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

Unbeta'd, unedited.


"What's going on?"

Fabric rustles beside me, and in my periphery, I catch the straight line of Markovsky's shoulders lift in a shallow shrug. "Is nothing."

Turning slightly, I eye the older man askance and motion toward the pair of ornately carved double doors, currently flung wide and leading into the sumptuous yet masculine warmth of Aronov's private study. "That's what you call nothing?" I ask, watching Aronov's face darken as he stands.

Right on cue, the man in question leans forward, and his palms smack against the monstrosity of a desk in front of him. There's a beat of utter stillness where rage whips through his features before he spits out a barrage of loud, rapid, very pissed-off Russian aimed at the two men seated in front of him.

Cool and calm as ever, Masen doesn't even flinch. Hell, he barely looks up from his phone.

Koshmarin's another story, however. Those Hollywood cheekbones might as well be blades, and his eyes narrow into a sharp, piercing glare. He's angry, sure, but his fidgeting betrays the dribble of real fear running through his veins. His fingers curl around his armrests like claws, clenching in time to Aronov's tirade, and for once, he keeps his damned mouth shut.

Arms crossed loosely over his chest, Markovsky casually observes the scene in the adjacent room. When Aronov's right slams against the wood a second time, his lips twitch, and he finally answers my question. "It depends on what you call something, of course."

I see I have myself a Riddler.

Great.

"I have no idea what you're saying to me," I tell him, shoving a loose, misbehaving strand of hair behind my ear.

Markovsky chuckles when my forehead crumples in mock confusion, but then he angles toward me and says, "Mikhail tells me you have some understanding of his business, yes?"

Mimicking his pose, I give him a slow, unsure nod. "A little."

"There are some…" He hesitates, listening as Koshmarin attempts a response. Aronov cuts him off with a single, growled-out command. "Problems with one of his clients."

Judging by the beatdown going on in front of me, problems is a fucking understatement, and it takes everything I have not to grin like a crazy woman. Instead, playing my part, I wince as Aronov's voice climbs to an outright yell. "He looks like he's about to lose his shit."

Markovsky's shoulders shake with silent laughter. "You know, I have always liked this expression. It is very… visual," he says. A second later, silver-grey eyes still dancing, he flips a hand in a random, dismissive gesture, like watching his brother-in-law fly off the handle is an everyday occurrence. Then again, maybe it is. "But yes, Mikhail is somewhat displeased at this moment."

Truly, this guy has a gift for understatement.

Because right now, Aronov is livid.

Still looming over his desk, he looks every bit the ruthless, brutal man he's claimed to be. A vein pulses across his forehead, and shadows cast by the nearby lamplight blacken the hollows of his eyes. His fist pounds against the fine, exotic wood over and over, punctuating an alternating stream of gravelly orders, questions, and furious curses.

"Otvet' mne!" he yells, jabbing a finger at Masen. Quiet and still maddeningly calm, the younger man says something in return, which sets him off all over again.

Clearing my throat, I ask, "Is it those men in the Congo?" Pausing, I grimace and pretend I'm not quite sure what I'm asking. "The ones helping him with the mines?"

"Da." Markovsky's chin ducks once in a succinct, efficient movement. "Ntaganda – Jacques – has proved to be incompetent. Was too greedy, as well." Markovsky makes a low tsking sound. "I told Misha this was waste of time."

Okay, the irony here is unreal.

Of course, I don't say a word about that.

My eyes widen, and I make a show of chewing the inside of my cheek. "So, what's going to happen with Misha's mines?"

Another soft sound of disappointment spills out, and Markovsky peers down at me, reminding me precisely who I'm dealing with. It's an unnerving, crawling sensation that makes my stomach flutter, but I just bob my head and give him my best troubled smile, like I'm actually worried about the poor, angry man who murdered hundreds in a single day.

"This is nothing for you to concern yourself with. Everything will be taken care of eventually," he says, turning back to Aronov's study with nonchalant ease. "Mikhail's anger will pass. It always does." His voice softens unexpectedly. "And do not fret that he will unleash it upon you."

I startle at that but let my smile warm into something more genuine. "Careful," I reply, lifting a brow. "I might think you're starting to like me."

Markovsky's lips curve ever so slightly. "It is true that you are not as expected."

Laughing, I flash him a row of teeth. "Considering what I've heard about some of his other companions, I think I'll take that as a compliment."

His lips curve even higher, and he dips his head in subtle acknowledgment. "Perhaps."

Shoving my hands inside my jeans' pockets, I finger the tiny, highly sophisticated electronic device that found its way to Rosalie after another one of her exorbitantly expensive shopping adventures in Florence and blow out a slow breath. "Well, maybe you could tell that to that guy." I thumb toward the angry blond parked beside Masen. "He's not exactly a fan."

"On durak." Markovsky snaps it out before I can finish, and now I really have to school my expression. That barely-there, amused smile of his slams down into a harsh, mashed-together line. "Sometimes Kaius is little more than stupid boy."

Okay, I ignore the fact that the boy has almost a decade on Masen and me both. Instead, cataloguing the sudden military sharpness threading through Markovsky's features, I take the risk and quietly ask, "Then why does Misha keep him around?"

"Kaius has his uses." It's a quiet statement, and there's no doubt what he means. Hands clasped behind his back, Markovsky frowns and adds, "Plus, there is some minor obligation there."

"Obligation?"

"Some years ago, things were more volatile, and protection was its own kind of business. Kaius' father was head of one such business." Markovsky hums when Aronov belts out another pissed-off order to the pair of men in front of him. "Those times have passed, but Mikhail wishes to maintain certain relationships in case there is need later on." Hesitating, he steals a glance down at me. "However, Kaius' recent oversteps may change this."

"His oversteps?"

"Come now," he says, almost teasing as he lets out a soft breath of a laugh. "I am well aware that Kaius attempted to harm you, not once but twice." Brows slanting, Markovsky's eyes narrow and focus somewhere on the wall behind me. "This is not allowed."

Lips parting, I lean away from him and swallow. "I–"

"If he tries a third time or makes another similar mistake," Markovsky cuts in, slicing the air as he unknowingly repeats what Aronov told me himself the other night. "Any remaining obligation will be considered null, and Misha will kill him." When I recoil, he lets out another laugh, only this time he doesn't bother tempering the darkness lurking beneath. "Or he will finally let Edward do it. Edward has been very patient with that one. I would not have been."

So, Sasha knows about Prague.

Interesting.

But not exactly surprising, although I make a mental note to ask Masen if he let it slip on purpose or if Markovsky has his own eyes and ears.

We're quiet for a little while, and as Aronov's boiling rant continues, I use the time to meander around the room. Like his palatial VolTerra office in Florence, his study here and our attached waiting area reflect the man's myriad interests and personalities.

Shallow, glassed-in shelves occupy one of the walls, filled with rows of colorful, sparkling minerals and fist-sized semi-precious stones. Pristine, perfectly preserved fossils, along with ancient tools and pottery, line another. On a third hang a pair of matching charcoal sketches – portraits of some kind, penned by an artist I vaguely recognize but can't quite name. Lit from above and protected by sheets of crystal-clear museum glass, they're old and fragile and, no doubt, worth a fortune.

Glancing over my shoulder to Markovsky, I throw the older man a smile and make a play at small talk. "So, will your wife be at the…" My nose crinkles. "Whatever it is we're going to this weekend?"

The look he gives me is priceless. "At dinner party?"

I nod. "If that's what it is."

"No." Shaking his head, Markovsky wanders over to join me by the portraits. "As I have said before, Didima remains at home." He frowns. "Why do you ask this?"

I shrug. "I just thought it would be nice to meet someone – another woman – involved in all this."

His reply comes instantly, and as he speaks, Markovsky's accent deepens and rolls. "My wife is not involved in any of this." His frown morphs into a severe scowl that shadows his entire face. "I do not permit it."

"At all?" I ask, incredulous. "Ever?"

"No." He shakes his head again. "Didima disagrees with me on many, many things, but we are in absolute agreement on this."

Wry humor dances at the edges of that last statement, and it dawns on me that despite what likely started out as a political union, this man might actually love his wife.

But I know he loves his children, so I shoot him a playful wink, "Okay, so no gossiping with Mrs. Markovsky. At least entertain me with something fun about your kids."

Markovsky's features pinch, but after a moment, he huffs, mumbles something about zhenshchiny under his breath, and reluctantly fishes a slim phone from the inside pocket of his jacket.

"This is my boys, Alyosha and Kolya," he says, pointing to a pair of tall, gangly, sandy-blonde early teens. While they're clearly their father's sons, the hair and fullness of their faces could have only come from their mother. "They have almost fourteen and twelve years. They are much like their mother, as you can see."

He flips to another photo, this one taken in an elegant, brightly lit marble foyer in front of a shiny, jet-black grand piano. "They are brilliant boys, particularly on artistic side. Music, drawings, anything like this, they are both very talented." He swipes to a photo of the twelve-year-old by himself. "Kolya will likely attend Conservatory for cello when he is older."

It's an unexpected glimpse into what is, by all accounts, the very private life of a very private man. I almost feel guilty for asking, especially when I know I'll use it if I need to.

Note, I said almost.

"You said you had three," I say, prompting.

"Da. This…" he says, flipping to another photo, and I grin in true delight at the tiny slip of a girl standing out in the middle of a wide, grassy lawn. Fair and with dark, wispy curls, she looks just like her father, down to the penetratingly intelligent pale gray eyes. Bright green splotches stain the knees of her jeans. Chocolate – or maybe it's dirt – smudges her cheeks. But Markovsky's entire face warms at this one. "This is my Masha."

"She looks mischievous."

"Indeed." He nods, almost conspiratorially. "She is youngest, but she is very good thinker. Manipulates her brothers quite easily." Letting out a snort, he taps his screen and tucks his phone back into his pocket. "Hates violin with passion. Prefers karate instead."

"You don't seem to be disappointed by that."

For a second, he stares at me like I'm dense, but then his lips stretch into a wide smile. "Who knows, perhaps when she is older, she will like shooting rifles, as well."

By the time they're finished, my heart is thundering inside my chest. A light sheen of sweat slicks my palms, turning them clammy, and it takes everything I have not to pace the room.

Red-faced and stewing, Koshmarin exits first. He slows as he passes by, and I wait, stock-still, for him to stop and run his mouth. As he draws up even, I pick up a sudden cluck of disapproval in the background, and Koshmarin spits out a low curse. But at least he keeps going, glaring daggers until he disappears into the hall.

Masen prowls out a moment later, but unlike the blond, his face is a mask of lazy indifference. I know better. I catch the tick in his jaw and the flick of his fingers when he registers my presence. He knows exactly why I'm here and what I'm doing and why it's needed, even if he hates it. He doesn't break character, though, and as he passes without even a sliver of a glance, my gut churns to the point of nausea.

With a final, probing look, Markovsky trails after them, leaving me on my own, and for a moment, I just stand there, stalling and debating if I really want to do this.

But I've never been one for indecision, and fear just pisses me off. Plus, I doubt I'll have another opportunity like this for days, maybe even weeks.

So, after another few seconds, I touch my pocket again, suck in a deep, steadying breath, and square my shoulders. And then for the first time since we arrived, I slip inside the dark warmth of Aronov's very private and damned near fortified home office.

Aronov's head yanks up the instant my heels pop against stone, and as I approach, he watches me like the vicious predator I know he can be. Lingering rage licks across his features, and his chest heaves like he's just run a marathon. Fine beads of sweat dot his forehead and temples.

"It sounds like you're having a bad day," I say, halting a few feet away from his desk. "Do you want me to leave you alone?"

Shoulders sagging, Aronov slumps down onto the quilted leather chair behind him. Chin in his palm, he pivots to the right, looking away, and he stares out the closest window to the blood-red clouds and setting sun. "No," he finally replies, rubbing the pulsing vein along his forehead. "Of course not."

Inhaling another deep breath, I nod and slowly walk around his desk. I don't stop until I'm behind him, and then I gently trail my hands along the tops of his shoulders. Beneath my fingertips, he's a coil wound too tight, just on the verge of explosion, and when he makes a harsh, strangled noise in the back of his throat, I'm all too aware of what I'm risking.

Steeling my nerves, I lean down and press my lips to his cheek, rasping against his neat, short-cut beard. When I kiss him a second time, this time leisurely, nuzzling in the way I know he craves, one hand darts up to squeeze mine. Aronov starts to spin and jerk me around, but I just laugh and hold him there. "No," I murmur, dropping my voice to a soothing purr as I dig my thumbs into the knots just below the base of his neck. "Let me. Relax."

When he reaches for me again, I grab his hand and massage the meat of his palm before moving back to his neck and shoulders. After a few minutes, his head tips back, and his eyes close. "Lyubimaya," he sighs. Some of the rage dissipates, but I'm no fool. It's still there, still thrumming like a live wire beneath his skin and waiting for an outlet. "You have no idea how this feels."

"What happened?"

Aronov doesn't answer at first. But then it comes pouring out in a quieter facsimile of his earlier tirade.

"Those fucking idiots could not keep their mouths shut," he snaps. "They were too aggressive and moved too fast." His fist balls into a tight hammer, popping lightly against his armrest. "They made a scene with some security contractors in one of the villages. It was recorded.

"One of them has been arrested." He bites it out like being arrested is the height of insult. "The other is missing – better, he is dead – and now my connections in the capital are being pressured by goddamned bureaucrats because of this and a previous… activity they fucked up as well. They came to me! They begged me for this!" Teeth snapping and clenching, he growls out an angry curse. "And now they have the gall to say they will not sign leases to my fucking mines, despite everything I have done for them."

Not kidding, I'm going to give Whitlock a medal for this.

"What do you mean? Pressured by whom?" I ask, doing my damnedest to steady my voice and kill the excitement that threatens to spill out. "Is it those Chinese companies that were giving you problems before?"

Aronov waves me off. "They would never. They are guilty of the same, if not worse." He laughs, and it sounds like shards of broken glass. "No, my darling, this is your government at work. As always, they, how to say it… meddle where they are neither needed nor wanted."

Well, that's a little subjective, but okay.

My thumbs find another knot, and when I press down, he groans his approval. "What are you going to do?"

He chuffs in aggravation. "What can we do? We will pause our efforts for some time and wait for things to smooth over." Flicking a wrist at the empty room, he sighs. "It is just a delay, nothing more than this."

"But I'm assuming it's an expensive one."

One eye cracks open, meeting mine. "Very."

From what I've pieced together, between the production from the mines and the arms sales, very likely means billions in lost revenue.

Yes, billions.

Strike that, Whitlock's getting a medal and an extra week off.

Aronov's hand captures mine once more, ceasing my kneading, and his fingers loop around my wrist. It's a gentle but firm hold, and I can feel the angry energy spike and throb through his limbs. That internal radar of mine sounds off in alarm, and my heart slams against my sternum.

Swallowing, knowing what he wants, I walk around and stand between him and his desk. For a moment, Aronov leans back in his chair and just stares up at me with undisguised hunger cut by a streak of dark, sadistic violence.

Aronov's palms go to my hips without warning, and he pushes me back onto the edge of his desk. Standing, he steps into me, and then his hands slide down my jeans to my knees to spread them. When I comply, he moves closer, caging me in, and long fingers span the tops of my thighs, squeezing and digging into muscle like he's fighting to control himself.

"I would like to fuck you," he whispers as his thumbs creep toward the juncture of my thighs. "Right now, there is nothing I would like more than to strip you down and bury my cock inside you right here on my desk and fuck this fury away."

Shit.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Masen's quiet statement echoes in my ears, and ice coats my insides as I rapidly sort through the few options I have that don't involve killing him just yet.

Or blowing the fucking assignment.

Needless to say, my list is very, very short.

Before I can speak – or break his fingers – Aronov looks away, however. His grip spasms around my thighs before abruptly retreating to my knees. His dark, livid eyes slide shut, like he's wrangling some internal demon, and when they open a few seconds later, a shudder jerks his frame. His Adam's apple bobs, and his lips spread into a small, wan, apologetic smile. "But as I am right now," he says, and that whisper goes even softer. "I would hurt you. And I do not want to do this to you."

Jesus Christ.

I'm going to need a Xanax.

My throat dips as I slide my hands up to cup his face, stroking his cheeks before pulling his head down to my chest. Aronov's arms circle my waist, wrapping around me in a tight, almost desperate embrace.

When he stills and his breathing finally lines out against my throat, I silently slip my hand to my pocket. And then, before Aronov has the chance to notice, I do what I came here to do. I press that tiny little device into a crevice beneath his desk and hope to God that Whitlock's fancy gadget does whatever the hell it's supposed to.

.

.

.


Notes:

Alyosha is a diminutive for Aleksey. Kolya is a diminutive for Nikolay. Masha is a diminutive for Maria.

Regarding "protection": A few chapters ago Aronov mentioned the violence of the 90s when he was starting his businesses. This is based on actual events. Back then, the scramble for resources and assets was so competitive and violent that some contingents of Russian organized crime were hired to provide protection services to businesses and businessmen. Several current oligarchs, particularly those in commodities sectors (like metals), have colorful histories involving paying organized crime to protect their companies back during those days.

Also, regarding Bella's excitement re: the mines: Back in Chap 20, after sitting in on that meeting with Jacques and Laurent where they planned to bomb another village, Bella told Whitlock to work with Platt and stop them. So... you can infer they did exactly that and cost Aronov a fortune in the process.


Russian (transliterated):

Otvet' mne: Answer me (imp)

Da: Yes

On durak: He's a fool

Zhenshchiny: women

Lyubimaya: term of endearment, roughly beloved, my love, etc


Glossary: