SACRIFICE (Book Two: The London Crime King)

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CH 42

Liam

“Mr Warren.” Gibbons, a male member of parliament, held my hand, an enthusiastic greeting. “How’s life treating you? I heard you stumbled into a new business venture.”

Hellen glances between us, her perplexity manifest. “You didn’t mention a new investment, Liam.”

“Yes, Warren acquired Timothy Andino’s casino,” Mr Gibbons explains, his grey, bushy eyebrows furrowing. “Although I must ask, Warren. How did you convince him into selling? I offered to take those wheels from his hands many years ago, which he vehemently declined.”

“I am a persuasive individual when I want something,” I said, hard-faced and distant. “Besides, Andino missed his homeland. He returned to Athens shortly after to reside with his family.”

“That’s a shame,” he said, and my hand tightened around the whiskey glass. “I liked Tim. The commission will miss him.”

I did not know whether Gibbons attributed to Bajramovic’s involvement with human trafficking, but if he aligned himself with men like Andino, he’s a plausible suspect.

“Will you market the niterie, Mr Warren?” Eleanor, another parliamentarian, accepted champagne from the waiter.

My lips twisted wryly. “For what purpose?”

“Well, isn’t orchestrating multiple businesses wearisome? Oh, but you must preserve The Grape and Vine. My husband, Walter, has an unspoken addiction for the lobster Benedict. In actuality,” she jutted her chin to scope the room, “where has that man gotten himself? He was occupying the bar a moment ago.”

Walter’s either unconscious or dead. “No, I am a man with multifarious interests.” I wish Hellen would stop slobbering my cheek with lapdog kisses. “Club 11 isn’t going anywhere.”

“Have you visited the club, Eleanor?” Hellen asked, stroking the back of my neck with razor-sharp fingernails.

“No, I’m afraid not,” Eleanor responds, reserved displeasure in her monolid-shaped eyes. “Nevertheless, I do believe Walter mentioned enjoying an evening there once.”

Yes, Walter had a fantastic time with three dancers, too. If my memory serves me right, he purchased the diamond suite for six hours, imbibed a reckless quantity of syndicate stocked cocaine and Hennessey before fucking himself comatose. With the greatest amount of respect, Eleanor’s unpleasantly harsh on the eye, so I can hardly blame the man for looking elsewhere. Her frosty, standoffish nature suggests an ecstatically wild time in the bedroom—note the sarcasm. I bet the poor sod hadn’t experienced so much as a grope from the puritanical mare, never mind good-head or orgasmic sex.

While the others gossipped, Hellen nibbled my jawline, suggestively hinting that we meet each other inside the male restroom. “Surely, you miss it, Liam,” she breathed a groan in my ear. “It’s been far too long since I had you in my mouth. If you behave, I might swallow.”

The only woman I want tasting my cock sends murderous daggers in my direction. Alexa’s crestfallen eyes made my chest ache. I held her stare, silently assuring. Smiling morosely, she lost her sad expression and blended into the crowd. “Breast-pin,” I ordered, and Nate mumbled his whereabouts in my earpiece.

“What was that?” asked Hellen, her eagle-eyes hot on my optical axis. “Do you know that woman?”

I remained nonchalant. “Who?”

“The blonde,” she pointed out, her voice low but commanding. “Don’t pretend otherwise, Liam. I saw you speaking to her on my arrival.”

Giving her a pointed look, I expelled a ragged breath. “Just a woman I bumped into while trying to find you,” I reassured, placing a chaste kiss to her temple. “You look exceptional by the way.”

Hellen’s untrusting stare ploughed into me, chronicling my every move. “Thank you, Liam. You look rather suave yourself.” Clearing an uncomfortable pinch in her throat, she faked a smile for the mayoral party.

Alongside the colourful assortment of arrogance, her mother, Beverly Bennett, a vainglorious bitch with a tight upper lip.

“Here’s the wonderful man I told you about.” Hellen laced our arms, pulling me into their private conversation. “Liam, I’d like to introduce you to my mother, Beverly.”

“Mrs Bennett.” Bringing the woman’s hand to my mouth, I left a chaste kiss to her knuckles. “You look far too young to be Hellen’s mother.”

There’s an element of validation to my feigned chivalrousness. Beverly, an older woman, but the Botox did a tremendous number on her sour profile. Flawless skin yet hooded eyes, she wears a blue skin-tight cocktail dress that makes a feature of her overpowering hues.

“You are too kind.” Beverly forwarded her daughter a sneaky wink. “Has your father met him yet?”

You’d never think I had the capabilities of speaking for myself.

“Not yet.” Hellen, distressed, side-eyed me. “He’s at the bar, Liam. Why don’t you go and introduce yourself while I visit the ladies’ room?”

It would be my utmost honour. “Of course.” As the mother’s protectiveness radiated, I murmured a kiss to Hellen’s lips, a final display of affection before I uncaged the devil on earth to incarcerate the very people who dared harm the woman I love.

Headed straight for The Mayor of London, I downed a shot of Johnnie Walker Blue label and handed the empty glass to a waitress.

I watched Nate accidentally knock into Fagan, grappling the man’s suit jacket, mumbling a heart-warming apology.

Fagan bent a deriding eyebrow, dismissed Nate and continued his conversation with associates.

Schooling his features, Nate distanced himself from the tyrant, leaving the tracking device in place. His short glance told me everything transpired effortlessly. Without communication, we parted ways.

Altering personalities to acclimatise, I tapped Fagan’s shoulder. “Mr Fagan,” I said, and he graced me with a supercilious frown, silencing his associate’s nattering. “Liam Warren—”

“I know who you are,” he interrupted, ordering a sherry from the bar. “What do you want, Mr Warren?”

I’ll overlook his impoliteness—for now. “Your beloved daughter asked me to introduce myself.” I raised my brows to the barman, silent gratitude for the whiskey he set on the countertop.

“Yes, Hellen,” he clipped, searching for the woman. “Where is she?”

“She needed to freshen up,” I said with a touch of sexual innuendo.

Fagan straightened his spine, flattening a hand over his rounded stomach. He tweaked the collar of his royal blue shirt, briefly listening to the grandiloquent speeches segueing from the grand stage. “I must say, Warren, your relationship with my daughter took me by surprise.” Crow’s feet crinkled his upturned eyes. “Is there an ulterior motive?”

“You presume I have an extrinsic reason for pursuing Hellen?” Fagan isn’t an exception. Most fathers would protest the idea of me dating their daughters.

“I am The Mayor of London,” he patronised in a way that questioned my intelligence. “It is my job to know what occurs in my city, Warren.”

My city, I thought, drinking to quench the extreme itch to pummel him.

“Affirmatively, you are a well-to-do man, but your two-faced duplicity raises concern. And, as a father who only wants the best for his child, I strongly disapprove of your involvement with Hellen.” Man-to-man, we stared each other down. “Expose yourself, Warren. The media covers you in an interesting light. You have a predilection for women.”

“What warm-blooded, straight male doesn’t appreciate the closeness of females, Fagan?”

“One that’s promising fidelity to my daughter.”

I promise nothing. “I shan’t apologise for my choice of lifestyle.”

The Mayor ignored my asinine remark. “I have a proposal for you.”

Excepted. “What did you have in mind?”

“I want you to end this absurd relationship with my daughter,” he hissed, jowls jiggling and beet-red as he prepared a harangue. “You mightn’t be a father yet, but someday, Mr Warren, your daughter, will be the apple of your eye.”

Contrary, I thought, knowing damn well children weren’t part of my future.

“You will demand only the best for her and, while remaining respectful of your position, let’s keep it frank, you, Mr Warren, are not a worthy candidate for such a remarkable young woman. My daughter merits a decent man—not some bigoted, philandering tycoon, who, as we both know, cares only for himself.”

I felt the intensity of Alexa from across the room. While Fagan chewed off my ear for being a bent criminal, I regarded her. With each word spat in my face, my blood boiled, heart beating furiously against my ribcage as I bridled my hot rage.

Of course, the son of a bitch sensed I paid scarce attention to his idle threats. He chose the minute I watched my woman to break away, to look at her, curious and pensive.

I clenched my jaw. “Beautiful, isn’t she?” I reflected, feeling her distancing as moved ahead. Witnessing her departure wasn’t necessary. My heart responds to her nearness, beats harder when she leaves me. “You are right, Fagan. If for a stupid reason, I decide to bear children, I’d want nothing but the best for them.”

His Adam’s apple shifted, bobbed, upstroke, downstroke. “What was that?” He asked, his pallid expression prompting my sinister smirk. There it goes again, that lodged lump, sticking to the inner walls of his tightening throat.

My cold stare invaded his. “I was telling you that I appreciate your distress regarding Hellen.”

“Yes,” he mumbled, his round, wild eyes ricocheting around the room. “My daughter, Hellen. I don’t want any conflicts with you, Warren...” He’s speechless, sickly grey and sweating buckets. “If you’ll excuse me.”

I stepped in front of him, preventing his absconding. “I wasn’t finished.”

Chest heaving as he scuffled for breath, he pulled a silk napkin from his suit pocket, dabbed perspiration from his wrinkled forehead.

“As I was saying, if I brought children into the world, I’d protect them fiercely, possessively—commence wars like no other to ensure their safety—so I understand the resentment. I am, although most ignore the reason behind my wealth, a renowned criminal. It’s fascinating how I manage to align myself with lawful men akin to yourself.” I see Nate exit through the main doors, altering the volume of his earpiece. “I am a heartless bastard who enjoys the sight of blood, especially at my hands.” Grazing a palm over his shoulder, I dusted off fine lint. “One last question before you try and flee the building. What do you consider monstrosity? Criminals combatant against each other? Serial killers? Gross misconduct in the police force? Husbands, who murder their wives? Fathers, who abuse their children? Opportunists, who sell their souls to the devil for revitalisation?”

Fagan glared deep into my eyes. “All of the above.”

Omnipresent piano-music reduced when the amplifiers malfunctioned. On the cavernous dance floor, party guests stalled their waltzing, contemplating why the melody diminished.

I put my back to the bar, raised the glass to my lips and said, “It’s time to end what you started.”

***

Alexa
I stormed down the halls, fighting the urge to retrace my steps and shove Hellen’s head down the toilet. “Bitch...” Aloft lights, one by one, slowly disappeared, engulfing the antique gold rococo picture frames and Edwardian paintings, the pitch-black mist creeping towards me. “Nath,” I whispered, clicking my earpiece. I withdrew, shaky legs escaping the billowing shadows. “Nathan, can you hear me?”

The final beam faded. I recoiled, laying my back to the wall. No, darkness doesn’t get to control me anymore. I gear myself for the gut-wrenching incursion, open my eyes and face obscurity. “Nathan...” Heart collapsing to the pit of my stomach, I licked the roof of my dry mouth, grappling for oxygen. “My chest...” Levelling a palm to my throat, I massaged, fingers determined to unclog airwaves.

Breathe, I thought, inhaling a deep breath, respiring in intervals. I heard a spine-shattering scream before clamorous gunfire, and shrilling cries echoed in the distance.

I stared into nothingness, neck-deep in guilt-ridden fright and anxious tribulation.

“Vick, you...need...” Jace’s orders failed, the earpiece crackling. “Get...out...”

Trilling chimes ruptured in my ear. I winced, tugged out the piece and stuffed it in my bag. Down the hall, I heard Hellen’s disconcerted shouting, calling for her father.

I despised the woman, but, in that distressing period, I felt shame for her impending bereavement. Hand fusing to the wall, I navigated ahead, small, considered steps, unseeingly hunting for an exit.

Liam said, under no circumstances, must I stay inside City Hall once bombardment commenced. I had to find Jace in the gardens, to leave without looking back.

It’s time, I thought, blindly scaling a corner, fingertips tracing the patterned wallpaper, breathing controlled, ears honed, listening to sporadic gunshots and excruciating cries.

I experienced a jolt of fear in my stomach, worried for Liam and the Suits. Some of the best military men skulked City Hall, marksman and sharpshooters. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my favourite people, especially Liam.

Resounding footsteps crashed against the marble floors as a stampede of terrified people swarmed from the main room, pushing and shoving each other, dispersing in blind directions. I heard knees collide with the ground, muffled whimpers and shattering glass.

I halted my movements—A gloved hand cupped my mouth, and my eyes protruded. “It’s me,” Brad said, and I wilted in his muscular arms. “We need to get you out of here.” Dragging me back in the direction I came from, he laced our fingers together, wrenching me behind him. “Keep up.”

Clinging to him, I hurried my footsteps, gaited intersecting passageways, the smell of copper permeating the air. “Oh, God. What is that smell? Is it blood?”

“Shh,” he scolds, abruptly stopping.

I crashed into his back, muttered expletives.

Brad let go of my hand, hoisted an object—his weapon, deafening and dust-shattering, chewed through belts of ammunition, revolving with the automatic traverse.

Pressing my palms over my ears, I buried my head on his tense back, feeling the powerful vibrations wave through his body. The pained screams had nothing on the sound of this ear-splitting gun. It tore through flesh, ripped it to shreds—I perceived each laceration, pinging casings and strafed slaughter. Thick smog invaded my throat, deflating my lungs.

Brad ceased fire, but the ringing inside my ears pounded. “Step over the bodies,” he berates, and I nodded, hanging onto his leather jacket. “Keep walking.” My foot clipped an outstretched obstacle, and I almost toppled. “Alexa, Christ’s sake.” His arms wrapped around my waist, helping me dodge warm corpses. “Watch where you’re going.”

“I would if I could fucking see,” I whisper-shout, stumbling, catching bloodied bodies with my foot. “Oh, God.”

We reached something cold. He rattled a handle, the door, unlocked the bolt and swung it open, generating moonlight. “Run straight to the maze, Alexa.” He jerked up his balaclava, and bloodied sweat dripped from his cracked eyebrow. “Find Jace and get the hell out of dodge.”

I bleached at the sight of his marred face. Cupping his steeled jaw, I examined his busted lips. “What happened?”

“Altercation,” he said as if it weren’t a big deal. “Go on. Bounce.”

Before leaving, I enveloped my arms around him. At first, he didn’t repay my kindness, but soon sagged his head to my shoulder, hugging me back.

“I know you hate me right now,” I whispered, his wild heartbeat synchronising mine, “but I love the shit out of you.”

He chuckled in my ear, feathering a kiss to the scar by my eye. “If tonight doesn’t prove how much Warren loves you,” he said, and I scowled, “I don’t know what will.”

With one final smile, he vanished inside, leaving me standing on the concrete steps, encumbered and perplexed.

Grappling the train of my dress, I gathered the layered material to my waist, kicked off my shoes, descended the steps and ran full pelt towards the extensive maze.

With only the moon and concrete gargoyles as my witness, I sprinted past raised hedges adorned in flickering white lights, bare feet striking the cold uneven slabs.

Tumbling into the wrought iron gate, I fumbled with a rusted handle, jolted the bars aside, the hinges complaining. Entering the complex structure, I reduced speed, awe-inspired by the ghostly yet picturesque walled garden. It was beautiful, terrifyingly so.

“Nathan.” Cold winds sheathed my body, puckering horripilation to my parched skin. I whacked jagged branches away, thorns welting my face. “Nathan, can you hear me?”

Walking backwards, back hitting a hedge, I glimpsed from left to right, not knowing which route to choose. My panicked gaze landed on those dominating gates, concluding it’s safer to stand down, wait for Jace to find me instead.

Midst low hanging fogs, I see two silhouettes barrelling straight in my direction.

Swallowing a swollen lump, I scampered left, meandered narrowed hedge-lined passages, absently selecting routes and corners.

Each journey resembled the last. I wasn’t sure how far I made it, or if those shrubs mocked me. “Fuck,” I moaned, feet submerged in thick mud, begrime slithered beneath my toenails.

I stopped suddenly, easing the grip on my dress. From the cracked concrete, a sprouted flower outlives all, its delicate stem and gentle white petals, bringing me peace. I crouched, plucked it from the rubble...

“It’s okay, Alexa.” Kathy sat beside me on the stairs, tucking Teddy into my arms. “I don’t like it when you cry.”

Hair tendrils swept across my face. Tears pooled my eyes at the sound of cruel lashings. Through clear blue skies, the warm sun illuminates our garden, but the brightens relinquished to eternal nightmares.

“Here.” Twirling a daisy between her fingers, Kathy tucks my hair aside and slips the stalk over my ear. “Hope stems from hopelessness, right?” My sister’s always strong and optimistic, but today, sadness hitched her voice.

When our mother’s screaming worsened inside the house, Kathy snatched my hand, interlacing our fingers.

I saw a single tear slip down her cheek and slid it away with my thumb.

Our eyes joined in a moment of understanding.

“Don’t worry, Alexa,” she snivelled, nodding to herself. “I’ll get us out of here someday. We can go far away, travel the world...” Jumping to her feet, she dusted off her palms, outstretched her arms and tilted back her head, marvelling at the sun. “Fly with the birds.”

My mouth formed a circle. “How?”

“Easy.” Gripping my hand, she trudged me forward, our bare feet falling in the grass. “We can do anything if we put our minds to it.”

We barrelled through long spears of grass, giggling and flailing our arms. My mother’s cries dimmed as we drifted, becoming another distant memory.

“Faster, Alexa,” Kathy yelled, sprinting down the hill, dark hair blowing in the wind. “I know you can do it!”

I didn’t want to leave Teddy, but he’s getting too heavy. Panting for breath, I hid him behind a tree, dry leaves crunching under my feet. Standing taller, I glanced back to the house, too sad for our mother. “What about mummy, Kathy?”

My sister’s wet eyes lingered on my face. “She’ll find us.”

I wanted to believe her.

Kathy squatted before me, making us eye-level. “Alexa,” she whispered, knotting the unravelled ribbon at the front of my white dress. “Mum will never forget about you, no matter what happens in life. Do you understand?”

No, but I nodded.

“She loves us very much,” she assured, wiping mascara streaks from her cheeks. “She’s just scared sometimes, okay?”

I puckered my lips. “I think she’s sick.”

“Yeah,” Kathy agreed, giving the house one final once over. “Me too, Alexa. Now,” she bolted ahead, “the last one down the hill is a rotten egg!”

“No fair, Kathy!” I yelled, sprinting behind her. “You always win!”

Laughing hysterically, she whipped straight into the overgrown woodland area, snatched something from the ground and spun to face me. “Want to see something cool?”

Tumbling to a stop, I kicked fallen leaves aside, catching one in my hand. “Yep.”

“Okay, so on the count of three?” She passed me a brown conker. “Throw this in the sky.”

My sister is so weird. “Okay.”

“One, two,” she paused, “three.”

We both hurled our conkers. Mine rolled in the opposite direction, but Kathy’s speared through branches, scattering a bed of leaves.

Frightened birds squawked, feathers ruffling as they dispersed on high. I blinked, slow and fascinated.

We chased them through the dense trees, arriving at the twined exit in time to watch them soar towards the sun. “Where will they go?”

Kathy sighed. “Wherever their wings take them.”

I forgot how we got there.

Tears coated my eyes. “Always trying to protect me.”

Returning to my dark ambience, I studied the starless skies, flower stem swivelling in my pinched fingers—

“Got her,” an unrecognisable male voice barked before a meaty arm went around my throat, ripping my body to his chest. “Let’s go—”

“Get off me!” I screamed, squirming against him.

He towed my kicking body down the passageway, chortling with his accomplice. He’s too strong for a counterattack, so I twisted my fingers around his wrist and sank my teeth into his flesh, gnawing like a rabid dog.

Bellowing, he lunged me across the floor, spitting orders to the other male.

My face grazed the concrete on impact. With no time to consider the blood rivulets on my teeth, I snatched up my dress, obtained the gun from my thigh strap to hit a target—the other attacker kicked it out of reach, sending the clanking metal into the fogs.

“We’re running out of time,” one spat, fisting my hair with brute strength. “Let’s go.” He strived to uplift me, but the blonde hairpiece detached from my head, loosening my untamed dark curls. “What the fuck? You—” A loud crack echoed into the night. His chest lurched forward as a bullet penetrated his back, blood dousing an expanding stain on his shirt. Mouth parting on a sharp inhale, he cut his protruded, glassy eyes, seconds to discern the bullet wound before his knees met the floor, blonde hair slipping through his fingers.

I scuttled backwards on a heaved sob, evading his trundling body. Blood and stagnant water spattered from the force of his weight.

Through momentary impaired vision and dreadful slow motion, I make out a tall male, aiming fire, the second bullet shot ripping into silence.

I hadn’t realised blood caked my face until the man went down on one knee in front of me, using his rough palms to eliminate spatters from my cold skin. “It’s okay,” he said huskily, and I recognised his voice. “You chose the wrong lane, Angel.”

A single tear trickled down my cheek. “Vincent,” I said breathlessly, capturing his wrists, hindering his movements. “What were their intentions?”

His pale blue eyes, emphasised by dark thick eyelashes, pierced mine. “I don’t know.”

Why is he here? How did he find me?

“It won’t change anything.” What’s the desperate need to win over Liam’s acceptance? “Liam—”

“I am not here for him, Angel.” He held my waist and forced me to stand. “I had a feeling you’d get in trouble tonight.”

He scoured our surroundings while I studied his sharp, prominent jawline, full lips and lustrous inky black hair. Although suited, he wears an ankle-length trench coat, casually unbuttoned. “Who are you?” I asked, intrigued by the mysterious man. “How did you know to come here?”

“It doesn’t matter.” With his hand curled around my upper arm, he led me between shrubbed passageways, mouthing numbers with each step. “Right,” he ordered, making a sharp turning. “Your friend had a minor setback, so headed north instead. He’s in the process of locating Brad.”

Dumbfounded, I let this man coax me without reassurance or understanding. “Vincent—”

“In here.” He ducked under an overgrown hedge, located the centre of the maze and alleviated the death grip to my arm. “Don’t leave until he finds you.”

“Who?” I asked, the train of my dress bloodstained and laddered. “Vincent?”

In the middle of the maze, he ceased search, muting an earpiece, glimpsing at his wristwatch. He set a five-minute timer, double-checked each entranceway, mouthing numbers.

My frown tightened. “Vincent, what’s going on?”

He snatched my wrist, wrenched my body behind him and whipped out his firearm. “Get down!” He ordered, and I slipped down his back, cowering behind my forearms.

Ten harrowing seconds silenced the sphere before unremitting gunfire launched. Armed security brandishing semi-automatics emerged from doorways, and my life flashed before my eyes. I shut my eyelids, accepting fate, but the flying shrapnel and gunshots whistling through the air inflated me with hope.

Vincent, in a series of sequential arm movements, controlled two firearms, whipping aim from one corner to the next. Even for someone indisputably trained, the multiplying siege, impossible for one man.

Wafting hunkered smoke from my face, I crawled on my hands and knees, retrieved the gun from his ankle strap and put myself in the firing line.

Plastering our backs together, we extended our arms, covered bases and levelled opponents. In that unnerving instant, I thought we were going to die. I pulled the trigger but didn’t let myself consider the bloodshed or stolen lives. I followed his lead, extracting souls to the memories of Jace’s gruelling training regimes and encouraging beliefs.

At the sound of my gun clicking empty, Vincent bent an arm around my waist and twisted me behind him, shielding me from attack.

Heavy footsteps decreased. In the thrall of Vincent’s protection, I clung to his shirt, feeling the tension in his arm as his muscles coiled, governing the sharpshooting.

Vincent spun us around, targeted an advancing man, and put a bullet between his eyes. “There are too many,” he growled, cocking his gun, slamming a magazine loader inside. “Fuck.” He grasped my hand, helped me oversteps splayed dead bodies and tugged me into a constricted pathway. “I need to get you out of here—” A suited man jumped out in front of us, ready to aim fire. Vincent whacked the gun from the guy’s hand, snapped his wrist, and drove an elbow into his face, knocking him unconscious. “Keep walking.”

In a state of paralysing bewilderment, I examined the overweight man disjointedly comatose in crossing passages, convinced this entire night is a result of too much drinking and hallucinations.

Rechecking the time on his wristwatch, Vincent barrels us through the maze, back to counting steps. He slowed down, increased the volume of his earpiece. “He’s looking for you.”

My eyebrows snapped together. “Are you wired to the syndicate?”

His wolfish smirk quelled my inquisitiveness. “This way,” he instructs, dipping into another bush-laced hole, his heavy-duty boots snapping strewn debris. He stationed himself, pointed front, back, to the side. “South, Alzaim,” he says, but I think he’s talking to himself. Listening carefully, his eyes oscillated, a slight tick to the jaw. “Come with me.”

At this point, I put every ounce of trust I had in this man. I stalked him to the right, the never-ending routes merging into a hypnotising downward spiral. “Vincent...” Gunfire boomed towards the dark skies. “What’s happening?”

He tapped the face of his watch. “I’ll hang back and deal with rats,” he said, parting brambles for me to enter the other side. “No turnings, Angel. Run straight ahead.”

I barely knew him but separating felt immoral. “I don’t want to leave you, Vincent.”

His eyes, the resemblance of blue crystals, deceived his calm demeanour. “A wingman for me, Angel?” he mused, his face inches from mine. “Or the safety of my brother?”

My mouth parted on a hitched inhale.

Vincent’s lips pressed in a flat line. He reached for something above my head, brought a single white rose between us. “You lost the last one.” Frozen in place, I felt the stem weave between my fingers. “Go to him.”

Benumbed and breathless, I squeezed into the hole, leaving him behind. Thorns, twigs and hedgerow tear my arms and face, amassed rocks dig into the soles of my feet.

On a stifled wince, I fell out the other side, landed in a heap on the floor, tearing a gaping hole in my dress. I ran out of the shrouds of dust and all-encompassing greenery, straight ahead, as instructed.

“Liam?” I called in desperation, pulse and blood flow increases to a concerning pressure. I saw a tall figure, and a doting smile stretched my lips. “Liam?” I shouted, and his frantic silhouette stilled.

His satisfied smile mirrored mine as we gravitated. Fisting whatever tulles survived on my dress, I ran into his awaiting arms, knocking a puff of air from his lips.

“Alexa.” His low, ragged voice undid every taut muscle in my body. “I was...” He wavered for a nanosecond, his arms rigid, curling around my body. “I thought something happened to you.” His thumping heartbeat penetrated my ear.

I shook my head, clinging to him with every mustered ounce of strength I had left. “Did you succeed?”

Liam unravelled my arms from his shoulders. “Yes,” he confirmed, and the breath I detained woodshed out. “Special intelligence swarms City Hall, though. We need to get out of here.” He towed me behind him, but my worried eyes revisited the dark maze, praying Vincent escaped the onslaught. “Nate’s hidden a back-up vehicle near the river...” His eyes trailed my visible horizon. “He’s with Brad.”

“Who?” I asked, and his scowl deepened. “What? Oh, Nathan—Jace.” Really, Alexa? “Sorry, it’s been a long night.”

He pinched my chin with a thumb and forefinger, angling my head to his liking. Whispering a kiss to my lips, he gave me one tongue stroke, tasting a night of champagne on my lips. “Do you love me?”

I grinned against his cocky smirk. “You know, I do.”

Liam raised his earpiece volume. “Burn it.”

The floor under my feet vibrated, rattling cluttered debris as a powerful detonation billowed to the sky, spreading a bright glow over our wandering forms. While holding Liam’s hand, I watched deathly explosions claim City Hall, raw embers and scorching flames, licking cracked windows. Fulmination disintegrated the once dominating building, brick by brick, weeping into the wind.

My fingers clenched Liam’s hand. He pulled me to his side, draping an arm over my shoulders.

“You did all this for me.”

Liam helped me scale a waist-high fence, bringing me onto a restricted, uneven footpath. “I did this for us.”

His vague response only heightened interest. “And what’s in store for us?”

“Everything,” he said, fishing out a set of car keys. Unlocking the Bentley, he held open the passenger side door for me to climb inside before rounding the car and collapsing behind the steering wheel. “I should feed you first.”

“I’m not hungry.” God, he’s incorrigible. I can’t face food after everything that’s transpired this evening. “Where are we going?”

Firing the engine, he manoeuvred the steering wheel and drove back onto the main road. “Tell me about your past.”

Was that a trick question? “You know—”

“Not Bajramovic,” he interrupts, accelerating around a sharp corner, running through a red light and speeding through traffic. “Take me back to your house, Alexa. Leave the good memories. Give me the bad ones.” He side-eyed me. “Alexa?”

“Why?” I asked, sinking back in my seat. “What does it matter?”

“It matters.” His hand on the gearstick curled, rupturing his cracked knuckles.

I puffed out a weary breath. “I don’t remember.”

“That’s an excuse,” he snapped, and I shrugged at his blunt assessment. “What happened to your mother?”

I am going to murder him. “You read the damn police reports—”

“No, I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You were there. You saw what happened that day. Tell me, from your perspective, how she died.”

“Flamur,” I argued, hands curling into fists. “They argued...” I saw him. He loomed over me, took my hand. “I can’t do this.”

Liam eased his foot on the accelerator. “Can’t or won’t, Alexa?”

My mother’s screams pulverised my ears. “He beat her with a belt.” I mentally opened my bedroom door, carrying Teddy towards the stairs, toes sinking in the thick, cream carpet. “We had lights and tinsel wrapped around the bannister. My mum loved Christmas. Every year, she’d buy this huge tree and decorate it with ridiculous amounts of trinkets.” Fragmented baubles crushed under my feet; broken beads rolled across the floor. “I was too young to understand, Liam.” Kathy’s haunted eyes stared back at me from her bedroom. “My sister knew.”

Liam braked the Bentley and spun into a country lane. “Go on.”

Trees blurred as we drove past.

I crossed my arms, rested my head on the window.

The front door slammed. I rested on my haunches, touched my mother’s bruised arm. Recoiling, she warily peered at me through stiff fingers, and I saw it, the fear in her glossy eyes. “I was supposed to be in bed. It was too early to rise.” I laughed once, recalling how I stayed up to wait for Father Christmas. “She didn’t have time to put the presents out, and that bothered her.” Using the hem of her blouse to wipe the blood from her face, she put me on the sofa, telling me to sleep while she cleaned. “There was nothing left of the tree. It laid across the floor...broken.”

Cutting the engine outside of an unprepossessing warehouse, Liam turned in his seat to face me. I didn’t want to jog down memory lane. I wanted to crawl onto his lap and forget. I did, too, unclasping my seat belt and worming my way into his arms.

He kissed the crease amid my brows, tracing the line of my nose with his finger.

“Why are you bleeding, mummy?”

“No, sweetie.” Emptying her handbag on the floor, spreading the money, keys and cosmetics, she searched for something. “I was silly with makeup. Look.” Unscrewing a lipstick, she smiled at me, rubbing vibrant red over her plump lips, demonstrating with a pout. “See?” I nodded, transfixed by her beauty, even with the purple eyeshadow. “Do you want some?”

I nodded again, shifting closer, making Teddy sit beside me.

“Big smiles,” she said, holding my chin. “Oh, she’s so beautiful.”

Excitement bubbled in my stomach. “Really?”

She gives me a knowing look, colouring my lips red. Misty-eyed and sombre, she studied my mouth, pretending there weren’t tears falling down her cheeks. “What do you think?” Hunting through objects, she picked up a compact mirror, holding it up so that I could see my reflection. “Do you like it?”

My nose wrinkled. “I look like you, silly!”

“Yes,” she agreed, beaming with pride. She pulled me in for a tight hug, laying kisses atop my head. “I love you so much.”

“Mummy?” I nuzzled my head into the groove of her neck. “I love you the entire world.”

Liam opened the car door and set my feet onto the asphalt. He rose from the vehicle. “Alexa?”

I felt a sharp twinge in my stomach. “He was nothing but a disembodied monster I learnt to forget. It was her unfaltering persistence that kept me alive.” He watched me raptly. “I remember everything.”

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