Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters and giving them some guns (again).
The alarm goes off at six-thirty, right as soft, pink light from the rising sun begins to peek through the panels of heavy silk framing the windows.
Aronov doesn't rouse immediately, a likely still-lingering effect of Spooky's fucked-up, roofie concoction even though I cut the dosage to reduce the residual morning-after soreness and fatigue.
Regardless of how he feels this morning, that first hit after administration still clobbers him. As aggressive and demanding as ever, fueled by remnants of his earlier rage, last night, it took no time to goad him and set the fantasy. Glassy and blown, Aronov's irises gleamed with a dark, vicious kind of delight as he sloppily stripped me down to my underwear and caged me against the bed. When I just laughed and raked my nails down his chest for a little post-coital evidence for him to find this morning, I swear, that man nearly came right then and there.
Either way, within thirty minutes of sucking down that second glass of fine, aged wine, he collapsed onto the mattress, his eyes rolled back, and he was fucking out.
After a couple of minutes, the quiet beeps rise in both pitch and volume, and Aronov's breathing gradually deepens as he comes to life. The sheets rustle as he reaches over to silence the noise, and there's a low grunt, followed by an irritated, huffed out, "Blyad'!"
I don't react at all. No, I just lie there sprawled out on my stomach underneath the mountain of blankets, absolutely still but for the slow, steady rise and fall of my chest. I know the instant Aronov registers my presence, however. My internal radar goes off like a siren, punctuated by his sudden, sharp intake of air, and then the mattress sinks as his weight rolls toward me.
"Lyubimoya moya," he whispers, almost reverentially, as he gently combs wild, sleep-mussed hair out of my face.
Playing my part, I respond with a groggy, slurred grumble and burrow deeper into the blankets.
He strokes my hair a few more times before tracing my spine down to the small of my back. A quiet, amused chuckle spills out when he meets the soft cotton of the button-up I swiped off the floor before climbing into bed a few hours earlier. That little barrier doesn't deter him at all. Slipping beneath the hem, his palm wanders my bare skin before trailing down to the thin layer of satiny fabric covering my ass.
When I catch the telltale hitch in his breathing, I will my body to remain limp and just mumble another sleepy sound of discontent.
Chuckling again, Aronov's lips brush my cheek and then run along my jaw as he moves to the shell of my ear. "It is early still," he murmurs, kissing me again as he tugs the blankets higher on my shoulder. "Sleep more, my love."
My stomach churns under the heavy weight of his gaze, but after a few more seconds, the mattress dips again as he slides out of bed. Quietly padding across the stone, Aronov targets the room's adjacent, spa-like bathroom, and the next thing I hear is the soothing rush of water hitting marble. Within moments, warm, humid air seeps into the bedroom, tinged with the faint, clean scents of soap and natural botanicals.
While it's tempting to run a couple of checks while he's occupied, specifically that tiny little chip I popped into his cell before crawling into bed, I don't dare move a muscle. Instead, I just lie here, keeping up the charade as Aronov completes his morning routine with unhurried ease. By the time he reemerges – showered, neatly trimmed, and decked out in his usual uniform of fine cashmere and starched white cotton – lines of warm, yellow light crisscross the floor.
Listening, I follow his movements as he exits the bedroom to step into the sitting area off to the side. Before I have time to guess what he's doing, he picks up the phone to his kitchen.
"Buongiorno, Maria," Aronov says, low enough that I have to hold my breath to hear. "I will take breakfast in my study this morning."
There's a brief pause, and then he answers with a wordless affirmative before continuing, "No, have Bella's delivered here to my apartments. Wait for at least one hour, however… Perhaps, even better would be closer to nine." There's another short beat of silence. "Yes, that will be fine. Please have a bottle of aspirin or paracetamol delivered, as well… And tell the girl to take care not to disturb her if she is still resting."
I wonder just what kind of fun his brain cooked up for us last night.
When Aronov comes back into the bedroom, I make a show of lazily stretching beneath the blankets. Rolling to my side, I crack one eye open, offer him a sleepy smile, and mumble, "Morning."
Aronov freezes at my address, and then he flashes me an indulgent grin that softens the angles of his face. Immediately abandoning whatever he was planning, he crosses the room in a handful of long, quick strides and eases onto the edge of the bed beside me.
"Dobroye utro krasavitsa," he says, and his grin widens when I look up at him. "You did not go for running this morning."
Stretching again, I flip over to my back and squint at the light. "It's too messy outside," I tell him, scrunching my nose. "And I was tired."
Planting one hand on the mattress beside my hip, Aronov leans across me and stares down at me like I'm the only thing worth looking at. He runs the back of his knuckles down my cheek in a slow caress before moving to my neck and collarbone, where he fingers the half-buttoned placket of his shirt. One brow arches, but those eyes of his glitter and dance in undisguised, masculine approval. "You wear my shirt for sleeping?"
"I got cold when I got up to check the weather." Angling into his touch like I know he wants, I hum. "Plus, I like the way you smell."
More importantly, it makes me smell like him instead of Masen.
"I love seeing you like this," Aronov whispers, almost breathless. Hunger and blind adoration stare back at me as his thumb finds my lower lip.
I know for a fact he has meetings this morning – important ones, too – so I risk it. Shooting him a playful wink, I lift the blankets a few inches in invitation. "Come back and join me?"
"You are a temptation too far." Aronov's shoulders shake with silent laughter, even as his fingertips continue to trace my features. "You have no idea... None whatsoever." For a second, I think he legitimately considers my offer, but then he glances down at the elegant face of the Philippe Patek circling his wrist and scowls. "Unfortunately, I have a call that I cannot miss."
I make an appropriately disappointed face. "With who?"
"What does that guy want?"
"We shall see," Aronov says, shrugging. "Most likely, Sergey just wants some variety of funding for one of his pet projects." He waves a flippant hand and tuts. "Or he wants me to handle a situation for him, as usual."
Whitlock's little device better fucking work, too.
Before I can ask or press for more, Aronov's cheeks crease. "But you will relax today, yes?"
"Maybe," I tell him, stifling a yawn as I look past him to the window. Despite the early morning sun, gray clouds hang low, slowly building and obscuring the snow-capped peaks of the distant mountains. "I'll probably just visit your gym since it looks like the weather's not going to get any better."
Aronov's lips purse. "Perhaps… it would be better to take one day off." He pauses, and there's a sudden stillness to him – a stiffness in his shoulders, a certain rigidity to his jawline – that I don't miss. "I have asked Maria to send up some medication, just in case it is needed."
I don't answer him for a long moment, allowing the silence to do its magic. His Adam's apple dips below the starched white collar of his shirt, and while his expression doesn't change, uncertainty, bordering on fear, moves in his eyes.
Okay, and now I really don't want to know what he was dreaming up. Whatever it was, it's enough to worry him even more than that first night.
When his throat bobs again and I think he's just on the verge of caving, I slowly place my hand over his and touch my lips to the pad of his thumb. "I'm fine," I finally say, smiling as a barely-there tremor skates through his limbs. "You didn't hurt me."
"But once again." His voice turns gravelly. "I was not… gentle."
Considering the last few days and his rapidly increasing levels of obsession, I could probably do some real psychological damage with that shit if I wanted to. But I think I'll save the emotional manipulation for when I truly need it.
My smile turns into a sly, flirtatious smirk. "I wasn't either."
Aronov sucks in a sharp breath through his nose as another one of those little tremors passes through his limbs. "And I will happily wear your marks today," he says in a rush. Threading his fingers between mine, he pulls my hand to his mouth to plant a lingering, open-mouthed kiss on the inside of my wrist and mutters something in Russian. It's too fast and muffled for me to pick out the individual words, but the quiet yearning in his tone is unmistakable. "But next time… next time, I will be more tender with you."
Rather than replying, I just scratch my nails through the short, neatly-trimmed beard hairs along his jaw. Aronov's eyes close as he smiles against my skin, and then he kisses a slow path toward the inside of my elbow, stopping only once he hits his oxford's loose, unbuttoned cuff. When his eyes open again, that darker uncertainty vanishes, instantly replaced with warmth and longing, and despite his myriad crimes and undeniably violent and psychopathic nature, my chest squeezes with the tiniest pang of sympathy for the second time.
"Do you wish to do banya today?" he asks, breaking my moment of uncomfortable introspection.
I don't know what face I make, but it makes him laugh.
"Sauna," he translates before I can ask, drawing the syllables out to three. "It is tradition, after all. Sasha and I will do this afternoon."
"Um, I think I'll pass." Shaking my head when his eyebrows climb in question, I throw my hands up in playful mock defense. "I don't need to see your brother-in-law like… that."
Because seriously, the last thing I want to see is another one of these fuckers galivanting around sans clothing.
Naturally, Aronov laughs even harder. "Do not worry, dorogaya. I will force him to wear a towel if you would like to join me."
"I'm good, I promise." When he frowns, I just roll my eyes. "How about I spend some time in your ridiculous pool while you guys do your naked, sweaty thing?"
"If that is your preference," he says, flashing me a row of pearly teeth. "Sasha will be most amused by your reaction."
When he goes to stand, I give his forearm a light squeeze. "Before you go to your very important meeting, I do have a question for you."
"Konechno." He eases back to the mattress without a second of hesitation. Like he has all the time in the world, he waits for me to scoot up the bed and prop myself up against the headboard.
"Or, I guess, it's more of a favor," I say, tilting my head.
Aronov's eyes fly to mine, intense and alive, and then roam my face in rapt fascination. It's the first time I've asked him for anything, and this man fucking delights in it.
"Anything," he murmurs. "You may have anything you wish."
"That's a very dangerous thing to say to me," I tell him, and by the curve of his lips, he thinks I'm just teasing him. I'm not. "But this is pretty simple, I think. Rosalie and I would like to go into Florence tomorrow."
He makes a tsking sound. "This does not count as even a minor favor." Leaning in, he's close enough that I taste the subtle sweetness of his cologne when I breathe in, and then his beard tickles my cheek. "You must do better than this next time, or I will feel insulted." Chuckling at the shiver that pebbles my skin, he pulls away and beams at me. "But of course, I will take you anywhere you desire. Is there a particular place in the city you would like to visit?"
"No, at least not tomorrow." Pinching a few strands of hair, I huff and pretend to eye my imaginary split ends. "It's been weeks since we left the US, and I need a haircut... badly. Plus," I add, making a show of chewing my lip. "While it's not exactly my norm, I'd like to do a few girly things so I look nice and pretty for your dinner party on Saturday night."
Aronov scoffs. "You are radiant. Beautiful, just as you are."
"And you're flirting with me again."
"Perhaps, but it is nonetheless true," he says. "I am aware that women have certain requirements, however, and I would be a foolish man, indeed, to question such things." He flicks his wrist in another dismissive gesture. "Feliks and Mitya will accompany you."
My lips flatten into a hard scowl. "I neither need nor want an escort, especially if I'm just going to a salon and for a wax."
Aronov's fingers slide through my hair to bracket the back of my head. "There you are, my stubborn, willful woman."
"You know," I say, glaring, even though I arch into him. "I've lived alone for years and traveled Europe on my own just fine. Florence is, what, an hour away?"
"Be that as it may," he says as he releases me, only to run his fingertips down the column of my throat. "You will recall that caring for you, which includes ensuring your protection, is part of our… arrangement." His skin abruptly pulls taut across his cheekbones, and his fingers spasm slightly against my windpipe. "And considering the recent security situation, there is no point in debate. I will not be moved on this."
I send him one last pissy glare and sigh in annoyed defeat. "Fine, you win... this time, and only because I desperately need a haircut." When his lips twitch at my little show of petulance, I sigh again, this time louder, before swapping gears on him. "Any way, would it be okay if I called up your assistant? I'm betting she has some good recommendations on local places."
Aronov stills, and there's a long, long second of absolute silence. When he eventually responds, his chin ducks once in a single clipped affirmative, and when he speaks, it's with a slick oiliness that instantly winds up every one of my senses. "Of course, I will send you Bianca's number."
Now, it's my turn to freeze. "I thought her name was Gianna?"
His answer comes slowly – too slowly – delivered with that same carefully crafted false intonation. "Gianna is… no longer in my employ."
My stomach craters as I picture the elegant, leggy brunette draped in head-to-toe Chanel tweed. "Why?"
This time, Aronov doesn't answer at all. No, he just stares at me, flat and emotionless. In the background, I catch the growly crank of a diesel engine somewhere down below in the courtyard, followed by muted male laughter and yelling as the guards swap their posts.
"Why?" I ask again, barely above a whisper, as my nails dig into cloud-soft midnight cashmere.
"As I promised you before, gone," he says as he gently tucks a wild strand of hair behind my ear. "Effective immediately."
It takes everything I have in me not to pull away, and for a brief second, the room fades in and out of focus as my gut churns and threatens to revolt. My ears ring from the sudden rush of blood, and when I breathe in, it feels like my chest is about to crack.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
When Aronov's forehead wrinkles in concern, I give myself a little shake. I'll feel like shit later. "So, you're telling me," I say, shoving in enough bite to cover the waver threatening my voice. "Your assistant was one of your mistresses?"
Without breaking eye contact, he slowly nods. "Infrequent and a matter of convenience only." His shoulders lift and fall in a loose, casual shrug that does nothing to hide his hesitance. "I assure you, there was no emotional tie whatsoever."
Because, of fucking course, that's what he thinks I'll care about.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I sway left, dodging him when he attempts to touch me. "Where did she go?"
Aronov just shrugs again, but his response might as well be ice water dumping down my back. "Does it matter?"
I balk. "Yes, it matters. I've met her. I liked her." And now I understand that look of horror she gave me that day in his office. "Is she okay?"
Even though I already know, another bucket of ice water spills down my neck when he refuses to answer. Instead, he continues to watch me with almost pathological patience and calm, and that's far, far more chilling than his furious tirades.
Because this is the man who had his guards beat those women for fun and then sold them when he was done with them.
This is the man who tortured his wife before killing her.
And this is the man who has no problem whatsoever firebombing a village full of people just for some fucking rocks and dirt.
My eyes squeeze shut as I debate just how far I'm willing to push him. Aronov's not stupid, I know, and more importantly, he knows I'm not stupid either, nor am I some wilting flower that's going to shut up and fold.
He could have just said he had two assistants. Or that she found another job. Any excuse would have worked, and I'd have been none the wiser.
So, either this is some fucked-up test, or he wants me to know him – the real him.
Squaring my shoulders, I step out onto the tightrope and quietly ask him, "Is she still alive?" He doesn't react to that at all, but when I swallow, he tracks the motion like the finely camouflaged predator he is. "Misha… did you kill her?"
"Such questions you ask me," he finally says, as soft as spun silk. One corner of his mouth lifts in a sardonic smile. "Sometimes it is better not to ask questions for which you do not want answers."
"She was alive when I saw her last."
Which means she's dead.
As abruptly as it appeared, the darkness leeches from his expression. "Now, forget all of this," he murmurs, sing-song and cajoling, as he moves the collar of my shirt out of the way and presses a soft, wet kiss to my throat. "There is nothing for you to concern yourself with. Rest today, and tomorrow, I will have Bianca make arrangements for you to have a day of absolute luxury and pampering with the lovely Rose."
Raking my nails through the short hair at his nape, I nod.
"Promise me that you will not worry over such things."
"I won't." I lean back so that I can look him in the eye. "I'm sorry I asked you that," I whisper, and when I touch his face, lightly tracing the pale bruises in the hollows of his eyes, he lets out a soft, almost relieved humming sound. "Between you and Sasha talking about Kaius and his earlier attempts and what would happen if he were to try again..." I clear my throat. "And then whatever happened with your guard, Andrey, I guess my imagination just went a little crazy."
Folding me into his arms, Aronov drags me into his lap. "It is all right, my love," he says, kissing my forehead and then my lips as he grips the top of my thigh. "There is no need for apology. Your concern for others is admirable, and your fears are understandable."
"Shh." His palm strokes up and down my thigh before sneaking beneath my shirt to frame my waist. "I realize this life is new for you, and it will take time for you to become accustomed and comfortable with certain aspects. But you will learn to trust me, and I will give you the world." When I hug him back, it's like a spring snapping. His muscles, tense and waiting, instantly uncoil, and he melts into me. "And as far as Kaius or any others are concerned, it is now well understood that you are mine. No one – no one – will ever take you from me."
For fun, coincidentally (of course), Sergey Lavrov has been Russia's foreign minister since '04. Interesting fellow. A few years ago, he and his long-term mistress took a trip to Japan with an escort and the guy I've loosely based Aronov on.
Blyad': expletive, basically fuck or damn it
Dobroye utro krasavitsa: good morning, beautiful
Banya: as mentioned in a previous chapter, this is essentially sauna, a traditionally important aspect of Russian culture
Dorogaya: term of endearment, meaning darling, honey, etc
Konechno: of course
Buongiorno: good morning
Paracetamol: that's just what acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) is called in Italy