."
"I'm working on self-love." My throat was suddenly dry, and tears brimmed my eyes. "I guess it'll take time."
"No, you just need to stop comparing yourself to Kathy."
Jace opened a rectangular leather box where a diamond choker laid on black padding. "I think these are real."
I saw nothing but red. "I am not wearing that," I protest, summoning fury. "I am not a dog, Jace. How dare he try and put a collar on my neck—"
"Alexa," he growled, closing the jewellery box with a harsh snap. "You said that you'd behave."
"And you said, you were gay," I spat, lunging the bottle across the room. It smashed into the wall, showering glass and bubbly liquid. "You also claimed that Liam murdered your parents—before beguiling me into believing you were a decent, humble man who yearned for friendship. Don't you dare sit there and berate me for going back on my word, not after you lied to me, not after everything you've done."
"I don't have time for this," he clipped, selecting a garment for me. "You need to try these on. I think the purple dress—"
I snatched it from his hand, stepped out of his jogging bottoms and tore off the hoodie. "No problem." Fumbling with the satin material, I furiously tugged it over my head. "I shall present myself accordingly, my lordship."
He rolled his eyes. "Quit with the melodramatics."
"Hair up or down?" I demonstrated and then dropped matted locks over one shoulder. "You might need to brush the ends."
A muscle popped in his jaw. "You don't need me to brush your hair."
"Incorrect. Nowadays, I rely on you for everything."
My sarcasm irked him. "Do you want to go back in the cell? At this rate, you'll be listening to that movie through the wall."
"I mastered how to pleasure a man before my tenth birthday," I said, and he stopped pacing. "It became a customary cycle. He'd unlock the door and enter the place that both shielded and terrified me. I counted Jace. I'd hide under the duvet and count his footsteps until he reached me—fifteen for the stairs and eight toward the bed.
"I was fortunate enough to reach eleven before he claimed my virtue," I continued, and he put his back to the wall. "He tried beforehand, but I wasn't able to accommodate him. You know, being underdeveloped."
"Stop," he rasped, breathing heavily into a clenched fist. "I don't want to hear this."
"I escaped, Jace," I cried, throat thickening on sobs. "I unclipped my wings. Please reconsider and let me go. I won't tell anyone what happened; I promise—"
"No," he barked, slumping on the sofa. "It's a non-negotiable transaction, Alexa. Quit trying to get inside my head and ready yourself for the morning."
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
Through momentarily impaired vision, I rounded the table with lackadaisical steps, towered above his hunched frame and straddled his thighs.
"What are you doing?" He ebbed away from me, capturing my wandering his hands in vice-like grips. "Alexa?"
"Please," I cried, forcing him to embrace him. "Please, Jace. Don't do this to me. I can't survive any more heartbreak." I kissed his jaw, and he protested. "Jace."
"Stop," he growled, shutting his eyes. "Alexa!"
"He'll kill me!" I screamed, and he threw my body onto the ground. Palms flat to the floor, I see him searching for his keys, preparing to leave. "No, Jace. Please don't do this. I beg you."
He angrily tore on his leather jacket.
In brave mode, I lunged to my feet, charged at him and blindly pummelled my fists into his back.
He hissed, dodging my uncontrollable blows and soaring anger. "Stop fucking hitting me!"
"You are a cold-hearted monster!" I spat, not giving two shits about my gnarled features and unattractive appearance. "Imagine if it were your mother. Your sister. Your daughter. I might be worthless cargo to you, but I am loved by many and what you're doing? Enabling that sick, child molester is sadistic and barbaric—"
Gripping my neck, he hauled me close, boring into me with fierce, promising eyes. "You are seriously testing my patience."
I spit in his face.
Saliva slapped his chin and his fierce expression detonated. He flung my body across the table, the bottles and ceramic mugs fractured on forceful impact.
I contortion onto the floor, his merciless action knocked the wind from my lungs. "Jace," I wheezed, futilely attempting to move. "My head..." Light-headedness blurred my vision, and painful ruptures burnt my face, hands and legs. "It hurts."
Jace's leather boots stepped onto broken glass. He spits out a curse and retreats, leaving me on the cold floor.
I heard the door slam and lock in place.
Exhaling harshly, I mustered enough strength to crawl away from the carnage and slumped, boneless, disordered, giving into darkened temptation.