Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters and giving them some guns (again).
"Come on, asshole."
Sprawled out on my flat, pitted concrete roof, I dial in the elevation on my scope while I listen to the muffled, late-night sounds of the city below. About the time I'm satisfied, a loose strand of hair lifts off my forehead, so with an aggravated curse, I make yet another adjustment, this one for the light northern breeze coming in off the Black Sea.
Then, like always, I wait.
Fortunately, tonight I don't have to wait long.
No more than five minutes later, two stories down and a thousand meters away, a pair of khaki-clad attendants step out onto the tiled patio roof of my target building. The shorter twenty-something flicks a switch, and overlapping strands of soft, yellow globe lights come to life, glowing warm and bright against the dark velvet sky. The other drags out a copper fire pit, and then the two men begin setting up a large, elegantly appointed table, fitted with fine bone china and gleaming silver on top of fancy, colorful linens. Matching cushioned chairs ring the table. A tall spray of exotic, imported flowers stands in the center.
All in all, it's a pleasant, almost-intimate scene, reminiscent of Aronov's sophisticated tastes and extravagance.
Only here, it runs entirely at odds with the building beneath it.
Positioned at the edge of Istanbul's Tarlabaşı neighborhood, my target building certainly looks the part – rough, rundown, and with layers of scrawled graffiti covering the unfinished concrete walls – but the people on the street certainly do not. Even without Whitlock's surveillance footage of the sumptuous, out-of-place, luxury interior, the beefy, professional guards in black Kevlar armor milling around the perimeter tell me everything I need to know.
Right as the attendants on the roof finish their preparations, I catch the gleam of a jet-black German SUV pulling up to the building. The guy parks on the sidewalk like an asshole, but when I spot a head full of lazily spiked dirty blond hair exiting the back, my lips curve.
"Be advised," I say into my mic. "Target has arrived. Are we clear?"
"Nothing on the satellites." Whitlock's as calm and bored as ever, and in the background, I hear his keys clacking a mile a minute. "Em, how are things looking on the ground?"
"Good on my end." Emmett rumbles out a laugh. "Just ran off a couple of dumbass kids up to no good."
My shoulders shake, but all fun and joking aside, McCarty is not a guy you want to meet up with in some dark, abandoned alley.
Then again, none of us are.
Sporting a slick, dark-on-dark suit sans tie, Jovan Dobroshi stops at the mouth of the entry and glances up and down the street. One tattooed hand flexes by his side while the other instinctively slips inside his jacket to tag the weapon tucked into his waistband.
It's the nervous gesture of the hunted, and my smile widens. "Someone's skittish tonight."
"He should be." Masen's voice is little more than a low murmur. There's a short pause, and he comes back, even softer. "You good?"
"I'm wonderful," I say as I track Dobroshi through my scope. Eying the street one last time, he barks out a pissed-off command to his driver before finally disappearing inside. "Just fucking wonderful."
An amused chuckle answers me. "Don't forget to tuck your elbow."
I swear under my breath.
That man's never going to let me live down that shit from Aronov's range. Never mind, we both know I'm the better long shot, not by a small margin either.
Of course, before I can say a word, Rosalie snorts in my headset, and as I angle my rifle back to the roof, I pick up Alice's high, tinkling laugh.
Every one of them.
It takes Dobroshi a short forever to make his way up to the rooftop patio. As I wait, a dull, irritating ache settles in my joints, echoed by a sharper twinge in the still-healing tissue and muscle in my abdomen and lower back. It's fucking annoying, and it makes me twitchier than usual. But when the door finally swings wide, that annoyance morphs into something else altogether.
"Fuck." Muttering a slew of curses under my breath, I watch a triplet of familiar, tall, leggy blondes follow Dobroshi and two other men out onto the patio.
Like usual, Snegurochka – no, Tanya – and her friends are a vision of perfectly manicured, scantily clad, sensual decadence. And just like the night of Aronov's party in Florence, they know exactly what's expected of them.
As soon as the door clicks shut, one of Dobroshi's associates – a lean, swarthy, forty-something with ink climbing his neck – grabs the honey-haired bombshell by the waist.
He doesn't give a shit where they are. Wearing a lascivious grin that promises nothing good, that asshole corrals the blonde – Irina, I think – against a low half-wall and attacks her mouth in a sloppy, wet semblance of a kiss. He leans into her, using his weight to pin her spine to the concrete as he shoves a knee between her thighs. And when he gropes her breasts and ass, he might as well be an animal.
There's absolutely nothing gentle about this guy. No, that fucker squeezes hard enough to make her wince, but Irina plays it off, laughing and flirting, encouraging his advances just like she's been conditioned to do.
I see her eyes, however. Blankly staring over his shoulder, they're wide, blue, and glassy, and as he starts to tease the sky-high hemline of her minidress, her body trembles.
Despite the bravado, she's fucking terrified, and after what Dobroshi did to that girl in Florence, I can't blame her.
"Status?" Whitlock whispers.
Before I can answer, Dobroshi yells over to the thug by the wall. The angle's off, and I'm too far away to read his lips, even with the high-powered optics of my scope. I doubt he's speaking one of my languages anyway, but it doesn't take a genius to know it's something vulgar. When he doesn't get a response, Dobroshi laughs, calls out something else, and plops down at the table, dragging Tanya into his lap as he goes.
The third man – a serious, balding brawler with a long, jagged scar down the side of his face – takes the opposite chair, along with the thin, almost waif-like Katya.
For a second, I study the two women at the table. Despite Tanya's languid smiles and teasing touches, I see the real deal. Hidden beneath the silky, platinum hair and layers of foundation and urban warpaint, I clock the telltale splotches and plum-black shadows. I see the tentative movements and restricted range of motion. Tiny lines of stress and soreness bracket her plumped-up lips.
Bruises cover that woman, inside and out, and like the one by the wall, her fear is a living, breathing, sentient being that crawls through her veins.
Still laughing, Dobroshi yanks Tanya's stretchy top lower, ripping the pale, shimmery fabric to expose the upper swells of her breasts. When she starts to jerk away, long, tattooed fingers lock around her throat, roughly holding her in place, and Dobroshi's smile turns dark and predatory.
Whitlock comes back again. "What the fuck's going on?"
"Target's got company," I say, teeth grinding as my finger inches toward my trigger. "Two high-level enforcers, maybe some kind of lieutenants or underbosses." I spit off to the side. "And it looks like Dobroshi took over some of Koshmarin's… assets after his very fortunate demise."
Whitlock's keys abruptly stop, and he tsks. "Collateral?"
"The two enforcers, yes." My lips mash into a hard, unforgiving line, and as I pin Dobroshi dead center in my reticle, the man's features come into sharp, unrelenting focus. "But there's no way I'm killing these girls. I'm also not leaving them here just to get scooped up by the next motherfucker in line."
"What do you want to do?"
"Edward," I say, clucking my tongue as Dobroshi tightens his grip on Tanya's throat. He yanks her sideways until she's straddling him. When she doesn't move fast enough, his palm cracks across her cheek, and then he grabs her by the chin and rips her top down even more, all the while grinning like the sick, sadistic fuck he is. My finger twitches, tapping my trigger. "The blondes that were at Aronov's parties, do any of them speak English?"
Masen's response comes instantly. "Not much, but Tatyana speaks some." He hesitates like he's thinking. "Enough to understand if someone were to offer them a way out, if that's what you're asking."
I hear it in his voice, too – the same anger, disgust, and strain, buried beneath a careful mask of cool composure – and it just makes me love him even more.
"Good." I nod to myself. "Ro–"
"You take care of Dobroshi and his asshole buddies," Rosalie says, cutting me off because she already knows this game. "Then you and Masen get your asses to the marina like we planned." There's a hard, furious edge riding her tone, and let's just say, I'd be a fool to get in that woman's way. "We'll handle the rest – gladly."
One of the attendants appears with a tray of savory kebabs and flaky pastries, while the other delivers a crystal decanter and a set of matching glasses. As soon as it's poured, Dobroshi slugs back two fingers of a light, amber-tinted brandy. He immediately demands a second round, and as he waits, he plucks a slim, black phone from his inside pocket.
While Dobroshi scrolls, I do a quick check of the swarthy thug by the wall. That pig's belt and fly are already open, and as he continues his groping and pawing, it takes a real concerted effort not to shoot him right now. Instead, I skip over to the brawler at the other end of the table, where he's cramming a pastry into his mouth. At least that one's too busy stuffing his ugly face to assault the woman on his lap.
Cursing, I return to my primary target.
As my finger curls around my trigger, my heartbeat automatically slows. All soreness from before vanishes, forgotten as my muscles relax and uncoil. My lungs deflate, flattening my chest to the concrete, and everything in me stills.
Even the busy city below goes quiet.
Dobroshi brings his phone to his ear, and it's just enough distraction for Tanya to get away with leaning back, giving me a perfect line of sight to that motherfucker's head. I can count his eyelashes.
A beat later, Dobroshi's brows slam down into a harsh, furious scowl. His cheeks puff out as bright, livid pink climbs his neck and cheeks. Whoever's on the line says something else, and Dobroshi slaps his hand on the table. With a raging, guttural response, he bolts out of his chair, shoving Tanya off his lap to the ground, and begins to pace.
It's then that he freezes.
Almost as if in slow motion, Dobroshi's hand falls to his side. His phone drops and clatters against the tile, and he glances up. Staring out into the darkness, he blindly laps the rooftops, searching for what he doesn't have a prayer of finding. When he pivots toward my building, he flinches, and for a second, I'd almost swear he actually spots me, too.
"That's right, asshole," I whisper, smiling as his lips part in mute surprise. "It's your turn."
On cue, Dobroshi's shoulders straighten, but it's too late.
With a single flex of my finger, the air thumps.
My high-powered round whistles across those thousand meters, and I split his head like a fucking melon.
Katya's high-pitched scream pierces the silence, and chaos erupts on top of the roof. As Dobroshi's body crumples into a bloody pool, the attendant by the table collapses to his knees and covers his face, wailing in terror.
My barrel swings right as I chamber another round, and then I fire again.
This time, the brawler at the table goes down. Already half-standing, he jerks as my round shreds his heart and exits his back in a fan of atomized crimson. He lurches, slumps back down to his chair, and then his bald head smacks into the tabletop.
I don't wait to see if he's still alive.
Swinging left, I target the thug by the wall. Like a coward, he hauls Irina around and tries to hide behind her. Of course, he has no fucking clue where I am, so I fire into the cement brick beside him, close enough to spray him with debris and scare the shit out of him.
It works like a charm.
That fucker damned near throws his hostage off the roof as he dives for cover.
Problem is, bullets are faster.
And because tonight, I, too, am an angry, vengeful asshole, I nail that son of a bitch in the balls.
The thug stumbles to the ground. As he rolls and screeches in pain and horror, I'm tempted to let him live, if nothing else, just so that Rosalie can deal with him like he deserves. When I catch the vicious, triumphant smile that stretches across Irina's pretty, young face as she peeks out from behind her wall, honest to God, I almost give in.
"Good for you, girl," I say, smiling back.
Unfortunately, we have a schedule to keep, so with a huff, as he rolls back toward me, I finally give him his mercy and pop him between the eyes.
"It's all yours," I say into my mic, still smiling as I pack up my gear like any other day.
"Took you long enough," Rosalie replies, and then in the background, I pick up her pissy command to McCarty. "You're getting old, Swan."
I laugh hard at that, and even though she won't see it, I flip off her general vicinity. "Fuck you, Hale."
"Whatever. Happy hunting, heifer."
Shaking my head, I sling my rifle case over my shoulder and head toward the rickety fire escape on the other end of the building. It's a long trek down, but it's a fast one. No more than two minutes later, I drop those last few meters, and my boots hit the pavement with a muted thud.
Right on time, an engine revs behind me, loud and echoing in the narrow alley. When I turn, my smile morphs into a full-on grin. "Nice bike."
It is, too.
Sitting on top of a sleek, midnight panther of a bike and decked out in matching, black-on-black leathers, Masen flips his visor up. For a second, he stares at me, roaming my features in a quick circuit before traveling the length of my body. He pauses on the matte black Kevlar vest covering my chest and abdomen and then again on the dark, tacky grease paint coating my face.
Satisfied by whatever he sees, Masen's eyes crinkle. He shoots me a mischievous, stupidly sexy smile, reaches behind him, and hands over an extra helmet. "Your chariot awaits, milady."
Snorting, I swipe the helmet out of his hand and climb on behind him, and as soon as my arms lock around his waist, he hits the gas.
He doesn't mess around, either.
No, Masen rides just like he fucks, and as we lean around a corner, nearly kissing the asphalt with our knees, all I can do is laugh.
When we straighten out, he fishes a phone out of his pocket and yells over his shoulder. "Get rid of that, will you?"
"That was you who called him?" I cock a brow, even as I take the phone and start to disassemble it. He laughs when my thighs squeeze his. "What'd you say to him?"
Masen glances back, flashing me another row of pearly teeth. "Just a little payback for Prague."
Forty-eight hours later, I walk out onto the sundeck of the hundred-plus-meter, aptly-renamed Eclipse.
I don't know who actually owns this thing now, but everywhere I look, I spy the fingerprints of its former master.
Like everything else he touched, Aronov's boat is a master class in comfort, sophistication, and exceptional wealth. Unsurprisingly, fine, original artwork still decorates the walls, lit by the glowing crystal chandeliers suspended from the ceilings. Butter-soft leather couches and exotic wood furniture fill every room, and there's enough high-end electronics hidden inside these walls to make Whitlock weep.
Sitting at five decks high, complete with a helo pad, sauna, pool, and a dozen or so staterooms, Aronov's yacht might as well be a six-star hotel.
A fast six-star hotel.
Lürssen certainly knows what they're doing, as evidenced by the fact that we made it through the Dardanelles Strait and the Aegean Sea in well under a day.
I'm pretty sure I caught Masen drooling.
As for me, I don't know how I feel about it.
Maybe a little melancholy. Perhaps even a little sad.
But it's the perfect camouflage sitting out here in the middle of the sparkling blue waters of the Cyclades, where the wealthy and super-wealthy like to come out and play.
As I weave through the loungers and make my way to the edge of the deck, I throw the switch on my rangefinder. At two in the morning, it's pitch black out here, with only a whisper of illumination from the moon peeking through the clouds and the handful of lights from the distant passing ships. That's more than enough for my optics, and as I gaze out across the open water to the smaller, seventy-meter yacht parked nearly a mile away, everything comes into sharp focus, washed in a layer of neon, night vision green.
Impatient, I check my wrist.
Right on schedule, Retzos' yacht abruptly goes dark, starting with the flybridge lights at the top. The decks below blink off like dominoes until even the emergency floods on the hull go out. The motors wind down a beat later, and the choppy water line at the stern smooths out.
I quickly scan the decks for movement, especially the lower, where at least a few of the crew should be emerging by now.
Nothing but silence and utter stillness, broken only by the gentle lapping of the waves ten meters down. After a few minutes of waiting, my brows climb to my hairline.
"Slick," I say, adjusting my headset as I skip over to the massive cabin on the center deck. Like the rest of the boat, the windows remain dark, and there's not a hint of motion inside.
Masen doesn't answer me out loud, nor do I expect him to, not in that kind of close-quarters environment. Instead, he taps his ear twice, and that's all I need to hear.
"You're good, at least on the starboard side," I tell him as I sweep my rangefinder up to the bridge and then back down to the mechanical room at the stern. Masen taps his ear again, and – don't ask me how – I catch a distinct note of wry humor in his non-response. I roll my eyes. "But you already knew that."
I pick up a whispered chuff of a laugh.
"Fine." I roll my eyes again. "Hurry your ass up, hot shot."
I'll give him credit where it's due.
While I may be the better shot at fifteen hundred meters, Masen's sneakier than me. He might even be better with a pistol, too.
Of course, there's no fucking way I'm telling him that.
Either way, as soon as I resume my scanning, I pick up a faint pulse of pale green in the corner of my lens. I pivot, just as three more muzzle flashes light up the curtains of the main cabin window. Another three immediately follow, repeating in a lightning-fast, triple-tap cadence.
Even though I know he's fine, I still hold my breath until I hear the quiet rap in my headset.
"It's done," he whispers, breaking his own rules.
This time, I spot him when he exits Retzos' stateroom. Little more than a shadow amongst the shadows, Masen traverses the length of the vessel before taking the last set of stairs to the lower swim deck at the stern. He pauses only to throw on his fins and mask, but then he doesn't hesitate.
He doesn't even look back, and coupled with the fact that I've yet to see a single crew member, that says something impressive, not to mention something potentially very, very scary.
With a quick check of his watch, Masen dives off the back of the boat, instantly vanishing into the inky water below.
I don't pick him up again until he's halfway here.
Smooth and incredibly fast, Masen slides through the water, just below the waterline, in a streamlined, economical combat stroke that makes him virtually impossible to see. The only way I know he's there is because I'm looking hard and I happen to know what kind of pace he can maintain.
I follow him for a little bit longer, all the while relaying our status back to Whitlock and by extension, Platt. She's about as happy as I'd expect that woman to be, less so when I inform her that we're keeping the yacht and crew for at least another week or two.
I think we've earned a vacation.
Regardless, precisely thirty minutes after diving off the back of Retzos' yacht, the nearly silent pad of bare feet against wood comes from behind me. Twisting around on my fancy, heated double lounger, I grin at the panting, dripping-wet man in black.
"Fuck, I hate wearing these things," Masen says as he crumples an empty bottle of water and drops it into the bin. Yanking his neoprene hood off, he shakes his head like a dog. Chuckling at the bird's nest he doesn't bother to tame, I throw him a towel to scrub the grease off his face. He gets most of it. "Seriously, I do not miss this shit at all."
I muffle another laugh as he fumbles for the zipper tab in the back, but when he starts to peel down his wetsuit, revealing all those pretty lines and valleys that disappear behind the waistband of his diving shorts, my laugh turns into quiet, feminine contemplation.
"What?" Masen knows exactly what I'm looking at, and after all his ogling, he has the nerve to smirk at me.
"Just enjoying the show." I shrug as I slide over to make room. "Shoot me."
That smirk of his grows even more pronounced, but he doesn't say a word. Instead, grabbing a blanket-sized towel from the adjacent chair, Masen collapses beside me and throws his arm across my shoulders.
He's damp. He's sticky from all the salt. He smells like the ocean and everything that comes with it.
And I don't mind at all.
Neither does he when I slip out from under his arm and climb on top.
Long, sure fingers bracket my bare knees before sliding beneath my utility shorts to squeeze my thighs. In the dark of the night, his irises gleam like onyx.
"So," I say as my fingertips slowly trace the swirling lines of the map and compass decorating his shoulder and chest. His skin pebbles everywhere I touch. Judging by the thick line of muscle pressing into my thigh, I don't have to ask if he likes it. "What happened with the crew?"
Masen glances away. For a second, his jaw works back and forth like he's not sure he wants to tell me. He surprises me when he quietly says, "I let them go."
I still. "You did what?"
"I found the captain." Sitting up, Masen releases me, only to snake his arms around my waist and pull me against the hard wall of his chest. "He remembered me from my previous… visit."
Before I can blink, one hand slips beneath my top to splay across my spine. The other winds into my hair, tugging my head back so he can kiss a long, wet line down the column of my throat.
As an evasive maneuver, it's effective.
So effective that it takes a not-small amount of willpower to lean back and ask, "The one where Aronov sent you to scare the shit out of Retzos?"
"He knew what I was there for tonight," Masen says, nodding before resuming his assault on both my neck and my senses. When he starts to suck, my God. My hips rock against him, and I'm not sure which one of us groans first. "Fuck, you feel good."
I grin. "And?"
"I told him to get his crew to the port side lifeboat, disable communications, and get the hell out of there. They should make it to shore by morning."
"Why?" I ask, even though I already know. I lean back again, just enough to look him in the eye, and for a second, we stare at each other.
"I didn't feel like killing ten extra people." Masen's voice is a quiet whisper in the dark. "They were just there for a paycheck, hardly deserving of a death sentence." My palms ghost up his chest to the tops of his shoulders, and the muscles there flex and roll. He hesitates before softly adding, "Two was enough for tonight."
Something warm and heavy threads through my middle. "So, why the lifeboat?"
Masen checks his wrist, and without warning, one corner of his mouth pulls up into a lopsided smile. It's a sheepish, almost playful smile, and it makes him look nearly a decade younger. When I ask again, his lips twitch.
"Because in five minutes, a brick of C4 is going to blow a truck-sized hole in that hull."
"C4." I try and fail at blandness, and my shoulders shake with silent laughter. "You just wanted to blow something up, didn't you?"
"It'll buy us some extra time." Masen shoulders roll in a lazy, indifferent shrug, but then his brows wag, and I laugh out loud as he strips my shirt off and chucks it over the railing. The thin, white cotton flutters in the wind, dancing its way down to the water below. "We're far enough off the coast and in deep enough water, it'll take a day before they notice. I estimate another two before anyone can get divers down there and figure out what actually happened."
I kiss him then, taking his mouth just like he always takes mine. "You are one scary man, you know that?"
"Me?" The look he gives me is priceless. "You're the one who shoots people in the nuts. You're fucking terrifying."
"Then, I guess we make quite a pair."
Eto vsyo / That's all
Thank you all so much for joining me on this little ride. I had such fun writing it and sharing it with you. I hope you enjoyed reading it, too.
Tarlabaşı: is a neighborhood in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. Located near the popular European quarter, it's a colorful, diverse neighborhood that is economically challenged and suffers from crumbling infrastructure and high crime
Lürssen: is a well-known builder of superyachts. Yachts and superyachts are common fixtures / status symbols often associated with Russian billionaires and oligarchs. Some own more than one
Dardanelles Strait: is the natural straight that connects the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas with the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea (via the Bosporus Strait). Ocean traffic into/out of Istanbul travels this strait
Cyclades: a Greek island group located in the Aegean Sea, which includes the islands of Naxos, Syros, Mykonos, and Santorini, along with many others
Stern: in boat-speak, this is the rear of a ship. The bow is the front. When looking from the stern toward the bow, port is the left, and starboard is the right. The bridge is the control center from which the ship is steered. The flybridge is the often-seen little deck at the very top.
Combat Swimmer Stroke: a hybrid stroke developed by the Navy for SEALs. It combines aspects of breaststroke, freestyle, and sidestroke into a fast, efficient stroke that can be maintained for long distances while keeping the swimmer submerged most of the time (and thus, harder to spot)