Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters and giving them some guns (again).

Unbeta'd, unedited.


"How much did you know about the wife?"

There's a long, drawn-out beat of silence, and it's quiet enough that I pick up the low hum of Platt's furnace kicking on back in Virginia. Impatient and annoyed with the usual CIA runaround games, I cross my arms over my chest and cock a single brow.

Through the screen, Esme's lips pinch, which, honestly, tells me everything I need to know.

"Spill," I say anyway and push off the couch to pace in front of Whitlock's bank of monitors. "We're getting on a plane in less than twelve hours. We don't have time for this, and when assholes like Koshmarin want to kill me, frankly, I don't give two fucks about your clearance."

"Fine." Tucking back a wayward ribbon of hair, Esme sighs, and I use the that split-second pause to catalogue her appearance.

While it's late on the Eastern Seaboard, it's not too late by her standards. Yet her perfectly coifed French twist isn't so perfect tonight. Mascara smudges darken her lower lids, too, and when she leans back in her leather chair, I catch the creases marring her normally pristine silk blouse. Even the bow-tie neckline is wrinkled and uneven.

This is the least put together I've ever seen this woman.

It makes me wonder if we're wrong about Carlisle Cullen and if Dayan was right about it only being a matter of time before those fuckers sent her proof in a box.

Before I can ask, Platt abruptly straightens. The ever-present glint in her eyes sharpens, and when she speaks, like the consummate professional she is, her voice comes out clipped and efficient.

"We knew Sulpicia Aronova was killed a little over six years ago," she says, folding her hands on the desk in front of her like she's at a Senate hearing instead of her house in McLean. "At the time of her death, they were on vacation, staying at Aronov's villa on the Black Sea."

"How?"

"Single shot through the right temple. 9mm. Point blank." The glint turns even sharper. "Beforehand, she'd been bound, likely to a chair, for several hours. Beaten severely. There were signs of an amateur attempt at torture."

As shitty as it is, it's not exactly surprising, especially considering who we're dealing with.

I steal a quick glance over to Whitlock, where he's parsing through a short stack of files that one of Dayan's runners delivered late in the evening. Without looking up from his work, he grabs the top file and slides it across the glass tabletop. When I flip it open, I thumb through the various notes and reports, penned in a mix of Russian, Hebrew, and English.

The photos are what grabs my attention, however. Clipped to the inside cover, there's at least a dozen stills, all centered in on Aronov's wife.

The first shot is a familiar one. It's the same portrait-style photo Platt's people included in the original files we'd been given – the one that supposedly looks like me. The next few are new. Mostly long-range surveillance, they show her with Aronov, and then there's Aronova with a series of attractive, dark-haired men, all fit and far younger than her husband.

I stop my skimming on the last two stills. Bruised, bloodied, and sprawled out naked in an abandoned field of tall grasses, the woman's body is almost unrecognizable.

"Aronov wanted to punish her?" I ask, passing those last two images over the couch to Alice. "Seems a little overkill."

Like me, Brandon's seen the dregs of humanity. Still, when she spots the plum-black rings around Aronova's wrists, the jagged slices, and the hematomas littering the woman's face, breasts, abdomen, and thighs, something dark and angry shadows her features.

"By most accounts," Esme replies and then takes a slow sip from a steaming mug. "At least in public, the man worshiped the ground she walked on, never mind the bevy of mistresses he kept."

I shrug at that. "Common for men in his position, particularly in the region." Fucking gross, but it is what it is. "Honestly, it'd have been odd if he hadn't."

Esme dips her chin once in agreement. "We knew Aronova had been having affairs of her own. But at twenty-seven and nearly two decades Aronov's junior, we assumed it was just your typical bored young housewife and absent older husband scenario." Her mouth flattens. "Most men like Aronov understand the dynamic and tend to look the other way…" She chuffs. "Hell, some – like your new friend, Retzos – even encourage it."

"As long as it's discreet and superficial."

"And Aronova wasn't." Esme nods again. "It became a point of increasing contention, and according to reports, behind closed doors, their relationship became volatile and more often than not, physical, especially by the time she started seeing the last one."

Alice slides the photos over to Rosalie, whose expression instantly morphs to bloody murder, and then jumps up from her wingback. Skirting the furniture, she parks next me in front of the monitors and asks, "What tipped him over?"

Esme gives Alice a wan smile. "It's our understanding that her last lover was one of Aronov's associates, so…"

"Ouch." I wince. "Double insult."

"Exactly. We were not aware that she'd been pregnant at the time of her death. But it makes sense. Between the multiple hits to his ego, he–"

"Lost his shit." Chewing the inside of my cheek, I start piecing together all those possessive little signals and tells. "What happened to the guy she was seeing?"

"Found in his apartment in Florence the same weekend," Platt says, short and matter of fact. "Shot twice in the face. Close range. No other signs of trauma or struggle. No witnesses or evidence of entry. No leads. It was clearly a professional hit."

Rosalie comes around the couch and plops down in the desk chair beside us. "I take it that was Koshmarin."

"Or one of his underlings." Esme rifles through a thin navy-blue binder before addressing me. "Your account from two nights ago syncs with what we know of him. He and his Bratva associates have been Aronov's muscle and have handled his wetwork for years."

No wonder Koshmarin wants me dead.

That fucker doesn't want to deal with a repeat of the Mad King, not when they have so many other irons in the fire.

Glancing over to the window, I study the dim, early dawn light seeping between the drapes and beginning to creep across the rug. Outside, the streets are still quiet and empty but for the low rumble of a city truck passing by and a beat later, the wail of a distant siren.

I peek across the room to McCarty, where he's stacking the small mountain of designer luggage we'll drag with us to Italy, like any good pair of socialites, of course. Catching me, he straightens and shoots me a wide, toothy grin that no one has the right to wear this early. When I scowl in response, he just laughs and then pitches me a bottle of orange juice from the minifridge, silently mouthing, "It's good for you."

I scowl even harder because that man knows I hate juice, almost as much as that shitty Nespresso he dares to call coffee.

"Okay," I say, turning back to Esme. "Now tell me about Markovsky. How does he really fit in?" Cracking the cap on my bottle, I down a third and immediately grimace at the tartness. "And don't bullshit me."

"That one's more predictable." Esme's shoulders roll in a tired shrug. "From what we can tell, Markovsky doesn't really play too much in the drugs or trafficking side of the business." She flips through another few pages in her binder. "With his Spetsnaz background and FSB ties, he's mostly focused on the weapons trade."

Beside us, Whitlock finally looks up from his files. "Client or supplier?"

"Both," Esme replies, and then drains her mug. Reaching off screen, she grabs a familiar, black-labeled bottle and splashes in a finger or two of Tennessee's finest.

It's yet another brow-raising crack in her armor, but I'm not about give her any shit over it.

"From what we can tell, he's usually the one who connects Aronov's various shell companies with the clients. Warlords, cartels, sanctioned governments, you name it. He has connections with manufacturers within the FSU – both private and state – and he's the one greasing the wheels with the agencies. In other words, he has his whole hand in that pie."

Alice's nails drum against the back of the couch. "Where's he vulnerable?" she asks. "Dayan said he was married to Aronov's sister."

"That's correct," Platt says as she flips her binder shut and chucks it off to the side. "But you won't see much of her, if at all. Or their three children." She takes a long, slow sip of her whisky. "He keeps his family away from his business. Has a walled compound an hour out of Moscow. Dogs. Guards. Top-end security. Might as well be a fortress."

I nod. "Smart man."

Esme's dark eyes flash. "By all accounts, very… and just as ruthless. I'm assuming Dayan told you about the alleged sarin attacks back in the 90s."

Rosalie lets out a low, furious grumble. "So, not alleged then."

"Unfortunately, very much confirmed, as well as others," Esme replies and then tips back the remainder of her mug. "While not as… flashy or excessive as Aronov or Koshmarin, Markovsky has no problem whatsoever removing any obstacle unlucky enough to be in his path."

Across the room, McCarty clicks the lock on the last suitcase and ambles over to stand behind Rosalie's chair. He mimics my pose, crossing his arms over his barrel chest. The macabre black and gray lines twining his forearms writhe and jump when his muscles flex. That always-present teasing grin of his is long gone, too, replaced by a severe, nail-spitting expression that reminds me that Rose and I aren't the only ones in this room with a high kill count.

"You think he's the one who organized the attack on that village in the DRC?" Emmett asks.

"We believe Aronov gave the final go ahead, but it's near certain that Markovsky was involved. The incendiary devices used in that attack match those supplied to a warlord in the region…" Pushing back in her chair, Esme stares through the screen over steepled fingers. "Before he disappeared, Carlisle had been following those leads, along with managing the intel coming from Masen."

The room goes quiet, and I don't move for a long moment. Instead, my head tilts back, and I trace a hairline crack in the plaster wall, from its start at the edge of the intricate triple crown molding high above, all the way down to where it disappears behind the antique gold frame of a colorful oil on canvas.

When I look back at the monitor, my fists ball into tight hammers. "And… you didn't think that all this was pertinent information to share?" I ask, softly and calmly enough that even Spooky flinches.

At least Esme gives me the courtesy of an apologetic smile, however brief. "It wasn't something I could share at the time."

"Kind of like how much I resemble Aronova?" An aggravated huff spills out of my mouth before I can stop it. "Or… was that an intentional omission?"

The old Platt – the boss I both loved and despised – comes roaring back. "Your team is highly competent," she snaps, and it's the same, pissed-off, no-nonsense tone I've seen make directors leap. "I assumed you would put those pieces together quickly enough, on your own or via your own sources. But, yes, the resemblance is part of why you're the perfect fit for investigating Carlisle's disappearance and taking that motherfucker out."

"And the other reasons?"

"I trust you." Her eyes narrow. "And you don't miss."

I laugh because the latter is true, but every time I replay that scene with Koshmarin in the Schönbrunn, my blood boils. "You realize, this kind of bullshit is why I went private."

Now it's her turn to huff, and it's a bitter sound. "I'm aware."

Tossing the rest of my OJ to McCarty, I push off the couch and lean across the desk. "You've put Hale and me in a precarious position," I tell her. "Not saying we wouldn't have made the same decisions, but I don't like secrets. And I don't appreciate being sent into situations unprepared, Platt."

She looks away. "I'm aware of that, as well, and I'd like to say I'm sorry, but I'm not..." She hesitates before finally blowing out a loud, tired breath. Grabbing her bottle of Jack, she pours another two fingers. "I don't trust my organization right now."

Rosalie bolts upright. "The fuck does that mean?"

Instead of sipping, this time Esme just slugs her entire mug. "Carlisle and I had a system. When he was out on jobs, it was often challenging to maintain contact, and I wouldn't hear from him for several weeks at a time," she says. "So, he'd send me things, just to let me know he was alive and well."

Esme lets out a soft punch of air – almost, but not quite a laugh – and a hint of warmth softens her stony features. "It was never anything obvious. No accompanying notes. No return addresses, and he routed everything through non-stamped carriers. Just little trinkets – keychains, magnets, typical tourist garbage – that he'd send to a private box I have listed under an alias. No one ever knew about it." Her mouth turns down into a hard, uncompromising frown. "No one."

"I don't follow," I reply, scrubbing my face. When I peer over to Alice, she's studying the older woman through the screen, and something vaguely expectant or eager lurks in her gaze.

Esme clears her throat. "I'm still receiving these trinkets."

The silence in the room swells for a moment before a tiny smile curls Alice's lips. She beats me to the obvious statement. "You told us he was presumed dead."

"I did." Esme's hands fold together in that familiar, cool, collected Senate pose. "That's what the analysts thought at the time… and what they still think. All the evidence collected at his last known location says the same... But the pieces don't add up." One hand slides to her center drawer, dipping in to extract a cheap, plastic keychain. A white horse rearing up with a red-coated rider on its back hangs from the ring. "I received this last week."

Whitlock jerks and then shakes his head. "What about your operatives?"

Esme blows out another long breath. "None of the individuals sent were mine, and their orders came out of another department... I was deemed… too close to the situation to be involved directly." She tucks the keychain back inside her desk. "I don't know what they were told or what orders they were given." This time she's the one shaking her head. "Regardless, there's no way they should have been such easy targets, especially after the first team was taken out."

Before I can respond, she adds, "It's why your current… activities are on a need-to-know basis, handled completely out of my shop, and even then, only a handful of very trusted individuals are involved."

McCarty lets out a low whistle. "Is all this off the books?"

She nods. "Very."

This shit just keeps getting better and better.

"All right," I say after another long, uncomfortable minute of silence. "I understand your predicament, but… don't do that shit again. If you have information that could keep my ass from getting shot, you better give it to me."

"I'll do what I can." I don't miss the fact that she isn't exactly agreeing, but I let it slide when I see raw desperation staring back at me. "Find him, Bella."


We step out of the black Mercedes onto the private tarmac just outside Vienna at precisely five in the evening. Like Aronov's soiree at the palace, the area surrounding the sleek, clearly customized jet is crawling with beefy, dark-suited bruisers, each sporting an array of urban weaponry.

As soon as the car door thumps shut, one of Aronov's bodyguards appears, welcoming us with a small, polite smile. That smile runs completely counter to the pair of Lebedev pistols sticking out from under his jacket, but I don't say a word. No, I just look around, like it's perfectly normal to be surrounded by well-dressed criminals.

"Ms. Hale, Ms. Swan," Dmitri says, gesturing toward the carpeted path leading to the stairs. "I hope your drive over was pleasant."

"Oh, yes, thank you." Playing her part, Rosalie pauses, places a manicured hand on his forearm, and shoots him a flirty little grin. "What about our luggage?"

"Everything will be taken care of," he answers. Glancing back at the mounting stack by the trunk, he lets out a low chuckle. "All of your baggage will be delivered directly to your rooms."

What he means is it'll be scanned and picked through with a fine-tooth comb before it's finally returned to us.

And, yes, of course, we're prepared for that, the same way Whitlock wiped and reprogrammed all of our electronics… just in case. Really, the most interesting thing these assholes will find are the scraps of Rosalie's barely-there silk and lace.

The toys will arrive later, care of McCarty.

Flashing Dmitri another row of pearly teeth, Rosalie giggles. "You're just a doll, you know that?"

The man barks out a loud, true laugh at that one and then, with a not-so-sneaky peek at the deep V of her neckline, mutters something low and fast under his breath.

It's probably a good thing Rosalie's Russian isn't the best.

She'd have laid that motherfucker out right then and there.

Once we reach the bottom of the steps, Dmitri veers off and belts out a curt command to a pair of guards lingering by the cars. Rather than immediately ascending, Rosalie bends close, cooing and marveling at the ridiculous aircraft in front of us. Glossy black, with metallic flakes that throw light in a dazzling prismatic effect, the paint job on this thing had to have cost a fortune. I dread seeing whatever gaudiness awaits us inside.

"I take it he was being rude," she murmurs.

"Very." I snort at that.

"Fucker." Looping her arm through mine, she takes a quick look down the airstrip, and her voice drops to a whisper. "Speaking of… are we ever going to talk about your little interlude the other night?"

"Do we have to?" My face scrunches up.

Shoulders shaking in instant, undisguised delight, that smile of hers turns distinctly smirk-like. "Well… did you fuck him? At least tell me that."

"No."

Not kidding, this woman has the nerve to look disappointed. "Did you want to?"

I'm not about to open that can of worms – least of all right here – and I barely resist the urge to flip her off. My elbow jabs into her ribs, and I plaster on my best grin, muttering through my teeth, "I hate you."

Laughing like the gorgeous bitch she is, Rosalie tilts her head slightly to the left. "Who knows, you may get your chance… unless we die, that is."

"And you're not morbid at all."

Regardless, I don't need to turn to know who that little head tilt was for. No, my radar's working just fine. I know exactly who arrived the second the muted sound of a second car door hit my ears. Just like I know who's staring at my back right now.

Even across the open tarmac, that man's emerald gaze feels like a caress against every one of my senses.

So, I just shake my head at her and drag her laughing ass up the stairs.

I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised by the interior of Aronov's plane. Considering what we've seen of his tastes, I was expecting more of the same suffocating opulence and gold-plated extravagance. Instead, a sleeker, more modern kind of luxury greets us.

Butter-soft tan leather chairs and benches split the cabin into a quartet of lounges, each lit with soft, sophisticated lighting. Razor-thin flat-screens cover the opaque glass bulkheads, displaying a dozen time-zones and scrolling financial markets. Fine, gleaming slabs of pale granite top the tables and cabinets, all cut from some kind of dark, dramatically striped, tropical wood. Scattered throughout, subtle Art Deco lines and nods give the space a warm, inviting feel.

I spot Aronov the moment we clear the front galley.

On his phone and parked in a club chair with one leg crossed over the opposite knee, the man looks like elegant wealth personified. Still in his signature charcoal suit, he's dropped the usual tie and unbuttoned his collar. And right on cue, the second his eyes land on me, he grins like the proverbial cat and motions us in.

Slipping by, Rosalie throws me a private wink and sashays her way to the center of the cabin, stopping only when she reaches the chair right beside his. She takes her time settling in, too, swinging her hips like the vixen she's pretending to be. Still talking into his phone, Aronov eyes her up and down and then reaches over to curl his palm over her knee. Because she's fucking good at this, when his hand slides a little higher up her thigh, she just leans over, brushes her lips along his jaw line, and mouths, "Naughty."

I don't know if I want to vomit or laugh, but like always, it has the intended effect. He might as well be drooling, and when I opt for one of the club chairs on the opposite side of the aisle, Aronov stares at me like I'm something to eat.

Ten minutes later, as the engines start to wind up, Aronov growls out a low, pissed off, "Khvatit! Ty nichego ne delayesh', krome opravdaniy." A deep rumbling baritone answers back. With the whine of the turbines outside, it's impossible to discern more than that, but whatever the guy says makes Aronov absolutely livid. His knuckles go white as his fist tightens around his phone, and his eyes turn into chips of black ice. "Ya khochu rezul'tatov… Ili ya khochu krovi."

Ending the call with an angry curse, Aronov chucks his phone on the table in front of him.

"That doesn't sound good."

My head jerks up at the dry commentary to Aronov's furious demand for results or blood.

Back in his usual nondescript, monochrome attire, Masen's the picture of bored disinterest when he appears from behind the bulkhead. Hands tucked deep inside his pockets, he calmly walks in like he owns the place. Those always-roaming eyes of his do a quick scan of the cabin, but his expression is flat, betraying absolutely nothing.

Aronov glares and flicks his wrist in irritation. "Nu ty opyat' opozdal."

Masen's lips twitch at the rebuke. It's a slight, almost imperceptible break in the façade, but I still catch it, just like I catch the faintest hint of something else when he replies,"Mne nuzhno bylo pogovorit' s Aleksom."

At the mention of the Greek, across the aisle, Rosalie reaches down to the tote by her heels. When she pulls out her phone and makes a show of turning it off, she flashes me a veiled look.

"Zachem?" Aronov asks.

Yes, Masen, tell us why you had a last-minute visit with Retzos.

"Ya yeshche ne znayu…" Masen replies as he stops at the chair facing mine.

Shrugging at the older man across the aisle, he peels off his jacket and shoves the long sleeves of his fitted t-shirt up to his elbows. Like the rest of him, Masen's arms are all lean muscle and flexing sinew. When he angles toward Aronov, a set of stark black lines and gray shading on the inside of his right forearm grab my attention, and I almost grin when I glimpse the familiar outline of the bone frog and trident. Turning back, he unclips his shoulder rig, and as he tosses his weapons on the nearby empty bench, his eyes land on me.

It's no more than a brief heartbeat of eye-to-eye contact, but the connection sends lightning licking through my veins. Judging by the hard brace of Masen's jaw and the rolling flex of his forearms, I'm not the only one affected either.

His Adam's apple dips once, and when he glances over to Aronov and adds a softly spoken, "Chto-to ne tak… On chego-to boitsya," I have the distinct impression he's talking to me, just as much as he is to his boss.

Before one of us gives away too much, I offer Masen a bland, polite nod that says I have no clue what he just said, all the while making a mental note to warn Whitlock the moment we land.

I want to know what the fuck has spooked the Greek.

Moments later, the cabin door closes, and as the aircraft taxis out on the runway and begins its take-off, the two men continue their rapid back and forth. As they speak, the earlier fury gradually bleeds out of Aronov's expression and tone, and by the time the wheels leave the ground, the usual oily slickness is back in full force.

Finally swapping over to English, Aronov asks Masen, "Were you able to complete your other errands?"

"I did." Leaning back in the chair across from mine, Masen casually hooks an ankle over the opposite knee. His lips curve into an easy smile that's nowhere close to the real thing. "Just barely."

"You spoil that girl," Aronov says, laughing before turning to Rosalie. When I see Rosalie toying with his collar, giving me all the distraction I could ever want, I look over at Masen, only to find him staring.

"Errands?" I ask, waving off the stunning twenty-something attendant bringing around drinks.

"My youngest cousin. She's also my goddaughter."

I don't know what I was expecting, but that isn't it.

My brows hit my hairline. "Cousin. Goddaughter. Really?"

"Yeah," he says. Another one of those stupidly attractive smiles brightens his face - this one real - and it's impossible for me to forget what that mouth felt like against mine. "I send her little gifts from time to time."

"That's…" I hesitate. "Unexpected."

There's a long beat of silence where Masen's smile doesn't waver. Those pretty gemstone eyes of his roam my face in a repeating circuit, lingering on my lips, then my throat, and then flitting back up to my lips all over again. It's like he can't get his mind off me either.

Like he's wondering what my lips would taste like in the daylight.

Like what my bare skin would feel like against his.

When he abruptly looks away and signals the attendant, I ask him, "So, what kind of stuff do you send her?"

"Nothing much." Masen pauses just long enough to pluck the heavy crystal tumbler off the attendant's tray. "Just little mementos from my travels. You know… piddly tourist junk."

When he looks back at me, for a second, Masen's gaze burns into mine, and my heart hammers against my sternum in response. The fire in his eyes extinguishes as quickly as it appears, however, and his shoulders roll in another one of those lazy, feline shrugs. "I don't really get the chance to call much anymore," he says, and his voice is as soft as spun silk. "It lets her keep up with my travels… I know she gets worried sometimes."

Holy shit.

.

.

.


Notes:

Most Russian surnames change with gender. For last names ending with -v or -n, for the feminine form, you just add an -a at the end. For last names ending in -y, you replace the -y with -aya. Examples: Ivanov/Ivanova, Lenin/Lenina, Dostoevsky/Dostoevskaya . Hence Aronov's wife's last name was Aronova. Markovsky's wife's is Markovskaya. And if Koshmarin had a wife, hers would be Koshmarina.

The white horse and red-coated rider is a reference to the famous Lipizzaner Stallions. The breed is closely associated with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, where the horses demonstrate the haute école movements of classical dressage. So… that would possibly imply that Esme received the keyring from Vienna…


Russian (transliterated):

Khvatit! Ty nichego ne delayesh', krome opravdaniy: Enough! You do nothing but make excuses

Ya khochu rezul'tatov… Ili ya khochu krovi: I want results… or I want blood

Nu ty opyat' opozdal: Well, you're late yet again

Mne nuzhno bylo pogovorit' s Aleksom: I needed to have a chat with Alex

Zachem: Why/What for

Ya yeshche ne znayu: I don't know yet

Chto-to ne tak. On chego-to boitsya: Something is wrong. He's afraid of something.


Glossary:

Bone frog & trident: recall, Navy SEALs are colloquially called Frogmen. The bone frog tattoo depicts the skeleton of a frog. It's a mark of acceptance into the warfighting fraternity, and the tattoo has evolved into a tribute to fallen comrades. The trident is a common symbol associated with Navy SEALs and is depicted on the trident pin, aka the Special warfare insignia, which is awarded to Navy SEALs.

FSU: former Soviet Union, or post-Soviet states, refers to the 15 sovereign states that were republics within the former Soviet Union. Some continue to retain close ties to Russia and have agreements in place around military cooperation and support (e.g. Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan)

Lebedev pistol: is a new Russian semi-automatic 9×19 mm Parabellum pistol, produced under Kalashnikov Concern and designed by Dmitry Lebedev

Wetwork: this is a euphemism of Russian origin for murder or assassination (involving spilling blood). The expression and the similar wet job, wet affair, or wet operation are all borrowed from Russian terms for such activities and can be traced to criminal slang. The expressions are sometimes associated with elimination operations handled by the CIA and the old KGB. In fact, the KGB used to have a department that was colloquially called "Otdel mokrykh del" or the Department of Wet Affairs.