Mr. Vance Renner
Eros, again now, the loosener of limbs troubles me,
Bittersweet, sly, uncontrollable creature…
She hated evening parties. She hated them with all her might.
No matter how many years had passed, her aristocratic upbringing, her natural charm, the singular grace with which she wore evening gowns, her sensual figure, and her still glowing beauty: she hated those goddamned parties.
There was no choice but to be there, anyway. After all, the sheikh would be offended if she refused to show up at the feast and later the ball taking place in a luxurious Dubai hotel... wearing that monstrous, yet incredibly beautiful diamond necklace he’d lent her just for that night.
Not that she cared excessively about offending the sheikh – but he was a valuable and generous contact, always providing all kinds of information, documents and weapons when she needed it. He turned a blind eye to the mess caused by her careless modus operandi and cleverly hid the corpses she left behind.
No, offending him would definitely be foolish. She couldn’t afford to lose her best collaborator in Arabia simply because she was annoyed by having to spend a few hours standing, smiling at a mass of admirers who paraded before her - kissing her hand, flattering her, uselessly inviting her to dance and even proposing marriage for a change.
That chatter sounded like the buzzing of flies - even the line of faces began to blur in her memory.
She looked down at the champagne glass, still half full. In Dubai sharia was strict: no alcohol, but these laws weren’t made for foreigners and certainly not for the hotels where they were entertained. Still, she had no desire to drink. In fact, all she wanted was to get out of there.
She looked at the moon glimpsing through the impressive windows of the ballroom. It was almost two o’clock in the morning. Maybe she could sneak back to the suite if...
Suddenly a figure caught her attention. A man in a black tuxedo, unconcernedly leaning against the wall and looking distracted, completely out of the crowd.
He shouldn’t have called her attention. There were, of course, many men dressed in traditional dishdasha and gutra, as well as many women with abayas, but at that international reception they were mingled with Westerners - like herself, who wore a long black dress splashed with crystal beads that, for once, lacked a too deep cleavage.
That man, though, had electrified her and that wasn’t surprising at all - if only for the way he was looking at her.
In fact, she was more than used to men looking at her like that. Thirsty, wanting to drink her up. Fiercely hungry, ready to devour her – the same as he looked at her.
Only he was different. With that look, those eyes, a very different reaction awakened in her. Inviting.
She absently left the champagne glass on the tray a solicitous waiter had offered her after approaching, to smile openly at the elegantly dressed man. But she didn’t move from her spot. She waited.
Then the man smiled slightly - that smirk - and put a finger to his lips. Suggestion or warning? She would take both, of course.
And then he pulled away from the wall and slowly walked away... in the opposite direction. She saw him getting lost in the crowd.
“Seriously?” She muttered under her breath. If he thought she was going to follow him like a lapdog, he’d be disappointed soon. Not in a million years.
“Miss Croft...” She turned to a shy middle-aged gentleman who looked at her with hope and visible nervousness. “Would you give me the pleasure of this dance?” He managed to articulate at last, while the orchestra began to play a waltz – kind of out of place in the Emirates.
This looked like the England of her childhood - if not for all those traditional Arab attires.
How many similar men with similar proposals had she rejected over the years? She was a good dancer, but she didn’t enjoy it. Especially because of the irritating male assumption that accepting a dance was an open door to everything else.
She was about to refuse, but then she imagined the handsome man who’d just left the ballroom and who surely would be waiting impatiently in the reception hall...
“Of course.” She smiled charmingly, and put her hand in the hand of the now enthusiastic gentleman, who led her immediately to the dance floor.
Almost half an hour later, after having rejected a new dance, she slipped through the crowd and paid her respects to the enthusiastic sheikh. She was free at last. The fresh air from the reception welcomed her once the doors of the great hall closed behind her.
It was not surprising to find him there, leaning on one of the glass columns, as calm and carefree as he’d seemed inside.
The man was waiting for her, neither impatient nor upset.
She suppressed a smile, turned and began to climb the huge marble stairs as if she’d not seen him. She could feel his eyes on her - on her bare back, uncovered by the dress, on her leg peeping out through the slit of her skirt.
“You play hard to get, Miss Croft.” She felt his warm breath near her nape. She winced. What a silent, sneaky guy.
“I don’t think I gave you permission to treat me with such familiarity, Mr...” She glanced sideways, arching an eyebrow, stopping in the middle of the stairs.
The other smiled calmly. “Vance Renner.”
“...Mr. Renner,” She smiled sarcastically – then resumed her slow climb up the stairs.
He followed her. “Miss Croft, let a mere mortal ask you a question.” He blinked innocently. “You really enjoy the game?”
“What game?” She replied.
“The one you play with those poor wretches crowding around you to claim your attention.” The twisted, bold manly smile bared a row of perfect, straight, white teeth. Aggressive.
She’d reached the landing on the first floor and turned toward him - tall, slender, wrapped in that shiny black dress, the diamond net on her neck gleaming in the dim light of crystal chandeliers. “Why shouldn’t I?”
He approached her – close, too close. She could feel his warm, low-paced breath. His deep eyes, deep as a clear sky, scanned her. “Because it disturbs me.” He whispered, and then gently pushed aside a strand of brown hair that had come loose from her complex artistic hairstyle, and placed it carefully behind her ear. Then he laid his hand on her bare arm - big, warm, inviting.
She didn’t pull away, but challenged him with her glance. “What do you want, Mr. Renner?”
There was no answer. He raised his other hand and held her chin, then rubbed the line of her lips with his thumb, smearing the lipstick across her cheek and making her look like a wounded animal. “Better.” She heard him mutter, and then he brought his face close and kissed her - a rough, hungry, impatient kiss tasting of wine and salt, devouring her lips, which were surprisingly tender and soft in a woman who was all roughness. She could smell the after-shave and the warmth of his breath sliding between her lips.
She let him kiss her, though she already knew what was going to happen. He wrapped himself around her waist and pulling her toward him, and her fingers caressed his carefully shaved face and got lost in his dark hair, sinking in and grabbing locks of it. She kissed him back almost rudely, with the passion she knew well - that familiar but always unique sensation. The warmth of his body, the softness of his hair brushing her face, the tenderness of his lips, the dampness of his tongue. Her heart pounded in her chest like a drum.
She felt a pang of pain in her side - a fresh wound from her latest adventure, but she ignored it while kissing him harder, and as she opened his mouth with her tongue to search for the inner moisture there, he panted and squeezed her against him.
She groaned in pain - he’d grabbed her wounded side.
“You’re hurt?” He took her hand and gently kissed her fingers. “Forgive me…” Then he stopped, agitated, and closed his eyes. He expected her to push him away or even hit him, but she did nothing but stare at him, the rouge of her lips smeared across her face - expectant, waiting. She shivered slightly as she felt his lips again on her hand, fingers, wrist, kissing her skin, and closed her eyes to enjoy the sensation, holding her breath as he gently ascended her forearm.
“You look tired.” She heard his mocking voice, and opened her eyes. He was smiling again, with that tempting, teasing smirk.
She brushed her smeared cheek, noting her cold fingertips against her lit face – lit not because of shame, particularly.
Dropping her hand and getting rid of him, she passed next to him with elegance and went down the aisle. A soft pounding on the neat carpet revealed that he was following her without haste.
She shuddered again, enjoying the anticipation of what was about to happen - something rash, thoughtless, but something she neither wanted to stop nor could at that point.
The suite was plunged in silver moonlight. She left the door slightly ajar for him to come in, and then she closed it, her back against the dark wood, scanning him, handsome in that half-darkness, like a night hunter on the prowl.
Suddenly she winced - he’d grabbed her by the arms. For a moment, she heard nothing but his shaky breathing in the darkness - then she was drawn toward him, in a tremor, and she let him. The pressure on her arms increased. He tugged her toward him and she felt the soft touch of his hair, his breath on her face, her lips, her eyes. He buried his face in her smooth neck, scratching his chin against the thick diamond net. He sunk his fingers in her thick brown hair arranged in that artistic bun, sunk his fingers deeper into her flesh.
She didn’t resist - it was slightly painful, but it felt like heaven.
He breathed deeply several times, overwhelmed by her scent, and began to kiss her hastily, moving from her jawline, to her soft cheek, and then her closed eyelids. He was frantic, even clumsy, but it still felt like heaven. Then she turned her face, looking for his mouth, and their lips met again. He heard her moan and held her even more tightly, squeezing her against him. She let him do it - at one point he was devouring her or something close to it, for she pushed him back slightly and took his face, then pulled him on her again and kissed him smoothly as she tried to calm him by caressing his face and hair.
He was far from feeling calm, though – if only for that consuming flame that burned inside him. He wanted to squeeze her until merging with her and disappearing. He wanted to drink from her lips until devouring her. He wanted...he couldn’t tell anymore, his thoughts were a tangled mix of confused ideas.
Her hands were caressing his shoulders, his back, his hips, his face, his hair again...he hugged her harder and without even realizing his hands were also running across her, touching her, sneaking around the skin beneath the dress, her slender, supple - and despite the wounds suffered - still desirable body. He wanted her.
He wanted her badly.
“Miss...” He murmured, barely conscious, his face buried in her neck, “...Croft.”
While sliding a hand under her skirt and caressing her bare back with the other - following the lines of the shoulder blades - he heard her sigh and feared he’d hurt her again, but he couldn’t stop at that point. She arched her spine as his hands skirted her ribs and decisively took the zipping, slowly lowering it with a soft creak. As in a dream, slowly, slowly he took the edges of her night gown and lowered it to her waist. Her skin shone in the moonlight - her sensitive breasts, her chest coming up and down in a tense, agitated breathing, the bandage on her right side, where a rose of blood was visible.
Slowly she took his hand and placed it on her left breast. He noticed her heart beating beneath his fingertips.
“I shouldn’t.” He said mechanically. “You’re hurt.”
But he grasped that soft warm flesh tightly instead, causing her to wince again, and drew her towards him once more as he sought her mouth and kissed her fiercely. He crushed her against the door, clutching her breast and squeezing her nipple between his thumb and index finger. It was not right, he shouldn’t be that rough, not with that wound, but he felt himself rolling down the slope and couldn’t stop.
Her fingers rose to his throat and grabbed the collar of his shirt. Before he could say something, she brutally tugged it and the delicate cloth ripped, scattering the buttons in all directions.
“Hey!” The man protested, releasing her and pulling away, but then she gave another sharp jerk and finished baring his chest, tearing the shirt open. “This was really expens...”
“Shut up,” she muttered through clenched teeth, and dropped the shattered garment beside her.
He shut up indeed and let her undress him, not resisting when she pushed him back and laid him on the massive bed. It only took her a few seconds to take off the splendid night gown, the thin lingerie, and hover over him - naked, feline, as she manipulated the zipper of his pants and jerked it open. Noticing her soft warm body above him, he saw the bloody bandage that curled up on her side.
“I told you to shut up.” She whispered in his ear.
He kissed her again and held her close, entwining his body with hers, plunging his fingers into her hair and slowly pulling out the hairpins, releasing her splendid hair. Thus he desired her, freed in all her glory. But as soon as he noticed her reaching for the impressive diamond necklace, he whispered: “No. Leave it on.”
She laughed softly at his neck. “You should know, Mr. Renner,” she was coquettish again, “I borrowed this from the sheikh. His late wife’s. He wanted me to wear it tonight to see how it looked on me.”
“Well then.” He shrugged slightly. “Let’s not disappoint the sheikh.”
She laughed again and nibbled at his earlobe as her warm hand caressed his chest and down his belly to reach his crotch. He closed his eyes and enjoyed for a moment that rhythmic, pulsating, fiery massage. He couldn’t stop - if he went on like that he was going to explode.
Of course, she was not willing to let him - not before it was time.
He felt her soft thighs pressing his hips. During a distressing instant their bellies brushed against each other, and then he plunged into the damp, fleshy depths of her inside. He panted.
Her hands were caressing his chest, and then she arose, mounted on him, and began to move. When had she taken over? He couldn’t tell. He didn’t even care anymore.
“Look at me.” She whispered, her hands running up his abdomen, his chest, tightening around his arms. He looked at her, her long hair hanging down and gently touching his face, pale and gleaming in the gloom.
“Lara,” he whispered, but it was as if someone else had spoken. Someone else, the one who was there naked, lying with the most desired woman on earth on top of him, making him part of what many wanted – and he’d achieved it. The one who was making love to her. The one who panted, shuddered as he felt that sensation all over his body, his heart about to explode. Not him. Couldn’t be him. He’d always been a loner. He’d never loved anyone before - not that way.
He heard Lara moaning, her head thrown back and shuddering, her chest bouncing in rhythm, her mouth open, her breath racing. More than the pleasure itself, what delighted her was to feel his frantic hands digging into her hips to grab and adjust her to his pace, faster, more desperate.
Crawling on each other’s skin, their bodies pearly with sweat, ecstasy shook them in a convulsive, intense shudder.
She collapsed on his chest, panting, shaking. He shivered. Lara pulled the first cloth she found next to them and covered them both. Then she reached for his mouth and kissed him tenderly.
It felt immensely good. At climax, seeing the emotions displayed on her lover’s face had proved to her - rather than the chorus of sycophants and the sheikh’s lustful glance when he’d put that diamond necklace on her - she was still immensely beautiful and desirable, despite the passing years and the cruel scars on her body.
Her partner’s violent heartbeat gradually slowed its pace. He was still hugging her, but he was limp, weak. She sat up and searched for his mouth again.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door.
“Go away!” Lara yelled, standing up abruptly and turning her face toward the door. The hair, long, loose and damp from sweat struck the face of her lover.
For a moment there was only a dense silence - then the sound of a few steps away, muffled by the thick carpet.
“What the...” she mumbled, annoyed, and when turning she met the mocking grin of her companion.
“Looks like we had an audience.”
Frowning, Lara started to get up, but he grabbed her wrist.
“Forget it...” He smiled. “Who cares...”
She cared – and much. Who’d been listening through the door? Some sheikh’s minion? What would happen if he informed his master she’d been...?
Lara felt the big warm hand of his rising softly up her hip. They had parted a while ago, she half-lying at his side, but now his fingers, agile and rough, drew arabesques on her skin, even sliding down her thigh.
She let him do it.
Not that she belonged in any way to the sheikh - neither to him, nor even to the man who now slid his hand between her thighs, gently caressing the still throbbing flesh. She panted.
The goddamned sheikh could go to hell – she’d taken his crap for too long. He’d an army of beauties at his disposal, but apparently he liked to play as if he could have her as well. Why on earth did she accept to wear that weary necklace?
Reaching up, his lover took her by the shoulder and gently pushed her back, his hand still moving between her thighs. She let herself go, let him lay her down and kiss the flat area of her sternum, between her breasts.
She didn’t belong to any man on earth – but she would’ve gladly belonged to him, especially when noticing the sharp tip of his tongue brushing against the border of her left breast and ascending slowly, leaving a damp imprint on her skin.
Tomorrow she would arrange things with the sheikh. She’d give him back the bloody necklace – let him shove it right up his...
A moan rose in her throat as his tongue reached the nipple. Gripping the sheets at her sides, she raised her hips to take the tribute his hand was offering, and forgot about both the sheikh and the diamond necklace - still sparkling on her neck.
Alāju akbar ašchadu an lā ilāja ilā-lāh
Ašchadu ānna muḥammadan rasūlu-lāh
Hayya ʿalà ṣ-ṣalāt
Hayya ʿalà l-falāḥ...
The adhan’s sweet vibrations reached her ears. Still half asleep, Lara stirred in the wrinkled sheets and reached for him.
There was no one at her side.
She opened her eyes and stretched slowly - then realized it wasn’t likely to hear the call to prayer with such clarity, not from the suite itself.
She sat up abruptly and turned to the balcony. The window was open, the curtains rippling in the soft morning breeze – then she saw him through the thin, translucent fabric.
He was leaning on the balcony, still naked, smoking light-heartedly as he surveyed the immense city at his feet. The adhan continued to sound with soft, peaceful echoes as he seemed to listen distractedly.
The curtain waved and she could see him clearly: strong legs, broad back, soft body hair, shoulder tattoo. Some recent scars, none of them too serious - an ornament, not a stain.
Magnificent beast. And he was hers.
As much as she was his – she had to admit.
Lara slipped out of bed and gently pushed aside the curtain, but didn’t go out the balcony. “You should go back in, Mr Renner.” She said, unable to restrain her sarcasm. “You wouldn’t want anyone to see you...like that,” she added, lowering her gaze beyond his back, “and even more with it being Friday. Penalty for public scandal in Dubai is paid in lashes.”
He turned without haste and leaned back against the railing, throwing his torso back.
“Something tells me, Miss Croft, you’d love to see me whipped in a public square.” He scoffed, not moving at all from his spot.
“Poor soft skin, but yeah.” She shrugged and pulled back. The curtain fell again between them.
He threw his cigarette over the balcony and followed her without haste. He didn’t even hear the shrill scream coming from several floors below.
She was in front of the mirror, trying to take off the diamond necklace - big, heavy and with several rows of gems, a wonderful nineteenth-century Cartier piece the sheikh had managed to buy at an auction. Lara struggled with the clasp, but it was difficult to do so from that angle.
“Wait. Let me.” He said, pulling her hair away to bare her nape. She sighed in relief as he pulled the heavy collar from her neck.
The skin beneath was red and marked. He caressed her for a moment, then put his lips over her, gently tracing the nape skin. He felt her shudder and, through the mirror, saw that she’d closed her eyes and breathed heavily.
Then she turned abruptly and stared at him – as she’d stared at him years ago, in Par... but no, that wasn’t him. That had been someone else.
Vance Renner had never met this woman. He’d never been with her before.
He wanted to say something witty, but was speechless as he looked into those hard, hot, brown eyes challenging him again. A wave of fire swept up his body.
He felt her throat dry as he glimpsed those glorious curves - her full breasts, pink nipples, firm belly. Without knowing how, he found himself holding her in his arms and looking for her lips. Her arms curled around his neck as he felt the softness of her body against his, the touch of her nipples suddenly erect, her soft breasts pressing against him. She smelled slightly of sweat and scents of night perfume. He felt her opening her mouth and searching for the inside of his own with her tongue - which made it too hard for him to resist. As he felt her tongue parting his lips, he could only let out a groan and make way for her. His body reacted intensely to that stimulus - so intensely it was even painful.
He still had the necklace in his hand, then threw it on the floor, like garbage, to have his hands free to touch her body, to take her breasts, to caress her neck, her nape, her long hair. Then Lara stepped back and dropped herself onto the carpeted floor, dragging him over her.
He took her almost violently - though she was so ready that he hardly could’ve hurt her. She grasped his hips with her thighs and held him close, nailing her fingers into his back as he thrust in her once, and again, and again, with an aggressiveness born of desire. That roughness brought her to climax. She arched her spine and let out a scream. Almost instantly he silenced her by pressing his mouth against hers. Lara bit his lower lip hard and she heard him moan, unsure whether in pain or pleasure, but right then she felt his climax. He collapsed exhausted over her.
For a moment he thought he might die happy, even tasting the blood in his mouth. Leaning on one elbow, he touched his swollen lip. “Ouch.” He complained, sore. “You bit me.” He made a withdrawing movement but Lara pinned him, gripping him again by the hips with her thighs. She was surprisingly strong.
“No,” she said. “Stay.” Her chest was still sensitive, panting, her hair tousled over her face. Her skin was wet with sweat... like his own. He could feel the palpitations of her wild heart...or was it his own? It was hot, but he was shaking again, shivering.
“You’re bleeding.” Lara sat up and stroked his swollen lip. “I scratched your back too. I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t hurt you too much.”
Yes, his lip hurt like hell; yes, his back stung, but it was a very small price to pay in exchange for being with her – for having kept her at his side so many years.
No, he thought, scolding himself. That’s the other guy, not me.
Vance Renner had never kept any woman at his side – neither he would this time. In a few hours, he would leave.
He finally pulled back, rolling to one side, and stroked her blushed cheek.
“How about a bubble bath? There’s a huge bathtub in the suite, Miss Croft. And then we’ll take a look at that wound.” He added, looking at the patch still covering her side, coming up and down softly with the rhythm of her breathing.
She smiled, half-sleepy. “Overprotective fool.”
Lara waited patiently with the flat case in her lap, running her fingers over its velvety surface. She couldn’t wait to get rid of that tangle of boulders which weighed like a dead body and scratched her skin.
Who wanted to wear that, anyway?
While she waited for the sheikh to bid her farewell, she tried to put away the images of her experience in that suite from the past hours. In the end, Mr. Vance Renner had slipped away, taking his scanty belongings - among them a splendid shirt torn to pieces - and leaving the case closed on the table.
Lara ran her finger over the golden rim of the case. Truth be told, although heavy and uncomfortable, it was a magnificent piece. Even against her good judgement, she opened the case once more, if only to admire it for the last time.
A chill ran down her spine, her eyes widening in pure horror as her jaw dropped in a stunned expression.
The case was empty. The necklace was missing.
The only thing on the blue velvet was a folded note. Unaware of her shaking, Lara took the note with her fingertips and unfolded it.
This necklace suits you beautifully, so I’ll take it for your nice collection.
See you in England, M’lady.
“Salam aleikhum, my dear ...”
Lara winced and slammed the case closed. Overwhelmed by the unpleasant surprise, she hadn’t even heard him coming. She got up immediately and bowed to the sheik with all due respect. It wasn’t surprising he met her alone, without his usual escort - he always wanted to be alone with her.
“Aleikhum salam, seikh.” She answered in a whisper, respectfully, and swallowed.
A nineteenth century diamond necklace, worth more than a million dollars, had just vanished - and she was in front of the man she had to return it to.
The situation in which Mr. Renner had put her through made her redden with anger. Suddenly, she was unable to think clearly.
The sheikh, who’d been staring at her for a while, misunderstood her blush.
“I’d like to apologize for the trouble one of my men might have caused you last night, my dear.” He said politely. “I sent him because I desired the pleasure of your... company, in private. But, unfortunately, you were busy.”
Lara looked up and met the sheik’s black eyes. Mahmoud al-Rantisi was still attractive even though he was approaching his sixties, and as far as she knew, he’d been a handsome man in his youth - his numerous wives and myriad of children testified so. Clever, pleasant and, as already said, a valuable contact.
His only problem was that he was obsessed with her - but that was going to end... or so she intended.
Al-Rantisi raised his hand and gestured to caress her cheek with his knuckles. Lara took a step back and stepped out of his reach. “You’re here for the necklace, seikh.” She mumbled, not knowing what the hell to say. “Let’s not get entangled in casual and uninteresting conversations.”
He smiled, baring a bright and perfect row of teeth. “Keep it, my dear. I can afford to buy fifty, a hundred of those. On you, it looked like it has never done on any of my wives.” He laughed, feline. “All I ask is to be what that man was for you last night, even for a single day.”
Lara took a deep breath, then handed him the case. “Sorry, my dear seikh, but I can’t accept the deal.” Her hand trembled slightly. She was still red and breathing heavily. Al-Rantisi was stunned, not expecting such shame in a woman who, it was known, wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue.
Of course, that was not uncommon in a Westerner. He didn’t want her virtue. He wanted her.
But he was also a smart, sensible man, and he’d not kept himself in his lofty position by making stupid decisions and yielding to absurd whims – and right there and then, forcing that situation would be ultimately foolish.
“I understand, my dear. I also have my self-esteem and I know when a woman doesn’t want me.” He smiled sadly and nodded, admitting his defeat. The case was still leaning toward him, but he dismissed it with an elegant gesture. “No, keep it. It’s yours. I only ask you to wear it in my honor in all the parties you attend. Tell the world that Mahmoud Al-Rantisi gave it to you - and of course, bring it when you come here.”
Lara had no intention of doing that, nor in returning to Dubai for a while, but she pressed the empty case against her chest as the sheik elegantly kissed her hand and withdrew after a graceful bow.
When she was all alone in the small living room, Lara finally let out the air she’d been accumulating in her lungs, tense.
“Brace yourself, K.” She mumbled through clenched teeth. “I’m coming for your arse.”