Ah, so that explains his untouchable character—he’s almost as high up on the food chain here as Miz Ghita. And although I don’t for a fucking second believe that this particular woman is Francesca Moretti, I do get the feeling that Emilio is who he says he is. After all, the decoy, who can only pretend to be Francesca so much, needs the aid of the real Francesca’s closest and most trusted advisors. And in the case of a prominent Italian family such as this one, there is no one closer and more trusted than other members of the family.
“I’m an investor,” I say. “Stock market, real estate—”
“So you flip houses,” Emilio cuts me off, pissing on his turf; a snide grin follows, suggesting that flipping houses is for paupers and peasants.
The left-handed servant girl from before makes another round with a tray of wine, and I take a glass; my cool attention never leaves Emilio.
Smiling lightly, I bring the glass to my lips, take a small sip and then say afterward, “Actually, Emilio”—I take another sip just to draw out the moment—“there’s a lot of money to be made in, as you call it, flipping houses, if one knows what he’s buying. But to be honest, that’s not exactly what I do.”
“Then what is it, Mr. Augustin, that you do…exactly?” He takes a glass from the tray and brings it to his lips; his eyes remain on me, unblinking, over the rim as he drinks slowly.
“That,” I say with confidence, “is also better discussed in private”—I smile at the decoy standing next to him—“with the Madam. No offense, Mr. Moretti, but I don’t discuss my business ventures with anyone other than the one who sits at the head of the table. Clearly, you’re not that person.”
Emilio’s dark eyes flash, and he looks over at Miz Ghita standing next to the quiet servant girl holding the wine tray.
“I don’t think I like your tone,” he tells me.
I smile faintly, and then take another sip of wine.
“Yes, but your family’s establishment I suspect doesn’t give a shit about your opinion of my tone; my bank account is all that matters—isn’t it, Miz Moretti?” I glance at the decoy.
She takes a glass from the wine tray just as another one of the women who resembles her walks up without an escort.
Finally the decoy pretending to be Francesca steps up her game—now that she’s had time to figure out what to say. She looks over at Emilio, just as he’s about to say something in retaliation to me, and she holds up a finger to shut him up.
“That will be enough, dear Brother—I certainly don’t need you, or Mother, speaking for me.” Her dark eyes pass over Miz Ghita and then find mine. “To answer your question, Mr. Augustin: dark hair and the lightest brown skin, like Bianca’s here”—she reaches out to the servant girl and brushes the back of her fingers across the bare flesh of her shoulder—“is what makes me choose them; all of my most beloved pets possess these essential qualities.” She looks at Izabel. “What qualities must your favorites possess?”
“Well I only have one favorite girl,” I say without pause. “But what I look for in them are flaws. Particular flaws, however; I’m definitely not the kind of man who could put his cock in a woman who has the face of a horse.”
The decoy, the silent lookalike now standing beside her, and Emilio, all seem quietly stunned by my vulgarity. Even Izabel’s eyes meet mine for a brief second and I know she’s asking, “What the hell are you doing?”
Miz Ghita is unfazed.
What I’m doing, Izabel, is being myself—what did you expect, that I’d put on a suit and pretend that I’m Victor? You should know me better than that by now.
The fake Francesca smiles craftily. “That is certainly understandable, Mr. Augustin,” she says. “And I can assure you that you will find no women—or men—here who are not of the highest standards.”
“But he’ll also not find,” Emilio interjects coolly, “any flawed merchandise, so perhaps he should take his deformed strays and go elsewhere, rather than wasting your time, Sister.”
Turning my attention to Emilio, I say with a smirk, “Your attempts to get under my skin, Mr. Moretti, are infantile.” Then I lean toward him, lower my voice and say, “You really should keep your mouth shut; you’re making your family look bad in front of all these people.” I click my tongue and his brown face reddens; I look at the fake Francesca and add casually, “Looks like you could use an upgrade in the help around here—I’d be willing to offer a few pointers. Later, when we have our private meeting.”
“That’s enough!” the fake Francesca shouts at Emilio, putting up her hand to him again, just as he was about to lay into me. “I hate to say it, Emilio, but Mr. Augustin is right—you need to control yourself.”
Emilio’s head snaps around at the woman who is not Francesca, and his widened dark eyes bore into her with fury—looks like she’ll be paying the price later for her act being too convincing.
Emilio looks at me one last time, then his mother, and then turns on his expensive black shoes and walks away, trying to take as much dignity with him as he can.
“I must apologize for my brother,” says the fake Francesca. “However, it seems the two of you have something in common.”
One of my eyebrows hitches up higher than the other.
“Is that so?” I ask, quietly offended.
“Yes,” she comes back. “You’re both have a very low tolerance for other men.”
OK, I guess I can’t argue with that.
“But you should not count Emilio out,” Miz Ghita warns. “My son will not go down easily. To make your stay run smoothly, I would suggest calling this one your win, and not provoking him any further.”
“I’ll stay out of his way,” I say with the casual shrug of my shoulders, “as long as he stays out of mine.”
I notice the silent lookalike standing next to the fake Francesca, eyeing me. There’s something about her that I can’t quite shake; all this time she’s stood here and not uttered a word, and she’s clearly not a slave girl.
“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.” I reach out a hand. “My name is Niklas Augustin.”
She places her hand into mine. “Valentina Moretti,” she says, and I kiss the top of it, letting my lips linger longer than they did on the hand of the fake Francesca.
“A pleasure,” I say, and come out of my bow.
“I apologize, Mr. Augustin,” Miz Ghita says suddenly, “but Madam Moretti has other guests to speak with, and a showing in thirty minutes; we really must be on our way.”
I nod with respect. “Don’t let me keep you,” I say, looking first at the fake Francesca, and lastly at Valentina.
When they’re no longer in earshot, Izabel pushes up on her toes and pretends to be kissing my ear—she may as well be…
“What are you thinking?” she inquires and then pulls away, a soft smile remains on her face, not indicative of the serious words we’re exchanging.
I lean toward her and slide my finger through her hair, tucking it behind her ear to free a space for my mouth.
“Well, I think we both know that woman isn’t Francesca,” I whisper onto her ear. “But I have a feeling I already know which one of them is.”
“So do I,” Izabel says, blushing, pretending. “Who are you thinking?”
“I’ll tell you when I’m one hundred percent sure of her myself.”
“Fair enough, but in the meantime,” Izabel says in a quiet voice, always smiling as if we’re simply enjoying one another, “you should try not to piss anyone off—Emilio seems like a real piece of work; he could probably mess this up for us. Heed Miz Ghita’s warning; don’t make this any more difficult than it’s already going to be.”
“I know what I’m doing, Izzy.” I stand with my hands folded down in front of me, nodding at guests as they stroll by.
“Yeah—you’re being Niklas Fleischer,” she comes back, as if that’s a bad thing.
Unclasping my hands, I hook my right on her slim waist and nod at another buyer as he passes with a girl on his arm—he glances at Izabel, probably still seeing her naked from her bold little display earlier.
“There’s not much difference between the two,” I say about the real me and the pretend one. “Besides, the worst thing I can do is show weakness, and letting another man belittle me in public is a weakness no matter what face I’m wearing. The real Francesca Moretti is a strong, vicious woman, or she wouldn’t be in the business or the position that she’s in. My guess is that she won’t give me the time of fucking day if I’m the type who’ll get on my knees and lick the shit from her boots.”
“Maybe so,” Izabel says, “but proving yourself at the expense of her brother probably isn’t the safest way to go about it.”
I look right at her. “Nothing about this is safe, Izzy. Not a damn thing. And you really shouldn’t have taken your fucking clothes off. What the hell were you thinking?”
Izabel smirks at me—Izzy, not Naomi—and then she leans toward me and says in a low, derisive voice, “It looked to me like taking off my clothes in that moment saved our asses. I guess some good came out of you shooting me, after all.” Then she adds bitingly, “But what bothers me the most was that you didn’t even remember.”