Friday, July 5, 2019

Read the first three chapters of TWISTED by AJ ADAMS, a dark cartel romance - free

Chapter One


Fuck with me and if you're lucky, I'll shoot you. If you're unlucky, I'll make you suffer first. Jamal Blake had pissed me off big-time and so I was determined to make him pay. 
He'd rented an apartment under an alias, thinking it would be a safe-house, but the pendejo had paid by bank transfer. If he'd paid cash, he might have lived. But he didn't and as I had eyes on his bank account, I knew straight away he was up to no good.
After a few days of watching him, it was clear what his plans were. I let him run with it. Give a man enough rope, you know? By the time he was ready to rob me, I was two steps in front – and waiting for him.
I heard him race up the stairs, chuckling all the way, thinking he'd outsmarted me. Entering the apartment, he threw down an attaché case, slammed the door shut and bolted it before realising he wasn't alone. "What the fuck?"
"Hello, Jamal." 
He posed against the door, running his hand through his hair in an attempt to appear cool. It would have been a fine effort if his knees hadn't been shaking. "Boss." It came out in a frightened squeak and he had to focus to get a manly baritone going. "What are you doing here?"
I let him see the cricket bat in my hand. "I came for my coke."
He sprang at me but I was faster. Being built like a barn didn't help him because I've been in more fights than Tyson Fury. When he pounced, I stepped aside lightly and whacked him in the gut. As he collapsed to his knees, I batted him down. For fun, I booted him in the ribs as well.
In the movies, he'd be up and ready to go again. In real life, not being able to breathe means it's game over. He was on the floor, gasping and retching, giving me time to bash him again. It was a light blow to the back of the head, carefully calculated to knock him cold but not kill him. I didn't want him taking the easy way out.
When he came to, I had him gagged and strapped to a kitchen chair. His eyes bulged as he saw me rip holes in the top and sides of a garbage bag. "I don't mind splatter," I told him, "but this is my favourite shirt and I have a meeting after this."
He tried to break through the bonds but I'd used an entire roll of duct tape. That stuff is so awesome that it can hold a revving car in place - if the lamp post you tether it to is strong enough - so I just waited until he figured out it was no use.
He took a good few minutes, Jamal was always a slow thinker, but he got to it, eventually. He sat there; the gag distorting his mouth into an O of surprise. With his shaven head and eyes wide open, he looked like an amazed emoji.
I hefted the bat. "You stupid son of a bitch," I informed him. "Did you really think you could rip me off?"
He shook his head, denying it with frantically rolling eyes.
"Don't lie to me. You were supposed to process the consignment, not steal it." I was mad because I'd trusted him. "I gave you a job, money and responsibility," I reminded him. "A life of respect, handed to you on a plate, and you fucked me over at first opportunity."
He was jerking around, nodding hard. It wasn't agreement; Jamal was trying to buy his way out of trouble. Told you he was stupid.
"Yes, my coke is in your briefcase," I sighed. "Giving it back won't help." But I set it aside, just ensure it stayed out of the way. I didn't want revenge messing up my product. "You betrayed me, you disloyal hijo de puta and now you will make amends," I told Jamal. "Your death will show everyone what happens when you fuck with me."
Jamal moaned and pissed himself. I guess he was remembering the stories of how my family deal with the people who cross us. Crucifixion, boiling, dismemberment; we're very versatile. For this one, I was taking a leaf from the classics.
"Do you remember how Al Capone dealt with Scalise, Anselmi and Giunta, the disloyal scum who tried to betray him?" I asked. He hadn't but the way he was eyeing my bat told me he was on the right page. "Capone was quick-tempered, and he had them going out fast." The chair was rocking again, convincing me Jamal was visualising his future just fine. "I'm very patient and so you'll have lots of time to consider your mistakes."
Having laid it out for him, I swung the bat, bringing it down on his right wrist. All the little bones shattered in an audible crunch but his scream was muffled by the gag. "You shouldn't have tried to steal from me." I gave him a moment to pull himself together. "I don't like thieves." His forearm went with a second swing. Then I shattered his elbow, a long pause, and I followed through with a swing at his collarbone.
Intense pain is interesting because it silences. Step on a man's toe and he'll roar; smash it to pieces and all you'll get is a squeak. Also, while a whacking load of it will paralyse you, it won't easily lead to unconsciousness, especially if you stay away from bashing them on the head.
Even so, I was careful to give him time to recover and I removed the gag when he turned blue. "Deep breath," I told him. "We've a way to go."
There are over two hundred bones in the human body and I aimed at breaking as many of Jamal's as possible. As I'm methodical, I worked up one side and then down the other. His knees, ankles and shins were tougher but I play golf, so I reversed the bat and practised my drive shot. 
The wood crushed bone and cartilage. Thanks to my fantastic swing we also had lots of splinters breaking through the skin. With his heart pumping away, the splatter reached as far as the walls. I was glad I had suited up.
Because I paced myself, he was breathing great when I started on his ribs. That's when the odd splash became a constant spray. I'd whack, he'd cough. It got real messy, real quick.
Twenty minutes later, he gave out an ominous rattle. I stopped, ready to give him a breather, but the weak bastard died on me. Looking around, there was gore galore, but the scene was still lacking that iconic touch. I wanted my message to send shivers of fear throughout the country, and this was too tame.
I stepped back, took aim at his head, and got a terrific rain of brains. Inspired, I whacked twice more, and got an eyeball to pop out. It was perfect. Quentin Tarantino couldn't have done better. 
Rinsing the bat under the kitchen tap and packing it away with my makeshift poncho in a bag took seconds. Nobody was on the stairs, or in the hall, and I didn't attract any attention as I walked down the street. Thanks to a light rain, typical damn English weather, my hat, scarf and coat would obscure any CCTV.
A bus took me across town in fine anonymous form, delivering me right to the fish processing plant on Wickham Wharf that we owned. The bag went into the dumpster in the alley at the back, certain to be obscured by the other gory refuse. Then, on the pretext of checking the boats were moored properly, the bat slipped into the river.
After a chat with the foreman to see all was well, I strolled around the corner, dived into the underground and fifteen minutes afterward, I was at Zeta Towers.
My office is a twenty-five storey building and as we designed it for our purposes, it’s more complex than an anthill. You can enter via four street level entrances, two skyway links and five carpark access ramps. Once you get inside, there are three elevator halls. As the cops couldn’t afford to set a dozen eyes on us 24/7 to monitor our comings and goings, I dropped off my coke in complete anonymity. 
As I told Jamal, I was wearing my favourite shirt because I had a meeting. I was humming as I picked up my ride because I'd treated myself to a Lexus just the week before. With Shakira's sultry voice keeping me company, and that awesome scent of new leather, the drive to Chelsea was a pleasure. On the way, I reflected on the man I was to meet, Jacek Kowalczyk, a Polish crime boss who ran a neat little empire in London.
Unlike us Zetas, Kowalczyk enjoyed the limelight. There wasn't a week when he wasn't in the news, smiling as he wined and dined celebs at his house and on his yacht. He was so fond of seeing himself in the social pages that he hired a public relations firm to make sure his image stayed bright.
It didn't sound a great idea to me, having people nosing about in your affairs is stupid if you're pushing product, but I was curious to see his home because it was rumoured to be a palace.
Kowalczyk House was rigged out with Greek columns, marble statues and a fountain big enough to float a battleship. But the guards needed a shave. They were sloppy, checking under the chassis with a mirror but forgetting to look under the hood. They didn't x-ray the present I'd brought, either.
Lucky for them I was there for a friendly visit and so they didn't finish piled up dead under the fancy hedge an artist had trimmed into a row of peacocks.
Fifteen minutes later, I wasn't feeling so friendly. A starched-up butler had led me into the house quickly enough but he'd poured me a cheap vodka and fucked off, leaving me to kick my heels in a lounge.
A painting that looked as if a toddler had done it dominated the room. The rest was of the decoration was shameless ego stroking; dozens of framed photos of Kowalczyk with the rich and shameless. I counted two supermodels, three billionaire businessmen and a minor royal. There were also shots of his boat, his chopper and his racehorses. I patted a sofa cushion. Surprisingly, it was stuffed with feathers, not cash.
I didn't like the room much and what I'd seen of the rest of the house didn't impress me either. Loaded with marble, gold framed paintings and topped off with crystal chandeliers, it was too sparkly for my taste.
To avoid permanent eyestrain, I checked out the garden. Eyeing a marble goddess, probably stolen from an ancient temple, I spotted a girl popping out from the leafy peacocks.
She wore a loose tunic of blue-green silk that covered her from neck to knees but evoked an aura of lushness. As she paused by the statue, I had to fight for breath. She was a heavenly vision, all right: long legs, a sweet swell of delicious curves and a cloud of copper curls.
The body was a dream but I couldn't see if she had a face to match. The French windows were locked tight and as I pulled at the levers, rattling them, the girl darted over the gravel and dived into the house.
Shooting across the room, wrenching open the door, thinking I'd catch up with her in the foyer, I collided with the butler. "Hell!"
The starch was frosty. "Mr Kowalczyk will see you now."
I was cool, "Yeah, sure," and very disappointed that the beauty was nowhere to be seen. We trekked in silence through the hall, down a bling-filled corridor and finally, I was ushered into an inner sanctum.
The room was opulent and stuffed with expensive show-off goods yet lacked charm and spirit. The owner, Jacek Kowalczyk, was the same. He wore a designer Armani suit and a gold Rolex watch but they did nothing for the chalky skin, washed-out grey eyes, dull hair, and pinched thin-lipped mouth. Also, while he was no older than thirty, he was running to fat. His belly bulged and hung over his belt.
I didn't take to him but I didn't let it show. "Mr Kowalczyk, it's a pleasure to meet you finally." 
The disrespectful bastard had kept me waiting and now he wasn't smiling or apologising as he should have. Instead, he offered a half-hearted handshake and waved me to a chair - luxurious leather, but a far cry from the sofa setup by the window for VIPs.
He didn't dismiss his soldiers, either. Four of them, all packing, and hanging by the door where they could hear every word, instead of leaving as they should when men of respect meet.
I considered walking out but decided against it. Back home in Mexico, my rep meant only a man on a suicide mission would fuck with me but this was London and I was a newcomer. 
Only a pendejo mistakes ignorance for insult and so I made sure he understood who he was dealing with. "Jorge Santos," and in case that didn't ring any bells, "I am head of Nuevo Laredo Import and Export Incorporated, London branch."
"I know," Kowalczyk sounded offhand. "It's a cover for the Zeta cartel. Your cousin, Arturo Vazquez, is the chief of your organisation back in Mexico. I have heard of him."
Great. The implication that he would have welcomed Arturo with open arms, whereas I was a nobody, stung.
"Your cousin wants to talk to me?" Kowalczyk rumbled.
As if I were a goddamn messenger boy! "No," I said quietly. "But I will tell him you spoke of him with respect."
There was a pause, and then Kowalczyk nodded. "All right. What is your business with me?"
It was abrupt to the point of rudeness but I kept my cool. Eastern Europeans have a rep for surliness. Kowalczyk was known to be particularly sour, or perhaps he was trying to hide the stained teeth.
I'm a friendly guy and so I smiled as if I were happy to see him. "I am here on a small matter. Mainly, I came because my club is in the street behind yours. As we are neighbours, I thought it was time we met."
The pause was infinitesimal. "I see." There was no life in those faded eyes. "It's good to put a face to the name."
It was grudging but I could live with it. "Same here!"
The lips stretched, but it was more a rictus than a smile. The man was a disappointment. Given his party image, I had expected some social graces. Instead, what I saw was plain old East European mafia.
Jacek Kowalczyk began his career as a dealer working for a gang in Prague. He got into hot water trying to blackmail a politician's wife and fled to Moscow. Unable to hack it there, he'd come to London. England had suited him because he'd built up a profitable business for himself, selling all kinds of product to his society friends and maintaining a big staff of street dealers.
In terms of territory he had a good-sized plaza that made him rich but I wasn't getting that vibe that comes from power and success. The Armani suit would've been class if it had fit right but there was no sparkle in the man. I'd expected wolf and what I got was blobfish.
As for manners, Kowalczyk lacked even basic courtesy. He should have offered me a drink, at least. As I was not dragged up from a Polish sewer, I smiled and presented my gift. "A small token of friendship." I handed over the case, opening it so he and his men could admire the lighter inside. It was plain gold but what made it interesting was the inscription, plata o plomo
I took it out and showed it to him. "I thought you'd enjoy this. It was Pablo Escobar's." As Kowalczyk looked blank, I explained. "You know Escobar, he was Colombia's greatest drug baron."
Kowalczyk just gave me fish eyes. "Yeah, Escobar. Okay."
"Plata o plomo was his favourite line. Silver or lead." Typical Escobar, it had explained his work ethic: you took the silver, his money, and stood aside or he'd give you a lead bullet and step over your dead body.
"I know." Kowalczyk's voice reflected his personality; flat, dull, and thuggish. 
"What makes it interesting," I persisted, "is that the lighter was a gift to Escobar from Pershing Kolikowski."
I'd busted a gut to find a good present but even the mention of Poland's biggest crime lord didn't seem to register. 
"Thanks." He took the box and set it down. "You mentioned my club. There's an issue?"
Right down to business. "Yes." I settled in the chair and realised immediately he'd rigged it, cutting the legs short so he dominated the room. It was a cheap trick, and I didn't let it bother me. "Your club, Empire, and mine, Bubbles, are back to back. There's just an alleyway dividing them."
"We had building inspectors round recently. They say there was an error in their documentation. The original property line was a little off." I brought out my phone and showed him the map. "Your private car space is on our property and our south wall is on yours."
Kowalczyk frowned. "Is that right?"
"It's no big deal," I assured him. "My lawyers tell me that if we sign an agreement to leave matters as they stand, the problem goes away." 
"I don't like lawyers." His fingers tapped a cheery tattoo on the oak topped desk. "I can park on the street but you will have to rebuild your wall." He grinned, his lips pulling back from the stained fangs. "You'll have to close your club."
I wasn't mad because those few seconds gave me some valuable information. Kowalczyk was a nasty piece of work, which was expected. He'd built a criminal empire, and you don't do that by being nice. What surprised me was that he was stupid. Wars cost a fortune and therefore cooperation is always a better move.
As I am all about business, I set about preventing the pendejo from fucking up. "We're neighbours," I pointed out. "And we're in the same line. I would prefer to be friends."
His shrug spoke volumes.
"We appeal to the same demographic: young affluent urbanites, looking for a good time." I've got an MBA from Cornell. "We could help each other along."
"I don't need your help!"
That took me aback. "Forgive me, sometimes my English isn't up to speed." It was a lie, but I thought he'd misunderstood me. "What I meant was, we could support each other. Like, you might want access to some of our bands."
His club was dead compared to mine because I had cornered the market on London's finest live music bands. I had a different group play every night, and it had people flocking in. While Empire staff could take breaks whenever they liked, mine were rushed off their feet, making sure our patrons were happy and forking over cash.
"You had your eye on Pussy Wave, the girl band, didn't you? They're under contract to us but we'd be happy to share."
"They played at my club first!"
He sounded like a spoilt child, so I soothed him. "But you didn't offer a contract."
"You're saying I fucked up?" He was practically frothing at the mouth.
"No-no-no, of course not." I wondered if he was sniffing his own product; his reaction was way out of line. "As you said, they played your place first."
"They're a bunch of uppity bitches," Kowalczyk growled. "Lesbians!"
Okay, that really set me on my heels. "Turned you down, huh?" I meant to sound sympathetic, but it was oil to his fire.
"I don't need you! My club's better than yours!" Kowalczyk spat. I'd always thought envy was green, but the Pole was turning puce. "Fuck your suka bands," he raged.
"Look, if you want to compete in that area, I'm good with that," I said peaceably. "But you're paying top dollar for your coke because you buy from middlemen." I played my ace. "Buy it direct from me, and you can make an extra ten percent. It'll be better quality too."
He didn't even blink. "No."
I'd approached him with respect, offered friendship, and the fuck had thrown it in my face. It took an act of will not to shoot him on the spot.
"You'll have to shut up shop," Kowalczyk sneered. 
I wouldn't but I wasn't telling him that. It's stupid to telegraph your intentions. Kowalczyk wasn't very smart.
"Rebuilding that wall will take a year." The lips thinned. "Even if you get permission, it'll cost a fortune."
"You can't afford it!"
It was beyond the line. "We Zetas have deep pockets."
Another shrug. "You might be a power in Mexico but this is London."
It was too fucking much. I had to grip the chair to stop myself from launching at him. The four thugs lounging against the wall chortled, openly enjoying themselves.
Their contempt settled me. This Pole was trying to needle me into action in front of his men. Now I had his measure, I didn't flinch. He and his buds were dead. I don't tolerate disrespect, not ever. They'd be gone by sundown.
"I'm king of London," Kowalczyk boasted. "Everyone comes to my parties."
He was completely loco. Bad priorities too. Business always comes first.
"I might buy you out," Kowalczyk mocked. "If the price is right."
"I'll consider it."
He insulted me because he didn't even respect me enough to whack me. Keeping my temper in check was easy because the cabrón would soon be six feet under. Kowalczyk enjoyed partying, and if I blew him away in his own club, his terrified customers would run next door, into my place. Yes, I'm a nut for efficiency.
There was no point in staying but as I got up to go, she walked in. The tunic fluttered and rippled, drawing attention to the curves. To my delight, her face matched the poem of a body: huge hazel eyes, a little nose with an enchanting upturned tip and flawless skin. 
One look was all it took. I saw her and knew I wouldn't rest until she was mine.
Kowalczyk was on his feet in an instant. "Persia." The way he drank her in told me he was solid. "Come here."
The eyes flickered, but she undulated over, putting one foot in front of another as if she were strolling down a catwalk, that mouth-watering body shimmering under the silky dress.
He put a paw around her waist, pulled her in tight against his overfat gut and, looking me right in the eye, growled, "We're done. The answer is no."
He was a dead man, so I was ice. "I'll be seeing you."
She was so close, that her perfume drifted over, a rich, exotic scent that hinted at satin sheets and decadent passion. She didn't even glance my way but his radar warned him I was coveting his woman. His fingers splayed, digging into her soft flesh and whitening as they pinched.
Curiously, she was silent. She just stood there, that beautiful face as devoid of emotion as the marble goddess outside as he mauled her.
"Where were you?" The question was loaded with entitlement. "I sent for you and they couldn't find you."
"I was in the garden," the low tones were distant.
The hand gripped her admonishingly. "Next time, take your phone."
"Of course." She sounded cold but then she lifted her eyes and smiled at him. "Sorry."
It was well done, but I saw the falseness in it. This wasn't a wife or girlfriend; this was a possession. She had the face of an angel but the ugly fingers claiming her told me she'd sold herself to the devil. I've a strong stomach but surprisingly, the knowledge revolted me.
Kowalczyk was staring at her, his ill-fitting suit suddenly bulging. He dipped his head and kissed her lasciviously, establishing possession. The girl stood on tiptoe, accepting the thin slavering lips with the blank expression and studied manner of a pro.
The contrast between them so was harsh that I wondered what possessed her. A puta with her looks could easily have sold herself to a much better specimen than Kowalczyk. That she had settled for the blobfish was incomprehensible.
I made to leave them to it. "Adios."
Kowalczyk tore himself away and gazed at me. If he'd just shut up, he would have been dead and no regrets. But he opened his mouth and screwed himself. "You're a loser. Do yourself a favour and go back to where you came from."
I had my hand on my gun before conscious thought kicked in. "What the fuck?"
The soldiers were between us a heartbeat later.
The girl gasped but Kowalczyk just talked on. "Everyone knows you're a fuckup. Your cousin gave you the job out of pity. You lost a shitload of coke in Turkey and when you got shot, by a fucking amateur, they sent a low-ranking flunky from Mexico to save your arse."
Fury flooded through me, fanning the hot desire for revenge into an inferno. The insult was too much to bear. Death was too easy. I'd destroy him, rip him apart, bit by bit.
"You're short of staff, too, right?" The brown fangs showed again. "You can't get anyone to sign up with you."
He mistook my silence for cowardice. "You can't take care of business."
"If you're quite done, I'll be seeing you."
He shrugged, oblivious to the underlying threat, but the girl's eyes lifted and locked on mine, little flecks of green and gold lighting up the rich hazel as she examined me. The swift appraisal packed a boxer's punch. This was no empty-headed slut; she radiated intelligence.
It decided me; I'd destroy Kowalczyk, ripping away the business he'd built, the house he was proud of, the celebs that flocked around him, and when he went into a pauper's grave, he'd go knowing I was boning his woman.
I nodded at her. "Be seeing you, too." Of all of Kowalczyk's possessions, she was the only one I wanted. She was a beauty; just thinking of those curves as mine had me solid.
The girl saw right through me. Her eyes narrowed with comprehension, the sparkle darkening. "Ohmigod, you and me? I don't think so!" Registering her disdain in every inch, she shrugged off Kowalczyk's iron grasp. She examined me from top to toe and then she shuddered. "One has to draw the line somewhere." Then she threw back her shoulders and laughed, "Eeeeew, no thanks! Definitely not." At me!
The stolid Pole and his goons had been bad enough but to have a girl mock me was the last straw. Somehow, I got out of that house, her contempt haunting me as I tore out of the gate.
I don't remember the drive home but by the time I pulled up in my VIP reserved parking bay, the humiliation had seared into a crushing need for revenge. I punched the penthouse button on the private elevator and came to a decision: as they shovelled dirt over Kowalczyk's corpse, she would be in my bed and the bitch would be screaming. I would make her life a living hell and she would suffer an eternity.
I'd make her pay.

Chapter Two

"You weren't in the garden." Whether it was the stained teeth, the smell of cheap cigars or just the sheer evil of his presence was uncertain but being near Jacek Kowalczyk made me want to heave. "Where did you go?"
"Nowhere." My lie was automatic.
The pale orbs were expressionless but the merciless hand slid up my waist, cupping, gripping and then sliding over my breast. I knew what was coming and braced myself. As the iron fingers latched on and squeezed, the searing pain brought tears to my eyes. But I didn't gasp or move; I didn't want to give him the satisfaction.
After a long count of ten, just as my knees were about to buckle, he let go. The chilly gaze bore into me. "Don't. Lie. To. Me." He was remote, entirely unmoved. "You were off to that college again."
My fashion design course. My life. My passion. "I had to submit my end of term assignment. Otherwise they'll kick me out."
The thin mouth twisted. "You don't have the talent. Your skills level stops at wearing clothes."
Great. I started my career as a model and like the rest of the world, Kowalczyk assumed that made me a moron.
He looked into the distance, mulling over a fun way to crush me. "You are here to provide a service."
He liked to show me off to visitors, setting me alongside the masterpiece paintings and the crystal chandeliers. I'd forgotten that he'd told me to be in his office that afternoon, with special instructions to be all over him.
The feral fangs showed. "As you aren't delivering, we'll add to the debt. An extra week's vig, I think."
Christ, more debt to work off. I didn't even try to protest. I was powerless, and he knew it.
"The door's there, Persia." It was better than crushing my soft flesh; he was enjoying himself. "Feel free to leave."
I stayed, just as he knew I would. I was tethered to Jacek Kowalczyk as firmly as if he had me on a leash. I wasn't going anywhere.
"You were late, and you cheeked me before my visitor."
Oh hell. Usually the pestilent Pole was too thick to notice my nasty little quips, but he'd picked up on the veiled insult.
"You think you're too good for me?" The cold eyes narrowed. "I think you need a reminder of where exactly you stand."
Christ, this would be brutal. I was an inch from welling up but blinking rapidly dealt with it. I couldn't run. Instead, I focussed on the man who'd just walked out. I'll be seeing you. He'd spoken softly, almost dreamily, but the violence in his gaze spoke volumes.
Dark tousled hair, dark eyes, divine cheekbones and a long, lean, limber body that longed to be stroked, kissed and licked. Well-dressed too. The superbly cut steel grey suit was Savile Row, the purple shirt handstitched Gucci and the leather loafers were Dolce & Gabbana. A man to die for.
I lusted for a moment, and then reality kicked in. He was prettier than the others, but still scum. The knowledge centred me. He'd been absolutely raging; threatening revenge. With luck, he'd kill Kowalczyk stone dead. Death could do us part.
"An object lesson," my tormentor mused.
Although this fucker was possibly too evil even for the devil.
"Have the car brought round," Kowalczyk snapped to his minders. He ran a hand up my leg and over my arse. "In thirty minutes."
The foul foursome who guarded him 24/7 jumped to it, leaving me to my fate.
"Slut." The creeping fingers were lifting the hem of my tunic, exposing my knickers. He'd draw this out, enjoying my humiliation. "A half and half, ending with you bent over the desk."
Talking to me as if I were a whore and using me in his office so that his minders would hear me being fucked was his favourite game. Swallowing the insult that came to my lips saved me from further humiliation like having the door left open and other fun twists. My mouth had cost me too much already.
My mind went back to the pretty visitor. I'd sensed the maelstrom in the dark-eyed stranger but I'd been so pissed off with Kowalczyk that I'd sneered at him out of sheer bad temper and despair.
"I'm waiting," Kowalczyk said silkily. He made a point of seeming impassive but I knew him too well; humiliation was his aphrodisiac. Under the sagging belly, his crotch was bulging. "On your knees."
A deep breath helped me tune out the man before me and turn inward. A runway with models wearing the clothes I'd designed. Music blaring, lights flashing. Me, seeing my success. His fingers pinching my shoulder dug in. It freaking hurt, and it brought me back, keeping me from blanking him out.
He was working the clasp of his belt. "Come on, get this undone." Grumbling, "Those bastard dry-cleaners shrunk this suit."
"You're too fat." I eyed the straining material. "If you want a better fit, I suggest industrial liposuction."
The pale eyes blazed. "Shut the fuck up."
"I assumed you didn't want me to mention the micro dick."
Told you I have a mouth on me. And a death wish maybe.
He held me by the hair, agony all by itself, and shook me. "You'll pay for that."
"So you said." He wanted tears, and I was determined to ruin it for him. "Hurry up and stick it in already."
"Suka!" My hair was coming out at the roots. I was still gasping when he pulled me to my feet and tossed me over the desk. "Ty kurwo!"
I won't dwell on the next few minutes. Luckily, Kowalczyk was hung like a mouse and gone in 60 seconds to boot. The thin rod piercing me barely registered, and the stream of trash-talk was water off a duck's back. It was the shame of knowing I was helpless that really hurt me.
Thankfully, blanking out was easy. I went straight into my favourite fantasy. Silk dresses by Persia York, Designer of the Year. His groaning jolted me out of my reverie. When he pulled out, I was filled with triumph. He'd used my body, but I'd escaped him.
"Now for the lesson." The hand was in my hair again. I'd counted my chickens too soon. The Armani trousers were puddled around his ankles. "Lick me clean."
Did I say he was a filthy pig? "No fucking way!"
The iron grip kept me in place as he shoved his crotch into my face. I'll spare you the rest. It was vile.
"Throw up on my rug and I'll make you eat it."
I was heaving and swallowing rapidly, hoping the sick would go away, when a phone rang.
At the jaunty tune, some Polish polka, he dropped me and sprang to attention. Digging in a drawer, he pulled out a cheap phone. "Anno." His attention focused like a laser beam, he spoke rapidly. "Yes, I have it all set up. She's coming for dinner on Friday, and she'll bring her fiancé."
Nausea winning, I crawled over to the wastebasket. As I vomited, I came to a resolution. I wasn't doing this anymore.
"Yes, I'm certain. She's confirmed."
Jacek Kowalczyk was scum, the kind whose death people would cheer. A gun would do the trick or perhaps I could stab him as he slept.
"It'll be a party to remember. It'll go just as we planned."
I was kidding myself. I didn't have it in me to kill and Kowalczyk knew it. He had a gold-plated gun, and he left it lying about all the time. Because I was too cowardly to pick it up and pull the trigger.
"I'm telling you, there's nothing to worry about."
My ears pricked up, not because of what he was saying but because of his tone. Kowalczyk was explaining, almost crawling. He'd never done that to anyone.
"Jorge Santos is a nobody. He was here just now, begging for a favour."
Now I had a name to put the pretty face: Jorge, the Spanish for George, and Santos for saint. Some saint. Devil, more like.
"Yes, Arturo Vazquez is not to be messed with but he won't give a fuck. The Zetas blow away problems, family or not, and Santos screwed up last year. If he disappears, his cousin will just laugh."
Great. I'd never heard of the Zetas but they sounded as evil as Kowalczyk. That pretty Jorge was pure filth.
"He took my band, Pussy Wave, and now I will take over his territory," Kowalczyk boasted. "I'm king of London!"
It must be an associate. It was a revelation because the Pole posed as an independent, a powerhouse who'd made his own way in the world, cunning and indestructible. He never talked about his plans to anyone and here he was, sharing.
"Yes, it won't take me long," Kowalczyk was lit with triumph. "Da va."
Another lightbulb. I'd wondered why he was speaking English but the two little words explained it: I had heard Natasha Kievko, Moscow's iconic designer say it often enough.
Knowing Kowalczyk was pally with a Russian opened my eyes because the Poles hate them with a passion. Fifty years of communist rule aren't easily set aside.
"Get up, you stupid bitch." He was pulling me up by the hair. Despite the call, the foul temper was flooding full force. "You look like shit."
Not answering and a blank stare saved me from a beating and although he pretended that it meant I was afraid, we both knew I did it only because it drove him insane.
"Acid," he snarled. "A single splash will ruin that pretty face of yours."
That scared me but I lifted my chin. "Talk is cheap."
His "Ty kurwo!" was rich with impotent fury.
In the three months he'd had me, Kowalczyk had tried every trick in the book to crush me. He was desperate to see me break down and beg but so far all he'd managed was temporary humiliation. With my background, it would take more than a Polish prick to cow me. I shrugged and affected indifference, "If I look like shit, I'd better stay home."
His fists balled at my cool answer but he wanted me at his side when he went out and a black eye would put a stop to that. That need was my only hold on him: Kowalczyk might pull my hair, twist my arms and pinch but he was damn careful not to do any visible damage. Swimming daily in a tiny bikini in the heated inside pool meant he'd not even dared take a cane to me when I'd refused to let him tie me up or bugger me.
I might be too cowardly to kill him but in mind games, I could hold my own. "Well, do you want me to go out or not?"
"Get. Changed." He bit the words out. "Five. Minutes."
The mansion was massive. Mercifully, I had my own room. I gazed at myself in the long mirror and winced. My makeup hadn't run – it had galloped, smearing from forehead to chin. The silky wrap I'd designed was totally trashed as well. By the time I'd swapped it for a frothy little number in amber silk, and done my face, the best part of an hour had gone by.
"I told you to hurry the fuck up!"
"Perfection takes time."
"Get in the fucking car! We're late!" Kowalczyk was champing at the bit but he daren't push it. Empire has just reopened after a month of refurbishment. That night was about publicity, celebs galore had promised to drop by, and he wanted me beside him, looking pretty.
It was an opportunity. "I feel sick. I'm sure I'm going to throw up again. I can't go."
The fists balled but stayed at his side. "Come, and we renegotiate the debt." 
"How much?"
"I'll forgive you for today. I won't add an extra week's vig."
Great. Interest payments were sky high, so it was a glorious opportunity to reduce the overall debt. "It's not enough. I want that, and an extra week's credit."
He growled but nodded. "Fine."
I breathed again. "I'll have Colin meet us there, with the paperwork." Because I wasn't trusting the Polish sleaze to keep his word.
"Suck it up, buttercup."
He hissed but took it. Yes, I was on top. At least, for now.
Empire was packed and the queue outside ran to the end of the block. We pulled up in style, in a stretch limo, an absurd vehicle straight out of Vegas, and the foul four stepped out and cleared the path. 
It was an entrance calculated to impress, especially with Kowalczyk acting the big man, nodding hellos and beaming for a dozen photographers. As the crowd had no idea he paid for press coverage through Gold Ticket, his PR agency, they wowed. 
"Look at that limo! It's bigger than a bus."
"That's Jacek Kowalczyk, the owner."
Kowalczyk expanded with pride, delighted his money was working for him, and when two local film stars turned up and embraced him as a long-lost friend, his grin reached to Prague.
The PR people had also arranged the celeb appearances, but they went down well, as did the supporting actor from Dr Who, the latest reject from Big Brother, and a porn star who'd been caught boinking a cabinet minister.
As the celebrities hugged Kowalczyk and posed for the press, the crowd lapped it up.
"The owner must be mega rich."
"I saw him in The Sun, in one of those richest bachelors in London lists."
That had been a PR job, too.
"He's with Persia York, the model." 
"Ohmigod, really? The one who does bikers by the dozen? Gangbang Persia?"
"Yeah, the catwalk bad girl."
That's me. Face like an angel and a reputation that's pure gutter.
"Jesus, she looks good."
See? I'm pretty.
"Kowalczyk's a lucky bastard. I wish I were rich and successful."
Which was exactly why Kowalczyk wanted me. The fucker.
The photographers all spotted me at the same time. 
"Hey Persia, over here, love."
"Over here, Persia."
"We missed you at the London fashion show yesterday, Persia. Were you in jail?"
I gave that one the finger, and they all laughed.
"Who made the dress, Persia?"
"You back to modelling, love? Who's the client?"
I'm not famous like Jourdan Dunn or Edie Campbell, but I started at fourteen and after working with names like Gap, Dior and Victoria's Secret, I rated almost as good as the Doctor Who sidekick. 
"I'm taking a course at the London College of Fashion. The dress is my design." Advertising had become an instinct. 
It caused a nice stir, too. "Really? We're looking at the next Vivienne Westwood?" a ponytail with a Nikon called out.
"I sure hope so!"
The pestilent Pole didn't like that at all. "Persia's joking." Kowalczyk's paw was heavy on my shoulders. "Her future's with me." 
The crushing weight silenced me as much as a tide of shame and disgust.
The ponytail gawped. "You're kidding!"
Kowalczyk bridled instantly. "We're in love."
The ponytail had clearly been out of town. "You and Persia York? The girl who's seen more traffic than London Bridge?"
Yeah, ten years on the catwalk and a wild past had earned me a rep. But while I was no angel, I'd never sunk as low as this.
"Yes, Persia and me," Kowalczyk snapped. By the sudden swell under the belly and the tightening fingers, my shame was providing him with another woodie. "We're made for each other."
"Fucking hell!" The ponytail was snapping away. "That's a cover story, all right. Hey Persia, you got Daddy issues? Or do you have a thing for fat bastards?" 
I gave him the finger again, and Kowalczyk was about to explode, when a loud squawk cut through the crowd. 
"Persia!" Laura Griffin tripped along, her smile at full wattage and her hands waving dramatically. The air kiss was as fake as her joy at seeing me. "Darling! It's been ages!"
"Hello, Laura."
"The Gold Ticket PR people begged me to come." Her cat-like smile said it all. "Are you waitressing here?"
The bitch. "Nice dress. Last year's fashion suits you."
Laura's eyes narrowed. "You're always a little out there, aren't you, Persia?" she cooed. Then, maliciously, she fingered my dress. "But sweetie," she exclaimed fake-horrified. "Don't tell me you're reduced to wearing home-made?"
I powered up automatically. "Look, I'm busy here. If I throw a stick, you'll leave, right?"
I would have walked away but Laura's tits spilling out of her dress had Kowalczyk mesmerised. "Hello!"
Batting her eyelashes, she was all over him in an instant. "I've been dying to meet you. I just love your club." Her arm linked in mine, she announced, "Persia and I are old friends."
"You were with La Perla and now you're with the Rampage," Kowalczyk was drooling, the ponytail forgotten. "Come and have some champagne."
"Ooh, I love bubbles!" A split-second later, she elbowed me out of the way. Then, tits out and teeth bared, she posed for the cameras. "Laura Griffin. That's with two fs."
"As in eff off," I grumbled.
Modelling is hugely competitive but we girls are friends. Laura was the exception, always stirring and creating drama. She'd retired three years before, promptly landing a fashion column in the Rampage, one of the grubbier national dailies. Rather than boost the industry, she spent most of her time slagging off models. I always avoided her if I could because seeing her inevitably brought out my bad side.
"Oh dear," Laura sighed. "Time of the month, sweetie? You're a little bloated."
Kowalczyk muffled my four-letter reply, elbowing me in his haste to get between us. "Any friend of Persia's," he was loud, practically yelling, and quick to snake out an iron hand, cleaving me to his side and making sure the photographers got a shot of him with both of us. Then, with an eye on the line of waiting punters, he hailed the chief bouncer, "Pavel, can't we let all these people in?"
The man crawled instantly. "Sorry, boss. We're full."
Kowalczyk bawled his message. "We should get more space." A significant pause, "I know, we'll take over Bubbles. The owner will quit town soon."
The press sharpened up. "Are you serious? Bubbles is closing down? Jorge Santos's place?"
"Yeah. Santos is broke."
There was a short silence. "You want that in print?" a beard with an Olympus frowned.
"Yeah." Kowalczyk reset to impassive.
"There's no way Bubbles is closing. It's way too popular," the ponytail decided. "Are you pissed off with him because he contracted Pussy Wave?"
"No!" Kowalczyk was puce. "Santos was at my place today, begging for help. His business is a train wreck."
"I'm not printing that," the beard muttered.
"Me neither," the ponytail agreed.
Kowalczyk's hiss was serpentine. "Santos is broke. Print it."
"You print it."
"Yeah, it's your funeral, mate."
Their response sent a quiver of warning through me. These men didn't give a stuff about anything, as long as they got their story. The beard had a bent nose, a souvenir from being belted in the smacker too often, and the ponytail paparazzi was in and out of court on both sides of the Atlantic for defamation, harassment and invasion of privacy. If they wouldn't print a slur that fifty people could vouch for, it meant Jorge Santos was one scary bloke.
"He's a loser," Kowalczyk snarled. "Persia loathes him."
"Does she?" Ponytail twitched. 
"Yes." Kowalczyk scented interest and ran with it. "He was in my office today, making eyes at her."
"Really?" The beard was sceptical.
Kowalczyk went for it. "She told him she was way out of his league." 
Hell! I'd laughed at the Zeta, not realising how damn dangerous he was. Who would have guessed he was the kind of nut capable of scaring the gutter press?
I was so caught up kicking myself that it hardly registered when Kowalczyk said, "Persia recognises a loser when she sees one and Santos is on his way out." He was secretly squeezing my tit. "Isn't that right?"
I heard myself spout automatically, "Absolutely."
Then, before I could gather my wits, he swept up the hired celebs, including Laura, announcing, "Enough of this, let's party." 
And that's how I dissed the Zeta boss in front of all of London.
Experience told me there was nothing I could say. If I denied it, the press would just use it to make it look worse. Hopefully, fear would prevent them from printing the story. At least, I was hoping it would. Jorge Santos sounded real trouble.
Inside, the only free table was Kowalczyk's. Sectioned off with a velvet rope, and on a platform a foot higher than the rest of the club, it ensured everyone could see and admire.
As the staff brought bottles of vodka and champagne, I checked out the room. It was filled with rent-a-crowd faces. Kowalczyk's PR people had gone all-out to be sure Empire looked popular and that the press photos were glam but I thought it a mistake to keep real punters outside. 
People will wait if it gets them into a fantabulous club but make them queue and then disappoint them and they may not try again - especially if none of their mates has first-hand knowledge that the experience is worth it.
Kowalczyk had remodelled because Empire had never been above middling popular but if he wasn't careful, his club would not cultivate its cadre of paying regulars, no matter how much had gone into the makeover.
Still, it wasn't my problem. I ducked into the loo to ring Colin but as the music made calling impossible, I ended up texting. When I finally returned to the table, Laura was sweet-talking the Big Brother star into introducing her to his agent. She was so focussed on her future, that she'd turned her back on Kowalczyk, leaving him upstaged and fuming.
The pale eyes narrowed with fury again. "Where the fuck did you go?"
"To call Colin."
"Where are your friends?"
Isa, Orabelle and Tazanna, my BFFs. He wanted them because lingerie models are mini celebs, but they didn't like him very much. "They'll look in later."
"Why can't we pay them to turn up?"
"Because unlike me, they're not whores."
The thin lips were white with rage. As I slid into my seat, his thumb dug into my thigh. "Pour. My. Drink." His snarl in my ear promised trouble to come. 
Pushing back was automatic. "Pour mine. Maybe someone will mistake you for a gentleman."
"Persia!" Colin's hand was on my shoulder, hand clamping down in hidden warning as he smiled at a fulminating Kowalczyk. "I love what you've done with the club."
A dour nod was all he got. 
Colin dropped his voice. "I thought you should know, the restaurant's doing great."
"Your sister isn't."
Colin's face fell. "I'll talk to her." He had me outside, well away from the line, a second later. "Are you insane? That man can destroy us."
All the tears I'd been holding back welled. "He's a pig."
"But you knew that, right?" Colin ran a nervous hand through his hair. "You said you'd cope."
So I had. "I hate him."
"He's an entitled arse. But as an influencer all you have to do is hang out and pretend you're enjoying yourself," Colin's eyes were roving up and down the street. "It's just smiling and being seen, right?"
My brother had no idea about the true state of affairs. A flash of that disgusting dripping dick came rushing back. Swallowing the sick, I held it together. "Yes, but it's harder than I thought."
Colin twitched. "Are you calling it quits?"
I considered what would happen. "No."
"I've redeemed most of the mortgage," Colin assured me. "And the loan payments are up to date."
Our family home was safe and so was the business. The spectre of my Mum and Dad being made homeless, and my brother a cripple for life, or counting worms, receded.
"We should be clear soon," Colin punched numbers into his phone. "It's just a few more weeks, less now you've renegotiated again."
Colin tucked away his mobile. "I feel this is my fault," he sighed. "I should have told you that the restaurant redecoration was too much for my budget."
"It was my idea to avoid cheap and cheerful Ikea." Although it hadn't been me who'd gone to Kowalczyk for a loan. "We both should've been more careful."
"If only I'd checked," Colin lamented. "But the loan company looked legit."
"And that's how they get you." I wasn't blaming him. Colin was so honest and upright that he had no clue about real evil. "Never mind. A few more weeks and we're all clear."
Colin gazed with disapproval at the throng. "I don't like this place much. Too much drink and some customers look high. I think they're doing drugs."
"Well, that's the London club crowd for you."
Colin looked worried. "Persia, you're not tempted, are you?"
I hastened to reassure him. "Of course not!"
"Right." He gave me a hug. "Sorry. We said we'd never mention it again, didn't we? Mea culpa."
The one and only time I'd tried coke, they had caught me. It was my own stupid fault but the photo of me doing a line went viral. While the police left me alone after I convinced them it was just a joke, and that the white stuff was sugar, the newspapers were all over it.
It had horrified my family and even now, they worried. Especially my brother. I put an arm around him. "I don't mind, Colin. Policing sisters is what big brothers do." The thought made me feel warm. Like we were blood kin.
Colin hugged me instantly, no doubt understanding me exactly. "You're doing a good job on Kowalczyk's PR," he said warmly. "So many famous faces. And you brought Laura in, too. Really, excellent work, Persia."
"Thanks." Taking credit for Gold Ticket's work was automatic. If my brother knew I was Kowalczyk's whore instead of his public relations consultant, he'd never, ever forgive himself.
"With the restaurant doing okay and your PR work, we're paying off this debt right on schedule," Colin continued.
A drunk girl tottered out of the club and threw up in the gutter. Colin stiffened with disgust. "Really! Disgraceful."
I bit back the impulse to say I'd love to get plastered and forget the horrors of the present. On the rare occasion my brother opened a bottle of wine he wouldn't have more than a glass.
Colin took my hand and smiled at me. "I know I'm a fusspot, Persia, but are you sure you can work with Kowalczyk? He comes across as rough."
My decorating bill had put us in this mess, so I crossed my fingers and lied. "You know me, I love a walk on the wild side. I'll be fine."
"Oh, well, if you're sure."
My brother's unmistakable relief told me I'd done the right thing. When he'd taken out the loan, unexpected fees plus an eye watering interest had piled up until the debt had crippled us. We'd been within a hair of destitution.
My staying with Kowalczyk kept payments reasonable but three months of being treated like a whore was getting to me. "How much longer exactly before it's all paid off?"
Colin pressed my hand. "As long as we keep this up, another three weeks."
I'd have to suck it up. "I'll survive."

Chapter Three

"He said what?" James asked astonished.
"You heard." I was still steaming but watching the others react with amazement made it better.
"And he wasn't stinking drunk or high?" Paco couldn't take it in.
 "You think it's because you signed Pussy Wave?" Paco asked.
"Maybe. Or because Bubbles is doing better than his place."
"Que pendejo!"
Lencho was matter-of-fact. "We'll need permission and a plan to break through his security."
"No way will the jefe turn us down," Paco huffed. "This is not just an insult to Jorge. It's an insult to the Zetas."
"Yeah, but the fucker needs to suffer." Lencho's eyes were hard. We all learned the business together back in Nuevo Laredo, our hometown in Mexico, which made us closer than brothers. He was also aching for revenge. "We send a message: nobody fucks with us."
"That's my take too." I was raging but determined to handle this with professional detachment. "But first I want to settle the property issue."
"How can you sit there so calmly, Jorge?" Lencho exclaimed.
"Yeah, I'd have shot the bastard on the spot," Paco growled.
Having been mauled once already that day, it sounded like criticism. "Business before personal," I reminded them. "Also, while I love a fight as much as anyone else, the fucker had four bodyguards in the room."
"He didn't dismiss them?" Paco exclaimed. "What the fuck? Two bosses discussing business and he had the hired help listen in?"
"You ought to have shot them all," Lencho sighed.
I directed them to the real issue. "I didn't kill him because I don't want him dead; I want him to suffer."
"We'll still need permission," Lencho pointed out. "Because it will cause a war."
We were in my office, the executive suite on the twenty-fifth floor of our very own skyscraper, Zeta Towers. As I looked around my team, it hit me that something was missing: respect. It sent a ripple of concern through me and I suppressed it instantly, but once felt, it couldn't be ignored.
James, Lencho, Paco and me had been equals back home but as head of the London Zetas, they should have recognised that I was now a little apart and above them.
We'd been so tight for so long, that it felt strange even thinking it. But a leader has to be above his men. It's the nature of authority. Only a pendejo demands a title, respect is personal, but I had been in charge for a year, long enough for the others to graduate naturally from 'Jorge' to 'boss' in the office.
"You want to take revenge, Jorge?" James asked. "Wouldn't it be easier just to ice him?"
Yes, I really had dropped a loop. But I was cool, taking charge and showing them why I was the leader. "If we shoot him, we've got a problem. Kowalczyk's organisation is profitable but small. He doesn't have a family and there is no heir or second in command."
James saw the problem immediately. "Right, so if we blow him away, there will be a fight over his territory."
"Exactly. It runs next to ours and so we want it. However, we're short on manpower." I laid it out for him. "If we remove Kowalczyk today, the Rovers, Peckham Boys or some other outfit will try to take it."
James nodded. "And we don't want them to become more powerful."
"Also, we can't just blow them all away. The cops here aren't like the badges back home."
"That's for sure," James sighed. "Some can't be bought."
"They're under-funded, so they're limited in their response. Littering the town with corpses would change that. We don't want parliament giving them extra cash, therefore, we need to stay discreet. Quiet warfare is the way to go."
"Well thought out, Jorge," Lencho complimented me. "So, how will you fuck over Kowalczyk and take him out, without handing his business to our rivals or rousing the cops?"
Yeah, talk about a fucking problem. But I didn't let on that I didn't have a clue. "I'll let you know my plans later. First, we need a new chemist. Jamal Blake is no longer with us."
That sharpened their attention.
"He tried it on, then?" James asked.
"He did."
"The stupid fuck."
"After all you did for him!"
"Those were my thoughts too." But a sneaky voice whispered that Jamal Blake never would have dared cheat the jefe. I shrugged the evil thought away.
"It's hard to find reliable locals," Paco lamented. "Everyone good has been snapped up already."
That's the problem with entering new territory; building up business inevitably means choosing between importing expertise, which is expensive, or poaching other people's staff. As talented staff are well paid, they don't move easily.
"I miss El Raton," Paco sighed.
Our former chemist and my good friend since kindy. I'd sent him to Turkey with a consignment of coke and he'd been ambushed. Not my fault, we had a traitor at headquarters in Mexico, but it still stung. "He may be back one day but it won't be soon. He's still learning to walk."
"It wasn't your fault," James can always read me. "Shit happens, Jorge."
It was the truth, but knowing El Raton might be in a wheelchair for life got to me. Again, I shook off the black thought and focused on business. "I'll process the product until we get a replacement chemist."
"You?" Paco frowned.
"Yes, me," I snapped.
"Right, yes, sure." Paco backed off instantly. "Sorry, I meant no disrespect."
I took a breath and forced back the temper that ran through me. "I'm no pro but it will do for now. In the meantime, let's look at Iran and Saudi for talent. London's a hell of a lot more fun than Tehran and Riyadh. A chemist worth his salt might want to move. And when we take out Kowalczyk, we may pick up talent there, too."
That made them smile. We all like a win-win.
"Next, our property line." I was keeping my eye on the ball. "James, where do we stand on the paperwork?"
James is a lawyer and his assessment always starts with an outline of the legal parameters. "As the council made the error, we can appeal. The courts can force the council to change it but it will take years and we'd incur a shitload of legal bills, whether we win or lose. We're much better off disappearing the paperwork." Okay, he's also cartel, which means he's a very direct thinker.
"We do it the Zeta way," I decided. "I want the files, the notes and any minutes of any meetings destroyed. A strategic fire should do the trick. Lencho, make this happen."
"Sure thing."
"Be careful," I warned him. "The Planning Office is just a block away from here. I don't want to risk stray sparks setting Zeta Towers aflame."
"It's all computerised now," Paco pointed out. "I'll get the hacker team back home to vanish the digital records."
"There may be some print copies hanging about," James mused. "But we deal with them as we come across them or dismiss them as fakes."
That being settled, I began to set up for the business of revenge. "We've only got a basic file on Kowalczyk. If we're going to take him out, we need more information. Find out everything there is to know about him: bank accounts, investors, a list of the people he's fucked over, and the address of his dear old Mum."
I wasn't telling them about the girl. His insults stung, but her scorn burned. "Focus on him and his organisation." I'd look her up myself and the second she was mine, I'd make her pay. I'd start by taking my belt to her.
"Of course." As my lieutenant, James would run with it.
"We're on it," Lencho assured me. "We've got your back."
Again, he was offering support to his associate, not his boss. It really got to me but I couldn't help but wonder why I hadn't noticed before.
"Maybe we can get Matu back," James suggested. "With El Raton gone and him too, we are short-staffed."
Our other socio and dearly missed. "No, the jefe needs him in LA."
"Pity," James sighed. "We need him for logistics."
"I'm handling that!"
"Of course," James said quickly.
I was fuming at the implied criticism but Paco's cell buzzed and an instant later, he was grinning, "Cabrón!" and passing around his phone.
They'd discovered Jamal Blake's corpse.
"A message that will be heard everywhere."
They loved it and the exclamations came with a shitload of respect.
"When Kowalczyk hears, he'll piss himself, knowing he's next," James predicted happily.
"An act worthy of the jefe himself," Lencho sighed.
"That's why I'm the boss." 
It just came out, floating in the air. I waited uneasily, not daring to let even myself know how important this was.
The men were checking their phones and smiling at the flood of texts coming in, all considering my work. 
"Iconic," James sighed. "All that with a baseball bat?"
"Like Al Capone," Lencho nailed it. 
They rated the message, but it fell short of the respect that should have come. My eye fell on the map hanging on the wall that outlined our territory, several blocks of prime London real estate. I'd inherited it, not fought for it, and now the knowledge twisted my gut. Had Kowalczyk been right? Was I a waste of space and too stupid to know it?
I'd been given London as my plaza a year earlier, after our first man out, Escamilla, attempted to stage a coup. The fucking moron really tried to take on the jefe. Of course, that went nowhere.
I had just taken over when head office dumped the Turkish fiasco on me. Then, I'd been shot by an assassin. Arturo had sent over his senior associate, Quique Ramas, to look after the shop while I out of the picture.
Quique had implemented some early steps of my takeover plan but after I got out of the hospital, lack of reliable manpower had prevented me from finishing.
My dream was to establish a seaport. Having our own dock and bonded warehouse would allow us to kick ass properly.
Until that day I'd put the setbacks down to bad luck but now I worried that I'd lost my edge.
I suppressed the notion as soon as it surfaced. I am fourth generation cartel; I made my bones when I was seventeen, and when my father died, shot when I was twenty-four, I became head of my family, taking care of my mother and my sister. Of course I merited respect, my track record said so. But despite it all, I was edgy.
"I'm looking forward to taking out Kowalczyk," Lencho grinned. "I like action."
"Good. Because you're going to get plenty of it." I checked my watch. "Okay, get to work. I'll meet you at Bubbles later."
The second they exited, I was diving into the file and planning. Kowalczyk's club was next to mine and I could absorb his string of massage parlours, car washes and restaurants easily.
It was looking at the map that gave me the idea. Seeing his plaza laid out in neat lines, it occurred to me that I shouldn't confine myself to seeing it as a whole. His territory comprised various chunks, each of which might be divided into blocks and then again subdivided into streets and finally buildings.
One of our favourite methods of execution is to salami a man. As you slice him like a sausage, he stays alive and aware, meaning it's a good lesson for him and for the people who find the bits we leave.
I realised instead of an all-out expensive, intense war, I might capture Kowalczyk business in tiny slices. Taking it step by step would mean fewer manpower issues. Also, as it doesn't take cartel training to run a regular business, I could probably win over most of his staff. A masseuse doesn't give a toss who she works for, right? Or a shop owner or bartender. The stable of racehorses would require some study, though.
My spirits rising, I had a look at the girl.
Persia York was a footnote in the file, with Paco's scribbled margin comment, "Former Victoria's Secret Angel. Current occupation, fashion design student." She'd been on Kowalczyk's arm for three months, boosting his public profile with the press. Her social media helped him too. There was also a note about an investment account and a summary statement of her personal wealth.
When I saw the figure, I sat back and whistled. The six-figure number said it all. There was no way she'd earned that kind of money on the catwalk. I remembered the blank face and practised kiss. The woman had sold herself - and she hadn't come cheap.
I was dying to dive in and run a proper background check on the bitch but my calendar alarm signalled it would have to wait; there was business to be done.
On cue, my laptop began to chime and the video link turned on.
"Jefe." I sat up straight. "How are you?"
"Excellent, thanks." Arturo was laughing, the full force of his personality blasting across the ocean separating us. "So, you had some excitement. Congratulations on the message. I love the subtle reference to Al Capone."
He knows everything, always. It's the reason he's on top.
"Pity though. Blake was a good chemist."
"I'll replace him."
"Sure," Arturo agreed. "I hear there's trouble with a Pole, Kowalczyk. Something about a property line?"
Told you.
"Yes, jefe."
"From your face, it didn't go well." He read me like a book. "What happened?"
I brought him up to speed, but I didn't mention the girl. I told myself she wasn't important. What mattered was Kowalczyk. "Jefe, I want to make him pay."
"Absolutely," Arturo agreed instantly. "What the hell was he thinking? He must have been high."
"He never touches product. And he was sober, too."
"Right. I see."
And so could I. The jefe was hesitating. A sliver of ice pierced my gut. "Surely you won't withhold permission? The insult -"
"Of course he's dead!" Arturo interrupted me. "Jorge, come on! We're cousins. Kowalczyk goes." He hesitated again. "It's just that we're stretched here. We're busy with our new territory over the border. There's considerable push-back, more than we expected. I can't send you soldiers or other support."
My chest was tight, my breath trapped. He thought I couldn't handle it. "I can take him."
"Kowalczyk is a small fish compared to our organisation, but he's got more men than you," Arturo pointed out. "He won't be a pushover."
Joder! My own cousin doubted me! Horror sucked all the air from my lungs.
"Wait a second," Arturo disappeared for a moment. When he returned, he had two familiar figures with him: Kyle, our head of security, and Quique.
"Jorge, that was a great message," Kyle grinned. "I'm impressed."
Considering he once crucified a man who'd crossed us, it was a compliment. Quique was smiling as well. I could see he approved. I got my breath back.
"Jorge wants to take out Kowalczyk," Arturo said to Kyle and Quique. "What's your input?"
"You lack staff so this needs to be a battle of minds, not strength," Kyle mused. "Focus on knowing him, keep him off his balance, manoeuvre him into weakness and make sure you keep control of the dynamic."
Kyle's an ex-Marine and a superb fighter.
"You can't just blow him away," Quique agreed. "But if you start by crippling his revenue stream, he won't be able to pay his soldiers. That will remove his advantage."
Quique's an ex-Kaibil, Guatemala's Special Forces, and quite as deadly.
I put forward my idea. "Rather than go all-out, I want to proceed street by street. You know, like the salami treatment but instead of carving up the man, we take his plaza slice by slice."
"It's a good idea, but it needs very careful pacing," Kyle agreed.
Didn't I know it! "It will take some time but I think it's the right tactic."
"It'll cost a fucking fortune," Quique said soberly. "But you can recoup the cost of the war when you capture the extra territory."
Kyle was staring into space, considering the facts from all angles. "You've got an extra problem," he said slowly. "You don't want the cops to get involved, so you need to be covert. Also, you can't leave bodies lying about."
"True," Quique agreed. "Start with a couple of show-stopping kills, just to inspire fear into the enemy, but after that, disappear the evidence."
Put together, it sounded one hell of a job.
"I like the idea of expansion, we're behind on our London plans," Arturo said. "But war takes a fuck-load of investment and well-trained reliable manpower is always a bitch."
"We can't really spare troops," Kyle contended. "Not for a few weeks."
They were going to ask me to wait because they didn't trust my skills. I fought for air. "I'll destroy Kowalczyk, add his territory to ours, and I'll do it with my own resources."
Arturo blinked and paused. "But there's the seaport project too. We need it to go ahead or we won't -"
In my haste, I forgot my respect and interrupted him. "I'll make that happen too."
"That's a big assignment," Arturo pointed out. "Jorge, no disrespect but you're very young."
He thought I was a loser. I almost died on the spot with shame. "I can handle it." Or die in the attempt. I willed him to agree with me. "Jefe, leave it to me."
I couldn't read Kyle or Quique, they were both inscrutable, but my cousin frowned. I waited with bated breath. If he said no, I'd be humiliated. It suddenly came to me that I would be finished. As a man is nothing without respect, my life would be over. I'd have to leave the cartel, and it would kill me.
Just as I was on the point of passing out with tension, the jefe nodded. "All right, Jorge," he smiled. "I leave it all in your hands. Call me if you need anything."
"Absolutely!" The air rushed into me, setting me gasping. Now I could make my reputation, set everyone straight once and for all. "Thank you, jefe."
My smile stayed in place but when the video feed clicked off, I had the sweats. Reviewing the conversation told me I'd been right: I got the job because I was family. If I'd been anyone else, they would have refused me. They didn't think I could take care of business by myself.
I looked out of the window at the Thames flowing past and spotted a wisp of smoke. Not a mile away, a building was going up in flames. Lencho's call to action was dealing with the property line issues.
As flakes of ash drifted by, I resolved to prove them all wrong. I'd fix Kowalczyk, take everything the man had, add in the seaport and then I'd hand it all to Arturo on a plate.
Filled with determination, I walked to the club, thinking over the bones of a plan. Quique had given me an approach: get to know the enemy, destabilise him and attack him with small, swift strikes, adding his business to ours bit by bit. And when Kowalczyk was isolated and on his last legs, I'd kill the fucker myself.
It was straightforward enough and by the time I walked the three blocks to the club, I was feeling good. I'd lick the bastard soon enough.
Bubbles was busy, even though it was still early. "Overflow from next door," Jacko, my chief bartender, grinned. "Kowalczyk filled his place with freeloaders, so we've a full house of disappointed punters."
"Terrific." I rang the ship's bell that hung above the bar. "I'm having a great day," I roared out, "so it's half priced tequila for the next ten minutes!"
A shot gets the party going, and the crowd were whooping and dancing as I fought my way over to the owner's table where the others were waiting. As always, they'd picked up some company. The three blondes were familiar, all of them regular party girls. The brunette was not, but by the low-cut dress and the big smile, she was out for some fun.
"Lencho," I patted him on the shoulder. "Good work."
He winked at me. "Thanks. We're on our second Flaming Lamborghini. Want one?"
"Hell, yes!"
"Good meeting?" James couldn't resist asking.
"The best."
I didn't have to say another word. The others got it straight away.
"What?" one of the blondes asked curiously. "What are we celebrating?"
"A new contract," Paco said smoothly.
"Jorge, this is Anette Dubois." James patted the brunette. "She's currently in customer service for British Airways. She wants to meet with the chief producer at the record company."
We own a small record label, it helps us promote the bands that perform in our clubs, and this girl yearned to be a singer.
"I've got a demo," Anette was straight out of the gate. "I'd love for you to hear it, Mr Santos." Her hand was on my knee and she let me see straight down her dress. "Maybe afterwards? Somewhere private?"
Girls using their bodies as lures to get ahead are everywhere. "Absolutely." She had a good face, fancy curves and nice rack but I was cautious in case the princess looks came with a frog voice. "Tell you what, hand the CD to the bartender. If it hits the spot, I'll talk to the producer."
The tape bombed. The crowd were losing steam before the end of the first verse.
I signalled Jacko to switch it off. "Sorry, guapa." 
"I couldn't afford decent mixing and mastering," she said desperately. "With some support I could be the next Annie Lennox or Adele."
Except those girls could wow a crowd, with or without fancy production. But she was pretty. "I'll think about it."
"I'll do anything."
As the hand on my knee moved up, I reflected she was an attractive package.
"It's a good night." James is a dog, he really is.
"Great." Okay, I'm a dog too.
A large figure loomed. "Up to no good, Santos?"
I was up and embracing him an instant later. "Detective Inspector Smith! My dear friend, how are you?"
He shrugged me off. "Stop that!"
"Join us for a drink?"
"On duty?" I commiserated. "You work too hard."
"Yeah, come and sit with us," James was busy making space. "Ladies, say hello to our very good friend, Detective Inspector Smith from CID, the Criminal Investigation Department."
"I am not your friend and I am not sitting down." Smith never had learned to deal with us, the poor bastard. "I'm here on business."
I was helpful, instantly. "Anything. Just ask. Some good tequila? Or you need music for a party?"
"The policeman's ball, maybe?" James needled happily.
My wallet was in my hand. "A donation!"
Smith practically frothed at the mouth. "Two hours ago, the Planning Office went up in flames."
"Was anyone hurt?"
"You bastards are having a property line dispute," Smith growled.
I threw up my hands in horror. "What are you saying?"
"You did this!" He was incandescent. "You burned the place down, thinking it's cheaper than going to court!"
I poured out a glass of tequila for him. "My friend, you are in shock."
He knocked the glass out of my hand. "Put that away!"
I took in the maddened glare in his eyes. "Ay-yay-yay, you need to calm down. You'll give yourself a heart attack."
Turning puce, Smith took a deep breath. "You can't get to me," he hissed. "I won't let you push me about."
Smith had been trying to nail us for months, but with few resources and almost no powers, he didn't have a hope in hell. I didn't mind him because, unlike his colleagues, he wasn't on the take. I admired his honesty, even if was stupid and got him nowhere.
Still, it didn't stop me from teasing. It drove him insane to have me treat him as a friend which is why I did it. What can I say? I have an evil streak. "You know what, Smith, you need a holiday," I said to him. "How about Hong Kong?"
He growled, turned on his heel and marched out.
"What was that about?" Anette was wide-eyed with interest.
"Beats me. He's a bit emotional." But I was laughing inside. Smith was fuming because the last time we'd had a project, he had been tailing me 24/7. He thought I might shoot him but I'm too smart for that. I'd gotten him out of the country by having him invited to a police conference in Hong Kong. He'd really been proud of being singled out, the hueco, so when he'd discovered my hand in it, he was thoroughly humiliated.
"Did you really set fire to the Planning Office?" Anette's hand on my cock made it crystal clear she had the hots for a bad boy.
"No way!" My lips said no but my eyes said yes. With that hand rubbing away, I just couldn't help myself.
I was considering taking her for a ride when James looked at his phone and recoiled. "Jorge, don't do anything hasty, okay?"
"Check the news, that YouTube channel run by that rag, the Rampage."
It took me a second. "What the fuck?"
Kowalczyk was holding a mini press conference, "Empire is the best club in London." The gut was straining as he had an arm around the witch as well as a blonde who was falling out of her dress. "The place next door is practically empty but we have queues all the way down the street because we've the best music and the best bar."
"Is that Persia York?" Anette was peering at the screen. "God, what's she doing with that creep? He's gross."
"You know her?" I asked.
Anette giggled. "Everyone knows Persia. She's got a reputation, that girl."
The blondes were all over it, too. "She does biker gangbangs, right?"
"That porn tape of hers is disgusting."
"I know! I'd die if it was me but she's shameless."
"Kowalczyk is rich but eeew, yuk!"
"She's been with him for months. They're inseparable."
"She thinks she can do what she wants because she's a model."
"La Perla signed her. Dior as well, and Victoria's Secret."
"Because she sleeps with all the photographers."
On screen, Kowalczyk was boasting. "She told him she was way out of his league." 
My breath caught at the insult. The team made sure they didn't look at me but the women were all over it.
"I wonder who she was turning down," Anette frowned. 
"Bet it was brutal," Poppy sighed.
"She's such a bitch!"
As they all stared at their phones, there was a short break in the music. Kowalczyk's voice came out clearly, "Persia recognises a loser when she sees one and Santos is on his way out." He squeezed his girl, practically shoving her boobs into the camera. "Isn't that right?"
She smiled instantly. "Absolutely."

There was a split-second silence.
"Uhm, was that real?" Anette asked doubtfully.
"It was indeed." I put down my tequila with decision. "Look, it's been great to meet you but I have some business to attend to."
"Dios, Jorge!" James was on his feet, his face paper-white. "Don't," he said urgently.
Lencho and Paco were up too.
"Cuidado!" Lencho.
"Don't lose your temper!" Paco, begging.
I took in their worried faces. "You heard him." To my surprise, my voice was perfectly calm. "He wants a fight; he's getting it."
It was out. We were at war.

Chapter Four

"He's driving me insane," I tried not to whine. "I honestly can't do this anymore."
"Keep your voice down!" Colin hissed. He glanced around the restaurant, all twenty tables busy, and dragged me to the back. "I thought you were getting along?"
"Why the hell would you think that?"
"It's all over your Twitter feed that you're in love."
"No!" I whipped out my mobile and gazed astonished. Instead of my usual fashion chitchat, it was chock full of stomach-turning posts about my 'love' for 'Jacek'. "I didn't post this crap! Bloody Kowalczyk must have used my phone while I asleep or in the bath. The bastard!"
"Is it very bad?" Colin asked sympathetically.
"You've no idea."
"Is he rude to you?"
Rude. Ohmigod. That shut me up. "No, not really." If my brother knew his loan had given Kowalczyk license to treat me like a whore, he'd never forgive himself. "But he's a creep." It sounded weak. "And since he got into it with Jorge Santos, he's gone totally over the top."
"That Mexican? Is he trouble? I thought he was a loser?"
"Loser is not the word. After Kowalczyk mouthed off, all hell broke loose. When we left the club that night, his limo had vanished. The yacht sank hours later." I couldn't help but smile because the filthy pig had deserved it. "And this morning, Empire's marble walls turned black, and the floor disintegrated. The council have been round, citing some chemical contamination."
"Good lord. Was anyone hurt?" Colin asked.
"Thankfully, no. But Empire will be closed for months."
My brother sighed. "I wondered why Kowalczyk was so shirty."
Uh-oh. "Trouble?"
"Not much," Colin soothed. "But the bank transfer hit twenty minutes past noon. Usually that would be okay, but he's claiming a late instalment."
Hell-hell-hell, utterly buggery fuck. But I tried to be cool. "What does it mean?"
"An extra three weeks," Colin sighed. "Sorry, love."
The prospect horrified me. While Jorge Santos driving Kowalczyk up the wall had given me a lot of pleasure, it had also meant extra degradation in the bedroom. Another three weeks sounded an eon.
I glanced into the restaurant again. "You're so busy, are you sure we can't we pay it off right now?"
Colin shrugged. "The margins are small. It looks better than it is."
"But you've got so many home deliveries. I saw three bikes go off as I arrived." I counted the tables again. "You must be making a fortune."
Colin raised his head, suddenly furious. "You think it's easy to make money. Well, let me tell you, it's not!"
I was genuinely taken aback. "I know you work hard. But it's been months."
"For God's sake," Colin hissed. "The setup costs were sky high."
"Was I that extravagant?"
"You wanted the best, remember?"
I wanted to argue, but I remembered deciding that a class act needed the right look. The tables were real oak and the dinnerware prime. Maybe I had spent more than I thought.
I'd passed on the bills to Colin, but not asked to see the books because I’m awful with numbers. When I was modelling, I'd left everything to Paula, my agent who was a human calculator. I had never learned to cope with paperwork, so when she retired, I'd gotten myself into such a mess with the tax office that my brother had taken over my finances. "Maybe if I ask Paula to look at the accounts? She's fantastic at -"
He interrupted me in furious tones. "I do your taxes and manage our mortgage payments for mum and dad. And now you suddenly don't trust me? Because I made one mistake?"
"Of course I trust you! It's just that Kowalczyk is driving me nuts."
Colin visibly calmed down. "Right," he sighed. "I'm sorry, Persia. I should have reined you in," he admitted ruefully. "I think I wanted to impress you a little."
"Impress me?" I was dumbfounded. "Really?"
"You're the successful one," he smiled. "I took that loan rather than confess I was out of my league."
That made me miserable. It was my spending that had brought us to this.
"Hey," Colin said suddenly. "I meant to ask, how's your flat? Isn't your rent renewal due soon?"
Oops. "Uhm, I cashed in the security deposit and gave you the money."
"What? But where are you staying?" Colin asked astonished.
"Well, uhm, it's like this, uhm, Kowalczyk thought it would be easier if I was on hand for hostessing parties, and uhm -"
The temperature dropped. "You're living with him?" Colin said horrified. "Persia, are you insane? What will people think? They'll think you're a -"
"Slut?" I couldn't hide the pain in my voice. "But they already think that."
My brother grimaced. "Come now, I didn't say that."
"But you think it too." I could take whatever Kowalczyk dished out but my brother's disapproval cut me. "Easy Rider Persia, right? The party girl who does them by the dozen."
"Shut up!" Colin hissed. Then, quick as a whip, he put an arm around me and turned, smiling, "Mum, Dad, hi."
"We fancied an outing," Dad was smiling as he took in the happy crowd. "You're doing champion, Colin."
"Persia," Mum hugged me. "Good, we can eat together."
"We haven't seen you in weeks," Dad grumped. "Where have you been? Your mother was worried about you."
"Not now, Gavin," Mum pleaded. "Let's have a nice family lunch."
My heart sank. Five seconds and it was already going downhill.
"We saw you in the newspapers. At a club in London," Dad said.
"You looked lovely," Mum interrupted.
"Who's the man you were with?" Dad rode over Mum's efforts to be nice. "I hear he's a crook."
Hell. "Uhm, he's just someone I know -"
"He says you're his fiancée."
Utterly bloody Kowalczyk. "He was just shooting his mouth off to impress the media."
Dad shot me a sarcastic look. "Get over yourself, girl. He's a millionaire."
Great. I wanted to talk back but Mum's worried face stopped me. Deep breath. "I am not his fiancée."
Colin squeezed my shoulder and stepped in. "You know how it is, every man wants Persia. It doesn't mean she wants them back."
I breathed again. Colin had always stood up for me. He truly was a brother to me.
"Persia has to learn actions have consequences." Dad wasn't letting it go. "The neighbours gossip. It upsets your mother."
"Gavin," Mum begged. "Not now, please."
"It has to be said," Dad insisted. "Hanging around with crooks affects all of us, Persia."
"Dad, come on. Let's set up an extra table," Colin soothed. "I have some wonderful wild salmon."
"I'm an adult. And I don't live at home," I reminded him.
"You're not too old to take my belt to," Dad said sharply.
I was in his face before conscious thought edged in. "Just try it and see what happens!"
"Stop it both of you!" Colin was in between us, growling, "You're upsetting my customers."
We all stepped back but anger had replaced my guilt.
"Belting people solves nothing," Colin said quietly.
"She could damage your business, son," Dad insisted. "She almost destroyed you, remember?"
It shocked me. "What do you mean? What are you talking about?"
"Oh lord," Mum said helplessly.
Colin couldn't look me in the eye. "It was nothing."
"Nothing?" Dad hissed. "Remember what the kids at school did to you?"
"Gavin." Mum was tugging at his arm. "Don't."
"Why can we never talk about it?" Dad asked. "Because of Persia's damn sex tape, they beat Colin up. They bullied him so badly that he almost dropped out. As for you, Faith, you couldn't show your face in the pub for a year."
The ground opened up underneath me. "Ohmigod. I didn't know. You never said."
"You never thought to ask," Dad laid into me. "You just swanked about, plastering pictures of yourself half naked in magazines, taking drugs, too, and never thinking about your family."
I felt sick. "I'm so sorry."
"Persia York?" An excited diner was holding out his phone. "Mind if I take a selfie? I'm your biggest fan."
"Of course." The reflex came from habit; being popular helps a modelling career. "I'd love to."
"See?" Colin grinned. "Having a famous sister has benefits, Dad." He nodded at me. "I'll put you on a window table, show you off a little." Then he beetled off.
The camera flashed but my fan stayed put. "That's your brother?" He was eyeing Colin who was serving wine, and then Mum and Dad.
"Amazing. You don't look alike, do you?"
I winced, it always hurt to know what they saw. Mum, Dad and Colin had fair straight hair and blue eyes, whereas I had inherited a vixen combination of russet curls and hazel eyes.
"Are you adopted?" The fan was laughing.
He sobered abruptly. "Sorry, no offence."
The awkward silence was canyon deep. Mum's face was pure misery. Time to crawl. "I'm not offended. I'm very lucky. I have a great family."
"Right." He was edging off. "Thanks for the selfie."
"Any time."
Dad was on me right away. "Why did you have to tell him?"
"Sorry, it just came out."
"Now he'll gossip."
"You only ever think of yourself, Persia."
I wanted to get away. "I should go."
"Persia, no!" Mum was clinging to my hand. "He didn't mean it that way. Dad's a bit poorly today, that's all."
My anger died. Dad had been in a car accident a year before, not his fault, and it had shattered his hip and ended his job as a courier. He claimed he'd recover, but we knew differently. So, me and Colin paid off the mortgage, and Mum worked a part-time job in a supermarket. Dad hated it, his pride was hurt, and we all knew it.
"There's nothing wrong with me," Dad maintained.
"Of course not, Gavin," Mum soothed automatically. "But it's cold today, and you said you felt it." She turned to me, "You understand, don't you, Persia?"
Maybe it was the pain. Maybe he didn't hate me. "I know, Mum. It's okay."
"Please, stay for lunch."
I couldn't resist her pleading. "Of course."
"Good." Mum was determined to be cheerful. "We love coming here because the restaurant looks gorgeous, Persia. Your work, isn't it?"
"People come for the food, not fancy furnishings." Dad grumbled. "Colin should have saved his money."
I should have left because that was just the opening salvo. As Dad powered up, the soup course became a verbal and emotional minefield.
"Is there any future in fashion design? I hear it's a useless qualification."
"Modelling spoilt you. Working for your living is hard, you know."
"Get a real job. You can waitress for Colin."
By the time my green salad arrived, my stomach was churning.
"Persia, are you okay?" Mum's worried tone cut right through Dad's diatribe.
"Yes. Back in a sec." I made it to the loo, thank goodness. But it was a horrible few minutes. Afterwards, looking in the mirror, I winced at the rings under my eyes. I hadn't been able to keep a thing down in days; stress had a nasty habit of going straight to my gut.
My dress, a cheerful egg yolk printed with roses, was meant to give me a glow. In the loo, I looked like a yellow fever victim. It hung a little loose as well. Being with Kowalczyk was the equivalent of a starvation diet.
When I came back out, I heard Dad say, "She's rotten. What's bred in the bone, will come out in the flesh."
Mum and Colin were trying to hush him but I couldn't help overhear. "Mum, I have to go." She tried to keep me from leaving, Colin too, but I'd had enough. "I won't stay where I'm not wanted." Frankly, I bolted.
In the train on my way to the mansion in Chelsea, I knew what was at the bottom of Dad's dislike for me: buyer's remorse. He and Mum adopted me when I was nine, because they couldn't have more kids.
"I won't say if it was me or him," Mum had explained, "but we wanted a sister for Colin. And the second we saw you, we loved you."
It had gone straight to my heart because my earliest memory was of birth mum dumping me at a church and walking away. She was a junkie, poor woman, but I didn't understand she was sick. I just felt the rejection. When you're seven, you don't really understand what's going on.
I was in and out of foster homes for two years. Then, when birth mum overdosed, I was placed for adoption. I was desperate for a real home and family, so being taken in was a dream come true. But it wasn't easy. I'd missed a lot of school and I'd grown up with some rough people. I swore, stole and got into fights where I battled tooth and nail – all attitudes which appalled my rather conservative new family.
For the first couple of years, I was in constant trouble. Even though I did my best, I saw the inside of the police station more often than a classroom. Mum was sweet, she treated me like her own child, and Colin insisted I was his real sister, but Dad saw me as ungrateful. Also, he was old-fashioned, and there were times he took his belt to me. Not maliciously, but in the 'spare the rod' kind of way.
Whether it was Mum's love or Dad's belt I'll never know but eventually I got the hang of being respectable. By the time I moved to secondary school, I was still a disaster, but I went to class and stopped getting into fights.
Then I met Rick Stevens. As I was 13, and he was 16, I was dead proud when he invited me to a barbecue party. He got me drunk and had me. I'm not saying it was rape because I was up for it. But it freaking hurt because he was rough. Then, to make it worse, he passed me around his mates. That was rape, all right.
By the end of the barbecue, I was a mess. I remember being bundled into a car, and then there was a house, and more men. I tried to get away, but they caught me. It ended in a pass-the-parcel gang rape and a punishment beating.
They chained me up in a cellar and sold me to any pervert who came knocking – and there were dozens of them a day. I never speak of it but it comes back to me in dreams.
I might have disappeared forever, but by a lucky chance, there was a police raid. I crawled out of that dark hell and found myself in Edinburgh, 400 miles from home, and by that time, almost six weeks had passed.
The experience changed me forever. I'd been a wild child, mouthy and with lots of attitude but essentially just a kid. I came out of that cellar a million years old and as tough as nails. I couldn't be scared or humiliated; not by beatings, threats or the vilest humiliations. You might say I'm coated in Teflon because no matter what you throw at me, it will just run off.
The police put me in hospital, and thankfully, the doctors were able to fix me up. There are some little scars here and there, from canes and straps that the kinks liked to use, but a little makeup takes care of them.
In the films, they investigate, there's a big showdown and the bad guys are put away forever. In my case, the response was lukewarm. The blokes who'd run the cellar got bail and disappeared while I was still in hospital. I never even knew their names.
The police did talk to me but as I had gone willingly to the barbeque and the sex with Rick had been consensual, they said there was no point in charging him. As for the gangbang, Rick said he'd wandered off after because he was drunk and his mates swore they'd never put a finger on me. They put the boot in by claiming I'd gone off with the bikers of my own free will.
As they were from good homes and I was on first-name terms with every copper in the district, the prosecution decided not to pursue the case. I never pushed it because it saved me from being mauled in court. All I wanted to do was go home.
I did go home, but it wasn't happily forever after. Mum nursed me until I healed and never said a word but Dad just couldn't look at me. As there was no prosecution, he believed I'd gone off with Rick and his mates knowing it would be a gangbang. And with his old-fashioned attitude, he put down everything that followed as my asking for it.
Dad's rejection crushed me. I'd survived that cellar but knowing he and everyone else took me for a slut almost killed me.
I might have committed suicide, but pride kept me from topping myself. I worked on getting healthy and kept my nose in my schoolbooks – not that I was any good at it. But at least my failing grades were achieved with effort and dedication.
I was on course for a minimum wage career but thankfully I was talent-spotted by Paula, my agent. Modelling gave me a new direction. I worked hard, determined to make money and be independent. I did what it took and when that included doing scumbag photographers who demanded sex, I discovered being trafficked had taught me to switch off. Talk about a silver lining, right?
I scored my first Elle cover shoot when I was eighteen. The day it came out, I learned that Rick had taken a video. He put it on Twitter, tagging me by name. It was just a few seconds long but because it showed me on the ground and a bunch of blokes, the takeaway was that Persia did bikers; by the dozen. After that went viral, the entire world called me a whore.
I was too ashamed to share the truth but telling the press to go fuck themselves earned me a rep – and saved my career. As I refused to say anything, and they seal juvenile records, my secret stayed buried.
Even happier, the notoriety helped secure some juicy contracts that had me wearing leather and lace as the iconic bad girl. The boost meant I didn't have to put out for contracts anymore, which was another plus. Finally, as photographers can be knicker dropping handsome, I began picking my partners and learned to enjoy myself in bed. Pretty good, huh?
Making out like a bandit was great but lingerie modelling is a time-limited career. When I put away enough cash to study, I signed up for a designer course. It was heaven, and I was enjoying my life, until Colin being duped into taking a loan from Kowalczyk brought it crashing down. In one fell swoop I went from being on top to fucked.
So there I was, pissed off with myself, my brother, and my family, while knowing I was in for more nastiness. The bus was full and as hashing over the past was depressing, I got out my phone. It didn't take me long to find Kowalczyk had been busy.
"Bugger, bugger, bugger." There were more Tweets, all wittering on about 'my darling Jacek' and how clever, rich and successful he was. To my horror, there was also a whole raft of posts slagging the Zeta. Starting off with describing him as, 'that dickless wonder, Jorge Santos' impersonator me had gone on to make last men on earth jokes, complete with memes.
Thanks to my iconic bad girl status, the online mob had justifiably pounced. Calling me out as a hypocrite, they had a glorious time muckraking. They listed stories of me getting drunk, of spats with the media, and that time I'd tried coke. And, no surprise, they'd dragged up a copy of Rick's sex tape too.
I tried to delete it all and found Kowalczyk had changed my password. "Hell!"
"That's definitely her. Gangbang Persia." A bloke sitting opposite was muttering into his phone. "She doesn't look half as good as in her photos."
Great. I absolutely didn't need to hear how ugly I was. Kowalczyk did enough of that. Thankfully, my stop came up. I got off, prepared to march the last mile back to the mansion, but as I walked, my feet began to drag. Part of it was exhaustion but mostly it was because I didn't want to face Kowalczyk again.
On cue, my phone rang. I'd answered before realising it was the dirty pig himself. "Where the fuck are you?"
"I went to see my mum."
"Get your arse back here – NOW!"
I was fed up. "Oh, go suck your Russian boyfriend's cock!"
Cutting off his hiss of outrage, I stood on the corner, taking in the mansion's gilded gates and wishing I could vanish. The bugger would make me pay for my defiance, there was no doubt about it. My heart sank and I felt sick again. But the knowledge it would destroy my family meant I couldn't walk. 
"Fuck it. He won't kill me." I stuck out my chin, pushed back my shoulders, and started down the street.
The Lexus came from nowhere. It missed me by an inch, the shining metal so close, that I could smell the polish. I stood there, gasping with fright, when the door opened. "What the hell?" A hand reached out and grabbed my wrist. "Hey!" A tug had me tumbling into the car and as I drew breath, a red-hot stabbing pain in my neck turned my scream into a gasp of pain.
I slid over rock hard thighs and across the rich leather of the passenger seat before tumbling down under the dashboard. "Hell!" I put my hands down, thinking to scramble back up, but darkness welled. "What the -" 
I passed out.
When I came to, everything hurt. Opening my eyes, the room swam and swirled. Had I been drunk? If so, I didn't feel sick, just weird and shaky.
I was flat on my back in bed. The blur cleared, revealing a wood trim ceiling.
I was not at home. Not Kowalczyk's, either.
A bedside cabinet, piled with books. Strategies of War. Hearts and Minds; Guide To Winning Tactics. The Battlefield of Business. No, definitely not Kowalczyk's. His idea of reading was browsing press photos of himself with the rich and famous.
Trying to release my hands, I found I was stuck. A metallic rattle gave the game away: handcuffs. Fancy leather ones with a foot-long chain. Moving my feet produced another rattle: more cuffs securing my ankles to a footboard. Shades of that dark cellar came pounding back from the past. Heart thumping, breath trapped tight in my chest, I lifted my head.
I was not alone. Jorge Santos, leader of the Zetas, sat in a chair by the bed. He was working on a gun, turning it carefully in his hands as he sandpapered the grip.
I swallowed and shut my eyes, hoping devoutly this was a bad dream. It wasn't.
"I wondered when you'd come to," he said. "Or if."
He was calm, just like he'd been at the mansion, but the violence in his eyes was palpable. And it was blasting right in my direction. Oh, fuck, no.
 This couldn't be real. People didn't get kidnapped in broad daylight in London. Except, I had been. I tugged at the cuffs again. The hard metal bit into my wrists and ankles.
"You can scream if you like." Jorge Santos looked so normal. He was wearing another exquisitely cut suit, steel grey this time, paired with a pale pink couture shirt. On another man it might look girly, but with his dark good looks, it was devastating. "My apartment's soundproof." 
Gorgeous but serial killer crazy. I tugged at the bonds again. It was no good; I was pinned down. 

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Again, thank you for all your support. I couldn't do this without you.
 🥰 AJ

by AJ Adams 
Super DARK Cartel Romance
#99Pennies #KU #LimitedTime

Twisted is live Thursday 11th July 2019

Persia York has the face of an angel and a reputation that’s pure gutter but she will do anything for her family. Forced into debt-slavery to save her brother, things aren’t what they seem. No matter how hard she works, Persia can’t free herself. Worse, she publicly disses Jorge Santos, the leader of the Zeta cartel, and is catapulted into a turf war. Abducted and a helpless captive of the deadly drug lord, Persia decides she’s had enough. It’s time to fight back.

Dangerous, devious Jorge Santos doesn’t take shit from anyone. When a meeting with a rival turns ugly, Jorge goes to war. Determined on destruction, his first step is to abduct his enemy’s most prized possession, the beautiful but mouthy Persia York. But Jorge soon learns his victim is not as easy to break as he thought and to his shock, he falls for his adversary’s woman. As the war heats up, the cartel boss is forced to make decisions that may cost him his life – and his love.

🖤A ruthless man on a quest to win no matter what it takes.🖤
🖤A woman intent on holding her own, even if it destroys her.🖤

Twisted is a compelling tale of vengeance, murder, cartel violence 
and finding love in the darkest of times.

Warning: This bad boy dark romance contains triggers galore, 
including adult scenes and graphic violence.