There was something about the man cutting through the airy ballroom that set him apart from the politicians and socialites. Perhaps it was the tattoos and shaved nape and bullish posture, his stride on a blade's edge between assertive and aggressive. His clothing was acceptable but a degree too casual, even for a daytime event, lacking the polished grace of the other guests. And if anyone were to look closely they might have seen a shape at the small of his back, beneath his dress shirt, that very coincidentally resembled a handgun.
From the mezzanine above, a grad student recently awarded the most coveted summer engineering internship in the country tracked the man's movements. She was still golden from spring break in the Seychelles, the eyelet lace hem of her skirt fluttering in the breeze floating through the high French doors. Born into privilege, these events were de rigueur for her, one blurring into the next, so this new element caught her attention. As he drew her focus, so his lingered on her for the briefest of moments, his head cocked up like a bird of prey.
The distance made it difficult to tell, but just before he passed out into the garden, she would've sworn he winked.
Regardless, beneath her tan, she reddened.
“I'll build you a new one.” The dark-haired young woman ran her fingertips over the back of Ulysses' hand, taking care to avoid the IV tubing and instead following the pattern of the tattoo winding up his forearm. On the other side of the hospital bed, a conspicuous empty space below his bicep. They'd worked so hard together on that prosthesis, too. Evangeline couldn't speak regarding him but as for her, it was her finest work. “A better one.”
Seeing him like this was new and unsettling. Even after he'd lost his arm a year ago, he still spit fire in his fury and swore up a storm as she'd examined the cauterized wound. Now he slept, silent and motionless – all three rarities – and though he couldn't possibly look frail, not with that craggy face and stern brow and powerful build, she knew how torn up his insides were.
She'd observed the surgeons from the foot of the table, mask hiding the tremor in her lips, as they repaired him with the work of her hands. The pieces they'd fitted into the crimson cavity of his chest were wholly her designs, and did not, officially or legally speaking, even exist yet. One in particular had been a mere prototype, and she'd slept only half a dozen hours in the past 72 perfecting it – a gleaming bionic heart, sleek and strangely beautiful, catching the bright overhead lights from its new place in the viscera of her greatest love.
Metal and meat, bone and bionics. For all his brash flamboyance he remained skittish about revealing any emotion more than surface deep; and there, the literal center of him spread open to her.
The top of the incision marred the springbok skull tattoo spreading under his clavicles. This freshest of scars would be another of many marks she knew on his body, mapping the unknowns of his sturdy frame like a cartographer of old; the scattered tattoos, the brand he didn't like to talk about, the silvery scars from before she'd been born and the newer ones she'd stitched herself...
It was just before midnight when Ulysses Klaue invaded Evangeline's apartment, his dark jeans slick with blood on one thigh and a gash on his hip so nasty it exposed the subcutaneous fat layer.
“You know I'm not an actual medical doctor,” she stammered, staring at the wound, visible through the rip in his shirt. It hadn't taken her long to deduce that the man so interested in her work was no scholar, and that whatever he did for a living skirted the boundaries of legality.
“I was in the neighborhood,” he scoffed glibly. She wasn't aware he even knew where she lived, and wasn't sure she wanted to know what he was doing nearby. “You've got 'medical' in your degree name, don't ya?”
Despite the ill-gotten nature of his wealth, money talks, and it was hard to believe he didn't have a physician who wouldn't ask questions. “Biomedical engineering isn't the same as – ”
“I think a wunderkind like you can manage.” His gold teeth flashed in the dim light. “Or maybe I like your bedside manner.”
He delivered this with a grin so convincing that she put aside common sense and went to the med student down the hall, asking to borrow sutures under the guise of a class project.
“Okay, it's been a while since I learned how to do this, and I don't have any anesthetic.” Evangeline's protest sounded a bit panicky, even to her own ears. “Are you really sure you don't want to go to a hospital?”
“Whaddya have to drink?”
There was a barely touched bottle of flavored vodka above the fridge. He rotated it in his hand, scanning the label.
“Strawberry shortcake!?” His ring clicked on the glass. “Aw. I should've guessed, princess.”
“It tastes good!” Klaue wasn't a tall man, but she was a petite woman, and she blinked up at him as he rocked back on his heels, entertained. “Drink it or don't.” She was still a little – maybe a lot – intimidated by him, and the sentence went up non-threateningly at the end, like a question.
Before she could get a glass, he popped the lid and guzzled enough she thought he'd be sick. But instead he unzipped his fly with a flourish and tugged his waistband down. She averted her gaze. He laughed.
It was unexpectedly intimate, the in and out of the tiny needle in his skin, pulling the layers back into place. He laid on the towel-lined couch with his hands behind his head and his boots leaving dust on the upholstery, alternating between humming and flinching. It was wrong to be grateful for someone's injury, but the task distracted her from the trail of crisp hair arrowing beneath his navel.
It was the first time she'd touched him, even if it was through latex gloves.
“Please go to a real doctor next time?” she suggested. He tongued at his bottom lip by way of reply.
After that, she kept a fully stocked medical kit under her bathroom sink.
Ulysses was ushered back to consciousness by an suffocating tightness, an ache in his core, and a smothering fog of confusion. Immediately he threw his hand out, grappling for support, something to pull himself upright on. Pain splintered up his sternum and the activated fight response sent adrenaline spiking through his veins.
“Don't,” came a soft voice to his right, accompanied by a small, gentle palm pushing on his shoulder. “You'll tear your staples out.”
He sucked in a shallow breath. There was a warm draft coming from somewhere, she always did like the fresh air, he could smell foliage and a well-watered garden –
A youthful white dress. That insufferable research charity luncheon he'd crashed in Jo'burg. The cultured lilt of conversation, banal music wafting from a piano out through open doors onto the lush lawn. Hair knotted loosely at the base of her neck, liquid dark eyes glazed over with polite boredom until they connected with his. A tempting flower, one he might have liked to pluck on some other occasion, but he had business with a rather evasive ambassador and pretty young things were a dime a dozen... weren't they?
How was he to know that though he never located his target – the weasel must have spotted him and high-tailed it – he'd find something else, a slip of a girl in a cluster of academics discussing the future of biomedical engineering and its real world applications and her revolutionary approach to myoelectric brain-controlled remote technologies –
The chirp of the monitor near his head brought him back. The room felt unbearably bright and as if sensing this, she crossed to the window, drawing the curtain closed. Sunlight pooled on the floor underneath the gusting fabric. He cracked open his eyes further, taking in her slim silhouette as she turned.
It was her white lab coat, he realized, that made him flash back to the afternoon they'd met. Three – no, almost four years ago. A mere fraction of time in his five decades of life. She was half his age almost exactly. It must feel longer to her.
Ulysses made it a default not to trust anybody, but if he did, it would be her. He'd known people far longer and cared about them far less. He could try to dissect why – or perhaps it was simply because her skills and loyalty made her useful.
(He knew it wasn't that.)
The rope of her braid hung over one shoulder. Several strands had slipped free to frame her face. Her eyes flicked rapidly as she approached and assessed him, the scientific brilliance of her mind twinning with her very personal investment in the subject. She couldn't hide it if she wanted to.
What a marshmallow his girl was.
“Evangeline.” His throat was dry, the syllables rasping. He hardly ever called her that. It was a mouthful, and had been supplanted from day one by a variety of condescending nicknames meant to provoke, to tease her for her youth and naivety. The habit stuck.
“You don't have room to talk,” she'd eventually piped up, emboldened by growing familiarity, her nervousness around him starting to fade. “Ulysses.”
He often went by his surname, but he'd enjoyed that. Hearing his name on her full pink lips.
His memory was a blank void after the junkyard... after the holes punched through him, sticky blood mingling with sweat, not a foreign sensation but never before in such a great quantity. It wasn't the worst way to die, he'd decided – but naturally he was pissed about it. If his strength wasn't ebbing away he'd kick the American's feet out from under him and smash his teeth with his elbow and pop him in his handsome face with his own gun –
And then there'd been an unexpected prick right between his collarbones, though it was a blip compared to the searing heat of the bullets' trajectories. He'd been knocked out before, but this time his consciousness was snuffed so swiftly he didn't even have time to register it.
Too many questions; too difficult to rattle them off. He grit out, “Tell me.”
She understood. She laid everything out in detail, backtracking and veering off course now and then in that way of hers, wanting to be comprehensive. It had been three days since he was ripped out of a body bag near the Wakandan border, courtesy of a team of reliable mercenaries, and flown to this facility outside Cape Town. A very private, very discreetly funded facility. Erik Stevens had escaped into Wakanda, possibly injured, and Ulysses huffed at the news.
“You let him escape after what he did to me?”
“If they'd focused on eliminating him rather than recovering you, what he did would've been a lot more permanent.”
“How'd you find me?”
“Your necklace.” Not that long ago she picked it up on a whim at a street market; or so she'd said. He wore it because he liked jewelry, and he liked her.
He narrowed his eyes at her, blue meeting brown. “A GPS tracker?”
Her smile was sheepish and proud, triumphant and affectionate at once. She leaned over, braid swaying forward. She typically wore it this way while working, and he was fond of coming up behind her to tug on the end.
“Yes, but that's not all.” She all but glowed; he could tell she'd been wanting to spill for a long time. “The pendant tracks your vitals and when things go south it administers a dose of... well, something I had an acquaintance cook up. It slows your breathing and heart rate to preserve energy and reduce blood loss, and lowers the body temperature to constrict blood vessels and maintain warmth in the internal organs. Essentially, it put you into stasis, which to a layman might very well look like death – ”
“You... put this on me without my knowledge? Went behind my back?” His fist tightened, calloused knuckles standing out in ridged relief – then his face split into a buoyant grin.
“All that in a trinket?” He let out a jubilant guffaw, then winced, then grinned again and chucked her under the chin.
“You're my lucky charm, doll.”
She turned her cheek into his touch.
“Freelancing for international arms dealer” would look bad on a future resume, but Evangeline couldn't deny the work was both a challenge and a bit of a thrill. She would never have this kind of freedom, or access to this quality and quantity of tech, at even the most cutting-edge research facilities. And if her employer was a criminal of the highest caliber... well, was that so different than what governments and politicians did every day, simply in pressed suits and behind closed doors? And scientific advancement required sacrifice, didn't it?
The Churchill was a maze of a ship, but she'd grown used to finding her way around in the past few months. Now, though, it was hard to keep up with Klaue as he strode through the narrow corridors.
“Give me a chance, won't you?”
“I'm paying you to develop experimental models of a series of bionic weapons,” he chuckled over his shoulder, over-enunciating patronizingly. “Not to tag along while the big boys do business. A bit of motor grease is one thing but you don't want to get your hands really dirty, ja?”
“How do you know what I want?” She'd never spoken to him like this before, frustration wiping away her natural inhibition. She enjoyed her work and yet she was fascinated by his web of connections, his travels, how he finagled his meetings and deals. He was headed out tomorrow to make a sale in Belarus. Or maybe a trade; he didn't tell her everything. He'd come back high on adrenaline, full to the brim of vigor, and inexplicably titillating to her.
“What you want? I'd say Hans, for a start,” he laughed, spinning on one heel. “You can't even do your job without getting distracted by a hired thug trying to bag a bit of tail!”
She went red, recalling the basic pleasantries exchanged with one of the ship's guards. "It was just a conversation.”
Klaue's jaw ticked with some feeling she couldn't pin down. “Pampered little girls shouldn't be messing with guys like that.”
“Guys like what? Like you?”
He snorted, one derisive brow cocking. “Put your claws away, kitten.”
Distress morphed to anger and she shoved him, square in the chest. Instantaneously he shoved back, not hard, just enough to catch her off balance.
“Don't play with fire, love.” His tone was sing-song but his timbre darker than usual, eyes glinting like steel in the low light. His lip curled; and as if with great self-control, he turned away.
“Hey!” she yelled in indignation, and grabbed at his arm.
Before she knew it she was slammed into the bulkhead, his fierce mouth crushing hers, one knee between her thighs. She'd never known Klaue to restrain himself but he was now, just barely, his broad shoulders tense. His hands on his waist were not at all gentle, thumbing at her rib cage.
For a long time, in the most secret parts of her mind, places she barely acknowledged, she'd imagined this. She felt drunk.
“You wanna play this game?” His words vibrated over her tongue.
Her breath caught. “Show me the rules.”
A week post-op Ulysses lounged lazy as a cat in a wide hammock in the garden – legs sprawled, a bottle of good rum in the crook of his arm, a fat cigar dangling from his lips. Now and then a lopsided smoke ring drifted up from underneath the brim of a safari hat, set over the top half of his face to shield from the sun filtering through the marula tree's branches.
The facility was stellar but the signal out here less so, and as Evangeline approached she could hear quiet, staticky music playing from a radio in the hammock's shadow. It was some old 80's band – maybe Toto.
“That's going to interact badly with the medications,” she said, swiping the bottle away by the neck. She wasn't sure how he'd even gotten ahold of it. Cajoled some nurse, no doubt. “If you let your body reject my heart I'd never forgive you.”
“Yesss, you would.” He reached for her with his lone arm, catching her by the tips of her fingers.
Her pout was coy. “I might.”
She turned his hand over in hers. All his jewelry had been removed for the CT scan and the transplants; he had a tan line where he usually wore his ring.
He'd started to flatline during the surgery. It was remarkable he hadn't on the flight, honestly. His line of business was an inherently risky one, and she'd known that from the beginning; experienced it firsthand, later. But she'd never felt that icy wash of terror for his life until the operating room. Before, when they were side by side, he made her fearless.
From the cradle she'd been taught grace and poise, to smile, to acquiesce. To tamp down any restlessness, even a whisper of ennui. In contrast, Ulysses took. He was audacious; he was so alive. At first it scared her. Then, it seduced her.
He was not a bad boy from a schoolgirl's fantasy. He was a bad man. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Yet life without him would be life without color.
His shirt was buttoned only halfway, exposing the long red incision. On impulse she reached down and splayed her hand over the new scar. It was healing well. Her creation – her labor of love – thrummed smoothly away within him.
Ulysses was not a subtle man by any definition of the term, but he believed in adaptation. When a more nuanced tack was necessary, one needed the right tool for the job.
He was impressed with her choice of attire tonight. The dress was low-cut enough to allure, yet not tight or revealing to the point of sultriness. Despite Evangeline's lack of street smarts she'd proven to be unexpectedly shrewd, and he could only assume she dressed with this specific effect in mind. In that shade of rosy pink, with her china doll features, she looked every inch the innocent.
This was his first time using her in such a way; a step up from allowing her to come on a trip and wait at the hotel while he made the sale, or join him for dinner with a high-end client. He hadn't anticipated how effective she'd be in that regard, her polished presence putting apprehensive white-collar buyers at ease. He'd managed very well until now without using a pretty woman as a prop, but again: adaptation.
He could always tell when she was nervous. At first it amused him to observe how his little ingenue reacted to these new and rather felonious situations, but her curiosity always overrode any misgivings. He appreciated that. There was a slight anxiety to her body language now, but he wasn't concerned. In fact, for this particular task, a dash of vulnerability might do the trick to set her apart from the standard array of party girls and amateur gold-diggers.
“It's child's play,” he muttered in her ear. Her heels, clicking on the sidewalk, brought her almost to eye-level. “If I know Van Rooyen, he won't stand a chance.”
She compressed her lips in thought. Her lashes fluttered, bashful and endearing. It was concentration, not artifice, but it gave a red-blooded man ideas.
Spangled lights and heavy bass spilled out from the glitzy nightclub. Van Rooyen, the owner, had proven to be a tightwad, a cheat, and an incorrigible liar. Ulysses could respect a man's hustle, but only so long as it didn't interfere with his own. In this case, it did. He always got what he was owed.
Ulysses wouldn't be able to get within spitting distance of his quarry without being recognized by security, so once Evangeline was inside (the bouncers admitted her ahead of the line, as he knew they would,) he retraced his steps to where two of his men waited in an SUV down the block.
His mind conjured up the unfolding scene, just as he and Evangeline had agreed. It would take minimal effort on her part to lure Van Rooyen in, weak as he was for women. He would boast and brag, she'd flatter, and he'd eventually wave away his bodyguard and lead her out back to the private parking lot. Her glossy mouth would form an impressed O at the sight of that flashy yellow car, flirting shyly as he cozied up to her, perhaps giggling as he offered to take her for a spin.
He was nothing if not predictable.
The car in question was unmissable, and when it raced past, Ulysses' driver needed no prompting to pull out and follow. Van Rooyen headed for the belt route around the city, all the better to show off his toy; yet his efforts were cut short, the SUV forcing him off the freeway and down a closed exit ramp. The fancy car fishtailed – moron couldn't even handle it – as it swerved around the plastic orange road blocks and skidded into the lot of a boarded up gas station.
Before the SUV came to a complete stop Ulysses swung out of his seat, letting out a bark of laughter as Van Rooyen slunk out of his own vehicle.
“I procured you this very nice Aston-Martin here,” Ulysses mused conversationally, spreading his hands as he approached. “Yet you aren't very keen to return the favor as promised!”
Van Rooyen plastered on an uncertain and ingratiating smile. In the SUV's high beams, he squinted and sweated. Good.
The passenger door of the sports car opened and a pair of smooth legs emerged, ankles together, stilettos set neatly and simultaneously on the asphalt as Evangeline slid out and crossed the distance to Ulysses.
She didn't seem afraid. Her eyes were bright and clear. She looked almost... exhilarated. He knew that sensation well. It suited her beautifully.
As she drew near he let his hand drift over her waist, down along the pert curve of her ass. He was glad Van Rooyen was watching. The animal part of him wanted to have her right then and there on the hood of that troublesome car.
“Let me finish up this business, ja, babydoll?” he murmured, tipping his head to indicate she get in the SUV. She nodded, chin up, focused entirely on him; and in an instantaneous shift in perspective, so fleeting his selfish and unchangeable heart almost missed it, he was aware of how much trust she placed in him. A jolt of possessive desire, and maybe a hint of something softer, sparked in his gut.
He'd praise her properly – and privately – later.
Ulysses maintained a few properties here and there in convenient locations. Evangeline once called them “hidey-holes.” The one in north Johannesburg faced west and late afternoon light spilled through the floor-to-ceiling windows, dappling the bedroom in shades of gold.
Seven weeks after surgery, and though the pain was all but gone, the flex of his body was still languid as he moved over her. He hadn't touched her this way since before he left for London. His sojourn with death made him crave her; she shivered, needy, as he ran the flat of his palm down her spine. The sun gilded her skin as she lay on her belly under him, the peach fuzz like glitter.
He set his mouth on her shoulder, bracing on his newly finished left arm as he carded his other hand into the tumble of her hair. Her profile was in shadow, turned away from the windows. The faintest dusting of freckles fanned across her cheekbones. Like cinnamon.
He'd taught her how to fire a pistol, how to act the ditsy decoy, the choicest Russian expletives. They'd worked on the arm prosthesis (versions one and two) late into the night with their heads bent together over a jumble of hardware. He'd broken a man's nose for cornering her and copping a feel when they'd gotten separated at a boxing match. Her expression hadn't been one of horror at his brutality; it was relish.
When Ulysses used words like “love,” it was flippantly or not at all. He loved loud music with a good beat, and koeksister pastries, and the scent of a stack of bills and the buzzy sting of the tattoo machine. Not people.
(But in that instant – as she dimpled with surprised pleasure at the sight of her assailant on his knees - her breath hitching, as if aroused, as she caressed Ulysses' split knuckles – and in several other moments he could strangely recall with perfect clarity, he thought he might love her.)
Beneath him Evangeline arched, seeking the solid weight of his chest against her back, the caging frame of his arms. His coarse beard tickled her neck, his breath tantalizing and steady. He was not a steady person. He was capricious and cunning at once, rough, insatiable in every way. He lusted for life; for everything. She'd long since given up trying to analyze how he could electrify her like he did. She'd never done drugs yet he was hers, no different from any addict.
He rocked inside her, filling her, and she made fists in the sheets, whimpering, bucking up into him. Not close enough; never close enough. She cried out, muffled, into the pillow when her climax washed over her, his fingers lacing with hers as she trembled through the aftershocks. When he came, he growled something inaudible into her hair. The words didn't matter.
She was still light-headed when he flipped her over, big hands cradling her skull. He hadn't cut his hair since he was brought back from Korea and a damp ringlet fell over his forehead. She preferred it longer.
“You like that, bokkie?” The grit in his voice and the insouciant slash of his smirk were tempered by the endearment. She blushed – like he could always make her – and his eyes crinkled in satisfaction. He tapped his stubbled cheek. “Give me some sugar, then.”
Instead she sank her fingers into his curls and kissed him firm on the mouth. It was an incubus' kiss he returned, intoxicating and all-consuming.
His lips curved against hers, his chuckle almost inaudible. “So sweet.”