The chill in the air was no match for the frigid shards of ice that filled Mila’s veins, as she tried to meet Aiden’s steady gaze. Behind her, the girl Avis and her companion Neal took refuge in her slight shadow. Mila doubted that would matter. If Aiden was here, in front of her, then his men weren’t far behind. It wouldn’t be long until they were completely surrounded, hemmed in on all sides by Hill’s hired hands and the better trained, more psychopathic mercenaries that Aiden had trained. When that happened, none of them would be safe, no matter where they happened to be hiding.
Their best bet – their only bet, in fact, when it came to survival – was to rush him before he had a chance to get his feet under him. Avis wouldn’t be able to do much, of course, but Neal had been hired by hill at some point. He’d served in the military. He probably didn’t possess the training necessary to take Aiden in a straight fight, but he might serve as an adequate distraction if Mila could convince him to take the lead. Best case scenario, the two of them could overwhelm Aiden and beat him down before he was able to start firing shots and dropping bodies.
Worst case, Neal might die.
Mila didn’t feel any particular way about that possible outcome. She’d been hired to protect Devlin, not her two current charges. The fact that she was nowhere near her primary goal was a significant deviation from the norm, already. Saving someone else’s life, instead of Devlin or Sarah, was unthinkable.
If Neal died, Mila could imagine that Devlin and Sarah would be angry. But, eventually, they would have to realize that she had made the only logical choice in the situation. Neal was an accessory to one of their true goals. The pair of thieves needed Avis, if they were ever going to decode the contents of the Book. Devlin, specifically, needed Mila if he held even the slightest hope of survival. Neal was…extraneous. Sacrificing him wouldn’t derail too many plans. It was even possible that the death of her caretaker would provide Avis with the impetus to destroy Hill, as his men would have been technically responsible for the murder.
Or, maybe not. Maybe Avis would blame Mila and, by extension, Sarah and Devlin for the death of her only friend. Maybe she would throw her lot back in with Hill. Maybe she would decide to go rogue, using her talents in service of the highest bidder. Her employer might be able to do something, if that became the case. She certainly had enough money to recklessly throw around.
Emotions, and the confusing interplay between them, weren’t her strong point. Her entire life had been constructed on the belief that cold logic – the hard, undeniable math of life – was easier to grasp and understand, as opposed to the shifting allegiances and loyalties that amounted to regular relationships with other humans. Animals were easier; cats were best. These were beings whose loyalties were perfectly clear and entirely predictable. If fed, Sam would be loyal and lovable. If not, he would turn angry and lash out. There weren’t any additional layers of double-speak or obfuscation to sift through.
Whatever the possible ramifications, Mila knew that she had to move, now, before things could get any worse. Yet, she couldn’t seem to will her muscles into action. There was a large caliber gun hidden in a holster at the small of her back, but her hand simply refused to move in that direction. Another handgun, smaller than the one at her back, was concealed inside of an ankle holster. Mila found that she couldn’t make herself reach for that one either. Even the spring-loaded Derringer in her sleeve – the one that only required a single expert flick of her wrist to summon – was beyond her ability. She was armed to the teeth, practically bristling with weaponry, and she couldn’t bring herself to use so much as a switchblade in her own defense.
Instead, she stared everywhere, except at Aiden. Her mentor – former mentor, she corrected aggressively – looked at her with cold, flat eyes. His expression betrayed no emotion, no weakness, and it was too chilling for Mila to bear, even if only in passing. She kept her eyes flickering from left to right, preparing herself mentally for the inevitable arrival of Aiden’s hirelings.
“Are you just going to stand there?” Mila projected confidence, despite the fact that she was only barely keeping herself from trembling in terror. “Did you want to do something, or are you just going to look threatening?”
“Thorn,” Aiden replied in a seductive whisper. The sound of his voice strummed a note on strings in her soul that Mila herself had forgotten about. She shivered in response to the sensation before she could help herself. “Oh, it is good to see you again.”
Mila wanted to say something clever and devastating in response to that. Her time around Devlin and Sarah had been short, as protection assignments went, but they’d managed to infect her with the desire for banter. Academically, she knew that the right insult at the right time might be enough to shake Aiden out of his comfort zone. If he were out of his comfort zone, he might make a mistake. Then, she could gain the upper hand and handle him before things got too far out of her control.
Nothing clever or devastating came to mind. She simply glared at him, instead.
“You have done an amazing job proving your point,” Aiden continued, in that same enticing half-whisper. “And I’ve learned my lesson, trust me. You are nothing like the others, Thorn. I know that know. That’s why I’ve spent so much time trying to find you.”
“Why?” Mila’s lips moved and her lungs provided the oxygen for the question, even though she’d never given them the conscious order to do either thing. “Why try so hard to find me? You could just replace me with the next broken girl, couldn’t you?”
“Replace you?” Aiden threw back his head and laughed. “You think I’ve spent this much time and money for my own health? You think there’s anyone in the world that could possibly replace you?”
Mila knew the man well enough to realize when he was building up to something. She watched him and, at the same time, allowed her awareness to skip across her surroundings. She couldn’t forget that Carlos and Mikhail were out there somewhere and, if nothing else, Carlos would have a vested interest in seeing her suffer. Their working relationship had been fraught with tension at the best of times. She doubted that his disposition would have changed after she’d humiliated him at the processing plant.
Aiden’s left arm jerked violently up and out. The sudden movement caught Mila, Avis, and Neal off guard. The little girl and her guardian cowered back, closer to the house, and Mila’s uninjured hand darted back to the handgun at the small of her back without a moment’s hesitation. She bent her knees slightly, ready to leap either to the left or the right, depending on what Aiden’s next move was.
He made no additional move. Instead, he gave her a mildly rueful look, rolled his shoulder, and shook his head. “I’d hoped to keep that from you until later.”
“What’s wrong?” Mila asked the question automatically. As soon as the words passed her lips, she regretted them. The lingering vestige of concern was as surprising as it was disheartening.
“A degenerative illness,” Aiden said. He reached one hand into his pocket and removed a fistful of pills, which he dry-swallowed. “Mikhail knows the technical name. All I know is that it’s killing me. Faster, lately.” He gave her a little smile. “That’s probably got something to do with all the exertion.”
“You’re dying,” Mila repeated, dumbly.
It didn’t seem real. The idea that Aiden, who had been such an integral part of her formative years…Aiden, who had trained and guided her until she’d been able to harness the darkness inside of her…Aiden, who had filled the last few years of her life with terror and unreasoning apprehension…he was dying.
Of course, she’d known that he was taking medication. She had even managed to find out the name of those pills and the likely diagnoses. But to hear the words from his own lips, spoken so casually, was a different thing entirely. It meant an end to the stalking, the constant fear of what lay around the next corner.
It meant the loss of yet another link to her past, her identity.
Mila’s mouth continued to work, operating on its own initiative. “What do you want from me, then? Shouldn’t you be convalescing somewhere, trying to get better?”
“This isn’t the kind of thing I’m going to get better from,” Aiden said. He took a half step closer and Mila, without thinking, took a half step back. He betrayed no offense at the movement, except for a tiny shrug with one shoulder. “But you have to know what I want from you.”
A shiver went through her body that had nothing to do with fear. “I’m not…” She stopped, swallowed, started again. “I’m not going back with you. Not this time.”
“Isn’t that you said last time, Thorn?” Mila sensed a movement from either Avis or Neal. Aiden’s eyebrows went up a millimeter. “You didn’t tell your new charges yet, did you?”
As much as Mila wanted to say something, anything, to stop him from continuing, she couldn’t seem to form coherent thoughts. She stood, still as a gargoyle, and failed to meet Aiden’s prying gaze.
“This isn’t the first time she’s gone rogue,” Aiden continued, directing his words to the little girl and the wounded man behind Mila. “Although it is the longest she’s ever been away. I’d be angry about that, but I’ve got some bigger issues to deal with, at the moment.”
His body shook slightly. One eye winked half shut and her lowered his head for a second, pressing one thumb into his temple as he did so. Mila knew that she should use the momentary weakness to attack, or to flee, but she remained rooted to the spot.
Aiden recovered but, when he spoke, there was a roughness to his voice that hadn’t been there before. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve found you again, so it’s time to give up on this whole charade. This isn’t who you are, Thorn, and we both know it. Why don’t you just come back and – “
“No!” Mila screamed. The word ripped out of her throat with painful force. She staggered back another step or two, bumping into the smaller Avis as she did so. “No, Aiden! I’m not coming back with you! I won’t be one of your lackies again!”
Aiden blinked twice, very deliberately. “Is that what you think? That because I couldn’t replace you, I want you to come work for me again?” He laughed. The seductive timbre was gone, replaced by a raspy sound, like shards of glass on broken gravel. “Thorn, Thorn, Thorn. You really don’t understand, do you?”
“What,” Mila asked again, in a bare hint of a whisper, “do you want from me?”
“I want you to replace me,” Aiden said. “Who else would I trust to take over for me after this thing finishes with me?”
Mila’s bottom jaw dropped open. She heard a sharp intake of breath from the two people behind her, but she couldn’t seem to care about their presence. She knew, with her conscious mind, that this had to be nothing more than another one of Aiden’s twisted games. It wasn’t the first one he’d played to get her back under his thumb, but it was the most original she’d encountered. An offer to take over his mercenary crew after his death? She couldn’t imagine the collective of hired guns working for anyone except for Aiden himself.
However…she couldn’t deny the possibilities inherent in the proposition. She hadn’t left because the work itself had bothered her. She’d left because she feared the person she became when Aiden was in a position to pull on her strings. With him gone, and her as his designated replacement, she could expect some rebellion from the likes of Carlos. That wouldn’t be a problem. Mikhail was an unknown factor, but she supposed that he’d only been hired for his pharmaceutical skills. So long as Mila took over possession of the finances, he would most likely stay. Even if he didn’t, she’d built up a fearsome reputation of her own over the years. It wouldn’t be difficult to assemble a pool of talent to handpick her own squad from.
Aiden was talking. The new, sandpaper quality to his voice did nothing to detract from the pull it exerted on her secret yearnings and fears. “You know it’s what you’ve always wanted,” he said. “A chance to do things your way, instead of just following orders. You can pick your own team, choose your own jobs. I’ll let everyone know that you, Thorn, are my chosen successor. You won’t be able to deal with all the offers that come your way.”
It was as though he could read her mind. She risked a moment of eye contact and instantly wished that she hadn’t. His gaze practically bore into hers.
“This way,” he continued, “you’ll be free to do whatever you want, whenever you want to. No more pretending that you’re this protecting angel, swooping down to save the rich and indolent from the deaths they’ve got coming. You can be an avenging angel, if that’s what your heart really wants. I know you don’t have any love for the people who hired us. I know you don’t spend your life waiting for the score. Thorn, I know what you really want.”
He did. Mila couldn’t find it in herself to deny that. Aiden knew her better than anyone alive ever would. It wasn’t that their relationship had ever progressed into anything sexual – Mila personally disdained that particular interaction and, while Aiden engaged in recreation with a few people in more than a few ports of call, he’d never made an advance – but that their relationship was mental. It was emotional. If she’d been religious, Mila would have called it spiritual.
She couldn’t lie to him. She’d never really been able to fool him, except when he’d wanted to be fooled. That had to be why he’d let her leave so many times; Aiden had known, beyond a shadow of that, that she’d come back, every time. Not because she had run out of money or resources, but because she would want to come back.
“I’m not going to leave them,” Mila croaked out. “I won’t let you have them.”
Aiden threw back his head and roared with laughter once more. “I couldn’t care less about your projects,” he said. “I won’t kill them, but I won’t protect them, either. If they’re too weak to survive on their own, then they deserve whatever comes their way.”
Time seemed to stretch out into infinity while Mila considered that offer. She might be able to draw Aiden away this way. Perhaps she could bluff him into retreating and make her escape another way. She could still use Aiden’s men to protect Devlin and his crew from afar, once the man finally succumbed to his sickness. It wasn’t ideal, but…
Mila cut the line of thought short with a brutal shake of her head. There wasn’t any point lying to herself. She knew the truth, just as well as Aiden did: if she went with him now, she’d never really come back. Not as she was, no. Emilia would die here.
“I’ve got to admit,” Aiden said, “that I don’t even know what you see in them. These meek lambs, cringing away from real power and bleating the whole way to slaughter. These people could never understand anyone like us.” Mila realized that he’d closed the distance between them, without her noticing, and now he reached out and brushed the back of his hand against her cheek. “They could never love you. Not like I do.”
She longed for more of his touch, his approval. Her knees buckled slightly and a soft sound of pleasure passed her lips. Her foot lifted from the ground of its own accord and she started to take a single, fatal step forward.
Then his words sunk in. She looked up and saw the same hunger that growled in her belly reflected in Aiden’s eyes. For the first time, she looked at that naked desire and didn’t recognize it.
Mila stepped back and slapped Aiden’s hand away. “No, Aiden. Not like you. Never like you. Not again.” She extended both arms, the broken and the unbroken, so that her body shielded the two people hiding behind her. “You don’t love me, Aiden. You never did. You love you, and the part of you that you see in me. But…but I’m not you, Aiden. I never was and I never will be.”
The change that came over Aiden’s face happened in a heartbeat and it was no less horrifying for its swiftness. Every line of his face shifted and contorted in an expression of absolute, baleful rage and his fingers curled into claws. He lashed out at her face and Mila barely managed to lean back, away from the attack. She shuffled back several more feet, pushing Avis and Neal as she went, until she was almost back inside of the estate.
“You’re a liar!” Aiden said, between tightly gritted teeth. “You’re just like me, Thorn, no matter what lies you have to tell yourself. And you will come back with me; either you do it on your own, or you do it unconscious. If I have to kill your little lambs with my bare hands to prove it, I will and you know it.”
Mila nodded, feeling a strange sense of calm acceptance flooding her body. “I know. And I’ll die before I let you.” She paused. “And the name’s Emilia.”
Aiden made a guttural noise that sounded painful in the back of his throat. Spittle appeared at the corners of his mouth. Mila started to reach for the gun at the small of her back, but it didn’t matter. Sick or not, Aiden was as fast as he’d ever been. The first blow caught her, just above her left temple, before she was even able to blink.