He's also bossy and domineering.
With a towel swaddled around my body, I peered into our bedroom, the usual magnolia walls, plain wooden floors and upholstered furnishings.
Jace has his back propped up against the headboard, almost dressed, ripped black jeans, an unbuttoned black shirt to match his black heavy-duty boots.
It's safe to say, black is Jace's favourite shade.
"What are you doing?" I pried, hand latching to the doorframe. "You haven't come up for air."
Tapping the keyboard with one hand, he lifted a vodka bottle to his lips. "Get dressed."
What did I tell you? Bossy and domineering.
"Yes, sir," I mumbled under my breath, leaving wet footprints in my wake.
I emptied shopping bags on the bed, strewing high-heeled shoes, ostentatious dresses, discounted miniskirts, off-the-shoulder blouses and fake eyelashes. "I don't know how to do these." I opened a packet, snapped the strip. "Shit. I broke it." I relented, opting for Fiber mascara. "Oh, for Christ's sake!"
Jace glimpsed at me over the laptop screen. "What?"
"I am an embarrassment to the female population." I sat on the bed, crossed my legs and squirted a dollop of foundation on my hand. "It's Chloe's speciality." I motion to my face with a beauty blender. "She slaps on the war paint, glamorising and whatnot. I'm not too good at this stuff. And these," I hold up the oversized clothes, "are too big for me."
His eyes went from the heaped clothes to me. "Then why didn't you buy smaller sizes?"
I hadn't realised until the lingerie store. "What am I going to wear? It'd help if I knew where you were taking me."
"Something sexy" is his unhelpful response.
I selected a black bodycon dress with spaghetti straps. It's skin-tight, so no worries about indecent exposure. I'll return the rest or exchange.
Blonde wig and full-faced makeup sorted, I slip on strappy heels, complementing my chosen attire and stuff a clutch bag with essentials. I finalised my image with a stroke of red matte lipstick. "I'm ready."
"I need another hour," Jace said, engrossed by whatever is on that damn laptop. "Drink."
I narrowed my eyes. "I am not sitting here, getting inebriated while you're busy roaming the net." He ignored me—again. "Nathan—"
"Fuck, Vick!" he barked, rubbing his irate features. "I need a fucking minute!"
His curt, biliousness was unnecessary. "Fine," I clipped, unlocking the bedroom door. "I am going to that bar around the corner. When you're ready to apologise? Come and find me." I slam the door, deliberate and with a wall-shattering bang. "Asshole."
Holding the wooden guardrail to descend the stairs, I espied Heather hauled up behind the reception desk. She's an older woman, late fifties. And she's pleasant, friendly and gregarious. Her overbearing social skills need tweaking, though. In less than five hours this woman has knocked our door eight times, offering baked goods, reading material and chuntering me into immobilising hypnosis.
Don't get me wrong, Heather's a lovely woman, but after Jace's impatient rudeness this evening, I am not in the mood for small talk or discussing trivial matters.
"Miss Rose," exclaims Heather, rounding her vintage-style desk, resting to admire an orchid plant. "You look ravishing, darling. I love the dress."
My shoulders sagged. It's no use. Disrespectful hostility and discourteousness are uncharacteristic for someone like me. I laugh when they smile. I ache when people hurt. I cry when others weep. Unfailing considerateness and compulsive politeness, ingrained and deep-rooted, thanks to the short-lived time I spent with my mother.
I offered a jovial smile. "Thank you, Heather."
Heather had short, straight, grey hair and skin akin to old parchment. Pearl earrings hanging from her earlobes, she wore a hand-knitted, monochromatic pink cardigan with a sparkling brooch and brown, pinstripe trousers. She's the quintessential grandmother—only, she doesn't have children or grandchildren...
"Is your brother joining you?"
Jace misinformed Heather on arrival. "Soon," I said, ebbing to the front door. "I'd avoid him, Heather. He's moody tonight."
"I'll take a ruler to his bottom," she promised, and I giggled, opening the door. "Do you need me to call a cab?"
"No, I'm fine." Strong winds almost threw me into the raised flower bed. "Thank you, though."
Strolling down the path, beyond the gate, I journeyed past snug houses and Heather's bed-and-breakfast competitors.
"Shit." I predict a broken ankle or fractured head tonight. I'll flash my ass to the whole of London if these precarious, deadly shoes do not certify distressing misfortune or casualty.
Windswept and friendless, I enter the bar, on the street corner, meandering through carousing crowds, with plentiful craic, enjoying a live segue of reggae music and vocalists impersonating legendary artists and musicians.
Wedging onto a stool between two, on the face of it, antisocial gents, I set my purse onto the wooden bar top, studying the colourful chalkboard menu.
"What can I get you?" Whipping a terry tea towel over his shoulder, the barman, modelling intimidating, vintage-looking skull jewellery, faded denim and leather cut over his wife-beater, tapped an impatient finger on the cash register. "I ain't got all day, lady."
"Vodka," I confirmed, sliding ten pounds into his hand. "Make it a double."
Tossing loose change into my purse, he unscrewed a bottle of Russian vodka, poured a glass and told me to "enjoy."
Plucking out the straw, I sipped, appreciating its smooth, subtle flavour.
Turning on my seat, facing the centre stage, I crossed my legs elegantly, the vocalist singing "Wild World" by Maxi Priest.
To my left, drunk and tawdry, stumbled off his stool, hitting the deck—passed out. He laid unconscious, snoring amid a cacophonous blend of drunken heart-to-hearts, frolic dancing and unfaltering instrumentalists.
I blinked, once, downed my drink and ordered another.
Burly bouncers made an appearance. Three bald men, one had a goatee. They lifted the intoxicated male, conveying him outdoors where an impending taxi loomed near the entrance.
I knocked the drink back, starting to unwind, relax. Repositioning, seeking out the barman, I raised a hand to order one more when a large hand clasped my wrist. I froze, eyed the solid-gold square curb bracelets and oval-diamond cufflink.
"Cheap and cheerful," a rough, modulated voice said. "It's a dangerous combination."
"Really?" I asked, withdrawing my arm, the empty glass falling into his possession. "What's the alternative...?" I cleaved my tongue to my inner cheek, stunned by his magnificent appearance.
He towered beside me with tasteful poise. In a pristine gunmetal grey suit and a crisp black shirt with a designer emblem on the collar, a captivating, handsome man, rotates my crystal glass between his gold and diamond ring-clustered fingers. His defined, chiselled jaw, dusted in that five o'clock shadow, accentuating his soft-looking lips. Lustrous, jet black, styled, long enough to run your hands through it. And his eyes. I can't look away. It's impossible. Breath-taking, piercing blue eyes adorned in thick eyelashes.
He watches, expressionless, unsmiling. "Exclusive," he said in that baritone voice, exposing goosebumps to my overheating skin. "And unparalleled."
I still struggled to breathe. "Sounds boring."
Repressing a smile, he clicked his fingers, once, and the barman laid two napkins down, before the glasses, handing the unnamed man a bottle. "Try this," he hummed, splashing far too much liquid courage into my glass. "Beluga gold line."
I rest my elbow on the bar, facing him head-on. "Is this particular brand your idea of splurging out?"
"What a fatuous question?" He mused, and I grew affronted. "Unless you obtain rare, limited editions, vodka's not the wealthiest of drinks. Although, compared to your initial choice, the premium line must taste like royalty in a bottle."
He's arrogant and conceited, but it suited him. "How much will the Beluga cost me?"
"Nought," he assured, and I arched a defined eyebrow. Nothing in life is free. "What? Can't a man buy you a drink without obligation?"
In his ear, a glimmering white-gold crucifix. "Are you religious?"
"No," he clipped, downing a shot sans flinch or wince. "Are you?"
"What?" My eyebrows drew close. "Are we playing question-for-question?"
I still don't know his name.
His enthralling, sapphire eyes darkened. He placed a hand on my shoulder, and I uncurled my spine, inhaling a sharp breath. "Angel wings," he whispered, the pads of his fingers, outlining the detailed feathers on my back. "Why such a sacramental statement otherwise?"
I pondered a response, deciding to be honest. "It is a permanent declaration of liberty," I said, and he didn't blink, listening. "There were times in life where I felt alone, miserable, restricted and..." Caged, I thought. He must think I am speaking figuratively, not from experience.
He gave me a low, lopsided smirk. "I suppose even the saddest of birds fly high, Angel."
I blushed, gesturing around the room with a flippant hand. "Aren't you a little out of your depth?"
"How so?" He mirrored my position, relaxing on the stool, balancing an elbow on the bar top.
"You look like someone that belongs in a high-class bar with all the other business tycoons and eligible bachelors." His suit screams prosperity.
"Oh, look who's superficially judging now?" he half-joked, and I regretted probing. "Quite the stereotypical assessment, Angel. Wealth and designer suits don't define me. I like a run-down bar and," he tilted his glass, "cheap spirits as much as the next person."
I thanked him for the refill.
"Why do you presume I am available?"
Well, he wouldn't be here, talking to me if there was a woman at home.
I scolded myself in secret. I am psychoanalysing and casting judgement again! He hasn't said anything untoward or remotely suggestive. He's been nothing more than polite, pleasant and affable—somewhat self-assured—but it's not personal. His way, inclined.
"Vick?" Jace's voice carved the thick, humid air.
My drinking partner watched Jace close-in over the rim of his glass, composed, cool as a cucumber.
Jace's incognito, sporting his all-black attire and ankle-length leather coat. His dark, shoulder-length hair and bizarre-looking mirrored-aviators, a drastic change to his appearance.
"Hey," I chimed, perceiving his stoic expression. "Are you okay?"
Distrusting my gullible impressionability, he enveloped an arm across my shoulders. His harsh gaze settled on the nameless man. "I'm fine, Vick," he answered, not staring at me. "You ready to get out of here?"
My eyes flickered between the soaring testosterone. "Yes." I slid off the stool, finished my drink, grabbed my bag. "Thank you." Mr Nameless' blue eyes unearthed something inside me. I struggled to avert. "It was nice talking to you."
He didn't respond, disregarding my good manners. "I recognise you," he said to Jace, glass in hand, pointing.
I jerked back. "Nathan's not from around here," I intervened, eager to retreat. "He's new to London."
"And yourself?" he asked, pushing onto his feet. "I noticed a cinch in your accent."
Jace said something similar once. I was born in Newquay, so I don't speak like typical Londoners. "I moved here as a teenager." Why am I flustered under interrogation? He's not a police officer. I don't have to answer this line of questioning. "Anyway, let's go."
Free of coercion, I strode the exit, hearing Jace curse behind me.
Underneath the blackness of our night sky, Jace led me to his parked SUV, unlocked the doors and waited until I buckled up before accelerating with anxious haste.
For thirty minutes, Jace drove in silence. I almost fell asleep from boredom. He didn't speak until veering the SUV off the road, sloping the tires down miry mounds and encircling woodlands.
He loaded his laptop.
I was losing my patience.
Elbow on the window ledge, I pressed two fingers to my temple, massaging. "Why are you on that stupid laptop again? I thought tonight was about drinking and letting loose?"
Jace left the car, swapped the licence plate and returned.
I blew out a long breath. "Nath?" I probed, and he tapped, tapped, tapped. "Nathan!"
"Vick," he whispered, pressing a tender kiss to my shoulder. "I apologise for biting off your head." Tap, tap, tap. "Give me two seconds."
On the screen, a lime-green encrypted algorithm. I puckered an eyebrow, lips thinning in a grim line. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Alzaim," he said, and I sat taller. "He's determined."
Why are we discussing Nate?
I chewed my lower lip. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything," he retorted, agitated and defensive. "I found a backdoor into Warren's encrypted communication services, phones and surveillance, so," he lifted a shoulder, "I hacked their system."
"You did what?" I barked. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"What choice did I have?" he argued, coding and decoding. "For some reason unfathomable to me, Alzaim's chasing down your meltdown with Warren at the centre." He glanced at me, thinking. "I knew he'd recognise you. I am glad I went with my gut."
"Liam didn't recognise me," I said, unconvinced by my reassuring words. "No, it's impossible." How on earth is he doing this? "Are you an ex-government spy?"
"No, a self-taught hacker. Stay on course, Vick. Why do you think Warren followed you?"
I am too speechless to touch upon his self-proclaimed hacktivism. "Liam..." I sighed, my stomach sinking. "As much as it pains me to admit, Liam is a notorious womaniser. He has a predilection for leggy blondes." Not undeveloped, unattractive, rake-thin blondes, though. "I reckon I intrigued him. That's all."
"I am not buying it," he countered. "You said it yourself. Warren's a hypocritical philanderer." He's putting words in my mouth. "Going through all this effort for a bit of pussy?" He snorted. "It's beneath him."
He makes a valid point.
"I sent two viruses to the syndicate software," he informed me, closing the screen. "Bajramovic called."
A shiver clambered my spine. "What did he say?"
"He's booked a private jet to fly him and his wife back to Tirana."
I swallowed a painful lump. "For when?"
"Three days," he confirmed, and nausea waved through me. "So, I used my due diligence to strategise." He tilts the laptop, pointing to an intermittent red dot. "Dalmat Sula. Flamur's second in command and dutiful accession. Alongside Flamur, Rezart and Dalmat assisted me in your abduction. He's also responsible for the fire that night. He burnt that tenant-building to the ground prior to Club 11's bombardment."
"What? You didn't tell me Liam's club took a hit."
Plugging a wire into the computer, he attached it to his phone, downloading something. "Flamur gave Warren a distraction. How else was I supposed to get you away from that tight-knit security detail?"
I gave him a tight smile. "Why don't we stop discussing your involvement, Nath. Each time this topic arises, I forget why I am helping you. In actuality, I have to stop myself from pummelling you."
He rolled his eyes, unscrewing a vodka bottle.
"Are you seriously going to drive under the influence?"
"Isn't conforming to the highest standards of submissive morality tedious? So what if I decrypted Warren's servers? So what if I drink and drive? So what if I track down Dalmat tonight and snap his fucking neck? Who cares, Vick? You? Me?" He scoffed, swigging from the bottle. "Quit acting like an austere formalist and a servant to society." He offers me the vodka. "Where does it get you?"
"I can't just change who I am, Nath. It's not that simple."
"You keep making excuses," he disputes, his rough voice slicing over my skin. "Anyone can change with the exact amount of willpower. You're an open book. You bear your soul for all to taint. You trust without reservations, and your unarguable, evident vulnerability is susceptible for devastation or even premature death."
I crushed the bottleneck, weighed down by unpleasant memories.
"You're not strong enough, Alexa!" Liam barked, cursing under his breath, regret pooled in his sorrow-filled eyes.
"So you lied to me," I said, downhearted, my voice breaking. "I am not a ruthless, empowered woman, yet I've overcome more than most women do in a damn lifetime!"
"Alexa," he gripped my arms, hauling me to his chest. "You know, that's not what I meant. You are incredible—perfect in every way—but you cannot stand alongside me and get inferiors to fucking bow to you. Yes, you suffered an ordeal, and I am proud of all your achievements, but there's a huge difference between overcoming a disturbing past and pointing a gun to someone's head." Defeat floods me. "The second the streets of London discern I have a woman In my life is the second I prepare for your premature death. They will crawl out of the woodwork and target you to get to me."
"You don't know my capabilities," I stubbornly persist, whacking his hands away. "You haven't even given us a chance. What if I can fight back? What if I am strong enough? Instead of living in pessimistic assurance, why not test the theory first? I might surprise you—" He stormed across the room, snagging the Desert Eagle from the hallway sideboard. "Liam!"
He flung open the penthouse front door. "You," he pointed to the first guard, "get inside." A tall, well-built male, dressed to impress, enters the open-plan living quarters. "Stand in the kitchen." Acquiescent, the guy follows orders.
Liam seized my wrist, slapped his gun on my palm. "Go ahead. Show me."
My horror-filled eyes protruded. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"You want to prove yourself?" He jerked his chin to the guard. "Kill him."
The poor sod unhinged his jaw, hands raising in surrender. "Sir, I don't want to die."
"Shut the fuck up," his boss berates, forcing me closer, a painful, unsympathetic shove to my back. "Come on, baby. Prove yourself to me. Demonstrate how fucking remorseless and cold-hearted you can be. Kill without conscience. Kill without hesitation—"
"Liam, this is insane," I cried, trembling with the gun in my shaking hands. "I am not killing an innocent man."
"Fine." He reclaimed the Eagle, yanked the hammer back and aimed at the guy's face. "It's not personal."
Possessed by angered adrenaline, I slapped him across the face, hard. Infuriated heat coursed to his cheek, a blood droplet at the corner of his mouth.
His nostrils flared. "You fucking hit me."
Yes, and I am still reeling from my recklessness. "Leave," I ordered the gent, but he didn't bat an eyelid, anticipating his boss' command. "Why are you awaiting his approval. Get out before the fucking lunatic puts a bullet in your head!"
"I rest my case." Liam chuckled, licking blood from his teeth. "Get out." Murmuring apologies, the guard scampered away, shutting the door behind him. "Alexa—"
"You are an asshole." I thrust a hand on his chest, ramming him with a shoulder as I sauntered to the master bedroom. "You made your point, Liam. I am not cut out for this lifestyle."
I returned to the present.
Jace cocks his head, a crease formed between knitted brows. "Where did you go?"
Downing vodka, wincing, I snatched his holdall from the backseat, ransacked various weapons. I curled my hand around firearm handle, admired and appreciated the aluminium-framed semi-automatic. "Liam uses Glocks," I mused, smoothing my fingers along the barrel. "He has a favourite, though."
"Yeah?" Jace rested his back to the window, folding his arms. "That Eagle, right?"
I nod. "What type of gun is this?"
"Colt Commander," he said, carefully extracting the gun from my hand. "What are you doing, Vick?"
"Hunting down Dalmat can lead us to Summer, right?"
He steeled his jaw, glancing out the windshield.
"And Flamur," I add, and he didn't deny it. "When were you going to tell me, Nath? You expected me to wander back into hell, ignorant and unarmed? Are you going to teach me how to defend myself?" I point to the gun firmly grasped in his hand. "Is that what all the ammunition is for? You and me."
"I have faith in you, Vick," he whispered, and tears burned my eyes. "Put the bullshit aside for a moment and realise—no, accept—how strong-minded and powerful you are."
"I hate the darkness," I whispered, giving him a slight head shake. "Irrelevant to how you perceive me, I don't want it."
"Too bad," he fired back, and I shot him a condemning glare. "You blossomed in darkness. It's integrated, weaved in your soul. Stop hiding from the shadows and own them."
Pushing open the car door, he rounded the bonnet and came to my side. He unbuckled my belt, drew me out by the elbow.
"What are you doing?" I asked, rubbing the night chill from my arms.
Jace oscillated between two guns, tucked one in the waistband of his jeans. "Turn around."
Huffing out a tired breath, I obeyed, facing bleak, vastness and barren roads.
"Right or left-handed?" Chest to my back, he put his chin on my shoulder. "Or ambidextrous?"
I curbed a smile. "Right."
"Arms in front," he said. "Two-handed grip for control." Covering my arms with his, he positioned the gun between my hands, demonstrating. "Firm hold with your dominant hand, though." Manoeuvring, he searches for a target, pointing at a tree. "Your finger should never be on that trigger unless you're aiming to kill."
I wracked with nerves. "What if I miss?"
"I'm helping you," he assures, using his finger to coax mine onto the trigger. "No gun is the same and practice makes perfect. You select a choice of weapon, learn how to use it and then stick with it."
I breathed out a shuddered breath, mist forming before me. "Okay."
Jace tapped my finger.
I closed my eyes, inhaled and pulled the trigger. Ears ringing, I recoiled, knocked into his chest, overcome with excitement. "Did I get the shot?"
"First," he clipped, tugging me back into position, "you don't aimlessly lower your guard with a loaded gun. Composure is key, Vick. Two, you panic as the bullet leaves the chamber. So," he adjusted my grip, firm, "keep your non-dominant hand underneath, opposite thumb against the frame. It means you have a sturdy grip and effective aim control." With his arms hugging mine, he marked a target. "Leave a slight bend in your elbows and don't ever close your eyes, Vick. Razor-sharp focus. One-shot. No second-guessing. Aim to kill."
I swallowed, levelled with the tree—I pulled the trigger, determined in my firm stance. The bullet chipped and splintered the dense bark, and I didn't flinch, or panic, or melt under pressure. "I did it," I whispered, and he dropped a chaste kiss to my shoulder. "I killed the tree, Nath!" He retrieved the gun, pulling me in for a hug. "I can't stop shaking."
He laughed, raspy and thick. "I'm getting my baby girl back, Vick," he said throatily. "I found his compound."
Staring into space over his shoulder, I hugged him back, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Where is it?"
Jace tilted my chin. "Behind you."
Neurotic fear cemented my feet to the floor. I glared at the dark, spine-chilling, gnarled woodlands, thick with pea-souper fogs and blood-curdling memories.
Losing his long coat and hairpiece, Jace opens the boot, puts on his ball cap. He straps both ankles, waistline, arming, and tugs a holster to my waist.
I conclude I'll die tonight.
"Loaded," he said, but I am clueless. "8-round magazine for ammunition. Plus, arsenal restock. On empty," he exhibits, in-and-out, cocking, "lock the slide and insert the magazine in place. Pull it back and let go."
I am definitely going to die tonight.
"Don't waste any ammo," he proceeds, mobilising me with Colt's, braiding my blonde hair. "At the compound, we'll separate and ambush on either side."
I rocked my jaw. "It's hardly an ambush with me as your wingman."
Slapping a ball cap on my head, he locked the car, took my elbow and dragged me to hellfire.