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Alexei Ranaevsky strode across the light-filled environs of his floating boardroom and picked up the newspaper one of his staff had been careless enough to leave behind.
He had made it clear he wanted to see no reportage of the Kulikov tragedy, but now the initial shock was wearing off he found himself drawn to what could only be described as the circus that was attaching itself to events. How to dismantle that circus was his current concern.
How to grieve for his closest friend would come after.
Events had moved to the third page. A picture of Leo and Anais at a race meeting in Dubai, Leo's head thrown back, laughing, his arm welded around Anais's slender waist. A golden couple. Alongside was exactly what Alexei didn't want to see: a photograph of the mangled car wreck. The 1967 Aston MartinLeo's 'baby'nothing more than steel and destroyed electronics. Leo and Anais's very human bodies hadn't stood a chance.
The commentary belowbecause you couldn't call it newswas adjective-heavy, full of references to Anais's beauty and Leo's work for the UN. Alexei scanned it for a few seconds, then sucked in a sharp breath.
There was something about seeing that name in print that made what had felt for days now like a nightmare fiercely, immediately real. At least there was no picture of the boy. Leo had been intensely guarded about their private life: he and Anais had been fair game for the media, but their family life had been off-limits to anyone outside their circle. It was a sentiment Alexei admired him for. It was a rule he laid down in his own life. There was the public man, and the private familya, and the fact that Leo had been that family for him made his grief all the more stupefying. 'Alexei?'
His head snapped up, jaw hard, eyes emotionless.
For a second her name evaded him. 'Tara,' he said.
If she noticed the lapse it did not register on her stunning face. It was a face that was currently making her several million dollars a year in beauty endorsements, in lieu of an acting career that had gone nowhere.
'Everyone's waiting, darling,' she said smoothly, crossing the space between them and pulling the newspaper out of his hands.
It was the wrong thing to do.
He had never struck a woman in his life, and he had no intention of starting now, but every fibre of his body wanted to lash out. Instead he froze. Tara lifted her chin defiantly. She was nothing if not boldand wasn't that what had drawn him to her?
'You don't need to look at that trash,' she said harshly. 'You need to pull it together and get out there and put a civilised face on this whole debacle.'
Everything she said was everything he knew, but somethingsome important mechanism between his brain and his emotionshad snapped. Many would say he didn't have any emotions, not real ones. He certainly hadn't cried for Leo and Anais. He hadn't even cried for his own dead parents. But there was something surging through him that his brain wasn't going to be able to control. Something that had its wellspring in that child's name in black-and-white in newspaper ink.
'Let them wait,' he said coldly, his English coloured by his Russian accent. 'And what in the hell are you wearing? This isn't a cocktail partyit's a family gathering.'
Tara snorted laughter. It was one of the traits he had once found appealing about her, her lack of self-consciousnessas if her overwhelming physical beauty made it possible for her to say anything, do anything, be anything.
'Family? Give me a breakthose people aren't your family.' She reached out and pressed her red-taloned hand to his waist, taut beneath the expensively tailored cream shirt. 'You have as much family feeling as a cat, Alexei,' she stated, face upturned, lips wet and red, her hand making its way down the front of his dark trousers. 'A big, mean, feral cat. Very big.' Her hand settled on what she found there. 'Not up to play today, darling?'
His body had begun to respond as long familiarity with the process had taught it, but sex was not on today's agenda. It hadn't been on the agenda since Monday, when his right-hand man, Carlo, had brought him the news in the early hours. He remembered the snapping on of the lamp, Carlo's murmured voice as he laid out the spare, basic facts such as they had been. Then he had been alone in that big flat bed, swimming in emptiness. Tara had been beside him, dead to the world under a blanket of whatever drugs she took to sleep. A body.
He had been alone.
I never want to have sex with this woman ever again.
He grasped her forearm and gently but with leashed force revolved her one hundred and eighty degrees to face the door.
'Off you go,' he murmured in her ear, as if imparting an endearmentonly his voice was completely dead of feeling. 'Join them on deck. Don't drink too much, and here.' He picked up the newspaper she had dropped on the boardroom table. 'Dispose of this.'
Tara had been in the wide world long enough to know she was experiencing the infamous Ranaevsky Chill Factor. She just hadn't expected to feel it herself, or perhaps not quite so soon.
'Danni was right. You are a cold bastard.'
Alexei didn't have a clue who Danni wasdidn't particularly care. He just wanted Tara out of the room. Out of his life.
He wanted the people outside off his boat.
He wanted to turn the clock back to Sunday.
Mostly he wanted his control back. Control over the situation.
'How in the hell are you going to raise a child?' Tara snarled as she strutted out through the door.
Control. His dark eyes fixed on the Florida coastline, visible through the wraparound windows. He would begin by doing what he needed to do. Speaking to the people outside. Speaking to Carlo. Most of all speaking to Kostya, a two-year-old infant. But first he needed to fly across the Atlantic to do it.
'"The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat,"' sang Maisy in a soft contralto, her body arced over the small boy curled on his side in the crib. He had been sucking on the plump flesh of his fist, but as sleep claimed him his pink mouth closed and presently his barrel-shaped chest rose and fell beneath the delicate ribbed cotton singlet he wore.
She had been singing to him for a while now, after a full half-hour of reading, and her throat felt dry, her voice slightly hoarse. But it was worth it to see him like this, so peaceful.
Standing up, she scanned the room, checking everything was in its place. The nursery was as it had always beena place of womblike securityyet everything outside it had changed. For this little boy, for ever.
Tiptoeing out, she closed the door. The baby monitor was on and she knew from experience he would sleep now until after midnight. It was her chance to get some food and then some sleep herself. She'd been awake so much of the past thirty-six hours she couldn't even gauge how much sleep she'd had.
Two floors down, the kitchen was dimly lit. Valerie, the Kulikovs' housekeeper, had left the spotlights over the benches on for her, and they cast an almost ghostly glow. Valerie had also left a dish of macaroni and cheese in the fridge to be reheated, and Maisy silently thanked her as she slid the bowl into the microwave.
The older woman had been a godsend this week. When the news had come through of the crash Maisy had been in her room, packing for a vacation that was due to start on Tuesday. She remembered putting down the telephone and sitting by it for a full ten minutes before she even thought of what to do next. Then she had rung valerie and life had resumed movement.
She and Valerie had both expected Leo and Anais's families to sweep in, but the house in the private London square had remained silent. Inside, Valerie continued to do her hours and return to her family at night, and Maisy cared for her charge and waited for the plea that had not yet come. I want Mama.
The press had been there for a couple of days, pushing up at the windows, clambering over the iron railings to drop to the basement. Valerie had kept the blinds drawn, and Maisy had only taken Kostya out once, to the private garden across the road. Maisy had worked for the Kulikovs since Kostya's birth, and lived in this house all that time. Leo and Anais had travelled frequently. Maisy was accustomed to being alone with Kostya for weeks at a time. Yet there was somethingemptytonight. The house felt too quiet, and Maisy found herself jumping as the microwave pinged, pressing open the door with a hand that trembled.
Get a grip, she told herself sternly, using an oven mitt to carry the bowl over to the big French provincial table. She didn't bother to turn on the main light. There was something comforting about the darkness.
Steam rose off the macaroni. She ought to be hungry, and she needed to keep her strength up. Her fork made a cruise around the edges. In her mind's eye she could still see Anais in this very room a week ago, laughing in that full-throated way at a drawing Kostya had done in crayon on the floor tiles of a giraffe with a head like his mummy's. Anais had been almost six feet tall, and mostly legs, which had been the focus of her modelling career. It was clearly how her little son had seen her from his diminutive position.
Maisy remembered the first time she had met Anais. She had been a small, dumpy swot, detailed by her headmistress to introduce the skinny, impossibly tall Anais Parker-Stone to the rituals of St Bernice's. Anais hadn't known then that Maisy Edmonds was a charity girl, her place in the very exclusive girls' school arranged for her on a government programme. When she had found out, Anais hadn't changed her allegiances. If Maisy had been ostracised for her background, Anais had been victimised for her height.
For two years the girls had been close friends, until Anais dropped out at sixteen and four months later had started modelling in New York. Two years later she was famous.
As Maisy had matured she'd lost her puppy fat, gained a waist and some length in her legs, and her curves had become an asset. She had gone on to university but dropped out before the first term had even begun. Her only contact with Anais had been via the glossy magazines Anais stalked through. When Maisy had run into her at Harrods it had been Anais who'd recognised herprobably because she had hardly changed, Maisy thought ruefully.
Anais, all sleek blonde bob and three-inch heels, had shrieked with joy, thrown her skinny arms around Maisy's small shoulders and jumped up and down like a teenage girl. A teenage girl with a baby bump. Three months later Maisy had been ensconced in Lantern Square, with a newborn baby in her arms and a completely overwhelmed Anais weeping and threatening to kill herself and trying to escape the house every chance she could. Nobody had ever told her motherhood wasn't a job she could walk away from, that it was for life.
A far too short life, as it had turned out, Maisy thought heavily and stopped pretending to eat. She pushed the plate away. She had cried for her friend, and she had cried for tiny Kostya. She imagined at some point those tears would dry up. Right now it seemed they had.
She had more pressing considerations.
Any day now a lawyer for the Kulikovs, although more likely for the Parker-Stones, would land on the doorstep. People who would take away Kostya. Maisy knew nothing about the Kulikovs other than that Leo had been an only child and his parents were deceased. But she remembered Arabella Parker-Stone, who had seen her grandson once, a few days after his birth. It had been a brief visit, involving calla lilies and harsh words between Anais and her mother.
'I hate her, I hate her, I hate her,' Anais had wailed afterwards into a sofa cushion, whilst Maisy rocked Kostya in her arms.
Arabella had upset everyone. But her mind was failing and she was now in a nursing home. Kostya would not be going to live with his grandmother.
Nor will he be living with me.
Maisy didn't know how she was going to hand Kostya over to strangers. Wild thoughts of simply absconding with him had crossed her mind yesterday and today. It all seemed possible, with the world ignoring them, but once it paid attention how on earth would she manage it? She was jobless and her only skill was as a carer for the infirm, the elderly, or the very young. Her vocation was loving that little boy upstairs. He had become her familybut, more painfully, she was his. Somehow she had to find a way to stay with him. Surely whoever stepped forward would need a nanny? Would not be so cruel as to separate them ?
Maisy took a deep breath and pushed the hair out of her face. She reeled her bowl back in and, head resting on one hand, picked at a first mouthful of pasta, munching by rote. She needed sustenance; this would give it to her. Tomorrow she would have to go through Leo's office and phone people. Such had been his mania for privacy, very few outsiders had been in this house. Anais had never complainedshe had merely gone out. Another excuse to leave her son. Maisy had never understood Anais's inability to bond with Kostya, but she had excused it.
And now it just didn't matter any more.