Flamur Bajramovic conspired and kidnapped Summer Williams. His unconscionable, contemptible actions evoked distressing memories. While Jace further explained his daughter’s abduction, I compartmentalised scattered thoughts, reliving a gruesome nightmare.
Jace chased and strived to obtain the fleeing transit van when his phone chimed. He knew it was bad, he’d told me. His paternal instincts, too strong, too devastatingly profound. The unknown caller, Flamur, relayed uncooperative orders.
Call or involve the police, and I’ll kill your daughter, Flamur warned. If you want to see her again, unscathed and in one-piece, pull over and wait for instructions.
Unbearably morose, defeated and obsequious, Jace slammed a foot down on the break and listened to orders.
Later that night, after drinking enough vodka to numb his aching heart, Jace, as instructed, sat in a nearby dive bar, waiting for the Albanian’s arrival. As an alternative, Flamur sent a loyal subject: Rezart.
It took great willpower for Jace to sit with Rezart. He wanted to reach over the table, wrap his hands around the man’s throat and witness the longevity drain from his eyes.
Rezart communicated his boss’ instructions. He’d handed Jace an envelope and a list of orders.
Jace, studious and hopeful, thumbed through images of a young woman.
Alexa Haines, Rezart informed him.
Angry, powerless and slightly confused, Jace, with trembling hands, read the penmanship. He had to befriend this unacquainted woman, earn her trust and shake overbearing, overprotective security detail.
Jace had questioned why someone of her apparent, normal status received such lionising attention. She lived on the rough side of town in a council tenanted-building and worked full-time at the Coffee House for minimum wage. Those questions remained unanswered, though. He deemed unknowingness a more comfortable option. Understanding would merely revive his moral compass.
Rezart had stressed that she’s protected fiercely by Liam Warren’s men and insisted Jace must be vigilant at all costs.
Jace hadn’t commented on such warnings. He had, however, heard of Warren thoroughly while residing in London. He’d never spoken nor met the man personally, but whispering rumours and gruesome tales painted the perfect image.
Of course, the inhumane yet strategic plan ensued life-threatening stipulations. Jace, not only had to deceive, manipulate and abduct, in his eyes, an innocent woman. He had to watch his back in the hope that Warren or his men didn’t comprehend his fiendish motives and kill him.
First, Jace, calculated and friendly, introduced himself to his victim—yours truly. He wished for my awareness before applying for a job with Grayson. Meanwhile, my deceptively handsome and apparent, homosexual co-worker—even though, I had initially suspected his sexuality—fooled me into believing his desire for friendship and carefree smile. Hell, I genuinely deemed the man innocuous and harmless, defended him against the man I love.
Inconsequential past behaviour, I thought, scarfing down salted fries. Oh, God. I have never tasted such awesomeness in my life. “These are so good,” I moaned, licking residue from my chapped lips. “I need more.
Jace smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “We’ll eat more later,” he said, hands glued to the steering wheel. “Thank you, Alexa.”
I frowned. “For what?”
“For boarding the ferry without fuss.” He veered the Chevy onto the M4, dipping his head to look for oncoming cars in the rear-mirror. “You could have called for help the second I left you to use the bathroom.”
“I promised to help you find Summer,” I explained once more, adding a vodka shot to my Coke. “I never break promises.”
“I appreciate your kindness, especially after everything I put you through.”
Yes, he warrants a slap for neglect, malnourishment and lack of showers. “It’s done—we’re moving on,” I said instead, sipping Coke through a straw. “How did Flamur take the news?”
This morning, before leaving the cottage and boarding a ferry back to Liverpool, Jace sent Flamur a text message, requesting more time to “break me in.”
Dissatisfied but compliant, Flamur granted an additional two weeks and even detailed his recently complicated situation. He is due to fly back to Tirana with his wife and closest men—I assume there’s a seat on that plane with my name on it—but recent quandaries hindered prior arrangements. “Also,” I continued, helping myself to Jace’s hotdog. “What do you think is stopping him from departing London at the appointed time? I reckon Liam’s on the prowl.”
“Bajramovic had no reason to disbelieve me,” he said, cracking down the window. “He mentioned that recent quandaries hindered prior arrangements.”
I know. I sneakily read that message when Jace took a shower.
“He didn’t say anything else, though. Plus, he assured me that Summer’s okay, so that’s something. I just wish he’d let me talk to her.”
Stout-hearted and optimistic, Jace, understandably, wishes to see an auspicious development. Inveigled and misinformed by Flamur and his staunch men, he believes his daughter’s safe, unharmed and intact.
I wish I had his faith. Yes, indisputably, Summer’s breathing, sleeping and inadequately eating; however, I disbelieve Flamur, or his vile minions haven’t touched her.
The Albanian’s run an underground paedophile ring and are at the forefront of human trafficking. I ache for everyone who crosses paths with those monsters. I ache for a little girl who got caught in the crossfire because Flamur was obsessed with me.
Nonetheless, I do not voice concerns. It is crucial that I protect Jace from Flamur’s capabilities and pray his baby girl makes it home in one piece. “I think it has something to do with Liam.” I changed the topic, wanting to steer away from the horrific subject matter. “Flamur’s predicaments, I mean.”
Jace snorted, mildly shaking his head.
“What? You don’t think the ‘notorious crime lord,’” I imitated, caressing each sardonic word, “is capable of bringing down that fat old bastard.”
Jace flung me a stunned expression, eyebrows jumping to his hairline. “Profanity and insults sound insane coming from you.”
I squinted at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You rarely curse.” Hitting the indicators, he navigated the Chevy onto the main road. “Even when compromised, you’re demure, composed and often tight-lipped.”
“Are those bad qualities to possess?”
“Not really.” Hardly the response I was looking for. “Your bleeding heart is susceptible to ramifications and unfortunate consequences, though, specifically because of Warren’s lifestyle.”
I paused with the straw near my lips. “My trusting tendencies and natural kindness frustrated Liam,” I admit, chewing my lower lip. “He often reprimanded me for not getting a backbone.”
He glanced at me. “Is that what he said?”
“Not those exact words...” No, Liam refrained from insulting me, but I knew it’s how he secretly felt. “I think he wanted more from me. You know, like, he needed me to be somebody that I’m not.”
“It’s understandable,” he defended. “He loved you, right? Warren’s cold-hearted, corrupt, ruthless, unforgiving and despised by most. He’s also very fucking switched on—didn’t achieve his status by tactlessness or foolishness—and he knows loving you is dangerous. It’s not unreasonable, Alexa. If I were in his position? I’d want my woman to be fierce and strong. Fuck, she’d have to be vicious to outsmart enemies.”
I never thought of it like that. “Have you seen the size of me?” I curved an eyebrow, gesturing to my physique. “If a predator came at me? I’d have better luck playing dead.”
Jace’s raspy laughter deadened the soft rock music. He exited the M4 and was soon venturing through country roads. “You’re right.” He drums his fingers against the gearstick. “Most women are vulnerable to male predators. But,” he enunciated, speeding past vast greenery and beneath darkening skies, “there are other ways to outmanoeuvre and defeat possible threats or unpleasant situations.”
I beg to differ. “Go on...” In the distance, hunkered between tree-lined borders, I noticed a waist-length cobblestoned wall and wrought iron gates alongside horse-head stone-pillar sculptures. “Where are we?”
Jace parked the truck. “Pit stop.” He climbs out, slams the door and waits for me to join him. “Before we go in,” he unlocks the boot to take out a gym bag, “I want to show you something.”
I am wearing his oversized tracksuit, so the thermal material protects me from cold winds. “You want to show me something in the middle of nowhere?” I was suddenly unnerved by our eerie surroundings. “Jace...”
“So,” he tossed the bag on the floor, “if someone comes at you, either front on or behind, you need to stay calm. Now, I appreciate that it’s easier said than done.” He rolls up his hoodie sleeves, leaving them casually at the elbows. “Let’s say that I am an attacker. I see a young, vulnerable woman, walking alone at night, as a sexual predator or an opportunist, I am going to try my luck. I might just want your handbag.” He stepped forward, and I stepped backed. “Alexa, I’m not going to rob my clothes from your back. It’s a demonstration.”
“I knew that,” I lied, tucking unruly hair behind my ears. “What if you’re a rapist?”
His eyebrows welded harshly. “I hope that’s a figurative question.”
“Okay, well, I am not a rapist, but I assume they’d try and grab you from behind. Turn around.” I obeyed, stiffening when his arms wrapped around my neck. “Don’t panic. I’m not using strength, Alexa. It’s an example.”
His cologne was oddly reassuring. “You smell nice,” I admit, and he puffed out a discouraged breath in my ear. “It’s not an insult, Jace. It’s a compliment.”
“First, you breathe and instinctively drop into a stance.” He nudged the backs of my thighs with his knee, urging me to follow instructions. “At this point, screaming is futile. And you only have a few seconds to release yourself from your attackers hold. Stomping on his foot will loosen his grip, but it’s ineffective without a mechanical combination. Follow up with a shift,” he twists my body slightly, angling my elbow to his lower stomach, “and shove a hard jab to the gut, and then throw your head back.”
He released me, and I faced him. “So, stomp on your foot, impale your ribs and break your nose.”
“Remember, you only have a few seconds. If those three shockwaves don’t loosen the attack, find some flesh and bite the fuck out of him.” He flattened his limps into a knowing smile. “Your cannibalism almost resulted in me dropping you on your head.”
I smirked triumphantly. “Did it nearly work?”
“Yes,” he reluctantly agreed, lifting his hoodie to show me the bruising bite mark.
“What if those defence techniques do not work?”
“Oh, they’ll work. He’ll release you to check the damage to his nose. In the meantime, you run like a bat of fucking hell and don’t look back. If he manages to obtain you again?” He winced, scratching his jaw. “He’ll likely muffle your cries, beat you into unconsciousness and you know how the story ends.” Leaning down, he snatches the bag, fixing the strap across his chest. “You only get one shot, Alexa. The rest is history.”
“That’s shocking,” I whispered, falling into step beside him. “And barbaric.”
“I agree with you. Our beliefs don’t change the way of the world, though. Alas, sexual assault and victimisation occurs more often than I care to acknowledge.” He unexpectedly seized my wrist. “Women are easy targets. Remember, if ever being followed, walk confidently at a steady pace and head for a well-lit area, or avoid late-night strolls alone if possible. Trust your gut instincts and vary your routes—being too predictable is risky.”
A shudder ascended my spine. “Are you going to teach me additional self-defence methods?”
He dipped his head, letting go of my hand. “Yes, but it’s late, and it’ll take more than one night to train you.”
“You’re going to train me,” I repeated in disbelief, following him toward those fancy wrought-iron gates. “What else is in store for our defence classes?” Ghostlike laughter echoed from beyond those walls. “Where are we going? And did you hear voices?”
“I’ll train you once we’re back in London.” Hand to the gate, he lingered before entering. “Although, once Warren gets his hands on you, I doubt he’ll ever let you leave his side again. Even if he did grant freedom? You exist at the side of his men. In his world, what you really need to learn is how to fire bullets and how to dodge them.” The gate groaned as he shoved it open. “Come on.”
I traipsed behind him. “I want that,” I said, struggling to keep up with his long strides. “I want to learn, Jace...” Rabid growling roused horripilation to the back of my neck. “What the hell was that?” It’s only then that I rationalise our blackout surroundings. “Jace, I cannot see anything!”
“Don’t panic,” he stressed, and then I felt his hand on my lower back. “Keep walking.”
“I am not joking, Jace.” Moulding to his side, I clung to his hoodie sleeve. “It’s completely black. How can you direct us without any light?” A myriad of dog barks resounded in the distance. “Oh, God! I’m going back to the truck before those wolves eat me.”
“Alexa,” Jace retorts, gripping me by the waistband and compelling me forward. “We’re fine. I come here all the time. And those dogs can just sense us, so they’re alerting the camp.”
“Alerting the what?” I shrieked, flapping like a madwoman in his uncompromising death-grip. “Jace, I’m scared.”
He stopped then, eyeing me sceptically. The soft moonlight outlines his stern face and green eyes, drawing additional attention to his unfaltering masculinity. I knew Jace had gorgeous and impressive features but drastically changed my opinion while enduring captivity. Now, though, I can admit to myself that he’s rather exquisite.
Addressing as much is new for me. I’ve only ever looked at men in a negative life, except for Liam.
My heart thudded.
Just thinking of Liam Warren uncaged those uncontrollable butterflies in my stomach.
I know little about Jace Williams. He’s twenty-three years old and has a seven-year-old daughter named Summer. She’s blonde whereas he’s dark, not black dark, chocolate brown hair, slightly longer on the top. He did mention they shared the same eye colour, but does she take after her mother? What was her name? Her name was Lucy, wasn’t it? Where is she in all this? I almost asked, but cleaved my tongue instead. I’m sure Jace will clarify once we’re back in London. We both need to trust the process—trust each other—before confining and elucidating history.
“It starts now,” Jace rasped, and I cocked my head in puzzlement. “I don’t know enough about you, but your relentless screaming back at the Isle of Man sufficiently helped me puzzle the pieces together.”
I blinked rapidly. “You took me to the Isle-of-fucking-Man?”
Jace groaned in exasperation. “Forget about that, Alexa. My point is that you had a seriously gruesome childhood, so fucked-up that I’m too afraid to ask questions. You survived, moved on and managed to gain the attention of Liam Warren. Do you have any idea what that means?” When I didn’t respond, he added, “It means the vast majority of London are terrified of Alexa Haines.”
I stared at him open-mouthed. “You can’t be serious.”
“Deadly,” he shoved me forward. “Nobody is messing with Warren’s woman unless they have a death wish. So, quit fucking jumping, fretting over harmless dogs and hold your damn chin up.”
I lifted my chin on impulse. “We’re not in London, though,” I remind him, sneakily gravitating to his side. “We’re in Liverpool.”
“Same horse.” He draped an arm around my shoulders, hand finding mine, interlacing our fingers. “I am welcome here, but they frown upon outsiders, so pretend.”
Howling dogs rattled my bones. I see a long-line of metal kennels, concealing those vicious blood-hounds. Two lunged and sabotaged the metal bars, vehemently barking as we pass. “Harmless dogs, my ass,” I said sarcastically. “They want to eat us.”
Our surroundings belatedly dawned on me. Encompassed by mobile homes, the caravan site and top-of-the-range Land Rovers instilled escalating trepidation. In the midst of dimly lit homes, a group of male gypsies occupy a campfire. They laugh together, drink bottled beers and permeate the air with marijuana. “Jace...” Fisting his hoodie, I came to a sharp stop, the blood in my body, sinking to my feet.
One of the men detected uninvited visitors. He slowly soared from the overturned crane, squaring his broad shoulders. “Who’s there?” he asked, and his friends collectively glanced in our direction. “Ye lost or somethin’? Ye won’t get any help from us.”
Jace ignored his question, dragging me reluctant backside to our premature death. “Tommy,” he said, I was too scared to make eye contact. “It’s Jace.”
“Jace?” Tommy, I think, asked. “What the fuck are ye doin’ all the way down here?”
I held my breath.
“Went on a romantic getaway with my girl,” Jace lied, releasing his hold on me to...hug the gypsy. “I couldn’t drive past without visiting.”
“Fuckin’ hell, man,” Tommy hugged Jace, tapping his back. “Aye, I’d have killed ye for not seein’ me.”
Speechless, dumbfounded, I watched Jace fist-pump the other men, some much older, others similar in age. He chucked the bag onto the floor, accepted a bottle beer and laughed at Tommy’s theatrical conversing.
I have entered the twilight zone—
“Alexa,” Jace said, hauling me to his side. “I’d like you to meet Tommy.” He kissed my temple. “My cousin.”
I seriously need to learn more about my mysteriously newfound friend. “It’s lovely to meet you.” I shake Tommy’s hand, admiring his well-built frame and extensive body art. I mean, it’s hard not to investigate. Him, much like the others, showcase intricate tattoos, similar to Jace.
“Likewise.” He looked at Jace “Why didn’t ye ask Ma to look after our girl?”
I felt Jace stiffen. He masked his devastation, though. “Alexa’s sister offered. You know I don’t like putting on your mother.”
Okay, it’s my turn to straighten. “My sister loves kids.”
Nodding in agreement, Jace snatched a beer from one of the guys, forced it in my hand. “Drink with me.”
“Put some bangers on the barbecue,” Tommy orders, motioning for us to follow. “Ye can use my van for the night. I’ll stay with Sheila.”
“Thanks, man.” Jace held my hand, and we shadowed Tommy to a long-stretched caravan. “I appreciate it.”
Ascending three concrete steps, Tommy shoved the door open and entered, turning on the lights. I warily joined the two men, fumbling with my hoodie drawstrings. It’s a beautiful layout, extra-wide with contemporary furnishings, modernised with high-grade entertainment systems and kitchen appliances. I don’t know what I expected, but a chesterfield corner sofa, grey hues and a marble dining table to accommodate six people were not it.
I rest my hip to the kitchen counter, disregarding their brotherly laughter.
“Ye should both change,” Tommy advised, wandering down the intersecting hallway, opening a door. “Ye know where everythin’ is Jace. Shower ye girl. Don’t fuck on my couch. Take the spare bedroom.”
An impossible blush burnt my cheeks.
“Try not to be too long.” Tommy tugged on a navy jumper, fumbling with the blond braid irritating the nape of his neck. “We’ll eat and catch up.” Winking at me as he passed, he descended the steps to return to his...friends? “And get drunk, of course.”
I don’t like the sound of being drunken disorderly around people I didn’t know.
Jace waited until Tommy left. “Calm down, Alexa.” He failed to hide his amused smirk, selecting the bedroom facing the shared bathroom. “I’m not really going to fuck you.”
“I wasn’t worried about that,” I clipped, peering into his chosen bedroom. “I’m not sharing a bed with you, Jace.”
“Grab another one.” Poised, uninsulated, he unzipped the bag, rummaged for clean clothes. “I grabbed you some stuff on the Ferry. They had a killer confectionery store and a selection of spirits.”
My eyes rounded at the sight of jarred sweets. “I could demolish some of those boiled mints.”
He gave me a jar, a beach towel and new clothes. I fingered the black jeans and tight-fitted long-sleeved top with investigatory fingertips. Beneath the folded clothes was a pink lingerie set. He’d selected items in my exact size. I know I am supposed to hate him, but his kindness and thoughtful gift brought tears to my eyes. “I hate pink,” I said, swallowing a painful lump. “Red is my favourite colour.”
“I know.” His hand hovered above another folded pile. “I got you two red sets, but I didn’t want you to think...” He shook whatever thoughts festered inside his head, passing me the additional items without a glance. “Red lace is sexy on a woman, so I thought that you might...”
“It’s okay,” I interject, grasping his uncomfortable posture. “I don’t think you’re insinuating or imagining my underwear on your bedroom floor, Jace,” I joked, attempting to lighten the mood. I turned to shower, stopped, glimpsed over my shoulder. “Are you a gypsy, too?”
He reached behind his neck and pulled the hoodie off from over his head. “No.”
How can he be related to Tommy without gypsy blood?
“I’m not overly hungry, so would you mind if I went straight to bed?”
“Sure.” Opening a door inside his room, he entered an en-suite bathroom and began stripping. “Unless you’re hanging around to watch me release some tension, I suggest you close the door and take that shower.”
Blinking owlishly, I closed the door, found the other bathroom and luxuriated in the best shower to date.