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

Unbeta'd, unedited.

The first Act takes for-fucking-ever.

Despite what Whitlock may think, I am a patient person, and as we sit there in the dark, I take more than a little delight in the fact that we've rattled Aronov to the point where Whitlock's given up cluing me in every time the man's head swivels our way.

I don't need the warning, though, nor do I need to turn. After so many years, my built-in radar is a finely tuned instrument. My skin crawls every time that man's slick, oily gaze lands on me.

Masen's another matter, however, and that one's quieter, probing interest has my fingers twitching for the 9mm strapped to my thigh. The one time I caved, right in the middle of Leporello's famous aria, he didn't even pretend he wasn't watching. No, when I turned, he just leaned back, propping his elbow on his armrest, and stared, flat and perfectly emotionless.

The lights finally come up for intermission. Right as we stand, the same usher from before appears in our box.

"Dear ladies," he says. His voice wobbles, just a little, and the hands clasped in front of him grip just a little too tightly, enough that his knuckles stretch white. "Herr Aronov – the gentleman who sent the champagne earlier…" The poor guy's throat bobs, no doubt, recalling my not-so-polite reception and preparing for the worst. "He cordially invites you to join him in the tea salon for the extended intermission."

I steal a glance over to the other box, just in time to catch the back of Masen's wide, straight shoulders as he trails Aronov and his guards as they exit.

Sporting a wide, heart-stopping grin, Rosalie claps and all but moans out a response. "That sounds wonderful! We would love to."

Playing my part, I roll my eyes. My lips mash together in a bland, forced smile that makes the usher cringe and immediately spin on his heel. He's going to have whiplash by the time the night is over.

"Well, this ought to be fun," I say as we follow our host. I give Rosalie a playful tap with my elbow.

Still preening for all she's worth, she leans down and whispers in my ear, "I hate you so much right now."

I just laugh. "Don't look at me. Talk to Alicia when we get home."

"Oh, I will," she murmurs. "You can count on it. And McCarty's going to pay big time for this fucking dress."

In my earpiece, I catch a peal of high, tinkling laughter somewhere in the background, followed by Whitlock's low, pained sigh.

The tea salon is truly beautiful. Tucked in behind the Mittelloge, Franz Joseph's private room is a showpiece of architecture and art, with embroidered silk wall panels and ornate gold-plated elements gracing every plane. Contrasting the gold and ivory, bright Renaissance-style paintings decorate the ceiling. In the center panel, a woman, surrounded by angels and children, plays a golden lyre.

The second we step onto the bright red carpeting, Aronov turns away from a pair of dark-dressed men and flashes us a warm, welcoming grin.

"Ah, ladies," he croons, crossing the sparsely populated room in a handful of long, purposeful strides. Like the fine wool of his suit and the subtle elegance of the Patek Phillipe watch circling his wrist, Aronov's English is impeccable. It's cultured, articulate, and touched by the barest hint of his native Russian tongue. "I am so very pleased that you would join me this evening."

He reaches Rosalie first and immediately grasps her hand, pressing his lips to her skin. He holds on a second too long in a ridiculous, archaic move. Unflappable as ever, Rosalie just gives him a slow, alluring, amused smile, like she's used to men falling all over themselves. Like she expects it.

"I am Mikhail Aronov." He's damned near purring. "But my friends call me Misha or simply Aro."

"Misha, then," Rosalie says, as if she's tasting his name. "I'm Rosalie."

Aronov's not stupid and he knows better than to kiss my hand. But like with Rosalie, he still holds on a beat too long, and as his chin dips, his eyes roam my face in a slow, repeating circuit. "And you are?"


His cheeks crease. "Do you go by Bella or only Isabella?"

Giving him my best flat, polite smile, I tug my hand away. "I'm fine with either."

He makes a soft humming sound. "Very appropriate."

Like I haven't heard that bullshit before.

We speak for a few moments, mostly about the performance. It's a useless, shallow conversation, but it gives me time to watch the man's features and begin to learn his tells.

A subtle tap of his fingers brings a tray of wine.

The lift of his brow sends his minions scurrying away when they approach.

The barest tilt of his chin brings them back.

"Misha, would you mind if I took a moment to look around?" Rosalie asks. When she sips her wine, she makes a show of slowly sliding her fingers down the long column of her throat. If he's watching, Emmett has to be hyperventilating by now. "I love this room. It's breathtaking."

"Of course, my dear," Aronov says, again in that low, sensual purr. He motions over to one of the tall, dark-haired guards standing off to the side. Unlike the usual bruisers, this one exudes a certain level of elegance and refinement. You can barely even tell he's carrying. "Mitya would be happy to show you some of the artwork."

Rosalie gives Aronov's forearm a gentle squeeze. "You're a delight."

As she walks away and tucks her hand inside the crook of the other man's elbow, Aronov lets out a soft, rumbling chuckle. "Your friend is something else."

I'm impressed by his use of vernacular. Considering all the time Aronov's spent away from home, I suppose it shouldn't be surprising.

"Yes," I reply. "Rosalie can be a handful."

He grins. "She is a stunning creature… Trust me when I say that there are men the world over who would kill over a woman like that." As he hands me a glass of ruby-colored wine, his features turn serious and those dark eyes of his resume their non-stop roaming. "Yet I find I cannot take my eyes off of you."

Jesus, Alice is never going to let me forget this.

I arch a brow as I taste the wine – a sumptuous, perfectly aged Pinot Noir, and yes, it's basically sex in a glass – and then say over the rim, "I'm not really looking for a date."

Aronov belts out a laugh. "Of course. I apologize if I come on… strongly." He flashes me a row of perfect, white teeth. "I rarely have a need for subtlety. It is even rarer that I am told no."

There's a slight, veiled warning somewhere in there, but I pretend I don't notice it, and my expression thaws into something approaching real warmth. "Well, at least you're honest."

Before Aronov can reply, one of his men approaches and whispers in his ear. It's in Russian, which, unlike Romanian, is one of my languages, but the surrounding noise makes it impossible to decipher. Whatever it is causes an instant flash of irritation.

"Isabella, please do forgive me," Aronov says, and that split-second of irritation vanishes. "This will take but a moment. If you need anything at all, Feliks…" He pauses, motioning to the guard who interrupted. "Will take care of it."

"Thank you, but I'm sure I'll be just fine." I keep my tone light. "I'm enjoying your wine and like Rosalie, I'm fascinated by the history of this room."

It takes a little under five minutes for my radar to ping.

And, boy, does it.

As I study yet another section of ornate scrollwork at the end of the room, a shadow falls by my side, and every nerve in my body flares to life. Unlike Aronov, Masen isn't a showman, and he's deathly quiet, especially with the muffling of the carpet. Let's just say it's a highly, highly uncomfortable sensation having an unknown predator at your back.

"You don't seem to be enjoying yourself."

As expected, I flinch. "God, where did you come from?"

One hand tucked into his pocket and the other casually gripping a crystal tumbler, Masen follows my line of sight. "My apologies. I didn't mean to startle you."

Yeah, right.

That was exactly his intent.

"It's fine," I say, waving a haphazard hand. "I should pay closer attention to my surroundings."

One corner of Masen's mouth pulls up, almost like he's laughing at some inside joke. "No, the fault is mine… I was just making the observation that you don't seem to be enjoying this."

I shrug and take another drink of my very expensive wine. "I've never really liked opera."

"Then why did you come tonight?" he asks, and like his footfalls, the man's voice is quiet. At the same time, it's unexpectedly deep and, as much as I hate to admit, not at all unpleasant.

"Rose loves it." I make a face. "And she really wanted to see Mozart here in Vienna."

"You two are friends?"

Fuck, he's obvious.

Already imagining Emmett's reaction to that one, a laugh tumbles out of my mouth before I can stop it. Rosalie's going to die when I tell her about this.

"Why? What else would we be?" I ask, and because I want to fuck with him, my brows climb half-way to my hairline.

The other side of Masen's mouth lifts into an absurdly attractive smile, one that crinkles his emerald eyes enough that I think it's actually real, and then he offers his palms in mock surrender. "Fair enough."

In my periphery, I watch him go back and forth, studying both the room and me. And just like in the auditorium, he's not even bothering to pretend he's not.

For a long moment, I don't respond, and instead just let the silence between us stretch and swell.

According to Alice, there's an art to leveraging silence. Apply too much, and you lose your prey's interest. Too little, and you've wasted your time. But if you apply just the right amount at the right time, you'll have yourself a canary who can't stop singing.

Masen slugs back a finger of what looks to be scotch. "You know," he finally says. "If you were wanting to get Aro's attention, that little stunt with the champagne couldn't have been a better choice."

My shoulders shake at that. "No, thank you, that was not my intention… at all."

"No?" Now he's the one cocking a brow.

"No, I'm not looking for an attachment," I tell him. My nose crinkles. "Plus, he's probably a little too old for me."

"Probably." Masen eyes me for another long moment. When he tips his chin in a quick sign of agreement, the green in his eyes seems to deepen and warm. "I'm Edward, by the way."

I give him a hint of a smile. "Bella."

A few minutes later, Aronov reenters the room. Whatever he had to deal with is apparently done, and he's again all charm and oily slickness. He stops to speak with Rosalie and his man where they're standing at the opposite end of the room, and then his long stride targets me once more.

"Bella." The way he coos out my name makes me want to hurt him. "Again, my apologies for the interruption. I was so enjoying our conversation."

I plaster on another polite smile. "It's not a problem. I was just admiring the artwork, and your associate here took it upon himself to keep me entertained."

"Excellent." Aronov's eyes dart to Masen. "Your lovely friend, Rose, told me that you are both from the United States."

"We are."

"So, what drew you to Vienna?"

My polite smile morphs into something a little less forced. "This isn't our only stop. We're doing something of a tour."

Aronov taps his finger, calling for another tray of wine. "How wonderful!"

"We've been traveling for…" I make a show of thinking. "A little over three weeks now."

A tray magically appears, this time sporting a pair of wine glasses and another tumbler of scotch. Without bothering to ask, Aronov swaps out my glass for a fresh one and then takes the second. "Where do you go next?"

I buy myself a little time by taking a drink, and immediately, Whitlock's quiet whisper is there in my ear, "His pilot filed a flight plan to Florence. VolTerra's headquarters is near there. Tell him Rome. Keep it vague."

"Rome," I say, looking past his shoulder to Rosalie. In addition to Aronov's Mitya, she's managed to accumulate two more of his guards. "Although, we may decide to stop in Venice first. We don't really have a firm timeline or back-end."

"Tell me, Bella, how is it that you travel so much?"

While his questions are seemingly innocuous, this is more than small talk.

It's more like an interview.

"As much as I hate to admit…" Pink heat creeps into my cheeks, an effect that took me years to perfect on command, and I duck my head to emphasize it. "I don't really have any other commitments at the moment."

Aronov's eyes glitter, once again roving my face. "How so?"

"I'm… how do I say it…" I hesitate, taking another sip of my wine. "I'm a silent partner in my late father's business."

"What business is that?"

I wave a random hand. "I'm sure you've not heard of it. It's a small, niche market."

"Try me," Aronov says, chuckling at my scowl. "I am a bit of a businessman myself."

Okay, buddy.

Let's go.

"Black Swan Armaments."

On my other side, Masen goes still in a way few can ever achieve.

See, while Aronov has likely heard of my late father's business, Masen definitely has. I'd bet my Petrescu paycheck he's played with their products firsthand.

BSA carbines and rifles really are second to none.

I should know, they're my weapons of choice, after all.

Nonetheless, my backstory is rock solid, half because it's mostly true, half because it's been built block by block over a decade by the best the CIA has to offer and then strengthened ten times over by the very best – aka Whitlock. If anyone goes looking for me, online or off, all they'll find is a vague facsimile of the real me: Charles Swan's only daughter, as dull as they come. My years in the Unit and in SAC are invisible.

When Aronov motions for me to continue, I add, "My father founded it with one of his old friends from the Army after they retired. BSA mostly deals in smaller government contracts, really only in the US. It's why most people don't really know about it."

Aronov is positively gleaming. "You say silent partner?"

"I retained a certain percentage of shares after he passed away. But I have no clue how to run a business, nor the interest in learning, so the board handles everything. I… just do my thing."

Also true, although I'm definitely no Bruce Wayne. The farm took about everything I had.

"How fascinating. And I certainly have heard of your father's company," he says. "Do you have any experience with its products?"

"Of course." My face splits in what might be the first genuine smile I've given this guy. "When I was at university, I used to shoot competitively. Needless to say, I was well supplied."

Lies are always best believed when they're grounded in truth.

Aronov edges closer. "It is uncommon to meet someone… so deadly." Those glittering eyes are dancing, amused because he sees nothing more than an intriguing kitten with kitten-claws, exactly what I want him to see. "Please tell me this was only for… diversion?"

I go right along, laughing with him. "My father insisted that I know how to defend myself, but it's certainly not anything I've ever had to use in practice. No..." My shoulders roll in a delicate shrug. "I just like shooting things."

"Excellent. A woman as beautiful as you should never be made a victim."

You got that right, asshole.

I shake my head. "No woman, period, should ever be made a victim." I give him a little wink, just for good measure.

"Indeed, not."

Rosalie appears right on cue, just as the opening strains of the orchestra chime, calling us back to our seats. "I believe it's time to head back?"

Aronov signals two of his men before turning to us. "I would love to take you both to dinner. May I call?"

I frown, while Rosalie gives him a blinding, megawatt smile. "Of course," she says, barreling over my piss-poor attempt at a protest. "Misha, we would love to."

"Perfect." Aronov strokes Rosalie's hand goodbye and kisses her on the cheek, but his eyes never leave mine. At my elbow, once again wearing that cool, emotionless mask, Masen stands still as a statue. "I look forward to getting to know you both."

We'll see about that.





A quick note on Russian names: most Russian names have standard diminutives or short forms, as well as pet names, which are often used by friends, family, and close acquaintances. They're formed by adding various suffixes, usually -sha, -ka, -enka, -ochka, etc. Misha is the short form of Mikhael. Mishyenka would be an affectionate pet name. Similarly, Alexander becomes Sasha and then Sashenka. Dmitri becomes Dima or Mitya and then Dimochka. Women's names have similar short forms and pet names (e.g. Ekaterina, Katya, Katka, Katyusha, etc). Some names have several standard-ish forms and which one used may depend on context and how close one is to the person.


Franz Joseph: Emperor Franz Joseph I was the emperor when the Vienna State Opera was inaugurated (originally called Wiener Hofoper, or the Vienna Court Opera). The tea room or salon was the emperor's private room and is connected to the Mittelloge, which originally was the court ceremonial box.