THE setting was a grand mansion in the most prestigious area of St Petersburg, its soaring majestic windows giving exclusive views across the Fontanka River. The enormous room was packed in the aftermath of a memorial service, yet many of the guests had not even known the departed. The lure that had brought them was the towering presence of Nikolai Danilovich Arlov, the oil magnate, whose vast wealth was the stuff of legend.
Indifferent as always to being the centre of attention, Nikolai was heavily engaged in a business phone-call. A tall, powerful figure, with cropped black hair and eyes as dark and hard as rain-washed stone, he was a breathtakingly handsome man with a smouldering sexual charisma that radiated masculinity. Women watched him with unhidden hunger, while his minders and aides studiously screened him from every possible approach. Few of those present received more than a distant nod from their host. But many would dine out for weeks on the social cachet of having been a guest in his jaw-droppingly fantastic home.
Nikolai ignored virtually everyone. As tough as an Arctic winter and as relentless as a juggernaut, he was a maverick who played by his own rules. He loathed time-wasters and tedious social events. It was the pursuit of power and profit that energised and drove him. He had attended his late father’s memorial service purely as a matter of form, for close connections of the family kind were utterly unknown to him. He could not even recall when he had last spoken to the old man. His father had hated and resented him almost from the day of his birth and his two older half-brothers feared and envied their fabulously successful sibling. However, neither of those undisputed facts had prevented Nikolai’s relatives from begging him to take charge of the dead man’s tangled affairs and ensure that the estate was settled without cost or inconvenience to themselves. It had not once occurred to them that Nikolai might have a more private and personal motivation for agreeing to carry out that thankless task.
When a dazzling blond beauty in a power suit appeared in a doorway invisible tension surged through Nikolai’s lean, powerful frame, but it lasted only for a split second. His classic, high, carved cheekbones might have been chipped out of solid bronze. One glance at Sveta’s expression told him that she was the bringer of bad news and that the questions that had plagued him as a child were to remain unanswered: the search of his father’s personal effects had proved fruitless.
‘Nothing.’ Frustration and annoyance laced Sveta’s low-pitched voice when she drew level with him. Like her colleagues, Olya and Darya, she was a high achiever, never satisfied with anything less than positive results.
‘Nichivo—no problem.’ His tone was one of dismissal and as he spoke, so he believed. He saw no reason why the mystery of his exact parentage should keep him awake at night. All the documents his father had left behind had now been examined; safes had been opened, desks emptied, deposit boxes tracked down. What had appeared to be a promising opportunity had failed to deliver even a jot of new information. He didn’t know the name of his mother and he didn’t know where or why he had been born. And now he most probably never would.
But so what? Nikolai asked himself with a mental shrug. Such paltry facts were irrelevant to a male who had always known who he was and where he was going. At the age of thirty-three he had realised his every ambition a thousand times over. He had nothing to apologise for and nobody to impress. Investigating his maternal ancestry was a waste of valuable time and energy.
At the precise moment that Nikolai reached that conclusion a commotion was breaking out at the lower end of the room. Heads were turning to a buzz of excited comment. A frown was indenting his brow even before he was informed that his current lover, Brigitta Jansen, had just made her entrance. She had flown in from Paris without an invitation. Cold displeasure gripped him because he considered her arrival as that of a gatecrasher and an intrusion on his privacy. A smile on her flawless face, the Dutch movie actress walked towards him, basking in the attention she was attracting.
Fifteen minutes later, Nikolai was on his way to the airport alone. He had left Brigitta in hysterics, surrounded by her sycophantic staff of hangers-on. If her intent had been to make him feel guilty for ditching her, she had failed abysmally. Emotional blackmail was no more to his taste than feminine demands or the suggestion that he might be anything other than a single guy, free to sample other company and other beds as and when he liked.
He wondered why he always landed bunny-boilers who started out cool and calm but speedily went into the pursuit mode of deadly missiles. He told no lies; he was direct about what he wanted. Sex was as necessary to his health and comfort as food. It had nothing to do with the mythical L word that women flung as an excuse to try to change the ground rules. Love wasn’t in his vocabulary. Why was something as basic and simple as sex a continual flashpoint for trouble? Perturbed by that unprecedented train of philosophical thought and by the dark mood he was determined not to acknowledge, he took another business call with alacrity.