The plane circles Heathrow as London dreams below, a spread of faery lights and fog, the city eternal and eternally damp. Sophie stretches, mindful of the business man snoring beside her. He’d monopolized the first class space and her time from New York until they reached mid-Atlantic, but she has the aisle seat (she always books the aisle seat), and the moment the wheels touch down she stands and heads for the exit.
Paul has promised to meet her, but her faith in Paul and his easy promises has worn gossamer thin. Sophie met him in a South Bank club, all swag and upper class nuance and not at all her usual type. Paul had a razor blade edge, though, underneath his skin, that aura of rocketing into freefall she always seeks in men. It began at university with Richard, she thinks, an “investment advisor” with a Maserati, questionable contacts, and ambitions high as the moon. If she’s honest, it began the day her parents died, although she’s never been certain of the exact date they met their doom. A second Indian Ocean honeymoon (we’ll bring you seashells, sweetheart, and a jar full of lovely sand) when Sophie was eight, aboard a chartered yacht that never arrived in the Maldives. Pirates, the authorities theorized, as the weather was clear and they found no life rafts, no oil slick, no wreckage. Nothing at all. Sophie was sent to an aunt in Belgravia and then within the year to boarding school, where the tragedy cloaked her in a gray sort of distance she never quite managed to escape.
How many twenty-first century trust fund girls can claim they were orphaned by pirates?
Sophie drifts through the routine of arrival in a jet-lagged haze, but by the time she reaches the exit to Terminal Five’s short term car park, adrenaline flares and she’s hyper alert, nerves on fire, scanning the pavement for Paul’s cashmere coat.
He’s not there.
She swears, the flush of disappointment ceding to the finality of anger (it’s over, had been, really, before she left for New York), and heads back in search of transport. Midnight, and an empty bed waiting – the milk will be sour, and she doesn’t even have a cat. Maybe it’s time she found one. A fluffy marmalade tom, her neighbor has a tabby, would surely be happy to feed it when Sophie feels the need to travel…
“Sophia? Sophia Whitaker.” The voice is male, deep, raw silk over sandpaper. Unfamiliar, and when she turns, he’s standing far too close. Tall, dark blonde hair with a disciplined curl, and a suit that speaks of intimacy with the finest of British tailors. His eyes glint silver in the harsh artificial glare, cold as a scalpel and untouched by the curve of his smile.
“Paul was unable to come, and sent me in his place. His description falls far short of justice – you’re stunning, if I may be so bold.”
Bold doesn’t begin to cover it. Sophie knows a predator when she meets one, and this one is a panther, the kind that stalks a jungle ripe with greed and thundering rivers of wealth.
“Where’s Paul?” She isn’t afraid, not yet, but sending in a second is not Paul’s style. He’s a leave-them-in-the-dust-and-don’t-look-back kind of guy, and this man? Way out of Paul’s league.
“He had…unexpected travel plans. Zurich, I believe. You’re shivering, darling.” He removes his coat and drapes it over Sophie’s thin jacket before she can protest, enveloping her in his body’s warmth and scent. Something expensive, subtle, vetiver and bergamot. His fingertips brush her earlobes as he adjusts the collar, and she meets his gaze, feels the first thrill of fear at the base of her spine.
Fear, and something else, something hot and electric and dangerous blooming just beneath her skin.
His hand slips beneath the coat to hover at the small of her back, a gentleman’s gesture, and guides her between rows of anonymous cars, their windshields splitting the lamplight into indifferent halide moons. He stops beside the last in the line, black and sleek, the chrome grill snarling between elongated feline headlights.
“If you please, my dear. I’ll see you safely home.” He’s holding the passenger door for her, his hand engulfing her fingers on the handle of her suitcase. His skin is warm, unnaturally so, and she knows there’s nothing safe about him or what this London night might hold.
Sophie thinks about pirates, the flat line her life has become, the ceramic stilettos tucked into the seams of her black Ferragamo boots. She releases her hold on the suitcase, and steps into the car.
The door closes with the smallest of clicks, and she settles back against smooth leather, angles her head to watch him in the side view. The trunk rises majestically as he lifts her bag from his stance at the fender and…laughs, the car rendering it soundless. Sharp teeth graze his bottom lip, his eyes crinkle at the corners, and his grin reveals boyish dimples – on another man’s face, beneath another man’s eyes, the transformation would have been charming. On his, it’s a revelation of unholy feral delight. Sophie is reaching for the door latch and freedom when he slides into the driver’s seat, still smiling. Another discreet click, the soft finality of locks engaging, and she knows she moved too late.
“Safety first, darling. May I call you Sophie?” He laughs again and this time she hears it, rich and dark and deep in his chest, the kind of sound that licks hot at your bones.
“You haven’t introduced yourself,” she says, and buckles up.
“I’m Thomas. My friends call me Tom.” Sophie thinks that he doesn’t have any friends, and that it just might be his real first name, knowledge that might not bode well for her as they say in the books on her nightstand. Grateful for the lack of his surname, Sophie gathers the threads of her courage (as they also say in those books) and plunges into arctic waters.
“There are security cameras at Heathrow, Tom. Lots of them. Your face, the plate on this car – if I don’t make it home, they’ll come straight to you.” He didn’t expect that, his right eyebrow winging upward and betraying appreciative surprise.
“Oh, you’ll be sleeping in your own bed tonight, love, soft and warm. Lilac silk sheets, cream duvet, the scent of your favorite perfume – Gris Montaigne, a perceptive choice. It suits you.”
Why does he know that, what else does he know…
“You went to all this trouble just to drive me home?” He laughs again, and the thrum of it settles beneath her breastbone, curls tight beneath her ribs.
“Trust me, Sophie.” He reaches out without taking his eyes from the road, brushes her cheek with the back of his knuckles, cat’s paw light, precise. “If I wished you harm, you’d never see me coming.”
Fair enough - Sophie believes she can trust that, though she has no faith in his intentions. She has faith in stilettos, and the steadfast god of disillusioned travelers who wander the edge of the map.
“What is it that you do, Tom, besides offering rides to strangers? How do you know Paul?” He smiles again, and this time there’s a flicker of warmth in his eyes, enough for her to cling to, hedge her bet. Driftwood in a raging sea, but Sophie is much more than a survivor. Life has taught her how to swim.
“I’m an investor, of sorts. A connoisseur of opportunity. Paul is a…business associate, and you are no stranger to me, Sophie.”
“What are you playing at? What do want with me?”
He glances at her, sly and sideways, meets her eyes – a habit of his, she thinks, and it’s best to learn the player’s tells - he hasn’t once dropped his gaze to her breasts, her hips, as most men tend to do. “I saw your photograph in Paul’s wallet. Lovely, and something familiar in your eyes, something I recognized. You caught my interest.”
Paul isn’t in Zurich.
Sophie can hear the bleak past tense lingering beneath his words. Pale hands caress the wheel, dwarf it, and she imagines their touch, warm and strong, wrapped tight around her throat. But no, he wouldn’t kill like that, leave trace evidence behind - he’d use a weapon, a gun, a garrote. Something clean that kept him just out of reach, just close enough to watch life fade. Just to keep it interesting, and now for reasons she can’t fathom, he’s interested in her.
“I wanted to introduce myself, offer my services…as a mentor, of sorts,” he says, as the car glides onto the M4. “Your business acumen is impressive, but you lack…refinement. You’re impulsive, Sophie, and that can prove a fatal flaw.”
He’s smiling again, and his face is a cypher, fey and fierce and chilling.
“Listen,” he says, and begins a dissection of her portfolio, a recitation of her property holdings, and an analysis of high-frequency trading strategy that makes her head begin to spin. He moves on to those dealings residing far south of legal, transactions negotiated in obscure cyber kasbahs, the ones her banker knows nothing about.
“Listen, and remember,” he says, and gives her instructions, names, warnings, advice, dark secrets, and darker ones still. The kind people kill for, torn from the ledgers of major players.
“Insurance, Sophie. I think you know what I’m saying.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
That laugh again, softer, more controlled, and Sophie feels the magic, caressing her instep, her fingertips, the recesses of her wanderer’s heart. He’s enjoying this role, sorcerer to her acolyte, and she wonders if he’s making amends, following some serpentine jungle code. She wonders what gods he believes in, when he walks alone in the dark.
Paul isn’t in Zurich.
They’re far from Heathrow’s haven now, the powerful engine devouring miles and mimicking the purr of his voice. The Great West Road, the Mall, Westminster Bridge across the mist veiled Thames, and she thinks for a moment that he might actually take her home. A twist of the wheel dashes hope, and they’re arrowing down deserted side streets, headlights ghosting industrial parks, warehouses, cramped turn-ins and empty parking lots.
Darkness, and she’s back in that alleyway in Prague, fighting for breath. Dirty fingernails, a blade at her jaw, the stink of vodka and sweat and her own crippling fear. The hospital, the police, and then she’s back in her penthouse apartment wearing denim and diamond armor. It took a year to find him, a contract killer who brought her proof of death. Money can’t buy everything, but it bought her savage teeth – her rapist (hers, the word like a brand) bled out on his own graying sheets. It didn’t buy peace, or end her nightmares, but that came later. Slowly. Sharks must swim, or they will die.
The car noses beneath a stone archway, into an unlit steel-girded cavern, and stops.
Tom taps the dash, delicately, and the interior lamps flare underwater blue. Their glow limns his skin, the sharp lines of his cheekbones and jaw. He’s beautiful when he shouldn’t be, all angles and contradictions, shadows and pearled half-light. She meets his eyes and discovers awareness there, an intelligence sharp and startling in their cool rainwater depths. And something else, something ancient and relentless that Sophie recognizes. He’s more than a survivor, too, and she wonders what alley, whose hands took his innocence.
Blue. In sunlight, his eyes would be blue.
“I have no reason to hurt you, Sophie.” She still doesn’t trust him, but his voice is warm, intimate. “I am merely…curious. This,” a sweeping gesture, the gleam of gold at his wrist, “is a fine and private place for conversation. Nothing more.”
“I’m not your coy mistress.” That earns her a nod, a thin lipped smirk, and she wonders how his mouth would feel, if she’d warrant a kiss before dying.
“Would you like to be?” He laughs again, jagged-edged and deep in his chest, shifts long thighs across double-stitched leather the color of drying blood. Sophie turns to face him with her back pressed to the door, playing cornered sparrow to his Chesire grin.
“What more do you want to know?”
“I already have most of the tale, darling. Everything they could print in the papers, and a few paragraphs more.” He tells her the rest of the story, ticks down the list of birthplace, relations, her parents’ deaths, the double firsts at Oxford, the clubs she frequents, her favorite champagne, the list (not so long) of ex-lovers, her SE1 address.
He leans close, too close, draws a lock of her hair through slender fingers and whispers, his breath brushing warm at her ear, soft as velvet. Blue, his eyes are blue, the color of winter’s sky.
“I want to know you. Tell me about Prague. Tell me what made you a killer.” Pulling back, still inches from her face, those eyes search her own, hungry, and then drift to her parted lips. She can see it in the way he stills, flicks his gaze to find hers again - he hadn’t meant to do that. The want etching the planes of his face is for more than her body, not to possess but to savor. He wants…in. Her acknowledgment of kinship in the nightshade clan of the hunt.
“No,” she says, and rests her hand against his jaw, kisses him.
Stubble rasps beneath her palm and he freezes, muscle and bone transfixed, until he opens his mouth for her, gathers her into his arms, slow and tight, draws her across his lap. Sophie bites his lip, soothes with her tongue, tastes him – expensive Scotch, the shock of sweetness underneath. She slides her hands to his back, scrapes long nails across his shoulder blades, the layers of muscle that wing from his spine. He lowers his head to her open collar, nudges it aside, laps at the hollow of her throat. Kisses, hot and deep and slow, those fine-boned hands at her breasts, a hoarse command against her skin, stop if you don’t want this, tell me now.
Every touch is a response to her own, careful, deliberate, with no attempt at control. She had expected ferocity, can feel it in him, throbbing in the veins of his throat, but this is almost…gentle. As though he already knows her body, as though he wants to know what she needs.
She needs more, all that he is.
Sophie tightens her fingers in the short curls at his neck, rolls her hips, gives him the heat he’s kindled between her trembling thighs. He’s hard, long and thick, and he throws back his head and laughs…this time, it’s genuine, wild and warm in his eyes. She sees the boy he might have been some summer long ago, reaching for life two-fisted and roaring joy at the sky. Or maybe the boy is an illusion. Maybe he’s one of the magi who are to the ruthless manor born.
He’s gone in a heartbeat, that boy. The hands on her body are confident, no need to take when she’s willing, so willing, and she slips the jacket from his shoulders, the covered buttons from his vest, tosses it over the wheel, opens his shirt to taste his salt. She drapes his tie around her neck, and he tugs off her shirt, knocks an elbow on the dashboard.
“Backseat,” she says, and he lifts an eyebrow again, the left.
“I haven’t fucked anyone in a backseat since I was sixteen.”
“Then you didn’t meet anyone like me at seventeen.”
He’s grinning when the doors unlock, teeth bared, and then she’s drinking in the cold night air, half-naked and shivering, a river-damp breeze from the entrance lifting her hair. She glances down the barren street and turns to find him watching, taking her measure. Head down, eyes narrowed to slits of silver, fists clenched. Shirt open to the waist over planes of pale skin and sleek muscle – hunter’s moon dangerous, the Saville Row veneer stripped away. Dangerous, and desire hooks into her gut, wrenches the breath from her lungs.
“You don’t have to run, Sophia. A quick fuck wouldn’t buy your life if your life was what I wanted. I will take you home if you say the word.”
He knows. Somehow he knows, everything about Prague, the humiliation, the fear, the cost of clawing her way into new-made skin. He knows, offers a gift whether he’s aware of it or not, the means to shred the last cobweb remnants of a girl the world left broken.
“I don’t want quick,” she says, and opens the door, slides inside.
He’s on her in a heartbeat, slipping his hands beneath the straps of her bra, gliding them down her arms, and he fits his fingers to her ribs, thumbs her nipples. His mouth closes over the right, grazing her flesh with his teeth, and she cradles him against her, buries her face in his hair. Kneeling on the floorboards he lifts her legs to the seat, yanks off her boots without leaving her breast. Releases her, when he finds the stilettos. He doesn’t seem surprised.
“Flight insurance? Clever girl. Won’t be needing it for me,” and he snaps the blades in half.
Sophie finds his mouth again, bites his lip, this time breaking tender skin. A snarl of warning harsh in his chest, and he pulls away, wraps his hand around her throat...and bends to kiss her forehead, her eyelids, a rogue benediction.
“Not like that, love. That rage you carry, let it go. You don’t need it anymore, not tonight, not for me…”
Then he’s on his knees above her, snaking his way down her body, leaving marks of his own, the copper rune trace of his blood. He lifts her legs to his shoulders, bends to take her with lips and tongue. Good at this, so good, sucking her folds into his mouth, his tongue plunging inside her, lapping soft at her clit until she fists his hair, tugs. The watch on his wrist reads two a.m. when his hand spans her hipbones, anchors her, pushes her down. She can feel his smile when he turns to kiss her thigh, reassurance and then he’s merciless, driving her up into a spiral, pulling back to watch her tremble and then flicking hard, once, twice, whispering sin as she falls.
Sophie is laughing, weightless. Free, and she strips off his shirt, unfastens his trousers, wraps her fingers around his cock. Hard, so hard, satin over the slip of ridged veins, the muscles in his belly hot and tense against her knuckles, straining. She cups the heavy weight of him, brushes a finger across the smooth skin beneath and he groans, keening through clenched teeth.
“On me, Sophie, I want to see your face.” He yanks her up against his chest and pulls her into his lap, spreads his knees to open her legs, and she sinks down, down, takes him deep. His head falls back and she kisses his open mouth, gives him her breath, the caress of her tongue.
One hand threads her hair, the other digs into her left thigh and he lifts her, thrusts his way into a rhythm, sweat slick skin to skin, eye to eye. It should be awkward, she’s halfway to falling, but he braces a foot against the center console and holds on to grace, to her.
“Your picture, the one I saw, like an angel…” He’s panting, searching her face but she’s flying, building another mystery, can’t think. “A real one, seraphim, all vengeance and wings aflame. Beautiful.”
“Beautiful - is that why?” Of course it is, why he found her, why he’s inside her, always the reason…
“No.” His eyelids drift shut and both hands grip her waist, slowing their pace as he gasps for breath.
“I wanted to burn.”
It must be so cold where he lives, she thinks, and then she pushes his shoulders against the seat, braces, clenches around his cock and his eyes fly open, their pupils blown black. She rolls her hips and swallows the sound she tears from his chest, takes him staccato and desperate until she shudders, cries out. His fingers find her clit, warm and shaking, swirling against her and it doesn’t take much – this time it comes in slow tender waves, carrying her over the edge, and over again. He’s still moving, the long muscles in his thighs rippling beneath her, driving him deep until she collapses ragdoll limp.
He steadies her for a moment, enfolds her, rocking her against his heartbeat. It’s quiet here, he’s right, the world narrowed down to their joined bodies, the fog of their breath on the windows. World enough, and time… Then he’s urging her upward, turning her onto hands and knees, his grip insistent, voice raw at her ear.
“Like this, want you like this,” and he’s inside her again, fingers grasping at her hips, drawing her up to meet each thrust. He sweeps her hair forward to trail her face, renders her blind, and latches his mouth to her shoulder, bites down. Gently, and Sophie wonders what depths he draws that from, a man who kills with a keystroke.
The fear is gone.
She’s carried it with her so long, bound in her bones since Prague. It should be with her now, in the heat of him at her back, in his strength that renders her helpless. And yet he burns, so bright for her. Sophie spreads her wings, and soars.
The pressure of his teeth kindles wildfire arcing through every cell, raging down her spine – he doesn’t let go until she’s crying his name and tightening around him. He gathers her up against his chest and she feels the clench of muscle, his body shuddering until the air leaves his lungs as he comes, pulses hot inside her.
The city, the night, are far away and his arms are warm, holding her fast as she recalls how to breathe. It’s almost peaceful, this expensive cave of steel and leather, a sanctuary from demons and the cold unyielding truth.
“Angel,” he says, combing tangles from her hair.
“There’s nothing of heaven here,” and she licks a line across his collarbone.
“I didn’t mention heaven. Lucifer fell, and brought his legions with him.”
He helps her dress, doesn’t retrieve his jacket or vest, throws the shards of her knives out the window, grinning. Sophie grins back, and kisses him. She can still taste the Scotch, beneath her own musk, hears the echoes of desire in his laughter. He drives her home (he’d promised) as the sky begins to grey, to the warehouse conversion on Leathermarket Street where no cat awaits her arrival. His eyes are hooded in the warm glow of faux gaslights, and she thinks they might harbor longing, but he’s already halfway gone.
“Be careful, Sophie. That last bitcoin venture in April flew too close to the sun. Don’t melt your wings.”
“Is that a warning? I survived you, after all.” He reaches for her, drags the pad of his thumb across her cheek. His hand still smells of her, wicked secret sweet.
“Someday soon, Sophie, you’ll reach a crossroads. You’ll choose a turning, right or left. Make sure you know the toll before you pay.”
“You don’t think I’m strong enough to join your game?”
“No. You’d be glorious. My match, perhaps.”
“And if I make the devil’s choice?”
“Oh, darling. I’m an atheist. No god, ergo no devil. If you make the choice that I made, once upon a time, I promise I will find you.” He cups the back of her neck, takes a final kiss, gliding his tongue behind her teeth.
“I always keep my promises. Go, before I’m tempted to keep you.”
She watches the car’s taillights disappear as it turns onto Bermondsey, fits her key to the latch and drags her suitcase up four unforgiving flights. Inside, she turns up the thermostat and checks the milk – sour. Two fingers of Scotch in cut crystal…she sips and tastes his mouth. Fatigue embraces her like a long forgotten friend, threads her ankles as she wanders to her bedroom, up the spiral staircase to the roof terrace with its sweeping views of the city. The Shard glitters in the distance, and London’s version of a winter dawn lends the sky a brighter gray. Sophie wonders if he’s still in the car, if the leather is marked with their sweat, if there’s someplace that he calls home.
She descends, carefully, and turns down the bedclothes (lilac silk sheets, cream duvet), strips off the clothes that still smell of him. No shower, because she’s tired, so tired, because she wants that scent and the ache he’s left behind to linger hot on her skin. A reminder, a memento mori, like her parent’s photograph on the nightstand, her childhood’s books in the study, the blood-stained rope she keeps in the safe. Perhaps tomorrow she will burn that relic. Replace it, with his pilfered black tie lying coiled in her jacket pocket.
There’s a choice to be made when she wakes – she’s already come home from the crossroads.
Crawling naked between cold empty sheets, Sophie presses her face to the pillow, banishes pirates and devils and marmalade cats, reaches up and turns off the light.