Gin lay in the middle of the bed in her hotel room. She was flat on her back with her right leg extended toward the edge of the footboard, diagonal from her body, and her other leg bent inward with her foot resting in the hollow behind her right knee. Her left arm was thrown up above her head, which was turned to the left, her chin resting on her shoulder and her thick raven hair falling in loose waves over her pillow. Her other arm was stretched out horizontally and her hand dangled limply over the edge of the mattress. Gin shifted slightly in her sleep and as she did so, her bare shoulder brushed against the cold metal of the loaded revolver beneath her pillow.
Ever since she had returned to her London hotel room to find every bit of her luggage, from her advanced tracking equipment to her expensive lingerie, blatantly stolen from her room for no apparent reason, Gin had not parted with the firearm even for an instant.
The theft had been carried out with an expert hand; whoever had committed the crime was apparently undeterred by the hotel’s elaborate security system, and had obviously managed to both enter and exit the room with little to no inconvenience to himself. Meaning he would probably have no reservations about entering a second time. Besides, given the fact that the entirety of her wardrobe had been abducted from her closet, with the possibility of a returning intruder, Gin felt it wise to have some sort of weapon with which to protect herself should the burglar choose to make a midnight appearance as she slept alone, clad in nothing but the lacy black underwear she had worn during the day.
Gin would have preferred to sleep clothed, as most normal people do, but the navy blue satin dress she had worn earlier was unsuitable to wear to bed and she feared she would damage the expensive garment if she attempted to do so. So, with a lingering sense of discomfort and anxiety born of only partial confidence in the privacy and security of her hotel room, Gin slept as close to naked as one could possibly be without actually being---in a strictly technical sense, anyway---in the nude.
Needless to say, her slumber was anything but peaceful and was, instead, quite fitful, fraught with disturbing dreams, and frequently interrupted.
At approximately two o’ clock in the morning, Gin was suddenly and rudely awakened for what seemed like the hundredth time. With a deep groan of exasperation at having her sleep disrupted yet again by nothing more that her own seemingly unconquerable paranoia, Gin rolled over and burrowed deeper beneath the scratchy blankets in a desperate, futile attempt to resume her slumber. But all of a sudden she froze, instantly wide awake.
A strange, foreign scent wafted through the air and alerted Gin’s keen and practiced nostrils to an alien and unmistakably masculine presence within the room. Her entire body tensed with just as much terror as awareness but her eyes remained closed, giving the illusion of blissful, ignorant sleep. Every muscle, tendon, and fiber of her being clenched; hard, rigid, and defensive, but an instant later something dissolved her fear and relaxed every ounce of tension in her body, almost as if she’d been bewitched. And, in a way, she had.
A curious blend of whiskey, cigar smoke, men’s cologne, and rich dark chocolate permeated the atmosphere, enveloping Gin in its unfamiliar, yet wholly welcome, embrace and clouding her senses somewhat. While undoubtedly foreign, the intoxicating combination of scents had an inexplicable but undeniable attractive quality to it and Gin unconsciously found herself inhaling deeply of the alluring smell. It was arresting, exhilarating, and…sensual all at the same time. Gin’s eyelashes fluttered and an involuntary sigh of pleasure escaped her parted lips. Something quivered in her middle, igniting a strangely pleasurable aching sensation in her lower abdomen, and she felt a prickling heat sweep over her skin. But a fraction of a second later, with a colossal effort, she tore herself free from the seductive grasp of the mesmerizing scent and became instantaneously refocused upon her own immediate peril.
She casually shifted slightly, presumably in her sleep, and slowly inched her right hand under her pillow, fully intent upon surprising the fragrant intruder with the barrel of her revolver aimed at his head. However, to her confusion, she failed to locate the weapon. Becoming slightly anxious, her fingertips traveled meticulously over every inch of the mattress, searching both carefully and urgently, but she felt nothing. Now wholly panicked, throwing her pillow aside, she shot up from the bed and swept the palm of her hand over it, no longer even attempting to maintain the illusion of unsuspecting slumber, and gave a bewildered cry of alarm at finding her hiding place empty.
Suddenly a gruff, slightly amused voice cut through her panic like a knife. “Rule number one: Never carry a gun.”
She gasped in horror and whirled to face the sound, her eyes wide with terror and her hair tumbling wildly about her face.
A figure whose shape was all-too-familiar to her sat comfortably in an armchair in the corner of her room. The darkness of the night shrouded him in its mysterious cloak of shadows, obscuring his face and revealing only the most cryptic outline of his form. But that was more than enough for Gin to determine the identity of the intruder. Mac.
His legs were crossed nonchalantly and one elbow rested on the upholstered arm of the chair, her revolver dangling tauntingly from his fingertips, as though mocking both her and her futile attempts to fool him.
“You carry a gun, you might be tempted to use it.” he cautioned, a hint of amused superiority lurking within the deep tones of his melodious and faintly accented voice.
Upon recognizing the supposed burglar, Gin’s heartbeat slowed, her body ceased its violent trembling, and the normalcy of her breathing returned sufficiently enough for her to stammer out what she considered a logical question under the unique and bizarre circumstances. “Wha-what are you doing here?”
Mac cleared his throat importantly and sat up a little straighter in his chair. “I’m going to ask you some questions and if I don’t like your answers, you’re going out the window.”
Completely convinced of the legitimacy of his threat and acutely aware of the fact that her hotel room was on the eighth floor, Gin’s eyes widened in fright and she swallowed nervously, but made a valiant attempt not to reveal her inner anxiety to her extremely perceptive captor. With astonishing skill and incredible speed she cleared her stunning features of all emotion whatsoever, leaving behind nothing but an impenetrable façade of blank composure. In truth, she was paralyzed with fear, but stubbornly refused to show it. Fear was weakness and that was not something she could afford in her current situation.
“Why are you following me?” he demanded.
“I’ve got a proposition for you.” she said calmly, raising her chin confidently with just a hint of insolence.
“How do I know you’re not a cop?”
It was a good question, but unfortunately, Gin did not have a good answer. “I don’t know.” she said honestly, brushing a disobedient curl out of her face in helpless resignation. “You’re just gonna have to trust me.”
Mac gave a skeptical snort. “Rule number two: Never trust a naked woman.”
Gin blinked in confusion for a brief moment, temporarily forgetting about her current state of undress, then her eyes fell to her own naked chest and her memory was instantaneously refreshed. Her modesty had been preserved by a fortunate wrinkle in the blankets, but all the same, she gathered a sheet about her middle, and to her surprise, as she did so, a hot flush of shame surged into her cheeks.
Gin had long since ceased to be embarrassed by overexposure to the flesh and could honestly not remember a time when she had been above using her exceptional beauty as a means of manipulation, but for some strange, bizarre reason, something about the man sitting in her hotel room made her feel obligated to maintain some sense of decency. Had it been anyone else, Gin would have left the sheet exactly where it was and not given it a second thought, for time and experience had taught her that distracted, stupefied men were remarkably easier to negotiate with and significantly less likely to notice that there was a gun to their head until after she pulled the trigger. However, his biting words felt mockingly judgemental and though she revealed nothing, his statement hurt her much more than even she realized. Though her guilt had long since departed, the haunting feelings of emptiness and uncertainty had never disappeared.
Unnerved and irritated, she frowned darkly, giving Mac a steely glare. “I have nothing to sleep in. Someone stole my luggage.” she said coldly, folding her arms over her bare breasts with an air of defiant indifference to his approval.
“Really? I’m shocked.” he said mockingly, obviously amused at her vulnerable state. “It’s amazing what’s getting stolen these days.” he drawled. “Your bags---”
Slightly peeved, Gin couldn’t resist. “That Rembrandt?” she interjected, hoping for a hint of recognition.
“Mm…Indeed, that Rembrandt.” he said slowly. Though his facial expression was concealed by the darkness, Gin detected all the recognition she sought and more in his voice. At the mention of the stolen artwork, his tone instantly changed from tauntingly arrogant to gravely serious and as he mulled over the subject, it was obvious he was contemplating something deeply.
He held up a copy of Time magazine featuring the priceless Chinese mask on its glossy cover. Gin could tell from the worn edges and slightly wrinkled front page that it was the copy she had brought with her from New York---the very same copy that had been among the items stolen from her room earlier that afternoon.
How did he get that? Gin frowned, confused. Vaguely, she wondered, could it be possible that Mac had been the one who had stolen her luggage? She bit her lip in thought, contemplating the probability. Impossible, she decided. What motivation could he possibly have and what purpose would it possibly serve? Having firmly convinced herself in the negative, she pushed the ridiculous notion from her mind.
“And this is your proposition?” he asked, the magazine dangling between two fingers.
“Yep.” she answered flatly.
“I don’t think it’s for sale.”
Gin glared menacingly into the darkness. His arrogantly cavalier attitude and his refusal to take her seriously was beginning to irritate her, but she managed to mask her annoyance somewhat, determined not to give him the satisfaction of seeing to effect he was having on her. “It’s not. I’m gonna steal it.” she said defiantly, her dark eyes flashing, daring him to challenge her. He accepted the invitation.
“From Bedford Palace? It’s rather well-guarded.”
Gin smirked. "By, among other things, its own random-access security code, changed daily, to which I have the key." It was now her turn to entertain a mocking lilt in her tone and she quirked a shapely eyebrow at his shadowy form, feeling quite impressed with her own ingenuity.
"Well, good for you." he said with a patronizing air. He seemed determined to ridicule her efforts and undermine her expertise, making the humbling task of requesting his assistance all the more difficult for the headstrong, fiery Gin. But she bit back a sharp retort, swallowed her pride, and allowed him to maintain the upper hand, for in reality, she had no choice in the matter.
"But I need your help. I can't get in and out." she said honestly, telling herself that no, there was absolutely no trace of desperation in her voice. Then she added hastily, "I've already got a buyer whose gonna give me 40 million for it." Perhaps the hefty sum would spark his interest; if not, well...
Suddenly he rose to his feet, strode over into the corner of the room, and turned to face her. "I have absolutely no reason to believe a word you've told me." he declared. He had an excellent point; he didn't, but it was precisely this type of situation in which Gin's exceptional powers of persuasion became the most useful. Her current state of dress---or lack thereof---wasn't exactly a hindrance, either.
"But you want to." she said bluntly.
Mac emitted another skeptical snort, "Why is that?" he asked with cynical amusement.
A devilish smile curved up the corner of her mouth. He was all hers ---or so she thought. "Because you want the mask." she purred, a sultry smokiness in her tone and a wicked gleam in her eye. Then, every move meticulously calculated to ensnare him beyond hope of redemption, she stretched, catlike, upon the rumpled bed, letting the sheet fall teasingly away from the most critical aspects of her body.
She knew exactly what he would see; full curves like that of a goddess, and smooth, porcelain skin that fairly glowed beneath the tender embrace of the moonlight spilling through her window. Thick, raven hair tumbling in loose waves over her shapely shoulders and long, slender limbs that defied perfection. Seductively parted ruby lips and large, dark eyes, flecked with gold, that held both an invitation and a warning. She was exquisitely, breathtakingly, dangerously beautiful. And she knew it.
She could feel his eyes raking over her, boring meticulously into every contour of her body, studying the personification of perfection laying so temptingly before him with an intense scrutiny that made her flesh burn. To her brief astonishment, she found that it was not an unpleasant sensation, and despite the illusion of composure she was currently attempting to maintain, she felt her heartbeat quicken and unconciously found herself drawing in a sharp breath of surprise. There was something unnervingly different about this man from any other she had ever encountered. She couldn't quite place just what, exactly, that difference might be, but it was something that both that both frightened and exhilarated her, and that was confusing, therefore annoying. Gin hated being confused.
She was jerked from her thoughts by his thoughtful "Mm." Her eyes snapped back up to his shadowy form, awaiting the confirmation of her successful manipulation. "First we try, then we trust." he declared with finality, somehow managing to be both irritatingly authoritative and maddeningly cryptic at the same time.
Gin rolled her eyes at his insistence upon preserving the element of mystery. "Meaning what?" she asked flatly, not quite able to fully disguise the annoyance in her tone.
"Meaning meet me outside the hotel, 9 am, tomorrow morning." He paused for a brief instant, turning from the window he was gazing intently out of, and then added, with obvious amusement, "Preferably dressed."
Gin narrowed her eyes at his comment but forced herself to ignore it. "Yeah, but how do I know you'll be there?" she demanded, quirking a skeptical eyebrow at him and waving a challenging finger in his direction.
Moving back into the darkness, he sighed. "If I tell you I'll be there, I'll be there." he said with exaggerated patience, as though speaking to a young child. "And I'm never late."
Gin bit back a snort of amusement, then grinned mischievously. She simply couldn't help herself. "Not ever?" she asked, taunting him childishly.
"Never." he repeated dryly, now fully concealed in the shadows. "If I'm late..." He paused for dramatic effect. "It's because I'm dead."
Gin blinked in surprise, momentarily taken aback, but growing weary of provoking him, she asked, "Whose hotel, yours or mine?"
There was no answer. Gin rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Mac?" she asked again, irritated.
Once again, nothing.
Finally fed up with his games, Gin growled angrily and sat up, leaning over to switch on the lamp beside her bed. "Mac?!" she demanded again, a note of shrillness creeping into her tone.
Still no response.
As light flooded the room, instantaneously chasing away the shadows, she saw that, once again, she was alone in her room, with no indication that she had ever been otherwise. He was gone. Vanished into the black night.
Gin sighed and buried her face in her hands.