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Could a man really die of boredom?
Leonid Aleksandrov stared down at his plate ofwhat had he ordered? Beef? Lamb?and tried to blank out the blonde actress prattling away at him across the table as if he was one of her girlfriends.
To be fair it was most likely nervous chatter because, he had the good grace to acknowledge, he was a man on the edge. At the end of his tether, his executive assistant, Danny Butler, would say, and even a blind Russian boar could sense that.
But how could he be anything else? The tragedy that had occurred this week was newsworthy all over the world and the press were once again snapping at his heels to get a piece of him. Questioning who he was and sniffing into his past. Looking for Mafia connections one minute and then calling him a hero the next. But a true hero didn't have things in his life he regretted, did he?
Not that anyone would find anything on him. Seventeen years ago Leo had created a new identity for himself and thanks to Mother Russia being a country of smoke and mirrors he'd been able to bury the misery of his real childhood and reinvent a whole new one.
A much more palatable one.
So far no one knew any better. The press surmised that he was a dangerous man and, somewhat ironically, they didn't know the half of it.
But what on earth had possessed himon his first day back in Londonto take the latest 'it girl' to lunch at this highend, nosey London eatery? On her birthday of all days.
Ah, yes, sex. Respite. A moment's relaxation. The gym had failed this week and he'd been looking for another outlet.
But no doubt Danny had thought no-frills sex in a hotel room was a bit cold-blooded on the actress's special day; hence the lunch date.
Leo shook his head. Danny had been with him for eight years now and even though he was as close to a friend as Leo had ever had, he was still a bit too modern and sentimental for Leo's liking. And he'd blast him for suggesting the actress meet him in the hotel restaurant instead of the hotel penthouse.
What he had wanted was to get laid and get back to work, not sit down to a three course luncheon. Now, however, after forty minutes of polite chitchat about nothing more interesting than hairstyles and movie shoots, his libido had hit rock bottom.
Thank you, Danny boy.
'Leo, I swear, if I didn't know any better I'd think you hadn't listened to a word I've said.'
So not entirely without a brain then. That was something at least. A month ago they'd met at a party and she'd been texting on and off with innocent little invitations for Leo to attend this and that ever since. Well, 'this and that' was nigh and he couldn't have been less interested in taking things further if he was standing next to her wax lookalike at Madame Tussauds. In fact, right now, that would be preferable. Quieter, at least.
Leo pushed his half-eaten lunch aside and dropped his napkin onto his plate.
'Tiffany, it's been enthralling, but I have to go. Finish up. Have dessert' he hesitated as he glanced at her emaciated figure 'or not.' He pushed back his chair and paused when he saw her overly plump bottom lip quiver; which may have been a trick of the light because a moment later her composure was flawless.
'Just like that?' She waved her hand insouciantly, her actor's face firmly in place. 'And to think people said you were dynamic. Fascinating. Exciting'
Leo's eyes narrowed. 'We're in the wrong place for me to show you exciting, dorogusha, and now I'm all out of time.'
'They also said you were heartless.' That last was delivered without even a hint of bitterness and his eyes narrowed on the challenging tilt of her head, his senses homing in on the purr in her voice.
So that was it. He was a challenge to her. A mountain she wanted to conquer. He could understand that even though he wasn't a man driven by challenges. He'd learned early on that rising to a challenge usually led to mistakes, pain. Leo didn't do that. He wanted something; he got it. No challenge required.
And Tiffany Tait had definitely overplayed her hand with that comment. Smarter women than her had tried to get their hooks into him without success. He was considered the consummate commitment-phobe and it was a reputation he had carefully cultivated for years.
He stood and buttoned his single-breasted suit jacket. 'They are right. I am without a heart and no woman will ever change that. Something to remember next time you want to play games.'
With that he walked out. Leaving her and the Cartier bracelet Danny had kindly procured for her as a birthday gift at the last minute. No doubt Leo would hear about his unchival-rous behaviour in some gossip rag at some stage. Not that he cared. Today he'd been looking for a few moments of oblivion to push aside the memory of five of his men being buried alive in an accident on one of his construction sites, and the agony of lifting mountains of cement and steel alongside rescue crews all week to get to them.
They'd reached two in time; the other three were gone. Just like his uncle seventeen years earlier.
Leo's mouth pulled tight as he wound his way through the 'beautiful people' who cast covert glances from behind their crystal glasses.
Usually he loved his life. Proclaimed the richest man in Russia, with enough super toys to fill any action flick, a surfeit of women clamouring to warm his bed and a business he lovedhe was understandably riding high. Today he'd almost welcome being back at the end of his father's belt than return to work.
And really he shouldn't have been rude to Tiffany Tait. It wasn't her fault she bored him. He chose that type of woman for a reasonphysical gratification and lack of emotional connection. If he was getting bored with eye candy he'd just have to get over himself.
Thirty minutes later and feeling marginally better now that the restaurant ordeal was over he stalked through his outer office and told his new secretary to get Dannyimmediately.
Still nervous of him, she cleared her throat before speaking. 'He's already waiting for you, Mr Aleksandrov.'
'Leo,' he corrected her, pushing open his office door and striding inside.
'If you ever send me to a poncy restaurant again instead of a private suite when I tell you I want to get laid I'll fire you.'
'It's her birthday,' Danny replied smoothly.
Leo dropped into his leather-and-chrome chair and surveyed the mountain of paperwork that had accumulated on his desk in his absence.
'I don't care if it's her last day on earth. We both would have had a better time in a bed. Send her another something from somewhere, would you?' He picked up a stock market report and scowled. Bloody volatile fear-driven markets. When would people learn not to react to every flicker of the sun's rays as if it was about to go out?
'You were rude, then?'
Leo didn't look up. 'It's possible.'
He heard Danny sigh. 'I was about to call you back anyway. You have bigger problems to contend with right now.'
Leo went still at his EA's ominous tone. Bohze, not another site problem.
He didn't ask, just waited for Danny to continue. But instead of saying anything, Danny handed him a pink sheet of paper with tiny coloured flowers dotted along the top.
Leo read the brief message and his foul mood plummeted.
'You're not serious?'
'It seems so. I haven't been able to reach her by phone.' 'Have you had Security try to track her down?' 'They're on it but no luck so far. She says she's heading to Spain.' 'I can read.'
A heavy silence fell between them and Leo scanned the note once again to make sure he hadn't been mistaken.
Then he leaned back in his chair and rubbed the back of his neck, feeling his muscles bunch but not release. He crumpled the pink paper in his fist and lobbed it across the room. 'How many hours do we have?'
'Two. The childcare centre closes at five.'
Leo swore under his breath and jerked to his feet.
'It's only for the long weekend. She'll be back on Monday,' Danny added, highlighting the only positive in the message.
Leo stared out of his office window and watched the London Eye do a lazy circuit in the glittering summer sunshine. The wharf was a hive of teeming tourists probably spending more money than they had and he'd gladly hand over half of his vast fortune to any one of them if they could solve his current problem.
Four years ago he'd met a young model at Brussels Airport when all flights had been grounded due to inclement weather. Leo hadn't even thought twice about it. Beautiful, more-than-willing woman, long night. It made sense.
Her wanting to get pregnant to a rich stranger still didn't. The woman in question had been on the hunt for a rich husband instead of a rich career and had deliberately used a tampered condom. Three months later she'd come to him and told him the 'good' news.
She'd been hoping for a ring. What she'd got was a house and a monthly allowance once paternity had been confirmed.
Leo wasn't father material. He had blood running through his veins he had never intended to pass on. The fact that this modelAmanda Westonhad duped him had made him crazy. After the fog had cleared and logic had returned he'd done the honourable thing. He'd covered all her financial expenses and made her promise to keep the boy as far away from him as possible. He might have inadvertently given someone life but he wasn't about to completely stuff it up by being part of the child's life as well.
Recollections of his own childhood danced at the edges of his mind like circus performers wielding brightly coloured batons with which to prod him. First the death of three of his men had reminded him of the horrendous circumstances surrounding his beloved uncle's death and now the prospect of having to care for his three-year-old son was bringing up even worse memories. His mother. His father. His brother.
With ruthless determination Leo banished his memories and refocused on the one thing he could trust. Work.
He turned back to Danny. 'What's happening with the Thessaly ethanol plant?'
'So, you still haven't said. Are you going to Paris this weekend with Simon, or not?'
Lexi stopped trying to put the wheel back on a broken toy truck and looked over at her best friend and business partner, Aimee Madigan.
Aimee had one eye on the group of kids enjoying free play at the Little Angels childcare centre they had started together two years ago and the other on the yarn she was carefully winding back into a ball. 'And please don't tell me you have to work,' her friend added with a sense of resigned certainty.
Lexi grimaced. She was supposed to be heading to Paris for the long weekend with a guy she'd been seeing casually for two months. And no doubt Simon would expect their relationship to advance to the next stagesexbut Lexi wasn't convinced that was such a good idea.
She had let herself be worn down by a man's pursuit once before and the experience still left a bitter taste in her mouth. Only she didn't really want to be worn down. The truth was, her life was wonderful as it was; she'd let herself be weakened once before by a man's pursuit and the experience still left a bitter taste in her mouth. 'You know the second centre is at a crucial stage of the planning. If I don't get the loan approved in the next week or so, we won't have one.'
'I take it things didn't go so well then with Darth Vader this morning?'
Lexi grinned at Aimee's use of the pet moniker they had attributed to their hard-nosed bank manager and tried not to feel despondent. 'He's still got some concerns about how much the renovations are costing and some aspects of the business plan.'
'I wish I could help you.'
Lexi shook her head. 'This is my area of the business and you do enough around here. I'll sort it somehow.'
Aimee stopped winding her wool and looked at Lexi as if she'd just had a great idea. 'I know, maybe you could do that somewhere between the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre,' she suggested, only half tongue-in-cheek.
'Oh, yeah, I'm sure Simon would really love that!' Lexi laughed.
'Well, he is shelling out for The Ritz so it seems a shame to miss it altogether. And he does seem very nice.'
'He is,' Lexi replied, wishing Aimee would let the topic drop.
'Lex, you're still using work as an excuse to avoid having a proper relationship with a man,' Aimee reproved.
Lexi scraped her finger on the toy car. 'Ow, damn.' She sucked the scratch and tried to keep her answer light and simple. 'Maybe I just haven't met the love of my life yet.'
'And you won't with the amount of hours you spend here.'
'Not every man is an immature skunk like Brandon, Lex, and it has been four years.'
Lexi pulled a face. She'd been best friends with Aimee since high school and she knew her friend had her best interests at heart. And she also knew Aimee was right, but Brandon's betrayal had echoed that of her father's just a little too closely and Lexi wasn't at all sure she was willing to risk her heart again any time soon.
'I know that,' she said on a sigh. And she did. But even thinking about having a relationship brought up all her old insecurities and the truth, which she was far too embarrassed to ever admit to anyoneincluding Aimeewas that she wasn't great at sex. Wasn't overly sexual at all. Which, if she was being completely honest, was the main reason she didn't want to go to Paris. That and the fact that she didn't actually want to have sex with Simon. But admitting that made her feel as if there was something wrong with her.
And maybe there was Wasn't that what Brandon had implied?