Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters and giving them some guns (again).
"Took you long enough."
"Yeah, fuck you, Hale," I say, rolling my eyes as I thump the heavy door shut behind me.
Chucking my heels into the nearest corner, I target the plush sitting area in front of the hearth, and as I make my way across the room, I clock Rosalie's position behind one of the sofas. Arms folded over one of McCarty's ancient, oversized olive drab tees, foot tapping, and sporting her best bitchface, she's the picture of feminine intimidation.
The not-so-subtle outline of the Sig tucked into the rolled-down waistband of her lounge pants doesn't hurt. Between that and the pissy glare, she might as well be screaming, Do Not Fucking Engage.
The effect is lost on the man in all black across from her, however. Propped against the opposite wall with his hands shoved deep inside his pockets, Masen's calm, cool confidence personified, utterly unperturbed.
I wonder if I should tell her he's faster than her.
Either way, great.
Just what I need tonight.
For a second, I ignore them both, swipe a sweating bottle of sparkling water off a nearby tray, and plop down on the nearest sofa. When I kick my feet up on the coffee table and crack the cap, Rosalie cocks a haughty brow.
Before she can open her mouth, I wave her off. "Don't start with me."
A second perfectly sculpted brow joins the first and her nose crinkles. Shooting Masen a final, pointed glare, Rosalie skirts her couch and slumps against the cushion across from me. "That bad, huh?"
I drain a third of my water before blowing out a loud, tired breath. "What time is it anyway?"
She checks her wrist. "Almost midnight."
"Damn it," I mutter as I start peeling off my growing cache of fine jewelry. Aronov's exorbitantly expensive platinum and diamond necklace comes off first, then the matching teardrop earrings, and then the bracelet he looped around my wrist earlier tonight. I don't want to know how much all this shit is worth.
But Aronov wasn't playing when he said he wanted to spoil me.
Nor when he said he expected my affections.
About the time I tip my head back, doing my damnedest to forget the man passed out on the other side of the castle, Masen finally moves. He shoves off the wall without even a whisper of sound, and as his gaze cuts to me, his eyes, dark and glimmering in the firelight, search my face. "You okay?"
"It's fine," I tell him, and those eyes of his narrow and flit between me and the pile of sparkling gems on the table. A muscle in his cheek ticks, but he doesn't press me on it, at least not here in front of an audience. So, I slug back another drink of my fizzy water and ask, "How long have you been waiting?"
"Not long." One corner of his mouth pulls up into a wry, lopsided smile. "Your suitemate has been very… hospitable." His lips twitch as he parks at the other end of my sofa. "I see why you two are friends."
I laugh at that and glance over to Rosalie. No doubt, that's a compliment in her book, and she smirks back for all she's worth. "You," I say, pointing at the blonde. "Play nice. I don't have the capacity for any more drama right now."
"What?" she asks, and, I swear, that woman has the nerve to sound offended.
"You heard me."
"Fine." Rosalie lets out an annoyed huff but then grins and flicks me a spare rubber band before I can even ask. "Aronov's out, I take it?"
"Like a light." I nod as I yank my hair up into a loose, messy knot. When I inhale, I pick up Aronov's sophisticated cologne lingering on my skin. It's a clean, subtle, and pleasingly masculine scent, but after all this shit is over, I never want to smell it again. "But I have to talk to Spooky about that."
Collapsing back into my cushion, I focus on the luxurious warmth pouring out from the hearth, just for a minute, just long enough to settle the sink in my gut. This close to the flames, the air is just on the cusp of being too hot, but after so many hours – no, days – of being on edge, the radiant heat lapping against my muscles feels like a dream.
"I can't keep knocking him out for seven and eight hours at a time," I finally say, grimacing as I replay the careful tap dance I've performed the last three mornings. "If he keeps waking up sore and exhausted, he's going to catch on that something isn't right."
Rosalie hums her agreement. "What are you thinking?"
"I need a straight sedative, something I can alternate to knock him out more naturally but with no hangover." I shrug and scrub my face, no doubt ruining what's left of my makeup. "Or, I don't know, maybe I can drop the dosage. But I have to understand what that would mean before I try it."
"You're missing the more likely scenario."
Masen says it quietly enough that I almost miss it. When I look over and we make eye contact, I catch a split-second of helpless fury rippling across his features. It's the same expression he wore that night after we fought, and it clears as fast as it appeared.
He lets out something between a grunt and a laugh, but I don't miss the razor-sharp edge riding his tone. "What are you going to do when he wants to fuck you one morning after breakfast?" he asks, drumming his fingers against denim in a tight, rapid staccato. "Or when he wants you in his office or the car? Or… maybe downstairs by the pool? What are you going to do then?"
My grimace deepens because that's a good fucking question, and it's not like I haven't been asking myself the same. "I'm aware of the risk, but I'm avoiding scenarios that might lead to that for now."
"I don't think you get it." Kicking his ankle over the opposite knee, Masen throws his elbow over his armrest and sprawls in that lazy, feline pose of his. It's all a façade, however. Dark against the warm tan of his skin, the black and gray lines of his bone-frog peak out from beneath rolled-up shirtsleeves, and as he stares at me, the lean, sinewy muscles along the tops of his forearms flex and roll.
Stomach dropping, I swallow even though my mouth is as dry as the desert. "I–"
"Aronov isn't just enamored with you," Masen cuts in, and his eyes flash dark in undisguised anger. "Bella, he's in love with you, or some version of you he's created in his head. He's… obsessed, and it's only going to get worse." He damned near spits it out. "You're not going to be able to control this forever."
But Masen's not wrong.
Sooner or later, Aronov's going to figure it out, and based on tonight's desperate, drug-induced murmurs of romance, longing, and more, when he does, he's going to lose his goddamned crazy mind.
Let's just hope it's about the same time I'm putting a bullet between his eyes.
"I know," I say, sighing. "Believe me, I get it, but we have more important things to talk about right now."
"Like how far you've gotten and how we're going to get Cullen out while taking this asshole's whole world down."
For a second, we just stare at each other, and everything else – the room, the pulsing heat from the fire, even the smug-ass blonde across from me – fades away. I just see him, and even though there's three feet of open space between us, phantom fingertips skate across my skin. It's intimate and exhilarating, and judging by the stark intensity staring back at me, I'm not the only one who feels it.
Masen breaks first. Abruptly, his jaw rolls, and I think he might just argue. Instead, his chest expands with a slow, deep, resigned breath, and he dips his chin in a single, curt acknowledgment. "All right. Where do you want to start?"
Leaning forward to brace her elbows against her knees, Rosalie answers for us both. "How about at the beginning."
"Fine." Rocking up off the couch, Masen slowly paces the thick-piled rug in the center of the room. "First off, let's establish this as fact. Whatever Platt's told you, whatever any of your other resources have supposedly found, the CIA didn't know shit about Aronov." His lips mash into a hard, uncompromising line. "They still don't."
Silently piecing together what little we were given, I spin and flip my bottle cap between my fingers. "Is that why you were sent in? Intel?"
Masen chuckles, and it's a bitter, bitter sound. "Yeah," he says, motioning at empty air. "And you see how well that's gone."
When Rosalie starts, he shoves a rough hand through his hair, ruining what little taming he'd attempted. "But in all seriousness, they have no fucking idea how vast his empire is…" Masen's voice turns quiet, flat, and exhausted. "Or just how many people he has under his thumb."
"What does that mean?" Rosalie asks.
"You know about VolTerra, right?"
I nod, picturing the large, three-dimensional topographical table map sitting in the middle of Aronov's office in Florence. "That's his mining operation."
"Correct. And it's his public face. When he gives talks at conferences or grants interviews or lectures at MGU, it's always as the smooth, well-heeled, congenial founder and chairman of VolTerra Mining." Pausing midstride, Masen cracks a small smile, but like his laugh, it's not a happy one. "VolTerra is a major player, too. Second-largest producer in its sector with a significant global market share. If he gains control over those mines in the DRC, it'll be the largest."
I frown. "Whitlock said the finances were murky, with a lot of cash flowing through various Swiss firms. We assumed that he uses it to hide his other activities."
"There's some shady shit, sure, especially in some of the developing regions where laws are more like suggestions. But for the most part, it's legitimate, enough that he's planning to list on the London Exchange next year." Masen shrugs. "That's not important, though. The important entity is Mirprom."
Rosalie's face screws up. "The fuck is Mirprom?"
Another soft chuckle tumbles out. "Probably the largest diversified industrial group in Russia. Headquartered in Moscow but based out of Jersey. Privately held and very well protected. It essentially manages all of Aronov's other investments."
A low, aggravated sound hits my ears, and Rosalie's fists ball into tight hammers when I glance over. "How did that not come up?"
Yet another good fucking question.
We're just full of them tonight.
"Matroshki… Companies within companies within companies," Masen replies. His eyes land on me before sliding past to stare into the fire. "Like many of the other industrialists that emerged out of the ex-Soviet nineties, Aronov's an expert at obfuscation."
"Mirprom has a fully staffed and very, very sophisticated accounting firm that supports it – splitting stakes out to other companies, buying, selling, rebuying, creating new shell companies, whatever.
"Aronov sets up associates and distant relatives as the CEOs and presidents. Some of them are in their upper 80s and barely know what day it is. Others are perfectly happy lending their names in exchange for the generous stipends he provides. Some of them don't exist at all."
Masen blinks and gives himself a slight shake, and when he speaks again, that edge is back, making me wonder just what he had to do to learn all this. "But it's all theater, and Aronov runs that show with an iron fist."
Fighting the dull thrum in my head, I press the heels of my palms into the hollows of my eyes. I'm ninety-nine percent sure of the answer to my next question, but I ask it nonetheless. "And the government's okay with all that?"
"Okay with it?" Masen's cheeks stretch, and the creases at the corners of his eyes tell me he's genuinely amused. "The government partners with him. Rostec owns stakes in several of the more lucrative subsidiaries, which benefits both. Permits are granted before they're even filed. Bids get thrown. Contracts with stupidly favorable terms are magically awarded."
"Let me guess," I say, and I don't even try to hide my annoyance. "And when the Kremlin needs something – maybe legitimizing large sums of money from disreputable sources… or maybe influencing a foreign power – they call him, and he uses his resources to make it happen."
"Exactly," Masen answers with a quick nod. "And in exchange, they turn a blind eye to his other activities – sometimes even help facilitate them – and he gets away with doing whatever he wants. He even flies on a diplomatic visa. Drives the State Department fucking crazy, but they won't touch him."
"Shit," Rosalie mutters. "How does he get away with all that?"
"Easy. Like the rest of them, he buys his virtue." Hands shoved into his pockets once more, Masen slowly meanders back to my couch and leans against the armrest. "His charitable foundation, which Mirprom also manages, by the way, is massive. He's built hospitals, roads, schools, churches, and homes for the elderly. He's reconstructed important historical monuments.
"Every year, he and his companies dump millions into archaeological sites and environmental causes. He's on the Board of Trustees of the Bolshoi and half a dozen major museums… You get the picture." Masen exhales another tired breath, and his shoulders sag. "No one wants to be the one who turns off that tap."
Rosalie crosses her arms over her chest. "Go back to those subsidiaries and Rostec. What sector?"
One brow climbs, almost disappearing behind the mangled mess of his hair. "Which do you think?"
Staring up at the ceiling with its carefully patterned plaster, I recall that meeting with Taeb back in Vienna, the conversations with the two Congolese warlords, and then all those little mentions and tidbits sprinkled in between. "So, weapons… defense."
Unclipping his shoulder rig, Masen tosses it onto a nearby wingback before sitting back down next to me. "Aronov has factories from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok."
"What do they produce?" I ask, and again, I already know what's coming.
Hands folded in his lap, he mindlessly traces the healing bruises on his right. "Mid-range missiles, rockets, artillery… Tanks and armored vehicles. Aircraft components… Small arms. Chemicals… You name it."
Rosalie curses. "Domestic or export?"
"Both, but mostly export. Rostec handles the more obvious, public government sales." When Masen glances over, he gives her a bland smile. "But Aronov sells to anyone."
"What about the drugs? What about Retzos and those shipments out of Gwadar?"
Masen's shoulders roll. "Sure, he makes a fortune off heroin coming out of Afghanistan, but it's nothing compared to what the weapons bring in. He uses the same routes and cargoes. Half the time, the clients are the same anyway."
"And the women and people they traffic?"
Fists clenching, Masen looks away. "They're just… bonuses. A little something extra to sweeten the pot. Kaius handles that end of the business, along with the drugs. He calls them korovy… basically, cattle."
Damn it, I'm going to kill that son of a bitch and I'm going to enjoy every second of it.
Shifting, Masen fishes a small, white card out of his pocket and hands it over to me. When I peek down, there's nothing but three long rows of seemingly random combinations of letters, numbers, and signs. His lips turn down, and before I can ask, Masen says, "If you can, get that to Whitlock, or whatever his name is. If he's as good as you say he is, he'll know what to do with it."
I peer across the table to Rosalie, and she mirrors my confusion. "What is it?"
"Directions and access codes to a very specific encrypted location that Carl had set up. Names, photos, dates, transactions, everything I've been able to compile so far, it's all there. It's not enough to shut his organization down, but maybe it'll be enough to start building the case. Just give that to your guy, and he'll know where to go."
Wordlessly, I pass it over to Rosalie. Like me, she eyes the long strings of numbers and letters, but then she just shrugs. "We'll take care of it."
I spin halfway around and pull my right knee up to my chest, tucking my left underneath. "Okay, so… where do you fit in? How'd you get so close to him?"
Masen doesn't answer for a long second. His forearms start flexing again, and then he dry-washes his face. "Two years ago," he says, and his voice pitches lower. "I brokered a hundred-million-dollar arms deal on behalf of an insurgency group in northern Iraq."
Rosalie's jaw drops, which isn't exactly an unreasonable reaction considering the years she spent in-country. "You did what?"
Masen's gaze darts to Rosalie and then back to me. "You know how you told me the CIA, and then Whitlock scoured your background?"
My forehead creases. "Yeah?"
"Well," he says, chuffing out a laugh. "Mine got dirtied up instead, and it wasn't all fiction."
"How do you mean?" Tilting my head, I study all those little tells that he doesn't bother hiding anymore, and it takes everything I have not to reach over and smooth away all those lines of perpetual stress.
It's a stupid, irrational response, but at this point, neither one of us seem to be able to stop it.
"Before I was discharged, I'd already worked with Carl and the CIA for years. Middle East, Northern Africa, the Horn, Afghanistan, wherever we were sent," he replies. Aimed back at the flickering fire once more, his gaze turns distant. "Arming this group or that group, propping up warlords who played by our rules, you know, the usual poking and prodding based on whatever mood Washington happened to be in."
Rosalie snorts. "That's for damned sure."
His lips curve at her sarcasm. "Afterward, I started doing short-term contract jobs. I could be more selective, only do the shit I felt needed to be done instead of what I was told to do. Kind of like you guys." He motions at both of us. "Did a little work for the Brits and the Israelis, but mostly my contracts still came from the CIA, and I worked exclusively through Carl, always off the books."
"Aronov was Cullen's idea?" I ask.
"Yeah." Masen scrubs his face again, rasping against two-day stubble. "One of his contacts picked up some credible intel on a large-scale weapons deal with some very bad actors through an unknown party out of Russia. Carl wanted to see what we could find. He had some suspicions, and I agreed that something needed to be done."
That muscle in his cheek jumps again. "He knew I spoke Russian and had the right background and temperament to seem… credible. We started small, just to get my name out there."
I mean, it's not like I can say much.
Been there, done that.
And yeah, it steals a little bit of your soul every time you let a monster win so that you can slay the bigger beast.
Rolling my neck, I stretch sore, stiff muscles. "How long did it take for Aronov to notice you?"
"Not long." Amusement softens his features and warms his voice. "As you're aware, Aro likes new toys, and he has his fingers in everything. I was invited to a private introduction within three months."
I startle at that because holy fuck. "How did you get him to believe you weren't setting him up?"
Masen's eyes drag back to mine. "I told him."
My heart thumps inside my chest. "You told him what exactly?"
"The truth." Masen pauses, thumbing the backs of his knuckles. "That the CIA had hired me to investigate him and likely take him out."
There's a beat of silence, and then a broad, beaming grin creases my cheeks. "I bet he loved that shit."
Masen grins back, and it's that disarmingly sexy grin that makes me want to haul him off the couch and into my bed. "He thought it was fucking hilarious, and then he offered me a job."
My whole body shakes. "What kind of job?"
"Consultant, advisor, whatever we want to call it." He swaps his legs and swipes a palm down his jeans. "While he has several ex-military in his organization, my background and skillset are different. I can go places they can't and interact with people who wouldn't give them the time of day. Aro liked that, and he liked my directness.
"After an appropriate amount of haggling – something he normally despises but respected coming from me – I accepted and began gradually feeding him whatever intel Carl cooked up." After a slow exhale, Masen cracks his knuckles and goes on. "We set up some deals with some… lesser evils. I took out a few assholes that needed to be taken out anyway and I put the fear of God into some others. And I made Aro a lot of money in a very short time."
I can see that. I can also see that Masen hated every second of it.
Rosalie chimes in. "You climbed the ladder quick."
Masen's gaze falls to his lap. "I did. I'm one of maybe two people – the other being Markovsky – who isn't afraid of him. Aro respects strength." He throws me a hint of a smile. "It's why I told you not to back down." That barely-there smile widens as his palm ghosts across his ribs. "That is, before I realized you could take care of yourself just fine."
Across the table, Rosalie's brows shoot up, and her blue eyes dance.
Right, because I haven't told her what went down the other night.
Other than we were now on the same team.
Because really, I don't need her shit right now.
"Anyway," Masen says, oblivious to the sly smile creeping across my bitch of a partner's beautiful face. "I moved up and compiled as much information as I could get my hands on. We were able to stall the worst of the deals for a while without it blowing back."
"Those goddamned mines and those motherfucking warlords." Feature pinching, Masen shakes his head, and his palm slicks across his jeans again. "We tried to get in the way of that attack. I know Carl warned someone at Interpol, but they didn't do a fucking thing."
Masen's expression morphs into one I know all-too-well: desolation cut with impotent rage.
"Once we saw what had been done and all those women and children started appearing on the EU circuits, Carl couldn't help himself. He did exactly what we agreed he wouldn't. He went through an official CIA channel to try and force a response. That's how I learned Platt's organization is compromised. They set him up."
Ice slides through my veins. "What happened to Cullen that night in the hotel?
Masen looks up at me then, and it's like I'm staring at a ghost.
"God help me, I shot him."
Mirprom: just a made-up entity combining Mir (World) and promyshlennost' (Industry)
Conglomerates, holding companies, shell companies, etc, and "companies within companies within companies" setups are very much real. Of course, that's not unique to Russia, but digging into and determining ownership of Russian entities and those set up in certain tax havens can sometimes be challenging.
As some of you are already aware from my comments and teasers on FB, Aronov is partially based on an actual Russian industrialist/oligarch. This particular guy owns a vast diversified conglomerate with companies and subsidiaries operating in various industrial sectors (mining, energy, automotive, agriculture, construction, etc). His metals/mining company is one of the world's largest. He's on numerous boards and organizations, and he founded the largest private charitable fund in Russia. But… buried beneath a few levels of his companies, he also owns an entity that manufactures armored vehicles and other military equipment, which are currently being deployed in Ukraine and thus is one of the reasons why he's been broadly sanctioned.
Bolshoi: refers to the Bol'shoy (Big) Teatr (Theater), out of which the Bolshoi Ballet and Bolshoi Opera companies are based. They are among the oldest and best-known ballet and opera companies in the world. The Bolshoi Ballet is by far the world's biggest ballet company, with more than 200 dancers.
Matroshki: these are the famous Russian nesting dolls
Jersey: officially the Bailiwick of Jersey, is an island country and self-governing Crown Dependency near the coast of northwest France. It has favorable taxation policies, making it a well-known offshore financial center and tax haven.
Kaliningrad: city in the far west of Russia, sandwiched in an enclave between Lithuania and Poland
MGU: or Moskovskiy Gosudarstvennyy Universitet, or Moscow State University 'M. V. Lomonosov', is one of Russia's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, encompassing a multitude of research institutes and faculties. It's produced multiple Nobel laureates, Fields Medal winners, and a Turing Award winner. It is generally accepted as the leading higher educational institution in Russia and the wider former Soviet Union.
Rostec: officially "Gosudarstvennaya korporatsiya po sodeystviyu razrabotke, proizvodstvu i eksportu vysokotekhnologichnoy promyshlennoy produktsii, Rostekh" or the State Corporation for Assistance to Development, Production and Export of Advanced Technology Industrial Product, Rostec. It's a Russian state-owned defense conglomerate headquartered in Moscow. Rostec's organizations are located in 60 constituents of the Russian Federation and supply goods to over 70 countries worldwide.
Vladivostok: city in the far east of Russia, on the Sea of Japan