SACRIFICE (Book Two: The London Crime King)

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Ch 21

Alexa

Jace rented us a room at a bed-and-breakfast. Heather, the innkeeper, welcomed us with open arms, too eccentric and hospitable. Within five minutes, I worked out why. Heather's strapped for business. Each room, unoccupied and in dire need of DIY—unappealing to potential customers.

Not for hiding runaways, though.

Emptiness and solitude exemplify heavenly bliss. I had the best night's sleep, curled up in a ball on that double-bed, smothered by duck feather pillows, inhaling rose-scented sheets and fresh laundry, roasted coffee beans radiating from the dated kitchen.

Jace created a makeshift bed on the floor without complaints. I felt a tad bit guilty. He's far too tall, too big, to sleep on the floor with a toddler duvet.

Nevertheless, I slept like a baby, out like a lightbulb.

This morning, before Jace ordered me to leave the bed, he pointed to the en-suite, told me to shower and wear something unrestrictive and comfortable for commencing warfare sessions.

I was going to kick his ass...

"Come on, Vick," Jace coaxed, nudging my hip with his boot. "Where's your fight?

Positioned like a lifeless starfish, I laid face down on the rain-sprinkled grass, a bead of sweat trickling down my forehead. "I died," I croaked, fingers splayed on the ground, the yoga pants and saturated vest, tight-fitting to my body. "I need water."

Jace huffed out a breath of annoyance, snagged my elbow and compelled me to stand. "Quit complaining," he scolds, lifting my lethargic arms, forming tight fists. "Let's work on your punching." He clasped a big, inked hand over my balled-up fist, his other fingers elongating my arm. "Thumbs over your knuckles. Squared-off, facing your target. Make sure you're happy with your stance." He tapped the backs of my knees, jolting me into a defensive posture. "What did I tell you?"

I chased my memory. "Hands up, guarding my face when I'm not in mid-punch."

He jerked his chin, pleased with my response. "When you come at me?" Dropping back, he readied himself. "Extend your arm toward the target." He gestures to himself. "It's all in the shoulder, Vick. Throwing aimless fists is ineffective. It's about the power behind those jabs. Got it?"

I nod, licking perspiration from my lips. I was the most obsequious student. I followed his lead, throwing a combination of combative punches. I underwent a strict training regime beneath the incarnadine embers of sunrise. The lake's still waters glowing like an endless mirror, a picturesque view with a palette of mountainous frondescence and earthy tones. Variable birds tweeting, rising from wild habitats.

Jace dodged my punch, side-stepping, resulting in me face-planting the floor again. "Vick," he chastised, hauling me into a stance. "Revenge or defeatism? Consider that every time you feel like giving up. Fight-or-flight response."

"You're too big," I complained, throwing my arms up in defeat. "I don't stand a chance, Nath."

"You're making excuses." His forest green eyes held my angered glare, daring me to deny it. "What did I teach you?"

I furrowed my eyebrows. "Hand up, guarding—"

"No." He interrupted my rehearsed speech. "In Liverpool, outside of Tommy's compound. What did I tell you?"

Frowning, I pucker my lips. "If I am lucky enough to break free from my attacker, run for my damn life."

Jace suppressed a smirk, rubbing sweat from his forehead. "What else?"

"If in a compromising position," I said, recalling his uplifting words, "target pain or sore spots."

"Good. Well done." He twisted a finger between us. "Turn around."

I obeyed, putting my back to him. "Now—" He unexpectedly wrapped his strong, muscular arms around me "—Nathan!" Back fused to his chest, I wriggled, kicked and bucked my hips. "I can't do it!"

"Yes," he whispered, his lips brushing my earlobe, "you can." Tightening his hold, he restricted my panicked fight. "Go for the jugular, Vick."

Closing my eyes and inhaling a deep breath, I elbowed him in the ribs. His grip eased, only a touch, but my jab wasn't enough. I strived, fought, sought the tender skin under his arms and pinched. He winced, and I persisted, digging into his flesh with sharp fingernails. Arms slackening, he released his vice-like grip. I donkey-kicked, caught his groin and dashed across the field, a triumphal smile on my face.

I made it to the river edge, doubled over at the waist, catching my breath.

"You did good." He tugs my braid, passing me a water bottle. "Run faster the next time."

I concur. "I am no Usain Bolt." I guzzled water, quenching my thirst. "I'll work on it, though."

He dipped his head, hands hugging his waist. "Do you think the water is cold?"

"I don't know." Squatting, I splayed fingers across the cold surface. "It's bearable."

Jace reached behind his head, tugging off his black T-shirt. Shirtless, bare-chested, he kicked off his boots and socks, unzipping his jeans. I could make out his perfect, well-built physique. I marvel at his glorious washboard of abs, eye-catching V-line and a vertical strip of dark hair leading south.

I recapped the water bottle, parked on a formless boulder and watched him wade into the still lake.

With his back to me, Jace cupped water, doused his face and neck, appreciating the morning sun, beating down on his tired face. He splashed glistening liquid over his shoulders and beads formed, clinging to his tattooed skin.

Jace embodies striking masculinity, a spectacular, handsome yet unassuming male who doesn't give himself enough credit. I can give credence, though. In silence, of course. I'll never admit such favourable thoughts aloud.

"Are you going to join me for a swim?"

I glared at him, mouth agape. "I am not swimming in that?"

"Why not?" He gave me a low, mischievous smirk. "You're not scared of a few fishes?"

I flattened my tongue on my upper teeth. "You're not allowed to drown me," I warned, standing up to lose my trainers and yoga pants. "Are your feet touching the floor, or are you floating?" Dipping my toes into the water, I found the bottom, arms outstretched as I strode toward him. "It's warm."

Jace levelled his palms, skimming the water's surface. "Nice, right?"

I relaxed, bathed and soothed to my shoulders.

"I like putting my head under," he admits, dewdrops dance on his eyelashes, "to drown it all out."

"Does it work?" I asked as we drifted farther.

"Sometimes," he rasped, his chin floating, keeping him upright.

I smiled, pinched my nose and ducked my head under the water. I closed my eyes, listened, basked in assuaging quietness, stillness and taciturnity. My senses heightened. I felt a wave of vibrations and effervesces caressing my toes and fingers.

Absorbing a serene oasis with only my thoughts to contend with, I searched for a happy place and the people I love. I contemplate them all, but it's his face, overpowering my visions.

"Liam," I half-scolded, shoving his chest. "Stop biting me."

Positioning his hands astride my head, Liam trapped me in the thrall of his powerful arms, whispering a kiss on my shoulder, soothing the bite mark he put there. "You love it when I mark you," he said, cocky and self-assured. "Deny it."

I am not playing his game. "You're too big to shower with me," I pointed out, squirting gel onto his grey loofah.

Liam eyed the spacious glass-framed cubicle with a cocked brow. He grasped my hip bone, his thumb circling me there. "My bathroom accommodates the two of us."

His utilitarian space is impossibly luxurious. Skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking beautiful London views. Undulating black marble used for vanity, walls and floors. "I suppose it'll suffice," I said, lifting an uncaring shoulder. "If strapped for cash, I mean."

Resting his forehead to mine, his hand toured the length of my body, pinning me to the tiles. Steam and heat emitted from the shower, misting us. He held my jaw in his hand, his lips teasing the corner of my mouth.

I anticipated his kiss. My lips parted, waiting to feel his tongue on mine. He turned me in an abrupt manner, glueing his chest to my back. "Am I not meeting standards, baby?" Lacing our fingers together, he pinned our joint hands on either side of my head. "Tell me how to fix it?" He dragged my earlobe between his teeth, flicking with gentle strokes of his tongue. "Anything you want. It's yours."

My eyes fluttered shut. "Materialism doesn't appeal to me," I breathed, my body sprouted with goosebumps. "You are more than enough, Liam."

Snaking an arm around my waist, he reached up, fastening a hand around my jaw. He angled my head, thumb and fingers, clinging to my cheeks. "Kiss me," he whispered his demands, soft mouth attentive to my lower lip. He fused his lips to mine, breathing me in. "I don't think I'll ever tire of you."

Flutters pirouette in my stomach. "I love you."

Jace's hand curled around my wrist, hauling me back to the surface. I gasped a lungful of air, blurred eyes tuning to the morning light.

"Fucking hell, Vick," he snapped, thrusting a hand through his tousled damp hair. "You scared me."

I blinked myself back to the present, respiring a shuddering breath. "Sorry, I didn't mean to stay under that long." I spread a hand over my chest, massaged an ever-present ache, overburdened with an air of haunting regret and increasing sentimentalism.

Braced for an argument, Jace squared his shoulders and spat out a curse. "Where the hell did your mind wander?"

"I searched for a happy place," I admit, shrugging an insouciant shoulder. Before he can ask any more innocuous questions, I splash him.

He jerked back, evading thorough soaking.

I laughed, flexing my legs, swimming away from him.

"Oh, you think it's funny?" he taunted, diving underneath the water, leaving me alone.

I halted, a knot clogging my throat. "Nathan," I said, a cautious hitch in my voice. "Don't you dare scare me. I'll never forgive—" A violent force lunged me in the air, sending my body crashing down into a whirlpool of choking-suspense. I kicked my legs with an unsynchronised breaststroke, resurfacing and attacking the irredeemable caveman. "You almost killed me!"

"You're so dramatic." He matched my attack, whipping water in my face, a playful sparkle in his eyes. "Plus, you started it."

"Oh, God." I ducked under his arm, kicking his backside with intent. "Hey—" He snatched my ankle, yanking me in. "I surrender! You win, okay?"

I don't know how it happened or what shifted between us. I didn't realise our silence or closeness until I felt his erratic heartbeat under my palms. I stared at his defined chest, his strained breathing in my ear.

"What's wrong with me?" He husked. "How can I be out here, laughing with you? Summer's alone, scared and waiting for her father to save her."

I held my breath, heart collapsing in my chest.

He gripped my waist, keeping me close. "How bad is it, Vick?"

I kicked my feet forward.

I kicked my feet back.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

"I mean," he continued, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat. "He imprisons them, right? Like a bargaining chip? He doesn't actually harm them?"

"I want to go home," I sobbed into my hiked knees, cowering in a corner. "Please let me go home. I want my mum." I am eleven years old. I am starved, beaten, abused and raped. "I need my mum."

It's too much. I have endured and suffered enough.

My jaw hurts.

He might have broken it, caused serious damage.

How hard did he hit me?

It knocked me into unconsciousness.

I must've slept for a while.

I'm sore, though.

Dry blood and stomach-churning semen, sticking to my inner thighs.

I sobbed harder, harsher, crying for Kathy.

"You need to wash that off." Dropping a steel bucket on the floor, he points to the dirty sponge. "Clean up, Lexi. You fucking stink."

Jace knows Flamur abused me. I spouted as much back on the Isle of Man. I can preserve him from grim reality, though.

Forcing a fake smile, I prevaricate, fingers tracing his collar bones. "He only hurt me." It's partly true. In a deranged, abstruse way, I am Flamur's favourite. "When it came to other children, he held onto them for money purposes—used them to blackmail the parents and..." I am an awful person. "Has he contacted you?"

Eyes embracing our warm sunrise, Jace shook his head. "What about the others? His men. Did they...?"

The noises and screams—terrifying screams that lasted minutes, other times, those cries were omnipresent for many hours. This place is like a slaughterhouse, gut-wrenching and side-splitting.

I often watch the ceiling when I hear loud thumps and scraping sounds, indicating a scuffle, almost like a game of hide-and-seek. Those children run, crying for their mothers, pleading with those monsters not to hurt them.

At first, I presumed it was only Kathy and myself in this place. I was wrong. There are more. Sometimes they let kids sleep down here with me. It's nice to have some company. It's never for more than two nights before the guards return and take them away from me, though.

"No," I lie, protecting his uninformed mindset. "No, Nathan. Summer's fine. Well, she's not fine. I mean, she's frightened, lonely and missing you, but she's safe from harm." I was incapable of making promises, not for her wellbeing or safety. "So, has he messaged you?"

Jace cast his gaze to the silver of water between us. "No," he confirmed, his tone clipped. "I keep texting him, though. I am freaking out, Vick."

Odd, I thought, watching birds whisper through trees.

"I am hungry." Realising our closeness, Jace released me, pushing his hair from off his brow. "What do you fancy?"

"Anything that comes with coffee." Soaked from head-to-toe, I hiked behind him, trainers and pants to my chest. I hope he packed spare clothes for me. "Why do you keep changing the licence plate?" He's substituted them three times since we landed in London.

"I am not taking any chances." Previously, he parked the Land Rover, obscured from overgrowth. "Warren's dangerous, Vick. He knows people. If I am not careful, he'll uncover everything and kill me." He whacked and separated branches, unlocking the rear door. "Hey, can I ask you something?"

I tore the sodden vest from my body, wrung the material. "Sure."

Toying with a set of keys, he adopted momentary mutism. "If anything happens to me," he whispered, popping his jaw muscles, "will you find her? I know it's a lot to ask, but I need assurance. I need to know she'll be safe if I..."

I thanked him for the towel and dried my body. "You're not dying, Nath." I won't allow it. "But, if in the event such tragic events occur, I promise to, not only save Summer, but I will keep her. I might be bad at guardianship. I love pretty damn hard, so she'll be more than loved, living with me."

He smiled a rare smile, one that swelled my chest. "You know what?" He rubbed a towel over his head. "You're not so bad, Vick."

I grinned, waggling my eyebrows. "Is that a compliment?"

"It's an unarguable fact." He turned, lost his boxer briefs. His inked, decorative ass cheeks clenched as he tugged on a fresh pair.

I caught sight of something glimmering between his thighs as he dressed. He's big, long and thick. And he's pierced. Holy. Shit.

Snatching my eyes away, I put on a faded black Rolling Stones T-shirt and denim jean shorts. Hair a messy knot atop my head. "Did that hurt?" I asked, wanting to slap myself. "Don't answer that."

Jace kept sneaking sidelong glances. "Did what hurt?"

Great. Now I have to admit my perverted tendencies. "Your barbell."

T-shirt in a balled-up fist, he rolls his tongue piercing. "No. Why? Do you want one?"

Did I? No, I am far too pusillanimous for tongue stabbing. "I mean your other one," I said meekly, a shade of humiliation, staining my cheeks.

His eyebrows shot up. "Oh?" He scratched the back of his neck. "You saw that, huh?"

"Well, you practically bent over in front of me," I defended myself. "It was...hanging there."

Amused, he itched the end of his nose with a knuckle. "Prince Albert," he said, and I gave him a blank expression. "The piercing? That's what it's called. And yes. It hurt like a fucking bitch."

A ghost of a smile tweaked my lips. "Why torture yourself?"

"It's pleasurable," he tells me, and I listened, committed. "For us both, or who I sleep with, rather." He amended his error, clearing his throat. "During sex, the barbell stimulates the G-spot... I get no complaints."

I should expunge this knowledge and abandon this strange occurrence of uncharted territory, but I was too fascinated. "It sounds wonderful," I whispered, kicking a pebble under my trainer. "And euphoric." Shut up, Alexa. "Like a sequence of spectacular climaxes."

Forearm to the vehicle, Jace laughed, hard, burying his head in the groove of his elbow.

"Why are you making fun of me?" My cheeks were scorching. "What?"

"I think someone's exceeding their celibacy limit." Rubbing humoured tears from his eyes, he stomped into heavy-duty boots.

"I didn't take a vow of celibacy," I remind him, opening the passenger side door. "And I am fine. I don't need sex." Did I need sex? If Liam were here, I most certainly wouldn't oppose the idea. I'd tackle him onto those backseats and ride my way through a wave of orgasms.

I sank against the heated leather, humming to myself.

Jace's right. I am lustful and aroused. I will purchase a vibrator. I can masturbate until I see Liam again, pleasure myself.

Jace fired the engine, ripping the SUV out of the mud.

Impossible. I have a roommate. He'll know. He'll hear me. I am not the quietest pleasure seeker. In fact, I'm loud, especially when hitting my pinnacle.

My thighs clenched together instinctively, easing a throbbing ache. I can seek a release in the shower—

"Stop." Jace's authoritative tone invaded my sexual thought process. "I'm a warm-blooded male, Vick. I know when a woman's turned on."

My eyes rounded.

He shifted in his seat, adjusting his denim-clad groin, relieving himself.

I slipped a glance down there. He's aroused, hard, straining.

Disordered and ashamed of myself, I gazed out the window, unravelling my braid. I loosen my hair, a protective curtain to shield my face.

I need some alone time.
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