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

Unbeta'd, unedited.


My morning run is almost enjoyable, at least compared to last night.

While not as bad as being sprawled out on top of a barn in the middle of the Carpathians, it's still cold as shit, especially when I hit the Donaukanal and turn down the promenade that follows the canal's winding path. A thin layer of gray-white fog blankets the water, and with every breath, I exhale clouds of silvery steam. But the air is fresh and clean, and the bite of it erases Aronov's lingering sliminess.

This early, the promenade is mostly empty, occupied by no more than a handful of other joggers. Somewhere around the midway point, I pass by two elderly men out for a stroll on the opposite bank, and I can't help but smile when one tugs on a bright pink leash, redirecting an ancient-looking Schnauzer when it darts toward a bin of trash. Here and there, men and women, all bundled up and bleary, hurry off to work or wherever else they're going.

All that's to say, that damned ginger sticks out like a sore thumb.

I've picked Masen up twice already. The first time, I caught him meandering down the sidewalk a block and a half from my hotel. Maybe a coincidence, likely not, but this second time seals it. As I cross into the northern end of Schwedenplatz, I spot that fucker standing right on top of the bridge, hands in his pockets, staring down at the promenade and watching my approach.

Playing my part, I keep my eyes fixed on the canal and pretend that I don't have a clue he's there. Maybe a quarter of a mile down, well past the bridge, I slow to a jog, then a walk, and finally stop at a small café right along the water. There's a smattering of empty tables just outside, along with one of those tall, gas-fed patio heaters. Blazing a bright, fiery red, the heater spits out a bubble of pleasant, comforting warmth.

As soon as the doorbell rings my arrival, a tall, dark-haired early twenty-something jumps up from behind the counter. Baby-faced and sporting the scraggly start of a beard, the guy's expression tells me he's not used to women like me popping in this time of day, but I'll give him credit. The surprise clears as fast as it appeared.

"Guten Morgen."

"Morgen," I reply. Huffing just a little harder than needed, I make a show of wiping my face and take a long, considering look at the handwritten menu on the wall. I'm not exactly adventurous, nor extravagant when it comes to my caffeine, so I settle on my usual morning round. "Einen kleinen Kaffee, bitte."

"Mit Milch?" the guy asks, right as the door chimes behind me.

A beat later, a gust of cool, winter air hits the back of my neck, and that telltale tingle skates down my spine. My heart gives a subtle thump inside my rib cage.

And here we go.

"Nein." Ignoring the lurking shadow at my back, I grin and shoot the kid behind the counter a playful wink. "Schwarz wie mein Herz."

The kid belts out a loud, unexpected laugh and just shakes his head as he rings me up. "Das macht vier Euro."

I reach for the bills stashed in the inside pocket of my leggings, but a quiet baritone stops me.

"Allow me," Masen says. Stepping up to the counter beside me, he smiles when I jerk and holds up a pair of fingers. "Zwei, bitte."

As Masen hands the guy a larger bill, I blow out a slow, purposefully shaky breath and then cut him a pointed glare. "Do you make a habit of sneaking up on people, or is that just reserved for me?"

Masen's shoulders shake in silent laughter. "Mind if I join you?"

That's not an answer.

I'm not sure if it's really a question either.

"Do I have a choice?" Grabbing my coffee, I pivot toward the door and target the small tables just outside. Masen doesn't say a word as he follows me out, and when we settle at the table closest to the heater, we stare at each other for a long, still moment.

Like me and my standard all-black running attire, Masen's all dark this morning, too: dark, dark indigo jeans, black shirt, black coat. Coupled with the dull gray, winter sky behind him, the monochrome palette makes his eyes look like a forest at twilight. That hair of his is a mess, like he's been running his fingers through it too many times. He's skipped shaving, too. It makes me wonder if he even went to bed at all, but, fuck, if it's not a good look. I'll give him that.

"So…" I take a slow sip of my coffee. The kid's brew is strong, bitter, and scorching hot, more so than my usual. I love it and mentally tag the location for tomorrow. "Are you a stalking me?"

Masen's lips curve. "I can understand where you might think so, but no."

"I don't think I believe you."

He takes a drink, and when he winces at the bitterness, I want to laugh. "Alright," he says. His voice is low and almost maddeningly calm. "I thought I saw you exiting your hotel and then again a little way back along the canal. And now… here we are."

I don't ask him how he knows where I'm staying.

That's child's play.

Especially since we wanted Aronov to come looking.

"Okay, but just so you know…" When I wrap my cold fingers around the heat of my cup, I let out a soft hum of disapproval. "I will throw this on you if you try to kidnap me."

"Fair enough." Those lips curve even higher, and something in his dark eyes sparks to life. "No kidnapping… At least not today."

"You're disturbing."

Leaning back in his chair, Masen crosses an ankle over the opposite knee. "You're not the first to tell me that."

Taking another sip, I arch a brow. "Not helping your stalker case."

"I suppose not." Masen grins another of those absurdly attractive grins of his. When he shifts in the wrought iron chair, I catch the faint outline of a shoulder holster beneath the bulk of his jacket. No surprise there. "You're an early bird."

I shrug. "Most days."

"How often do you run?"

"Usually, five days a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less."

"That's quite a commitment." While his chin dips in acknowledgment and not once does he miss a remark, those eyes of his constantly move, from me to the surroundings, and then back to me again.

Like any good operative, I have absolutely no doubt that he knows exactly where the kid from inside currently stands – twenty yards behind us where he's swapping out a trash bag. There's no possible way he's not already catalogued the pair of forty-somethings in navy tracksuits a hundred yards away. And he's definitely logged the tiny old woman pushing the rickety cart over on the other bank. Then again, I think everyone on the promenade can hear the squeak of those wheels.

My shoulders roll in another lazy shrug, and I answer with the truth. "Not a big fan of the gym. Plus, running is efficient when it comes to calories." I pat my stomach and shoot him a not-so-pretend flash of teeth. "Helps fight off all that expensive wine."

Masen chuffs out a laugh, but I don't miss the way his gaze drops and then latches onto the hand still resting against my abdomen. "Still," he says after a too-long second. "I saw you when you went under the bridge. You're fast. How many miles do you typically go?"

It's a weird line of questioning.

"Between five and ten, depending on what else is going on." I check my wrist. "So, what are you doing out this early? Other than stalking me, of course." Waving a hand at his general direction, I add, "I don't think you're really dressed for a workout."

Masen takes another drink of his coffee, and this time he manages to suppress the wince. "Just walking. Getting a little fresh air."

Now I'm the one leaning back. "Okay, grandpa."

Another laugh, this one louder, tumbles out of his mouth, and it's an aggravatingly attractive sound. "Nah, I just don't like being stuck inside all the time. And I've always been a morning person."

Based on his prior occupation, that's probably not a lie, but it's certainly not why he's out this morning.

We're silent for a few long moments, and with each minute that passes, a kind of tension builds in the air. It's like a string tugging on my consciousness, willing me to look over. I don't, however. Instead, I follow the path of an incoming mallard and watch the splash as it skids across the frigid water. My lips twitch when it dunks its head.

When I finally give in and turn, it's only to find Masen openly staring.

Frankly, it's fucking unnerving.

I drain the last of my cup and ask, "What exactly do you do for a living?"

Masen hesitates for a fraction of a second. "It's complicated." A tiny crease appears between his brows, and his fingers curl around his cup handle. I only catch it because I'm watching. "Security. Consulting. Things like that."

"Ah," I say, already nodding. "You're Mr. Aronov's bodyguard."

"No."

That no comes out hard and immediate, hitting like a punch. There's something else in his expression, too, something equally emphatic but too minute and quick to interpret.

But apparently, I struck a nerve.

Interesting.

"Okay."

"I'm more of an advisor." Masen offers me an almost apologetic smile. "My background is pretty specific, but it affords me skills and expertise that can be difficult to obtain outside a handful of circles. So, I advise him on certain matters."

Hopefully, those matters don't include firebombing villages.

Or beheading CIA operatives.

If so, I'm going to have to take that pretty face of his out, right along with his boss's.

My nose crinkles. "That sounds… vague."

His fingers drum against the tabletop, but when his eyes meet mine, they're clear, probing, and just a little too intense for this particular conversation. "Because it is."

Right when I start to reply, a low buzz vibrates my thigh.

"Shit." Digging into the small, stretchy pocket on the right side of my leggings, I pull out my cell. "Sorry," I tell Masen. "I need to check and make sure it's not Rose."

"Of course."

When I tap on my messages, I can't stop my reaction, and my face splits in two.


Dayan: Neshama, what have you gotten yourself into now? I have something for you. Call me as soon as you finish your run.


I don't bother to respond and just shove my phone back into my pocket.

"Your friend, Rosalie?" Masen's brows climb his forehead.

"No, it's another friend of mine." Still grinning, my whole upper body shakes because I swear that man courts danger like a favorite lover. I can already hear that low, incorrigible purr. He's probably jealous that I'm getting to play. "He hates it when I run alone. Says there's too many creeps out there."

"He's right." Masen doesn't smile and that tinge of inexplicable hardness is back. "Boyfriend?"

I really laugh at that.

When Masen goes to ask, I wave him off. "Not hardly. Eli's more like the friend you call when you're looking for trouble and want an accomplice."

"I see."

We're quiet for another few minutes, and again that tension starts to build. A cold wind whips across the canal, beating back the warmth from the patio heater at my back, and tiny specs of snow begin to fall. In the breeze, they dance and swirl. When they hit the black of Masen's jacket, they linger for just a second before melting into the wool.

Masen slugs back the rest of his coffee, and when he sets the cup back on its saucer, the porcelain clatters. It's jarring, too loud in the silence.

I glance over. "Were you sent to check me out?"

He doesn't answer immediately, but when he does, his voice is as soft as spun silk. "Do I need to?"

"You tell me."

Masen starts to say something else, but his lips mash together in a hard, unforgiving line, and he shakes his head. He abruptly stands and looks out across the water before finally turning back to me.

"Don't be surprised when he calls on you tonight. Whether you like it or not, you made quite an impression."

.

.

.


Notes:

Regarding Dayan / Eli above, yep, that's El'azar from OPERATION: Break the Dawn. A couple of chapters ago, I mentioned I'd be bringing him in for small cameo appearances... because I love him, lol. Consider it an alternate reality / crossover / etc


German:

Guten Morgen: good morning

Einen kleinen Kaffee, bitte: a small coffee, please

Mit Milch: with milk

Schwarz wie mein Herz: black like my heart

Das macht vier Euro: it comes to four euros

Zwei, bitte: two, please


Hebrew (transliterated):

Neshama: term of affection, roughly darling


Glossary:

Donaukanal: or the Danube Canal is an arm of the Danube that runs through central Vienna. It has a promenade that runs along its banks and there are several cafes, restaurants, etc there.

Schwedenplatz: this is a square in central Vienna. It's right near the Donaukanal.