The smell of burning startled her into wakefulness. Her eyes darting around the room in a panic before relaxing at the sound of cursing and muffled stomping accompanying her housemate’s complaints about the loss of their toast. She had been having the same dream ever since her last meeting. It had been going so well.
The meeting had started like any other. She had sat between her boss and the opposing company as a neutral party, simply there to take notes. Across from her sat a very quiet man, he too appeared to be a neutral and she had smiled at him gently for a moment before they began. The Italian company began the negotiations hard, but by lunch the tables had turned rapidly, her boss laying an ultimatum on the table. The Italians had not liked that one bit; being called out on embezzlement and fraud by their partner company was not something that they had expected. The atmosphere in the room dropped by degrees and at this point the other neutral had stepped in, suggesting a break for lunch. She had watched the partner company warily as they left the room. Her boss was too busy conversing with his partner, wife and lawyer to notice but just as the door slid closed she spotted a fifty pound note slide into the hand of a concierge. She shook her head, it was nothing, it had to be. Yet trying to push the incident to the back of her mind proved futile as they too stood, gathering papers and headed towards the buffet hall.
The buffet hall in her opinion, despite the famous nature of the hotel, was decorated in a horrid off yellow wallpaper with canary yellow tablecloths, a green patterned carpet that clashed horribly and navy blue leather tall backed chairs that looked far too austere for their place. She glanced around the room, spotting the concierge out of the corner of her eye and settled down in a seat at one of the round tables. The concierge approached a wine bottle in his hand and a clean glass. He swapped the glass in front of her as the boss poured wine for everyone and left the table.
There was a sudden crash and a large whooshing sound across the buffet hall as the rest of her table downed their glasses of wine and with a synchronisation that was terrifying, fell face first into their plates just as the kitchen exploded outwards in a rush of alcohol induced flame. Falling off her seat in shock had been the only thing that saved her life. The concierge who had thrown the alcohol across the room into the controlled flame of the chef’s pan counted all four of his targets deceased and moved to exit the room, confident that the fire would consume all evidence.
She had come to her senses then. Half terrified, she only just had enough time to think of grabbing all the paperwork her boss had brought with him (fortunately for her he used a rucksack). She swung the bag up onto her back and ran for the door, thankful that she had chosen to wear a trouser suit and flat shoes today rather than skirt and heels. She had burst out of the door, heading for the nearest exit, heart pounding, coughing and spluttering from the smoke she’d begun to inhale from the flames in the kitchen. She grabbed the wall, stopping suddenly in fright as a crash startled her. Her brain told her it was the ceiling of the buffet hall but quickly realised that she didn’t have time for that. Pushing forwards she found a fire exit to an alleyway at the side of the building. Throwing the door open her fear drove her into the arms of the other neutral, the man who had sat opposite her. He too was startled for a moment before grabbing her and dragging her behind a large dustbin.
‘Are you hurt?’ he asked again, this time more forcefully, eliciting a shake of the head from her.
‘Good. Now you need to listen to me carefully. We can’t be found here. You need to trust me and do exactly as I say, without question. Do you understand?’
She wasn’t stupid. She’d found help and this man seemed to know what he was doing.
‘Good. Follow me. Stay as quiet as possible. If I tell you to run and not look back, you run. If I tell you to duck, you duck. If I tell you to leave me to bleed on the floor and get away, do so. You’ve got yourself caught up in something big. I know you had nothing to do with it and that’s why I’m helping you.’
She nodded mutely, forcing as much of her panic to the back of her mind as possible, allowing herself to be pulled into a run.
Now some four weeks later she was still with him. They were masquerading as a couple, living in a flat together on the coast. He had found her work pretty quickly and he had claimed he already had a job. He’d saved her life, she wasn’t one to argue. But she couldn’t help the nightmares, the smell of burning, the fear of the intense heat; the choking of the smoke...it was all too much for her. Everything was so confusing. The only thing that seemed to be right was him. He just exuded this silent power, confidence in himself that made her feel safe, secure and oddly, at home, despite the mess.
The dream itself was full of that same burning, same choking sensation. She’d get wrapped in the blankets, or she’d end up with her face in the pillow, her breathing constricted, not painfully, but enough for her subconscious to latch on and twist her dreams into nightmares, an intoxicating swirl of smoke, sweat, fear. The roof always fell on her, the eyes of her ex-colleagues stared blankly at her, blaming her, accusing her. They would stand, broken, pale and deathly white and inch towards her, flames surrounding, consuming and in the very back of her mind, the eyes, the face of the concierge as he strode out of the hotel in triumph echoed in the back of her mind, mocking her very existence as she begged for forgiveness, to be set free and then, as the ceiling collapsed, she woke. Usually she would end up on the floor, her face flat to the wooden boards, choking back tears, gripping at the blankets, shaking and sweating in the small hours of the night. Invariably it took a stiff drink and at least an hour for her to gain enough courage to try to sleep again.
He was usually there, when she woke, he had a habit of knowing when a dream had woken her. He would come out of the room just before she’d managed to gain the courage to leave her room for a drink. He’d lay a sweet amber-filled glass on the table and would watch her. He would never push for her to tell him what disturbed her sleep, but he seemed to know; he could tell. She had broken down in his arms the first few times, but by the third night he’d managed to draw the story out of her. Now he just sat for comforts sake. They weren’t friends. They barely knew one another. He’d sit and clean his gun as she drank her Southern Comfort and occasionally take a swig from a hip flask that he sat on the table next to him. He was a mystery to her. They never talked about home or family or friends. They just were, and yet the silence was never uncomfortable, it was just there. They seemed to have created a symbiotic relationship that had moved beyond words. However, he had smiled at her one night, when he had found her cleaning his gun with a practiced ease that had genuinely startled him to begin with.
‘You’re a natural.’
‘No, my father owned one.’
‘He taught you?’
He had raised his eyebrows and nodded. ‘Anything else you know?’
‘Indeed.’ His statement was flat, but with a hint of a question.
‘If you suspect everyone then you will never be disappointed.’
Again he raised his eyebrows.
‘If someone does something wrong, you suspected them all along and you were right. If you suspected them all along and they didn’t do anything, then more is the better, you’re pleasantly surprised and everyone’s happy.’
‘Why aren’t you a cop?’
She had shrugged at that question.
‘I thought about it. I did basic training for the army. It didn’t work out.’
He cocked his head to one side.
‘Superior officer expected more of me than I wanted to give.’
His eyes had flashed dangerously at that.
‘I hope,’ he growled softly ‘that he will not be having children anytime soon?’
She had then blown into the gun and inspected the barrel. ‘It’s possible.’
He’d snorted at that.
‘Good. I don’t have to go beat someone up.’
‘You’ve very protective for someone who doesn’t know me.’
‘You’re very trusting for someone who doesn’t know me.’
She titled her head and laughed lightly.‘Does that put us at an impasse?’
‘I’d assume so. Unless you want to play 20 questions and then some?’
‘No, I think you’d win.’
‘Why’d you say that?’
‘Do you always follow your “feelings”?’
He smiled. ‘Why?’
‘I’m still alive.’
* * *
She snuck towards his room. Her footfalls were soft against the dark red carpet. She pulled her hair back into a quick ponytail and gently laid her hand on the door, pushing it slightly ajar, easing the handle down. Her ears strained, she caught the soft breathing of her flatmate. He was a light sleeper and she knew that to pull this off she’d have to be painfully careful. She inched herself into the room, laying each footfall heel first to minimize noise and thanking God that he was a tidy man and there was nothing to step on.
* * *
It had been six months, she barely knew him and yet she understood him in a way that no one else had ever managed. Her gifts had been a mix of a deep understanding of who he was and a demonstration of the kind of woman that she only allowed the rare few to see. The smallest box had been practical. A small, beautiful assisted opener, delicately engraved with Celtic patterns, a sharp two inch blade, solid grip and perfect balance made it all he needed out of a small concealable tool. It had described his first impression of her completely, quiet, deadly and subtle. The next present demonstrated a request for a future. It was simply a dinner reservation at a small Japanese restaurant not far from their flat. That it was wrapped around a pair of chop sticks was all he needed to know. The last of the boxes demonstrated a talent he had no idea she possessed. It both surprised and touched him. In a thin frame lay a complicated pencil sketch of him, cleaning a gun, the concentration and memory that had to have gone into the piece was astounding. But it was the last that made him freeze. It was the last that placed a fire in his eyes and a determination in his footsteps. It was the last that had led him here.
The leaves hung from the doorframe, so innocent and tantalising in what they offered. The red berries gleaming in the soft light of the candles and fairy lights. His eyes ran up and down her body, devouring her image. The way the novelty Christmas hat flopped down precariously on the left side of her head, the tinsel draped over her neck. He couldn’t stand it any longer. A creak in the floorboards announced his approach, for once he didn’t care that his feet weren’t light enough to startle her. He only cared about the way the frown of concentration would melt from her features on seeing him. His thumb trailed across her cheek and in one swift motion drew her into a deep kiss, pressing her against the door jam, hand cradling her head. Instantly her arms wrapped themselves around him, one hand still holding the silvery green tinsel.
“Fair’s fair” and dragged his shirt off. With that his grin widened. His trousers were quick to follow the discarded shirt, his mouth kissing and nipping down her throat and collarbone, his hands helping to drop her trousers to pool on the floor at her feet, trapping her in position as his fingers found her centre again. Moaning at his caresses she gasped, feeling his arousal pressed against her thigh and cried out as he lifted her bodily into his arms, holding her so that she could feel him pressed against her entrance. He carried her to the couch, dropping her gently onto the throw covered fabric and straddled her, kissing her deeply, fingers running through her hair and down her chest, cupping each breast and running his tongue over each fabric covered nipple. His hands snaked around her back, causing her to moan more into his kisses as he unclasped her bra and tossed it to join its partner in crime across the room.
His lips trailed down her body, her hands barely knew where to go and satisfied themselves with gripping his hair and shoulders as he moved lower, teasing every inch of her skin until his mouth hovered over her entrance and with one flick of the tongue her body shook with pleasure as he teased her clit eagerly. Soon she couldn’t take it anymore and instead of riding out the waves of euphoria dragged him up towards her before forcing him down onto his side. Her hand found him easily, wrapping itself around his hardness he moaned into her neck, suddenly as malleable as she had been not two minutes ago. He gasped, eye shooting wide open as her lips and tongue found his tip, torturing him. Mimicking her own move he dragged her to him kissing her passionately, their bodies finally locking together, desperate, loving and passionate they exploded in one another’s arms, panting and gripping each other as if that was all they needed in the world to survive.