This is actually a small part of a much larger story, slightly edited to make a bit more sense on its own. I had a bit of an internal debate over the "romance" genre, but we'll see how it goes.

Rio slid through the crowded room easily; people tended to move aside for him without quite knowing why. He wasn't particularly large – if anything, he was on the skinny side – and he tried his best not to look like, well, like what he was, but something about him seemed to frighten people nevertheless. Even though most of them were barely coherent, high off either the drink, the music or those little baggies you could get from the bouncers if you knew which ones to 'tip', they still knew better than to tread on his toes. Eventually he reached a wall far enough away from the club's enormous speakers that he could just about hear his thoughts over his brain's rattling, and leaned against it to drink from one of the bottles he had swiped up along the way while he scanned the room like a shark at a sushi bar.

And like a shark at a sushi bar, he got the feeling that the club's pickings tonight were remarkably inadequate, or at least far too easy to be satisfying. He could have become a very rich man from just the wallets, purses and jewellery that were not being properly taken care of, but he hated easy work. It barely qualified as work. Then, just as he was thinking of moving on, something caught his eye.

In a room as busy and bustling as this, it was lack of movement that was unusual, and there was a distinct lack of movement around the woman at the bar. There was a whole crowd of people clustered along the sticky marble counter vying for the bartenders' attention, but nobody went within a few feet of her. He couldn't see her face, but she sat still and poised on that stool, sipping something violently orange from one of those little cocktail glasses that looked like they'd break if you gave them a stern look. In fact, nobody even seemed to be glancing her way. It was almost – almost – like the way they treated him. It was almost like they knew she was trouble, and not the fun kind. And this place was a magnet for the fun kind of trouble.

He followed the wall, keeping eyes on her, making little observations as he approached. Dressed all in black, tiny dress, high heels, and where was the handbag? He found it, scanned quickly for the tell-tale signs, and yes, it was the real brand, not clutched on her lap or under one arm, but sat on the bar at the edge of her field of vision. The shoes, too, impossibly high and with a distinct silver charm hanging from the heel. Rio had learned to distinguish the real designer items from the fakes a long time ago, as it saved a lot of embarrassment with the fences later on. One more look around the edges room confirmed his suspicions. She was rich. Not just well-off, but crazy rich. Her haircut was probably worth more than most people's rent. His inner shark gave a bare-toothed grin.

He slid smoothly into the bar stool beside her, closer to her purse than she was, and gave her a friendly smile. She barely glanced at him before draining her glass and lightly raising one manicured finger. Ignoring the entire crowd at the other end of the bar, the cocktail waiter was there in an instant. She smiled at him. "Another, please, and he'll have that sticky beer that tastes like wet cardboard." The boy went away again. Rio raised an eyebrow. Now she looked his way, and shrugged.

"You were going to offer to buy me a drink. I'm pretty sure you need the money more than I do."

"And you are?"

"Not doing anything later, no."

Up close she was rather beautiful, in that carefully styled way of the women – the ladies – he sometimes found down here. She couldn't have been over thirty, and so slim he could have taken her neck in one hand. The corner of his mouth twitched. "Well, that's promising," he said, taking the bottle the barman offered him. She was right about the taste, but it was one of those awful experiences that kept drawing you back. The violently orange concoction she drank came with a piece of some fruit he had never seen before, which looked rather like the result of a genetic experiment. She bit it daintily off the cocktail stick and looked up at him expectantly. His fingertips were touching the bag, but he knew if he ran with it he'd never make it to the door. "And you called off your bodyguards," he added. "Should I be flattered or insulted?"

She glanced over at one of the mountains in suits, retreating back into the crowd. He'd noted at least two of them, but there were probably more, dismissed by that tiny flick of her hand. "That depends," she said to the cocktail. "Are you dangerous?"

"Depends how you define 'danger'."

That usually worked, but she seemed unimpressed. He fought the urge to roll his eyes. You got them in slum bars like this fairly often, rich housewives who treated these trips like an extreme sport, who wandered down the alleys and through the dives wearing jewellery half the men here would have cut a child's throat for, and who always, always had some kind of hired muscle following after them with a very expensive gun. Taking a gutter rat back to some grimy, peeling hotel room was the highlight of the thrill for them, and they did it for the same reason they'd hang glide, or mountain climb, or whatever else people were throwing their money at these days. They wanted to feel like they were doing something that could get them killed, but they never did it without the safety ropes. Those bodyguards were on hand to break the arms of anyone who laid a finger on her without her express permission, probably in writing. She was in no danger at all and she damn well knew it, but her figure was something straight out of a magazine, and he knew some hotel rooms that were barely peeling, and she certainly wouldn't miss those earrings in the morning, and possibly not the watch, either. At least, not until he was long gone.

"I have a very liberal definition of 'danger'," she said eventually, and took another sip. Then there was that silence again, somehow cutting through the white background noise of the club. Her face was unreadable.

"What are you drinking?" He asked, mostly just to fill that silence.

"Try it." She kissed him.

It was so unexpected that he opened his mouth in surprise, and had to grab at the bar to keep from falling off the stool, but after a muffled gasp he found it was quite a good kiss. The taste on her tongue was strong, acidic and just a little fruity, and actually pretty good, but that was on the edge of his notice. He was on the verge of putting a hand on her – he hadn't decided where – when she pulled back as suddenly as she'd leaned in, and went back to that private-school poise, not a hint of colour to her cheeks. "You like it?" She asked calmly. He nodded, feeling strangely violated yet intrigued. "You want one?" She gave him another slightly reptilian smile. "Or would you rather skip ahead an hour to the point where I'm staggering drunk and you offer to take me 'home'?"

Rio blinked. This wasn't the usual way. Well, it seemed to be heading in the right direction, but by a very unconventional route. He aimed for 'aloof', and missed. "What makes you think I want to take you… 'home'?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you come over here to get to know me? Maybe ask for some make-up tips?"

He took a swig of beer. "You know," he said eventually, "the more I talk to you, the less I like you."

"So let's skip the hour. Your place or mine?"

This made him pause to think, for once. There was something disconcertingly intelligent about the way she was watching him, the way she wore the place, how at home she felt there. She wasn't a peeling hotel rooms kind of person. Unmarried, or she wouldn't have given him the option of her own place, but either insanely confident or just insane to suggest his own. He had a better shot at her jewellery if he went to hers, he knew, but somehow he felt like that wasn't going to pan out well whatever he tried. People like her tended to deck out their mansions like small fortresses, and she certainly had her own security team. Well, he thought with a small inward sigh, it wasn't as if he really needed money at the moment, and sometimes it was a good idea to do things just because they were fun. It would certainly be fun to see just how brave this one really was.

"Mine."

"Are you sure? Mine's a penthouse."

"Mine has accessories."

She raised her designer eyebrows. "As you wish," she said graciously.

When they reached the steps outside, the cold night air hit them like a wall, and yet another suited giant Rio hadn't noticed strolled up to them and put a coat over her shoulders. It had a fur collar thick enough to lose a rabbit in. She reached into her purse, took out a clip of cash without even looking and handed it to him. "Send my car home, please, then thank the others and tell them to take the rest of the night off," she ordered, barely slowing down. Rio, on the other hand, nearly froze, and not because of the thin, cheap jacket. This was not how this kind of thing was supposed to go. His inner shark was circling excitedly, but the less primal part of his brain sent up a warning bell, which he promptly ignored. The bodyguard, or secretary, or whatever he called himself, threw Rio the same look Rio reserved for cockroaches (disdainful but not overly hostile), and went back up to the door of the club. The woman turned to Rio. "Cosier, isn't it? Just the two of us. Are you far?"

He half-expected to be molested again in the back of the taxi, but she barely seemed to notice him. In the half-light he tried once more to read her, but she gave him nothing to work with. She was rich, calm, forward and probably quite stupid, to be doing something like this. She didn't know a damn thing about him. He could have been a murderer, a thief – heh – or some kind of psychopath. That bag was way too small to hold a gun, and her dress was too tight to contain any kind of weapon. Experimentally, he reached over and put a hand on her thigh. She glanced at him then back out of the window, seeming fascinated by the wrecks and ruins of the sorry part of the world Rio called home. He slid the hand upwards, pushing the hem of the dress up with it, and was almost there when she caught his wrist in a surprisingly strong grip. "Don't start what you can't finish," she warned quietly, then let go. He leaned back in his seat, his mind snapping various witty retorts that he didn't bother to say out loud.

After the driver asked three times if she was certain this was where she was headed, she tipped him generously and turned to the building in which Rio lived, a twelve-storey concrete monster that looked like it would have crumbled in a high breeze, but it had stood for years and would probably still be there on Judgement Day. She didn't seem disturbed or even disgusted, stepping delicately over the dead weeds, smashed bottles and discarded condoms that lay across the path to the front door, which hung from one hinge and was shattered in any case. The entry hall had probably been white at some point, but had never been cleaned, and was covered in graffiti, lit by one flickering strip light. There were three lifts, none of which were working, and total silence except for the click of her heels on the linoleum.

"Ninth floor," he said cheerfully, holding open the door to the stairwell. She took in the mutilated walls.

"Modern art," she murmured, and kicked aside a broken needle to begin the climb.

He couldn't imagine her in flat, sensible shoes. She didn't complain for the whole journey, and nor did she seem even remotely unsteady on her feet. Those cocktails seemed lethal, but aside from some serious errors of judgement she was wearing the alcoholic haze with practised style. At one point she stopped and traced the tip of a red graffiti flourish with her fingertip. "Who is 'Gaz', and why does he feel so strongly about my mother?"

"I think it's… more of a general statement."

"Now, this is fascinating." She leaned over the railing and looked down at all the levels they'd climbed. "They know they won't get money, fame, even attention, and nobody will know who they are. They know it'll probably never get cleaned off. It's their chance to make a mark, and say something truly immortal. They're almost screaming at the world from a place of total safety. And what do they say?" She turned back to Gaz's masterpiece. "Maybe they just can't handle the responsibility."

Rio looked down at her, fifty per cent sure she was teasing him, which left him fifty per cent sure she was dead serious and eighty per cent sure she was some kind of crazy. "What would you say?"

"Me?" She laughed. "When I have something I want the world to hear, I call a press conference."

"But then everyone knows it's you…" He paused, surprised at himself, but recovered quickly and slapped her backside somewhat harder than was necessary to get her moving again. "Come on. One more floor."

Then they were at his door, and he held it open to invite her in to the twenty square feet he considered to be home base.

He'd never brought a thrill-seeker back here (or any woman, for that matter), but it should have everything to appeal to her morbid curiosity. The carpet was threadbare and little more than a token gesture, the bed was a mattress on the floor with an old blanket flung over it, and the kitchen was a short countertop with a sink, microwave and kettle. The bathroom was little more than a cupboard with plumbing. It wasn't particularly dirty or untidy, only because there wasn't enough in it to get dirty or form a mess. The only exception was the little table, which was covered with the remains of take-aways he only really cleared when he ran out of space, and – oh, damn, he'd left the gun out.

"I hope you don't mind rats," he said for effect, pulling her coat off her shoulders and slinging it over the chair as an excuse to topple a pile of grease paper wrappers over the offending weapon.

"I don't." She stepped out of her heels and left them neatly by the door, then opened a cardboard box at random and seemed disappointed that it was just a few crumpled clothes. "But should I have gotten some shots before I came out here?"

She opened another box with her back to him. "You seem pretty confident that I'm not going to gut you and sell your organs," he said casually, pulling his shirt off over his head and tossing it into a corner.

"I think if you were planning on gutting me and selling my organs you wouldn't have said that," she replied, picking up a CD at random and inspecting it critically. "So, what are you? Some kind of crime lord?"

He paused, but then decided if he was going to play the game he might as well play to win. "More of a freelancer, really."

"Ah. Running your own business, that kind of thing?" The CDs scattered aside as she pulled out the lightweight case buried beneath them and clicked the latches.

"Kind of." He reached into his pocket.

"Well done. That takes persistence." She opened the case.

Eight or so of Rio's knives gleamed against their black cloth cushions in the low-energy light. They were the only things in the room that looked loved. Carefully, she picked one up and held it to eye level. He stepped up behind her.

"You know," he told her amiably, "a girl could hurt herself, playing with knives." He pressed his favourite switch blade to her throat and took immense satisfaction from feeling her go very still and silent. Even her breathing slowed. The knives in the case were mostly interesting and usually quite nice to look at, in their way, but the one he carried around with him was as plain and simple as they came, and had a blade that could probably split atoms. He went down to his knees and pulled her back against his chest. "Put it down."

With exaggerated care, she wiped it on the hem of her dress and put it back in the case, then reached to close the case, but when she tried to lean forward the knife bit a little harder against her skin. She gave up.

"So, you want to feel like a rebel, huh?" He smirked. "You want to feel dirty?" With a quick flick of the knife, he cut through one of the straps of her dress.

"And you want to feel like you're in control," she said quietly. He cut the other strap, and her shoulders moved in what was probably the closest thing to a shrug she could safely manage, with that steel against her skin. "Some people might guess you have deep-rooted psychological issues, or at the very least that you're into some pretty weird things."

He pressed the tip of the blade against the edge of her collarbone, and drew it slowly back to the centre, just hard enough to raise a thin white line in its wake, then slipped it down between her breasts. "Whatever," he whispered in her ear. "Consenting adults, right?"

She snorted, and reached up behind her to wind her fingers into his overgrown hair. "Right."

He sheared through the taunt fabric just far enough that it fell away from her upper body, which was distinctly lacking in underwear. Her chest was hardly a feast, but it consisted of some very nice shapes, and was warm after the cold of the night air and the stairwell. She tightened her grip on his hair, and he bit her ear. He could almost feel the smirk on her painted lips. Fine, then. Psychological issues? Obviously.

With his free hand he pulled her dress up around her waist, yanked down the thin scraps of lace she wore underneath, and trailed the knife down over her belly, over the little rumple of fabric now gathered at her middle, and down, waiting to see just how far she would go.

When the cold metal pressed between her legs she gasped sharply, and caught his wrist once more in that surprisingly firm grip. "You'd better have a very steady hand," she murmured.

Despite his best efforts, Rio was impressed "Oh, I do, but you'd better keep pretty damn still."

She let go and tipped her head back against his shoulder, baring her neck to his teeth while the blade started to move.

It wasn't exactly something he'd done before, but he did have surgical precision when it came to knives, and really it was just a matter of knowing where the blades were and knowing where she was. She was keeping still, as well as she could, but when the first little moan escaped her he bit her neck hard, and she jerked. He caught her wrist, pulling her hand away from his hair and pinning it to her side. He paused for a moment, but she told him sharply to keep going, so he did. His teeth had left black marks on her soft, light skin, and the long mark the knife had raised on her collarbone had turned from white to red. He could tell she was trying not to make any noise, probably to spite him, but she was hot, and the blade was getting slick.

Unbidden, the brief thought flashed into his mind that he didn't know what the best way was to clean the knife afterwards, but she whimpered again and his thoughts shot back to the present. He let go of her wrist and caught her neck instead, pressing just hard enough. "Go on," he whispered into her ear. "Ask me nicely."

"And you might let me finish?" She was having serious trouble getting the words out, but he could hear the proud growl. "Go fuck yourself."

For some reason he was surprised to hear such words from her. "I think we're past that, don't you?" He dropped the knife onto the dirty carpet and slid his fingers into its place, earning a strangled groan and an arched back. After one last squeeze on her neck, he caught the fabric of what was left of her dress. One last tug tore it off completely. He guessed she was pretty damn close, and if she kept pressing back against him and squirming like that, he would be too. He withdrew and came to his feet in an instant, letting her fall back onto the floor.

Flushed and naked except for the jewellery and the black lace pulled down to her knees, she was as inviting a picture as he'd ever imagined. She pulled up onto her elbows and gave him the most interesting mix of enjoyment and exasperation he had ever seen. He crouched over her and touched her warm cheek softly, then ran his fingertips over the contours of her face, along her soft lips, down her jawline, back up and into her thick, dark hair.

Then he took a fistful of that hair and used it to drag her up onto her knees and shove her onto the mattress. "So you can shut up," he observed, pulling his belt off as he advanced. She had landed on her front, and made no move to roll over further than she had to in order to watch his approach. She met his eyes. She winked.

Bitch, snapped half his mind, while the other half cheered applauded. He didn't bother with his shoes, just wrenching his jeans down as he went down onto his knees, grabbed her bony hips in his hands and pulled her up onto all fours, then rammed into her without a moment's warning, and was rewarded with a choke halfway between a shout and a gasp. The noises she was making now were pornographic in their own rights, and she felt amazing to him, so hot and tight. Her flailing hand grabbed a pillow and she screamed into it. He grabbed her hair again and yanked, pulling her up to kneeling, then clamped his hand over her mouth to muffle her, and bit her again while her hands reached back and found his hips, and her nails dug in. If he'd actually had a bed, it would probably have been coming apart at the joints from this hard, fast onslaught as he carried on relentlessly, every worry and trouble melting away in the race to-

He buried his face in her neck and growled, then with one last thrust he was finished. He held her pinned against him for a moment longer, listening to her whimpers dying down to gasps and sighs, then let her go and watched her sprawl down, fingers twitching. He ran a hand along her body, all the way down from shoulder to knee, then flung himself down beside her to watch her recover.

It took a minute or two for her to roll onto her back, then look over at him and smile faintly. "Just one pillow?" She asked eventually. He nodded, having already taken it over. It was still warm from her grasp. She stood, a little unsteady on her feet, kicked off what was left of her underwear, crossed the room to flick off the lights, and found her way back to him by the moonlight glaring in through the one window. She pulled the blanket up with her, and he allowed her to lean her head on his shoulder, even putting an arm around her as he lay and took stock.

Well, aside from the muscle complaints and the claw marks on his hips he felt in pretty good condition. Better than good, really, if you allowed for the happy flood that was running through his body. She looked a mess, and there were still pins in her hair, slightly digging into him, but she seemed pretty happy too.

Well, this wasn't something he'd done before.

Actually, when you dissected it, it consisted of familiar ingredients – he'd had sex with plenty of strangers, even slept with a few, though never before in his own bed. He'd given plenty of bored rich women a few thrills, usually claiming a few items of jewellery as payment. He'd brought his knife to bed once or twice, with some of his tougher short-lived friendships. And yet, it had never felt quite like this. His fingertips drew circles on her shoulder, and she gave a faint, sleepy sigh. It was the fearlessness, he realised. She'd made all the right moves and noises, but she'd never actually been afraid. If she'd been doing it for the thrills, she was probably disappointed, but he doubted she was, which led to the curious question: why?


Rio awoke to a swift rap at the door. He was at the table in seconds, whipping the gun out from under that pile of crumpled grease paper, and then he remembered the woman in the flat. Wearing only a towel – his only towel, he noted – she swept by him with a tiny sigh and opened the door. A hand thrust into the room with something on a clothes hanger in one of those unnecessary dust cover things, and a deep voice said, "The car's ready, ma'am, and we've got your paperwork prepped."

"Thank you, Mr. Green," she replied calmly, taking the hanger and closing the door. Somehow using only what she had in the bag or had scavenged from around the room, she had totally rearranged her hair into something neat and sensible, and neatened her make-up. She dropped the towel, then unzipped the bag to take out a black dress somewhat more sensible than the one that now lay in rags on the floor. By daylight, with small bruises on her neck, she looked even more appetising. "You have no hot water," she told Rio as she shuffled into it.

"Yeah, it comes and goes," he replied airily, putting the gun back on the table with a heavy clunk. She hadn't even flinched.

"Normally I'd offer to make breakfast, but you don't have any food here that's not second-hand so I put some youngish pizza in the microwave." She zipped up the dress, stepped back into last night's heels and suddenly would have looked at home in the kind of office that shuffles millions. "Thank you for last night." She picked up her little bag and opened the door, and probably would not have looked back if he hadn't spoken.

"I didn't catch your name."

A small smile played on her lips. "That's because I don't just throw it around. Let's not get personal, shall we?"

Her man was waiting outside. He heard the click of her heels get halfway down the hall before his foot caught on something on the floor. He glanced down, snatched it up and threw the door back open. "Hey, rich lady!" She stopped and glanced back, her man looming protectively over her. Rio held up the few strips of black lace that had passed for her underwear. "You forgot something."

"Did I?" She laughed. "Call it a souvenir. Goodbye, whoever you are."

And not a backward glance. Balling up the lace, he went back inside and found that she had left five hundred dollars on the bathroom sink, and a note pencilled on a torn-off piece of pizza box: Buy yourself a fridge. Rio snorted. Even her handwriting reeked of privilege. And there, lying beside the note so neatly he had no doubt they had been left on purpose, were her earrings.

He chewed on lukewarm pizza and wondered if he'd accidentally become a prostitute, and if they usually felt this cheated in the mornings.