SACRIFICE (Book Two: The London Crime King)

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CH 34

Alexa

I can’t stop looking at him.

Completely nude and sleeping on his front, arms crossed underneath a skewed pillow, Liam breathes gently beside me, lips slightly parted, closed eyelashes gentle to his pale cheeks. I traced his hooded eyebrows with the tips of my fingers, outlined and sketched his handsome features.

I nuzzled closer, gripping the sheet to my chest, wondering how long he plans to dream without me.

In his defence, I only granted rest two hours ago; I couldn’t get enough of him. I missed him so much, so I savoured our long-awaited reunion with bursting reverence and idolisation. I spent months pretending to hate this man, training myself to misremember him, but it’s impossible to forget about him.

Liam Warren claimed me the morning I sought him to find my sister. His imposing yet enthralling propinquity was a promising key to my heart. He didn’t know it; I didn’t know it. But gravity forced us together back then, much like it’s doing now.

For some reason unbeknownst to the two of us, fate decided we’re to be together, immaterial to odious backgrounds, incompatible lifestyles and dreadful secrets.

I love him.

I will always love him.

Disrespecting what I shared with Jace is wrong. Alas, I don’t regret his kiss or disconsolate lovemaking. We both helped each other in a moment of profound bereavement—two adults merging as one to soothe our aching hearts.

And it worked, for a short time, alleviating suffering to lose consciousness of the overwhelmingly traumatic death of his daughter, Summer.

Furthermore, sex with Jace eliminated future doubts or uncertainties.

Before Jace, I gave myself to one man and one man only.

Liam Warren.

Yes, some, who endured molestation, might consider erasing ineradicable lacerations an unrealistic dream, but Liam replaced terrible memories with good ones. With few words yet many affectionate touches, progressively, he taught me how to breathe again, how to see in the dark and fear nothing but my own capabilities.

Jace, a man I hadn’t foreseen or anticipated, entered my life with nefarious resolutions yet became my indispensable salvation. He showed me that a man could touch a woman without dishonourable expectancies. He offered true alliance and non-judgmental liberalism.

Most importantly, our indescribable bond accentuated the difference between unique compatibility and endearment.

Jace became my best friend and, in an unusual sense, my soulmate. I couldn’t possibly live without him.

But Liam...

Liam is the journey.

The scintillating sun veiled through the opened window, blanketing our entwined bodies in warmth.

I leaned in and kissed the frown between his brows. “I love you,” I whispered, tucking a dark strand behind his ear.

Unravelling myself from his firm body, I climbed off the bed and stood at the window to feel the summer breeze on my face. I wanted to go downstairs and make coffee, but Heather’s likely home. I’m not ready to explain Liam’s arrival. It’s a complicated conversation, one I’d rather avoid.

I sensed him before he placed a lingering kiss to my bare shoulder. “I could get used to this view,” he said in a tired, croaky voice. He positioned his hands on the windowsill, caging me between the thrall of his strapping arms.

The picturesque gardens were magnificent. “It’s beautiful.”

He nibbled my earlobe. “I wasn’t talking about the flower beds, Alexa.”

I sucked my upper lip to suppress a smile. “Are you hungry? Shall I go down and get you something?”

“I have everything I need.” He left feather-like kisses to my neck, his arm coiling around my waist. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes” I lied, and he squeezed my hip. “It’s impossible with you in my bed.”

He coaxed me to turn, flattened his callous palms to cheeks and gazed into my eyes. I waited for him to speak. His jaw muscles tensed as he studied my face, but once more, he’s wordless.

“What, Liam?” I asked, nerved by his uncharacteristic uncommunicativeness.

Tight-lipped isn’t him. He’s overbearingly dictatorial, high-handed and uncaringly emphatic. I don’t like this atypical self-restraint.

“Liam.” I lift off my tiptoes, folding my arms around the back of his head. “What’s bothering you?”

“You.” He audibly swallowed, hands skimming my back. “Us.”

I nodded, understanding our imminent predicament. “I’m scared,” I admit coyly, dreading the cataclysmic timebomb threatening to penetrate our sequestered haven.

“Why?” He tilted my chin, seeking answers. “Alexa, baby, I don’t understand why you left or why you chose to hide here.” His disparaging gaze toured the room. “More than anything, I want answers and comprehension, but surely, whatever transpired during our time apart, it’s nothing we can’t handle, together.” He thumbed a tear from my cheek. “Your upset troubles me. Is it because of my behaviour?”

“Your behaviour?” I asked dubiously.

He cast his regretful eyes to his thumb that massages my hip.

“How do you mean?” Kellie’s gorgeous face and soulless eyes filtered through my mind. “Oh,” I grunted, lips flattening in distaste, “you mean her.”

He shot me a concerned look. “What?”

“Kellie,” I said, and relief washed over him. “What is it?”

“Fuck Kel...” He scratched his ticking jaw, uncomfortable under my scrutiny. “I am not discussing her when touching you, Alexa.” Enveloping an arm across my shoulders, he drew me in and kissed the tip of my nose. “Although I am curious. How did my sweet, innocent woman obtain a gun?”

“I purchased it from a local arms dealer,” I answered warily, fingers edging his torso.

Liam hummed, disbelieving my deceit. “Name?”

“Why?” I edge back, and when he evaded my eyes, I snatched his chin. “Liam, what are we doing?” He dropped back, arms falling to his sides dejectedly. “Is it time to talk? If so, I’ll get dressed and make our coffee, or we can drink vodka.” Alcohol is more potent and necessary for this type of dreaded conversation. “I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel as though we’re both avoiding reality. Subconsciously, though, our insecurities and uncertainties continue to fester—”

“Breathe,” he said, gripping my upper arms. “Alexa, calm down.” His hand moved to the back of my neck, fingers kneading, relaxing.

I shut my eyes, soothed by his tenderness.

Liam opened the bathroom door in a quiet state of ambivalence and led me to the shower cubicle. He tugged the plastic curtain aside, adjusted the water to a warm temperature and pulled me under the spray.

He put my back to his chest and closed his arms around me. “You’re right,” he said, claiming my breast with a tight squeeze. “I am avoiding particular discussions as I don’t want you to leave me.”

I put my head on his chest, gnawing my lower lip. “You and me alike.” He reached over me to pick up Jace’s black loofah, and I died. “Let me,” I stuttered, opting for the white sponge. Pouring gel onto the lace ruffles, I lathered his body, watching water intermingle with pink suds.

Once clean, he returns the favour, luxuriating my body, washing and massaging my head with skilful, therapeutic fingers.

I felt his inquisitive eyes on me the entire time. I never met his gaze—I couldn’t face him with these unsettling thoughts.

Liam turned off the shower, stepped out and grabbed two towels. He tossed one into my waiting hands before opening the mirrored cabinet, rummaging for a spare toothbrush. Selecting a blue one, he tore through the wrapper and scrubbed his teeth. Spitting in the sink, he cupped water in his palm, swirled out his mouth, and repeated the process. I stood beside him, shoulder-to-shoulder, admiring his faultless reflection as I freshened up. Finished with manscaping, he tossed the toothbrush in the bin and returned to the bedroom.

I released the breath I was holding, snagged Jace’s toothbrush from the cupboard and buried it in my cosmetic bag.

How on earth do cheating spouses get away with unfaithfulness? I am not even sleeping with Jace, yet I am on the brink of a mental breakdown or a fatal heart attack.

If Liam finds out Jace shares this room...Oh, God. I can’t even consider the noxious outcome.

In the mirror, a pale, frightened woman stares back at me. She knows how this will end. Her pained eyes reveal as much.

I drop my toothbrush in the sink, knuckles whitening as I grasped the counter. It’s time to summon up the spirit, Alexa. Liam loves you.

Once you explain the severity of what happened—but I slept with another man. I let someone who wasn’t Liam put his hands on me.

I am not dealing with a rational person. It’s not colourful or cavernous with Liam. He is a monochromatic thinker who sees everything in black-and-white, all-or-nothing, tunnel-vision in all aspects of opinion and conclusion.

No, dealing with Liam Warren is like skulking on a detonating minefield. He’s a killer by nature with an unapologetic intolerance for misinterpretation and underhandedness.

“Not for me,” I whispered, rubbing the ache in my chest.

Liam breaks all the rules for me, but will he want me once learning the truth? If so, will he spare Jace’s involvement with Flamur to keep me happy? Will he stomach and overlook what Victoria shared with Nathan for the sake of our love?

I pondered my next move. Liam bedded other women, Hellen and Kellie. It’s liable there were others, too. There must be a compromise. If he expects me to forgive and forget, then, well, I’d appreciate the same lenience and respect. To hell with his unfailing forbearance.

Opening the bathroom door, I joined him in the bedroom, searched for cotton shorts and a T-shirt. I flicked a glance at Liam and had to do a double-take. Preoccupied with his phone, he stands at the foot of the bed—in black jogging bottoms and a hoodie.

On the floor, he put an unzipped gym bag with overnight essentials. His intentions were always to spend the night with me.

“Are you hungry yet?” he mused, thumbs tapping the phone. “I could order us late breakfast or drive somewhere if you’d rather.”

Haphazardly pulling on clothes, I plucked the phone from his hand and chucked it over my shoulder. “I might need more sex.”

Liam arched a brow, folding his casual-clad arms. “Not that I am complaining, baby, but why so flustered?”

“I love you in tailored suits,” I hummed, my hands hugging his shoulders. “However, this is a seriously sexy look on you.”

Blinking in bewilderment, he cocked his head, unable to fathom my smutty reasoning. “It’s just a tracksuit.”

“An Emporio Armani tracksuit,” I tugged the trouser drawstrings, “that has my lady bits throwing a champagne party.”

“For fuck’s sake,” he cursed, grabbing my jaw in a vice-like grip. “No, we don’t say lady...” He bites his plump, lower lip. “Try again.”

I am not participating in his offensive lewdness. “I want sex...”

“Keep going.” He kissed my cheek, backing me up against the wall.

“Liam,” I breathed, cupping his hard length. “Why must I talk dirty? You are hard by simply looking at me.”

“That’s an exceptionally vainglorious statement, Alexa,” he half-joked, grasping my derrière. “Are you wet?” He pressed the heel of his hand to my sex. “Do you need me to relieve this ache for you?”

“Yes,” I whimpered, rolling my hips, seeking friction from him.

“Tell me,” he probes, teeth nibbling and scraping my jawline. “What do you need, baby?”

“I need...” Come on, Alexa. Channel your inner Victoria and show him your carnal competence. “I want to slide my cunt around you and fuck away the memories of any woman who dared to touch you in my absence.” His eyes jerked up, cold and penetrating. “You are mine to kiss, to taste, to pleasure, to love.” I tightened my hold on his length. “It’s my job to bring you to your knees.” My searching eyes provoked him to challenge me. “Was that filthy enough for you, Mr Warren?” My hand dipped under the waistband of his trousers, and his heavy cock fell into my palm. “Well?”

“Stop,” he ground out, thrusting himself in my hand. “You don’t need to remove them, Alexa. They meant nothing to me.”

“Them,” I probed, needing to know if there were other women alongside Kellie and Hellen. His hand latched around mine, stopping me from stroking him. “Who’s them?”

Why am I behaving so possessively?

Liam is beautiful—the full package—effortlessly handsome, social significance, laudably industrious, well-dressed, and let’s not forget wealthy. His high-status attracts bona fide gold-diggers if nothing else. He could be dog ugly and still pluck out women as a consequence of affluence.

Yet he’s stood here with me. “Don’t answer that.”

Knowing others felt his touches, received his kisses and shared his release makes me sick with irrational jealousy. But I need to see beyond the leeches between us and raise the bar for myself. The past is the past for a reason. You’re not supposed to look back or judge a person based on prior experiences or mistakes. When starting a new relationship, you pardon their previous associations and trust they’ll do right by you—make an exception for you.

I left Liam behind. I sacrificed us for the safe return of a child. He warrants a second-chance to prove himself to me and assure fidelity from this moment forward. “I’m sorry.”

He slapped his hands to the wall on either side of my head, and I inwardly cringed, withdrawing my arm from his trousers. “Fuck,” he spat, biting his knuckles. “What are we doing, huh? We are dancing in circles. I want to know why you fucked off and left me on my goddamn birthday. I want to know what happened to you, where you went and if accompanied.”

I felt the blood evaporate from my face.

He rolled back his shoulders, squaring up to me. “Or if you planned to come home to me.”

“And I want to know why, in your eyes, when I was barely cold, did you seek immediate comfort in the arms of other women. Did it help, Liam? Was I that replaceable?” Alexa, stop talking. You don’t need to know. “Did they make you feel good? Were they attentive and accessible to your every need? Oh, shit. I can’t deal with these contradictory voices inside my head, Liam. What’s wrong with me?”

“Okay.” He reached behind his back and tore off his hoodie, tossing it on the bed. “You want to do this? Let’s go, Alexa. We lost our moment.” He held up his hand, preventing me from interrupting. “But it’s understandable. Love isn’t always enough, right?” His genuineness failed to ease my accelerating anxieties. “I am torn.”

I slipped down the wall, backside to the floor. Knees hiked to my chest, I tucked my arms over my thighs, looking up at him hopelessly.

Liam sat on the bed, elbows to his knees, fingers threaded. “I am selfish,” he said, lifting a shoulder apathetically. “When I want answers? I demand them. Now, if this were a normal circumstance, if you were someone else—anyone else—I’d be informed by now. But I fear that our lies might come between us.”

I am not sure what terrified me most: my involvement with Jace or the trepidation in Liam’s ice-cold gaze.

“So, I am intentionally procrastinating.” He gave me a rare, nervous smile. “Prolonging my limited time with you.”

My heart stuttered. I crawled to him, pulled myself onto his lap and wrapped myself in his powerful embrace. He held my back, hand fused to my head, arm rigid around my lower spine. “Do you honestly think we could live worlds apart?” And survive it, I thought, tearing up. “I believe love conquers all.”

“I’ll do right by you regardless,” he said quietly, kissing my inner wrist. “Who’s going first? Ladies?” I shook my head, and his lip twitched. “With the assistance of my men, I wiped out the Albanian mafia, excluding the spineless serpents who fled back to Tirana.”

My heart fell silent. Minutes occurred like intermittent camera shots, capturing still frames. “Flamur,” I whispered, fingernails impaling his neck.

“Gone,” he confirmed, and I choked back a sob. “We tortured Bajramovic—a butcher’s job of desquamation and evisceration. Nate dismembered his body and decapitated his head before the men parcelled his limbs and organs, dispersing him in a thousand pieces around London. I felt disillusionment with his death, though.” He fisted and tugged my hair, dragging my eyes to his face. “It was your job to finish him. Your retribution.”

“Why am I not ecstatic that he’s gone, Liam?” Snivelling, I wiped tears from my cheeks. “I thought—”

“Give yourself time to process it,” he interjects, always assuring me. “There is no right or wrong way to deal with something like this.”

Benumbed, I pressed a soft kiss to his jaw, clinging to him. “Thank you,” I breathed into his mouth, tasting my tears on his lips. “You make it so hard for me to hate you.” Holding his cheeks, I forced his back to the mattress, overcome by sentimentalism.

“Alexa.” He broke away from our kiss, concern aflame in his eyes. “We should talk.”

“Later.” I lost my T-shirt to the floor, kissed him with raw passion. He groaned, tongue stroking into my mouth, slow and sensual. Fingers tangling in his hair, I ground down on his growing shaft, the friction sparking arousal.

Intoxicated by lust, I drank him in with admiring eyes, helped remove his fitted tee and stretched above him. Our separation made me hungry, love-starved and covetous. Gyrating my hips, I furtively lowered his pants, freeing his hard cock.

“Alexa,” he scolded, snatching my wandering hands, preventing me from going further. “Fuck, you have no idea how much I want you right now.” His fingers lessened on my wrists. “But we should prioritise talking.” I rubbed my soaked folds over his length, and he respired with a guttural groan. “Alexa.”

He perceived the determination in my eyes and surrendered to me. I wrapped my hand around his glorious cock and eased down to the base, lips stretching for him to fill me. Holding his eyes with mine, I interlaced our fingers and positioned our joint hands beside his head, pinning him beneath me.

Liam eliminated his slacks, pressing his knees into the back of my thighs, widening my position. I swallowed a fulfilled moan, adjusted to his thickness and then fucked him. His fingers tightened around mine. I know he wants to dominate and control the pace, to trap me under his magnificent body, but it’s my turn to exhaust him.

Yes, I am calculatedly distracting him. Our serious conversation isn’t going anywhere, but it can damn wait until I have him once more.

His cock strokes my inner channel, and his face clenched with need. I engulfed his length, hard and fast. He could do nothing but watch me work him, his eyes lust-filled, heavy with adoration.

I let go of his hands, and he immediately captured my waist, matching my tight, steady thrusts. “Fuck, baby.” Of course, I didn’t stand a chance. He trapped me beneath him, seared me with fervent kisses, hips knocking against mine.

My legs shamelessly widened farther, opening and inviting him to take whatever he wants from me. His arms locked under my neck, tilting my head so that he can torment my lips with masterful strokes of his tongue.

Fingernails scraping down his spine, I grasped his waist, urging him to fuck me harder, deeper, drowning in unquenchable desire.

Liam noticed my unspoken desires and abruptly flipped me onto my stomach. “On your knees.”

I obeyed, positioned for his liking. Kneeling behind me, he rubbed my aching clit with adept fingers, coating me in velvety arousal.

He ran the tip of his cock through my folds, lined himself up at my entrance and pressed forward. I grappled the sheets at the invasion, knees almost giving out. “Open for me,” he rasped, and I detached my trembling legs, giving him room to move. “Good girl.”

Hands touring my spine, he paid great attention to my inked skin, thumbs grazing each detailed feather. Palms attaching to my waistline, he pulled back a touch, drove forward, pumped into me at a steady rhythm.

Paced yet merciless, he hammered into me. I was helpless, and at his mercy, which is what I wanted. Curling my hands into fists, I clenched the sheet, feeling him everywhere. I begged him for more, cried out as he delivered.

“If you keep moaning like that?” he said throatily, his chest pushing onto my back, fusing me to the bed. “A hard fucking will be the least of your worries.”

Cheek pressing into the mattress, I turned my head to face him. “Always full of promises, Mr Warren.” His hand fixed to my throat, and my eyes fluttered closed. “Shit, Liam.” I wanted him to empty himself, to fill me with his cum. “Why does the thought of you claiming me like that turn me on?”

He applied pressure, fingers pinching my hollow flesh, the feel of his shaft drilling into me, coursing me with wanton excitement.

An erotic moan fell from his lips. He ensnared me, his breathing quick and shallow. I was close, walls tightening around his length.

And then reality befalls on us.

He chased his release, unmindful to his phone, flashing on the pillow. “Fuck, baby,” he groaned, dragging my earlobe between his teeth. “You’re making me cum.”

Hellen relentlessly calls, taking intervals to send text messages. I can’t see them; only a notification brightens his screen.

My climax ebbed, died out, waned and evaporated into nothingness.

His body tensed, lips seeking mine for a long, passionate kiss. “You kill me, Alexa.”

I have never faked an orgasm, but the thought had occurred while his cock jerked, spilling as he came down from his high.

“You didn’t finish,” he said, slightly taken aback. “I need to rectify that.”

No, the moment vanished. “I think your phone went off.” I feigned obliviousness. “You should check it.”

Breathing out a harsh breath, Liam carefully slipped out of me, rested on his haunches and checked his phone.

I laid on my back, watching his expression. Not a cinch or dent ruffled his aloof features. “Who is it?”

“Brad,” he lied, responding to the message.

My jaw unclenched. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” he said, short and sharp.

Whatever I mentally tried to process before just went out the window. “Really?” I hummed, and that small, mocking sound resonated. He lifted his gaze from the phone, eyebrow elevating. “I mean, I thought it was serious. It went off about fifteen times.”

He watched me closely, a question in his eyes. He’s trying to decipher if I know it’s Hellen. “You know how needy Brad can get.”

I was going to murder him—smother his lying, deceitful face with a pillow. Suddenly emotional, I soared from the bed. “Order some food while I use the bathroom.” Before he had a chance to respond, I snatched the phone and sprinted to the bathroom.

Panicked, Liam dropped a train of profanity, darting in my footsteps. I slammed the door in his face, bolted the lock and quickly opened the message thread before he came barrelling inside all high and mighty.

Hellen: I miss you.

Hellen: I stopped by the office. Brad claimed not to know your whereabouts. Should I be concerned, Liam?

Hellen: Why aren’t you answering my calls?

“Alexa?” Liam rattled the handle, fists pounding against the door. “Baby, don’t do this. It’s not what you think.”

Hellen: If you don’t respond in the next hour? I am ending this relationship.

Liam: I am out of town, Hellen. Business. Don’t make curt decisions when I am not there to defend myself.

Liam: Wait for me.

Liam: I miss you, too.

Tears flooded my eyes.

The phone jerked in my hand.

I opened Hellen’s message, eyes protruding at the sight of her explicit selfie. Inside her private cream and white bedroom, she sits on the floor, throned on a shaggy white rug. Wearing only gold shoes, she posed before a mirror, legs wide open, exposing her—

Hands shaking, I exited the message, cupping my mouth, muffling inconsolable sobs.

“Alexa?” Liam stopped banging, but he didn’t leave. “Open the door.”

Blowing out my cheeks, I unlocked the door, swung it open and glared at him.

Liam’s worried eyes went from me to the phone. “Hellen is a means to an end, Alexa.”

I lobbed the phone at his chest. It bounced on the floor, cracking the screen. “You had the nerve to mollify that bitch, seconds after fucking me.”

“It’s façade,” he argued, attempting to grip me as I stormed past. “Alexa, wait—”

“Don’t touch me,” I spat, shirking away from him to collect my discarded clothes. “You were right, Liam. There are too many lies between us.”

“Will you let me explain?” His arms snaked around me, locking me in his unyielding arms. I thrashed against him, not desiring his touch. “Alexa!”

“Let go of me.” I struggled, elbowing him in the ribs. His arms slackened enough for me to duck and slam my back to the wall. “Don’t,” I hold my hand up, “come any closer.”

Defeated, Liam growled in anger, snagging his clothes to get dressed.

“Why are you here with me?” I asked, and his dark eyes collided with mine. “Hellen’s perfect, Liam. She’s everything you look for in a woman—tall, curvy, full, voluminous breasts. I mean, her vaginas packed like a ham baguette, but those flapping folds can easily be overlooked, right? I’m curious, though. Does she taste as salty as she looks?”

“Have a fucking day off, Alexa.” He tugged on his pants, the cords of muscle in his arms rippling.

Liam’s phone vibrated and impossible rage possessed me. I swiped it off the floor, noting his horrified expression as I accepted the call. “Fuck off—” He tore the phone from my hand and hurled it at the wall. “Liam!”

“You fucking idiot,” he barked, seizing my jaw. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

Fear crippled me. “Liam,” I whimpered, withering on the spot. “You’re hurting me!”

“Fuck.” Backing me up against the wall, he stole the air from my lungs, silenced my protest, demanded a kiss. I shook my head violently, but his rigid fingers penetrated my sunken cheeks, holding me still. “She repulses me.” He bites my bottom lip, panting in my mouth. “I faked everything with her. With you, I lose my fucking mind.” His distressed features twisted. “You are everything.”

“I was willing to overlook them, Liam.” My lips wobbled. “I don’t care how much I love you, though, I will not tolerate a third person in our relationship.”

“I only need a few weeks.” He kneaded my throat with gentle fingers, his eyes pleading with me to understand. “If I can keep her sweet, Alexa—”

“No.” Whacking his hand away, I shouldered past him, yanked on the T-shirt. “I cannot stand back and witness you two together, Liam. It’ll ruin me. And for what purpose? Why is this woman so important to you?”

Fully dressed, he slumped on the bed, putting on his socks and trainers. “You’re important.”

“That’s not answering the question.” I combed a hand through my unruly hair. “What aren’t you telling me?” He stood to his full height, toying with something in his pocket. “Liam?”

Conflict danced in his anxious eyes. “She’s the door to answers, Alexa. I appreciate how unreasonable this might sound, but I need her to get what I want.”

I scoffed at his audacity. “At the cost of my heart?” He wants to tell me more. I see it. “What are you hoping to achieve from this?”

His lips meshed into a flat line. “We are not there yet.”

“We’re not there yet,” I repeated, stunned by his evasiveness.

“Alexa,” he sighed, gingerly capturing my hands. “Trust me to do right by you.”

“How am I supposed to trust you, Liam? I don’t hear any reassurances coming my way. You expect me to stand on the sidelines and watch you fondle with another woman...” A sickening thought knotted my stomach. “If I agreed to trust you, will you continue to touch her?” His delayed response ignited another spark of anger. “Are you fucking serious? What, you still plan to fuck that woman?”

“No,” he snapped, his voice low and commanding. “No, baby. I have a plan—a solid plan. It’s going to work. Of course, I must pay her attention, or it’ll fall through.”

I gave him a pointed look. “What if distractions aren’t enough? Will it result in you two in bed together?” He chose not to respond, and my heart stopped beating. “Get out.”

“You are looking at it from an emotionally intimate viewpoint,” he said, but I didn’t care to listen. “There’s a huge difference between sex and love. Meaningless fucking doesn’t belong in our bed.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” I asked, and he resigned. “It’s still a connection, though, right? You have to touch her, pleasure her and share each other’s climax. I can’t stomach that, Liam. It hurts.” He brought my body close. “Liam...”

“I haven’t touched her since realising you were alive,” he whispered, kissing the frown between my brows. “I don’t like talking about her with you...Hellen’s high maintenance and not easily pleased.” Tears continued to prick the back of my eyes. “Baby, don’t cry. I hate seeing you like this.” He kissed the tear from my cheek, his chest humming on a stifled groan. “Fuck it. I’ll put an end to this bullshit tonight. We have other options, but it means taking the legal route.”

“I’m confused.” He kissed me, breathing me, touching, grazing and stroking my arms with rough palms. He’s anxiously placating me. “Liam, what does Hellen have to do with me?” That’s the ultimate question. “That’s what this is about, right?” Oh, God. How did I not see it? “She better not be an estranged sister or something because I don’t want her.”

“Are you familiar with the name Larry Fagan?”

“Mr Fagan is the highest-ranking official in our municipal government.” I pulled a face. “Of course, I am familiar with his name. I don’t live under a rock, Liam.”

His thumb brushed over my knuckles. “Okay, so Fagan—” The sound of jangling keys echoed on the other side of the front door. “Is that housekeeping?”

Everything happened in slow motion. I didn’t have time to tell Liam or explain. Jace opened the door, backed into the bedroom with a pizza box, yelling for me to give him a hand with shopping bags. I felt light-headed, tongue-tied and trapped inside someone else’s body.

“I had to leave.” Jace belatedly faced us and his eyes rounded in horror. “Vick...”

For too long, Liam stood there, frowning at Jace as if trying to decipher his arrival. He straightened to an imposing height, and I knew, the second his hands curled into fists, he was preparing a brutal attack. “Liam, don’t—”

Powered by blind rage, Liam thumbed his keyring and charged. Dropping everything to the ground, Jace whipped off his jacket and wrestled Liam to the wall.

“No, stop!” I shout, stumbling over Jace’s bags, struggling to get between them. “Jace, don’t touch him! Please stop!”

Their aggression accelerated, tearing through the small room, fist after fist. They knocked into the dresser, shattering Heather’s ornaments.

Fisting my hair, I dropped back.

Liam threw a brutal punch, the keys between his clenched fingers, slicing Jace’s cheek. “Liam!” I lunged forward, begging him to stop, to listen, to show mercy. He paid no heed to my protesting. He shoved me off him with unnecessary force and nailed Jace to the floor.

My head crashed into the wall, paralysing me with momentary deafness. Pain shot down my spine. Rolling onto my side and crawling on my hands and knees, I blinked through visual impairment, snatched Jace’s bag and searched for a gun.

Loud cracks and thumps reiterated, making me flinch.

Liam is going to kill him.

Hand curling around the handle, I swayed onto my feet, cocked the hammer and pointed it at Liam’s head. “Stop,” I croaked, tasting blood on my tongue, “or I’ll shoot you.”

Body visibly tightening, Liam cracked Jace’s battered and bruised face with the back of his hand, a final mockery. Panting and heaving for breath, he stood, wiping blood from his busted lip.

I dropped my gaze to Jace’s sprawled out body and feared his life.

Dishevelled, Liam stormed towards me, snatched the gun from my hand and held my stare while uncharged bullets clanked on the floor. He rolled the final casting it between his fingers. “You pulled a gun on me,” he said in a quiet but threatening voice, forcing the bullet into my clenched hand. “For him.”

I shook violently. “You were going to kill—”

“You pulled a gun on me for him,” he barked, seeing me through different eyes. “You chose him over me!” The vein in his neck pulsated, jaw clenching and unclenching. “I spent months—fucking months...” He bites his cracked knuckles, refraining from lambasting me. “Alexa?”

His anguish broke me. “I’m sorry.”

It was an unprecedented moment, witnessing Liam’s heartbreak. “You ruined me,” he said throatily, his eyes brimmed with unshed tears. “You fucking ruined me.”

I placed a hand to my trembling lips. “This was never supposed to be about you.”

“I let you in—I gave you my goddamn heart!” He yanked the chain from his neck and lunged it at me. “You were dead,” he whispered, lips twisting in disgust. “Fucking stay dead.”

He stormed past me, taking my oxygen with him. My knees crashed to the floor. I shook the gun from my hands, cupped Jace’s ruptured cheeks, examining his breathing. “Don’t you dare leave me.” I kissed his bloodied jaw. “I’ll be right back,” I said, breath hitching. “Wait for me.”

Teetering to my feet, I struck the wall with my hand for support, steadied myself and then sprinted in Liam’s footsteps. “Liam,” I called, ambling down the stairs, hearing the front to door slam. “Liam, wait!”

Gripping the gilded handle, I flung open the door, seeing Liam jog to his parked Bentley. Shielding my face from the afternoon sun, I gravitated to him, pleading for him to wait, to hear me out.

The Bentley bleeps as he unlocks the car. I picked up the pace, threw myself at the opening door, preventing him from leaving.

“Alexa,” he gripped my upper arm and threw me aside, “you need to stay away from me.”

“Liam,” I cried, snatching fistfuls of his shirt, tugging him close. “Please don’t hate me.” He slammed a closed fist on the vehicle roof, his anger rising. “Liam—”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he yelled, fisting the hair at the nape of my neck, welding my back to the window. “But I don’t trust myself not to, so go inside and forget I ever existed.”

“Don’t say that to me.” I tried to cup his jaw, and he snarled. “Liam, I love you.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, turning his face so that I didn’t see the tear rolling down his cheek. “We saved each other,” I whispered, but he still wouldn’t look at me. “That’s all there is to it, Liam.”

“Did he touch you?” he asked, putting his head to my shoulder. “You said what we had was different; It meant something; It was special,” he whispered the last part, his hand on my hip digging painfully. “It was me that you trusted with this body.” He feathered his lips across mine. “With this beautiful mouth.”

I can’t lie to him. “Liam...”

“Not once,” he rasped, imperceptibly shaking his head, “did I put my mouth on another woman. It’s too personal—intimate.” His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down in his throat. “My kisses belonged to you.”

His broken voice was the final nail to my heart. “I love you with every fibre of my being. There isn’t a man who walks this earth that compares to you.” It hurt to swallow. “But I got lost.” He won’t look at me. “I wasn’t going to tell you everything. We both held back, Liam. don’t put all the blame on my shoulders.”

“I don’t want the image of you two together.”

“What, and you think I can stomach you and—”

“I explained Hellen.”

“What about Kellie?” I reminded him, and his eyes sliced. “What’s your reasoning for sleeping with her, Liam? If we’re judging each other, then let’s do it properly. Was she an exception? Were there others? If so, how many?”

His calm demeanour betrayed the anger in his stare. “I don’t know.” He shrugged, smiling disingenuously. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re disgusting,” I spat, shaking violently. “So, it’s okay to sleep with copious amounts of women, yet I made one decision, and you’re ready to shut the door on us? You are a sexist fucking pig.”

“I thought you were dead!” he roared, flinging his car keys at the window, shattering the pane. “Do honestly think I’d have touched them if I knew you were alive? I fucking grieved you!” He thrust his forehead on mine. “I put a gun to my head and contemplated ending my life so that I could see you again. Do not disrespect my torture by comparing our situations. I fucked other women to feel something—anything but the fucking pain in my goddamn heart. You laid down with him, knowing that, at any given moment, you could have come back to me. But you made a choice.” He held my jaw, compelling me to meet him face-on. “It wasn’t me.”

I stared at him with bated breath. “You are wrong,” I whispered, hating what we’ve become. “You’re the centre of everything, Liam.” Why won’t he look at me? “What happened to me was bigger than us.”

It was our final goodbye.

I felt it.

He was distancing from me, rebuilding the impassable wall between us.

“Liam, how can there be growth without sacrifice?”

“I love you,” he said in a mustered voice. “But my time is valuable. I can’t afford to wait for you to find yourself, or worry if your self-sacrificing determination is going to be the death of you.” He moved me from the parked car, and I let him.

I felt hopeless. “I don’t know how to fix this.”

He lingered by the driver’s door. “Go back inside, Alexa.” His eyes landed on my legs. “I don’t want you to step on glass.” Ducking inside the car, he fired the engine, the tyres shrieking as he revved away from the curbside.

I stand on the road, watching his car fade into the distance.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting you ex-husband to look like that,” Heather said, stepping alongside me. “Come here, darling.”

Bursting into tears, I collapsed in her outstretched arms, burying my head on her chest. “It hurts, Heather.”

She hugged me, smoothing a hand up and down my back. “Love can hurt, Alexa.” My eyes snapped open. “I prefer your dark hair.”

I meekly curled a tendril behind my ear. “I’m sorry that I lied to you.”

“Hey, enough of that.” She coaxed me back to the bed-and-breakfast, swaddling her arm around my waist. “Nathan—Jace is in the kitchen, drinking sugary tea. Why don’t we all sit together and have a chat?”

I snivelled. “Is he okay?”

“Well,” she arched a grey eyebrow, “he’s certainly seen better days, but he’ll live.”

I glimpsed over my shoulder, foolishly hoping the car driving past was Liam. “I love him.”

She followed my line of vision. “You do know that’s Liam Warren, right?”

It took a lot for me not to be disrespectful and roll my eyes. “I am not in love with his status, Heather.”

“If it’s any consolation, I think he loves you, too, well, judging by his upset, of course.”

I didn’t need sweet tea; I needed that reggae bar and neat vodka.

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