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

Unbeta'd, unedited.


"Misha, how on earth did you manage this?"

Just like in the tea salon, Aronov turns immediately. His gaze pins Rosalie at once, raking down her curves without a hint of shame, and the harsh lines of his face melt into a sickeningly sweet expression I'd like to kick right off him. Abandoning his stony-faced guard, his long strides eat up the room. The moment Aronov reaches us, he clasps Rosalie's hand and presses his lips to her cheek.

"Beautiful Rose," he croons as his other hand falls to the flare of her hip, where long fingers spread to hold her in place. It's a proprietary touch, and like last time, he lingers too long. As his lips whisper against her skin, his eyes find mine, dark and penetrating. "You are an absolute vision."

I'm going to need a really hot shower after tonight, one of those that nearly burns your skin off.

But he's not wrong, at least not when it comes to Rosalie.

For tonight's dinner, Emmett's really outdone himself. As both bait and distraction, Rosalie is in one of those iconic bandage-style dresses with a low, low plunging neckline. The thing is fucking magic. Its fabric sculpts her body into the kind of sexy, dramatic hourglass you only see in the movies. Coupled with sky-high, fuck-me heels, long, blonde curls, and blood-red lips, you'd have to be dead not to notice her.

I'm pretty sure she's going to murder McCarty by the time this job is done.

Especially since I'm in kitten heels and another elegant, yet comfortable full-skirted cocktail dress, albeit knee length this go around.

"Bella," Aronov says, releasing Rosalie to move over to me. When he risks my scowl and kisses the back of my hand, I plaster on my best polite smile. It takes everything I have not to jerk away. "Perfect."

Without waiting for permission – or me – Rosalie's heels pop against the dark oak floor. Sashaying into the dining room, she aims for a round table draped in pristine white linen positioned in the very center.

Unsurprisingly, the restaurant is a picture of understated style and sophistication. Down in the belly of a local winery, the dining room is narrow and long, with hand-laid, rustic brick walls that curve and flow into an arched ceiling running its length. At one end, a fire crackles in a wide plaster fireplace, and at the other, dozens of barrels of fine, aged wine sit behind a wall of solid glass. Overhead, modern, geometric chandeliers cast warm, soft light.

Rosalie trails her fingertips along the back of one of the chairs and spins toward our host. "Please tell me you didn't reserve this entire room just for us." She says it with just the right amount of scandal, but then her lips curl into a slow, pleased smile.

"This is nothing for me." Strolling over like he owns the place, Aronov waves a haphazard hand and returns her smile, but his is darker, borderline predatory. "But I feel I should warn you that I do not share well," he adds, low and sensual, as he runs the pad of his thumb across Rosalie's bottom lip. His fingers slide to her hair and loop around one of the long blonde strands. "And I find myself wanting all of your attention. So… this just removes any potential distractions."

"Hmm." Playing her part even though she has to be gagging inside, Rosalie leans into his touch and skates her palm down the brushed wool lapel of his suit coat. "You're just full of pleasant surprises, aren't you?"

Fuck, she's good at this.

Aronov damn near purrs. "You have absolutely no idea, my dear."

A door snicks open behind us, but I don't bother to turn. I don't have to, because my internal radar goes off instantly, chiming like church bells, and I can feel the weight of dark green eyes the second they land on the bare skin of my back. The sensation is almost electric, like a sharp current setting the air on fire, and my entire body prickles in awareness.

Unlike the crisp rap of Aronov's Italian leather shoes, Masen's footfalls are silent, and he walks across the room with the unhurried, prowling gait of a lion on the Savanna.

"Ah, Edward, there you are," Aronov says, simultaneously signaling the waitstaff to begin to seat us. That slick, congenial mask slips, just a little, and his features narrow. "Ty opozdal."

"I'm aware." Pulling out his own chair, Masen shrugs, and the movement stretches the dark fabric of his jacket. While his expression remains flat – disinterested almost – those ever-moving, jewel-colored eyes of his are bright and alive. I watch him silently clock each entry and exit, and I can't tell how much of that is just habit. "As always, your friends are long-winded."

"Indeed." Aronov chuckles and motions for another server to pour the wine. "Were they amenable to our proposal?"

"They were satisfied with the terms," Masen says, dipping his chin in a shallow nod. "Kaius' people will handle it from here."

"Excellent." Aronov gleams. "Gianna will set up time with him before the end of next week. I will have her include Sasha, as well."

Across the table, Rosalie takes a slow sip of her wine – yet another sumptuous and perfectly aged red – and looks at me from beneath lowered lashes. I give her a small, bland smile back, something that reeks of boredom, and adjust one of the glittering sapphire chandeliers dangling from my ears, just enough to grab Whitlock's attention.

Almost immediately, there's a soft whisper in my ear. "I heard. Already working it."

"Good," Masen says to Aronov. When the server goes to pour his wine, he places his hand over the rim and asks for Macallan 21 instead. "It's a significant contract, and I doubt you want Jacques and Laurent going off on their own like last time."

"Agreed." Aronov's expression hardens, but then it clears just as quickly as he looks over to me. "Ah, my apologies, ladies."

I give Aronov another one of my polite, bored smiles. "It's fine. We're on vacation, but you have a business to run."

"That is no excuse for rudeness," he says, right as a pair of tuxedoed servers deliver a series of fancy tapas-style canapés. "Tell me, Bella, how are you enjoying Vienna?"

As he's speaking, I take a bite of what looks like some kind of dumpling filled with a dense, dark meat pudding. Blood puddings are well outside my normal fare, but the taste is rich and earthy, balanced by the delicacy of the dough.

"Oh, Vienna is…" My dull, well-mannered smile spreads into something a lot warmer. Just to test his reaction, I give him a playful, mischievous wink and then after a moment of pause, I whip out a poorly pronounced, "Ochen' khorosho, spasibo."

There's a beat of absolute silence before Aronov throws his head back. A loud laugh tumbles out of his mouth, but on my other side, Masen goes ramrod stiff. Again, even though my focus stays trained on Aronov, Masen's stare digs down to my bones.

"I did not realize that you speak Russian." Aronov's accent is heavier, and his voice comes out gravelly, somewhere between a purr and a growl.

It's my turn to laugh now. "No, no. Not at all," I say, throwing up my hands in mock surrender. "That's half of my entire vocabulary." I laugh again and take a drink of my very expensive wine. "I also know da, nyet, and blin."

Aronov's eyes twinkle, and his shoulders shake with silent laughter. The laughter ceases, however, and those eyes roam my face, darkening when they stall on my mouth. "Ya khochu slyshat', kak ty eto govorish'," he murmurs. "Kogda ya yebu tebe glotku."

Wow.

It's a good thing that I rarely blush. It's even better that I somehow manage to lock down my expression, because the thought of his dick anywhere near my throat is absolutely revolting.

Really, this motherfucker is just begging for a bullet to the skull, and underneath the tablecloth, my fingers twitch for the 9mm strapped to my inner thigh.

In my ear, Whitlock whistles and whispers a low warning, "You can't kill him yet."

No shit, Sherlock.

But Whitlock's right, so instead of doing what I really want to do, I drag my fingers away from my weapon and pick out another bite-size sample of gastronomic perfection. This one looks like a poached quail egg with a truffle vinaigrette. "You know," I tell him, making a show of taking a bite. "I have no idea what you just said. I hope it was nice."

Aronov's cheeks crease. "Oh, yes, very nice. One day soon, I will explain it to you."

Fucker.

In my periphery, I catch a slight tick ripple along the stern line of Masen's jaw, and then without hesitating, he slugs back fifty dollars' worth of Scotch.

The first true course – some variety of mussels and smoked eel – rolls out next, followed by a half dozen more, each paired with its own complementing wine. By the time the staff ushers in some kind of delicate fillet, my lips are buzzing, and it's not exactly an unpleasant sensation.

Rosalie hums around her fork and angles toward Aronov. "Misha, tell me something interesting about yourself."

He flashes her an indulgent grin. "I fear I am a very boring man," he says. Reaching over, he toys with her fingers before dragging his lips across her knuckles. "I do very boring things that would not be at all interesting to a vibrant creature such as you."

Rolling her eyes, Rosalie leans forward and playfully traces the curve of his face with the tip of her nail. "I doubt that. You feel exciting to me." She winks at me. "Doesn't he, Bella?"

My brows climb. "Oh, definitely."

A quiet punch of air comes from my right. But on my left, whether he's oblivious to my sarcasm or I'm just better at hiding it than I thought, Aronov preens at the compliment.

Rosalie and Aronov continue their idle, flirty chatter through the next few courses while Masen and I sit silent sentinel. Masen's gaze slides to me constantly, and like before, it's fucking unnerving. But of course, I play right along and smile when I catch him.

As the servers clear away the last savory course, Aronov says to Rosalie, "Isabella said that you plan to tour Italy after Vienna. Is that still the case?"

"I know we're supposed to go to Rome." Pausing for a second, Rosalie taps her chin and then glances over to me. "We were going somewhere else first. Venice, right?"

I nod. "That's what we'd talked about."

Aronov drains his wine. "You know, my primary residence is in Tuscany, right outside of Florence."

"Oh, I had no idea," Rosalie coos as she drapes her hand over top of his forearm to give it a little squeeze. "I've never been there, but I've heard it's beautiful."

"The countryside is breathtaking." Aronov rubs teasing circles on the inside of her wrist. "Especially in the winter... much more so than dreary Venice." He steals a glimpse at me before tucking a blonde ringlet behind Rosalie's ear. "I will actually be there next week myself. I would love for you to join me there."

And that's Bingo.

That's the invitation we need.

Access to that motherfucker's fortress.

Blue eyes bright and shining, Rosalie claps her hands together. She looks almost orgasmic. "Oh, how wonderful! We would lo–"

Right on cue, I hum and make a sour face. "Rose…" I say, drawing her name out. "I don't know." I give her a pointed look. "We have plans."

Rosalie shoots me a pouty glare that would make Paris Hilton proud. "Bella, come on." It comes out like a petulant whine. "Don't be a prude."

My frown deepens. "We don't really kno-"

"Of course," Aronov interjects, slick and smooth and slimy. "You are a smart woman to be skeptical of strange men bearing invitations, but…" He pauses, staring at me like he's already stripped me down in his mind. "I am certain I can find some way to assuage your… reticence."

Taking a drink of wine – this one a light, fruity white that came with the fish – I pretend to think. "It's a very kind offer…" When I peek over to Masen, I might as well be looking at a blank wall. "Let us talk a little and then get back to you."

"Certainly." Flashing me a row of teeth, Aronov leans back in his chair. "Once you decide, I will have one of my assistants arrange everything. My plane is here, so there is no need for you to book separate travel."

Of course, being the Oscar-worthy actress she's proving to be, Rosalie beams. "Bella, please. This will be so much more fun."

"We'll see, Rose."

Two hours into dinner, as we wait for the first dessert course, I stand and excuse myself. Before I can even ask the question, a tall, thin tuxedoed brunette gestures toward a long, narrow, all-brick hallway on the opposite end of the dining room. Following her direction, I make my way to a tastefully appointed ladies' room, complete with a formal sitting area and crystal light fixtures. The second the door swings shut and I realize I'm alone, every muscle in my body relaxes, and I let out a slow sigh.

"What are you seeing?" I ask, just above a whisper.

Whitlock comes back immediately, "Managed to trace the car Masen arrived in. Video feed shows it pulling out of a drive in Landstraße, not far from the Russian embassy, before coming straight to the restaurant. Working on locating the owner of the residence."

"Good," I say as I readjust one of the glittering pins holding up my hair. "Keep on it. Depending on who it is, McCarty may need to pay them a little visit before we leave."

"You got it." Whitlock snorts. "I can't believe that asshole said that to you. I also can't believe you didn't gut him on the spot. That was a fine show of restraint, Swan."

"It wasn't without effort," I mutter. "Also, while you're at it, see if you can figure out anything about this Jacques and Laurent, whoever they are."

"Will do."

Before I head back, I give myself a quick once-over in the wide, gilded mirror over the row of fancy, sculpted sinks. Even in the low light, my cheeks look a little too pink, an obvious effect of the wine, but it works for the image we're after. Satisfied, I swipe on a fresh layer of lipstick, plaster on my happy mask, and exit.

I make it all of about two steps before slamming into a solid wall of starched white cotton and black wool.

"Jesus!" I stumble backward, and when the rough texture of the brick behind me scrapes against my back, I spit out a curse. "You have to stop that shit."

"Sorry," Masen says, low and hushed, and his fingers find my elbow in automatic reflex. "I didn't mean to scare you."

Yeah, right.

I peer over his shoulder down the long hall. It's dark back in this part of the restaurant, and the soft, warm light filtering in from the mouth of the dining room at the end throws shadows against the brick. With Aronov reserving the entire place, it's deserted, but for the two of us.

Dragging my eyes up to his, I cock an arrogant brow. "Checking up on me?"

Masen's shoulders roll, but his irises burn like dark fire when they pin me. "Tell me, did you understand what Aro said to you earlier?"

Running my hands down the front of my dress, I erase non-existent wrinkles. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

His mouth flattens into a hard line. "Why did you come tonight?"

I shoot him a pissed off scowl. "Well, that's a loaded question."

Masen steps closer, crowding into my space and using his body like a wall. One palm claps against the brick above my head. He's too close, enough that when I take a breath, I taste the subtle, masculine aftershave lingering on his skin. The dim light plays shadow games across the angled planes of his face as he watches mine. "That's not an answer," he says.

"Fine." When I suck in another slow breath of heated air, the fabric of my dress catches on the wool of his jacket. "I'm here because I'm a very good friend."

His forehead creases. "What do you mean by that?"

"Rosalie is absolutely stunning. She's sweet, funny, and smart…" I shake my head and wrinkle my nose. "But, if it's not obvious, she makes terrible choices when it comes to men. She has a particular weakness for…"

One corner of Masen's mouth tugs up in what appears to be genuine amusement. "Rich, old men?"

Blowing out something in between a sigh and a laugh, I nod. "As I'm sure you can imagine, they tend to… dote on her, which is something she finds pleasant and entertaining."

"That's…"

"Look," I argue. "In any relationship, each party has to bring something to the table. For some, it's youth or beauty or intelligence." Shoving back a wayward strand of hair, I shrug. "For others, it's…"

That half-smile spreads into a grin, and the effect is startlingly attractive. "Money. Power."

"Yes. And against all better judgment and my own recommendation to tell him to politely fuck off, Rosalie seems to find your boss charming."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"If each party has to bring something to the table, what about you?" That grin vanishes, replaced by something a lot harsher. I can almost hear his teeth grind. "I can tell you right now that Aro is certainly interested in what you have to offer."

I level him a flat, no-nonsense glare. "I'm not at that table."

"Are you sure?" Masen asks. When I don't answer, he chuckles. "So, then you're here as Rosalie's…" One brow climbs in question. "Wingman?"

Staring him dead in the eye, I push off the wall, and now it's my turn to crowd into his space. He doesn't move at all. "No," I pop back. "I'm here because I don't trust men who have entourages. Or men who have security advisors." I look directly at his rib cage, right where I know he's carrying. "Especially ones who carry weapons into 3-star Michelin restaurants."

A muscle jumps in Masen's cheek, but he doesn't make any effort to deny it.

"And I'm not about to let my best friend walk into something like… whatever this is… by herself."

There's a long, tense moment of silence before Masen answers, and when he does, his voice drops and roughens. "You think you can protect her?"

"Try me."

Masen's lips curve into another one of those lop-sided smiles, like he has no idea what to make of me, which in all fairness, he probably doesn't. Like Aronov, his eyes search my face, but instead of disgusted, I feel fluttering tendrils of intrigue and fascination. It's a dangerous reaction.

"Yesterday morning," Masen says after a second. Always aware, he glances down the hall. "You asked if I was checking you out."

"I seem to recall something like that."

He chuffs. "Just so you know, I also ran a background check on you. It's standard protocol for anyone in Aro's circle."

"Okay, your point?" I don't even bother hiding my annoyance.

"Everything came back fine, of course… Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary or unexpected. But then I assume you knew that would be the case." Masen leans in even closer, so close I register the warmth of his breath, spicy from the Macallan. When I feel the soft brush of his mouth against the shell of my ear, my skin erupts in gooseflesh. "I still think you're hiding something. I'd like to know what that is."

Pulling back ever so slightly, I lift up on my toes and flatten my hand against the hard planes of his chest. Heat radiates through my palm, and beneath my fingertips, muscles tense and involuntarily flex. When I reply, my lips ghost over the faint, scratchy stubble along his jaw. "That makes two of us."

He stills. "Are you going to accept Aro's invitation?"

"What do you think?"

Ducking under his arm, I move toward the dining room. Before I even take a step, five fingers circle my bicep and jerk me back around. "I'd prefer not to see you get hurt."

I look at where he grips me and then his oh-so-pretty face. "Is that a threat?"

"No, it's not." He drops my arm and roughly shoves the same hand through his hair. His mouth opens, then snaps shut in a second of angry indecision. When I start to walk away again, his voice halts me. "Let's put it like this," he says, and there's something indecipherable in his tone. "Bad things tend to happen to people – especially women – who attach themselves to Aro."

We stare at each other for another long, still moment before I finally dip my head in acknowledgment. "Thank you for the warning," I tell him, softly, because frankly, I don't know what to think of this guy right now. "I'll take that under advisement."

I turn toward the dining room. When I look back over my shoulder, Masen hasn't moved an inch, and his hand still presses against the brick. If I didn't know better, I'd almost say those wide, straight shoulders of his sag, ever so slightly.

Masen's gaze lands on me one final time, and his last words come out barely above a whisper. "Bella, please see that you do."

.

.

.


Notes:

In Russian, Sasha is the commonly used diminutive or short-form for Aleksandr, as in Aro's associate, Aleksandr Markovsky.

Jacques is French for James. French is spoken in many countries around the world, including several located in Africa.

At some fancy foodie restaurants, you may be served a dozen (or even more) courses. These are usually tiny dishes, like… a bite or two, often served on weird, artsy little plates and trays. The ingredient combinations for these dishes can be wild. Oftentimes, you simply order the fixed coursed menu vs individual courses. Some places don't even let you order at all… you eat whatever they feel like putting in front of you.


Russian (transliterated):

Ty opozdal: you're late

Ochen' khorosho, spasibo: very good, thank you

Ya khochu slyshat', kak ty eto govorish', kogda ya yebu tebe glotku: I want to hear you say it when I fuck your throat

Da: yes

Nyet: no

Blin: pancake (a guy I dated many, many moons ago used to say this instead of blyad', which means fuck, when he was around his mom, lol. It's kind of like saying fudge)