Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters and giving them some guns (again).
"Why hello there."
On cue, I jerk at the smooth, lilting voice and whirl around. In the brief second it takes me to turn, the man's long strides eat up the room, and l find myself staring up at a tall, muscular man somewhere in his early forties. With tousled, white-blond hair and a charming Hollywood face, this guy's smile is perfect – wide, blinding, and nowhere close to real.
I step back from the wall of dark navy wool and crisp white cotton and clear my throat. "Hi… Hello."
A low, amused rumble vibrates in his chest. "You must be Isabella."
"I am," I say, washing my hands in nervous agitation. I feign lack of recognition, but allow a sliver of feminine admiration to steal into my expression, just like all the other trophies and baubles. "But I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage."
"Kaius." Koshmarin's smile widens, hinting at the predatory intent he's barely even trying to leash. "I am one of Aro's very close associates." He edges closer, corralling me. "I handle some of the… messier aspects of the business."
Playing my part, I frown. "I… I don't think I follow."
Making no effort to clarify or answer my half-question, Koshmarin just tilts his head, and for a long, tense moment, he simply studies me. Unlike Aronov or the others, there's no seduction or sexual heat in this one's ice-blue gaze.
No, right now, he's all business, and his business is brutality and bloodshed.
After Aronov's lingering touches and saccharine smiles, it's almost refreshing.
He taps a long finger to his chin and finally murmurs, "And you are his newest diversion, a diversion we neither need, nor want."
Not one for beating around the bush, I see.
Granted, that much was clear the second he sent that dumb lackey, Yakov, to take me out.
"I wouldn't go that far." I let my voice tremble, just a little, and take another step back, moving deeper into the western wing, toward the silence and emptiness of the royal apartments. Koshmarin follows my retreat, crowding far too close for polite company. "Really, I just met hi–"
"Oh, but I would," he says, cutting in, and then he flicks his wrist in an arrogant, dismissive gesture. "Your blonde friend… Rosalie…" He drawls out her name, rolling the R. "Now, that one could be a good bit of momentary fun, a pretty little cunt to wet his cock." Eyes gleaming with dark anticipation, the man laughs. "Blyat', I might even take a run on that little shlyushka."
The laughter abruptly ceases, however, and his cheekbones sharpen into blades. "But you… you're going to be… messy." Swallowing, I open my mouth to ask, but once again he cuts me off, this time almost crooning. "You look just like her, you know."
"I'm sorry, what?" Blinking in confusion, I shake my head. When I stumble backward into one of the walls of the adjacent Children's Room, I dimly note the bank of portraits and olive velvet chairs beneath the crystal chandelier. "I think you have the wrong idea. I have no idea who you're talking about."
He shrugs, and the motion pulls the midnight fabric of his suit tight across his shoulders. "Aro's wife." Pausing, his lips curve and dance with mischief. "Well, his dead wife."
I jolt. "What?"
Koshmarin's fist darts up toward my face. As his forefinger loops around a stray strand of hair, it takes every bit of my training and self-control not to break his hold and then break his fucking face.
Really, it's just so incredibly tempting.
But as much as I want to, I don't.
Instead, I give him the fearful flinch he's looking for.
"The likeness is uncanny, really," he says, musing more to himself than to me. "It is no wonder he is beating off to you so hard."
My back slides across the gilt stucco wall. "Was she… ill?" I ask, even though I suspect I already know the answer.
"Fuck, no." Koshmarin belts out a laugh. "That bitch was fucking some pissant and tried to leave when Aro caught her. Her lover had no idea who he was playing with." He laughs again. "She was even fat with that fucker's bastard."
My eyes boggle.
That was not in the file, but it certainly explains a few things.
When he speaks again, his tone goes flat. Lifeless and reeking of boredom, it's absent any hint of empathy. He might as well be chatting about the weather. "So… of course, Aro had no choice but to have them both… taken care of." His shoulders roll. "Pishka talked too much anyway."
Air saws in and out of my lungs.
"Where did you come from, Isabella Swan?" Koshmarin asks, tugging on my hair sharply enough that my scalp burns.
Frantic, I glance around, like I'm searching for someone to help. "I–"
"You just appear… out of nowhere?" A calloused palm claps over my throat, and I silently curse him nine ways from Sunday. This son of a bitch is going to make me hurt him tonight, which is going to cause a thousand new headaches for Whitlock, not to mention fuck up the plan.
"Maybe I should take care of you right now. Maybe even right here… It would be so much easier that way," he says as his thumb finds its way to the dip at the base of my throat.
I suck in a loud, shaky breath, even as my heart rate slows to a steady, thumping rhythm. My muscles relax from years of beaten-in training and instinct, loosening and readying to strike.
Koshmarin just smiles, thinking I'm going limp in fear. "Aro would not even know. And if he did, he would… eventually get over it."
"Look," I reply, swallowing against the pressure on my windpipe. "I don't kno–"
Koshmarin releases me instantly.
As he whips around, I collapse back against the wall. Quickly recovering, I sidestep the Russian and dart a half dozen feet away, toward the center of the room and the all-too-familiar, black-on-black figure strolling through the open door like he's out for a relaxing walk in the park.
But I'm not a bit fooled.
I've seen Masen in action. The man moves like death itself, and while his posture remains casual and loose, there's something in his expression that I can't quite name. The brace of his jaw might as well be granite, and those pretty gem-stone irises of his are dark, almost angry.
A vein in Koshmarin's forehead jumps in irritation. "Edward."
Masen says nothing in return, and the two men eye each other across the room for a long, still moment. There's a spark in the air, and it reminds me of my days back in The Unit, waiting those handful of frozen, electric seconds, right before the truck of C4 lights off and takes the face off the side of an Afghan mountain.
I know exactly which one's the C4 in this scenario, and I inch toward him.
A few more beats tick by before Koshmarin finally folds. His cheeks abruptly split into a wide, placating smile, and the zinging current in the room momentarily eases. "I was just… introducing myself to Aro's newest acquisition."
"So I heard." Like the rest of him, Masen's voice is quiet and maddeningly calm. Hands still shoved into his pockets, he prowls deeper into the room, subtly positioning himself between me and his target. It's, no doubt, a conscious decision, even though he spares me little more than a cursory, disinterested glance. "I'm not sure that Aro would appreciate your particular style of greeting."
"We have enough problems. We do not need this kind of distraction right now."
"Not your call to make."
"Yes, it is." The smile vanishes with Koshmarin's growl, and the glare he sends Masen is positively furious. "You know nothing. I have handled Aro's little diversions and messes far longer than you have been around."
Koshmarin's little show of intimidation falls flat, and one corner of Masen's mouth pulls up. "But you're not handling this one."
"What are you going to do about it?" Koshmarin paces closer, and his eyes flit back and forth between Masen and me. "Would you stop me if I slit her pretty little throat?"
Masen just shrugs like he's bored, but I see through the lazy, feline façade. I see the tiny ripple of muscle beneath the finely tailored suit jacket. I hear the hushed intake of air. I sense the pinpricking tension coiling back up, like a spring on the verge of exploding. When Masen's right slides out of his pocket and drops to his side, the distant hum from the Gallery fades into buzzing white noise. While he doesn't go for his Glock, the threat is as clear as day.
So softly I almost miss it, Masen says, "Try me, and we'll see."
A bead of sweat rolls down the back of the Russian's neck, disappearing beneath the starched white collar of his oxford. Another minute of thick silence passes, now volatile enough that my slow, steady heart rate cranks up in time. I'm about two seconds from reaching into Masen's jacket and grabbing a weapon myself when the rigid line of Koshmarin's shoulders finally slumps. His palms flash in fake surrender as a dark, taunting smile teases his lips.
"Fine," he spits. "You can have her for now, but you best keep her and that blonde whore out of the way, or I will handle it…" Hands still up, Koshmarin slowly backs away. Right before exiting the room, he calls over his shoulder, "And make sure Aro stays on track with Kinshasa. He better not fuck this up."
The silence is deafening, and once we're alone, we don't move for several seconds.
Yet when we do, it's not back to the Gallery.
Masen does a quick check of the room and the adjacent salons before turning back to me. I don't know what he sees in my expression, but his betrays absolutely nothing. No more than an arm's length away, he stares at me, and his chin dips in a single, clipped acknowledgement. Without another word, he grabs me by the wrist and pulls me in the opposite direction of Koshmarin's withdrawal, toward the extravagant private dining room of the royal family, and then through the suite of apartments beyond.
We don't stop moving until we turn a corner and hit a simple, almost austere study and matching bedroom. Dressed in shades of masculine browns and khakis, it's a startling contrast to the bold, colorful opulence of the other cabinets and galleries. Warm Persian rugs top the parquet flooring, muffling our footfalls.
From what I can recall from the floorplan, we're about as far from Aronov and the Great Gallery as we can get, and since leaving Koshmarin we've not seen a soul.
But even that's not good enough.
Constantly watching our surroundings, Masen guides me toward a coffee-colored silk wall panel, where I can just make out the vague outline of a concealed door. He shoves against it, and when it doesn't budge, he pops his fist against the wood, right where a doorknob or latch would be. Wincing at the telltale splintering behind the silk, I shoot him a disbelieving glare. Masen just shakes his head before I can speak, and the second the wall swings inward, he yanks me inside and pushes the door back into place.
"I can't believe you just broke the–"
My protest is cut short by a harsh, shushing sound. Grabbing me by the elbow, Masen swings me around until my back thumps against the door.
In the split-second before he steps into my space, I peer around him. We're in yet another bedroom or study, only this one's far smaller, and its furnishings and décor are even simpler than the stark brown rooms we just departed. Judging by the size and proximity to the emperor's private space, my best guess is that this was the valet's quarters. Closed off from the typical tour and main rooms, it's cooler in here. It's dark, too, illuminated only by the soft yellow light bleeding in from around the door.
"Are you alright?" Masen asks. His voice is little more than a rough, gravelly whisper, and he's close enough that his body heat radiates through the sheer, almost non-existent lace of my top.
"I'm fine." I give him a wide-eyed, jerky nod and gulp back a stuttering breath. When I inhale again, I catch faint hints of a warm, almost intoxicating masculine cologne. "Thank you for that, but… I don't understand any of what just happened."
Even in my heels, Masen tops me by half a foot, forcing me to look up. Intense and probing, his eyes bore into mine, and for the second time tonight, I'm aware of my heart kicking fast against my sternum.
"I told you not to let yourself be alone with him."
My palms smack against the hard wall of his chest, but he doesn't move an inch. If anything, he just leans in closer, and like before, just like in his gray and white bolt hole in Stephansplatz, a fizzy, almost drunken warmth curls through my veins and pools in the pit of my stomach.
I have no idea how or why he has this effect on me.
But I like it far, far more than I should.
"Kaius sought me out," I tell him, scowling at both him and the fluttering in my gut. "I didn't exactly have a choice."
"No, you didn't." He grimaces and something bitter, something akin to resignation, sneaks into his tone. "And now you don't have any choice at all."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Even if you wanted to, you couldn't back away now." A sharp, cynical laugh spills out of his mouth. "Not after the people you've seen tonight and the conversations you've witnessed. Aro made sure of that."
"I don't under–"
One hand drops to my waist, pulling, then pushing and caging me against the door. "Yes, you do."
Without conscious direction, my fingertips walk down the planes of his chest, skimming over the thin, silky cotton of his button-up, lightly tracing the lines and valleys of a body sculpted by years of war and fighting.
My lips mash together into a hard, flat line. "Yeah, but it sounds better if I say I don't."
Masen goes motionless.
After a long moment, his cheeks spread into an abrupt, unexpected, and ridiculously attractive smile that I can see even in the dark. His shoulders shake, taking me along with them.
"What?" I ask.
Sighing, Masen looks up at the high stucco ceiling above, and when he swipes his hand over his eyes and scrubs his face, I suddenly grasp that he's letting me see him like this. He's letting me witness something he never allows Aronov's crew to see. He wears the same expression he wore the other night on the promenade. It's the same one I saw again in his apartment.
Masen is tired.
When he looks at me again, he sighs once more, and I itch with the irrational desire to rub away the deep stress line between his brows.
"Look," he whispers as his grip cinches around my waist. "I'll try to protect you and get you out before it's too late, but…"
I study his face and the pale bruising in the hollows of his eyes. "Why?"
He frowns, and a war plays out across every one of his features before he finally replies. "I don't know."
"You're not like them, are you?" Deep down, I will him to say no.
A huff tumbles out, but he hesitates before answering. "I'm trying very hard not to be, but some days, there's no other option."
"Then why are you here… with Aronov?" I ask. "Why are you helping these people?"
That grimace is back, and Masen looks away, but the fingertips bracketing my waist slide to my hip and spasm. "It doesn't matter."
"Yes, it does," I say. "To me, at least."
Masen's teeth grind, but then his gaze falls to my mouth.
And I just thought the confrontation in the Yellow Salon was tense.
Gooseflesh ripples across my skin.
As if in slow motion, still fixated on my mouth, Masen reaches up and palms my bare neck. His long fingers splay out, spanning the side of my throat, framing my face, and his thumb ghosts across my bottom lip. The hand still on my hip squeezes, pulling me between his thighs and positioning me flush against him.
Masen's breath comes out in rough, warm pants, tinged with peppermint and the spice from his usual round of Scotch. When his lips move, he's so close that I don't know if I hear him speak or if I just feel it.
"I don't trust you."
"Good," I whisper back, tilting my head, just enough. I'm not sure if I'm challenging him or begging him or both, but when I snake my arms around his neck and slide my fingers through the short hair at the base of his scalp to tug him forward, like I'm just daring him to act, his eyes turn bright and fiery. "I don't trust you either."
A harsh noise of surrender hits my ears.
And the next thing I know, Masen's mouth slants over mine.
My lips part in mute surprise, and he takes it as the invitation it is. Licking into my mouth, his tongue strokes against mine. It's slick and sensual, a blatant, aggressive mimicry of sex that turns my brain inside out and makes the warmth in my abdomen go molten.
This isn't some kind of gentle meeting of strangers. No, Masen handles me like he knows I won't break.
This man kisses me like he's starving.
Barring none, it's the most desperate, devouring kiss I've ever experienced, and every single cell in my body flares to life.
When he angles my head back and drags his lips along my jaw to my throat, sensation and utter want whip through me, and I swear it feels like I'll drown without it.
Pishka… I have no clue how Sulpicia (canon Aro's mate) would be handled as a Russian diminutive. I originally used this, not knowing that if it was a real word or not. A kind reader recently let me know that this actually means donut or can be a nickname for a plump woman. It still works, so we'll go with it :)
Since I'm playing with names so much, which can make it a little hard to keep up with when reading as a WIP, here's a little summary/cheat sheet of our named villains thus far:
Aro = Mikhail "Misha" Aronov (Russian, Oligarch)
Marcus = Aleksandr "Sasha" Markovsky (Russian, FSB & former Spetsnaz commander)
Caius = Kaius "Caligula" Koshmarin (Russian, Bratva boss)
Demetri = Dmitri "Mitya" (Russian, Aronov's bodyguard)
Felix = Feliks (Russian, Aronov's bodyguard)
Santiago = Yakov (Russian, Bratva enforcer, Deceased)
Ahmad Taeb = original character (Iranian, ex Quds Force commander, Deceased)
Alec = Alex Retzos (Greek, Oligarch)
Jane = Jovan Dobroshi (male) (Albanian, Clan/mafia unit boss)
James = Jacques (only mentioned thus far)
Laurent = Laurent (only mentioned thus far)
Shlyushka: diminutive of shlyukha, which means 'whore', so this would translate to 'little whore'
Kinshasa: capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)