16.2 | Questions Without Answers

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As Ren approached, Misha flashed a smile. "Nika was just telling me about Vanski's training techniques. He's gotten even worse since I was at Konstantin."

Ren drew to a halt near the fireplace, granting them a small grin. Not a shred of suspicion as to what had just happened.

"He's not so bad, compared to the instructors at Konstantin East."

Misha rolled his eyes. "Don't you dare bring up the cabin story." Clearly a reference to an inside joke between old friends.

"I'll spare you this time. For Nika's sake," Ren said with a rolling chuckle.

Nika couldn't help staring. She'd never heard such a sound come from him, despite her frequent endeavors to coax him into slipping out of that keeper's mask. And she despised Misha even more for having been the one to evoke it.

The investigator muttered about needing to leave soon, and as he sauntered for the front door, Nika read the silent message in his eyes.

Not a damned word.

She might have said a few vulgar things in reply, but Ren interrupted.

"I'll be there in a moment." He turned to Nika with a frown. "Something wrong?" he whispered.

She caught his gaze. "No. Everything is great." Too quick to be true, but before Ren could pry, she added, "When will you be back?"

"Why? Trying to orchestrate a jailbreak?"

An eyebrow arched in challenge, almost as if he wanted her to try.

Wondering just what kind of security he'd implemented for his absense, she said, "Nonsense. I just want to know how long I'm going to miss our lovely chats."

Ren donned the brown leather jacket that had been draped over the sofa. It was a miracle that his broad shoulders and sculpted arms didn't break the stitches.

"Two days. Maybe three, depending on what we find."

"Well," Nika said, plunking onto the couch. "I'll be here, eagerly awaiting your return."

His features softened, and so did his voice. "I know."

Nika tore her eyes away. Maybe she would be eagerly waiting. Not for Ren, but for the news he brought. And a foolish part of her hoped he'd return with Lu.

Her mind wandered to her sister-friend, asking questions that couldn't be answered. She didn't know how long it had been before Ren sat down and gave her an encouraging nudge.

"Misha is very good at his job. And I'm..."

"Dedicated?"

His mouth might have twitched with the inklings of a smile, but it didn't manifest itself.

"Yes. And we're going to find her."

It took all of two seconds for Nika to regard him with widened eyes and pouted lips, which Markos had never denied an indulgence.

"Let me go with you. Please."

She'd already attempted to use the pleading face on Ren, and was almost offended when he'd scoffed in reply. Since then, she'd tried a dozen methods to persuade him. None had succeeded.

Ren shook his head in disapproval. "It's mine and Misha's job to go headfirst into a potentially dangerous situation. But you are seventeen and, in case you haven't noticed"—a sweeping look over her figure—"rather inadequate in physical terms. You'll just make it more difficult, especially if things go awry."

Each sentence struck a deafening blow, pounding Nika's frustration into rancor.

"Asshole," she spat, storming out of her seat, and then out of the parlor.

Ren hissed softly in Russian. She heard him prowling after her, his footsteps like the clangs of a gong.

"I didn't mean inadequate in every sense of the word," he said, following her down the main corridor that led to the staircase. "You're just...small. Not in a bad way. But your size suggests you're an easy target. It makes you seem weak."

For a heartbeat, Nika' vision flashed red. "You should go," she said over a shoulder, barely leashing her anger. "Wouldn't want Misha to get bored."

"Misha can wait."

She was darting up the first steps when he caught her hand.

Nika stiffened.

No hard grip around her wrist. No pulling her like an overused toy.

He gently tugged her fingers, his calluses brushing her own. Miraculously, she found herself turning around.

Ren was slightly paler than usual. Nika waited for an apology, but instead, he ground out, "Stay on the property while I'm gone."

Torn between disappointment and shock, she didn't move as he released her hand and warily stepped backward. A hunter tiptoeing around a viper nest.

"Viktor has a party tomorrow," she blurted. "I'd ask for your permission, but I'll be going no matter what you say."

Ren had never bothered to conceal his hatred for Viktor Kostopoulos. And though it was likely absurd, Nika wanted him to know that, while he was trapped in an SUV with Misha, she would be gallivanting around the Rogue Minister's mansion.

Ebony eyes studied her for a long moment. Then he quietly said, "Just be careful, Nika."

"I doubt the wolves would bother with someone as weak and inadequate as me."

Ren didn't even blink. "I'm not talking about Volkari."

"I don't need your warnings," she called out as he opened the front door. "Or your protection, or your sparring sessions."

"Who are you trying to convince? Me or yourself?"

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