I opened my eyes and faced darkness. For a short while, I laid motionless on a threadbare mattress; it's damaged springs penetrating my thigh. I gingerly felt its coarse texture, traced the illusionary chequered pattern with curious fingertips.
Jace, I thought, kneading my sore, tired eyes. His accomplice restrained me in his unyielding arms, smothered my mouth with a chemical-infused doused cloth, repressing me into unconsciousness. I heard them talking, but have no recollection of what they said or why they did this to me. I'm not foolish, though. I mightn't know Jace very much, but it's evident this cruel stunt has Flamur's name stamped all over it. There's no other reasonable explanation for my co-worker's wicked trickery. "Money," I whispered, cautiously pulling myself into a sitting position, back resting on the wall. Flamur paid Jace to befriend me for cash, I pondered the plausible notion, nervously chewing my thumbnail.
Chest rising and falling at an erratic pace, I impelled myself to stand, blinked through my dark ambience, hands blindly searching. Warily, I stepped off the mattress, discerning it's low, stationary setting. Just like before, I mused, bare feet onto concrete. A makeshift bed tossed into a dim room, no frame, or comfort. "Hello," I called quietly, catching something with my foot, sending an echoing scrape across the floor. I paused, held my breath, felt cold water rivulet across my feet.
Hollowing my cheeks, I positioned my palms to the wall, walked sideways, counted each step until I detected a foreign object. I held the rough pole in my hand, gripped another one, smoothed my palms up and down with immense inquisitiveness. I mentally tallied each metal-like bar, one, two, three, four... "Hello," I called again, terror straining my parched throat and hoarse voice. "Who's there?"
I stopped, brushed my palms down the rails, touched another unidentifiable object. With two fingertips, I traced its warm roughness, familiarised myself with bulky jewellery—I screamed, scampering away from the cage-like partition, backside colliding with the floor, sending a painful jolt up my spine.
Blinding lights illuminated the room. I flinched, ducked behind my hands, listened to Jace's gravelly laughter. "You were getting frisky with my hands, Alexa."
I peered through my fingers. He holds onto the poles with knuckled-white urgency, gold rings and bracelets glistening under the fluorescent lights. I lowered my hands, inventorying the cracked walls, strewn debris and pockets of stagnant water on the floor. The metal bucket I'd previously knocked over rests beside the partly barred enclosure, bubbles and suds in its wake. It smells rancid, the precariously hung wall coverage, mouldering, moss-grown, torn and discoloured from the damp partitions.
What is this place?
It is an unprepossessing, grotesque prison cell. No windows. No bathroom. No furnishings. Nothing bears except the makeshift bed on the floor and a drained water bucket which I assume Jace planned to utilise as a shower alternative.
"Are you finished spurning your accommodation?" he asked, his voice laced in amusement.
Burning bile flooded my throat. I swallowed it with a painful gulp, rapidly conceptualising and rationalising my distressing situation. "It's hardly accommodating," I mustered my inner fierceness, wiping my sweaty palms down my stained, dishevelled red dress. "Quite insulting, actually."
Jace studiously watched me, his eyebrow slowly elevating.
I remained demure and unperturbed, even though everything inside me jitters and wails. Of course, I am terrified, fearing the unknown and concerned by his devious motives. However, after what I endured as a child, I am unprepared to show this man any weakness. Instead, I adopt bold fearlessness to conceal my pusillanimous state. "I am a ruthless, empowered woman," I recited Liam's galvanising words, and his lopsided grin cinched. "And I will kill anyone who stands in my way."
He gave me a short, caustic laugh. "Good luck."
I hate him.
How could I behave so impossibly ridiculous, so reckless and trusting? I hadn't known Jace for exceptionally long, but I hadn't pegged him as a vicious man with dishonest intentions. I thought he was one of the good guys, an honourable man who loved sugar and had a predilection for men. "You're not gay," I said, remembering his spine-chilling words before my abduction. "Was anything real, Jace? Did you begin employment at the Coffee House just to spy on me? Is it about Him?" I won't elaborate. If Flamur's involved, Jace will unpuzzle my ambiguous prattling. "Is it about Liam?" I hadn't considered as much, too assured the Albanian plays puppet-master someplace in the background. "Are you using me to get to him? If so, I'd like you to reconsider any insidious motives. I am not to blame for your parents' death, so why am I being punished?"
"Shut up," he scolds, stepping away from the bolted railing. "You are in no position to demand or ask any questions, Alexa. I call the shots." The harshness in his voice grated on me. "No, I am not gay." He took great pleasure in telling me that. Smiling gleefully, he lingered his eyes on my bare legs, and another spine-shattering emotion trembled through me. "I appreciate women."
I repositioned, sat cross-legged, pinched the dress material between my thighs, covering myself. "If you touch me inappropriately," I warned, nausea pirouetting in my stomach, "I will end you." Idle threats, I thought, horripilation clinging to my flushed skin. I couldn't wrestle beneath a man like Jace. He'd overpower me. His tall, broad, muscular frame guarantees as much. "I am not one to be messed with, Jace."
Pure delight danced in his transfixing green eyes. "Oh, yeah?" he mocked, folding his arms, cords of muscle and tattoos flexing. "Please enlighten me, Alexa. How do you plan to stop me?"
Oh, God. His lascivious smirk unnerved me. I looked away, defeated, blinking back undesired tears. "Will you violate me?" My question was barely a whisper. "You needn't have bothered with such heinousness, Jace." I am a survivor, I mentally blather, licking my dry lips. "All this," I motioned to my impermanent four walls, "was unnecessary. You had ample opportunities to hurt me, so why the special treatment?" I fostered sardonic poise, unprepared to let him believe his perilousness alarms me. "It's a bit taxing, right? All this treachery for little old me."
Jace eyed me, curiousness etching his sharp features. "Where's the fun in that?" he asked, watching me stand to my full height. "In here? I get to play whenever I want." He fished keys out of his jeans pocket. "Let's start by giving you a shower."
"No, thanks." I'd first smell like a decomposing corpse than disrobe before this man. "I am accustomed to malodour." Flamur barely luxuriated me with warm bubble baths. I seldom ate or had the privilege of regular fluids to quench thirst. I never left my prison cell, ventured around the house, or felt the sun on my face.
"It wasn't a request," he said cruelly, unlocking my enclosure. "It was an order." He dragged the gate aside, the metal shrieking across the concrete floor. "Now, take off the dress, or I'll do it for you."
My lips parted in shock. "You want me to undress here? While you're ogling? Why can't I remove my clothes in the bathroom?"
"Now," he growled, growing impatient. "Last chance, Alexa."
With trembling hands, I dipped my fingers under the spaghetti straps, slipped the stained material from my body. I divert my gaze to the floor, not wanting to witness his scrutiny.
"No lace?" It sounded like a question, but I wasn't sure. "Why?"
Liam loves it when I eliminate underwear. It irritatingly arouses him, knowing he could smooth a hand under my dress and touch what belongs to him at any given moment—with or without spectators. "It's uncomfortable," I lied, arms cradling my chest.
I chanced to look at him. He brazenly swept his hooded gaze over my body. "You're not what I expected," he rasped, and I frowned. "There's nothing to you."
Embarrassment claimed my cheeks. "Then, why the fuck am I here?"
My peeved question humoured him. "I prefer a woman with a bit of meat, some curves and a nice rack." He pulled his barbell between gritted teeth. "Pussy is pussy, though, right?"
I fumed, nostrils flaring. I need to prepare myself for the impending assault. I endured rape from a young age, so switching off is second nature for a woman like me. I will not participate, though. If screaming, thrashing and begging arouse Jace, then he's in for a rude awakening. I won't fight or plead for my rights. I won't play his games. "If sex is a requirement? I'm good to go. However, if you try and put that disgusting dick anywhere near my mouth? I will gnaw it off, and that's not a futile threat, Jace. It's a goddamn promise."
He entered my enclosure, making me feel entirely small and vulnerable.
I held my breath, the muscles in my body welded.
"Let's get that vodka stench off your body." Snagging my elbow, he forcefully towed me away from the cell, across a squalid area with scarce furnishings and strewn clothing. His side of the room offered little: two tattered leather sofas, coffee table, outmoded television, gym bags and convenient food. It's a bedsit, I wondered, eyeing the dated appliances on the kitchen counter, dirty dishes and empty beer bottles.
He opened one of two doors in the room, shoved me into a box-size bathroom.
Floor-to-ceiling tiles, grout embedded with dark mould and the floral shower curtain has brown stains at the bottom. He previously wedged a wooden stick between the wall and toilet, assembling its unbalanced condition into position, I believe. "Wash," he commanded, shoving me into the shower. "Now."
Coldwater unexpectedly emptied over my head. I suppressed an alarmed scream, but my flinching body betrayed me. Grounding down on my chattering teeth, I turned my back to him, silently begged for warmth. Moments later, steam filled the tepid air, heating my once frozen skin. I washed obediently, exfoliating with strawberry-scented gel.
Jace passed me a shampoo bottle. "Do your hair."
I accepted his reluctant offering, squirted shampoo into my palm, scrubbed my hair and scalp.
Satisfied by my cleanliness, Jace killed the shower, tossed me a rough-textured towel. "Dry."
I patted down my body, modesty left at the door.
Handing me black sweats and an oversized T-shirt, Jace waited until his clothes buried my frame, and then led me back to the room.
While strolling, I spotted a wooden staircase, pondering an escape route.
"Don't bother," he quipped, compelling me back to isolation. "You won't make it far, Alexa. I locked the main door and, even if you were fortunate enough to outsmart me, there's nothing but desolate vastness beyond this place."
"Is this about your parents?" I asked once more, requiring validity. "Or did Flamur pay you to handle his business?" Sarcasm dripped from my tongue. "Was the coward not man enough to snatch me himself?"
Jace seemed taken aback. I couldn't work out which question startled him. "My parents died in a car accident when I was fifteen," he confirms, and the blood evaporated from my body. "Fate sucks, huh?"
I wanted to slap him. "You told me Liam was responsible for their deaths."
"I lied," he chimed, crashing the gate in place, locking me away. "Although I am still curious, Alexa. Why would you date a man like Liam Warren?"
"Why not?" I challenged, gripping the metal poles. "You claim Liam is a merciless killer who's undeserving and irredeemable, yet you mirror his nefarious traits. Tell me, Jace. What makes you a better man? You're a contradictory bastard who preys on vulnerable young women—"
"Pathetic," he interjects, his lip curling in disdain. "You defend his honour with such passionate vigour, and it's disgusting. You got it all figured out, right? Warren's the worst of our kind," he adds, and I bore into him with punishing eyes. "But he treats you well, so it's all good, huh? It doesn't matter that he brutally murders innocent people for sport. It doesn't matter that he generates cash from defenceless victims who are too terrified to stand up for themselves. How well do you actually know him, Alexa? You overlook his massacres against the male population. What's the deal-breaker? Pensioners? Women? Children?" My core knotted. Never children. "Ah, so he hasn't corrupted you yet."
"Liam has rules," I whispered, my heart beating wildly in my chest. "He'd never hurt undeserving people."
"Wow." He shook his head in sheer disbelief. "Since when did women and children merit anything other than protection?"
"What are you getting at?" I asked, my voice a touch panicked. "Again, how are you any different? I never wronged you, Jace. Do I not merit leniency?"
"Collateral." He rudely shrugged. "Warren came after me, so it's only fair that I return the favour."
His indecipherable evasiveness irked me.
"You must be hungry," he drawled, wandering toward the kitchenette, snagging boxed porridge from the cupboard, "Honey or original?"
I ignored him.
"You're like me," he said assuredly, tearing a honey flavoured sachet with his teeth, emptying oats into a mug. "Gotta have your sugar intake, right?" Pouring milk over my food, he popped it in the microwave, waited for the finished chime. "I bought strawberries, but I'm not one to share, so you can watch me consume those later." Returning to the gate, he outstretched an arm between two poles, urging to ingest his grudging proffer. "Eat."
I waited for a beat and then snatched the mug from his hand and shattered it against the wall—thick porridge sludges down the concrete, clinging to rough grooves.
Jace squared his jaw, the muscles throbbing. "You'd rather starve?"
"I'd rather eat shit than accept anything from you," I retort, collapsing onto the mattress. "I am not fragile, Jace." It's partly true. Liam's tactless "fight back" techniques will come in handy for this quandary. "You will soon realise how annoyingly juvenile I am. I sing without harmonious cords. I talk to myself daily, and I function well on little sleep." I hummed a tune under my breath, studied my fingernails with a bored expression. "I give you a week, in my company, before you lose the fight."
His throaty laughter reverberated around my cell. "Delusional. I am not staying here, Alexa. I'll merely swing by to ensure you're still breathing. Besides, I only have you for two weeks, and then you belong to Bajramovic."
Fear clawed at my insides. I scampered off the mattress with momentary light-headedness. "Where are you going?" I screamed, watching him collect his phone and keys from the coffee table. "You can't leave me here, Jace. You can't give me to him—"
"Stop talking," he scolds, tugging on his leather jacket. "Your whiny voice irritates me."
"Jace," I whispered, hands clasped to the poles. "Please don't give me to him. You don't understand. He—"
"Not my problem," he snipes, ascending the stairs, hitting the lights, shrouding me in darkness. "Your little porridge stunt was foolish. Now you won't see a meal for three days." The front door boomed behind him, followed by deadbolts and what sounded similar to chains.
My knees met the floor, and a guttural sob ripped from my chest. It's all-consuming, the pain and anguish immobilising me. I cannot go back to Him. I'll never survive it. "Please," I cried, resting my head to the pole, listening to the tap dripping in the kitchen. "Liam, please find me."
Liam loves me, I thought, smiling sadly to myself. I know he won't stop searching until I am safe.
Wiping tears from my cheeks, I crawled onto the mattress, pulled the blanket over my head, filtered through decent memories.
"I love this." Liam's rough voice breathed against the back of my neck. "It's my favourite colour on you."
I smile triumphantly, turned to face him. He looks painfully handsome in his pristine navy three-piece, the shade complimenting his intense blue eyes. I feigned indifference, scrutinised my red lingerie set. "I hadn't considered you once when putting it on."
"Really?" His wolfish smirk uncaged butterflies in my stomach. "Not even a little bit."
"Not even a little bit," I repeated, resting my backside to his desk. "Okay, maybe a smidgen."
"A smidgen," he whispered, lips pursing. "Come here."
I lowered my knees to the floor, splayed my hands across his thighs.
"You kneel for nobody except me," he said, cupping my cheek with a callous hand. "Understand?"
"Yes." Turning my head in his palm, I relished his tenderness, kissed his inner wrist. "I love you."
"I wish you'd stop saying that." His eyebrows knitted. "It fucks with my head." Hands travelling around my neck, he held me, silently prompted me closer. "You're fucking beautiful." He brushed his lips over mine, kissed the corner of my mouth. "Killing me."
I smiled against his mouth. "I don't know a life without you."
"You have no idea." That gained me an appreciative grin. "No fucking idea."
Tears doused my pillow, the pain in my chest amplifying. I dropped my arm, fingers aimlessly combing for debris. I found something cool, unshaved, unsymmetrical. Smoothing my thumb across its bumpy surface, I rolled onto my back, drew a line across the wall and began tallying. I needed to remember the days and time frames before Jace hands me to Flamur. I also need a plan, something stellar and promising, an opportunity to get inside my captors head. I don't know Jace, not really. I cannot differentiate his misleadingly contradicting personalities. I thought he was kind, humble and friendly. "Always trusting," I mumbled, tossing to the rock onto the floor. "Too trusting."
There's only one way out of this mess. I must kill Jace. But I wasn't born that way. I hurt when others hurt; I cry when seeing someone's despair. I am inherently a gentle soul who doesn't enjoy the despondency of others.
How am I supposed to end another's life without remorse?
How am I going to sleep at night if I succeed?
It's my life or his, though.
I buried my head in the pillow, muffling my loud shirks, fisting the duvet.
Jace is right. I am foolish.
I am not escaping, not unless someone finds me.
Let's hope the people that I love, care enough to continue searching this time.