It all began at the hotel bar.
He had been busy knocking back his third bourbon of the night whilst simultaneously flirting with the sultry bargirl, when the man next to him had drunkenly stumbled off his stool and knocked right into her as she’d walked past. The black leather clutch she had been holding jerked out of her hand, spilling its contents unceremoniously on the floor.
“Shit,” she’d hissed, with an urgency that should’ve signalled a shitload to him, but that he’d been too tipsy at the time to notice.
His innate sense of chivalry had got the better of him.
He’d slipped off the stool and knelt down to help her pick up the contents of her purse.
His fingers had wandered over each item with the casual lightness of one who was used to lingering over unfamiliar objects.
Lipstick, car keys, compact, earphones… a hotel room keycard; an ID.
Only the reclusive and mysterious daughter of the world’s richest and most secretive mem-tech mogul.
He’d lifted his eyes to match the photo on the ID card to actual flesh and blood.
Curiosity itself would have led any old Joe to do so. No one had photographed the woman in question since she had been 12 years old, and that had been sixteen years ago. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when he’d looked up at her, but it hadn’t been what he saw.
Brilliant green eyes to stun any man at a hundred paces, in a face that was confident and pre-possessed and beautiful. The face had matched the one on the card, right down to the white streak in her cinnamon-coloured hair; yet somehow, it hadn’t matched at all. It hadn’t done a single ounce of justice to the steely beauty he’d seen before him.
“Thanks,” she’d said in a voice that had seemed to imply anything but thanks.
She’d snatched the ID card from him, and that should’ve told him even more than her barely stifled sense of urgency, but he’d been too distracted by her unwitting charms to notice that too – pretty faces had always been a weakness, one he’d never summoned up the inclination to conquer.
“M’pleasure,” he’d murmured in that soft, hard accent that always got the ladies’ attention; but she hardly appeared to have noticed. She’d busied herself gathering the remaining items into her purse, before flicking her mascara-flecked glance back up at him. One second, two seconds had passed. Her lips, coloured only with a transparent sheen of gloss, had been flat, betraying nothing.
“Thanks,” she’d said again, in a voice that had been slightly softer if no less uncompromising than before.
And she’d stood up and swept away.
He’d got to his feet and stared after her, watching the self-assured grace of the woman in the white silk blouse and the black satin pants as she walked away from him and out the bar.
If it was her eyes that had hooked him first, it was her walk that had kept him wondering after.
She’d walked with all the softness of every woman who’d walked a certain way to get his attention. And yet she'd walked with all the poise of a gladiator heading into the ring.
The entire episode had barely lasted 30 seconds, but it was a 30 seconds that would come to change his life in ways he’d barely believed possible.
After a moment he’d slid back up on his stool and smiled at the scarlet-lipped bargirl.
“’Nother,” he’d said.
Five hours and a tussle with the bargirl later, he’d stood outside room 554 and considered his options.
The number on the door had been the number on the hotel keycard that the woman had dropped from her purse.
A giggling couple had interrupted him, entering the corridor, kissing loudly and ignoring him completely before stepping into a room and banging the door shut behind them.
He’d heaved in a breath and slipped his hand inside the inner pocket of his suit jacket, brought out the digital lockpick, slipped it into the keycard slot. Then he’d flipped out his cellphone and remotely connected to the device, silently thanking God for the hotel’s free high-speed wifi service. The next few minutes he spent concentrating on hacking the high tech lock, the app on his phone happily running through every line of code on the hotel system’s databases. It was a ritual he’d gone through about a thousand times before, routine enough for him to be almost bored by the time the lock finally gave its tell-tale click.
He’d put away his phone and pushed himself away from the wall, pocketing the lockpick. He’d stood by the door a long moment, his grip on the handle, listening intently. There hadn’t been a sound to be heard, and he’d figured she was either out or asleep. Satisfied, he’d pressed gently down on the handle and felt the door give way slightly. He’d paused a second or two, holding his breath, seeing only partial darkness inside – but there had been a slat of light glowing under the bathroom doorway, and he’d heard the susurration of the shower on the other side.
He’d opened the door fully then and stepped inside, neatly sidestepping her heels and taking in the room in one quick sweep. A standard double room, lit only by the dim glow of a bedside lamp, its paltry light casting shadows over a landscape that had barely been touched. The bed had been unslept in, the curtains had still been partially drawn. The doors to the balcony had been slightly ajar though – a good escape route if he’d needed a quick, unexpected exit. There had been a single jacket hung up in the vestibule; an unpacked overnight bag lay on the bed. Her purse had been open on the dresser.
He’d noted everything in a few short seconds.
The only other sign of her presence had been the subtle scent of her perfume – something between fruity and flowery that he hadn’t quite been able to place.
Hm, he’d thought to himself. Trask’s daughter sure travels light for the kid of a trillionaire.
He’d walked up to the dresser, rifled lightly through her bag – and his fingers had just slid over the tight pack of plastic cards in a side pocket when he’d felt the barrel of the gun at the small of his back.
“I think that’s enough now, don’t you?” came that same barbed voice he’d heard in the bar downstairs. If the words had been hard, their steeliness had been more than tempered by the warmth of her breath on his neck. It had been a token he’d only subconsciously been aware of. What he’d been doing most at that moment was kicking himself. For underestimating her, for being caught out by the old ‘I’m in the shower’ trick.
“Take your hands outta my purse and put them where I can see them,” she’d hissed, and he’d done so, slowly, mentally measuring the distance between them. Close enough to sense the heat of her body against his back. Not close enough for her to be right up flush against him.
As soon as he’d raised his hands she’d pushed him up against the wall and frisked him. He’d let her because he’d been intrigued. There had been a clinical matter-of-factness to her movements, like it’d made no difference at all to her that she was touching him in places where the bargirl had been touching him so intimately only half an hour before. She’d sussed the lockpick in a few quick seconds, the first knife a few more later, and the second almost straight after that.
She hadn’t found the third.
When she’d divested him of his accoutrements, he’d felt her take a step back, and then:
“Turn around,” she'd hissed. “And keep your hands up.”
He’d done so, slowly.
She’d been holding a pistol in her hand, and he’d figured from the way she’d been holding it that she knew how to use it.
She’d still been wearing exactly what she’d been wearing downstairs in the bar, still held herself with this cool, business-like professionalism that told him that this hadn’t been the first time she’d done exactly this.
Her face had been amazingly composed for someone who’d just found a strange man in her room, but she had still been exactly what he’d thought she’d been down in the bar – beautiful. In this strikingly unconscious, natural way. Green eyes had held his with a ferocity that was completely at odds with the calm coldness of her demeanour. They were almost golden in the dim, tawny light of the lamp.
“How did you know I was here?” he’d asked her, and she’d indicated to the door with a jerk of the head, replying, “I heard the lock click.”
His eyebrow had shot up.
“You a light sleeper.”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
“Hm. Spendin’ your night alone awake in an empty hotel room? Don’t sound too much fun to me. Figure now you got someone t’ spend it with, neh?”
Her eyes had flashed but she’d chosen to ignore his comment.
“Who sent you?” she’d asked him instead. Resolute, to the point. Brooking nothing less than a straight answer. He’d allowed himself a slow smile. Her question implied more than anything else she’d hit him with so far – it made her something more than interesting. It gave her an air of mystery.
“No one,” he’d answered, and when she’d looked disbelieving he’d added dryly, “I’m a thief. You’re Trask’s daughter,” as if the fact had spoken for itself.
Her eyes had narrowed. A hard little grin had creased the corner of her lips.
“A girl like me doesn’t carry cash.”
“Non,” he’d agreed. “But you sure do carry a lotta plastic, chere.”
The words had wiped the smile off her face.
“You’re lucky I don’t shoot you where you stand,” she’d sneered, and he’d chanced himself the gamble of answering; “Looks like daddy taught his little princess to take care of herself. I like that.”
There had been a little pause, a little twitch of her eyebrows like she had been surprised at the fact that he’d actually dared to banter with her when he had a gun trained on his heart. But it had done the trick. It had brought that wry little smile back to her lips.
“Yeah, well… when your daddy’s had as many death threats as mine has, when about five terrorist organisations have made out they were gonna kidnap you for ransom by the time you’re ten…” She’d shrugged, letting him work the rest out. “Now I just have to figure out what I’m going to do with you.”
She’d given him the once over then, a slow, considering sweep of a glance that somehow managed to be both clinical and sexy at the same time, one that had stirred him in a way he hadn’t been stirred in a long, long time. He didn’t even think she’d been aware of the way she’d looked at him. The way she’d sized him up, like a predator surveying its prey.
A second or two, and the moment had ended.
She’d indicated to the walk-in closet door with a twitch of the gun.
“Move,” she’d ordered, all business again.
“What’cha gon’ do wit’ me?” he’d asked her quietly as he’d walked slowly over to the closet, hands still in the air.
“Whaddaya think?” she’d snapped back sarcastically; this time she’d been right behind him, and he’d made a quick mental calculation, figured out the angle of her body, the height and trajectory of her aim, the mental mathematics skimming through his mind at a million miles a second as she continued, “I’m gonna lock you in there until I figure out what I’m gonna—”
And that’s when he’d made his move.
Spinning round and ducking down as low as he could, launching himself at her legs and pulling them out from underneath her. The gun had gone off – a muffled, metallic snap that had told him silencer – the bullet embedding itself in the bathroom wall as she’d crashed to the floor and he’d covered her, making a grab for the gun.
She’d been stunned, dazed, confused by his attack – but he’d been surprised by the fact that she’d recovered her wits quickly enough to give back as good as she got. Before he’d even had the chance to wrest the firearm from her she’d pistol-whipped him in the face, and for a moment he’d seen stars and tasted blood, and when he’d come out the other side it was to find she’d tackled him right over onto his back and was straddling him, panting from the exertion of their brief struggle, the gun barrel pressed firmly against his temple.
“Fuck, woman,” he’d rasped around the blood on his tongue. “You’re good.”
“You’d better fuckin’ believe it!” she’d seethed at him, and for some reason the only thing he’d been aware of at that moment was the shape of her thighs pressed against his hips. “And here I was, thinkin’ I was gonna cut’cha some slack and letcha get off light. More fuckin’ fool me.”
He’d heard it. Right there, right then. A hint of accent.
“Couldn’t letcha send me away, chere,” he’d ground back up at her, “otherwise we wouldn’t get ta have dis fun li’l tussle on de floor now, would we.”
His vision had finally begun to clear. The first thing he’d been aware of was her eyes only inches from his, pale green with barely-suppressed rage, fierce and beautiful as a wildcat.
And that was the last impression he’d had of her, before she’d slammed the butt of the gun into the side of his head and the lights had gone out.