Redemption – excerpt

REDEMPTION

ELLE CHARLES

Copyright © Elle Charles 2022

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner or publisher, except in the case of quotations embodied and used in critical reviews and other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission, please contact the publisher at the email address below.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is purely coincidental.

Cover design by Rachelle Gould-Harris of Designs by Rachelle

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For all enquiries, please email: elle@ellecharles.com

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First publication: 16 May 2022

First Edition

Contents

Author Note

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Author Note

Redemption is the first of a duet within the series and ends on a cliff-hanger. The concluding novel, Reparation, completes Jeremy and Evie’s story and will be release in due course.

Redemption is a long, slow-burning, all-the-feels romance. It is the fifth instalment of the Fractured series and is a full-length novel.

Throughout the story, there is cross-referencing to events within the previous four books, and it is therefore crucial to have read the full series so far due to the story arc, the various character backgrounds, and their relationships.

Please be advised this novel contains descriptive scenes of sex, violence, and drug use.

Prologue

BRIGHT RIBBONS OF neon light illuminate the damp city streets for miles. The music is thumping, the crowds bustling.

I gaze around with disinterest, the vibe of the night already wearing thin and grating on my last nerve. I inhale deeply on the cigarette lodged between my lips. The sharp shot of nicotine hits the back of my throat before its poison expands my lungs in a toxic cloud. Flicking the end on the ground, I grind it beneath my boot the same moment my pocket starts to vibrate.

I pull out my mobile and sigh at the screen. John Walker. A man I’ve known and respected from the age of thirteen. A man I’ve always looked up to as a father figure. And a man who equals staunch intervention of my less than desirable lifestyle choices.

My thumb hovers above the screen, moving between answer and end until I press red and slip it back into my pocket.

I lean back against the wall and take in the typical Friday night playing out before me. The area is heaving, and the queue from the nightclub opposite snakes down the street and around the corner. People flow from the clubs and pubs onto the pavement, adding to the drunk and disorderly chaos.

“Hey, man, how much?”

I swing my head to the side and look the young lad up and down. He can’t be more than eighteen – just – and it’s kids like these who plague my guilty conscience. But who am I to tell them to just say no? Yet as I stare at him, my internal morality duelling inside with my immorality as to whether or not I should sell to him, a long-forgotten memory quickly resurfaces. I remember when I was once a teenage, Friday night recreational user. Once being the operative word because those days of once are long gone. Once becomes twice, twice becomes thrice, and suddenly you’re hooked. Still, I can’t specifically recall when I went from being recreational to dependent. All I know is, in the space of less than twelve months, I’d become unrecognisable to myself.

“Depends on what you want,” I eventually answer, immorality winning the battle.

“Well, what have you got?”

“Most things.” I keep it vague because I trust no one. And it wouldn’t be the first time the police have used kids in a sting to gain convictions in their attempt to clean up the streets.

The lad grins – the foolish git – and removes a wad of notes from his pocket along with a few condoms and his debit card. I observe his clumsy, inebriated movements. It would be so easy to fleece him of his cash. But of everything I am and everything I am deemed to be, I’m not a thief. Druggie, supplier, unintended bringer of death – maybe – but never a thief.

“What does twenty quid buy me?”

I slip my hand inside the bag strapped across my torso and produce three different packets. Holding them close to my hip, out of sight of prying eyes, the kid weighs them up until he taps his finger on the bag of coke.

“You’ve taken this before, right?” I hold the bag back before I hand it over, my morality refusing defeat so easily. The kid rolls his eyes and nods, disconcerted. I inconspicuously shake my head and exchange it for cash because he’s on an unknown path of destruction along with the rest of the weekend users. It’s a path I know well. I once walked it. I now live it. And one day, I know it will devour me completely.

“Nice doing business, man,” the kid says and walks away.

“You fucking idiot,” I breathe out, although I’m unsure which of us I’m referring to as my mobile vibrates again. Retrieving it for the fourth time tonight, the caller piques my attention, and I swipe the screen.

“Rem?” The Yorkshire drawl of Dominic Archer fills my ear before I can even say hello.

“Hey, how are you doing?”

“John’s been trying to call you,” he replies, not bothering to reciprocate my greeting. “Have you spoken to him?”

“No.” I furrow my brow, speculating what the urgent urgency is.

Dom sighs, agitated. “Well, I suggest you make that call asap, lad.”

“Yeah, I will, but I’m busy right now. I’ll call him later,” I reply half-heartedly. Knowing my luck, he’ll just want to impart his latest lecture on my varying and illegal ways of earning an income. I know what I’m doing is wrong. I don’t need him to spell it out to me. Again.

“No, Jeremy, now! For once in your life, quit peddling your fucking filth and do as you’re told!” Dom demands. “And I appreciate I’d be better off talking to a brick wall, but just for the record, you need to stop that shit before you get caught and banged up. The Blacks have got you in far too deep, and you need to get as far away from them while you still can!” Then he hangs up.

“For fuck sake!” I grit out under my breath. Glancing at my watch, it’s almost midnight. I look around at the intoxicated revellers and mentally calculate how much gear I’ve shifted tonight. I haven’t been as busy as I am most nights, but my trade is swings and roundabouts, and I can’t exactly advertise my nefarious services in the classifieds or online, can I?

I scroll through the missed call log, pick out one of John’s many unanswered calls during the last hour or so and dial.

“You rang?” I ask when he picks up.

“Where are you?” His tone is harsh and unwavering, taking me back.

“Hello, J, it’s nice to hear from you,” I quip sarcastically. “What’s wrong with you all tonight? Dom’s just given me an earful too!” I’m being flippant, but honestly, I really couldn’t care less.

“Cut the mouth, Rem. I haven’t got time for this. Where are you?”

“I’m in town,” I reply with a sigh.

“Is Deacon with you?”

I narrow my eyes – he never asks about Deacon. Ever. “No, I don’t know where he is. Why?”

John’s redundant sigh fills my eardrum. “You’re not lying to protect him, are you?”

My face screws up at his furtive insinuation. “John, what are you talking about?” I ask in confusion. “I’ve not seen him since this morning.”

“I’m on my way up to Manchester. Something happened tonight.” His voice turns solemn, raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

“What?” I impatiently wave a prospective purchaser away, suddenly caring a lot more than I did moments ago. 

“Charlie was repeatedly raped and beaten in Sloan’s digs tonight,” he says without equivocation, but the charged emotion in his tone is undisguisable.

“What?” I ask again in disbelief, my voice faltering, my eyes beginning to sting. Charlotte Black, Sloan and Deacon’s half-sister is like my own sister, and she’s just fourteen years old. “No, you don’t think Deacon is capable of-”

“Oh, I think he’s more than capable,” John cuts me off. “I think he’s willing. I think he’s able, and I think he’d enjoy it, too.”

“No, no, no. Not Charlie,” I say because he’d never do that to his own flesh and blood. I know he hates Sloan in a way that is unfathomable, but he’s never said anything about Charlotte. “John, you’re wrong; he wouldn’t.”

“No. I. Am. Not!” he shouts. “You go home tonight and before you start injecting that fucking shit into your veins, ask him. Look into his eyes when he replies, and then you call me and tell me that I’m wrong! And another thing now that I’ve finally managed to get you on the blower after all these months, you need to get clean, Jeremy. You need to get clean and sober, and you need to get away from the Blacks. They’re poison!”

“John-” I start to no avail.

“No, you listen up and listen good. You keep in Franklin’s pocket; you’re doomed, sunshine. In case you’ve forgotten, let me re-jog your memory. You’ve got a family down here who love you. A girl up there who loves you – a girl that they’ve also managed to get addicted.”

I grind my jaw. I don’t have the heart to tell him the truth on that one.

“What will it take for you to get on the wagon? One of your customers dying? Your girl dying? Think long and hard about the life you’re living, Jeremy. The path you’ve chosen only leads to one place – death. And it will break my fucking heart if the day ever comes that I have to stand at your grave when they put you in the ground prematurely!”

The line suddenly goes dead, and I lower the phone and stare at it. A hundred different scenarios fight for supremacy inside my head, but only one is winning. I swipe the screen with my thumb again and press call.

“Yeah?” Deacon answers on the third ring. I narrow my eyes because he sounds uncharacteristically cheerful.

“You at home?” The suspicion in my query is apparent, but he doesn’t pick up on it.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, I’m done for tonight. I’ll see you in thirty minutes.” I hang up and slip it back into my pocket. Zipping up my jacket, one of my regulars approaches me with a twenty in his hand.

“I’m out!” I announce and walk the other way.

“Come on, man, I need a hit.” He grabs hold of my arm, causing me to stop.

“I said I’m out, arsehole!” I shrug him off and continue to walk. “I’m out,” I whisper, but I’m not out, not really. And I’ll never be truly out until I’m laid out. John’s right because one day, I fear it will be prematurely on a mortuary slab.

“Deacon?” I slam the front door behind me. “Deek?”

“In here!” he shouts back as faint giggles float over the atmosphere.

I dump the supply bag on the hallway floor and open the living room door. The room is a mess. Granted, we don’t live in the lap of luxury, but it’s not squalid either. However, tonight it seems Deacon has himself a little party. Lager cans and takeaway containers litter the carpet, while the coffee table has become a makeshift cutting bench.

I narrow my eyes as he guides a rolled-up note over a line on the table and snorts it back heavily. My sight drifts from him to the half-naked, half-cut woman straddling his leg.

“Where were you tonight?” I fail to keep the undisclosed accusation from my tone again.

“Out!” He pinches his nose and wipes the back of his hand under it. “God, this shit’s good!”

“Where?”

“What the fuck is this?” He throws his arm up, hitting the girl’s cheek and knocking her to the floor in the process.

“Something happened tonight, and I need to know where you were.”

“Fine! We were in a bar watching the football, weren’t we?” He elbows the girl’s shoulder as she scrambles to her knees at his feet.

“Erm, yeah?” She answers his question with a question, completely oblivious. Whether that’s intoxication or otherwise, I don’t know.

“So, you weren’t anywhere near Sloan’s gaff?”

“No! Why the fuck would I want to see that prick? He’s too close for comfort. What happened? Did his place get robbed?” he asks sarcastically, and something flashes in his eyes. I stare into them for a beat, unsure what to make of it.

“Something like that,” I murmur, since something did get robbed – a young girl’s virtue, but not only that, her trust and her future, too. I bend down and remove a bag of H from the table and toss down tonight’s takings. “I’m going to bed. Is Em here?”

“Yeah, she was here when I got back, sticking all the proceeds in her veins as usual. You need to warn that bitch that I’m going to start charging for her consumption. It’s not normal.”

My brows peak because no, it’s not, and that’s something else I’ve never admitted the truth about, either. Nothing further is said, and I shut the door behind me and jog up the stairs.

Opening my bedroom door, the landing light cascades over the sleeping silhouette of Emma Shaw, the first and – probably – the only woman I’ll ever love. I knew it from the first moment I ever saw her. Approaching slowly, I lean down and press a kiss to her lips while simultaneously pressing two fingers to her throat to check for a pulse. It’s morbid, but it has to be done, considering her penchant for overindulgence is becoming out of control.

Satisfied with the slow reverberation in her jugular, I pull out my phone. There’s another missed call from John, but right now, I just want to wash away everything that I’ve learned tonight.

Steam fills the bathroom while I strip off my clothes. Ducking under the flow, I stare at the partially mouldy grouting and press my forehead to the tiles. I close my eyes, my thoughts consumed by Charlotte and what she must be going through right now. I sigh wearily. I know I need to call John, and it’s a call I don’t want to make. I asked the question, and I got the answer. I don’t know if Deacon’s lying, but I can’t call the woman half-naked in the living room a liar either.

I turn off the shower, wrap a towel around my hips and stand in front of the mirror. I run my hand over my face, wondering when my appearance became so gaunt and shallow. Once upon a time, I was called handsome. The last time being the night I enticed a beautiful woman into my bed – a bed in which she still resides frequently. But the measure of the man I am will never be calculated on my looks. It will be calculated on what I do with my life, the direction it turns, and what happens after. Only I have no idea what tomorrow holds, never mind next week or next month.

I turn off the light and close the bathroom door ajar. Passing Deacon’s partially open door, the girl from downstairs is now naked, flat on her back, her limbs spread, her wrists tied to the headboard spindles. The bed rocks hard, and the combined grunts and moans grow louder until she whimpers like she’s in pain.

“Deek, please, it hurts. St-” Her pleading is in vain when he backhands her, and she shuts up. I linger for a moment, wondering if I should stop him. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s gotten rough with one of his many and varied conquests, and I’ve had to step in. Some of them like it, others – like this one – not so much. More often than not, I tend to leave them because they’re grown women, and it’s not my place to tell them what they should and shouldn’t be doing. God knows I’m no paradigm of virtue of what’s right or wrong.

I close my bedroom door, drop the towel on the floor and reach for the tattered old belt on top of the dresser. Slipping the leather through the buckle, I yank it tighter around my arm and grab the teaspoon and the sachet of H the same moment my phone starts to slide across the top.

John.

“Shit,” I grit out and grab my phone. “Hey, is she okay?”

“No, she’s not okay. Did you do what I asked?”

“Yeah. I asked him, and he said he was in a bar with some girl he’s brought back here.”

“And you believe him?” he asks sceptically.

“John,” I sigh. “I’ve got no reason not to believe him!” I keep my anger in check for the sake of the woman asleep just a few feet away.

He chortles, unimpressed. “You really are a dumb bastard! Stop shooting up, lift the blinkers and see him for what he really is! Rem, I’m warning you again, you need to get out fast. Nothing good will ever come of the life you’re living with their involvement. They’re fucking toxic. Why can’t you see it?” Then, for the second time tonight, he hangs up.

I toss the phone on the floor in anger and clench the small bag in my hand. Tossing that to the floor, too, my appetite for perpetual chemical bliss gone, I unravel the makeshift tourniquet and climb into bed.

I stare up at the ceiling as a thin arm slides over my chest and fingers stroke my nipple. “Hey.”

“Go back to sleep, babe,” I tell her, and she sighs content.

“Is Mandy still here?” she asks drowsily.

“Mandy?” I keep up the pretence, although I presume that’s the woman Deacon is currently screwing.

“Yeah, she came over this afternoon while Deacon was out,” she replies, ensnaring my attention completely.

“Has he been out all day?”

“Hmm, hmm.”

“What time did he get back?” I stroke her arm tenderly, lulling her into a false sense of security.

“I don’t know. A couple of hours ago. Why?”

“Nothing,” I tell the ceiling in the dark because my reasons for believing him have just diminished.

And the blinkers have finally started to lift.

THREE MONTHS LATER…

THE HAZY AFTERNOON sun streams through the window, bathing the skyline with a warm summery glow.

I clench one end of the belt between my teeth and the other end in my hand as I puncture the inside of my wrist. Slowly, methodically, I press down the end of the needle. I fall back on the bed, the empty syringe still lodged in my hand. The high kicks in instantly, and euphoric bliss begins to wash over me.

The sensation courses through my veins, blurring the edges of my already imperfect, damaged world. Within minutes, my body is floating, soaring higher into the heavens. But I know, in the deep recesses of my brain, this chemical high I continually chase is as far removed from heaven as one can get. Still, I’m enslaved by addiction. Compelled and bound until it begins to wane, and I repeat the process. Again, and again, and again.

There is no end to this perdition until it is the end.

“Jer?” My name is a husky whisper, tumbling from the lips of the love of my life. “Jeremy?”

“Yeah?” I reply as a slender leg glides across my abdomen, and Em smiles down at me seductively, straddling my groin while her long hair fans over my chest.

I run my hands down her bare flesh and palm her hips as she slowly rocks back and forth. I groan, but unfortunately, her efforts are in vain because attempting to stimulate me when I’m this far gone is near impossible. 

I cradle her beautiful face, remembering when her cheeks were full and coloured by good health. Now, just like me, she is what was once fashionably termed heroin chic. Her skin is a sickly pallor colour, her cheeks are hollowed out, and her body is visibly bony. Deacon often jokes that he might use her as a model to gain more custom from the image-obsessed who only care about being thin and looking good. 

“I love you, Jer.”

“I love you, too,” I reply as she leans down and peppers my face with kisses. My hands roam up her back, and my fingers trace the unnatural divots of her spine. Even in my drug-induced state, I know this isn’t good.

Day by day, she gets skinnier and skinner and more dependent. Dependent on alcohol, dependent on drugs. Dependent on me to supply her with both. In the last few months, her well-being has declined further. These days, the rare times she is sober, she always says I brightened her world the day we met. But what she refuses to see is that I darkened hers. And if we carry on like this, I may inadvertently end it, too.

“How do you feel?” The question slurs over my tongue. When I first started taking, I couldn’t string two words together. Now, a full-blown addict – one who hits up daily to maintain the extreme hedonistic pleasure that only my drug of choice can provide – I can still engage in simple conversation. Just.

“Okay, but I need you,” she replies, but she doesn’t need me, not really. She needs what I can give her. As anticipated, her small hand manipulates mine open, and she removes the needle and unravels the belt from my bicep.

My body rocks momentarily as she climbs off me and drops to the floor. She riffles through the paraphernalia on the chest of drawers and goes about preparing her next fix. She brushes her long, mousy blonde hair away from her face as she concentrates, insofar as she can, considering she’s still coming down from the last fix just a few hours ago.

As I observe, my peak level having just been reached, I wonder if this is what I look like. The lowest of the low. The scourge of society, scrambling around the floor, the only thought of poisoning my bloodstream and getting high and out of control.

“You want?” she asks, snapping me out of the thoughts.

“No,” I reply, and her incredibly beautiful features fall. I drop my head back onto the pillow and silently admit the blunt truth that has eaten away at me these last few months, but one I’ve never confessed. And that truth is I don’t want to be like this anymore. I don’t want to live a life where the first and last thing I think of every day is where my next hit is coming from. It took me a long time to admit it, but I’m an addict, one who’s desperate to stop. Sadly, two addicts in a relationship render my intentions futile because we’re not on the same page. Because whereas I may have inadvertently made her an addict, she has inadvertently made me an enabler.

I stare up at the ceiling as the clatter of the teaspoon, and the soft flick of a lighter resounds. Minutes later, the feminine moan I know so well fills the room. I close my eyes, falling deeper into bliss as Em’s breathing becomes more intense until a gasp of ecstasy floats up from the floor.

“Baby, come back to bed,” I murmur, my eyes closed while the faint, pained sound of my name seeps into my subconscious.

“Jeremy…”

The room is in complete darkness when I wake. The moon shines, gently illuminating the deathly silent atmosphere inside.

“Em?”

I drag my hand over the bed, but she isn’t there. Scrubbing my hands over my face, my skin is sticky, perspired, and I’m in desperate need of a shower.

“Em?” I call again, still receiving no response. I reach over and flick the bedside lamp on.

As I rub my eyes and sit up, I glance around and find her curled up in a ball on the floor. I throw my legs over the side of the bed and move the two steps towards her.

“Come on, baby. You need to get into bed. It’s late.” I reach down and gently push her shoulder. Just like she didn’t reply, this time, she doesn’t move. I shake her again, this time with more vigour, and she rolls over under the force.

My eyes amplify as they scan her rigid, prone frame. Horror fills me while realisation hits. My eyes take in the empty needle still clenched in her hand, the wide-eyed, pained look on her face, and the protruding veins.

“Em? Em!” I drop to my knees and take her in my arms. “Baby, wake up!” I shake her hard, but she is cold and unresponsive, and I know it’s too late. “Come on, baby, open your eyes for me! Open your fucking eyes!” As I tussle with her lifeless body to grab my phone, the bedroom door slams open.

“What the hell? It’s three in the morning, dickhead!” Deacon spits out. My eyes meet his, and sheer panic consumes his usually hard, emotionless face. “Please tell me that stupid bitch hasn’t OD’ed! And please tell me you haven’t called the fucking police yet?” I sit frozen in shock, amazed by his callousness. I know he can be a heartless bastard. He’s proven it on more than one occasion, but this takes the cake.

“She needs a fucking ambulance, Deek. Here!” I throw my phone on the bed. “Call them!”

“No!”

“She needs help!” But before I can’t say anything further, he rips off his t-shirt and begins to quickly collect up all the incriminating evidence scattered around the room in it.

“She doesn’t need help; she’s fucking dead! We’ll call the police when this place is cleaned up. We’ll put her in bed and tell them you woke up and found her like that. Leave the needle in her hand. It looks suspicious if they don’t find it. Now, drop the bitch and help me!” He rips open the wardrobe door and reaches for the supply bag. The supply bag that he insists stays in my room, no doubt to ensure I take the fall if we ever get raided.

Tears fog my eyes and stream down my cheeks. I hold Em tight, wishing she would wake up, but I know it’s a dream that will never materialise. I know I’ll never hear her laugh again, or the way her eyes light up when she’s happy, or the way she’s the only colour in a room of black and white. I’ll never know what it feels like to move inside her again or feel the closest thing to heaven when she just smiles.

But the most painful realisation of all is that I’ve finally done what I feared – I’ve killed her. Granted, I didn’t give her the needle. I didn’t shoot it into her vein, but I did supply her. If it wasn’t for me, she’d still be shrouded by light. She’d live a long life. Now, she’ll just be forever young.

“Remy!” Deek breaks through my procrastination. “You better fucking help me because you know who her father is, right? If that bastard turns up here tonight and finds her dead with all this evidence, you and I will be facing a long stretch for manslaughter. That’s if he doesn’t get to us first. Now, drop her and get that shit flushed.” He points to the teaspoon on the drawers, still holding a hit. “I’ll explain to my dad. He’ll understand.”

I stay where I am until Em is ripped from my arms, and Deacon throws her body onto the bed.

“Son of a bitch!” I get to my feet in a rage and charge at him. I punch him across the cheek, but he grabs me by the throat and whips his knife from the back of his jeans.

“Fucking listen!” He traces the knife tip from my temple to my cheek. “There’s nothing we can do for her. She’s gone, but when the police show up and find all this, we’re gone, too. You think you can survive prison? An addict like you?” He loosens his hold and steps back. “Now, I’m going to drive all this stuff over to one of my dad’s dealers, and you call the police. Tell them you woke up and she was dead beside you. If they ask, tell them she got you hooked. Understand?”

I stare into his black eyes, seeing the vile truth behind them. He really doesn’t care about anyone but himself.

“Tell me you understand, Jeremy!”

I nod slowly. I understand, all right. I understand that I finally need to do whatever it takes to leave this life of misery and dependency behind. Because if I don’t, I will share her fate.

John was right; dying is what it takes. I just never thought it would be my girl who succumbed to the darkness.

Deacon collects the t-shirt and the bag and slams the door behind him. I crawl onto the bed and cradle Em. The agonising sound of my tortured wail fills the room. My scream is damned and in vain. Holding her close, stroking her hair, my heart is truly broken. My single reason for living is no longer here with me, and now I officially have no one.

Long minutes tick by until I grab my phone and dial nine nine nine. I end the call and close my eyes. A few minutes feels like a few hours until blue lights and emergency sirens fill the street.

I press my lips to the cold skin of Emma Shaw and vow to get clean. I’ve promised it for the last year, but it has never materialised. Before I left London, my mother warned me I would end up dead. She feared the next call she received regarding my welfare would be one to inform her of my passing. Right now, I know she’s right. And I also wish I was dead because my world has just become darker than it ever was.

But little do I know, the worst of my darkest and deadliest demeanours is yet to come.

NINE MONTHS LATER…

“GET UP, ARSEHOLE!” Deacon’s irate tone rips through my hearing like a ball and chain.

“Leave me alone!” I roll over on the bed and grab the pillow – Em’s pillow – and inhale her long-diminished scent. Clutching it tightly, I pretend it’s the woman who died mere feet away. But it’s not, and during that time, I’ve managed to fall further down the destructive rabbit hole.

“For God’s sake!” The foot of the bed jerks, and the duvet is dragged away, followed by the pillow. “Do we have to do this every day?” he asks, devoid of emotion. “The silly bitch is dead, and she’s never coming back. Get used to it!”

I roll over again and block him out. After all these months, I’ve become particularly proficient in selective hearing. Namely, selectively blocking him out of my hearing. Especially when the conversation involves Emma Shaw.

“Come on, get up! We’ve got business to attend to.” He opens the wardrobe door and lifts out the holdall containing every class A drug illegally flooding the streets of Britain.

“Business?” I query, rolling back over, my high from a few hours ago now ebbing away.

“Yeah, so get cleaned up. Make sure you put on another shirt. That one stinks.” He throws a small packet of pure H at me before striding out of the door. I snatch it up like it is gold dust, and I should because it isn’t the cut-up crap that Franklin has me flogging every night to anyone who doesn’t give a damn if they see tomorrow.

Ten minutes later, the familiar bliss subdues any lucid thought and tugs me back into that palliative place I’m dying to escape from but doomed to stay confined in.

The bedroom door slams open again, rebounding off the wall behind it. Deacon leans on the frame. “Change of plan. We’re going to a party instead.”

“A party?” My response is slurred, but it’s the best thing he’s suggested in months.

I clamber off the bed, pull the dirty t-shirt over my head and reach for a clean one on the stack of creased clothing on the floor. My body lurches to one side, and I slap my hand on the wall before I lose my balance completely.

“Here.” He tosses me a couple of prepared needles and a packet of cable ties. “Put those in your pocket.”

I stare down at them. The little voice in my intoxicated brain is querying why we would need cable ties at a party. Drugs, I understand, but cable ties? Unable to comprehend it, I pocket the stuff and follow him out.

The motion of the car is constant as I close my eyes and slouch in the passenger seat.

For the last nine months, my mind has played on constant loop, recalling the night my beautiful angel finally surrendered to the darkness I created within her. A part of me wants it to stop because it’s too painful to continually relive the moment I felt her cold skin touch mine. But the other part of me, the moral part, wants it to continue. To remind me over and over because it’s a punishment I deserve. And ultimately, the reckoning I might face one day.

The car jerks to a stop, throwing me forward into the dash, and, unfortunately, sobers me slightly. “Where are we?” I rub my eyes and look around at the rundown, unkempt council houses lining either side of the street.

“Hell,” Deacon replies without hesitation and gets out of the car. Opening my door, even in my woozy state, he isn’t wrong. “Come on.”

The fresh night air filters through my nostrils, sobering me further. I continue to follow behind Deacon, who’s striding toward a house with purpose. I take in the façade, wishing I hadn’t shot up earlier and came here with a clear head because who knows what waits on the other side.

“Hey, have you seen Ian?” Deacon asks some guy leaning inside the doorway with a drunk woman on his arm.

“Yeah, he’s somewhere inside. Hey, you got anything on you tonight?”

Suddenly my brain decides to gain focus. I start to reach for my pocket, but Deacon notices my action and stops me.

“No, I’m not here for business tonight. Just pleasure.”

I can feel my brow furrow. If we’re not here for business, then why are my pockets bulging with full syringes and a random pack of plastic ties?

“Okay, I’ll catch up with you during the week.”

“Sure.” Deacon slaps the man’s shoulder and jerks his chin for me to enter.

My feet carry me deeper into the house. The small living room is packed. Various bodies in various states of undress are hanging off every piece of furniture. I yawn as I glance around, and my sight catches the picture of a young family of three on the fireplace. I step closer and stare at it, recalling a similar picture on my mother’s wall back home, taken many years before my father walked out and never came back.

I cast aside that unfortunate memory because it’s the first of my many disappointments. I turn to find Deacon, standing in a doorway that leads to an equally small kitchen. As I edge closer, I dawdle because the man he’s talking to looks ashen. Deacon continues to speak to him, but the man shakes his head and firmly says no.

“Rem, this is Ian.” Deacon knocks back a bottle of ale while I try to focus on the man that looks vaguely familiar. I can’t remember where I’ve seen him before, but if Deacon knows him, he’s probably one of Franklin’s many dealers.

“Hey,” I greet, my voice normal, my high starting to flounder. These days, I’m finding I need to hit up more frequently to sustain that feeling of debauched perfection. I fidget and scope out the surroundings again, needing something to maintain my fading state. I spy the bottle of gin on the table and grab it. Downing a large mouthful, the liquid cuts a sharp path down my throat. I swallow another shot and listen with disinterest to the conversation being carried on between Deacon and Ian behind me.

“You owe us two grand. Where is it?” Deacon hisses, and I catch sight of Ian, who looks terrified.

“I haven’t got it. I’ll get it to you, though. Every penny.”

“And how are you going to do that, arsehole? I know you’ve been using when you should’ve been selling. The numbers don’t tally, Petersen. Dad wants his money now, and so do I!” Deacon grabs Ian’s shirt and pulls him forward.

“I’m sorry, Deek. I haven’t got it! I’m sorry.” Ian’s voice trembles.

Deacon drops his head down and sighs. “That’s not what I want to hear. Lucky for you, we both know the other ways I take payment. Again. Didn’t you learn anything the other night? You might as well just pimp the little bitch out permanently. You clearly don’t give a fuck about her. Look at what you allow her to live in, you piece of shit!” He throws his hand out towards the room in general. I have no idea what’s going on between them, and I don’t want to know. I’m in far deeper than I care to be with no feasible way out. I don’t need whatever shit they’re talking about coming back on me.

“No, I can’t. No more!” Ian pleads, but Deacon grabs him by the back of the neck and forces him out of the room.

I knock back another mouthful of gin and slump onto the battered old sofa. The music blares through the room, and time ticks by slowly. The bottle slips from my hand and tumbles across the floor. As I bend to pick it up, a needle falls from my pocket. Snagging it between my fingers, its potency calls to me like a siren.

A cold shiver runs down my spine because all the promises I made to get clean will always be null and void. Regardless of the numerous weekly calls I’ve had with John, Sloan, and everyone else who still gives a toss about me, I’m an addict. And I can’t stop, irrespective of how much I’m dying to.

I make fast work of shrugging out of my jacket, lodge my forearm between my knees and flex my fisted hand down. Holding up the needle, checking for air bubbles – although it’s redundant since all it does is delay the inevitable – I sink the tip into my skin and penetrate my abused vein. The liquid drains from the tube into my bloodstream quickly, and my body returns to that place it is so attuned with.

I slump back into the sofa, riding the wave through the storm of loud music, copulating couples, and general chaos until somebody hits the back of my skull.

“Rem?” Deacon moves around the sofa, with Ian following behind sheepishly. He grabs hold of me and stands me up. My legs wobble beneath me, unable to gain stability until he steadies my stance.

“Where have you been?”

“Around. I’ve got a job for you. Pass me the stuff.”

I fumble with my jacket, but his frustration is evident as he digs into my pocket for the ties and the needles.

“Where’s the other one?” He shakes me before he pushes me forward. “Come on!”

My hand grips the bannister as I sway past the bodies obstructing passage up the stairs. Reaching the landing, numerous moans leak from the bedrooms, and I glance across the landing to see a couple openly having sex. I squeeze my eyes, unsure if it’s reality or just imagination.

“Wait here,” Deacon says as he enters a room with Ian and the door slams shut. I curl into the wall behind me. I watch people move up and down the stairs and in and out of the bedrooms.

My head snaps up when commotion leaks from inside the room. I place my hand on the door handle, but it opens unexpectedly, and I step back.

Ian gives me a grave expression and momentarily glances over his shoulder. I follow his line of sight just in time to see Deacon toss someone down on the bed.

“Promise me,” Ian says, closing the door. “Promise me you won’t hurt her too!”

I shake my head. I have no idea what he’s talking about. “I’m not hurting anyone. I can barely stand or think straight,” I mumble incoherently, rubbing my eyes, just wanting to go to sleep.

Ian nods, but his face tells me he is far from mollified. “I need to make a call. Don’t let him go too far.”

I narrow my eyes. I still have no idea what he’s talking about. I slouch back down the wall and rest my forehead on my palm, desperate to feel wild oblivion. The sounds from inside the room intensify. I’ve no idea how long Deacon has been in there or how long we’ve even been inside this house tonight.

“You little fucking bitch! What did I tell you?” Deacon’s shout seeps through the closed door, and I stare at it. Something isn’t right here; I’ve felt it all night. This isn’t just some party.

I force myself up as the cries of a terrified female ring out. I loiter, unsure what to do until the faint but familiar sound of flesh hitting flesh infuses my ears.

In all the times I’ve heard him fucking around with the cheap tarts he often brings home, it’s never sounded like this.

I grip the handle tentatively again, debating woozily what I might be interrupting when a pained, gurgled scream resounds.

I throw open the door, and a shudder runs through me when Deacon smashes his fist over the girl’s face. Her whimpering dies instantly, and her erratic breathing begins to even out.

Deacon turns around and grins like the devil. “Here,” he says with a sneer and throws the cable ties at me. “Put them on. She likes it rough.”

His statement resonates over and over like an echo, and I look at the plastic in my hands. My brain clouds over, and I slowly approach and pull one out. Fastening her wrists to the bed head, I drop them on the floor and look over her skinny naked frame and then her face. This is the girl in the picture downstairs. Nausea in my stomach is instantaneous, and I step back the same moment Deacon flicks the last needle and jabs it into her neck.

Clarity hits me like a bucket of ice-cold water, and I stumble back. The girl whimpers, and horror fills me. I scrub my hand over my head in shame and absolute shock. I edge out of the room like a coward. Slamming the door behind me, I loathe myself for what I’ve just unwittingly become a part of. My head lulls against the wall behind me, and I slam it back repeatedly. Every vile grunt coming from the room is now a reminder of what I’ve done while I sit here helpless, plagued by my guilt.

I close my eyes, praying for redemption, when a barrage of feet thuds up the stairs. I raise my head and look ahead as Sloan barrels towards me. He grabs my head hard in his hands, and his eyes narrow in anger, revulsion and contempt. Letting me go, I drop my head in shame, and my body begins to shake. Sloan’s eyes glaze over venomously, and in a split second, his arm swings up and his fist lands on my face, forcing my head to swing to the side.

The pain is negligible because my insides feel like they are eviscerating when John appears behind him. He gives me a glare of ‘I told you so’, then pulls me aside before he boots the door open.

Comprehending there’s nothing I can do, I clutch my face and stagger to the top of the stairs as they enter the room, and all holy hell breaks loose. Gripping the bannister, I fight through the horde of bodies and push my way outside.

The cold snap of night assaults me, and I stagger towards the Walker Security transit van. Resting against it, my head in pieces, my sanity shattered, feet beat hard on the pavement. I watch Deacon abandon his car on the street, and he runs from the house at speed with Tommy following until he eventually becomes one with the darkness and he’s gone.

I slump down against a rear wheel, but I know I should be doing the same. Running, hiding, disappearing indefinitely.

Hurried strides approach, and I drag myself up. Sloan advances towards me with the broken girl bundled up in a dirty, bloodied sheet in his arms.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I repeat, begging for vindication. My pleas are in vain and ignored as Tommy and Stuart give me hard, unforgiving looks and open the rear doors.

“Get those blankets…” Sloan says, pretending I’m not just five feet away from him.

Consumed by my own self-hatred, I kick the tyre and bang my head against the side of the van, listening to them fight to save her life inside.

The sound of shouting followed by a woman’s terrified cry pierces my ears. I move around the vehicle, too cowardly to look inside and witness the aftermath of what I have assisted in, to see John knock out Ian on the doorstep.

“She’s your fucking daughter, you heartless bastard!” John’s distinctive boom carries over the fraught atmosphere. I loiter on the spot, aware I should be anywhere but here right now.

John strides towards me with determination, his face depicting his unadulterated fury.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know… I didn’t know!” I whimper, but my words are in vain because my actions will never be forgotten nor forgiven.

His eyes darken, and he growls. Moving swiftly, he smashes his fist over my face, and I fall to the ground, terrified, as he stands over me.

“I fucking warned you!” He drags me up by my collar. “I suggest you get the fuck out of here! Leave! Get yourself clean, and then come back and say you’re sorry! Right now, it isn’t fucking good enough!” He pushes me back, and for once, I’m going to do the right thing and listen to him.

My body is heavy, my heart is broken, as I move further and further away from the house until I too, am devoured by the impenetrable, murky night.

Running through the streets, the sound of sirens beckoning, my lungs are ready to explode. My body, finally coming down from the chemical high, is ready to give up, and my head, still in that place of seeing my so-called best friend do that to a young, defenceless girl, is consumed by the image. An image I shall carry with me to the grave. One that shall plague me in this life, right into the afterlife, and beyond into purgatory.

With the adrenaline of fear and loathing pushing me to carry on, every street that passes darkens my thoughts further. How could I have been so fucking stupid? Why did I trust the son of a bitch? Both John and Dom warned me, and I knew. I knew in my heart something wasn’t right tonight. I knew, and still, I did nothing.

Making a running jump towards a six-foot fence, I scramble over. I inch around the side of the dark, silent house, slide down the wall and rest my head on my knees. My body shakes from the cold, harsh reality in which I have played a demonic hand in.

Tonight, I assisted in ruining a young girl’s life. I involuntarily assisted in systematic rape. I might not have perpetrated the crime, but I’m guilty by action, if not association.

Lifting my head, I hit my skull back on the house wall until the pain reverberates in my forehead. But it’s not enough. Nothing I do for penance ever will be.

The night replays in perfect detail behind my eyes. Each painful vision digs its claws in and refuses to disperse. The house, the stairs, the room… The broken girl in a bloodied sheet, with bloodied, torn wrists that I gave to her. My tears for an innocent girl begin to flow. I wallow, but it’s worthless because they will continue to assault me until I cannot think of them anymore. And I will carry them with me until the day I am no more.

My lids drop in capitulation, the gravitas of my actions heavy on my conscience, and I pray for forgiveness. For redemption. First, for a girl I allowed to die, and second, for a girl I’ll never see again.

THE COLD NIP of morning and the accompanying birdsong wakes me. I rub the sleep from my eyes and look around. I’m still in the garden of the house I took refuge in last night. Stretching out, I force myself back over the fence and look up and down the street cautiously.

Dawn is breaking through the partially darkened sky above. Rotating my shoulders, the stiffening side effects of sleeping on paving slabs is unforgiving, but I deserve every painful pull of my muscles. Truthfully, I deserve so much fucking more.

I walk with no purpose until I reach home. Home, it’s now a dirty word. The sanctuary of the diseased, a place I bed down and get high.

I pat down my pockets, unable to find my keys until I remember I didn’t bring them out last night. Trying the handle, it’s still locked, which means Deacon didn’t return last night, either.

Removing my jacket, I look around the unkempt garden and pick up the large brick that has been propping open the garden gate since we moved in. I wrap it in my jacket, then smash the side window and climb through.

I brush off the shards of glass and dart upstairs to my room. I grab my duffle bag, gather up the pile of clothes on the floor and stuff them inside. Ripping open the drawer, I pull out the few keepsakes I possess and the pictures of Emma. I wrap the frame in a couple of t-shirts and shove it inside, followed by some more loose snaps.

Morning has fully broken, and I run back down the stairs and into the living room. I upend the sofa and rip open the crudely sewn up sacking on the bottom. I fumble around inside until I find the stash that Deacon doesn’t know about. Retrieving the bags of ecstasy, illegal highs, and the money that costs lives, I stare at them. After last night, this money represents everything I want to escape from. But unfortunately, escaping costs money, and this is the only income I have.

As I clutch the rolls of tens and twenties, I open the bags of powder and tablets. Kicking open the toilet door, I lift the lid. I should have done this long ago. I wish I had done this long ago. Last night was just the pinnacle. Aside from Em, who knows how many lives I’ve destroyed – through drugs or otherwise – in the time I’ve been living in this city. Two and counting – that’s if you don’t include my own. With a mixed sense of relief and anxiety, I flush the toilet, and my only source of revenue drains away.

I look around the deserted hallway for the last time. With nothing further left for me here now, I climb through the window, right myself and look up at the house with disdain. I head towards the city centre, but I don’t know where I’m going, although eventually, I will have to face hell. I need to make reparations for my actions. I need redemption to cleanse my soul.

My feet refuse to carry me any further, and I take respite in a bus shelter and stare at the building opposite. My knee shakes incessantly as I light up a cigarette. Taking a deep pull on it, I work myself up to confess my sins. Flipping my mobile in my hand, I dial John’s number.

“Hey,” he answers.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

“Rem, where are you?”

“How’s the girl?” I query, still staring at the building.

“How do you think? She was lucky, if that’s what you can call what she’s lived through. Where are you?” A siren resounds from the rear of the building, and a police car speeds onto the street. “Jeremy, don’t!” John shouts down the line – he knows exactly where I am.

“I need to atone for my sins, J,” I tell him pitifully, taking a final drag on the cig before dying it out under my boot. “I need to right the wrongs I’ve done. I need to confess, about Em, the drugs, the dealing, the girl…”

“You’ll serve hard time. They’ll give you multiple sentences. You won’t survive.”

“I know, but it’s nothing in comparison to the life sentence I assisted in creating last night. Forgive me, John. Tell Sloan that I’m sorry.” I hang up and concentrate on my courage.

An hour later, still sitting at the bus stop, my phone ringing relentlessly – courtesy of John, and now Sloan – a police van pulls up. A scuffle ensues when they drag out a man who’s screaming, violently protesting his innocence. Looking at him, he’s also a product of a failed system. He’s someone I never wanted to become. But for all my ill-gotten gains and mistakes, I’m just like him. John’s right: I’d never survive prison. As streetwise as I like to think I am, I’m not tough. I’ll fight for what I love, regardless of whether I can win or not, but when push comes to shove, I take the easy option. The first being selling drugs when I gave up finding a half-decent job. The second, when I became hooked on said drugs when I just wanted to feel numb for a while.

Clutching the wad of cash in my pocket, I hail down a taxi, slide inside, and watch life carry on obliviously.

“Seven fifty, mate,” the driver says, decelerating outside the train station.

“Cheers, keep the change.” I pass him a tenner and climb out.

My eyes work over the departure boards in the midst of chaos. With a one-way ticket in hand, I sit on the platform and wait for the train to arrive. Pulling out my phone, I bypass the calls from John, find who I’m looking for and press call.

“Archer,” Dominic answers on the second ring.

“Hi,” I greet, not really knowing how to ask my request.

“Rem, where are you? J’s going out of his mind that you’re going to turn yourself in.”

“I was… I should. God, I fucked up, Dom. I knew. I knew something wasn’t right.”

He lets out a resigned huff. “Yeah, you knew what he was, but you couldn’t have known last night was going to happen.”

“But I should have! After Charlie and Em-”

“What’s done is done. You can’t change it now. Jeremy, where are you?” His tone softens, revealing his concern.

“At the train station.” I inhale deeply, daring the words to leave my mouth. “Dom, I need a favour,” I start, praying he will accommodate it. “A big one.”

“Go on,” he replies, seemingly aware of what I’m going to ask.

“I need to get clean. For good. I want you to help me.” I suck in a fearful breath, terrified he will refuse. It’s a lot to ask of him, and he doesn’t owe me anything.

The line stays quiet for long minutes until he inhales. “If we do this, Jeremy, you do it cold turkey. No methadone, no substitutes. You can’t get clean from one addiction by becoming hooked on another. Because with your personality, that’s precisely what will happen.”

I stare up at the sky and bite my lip in fear because he’s far from wrong. My entire life, I’ve been addicted to something, and when my current compulsion stopped hitting the right spot, I’d move on to something else.

“Agreed,” I finally reply, bracing myself for the excruciating withdrawal symptoms I’m going to be experiencing before nightfall. “I’ll see you in an hour or so.”

“You’re making the right choice. I’ll see you soon.” Dom hangs up, and I stare at my phone then dial John.

“Thank God!” he grits out with relief. “Where are you?”

“Victoria station.”

“Good, I’m still up here. I’ll come and get you.”

“No, I can’t face any of you right now. I’ll keep this number, let you know how I’m doing, but I can’t come back. Not yet. My mother is so disappointed in me that she can barely stand the sight of me, and Sloan and the guys probably hate me.”

“No, Jeremy, that’s not true,” he soothes.                                                                                   

“I’ll speak to you soon.” I pause. He deserves more than that from me. “I always looked up to you like you were my father.”

He sighs deeply. “I know you do. Look, I respect what you’re saying, but if you need anything, anything at all, you know who to ring.”

“I already did, and that’s where I’m headed. I’m going to get clean, J, I swear. I love you, all of you, and I’m sorry.” I hang up and slip it into my pocket. I rest back, absorbing the static sounds of the station and wait for the train to take me from a life of nothing to start a new life of nothing.

Closing my eyes, my body and mind are still heavy. One thought, in particular, weighing them down. One day, I need a young girl to forgive me for destroying her life. I don’t know how I will ever find her again, but one day I have to try. An innocent girl is already dead because of me. I loved her, and I killed her with kindness through the act of supply and demand. I can’t have another dying because of my actions too.

Inside, I want redemption, but I know I don’t deserve it. And just like last night, running is the only way I’m going to survive. Yet last night isn’t the only reason why I will spend my life in proverbial chains, constantly looking over my shoulder. Nine months ago, I was forewarned there was an invisible target on my back by an inconsolable, grieving father.

Still, running and finding a way to redeem myself has got to be better than the alternative of rotting in a prison cell, fearing whether or not I will get shanked and killed today.

In truth, I once believed I was one of the good guys, but now I know differently. My soul has been marked by my actions. And if there is one thing I am blatantly aware of, it’s that when my time eventually comes, I know there’s a special place in hell for men like me.

Chapter 1

“REMY, YOU CAN’T avoid me forever. If I have to drive my arse up there, you’re not going to like the end result. Call me back ASAP! If you don’t, tomorrow I’ll hunt you down!”

The irate tone of Sloan Foster fills the room until the machine automatically stops recording and a short beep resounds. I reach over the desk from my reclined, uncomfortable position and hit delete.

Picking up my mug, the rhythmic tap of the morning rain pelting against the windowpane grounds me. I swallow a mouthful of bitter, tepid coffee and stare out over the dark, dreary skyline and contemplate.

As I set down the mug, I catch sight of the small picture on the desk and pick it up. Staring at the vibrant, healthy girl behind the glass – the way I always remember her now – I recall the three painful events, the dark days on my calendar that changed my life beyond recognition nine years ago. It started with the brutal assault of Charlotte Emerson, Sloan’s sister, at the hands of her other brother, Deacon Black. And it ended with the equally brutal assault of Kara Petersen, who, through nefarious contacts and a very simple twist of fate, is now Sloan’s girlfriend, and she also suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hands of the same man.

But ultimately, the event that has really shaped who I am is the death of the girl in the picture.

Emma Shaw.

I inhale deeply and swipe my calloused thumb over the face of the only woman I’ve ever loved. “I miss you,” I whisper, feeling the unshed tears in my eyes sting. In truth, she will always be the cross I bear, my biggest regret in life.

Now, at the age of twenty-nine, I’m finally what I’ve always wanted to be – clean and sober. And I have been for the last eight years. It took a long time to get here, and I’d be lying if I said I still didn’t crave it, because there’s no such thing as a recovering or ex-drug addict. The same way there’s not really any such thing as an ex-drinker or an ex-smoker because when you’ve had a taste for it, you always remember what it felt like to drown in your drug of choice. In my heart, I will always be an addict, and every day is a constant struggle to stay on the right path. I confess, some days, I just want to fall back into the mindless, disconnected bliss I would feel when I chased the dragon.

In some ways, life was easier back then. Wake up, get high, sell, sleep. Rinse and repeat.

But an easy life is not an enduring life, and I vividly remember the day I walked out of the train station and found Dominic waiting for me on double yellows, uncaring he was obstructing the flow of traffic. He wasn’t lying when he said I would have to do it cold turkey. That very same night, I begged for my own passing. If someone had told me years ago – when I was smoking cannabis while promising my mother I’d never dabble with the harder stuff – that what I would experience would be akin to death, I’d have thought twice before plunging that first syringe into my unsuspecting vein.

Still, as Dom says, you can’t change the past. Or cause and effect, which seems to be his life mantra.

Trapped in morbid thought, the landline starts to blare again. I place the picture down and silence the infernal sound.

He’s really grating my last nerve with his non-stop calls for the last few days. I know why he’s ringing, but I’m not sure I can do what he’s asking of me.

From the many conversations I’ve had with Dom, I know tomorrow night Sloan is going to announce his impending marriage to Kara. In reality, she’s always been his, the same way he’s always been hers. Right from the very first moment he laid eyes on her, weeks before the night she was assaulted – not that she’s aware of it. But it’s hard for me because while he has every reason in the world to celebrate: success, love, the woman he’s secretly lived and breathed for nine years finally his in the truest sense of the word, I can only commiserate and wonder what might’ve been if I hadn’t delved down the wrong rabbit hole.

Scrubbing my hand over my face in conflicted frustration, my fingertip absentmindedly drags along the raised scar that now runs from the corner of my eye to my lip. The newest – and only visible – scar I’ve got to show for the life of nothing that I’ve lived for the last decade. Except this scar is significant in ways it shouldn’t be because it’s the scar Deacon gave me for my betrayal of him and for my protection of Kara.

Movement outside piques my attention, and the door slams open to reveal an extremely annoyed Dominic Archer. He strides in, in all his unyielding glory, throws the suit bag over his arm on the cabinet and picks up the phone. With an unimpressed brow, he holds the handset to his ear, his expression one of infuriation.

“He’ll call you back.” Then he hangs up. Typical Dom – short and sweet.

I shake my head in disgust and cross my arms over my chest as I lob my feet on the desk. “Why the hell did you tell him that?” The caustic question rolls off my tongue venomously.

Dom folds himself into the chair and steadies his unwavering glare on me. “Because it’s the truth. You and I both know you wouldn’t miss one of the biggest nights of his life, irrespective of what that deluded brain of yours keeps telling you. And trust me, it is fucking deluded!”

I huff and gaze up at the ceiling. “No, it’s realistic, is what it is,” I counter because the last time I saw Sloan and Kara was just a few weeks ago when I finally confessed the heinous, horrific part I played in her life. It was the first time I’ve ever spoken of that night to anyone but Dom and whoever was present back then. I’ve always said the day I had to re-tell it, I would do it only once. I’ll never forget the way she looked at me. It was far worse than the day in the flat all those months ago when I betrayed her trust again and brought John up here to force her hand. I deserved the hatred she spewed at me…and the scorching coffee she threw at me. But witnessing that devastation take over her fragile features again, seeing the strong girl I respect so much fall apart through my words in front of people who were, until then, unaware of my actions, was my undoing. After she fled my apartment in tears, I fled back up here. And I’ve not spoken to any of them since.

My fingers drift over my scar again, and the sensation of Deacon’s knife piercing my skin and my subsequent wail resounds silently in my ears. For the last ten months, every time I’ve relived that moment, it feels like it’s happening again right now. It’s a phantom burn that never stops. My eyes slide back to Dom, who observes my action closely.

“You told her the truth weeks ago,” he states, verbalising my thoughts. “We’ve been through this. You can’t keep running when it gets hard.”

“I know, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make it right between us,” I admit, sensing myself starting to open up for the second time in eight years. “Every time I look at her wrists, I’m reminded of what I did. Likewise, every time she looks at my face, she’s reminded of the sacrifice I made to save her. We both carry our scars openly, and yet we both refuse to talk about how they came to be.”

“Cause and effect.” Dom shrugs and stands. “Like I said before, you can’t change the past. We all have things that we hide. And for good reason. Do you think I like looking in the mirror and seeing what I am behind the mask? I’ve done shit that will turn your stomach.” He walks to the door and stops. “You’ve fucked up and made monumental mistakes, but you’re one of the good guys, Jeremy,” he says, still with his back to me. “Not many men would take a blade to the face to save the life of an innocent. Call him, then get your arse back down there and be at his side for the biggest night of his life. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

The door slams shut, and yet again, I’m left with my beleaguered thoughts. I pick up the phone and turn it in my hand. Over the last nine years, I’ve done everything in my power to redeem myself for my actions back then. Even going as far as jeopardising my hard-earned sobriety and getting back in with the Blacks to ensure Sloan could keep tabs on them for Kara’s sake. I shake my head because that proved to be futile as it did almost fatal. For her and me.

I pace the room before pausing in front of the large window and dial. The ringing tone deepens in my ear as I wait for him to pick up.

“Dom?” Sloan’s mixed British-American twang answers.

“Wrong arsehole, half-brit,” I reply, throwing some light on my call.

Sloan inhales with a sigh of contentment. “You’re right – you are an arsehole. But since you’re family and I love you, I’ll just have to deal with it.”

A grin pulls on my cheeks and slap my hand high on the window and lean into it. Sloan remains quiet, obviously expecting me to break the ice.

“I’ll be leaving shortly. I just need to sort some things out before I go.” But the only thing I really need to do is go home, pack a bag, and put the alarm on.

“Good. I’m glad Dom managed to talk some sense into you.”

“He didn’t, but we all have to do things we don’t want to. How’s Kara?”

“She’s good. Completely unaware of my plans for tomorrow, of course,” he says, amused because he does like to keep her in the dark.

And speaking of all things dark… “Does she hate me? Has she said anything lately?” I ask quietly, definitely not wanting to hear the answer.

“No, she doesn’t hate you. She’s confused and conflicted, and she tries to hide it, but she doesn’t have a hateful bone in her body, regardless of how often she lashes out and pisses everyone off. And she has every right to. She knows you inadvertently hurt her, but she also knows you saved her, hence the conflict.”

I inhale sharply because what she doesn’t know is that while I couldn’t save her the first time around, the second time, I couldn’t save myself. But ultimately, the woman I should have saved has been lying six feet under for the past nine years. She doesn’t know that either, and I dread the day I have to tell her. It’s not any of her business, but it was a pivotal part of my swift decline into oblivion. Charlie’s rape set the wheels in motion, but Em’s death was the catalyst for everything that came after.

“Rem, stop overthinking it,” Sloan says, realising I’m dwelling. “We could talk about this over and over, and the outcome would never change. For any of us. You’ve got more lives than a stray cat, and this is a second chance to do something right at long last. To finally have the semblance of a life you deserve.”

“Yeah…” I breathe out, disheartened. “Yeah, you’re right. Look, I’ll drop by in the morning to see you.”

Sloan clears his throat. The sound of his footsteps and a door closing amplifies over the line, indicating he doesn’t want inquisitive ears eavesdropping. “Actually, I won’t be here. I’m going to be driving up north.”

I jerk my head back in surprise. “Why?” I ask suspiciously.

“Because I need answers to questions, and I need permission from the mother of the bride to marry her daughter.”

My mouth falls open in shock. “You are fucking kidding, right? Do you honestly think it’s safe driving up to Manchester? Dom and Kieran haven’t heard anything about the Blacks or Ian Petersen’s whereabouts.”

“I know. That’s why I’m bringing John and Stuart with me.”

I don’t respond, but I do roll my eyes. John, I understand, but I’m at a loss as to what Doc could do if the Blacks get wind of the unwanted visitors in their neck of the woods. While John is army trained, battle hard, and thoroughly competent in hand-to-hand combat, the best Doc could do is stab them with a needle and run the other way in his scrubs. I grimace, having unknowingly compared the good doc to myself in some respects. Because that’s what I formerly did and still do now: I cut and run.

“Stop worrying, Jeremy. I’m driving straight up, asking my questions, then driving straight back down. Apparently, I won’t have time for sightseeing since John has drafted a strategic schedule. Not to mention his love/hate affair with the M25 and M6 respectively.” He laughs to himself, but I’m far from amused. He has no idea the ramifications of his being anywhere near Manchester will do if Franklin or, God forbid, Deacon unexpectedly cross his path.

I shake my head, still completely in despair but thankful he isn’t going off half-cocked on his own – which is normally his way. “Well, in that case, I’ll see you tomorrow night. Spare a dance with your beloved for me.”

“I will,” he says with a content chuckle. “A short one.”

“Before you go, is this a full black-tie gig?”

“Yeah,” he replies mockingly. “Dare I ask if you have a tux?”

“Yes, you can, and no, I don’t. Unlike you, my current and previous professions don’t require a flamboyant, rigid dress code,” I retort facetiously because why on earth he thinks that someone like me has a tuxedo in his wardrobe is entirely beyond my comprehension. If I didn’t know him as well as I do, I’d swear he’s exhibiting signs of premature dementia.

“Good job I’ve pre-empted that then, isn’t it? See Dom. He’s got what you need. Speaking of which, dare I ask how he is?”

I puff down the line. “He’s an arsehole, Sloan. He’s always been an arsehole, and he will always be an arsehole. To be honest, as the days pass by, you remind me of him more and more!”

“There’s nothing wrong with liking and exerting control.”

“There is when it makes you narrow-minded and clouds your judgement.”

Sloan gasps. “Is that what you really think of me?”

I grin wickedly since he can’t see me. “I think the real question is, what do you think of yourself? Better yet, ask Kara. I’m positive she’ll have a few choice words regarding your overbearing possessiveness.”

“Fuck you, arsehole!”

I laugh. “Hmm, tempting, but I’m not that desperate, darling. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He hangs up, and I cradle the phone against my neck.

Caught up in my ever-turning thoughts, my eyes roam the room until they fix on the suit bag draped haphazardly over the filing cabinet. I amble over and unzip it. My fingers caress the black material, the crisp white shirt, and the bowtie hanging around the hanger hook. Zipping it back up, I slip my phone and wallet into my pocket and snatch up my car keys.

I hesitate whether I should rap my knuckles on the slightly open door and instead pop my head around it. Dominic is sitting with his head in his hands, staring down intently. Every now and then, he does this, but the man is nothing but secretive, and he always covers up what has him enthralled. I push the door back fully, the same instant his head rises from the papers in front of him. I stride quickly across the room, determined to find out what has him looking so pent-up while he faffs around, trying to throw a wad of paper over the top. Rather unsuccessfully, it should be noted.

“Julia Emerson.” The words flow from my mouth with realisation as I catch the partially covered picture of a woman who is pretty much my second mother. And a woman who, with the assistance of the man in front of me, orchestrated her own fake death to ensure she would be free of Franklin Black forever. “What are you doing?” I toss my accusation out there.

“John said she’s adamant she’s coming to the wedding, and I have to make it happen.”

I nod, unsurprised. No mother would want to miss her child’s nuptials, especially considering the tangled, twisted web which has brought it together.

“Wait a minute, what wedding? He hasn’t even asked her yet!” I reply. Dom’s head drops to the side, and he raises his brows. “For fuck sake! He’s already arranged it, hasn’t he?” I shake my head and chortle in disbelief. Although I shouldn’t expect anything less. “Well, I guess I must attend now, if only to see Kara’s reaction to the whole affair.”

I reach over and disturb the stack of paper Dom lobbed down and realise the file in front of him is full of pictures and reports. Dated documents, detailed daily movements, coffee mornings, shopping sprees, events. All of a woman currently residing thousands of miles away in New York.

“What the hell is this?”

“It’s nothing,” Dom replies quickly, collecting up the papers and closing the file. I lift my brows, feeling my forehead crease. He’s lying, and my look confirms I’m aware of it.

Dom growls, rubs his eyes with his finger and thumb and throws his hands on his hips. “Have you ever wanted someone so much it makes you mindless?”

I scoff because he’s preaching to the choir. “Yeah, every day, and she’s buried in a Lancashire cemetery.” I place the suit bag over the back of the chair. “Dom, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve not seen any of this. But for every little piece of advice you’ve ever given me, right now, I’m going to return it. Sooner rather than later, I think we’re all aware this business with the Blacks is going to blow up. One day, Jules will be able to walk the streets of England again and not fear retaliation from Franklin. Now that Sloan and Kara have finally got their act together, we know it’s a given. But irrespective of what happens in the future, you cannot start something with her whenever the opportunity finally presents itself. Sloan will go after you like a rabid dog if you so much as sniff near his mother, and John-”

“Will not give a shit!”

I grind my jaw because he’s right. John probably won’t care. Not to say that he won’t have an opinion – he will. But he served in the army with Dom, he’s aware of the man’s integrity and morals, so in that regard, J will probably be fine with it. What he won’t be fine with, however, is if Dom starts something with Jules while still hitting up the bars for cheap one-night stands and irrevocably breaks her heart.

“Are we done?” he asks, eyes wide with annoyance.

“Yeah,” I reply because there’s no point in even talking about it. Aside from knowing his name, the woman wouldn’t be able to pick him out in a crowd. “Thanks for the tux, by the way.” I lay the bag over my arm. “And the Lexus. I promise I’ll give it back to you someday.”

Dom’s expression turns from vexed to relaxed in an instant. “Thank Sloan. He’s the one who bought it and had it delivered here for you last week.”

“Last week?”

He nods. “You don’t belong up here, son. Your home is down there with your family. That said, there’s always a place for you here. And keep the car; I don’t need it.” I try to hide my smirk, but the man does adore his ostentatious Maserati. For some, a swanky Lexus would be a step up. For him, it’s absolutely a step-down. He rises and moves around the desk as hurried, thumping steps canter across the corridor outside.

“Sorry, am I disturbing a romantic moment? Would you like me to come back later?” Kieran Hyde, Dom’s number two, queries with amusement as he fills the doorway and vanquishes the air in the room with every step he takes further inside. At six foot four, with muscles the size of boulders and blond hair that would put a Nordic warrior to shame, he’s a formidable presence. That is until he opens his mouth, and his thick scouse accent makes an unexpected appearance. “There’s something that you, particularly,” he turns to me and tosses a newspaper down on the desk, “need to see.”

Dom and I both lean in at the exact moment to see what has the man-mountain so excited. An unseen force levies a direct, winded punch to my gut seeing Edward Shaw’s name splashed over the front page in large capitals.

“My, my, my, how the mighty have fallen,” Dom comments with a touch of glee. “Just when I thought the day was off to a terrible start. Corruption never pays, boys.”

“You would know, boss,” K retorts, earning himself the middle finger and a grin.

I shoot them both a glare from the corner of my eye for their flippancy while I work fleetingly through the front-page article of the regional Manchester paper.

“I think it might be safe to assume that the target on your back might finally be fading.” Kieran slaps me on the back, probably on the same spot Edward Shaw’s invisible knife might critically impale if he ever got within a few feet of me. I give him a half-smile, but I’m aware that target is still shining brightly, just waiting for the man to hit the bullseye one day.

“I think it’s dangerous to assume anything.” I jab my finger on the face staring up at me. “All this recent development does is give him more impetus than ever now that the law isn’t behind him. He hasn’t got anything left to lose anymore. He’s been found corrupt, but there’s nothing here to say he’s going to do time because of it.”

But I, of all people, have no ground to get on my moral high horse because inside a cell with bars arming the windows and three-inch-thick steel doors is definitely where I belong.

“Do you still think he’s gunning for you?” Kieran asks thoughtfully, crossing his arms over his chest, his face contorted in contemplation.

“Let me ask you this. If your only child died and the man you hold responsible is still living and breathing and walking free, what would you do?”

Kieran inhales deeply and shakes his head. “I’ve said it a hundred times. It wasn’t your fault the girl died. However, I’ll put some feelers out on Shaw and keep you updated if I hear anything.”

“Thanks, appreciate it.” I nod as he looks at my arm.

“You finally talked to boy wonder?” he asks, referring to Sloan.

“Yeah,” I confirm.

“Are you coming back?”

I shrug because who knows. I might be back in a couple of days. It might be a couple of months. It might be never.

Kieran’s arm comes around my shoulder in a man hug. “Well, I for one, will miss you. You never know, I might be calling you to get back up here when I can’t corral Dom’s arse in line.”

“Thanks, but you might be on your own there.” I grin and turn to Dom, who waves me off.

“I’ll walk you out.”

Moving down the corridor, both men at my rear, I glance back into my office. “Forgot something.” I stride towards the desk and snatch up the picture of Em. Dom gives me a tight smile and pats my shoulder.

Outside, I throw my stuff into the back and slam the door. I reach over and shake Dom’s hand. “Thanks for everything.”

He nods. “Remember, straight and narrow, clean and sober.”

“That’s the plan.” I open the door and slide inside.

“If you need anything, you just have to call,” K offers, then walks backwards.

I reach for the door handle but stop. “Kieran? You still didn’t answer my question. What would you do?”

“You want the truth?” I nod. “I’d rip his heart out,” he replies with a pained expression, daring to say what he really thinks aloud. While I appreciate his honesty, my sanity would have preferred he stayed mute on the subject.

I close the door and turn the key in the ignition. The two imposing men stand sentry while I pull away from the kerb and drive down the street.  

 As they become smaller and smaller in my rearview, Kieran’s frank admission resonates inside my head. I’d rip his heart out. Rubbing my hand across my chest, it’s clear my back isn’t the only target Edward Shaw will be aiming for if the opportunity ever arises.

Chapter 2

“SHIT!” I HISS as the burglar alarm activates. I quickly tap in the code – twice, since the first attempt was wrong – and the noise ceases immediately. I transfer the picture frame in my hand into my back pocket, drop the holdall on the floor along with the suit bag, and lock the door behind me.

The stale, unaired scent of the flat I haven’t stepped foot inside of in weeks infuses my nostrils. The last time I was here was when I confessed to Kara the horrific part I had played in her past. I should feel cleansed that I’ve unburdened my soul of that long-overdue admission, but I don’t. I feel disgusted, and every time I look in the mirror, I see what I once was, a traitor, a double-crosser, a turncoat, a liar. Take your pick, they’re all the same, and there’s only so long I can blame my decline into oblivion on drugs, regardless if that was the initial cause.

I place my keys on the console table and pad down the narrow hallway. Entering the kitchen, I open the fridge and pull out a bottle of ale and a long out-of-date pint of milk that has congealed. I dump the milk, unopened, in the bin because even I’m not man enough to open it and uncap my bottle.

I walk back the way I came, grab the suit bag and carry it into the bedroom. Laying it on the bed, I glance at the top of the wardrobe and reach for the shoebox containing the only pair of leather brogues I possess. Ones I rarely wear, specifically bought for events like this. Lifting it down, my hand dislodges the box next to it that I rarely open, the one housing pictures of Emma at a time when she was healthy and vibrant, beautiful in my arms when I was also all of those things. I push the box back and inhale deeply. I don’t want to think about her, but how can I not? I leave the dress shoes on the bed and close the door behind me.

In the living room, the sunlight streams through the undrawn blinds, and I open the patio door to let some air in.

I loiter on the small balcony, absorbing the varied sounds of the city seeping up from below and beyond. I remove Em’s picture from my pocket, put it on the small table, then drop into one of the two chairs.

Knocking back a mouthful of ale, I lean down to the upturned terracotta plant pot, lift it with my finger in the drainage hole, and find the packet of cigarettes and lighter I keep out here. It really is a disgusting habit, and luckily for me, I’m bizarrely not addicted to nicotine. With my compulsive personality, it should be a given, but I never have been. I can take it or leave it. The rare days I do fancy one, it’s for nothing more than boredom. Or something to accompany my procrastination. Like now.

I slide the patio door across, flick the lighter, and the end glows red. Blowing out a smoke ring, it evaporates on the atmosphere as my sight fixes on Em, smiling at me behind the glass. Taking another drag of the cig, I blow out the smoke slowly. It drifts away on the breeze while my thoughts drift back to the day a strong, level-headed girl wedged herself into my life.

TEN YEARS AGO…

I STRIKE THROUGH the classified ad for construction labourers and apprentices. Tapping the pen on the next advert down, this one for bricklayers, I immediately cross that out too. Doing a quick skim of the other ads, they are all for trained, skilled positions. Unfortunately, the only thing I’m trained in is fucking up – more often than not, these days – and the only skill I possess is touting the Blacks wares all over the city and managing not to get caught and banged up. It wasn’t a rash decision that made me approach Franklin for a ‘job’; it was a financial one. I confess I don’t particularly like my current income stream, but I also don’t want to starve and sleep rough, either. I guess I’m learning there is a certain truth coined in the term ‘beggars can’t be choosers’.

I pick up my glass and down the last dregs of lager. Reaching into my pocket for my wallet, I wave over the bartender for another.

“Any luck?” He gestures to the local recruitment paper, and I pass him a tenner.

“No. I guess the economic shift is hitting hard at all angles. This place is pretty dead for a Saturday afternoon.” I jerk my head back towards the half-empty establishment behind me, which I expected to be livelier since it is derby day, and the pre-match build-up has already started.

He hands over my change and leans on the bar. “It’s like this every day. Used to be a time when this place, along with the rest of the bars in the area, would be full of office suits or footy fans from midday until closing. Now, since everyone is fearful of being made redundant, unable to pay their way and living on the poverty line, they stay at home and drink.”

I nod, concurring, since the only reason why I’m sitting here, drinking away money I can honestly ill afford to, is the fact that Deacon – my friend and housemate – is currently entertaining, for lack of a better word, his latest, easiest conquest.

“It’s shit at the moment, but I hope you find something, mate.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I reply as a gaggle of girls walk in and line up along the bar next to me. I glance down at the next ad for a roofer and huff as I strike through it. Every week for the last few months I’ve endured this torture. All the same jobs are advertised week in week out, and week after week, I inevitably strike through them because I don’t fit the criteria. Seriously, when my school careers adviser gave me the lecture on having a respectable trade, I really should’ve listened. But my fifteen-year-old self was already fed up with school, so the prospect of going to college to further educate myself in plumbing, carpentry, or construction was not appealing. Now I’m paying the price.

“How about that one?” A pale pink-tipped finger taps an ad for television walk-on parts and models. My shoulders shake in silent laughter until the sound escapes my throat. “What’s so funny?” The unidentified female asks innocently.

I hitch my brow and glance at her from the corner of my eye. Her long blonde hair is tucked behind her ear, while the other side falls in a shiny veil over her shoulder. Intrigued, I rotate my arse on the stool to get a better look. My laugh diminishes when mesmerising, ice blue eyes meet mine, and fuck me if this girl isn’t just the perfect specimen of the female form. I’m not a saint. I’ve met a lot of beautiful girls; I’ve slept with a few of them, but in this moment, they all fade in comparison to this beauty before me.

I continue to stare, completely unashamed, completely entranced. From her small, perfectly proportioned nose to her naturally full, pink lips, complemented by her flawless, minimally made-up porcelain skin. My eyes continue their descent. Down her slender neck to the swell of her small breasts, over the defined curve of her waist and flare of her hips, all the way down her shapely thighs to her feet.

My eyes repeat the process in reverse, silently approving of the black high heels, dark, tight jeans and black tight top, until those stunning blues ensnare me, holding me hostage. She stares back, and I’d like to think she’s as affected by me as I am by her, but I very much doubt it. Girls like her don’t look at guys like me.

“Em?” Her head turns slowly towards one of the other girls. “What do you want?”

“A G and T, please.” She licks her bottom lip, and my body responds in base instinct at her action, wondering what it would feel like to kiss and bite that lip myself.

“Two G and T’s, a rum and Coke, a dry white wine, and a Peroni, please,” the other girl requests.

I pick up my lager, needing something to take the edge off the instantaneous heat I’m experiencing – since I can’t exactly get high in a public place – when the barman slaps both hands back on the bar, and his eyes drift over them.

“ID, all of you.”

I smirk while a chorus of unhappy females chime out their ages in succession, along with the injustice and humiliation of being ID’ed at their age. The barman stands his ground as three driver’s licences and two passports are shoved under his nose. Satisfied, he reaches for the glasses.

Picking up my pint, I fix my gaze back on the paper when that pink-tipped finger taps on the ad again.

“So, are you considering it?”

I smile, unable to do anything else, and furrow my brow. “A TV walk-on? What is that?” I scrunch my nose up since I don’t have a clue.

She grins and tucks the other side of her hair behind her ear. “You know, you sit in the background in a pub or a bar.” She waves her hand behind her. “And drink a beer.” She nods at my glass. “And you repeat it however many times until the actors get the scene right. You’d be perfect.”

“Thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t think that’s the vocation for me.” I knock back another mouthful and set the glass down.

“What about the modelling gig?”

Her G and T is placed in front of her, and she pops the straw into her mouth. She sucks on it, and the liquid in the glass decreases steadily as her incredibly kissable lips move unconsciously up and down the plastic. The action is barely noticeable, but God do I notice, and unfortunately, it gets my vivid and somewhat filthy imagination worked up, visualising other things she could be sucking on. My blood drains to my waist and causes an immediate, unwanted reaction that I’m glad she can’t see.

“I don’t think I’m cut out to be a model either,” I answer gruffly.

“Really?” she replies in astonishment. “But you’re handsome and se-” She quickly snaps her head away, and I lean back to see the shocked expression of her friend next to her, who cannot believe she has just said that, and the other girl grins, also averting her eyes.

Turning back around, I smile. Yeah, she’s affected all right, and I’m not one to pass up an opportunity. Not when it’s beautiful and blatantly interested. Not to mention, I haven’t felt a prominent spark towards anyone like this in ages, maybe never, even.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.” I feign deafness. When she starts to fuss with her hair until it’s hanging as a silken barrier between us, I slide my hand over the bar and stroke my finger the length of her hand. My action is only meant to be an innocent gesture, but it causes her to jolt in surprise, and a spark of electricity shots up my limb.

Eventually, she turns. Her lips are pursed together in embarrassment, and her cheeks are crimson. Her beautiful blues can barely look at me as she fails to find something to fix her mortified gaze on.

“Sorry, what did you say?” I press again, desperate to hear her say those words out loud.

Her eyes close in resignation, the beautiful thick lashes fanning the delicate skin beneath them. “I said you’re handsome.”

“And?” I query with a fake vagueness.

“Sexy,” she whispers, pursing those beautiful lips again. I smile, taking advantage of the moment since she still has her eyes closed.

“Thank you,” I whisper back, and her tense features soften. “Coming from a beautiful girl like you, that means a lot.”

Her eyes slowly open, and she covers her face with her hand, still embarrassed, but her resulting smile is blinding. “Thanks.”

“What’s your name?”

“Emma Shaw. My friends call me Em.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Emma Shaw. I’m Jeremy James, but I get called a variety of names: Remy, Rem, Jer. Take your pick.”

She laughs, and her discomfort withers away. “It’s nice to meet you, Jeremy James. You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No, I’m a London boy through and through. It’s the accent that gives it away, isn’t it?” I’m grinning, pathetically enraptured by this beautiful, chatty girl, who, if she knew the truth about me, would already be running in the opposite direction.

“Actually, it isn’t the lack of a Mancunian accent, it’s the coat.” She gives said coat the once over, and I look down at myself, wondering what’s wrong with it. “You can always spot a southerner a mile away. Do you want to know how?” She picks up her drink and sucks that damn straw again.

I stare into those playful blue orbs and nod, desperate to hear anything come out of her luscious mouth. Honestly, she could talk absolute shit for hours, and I’d sit here, absorb it all and recite it word perfect later.

“Well, you see…” She moves close enough that the faint aroma of whatever shampoo or hair product she uses permeates my nostrils. “When the months start to turn a little nippier, and the temperature drops, say, September, northerners put on a jumper or a light jacket.” She sets down her drink and shows me the ridiculously thin, pneumonia-inducing jacket looped through the straps of her bag. “Southerners, on the other hand, put on a thick jumper and the heaviest coat they possess and complain it’s cold.” Her fingers slide along the hem of my thick, quilted winter coat and give it a spirited tug. “That’s how you can tell.”

I down the rest of my drink and look around the still half-empty bar. Out of all the patrons in the premises, I’m the only one wearing a thick coat, but granted, it was cold this morning. Obviously, I’m not going to admit that and expose my tender southern inadequacies. I bring my eyes back to her, and she beams knowingly, proud of her demonstrable abilities. The sound of slurping punctures the companionable silence between us, and I eye the glass she has now drained completely. I look down at my own, the same moment one of the other girls slips off her stool.

“Em, are you ready to hit the next bar?”

Emma’s face falls a little, and she turns her head towards her friend but still has one eye on me.

“Actually, I think I might stay here for a bit, if you don’t mind?” She gives me a look, one which asks if that’s also okay with me. The side of my mouth hitches triumphantly, and I wink.

Her friend, however, is unimpressed. “Actually, yes, I do mind! The pub crawl was your idea. We didn’t even want to come in here. Oh, whatever! Come on, everyone. Emma is staying apparently!” The girl grabs her things and strides out of the bar. The rest of the group follows behind her, each bestowing Emma a death glare.

I glance back at the door to see the small gathering of girls gesturing, probably bitching about being ditched. “Maybe you should go with your friends,” I suggest because they are far better for her than I am – regardless that they do appear to be the backstabbing kind.

“No.” Emma gives me a steely glare. “She’s just pissed off because she found out her boyfriend cheated on her last week. I’m actually glad I met you because now I won’t have to listen to her get drunk and cry over him all night. Again.”

I gasp. “So, you were just using me?” It’s been a while since I’ve flirted, but I’m thoroughly enjoying this.

“Why, of course!” She smiles broadly, participating in the game, raising the stakes.

“Now I understand why you called me handsome and sexy. It was all just a ploy to escape. My God, I think I might be offended.” I keep my expression neutral, not wanting to run her off completely. Truth be told, I want her to stay.

Emma’s cheeks turn pink again, and she trains her eyes on the bar. I grin at her half-arsed attempt at lying about her true thoughts.

“Right,” I murmur, still trying to sound serious. “Well, if I bought you another drink, would you, maybe, reconsider your evaluation of me?”

Her head darts up, and she shuffles closer. “Maybe…handsome.” Her eyes capture mine. They are filled with something I can’t quite put my finger on, not that I’m an expert in the complexities of the female mind, but still, there’s something there. Something possibly taking root for both of us.

“Is that a yes?” I press her softly, wanting to hear the confirmation, just to ensure I’m not imagining that a beautiful young woman is taking a genuine interest in me for something other than what I can illegally supply.

Emma smiles again. “Yes, I’d love to stay and have another drink with you.”

“Another G and T?”

“Erm…” She focuses the bottles behind the bar. “How about we do some shots?”

I laugh singularly as I glance at the clock mounted on the wall beside the brass bell. “No, I think it’s far too early for that.”

“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun!”

“I’ll tell you what, how about we have another drink, maybe order some food, and then we can revisit the shots suggestion later?” Or not at all. “Sound good?” I stroke the back of her hand in supplication, praying she agrees. If so much as one shot snakes its way down my throat, she’s going to see me for what I truly am. For me, shots – unless monitored – equal total oblivion. Because the instant my body starts to feel limber and the potency of the alcohol begins to kick in and clouds my judgement, I will, without fail, reach for a needle.

Still, in this moment, in the presence of a girl I barely know, I feel like I can go one night without hitting up. It’s the first time in months I’ve felt like this. I only wish every day could be like this, but my obsessive, uncontrollable personality won’t permit it.

“So, drinks and dinner… This is almost like a date.”

My train of thought brakes sharply as her moderately correct assumption weaves through my ears and embeds in my grey matter. I fix my attention back on her as her fingers tangle with mine, and she squeezes.

“Almost,” she whispers.

I stare at our hands and remain stock still, realising that’s what she wants. The reason why she first approached me. She wants a date. With me. Shit! In the space of thirty minutes, I’ve gone from being single to laying the initial foundations of a possible relationship.

The sounds of the bar – some more augmented than others – fill the void of silence. I mentally run through the ramifications of what the imminent future might entail with this girl. While the idea might be premature, the reality may not be.

Suddenly, her fingers extract themselves from mine, and I snap out of it as she shoulders her bag. “I’m sorry, that was presumptuous. I think I better go.”

“No, wait!” I grab her then ease off because I don’t want to upset her any more than I already have. She looks downbeat, waiting for me to say something. “I’m sorry. I was just thinking.”

“It’s okay. I didn’t mean to be so blunt and obvious. It was nice meeting you.” She quickly strides to the door, and I slide off the stool and spin her around.

“I don’t want you to leave.” The statement is out of my mouth before my brain can process it. “Stay. Please.” My tone is soft and very truthful. The last thing I want is for her to walk out of that door with anyone but me. She stares up at me, and even in her heels, she’s still a good foot shorter than I am. I slowly lead her back to the bar, and she observes attentively as I fold up the newspaper.

“I thought we were staying.”

I shake my head. “How about an early dinner?”

She presses her lips together, and her cheeks contort in contemplation as her mouth pouts from side to side. “As in a date? A real one?”

I laugh, unable to hold it in. She isn’t backward in coming forward, that’s for sure. I nod, making her smile victoriously. “Yes!” she hisses in delight, drawing out the S. “I’d love to. Thank you.”

“No,” I murmur, my hand acting of its own volition and reaching for her hair. “I should be thanking you.” I tuck the thick lock of stunning blonde back behind her ear, and she blushes.

“Why?”

“No reason.” Although I could spout off a few reprehensible ones without even needing to think about it. “I just need to-” I halt mid-sentence and instead jerk my head towards the sign for the gent’s, unsure if she will get embarrassed by my saying I need to take a piss. Women are weird like that sometimes.

“Okay.” She clambers back up onto the stool and flips the paper over as I stride away and push open the toilet door.

A few minutes later, I zip up my jeans. I move away from the urinals and wash my hands. Removing my phone from my pocket, I tap on Deek’s name and wait for him to pick up.

“Hey,” he greets, garbled. I quickly move to the door and open it slightly to see if anyone else might venture in.

“I can’t do any business tonight.”

“Why? You out on the pull?”

“No, the streets are crawling with police.” I lie, very proficiently, since I haven’t seen one bobby all afternoon. But, yes, I have indeed pulled.

“Ah fuck, I forgot it’s match day. Yeah, no worries, Dad’ll be fine with it. Pick up a curry on your way back.” He sniffs long and hard down the receiver, and I realise I’m probably better off staying well away for now if he’s already doing lines.

“Actually, I thought I might stay out. Catch a film.”

Deek snorts. “What? Are you trying to be a normal, upstanding member of society?”

“Something like that.” My hand wavers on the door handle, and I watch from the gap as Emma concentrates on her phone, waiting for me.

“Fuck, okay. I’ll see you later, man.”

“Yeah.” I end the call, let the door close, and slip my mobile back into my pocket. Pulling out my wallet, I thumb through the tens and twenties – rent, food, and drug money – to see how much I have. I’m satisfied it’s enough to buy a decent dinner, but if not, the credit card with the balance that always seems to go up and never down will be making an appearance instead.

As I straighten myself up, my eyes flick to the vending machine on the wall. I stare at it and debate whether I might be tempting fate to assume that Emma will want more than dinner with me this evening. It’s been a while since I’ve had sex. The last time was a girl in a club who dragged me up a small alleyway that was already littered with used condoms some three months ago.

I shake my head. I can’t do that to her. That, being screwing and using her. I harden my resolve and look back at my reflection in the mirror. Truthfully, regardless of my despicable and immoral employment status and my personal inability to just say no, I really am a nice guy, a good guy. I don’t lead women on. I don’t make outlandish promises to get them naked, and I don’t push for more than they are willing to give. And I’m not about to start deviating from that path now.

Striding back out of the gents, determined to show Emma the good guy I truly am this evening, she spins around on the stool. “I thought you’d got lost!” she flirts sarcastically.

“Really? Funny you didn’t care enough to come and find me.” I flirt back, enjoying her easy teasing.

“Ew, I wasn’t about to come looking for you in the dirty boys’ toilets.” She slips down from the stool, and I hold out my hand.

“Touché,” I say with a smile as she slides her hand in mine, and we head out of the bar.

“SO, WHAT DO you fancy?” Emma asks, distracted as we pass numerous restaurants. My first reaction is to say ‘you’, but I keep my mouth shut. I think we’re both aware there is a mutual attraction here. If there wasn’t, she wouldn’t have pushed so hard, and in return, I would have let her walk away when she had the chance.

“I can eat anything. I’m not fussy. You pick somewhere.” And with those words, I pray she doesn’t want a Michelin starred dining experience tonight. “How about this place?” I suggest gently tugging her towards the contemporary bar and grill, which is a step or two up from bog-standard pub grub. She bites her lip and then, rather grudgingly, turns to the menu board just outside the door. The prices aren’t too bad – in my opinion – and I can definitely swing it without skipping the rent and getting further into debt.

“Let’s look somewhere else,” she says and attempts to walk the other way.

“Em, what’s wrong?” I query delicately, using her nickname for the first time. Her fingers fidget at her mouth, and she starts to mumble. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”

“I can’t afford it.” Her words are laced with humiliation, but I thank God I’ve been blessed with the company of someone who doesn’t expect me to fine wine and dine them. “I’ve only got thirty quid left to get me to and from uni and work until payday in two weeks. I don’t want you paying an exorbitant amount of money for dinner when I’m the one who came on to you.”

An uncontrollable urge wells inside, and without further thought, I manipulate her into my arms and hold her. Long minutes pass until she eventually peers up at me. Her beautiful, intoxicating eyes ensnare me again, and before I can even stop it, I cradle her face tenderly, dip my head down and press my mouth to hers.

A fire sparks the moment her soft lips move tentatively against mine, and I cup her face. I thread my fingers through the silky strands of hair at her nape and press my thumbs ever so slightly into her cheekbones. The kiss becomes more frantic, and she grips my back hard, her fingers digging in through the three layers I’m wearing, while her mouth fights against mine, pushing for more. She presses her chest forward, and I swallow her blissful, tortured moan, never having enjoyed kissing so much before.

“Sorry, sir, a table for two?” And the moment is obliterated.

I reluctantly pull away from the luscious mouth I’ve wanted to kiss for the last hour and acknowledge the waiter, who is definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, maybe for us, the right place at the right time. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t have broken the spell.

I lift a hand from Em’s face and raise one finger. “Can you give us a minute?” The waiter agrees and goes back inside.

“We can go somewhere cheaper. I don’t mind, Jeremy.”

I smile. I was completely enthralled, and now I’m wholly impressed by her low maintenance and how considerate she’s being. “Let’s go inside. This is a nice place for a first date.”

“Okay,” she replies contritely and lifts up on her toes to kiss me again.

“And, if you’re lucky,” I say, holding the door open. “I might even let you order the cheapest thing on the menu!”

“SO, I HAVE a confession.”

I glance at a very relaxed Emma, circling her finger around the rim of the wine glass. We are currently on bottle number two, and both of us are feeling the effects. I’ve accepted that I will be paying on the credit card, and I’ve accepted that it’s more than worth it. This has been the best night of my life, hands down, without a doubt.

It’s been two hours since we manhandled each other on the pavement, and numerous couples have already been and gone as we have sat here, eating and talking. We have chatted through a range of topics, from our favourite foods, films, music, and TV programmes. I have found out she is eighteen, an only child, currently at uni, studying English Lit and working part-time in a high street clothes store. She has found out I am nineteen, also an only child, currently working in sales and distribution, but looking to expand my horizons into something more productive, preferably not TV or modelling work. I’m not proud of the fact I’m consciously lying to her. My earlier assumption of our mutual attraction being very real is no longer an assumption. The last few hours of being in this girl’s company have proven that I’m facing a very real, terrifying risk of falling hard and fast for her. It has also confirmed that I might finally have a reason to get clean. I only hope when I do have to tell her – because I know I shall since you can’t just turn off addiction – that she understands.

“What’s that?” I finally ask, raising the glass to my mouth.

She laughs in that boozy, giggly way girls do. “I did suggest the bar crawl. I promised we would only be there for one drink.” Her eyes are wild, and I wonder what she’s expecting my reaction will be in her moderately drunken mind.

“Well, I figured you did since your friend had no reason to lie, but why didn’t you leave with them?” I don’t need to ask the question. I know she stayed for me, and I’m very grateful for that.

“Leaving would have ruined my best-laid plan.” She pouts and bats her lashes. “You see, they didn’t want to go into that bar, but I did.” She steadies her gaze on me from across the table. “Because I saw you as we were walking past.” She glides her hand through the space between us.

I lean back in my seat, amazed that she selfishly orchestrated it just to meet me. She has just gone up yet another notch in my book. “You went in there for me?” My voice is strained, shocked that she’s risked her friendships to hook up.

“Yeah…for you. Shall we get out of here?”

I nod, a bit far gone on reality, and indicate to the waiter milling around – probably dying to get rid of us – for the bill. He slaps the black leather wallet on the table, and I don’t even bother looking at the total and pass him my card.

Ten minutes later, we’re back on the pavement in the same spot we were before. It’s just gone ten, and the streets are rowdier now with the two sides of the city’s football fans.

“It’s late. Let’s get a taxi. I’ll take you home.” I slide my arm around her back, noting she’s shivering in the thin, shiny thing she calls a jacket.

“Jer, I can’t. If my dad sees me in this state, he’ll kill me.”

“Weren’t you already getting drunk with your girls before I scuppered those plans?” I remind her gently.

“Yes, but I was meant to be staying at Zoe’s house. I can’t exactly go there now after I blew her off.” She gabbles on until, as expected, the words I dread finally emit her mouth. “Can I come home with you?”

I hold in the pained groan rising in my throat. Truthfully, I’d rather she didn’t. Not because her home is probably a million times nicer than my rented hovel, but because Deacon will be there. I don’t want him getting any ideas about her and the reason why she might be staying. It wouldn’t be the first time he has tried something with a couple of my one-night stands after the event has occurred between us.

“Please, I promise I won’t try anything!” she pleads desperately, and I bite back my laugh because I should be the one reassuring her of that.

“Let me just make a call.” I glide my arm around her waist and tap away on my phone.

“Hey,” Deek answers on the second ring.

“Are you still at home?”