Jace’s injuries are susceptible to infections. Swollen, black-eyed yet comfortable, he sleeps on the double-bed inside our guest room, topless and barefoot, his black, denim jeans, unbuttoned at his waist.
I sit beside him, examining his raw, punctured cheek and jawline. His breathing, soft and peaceful, but the sore, jagged ruptures, oozing a mixture of red blood and whitish-yellow fluid. His wounds necessitate stitches, not paper-thin bandages and numbing alcohol.
Yesterday, after enduring merciless beatings from Liam, Jace staggered downstairs into the kitchen, searching for remedial supplies.
Heather, while drinking green tea and reading a book, overheard the rambunctiousness from the main function room but hadn’t followed when I chased Liam outside. Instead, she assisted Jace, applying cold compresses to his inflamed face, urging him to seek medical attention.
Too proud and obstinate, Jace refused hospitalisation, swallowed impotent pain relief and downed a dangerous amount of vodka to numb inflicted pain. He imbibed to the point of unconscious inebriation, fell onto the bed half-naked, and hasn’t reared his head since.
Last night, once Jace settled, I returned to the kitchen and ate ice cream with Heather. I needed a friend, a pair of ears and wise words. Teary-eyed and lachrymose, I told her everything—right from the very beginning. My real name and background: Flamur Bajramovic. Kathy’s disappearance. Meeting Liam Warren. Befriending Jace Williams. Summer’s death. A rise of devastating crescendo and reaching crisis. And she listened, quiet and attentive, nodding on occasion but untalkative until I finished behaving like a blubbering mess.
She’s a reasonable, open-minded person, Heather, even though I deserved castigation for the preventable fight between Liam and Jace. Rather than lecture and scold me for carelessness, she offered friendly advice.
Initially, I had gotten defensive. Unconscionable, Heather’s pro-Jace and anti-Liam, resulting in an extemporaneous speech from me, a woman, who, against the judgment of others, absolutely idolises and worships Liam Warren. Yes, I give credence to the innkeeper’s argument. Jace is the full package—a handsome, charming and delightfully safe choice—but Liam’s the love of my life. I will not be forced or encouraged to love another based on the besmirching and unsolicited opinions of others.
The stubborn mule shone emphasis on Jace and our compatibility. Out of respect, I paid attention, voiceless and polite, drinking my weight in neat vodka.
And then he called. Liam.
Heather muted his demands and advised me to end whatever nonsense Liam and I shared. Surely, she said, there’s more to life than gangsterism and notorious, dishonourable men of crime.
Liam’s more than a dangerous man in an expensive suit. Beneath the austere armour, unfriendly and unlovable approach, he’s true to his word, fiercely protective and generous to a fault. When he defends by association, it’s all-embracing, especially if he loves and cares about you. His closest Suits want for nothing. His lower-ranked employees live the best life. And me, the woman he chose to love, flourishes when he’s near, glows under his watchful eye and affectionate touches. I breathe and live freely when immersed by him—only him.
As if I could deny that man anything.
I love the Neanderthal.
Forlorn, I held the phone, crushed it, paid no attention to Liam’s orders, his rough voice like mellifluous chords in my ear. I’d hurt him, broke his heart more than once, and still, unassertive, and without comprehension, he persisted, ordered an army of staunch men to supervise the bed-and-breakfast, ensuring my safety.
I don’t care what anybody has to say. I am unworthy of his pledge allegiance, long-standing friendship and enduring love.
Ending the call was strenuous. I wanted to fight for us, give him a compelling argument and beg for understanding forgiveness, or, at least, explain the reason behind my vanishment. But I knew, better than most, time was a healer.
Liam had to bite the bullet and come to terms with my actions during our separation. And, for an unforgiving, uncompromising, unchallengeable man like Liam Warren, turning a blind eye and capitulating to oblivescence—virtually impossible.
Heather perceived my upset and eased off the hate-Liam-bandwagon. She didn’t pretend to understand, though. In an ideal world, she’d see me with Jace, which is absurd, considering the two of us don’t share any romantic feelings. In actuality, we agreed on a platonic relationship.
Jace, still in love with his childhood sweetheart, Lucy, discussed their distinctive, unparalleled rarity on more than one occasion, especially when intoxicated and our late-night pillow talks evoked nostalgic sentiments.
Lucy, in the eyes of the gypsy community, was an outsider. They wanted Jace to settle with a traveller girl, or, at the minimum, someone with the blood of an Irish. He had demanded their acceptance or threatened to walk and never look back.
Tommy, against his father’s ruling, stood by Jace. Quintin O’Shea, at the time, governed the community. According to Jace, Quintin’s an evil bastard, an alcoholic who beat his wife and strayed copiously for summer flings and clandestine affairs.
Quintin loved his sons, though. Tommy, the firstborn, was next in line to rule. Threats of his heir leaving the camp with Jace for the sake of a girl alarmed Quintin. He buckled and reluctantly accepted Lucy for his son.
I hadn’t asked questions when Jace spoke. I am a firm believer that people talk when they’re good and ready. Patiently, I waited for Jace to breach the topic once more, listened to his youthful stories and juvenile delinquencies. He and Tommy skulked out of the camp to raid homes, stole beaten up trucks and spent hours joy riding. His girlfriend, Lucy, forever on his arm...
Jace never told me why he left the gypsies after Summer’s birth or why Lucy was a pariah that moved in with him at such a young age. He hasn’t mentioned his true relations to Tommy, either. Nothing. He’s a closed book, a mystery, leaving me to make conclusions, reading between vague, obstructive lines.
I laid beside his sleeping form, head resting on his outstretched arm.
Moral of the story? Even if there were no Liam, even if I were in love with Jace, he’d never love me in return, because his heart beats for the girl in his past. “Nath,” I whispered, feeling his paced heartbeat under my palm. “Please wake up.”
My affections for Jace stem from anguish. We understand each other, share pain like no other. Our relationship might be controversially unconventional, but it’s set in stone. I am not leaving him and contrariwise. People can either learn to accept us as a package or remove their discriminatory pessimism from my life.
Yawning, I rolled onto my back, eyes blinking, adjusting to the evening sun drifting through the windows. I leave his side, find a first aid kit in the bathroom cabinet and prepare essentials. “Nath?” I nudged his shoulder, and he groaned, shifting. “Let’s clean you up.”
Squinting, he cracked one eye open, glared at me beneath hooded brows. “I need a drink.” Before I could offer cold water, he reached for the bedside table, snagging the vodka bottle.
I sank my cheeks. “I don’t think alcohol is the answer, Nath. You need medical—”
“No,” he barked, guzzling vodka thirstily. “No, Vick. I am not going to the hospital.”
I fumbled with futile bandages. “You need stitches, Nath. Your cuts haven’t healed, and they’re already infected.”
He soared from the bed, limped to the dresser and studied his reflection. “Fuck,” he hissed, touching his ruptured skin. “Warren’s a fucking prick.”
My nostrils flared, but I refrained from berating him. “He was angry, Nath—”
“That doesn’t give him the right to key my fucking face,” he spat, pouring vodka on the cuts. “Go inside my bag, grab the black box.”
Nodding, I dropped to my knees, hauled the bag from under the bed, rummaged through his clothes. “Please tell me you are not going to tattoo your face, Nath. I mean, I love the body art, but facial tattoos, although socially acceptable nowadays—”
“Vick?” he interjects, pointing to the box in my hands. “Stop talking.”
“Fine.” God, he’s grouchy this evening. “Ruin your profile and give yourself ink poisoning for all I care.” I thrust the box on his chest. “This is a big mistake, Nathan. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He opened the box, snapped on a pair of black latex gloves and used sterile wipes to clean his sore skin. “What antibiotics do I have?”
I rolled my eyes, unzipped compartments and flicked through boxes. “Who’s Mary?” I mused, reading multiple labels. “John?”
“I don’t know.” Tossing wipes in the bin, he pinched the skin beneath his eye. “Bajramovic gave them to me. I kept them for rainy days.”
My lips quivered in disdain. “Amoxicillin?”
“That’ll do,” he said, and I chucked them on the bed. “Get me something I can bite into.”
What in the world is this man doing?
Opening the bedside drawer, I fossick through cosmetics, find a comb. “Any good?” He shook his head. My eyes land on his slackened trousers. “What about your belt?” He nods. “Okay.”
Dusting off my hands, I gripped the silver buckle, tugged the belt through the loops.
“Bend it, Vick.”
As instructed, I bent the belt, balanced the leather fold in his mouth, his jaw clenching. “Am I privy to this odd occurrence or will you keep me guessing...?” I saw the needle in his hand, and my eyes rounded. “Are you stitching your face?”
Ignoring me, Jace held his tender flesh, inhaled a deep breath, and then pierced his infected gash with a needle.
“Oh, God.” I covered my eyes, face planted the bed and shivered from head to toe. “That’s horrific!”
He shushed me, groaned, repeated, growled, stabbed, cursed.
“Please tell me it’s almost over.”
“Stop talking, Vick.” He winced, stomping a foot on the floor. “Sorry, but it’s distracting, and this hurts like a bitch.”
“Normal people go to the hospital.”
“Do you want me to die?”
I frowned, repositioning onto my back, propping onto two elbows. “That’s a dramatic statement.”
He scowled at me in the mirror. “You don’t need a medical licence to determine a barbaric assault. I hate that fucking asshole, but I don’t stand a chance, and we both know it. Warren’s probably waiting for me to file charges, so It’s safer for me to stay indoors.”
“If Liam wanted to finish the job,” I said, halting my swinging legs, “he’d have done it already.”
Jace, unconvinced, proceeded to stanch bleeding. “No, Warren plays a mean game. His silence doesn’t mean leniency. I bet he’s waiting for me to get comfortable, to lower my guard before he comes for me.” Finalising the last stitch, he sank his teeth into the belt, gnawing in pain. “That’s how the sadistic fucker works.”
“Liam’s not going to kill you, Nath.”
“You don’t know that—”
“Yes,” I snapped, spearing a hand through my hair. “Yes, I do. Liam, for a reason unfathomable, loves me. He really, really loves me, Nath.” I breathed out a calming breath. “If I demand clemency, for me, he’ll grant it. He won’t like it. He’ll still hate you and envision all the fucked-up ways he’d love to torture you—”
“No, Vick. You didn’t see the way he looked at me.” Jace closed the box, snapped off his gloves. “Pure hatred—a deadly promise.” His smile was sad. “I’m a dead man walking.”
For you, I’d do just about anything.
Liam’s words repeat inside my head.
I put my back to the wall, nervously chewing my thumbnail. “Liam was furious. Your arrival caught him off-guard. He prefers to be one step ahead and aware of his surroundings. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have attacked you, though. He’s renowned for being hot-headed and bad-tempered, and that’s not changing any time soon; however, I do think, had I told him about us sooner—”
“Why do you always defend him, Vick?” He towered before me, upholding his disapproving glare. “We had sex. It happened once. Our night together didn’t warrant a facial slashing—and don’t pretend he hasn’t done it. We both know that man’s fucked his way through women for months. It’s okay, though, right? Double-fucking-standards for Liam Warren. It’s alright for the philanderer to get his, but not you. No, you keep inside that box, Vick. Let him dictate and control every aspect of your life.”
“That’s not fair, Nath.” I appreciate his scorn, but I won’t stand here and let him paint Liam in a bad light. “Liam thought I was dead.”
“Again, she defends him,” he mocked, turning away from me. “I never took you as a walkover, Vick. One of those girls.”
I pulled a face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you are a delusional fool,” he stressed, tugging on a fitted black T-shirt. “Yeah, Warren wants you—there’s no denying that—but you’ll be nothing but a trophy wife, an attractive woman on his arm, a good image for his opulent lifestyle.” He stopped pacing, capturing my eyes. “Behind closed doors, though, controlling, demanding, emotionally, mentally and physically abusive. You’ll wear the best clothes, drink the finest champagnes, bear ice and diamonds and have money in abundance, all while waiting for him to come home, all while sat at a dinner table, alone, because he’s out getting his dick sucked or fucking another broad.
“It’s cool, though,” he said sardonically, slumping onto the foot of the bed. “You can overlook his bad qualities because he loves and takes care of you.”
“I am not a materialistic person,” I retort, both ashamed and affronted. “And I would never tolerate other women, and he knows as much. Yes, he has moments where people might consider him dogmatic and controlling, but he’s not abusive—not to me.”
He laughed, short and curt. “As I said, delusional and foolish.”
“What the hell is your problem?”
“The fact you condone Warren’s violence sickens me.”
Rage bubbled inside. “I never said, I condone his violence.”
“No, it’s cool, Vick. As long as Warren doesn’t harm you, to hell with everybody else, right?”
I had no words—none.
Jace shook his head, hollowing his cheeks. “You can do so much better.”
“There is no one else,” I whispered, and our eyes aligned. “Don’t you get it, Nath? I love him—all of him: the good, the bad and the ugly. I knew what type of man he was before I willingly climbed into his bed. Now, I am sorry that you find my love for him incomprehensible, but, with all due respect, I don’t have to justify myself to you. I will, though, because I care about you and, no matter what, I value your opinion.”
I sat beside him, interlacing our fingers together. “I am not a doormat. If Liam ever, ever cheated on me, then it’s over. I won’t accept less than a faithful relationship. And you are right. Liam is violent and tends to fly off the handle. He doesn’t hurt me—not the way you think.” Yes, he’s rough in bed and seems to love my throat in his hand, but, at any point, if I told him I didn’t like the way he handled me, I know he’d stop. Truthfully, I love his possessive dominance in and outside of the bedroom. “In regards to mercy for others, then, I am sorry, Nath, but his business isn’t my problem. For you, I’d stand in the firing line. For you, I will demand a second chance.”
He looked at me, brushing a thumb across my knuckles.
I sighed. “The heart decides, right?”
“I suppose.” Jace smiled, unhappy and reserved. “I just worry about you with him, Vick. You’ve been through enough.”
“Hey.” I gripped his T-shirt, brandishing the vodka between us. “Ride-or-die.”
His eyes rolled heavenward. “Cloak and dagger.”
I nestled into his side. “Once and for all.”
He curled his fingers around the bottleneck. “Odds and ends.” Craning my neck, I pucker my lips, and he laid a soft kiss to the corner of my mouth. “One and the same.”
“I got your back, Nath.” I held out my little finger. He closed his entire hand around mine. “Let’s agree to disagree, but always respect and love each other. What do you say?”
Snaking an arm around my waist, he pulled our backs to the mattress, and we faced the ceiling. “I can dig that.”
I rubbed his stomach, cocking my leg over his thigh. “I can’t promise I won’t harm any woman that hurts you, though—just getting that out there.”
He burst out laughing. “I’ll hold you to it.”
I stifled a mischievous smirk, inhaling his citrus scented cologne. “You never finish your stories,” I said, listening to his heartbeat under my ear. “Why?”
His fingers inadvertently stroked my spine. “What do you want to know?”
My brain scattered with questions. “How are you related to Tommy if you don’t share blood?”
“Tommy’s family. Blood ties mean nothing. I love him like a brother.”
“If the gypsy community frowns upon outsiders, how did you stumble into their favourable reception?”
“You know how it goes with youngsters. Girls argue, bitch and scrap for months, but boys have a fistfight and then play football together the following week. Well, I met Tommy at a pier one night, argued about something stupid, like, amusements or maybe it was a girl. I can’t remember.”
I bet it was a girl.
“Anyway, my mother told me to be home straight after school, but I was never one to listen to rules. I grabbed food with friends, goofed around.”
A simile danced on my lips. “As you do.”
“Exactly,” he huffed, rubbing his tired eyes. “Tommy waltzed around like he owned the place. All the kids were scared of him and the people he rolled with. You didn’t look for confrontation or backchat when he spoke. You turned around, walked in the opposite direction, avoided him like the plague. For some reason, I got on his shit list, and he challenged me to a bare-knuckle fight. Vick, I’m not going to lie. I was bricking myself. Yeah, I was big for my age, but Tommy’s a machine.
“My dad taught me to face bullies and never back down. I was more scared of his consequences had I not returned home that night and told him I defended myself.
“So, I fought Tommy. Punch for punch. We laid into each other until knuckles cracked and blood splattered. I shocked myself, gave him a mean fight.” He grinned at the memory. “The motherfucker tapped my back and invited me to the beach for a fucking beer. Can you believe that? I’d never tasted alcohol, too young, but my ass followed him to that campfire and, well, we’ve been inseparable ever since.
“His Ma loved me. Always had me around, making food and buying me new kicks and whatnot. I think she felt sorry for me. I had somewhat loving parents, but they weren’t rich folk, Vick. They struggled to make ends meet.
“When my parents died,” he whispered, frowning marginally, “Tommy offered me a bedroom—said his Ma wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course, I was grateful. I didn’t want to live in the system or amble my way through foster families.
“Quintin was different. He tolerated me for Tommy, but he never quite warmed up to me. I loved him, nonetheless. Actually, I loved them all. Missed my parents but learnt to live without them.”
I struck while on the topic. “And Lucy?”
He rolled his lower lips between his teeth. “Lucy was a girl from the other side of town. I’m talking, the big house and wrought iron gates. Rich parents and stabled horses on-site.” Melancholy creased his features. “Her father didn’t want his princess roughening about with some lowlife from a trailer park, which was understandable, I guess. He expected more for his daughter, someone born into affluence and wealth with a bright, promising future.
“Lucy was fascinated by me, though. Rebellious maybe. She’d see me out and about and do everything possible to gain my attention.
“One night, her advances worked. I spent months admiring her from afar...” He zoned out, grounding down on his teeth. “I fell for her, Vick. I fell hard.” He disentangled himself from me, sitting up. “You know, I could do with some extra sleep.”
And that’s it—no further discussion on Lucy.
“Okay.” I stood, stretching my arms above my head. “I might get dressed and go out for a few hours. I am starting to feel claustrophobic inside these four walls.”
“Yeah.” He glanced out the window, belatedly noticing the Bentleys across the street. “What’s with Warren’s men?”
I peered over my shoulder, watching two Suits smoke beside a parked vehicle. “I’m not entirely sure.”
Jace took out the gun he hides under the mattress, added extra bullets. “Just in case those clowns get any ideas.”
Opening a drawer, I selected an outfit, draped it over the armchair. “They’ll leave the second I do.”