8am Sharp - August 2016

Bella Jade Black was already seated at the desk when Nikolai arrived at the office, her smart yet perfectly tailored business suit hugging her body in all the right places without a hint of vulgarity. Her neckline was respectable - though lower than it could have been – the black lace camisole she wore beneath her silk charcoal shirt peeking just above the button that held it all perfectly together in a neat package.

-Classy creature, aren’t you?-

He felt a strange surge of pride as he studied her from the open doorway, glimmering eyes drinking in her form appreciatively, lips quirking into his customary half-smile as he leant against the frame casually.

-Someone raised you well-

She seemed weary as she silently perused the collection of notes in front of her, her brow creasing in perplexion. There was the tiniest hint of red around her eyes…Niki guessed that she’d been crying, and recently.

-Don’t fret my pretty…everything will be fixed soon enough…-

He made a small sound in his throat to announce his presence, drawing her attention from the document in her hands. When she looked up, her dark blue eyes clouded, her jaw tightening as her brows furrowed and she regarded him, her gaze turning to ice.

“I didn’t expect you to be on time…” she said flatly, “I wasn’t sure if you knew…”

“Where to find the office? I got that one from Baelian…” he interjected with a smile, seemingly unfazed by her cold greeting or the flicker of pain that the sound of his name elicited. Pushing away from the door, Niki sauntered into the room, making his way around the desk to sit opposite her, depositing a small white box and a large takeaway coffee cup on the polished surface between them and pulling the large folder he carried into his lap.

“Claudia sends her regards, and muffins…” he explained, when the offering was met with a raised brow, “From some French patisserie in town…”

“I see,” came the unimpressed reply, Bella’s expression remaining deadpan. She shuffled through a few notes, licking her lower lip and frowning as she deliberated on where to begin before dropping the papers to the desk and shaking her head.

“Anything you want to share about your weekend?” Her tone, if possible, grew colder. She was clearly not in the mood for games or niceties.

“Well I almost died in a fire…” Niki leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and gazing at her, that amused smile playing on his lips as he spoke, “But I survived, unlike all parties who were up until recently under the Professor’s employ…and that orderly who was raping Baelian…” Bella’s lashes flickered slightly but she said nothing as Niki went on, “Conveniently…all files pertaining to the Black Family and their associates were also destroyed, except of course for the copies I had made…” he dropped the rather large folder onto the desk beside the pastry box.

Bella stared at it in silence, seeming to gather herself for a good few moments before those biting eyes lifted to meet his.

“You almost died in a fire…” she began, “That you started. Without my knowledge. That I found out about via the news…” pausing, she pressed her lips together and took a breath. When she went on, her tone was more measured, “Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is…that I had to find out via the news first? Do you understand how bad that looks to our associates? If you want us to be this united front you keep mentioning Nikolai, and if you want me to keep running this family business, then we need to at least appear to be on the same page.”

To his credit, Niki didn’t laugh or even smile as she spoke, instead watching her in silence until she was done before offering a slight shrug.

“You're overreacting, Bella,” he told her, “Your husband went to finalise things at Oakleaf after his extensive stay…the inmates revolted while he was there and he and Claudia Monére almost died. There’s nothing untoward here…as far as both the press and our associates know, you are just glad that he's still alive...after all he’s been through…” he allowed himself a small smile, one that she did not return. Instead, she shook her head.

“All I'm saying is that a little private heads up about this ‘spontaneous’ revolt would have been useful and appreciated. I am perfectly capable of playing the ‘worried wife,’ but I have a baby to look after and a business to run. And this weekend has been rather dramatic already, remember?” She watched him weigh up her words, the genuine confusion on his face annoying her.

-You have no idea what you’ve done, do you?-

“I presume everything has been taken care of to ensure that all evidence points back to the inmates, yes?” Bella sighed, her eyes closing in brief relief when he nodded in the affirmative, “Do we need to worry about this nurse?”

Niki blinked and shook his head.

“Claudia will take care of the nurse…Janet Brown won't make it out of the hospital alive, if that's what you're asking…” he faltered for a moment then added, “I forgot that you cared about the merging thing. I promise I won’t burn anything else down without telling you first.”

Bella studied his face for signs of mockery or guile and, finding none, nodded in begrudging acceptance.

“Good. Thank you…” her eyes scanned her notes and her expression turned grim again, “I’m told you took Bethany out yesterday…”

Niki’s expression became smug and he nodded, then shook his head.

“She was perfectly safe…I didn’t rape her, nor did I hurt her any more than she wanted me to. And before you ask - no I won’t stop fucking her, and yes I promise not to kill or drug her. If she becomes a problem, I will certainly let you know…” he paused before adding, “And I will refrain from public displays of inappropriate sexual behaviour that may fuel unwanted gossip and attention…”

“Fine,” she shrugged, giving him a blank stare. Niki stared back, his trademark smile playing over his lips before he gestured to the white box between them.

“Have some breakfast Bella…your coffee is going to get cold and Claudia will be upset if you don’t sample her pastries…”

Bella’s gaze sharpened.

“Claudia is not exactly in my good graces right now...what has she put in the muffins? If she drugs me it's not going to make me any less pissed off in the long run…”

Niki laughed, shaking his head and opening the box to pull out a pastry for himself.

“She would never drug you Bella, I'd murder her and she knows it. If anyone is going to drug you it'll be me...” he took a small bite of the muffin.

“Oh, so it's the coffee I need to worry about then?”

“Very funny. I want to fuck you not kill you. I could do it after you're dead but I'd rather you were willing. Or at least conscious…” he swallowed as she raised an eyebrow, “You think I lie?”

“No,” Bella replied, taking up the coffee, “That's what concerns me.”

Niki smirked as she took a sip, watching her lips as they wrapped around the plastic lid, his own lips parting as a look of hunger washed through his features. Blinking it away, he waved a hand at her notes.

“So what’s next?”

The Queen of the Underground looked over the documents before her, blue eyes scanning her neat handwriting.

“…thank you for your offer to assist with the Family business. Black Family Inc. has an extensive team of highly trained and skilled professionals that have been with us for over a decade, so as gracious as your offer of time is, your input will not be necessary for the moment…” she glanced up at Niki, who nodded and gestured for her to continue, “I’ll check my diary and schedule a separate meeting to discuss that sizeable inheritance that’s just come through from Alexei Katorga’s estate, as per your request - most likely sometime next week - and I’ll let you know whether or not I am able to make an appearance at the party on the 16th pending a few business matters that may or may not arise…”

“I want to see my son,” Niki interrupted suddenly. Bella stopped, eying him before pressing her lips together and putting her notes down carefully.

“We can talk about that…in time…” she replied delicately.

“I’m thinking I’ll probably sleep at home at least twice a week, you know, to keep up appearances in this marriage of ours…” he went on, swivelling in his chair and tracing a finger over the desktop, “While I’m out, I’m not going to text you and tell you where I am every minute of every day…but you’re welcome to call or text and check in if you feel the need. I will make a point of trying to reply in a respectable amount of time…”

Bella narrowed her eyes.

“I do not need to know where you are every minute…I’ve never needed constant contact from Jasper…or Baelian…and certainly not you, Niki,” feeling herself get annoyed again, Bella steadied her breathing, “Where do you consider home to be?”

“Home,” Niki echoed, “You know…our house. That big thing with all the rooms we never go into….” He rose from the chair, moving around the desk to sit behind her on the leather settee, sprawling unceremoniously and putting his feet up, “But don’t worry, I’m not going to cross your professional boundaries unless I’m invited, though I would very much like at least a weekly dinner so we can get to know one another better…” he paused, frowning before adding, “And yes, you can have a bodyguard present if you like.”

The dark-haired woman had swivelled her chair around the moment that he’d moved, turning it to face him as he reclined across the expensive lounge. She looked at him reproachfully.

“Is dinner really necessary?” Bella asked, not bothering to hide her irritation at his ‘requests,’ “Baelian and I did just fine with mostly contact through work…at least in the beginning. And why would I need a bodyguard, Niki? Are you a threat to me or my child?” her eyes slitted and she straightened, rearing up slightly.

Dinner is a nice thing to do with the person who pulled you off the streets and rescued you from life as a child whore,” Niki replied pointedly, “And if I was a threat to you or our child, Bella Jade, neither of you would still exist…”

“Then why would a bodyguard be of any use to me?” she countered, tilting her head in a fashion remarkably similar to his own. Niki smirked.

“You ran off to another country the last time I was here, mere seconds after I appeared...forgive me for presuming that you didn't feel safe around me.”

“I wasn't. Was I? Not then at least…”

“Oh well now, I don't know,” Niki pouted, “You didn’t stick around long enough to find out. You ran to Uncle Jett. To JETT. May we take a moment to point out the absurdity of that choice...Jett was a born psychopath, I was just made. All this stuff that you seem to think I've done and am going to do...he was doing that all the while you were growing up...what do you think Betty was cleaning up all those years, strawberry jam? And yet off you went running to him…but apparently I’m a monster,” he sniffed, “I'm insulted.”

For the first time since he’d entered the room Bella smiled, a genuine amused smile that lit up her face as she shook her head, then laughed, leaning forward to level her gaze with his.

“Uncle Jett would never hurt me. Never. Family is everything to him. You have all Baelian’s memories Nikolai…you should know that Jett and I have always been close,” she wrinkled her nose, “You on the other hand, were a complete stranger. We didn’t recognise each other when we locked eyes that first time and I could smell danger on you. Why on earth do you think that, heavily pregnant and completely unable to defend myself, I would stick around to find out if I was safe?” she perked an eyebrow at him, “You said it yourself…if you’d wanted Tristan or I dead you’d see it done, and I didn't know if that was your intention at the time…so don't pull this ‘I'm insulted’ nonsense. You know very well why I went to Jett.”

Niki watched her with a strange expression that was partway between amusement and appreciation as she spoke, then he smiled and shrugged nonchalantly.

“You're right,” he admitted, laughing, “I understand completely. And I'm not insulted. I don't even know why I said that…but I stand by my offer of a bodyguard for all the reasons you just outlined.”

Bella’s brows rose and she smirked at him.

“And I stand by my original question. Is a bodyguard necessary? Am I or Tristan in danger around you?” she paused, frowning as if she’d only just registered something he’d said, “And what on earth are you talking about ‘nice thing to do’? Since when do you care about being nice?”

Niki feigned an exaggerated sigh, shaking his head and looking at her in disappointment.

“You know Bella, for someone who 'was a complete stranger’ and didn't recognise me ‘when we first locked eyes,' you are making a lot of assumptions about what I do and do not care about. If I say I want to have dinner so I can get to know you then it means I want to have dinner for that express purpose…” he made a face, shifting on the couch to face her more fully, “And no, you don't need a bodyguard…neither you nor my official male heir has anything to worry about. I will not kill either of you…though if you keep giving me attitude, I may smack you into next Sunday…” he paused, then winked at her, “I imagine you'll hit me back. Could be kinky.”

“Oh really? Give you attitude…” Bella scowled, “Then perhaps dinner isn't the wisest idea right now…certainly not weekly. I can't imagine it will do Tristan any good to see his parents laying into each other on a regular basis…” she trailed off when she saw a look of disappointment dance across face, though he masked it well with a shrug and a smirk seconds later, “Give me a week or so to adjust, at least,” she finished.

Niki nodded, “Fine.”

“We can have a weekly meeting at the office for now,” she added, eyes widening as he waved a hand in annoyance.

“I said fine.”

“Okay,” Bella nodded, “Good.”

“I’m not happy with our lawyer,” Niki declared, changing the subject seconds later, “Can we dispose of him?”

“For God’s sake…can’t we just fire him?” Bella rolled her eyes, “And not with actual fire…no more fire…” she held up a hand when Niki opened his mouth to respond, “We can certainly terminate his contract…but not in the Steiner sense of terminate. Cease his employment. Yes. That's what I meant.”

Niki’s expression was one of wonder as he stared at her.

“I meant fire him,” he chuckled, “Why, what did you think I meant? I don't believe you meant ‘cease his employment’...oh, wait. Was that a yes? Did you…did you just agree to let me kill someone?” his expression became teasing, but Bella was having none of it.

“You know perfectly well what ‘dispose of him’ sounds like, Nikolai. And no, I did not ‘agree to let you kill him.’ Why are you so unhappy with him anyway, besides the fact that he's clearly fairly useless?” Bella peered at him suspiciously as he shrugged.

“I dunno, I don't trust him. He's a coward and cowards are a liability to us.”

“Well on that we can agree,” she nodded, “His preliminary contract is coming to an end shortly…I'll check the date. It will cost us a fortune to terminate it prematurely. He may be a coward, but I can't imagine he wouldn't fight for what he's owed financially. That is, of course, unless we can find a suitably trustworthy replacement beforehand…someone ruthless...”

“Well I'd do it, but you don't trust me either…” Niki winked at her.

“No, I don’t,” Bella replied, staring at him blankly, “I'll look into options, but yes, Finnigan goes. Does he have any information about the family that could put us at risk?”

“He mentioned something - something about Claudia,” Niki told her, his features twisting into a scowl, “He had information on her or the Monére Family, and I don't know what it is...then he lost it. Whoever kidnapped him and inconsiderately let him live absconded with it, so we may need to keep him alive long enough for Scarlett to extract the information...”

Bella nodded, “So you do want to kill him.”

“Maybe. He keeps eying off my PA,” Niki made a face, “Not that I care...but Baelian cared and it's annoying me.”

“Jealousy is not reason enough to kill someone, Niki,” Bella leant back in her seat and crossed her arms, shaking her head at the man-child before her, “Do I need to walk you through how to be human?”

“It is too a reason to kill someone. They write good stories about it all the time and make it into movies…but no, thank you…I know how to be human. No one said that I had to enjoy or be happy about it.”

“Yes, but we all know how those movies end!” Bella caught herself getting worked up for the 100th time that morning and sighed, “Ok, fine. You don't have to be happy about it, but you can't kill the lawyer just because he's giving your PA googly eyes. Scarlett can have at him for the information…that is a worry…” she paused, “Which then of course leads to him potentially talking about torture and mistreatment...and more lawsuits…oh for God sakes…” her words trailed off as she noticed Niki’s smug ‘I told you so’ face, “Okay fine. Do whatever. But don't kill him until we have a replacement.”

Grinning, Niki saluted her, swinging his legs around and onto the floor, resting his elbows on his knees as he regarded the woman sitting across from him.

“While we’re on the subject of ‘doing what we want,’ there is the matter of the man who ‘raised’ and abused Lorelei, Alina's grandfather William. He needs to be disposed of. How much involvement do you want with this, or is it strictly need to know?”

Bella’s face darkened as she considered his question, a hand moving to smooth a crease in her finely tailored trousers.

“Do what you need to,” she said flatly, “Inform me of anything that could be made public…if his body is likely to be found by another poor jogger out for their morning run I'd like to know ahead of time…” she threw him a pointed glare and he nodded.

“Noted,” he replied, his eyes skittering away as he considered something in silence. When he looked back at her, his gaze had intensified.

“Where is Baelian's black leather journal, the one with all the information on the Seven Families? Don't tell me you don't know, I know he planned to give it to you and this is the second time I’m asking.”

Bella did not so much as bat an eyelash as she stared back at him.

“I told you at your birthday what I’m telling you now, Nikokai…I quite seriously have no idea what you're talking about. If Baelian did plan on giving me something he never got around to it. Perhaps he didn't realise he would be...leaving...so soon.”

“If you say so,” crossing his arms before him, Niki leaned back, clearly unconvinced but deciding not to push the point, “Is there anything you want or need?” he added, trying to hide his annoyance. Bella’s eyes slid closed and she offered a bitter smile, shaking her head.

“That, Niki, will be a long conversation that I am not ready or willing to have. Right now I want to know what you want…” she looked up at him.

“What I want in general or what I want in regards to you?” he tilted his head, drinking her in as she shifted in her seat.

“What you want in general, Niki…”

-I want you…to love you and adore you and worship you like you deserve and like he could never give you…that’s what you want to hear right? That’s what you all want to hear-

He paused and considered her question for the longest time, his gaze lowering to trace the patterns on the carpet. Finally he shrugged.

“I want to be alive,” he said slowly, those glimmering eyes meeting hers completely devoid of malice or deception, “I'm the core...this is my body, I'm 34 years old and I don't know how to be alive.”

Bella blinked, surprised, her brow furrowing as she considered him.

“Okay, well…” she said slowly, nodding, “I guess that's reasonable…” mistrust filled her eyes as she looked at him, “You don't have some grand plan?”

Niki made a face, waving a hand as if the idea was thoroughly irritating to him, as was the fact that she would even ask.

“No,” he said with a scowl, “I don't have a ‘grand plan’. I have four different lifetimes in my head, all of which conflict with one another…” a hand rose and his fingers rubbed at his temple, “My 'plan' consists of getting some peace and quiet so I can figure out what I feel about anything, or if I am even capable of feeling at all...and then maybe building that empire my fathers wanted me to build...I'm 20 years behind schedule, your efforts notwithstanding…” he paused, his face smoothing and his smile returning, “Which are not to be sniffed at, by the way.”

“Right. Well,” Bella merely nodded again.

“That was a compliment. You're welcome,” Niki told her.

“I’m overwhelmed.”

“Sarcasm becomes you.”

“Thank you,” she replied, succeeding – but only just – in keeping the amusement from her tone.

“No worries,” Niki, of course, was all smiles, batting those blue eyes at her in a way that grated on her.

“So,” she said quickly, turning her attention to the notes on the desk beside her, “I guess we've covered everything for now. I'll get back to you about those further meetings…” she shuffled with her paperwork.

“I guess…” Niki echoed, studying her body language with interest, “Anything else you want? Do you, like, dismiss me or do I saunter out or what? This couch is comfy, you could stay…do we shake hands?” his eyes widened like a child’s as she glanced back at him with a raised brow.

“I don't think that's necessary,” she told him, “I'll email you my schedule. Right now I have to see Tristan, then I have another appointment…so I need to run…” she rose, picking up her handbag and tucking her papers away, eying the Oakleaf folder for a moment before gathering that up as well, “Don't fuck anyone on that couch, it's vintage,” she warned him, avoiding his gaze.

Niki laughed and drew an imaginary cross over his chest.

“I'll be on my best behaviour, I promise.”

Bella snorted, shaking her head and throwing him a final glance.

“I'm sure,” she paused a moment longer before heading towards the door, “See you later in the week, Niki.”

He watched her go carefully, a soft smile gracing his lips as he called out after her.

“Bye, Bella Mia.”

Bella’s breath caught sharply, her head snapping back to look at him as she reached the door. Her jaw clenched, a flash of anger cracking her icy façade…and then she walked out without responding. Niki watched her go, his expression completely devoid of any emotion whatsoever.

“Until next week,” he murmured.

Written by Bella De Jac and N Ristovski.

All characters and story lines remain the property of N.Ristovski and the Underground. All character writings within the Underground are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Copyright © 2016. Natalie Ristovski.

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