Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters and giving them some guns (again).
Mikhail Aronov lives in a castle.
A fucking castle.
Perched on the top of a hill in the center of a vast vineyard estate, his home – as he simply calls it – is something straight out of a traveler's dream. Built off the bones of a medieval fortress, complete with soaring towers, crenulated parapets, and a grand keep-turn-manor, it's a magnificent mixed stone and stucco affair, steeped in old world charm and personality.
Ringing the compound, along with its intricate gardens and hedge mazes, expertly restored stone walls climb the sky. Inside, forming its own little hamlet, dozens of matching buildings dot the grounds around the main house. A massive, multi-story winery and its carefully disguised warehouses sit to the south. A set of stables and a coordinating carriage house occupy the north. Aronov's garages stand to the east, housing a parade of exotic vehicles. The fucker even has his own conservatory, filled with enough rare, fanciful plants and birds to make a naturalist weep.
His home is so utterly enchanting that you don't even notice all the modern enhancements.
Like the spiderweb of high-resolution cameras.
Or the hyper-sensitive motion and heat alarms.
Or the armed guards with black and sable Belgian Malinois patrolling the grounds like we're in Baghdad instead of the heart of Tuscany.
Wearing my best early morning smile, I wave at a pair of meandering guards as I jog through the open gate and head toward the long road leading out of the estate. Not quite prepared for my sudden appearance, both men throw up their hands in an automatic polite greeting, and I laugh to myself when it finally hits them. Their waves drop like lightning, and they start sputtering in panicked, rapid-fire Russian.
The burly blond in all black scrambles past the guard building by the gate and shouts, "Madam, vy ne mozhete uyti!" When I don't acknowledge his yelling, he spits out an angry curse and tries again. "Ms. Swan, this is… not allowed, not without escort!"
Unlike Aronov's personal bodyguards, this one's accent is heavy, and his English comes out stilted and hesitant. It's a muscle he clearly doesn't have to flex often, and for a second, I almost feel sorry for him. I mean, the guy's just doing his job after all.
Of course, I don't feel guilty enough to stop.
No, I've got shit to do, so instead, I toss him another playful grin and belt over my shoulder, "It's fine! I do this all the time!"
The man stutters out another frustrated protest. In fact, I'm pretty sure he's about two seconds from trying to chase me down when a crisp baritone comes out of nowhere and stops him in his tracks.
"Andrey," Masen says, far more calmly than the arm-waving guard. I steal a quick glance back, only to find that familiar dark silhouette casually walking across the yard. "Vse v poryadke. Ona mozhet uyti."
Masen stops beside the flustered guard, and even though he's addressing them, not me, those eyes of his follow my every move. Just before I'm out of earshot, I catch him bark out a loud laugh and slap the other man on the back. "V lyubom sluchaye, ty ne mozhesh' poymat' yeye."
Picking up my pace, I grin because Masen's not lying. There's no way that blond could catch me anyway.
While it's cold this morning, especially in the shade, the temperatures here are nowhere close to the frigid weather we just left in Vienna. My breath barely even fogs, and when I squeeze my fists inside my gloves, I can actually feel my fingers. It's almost pleasant, vaguely reminiscent of my usual runs around the farm back home.
A mile and a half away from the compound, I hang a right behind a stand of tall, skinny cypresses, leaving the openness of the paved drive, and cut down a narrow path that threads between the seemingly endless rows of dormant vines. The ground is rough. Judging by the washed-out ruts and jagged rocks, no one's been back in here for years, and as the vines morph into clumps of taller, thicker olive trees, the path disappears completely.
In other words, it's fucking perfect.
I slow to a walk when I glimpse a small ramshackle stone shed with a caved-in roof. It's a relic from a bygone era and gradually sinking back into the earth. My walk turns into a leisurely stroll as I pretend to admire the rustic scene, all the while checking for any signs of Aronov's expansive security system, or worse, his men. When I find nothing but the gentle sway of the evergreen leaves, I pull out my phone, like I'm logging my miles, and unlock the hidden, encrypted app Whitlock loaded before we left. A satellite image, far more defined than your standard Google search, appears instantly, and with a quick tap, I snap a photo and drop a pin on my location, along with a simple message.
Look at this gorgeous old building tucked among some olive trees. Just wanted to share since I know how much you appreciate hidden gems like this.
A reply appears within seconds.
TheTravelingCowboy: beautiful. I'd love to see something like that in person. Especially around sunrise or twilight. Maybe one day…
I snicker at the name because there's no possible way Whitlock picked that one out himself, nor the avatar with its ridiculous neon variant of his precious Longhorns logo. But I get his message, and I have to wonder if I'll be able to pull off another solo run after the way I just snubbed Aronov's security team.
Either way, considering the undercurrent of violence that permeates this entire place, I want my fucking weapons, not to mention all our other toys.
I tap out a quick return before resuming my run.
I think it would be amazing at twilight. There's a really special kind of energy here.
TheTravelingCowboy: I bet so. Looking forward to your next update. Don't keep me waiting too long!
Don't worry, I won't. Rosalie sends her love, too.
Now that that's finished, I opt for a long route this morning and circle a significant portion of the estate, using the time and early morning light to scope out the grounds and evaluate the extent of Aronov's external security. It's all top-notch, but it's yet more evidence of his arrogance and conceit. His cameras and alarms don't stretch far enough out, and despite the elevated position of the compound, with the rows of towering cypresses and olive orchards, visibility is shit.
I bet that drives Masen batshit.
A mile out, I pour on the speed, stretching out my muscles in hopes of easing the tension that's been coiling tighter and tighter, ever since that night in the Schönbrunn when Masen dragged me into that room and put his mouth on mine. I still don't know what to do with that, any more than I know what to do with that fucking conversation on the plane.
But why and what the hell does it mean?
Frankly, the whole situation with Masen just pisses me off.
It's an unnecessary distraction that I really don't need right now. But every time I think about that man's calloused hands framing my hips and his tongue stroking against mine, giving and taking in equal measure, my stomach clenches in anticipation and my breath comes out far rougher than it should.
He's probably amazing in bed.
Huffing a little harder than I need to, I jog back through the gates and throw up my hand at the same pair of beefy guards standing outside the guard shack. This time, they don't wave back. Instead, they just scowl at me and grunt out a reluctant acknowledgement.
Chuckling, I head back into the house, and just like last night when we arrived, the warmth and elegance of Aronov's home is a punch to the gut. Where the target villa in Vienna suffocated with its gilt and heavy opulence, this one feels like a comfortable embrace, where the old seamlessly blends with new in pleasant, tactile textures and relaxing, earth-tone palettes.
Rustic, hand-hewn Tuscan tables sit among sumptuous leathers and fabrics. A fortune's worth of oil paintings – nearly all recognizable by artist and no doubt originals – cover the bare stone walls. Greek and Roman statues perch in hidden corners and niches. Antique bronze chandeliers hang from exposed beams, lighting the spacious rooms in soft, yellow tones. And the books… thousands and thousands of books, many ancient by their faded bindings, line massive wall-to-wall shelves.
Picking my way between the sofas and chairs of one of the larger living rooms, I target a pair of oversized double doors that lead out onto the wide main terrace. Positioned on the right-hand side, a table, complete with ivory linens and shiny silverware already waits, along with a red-hot patio heater positioned nearby. The subject of my last hour of reluctant contemplation sits there silently, slowly drumming his fingers against his knee as he stares out across the sprawling maze of winter gardens below.
I don't bother announcing myself.
No, I know he picked up my arrival, maybe even before the guards.
Just like I know he's the one who poured the cup of jet-black coffee steaming in front of the chair directly across from his.
"How was your run?" Masen quietly asks, not looking away from the gardens.
"Long," I say, sliding into the empty chair. Unable to resist, I take a sip of what just might be the best coffee I've ever tasted. It's deliciously bitter and strong, and I want to kiss him for it. Instead, I cock a brow and eye him over the delicate rim of my porcelain cup. "Did you tell those guys to let me go?"
Masen's lips curve, ever so slightly, like he's laughing at some inside joke. "They weren't exactly happy about it."
I shrug. "Oops?"
That little smile of his widens when he glances over. Leaning back in his chair, Masen takes a slow drink of his own coffee. From the cloyingly sweet aroma drifting across the table, I'd likely hate it. "Oops?" he slowly drawls, just a little incredulous. My shoulders just dip in another indifferent shrug, and he huffs out a laugh. "Well, I guess that's one way to look at it."
A gray-haired late sixty-something decked out in stiff black and white comes out a few minutes later, bearing an armful of breakfast plates and trays, along with a barrage of lightning-fast Italian that I don't have a prayer of understanding. When I politely decline the heavier meats and eggs in favor of fruit and toast, the woman cuts me a glare like I just insulted her and all her ancestors. Of course, Masen just winks and smiles that ridiculous smile of his as he takes one of everything, and that glare vanishes. The grin that woman gifts him positively glows.
"Really?" I stab a cube of juicy melon.
"What?" he asks, innocently enough, like he has no clue what I'm talking about, and then he bites off half a strip of crispy bacon. "Maria just likes my dazzling personality."
Dazzle, my ass.
We eat our respective breakfasts in surprisingly companionable silence. But I don't miss the way Masen's gaze repeatedly flits from me to the gardens and back again to me. When I finish my last triangle of toast, I pour myself another cup of coffee and say, "You were up early this morning."
He nods. "I was."
"I'm pretty sure we've had this conversation before." Polishing off his eggs – over easy and disgustingly runny – Masen places his silverware neatly across his plate. Almost instantly, a server appears out of nowhere, this one younger and jumpier, to whisk away the plates. The second she's gone, he leans back in his chair and kicks an ankle over the opposite knee. "Like you, I'm a morning person."
"Bullshit." I don't even pretend like I'm not watching him. "Why were you up and how did you know I would go out?"
I cut him an irritated glare. "Are you always this cagey?"
His shoulders shake. When they stop, he's staring at me again, and the blatant intensity of his gaze is as unnerving as it is exhilarating. "Fine," he says. "You said yourself that you usually go five days a week, so I assumed you'd be up, just like I assumed you wouldn't be content to be stuck inside the gates."
My stomach dips and my throat bobs before I ask, "Why would that matter?"
Masen grimaces, like admitting the truth is an affront to his very person. When my brows climb my forehead in question, he finally lets out a soft chuff of annoyance. "I prefer knowing where you are, especially here."
That dip in my stomach turns into a damned near freefall, and I can't stop the next question that spills off my lips. "Why's that?"
The way he looks at me makes me breathless.
One side of his mouth lifts into a wry smile. "Are you really going to make me answer that?"
I'm not because I don't know if I really want to know the answer.
Instead of pressing, I just continue to sip the exquisite bitterness of my coffee as I watch a pair of gray-brown warblers swoop across the gardens. They're quick and skittish, moving from bushes to trees, before eventually lighting on an outstretched arm of a statue of Venus.
"Listen," Masen says, quieter, folding his hands together on the table. Despite the low volume, there's a certain abrupt urgency in his voice, something I'm not so sure he wants me to hear. "Aro will be down shortly. He usually takes his breakfast in his private rooms and then comes downstairs to his office…"
"Okay." It comes out more like a question than an affirmative.
"He's going to push you." Masen waves an impatient hand. "When he does… push back."
I startle like I'm supposed to, but I would be lying if I said I'm not genuinely curious where he's going with this. "What? What are you talking about?"
Shoving a rough hand through his hair, ruining what little effort he put into taming it, Masen sighs. "Despite what it looks like, not much goes on here that he doesn't know about." He slugs back the rest of his too-sweet coffee. "I generally get away with doing whatever the hell I want, but that courtesy extends to very few. It won't extend to you because you're a woman… and more importantly, because of what he wants from you."
I suppress the flare of instant irritation.
It's not Masen's fault that Aronov is a sexist piece of shit.
He's just delivering the message.
"So," I say, drawing it out like I'm trying to put words to thoughts. "You want me to purposefully antagonize him?" I give him a disbelieving glare. "After what you've told me? After the people I met the other night?" My hands flail to punctuate the point. "After that… Kaius whatever threatened to kill me?"
"Not necessarily antagonize." Masen shakes his head. "Be polite. Be friendly. Be warm if you want. Hell, even cozy up to him if needed... But Bella, do not be like the other women he's collected."
Even though I've seen the pictures and I know what Aronov's capable of, a chill skates down my spine.
"Don't act like prey. These people are sharks. The moment Aro scents blood, he'll rip you apart." Masen's jaw ticks, and his knuckles squeeze, turning pale against the warm, touchable tan of his skin. "I need you to help me keep you alive, at least until I can figure out a way to get you out."
I forget myself for a second, that this kind of conversation should terrify the fuck out of a civilian. "Edward, why do you care?" I ask him for the second time, barely above a whisper. "Why are you here?"
Masen just smiles in response, only this one's tinged with something dark and bitter. "I have things to do here."
His expression shutters as he turns back toward the gardens. "Nothing you need to worry about."
I know better than to push, so for now, I keep my mouth shut, slide my chair back from the table, and will my muscles to relax and unwind as the pulsing waves of heat from the patio heater wash over me. Coupled with the relative quiet out here on the terrace, the warmth almost puts me to sleep.
Of course, that little bit of peace and quiet shatters the second my ears pick up the swing of the doors behind us, and then I hear the telltale pop of Italian leather shoes against stone. When I start and look over, I see that Aronov's ditched the usual charcoal suit in favor of fine gray cashmere on top of a starched white button-up. Like his home, it's nothing but a graceful, sophisticated façade.
"My dear Bella," Aronov coos as his long stride eats up the length of the terrace. He immediately targets the chair between Masen and me, and I just catch the brief, inscrutable look he shoots the younger man. "If I had known you were such an early bird, I would have had Maria bring you up to my apartments to join me."
No fucking thanks.
I don't say that, though.
Nor do I stab him in the windpipe when he angles his chair toward me and eyes me up and down like he's already fucking me.
No, I just give him a light, almost playful grin and gesture at the vast scene in front of us. "I love it out here. It's just… beautiful." I duck my head and allow a little heat to color my cheeks. "Really, Misha, your home is breathtaking. I had no idea."
Like the preening little bastard he is, pride and sheer delight fills Aronov's every feature. "I am so very pleased you approve." His lips spread. "Perhaps I will be able to convince you to stay."
When I laugh, those dark, roaming eyes of his resume their appraisal, lingering on the stretch of my leggings and the fitted long-sleeve tee that hugs every one of my curves. "Speaking of beautiful," he says, and it comes out like a purr. "You are… radiant this morning."
My radar pings, and across the table, while my eyes never leave Aronov, I register the utter stillness of the man in front of me.
It's uncanny really.
I don't dare look, though, and instead throw my head back and really laugh. "What you mean is that I'm sweaty. I probably ought to go take a shower."
Aronov's mouth goes slack and his nostrils flare, like he's still thinking about all the ways he'd like to get me naked and sweaty. It's the same look from the restaurant, and I'm halfway expecting him to start rattling off more gross shit in Russian. "I am well aware," is all he says, still in that same growly purr. "As I said… absolutely radiant."
My shoulders shake. "If you say so."
He grins at my sarcasm. "How is the lovely Rose?"
"Asleep," I tell him, rolling my eyes.
He pauses just long enough for Maria to deliver a steaming cup of black tea. "Is she feeling better?" he asks as he spoons a cube of sugar from a silver bowl and dunks it into his cup.
"She'll be fine," I say, shoving back a wayward strand of hair that somehow escaped my ponytail. "Rose always gets migraines when she flies. She popped one of her sleeping pills, so I expect her to be out like a light for most of the day."
More like, she's scanning our rooms for surveillance equipment and starting to compile a map of the compound, but Aronov doesn't need to know that shit.
"I am glad you do not suffer the same affliction." Raising his cup, he inhales a deep breath of fragrant steam before drinking. "In fact… I hear you left my compound this morning."
Jesus, he does have his fingers in everything.
Still smiling like I don't hear the thinly veiled threat, I shrug. "Just for my usual run. Your vineyard is gorgeous. Much better than running in the city."
Aronov sets his cup down on its matching saucer. The porcelain clatters, jarring in the quiet. "Regardless, I would prefer you not leave without an appropriate escort."
I jerk, feigning confusion. "What? Why?"
While his tone remains light, his smile hardens. "For your safety, of course."
"Oh, come now," I reply. "Who's going to hurt me out here?" I give him a flirty little wink. "A farmer?"
The hard smile erases completely. "No, but there are… certain individuals who might wish to harm you. If nothing else, just to spite me."
Or maybe you just don't want your toys escaping.
The silence is deafening, and in a move that would make Spooky proud, I let the stillness do its magic, ballooning into something truly uncomfortable. Replaying Masen's earlier warnings, I let the playful smile drop. I mirror Aronov's flat, emotionless expression, tilt my head, and study the man like a hawk might the field mouse.
When the tension pricks enough that he turns restless, I softly ask, "You mean, like the people at your party the other night?"
Aronov freezes, and then a low, throaty chuckle spills out. Something dark and predatory moves in his eyes as the real Aronov comes out to play. "Ah, so you are observant, after all."
Not daring to look away, I calmly clasp my hands in my lap. "It was pretty obvious, don't you think?"
He doesn't answer for a second, but then his chin dips once. "It is true that I have certain associates who… fall into gray zones."
Gray... outright evil... okay, we'll go with that.
I nod. "I can understand that."
Aronov's eyebrows lift as he takes another sip of his tea. "Can you?"
"I believe I told you that my father founded a weapons company."
Masen finally moves. It's no more than a slight rustle of fabric, but it's enough to tell me that I've caught him off guard.
"Yes, I recall," Aronov answers, and intrigue colors the roughness of his voice. "Black Swan Armaments. I am aware of your late father's holdings."
"While I'm not involved in the business, I'm not naïve." I reach across the table to the glass of sparkling water Maria left when she delivered Aronov's tea and take a long, slow drink to wash away the remaining taste of my coffee. When I swallow, Aronov watches my throat with far more interest than I'd ever want. "I'm well aware that certain kinds of… business transactions can be fraught with less-than-ideal characters and situations."
Lying and throwing my father under the bus makes me want to hurl.
But if I know nothing else, I know that the late Colonel Charles Swan wouldn't give two shits about his name or reputation if it meant me taking this son of a bitch out.
Knowing my dad, he'd be right here offering to sell Aronov the weapons himself and he'd laugh when I finally put a bullet through this motherfucker's skull.
"Well, this makes things much, much easier." Aronov's eyes gleam, and he lets out another one of those low, gravelly laughs. "So, given your prior exposure, you must understand why I insist upon you being protected while under my care."
"I understand," I say, stealing a lightning-fast look over to Masen before directing my attention back to Aronov. "But I will have to decline restrictions on my comings and goings."
Anger wars with rapt fascination.
He says it like it's a curse, but he licks his lips right after.
"If that's what you want to call it," I say, dancing the tightrope. Across the table, Masen shifts in his seat. His expression is as dull and flat as I've ever seen it, but when I start to look away, I catch something else buried beneath the boredom – the barest hint of appreciation.
Aronov misses it completely.
Oblivious, he croons, "You are as willful as you are beautiful, Bella Swan." He reaches over and strokes the back of my hand, and I have to remind myself not to break his fingers. "And I find that to be an… intoxicating combination."
I offer him a bland smile. "Be that as it may, while I appreciate the concern for my safety, unlike the women you may be accustomed to, I have no interest in being someone's pet, and I won't be caged, however gilded the bars may be."
"Is that so?" Aronov pulls my hand to his lips, softly kissing my fingertips as he murmurs, "I do love a challenge."
Yeah, I don't think he's going to like this one.
Madam, vy ne mozhete uyti: Madam, you may not leave
Vse v poryadke. Ona mozhet uyti: It's okay. She can go.
V lyubom sluchaye, ty ne mozhesh' poymat' yeye: Either way, you can't catch her