SACRIFICE (Book Two: The London Crime King)

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Chapter 12

Disembodied footsteps thudded around me. I felt a soft, warm hand knead aback my neck before two muscular arms elevated me off the ground.

Rousing to the sound of wearied, murmuring words, I pressed my cheek to my keeper’s chest, oddly embracing his closeness.

“Alexa,” Jace rasped in my ear, lips brushing my lobe, “I need you to open your eyes.”

I smelt a night of vodka on his breath. Nose wrinkling, I licked my dry lips, unquenchable thirst thickening my throat. “My head hurts.”

He positioned me on something cold, gently placing my back to a wall.

I lazily opened my eyes, hands numb, rested on the kitchen counter.

Jace dipped his head. Through sad, red brimmed eyes, his studious concern flickered over my twisted features. “Shit,” he murmurs, cupping a hand to his mouth. “Let me clean you up.”

Eyebrows snapping together in bafflement, I evaluated our previous disarray. He’s yet to clean the aftermath of our shambolic altercation. Broken bottles, glass and that hideous lace mar the wooden floor alongside overturned furniture and damaged picturesque canvases. “What happened to the ocean?” I croaked, scrutinising the paintings impaired four corners and ruptured art.

Jace stayed tight-lipped, drenching a hand towel with cold water. He inspected the scratches on my thighs, checked for glass shards and cleaned painless wounds attentively.

Breathing out an alleviated breath, I swallowed to satiate thirst, examining his inflamed, busted knuckles. “What happened to your hands?”

His fingers tightened around the cloth. “I got mad.” Leaving me on the counter, he meandered between overturned disruption and returned with a leather satchel. He individually organised medical equipment beside me. “Here.” He handed me an unopened vodka bottle. “Get some of this down you.”

Confusion weighed worryingly on my chest. “Why?” In a careful, guarded manner, he pressed a cold compress beneath my eye, and excruciating pain zapped through me, right to the bone. “Holy shit,” I shrieked, whacking his hand away, noting fresh blood on the cloth. “Jace...”

“Lid-cheek,” he said tightly, biting his lower lip. “You need stitches.”

I am confident that I paled. “Please tell me that you’re joking,” I argued, touching my raw flesh with analytic fingertips. Blood dampens my fingers, too much blood. “I’m going to be sick.”

“No,” he protests, unscrewing the vodka, cajoling me to drink. “Get it down you.”

Nausea pirouettes in my stomach. “No, Jace. I am seriously going to vomit—” I dry-heaved, shoulders hunching forward. I bury my head in the sink, retching nothing but bile-tasting saliva.

Jace rubbed my back, dabbing dribble from my lips and chin. “You need to drink vodka.”

Puffing out a regrouping breath, I set the bottle to my lips, guzzling ferocious dauntlessness. “Will it scar?” I asked, using the back of my hand to wipe my mouth. “I don’t want any needles.”

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly, preparing and snipping adhesive strips. “And I am not using a needle, Alexa. I do need to close the cut, though.”

I wriggled my clammy fingers, rubbing them on the ruined purple dress. “Thank God.”

Jace washed his hands, snapped on a pair of sterile gloves and pinched the hollowness beneath my eye.

Hissing through gritted teeth, I straightened, closing my eyes as he applied strips. “Why do you stockpile gloves?” I wondered aloud, downing another vodka shot. “It’s weird.”

“I’m a tattoo artist,” he reminds me, arranging a second stitch. “I think this might scar.”

Of course, my unfortunate-self was destined for additional imperfections. “Whatever.”

A line appeared between his meshed brows. “I am sorry,” he said, but I cared not for his meaningless expression of guilt. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper on you.”

Is this man seriously deranged? Such snarky remarks irritated the tip of my tongue. Jace, cruel, uncaring and unapologetic, plans to deliver me to a sadistic, perverted sexual predator yet he regrets scarring my profile. His disorientation and incomprehensible interpretations continue to render me speechless. “No problem,” I muttered in disbelief, vodka beginning to take effect. “This,” I point to my eye, “is the least of my worries, right?”

Finalising the stitches, he tore off the gloves, hurled them in the sink. “I think glue would’ve been more effective,” he explains, unappeased by his butchered handiwork. “Those do the trick, though.”

What-the-fuck-ever. “Splendid.”

Unzipping a gym bag, Jace searched for a clean tracksuit. “Here.” He drops black slacks and a hoodie on my lap. “Put something warm on.”

His conflicted, confused state of mind disturbs me.

Slipping off the counter, being careful to dodge glass, I headed to the bathroom, closed the door behind me and ripped the dress from my body. I stepped into the jogging pants, lingered at the sink, checked my reflection in the wall-mounted mirror. “Shit,” I cursed, yanking on the hoodie.

Yes, Jace’s botched patchwork is going to leave a beautiful scar.

Thank you, asshole.

Cupping cold water In my palms, I soaked my neck to soothe overheated flushes and dried my hands with a rough towel.

I hear muffled music. He’s turned on the television.

Cracking open the door, I glimpse into the cavernous, echoing space, watching him prepare porridge at the microwave. I slipped a furtive glance to the staircase, eyes virtually popping out of my head.

Jace left the door open.

Previously, Jace claimed he’d stockpiled feminine hygiene products. His extensive journey to the other room and newfound earthy scent suggested otherwise. No, he hadn’t amassed said female necessities. His web of dishonesties and misinformation stems from nervousness. He doesn’t want me to be cognizant of our surroundings, or for me to possibly escape and find help.

I eyed the opened door once more.

“Alexa,” he called, and I bristled. “Your food is ready.”

Before I could talk myself out of it, I belted across the room and ascended the stairs to the sound of his panicked voice.

Hurrying over the threshold, I sprinted down the narrow hall, hearing his loud footsteps bellowing behind me. “Come on,” I cried, thumping into the front door, rattling the handle. It flew open and strong winds greeted me, whooshing through my untamed hair.

Bare feet sinking into swamp-like grounds, I sprinted across vast greenery, directionless, knowing this impulsive escape was my last shot to freedom.

Mud sludges between my toes, the dark, starless sky blanketed our vicinage.

“Alexa!” Jace roared and, in frantic haste, magnetises toward me. “Don’t do this!”

I looked over my shoulder, seeing his nearing shadow and picked up the pace. Arms swinging at my sides, I caught my foot on a grass-obscured boulder, plummeted into overgrown speers and crawled hysterically, stifling my erratic sobbing.

“Alexa,” he groaned, his movements curtailing, seemingly hesitant. “Please.”

I waited, flattened myself to the ground, filthy palms smothering my mouth.

Brittle twigs cracked under his weight.

I held oxygen to the back of my throat, temples pulsing, igniting a painful headache. I regulated my breathing, forearms meshed to the mud and sniper through long, damp grass, deafening his desperate plea.

“I don’t want to hurt you.” His lie coincided with a click of a gun. “Don’t make me hurt you, Alexa.”

I locate a tree, snake my vibrating body around the coarse bark, trembling from uncontrollable adrenaline. I see Jace’s silhouette. He oscillates, hand falling to another tree, head lowering in what looks like a defeated stance. “Please,” he moaned, stumbling along, checking behind trees and kicking through overgrown grass.

Blinking back overwhelming tears, I waited for him to venture further, lessening my thunderous heartbeat. Timid and unsure, I retraced, crawling in the opposite direction. I thanked my lucky stars for the shrouding grassland.

In the distance, tempestuous waves crashed against the cliffside coalescing with ear-splitting thunderclaps, and a flash of lightning illuminated the depressing skies. Drizzles gradually turned into a violent downpour, beating harshly against me.

The cottage-like building came into my peripheral vision. Going back wasn’t an option as I knew he’d return eventually.

On the two occasions that I ineffectually fleeted from Jace, I automatically veered right. I need to reverse course and see what’s beyond—a hand snatched me by the scruff of my hair, ripping an alarmed scream from my throat. “Get off me!”

Jace wrapped his arms around my body, thwarting my spasmodic writhing. “Stop,” he barked, lifting and hurling me across one shoulder. “Quit fucking screaming, Alexa.”

“I hate you!” I yelled, laying into his backside with closed fists. Slapping two palms onto his ass, elevating my body into a strong position, I hunted beneath his bunched-up hoodie, located sodden flesh and sank my teeth into his skin.

“Alexa!” He flinched, smacking the back of my thigh. “That’s enough.”

I relented, sagging against his back, arms weakened downward. I opened my mouth, preparing to unleash uproarious vituperation. I cried instead, using the end of his hoodie to muffle throat-burning sobs.

Jace’s hold on me softened a touch, but he persisted, keeping me close until reaching the cottage.

I heard the door slam and lock behind us. He sloped the stairs, broken glass and fragmented ceramic crushing beneath his heavy-duty boots. “Change,” he ordered, chucking my body onto the sofa. “Now.”

“No,” I protest, curling onto my side, hiding my face under a threadbare scatter cushion.

For fifteen minutes, Jace busied himself, sweeping carnage from the floor and correcting overturned furnishings.

Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I tasted salty heartbreak on my tongue. I shivered against the cold, saturated clothes clinging to my skin.

Jace showered and changed into jeans and a black fitted T-shirt. He believes that I fell asleep. I am far from tired, though. Rather, I am wide-awake, watching him under the pillow.

Hauling a chair to the table, he becomes seated and downs vodka like water. His gaze briefly flashed in my direction, and I shut my eyes just in case. Dimness suddenly tranquilised the room, a soft light creating a peaceful atmosphere.

Another shot of vodka, he swallowed.

Reading something on his phone, he hovered a thumb over the screen, fingers whitening as he vigorously clenches. Tossing it aside, he stood, changed the television channel, selecting a radio station. Soft rock music resounded, quite relaxing.

My clothes will dry soon. Jace was right, though. I needed to change, warm-up. Stubbornness got the better of me. I’d instead freeze than obey him further. “Kill me,” I whispered, and his eyes jerked, finding my melancholic gaze, peering over the pillow. “Please, Jace. I can’t endure enslavement again. It hurts.”

“I’m not a bad person,” he said quietly, nursing the vodka bottle. “I’m a good guy, Alexa.” His ambivalent, saddened expression almost inflated hope. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry.”

The phone vibrated.

He ground his jaw, glanced at the screen and rubbed a tattooed hand over his face. Elbows to the table, he collapsed his head into two palms, wrestling his sudden frenetic gasping.

Jace’s radiating ambivalence and pain became distressing. I sat up, lowering the pillow to the floor and took cautious steps toward him. “Breathe,” I said, clutching aback his neck, thumb massaging his flushed skin. “Breathe, Jace.”

He choked back a painful sob, hands tousling his hair. “Alexa,” he moaned, unable to catch his breath, fingers tugging at the roots. “My...chest...”

Rushing to the sink, I soaked a hand towel, returned to his side and dabbed sweat dews from his creased forehead. “Slowly,” I encouraged, recalling Liam’s soothing voice and calm approach. “In and out, Jace. Nice and slow.”

Inhaling a choppy breath, he respired, repeating the process.

“Panic attack,” I whispered, perching onto another chair, keeping us close. “I get them a lot.”

He snatched my wrist. I froze, awaiting his hostile lambasting. “A lot?” he asked breathlessly, and I nodded. “It’s like drowning.”

I nod again.

Exhaling a shuddered puff of air, he loosened his vice-like grip on my wrist. “I don’t know what to do,” he said in a low, hollow voice. “I don’t know how to fix this without somebody getting hurt.”

I sank back against the chair, his words repeating inside my head.

It belatedly hit me.

“Stop,” he rasped, breathing heavily into a clenched fist. “I don’t want to hear this.”

“I escaped, Jace,” I cried, throat tightening on sobs. “I unclipped my wings. Please reconsider and let me go. I won’t tell anyone what happened between us; I promise—”

“No,” he barked, tumbling on the sofa. “It’s a non-negotiable transaction, Alexa. Quit trying to get inside my head and ready yourself for the morning.”

Through glassy eyes, Jace put the bottle to his lips, guzzling vodka. Clear liquid trickled down his chin and he left it there, offering me his poison.

I curled my fingers around the bottleneck. “Who is she?”

He shot me a sharp look. “Who?”

“The woman you plan to exchange for me,” I said affirmatively, knocking back a vodka shot. “She must be special. Why else would you go through such barbaric lengths to restrain me?” I half-joked, but his devastating countenance sustained. “After all this? The least you can do is edify me.”

Jace inched close, draping an arm across the back of my chair. “I hate myself,” he admits, tucking loose hair behind my ear. “Why you, Alexa?”

I didn’t understand the question. “No woman deserves what’s in store for me, Jace.”

“I know,” he agreed, working on a tight swallow. “It’s easier to hate you.”

“Do you?” I mused, lower lips rolling between my teeth. “Do you hate me?”

“No.” He swept a tear from my cheek with his thumb. His teary eyes mirrored mine. “I think it’s impossible for anyone to hate someone like you.” Snivelling, he fell back in his chair, staring into space. “Her name is Summer...”

“The sun may rise in the East at least it’s settled in a final location. It’s understood that Hollywood sells Californication.”

Turning up the car radio, I drove with one hand. “Firstborn unicorn. Hardcore soft porn. Dread of Californication,” I sing, adjusting a pair of aviators over my eyes. “Come on.” Beeping the horn, I prompted the driver ahead to pass through green traffic lights, easing onto the accelerator.

I stopped at another set of traffic lights, drumming my fingers against the steering wheel.

Winding down the window to generate a soft summertime breeze, I drive at haste paste, frequently glancing at my wristwatch. “Fuck.” Forty-five minutes until a client’s due to land.

Turning a sharp corner, I bolt down the street, slam on the breaks and kill the black, 1980′s Chevy. Okay, so the pick-up truck has seen better days, but I love those four wheels and don’t plan on upgrading anytime soon.

Chin-wagging women gossip near the wrought-iron gates, theatrically criticising their lazy husbands. One bodacious brunette gives me a kittenish grin, absently buttoning her lilac cardigan.

I returned her fondness with a coy, tight smile, resting my back to the polychromatic wall, folding my arms.

Building doors bursting open, I observe, eyes skimming over the dispersing sea of heads, looking for soft, blonde, bouncy curls. Bag fixed to her chest, Summer bounds down the concrete steps. Her sullen expression and pouty lips, sending an ache to my heart. “Summer.”

Her green eyes sought mine, and she dashed toward me.

I crouched, gathering her weightless body in my arms. “What’s wrong, baby girl?”

“I hate school,” she complains, coiling an arm around my neck as I carried her to the truck. “Nobody likes me.”

“What?” Unlocking the truck door, I slipped her onto the booster seat, fastening the seat belt. “Impossible. Everyone likes you.”

She waits until I fall behind the wheel. “Why do they make fun of me?”

I turned at the waist, looking at her stropping in the back. “Who makes fun of you?”

“Those girls,” she stressed as if it were obvious. “They call me bad names.” Chucking her backpack on the floor, she crossed her arms, pouting like a duck. “They think you killed my mum.”

A painful slam hit me in the chest. “They are quite the storytellers.” I cannot pummel seven-year-old children. I can, however, beat the crap out of their fathers.

“They say that you’re weird,” she continues, and I frowned. “′ Cause you got all that inks on your skin.”

That’s a reasonable reason for churlishness, I suppose. “Do you think I’m weird, baby girl?”

She hesitated, so I leaned in, tickling her waist. “No!” she screamed, kicking her legs out. “I’m ticklish!”

“Really?” I feigned unawareness. “Who’d have thought, huh?”

“Stop it!” she laughs, blocking my half-hearted attack. “Okay! You’re not weird.”

“Good,” I alleviate, firing the engine. “I almost had to eat you.”

“I’ll eat you back,” she retorts, watching the trees fade through the window.

I kept an eye on her via the rear-view mirror. “So, about these kids...” I hedged, clicking my tongue. “Do you want me to have a word with your teacher?” I’ll be chewing Mrs Matthews ear off regardless. “Get her to keep an eye on stuff.”

“What would you do if somebody made fun of you or somebody that you loved?”

I’d punch them in the face. “I’d speak to an adult.”

Summer sighed, fixing her pink-glitter headband. “Okay. Maybe you should speak to Mrs Matthews for me.”

“I’m already on it, baby girl.” I altered radio stations, pausing at the traffic lights.

“Can we eat pizza?” she asked, admiring the black Peyton dolly shoes on her feet. “Oh! Can we go to the park?”

“Not tonight, Summer.” Steering ahead, I changed gears, relaxing in my seat. “Yes to pizza, though.”

“I hate my life,” she muttered under her breath.

I scoffed. “Don’t be dramatic.”

“You never take me to the park.”

“That’s a lie.”

“Is not.”

My cheeks sank. “I took you to the park last week.”

“No, you didn’t,” she retorted. “It was a whole month ago!”

“Oh, so I did take you to the park?”

Her silence stretched between us.

I glimpse over my shoulder.

Morose and deflated, she plays with her dungaree buttons, a million miles away.

I hate seeing Summer upset. She’s a good kid—never demanding, spoilt or expectant. Considering our circumstance, she seldom complains and accepts whatever I throw her way. It’s been fast-paced, impromptu without routine or foreseeable knowledge. Give her a break, I thought. “Okay,” I relented, and her eyes widened a fraction. “I’ll take you to the park—thirty minutes, though, Summer. I’m working on a client this evening.”

She nodded. “I promise to be really quick.”

Ten minutes later, I park the Chevy opposite a park where rumbustious children scatter in delight and amassed parents soak-up the sun.

Stationed picnics and smouldering throwaway barbeques pervade the humid air.

I was suddenly famished.

Summer held my hand as we crossed the road, entering the park through a metal gate. “I’m gonna sit over there,” I tell her, pointing toward the single bench, shaded by a tree. “Don’t go too far. I want to keep an eye on you.”

“Okay.” She skipped ahead, and then unexpectedly rushed back, wrapping her arms around my waist. “I love you, daddy.”

“Love you, too.” I nudged her toward the swings. “Have fun—and be careful around those boys,” I yelled in her wake, and a humiliating shade crept over her cheeks. “Or I’ll set the hounds on them.”

I didn’t own one dog, let alone a pack.

Summer was going to kill me for that line.

I sat on a bench and texted my manager to prepare him for lateness and tipped the sunglasses atop my head.

Scaling the metal climbing frame, Summer positioned her feet on the bars, learning from other children. While she’s occupied, I dialled the school office number, putting the phone to my ear.

The receptionist answered. “St Rom—”

“It’s Jace,” I cut in, fingers clenching the phone. “Jace Williams. Summer’s father. Listen, I don’t want to come across abrupt or argumentative, but this is the fifth time my daughter’s come home from school, stressing out over bullies.”

“Mr Williams—”

“I called last week,” I over talked, and she audibly sighed. “And you assured me that Mrs Matthews had dealt with it. Now, before you feed me any more bullshit? Fuck off. Either you address this situation professionally and help my baby girl, or I’ll take this to the council and sue your fucking ass.” Ending the call, I palmed my phone, a slew of profanities escaping my lips.

I espied Summer playing with two girls on the grass and a broad smile numbed my cheeks—

“Do you mind if I sit here?” a feminine voice asked, and before I could protest, she helped herself to my bench. “I need some shade.”

“No problem,” I lied, dragged my tongue piercing between gritted teeth. “Nice hat.”

Her long blond hair sits beneath a sports cap. “Thanks.” Leaning forward, she knots her shoelaces, exposing a silver of back and a heart tattoo on her lower spine. “I prefer running when it’s cold.” Her tight-fitted sportswear leaves little to the imagination. “We’re not getting much rain nowadays, though.”

I hummed in response.

“I love your tattoos.” She admired the ink around my neck. “I’m a fan.”

Good for you. “Do you have any?”

She nodded meekly. “Only one.” Arching her spine, she lifts her vest, showcasing a small tattoo. “I got it when I was seventeen.” She grimaced. “Now, I am left with a tramp stamp.”

I burst out laughing. “Can you at least blame it on the alcohol?”

“Unfortunately, no. I was a willing, rebellious participant who made an unpremeditated decision to get back at my father.”

I didn’t ask her to elaborate. “If you hate it so much,” Summer’s relocated to the colourful tarmac, playing hopscotch, “why haven’t you had a cover-up?”

Unscrewing a sports bottle, she thirstily downed water, and I found myself oddly fascinated by the way she licked her lips. Fuck. I need to get laid. It’s been long—too long since I took a woman to bed.

“I probably will,” she said, recapping her bottle. “When I muster enough courage.” She turned to face me, cheeks a dark shade of red. “I don’t normally do this, but I saw you sitting here and...” Embarrassment claimed her heart-shaped features. “Do you want to grab a coffee sometime?”

My eyebrows jumped to my hairline. “I don’t date,” I decided to be honest. “I’m too busy, and I got my kid to worry about—”

“Oh,” she exclaims, eyes darting around the park. “Of course. I understand. I mean, wow. Aren’t you a little young to be a father?”

It was an innocuous question. “Twenty-three is hardly too young in today’s world.”

“True,” she agrees, ready to flee. “How old is...?”

“Summer,” I add, and we stood in tandem. “And she’s seven.”

She does the maths inside her head. I wait for her judgemental comment, or haste departure. “Nice,” she whispered, lingering close. “Does she look like you?”

No, she’s Lucy’s double. “She has my eyes.” I glance toward the tarmac, eyebrows furrowing. “You can see for yourself...” Searching our proximity, I drowned out screaming children, checking near the swings. “I’ll be right back.”

I moved forward, extending my neck, peering at the slides. “Summer?” I called, wading between an apparatus and a towering wooden sandpit.

A kid jumped out before me. I dodged him, head dashing in every direction, body twisting. “Summer?”

Don’t panic, I thought, thudding heart rate accelerating, whacking against my ribcage. “Baby?”

Limbs becoming jelly, I stumbled, caught my frantic footing, ducked my head into the playhouse. I count the children, resurface, rake a hand through my hair. “Summer!” I shout, gaining the attention of other parents.

She’s hiding.

Why would she hide?

She knows I don’t like that.

Everything around me slowed down, and surrounding conversationalists dimmed.

Panic-stricken, I see a beaten-up white transit van, slowly waning into the distance.

You don’t need confirmation as a parent.

It’s an agonising gut instinct.

You just know.

“No,” I whispered, breaking into a fast sprint, evading advancing parents, jumping over strewn picnic blankets, belting toward the departing vehicle. “Summer!” I caught my boot on something, fell into a heap but staggered up just as quickly. “No.”

Not caring for oncoming traffic, I ran across the road while fishing out the Chevy keys, ripped open the door, collapsed behind the wheel and revved the engine, tires shrieking. I went full-throttle, tearing down the street, the white van speeding ahead. “Come on,” I barked, beeping the horn, zigzagging through vehicles. “Get out of my fucking way!”

One hand on the wheel, I tapped my phone to dial the emergency services when it vibrated in my hand.

Unknown number.

My heart stopped beating.

I blinked, slow, sweat on the ends of my lashes.

“I knew she was in that van.” Jace downs vodka, tersely lunging the bottle across the room. “What kind of father takes his eyes off his kid?”

I didn’t recoil.

I was devastated, heartbroken, feeling every ounce of his pain.

“I felt it,” he said throatily, a guttural sob, ripping from his chest. “I felt it, Alexa.” He slumped down the wall, bleeding inconsolable tears into his hands.

I fostered inner strength, numbed myself, wiped tears from my cheeks and sat on the floor beside him. “Jace.” Putting my arm around his shoulder, I coerced him into my arms. “It’s okay. You need to let it out.”

He relented, sagging against me, head falling to my thighs, fingers painfully digging into my skin. I stared at the wall while he broke his heart, wishing I could ease the pain for him.

Jace’s bottled-up emotions and agonising cries will forever invade my nightmares. It’s a gut-wrenching image, seeing such a strong, powerful man, sobbing like a little boy.

I had a sudden urge to protect him.

His arms wound around my waist, hugging me back, clinging to me like I’m his lifeline.

I whimpered a thousand promises in his ear. “We’ll get her back.” I comb my fingernails through his hair. “I’ll go, Jace.” I daren’t tell him what his little girl is going through. He’d never survive such gruesome knowledge. “I’ll voluntarily exchange my life for hers.”

“You shouldn’t have to.” He inhaled a choppy breath, releasing it in intervals. His hand fists my hoodie, almost as if he’s afraid of letting go. “What have I become?”

“You’re a father,” I tell him, drying his cheek with my thumb. “You’re doing whatever it takes to bring her home.”

“I need her, Alexa.” He sat taller, and our eyes aligned. “I need my baby girl,” he rasped, and I nod. “But I can’t do this to you. It’s fucking with my head...” Mental conflict and despair crucify him. “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’re bringing Summer home, Jace.” I stood, extending a hand. His fingers curled around mine, and he soared to his full height. “You need to bide us a few days,” I said, and he listened, digesting every word. “How quickly can you teach me how to handle a gun?”

His eyes bore into mine, puzzlement etching his hardened features.

“Her safety comes before mine,” I stressed, pacing back and forth. “But you can send me back—prepared and equipped. Flamur’s not stupid. He’ll send one of his men to collect me and make the exchange. I’ll feign protest. Shit, I’ll put on the waterworks if I have to.”

Jace pondered my idea. “What if they frisk you?”

“You can track me,” I suggest, patting down my body. “I’ll wear something—a bracelet, perhaps.” So many unanswered questions lingered between us. I ceased asking, though. He’s encumbered with guilt already. “Where’s my chain?”

Why hadn’t Liam traced my necklace?

He steeled his jaw, sinking onto the sofa. “We’re going to need more vodka for this conversation.”

I bite the inside of my cheek. “There’s a tracking device under the diamond.”

Jace gave me a terse nod.

“For this to work,” I sat cross-legged beside him, “we need to start being honest with each other, Jace.” Chagrined, I desperately hunted his eyes. “Jace?”

“The fire,” he husked, and I blinked rapidly in bewilderment. “They left your necklace at the crime scene.”

“What fire?” I probed, scratching the back of my neck. “Jace...”

His regretful eyes held mine. “Everyone thinks you’re dead.”

At a loss for words, I eased my head back. “What?”

Jace couldn’t respond. Overwhelmed and remorseful, he closed his eyes, pinching the lids with his thumb and forefinger.

I captured his hand, entwined our fingers together and put us shoulder-to-shoulder. “I’ve spent years running away from the monsters of my past,” I whispered, turning my head to face him. “I’m done hiding, Jace.” Understanding fired in his green hues. “I’m going to kill him.”

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