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A Core of Steel

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For a place with so many huge, open spaces, it's amazing how much the Tritower can make Christie feel claustrophobic. It's just a job, she tells herself, for about the fiftieth time, her bootheels ringing on marble steps as she climbs the stairs toward Helena's private rooms. Just a goddamn job. She's no novice. She's seen fancy places before, dealt with both clients and targets who have more money than sense. She shouldn't let herself get rattled.

Somehow this time is different than all the others. Christie reaches the top of the stairs, turns left, tries to ignore the way she feels when she gets close to Helena's door. They had someone try to break in today, try to get to Helena with a thin little poisoned blade. Christie snapped his neck, of course. He was sloppy and overconfident and no challenge at all, and the poison he preferred was third-rate. Helena was never really in danger. But thinking back on it now leaves Christie unsettled, makes something feel tight and uncomfortable in the pit of her stomach.

She keys in the passcode for Helena's rooms -- it's probably about time to change to a new one, isn't it? -- and lets herself in.

"How are you feeling?" she asks.

Helena's sitting in front of the mirror at her dressing table, in that black satin robe with the dragons that she likes so much. Her eyes meet Christie's in the mirror, and she smiles, that controlled little smile she has like she's worried about getting wrinkles. "I'm fine," she says. "I was never worried."

Christie smiles back, just as shallow but not for the same reasons. "I'm flattered," she says. She comes closer, lays her hands on Helena's shoulders. She wants to slide the satin robe off Helena's elegant shoulders. She wants to slide her hands up to wrap around Helena's slender throat. Helena leans back against her, and she doesn't do either.

"I know you better than that," Helena says. She stands up, and the robe slithers off her shoulders without Christie even helping. The little slip she has on underneath is the color of champagne, somewhere between the shades of her skin and hair. With her shoes off, and Christie's still on, she comes up just barely to Christie's chin, but she acts like she's taller. She turns, reaching up to drape her arms over Christie's shoulders. "It's cute that you're so upset about it," she says. "You had everything under control."

The tone of her voice makes Christie's nerves blaze with adrenaline, but Helena leans up for a kiss before Christie can really react -- smooth satin and soft breasts and somewhere under there a core of pure steel. For about half a second, before she recovers enough to kiss back, Christie feels like she can't breathe. This thing Helena does to her, this messed-up restless feeling, is more than most clients or targets get out of her, and sometimes she thinks Helena's not even trying.

She lets Helena ease her out of her jacket and start backing her toward the bed. She's just doing what the boss wants, she tells herself. Just doing a job. Even if this job takes her breath away.