Tommy delivered the goods. On Jace's request, the gypsy king provided keys to a panther black Land Rover and fraudulent identification cards. Of course, I am a typical, nosey female. I asked to see my impermanent identity. "Victoria," I read, spurning the blonde mugshot. "Victoria Rose. Seriously, Jace?" I reached for his card, dodging his hand as he worked the gearstick. "Nathan?" I laughed. Oh, God, I laugh. "These are insane. This dude has long hair, Nath," I enunciated, and his lip twitched. "Long, black hair."
On instinct, Jace combed a hand through his brown mane. "Grab the holdall from the back."
Arching a tweezer-required eyebrow, I obeyed, hauling the bag onto my lap. "My girl has chubby cheeks." Tugging the zipper, I fossick through glad rags, synthetic wigs and killer high heels. "And she has blue eyes..." I opened blue, disposable contact lenses. "Shit." When I look at him, I find him watching me. "You were serious about living incognito, huh?"
Jace merged the vehicle across the M4, powering through the fast lane. "I don't think you're taking it seriously enough, Victoria." Adjusting his sunglasses, he lowers the music, so that we can talk. "One, Flamur Bajramovic believes I'm beating you into submission back on the Isle of Man. Two, he has custody of my baby girl. If I mess up? I'll lose her. I am not risking her life for negligence. Three, Warren will turn London upside down if he gets a whiff that you're not dead—"
"Liam will find out, eventually," I said, and his knuckles whitened, his fingers gripping the steering wheel. "What? I can't help that I miss him, Jace."
"Not yet, though." He applies force to the accelerator. "You can go back to your perfect life with Warren. But give me a chance to board a plane with Summer first. He'll kill me. You know it; I know it."
He's right. If Liam uncovers the truth behind my death, he'll torture Jace, dismantle his body and feed his limbs to wild boars.
"Vick." I lift the waist-length blonde wig, examining the bouncy curls. "If I must change my name? Call me, Vick."
"Vick," he repeated, lips pursing in a refrained smirk. "It kinda has a ring to it."
Snapping the bobble from my wrist, I drag my hair back into a messy knot and arrange the wig on my head. Pulling down the visor mirror, I study my reflection and pick the white bandage from my face. I touch the jagged scar beneath my eye, pleased to see it's healed nicely. "What else did Tommy pack?" I opened a cosmetic case and suppressed a smile. "Makeup."
"Sheila organised it for you."
After tweezing the eyebrows, I applied a thin layer of foundation to my face, added a speck of shimmering dust to my cheeks and then spent a ridiculous amount of time fixing the contact lenses. I groaned, complained, and almost threw those rubbery bastards out of the window. "I did it!" Blinking to clear my stinging vision, I showed him my right eye. "Now I have to spend half an hour doing the other one."
Jace guffaws, veering the Land Rover off the M4. "I like the whole heterochromia look."
"Do you have to wear contacts?" I asked, rechecking his identification card. "Oh, of course, Nathan has green eyes. How convenient for you?" The second contact fell into place without much fuss. Finalised with eyeliner, mascara and nude-coloured lipstick, I shimmied out of the jogging pants, pulled on high-waist skinny jeans, lost the hoodie and tucked a figure-hugging white shirt into the trouser waistband. I tweaked my lace bra, slipped my feet into nude stilettos and doused myself in divine-smelling perfume. "I feel human again."
"Shit," Jace whistles, cracking his knuckles. "You look hot, Vick."
"Thank you." A hopeless shade heated my cheeks. "Can you see the real me beneath the disguise, though?"
Driving into London, Jace threw many sidelong glances my way. "I know you're alive," he said, evaluating my question. "If I thought Alexa was truly dead, and then you sauntered past me in the street..." Clicking his tongue, he studied me over the sunglasses border. "No. I wouldn't see it."
I smiled flatly. "So, what's the plan?"
"We'll head into Victoria," he explains, stopping at the traffic lights. "I think a shopping trip is in order. After that, let's grab a pizza and find somewhere to stay. Are you opposed to sleeping at a bed-and-breakfast?"
"I don't mind where I sleep as long as it's not on the floor," I joked, and his smile faded. "Nath, I am kidding. You need to get used to my senseless humour."
"How's the back?"
"A little sore," I fibbed. Those angel wings almost killed me. I had six breaks and passed out when he shaded the feathers. "I'll live." This morning, I looked at my raw, inflamed back, admiring Jace's talented artwork. It's a beautiful piece, but I cannot wait until it's healed.
"I need food." He took a sharp turn, almost ran a red light. "Burrito?" Diverting into a drive-thru, he orders two burritos and caramel lattes. "What do you want?"
I blinked. Twice. "Am I not sharing that huge order?"
He cracked a wicked smirk. "You assume the 'Big Daddy' burritos are for you?"
"No, I thought one burrito was for me." Is he seriously going to scarf down two? I later noticed his tickled expression. "Oh. Ha. Ha," I mocked, folding my arms. "And I thought I was a terrible raconteur."
"I am a fabulous storyteller." He chucked a brown paper bag on my lap. "Thank you very much."
"You're also full of yourself." I opened the bag, unravelled heady goodness and sank my teeth into chicken-licking perfection. "Shit. It's hot." I retract my statement. "Oh, it's disgusting." Hand covering my mouth, I searched for a napkin, my eyes watering. "What on earth do they use to marinate the chicken?"
"Extra hot sauce," he clarifies, caving his food without so much as a blink. "No good with spice, huh?"
"Apparently," I muttered, dumping the burrito with resolute disrespect. "I'll stick to the latte." I blew over the surface of my coffee. "What's on the shopping agenda?"
"New clothes. No comfortable footwear and slouch pants, Vick. You need to think big, different but unsuspecting. The polar opposite of Alexa Haines."
"I only wore slouch pants because I had no clothes," I said, a tad bit defensive. "Plus, look at my feet." Hiking my leg onto the dash, I exhibit such evidence. "Do they look comfortable to you? Hm? I am going to break an ankle."
"Thanks to Sheila." He crumpled up his rubbish, talking with a mouthful. "Don't pretend that you live-and-die in high-heeled shoes, Vick."
Jace's right again. Fuck. Him. "Oh, I can live-and-die in ankle-breakers, Nathan." Dropping my leg in a huff, I folded my arms and stabbed my bottom lip with gritted teeth. "You're going down."
He caught me in his bewildered stare. "Are you done?"
"Nope." Bored, I studied my fingernails when a light-bulb moment sparked an idea. "Can I get a manicure?"
"I love them," I squeal, awe-stricken by my polished red fingernails. "I am in heaven."
"I am in hell," Jace grumbled, dragging himself from store-to-store.
"It's hard to take you seriously in that ridiculous outfit." He wears an ankle-length leather coat, black aviators and a shoulder-length men's wig. "I think I'll start calling you 'Arnold.'"
"I'll be back," I quoted in a baritone voice.
He shot me a disgruntled snarl, shadowing me into another cosmetics store. "What are you buying now?"
"Hair products." Skimming the shelves, I alternate bottles, inhaling various scents. "Lavender?"
He shook his head.
I sniffed another. "Buttercream?"
"Buttercream," he moaned into a clenched fist. "Who cares if your hair smells like butter?"
"I care," I stated the obvious, selecting raspberries and cream. "What about blueberry?"
"I can't take much more," he complains, pushing a hand through his hair. "Vick, I am a guy. I can tolerate a bit of window-shopping, but your gruelling, dangerous spending is nauseating."
I waggled my threaded eyebrows. "Come with me if you want to live."
"Stop quoting The fucking Terminator!"
"Hasta la vista." Hip to the counter, I winked. "Baby."
His lips meshed into a tight line. "Vick..."
"Well, you don't need to babysit me." I wait for the cashier to bag up my purchases. "Why don't I finish shopping and meet you back at the car?"
Jace handed her rolled-up notes.
I drummed my fingernails on the counter. "Nath?"
"What?" he drones, conveying my new treats outside. "I don't know, Vick. What if...?"
I deliberated his unfinished inquiry. "I promised," I emphasised, tucking blonde hair behind my ears. "I thought we agreed to trust each other."
"I do trust you..."
Jace's conflicting emotions stabbed me in the heart. I appreciate how I must seem like a liability, but a little girl's life is at stake. I am not a monster. I'd never turn my back on Summer, not when I am the catalyst to her abduction. "I promise," I said once more, interlacing our fingers together, "to come back. I am not going to run, Nath..." His scepticism earned a lambasting. "I am a product of child abduction. Do not insult me. I'd never stand back and let Summer suffer. She might be your daughter, but I am invested, determined, and royally pissed. That sick asshole is not going to ruin her life. Not with me around. Not with me fighting your corner. And if he finds out what we did, I'll hand myself over without a fuss. Either way, immaterial to strategies, Summer's coming home."
"Fuck," he whispered, clasping a hand to his mouth. "I know, Vick. Shit. I'm sorry. I'm paranoid."
I gave him a reassuring smile. "Give me twenty minutes to buy some underwear, Nath."
He released my hand with great reluctance, stuffing cash in my jeans pocket. I wait for him to fade into the crowd, then breathe. Riding the escalator to the next floor, I locate a lingerie store and immerse myself with beautiful lace and push-up bras. I asked the assistant to take measurements before selecting items. "Thirty-six," I told her, waiting inside the changing room. "B."
Two minutes later, the friendly assistant returns with countless bras. "I picked a thirty-four for you to try, too."
I frowned, outstretching my arms for her to encircle a tape measure across my bust. "A-cup," she said, and my chin hit the floor. "Not what you expected?"
"I can't afford to lose a boob-size."
What in the world?
Rubbing my temples, I asked, "Are you sure?"
Nodding, she tightened the tape, counting the inches. "Thirty."
Impossible. "I'm a thirty-fucking-A?" I am going to murder Jace Williams. "But I bought..." New clothes that I hadn't tried on. "Sorry, I wasn't expecting this."
"Do you need me to measure again?"
"No." Offering a faux smile, I gathered my discarded blouse and redressed. "Thank you; I can handle the rest."
Alone, I sit on the purple chair, examining Sheila's bralette. I stuffed the pointless fabric in my handbag, plastered on a cheerful expression and exited the changing room.
On the glistening shop floor, I wandered through aisles, choosing size eight underwear. I snarled with each choice of fabric, hauling multiple styles, heels alternatively clicking against the tiled floor.
I conclude, at this moment, that Jace is a dead man. His caveman tendencies and outlandish porridge diet resulted in me dropping two dress sizes. I wasn't appealing on the eye before this terrible quandary. Now I'll be lucky to gain attention again— "Hell no," a familiar voice drawled, and the hairs on my neck stood to attention. "It ain't about that."
Working on a tight swallow, I peered around the aisle, underwear glued to my chest. Outside the shop's double doors, Brad and Nate, stand tall in their pristine suits, bickering to...Is that Josh? Since when did my favourite human get a promotion? What, he's a stuck-up Suit now?
I wrinkled my nose, tongue flatted against my upper teeth.
Brad throws his head back on heavy chuckles, theatrically slapping a hand to his chest. His eyes, watered from uncontrollable laughter, found mine. I jumped back, praying he didn't see me. Of course, he saw me! It's Brad. That man sniffs out vaginas like an amped-up bloodhound.
I spun on my heel to hide in the changing room and crashed straight into someone's chest. "Oh, shit," I squeak, almost toppling over my feet, scattering lace in the air like taunting confetti. Two hands seized my elbows, steadying and breaking my fall—I stopped breathing. His cologne, a mixture of sandalwood and spice, permeated my breathing space.
What breathing space?
I didn't have any. I am practically collapsed atop of him, palms stationed to his hard, muscular chest. I snatched my hands back, fell to my knees and gathered underwear off the floor. He lowered to one knee, and all I could do was stare at his black leather shoe. "Are you okay?" I closed my eyes, unable to meet his gaze. I reached for the final thong; he beat me to it, curling a finger under the delicate lace, holding it between us. "I believe this belongs to you."
Clambering to my feet, I cowered away from him, terrified that he'll recognise me.
Tailored in a pristine black three-piece, he soared to his full, intimidating height, towering and indomitable.
I need to look away. Impossible. His piercing blue eyes search mine with such breath-taking intensity, a day's growth of stubble dusting his strong jaw. He's not angry. He's not depressed. He's not hurt, confused or cognisant. He's just... Him.
"Assuming you still plan to purchase such detailed lace," he mused, his gravelled voice sheathing my skin in goosebumps and horripilation.
I opened my mouth to respond—he'd recognise my voice. I nod.
Eyebrows cinching slightly, he stepped closer, forehead creasing. "Do I know you?"
Shy and gauche, I shook my head.
Giving me a winsome smile, he absently rotated his thumb over the lace thong. "I like this colour," he said in a thick, gravelled voice. "It'll look good on you."
Face burning up, I nod, claiming the red underwear from his hand. He stroked my knuckles with a deliberate brush of the finger, sending a powerful wave of fulfilment through my trembling body. He blinked, studying his hand atop of mine. It's still there, I thought, watching him mask his flirtatiousness with guarded indifference.
Our eyes aligned. "What's your name?" he rasped, eyes focusing on my lips. "Are you sure we've never met?"
"No," I whispered, attempting to pull my hand from his.
His grip tautened, restraining me to his proximity. "So you're not a mute?"
Don't smile at his teasing, Alexa. I smiled, shaking my head.
Why is he still here?
It's unlike him.
As if hearing my curious thoughts, Liam released his tight hold on me. He buried his hands into his trouser pockets, rocking back on the heels of his shoes.
Move along, Alexa. You can come back. It's not time.
I achieved one step, hesitated, placing us shoulder-to-shoulder.
Our heads turned in unison, facing each other head-on.
I allowed myself to catalogue his striking features, admire his full lips and prominent jawline.
I allowed myself to look deep into his eyes, to appreciate his closeness and all-consuming dominance. His all-encompassing superiority, suffocating in the most satisfying way.
It's no good.
I am head over heels, foolishly in love with this man.
Every perfection. Every imperfection. Everything about him.
And I am not ready to say goodbye.
"I..." He dipped his head, smoothing a thumb across his lower lip.
His lack of confidence somewhat pleased me. It's a selfish requirement. He believes I died, but I don't want him fawning over another woman. I want him to wait for me. I want him to wait for Alexa.
How is he supposed to do that? Be reasonable, Alexa. It's not as though you took a vacation, and he's anticipating your return.
You left him.
"I recognise you," he finally said, and panic sprouted inside me. "It's uncanny..." He glanced over his shoulder, searching, as it seemed. "Give me a name. I'd like to—"
"Liam?" A female voice shrills into our protective bubble, killing the fluttering butterflies in my chest. "Liam? Oh, there you are."
"Fucking hell," he muttered under his breath, gripping the back of his neck.
Each flutter died. I held the underwear to my chest, hoping he wouldn't notice my erratic breathing and straining chest. Blonde, curvaceous and downright beautiful, the woman melted into his side—and pressed a lingering kiss to his jaw. I jerked my eyes to his. He's still studying me, searching, reading.
Why is he watching me?
Why isn't he returning her affections?
Who is she?
She addressed him informally.
It is prohibited for inferiors to address him on first name bases.
Warren. Liam didn't demand veneration.
She means something to him...
I can't inhale. An imaginary hand seizes my throat, strangling the oxygen from my lungs, the air I breathe.
"Hello," she chimes, extending an arm, coaxing me to shake her hand. "Hellen. And you are?"
Her fingers crush mine, a silent but threatening warning.
I still can't breathe.
Why did I leave Jace?
Uncompromising heat flushed my chest and face, and sweat trickled down the nape of my neck.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I am going to have a panic attack.
No. No. No. Not right now.
"Is she okay?" Hellen asked him condescendingly, presuming I didn't hear. "I think she's going to pass out."
I dropped everything on the floor, staggered backwards, knocking into three mannequins. Please don't—They tauntingly wrestled on the display unit before crashing to the floor. Loud rioting noise reverberated throughout the lingerie store, magnetising the awareness of every customer. Flustered, the assistant wobbled toward me. "I'm so sorry," I blurted, gripping my throat, my heart painfully slamming against my breastbone. "It was an accident."
Alexa, stop talking.
My eyes flickered from Hellen to Liam.
I am humiliated, mortified.
Liam stiffened visibly, gaze darkening before my eyes.
"You might want to get a tissue." Hellen pouted, gesturing to my nose. "You got a wee nose bleed."
I pressed two fingers to my nostril, smearing blood on my fingertips. Out the corner of my eyes, I see him closing in—I dashed. I sped through the bustling aisles, hearing his heavy footsteps belting behind me. I speared through customers like a bowling ball into pins, shoving them into stands and units.
"Breathe," I gasped, praying to God that these heels don't snap under my weight.
At the entrance, all three Suits' glance when discerning a commotion. I barrelled through their united front, gravitated to the escalator and rudely waded through stationed shoppers. One chastised me, or, so I believed, until looking back and seeing Liam hot on my heels.
Holy. Fuck. Two seconds as Victoria and I blew my cover.
I picked up the pace, hurrying to the exit. Evening winds slapped me in the face as I fell through the rotational doors. I didn't have time to find Jace. I didn't even know which direction was safe.
Making an obvious choice, I sat on a bench overlooking the eventful square, squishing between a couple. Slipping on a pair of big-framed sunglasses, tucking hair underneath my blouse, I remained poised, statue-like.
Liam shoves his way through the door. In the middle of the square, he came to an abrupt stop, clasping two hands at the back of his head. He glances between possible exit routes; the cinema, shopping phase two, car park, bus stop, Underground and a side street offering various fast food chains.
Furious, he dropped his arms, used the back of his hand to wipe sweat from his brow. Above the centre's main doors, he marks a security camera. He'll own that footage within half an hour.
And then he's gone, returning to his... Hellen.
Who is Hellen?
I am not going to sleep tonight.
Apologising to the disturbed couple, I stood, collected my scattered thoughts, and joined Jace in the car park. I locate the Land Rover and knock the window, disturbing his random nap. He reached over and unlocked the car door. I sank onto the leather seat, my head buried on my lap.
"Hey," he breathed, squeezing my neck. "Vick, what's wrong?"
Wrenching on a guttural sob, I fell apart, heart-shattering into tiny fragments. "Nath," I cried, heartbreak pouring into my hands. "Oh, God. I can't..." I put my back to him, dabbed my cheeks with my shirt sleeves, smudging mascara. "I hurt. I hurt so much."
"Fuck." Snatching my elbow, he forced me closer, snaking me in his arms. "Vick, talk to me. Why are you so upset? I shouldn't have left you—"
"Liam," I whimpered, hiding my head on his chest. "He was shopping..." He was inside a lingerie store buying her lace. "And Hellen—I wasn't gone that long," I snapped, bolting upright, tearing the wig off my head. "Fuck it." It landed on my feet. "No, actually. You know what?" Fisting the blonde nest, I repositioned it on my head. "Fuck him. Fuck everyone. Fuck my life. Fuck my old life. Just—ah!"
"Calm down." He massaged my neck, fingers loosening tension. "As much as I love hearing the word 'fuck' on your tongue, I need you to be a bit more specific. What happened?" He passed me a tissue packet. "Vick?"
I folded a few pieces, wiped my cheeks and nose. "I'm tired," I whispered, snivelling in despondency. "I love so hard, Nath. Friends, family..." Liam, I thought, glancing out the window. "I had a shitty time growing up, but it didn't change me for the worst. I still grew with morals, respect, empathy and compassion. I still treated people how I wanted to be treated." Puffy eyed and lachrymose, I stared at him, both pensive. "I have no reason to be mad at Liam. He believes I'm dead. But to move on..." I shifted the knot in my throat. "To...forget about me," I clicked my fingers, "just like that. Like I meant nothing—like what we had meant nothing to him."
Jace pulled away from my gaze.
Gelid numbness immobilised me. I rested on the seat, lethargic, devastated. "That's it for me," I said quietly, releasing a shuddered breath. "Without him, I have no reason to go back."
"I'm serious, Nath." My life flashed before my eyes. Blessed memories. Upsetting memories. Gruesome memories. Loving memories. "Adaline Haines is dead. Kathy Haines is dead." I tilted my head, caught his stunned expression. "Alexa Haines is dead." I gave him an imperceptible shake of the head. "It's over. It's time to move on."
Offering me his hand, he threaded our fingers together. "What do you want, Vick?"
Heartbroken, I felt a tear roll down my cheek. "To be free."