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CHAPTER FOUR

Pik landed blow after powerful blow to the heavy bag, the muscles of his
torso flexing and rippling like a sackful of hyperactive puppies. When
selecting an apartment, some people prioritized closet space, a
well-apportioned kitchen, or a scenic view; by contrast, the apartments
he maintained scattered throughout the major cities of the world all
boasted private gyms elaborate enough to make Olympians weep. This
apartment was no exception.

Well, except for the “private” part.

“Would you kindly stop humming? Thank you.” He returned to his workout
with redoubled savagery, mentally projecting Boudreaux's face upon the
hapless canvas, and ignoring Vaughn quite pointedly. While the sight of her
lean, lithe body clad only in a tight black tank top and shorts was quite
pleasantly distracting to the eye, her demeanor was far less pleasantly
distracting to his concentration. Ever since disposing of Mason, Vaughn's
sullen mood had rebounded back into the realm of the annoyingly
light-hearted -- or at least as light-hearted as people like Pik and Vaughn
ever got. Even at the best of times, you'd never cast them in a dinner theater
revival of “Pollyanna,” so long as you expected audiences to survive dessert.
Still, Vaughn's relentless overconfidence had begun to grate on nerves
already raw with apprehension. In his current state, her attitude reminded
him of those infuriatingly perky types who lecture you to look for silver
linings even as you're swamped up to your ass in alligator-infested clouds.

It made him mad enough to mix his metaphors.

More to the point, it reminded him of Fouchon.

“Hmmph. Somebody's cranky,” Vaughn teased in a cheery sing-song,
blinking away the beads of sweat and biting her lower lip with effort as
she continued a grueling series of repetitions with his free weights.
Although, like Pik, she could boast of top-notch physical condition, she
also, like Pik, usually trained alone. This unorthodox togetherness had
sparked an odd, unspoken competition, each unwilling to be the first to
throw in the towel and head for the showers. Speaking of which, a nice
hot shower and possibly a sauna soak would be just the thing after this
unusually intense bout of exercise. Gazing appreciatively at the vision
of a shirtless and sweaty Pik, she grimaced when she realized that the
man's superb physique had wormed its way inside her fantasies to share
both shower and sauna. Hastily, she resumed the conversation.
“Well, never you mind. You'll feel on top of the world once we've
turned your Cajun into jambalaya. Decided how you want to kill him yet?”

He halted in mid-punch, neck and shoulders clenching with exasperation.
His entire body tensed, hard flesh contracting with the raw kinetic force
of a carefully cocked trigger, while his quiet words were bullet-smooth.
“It's not going to be some cakewalk, you know. Nothing like it was with
your two cretins. Boudreaux is --”

“A trained professional,” Vaughn interrupted, parodying the clipped
consonants and elongated vowels of his Dutch accent. “Special Forces,
Silver Star, and everything else you've repeated at least a hundred times.
I *know* all that. I've seen the dossier, I've heard your war story!
Don't you *dare* speak to me like I'm some goddamn three-year-old!”
Suddenly, she shifted gears and reined in her overt attack to smile
wickedly, eyes sparking with the ideal tinder to ignite his formidable temper.
“You're scared of him, aren't you? Big Bad Pik's afraid of Mr. Punchy and
his Amazing Flying Feet. Admit it.”

He stabbed her with a stare malevolent enough to cure the toughest case of
constipation. “We've been through this once already. Don't bait me. You'll
regret it.”

Sadly enough, hired killers often can out-analyze the average
psychotherapist. They have better motivations, after all; they need to get
inside their victim's mind before they can safely proceed to splatter said
mind all over the pavement. Now, those skills screamed out a warning as
Vaughn scanned his hostile body language, sizing up the toxic brew of
negative emotions bottled tightly underneath his handsome, sleek veneer
of absolute control. His sense of humor had always been his safety valve;
even in the course of their brief acquaintance, she'd recognized it with
unerring instincts. Now, in its absence, Pik Van Cleaf obviously was
stressed enough to rupture at the seams. A smart person wouldn't push
him. A smart person wouldn't remain in the same metropolitan area with
him, let alone the same room.

Vaughn was smart. Unfortunately, she was also very, very pissed.

Dropping the weights with a soft “clang” reminiscent of the opening bell
for round one, she strolled over to confront him, poking his chest
accusingly with her index finger to punctuate each deliberately barbed
and venomed word. “I. Said. You're. Scared.” She climaxed her verbal
castration-fest by trailing slender fingertips just below the hemline of his
shorts, provocatively tracing the pale and puckered pattern of bullet
scars which marred one perfect thigh.

Pik's brutal backhand surely would have crushed her jaw if she hadn't
ducked just in time, propelled by mercenary reflexes which sensed his
imminent movement expertly as animals perceive the subtlest seismic
tremors. She retaliated immediately with a leg sweep aimed for the
vulnerable backs of the knees; the blow assaulted only empty air as
Pik vaulted it with eerie grace, arms and hands extended for balance
in a pose straight out of some grotesque ballet, poised in preparation
for a pas de deux from which one of the deux would not emerge alive.
They circled one another warily, each exuding grudging admiration for
a well-matched enemy, each probing for a weakness to exploit. It
seemed a battle between a panther and a hawk, his feline sensuality an
ideal foil for the distinctly avian edge to her sharp-featured beauty.
“If I'm treating you like a three-year-old, perhaps it is because you're
*acting* like one,” Pik admonished, lips and eyebrows arching into a
curved geometry of condescension calculated to enrage her into losing
all control. “Try to show at least some last vestige of professionalism,
would you? This is not a game.”

Vaughn's narrowed eyes injected a potent dose of literal lethality into
the timeworn old cliché of a “deadly serious” expression. “So who's
playing?” With a skillful feint, she lunged at him, intending to seize his
arm and use his own brawn against him in a nasty judo toss, but once
again Pik displayed a deceptively remarkable agility for his height and
build. Sidestepping her attack at the last possible instant, he lashed out
and locked her arms within a deftly applied akido hold which held quite
fast in spite of all her futile struggles to escape.

Pik grinned broadly, his good humor abundantly restored by her
abundantly arousing display of physical exertions against his superior
strength. A hawk can be quite deadly, but not when trapped beneath a
panther's paw. “Vaughn, Vaughn, Vaughn. You're only hurting yourself,
you know. The more you resist, the more pain --”

“I know how akido works,” Vaughn interrupted angrily, still wrenching
and twisting with daunting determination. Both their bodies gleamed with
a slippery sheen of perspiration, highly antithetical to the traction of his
grip. If only she could gain some leverage . . . .

He leaned in close, lips and teeth tickling her ear in a gesture as threatening
as it was erotic, given the sadistic reputation which preceded him. “So
are you simply stubborn, then? Or are you a masochist, perhaps?”

Vaughn ceased struggling, jerked her head back, and glared up defiantly
into Pik's smirk, her own lips twisted with exaggerated revulsion.
“Oh, I bet that would be a dream come true for a sick bastard like you.
You're probably into all sorts of kinky crap.”

Having gained the upper hand, both literally and figuratively, Pik blithely
refused to be provoked, and concentrated instead on enjoying the view
with the tables turned. It was a very nice view indeed, particularly in light
of how low-cut her top appeared at this angle. The way her generous
breasts rose and fell in time with her labored breathing only enhanced
the experience. “You didn't answer my question.” His tongue leisurely
explored her ear, teeth nipping lightly.

Vaughn's only answer was a rather colorful string of profanity casting
aspersions upon everything from the legitimacy of his parentage to the
orthodoxy of his sexual orientation. She punctuated the blue streak with
a rather creditable attempt to kick at his shins, which he easily avoided.

“Go ahead, maintain that feminine mystique,” Pik laughed, dark eyes
glinting with mischief and mockery underneath the shadow of his heavy
lashes, striking as the strokes of pen-and-ink on parchment paper.
“Come to think of it, you *are* quite the woman of mystery, aren't you?
I don't even know your first name.”

She recoiled as if stung, and then her struggles resumed with a vengeance,
heedless of the agony. “No shit. And you're not going to find out, either.”

His lips pursed, intrigued at the sight of her angular jaw clenching with
determination, the corded tendons straining in her slender neck. His
careless probing had quite clearly paid off with an open wound,
although not even vaguely close to anywhere he would suspect.
A single drop of sweat trembled from the tip of her chin; slowly,
deliberately, his tongue flicked out to taste it. Sweat ranked as one
of his favorite bodily fluids, right up there with tears and blood -- all
the rich, warm, vital ones, suffused with the saline savor of fear and
pain and anger. “If you want me to think about letting you go, you'll tell me.”

“I don't *have* a first name,” she snapped. “I just go by Vaughn. Like
Cher, or Madonna.”

“Or Liberace, yes, I quite understand, and I couldn't care less,” he teased.
“Your preferred form of address is irrelevant. What's at issue is the name
upon your birth certificate.”

The message in Pik's gaze could not be written clearer if his eyes had
really been just so much pen on parchment. Reading the eloquent threat
contained therein, Vaughn could see that he was fully prepared to stand
there all day with her held in place. Take it up as a new full-time career, if
necessary. *Damn gorilla could do it, too,* she thought resentfully.
And probably enjoy it, judging by the unmistakable and rather massive
evidence of his excitement pressing hard into her hip. She savagely shoved
her pelvis sideways, only to feel him ride the thrust, shifting position to
enjoy her unintentional ministrations with an openly lascivious expression.
*Bastard.*

“All right, fine,” she seethed, and thought fast. “Ah, D-Diana. It's Diana.
Diana Vaughn.”

Her obvious evasion piqued his curiosity more with every passing second.
What the hell was she hiding? “No, it's not. You stammered, and your
pupils flickered. You're lying through your teeth. I thought you were rather
better at deception than that amateurish display.” He hastily distanced his
face and tightened his grip considerably as she attempted to bite him, both
amused and impressed by her inexplicable persistence. She'd been folded in
half as neatly as a greeting card, shoulder blades scraping one another with
many a protesting creak of bone, but still she fought, overtly furious.
“Ah, ah -- temper, temper. Didn't I tell you it would get you into trouble?
The truth, now. 'Fess up.”

Vaughn stood still, panting heavily, attempting to judge just how much
room she had left to maneuver before he dislocated both her arms.
Not goddamn much. Swallowing intense distaste for what she had to do,
she peered up at him warily, golden hair plastered to her forehead in damp,
dark strands. “If you laugh, I swear that you are *so incredibly* dead.”

“You are hardly in a position to threaten,” Pik chided, shaking his head at
her effrontery. “But I won't laugh."

“Promise?”

That merited a double-take, if only for the oddly plaintive timbre of the query.
“All right. I promise.”

Staring fixedly at a distant spot upon the wall, she muttered something
unintelligible.

“Sorry, I didn't quite catch that.” God, he was enjoying this.

She braced herself for torture far worse than being turned into a human
wishbone. “It's . . . Tiffany.”

Pik proved himself a liar.

“Shut *up*! I told you not to laugh!” Vaughn yelled, wondering for the
millionth time why she'd never bothered to officially change her name.
“Tiffany" went with the professional killer persona just about as well as a
toy poodle and a moped, damn her scatterbrained mother to hell. Blood
surging with intense desire to wreak a bloody vengeance, she concentrated
on the pressure of his hands upon her arms. His laughter had been a mistake
in more than one sense of the word; his grip was slipping. “What the hell
kind of a name is 'Pik,' anyway? Parents named you after an oral hygiene
appliance?”

“It's Dutch,” he chuckled, his hold relaxing just enough to allow Vaughn
to slide free, wrenching his arm into a picture-perfect judo throw which
wiped the smile from his face quite neatly even as it sent him sailing
through the air.

“So now you're a Flying Dutchman,” she declared triumphantly, savoring
his shocked expression as he slammed into the exercise mat like the
felling of a mighty oak. Unfortunately, she duplicated his mistake, and
the mistake of villains through the ages, by overindulging in her glorious
moment of gloating. She didn't dodge in time when Pik harnessed the
considerable momentum of his fall to roll and lunge, entrapping her
ankle and hauling her own feet out from under her in an instant.

Her hand shot out to break her fall and snatch a free weight as a
weapon, but only succeeded in the former enterprise before he'd
half-straddled her hips, pinning her hands to the mat by the wrists.
She hooked one foot around his unbalanced left leg and kicked
viciously, effectively dislodging him and initiating a wild scramble
for position, limbs thrashing and tangling, lips curled into bestial snarls.
Gradually, a prone version of the same stalemate from the bar emerged,
aggressive faces separated by a slender inch or two.

They both looked deeply into one another's eyes.

Their sudden kiss seemed almost fiercer than the fighting, an intimate
combat shifting seamlessly into perverse foreplay. It was emblematic,
really, the way their lips and tongues became embattled as their bodies
and their minds, warm flesh spiced with the threat of teeth -- sharpness
at the heart of any softness. A tank top and two pairs of shorts flew far
and wide as if propelled by the raw centrifugal forces generated by their
grappling. Vaughn's nails raked down Pik's broad back in bloody trails,
her own back arching as the heat of his mouth suckled the salt from her
breasts with cruel intensity. Kissing his way up to her collarbone, large
palm cupping her flushed cheek, he slid his thumb between her parted
lips in an erotic foreshadowing of their imminent intimacies. Eyes
darkened with a domineering satisfaction, he watched her writhe beneath
his touch. “Now, Vaughn, I took you for a screamer,” he whispered,
easing his way between her taut thighs, seductive grin framed by the
disconcerting, deep-set dimples of a sociopathic Romeo. “Don't
disappoint me.” His sensual hand slid down to clasp her hip, guiding
her to meet his penetration with a silent shudder. Acutely honed
perceptions tracked the slightest sensations flickering across her
fine-boned features much as he would stalk the progress of his prey.
“Moan for me. You know you want to,” he taunted. “The louder the better.”

Her eyes flew open wider than her splayed thighs, and far less receptive.
“What? You cocky --” Without warning, her long, limber legs wrapped
tight around his waist, inner muscles squeezing in mysterious ways which
hastily replaced his air of cool superiority with one much less commanding,
his eyes practically crossing from the force of the exquisite pleasure.
“I think I can handle you, Pik. Question is, are you man enough to handle me?
You'll be the one who screams for mercy long before I'm through with you.”

If their liaison had been scored with a soundtrack, some X-rated variation of
the opening riff of “Dueling Banjos” -- probably retitled “Dueling Smirks” --
would have echoed forth its first tentative notes. “Is that a challenge?” he
inquired, thoroughly bemused.

“You bet that cute ass it is,” she retorted, swatting it for emphasis.
“Let's see how well you rise to it.”

And so the competition began.

Far more appropriate to call it a competition, than an act of passion.
After all, “passion,” in terms of either anger or desire, denotes a certain
loss of control, a physical immersion in an unrestrained emotion.
Not so with the professional detachment of mercenary sex.
It hastily degenerated into little more than an eerily silent wrestling
match, as each grappled with cunning determination to achieve the
dominant position, to attack a different sort of physical weakness in
the enemy. The unspoken rules were clear: the first to submit to the
other, to openly surrender to pleasure in word or deed, would be the loser.

Though Vaughn was both experienced and determined, Pik's size and
strength gave him an undeniable advantage. He quickly emerged on top,
and increased the depth and tempo of his relentless thrusts accordingly,
sliding his hand between her thighs to further stimulate her sensitive
depths with predatory precision. Score one point for Pik; nowhere for
her to go but up to meet him, and she clearly loved it hard and fast,
however much she tried to hide it behind an impassive scowl. In a
stroke of luck, he'd stumbled on her erotic Achilles heel. Half-rising
on one elbow, he bared his teeth into the intrepid grin of a mountaineer
who spies the peaks of Everest within a moment's climb. Only the
peaks of her breasts, of course, but still . . . eyeing those peaks
appraisingly, he raised his exploring hand from between her legs to
rub the pad of his thumb over their erect curves, to see if the friction
of that gesture would press her sexual buttons as well.

Big mistake. It turned him into an unbalanced, easy target once again.
She unclenched her legs from around his waist and, in an eye-watering
exhibition of Flying Wallenda-esque acrobatic flexibility, she hooked
him underneath the arms enough to flip him over like an omlette, leaving
her seated triumphantly astride. Not giving him a second to recover, she
worked that voodoo magic once again, muscles clenching his arousal in
a dazzling assortment of complex, elaborate, and quite possibly illegal
gestures. As she leaned over to lap and nip at his own nipples with
tongue and teeth, raking her nails down his forearms, he bit back a
groan just in time. Score one large point for Vaughn. Hell, she'd nearly
*won.* Still, judging by the subtle spasms of her thighs, she was on the
edge herself, her stoic silence notwithstanding . . . .

Grasping her forearms, he forced her back beneath him, holding firm
this time. Pressing his lips to hers, invading her mouth, he timed the
thrusts of hips and tongue in perfect sync, not allowing her a chance
to move -- even to breathe -- without increasing the level of his
overwhelming penetration. He'd smother her resistance with the feel of
him, the smell of him, the heated flesh of him. Score game point for Pik.

Still she struggled, holding out against the inevitable, nails digging into his
sturdy shoulders in a fruitless attempt to resist the telltale tightening of
nerves screaming bloody murder for release. Her hands clutched
upwards, pressing against the nape of his neck, fingertips caressed by
the crisp velvet texture of his hair. She knew it was all over. She knew
she was going to lose. And the worst of it -- the absolute worst of it --
was the guilty thrill of pure adrenaline now coursing through her
bloodstream. Losing to him turned her on even more . . . .

“Ah . . . Ah . . . Ah . . . Oh God -- Yes . . . Ahhhnggh -- YESSSS!”

She came, she screamed, he conquered.

*Thank God,* he echoed silently. He'd been on the verge himself.
With effort, he shuddered to an unsteady halt in mid-thrust. “I win.”
His usually cultured voice was rough, ragged with unfulfilled arousal.

Vaughn glared up at him, her eyes sparking with indignant rage, but
not because of wounded pride. “Shut up and *keep going*!” she
snarled, the phrase emerging more as an outright order than a polite
request. Locking her arms and legs around Pik once more, she
astonished the hell out of him by thrusting her tongue into his
mouth. Within seconds, his throaty grunts mingled with her second
set of screams.

*************

“It was a fluke, you know.”

Pik gazed down at the slender blonde sprawled across his chest,
fingers idly toying with the tufts of black hair. Both of them were
damp and boneless as a dishrag. “Ha. A very weak excuse.”

“Egomaniac. You were just lucky.” Seized with a sudden inspiration,
Vaughn smiled slyly. “You'd never be able to get to me like that again.
Guaranteed.”

“Is that a challenge?” Pik inquired archly, an evil grin forming on his
own face as he caught sight of the unmistakably come-hither expression
in Vaughn's eyes: unsated, unadulterated lust, pure and primal.

“Best 2 out of 3,” she replied, straddling him atop the exercise mat.

*Maybe 3 out of 5?* Pik mused, then lost himself within the magic of
her muscles and her mouth . . . .

Eventually, they decided to call it a draw rather than go for 7 out of 12.
After all, even the most physically fit need to sleep sometime. And they
needed to be at their best tomorrow, of all days.

They had places to go, and people to kill.

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